Airport Rating *** (train)
Reception of locals *****
The 7 hour train ride
After spending a handful of days in Vienna, I decided to take a train into Germany to meet with an old friend of mine in Frankfurt. It's not a city I would usually visit, and many of my colleagues at work who have visited the city on business have never said anything positive about it. However, it was €50 for a train ticket, and it was a friend I hadn't seen for years so I decided to take the trip.
I caught a direct train and brought the cheap seats in second class, however it was honestly one of the most comfortable train journeys I have been on. Seven hours sounds like a lot, and it is, but every seat had a phone charger, there was free wi-fi, a lot of legroom, and the train was perhaps only half full. I downloaded a couple of films and the time absolutely flew by.
We went through central Europe, crossing through Austria and Germany, and passing very close to the Czech border. It was at the border that I had my slightly annoying moment. As we pulled up to the station, I could see border police on the platform. They headed straight into my carriage, and I watched as they walked past everyone and straight toward me.
"Deutsche? English?", they asked. "English", I replied, a little bass in my voice and anger in my eyes. This wasn't random selection, this was targeted selection. "Passport or ID"? I handed over my passport and they spent a good minute studying the passport flicking through the pages and then comparing the passport photograph to my face. They finally handed me back the passport, walked through the carriage past everyone else, and calmly walked off the train. I put my headphones back on, looked up, and saw that neighbouring seats were looking at me, like they should now be afraid. Maybe they were right, I was one angry brown guy at that moment.
The rest of the journey was fairly eventful. The German countryside was even more beautiful than the one in Austria. We stopped along the way at some of the larger towns, but other wise, we passed by a lot of fields, mountains and farms. I definitely couldn't fault the scenery.
Europe's next financial centre?
Frankfurt is actually an old city, surprisingly old in fact and was possibly founded in the first century AD. By the turn of the first millennium the city was one of the most important in the Holy Roman Empire, the predecessor of modern day Germany.
For a period in the 19th century following the Napoleonic Wars and prior to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Frankfurt was a free sovereign city state (similar to Singapore today), however following its annexation by Prussian dominated Germany, Frankfurt, whilst retaining a distinctly 'western' character, nonetheless became one of many German cities, therefore losing its relative importance.
Frankfurt suffered heavily during the Second World War, with most of the city flattened by aerial bombing, including the Altstadt (old town) area. Prior to the war, the timbered buildings in this area were amongst the most beautiful in western Europe. Following the war, the city was rapidly rebuilt and quickly became a financial and transportation hub for West Germany, and following reunification, Germany as a whole. In fact, Frankfurt lies roughly 25 miles west of the geographic centre of the entire European Union.
This geographic location, coupled with Frankfurt's role as the financial hub for the leading European economy means Frankfurt is becoming an increasingly important city. It's home to the headquarters of Deutsche Bank (where I worked some years ago), as well as the European Central Bank. The ECB has over the years become synonymous with the Euro, and news reports over the past 20 years use the city, and the large Euro sign as a backdrop. It was one of the first places that I visited and it looks pretty cool, I'm not going to lie - I spent a good few minutes just staring at it, and at night it looks even more impressive when it is lit up.
But this was one semi-cool thing in an area that really wasn't much fun to be in. In fact, as I headed into the city centre towards the main shopping district, I couldn't help but compare the city to one very close to my home. Like Frankfurt, Birmingham was bombed heavily during the Second World War and a rapid rebuilding programme in the 1950s and 60s left it looking incredibly ugly. As I walked into the main square, all I could think about was how similar this city is to Birmingham.
I met my friend, who incidentally I used to work with in Birmingham and we both agreed, there were some uncanny similarities. A relatively young population, very diverse and energetic (all positives), but balanced by ugly architecture, run down areas and a very 'grey' feeling about the place.
Pockets of beauty
That's not to say Frankfurt is completely hideous, there are pockets of outstanding beauty, with the old town area easily the most stunning. Despite being destroyed in the war, the famed timber houses that had dated back almost a millennium were rebuilt in the 1980s. The Romer, or the city hall is a particularly impressive timber building looking over Romerberg, or the square.
