Cycling in the Ruhrgebiet

When thinking of a location for a short family cycling holiday, the Ruhrgebiet – an enormous industrial region in the north-west of Germany – is not exactly the first place that springs to mind.

But look closer, and you’ll begin to realise that the Ruhrgebiet has a lot to offer. It is flat, is criss-crossed by hundreds of kilometres of traffic-free cycle paths and has an abundance of relatively cheap places to stay, eat and drink. On top of all this, its industrial heritage as the cradle of the powerhouse German economy makes it utterly fascinating; a refreshing break from traditional tourist areas.

Still need some convincing?

Tiger and Turtle sculpture in southern Duisburg, Ruhr

Sprawling over a vast area of some 4,500km2 (that’s nearly twice as big as Luxembourg!) and with 5.5 million inhabitants (that’s more than three times as many as Munich!), the Ruhrgebiet (let’s shorten it to “Ruhr”, shall we?) is, by some measures, the third-largest city in Europe.

So… why is it so obscure?

There are two answers to this question. First of all, Ruhr isn’t really one city at all, rather a compendium of medium-sized cities and large towns who all happen to be very close to each other. Due to this, it’s curiously lacking a focal point, a sense of identity, or even an Eiffel Tower / Big Ben-type monument that would make it instantly internationally recognisable.

Secondly – and let’s be honest here – Ruhr is not renowned for being pretty. This is a city that has grown and flourished on mining and heavy industry; quaint, it ain’t. At every turn, this landscape has been dotted, moulded, and often scarred by the very industries that created it. The striking Tiger and Turtle sculpture in Duisburg (see photo above) adorns an artificial hill created to safely bury toxic heavy metal waste from mining operations. Charming…

Yet there is something fascinating about this human-created landscape, this gritty, purposeful region that has arguably been the driving force behind what has made modern-day Germany, Germany. To find out more, Ash and I packed our bikes into Daisy the Bus and headed for the Ruhrgebiet.

Daisy the bus (Volkwagen T5 Caravelle) comfortably swallows any bicycle – perfect for family cycling holidays.

A confession: the choice of the Duisburg Sportpark Youth Hostel as our base was entirely due to a map-reading error… You see, my map showed a Radschnellweg (fast cycle path, or “bike motorway”) running all the way from the Sportpark past Essen, and I had considered this to be a good way to start our tour. Unfortunately, I had somehow failed to spot a rather important detail:

*geplant

(*planned / under construction).

Yes, yes – our cycle path hadn’t been built yet (hadn’t even been started), and so our tour started with a surprise mystery tour of the southern suburban streets of Duisberg. However, when we finally joined up with the bike motorway at Mülheim, it was an utter joy, well worth the wait.

Radschnellweg (bike motorway) in Ruhr (photo from http://www.qimby.net)

Just in case your initial suspicion needs confirming, the Radschnellweg is exactly what you think it is: an Autobahn, but for bikes. No junctions, no traffic lights, no speed limit and a great surface. All that was missing was BMWs screaming past us at over 200km/h. With Ash a disappearing dot in my distant horizon, I zipped along at a pace that I didn’t know I was even capable of. “Motorway exits” left and right of the path led to small Ruhr towns with endearingly German names – Heissen, Frohnhausen, Altendorf – whilst the kilometres to Essen ticked down rapidly. Seeing little reason to linger in Essen itself, we pedalled onwards to the UNESCO-listed industrial site of Zollverein.

Cycling through Zollverein, a UNESCO-listed industrial heritage site near Essen, Ruhr

Zollverein was impressive, but somehow predictable: this was the type of industrial landscape that we had come to Ruhr to see, and similar to the southern towns in our home country of Luxembourg. However, one thing that took us completely by surprise was just how green this mega-city is. Around the outskirts of Gelsenkirchen, it was all too easy to forget that we were now slap-bang in the centre of Europe’s third-largest metropolitan area.

