As a New Yorker, it's hard to imagine anyone else making great pizza, save for the Italians (half of my ancestry, full disclosure). I agree with Jon Stewart that Chicago pizza is casserole, and I usually avoid pizza in general when traveling. That's probably why the first thing I crave when I return home (to my native Hell's Kitchen) from a long trip is a fresh pie from Claudio's, a slice joint I've been going to since childhood.
A German specialty called "Flammkuchen" might make me rethink this policy. After a steep climb up to the Rhinestein Castle (aptly named for its position on the iconic Rhine River), I got hungry and popped in the café. These thin crust pies almost feel like a deconstruction because of how distinct each flavor remains. The cheese, arugula and tomatoes on one pie sat next to each other with distinction. There was a precision that felt duly German, and it went down effortlessly with Riesling.
Just over the river, I stumbled on the Bingen Swingt. Named for the town that it snakes through each year, dozens of acts set up in a cozy fashion somewhere between busking and a professional tour. I got lost in a set by trumpeter Nils Wulker, particularly when he launched into a little Radiohead. There's something innately powerful about musicians switching genres. Whether it's Miles Davis playing Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," Ray Manzarek plunking out Carl Orf's "Carmina Burana" on 80s electro instruments, or Jacques Loussier finding the groove in Bach concertos with his jazz trio. The contrast of sensibilities and experiences inform and augment each other.
When I first walked through the Frankfurt airport years ago, en route to Scandinavia, the first thing that caught my eye were these adult-sized glass enclosed smoking cubes. Holding maybe a couple dozen people, they look like surreal ads for big tobacco.
That image stuck with me as I walked through the casino in Bad Homburg, which could be mistaken for a 70's James Bond set. Smoke wafts in through thick clouds across the richly retro rooms and men are required to wear jackets. After losing a small fortune here, Dostoevsky wrote "The Gambler" in 1866. Sitting at the bar with a beer in hand, I could almost imagine him sidling up to a nearby stool to drown his woes.
While Frankfurt is one of the world's main business hubs, I was surprised to discover all these quirky wonders in its surrounding areas in the Frankfurt Rhine-Main region. In the city itself, I spent a memorable afternoon trekking through a puddle-filled mini-golf course at the botanic garden. Sure the plants are pretty, but I've never seen concrete and steel employed in such fashion before. With no effort to look beautiful and less concern that mere mortals be able to complete the course, it feels like the brainchild of Dostoevsky, Kaftka, and Goethe, who incidentally was born in Frankfurt in 1749. The last hole is raised so high it looks like it would take a pitching wedge to reach. The impossibility of the task seemed to only heighten the enjoyment though. I've seen a lot of Unesco sites in my travels, and there's no denying the awe-striking beauty of them, but it's places like this that make me giddy to travel. What was going on in the architect's mind? Did they have a surplus of steel that needed unloading? And why put the last hole so comically out of reach? Most courses are uneventful and boring yet aesthetically pleasing. Was this reversal conscious?
Across town, the Schirn Kunsthalle museum was tackling issues of beauty and fame in their exhibit, "Paparazzi." Upon entering the gallery, a series of light bulbs flicker in view causing bright spots of light to linger and sow feelings of self-consciousness. It's an image that was hard to shake as I peered at the carefully framed photographs of intrusion. The subjects are caught in candid snapshots that highlight the mundane nature of everyday life that even celebrities cycle through. The exhibit also highlights our complacency viewing these images that were taken against their subjects will. If we didn't eagerly consume these photos as a culture, the paparazzi wouldn't have buyers for their ill-gotten photos.
Heavier thoughts are often best washed down with equally weighty glasses of beer. In the nearby Bavarian town of Aschaffenburg, I got my exercise lifting the monstrous liter glasses of the lightest beer. In Germany, even the darkest dunkel goes down with the least amount of resistance. I'm inclined to more flavor-forward beers, but it does leave room for the gigantic fresh pretzels and sausages that seem to be everywhere, especially at the town's volk festival and fair. Coinciding with the World Cup, there was plenty of excitement in the air. A few beers and a couple carnival rides in, I found myself with the colors of the German flag emblazoned like war paint on my cheeks, smiling from ear to ear. And then came the fireworks.