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Cathedrals and Kolsch in cool Cologne
Kolsch and the cathedral in Cologne / Picture: Niall McIlroy

I feel a real buzz arriving in a new city but with only limited time to see it. Some of the best travel experi ences are the most unexpected - it can be great fun just following your nose. And that's precisely what's my plan is today.

It's 11.42am and I've just dragged my case off the Deutsche Bahn Intercity from Koblenz to Cologne. I'm on a whistlestop tour of Europe, from Zurich to London, with Railbookers who've organised train connections that run like clockwork combined with comfortable hotel stays close to each station.

All I've had to do is enjoy it and I feel relaxed and ready to explore one of Europe's great cathedral cities before I leave for Brussels tomorrow morning.

I'm writing this as I go so as I start I have no idea how the day will end.

First things first. I have to get to the room and leave my heavy case. On my travel documentation, Railbookers has provided clear instructions on how to get to the hotel. In Zurich and Koblenz my digs have been in sight of the station. My accommodation in Cologne is a little further away, but the weather is good and the 15-minute walk gives me an idea of the lie of the land. Railbookers have also provided me with a city map of Cologne, a good thing too for I take a wrong turn and have to double back.

But I get to my room and check in quickly and I'm relieved to be free of the case as I make my way back into the city centre. I'm retracing my steps, back towards the station, because next door is Cologne's most celebrated landmark, the cathedral.

Talking about steps, there are apparently 509 to the top of the cathedral, a challenge I feel like taking and a great vantage point for photography, I'm guessing. I've already consulted the map and decided to stay on this west bank of the Rhine where there's more to see.

Although I've managed it already, I figure it would be difficult for most people to get lost with that 157m pair of spires needling the skyline. But it's not until I reach the bottom of Komodienstrasse that I get a proper impression of the sheer size of Cologne Cathedral.

The building is just gigantic, filling my field of vision, and it's all the more impressive given it was constructed without our modern building methods. Perhaps that's why it took 632 years to finish. It's also exceptionally intricate and I spend a good 20 minutes photographing the cast of saints and disciples whose images have been etched into the exterior walls.

Unfortunately, lower down there are many ugly graffiti scratchings where mere mortals have felt compelled to leave their mark.

I join the hundreds of other tourists (20,000 people visit each day) entering the cathedral, and I'm immediately awestruck by the high Gothic vault which arches into the heavens high above my head. Dappled light falls through the stain-glassed windows and for a few minutes I stare up at it all transfixed.

But I want to go even higher and amongst the hordes I find a priest with a moustache as red as his robe. I drop €2 into his wooden collection box, which is chiselled with the word DOM, and ask him how I can climb to the top of the belfry. "Danke," he says and points me out on to the square, past the busker playing Bob Marley, to a set of stairs that lead down to a ticket office. I pay another €3 to climb a spiral staircase that seems to go on forever and has an extremely narrow tread near the top but I push on, looking forward to the views, emerging a little sweaty into the cold air 98m up.

Although still worth the climb, I'm disappointed to find the cathedral surrounded by wire, presumably to stop people jumping. And the walls of this beautiful building have been smeared with liquid paper, chalk and paint in countless languages. Talk about speaking in tongues.

There goes my chance of getting my bearings - the wire is distracting - and makes photography difficult but at least I can say I got to the top.

Climbing down is treacherous for there's a dangerous lack of stairwell etiquette from ascending walkers. Rather than letting descenders take the handrail, they are prepared for us to risk life and limb by forcing us over to the newel where the step is much narrower, ignoring the fact that falling down hurts more people than falling up.

Back safely on terra firma, I can hear rumbling and it's not the latest arrival at busy Central Station. Breakfast was nearly 100km ago back in Koblenz so I head across the square pulling up a wicker table for one at Cafe Reichard.

In the shadow of the cathedral, this sprawling eatery is probably what the locals would call too 'touristic' but the tafelspitz vom weideoschen (prime-boiled pasture-fed beef on savoy cabbage, buttered potatoes and horse radish sauce) €14.40 ($17.70) is just what I need. I wash it down with a glass of the local beer, Kolsch, purely for research purposes, you understand.

Besides perfume and that cathedral, Kolsch is the pride of Cologne. It comes in a long thin glass called a pole and is light and dangerously drinkable.

It's also as crisp and golden as the autumn leaves in the little square I arrive at, after my lunch. In front of me stands St Gereon's Basilica. Now, you might think it strange to visit a basilica after having already gawked at one of the world's great cathedrals. But St Gereon's has one thing on Cologne Cathedral, it's far, far older and, besides, it's only a few minutes walk away.

As with most of Cologne, it was badly damaged by air raids during World War II when the city was bombed 262 times. The cathedral took 70 hits but all but one of the city's 12 beautiful Romanesque churches was seriously damaged, somewhat ironically in St Gereon's case, given that the Roman soldier martyred about 590 is a patron saint of the military.

