A Day in Cologne (Köln)

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The trip from Kinderdijk to Colonge in Germany is only about 150 miles, but via river cruising that translates into quite a long journey.  We pulled out of Kinderdijk in the early afternoon on Saturday, sailed all afternoon, through the night, and when we awoke on Sunday morning, we were still sailing towards Cologne.

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I will say that this is not necessarily the picturesque portion of the river cruise (at least I hope not)….that should come later when we are on the Rhine and the Danube rivers.  Thus far, since leaving Amsterdam, we have seen mostly sparsely wooded countryside, tons of riverside campsites, and industrial zones with lots of factories and smoke stacks, etc.  This is definitely the armpit portion of the tour and does remind me of riding down the Jersey Turnpike from Exits 17 thru 12.  Occasionally, there have been some really interesting modern bridges,  and in the very early morning, we passed through Dusseldorf where there was another nice bridge, and I saw a few Frank Gehry buildings (so I had a brief architecture moment).   But there has been nothing else terribly photo worthy….we are eagerly awaiting the picturesque little villages with the quaint church steeples.

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Lots of campers and camp sites line the river


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Lovely, modern bridge


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Almost coastal vegetation along the river


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Passing thru Düsseldorf in the early morning light.  To the left are two buildings by American architect, Frank Gehry. 

That being said, it is quite relaxing to sit on our private deck and let the world glide by.  The sunsets have been lovely (as has the weather in general), and we have also gone up to the uppermost deck of the ship where they have lounge chairs and tables.   Having done thorough research, Josette learned that after just a few days into the trip, the upper deck is closed for about 5 consecutive days due to the ship having to pass under very low bridges.   I have seen several negative reviews for Viking river cruises because of this upper deck shut down…passengers were irate that the deck wasn’t open for the entire cruise.  So it’s better to know before you go and take advantage of the deck before it is closed (and it does re-open later in the cruise).


After breakfast, we found ourselves on the upper deck sailing towards Cologne, Germany.  As Cologne is the 4th most populated city of Germany and a major metropolitan area, the banks of the Rhine were becoming more densely populated and seeing larger industrial complexes was the norm.  In fact, we passed a massive Ford car factory that seemed to go on and on forever.  I later found out that this factory has been here since 1925 and employs nearly 29,000 people!



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From Google Maps…the Ford plant is everything you see in the photo along the Rhine.

We knew the first sign of approaching Cologne would be seeing the spires of the famous cathedral, and sure enough, as we rounded a curve in the river, the enormous spiky towers could be seen jutting up into the air.   As it was Sunday morning, you could hear church bells ringing not only from the cathedral but also from other nearby churches along the river.

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We docked at the Hohenzollern Bridge, which spans the Rhine and connects Cologne which lies on both sides of the river.   This bridge is also refered to as the “Love Lock Bridge” (which we will get into in a bit).   We were signed up for a walking tour of Cologne, which was the free/included tour for this stop on the cruise.   There were a few other optional tours for the afternoon (a beer crawl/culture tour and a trip to a nearby palace) but Josette and I decided that after the included tour, we would do our own sightseeing alone.

A note about the daily “included tours” on a Viking River Cruise….

With the exception of about 2 days when you are ship-bound and sailing all day, Viking provides a daily “included” tour.  These tours are entirely free except for the tip, which you are expected to provide to the tour guide at the end of the tour.  In some cases, if there is a bus ride that takes over an hour, you are expected to tip the bus driver, as well.  So have your euros in pocket before you head out.

The majority of the 180 passengers will always participate in the included tour, so they break everyone into 4 smaller groups.  Each day,  you stop by the ship’s concierge desk in the morning and they give you little plastic cards which indicate which group you are in that day (your group number can change everyday), and if there is a bus involved for the tour, it is also the number of your bus.


