Wandering Westphalia

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Having studied Modern European History in High School and university I have been somewhat attracted to various regions of Germany, such as the Rhineland and the Palatinate, that I had read about so often. Mind you, in the days before Google Maps, and in fact in the days before Google, when you had to actually go and look for information physically in the library, many of these places simply existed as names. Even on my first trip to Europe I was only vaguely aware where certain cities and states were located (and was somewhat surprised to discover that our train stopped off in Hannover on our way from Berlin to Amsterdam). However, on this second trip I have a bit aware of where places were – and Westphalia was one of them.

According to Wikipedia Westphalia is the most populous, and fourth largest, state in Germany, though interestingly enough the capital is Dusseldorf, as opposed to Cologne, which I believe is the larger city. Well, large is sort of a misnomer because the area from Cologne up past Essen seems to be one whopping great big city – or at least that what it looks like on Google Earth view. However, on closer look it seems as if most of the cities seems to be clustered around the rivers, of which the Rhine is the largest. As for this area being the most populous, that is probably not all that surprising either considering that it does happen to be on the Rhine, and the confluence of some other large rivers (and the further towards the North Sea you go the denser, and more populated, the region becomes). Also, as a friend of mine who happens to be married to a German, this part of Germany, back before Bismark united the country under Prussian rule and establishing the capital in Berlin, this use to be the centre of German economic activity, and in a way still very much is (especially since you have the European Central Bank headquartered in Frankfurt).

While, traveling through here by train doesn’t actually feel like you are traveling through endless city – they do have large areas of greenery (or farms), but it doesn’t feel like you are traveling through the country either – more like the market gardens you tend to find on the outer regions of the city broken by numerous industrial estates.

Eating in Essen

I’m not entirely sure why I actually wanted to go to Essen – maybe because in German it actually mean ‘to Eat’ which I have to admit is a particularly strange name for a city. Okay, you do have Baden Baden, which sort of means Baths Baths (I think, but then again my German isn’t all that good), but it isn’t as if we had any towns in England named after a verb that we tend to use quite offen, and the fact that to eat is one of those verbs that is probably considered to be pretty basic it isn’t as if it took after the city – more like the city took after the verb. Mind you, I’m only speculating here and while I could do some research as to why Essen got the name it did, the fact that I am sitting on a train writing this with no internet connection (and of desire to connect to the internet) I can only speculate (though I will see if I can come up with an answer at the end of the post – actually, you can find an answer on Wikipedia, not surprisingly).

Anyway, because of its rather strange name I decided that I would come here and check it out, though I have to admit that I wasn’t all that impressed with the place. First of all we had to drop off our luggage in a locker room and not surprisingly you couldn’t use a credit (or debit) card. In fact you could only use a limited set of coins, and as it turned out the coin machine wasn’t working, even though I tried it a number of times. Eventually I gave up, left my bags with my bother (which I generally don’t like doing, but I really didn’t have a choice in the matter at this time), and went to look for some change. As it turned out next door was a casino, though I soon discovered that if you are looking for change casinos, at least in Germany, are not a place to go and get some – the owner was particularly clear on that when I tried to insert a twenty euro note into the machine. She didn’t care that the change machine in the locker room was kaput because this was her casino and any money that came in here theoretically wasn’t supposed to leave. Fortunately the newsagent next door was much more accommodating.

So, after dumping our bags in the locker room when headed down into the subway (which like a lot of the other German Cities that we visited, was basically an underground tram network) and caught a tram a couple of stops away from the railway station). I’m not sure what I was expecting – actually I know exactly what I was expecting – more old cities – however this didn’t seem to be what I got in Essen. Actually, as I emerged from the underground station the first thing that caught my attention was that I was standing in front of a modern shopping centre. Okay, we could have returned to the railway station but first of all my brother insisted on walking back, and also he did want to have a look around town, even if I wasn’t going to see an old medieval town.

The Slow Way Back

Well, I can’t really say that I was particularly thrilled with Essen, though I hope any of the Essenites reading this don’t come out and lynch me. However, having just spent the past week or so in Frankfurt and Koln, I was sort of a little disappointed to find what was effectively a small modern town of the type that I would encounter back in Australia (though Australian towns don’t have extensive subway systems or a high speed rail network). However we were here, and just I guess it was time to look around, even if looking around simply involved us making our way back to the railway station.

So we wandered into the shopping center and saw what was effectively a shopping center – nothing all that fantastic here, with the exception of the vending machine that sold bottles of wine. That was a little odd, particularly since I was in Germany – sure, I’d expect vending machines selling wine in France, but not in Germany. Okay, granted, here in Australia we don’t have any vending machines that sell any form of alcohol, so that is also a little different, though I had come to accept different things in Germany, particularly since they still have cigarette machines, cigarette advertising, and in some places you can still smoke inside. In fact I was quite surprised to discover ashtrays in front of me when I had a beer at the bar underneath the Frankfurt Railway station.

So, after leaving the shopping centre I was hoping to find what could be considered an Altstadt (or old city). However that wasn’t going to be the case – I simply wandered out into what is effectively an outdoor shopping mall. Not only that but all I could see along this stretch were chainstore after chainstore, whether it be a bakery or a clothing store (though I should make mention that you see Semphora and H&M everywhere here – I still remembered when H&M opened a store in Melbourne; there was a line stretching out from it for at least a month afterwards; I still haven’t been inside since I really have no desire to get caught up in this fast fashion trend).

