Fine Dining in Dransdorf and Bonn’s first massacre.
International cuisine from a village perspective. Recipe for 10,000 oak trees and 3,000 legionnaires.
The secret history of Bonn’s only red light.
As long as there are pubs, men don’t need to go to psychiatrists.
– Hans-Juergen Quadbeck-Seeger
Wer einem Fuß in Hurenhaus hat, hat den andern im Spital.
– German proverb
The door swung open into the Olympia Grill und Imbiss, Dransdorf’s best restaurant. To be absolutely honest, the only competition was from a rather miserable-looking pizza place next door offering Italian, Chinese and Indian specialties, and the Peking Garden, a pagoda-roofed sweet-and-sour palace above a cut-price supermarket just across the tracks.
On this particular evening, the Olympia was half-full and several people were all well on the way to being more than just half-full, as the abundant empty Kölsch bottles on the tables attested. In the corner a couple of gambling machines from the 1980s flashed bright lights and made soft electronic music.
I approached the counter and asked for lamb chops and a beer.
“Where you from?” asked the proprietor in Greek accented German, as he indicated the beer fridge against one wall. Judging by the bottle opener hanging from the fridge door, this was a self service filling station.
“Australia” I told him.
“Aaah, Australia! Wunderbar! Wie heisst du?” he asked, immediately abandoning the formal form of address which was customary in German with all but family and friends.
He then took me around to the other tables, introducing me to the ten or twelve customers there.
Everyone laughed and shouted and shook my hand and slapped me on the back and told me how much they would like to go to Australia, climb Ayers Rock and live with the aborigines there. Did I know Crocodile Dundee? Had I ever met Steve Irwin?
I sat at a window table, next to a planter full of plastic monsteras.
Xiaffri shook one sleeping customer from his nest of empty bottles and told him it was time to go home. His wife had called, asking where he was. The poor fellow turned white, and Xiaffri laughed. No, she hadn’t called, but she probably would soon! And there was an Australian who needed a place to sit and eat! So, I sat at a window table next to a planter full of plastic monsteras and ate beautiful, succulent little lamb cutlets with olives and rice and tzatziki, and gulped down three bottles of Kölsch.
I got up to pay and leave, and again went through the rigmarole of shaking hands with all the customers who were still conscious, before Xiaffri asked me how many beers I had taken from the fridge.
“I have drink three”
“Eins von mir, eins von mir!” he shouted, and rung up two beers in the till.
I had found my local.
Bonn’s first Greek Imbiss (an “Imbiss” being the word for a small restaurant, doing mainly take-away food but where one can also sit down and eat) probably appeared as early as the 1st or 2nd century AD.
In the year 43, when the 1st Germanic Legion arrived, the Roman’s established a more permanent settlement on a site a little outside the modern town centre – in the area now called Bonn-Castell.
This fort was a little to the north of the Roman military encampment that Varus and his legions had hoped to reach some 30-something years earlier, which lay where the Hofgarten is now, a lawn covering several acres and much beloved of shirtless soccer-ball-kicking uni students in cut-off jeans.
Historians estimate the Romans felled around 10,000 oak trees to build the first wooden palisade fortification of Castra Bonnensis. Most buildings inside the 27 hectare military camp were half-timbered structures, with only the main administrative buildings of stone. There’s nothing left of the original structures which can be seen by the untrained eye.
The original military settlement was drenched in blood and destroyed by fire, around 69AD. According to the Roman historian P. Cornelius Tacitus, in the chaos that followed the death of Emperor Nero, Governor Vittelius of Cologne was called up to the position of emperor. Taking 10,000 legionaires from Britain and Germany with him, he marched to Rome to be installed in the top job, but he had left the Rhein-frontier in a perilous state. An uprising of the Batavian Germanic tribal group, under Iulius Civilis, took advantage of the weakened military in the Niederrhein. They attacked the now only 3,000 strong Castra Bonnensis garrison, which had been left under the command of inexperienced junior officers. An attempt by the garrison to encircle the Batavians ended ingloriously. The battle-hardened Batavians, though far outnumbered by the Bonn legion, managed to put the legionnaires to flight. As the Roman foot-soldiers rushed in disarray for the safety of the fort, the Batavians fell on them from behind and cut them to pieces.
As Tacitus describes in his Historiae, the ditch around the fort was filled to the top with corpses, not just those which the Batavians killed and wounded, but many who fell in under the crush of bodies, to die on their own weapons and those of their comrades. It was the beginning of the end.