You are also given an ID card for each passenger which tells the ship staff  that you have left the ship.    When you return, they collect the cards back from you–or they get very upset and make an announcement over the speaker that you need to make your presence known.  We saw several other river cruise companies where passengers had an electronic ID card around their neck that they scanned upon entering or leaving the ship.  I think they do this on the large ocean cruises, and it does seem more convenient and technologically savvy, but I suppose Viking prefers the old-fashioned method.

Each passenger room is equipped with two “quiet vox” chargers and each morning, you have to bring the quiet vox and ear piece with you for the tour.  These quiet vox gadgets are the remote listening devices that allow you to hear the tour guide.  They are actually pretty helpful, but…. they are literally like having a big bullseye on your forehead announcing “I AM A TOURIST–PICK POCKET ME–OVERCHARGE ME”.   I really disliked wearing it around my neck so I tucked it into my bag….but I was in the minority, as the other 179 passengers took no issue with it.



One other note about the included tours is the red, Viking “lollipop” that the tour guide holds proudly, like a torch.  Not only is this literally the antenna for the quiet vox devices–you have to touch your quiet vox to the center of the lollypop when you meet your tour guide to connect to them…but these lollipops are also a sort of flag or beacon to keep you safely in your group.   Depending on when you travel, there can be dozens of tour groups all around you….other Viking cruise groups, other river cruise company groups….city tour groups, etc.  So if you step away from the group to snap a photo, you can easily lose your group (which we intentionally did later in the cruise).



Walking Tour of  Cologne

I have forgotten the name of our tour guide, but she was an enthusiastic native of Cologne…and for the purposes of this blog, we will call her “Anna”.   After we all gathered (which always takes a bit too long for my level of patience), she walked us across the Love Lock Bridge, which was, in fact,  covered in colorful locks.  She tried to convince us of how romantic it is, and that Cologne is a city full of lovers, but I wasn’t buying it.  Apparently, this whole ridiculous practice of leaving a lock on a bridge and throwing the key in the river started in 2006 in Rome and spread to Paris and then to other European cities.   Paris’s “lovers lock” bridge, the Pont des Arts, ended up with major structural issues because of the 700,000 locks placed on the bridge over the years.  That many locks weighed as much as 20 elephants (about 130 tons)!   Eventually, they had to cut the locks from that bridge in order to save it.   These bridges are designed for certain weight loads…such as cars, pedestrians, trains, etc…..but definitely not for the addition of all of these silly locks.  Admittedly, I am not romantic, but this tradition seems cheesy to me.


As we strolled by the “romantic” locks, Anna gave us more facts about the history of Cologne…but one fact that stood out to me was how old Cologne is.  Founded in 38BC by some Germanic tribes and then later the Roman city of Colonia in about 50AD.   Anna paused our tour outside of the  Roman-Germanic Museum  which houses a vast collection of artifacts from the days of Cologne as Colonia and it also sits on the site of a former Roman villa.  Josette and I have this on our list for our free time, so we will come back to it.

As much as I love Roman history, literally just across from the museum was a 516 foot tall elephant in the room waiting for us to stand in awe….the Cologne Cathedral (Der Kolner Döm).  This massive gothic structure was the once the tallest building in the world from 1880 to 1884.

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We have seen our fair share of famous cathedrals…Notre Dame and Chartes in France, Westminster Abbey & St. Pauls in London, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, St. Peter’s in Rome, which are all amazing…but vertically speaking, the facades and towers of Cologne’s cathedral are almost incomprehensibly massive and quite humbling.  But one of the first questions that pops into almost everyone’s head (including my own) upon seeing the cathedral is….why is it so dirty?

Many of the famous cathedrals all over Europe (and even St. Patrick’s in New York City) have undergone extensive cleaning over the years…it takes a long time and it costs a lot of money.  But Cologne’s cathedral remains a big sooty, black mess.  However,  Anna explained that there is a legitimate reason for this!  The cathedral was constructed of sandstone, which creates myriad issues for the facade: 1– The sandstone reacts to pollutants in the rain and turns black, 2– The sandstone absorbs the soot created by the city, and 3– The sandstone is so soft that most cleaning techniques can’t be used because the details in the carvings would be washed away and lost forever.   Conservationists have tried many different techniques, but nothing has been successful enough to use on a large scale.

