With its population of around eighteen million actually exceeding that of the neighbouring Netherlands, North Rhine-Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen) is by far Germany’s most populous Land, though it’s by no means the biggest geographically. As the name suggests, it’s an artificial construction, cobbled together by the occupying British after World War II from the Prussian provinces of the Rhineland and Westphalia. Perhaps that explains why, for all its size and economic clout, it lacks the sort of breast-beating regional patriotism found in Bavaria. Instead, loyalties tend to be more local: to the city – particularly in the Land’s great metropolis, Cologne – or to the region, as in the Ruhrgebiet, which straddles the historic boundary between Rhineland and Westphalia.
Occupied at various times by the French and British and with Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen, at its western tip, North Rhine-Westphalia is an outward-looking, European-minded place. Several of its cities have played a decisive role in European history: in the north, the handsome cathedral city of Münster was the scene for the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War, while in the south the university city of Bonn – birthplace of Beethoven – strutted the world stage more recently as capital of West Germany during the Cold War. Though it lacks the alpine drama of Germany’s south, North Rhine-Westphalia has its share of scenic beauty, along the mighty Rhine, in the charming Siebengebirge and in the wooded, peaceful Sauerland.
Urban attractions are nevertheless to the fore, particularly in thriving, multicultural Cologne and chi-chi Düsseldorf, its near-neighbour, rival and the Land’s capital. The increasingly postindustrial cities of the Ruhr conurbation – such as Duisburg, Essen and Dortmund – also have their charms, not least in their inventive reworking of their rich industrial heritage. Further afield, the ham-and-pumpernickel wholesomeness of the smaller Westphalian towns like Soest, Paderborn, Detmold and Lemgo couldn’t be less like the Ruhr, while along the Lower Rhine – around Kalkar and Xanten – the proximity of the Netherlands makes itself felt in place names, architecture and landscape.
Getting into and around the region is easy. Three major airports – at Cologne-Bonn, Düsseldorf and Dortmund – are well-connected internationally, while there’s a dense web of public transport links, with the core of the region well-served by rail, U-Bahn and bus. This is also one of the easiest parts of Germany to explore by bicycle, with well-equipped Radstations at many train stations and well-signposted cycle paths along which to explore the countryside.
Few places can claim such proudly European credentials as AACHEN (known as Aix-la-Chapelle in French, Aken to the Dutch). Its hot thermal springs were known to the Celts and Romans, but it wasn’t until Charlemagne took up residence in 768 AD that the city briefly took centre stage as the capital of his vast Frankish empire. At its height, this encompassed much of what would form – more than a millennium later – the original core of the European Union. But it didn’t long survive his death, and nor did Aachen’s political importance, though for six centuries afterwards the city remained the place where German emperors were crowned. Charlemagne’s chief legacy is the magnificent domed court chapel – now the city’s cathedral and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – that is still the most splendid thing in the city.
During World War II, Aachen was the first German city in the west to fall to Allied invasion, after a six-week battle in the autumn of 1944 that laid waste to much of it. However, the cathedral escaped destruction and the heart of the city, at least, retains a pleasing sense of history. These days, Germany’s most westerly city is a lively, medium-sized place, its municipal boundary forming the international frontier at the point where Belgium and the Netherlands meet, creating an easy-going and cosmopolitan feel, with the student population supporting a vibrant nightlife scene and the spa bringing in a steady stream of more genteel visitors.
Though its slightly eccentric exterior hints at the building’s unique riches, the dark, Byzantine interior of Aachen’s Dom nevertheless comes as a surprise. As you enter the cathedral through the massive, twelve-hundred-year-old bronze doors you’re immediately presented with its great glory, the octagonal palace chapel built for Charlemagne and inspired by the churches of San Vitale in Ravenna and Little Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It was the first domed church north of the Alps and though it was the work of Otto von Metz, Charlemagne himself contributed his own ideas to the design. If you can, take the guided tour as much of the interior is off limits for casual visitors and you’ll only gain the most superficial impressions without it. In particular, it’s only on the tour that you’ll see the modest marble Imperial Throne in the upper gallery which was used for coronations for six centuries, from Otto I in 936 to Ferdinand I in 1531. At the time of writing, ongoing restoration work meant parts of the octagon were obscured from view.
