Drown in all the colors of the rainbow at Porto

Don’t you dare overlook Portugal’s second city…


This 4th-century port and commercial centre founded by the Romans at the mouth of the river Duoro, actually lent its name to its country, and rightly so. Look deeper and you know how Porto (or Oporto) is the very essence of Portugal. Its a hilly town sans the elan of European cities. It gives the impression of being old and neglected. But its magnificent mansions, opulent churches and a picture-perfect riverside captures the heart. Old Portuguese women cheerfully advertise roasted chestnuts outside colourful building facades, classic tramlines run through broad hilly boulevards and iconic black-white mosaic calcada (flooring) adorns streets and there’s ornamental tile-work everywhere you look. So how about a colour theme to explore this quintessentially vibrant Portuguese city?

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Out of the blue

Believe it or not…this town is painted blue. Large blank walls in monuments are dressed up with intricate and detailed wall murals, using antique hand-painted ceramic tiles (azulejo, meaning ‘small polished stone’) in blue-white tones, the fashionable colour palette of the Gothic times. Delve into this Moorish tradition from the 13th-century, trying to decipher incredible artwork that narrates stories from history, religion, and culture. Best examples? San Bento train station entrance lobby, the modest Santa Catarina church and the outside cloister of the dramatic twin-towered Se Cathedral. Breathless with awe? There are countless azulejo walls to go.

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Red carpet treatment

An ornate Neo-Gothic façade, a sumptuous interior with art-deco elements, swanky wooden walls, a drool-worthy stained glass ceiling and a palatial stairway swathed in a plush red carpet. Stare away, its almost a norm here. No royal residence or museum this. Lello & Irmão Bookstore is the most marvellous bookstore in the world and a magnet for literature fiends since 1906. It whipped up all your Harry Potter fantasies, didn’t it? Worth lining up in that long queue with a 3-euro entry ticket. Not seeing red now, are we?

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White-it-out

Board a quaint old tram from Ribiera for a lovely 30-minute coastal ride to Foz.  Snail pace, sudden jerky brakes and one compartment crowded with 20 people…all oozing old-world charm. Ambling along a fashionable tree-lined promenade, admiring all the river-view properties, joining walkers, joggers and bike riders till you lose track of time. Destination: Pergola, a pristine white neoclassical structure built in the early 20th century by the mayor for his wife besotted by the Promenade des Anglais of Nice, France. Perch on the pretty curved balustrade with its elegant columns, under the overhead planks. Bathe in a spectacular sunset and lose sight of reality.

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All that glitters is gold

Be blinded by the gilded arabesque motifs, exemplary woodwork and fine stained-glass work at the Arabian Hall of the 19th-century Stock Exchange Palace (Palacio da Bolsa). A unique national monument and Unesco World Heritage Site built to promote Porto’s economic power, is now wowing millions of visitors. Don’t miss the grandiose staircase and stunning bronze chandeliers suspended from the astounding cupola.

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Next door, resist the temptation to scratch at the 400kg of gilt-covered wood carvings and statues inside the ostentatious 15th-century Church of St. Francis. Gold, gold and more gold carvings everywhere! Too much glitter? Venture into the nondescript underground catacombs that are home to thousands of eerie tombs. (Read a previous post on the catacombs here).

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Tickled pink

The Ribeira district of Porto is a Unesco World Heritage site, perfectly preserved from the Middle Ages. Cobbled streets with cramped, narrow houses in muted colors, most grimy, many empty, run-down abandoned mansions, few with cracked glass windows and tattered curtains. Rough, unpolished, makings of a ghost town? In the center of a lively square where tourist are milling, find the emblematic bronze cube surrounded by café tables. The house of Porto’s greatest native, Casa do Infante (House of the Prince Henry the Navigator) stands right here even today. So this is where he launched his expedition against the Moors, and initiated the famous voyages of exploration. Classy hotels, traditional Portuguese cafes and lively bars celebrate this historical site today.

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Straddling the Duoro river is the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge designed in the 1880s by a protégé of Gustave Eiffel. On the other side is Vila Nova de Gaia, a city is known for its port wine and home to many port cellars and producers including Sandeman. From behind the docked Rabelo flat boats, the nautical vehicles that once transported wine barrels from Douro valley vineyards, find a spot by the river and wait patiently for the most flawless sunset of your life. This is Instagrammable Porto…a dream town bathed in soft peach and blush colors, that seem to grow in vibrance as the grey clouds lift and the sun spreads its glow. Creating a painting with ever-changing colors. The camera will take over…you won’t be able to stop clicking.

