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

Luisenpark – The most beautiful city park you’ve never heard of

Contents / quick links

Background

Our visit

Practical information


Background

What’s the number one requirement for a successful city break with kids? Museums? Attractions? Kid-friendly places to eat? Sure, these are all important factors, but we have found that children need space – green space, preferably – to let off steam and relax in between museum visits and sightseeing.

Mannheim, a buzzing metropolis in south-west Germany, surely must rank highly among major cities with the most green space. Its riverside walks, urban forests, huge parks and green squares are scattered liberally across the sprawling Rhine-Neckar region.

But the jewel in Mannheim’s sparkling crown simply must be the gorgeous Luisenpark.

Before we go any further, let’s just clarify something: unlike most city parks, entrance to the Luisenpark is not free of charge. Whereas locals can buy a very reasonably-priced jahreskarte (annual pass), visitors will pay €8 for adults (€4 for kids) to get in, and – trust us – this is money very well spent.

Entrance fee aside, the Luisenpark is otherwise a perfectly “normal” municipal park: across its 41 hectares (101 acres, around twice the size of the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris) you’ll find beautiful flower gardens, wide-open expenses of lush grass, multiple playgrounds, several cafés, hundreds of places to sit and relax and, er, penguins (but we’ll come back to that later).

The verdant landscape of the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

Nestling to the north-east of Mannheim city centre, the Luisenpark was originally laid out in the late 19th century, but its present appearance is largely thanks to a complete remodelling carried out in the early 1970s. Nowadays over 1.2 million visitors come each year to relax among the 140 species of trees and hundreds of thousands of flowers. Nevertheless, it is practically undiscovered by foreign tourists, perhaps unsurprising given that its (otherwise excellent) website is in German-only, as are all signs and explanations within the park itself. But don’t let that put you off!

Our visit to the Luisenpark

Short video of the Luisenpark. Featuring tree climbing, the Kings Indian Defence and seven eggs.

Given its size and entrance fee, the Luisenpark isn’t just a respite from the hustle and bustle of Mannheim – it is an attraction in itself. It is practically impossible to see everything in the Luisenpark in a single visit, and we sensibly didn’t try. Instead, we let our kids set the pace, wandering around the park enjoying whatever took their fancy. We were somewhat surprised to find that this didn’t involve too many playgrounds; instead they preferred to make the most of the flora and fauna, seeking out the animals, climbing the trees and playing amongst the spectacular springtime bloom.

Wildflower bloom at the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

One thing that struck me was that there is an enormous sense of getting close to nature within the park. Yes, there are animals are in caged enclosures, but others are free to roam, fly or swim around this enormous green space at will. Wild storks have built nests here, enormous pelicans patrol the banks of the lake (whilst huge fish and cute turtles swim within it), wild parakeets squawk noisily from treetops and herons stand motionless with one eye on their next meal.

Big birds. A very close encounter with pelicans at the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

Seeing penguins in captivity arouses mixed feelings in many, including me. But there is no doubt that these well looked-after little cuties were a particular highlight for my kids. As he watched the penguins devour a bucket of fresh fish, my six-year old austerely declared that he wants to work with animals when he grows up. Whatever your thoughts on zoos, this is surely exactly the sort of reaction that places like this are supposed to incite, the sort of thing that creates the future protectors of our planet.

One intriguing feature of the park is the enormous Chinese Tea House and Gardens. Built in 2001, this is apparently the largest “original” tea house of its kind in Europe. We are rather confused as to what “original” means in this context, but it is nevertheless a very impressive and beautiful structure.

“Do you think it has spotted me yet?” Mia gets close to nature at the Chinese Gardens in the Luisenpark.

Unfortunately the Teahouse itself was closed on the day of our visit, but we still spent quite some time exploring the surrounding gardens, mostly trying to get as close as possible to a rather non-plussed heron. Like I said, close to nature.

Other highlights within the park include a butterfly house (that we somehow missed), a pedagogical farm, sound sculptures, giant chess boards, gondolas plying a leisurely circuit of the Kutzerweiher lake, a 1,000-seat arena for outdoor concerts, and numerous ruhebereichen – quiet areas where visitors are encouraged to disengage from the din of the city and tune in to nature instead.

A haven of tranquility at the Luisenpark

It was probably these quiet places that we enjoyed most of all. After all, aren’t city parks supposed to be a haven for tranquility and nature? Luisenpark is not only beautiful, but it serves the citizens of Mannheim wonderfully. It is perhaps no wonder that the people in this corner of Germany don’t tell the world about their Luisenpark – they want it all for themselves. And who can blame them?

Practical info for visiting the Luisenpark

  • Website here (in German only).
  • The main entrance to the park is at Theodor-Heuss-Anlage 2
    68165 Mannheim
    .
  • Getting there by public transport: Take the number 9 tram from Mannheim train station to the “Luisenpark” stop. Number 6 also works. The number 5 tram is another possibility; get off at “Fernmeldeturm” and use the north entrance.
  • Getting there by car: No problem! Ample and free parking directly opposite the main entrance.
  • Admission prices: In summer – €8 for adults, €4 for children aged 6+. Some other concessions apply. Half-price from November to February.
  • No dogs, bicycles or micro-scooters allowed in the park: they might freak out the pelicans. Pushchairs are fine, and very German bollerwagens are available to rent.
  • Plenty of reasonably-priced eating possibilities within the park. Or bring your own picnic if you prefer.

Daisy the bus visited Mannheim in May 2019

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Some facts and figures in this article were taken from https://web.archive.org/web/20080405195617/http://www.mannheim.de/io2/browse/Webseiten/Tourismus/english/citytour/luisenpark

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Cycling with kids in the Ahrtal, Germany

Like most destinations, tourism in Germany is so much more than ticking off the major sights. Venture almost anywhere off the beaten track with a pair of hiking boots or a bicycle (preferably both!) and you are pretty much guaranteed a holiday or short break to remember.

You see, we had no particular reason for choosing the Ahrtal, in Rhineland Pfalz, as the destination for a short camping holiday. Sure, it was only a few hours away from our home in Luxembourg, we hadn’t been there before, and it seemed to have a few half-decent campsites, but this could also be said for perhaps a dozen other regions of Germany. However, I had read some good things about the local cycle path, so we rather spontaneously set up camp in the buzzing town of Altenahr, pumped up the bike tyres, and got ready to explore.

(Spoiler: It was WONDERFUL!)

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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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Playmobil Fun Park

All over the world, children and adults alike instantly recognise Playmobil – chunky noseless characters inhabiting cartoon worlds of knights, farmyards, fairytales and other bastions of childhood imagination. This modern classic German toy has been hugely successful since its introduction in 1974; Playmobil figurines cannot hold hands (try it!) but if they could, the resulting chain of every figure ever constructed would circle the globe nearly three times!

But what we discovered only recently is that children of all ages can let their imaginations run riot at the Playmobil Fun Park near Nuremberg, Germany.

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