Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2010-11-04
If there’s one region in the world which has truly given rise to an ‘industrial civilisation,’ it’s the Ruhr. Indeed, Germany could hardly have become Europe’s industrial super-power without it.
Visitors to the Ruhr, especially those who don’t know what to expect, are always impressed by the beauty of its landscapes and industrial sites, whether these latter have been transformed into parks or museums, or are still actively producing something. Germans have an intensely emotional relationship with industry, and their ingenuity has produced an industrial legacy which is a far cry from the usual clichés (ugly, grey and inhuman). On this side of the Rhine, whole families participate in outings around the old mines and coking plants. These are families whose fathers or grandfathers, many of Polish, Italian or Turkish descent, came here to work not so long ago.
The collieries’ architecture and their integration in the incredibly lush, wooded environment provided inspiration for many great artists of the 20th century who were natives of the region. Abstract painter Joseph Albers (1888-1976), born in Bottrop, was one of the Bauhaus’s foremost instructors and theorists. Photographer duo Bernd (1931-2007)and Hilla Becher (1934) played an essential role in preserving many industrial sites which were slated for destruction. Legendary painter and sculptor Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), born in Dortmund, was another great artist of the Ruhr who channelled its cosmopolitan spirit as well as its rebellious nature.
And any football fan worth his or her salt knows that the Shalke 04 stadium is, along with Munich, one of Germany’s finest.
Day one: the most spectacular features of the Ruhr
The Golden Madonna of Essen
In the 1950s, after having been severely damaged by allied bombings, Essen became the symbol of German reconstruction and the economic boom. Located seventy kilometres north of Cologne, this former mining capital of Europe is the active heart of the Ruhr and the ideal starting point for exploring the region. Those travelling by train (45 minutes from Cologne) arrive directly in the centre of the city. After a five-minute walk from the train station up the main shopping street, one can already behold one of Germany’s most singular treasures: the marvellous Golden Madonna displayed in the western wing of the Essen Cathedral. This sculpture covered with gold leaf dating from 980 CE is thought to be the oldest statue of the Blessed Virgin in the West. A curiously modern-seeming blend of Carolingian and Byzantine art, this fascinating Madonna with enamel eyes is venerated throughout the Ruhr region.
The other Essen highlight which must not be missed is the prestigious new Museum Folkwang, opened in January 2010. It is a splendid monument which holds an incredible collection of paintings and I would suggest you save it for the end of your visit.
An absolutely beautiful... colliery?
Just five kilometres from the centre of Essen is one of the most spectacular sites of the Ruhr: the Zollverein, a former coal mining complex which stopped operations in 1986 and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001. To get there, you can take tram 107 directly from the Essen train station, but if you mean to explore the entire region, a car with a good GPS is a must in any case.
Opened in 1864, the Zollverein were Europe’s most productive coal mines for many years; at one point, over 5,000 miners worked at the site. At 1,200 metres deep and with a daily output of 12,000 tons of coal, they were also an important factor in Germany’s reconstruction after WWII. Zollverein’s most noteworthy architectural feature is Shaft 12, which dates from 1932 and was designed by Bauhaus architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer.
Housed in one of the buildings on site and spread over three storeys, the Ruhr Museum tells the story of one of the world’s largest industrial regions, starting with the formation of coal 300 million years ago and continuing to the present.
Where to have a meal
I recommend the Casino Zollverein restaurant located inside what used to be the colliery’s compressor hall. Served amongst ten-metre-high concrete pillars linked by innumerable pipes, their cuisine is international and delicious - the very tender beef fillet is a case in point. (€ 10/£ 8.50 to € 20/£ 17.00 per dish)
Where to stay
For your first night in the region, I recommend a hotel which is another highly original edifice: the Alte Lohnhalle in Essen-Kray. Mine workers used to come collect their pay cheques in this industrial building built of brick which looks like a manor but is somewhat reminiscent of a church inside. Very good breakfast and fine value for money (from € 63/£ 54 per room).
Day two: full immersion in the Ruhr plus one of our very favourite addresses
The world’s biggest mining museum
The city of Bochum, 17 km east of Essen, boasts one of Germany’s most famous museums: the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum (the German Mining Museum Bochum), which also happens to be the biggest museum of its kind in the world. Located in a pleasant residential neighbourhood outside of the city centre, this institution dating from 1930 has accurately recreated a 2.5 kilometre-long demonstration mine 22 metres under the earth. Several generations of Ruhr inhabitants whose parents worked the mines have visited (and continue to visit) this surprising site which buzzes with machines, each more impressive than the last, creating an authentic-feeling mine experience and atmosphere. The 71-metre mining shaft tower offers a fine panoramic view of the city and its surrounding environment. The guided tour takes around one hour.
Skiing all year ‘round
Bottrop, 29 km west of Bochum, is worth a visit for its Alpincenter: a unique ski station located on a hill which features a covered ski slope 640 metres long and 30 metres wide. All year ‘round, visitors come to learn how to ski and snowboard - winter sports enthusiasts from Holland and Belgium are frequent visitors. The kilometre-long toboggan run is another popular attraction, as are the thirteen climbing walls. Alpincenter gives onto a fine view of the Bottrop Tetraeder (Tetrahedron), a gigantic sculpture erected on the Beckstraße mound, and the whole Ruhr Valley.
CentrO and its exceptional suds
When it’s time for lunch, you might head for CentrO in Oberhausen, the Ruhr’s largest shopping complex with 23 million German visitors per year! Something of a Teutonic version of Disneyland, CentrO is entirely dedicated to shopping and leisure… and the Germans get it right once again. Built around an artificial lake, the complex is unexpectedly inviting and relaxing, and with 200 shops and 50 restaurants, there are plenty of pastimes to choose from.
