I went to a festival in Frankfurt, a city I thought I knew, even though I’d never been. Here’s how wrong I was.
It’s just before midnight, and I’m walking through Frankfurt, making the worst noise in the world.
At this time of night, the banks of the river Main – Frankfurt is officially Frankfurt am Main – are usually deserted. There’s nobody to hear my awful, awful noise. The Museumsuferfest starts tomorrow. The riverside path is lined with tents and stalls and expensive-looking stages, and shadowy figures move between them. Some of them stop and watch as I approach. Who could blame them? It’s the middle of the night and I’m making a noise like a washing-machine full of gravel. I’m sorry, Frankfurt. This is not the introduction I planned.
Walking along the banks of the Main at night, especially on a drizzly, streetlight-fuzzing night like this, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s all made of skyscrapers and you’re on the outskirts. This would tie in nicely with any preconceptions you had about it as a European financial capital (“London, Paris, Frankfurt”). It’d be a little odd that the city centre was so far from the river, but maybe there were practical reasons?
So you’d keep walking, and Frankfurt would remain a place of money and modernity.
The city is half an hour away from the main airport, the eleventh busiest in the world. If you fly around Europe a lot, you probably passed through that hub, and saw Frankfurt’s skyscrapers on the horizon (nicknamed “Mainhattan”). You probably thought, “busy airport = modern city” and felt no inclination to find out for yourself. This is what the festival I’m attending is up against.
Luckily, all it has to do is get people into Frankfurt, and the city will do the rest – as I’m going to find out over the next few days.
It’s midnight now and I’m nearly at my hotel, and still making The Worst Noise In The World. The wheel on my suitcase broke and stuck a few days ago in Barcelona, and since then it’s been steadily grinding down until it reached the metal of my suitcase frame, which is the source of all the noise as I drag it along on what used to be a wheel. Venice just announced they’re fining tourists with wheeled suitcases because of the noise they make. If I was in Venice right now, they’d probably have me shot.
However, in travelling like a tourist and not a local, I have the luxury of watching the Museumsuferfest being assembled. Tomorrow these riverside paths will be insanely busy. Right now I’m seeing them before everyone arrives, and appreciating that there are people working so hard to put the festival together that they’re out at midnight, checking guy ropes, stocking shelves and concentrating on assembling complex electronic equipment.
When they’re not being distracted by the worst noise in the world, that is.
Here’s Frankfurt’s skyline.
You’ll notice the row of gorgeous-looking townhouses running along the side of the river. They’re as much the “real Frankfurt” as that forest of modern buildings in the background.
On my first day in the city, and the launch-day for the festival, I was taken on a tour by Wiebke Singer of Reuters. Have a read of her “48 Hours in Frankfurt,” paying close attention to the dates.
18th Century. 16th. 14th.
Frankfurt isn’t new. It’s the largest city in the German state of Hessen because people have been consistently occupying the site for two thousand years (the earliest remains in the area are Roman). The old town (or Altstadt) contains the medieval centre, called the Römerberg, and it used to house buildings dating back to the era of Charlemagne, emperor of Western Europe in the 8th Century. Wander round Frankfurt and there will be immense amounts of history under your feet. Forget the skyscrapers and look down.
(Metaphorically, I mean. Although, the streets are often nicely cobbled.)
There’s another way Frankfurt isn’t new. It’s not a city comprised entirely of bankers transplanted from elsewhere. It’s not endless suburbs of locally disinterested people with no connection to the city, and touristy shops serving up nothing but bland, inoffensive “global culture”. It’s a place where businesses can stretch back through generations of families, and where people in suits can be seen pouring apfelwein from bembels (above left).
Let’s talk about sausage. This is Germany, after all. We were always going to talk about sausage at some point, but – Frankfurt is a special case when it comes to sausage.
Wiebke takes me to the Kleinmarkthalle (Hasengasse 5), a vast food hall manned/womanned by locals. Halfway through it, we stop by a long queue of people, all standing patiently to be served by this lady. She’s a local legend. Apparently this queue is typical, and is comprised of tourists and locals, who come from miles around. As you have guessed, she sells sausage – but it’s the Model T Ford of sausage. There’s one type, served in a variety of ways, and you buy it and it’s handed over on a paper tray with a splodge of mustard and a bun and a napkin, and then you eat it for lunch. That’s Frau Schrieber’s business model – and she’s followed it for 35 years. That’s her thing, and it’s as popular as ever.
Elsewhere, Wiebke shows me shops that have been run by the same families for decades, and points to books devoted to this topic. Frankfurt is full of people who stuck around. Early on in my visit, I looked at the way ‘Mainhattan’ loomed over the historic heart of the city, and my storyteller’s brain yelled “yay, CONFLICT.” It wanted to see it as Evil Heartless Corporate Frankfurt vs. Ancient Historic Venerable Vulnerable Frankfurt, a source of dramatic tension feeding energy into protests, great rebellious works of art, and so on. We all know that story, right?
But everyone I spoke to said the same thing: no tension, no conflict, no need to rebel. Frankfurt’s financial status was feeding money into the city and helping bring investment everywhere – including in the Altstadt.
These stunningly beautiful medieval town-houses are in the Römerberg. If you were asked to guess how old they were, you’d hazard – what? Three hundred years? Four hundred? I’d do the same, if I didn’t already know they were built in 1986.
