story and photos by Ann Wallace
Germany boasts thirty-three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These range from magnificent cathedrals and palaces to beautiful rivers and valleys. When I received an invitation from the German National Tourist Office earlier this year to tour of some of these sites, I was very excited, but my excitement turned to disappointment when I discovered that several industrial sites were to be included in the itinerary. I visited some websites and still wasn’t convinced: why would I want to visit the Zollverein coking plant, for example? Ditto the blast furnaces of the Thyssen steel works in Duisburg. What could possibly be of interest in a gasometer? (What, in fact, is a gasometer?) However, the proposed itinerary also included a variety of cultural sites: ancient Aachen and Cologne, for example, and ended with a day and night on a Rhine cruise, all of which were tempting. “I can leave the industrial sites out of my story,” I reasoned. But how wrong I was.
Why, you might well ask, would I encourage you to visit the industrial heartland of Germany, a highly-populated region that is home to coal mines, iron works, industrial canals and gasometers? Well, the coal mines contain museums now, the blast furnaces are cold and adventurers climb their walls, rail beds have become cycle trails, spoil tips have become ski slopes, a corn-silo has become an art space, the once-dismal, effluent canals are now clean and carry kayakers through parks … and the gasometers …? Well, you won’t believe it! Yes, much has changed in the Ruhr region surrounding Essen over recent decades and now the area, once known as the ‘thousand smokestack’ region, is not only home to the Zollverein UNESCO site but is poised to become the European Capital of Culture next year. Welcome, first of all, to news of RUHR.2010! All went smoothly on my Lufthansa flight from Toronto to Düsseldorf. The flight was pleasant, we arrived in good time and a helpful driver and guide were waiting to take me on the 30 km journey over fast, smooth roads to Essen, a city in the heart of the Ruhr region and place chosen to represent the entire region as it becomes the Cultural Capital next year.
I was soon to learn that coal was discovered in Essen in the 17th century when seams were discovered close to the surface. The work it provided attracted immigrants from all over Europe. No surprise, therefore, that the surrounding area is highly populated, although the coal mines are long since closed as competition from elsewhere, Canada included, where the coal is closer to the surface, made Germany’s deep facilities uneconomic. Our guide pointed out the clusters of miners’ homes, now being rapidly gentrified, and explained that as they were built close together with a single playing field for young people to work off steam this gave rise to individual soccer teams and the popularity of soccer in Germany.
When the coal industry finally closed, the locals did not want the Bauhaus-inspired (“form follows function”) mines to become derelict but nor did they want them torn down and hence forgotten; they belonged to their landscape. So the mines and many other industrial buildings in the region have now been transformed into museums, hotels, art spaces and theatres. They provide a fine example of how industrial buildings can be preserved, transformed and used today. Travel in Germany, for both locals and visitors, has long been arranged by themes, or trails. Thus one can follow the wine trail, the silver route, the glass route, the Romantic Road, the asparagus trail, even – now – the Pope route. There are dozens of these routes, so I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is also a German Industrial Heritage Trail which offers about 30 points of interest – museums, exhibitions, parks, industrial tycoons’ mansions, etc. – across the industrial heart of Germany. All are linked not only by good roads but also, in many cases, by cycle paths as trails have been created on old railway beds. (Bike rentals are cheap too, with ‘pick-up here, leave there’ facilities.) And various elements of this Industrial Trail have been incorporated into the Cultural Capital project.
So, back to Essen. Upon arrival I was delighted to find that my hotel was not a large tower but low rise, trendy and set in the pleasant Stadtgarten Park. It was a Sheraton, and what a lovely one. After a little rest and freshen up in my really nice room I stretched my legs and took some fresh air in the adjoining park before enjoying lunch in the hotel’s dining room, overlooking the terrace and the park, where I was introduced to the excellent cuisine I was to encounter again and again over the following days. Yes, one can still find traditional Germany fare all over the country, of course, but many establishments have embraced the lighter, international and ‘fused’ cuisines found elsewhere in the world … and the Sheraton’s restaurant was part of this trend. (Although the menu did feature Germany’s famous white asparagus, available only in spring and early summer.) Adjacent to the hotel is the Philharmonie Essen Concert Hall (one doesn’t even need to go outside to access it from the hotel) and also the excellent and informal Wallberg Restaurant where I enjoyed dinner that evening. Choose the Sheraton for your Essen stay and you can enjoy music and a choice of two fine restaurants without leaving the building!
Fortified by lunch on my arrival day, I set out with my driver and guide for my first attraction, the Zollverein UNESCO World Heritage Site just north of Essen. In the 19th century this was the largest, most automated and most efficient colliery in the world, removing 12,000 tons of coal per day to be distributed by 3,000 train ‘cars’ per day. But by 1986 it was derelict and almost demolished, but a group of locals said “No way!” Almost at the last moment Zollverein was placed under a preservation order and, with the credo “Preservation through Conversion” people began to dream of what the dirty mine could become. Today it is a major design centre, attracting visitors to its various museums, customers to its choice of restaurants (one in the historic compressor hall), spectators to its arts programmes, passengers to its historical train ride around the site and bridal parties – would you believe – to its reception halls in the coal washing plant (there were two wedding parties on the day of my visit … what unusual photographs they will have!). In the adjacent coking plant there is an exhibition on coal mining and an installation art space containing weird and wonderful exhibits. There’s an audio guide in English available or an English tour can be booked by email in advance.
Another building on this site, once the boiler building for Shaft 12, also built in typical Bauhaus style, has been converted (Sir Norman Foster architect) to house the Red Dot Design Museum. It contains every item that has won the prestigious Red Dot International Award for Design over the years. What a unique museum this is. We were ‘greeted’ by an aluminium Audi A8 hanging from the ceiling, at 180 kg. the lightest car ever designed, though it did not go into production. Cars not your thing? Here you’ll also see sofas, chairs, stools, kitchen appliances, lamps and light fixtures, luggage, safety equipment, garbage pails, backpacks, children’s car seats, gorgeous textiles, baths and bicycles, toilets and washbasins, vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, tents, eye ware, hearing aids, jewellery, watches, pens, mobile phones, radiators, wheelchairs, tools, dinner ware and cutlery, running shoes, helmets. Interested now?! “Don’t miss this!”, “Did you see that?” we exclaimed to each other as we proceeded through the
galleried building finding something to appeal to each.