The cathedral with its twin spires

Cologne: In Search of the Legendary Scent

I guess most of us have seen the words Eau de Cologne at least once. But have you ever wondered where these words came from? Over time, the original meaning of the words has been slightly altered. But it is still used to describe a scent that has become a legend. And Cologne (Köln in German) is where that legend began.

Cologne spanning on both sides of the Rhine River is one of the oldest German cities and its root dates back to 2000 years ago. The Romans first founded the village on the Rhine River in 38 BC and named it Colonia. Then, the imperial governors of Rome resided here and the town flourished into one of the most important trading centers in western Europe, a tradition it solidified in the Middle Ages and continues to uphold today.

The city was also one of the leading members of the mighty Hanseatic League and one of the largest cities north of the Alps in medieval and Renaissance times. Today, Cologne is Germany’s fourth-largest metropolis and a major cultural hub for the Rhineland, housing more than thirty museums and hundreds of galleries. The city also hosts several international trade fairs such as Art Cologne or Gamescom.

1. Cologne Cathedral

The city’s highlight is the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) whose filigree twin spires dominate the skyline. This grand structure was originally designed to house the reliquary of the Three Kings and as a place of worship for the Holy Roman Emperor. But it was left incomplete until 1880, seven centuries after the construction began.

Today, the monumental Gothic cathedral is the spiritual heart of the city. It is also one of Germany’s most visited landmarks, drawing 20,000 attendees a day. You must circle around to truly appreciate its beauty as no other cathedral is so perfectly conceived, so uniformly and uncompromisingly executed in all its parts. For these reasons, Cologne Cathedral also stands for the strength and endurance of European Christianity.

2. The Signature Scent

But the Dom was not the only reason that drove me to Cologne. As a perfume enthusiast, I came here to learn about the city’s signature scent, Eau de Cologne. The original “Water of Cologne” is a spirit-citrus perfume composed by Italian-born Johann Maria Farina in 1709. He described his perfume as “a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossom after the rain”. Soon after, Eau de Cologne became rapidly famous worldwide. In the 18th century, that scent was an indispensable accessory at all royal courts.

Since then, it has become a generic term for a scented formulation that contains dilute ethanol, a mixture of citrus oils, and other essential oils. The most famous original Eau de Cologne is 4711, named after its location at No. 4711 Glockengasse, just a few steps from the Cologne Cathedral. It was also developed in the 18th century but by Wilhelm Mülhens. Yet it is still one of the oldest still produced fragrances in the world.

Eau de Cologne 4711

42 thoughts on “Cologne: In Search of the Legendary Scent”

  1. I’ve never thought of eau de cologne as being FROM Cologne… I always just thought of it as perfume! That’s really interesting to know!

    1. You are welcome 🙂 I think now people often use the term Eau de Cologne to describe perfume for men. Maybe because of the strong fresh scent. Not sure 🙂

      1. I also thought Eau de Cologne was a perfume for men! That’s why I confused when reading the post when you talked about grandmother 🙂

  2. I have never heard of Eau de Cologne because I don’t know much about perfume. But this post really moves me because I recall my late grandmother had a signature fragrance too. I miss her a lot, and I wish I could know the exact perfume she used like you do with your grandmother. It is not something you can take a photo of to remember. I am scared that one day I will actually forget my grandmother’s scent.

    1. I think that scent is something that stored deeply in your memory. You don’t recall it daily. But when you smell something familiar (whether good or bad), you might recall an event or a person that related to that scent. The scent is like a trigger of memory. So I don’t think you will forget about your grandmother’s scent entirely. You just need occasions to recall it 😉

  3. authensible1357 – Kansas City, MO – Writer, gardener, reader, scholar and fellow traveler in this journey called life sharing my thoughts and experiences.
    authensible1357 says:

    That is fascinating! I never really thought of the meaning beyond “water of cologne” I love your writing style. It virtually transported me, as though I was walking in this ancient city following these fragrances.

  4. Margarita – I hear the Inner Whispers of my small still voice and express through photos and words the messages from within. Oigo los murmullos internos de mi vocecita quietecita y los expreso al mundo a traves de fotos y palabras.
    Margarita says:

    Ahhh…4711 brings back happy childhood memories. Thank you! 🙂 xoM

    1. My pleasure! It seems that all our grandmothers, great-grandmothers possessed at least one bottle of this perfume. It could have different names, but the smell is similar. As a child, I used to dislike this fragrance. It is quite strong, but it do last very long 🙂

