In last weekend’s travel section of my newspaper I saw an article on ideas of places to visit in Germany and Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex was mentioned. I’ve already been there – in 2013, when not many people from outside Germany seemed to know about it – so even though it was 7 years ago I’d like to share my experience of visiting this amazing industrial heritage site in case anyone is thinking of going. I had read about it prior to going to Essen and it was one of the main things I wanted to see while I was there: a former huge coal mine, at one time the largest in the world, and a later coking plant which, rather than just being left to decay, had been turned into a major tourist attraction/heritage museum/design museum/performance space, and more, with nature allowed to take over some of the outside space to form an enormous park. So impressive was the result that it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.
I boarded the No. 107 tram in the main railway station and it set off through the suburbs of Essen, picking up a few more passengers as it went along; it’s a frequent service and it only took about 20 minutes to reach Zollverein; the tram stopped right outside the gate and what I saw made me impatient to get inside – massive brutalist buildings and the iconic monumental winding tower of Shaft XII looming over them. At the ticket office I asked if they had a welcome booklet and map in English and after a bit of rummaging around one was found for me. Entrance to the first building is via a very long orange escalator to the top floor of what was the coal wash plant. Everyone takes a photo of this escalator, and I was no exception. There’s a cafe, toilets and cloakroom where you leave rucksacks etc. You then make your way down the 4 levels via orange stairs and escalators through huge spaces, some filled with all manner of pipework, steel structures, ironwork and old machinery. The effect is mind-blowing. Probably not much of what you see now is as it was when it was operational – it was hard for me to be sure because all the labels and explanations were only in German – but just looking at what is, in effect, huge works of sculpture was good enough for me, although I realise it might not be to everyone’s taste. The Ruhr Museum is a regional history museum and there are floors concentrating on the geology of the area, including some magnificent specimens of fossils, a photographic record of the coal industry as it related to the people who lived there, skeletons of animals, and everything else you would expect to find in a local heritage museum – albeit in this case on a very large scale. I went up onto the roof from where it’s possible to see the whole site spread out, a magnificent panorama over the old industrial site that is gradually returning to nature, and from there I was able to get my bearings and decide where I wanted to go next.
I made my way to the adjacent set of buildings that housed retail outlets; I remember a jewellers, art gallery and a restaurant, but no doubt these have changed since then. I think this area, inside and out, is used for food fairs etc. There was also a cafe where I stopped to get a drink and something to eat. The cafe in the museum only appeared to offer currywurst as a snack option and it was the prime offering in this cafe too; I’m not very keen on currywurst but luckily there was some apple pie as well, so I sat at a table outside to eat it and gathered my strength for the next stage of the visit – the cokery, or coking plant. The photographs of this show a big wheel built onto the structure and I had read that entrance to the coking plant was by using the big wheel so I was quite excited about that. The walk took me along paths through grassy areas with wild flowers. Cycle routes are in abundance through the park and I saw many families cycling there. However, when I got to the coking plant I discovered that the big wheel had not worked for some time and it seemed that its repair was unlikely due to the high cost. Another disappointment was that there were no conducted tours in English, although I had read that these were available at some times. Audio guides were not available either, although hopefully this has changed since then, so I decided not to tour the cokery but just to explore the outside of it, some of which has been turned into tourist attractions – a water channel that is turned into an ice rink in the winter for example. I then went to the Red Dot Design Museum which is in a huge building that originally housed the boilers but in the 1990s was rebuilt by Sir Norman Foster. It’s a stunning space containing a large permanent exhibition of the best of contemporary design from around the world and also special temporary exhibitions. For me the building itself was the best bit, modern glass and concrete but built around original features and utilising one of the old boilers as an exhibition space and I wandered around happily looking at various displays – cars dangling from the ceilings, modern chairs – although there were too many high tech items for my taste. The toilets here are cunningly hidden behind a wall near the shop, obviously in an effort to retain good design unspoiled by helpful signage! It was a fantastic day out and I think a whole day is required to do it justice. The Ruhr Museum doesn’t open until 10.00 am and the Red Dot Museum not until 11.00 am, although they both stay open until 6.00 pm. However, it’s best to check websites for days they are closed.
“For information about the Ruhr Museum”:http://www.ruhrmuseum.de
“For more information about the Red Dot Museum”:https://www.red-dot-design-museum.org/essen