I recommend lunch at the BrauhausZeche Jacobi, where they draw their own delicious traditionally brewed, non-filtered craft beer: Gruben Gold, a 4.6 % pale lager. The brewery’s decor evokes the mining microcosm and their traditional cuisine is most agreeable.
Also in Oberhausen, between the Rhine-Herne Canal and CentrO, you’ll find one of the Ruhr’s most emblematic industrial vestiges: the Gasometer. An enormous gas storage tank built entirely of steel in the late 1920s, this masterwork of industrial architecture has a cathedral-like atmosphere. The 117-metre tall edifice has been transformed into a colossal exhibition hall in the centre of which hangs a giant reproduction of the moon. At the top of the structure there is a superb 360° panorama overlooking the Ruhr; one may also spot the zeppelin which often circles above the region. Gasometer is one of the main stops on the European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH) which runs from Great Britain to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Germany.
When nature comes back into her own
Duisburg, 11 km south-west of Oberhausen, is another of the Ruhr’s main cities. I recommend that you go there to visit the splendid North Duisburg Landscape Park designed around old blast furnaces. Today the park is like an immense cinema or theatre set where the flora has become part of the walls, terraces, stairs and chimneys; it reminds one of the romantic ruins overrun by nature which were popular landscaping conceits during the late 18C and early 19C. There is a striking absence of vandalism - proof, if need be, that the inhabitants of the Ruhr are particularly respectful of their industrial heritage.
Fairyland castle or poetic toad puddle?
This 17C castle nestling in a splendid English-style park and surrounded by moats is pure poetry, as is the idyllic countryside beyond. It belongs to Kettwig, a town on the banks of the Ruhr River whose 18C buildings miraculously escaped the aerial attacks of 1944-45. Hugenpoet is dedicated to a mysterious toad (in old German, hugen = toads, poet = puddle) whose golden effigy graces the lapels of the people who run the hotel.
Current owner Michael Lübbert has done his very best to maintain the authenticity of the castle, which holds 26 guest rooms. In addition to its sheer beauty, Hugenpoet is also famous for its restaurant’s cuisine, prepared by Chef Erika Bergheim. Awarded her first Michelin star in 2009, this young woman from Essen who has virtually never left the Ruhr specializes in French-inspired cuisine made from completely organic ingredients. Her dishes are convincingly subtle and well-balanced - I ordered venison and it was frankly exceptional. The view of the park is magnificent and the wine list spotlights the mineral, fruity Rieslings of the Moselle, the Sarre and the Rheingau. Try one of Fritz Haag’s wines; he is known to be one of Germany’s finest vintners.
Fixed-price menus: € 69/£ 59 and € 116/£ 100.
A la carte: € 59/£ 51 to € 76/£ 65.
Rooms from € 215/£ 185.
Day three: the Ruhr by bicycle and two exceptional museums
Take a morning stroll through the charming town of Kettwig and note the textile factory dating from 1901 along the river banks - it is still in operation. Afterwards you might like to hop on a bicycle and set off to discover the beauty of the local landscape. Actually, there are bike trails throughout the region - 230 km of them - and the RuhrtalRadweg, the Ruhr Valley Cycle Route, is certainly one of Europe’s loveliest. Often following former towpaths, this unusual trail traverses the green hills of Sauerland, the cradle of the mining industry at Witten, the collieries of Essen and many other attractions of town and country. It is an excellent way to discover this exceptionally green, well-preserved region.
An integral part of Ruhr history is the industrial empire built by the Krupp family. In 1872 Alfred Krupp (1812-1887), the dynasty’s founding father, built Essen’s Villa Hügel, an absolutely ‘kolossale’ manor overlooking Lake Baldeney. Everything here is gigantic: the park surrounding the villa, the manor’s 269 rooms, the halls, libraries, stairwells, crystal chandeliers, tapestries... Even the family portraits are joined by those of Bismarck and Emperors Wilhelm I and II (whose chambers were always ready to receive them). The atmosphere here is as intense as in Visconti’s classic film The Damned which the filmmaker purportedly based on the Krupp family saga. A truly fascinating photo exhibition presents the history of this family that started from nothing and became Europe’s premier steel and arms manufacturer.
To wind up your journey, I would recommend a visit to Essen’s superb Museum Folkwang. Europe’s first Modern Art museum, originally founded in the 1930s, has been entirely renovated and enhanced by a new extension designed by David Chipperfield. Inaugurated in January 2010, the Museum Folkwang has a marvellous collection which shouldn’t be missed under any circumstances: Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Signac, Rodin, Matisse, Ensor… German expressionists such as Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde are also well represented. Be sure to seek out the romantic masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840); in my opinion, they are among the crown jewels of the Folkwang. The beauty of the museum is enhanced by the omnipresence of natural light and huge windows giving onto interior courtyard gardens. An exhibition called ‘Impressionism in Paris’ is presented from 2 October 2010 to 30 January 2011.
Tourist Office of the Ruhr Region:
The Zollverein colliery:
The Ruhr Museum:
Casino Zollverein restaurant:
Hotel Alte Lohnhalle:
German Mining Museum Bochum:
Skiing at the Alpincenter:
CentrO in Oberhausen:
Zeche Jacobi Brewery:
North Duisburg Landscape Park:
Hugenpoet Hotel and Restaurant:
Ruhr Valley Cycling Route:
Folkwang Museum in Essen: