The medieval walls of Koln – First published 18 September 2014

The medieval walls of Cologne were proving far more illusive than I’d expected. When I stumbled upon part of the marathon course I wondered if I should give up and just follow the marathon. In the end I decided to give it one more go. If I couldn’t find the next bit if the wall in the next ten minutes, I’d abandon my quest.

18 September 2014

After a few wrong turns where I thought I’d lost the trail completely I finally found my bearings on a leafy plaza called Hildeboldplatz. A few people were milling about but no one so much as looked at me. There wasn’t a hint of a smile or a guten morgen which I found quite odd. Walking through the streets and parks of Southampton other walkers say good morning and smile as they pass, obviously this is not the German way. Asking for directions was out of the question but, high on the wall of a closed cafe, I finally spotted a sign saying Friesenwall. I also spotted my first runner. Given the time I was pretty sure this was one of the half marathon runners who’d started off a little before the first marathon runners. Either that or she’d just broken a world record.

Friesenwall was wall in name only, the street was lined with bars and cafés, all closed and slightly scruffy in a city where most things seem to be sanitised to within and inch of their lives. There was even litter and dog poop! One shop window filled with old sewing machines caught my eye. Then I saw a Starbucks and my day brightened considerably. When I crossed the road though it was closed like everything else.

With no sign of medieval walls I thought again about becoming a marathon spectator. The noise and cheering seemed to be coming from the next street. Then, just as I was giving up hope, the marathon came to me. I’d reached the Hahnentorburg one of the twelve original city gates and it was obviously part of the marathon course. There were balloons, music and people with official marathon bags everywhere. Maybe it was the half marathon finish line.

Of course this meant I couldn’t really get too close to the gate which was once the western entrance to the city. Built between 1235 and 1240, this was the most important of the twelve city gates. After their coronation in Aachen, this was where kings entered the city on their way to the shrine of the three kings in the cathedral. Like the Eigelsteintorburg, the Hahnentorburg was restored by Josef Stubben in 1890. During the allied bombing in World War II the field side of the left tower was destroyed but, like all the medieval walls in Cologne, it has been rebuilt. It has been used as a prison, museum and, most recently, as home to the Ehrengarde der Stadt Köln, a carnival society.

When I spotted a brezel shop I popped inside. Breakfast seemed a long time ago and, if I couldn’t have coffee, I could at least have something to eat. With my brezel in hand I stood and admired the gate. The demarcation between the old stones, Josef Stubben’s restoration and the post war repairs was obvious. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the modern parts all big glass windows and crisp lines. Call me a purist but I like my medieval walls to be old and crumbling.

Then I spotted the Starbucks on the other side of the gate. It was open. Queue or no queue I was getting a coffee. As it turned out it was almost empty. The barista was cheerful, they had skinny milk, she put a heart on my cup along with my name. Things were looking up.

Now all I had to do was find the next section of wall. This was easier said than done. Beside the gate there was a tram stop, Rudolfplatz. Gingerly, looking out for trams, I crossed the tracks. It took a while to spot the sign for Mauritius Wall. There were no more medieval walls on this short stretch, just another tram stop, Zülpicherplatz, more rails to cross and an even more confusing junction. Then I was lost. There was a fair bit of walking in circles looking for street signs and staring at my map until I began to wonder if Pantaleons Wall even existed. Finally, as I was about to give up, I found the sign.

Pantaleons Wall, presumably named for the Greek king, was also sadly lacking in old brickwork and, as it curved around, it was hard to follow. When it came to an end though a park opened up before me. The building opposite looked like a university campus and the people sitting under the trees looked very much like students. The sweet, pungent smell of weed drifted on the air. Maybe all Germans don’t obey the rules then? When I came to a red brick building I didn’t recognise it as part of the old walls at first and almost walked right past.

The map told me next to nothing other than it was Stadtmauer, a fortified wall and I was now on Kartäuser Wall. The limited amount of information I found on line told me it was built in 1180 and rebuilt for residential use somewhat more recently. Translated Kartäuser means Carthusian, an order of monks and nuns founded by St Bruno of Cologne in 1084, so I’m guessing the wall here was named for them. Walking round to the other side, which would have been outside the city walls, I found a long stretch of wall with a tower at each end in front of which was a ditch, maybe once a moat.

Shallow steps rose to a doorway fronted by wrought iron gates with a walkway to the other tower. I climbed them and walked along, stopping to take a look at a relief frieze in the centre between the towers. Unlike the walls themselves, this at least looked old. Sadly though, this is just a copy of the original, which was carved in 1360 to commemorate the Battle of the Ulrepforte which took place in 1268. The arched doorway at the other end looked even more modern. The towers are occupied these days by the carnival company Blue Sparks and the EhrenGarde.

Leaving the second tower behind I carried on along the street and, almost at once, came to the next section of wall. This was Ulrepforte, the smallest gate in the city walls and, alongside it, the Kartäuser mill. Built in the early thirteenth century the gate didn’t connect to a road so was probably the least used of the twelve city gates. It was walled up in 1450 and the Kartäuser, or Carthusian, windmill rebuilt. The mill is very similar to the Gereon mill I’d seen earlier although the tower is taller and slimmer. Standing in the arch of the gate a bronze sculpture of a sleeping soldier made me smile.

A quick glance at the map told me I was fast approaching Severins Wall, the last stretch before the river. Almost certainly named for Saint Severin of Cologne, the third known Bishop of the city. In 376 he founded a monastery in Cologne which eventually became the Basilica of St. Severin. Here I knew I would find the last of the three remaining city gates, Severinstorburg. The main road to Rome ran through this gate, making it one of the most important of the twelve city gates. When I did find it, the crenelated top of the central tower was obviously a modern replacement but quite a lot of the stones lower down looked original.

 

Walking the Medieval Cologne walls had been an interesting exercise but surprising in many ways. At the time I wasn’t sure what I felt about all the modern rebuilding. It really hadn’t been what I’d expected and, while it was interesting to see what the walls would have originally looked like, for me, it took away from the feeling of walking in ancient footsteps. It reminded me a little of the modern medina and Carthageland in Hammamet, pleasant but a little too Disney for me.

The other strange thing was the lack of information available about the buildings. The guide book had next to nothing other than names on the map. The internet, even translating from German using Google Translate, had hardly a mention. Why would so much effort go into restoring the walls but almost no effort go into saving the history behind them? I guess I’ll never know.

With an hour and a half left until Commando was likely to finish the race all I had to do was walk down to the river and back towards the cathedral. It was beginning to get rather warm and humid and I wondered how he’d be doing. I also wondered if there’d be time for a coffee and a bratwurst for my lunch, if I could find anywhere selling them of course.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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