This is what you can do in the historic centre of Munich

Munich, Germany’s secret capital city…

Skipping Bavaria while in Germany should actually be illegal! It is literally a crime…depriving yourself of the splendours you could encounter while travelling south by train to Munich. No exaggeration…that image of Germany will be burnt onto your memory wall forever. Nature flaunts its full glory through endlessly luscious grass-carpeted meadows and forests so thick, they close in upon the train tracks at some points. Tunnel after tunnel zip past, and you zigzag over the landscape crossing one hill after the other. Hypnotised, head turned towards the constant cinemascope, your eyes scan the landscape without a break, thirsty for more. Could the introduction to Germany’s secret capital city be any more enticing?

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Pick Cortiina Hotel on Ledererstrasse for its sleek minimalist interiors and central location within a stone’s throw of the old town (Alstadt). Cozy up in front of the hip, electric fireplace before you tackle the grey skies and a possible downpour. Munich is waiting!

Step into the past

Pause under the austere stone tower of the gothic Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) and reflect on its third restoration after two major destructions, first from lighting and then from war. Not a stone out of place! Gloat at the sunrise-washed vision of the ancient St Peters Church before you take a few steps through this historic gateway, and you are in Marienplatz, the heart of the medieval walled city of Munich since 1158. Heritage buildings mix harmoniously with modern day architecture. The ancient Marienpillar column adorned by a gold-plated statue of Mary reminds that the small, irregular shaped piazza still continues to be the pulsing centre of the old city. Spend a few hours soaking in the peace…till the outdoor cafes open and buzzing throngs alter the scene. 

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Take time to study the indisputable star of this space…the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus). Its 300-feet long Gothic-style facade, graced with ornate stone ornamentation, hundreds of statues, turrets, arches and a 260-foot tower rising to the skies, declares it a work of art. The solemn grey exterior is unexpectedly softened by bunches of pink flowers bursting from its balconies. What’s even better? The tower houses Europe’s largest, most famous Glockenspiel, where 32 life-size dukes, ladies and knights, dance around, telling the story of a royal wedding from the 16th century to the tune of 42 chiming bells everyday. The dance of the figurines synchronised with the musical chiming bells makes for a pretty unusual concert, at 11am, 12pm and 5pm. (Read my post here) Everything so painstakingly re-created! Only now, 65 years after the last bombs had fallen, are the restorations finally being wrapped up. That thought alone, is enough to make you stare a few seconds longer.

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Say a little prayer

Beyond and above, catch the familiar glimpse of twin green onion domes of the Frauenkirche, the city’s iconic church. The twin domes, said to be inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, are different from their Russian cousins…which are usually gold plated or colored in beautiful designs. Here the domes are simple half-rounds in green copper, each decorated with a small gold globe on top. Apparently, domes represented the Holy Roman Empire and are found on Catholic churches all over Southern Germany. Divergent thinking? Maybe the sensual curves of the domes are a symbolic celebration of life after a series of invasions, fires, plagues and wars?

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Classic Gothic style and plain brick simplicity of Frauenkirche’s facade is a contrast to the whitewashed beauty inside. Look for an especially interesting element…the devil’s footprint by the door. Legend has it that the devil stamped his foot in rage when coming into the church to steal souls. Take a seat and reflect on the lovely, delicate decorative lamps suspended from the ceiling. Octagonal pillars create the illusion of white walls on on either side of the 31-metre long nave. Large, yet surprisingly intimate. Most of this was destroyed during World War II, except the towers, and the rest has been gloriously restored. Even today, the stature of the Frauenkirche spires continues to be highest…no building in Munich can be taller!

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Shop till you drop

Move east from Marienplatz onto the broad boulevard of Kaufingerstrasse that leads to Karlsplatz, where the medieval city gate Karlstor stands. This is Munich’s busiest shopping area, filled with well-known department stores, international chains as well as smaller shops selling umbrellas, gloves, candles and wood carvings. Criss-crossing the main street run passages, alleyways, arcades and courtyards with exclusive boutiques with exquisite German crafts made of porcelain. Dissolve into some mindful and some mindless retail therapy.

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Store windows display traditional costumes like Dirndl and Lederhosen…very popular buys during Oktoberfest. Analyse the three separate pieces of the Dirndl: dress (das Kleid), blouse (die Bluse) and purely decorative apron (die Schurze). Women sport a short hiking boots in light brown suede with thick, folded knit socks. Men wear Lederhosen (or leather pants), which are either shorts or three quarter length pants, with by a special cotton shirt, long knit socks and mountain-climbing boots. Visualise hordes of men and women wearing traditional attire, beer mugs in their hands, singing and dancing all over the place. What frenzy and merrymaking!

