While I was spending a semester abroad living in London for my dissertation research, I went on a number of short sightseeing trips to other parts of Europe. One of the great things about traveling in Europe is that everything is relatively close together by plane, and it's fairly inexpensive to hop from city to city once travelers make it there in the first place. I planned to visit Berlin on one of these side trips since I had a friend from my history graduate program at the University of Maryland who was also doing her own dissertation research overseas at the same time. This would give me a place to stay in Berlin over a four day weekend as well as a guide for the area who already spoke German. On the way back from Berlin I ended up spending an unexpected afternoon in the city of Frankfurt, which is a full story in its own right that I'll get to in a little bit. These are the images from my short trip to Germany in the early spring of 2009.
I flew from London to Berlin on Ryanair, one of the budget airlines that offered a cheap no-frills fare. They were the same airline carrier that handled my return trip and would become an important part of the story later. After arriving at the Berlin Schönefeld Airport, I rode on the city's excellent mass transit system to the former East Berlin and disembarked at the Alexanderplatz stop. I had some time for sightseeing until meeting up with my fellow graduate student host later that afternoon, and my plan was to start on the eastern side of the city and work my way to the west. Alexanderplatz is a large public square that functioned as the unofficial gathering space for the former East German government. There were still signs of the East German regime on display here, such as a prominent statue to Marx and Engels along with the TV Tower high overhead. I noticed that the Rathaus, the traditional city hall for Berlin, was also located in this area. (It was the red brick building with the clock tower pictured above.) I was familiar with the word "rathaus" due to it being one of the unique buildings in Civilization IV, an overpowered courthouse replacement for the Holy Roman Empire. This was the first time I'd seen an actual rathaus in person, the first of many that I would later encounter across Germany.
Most of the buildings surrounding Alexanderplatz had a modernist feel to them, lots of them constructed in the 20th century and hosting upscale shopping and restaurants. This structure seemed to be out of place, a small church known as the Marienkirche ("Mary's Church" in German). It proved to be a small Gothic church with an interior painted almost entirely white, accented with a series of religious paintings displayed around the altar. I was struck by how the Marienkirche seemed to exist in a time and space unto itself, not fitting at all into the wide open public square that surrounded it. This place was fortunate to escape destruction during the period of East German rule.
Sitting nearby on the other side of the Spree River that flows through the city was the Berliner Dom, translated as the Berlin Cathedral. There's been a church on this spot since the mid-15th century when the city of Berlin first started to expand beyond a medieval village, but the current incarnation largely dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That version of the Berliner Dom received financial backing from the newly united German imperial government, which transformed a smaller previous structure into the gigantic cathedral that exists today. The Berliner Dom was built as a Lutheran counterpoint to the (Catholic) St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and I tended to think of it as a Protestant version of a medieval cathedral. The architectural design is a variation on the Italian Renaissance, complete with lots of statues and pillars, capped off with a series of bronze domes on the roof in a nod to Baroque stylings. Those domes at the top reach a height of 115 meters / 375 feet in height and can be seen from around the rest of the downtown. I had reached what's known as "Museum Island" (Museumsinsel) in Berlin, home to a series of world-reknowned museum as well as the Berliner Dom. First up, visiting the interior of the cathedral.
The interior of the Berliner Dom consisted of a massive open space beneath that central rearing dome. There were no rows of pillars here as there would be in a Gothic design, nor did I see anything in the way of stained glass. Instead, the walls were made up of white stone decorated with religious carvings, along with heavy use of gold as a design accent. Like the Marienkirche, there were a series of colorful religious paintings surrounding the main altar. All of this was a far cry from how the Berliner Dom had looked for much of the past half century. Like many other churches and monuments in Berlin, the cathedral suffered heavy damage during the end stages of World War II. The East German government had little interest in fixing a cathedral after the war's end, and the Berliner Dom sat for decades in a semi-ruined state due to lack of funds. This place wasn't reopened for services until the 1980s. It has fortunately been restored to its former glories in the post-reunification era, and forms one of the city's main tourist attractions for visitors today.
