Luxury Spas and Fairy-Tale Palaces
By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor
For adventures in history, destinations that really take the visitor back in time to another era, it’s hard to beat Germany’s Franfurt Rhine-Main Region.
I toured a magnificent 18th-century palace in Hanau, a famous medieval monastery in Eberbach, and an ultra-modern five-star luxury hotel in the heart of Frankfurt.
I also learned all about Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of modern printing, at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz and lost my last euro at the casino in Wiesbaden. I’m in good company; Dostoyevsky lost a bundle there back in 1865.
I visited the famous Mainz Cathedral and heard a delightful organ concert by the great Hans Uwe Hielscher at the Market Church in Wiesbaden.
The World’s Smallest Metropolis
Our tour began in Frankfurt, known in Germany as the world’s smallest metropolis. While it has Europe’s second busiest airport and one of the world’s largest financial centers, it is a friendly, walkable, bikeable city like my home town, Boston, except it’s nearly a thousand years older.
History is everywhere, starting with the Cathedral that dates back to 852. There’s lots of medieval architecture, and the city is home to more than 60 museums, thirteen of which are located close together in the city center along the banks of the Main.
At the end of April, the city holds the “Long Night of the Museums” when all the museums are open all night with music and dance performances and special exhibits. There’s also a festival in August called Museumsuferfest.
Frankfurt is also internationally known for its book fair (October) and its car show (in September of odd-numbered years). Both these events attract millions of visitors, so unless you’re a book or car buff, it’s best to pick another date.
The city square in Frankfurt is where the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned, and it’s surrounded by palatial buildings all dating back many centuries. Most were destroyed during World War II, but they have all been rebuilt and restored.
You can see the balcony where the newly-crowned emperors would appear to the people. It’s still used today to greet victorious soccer teams.
You can also visit the Roman ruins at the Archaeological Gardens and get a bite to eat on the Fressgass or “munching alley” with lots of restaurants, cafes and delis.
We dined at the famous Adolph Wagner where they have a delightful apple wine and a delicious sauce made from seven different herbs — great with schnitzel.
There is so much to see on foot or by bike in the city center, including the magnificent Opera House and the City Tower, and there is also a great system of public transportation to get to other attractions like the Zoo or the Botanical Gardens.
A Little Bit of Dubai
On our trip, we actually found a little bit of Dubai right in the center of downtown Frankfurt at the Jumeirah Frankfurt, a brand spanking new five-star hotel operated by the Dubai-based Jumeirah hotel chain. I’m basically a bed & breakfast kind of guy, but once in a while I like to sample a little luxury, and this was a great place to do it.
This 25-story, 218-room hotel is located in Thurn-und-Taxis Square, and it has everything: stunning views of the city, full spa, swimming pool, five-star restaurants, and super service.
The rooms have all kinds of cool gadgets: Bose sound systems, flat-screen LED television sets, heated flooring, and automated curtains and blinds.
And the decor is very impressive with lots of crystal sculptures and modern art. We toured the magnificent Crystal Ballroom (2,000 square feet), with thousands of crystals embedded into the ceiling, and four luxuriously appointed meeting rooms.
We dined at their restaurant, Max on One, which is managed by Executive Chef Martin Steiner, previously of the Savoy Hotel in London, and that was something special, I can tell you.
Our next stop was the great cathedral city of Mainz, which was settled by the Romans in the first century BC as the city of Mogontiacum. You can see five Roman troop ships, discovered in the 1980s, at the Museum of Ancient Seafaring. Many other Roman and medieval artifacts can be seen at the Romano-Germanic Central Museum.
But the city is best known for its magnificent cathedral, built in 1009, St. Stephan’s Church (1267) with windows designed by Marc Chagall in 1978, when he was 91 years old, and the Gutenberg Museum.
Touring the cathedral with its breathtaking religious statuary, we learn it was here that Emperor Frederick Barbarossa took the cross for the Third Crusade in 1188. While Mainz was heavily bombed during World War II, this historic structure was left almost completely intact.
US President George Bush visited here on a European tour in 2005, and discovered an interesting feature of the organ — the Spanish trumpets. These are installed in a fixture on the wall, which opens when the organist throws a switch.
During a concert at the Cathedral, the appearance of the Spanish trumpets threw a scare into the Secret Service agents guarding the President, who thought they might be machine guns.
The Gutenberg Museum
It’s hard to overstate the historic importance of Johann Gutenberg’s invention of printing in 1450, which ultimately increased and improved the exchange of ideas around the world for centuries to come. While others had used wood blocks for printing, each page had to be carved out invidually and they tended to wear out quickly.
Gutenberg devised a method of casting a special lead alloy into individual characters which could be arranged in trays and printed on the same type of press used for wine or olive oil.
The Gutenberg Museum has lots of exhibits on the history of printing, as well as several Gutenberg Bibles. There are also medieval manuscripts, historical prints, printing presses of all sizes and shapes and demonstrations of the Gutenberg method.
