Amsterdam to Cologne

On The Road Travel Essays

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Amsterdam to Cologne

(COURIER: You can supplement these notes with all-purpose sections like "Holland: People and Manners," or "Historical Sketches," if you have not already used them.)

Gooiland  This is the name of the area stretching southeast of Amsterdam, down to Utrecht. It is relatively high in elevation for Holland (180 feet). It was therefore settled first far back in prehistory, when the inhabitants used the higher land for protection from the waters. The sandy soil and hilly terrain indicate that glaciers first formed this region: the Gooiland was their farthest advance south.

Artists and holiday makers: The picturesque scenery of the area has attracted artists. Many of them have settled in the town of Laren. Mostly, though, it's vacationers who come to the Gooiland. Wealthy businessmen from Amsterdam build vacation houses, and this is transforming the area into a posh suburb of the capital, since it's easily accessible from it by highway.

Utrecht  This city lies off the highway to our left. Fourth largest city in Holland (population 300,000, including suburbs), located right in the middle of the country. Thus it forms a natural "pivot" for transportation, with highways branching out in all directions.

Origins: The name comes from the Latin Ultrajectum ad Rhenum (Crossing of the Rhine), which is what the Roman legionnaires called it. After the fall of Rome, the town became a frontier of the Frankish tribes who were struggling against the more warlike Frisians to the north. It was in Utrecht that St. Willibrord established his bishopric, and from here that Christianity spread to the rest of Holland. When the Rhine River began to be used for transport, Utrecht flourished as a commercial center. But in the 16th century, Utrecht was overshadowed by the Counts of Holland, based in Amsterdam. During the period of Spanish rule in Holland, Utrecht became a center of resistance. The Union of Utrecht was an agreement of the Dutch to unify the Northern Provinces, which is what Holland was then called. The Union, concluded in 1579, was a wholesale rebellion against Spain.

Utrecht today: Commercial activity continues, with annual trade fairs. The University of Utrecht is a major center of learning. The Catholic Archbishop of the Netherlands is based in Utrecht, making it the center of Dutch Catholic life. Utrecht stands at the center of the Dutch canal system. When the Germans advanced on Holland in 1940, the Dutch opened up the floodgates from Utrecht, which controls the inland waterways. Tourists come to Utrecht in large numbers, largely for its historic buildings, canals, and friendly people.

Zeist (Off the highway to the left) The little city of Zeist, off on the left, is typical of many towns in this area which have become popular as resorts, mainly because of their lovely setting in forests and parks, offering pleasant walks. Citizens of Utrecht can leave their office, drive on the highway, and be here in a short time.

Doorn (which may not be visible, off to the right) This small town became somewhat famous in 1918, when the German Kaiser Wilhelm II fled his country and settled here. He spent the rest of his life in Doorn, writing his memoirs and chopping wood. He died in 1941, when the country was in German (Nazi) hands. He is buried in a mausoleum in the town park. (Prior to WW II, the Dutch felt close to the Germans, having been neutral during WW I; hence, the Dutch welcomed the Kaiser to spend his exile here.)

Veenendaal, just off the highway to the right, is an agricultural center known especially for one product: honey bees! Every July a great bee-keepers' market is held, the largest in Europe. Bee-lovers come from all over, risking stings to view and handle their favorite species. The town is also known for the manufacture of excellent cigars.

Ede, off the highway to our left, doesn't look like a large city in population (70,000), but in land area is technically one of the biggest communities in Holland. Reason: incorporated into the "city limits" are miles of woods nearby. Today, the town is a center for manufacturing artificial silk. Its open-air theater, De Eder Kuil, is well-known throughout Holland, drawing spectators from towns many miles away.

Wageninen, off the highway to our right (we can't see it), is the town where the surrender of the German army was signed on May 5, 1945 between General Foulkes and General Blaskovics in "De Wereld" Hotel. (This was just the surrender of the German army, not the "unconditional surrender" of Germany as a whole, which took place in the famous schoolroom at Reims, France, May 7, 1945, with General Eisenhower and (German) General Jodl present.)