As mentioned before, the Berliner Dom is situated on Museum Island nearby a series of excellent museums. I walked past the neoclassical design of the Altes Museum ("Old Museum") that houses the antiques collection of the former Prussian ruling family, followed by the Alte Nationalgalerie ("Old National Gallery") hosting mostly 19th century artwork. At the northern end of the island was the Bode Museum with sculpture collections and late Antique and Byzantine art. I did not visit any of these museums, in part due to their cost and in part due to not having enough time. I wanted to walk around the city of Berlin this day, not spend it going inside a series of museums. That said, I do wish that I'd found the time to come back and see some of these places later on my visit, which ended up not happening.
My walking route continued to take me further to the west, crossing another fork of the river and proceeding down the main boulevard known as Unter den Linden. This is Berlin's most famous street, akin to the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and has long been the site for big military parades and mass public gatherings. I might have done better to spend some time in the museums because at this moment the Unter den Linden was in the process of being drenched by heavy rainfall. While there were still plenty of cars and pedestrians out and about, it wasn't the most pleasant time to be spending outside. I passed by the entrance to Humboldt University and the closed doors of the Berlin State Opera House, both of which were devoid of visitors under these gloomy skies. The big green dome pictured above was a church known as St. Hedwigs Cathedral, which I'm sure has become more popular in the wake of the Harry Potter series. There were lots of government buildings in this area and it reminded me of the federal office buildings near the Mall in downtown Washington DC.
About half a dozen blocks to the south of Unter den Linden was the tourist attraction known as Checkpoint Charlie. This was the name given by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War, and it became a symbol of the larger conflict dividing Germany. This was the spot where American and Soviet tanks quite literally faced off against one another during the Berlin Crisis of 1961; if the Cold War had ever turned hot, this was one of the most likely places for it to start. Now while I do find this to be a fascinating bit of 20th century history, the modern Checkpoint Charlie is basically a huge tourist trap with lots of Cold War-themed merchandise on site. This place looks totally different from the way that it did during the Cold War, when none of the surrounding buildings existed and there were barbed wire fences manned by armed guards at the checkpoint. This isn't even the original guard house, just a reconstruction of how it looked in the 1960s. Nevertheless, it's probably still worth seeing and there is a museum here (the Mauermuseum) dedicated to the Cold War standoff in Berlin. There's even a small part of the Berlin Wall nearby, or at least there was when I visited in 2009, badly decaying and seemingly on the verge of collapse. I purchased my souvenir of the Berlin Wall here, and there's no need to worry about all the pieces being gone any time soon. The old wall was big enough that they'll still be selling pieces of it a hundred years from now.
From Checkpoint Charlie, I continued heading west and swung back to the north again in the direction of the Unter den Linden. I came across something along the way that I hadn't expected: Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, officially named the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas). Located in some prime real estate near the Tiergarten and the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial consisted of a series of concrete slabs laid out in long parallel rows. There are about 2700 of these slabs in total, and from a distance they appear to be roughly level in height. The surprise comes when the viewer starts to walk between them, as the ground slopes away until the concrete slabs are far overhead, creating a feeling of being down at the bottom of a pit. The Holocaust Memorial feels disturbingly like descending into a graveyard, which I suspect is exactly the point. Here's an impressive overhead picture from Wikipedia providing a sense of scale. This is one of the most effective memorials that I can remember seeing.
Perhaps the most famous symbol of the city of Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate, or more precisely the Brandenburger Tor in German, an 18th-century neoclassical monument built on the orders of Prussian king Frederick William II. This spot was originally one of the entrances to the medieval walled city of Berlin (thus the "gate" aspect), and it was constructed between 1788 and 1791 to commemorate Prussia's many successes in warfare over the prior century. During the years of imperial Germany and the Nazi regime, the Brandenburg Gate became famous as the site for various triumphal processions down the Unter den Linden. During the Cold War it gained a different kind of fame, as the dividing line between East Berlin and West Berlin ran right next to the monument. The Brandenburg Gate was on the East German side of the wall (just barely, the wall was only about 100 feet away) and visitors were unable to approach it for more than three decades. This was where American presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan gave their speeches calling for the Berlin Wall to come down. Today anyone can walk through the Brandenburg Gate, and it's a huge tourist attraction. There was someone in a big bear costume here next to reenactors in Soviet military uniforms, all of which undercut the seriousness of the place a bit.
