We have just entered the enormous Cologne Cathedral when an order in long red robes clears his throat: "Please, would you take off your hat," he advises a tourist heading into the nave of the gothic church. It is a few days before Christmas and quite cold – but while it's considered disrespectful for men to wear a hat or woollen cap inside the Cathedral, women can keep theirs on. Good for us! These guards are called Domschweizer, the "Swiss Guard" of the Cologne Cathedral, but are much more than security guards: They are guardians of morale and etiquette, give directions and collect donations.
The Cologne Cathedral is one of the most-visited places in Germany, with at least 6 million visitors each year. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the gothic cathedral which took over 600 years to build (from 1248 until 1880) still marks the centre of the city of Cologne – next to the railway station – and is one of the tallest buildings around.
We have passed it and been inside quite often – Isa grew up in Cologne, after all – but taking a guided tour has been on our mind for quite a while. At 2 pm, five people are waiting with us near the entrance for the tour to begin.
With such a small group, the tour turns out very intense and packed with information – and overall it was a more exclusive and private experience than we had expected in such a top-notch sightseeing attraction. Huge sandstone pillars are holding the nearly 20 m high roof of the side aisles – and below, we learn, the mediaeval architect thought it safe to build the foundations just as deep, up to about 17 m into the ground. After all, they weren't exactly used to building this high in the 13th century and didn't want the church to collapse.
We also take a closer look at some of the colourful stained-glass windows – symbolic scenes from the Renaissance period, but also the huge abstract window by Gerhard Richter in the south transept, installed in 2007. Back then it was reason for heated discussions, mainly because the ultraconservative archbishop considered the design too modern.
Eventually, we are even allowed into the inner choir to have a closer look at the huge Shrine of the Three Magi – the largest and most ambitious reliquary shrine of the Middle Ages, made from gold, silver and precious stones. The relics of the biblical Magi (well, three ancient skeletons, in any case) were brought from Milano to Cologne during the 12th century and immediately made the town a pilgrims' destination. The floor mosaics in the choir, as well as the detailed carvings of biblical stories on the 14th-century choir stalls, are also amazing.
At the end of the tour, we all walk to the Dom Forum information centre opposite the main entrance where a documentary film is included in the ticket price. The introduction shows some breathtaking shots of the Cathedral from above and high inside the nave, and then some more beautiful pictures, accompanied by some general remarks about the church, its history and the major artefacts kept there – we realise after a couple of minutes that this is not the introduction to the film but the film itself: Not particularly informative but beautiful to watch.
We thoroughly enjoyed the guided tour and although we knew much about the building already, it was interesting to hear some of the facts, stories and explanations in a different context. Our excellent guide also made us aware of some smaller details of the church we hadn't properly noticed before. And without a tour it is rarely possible to enter the inner choir.
Have you ever taken a guided tour in your home town? If so, why? Did you enjoy it?
Guided tours to Cologne Cathedral
The Domforum information centre conducts public guided tours – we did the tour in German, but on most days there are two tours in English. Reservtions are not necessary. The tours cost 8 € and last about 45 minutes: www.domforum.de/english/open-guided-tours
How to get to Cologne Cathedral
The Cologne Cathedral is situated right next to Cologne's main station.