Let me be Frankfurt

I spent a week in Frankfurt this month on assignment for a Canadian travel magazine. All opinions, judgments and snark are my own.

Frankfurt isn’t Berlin, but it’s better than you think. That’s the lead I was toying with in my head when I first landed in this modern German financial capital. But, you know what? After a week here, I realize that line sells this place short. No, Frankfurt isn’t Berlin, but it’s a surprisingly lively, and livable city with a lovely “green belt” of parks lining each side of the Main river, dozens of world-class museums, a burgeoning restaurant scene and several beach clubs. Yes, beach clubs. But I’ll get to those later…

I’ve stayed in three hotels in Frankfurt. The first, the regal Hotel Hessischer Hof, is the only privately owned five-star hotel in the city, bankrolled by the prince and princess of Hesse, the German province just north of Bavaria. I arrived around lunchtime, 6am in Montreal, having failed to sleep on the plane. I was tired and sweaty, and it must have been a spectacular example of cognitive dissonance for the porter when he hoisted my giant MEC backpack onto his gilded dolly.

The HHH is old school luxury, with everybody-knows-your-name service and hand holding to the point of obsequiousness. But that’s if I’m being nasty. To be fair, they treated me like a king and the rooms were as elegant as any I have had the pleasure to pass out in.

It must have been a combination of the jetlag and the dissonance (that word again) of being doted on in the same country from which my grandma Ruth fled for her life at the age of 14, but just before nodding off I turned my head to the impossibly high ceiling and gave Hitler the finger.

The second hotel is called Roomers. It’s brand new and owned by this hotshot hotelier who has several other trendy boutique properties around town. Its overall theme can be summed up as “dark, black, and sexy,” with a co-ed spa on the top floor and a really nice beergarden/resto serving everything from oysters to “Katz deli style” pastrami sandwiches.

During my first day at Roomers I met with a friend of friend of a very dear friend for lunch. A Berliner, Thibault goes to Columbia law school and is interning at an American law firm which shipped him back to Frankfurt for the summer. We went to an upscale cafeteria-style Italian restaurant, popular with the business lunch crowd, that has potted basil and rosemary plants on every table, free for the picking. Nice touch. Then, in the evening, I was taken out to dinner by Jasmin Bischoff, the Frankfurt tourism manager who set this all up. I was wary about an awkward dinner with a stiff PR flak, but Jasmin is very easygoing and friendly.

She took me to Druckwasserwerk, a new restaurant in the West harbour that’s housed in an old water pressure factory that (along with pretty much everything in Frankfurt) was mostly destroyed by the Allies in WWII. I started with a salad of fresh regional asparagus, which is a big thing this time of year. Then I had a bootylicious “rumpsteak” with potatoes, thinly rounded and lightly fried. A winner, as my mom would say!

I have no intention of getting all chronological or culinary on your asses, but what happened the next day is worth noting. At Jasmin’s suggestion, I went to check out another newish restaurant in Sachsenhausen, the older part of the city that’s south of the Main river (most of the skyscrapers, businesses, and my trio of hotels are on the north side). Jasmin recommended Exenberger as an example of traditional Frankfurt food with a modern spin. When I started asking the friendly manager a ton of questions, he took out his cell phone and called up Kay Exenberger himself.

Kay came to the restaurant and the three of us sat in the beergarden. The “manager” was actually Kay’s best friend, Yens, an IT guy who is learning the ropes of the restaurant business so he can manage Kay’s forthcoming venture, a luxury car workshop-cum-cafe (I know, how German). We talked hockey (Yens has a strange reverence for the Montreal Forum and the two of them saw the Lightning play the Red Wings in Tampa), Bulgaria (Kay had been there for a bachelor’s party; he’s also a huge fan of “The Hangover”) and then they treated my to a three-course meal that included boiled beef with Frankfurt’s trademark seven-herb green sauce, a more complex, sour-cream based pesto. Turns out Kay is uber-connected, and jotted down in my little notebook the names of the bouncers at every club in Frankfurt (“tell them you know me”) and the personal cell phone of the hotelier who owns Roomers, a good friend of his.

This is also where I tried my first glass of apple wine. Basically a sour, still apple cider, apfelwein is Frankfurt’s signature drink. It’s poured out of painted blue and white jugs and sipped out of a distinct patterned glass that now has a skyscraper in its likeness. “It is horrible, but it tastes great after two or three,” Kay told me. Apparently I made a face after my first sip (it really isn’t so bad), so without asking he sneaked some orange Fanta into my glass. “You’re not supposed to do this but I won’t tell,” he said.

My third and final hotel was the Intercontinental. This monster on the Main has been around forever, but the marketing director was keen on meeting me when I checked in. He insisted that I try all three meals at the hotel restaurant, so I only felt a twinge of guilt the next day when I signed off on 52 euro meal (Argentinian filet mignon, house champagne). He also set up a private tour of the Stadel, Frankfurt’s flagship museum. The Stadel’s permanent collection is closed until Fall 2011, but the art historian-in residence showed me around a comprehensive exhibit of Kirchner, a German artist known for his sexually explicit portraits and morphine habit. His work was banned by the Nazis and he killed himself in 1938, paranoid that they’d hunt him down in Switzerland. I’m not usually into guided tours, but a one-on-one with a major art historian never hurt anyone.

What else? Ah yes, the beach clubs. This is a big thing in Frankfurt. There are several outdoor bars, cafes and clubs on the Main with sand and other beachy things. The King Kahamehameha Beach Club occupies a man-made peninsula just east of the city, wedged between the two banks of the river. With boats sailing by on either side, it feels like you’re on deck of a ship. I watched the first half of Germany vs. Australia here last night, unfortunately wearing a blue shirt in a sea of yellow, black and red.

The Long Island Summer Lounge is a similar idea, except instead of the beach, it’s on the roof of a parking lot in the city center, with a great view of Frankfurt’s famous skyline. Pretty girls dipped their painted toes in little wading pools while servers dressed as sailors served giant cheeseburgers with tiny American flags in them. Sipping a tightly-packed mojito, I watched South Africa score the first goal of the World Cup on a giant screen over the bar. I’ve been to Long Island and this is way better.

I saw a whole lot more in Frankfurt – the Jewish Museum, the Museum for Modern Art, a bunch of markets and several of favourite son Goethe’s old haunts. But I need to catch a plane to Bulgaria, where I’ll trade five-star hotels for hostels and boarding houses, and my poor Yiddish-y German for a working knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet.

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