We were all eager to go inside the cathedral, but Anna informed us that because it was Sunday, there were services taking place, so we would have to tour the cathedral on our own time later in the afternoon.

This photo shows portions of the facade that are undergoing cleaning tests, but the contrast between clean vs dirty is striking

From this point, I’m going to condense the remainder of Anna’s tour….we saw another Roman ruin (a portion of an old sewer system), we talked about the huge Carnival traditions in the city, the beer culture that exists in town, and she did touch on the devastation to Cologne during World War II.

Thus far, we’ve only visited European countries that welcomed and celebrate the Allied forces…last year in Normandy, it was a literal love fest for American and British troops.  So it was interesting to see how a German tour guide would present the devastation to her city to a bunch of American and British tourists.   Let’s say that she kept it at surface level.  She passed around photos of Cologne at the end of war, which were jaw dropping–the place was virtually flattened.   Anna didn’t go into any details about the Nazis vs. the Allies, she simply said that war is a terrible thing for everyone and that many civilians died and countless buildings left in rubble.   She was not kidding….the Allies were merciless with over 262 separate air raids destroying nearly everything in sight…and what the Allies didn’t obliterate, the Germans self-destructed in order to try to push back the enemy.



The German army destroyed the Hohenzollern Bridge in 1945 to cut off access into the city…this is the “Love Lock Bridge” that we crossed at the beginning of the tour

There is no definitive reason that the Cathedral was not completely destroyed in the bombings.  It is well-known that military commanders on both sides held some affinity for culturally important buildings and avoided bombing them if possible, but as the war waged on, there was much less consideration–bringing Germany to its knees was far more important.   Other accounts say that the Allies used the massive Cathedral towers as a reference point for their air raids….the church was simply too strategically vital to take down.  And then there are those that say it was just a matter of luck….accuracy of air bombings 74 years ago was actually very poor and it is possible that many of the intended bombs simply missed.  It may have survived the war, but Cologne’s Cathedral did take some hits and was severely damaged….luckily much of the centuries-old stained glass and other artworks were removed at the beginning of war and stored away safely.

The nave of the cathedral after the war

Moving on…the other standout from Anna’s walking tour was learning about the origins of something many of us use every morning…eau de cologne!  It was in Cologne that a homesick Italian named Giovanni Maria Farina created the first cologne (or first mass produced cologne, at least)…naming the aromatic liquid after his adopted city.  He also established a perfume factory in Cologne…which is the oldest perfume factory still in existence.  Farina’s cologne was immediately popular with the kings, queens and aristocracy all over Europe…there was finally something to cover their stench.





There is also a rival cologne producer in Cologne, called No. 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser.  They also claim to be the first Eau de Cologne…but they weren’t mass producing until 1799, nearly a century after Farina.   Everyone always wants to be the original or the “oldest”….I don’t think it matters much…I’m just impressed that they are both still around and in production after all of these years.   I am familiar with No. 4711, but I had never smelled Farina.  Anna (our tour guide, in case you forgot) had little bottles of both colognes and passed them around for all of us in the tour group to smell.  Of the 30 of us, we chose Farina as the overwhelming favorite.  Very light, citrusy and fresh.




That is about all that I care to share about our included walking tour with Anna.  She was  a perfectly good guide, but she had a flair for the dramatic and was very theatrical in her delivery.  I am guessing that she has dabbled in the theater in her past.  But I do have to give her props for keeping on track that day.  Cologne was hosting their gay pride parade that day, and the parade route and participants were pretty much following the route of our walking tour.   I thought New York’s pride parade was big, but this was a massive parade with a huge turn out!  Lots of interesting sights and sounds to see.   Anna managed to weave us in and out of it all.   Of course, she also somehow connected the pride parade with that annoying Lovers Lock Bridge and the romance of Cologne, but I suppose that’s her job.



