Apart from the fact that I’m having an increasingly hard time imagining sweet nothings whispered in German actually sounding remotely romantic, I was quite taken with Bonn. I’ve even picked out my house. It’s a small, walkable city that seems to be living in the shadows of its perhaps more famous, or more ‘out there’ neighbours: Cologne and Dusseldorf. I know you can’t go by my geography, but last time I was in Cologne, I had no idea that Bonn was literally up the road. Yes, I knew it was once the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, but that’s about the sum total of my knowledge. How pathetic is that?
Apparently, it started off in the first centry AD as Castra Bonnensia, a Roman fortress. When the Roman Empire broke up, it became a civilian settlement and then, in the 9th century, it became the Frankish town of Bonnburg. In 1949, the quiet University town was catapulted into the limelight as the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, a term it would serve until 1991, when Berlin once more resumed the mantel as Germany was reunified. So, it’s been around for a while and despite the wars, it’s still a beautiful city, tucked away on the banks of the Rhine. Beethoven was born there, Schumann lived there, and Karl Marx studied there.
The first thing I noticed about it is that it’s green. It has so many trees, parks, lawns, flowerbeds… a nightmare for those afflicted with hayfever, but a welcome respite from the usual, built-up metropoli that pass for major cities these days. Apparently 51% of the city is protected: 28% under landscape protection and 23% nature preserves.
The second thing I noticed is that it has big bio supermarkets – not a couple of shelves in the main shops dedicated to a paltry selection of bioproducts, but huge stores stocked with organic and bio products. So much to choose from and so much locally produced. How novel is that? I even came across a clothes shop that stocked only clothes by a German designer that are made in Germany – Zero has become my second-favourite, must-visit, must-buy clothes shop after the WE chain in the Netherlands and Belgium.
And the third thing is its community spirit. Okay, so this isn’t exactly a tangible thing but if you watch, you see. The door of the Cathedral seemed to be staffed by a series of what look liked those on the down and out. They opened and closed the huge doors as visitors entered and left the church. Some people gave them money. I saw a old lady pass off a packed lunch with a sleight of hand that said she wanted neither thanks nor recognition.
And then there’s the book stops: places where people can come and swap books, free of charge. Ok – I’ve seens these in some more progressive cafés, but never as standalone bookbanks in the middle of a street or park. There’s one on Poppelsdorfer Allee that draws quite a crowd on Sundays. I met an American chap there who appears to be its self-appointed guardian – making sure that if you take a book, you leave one, too, unless, of course, you’re a visitor to the city and didn’t know the rules! [And yes, people still wait for the green man to cross the road.] Interstingly, he is writing a book about these book stops and the characters they attract and the emotions they bring out in people. I don’t think I quite caught everything he was saying, but he managed to spin me a tale of mystery, mafia, and melancholy that might just make me buy his book, if it is ever translated to English.
There’s another one up by the University – this time housed in a red British phone box which was donated to Bonn by the University of Oxford. Right beside it is a signpost showing the distance to Oxford in kilometres, and the distance to Budafok. Is that my Budafok, I wonder? And, curiously, the local wine is known as Drachenblut (Dragon’s Blood), a fine competition for Hungary’s Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood).