Visitors strolling through Essen can be forgiven for not immediately realising that it’s one ofGermany’s most culturally progressive cities. This former industrial centre has gone throughmultiple avatars. Around 850 AD, the city was founded as a monastery for Saxon nobility. By the16th century, it was a coal mining hub. Consequently, it grew to prominence owing to the partplayed by the Krupp family, who over several generations set up a booming steel manufacturingplant here.
The spirit of Essen comes from the fact that the city has persistently reinvented itself, makingthe change from an industrial powerhouse to a much-lauded centre of culture. Smack in the citycentre is the Museum Folkwang, home to a feast of 20th-century paintings, showcasing a vastbody of art from Renoir to Richter. Not far from the Museum Folkwang is the medieval Dom orEssen Cathedral. Inside are relics and treasures from the Ottonian empire. Especially worthy ofnote is the statue of the Golden Madonna, whose piercing eyes linger in memory. A smart city is frequently one that having grown through a variety of changes, makes thosechanges visible. Former industrial spaces, rather than being demolished, have taken on newavatars as cinemas, concert halls and museums. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site is theBauhaus-style Zollverein coal mine, which reinvented itself as a culture hub. Inside the darkambience of the converted coal washing plant, with its stone walls, steep steel stairs andaluminium ducts, is the Ruhr Museum. Another key space inside this former mine is the Red DotDesign Museum. Architect Norman Foster skilfully adapted the space, from a cathedral of theindustrial age, with its towering chimneys and vast halls, into a functional display site for arange of award-winning design objects, without fundamentally altering the character of thespace.
Another good way to experience the city is to sign up for Essen 1887 — a mixed reality timetravel programme. I walk through the city centre donning mixed-reality glasses and bluetoothheadphones. Unlike virtual technology glasses, with the latest mixed-reality technology — namely Nreal light glasses, one maintains an awareness of one’s surroundings, whileexperiencing virtual reality. Digital markers are set at various locations in the city centre towhich the glasses react. Houses, carriages, animals, buildings and people appear in periodcostumes. The people appear as volumetric holograms, which means that you can view themfrom all angles, as they speak to you. The fact that I’m in the middle of the city without losingmy bearings or sight of the surroundings, makes this experience unique. During this virtual walking tour, I’m once more reminded of the fact that it was the industrialmagnate Alfred Krupp’s steel factory that morphed the fortunes of the city of Essen. To learnmore about the Krupp’s, I take a 12-minute drive from the city centre to Krupp’s family home,the Villa Hugel. Built in size XXL, 269 rooms meet a 280-hectare park dotted with sculptures.
Inspired by castles that Krupp saw on his travels in England, the villa, situated like a gem in the Krupp forest on the hills above the Ruhr River and overlooking Lake Baldeny, reflects opulence in its architecture, but is also noted for its technical functionality. A symbol of German industrialisation, the villa was once frequented by dignitaries, emperors, and prominent people. Around the villa, like elsewhere in Essen, are vast green belts, parks, and gardens. A number of urban hiking trails like Baldeney Steig, have aficionados of the outdoors applauding. Sign up for an experience of urban trekking and the terrain you’ll traverse includes forests, meadows, fields, and quaint farmhouses. If you have time for just a day trip, let it be the 45-minute train journey to Cologne. Here, the Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Europe’s largest Gothic structures, eclipses all else. Constructed in 1248 AD, this building survived the damages it faced in the Second World War and is now meticulously restored. The steeples rise to an astounding 157 meters. Having a guide, as you walk through the cathedral, brings to life its many ecclesiastical treasures. Gems not to miss include a 13th century golden sarcophagus, believed to contain the remains of the Three Wise Men, an altar painted by superlative medieval painter, Stephen Lochnar, and a 13th-century Madonna sculpture. Ever evolving, like the city itself, the cathedral also houses a stained-glass window designed by contemporary artist Gerhard Richter. This 65-foot work was crafted to replace a window decimated by bombs in World War II. Containing 1,100 hand-blown glass panels, the 72 colours used in the contemporary window, are drawn from those in use in other medieval windows, linking past and present. Outside more indicators of the city as a cultural powerhouse unfurl — as museums and art galleries that dot the lanes outside the cathedral, issue a compelling siren call.
(Published 14 October 2023, 23:09 IST)