Phoenix finally has a direct airline route to mainland Europe. We hitched a ride to Germany for a weeklong blitz of food, drink and culture.
Eleven hours after leaving the tarmac in sweltering summertime Phoenix, I’m touching down in the heart of Europe, in a city that smells pleasantly of hazelnut and stale hops, where a “heat wave” amounts to a few 84-degree days in a row with a touch of humidity. The horror.
I stretch my legs and do a quick diagnostic. I feel good – shockingly good, in fact, for having completed a journey that would have taken 14 hours minimum before a German carrier called Condor Airlines – or Condor Flugdienst in the native tongue – launched its new Phoenix to Frankfurt nonstop route this summer.
When I first caught wind of Condor’s impending foray into Phoenix late last year, it was exciting news – not only because a fast, convenient European ingress sounded appealing to me personally, but because of what it meant for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
For all the wonderful recent upgrades at Sky Harbor – the local restaurants, the Terminal 3 expansion, the soon-to-open PHOENIX Best of the Valley travel store (see sidebar, page 59) – one thing has bedeviled the airport in its quest to join America’s elite travel hubs: a lack of nonstop international flights.
Or, more specifically, transcontinental flights. When someone impugns its bona fides as a big-league airport, Sky Harbor officials point to the 22 nonstop international routes that originate in Phoenix. That’s a nice number, but the fact is, most of them are North American routes to Mexico and Canada. For many years, the only non-NAFTA direct flights at Sky Harbor were connections to Costa Rica and London – the latter operated by British Airways, in the same aging 747s it used to launch the route 20 years ago.
So the new Germany nonstop is symbolic, hopefully, of a new era for Sky Harbor. It also represents a great value. Condor is what industry types call a “leisure carrier,” which means it’s a bit less stuffy and luxury-oriented than business carriers, with niceties that budget-minded travelers appreciate – like waived baggage fees. It’s an international version of Southwest Airlines, essentially, that will ferry you deep into Europe starting at $800 roundtrip – $400 less than I paid for a high-season Paris ticket two years ago.
Plus, you save those precious three-plus hours each way – no trifling sum when it comes to fatigue, soreness and energy. I hop on my hotel shuttle intending to put them to good use.
And I fail miserably. Flying east over the Atlantic, you essentially lose a day to the time-zone shift, and consequently my redeye Monday flight deposits me in Frankfurt, a city of about 800,000 in the west-central state of Hesse, slightly after dinnertime on Tuesday. I’m staying near the airport at the Meininger Hotel (meininger-hotels.com) – cheap, friendly and inoffensively frill-free – roughly a 10-minute train ride from downtown, and promptly hit the proverbial wall after checking in.
One surprisingly tasty heat-lamp-bratwurst later, nudged into deep fatigue by a pair of cold pilsners, I bid adieu to the hotel’s friendly Croatian bartender and hit the sack.
There’s no feeling quite as energizing as waking up in a foreign country on day one of an overseas trip, and Frankfurt is looking and feeling much more enticing the next morning. Like many of Europe’s great cities, it straddles a river – the mighty Main (pronounced “mine”) – that snakes through the city and is laced every quarter mile or so with pedestrian and vehicle bridges, each offering a lovely vantage of the banking capital’s signature skyline.
About that skyline, which resembles Dallas or downtown Los Angeles if you squint a bit: Evidently, it’s the only such concentration of high-rises in Germany. My local tourism contact tells me that Germany’s other great cities – even the megalopolis Berlin – are “spread out and don’t have skylines.” For that reason, some Germans refer to Frankfurt as their “American city” or “Main-hatten,” with both the fondness and derision that might imply.
It doesn’t help that Frankfurt was essentially razed by Allied bombers during World War II, and unlike other devastated German cities of the era – particularly those in the east – didn’t expeditiously rebuild or renovate its classic architecture. But modern Frankfurt is trying to redress the matter with the Old Town renovation project in its historical downtown – a recently completed effort to rebuild the city’s Germanic timberframe buildings to their exact pre-War specifications with original materials, all under the shadow of the city’s splendid Frankfurt Cathedral, one of the few historical treasures that wasn’t obliterated in the war.
