By Rachel Dickinson
On a recent trip to Germany, I decided to pair Women’s World Cup soccer with UNESCO World Heritage sites. Not a natural pairing, yet one that became oddly complimentary as the World Cup matches were played in cities where either a UNESCO site can be found or at least encountered en route.
I flew to Dusseldorf and hopped on a train for Cologne. In a deliriously giddy state from lack of sleep, I pressed my face to the train window anxiously waiting to catch a glimpse of the lacy, Gothic twin spires of Cologne Cathedral through a tangle of electrical wires. Finally, there it was, rising above the steelwork of the railroad bridge as we crossed the Rhine.
This amazing building stands more than a football pitch and a half tall and was built over the course of 600 years. Originally started in 1248 as a great cathedral to house the relics of the Three Magi, construction continued in fits and starts over the next five centuries. The original medieval plans for the cathedral’s façade were found in two pieces: one in an attic, the other in a bookseller’s stall in France in the early 19th century. This spurred the Prussian government and the city of Cologne to get busy and finish the church as intended by the original specs. It was finished in 1880 and cost a cool billion in today’s dollars.
The result is an astonishing façade–the largest church façade in the world–and a masterful example of Gothic style with its spires, arches, gargoyles, and windows. About 20,000 visitors flock to see the building and the relics each day. Thankfully, it’s a sizable building that can absorb quite a few people and still not feel crowded.
Cologne Cathedral employs a full-time architect who oversees restoration work and changes to the building, which, apparently are never-ending. During my visit, she happened to be leading a tour for a group of VIPs. The group entered a tiny side chapel and the resident architect retrieved a big skeleton key out of her pocket. She unlocked the iron gate that closed the chapel off from the public and after a brief introduction in German, she pulled back two long green velvet curtains. There, behind glass, were the original medieval plans for the façade. I grabbed the gate’s iron bars and tried to peer as far into the chapel as I could to get a glimpse of the remarkable plans. However, they were as elusive to me as the World Cup title was for the U.S. women.
Go: Cologne lies on the Rhine River in northwestern Germany.
Getting There: I found a great flight–inexpensive, lots of airline food, helpful attendants, roomy seats–from JFK to Dusseldorf on AirBerlin. Cologne is a 45-minute train ride away. The train runs directly from the airport to the main station in Cologne, which is next to the cathedral.
When to go: Tourist season runs from May to September. Summer is gorgeous with temperatures in the upper 70s.
Rachel Dickinson is a freelance writer and author of Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Changing Landscapes of the American West.