There is a legend in Cologne that, back in the mists of time, a mythical race of gnomes lived unseen alongside humans. The Heinzelmännchen, as they were known, emerged at night to complete all the work left unfinished by the people of the town. It soon dawned on the townsfolk that they didn’t need to do any work, because the gnomes would always cook, clean and make things for them. The people of Cologne became lazy but also curious.
As with all good German folktales, this one is cautionary. A tailors wife (why is it always women who get humanity into trouble?) decided she wanted to see the gnomes, scattering dried peas on the kitchen floor to alert her when they emerged. The gnomes duly showed up, slipped on the peas and fell on the floor. Outraged, they vowed to leave Cologne and never return. It’s not clear where they went, but it definitely wasn’t Brussels.
I tell this tale because the gnomes of Cologne were badly missed the day I arrived. Cologne is the undisputed home of German carnival. So much so, it has two. The main one in February and a mini-carnival that starts at 11:11am on November 11th. I did not know this when my train rolled into the main station early morning on November 12th. Apocalyptic scenes awaited.
Cologne old town had a vibe similar to what I imagine the notoriously sinful cities of Sodom or Gamorrah had just after all the fire and brimstone. The only difference being that everyone was still alive and still drinking. Gangs of drinkers crowded into every bar and square. It was barely 10am. Underfoot the ground was covered in a carpet of broken beer, wine and vodka bottles from the previous evenings celebrations.
There was enough work for several days of gnome-powered cleaning. Judging by the amount of alcohol being drunk in the streets, there would be more work the following day. Many were drinking Cologne’s famed Kölsch, a tasty pilsner-style beer … and the bierkellers were doing a roaring trade. I figured if you can’t beat them, join them. After a stroll, I made my way to Schreckenskammer, a century old bar-brewery, for an early lunch.
I once went to a Cologne bar in Berlin and discovered that they only serve Kölsch in small glasses, but return at regular intervals to give you a new one. Each beer gets marked up on a beer mat and, if you’re not careful, you suddenly find that the total has really stacked up. Schreckenskammer is a Cologne institution and there was a merry crowd at lunchtime. Afterwards, I headed to the cathedral and started to explore.
There’s no getting around the fact that Cologne has a cathedral. It’s ancient, massive and dominates the Old Town. It’s twin towers are 157 meters tall. There has been a church on this site since around the 4th century, the current building dates from the 13th century. It survived the Second World War only with heavy damage that took decades to repair. The original stained glass windows had been saved earlier in the war though.
Amongst many accolades, it must surely be the only medieval cathedral in the world that has a train station as a neighbour. It’s frankly weird to walk out of the station and be only a few yards from the cathedral. A proximity that did it no favours during the war. The best view of the cathedral is from across the river. I walked over the railway bridge covered in ‘love locks’ to the eastern bank. The views are wonderful.
The riverfront across from the Altstadt is an interesting spot and with only a fraction of the crowds. I strolled south before crossing over to the newly developed Rheinauhafen – a sight that once seen has to be visited.