Holiday Destinations - Bonn

Bonn has many charms but its trump card is that it's the birthplace of Beethoven. Music critic Robert Beale travelled to this German city to wallow in its pleasures

They call it ‘the Romantic Rhine’. That’s the stretch of the mighty river, upstream from Bonn, where wooded hills surround the banks, and castles stand proud on rocky outcrops.

It’s a place where beauty, poetry and music have been a way of life for centuries. And Bonn, which was West Germany’s capital from 1949 to 1990 (and a seat of government for some years after), has a heritage of culture and a population of art and music lovers. It boasts a big United Nations centre and the headquarters of DHL, the German postal service, plus the administrative base for Deutsche Welle (the German equivalent of the BBC World Service).

The Germans visit the city to lap up the views and the culture. So far it’s not become a destination for many from outside, but that’s changing.

The trump card Bonn has is that it’s the birthplace of Beethoven. You can visit the house, in the pedestrianised old town, where his family lived and see the room in which he drew his first breath. The building next door is a Beethoven museum, with a piano he owned and the console of the church organ he played as a youngster. The font he was baptised in remains in a city church, and there’s a restaurant called the Stiefel where (legend has it) he worked to supplement his earnings as a musician. You can even eat a ‘Beethovenpfanne’ for lunch there.

Everything is Beethoven – and the biggest celebration takes place every autumn: an international music festival caled Beethovenfest Bonn. It’s been running in its present form since 1959, though they like to look back to the 1870s and chamber music festivals begun by Joseph Joachim, the great 19th century violinist.

The building of a 1600-capacity Beethovenhalle in 1959 set things going and is used for orchestral concerts, though today several other smaller venues figure, too. Bonn is a compact city built along the Rhine’s banks, and its underground (mainly overground) whisks you from one place to another with ease.

Most Read

We stayed in parkland close to the river and the old parliamentary area, with the United Nations and DHL towers nearby – it would be a healthy 40-minute walk to the centre, but the underground does it in ten.

Ilona Schmiel, the intendant (director) of the Beethoven Festival, is proud of its growth. ‘The people forced the local authority to revive it after a big move of government functions to Berlin in 1993, and the new festival began in 1999 with 25 concerts. Now we have 68 main concerts, 174 events in total over four-and-a-half weeks, and a budget of 5.1m euros – plus support in kind from sponsors.’

The city puts in 1.6m euros, ticket sales raise 1.4m, and the rest is business support and grants from foundations.

Ilona says she took over a festival that already had high standards, but she has brought new aspects – commissions of new works (46 in the past nine years), artists-in-residence (particularly the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, a top chamber orchestra conducted by Paavo J�rvi, which has brought the ‘new’, leaner way of playing Beethoven), complete cycles of works such as the string quartets and piano sonatas (some spread over several years), a connecting theme for each year, and a determination to include young people at every level.

One aspect of this is a ‘student manager’ project, in which 16 to 18-year-olds (not brilliant musicians, just bright kids) shadow the festival’s organising team at the top level, and even 12-year-olds attend sponsors’ receptions and talk about what they experience. ‘They learn how important it is that the private sector should support culture,’ says Ilona, ‘and when they make a presentation they raise more in 10 minutes than I could do in two hours.’

Her young advisers have also helped the festival’s big strides in social media. This year one concert was given a ‘tweet-up’: relayed live to an open-air big screen, with 20 bloggers and tweeters reporting it.

Now Ilona and her colleagues are dreaming of a new and even better concert hall. They point out the present Beethovenhalle was designed to be multi-purpose and its acoustics are not perfect. The city council is committed to the concept … it’s just a matter of finding the money.

But that shouldn’t stop anyone going there now to soak up Beethoven in Beethoven’s own town. At present about eight per cent of the audience comes from the region (beyond a three-hour drive away), 10 per cent from further still in Germany, and around seven per cent from other countries – Japan leads the list, with South America, Israel, the Netherlands, Benelux, Italy and Spain. They hope Britain will soon be added. We flew with low-cost airline Germanwings and stayed at the Maritim Hotel, Bonn.

I think it’s the package of scenery, heritage and music that is the selling point. Across the Rhine from Bonn is a picture-postcard pretty village called K�nigswinter, at the foot of the Drachenfels (dragons’ rock). It has an historic cog railway, like Snowdon’s, to take you up, with a real old castle at the top and a gorgeous 19th century fake called Schloss Drachenburg half way up – full of pictures from German myth and history and, to get a feel of the ‘Romantic Rhine’, alone worth the trip.

Maritim Hotels is one of Germany’s leading hotel chains and operates hotels in all major cities, boasting 14 stunning properties worldwide.

Robert Beale stayed at the Maritim Hotel Bonn which has 410 rooms, two restaurants and a wellness centre including a swimming pool, sauna and steam bath. For further information on Maritim Hotels visit or call 0208 545 6910

Beethovenfest 2013 will be held from September 6th - October 5th. For more information visit

Germanwings is one of the most successful low-cost airlines in Europe, offering flights to over 90 destinations on the European continent, Israel and North Africa from five airports: Cologne/Bonn, Stuttgart, Berlin-Sch�nefeld, Hannover and Dortmund. Flights from Manchester to Cologne and London to Cologne with Germanwings prices from �29.99

Comments powered by Disqus