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And later, as you satiate your taste buds with delectable apple cake and aromatic coffee at the legendary Majestic Cafe, sit back on the plush leather-engraved upholstery and steal glances at the tainted wall mirrors, remind yourself what a fabulous idea it was to come to Portugal’s second city. Planning a second, longer visit, aren’t you?

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Don’t you dare overlook Portugal’s second city

Why Rothenburg is the epitome of German romanticism?

Dollhouse town in Germany…

Factoid: Germany’s second largest city in the middle ages, with 6,000 residents (mammoth for those times) was reduced to poverty during the 30 years war, and virtually faded into oblivion. But life comes full circle. Today it has regained its glory as Germany’s best preserved medieval walled town. Rothenburg ob der Tauber seems like the perfect name for this fairytale place until you translate it into English…red fort on the River Tauber). Mmmm…something less practical, maybe?

It takes four train changes to reach here from Heidelberg, but the journey is cakewalk, considering the precious rewards…rolling hills, sloping valleys, thick forests, quiet villages, huddled half-timbered houses, blending into or breaking the rhythm of the green. A deserted little station, and five minutes to enter the fortress walls of a dreamland. Movie set…nah? Cardboard storybook…nah? Cutest of gabled houses, pointy red slanting roofs, wooden plank surfaces and flower tubs decorating the windows. Pinch yourself. Ouch, you’re awake!

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The fantasy continues if you’ve booked a room at the Hotel Gotisches Haus. Converted from an old bread house, with 700-year old oak floor and ceiling beams, ancient doors and creaky stairs, its medieval splendour shines through exposed old stone-work. Charming room decor…a room heater from the past, a wrought iron bed, brick exposed walls, a cupboard and dainty white lace window curtains. Hold on, which year is this?

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Explore every inch of the town…yes, its tiny enough for the possibility. Along the popular shopping street of Herrengasse, where once a cattle market flourished, notice the hotels and shops converted out of houses belonging to wealthy families. Upper floors with windows that look like barn doors. At the top of each house, a bar sticking out with a pulley to hoist sacks of grain up to the two top floors. To stock food supplies during war or siege? The houses almost touching together, but with separate walls for the water to drain off and fires to be contained. Innovation of town planning from back then!

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Hop into Käthe Wohlfahrt’s flagship store, Christmas Village, located in several separate buildings, one of which is the Christmas Museum. Learn how many of the Christmas traditions started in Germany, including decorating of Christmas trees. Outside the store, is a parked truck with fake, bright gift packages and at the entrance stands an adorable cuddly six-feet teddy. So, planning to return at Christmas?

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Nearby, at the Franciscan Church, the oldest in town, dawdle in the solitude of unpretentious, white interiors, offset by the graceful wooden-slat ceiling. Then head opposite to the imperial family castle of the Hohenstaufens. At the Burgtor gate, pause to study the mask used to pour hot oil onto attackers. Evil or inventive? Explore the huge gardens and the grey stone ruins of the castle left over from the earthquake destruction of 1356, trying to visualise the missing pieces. Gloat over the incredible views into the lush green valley stretch for miles, the calm river Tauber weaving a path, red-roofed houses, steeples, towers, turrets, playing hide and seek with the natural landscape. Wonder…had the town been built to hide behind the trees or had the trees grown over the years hiding the town?

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Change of scene. In the Marktplatz, the bustling center of town, follow the throngs to the Rathaus (Town Hall), a grand building combining Gothic and Renaissance styles. Next to it, at the tall, yellow coloured clock tower, witness the sweet clockwork of the glockenspiel…admiring the precision of the two windows opening and two figures drinking from mugs. Then wander around the medium-sized square, peeping into souvenir shops selling schneeballen, wooden crafts, beer mugs, as well as numerous cafes, gelato shops and restaurants. At one of the typical German taverns, gorge on the Franconian specialty…schnitzel (breaded pork cutlet). Notice familiar faces…the town is so small, you can bump into the same people a few times!

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A little north of Marktplatz, go religious with St Jakobskirche (St. Jakob’s Church), built between 1373 and 1464 or delve into past treasures at the Reichstadtmuseum, a former convent. Close by, in the Mittelalterliches Museum (Middle Ages Museum), impassionately study the torture and punishment instruments, venture into dark dungeons and peep into dingy cells sporting life-size models of prisoners. Too much? Go lighter and livelier at the Doll and Toy Museum.

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Mittelalterliches Museum, Rothenberg ob der Tauber

Save the best for last. Meander in and out of curved, twisting little alleys, savouring that quintessential old-world charm. Countless gabled doll-houses in pretty pastels…lime, aqua, lemon, ochre, lilac, teal, peach. Window sills alive with bright flowers, an odd cluster of wine grapes hanging from a wall creeper, a tiny family hotel with an outdoor cafe, a toy monkey on a small chair on a window ledge, an ornate iron door knocker, a quaint oil lantern, a dwarf statue guarding a doorstep, a painted white wooden bench with a row of planters, hand-painted signages of specialty shops. Scattering of gems everywhere. Can you see why Walt Disney’s Geppetto village in Pinocchio was inspired by this little fairytale place?

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Search out Gerlachschmiede, the most photographed location in Rothenburg, on the fork of Plönlein (Little Square). A crooked, narrow, half-timbered building in a golden mustard colour making a silent statement against the cloud-scattered blue skies above. Framed by the Kobolzell Gate and Siebers Tower, it marks the entrance to the town. Would you believe that this is a 1951 reconstruction of the original building, destroyed in 1945? Looks like its been here since the beginning of time.

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Back in the main square, as the sun dips into the evening, elegant shadows of the Rathaus fall on the little gabled houses resting on the slanting cobbled square, their soft colours sharply contrasting against the still sharp blue of the sky. You can feel it then…Rothenburg ob der Tauber on the Romantic Road is the epitome of German romanticism, inspiring artists through the ages with its unmistakable silhouette created by 42 gates and towers. If you have the time, indulge in the 1.5 mile long walk along the historic centre. Feel the remnants of a thousand-year past seep into your senses.

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When the shops down their shutters and the tour groups melt away into the darkness, the town enchants you even more with its sleepy and peaceful avatar. Honey, they shrunk me, you whisper to yourself…feeling like a miniature figurine in a gigantic doll-house town. But it is no dream…there’s a piece of Rothenburg in your heart and your footsteps are on its old stone streets. A bond. For eternity.

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber is Germany’s best preserved medieval walled town.

Cocktail of opulence and tragedy at the Habsburg Palace

Vienna’s imperial palace will overwhelm you…

Even as you survey the facade of ornate Habsburg Palace, the winter residence of the Austrian imperials since the 13th-century, you sense fulfilment. The very essence of Vienna’s cityscape is embodied within these walls…several squares and gardens, 18 groups of buildings, 19 courtyards, and 2,600 rooms spread over a massive 60 acres…a mini city in itself!

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No reason to be overwhelmed. The entrance ticket defines three specific areas to tour…the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum and Silver Collection. In a vast baroque riding hall, world famous Lipizzaner stallions dance under sparkling chandeliers, baroque stucco and an arcade of elegant columns…the celebrated Spanish Riding School. Keep that for later.

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Source: Wikipedia

Every inch of the lavish Imperial State Apartments tells a resplendent tale of the Habsburg dynasty, their rule, their power and their glory. Life-sized statues of men in uniform and ladies in black dresses with train stand motionless in the large Audience Hall, creating an action replay from another century. Here, Maria Theresa’s great-great-grandson, Emperor Franz Josef met about 260,000 subjects during his 68-year long reign. Picture him ending the conversation with a slight inclination of his head. In his Study, imagine him at his desk at 4 am in the morning. In his spartan bedroom, visualise him walking from his simple iron bed to the portable washstand to splash water over his eyes.

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Source: Wikipedia

My favourite part? The salons and reception rooms of the Empress Elisabeth (lovingly called Sisi). Adorned with magnificent paintings reflecting her love for the Mediterranean landscape. Marble sculptures, tapestried walls and gilded ceilings showing off her exquisite taste. In the Grand Salon, under the famous painting of Sisi in the Court Gala robes and 27 diamond stars in her Rapunzel-black long hair…it dawns on you that it is the sparkle of her glossy, translucent skin, rosy cheeks, lush hair and innocent eyes (and not the jewels) that have magnetized you. There is a certain mystique about her! You can’t help conjuring up a vision of one of the famous masquerade balls that used to light up the palace…noblemen in fitted red and gold suits, and ladies decked with jewels and glamorous gowns, the royal couple leading with the first dance and all eyes on Sisi…admiring, idolising, envious and predatory.