The vast twelfth-century gilded Barbarossa chandelier, which hangs low in the centre of the octagon, catches the eye, along with the nineteenth-century mosaics inside the dome high above; but the octagon’s marble pillars are altogether more ancient, having been brought to Aachen from Rome and Ravenna with the permission of Pope Hadrian I. So prized are they that French troops hauled 28 of them off to Paris in 1815, where four can still be seen in the Louvre. As the burial place of Charlemagne and a place of pilgrimage, the cathedral was embellished over the centuries with various chapels, and in the fourteenth century a soaring, light-filled Gothic choir – the so-called “Glass House of Aachen” – was added to ease the crush of visiting pilgrims. It houses the gilded thirteenth-century shrine that contains Charlemagne’s remains. The choir’s original stained glass was destroyed by hail in 1729; the present windows are post-1945, and replaced glass destroyed during World War II.
The placid university town of BONN was “provisional” capital of West Germany for fifty years, from 1949 until the Bundestag and many government departments began relocating to Berlin in 1999. Bonn was dubbed “Federal Capital Village” for the sheer improbability of its choice as capital; likelier candidates included Frankfurt, which even built a parliament building to fulfil its anticipated role. But Bonn prevailed, and it was changed by the experience, so that by the time the federal government moved to Berlin it was no longer quite the “small town in Germany” of John Le Carré’s Cold War spy story. The two houses of the German parliament may no longer reside here, but several ministries do, along with the United Nations and the headquarters of Deutsche Telekom, T Mobile and Deutsche Post.
Bonn’s pleasant, traffic-free Altstadt benefits from its associations with Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born here, while the setting – at the beginning of a particularly scenic stretch of the Rhine – is a delight, and easily explored on foot, but the modern city stretches far along the Rhine. Sandwiched between the city proper and its spa-town suburb of Bad Godesberg is the old government quarter, the Bundesviertel, and its strip of modern museums along the so-called Museumsmeile, planned before the Berlin Wall fell but which, in the event, proved to be a generous goodbye present to the city. Facing Bonn across the Rhine are the inviting, wooded hills of the Siebengebirge – a hugely popular destination for walkers and day-trippers alike, right on Bonn’s doorstep.
From the Hofgarten, a boulevard named for three of Germany’s political giants leads south through the Bundesviertel or former government district. It begins as Adenauer Allee, continues as Willy-Brandt-Allee and then becomes Friedrich-Ebert-Allee, named after the Weimar-era socialist who was Germany’s first democratic president.
The western side of this avenue constitutes the Museumsmeile, an impressive strip of museums that ensures Bonn’s heavy-hitter status among Germany’s cultural centres.
The first museum on Museumsmeille is the Museum Koenig, a stately sandstone pile that was the venue for the first elected postwar national assembly on September 1, 1948. The museum’s zoological exhibits have been given a child-friendly makeover, though the lack of English labelling limits its rainy-day appeal slightly – pick up the English-language leaflet at the entrance. Displays are grouped by habitat and include African savanna, rainforest and the Arctic; the Vivarium in the basement has live lizards, snakes and fish, as well as the Zwergmaus – a particularly tiny rodent.
A little way to the south of Museum Koenig, the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland charts the history of the Federal Republic of Germany in a lively and entertaining way; as you leave the U-Bahn the first thing you see is the luxurious railway carriage used by chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard but originally built for Nazi bigwig, Hermann Göring. Rubble marks the start of the story in 1945, with grim footage of concentration camps and of destroyed German cities; it continues through the beginnings of democratic politics and of artistic rebirth to the 1950s Wirtschaftswunder – the “economic miracle” – the Cold War and division of Germany, and moves finally to the period post-1989.
A recent revamp to the exhibition has put the years of division in stronger focus, with an examination of the way both halves of Germany were bound into opposing ideological camps. Along with the political developments post-1989, recent German history is also examined in the light of globalization, the life of migrant groups and the increasing deployment of German forces overseas. It’s not all dry politics by any means: along the way, fun exhibits like the 1950s-style ice -cream parlour lighten the mood. Labelling is now in English as well as German.
The most architecturally refined of the area’s museums is the Kunstmuseum Bonn, whose starkly beautiful modernist interior provides a fitting home for its collection of works by August Macke and the Rhine Expressionists. Macke, who was born in 1887 and killed in action in France in 1914, grew up in Bonn but was no mere “regional” artist, as his gorgeous, colour-filled canvases demonstrate: poignantly, the most confident are the 1914 Tightrope Walker and Turkish Café. The museum has a substantial collection of post-1945 German art, with works by heavyweights including Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz and Joseph Beuys; a recent re-hang has given stronger emphasis to photography, video installation and film.
The Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland next door to the Kunstmuseum provides a venue for large-scale touring art exhibitions and is big enough to host several simultaneously. Don’t miss the striking roof garden, dominated by three ceramic-clad light spires.
The Deutsches Museum Bonn is a resolutely contemporary museum of science and technology whose themed displays allow you to find out how a car airbag works, learn about medical research and see various Nobel Prize-winning discoveries. There’s also a Transrapid hoverrail train.
The industrial southern fringes of Cologne seem an unlikely setting for an outburst of fantasy, frivolity and surrealism, yet all are on display in copious quantities in the otherwise unassuming commuter-belt town of BRÜHL, home to one of Germany’s most magnificent palaces and one of Europe’s best theme-parks, as well as a museum devoted to the Dadaist artist, Max Ernst.
It was in 1725 that the elector and archbishop of Cologne, Clemens August, first commissioned a new palace on the ruins of a medieval moated palace, but the results – by Westphalian builder Johann Conrad Schlaun – were judged insufficiently fabulous for a member of the Wittelsbach dynasty, and so the Bavarian court architect François de Cuvilliés was commissioned to vamp things up. The result is Schloss Augustusburg, a Rococo Xanadu of extraordinary panache that is one of Germany’s most magnificent palaces and, since 1984, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The moment you see the breathtakingly lavish, ceremonial Treppenhaus (staircase) by Balthasar Neumann with its frothy rocailles and vivid stucco marble effects, you’ll understand why this was Clemens August’s favourite residence, for as you ascend the staircase the sheer exuberance of the design becomes apparent, even as you try to decide precisely how far over the top it all is. Napoleon, who visited in 1804, is said to have remarked that it was a pity the Schloss wasn’t on wheels so he could take it with him. The dizzying reception rooms at the top of the staircase continue in a similar vein.
The gardens, with their parterres and fountains, offer an outdoor equivalent to the indoor excess. An avenue leads across the park to the little lodge of Jagdschloss Falkenlust (same hours as Schloss) which, though smaller in scale, is similar in spirit, and for which you don’t have to join a tour. Clemens August used it for entertaining and for trysts with his mistresses.
High above DETMOLD on the forested ridge of the Teutoburger Wald 35km north of Paderborn stands a remarkable monument to one of the founding legends of the German nation-state, the Hermannsdenkmal – a solitary, wing-helmeted warrior raising his sword high over the canopy of trees.
The Hermannsdenkmal was the vision of one dogged obsessive, the sculptor Joseph Ernst von Bandel, a bust of whom stands outside the hut he occupied while struggling to complete the 53.46-metre-high monument, begun in 1838 and finally completed with financial support from the Prussian state in 1875. The copper-green warrior commemorates Arminius (or “Hermann”), chieftain of the Cherusci, who united local tribes in 9 AD to annihilate three Roman legions at the battle of Teutoburger Wald and thus struck an early blow for German unity. Though the impetus for Hermann’s construction was blatantly nationalistic, these days he cuts a romantic figure, and there’s no denying the beauty of the views from the platform at his feet.
Perched at the Ruhr’s eastern extremity, DORTMUND is a former free imperial city and Hanseatic League member that grew rich in the Middle Ages from its position on the Hellweg, a major trading route, before declining after the Thirty Years’ War. In the nineteenth century it re-emerged from provincial obscurity thanks to coal, steel and beer: at one point only Milwaukee brewed more. All three industries declined in the late twentieth century and there’s now just one major brewer, the Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei. Information and biotechnology are the economic motors of the “new” Dortmund, which seems to have mastered the transition from heavy industry relatively well; the old Union brewery with its giant illuminated “U” still looms over the city, but nowadays it houses art, not beer, and shares the skyline with a scattering of funky modern office towers. Nevertheless, the surviving medieval street pattern and a scattering of worthwhile sights ensure that Dortmund preserves a sense of its long history.
