a travel guide for the Ruhr area

In 1961, future West German Chancellor Willy Brandt declared: “The sky above the Ruhr must be blue again.” His words were greeted with what seemed like applause, but it was actually his audience falling from their seats. Because the Ruhrpott, or Ruhr area, is an agglomeration of industrial cities including Gelsenkirchen (where England will play their opening match of the European Championship this summer), Dortmund (hosting both group matches and a semi-final), Essen and Duisburg, a place where the chimneys of the coal, iron and steel industries stood out above the smog like candles on a giant gray birthday cake. In the Ruhrpott, you were more likely to slip in unicorn feces than to breathe clean air.

Today, the idea of ​​the Ruhr as a tourist destination can provoke as many German chuckles as Brandt’s prophecy in 1961. But while this region of more than five million inhabitants may lack the fairytale castles of Bavaria or the cool of Berlin, there is plenty to take away from it. to lead. the thousands of fans who will pour into the region in June and July. And that’s even if you ignore the rich footballing heritage of the mighty Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04, and perennial warriors like Rot-Weiss Essen, Bochum and Duisburg.

The deeds and personalities of the region’s major players are commemorated everywhere with wall plaques and enormous murals. One is dedicated to Dortmund’s 1950s hero Max Michallek, a title-winning veteran defender whose curt response to Hamburger Uwe Seeler’s comment about his age: “Even when I’m 70, I’ll stop you!” is the stuff of local legend.

The Ruhr area is accurately described as the industrial valley of the kings. Everything here is built on an epic scale, whether it’s the steel and brick building of Zeche Zollverein, once Europe’s largest coal mine and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; or Villa Hügel, Alfred Krupp’s 19th-century mansion with 399 rooms; or the glowing “U” that stands at the top of the 75-meter-high tower that housed the Dortmunder Union brewery.

Even the Lichtburg, Essen’s classic 1920s cinema (such a paragon of pre-war elegance of German film stars, it’s a surprise that Marlene Dietrich doesn’t support the bar) is Germany’s largest.

Much of the heavy industry has disappeared (the last coal mine closed in 2018), but an impressive amount still remains. From the Alsumerberg (like most hilly hills in the Ruhr area, it is a former waste dump), where on a crisp spring morning snow blossoms drip from blackthorn trees and thrushes tremble under a sky that – fulfilling Brandt’s prediction – is as clear and blue as the eyes of a baby, you can look down on the ThyssenKrupp iron and steel factory. It is a metal metropolis with rolling mills, cooling towers, conveyor belts and winding stretches of pipework wide enough to drive a car through.

Franz Beckenbauer called the Ruhr area ‘the beating heart of German football’

On the swirling Rhine, huge ships float from Rotterdam towards the works, bringing in coal and iron ore. Train wagons loaded with limestone rattle over bridges and viaducts. From time to time the coking plant is set on fire and then doused. Clouds of steam spew and excess gas ignites in flare chimneys. The sulphurous scent of dragon breath tickles your nostrils. All these efforts are designed to feed the monstrous appetites of a pair of blackened blast furnaces known locally as ‘the two dark giants’. For those for whom heavy industry is shrouded in romance and mythology, ThyssenKrupp is hard hat Middle-earth.

An hour after descending the Alsumerberg, I stand on top of another enormous blast furnace, the decommissioned colossus in the middle of the Duisburg-Nord landscape park. Below, families sit under the cherry trees eating currywurst with fries and dollops of mayonnaise. This spicy, sticky mixture is one of the great culinary delicacies of the Ruhr area. The Dönninghaus in Bochum claims to make the best bratwurst in the world.

Duisburg-Nord is a masterpiece of imaginative repurposing. The gas holder is now a diving pool and the large concrete storage bins have become climbing walls. Even more surprising is that it has become a popular photographic background for those with more niche interests. During my visit I saw a man dressed as an intergalactic warlord brandishing a ray gun, a couple dressed entirely in rubber fetish gear, and a manga-style schoolgirl being menaced by a mutated creature with chainsaws for arms. It’s not something you’ll find on a Saturday morning at, say, the Beamish Open Air Museum, but it suggests the public has embraced the place.

