Dodging all potential barbs of flight shaming, our Deputy Editor slow-travels through four European cities on an omnipotent Eurail Pass, and discovers lessons history can teach humankind. By Sumeet Keswani
Last Year, many naysayers finally woke up to the very real, and imminent, threats of climate change, thanks in no small part to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Time’s Person of the Year also lent her support to the movement of Flygskam, or ‘flight shaming’. What started as a buzzword escalated so quickly that within the same year, Sweden’s air traffic declined by four per cent—according to state-owned airport operator Swedavia. With many catastrophic calamities ringing alarm bells across the world, the most recent of them being the bush fires in Australia, we at Travel+Leisure India & South Asia began doing our part by focusing on conscious travel itineraries. So, when the invitation to tour four European cities—across three countries—on a Eurail Pass came knocking in the autumn of 2019, I did not need convincing. The return flights from India aside, I wouldn’t leave a carbon footprint behind on European soil—with the Eurail Pass ensuring seamless inter-city rail travel. With a conscience as light as an oak leaf adrift in autumn air, I set foot in Frankfurt, my first German city ever.
Seven decades after World War II, you tend to think of the war in black and white terms: the Axis forces invaded, the Allies fought back, millions died. Any mention of the war evokes a highlight reel of monsters and tragedies: Hitler and the Holocaust, Pearl Harbour and the atomic bomb, and so on. The rest of the details become a statistical blur. What you never stop to consider is how much damage Germany and its people suffered from the war that its then leader waged.
This fact comes into sharp focus when you travel to German cities that were bombed by the Allies. Frankfurt, for instance, has an ‘old town’ (Altstadt) that isn’t really old. In fact, the Dom-Römer Quarter—the area between Römer City Hall and the Emperors’ Cathedral (Frankfurter Dom) that was flattened during the war—was reconstructed over six years, and opened to public in 2018. It is now called the ‘new old town’. The region is home to many historic gems, from Roman ruins at the Kaiserpfalz Franconofurd to the world-famous Dom, which has seen kings elected and monarchs crowned. The Dom’s 95-metre-high Gothic tower defies the wide lenses of tourists’ phone cameras and makes for a great observation platform if you’re willing to climb 324 steps. In front of the monumental cathedral is an exquisite (reconstructed) example of Renaissance architecture, the Golden Waage, which houses a colourful coffee shop on the ground floor. Park yourself here with a Frankfurter kranz or a bethmännchen, along with a coffee, and indulge in sumptuous views of the Dom and the people who visit it. In the labyrinthine lanes of the new old town, musicians play for no one in particular, street artistes dress up and charge tourists for selfies, and artisans sell wooden tractricoid tops hand-painted in quirky colours. When I visit, though, all the buzz seems to be concentrated in Römerberg, the historic square, where rebuilt half-timbered houses overlook a modern-era protest against a Turkish offensive into war-torn Syria (in October 2019). Flags and slogans are raised in the legendary square, as tourists watch with awe (and confusion), and some locals continue to guzzle beer in bars that spill onto the streets. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” says Dickens in an immortal book that stays firmly tucked in my backpack, as history unravels in front of me.
While the old town demanded reconstruction after the war’s ravages, the area around my hotel, Bahnhofsviertel, is a cornucopia of prewar buildings that survived. As I walk down the Kaiserstraße (emperors’ street), on one side of me squats the imposing main train station, Hauptbahnhof, and on the other, a long line of erotic shops and ‘sex inns’. The story of how the trove of red and yellow sandstone buildings transformed into a red-light district also leads us back to WWII. The demand for prostitutes was created by US occupation forces in the years after the war, we are told by Paul Martin Lied, an architect who has worked as a tour guide since 1995. Now, 70 years later, it is the lonely business traveller and the adventurous backpacker that the women accost.
