I decide to spend the weekend in the capital. Not Berlin, the capital of Germany but Essen, the capital of the Ruhr area.
If you’re living in the region, the assertion that Essen is the capital of the Ruhr might be news to you. Its claims, you might be thinking, are dubious. It’s not the biggest city, that honour falls to Dortmund. It’s not the most well-known city. Dortmund again. Nor is it the most important historically (Dortmund), the most attractive (Dortmund) or even the one with the best football team (touch wood, Dortmund).
I’m going to risk a lot of friendships by elevating Essen to capital city status so I should probably hang some substance on my argument pretty quickly.
For one thing it’s right in the middle. Essen is equidistant from all sides of an area without boundaries roughly the size of Lancashire. It actively claimed the title for itself when it headlined for the region as 2010 European Culture Capital. It also has one other ace up its sleeve: Essen is where the money is. Only a fool would see that and raise it.
Foreigners (people who come from Düsseldorf for example) often comment that the dozen or so cities that make up the Ruhr are all the same: postwar eyesores with liberally dispersed bottle shops and sausage stands; miners’ rows with cramped kitchens, mining boots at the door and plastic chequered table cloths; greenery thoughtfully provided in the form of the occasional football stadium. How wrong they are.
Essen has been awarded the title of Germany’s third greenest city and Dortmund is not far behind. No two cities here are the same. Dortmund and Essen differ hugely in character.
Dortmunders are separatists; their city a medieval superpower and proud member of the Hanseatic League. You can see this on any street map: Hansaplatz, Schwanenwall, Königswall. They still like to do things a little bit differently in Dortmund, hence the fancy Dan football team with its flashy black-and-yellow strips and coiffeured superstars. Good-looking rebels say the locals. Bolsheviks and pretty boys say the critics.
Essen’s streets remind you instantly that the city is a fully paid up member of the German project: Bismarckstraße, Moltkestraße, Porscheplatz, Hindenburgstraße. Not to forget Krupp Park: a reminder of the days when something like a quarter of the city’s area was fenced off to outsiders, the exclusive property of the Krupp steel works.
In Essen, hard work has always trumped flair — Esseners like to boast that they are “hard as Krupp steel”. Essen’s footballers would no more be seen in black and yellow than they would be in fluorescent pink. Red-and-white is much more manly, and much more appropriate for what is still today the region’s fighting man’s club.
It wasn’t always thus. Essen actually began life as a convent and remained so until well into middle age. Founded in 845, the Abbesses of Essen negotiated the seismic movements of German and European politics with considerable skill, remaining independent until 1803. After that they were wise enough to sink the family fortune into steel at the start of the boom years. Esseners have always had good business sense.
So Essen it is, the capital –and a worthy choice. Capital of a region which doesn’t appear on any maps, at least none which have lines on them. But a region which is 320 million years old. Who needs political boundaries when you can you can trace your origins back to the Carboniferous Period?
There can be few places where prehistory, pre-humanity even, has a direct influence on life today –but the Ruhr is one of them. Life here began as an equatorial swampland, pushed northwards over millions of years, constantly folding under the pressure of tectonics to produce some of the deepest — and most plentiful — coal deposits on the planet.
We are still living with the effects. We have no idea how many mines were in operation during the years of the mining boom; between three hundred and a thousand say the most plausible estimates. From Essen you can walk thirty miles in any direction through the tunnels without seeing daylight. For every person living here, 2.1 million kilos of coal have been pulled out of the ground over the course of history.
So much for the past. Next year, the last mine will close. An industry which once employed 600,000 people will be no more. Gone but not forgotten because we couldn’t forget it if we tried. Every year, 100 billion litres of water need to be pumped out of the mine shafts. If the pumps fail, the whole region becomes a lake and we all have to move to Hanover. The ignominy.
I shouldn’t joke. Buildings do disappear when the tunnels underneath give way, streets even. Up here in Herne, once the region’s mining capital I’m not so worried — the tunnels are a mile beneath the earth. But in the south of the basin, where the coal was closer to the surface then it happens periodically. In Essen part of the railway station fell into the ground a couple of years ago.
North and south. The Ruhr has no boundaries and you could quite reasonably claim that it is not one region but two.
I’m telling you all of this not because I can reel such facts off the top of my head but because I’m in the Zollverein Colliery in the north of Essen, once the largest colliery in the world and today a Unesco World Heritage Site.
I spend the whole morning in the museum but it’s not what I’ve come to see. I’m not a tourist after all. I know the city well, particularly up here the northern part of it. The Chief lives in the north of Essen if you remember, and once a year he likes to give our football club one of his famous tours.
We’ve strolled down just about every street in these here parts, rucksacks stuffed with sausages and beer. The Chief’s tours vary in length and detail depending on the hour of the day and the amount of alcohol consumed and, while this naturally has an influence on their educational value, they are always delivered to a grateful public.
The only drawback is that as you stagger onto a train at the end of the day you haven’t the faintest idea where you’ve been. I’ve come here today to join up the dots, to finally get some sense of orientation. I have a bike, a map, a clear head and a free weekend. Nothing can go wrong.