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It was lunch time, so we left the tour group and back-tracked to a place we had passed along the way….Früh am Dom a 100 year-old brewery serving beer and traditional German food.  We grabbed an outdoor seat under an umbrella and perused the menu.


I’m not a huge fan of beer, I usually only drink it at cookouts or maybe with mexican food…but you simply can’t come to Germany and not drink beer!  In fact, I’m not even sure that there was an option.  Within minutes of sitting down, our waiter came over with a beer caddy in hand and without a “hello”, sat beers down for me and Josette.   They were small glasses…maybe not much more than a 1/2 pint worth (7 oz).

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Side Note about drinking beer in Germany:  I don’t know if this is true all over Germany…but at least for our time in Cologne, we learned that once you finish your beer, they will come and bring you another one right away (without asking)….so you have to place the coaster over the beer glass to indicate that you don’t want another one.


Everything on the menu seemed a bit heavy for a lunch meal, but then again, we knew we weren’t at Ye Olde Vegan Farm Restaurant…so I just went with the flow and ordered the Brauhaustwurst–a grilled sausage served with potatoes and a cabbage salad (by which I mean sweet sauerkraut).  Josette got a sampler plate that had liver, cheese and a minced pork (that was served raw).

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Josette’s cheese, raw pork and liver plate…yum (?)


A note about wait staff in Europe (for Americans, by an American):

We had been warned by a few tourist guides (who were German) and on various travel shows and YouTube videos that wait staff in Germany may be considered rude/unhelpful/uninterested by American standards.   But they also say this about wait staff in France, and we have been there enough to know that it isn’t really true.   Waiters and waitresses in Europe take their jobs seriously….for the vast majority of them, it is not a part-time gig…it is what they do.   They are not a 24 year-old out-of-work actor or a poor college student looking for extra money.  In fact, in most of our travels in France, Italy, Spain and now Germany….waiters tend to be 40 to 60-year-old men.   American wait staff get paid sub-minimum wage salaries, and have to put their best foot forward to earn a tip.   European waiters earn a living wage (really decent salaries) and are not going to fall over themselves to earn a tip.  Besides, in many places, a service fee is included in the bill.  So their job is to take your order, bring you the food and settle the bill at the end of the meal.   They aren’t going to ask you 20 times if everything is alright, or refill your water glass every time you take a sip…they normally hang back and leave you alone to enjoy your meal.  If you need them, you simply signal for them.   That’s it…end of story.  It’s not a matter of being rude or uninterested….it’s just how things are done.   And to that point, our waiter didn’t smile or tell us to have a nice day….he took our order, brought out our food,  settled our tab and we left!

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After lunch, we knew the church services would be over at the Cathedral, so it was time to head back to tour the interior.  I have made a vow not to get into the details and history of all of the places we visit this year.  It’s too time consuming to write and for you to read.   But I have to provide some basic information about the Cologne Cathedral, such as the fact that construction started in 1248…but was not actually completed until 1880!  This actually isn’t unusual for Cathedral construction when you examine what took place over those 632 years!   There are always money issues– the funding of construction, but then  you have to remember that the plague overtook Europe killing most of the population (specifically construction workers).   Then there were the endless wars, not to mention a general apathy to compete the cathedral by the powers that be.   But in the case of Cologne’s cathedral, a resurgence of romanticism for the middle ages came about in the mid 1800’s.  Civic pride called for the raising of (donated) funds to complete the cathedral and the Prussian state offered to pick up the remaining costs.  With that, the nave was finally finished, the two massive towers constructed, church bells added and the cathedral was formally declared complete at a huge celebration in 1880.

