Germany. Equals football. Equals Munich. Equals huge mugs of beer. Equals cutting-edge cars. Equals the commercial engine of Continental Europe. That&rsquos the Germany we know and love. Beyond that, images of occasional castles flash by. What was that one with the tongue-twister name again With the pointy turrets on top of a hill Heck, Neuwach... , no, Neuwein... , no, Neuschwanstein. Frankfurt has top-of-the-mind recall, of course, since so many flights from India land there &mdash and the return flight proves that there&rsquos a mini-Punjab lurking somewhere in that city.
For a country this large (by European standards) and this important in world history, political and economic, Germany is a surprisingly nebulous entity in the average Indian traveller&rsquos imagination. There&rsquos a vague idea of iron efficiency and stern faces &mdash Germans must not be very friendly, we speculate. Their tourism advert doesn&rsquot say anything like &ldquoSmile, you&rsquore in Germany.&rdquo
So, even in our fairly well-travelled group, there was suppressed excitement about this trip and absolutely none of that &lsquobeen there-done that&rsquo air. Nobody could claim to have been there or done anything in the three cities on our itinerary Cologne, Stuttgart and Baden-Baden. At the time of our visit, Christmas markets were springing up across Europe, and the top item on the agenda was seeing the lights and drinking glühwein, a hot drink of red wine mulled with spices that&rsquos a staple of Germany and Eastern Europe. What the winter temperature might be was a bit of a concern thanks to global warming, Germany presented its balmy face.
The first stop was Cologne (Köln), a word familiar to most of us from childhood as a nice smell that freshened up the lethal Indian summer. But &mdash and this is the important bit &mdash there&rsquos cologne and cologne and then there&rsquos Eau de Cologne, a name widely usurped and fought over across centuries. Like a nincompoop not quite up to speed with current affairs, I demanded that a visit to the house at 4711, Glockengasse, perceived as the &lsquooriginal&rsquo headquarters of Eau de Cologne, be slipped into our day&rsquos plan. I got a slightly pained look from our Cologne guide, and new insight into Eau de Cologne.
At the Farina Fragrance Museum, Johann Maria Farina himself materialised &mdash a costumed, bewigged version of him, at any rate &mdash to walk us through history. Like the fabled perfume industry in France, the first Eau de Cologne created in 1709 by this immigrant Italian perfumer was born of a need for the city&rsquos elite to banish body odour. No one, rich or poor, washed much then, as the water was too foul. Instead, wealthy patrons dropped by and sat on Rococo chairs at the Farina salon to make small talk and buy their slender glass bottles of fragrance. It struck me during the tour that over centuries, the Farina Eau de Cologne has barely changed in its essence only the bottling has evolved to cater to newer consumers. A whiff of this perfume is a throwback to times we can barely imagine today.
A small doubt niggled later, when we took the train to Stuttgart. If Farina is the one, what about the big neon-lit sign at Cologne station proclaiming 4711 to be &lsquoEcht Kölnisch Wasser&rsquo (&lsquoauthentic water of Cologne&rsquo) What about it, eh Oh, never mind about 18th and 19th century copyright disputes. There is enough echt wasser in Köln to go around now &mdash forget spritzing try swimming.
What does Cologne do on days when sitting at an outdoor café is too windy and chilly a proposition, yet the indoors feel suffocating Cologne packs its trunks and towel and heads for Claudius Therme, an enormous Romanesque spa in the Rheinpark area with multiple pools and sauna &mdash the unwary may be confronted here with more bare flesh than they&rsquore prepared to see on a first visit, which makes this the perfect spot to shed inhibitions. We came out of the thermal bath experience warm, refreshed and with some newly acquired European nonchalance.
Thermal baths were a common feature of the cities we visited, all three quite Mediterranean in their mood and architecture. There&rsquos beer on the table, including the popular Kölsch served in a small cylindrical glass, but also a large wine list. Cologne and Stuttgart are near the vineyards of southern Germany, so local wines are abundant, and Baden-Baden was practically French before it decided to become German. If you&rsquove been to Paris, the first sight of the Cologne cathedral will immediately remind you of Notre Dame, one of the grandest examples of French Gothic architecture.
The Cologne cathedral is a magnet for Catholics for its huge golden shrine of the Three Kings, the Magi who visited infant Jesus. Among its stained glass windows there&rsquos one that stands out the &lsquopixel window&rsquo created by the German artist Gerhard Richter is an assortment of bright little squares, unifying all the colours and shades used in the stained glass art all over the cathedral.
A tasty replica of the Three Kings shrine is a major exhibit at the Chocolate Museum on the Rhein riverfront. Accept a wafer or two dipped in warm chocolate, handed out by a nice woman at the fountain &mdash we all went back for seconds and thirds no shame in being greedy about chocolate &mdash and walk over to admire this scale model slowly rotating on its base.
