Visit: 22nd August 2015
On a Saturday morning in August we set off early from Heathrow to Düsseldorf on a classic one-nighter in North-Rhine Westphalia. The objective was to visit three very different World Heritage Sites. Cologne Cathedral would be a revisit, whereas the Rococo Palace at Brühl and the industrial complex here in Essen were both new to us.
Arriving at DUS at about 10.30am, we boarded a train northwards towards the Zollverein Coal Mine Complex. The attractions of an industrial WHS are not, perhaps, obvious – but the weather smiled upon us, which made it a much more enjoyable experience than it might otherwise have been.
Zollverein was a major coal mine and steel-milling site, inscribed on the UNESCO list for its testimony to an age of German industrialisation. That didn’t work out particularly well for the world, but it was certainly an important factor in the story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
But Zollverein is notable for more than just its scale. The buildings, whilst functional, are also considered to have great architectural merit. To quote UNESCO, German culture was at the time moving “from Expressionism to Cubism and Functionalism”, culminating in Bauhaus, which “combined form and function in a masterly way”. The buildings in the photos – particularly the coking plant in the first three – were designed and built in the inter-war years, during the German economic boom that came with the Versailles-infringing rearmament. It was poignant, wandering among the disused railways tracks that criss-cross the site, to reflect that we were walking through the engine room of Germany’s build-up to the Second World War.
Nowadays the site is a cultural centre, with many of its buildings turned into museums or gallery spaces. It is still sprinkled with mining paraphernalia, like the enormous drill-bit, above, and the fearsome-looking machine below.
In addition to the fine weather another factor helped make what could have been a dreary experience into a rather pleasant one. There was a German gourmet food festival going on (apparently not an oxymoron!), with dozens of stalls selling food mostly consisting of pork. We took the opportunity to try currywurst for the first time, and washed it down with a welcome glass of Pilsner.