Dusseldorf: Art, museums and memorials

The Hofgarten on a sunny day

Dusseldorf may not be one of Germany’s picture postcard cities but it’s only an hour’s hop by air from London and has a festive Christmas market to brighten up those depressing December days.

Our base for the weekend was the modern and comfortable Melia on the edge of the park known as the Hofgarten, a short walk from the old town. Arriving late on our BA flight from Heathrow and with drizzle in the air, we couldn’t face leaving the hotel for the city’s fleshpots and lodged ourselves in the bar instead for an hour or two.

The weather hadn’t changed much by the time we went out to find breakfast the following morning. The Hofgarten looked drab and depressed in its winter coat. Piles of dead leaves awaited removal, ducks waddled and swans glided by on the grubby ponds, while a few red squirrels scampered about in search of food.

Inside the K20
Inside the K20

We had an excellent breakfast of eggs and ham at Poccino in a modern development on the edge of the park, despite struggling with the German menu. As keen travellers, our combined ineptitude at languages is a perennial embarrassment…

With the weather still poor we broke the habit of a lifetime and went to a gallery, the snappily named Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen K20 Grabbeplatz. I have precious little interest in art but favour modern over old masters so their collection of 20th century works is more my cup of tea. In a series of bright open spaces we found some strange stuff but plenty to appreciate too.

Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and Miro were featured. Warhol’s Woman Suicide was compelling but voyeuristic, Klee’s colours gripped me and Robert Rauschenberg’s pieces made for fascinating collages. But the pencil drawings of Sol LeWitt – scribbles as well as geometric works – were the stars of the show and had us both in awe. Graham, meanwhile, took a liking to Robert Long’s slate circle.

The Schlossturm - home to a shipping museum
The Schlossturm – home to a shipping museum

Elsewhere, archive material from art dealers Dorothee and Konrad Fischer proved a bit of a mix overall but did much to reveal the relationship they had with their artists and, overall, K20 was worth the price of admission.

The nearby old town, the Altstadt, looked grey in the murk so after coffee we got diverted by the Schifffahrt Museum Schlossturm without quite realising what it was. It’s housed in a round tower that’s the only structure left of the Elector’s city palace, which burned down in the 1870s. However, the museum is actually devoted to the story of shipping on the Rhine, which flows through the city just a few yards away.

It’s well done and a treat for those who love models of ships, but there’s only so much I can take on the subject. A film about the building and the city’s rulers of old was more our thing, and the views of the river from the cafe at the top were worth the climb.

Winter in the Hofgarten
Winter in the Hofgarten

Nearby was the Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Düsseldorf, a museum that’s a memorial to victims of the Nazis. Mainly presented from the point of view of children, there was a huge amount of material – too much to take in during one visit – and the commentary was very long. However, skipping through we found moving and disturbing tales from people who supported the regime at the time and those who opposed it, and suffered as a result. Who could not be moved by the tale of a toddler with Down’s Syndrome being taken away from her parents to be put to death simply because she was not the Nazi’s ideal of ‘perfect’?

Sobering photos showed the destruction of the city after the war and how locals coped with bombardment and hunger, and we toured the building’s air raid shelter that had been used by residents during the aerial bombardments.

There were far too few people visiting though. And in a world where right wing demagogues, hatred and racism are on the rise, it’s more important than ever that we regularly remind ourselves of the horrors of what that meant for the world in the 1930s and 40s.

Come the evening, the temperature had dropped and we went in search of food but most of the popular places were rammed with folk eating stodge and drinking the city’s famous, dark altbier.

Christmas market in the Marktplatz
The Christmas market in the Marktplatz

We stopped at Ohme Jupp for some hearty local fare, stuck with the pilsner and then went into the Altstadt proper for more drinks.

It’s a district known as much for its nightlife and drinking as it is for being the historic heart of the city and there were plenty of boisterous groups out enjoying themselves.

We skipped the Irish bars and the grim restaurants, where stag and hen parties were in evidence, and found ourselves at the Christmas market in the Marktplatz, where stalls sold festive goodies and gluhwein. The streets were mobbed with folk getting into the Christmas spirit, promenading from stall to stall, and the atmosphere was great. We chose to park up in a brauhaus and drink beer.

And more beer…