We were just getting used to the ritual of coming to breakfast before sunrise and watching the sky lighten from the coffee shop of Maritim Köln, a hotel set within an extraordinary glass structure resembling a conservatory, when it was time to head for Stuttgart. And this city was a revelation.
Stuttgart is synonymous with the automobile industry and futuristic buildings in graphic shapes. Of these, the Mercedes-Benz Museum is one of the most futuristic, a spiral structure winding round the building&rsquos circular exoskeleton, leading visitors through the different eras in the life of this legendary marque. Though I&rsquom not at all touchy-feely with museum exhibits, the eye-wateringly beautiful Merc two-seater favoured by movie stars in the Gallery of Celebrities left me utterly star-struck &mdash how nice it would be to get into it for a minute. The Porsche Museum, half-an-hour&rsquos drive away, was just as compelling despite its smaller size.
Much as our eyes popped at the sight of these supercars, the true attractions were outside. A fact about Stuttgart, lesser known among travellers from my part of the world, is that alongside being a major car town, it&rsquos also a major spa town, its three mineral baths fed daily by a gushing 22 million litres of water from 19 springs. Who knew that the city is also something of a &lsquogarden of Germany&rsquo with its nearly endless green spaces and its well-preserved, old-world buildings Behind our hotel, the Maritim Stuttgart, a beautiful park-cum-cemetery provided an urban oasis, yellow autumn leaves strewn over the grass. Just off the city centre, on the northeast of the hauptbahnhof (central station) was the ultra-long stretch of the Schlossgarten (Castle Park) blending into Rosensteinpark in a roughly U-shaped formation. Residential buildings along the route we took to a high viewing point appeared stately yet comfortably inhabited. Stuttgart had a self-assured elegance.
Similar, and more boutique, if a city can be called that, was our third destination. If Cologne and Stuttgart are full-scale cities, warts and all &mdash only a few, though &mdash Baden-Baden is a little work of art, something like the exquisite gold eggs and jade figurines in the city&rsquos Fabergé Museum. I&rsquove seen so far from my travels in Europe that no matter how aesthetically pleasing a city centre, there&rsquos always a bleakness at the periphery, either from relative poverty or from industrial activities. Baden- Baden had none. From the moment our car touched the edge of Baden-Baden, we practically smelled the wealth and certainly marvelled at the perfection of the mansions and avenues.
There&rsquos a cute story about how this city came to be so named. The long and short of it is that baden-baden (&lsquobaths-baths&rsquo in German) sounds a lot better than wasserwasser (&lsquowater-water&rsquo). Like Cologne and Stuttgart, Baden-Baden is blessed in the matter of thermal spas. It has also managed to get itself crowned the spa capital of Germany, a benefit accrued from the patronage of ancient Romans who came here to treat their aches and pains. Among the bathers was Caracalla, the 3rd century Roman emperor whose blood-thirsty campaigns must have left him with quite a few sore joints. The present Caracalla Spa is a modern affair, with pools of all varieties, including one that has a steep &lsquowaterfall&rsquo built in. A trifle apprehensive, I stood under this vertical stream and felt its pummelling force &mdash shocking at first, invigorating soon &mdash pound every bit of stiffness out of my normally chair-bound back muscles. If it hadn&rsquot been the polite thing to allow others to take turns under the stream, I wouldn&rsquot ever have moved from there.
At Caracalla, you get to keep your kit on at the nearby Friedrichsbad, you do not. The people of Baden-Baden are unhappy about their dear old Roman baths getting labelled &lsquonaked baths&rsquo in the American press. The whole deal about Friedrichsbad is not the nakedness, but the act of surrendering to the warm healing waters without any barriers. Spa etiquette demands that you acknowledge fellow bathers with a small nod and then keep quiet and definitely no staring. The Roman soldiers who were the original patrons of this spa town couldn&rsquot have cared less you shouldn&rsquot either. Just sink into the wasser-wasser and say a silent bravo to this &lsquoother Germany&rsquo for its wonderful baden-baden.
Getting there Flights to Cologne and Stuttgartare limited from Delhi and Mumbai, as most go to Frankfurt and Munich. Flights with more than one layover are available on multiple carriers. Flights withone layover are available on Austrian Airlines, Turkish Airlines,Swiss and Lufthansa. Fares from Rs 69,000. We flew Lufthansa with a stop at Munich. Cologne,Stuttgart and Baden-Badenare all connected to Frankfurthauptbahnh of (central station) bythe Deutsche Bahn rail network (bahn.de fares from &euro30-50,depending on train type travel time less than 2 hours for Cologneand Stuttgart, and less than 3hours for Baden-Baden).
Currency Euro (&euro1 = Rs 77.5 approx)
Where to stay
COLOGNE The Maritim Köln (doubles from &euro193 www.maritim.de) is in a magnificent glass building that gives clear views of the city centre on one side and the Rhein promenade on the other. In the same price band and location is the Dorint Hotel am Heumarkt (doubles from &euro199). The Wyndham Köln (doubles from &euro117 www.wyndham.com) is in Aldstadt (old town), quite plush and close to the Rhein. The Leonardo Hotel (doubles from &euro75 www.leonardo-hotels.com) has a central location, and simple yet chic décor. The Novum Business Hotel Silence Garden (doubles from &euro29 www.novum-hotels.de) has bland but comfortably furnished rooms in Brück, near a wooded area far from the city centre.
