Category Archives: Germany

Go Local: 9 Cool Destinations

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY scout offbeat, immersive experiences in cool destinations around the globe  

Can you really say you’ve been to Zurich if you haven’t grabbed a piadina (Italian flatbread), walked up the narrow Tritlli-gasse and visited Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dadaism? Is a trip to Singapore complete without the fiery taste of Singapore chili crab on your lips, slaked with a cool Tiger or Singapore Sling as you go bar hopping from Clarke Quay to Ann Siang Hill? And is Melbourne the same unless you’ve zipped in trams and trawled CBD’s graffiti-lined bylanes to pay your respect at AC/DC Lane? Beyond the touristy clichés, each city comes with its unique set of quintessential experiences and traditions. We hung out with locals on our globetrotting travels to unearth some cool haunts…

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Heidelberg (Germany)
A pretty medieval university town on the Neckar river, Heidelberg is undoubtedly the seat of German Romanticism. Picture-postcard alleys, Gothic architecture and cobbled pathways lead to a maze of museums and galleries. Hike up or take a funicular to Heidelberg Castle rising above the roofs of the Old Town, a survivor of wars, fires and lightning. Walk through sprawling gardens to a scenic lookout and visit the Apothecary Museum and wine cellar with the largest wooden barrel in the world!

Change trains at Molkenkur to ride in wooden boxcars of Germany’s oldest funicular railway up the local mountain Königstuhl (568 m) for a fantastic view of the Rhine plain. The main street Haupstrasse, one of the longest pedestrian zones in Europe, is lined with churches, shops, restaurants and cafes. The boutique Hip Hotel is the perfect base; each of its 27 themed rooms are different and styled after cities – Havana has bat wing doors, Cuban cigar wrappers on the ceiling and a Che Guevara pic on the semi-plastered brick wall.

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Stroll through Germany’s oldest University with the historic Studentenkarzer (students’ prison) where errant pupils were interned. More a shrine than a detention centre, it bears the scrawls of entire generations. The city’s signature treat Heidelberger Studentenkuss (Student Kiss) is a chocolate invented at Café Konditorei Knosel. Grab a meal at Zum Goldenen Hecht or Palmbräu Gasse and hang out at cool bars on Untergasse like Weinloch (Wine Hole), Betreutes Trinken (literally, Supervised Drinking), Destille and Pop – visited by Santana in the 70’s.

Take a leisurely cruise on the Neckar aboard the solar-powered boat Neckarsonne. In the evening, cross the Old Bridge lined with buskers and tourists to Schlangenweg (Serpentine Path) that zig-zags up to the famous ‘Philosopher’s Walk’. For centuries, this scenic walkway overseeing a magical view of Heidelberg has inspired poets, authors and artists from Goethe to Mark Twain.

Insider Tip: At the old Karl Theodor Bridge is a bronze sculpture of Heidelberg’s Bruckenaffe (bridge monkey); the original one in 15th century held up a mirror as a warning to passersby. With fingers shaped like a horned hand and a hollow head where visitors pop in for a pic, the monkey is a good luck charm. Rubbing the mirror will bring money; rubbing the little bronze mice will bless you with kids and rubbing his fingers means you will return to Heidelberg!

Getting there: Fly Emirates via Dubai to Frankfurt, from where Heidelberg is a 1 hr drive away
Where to Stay: Hip Hotel www.hip-hotel.de
Contact: Heidelberg walks with Dino Quass www.heidelberg-marketing.de, Tour Guide Dirk Slawetzki www.visit.ruhr

For more info, www.germany.travel

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Belgrade (Serbia)
The Serbian capital is a charming city packed with history. Seen from across the river, Belgrade’s stone fortress shimmers white, hence the name ‘Beo grad’ (White City). Pose against Pobednik, the Victor statue but don’t miss the ornate Ružica (‘Little Rose’) Church with an ornate chandelier made up of bullets! At the Kalemegdan ground outside the fortress, buy a 1993-era inflationary currency note from Olga the octogenarian vendor.

The abandoned trenches, once inhabited by gypsies; is today’s hip Bohemian quarter of Skadarlija with cool kafanas (coffee houses/taverns), breweries and restaurants like Dva Jelena (Two Deer), where musicians belt out starogradska (Old Town Music) on trumpets and accordions. Walk down Knez Mihailova, described as ‘the most beautiful pedestrian zone in southeast Europe’. Drop by at Hotel Moskva for its trademark šnit (cake) and gulp water like a local from Delijska ćesma, an ornate public well.

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At the beautiful Republic Square, sit on the steps of the bronze equestrian statue of national hero Prince Mihailo Obrenović, who liberated Serbia from Turkish rule in 1867. Visit the Cathedral of St Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world and The House of Flowers, the mausoleum of former Yugoslav statesman Josip Broz Tito.

Catch the live science experiment every evening at the Nikolai Tesla Museum and pop into the Museum of Contemporary Art – the first contemporary art museum in Europe. Belgrade’s nightlife is best experienced at clubs and splavs (party barges) moored by the riverside. The longest stretch of the Danube is in Serbia and the perfect ending to a boat cruise is a quayside dinner at the old suburb of Zemun.

Insider Tip: Have a coffee or a shot of rakija (fruit brandy) at the oldest kafana in Belgrade – ‘?’ or Znak pitanja (Question Mark). Story goes that in 1892 the management wished to change the name to Kod Saborne crkve (By the Saborna Church) but it was opposed by the Serbian Orthodox church. The owner temporarily put a question mark on the door, which became its identity and remains so till date!

Getting there: Fly via Moscow or Istanbul to Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade.
Where to Stay: Metropol Palace Ph +381 11 3333100 www.metropolpalace.com
Hotel Moskva Ph +381 113642069 www.hotelmoskva.rs
Contact: Novi Sad/Belgrade Tour with Luka Relic Ph +381 65 9890305 relic.luka@gmail.com, Offroad Serbia tour with Balkan Adriatic Ph +381 11 3625036 www.balkan-adriatic.com

For more info, visit www.serbia.travel

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Kigali (Rwanda)
A direct flight from Mumbai by Rwand Air makes Kigali a truly convenient getaway. Drive past the town’s key landmark the Kigali Convention Centre as you explore the undulating Rwandan capital. Zip around in local bike taxis (Goa style) to sights like Kandt House Museum and the somber Kigali Genocide Memorial. Try ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative and relish a Rwandan meal of ugali (cassava porridge) and goat curry at Tamu Tamu.

