Frankfurt: Europe’s Crossroads

Travel Writer Graham Norton explores Frankfurt, the hub of Europe, and uses it as a base for seeing the rest of Germany

  • Munich, capital of southern Germany. Photograph by Bob Kist- Black Star
  • Frankfurt: the Town Hall (Rathaus-Römer). Photograph by Gundhard Marth
  • The museum für Kunstandwerk. Photograph by Gundhard Marth
  • The city of Bamberg in Franconia. Photograph by Edmund Nägele Frps
  • Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Photograph by Edmund Nägele Frps
  • Frankfurt skyline. Photograph by Photographers' Library
  • The old opera building, Frankfurt. Photograph by Gundhard Marth

They have Carnival in Europe too. Spectacularly, in Germany.In Germany? Land of efficiency, diligent workers, technology and the mighty Deutsche Mark?

Well, yes. As Goethe, Germany’s greatest poet, wrote: “Two souls, alas, live inside me.”

Today’s Germany is dedicated to the permanent elimination of the darkest side of the country’s past, as if 1933- 45 never existed. The two sides of the German character you will encounter now are a smooth, unfussy modernity which makes the United States look chaotic, and a dedication to pleasure and easy living.

These two characteristics are typified by Frankfurt airport. Frankfurt is the most important airport and travel junction in Europe, a hub for 90 airlines, where you can transit with ease to other European cities. Underneath the airport is a railway station with direct links to 48 German cities and, I noticed, Austria’s enticing capital, Vienna.

(An important money-saving tip: German Federal Railways offers a special “Rail and Fly” rate for passengers holding a valid air ticket. You can buy these either at the airport, on Arrivals Level B, from DER or German State Railways. Or, elsewhere in Germany, from the railway’s sales agencies.)

Frankfurt airport says a lot about modern Germany. It is one of the easiest airports to use. It is typified for me by the luggage trolleys, which fit neatly onto the escalators. It has 113 shops, from a branch of Harrods to a supermarket, and 30 places to eat, from five-star cuisine to a McDonalds. Even the dubious pleasures of the flesh are catered for, beginning with a cinema for blue movies, while as a counterbalance there’s a chapel and facilities for Muslims.

The railway station below the airport also serves the Frankfurt subway and local transportation system. Buy a day return ticket into Frankfurt for only DM 5, and in 10 minutes you are in Frankfurt’s Hauptbahnhof, the Central Station, which is the busiest in Europe.
Walk up the Kaiserstrasse from the Hauptbahnhof, averting your eyes of course from the sex shops and peepshows, and Frankfurt unfolds. At its centre is the Hauptwache, now a café, originally a guardhouse and jail for the town’s police in the 18th century. It is a pleasing baroque building with embellishments in curly stonework.

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Beyond it, only for pedestrians, stretches Germany’s premier shopping street, the Zeil. More retail sales take place here than on any other street in Germany: the shops are smart–the very latest, the Galerie, opened in October 1992, boutique piled on boutique as you mount escalator after escalator to the viewing platform and cafés at the top- but prices remain reasonable.

Historic Frankfurt–the city will be 1,200 years old in 1994–lies between the Hauptwache and the river Main.

The city’s name comes from Frankonovurd, the place where the Franks crossed the river. Then, as now, it was the crossroads of Europe. A city for commercial fairs and markets, for banks (Frankfurt has 426 of them; two-thirds of Germany’s stock-market transactions take place here, as does 40% of the nation’s advertising business). In today’s Frankfurt (they call it “Bankfurt”, “Mainhattan” or “Manhattan-am-Main” ), the dealing is done in the skyscrapers of the Westend district north of Theaterplatz.

But in the past the action was in the old city. So was the politics: for here the German kings and princes elected the Holy Roman Emperor for life, in the great church of St. Bartolomäus, whose huge pinnacled Gothic tower looms over all.

The church, like most other buildings around the Römerberg, has been extensively restored and rebuilt following the devastation that came to Frankfurt in the war. Before the Nazi period, this was the Jewish financial centre of Europe, the hometown of the Rothschilds. There is now a museum to their memory, upstream from the 12th-century town museum, the Saalhof, on the Untermainkai.

Another essential stop is Goethe’s house. He’s as revered by German-speakers as Shakespeare is by the English-speaking world. The interior furnishings and fittings were saved from war-time destruction by a canny curator, who, against Nazi orders, stored them in the countryside, so they are as Goethe knew them.

Across the river there are other museums, and these are not to be missed. In the magnificent Städel, the city’s art gallery, there are masterpieces galore: Botticelli, German masters from the Middle Ages, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Monet and Manet, painters like Louis Corinth and Kirchner from that very attractive period of German painting from before the First World War.

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Then there’s the light-hearted and ultra-modern national postal museum and the film museum, both ideal for children. I like the Liebieghaus, the sculpture museum. It has an attractive garden, a café in summer. The film museum has a café too.

At night, there’s opera and ballet, rock and pop concerts, dozens of discos (even one at the airport), hard rock cellars, bars, cafés, and a local speciality, Apple wine (“Ebbelwei” in the local dialect) taverns. I ate in one of these, Zum grauen Bock (“The Grey Ram”): it was the weekend, and Frankfurters–the people–had flocked out of town and into the country. My fellow tourists enjoyed Frankfurters–the sausages–and other solid German specialities.

Standard German food is good value for money, both in quality and quantity: massive portions of meat, mostly pork, served with dumplings, sauerkraut (pickled white cabbage) or potato. For three courses, with wine and Elbbelwei, we paid around DM 50 a head (less than $35). Plainer establishments off the tourist beat, especially a Brauhaus or Weinstube, might charge around DM 16 for a main dish.

But I was at the centre of Sachsenhausen, where you’ll find the best of Frankfurt’s civilised nightlife. Its picturesque old streets start at the river’s edge, a little to the east of the museums.

Frankfurt is a great centre for exploring the rest of Germany. To the west lies the great river Rhine. You can even reach it on the subway system (line no. S 14 to Mainz), where the German Carnival country begins, the Roman Catholic Rhineland. You can travel up the river by boat–it is one of the finest river trips in the world, past castle–crowned crags, fine towns and smiling vineyards–to Cologne (Köln), the Carnival capital of Germany.

Held at the same time as in the Eastern Caribbean, Carnival here has five “mad days”, beginning with Weiberfastnacht, when the women take over and harass the men.

There’s Carnival too in Aachen, the ancient capital of the Emperor Charlemagne. But I’d go there to see the glittering splendour of the gold and jewelled crowns and ritual objects in the cathedral treasury. I’d see the emperor’s marble throne, the even earlier Roman antiquities, and have Kaffee und Kuchen in one of the cafés on the charming square in front of the Rathaus, the town hall, which was once part of the Imperial Palace. I’d swim in the steaming healing waters, the hottest north of the Alps (the Germans are great on spas).

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To the south lies Bavaria, with its mountains and its elegant capital Munich, easily reached by train, or by car along the Autobahnen (the world’s first motorways.)

To the east is the fine countryside of Franconia, where excellent wine is made (though less renowned than the Rhine and the Moselle), and Würzburg with its architectural marvel, the Prince-Bishop’s palace. Its frescos of the four continents by Tiepolo are recognised as one of the artistic masterpieces of the eighteenth century.