Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles The history of Germany’s fifth largest city begins on a small island in the middle of a swamp sometime in the 1st century AD, with the Romans, although they usually avoided this place. The remains of what they built also bear traces of a later settlement coinciding with the first named reference to Frankfurt in 794. Today, this is the site of the maginificent St Bartholomew’s Cathredral, continually extended and altered over the centuries: the oldest parts dating from the 13th century, with the most recent from 1877, unless you count the post-war reconstruction. This oldest part of Frankfurt includes the Römerberg, with its large square, its timberframed houses, and magnificent City Hall. This is the only place in central Frankfurt that you’ll find such buildings, as the old city was subjected to a steady vandalism from the 19th century onwards, with historic houses being swept aside for new roads. All the buildings marked in purple on this map, for example, were torn down to make way for the new Braubachstrasse. One building from this era, St Paul’s Church, completed in 1833, is most famous not in its primary function as a church, but as host to the National Assembly of 1848 following the March Revolution of that year. This was the first democratically elected national parliament in Germany, and the first official use of the black, red and gold flag. Due to the cold, they had to relocate during the winter, while one of Germany’s first central heating systems was installed. But by the following March, the revolution had failed anyway, and the building returned to the Church. What 19th-century town planners failed to achieve was finished off by the bombers of the Second World War; and even the buildings on the Römerberg are reconstructions, with the sole exception of Haus Wertheym. But some of the worst examples of post-war architecture are now being demolished. The plan is to recreate at least a small part of mediaeval Frankfurt. Another rare piece of old Frankfurt is a small section of the romanesque city wall, built in 1180: the only section still surviving. It so happens that it’s at the northern end of the infamous Jewish ghetto, which was built just outside the wall in 1462, originally for about 100 people. The Jewish population grew until the ghetto was filled to capacity, and then continued to grow until almost 3,000 people were living in Europe’s most densely populated street. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Jews were allowed to live elsewhere. Today, the street no longer exists, although some remains were discovered during the construction of the modern museum of the Jewish ghetto. The old Jewish market place, which has undergone many name changes recently, still exists, with a memorial to the victims of Nazi atrocities. In fact, the Jews of Frankfurt never had an easy time of it. The Fettmilch Uprising of 1612, for example, saw the middle classes, led by baker Vinzenz Fettmilch, take out their frustrations on the Jews. In 1614 they attacked, drove out the Jews, and looted their businesses. Not until 1616 was order restored, Fettmilch executed, and the Jews able to return under military escort. Happily, although Frankfurt was one of the last European cities to force Jews to live in ghettos, it was one of the first to grant its Jews completely equal rights. Today, the Jewish community numbers about 7,000. By the time the Jewish ghetto was being built, Frankfurt had long outgrown its old wall, and a new system of defences was built in the 14th century. Today, the course of this wall is traced by modern roads: the Eschersheim Gate is the only actual relic of this wall. The main street in this part of town is simply called “Zeil”. And this is where serious shopping takes place. Just off the Zeil, by the side-entrance of a modern shopping centre, is a simplified reconstruction of the Thurn-und-Taxis Palace. It was originally built as the headquarters of the Imperial Mail, the first national mail service of the Holy Roman Empire, founded and run by the aristocratic Thurn und Taxis dynasty. The Zeil ends at the Hauptwache, the old headquarters of the city militia. The present building was originally built in 1729, and included a prison. In the 1960s it had to be painstakingly dismantled to allow the construction of an underground railway station, and then rebuilt. Nearby is St Catherine’s Church, built in 1681, and Frankfurt’s largest Lutheran church. This is where the parents of Germany’s most famous poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, were married, in 1748. Goethe himself may have been baptised there, although this isn’t certain. Continuing on from there, you reach the street known as “Fressgass” — “Gluttony Alley” — famous for its eateries. It links the Hauptwache with the magnificent Old Opera House, which seems like the ideal evening if you’re torn between high culture and steak. It’s also very handy for the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Frankfurt has been an important centre for financial trade since the Middle Ages. The Stock Exchange was founded in 1585 to regulate an industry already hundreds of years old. Today, Frankfurt is one of the world’s most important financial centres, and is where the German Federal Bank and the European Central Bank have their headquarters. This explains Frankfurt’s skyline, unusual for Europe in having a relatively large number of skyscrapers — a “skyscraper” being defined as a building over 100 metres high — seen here from across the river Main. This in turn explains why Frankfurt is sometimes called “Bankfurt” or “Mainhattan”. Nearby is the place that started it all, back in the 11th century: the Frankfurt Trade Fair. And surprisingly, this bustling part of Frankfurt appears to provide something of a home to some wildlife. This is also where Frankfurt’s impressive railway terminus is situated, opened in 1888, and one of the biggest of its kind in Europe. Not bad, considering the city has less than a million inhabitants. Of course, you can try to drive into Frankfurt, but it’s not the easiest of German cities to be a motorist in. Public transport may be a better option, but Frankfurt’s is a bit chaotic. Some major German cities have an U-Bahn system which runs either underground or on elevated tracks; others have a Stadtbahn consisting of trams going into tunnels in the centre. Frankfurt has the worst of both worlds. Back in the 60s, the idea was to build an U-Bahn system, but instead of running a half-finished U-Bahn, to allow trams to use the tunnels. But the system was never completed, and this means, in the outer districts, running U-Bahn trains at street level. And sometimes running trains that are basically old converted trams. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now Frankfurt is stuck with an U-Bahn using overhead power lines requiring expensively high-roofed tunnels and stations, and which is also notorious for delays and accidents. Historically, Frankfurt has always prided itself on being a city of trade rather than manufacturing, and traditionally sneers at its more industrial neighbours, especially Offenbach. In that respect, there’s been no change. And yet, even though it is about 2,000 years old, Frankfurt has continued to evolve, so that what we now see is mainly a product of the last 200 years. In another 200 years, who knows what the city will look like?