Kigali Marriott Hotel in the central diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu is the best address in town. Get a Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa and try out international and local cuisine at Soko and fried sambaza (fish) from Lake Kivu at Iriba Bar. Book a city tour with Go Kigali – their little boutique at the hotel stocks handmade products from all over Africa. Start your exploration with Mount Kigali for a panoramic view before trawling milk bars, bakeries and cafes.

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At Kimironko market, learn how to eat tree tomato like a local as you marvel at multi-coloured beans of every size and hue. Shop for agasake (hand-woven peace baskets) and traditional Rwandan handicrafts at Ikaze boutique. The suburb of Nyamirambo, established by Belgian colonists in the 1920s for Swahili traders, is the city’s Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, or the Green Mosque, is the oldest in town while Gaddafi Mosque is home to the Islamic Centre.

With a busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is today hailed as Kigali’s coolest neighbourhood. Catch Kigali’s nightlife at Fuchsia, Riders, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club and Bougainvilla. Rwanda is a small country and it’s easy to get around to Lake Kivu, gorilla trekking at Volcanoes National Park, tracking Colobus, Golden and mountain monkeys at Nyungwe National Park and spotting the Big 5 at Akagera National Park.

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Insider Tip: Drop by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian nickname for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide when 1,268 people were sheltered here by its manager Paul Rusesabagina, a story made into the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’.

Getting there: National carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali (7 hrs) four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com
Where to Stay: Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Kigali Serena Hotel www.serenahotels.com
Hôtel des Milles Collines www.millecollines.rw
Ubumwe Grande Hotel www.ubumwegrandehotel.com
Contact: Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com, Go Kigali Tours $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm Ph +250 788316607 http://gokigalitours.com/

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

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Belfast (Ireland)
Boney M wrote a song about it, Van Morrison found lyrical inspiration here and it is the famous birthplace of The Titanic. Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland sparkles with wit and wisdom, political street art and numerous interesting trails. Get a primer on the city’s past as ‘Linenopolis’ and a ship-building centre at the Titanic Belfast museum and catch the exhibition at Belfast City Hall, which narrates the story of its people, culture and heritage. The historic Linenhall Library, founded in 1788, has a phenomenal collection of priceless books including a rare treasure of books on C Scott Lewis.

To the east of the city, follow the footsteps of CS Lewis to places that inspired his fantasy world of ‘Narnia’. Stop by at Queen’s University where Nobel Prize Winner Seamus Heaney studied and Belfast Hills where Jonathan Swift found inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels. In 2017, Northern Ireland celebrated Swift’s 350th birth anniversary. Grab a pint o’ Guinness at John Hewitt, the pub named after local poet and catch a bite at Mourne Seafood Bar and Muddlers Club.

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Every Saturday, St Georges Market is abuzz with local foods, crafts, art and live music while the Sunday Brunch at Bert’s Jazz Bar promises live jazz. Have a ‘craic (Irish for ‘a good time’) at Whites Tavern, the oldest in Belfast, Kelly’s Cellars and the old-world The Crown Liquor Saloon. Lovers of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre can head out to County Down chasing tales of the Bronte sisters Charlotte and Emily and make a pitstop at FE McWilliams Gallery for scones, cakes, Irish coffee and ongoing exhibitions.

Go on a guided tour of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace around Heaney Country, where the poet and Nobel Laureate grew up. Guide Eugene Kielt conducts bespoke literary tours and runs Laurel Villa in Magherafelt, a boutique homestay themed around Heaney and other Ulster poets like Patrick Kavanagh, Michael Longley, Louis MacNeice with poetry reading evenings. Continue on the literary trail to Armagh Library, which houses the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels dated October 1726, carrying amendments in Swift’s own handwriting!

Insider Tip: Mystic of the East, the Van Morrison Trail, dedicated to one of Belfast’s most famous sons, revisits the locations made famous by his songs – from Cyprus Avenue, On Hyndford Street to Orangefield. A special phone app activates a QR code that plays bits of his songs at each locale!

Getting there: Fly to London and catch an Aer Lingus flight to Belfast.
Where to Stay: Bullitt Belfast Ph +44 28 9590 0600 https://bullitthotel.com
Fitzwilliam Hotel Ph +44 28 9044 2080 www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com
Europa Hotel Ph +44 28 9027 1066 www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast
Contact: Ken McElroy Ph +44 7801541600 www.kmtgs.co.uk

For more info, www.belfastcity.gov.uk, www.tourismni.com, www.discovernorthernireland.com

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Flores (Indonesia)
When the Portuguese landed in a nook of the Lesser Sunda Islands in eastern Indonesia a few centuries ago, they were amazed by the flowering Delonix regia (Flame trees) and profusion of corals in the crystal clear waters. They named the cluster of islands Cabo de Flores (Cape of Flowers). Even today, these forests and dive sites continue to fascinate offbeat travellers who fly in from Bali to the adventure hub of Labuan Bajo in West Manggarai district.

Head to Batu Cermin or Mirror Rock, a cave system 4 km from town with stalactite formations and cool down with a chilled Bintang while catching the sunset over the harbour at Paradise Café. Visit the local fish market and enjoy an elaborate seafood spread at Treetop restaurant amid funky artwork and signs like ‘Reality is an illusion caused by lack of alcohol.’

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Go on a boat trip to Komodo Island to watch perpetually drooling venomous Komodo dragons up close and pick up shell handicrafts near the jetty. Go snorkelling at the unique Pink Beach (caused by red algae on white sand) or head on hikes to crater lakes in the region. Grab some local coffee and palm sugar, prepared by locals the traditional way. Flores also hosts a 661km gruelling cycle race called Tour de Flores.

Insider Tip: Drive 20km on the Trans-Flores Highway to Ruteng to witness the Caci dance, a ritual whip fight that’s a fascinating cultural tradition of the Manggarai people. Donning leather masks and armed with rattan whips and bamboo shields, the blood shed by the male warriors was considered an offering for a better harvest!

Getting there: Fly to Bali and onward to Labuan Bajo, from where boat trips are available to Komodo Island and Pink Beach.
Where to Stay: Ayana Komodo Resort, Luwansa Beach Resort, The Jayakarta Suites Komodo Flores

For more info, www.indonesia.travel

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Lalibela (Ethiopia)
As a seat of the Orthodox Christian faith, Ethiopia draws pilgrims and travellers from all over the world. After Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim army of Saladin in 1187, Ethiopian king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela decided to build a holy city symbolic of Jerusalem. Following the theme, the local river is called Jordan and the hill Mount of Olives. It took 23 years to carve these rock-cut churches into the hillside, aided by divine help – angels are believed to have toiled at night to complete twice the day’s work done by men!