Arnhem (Off the highway to our right) Arnhem, one of Holland's larger cities (pop. 120,000), is the capital of the Dutch province of Gelderland. This province stretches from the Rhine (just S of Arnhem) all the way north to the artificial Lake Ijssel (Zuider Zee). Much of the province is woodlands, but the Rhine and its tributaries in the south give it a strategic importance that was not lost on the Romans. Throughout the Middle Ages, the history of Gelderland was one of savage fighting between rival nobles. The province joined the Protestant cause against Spain in the Union of Utrecht (1`579). But the strategic importance of the rivers guaranteed trouble during WW II, when the area around Arnhem was bitterly fought over.

Origins: Arnhem started out as the Roman town of Arenacum, but didn't amount to much until early modern times, when it benefitted from trade on the Rhine River, with which the town is connected by the Lower Rhine River, a branch of the Rhine that eventually becomes the River Ijssel as it flows north.

Paratroop tragedy: On Sept. 17, 1944, a sizable airborne force consisting of British, Free Dutch, and Polish troops, were parachuted into the hills west of Arnhem. The idea was to seize the Rhine crossing, enabling the Allies to drive into the heart of Germany (the German border is only a couple of miles away), and to cut off the German forces in the rest of Holland. But unfortunately, the main force landing near Arnhem could not link up with another force 12 miles south, near Nijmegen, because the latter was bottled up by the Germans soon after landing. Since the two forces remained separate, the Germans easily chopped up each one. The Allied paratroops held out for four days against superior forces, the commander, General Urquhart, and his "Red Devils" gaining a reputation for gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds. Only 3,000 Allies escaped and made it back to Allied lines. Much of the fighting took place in and around Arnhem, which cost the city many of its historic buildings. In "mopping up" the splintered Allied force in Arnhem, the Germans went from house to house with flame throwers, causing damage and forcing many townspeople to flee for their lives. Only after seven months (April 1945) was Arnhem liberated by the Allies. In grateful recognition of this Allied sacrifice, the people of Arnhem buried the fallen paratroops in a special cemetery in the suburb of Oosterbeek, and to this day the graves are regularly decorated with flowers by the townspeople. (COURIER: After you cross the German border, there's a fairly uneventful stretch that you can use for your introduction to Germany and German Way of Life.)

The Ruhr Basin  We're entering the Ruhr Basin, the densest concentration of population and industry in the whole of Europe. The name "Ruhr" is appropriate. The Ruhr is the name of a river running through the area. "Ruhr" in German means "commotion." There are many popular nicknames for the area, such as Ruhrgiant (Ruhr giant), but the most common is Kohlenpott: coal scuttle. Over 5 million people live and work in this 1800-square mile area (about 2% of the surface area of West Germany) -- 10% of the population. The Autobahns are as dense as the population, sometimes two Autobahns running parallel only a few miles apart. Railroads are just as dense, and there are many miles of canals that handle coal barges. The two largest inland ports in Germany (Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen) are situated on the River Ruhr.

Origins: The Ruhr's industrial importance is relatively recent. Up until the 19th century there were only farms and villages, the people having no inkling of the treasures lying under the soil: coal and iron. Archaeologists know that this is one of the oldest areas of Europe to be inhabited. The discovery of the remains of a Neanderthal man near Dusseldorf proves that the Ruhr was settled during the Stone Age. In Roman times, the region was occupied by a Germanic tribe called the Sigambere, known to Roman historians for its pride and fiercely-defended independence. Ironically for an area associated with modern industry, many of the Rhur's mushrooming cities go very far back in history: many of them were villages as long ago as the 9th century, during Europe's Dark Ages. Most of them grew up around monasteries, and were ruled by prince-abbots. They all had Latin names: Trutmania (Dortmund), Dispargium (Duisburg), etc.

Development: 1811 is the crucial date for the Ruhr. In this year, an enterprising man named Friedrich Krupp came to the Ruhr and established a coal mining firm. Coal mining had been carried on for centuries in this area (even during the Middle Ages), but it was only a local enterprise, the coal being used as a household fuel. There was no way to exploit its potential, mainly because of inadequate transportation. Only with the coming of railroads and canals could the marriage of coal with iron take place, and the Ruhr industrial giant come into being. With this industrial development, the former villages became towns, the towns became cities. Some of the inhabitants became rich men, others, not wanting to give up their traditional crafts, moved elsewhere. Many farmers, however, refused to leave, being attached to the soil, and continued to farm their plots of land even when they found themselves surrounded by a forest of smokestacks. For this reason, there are many areas of green in the Ruhr: meadows, farms, gardens, forests, tucked in among the industrial works.

