Ruhr Journal: Germany’s Former Industrial Heartland Replaces Steel and Coal with Art and Nouvelle Cuisine

by Ron Bernthal

The moving stairway takes visitors up to the Ruhr Museum, at Zollverein Essen, once of the largest coal mines in Europe. (photo Ruhr Tourismus)

In the middle of a restaurant kitchen, on the beautiful, tree-lined Emmastrasse, in Essen, Germany, Chef Nelson Múller sings “Sunny,” the popular spirit-lifting song written by Bobby Hebb, a songwriter from Tennessee. Here in the Ruhr region of Germany, once the center of the country’s steel and coal mining industries, the singing Mr. Muller, and his gourmet restaurant, Schote (www.restaurant-schote.de), symbolize the Ruhr’s drastic change in environment and ways of doing business since heavy industries left the region more than two decades ago.

Chef Múller was born in Ghana and moved to Germany as a young boy. He was adopted by a Grman family, and speaks fluent German, English, and a few other languages. He opened his Essen restaurant in 2009, one of several upscale, gourmet restaurants in a city that has reinvented itself as major European cultural center. Essen, once one of the world’s most industrialized cities, the center of Germany’s heavy iron and steel industry during World War II, when three years of Allied bombing raids leveled most of its factories and rail facilities, was rebuilt after the war, but lost its major industries again a short time later to competitors in lower cost Asian countries. Today, Essen, and neighboring cites like Duisburg, Dortmund, Oberhausen, and Bochum are all part of a new and revitalized Ruhr Valley, which was named the 2010 European Capital of Culture by the European Union.

Chef Nelson Múller and his staff prepare gourmet meals at Schote, an upscale restaurant in Essen, where art and design museums have replaced the steel and mining industries. (photo Ron Bernthal)

The entire region, composed of 53 cities and towns and over 5 million residents, was once associated with hard labor, coal mining, steel mills, and polluting blast furnaces. But during the past 10 years the area has been transformed into an attractive necklace of green parks and river landscapes, cultural sites, and beautifully renovated industrial structures. Nelson Múller’s Schote restaurant, with its 79 Euro (about $97) prix fixe menu, and extensive wine cellar, it is symbolic of the changes that have taken place in Essen alone. The restaurant is near the city’s recently (2010) re-opened Museum Folkwang (www.museum-folkwang.de), a modern glass and steel building designed by British architect David Chipperfield, and not far from Zollverein, a former coal mine that closed in 1986, and is now a center of art and culture in the region. Part of the project is now the Ruhr Museum (www.ruhrmuseum.de ), with over three floors of interesting exhibits detailing the history of the Ruhr Valley. Next to this museum is another new cultural attraction known as the “red dot design museum” (www.design-germany.dewww.red-dot.de), which holds the largest exhibition of contemporary design in the world, with over 1,500 exhibits within the former Zollverein colliery. The entire complex was approved as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

Zollverein is the best known heritage monument in the Ruhr region, and will play a central role as a Visitor Center during the Capital of Culture year. (photo Mikael Madsen, Ruhr Tourismus)

In the city of Dortmund, 20-minutes east of Essen, a former 12-story Union brewery, with the golden “U” on the roof, is being converted into a major arts and entertainment center. Called the Dortmunder U (www.dortmund-tourismus.de), the focus will be on media art and digital broadcasting, with noted film producers and directors being invited for avant garde video presentations. In Oberhausen, a 10-story gas tank, built in 1929, and called the Gasometer (www.gasometer.de), was converted in 1994 into one of the most unusual exhibition venues in the world. Its hollowed center, about 351-feet high, allows the curators to present daring displays of science and art exhibits.

The top of Oberhausen's Gasometer is 351-feet above the floor, and the entire structure of this former industrial gas tank is now used for innovative science and arts exhibitions. (photo Ralph Lueger, Ruhr Tourismus)

In the small town of Unna the underground corridors, cooling cellars, and fermentation vats of the former Linden Brewery, once one of the oldest in Germany, has been turned into the striking International Center of Light (www.lichtkunst.de), with innovative neon light sculptures and other light exhibits by the world’s most recognized artists.

Tunnel of Tears, a "light art" exhibit by Keith Sonnier, at the International Center of Light, which occupies the underground corridors of a former brewery in the small Ruhr town of Unna.

In Duisburg, the former industrialized Duisburg Innenhafen (Inner Harbor), (www.innenhafen.de), has been re-designed by the London architect Norman Foster, and includes historic warehouses on one side of a canal, and modern restaurants, luxury shops, museums, and coffee houses on the other side. Canal boats take visitors on architectural tours of this interesting urban development. The Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord (www.landschaftspark.de), is the largest inner-city landscape park in Europe, where visitors witness the unique sight of how the city’s former industrial monuments are now part of the beautiful natural environment that has grown around them. And in Mulheim, a 1904 water tower that once provided steam for a railway depot now houses a museum of historic film techniques and the world’s largest Camera Obscura (www.camera-obscura-muelheim.de).

Duisburg's Innenhafen (Inner Harbor) has been re-designed, using a master plan by architect Norman Foster. Former industrial landscape is now filled with fine restaurants, museums, and shops. Architectural tours by boat provide visitors with a close look at this urban development. (photo Duisburg Innenhafen Abendstimmun)

When travelling around the Ruhr region today, on modern, high speed trains that zip from town to town in minutes, it is easy to forget that this area was once called the rust belt of Germany, and these vibrant, cutting edge cities were once part of a huge industrial landscape where lack of visitor services and grey, polluted skies kept all but the most adventurous tourists away.

These days the Ruhr metropolis of Germany is one of the most exciting regions of the country. Although the Ruhr is not yet as prosperous as other areas of Germany, new hotels, restaurants, museums, recreational centers, and biking trails occupy both the large cities and small villages, and the atmosphere here is one of anxious anticipation that this year’s increase in tourism can be sustained after its European Capital of Culture status expires in 2011. Visitors to the region can purchase discounted transportation and attractions tickets, and all the cities are close to the international airports at Dusseldorf and Frankfurt. For more information on travel to the Ruhr 2010 European Capital of Culture, log on towww.ruhr-tourismus.de and www.germany-tourism.de.

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