The city was called Lalibela in honour of the saint-king and UNESCO recognised it as a world heritage site in 1978. Walk on pink volcanic rock through cavernous tunnels to a complex of churches. A cloth-draped pillar in the Church of Golgotha is marked as the Tomb of King Lalibela. Continue in the north western group to Bet Medhane Alem, the largest monolithic church in the world, connected to Bet Maryam, possibly the oldest of the churches.

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The unusual cruciform Bete Georgis, dedicated to St George, was cut top down into the rock. Rent a white and blue bajaji (our Indian Bajaj auto) to get around, but watch out for pesky flies and over-friendly kids pestering you to buy ‘books or football’. Bargain for various styles of Ethiopian crosses, silver jewelry and sacred relics.

Try the staple injera (spongy flatbread), tej (honey wine) and Ethiopian fare at Kana, Hotel Lalibela and Seven Olives Hotel besides local music and dance at Torpido Tejbet. Tour company ETT can craft an Ethiopian itinerary from Lalibela to Axum, Gondar, Bahir Dar, Addis Ababa and trips to Danakil Depression, Simien Mountains and Omo Valley.

Insider Tip: Perched on a clifftop with architecture right out of Burning Man (described as ‘Gaudi meets Mad Max’), Ben Abeba dishes out the most experimental food in Ethiopia. Run by Scottish lady Susan and her partner Habtamu, ‘Ben’ means mountain in Gaelic and ‘Abeba’ is Amharic for flower. They even offer blankets on the outdoor terraces when it gets chilly.

Getting there: Fly Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa and take a connecting flight to Lalibela. www.ethiopianairlines.com
Where to Stay: Lalibela Hotel
Contact: Ethio Travel & Tours (ETT) Ph +251 911213177, 929214110, 940373737 www.ethiotravelandtours.com

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Tel Aviv-Yafo (Israel)
There’s a saying in Israel, “While Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays”. There are many exciting ways to explore the vibrant seaside city – a SEGO Segway tour along the Sea Shore Promenade to the port and local farmer’s market, an architecture tour through the White City with its unique Bauhaus architecture, a street art tour in Florentin to find the best graffiti, a food tour through Tel Aviv’s only Arabic style shuk (market) at Carmel or a night tour of Rothschild Boulevard to hipster clubs like Kuli Alma and Sputnik.

Walk down Nahalat Binyamin Pedestrian Mall with its Arts and Crafts Bazaar and explore reinterpreted spaces like Manshiya, a reconstructed old train station and Neve Tzedek. A heritage walk through the cobbled bylanes of Tel Aviv’s twin town Jaffa is ideal as you explore quaint cafes, the mosque and Ilana Goor Museum. Feast on mansaf (ground beef with rice) and majadra (wild rice) at Pua restaurant, which sources furniture from the Jaffa Flea Market – every item here is for sale! Check out the local craft beer at Beer Bazaar and Israel’s first microbrewery The Dancing Camel. Tel Aviv even boasts a pop-up hotel in a lifeguard hut on Frishman Beach!

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Insider Tip: Spot the early 20th century shutter stoppers called menchalach (Hebrew for ‘little human figures’) in areas like Neve Tzedek. Meant to stop windows from banging, it had a man’s head when put up and a woman’s face in its downward position. Local lore says it carried a secret code; a woman with a lover put up the man’s face if someone was home and the woman’s face if she was free and ready for action!

Getting there: Israel’s national carrier El-Al flies from Mumbai to Tel Aviv thrice a week (8 hrs) while Air India flies thrice a week from Delhi. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul and Ethiopian Air via Addis Ababa (12 hrs).
Where to Stay: Carlton Hotel Ph +972 3 5201818 www.carlton.co.il, Poli House/Brown Hotels www.brownhotels.com
Contact: Ofer Moghadam Tours Ph +972 587833799 www.ofermog.com, SEGO Segway Tours Ph +972 528551932 www.sego.co.il

For more info, https://israel.travel/

DSC03034 The painted houses of Nyhavn, a fairytale setting by day or twilight

Copenhagen (Denmark)
There’s good reason why Copenhagen is rated one of the happiest cities in the world. It’s a land of bicycles, bodegas, chic design, parks, floating cafes, fairytales and a dollop of good ol’ hygge, the Danish concept of cosy comfort. The journey from trading in amber, gold, silver, furs and slaves to becoming a leading manufacturing nation and welfare state, Denmark has ample reason to gloat, but doesn’t. Locals love a cool dip in Amager Strandpark beach, kayak polo by the harbourfront and several recreational baths like Islands Brygge, a winter bathing hotspot and one of the cleanest harbors in the world.

Get on a GoBoat for an eco-friendly ride from Islands Brygge drifting down canals past some of the oldest specimens of Danish architecture – Christiansborg Castle, Holmens Church and Børson, the Old Stock Exchange with its dragon spires. Take a canal tour around Christianshavn and Nyhavn port or join locals and tourists dining at its amazing restaurants, quaffing away at old bodegas, listening to jazz. Walk around the marvelous bridges and canals bordered by vibrantly painted homes and hotels.

DSC03058-Ornate entry of City Hall

The historic Tivoli Gardens in the city centre is the second oldest amusement park in the world and inspired Walt Disney’s Disneyland. Don’t miss the Hans Christian Andersen-inspired dark ride called The Flying Trunk. Take an HC Andersen heritage walk with raconteur Richard Karpen and unravel the city’s hidden stories in everyday landmarks. Hop across to the 150-year-old Nytorv restaurant, the city’s popular hangout specializing in Danish cuisine and try delicious smørrebrød and Danish Schnapps or akvavit, a sweet alcoholic drink flavoured with herbs and spices ‘designed to make men feel strong and women feel weak’!

If you’re up for something edgy, don’t miss the offbeat trail around the graffiti-rich freetown of Christiania, locally called ‘staden’ is full of art galleries, music venues, restaurants and quirky homes. Pedal down Nørrebro and Christianshavn in the world’s bicycle capital with Cycling Copenhagen or in an iconic vintage Christiana bike, tackle the canals with Kayak Republic or take a walking food trail in the hip Vesterbro district. Savour a community Danish dinner at Absalon, an old church reimagined into a public space or try the unique family-style specially curated long-table meal at Gro Spiseri, set behind the OsterGRO rooftop farm in the heart of town. For retail therapy or window shopping, Strøget, one of Europe’s longest car-free pedestrian streets, is the place to be.

