Why you need to get to the adorable German town of Heidelberg!

Blend into the old square of Heidelberg…

You’ve started on a high note. Peak high. A ride on one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe stretching from Cologne to Heidelberg. Your mind is resonating with the sensory explosion, courtesy the Rhine river valley panorama. Little towns with tiny German houses, pointy old churches and broken medieval stone fortresses from Roman times. Hills rich with lush foliage, rolling vineyards, landscaped terraces and curvy roads kissing the gushing river that sparkles with the rays of sun. And you’re contemplating a strange paradox. In the birthplace of cuckoo clocks where keeping time is everything, how does time manage to stand so still? As if the journey wasn’t magical enough, you land in one of Deutschland’s most adorable towns…Heidelberg. Three million tourists a year. But why should statistics give anyone nightmares?

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First, find a hideout

Someplace quiet, someplace nice, someplace pretty, don’t think twice. Check into Hotel Villa Marstall….its a a small boutique hotel with 18 rooms and minimal staff. Views of the Neckar river adorned with its quaint old wooden arched bridge from some windows. Few minutes walk from the old town. And breakfast in stone cellars. Jackpot! Lights out at the front desk when the clock strikes 8 pm. No reason to panic…its not a dorm. The main entrance locks up early, but you can let yourself in with the room swipe card. How’s that for a touch of home?

Head for Marktplatz

Barely five minutes of walk and you’re setting foot on the cobblestones of Marketplatz, the pulse of Heidelberg’s historical city center, Altstadt. The display boards tell all…the square layout, its landmarks and their historical significance. This has been the town’s hub since Middle Ages, not just for markets, but for all public proceedings…good, bad, and ugly, including beheadings, tortures and witch burnings. But that was then. Gory has now given way to glory, but the ancient tradition of people gathering continues. Before you even realise it, you’ve blended in seamlessly. As if you were always part of its throbbing canvas of life. Feel it.

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Savour sweetness

Pretty old buildings in soft lemon, cream, peach and teal colours line the square on three sides. The tall and narrow facades with gabled roofs are evenly and tightly packed together, their windows cheerfully brightened with colourful petunias and geraniums. At floor level, an array of cafes or shops sell local produce, candles, clothing, beer mugs and decorations. Stroll in and out of the inviting doorways, walking into an odd art gallery or a music shop. Pick up something local…like a dozen assorted schneeballen (they last up to a few weeks)…large tennis-ball shaped pastry, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar, chocolate, cinnamon, nuts, caramel and even champagne. (Know more about the schneeballen) Does the store owner stay in the quaint house above…and had it been his family home since centuries, you muse while he packs your purchase into a crunchy white paper bag. It feels inconveniently sized and hard…how on earth do you bite into one of these? Only one way to find out!

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Trace eternity

Stop at one of the most photographed buildings in the square and step back in time. The iconic Ritter Hotel is the only original 17th century house that exists in the town today. It had even served as a temporary town hall when the Town Hall was destroyed in 1693. Talk about survival! While taking several pictures of the brown sandstone facade, renaissance-era columns and the carved figures, notice the inscription on the front “Persta invicta, Venus” (Remain Forever Unconquered, Beauty). Indeed, the elegant building constructed by a French cloth dealer had retained its charm over centuries.

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Shop at the Church

The limelight of the square? Clearly the odd-shaped, 600-year old Gothic-styled Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit). You need to take a circle around its almost 60 meters long and 20 meters wide perimeter to familiarise yourself with the unique structure of this red sandstone building. That baroque roof was added later to replace the one that burned down…can you believe it? Soak in the salmon coloured interior, tall columns, high ceilings, and pretty patterned windows. Wonder about the wall that once split the space into two halves – Catholic and Protestant. Unusual is the word for it. The 15th-century tomb of the church’s founder, King Ruprecht I, and his wife, Elizabeth, their carved likenesses still distinct, are preserved inside. But the strangest element is the circle of tented stalls outside the church walls, sandwiched cosily between its buttresses, selling everything but religious souvenirs! Indulge yourself…go shopping at the Church. 

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Debate life sentences

At the left end of the Marketplatz, near the 18th century baroque style Town Hall (Rathaus) with its bell tower, balconies, dormer windows, arched entryways and a colourful coat of arms, is another interesting structure. The large Hercules fountain statue is a favorite resting place for people to catch their breath. Now chew on this. In medieval times, criminals were chained here and left to take their last breaths! How ironical is that?

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Munch on lunch

Despite the astounding buzz of activity, there’s something utterly enjoyable about Heidelberg’s Marktplatz. Intelligently designed layout, maybe? Because you never have a full view of the whole square from any angle. Lunch on your mind? Grab the last free outdoor table at a busy corner bistro before hunger pangs get the better of you. German meals can wait for later. Large helpings of hearty tomato soup, garnished with big dollops of cream? Thinnest, crunchiest pizza served on a rustic wood plate? Sure! Sounds of the organ waft from the Church, chimes sound from the Town Hall bell tower and a street musician strums Bach on his violin. Music is all around and you heart is singing. If your instinct tells you that Heidelberg will go down your memory lane as one of the loveliest places you have visited, believe it. Fuel up and get ready to conquer the map. You’ve barely scratched the surface. The whole town is waiting to be discovered. Including the Heidelberg castle on the hill with views to kill for.