Another striking difference from other major city centres was the prices. A quick lunch in Wanne (Currywurst, chips, drinks) cost us €8. Not each, for both of us. A refreshing departure from the chi-chi cafes and chain restaurant-dominated urban European centres.

Suitably refuelled, we temporarily diverted off the Industriekultur cycle route (more on that in a minute) to take a short-cut towards a BMX and skateboard park near Herne. The mines may be abandoned and the heavy machinery gone quiet, but urban parks like this seem like an intuitive way to preserve and enjoy these unique testaments to our industrial heritage.

Finding our way around Ruhr was surprisingly easy, thanks to an well-organised network of cycle paths and an innovative signpost system. The Industriekultur cycle route isn’t a loop nor a linear route, but a vast network of (mostly) traffic-free paths criss-crossing the region and connected by almost 100 “Knotenpunkte” (connecting points). Each Knotenpunkt is identified by a unique number and is situated at a major junction / point of interest. Supplementing this are plentiful maps and clear signposts, guiding the cyclist step-by-step on their discovery of the Ruhrgebiet.

Knotenpunkt 44 on the Industriekultur cycle route in Ruhr, Germany

Around Knotenpunkt 43 (Zeche Ewald) we came to the startling-but-predictable conclusion that we were rather a long way from Duisberg. Onwards we pedalled towards the briskly-setting late-autumnal sun. Knotenpunkt after Knotenpunkt, centuries of industrial heritage flashed by us in our route back to the Youth Hostel and a well-earned rest.

Cycle through the Zeche Ewald, Ruhr, Germany

If your idea of Germany is fairy-tale cuteness and imposing castles, then the Ruhrgebiet is probably not for you. But if you’re looking for an active, authentic holiday with genuine historical pedigree, then get on your bike, get down to Duisburg and connect those Knotenpunkte! Oh, and don’t miss the Currywurst either…

Yet another Currywurst

Practical info

We stayed at the pristine and modern Duisburg Sportpark Jugendherberge (Youth Hostel). Expect to pay around €25 each, including a fabulous buffet breakfast. Kruppstraße 9, Neudorf-Süd, 47055 Duisburg, Germany 

We cycled over 100km, mostly on cycle paths or quiet roads. Thanks to the Knotenpunkt system, we only got lost once (in Bottrop, and even that was probably my fault).

We recommend (1) having a paper cycle route map and a good general outdoor activity app (e.g. Outdoor Active) before setting out. The Knotenpunkt system is excellent, but the area is so vast and, inevitably, there are some deviations and ample opportunities to lose your way.

We recommend (2) a detour to the Tiger and Turtle sculpture just south of Duisberg. A weird giant jumble of metal dominating a horizon of grey suburbs and concrete factories. Park at Ehinger Straße 117, 47249 Duisburg, Germany (free).

Daisy the bus visited Ruhr in October 2019

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Hidden gems of Nuremberg

Everyone knows gingerbread, everyone knows Bratwurst. Many people know that Nürnberg (Nuremberg in English) has a spectacular Altstadt (old town) and castle, and others could reliably guess that the second-largest city in Bavaria would be home to a number of world-class museums.

So we’re going to show you places and sights in Nuremberg that many tourists don’t know about, the hidden gems that we discovered in this fascinating Franconian city. Come with us!

Contents / Quick links


Weissgerbergasse (Tanners’ Lane)

Let’s kick off our tour of Nuremberg with a stroll up one of its most picturesque streets, Weissgerbergasse.

Weissgerbergasse, Nürnberg. Colourful, attractive… and surprisingly off the mainstream tourist radar.

Leather-making used to be big business in Nuremberg, and the wealthiest tanners in the city lived and worked in this pretty Alstadt (old town) street. The excellent Nuremberg Tourism website explains that: “Instead of the busy tanners (…) , the Weißgerbergasse today is populated with cafés, bars, small boutiques and handicraft workshops“… but this is only partly true. Sure, there is some evidence of increasing tourist attention, but the best thing about the Weissgerbergasse is that many of its historic houses are currently still… houses. As a result, the street is not only beautiful, but it feels somehow undiscovered and uncommercial. This will inevitably change, so go discover it now!

