Europe remains an attraction with her cobbled streets and winding lanes,old buildings and genteel air. Through centuries of battles lost and won, migration of artisans and new ideas, techniques and innovations, she had achieved a level of beauty and sophistication in her art and architecture.
Then came the great wars where she became the battleground, and paid the price by losing a large part of that allure, an essential old world charm. To date, there is a sense of before and after the War, in what could be conserved and what had to be built anew. WW2 was harder on some cities than others. As each country got back on its feet, the brave attempt to salvage some of that heritage is visible everywhere. In the process new styles of architecture sit boldly along with the old. Art galleries and museums abound, and are impossible to resist.
With the carbon footprint an automatic side comment about travel, going by train where possible is an increasingly attractive option. The chug of the steam engines is a charming memory best experienced in movies like Murder on the Orient Express and North by Northwest, trains now are fast, modern and well connected.
Eurail connects 31 countries in Europe and the Eurail Pass is valid from three days to up to three months, enabling quicker and more flexible travel without the protocols connected to air travel. Travel apps are the go-to platform for travellers now and the Eurail Rail Planner App is a reliable companion. The journeys are short (by Indian standards) and the countryside that one passes is tranquil and scenic. Closer to the cities, most walls are covered with colourful graffiti. Beer and snacks in the dining cars, and sitting by the window, is reminiscent of train journeys of childhood, but this time in efficient trains that keep good time and are as systematically run as journeys by air.
Also read: Canada calling: A first-timer's impressions
The cities are best taken in on foot. In fact, walking in most European cities is a delight and the best way to discover what each has to offer. Cycling is encouraged, and as in Rotterdam, there are tracks running parallel to roads for cars, and in a continent of moderate climate, entirely possible, even enjoyable. But beware, cyclists are known to be aggressive if you get in their way.
Frankfurt lost a lot of its old buildings and the reconstruction effort came up with fairly simple architecture. The resulting look is an eclectic mishmash of renaissance and neo, and largely what is post modern. Römerberg, one of the city's most familiar attractions in the heart of the Altstadt, Frankfurt’s old town, has three-gabled buildings that continue to serve as Town Hall since 1405. Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen or Fountain of Justice, the bronze statue standing smack in the middle of the square dates back to 1543, is instantly recognisable as the Lady of Justice with her swords and scales. A natural hosting ground for fairs and festivals, this is the square where John F Kennedy made a speech in 1963, and it is where you can spend several hours, taking in the architecture and checking out what the local artisans have to offer as they make their knick-knacks by hand right there in front of you. This is also where there's a protest on despite the drizzle, for the Turkish invasion of Syria, and which we automatically record on our cellphones as part of our tourist moments. Walking past the Kaiserstrasse is a time for ribald jokes. A red light area in the past, it retains elements of its bawdy DNA with suggestive images on some buildings. Once you're done with all that walking, it's time to grab a bite and we're happy to head for lunch at Adolf Wagner. Every table occupied tells of its popularity with the locals. Recommended is the apple cider and that's what we order. It comes in a huge pitcher and goes well with the platter of mixed roasts and wurst and schnitzel, typical German fare. The portions are humongous. This is apple strudel country and the fun is to try it at various eateries.
For a good dose of culture and heritage, Museum Bank on Wilhelm Strasse is the go to place. As many as 11 museums stand side by side, making it easy to take in as much or as little as time or inclination allow. Cathedral Dome, called Dom is the largest in Frankfurt and was where emperors were coronated. A part of the head of St Bartholomew is said to be in the alter at the cross in the church. Now it's a tourist destination with its Gothic architecture.
The bridge on the Main offers some fun with its railings adorned with locks that have names of couples etched on them. It's a lover's point with a thread of superstition — a desire to keep love locked in with the keys thrown into the river.
Hot chocolate Bitter & Zart Chocolaterie is where you can get some of the best hot chocolate
Frankfurters are thin parboiled sausages made with pork and encased in sheep's intestines
Apple Cider or apple wine (apfelwein) is a specialty and considered a traditional craft. When a grape harvest (in the 1700s) was lost to parasites in its vineyards, Frankfurt decided to ferment apples or so the story goes. But it is also said to date back to Charlemagne (8th century). Does the history matter?
