When I hear the word Ruhr, my mind immediately is filled with grainy black and white video footage of allied bombing in WWII accompanied by the deep resonating voice of an unseen narrator.
Smoke, rubble, bent steel, shattered windows, chimneys toppled into piles of bricks and ash.
The word Ruhr itself is as much the antithesis to Bavaria if there ever was one. The industrial machine – Krupp coal mines and steel factories – versus the idyllic picturesqueness in the foothills of the Alps.
Lying in the heart of the Ruhr region of Germany is the country’s 9th largest city, Essen. Essen’s rise to prominence was driven by mining and steel, and nothing gives the impression of the spirit of the Ruhr like the Zollverein Coal Mine and Coking Plant.
Looming over the skyline like a giant with his arms crossed is the winding tower of Shaft 12. A somber reminder of the past yet standing proud in the perseverance of the Essen people. The site itself is UNESCO protected and has been transformed into the Ruhr Museum, theaters, and several rentable venues for parties.
In the museum, you are right in the heart of the real coal washing plant. This is no simulated reproduction. The tour takes you among the pulleys, conveyors, vessels, and other assorted rusty equipment which fill the air with the characteristic oily metallic factory smell. Coal dust from 30 years ago still lingers in the cracks and crevices everywhere you turn.
Besides the museum, you are able to walk the entire grounds which have become an open air museum. The entire area actually sits below the ground water level due to the years of mining activity and today the iconic tower of Shaft 12 sits above the pumping station which pumps out the encroaching ground water to prevent the entire area from being flooded. After building up a bit of hunger exploring this expansive site, the cafeteria has an amazing chili which goes really well with a König Ludwig Weissbier.
Sipping that beautiful weissbier in its characteristic tall slender glass gave me a chance to contemplate the influence that König Ludwig had on the activities that would occur shortly after the visit to the mine. In 1810, König Ludwig I of Bavaria married Princess Therese. The festivities around this marriage evolved into the Oktoberfest. The real Oktoberfest is held every year in München starting from mid-September. Every other Oktoberfest around the world is an imitation. During my visits to Essen and the Ruhr Museum, I gained an appreciation for the cultural differences between the Ruhr region and Bavaria. Last year I had the opportunity to experience the München Oktoberfest and this year I was invited by my friends in Essen, some of which were with me in München, to see how the people of Essen have embraced the tradition.
Clearly on terms of spectacle, the Essen Oktoberfest cannot compare to München. There is one large tent rather than six, no carnival rides, and in fact not even a single souvenir stand. However, one difference made the experience special. In München, you are surrounded by a large proportion of tourists. While that provides its own reward, Essen offers the chance to immerse in the celebration with local Germans. So one year after the best day ever, there I was in the same lederhosen and rot-weiss checkered shirt dancing and singing like a fool carrying a 1-liter glass of beer. Only this time, the people across from me were not from Oregon but Mülheim or Duisburg or Essen.
One similarity to the München Oktoberfest is that the choice of beer is limited to one type. The Essen Oktoberfest beer was König Ludwig Hell, a typical German pilsner. The other similarity was that not a single soul was having a bad time. Strangers seemed intrigued as to why an American would bother coming to the Essen Oktoberfest. My answer was always simple. Look around you.
The evening started out much the same as I imagined it would in München inside the tents. Everybody taking their seats, chatting with friends, sipping their first beer, and nibbling on the oversized pretzels. At first there is space to move around a bit, stretch the legs, but soon the tables start to fill up and everyone is pushed closer together. The mood rises and little by little people start standing precariously on the wooden benches to join in on the songs until finally within a couple hours not a butt is sitting down. Tables are so close that the people from the neighboring table are also standing on your bench and spontaneous friends are made. After an hour of tireless singing and dancing, exhaustion starts to set in and people move to the open spaces on the floors or outside for some fresh air. Walking by strangers is met with smiles and pats on the back and the large dimpled liters of beer keep replacing the empty one just left behind. The outside world becomes invisible and for one night thousands of people are best friends.
I cannot say that this day was better than the day one year ago in München, but it was shared with more real friends and colleagues and in that way it had the feeling of a Best Day Ever. It was great to experience the contrast between two distinct regions of Germany, the Ruhr and Bavaria. It is these unique subcultures that makes living and traveling in Europe so rewarding. However, of all the differences and similarities between the two Oktoberfests, it is one particularly similarity that ensured that both weekends ended on a positive note.
The benefit of the counter beer.