Find it: Between the Maxplatz and Weinmarkt

The Coventry Cross of Nails

At the top of Weissgerbergasse, the massive bulk of Sebaldskirche (St Sebald’s Church) looms over the Albrect-Dürer-Platz. It’s a typically – if not spectacularly – gorgeous central European church: high Romanesque naves, with twists and turns of Gothic and Baroque as tastes changed over centuries. St Sebald himself is the patron saint of Nuremberg, and Johann Pachabel (he of the famous “Canon in D“) was the organist here.

But Nuremberg has a dark history, and one poignant sign of its troubled past can be found (and, indeed, easily missed) inside this church: A Coventry Cross of Nails.

When the Luftwaffe destroyed Coventry Cathedral in 1940, the raids had been ordered by Hermann Goering himself, the Bavarian-born Reichsmarschall who would later be tried – and commit suicide in – Nuremberg. Whilst the Nazi party showed no remorse at the wanton destruction of history and art, the tone in Coventry was about forgiveness, not revenge. From the smoking ruins of Coventry Cathedral some large iron nails from the roof were discovered, three of which were turned into a cross which still stands upon its altar today. St Sebald’s Church was later also destroyed in the war (along with most of Nuremberg) and upon its reconstruction in the 1950s, Coventry presented it with a replica Cross of Nails as a powerful symbol of reconciliation and a new beginning. There are several hundred of these replicas throughout the world, but few share a more direct symbolic significance than the St Sebald’s cross in Nuremberg…

Find it: Albrecht-Dürer-Platz. The Coventry Cross is near the altar.

Baroque gardens

Hidden off the busy, non-descript Johannisstrasse west of Nuremberg’s Altstadt are two remarkable Baroque Gardens. The larger – and marginally better known – of the two is the tranquil Hesperidengarten.

Three is the magic number here. In Greek mythology, the “Hesperides” were three nymphs of the evening who tended their beautiful fruit gardens. Accordingly, the Hesperidengarten is composed of three alleys of fountains and statues running parallel to rows of verdant fruit trees. In the south-east corner of the gardens, a sundial made from neatly-pruned privet hedges charts the gentle, inevitable passing of time; a shady beer garden in the opposite corner makes gentle passing of time an even more inviting prospect…

Just up the road, a smaller Barockgarten is arguably even more beautiful. It’s a wilder place, with unkempt grass growing between cobblestones, weeds in the grass and lichen on the statues of classical gods. But all this merely adds to the sense of discovery, of experiencing something that tourists to Nuremberg rarely experience (there was no-one else in the garden during our entire visit. In August!). Probably our favourite spot in the city.

Find it: Hesperidengarten – 43-47 Johannisstrasse; Barockgarten – 13 Johannisstrasse

Bürgermeistergarten

It’s worth mentioning that the Tourist Information website for Nuremberg has a separate section on “Hidden Places” in the city (hurrah!). There’s a page on the Hesperidengarten in there, and a very brief mention of the Barockgarten too. Another versteckte Orte that they recommend is yet another secret park – the Bürgermeistergarten (Mayor’s Garden).

Easily missed, a small doorway from the Neutor leads you up narrow steps and onto a shady, green section of the city walls (incidentally, just about the only place where you CAN get onto Nuremberg’s defensive walls). Once you’ve found the garden, simply enjoy the tranquility amongst the fruit trees, fairytale-esque little houses and weatherbeaten statues, amazingly undisturbed by the coach-loads of tourists Instagramming the castle a few dozen metres away. Try to find the viewpoint signposted as the “best view over the old town” (Schönster Blick über die Altstadt): I certainly can’t argue with it.

