Dazzled by Düsseldorf

There is more to discover and enjoy in Germany’s largest village than you would expect

Düsseldorf city is the biggest village in Germany — at first, this statement from my German friend does not seem logical at all.

While not among Germany’s largest cities, the capital of the West German state of Nordrhein-Westfalens still boasts 620,000 residents, many industries, modern architecture by Frank Gehry such as the Rheinhafen centre of arts and the media; in fact, all the trappings of a modern city.

Then the penny dropped — Düssel is the name of a river and dorf means village in German.

But apparently, Düsseldörfers see themselves as being just a bit more chic and classy than the rest of Germany. After all, this is where Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter taught art, where supermodel Claudia Schiffer was discovered in a nightclub, and where Karl Lagerfeld just opened his new concept store.

No wonder other Germans pounce on any chance to joke about the city.

Hip and cool

The city is a mere 15 minutes’ walk from the main railway station. The Königsallee, a ectionately called the Kö (above) by the locals, is a broad shopping street lined by famous fashion houses in architecturally elaborate arcades.

I had always thought that older men in leather bomber jackets look a little desperate, but somehow Düsseldorfers manage to look preppy and hip instead.

Running down the Kö is a canal framed by old trees with elegant bridges linking the two sides — one of the loveliest boulevards in Germany.

If you have a sweet tooth, check out Konditorei Heinemann near the famous Schadow Arkaden (Arcade).

The famous confectionery has an excellent selection of cakes, biscuits, pastries and chocolates. The steps to the café upstairs are lined by pictures of famous visitors including royalties, politicians and Pope Benedict.

Traditional touch

Not far from the Kö is a maze of streets forming the Altstadt (Old Town). In German cities, this is where you would usually find the town hall and the cathedral.

There are massive churches and imposing red-bricked buildings here, as well as a 300-year-old bronze statue of Jan Wellem, an aristocratic art patron-cum-ruler (left).

I also saw a statue of cartwheeling children. Many stories abound about this Düsseldorfer tradition, one being that people turned cartwheels to celebrate a battle Düsseldorf won against Cologne some 800 years ago.

Today, children still participate in a cartwheeling tournament.

But Düsseldorf’s Altstadt is predominantly known for its bars and restaurants, and a vibrant nightlife.

Besides traditional establishments serving hefty meat and fish stews and the famous Düsseldorf Altbier (old beer), there are also Irish pubs, Spanish tapas bars and Italian trattorias. The vibrant scene spills onto the sidewalks, so Düsseldorfers claim to have “the longest bar-counter in the world”.

Carnival fun

In spring, Düsseldorf actually celebrates Japan Day.

The city and the surrounding region have the largest Japanese community on the continent (about 8,000 strong), a result of Japanese post-war interest in the Ruhr industrial area and its need of German steel and technology.

Expect a host of activities such as sumo wrestling, kimono fittings, cosplay, movies and fireworks during the festival, which falls on May 21 this year.

There are many Japanese bookshops, supermarkets, karaoke bars, hairdressers and restaurants.

On my weekend visit, queues had formed outside good ramen outlets even before they opened. The sta came out to show us the menu so that we could pre-order what we wanted to eat, a habit reminiscent of some Chinese restaurants in Singapore.

In July, Düsseldorf stages the biggest funfair (www.rheinkirmes-duesseldorf.de) on the Rhine (Rheinkirmes).

A procession with marching bands, horses and carriages can be expected. And of course, a big fair ground with fl yers and roller coasters on huge meadows with enough space for both German and international stallholders to run their business. 

I didn’t stay long enough to check out its famous art museums or art-fi lled baroque palaces. But another trip may be needed to replenish my stock of beer-flavoured vinegar soon.

A village it may be, but I certainly have more to explore in Düsseldorf. It is, after all, Germany’s largest village.

Read about charming Colombo in the next article in this series on Feb 28.