Cologne: What a cathedral!

My quads are crying out to me tonight and, I suspect, my calves will be doing likewise when I stumble out of bed tomorrow morning—but it’s all worth it because I can now say I’ve climbed to the top of a tower in one of Europe’s grandest gothic cathedrals.

We awoke this morning still cruising along the Rhine in Germany. The water level looks high to me (but I’m no ship captain, although I am now confident in the difference between bow and stern) with many riverside trees soaking with the bottom portion of their trunks in the water. (Cross your fingers, please, that we’ll be able to stay on the Atla and not have to do a ship switch on the Danube due to high waters…)

Shortly after breakfast (great omelette today, thanks Ryan!), we docked in Cologne and boarded buses for a short ride into the center of this once-Roman outpost. Marcus was our tour guide today (we haven’t had a clinker yet in three Viking guided tours) and we learned about Cologne’s history as well as its culture (think, laid-back and “let’s have some fun”).

But despite that “New Orleans on the Rhine” nature, Cologne is bristling with churches. The most impressive, though not the oldest, is the gothic-styled Cologne Cathedral. In appearance, this one is definitely the bristle-eist of the bunch. The flying buttresses and twin towers are edgy with sharp points pointing skyward. The towers look almost out of proportion to the church beneath but, walking inside, you realize that this cathedral extends much further back than you imagined from a front view.

The cathedral is famous for many reasons (it took 400 years to finish, it was never bombed intentionally during World War II, it houses a reliquary of the Three Wise Men/Magi) but it’s astounding simply because it dominates everything in Cologne.

After our two-hour city tour, Mom and I knew just what we wanted to tackle: climbing the 532 steps leading to the top of the cathedral’s south tower. Okay, that’s a lot of steps. And it takes you to a lofty ___ feet above the plaza below. But what makes this cathedral climb a bit more challenging is that the majority of the ascent is via a narrow spiral staircase from medieval times. Both directions of cathedral climbers (those puffing their way up and the batch delightedly heading back down) use the same narrow staircase. The upward bound folks have it hardest, we found. The stone steps, in use for centuries (do you think the monks tucked their long cassocks up to their waist to make the climb so they wouldn’t trip?) have worn down on the edges, leaving definite dips on each stepping surface. Walking up, visitors cling to the stairway’s inside angle, where the steps are not only smaller but there’s no handrail, just the smooth round center wall to lean into.

Mom and I began the climb and it took only 30 or so steps to realize that stamina wasn’t what I’d be lacking: it would be a bit of courage I’d need to make it up on those tiny pie-shaped steps with no bannister for mental (and physical) support. Mom trekked on just ahead of me; at not even five-feet-tall, each step was “bigger” for her than for the rest of it. Plus, she is, as she has no problem admitting, “no spring chicken.” The cathedral climb was evidently an activity for the younger Cologne visitors; few people looked to be my age (almost 57) and I’m betting Mom’s years put her as the oldest one to attack that stairway in at least the past week.

We trekked on. And on. I never looked down the center spiral and I never looked behind me or took a picture to remember the experience by. I didn’t have time; I had to keep up with Mom.

The stairway took a brief detour to circle around “Fat Peter,” the cathedral’s largest bell. This huge bell, and a few of its bell buddies, keep company in a sky-high nest about 2/3 of the way up the tower. I used the opportunity to take a bit of a break from curving round and round and climbing. I said it was to take a picture of the bells; you can guess the truth…

A more “standard” set of stairs (five flights, maybe more, but these all with bannisters, thank goodness!) lifted us from the final resting perch and up to the top of the tower. Yes, the view is amazing. Yes, the cathedral is even more astounding when you’re looking down on much of it. Yes, there are a fair number of dead pigeons gracing various ledges. Most importantly, yes, I still had a working pair of lungs and a heart that beat in a regular cadence.

We spent some time at the top, taking pictures of the carved stone decorations and statues (some nested into alcoves so high off the ground that they’ll never be seen by most people), taking pictures of the view and taking pictures of each other. Then we started down (Tip: If you wear “graduated/transition” trifocals, remove them and stow them in a pocket before taking a step heading down on that spiral staircase: the depth perception in the dark, narrow staircase is more difficult with that kind of glasses).

Down may have been easier mentally (ah, have I ever appreciated a bannister so much?), but it’s certainly more strenuous on the legs. But that’s okay because we were heading down. At last.

Mom and I reached the bottom and gave each other a hearty “high five” palm slap. Then we went in search of a public restroom where we could wash our hands–clinging to that bannister and the stone walls definitely left us with a “dirty hands” feeling and it was time for a late lunch!

Lunch was at a small, streetside cafe, almost in the shade of the cathedral. We spent much of it looking up at the south tower and congratulating ourselves. While eating pizza and gelato, of course (yes, why not dine at an Italian cafe when visiting a German city?). More exploration of the Cologne Cathedral followed, this time from the ground level where most visitors experience it.  

We departed from the dock at Cologne shortly before 11 tonight; the cathedral, lit up on a hill against the Rhine’s edge, looked other-wordly and a bit aloof. But Mom and  know what lies in the heart of the south tower—a medieval staircase that leads to the clouds.

Tomorrow’s a day of castles—a tour of the unrestored Marksberg castle near Koblenz and an afternoon castle-spotting from the ship’s upper deck as we traverse the Upper Rhine. Can it get more “European” than that???


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One thought on “Cologne: What a cathedral!

  1. Karen Baker

    Oh my goodness…my toes were curling as you described your climb….and your
    mom…wow what can you say…you have a great leader there…and I am sure it was no looking back ha ha. I do hope the dead pigeons …were not from lack of oxygen!
    Can’t wait to check your next adventure. Thank you so much for sharing your trip…I look forward everyday to see what you two have done. Your mom, Max is such a remarkable person..makes proud to be related…to you both!!


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