22 September, 2014

In the Heart of Germany

Located on the border of former East Germany, Geisa was once the western-most town of the former Warsaw Pact countries.  Today, it lies in the central German State of Thuringia, a forested region with shallow hills, undulating meadows and several gushing rivers.  In the days of the Cold War, these terrain features could ostensibly stop or slow down any possible Soviet armour advance towards Frankfurt and beyond.  Only the Fulda Gap allowed a free run to the Soviets, with the result that its defences figured predominantly in NATO war plans. A study tour of the Gap was, thus, central to prudent defence planning in the South Asian context, as the US Naval Post-graduate School’s brief for us stated.  That is how five of us former armed forces officers ended up for a week-long jaunt in the heart of Germany, last March. 

Arrival and pick-up at Frankfurt airport was flawless, as was the drive to the hotel on the no-speed-limit autobahn (motorway).  I noticed that the neatness all around was, in no less measure, due to the absence of ugly billboards that have blighted the skylines in our own cities.  An oddity compared to many other European cities, Frankfurt’s high-rise glass and concrete buildings were visible on the skyline from afar. With over 200 international and national banks, as well as one of the world’s largest stock exchanges, Frankfurt is indeed well-structured to be Europe’s largest financial centre. 
While checking in at Le Méridien Park Hotel, I was surprised by a classic blonde German-looking bellhop, for he was actually an Afghan who had stayed as a refugee in Peshawar for many years.  Umar, who could speak fluent German as well as Urdu, turned out to be a handy guide during the stay at the hotel.  After the domestics were done I hastened to the city centre, for it was a Sunday and it would be fun to watch the weekend revellers, as Umar suggested. While walking down the streets, I was pleased to know that Germans continue to put up with my namesake, for quite a few roads, plazas and apartment blocks carry that name. Wilhelm-I was proclaimed the Kaiser (emperor) when Germany was first unified into an integrated nation state in 1871.  He is one of the few old-time leaders whose name lives on in the city, despite zealous renaming of streets and squares in post-war Germany.
As soon as I stepped out of the hotel, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the nearby 126-year old Frankfurt Central Station.  Why, I sadly rued, could we not similarly preserve the splendour of our own 154-year old Lahore Railway Station and its environs, now a messy reflection of its former colonial glory? Walking on Münchener Street, which starts from the station, one could be excused for thinking that this was somewhere in the Middle East; almost every shop sells either Turkish or Arab food and groceries.   

Heading towards the Innenstadt (Inner City), I decided to first walk along the green belt that forms its perimeter.  Cyclists could be seen pedalling in specially marked cycle lanes.  Sunday was also a day for showing off their exotic cars, and many a nutty motorist raced past in his roaring convertible or coupe.  A stroll on Goethe Street was eye-dazzling, as it has some of the most prestigious fashion shops in the world, and caters to the rich and the famous.  Being neither, I strode off to the commoners’ city square marked by the Hauptwache (Guard House), once a prison and now simply denoting the city centre.  A prominent landmark of the Innenstadt is the baroque St Catherine’s Church, the largest Lutheran church in Frankfurt, which stands in the midst of many modern buildings. Like all European inner cities, the square was awash with holiday gaiety and liveliness.  Street musicians heartily played trumpets and accordions for bystanders. A curious contraption seen in the square was the Velotaxi, a three-wheeled cycle rickshaw cocooned in a light aerodynamic shell.  It was meant for tourists and could be taken into pedestrian-only zones without any hassle. 

Near the Hauptwache is the famous MyZeil shopping mall, a modern glass-panelled structure with its trademark vortice-like hollow on the façade, that almost seems to suck one in.  The mall houses over a hundred stores, besides play areas, atriums and restaurants.  It marks the beginning of the Zeil, Germany’s most crowded, pedestrian-only shopping street, that has famous retail stores selling items twice as expensive. 
On my way back to the hotel, I was suddenly accosted by two Turkish-looking men who claimed to be plainclothed police undercover agents.  They promptly displayed their ID cards which seemed too blurred to be read without glasses. In a bit of a tizzy, I asked them what they wanted. On being unable to produce my passport, which I wasn’t carrying, they asked me if I had cash on me. Ah, so this was my first-ever mugging, I realised!  When I told them, with some derring-do, that I was a military man, they asked if I had any ID.  On being shown one, they immediately apologised, and said that drug peddlers usually had hordes of cash on them, which is what they were checking for.  They told me that Taunus Street on which we were standing, was the seediest one in Frankfurt, and that it was surprising that I was walking about merrily in such a hazardous locale. One of them volunteered to escort me to the hotel, which was not too far off.  When I thanked him in Turkish – having a 20-word vocabulary – he was momentarily not sure if I was an illegal immigrant, but finally replied back in good humour, saving me yet another interrogation! 