Well, it turned out that there wasn’t all that much here, though I did find a pretty cool goth shop where I ended up purchasing a cool statute, and also ended up having an icecream and a coffee at a cafe on one of the squares. Actually, that was another thing that I noticed about Germany and that is the icecream – they don’t just make icecream, they make works of art out of it. I’m not entirely sure if I have seen anything like this back in Australia, or even in any of the other places that I visited round-a-bouts. Mind you, it was a bit odd considering I don’t see Germany as being an excessively hot place – not like Greece, Italy, or the French Riviera – yet they go all out when it comes to making icecream. In fact they will even have an entire menu devoted to the icecream constructions, though half of the reason for that is that you actually need a picture.

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Anyway, we eventually made our way back to the railway station, after stopping off at the church to have a look around, and to also stopping off at what Yelp have pointed out as being the best restaurant in Essen, which ended up being a huge disappointment (particularly since it took ages for them to actually bring our order out). As for the etymology of the name of the city apparently it has nothing to do with eating. As Wikipedia suggests it is just coincidence that the verb, and the name of the city, have come down to us the way that they have. It’s not like the case in America, where an entire town changed their name simply to be mentioned on a television game show.

The Long Way to Arnhem

So, we have made it back to the railway station and it was time to catch the train to Druisburg, where the train that would take us to Arhnem was supposed to pass through – except that it wasn’t – it had been canceled. We had stood on the platform waiting for it while trying to work out the best way to get to Arnhem, and as it turned out Google Maps was completely useless. Actually, it was about that time that I discovered that I could download a Deutschebahn and a Eurail app that would give me all the information that I needed to get from one place to another. Actually, it probably could tell me how to get to Moscow if I really wanted to know, but since Russia isn’t technically a part of Europe I wouldn’t be able to use my pass there (actually, I just checked the app out and no, it doesn’t tell you how to get to Russia, nor Istanbul).

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Anyway, after wandering around the station for a while, trying to work out the best way to get to Arhnem that didn’t involve either hitchhiking, hiring a car, or catching a bus, I ended up doing what I should have done in the first place – asked somebody. Fortunately they have a ticket office in most major railway stations, so after getting in line we were given a little sheet that gave us the quickest route there, which was actually very, very round-a-bout. It also involved us changing trains four times, and a couple of times the interchange was so tight that if we weren’t on the ball we would miss the train (which we eventually did at two spots, but one was because the train was late). Fortunately the trains were fairly regular (namely running once an hour) that it meant that we wouldn’t be stuck if we missed one (you have to love European train travel). However, the route we took is probably not the route that your typical Australian tourist would take (not that I am typical, particularly since I prefer to explore myself as opposed to having some tour guide do it for me).

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Unfortunately Google Maps doesn’t support multiple train treks

Anyway, we started off at Druisburg, which seems to be one of those major interchange railway stations. I have always thought it a little odd because it isn’t as if I had heard of the city before, or at least before I arrived in Germany. However when we were heading from Berlin to Amsterdam in 2011 we had to change trains at Druisburg. In fact it appears as if most trains pass through here. I did step outside for a bit, but most of my experience in Druisburg has basically been the railway station (and this time we actually left the platform, not that we had much of an opportunity previously since the amount of time between the Berlin train leaving and the Amsterdam train arriving was a matter of minutes).

So, the first trek was to catch a train to the town of Viersen (or should I say a village since the platform consisted of a broken elevator and a vending machine – and a shelter) however since there was going to be some delay we decided to catch the next train to Mönchengladbach, particularly since the train to Venlo (our next stop) departed from here. Anyway, here is a video of a train passing the station at Viersen.

Like Druisburg, I simply stuck my head out of the station at Mönchengladbach, but didn’t spend any time looking around, namely because we wanted to get to Arnhem, and as such not miss our train (especially since the one after that would take another hour). So, we spent some more time sitting on the platform at Mönchengladbach before the train to Venlo arrived. Venlo seems to be one of those small towns that sits just across the border and is one of those places where people change trains, particularly since the Deutschebahn trains don’t head all that deep into the Netherlands, with the exception of the ICE International. Actually, one thing I noticed was that the major intercity trains are now run by separate entities, such as the Thalys train which runs from the major cities in the low lands and into Paris.

Our next stop after Venlo was Nijmegen, which was the second place  we missed our train (namely because it involved moving platforms, and having some rather heavy bags wasn’t all that conducive to changing trains). The thing that stood out though was that the train that we were on was operated by Veolia which, in my mind, is a waste management company. However, since they operate trains, and garbage trucks, I suspect that they are more of a transport and logistics company, of which waste management is a subset. Actually, they probably don’t even manage the waste – they just take it from one spot, the garbage bins, to another spot, the tip, where it becomes somebody else’s problem. Anyway, where is one of the Veola trains.

Eventually we arrived in Arhnem, but that will be the subject of my next post. Oh, and where I did have time (namely at Venlo) I did stick my head out of the railway station, as well as ordering some fries from what appeared to be a fast food restaurant, but since I didn’t want to miss another train we didn’t go all that far (which meant I got to spend some more time in Arnhem).

Oh, and as is the case with my timing, all of this wandering happened on the days that was my birthday.

Creative Commons License
Wandering Westphalia by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

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