Sunday, 13 June 2010

Where I live (1): The Duchy of Berg

The first time I saw the Duchy of Berg was on a fine late June morning, twenty four years ago. I’d arrived by train from Rome in Cologne and we drove in open VW Beetle convertible east into a landscape of rolling hills and valleys, with a rich variety of fields and woodlands, all lush and green and lovely. Coming from Italy, where the Mediterranean sun was already leaching the green lushness of spring from nature and transforming it into the dusty sere dryness of hot high summer, the contrast was stark and welcoming. I remember thinking at the time that it was perfectly beautiful – but the fact that I was madly in love may also have had something to do with that thought.

In the following two years, I visited the area frequently before in 1988 moving here (with one short pause at the end of the nineties) for good. And, as it has always been important to me to know something about where I live, I have tried over the years to find out more about the Bergisches Land, [the Berg Country].

East and west of the Rhine from Cologne to the Dutch border are four counties/duchies whose histories (particularly the histories of their ruling dynasties) are interwoven – Cleves, Jülich, Mark and Berg[1]. Historically, the Duchy of Berg stretched eastward from the Rhine between Bonn and Düsseldorf to the Westphalian border, bounded on the south by the river Sieg, on the north by the Ruhr (although given the historical continual dynastic horse-trading between the many rulers of the Holy Roman Empire the borders were always flexible). In general, the area in which people generally define themselves as “Bergish” can be most easily defined as the catchment area (in the widest sense) of the river Wupper.

Geographically, the territory marks the point where the eastern Rhenish Massif starts to rise from the Middle Rhine valley. The geological morphology of relatively soft sedimentary rock, including a lot of slate, means that glaciers in the ice ages and many of the rivers have, over the aeons, cut deep valleys on their way to the Rhine. Because the Bergish region marks one of the first major elevations of altitude in continental Europe east of the Atlantic, it is one of the rainiest areas in Germany (cloud masses rising into cooler air and shedding moisture as a result). I have been known to wryly remark that this is a phenomenon which makes me, an Irishman, feel so at home here.

Bergisches Schieferhaus

The traditional method of building in the Bergish Country frequently involves slating the walls. Slate is plentiful in the region and gives good protection against the abundant rainfall.

The Duchy of Berg is not particularly well known even within Germany, and people who aren’t from the area will often mistakenly assign it to the Ruhr area. In fact, as the people here will quickly tell you, it’s quite different. The industrial revolution which centred on the Ruhr in the 19th Century was largely based on the mining of the large coal-reserves in the area. The Bergish region also experienced the industrial revolution (even earlier in fact) but here it had more to do with fast-flowing rivers, which provided abundant power for milling-wheels, washing and the carrying away of waste-products, abundant woods for charcoal and some small iron deposits. Based on these assets, traditions of steel-working had already been established in the 18th Century; particularly tool-making in Remscheid and swords, knives and cutlery in Solingen. The valley of the Wupper became the centre of a major textile industry, based around towns like Barmen and Elberfeld which (with a number of others) combined in 1929 to form the city of Wuppertal.


The Müngstener Brücke between Remscheid and Solingen is Germany's highest railway bridge

The three cities of Solingen, Remscheid and Wuppertal flow almost indivisibly into each other and form the most urbanised part of the duchy with a combined population of over 600,000. Wuppertal, the largest of them, is defined by its geographical position, strung out in a long river valley surrounded by steep hills. Faced with the problem of developing public transport in this situation at the end of the 19th Century, public planners came up with an original solution and built a 13.3 km. long suspended monorail over the river, the famous Wuppertal Schwebebahn.

Datei:Schwebebahn ueber Strasse.jpg

The existence of so many river valleys, particularly in the more rural Upper Berg region, led to the building of dams and the creation of many artificial lakes to secure the water supply for the local towns and cities, lakes which are nowadays just as important for recreational purposes.

Describing peoples’ characters in terms of local characteristics is always a business of dodgy generalisation. The Bergish region is often lumped in with the Rhineland, but there are significant differences between the natives of both regions. The Rhinelanders are generally known in Germany for their relaxed, easy attitude to life – an extroverted, open, fun-loving approach to things, with a (very un-German) tendency not to take things too seriously and to manage things by personal contacts and connections rather than objective rational organisation. The people in the Bergish Country are more reserved, with a stronger inclination to taciturnity and straight talking, sometimes even suspicion of strangers. This may have something to do with history. While the Rhineland (generally) rejected the Reformation and remained largely Catholic, Protestantism had a stronger impact in the Duchy of Berg. Wuppertal was one of the centres of German Pietism and it was in Barmen/Wuppertal in 1934 that the small protestant opposition to Nazism (die bekennende Kirche) was first organised.

But religiously the Bergish Country is a patchwork. For many years I lived in the town of Wipperfürth in Upper Berg. The town is traditionally completely Catholic and carnival is celebrated there with a frenzy which surpasses even Cologne. Only 6 km. down the Wupper (which even changes its name between the two towns) is Hückeswagen, with a proud Protestant tradition. Once divided by bitter religious enmity, the two towns today share a friendly rivalry.

Twenty-four years after first seeing the Duchy of Berg, I’m still living here in Remscheid, about which city I’ll tell a bit more in another post.

[1] In the English-speaking world, Cleves is an interesting footnote as the home of the fourth wife of Henry VIII, Anne. Henry married Anne in an attempt to gain German allies, after being shown a flattering portrait of her, painted by the artist Hans Holbein the younger. Seeing the lady in person, the king found her ugly and the marriage was never consummated. He quickly divorced her but she remained in England and she and Henry became good friends.

1 comment:

  1. From my childhood I recall that my family is from Wipperfurth, of so my aunts and uncles thought. I also recall tales of a von Rentzell run military academy. Are you aware of any such thing from your years in the town? I'm trying to research our family history, maybe even linking with lines that have spread far and wide to Costa Rica, Argentina ( I have a namesake who's a policeman there) Scandinavia and even Japan. I know My Great Grandfather, George Waldmar Albert von Rentzell brought his family here to the USA so his sons wouldn't have to become officers in the Prussian army. He was supposedly a family disgrace, only reaching the rank of Captain.


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