Just north of the Brandenburg Gate sits the German parliament building, popularly known as the Reichstag building (officially the Deutscher Bundestag). The Reichstag building has a length history despite only being constructed in the German imperial period at the end of the 19th century. It was completed in 1894 in a Neo Baroque style and drew widespread praise for its original cupola of steel and glass, with the building intended to house the federal parliament of the German Empire. This was when the motto over the entrance was inscribed: "Dem Deutschen Volke" (To The German People), much to the displeasure of the anti-populist Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Reichstag building is more famously known today for the events of the Nazi period, when a mysterious fire that broke out inside the building in 1933 was used as a pretext to suspend the constitution and seize power more openly. Historians widely suspect that the Nazis set the Reichstag fire themselves, although this has never been decisively proven. By the end of World War II the Reichstag building was a shattered mess from the fighting, and there's a famous photo of the Soviet flag being raised over the building amidst the smoking ruins of Berlin. Neither the East German nor the West German governments met here during the Cold War, and the building was in pretty terrible shape for most of the Cold War period. The reunified German parliament meeting here in this building was one of the greatest signs that the Cold War was decisively finished.
When I visited the Reichstag building in 2009, I was able to join a tour of the exterior and visit the reconstructed roof. The new cupola on the roof contained a series of mirrors shaped a bit like a downward-pointing drill, and I'm not sure that the whole thing fits the rest of the building. Nevertheless it was quite pretty, and there are great views from the top of the building looking out at the rest of the city, especially to the west towards the Tiergarten park. I only wish that I'd been able to see the actual parliament chambers, which weren't included on the brief tour that I took.
With evening starting to approach, I headed out to the area where I would be staying in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. This area was located about 5 kilometers / 3 miles away from the Brandenburg Gate on the western side of the city. Charlottenburg had once been a country retreat for the Prussian Royal family, and the local tourist attraction here was the Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg). This palace was named after Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Friedrich I, Elector of Brandenburg in the period before the Prussian rulers were able to style themselves as kings. The palace was built in the first decades of the 18th century and unsurprisingly utilized the Baroque style of architecture (complete with central bronze dome) commonplace in that period. It was too late in the day for me to enter the palace, but I was able to explore the grounds as the sun begin to set in the west. It was a beautiful building and a surprise to find something like this in an otherwise unremarkable city neighborhood.
Here's a picture of me with Melissa, my host and good friend from the University of Maryland history graduate program. We were among the handful of grad students working on topics involving modern European history and had ended up in a bunch of shared classes. Melissa was researching a topic involving gender politics in Nazi Germany during the 1930s, and she was spending the semester in Berlin for her research just as I was in London for my own work on British imperialism. Melissa was from California and a diehard Lakers fan (note the calendar on the wall above), one of the few grad students in my program who consistently went to the Maryland basketball games on our free student tickets. She was a generous host to give me a couch to sleep on for the weekend, and took me to some excellent restaurants for dinner over the next few days.
I woke up to much better weather outside the next day. I traveled via Berlin's outstanding U-bahn mass transit system back over to the former East Berlin where I stopped to see the East Side Gallery. This is an open-air gallery consisting of a series of murals painted directly onto the Berlin Wall back in 1990. This was shortly after the fall of the communist satellite governments in 1989 and many of the murals exhibited either optimism about the new future for Germany or various forms of sarcastic political protest. This is believed to be the largest and longest-lasting open air gallery in the world. When I visited, I found that the passage of time had not been kind to the East Side Gallery, with many of the murals heavily defaced by graffiti or simply reflecting the crumbling nature of the Berlin Wall. There's a preservation movement that has been working to try and restore the murals, but it's been controversial since some of the original artists have no desire for someone else to re-paint their work. I'm not sure that there's an alternative though, as left untreated the whole thing will be gone in a decade or two. The artwork here was a little too weird for my tastes, a lot of abstract imagery mixed with various kinds of satirical cartoons. I appreciated the chance to see a bit more of East Berlin though, which was still noticeably poorer than the former West Berlin.
These pictures were taken at a location near the Brandenburg Gate known as Potsdamer Platz. Once a grim militarized no man's land next to the Berlin Wall, Potsdamer Platz became one of Europe's largest building sites following German reunification. It was seen as another symbol of the bridging of east and west, and turned into a gigantic construction project designed to develop a new commercial space. The result was this huge structure of glass and steel, an enclosed mall area bustling with shoppers as they passed from one boutique store to the next. There was a big movie theatre here, a Legoland discovery center, and even a casino on the premises. Potsdamer Platz appeared to be one of the best places to go in Berlin for any kind of shopping.