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Madonna & Child ca. 1420


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Cologne’s Cathedral has a few key treasures that make it so important to Christendom and as part of the Pilgrimage trail.  Most important is the Shrine of the Magi.  This magnificent golden reliquary was completed in 1220 and created to hold the bones of the three Magi (the famous Wise Men)  from the biblical story about the birth of Jesus Christ.  Interestingly, the bones were originally housed in Milan, Italy’s Duomo.  However, in the 1100’s, Milan decided to rebel against the Holy Roman Emporer.  Surreptitiously (or maybe not), the archbishop of Cologne intervened and brought Milan back to order and in the hands of the Emporer.  As a gift of gratitude, which was probably the original goal, the three Magi’s bones were taken from Milan and brought to Cologne, where the cathedral was built to house them.  Interestingly, the reliquary was cracked open in 1864, and there were in fact, the bones of 3 men inside…a young man, a middle-aged man and an older man.   But honestly, I am extremely dubious that they are the remains of the three Magi.  All over Italy and France we have seen countless reliquaries that hold fragments of THE cross, or a hair of Jesus, a cloth of Mary, a toenail of a Saint.  The list goes on and on….the point being that within the Catholic religion being in the possession of an actual, tangible holy relic was a VERY big deal–you just had to use your faith to be assured that it was the real deal.

The Shrine of the Magi

The Cathedral also has the Madonna of Milan, a lovely wood carving of Mary holding the baby Jesus, created in 1290.  This statue, like the holy relics, supposedly has provided countless miracles over the past 700 years…thousands of pilgrims have made long journeys to pray to this statue.


A more recent addition to the church, added in 2007, is Gerhard Richter’s stained glass windows that replaced plain glass windows installed after World War II.  Richter, a German painter and photographer, chose not to design the windows with traditional figurative (and religious) stories, but instead to design an abstract, almost pixellated set of windows with 11,500 squares of glass in 72 colors.  From what I gather, it seems to be one of those “love it or hate it” things.  Apparently, many of the senior Church officials, residents and tourists hate(d) the window….but I think that in person, it is quite beautiful.

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Stained glass reflections on the floor

I have to say that the centuries-old art is what really stands out at Cologne Cathedral.  From the intricate statuary to all of the amazing wood carvings throughout are very impressive.  And in all of these old cathedrals in Europe, you should never forget to look down.  The floors of these places are always amazing.  In some cases, its beautiful mosaic tile work,  but even if it is simple stone, it is always fascinating to see the wear marks…you can see and feel the smoothed grooves created by the foot steps of people who have walked through these magnificent spaces for hundreds of years.


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The St Agilulfus altar-piece, 1520


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Detail, The St Agilulfus altar-piece, 1520
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An intricate mosaic floor

We had researched the availability of climbing the Cathedral Towers, so when we finished the interior tour, we walked outside, around the corner and downstairs, through a gift shop, and then to the ticket booth.  And then we began the 533 step climb to the top of the tower.  I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to enjoy the journey up.  We’ve climbed dozens of different towers in Europe and they all have a particular climb style.  Sometimes you climb up one stair and climb down a different stair, sometimes, it is so treacherous that they only allow a certain number of people up at a time…and sometimes they have an elevator up and a stair down.   The worst case scenario is people going up and down at the same time, which was the case at Cologne’s Cathedral.  These were the typical circular, wedge-shaped, stone stairs.


The folks going down always stay firmly to the right, where the stair is wider and easier to manuever….so if you are going up, you are pushed to the tiny, narrow portion of the stair.   There is only enough room for one person to pass….so someone has to turn sideways.  Every 20 or 30 vertical feet there is a usually a little niche where you can step off the stair, but it’s not pleasant.   Also, this particular stair was super hot and humid and it literally smelled like a high school locker room, in August, after a football game, pre-hitting the showers.   We’ve only ever climbed towers in summer, but I’ve never smelled anything this odoriferous.

But I don’t want to imply that we didn’t want to do this…we were climbing voluntarily, and with knowledge of what the experience is like.  Once we finally arrived at the top, there was a circular path around the base of the tower that allowed you to get several different vistas.   Unfortunately, like at Notre Dame in Paris, they have literally caged the path in….there is no clear view….it is all obscured through the metal fencing.   I can’t say why some towers do this…but I suppose for the safety of tourists, and to prevent things from being thrown off.    But in this case, the tower’s construction certainly would not allow you to accidentally fall.  Regardless, I was able to stick my camera lens through the fencing to get a few unobstructed views.