One year later, in 70AD the Bonn fort, like all the others along the Rhein and as far south as Strasbourg, fell to Rome’s enemies and was put to the torch.
Now under Emperor Vespasian the Legio XXI Rapax marched to Bonn with the urgent mission to rebuild the fort, but no house of sticks this time; from here on in the fort was to be built of stone. Vespasian then disbanded the untrustworthy legio I Germanica – which had meanwhile retreated to Trier. They were to be reconstructed as the Legio I Minervia, and when XXI Rapax were transferred out of Castra Bonnensis to deal with other flashpoints in the Roman Empire, Legio I Minervia were sent to garrison the fort. For more than two centuries they would be Bonn’s permanent garrison, and were by far Bonn’s longest serving Roman legion.
During this time, Bonn’s population and importance grew. The town, with its riverine link to Rome’s low-German colonies, became an important military and trading hub. The size of the grain stores which archaeologists have discovered within the fort indicate that Castra Bonnensis was most likely a major provisioning depot for Rome’s colonies further north.
The remnants of the Roman harbour can still be seen when the Rhein is at its lowest ebb. Nothing remains of the fort’s four gates, which were guarded by heavily built twin-towers of stone, though it is still possible to pick out the point of the southern gate. It’s marked today by a rather shabby Irish pub at the corner of Römerstrasse and Rosental. Where Rosental meets the Rhine some of the original perimeter wall still remains, built over in successive centuries and then given a faux-Roman garnish in recent times. These days it protects a beer garden, owned by an Indian family masquerading as pure Bavarian. Its biggest selling point is that it has great shade trees, and never becomes as full as the other beer gardens along the Rhein. For those who are still in need of refreshment this far north, “Schantze” offers pricey beer and day-old bretzels to the discerning drinker.
Bonn’s Roman fort was the largest known fort of its type from the ancient world. The stone walls enclosed an area of approximately 250,000 square meters. Due to the difficult light conditions during Roman times, no pohotographs were made of this impressive military settlement. Within its defences was a dense grid of streets and buildings including military headquarters, stables and a prison. Historical records indicate that within the walls there were 44 barrack-houses and lodgings for 66 centurions, indicating a military strength of approximately seven thousand. The more than 16 million terracotta roof tiles which covered the barrack buildings were baked in kilns where the main building of Bonn’s university now stands.
The chief Roman road linking the provincial capitals of Cologne and Mainz passed through the middle of the fort, forming the fort’s main road, nowadays traced by Römerstraße. Once past the South Gate, the Cologne-Mainz road continued along the routes now followed by Belderberg and Adenauerallee, and on to Koblenz. Outside the walls, on both sides of the road, the local settlement, Bonna, grew into a sizeable Roman town.
It’s a fair bet that for close to 2000 years there has been at least one bawdy house operating within a few hundred meters from Top Secret’s current location.
Archaeologists reckon the fort and the town around it housed around 10,000 civilians, comprising soldiers families, slaves, and other service-providers. Much as today, the workforce came from across the Roman Empire, from Gaul to Greece and Galipoli. The settlement contained restaurants, taverns, and workshops where artesans made and repaired all the equipment the legions stationed there would have needed, as well as all the other necessary items to keep life functioning; and of course there were brothels to keep the troops functioning.
Aside from the fact that Bonn still had the highest concentration of shoemakers and tailors I had seen anywhere in the world, a discreet door in a building near the Rhine with the label “Top Secret Night Club” and a red light over the thresh-hold was a sign that Bonn had proudly kept other traditions alive since Roman times. It’s a fair bet that for close to 2000 years there has been at least one bawdy house operating within a few hundred meters of Top Secret’s current location.
I passed the door of Top Secret often during my years in Bonn. As I made my way to innumerable night-shifts at Radio Free Rheinland, I would see the red glow of the lamp above the door filtering softly through the fog, or the drizzle, depending on the season. I tried to imagine what it would look like inside. I built up a mental picture of a small group of heavily made up middle-aged ladies sitting on worn leatherette couches in cheap lingerie, filing their nails and watching TV. Then one day the lamp went out. I guess it was an establishment so secret that it finally went out of business for lack of trade.
I was settling into Dransdorf slowly and although I wasn’t doing too well with the fairer sex, I was never tempted by the ladies of the Top Secret. My failure on this front may have been partly to do with the language barrier, or simply because I am a difficult and picky person. I chanelled my energies into helping other people move house, and accumulating odd pieces of furniture to make my room more liveable.