Essen, Part 2. The answer is 7 hours. The question? How long it takes to recover from the endless drone of German Schlager music we experienced last night. Now it was time for culture, nature, and local history!
But first lots of caffeine and a healthy portion of fries – you know, the breakfast of champions and all that.
In case you haven’t read the first part: start here with day 1 and 2.
10 am: Feeling small at Villa Hügel
We started our day with a visit to Villa Hügel, the former residence of the Krupp family and a renowned symbol of German industrialization.
It’s as if the villa were made for giants: huge rooms, sweeping staircases, massive doors – literally everything seems oversized, as if you’d followed Jack up his bean stock to find yourself in the land of the giants.
Freud would have had a lot to say about this architecture à la “Who has the biggest you-know-what”, although the sheer size is somehow neither uncomfortable nor overwhelming.
Fortunately, not all of the nearly 270 rooms are accessible, otherwise the Berlin Brandenburg Airport very well could have opened before we were even close to done exploring this place. (In case you don’t get the joke, read the story of Berlin airport. ;))
Inside a smaller building next to the villa, we found an exhibition that tells the Krupp family’s personal story. It affords real, honest insights into a fascinating family, making no effort to conceal even the more critical aspects, such as the Krupps’ role during the Nazi period. A visit to Villa Hügel is also a great way to learn more about the city’s history.
12 pm: Sailing on Lake Baldeney
As the name suggests, Villa Hügel (or “Hill”) is situated atop a hill. From its impressive park and gardens, one can enjoy a fantastic view of Lake Baldeney, the largest of the six Ruhr reservoirs. With a view like this, you’ll understand why Essen is considered the greenest city in the Ruhr Valley.
The sister of an old school friend got wind of my trip to Essen and invited me to go sailing. At first, I was surprised to say the least. After all, “Ruhr Valley” and “Sailing” weren’t two words I’d ever heard used in the same sentence before. But after a few hours on the water, I completely forgot we’re smack dab in the middle of the “Coal Pot”.
In fact, I was only reminded of where we were when we docked and I saw the name of our boat: “Maloche” (local slang for “Hard Work”).
Still somewhat shaky on our feet, we traded in the boat for another fun mode of transportation. It was time to go from water straight to the asphalt.
3 pm: Feeling hot in my hot rod
You have to be comfortable with two things to really have fun on a “Hot Rod City Tour”:
2. The astonished looks you’ll get from the people sharing the road.
Not sure what a hot rod is? Just imagine a go-kart and a soapbox got together and had a baby. A super-fast, super-cool baby. They can reach up to 88 km/h and are approved for on-road use.
It took me a few minutes to get used to the very direct steering system, but after that, it was nothing but unadulterated, fast-paced fun exploring Essen with this little rocket on wheels.
The regular city traffic was an ever-present factor, our eyes at level with the wheel housing of the cars next to us. A sign on an upcoming hairpin bend that’s very popular among motorcyclists caught my eye: “Death lurks ahead”. Needless to say, I let up on the gas and quick.
At every second light, we heard: “Hey, wicked cart!” Odd, that’d never happened to me while driving my Fiat Punto before…
A hot rod tour isn’t something you could do every week; this two-hour adrenaline kick cost us almost 100 euros. But it was oh-so worth it.
6 pm: Chilling at Seaside Beach
Our little hot rod adventure left us in high spirits but our energy was fading fast. We needed a break. Quite serendipitously, the hot rod station was located directly at Seaside Beach. After a few short steps, we found ourselves lounging around in beach chairs, our heavy, bare feet buried deep in the sand.
From beach volleyball, climbing, and wind surfing for the more active traveler to massages and cocktails in the sand for those looking to relax, the Seaside Beach is like a deluxe, open-air swimming pool – just without the swimming part.
Because there is one downer to this lakeside paradise: while you can soak in the sun on Lake Baldeney’s shore, you’re not allowed cool off with a dip in its shiny waters. The culprit for this killjoy? A swimming ban dating back to 1973.
But there’s hope! Since the amount of bacteria in the lake is steadily decreasing, the city is currently thinking about relaxing the ban.
And even if you do have to leave your swimsuit at home: if I lived in Essen, you’d regularly find me at the Seaside Beach enjoying a mini “beach” vacation.
8 pm: African food at Papa Lufu
My third day in Essen ends at Papa Lufu’s, an energetic Rasta from Guinea-Bissau. He welcomes each and every one of the guests to his vegetarian-vegan restaurant with a fist-bump.
The “Delicious” resembles a living room kitchen. In Düsseldorf, they’d probably call it something fancy like “show cooking”.
While Lufu works his magic between piles of chickpeas and smoked tofu, I was debating back and forth between North and South Africa (every dish bears the name of a different African country). I opted for Zambia, deep-fried balls of dough with spinach and peanut sauce – and ate until I almost burst.
10 am: Clueless at Museum Folkwang
Impressionism, expressionism or surrealism. And that first thing in the morning.
I must admit: I am a total philistine when it comes to art. I just can’t seem to make much of paintings. There I stood, right in front of a Van Gogh painting, and I felt – nothing.
Nevertheless, I would still recommend making time for a (free) visit to this museum. Folkwang is an absolute must for people who are inspired by visual art. But even people who lack the eye for it like me, are sure to find a visit worth their while.
