The city has done a splendid job of preserving its past while building on its present to glorify its future
The old and the new, the modern and the medieval, the quaint and the cosmopolitan all segue seamlessly and ceaselessly in Cologne. A hodgepodge of classic and street art, Michelin-star restaurants centuries-old halls and lush parks juxtaposed with Roman remains make Germany's fourth largest city a captivating cocktail.
And I'm glad I made it a part of my four-city Eurail trip recently. Cologne or Koln is well-connected, with Eurail trains providing frequent (and economical) connections from all over Europe. Ergo, from Frankfurt (my first point of embarkation for the trip), it took me just about an hour to get here, my train window enroute constantly filled with theiminently Instagrammable German countryside.
Stepping out of the train station, I'm greeted by a glorious muddle of post-WWII architecture, nineteenth century mansions, bustling restaurants and retail stores. Interestingly, Cologne has been drawing visitors since 50AD as one of Germany's oldest cities. Officially founded as the Roman outpost of Colonia, it grew into one of Europe's major trading hubs, a reputation it consolidated through the Middle Ages and upholds even today.
The metropolis feels rebuilt - because it was. It took a terrible battering during the Second World War, resulting in most of its buildings being pulverised to rubble. However, it rose from its ashes like the proverbial Phoenix, reconstructed brick by brick by its residents and architects to become one of Europe's greatest cities. Today, it nestles on Germany's western fringes radiating life and character.
The UNESCO heritage Cologne Cathedral is the pivot around which Cologne flows. Located on the left bank of the Rhine near the Altstadt (Old Town), the filigreed structure encrusted with gargoyles needles the sky with its twin spires. Its dark exteriors mask stony innards enlivened by dreamy, pixelated, stained-glass windows by gifted German artist Gerhard Richter.
"The cathedral's construction started in 1248, but it was left unfinished in 1473 and was eventually completed in 1880," the guide informs me, as we perambulate the mighty structure silhouetted sharply against an azure sky. "The Gothic church even survived the deadly bombings of the Allies when they attacked Cologne to avenge Germany's attacks on London. Though the Allies succeeded in destroying most of Cologne, the cathedral held up pretty well despite being bombed 14 times!"
Apart from exquisite architecture, Cologne also derives much of its artistic cachet from a rich groundswell of galleries and museums. At the spectacular Ludwig Museum, one of the country's most renowned, I admire one of Picasso's largest collections of paintings under one roof. Modern artworks, Pop Art, abstract and surrealist works, as well as rare paintings by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein further enhance my viewing pleasure.
Cologne has also lent its name to the world's best known astringent perfume. And I learn all about it at the Farina Fragrance Museum, which showcases the 300-year-old success story of Eau de Cologne. A tour through the three-tier building takes me through three centuries of the city's fragrance and cultural history, starting with the Rococo era when famed perfumer Johann Maria Farina (1685-1766) invented this fragrance. Flacons, paintings and art objects further make for a riveting narrative of the original Eau de Cologne.
After tantalising my olfactory sense, it's time to tickle my taste buds. For this, I head to the Lindt Chocolate Museum to watch an alchemy between men and machine producing handcrafted chocolates with assembly line precision. The museum is the most frequented cultural institution in Cologne with around 600,000 visitors a year to its glass-walled production facility and chocolate workshop. A three-meter high chocolate fountain centerpiece is constantly fed with 200kg of fresh Lindt chocolate. As I leave the premises, I'm treated to a waffle coated with gooey chocolate from the same fountain!
Apart from a haven for history and culture buffs, Cologne is also a compelling stop for travelling gastronomes. It has its fair share of Michelin-star restaurants with over a dozen scattered around the city, including the three-star Vendôme.
The city's traditional cuisine is equally vibrant. Charming brewhauses (brewhouses) offer hearty and authentic German fare made from secret familial recipes. At the city's 160-year-old brewhaus - Brauerei zur Malzmuhle - in the heart of Old Town at Hay Market (Heumarkt) - remains a genuine family establishment, managed by the fifth generation of the Schwartz family. The second oldest brewery in Cologne, it is also one of the few that still produces beer at its place of origin. Its menu showcases traditional culinary creations, such as blood sausage and potato dumplings. But my heart is set on its signature Knuckle meat in malt beer sauce with fried potatoes and red cabbage. The substantial dish sails to my table fresh from the oven, all gossamer gold and succulent. Needless to say, I walk out of the restaurant weak-kneed and full-bellied.
Two days had flown by in a trice. And before I knew it, my trip was over. As I headed to the railway station to take the Eurail to my next destination, it struck me that by visiting Cologne, I'd been privy to the secrets of a unique city. One that has not only done a splendid job of preserving its past, but is also building on its present to burnish its future.