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Looking down at the “Love Lock Bridge” and to the left of the bridge, along the river bank you can see our Viking ship docked.




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Besides the church below, at the top of the photo is the Cologne Train Station…pretty large and impressive structure


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Looking straight up to the very top of the tower–I would NOT want to have to climb that ladder.

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I’m going to be honest and say that had I known what I know now, I would have skipped the tower climb.  The €4 fee is perfectly reasonable, but the pay-off isn’t worth the 533 step climb.  I’m sure my body appreciated the workout after the heavy lunch and 2 beers, but the top of the tower doesn’t really reward you with amazing, photo-friendly views.  Besides being obscured by the ugly fencing, every surface is covered in graffiti….even the staircase walls on the way up were graffiti filled.   I know people like to leave their mark, but like those silly love locks on the bridge, I don’t like to see graffiti on old, historic buildings.

Romano-Germanic Museum

You might have thought our day in Cologne was almost over, but we were just getting started!  When we left the stinky tower climb, it was only about 2PM, so we had a good 4 hours to continue our own non-Viking tour of Cologne.

There were several museums to choose from, but I was pretty interested in checking out the Romano-Germanic museum that was just beside the Cathedral.   The 1970’s building is a bit dated, looking all boxy and gray and concrete…which was all the rage in contemporary architecture in the mid 70’s.   But inside, we found some really interesting artifacts left by the Romans when they occupied Cologne nearly 2000 years ago.

Phoyo by © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The museum is actually built on the remains of a Roman villa from the 3rd century.   Sometime in 1941, an air raid shelter was being constructed, and while digging, they found the architectural remains of the villa.  The mosaic floor of the main part of the villa is intact and is stunning.  Images of birds, animals, cupids riding lions, lovers frolicking, baskets of fruit…all of the things you think of when you imagine daily life of the Romans.

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The museum also has the reconstructed Sepulcher of Poblicius, a funerary monument dating from 40 AD.  The structure dominates the 3 story atrium at the corner of the museum.  From what I have read, this monument (like most Roman buildings) would have been painted in lively colors–not in the monotone stone color that we see today.

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There were thousands of artifacts in the museum…including many day to day objects that Romans living in (what is now) Cologne would have used….such as hair brushes, shaving knives for men, combs, jewelry, eating utensils, etc.  They were all under glass and the reflections made it impossible to photograph.  There were also tons of statuary depicting women and men of Colonia.

The museum has such a rich collection, but it was mostly empty when we were there.  I know a re-model would be quite costly, but the place does need to be modernized and spruced up a bit.  The interior is very dull, poorly lit, drab and a little depressing.  And I know Europeans and their dislike of AC, but on a hot July day, it was super stuffy.  We may have stayed longer, but I needed some fresh air.

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It was an especially warm day and the sun, undeterred by any clouds, seem determined to stay perched directly overhead all day.  Our tour guide, “Love Lock Anna”, mentioned a cafe just across from the Cathedral, so we walked the short distance and took a seat under an umbrella.   This was Cafe Reichard apparently one of Cologne’s older institutions, having been around for more than 100 years.  It was kind of fancy, but we were only there for some quick refreshments.   Their menu had page after page of cakes and pastries and HUGE ice cream dishes.  We settled on something that seemed on the lighter side, with fresh berries, whip cream and ice cream on the bottom.   Looking around at the other tables and the size of the portions, we decided that we should split it.

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It really wasn’t as rich as it may look, but it was very tall and much too big for one person.  The berries on top were so ripe and tasty….whenever we come to Europe we always wonder why our fruit in the US is so tasteless.  We finished off with a cappuccino and decided that we would walk over a few blocks (through the Pride parade) to see a little church.

