The flight from Perth to Frankfurt took eighteen hours, during which we never managed more than a fitful, uncomfortable doze, so we were arrived both shattered and a little shocked to discover that we'd completely miscalculated our time of arrival. It was actually 8.30pm, not 3.30pm as we‘d originally thought. Oops! Had we realised we would have booked accommodation in the city and saved ourselves the anxiety. But no… So we went to the Avis desk and picked up our hire car - the only thing we’d pre-booked on the holiday. Jumping behind the wheel of a hire car after an eighteen hour flight, with no sleep, in the middle of the night, driving on the wrong side of the road, to another city, without any idea where we were going to stay, or a map, was perhaps not the best idea. But we did it anyway. Only minutes out of the airport it seemed that we’d left Frankfurt behind and we were driving through deep, dark forest. It was a little scary.
Mainz was only 40 kilometres out of Frankfurt but we quickly got lost. No matter what road signs we followed we found ourselves going in circles. After two frustrating detours through a nearby village and an industrial satellite town we finally stumbled upon Mainz, more by accident than plan. Hmm, that GPS we’d turned down at Avis would have come in handy after all. It was almost midnight when we pulled into the first hotel we saw - the Hotel Ibis. Honestly, if they said the room cost a thousand Euro and we had to share with two Ukrainian hookers, we wouldn’t have cared. We checked in, we paid, we crashed. Day One was over.
In the Rhineland
I had recommended Mainz as our first destination because it was close to Frankfurt and there was a Roman archaeological site I wanted to visit. In the first century AD the western bank of the Rhine was the Roman border with Germania and Mainz was the base for the Rhine river fleet. In the 1980’s excavations for a new hotel (err, it actually turned out to be the Ibis Hotel!) exposed the remains of five Roman ships. They have since been preserved and are on display in a museum directly across from the hotel. We didn't know this at the time we checked in however. I only realised the next morning when I looked out the window and could see the masts of two ships through the museum's glass roof. Sadly the museum is closed on Monday’s but I did manage to peer through the windows and, in act of breath taking defiance managed to sneak an illicit photo despite the ‘no photography’ sign. Ha! Take that Antike Schiffe Museum!
So we walked around the altstadt (old city) and enjoyed Mainz's pleasant ambiance. Mainz is an attractive city to explore and has a very impressive 15th century cathedral. Mainz is the southern starting point for the Rhine Valley Road which planned to explore and about lunchtime we set off but promptly got lost. We had earlier blamed the misadventures of the previous night to tiredness and inexperience and assumed it would be easier navigating in daylight. But it wasn’t. After three days on the road I’ll quite confidently say that GERMAN ROAD SIGNS ARE TOTALLY FUCKED. Perhaps by way of illustration here are a couple of helpful hints to the German traffic planning authorities that might make a travellers experience that little bit easier.
1. Placing turn-off signs after the turn-off in question is not helpful unless you‘re really just trying to rub it in;
2. Nor is it helpful to place signs parallel to the road or anywhere they cannot be seen;
3. Although technically all the roads around Frankfurt can lead to Frankfurt, listing it as the only destination at a four way roundabout is a bit much;
4. Don’t place signs in such a way that they can only be seen coming from one direction;
5. Dropping all reference to a desired destination along the way causes confusion;
6. Placing turn-off signs on blind curves as you turn off the auto-bahn causes accidents.
So we got a little distracted getting out of Mainz and it took us an hour to get back onto the right road. Nevertheless, once away it was a lovely trip. The Rhine river valley is quite dramatic, with steep hillsides sweeping upwards from the riverbank, covered in vineyards, interspersed regularly with little villages and ruined castles.
It was a full days driving and we stopped for the night in Koln (Cologne). That evening we wandered around the city and visited the awe inspiring Dom Cathedral. The Dom is so enormous that it literally dominates the city. Until the Eiffel Tower was built in the 1870s, it was the tallest building in the world. It is badly scarred by war damage now but its blackened facade gives it a certain poignancy.
The next morning we were a little better prepared and didn’t get quite as lost as usual, even though the road signage remained problematic. We wanted to take the highway west to Aachen, but after completing an entire circuit of the city ring road we could only find marked exits for the north and east. We chose north by default but it only took us half an hour out of our way.
Aachen is a pleasant university town situated on the German, Dutch and Belgian borders. Like Koln and Mainz it was originally a Roman town but its real claim to fame is that it was once the capital of Charlemagne’s western ‘Roman’ empire in the 9th century. Charlemagne (or Charles the Great) had been King of the Franks (ie, French, although technically he was German) in the 790’s. Pope Leo III in Rome however was having a few problems with another German tribe, the Lombards, to the point where they had arrested and imprisoned him (in some stories it was claimed they blinded him but he was miraculously restored his sight - sounds a bit fishy!). In his desperation he invited Charles to come to Rome and rescue him. Charles duly did so, killed lots of Lombards and freed the Pope, who, in gratitude crowned him Emperor of the Romans. It was all a bit of a farce really as the official 'Roman' emperor was reigning quite comfortably in Constantinople at the time. Anyway, Charles ruled over an empire that included France, Germany and Italy and governed it from the lovely town of Aachen. His empire fell to pieces soon after he died but he did leave a wonderful legacy in the stunning chapel of the cathedral. The main part of Aachen cathedral was built in the 15th century in an extravagant Gothic style but the central chapel is 9th century. Charles consciously reinforced his dubious imperial title by importing craftsmen from Byzantine southern Italy and imitating the style of Byzantine imperial monuments such as St Sophia in Istanbul and St Vitalie in Ravenna. The chapel is a a riot of mirrored marble panelling and mosaics.
We stopped in Aachen long enough for me to bore Shelly to death with Byzantine history, enjoy some delightful pastries, and pick up a wireless modem for the laptop. Then it was back to the car so we could get lost on the way to Belgium - Time wasted trying to find the road to Brussels - two hours. In the end it was just easier for us to go to Antwerp, but that's for next time....