Insider Tip: If you’re done with the Little Mermaid, look up high above Richs building at the corner of Vesterbrogade to a gilded sculpture of the rotating Weather Girls – one astride a bicycle and the other holding an umbrella and walking her dog. It sums up the typical scene in Copenhagen – omnipresent bicycles and rain! Locals swear that these are the only two women in Copenhagen one can trust.

Getting there: Fly to Copenhagen via Dubai, Frankfurt or London (12 hrs).
Where to Stay: Avenue Hotel Ph 0045 35373111
Hotel Danmark Ph 0045 33114806 www.brochner-hotels.com/hotel-danmark

For more info, www.visitcopenhagen.com

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Lima (Peru)
Peru is hailed as “the next great global foodie destination”, ranking among the Top 5 cuisines in the world. Capital Lima is also considered ‘the gastronomic capital of the Americas’ and hosts Mistura, the annual food festival in Oct-Nov that draws gourmands from across the world. Imagine a country with 3800 variety of potatoes, 300 kinds of chilli and over 55 types of corn and beans. But there’s more to Lima than beans!

As the erstwhile bastion of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, Lima has a lot of history. Head to the pretty Spanish colonial quarter where museums and churches, promenades and palaces beg to be explored around the famous UNESCO Heritage Site Plaza San Martin and the old town square Plaza de Armas. Walk around the upmarket Milaflores, known for its casinos, nightlife, shopping and its Gaudi-inspired Parque del Amor. In the Bohemian district of Barranco discover extraordinary street art, architecture and quaint landmarks like Peunte de los Suspires (The Bridge of Sighs).

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Dine at the archaeological complex of Huaca Pucllana overlooking the magnificent 15-acre pre-Inca ruins. At Maido, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumara’s speciality Nikkei cuisine fuses Peruvian with Japanese flavours, first created by Japanese immigrants who arrived in the 1900s to work on sugarcane farms. Try the legendary local brew Pisco Sour, street food like picarones (Peruvian donuts), churros filled with manjar blanco (vanilla cream) and cancha (corn) in all its forms – tamaleto chicha, fried corn to ceviche.

Insider’s tip: Museo Larco is a privately owned museum of Pre-Columbian Art set in an 18th century viceroyal building in Pueblo Libre district. Founded by art collector Rafael Larco Hoyle in 1926, it has a unique gallery housing the world’s largest and most fascinating collection of erotic ceramics, pottery and everyday objects illustrating various sexual acts! The adjacent creeper-riddled Museo Larco Café serves superb Peruvian delicacies.

Getting there: Fly via Paris, Amsterdam, London or Madrid to Peru’s capital Lima. Jorge Chavez Airport is 12km west in the suburbs, in the port city of El Callao.
Where to Stay: La Hacienda Milaflores www.hotelslahacienda.com

For more information visit www.peru.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 August, 2019 as the cover story in the Getaway Issue ‘The Road Less Travelled’ in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.  

‘Tis the Season: Europe’s Best Christmas Markets

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take in the colours, aroma and treats of the merriest Christmas markets in Europe  

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Christmas is easily the most eagerly anticipated season for millions around the world. Come December and you cannot escape the refrain of Christmas carols, the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts on the streets and the wintry air scented with the spicy aroma of cinnamon and warm mulled wine. Dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees shimmer like towers of light, angels and elves grace rooftops and shop windows, streams of light rain down old timbered homes, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Christmas markets.

Every town interprets the traditional Advent Calendar, with surprises and treats unveiled each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with three-dimensional designs. Local craftsmen set up stalls around medieval Town Halls selling knitted woollen clothes, nutcrackers, stars, bells, candles, toys, besides objects made of wood, glass, stone and ceramic. The festive season is at its glorious best all across Europe and here’s a guide to the very best.

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Germany
When it comes to Christmas markets, Germany truly takes the stollen (cake). With a tradition dating back to 1393, every city has multiple markets, each with a particular theme and special local treats. In the Harz region at Wernigerode a quaint medieval town of half-timbered houses near Hannover, the Mayor cuts a giant stollen to declare the market open. Known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling), a special Christmas train chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is named after hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as Dresden Christstollen (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market around the Old City Hall of Cologne ladles out traditional gluhwein (mulled wine) and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near the Cathedral with hundreds of stage performances throughout the festival. Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt is lined with Bavarian stalls that dish out Nuremberger sausages, lebkuchen and zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped plum treats!

The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a medieval market, a fairytale forest and the largest freestanding Advent calendar in the world. Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt and Christkindlmarkt. With the stunning Gendarmenmarkt Square and WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus witnesses Christmas-themed parades and circus performers every Saturday. Hundreds of decorated stalls at Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt compete to win the award for the ‘most beautiful stall’.

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Zurich, Switzerland
At Basel, the Christmas market is split into two sections – Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. But if you can’t get there, central Zurich is a good place to catch the Yuletide spirit. The Hauptbahnhof or Main Train Station hosts the Christkindlimarkt with a 49 ft tall Christmas tree sparkling with thousands of Swarovski crystals. Lined with stalls, it is one of the largest indoor Christmas markets in Europe.

Wienachtsdorf, Zurich’s oldest and largest Christmas market is held in front of the Opera House in the picturesque Old Town. The whole season is packed with events – Advent concerts, Lichterschwimmen or candle-floating event and a spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display hosted by Zurich hoteliers. Don’t forget to grab Swiss delights like raclette and fondue.

Budapest Christmas

Budapest, Hungary
Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival is the oldest market in the Hungarian capital and takes place at Vörösmarty Square. The city center wears a festive air with light shows, folk dancing, live music and over a hundred stalls selling Christmas gifts, traditional Hungarian food and freshly grilled flódni, the Hungarian chimney cake. The exterior of the famous Gerbeaud Coffee House is converted into a giant advent calendar, with a new window display opening every day.

The Advent Feast, the open-air festive-season market, takes place in Szent István Square at St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungary’s largest church dedicated to Stephen, the country’s first king. Lined with vendors and an ice skating rink for children, it has folk dance shows on weekends. Try lencseleves or lentil soup, traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year.

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Belgrade, Serbia
Serbia is Orthodox Christian and Christmas is aligned to the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one, so festivities are centered around 7 January rather than 25 December. However, celebrations are in full swing for a month. Belgrade’s main square, Trg Republike, is transformed into the Open Heart Street with colourful wooden huts selling Christmas delicacies and drinks. The two-week long New Year fair features an indoor amusement park, a skating rink, concerts and shows, a beer festival and souvenir stalls.

