Blue skies and grazing sheep? It's not Germany's rural countryside, but its most densely populated, former industrial powerhouse. Once known only for coal mines, the Ruhr Valley digs deep to fight regional stereotypes.
Against a cloudless blue horizon and lush green grass, sheep graze on the Rhine floodplain. A passenger train glides through the scene, and cyclists coast along a bicycle path. Forget the smog of yore. This is the Ruhr region today.
No other region in Germany continues to reinvent itself like the Ruhr Valley. I stopped accepting friends' apologies when they heard I lived in Essen. It's no Munich; there are no lederhosen here. But there's the best currywurst around and an amazing knack for change. From fertile farmlands to industrial giant, from World War Two rubble to a cultural playground, the region continues to evolve. It's Germany's final frontier.
Patchwork of cities
Unlike most other metropolitan areas, the region has no crowning central city. One of the region's favorite marketing pictures shows a photo of a darkened Europe from space: after London and Paris, the Ruhr region is the most brightly lit spot on the map. But there is no London Bridge nor Eifel tower here. Instead there are crisscrossing autobahns, pitheads on the landscape, and a determination to move forward.
When industrialization enabled deep-coal mining in the 1800's, villages sprouted up on top of the mines and melted into each other, just like the iron ore once smelted in this part of western Germany. It's now a patchwork quilt of more than 50 cities, with big-hitters like Essen and Dortmund each boasting populations of more than half a million people.
With mining, came iron and steel production, and the region's closest thing to royalty: the Krupp Family dynasty, or the "Cannon Kings." Munitions for both world wars were cast here. As a result the region bore the brunt of Allied bombing. Essen's downtown was 90 percent destroyed. Quick reconstruction trumped aesthetics, stripping the region of its old-timey "typical German" identity. These post-war relics mark the region today.
Germany's 'best-kept secret'
Despite a shared history, each city tries to showcase its unique identity. For tourists it's Germany's best-kept secret. In Duisburg, a former ironworks plant now hosts Landschaftspark Nord, an oasis where foliage intertwines with industry. Try to visit Essen without encountering the city's unofficial symbol: the mining pithead of Zollverein, a coal mine turned UNESCO World Heritage site. The mine's former coal-washing plant houses the extensive Ruhr Museum, a modern interactive facility where visitors weave between old machinery as they navigate the exhibits.
But it's not all industrial culture. In the shadow of Hattingen's steel mill museum, the old town charms visitors with its half-timbered cottages and cobblestone walkways. Xanten on the northern rim highlights Roman ruins in the biggest archaeological parks in Germany.
Shaking off a reputation
All this in the Ruhr, you ask? Friends - even German ones who only live an hour to the north - ask if laundry still turns black with soot if you hang it out to dry. And after two years there, I can say that what the Ruhr region suffers from most is no longer smoke stacks but from a serious PR problem.
Just as the Ruhr has evolved like no other, it has also shouldered a bad reputation like no other. With a landscape that bears the physical scars of mining, the Ruhr Valley can't shake it association with coal and filth. And yet, of the nearly 300 mines running in the region's heyday, only two mines are in operation today - and even they will be shuttered by 2018, along with the handful of remaining mines in Germany.
Residents of the Ruhr know that they're the underdog, and so they fight even harder to defend themselves. While working on a Ruhr documentary project, I encountered an elderly seamstress. "The Ruhr region is the most beautiful region in Germany," she proclaimed in her living room, its walls dotted with hunting trophies. "I don't want to live anywhere else. No way."
What's next? Considering the first university here opened its doors just 50 years ago, the region is heralding education as its next transformation. It no longer rests on a coal mine but a potential gold mine in the brainpower of its youth. What makes this especially interesting is that many of those youth are the children and grandchildren of the "guest workers," invited to toil in the mines - also about 50 years ago. In some cities, like Hagen, more than half of the children under 18 have an "immigration background."
In fact, with more than 5 million residents and 150 nationalities under one lid, the Ruhr region rivals Berlin as Germany's melting pot. The Regional Association of the Ruhr and the Stiftung Mercator partnered with the Technical University of Dortmund to publish a regional Education Report in 2011. Various projects like TalentAkademie Ruhr, RuhrFutur and TalentmetropoleRuhr target education equity.
Could the Ruhr's next evolution be forging a path for integration and education? The potential is there. But the true test of success will be when these pupils become ambassadors for the region. These outcomes are what will set the Ruhr apart, allowing it to shed its cloak of coal mine dust and trailblaze Germany's national dialogue on integration and education. And while the sheep continue to graze, the Ruhr region shatters one stereotype at a time.