Take the relaxed atmosphere, for one. That’s an experience in and of itself.
Second, art isn’t everything. Since I’m someone who’s more interested in my fellow man than in paintings, I talked with the security people that stoically guarded each room. I asked if they were there to protect the museum from theft.
“No, it’s because people aren’t supposed to get more than half a meter away from the pictures. I have to say that to at least 35 people a day.”
How friendly and tasteful, I thought, that the Folkwang would rather hire staff to share this information personally than to besmudge the pleasant aesthetic of this place with prohibitive signs and boundary lines.
1 pm: Working against the clock at Ruhr Escape
Museum Folkwang was a highlight of the quieter sort. Now it was time for some action.
The so-called “Escape Games” aren’t exclusive to Essen, but this is where I encountered this new trend game for the first time.
As we entered, I’ll admit I had a few doubts. Whether this could be so great? We had expected an old industrial area, but what we got was a downtown location that looked more like a dentist’s office.
Yet another example of why you should never judge a book by its cover – it was outstanding. The young creators of Escape Games have really come up with something special, having spent an entire year perfecting three, heart-racing games. In every detail, you can’t help but notice how much passion and attention to detail went into designing the games and rooms.
Ian and I were locked into a room and had exactly 60 minutes to solve different, interrelated puzzles in order to escape the room and save mankind from a deadly virus. Talk about pressure. A camera sent a live feed of our progress to the game leader, safely hidden away in another room, which enabled him to send us subtle hints via a monitor when necessary.
Every time we were about to give up, one of us would have a spontaneous stroke of genius that brought us a step closer to the solution.
It couldn’t have been more gripping if we had been part of a real-life action movie. Perfectly thought out, amazingly complex. The perfect team building activity.
In the end, we failed to save the world in the last second because we allowed ourselves to get bogged down in details at the beginning. Nevertheless, we left totally wired and chomping at the bit to try out the other rooms. Next time…
4 pm: What is the “Stoffwechsel”? And where the heck is it???
“Alright, Marvin”, I thought to myself. “This isn’t Escape Games. Let’s take it down a notch.” So I took a deep breath and tried to relax. But in truth, finding our next tip – the “Stoffwechsel” (or “Metabolism”) – wasn’t so easy. The locale shares an entrance with an old hotel, making it hardly noticable at first glance. And if you do manage to find the front door and walk in, you’re sure to ask yourself: “Where am I?”
Café? Lounge? Pub? Restaurant? The owner Claudia can and does not want to make up her mind on that front. So instead, it remains a colorful mix of everything. Most definitely stylish and yet very comfortable.
Unfortunately, Ian and I already had dinner plans, otherwise we would have followed our coffee up with the recommendation of the other guests: Kothu Parotta, Sri Lanka’s national dish.
7 pm: Curry cult at “Zum Xaver”
When in the “Coal Pot”, there’s one gourmet tip you can’t miss: an authentic “Frittenschmiede”. So we decided to visit “Zum Xaver”, one of the oldest “Imbiss” (or “snack bars”) in Essen.
Here, the chickens have been turning on their skewers and enticing passersby from behind the window since 1959.
We feel just like the grilled chicken in the window standing inside this snack shack. Because the word “shack” hits the nail on the head – there’s hardly enough room for more than five people in that tiny room. Especially when those people have bodies primarily fueled by currywurst and fries.
But I could understand why that would be their meal of choice after trying it myself – the curry wurst and fries were AMAZING.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough room left to try the chicken. Maybe during my next visit to their store in Singapore? Although their reference to a second store probably isn’t serious.
As we left, we hear from behind the grill: “See ya later, boys. If you need anything, I’m here.” Good to know.
9 pm: 120 minutes of “Frohnatur” (“Cheerful Nature”)
Our last stop came upon us unexpectedly. Ian’s cell phone rang and a friend asked whether we felt like coming to a 120-minute party. I didn’t quite understand: did he want to re-watch the 2014 World Cup finale between Argentina and Germany in full length? My nerves couldn’t take that a second time.
At 9:30 pm, we met him in front of “Frohnatur”, a scene club for electronic music. At 10 pm on the dot, the techno beats begin to play and the people freaked out accordingly. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Not my kind of music, but the atmosphere was great. The DJs kept their eye on the clock as the music played.
At midnight, after exactly two hours of excessive dancing, the music stopped. After all, the next day was a normal work day in Essen. And that was fine with me, since my last train to Münster was leaving in half an hour.
I got onto the regional express train smiling ear to ear and used the time to make a mental summary of my Essen experience.
My final verdict on Essen
Essen surprised me. Before I came here, I already knew I liked the rough, open, and direct nature of people from the “Coal Pot”. But what I didn’t know was that I could have such an amazing, varied time in a city just outside my front door that I had, up until now, completely ignored for years.
A colorful, creative scene. Totally unique bars and restaurants. An oversupply of recreation and culture. And better still, everything seems to keep developing and growing. During my many talks with Essen locals, I felt a spirit of optimism in addition to an honest enthusiasm for their own city. Who knows, maybe the Ruhr area will be the new Berlin in a few years.
I only planned on staying here for two days. Two days turned into four.
I wish it could have been longer.
How did you like my report on Essen?
And what would you say about the city?
Leave your comment!