Straddling the Rhine at the point where the Ruhr empties into it, DUISBURG is the Ruhrgebiet’s westernmost city and, with a population of half a million, its third largest. Surviving medieval defences point to a long history, but it was the Ruhr’s nineteenth-century industrialization that transformed it into a major city, the largest inland port in Europe and a centre for steel, coal and engineering. From the mid-1960s onwards the heavy industries declined, but Duisburg has faced its challenges with imagination, hiring British architect Norman Foster to oversee its physical transformation, and though it’s no great beauty the city’s engrossing galleries, reworked industrial landscapes and funky, revitalized docks ensure it’s worth at least a brief stopover.
In the north of the city is Duisburg’s most original attraction, the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, until 1985 a giant steelworks belonging to the Thyssen group. Since its decommissioning, nature has reclaimed large parts of the two-square-kilometre site, with rose gardens planted in former ore hoppers and trees growing up and through rusty blast furnaces, one of which can be climbed for a vertigo-inducing – though perfectly safe – closer look. The atmosphere is eerie, almost post-apocalyptic, yet it works, both as a park and as an awe-inspiring piece of industrial archeology. It’s also a clubbing venue and activity centre, with alpine climbing gardens and Europe’s largest artificial diving centre housed in a flooded gasometer. At weekends a stunning light installation turns it into pure science-fiction after dark.
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.
First-time visitors expecting vistas of belching chimneys are likely to be surprised by Essen, for the Ruhr’s “secret capital” is a modern, unashamedly commercial city with a modest forest of office towers and a vast central shopping zone. Though it contests with Dortmund the status of biggest city in the Ruhr, Essen is the one with the unmistakable big-city feel, and it’s this, as much as its central position in the region, that gives it an edge over its rival. It’s an enjoyable place to spend a day or two, with plenty of high culture, a smattering of interesting sights including one UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a lively nightlife scene.
Basic orientation is straightforward: the city centre is immediately north of the Hauptbahnhof, with the main cultural zone to the south; further south still is some of the most enticing eating, drinking and sightseeing, while the gritty north preserves reminders of the city’s industrial greatness.
For many Germans, Essen’s best-known son is Heinz Rühmann (1902–94), Germany’s greatest screen comic, whose extraordinary film career spanned the Weimar Republic, Third Reich, Cold War and post-reunification eras and whose best-loved film – the school comedy Die Feuerzangenbowle – still enjoys Rocky Horror-style cult status more than sixty years after it was first shown. For the rest of the world, however, the city’s name is synonymous with that of the Krupp family, the powerful steel-to-armaments dynasty whose rise mirrored the city’s own ascent to industrial greatness during the nineteenth century, and whose commercial genius and questionable political judgement accurately reflect the experience of Germany in the first half of the twentieth century.
The superb Museum Folkwang is reason enough for a visit to Essen. David Chipperfield’s coolly understated modernist extension – which opened in 2010 – has created a series of spacious galleries grouped around serene internal gardens; the new building seamlessly incorporates the old, with separate areas devoted to nineteenth-and twentieth-century art, contemporary art, graphic art and temporary exhibitions.
The collection’s undoubted highlight is the nineteenth- and twentieth-century section, kicking off with the Romantic period and works by Caspar David Friedrich and Karl Friedrich Schinkel before romping through a treasure-trove of French Impressionists and post-Impressionists: paintings include some wonderful late Van Goghs, Cézanne’s Le Carré de Bibémus and Signac’s pointilliste Le Pont des Arts. German Expressionist works include Schmidt-Rottluff’s spiky Leipziger Strasse with Electric Tram from 1914 and the near-abstract Forms at Play by Franz Marc, painted the same year. The roll call of modernist greats continues with works by Braque, Léger, Picasso, Beckmann and Kandinsky; post-1945 highlights include work by Mark Rothko, Yves Klein and Gerhard Richter.