Nürnberg Altstadt and castle, as seen from the Bürgermeistergarten
Find it: Access from Neutorzwinger 2. Alternatively, turn left at the top of Am Ülberg, then walk away from the crowds.

Henkersteg (Hangman’s Bridge)

Hangmen had a tough gig. They were just trying to do their job, but were inevitably rather unloved among the wider community. As a result, they were often subjected to a forced segregation from the regular townsfolk; the Nuremberg hangman, for example, lived in a secluded tower on a small island in the Pegnitz river. When it was time for him to do his grisly work, he would leave his confinement and walk ominously across this covered bridge into the city.

Henkersteg (Hangman’s Bridge), Nuremberg

The original covered bridge was built in the 15th century, and more details about it – and Nuremberg’s most famous executioner, Franz Schmidt – can be discovered in the little museum (the “Henkerhaus“) on the north bank (alas, closed during our visit).

Find it: At the western end of Trödelmarkt, on the small island crossed by Karlsstrasse.

Handwerkerhof (Craftsmen’s Courtyard)

Another spot mentioned in the “Hidden Places” section of the Nuremberg Tourist website is the Handwerkerhof (Craftsmen’s Courtyard). However, whilst interesting, I would argue that its location – directly opposite the main train station – makes it rather less “hidden” than other places in this article.

The Handwerkerhof is undoubtedly atmospheric, with an almost-medieval feel, but frankly there isn’t a lot of “handwerk” going on there anymore; it is more “wurst” than “kunst” these days. Nevertheless, for ambience alone it’s worth a quick peek on your way to catch the train.

Find it: am Königstor, just opposite the Hauptbahnhof.

Playmobil Fun Park

We can’t leave Nuremberg without briefly mentioning the reason why we were there in the first place – the truly excellent Playmobil Fun Park. As a family with four children, we try to go to one or two of these type of parks per year and – along with the very different Europa Park in Rust, Germany – the Playmobil Fun Park is undoubtedly the kids’ favourite. Read more about it in our separate article.

Find it: 12km outside Nuremberg, at Brandstätterstr. 2 – 10 
90513 Zirndorf. Not easy to find by public transport; try
here. Day tickets cost around €12 / two-day tickets €20.

Daisy the bus visited Nuremberg in August 2019

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Evora – highlights for families

Contents / quick links:

Exploring Evora with kids

Evora is an ancient, sun-kissed city rising handsomely out of the cork oak forests and parched ground of the Alentejo, southern Portugal. Less than two hours from Lisbon, its compact size and wealth of sights makes it a perfect destination for a short break or, as we did it, a culture-packed and rewarding day trip.


The thermometer had already zoomed past 30°C by the time we reached Evora in mid-morning. We had lost our battle to beat the heat, so we decided to beat the crowds instead and headed straight for Evora’s most infamous tourist attraction – the gruesome Chapel of Bones.

Chapel of Bones

The Capela dos Ossos is one of a number of interesting curiosities found within the walls of the Igreja de São Francisco. It exists principally because Evora is a very old city. A very very very old city, in fact: people have been living here for over 5 millennia. Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors – just about everyone who was anyone in this part of the world has probably ruled Evora at some point in time. However, it was during the Middle Ages that the city really began to flourish, by which time quite a lot of expired Evorians were already clogging up the city’s cemeteries and, rather inconveniently, using valuable land.

The solution: dig up the cemeteries and relocate the bones to this purpose-built chapel. It was a win:win – Evora freed up more land for development, and its devout citizens obtained a place in which to reflect and meditate on the transient nature of life and the inevitability of death.

The kids’ reaction to this macabre place was understandably mixed. Ash (13) remembered reading about it in a Percy Jackson book and was intrigued and impressed in equal measures. Meanwhile the younger kids (7 and 5) didn’t really understand the scale and meaning of what was on display. By contrast, the more sensitive Mia (10) was obviously uncomfortable in the face of so much death. With my permission, she slipped out quietly to explore the remainder of the convent with her big brother… and she found an absolute gem…

Collection of Nativity Scenes

Last year in France, we stumbled across our nomination for oddball museum of the century: a collection of stick men in Champagne. Well, the Colecção De Presépios in Evora is possibly even more unusual… and arguably even better.

