In the just-waking hours of a cool, misty morning, we slipped into Frankfurt, Germany, the way dreams slide between vivid reality and hazy memory: surreal and ephemeral.
A smiling woman wearing a hairnet reached over a counter, and speaking neither English nor German, offered my daughter a cold, skinny frankfurter. We sleepily wandered through meandering lanes flanked by medieval, half-timbered houses that could have been the backdrop to a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. We passed under the old city gate into a long-dry moat at the foot of a white castle, walking among ancient, moss-carpeted stone steps and walls covered in thick ivy. Huge bunches of white asparagus and piles of fragrant lilacs crowded tables at a weekend farmers market where we, the interlopers, snapped pictures as locals eyed us curiously. We glided up and down on a teeter-totter in a deserted playground, while enormous white swans preened their feathers on the banks of the Main River a few feet away.
I felt lightheaded and dazed. My husband, Brian, daughter, Chloe, and I had just gotten off an overnight flight from Boston. We were heading to Barcelona, but the eye-poppingly cheap airfare I snagged online came with a catch: an eight-hour layover in Frankfurt.
Spending eight hours in an airport would strain the patience of most adults, let alone a 7-year-old. So I was thrilled when I discovered Frankfurt on Foot, a local company that counts a layover tour among its walking offerings.
Layovers are usually spent in a weird netherworld of being somewhere without really being there at all. I've been to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, for instance, but I haven't actually been to France. Escaping the airport to explore Frankfurt, even just for a few hours, felt exciting and strange.
"We are allowed to do this, aren't we?" Brian asked me one last time as we made our way through the airport.
None of us slept on the airplane, and we were bleary-eyed and hungry when we met our guide, Jo Ator, at the airport at about 8 a.m. to begin a private tour. I worried for a moment about how rumpled and sleepy we looked as we shuffled toward her, lugging heavy carry-on bags. If she noticed, she didn't seem to mind. Instead, she cheerfully showed us where we could store our luggage - at 7 euros per bag - for the day and led us outside and onto a city bus.
"Wow, this is great. So easy," I marveled as we settled into our seats.
"We try to take all the stress out of it for you," Jo replied.
The "we" covered herself and her husband, David - both Ohio natives living in Germany as co-owners of the tour business - and their company's other guides. I was certainly grateful. We never would have visited the city on a layover without a guide, fearing that we'd get lost and miss our connecting flight.
Wielding her perfect German and knowledge of the city, Jo took us to Hochst, a quiet neighborhood in the western part of the city that felt markedly different from Frankfurt's busy metropolis. Jo and I had emailed before our trip, and she suggested visiting the town for its morning farmers market and streets that were quiet and easy-to-navigate for Chloe, who has a walking disability.
"You'll go back to Boston and your friends will say, 'That's not Frankfurt!' " Jo said, as we snapped pictures of the pretty streets. Hochst's distinctive green, pale pink and yellow half-timbered buildings earned it a spot on the German Half-Timbered House Road, which weaves through the country, connecting cities and towns that feature beautiful examples of that architecture.
"This part of Frankfurt didn't get bombed in the war," Jo said. "That's why it looks so nice." She pointed out carved Roman numerals on the sides of the houses that helped the builders assemble them out of corresponding pieces.
"It's like Ikea of the Middle Ages," Jo quipped.
Also beautifully preserved in Hochst: St. Justin's Church, with a basilica consecrated in 850, making it one of the oldest standing houses of worship in Germany.
We cobbled together a mix-and-match breakfast at the farmers market, Wochenmarkt Hochst, which sets up under tents three times a week, and at its nearby indoor market while we sampled freshly pressed apple and apple-pear juices, cold frankfurters, pastries, chewy, fist-sized rolls called brotchen ("little bread," Jo told us) and bauernkäse, or farmer's cheese.
Through the narrow, cobbled lanes, we meandered until we reached the white Hochst Castle, which belonged to the archbishop of Mainz and was built in stages between the 13th and 16th centuries.
We marveled at its tall tower and dry moat, and passed through a stone gate to emerge on the banks of the Main River. There, we happened upon a quiet playground and swans waiting for some food scraps by the ferry dock.
Behind us, the old city fortifications marked flood lines and dates, commemorating when the river waters spilled over their banks to creep up the high, towering walls that surrounded the city.
Sleep finally caught up with Chloe at the bus stop. As we waited to go back to the airport, she curled up in her wheelchair and fell asleep, not waking during the bus ride or when we said goodbye to Jo at the airport or even as we went through security.
When she woke up nearly two hours later, we were back in the terminal where we started, about to board our flight to Barcelona. She gazed around sleepily, looking tousled and a little confused. I wouldn't have blamed her if she wondered whether our jaunt into Frankfurt had been only a dream. It felt a little like one to me, too.
IF YOU GO
Frankfurt on Foot
Offerings include a city tour departing from Frankfurt Airport. The layover must be of seven hours or longer. The layover tour costs 125 euros for one person, or about $103; add 10 euros, or about $8, per additional person. (Fees must be paid in euros.) All tours are conducted in English.
Pecci is a writer based in New Hampshire. Her website is alexandrapecci.contently.com.