Upon arrival at Düsseldorf airport's railway station there is a choice to be made. One way is the sleek, Rhine-side city of fashion, media and trade fairs: Düsseldorf itself. In the other direction is Essen, gateway to an industrial region that has been Germany's sweaty armpit for decades. One of these two destinations is one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2010 - and it's not Düsseldorf.
So, shrugging off a vague fear about being forced to admire the artistic rearrangement of scrap, I ride the neat little monorail from the airport terminal to the train station, turning my back on fashion and media and taking the next departure in the general direction of grunt and grime. The following morning I find myself standing on what looks like a giant climbing frame perched atop a woodland-girdled hill. Local residents are walking their dogs or labouring up the hill in their tracksuits, puffing around and charging down again, trying to create some space for lunch. It could be a normal scene in a country park anywhere in the world, but there is little "country" about it: the hill is completely artificial - a slag heap that had been landscaped - as are all the other "hills" in the vicinity. And the climbing frame is actually the 60-metre Tetrahedron, a giant, climbable sculpture that lights up like a luminous beacon at night.
The hill is not the only thing that isn't what it seems. Just below us is a former mine shaft that, with the addition of a giant fan, is now an indoor centre for sky divers. The thin building to its side has been turned into a dry ski slope. Behind it, the remainder of a monster coking plant is still simmering away, emitting clouds of smoke at regular intervals, like a satisfied old gent puffing on his pipe.
Standing with me on the Tetrahedron, surveying the scene in the pleasant noonday breeze, is Andreas Rickenbrock, who remembers a time when the air quality here was so poor that his mother would put her head out the back door and inhale deeply before deciding whether it was safe to poke the washing out on the line - or whether it would simply get so covered in soot that it would have to go through the wash again.
Rickenbrock is ticking off the towns of the Ruhr, turning slowly on his heel on the top level of the Tetrahedron. There is Duisburg, Bochum and Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund, Oberhausen and more, and altogether they make up one massively interlinked urbanisation that is webbed in motorways and railway lines. "We like to call it the biggest village in the world," he says. In all, its combined population of seven million (in 53 towns and cities) makes it larger than any of Germany's cities. Never before has the Capital of Culture title been held by an entire region.
And yet, not so long ago, there was practically no one living here. "This was once Germany's wild west," explains Rickenbrock. It was a forested land on the floodplain of the Rhine, which was so carved up by waterways that it was virtually impossible to administer. But then, in the early 19th century, coal was discovered, a vital building block in the industrial revolution. That, and the arrival of motorised barges on the Rhine, transformed the Ruhr. The coal rush may not have been as rapid as a gold rush, but by 1950 there were no fewer than 156 coal mines across the region. And alongside every mine stood some kind of industrial or manufacturing unit, sucking up all the power the coal could give.
Globalisation changed all that. "These days a ton of Australian coal landing at the quayside of Duisburg harbour is half the price of a ton of German coal," explains Rickenbrock. "As a result we have only four mines out of the original 156 still working, and they too will be gone by 2018. And without cheap energy, a lot of the associated manufacturing simply became uncompetitive." So what remains? Of course, a percentage of the region's industry is still going strong, particularly the chemical plants and the steel mills. However, the interesting bits are the defunct industrial dinosaurs that have been transformed into cultural and leisure centres, like the massive blast furnace at Duisburg-Nord which is now a "landscape park", with climbing walls, indoor diving centre (formerly a gasometer), mountain bike trails and an after-dark light show by Jonathan Park (the lighting engineer for Pink Floyd).
Travelling around the region I quickly came to appreciate that culture is no stranger here, despite my initial fears about artistic scrap. Even back in the 1950s and 1960s the theatre companies of Hamburg used to put on plays in return for an annual coal supply to heat their theatres, eventually becoming the annual drama festival. Meanwhile, industrialists like Krupp, Thyssen and Flick ploughed some of their fortunes into concert halls, theatres and art galleries in order to bring spiritual refreshment to their employees. One of the finest of these institutions, the Museum Folkwang in Essen, has just reopened in a giant new building designed by the British architectural firm David Chipperfield. And another British architect, Sir Norman Foster, has been busy on the quayside at Duisburg's inland harbour, reviving wharf-side buildings into a mixture of upmarket apartments - a couple of Germany's professional footballers have invested - and restaurants, so there's now a lively nightlife around the water on summer evenings.
Duisburg harbour, too, has its own new art institution, in what Rickenbrock calls a "surreal mill". I surveyed the building for a moment or two, looking for unlikely architectural excrescences, and then realised I'd simply misheard: it is, of course, a cereal mill. There was plenty of surrealism inside, though, in a lavish collection of modern art originally assembled by Hans Grothe, who made his fortune in the construction industry.
Our next stop was even more surreal: an art gallery inside the giant gasometer at Oberhausen. I found myself wondering, as we entered, quite what sort of art was suited to a dark, 118-metre-tall cylinder, but inside is a giant floating moon and various renditions of the night sky, with specially composed music. It was a spellbinding use of the space, but I did come away wondering what they might put in there next year.
The most dramatic of the Ruhr conversions, and the centrepiece of the 2010 celebrations, is Essen's elegant Zeche Zollverein, once the world's largest coal mine, which has been listed by Unesco for its Bauhaus design and the delicacy of its brickwork. Today Zollverein attracts a million visitors a year and is an example of what can be done with a coal mine if you've a cool US$218 million (Dh800m) of redevelopment money to spare. I spent a day admiring the Red Dot design museum, the big dipper and the swimming pool in the coking plant, and eating venison in the Casino, the trendy restaurant in the mine's former power plant.
But the bit that I enjoyed most was the wonderfully creative, cutting-edge 360-degree film which is projected in a massive coal-separating tub in Shaft XII, and which brings the Ruhr story bang up to date. See this and you don't actually need to go anywhere else. Of course the Ruhr could be visited any year, not just 2010, but there are several highlights this year that make it stand out as the time to visit. In May, Shaft Signs will see 400 giant yellow balloons rise 80 metres into the air above the locations of 400 mine shafts. Also from May there will be art islands opened in the Ruhr Atoll on Lake Balderney, which can be visited by pedalo. And on July 18 the big one is the Still Life A40, in which a long stretch of autobahn will be turned into a 65km picnic.
All in all, designating an industrial area as a Capital of Culture was a bold move. But then, as I thought to myself on the train back to Düsseldorf airport, the Ruhr's example of finding new use for old is actually recycling on a grand scale. And opening one's eyes to new destinations is what the Cultural Capital programme is all about. Or it should be. email@example.com