LEMGO, 11km north of Detmold, preserves a beguiling small-town atmosphere that harks back to its Hanseatic League prime, its streets a photogenic blend of Weser Renaissance pomp and picturesque half-timbering. Not everything in the town’s history is as charming as its architecture, however. Converting to Protestantism after the Reformation, from 1583 to 1681 Lemgo was gripped by an anti-witchcraft frenzy that was cynically exploited by politicians – most notoriously by Hermann Cothmann (1629–83), the so-called Hexenbürgermeister or “witch mayor”, who presided over the last, bloodiest, wave of trials. The last woman prosecuted for witchcraft, Maria Rampendahl, survived, but 254 men and women were not so fortunate.
Bicycles rule in studenty MÜNSTER, which, with twice as many bikes as people, is Germany’s most cycle-friendly city. Its history is intertwined with that of its bishopric, the name Münster deriving from the monastery founded at Charlemagne’s behest in 793 AD, while in the twentieth century, Bishop Clemens August von Galen was one of the few prominent clerics to defy Nazi rule. In the Middle Ages Münster was a Hanseatic city; during the Reformation it experienced a brief, bloody tyranny under an extreme Anabaptist sect, but soon returned to the Catholic fold. In 1648, it was the venue for the signature of the Peace of Westphalia; later, during the Napoleonic wars, the city was briefly the capital of the French département of Lippe, before in 1816 becoming capital of Prussian Westphalia.
Built – or rather rebuilt – on a human scale, Münster is easy to explore on foot: defined by the continuous green Promenadenring along the line of the old defences, the Altstadt contains the main sights. Beyond it, you’ll find fresh air and space to picnic around the Aasee lake southwest of the centre, and cool bars and restaurants on the Stadthafen’s waterside strip. Watch your step though, for those cyclists are not to be messed with.
The Ruhr has experienced the same structural difficulties faced by similar “rust belt” regions elsewhere, but it has risen to the challenge of re-using its redundant industrial sites in a very different way. Instead of bulldozing them, many have been preserved in acknowledgement of the historical significance and tourist potential of these so-called “cathedrals of industry”. Today, a 400km road route and a well-signposted 700km cycle trail form the Route der Industriekultur (Industrial Heritage Trail; route-industriekultur.de) link former steelworks, coal mines and slagheaps to offer a fascinating insight into the technology of heavy industry, with a healthy injection of contemporary culture. Some of the most significant attractions are dealt with in the individual city sections here, but others are listed here. You can rent bikes for €1 per hour from one of the 300 cycle stations scattered across the region – you just have to register free first (metropolradruhr.de).
Religion and power meet at PADERBORN, where Charlemagne discussed his coronation as emperor with Pope Leo III in 799 AD. Its bishopric blossomed in the Middle Ages into a prince-bishopric and in 1929 into an archbishopric. The compact cathedral city remains a strongly religious place, with a theology faculty that traces its roots back to the Jesuit university founded by Prince-Bishop Dietrich von Fürstenberg in 1614. Its religious monuments, combined with its unique geographical location at the source of Germany’s shortest river, make it an engrossing place for a short visit.
Paderborn’s cathedral is dedicated to St Liborius, an early Christian bishop from Le Mans whose remains were transferred to the town in 836 AD. The obscure Gallo-Roman cleric is the focal point of the annual nine-day Libori festival in late July, when the golden shrine containing his reliquary is paraded through the streets and the city centre becomes a riotous mix of nuns and beer, attracting a million visitors.
Set in rich farming country fifty minutes by train east of Dortmund, idyllic SOEST was another medieval Hanseatic League member on the Hellweg, with trade links reaching as far as Russia. Cologne’s archbishops founded a Pfalz or residence here around 960–965 AD, and were for centuries the town’s overlords; Soest’s fifteenth-century struggle to be rid of them triggered its decline and by 1500 its glory days were over, leaving an enchanting townscape of half-timbered houses and striking, sage-green sandstone churches whose charm even wartime bombs couldn’t erase. Most of what’s worth seeing is within the surviving medieval defences, a circuit of which makes a pleasant way to spend an hour or two.
