Wednesday, May 23, 2007

You Can't Go Back Again - Or Can You?

Thomas Wolfe once wrote a story about an author who returned home only to find that everyone was angry with him for writing about them. Sometimes, I have a similar issue with my family who can also resent my using them as props for my stories. For example, my daughter once told the head of the English department of a prospective secondary school that I shamelessly exploited her on my website. Needless to say, even though we clarified what was meant by “exploited”, she’s not going to that school.

Like Thomas Wolfe, Jeff and I recently had the opportunity to return to our old stomping grounds of Frankfurt, Germany, where we lived in both the late 70’s and early 90’s. Thinking about both Thomas Wolfe and my daughter, I have asked myself whether it is a good idea to write about Frankfurt. I still have many friends there and I like going back.

The problem is fundamentally this; Frankfurt is not a town for tourists or exciting travel writing. Having lived there twice, I feel entitled to say this. Plenty of people do go to Frankfurt, mind you, for trade shows and exhibitions, for finance and commerce and to use the excellent airport. But from the perspective of travel destinations, Frankfurt is nowhere. No one goes to Frankfurt, as they do to London, Paris or Venice, because they have always dreamed of seeing it. People go to Frankfurt to do something else. But, hey, that’s not necessarily bad.

When a city is not a travel destination, then it is not overrun with people who don’t know where they are going, clog up the sidewalks staring at maps, don’t have the right change for the bus, aren’t in a hurry and generally get in the way of the people who live there. When a city is a commercial destination but not a travel destination, then the amenities such as museums, parks, historic houses and shops tend to be less crowded, at least during the working week. And when a city is not a travel destination, the people who live there are happy to see you when you visit. They know you are not going for the sights and hope to sleep for free. In short, they know your interest in visiting them is genuine.

When we lived in Frankfurt, I thought it was the most boring city in the world but after wandering around Frankfurt for a day during our recent visit, I have developed new respect for places that are not popular travel destinations. I was struck by what a pleasant and unproblematic time we had. To begin with, driving was easy and parking was plentiful. Shops on the short but chic Goethestrasse were elegant and inviting and I was happy to restock my Gmundner Austrian tableware at Lorey on the Schillerstrasse which has been selling wonderful dining room and kitchen accessories and equipment since 1796. The museums along the Main River, particularly the Stadel, are impressive and both the Jewish Museum and Goethe House and Museum offer authentic glimpses into Frankfurt’s rich historic past.

As for eating and sleeping, the options are also more interesting than you might expect. Popping into the Kleine Markt Halle (Frankfurt’s indoor market for foodies) or snacking on the Fressgass ( roughly translated as “Munching Street” but formally known as the Grosse Bockenheimer Strasse) with its luxurious delicatessens and fashionable cafes is good fun. If you are looking for a blow-out meal, I would head for Erno’s Bistro on the Liebigstrasse which was the first restaurant in Frankfurt to be awarded a Michelin star. It is a cramped but lively place with really outstanding food at really outstanding prices. For a taste of traditional Frankfurt that won’t break the bank, try Wagners or Zum Gmalten Haus in Sachsenhausen, boths typical “apple wine taverns” with communal tables and huge portions. If I were you, I’d skip the apple wine. If you want to stay at a fine old European hotel, try the Frankfurter Hof built by the hotel tycoon Cesar Ritz, or the Hessischer Hof with its fabulous collection of Sevres porcelain which was a wedding present from Napoleon to Princess Alix when she married the Russian Tsar.

After spending a day in Frankfurt, I am all for the concept of visiting non touristy destinations. Of course, the Frankfurt Tourist Board will disagree with my assessment and try to sell you on the fact that “Mainhattan”, as they rather ridiculously call it, is an unmissable metropolis. That may be true if you are a banker, a chemist or a bookseller but if you are a tourist, rest assured that you can miss Frankfurt. Still, if you would like to see a pleasant and efficient German city which punches above its weight culturally, with good hotels, restaurants and shopping and with one of the best airports in Europe, Frankfurt has a lot to offer. If you have a long layover at the airport, head into town for a few hours and you won’t regret it. Thomas Wolfe be damned, in the case of Frankfurt, you can (and should) go back.

Useful Addresses


Stadel Museum
Durer Str. 2
Tel: 069 605098 200
Closed Mondays

Jewish Museum
Untermainkai 14/15
Tel: 069 21235000
Closed Mondays

Goethe House and Museum
Grosser Hirschgraben 23-25
Tel: 069 138 800
Open daily


Erno’s Bistro
Liebigstrasse 15
Tel: 069 72 1997
Closed Saturday & Sunday

Schwiezerstrasse 71
Tel: 069 61 25 65

Zum Gmalten Haus
Schweizerstrasse 67
Tel: 069 614559
Closed Monday


Franfurter Hof
Am Kaiserplatz
Tel: 069 21502
Fax: 069 215900

Hessicher Hof
Friedrich-Ebert-Anlage 4-
Tel: 069 75 400
Fax: 069 75 402924

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Time for Coffee and a Cathedral

Having been done in by delicacies and now bankrupt, we decided not to have breakfast at L’Assiette Champenoise, but rather, to make our way to downtown Reims, figuring that we had time for coffee and the cathedral before it was time to head for Germany.