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To be continued…

 

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Obidos is one of the most photogenic towns you have ever seen

Obidos, Portugal’s most picturesque town…

Surprise! The wide arch through which you enter the parking lot of Obidos turns out to be part of a 3-km long stone-mortar aqueduct. The rough queue of inverted U’s that make up the ancient structure seem to shorten in height as they stretch far into the distance, farther than your eye can see. You raise an eyebrow and purse your lips, impressed by the impeccable condition of the 16th-century marvel built to transport water to the town.

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These Versailles secrets will make you want to go now!

Getting under the skin of Versailles Palace…

Just 16 kms southwest from Paris, lies possibly one of the most popular, most visited and grandest of all sites in France. Versailles. You’re shaking your head at the prospect of someplace over-crowded and touristy. Well, so is the Vatican. Is that your best reason to skip it altogether? You may say a palace is a palace is a palace. That’s BEFORE you get under its skin. BEFORE you dive deep into its soul. BEFORE you know all the fascinating secrets that make Versailles, Versailles!

Leaving the crazy morning traffic behind, the forested expanse that starts from the outskirts of the French capital will hold you in its embrace all the way till you disembark at the main gates of the Palace at Versailles. The gleaming 24-karat trimmed facade blinds you and the over-the-top extravagant facade dwarfs you into non-existence. Can you believe that this was a simple hunting lodge that Louis XIV, the Sun King had fallen in love with as a young boy. A love intense enough for him to invest 25 years in expanding, embellishing and transforming it into this monumental creation that spreads over 15 acres.

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Your worst nightmares may surface as you move from one crowded room to the other, overflowing with heavy ornamentation, oversized paintings, frescoed ceilings and delicate sculptures. You’re struggling in queues to take pictures. Straining to hear your guide over the noise. But refocus and you’ll be fine. You’re privy to some of the 2,300 rooms where 3,000 to 10,000 courtiers used to be housed and entertained daily. Think rigid etiquette, power play, high intrigue, conspiracies and murder plots. Think sky-high coiffures, priceless jewels, lavish gowns. Think endless card-parties, banquets, and masquerades. Crowd-jostling? Pales in comparison, doesn’t it?

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Unthinkable that a palace as resplendent as Versailles, once used to stink! Blame it on the myth of waterborne diseases. Hundreds of silk-clothed courtiers packed into Versailles doused perfume instead of bathing regularly. All over the palace, several bowls were placed filled with flower petals to sweeten the air; and perfume was sprayed onto furniture. Even the fountain’s water was scented with perfume. The French court was known as the Perfumed Court. If Nina Ricci, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, or Coco Chanel had been supplying perfume bottles to the court, what kind of inventories they would have had?

The most celebrated section of the palace is the Hall of Mirrors where seventeen mirror arches face seventeen huge windows overlooking the park. What a wondrous space it would have been during the balls…20,000 candles and glittering chandeliers transforming it into a 240 feet-long corridor of light. Marvel at the brilliant workmanship of the Venetian glassmakers and think of the scandal shrouding them. Apparently, the French convinced some Venetian artisans to defect and make the mirrors for the great hall. Later, the Venetian government ordered the assassination of the treacherous artisans. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the ugliest of them all??

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Brace yourself for the best part that awaits outside the Palace. The massive Versailles gardens actually need weeks to explore, but stuff in what you can, while you can. Thousands of men, even whole regiments got together to bring the dream of Louis XIV to reality over 40 years. 200,000 trees, 50 fountains, over 200,00 flowers are still planted annually to keep it magnificence intact. The sheer scale of the gardens is jaw-dropping, let alone the beauty of its perfection. Enormous manicured lawns, structured forests, sculptured hedges and topiary cones fill the vision. There are miles of labyrinthine complexity everywhere, punctuated by statues and fountains. Stand facing the grand vista of the sweeping slope down to the mile-long Grand Canal. The stunning Fountain of Apollo glistens in all its gilded splendour.

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On a bright sunny day like today, in the 16th-17th centuries, courtiers would have spilled out on the grounds, mingling and conducting their business dressed in their silk tights, velvet gowns, powdered wigs and high heels. (Men of status sported high heels to look taller). Louis XIV himself was a shoe collector and trend setter and wore his trademark red heels to look taller than his five feet, four inches. In the Grand Canal, Venetian gondoliers would have glided by in gondolas and nobles would have rowed along in boats. Naval demonstrations perhaps? If the King was strolling in the gardens, the fountains would be turned on for his enjoyment as he approached, and switched off when he passed (since there was not enough water for all fountains to work at the same time). Times of royal extravaganza!

