Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Urban explorer Duncan Smith escorts us on a journey below the streets of Cologne to see the city’s well-appointed sewers.

article summary —

For many visitors, arriving in Germany from Britain, Belgium or the Netherlands, Cologne is their first taste of Germany. The Rhineland city is a place for Roman ruins and religious relics, a city that has atmospheric crypts and even — under one of the university buildings — an artificial coal mine. Urban explorer Duncan JD Smith has written before for hidden europe, with articles on subterranean Vienna (HE27) and underground Budapest (HE30). Here, he describes an unusual expedition below the streets of Cologne.

In 1828 the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge made reference to the lack of sewers in Cologne. He noted that the city had “two and seventy stenches, all well defined, and several stinks!” It is difficult to imagine living in such a city. Like other cities across Europe, Cologne’s population was burgeoning in Coleridge’s day — and so too was its volume of wastewater. With no means to process it, raw sewage was channelled into the river along open ditches, filling the narrow streets of the Altstadt with noxious odours and spreading disease.

The first modern sewage systems in Europe were built in London and Paris during the 1850s, and consisted of a radial network of brick-built tunnels conveying effluent discreetly away from built-up areas. Unfortunately for Cologne, a safe and reliable public water supply was not made available until 1863, despite repeated (but apparently unaffordable) offers from both German and English sanitary engineers.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 33.