It’s been around 1.5 years since I last visited Germany, the country that I left for good some 10 years ago. It feels really exciting to be back. I guess it takes a couple of years of living abroad to appreciate some of the things that you used to take for granted, and it also opens your eyes to some of the beauties that used to hide behind the day-to-day stuff that we call life.
I grew up in an area in North Western Germany called “Ruhrgebiet”, a notoriously industrialised region that has had its heyday several decades ago and that was really struggling when I was a young girl. Gone are the old coal mining operations, the steel plants and breweries, leaving behind masses of hard-working men and women that were then facing a tough future without any prospects of finding new employment. Luckily, the “Ruhrgebiet” managed to reinvent itself into a centre for service industries and technology companies, so unemployment rates are much better than in the 70s and 80s. Plus, it is a much cleaner, greener place than it used to be.
Contrary to common belief here in Germany, the “Ruhrgebiet” is not necessarily a very urban place. Yes, there are the major cities of Dortmund, Bochum, Essen, Duisburg and so on that have almost merged together to create one big mega-city, but in between you will still find a surprising number of rural pockets with enchanting farms, fields and woodlands. Even better: sometimes you will find some historic gems that you would otherwise associate with the romantic South of Germany: the Palatine, Bavaria, along the rivers Mosel and Rhine.
You see – with the “Ruhrgebiet” being a major supplier of coal and steel in the 1940’s it was of course an important target for the British Airforce which made sure that some of the city centres here were almost completely annihilated in the air raids. My home town Dortmund for example lost 90% of its historic inner city centre. However, not all is lost.
If you happen to be in the area and would like to take a walk in one of the most romantic spots here, find your way down to the little town of Westerholt. Next to the modern shopping street you will find a group of around 60 historic half-timbered houses from the 17th century. These heritage-protected houses are all inhabited by proud residents who ensure an impeccable presentation of the rural facades, many now in summer adorned with a colourful display of potted flowers that stand out perfectly in front of the black-and-white buildings.
It’s a wonderful experience to stroll around this historic part of Westerholt. The houses are so close together that almost no traffic is allowed in. Instead, kids are riding their bikes, residents are sitting in their tiny front yards, cats are chasing the ducks. There is so much to see and discover, all the weird angles and skewed fronts offer very surprising views. Keep an eye out for the old inscriptions that were first carved into the timber beams by the original owners some 300, 400 years ago! Many will state the owners’ names, some also good wishes for the future of the house and its inhabitants, or a bible quote.
In its centre is the ruin of an old church which almost looks like the tower of a medieval castle, now overgrown with flowering weeds. The church right next to it, though more modern, is equally idyllic. I think it’s justified that Westerholt’s Old Village is also called the “Rothenburg of Westphalia”.
And when you pass through the old gate you will arrive at Westerholt Castle. These days, this water castle is an upscale hotel and restaurant, perfect for weddings, but it’s a place steeped in history that dates back to the 1400s. I find it fascinating how the water of the moat reflects back the orderly and clear lines of the main building, just beautiful. Behind the castle you also have a great view of the Old Village and some remains of the surrounding walls.
With the warming rays of the summer sun, the chirping of the birds and the greenery surrounding us it’s a perfect place to simply relax and enjoy. Ah yes, it feels good to be back, if only for a few days, since we are about to pack our bags again for Paris.