In Rhineland, the New Europe vibe is everywhere.
The cobbled streets of Rudolfplatz, a popular Cologne dining quarter, are lined with traditional German brauhauses - and French bistros, Spanish bodegas and Italian trattorias. On the Rhine, the river that gives this corner of western Germany its name, the Koln-Dusseldorfer ferry chugs along blue-green waters past grand mansions that look untouched since the baroque era, while a waiter serves platters of fresh French camembert and glasses of German riesling. In Dusseldorf, a fashionista's dreamland, one crowd flocks to a boutique featuring the latest African-inspired garb from Kenzo's Paris studio, while another lines up for denim from the Milan workshop of Dolce & Gabbana.
In spite of its heritage as an early Roman outpost, Rhineland is an unlikely place for roads from across Europe to meet. Composed of small towns and mid-size rust-belt cities straddling the Rhine River, it is geographically more a heartland region, a German version of the Mississippi Valley. In the past, odd dialects, zany celebrations, beer proffered by the meter and other local customs gave Rhineland a provincial atmosphere. But since the pact for the modern European Union was sealed in 1993, opening the country's borders to people and trends, Rhinelanders have come into their own.
The resulting melange of continental cuisines and fashions make it possible for travelers to practically take a tour of Europe without venturing far. Although Cologne and other Rhineland cities lack the urban groove of Berlin, London and other major metropolises, they offer much of what visitors seek in Europe, including medieval and baroque architecture, top-notch dining and a vast selection of art venues. A wide and well-managed network of ferries, trams, trains and buses connects the urban areas and towns, making it easy to get around without a car. Many clerks, tour guides and waiters can shift easily from local dialects to high German and English.
In this protracted period of the weak dollar, American travel budgets go much further here than in more heavily traveled parts of Europe. A fine dinner for two of goulash and other specialties at Zum Csikos, a popular Hungarian restaurant in Dusseldorf, runs $55. A spacious double room at the four-star hotel Mado in Cologne, including a buffet breakfast, goes for $93 a night. A fourth-row seat for a philharmonic concert at the Beethoven Hall in Bonn is $25.
For my four-day Rhineland sojourn, I set up base in Cologne (population 1.1 million), an expanse of modern facades, brick factories and warehouses with an artsy inner core. After spending a day exploring the city's 757-year-old cathedral and touring its galleries and museums, I set off on a 16-mile cruise down the Rhine to the former German capital of Bonn. Another day trip took me by train to Dusseldorf for an afternoon of window-shopping.
As several Rhinelanders I met were proud to explain, the influence of far-flung cultures is deeply rooted. In 38 B.C., Roman explorers pushed up the Rhine and staked out their northernmost colony in Cologne.
With guidebook in hand, I visited some of the ancient remains of that settlement. The most impressive was the Romerturm, at the corner of Zeughausstrasse and St.-Apern-strasse, several blocks from the banks of the Rhine. A tower of multicolored stones constructed 2,000 years ago in mosaic fashion, it was part of a massive Roman wall that once ringed the city.
Bombed to splinters during World War II, Cologne was rebuilt in an expanse of gangly postmodern buildings - one exception being the Altstadt, or Old Town, an enclave of medieval structures once popular among silver merchants and bankers.
With its finely crafted facade and twin spires soaring to 515 feet, the Cologne Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Mary, is one of Europe's most awe-inspiring pilgrimage destinations. The church, only a couple of blocks from the Rhine and next to the main train station, merits a tour. The exterior, clad in flying buttresses, gargoyles and other features carved in volcanic stone, is so massive and ornate I spent a half-hour just gawking at it from different angles.
The interior - with its 142-foot-high nave, stained-glass windows dating back five centuries, gilded altars and ornate wood carvings - was equally majestic. Construction was started in 1248 to house the remains of the Three Magi (the wise men who celebrated the birth of Christ), which were brought here from Milan in the 12th century.
Other wonders in the cathedral include a Schatzkammer, or treasure room, filled with jewels and relics made of gold and ivory. And then there's the view: Before leaving, I climbed more than 500 steps, past ancient bells, to an overlook in one of the spires for a knock-your-socks-off panorama of the city.
I spent the rest of the day hopping among museums and galleries. Art experts rank Cologne as Europe's third-biggest stronghold of private art venues, after London and Basel, Switzerland. My first stop, the Ludwig Museum, is highly regarded for its extensive acquisitions of contemporary art, including works by David Hockney, Salvador Dali and Gerhard Richter. Picasso buffs will find that the modern structure - with high ceilings, marble floors and several rooms of 20th- and 21st-century works - houses one of the world's largest collections of the cubist's work.
