Train rides have always fascinated me. The classic charm of a chugging train, head out the window, hair flowing in the wind while an idyllic landscape flits by turns the journey itself into a destination.
Luckily for me, train travel is having a moment, bringing back the romance of the past. ‘Responsible travel’ and Flygskam (flight disgrace) movements are further propelling travellers to eschew fuel-guzzling aeroplanes and whittle down the carbon footprint.
In my zeal to travel green, I recently booked myself a four-city Eurail trip. I'd be lying if I said the thought of zipping across Europe speedily via a plane didn't cross my mind. But a bit of contemplation provided perspective. Travelling with a Eurail Global Pass was not only saving me money but also endless and flexible rail travel to a whopping 31 counties. Discounts on hotels, European ferry routes, boat tours, museum tickets was a bonus. Plus, I could simply hop on board with my pass in hand minus the travails of reaching the airport bleary-eyed or struggling with the woes of missing baggage. Perfect, right?
Delighted with my prudent travel choice, I zeroed in on four scenic destinations — Frankfurt, Cologne, Rotterdam, Luxembourg. I began my trip with Frankfurt, the financial capital of Germany expecting the city to be all business and banks. But the vibrant metropolis of 700,000 people surprised me with its opulent museums, historic buildings and lush parks.
The stunning cobblestoned square (Romer) in Old Town is the pivot around which Frankfurt flows. A ninth-century construction, it has hosted salient events, from imperial elections and medieval jousting to public executions and Christmas markets. Street performers, street-side kiosks and buildings like Old Nikolai Church and St. Paul's Cathedral add more allure to the historic area.
Hard to miss also is Frankfurt's multicultural ethos. “Almost one in three people living in Frankfurt do not hold a German passport. They come from other countries to live and work here, reinforcing the city's open and inclusive character that stems from its centuries-old role as a trading centre,” the guide explained as we strolled along the Main river, a thriving tourist attraction.
From the river, I take a panoramic boat tour onboard Primus Line, a company that runs modern triple-decker riverboats for sightseeing/dinner cruises and after-dark skyline tours. As the ship hooted loudly, I hopped on board as we set sail on the glassy Main. From the top deck, a staggering view of the city opened out before me like a picture postcard!
The next day, I left for Cologne. The train transfer was swift and seamless as my hotel was located close to the hauptbahnhof (railway station), with many trains leaving for my destination throughout the day.
Nestling on the western fringes of Germany, Cologne radiates life and character, making it tough to believe that this gorgeous metropolis was wrecked by World War II bombings. Cologne’s UNESCO heritage cathedral, one of the world's most stunning pieces of Gothic architecture, is its signature attraction and is encrusted with gargoyles and needles the sky with its twin spires. After snapping it from all possible angles, I gravitate towards the Belgian District, a fun place brimming with cool bars and eateries.
While the spectacular Ludwig Museum — with its display of Picasso and other world-class artists — is the city's most famous museums, there are others too. Cologne has lent its name to the world's best known astringent perfume. And I learn all about the 300-year-old success story of Eau de Cologne at the Farina Fragrance Museum.
Up next is the Chocolate Museum, the most frequented cultural institution here with around 600,000 visitors a year. In the glass-walled production facility and chocolate workshop, I watched how chocolate products are crafted in both mechanised and manual processes. A three-metre high chocolate fountain stands in the workshop, constantly fed with 200 kg of fresh Lindt chocolate. My trip ends (literally) on a sweet note as I'm offered a waffle coated with gooey chocolate from the same fountain!
My next destination — Rotterdam — Netherland’s second-largest city is a fascinating narrative of war and commerce. It began as a humble fishing village and despite being bombed to ashes by the Nazis during WW II, it has risen like the proverbial phoenix to become one of Europe's most beautiful and modern cities.
"The name “Rotterdam” originated in the thirteenth century and refers to a dam in the river Rotte,” the local guide explained as we inspected modern architectural masterpieces such as the spectacular Kunsthal, the impressive Rotterdam Central Station, the unusual cube houses designed by Piet Blom and the famous Erasmus Bridge. At the picturesque Delfshaven, in the city's west, I'm greeted by an ensemble of atmospheric quays, historic buildings and windmills. Dubbed as ‘Europe's new capital of cool’, Rotterdam thrums with creative energy. Sustainable and cutting-edge buildings are everywhere. Pablo Picasso's 46 ton “Sylvette” sits at the intersection of Museumpark and Westersingel, part of a sculpture route that unfolds alongside Westersingel canal.
The last stop on my itinerary is also the one I'm most excited about — Luxembourg! Wedged in tightly between the borders of France, Germany and Belgium, the pint-sized Luxemburg is one of the world's tiniest countries. But it punches far above its weight in beauty with its verdant valleys, rivers, streams, and picturesque bridges. Its Old City, classified as a UNESCO World heritage, hosts the ‘most beautiful balcony in Europe’, called Corniche, from where I enjoy a breathtaking sweep of the city.
History whispers from every corner of Luxembourg city — from the grand Ducal Palace to the Vianden Castle that is perched atop a hill and appears almost Disney-esque in character. I walk on quaint cobbled streets, ride in panoramic glass lifts and cogwheel trains, making it an immersive travel experience. Multicultural and diverse, over 170 nationalities call this Rainbow Nation home! Residents speak a mix of French, German and Luxembourgish with the charming hodgepodge of cultures reflected in the country's ethos, architecture as well as cuisine.
Luxembourg radiates fun and informal vibe. Even its monarchs aren't quite like the imperious queens and kings you'd typically find across Europe. Instead, they are Dukes and Duchesses, the reason why Luxembourg is referred to as a ‘Grand Duchy’ (and the world's only remaining one). “The royalty can even be seen shopping in local markets or visiting church like commoners," the guide informed me.
A week had passed by in a blur and soon my trip was over. As the train slowly trundled out of Luxembourg city, I felt I'd left a piece of my heart behind in this small country with a big appetite for life!
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