Next morning, the bus for Geisa arrived outside the hotel exactly five minutes before departure time, reminding us of our precise military time-keeping of yesteryears. Since public transport is quite efficient in Frankfurt, the traffic on the city roads was not congested and we were soon on the autobahn. The beautiful views of rolling hills and lush cultivated lands was often broken by patches of dense forests. Soon after getting off the autobahn, we passed by Wasserkuppe, a small mountain in whose shadow, glider pilots have flown for over a century.  Lately, paragliding has also become popular as the thermals in the woodless valleys offer excellent soaring possibilities.
When we reached Geisa, we were not expecting it to be a town as small as it was, with a population of less than 2,800.  It is a quaint little settlement with small terracotta-roofed houses, and neat cobblestone streets. The town was heavily fenced and garrisoned when it was part of East Germany. Now, Geisa is one of many small towns preferred by Germans, who want to be away from the hectic life of big cities to which they commute only for work.  We were struck by the serenity of  Geisa’s city centre with its old market place, town hall and dainty flower shops. Geisa seemed quite religious in its outlook if one were to go by its 14 churches, one for every 200 inhabitants. In fact, we could see church spires in small towns all through our trip, though that is not necessarily an indicator of godliness in today’s Germany, or most of Europe, for that matter.
We were lodged in what was once an eighteenth century castle, with its prison right across the castle courtyard. The castle overlooked a mysterious wooded stretch which hid the ruins of the town’s thousand-year old settlement of Gongolfiberg, as a later walk in the woods revealed.  The renovated castle building is the seat of Point Alpha Foundation which holds memorial conferences and organises tours to the Point Alpha Museum and memorial, a short distance form Geisa. Point Alpha, once manned by the US forces, was the NATO counterpart of Geisa, just as Wagah is to Attari in our context. We visited the museum, which has dioramas of life in former East Germany under a stifling communist dictatorship; it has many murals and photographs of people who managed to cross the heavily guarded border and escaped into West Germany. 

Several days were spent in the fields around Fulda Gap, poring over military terrain maps.  It was not an unusual sight to see groups of students and even senior citizens busy in similar study trips, though their interests seemed more aligned with Nature than the military.  The Rhon Biosphere Reserve, of which Geisa and Fulda are a part, is among the biggest natural parks and recreation landscapes of Central Europe. Its basalt plateaus, moors, forests and streams are popular amongst hikers as well as bikers, who use specially designated trails. There was no garbage to be seen anywhere, no billboards, and no unsightly messages scrawled on rocks, as is the case in our mountainous areas.  The Chitral Gol National Park and Karakoram National Park could qualify as Biosphere Reserves (a title granted by UNESCO for keeping Nature ‘intact’) but sadly, our people have neither the learning nor the interest in preventing harm to the environment.
Our visit to Geisa came to an end with a series of briefings in the castle’s modern conference room.  While we had learnt about NATO defences against a sudden Soviet-led attack, the trip was also an excellent sampling of a fast-paced Frankfurt and a laid back Geisa, with unspoilt Nature seamlessly connecting the two. 
A return to Frankfurt was rounded off with a farewell dinner at a remarkable restaurant, a short distance from our hotel. It was the Druckwasserwerk Restaurant, which was once an old water pumping station, at the edge of Main River.  With its cavernous interior, vaulted ceiling and dimmed lighting, it beckons the honeymooning couples, as much as the golden agers like us. After a sumptuous dinner, we walked back along the Main, and parted on a unanimous note that few things could be more salubrious than a trip into the heart of Germany.

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 21 September 2014.