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Cologne, or Köln, always makes me think of what Marcel Proust wrote about Combray in The Way by Swann’s:
Combray, from far away, for ten leagues around, seen from the railroad when we arrived there the last week before Easter, was no more than a church summing up the town, representing it, speaking of it and for it into the distance, and, when one approached, holding close around its high dark cloak, in the middle of a field, against the wing, like a shepherdess her sheep, the woolly grey backs of the gathered houses, which a vestige of medieval ramparts girdled here and there with a line as perfectly circular as a small town in a primitive painting.
Cologne, likewise, is a city where its massive cathedral, Kölner Dom, dominates the entire view of the city.
Kölner Dom is an inescapable presence. The first time I went to Köln, I arrived on a train from Amsterdam. Kölner Dom was adjacent to the Hauptbahnhof, and as the train slowed down at the bridge across the River Rhine, the tall, dark shadow of the Cathedral loomed over. Once I stepped outside of the train station, the Cathedral, with its impossibly tall Gothic spires, stood in front of me, as if demanding my respect. As a non-believer, what the building inspired wasn’t respect for the religion, or fear of their deity, but wonder for the extraordinary length people went to creating the monument, so huge that Notre Dame in Paris seems so insignificant that, when I visited it later, I was just as disappointed as our narrator In Search of Lost time when he visited the church in Balbec.
The construction of Kölner Dom began in the 13th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century when the Cathedral was complete. The gap between the time required to build a Cathedral and the lifespan of a human being was so far that it is hard to understand why those men would start working on something they wouldn’t see the fruit of it long after they are dead; the church might have been thinking in centuries, but men think in hours, days, and years. It was for this reason that the Cathedral seemed a much more awe-inspiring than many of the much taller modern buildings, for, being a dweller of a big city, tall buildings don’t intimidate me, but the centuries-long commitment on one single project does.
The first time I was in Köln, I stayed there for a night, and I had a train to catch the next evening for Berlin. With time on my hand, I boarded one of the boat and cruised around the River Rhine. Over the Tannoy system of the boat, a voice speaking both in German and English explained where the boat was and point out the landmarks along the way. Now that I think back to it, I wonder if I was really thinking at that time was Das Rheingold, the first instalment of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Would the Rheinmaidens emerge from the blue river and wave at the passengers of my boat? Would Alberich dive into the river and look for the gold? There were, of course, no Rhinemaidens; other than boats, in fact, I couldn’t see a thing on the surface of the Rhine.
The second time I was in Köln, the Southern Germany and France were flooded with heavy rain. I arrived at Köln’s Hauptbahnhof from Paris, whose river Seine was overflown, the sky was overcast, and the mood was gloomy. There was sunshine in Köln with just a few occasional rains, but when I strolled down to the embankment of the Rhine, I noticed the Rhine was overflown too, the water looked muddy, with some occasional rubbish and wooden planks floating on the surface of it. I was to stayed for an afternoon before leaving for Hamburg, and with the river in such a state, a cruise around a river was not a sensible option. I returned to the centre of the city around the Dom, and visited Museum Ludwig.