Stepping off my morning train from Bonn and exiting the central train station of Cologne, I can’t help but stop and stare – and I’m not the only one. My entire field of vision is consumed by a huge stone edifice, spires and buttresses soaring into the sky. Cologne’s cathedral is imposing, to say the least. Germany’s most visited attraction hosts more than 20,000 people per day, and it is easy to see why.
Let’s get some basic facts out of the way. The Cologne Cathedral is the tallest twin-spired church in the world (and the third tallest of any style), rising to 516 feet. In fact, when it was fully completed in 1880 (more on this in a bit), it was the tallest building in the world – until the completion of the Washington Monument four years later. The huge towers hosting the spires give the cathedral the largest facade by area of any church in the world. The nave of the Cologne Cathedral is 142 feet tall, good for only eleventh in the world. The interior area sits twentieth in the world. Long story short, the building is impressive, and visitors feel small both outside and inside of it.
There has been a church on this spot since as far back as the seventh century, but after the so-called Old Cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1248, the new foundations stone was laid almost immediately, on August 15 of that year. Construction would continue in phases. In 1322, the eastern arm was finished, and was sealed off from the rest of the construction so it could be consecrated and used. In 1560, construction stopped, leaving the belfry tower topped with a huge crane, where it would remain for a couple hundred years. In 1842, construction resumed according to the original medieval plan, and was finally completed with its spires in 1880, a mere 632 years after being started.
To take in the outside, one can walk around the perimeter, but I opt to sit with a cappuccino – you can also have a traditional small beer from Cologne called a Kolsch – and admire both the building and its adoring fans. The exterior has been blackened from centuries of being exposed to the elements and air pollution, but current restoration work is underway. For me, the scaffolding and cranes do nothing to ruin the magnificence.
Entrance is free, and absolutely worthwhile. As mentioned, the central nave is more than 140 feet tall, with the outer ceiling archways sitting half that, by my estimation. Stained glass windows rise nearly the entire height; some are original, while others are replacements for windows destroyed during World War Two. (While it was damaged, the Cologne Cathedral survived the war, partially due to its not being directly targeted as its spires made for an easy landmark for allied bombers to navigate by. However, while it wasn’t targeted, it was hit by an estimated fourteen bombs.)
Upon entrance, I am taken by the sheer size of the place. Standing at the back of the central nave, I feel very small. I take some photos, but they can’t do justice to the scale, so I just tilt my head back in awe.
Nearly every facade – inside and out – has something interesting to look at. Statues of Old Testament heroes adorn the main doorway. Some interior passages are covered by wooden paneling. Golden colored paint (or mosaic; it is hard to tell from so far below) covers some of the higher points above the altar.
Traffic is directed around the outer pathways of the cathedral, and then circling the central altar. While many look up – and rightfully so – at the stained glass, I look down to the exquisite mosaic floor. It seems a shame to walk on it, but I have to.
The central altar holds the most sacred treasure of the Cologne Cathedral: the Shrine of the Three Kings. The largest reliquary in the Western World, it is three sarcophagi stacked together, and gilt in gold, said to contain the remains of the three wise men of New Testament fame. It was completed in 1225, and its existence is perhaps the reason for the construction of such a spectacular cathedral in the first place.
I spend nearly an hour wandering up and down. I visit the crypt (not all that exciting) and peek into every side chapel I can. I look up and down, trying to capture each detail to film or to memory, but am overwhelmed and just take to being another gawking tourist. I’m ok with that in this case.
Even as I walk the streets of Cologne afterward, the towers of the mighty Cologne Cathedral are visible from all over, a beacon or guidepost, both beckoning and offering a sense of direction. Finally, I return back to the train station. One final photo, and it is time for my return to Bonn.
I have visited a lot of churches on my travels, and the Cologne Cathedral is one of the most impressive. A stunning exterior towering taller than just about any other, an interior that is both spacious and beautiful, and a relic said to be one of the most important in the Christian world – the Cologne Cathedral has it all.
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