Forget all the fantasies of German castles, if you want to discover and understand the real German history, you need to spend some time in this hard place together with your friends. The history may not be sexual, it is too dirty for that, but from 1860 to 1960 the Ruhrgebiet was the most important region in all of Europe.
From the mid-19th century, it was flooded with mines wherever there was a coal seam. What was a quiet, undeveloped rural landscape became a highly industrialized conurbation town with growth rates never before seen. Gelsenkirchen grew from 653 inhabitants in 1843 to 169,000 in 1910 and to over 300,000 in the 1930s. The nearby city of Bochum experienced similar growth rates, from 1,500 inhabitants in 1800 to 150,000 at the end of the 19th century, and doubled again in the following 30 years.
The region's industrial production contributed to the development of the newly unified Germany in the second half of the 19th century. It did the same for a country recovering from World War I (it was occupied by the French in 1923 in an attempt to ensure that Germany met its reparation obligations) and played a crucial role in the rearmament of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The names of prominent industrialists, Krupp and Thyssen, are synonymous with that era. Consequently, they were a major target for Allied bombers during World War II, and cities such as Oberhausen were destroyed to the ground.
But it was not long before this area recovered and became the driving force behind the post-war Wirtschaftswunder, the miracle of the Rhine, in the 1950s, when the total population of the Ruhr exceeded six million. Since the 1960s, the mines have steadily closed - the last one a couple of years ago - and the area has faced a period of declining prosperity.
Despite this, the region is worth a visit, not only to discover the fascinating industrial heritage that can be seen in the Duisburger Landspark, the Zolfeine coal mine in Essen or the Mining Museum in Bochum. The area is surprisingly green, with some truly beautiful places along the Ruhr itself, in Essen-Verden and Mühlheim der Ruhr.
So if you want to understand modern Germany and how it has evolved, forget about castles and princes, spend some time in the Ruhr area! Travel with your friends and families.