It's a specialty of the region. In summer apple wine it's served cold, and in winter hot with spices
Stay: The niu Charly Hotel Niddastrasse 60-62 60329 Frankfurt am Main
Call: +49 69 400 502089
Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a masterpiece and the epitome of Gothic architecture is said to house the relics of the The Three Kings (from the Bible). Towering over the city, this detailed work of art was begun in 1248 and after stops and starts completed by 1880, only to be under repair after parts of it took a hit during the last World War. There's beauty in every nook and cranny both inside and outside. The stained glass windows that tell the story of the Bible are said to be the oldest in the world. As with most aspects of modern life, where the new creeps in, there's one window that's contemporary, a computer-generated stained glass pattern with 72 colours designed by German visual artist Gerhadt Richter. A sad fact of modern life is that despite a regular service in this beautiful old place of worship, it is largely tourists who make up the congregation when the service takes place at noon.
The Ludwig Museum just off the square that hosts the Cathedral, has a museum as well as a concert hall on its premises. Cologne's history of the 19th century is told in a unique way at the TimeRide VR Coln in the replica of a tram at der Altstadt. First there's a talk about the period followed by a viewing of old photographs through binoculars mounted on a wall, and then a video of the time. The last section is the virtual reality trip on a tram that's a replica from the last century, and an immersive experience.
A visit to a perfumery can be a novel experience. The history of Farina in a nutshell followed by a quick workshop on ingredients could be an eye-opener. Here you can learn about how essences are made, 'the secrets of extraction, enfleurage and distillation.' Some of the stuff that goes into making one 'smell of roses' are as nauseous as excretion of whale, ambergris, that actually account for the high price of expensive perfumes.
Also read: Japan beyond Tokyo
When in Germany, the drink of choice most often is beer. This is beer country after all. Most of us associate the beer fest with all of Germany in general, when in fact it's a tradition in Munich. In Cologne, however, it's Kölsch, a product of this region, with a GI tag. The Kölsch is served in what looks like large test tubes, and is clear, pale and hoppy. A spit roast with fried potatoes, malt beer sauce, braised onions and coleslaw at Muhlen Kölsch washed down with what else, Kölsch, is a well deserved treat.
Farina: The race to be the first assures a place in posterity. Farina claims to be the original cologne made in Cologne from where it took its name. Intended to be a perfume (before scented waters got their categories), Farina was made by Giovanni Maria Farina, an Italian who came to Germany to make his fortune. After many a trial and error when he got it right in 1708. he wrote to his brother: “I found a scent that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of the daffodils mountains, the orange flowers just after the rain. It refreshes, revitalises the senses and the imagination”
Kölsch: A top fermented beer that may be brewed only in Cologne. The beer is served only in Kölsch-Stangen (tall cylindrical glasses) that are carried on a Kranz (circular tray), and served by Kobes (waiters)
Stay: Maritim Hotels Heumarkt 20, 50667 Köln
Call: +49 221 20270
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in the world and proud to call itself the balcony of Europe. It has been under the reign of its various neighbours through different times in its history, often treated as a private property by its rulers, therefore left by and large to its own devices. This has meant that it has managed to retain an untouched charm, and is so beautiful and picturesque that one can run out of adjectives to describe it, particularly with autumn colours in full bloom.
With a hint of Gothic in its spires, the Grand Ducal Palace is reminiscent of Flemish Renaissance from the 16th century. Since, it is the seat of the Grand Duke and used for his official duties, it is open to the public only for a few months in summer. Gëlle Fra or The Golden Lady is the nickname given to the Monument of Remembrance that looms over the neighbourhood with a victory wreath in her hand. Built as a war memorial for the unknown soldier, it later came to mean a voice against Nazi rule.
