This summer I wanted to complete my list of German navigable rivers flowing into the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. Over the years I had already seen (starting in the East) the Oder, the Elbe, the Weser, the Rhine and now wanted to tick off the westernmost river, the Ems, whose lower part forms the border with the Netherlands. Interestingly, the name Ems has the same root as the name Thames, both come from the Indo-European word Tamesis whose root ‘tem’ means dark, so the Ems and the Thames were both named ‘dark river’. After passing Emden, a town of about 50.000 inhabitants (twinned with the London borough of Hillingdon), the Ems flows into the Dutch Dollard Bay and then continues as a tidal river towards the Dutch city of Delfzijl.
I was travelling through the North of Germany for some days and had stayed in a hotel in Emden over night. I started my walk through the town the following morning hoping it would end in a nice stroll along the river bank with a view on a busy harbour and ships. I had left my luggage in a locker in the train station and took the street leading from the station to the town centre which is only a good ten minutes away. After about 150 m one sees the Kunsthalle (literally: Art Hall) on the left, one of Emden’s attractions. The founder of the famous German newsmag STERN, Henri Nannen, who was born in Emden, gave his hometown his collection of predominantly modern art as a present and a museum to house it. It was opened in 1986. Meanwhile another collection by a private donor has been included and exhibitions by various artists are organised regularly. The building is interesting from an architectural point of view, it’s modern but built in clinker bricks which have been typical for houses in the north of Germany for ages. The museum is surrounded by town canals - the Netherlands send their regards. It’s possible to go on boat tours through parts of the town.
At the end of the street I turned right and came into a small pedestrian precinct, from its end I saw the town hall, originally built in the 16th century. The building we see now, however, is from 1962, it’s reconstructed the way it was before Allied Forces destroyed 80% of the town in September 1944. The town hall now houses the East Frisian Museum which prides itself as having the biggest collection of armour in the possession of a community.
I also saw the river Ems but it was not what I had expected. I didn’t see a flowing river, a working harbour and ships, but the so-called inner harbour which is an inlet of the Ems and looks more like a lake. Rather disappointing. In the 16th century Emden was the most important harbour of the North Sea, more ships were registered here than belonged to the whole fleet of England. Nowadays ‘museum ships’ lie at anchor in the inner harbour which tourists can visit, a cruiser for maritime salvage, a light vessel and a lugger for fishing herrings.
I walked round the inner harbour which was pleasant on a sunny Sunday morning. One side is flanked by modern and obviously expensive apartment buildings overlooking the water, in one of them is a restaurant with an outside terrace, it all looks nice. To get from one side of the inner harbour to the other I had to cross a bridge. From there I could see the outer harbour and ships in the distance, this is the working harbour I had assumed would be integrated in the town. It‘s quite far to walk there on foot, so I decided against it. After all it‘s only the fourth most important German harbour anyway. At the end of the 19th century the Dortmund-Ems Canal was built connecting Emden with the highly industrialised Ruhr area. Coal from the mines in the Ruhr area was transported to Emden, and imported iron ore was shipped via the canal to the Ruhr area. But this ended in the 1970s and the importance of Emden started to dwindle.
Walking back into the town centre I passed the Otto Huus (Huus is Low German meaning House), a museum dedicated to one of Germany’s most famous comedians, Otto Waalkes, who was born in Emden. Humour-wise the East Frisians are for the rest of the Germans what the Irish are for the English.
Q: "How many East Frisians are necessary to screw in a light bulb?"
A: "Five. One man puts the light bulb in the socket, the other four turn the table he’s standing on."
But this is not Otto’s kind of humour, his speciality are witty nonsense, word plays and parodies, he can be enjoyed only by people who know German perfectly.
On my way back to the station I passed the old part of Emden with some small houses worth a look. On the whole I’d say that I wouldn’t advise anyone to go out of their way to visit Emden but if someone finds themselves in the vicinity, I’d advise them to stop and look around.
I didn’t want to leave the area without having looked at the North Sea. Fate has it that I live in the south of Germany and occasionally the wish to see no mountains and only flat countryside and water becomes overwhelming. I had called the tourist information office in Emden and asked which was the shortest way to the coast. I was advised to go by train to Norddeich (about half an hour), a small town in the north of Emden, but to get off at Norddeich Mole, the last stop. The word Mole has the same meaning in German and in English, Norddeich Mole is the terminal for the ferries going to the East Frisian islands Juist and Norderney (two islands in a chain of seven off the coast).
There was a lot of toing and froing, tourists getting off the ferries, others entering them, all of them with huge suitcases. Weather is not an issue for the aficionados. Dressed in pullovers and oilskin jacket they march along the beaches or on the dykes breathing in the fresh air containing iodine. There are many health resorts in the area for people with bronchial problems which are full also in winter. Or they walk in wellies through the Wadden Sea which belongs to the Unesco World heritage. The real toughies go wind surfing in all weathers. But surprises happen. Some years ago a friend of ours spent two weeks at the North Sea and came back with a dark suntan, she had had the most wonderful summer weather.
The sunny morning I had enjoyed in Emden had turned into a windy, wet day. I wasn’t dressed correctly, my light summer coat isn’t waterproof. I can’t remember when I opened and closed my umbrella so often as on my walk on the dyke. The rain was only a light drizzle. I was never sure if it was worth opening the umbrella or not. I walked for a while without it and got wet, not so good especially for someone wearing glasses. So I opened it, but the wind was blowing so hard that it turned over, so I closed it again, etc. Such weather just doesn’t exist in the south of Germany. My Panama hat wouldn’t stay on my head for a sec at the North Sea! But I enjoyed myself nevertheless, it was just what I wanted. My cheeks were burning although the sun wasn’t shining, I clearly had an overdose of oxygen
When the drizzle turned into rain, I was lucky to be near the Restaurant Café Utkiek (Low German for Outlook) situated on the dyke with windows all round overlooking the North Sea with the islands Juist and Norderney in the far distance. It’s cosy inside, the staff is friendly and the food good, I can recommend it. I had pickled herring with boiled potatoes and a mixed salad which I can eat anywhere in Germany but it tasted especially good there, not so far from where the herrings came from. Emden used to have a thriving herring fishery until 1976 when it was closed down. The last evidence is the lugger in the inner harbour of Emden. So the circle closed. When the rain stopped, I resumed my walk on the dyke watching fat sea gulls waddling on the grassy slopes and surfers dashing across the water until it was time for a cappuccino in another establishment.
I had an interesting day in the very north west of Germany. Although Great Britain is surrounded by the North Sea and Brits will know what the coast looks like, I’d say that should you pass the area on your way to countries in Continental Europe, stop for some hours, it‘s different from what you know back home and worth a visit.