North of Duisburg the Rhineland’s heavy industry gives way to a peaceful, agricultural region dotted with small towns, the place names and flat terrain reflecting the proximity of the Dutch border. Under the Holy Roman Empire the Duchy of Cleve counted for something – famously supplying the English king Henry VIII with one of his wives – but these days the region is mainly of interest as an excursion from the Ruhr, with hourly trains from Duisburg making historic Xanten a magnet for day-trippers. Beyond it, placid Kalkar preserves a more low-key charm.
Modest by Alpine standards, the swathe of unspoilt wooded hills known as the Sauerland nevertheless represents a precious taste of the great outdoors for the millions who live in North Rhine-Westphalia’s major cities, as well as attracting holiday-makers from further afield. The region, which strays across the Land boundary into western Hesse, is above all popular for activities, from hiking, mountain biking or Nordic walking in the summer to skiing in the winter, while its artificial lakes – the target of the famous RAF “Dambuster” air raids during World War II – offer a focus for all kinds of water-based activities, from canoeing and fishing to swimming, sailing and windsurfing. If that’s too energetic, you can take a sedate coffee-and-cake excursion aboard a comfortable cruise boat on the Möhnesee (moehneseeschifffahrt.de).
Five natural parks together comprise almost three-quarters of the region’s territory, crisscrossed by a number of themed hiking-trails such as the Sauerland-Höhenflug – a high-altitude route that takes in four 800m peaks – and the 240km Waldroute, which links the towns of Iserlohn, Arnsberg and Marsberg to provide a close-up view of the region’s forests and fauna. For mountain-bikers, the 1700km Bike Arena Sauerland is the draw, supported by cyclist-friendly hotels and guesthouses. With so much fresh air and wholesome exercise, it’s perhaps no surprise the Sauerland was the location for the first ever youth hostel – at Altena, southeast of Dortmund. Möhnesee is the closest of the Sauerland lakes to Soest; a bus service – the #R49 – takes around 25 minutes to connect Soest Bahnhof with the lakeside town of Körbecke. For more information, visit the helpful web portal sauerland.com, which is in English as well as German.
Facing Bonn and Bad Godesberg across the Rhine, the extinct volcanic domes of the Siebengebirge are perfect mountains in miniature. None rise higher than 500m, yet the hills are steep-sided and thickly wooded enough to create a plausible impression of alpine ruggedness. Much mythologized and immortalized in song, the Siebengebirge were rescued from destruction by quarrying in the nineteenth century and now comprise one of Germany’s oldest nature reserves. There are in fact many more hills – 42 in all – than the name (which means seven mountains) would suggest, and several are topped by ruined fortresses, which merely adds to their mystique. The entire range is crisscrossed by hiking trails, including the 320km Rheinsteig long-distance path which passes through on its way from Bonn to Wiesbaden. Given their picturesque charm and very close proximity to the Rhineland’s big cities, the Siebengebirge are, not surprisingly, highly popular. Of all the hills, the most visited is the 320m Drachenfels (or “dragon rock”), which rises above the riverfront resort of Königswinter.
Around 40km northeast of Cologne in the hilly Bergisches Land, WUPPERTAL is not so much a city as an amalgam of towns strung out along the narrow, wooded valley of the River Wupper; they united in 1929 and shortly afterwards adopted the name Wuppertal. Known internationally for its unique suspended-monorail system, the Schwebebahn, and for the Tanztheater Pina Bausch – one of the world’s most renowned modern dance troupes – it’s also the place where aspirin was invented, and was a major centre of the German textile industry. Despite some down-at-heel stretches Wuppertal is redeemed by its hilly, leafy site and by the survival of a large number of buildings from its nineteenth-century heyday, particularly in Elberfeld, which is the larger and more attractive of the two main centres, the other being Barmen, a little to the east.
The Schwebebahn system – suspended from massive girders above the course of the River Wupper – was an ingenious solution to the problem of providing a rapid-transit system in an extremely narrow valley where space was at a premium. The idea of Cologne engineer Eugen Langen, it was built in the 1890s. Kaiser Wilhelm II took the inaugural ride in 1900 and the system opened to the public a few months afterwards. It takes some getting used to, as the trains are noisy and sway from side to side in slightly disconcerting fashion, but the Schwebebahn has a good safety record, and on weekend afternoons you can take a “Kaffeefahrt” on one of the original 1900 trains, departing from Vohwinkel station.