Germany: A Local’s Guide to Solingen
Solingen – The Knife Capital of Europe
By Annette Oppenlander
I can think of many reasons to visit Solingen. But then I’m not objective.
It is – after all – my home town and I had promised to show it to our American friends. On an ambitious whim, I volunteered to play travel guide though it’s been nearly twenty-five years since I left and my insides swing between elation and worry. Five Americans to guide — I’ll be exhausted.
Nestled in the hilly land a few miles from Dusseldorf and Cologne, Solingen is a perfect side excursion. More than six-hundred years old, it grew out of five independent villages and is, for the most part, a plain city unless you know how to find its hidden gems. That’s where I come in.
A Solingen Native
As a Solingen native, it has always been my duty to have the sharpest kitchen utensils among my friends, if not the state. This is because Solingen has a historic reputation for producing high-quality cutlery, knives, and scissors. A true “Solinger” must represent this heritage through sharp knives, especially if she is the daughter of a die maker, one of the traditional, centuries-old metal forging professions of the region.
Visiting Twin Henckels, Leaders in Cutlery in Solingen
Our first stop led us to the Twin Henckels Corporation, famous for outstanding cutlery and its stylized twins, a trademark registered 280 years ago. Henckels’ flagship shop sits amid an expanse of red-bricked production buildings on Gruenewalder Strasse near downtown.
Granted you can find their knives other places, usually high-end department stores, but here you have access to the full range of amazing kitchen tools and personal grooming devices — some of which I don’t want to know what they are used for.
We spend an hour perusing the selection of knives and tools and I make sure to lecture about the twin logo stamp on the blades: a complete twin logo means made here in Solingen, a single twin logo means manufactured outside Germany.
With purchases in hand, we round the corner, and my friends point to a cone-shaped building. It is a bunker, windowless and suffocating, a relic from WWII, one of several still remaining in Solingen. We pause to imagine air raid sirens and people climbing inside. It is hard to believe that Solingen was completely leveled during a sunny weekend attack in November 1944.
Hiking the Wupper Valley
But I have more cheerful plans and we are heading into the country. The best way to introduce my friends to the area is to be close to the land. Yes, we walk. A spider web of trails crosses the hills and we choose the one leading to the Muengstener Bruecke, Germany’s tallest train bridge.
Through the trees, the bow-shaped girders look alien and in need of repair. Within minutes, a train crosses on top and I wonder if the bridge will crumble. But it has been in operation since 1897, a landmark even spared by WWII bombs.
We climb downhill to the Wupper valley, which seems to crouch below the bridge. On both sides of the river wooded hills in lush shades of green stretch into the distance. The area “Bergisches Land,” meaning hilly land, got its name from its rolling topography. The Wupper river, a narrow stream leading through Wuppertal and Solingen to the Rhine, has a colorful history.
Formerly Polluted Wupper River
In the seventies, it was the second most polluted river in Germany. I remember the stench, a toxic mixture that drilled into my nose and attacked the brain, leaving a bad taste in my mouth. One could smell it from miles away and it was said that your feet would fall off if you accidentally stepped into the water.
You see, years ago, Bayer Corporation, yes the one with the aspirins, and many other industrial companies, used the Wupper as a convenient way to get rid of toxic waste, dumping a rainbow of chemicals into the water.
It turned so black that locals called it Rio Tinto, Ink River. Much has changed and today the Wupper is clean again. Supposedly, twenty-seven types of fish, including salmon and trout, can be found here.
Beer Gardens by the River
Our path hugs the meandering river. I have a surprise up my sleeve but we are not there yet. The path down here is wide and easy to walk. The fact that Germans love beer gardens is true. Kiosks and restaurants are beckoning at the side of our trail.
There’s always time for a brew, even if it is only eleven in the morning. The light changes, greenish tints turn to deep shade where the forest takes over.
It is cool down here, the water sucking away warmth and sunlight and you can hear the river’s whispers as she takes her time downstream. Dampness crawls up our pant legs, but the air is peaceful and smells of clean nature, rotting wood and last year’s leaves.
Going Back in Time – Solingen’s Medieval Castle Burg
A few miles later we are approaching the place I am most anxious to show. Burg, an enclave of Solingen, clings to the bottom of the hill ahead. It is small, a place that speaks of history through narrow passageways and misshapen half-timbered and gray-shaled houses, some no wider than a dining table.
