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An Appealing European Gateway, Dusseldorf Is Also a Destination
by Richard Carroll
The caring residents adore the overlooked hush-hush premise and pray that the city remains hands-on small with little traffic or crime, and their five-star lifestyle remains equivalent or superior to anything in Europe.
Bursting at its borders with history, the city dating to 1288, and once ringed by massive fortification walls, was the stomping grounds of dukes, counts, sociable leisure artists and the exclusive nobility of the Lower Rhine. Overrun by the rampaging French, shelled from the left bank of the Rhine by Napoleon and his troops, blitzed in World War II and occupied by the British, the city, through it all, surfaced as a dazzling superstar spreading her wings like a wildflower on steroids.
Dusseldorf, a modern renaissance city, is one-third green with gorgeous, leafy parks set off by Victorian-style gas lamps, stylish ponds home to snooty swans, and glorious gardens with imposing statuary, impressive art centers, arresting architecture and grand palaces smartly converted to elegant museums.
When Friday rolls around or the sun decides to shine, the residents, as if beckoned by the local brass band, tumble out of the buildings in a joyous maze of humanity. The festive party call is the time to enjoy the beer-quaffing environs of Dusseldorf's Old Town, meet with chums, soak up the rays and dine on Rhenish specialties such as a traditional thick pea soup, slabs of tasty cheese, fresh rye bread, thin-crusted pizza, spicy mustard and sizzling grilled links.
Supporting the call to revelry are four breweries featuring some 10 labels, the most endearing being Alt, a mellow dark beer brewed in Old Town since the 1800s that still follows the ancient top-fermentation recipe. Anchored by Altstadt, or Old Town, and the booming Rhine Promenade, known affectionately as the "longest bar in the world," is where along the cobbled streets, and the Promenade, outdoor tables are crammed chair-to-chair in a tangle of high-spirited folks that don't seem to have a care in the world. The boisterous street-party atmosphere that makes Carnival in Rio seem tame is interspersed with fine-dining bistros, Michelin-star rooms, earthy pubs, tree-shaded beer gardens and all the European and global table options.
Along the Promenade are areas set aside for the popular game of boules, an ancient Greek game believed to have spread across Europe when the soldiers of the Roman Empire played it for entertainment and exercise. Focused like a circling hawk on the hunt, players roll small, round chrome balls at a marker, and are out to win. Concentration counts. Teams with matching T-shirts bring their own boules and bowling styles, and are as diverse as the fashion parade. Losers buy a round or two, and winners, if only for the moment, are smug and cocky.
Bordering the boules courts, the mighty Rhine, featuring three city bridges stretching across to the north shore, winds through Dusseldorf in a watery swath, flowing northward to the sea. The revered highway of Germany, the Rhine hosts great barges loaded to the waterline with goods, contrasted by small pleasure crafts buzzing about like irritated bees, while large, white excursion boats sail by on weeklong river cruises, binoculars flashing.
Cyclists are about, many of them clutching a cold after-work beverage in one hand as they weave along the cobbled streets to meet friends and search for a table. A two-hour guided cycle tour on high-quality, modern, lightweight bikes reveals a diverse and intriguing city with sites such as the renowned Art Academy and more than 100 art spaces and galleries. Adjacent to Old Town, the Hofgarten dating to 1769 is a gorgeous, tree-lined green space anchored by a 1772 hunting lodge built as a gracious hangout for the royalty, and later redesigned as an elegant rococo palace for the Goethe Museum.
The cycle tour went over a bridge to the stylish homes on the left bank and a flock of sheep on a mission to keep the grass short and tidy. Back in Old Town, steps from the Promenade, the MediaHarbour where small crafts are at anchor is an architectural wonder. Frank Gehry, David Chipperfield, Claude Vasconi and other famous architects have made the MediaHarbour a meeting point for connoisseurs of architecture from all parts of the world.
Around every corner is an artful surprise, such as a protected 16th century harbor home to an old fishing boat, and a block further is the vine-covered city hall dating to 1570 with a clock tower, and a 1711 statue of young William II astride a mighty steed.
A classic farewell to Dusseldorf is enjoying an Alt and a bowl of thick pea soup in the 1862 Verige Alt Brewery, one of the oldest brewery pubs in the heart of Old Town. Life is sweet along the Lower Rhine.
IF YOU GO
LTU operates Germany's youngest fleet and performs their own in-house maintenance. Not a low-cost carrier, but bookings are generally one-third less than other major airlines, and 50% less for business-class bookings. Web site: www.ltu.com; phone 866-266-5588. For Dusseldorf resources and bike rentals visit www.duesseldorf.de; www.duesseldorf-tourismus.de.
Richard Carroll is a freelance travel writer.
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