Taste a slice of tranquil life on the Rhine

And why Cologne city should be on your list…

As the train crosses the Rhine, strain for a view of the iconic twin spires of the mammoth Cathedral towering over the narrow gables and high slated roofs of Germany’s 2000 year-old city, Cologne or Koln. You fight the urge to walk into its hallowed interiors directly from the station that’s just 20 meters away. But the moment your wheeled baggage is out of the way, you’re back. This is ground zero…all roads start and end here.

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Its not unnatural to feel dwarfed while you stare at the nearly 160-metres high Cathedral dominating the small square of Domplatz. This monumental masterwork of Gothic architecture and one of the tallest churches in the world lays claim to being the longest ever building site – 632 years (1248 to 1880). While reminders of Milan’s Duomo flash through your mind, chew on this. Cologne was the first city the Pope visited after Vatican. That says something!

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On the west facade, (the largest church façade ever created), soar the two imposing 157-metre spires crowned with magnificent filigree spires. Statues, pinnacles, gargoyles, flying buttresses and other complex decorative details fill the exterior of a relatively simple structure, which is completely covered with black soot (from extensive coal burning in homes and factories over the centuries). Doesn’t the blackness make it more endearing?

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Entering the sacred tranquillity, take in the details slowly…what a miraculous survival through the extensive bombing during the World War II. Two aisles run on either side of the main nave, and your neck almost gets a cramp from looking up what was one of the highest Gothic vaults in the world. Natural light floods in with rainbow colours through the large stained glass windows covering a sprawling 10,000 square meters expanse. Gape at the real treasure…the Sarcophagus of the Magi, dating to around 1200, glittering with seven feet of silver and jewels, images of the Old Testament prophets lining the bottom and the 12 apostles decorate the top. Inside, are three golden-crowned skulls believed to belong to the Three Magi. Also on display is the Gero Cross, carved in 976 AD and said to be the oldest surviving monumental crucifix. Watch, study and tread on in revered silence, like everyone else.

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Outside, a few steps from the Cathedral on the right, spot the famous Ludwig Museum…it contains many important works of art from the 20th century, including works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as contemporary art.  Nearby, is the Cologne Philharmonic Hall, and a little further ahead, crossing one of the narrow streets, is the arch-shaped Hohenzollern Bridge stretching across the Rhine. It is lined with statues of the rulers of the House of Hohenzollern – Friedrich III and Wilhelm II – who give the bridge its name. More popularly called the Locking Bridge, it has hundreds of locks placed by couples in declaration of their love. Make a declaration of your own.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Explore the streets of the old town…typical German pubs crammed with noisy, playful crowds. Fit into the canvas of quaint old houses, cobbled streets and little squares, every now and then, an Eau De Cologne (‘water of Cologne’) store with the familiar gold and turquoise ‘4711’ fragrance bottles. At the Printen Schmitz, Cologne’s most famous traditional pastry shop, you are besieged by armies of candy-studded gingerbread men, mountains of spiced loaves and hordes of edible mini houses…spicy and sweet, flavoured with honey, coriander, cloves and cardamom, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and even candied fruit. “Run, run, fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!” the song resounds in your head, amidst the lively music of the shop. Compelled enough to complete a small purchase?

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Roam around the old town, lapping up little details, poking into the quaint by-lanes. A bright red-coloured building announces the enticing menu of Ponchos, an Argentinian steakhouse. Next door, outside the historical beerhouse, a boisterous crowd prepares for a late night of partying. A few steps away, is a group of men dressed as clowns in what looked like multicoloured post-it pyjamas and matching top hats with bright blue long coats. One of them is fixing a camcorder onto a tripod. A crazy bachelor party, perhaps?

