travel guide to the Ruhr

In 1961, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt declared: “The sky above the Ruhr must be blue again.” His words were greeted with what looked like applause but actually had his audience falling out of their chairs. The Ruhrpott, or Ruhrgebiet, an agglomeration of industrial cities that includes Gelsenkirchen (where England will play their opening game of the European Championship this summer), Dortmund (which will host group games as well as a semi-final), Essen and Duisburg where the chimneys of the coal, iron and steel industries rose above the smog like candles on a giant gray birthday cake. You were more likely to slip in unicorn droppings than breathe clean air in the Ruhrpott.

Today the notion of the Ruhr as a tourist destination might inspire as many German sniggers as Brandt predicted back in 1961. But while this region of more than 5 million people may lack the fairytale castles of Bavaria or Berlin’s coolness, there is plenty to divert. thousands of fans poured into the region in June and July. And that’s even if you leave aside the rich football heritage of the mighty Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04, and perennial battlers such as Rot-Weiss Essen, Bochum and Duisburg.

The deeds and personalities of the region’s great players are commemorated everywhere with huge wall plaques and murals. One focuses on 1950s Dortmund hero Max Michallek, a veteran title-winning defender and his polite response to Hamburg star Uwe Seeler’s joke about his age, “Even at 70, I’ll stop you!” The stuff is the local legend.

The Ruhrgebiet is accurately described as the industrial valley of kings. Everything here was built on an epic scale, be it the steel and brick building of Zeche Zollverein, once Europe’s largest coal mine and now a Unesco world heritage site; or Villa Hügel, a 19th-century developer, Alfred Krupp’s 399-room mansion; or the loud “U” on top of the 75 meter high tower that housed the Dortmunder Union brewery.

Even the Lichtburg, Essen’s classic 1920s cinema (a model of pre-war German film star elegance it’s a wonder Marlene Dietrich isn’t standing up the bar) is the biggest in Germany.

Much of the heavy industry is gone (the last coal mine closed in 2018), but a significant amount remains. From the Alsumer Berg (like most of the mound-like hills across the Ruhr, it is a former waste dump), where on a fresh spring morning snow flowers flow from thorns and through thrushes under a sky that is – fulfilling Brandt’s prediction – as clear and blue as a child’s eyes, you can look down on ThyssenKrupp’s iron and steel plant. It’s a metal city of rolling mills, cooling towers, conveyors and serpentine stretches of pipework wide enough to drive a car through.

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

On the swirling Rhine, huge barges push up towards the works from Rotterdam, humming coal and iron ore. Railway trucks loaded with limestone beams over bridges and overpasses. Periodically the coca plant is burned, then dosed. Clouds of steam and excessive gas combustion in flare stacks. The sulphurous dragon-breath reflux tickles your nose. All this effort is fueled by the ferocious appetite of a pair of black blast furnaces known as “the two dark giants”. For those for whom heavy industry is steeped in romance and mythology, ThyssenKrupp is a hard hat for Middle Earth.

An hour after descending the Alsumer Berg, I am standing on top of another huge blast furnace, the decommissioned behemoth in the middle of the Duisburg-Nord landscape park. Below, families sit under the cherry trees eating currywurst with chips and dollops of mayonnaise. This spicy, sticky mixture is one of the great culinary delights of the Ruhr. The Dönninghaus in Bochum claims to make the best bratwurst in the world.

Duisburg-Nord is a masterpiece of imaginative renovation. The gasometer is now a scuba diving pool and the large concrete storage bins have climbing walls. It is surprisingly a popular photography background for those with more niche interests. During my visit I saw a man dressed as an interstellar warlord brandishing a ray gun, a couple in rubber suits and a manga-style schoolgirl being menaced by a mutant creature with a chainsaw for a weapon. It’s not the sort of thing you’d come across at, say, Beamish Open Air Museum on a Saturday morning, but it shows that the community has embraced the place.

