When the French author Victor Hugo arrived in Cologne in 1840, he did not immediately go looking for the Rhine, as I had been expecting. Since his book was called Le Rhin (The Rhine), and Cologne was the first place he visited that was actually on the Rhine, I was expecting a gushing description of his first view of this mighty river.
But no. It was getting dark, so the Rhine could wait. He wrote: “I arrived in Cologne after the sun had set. I headed straight for the cathedral, after entrusting my night bag to one of those worthy commissioners in blue uniform with orange collar, who work in this country for the King of Prussia (excellent and lucrative work, I assure you; the traveler is severely taxed, and the porter shares with the king).”
As I learned from Hugo’s book, the only bridge in Cologne at the time of his visit was a pontoon bridge. He wrote: “Before leaving him, I asked this good man (the porter), to his great surprise, to carry my luggage, not to a hotel in Cologne, but to a hotel in Deutz, which is a small town on the other side of the Rhine joined to Cologne by a bridge of boats.”
After reading this, I clicked around a bit and found that in the 4th century AD the ancient Romans had built a bridge that served for nearly six hundred and fifty years before finally falling apart (due to neglect) around the year 960. After that, there was no bridge for eight and a half centuries, until a pontoon bridge from Cologne to Deutz was constructed in 1822.
Like the pontoon bridge in Bonn, 33 km upstream, the one in Cologne could be opened in the middle to let ships pass through. At first this only happened two or three times a day, which was no great disruption, but by the 1850s they had to open it more than thirty times a day, so it became obvious that a different kind of bridge was needed.
In 1840 Deutz was not yet a part of Cologne, but an independent town. As to why he wanted to stay there, Hugo explained: “Here is my reason: I choose as much as possible the horizon and the landscape that I will have from my window when I have to stay in the same accommodation for several days. The fact is that the windows of Cologne look at Deutz, and the windows of Deutz look at Cologne; which prompted me to take a room in Deutz, because I had convinced myself of this indisputable principle: Better to live in Deutz and see Cologne than to live in Cologne and see Deutz.”
But Hugo didn’t stay there for several days, only for two. In retrospect he was annoyed with himself because he had missed most of the things in Cologne that he had come to see. He wrote: “Dear friend, I am indignant with myself. I went through Cologne like a barbarian. I barely spent forty-eight hours there. I intended to stay there a fortnight; but, after almost a whole week of mist and rain, such a beautiful ray of sunshine shone on the Rhine that I wanted to take advantage of it to see the landscape of the river in all its richness and in all its joy. So this morning I left Cologne on the steamboat the Cockerill.”
(From Letter 10 of Le Rhin by Victor Hugo.)
He didn’t explain the name of the steamboat, but earlier in the book, in Letter 7, he had written a vivid description of the “blast furnaces of Mr. Cockerill“, as he saw them at night from a stage coach going down the Meuse Valley. This Mr. Cockerill was the British industrialist John Cockerill (1790-1840), who spent most of his adult life in Belgium developing a vast complex of mines and factories near Liège.
My guess is that Hugo wanted to take the steamboat Cockerill because he liked the name, just as I tend to stay at hotels called Vauban.
In 1840, the year of Hugo’s visit, Cologne (in German Köln) had a population of 75,858. Today it has well over a million inhabitants and is the largest city on the Rhine River. It is located at Rhine-Kilometer 688, which is 521 km downstream from Basel, 188 km downstream from Mainz and 55 km upstream from Düsseldorf.
Just about any time you cross one of the bridges or walk along the riverbank, you can expect to see large barges carrying bulky cargoes like coal, coke, grain, timber and iron ore.
In recent decades there has also been an increase in the movement of containers by barges along the Rhine. This is encouraged by the German government in hopes of reducing the heavy truck traffic on German freeways.
River-borne transportation has the advantage that it is free of the restrictions placed on truck traffic at night and on weekends. On the other hand, barge traffic occasionally has to be reduced or even suspended at times when the water level is extremely low or extremely high.
My photos in this post are from 2009 and 2010. I wrote the text in 2020.