The pristine but anachronistic buildings make for fascinating ambiance – a surreal time-machine glimpse into the medieval past, when it served as a preferred getaway for 19th-century kaisers and, before that, a seat of power for Holy Roman emperors.
A five-minute walk away, I cross the Holbeinsteg bridge to the city’s south bank and pay a visit to Frankfurt’s museum district, including the Städel Museum (staedelmuseum.de/en), featuring a vast collection of 14th-century art; and the Deutsches Filmmuseum (deutsches-filminstitut.de/en), a four-story monument to motion pictures that just happens to be hosting the acclaimed 2001: A Space Odyssey exhibit during my visit. Afternoon, shot.
Two must-do things in Frankfurt: take in the long, drawn-out summer sunset at the Bootshaus Dreyer beer garden on the banks of the Main near the museums, where it seems every Frankfurter under the age of 60 goes for happy hour, chatting and enjoying the balmy evening; and stop by the St. Tropez Bar (st-tropez-bar.de) gastropub on the Moselstrasse, where a cordial Romanian expat named Radhu will pour you generous samples of interesting whites from the nearby Rheingau wine region if you express anything resembling a sincere interest.
As the center of a 5-million-person metro, Frankfurt offers plenty more to see and do, but part of the Frankfurt experience – as I understand it – is to get out of town for a bit. So auf wiedersehen for now, Frankfurt.
When to Go
May to September.Located at roughly the same latitude as Calgary, Alberta – just north of the 50th parallel – Frankfurt is blessed with exceptionally long summer days. The sun sets around 10 p.m. in August.
If Frankfurt is Germany’s equivalent of Dallas or Los Angeles, Würzburg is like its Cambridge – a scenic, walkable university town of rolling hills and august traditions. Set on the northern edge of the state of Bavaria, in a historical cultural region known as Franconia, it’s about a 70-minute train ride from Frankfurt on Germany’s efficient, state-owned rail line, Deutsche Bahn ($39-$90, bahn.de).
Like its larger neighbor to the west, Würzburg was built on the Main, and seems to me the epitome of the Frankish travel fantasy, with wide-open town squares, jagged cathedral spires and an intoxicating aura of quaintness running through its hand-quarried stone streets. The classic Würzburgian experience, locals tell me, is to spend sunset on the Alte Mainbrücke (“Old Main Bridge”), sipping on a glass of austere Franconian Riesling poured at a walk-up wine counter, enjoying magic hour under the stern Baroque gaze of the Fortress Marienberg (schloesser.bayern.de/englisch/palace/index.htm). Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Main, the behemoth took four centuries to build and by the 16th century served as the headquarters of Würzburg’s so-called “prince-bishops” – Vatican-anointed civil rulers who profitably blurred the line between church and state in parts of the millennium-long (estimated 800-1806 CE) Holy Roman Empire.
Ultimately, the prince-bishops’ avarice got the better of them, and they ditched the Marienberg for even more lavish digs at the Würzburg Residence, a jaw-dropping display of Baroque excess modeled after the Palace of Versailles. It’s Würzburg’s signature attraction and well worth the hour-long tour ($9, residenz-wuerzburg.de).
Good news for traveling tipplers: Würzburg is also the unofficial capital of the Franconian wine region, known for its nuanced, dry white wines, often poured from the region’s distinctive, teardrop-shaped bocksbeutel. One of Franconia’s best wine-tourism experiences, the 800-year-old Bürgerspital Winery (buergerspital.de), is a three-minute walk from the Residence, where you get a guided tour of the winery’s ancient cave network and barrel rooms, and a thorough review of its delicately mineral Scheurebes and surprisingly firm Rieslings in a tasting afterward.
I later enjoy one of those Scheurebes with a well-seasoned white asparagus soup in the adjacent fine dining restaurant, Bürgerspital Weinstuben, and marvel at the chef’s refined expression of its vegetal flavor.
