From the Kölntriangle tower, Cologne seems a sturdy, serious place. The Hohenzollernbrücke Bridge delivers trains straight into the centre of this industrial town and passengers step out into the shadow of the world’s tallest building. Well, it was in 1880, anyway. The Dom, the cathedral of Cologne , gives a feeling of solidity, of permanence. A tough guy stance that says, “Do your worst. We can take it. We’ll always be here.”
Postcards showing the Dom as the last soldier standing in the dust of World War Two back that up. So, too, do the excavations that keep unearthing mosaics from ancient Rome in the basements and bars of the city.
Yet despite first appearances, Cologne is actually a city of reinvention. A city of colour, of tolerance and of knowing how to have fun. Thousands take to the streets for carnival each spring, while cafes and bars cuddle up close every day in the rainbow-coloured Old Quarter.
Hey, the city even turned one of the world’s most frivolous products into a heavyweight legend. Splash on some cologne and get ready to have a good time in the city of the same name. Starting, of course, at No 4 Glockengasse, home of the original Eau de Cologne.
It’s early morning as I peer through the glass at number 4 Glockengasse and a proud man in a duffel coat stares back. He ignores me, though, fixing his gaze on something far behind my left shoulder. To his right, beneath a gilded shield, I read the words Kölnisch Wasser.
Today, the building feels fresh and modern, sheltered beneath stone arches and shining fluorescent lights. Yet the story begins in a rather unexpected way, with a Carthusian monk who gave a secret recipe to a couple called the Muelhens on their wedding day back in 1792. Wilhelm Muelhens took this aqua mirabilis, this miraculous healing tonic, and decided he’d found the secret to a fortune mirabilis and the production of eau de cologne began in this very building.
When the French arrived in a frenzy of obsessive-compulsive disorder in 1796, they rewrote every building’s address, so that the numbers lined up neatly. No less than a tapestry, a line drawing and a picture outside demonstrate General Daurier on horseback scrawling 4711 onto this house – and the emphasis is there for good reason. Nearly 100 years later, the company chose this number as its trademark and 100 years after that, 4711 became a global brand (which just goes to show that even dull administrative tasks can have far-reaching consequences.)
That brand lines up today in perfectly positioned bottles, while a woman plays origami with sliced ribbons to create the perfect gift. On my way out, I stop by the 4711 fountain that flows into a golden basin.
“You can taste it,” says the immaculate woman from behind the counter. It is hard to guess her age, her flawless features crowned beneath blonde hair. She looks good and she works here. Perhaps this aqua mirabilis works…
Eau de Cologne, 4711, the tonic with healing properties…tastes…as disgusting as I should have imagined. I nod Danke to the seductive sorceress and leave with a rather nasty taste in my mouth.
To be continued…