December 2016
More photos here


Wednesday 7th December
We’d booked the 10.58 Eurostar train to Brussels, arriving at 14.05, and there we were due to catch the 14.25 train to Cologne. No seat booking was possible on the train from Brussels to Cologne so it wasn’t essential to catch that exact train but, online at least, it looked like we’d be waiting four hours for another direct train if we missed it.
Catching the tube around 9.00 was pleasingly post-rush-hour if not exactly seat guaranteed. The departure lounge at St Pancras was pleasantly sparsely populated, though, compared to the usual peak time hoards. We arrived at Brussels Midi ten minutes late, which along with closed exit corridors, non-functioning escalators, and my getting caught behind a man with crutches on one of the latter, meant that we had a bit of a stressed rush for our train, which luckily left a bit late. This train stopped at Liege and Aachen before Cologne and went on to Frankfurt. It didn't, however, stop at the border so that German soldiers could get on and check our papers, with the grizzled older soldier saying 'So Herr Cotton, we meet again'. Shame.

Our hotel - The Mercure - was indeed 15 minutes walk from the station, but by skilful mis-navigation we made it almost twice as far away. Very friendly staff, nice room, swift unpacking and we were out and back by the Dom and visiting my first real German Christmas market. And the ones we get in London don't compare for sparkle and the odd and varied goods on offer. Or for how flipping cold it is. The woman on the hotel desk had pointed us to a reasonably local Italian called the Piccola Pizzeria, which turned out to be small indeed, but special - my pizza with rocket, buffalo mozzarella and balsamic cream was truly yummy. Back at the hotel the WiFi turned out to be unuseably slow, which was the first real disappointment of the day. The organic cinnamon crunchy almonds I'd bought in the Xmas market were maybe a bit tough on the teeth, but were in no way disappointing cinnamon-wise.

Thursday 8th December
The room was peaceful and I slept well, but I'm not used to trips where you appreciate the central heating and the tog rating of the duvet rather than the air-conditioning and free mineral water. Breakfast featured good orange juice and coffee, a vast range of cereals and muesli and very fresh little croissants, but no odd local patisserie. When spooning out jam you could choose from small ceramic dishes or little dish-shaped ice cream cones, which you could eat after use. Eco!

Today we'd pencilled in the Cathedral and the main art gallery, the Wallraf Richartz. The Cathedral had lots of people inside, but being so huge... And it is very big - its clerestory being almost as tall as its nave. The joy is mostly in the architecture, there's some interesting looking paintings in the ambulatory chapels but they are all iron-fenced off. And the highlight Stefan Lochner altarpiece I was looking forward to was closed up for Christmas, I was told, and anyway that part of the Cathedral was closed for having its floor cleaned. As the person telling me this was dressed in robes and I was in a church the instinctive reaction to this - 'Oh fuck' - was resisted. I got a foldy-outy card of the altarpiece in the shop, though. The Wallraf Richartz is divided up into three floors - medieval, what it calls baroque and the 19th century. The medieval is a comprehensive feast of early Cologne painting, with a famous and lovely Lochner and lots of martyrdoms and scenes from the passion. The Netherlandish influence is strong here, Cologne being so far west. There's no audio guide for the main collection but the texts on the wall for each room, and by the more important and/or interesting paintings, are unusually good. We were a bit wiped out just by the medieval floor, so just trotted upstairs to see the Friedrichs. We may have to return tomorrow. Lunch was tomato soup and pesto spaghetti (one each) in the gallery cafe. Then back to the hotel for the traditional rest.

In the evening we walked to a Christmas market on the river by the chocolate museum, recommended by the woman on the hotel desk. And it was indeed an attractive spot, with interesting dock buildings and towers around. I bought some marzipan stollen (is there any other sort?) and a hat. My first ever hat it was too, in my whole life so far, bought with the assistance of the very helpful chap on the stall, easing me into my worrying first purchase with careful sizing judgement and care advice. We tried a pizza restaurant called La Pizza, which we found on the way back, and lo it was very good.

