Tuesday, 6 June 2017

A Cruise on the Rhine Part 5

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. And convenient.)

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, when you have once set eyes on 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 it.

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.

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