High above, Schloss Burg, a medieval castle from the 12th century, keeps watch. To reach it, we have the choice of hiking the steep hair needle curves or take the Sessellift — a park bench-gondola-for-two suspended from a wire — that climbs the mountain with ease.
My friends are tired and we opt for the lift. It takes us across the river and up. On top, our view sweeps across hills and valleys and the doll-sized village below. We are heading for the castle where Duke Engelbert von Berg, shrouded in green patina, greets us from atop his horse.
The castle has gone through attacks from the Swedes and the German Emperor, neglect and fires to be restored by an untiring club of enthusiasts over the past hundred years.
The worn floors creak as we make the round through the inner rooms, the Knights Hall, its walls dark with painted mural scenes of medieval war and glory and the Ahnensaal with portraits of somber-looking earls and dukes, stiff-necked in high-collared shirts or armor.
We feel removed from the world below, shielded against reality as we imagine life behind these walls. It is hard to catch a glimpse of the valley through the few glassless window slits, just large enough for the release of an arrow and allowing a draft, but too small to brighten the room.
We are most amazed about the toilet facilities, a seat placed above a hole in the floor. Those with the urge would sit and release their waste through the hole where it would fall along the outer castle walls. A sign explains that the stink would become so great that nobody wanted to live here, forcing the Duke, who owned several castles, to move his staff every few years.
No Heat in Winter
Some rooms show furniture, raw-shaped benches and tables, tin cups and a few spoons. No heat in the winter except for a smoky fire in the corner. A row of knights’ armor stands rigid like hollow steel men. Too small to fit a human being, definitely not a fully grown man of today.
We move on to the dungeon. I imagine intricate tools and facilities, but prisoners were simply tossed into a hole, fifteen feet deep below the main floor. They sat in total darkness, surrounded by memories and looming madness. The bishop of Cologne was held prisoner here in the thirteenth century. He spent nearly two years before he was freed but never recovered from the ordeal.
Back outside I lead our friends to a tiny shop across the castle restaurant. Inside, the brush maker sits behind a low counter, attaching goat hair to a handle. We watch in fascination as his fingers move nimbly, grab the fine hairs and twist them in place.
Artist brushes, scrub brushes for vegetables, mushrooms, and brushes for various human body parts — made with natural bristles and hair from wild boar, goat, fox and horse — crowd the walls. Behind the glass, we discover old-fashioned shaving brushes, the kind my grandfather used to lather up foam. They are made of soft badger hair and last a lifetime.
Coffee and Cake – A German Tradition
I promise my friends one more surprise. Just below the castle, several restaurants cling to the edge of the mountain to compete for space and tourists. One of the oldest is the Rittersturz, the Knights Tumble.
Perched on the rocky ledge, it offers an assortment of delicious cakes and pies and a priceless view of the region. Anyone falling off would plummet hundreds of feet to the river below. Tired hikers assemble here and partake in the tradition of Kaffee und Kuchen – coffee and cake.
My friends order tea which is served in delicate porcelain pots, tiny cups on doilied plates that seem too dainty for our American zest for size.
Planning dinner in town, we opt for Black Forest cake and apple pie with a mountain of whipped cream, instead of the Bergische Kaffeetafel, a regional specialty so filling that it is recommended for large appetites or as a substitute for dinner.
It typically includes waffles with sour cherry compote and whipped cream, milk rice doused in cinnamon and sugar, sweet and black bread, butter, cheese, and blood sausage or Leberwurst — liver sausage — quark and marble cake, topped off with a schnapps at the end.
We take the lift back down and catch the bus which arrives with German punctuality. It’s hard to believe anyone would have scaled these hills before there were roads. We imagine peasants and knights climbing to visit the duke. I feel pride and satisfaction to show my friends this piece of history, so much older than anything they have ever seen. A piece of history that I feel is somehow part of me. They are quiet and seem happy — I did my job, at least for today.
Helpful Solingen Links
Annette Oppenlander has worked as a professional writer for the largest PR and advertising firm in Indiana. Since January 2011 she is responsible for marketing and communications initiatives of Indiana University’s Honors Program in Foreign Languages. In her spare time, she’s begun to write fiction and recently received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train’s September 2011 fiction open. She lives with her husband and Mutt Mocha in Bloomington, Ind. For more information please visit annetteoppenlander.com.