Back to normal in Ludwig van Beethoven's hometown

Has Bonn, Germany, turned into a sleepy little city now that Berlin's the capital?

Let's pretend. Washington's stature as our nation's capital comes to an end. The cumbersome workings of governmental power get moved to Manhattan, or Los Angeles.

Ten years ago, Bonn lost that kind of prestige, as Berlin took its place as Germany's center of geopolitical influence.

Backtracking to 1949, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer looms large in this placid city's postwar history. His regional clout (he lived just across the river and had been mayor of neighboring Cologne) resulted in Ludwig van Beethoven's hometown being named the new federal republic's provisional capital.

"Provisional" meant "temporary." Bonn was regarded as safely far-enough removed from the cold war's menacing Iron Curtain. Optimists thought Germany's East-West division amounted to a short-term aberration. With the split quickly mended, they believed, Berlin would regain its eminence as capital of a reunited country. Bonn, in turn, would revert to its modest essence amid Rhineland hills, castles, and vineyards.

Which is what eventually happened - after four decades.

Berlin's new importance as the national seat of government leaves Bonn as something of an outlying branch office. Several federal ministries have stayed put; six United Nations organizations have transferred from comparably low-key Geneva. And now, in a modernistic complex, communications giant Deutsch Telekom is headquartered here.

Moreover, a local company helps to keep the economy humming. Since 1920, Haribro GmbH - an acronym for Hans Riegel Bonn - has produced a sugar-and-gelatin confection in assorted colors. Namely Gummibarchen (Gummi Bears), with 70 million of the chewy tidbits turned out daily.

Many Bonners care scarcely at all that their city no longer plays a starring role on the world stage. They prefer what used to be.

Truth is, "what used to be" never completely disappeared. Attention simply shifted to the new government district, hastily developed as the southerly adjunct to a genteel community dating back to Roman colonization.

Career diplomats accustomed to big-shot postings in London, Paris, and Rome found Bonn, by comparison, to be cozy and charming, but ho-hum unexciting, fitting its Bundesdorf ("federal village"), nickname.

Here's an indicator of Bonn's laid-back ambiance. One summertime evening, a Bechstein grand piano has somehow materialized on the Munsterplatz. A young musician draws a crowd by playing impromptu snatches of Beethoven sonatas and the Emperor Concerto for marks and pfennigs dropped into a glass jar. Close by and facing his way: a statue of Ludwig himself.

Beethoven's boyhood home is a short stroll away in the city center. A bust of the composer embellishes the low-ceilinged back room where he was born in 1770.

Other rooms contain portraits and various personal belongings, including, poignantly, crude ear trumpets used in attempts to alleviate his deafness. Another reminder of that affliction: a cherrywood piano, specially constructed to bang out extra-loud chords.

Bonn's annual Beethoven Festival (Sept. 22-Oct. 7 this year) has been a cultural mainstay since 1927.

Nearby, one of Europe's picture-prettiest town halls overlooks the market square. This pink-and-cream rococo Altes Rathaus has ceremonial importance. Visiting heads of state came to sign a guest book, then greet the populace from behind the balcony's gilded bannisters. Charles de Gaulle did so in 1962, as did John F. Kennedy a year later.

Weather permitting, find an outdoor table at Miebach's cafe-bistro to view marketplace goings-on. I like to have my Kaffee und Kuchen while relaxing on the Metropole Cafe's upstairs terrace. At Markt 4, Em Hottche is a folksy eatery serving sauerbraten.

Friedrich-Wilhelm University students enliven the immediate vicinity. They total some 38,000, exerting an academic buzz in a city barely nudging the 315,000 mark.

Sudstadt, Bonn's south side, remained untouched by aerial bombardment and quick-fix redevelopment. Professors, lawyers, and retired Ruhr industrialists made this an upper-crust neighborhood prior to the world wars. Hence the ornate Wilhelmenian and Jugendstil/Art Nouveau residences, standing in bay-windowed rows framed by wrought-iron fences.

The former government district encompasses a mixed bag of recycled riverfront buildings. Germany's president, for example, resided in 19th-century Villa Hammer-schmidt prior to moving to Berlin.

Schaumburg Palace was home of the federal republic's earliest chancellors. But Adenauer preferred his hilltop cottage in no-frills Rhondorf, where sightseers can admire the rose gardens he cultivated with grandfatherly care.

Back in town, the architecturally avant-garde Kunstmuseum focuses on works of the 20th-century Rhenish Expressionists. The excellent Museum of the History of the German Federal Republic traces social evolvement from 1949 onward.

Cross-river vistas include the forested Siebengebirge highlands, fairy-tale realm of the Brothers Grimm and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. An idyllic setting for a "village" that used to be "federal."

For more information, contact the German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd Street, New York, NY 10168-0072; (212) 661-7174. Website: www.germany-tourism.de.

The Rhine Runs through it: Bonn, which was settled by the Romans and celebrated its 2000th anniversary in 1989, is a good base for exploring the Rhine River.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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