At the annual Santa Race thousands dress up as Deda Mraz (literally ‘Grandpa Frost’ as Santa is known as Serbia) or Mrs Claus, and run through the capital for charity. As per Serbian tradition, badnjak or an oak branch is symbolically burned in homes on Christmas Eve and a public lighting is held at St Sava Temple. The centrepiece of the feast is pecenica (roast pork), typical winter treats like sarma, mince and rice wrapped and slow cooked in cabbage leaves besides cesnica, a bread with a coin hidden inside. Whoever gets the portion with the coin will receive good fortune in the year ahead.

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Krakow, Poland
During Christmas, the old Polish capital of Krakow (Cracow) in the south comes alive and the tantalizing smoky aroma of grilled meat and cheese hangs heavy in the winter air. The city’s main Christmas market is held in Rynek Glowny, the huge main square in the middle of the Old Town. With a stunning backdrop of the Renaissance Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica, rows of wooden stalls sell hand-painted Christmas baubles, spiced nuts, boiled candies and Christmas goodies.

Taste traditional Polish dishes on a Krakow Christmas Market Food Tour – Polish dumplings, special sausages, oscypek (smoked cheese) served with cranberry jelly and smalec, a traditional spicy spread made of lard and served over hot slices of bread. Don’t miss the procession of the Krakow Christmas Crib Contest.

Copenhagen Tivoli Garden

Copenhagen, Denmark
In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, all the Yuletide action revolves around the Tivoli Gardens, which is bedecked with more than 500,000 fairy lights. Three different light shows are held in the park, a traditional Pixie Band plays festive songs at various points and firework displays dazzle the skies on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Don’t miss Danish treats like aebleskiver, small pancake puffs topped with powdered sugar or honninghjerter, dense honey cake often filled with jam and buttercream and topped with a chocolate glaze.

Estonia xmas mkts

Tallinn, Estonia
In a recent poll, Tallinn the beautiful Estonian capital was chosen as the #1 European Christmas Destination 2019. Beautiful location by the Baltic Sea, a well-preserved walled, cobblestoned Old Town and a rich Christmas tradition give medieval Tallinn an unbeatable appeal. The Town Hall Square Christmas tree, which has been set up since 1441 and was one of the first to be displayed in Europe. There’s also a winter grotto, performances by choirs, poets and dance troupes. rows of huts, where you can pick up traditional handmade gifts and try out Estonian cuisine like black pudding and sour cabbage.

Strasbourg-christmas-market

Strasbourg, France
The Strasbourg Christkindelsmärik is the oldest Christmas market in France, dating back to 1570. Set up in the heart of the UNESCO world heritage site Grande Île, the market radiates from the city centre around Cathedral square and Place Broglie. At Place Kleber, you’ll find the Grand Sapin (Great Christmas Tree) lit up with 7km of lights. Earlier, people used to put presents for the poor under the tree. Today, it hosts the ‘Village of Sharing’ where charity stalls sell souvenirs and food for a cause.

There are numerous markets all over Strasbourg’s beautiful squares reachable through quaint narrow alleyways. For Alsatian tastes and flavours visit the stalls by local growers at Place des Meuniers while Place du Marché-aux-poissons, around the Palais Rohan has a Christmas treats market with beer, wine, vin chaud (mulled wine) and local eats like bretzel (French version of the German pretzel) and choucroute or grated cabbage pickled in wine, accompanied by sausages and slow-cooked pork.

Zurich’s Wienachtsdorf

Zagreb, Croatia
Having been voted the best Christmas Market in Europe three years in a row means that Zagreb can no longer compete but that takes away little of its charm. In the Croatian capital, all the action takes place around Jelačić Square, which dons the air of a carnival. An ice park at King Tomislav Square, live Nativity scene at Zagreb Cathedral, ice sculpture carvings, pop-up bars, street food stands, outdoor music stages; there’s even an area dedicated to fuliranje (fooling around) at Strossmayer where revelers can dance in the street and eat and drink to their heart’s content. Try local fare like orahnjača (walnut roll) and kiflice (vanilla half moon biscuits). Ride the Jolly Christmas Tram through the city center accompanied by Santa and his elves.

Vienna-Wiener Weihnachtstraum

Vienna, Austria
The first Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) was held in 1298 and today the Austrian capital has over 20 events to choose from – from the Museums Quarter to Belvedere Palace, an Art & Craft market at Karlsplatz in front of the Karlskirche or even a Vegan Advent Market! For the perfect introduction, head straight to the Viennese Christmas Market at Rathausplatz in front of the City Hall.

Nearly 150 stalls dish out sausages, kiachl (doughnuts from Tyrol served with cranberry jam), Schilcher glühwein (mulled wine from Styria) and Raclette Brot (bread with warm Alps cheese). The highlight is the huge ice skating rink, reindeer rides for kids and a classic nativity scene. Vienna is good to visit all year round but in Christmas it becomes a winter wonderland with video projections on facades of historic buildings.

Prague christmas markets

Prague, Czech Republic
The two main Christmas markets in Prague are held at the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, literally a five minute walk from each other! Catch the day’s festivities at Wenceslas with some Czech beers like Pilsner Urquell, Budvar and Staropramen in the afternoon, then hang around the Old Town Square for the main tree to be lit up. For a truly local experience head to Peace Square in Vinohrady! Wooden huts dish out Christmas treats like svarák (Czech mulled wine), vanočka (braided cake), klobása (Czech sausage) and trdelník, barbecued pork pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and cooked over a grill.

Zurich Sechselaeutenplatz

Brussels, Belgium
Brussels’s Winter Wonders is more a party than a Christmas Market, with over 200 wooden chalets serving glühwein, Belgian beers and waffles. The event is spread out across multiple locations – the Bourse (stock exchange), Place de la Monnaie, Place Sainte Catherine, Marche aux Poissons and Grand-Place with a light and sound show projected onto it. Other attractions include a covered ice rink, a huge Christmas tree and a giant Ferris wheel.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 December, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.  

 

Germany’s Christmas Markets

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the Christmas markets of Germany, counted amonthe oldest in the world 

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Christmas is the most awaited season for millions around the globe but Germany turns into a winter wonderland with its ancient Advent traditions and Christmas Markets dating back to 1393. Each city and town reinterprets the traditional Advent Calendar, opening up surprises and treats each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with 3-D designs.

