Okay, I admit it. I’m a business traveler. And when I travel on business, I can get so involved in work, in getting things done, in just reading and replying to email, that I don’t always take the time to lift my head up, look around, and really see the place where I am. And I’ll admit it – that’s a huge mistake.
While business travel doesn’t often take me to the typical entertainment or best vacation destinations in the world, it does take me to some wonderful places, where there are still delightful people to meet, interesting attractions to see, and great local foods to eat.
Take Frankfurt, Germany, for instance. Most vacationers head to the sights of Hamburg or Berlin, or seek history at Zwickau or Dresden, or travel further south to Munich or into beautiful Austria. Frankfurt is known as the financial district of Germany, and so usually isn’t on the top of the list for sightseeing. But there is still so much beauty, history, and wonderful people in Frankfurt, it’s worth the stay.
I started my own Frankfurt visit by meeting up with my local tour guide, Dagmar (okay, she’s really my coworker). Although not necessary, having a local who can speak the language, understand the customs, and recommend places to go is a huge help in really getting to know a country and city.
To get a sense of authentic German food, Dagmar started us on our visit by taking us to Haus Wertheym, one of the few remaining original timber-framed buildings that survived the Second World War, situated just off the river Main in central Frankfurt. Since other structures have been rebuilt to showcase Germany’s pre-war architecture, this structure built in 1600 doesn’t stand out much as different until you enter the restaurant on the first floor. Inside, I was struck by the amount of stained glass windows, carved boards with past and modern quotes hanging from the ceiling, and beautiful figures and images carved into the wooden walls, doors, and posts.
As a suburban American, I’m used to sitting in a restaurant at my own table. At Haus Wertheym, in addition to the smaller individual booths, there were longer tables where diners from multiple parties are seated, which is a common European practice. I like the sense of closeness and fellowship it provides, and the opportunity to talk with friendly strangers who instantly become fellow participants in your journey.
Dagmar advised me to try a local specialty, the “Grüne Sosse”, or green sauce. I couldn’t have been happier with her suggestion. This herb-based sauce tasted so clean and wholesome, poured over boiled potatoes and the Wiener Schnitzel I ordered. I enjoyed the local dish so much I ordered it twice more during my trip.
After dinner and an apple cider called “Äppelwoi” in the local language, we walked outside the restaurant into the brisk December evening. A left turns and a few steps later, we entered the Römerberg. The Römerberg is a town square lined by historical timber-lined buildings, all restored to their original form and appearance as if the war in 1944 had never happened to this beautiful city. Here in the square, among the other stately and resonant buildings, is the Römer, a majestic house that has served as the town and city hall since 1405. I read that there are 52 oil paintings of past emperors who ruled the Empire until 1806 placed in the Emperor’s Hall on the first floor of the building.
Truth be told, I didn’t get a chance to go inside and see them though. All my attention was drawn by what was happening outside, in the Römerberg plaza and up and down neighboring streets. Since this was Germany in December, and the Germans really know how to celebrate Christmas, there was a bustling and vibrant Christmas market, filled with stalls offering food, drink, and Christmas gifts and decorations aplenty. And it was also the main reason Dagmar had brought us to this part of the city. While there are Christmas markets in many other German cities, the Frankfurt market is arguably the most important, due to its size and number of visitors. This Christmas market has history dating back to 1393. However, the Christmas tree tradition didn’t arrive until the beginning of the 19th century. Two hundred years later in 2012, the Christmas tree tradition was alive and well, taking its place in the picture-worthy form of a statuesque 25 foot (at least) tall tree standing in front of the Römer, brilliantly lit and decorated.
The crowds at the Frankfurt Christmas market
On this first and subsequent visit to the market (it was worth going more than once), I sampled and saw much of the local fare. I ate and drank items such as sausages in buns, roasted chestnuts, and mulled wine, replacing mine with the child’s non-alcoholic version called “Kinder Glühwein”, which tasted like a perfectly brewed wassail. There was gingerbread to eat, street performers to hear, and nutcrackers to buy. But my favorite was the chocolate, which was everywhere.
Alongside the stalls featuring chocolate-covered bananas, chilies, pretzels and wafers, the treat that caught my eye the most was the solid chocolate in the form of machine parts, cameras, hand tools, and other shapes. They looked almost real; wrenches and bolts that had been left out in the rain and become worn and rusted over years of neglect. I’m not keen on neglect, but I would take one of those “neglected” tools any time.
If you visit the market, remember to bring plenty of cash, since few places in the city and fewer in the marketplace take credit cards. And bring your appetite. As soon as you think you’ve sampled enough, you’ll come to another stall with another treat you hadn’t seen yet, and you’ll have to try it.
After thoroughly enjoying the Christmas market, we began to get a bit cold being out in the snow and winter weather. On a main avenue just outside the market, we found a nice modern café named Weidenhof, where we could relax and warm up. A nice cup of hot chocolate (of course) with cream, and I was as toasty as ever. While Weidenhof is more modern than traditional, it still acts a gathering place for locals and tourists spending time shopping or visiting the center of the city. It also gave me a chance to sit back and people watch. Old friends, new acquaintances, families and couples, all would greet each other with a smile and a hug, glad to be with loved ones during Christmas and out of the cold. Germany really is wonderful at Christmas time.
After such a successful and enjoyable first night, I made it a point to see as much as I could. While the downtown Messe conference center, where I spent my next three days, is interesting by itself, wrapping its several buildings around the Festhalle concert hall, I couldn’t wait to get out and visit more of Frankfurt. Some of my favorite places to visit any time I travel are the beautiful architectures and peaceful settings of local churches and places of worship. There are no fewer than eight churches, old and historic and regal buildings, in the heart of the city of Frankfurt. So I made a point of visiting at least one of them when I had the chance.
Just off of Töngesgasse lies the Liebfrauenkirche, a beautiful and historic Catholic church. The Liebfrauen has a comfortable grotto and cloister grounds, and as you step inside, presents you with a quiet, solemn chapel, resplendent with stained glass windows, Gothic panels, and Baroque figures. I stood, pondered, enjoying the difference in sound after being in the market, but I couldn’t stay too long. I had other places to see.
Inside the Liebfrauenkirche chapel
I wanted to take the opportunity to get out of the city, so I jumped on an S-bahn and traveled out to Friedrichsdorf, where there is an LDS temple with its more modern architecture and inviting grounds of grass and winter landscaping.
The smaller town of Friedrichsdorf is about 45 minutes outside of Frankfurt by train, so it gave me a chance to see some of the German countryside as well. After spending three days within the city, it felt great to see some farmlands, meadows and the modest train stations in the country villages we passed through.
The further away from the city I traveled, the fewer people there were who spoke English; however, I could still feel their warmth and genuine concern as we struggled to understand each other while they gave directions and help. I needed the help, since I ended up wandering around Friedrichsdorf for several minutes before I gave up and asked for directions to the temple. Which I would recommend anyway; take a stroll, view the sights of the villages with no destination in mind, and visit the small shops and cozy main streets of a German country town. I felt at peace and comfortable in Friedrichsdorf, even though I was thousands of miles from home.
And home is always nice to get back to after a business trip. Seeing my own family again and recounting the wonderful sights and experiences is a joy, and Frankfurt didn’t disappoint. On any business trip, necessary work can take up a lot of the time during a short visit, but remember, there is always ample opportunity to see something and meet someone new. It’s my version of “slow down and smell the roses.” It’s good advice. I suggest you take it next time you find yourself typing madly away at an email in your hotel room after working all day. Pause, breathe, and then get out there. Wonderful things can happen.