Cologne, ‘the world’s greatest heap of rubble’

Cologne is a 2,000 year old city straddling one of Europe’s greatest navigable rivers. It has played a central role in the economic, political and cultural history not only of Germany, but of this entire region. Its origins date to 38 BC, when Roman general, Agrippa, founded a town, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. Colonia, would become Cologne.

It was a powerful religious centre, its iconic cathedral still one of the most recognisable churches in the world (and still the third largest). For centuries it was the preeminent German city, larger, wealthier and more important than Berlin or Munich. Today, it’s the fourth largest German city with a population of over a million people, and an economic powerhouse as it has been throughout its history.

Great St. Martin, Altstadt, Cologne, Germany
Great St. Martin, Altstadt, Cologne, Germany
Basilica of St. Cunibert, Cologne, Germany
Alter Markt, Altstadt, Cologne, Germany
Hohenzollernbrücke and cathedral, Cologne, Germany
River Rhine, Cologne, Germany

The downside of this success was that Cologne was heavily bombed in the Second World War. In 1942 it claimed the dubious distinction as the first German city to be attacked by over 1,000 allied bombers in a single night, part of the now notorious British policy of attacking civilian population centres to undermine German morale. It was only one of 262 bombing raids that destroyed the city and obliterated Cologne’s historic centre.

The devastation led the architect Rudolf Schwarz, responsible for the master plan to rebuild the city in 1947, to describe Cologne as ‘the world’s greatest heap of rubble’. It’s a phrase that still resonates today. Reconstruction was not exactly sympathetic with the city’s history and, although there is just enough left to give a sense of what was lost, ugly buildings can be found in abundance.

Some of those that remain are the twelve renowned Romanesque churches. I didn’t have time to visit them all, but the 12th century Churches of Great St. Martin and St. Ursula are two not to miss. St. Ursula is the town’s patron saint, legend has it that she was a British princess who went on a 4th century pilgrimage to Rome accompanied by 11,000 virgins. They were allegedly killed in Cologne by the Huns on their return journey.

The church is built on a Roman graveyard alleged to contain the bones of these martyrs. Inside the church is a room decorated with human bones and skulls said to be those of Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. Nearby is the Church of St. Gereon, a Roman soldier beheaded for his faith and now the patron saint of headaches. In front of the church is a statue of his head laying on the ground.

I was on my way to one of the more unexpected of Cologne’s sights, the Belgisches Viertel, or Belgian Quarter. Centred around Brüsseler Platz, this funky area is home to trendy bars, restaurants, independent shops and music venues. Wandering the tree lined streets it reminded me of Berlin more than Brussels, but I did find a spray painted Tin Tin on a wall. It’s a nice area, and one worth a bit more time on my next visit.

As are the museums that make Cologne a significant cultural hub. The Wallraf-Richartz Museum has a collection that spans the Middle Ages to the early 20th century and is a literal treasure trove – there’s a fabulous series on the fate of St. Ursula. It was a special exhibition that lured me in though. Susanna – Images of a Woman from the Middle Ages to MeToo is a fascinating look at how the Biblical character has been interpreted throughout history – some more sympathetic than others, some more lascivious.

Brüsseler Platz, Belgisches Viertel, Cologne, Germany
Brüsseler Platz, Belgisches Viertel, Cologne, Germany
Belgisches Viertel, Cologne, Germany
Church of St. Gereon, Cologne, Germany
St. Gereon’s head, Cologne, Germany
Altstadt, Cologne, Germany

The Wallraf-Richartz was Cologne’s first museum and it has an enviable collection that would have been even richer had the Nazis not confiscated many pieces, including by Picasso, Munch, Beckmann, Gaugin and Dix, that they deemed degenerate. It was dark when I left the museum, just time to grab a glass or two of the local speciality beer, Kölsch, before getting the train back to Brussels in the real Belgium.

2 thoughts on “Cologne, ‘the world’s greatest heap of rubble’

  1. St Ursulas sounds fascinating. I’ve visited a church in the Czech Republic filled with bones and found it fascinating. I’ve enjoyed a few visits to Cologne, but always passing through rather than taking time to get to know the place. Maybe 2023 will be the year I discover the city in its own right! All the best for the New Year!

    1. It’s definitely worth a visit, the museums alone could take up a day or two. I think there are a few different places in the Czech Republic, but I went to a crypt filled with bones and skulls in Brno. Fascinating place.

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