The Eberbach Monastery
From Mainz it was off to the Eberbach Monastery, first established in 1136 by a group of 13 Cistercian monks from France. We learned that the Cistercian order was very severe and the monks slept in unheated stone rooms with no heat and ate next to nothing, all part of their efforts to mortify their flesh and blood bodies to promote their spiritual well-being. They also lived under a strict vow of silence.
The order had great success with their vineyards, and during the 12th and 13th centuries, the site housed more than 150 brothers and three times that many lay brothers, who took vows of poverty and obedience, but did more working than praying.
The monastery was plundered in the Peasants’ War in 1525 and the Thirty Years War in 1631, but it remained a prosperous vineyard until it was ‘secularized’ in 1803. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the site was used as a prison, an insane asylum and a military rest home.
The property was restored in the 30s and 40s and today it is run by the state winery of the State of Hesse. It is a popular place for sightseeing, wine tours, and fine dining and also serves as a conference center.
The historic buildings were used for the interior shots of the movie “The Name of the Rose” starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater, based on the novel by Umberto Eco.
Wiesbaden: Playground of the Rich and Famous
First settled in the Neolithic Era, Wiesbaden has been a popular resort since the Romans discovered the hot springs in the first century. European nobles began ‘taking the waters’ toward the end of the Middle Ages.
Charlemagne built a palace there in the eighth century, and ever since, it has been the place where emperors and millionaires go for vacation. With all that money around, it became a gambling center as well, one especially favored by the Russian elite.
As I mentioned, Fyodor Dostoyeksy, author of Crime and Punishment, lost a bundle there back in 1865, and he wrote all about it in his novel The Gambler.
Wiesbaden has gone beyond its reputation as a spa city for the rich and famous and is now recognized as a center for the treatment of rheumatic and orthopaedic diseases.
Visitors can enjoy the hots springs at the classic Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme and the modern Thermalbad Aukammtal, and there are many specialized and rehabilitation clinics and healthcare centers in the city.
In the city’s Neroberg Park there are nature trails and a water-powered railway built in 1888 takes you 80 meters up a hill that affords great views of the city.
Museums include the Roman Open-Air Museum, the Museum of Women, the Wiesbaden Museum, the Harlekinaeum (Museum of Humor), and Freudenberg Castle. The Hesse State Theater is also located here.
The city has long been a headquarters for the US Army, so they’ve gotten to know lots of Americans. In fact it was here that 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, the daughter of an Air Force officer, met a young soldier named Elvis Presley.
John McEnroe was born on a military base here and Reese Witherspoon lived here for many years as her father worked for the military.
We arrived in Wiesbaden just in time for a delightful mini-concert by the great Uwe Hilscher at the historic Market Church where Martin Luther often preached back in the 1500s. (See our story on Luther Country.)
After dinner, I dug up a blazer and a necktie that I had been schlepping around with me the entire trip and went off to the casino with two friends from our party.
The lavishly appointed entrance hall, the subdued elegance of the gambling rooms, the stentorian pronouncements of the croupiers — for me it was like entering another world, one I had only read about in books like Dostoyevsky’s, a foray into the insulated world of the international elite.
But things have changed a little bit, even here. Aside from Roulette, the most popular game was not Baccarat but Texas Hold ’em!
I lost my last eruos — all ten of them — but as we were leaving the next day, this didn’t prove much of an inconvenience.
Home of the Brothers Grimm
Our last stop was Hanau, also a major headquarters for the Romans and more recently the US military, where we visited the majestic Philippsruhe Castle, built in 1701 by the landgraves of Hesse-Kassel.
This was the summer home of Landgrave Frederick II, who famously lent troops to his nephew, George the Third of England, during the American War of Independence.
This museum is a wonderful journey into the 18th century — exquisitely furnished rooms displaying magnificent paintings and sculptures, with lots of interesting historical exhibits and a side trip to the fairy-tale realm of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the city’s most famous sons.
They were scholarly researchers in the field of linguistics, but they also collected folk tales, and their collection of tales including Snow White, Rumplestilskin, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, the Musicians of Bremen, and many other favorites, has been translated into more than 160 languages worldwide.
Our guide was Nina Schneider, who was dressed as Rose Dorothy, second mistress of Landgrave Wilhelm V. If I were landgrave, she’d be number one! She was very helpful and informative, and having a guide in period costume really adds the the time-travel experience.
Hanau is a very pedestrian-friendly city with many historic buildings, including the 14th century Marienkirche, the Comoedienhaus (Comedy House) and the Hessian Doll Museum.
The city’s largest festival is the Lamboyfest, named for the Imperial General Guillaume de Lamboy, who besieged the city for nine months during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The city withstood the siege, which was lifted when Landgrave Wilhelm V dispersed the besieging army.
The regent of Hanau ordered a festival of thanksgiving, and it has been held ever since. There is also a Citizens’ Festival at the Philippsuhe Castle every September.
The State of Hessen also maintains an extensive wildlife park, the Alte Fasanerie, with 15 kilometers of hiking trails.
From Hanau, it was off to Frankfurt Airport and back to the states, but I will always remember the warm and generous hospitality I enjoyed in the land of fairy tales.
Stephen Hartshorne is the retired associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.