Travel: Respectability on the Rhine: Valerie James is awed by a Gothic Dom and discovers a hotel in the round

The girl in reception was charming, and her question unexpected. 'Do you know the name of the big hotel on Hyde Park

Corner? I am thinking of working in London.'

'The Lanesborough, but it's not at all like this,' I said.

'Yes, but I want to live in London.'

'This', as she had already explained to us, is Europe's only hotel in a water tower. Now water towers I can take or leave, but the Wasserturm in Cologne is special. One hundred and thirty years old, a redbrick landmark in a city largely built of stone, it is not for someone who likes to hide in corners, or for those with a phobia about circles, for everything here has a curve.

Immensely stylish - the interior was designed by Andree Puttman and much of the furniture was made in her factory - and with walls hung with valuable modern paintings, its soaring entrance and corridors have an almost monastic air. The combination of the strange and familiar is at once unsettling and soothing, but the staff are whisper-quiet, efficiency rules, and within these round walls one can see the new Europe and the new Europeans working.

Cologne is bustling, busy, its position close to the Belgian border insulating it to some degree from its troublesome family far to the east. Its history is one of survival, or resurgence, not least from the 90 per cent destruction by Allied bombing during the Second World War, and the overwhelming impression is one of confidence. And enjoying the style, the beautifully presented food, it is easy to be reassured that all is well with the world.

But with just two days for our first visit to Germany, tourist things had to be done and so the comfort of circles was left and corners and angles peered into. We began, as everything in Cologne does, with the cathedral, the Dom.

Leaving the Wasserturm, there could be no greater contrast than the Dom, the ever-present skyline feature of Cologne and the epitome of angularity. Everything soars upwards, piercing the skies in the purest expression of High Gothic, as blackened by age and pollution, it both stretches and lowers over the city. (St Paul's is jolly by comparison.) Inside the Dom is the magnificent sarcophagus containing the relics of the Magi (stolen from Milan in 1164), the Gero cross and, dwarfing tourists and worshippers alike, the towering walls designed to intimidate and awe.

Chastened and reduced, we recovered in the museums and art galleries. Then, sated with German culture, we lunched and wandered through the market with stalls full of wonderfully carved candles and traditional pottery before a short cooling cruise down the Rhine.

But like some Gothic Lorelei the Dom, and a very English desire for afternoon tea, drew us back to the Cathedral Square to sit in the Dom Hotel's sheltered terrace, eat pastries, sip tea and watch Cologne go by; stolid, respectable, heavily shod, what my mother used to call 'neat and tidy'.

Then it stopped going by, stopped being so neat and tidy in front of those black cathedral steps. Plain-clothes policemen, bomber jackets and jeans pristine, their short haircuts doing little to conceal the earpieces of their radios, surrounded the crowds as loud-hailers and banners came out and Turkish crescents and slashed swastikas were revealed. We asked a waiter what was happening and he said: 'Some Turkish kids, anti-Nazis. They make a fuss.'

The Dom Hotel is not amused by such demonstrations; the grandeur of its old European style is upset by such political happenings so security men were positioned at the entrance to the terrace. Mozart became a little more insistent and we were encouraged to turn our chairs away from the square. The waiter came over to us again. 'You come from London? I want to work in London. Where would be the best place to go?'

We smiled and advised and returned to the comfort of thick carpets, small tiles, large towels and circles which contained no dark corners, and took some drinks up to the restaurant terrace on the top floor. It was a glorious evening, warm with just the hint of a breeze. The view was of a residential quarter, of people eating and drinking out of doors, in their gardens, walking their dogs, talking to neighbours.

The stuffed quail were delicious, the desserts a challenge to any diet and, in the cool of the evening, we enjoyed a last cup of coffee peering down from our 11th-floor eyrie to see the marching band in the street. Not a marching band. More policemen with a dozen vehicles surrounding the remnants of the afternoon's protest.

We stood up for a better view and I glanced along the terrace. No German eyes were directed down to the street, nothing disturbed the diners' chatter; if anything they concentrated more on their companions. A young man approached. We turned to him, eager for explanation.

'You are English? My work is in the financial sector, but I wish to work in London. Could you tell me. . .?'

How to get there . . .

Flights: Lufthansa (0345 737747) and BA (0345 222111) fly daily from Heathrow to Cologne; BA has a special offer of pounds 89 return if you book before 16 September.

Accommodation: a weekend package at the Hotel im Wasserturm (010 49 221 20080) costs from DM450 (pounds 180) per person including breakfast, dinner in the rooftop restaurant, sightseeing tour, free

admission to museums and a meal in one of the city's beerhouses.

Further information: German National Tourist Office, 65 Curzon St W1Y 7PE. The 0891 600100 number is a premium-rate service; you are probably better off phoning the Cologne Tourist Office direct (010 49 221 221 3345).

(Photograph omitted)

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