The colliery is the most imposing sight in northern Essen and I cycle through streets lined with shops selling textiles and fried chicken. Southern Esseners never come up this way. “Badlands”, they say, “Comanche territory”, “overrun by immigrants”.
If I didn’t have The Chief’s local knowledge I wouldn’t be having much fun either. Being so close to the mines and steelworks, these suburbs made attractive targets for Allied bombers. Post-war reconstruction was done in a hurry; that of the houses at least. Replacing the coal and steel industries is proving more difficult, but you can’t blame the Allies for that.
Globalisation has taken its toll on the northern Ruhr. The Chief works in logistics, now one of the biggest employers, but there’s only so much stuff from Amazon needs shifting. Krupp is still here, now merged with once hated rivals Thyssen. Together they are a global concern with most of the jobs anywhere in the world but Essen.
The second most prominent landmark up here is the chimney of the aluminum works. Business is good, melting down scrap aluminium in three half-mile-long smelters, but headcount is efficient. Essen is still good at making money; the challenge now is create employment while doing it.
I pass though the yellow cranes and blue containers of the harbour and pick up the road to the stadium. The football ground is easy to find; you just follow the evenly spaced trails of blood left on the asphalt by Rot-Weiss Essen supporters trailing their knuckles along the floor.
Rot-Weiss Essen. They really do have the most Neanderthal fans in the league. Trust me on this one. As I stop for lunch in the suburb of Altenessen, I’m reminded of a story.
I once had a student from Altenessen, an RWE fan, who got the words “old eat” tattooed on his forearm. He showed me and asked whether that was the correct English translation for the name of his home turf.
I gave the diplomatic answer. He must never know the truth.
The Chief tells better stories than I do. All day I’ve been tracking down some of the things he’s shown us over the years. In find the smallest shop in Essen, a jewellers consisting of three old telephone boxes outside the post office. I find Liliput, the smallest and friendliest pub in the whole town.
There’s history here if you have The Chief to help you find it. The old tollbooth from the days when the boundaries of the city were an international border, bunkers so big the Krupp company hid tanks under them.
I pull out my phone and give him a call. History is no fun on your own. Within the hour we meet up in a beer garden and some time in the early morning I stagger onto a train in an unknown suburb, once more clueless as to where I am.
When I wake up the next morning, the world is spinning. Having headed north of the city yesterday, the plan was to hop on a bike and go south. As I steer myself into the bathroom only with great difficulty, I conclude immediately that I am in no state to steer a bicycle. Our tour must continue on foot.
I take a train to the suburb of Essen-Werden. The original convent of Essen has gone now but Werden also has an abbey, now used as a music school. They’re a cultured lot these southerners.
I stop for lunch at a bistro whose daily special is pancetta. Do you know, I’ve been on this earth for nearly forty years and I still don’t know what that is? I have no intention of finding out either –requiring grease to counter the hangover, I order pizza.
From there I leave the half-timbered houses and walk the three miles or so along the river. There isn’t a house along the entire stretch. Now that the industry has gone, the region is returning to the soil. Trees have been replanted. Where once there were slag heaps now there are hillsides. Railways which once transported iron ore have been torn up and made into cycle paths. The earth exhales.
When it comes to housing in southern Essen, it’s quality not quantity that counts. There are a lot of nice period places out here if you’ve got a couple of million to spend. I spend the afternoon in the poshest of the lot — the Villa Hügel, whose 239 rooms were once home to the mighty Familie Krupp.
Nowadays the Krupps are extinct, and some would say good riddance. The pater familias Alfred Krupp has been dubbed “the father of modern warfare”. Three generations of Krupps armed Germany for three wars before the last of the clan was sentenced at Nuremberg. You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your heritage.
German industrialists were ruthless, but so was much of the company they kept. Letters from the family archive have been put on view and they read like a who’s who of industry in the twentieth century. The good, the bad and the ugly.
There’s one here from Andrew Carnegie, inviting the Krupps to come and visit him in Scotland. Thomas Edison, Rudolf Diesel, Ferdinand Porsche, Robert Bosch, Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Haile Selassie, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Otto von Bismarck. There’s even one from the last Abbess of Essen, who was also smart enough to buy into Krupp steel when the going was good.
None of them exactly exude warmth. Time to go. It takes a good twenty minutes’ walk to get me off the property and onto streets again.
The streets are different to the ones I saw yesterday –you might have been expecting that by now. These ones are lined with bistros, pattiseries, bars selling craft beers and designer burgers. The sun is shining and the terraces are thronging with the beautiful people, babbling over their lattes. Somehow I don’t think they’re talking about Rot-Weiss Essen or Alfred Krupp.
I stop at an Irish pub and order English cider at Scandinavian prices. I sit on the terrace and drink it alone. I would call The Chief, but he never comes down this way. He’s got to get up tomorrow anyway and so have I.
I jump onto the tram, a second-hand affair which in a previous life served on London’s Docklands Light Railway, and head for home.
One space, two cities. One rough and ready, one smooth and stylish. Sins, omissions, secrets beneath the surface; all mixed into the unbreakable alloy of shared memory.
Of the two, I know which one I prefer. Home is about the people you share it with.
North and south. It reminds me of another place I used to know, back then in a previous life.