A tough working-class cop with a complex personal history and a fondness for drink sounds like an unlikely rescuer for a depressed industrial region. Yet when Duisburg Kriminalhauptkommissar Horst Schimanski burst into German homes in the television series Tatort in 1981, initial outrage at his unorthodox methods quickly turned not just into adulation, but also to a resurgence of interest in the Ruhr’s history and identity. Played by Götz George as a soft-centred macho with a combat jacket and huge moustache, Schimi’s rise to cult status was greatly aided by the show’s use of gritty Ruhr locations, and is credited with having rallied the region’s morale, badly battered by the decline of its coal and steel industries from the 1960s onwards. Gradually the idea arose that the Ruhrgebiet – or Ruhrpott as it’s affectionately known by its inhabitants – could be cool too.

Germany’s largest urban area, the Ruhrgebiet consists of a string of interlinked towns and cities stretching east of the Rhine along the often surprisingly green valley of the Ruhr. It straddles the historic boundary between Rhineland and Westphalia and the confessional divide – Dortmund was traditionally Protestant, Essen Catholic. The Ruhr’s cities nevertheless have a shared history of sleepy provincialism abruptly transformed by coal and steel in the nineteenth century. It is an important footballing region, with teams like Gelsenkirchen’s Schalke and Borussia Dortmund numbered among the nation’s most successful. In recent years the Ruhr has also burnished its cultural credentials. Rather than demolish and forget its redundant steelworks and mines, the Ruhr reinvented them as design centres, art galleries or museums, in the process creating some of the most strikingly original visitor attractions in Europe and providing a memorable setting for the region’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 2010.

The Ruhr’s image became a touch trendier still when it took over as the host for the Love Parade after Berlin tired of hosting the annual techno-fest in 2007; the following year in Dortmund, 1.6 million dance-music fans partied on the Bundesstrasse 1 highway, shattering all previous attendance records. Alas, disaster struck at the 2010 parade in Duisburg, when the crush of visitors at the entrance to the festival site resulted in 21 deaths and the end – after more than twenty years – of the Love Parade itself.

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