After leaving Potsdamer Platz, I walked through the public park known as the Tiergarten, Berlin's largest city park and roughly akin to New York City's Central Park. I was walking down the straight-as-an-arrow boulevard towards the Victory Column, known in German as the Siegessäule. Construction on this triumphal monument initially began in 1864 following Prussia's victory over Denmark, but by the time that it was finished the newly created German Empire had much bigger victories to commemorate over the Austrians (1866) and the French (1870-71). This tall pillar topped by a golden statue of the goddess Victory became a symbol of the newly united German state, a bastion of national pride that announced Germany's entrance onto the world stage. I could see the Siegessäule all the way from the Brandenburg Gate, and as I drew closer the depiction of German military valor became easier to make out. This was one place where statues of Bismarck and von Moltke were still on display.
The Siegessäule was accessed via a series of tunnels running undearneath the encircling road. Up close, the mosaic at the base of the monument depicted various German triumphs dating back to the medieval period, right up to the heroic explusion of the French under Napoleon. Critics of the Siegessäule have argued that it's a monument to German militarism, and I found it hard to dispute that charge. Visitors can pay a fee to climb a series of narrow spiraling stairs up to the top of the Siegessäule, where the reward for that effort is sweeping views looking out over the rest of the city. The victory monument stands 67 meters / 220 feet in height, and this is the best place to see the Tiergarten from a bird's eye view. Looking east, I could see the Reichstag building, the Berliner Dom, and even the TV Tower in the distance due to its own height. The views from up here were well worth the price of admission.
I made my way south past Berlin's excellent zoo to the southern side of the Tiergarten to visit another church. This was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche), a structure that was deliberatedly not restored following World War II and continues to display the damage caused by the bombing of Berlin. The church was originally commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm II in honor of his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and was built in the Romanesque style during the 1890s. It remained an otherwise unremarkable memorial church up until it was nearly destroyed in 1943 by an Allied bombing raid. Most of the original church was lost with only a remnant of the spire and some of the entrance hall surviving intact. When it came time to rebuild following the war, city authorities decided to stabilize the remnants of the old church as a reminder of the horrors of past wars and then build a new church alongside it. In the pictures above, the smaller square black building in front of the 19th century church is the new building. Inside what remained of the old church, I was able to see huge splits in the masonry that had been repaired back together again. I appreciate that this one part of Berlin was left destroyed to help keep everyone from forgetting about the costs of unchecked militarism.
The new church next door looked completely different. This was a short and somewhat squat hexagonal structure that looked distinctly unappealing on the outside. Inside the new church, however, was a dazzling array of 20,000 panels of stained blue glass. These pictures with my crummy early digital camera don't remotely do the place justice. It was an impressive scene and particularly so when viewed in contrast to the shattered remnants of the old church. There was an obvious message here about the power of new beginnings and moving beyond the tragedies of the past.
Switching gears again to a different day, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a home match of Berlin's top soccer club, Hertha BSC (short for Berliner Sport-Club). Hertha is one of the original members of Germany's top soccer division, the Bundesliga, and they've been a historically successful franchise if not quite to the same degree as their southern rivals in Bayern Munich. Melissa had secured these tickets ahead of time, and I joined her and some of her local German friends in the crowds streaming towards the stadium for match day. Hertha plays their games in the Olympic Stadium (Olympiastadion) constructed for the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, and this venerable old location immediately reminded me of the Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum. It was a similar age and built for a similar purpose. The inside of the stadium looked fantastic following a recent 2004 renovation and the blue-and-white Hertha colors were on display everywhere. It was Saturday, 14 March 2009 and Hertha was playing another Bundesliga powerhouse in Bayer Leverkusen.
We watched the first half play to a scoreless draw between the two teams. At halftime, I noticed that our seats were close to where the Olympic flame had been displayed and went to get a closer look. The bored security guard in the orange jacket waved me forward when I asked to hop over the barrier and take some pictures, resulting in a great image of the gold medal winners carved into the stone wall of the stadium. I particularly enjoyed seeing American Jesse Owens listed on there twice as the winner of the 100 meter and 200 meter races. As for the game itself, Andriy Voronin scored in the 50th minute for Hertha and that score would hold up the rest of the way, with the home team winning 1-0. The Hertha fans on the far end of the stadium were completely crazy throughout the match, singing and waving flags and jumping up and down for the whole duration. I half expected them to start setting fires when Hertha scored the one goal in this game. This is one of the rare occasions where I can definitely say that a group was taking sports a little too seriously.
