When I was growing up in a small, leafy municipality near the Dutch-German border, the German area known as the Ruhrgebiet was still the epitome of ugly. The snooty inhabitants of better-off areas left no doubt about the industrial Ruhrgebiet’s shortcomings, its ugliness and dirt, impoverished inhabitants, and a certain university taking first place in students’ suicide statistics. Getting older, however, I heard more and more differing voices. It seemed that the inhabitants of the Ruhrgebiet actually took pride in their working class background, its rough charms and underdog status. This is a little simplified, naturally, as the Ruhrgebiet isn’t a small area (4.435 square kilometers with 5.1 million inhabitants, according to Wikipedia) and the landscape, people and traditions do vary. On the whole, this label of a rough, but ultimately warm-hearted place and people still sticks, though.
What a lot of people, including myself, have not or have only slowly realised, is the fact that the “ugly duckling” has started transforming itself. Nowadays, there are many huge, green areas throughout the Ruhrgebiet, offering lovely local recreation areas, which twenty-odd years ago nobody would have expected to remain alive and green in this part of the country.
The coal mining complex known as Zeche Zollverein, located in the city of Essen, is a good example of such re-purposing. Zeche Zollverein was active between 1851 and 1986, oftentimes the most productive German coal mine per annum and generally offering up millions of tonnes of coal each year, and employing up to a thousand workers. Although the buildings and remaining machinery naturally look industrial – how could they appear any different? – the surrounding area at Zeche Zollverein is… green.
I was dumbstruck on finding out that the former mining complex now offers a recreational area for people living in the vicinity, who go there for walks or cycling. I can’t even say how many parents I saw pushing their prams or walking toddlers and dogs, something I wouldn’t have expected at the site of a huge former industrial complex. There even is a small swimming pool, which I already wrote about. Dotted throughout the site, you will also find sculptures and other arty installations. You can enter the grounds (and pool!) free of charge, making the site even more accessible to locals; if you want to visit exhibitions or take guided tours, there are fees to be paid, however.
When I visited, I participated in a guided tour of the coking plant, which was extremely interesting, and also highlighted the dangers faced by the workers, even in modern times. I then visited the Ruhr Museum, which showcases not only the cultural and industrial, but also the natural history of the Ruhrgebiet. The museum is situated within the former coal washing plant, providing a fascinating backdrop to the exhibits. People interested in product design are bound to love the Red Dot Design Museum. In winter, you’ll find an ice rink in the old coking plant and stalls with all sorts of christmassy food. In case you get tired of walking, there is a bike hire station on site and a shuttle bus service is also provided.
In sum, I have to say that I will need to visit again: Spending a day or a couple of hours will give you a good first overview over the heritage of the coal mining industry. The whole of the former coal mining complex, however, is so huge and offers so many facilities, exhibitions and guided walks, that one day just didn’t suffice. To me, the site is especially fascinating through its mix of industry and nature and art – and even food, by way of several restaurants. The former industrial site has been thoroughly incorporated into modern life, blending the past and the present and allowing for the history to be experienced and touched, not just looked upon. What more can you ask of a heritage site?