A city of rusting steel greets my eyes. No, not a city. A metropolis.
Situated on the banks of the Saar River, just a stone’s throw from France and downriver from Saarbrücken, Völklinger Hütte towers over the landscape, the empty shell of one of the world’s largest ironworks. Its blast furnaces are silent. Its coal tracks are orange with rust. The roof of its ore shed is spotted with moss.
Völklinger Hütte was once an integral player in the economic boom that fueled Germany´s recovery after World War II. Indeed, it was part of the industry that fueled the war itself. The ironworks traces its beginnings to 1873 at a location near German coal mines and rail lines.
I follow a narrow ramp into Völklinger Hütte’s (Ironworks) maze of steel. Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1994, UNESCO’s first industrial monument, the ironworks introduces itself to me via a video. Then it’s off on my self-guided tour of one of Europe’s largest factories.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You’re into industrial history and culture…or are at least game to learn about it
- The idea of wandering through art exhibits and attending concerts in an off-beat venue is pretty cool
- You’re a UNESCO lover and Völklinger Hütte sits in a region more densely packed with UNESCO sites than anywhere else in Europe
In 1890 the Völklinger ironworks ranked as the largest steel girder producer in the German Empire. New smelting and sintering processes, coke ovens and blast furnaces powered by their own waste caused Völklinger to grow. Forced and poorly-paid labor from Russia, Italy and the Benelux nations kept the plant chugging and expanding through WWII. After the war, the works continued to grow, employing 17,000 workers to rebuild Europe’s wartime devastation.
What seemed impossible in the mid-60s occurred just a decade later. The ironworks suffered a mortal blow with the worldwide steel crisis in 1975. By 1980 Völklinger Hütte would shutter its doors for good, losing out to a modern steel plant that opened just a few miles away.
I am like most visitors, I suspect, knowing little of the differences between pig iron and coke, between smelting and sintering. But somehow the Völklinger plant fascinates me. There´s more to this ironworks than just iron.
The labyrinth of 19th– and 20th-century factory equipment, of preserved steel chimneys and sintering machines discolored with patina, overwhelms me with its size and startles me with its silence. What noise must this monstrosity have created in its heyday, back when Völklinger Hütte produced 5,500 tons of liquid iron every day? How much heat was generated by those 6 gargantuan furnaces when they roared? How sweaty and dirty and exhausted must Völklinger Hütte’s factory workers have been back in the day?
Out of the Ruins, Art
Even more remarkable? Interspersed among the mass of ventilators and coal tracks are art exhibits. Rotating photographic displays cover the walls of the ironworks’ blower hall and burden shed. In 2014, photos document 25 years of German reunification, journeys in Cuba and an ancient Egyptian art exhibition.
After hours an annual summer jazz series fills the vacant factory walls with sound and adds life and color to a tarnished interior. It’s a not-so-veiled attempt to draw visitors who might not otherwise be attracted to an abandoned 20th-century factory.
The curators at Völklinger Hütte hope that once art-lovers get a glimpse they, too, will find a certain fascination with the hulking ruins. Standing atop the ironworks’ roof, looking out over a city of silenced blast furnaces and oversized ventilators, the Saar River in the background, I can’t help but think those curators are right.
- Völklinger Hütte lies on Rathausstraße in Völklingen. The Völklingen Hbf (main train station) is an easy walk of a few blocks from the ironworks.
- The ironworks’ complete walking route is 3¾ miles (6,000 meters) long, with some climbing and heights. 95% of the route is barrier free (all but one viewing platform).
- Most of the self-guided tour is outside, so dress accordingly.
- Admission fees and opening hours.