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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Düsseldorf

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Our apartment was a stiff walk from the old town so we drove to a garage close to the daily market at Carlsplatz. There has been a market in this square since the thirteenth century but the current iteration can't bear much resemblance to the version that was there in medieval times. The Plexiglas canopy created an atmosphere of a covered market without walls and the emphasis was more on pricey specialty foods than produce. Although the market is open every day except Sunday many of the stalls were closed on Tuesday morning and there were few customers. One vendor told us it would be busier later in the day and later in the week. We copped the solitary table of a Japanese mini restaurant and supplemented our noodles with bread and fruit from other stalls.

Düsseldorf is the seventh largest city in Germany and the capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. However the city did not become a major population center until the nineteenth century which may explain the relative smallness and paucity of interesting sights in the Altstadt close to the bank of the Rhine. We stopped at Marktplatz to see the Town Hall and the equestrian statue of local hero Jan Wellem that has stood in front of it for three hundred years. A block to the west was the spacious cobblestone square of Burgplatz, watched over by the Castle Tower which is the solitary remnant of a long-ago incinerated Baroque palace. I had expected the Rhine promenade to provide us with an interesting walk but it was a bland stretch of asphalt lined with shuttered snack kiosks. At least we had finally reached this legendary river of Western Europe that would be a significant feature of the rest of our journey. We had technically encountered it in Netherlands as well but in reality the river loses its singular identity once it separates into the different channels of the Rhine delta.

If the promenade had been more alluring we might have walked a mile to the Rhine Tower which we could see in the distance but as it was we decided to return to the car to visit one of Düsseldorf's midweek farmers markets, the Rheinischer Bauernmarkt in Friedensplätzchen. This proved to be a rather small market but it provided another look at the authentic daily life of the city residents. Seeing as how our next destination would be a wildlife park we picked up a dozen apples and a bunch of carrots to feed the animals.

Wildpark Düsseldorf is located in the Grafenberg Wald, a large forested area on the eastern outskirts of the city. Within the park there were quite a few large enclosures in which various species of deer and boar roamed freely. They were quite adept at tugging the carrots away from the kids who were trying to drag the feeding out as long as they could.

The Düsseldorf harbor is ingeniously constructed within a sharp bend in the Rhine in order to avoid any obstruction to boats that are passing through. In the Medianhafen section of the harbor is a remarkable complex of buildings called Neuer Zollhof that have the characteristic curvaceous flowing design of Frank Gehry creations. Gehry was chosen as the architect for the complex by the local advertising magnate who was running the project and the buildings were completed in 1998. Although they appear residential the buildings are designated as an art and media center, although there was no sign of any activity in or around them in the middle of a business day.

The Rhine Tower, or Rheinturm, is just a five minute walk downriver from the Gehry buildings. This telecommunications tower is the tallest building in Düsseldorf and has a restaurant and observation deck at the top. It is a majestic structure and it felt quite terrifying to stand at the base and look directly upward. We've wasted enough time ascending tall structures just for the sake of getting to the top that we've established an unwritten rule against the practice, and we followed our rule when it came to the Rhine Tower. The view from the ground was perfectly adequate.

After a quick lunch of sausages in Medianhafen we crossed to the left bank of the Rhine for the first time. The promontory within the sharp meander is divided into the leafy residential neighborhoods of Oberkassel and Niederkassel. Despite its name of Abenteuerspielplatz Oberkassel, our destination here was located in Niederkassel. Abenteuerspielplatz means "adventure playground" and I only knew of its existence because I'd done extensive research on things to do with kids in Düsseldorf. After parking it wasn't clear where the playground was located so I went exploring while the boys finished up their naps in the car. Eventually I located the playground down an unmarked path and messaged Mei Ling to bring the kids. They took a wrong turn and ended up in the Japanese cultural center next door. Düsseldorf has a sizable Japanese expat community due to business links and many of them live in Niederkassel. The Japanese center contains a Japanese school and a traditional garden.

The adventure playground was a place that probably couldn't exist in the litigious United States. The park was dotted with rusted metal equipment and other minor hazards, although these dangers were more than outweighed by the profusion of unusual playground activities that delighted the kids. There was a shallow pool with a raft, ziplines, and pedal cars. The families in the park seemed to be equally divided between expats and locals, and I'm confident not many tourists ever made it there. The experience made us feel like a regular German family enjoying a sunny summer afternoon with their kids.

We drove to the northern reaches of Düsseldorf for an early dinner at Galerie Burghof, one of the few beer gardens I had been able to locate in the city. One of our best memories from Bavaria was the communal joy of eating and drinking in beer gardens and I was disappointed to learn that the same tradition wasn't prevalent in the Rhineland. However there were still some beer gardens scattered around and this one had the added bonus of a view over the Rhine and proximity to the ruins of Kaiserswerth Castle. The adjacent parking lot was full so we had to walk a lengthy bike path to reach Galerie Burghof. The beer garden was made to resemble a clearing in a forest with seats and tables made from planks and tree sections set on a gravelly floor. Sturdy live trees stood adjacent to the tables. The waitress helped me understand the procedures for ordering beer from the bar and food from the kitchen and we put together a light dinner of sausages and schnitzel.

