smbw travels: Essen Germany

smbw travels: Essen Germany

by Sierra Roman

My husband and I recently had the opportunity to visit some friends who live in Essen, Germany. Most people, including us, had never heard of this little known city about an hour’s drive north of Cologne. We would never have guessed it would have such a rich history and play such a crucial role in World War II.

A little background on the city of Essen:

Essen began in the mid-9th century as home to a women's abbey, then during the Renaissance became an important coal mining town and later a major steel production center. It was largely shaped by the Krupp family whose industrial empire was the largest contributor to the population growth of Essen. Alfred Krupp, the patriarch of the same Krupp family that later would found Thyssen-Krupp elevators, built his family’s 269-room mansion, known as the Villa Hügel in 1873. We had an opportunity to take a tour of his estate which sits on 70 acres overlooking the Ruhr (river). It was quite grand and ornately detailed.

In 1811 Alfred’s son, Frederick Krupp, founded Germany’s first cast steel factory in Essen. The Krupp Works was the largest contributor to the population growth of Essen and, by the time the Second World War came around, the weapons factories in Essen were so important it became known as the Armory of the Reich. As a major industrial center, Essen was a target for allied bombing. Air raids were launched against the city, destroying most of the city and a majority of the suburbs. Once the city of Essen was captured by the allies, the Krupps were forced to leave their home at Villa Hügel and the allies set up camp there.  I was startled at how many times during our guided tour of the city we would hear what used to be there before the bombing.

While much of their city has had to be rebuilt since the war, there were a number of famous landmarks we got an opportunity to experience while we were there:

  • The Zollverein Industrial Complex was a coal mine that had been closed in the 1980s. The mining shaft that projected from the earth had become a symbol for the whole Ruhr area and is praised as the “most beautiful coal mine in the world”. Although it was no longer being used for mining, the city decided not to demolish it and instead turned it into a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a collection of museums and design facilities. I was really impressed by this site and the way that they celebrated its history while completely repurposing it in really creative ways. As soon as you enter you are greeted by a large courtyard with a giant outdoor shower installation, a nod to the showers the miners would have after exiting the mines. There you are offered the chance to put on a raincoat and stand under the wall of water to experience it.
  • The Museum Folkwang, whose latest expansion was designed by David Chipperfield and Co., houses some really great art collections.
  • The Bottrop Tetrahedron is a walkable steel structure on top of an old mine dump in the shape of a, you guessed it… tetrahedron! We climbed to the top of this 160’-0” structure and, as someone slightly afraid of heights, I admit I was gripping both rails with white knuckles. Overcoming the fear of looking down was worth the view though! You can see for miles and miles in all directions!
  • The Botanischer Garten Grugapark is a botanical garden located in Essen. This beautiful garden was established in the 20’s as a means of recreation and scientific research. Although some of the garden was destroyed in World War II, it was gradually rebuilt and now includes 3 green houses, a bonsai garden, and a playfully designed Ronald McDonald House designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 2005.

Nods to a lost history are hidden between the shops, churches and museums and we really enjoyed the week we spent pealing back the layers. We couldn’t be more appreciative of our gracious hosts who made sure we experienced all that Essen had to offer!