Mike Yardley: A frolic with Frankfurt

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Saturday, 24 September 2016, 8:09a.m.
What I particularly like about Frankfurt is the harmonious mingling of old and new, writes Mike Yardley (Photo / Supplied)
What I particularly like about Frankfurt is the harmonious mingling of old and new, writes Mike Yardley (Photo / Supplied)

For many Kiwis, Frankfurt is more likely to be a gateway into Europe, rather than a banner destination. After all, its central location in Western Europe serves up quick and easy connections to a plethora of alluring destinations, courtesy of the masterly integration of the railway at Frankfurt Flughafen Airport. But before making tracks on a grand European romp, the city absolutely warrants an exploratory for a couple of nights, as you shake off the jet lag.

So what is there to know about Frankfurt? The city did not take its name from its universally loved sausages, but indeed, Frankfurters hail from here – surely one of the greatest gifts to the world. Its first official reference dates back to 794AD, when Charlemagne held a German Empire synod. The city was named Francono Furd after its geographical location, being situated adjacent to a natural ford close to where the Main River meets the Rhine – right at the heart of the Franks Empire.

Despite being almost completely decimated during World War II, somehow the Dom, the cathedral, avoided being bombed. And it’s unquestionably the most historically significant landmark in this regal city of old. St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral, a heaving pink sandstone Gothic behemoth, was where 52 Holy Roman Emperors were crowned from 1356 onwards. It’s a place decorated with all the trappings of royalty, with stunning stone and glasswork. Admission is free and a must-see. 

What I particularly like about Frankfurt is the harmonious mingling of old and new, the ultra-contemporary and the venerable co-exist as seemingly happy bed pals. Medieval structures line the riverbanks of the Main, backdropped by glinting skyscrapers reaching higher to the sky, giving rise to Frankfurt’s nickname, “Mainhattan.” (The city has the biggest concentration of skyscrapers in continental Western Europe.)

But much of Frankfurt’s medieval texture in the Aldstadt (Old Town) is not as old as it looks – painfully reconstructed post-WWII. Such meticulous, impeccable attention to detail will leave you scratching your head as to whether the gabled roofs and timbered facades are merely reproductions or the medieval originals. The headline attraction is Romerberg, the quintessential town centre, where the timeless ambience and cluster of medieval timbered buildings gets the cameras clicking. Following a coronation at the Dom, the celebration banquets were all held in the imperial hall (Kaisersaal) which was one of nine elegant medieval structures that comprised the Romer.

In 1405, the city purchased the complex and declared it the town hall. Ever since, this gorgeous three-gabled architectural landmark has maintained its civic heritage, and the city council continues to hold its meetings here.  Frankfurt’s legacy as a trading mecca is also steeped in centuries of tradition. Exhibit A: The Frankfurt Book Fair. If you happen to be visiting in mid-October, take a stroll through this world-beating extravaganza, which has been held annually here ever since the printing press was designed. It is quite simply the publication industry’s biggest event in the world.

The city’s first fairs and markets were staged over 1000 years ago inside the town hall and across the cobblestones of the plaza. From late November, the Romerberg twinkles with the magic of fairy lights and wooden chalets, as the annual Christmas Market swoops on Frankfurt.  A soaring Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) spangled with thousands of blue and white lights, towers higher than the buildings that wrap around Romerberg.

Suffused in the sensory joys of Christmas, not only is this one of Europe’s largest such markets, but one of the oldest - first staged in 1393. Traditions abound amongst the vendors, selling a veritable sleigh-load  of seasonal gifts and ornaments from hand-painted glass baubles to wooden nutcrackers, while the steaming gluhwein and roasted chestnuts always does a roaring trade. Every so often a chorus of trumpets blares from the red-brick steeple of Old Nickolai Church, while strolling carollers and oom-pah-pah bands rev up the yuletide mood music, across the market.

In contrast to Frankfurt’s fairy-tale charms, the canyons of commerce pierce the skyline with increasing boldness.  For a great 360 city panorama, head up the Main Tower, which boasts an observation platform on the 55th floor, and a restaurant two floors down. Like many European cities, Frankfurt’s downtown shopping district is heavily pedestrianised. The Zeil is a 2km-long vehicle-free promenade that snakes its way through the heart of city.

I first visited Frankfurt in 2009, and My Zeil, a futuristic shopping mall had just opened. Seven years on, it still looks striking. Not only does it have Europe’s longest escalator, transporting you up five floors non-stop, but the interior design is edgy. The glass bubble-like ceiling and wall features have to be seen to be believed. 

Art and culture lovers should make a beeline to the embankment district.  Alongside the banks of the Main River, a veritable feast of museums and art galleries await your exploration. There are all manner of specialty galleries, from the Museum of Modern Art.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is Frankfurt’s most famous son, born in the city in 1749.The philosopher and writer is regarded as Germany’s Shakespeare, and not far from Romerberg you can visit his family home, a splendidly period furnished Baroque mansion which is now the Goethe Museum. He once write, “offer plenty and you will surely please some.” His hometown seems to have taken that to heart.

The city’s entertainment scene is very lively, whether it be a night of classical music at the gorgeous Opera House which was meticulously restored after its wartime bombing, or sampling the vibe at some of the numerous jazz and live music venues.  For an authentic Frankfurt experience, head to the Sachsenhausen district which is replete with the best traditional cider bars and pubs in the city. After visiting some of these pubs, take a stroll on the river and enjoy the view.

Head off the tourist trail and take a stroll around Bornheim – a residential district with a difference. Bornheim has many medieval-style houses that survived the war, and is really the most authentic glimpse of how the city looked, before World War II.

The Frankfurt Tourism Office offers a variety of guided city tours. I sampled one of their guided walking tours of the city with an effusive local, which delivers an enlightening introductory overview of the city. Being flat and compact, it’s amazing how much you can see and learn in the space of two hours, on foot. For further information, jump to www.frankfurt-tourismus.de/en/

Celebrating its 70th birthday, Cathay Pacific, flies daily from Auckland to Frankfurt, via Hong Kong. The overnight flight from Hong Kong enables you to wake up at the dawn of a new day in Frankfurt, rested, ready and rearing to go. For sizzling earlybird airfare deals to Europe head to www.cathaypacific.com

Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Saturday Mornings with Jack Tame.