When it’s time to consume a quintessential German feast, we take a tram, and then the U-Bahn (underground railway), to arrive at the doors of Adolf Wagner (apfelwein-wagner.com), a legendary family-owned restaurant circa 1931. While other tourists tuck into signature dishes involving minced steak and schnitzel, my ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet does not impede my German immersion. A plate of ‘green sauce’ with boiled eggs and fried potatoes, with a generous helping of sauerkraut, lets me partake in the country’s rich culinary tradition. But it’s the apfelwein (literally, ‘apple wine’) that is the great leveller on the table—pun unintended, for the tangy, fruity, golden-hued cider is about five per cent alcohol. It is poured from a traditional grey jug with a blue floral design—handcrafted in the Westerwald region—which makes for a delightfully original pitcher. Apfelwein, I’m told, originated as the poor man’s drink, with people making wine out of fallen apples, but today, it is a popular socialising drink in the state of Hesse, especially Frankfurt, even in premium establishments. As we head out after a hearty lunch, I take a picture of the restaurant and its insignia (a wreath of apples and leaves around the grey pitcher). Lied feels the need to clarify, “Wagner is a family name, and ‘Adolf’,” he clears his throat and lets out a nervous chuckle, “used to be a common name before the war. Now, of course, nobody picks that name for their kids.” History isn’t kind to fascists.
It takes us just over an hour to reach Cologne on the train. Armed with the Eurail Pass and the Rail Planner app, my journey is free of hassle and last-minute hustles. In Cologne, the air is warm for October—weather that a local describes as an ‘old woman’s summer’. While Frankfurt am Main lies ‘on the Main’, Cologne spans another river, the Rhine. One of the oldest cities of Germany, it was founded in 50 AD by the Romans, and in its 2,000-yearlong history, has seen many empires come and go. From the Franks to Napoleon to Prussian kings, many have ruled Cologne, but it was WWII that annihilated 90 per cent of its inner city. Only one structure stood tall in the face of the Allied forces’ bombs.
Ample articles and images have warned me. But I still fail to fathom its grandeur. So when I first see it, lit up hauntingly on a black night, I almost lose my footing. The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) does take your breath away. Started in 1248, the High Gothic fiveaisled basilica went through many stages of abandon and fresh starts before it was finally completed over six centuries later, in 1880. Its two towers (over 157 metres in height) are seen from every point in the city, a fact that I will later use to reorient myself every time I get pleasantly lost. However, the significance of the UNESCO World Heritage Site is not limited to its architecture; it holds priceless treasures in its bosom. The biggest of these is the Shrine of the Magi, a gigantic gilded triple sarcophagus that is believed to contain bones of the Biblical Three Wise Men. Placed behind the high altar, it is a befitting gem in the crown of the 8,000-square metre cathedral. When I visit the Dom again—in bright daylight the next day—it knocks the wind out of me again. As I squint and stare at its individual marvels to make sense of the colossal miracle, some of the pieces stand out.
I’m told what I’m noticing are battle scars. The cathedral bore the brunt of 14 high explosive bombs and 700 firebombs during the war, and many parts had to be reconstructed. If there’s one lesson that history teaches with zero ambiguity, it is this: nobody wins a war.
Cologne is a city of carnivals. Each year, between January and Ash Wednesday, there is a range of balls held by various carnival societies in the city. They differ in their themes and rituals, but the common factor is the revellers’ love of fancy dresses. The locals speak kölsch, “the only dialect that can be drunk,” says my city guide, referring to the indigenous kölsch beer that shares its name with the regional language. The “top-fermented, light coloured, hopsy full ale” is brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516, and can only be made in and around Cologne—according to the Kölsch Convention. Despite the rigid rules, the ale tastes slightly different at every brauhaus (brewery), and the waiter (or köbes, as he is called in the Rhineland) keeps refilling your tall cylindrical 0.2-litre glass until you cover it or say a resounding ‘no’. In my two days wandering the city, I fail to find a good enough reason to cover the glass.
An urban architectural marvel welcomes me to Rotterdam. The Centraal Station’s sleek angular roof points in the direction of the city centre, where a heartbreaking sculpture awaits my discovery. Unveiled in 1953, De Verwoeste Stad (The Destroyed City) is a bronze memorial sculpture depicting a man flailing his arms towards the sky with a hole in his chest. It commemorates the German bombing of Rotterdam on May 14, 1940, which destroyed the heart of the city, flattening around 30,000 buildings and killing 900 people. It’s unsettling to realise the border I’ve straddled in the last few hours.
