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After two centuries, 4711 still sweetens Cologne, Germany

A Gobelin tapestry (rear) in the House of 4711 depicts a French soldier scrawling the street number 4711 on the house gate during the 18th- and 19th- century occupation of Cologne by the French Army.

CLAUDIA CAPOS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

A Gobelin tapestry (rear) in the House of 4711 depicts a French soldier scrawling the street number 4711 on the house gate during the 18th- and 19th- century occupation of Cologne by the French Army.

COLOGNE, Germany — The first sweet whiff of 4711 Eau de Cologne wafts by us as we leave the Café Reichard terrace overlooking the city’s Gothic cathedral and stroll down Hohe Strasse. At the next corner we see tourists milling around 4711 displays at the Raphael Cologne store and ask directions to the House of 4711, birthplace of the world-famous perfume.

Over the past 220 years 4711 has become Cologne’s signature scent and a brand name in the perfume industry. Embraced by 19th-century high society, the fabled fragrance prevailed through the city’s near-total destruction in World War II and postwar reconstruction to gain an international following for its original and contemporary products.

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Spurred by curiosity about the creation of Kolnisch Wasser and the prospect of a shopping spree, my partner, Doug, and I zigzag four blocks to Glockengasse, where the perfumery’s flagship store stands like a golden castle. Colorful banners fly from turrets, and stylistic 4711 emblems hang beneath colonnade arches. The 20th-century building, across from the Cologne Opera, was inaugurated in 1964, two decades after Allied bombers leveled the company’s headquarters at Glockengasse No. 4711 and manufacturing plant in Cologne Ehrenfeld.

The decorative glass entry door releases a softly scented plume of fragrance as it opens. Inside, lights illuminate a two-story glass wall of 4711 Molanus-style bottles behind the paneled counter where saleswomen in navy-blue outfits wait expectantly. Brightly colored packages of 4711 brand fragrances and handy tester bottles nestle in shelves. We ascend a spiral staircase to a small museum displaying gold medal awards and historical artifacts, including an 1850 traveling toilet “casket” and a 1913 gentleman’s pocket bottle. A vintage photo shows a 4711 bottle recovered from a sunken World War II German submarine.

The story behind 4711 Eau de Cologne is somewhat mercurial. According to legend, a Carthusian monk gave Wilhelm Muelhens the secret recipe for “aqua mirabilis” as a wedding gift in 1792. The young merchant began producing “miracle water” — initially, as a health drink and revitalizing elixir — in a small factory on Glockengasse, but the French conquest crimped his plans. In 1810, Napoleon decreed that all formulas for internal medications be publically disclosed, so Muelhens started selling Kolnisch Wasser as a fragrance to avoid revealing its ingredients. The origin of the famous 4711 brand name also dates to the French occupation of the city. In 1796 General Charles Daurier ordered the sequential numbering of Cologne houses so they could be used to billet soldiers. Muelhens’s building was designated No. 4711, which became the trademark for Eau de Cologne in 1875. The family-owned company changed hands several times after 1994, and the 4711 brand is now owned by Maurer and Wirtz.

We return to the showroom where an elegant Gobelin tapestry depicts a mounted French corporal scrawling 4711 on the building’s gate. We begin spraying tester strips with fragrances, including the original 4711 and newer aromatic combinations, such as blood orange-basil and pink pepper-grapefruit. Jennifer Carman, of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, England, who is browsing through the Acqua Colonia section, remembers her mother buying bottles of 4711. “I’ve known about 4711 since I was a teenager,” she says.

After much spritzing and sniffing, we purchase 4711 Nouveau Cologne and turn to leave. Doug stops briefly to wash residual perfume off his hands in what he assumes is water flowing from a spigot into a gold basin. It turns out to be the store’s 4711 Eau de Cologne fragrance fountain.

HOUSE OF 4711  Glockengasse 4, Cologne, Germany. 011-49-221-270999-10, www.4711.com

Claudia Capos can be reached at capocomm@sbcglobal.net.
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