The entire area comes alive at night, the lights adding a new sparkle to the aristocratic buildings, compelling you to linger on like kids unwilling to go home after a day at Disneyland. At Marienplatz, the Neues Rathaus makes for a radiant centrepiece washed in golden glow against the electric blue of the sky above. Timeless.

Eat, drink and be merry

Indulge in a necessary currywurst snack and a much-needed coffee break with gingerbread cookies. Pay homage to Dallmayr, the oldest luxury delicatessen in Munich established in 1700, just behind New Town Hall. Gape over the exquisite Bavarian and international gourmet goodies that attract 1.5 million visitors every year. Prep up your tastebuds with sights of freshly prepared delicatessen dishes, to delectable desserts, fine wines, exquisite chocolate, and even live crayfish swimming in a fountain. And when hunger pangs call, extract yourself from the stupor and start a trek in search of Bavarian food.

Check out nightlife in nearby Platzl, a little square which used to be a small market place back in time. Nowadays its is a place of great contrasts…traditional architecture, a Michelin Star restaurant, souvenir shops, a Hard Rock Café and the historical beer hall, HofBrauhaus, where Hitler gave his first speech to his Nazi Party. Over a hearty Eintopf, a one-pot meal made of vegetables, potatoes or pulses and meat, let your mind wander to the past when Irish Benedict monks founded Munchen at Marienplatz.

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Little did they know that someday, their tradition of brewing beer would grow into the world’s biggest funfair, the 16-day long Oktoberfest. Of course, the credit for the tradition actually goes to King Ludwig I. Had he not invited the citizens to celebrate his wedding to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in October 1810, beer may not have morphed into Germany’s national passion. In fact, here in Bavaria, beer is officially considered to be a food. So, have you eaten yet?

 

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Why you should not miss Munich, Germany’s secret capital city #bavaria #munich #historic centre #medieval city

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Why you need to see this stone village in French Provence?

Provencal village of Les Baux-de-Provence…

Its the heart of the rustic Luberon valley of French Provence, 15 km from Arles and 25 km from Avignon. Purple lavender, green herbs and black truffle color the landscape. One of the million scenic roads leads to a rocky outcrop under a shocking blue sky. Where the postcard-pretty village of Les Baux-de-Provence is perched on a hilltop, elegantly dressed in shades of classic cream. Forget the etymology (its named the bauxite found there). This is one of ‘the most beautiful’ of 160 Provencal villages listed by the Plus Beaux Villages de France Association. See and believe!

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A generous shot of digital art

For a preamble of a very different kind, indulge your eyes in a majestic spectacle below the village. Take a walk through living pictures and music in the Carrières de Lumières (Quarries of Lights). Spine chills guaranteed! Even if you know what to expect in the 35-minute digital art show that graces the interiors of the limestone quarry caves in the magical Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell).

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Its pitch dark inside, but no possibility of stumbling. Because you’re surrounded by dozens of parallel slideshows of bright, colourful artworks slipping and sliding onto the surface of the wall caves, ceiling and floor. You’re walking through the images, inside 7,000 square meters of gigantic walls of white limestone rising to a height of 14 metres. Cutting edge technology of 100 video projectors and a 3D audio system create a brilliant kaleidoscope of colours and dazzling images, overflowing one after the other. Its a treat for the eyes, ears and mind…unlike any art museum in the world.

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Stony beauty on a hilltop

Real sensory extravaganza awaits in the fortified pedestrian village of Les Baux-de-Provence, home to 400 locals. As you stop to gasp at the spectacular views of the stony Alpilles mountain valley, consider these facts. 22 listed monuments crammed into just 18 square kilometres. Time to get selective.

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Carved out of one giant rock…is the thought that comes to mind, as you step onto the crooked, steep cobbled streets, which almost seem to blend into the walls of the rugged houses lining either side. A folded sun umbrella of a terrace cafe matching the cream of its stone facade. Bright red shuttered windows and a casually displayed advertisement of ‘Bonbons’ enhancing a nearby store’s appeal. A classic Renaissance mansion doorway bearing the inscription “Post Tenebras Lux 1571” (After the Darkness, Light). An intriguing courtyard adorned with flower urns and a solemn statue in stone. Faded amber tiled-roofs breaking the monotony of the scene. Inhale the serenity, feel the grace.