Following our preference for family run establishments, we took our coffee on the Place Myron-Herrick, across from the law courts and near the cathedral, at the fab and famous Café du Palais, which has been run by various members of the same family since 1930. With a spectacular art deco stained glass ceiling and crammed full of objects d’art both fanciful and serious, this bar/café/ brasserie is big fun. Frequented by locals and tourists alike, and with a young staff eager to please, this is one of the best cafes I’ve been to in a long, long time, chock full of experiences. When we asked for a croissant and none was available, someone was sent to the bakery next door to fetch one. When we struck up a conversation with an English couple en route to the Netherlands, they invited us to visit them in the South of France. When Jeff translated the election headlines from the communist newspaper, two older ladies sitting near us “tut-tutted” and shook their heads in displeasure. Quelle surprise - this was an authentic café of the old school. We were charmed. Rumour has it the food’s good too.

Afterwards we wandered over to the Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral begun in 1211 and site of 25 coronations of Kings of France. If Café du Palais is a quintessential café, the cathedral is a stunning example of high gothic with awe inspiring scale, spectacular statuary, superb windows (including lovely ones by Chagall) and a heroic statue of Joan of Arc who had been present in the cathedral for the coronation of a reluctant Charles VII. We spent about 45 minutes wandering around, but you could easily spend longer and even though this is a World Heritage site (there are four monuments in Reims listed by UNESCO), we had the place virtually to ourselves.

As we got back into our car (by the way, driving and parking in Reims is dead easy), I thought that when one adds up all the attractions within walking distance of central Reims: the champagne houses such as Piper Heidsick, and Taittinger, the churches and museums and the Café du Palais, we really needed to consider coming back for a longer visit.

With the commencement of train service on the TGV Est in June, visitors in Paris can reach Reims in 45 minutes, down from 1 1/2 hours and I have seen promotional fares through August for as low as €11 each way which would make Reims a great day trip from the City of Light. In any event, to go for only a coffee and a cathedral is way too short. We’ll be back.

Café du Palais
14, Place Myron-Herrick
51100 Reims
Tel: 03 26 47 5254
Fax: 03 26 47 93 77

Sunday, May 13, 2007

L'Assiette Champenoise = Motorway Magic

I am often asked if and when I would return to the United States to live and I invariably respond with Truman Capote’s fine remark that “all Southerners go home if only in a box”. But now that I think about it, two things in the US have to change before I would return: 1) the administration and 2) the food and hotels located off American highways.

As for the administration, regime change may be in the air but what in God’s name is to be done about sleeping and eating off America’s highways. By contrast, I’ve written a lot about the ability to fall off the highways of Europe and into unique hotels and great meals. This week, on our drive from London to Frankfurt, Germany for a very jolly birthday party, we stopped in France for the night at L’Assiette Champenoise, which is a fabulous restaurant (it has 2 Michelin stars) with beds.

Located a few minutes off of both the A4 (east/west) and A26 (north/south) highways and a few minutes outside of Reims in the Champagne region, this is a supremely convenient stopping point for travellers. Like La Villa Duflot in Perpignan, L’Assiette Champenoise sits in a beautiful four acre park hard up against an unattractive commercial zone which you do not notice because of the dense foliage and with a handsome turn-of-the-century chateau at the heart of the property; it sets the right tone for a grand night out. The hotel attached to the restaurant is rated four stars but that is certainly a stretch. The rooms, while charmingly decorated, have seen better days and at €162 for a room with a balcony, are hardly bargains. But still, this is a family run establishment and is certainly more interesting and authentic than any high end chain. But the real reason to sleep at L’Assiette Champenoise is that after dinner, you will have eaten and drunk way too much to go anywhere.

From the moment you sip your aperitif either out on the terrace or in the swanky bar, you know you are in for a very French, very serious gastronomic experience. This sense of the grand occasion grows as one enters the dining room where generous proportions and elegant table placement make every table seem important and dinner is treated as a theatrical event.

Following careful study, Jeff and I settled on one of the two menus on offer as we wanted to experience a meal as the chef, in this case the young, handsome and charismatic Arnaud Lallement, had conceived it. It being spring, our dinner began with three equisite treatments of petit pois which made me think again about the possibilities of this vegetable followed by a fabulous piece of St Pierre fish from Brittany with a chorizo sauce and mashed potatoes followed by pigeon “en croute” with spinach and foie gras, a cheese course and a blow-out dessert of either chocolate based or fruit based concoctions. An absolutely charming addition is Lallement’s nostalgic inclusion of all kinds of treats from one’s childhood with the dessert course including miniature cotton candy sticks, cannelles and lolli-pops. To go with all of this, we began with Sancerre “Marnier Lapostolle 2004” followed by a red wine of the region, a Gosset Ambonnay. This being a Michelin 2 star, one would expect excellent service and that’s what we found. Like a well trained orchestra, everything was delivered and presented perfectly. After the invasion in London of well meaning but sadly ignorant Eastern European waiting staff, it was a pleasure to watch these consummate professional at work.

All in all, it was one heck of a dinner considering our proximity to one of France’s major motorways. Yes, we spent a fortune. Dinner for two ran us a wopping €374 and one could criticise the food for being both a touch too elaborate and too much. But if I were to rate the overall experience of L’Assiette Champenoise, it was, in a word, wonderful. Lallement is a supremely talented chef (he describes himself as progressive and passionate), the dining room is gorgeous and we were blissfully happy to collapse afterwards into a very comfortable bed, as Jeff put it “completely done in by delicacies”.

L’Assiette Champenoise
Chateau de la Muire
40, Avenue Paul-Vaillant Couturier
51430 Tinqueux (Reims)
Tel: 03 26 84 64 64
Fax: 03 26 04 15 69