“Christmas markets are a lovely ancient tradition,” said our guide Jens Becker in Wernigerode, a quaint medieval town high up in the Harz region, 2½ hours from Hannover. With painted half-timbered houses and the spectacular 15th century RatHaus (Town Hall) in the cobbled Marktplaz, it’s at its loveliest in the festive weeks running up to Christmas with a 10m tall Christmas tree. One of the most spectacular Christmas Markets in the region, the Mayor cuts the gigantic stollen (cake) and declares the market open. Wernigerode is known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling).

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Local craftsmen and artists set up stalls around the Townhall and Nicolaiplatz to showcase their splendid offerings in wood, glass, wool and ceramic, besides incense burners, nutcrackers, painted sun-catchers, knitwear, stone sculptures, nativity scenes, stars and bells in every shape and size. The stunning 12th Century castle forms the perfect backdrop to the weeklong Castle Wernigerode Winter Market. There’s fairy visits, Nikolaus distributing gifts in the inner courtyard, a children’s train and a special Christmas train that chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken.

Dresden is a beautiful city famous for its 600-year-old Christmas markets,” Becker continued excitedly. “I was there for the 579th market. They make amazing pastries and pies like Dresdner handbrot and have bakeries where children make their own confections. They also have the best mulled wine.” Dresden has a dozen Christmas Markets, each with a different theme or tradition. Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is counted among the oldest in Germany. Its name derives from hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as “Dresden Christstollen” (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker.

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The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a fairytale forest, a medieval market and the world’s largest freestanding Advent calendar. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market surrounding the Old City Hall in Cologne offers travellers a taste of hot gluhwein or traditional mulled wine and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near Cologne Cathedral. At the Elves Christmas market, zip around in the specially created ice-skating rink, enjoy German beer or bite into a hearty bratwurst (sausage). At Rudolfplatz, step into a magical world at the Fairytale Market.

Bustling Berlin turns into a dreamland, ushering in the festive spirit with its sixty odd Christmas markets, besides concerts, performances and shopping bonanzas. With the tunning Gendarmenmarkt Square amplifying the beauty of the WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus sees days and nights of endless merrymaking with food ranging from hearty meats to crepes, seafood and cinnamon rolls. Every Saturday Christmas-themed parades and circus performers enliven the main market during season.

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Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt. Every day at 5.30 pm at Christkindlmarkt, traditional Christmas music from the balcony of the Town Hall greets revelers while in Frankfurt, trumpets blaring from the St Nicholas Church balcony herald the festivities. Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt is counted among the oldest and largest in Europe and each of the 300 decorated stalls vie for the coveted ‘most beautiful stall’ award. Another beautiful Christmas market is Heidelberg, an old city snuggled amidst hills and forests with a gorgeous view of the River Neckar from its castle.

Between the North Sea and the Harz mountains, experience a range of Christmas themes and settings. Emden has the only floating Christmas market in the freezing north while Wilhelmshaven turns into a romantic beach setting with splendid views of the winter sea. Osnabruck woos visitors to see its massive 6m high Nutcracker figure while the Oldenburg Lambertimarkt transforms into a gigantic Advent Calendar. In Stade near Hamburg, Santa’s helper Lucia, the Swedish Queen of Light wears a wreath of candles. In Bremen, Weinachtsmarkt whips up wonderful white mulled wine while newer Christmas markets showcase pirate ships, music concerts and niche artisan products by the River Weser with wellness and vegan fare at Findorffer’s Winterdorf.

Essen/Ruhr area: Christmas market

Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt entertains over two million visitors in December alone. These Bavarian markets lined with neat stalls dressed with signature red-and-white awnings, sell handicrafts, candles, whiskered smoker dolls, handmade muppets and soft toys, music boxes and porcelain. Dig into delicious gingerbread, juicy Nuremberger sausages, iced lebkuchen and the yummy zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped treats made of plums.

On the streets, you cannot escape the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts. With carols in the air and shimmering streams of light raining down old timbered homes, with towns dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees gleaming like towers of light, elves and angels gracing the streets and shop windows, you almost see Nicholaus and his reindeer dancing through the skies to drop gifts down every chimney hole, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Germany’s Christmas markets.

Authors: This article appeared on 24 December 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

 

When the twain met: Germany Reunited

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PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Brocken and the remote borderlands of erstwhile East & West Germany to bring back real life stories and anecdotes of the Cold War, 25 years after the German Reunification

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It was unbelievable, standing between two former Border police officers for a picture at the very border in Bad Helmstedt that once separated them. Decades ago, the now balding Helmut Maushake from East Germany and the grey-haired Lothar Engler from West Germany eyeballed each other in hostility; today they clasped hands like long lost friends.

Each held a piece of Germany’s post-war history and memories of a wired wall that was more than just a geographical demarcation. My weeklong trip took me to Germany’s borderlands, where locals narrated stories of an Orwellian past. A period that saw the clash of two different ideologies – capitalism and socialism, sparking off a Cold War between neighbours for forty odd years. Ironically, the Iron Curtain is now a Green Strip, with many of these stretches developed into national parks and historic trails.

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We stood at the wall’s western side marked by remnants of concrete that separated Bad Helmstedt from Beendorf. Once stretching for 1400km, it divided the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany controlled by UK, France and the US from the Soviet Occupation Zone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany. As things got strained, the wall became impermeable, affecting the lives of thousands. Pointing to the information panel, they showed us the uniforms used while patrolling the border, recalling how a mere step across the wires could set off an alarm and result in death.

On a November winter morning, we were invited for the launch of Grenlehrpfad information trail to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall and 25 years of German Unification. Today, the former border area near Elm-Lappwald Nature Park is a popular walking and cycling site. We trudged along a path carpeted by autumn leaves past a lake with ducks paddling around.

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Behind us, a board captured the ironic humour of the Bad Helmstedt townsfolk with the words emblazoned across the German black, red and gold tricolour – “40 jahre am arsch der welt, jetzt mitten un Deutschland” meaning “Forty years in the world’s ass, now in the middle of Germany!” We laughed and thumped our glasses of beer and scooped into bowls of hot goulash.

The contrast between East and West was palpable. Easterners seemed more wary and guarded while talking of their grim past. West Germans, like our guide Jens Becker, were light-hearted and open. A frequent traveller to East Berlin, Jens elaborated how one needed ‘day visas’ and ‘transit visas’ for the highways. “The visa was given in the East and once you reached West Berlin, you returned it at the border.

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Back then, they even checked how long was your drive from one point to another. If you took longer, they suspected you were up to something. So no stopping to admire the scenery, getting lost or whimsical detours!” he revealed. Helmstedt was a key border point to reach West Berlin and Becker pointed out three famous checkpoints – Alpha, Bravo and Charlie.

