Germany, travel

Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Hidden soul in “Meinhattan”

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I arrived in Frankfurt am Main on my 21st birthday, and I didn’t know a soul in town.

IMG_7514But my friend Andreas, a native of Bremen, and currently living in Stuttgart, drove over to show me around “Meinhattan.”

 

The Manhattan nickname stuck, because this is Germany’s city of skyscrapers, the economic heart of the country, and banker for the whole EU.  Andy described a sleepy river town, suddenly grown into a huge commerce center, and into the most expensive city in the country.

 

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I’d already visited a number of other German cities:

Mainz – old, historic, and charming, nestled among vineyards along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine.

Hamburg – impressive seaport, impressive industries

Cologne – a university town with a fun atmosphere

Dusseldorf  – giving off a feeling of establishment and security.

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So perhaps because I was so impressed with these other cities, my first impression of Frankfurt was not favorable.  A glassy and tall city with no soul.

IMG_7524We walked along streets of investment firms, Deutsche Bank, IG Farben, the Stock Exchange, and the European Central Bank.

Companies, corporations and conglomerates.  Businessmen in expensive cars and suits, emerging from skyscrapers at lunchtime to be served kebabs and doner by the poorer working people.

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Euro-World, the corporate amusement park

Even the old center of town felt like a designated meeting place for ad execs and CEOs;  the old buildings surrounding us, were now converted into offices for Lufthansa, etc. or stores selling watches and clothing.  The riverfront was peaceful and beautiful, but felt devoid of real personality.  Among the half-timbered buildings of the Altstadt (the historic district) or inside the Frankfurter Dom (their cathedral), the modern city felt far away. But the medieval-looking buildings were all post-war reconstructions, and looming over them were the skyscrapers of European capitalism.  The crowds of businessmen and the tourists, many from Eastern Asia, taking pictures of currywurst and pseudo-antique buildings made the city center feel hollow.

 

IMG_7502It was only after Andreas left for his home in Stuttgart, that I crossed the Main river and began to feel the place had an actual soul. Here, a bridge away from the hubbub of the central city, you can walk among modest homes, little shops, cafes, and a beautiful park with old buildings, now housing museums.

I visited the museums, and then went into a small grocery to buy water, and just sat down in the park for a while, after a day of walking on cobblestones, on the hottest day I experienced during my trip.  It was April, I had just survived a winter in Yorkshire, and I’d dressed for Hamburg and frigid Copenhagen, and to me, Frankfurt felt like the Costa del Sol.

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IMG_7516This was the last day of my spring break, and I had loved everything about both Germany and Denmark, but the whirlwind of trains and meeting people and seeing places, had left me unable to assemble my thoughts.  Finally at rest, sitting there in a small park with people chatting pleasantly, and a few dogs playing, I was able to realize how much I loved Germany, and my entire experience of the country and its people.

Frankfurt is what I remember best of my time in Germany, even if I liked the other cities better.  I can clearly remember details of the port of Hamburg, the lock bridge of Koln, the taste of a currywurst in Dusseldorf, walking along the old walls of Mainz, etc. But Frankfurt always is freshest in my mind.  I was no longer worrying about trains schedules, finding my way to meet up with friends at a specified hour, finding hotels, etc.  I could just relax and take it all in. And, after I realized that Frankfurt, like everywhere, has a character or soul, just hidden under the mighty corporate piles, I was able to enjoy the city more, feeling it’s subtle vibes, and finding the old city in among the new.

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I have often been critical of cities that seem soul-less (Washington, D.C. being the sterilized poster boy), and have always appreciated the cities that have maintained a unique character and an infectious vibe.

Frankfurt surprised me, and in a good way.   Despite its steely, glassy look, it turned out to occupied by human beings.  I looked down at it from the cathedral tower, looked up at it from the river, watched it go by from a park bench, and somehow fell in love with Germany.

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Germany, Uncategorized

Cologne and Dusseldorf ~~~~~~~ A Tale of Two Cities…and Two Beers. The Great Kolsch-Alt debate

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Incredible stonework of the cathedral in Cologne

 

Part of my journeys across Germany involved discovery of the country’s food and beverages.  And of course, the most famous German beverage is beer, so I was duty-bound to try each region’s brews whenever possible.  And generally speaking, in Germany, it is not just possible, but expected.  Beer is part of each regions’s identity, a staff of life, and the stuff as dreams are made on.  Yes, I get poetic when thinking of German beer.

While not famous outside of Germany, two types of beer, Kolsch and Alt (or Aldt) have an interesting history. Kolsch comes from Koln (Cologne), while Altbier is Dusseldorf’s darker contender.

The two cities, now friendly rivals, much the same as New York and Boston (though I don’t know any New Yorker who calls Bostonians friendly), used to have a much different relationship. From the Middle Ages through the 1800’s, before Bismarck’s unification, they were two city-states,  often at war. For many years, one could test your loyalty with a simple test: Kolsch or Alt? A person in the “old days” — meaning as recently as the 1970’s — could be beaten up in Dusseldorf for asking for Kolsch, and vice-versa in Cologne.

I was informed of all this by a German friend.  I knew that I had no choice but to try both beers, in their respective cities.

And, like Champagne, genuine Kolsch (there’s supposed to be an umlaut over the “o” but I don’t know how to to that on WP) can only be brewed in Cologne — breweries elsewhere can produce kolsch-style lager, but it cannot be labeled Kolsch.

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Cologne’s “Lock Bridge” — sweethearts have their initials engraved on padlocks and add them to the railings. The Pont des Arts in Paris had to remove theirs, due to the sheer weight.

So, the first day of this quest was spent in Cologne. A beautiful and ancient town along the Rhine, it has a friendly laid-back vibe, partially due to its huge student population.