While German cities like Frankfurt and Cologne have sought to rebuild their lost heritage, Rotterdam is a city born anew. Instead of relying on history to draw travellers, it has embraced modern architecture, art, and design. A stroll around my hotel, The James, reveals uplifting pops of colour on seemingly random walls. My city guide from Rotterdam Explore (rotterdamexplore.nl), Michèle Vanca, tells me that graffiti is actually a big draw here, with the world-renowned art and music festival, POW!WOW! (powwowrotterdam.nl), choosing Rotterdam as its first European venue in 2018, and the Rewriters010 app guiding enthusiasts on an art circuit of the city.
In Rotterdam, a concrete Picasso sculpture (Sylvette) stands nonchalantly on the streetside, accorded the same realty respect as a 2001 sculpture of Santa Claus, who holds what looks disturbingly like a butt plug, giving the piece its more popular, and notorious, name: Butt-plug Gnome. It is this indifference to convention that makes Rotterdam such a charming destination for tourists, with numbers rising by 38 per cent in the last three years—according to Vanca. But it wasn’t always this way, she says, adding that a decade ago the city was filled with junkies and marred by crime. As she says this, Vanca waves at a certain ‘Patrick’ on the street, “who used to be a junkie but is now a famous photographer.”
While it’s clear by now that one does not need to seek out a gallery to enjoy art in Rotterdam, there are ample museums if you feel the need. From modern art exhibits in the Kunsthal (kunsthal.nl) to around 100 nostalgia-inducing machines in the Dutch Pinball Museum (dutchpinballmuseum.com), the city brims with creativity. Moreover, the Depot Boijmans Van Beuningen (boijmans.nl) is set to be the first art storage facility in the world that offers access to a museum’s complete collection (1,51,000 artworks) all at once, when it opens in July 2021. Aptly, the gigantic structure in the works is covered with mirrors, reflecting the soul of the city on its facade.
No Rotterdam tour is complete without visiting the market square of Binnenrotte in the historic Laurenskwartier, where the Markthal (markthal.nl) squats smugly—a Dutch symbol of architectural efficiency. As many as 228 luxury apartments are arranged into an arch covering a square, which harbours a lively market. During the day, the market teems with fresh produce and catch, local culinary specialities like stroopwafel varieties, cafes and restaurants, a supermarket, slow food, organic ingredients, confectionary, and much more. This delicious inventory is overlooked by a huge mural of food, flora, and fauna, called Cornucopia, that covers 11,000 square meters of the curved roof! Just when I think the Markthal will be hard to beat, I catch the sight of Rotterdam’s famous Cube Houses, a string of bright-yellow cube-shaped homes, each tilted at an angle of 55° and perched on a hexagonal pillar on Overblaak Street. Designed by architect Piet Blom, who preferred to think of them as ‘trees’ forming a ‘forest’, the Cube Houses represent the city’s creative spirit and chutzpah. A walk inside one of them, the furnished Kijk-Kubus (Show-Cube), is highly recommended to get an idea of the adaptations needed to live in such a house.
At the train’s top speed, I’m privy to a zoetrope of postcards flashing past the train window; at its slowest, pastoral landscapes glide by idly like in a Linklater film. The last leg of my train journey is leisurely and idyllic, taking over five and a half hours to carry me to a unique country.
It may rank 167th in size among the 194 independent countries, but Luxembourg packs quite a punch. It has the highest GDP per capita in the world, and it is the capital of the European Union. But neither its size nor its prosperity is the most unique aspect of this multifaceted country. Luxembourg is the world’s only remaining sovereign Grand Duchy. In simpler terms, the country is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy with a prime minister as the head of its government and a Grand Duke as the head of state, but the latter wields limited ‘formal’ rights. “The royals are respected in society, but they aren’t hounded at public events by the commoners or the paparazzi, unlike in the UK,” my guide from Visit Luxembourg, Romain Schwartz, makes the distinction proudly.
As the train screeches to a halt at Luxembourg railway station, we are made to taste humble peasant pie. The Belgian king is visiting the country at the same time, that too by train! (Climate change, ahoy!) Hence, the main gate of the station is barricaded, and I must take a detour on foot in a heavy downpour to reach my waiting taxi. Raes, the chauffeur, hails from Lisbon, where his mother runs an Indian restaurant with a Goan chef. He is one of the many Portuguese who form the bulk of the immigrants living in the country. In fact, over 42 per cent of the country’s residents are foreigners, says Schwartz. As a long cavalcade of black cars with blue lights grabs the right of way, Raes jokes that his name means ‘king’, too.