Stroll down the long shady avenue to the Grand Trianon, a smaller palace that Louis XIV had built for his mistress Madame de Montespan to escape the pomp and rigid formality of court life. The pink marble facade of the elegantly proportioned, single-storey palace is inviting. Its Italian influenced architecture blends in naturally with the geometrical French-style gardens. Apparently, Napoleon Bonaparte had the palace restored and lived here too, on many occasions with his second wife, the Austria-born Empress Marie-Louise. Can you feel their presence?

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A short walk away, is the Petit Trianon and its park, the personal sanctuary of Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. Between its artificially created landscapes like the Rock, Snail Mountain and the Grotto, pines, larches, fir trees and junipers, she escaped the rigours of court etiquette. What a life she had, the 14 year-old child empress, once the beloved style icon of France, surrounded by myths and scandals all her life, which ended brutally at a public guillotine. Stare out of her bedroom window at the Temple of the Love with its Corinthian capitals and Cupid statue. No life is ever perfect, is it?

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Move on to the nearby Hamlet, where she re-created charms of country life. Amble along the farm houses, the mill and the big lake, where she enjoyed languorous boat rides and fishing trips with her companions. Peek into the rustic farm houses where she lived with her guests. Vegetable gardens, banisters, wooden staircases, balconies adorned with earthenware flower pots, curved benches and cherry trees…it is still as idyllic as she enjoyed it, then.

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After the French Revolution, when the palace was deserted, many of its furnishings were sold to help pay for the subsequent Revolutionary Wars. Napoleon restored Versailles’ glory when he decided to make it his residence. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Versailles curators converted many of the museum areas back into palace space, trying to show how they looked before the French Revolution. But today, even with millions of visitors annually, the revenue is not enough to cover maintenance costs. They say that Louis XIV built Versailles, Louis XV enjoyed it and Louis XVI paid for it dearly. Beyond the glamour and grandeur, is a palace with a legacy few palaces have. Enamoured enough?

 

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Getting under the skin of Versailles Palace #versailles #Versaillespalace #versaillesfrance

Why this Munich palace is a unique treasure trove?

Touring the Residenz in Bavaria’s capital…

Standing at the site of the infamous fatal gun battle site of historic Odeonsplatz in Munich, you would never imagine that 71 allied bombings had razed this whole city to the ground. There are no traces of the tragedy left. German history lives on through its impeccably restored monuments. And that is one of the many good reasons to not skip Munich or treat it as a pitstop for the castles tour down the Romantic Road. Another good reason is the Residenz. Germany’s largest inner city castle and one of the most important castle museums in Europe, gives you the chance to gawk at some of the most mind-boggling treasures of the Bavarian empire. Recommended for fans of extravagance and history buffs alike.

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More picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see!

Walking treasures of Salzburg, Austria…

The historic town of Salzburg, Austria, bore the brunt of a massive plague epidemic and two world wars. Nearly half of its magnificent buildings were destroyed, but miraculously, much of the famous Baroque architecture remained unscathed. The town of today, as we see it, is its second avatar….almost rebuilt from scratch. More picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see include the Dom Quartier and the Hohensalzburg fortress. (Read the first part of this story here). 

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The most picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see!

Walking treasures in Salzburg, Austria…

The 3-hour train ride from Vienna may prep you with enough eye-candy, but  that first view of Salzburg, Austria’s fourth-largest city…still a killer. Beyond a meditative river straddled by several bridges, lies a charming old town filled with splendid Baroque spires and domes, under the shadow of one of Europe’s largest medieval fortresses looming large on a gentle hill. Centuries ago, when the Salzach river was an important salt transportation route, butchers and other food processors would unceremoniously dump wastes into it flowing waters. And look now…the entire city is precious UNESCO heritage. River shaming to Love Lock Bridge…that’s some serious headway! Navigating the compact 65-square kilometre town could take you a few hours to a few days, depending on how deep your heart wills you to dig. So, here’s my choice of the most picturesque areas you need to see in this delightful destination synonymous with that evergreen musical from the yesteryears, ‘Sound of Music’. (Read my post on the ‘Sound of Music’ tour experience).

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The most soulful note in the sweet symphony of the French Riviera

Marseille on the Côte d’Azur…

Its colourful image owes credit to a fascinating population mix of Italians, Corsicans, Russians, North Africans, Armenians, Vietnamese, Algerians, Greek and Americans. And a sensational drugs-and-crime reputation isolates it from its polished, glamorous cousins. But don’t believe what they say…go sift fact from fiction. Say ‘Bonjour’ to France’s second biggest city, its largest commercial port and capital of the scenic Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. You will discover that Marseille is the most soulful note in the sweet symphony of the French Riviera. Only one prerequisite…you must listen with your heart.

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