Imagination and humour are not exactly qualities that one would automatically associate with the rather austere subject of nativity scenes, but both were in abundance here. Reverence, by contrast, seemed to be chucked out of the stained glass window: most of the 300 dioramas on display simply either made us smile in admiration or laugh out loud with pleasure. After the doom and gloom of the Chapel of Bones, this was unexpectedly heart-warming and wonderful, regardless of any religious persuasion (or lack of it). We couldn’t drag Mia away from it.

Nativity scene in Evora

The exhibit is, in fact, only a tiny portion of a private collection of over 2,600(!) representations of the birth of Jesus, owned by the local Canha da Silva family. By sharing their extraordinary compilation with the public, the family hope to transmit “the universal message of love, peace and humility”. Well, it worked on us.

Temple of Diana

After the joyous and wholly unexpected wonder of the nativity scenes, the darling of Evora’s postcard industry – the Roman Temple of Diana – was not such a big hit with the kids. For us adults who can appreciate its clean, classical beauty and antiquity (2,000 years and counting!), it’s undoubtedly impressive. However, there understandably isn’t really much that a family can do at the Temple of Diana except gently admire it and pose for a photo or two.

Is it still too early for ice cream?

Igreja de São João Evangelista

But whilst dreaming of gelado at the Temple of Diana, Evora managed to surprised us again: directly opposite was the humble-looking Igreja de São João Evangelista, an attraction that wasn’t mentioned in any of the online guides to Evora that I had read in advance. In fact, bizarrely, this building doesn’t even appear on Apple Maps at all (still true as of May 2019!)

We are always intrigued by obscurity, so gladly handed over a few coins to peek inside and… holy Saint John the Evangelist!!! What had we stumbled into??

The spectacular azulejo-covered Igreja de São João Evangelista in Evora.

Modern tourist guide books to Portugal tend to gush about the famous “azulejo” tiles which adorn many houses, churches and monuments in the country. Well, we have been to Portugal countless times (OK, about ten) and are struggling to think of a more impressive and beautiful display of azulejos than in this church.

It’s weird, but the Google reviews of this church (yes, there are a few!) are mixed, with many “reviewers” complaining about having to pay an entrance fee. This is absurd. I entered São João with three kids, and it cost us €4. In total. That’s about the equivalent of a cup of coffee in an expensive city such as London or Paris. Personally, I am more than happy to pay a small but fair entrance fee if that money goes directly to the upkeep and preservation of beautiful places such as this.

Cathedral

The nearby Cathedral is slightly cheaper than São João (€3.50), and claims to be the biggest medieval cathedral in Portugal. It sounds like good value for money, and it is. But unless medieval religious art is your thing, the interior probably isn’t going to leave a hugely lasting impression. Cathedrals are a tough market to crack.

Rooftop of Evora Sé (Cathedral)

But Evora’s has a welcome quirk: visitors can climb up to and clamber over the massive Romanesque roof of the building, thus enjoying spectacular views over the city whilst indulging in something a little different. The adjoining cloisters are also pleasant-but-nothing-special except that – again – twisting spiral staircases take visitors up onto the roof. Running around on the roof of an ancient cloister – what more could culture-loving boys want?

But we weren’t finished with Evora yet. In fact, we had saved the best for last.

Almendres Cromlech

On our way out of the city – sweaty, dusty, exhilarated – we steered Daisy the bus down quiet dirt tracks, following signposts to the most significant megalithic monument in the Iberian Peninsula – the Almendres Cromlech.

Standing stones at the Almendres Cromlech, Evora, Portugal

Here, ninety-five massive granite menhirs eerily align with the moon, wind and stars. Sounds like Stonehenge? In a way, yes, but the Almendres Cromlech is at least 2,000 years older than its more famous English cousin, yet wonderfully off the mainstream tourist radar.