So cosmopolitan is the country that its three official languages are French, German, and Luxembourgish, the last one being a combination of the first two. Much like the dialect, Luxembourg’s food, too, is infused with French and German influences. “The dishes have the delicacy of French recipes, but come in German meal-sized portions,” quips Schwartz. So, a meal at a traditional restaurant, am Tiirmschen (amtiirmschen.lu), takes the shape of kniddelen (gnocchi-like dumplings) with a sweet bottle of local Auxerrois wine.
While the capital, Luxembourg City has many heritage monuments, the most overwhelming of them all is the Gëlle Fra (Golden Lady), a war memorial first erected in 1923 to commemorate the Luxembourgers who perished in World War I. An intricately carved gold-plated female figure holds a wreath while standing majestically atop a 21-metre-tall stone obelisk, at the foot of which lie two male bronze figures, a fallen soldier and his mourner. Taken down by the Nazis in 1940, fragments of the Golden Lady were rediscovered only in 1981 under the tiers of a football stadium. The beloved monument was reinstated in 1985, and today, it stands as a symbol of the freedom and resilience of the locals. While I marvel at the Golden Lady, Schwartz harps on about a unique Mahatma Gandhi bust (that does not feature his signature glasses) and its appearance on recently launched commemorative stamps that marked his 150th birth anniversary.
A little ways down the road, we find ourselves standing on a corniche, faced with a bewitching panorama of Luxembourg City. Called ‘the most beautiful balcony of Europe’,
the 600-metre-long pedestrian promenade called Chemin de la Corniche traces 17th century city ramparts. From this historic vantage point, I can see the entire story of Luxembourg unfold— the topography that once made it the ‘Gibraltar of the North’, the Alzette valley beneath, the city district of Grund, the Bock Promontory over which an impregnable fort was built in 963 AD, and a hint of the honeycomb tunnels (Bock Casemates), which stand as the only testament of the old fortifications of Luxembourg. The tunnels played the novel role of bomb shelters for people during WWII, I’m told. Apt, I think, for a military defence to defend the people, years after falling into disuse.
After the history tour, I saunter into a park blanketed in colours of Autumn. The dazzling green of the grass peeks from underneath an overwhelming mosaic of browns—leaves in all imaginable shades of the hue, from almond to amber to auburn, crunch under the recklessness of curious feet. I decide to forego my souvenir shopping plans and park myself on a public bench. Sunlight cackles through a canopy of golden oak leaves and tickles my imagination. At a distance, some tourists marvel at the singular Gandhi bust that I’ve heard so much about, posing with the immortal messiah of nonviolence for a selfie. It occurs to me then that the world may still have a shot at survival and peace, after all. If it does succeed, such a world should don the autumnal colours of Luxembourg, the irreverent art of Rotterdam, the carnival spirit of Cologne, the resilience of Frankfurt, and the borderlessness of a Eurail journey.
Europe on Train
Not just cheaper, rail journeys also let you slow down and immerse yourself in European destinations.
A Eurail Pass lets you access over 10,000 destinations across 33 European countries in seamless rail journeys. The Pass comes with additional benefits and discounts on ferries, buses, attractions, etc. throughout your journey, plus it offers free travel for kids aged 11 or less, and 25 per cent discount off the standard adult price for travellers below 28 years of age. eurail.com
In Frankfurt, the niu Charly blends skyscraper design with smart rooms. From INR 4,330. the.niu.de/charly
Maritim Hotel Köln’s 454 rooms and suites offer breathtaking views of the Cologne Cathedral or the Rhine River or the lobby, which resembles a private shopping arcade. From INR 11,937. maritim.com
The James is a design hotel in the heart of Rotterdam with 144 efficient rooms. From INR 8,745. thejames.nl
Located in the city centre, Sofitel Luxembourg Le Grand Ducal overlooks the Pétrusse Valley, a view to kill for. From INR 12,700. accor.com
Use the Rail Planner app (available for Android and iPhone) to see timetables, plan journeys, and make advance seat reservations wherever necessary. The dates for Cologne’s carnival balls are published by the Cologne Tourism Board (cologne-tourism.com) in November.
In Cologne, take a guided tour of Farina 1709 to understand the origins of eau de cologne (from INR 7,895; farina.org). For an architecture-led tour, book a guiding architect (guiding-architects.net).