I’ve never introduced myself at parties as a man who has an exceptional knowledge of air-raid shelters, but even I felt I had one basic rule covered: namely, that they really should be underground.
For the citizens of one district of Cologne however, there simply wasn’t time for such indulgences in the early days of the Second World War. Built above ground, the door to the “hockbunker” I’m about to enter opens with the kind of theatrical groan and squeak more often associated with Hammer horror films.
Inside the vast series of sepulchral, white-washed, concrete rooms lies all manner of wilfully odd detritus. A mirror ball. An ancient cinema projector. A deckchair and a scale model of the synagogue that once stood on this site.
According to the curator, I’m looking at the leftovers of the most recent, just closed, exhibition that took place at what is now known as Bunker K101, whose raison d’etre is to host shows that explore themes of memory and power.
Blinking hard as I step out onto the sun-dappled side street, with a playground and a miniscule wine bar on my immediate horizon, it would be hard to imagine an environment where this relic of warfare could look more incongruous.
But this is Ehrenfeld; a district as beguiling as it is odd and with a legacy as the most aromatic neighbourhood in Germany thanks to eau de Cologne (the 4711 brand to be precise), which was made here in the Kolnisch Quartier.
Established in the mid-19th century, the company HQ was destroyed in the war, leading to the creation of the current behemoth, a playfully modernist complex bedecked in gold and turquoise, complete with teeny square windows and sleek curves. The end result is something akin to a gleaming cruise ship.
The perfume factory closed in 1992 and the Kolnisch is now a complex of offices, apartments and stores. The distinctive aroma of Ehrenfeld may have vanished but an entirely new bouquet has replaced it. This is a ’hood that, right now, is perfectly placed in that all but elusive sweet spot between overly gritty authenticity and overpriced hipster gentrification.
Formerly a staunchly blue collar area for workers at 4711 and other surrounding factories, Ehrenfeld is big enough to spend an entire day exploring, providing some welcome levity and respite from the queues outside Cologne’s gargantuan and gloomy Gothic cathedral in the city centre.
“I know exactly what you’re going to ask me,” says local walking guide Jesse, a native of the neighbourhood, as we gaze up at a stout brick lighthouse just off the main drag of Venloer Strasse.
He’s right; I am keen to know why this neighbourhood, roughly 200 miles from the nearest coastline, feels the need for such a structure, handsome as it is.
“It belongs to the old Helios electrical engineering company who used it to make their building stand out,” Jesse says. “There is another story though that they built the lighthouse to be installed in Tanzania, which was then part of German East Africa. It didn’t work properly, so they shipped it back here and hoped nobody would find out the real reason why it ended up in Ehrenfeld.”
Light sufficiently shed on this anomaly, Jesse and I follow our noses around Ehrenfeld’s contemporary tangs. Exquisite roasted coffee from Ethiopia comes first at Van Dyck, a former barbers shop turned roastery, which has maintained the long row of barbers chairs and nicotine coloured tiles to create the kind of clinically chic bolthole that Alex and his gang of droogs may have sipped in during A Clockwork Orange.
Wafting out of the corner of Braustelle comes the heavy aroma of herbal and fruit beers, brewed on site in a bar that, rarely for this city, produces more than just the ubiquitous kolsch lager, served in miniscule beer glasses and constantly replaced by ever-roving bartenders.
Navigating the area, we pass the looming minarets of Germany’s largest mosque; huge Willy Wonka-esque tubes filled with nuts, grains and seeds inside Veedelskrämer, a zero waste store where you bring recyclable jars and pay by weight; and Utensil, a design shop where old sports-stadium seating is turned into garden furniture.
“Are you ready for a taste of heaven now?” asks Jesse.
Taking a seat in the spartan back room of the 112-year-old Haus Scholzen pub, bedecked with dark wooden tables worn smooth by the decades, I’m presented with a plate of himmel und erde.
Meaning “heaven and earth”, this is a quintessential Cologne dish that does much to reinforce two stereotypes about Germanic cuisine: it’s not subtle and it’s fiendishly delicious.
Fried wheels of black pudding come slathered in mashed potato, translucent strips of onion and silky apple sauce. It’s unctuous, rich and decadent, and I manage a pitiful amount before surrendering.
“Don’t worry too much,” says Jesse. “Down the street there’s a Turkish restaurant opposite the police station. Last week the chief officer complained that his men were so tempted by the smell of grilled lamb getting into the building that they were getting too fat from eating there on their lunch breaks.”
Ehrenfeld may no longer carry the delicate fragrance of perfume. But the new scents of this evolving neighbourhood are having an entirely new effect – on midriffs as well as mindsets.
The chic-as-it-gets Black Cologne has standard studios from €72, room only.
For more info on Ehrenfeld go to cologne-tourism.com.