Thursday, August 23, 2007

Slapping On Some Cologne

My favourite city in Germany is undoubtedly Cologne, and I try, whenever travelling through the country, to make a stop. The frequent stops are mostly to do with the fact that my uncle and cousins live there, but visiting them is made much easier by them living in the most cosmopolitan, comfortable and laid back city in the country, full to the brim with students and a vibrant cultural scene. By coincidence, Yann, one of my best friends from school now lives and works here as well as Sabine who I met in China, so I've been doing a fair bit of catching up along with the usual investigative travelling.

Throughout the world the name Cologne has been made famous by its eponymous water invented almost 300 years ago. It's lucky that the French, under Napoleon, took over Cologne a while later otherwise we would be anointing ourselves with Kölnisch Wasser instead of Eau de Cologne (which, I'm sure you'll agree, sounds far more fancy). Within Germany itself the city is more famous for its Karneval celebrations which are the biggest party in the country, much more so than the notorious Oktoberfest which is just an overpriced booze-up for foreigners. For Kölners themselves, however, it is the Dom (cathedral) which is the true symbol of the city. The gigantic building, with its twin, Gothic spires dominates the skyline and is often the first thing visitors notice when approaching the city. Started in 1248 it has been continually under construction ever since (local legend says that the completion of the cathedral will bring about Judgement Day) and for a brief period following the erection of the spires in 1880 it was the tallest building in the world. Its size and overbearing Gothicness are enough to make the cathedral unique, but it is also the most important pilgrimage site in Germany housing as it does the reliquary of the 3 Kings (supposedly containing the remains of the three Magi of the Nativity). There are of course your usual baroque palaces full of extravagant rococo interiors, frescoes and stucco cherubs covering every free inch of wall space; and despite the fact that I'm a big fan of baroque opulence, it is getting a bit samey now.

For those interested in European history the nearby city of Aachen is of great symbolic significance. It was from here that Charlemagne ruled his Frankish empire which covered pretty much all of modern-day France, Germany, Benelux as well as large portions of northern Italy and Switzerland and parts of northern Spain. For many he goes as the father of western Europe and the EU and his reign heralded the rise of the Holy Roman empire which went on to dominate central Europe for the next millennium. I have realised whilst looking into Charlemagne and his contemporaries that, at least in Britain, our history lessons in school jump from the fall of Rome to around 1066AD, and somehow manage to skip the intervening 600 years with a disdainful "those were the Dark Ages" and possibly the odd mention of Vikings. In fact I have come to find out that they were actually rather exciting times when entire peoples were on the move, sweeping across Europe from east to west: Visigoths, Huns, Alans, Ostrogoths, Avars, Slavs, Magyars, Saxons, Lombards and of course the Franks. Strange, exotic names that may mean little to us but form the basis of us Europeans today. It's a real pity as the battles, intrigues and alliances are prime soap opera material.

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