This far into the journey a potential 40 kilometre walk holds few fears, and though the hills and mountains that have formed my backdrop in the mid Rhine have gone and i’m preparing for the flatlands of Holland there is still much pleasure to be found in the minute variations of light, the bright grey clouds, the limiting lines of sky or water, the bridges, their graffiti, the neat rows of trees; the way my path seques from forrest to open stretch, to village hinterland and back.
The light is playing dark tricks today, very photo-friendly and a reminder for some reason of the annihilating blurred light that cast few shadows which I experienced for so long in northern Italy all those years ago now on the first stage of the journey. I am walking from Dusseldorf, I start from Joseph Beuys street, to Duisburg.
I do though have a few fears about the latter as I know it was pretty much destroyed by blanket Allied bombing in the second world war. But whatever I find there will, I insist, be spaces of interest. And the art museum here does have Kiefers, eight of them. I can’t wait.
As I walk I think about my conversation with the art dude last night; he’s German but art takes him around the world. I’d assumed for a long while that he lived in Dusseldorf, but he was only there to teach; he lives in Paris.
“Why not, I always wanted to live there, and now I have a place in the second. it’s not big but, hey, I live in Paris.”
And why not? Europe for all it’s faults and flaws and Berlusconis is an amazing place, and now I know that if I need extra “energy” I just need to hop to Shanghai.
I am hungry by the time I hit Lieversberg. I have passed the massive Dusseldorf Messe complex and marvelled at more container ships and burnt out the camera battery taking essentially the same photograph over and over in search of the perfectly lit sky, cloud, river, boat combo. There is wifi and it’s not summer any more so most of the diners are inside. The usual snitznel fizzy water double espresso fags lunch and afterwards I load the photos from the camera onto the iPad. My waiter clocks me. “Did you see the light this morning? It was magnificent on the river.”
I agree and then receive a list of detours I should make for high-end nature photography. I jot the names gratefully, but for another trip, another kind of experience. I’ve long acclimatized now to my sense of nature, which includes every “ugly” pylon and pig farm and haven and industrial complex. I know from David Blackburn’s marvellous The Conquest of Nature how unlike Tom’s rhine is the river I walk; and when he took boats, when he rowed with his ex-pat English mates as now on this part of his trip, the tides and the banks and the complexities were far greater than those which confront all on the Rhine today, yachtsman and skullers, container drivers and cruise ferries (there’s nothing doing from Dusseldorf to Duisburg today though, maybe it is the end of the season, or perhaps Duisburg isn’t quite Versailles). I suspect the latter.
It’s very hard to explain the pleasures of the very slow: tantric walking is cool – Sting would approve, and Mrs Sting too, I suspect, if she could bring her cook along – it makes for a very intensified looking, a miss-nothing attitude to trees and skies, and a lot of turning around to make sure the guys going in the other direction aren’t having a better time.
Then came the blocks of power stations, pumping a white smoke into the ether that is the colour of Tintoretto’s clouds, eerily whiter than the rest of the sky furniture. More photos ensue. More farms, long flat Kiefer landscapes – truly on this stretch the mis en scene is pure Kiefer. Grunged into a thick dense and textured world in which field and factory and sky merge into a giant live poster for German industrialism. I guess I am in the Ruhr. I veer inland to get a closer view of the factories and then tack back towards a shipyard cum container haven. There’s a giant bridge looming on my north-western front and I assume this is Duisburg. Then a village, but lost from the river and my GMap not, er, 100 per cent, I ask a woman coming out of a hairdresser’s where the centre of Duisburg is. It’s 15 kilometres away she says. I don’t believe her and so she very kindly packs me into her Audi and drives me 10 kilometers inland, leaving me in a bleak casino and international phone call shop heavy suburban hinterland that despite my love of all things bleak makes me feel quite, er…. bleak. I’ve walked a long way today, then been driven, and for the next two hours I walk the suburbs, which is pretty tough. Finally I hop a tram for the last stop and then I am Duisburg central railway station. I have no hotel booking and so I start walking into the centre.
OOOOfffff. If the Champs Elysees had been re-imagined as a pedestrianized set of shopping malls from the ninth circle it couldn’t have been more uninviting. This is a new town; the bombings must have taken away everything. Eventually I find tourist information on the ground floor of a huge smug mall, nestling next to a plethora of plastic international cuisines. Only the extreme friendliness of the staff prevent a mini breakdown. And even then I am soon contending with “Fantastic selection of restaurants in the malls, and there is a stunning waterfront complex…” We book a room and I ask. Where’s the best cup of coffee in town?
The answer, thankfully, isn’t Starbucks. I try desperately to get away from the mall-ish vibe of the entire centre with little success though my hotel isn’t bad tucked away in a square that feels a little “older”, except that there are a lot of Messe delegates drooling around speaking that Orwellian Deep Dive Bollox, like religious converts to the God of Ayn Rand. I ask again about nice places at reception and am sent to the Waterside complex, a walk that is not aesthetically in my top two million. And then I am staring at a row of identikit restaurants where, inside, identikit people listen to Duffy and Sade. I turn around, go home, and skoff the mini-bar. At least in the morning there is Kiefer.
First thing this morning, before i left Dusseldorf I phoned the largest Kiefer collector in the world and got his secretary. Yer man was in Paris with The Man. I was told to call back tonight. The phone rang for an age without voicemail. OK: tomorrow.
When I will also be in search of the best coffee shop; because with coffeeshop comes the possibility the staff might recommend somewhere else that is not mass-produced, that’s how it really works: forget online, this is word of mouth….