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Cologne: beer, culture and convenience

Neil Sowerby whiffs a perfect weekend away – a mere hour and 20 minute flight away from the North West

Written by . Published on February 15th 2010.

Cologne: beer, culture and convenience

THE man in the wig and Baroque garb is regaling us with nose-wrinkling tales of whale vomit – peculiar stuff in a perfumery.

Cologne’s innate quirkiness even shows in the Catheral. Somewhere among the gargoyles high on its roofs irreverent stonemasons constructed a likeness of Pierre Litbarski, the Cologne winger and 1990 German World Cup winner.

At the nearby Romano-Germanic Museum, a school party is being lectured on what Dionysos, centrepiece of their great mosaic, got up to. One of their number is sporting a stick-on moustache (he has to keep nudging it back under his nose). Other kids around town have painted-on beards and funny hats.

Hotel Ernst exterior

In a tavern full of middle aged troughers, all spangly costumes and rouged cheeks, I order a Halver Hahn – which in German has to mean half a chicken – and get served Dutch cheese in a rye roll... with a beer in what appears to be a large test tube.

Cologne, is a very odd place. But for a weekend away a very gemutlich one, as the locals might say.

The amazing twin-spired Cathedral apart, there’s nowhere better to start than at the wellspring of its most famous export.

Eau de Cologne has had many copyists, and over the years the originating family Farina have hired a total of 59 detectives to see them off. ‘Nose Wars’ still live on. The presence of high profile rival 4711 still rankles. Suffice it to say the Farina version smelled exquisite.

Food in Taku restaurant

The descendants of the fragrance’s creator zealously guard its reputation at the Farina Haus Museum on Obenmarspforten.

The exact recipe may be their secret to keep, but in replica 18th century surroundings an actor playing Giovanni Maria Farina talked us through some of the ingredients.

True ambergris, found in whale’s intestines is out of the equation nowadays, but some Irish beachcombers recently had a windfall out of washed-up whale spew. They cleaned up, apparently.

Early in the 18th century Italian immigrant Farina, a man blessed with a perfumier’s equivalent of perfect pitch, created the benchmark eau de cologne fragrance in honour of his adopted city.

In a letter he described it as “reminiscent of a spring morning in Italy after the rain; of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bergamot, cedrat and the blooms and herbs of my home”.

You needed gallons of it to ward off the communal stench at a time when nobody washed and sewage systems were rudimentary.

Incidentally, visitors to the underground remains of the Roman HQ, the Praetorium, can still venture along one of Cologne’s extant imperial drains, destination the Rhine. Claustrophobes need not apply.

Cologne (Koln in German from the Latin Colonia) is justifiably proud of its Roman past. The original settlement in AD 15, a key border outpost, was named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, CCCA for short. It was the birthplace of Agrippina, the sister of Caligula, mother of Nero and a poisonous piece of work, literally, about Rome, who was eventually murdered by her own son.

It’s hard to reconcile the liberal Cologne of today, with its ebullient Carnival and liberal embracement of its gay community (dubbed the San Francisco of Europe, it hosts the Gay Games this year) with such vicious ghosts, though the satyrs, ecstatic women and fertility demons of the Dionysos Mosaic more than hint at a libertine past.This former floor of a Roman villa circe 225AD is made up of more than one and a half million stone fragments and is well worth seeing in the museum built around it.

It was discovered during excavations of an air-raid shelter in 1941. Wartime bombing raids, which flattened 90 per cent of the old town, similarly unearthed the Praetorium, but even today routine building work is constantly revealing archaeological treasures.

Dionysos, of course, liked a drink and so do Cologners. The local beer Kolsch shares its name with the city’s French-influenced, impenetrable dialect – and boasts an appellation status the equivalent of Champagne’s. This is to prevent forgeries of this golden top-fermented beer unique to the city (brewed like an ale but lagered – or lengthily stored in a cool place – like a Pils).

My serious tour of as many of the 20-odd Brauhauser as I could muster (no, I didn’t quite make double figures) revealed only minute differences in styles of this very delicate tipple.

It is served in 20cl large test tube-like glasses called Stange by blue aproned career waiters called Kobes (short for Jakob. Just as every Glaswegian is called Jimmy).

Dionysos mosaic in Cologne Roman museum

If all this sounds a bit reverential, it’s not. Let me suggest four bars that epitomise this freewheeling beer culture. Here each time your glass is empty, the Kobe re-fills it until you signal otherwise, which I find mightily civilised, and among some hearty fare my favourite is the beatifically monickered Himmel und Ad (Heaven and Earth), a melange of potato and apple purees and Flonz black pudding. Prost!

