Cologne: Introduction

  • © Rottleberode,

    © Rottleberode,


As you arrive by train, the Hohenzollern Bridge gives you the feeling that the train is travelling straight to the Dom, Cologne’s famous cathedral. Through the compartment window you will see the Rhine with its fleet of white excursion steamboats, the bridges, the narrow houses of the Altstadt and the mighty Romanesque Groß (Great) St Martin church.

Media is big business: the creative sector is booming

Cologne has always wanted to be a major metropolis and with a steady influx of residents, it recently reached the prized 1 million residents mark in 2010. The city‘s growth can be ascribed to the fact that many information technology companies use Cologne as their headquarters. In 2008 Microsoft moved their North Rhine-Westphalia branch from Neuss to the Rheinau harbour in Cologne – a very important move. The local chamber of commerce counted 11,000 IT companies with approximately 100,000 employees in 2010 in the Cologne area. This ‘network on the Rhine’ industry shows great growth and the same applies to their colleagues in the creative industry with their designer offices and media companies in the Ehrenfeld district. WDR and RTL are the biggest broadcasting stations and the biggest employers in the city. Ten television and radio broadcasters are based in Cologne. About 15,000 people work in about 800 media companies.

This is exactly what economists predicted years ago: a positive influence on the demographic development is the settlement of young West Germans under the age of 30, who work on the development of mobile phone applications or as editors at private broadcasters and online services. The employees in these branches have created this economic revival because they enjoy spending their money and going out. They have shaped the party atmosphere of this modern cosmopolitan city with a club culture and bar scene. Most of the bars can compete with the best clubs or bars in Berlin. They are customers who are also eco-conscious and who like to be seen in health clubs, sports shops and health food supermarkets.

The downside of all of this is that Cologne’s housing market does not cater for families with children and in the city centre and in its attractive suburbs, the rent is the third highest in Germany after Munich and Düsseldorf. In a reader survey by Focus Online about the quality of life in German cities, Cologne ranked somewhere in the middle due to its high rentals and traffic congestion. Using Cologne’s motorways is definitely not for the faint hearted!

Despite this, Cologne is still a very attractive and popular city with more than 40 international fairs held annually in Köln-Deutz. With its 16 colleges and five research centres, the metropolis is a centre for education, research and science. This research Mecca is very important to the key technologies of the 21st century: multimedia, communication and software technology, medicine, biotechnology, solar and environmental research. The University of Cologne has 62,000 students, making it the second largest university after Munich.

Only one thing to do during carnival: join the party!

The carnival has its own economic sector which, amongst others, employs milliners, musicians, tailors and waiters. About 100 carnival associations organise around 500 balls and assemblies between New Year and Ash Wednesday. During the two days between Weiberfastnacht (Fat Thursday) and Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) you have two options: stay out of the city, or join the party! You just have to know the ins and outs and not fall victim to the typical tourist traps. The constant drone of oompah bands and the mass party atmosphere may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The commercial carnival is very removed from the original traditions of Cologne. In the smaller suburbs and communities though, you can still experience a wonderful and unspoiled traditional carnival.

Only a third of the inhabitants were born in Cologne and its Mediterranean live-and-let- live atmosphere has a strong influence on its new residents. In the pubs and beer gardens you will find that Rhinelanders are uncomplicated and friendly and that names and social status do not make an impression in this city where celebrities and the famous are regarded as ‘people like you and me’. Even the relationship between the residents and the authorities is somewhat relaxed and informal and generally speaking their preference is for down-to-earth people. And when it comes to being philosophical, they have a saying, ‘Et kütt wie et kütt’ which translates to ‘what will be, will be’. Calm and composed, they face life’s adversities.

That is also how its original inhabitants, the Ubii lived, according to their motto ‘Be kind to one another’. The Ubii settled on the left banks of the Rhine within Roman governed territory in 38 BC. As pragmatists they preferred trade with the Romans over warring with them. This approach prevailed through the ages and no matter who ruled the city during the course of the following 2000 years its citizens knew that spiritual authorities protected their interests. All this behind the scenes wheeling, dealing and scheming created what is known as the Kölsche Klüngel or Cologne clique. To outsiders this clique appears to be impenetrable.

