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B for Bonn. B for Boring. So it has been said of West Germany’s former capital city, about which 

A local politician once famously sniped that “the best thing about Bonn is the train to Munich”.

Compared to the vibrant, eclectic, manic-paced Berlin of haute cuisine, edgy fashion and hipster vibes, Bonn is, as unjustly called by Germany’s own ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, “a collection of crippled villages”. But every place is as good as its worst-kept secret. Bonn has a very famous son, indeed; he was foul-mouthed, tormented by self-doubt, brooding, arrogant and haunted by early deafness—but he was a son worth having.

The bon mot for Bonn truly should be B for Bonn, B for Beethoven. Look everywhere in this unremarkable university town, which is Germany’s oldest city, and Ludwig van Beethoven is everywhere. His name and fame is present in town squares, street corners, cobbled alleys and period restaurants, and even on a random metallic panel in a cobble-stoned avenue. The touristy little busts in shop windows or the Beethovenfest—an annual international festival of classical music since 1844—both the banal and the beauteous are touched by his formidable legacy.

To know about the composer of the immortal Moonlight Sonata, the Beethoven-Haus Museum is as good a place to start as any. He was born in one of the numerous attic rooms of the house which was built sometime in the 1700s. In 1893, the authorities turned it into a museum as it withstood the rise and fall of empires and the horrors of two world wars. Surprisingly, the avenging angels were kind to it, since the Allied bombs and mortar shells left it almost intact. As towering as Beethoven’s reputation is, so small is the edifice of his birth: Beethoven-Haus is a small building with three floors boasting a pink façade and dark green doors and windows. It naturally has the world’s largest collection of Beethoven memorabilia, such as letters, sculptures, paintings, sheet music, documents and musical instruments, including a plethora of violins and his grand piano.   

Inside the Beethoven-Haus Museum

It has been widely recorded that Beethoven’s mood grew increasingly dark as he recognised his advancing deafness: the ear trumpets he used in his later years are gloomy reminders of genius being defeated by nature’s caprice. Ironically silence reigns in these rooms where music was born. But that paradox is as deceptive as Bonn itself. All the rooms are dotted with listening stations equipped with headphones, guaranteed to fill auditory channels with choice pieces from his compositions. And what is a museum without gift shops in the age of touristy zeal? Beethoven-Haus Museum sells rather grim-looking busts of the composer, books, chocolates, wines, stationery and even fridge magnets. In the neighbourhood are the archives, a library and publishing house and an award-winning chamber music hall. 

Part of the Beethoven tour brings the B-maven to the Zehrgarten Inn, where Ludwig had a farewell party before he set out to play in Vienna on November 1, 1792. Bonn is still a city of churches: the organ 10-year-old Beethoven played for mass at St. Remigius Church has almost relic status. The Munsterplatz in the centre of the old town is dominated by the Bonner Munster, a cathedral with Romanesque spires striving to touch the sky: against its vaulted setting stands a statue of Beethoven on a high pedestal, silhouetted against the sky. It was unveiled during the inaugural Beethovenfest by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV and scientist Alexander von Humboldt. 

Frankfurt or Cologne, the forest is an integral part of the German Weltanschauung. The Rhine flows through Bonn at a stately pace—deep, dark and filled with the spent urgency of imperial ambitions that seem to have bypassed this ancient site of a Roman settlement. Walking through Kottenforst, the 4,000-hectare forest south of the city is to follow the muse of music. Today, it is part of the Rhineland Nature Park and a perfect escape for people following the lost footfalls of the nature-loving Beethoven in the 18th century. The forest spring Draitschquelle, from which young Ludwig once quenched his thirst before going off to play the organ at Marienforst Abbey, is still sparklingly clear. Dragon’s Rock, or Drachenfels as it’s called around here, was a favourite perch of the young composer who liked to view his city and the rolling pastures of Rhine land for inspiration. 

Amid the foliage, overlooking a lake is a stately bare-chested granite sculpture of the composer, which the famous German sculptor Peter Breuer created in 1938. The whole area is Beethoven-land: the Siebengebirge (Seven Mountains) that stand on the eastern bank of the Rhine has long-dead volcanoes, around 20 million years old. This spot was also favoured by Humboldt, who described it as the “eighth wonder of the world”. The composer is believed to have taken long walks through this primal terrain in search of inspiration; centuries later, the Beethoven walking trail meanders through as a reminder of creative quests. The author of the Chloral Symphony went not so gently into the good night, but as dusk gathers among the forested glades and the spire-shadowed streets, strains of the Ode to Joy linger as if the spirit of one of the world’s greatest maestros was being Bonn again.

Several carriers fly to Cologne, from where Bonn is about 30 minutes. The two are well connected by trains and road.

There are many self-guided routes that showcase Bonn’s overarching place in German history

While you can enjoy traditional dishes such as white sausage, pork knuckle with sauerkraut, and meatballs, don’t miss Dragon Blood, a local red wine

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