(White asparagus, highly finicky and expensive to grow, is a summer passion in Franconia.) I’m not quite as thrilled with my blood sausage and liverwurst plate afterward, but the fault is entirely mine. “Personally, I don’t care for those [offal] foods, but my father was fond of it,” my German dining companion demurs politely, while diving into his scrumptious-looking bratwurst.
The Weinstuben is one of two restaurants in Würzburg that I’d recommend without reservation, along with Backöefele (backoefele.de), a Franconian bistro with a giant, ancient oak tree dramatically posed in the middle of its dining patio. The spectacular Grillteller platter – smoked Angus and turkey filets, bratwurst, truffled boar sausages, bacon and fried potatoes – banishes the demons of my blood sausage.
Würzburg is a highly bikeable town, and the Main doubles as a guide path to surrounding towns, so I take leave of my hotel – a tourist-friendly high-rise about a mile from the Residence called GHOTEL (ghotel.de), blessedly equipped with in-room A/C, unlike most of the historical hotels closer to the city square – and walk to the Ludwig Koerner (ludwigkoerner.de) bike rental shop downtown, where the kindly, 70-something proprietor and his English-speaking assistant set me up with a shock-absorbent Cannondale cruiser for a 15 euro rental fee. From the shop, it’s a simple matter to find the Main River Bicycle Trail, a jaw-droppingly scenic paved byway that hugs the river as it dives under mature oak canopies, glides past vast wine vineyards and offers regular turnoffs to take a breather at the many “summer houses” sprinkled along the river, where you can enjoy a frosty lager while the water meanders by. It’s the loveliest, most well-conceived bike trail I’ve ever encountered, and locals tell me it’s possible to take it all the way to Frankfurt and back, as a multiday bike tour. Someday…
For now, my destination is Sommerhausen, a little cobblestone hamlet set on the river, with the high walls and pre-industrial stone fortifications that tell me it started life as a medieval version of a gated community. The surrounding hillsides are covered in vineyards, including those farmed by Weingut Schloss Sommerhausen (sommerhausen.com), a 14-generation family-owned winery that runs a tasting room out of an 18th-century farmhouse just off the Hauptstrasse (literal translation: “main street”). Helga, the kid sister/marketing pro of the operation, proudly holds forth on the winery’s impressive, 22-variety product line while pouring a zesty, vaguely tropical 2014 Riesling – firmer and drier than the sweet Alsatian versions known to most Americans.
I stick a bottle in my backpack and hop back on the bike for the 9-mile ride back to Würzburg, and have my first weightless, space-walk moment of the trip. From Arizona, it would be possible to do what I’m doing – whisking past shirtless Würzburgians lazing on the grassy, shady banks of the Main on a pitch-perfect summer day – perhaps 15 hours after leaving Sky Harbor, if you played the angles right. What a small world.
The next afternoon – courtesy of another one of those fast, punctual DB trains – I roll into the city of Cologne, about 140 miles northwest of Frankfurt, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia not too far from the Dutch border.
En route, I call home and find out that CNN travel prophet Anthony Bourdain passed the previous day, by his own hand in a hotel room the next country over. It’s sad and almost too on-the-nose, so I don’t dwell on it, but I can’t deny it casts a certain pall over the remainder of my stay.
Fortunately, the distractions I find in Cologne are largely contemplative in nature, beginning with its signature achievement, the Cologne Cathedral (koelner-dom.de), a massive, double-spired triumph of spiritual intimidation that looms 515 feet over the Rhine river. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site visited by 20,000 gawking foreign tourists a day, the cathedral was started in 1248 but not finished until 1880 – a work-delay that would put any ADOT supervisor to shame.
If you’re looking for a truly heavenly quad workout, you can slap down 4 euros and climb the staircase to the top from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Gallic rectitude and reserve can be found all over Cologne, from the cathedral down to the slender, stiletto-like glasses of Kölsch ritualistically dispensed in the city’s many brauhaus pubs. The official story: The Kölsch is served in such skimpy portions (.2 liter) so the beermaker can be certain that his customers are drinking it as he (and God?) intended: ice cold. Perfectly logical explanation, but I suspect there’s a bit of regional hubris at play, as well. One pub owner I spoke to was quick to draw a distinction between Colognian drinking habits and those practiced down south in Bavaria during Oktoberfest, which is “barely observed up here,” he stipulates, while sneering at the quality of the mass-produced lagers chugged down in Munich and other Oktoberfest hot spots. The subtext: Cologne savors in moderation, while Bavaria – founded by Goths and barbarians, after all – sucks down the cheap stuff.
