As much as I love ticking famous landmarks and tourist attractions off my bucket list when I visit new places, I also like to see and experience their other sides. Having grown up in a tourist town myself, I am very aware that what most tourists see is only a small part of a town or city. For the people who live there, life is far from a vacation.
During my time in Frankfurt, I signed up for the Frankfurt Free Alternative Walking Tour. Organised and guided by a group of students, the free walking tour aims to give visitors an insight into the different neighbourhoods of Frankfurt and what it’s like to live there. Well known sights such as the old town, the Iron Bridge and the river Main are included. However, the guides also show you areas of the city that might not be an obvious choice for some.
Like most cities, Frankfurt has its fair share of problems. Unlike most cities, Frankfurt takes a very positive approach to tackling these issues. When drug use became more and more common in the city, moving around from area to area as each neighbourhood was gentrified and addicts were moved on to somewhere else, the city council designated an area where taking drugs is not illegal. Covering about 4 blocks, it is still against the law to sell and possess drugs, but drug users can feel safer in the knowledge they will not be arrested for a being a victim to their addiction. This approach to the problem puts the responsibility on to the drug dealers, not the users, who are after all the people that the police really want to target. There are ‘shooting galleries’ where drug users can obtain clean needles and use a clean, private space in which to inject. These centres also make it easier for people to receive medical attention should anything go wrong, and deaths from overdoses have greatly reduced since Frankfurt initiated the policy. The acceptance of drug use in Frankfurt has also led to another loophole in the law. Urinating in the street is illegal in Germany. Just like drug taking, though, the city council and police still know it’s going to happen. Rather than trying to stop people from doing it, they have instead constructed urinals in the streets. The small structures have been tastefully designed, and if you didn’t know what they are you could be forgiven for thinking they are works of modern art. Whilst I was on the walking tour I witnessed one young man crossing the road to use one of the urinals. Having witnessed many men in Cardiff, where I live, peeing wherever they stood, I can’t help but think this tactic would work in other cities too.
Our next stop on the tour was the red light district. Prostitution is something that is legal in Germany, so seeing brothels in the city is not so much of a surprise. Our guide showed us the outside of one of the biggest brothels in Europe. Unfortunately, I was unable to take any photos as the brothel is rumoured to be owned by the Hell’s Angels and they have previously requested that people don’t photograph the building. It reminded me of something you would see on Route 66, with mannequins in outrageous costumes displayed on the balconies alongside the residents’ drying laundry. The building is huge, and as a legal business they must pay taxes. Apparently, the German government earns millions of euros per year just from this one brothel. Although there are usually no female visitors allowed, Frankfurt has an annual evening where brothels are encouraged to open their doors to everyone. This means you can speak to the women who work there directly and ask any questions you may have about their life and occupation. Just like the city’s approach to drug use, I wonder if this more open approach to the oldest job in the world might work elsewhere.
Usually when walking through cities you are encouraged to look up and observe the buildings and features that you might otherwise miss. In Germany, one artist encourages you to look down. Berlin-born Gunter Demnig is the man behind the idea to place small brass stolpersteine (‘stumbling blocks’) outside where people killed by the Nazis once lived. Once you’ve had one of the blocks pointed out, you realise they are everywhere. And not just in Frankfurt, many cities in Germany and other European countries have joined in with the project. The plaques give the name of the individual, date of birth, date of death and how they died, if that information is available. As you would expect, many of the plaques are in memory of Jews killed in concentration camps. The first group of people to be murdered by the Nazis was actually the gypsy community, and they were soon followed by homosexuals and anyone with physical disabilities or mental health problems. Basically, anyone who did not fit the ideal of the regime was a target. Some people think it disrespectful to remember the victims with these plaques, and don’t believe we should walk over them. The artist’s intention, though, was that we should walk over them. They are made from brass so that, as more and more pedestrians brush over the plaques, the more they shine. The stumbling blocks are a reminder that, as we go about our lives, we should never forget the victims of past mistakes. Modern Germany has accepted its past and the errors made by some of its country men and women. Hopefully, with the help of thinkers and artists such as Gunter Demnig, we will learn not to repeat the same mistakes.
If you are interested in art, there are lots of examples around Frankfurt. My personal favourite is the spidermen. A group of art students placed 8 models of the superhero around the city. Good luck spotting all 8 of them, though. Our guide told us that, even though they walk around the city every day with visitors, they have only been able to spot 3 of the spidermen.
Drug addicts, brothels and maybe even spidermen might not be on your wishlist when you visit Frankfurt, but I would definitely recommend the Frankfurt Free Alternative Walking Tour. The guides have nothing but respect for all the inhabitants of Frankfurt, and simply want to show a balanced representation of the city. Spending an afternoon with them has encouraged me to seek out other alternative walking tours when on my travels.
The Frankfurt Free Alternative Walking Tour is, of course, free but tipping is strongly recommended. The walk lasts 2-2.5 hours.