  5. A.s Planez – Lets see where can I start.. My name is A.s Planez and I like to write. I’ve been writing on and off for about 10 years, mainly just in a journal that I kept to myself. Writing to me is a form of therapy that I just happen to be good at. I mainly like writing music. I make and record my own songs. You can go check out my soundcloud, just type in Astra Planez. Feel free to leave a comment feedback is greatly needed and appreciated. I believe in order to better yourself in anything you need criticism. I’m just a 25 year old woman from Southern California thats tryna make a name for herself in the world. I’m only getting older, and I believe the only time you truly lose is if you don’t try at all so I’m going to give things a shot. I made this blog because I have a whole lot to share, whether it’s about my journey in music, life, or other miscellaneous topics. I’ve never been comfortable sharing or expressing my feelings which causes me to hold back on my music, but I feel having a blog and hearing all the feedback will help, but enough about me. Im looking forward to sharing my stories and experiences with you guys. Thank you all who like, comment, and follow and I will give reads, follows, like and comments in return.
    A.s Planez says:

    Awesome read, very informative and well written ☺️👍

  6. Erica Robbin – Hello, I’m Erica. I love traveling, gardening, reading, crafting, developing recipes, and photographing my journey along the way. I invite you to join me on my latest adventure!
    ericarobbin says:

    Love this! Beautiful photos and I thoroughly enjoyed the historical context, thanks for sharing!

  7. Jen Duffy – I enjoy travelling the world to experience new cultures, learn new languages, and explore the history of other nations. In my spare time she also enjoys pursuing her interests in theatre, history, and fiction writing.
    Jen Duffy says:

    Loved this post! I went to Cologne a few years ago and have very happy memories of the visit 🙂

    1. Same here, though the weather was a bit unpleasant 🙂 It was very hot during my visit. What do you like most about Cologne?

  8. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    During my trip to Europe back in 2007 I had a few hours in Cologne as my relatives and I were there only for transiting before continuing our journey to Brussels. I remember being awed by the massive structure of the cathedral, and the reliquary inside was just stunning! When I was a kid my father sometimes wore Eau de Cologne, so I found it really cool to see its original location — I remember the Eau de Cologne fountain inside the shop!

    1. Haha I think it’s drinkable 🙂 But I didn’t try because the odour is too strong for me. The older generations like this fragrance. My mom told me that my grand mother always had a bottle of Eau de Cologne, even during the war time.

      1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
        Bama says:

        Yea, I’m not too fond of its fragrance either. I think in general Indonesians think it’s rather old-fashioned.

      2. It’s indeed out-of-date. I have never seen anyone in our generation wears that scent. Even my mother doesn’t like the smell. I only bought a bottle as souvenir 😛

  9. Gorgeous photos! I love cathedrals at night and the one from Cologne looks awesome!!
    Also, I didn’t know about the Eau de Cologne… Now I’m curious, I’d love to know how it smells!
    Have a great week, Len! 🙂

    1. Same to you! 🙂 Personally, I found the original Eau de Cologne is too intense. It does smell good, but in an old-fashioned way. Anyway, it’s definitely worth a try.

  10. justbluedutch – Bavaria, Germany – Expat- lifestyle Blogger from the land of Lederhosen & Dirndls. A self-taught Aquarelle & Mixed Media visual artist.
    justbluedutch says:

    I have learned a lot! I´ll keep this in mind in the future once we visit this place since I would really love to see the Dom.The architecture is so impressive considering that there are many beautiful churches and cathedrals in Germany.

    How much is the cost of the perfume im curious 🙂

  11. I never thought about Eau de Cologne and Cologne being linked! Alittle disappointed I hadn’t come across this while in Cologne. I would buy it even if just for the bottle!

  12. Thanks for such an interesting article! Never actually thought about the relationship between the city of Cologne and Eau de Cologne, but it makes so much sense… also that bottle from 4711. So beautiful. Would love to get my hands on one of those!

    1. A perfect souvenir. If I remember correctly the shop also sells drinkable 4711. Don’t know how that works though 🙂 Thanks for visiting, Nic!

  13. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, Egypt, Japan, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We travelled full-time for nearly six years, and then re-established a home in Vancouver. We now travel 2-3 months per year. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, photography, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    Oh I remember 4711 from my childhood. I guess my mum had some, and me too during my teen years. It was so interesting to learn a little of its history, and also to learn something of Cologne cathedral, which I now hope to see one day.

    1. Wow. So 4711 is indeed popular. My late grandmother also wore this perfume. I used to ask her why she like such a strong odour. She explained that 4711 brought her back to her beautiful years.

  14. Love this post Len! Not only is Köln one of my favourite cities, but it has brought back memories of my mother using the famous 4711 Kölnisch Wasser.

    1. Interesting! Our mom/grandmom used the same perfume, despite living in different continents. That means 4711 was extremely popular in the past. Btw, have you ever tried the drinkable 4711? I saw it in the shop, but I’m not sure how it tastes 😛

      1. Never heard of it, but you have me intrigued. I googled it and learned that there is a legend dating back to 1700s about a Cologne monk who created a miracle water for internal and external use.

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