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Friday Slide Show: Ascending the Cathedral Tower Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

1 May 2020

Days earlier our train had pulled into the main station in Cologne and we had climbed up to street level after buying a map of the city to find a taxi. Before me stood the great cathedral, ashen under the gray skies.

In the second World War, it was hit 14 times by aerial bombs. Churchill, we had been told, ordered it to be spared. And while he did refer to the cathedral's durability as a model for the British Empire, its survival may have had more to do with its usefulness as a navigational landmark for Allied bombers.

The Dom was undergoing a cleaning that week in the fall of 2006 during photokina.

We took the tram downtown and got off just as it started to rain.

The taxi took us to the hotel and for the next few days we shuttled over the Rhein river to the convention center to cover the show, working late at night to put our stories up.

But on Sunday, the party was over and, after a €5 fruit tart and espresso at Cafe Bonnen, we returned on that free afternoon to the Dom.

We took the tram downtown and got off just as it started to rain. Sulphuric acid in the rain darkens the Cathedral's sandstone, giving it a distinctive dark tone. The light sprinkle was performing something of a touch-up, you could say.

We wandered up to the front of the cathedral and went in, walking down the nave with our little Nikon Coolpix 990.

Then we had the bright idea to climb the tower. Here's our notes:

About 4:30 I decide to pay two euros and climb the tower. It says it takes 30 minutes, round trip. Quite narrow, stone steps with lots of people, coming and going.

Terrifying, actually, because you are enclosed in a tomb. You have to humble yourself, focus on the next step only and keeping your balance by holding onto the center column. There is no handrail except coming down. And it's hot and humid, too.

When I made it to the bell room, I walked around to catch my breath (my legs are fine, though) and see the huge bells. Too dark, really, for pictures, but I shoot away. Then they start ringing. I cover my ears to protect myself but they go on and on and on. I sweat profusely as people walking behind me bang into me with their backpacks.

Then I give up and go out of the room, hoping the stone walls will protect me from the loud sound. And they do. I keep climbing, coming out at the spire where a metal staircase takes you the final few meters to the observation deck. There I take more pictures in the rain through the little openings in the chicken wire. We are very high up and little protected but somehow safe. I don't really trust myself and feel like I'm walking on all fours as I grab onto the walls to steady myself while I walk all the way around.

It was a kind of pilgrimage. You are not in control of what happens to you as you climb the narrow, circular, stone staircase. Entombed, indeed.

But you can't step off to the side. You can't stop. You can't go back. You must put one foot in front of the other all the way up for half an hour.

That's a long time to hold your breath. You have to "humble yourself," as we said then.

The parallels to what we are going through today are obvious. It's an act of faith to stay the course but there really isn't a legitimate option. Continue on, climb!

At the top, as you'll see, the world is at your feet. You can see to the ends of the earth.

And it is all, once again, beautiful.

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