Located on one of the streets at the back of the royal palace, sitting along a picturesque and meandering street is Am Tiirmchen on Rue de l'Eau where you can get a good Luxembourgish meal. Um Plateau does roaring business going by the loud chatter and full occupancy of the tables.
This is wine country and a champagne aperitif is an automatic offer before meals. Some grapes are special here and the wines not easily available outside the country. So, it's a great idea to check out the lesser known grape varietals.
Also read: The world's most exotic beach getaways
Some part of St. Michael church dates back to 987CE. After destruction and reconstruction over centuries, it's current style sports a Gothic look. The interesting thing about the St Michael, is that it lends itself for concerts, largely for symphonies and music that's more classic than pop. The acoustics, as anyone who's heard a choir in a church will know, are superb.
The Sofitel Luxembourg, an elegant five-star property, well located within walking distance of the city centre, is also where a night out for the city's who's who is akin to a ramp walk of high voltage glamour.
Fine-dining: An affluent country used to the good life where the standard of living is high, it has the most Michelin-starred restaurants per inhabitant. A great place, for what else? Fine dining, of course!
Little crime with only two prisons, Luxembourg claims to be among the safest countries in the world
Stay: Hotel Sofitel Luxembourg Le Grand Ducal, 40 boulevard d’Avranches L-1160 Luxembourg
Call: +352 24 87 71
Another European city destroyed in the War. Little surprise that what was left is considered heritage. In the process of reconstruction, Rotterdam became more forward looking and futuristic than its counterparts in the Netherlands.
From Europe's biggest building De Rotterdam designed by Dutch architect Remkoolhasas that stands right next to the Erasmus Bridge made of three interconnected towers that house government, private homes and restaurants, to Hotel New York, and the Cube Houses on Overblaak Street, Rotterdam is a visual treat and an open lesson in styles of architecture. Hotel New York, an old harbour building from where fortune seekers left the country in the previous century, is now the hottest address for more upscale entertainment for the city's well-heeled. The Kunsthal in Museum Park exhibits collections through the year and has no permanent collection of its own. We were fortunate to catch French designer Thierry Mugler's repertoire showcasing his bold and dramatic ideas through the years, in a glamorous tribute to his talent, and most certainly a treat.
With gin the current fad in alcobev, the gin bar at Ballroom, on Witte de Withstraat is the place to unwind at after the hectic walk about in the city. With 55 varieties, there's an entire evening that can be dedicated to this drink made from juniper berries. It's not at all difficult: 30ml in huge balloon-shaped stem glasses topped with ice dilutes the alcohol enough to allow for multiple tastings. The Fenix Food Factory on Veerlaan is another place that offers a wide variety of drinks, here it's about 30 options of beer (along with other types of alcohol). The ambience is more relaxed in keeping with the industrial look of a converted warehouse. It's possible to ask for tasting portions to try as many options as you can hold. For an authentic Dutch meal of croquettes, bread, mustard and mayflower beer head across the old harbour past windmills, and old boats that are still in commission. A visit to Rotterdam would not be complete without a visit to Dudok on Meent, famed for its apple pie. A noisy place built in the Bauhaus style (there's no escaping the definitive architectural styles in this city). Op Het Dak is a rooftop garden that serves vegan food and even has a bee farm. To get to it is a yellow bridge made of planks that residents can buy and put their names on. We bid farewell to the city with a five-course fine dining evening at de Matroos en het Meisje on Delistraat.
Apple pie: Dudok makes the best apple in the city. Proof: a lot of eateries that have it on their menus, source it from this restaurant
Cube Houses: Designed by Dutch architect Piet Blom, these homes are literally cubes and tilted at an angle of 45 degrees
Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen: An art depot scheduled to open its doors to the public in 2021 will house more than 300,000 works of art
Erasmus: Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus was a Dutch philosopher and humanist in the 15th century, who lent his name to many structures in modern Rotterdam
Cycling: Rotterdam ranks as the number one biking city in the world and has the largest bike parking facility in Europe under its metro station
Stay: The James Hotel, Aert van Nesstraat 25, 3012 CA Rotterdam
Call: +31 10 760 5070