Standing in this pretty tree-lined square, my shoes covered in leaves, it's impossible not to think St Gereon's miniscule compared to the mammoth cathedral - but it is still an impressive building and is believed to date back to at least 612.

The giant concrete head of a Roman soldier stares up through the trees, I fancy it depicts Gereon himself. I count more than 30 arches in the facade and there are many more in the side and at the back where I push open a big metal door and enter the long nave. It's topped by a high oval dome with an altar raised well above where the congregation sit. It's all very impressive in it's own right.

Cologne's rich history goes back well before Gereon, having been founded by the Romans about 50BC. Its position on the river made it an important trading hub. This continued through the ages as it became a centre for industry, hence that pounding in WWII.

And with such a long and interesting past it's hardly a surprise that Cologne is a city of museums. But faced with a choice that includes umpteen art galleries, a House of Tradition, the German Sport and Olympic Museum and the Nazi Documentation Centre, I decide to try something different. I'm keen as the proverbial to see the Mustard Museum and head off with the Chocolate Museum as a full fat backup just in case my first choice doesn't cut the you know what.

But just a couple of blocks from St Gereon's, my eye is caught by the red and white diamonds painted on the shutters of a long brick building dark as rye bread. A glance at the map tells me it's the Cologne City Museum.

Surely worth a look?

It's on the way.

It's 3.30pm but I must be able to fit in another museum before the, er, museum.

It takes me a while to find my way into the building and, given that it used to be the town's old armoury, the architects would probably be pleased with that. I pay my €5 admission and enter what is really more a long room than a museum but I grab an audio set and have a look at the displays which trace the city's past back to medieval times.

There's a Kolsch beer exhibit and a display about the history of the theatre but I'm bewildered that there's no audio commentary for the section on perfume. Surely most people think cologne when they think Cologne.

A 3m bronze statue, the Cologne peasant, is certainly the most poignant piece I see. The peasant, depicted as a monk, is riven shoulder to toe with nails - only his head is unscathed. Individual nails represent each Cologne-born soldier killed during World War I. From 1915 until the end of the war, the peasant stood outside the festival hall, and as news of each death made it back to Cologne a bereaved mother or newly made widow would have the solemn duty of hammering a nail into the statue.

With that sobering thought in mind I realise time is ticking away and I really need to get moving if I want to see this mustard museum. I know I have to head south but I stop at a souvenir shop to pick up a fridge magnet and a pen for my mum and plus-one and while I'm there I ask the man for directions.

"Just walk to the Rhine," he says, "the Mustard Museum is a new place about half an hour away, it's a very nice walk - just follow the river and you'll find it."

I'm very glad to have taken his advice for the river is glorious in the afternoon sun and I have to resist the temptation to stop for a pole at one of the old restaurants that line the shore. A whole fleet of river cruise boats are moored alongside, for this is one of the great European itineraries. One is called Rhine Fantasy and I think that just about sums it up - what a pleasure it is to walk the river in such a beautiful city. Forget admission fees, this little treat is free.

I almost walk past the Mustard Museum but the ghastly yellow paint and the word Senfmuseum on the building across the road alert me to the fact that it may be what I'm looking for.

But on entering I find it to be more of a shop than a senfmuseum. There are pots of mustard for sale, sample dishes with plastic spoons and a few equipment displays with information in German.

But when I ask Donald Kersten, who says the museum opened about three years ago, he tells me Cologne has no special connection with mustard, no claim to fame. It wasn't invented here, the people of Cologne don't eat more of it than anywhere else in the world, there's not a giant mustard jar in sight.

The number 1810 is prominently displayed, so I suppose the spread has been made here for quite a long time, and I eventually find out there are nine types in the shop with the specialty being the Koln mustard which is made with Kolsch. I dip in a sample spoon and enjoy it so much that I buy a jar as well as a bratwurst beef sausage for €2.50.

"You want Koln mustard with that," says Donald and he splurts me a blob of it before following me outside where he smokes while I enjoy the sausage.

And satisfied I am too. For after just half a day to enjoy in the city I reckon I've had a pretty good taste of Cologne.

FACT FILE

Prices vary but as an indication a six-night rail package between Brussels and Cologne via Luxembourg with two-nights in each costs from $565. For more packages to or from Cologne, go to railbookers.com.au/holidays/europe/germany /-/cologne. Railbookers has offices in Sydney and London. Phone 1300 938 534 or go to railbookers.com.au.

For more on Cologne Cathedral, see koelner-dom.de. Cologne City Museum is at Zeughausstraße 1-3. See museenkoeln.de. Café Reichard is directly in front of the cathedral. See cafe-reichard.de. The Cologne Mustard Museum is at senfmuehle-koeln.de.

Niall McIlroy visited Cologne as a guest of Railbookers.