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While we were eating our ice cream, Josette did a little research and read about a nearby church, called the Basilica of St. Ursula.  She may have read about why it is well-known, and she may have even told me, but I was too busy people watching at the cafe.  We were sitting beside two Asian tourists, girls no older than 23.  They were dressed fashionably and they looked like they definitely maybe had undergone a few cosmetic procedures, particular in the lip area.  They ordered several plates of food, and several beverages, as well.  Rather than eat, they took turns photographing themselves in various poses with the food (and the Cathedral as a backdrop).  One girl would take the other’s photo and then show the picture, they would critique it and then re-shoot the pose.  This went on for quite some time, and was quite enjoyable to watch.  I don’t know if they ever ate any of the food or it was all for show to their fans on instagram.

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But back to St. Ursula.  So, this old, Romanesque church was built on the site of a Roman graveyard.  But not just any graveyard…it was believed to be the final resting place of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin followers.  The story of St. Ursula is too interesting not to share, so I will give you the highly edited and condensed version.


St. Ursula lived in or around 300 AD in what is now England, but at the time was a Roman colony–she was a Romano British princess.  One day, she decided that she wanted to make a pilgrimage across Europe, and she would bring her 11 virginal handmaidens along with her.  But here’s the first twist…over the centuries, I suppose to make the story more interesting, the original 11 virgins has been increased….not to 111,….or even 1111 virgins….now the legend says that St. Ursula had 11,000 virginal handmaidens, and they all climbed aboard a ship (which must have been twice as big as the biggest modern ocean cruise ship) and sailed to Rome to try to persuade the Pope to come along with them on their journey.  I think the story also involved some magic wind that allowed them to make the trip to Rome in one day, which in 300AD is quite impressive.  They made it to Rome and I don’t know if the Pope hopped aboard, or not, or if there was even room for him, but they eventually found themselves in Cologne, Germany….which was under siege by those nasty Huns (as in Attila, the Hun).   You can imagine how excited the rowdy Huns were to see 11,000 Virgins walk into town!  They were ready to par-tay…but St. Ursula’s girls were having none of it….they were chaste, god-fearing girls.   So as one does when turned down by a girl, the angry Huns beheaded all 11,000 Virgins in a bloody slaughter and shot St. Urusla in the heart with an arrow….and then buried their bodies in a mass grave only to be discovered in the year 1106.

While it’s a great story, I don’t believe any of it and there are only a few sketchy historic records that even mention any Roman-British Princess named Ursula.  But it is an effective religious teaching story about the life of a dedicated martyr and about girls sacrificing their lives in order to remain pure.  And the remains they found in 1106?  I think they just found a random Roman burial ground–but nothing more.

The church itself is lovely.  Half of the church is in the original romanesque style and the nave, which was added later, is built in the gothic style with the vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows.  Obviously, as it is dedicated to St. Ursula, much of the statuary is either of her, or one of her 11,000 virgins.

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But the show stopper of the church is a room off to the side near the entrance to the church….the Golden Chamber!  You have to pay to go in, but it’s worth the small admission fee to see what’s inside.  The whole room was built to house the remains of St. Ursula’s 11,000 Virgins.  Essentially, it is an ossuary…the walls are literally lined with the bones and remains of the Virgins.  Amidst shelves holding busts of random people are gilded vertical columns with little glass windows.  Behind each pane is the skull of one of the virgins, carefully wrapped in colorful cloth, but in many cases, you can see an eye socket or two peeking out.

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A close up of one of the Virgin’s skulls…you can see the right eye peeking out

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We’ve visited ossuaries in Rome and some of them can be very macabre, particularly if they are below ground….but I didn’t find the Golden Chamber to be creepy at all.  I think all of the natural light, the romantic gilding and the innocent faces of the statues make the room feel reverent and celebratory.  The designers of the space obviously wanted to exalt the remains of the poor, beheaded girls who had been so carelessly disregarded by their executioners.

I’m sure that the folks that built this Golden Chamber truly believed in the story of St. Ursula, and I know that they thought these remains really were those of the 11,000 martyred virgins. But in actuality, no one knows whose bones line the walls or whose skulls are encased in glass and gold.  No one even knows how many total humans the bones represent.  But it is far more fun to suspend reality and appreciate the chamber for its intended purpose.