Fruh in the Stollwerckpsassage is probably the ultimate shrine, a maze of characterful rooms, but the beer is hoppier at the old town branch of the Paffgen brewery and the Brauhaus Zur Malzmuhle is a more in-your-face proletarian beer, broad beans and bacon kind of experience. Finally, the city’s newest Brauhaus, dating back to 1994, Peters on Mulhlengasse, is a brilliant, loving take on the Kolsch tradition.

This being the Rhineland (though the nearest vineyards are 50 miles away), there is also wine to be worshipped. Thanks to what I call the Liebfraumilch legacy, the image of German wine has suffered in Britain, but a new winemaking approach has it on a roll, especially in dry food-friendly styes.

Hence the fabulous Riesling Lounge, tucked away in our Cologne base, the Excelsior Hotel Ernst, where guests and punters can sample a liquid compendium of Germany’s wine regions. Appropriately enough it’s on Trankgasse.

The Ernst, family-owned since 1863, has won a raft of awards including German Hotel of the Year 2010 and hosted heads of state and rock stars alike. On the surface it’s quite formal but never severe. If you are after funky, this isn’t for you, but if you value immaculate service and fine in-house food, it’s highly recommended. Its neon-cool pan-Asian eaterie, Taku, is the country’s Foreign Restaurant of the Year, while the more traditional Hanse Stube serves roast veal to die for in glamorous surroundings every Thursday.

What gives the Excelsior Hotel Ernst its ultimate appeal, though, is its position opposite Cologne Cathedral.

This welcoming city has enough attractions to pack a weekend between slurps of Kolsch. We took in the contrasting Chocolate and Mustard Museums in the new work-in-progress riverside quarter and modern art in the Ludwig Museum. But if you have to see just one thing, it is the awesome Cathedral, of course. The site has hosted a church since the 4th century and by 870 was a Cathedral. Pilgrimage status arrived in July 1164 when the sack of Milan presented it with the bones of the Magi.

Within a century fire destroyed it and thus began construction of the building you see today.

Only it took until 1880 – after a gap of 300 years from 1560 and the eventual patronage of William IV of Prussia. So familiar are we with the twin spires, it’s hard to believe one of them remained half-finished for so long and then the bulk of the building survived the War.

Renovation work, as in all such monumental creations, is endless. Cologne’s innate quirkiness even shows here. Somewhere among the gargoyles high on its roofs irreverent stonemasons constructed a likeness of Pierre Litbarski, the Cologne winger and 1990 German World Cup winner.

Aerial shot from Cologne Cathedral belfry

I looked in vain for Pierre after clambering the 532 spiralling steps to the top of the belfry, once the world’s tallest edifice. Sleet peppered the vertiginous viewing deck as far below the Rhine’s great grey surge put all man’s handiwork in perspective.

The Cathedral’s interior is an austere riot of soaring arches and stained glass –the ultimate Gothic wet dream. One of Europe’s essential architectural must-sees. Reason alone to visit Cologne, if there wasn’t so much more.

Neil Sowerby flew to Cologne with Germanwings, which has launched a new service from Manchester, offering five flights per week, from £13.99 each way. Visit www.germanwings.com or ring 0906 2941918.

Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Domplatz/Trankgasse 1-5, Cologne (+49 221 270 1, www.excelsior-hotel-ernst.de). Doubles from 270€. Free mini-bar and use of sauna and gym are included but not breakfast.

Cologne’s tourist area is surprisingly compact, but the Koln Welcome Card, from 9€ is a handy purchase from the Tourist Office, offering 24 hours’ worth of free transport and attraction/entertainment/shopping discounts.

Essential reading, widely available in English translation for 5€, is Franz Mathar’s Cologne Brauhaus Trail, a guide both to Kolsch and the old town’s history. Entry to the Cathedral is free, the belfry climb costs 2.5€.

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CASFebruary 16th 2010.

Cologne is brilliant, been there a few times. Always best in winter. The potato soup at Peters is quite possibly worth the flight alone. The locals are a very jovial and friendly bunch, we ended up in a kolsch fuelled beer mat flipping contest. My husband won and so more free kolsch followed. Though I've stayed at the Excelsior and it's nice, you'd be much better using the same money to book a suite at the Hilton around the corner. The Excelsior is not one of the best grand old dames of Europe and the free minibar gimmick is poor in reality. This is a much better hotel and because it's more business focused, you can get great weekend rates.

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