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So there’s this thing on the continent called “history”. The Americanised west should try it sometime.

Köln, like most long-standing European cities, has an Old Quarter, and furthermore, an Old Quarter that is respected and protected. I mentioned before how the city centre has been overrun and ruined by multinational corporations and western fast-food empires, in some strange spiritual sequel to the rampages of Visigoths and Vandals in the 5th century. Until now I believed that that American Invasion was a big messy thing that came at a heavy cost to the region’s history, but, as I’ve recently discovered, it just means that all the history you could ever need has been neatly parcelled up and tucked into one small district in typical orderly German fashion. Here in Köln’s Old Quarter they’ve got it right. Here in Köln’s Old Quarter there is no great push towards industrialisation, no craze for erecting useless empty skyscrapers, no gnawing addiction to historical bulldozing. Here in Köln’s Old Quarter they understand the value of their past and they embrace it with open arms instead of wrecking balls, and their admirable care for their common cultural history is nowhere more obvious than in the very heart of the riverside Altstadt.

South-east of the Dom, well out of range of the quarantined zones that contain such festering diseases as McDonald’s and Accessorize, lies this charming sprawling district of cobbled sidestreets and crooked buildings, packed with all manner of quirky shops, artistic ideas, excellent eateries and pompous pigeons. A soft scent of fresh baking bubbles through the alleyways, shafts of light peep around corners and through the most interesting of nooks, and there is an overall sense of tranquility and secretive magic that I had always believed was unique to the Harry Potter books. There are also a number of mesmerising churches to be found, including the famous Groß St Martin, a splendid piece of Romanesque work manned by monks. It is open to the public most days, but I must confess the inside is somewhat lacking. Those hoping for grandeur on the scale of the cathedral (more on that in a later blog post) may be sorely disappointed, as the Groß St Martin interior is almost entirely blank stone except for a cheery picture of the crucifixion and a tiny tourist information desk providing plenty of leaflets about how much better the rest of the Altstadt is. However, it is but one of many such buildings (there are 12 churches in total, to be precise) and from what I have heard of the others, there is plenty to keep the luxury-loving church-spotters occupied, even in the homeland of super-cheapskate Martin Luther.

Another highlight of the Altstadt is the small gallery of the artist Jan Künster, who is possibly the most colourful German the world has ever seen, or else is just intimately familiar with all of the best psychedelic drugs. Walking into his workshop is like stepping inside a triangular prism. His paintings burst from their canvases like fireworks, and a great glowing depiction of Köln’s cathedral as a sparkling mass of multicolours is a masterpiece. His favourite themes at the time of writing are clowns and horses (maybe a political statement) and he makes the most of both, so I found myself walking out of the shop with a thick wad of glimmering postcards that I know I will never tire of looking at when I need to lift my spirits. Künster’s artwork is quietly beautiful and I would encourage everyone with an appreciation of creativity to support his craft.

Finally I took the time at the end of the day to dine out in the very heart of the Old City, in a charming little plaza called Ostermannplatz. I have not found a more peaceful, private spot in all of Köln. It is an enclosed courtyard whose centrepiece is an elaborate fountain that bubbles comfortingly as a fireplace might flicker while you sit in nearby armchairs, telling timeless tales and hoping that the moment will never end. That is truly how it feels to sit beneath the canopies of one of Köln’s best restaurants, a fine grill called “Hacienda”, to listen to the birds chirping in the overhanging greenery, to watch the pigeons stroll at ease right between your legs, and to really forget about even the slightest of problems. The food, mainly chargrilled and meat-based, is delicious and cooked with care to perfection. The prices are astonishingly reasonable. Even the toilets are to be found in a spectacularly-preserved tavern cellar which feels as though you could still encounter eye-patched wayfarers brandishing daggers around every corner. And the service is personal and of an exceptional standard, such that you could leave with a smile and a feeling that you have just made a lifelong friend. It was without a doubt the best part of my whole trip so far, and I will most certainly be back.

Auf Wiedersehen,
3. August 2017