 

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A Work of Art. so I had it framed.

A moment for time to stop and to remember forever — I had my first Kolsch at a riverside restaurant, on a beautiful and still sunny day, with the Rhine’s brownish water slowly flowing by.  The locals call a round tray of beers a “Kranz” which means “wreath” and that seems appropriate, to celebrate this wonderful drink and a great city.

 

I will remember having this first sip of Kolsch, from the Gaffel brauhaus — it was fantastic. So crisp and light, the locals often jokingly call it “American Beer”. It was one of the most delicious and refreshing beers I’ve ever had.  And I drank it sitting alongside the legendary Rhine, surrounded by the sound of many relaxed conversations, and a plate of Currywurst, and time to talk with my friend.

A Really Good Day.

 

 

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The “Lock Bridge” at Cologne

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e3-3476-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wWhile, at the time, I was relaxed and content, I didn’t fully appreciate the complete pleasantness that defined and permeated that day, and, as my taste-memory triggers strong recall (as smells do for most other people), I can vividly imagine the way the beer tasted. More than that, when I think of that particular glass of beer, I’m transported back to that spot along the Rhine, with the lock bridge, and some statues just barely visible behind a clump of trees — trees planted specifically to shade the lucky patrons of restaurants by the Rhine. I remember seeing the Viking river cruise boats chugging by, the delicious ice cream I had in that town, and the Gothic beauty of the Kolner Dom.  nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e3-3477-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

 

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A statue of the mysterious person known only as “The Man Who Could Never Get That Bird Off His Hat”

 

IMG_7073After a long hike up winding stairs, the Dom, a magnificent and mighty church, offered us views of the entire city, as it stretched along one of the world’s finest rivers.   (Brown-hued, but busy, impressive, and certainly a more pleasant river than the Hudson back home, with its PCB’s and three- headed fish.)  I remember ending the day at the Chocolate Museum, and the smell of cocoa wafting through the air.

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The Chocolate Museum.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-a691-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rThe next day, in Dusseldorf, was even more pleasant, if possible.  I had been staying with my friend Alicia, who I knew from Lingnan University, and in Dusseldorf, I got to meet up with another friend I’d met at that school, Tobias.  I felt very lucky to have made friends with these great people – they seemed happy to show me around, were excellent guides, and even better company, .  Tobi was actually a Koln boy, but had spent lots of time in Dusseldorf.  I had my first experience of the Autobahn driving down from Koln, and having survived, was ready to walk around Dusseldorf.

 

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This is the second-richest city in Germany (after Munich), and Germans from other regions had told me it is seen as being…sort of snotty. But I found the people there to be even friendlier and warmer than Cologne’s.  Cologne, despite being a college town, was busy but didn’t seem to have much of an energetic vibe — the slow river giving it a relaxed air. Dusseldorf, on a faster-moving stretch of the same river, seemed far more alive. Not as loud, but more bouncy and hip.

Dusseldorf captured my imagination as much as the much more historic and picturesque cityscape of Koln.

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IMG_7054And here, we of course tried Alt, their local beer.  Dark, heavy, I liked it far less than Kolsch (I didn’t say this out loud) — but thinking about that beer, takes me back to that day as well. It’s “old beer” style (that’s literally what “altbier” means), interesting dark copper color, strong/clear flavor, and the impression it gives of “thickness” embodies the town in which it was made, much the same as Kolsch reflects the lighter vibe of Cologne. Dusseldorf’s layers of history came out with the flavor of hops and dark malt. Though sunny, the weather in Dusseldorf fluctuated several times in the course of one day, and we wandered the city, seeing the old town by the Rhine juxtaposed against the modern bridges and towers of their industry.

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The city has the world’s highest population of Japanese executives outside of Japan!  SONY, Toshiba, Sanyo, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and several other large Japanese companies have regional headquarters in Dusseldorf, some since as early as WWII. Therefore, there is a large “Japan Town,” where we had lunch that day, first having more traditional German snacks. This too is part of enjoying the unique and deeper flavor of Alt.

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Look carefully at the steeple – – age and human error have left it twisted like a soft-serve ice cream

The architecture of the city is also very “European” — churches with steeples bent by the ages, right next to modern structures — some of Frank Gehry’s earliest designs — with an unusual and almost imaginary-feeling set of houses along the river. Here we saw displayed the money that the city is famous for — glitzy condominiums, vehicles costing several hundred thousand dollars, and stores with suits that might have cost as much as the vehicles.

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Frank Gehry

We took a short side-trip out of the city, to the palace of an old king, still close enough to see skyline of the old city.  This palace, I think, was actually the king’s summer home (though I’m not sure), and it reminded me of a Southern plantation — a huge estate, surrounded by undeveloped tracts of land, now converted into a public park.

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On the day we were there, a group of wealthy Persians were having a wedding inside the 17th Century ballroom, and, with their exotic wedding garb, it struck me that this is how a ball would’ve looked at that time, perhaps with less form-fitting dresses. The grounds too were beautiful — lawns and topiary and statuary and fountains.   I was in for another treat, when we ended up along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine, with container ships drifting by, and the cityscape visible across the bend in the river, and people lounging around outside on a beautiful day.

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I’ve been telling people for years about the frog-people, but this was the first time I got a good picture, when they clambered out of the Rhine and scaled this building.

These are the memories invoked when I summon up the taste of the beers, as interesting as their cities. For me, the culinary journey is part of what brings a city to life, and it is vital to try something local and authentic to get the most out of any experience.

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My friends Alicia and Tobias in front of the Alt house. Technically, this is the longest “bar” in the world, but in reality it is several open buildings with street seating. Or standing.

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