Knowing it was rebuilt 40 odd years ago takes some of the mystique away from the buildings, but they are nonetheless incredibly beautiful, and for a moment you forget you are in Frankfurt. On one side of the square is the Old St. Nicholas Church, dating back to the 12th century, with the current building being constructed in the mid 15th century. The area is home to the famous Frankfurt Christmas Market. I visited the area again at night, and the place had come alive, with people drinking in the outdoor beer gardens, and the structures spectacularly lit up.
Backing onto the square is Frankfurt Cathedral (which isn't actually a cathedral). Despite having a history dating back to the 7th century, the building was almost completely rebuilt in 1867 after an extensive fire, and then again in the 1950s following damage sustained during aerial bombing during the Second World War. It's a large gothic building, and although I didn't get a chance to go inside, from the outside it's definitely an impressive and recognisable landmark for the city.
The Mainkai area is another part of the city that I enjoyed visiting. A small park and pathway on the River Main is the perfect place to hangout, although I must admit, I felt about 5 years too old to be there. Me and my friend headed onto a boat that was docked on the river and just relaxed with some food. Looking over the river I could see the Frankfurt Cathedral on one side, a symbol of the city's past, and the skyscrapers of the financial district on the other, the symbol of a city growing in confidence.
After spending a considerable amount of time around Mainkai we headed into the entertainment district to a bar. The streets were full of revellers, and that young energetic energy I spoke about earlier was out in full force, and even though there were fun places, it's not exactly the kind of city I'd associate with a fun night out. It's odd. It isn't particularly expensive, and it's not like there aren't young people having fun, it's just, well disjointed. It's a mix of slight seediness, and, for a lack of a better word, just not very cool.
One for the future
I was in Frankfurt for 24 hours, I saw a few corners of the city so it isn't fair for me to have a definitive opinion of the city. Much has been written about Frankfurt taking over the role of London as the primary financial hub of Europe, and even more, about taking a considerable number of jobs.
Banks and other financial institutions may move jobs over to Frankfurt, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to persuade people to also make the jump. An example I can compare this to is HSBC's decision to move its Corporate Banking headquarters to Birmingham.
On the face of it, the decision makes sense; cheaper rents, and cheaper wages. However, HSBC have struggled to fill positions, because people don't want to move from London to Birmingham. Frankfurt isn't London, it's not even close, so somehow I don't envisage the exodus that some are predicting.
Who knows, I could be wrong. A few years ago Birmingham began a massive redevelopment programme, beginning with the city centre and train station. Recently the city was awarded the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and commentators are predicting a bright future for the city, I certainly think it has a very bright future ahead of it.
As I walked back to Frankfurt train station the next day I understood that along with negative similarties with Birmingham, the positives are also there.
This is a young, diverse city. A city beginning to find the confidence that was shattered during the Second World War. The city has one of the tallest skylines in all of Europe, and the cranes dotted around the city showed more construction is coming - bigger, bolder buildings for a bigger and bolder city.
I walked into train station and admired the architecture. The station is the largest in Germany, and one of the largest rail transportation hubs in Europe. The structure itself is breathtakingly beautiful, and it got me thinking - perhaps this is a city that could compete with some of the more traditional European centres like London and Paris - and perhaps it could win.
A lot of that depends on how the city defines itself over the next decade. Being just a financial city is not going to be enough. The most boring part of London is Canary Wharf, so being the city equivalent of that is probably not going to do it any favours. Part of it will have to be redevelopment, another part new development, and a final part attracting the right sort of people. Although, when it comes to people, I think the city has less of an issue. Perhaps it was the similarities to my home city, but I felt very relaxed and comfortable.
I developed hayfever a couple of years ago and 2018 has been a sneezathon. Whilst waiting for my friend in Frankfurt city centre, I popped into a pharmacist to ask whether they had any antihistamine types of medication. Not only was the lady behind the counter super friendly, she threw in a free packet of tissues because I must have looked a right state. Here's a tip to the inward investment arms of the city, if you want to show off the good side of Frankfurt, start with its people.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.