Water and Concrete: Walking Cologne and the Rhine

Cologne

By Marcel Krueger:

I turn away from the plastic people and plastic boutiques of the Belgian Quarter, and cross the Friesenplatz and its puke pancakes from the night before. On my way to the cathedral and the water I pass through Steinfeldergasse, a small lane where every one of the small colourful low-rise buildings on either side is owned by the Catholic Church or a Catholic association. The church is still a dominating presence in this town.

I arrive at the cathedral shortly afterwards, walking past Komödienstrasse and An den Dominikanern, where a cameraman of the US army filmed a tank battle in March 1945. A German Panther tank destroyed a Sherman, killing three of its crew, and was in return blown up by a Pershing tank destroyer in one of the last tank fights in the destroyed city. The dramatic manoeuvres and firefights amidst the rubble around the cathedral could have been scripted by Hollywood, but the dismembered dead were all too real, futures obliterated by high-explosive shells. Now, on the streets where they died, I could buy an ‘original German cuckoo clock’, or pause to eat a döner kebab.

Instead I stop in the crouching hulk of the train station for a sandwich and a water, and then set off again, up along the banks of the Rhine, that normally concrete-coloured band of river that today is glittering in the sun of a late summer day. The green railings of the Zoo and Mühlheimer Bridge glisten in the distance. I start to sweat. The clackety-clack of the trains crossing the Hohenzollern Bridge at my back sound industrial, like automated hammers in a cutlery factory. I walk past air-conditioned buses spewing out pensioners onto the quays, ready to be sucked in by the large shiny river cruisers moored and waiting. This embankment is made of stone and concrete, three metres above the waterline, in an attempt to tame the river and to make it accessible for pedestrians and pleasure boats, but it means there’s no direct access to the water anywhere. I walk beneath the pillars of the Zoo Bridge and its rumbling traffic, the little cable cars of the zoo funicular traveling high above the bridge and the water, and past a few pensioners fishing next to an old camper van, the sliding doors open to reveal a young bearded man with long blonde hair holding his face into the sun.

A few kilometres further and the concrete footpath swerves away from the bank, making the river accessible for the first time via old low-lying meadows. I continue along the shore, the path of dried mud easy underfoot, and walk past a collection of hobos and homeless sunbathing outside worn-down tents they have pitched in the shrubbery near the shore. Nearby dogs are walked in the fields and a black man with a hoody and headphones performs a silent dance routine on small concrete pier. The meadows are still flooded every spring and autumn, and so the fields are littered with driftwood. I walk across the brush-wood and up the green metal steps to the Mühlheimer Bridge. This, like almost everything else in Cologne, is a new construction. The old bridge was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1944.

Looking back down river from the middle of the bridge the panorama of the ancient city presents itself; the two spires of the cathedral the only visible tall buildings on the left bank. This river has so often brought death and destruction, however tame it looks today. In the winter of 1784, the Rhine froze and killed 21 people. An ice barrier formed up further downstream and the river burst its banks, crushing houses and churches and drowning the inhabitants of Mühlheim with icy water and large floating chunks of ice.

Leaving the river I head toweards the Wiener Platz, the main square of Mühlheim centre. I am now on what the inhabitants of Cologne call ‘schäl sick’, the wrong side of the river. The sunken bowl of Wiener Platz is just another ugly concrete square in this city of ugly concrete squares, flanked by Two-Euro-shops, chemists and branches of banks. But still, I stumble across the copper statue of woman holding an anchor flanked by two men riding sea horses holding plates over their heads. This dried-out fountain commemorates the founding of Mühlheim as a fishing village in 1322. I look at the cars rushing past the square and the trams clanking up the bridge on their way to the good side, and it feels somewhat fitting that the fountain has dried up. No fishing in Mühlheim these days.

My last stop is the Jewish cemetery. I have often viewed it from the windows of a passing ICE train arriving from Berlin, looking down upon a strange brick pentagon in a small grove of trees, the headstones barely visible behind the tall wall. One side of the wall is directly running alongside the tracks, as if progress just barely avoids the holy ground here.

I walk from Wiener Platz past the former Carlswerk, where power cables and aluminium were produced up until the 1980s. Today, it is a cultural- and business centre with concert venues, agencies and co-working spaces in the old brick buildings that date back to the turn of the last century. It starts to rain and I am tired, but my goal is to see the cemetery. Shortly after the Carlswerk, I reach a quiet area of allotments and small business parks, and it feels as if I have finally left the city and the river behind. A small lane takes me between trees on the left and an allotment on the right, and finally I reach the place of the dead. The original Mühlheim synagogue had been destroyed by the same ice chunks that smashed the fishing buildings on the banks of the river, and so the Jewish parish had been relocated further inland in 1788. The adjacent synagogue was destroyed in 1938, the last few members of the Jewish community in Mühlheim deported in 1942. The cemetery feels like the last remainder of Jewish life here, hidden behind the bushes, trees and allotments.

The gate is locked, and as I stand there and stare at the headstones the rain intensifies, deriding me for having made this walk for nothing. But I feel good looking at the old and wet headstones, smelling the rotting apples fallen from the nearby trees and listening to the falling rain and the trains rumbling past. Behind the tracks, the allotments and the concrete the river is flowing on, and I know it does not care about the city on its shore and what happened here in the past. I put my hood back up and walk to the nearest tram station…

Words & Picture: Marcel Krueger

 

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