Oberhausen is twinned with Middlesbrough. And before venturing there, that was the sum total of my knowledge.
But in December, I had the dubious pleasure of being invited along on a day out to a typical German Christmas market. I didn’t take much persuading, someone explained Glühwein, assured me it was nothing like the shocking atrocity we Brits call mulled wine and I was sold.
And why Oberhausen? Why not Cologne or Düsseldorf? Well in truth, it’s close to Amsterdam, just over an hour and a half. So with the weathermen predicting freezing rain off I set.
I met my fellow intrepid travellers at the ungodly hour of 07.50 in the wind tunnel that is Amsterdam central station, boarded the appropriately named ICE train and set off through the countryside through picturesque towns. After a while it all started to get a bit industrial, then a bit more industrial and then very industrial indeed, even the air was gray. And then the train stopped. We’d hit steel town.
Oberhausen has a tourist office, manned by polite though understandably embarrassed ladies who did their best to talk up their town’s main attraction – a disused gas silo. They even let us hold the surprisingly heavy cast iron models of the silo that they sold to passing day trippers. How we all laughed. They pointed us at a tram stop and handed out maps.
The place where it’s all at is a Teutonic Bluewater. A shopping centre surrounded by what looked like abandoned garden sheds. It was barely 10am, the good folk of Oberhausen were still in their beds, so we went in search of coffee and cake, settling instead for chicken soup and apple strudel at the Café Zurich. After an hour or so of aimless milling around the mall to stave off indigestion, it was time to get the full Weihnachtsmarkt Experience.
Stall after stall of the sort of seasonal tat your mother used to give to jumble sales mingled with places offering Glühwein and the type of huge sausages that only a German woman can eat without eliciting smutty comments. It took us around five minutes to give up on ‘World of Fudge’ and huddle under a makeshift shelter guzzling our first mug of hot wine.
After a second round of nog, spirits lifted. We all merrily admitted the place was a shit hole populated by web-footed, six-fingered inbred trolls.
It was time for lunch.
After eyeing up the variety of places on offer – you can eat your way around the world in Oberhausen – we settled on a Bavarian restraint, where men and women in lederhosen and frilly blouses bobbed efficiently between tables. The menu was simple, meat with meat and sauerkraut and meat. For the non meat eaters, there was sauerkraut without the meat. It was a monument to gout.
Eventually with heavy hearts, we bid farewell to Oberhausen to board the train back to Amsterdam.
All in all, we had a great day though. Once you revise your expectations and start to see the funny side of things, hell you can have fun in a cardboard box with a piece of straw.
As a celebration, here is my seasonal recipe for Glühwein – not one little bit like mulled wine, which we all know is wrong anyway – highly recommended.
1 bottle red wine
3 tbs sugar (more or less according to taste)
1 mug of water
1 lemon sliced
1 orange sliced
Juice of 1 orange
1 cinnamon stick
Heat the ingredients together in a pan, never letting them boil, keep on a low heat for an hour to allow the flavours to infuse, then strain and serve. Keep what you haven’t drunk hot for later.