With just more than 1 million residents, Cologne is Germany’s fourth-largest city and one of its most multicultural, with roughly 30 percent of the populace tracing immigrant roots. So it feels perfectly natural to, say, dine on mackerel nigiri at Restaurant Kintaro (kintaro.de) in the city’s Friesenviertel nightlife district. (If you don’t mind the surly itamae, it’s a good sushi option in this land of wursts.)
It feels somewhat less natural when I walk over to the IMI Winery (imi-winery.de) tasting room a mile or so from my hotel near the Friesenviertel for an appointment, and the owner, Jonathan Hollerith, answers me in perfect, unaccented English: “Right, you’re that magazine guy.”
Raised in Virginia by his German winemaker father – who worked in the States for many years as a winemaking consultant – Hollerith enrolled in the vaunted winemaking program at the University of California-Davis before returning to his ancestral homeland to run the family vineyard with his siblings. Alternating effortlessly between English and German for his binational audience, he conducts a tasting ($40) of IMI’s recent vintages, with massive wheels of Brie, Manchego and other cheeses to loosen the palate.
Though the family vineyards and winery are located far south of here – in the Pfalz wine region – Hollerith felt it was important to have a presence in Cologne. “It’s such a great city. Diverse. Tolerant. It’s just a very nice place to do business.”
I spend the remainder of my stay in Cologne perusing the Schildergasse shopping district (great if you’re looking for new Pumas or a Mont Blanc timepiece… not so great if you want something culture-y) and exploring the city via Cologne’s insanely easy to navigate subway system. On a tip, I visit what someone assures me is Cologne’s best döner (read: shawarma) eatery: Oruc Kebap, near the Barbarossaplatz subway station, where the chefs carve beef, chicken and lamb off vertical spits. Served on a muscular German weizenbrotchen (wheat roll), it’s awesome but a bit of a carb bomb – get the burrito-like duram option instead.
What I love best about Cologne, and maybe Germany in general, on this trip: savoring the posterity, the apparent permanence of it, perhaps best admired from the south bank of the Rhine at dusk, with the twin spires of the Cathedral dancing in reflection off the burbling water. “Wow, that’s like twice as old as my country” is a wisecrack I made a lot on my visit that always seemed to elicit a knowing smile.
And now that Phoenix is the West’s new preferred gateway into western Germany, maybe it’s one I’ll get to make again.
Condor PHX Facts
Important details to know about Condor’s Phoenix to Frankfurt nonstop route.
It runs two days a week: Monday and Friday.
The plane is a Boeing 767-300ER with roughly 250 seats.
It’s a seasonal route: Service will conclude in late September for the summer. However, the flight has proved so popular, the airline will expand service in 2019 to include all of May and October.
Introductory coach fare starts at $800 and includes a waived fee for the first checked bag and no meal charges; for a $200-$400 upcharge to Premium, passengers can reserve seats with more legroom, and no alcoholic beverage charges.
The flight includes 18 business class seats. Starting fare: $3,000. condor.com
Teutonic Trip Tips
Though they seem well-hydrated, Germans are not big believers in drinking fountains or the free and convenient dissemination of drinking water. (We saw one poor soul drinking out of a sink in a department store.)
Your solution: Bring a sturdy canteen.
Also not always provided: shampoo.
The higher-end hotels will definitely have it, but mid-tier hotels tend not to.
Bring your own.
Car rentals: So not necessary, in the cities described in this article. After returning to the States, I had an interesting realization: In six days, I hadn’t stepped into an automobile once.
Germans in the hospitality industry almost universally speak English, but a polite “Sprechen sie Englisch?” at the outset of a conversation will signal a lack of presumption that will get you far.
Potentially useful German phrase for the learning type: “Wie heisst das auf Deutsch?” (“What is this called in German?)