Driving past fields and beautiful brick homes to Grenzdenkmal, we met local guide Hans Gunter Apun at what looked like a bus stop; it was a shelter near the inner German border in the former Soviet Zone. “The demarcation line that later became the border reminds us of a period that started in 1945 and ended in 1989, when the wall came down”, he explained. Hans lived 3km away in the British Occupation Zone. In 1945, the border was marked by a barrier of barbed wires. People tried to cross it at night using the cover of bushes.

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Before the war ended, the victorious Allied powers and anti-Hitler coalition of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided that Germany would lose the eastern territories, be divided into four occupational zones, with France invited to occupy parts of Germany. Berlin, the capital of the Third Reich, was also divided into four sectors. In Berlin, you still see sideboards – Former American or British Sector. After the war was over in 1945, everybody was euphoric. At first the four powers unanimously administered Germany as a whole – socially, economically, politically. But that did not last long.

“Things changed in 1946-47 because of ideological differences”, Apun explained. “The Western allies had a different vision from the Soviet Union’s Eastern zone on how to organize public life. And that caused all the problems, friction and confrontations in the following forty years. The more the two sides disagreed, the more the East reinforced its border. They built walls near villages, towns, any habitation. But never on the Western side!”

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“We were allowed as close to the border as we wished,” Apun chuckled. “The West German Border Police warned us, ‘Sir don’t put your foot there – it may cause diplomatic problems!’ People on the other side were not allowed to even go near the border.” By 1961, obstacles prevented cars from crossing. The entire 1400km border had a strip of land 10m wide, which was always ploughed and raked, to detect footprints of potential refugees!” Apun remembers.

At Sorge, in the restricted zone of the former German inner border (also the smallest town in the county with just 86 people), we met the lovely Mayor Inge Winkel. She ran a small museum to keep the past alive, replete with a model of the region, original signboards, warnings, black-and-white pictures of border posts with a collection of tickets, permits and passes issued to people. A 13km stretch of the wall was retained as a reminder why history must not repeat itself. The town’s name, Sorge, meant ‘worry’ or ‘preoccupation’.

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Sharing glimpses of her life in the GDR, Inge rued how a special 5km stretch called Sperrgebeit was a Closed Zone where everyone was prohibited. It was cleared of vegetation and one needed a special permit if you lived there. Another 500m near the border was closed to all. Minefields were planted with danger signs cautioning people not to venture further. She remembers how some young people made a dramatic escape from east to west before the walls were reinforced. “We had a very hard winter and were hit by snow as high as the fences, so people with skiing skills managed to escape to the other side!”

A short drive past a railway track led to the entrance of the open-air museum showcasing Sorge’s actual border. The razor straight pathway cutting through tall trees could pass of as a scenic walking trail if it wasn’t for the strange stray relics around – wired fences, dog runs for patrols, and a perforated concrete cylinder that allowed water to flow but prevented anyone from swimming through canals and escaping! Further down the path was a watchtower called B-Tower.

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The trickiest part was that the high security border lay deep in the Eastern side and people coming from the freer Western side didn’t actually realise they had reached Eastern territory, for which they could be shot! The ground near the fence was always bare, often poisoned so nothing could grow and officers could check for footprints. We posed for pictures at the border fence that once emanated frissions of shock.

In the lovely half-timbered town of Wernigerode, the famous heritage train Brockenbahn took us to the highest hill in the Harz mountains. Being the best vantage to survey the region, Brocken used to be a high security area. A watchtower intercepted radio signals and an old domed listening post at Urian was used for Stasi surveillance. The TV tower and museum display old espionage and communication equipment besides geological history. Over 50 shows of the famous rock opera ‘Faust’ have been performed on the summit.

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The Brockenbahn chugged past fir forests. The foliage had begun to turn in late fall and we saw how the Cold War had left several tracts along the border undisturbed for decades. Nature takes over where man is scarce. The transformation of a virtual Death Zone into a place brimming with life was inspirational. Fauna that had long disappeared, now returned.

Today people walk their hounds, hike, cycle, picnic and enjoy peace and tranquillity that now pervades the region. Twenty five years on, the changes were more than geographical or political; the old border had transformed the emotional, ecological and cultural fabric of Germany.

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FACT FILE
Getting there:

Fly to Hannover and drive 122km to Wernigerode in Saxony Anhalt, from where Bad Helmstedt, Grenzdenkmal and Sorge are short drives away. From Wernigerode, the heritage steam train Brockenbahn takes you on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway to Brocken in the Harz mountains. www.hsb.wr.de

Stay:
HKK Hotel Wernigerode +49 (0) 39439410 www.hkk-wr.de

For more info, www.germany.travel

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 January 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Wonderful Wernigerode

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PRIYA GANAPATHY goes for a walk in a beautiful painted German town in the Harz region to discover its captivating history, architecture and legends

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On a chilly winter morning I stepped out of HKK Wernigerode Hotel to explore the town of old brick buildings, stone-grey churches and half-timbered houses painted in myriad colours. Time had almost stood still in this town in Germany’s Harz district, renowned for its ancient Christmas markets and witch festivals. At the Marktplatz (Marketplace), I was treated to the loveliest homes and hotels I’d ever laid my eyes on. Wernigerode is defined by its idiosyncratic architectural style. Poet Hermann Lӧns called it “Bunte Stadt am Harz” or “the colourful painted town in the Harz foothills”.

Apparently, places in Germany suffixed with ‘rode’ indicate forests cleared of trees for tilling. The old city of Wernigerode was founded during the Great Clearings, nearly 1100 years ago by monks from a neighbouring district. They set up a chapel and a small castle to spread the faith in the Harz region. Locals claim the city was named after the Prior of the monastery. With abundant wood and rich mineral ores like gold, silver, copper and iron, the region saw quick growth in craft and trade. Most houses in Wernigerode have a half-timbered style and Wernigerode Public Gardens has a miniature section called “Little Harz” with a collection of 50 prominent landmarks in the Harz.

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The canary-coloured Bimmelbahn, named after the tinkling ‘bimmeln’ sound made by the toy train, trundled cheerily along the narrow cobbled street, ascending to Wernigerode Schloss, the town’s most popular sight. Looming above the city, the castle is a 1.5km hike from the marketplace. The only other access is by foot or horse-drawn carriages, adding to its old world charm.