Krupp Corporation: Friedrich Krupp's coal mine became a steel-making firm in the 19th century, as Krupp's son Alfred and grandson Friedrich Alfred expanded the business. Steelmaking was supplemented by armaments manufacturing as Germany prepared for WW I. The tanks, heavy guns, railroad cars, and other armaments of WW II were manufactured at the Krupp plants in the city of Essen. The firm exists today, although no longer run by the Krupp family and devoted now to peacetime goods. About 25,000 workers are employed by the Krupp firm. It was largely the Krupp works that made Essen the giant of the Ruhr (21 mines right in the city); at its present rate of growth, Essen will soon be the third largest city in W. Germany, with a population of more than one million. And this in spite of the fact that 50% of the city was destroyed in WW II.

Germany's "energy bank": With imported oil becoming more and more expensive, and coal re-emerging as a (relatively) cheap energy source, the Ruhr is coming to be looked on as a vast energy bank. Coal in the Ruhr is easy to mine: seams are thick, and they run straight, with few faults or interruptions. New coal deposits are discovered each year, and as the means of measuring "proven reserves" becomes ever more accurate, the amount of coal left in the ground is continually revised upward. With about 70 billion tons of coal left, the Ruhr will handle the energy needs of Germany for generations into the future.

WW II: The Ruhr was the Allies' choice target during the war, and it was bombed repeatedly. That's why the cities all look new, with historical monuments few and far between. The Allies simply wanted to annihilate the Ruhr, to destroy Germany's war making potential once and for all. There were even plans to turn the whole area into pastureland -- as it had in fact been up through the 18th century. But before anything so radical could be done, the Ruhr had sprung back to life, the cities had been rebuilt, and the area had become the power plant of the West German economy.

People of the Ruhr: In some ways, the Ruhr is a melting pot of peoples. For more than a century, there have been between 100,000 and 200,000 Polish workers in the Ruhr; there are also Dutch, Belgian, and Italian workers, many of them descendants of families who came to the Ruhr in the 19th century looking for work. And work was available, as the area boomed. A characteristic of all people who live in the Ruhr is a love of nature -- a characteristic perhaps inherited from those tenacious farmers who refused to leave. The "Kumpels" (miners) of the Ruhr love nothing so much as their little plot of land. They'll plant flower gardens in the tiniest yard, and tend them lovingly as though they were in an Oxford quad. They are attached to their corner of the world and are reluctant to leave. Fond of their place of livelihood, the Ruhr workers are known for their diligence and reliability. The Ruhr workers are relatively well paid, with generous sickness and retirement payments, so there are virtually no strikes. The Ruhr people are open-hearted and friendly; there is little resentment or friction between workers and managers, and in any case, the disgruntled are as likely to head for the local bar as to go out marching with placards. People of the Ruhr are known for their love of sports. Sporting "clubs" can be found in the tiniest town, and there's a sports stadium in every city. Often, an impromptu "stadium" will be created in a dirt yard behind rows of houses, whole families joining the games.

Eating and drinking: Ruhr cuisine isn't Paris haute, but it's suitable to people engaged in physical work. Most dishes are heavy but hearty: lots of meat, and few potatoes or vegetables. Some of the brands of beer of the Ruhr are famous: Dortmund, named for the city where it's made, is equal to most Munich brands, and every city has its own local brewery.

The Ruhr isn't known for its spectacular scenery, but it gives the visitor another kind of experience: a view of Germany at work. Some say that the Ruhr is what plunged Germany into the abyss of war, but it's just as true that it has been the mainspring of her miraculous recovery.

(COURIER: There's probably no point in giving commentary on each city as you pass it on the Autobahn, unless you have some personal anecdotes about the cities, the area, or Germany in general. By about the time you're passing Dusseldorf, start your introduction to Cologne.)

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