Eigelstein and Kunibertsviertel both embody and contradict Cologne clichés
There are districts that reveal more about a city than others. In Cologne’s city centre these are Eigelstein and the Kuniberts viertel, located behind the central train station, and the adjoining Agnes viertel. They all embody the typical Cologne clichés, yet contradict them at the same time.
We start our tour under the Hohenzollern Bridge and head north along the Rhine. After around 200 metres, a white office building will be visible on the left: the Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (German Economic Institute). There we cross the road and, via Machabäerstrasse, arrive in the Kunibertsviertel district. This quarter is very typical of Cologne: cosy and traditional. The namesake St. Kunibert Basilica dates back to the 13th century and the Erzbischöfliche Ursulinen school on Machabäerstrasse is over 375 years old. But the highlight of this neighbourhood is the brutalist-style Cologne University of Music and Dance on Dagobertstrasse. Cologne’s post-war avant-garde, including everyone from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Bernd Alois Zimmermann down to Maurizio Kagel, taught here; for many Cologne musicians, their concerts were an epiphany. And to this day, for a small admission fee, you can come here to listen to music of the highest standard.
Unter Krahnenbäumen is the most sung-about street in Cologne
South of the music university, we walk along Unter Krähenbäumen, Cologne’s most sung-about street. At the beginning of the 20th century, local songwriter Willi Ostermann sang about a child’s christening that took place in the neighbourhood in his song in the Kölsch dialect, “Kinddauf Fess unger Krahnebäume”. Unter Krahnenbäumen also came to symbolise the Cologne of the past, thanks to the photos taken by Karl-Heinz Chargesheimer from the 1950s, which portrayed the residents of the cramped, impoverished and disreputable neighbourhood in all stages of life. Today, Unter Krahnenbäumen is intersected by another of Cologne’s symbols: the Nord-Süd-Fahrt (North-South Route). In the 1950s, Cologne was planned as a car-oriented city, prioritising car travel and making it easy to pass through. The Nord-Süd-Fahrt thoroughfare, which begins at Ebertplatz, splits Cologne’s city centre into two halves. Today it’s regarded as an eyesore, but because its traffic would otherwise end up on the already congested road along the banks of the Rhine or on the ‘Ringe’ (the city-centre ring road), it continues to be tolerated.
Eigelstein is the place to meet colourful characters
We cross over the Nord-Süd-Fahrt and end up at Eigelstein. This area has been known as the home of the ‘Miljöh’, Cologne’s milieu or underworld, a potent mix of petty crime, organised crime and prostitution. You can still meet some pretty colourful characters with a chequer ed past in the bars towards the train station, even though Eigelstein lost a lot of its notoriety following an extensive redevelopment in the 2000s. The side street called Im Stavenhof, where sex workers once loitered, is now home to family- friendly new-build apartments. You can bump into many of the area’s long-established residents in the evening at Weinhaus Vogel, where Gaffel Kölsch is served, a brand of the local beer that was brewed at Eigelstein for many years. The building at Eigelstein 115 is also worth a quick look: with a width of 2.65 metres and a depth of 35 metres, it’s the narrowest in Cologne.
The road forks in front of us; we bear right and go onto Weidengasse, one of the hubs of German-Turkish life in Cologne. In 1962, after a large number of migrant workers moved to the area, the first Turkish shop was opened here. The furniture from the Bosporus restaurant, which supplied the Weidengasse with Turkish food for three decades, is meanwhile exhibited in the Kölnisches Stadtmuseum (Cologne City Museum). For a quick snack we recommend a visit to Öz Urfali (Weidengasse 35), especially late at night. That’s when guests from the Rebell Lounge, the shisha bar belonging to Kurdish rapper KC Rebell mingle with night revellers on their way to the next club. At the next street corner, we then turn right onto Gereonswall. The former street-walkers’ patch meanwhile stands out with its mix of betting offices and gastronomy, Elektra (Gereonswall 12–14) in particular is a good spot for one last drink. At the end of the street we walk towards the Eigelstein gate, part of the former city wall and the heart of the quarter. On summer days, the square in front of the medieval gate fills with life from the neighbouring districts. The Textilcafé, with its vintage décor, is a good place to take a break and enjoy some coffee and cake. Next door you will find the Buchladen am Eigelstein bookstore, which stocks an assortment of titles reflecting the district’s multicultural flair. This is also where Cologne-based writer Navid Kermani, who lives in the neighbourhood, comes to buy his books.
After a short break, heading north we take the stairs down and immerse ourselves in the concrete underworld of Ebertplatz. If the national media are to be believed, the square is a no-go zone. Of course they are exaggerating though: all it needs is a bit of care and attention. Ebertplatz was opened in 1977 as part of the ‘car-friendly city’ concept: pedestrians were supposed to use the underground passage so the traffic around the square could flow better. But the people of Cologne never really took to the concrete underpass — they always preferred to walk above it, crossing the roads at the traffic lights. However, that’s all set to change in 2018: the fountain in the middle of the square will be put back into operation, and an ambitious art and culture line-up is planned. Responsible for this are the four voluntarily run art spaces in the underpass. They often exhibit spatial multimedia installations, but also offer space for photography and painting. Things get particularly interesting at the weekends, when art hipsters share the space with the crowds of the two African bars.
We leave the underpass in a westerly direction, passing hipster bar King Georg and walking towards the Alte Feuerwache that was supposed to be demolished in the mid-1970s. Local activist groups quickly took an interest in the old building and wanted to turn it into a culture centre for the western part of the Agnesviertel, which was mainly home to migrants. After more than ten years of negotiations and ‘Klüngelei’, Cologne’s very own brand of nepotism, a typically Kölsch solution was found: the Alte Feuerwache would be self-governed. When the weather is good, the inner courtyard of the culture centre is great for a break with children, and you can also find one of the neighbourhood’s few graffiti spots here. We leave the courtyard on the east side, take a slight right onto Ewaldistrasse and then walk towards the Agneskirche (Church of St. Agnes), the Agnesviertel’s landmark. The kiosk on the square in front of the church is another popular meeting place for the neighbourhood’s residents, who like to hang out here until late on balmy summer nights.
Cologne doesn’t always treat its gems with the necessary respect
We walk straight ahead under the trees, along Weissenburgerstrasse. More well-heeled folk are at home here in the eastern part of the Agnesviertel, which is likely due to its magnificent turn-of-thecentury buildings and good cafés. At Reichenspergerplatz you can admire the huge courthouse building from the late 19th century. Its interior staircase in particular is worth a visit. The court was built when Cologne was under Prussian rule, which is why it’s facing in an easterly direction, towards the Prussian capital Berlin. We follow its line of vision to the Wörthstrasse on the opposite side of the road and head to the banks of the Rhine. Once we arrive there, we head south, in the direction of the Bastei. This restaurant looks a lot like a UFO and one of the most impressive buildings by Cologne architect Wilhelm Riphahn, who influenced Cologne’s cityscape from the 1920s to the 50s. But it’s currently empty. Which just goes to show that the city doesn’t always really know what to do with its finest treasures. Another typical Cologne trait…
(by Christian Werthschulte)