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 mighty 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. Upriver 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 deep for denim creations from the Milan workshop of Dolce & Gabbana.
In the past decade, new cultures and trends have taken root in Germany's Rhineland, where Old World classics, such as Cologne's cathedral and Hohenzollern bridge (above), loom over the Rhine.
Auf Wiedersehen, Old Europe, where borders were strictly defined and the locals clung tightly to their cultural mores and traditions.
In spite of its heritage as an early Roman outpost, Rhineland is an unlikely place for roads from across Europe to meet. Comprising 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 up the country's borders to an easy flow of people and trends, Rhinelanders have glommed on to the concept with all the passion of crazed fans chasing a pop star.
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 seem to have vacationed in the States and can shift easily from local dialects to high German and English.
Then there are the economic pluses. In this protracted period of the weak dollar, American travel budgets go much further here than in more heavily touristed 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 a special weekend rate of $93 a night. A fourth-row seat for a philharmonic concert at the Beethoven Hall in Bonn is $25.
The affable Rhinelanders round out the allure. Frank Henseleit, owner of Cologne's Galerie Henseleit Buchholz, is a good example. The 40-year-old Henseleit -- who doubles as gallery co-owner and a translator of Spanish, Portuguese, French and American literature -- took time out from his busy schedule to give me a primer on the art venues in his beloved city.
"These days people travel so easily across Europe and know what the best artists in Lisbon, London, Brussels or Paris or New York are doing," he said. "So we have to have the same variety here. Since the American influence is a strong part of it, it's always good to see American faces here, too."
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.
But travelers seeking sights with the allure of Rome's Colosseum or Forum won't find them here. 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.
These days the riverfront buildings, converted into beer halls and restaurants, are a hub of nightlife, particularly on weekends.
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. Although it was hit by bombs, the Allied forces, apparently aware of the cathedral's historical and spiritual stature or perhaps as an orientation point, spared it from destruction. Today, the church, only a couple of blocks from the Rhine and next to the main train station, merits a tour of its own. The exterior, clad in flying buttresses, gargoyles and other features finely carved in volcanic stone, is so massive and ornate I spent a half-hour just gawking at it from different angles.