Families sit under the cherry trees eating currywurst with chips and dollops of mayonnaise – one of the great culinary delights of the Ruhr

The same is true – albeit without cosplay – of the Oberhausen Gasometer. Standing close to 120 meters high, the 24-sided steel tower once stored coal and blast furnace gases. Today it is an exhibition center that attracts up to 100,000 visitors a day. For the whole year 2024 the halls are given over to a show about the oceans. On the projection screen 40 meters high that lines one wall, a giant jellyfish swims up in the dark.

Further east is Duisburg’s inner harbor, where rows of tall Victorian granaries and flour mills once provided workers with their daily bread. Now they are art galleries and restaurants. I survey canvases by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter before laying a large slab of sour-sweet plum streusel cake on a terrace above the water.

West along the canal and outlined against the grassy mounds of spoil heaps (all topped by works of art, including a rollercoaster staircase inspired by Genth and Mutter the Tiger and Turtle – Magic Mountain) is the pale, round outline of the Veltins- Arena i. Gelsenkirchen, home of Schalke. The stadium is named after the sponsor, a brewery whose beer is pumped directly into the stadium via a three-mile pipeline.

Schalke left their original ground, the Glückauf-Kampfbahn (Glyuck auf traditional miners’ blessing) in 1973. It still stands, preserved by its elegant 1920s entrance and main stand, and is a pre-match gathering place for fans. At one time many of the players were pitmen at the Consol mine of the city, whose winding tower is a monument. The teams used to go for a post-training beer at Bosch, the atmospheric bar next to the Glückauf: its walls are decorated with photos of the greats of the past, including the 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, its altar is decorated in Schalke’s colors of royal blue and white, and its walls are covered with plaster scarves. 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 rests at his feet. He looks like he’s ready to go on the pitch, but even in the 1950s it’s hard to imagine the referee letting him play while carrying such a big dagger.

Franz Beckenbauer called the Ruhr “the 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, Gelsenkirchen’s Manuel Neuer when they won their quarter-final.) So it is fitting that the national football museum is up the road in the home of Schalke’s rivals, Borussia Dortmund. Here fans of a certain age can get a sweet, fluffy win from vintage Adidas shirts, stand next to the giant photo of Essen’s Helmut Rahn (hero who scored West Germany’s stunning World Cup winning goals in 1954) and vote on which Geoff Hurst’s famous goal in 1966 (keeper, Hans Tilkowski, from Dortmund) went over the line.

In nearby Bochum, a fourth revival is clustered around the large Heilig-Kreuz church of the 1920s. It is now a performance space, entered through doors designed to resemble pit entrances. The massive interior feels less columnar than the belly of a whale. The streets around it are lined with artist studios, cafes, vintage shops, restaurants and bars including the excellent Trinkhalle Am Flöz.

Like football, beer is central to life in the Ruhrpott. At Frohnhauser Sudwerkstatt, a one-room microbrewery and bar in Essen, Peter is a British ale evangelist. It opened its doors in February not sure what to expect. “I didn’t know if people here like my beer, but you see…” he gestures to a bar whose square foot is occupied by German glory in their first experience of a chocolate ale or light dark.

Related: Rail route of the month: across eastern Germany to the Polish city of Szczecin

Later, in Holy Craft Süd Essen, drinking an unfiltered export pilsner made by the Mücke brewery (named after a heroic pit pony from the Zollverein mine), a local promises the changes he has seen in his lifetime. “Young people now, they don’t know what it was like. When the blast furnaces were working here in the city, at night they turned the whole sky orange.”

Where heavy industry has gone, nostalgia is sure to move in. But that doesn’t have to be all that’s left. Reconstruction is tough, but in the Ruhr, a land full of the skeletons of industrial giants, there are perhaps increasing signs that compromise is possible, that you can blend tradition with modernity, pairing currywurst with a hazy IPA under a smokeless sky.

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