When people ask me in casual conversation what I like to do in my free time, my response always includes the outdoors. Hiking, camping and canoeing, especially when I’m in my old stomping grounds of Atlantic Canada, have been a staple of my life and I can’t even imagine what kind of person I would be like without a connection to nature.
You may be thinking, “this seems like a slightly peculiar way of beginning a blog post on Cologne, a massive city in Germany.” Let me tie my love of the outdoors to my experience in the Cologne Cathedral. One of the reasons I love spending time in the natural world is that it makes me feel small. There is nothing that checks creeping narcissism like a hike in the mountains. Or a stroll on the beach under the stars. Or paddling a canoe silently through the morning mist of a lake. I’ve always believed that human accomplishments, no matter how great, will always pale in comparison to the wild majesty of nature. I’m reminded of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Humans, in our pride, may try to compete with God by building impressive cities and towers, but all of it will eventually be ground to dust by the power of the natural world!
When I visited the Cologne Cathedral in July, I was confronted with the first man-made structure to ever challenge my belief in the supremacy of nature’s ability to shrink my ego and remind me of my place in the world.
We spent a single afternoon in Cologne as a rest-stop on our final journey back to April and Patrick's home in Lower Saxony. The primary purpose of visiting the city was to check out the famous cathedral, which ranks as the fourth highest church in the world and is the most-visited tourist site in all of Germany. I’d heard of the church and knew a few historical tidbits about it, mostly from famous photographs of it in the aftermath of the Allied bombing, but I wasn’t mentally-prepared for the humbling I received.
The exterior of the church is imposing. Intricately decorated with Gothic-style gargoyles, statues and carvings of all shapes and sizes, the church’s formidable double towers dominate of the city of Cologne. Taking nearly 700 years of intermittent construction to complete, the Cologne Cathedral was the tallest building in the world from 1880-1884 when it was surpassed by the Washington monument in D.C. Shrapnel holes pepper the building, providing a reminder for visitors of the recent history of the area; Cologne was completely razed during the Second World War and the cathedral was one of the only structures left standing in the entire city when the war ended. Still, the church didn’t escape unscathed. Fourteen aerial bombs hit the cathedral in the final months of the war and caused serious damage. Luckily for us, it was repaired and a full restoration is still underway.
As we passed through the pockmarked entrance, my face lifted to the ceiling and didn’t stray for several minutes. The ribbed interior was the most impressive, awe-inspiring edifice I’ve ever toured. I couldn’t get over how high it was. The Cologne Cathedral had all the elaborate detail of other European religious buildings but I just couldn’t, and still can’t, get over how lofty the inside was. Dani had to keep gently reminding me to not let my jaw physically drop as I marvelled in wonder at the colossus I was witnessing. We spent about forty-five minutes roaming through the cavernous church, exploring each nook and cranny. As I stared up at the stained-glass-lit ceilings, I recognized the sensation I get when I ogle at the stars, mountains or oceans: I felt small.
I stopped gawking at the interior of the Cologne Cathedral only when my neck physically seized up with sudden cramps from simultaneously craning my neck to get a better view and clenching my teeth together to avoid looking like a bearded, gaping Neanderthal.
As we left Cologne and caught a glimpse of the cathedral in the distance, I knew I would write about it. I’ve seen taller buildings. I’ve visited dozens of famous churches. But I’ve never experienced such an existentially-humbling wallop in a man-made building before! I doubt there are many man-made structures in the world that could compete with the Cologne’s Cathedral.
 I believe I probably failed in this attempt. I am regularly accused of being a Neanderthal.