The fairytale castle blends neo-Baroque and neo-Gothic styles. Fronted by a sprawling garden, it commands a fabulous cityscape of red-roofed buildings punctuated by arrowheads of church spires. In the inner courtyard stone sculptures of griffins and fierce gothic animals guarded wide steps and stone walls riddled with creepers and vines.

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A model of the original 12th Century castle, a former hunting lodge for German royals, is on display. The lavish interiors flaunt exquisite red and blue silk damask wall panels, monogrammed motifs, parquet floors, hunting trophies and gilded portraits. The grand Festaal (banquet hall) decorated with the stag crest of the House of Stolberg-Wernigerode spells out the opulence enjoyed by Kaisers and Dukes.

We noticed a raised deck with a special door. Back in the day, guests had to wear a special hat and thick cape called the ‘smoking jacket’ before entering the smoking lounge. This ensured they didn’t stink up the place with the odour of tobacco smoke clinging to their clothes. In 1950, the castle was refurbished into a museum and opened to public. Its unusual treasures include gifts, silverware, traditional dishes, recipes, menus and a book compiled by the French chef of the Stolberg family.

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Wernigerode’s fascinating history came alive during the guided city walk with the genial Werner Kropf. Goethe, who wrote the classic “Faust” came here in 1777 at the age of 28 to study mining in the Harz. Mining’s loss was music’s gain! Till 1870 it was a small town of 6000 inhabitants and after the foundation of the German Reich, it saw great development. One of the factories that opened in the 1800s was Hasserӧder, the largest and most famous brewery in Germany, which still exists. They produce beer that Germans swear by – about 1million litres per day! In 1899, the railway network through 140km of the Harz mountains to the highest point Brocken, was completed.

Despite several fires, few Baroque style homes managed to survive and are comparatively prettier than the simpler new homes. But what the latter miss out in ornamentation, is made up for in colour. Perhaps the cutest house was Kleinstes Haus, Wernigerode’s smallest house which belonged to postal worker Mr Nettelmann. Wedged between two houses (they skipped building the side walls!), the home built in 1792 is just 3m wide with two rooms, a small hall and kitchen! In 1900, it still managed to house a family of ten. Today the heritage house has been converted into a museum.

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Many houses are over 500 years old and retain remnants of Renaissance period artwork and woodwork with large overhangs, paintings and carvings. We saw a wonky house with a clever signboard in German nailed to its wall “There are not so many days in the year as there the number of years of this house!” Dating back to 1597, it stood crooked because the foundation was damaged by the flooding rains. Art, humour and beauty came together in these lanes.

We halted at the unusual Museum Schiefes Haus, formerly a water-powered mill built in Baroque style in 1680. It was built straight but today leans forward, earning fame as the Crooked Mill in town. Apparently its foundations too, eroded over the centuries as the little brook flowing alongside sometimes swelled into a flood. Today, it inclines 130cm, making it more tilted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! It features models of mills inside. Its slope is so sharp it’s difficult to balance, like you would on a ship in the high seas. A landscaped Floral Watch designed in 1974 stands nearby.

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Wernigerode’s historic Rathaus or Town Hall in the heart of town was originally built in 1277 as a Spielhaus (playhouse). People gathered here to meet and have beer, play cards every evening, watch theatre or celebrate a wedding. When Wernigerode became a town, they declared it a Marktplatz.

As it prospered, the administration decided on a makeover for the Rathaus in 1936. They invited a young 27-year-old architect brimming with new ideas from his wanderings around Germany to decorate the building. He moved the oriels lying around in a corner for centuries to the roof and added two oriel towers.

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This stunning highlight became a signature of Wernigerode. Sitting pretty in shades of burnt orange, its Mayor Oriel windows (the Mayor’s office lies behind it) frilled by garden plants, the Rathaus is touted as the most beautiful Town Hall between the Atlantic Sea and the Ural Mountains. The inside story is that the administration short-changed the architect on his fee. So, he avenged it by ordering his craftsman to chisel images in the likeness of the administrators to publicly lampoon them. Enraged, they didn’t give him another project!

The building’s façade is beautiful with sculptural embellishments and the figures details even their costume and expression! One figure highlighted the typical attire of a farmer’s wife, another depicted a lumberjack with his axe. A row of wooden sculptures highlight the professions of the time – butcher, farmer, baker, miner, sweeper, the sixth was the artist himself, a carpenter, metalsmith, builder, potter, painter and a gunsmith.

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The centrepiece is the gilded and tiered Benefactor’s Fountain, built in honour of those who rendered exemplary service and contributed to local welfare. Many of the town’s buildings have been renovated into restaurants. The magnificent Gothic Haus built in 1440 was converted into a heritage hotel and restaurant in mid 19th century and was transformed into a 4-star hotel in 1992.

Another timbered heritage hotel Weisser Hirsch or The White Deer, stands opposite the fountain. With 70 restaurants, hotels and cafés, the town is a popular holiday spot. Though Wernigerode is relatively small, it receives an astonishing 3 million visitors a year, of which a million stay at least one night!

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Dampfladen (Steam Shop) stocks steam train souvenirs. The quirky 135-year-old bookshop Juttner’s Buchhandlung has 18 heavy bells hanging outside that chime everyday at five minutes past 12, 3 and 5pm in traditional folk tunes! Nearby, a metal sculpture of an owl and a hanging book highlight it as treasure-trove of wisdom.

Café Wein on Breite Strasse, the long pedestrian-only street, has a chocolate façade laced with pink flowers in its windows that made it look good enough to eat! Built in 1583 as a Renaissance style building, it has been run as a Viennese style café since 1898. The present owner Mrs Zeigermont is a gracious octogenarian who welcomes all her visitors personally. Her cakes are to die for!

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The second marketplace of Wernigerode was also a venue for Walpurgisnacht, the night dedicated to the Witches of Brocken. Every year between 30th April and 1st May, thousands gather here dressed like witches and wizards. Marked by binge drinking, all night dancing and loud music, the festival marks the end of winter and celebrates the onset of spring. We could almost hear the Witches of Brocken Hill cackling and cheering us on for a cold night of revelry.

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Fly to Hanover (130km) and take a train to Wernigerode (2.5 hrs) by the German Federal Railways (Deutsche Bahn) and ‘Veolia’ Transport trains.

When to Go: Wernigerode has a busy calendar with the Town Hall Festival in mid-June and a Wine Festival in June end. The Chocolate Festival began two years ago and takes place in end October. The centuries old Christmas Market begins on 1st December and goes on till Christmas.

For more details, visit www.wernigerode-tourismus.com/ and www.germany.travel

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Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Imperia magazine.