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Close to the Rhine river promenade (Rheinauhafen), soak up the atmosphere of the historic breweries, taverns, and traditional houses that stand in neat rows. Pose by the two statues of Tünnes and Schäand representing the typical original inhabitants of the city. Find the famous Schmitz Column – a homage to the most common name in the city and the modest Willi Ostermann Fountain, memorial to the much-loved carnival singer-songwriter and composer. Wander into the Alter Markt, thinking about its evolution from a weekly market and a place of execution in the Middle Ages, to the annual Cologne carnival parade spot it is now. Locate the Jan-von-Werth Fountain associated with the legend of the unfortunate love affair between the soldier Jan and the maiden Grit. Think of other classic love stories from around the world and the towns that rise to fame because of them. Love endures beyond space and time!

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And finally, indulge in the penultimate Cologne experience… a day-long river cruise to Mannheim along the widest and longest river valley in Europe. The calm luxury cruise ship steadily navigates the 800 mile-long mighty river, and within minutes, the chargrilled black twin spires of the cathedral fade into the background. Sit back and skim along the Rhine, silently savouring the spectacle of everyday life. 

Riverside promenades dotted with joggers, cars, cyclists and camper vans. Rows of lovely houses with glass walls and manicured lawns lined up high over the banks. An intermittent castle crowning a hill, a solemn church spire hiding between the trees, a private villa nestling in the wooded environs and green terraced vineyards decking the steep hillsides. Several few towns huddled along the shoreline. Glide along…taste the restful, leisurely pace.

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The ship’s loudspeakers hum on pleasantly with local tales. Medieval castles owners who raised heavy chains across the river to stop merchants boats for taxes. A pontoon bridge built by the Prussians while confronting Napoleon. The Ludendorf bridge pillars, where American soldiers had marched across during the World War II. You cross Bonn, the university city, capital of Germany till 1999 known for the Central Bonn museum mile and the annual Beethoven festival (Beethoven was born here). Further ahead, lies the Wesseling church, and the colorful town of Linz with its 14th century castle and half-timber houses. Ahead, where the Bach River flows into the Rhine, the character of the river changes, the waves get fatter and the waters rough. Buses, cars and tempos are getting transported in massive barges across.

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The river is the central theme here, the main lead in this play, leading the story along. And what a role it has played, for centuries at a stretch! So when you finally disembark at Cologne, I bet the one word in your mind would be ‘encore’.

 

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Why Cologne city should be on your travel list

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Have you heard of the mysterious mansions of Sidhpur?

Unearth an abandoned neighbourhood in Gujarat

I shouldn’t have gone googling when the guide asked me, “Would you like to see the wooden mansions of Sidhpur?” It killed the surprise. Or maybe I should have. Because it would have been a huge mistake to skip it. Pick from various good hotels in Ahmedabad to stay, and drive 112 km away to this ancient city of north Gujarat, believed to be located at the junction of the rivers Ganga and Saraswati.

Whoa! Brace for impact

At first glance, its just a remote Indian town untouched by modernisation, but hold your breath till you reach the Dawoodi Bohras neighbourhood. And exhale. Pinch yourself. Rub your eyes. Still there! A broad lane filled with majestic mansions on both sides. Defying all possible expectations. Not because they’re mansions, but because they’re distinctly European in appearance. In the whole range of soft pastels…lime green, pale pink, lilac, salmon, peach, mint green and lemon. You might as well be standing in one of the streets of Karlovy Vary in Czech Republic. But this is a dusty little town in one of the most traditional regions of Western India! And not a soul in sight.

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There’s lane after lane of such houses, all standing abandoned. Is this a dream? A movie set left behind? Or a ghost town evacuated after a mysterious disaster? Hold your horses. The reality isn’t even remotely fantastic. Apparently, the properties were built by a prosperous community of Bohras, (Shia Muslim traders), who migrated from Yemen in the 18th century. Influenced by the good life in Europe? Without a trace of doubt.

European by character…

Once you’ve steadied yourself from the initial dizziness, venture closer and fuel your heightening curiosity further. Order, homogeneity, symmetry, precision…all the essentials features of a predominantly European character meet your gaze unflinchingly. Gaze back with deeper, microscopic vision and decipher the code…similar shape, similar material, similar design. As if all houses were commissioned to the same architect, who used just one common, basic blueprint. Or were all of them clones of the first one? If they were all washed in the same colour, it would appear to be one giant condominium. Its an incredible mix of architectural styles, varying from Gothic to Art Nouveau to Art Deco exhibited through every extravagant aspect possible. Stuccoed facades, ornate columns, trellised balconies, gabled roofs, elaborate brackets, grandiose banisters, flamboyant door mouldings, decorative grills and stained glass windows. All empty! Unreal.

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…but not in spirit

The character is outwardly European, but there’s a very local spirit within. The most obvious one that strikes you is the Gujarati tradition of using wood as building material. But with an unusual, reinvented aesthetic expression. Extensive use of geometric patterns and an abundance of nature motifs like flower and creepers to adorn doors and windows, in keeping with Islamic convention. The human and animal figures that are a quintessential part of Indian design vocabulary are conspicuously absent. Every house has an intricate monogram in English representing initials of the owner! Could you think of a more impressive display for your nameplate?

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Inside, the soul of Indian havelis (mansions) reveals itself in its full glory. The central open courtyard constructed to allow light and air, richly embellished windows designed to resemble portrait frames, and demarcated living spaces for men and women, show how seamlessly outward character and inner spirit can be blended into a unified whole.

Dying heritage

The empty, forgotten lanes of Sidhpur are an example of hundreds of living traditions that are slowly dying a slow death. What must have been a modern, classy, upmarket neighbourhood 200 years back, is now a picture of neglect and sure signs of deterioration is already visible in the peeling paint, broken window panes, and cracking wood surfaces. Its not entirely impossible that dismantling and reselling of decorative elements has already begun. Locals of Sidhpur are baffled that visitors come to see these derelict, creepy Bohra mansions. What’s to see, they wonder.

As you leave the area, you can’t help but pause by the biggest, grandest house of them all. The distinctness of its structure and appearance makes you stare for a long, long time. Soft sun rays hit some of the 365 windows that speckle the grit-blackened facade of the corner villa. Suddenly, all the pretty colours that you had been admiring in those lanes seem dull and drab against this black-and-white drama. Beware! The vintage beauty of this phantom house may haunt you in your dreams tonight.

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You can be a pigment in the colorful canvas of Cinque Terre

Inside Italy’s five most famous seaside villages…

Italy is an enigmatic lady. She flaunts varied sides of her split personality with equal elan…chic (Milan), arty (Florence), sophisticated (Bellagio), luxe (Capri) to innocent (Varenna), rustic (San Gimignano) or religious (Vatican), romantic (Venice). And if you’re looking for unspoilt and laid-back, there’s Cinque Terre (CHINK-weh TAY-reh). The cluster of five seaside villages stayed hidden from public eye for years, but are now  on every Italy-lover’s wishlist, and for several good reasons. No statues, monuments, museums and street performers here…just the sun, sea, rocky beaches, food, and unadulterated Italy. As its been since centuries.

Settle into the old-fashioned coupe of the compartment in the train that runs from Florence to Monterosso via La Spezia. Can you remain settled as you catch glorious glimpses of electric blue sea through arches of all those tunnels? Flash of blue, flash of blue…gone. Its a spectacle riding along that coast…don’t waste it snoozing!

We chose Monterosso as our base for two practical reasons: oversized suitcase one and oversized suitcase two….weighing roughly 20 kg each. Follow our league if you don’t do low maintenance that well. The uneven stone steps and narrow steep mountain roads of the other villages will challenge the Hercules in you. Pick one of the many family-run hotels, preferably with a view of the lapping aquamarine waters. Some extra glee is always welcome.

