AS BEFITS the city whose name has become a byword in the hot dog eating stakes, hearty food is easily come by in Frankfurt.
Stalls, kiosks, cafés and markets are ready to ply you with everything from kartoffelpuffer - deep-fried potato pancakes, eaten with apple sauce - to the eponymous frankfurter, washed down perhaps with a jug of feuerzangenbowle, a wine-based drink made by burning rum-soaked sugar over a cauldron.
Hearty food is available everywhere - even at the exemplary Städel Museum on Dürerstrasse, a couple of Rubens’ cherubs with pudgy faces give hope that sausages may also be available in the afterlife.
Of course, many visitors here will be dining (courtesy of expense accounts) in one of the city’s upscale restaurants. Bankfurt, as it is semi-affectionately called, is one of Europe’s major financial centres, and this city-in-a-suit entertains its clients well, with exquisite cuisine.
But if your heart doesn’t leap at headlines such as “Luxembourg exports down .01 per cent”, you might wonder what this solid city has to offer. Easy - five star dining, architecture dripping with aesthetic appeal and some of Europe’s great art galleries.
As it happens the charms of Frankfurt almost passed me by - it was to be my entry point into Germany as I was headed for the ancient city of Trier. However, a friend tipped me off that a double-city break might well be worthwhile; particularly as you can pick up seriously good deals for a weekend in Frankfurt.
Being a financial centre, the city tends to empty come Friday afternoon. And we’re talking serious swank here. In my hotel, the Maritim, everything was design fabulous - the fixtures á la mode, a state-of-the-art CD quietly playing a Schubert concerto, a wafer thin veneer of camphor wood on the walls, an extravagant fruit bowl. The only thing which looked slightly out of place was, in fact, me.
Frankfurt was flattened in 1945 during Britain’s contribution to German town planning. When peace came, it was decided to build more or less a new city. Innovation rather than renovation means that this is one of the very few European cities with a significant modern skyline. That great mincing machine of Central European history has enhanced modern Frankfurt rather than detract from it – modern jack-the-lad architecture abuts a few surviving mediaeval buildings, such as the Town Hall, St Nicholas’s Church, and St Paul’s Church.
To admire Frankfurt's skyline, head west along the Museumsufer, home ground to some of Europe’s great art collections including the Museum of Decorative Arts and the German Film Museum. Like all German cities, you could get lost in Frankfurt’s museums for a week. There’s even one dedicated to apfelwein, the local hooch. (To be honest, it isn’t terribly hoochy.)
Across the river stands a statue of Frankfurt's most famous son, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a man with a touch of the Jimmy Joyces about him – not too fond of his native city. But he seems to have had something of a sunnier disposition than JJ. JG believed that every day you should hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture. Easy enough come by in his native city. For myself, the picture part selects itself. Not for me a Botticelli or a Rembrandt. Rather, a visit to the Städel Art Institute to see The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the travel writers’ ultimate icon. A man leaning over a table with a pair of dividers, the floor festooned with maps and diagrams. The look of concentration on the geographer’s face draws you into his world. Art historians have argued for centuries what this moment of insight is about.
Let me tell you. The geographer is bent over some ancient travel brochure, but there is a faraway look in his eye; perhaps wondering how to transform what he sees into inviting words for his readers, or perhaps how he can rack up the old expenses a bit.
Westwards along the Moselle Trier, or Augusta Treverorum, as the Romans called it, was founded by Augustus Caesar around 16BC. “Veni, vidi, velcro” – I came, I saw, I stuck around, he said, presumably. And who wouldn’t be seduced by this fertile land and its beguiling produce?
Germany's oldest town offers art treasures and monuments aplenty. In the middle of the Moselle Valley, this was basically the headquarters of the Roman civil service west of the Rhine. It has been said that Rome didn’t create a great empire by having meetings. They did it by killing everybody who opposed them. Which to some extent is true – but they certainly had a civil service, otherwise all those fine buildings, which still survive in Trier, would not have been built: the town gate walls, the basilica, thermal baths and amphitheatre. Oh, and not forgetting all the fine straight roads.
The Romans eventually called it a day in northerly latitudes towards the 5th century AD, and familiar European handbags unfolded. The Emperor Charlemagne eventually brought some order to the chaos wrought by various Vandals, Visigoths and Goths. The way was now clear for the Cistercians from Burgundy to spread throughout the continent with their little alcoholic bag of tricks. Cistercian monks were amongst the biggest producers of wine in the Middle Ages – multinationals before the word was invented. Arriving in the Moselle in the 12th century, they quickly set about forgiving the sins of the people of the Valley. Equally significantly, they showed the locals how sunshine and water could be turned into wine.
The Catholic Church of Trier still owns the most extensive wine estates hereabouts. Pop into the Episcopal Wine Estates of Trier, Bischöfliche Weingüter, Gervasiusstrasse for sampling.
The most famous wines of the Moselle Valley are the Rieslings, but significant quantities of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Silvaner and ‘southern’ varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabarnet Sauvignon are also grown. Any number of vineyards, which stretch in every direction over the lush green hills along the ‘Riesling Route’, offer overnight accommodation – and of course a glass or two of wine accompanied by a lesson in wine-growing.