During his time as mayor of Cologne (1917–1933 and 1945), Konrad Adenauer (who later became chancellor of Germany) used the modern form of an expression which translates as ’we know each other, we help each other’ a kind of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. In their book Cliquen, Klüngel und Karrieren (Cliques, Factions and Careers), Ute and Erwin K. Scheuch clearly described this entanglement of politics, power, economy and the way in which sport and carnival associations operate. Today, 20 years after it was published, it is still viewed as one of the greatest works of sociology and nothing about this system of mutual assistance and favours has changed.

Cultural diversity and the Cologne clique

In March 2009, the historical archives in Severinstraße collapsed, killing two people. Building irregularities were further highlighted when, barely a year after the collapse, a public prosecutor claimed that the tender protocol for the building of the underground railway may have been manipulated, and that stabilising iron parts had not been installed but were instead sold off to scrap yards. This gave rise to an article in the neighbouring Düsseldorf newspaper Rheinische Post which reported that, ‘Critics of the Cologne clique now have one more thing to gleefully rub their hands about’. When the European Court of Justice found that EU Procurement laws had been violated with the construction of the new Cologne exhibition halls, the clique of local Cologne councilmen at the town hall felt no sense of wrongdoing because the powers ‘in Berlin’ had allowed them to waive the tender process.

Cologne’s beautiful Romanesque churches are testimony to its past as ‘Holy Cologne’, but the self-assured, free-thinking citizens also understood that they had to connect their religion with trade interests in order to prosper. In 1288 the Archbishop, who was also the elector, was banned from the city and Cologne became an imperial free city. Later on its citizens seem to have lost their revolutionary spirit as evidenced in a picture hanging in the Stadtmuseum which depicts a scene from the revolution of 1848. The local revolutionaries had chosen to set up their barricades next to a wine bar and legend has it that hours later, a Prussian constable entered the bar and announced to the drinkers, ‘You can break down the barricades now, the revolution is over!’

It was during this time that the characters Tünnes and Schäl started to appear in the Hänneschen Puppet Theatre shows. They are entrenched in the culture and humour of the city and represent the two sides of the Kölsch character. Tünnes is the unsophisticated, rural type whereas Schäl is the refined city citizen. Cologne has always been a city of merchants and craftsmen with lots of narrow streets and winding alleys. Today it is a multi-cultural city with residents who have roots in 184 different nations. This cultural diversity is clearly visible in the gastronomy and the retail trade – in Cologne one can buy African palm oil and Arabian henna powder, Persian saffron and Japanese beer. In Buchheim you will find a Buddhist temple and in Ehrenfeld a very large mosque that is in the final stages of completion. This tolerant co-existence is explained by Cologne’s motto, Jede Jeck es anders which roughly translates as ‘everyone is different and no one is perfect’. Unfortunately there are exceptions. When the German writer Günter Wallraff visited a Kölsch bar disguised as an African, he had a very hostile reception.

The right side no longer the wrong side

Cologne is an ancient city with a history that goes back almost 2000 years when the settlement on the left Rhine bank became the foundation for first a Roman and then a medieval city. Cologne’s excavations have recently been declared an Archaeological Zone and include, among others, the remains of a medieval Jewish ritual bath underneath the town hall and the remains of a Roman sewer system. The right Rhine bank has always been seen as the Schäl Sick (cross-eyed side) because the horses that used to pull the cargo barges upstream along the river, had to wear blinkers which eventually made them go cross-eyed. According to the Romans, the Barbarians lived on the ‘cross-eyed’ side, and even as recently as the last century those from the right bank of the Rhine were judged in an unflattering light. ‘Bolshevism started in Köln- Deutz,’ said mayor Konrad Adenauer.

However, in recent times, the right bank Rhine suburbs of Deutz and Kalk are viewed in a more positive light. This is mainly due to new developments like the multi-purpose Lanxess Arena, the town hall, the new police headquarters and the train station Köln- Deutz. Now the only reminder of earlier times is the name of the bar in the Hyatt Regency: the Schäl-Sick. By the way, a coffee on the terrace of the hotel gives you a picture-perfect view of the Rhine. The impressive skyline with the cathedral, the Museum Ludwig, the Rheingarten and the historic town houses are typical of Cologne.

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