The Bells on Concrete

Travel Blog 15: Black Magic Blog

It feels very strange and discordant to hear the huge, rumbling, clanging church bells echo down streets of cold modern architecture, where the sound reverberates through glass and grey concrete. The two things, the modern architecture and the Medieval calls to prayer, do not mix well in my mind. They are of two different ages. It’s like living in a fish tank, where us little fish swim among Aztec ruins and Japanese pagodas. 

For like so many cities on this end of Germany, Cologne was bombed to hell by the allies during WWII as they moved towards Berlin. The city’s miraculous rebirth after the war has reconstituted it with the brutal, boxy designs of 1950s architecture, and so on a cloudy day, it is like walking through a field of grey, where one does not know where the ground and buildings end and the sky begins. 

Before I left on this trip I watched the 1967 Jaques Tati film “Playtime” with my friend Leah. There is so many things to unpack from such a movie, but I remember how though it takes place in Paris, the film is suffused with the grey boxiness of dull mid 20th century architecture. Their only sight of marvels like the Eiffel Tower is through reflections, sights to see going unseen. One character tries to take a photo of a flower seller on the street, as a representation of a kind of “real France,” but passerbys keep interrupting her. Some even take a picture of her trying to take the picture, asking her to step into frame with the flower seller. So if it seems I get hung up on such innocuous things, there is a reason.

Then there are the churches, the living relics. The biggest example, Cologne Cathedral, is renowned as one the largest twin-spired cathedrals in the world, and the second tallest church in Europe. It is a brutal thing, stained black by weather and time. From the ground, practically the only place one can view it, the Kolner Dom is like a bed of needles, a striking brutal thing from practically any angle. One cannot even tell how open the space becomes inside, nor follow the glow of the magnificent stained glass windows from the exterior. If one never enters its cavity, it’s easy to imagine the entire thing as filled with sharp points, like a cotton ball made from thorns. 

I pointed out in one of my posts on Facebook that these things were built to be shining and glorious, and that our current idea of dark, brooding Gothic architecture is born from our understanding of how such buildings look now. This is, of course, despite understanding just how long it takes to build such monstrosities. Cologne Cathedral started in 1248 though progress stalled in the 16th century and wasn’t completely finished to original designs until 1880.

The stone country church looming over all the surrounding buildings is a staple of Europe. Watching the rolling scenery of both France and Germany from the endless trains and buses I’ve taken since coming here, they are the constant among the different models of rural and town life. Even as Europe becomes more and more secular, like so much of the world, I can’t imagine any of these towns would want to lose that connection to their past through those old stone churches.

Those church bells ring like dead echoes across the asphalt and steel. I say “dead,” because it’s not like those churches were spared the bombing either. Cologne Cathedral was hit 14 times by bombs, but managed to remain standing despite the surrounding area being flattened. But these churches were the only structures to be rebuilt like they had been before. All the city’s other history, or most of it, is buried.

The people seem to mirror their surroundings. Save for the main shopping district south of the Cathedral along the Rhine River, most of the residents here are solitary beings, their shoes echoing down mostly empty streets, even on a Sunday evening. 

I took a trek today in an attempt to visit one of the local castles about an hour away from Cologne. This is in the area where the massive flooding left many towns in shambles and killed over 100 people just two weeks ago. Though I read that the area I was going to wasn’t nearly as hard hit as surrounding areas, especially those on rivers bordering the Rhine, I guess it was naive then to assume all the trains would be running as advertised, but I only managed to get halfway there by trains and buses before determining it was best to return. I walked past heaps of people’s belongings, all those water damaged and destroyed. People were stilling bringing out stuff to place on the growing piles. If there was anything to add to that feeling of isolation, this was it.

Yet it’s also a similar feeling to when I was surrounded by people. In Heidelberg, a small touristy kind of town close to the border of Germany and France, the Aldstadt, that old historic part of town, is absolutely thronging with tourists. It’s more packed than even what I saw in Freiburg, though the two towns are so similar it’s almost unnerving. It’s like the streets of San Sebastian or on the docks of Marseille once again, so many packed together as if there is no COVID, no variants to be concerned with, no threat that all this could so easily close down once again.

There, the streets grow so packed in as the sun descends. This past Saturday, in that peak of the morning I strolled through a park edging on the serene Neckar River and read under the blooming leaves of a thick, old and knotted tree. After that I climbed the 300 meters up to the Schloss Heidelberg, and contemplated the Baroque era architecture and statues adorning that old, crumbling fortress. Into the late hours of a Saturday, the bars and cafes become the public’s only focus. I found the one spot in the old town separated from the rest thanks to red and white blockades denoting construction. The air grew cooler, and the drink did not warm me and it did not fill my empty stomach. But one makes due.

And look how the sky darkens, first to a streak of blue, the clouds like ink stains staining a gash across the small stretch of azure one can see in the alley slit between buildings. 

It’s just me, inevitably. My large beer goblet reflected the light of street lamps in bronze. My waitress convinces me to get the large glass, of course. There is the castle hovering above all like a stern father up on the hill. There is the statue of some god or some saint looking down at the empty cobblestones. 

There is something so evocative of the streetlamps at night. The hovering boxes hovering a man’s length above our heads hail in a kind of reverie distinct from the day, and when it grows dark enough, and one’s head is full of enough drink, the posts disappear into the surroundings, and the lights hover above our heads to bob and weave on invisible puffs of air.

So we save our worst debauchery for the time when the work is done, when sleep will erase the night’s sins if not from reality, then at least, perhaps, from memory.

Amidst baroque buildings, their windows set in wide framed catches and limestone scrollwork, the beds of bright pink flowers lining the stacked verandas and carrot-colored pillars, one thinks of the hundreds of eyes that could be watching what goes on below from the dark of their hotel rooms. They’ll look up and see the Schloss Heidelberg and think of those old families that used that space to lord over those below.

And so my thoughts turn to multitudes, and of all these great men of history, so many of whom gave themselves the title of “great” otherwise they wouldn’t have been remembered as anything but. And what can people like I, like all those people sitting on the stools in bars, laughing drinking, ignoring the ravages of the past year, what can any of us be in an age like we live in? We are burning embers among a great fire, that’s the best that any of us can hope to be. You’re just one of many, and though you burn so bright you flare out, and the inferno still rages.

Tomorrow I go to Amsterdam. There are some interesting articles floating around about the city trying to change its image from a place to relentlessly party to a site of historical and artistic tourism. Let’s go and see how they’re trying to enforce that distinction.

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