A day in Bonn, the unlikely capital

I turn from Oxford Street onto a narrowing side road back to the heart of the city. Shoppers pass me in the opposite direction, mostly empty handed, fists clenched inside coat pockets against the frozen December air.

Travelling across the long northern European winter’s night gives me only the slightest sense of what sights must lie out of reach within the darkness beyond the sealed train windows. The gentle yellow-orange glow of architectural lighting forms a negative of the daytime cities; the buildings bright, the streets around them dark. In my comfortable and well-proportioned seat I already feel the approach of demons I thought I had beaten: of arriving in darkness, of worrying over connections, and the guilt of not knowing a language other than my own.

I only realise the extreme silence of the carriage as I disembark at Cologne and am struck by the wave of sound and activity. Momentarily lost in the chaos I manage to help a young Chinese tourist to the correct platform for his train to Stuttgart, a further three hours away at speed.

Grabbing quick mouthfuls of fast food, the jam doughnuts called Berliners here, I try to find the exit for the gothic masterpiece of the cathedral and a hostel beyond, before a final rail connection in daylight.

Next morning a tram trundles by on its rails through the clean streets with an almost imperceptible hum, the low-hung sun reflecting sharply off its windows. It’s difficult to reconcile the peaceful university town of Bonn with the capital of West Germany, a title it held from 1945 until German reunification in 1990.

At heart it is a provincial town. Bonn historically played second fiddle to the juggernaut of Cologne, and was jokingly called the Federal Village of West Germany because of its size. But it’s size and mix of people – residents, international students and tourists – makes it easy to feel part of the city, an international city as much as Paris, Berlin or London.

I need my thick crochet scarf along the walk to the university, a series of elegant, symmetrical buildings that once encapsulated Kurfürstliches Schloss. The original palace belonged to the Prince-Elector; one of a group of nobles that chose whom acceded to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor.

In front of the Schloss the Hofgarten lawn, a green as well cared for as those belonging to the colleges of Cambridge, leads me to the wide expanse of Museummiele, Museum mile. It’s just plain Adenauerallee to me, the museums closed, though the avenue itself contains enough history to enthral me with official residences used by Germany’s Chancellor and President behind decorative verdigree ironwork within sight of the road.

Returning to the Rhine, a river I had followed from Cologne, I feel that perhaps one day I should follow this river further into Germany. But that would be for another day, a day when my hands don’t reach for the Berliners quite so easily.

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