Friday 9th December
Romanesque churches this morning. St Gereon is startlingly close to our hotel, got visited first, had a nice Christmas tree outside (see above right), was all lit up inside, but was not open. (A patron saint of the city, St Gereon was a soldier, martyred in Cologne by beheading - that's a statue of his head in the photo above - probably in the 4th century, along with his companions, a detachment of fifty men of the Theban Legion. Later legends increased the number of his companions to nearer 300, much as legend increased the number of the martyred virgin companions of Saint Ursula (the other patron saint of Cologne) from 11 to 11,000. That's me with the saint's head above.) So we moved on to St. Andrew which was open and is fine inside. There are wall murals, polychromed capitals, polyptych altarpieces - a couple authentically closed, a gothic choir and an atmospheric crypt, containing the remains of the Dominican St Albert Magnus. Jane here peeled off to look at modern art at the Ludwig and I walked down to the river and along to St. Martin with its huge crossing tower (see right), second only in Cologne iconicness to the Cathedral. It's taller, chunkier and plainer inside than St Andrew. The rectangular pillars between the nave and aisles are enormous and there's a clover leaf crossing - the apse and transept ends both being semi-circular. Odd patches of painted decoration too. There's also a crypt with archeological excavations, which I stupidly forgot to visit. Display boards show how decorated the interior once was, and the drastic bomb damage. St Maria Lyskirchen still has its (13th century) painted ceilings, with the Old Testament scenes on the north side echoing the New Testament scenes on the south side (as I read after coming home). This church is quite small and dark inside, and has an actual gallery rather than the more usual triforium. Also quite a few altarpieces. St Maria im Kapitol is nearby and all hemmed around by blocks of flats and building works, but finding the entrance rewards you with a sweet cloister, with some flats built on top of one wing. Inside is huge with an impressive Renaissance screen in front of the crossing and another clover-leaf choir, a big one supposedly modelled on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem this time. Back to the Ludwig to meet Jane and head back to the hotel, picking up a couple of crispy fresh brie and salad baguettes and some marzipan products on the way.

In the evening we went to check out the train times to connect comfortably with our Eurostar from Brussels. Not many choices, but one is indeed a comfortable connection. Then to a 4711 shop to buy some actual cologne and on towards the river to wander around a couple more Christmas markets - one with an ice rink and one with some wild tree illumination. We then stumbled into a shop selling sweet things called Hussel, there to stock up on marzipan potatoes, cinnamon stars and coconut biscuits. And Jane even found some cheesy biscuits.

Saturday 10th December
St Gereon was open today and was well worth the wait. The original circular church is a big tall large-domed treat. The choir extension, which doubles the length of the church, cannot be entred, sadly. There's a sweet baptistery though with impressive, if damaged, wall paintings. Here was also the best crypt so far, with atmosphere, polychroming, ceiling paintings and mosaic floors of scenes from the life of Sampson, oddly enough. The next church, the Church of the Apostles was a bit disappointing in comparison. I found the modern embellishments - painted vaults, sculpture, weird purple lighting - intrusive. It has another clover-leaf choir, though. St. Pantalon was much more special. (Visited after dropping Jane off at the Kathe Kollwitz museum.) It appears inside as a hall church, with a flat coffered ceiling and added aisles behind chunky pillars, with a spectacular gothic screen. Behind this is a very baroque high altar in a presbytery that you can't get, or even easily see, into. The 17th century choir and 18th century altar are rare survivals from this period in Cologne.  There's a gilt and painted baroque pulpit in the nave too. So for a the reassuringly Romanesque you have to turn around and face the space, with gallery, at the back of the church inside the westwork. I then made for the Diocesan Museum. We hadn't happened upon it, and I had no luck finding it based on guidebook guidance. A nice man in the tourist office by the Cathedral gave me directions and a handy map. It was nowhere near I had expected, was covered in scaffolding and sheeting, and is now called simply Kolumba. It's a very modern museum in layout, sparseness of display and proportion of modern works. So not the rooms full of medieval altarpieces that I was hoping for. But a lovely big Lochner panel, as promised, in a light-filled room with a huge window looking towards the Cathedral. On the ground floor is access to the excavations of the church on the site - St Columba. It's a huge, somewhat awe-inspiring space, covered and walled, but cold like outdoors with light coming in through masses of holes punched into the walls. An unusual experience worth the €5 entrance in itself. Back to the hotel with a cream cheese and chive sesame-seed bagel and an almond twist from a branch of a chain called Back Werk discovered surprisingly close to the hotel.

Our evening walk to and along the Rhine celebrated our farewell to jolly, sparkling and spicey-smelling Christmas markets, with the help of two mugs of glühwein (hot mulled wine), a tray of frites and a marzipan crepe. The latter I had to try, having just learned of its existence, and it was indeed very nice. We also went back to the hat stall to feedback my very real satisfaction with the helpful chap's fine product.

Sunday 11th December
We had some time this morning before needing to catch a train, so decided on a Sunday morning walk to St. Ursula, supposedly built on the site of the burial of the saint and her 11,000 virgin martyr companions, and housing  a Golden Chamber decorated with all of these bones. A service was on, as expected, but we loitered in the entrance hallway, behind a metalwork screen, soaking up the atmosphere and being reminded what churches are for. The 11.43 ICE train to Brussels got us there a bit early, but a later train wasn't an option. The Eurostar airport-like check-in and security rigmarole needs time too.




Catalogue corner

Wallraf das Museum

This is a sweet little volume - a hardback, without a dust cover, about the size of a Book of Hours. We are told in the introductory section that the texts are taken from the walls of each of the the galleries rooms and from the captions beside the major paintings. This is very much not a problem as these texts and captions were of superior intelligence and attention to details. In fact the only problem is that they contained memorable details and observations and so reading this soon after returning was too soon to surprise. And it's available in English - this isn't an Italian gallery - don't let the German text on the cover fool you. Maps of each floor and an artist index are also included.

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