There was one more location that I wanted to visit in Berlin, or more precisely slightly outside the city limits in the suburb of Potsdam. This town is best known for being the residence of the Prussian and later German royal family up until the end of World War I, and my plan was to see some of their historic palace residences. The weather on this day wasn't cooperating and it was under an overcast sky that I hopped off of the commuter train from Berlin. These were some of the pictures that I took while walking towards the center of the town, such as the green-capped dome of St. Nicholas' Church (St. Nikolaikirche). This Lutheran church looked a little bit like the Capitol Building in Washington DC, and it was under heavy construction when I visited. The other church pictured above was the Catholic St. Peter and Paul Church (St. Peter und Paul Kirche), a red brick building located on the main street in Potsdam. There was no one around either of these churches when I stopped to peek inside.
Potsdam had a compact historic downtown area, with some of the cobblestone streets closed off to automobiles and reserved for pedestrians. It was a charming place to visit, very much invoking old-fashioned small town Germany with its small shops and restaurants. If it hadn't been the month of March and raining outside, I imagine it would have been quite pretty. Adding to the local character were a pair of historic city gates, the Nauener Tor from 1755 on the eastern side of the town and the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) on the western side. Now wait a minute, you might say, isn't that the same name as the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin? Yes it is, and the shared name between these two monuments has led to considerable confusion over the years. The Potsdam version of the Brandenburg Gate was constructed by Frederick the Great, and it is therefore both older and smaller than the one in Berlin. (The shared name comes from the fact that anyone traveling to the nearby town of Brandenburg would have to leave through the western gates of Berlin and Potsdam; thus they were both the "Brandenburg" gates.) The city wall surrounding Potsdam has long since been demolished but the victory arch remains as a freestanding structure.
Beyond the (Potsdam) Brandenburg Gate was a large park area where the Prussian royal family constructed many of its palaces in the 18th and 19th centuries. The closest of these was Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great constructed during the 1740s. This is often viewed as the Prussian attempt to imitate the palace of Versailles outside of Paris, much like the Habsburg rulers of Austria constructed the Schönbrunn Palace outside of Vienna at the same time for the same reason. The very words "Sans Souci" are French, not German, and translate as "without worries", indicating both that Frederick's palace was a place of leisure and that French culture was dominant in the mid-18th century. This was the place where Frederick hosted his enlightened court, playing host to luminaries like Voltaire as they debated various aspects of intellectual culture. Sanssouci was smaller than I'd been expecting, far smaller than Versailles or the Schönbrunn, and was more of a glorified villa than a true palace. The architectural design here was the highly ornamented Baroque styling known as Rococo, one that I've described before as "not knowing when to stop" in terms of luxurious excess. I took the tour of the Sanssouci interior but unfortunately this was another place that didn't allow indoor photography. I'll link one image off of the Internet to provide a taste for what it looked like.
There was a Frederick the Great reenactor here dressed up in period costume and playing Frederick's favorite instrument, the flute. He wrote some flute concertos that I've heard on the local classical musical station, and they're surprisingly pretty good. Frederick is a fascinating example of the idealized Enlightened despot, the philosopher-king who could simultaneously reform the judicial system, personally lead his armies in battle, write classical music compositions, and discuss philosophy. That's not to over-romanticize Frederick's rule, however, which was not democratic in any way and relied on the personal brilliance of the king to be effective. (The biggest issue with monarchies is not the founder of the dynasty, who is usually a pretty capable person. It's the legacy kids from two or three generations later who have never known anything other than wealth and priviledge; this absolutely applied to the poor quality of later Prussian kings.) Frederick the Great is buried here on the Sanssouci grounds, and I'm disappointed that I didn't know about this and get a picture of his tomb.
The park area in Potsdam was quite extensive, and went on beyond the Sanssouci grounds to comprise more former royal buildings. The orange-colored structure pictured above was the New Chambers (Neu Kammen), an extension of Frederick's nearby palace. The building above not colored orange was ironically named the Orangery Palace (Orangerieschloss), built at a later date on the orders of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in the 1850s. It was designed in a Renaissance style and looked a lot like an Italian villa to me, particularly with the design of the gardens outside of the palace. This was the summer home of the Hohenzollern monarchs for most of the latter half of the 19th century. It was pretty empty when I visited, with the rain giving the whole place a bit of a gloomy feel.