Frankfurt suffered dreadfully during the war. The Römerberg was all but destroyed. However, if you wander round the Altstadt today, you’d never know. Some cities reinvent themselves to fit a changing world. Historic Frankfurt felt perfectly happy with the way it used to be before Allied bombs fell, so it rebuilt itself – and it’s still going on, with the Dom-Römer Project adding 35 new buildings to the area, 15 of which are reconstructed town-houses just like those ones up there.
It’s a historic quarter that’s continually being improved. If it was in England, this area would have preservation orders slapped all over it. It’s startling to see Frankfurt taking a more dynamic, hands-on and arguably more pragmatic view towards its history, while benefitting from the modern reality not too far away to the north and west – all without an apparent conflict of interests.
In short, Frankfurt seems to be just rolling up its sleeves and getting on with it.
This is where the Museumsuferfest comes in.
In English, it’s the Museum Embankment Festival. Part of the title should be explained by the above photo – the route of my noisy walk at midnight the night before. Along the Main river on either side, around a hundred billion stalls (my estimate there) sell you sausage, beer, all sorts of multicultural foods, interesting craft work, bananas dipped in chocolate that will make you feel sick and annoyed with how weak you are at the sight of chocolate, baskets, bowls, books, Bratwurst, Currywurst, every type of wurst imaginable…
And you enter the crowd and the crowd sweeps you along for half an hour and then you’re spat out the other side, probably a bit sticky with chocolate and grease, and feeling happy because the crowd infected you with its easygoing enthusiasm. You might take one or two such passes through it in that day, one for each side of the river. It’s easy and jolly and if it wasn’t for the presence of lots of interesting craft stalls, it’d feel like visiting the fair in any country.
But that’s only half of the festival. The other half requires more strategic thinking.
Frankfurt is overrun with museums. On the second morning of the festival I wandered about, refusing to consult the all literature in my bag so I could make my own mind up. When I finally started reading, I was staggered by the number of museums I’d missed. They’re everywhere. Even the official literature didn’t seem to agree on just how many there are – one booklet cited 35, another leaflet 48. The city has been steadily building museums for the last 130 years and now they’re everywhere and they cover a dizzying number of artistic pursuits. You absolutely can’t get round them all, and you’re probably not supposed to. You’re supposed to be picky. That’s the only way.
I’m ashamed to say that all my plans to sample the local contemporary art scene abandoned me in a heartbeat when I learned that the German Film Museum (Schaumainkai 41) contained this:
It’s not a life-size reconstruction. It’s the original suit worn by stuntman Eddie Powell in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), and part of the design work that won that film the Academy Award for best Visual Effects.
So if you’re a scifi geek like me, that’s the museum for you. If archaeology is your thing and you can read German, check out the museum at Karmelitergasse 1 (I couldn’t find English options, and my German is extremely limited). Orthopaedics your thing? Museum. Weird science? Museum. Modern art, ancient art, religion, photography, criminology, numismatics, steatite carvings, Goethe (of course – Frankfurt is where he grew up) and one of Germany’s most famous collections of children’s stories, Der Struwwelpeter, filled with horrible comeuppances for misbehaviour that might even trump the Alien for inducing sleepless nights? Yes, really, there’s even a museum for that.
You can’t get round them all. Pick and choose, according to your artistic leanings. During Museumsuferfest, there are 3 ways to get into each museum:
- some will be entirely free all year round, so that’s that.
- some will allow free entry if you flash your Museumsuferfest Button (7 Euros)
- others will wave you through if you’ve got a Frankfurt Card, which also gives you unlimited travel on the city’s extensive and efficient public transport system, and a bunch of other stuff it’d be daft for me to list here, because it looks like they’re always adding to it.
Too many to visit. Plus, an incredible mass of people to fight your way through. Take your time. Do your best.
From the top of the Main Tower, 200 metres and 56 storeys above the city, Frankfurt’s glass-lined skyscrapers shimmer in the afternoon light, as if testing out some kind of cloaking technology. The next time I look down at them was from the plane window, flying out into a churning grey sky. It’s tempting to draw some cute metaphor here – something about how Frankfurt, chameleon-like, is changing to fit the times. But that’s all wrong. That’s not it at all. There may be some confusion in the minds of travellers like me about what the city is, what it stands for, but Frankfurt remains itself, and that becomes perfectly clear when you actually turn up and take a wander around. The people are still here, the buildings are increasingly still here, and there’s way too much to take in if you only have 3 days and you’re pootling about dragging a suitcase with a broken wheel.
But if you do want to be introduced to it (at long last, instead of just catching your next flight)? The Museumsuferfest is a really fun time to visit. It’s a good time to put an inaccurate preconception to rest, experience one of Germany’s premier historical cities letting its hair down, and wonder where else in the world you’ve got this wrong in advance.
Disclosure: I attended the Museumsuferfest in Frankfurt as part of the #MustLoveFestivals project, which you can read more about here. Particular thanks to Lisa-Valerie Hörth, Catharina Fischer, Elif Kablan, the German Centre for Tourism (and the Germany tourism Instagram account) and the Lindner Main Plaza Hotel for making my stay such a fun and enlightening one.