STUTTGART The Maritim Stuttgart (doubles from &euro105 www.maritim.de) is a classy property a short taxi ride from the railway station and the city centre. Althoff Hotel am Schlossgarten (doubles from &euro150 www.hotelschlossgarten.com) is a luxury hotel just a few steps from the Schlossplatz (Castle Square). The Ibis Hotel Stuttgart City (twin rooms from &euro50 www.ibis.com) is an adequate chain hotel in Marienplatz, 2km from the city centre (Mitte). Hotel Espenlaub (doubles from &euro29 www.hotel.info) on Charlottenstrasse is very close to the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the high street Königstrasse.
BADEN-BADEN The best hotel is Brenner&rsquos Park & Spa (singles from &euro260 and doubles from &euro320 www.brenners.com), a gorgeous property with a private share of the dream-like park grounds of Lichtentaler Allee. Our stay was at the Dorint Maison Messmer (doubles from &euro250), which has a stunning spa and an enormous penthouse (from &euro2,500) for which one might need a map. Baden-Baden isn&rsquot exactly &lsquobudget&rsquo but can be quite affordable, as nice rooms can come for &euro80-100. Self-catering accommodation like Ferienwohnung Stephanien (from &euro55 Stephanienstrasse www.booking.com) keeps you very close to all the glamour minus the bill. Hotel Athos (doubles from &euro70) is a pleasant little slice of Greece.
What to see & do
COLOGNE If you can climb up 533 steps, the south tower of the Cologne cathedral has a platform that commands a panoramic city view (from 9am daily entry &euro3 www.koelner-dom.de). The church Treasury houses all its riches (10am&ndash6pm entry &euro4 www.domschatzkammer-koeln.de). Walking down the Rhein promenade is free and fabulous, and you could end the walk at the Chocolate Museum (10am&ndash6pm, 11am&ndash7pm weekends entry &euro9 www.schokoladenmuseum.de). See the city on a toy train (tickets &euro6) that starts from near the Chocolate Museum every 15-20 minutes. The Farina Fragrance Museum (entry &euro5 www.farina.org) can only be visited through a pre-booked tour.
STUTTGART You can&rsquot come to Stuttgart and not see the Mercedes-Benz Museum (www.mercedes-benz.com/museum) and the Porsche Museum (www.porsche.com/museum). Both are open 9am&ndash6pm, Monday closed entry &euro8. Visit the Schlossplatz (Castle Square) for the grandeur of historical Stuttgart. Take a trip to Outlet City Metzingen, where a whole town is dedicated to discounted shopping. There&rsquos a luxury shuttle to Metzingen from Stuttgart three times a week (fare &euro10 www.outletcity.com). Deutsche Bahn (www.bahn.de) trains run daily every 30 minutes.
BADEN-BADEN A leisurely day at Caracalla Spa (8am&ndash10pm from &euro15 for 2 hours www.carasana.de/en/caracalla-spa/home) is a must. If you have the courage to take it all off, visit Friedrichsbad (9am&ndash10pm basic package from &euro25 www.carasana.de/en/friedrichsbad/home). Stroll around Lichtentaler Allee, the little river Oos flowing through it. Visit the Museum Frieder Burda (10am&ndash6pm entry &euro12 www.museum-frieder-burda.de) to see great modern art. The Fabergé Museum (10am&ndash6pm entry &euro18 www.faberge-museum.de) has a small but awe-inspiring collection. At night, if you feel like the titular character of Fyodor Dostoyevsky&rsquos The Gambler &mdash the Russian novelist lived and gambled in Baden-Baden &mdash then visit the Casino, if not to throw the dice, then at least to gape at the Baroque interiors. The Merkur Bergbahn (Merkur Mountain funicular ticket &euro4 firstname.lastname@example.org) takes you to a hilltop picnic spot.
STUTTGART Achtender in Metzingen ( www.achtender.net ) is a nice restaurant. The Cube (49-(0)711-2804441) is a glass-covered restaurant on the top floor of the Stuttgart Museum of Art, near the Castle Square. And chew on this Stuttgart gave the world the pretzel, a desperate innovation by a baker who had to pacify the Eberhard the Bearded with a bread that let &ldquosunlight pass through it three times&rdquo.
BADEN-BADEN The Brenners Park restaurant (www.brenners.com) has two Michelin stars. We had lovely mezze at Rive Gauche, the Brenners Park Hotel&rsquos Mediterranean restaurant. Le Jardin de France ( www.lejardindefrance.de ) is a fine-dining gem. The Indian restaurant Namaskaar (www.namaskaar.de) is a hit with locals.