We timed this visit to St. Ursula’s perfectly, as we were the last (and only) ones in the Golden Chamber…as we walked out, the caretaker literally locked the door and gave us that look that you get by workers who want you to leave so that they can go home.

And we actually were ready to go back to the ship to rest and get ready for dinner.   We walked back through the old part of Cologne and saw some interesting architecture.  I really don’t know how many of these buildings survived the WW2 bombings or if they were rebuilt after the war.  Several of them note the date of their construction on the facade.



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It wasn’t a terribly long walk back to the ship, but it was still hot and the sun was still relentless…and we had to make our way through the massive Pride Parade crowds, which was now in the post-parade celebration phase.  But very orderly and controlled.

When we got back to our room, our laundry had been delivered and was arranged in leather boxes and each item wrapped in tissue paper.  Besides the fact that it was a free service of our Veranda Suite, they turned it around very quickly and the presentation deserved an extra kudo.

Viking Hlin in Cologne


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We rested, got changed and went to the lounge to have a drink before dinner.  Besides the dining room, the ship also has an atrium-like space called the Aquavit Terrace where you can have breakfast, lunch or dinner.   We haven’t figured out if the menu is the same as what is served in the dining room, but we will find out.

The Aquavit Terrace

After dinner, the ship was to set sail for our next stop in Koblenz.  We were told that the lights of Cologne, particularly the Cathedral, were very lovely, so we went up to the top deck to check it out.   It was after 10PM when that stubborn sun finally went down and slowly, the lights started flickering on.  As promised, it was very pretty, and I have to say that even the “Love Lock” bridge looked nice all lit up.

Exhausted, we went to bed after a long day of sight-seeing.  I liked Cologne…it had a really good vibe.   Even if what very little we saw of it wasn’t particularly picturesque, I know that it is completely unfair to judge a city based on a visit to a tiny slice of the most touristy part of town.  If you came to New York and only went to Times Square, and that was your only impression of the City, it would be a tragedy.   You have to see the quaint West Village, and Central Park, and the Battery….walk along the river….see the brownstones on the Upper West Side, step into a little community garden in the East Village or the see the grand mansions on the Upper East Side.  So I get it…you really have to SEE a city and all of it’s parts so that you can fairly make an informed opinion.

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Auf Wiedersehen, Cologne!

6 thoughts on “A Day in Cologne (Köln)

  1. It sure sounds (and looks!) like a wonderful trip. I personally love the history you are including. As an aside, I totally agree with you about the “love locks”! Thank you for all your hard work sharing your trip with me!

    1. Andi- I really wish I could have written posts on the ship…now that I’m back in NYC and back at work, it’s hard to carve time to write…and I have to rely on notes and my memory!! But I shall continue! So many beautiful places to share with you.

  2. Glad you’ve decided to continue working o your blog even though your journey has finished. How frustrating in this digital world to lack WiFi!

  3. I missed your posts but waited patiently and knew you’d surface after returning to regular life.

    I enjoy reading about river cruise life since I have never cruised. How’s the food?

    Mostly, it is valuable to be reminded of the deep, rich history and culture of Europe. So much to appreciate. America is in its infancy compared to Europe.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences.

  4. Definitely worth the wait! Your photos continue to impress but…. I do miss some of the more interesting shots from previous trips taken by your lovely daughter.
    I’m sure she would have been so bored by this trip and that she was having a blast where she was.
    I have been on one full length cruise in the Caribbean and an overnight cruise from Seattle, WA to Vancouver, BC when the re-positioned their ships. It made me realize that as nice as it was, cruising really isn’t my cup of tea.
    I’m looking forward to the rest and whatever you have planned for the future.

    1. FYI, our daughter had a great time on her Caribbean cruise and would have been miserable on this trip, for sure! She took a ton of photos, and as a 10 year old, I have to say that she has gotten quite sophisticated and has a good eye! And hold tight…I will definitely be making a post about what we liked and what we didn’t like about the cruise.

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