Families sit under the cherry trees and eat currywurst with fries and dollops of mayonnaise – one of the Ruhr area’s greatest culinary delicacies

The same applies – albeit without the cosplay – to the Oberhausen Gasometer. The almost 120 meter high steel tower with 24 sides was once a storage place for coal and blast furnace gases. Today it is an exhibition center that attracts up to 100,000 visitors per day. Throughout 2024, the halls will be dedicated to a show across the oceans. On the 40-meter-high projection screen along one wall, gigantic luminous jellyfish float up into the darkness.

Further east is Duisburg’s inner harbour, where rows of towering Victorian grain warehouses and flour mills once provided workers’ daily bread. Now it’s art galleries and restaurants. I examine canvases by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter before sneaking a large piece of sour-sweet plum streusel cake on a terrace overlooking the water.

West along the canal and silhouetted against the grassy cairns (all topped by works of art, including Genth and Mutter’s vertiginous rollercoaster staircase, the Tiger and Turtle – Magic Mountain) lies the pale, round outline of the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen, home of Schalke. The stadium is named after its sponsor, a brewery whose beer is pumped directly into the stadium via a five-kilometre pipeline.

Schalke left its original site, the Glückauf-Kampfbahn (Gluck auf was the traditional miners’ salute) in 1973. It still stands, save for the elegant 1920s entrance and main stand, and is a pre-match meeting place for fans. In the past, many of the players were pitmen at the town’s Consol mine, whose winding tower is a monument. Teams used to go for a beer after training to Bosch, the atmospheric bar next to the Glückauf: the walls are decorated with photos of past greats, including scoring phenomenon Ernst Kuzorra.

A greater measure of Schalke’s place in the local imagination can be found in St Joseph’s Church. No longer used for services, the altar is decorated in the royal blue and white Schalke colors and has scarves plastered over the walls. In a stained glass window, Saint Aloysius is dressed as a Renaissance prince, except for his sturdy football boots. His cloak is blue and white; a ball is at his feet. He looks ready to run onto the field, although even in the heady 1950s it is difficult to imagine that the referee would have allowed him to play with such a large dagger in his hand.

Franz Beckenbauer called the Ruhr area “the beating heart of German football”. (It is a measure of regional influence that Duisburg’s Toni Turek was the goalkeeper when West Germany won their first World Cup in 1954, and Gelsenkirchen’s Manuel Neuer when they won their fourth.) So it is fitting that the national football museum is just down the road the street is home to Schalke’s rivals, Borussia Dortmund. Here, fans of a certain age can get a sweet misty-eyed hit from vintage Adidas shirts, pose next to the giant photo of Essen’s Helmut Rahn (scoring hero of West Germany’s surprising 1954 World Cup final victory) and vote on the question whether Geoff Hurst’s infamous goal in 1966 (the goalkeeper, Hans Tilkowski, came from Dortmund) actually went over the line.

In nearby Bochum there is a renovated neighborhood around the impressive Heilig-Kreuz Church from the 1920s. It is now a performance space and is entered through doors designed to resemble the entrances to well shafts. The massive, pillarless interior feels like the belly of a whale. The streets surrounding it are home to artists’ studios, cafes, vintage shops, restaurants and bars, including the excellent Trinkhalle Am Flöz.

Just like football, beer is an integral part of life in the Ruhrpott. At Frohnhauser Sudwerkstatt, a one-room microbrewery and bar in Essen, owner-brewer Peter is an evangelist for British beer. He opened in February, unsure of what to expect. “I didn’t know if people here would like my beer, but you see…” he gestures to a bar where every square meter is occupied by a German glorying in their first experience with chocolate porter or dark mild.

Related: Rail route of the month: through East Germany to the Polish city of Szczecin

Later, at Holy Craft Süd in Essen, while drinking unfiltered export lager made by the Mücke brewery (named after a heroic pit pony from the Zollverein mine), a local laments the changes he has seen over his life. “Today’s young people don’t know what it was like. When the blast furnaces were working here in the city, they turned the entire sky orange at night.”

Where heavy industry has disappeared, nostalgia will certainly return. But that doesn’t have to be the only thing left. Reconstruction is difficult, but in the Ruhr, a land full of the skeletons of industrial giants, there may be increasing signs that a compromise can be reached, that you can combine tradition with modernity, by combining currywurst with a hazy IPA under a smokeless sky.

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