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There are trains and ferry boats to see all five villages. Fixed times of the day. Buy a day pass for all five? Oh yes! Next boat slot ten minutes from now? Sure! Make a mad race to the pier, arms flailing, panting and jump aboard. There are halts for a few minutes at each village, you can hop on/hop off as per choice. Ride the Ligurian sea waves with wind in your hair. Head for the last one, Riomaggiore, and make your way back stopping at each of the others. Sshhhh! Let your ears fill with the sound of the waves broken by that adorable sing-song Italian chant by the ferry staff at every stop…Vernaaatza (Vernazza), Corneeeliah (Corniglia) Manarollllah, (Manarola) and Riomaggggioray (Riomaggiore). Music to the ears!

Keep your eyes glued to the six-mile long northern Italian coast…that emerald green landmass kissing the aquamarine blue seas aptly designated a Unesco World Heritage Site to preserve its natural and cultural wonders. Is that multi-coloured spray of paint over that deep ravine? Nah, that’s the first of the dramatic quintuplets…a profusion of pastel houses ending in a rough and rocky cove filled casually with fishing boats. Lively colors to guide fishermen home in the sea mist? Or just another reflection of the essential Italian-esque, like its people, language and food? Maybe both. High above the villages, generously vibrant vineyards swamp steep terraces. Adventure hikers dot the cliffside trails linking the villages. Blend into the canvas of color, dissolve into the rainbow hues from Monterosso to Riomaggiore…five times in a row.

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Same peach-pink-lemon complexion, but each with a distinct persona of its own. Rough-hewn Riomaggiore with its narrow inlet where boats jostle through to a rocky embankment and a steep flight of stone steps from the sea to a narrow path along a rocky cliff-face leading to the village. Dramatic Manarola with its curved upward path circling the hill, promising incredible views of the sea and the village. Hotspot for camera-tripod enthusiasts, especially when the evening lights start to twinkle and create pure magic. Charming and quiet Corniglia with 400 zigzagging steps leading from the train station to the harbour-less hilltop town, where less than 300 live. Vivacious Vernazza with its castle ruins, an ancient church, a natural harbour and even a snazzy promenade. Resort-like Monterosso with a historic centre hiding two lovely churches and crooked lanes decked with lovely arches and inviting shops.

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Siblings with shared genes. Dipped in the same sauce of lazy, laid-back seafaring life and traffic-free charm of centuries-old traditions…untainted, unglamorous, unpolished. Not a branded store in sight, just authentic local-made produce. Welcoming trattorias with fresh Italian and Ligurian specialties like aromatic pesto and focaccia. Bruschetta with ham and cheese, pesto, tomato, or olive paste. Artichoke pizza. Basil spaghetti. Huge slices of soft bread. Spinach and cheese stuffed ravioli doused in basil sauce and pine nuts. Swordfish with diced tomato, olives, capers. Wine to savour. Tiramisu to swoon over. Is that food or is that religion? Eat / pray to your tastebuds content.

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Old men chatting in the afternoon shade near the pier…they’ve probably been replaying this routine since decades. Store owners interacting warmly with shoppers over cheerfully displayed fares. Laundry fluttering outside green shuttered windows of modest homes with ‘less than modest’ sea views. An exuberant red-aproned owner-waitress of a tiny cafe singing and dancing without inhibition as she serves two solitary customers. Just another blissful, sunny day earning daily bread (or focaccia).

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Dive into a life that’s filled with the joys of simple things. Stroll up and down the streets adorned with chipped paint buildings, solve flavour dilemmas at artisanal gelato and pesto shops, indulge in retail therapy in quaint boutiques, perch on parked boats draped with blue-white striped covers, daydream on the froth-edged aqua beach and lounge on the age-old rocks lining the coves. And when the soft golden rays of the sun stream through the cloudy horizon, casting a silvery beam across the navy sea, feel serenity flow gently through your veins. Cinque Terre…Dolce vita!

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Italy's five villages promise sun, sea, rocky beaches, food and unadulterated slice of life.