Rhine and dine
Kaye makes for Frankfurt Rhine Main and finds that this region in western Germany has shaken off its staid, serious reputation and returned to winning ways
While the rest of Europe has been feeling the chill of the economic recession, Germany, under the much admired Angela Merkel, has come out relatively unscathed – especially Frankfurt am Main often referred to as Mainhattan, owing to the eye-catching skyscrapers that dominate the city’s skyline.
I’ve been to Berlin and Dusseldorf and Dresden feature on my ‘to do’ list but I’ve never been bothered with visiting Frankfurt believing it to be all about banks (Frankfurt’s other moniker is Bankfurt being home to the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, and stock exchange), and bratwurst.
But forget what you think you know for, while Frankfurt is a vibrant high rise, industrial, modern metropolis where banks and bratwurst abound in equal measure, I was greatly surprised to discover that the city also has a sleepy charm. As I wandered around on foot (Frankfurt is pleasingly compact), I found myself, against all the odds, warming to the place and reaching the conclusion that contrary to public perception it’s a city worth stopping in rather than just using as a landing base.
For culture buffs there’s plenty to see and do proving there’s more to Frankfurt than finance. The city boasts many museums like the Libereghaus, the recently refurbished, Stadel Museum which has a world class collection of fine art from seven centuries, Jewish Museum (go for a graphic insight into Jewish family life in Frankfurt) and, of course, the Goethe House and Museum. The latter pays tribute to Frankfurt’s favourite son: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – commonly regarded as Germany’s greatest writer.
There’s also a plethora of parks and gardens (accounting for Frankfurt’s bid to become the “The Green Capital of Europe 2014”) and the 200m Main Tower – to take in.
For all that, Frankfurt makes no real demand on your cultural conscience: there’s plenty to look at but little that you absolutely must not miss which I found rather refreshing (I’m at a point in my life where I have neither the time nor the inclination for a ‘hectic holiday’). Indeed some of Frankfurt’s finest sights can be found by accident: simply by losing yourself in the cobbled streets off the Romerberg (a charming octagonal square where every winter, the famous Frankfurt Christmas market – a tradition dating from the 14th century – is held) before retiring for a kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake) in Kleinnarkthalie aka the food hall for locals. It was here that I savoured a slab of Black Forest Gateau as dark as the region’s vast forests and as rich as Bill Gates.
Yes Frankfurt is, as I discovered to my waistline’s peril, a city of great food and wine (which did make me wonder why Frankfurters are not all immensely fat, rather than the exceptionally attractive people they are) and mealtimes aren’t for the faint hearted. I’d run out of column inches if I was to include all the unforgettable food and drink I sampled, but don’t leave town without trying Frankfurt Grune Sosse (a refreshing, creamy sauce made with yoghurt or sour cream, eggs and a bewildering variety of fresh green herbs) and Frankfurt’s heady apple wine (the locals’ drink of choice). There are plenty of taverns to try apfelwein but I sipped it at the atmospheric Lorbascher Thai where it was served in a special crockery mug called bembel.
Yet much of the Frankfurt Rhine Main region’s appeal lies beyond the financial capital in the romantic Rhine Valley (one of Germany’s biggest and most prestigious wine producing regions).
If Frankfurt is modern, the idyllic village of Rudesheim is remnant of an older, miraculously unspoiled world. This is Hansel and Gretel territory, in short the Germany of your imagination: think fairy-tale castles, cobbled alleyways and steep yet spectacular vineyards. An arresting view of the vine clad hillsides is guaranteed from the chairlift up to the Niederwalk Monument: a giant statue commemorating the 19th century reunification of Germany.
Another sight worth seeking out is the surreal Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum: a mansion housing a collection of remarkable self playing instruments including hurdy-gurdies, organs and a magical musical chair that plays a tune whenever someone sits on it! This off-beat museum is not vast but before I realise it, a good hour has slipped by listening to a lady clad in white gloves and a slightly bonkers bowler hat crank up the kooky instruments.
At night Drosselgrasse – a long, narrow alley leading up from the river – comes alive. It’s a cacophony of shop keepers, food sellers and some surprisingly classy souvenir shops (you’ll want a trinket or two to remind you of your stay). On a balmy summer’s evening, locals and tourists alike love to hang out here in one of the olde worlde taverns, sipping wine or the calorific but to die for Rudesheim coffee (hot coffee and warmed Abrasch brandy, topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream sprinkled with chocolate flakes), soaking up the sunshine and scenery and doing what David Cameron does so well: chill-axing.
More German joviality can be found in neighbouring Assmannshausen. Rudesheim’s sister settlement looks like the landscape of a dream and not the kind of place where you’d find a pumping party scene but, believe me, that’s what you’ll get in the backstreet bars. You’re guaranteed a lively night for sure tho of course this is not the real reason to visit Assmannshausen: you go for the picturesque half timbered houses and the breath-taking backdrop of the Mauseturm (Mouse Tower) which was originally used to collect river tolls from an islet in the river before being destroyed by the French in 1688.
Tempting tho it might be to stay in Rudesheim and Assmannshausen sampling the outstanding local wines, it’s worth venturing by boat to Bingen (the gateway to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley’ UNESCO World Heritage Site’) which is now, thanks to its annual open air Jazz Festival, embracing tourism. Music lovers will certainly be in their element but there’s more to Bingen than just its June jazz festival. This quaint town is celebrated as the home of the popular saint Hildegard, for its gorgeous gardens and grassy riverbanks and amazing array of cafes in which to recharge, relax and escape the rat race.
All told, a few days in Frankfurt followed by a spell in the romantic Rhine represents the ideal combination of go time and slow time. More than that, it allows you to see another softer side to Germany: everywhere I went, I received a warm welcome from locals who proved hospitable and – gasp – humorous and always had time to talk. The competitive prices (you’ll spend far less here than you would on a break back in Britain) means it can’t be long before this often overlooked region makes it onto the international agenda. For the time being, however, the world’s loss is most definitely the independent traveller’s gain.