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Do we need to feel guilty about Germany’s city centres?

I am sure that I am not the only Brit who likes and admires Germany, and feels that this country is, in Simon Winder’s words, ‘Germany’s weird twin’.

Equally, I am sure that I am not the only Brit who feels an element of guilt when visiting a German city, and witnessing its unappealing architecture.

After all, we are partly (along with our Allies) responsible for unleashing aerial bombardments that pounded many urban centres to dust, and sometimes without much in the way of specific justification. Accordingly I was delighted to go to Dresden, some years ago, for the finishing of the Frauenkirche, the last big piece in a painstaking jigsaw of reconstruction. Dresden today is a great place to go for tourists, but the cost of that jigsaw was huge, and the picture it now presents is one that belongs to a previous incarnation of Germany, a Germany of electors and margraves. Pretty, but passé.

Cologne is a different story. It doesn’t photograph well, anyone can see that. Downtown is mainly low-rise blocks from the 1960s and 1970s, lumpish and turgid, of no particular architectural distinction. There’s a bit of the old city down by the riverside, along the Buttermarkt, with overhangs and cobbles, which gives an impression of what might have been. And the traditional brauhaus interiors still offer a glimpse of echt kölnisch life.

But I like Cologne as it is, lumpish though it may be; it is comfortable in its own skin. It has an unconventionality, a liveliness, an open-mindedness, that some other cities don’t. It is a good example of how you shouldn’t judge a city by its appearances. Host to this year’s world Gay Games, to chess-boxing (yes, it exists, Google it), to a nightly open-air community get-together in Brussels Square in the Belgian Quarter, and to an outrageous annual Carnival, it has got real personality that is undiminished by its lack of beauty. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It is busy, cheerful, creative, doesn’t empty when the shops shut, and it doesn’t mind extending its welcome to all and sundry.

It’s also one of the few cities in Germany where I don’t feel guilty when crossing the road (I don’t like the word jaywalking, it’s too American, can’t we come up with a British version?). Although here there’s a real danger of being mown down by a cyclist. As my most recent city guide, a Blackadder-loving ukulele-playing Colonial (can I call him that? I rather like it) said: “what’s the point of cycling if you have to stop for red lights?”

Anyway, be prepared for the unexpected when you’re next in this gateway city. Sitting in Peters Brauhaus the other day, enjoying my kölsch (served by a smiling Egyptian from Cairo) and surveying the restaurant menu, my attention was caught by my neighbour, an elderly Colonial who was enjoying a long lunch of pig’s trotters with his fragrant wife. “Don’t eat the half-chicken.” He warned. I immediately thought of salmonella, but he put me right. “It is only a cheese roll.”

No, we don’t need to feel guilty about Germany’s city centres. And I think the tourismus people got it just right with their slogan, ‘Cologne is a feeling.’ A good one, too.

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