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Stop at the craft shops to pick up local Provençal products like tapenade, extra virgin olive oil, special biscuits and hand-painted clay products. Explore the alleys running off the main thoroughfare, enjoy a coffee under the blue sky, or indulge your inner art-lover at the exclusive galleries. Admire the carefully restored ancient houses and imagine life centuries ago, when when the population used to be 4000.

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For a dose of history, make way to the Citadelle des Baux, the ruined castle on the upper part of town. Relive the medieval era with catapult games, archery lessons, crossbow shooting, sword fights and pony rides. Or just float into fantasy with unforgettable views of vineyards, olive groves and pointy mountains.

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Find one of the oldest buildings in Les Baux…the 10th-century Romanesque church of St Vincent. A unique wrought-iron cross marks the entrance. The stained glass windows in the nave bear uncanny resemblance to digital art. To the south of the church stands a circular turret, topped with a dome decorated with gargoyles. In the olden times, a fire was lit in the turret whenever a local died…closely-knit community.

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Wasted village to tourist hotspot

A solitary iron bell makes strong statement on a partially destroyed wall. The town-hall, various Renaissance town-houses and chapels stand as silent reminders of the 12th-century regional powerhouse, which was razed to the ground in 1632 by a paranoid Louis XIII. Today, what is left behind is a reconstructed ‘live city’ carved into, out of and on top of a 600-foot-high rock. Who knew that hundreds of years later, this wasted village would attract 1.5 million tourists a year!

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Provencal village of Les Baux-de-Provence #provence #southfrance #frenchcountryside #provencalvillage

The most incredible sights in the historic heart of Istanbul

A walking tour in Sultanahmet, Istanbul…

Hypnotic first glimpse of a one-of-a-kind city uniting the ‘chalk-and-cheese’ divergent continents of Europe and Asia. Spectacular skyline of cascading grey-blue domes and pencil-thin minarets of nearly 3,000 mosques. And the electric blue of the rough Bosphorus waters speckled with gliding seagulls. Born as Byzantium under Greek ruler Byzas (7th-century BC), renamed Constantinople by Roman Emperor Constantine for 1,100 years and reincarnated as seat of Ottoman Sultans’ mighty Muslim empire for 400 years…the culture cauldron in Turkey’s star city has enriched multifold with each glorious era in history. Melting pot, indeed!

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The most wonderful things that Belgium is known for?

Comics, waffles and chocolates of Belgium…

You knew that Johnny Depp is not the star of the 2017 remake of the classical movie ‘Murder on the Orient Express’…its Kenneth Branagh as the famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But did you know that Agatha Christie’s fictional detective was inspired by a real-life Belgian policeman, Jacques Hornais? For Christie whodunit fans like me, Belgium is (and will always be) synonymous with Poirot. As will be comics, waffles and chocolates. On the trail of other wonderful things in Belgium’s capital, Brussels…

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Explore gems in the most famous boulevard of Vienna

Resplendence of the Ringstrasse in Vienna…

Sunlight dazzles on the calm waters of the Danube flowing through the city’s suburbs. You can almost hear the strains of the most famous waltz ever written, ‘The Blue Danube’ by Strauss. Well, hardly a waltz, more like Austria’s second national anthem. The aura of Europe’s cultural hub unveils itself gradually through broad boulevards, aristocratic architecture, glorious greenery and luxury hotels housed in old palaces. Missing your gown and tux?

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How to experience Prague with and without the crazy crowds?

Lively and quiet vibes in the Czech capital…

Prague. Praha. Mother of all cities. Eye-candy heaven. Home to ultra-magnificent monuments. Steeped in rich, unbroken history. Prettier than Paris. Quintessentially medieval, quintessentially European. So then…touristy and crowded? Or calm and serene? No need to pick, because Praha has twin vibes. Find both. Love both. Wherever you are in the charming Czech capital.

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This is how to soak in the forgotten splendour of Orchha

Deep inside the temple town of Orchha…

A polite ticket-checker thanks each passenger, bright-red uniformed staff deliver breakfast goodies and pleasant station announcements guide you along the route. Office-going commuters jostle barefoot villagers at smaller stations. You’re rewinding to memories of childhood train travel. Racing the electric poles, beating the running tracks. Vibrant green fields climax into a glorious last stretch of lush hills-and-valleys between Delhi and Jhansi. You’re in a trance…hypnotised by the languorously curving slow train, blackened old monuments of Datia town and the muddy Betwa river cross-over. From Jhansi, its a 45-minute taxi ride down a narrow road through thick of a forested landscape. Prelude to a drama waiting to unfold in the unusual temple town on the banks of the Betwa. Aptly named Orchha (the “hidden”). Ready or not, here it comes…

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