Where to visit next that afternoon was a harder decision. Daunted by the list of 100-plus private galleries provided by Cologne's tourism office, I consulted a few art specialists and narrowed my itinerary.
Galerie Gisela Capitain, one flight above Rudolfplatz, had the spare, cool look of an art venue in Manhattan's SoHo. On display were the canvases of Charline von Heyl, a young German artist whose oversize abstract works are splashed with brilliant colors and movement.
The scene at Galerie Daniel Buchholz, a 10-minute walk away, couldn't have been more different. The gallery, in the back of an antique-book store, was exhibiting a one-woman show by Lucy McKenzie, a rising artist from Scotland.
Finally, I dropped into Frank Henseleit's gallery, which features works from young German, Spanish and French painters. My attention was grabbed by "Himmel und Erde" ("Heaven and Earth"), a large canvas depicting the New York skyline with a portrait of an Indian chief, headdress and all, imposed on it.
Rainer Knaust, the painting's creator, explained that the current trend among artists in Europe is to incorporate current news into their works.
The next afternoon, with sunny skies and 60-degree breezes, was just right for a Rhine cruise, so I stepped aboard the Koln-Dusseldorfer for the hour-long journey to Bonn. As the ferry pulled away, the full range of Rhineland's attractions, both natural and man-made, became more apparent. Lush meadows gave way to inviting towns. A castle stood grandly on a wooded hillside. Flower gardens surrounded small houses set back a short way from the banks.
On the open water, I could also see why the Rhine is one of Europe's busiest rivers. As barges chugged along in one direction, carrying lumber and other goods, passenger boats passed going the other way, including some larger enclosed vessels that travel nearly the river's full 820-mile course.
Bonn, which served as Germany's capital from 1949 to 1990, is today a picture of low-rise baroque charm. I strolled Poppelsdorfer Allee, lined with stately art-nouveau homes and gas lamps, before making my way to the mint-green lawns and grand classroom buildings of the University of Bonn. Nearby, pastel houses dominate the city center's pedestrian zone; formerly merchant houses, they've been converted into beer halls and restaurants. I paused before the Easter-yellow central post office building to admire a towering bronze statue of Ludwig van Beethoven.
That set the stage for my tour of the small four-story house at Bonngasse 20, where Beethoven was born in 1770. The building is now Beethoven Haus, a museum dedicated to the composer.
After my return journey up the Rhine, I was joined in Cologne by Michel, an old friend, for dinner. We scoped out the eclectic mix of cafes, clubs and restaurants near Rudolfplaltz and settled on Fischermanns', a small bistro in an art deco mansion off a tree-covered square. The tables were elegant, with white tablecloths and candles, and the crowd mostly young, stylish Germans.
The menu at first seemed like an odd experiment in fusion: duck breast on a bed of sauerkraut; gnocchi in walnut cream sauce; strawberry-infused tiramisu. We went along, ordering a bit of everything, and were not the least bit disappointed.
Dusseldorf is only 19 miles from Cologne, but the posher, more refined scene seemed a world apart. After an hour's ride on a packed commuter train, I was strutting along Konigsallee, the city's showcase shopping boulevard.
Although the population is only 563,000, this street clearly has the ambitions of a bigger city. High-rise bank and financial buildings line one side, while towering chestnuts, smart boutiques and cafes border the other. In the middle is a canal filled with ducks and other waterfowl. A stream of locals, decked out in fur-trimmed jackets and stylish leather pants, paraded along the boulevard.
I'd come expecting to get a glimpse of fashion waves rolling in from the far-flung corners of the Continent. And Ko, as Rhinelanders know the street and the surrounding area, did not let me down. I popped into Jil Sander's boutique for a look at the German designer's spring offerings, geared mostly to young professional women with deep pockets. A few blocks down, the shirts in the Kenzo boutique with their leopard-skin designs and open necks were equally pricey, but more imaginative.
For less expensive brands, I scoured the shops in the Schadow Arcade, an indoor U.S.-style mall with a Parisian buzz. The stores showcased low-cut Dolce & Gabbana jeans, bright sneakers and colorful pumps from Joop!, pinstriped suits from Armani and other garb from the new collections.
Pausing before the row of glitzy shops, I was momentarily transported somewhere else. Was it a shopping gallery in Milan? Or a row of fashion boutiques on the Left Bank of Paris? A cacophony of bitte schoens and danke sehrs reminded me I was in the middle of Rhineland.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times