I’m going to be honest: I am extremely happy with this photo of Piko at the Almendres Cromlech standing stones.

As for many monuments of this type, the precise function and symbolic meaning of Almendres Cromlech has been lost to time, but the size and deliberate positioning of the stones testifies for its importance. As I stood in their shadow, I reflected on the astonishing similarity between these stones and the megalithic monuments in my native Ireland; what common belief inspired different people in different landscapes thousands of kilometres apart to create such similar monuments? As I pondered this, Mrs Daisy the bus was proclaiming that certain stones vibrated softly upon her touch, that she could feel the ancient, mystical energy within. I believed her.

You see, whatever your thoughts, beliefs or backgrounds, places such as Almendres Cromlech can only continue to inspire. There is, undoubtedly, something special there and I find it utterly endearing that the only access to a monument of this size and importance is via four kilometres of dirt track. I genuinely hope this never changes, that there will never be a visitor centre, an “interactive immersive experience”, a faux-chic café nor a souvenir shop here. Otherwise, amidst the overbearing noise of mass tourism, the silent magic of Almendres Cromlech may be lost forever.


PRACTICAL TIPS FOR VISITING ÉVORA, PORTUGAL

Chapel of Bones / Collection of Nativity Scenes – In the church of São Francisco, Praça 1º de Maio. A combined ticket costs €5 for adults and €3.50 for children. Family tickets available too. It does get busy, so get there early.

Temple of Diana – Largo do Marquês de Marialva. Free of charge.

Igreja de São João Evangelista – Largo do Marquês de Mariavla. €4 for adults, kids go free. Beautiful but compact; a visit of 30 minutes may suffice.

Cathedral – Largo Dom Miguel Portugal. €3.50 for adults (reductions for kids). This includes access to the rooftops which, in our opinion, is the most interesting part. Nevertheless those with vertigo can keep their feet on the ground and pay only €2.50.

Almendres Cromlech Stone Circles – Down a dirt track, but well-signposted from the main road between Evora and Montemor. Free of charge. Car park is only a couple of hundred metres from the stones. No tourist facilities.

Daisy the bus visited Evora in August 2018

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Fifi and Hop
 
”CulturedKids”

Concertgebouw – Culture for families in Bruges

Ah Bruges! Cute cobbled streets, picturesque canals, a fascinating history, cosy restaurants, gargantuan churches, chic chocolate shops and, well, basically, staggering beauty everywhere you look.

The problem is… absolutely none of this matters to kids.

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Bruges – very pretty, but what to DO with kids there? (p.s. possibly my worst-framed family photo ever. Sorry about that…)


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London – Smart choices with kids

We need to talk about “optimal resource management”.

That’s admittedly an unusual way to begin a family travel blog article, but making the most of what you have and taking smart decisions about you do are the keys to a successful family visit to London.

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Non-touristy Lisbon with kids

Lisbon with kids. It’s all about that oceanarium, the castle, and trundling up and down the narrow city streets on cutesy yellow trams, right? Well, no, not at all. There are many, many other kid-friendly highlights in Lisbon, most of which are much more relaxed than the more famous attractions. Here are some of our personal favourites:

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Lohr am Main – The Snow White town

This is going to sound familiar…

Once upon a time, a kind and beautiful princess lived in a handsome castle in Germany. Her mother died when she was still a girl, and her father remarried shortly afterwards. But the stepmother was a vain and manipulative woman, favouring her own children over her adopted stepdaughter. Inevitably, the relationship snapped; the princess fled away from her family, over great hills and through deep forests. Eventually she settled and lived in exile in a community of dwarfs working in the local mines.

The princess (well, Baroness, technically…) was Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina von Erthal. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? But you have almost certainly recognised her already as “Schneewittchen” from the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale: or, in English…

Snow White.

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