It was only meant to be an overnight stop; a brief break in my journey between the Eurostar in Brussels and travelling on to Berlin, 350 miles further east. It is amazing just how much it is possible to cram into a few short hours in a city, though.
Cologne. You can’t visit Cologne and not see the cathedral. Well, can you? Quite literally, there it is, bang, right outside as soon as I stepped off the train.
I could quote all the stats––tallest twin-spired church in the world; the largest façade of any church in the world––but the simple fact is that it dominates the city.
As I have written before, I am someone who can rarely resist the lure of a tall tower and, despite my time being limited, I knew that I wouldn’t rest until I had experienced the view from the summit.
The entrance to the tower of Cologne Cathedral––it is the southern one, which is accessible––is outside the main cathedral, around the side of the building, and down some steps to a modern vestibule.
Ignoring the small exhibition and gift shop, and conscious that my seconds in the city were rapidly slipping away, I paid my €6 entrance fee, and set off up the tower like a ferret up a Yorkshireman’s trouser leg. In my haste, I was only vaguely conscious of two signs, which I was invited to read before I set off. One said: Kein Aufzug, Kein Scherz; No Lift, No Joke. Against the instruction, I did find this notice funny. The other sign stated precisely how many steps had to be climbed in order to reach the tower-top. I barely paused to take in the words of this sign; only allowing the information it conveyed to enter my conscious mind when I was already several spirals into my ascent and, by then, I couldn’t recall what the sign had actually said. 133 steps, was it? I wasn’t sure. It didn’t seem like very many. I felt as though I must be almost halfway there already. I was pretty sure I had climbed more than that in the Campanile in Florence or when going up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’d be up and down in a jiffy, with plenty of time to spare before my onward journey.
But the stone spiral staircase went on and on. I felt sure I must have already climbed more than 133 steps. Finally, an end of sorts came into sight. It was heralded by a deafening peal of bells, and I found myself emerging onto an internal, wooden bell-platform, where a solitary official sat in a small booth. I hoped for the sake of this Quasimodo security guard’s hearing that it was sound-proofed.
But that was not the top of the tower. Nowhere near it. The stone spiral staircase continued. I lost count of the number of steps. I came to a second platform. This one was exposed to the elements––on this particular day a fine rain, which made the metal platform quite slippery. Flights of metal stairs ascended onwards and, where they went, I followed. Finally, I came to a narrow, spiral metal staircase. Not a minute too soon. The muscles of my legs were beginning to demand an explanation. They had received no adequate forewarning of the exertion, which would be expected of them. Surely the summit was now in sight?
And there it was. An external stone walkway traversing the circumference of the southern tower at a height of about 97 metres above ground level. Through the intricate Gothic tracery, the views across Cologne and down to the Rhine below were wonderful, and this despite the mist, which was trying its best to envelope the scene.
Here, too, was another security guard, also isolated in his own private booth. So isolated that I was unable to ask him all the questions which immediately sprung to my mind: does he like heights; does he go back down to ground level for his lunchbreak; is there not somewhere a secret, private lift?
From this lofty proximity, it was apparent that some of the ornamental masonry of the tower has been broken and lost, and some of the twiddly bits––is that the proper architectural term?––had fallen in the past. In some places, netting had been secured to prevent any further collapses. Similarly, a perilous-looking iron ladder, which leads up to the very peak of the tower, another 60 metres higher, was blocked off to even the most intrepid public.
My legs were already feeling weak from the ascent, and I was only too conscious of an equivalent descent still to make. It was a rather more slow-moving, wobbly and dizzy person who finally stopped to properly read the notice at the bottom of the tower some little time later.
533 steps. Not 133.
Would I have started out, if I had known this beforehand?
Of course I would. Now, just point me in the direction of Ulm Cathedral, and the tallest single church spire in Europe.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny does the “I’ve just climbed Cologne Cathedral” celebration.