The gate to the castle grounds was being closed just as we left Galerie Burghof but we could still appreciate the thickness of the walls of the crumbling ruin from the bike path. The castle was originally built in the twelfth century by the renowned Frederick Barbarossa, considered one of the greatest of the medieval Holy Roman Emperors, in a strategic location overlooking the Rhine. The walls were gradually destroyed by sieges in later centuries and eventually many of the stones were cannibalized to construct neighboring buildings.

The last place I wanted to see in Düsseldorf was the Königsallee. This impressive boulevard with a central canal close to the Altstadt was constructed two hundred years ago and symbolized Düsseldorf's maturation into a major German city. The wide canal is fed by the Düssel, a small tributary of the Rhine that is the city's namesake. The Königsallee became a magnet for fashion showrooms, luxury boutiques, and upscale hotels. Affectionately known as the Kö, it is also a favorite place for strolls on summer evenings. I had been here once before on a whirlwind tour of Germany just before I graduated from medical school in 1994 and it had seemed like quite a hub of energy. Strangely on this perfectly temperate evening the Kö was quite empty of people, almost deserted. We walked the entire length of the canal hoping to experience the magic I had felt on my first visit but aside from some attractive statues and imposing buildings there wasn't much to be seen. Perhaps it was too early in the evening or too early in the week for there to be much street life, or perhaps the city had changed in some subtle ways since my original visit.

We usually prefer breakfast in a farmers market if there's one available so Wednesday morning we visited Wochenmarkt Eller on the Gertrudisplatz before leaving town. Although the name translates to "weekly market" it runs all day from Tuesday to Saturday. It was another small and attractive market that had very few customers. The produce stalls were particularly alluring here. We quickly assembled and consumed our usual Germanic market breakfast of sausage, bread, cheese, and fruit.

Düsseldorf had proven to be a less touristic city from a historical and architectural perspective than I had anticipated. Thanks to the paucity of things to see the old town we had gone through my entire list of points of interest in a single day. We had still had an enjoyable time pretending we lived in the city and doing all the fun things that a local family with young children might do to keep them amused. It also meant that we had plenty of space in our itinerary that day to visit Phantasialand, one of the most popular amusement parks in Germany. I had placed this on the itinerary as a possibility for the day we left Köln but we were already overloaded with castles and towns to visit on the way to Koblenz. Now that we had accelerated our timeline in Düsseldorf we had the perfect opportunity to surprise the kids with hopefully their best day of the trip. We bundled the kids into the car with their books and arrived at the park an hour later. Cleo looked up and asked where we were and I told her it was another castle, eliciting a grumble. The park has a wall around it so the castle story remained believable until the kids could hear the screams coming from the roller coaster inside. It was hilarious to see Cleo's expression as she slowly worked out what was going on and then the look of delight on her face when she was sure she was at an amusement park. Naturally the boys were oblivious until Cleo told them where they were. My biggest fear was that the park would be completely mobbed with customers creating hour long waits for every ride but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't by any means overrun on a cool Wednesday morning.

It's weird how much Cleo and Ian enjoy amusement park rides, given how much Mei Ling and I hate them. Even as a kid I can remember going to amusement parks occasionally and hating the feeling when the roller coaster plunged downward. I think those visits were rare mainly because I never requested them. I certainly don't feel any different as an adult. I don't get motion sick and I wouldn't describe the feeling as fear, since I'm perfectly aware how safe the rides are from a statistical perspective. It's just a very unpleasant physical sensation and I can't understand why others consider it enjoyable or thrilling. I would liken it to sitting in a chair and having my blood drawn. The kids are at an age where they always want to go on rides that they are only allowed on with an adult chaperone. Some of them I'll do but I categorically refuse the large roller coasters and the rides that drop people from a height. Being at an amusement park for us is a constant series of negotiations where I end up tolerating a good deal of discomfort and the kids miss out on the biggest thrills. I can't wait until they are all tall enough to go on any ride they want without me. I did agree to do the water flume with them a couple of times since the drop wasn't too awful, although being splashed with cold water was an additional noxious insult.

Mei Ling does get motion sick and most of the rides are out of the question for her so we split up with me taking the two older kids and Mei Ling taking Spenser. She was a trooper and accompanied Spenser on a few rides that I know must have been miserable for her. Meanwhile I did everything I could to convince the kids the lines were too long at the big coasters while hunting for fun activities that didn't involve plunges. I was very impressed by the design of the park, which was divided into areas with different cultural themes that I thought had been executed quite masterfully. I thought it compared quite favorably to Disneyland, that temple of American materialism that I have vowed never to return to. Mei Ling and I stood it as long as we could but after five hours I was desperate to move on with our itinerary. What seemed like an eternity to us must have passed like the blink of an eye to the kids, who implored us for one more ride and then once that was granted for another. After seeing how much they enjoyed the park I resolved that all future European road trips would include days set aside for amusement parks from the beginning, not just if our schedule happened to allow for them by chance.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:22 Archived in Germany Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog grafenberg_wald rheinturm galerie_burghof kaiserswerth_castle phantasialand

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