By Parag Dutta
August 10, 2012: Hotel NH Koningschoff, Eindhoven, Netherlands:
We shall move into Germany today, visit Cologne and after a cruise on the Rhine spend the night at Heidelberg, a centre of excellence for education. After two and half an hour long drive from Eindhoven, we reached Cologne. Cologne sprawls on both the banks of the Rhine and is the fourth largest city in Germany. It was in Cologne I had a first glimpse of the Rhine, the lifeline of Germany, and a source of major transportation for both man and material. The iconic landmark of Cologne, the Cologne cathedral, is the largest Gothic-style cathedral in Germany. Orientation tour of the city began with a visit to the cathedral, which dominates the Cologne skyline, and was the only landmark that survived heavy bombings by the Allied Forces during the World War II. Our manager informed us that prayers in the cathedral never go in vain. On entering the cathedral I was struck by the beauty of works of art on the walls and the ceiling. All the members of the group moved near the altar, lit candles and offered our prayers.
After a brief tour of the city, we went for our lunch at Taj Mahal Restaurant. I never realised in the wildest dream that the most exciting moment of the entire trip was to be dramatised here. After a very good lunch, on way to the washroom, I overheard our manager talking to the owner in Hindi. I could not resist the temptation of joining them. I asked the owner which part of India are you from? A surprise was in store for me when he said he was Bangladeshi. “Amar nam Jahangir Alam, Dhakaiya, ar amar wife Sylheter. (My name is Jahangir Alam, from Dacca and my wife is from Sylhet).”
Jahangir called his wife Nazma and I started conversing with her in fluent Sylheti. That was not the end of this one-act drama. Her brother Shadrul soon joined the conversation and with a surprised look on his face told me that was for the first time they heard someone speaking their dialect in Cologne. He asked my wife did you like the cuisine and need anything special? My wife told him lunch was excellent but would love to have some paan( betel leaf) I Shadrul replied- oh only this, please wait, my sister stays nearby. I shall be back within minutes. He was back within five minutes with lots of paan, betel nut and zarda, neatly wrapped in a foil paper. I was just daydreaming about what happened in a Cologne restaurant.
The wheels of the coach rolled on and we were off to Boppard for a cruise on the Rhine. Never thought that the stretch from Cologne to Boppard could be so picturesque as Germany gradually started unfolding its natural charm. After half an hour we crossed Koblenz, gateway to the ruined castles of the Rhine. Nestled in a lovely valley and surrounded by beautiful low lying mountains and the Rhine, this 2000-year-old city was a treat to watch from our speeding coach. Along the route to Boppard, we experienced the only traffic jam in Europe. Thanks to an accident that occurred elsewhere, because of traffic congestion we were held up and were lucky to enjoy the beauty of the German countryside. As we neared Boppard, the coach left the highway, took a left-hand turn and started descending downhill. The narrow road was flanked by lush green scrubland and lovely little trees.
The Rhine valley in Boppard could be rightly called “The Valley of the Kings” as there are a number of castles along both the banks of the Rhine. Most of the castles along the Rhine stand on the low-lying hills, but Boppard’s main castle, “Alte Burg”, or the “Old Castle”, lies in the centre of the town. There are a number of cruise liners that operate from Boppard to St. Goar. Here the Rhine is flowing through a rift valley in between two block mountains- the Black Forest of Germany and Mt. Vosges of France.
After alighting from the coach the tour manager went to collect our tickets and we moved towards the jetty. I was struck by the beauty of Boppard, that looked awesome. Boppard is a state-sponsored tourism resort and was aptly declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. On the other side of the jetty, across the road, there were beautiful cottages with balconies adorned with bright flowers, restaurants, hotels, and shops. The small town of Boppard was an unforgettable holiday destination. We had to wait for some time for our steamer to arrive from St. Goar. We were booked on KD Lines (Koln-Dusseldorfer), which is a river cruise operator based in Cologne. On board the steamer it was a lifetime experience for us. There were commentaries in English and German. The landscape was breathtaking. I took a vintage position to capture the best shots with my still and video camera. But that was only for a brief period. I got up from the chair and started moving around the upper deck clicking as many pictures as possible. The left bank was dotted with hotels, vineyards, terraced crop-fields, and medieval castles where the German flags were flying high. There are six castles en-route. Some of these are under private entrepreneurs that are transformed into four-star hotels. All these exquisite frames formed a collage of sorts that unknowingly took us to Germany’s medieval past.
On the upper deck, there was a small counter selling coffee, tea, wine, beer, and coke. It was rather a warm day in Germany, so I got two bottles of coke, for me and my wife, paying five Euros. Some ladies were singing and dancing enjoying the beauty of the countryside. I simply did not realize when this one and a half hour journey had ended abruptly. A sense of sadness crept into my mind thinking that I cannot rewind these wonderful moments anymore.
With a pensive mood, we started walking slowly towards the coach which was driven from Boppard to St. Goar by our coach captain, Liandro. There were lovely little cottages on the hilltop on our right. I looked up and amazed to find elderly citizens waving at us. Some of us reciprocated their wonderful gesture. Germans are naturally very conscious about their cultural identity, about their superiority, a class apart as a pure Aryan Race. I just could not believe my eyes and was very much moved by this act that touched my heart to the core.
We continued our journey after a hectic day’s tour to Heidelberg. The Rhine was still our companion to the left. We passed by a number of small beautiful hamlets, but could not find a single soul. I asked myself where all the people have gone? Suddenly one Mr. Abraham, from Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, got up from his seat, picked up the microphone and said ‘Friends did you remember our prayers at cathedral this morning?’ I wondered what he was up to? Drops of tear started rolling down his face. He informed us that a very big consignment of fish product export that was held up by the government of Maharashtra for long did get a clearance only today. Hardly anyone realized that our prayers were heard by the Almighty this morning. We continued our journey after a hectic day’s tour to Heidelberg. We were the third lucky couple to hear a very good news from home, on the third day after the cathedral visit, while seated outside a cathedral at Innsbruck, Austria. So who says God has religion because we never offered our prayer in a temple in Germany! We reached Heidelberg during the twilight hours and the city looked gorgeous under the mellow sun.
(The author is a retired professor of St Edmund’s College)