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Source: Wikipedia

The show-stopper is most definitely the Sisi Museum. Who is the real person behind the mask of Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Josef? The 300 sensitively designed exhibits show the transformation of an innocent, dreamy young girl, into a defiant, restless, unapproachable, obsessive and melancholic enigma…the beauty icon of Europe, whose tragic assassination once threw the world into mourning. A fairy-tale life filled with escapist episodes, dieting and exercising mania to the extent of anorexia for an enviable 21-inch waist, mandatory three-hours long hair rituals, all come alive. Flashback in time with her personal belongings…parasols, jewellery boxes, beauty recipes, travelling medical chest, her milk tooth, christening dress and even the black coat used to cover her after the assassination at Beau-Rivage Geneva by an Italian anarchist. What a life! Lady Diana and Sisi would have made great friends…they sure had a lot in common.

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Source: Wikipedia

The expression ‘dinner fit for a king’ couldn’t find a better example in the Silver Chamber. French cuisine for weekday official dinners and Viennese cuisine for the obligatory (but lively) Sunday family dinners…the staff in the imperial kitchens would have always been on their toes. Ogle at the fabulous collection of over 7000 items…kitchenware, silverware, golden and porcelain items, table linen, glass services and centrepieces of gilt bronze on display in a huge 1,300 square meters area. The highlights: the solid-gold personal cutlery set of Empress Maria Theresa, a 116-piece fine porcelain Minton dessert service, the golden table service of Napoleon I, and Empress Elisabeth’s portable travelling service. The most eye-catching: an ostentatious gold and bronze table centrepiece, 33 meters (108 feet) long! Quite appropriate for the lavish pomp of imperial banquets! Glare at the elaborate ‘Imperial Fold’ of the table napkins, trying to memorise the way the hollows wrapped around the small bread roll…this is still a closely guarded secret that only two people know and pass it on to someone before they die! In the age of YouTube, you wonder how?

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The 20 rooms of the Treasury glitter with precious paraphernalia…robes, crowns, sceptres, ornaments, crucifixes, jewels…symbols and insignias of the Austrian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire…more than 1000 years of European history and memorabilia from significant coronations or baptisms. The highlight is the imperial crown of emperor Rudolph II, studded with countless gems and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, with the octagonal imperial crown. The Austrian world dominion proclaim itself from the wall panels amidst the blatant show of wealth and prosperity of the Habsburgs. Only 7,000 items of the 150,000 in the collection’s holdings are displayed here…how all that wealth was amassed in the first place? Also, how much is too much when it comes to royals?

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Source: Wikipedia

As you leave the complex, consider the abrupt end of all glamour and glory. The home of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is now a landmark tourist destination attracting 600,000 visitors annually. In the winter palace, there is no Maria Theresa, no Franz Josef, no Empress Sisi…instead a contemporary, ordinary civilian works as President and receives dignitaries in Maria Theresa’s erstwhile bedchamber.

The Sisi mystique is probably still haunting you…so stoke it further. Nearby in the famed Kohlmarkt, Vienna’s most luxurious shopping street, where court-appointed jewellers were once housed, take a peek inside the store of A.E. Kochert, the jewellers who had created the diamond stars for Empress Sisi’s hair. So what if you can’t afford any of their baubles? Just feel the shadow of royalty. Then venture into the 200-year old Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery, Demel, where she used to order her sweets. Her favourite violet sorbet dessert is still on the menu…order some for yourself, relive part of the enigma. Looking for something more concrete? Then walk into any souvenir shop in the city. Her Winterhalter portrait is everywhere…on brochures, magnets, mugs, chocolates, tote bags, fridge magnets, umbrellas, fans. Replicas of her diamond stars filled shelves of gift shops. Pick what strikes your fancy…take her home!

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Source: Wikipedia

 

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Habsburg Palace, winter residence of the Austrian imperials since the 13th-century is a mini city in itself!