At the western end of this wooded area was the largest palace, the New Palace (Neues Palais). This was another construction of Frederick the Great, built two decades after Sanssouci in the 1760s to celebrate his triumphs during the Seven Years War. It was a conflict worth celebrating as Prussia somehow managed to defeat the combined forces of France, Austria, and Russia despite having only a fraction of their territory and population. The New Palace was another example of late Baroque architecture, featuring as usual the green-tinted domes common to the style. Frederick did not use this place as his main residence, instead employing the New Palace to host large state functions. It was revived in the late 19th century when Kaiser Wilhelm II made this his main residence, and the New Palace fortunately escaped damage from bombing during World War II, therefore looking the same now as it did a century ago. My experience of seeing the New Palace was tempered by the pouring rain coming down at the time, which made photography difficult and left puddles across the walkways. I did a full circuit of the building and had a chance to see some of the decorative statues up close.
There was one more place that I wanted to see in Potsdam, even though it wasn't located anywhere close to the New Palace. This was the Cecilienhof Palace situated at the northeastern edge of Potsdam, along the waters of a small lake, where the Potsdam Conference took place in 1945. The Cecilienhof Palace was a more recent construction than the other palaces I'd been visiting, dating back only to 1917 and intended for the use of Kaiser Wilhelm II's oldest son. He didn't get to enjoy it for very long as the royal family was forced to abidcate at the end of the Great War. The Cecilienhof Palace was built in the style of an English Tudor manor house, and it didn't look very much like the other royal residences in Potsdam. It became famous for hosting the Potsdam Conference shortly after the German surrender in World War II, the place where the Americans and Soviets and British met to hammer out what Europe would look like in the following decades. This was where the decision was made to divide up Germany into four administrative zones (which would later cause the division into East and West Germany) as well as to put the surviving Nazi leaders on trial. The borders of Germany, Poland, and Russia were all redrawn here by the victorious Allies, new borders that have lasted down to the present as of this time of writing. The disagreements between the Americans and the Soviets that took place here at Potsdam have often been seen as the beginning of the Cold War. There was a small museum in the Cecilienhof Palace with information and artifacts about the conference, and it was very much worth the long walk up here to see it. This was another place that didn't allow indoor photographs, unfortunately. All of this was part of the former Soviet occupation zone, which could be seen in the red star flower design at the Cecilienhof and the nearby statue commemorating the soldiers of the Red Army.
My stopover in Potsdam was the last place that I visited in Berlin, and it was supposed to be the final destination on this trip. However, things did not work out as expected on the return flight home. I had a morning flight out of Berlin on budget airline Ryanair, with a transfer in Frankfurt onto another flight back to London. The starting flight ended up getting delayed due to mechanic problems and it took off about two hours after the scheduled departure. I made it to Frankfurt about 15 minutes before the connecting flight was scheduled to leave, just barely in time! Except that the airport staff at Frankfurt wouldn't allow me or anyone else trying to make that flight to get onto the plane. It was truly bizarre: the flight back to London was right there on the tarmac, easily visible through the windows of the airport, and they wouldn't let anyone board the thing because they said that it was already too late. I had to watch my return flight leave without me even though there was plenty of time to board. Then to make matters worse, Ryanair made absolutely no accomodations to get me back to London even though it was their fault that I had missed the connecting flight. They just shrugged their shoulders and said "not our problem, find your own way back." I was furious and I've made it a mission never to fly on their airlines ever since.
So now I was stranded in the Frankfurt airport with no plan on how to return to London. Except that it was even worse than that: I wasn't in Frankfurt's main airport, one of the largest and busiest in Europe, but in a much smaller airport named Frankfurt Hahn. This place isn't close to the city of Frankfurt at all, located fully 125 kilometers / 80 miles away to the west, and there were few flights passing through the airport. Ryanair had deals with these little side airports because it was cheaper to operate out of them. Anyway, the only solution was to take a bus ride to Frankfurt's main airport and find another flight back to London from there. I rode for more than an hour through the Black Forest region of western Germany before reaching Frankfurt's main airport southwest of the city center. I paid through the nose and managed to get a flight to London, but it wouldn't be leaving until that evening. I was left with six hours of free time to kill, enough time to do some sightseeing in the downtown. The result was an unexpected walk through Frankfurt's downtown, a trip that was never supposed to happen.
