Lazy August heat mollifies even the busiest financial centers , so I noticed with relief, walking out of the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. Not that the numerous bank-skyscrapers had lost any of their towering arrogance (1) , but they could now be treated as a mere backdrop for the soothing spectacle of people loitering & cycling & licking ice cream cones. And they made for a nice skyline too, looking up from one’s book, sitting on a terrace on the river bank.
It is not a beautiful city, Frankfurt. Too much of an architectural hotchpotch with its 50s Wiederaufbau buildings, its restored pseudo medieval Altstadt architecture and its aggressively soaring high-rises. And its extensive pedestrian areas, devoted to gaudy chain-store shopping, are oppressively consumerist.
The lone literary pilgrim may also feel slightly abashed by Frankfurt’s Goethehaus: the visiting crowds are all too efficiently processed in a modern entry-hall crammed full with Goethe-merchandising , and the same crowds then march (but certainly don’t wander) through the painstakingly restored but oh so sterile rooms of the Goethe-family. (2)
But still, it is an interesting city, Frankfurt, with many a redeeming feature. Of which the river Main is certainly not the least, giving air and space to the city and offering a most pleasant river bank for walking, cycling, reading & the drinking of Apfelwein. It is also near this riverbank that the museums and art galleries are located which were a sufficient reason for my imagination to make me book a Frankfurt-bound train. (3)
And my imagination was not disappointed – on the sturdily-elegant Museumsufer I found those grand bourgeois mansions that I love, dedicated to the arts with an earnest 19th C devotion. Special thanks go to the Städel-museum for generously offering space and time to contemplate that magnificent Poussin painting – a large and darkly brooding painting of nature in the violent throes of a thunderstorm, with a tumultuous sky shot through by lightning bolts, with humans fleeing in all directions – all echoing the fore-ground drama of a tragic death (as told by Ovid in his Pyramus & Thisbe story).
My wayward imagination had however more difficulty to adjust itself to the prosaic reality of the Spa-resort of Bad Homburg . I guess I had been imagining a dignified grandeur déchue, a somnolent elegance. Or at least a whiff of imperial or aristocratic romance. But Bad Homburg was merely sleepy & only moderately cute. No romantic decay, but just a badly maintained spa illusion: a Kurpark with benches in synthetic materials! A Kurpark- grand café with plastic chairs!
At least the map of the park could still stir my imagination with its little drawings of the baths, of the casino, of the golf-courts and of classy monuments ( amongst which a Siamese temple offered by the king of Siam who was a Kurgast there in 1907).
I didn’t manage either to fully penetrate the mysteries of Wiesbaden. Surely the wealthy spa-patrons live their lives far from the gazes of casual visitors. But here at least I could bask in some of the splendid Spa-architecture I had been hoping to see.
Stately grand hotels where Magic Mountain guests might gather for philosophical discussions or amorous intrigues... And, behind tall dark-green pines, one could catch a glimpse of glaringly white mansions where discreet waiters would serve calming quellwasser to despairing duchesses …
Oh well, how much of the joy of travelling isn’t just about chasing in reality some of the images the imagination has long cherished?
just a few notes ( slightly melancholy)
(1) will then nothing humble “the industry that failed”? No near-collapse? No humiliating state bail-outs? Nothing??
(2) but the lone literary pilgrim will have to qualify her harsh judgment later, softened by the ‘pathos of the past’. For instance when peering into a glass display, somewhat hidden in a corner: a 1944 photo of the devastated street with a pile of rubble where once the Goethehaus was, and a 50s photo of the proud re-opening of the restored Goethehaus. Further softening takes place in the rooms with paintings from Goethe’s contemporaries, filled with so much longing for an ideal, antique arcadia and with Goethe quoted as having said about his Italianische Reise that he later never had found again the happiness of that journey (“nie mehr so vollkommen glücklich gewesen” ).
(3) I sometimes suspect that the true goal of my trips is to find suitable trains & (outdoor) cafés for reading. Unless my true goal is just to be moved by the transience of travelling (to which, as a combative melancholiac, I am as sensitive as to the above mentioned 'pathos of the past'). Ah yes, the transience of travelling, which sometimes yields the oh so precious & poignant kindness of strangers or the amazing grace of an instantaneous affinity with someone you will never see again.