Frankfurt is the Taj Mahal of Railroad Stations

TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Scott is a Times medical writer. </i>

This city may be better known to travelers for its namesake sausage and for the busiest airport in central Europe, but its main railway station is a train lover’s Taj Mahal and a gustatory adventure.

The vast sandstone-and-steel cathedral is the largest train station in Europe: Twenty-five tracks bring 1,640 trains in and out of its embrace every day. A quarter of a million passengers clatter through daily en route to and from hundreds of cities--from Amsterdam and Budapest to Vienna.

The hauptbahnhof is also a glittering commercial bazaar, an almost round-the-clock source of roast chickens, cut crystal, perfume, cigars, hairdos, novels by Paul Bowles, potted palms, Swiss chocolate, Finnish licorice, Spanish oranges, Brazilian nuts and fresh-squeezed mango juice.


“It’s a masterpiece,” said Karl Jung, an architect from nearby Hanau who stopped by one recent Sunday morning to show off the building to two visiting colleagues from Iowa. “I’ve known this station for 30 years or more. It’s the center of Europe, where all routes cross.”

Opened in 1888 after five years’ construction, the station is like others in Europe, only more so. Tracks converge from the southwest into five adjoining halls, which then flow into the ornate facade, crowned by a sculpture of Atlas and a huge clock supported by allegorical figures of morning and evening.

Light enters through hundred-paned, half-moon windows at either end of each hall and soot-smudged skylights 98 feet up on top. There is a smoky, Gotham-esque gloom to the place. On winter nights, the temperature dips below freezing and steam rises from the faces of men and women eating late-night gyros.

Max Beckmann painted it. The allies bombed it. The Orient-Express careened into its august main dining room in 1901. After the war, it became the site of the city’s biggest black market. Now it has given seed to an impressive red-light district that the city has gone to some pains to clean up.

One could live a reasonable life, for a time, in this station.

Food is abundant and dazzling. There are two large sit-down restaurants, several espresso bars, a small beer hall, a delicatessen, a gourmet greengrocer and liquor store, a croissant stall, fresh-baked pretzels and an upscale food marketplace like a small version of Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

There, cold cuts and prosciutto stand stacked in gleaming display cases. There are sausages, chickens, ribs, schnitzel and sauerkraut. One woman cooks gnocchi, another paella. There are herring sandwiches, cappuccino, Sacher torte, and bread and rolls baked on the spot.

And there is reading material: The newsstands carry a half-dozen Arab papers and the Wall Street Journal. One bookstore stocks Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger and Truman Capote. Another offers Alice Miller and Shere Hite in English, William Faulkner and Herman Melville in German.

What is said to be Germany’s only 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year post office inhabits the station’s upper story. Air-mail envelopes, onion-skin stationery and packing tape are on sale outside. Inside are writing tables and chairs, and a row of phone booths usable for international calls.

There is a triplex movie theater favoring kung-fu movies and porn. There are two flower shops and a tobacconist selling lighters in the shape of gas pumps. There’s a bank, a health clinic and a mission for the lost and homeless offering silence, shelter and advice.

Vesna Lekic, in many ways, grew up in the station. Her parents have both worked for 25 years in its Inter-City Restaurant. Lekic, a university student of Yugoslavian descent, works part-time in a pretzel stand in the station. Thousands of over-size pretzels sell every day.

On a recent morning, Lekic was feeling entertained by the station--by the diversity of people, the ebb and flow of foreigners craving pretzels. She particularly likes those who pore over the array of salt-encrusted products and miniature pizzas, then inquire, “Is this sweet?”

But at other times, the noise seems deafening. Lekic has memorized half the announcements of tracks and destinations. Occasionally, she has to call the station police. They emerge from their office behind the one-way glass window to shoo away the drunks wanting to argue about why pretzels aren’t free.

The same crowd filters in to the gourmet greengrocer/liquor store shortly after Renata Azzam opens up at 5 a.m. They bypass the Tunisian dates and head straight for the airline-size bottles of liquor on the counter. In addition to her regulars, Azzam figures she gets 600 to 1,000 customers a day.

A Jordanian-born German, Azzam has worked in the shop 15 years. She figures several dozen people sleep, or perhaps live, in the station. For her, the charm of the place is the ever-changing clientele--Arabs, Italians, Japanese, Moroccans. They come in high spirits, embarking upon an adventure.

Jung, the architect, was showing off the station to two American business associates, an architect and a structural engineer. They stood near the southeast entrance marveling at how the builders must have calculated by hand the stresses and forces on each section of each arch.

They said they admired in the station a kind of forthright honesty: Its underlying structure, and therefore its essence, was undisguised. Ed Sauter, the architect from Mt. Vernon, Iowa, said with pleasure, “If you walked into a building like this and didn’t see the trains, you’d know it was a train station.”