Frankfurt is one of Germany's largest cities with a metropolitan area of roughly 2.3 million people. It's the historical capital of the state of Hesse, home to the Hessian mercenaries that tormented the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. Frankfurt is best known today for being a center of European banking and financial institutions, home to the European Central Bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank (the German national banking institution), and corporate banking giant Deutsche Bank. I saw plenty of gleaming steel skyscrapers devoted to those financial groups, but spent my brief time in the city visiting its historic district instead. These pictures were taken from the old town square known as the Römerberg, with the Römer building itself the peach-colored structure flying the German and EU flags. This building was used as the town hall for many centuries and dates back to the early 15th century. It is not a museum and still remains in use by the Frankfurt city government to this day. The old market square was highly picturesque, even with the construction taking place on several of the buildings.
Just to the east of the town square was the city's historic cathedral, officially the Kaiserdom St. Bartholomäus but referred to locally as the Frankfurter Dom ("Frankfurt Cathedral" in German). The cathedral was built originally in the 16th century and then rebuilt repeatedly over the following centuries as it was damaged by war or fire. The whole thing burned down in 1867 and then was reconstructed, followed by the cathedral again suffering severe damage during World War II. This was the location where the election took place for the Holy Roman Emperors from 1356 until 1806, and the place where Holy Roman Emperors were officially crowned. The most prominent architectural feature is the spire on the western side of the cathedral, which rises 95 meters / 325 feet in height. This is the tallest religious building in Frankfurt, and it was the largest structure in the city until the construction of modern skyscrapers.
One thing that I appreciated inside the cathedral was this aerial photograph of Frankfurt at the end of World War II. The city was completely destroyed in the bombing that accompanied the fighting, leaving only a ruined shell of the cathedral in its wake. Almost everything that I was seeing on this visit had been reconstructed in the decades since. It was another sobering reminder of the events that had taken place in Germany during the 20th century.
Not far away from the cathedral was another building of historic importance, the circular structure known as St. Paul's Church (Frankfurter Paulskirche). This church was the site of the Frankfurt Assembly of 1848-1849, the revolutionary body that met in the hopes of drawing up a constitution for a united German state. Unfortunately the Frankfurt Assembly ended up as a failure, as the revolutions of 1848 were eventually crushed by the Prussian and Austrian armies without achieving their goal of a peaceful unification of Germany. When German unification did take place, it happened under the militaristic conquests of the Prussian army, setting up Germany for later disasters in the 20th century. I wasn't even thinking about the Frankfurt Assembly when I visited and ended up stumbling across this place by accident. (In later years, I used some of these pictures for my history classes when teaching about the brief parliament.) The modern version of St. Paul's Church is divided into an upper and lower floor, with these pictures taken from the upper floor which has been converted into a concert hall. At the time of the Frankfurt Assembly, there was no upper floor and visitors could look down from above on the meeting area. This was a fun location to run across by accident, one with real historical meaning for me.
I finished up my brief time in Frankfurt by walking along the Main River that flows through the city center. (The river's name is prounced like "mine" in German, not "mayne".) From the other side of the river, I was able to get some great views of the main financial district with its high rising towers, along with the older historic area with the Römerberg and the spire of the Frankfurter Dom. The bridge that I crossed with the Greek lettering was the Iron Bridge (Eiserner Steg), a pedestrian-only bridge that dates from the 1860s. This was a peaceful way to close out my brief time in Frankfurt before heading back to the main airport to catch my flight. There were lots of other things that I missed out on seeing in Frankfurt, as I had no time to visit any of the museums and I hadn't researched where anything was located ahead of time. For a couple of hours where I was literally flying blind, I was reasonably happen with what I was able to see.
My late night flight from Frankfurt back to London did take off as scheduled, and I made it back to Goodenough College close to midnight. It was an exhausting and eventful return trip, the sort of thing that makes for a great travel story now but wasn't fun at all in the moment. Even with that unpleasant final day of travel, this had been a fantastic stopover in Germany and I was very happy that I'd been able to put it together. Berlin is a wonderful place to visit and a city where the history of the past remains very much a part of everyday life. It was one of the highlights of my study abroad semester in Europe.