A leading economic, cultural and artistic center throughout history, Cologne is a city where a carnival atmosphere reigns all year round.

I first traveled to Cologne on a ship from Amsterdam. It was February, carnival time, and the silhouette of the cathedral that dominates the city’s skyline greeted us from kilometers away. I was impressed by the endless procession of costumed revelers despite the cold weather and decided right there and then that happiness stems more from a soaring of the spirit than from any external factors. Cologne is one of those cities that embraces visitors and draws them in, and it’s the natives themselves that play the main role in this.

Arising in the Swiss Alps and flowing northward, the Rhine has been a cradle of civilization for millennia, shaping the commercial life of Europe. The Romans founded several cities known collectively as Colonia Agrippina along the river’s 1320 km-long banks in 50 A.D. Cologne became a center of trade in various areas, among them glass making. Bringing Christianity with them, the Romans ensured that Cologne became one of the leading centers of Catholicism. The city, which came into even more prominence during the Middle Ages and was designated the capital of the Rhine region during the Prussian period, was largely destroyed in World War II. The cathedral, however, owing both to its historic importance and to its usefulness as a landmark, was untouched in the bombardment.

One of Germany’s leading Rhineland cities today economically, culturally and artistically and host to many international fairs, Cologne has forfeited none of its historic importance. Last year alone some 2.3 million tourists visited this city of one million people where numerous fairs and other events, like the 2006 FIFA World Cup, are held. This year, too, on the 10th anniversary of Cologne and Istanbul becoming sister cities, cultural activities are planned in the two cities from 26 May to 1 June, when the people of both will have a chance to get better acquainted through a series of exhibitions, concerts, films and traditional entertainments.

Like Istanbul, Cologne is one of those cities where life moves in the left lane. So much so that it has even upped the seasons from four to five. And the fifth and by far most important of them is the Cologne Carnival, which means goodbye to meat during the Lenten fasting period that precedes Easter. Enjoyed by a large number of tourists as well, carnival time transforms the entire city into one big festival when the revelry persists into the wee hours. Over a million people follow the processions that characterize the carnival, which has its roots in the ancient Saturnalia and Dionysian festivals. Prince and peasant costumes figure prominently in the processions of ‘Karnaval’, which assumed its present character over the last 180 years. Some 160 organizations are responsible for these ‘fifth season’ activities. Besides the carnival, the festival to be held on Lake Fühling this summer and the ‘Long Nights’ festivities to follow in autumn are expected to leave a mark on 2007. City of dynamism, Cologne has a new activity lined in up the wake of each newly ending one.

The Cologne Cathedral, which celebrated its 750th anniversary in 1998, is Germany’s most frequently visited historic monument. Its construction, which began in 1248, took more than 600 years and was only completed in the 1880s. Even the train station was built right next to the cathedral so that everyone arriving in the city would be sure to see it. Listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, it is toured by some six million visitors annually. One of the world’s tallest Gothic cathedrals with its 157-meter Saint Peter and Virgin Mary spires, it also boasts a large number of valuable works of art on the interior. Most of its 1350 square meters of stained glass windows illustrate stories from the Bible. Meanwhile the section where the bones of three kings are interred, brought to the city in 1164 by the Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, is one of the cathedral’s most often visited spots. And if you don’t mind climbing 509 steps, there is a splendid view to be had from the spire on the south.
Residents of Cologne, where the first university was opened in 1388, call their city ‘Holy Cologne’ for its twelve Romanesque-style churches, Roman city walls, Municipal Building and other historic structures and works of art. And they take good care of it too. Among the Romanesque churches, most of which were built over the graves of Christian martyrs or bishops, the most beautiful are St. Andreas, St, Apostlen, Gross St. Martin, St. Pantaleon and St. Kunibert. Almost all these churches, which had a major influence on Romanesque architecture in Europe, were destroyed in the Second World War but have now been restored to their former splendor.

Apart from the city’s Römisch-Germanisch Museum with its Dionysus mosaic, the city also boasts the Ludwig Museum with its modern art collection and the Wallraf-Richartz Museum of mainly works of the Impressionists. The museums of the Arts of the Far East and of the Applied Arts also delight art lovers with their exhibitions. The museum housing the private collections of the Ludwig family houses not only products of German Expressionism, Surrealism and the American Pop artists, but works by Picasso as well. The Wallraf-Richartz Museum, which takes its name from Ferdinand Franz Wallraf, who donated his art collection to the city in 1824, and Johann Heinrich Richartz, who commissioned the construction of the building, is noteworthy for its paintings by Masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Peter Paul Rubens, Simone Martini and Edvard Munch. Cologne boasts a total of 36 museums and over a hundred galleries. Meanwhile the Cologne Opera, the theaters and the concerts of the Cologne Philharmonic are just a few of the city’s many cultural offerings. Young people can enjoy concerts by world-famous artists at the 20,000-capacity Kölnarena while rock freaks can relax to ‘We Will Rock You’, which has been running for two years at the Musical Dome.

The best way to discover Cologne is to lose yourself in the streets of the historic district, discover the surprise courtyards and little squares, and then catch your breath in one of the tiny cafes. Or mingle with the crowds along the avenues lined with large department stores like the Hohe Strasse, selected last year as Germany’s ‘Best Shopping Street’, or the Schildergasse. Other alternatives include strolling on the banks of the Rhine or visiting the Zoo.

Eau de Cologne is one of the first things that comes to mind at the mention of this city. Not only is the word ‘cologne’ ubiquitous on perfume bottles today, this refreshing liquid has also become a sine qua non of everyday life.

Cologne is one of Europe’s leading and most beautiful cities. And the centuries-old Roman saying, “If you haven’t seen Cologne, you haven’t see Germany”, remains valid even today. Heed the Romans’ advice. You won’t regret it.