The Moselle is a place punctuated by villages and shimmering views. Traben Trarbach, with its cobbled streets and well-tended window boxes, is a fine example.
The town’s prosperity came from - need I say - the vineyards. In the 19th century a trade alliance was forged between Prussians and local Protestants. It just sounds like the sort of joint enterprise destined to succeed, a Prod-Prussian consortium, and so it was - Traben Trarbach flourished.
The town is also notable in one other respect, and here I can justifiably employ that travel writer’s excellent standby – it truly is a place of contrasts. But only as far as hotels are concerned. Within the town you’ll find hostelries and gasthauses serving everything from the lightest Riesling Kabinett to the finest Weissburgunder Pinot Blanc with pride and panache.
But just outside Traben Trarbach stands a hotel which serves no alcohol at all.
Isn’t that the weirdest thing? Here in the middle of one of the world’s prime wine-producing areas. To the best of my knowledge (I didn’t visit) it is also vegetarian, and practises ayurvedic medicine. Not sure what time the karaoke kicks off at, mind.
A wine-less hotel is certainly a thing of wonder here. But don’t get the wrong idea: if you tend to use food merely for sobering up, the Moselle Valley may come as something of a revelation. The light wines of the area are ideal accompaniments for a wide variety of dishes, and that’s how they’re used. Whether in a traditional restaurant serving Teutonic fare or in any of the Michelin-starred restaurants which adorn the area, you’ll be served exactly the correct wine.
While in Trier I acquired the unhappy knowledge that some 75 five per cent of wine bought in Ireland is consumed within four hours of it leaving the shop. After a somewhat overly long lunch at the Altes Gasthaus Moseltor in Traben-Trarbach I nodded knowingly at this information. I gazed blearily at the vineyards across the Moselle, then took another generous sip of my excellent 1986 Riesling. I nodded again. It would explain a lot, I concluded.
Here in Germany, in something of a contrast to our imbibing habits, wine is barely considered drinkable until it’s been stored in the cellar for a year or so. There seems to be no tradition of ripping bottles from a supermarket bag and glugging it down. Instead, a languorous attitude to wining and dining seems to be the preferred way of life; lunches that stretch towards to sunset are by no means uncommon.
This stunning region of Germany, just like wine, richly rewards those not in a hurry. So relax in the immaculately tended grounds of some lovely little gasthaus, enjoy the sunshine on your face, raise a glass of chardonnay to the Cistercian monks who introduced their viniculture expertise, and be suffused with this sumptuous land.
Where to stay
00 49 69 75780
A hang out for the well-heeled during the week, the turndown nibbles at bed-time would represent a substantial meal in many another establishment. Doubles from 119.
Rocco Forte Villa Kennedy
00 49 180 512 3360
Double rooms plus four course evening meal for two and late (4pm) check-out - 450 the lot. If you’re independently wealthy, on honeymoon or a hopeless spendthrift, the swashbuckling Villa Kennedy is your only man.
The Goldman 25 hours Hotel
Hanauer Landstrasse 127
00 49 69 40 58 6890
Double rooms at the weekend for 149, although various deals are available. Stylish digs, young clientele, boutique furnishing.
Hotel Nicolay zur Post
In the heart of the Moselle, this hotel is the perfect place to sleep it off - sauna, pool, jacuzzi.
Bellevue Am Moselufer
00 49 65417030
A traditional Teutonic hotel housed in an art nouveau building overlooking the river. The slate-covered turret shaped like a champagne bottle is particularly fitting. Double rooms from 135.
Park Plaza Trier
00 49 6519 9930
Situated on the edge of the town centre, the Park Plaza is much more idiosyncratic than its prolix name might suggest. You always get the feeling in Park Plazas that if you phoned room service and asked them to send up grapes, whipped cream and a trapeze, they’d oblige. Double rooms from €81.
Where to eat
00 49 69 612 565
The food here comes in baronial quantities and is generally not what the cardiologist ordered. Order a Schweinshaxe, or pork knuckle, and Bembel, a special jug of apfelwein. You’re charged by weight (the pork knuckle, that is, not yours).
The Alte Oper
00 49 69 134 0215
For about 25 you can enjoy a luxurious brunch with a glass of prosecco in the lavish surroundings of the old opera house. An interesting clientele cocktail of locals and ladies who lunch.
00 49 69 9200 2250
Specialising in seafood, game-in-season and the odd Mediterranean venture, this is now one of the top restaurants in the city – with a Michelin star to prove it.
Altes Gasthaus Moseltor
00 49 6541 6551
Serving nouvelle cuisine such as lobster and cauliflower mousse, or duck liver parfait in prune sauce, this is one of the finest restaurants in Germany.
Becker’s Restaurant and Wine Estate
Olewiger Strasse 206
00 49 651 938080
One of the top tables of the Moselle region, boasting two Michelin stars - seafood and Riesling are the big numbers here.