Friday Our final day on the Rhine. Brilliant sunshine once again. We take the bus to Cologne. We were due to moor
there but because a berth wasn't available our ship was forced to remain at
Bonn. (We had a letter about this before we sailed. It is a tremendous
pity. To have arrived by
river and be berthed in this great city, to be able to walk from the ship to
the Cathedral and round the old town, all this would have been unforgettable.
Köln is Omummy's city, my grandmother. She was born
here in the 1890s (nobody is quite sure exactly when)
and only moved to Düsseldorf when she married my grandfather. I recall that she
spoke proudly of her home town, even though by that time it had been flattened by allied bombing.
(Memorable quip from a fellow
cruiser later on: "Yes, the Cathedral's very
fine, but there's not much else to see or do in Cologne: Bomber Harris saw to
that!") I think she regarded it as a cut above Düsseldorf (Cologne being a
Roman town, a centre of the Holy Roman Empire, the seat of catholic Germany and
all that). She may even have thought of it as "trade" though it was precisely a successful
upper middle class trade family she had married into (Otto Leyser owned a
factory that made leather goods).
The Cathedral is a huge black apparition
which, once seen it, you can never forget. It
dominates the skyline for miles around, these two enormous spires fingering the
sky. Although it suffered in the war, Bomber Harris deliberately spared it, not
out of love for medieval gothic architecture but because it was such a useful
landmark on the river in guiding his air crews to
their destinations. I doubt if the stonework will ever be cleaned up (though
the sculptures are being conserved): the blackness of Cologne Cathedral is part
of what gives it its emblematic quality. I had not realised that it was only completed in the nineteenth century,
after a pause in building operations of a full four hundred years. The medieval
crane remained in position on the unfinished north tower throughout those
centuries, and there was discontent among citizens
when this endearing icon of their cathedral was finally removed when the towers
were being finished.
Crowds swirl about inside, but unlike at Strasbourg you can sit
quietly in the nave to take in the immensity of this building. It
is extraordinary as a masterpiece of soaring gothic. The light streams through the
clerestory windows picking out people sitting in nave and imparting to them a
transcendent beauty (or maybe I mean binging out the beauty they already have
as human beings). Artists have long noticed how human hair acquires a striking
delicate translucency when lit by direct light
against a dark background.
There is so much to notice and admire:
the sculptures on the piers, not only exquisite in their own right, but
positioned at exactly the right height to accentuate the scale; the altars; the
tombs, the glass, the paintings, the shrines, the
stalls in the quire. The shrine to the Magi behind the high altar is a rare
treasure. There is an exceptionally beautiful fifteenth century sculpture of
the Blessed Virgin on one of the piers that you could spend hours contemplating as you recite the Glorious Mysteries and sing
Regina Coeli. Everything here is magnificent, nothing shoddy or second rate. It
ranks with the very finest of the gothic cathedrals of northern France. Indeed,
modelled as it is on Amiens, you could say that
Cologne is an outlier of that great French tradition, as Westminster Abbey is.
Then we visit the treasury. This is one
of the most important cathedral treasuries in Europe, like Sens, and it should
not be missed. It is built into the Roman and
medieval fabric that lies underneath the cathedral, not only its own
foundations but the Wall of the Roman city as well. That already makes it a
remarkable space in its own right, two entire levels beautifully yielded up by
the substrata to create a museum that it would be
hard to equal among cathedrals. In it there are vestments, episcopal insignia,
sacred vessels, shrines, monstrances, stones, sculptures and manuscripts. I
suppose that if you didn't know what all these artefacts were for, you might find it a trifle perplexing, but even so, there is
exquisite beauty everywhere and it would be a dull soul who was not inspired by
We go back into the Cathedral. Stewards
are clearing the nave because a midday prayer service is about to begin. The
announcement tells us that we do not need to leave if
we wish to join the service. I am sensitive about how people are handled when
religion and tourism collide. It is not managed badly here, though it's a pity
that a thousand people all leave just when a service
is about to begin. I wish we didn't have to be among them. But we have a bus to
catch back to the ship. We
walk round the outside of this great building. Rounding the east end we come across the railway station with its beautiful wrought iron train shed and the great Victorian girder bridge that carries the railway across the Rhine. This
exciting proximity of a great station and a great cathedral, the intersection
of the technologies of different eras is hard to parallel anywhere else (though
Newcastle is another example, and I suppose St
Pancras is also an attempt romantically to imagine medievalism in the context
of a railway). I remember that I once changed trains here on my way to Bavaria.
I only had an hour and recall how I wished I could have gone inside the
Cathedral to have a look. Now I have, and it has made
a memorable climax to the cruise.
After lunch I walk along the river to
Bonn's "Museum Mile". The Museum of the History of Federal Germany
where I am first headed is closed. So I go on to the fabulous Museum of Modern Art. Before I even step foot inside the place I
know this is going to be a great experience. It is housed in a building of real
quality and power designed by Axel Schultes and completed in 1992. It's a
beautiful succession of spaces and artfully placed
stairways and corridors that create a real sense of unity in diversity. The
interplay of light and shade is wonderfully managed as the different rooms flow
into one another; and on this sunny day, the effects are especially magical. I
just can't stop photographing this building (which is
allowed without flash).
There are hardly any visitors. Museum
staff in uniform stand to attention as soon as I come into a room, and follow
me round at a discreet distance. There is no eye contact: in this silent, quasi-sacred space, visitors are regarded as contemplatives
who must be left to themselves to experience the museum in our own way. There
is something quaint about their studied but watchful politeness, their wish not
to get in the way while at the same time being aware
of each visitor's every move. Maybe all Museum attendants, like cathedral
vergers, are educated in this art, but I've not seen it done to such perfection
before. One man looks for all the world like Einstein with his hair cut. I long
to photograph him but it would be obtrusive.
So I concentrate on the art instead. The
top floor is avant garde, much of it interesting and enjoyable, but it isn't
where my heart lies. That is on the first floor where there is an impressive
survey of Rhineland expressionism, including a large
body of paintings by August Macke. He was the leading light of Der Blaue Reiter
(the Blue Rider) movement, a friend of Kandinsky, Klee and Marc who lived much
of his life in Bonn. He was killed at the front in 1914 at the tender age of 27. Such a loss - what might he have produced
if he had lived another 50 years?
We enjoy our last supper and start saying farewells. We spend an hour on deck as the sun
sinks. A Victorian brick church on the opposite bank glows fiery in the
Pentecostal light. The river is ultramarine. Upstream
the tall twentieth century buildings belonging to Bonn's era as capital of the
German Bundesrepublik throw a reflected light on to the wine dark Rhine.
Youngsters throng the promenade enjoying a Friday night out. A breeze stirs and
the air is suddenly cool. We are not as young as all these teenagers.
It is time for bed.
Up at dawn and ready to disembark at 7 o'clock. We get to Brussels with over two hours to spare. We check
in, go through security and sit down for a coffee and
a final chat with some of the people we have got to know on the cruise. Soon our train is rushing towards England.The sun continues to shine.