Cologne is not much without its cathedral, save maybe a history of scent, with eau de cologne coming from the city. This is odd given that the gothic edifice was only completed, and its soaring towers topped out, several years after the rail lines that wind beside it over the River Rhine, in 1880. It had taken 632 years to complete.
It’s not really a surprise that the oldest part of the city is by the cathedral quarter, however young the completed structure is, with wide avenues full of shoppers leading out like the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
Not much of the old city remains, though streets of narrow terraced buildings lining the west bank of the Rhine remind me how close I am to Germany’s borders with Belgium and the Netherlands, where such building design is common along the canals of both nations. But the generally modern feel of the city belies a more ancient history, with archaeology dating back to ancient Rome, when the city was founded as a colony (colonia in Latin, hence Cologne) for veterans of the Roman army. An almost intact and in situ mosaic was discovered just beside the cathedral while an air raid shelter was being built in 1941. The mosaic’s now housed in the Romano-Germanic museum.
The Rhine’s east bank is a modern collection of office blocks, much more ordinary and every day. Crossing to it from beside the Chocolate Museum, I return to the cathedral’s west bank via the rail bridge – a little like a squashed version of Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge. Official known as Hohenzollernbrucke, the bridge is perhaps better known as the ‘love bridge’ and has become something of a tourist attraction in itself. Since 2008 couples have demonstrated their love with padlocks.
Now, the majority of the railings lining the pedestrian way are smothered in padlocks, though I can’t shake the image of a spurned lover returning with a set of wire-cutters as I head back towards the cathedral.