Sweet smell of history

2011-04-30 08:38

The German city of Cologne is home to one of Europe’s most impressive and intricate gothic cathedrals. Its impossibly tall spires draw 20 000 visitors a year from around the globe, but it was a different place of worship I found on the outskirts of the cobbled streets while on the tourist trail. I thought I’d died and gone to chocolate heaven.

Though originally known for its invention of eau de toilette (literally “toilet water”), Cologne is now also home to the Lindt Chocolate Museum. This culinary paradise sits on the banks of the Rhine River, aligned with the beautiful city, which forms two half-moons on either side of the wide, green waters.

The city, a short distance from West Germany’s former capital, Bonn, is the perfect blend of old and new, and it’s an experience for all the senses. The city’s up-market shopping complex is awash with the scent of eau de Cologne. Many perfume companies have jumped on the bandwagon and set up branded houses around town to flog their smellies.

As expected, my sense of smell was well satisfied, but the tongue, it turned out, was in for more of a treat. The Lindt Museum is a modern showpiece, an eclectic shrine to an accepted and age-old vice, a walk through history of cocoa production that appeals to young and old. The interactive nature of the exhibit commands the attention of all the senses, but here taste is king.

Inside, beyond the shelves of memorabilia and functioning machinery, a chocolate fountain the size of a large Christmas tree beckons flocks of eager gourmands (and greedy children) to its font. I found myself caught in a wave of school-goers, urging ladies in crisp, white coats to part with wafers dipped in swirls of glorious liquid chocolate.

One part, a reconstructed tropical jungle, greeted a particularly excited group of schoolchildren who had travelled from across Germany. Intermittent quizzes held their interest and probed their intellect before they burst into the mock “chocolate factory”, where cogs wound and conveyor belts delivered moulded eggs and glistening slabs of the sweet delight.

But pride of place in the northern reach of this modern chocolate temple belongs to the chocolate fountain, which can be seen from the river bank through huge glass windows.

On arrival and on completion of the circular tour, the massive shop, jammed full of every shape and flavour, draws the crowds in. With a smorgasbord of sample chocs to ornately packaged gift boxes, it is impossible not to part with your tourist rands.

Having satisfied my greedy inner child, the grown-up in me insisted on visiting the Germano-Romanesque museum to walk off the unexpected calories.

Cologne played a pivotal role in international relations between Anglo-Saxon and Roman territories, and the exhibits offer a slice of this long-gone life.

It also gives visitors a chance to experience pre-World War 2 Cologne. The city was infamously bombed to smithereens during the war, though miraculously the cathedral was untouched – a good thing as it is undoubtedly the cultural highlight of a visit to this city.

The ornate spires and architraves mean that maintenance of the building is an ongoing task. It was started in the 13th century and was only completed 600-odd years later.

But while the outside might be scarred by necessary scaffolding, visitors can marvel at intricate stained windows and tombs from ages gone by inside.

After giving a donation at the door, I made my way to the original treasure of the Magi, allegedly brought to the
church in the 12th century after being liberated from Milan, encased in glass at the furthermost end. It is also one of the relics that made Cologne a significant place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.

This city of Roman origin offers, as expected in Germany, a good mix of traditional brew houses as well as fine dining along the quaint cobbled streets.

A day out in Cologne – having filled the senses – is best concluded with another nod to taste with a traditional Eisbein at a restaurant along the river and a few Köln Kölsch at a city brewery. This signature beer is served very cold, in small glasses, from a traditional wooden tray that resembles a church communion platter. Fitting perhaps in a city that offers a religious experience for all the senses in unexpected ways.

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