If you don’t like big cities, you won’t like Cologne. We do, so we did. There’s a lot more to see and do than we could absorb in the few days that we were there.
Maggie and I are big history buffs, so we delved into a couple of history museums. We learned that Cologne has been part of The Roman Empire, The Frankish Empire, The Holy Roman Empire, the French Empire, the Prussian Empire, Germany, West Germany and now Germany again. (I’m using the spelling of the city name that we get from the French; it’s Köln in German, or Koeln if your keyboard doesn’t have an umlat.) Today the city is a mixture of old and new, existing side by side.
The Germans we met encourage visitors to speak their language; maybe that’s partly because Cologne has been a part of so many different countries. There are lots of other reasons, as well: there are 90 million native German speakers in Europe, more than any other language. Germany has earned its place as one of the economic leaders on the continent. They are justifiably proud of that accomplishment, so they expect that visitors will give their language and culture the respect it deserves. You will find plenty of people who can speak a little English, but you can’t assume that everybody is ready to carry on a conversation. You’ll be OK if you learn the basics: a simple greeting, please and thank you, and a few numbers will make things go a lot easier.
One thing you have to give the Germans credit for, they don’t hide from their history. Several cities have museums that are partly or completely devoted to the history of Nazism. The National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne is in the former Gestapo headquarters. It was an administrative building for thirty years after the war, until the trial of Kurt Lischka, the head of the Cologne Gestapo raised public awareness of the history of the building. The resulting protests turned into a movement, and in 1979 the city and the national government voted to transform the building into a memorial, a museum, and a center where historians could study the history of the Nazis.
In the basement, here are cells where up to ten people at a time were held for interrogation and torture. This could go on for days, it might take weeks, or stretch into months. Up to ten people at a time were imprisoned in cells like this one:
The walls are still covered in the original graffiti. The prisoners wrote with whatever they could find: used coal, lipstick, even their own fingernails. They wrote their names, messages of encouragement to other prisoners, messages to their loved ones, drawings, diaries, calendars marking off the days, rants against their jailers – pretty much anything. They wrote with no expectation that anybody but other prisoners would ever see their messages. The futility is heart-breaking, but at the same time, we were stirred by the tenacity of these people, to hang on to their humanity in the bleakest conditions.
There’s a yard out back, where executions were committed. The top floors house an in-depth study of the rise of National Socialism. The treatment of the Jews, Gypsies, gays, and other so-called “undesirables” gets a thorough description, both in large scale statistics and detailed histories of individuals.
The war itself doesn’t get a lot of space, because that’s not the focus of this museum. One large room shows the devastation that Germany caused and suffered during the war; another smaller room describes the war’s after effects. As you walk down the last hall to the exit, the sound system automatically kicks in to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”. I needed that.
Cologne today is a new city, since 95% of it was destroyed in WWII by the British and American bombing raids, then rebuilt after the war, partly funded with billions of dollars in US aid. There are few old buildings that survived or were restored: churches, parts of the medieval wall and some artifacts left from the Romans. The central part of downtown is dominated by a shopping district that’s packed with tourists. I don’t know why. It’s the same high-end stores selling the same luxuries that you can find in every major American or European city – if all they’re going to do is buy unnecessary stuff, why do they go to Cologne, Prague, or Rome when flights to Las Vegas are so cheap? You might wonder if this is what the framers of the Marshall Plan had in mind when they were laying out the plans for the rebuilt city – but on the other hand, how can we deny the people of Cologne the right to remake their city according to their own needs?
We didn’t spend a lot of time shopping for clothes, but you gotta eat. After paying too-high prices in England, Scotland and Ireland, we were relieved to find that everything was back down to levels we were used to – sometimes even less. French and Italian wines were a deal; at home we try to keep the price of a bottle of wine in the $10 to $20 range. In Cologne, the 5€ (about $5.50) wines were pretty good, and for 8€ we could get a bottle that was as good as we ever drink. The selection was great, and we got to try out some wines that we had never heard of.
As we were leaving, a giant outdoor festival was starting up that had venues all over the city. We got to see a little of the preparations before we left, enough to make us think that Cologne would be a good destination for a longer visit. That’s what we love about big cities: there’s always something going on, even if you don’t always get to take advantage of it.