Despite globalization and the uniformity of our commercial streets, the Only In series of travel guides by Duncan J. D. Smith proves that cities remain unique and full of surprising discoveries. Tourists nowadays do not want to tackle their sightseeing as a check-list exercise. Travelling is a fulfilling personal experience, and an opportunity to learn about the history and culture of places that nevertheless retain their ultimate mystery because, probably, we will never live there.
A good travel book combining versatility and well-researched content is essential to enhance this experience, and this is precisely what I have found in Only in Cologne. This guide is very rich in historical information, with 84 chapters with such intriguing titles as “Is That Really a Church?” or “A Lighthouse Far From the Sea”. These 84 chapters are distributed in 6 sections: 3 are devoted to the city centre (in case you are short of time or prefer to concentrate on the most well-known areas), and 3 more to the suburbs, where, if you take public transport, you can have “A Taste of the Country” or visit “A Hidden Roman Tomb”. In addition to these sections, there is an introduction by the author, and appendices containing information about opening times, as well as a bibliography, a clear indicator that we have an authoritative guide in our hands.
Potentially, 84 chapters can feel like a lot of information, but it is not necessary to go through all of it, if you don’t wish to do so. The beauty of Only in Cologne is that it directs you precisely to those aspects of the city that you are most interested to see. If you are a railways enthusiast, this book will tell you where to go, including the less obvious sites, as well as giving you a wealth of historical and technical details. You will find what you need if you like Romanesque churches, Roman remains, world cultures, puppets or aviation.
However, you will also find chapters covering the essential sights in Cologne, from the cathedral to the old Gestapo headquarters, the EL-DE-Haus at Appellhofplatz. There are two maps included, as well, although you can supplement them easily with a bigger updated version available at hotels or the tourist information office. There they can give you more information about current cultural, musical or sporting events.
Even though you can dip into the guidebook for what you need, it can be rather rewarding to read it through from chapters 1 to 84. These sections are arranged in a subtly progressive way that gives you an outline of the history of the city. For instance, the site selected to start with (“The Ruins of Colonia Agrippinensis”) tells you about the origins of Cologne as a Roman settlement. Besides, Duncan J. D. Smith does not shy away from the more difficult subjects, such as the history of the Jewish community in Cologne, or the bombardment of the city during the Second World War, but these topics are approached intelligently and sensitively.
Unusually for a travel guide, the personal voice of the author comes through, revealing a deep interest in the places explored and in sharing the experience. The style of writing is clear and engaging, although, maybe, there are too many exclamation marks used to signal the most curious facts.
The guide is very attractive visually, with the addition of unique photos (many taken by the author), and the quality of the paper is particularly good. Only in Cologne is a book made to last, not to be discarded after the journey, a book to be used for future reference and to go back to if you are lucky enough to be able to revisit Cologne.
I am very grateful to Duncan J. D. Smith for providing me with a free copy of Only in Cologne in exchange for an honest review.