The West of Germany is a pot-pourri of places, landscapes, flavours and ideas.
States: southern North-Rhine Westphalia, Rhineland Palatinate, Saarland, Hesse. In many parts it could so easily be part of France or of Belgium, with echoes (in the volcanic Eifel region) of the rolling forests of the Ardennes, and with the terraced vineyards of the Moselle and the Rhineland Palatinate a reminder that France’s Champagne country is not that far away. This region produces up to 80 percent of Germany’s exported wines.
And yet this is also the region of heavy industry. Up in the north by Essen and Dortmund is the massive urbanisation of the Ruhr – a giant network of towns and villages in a mesh of autobahns. Once the coal mining centre of Germany, this is now the home of steel mills and chemical works, and the river port at Duisburg is still the largest in Europe. But even this area is not to be avoided, because the Ruhr has been transforming disused industrial landscape into cultural icons, including the world’s most beautiful coal mine, Essen’s Zeche Zollverein, and as a result it was Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2010.
Nearby Düsseldorf is famous for fashion and for media businesses, while Cologne, a pivotal location both on Germany’s rail network with high-speed connections to the UK, and a starting point for many a Rhine cruise, is a welcoming and unconventional city (with a large gay population) which behaves in very un-Germanic fashion (at least from an outsider’s perspective) every February in Carnival.
National and cultural capitals
The West was, until recently, the region that hosted the national capital, Bonn, a tram ride south of Cologne, but since the return of the politicians and civil servants to Berlin, Bonn has returned to the status of quiet country town. Inland is the heartland of the Brothers Grimm, and many of their locations have been linked by the Fairytale Road or Märchenstrasse.
The biggest single landscape feature (and tourist attraction) of the
West of Germany is the Rhine, a huge watery thoroughfare busy both with freight traffic and with cruise ships, their passengers exhilarated by the river’s Wagnerian, legend-rich, craggy, castle-lined valley as they travel southwards towards the dreamy, whimsical university town of Heidelberg.
Not many of those cruise passengers linger for long in Frankfurt, the West’s big metropolis. Germany’s business capital and economic powerhouse doesn’t seem particularly attractive for leisure travel, but big money sponsors big culture, so there are key galleries and museum collections here along the banks of the River Main.