Bonn, an autumn rhapsody
On a bright November morning, the smell of sausages and freshly-baked bread permeates the crisp autumn air. Beneath the watchful gaze of the Beethoven monument, Bonn’s Münsterplatz is an image of European integration. Pretzels and traditional German snacks mingle with wares from as far south as the French Pyrenees, in a visually arresting mélange of Basque cheese, packets of dried lavender, and gourmet sausages: pheasant with cognac, wild boar, duck and hazelnut. Directly opposite, we find a stall selling English fudge, its metal frame proudly decked out in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.
The Marktplatz too, is brimming with fresh produce and flowers on the cobblestones. The last time my brother was here, he spoke of the vendors and their cries of spargel! spargel! – drawing shoppers to the fat bundles of succulent white asparagus. Against the backdrop of Altes Rathaus, the old town hall, I can imagine their voices ringing out across the square.
Beethoven’s birthplace – a long, narrow house with a hidden courtyard – is not far away. Walking steadily across the creaking floorboards, we pass oil paintings, portraits and writing desks before ducking into the small, whitewashed attic room where the composer first saw the light of day. But perhaps most captivating of all are the original pianos and ear trumpets he would have used. Beethoven had the remarkable ability to compose some of the world’s most celebrated classical music, even as he gradually lost his hearing.
Although Bonn is clearly proud of its most famous son, the irony is that Beethoven had a vehement hatred of his hometown, preferring the sophistication and comfort of Habsburg Vienna. But he could not have foretold its emergence as one of Germany’s foremost centres of learning. Boasting a library stocked with over two million volumes, the University of Bonn has nearly 28,000 students, and a long list of notable alumni including Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Konrad Adenauer, and seven nobel laureates.
Bonn is perhaps more well-known in the modern era as the capital of West Germany in the post-war period. Home to no less than 18 UN institutions, and roughly half of all German government jobs, Bonn still holds the special title of Bundesstadt, or ‘Federal City’. Twenty-odd years after German reunification – and the return of the capital to Berlin – the city still remains a centre of politics and administration.