There are deep hollows in the 533 steps leading to the top of the Kölner Dom’s south tower, deep imprints in the stone stairs, a gradual wearing down taking shape over centuries.
The Dom is almost 800 years old. He can’t imagine anything being nearly 800 years old, can’t conceive of the number of people who have trodden these very same steps creating these hollows, a walking map of all those who have gone before.
He tries to imagine a little a boy from another time, carefully making his way up the spiral steps to the top of the tower. It’s a narrow spiral, barely more than the width of a person. There are no places to rest, the 533 steps a commitment once started no turning back from.
He loves the Cathedral, its imposing presence a constant in his life where there is no constancy. Like every child in Köln, he knows the date 1248, a numerical mnemonic imprinted into little minds that soak up information. Start at 1, and double it three times – 1248, the year construction started. It took 600 years to complete.
Its twin spires rise like sunflowers reaching for the sky, visible from almost every corner of the city. He knows too, one spire is 6cm shorter than the other, although you can’t tell by just looking at it.
The Dom is an overawing thing of beauty. It demands silent speculation, introspection. He thought that when he was 4, he thinks it now at 54.
It’s a feeling undiminished with time, that first glimpse eliciting silence and breathlessness. A quickening of the heart. Sometimes tears.
At the top, wind whips between the spires, icy fingers that dig deep inside the body. But, oh the view, the Rhine River snaking its way between the city’s two halves, barges floating soundlessly up- and down-river, plying the trade of a working class city, watched over by the Kölner Dom. It’s the city’s sentinel, standing guard.
Allied bombers destroyed much of the Kölner Altstadt surrounding the Dom, but they didn’t harm the Cathedral. Perhaps they too were awed by its Gothic majesty, its dreamscape façade. Fourteen bombs were claimed to have landed on the Dom itself. None caused any damage. Perhaps there is a god?
He doesn’t think there is a god, but he believes in the power of the Dom, its towering presence omnipotent in a proud city.
The 11 bells housed inside the twin spires ring only a few times a year. The largest weighs 24 tonnes and is the largest free-swinging bell in the world. It’s clapper alone weighs 600kg and measures over three metres in length. Its official title is the Petersglocke although Kölners call it Fat Peter, Dicker Pitter.
It rings only on significant Christian holidays or when important people pass away. He likes to imagine it rang to mark his Oma’s passing. She was the most important person in his life, a stoic yet kind and gentle woman who nurtured and taught, who laughed and loved, most of all, who protected.
One day, when he is allowed to return to Köln, he’ll pay his three Euros and climb the 533 well-worn steps to the top armed with a small pebble in his pocket. And he will toss the pebble at Dicker Pitter and when she tingles with a single, soft chime unheard by the city below, he will whisper to the wind, ‘This one’s for you, Oma.’