The pure optimism of its ‘beach’ endeared me to Kempen, an ancient town in North Rhine-Westphalia. It was less the beach’s small size than that, on a sunny Sunday, it sat forlorn in the shadow of the lovely pink and white Saint Marien Church. Kempen was an unscheduled stop, based only on one of those brown roadside signs you see everywhere in Europe allegedly signifying places of interest.
‘Historische Altstadt Kempen’ it proclaimed with the same cheerful optimism shown by its microbeach, and I made a snap decision to abandon my eight hour trip from Brussels to Berlin to investigate. Kempen is only a short distance from the border with the Netherlands. There were striking similarities with Dutch towns I’ve visited, and at least two restaurants serving Dutch ‘cuisine’.
Home today to fewer than 40,000 people, the first historical record of Kempen dates from 1186, and there’s no doubt it’s both an historic and attractive town. It was almost certainly more attractive before several bombing raids on the nearby railway junction in the Second World War. A couple of attacks by the US Air Force in 1945 struck right at the heart of the old town.
That so much survived serves as testimony to its former glories, but there is no escaping the fact that some of the modern buildings lack the charm of their bombed out predecessors. A particularly poignant area is the old Jewish quarter, the Judenstrasse, which has some ornate half-timbered houses along a narrow cobbled street. It’s one of the most attractive parts of the old town.
Kempen’s Jewish community dates back to at least 1288, the first (but not the last) time their persecution was recorded – as in much of Europe, the community was blamed for the Black Death in 1347. In 1938, the synagogue was destroyed on Kristallnacht, the Nazis pogrom against Germany’s Jews. In 1942, some 200 Jews were deported to the ghetto and concentration camp of Terezín.
I was musing about the irony of Judenstrasse being a tourist attraction, when I realised I was walking in a circle – in the centre of which, like a bullseye, is the Saint Marien Church. Kempen old town is one big circle, with Russian doll-like interior circles. I walked to what was the former outer defensive wall where a hulking windmill, the Turmmühle, dominates the nearby buildings and set off on a circuit.
The Turmmühle is from the mid-15th century and acted as a food store in the event of a siege, which explains its massive size. It is built into the Hessenwall, a name commemorating the French-Hessian army that captured the town in the Napoleonic Wars. A short walk away is the 1524 Dutch-like Haus Nievenheim, the first building in the town to be built completely from stone.
The Kurkoelnische Landesburg was formerly a 14th century castle built by the Archbishop of Cologne. It burnt down in the 19th century and has been rebuilt in a more modern style, but you can still see where the moat and drawbridge were. Nearby is a simple memorial to the fallen of the First World War. My final stop was the former medieval city gate, the Kuhtor, or the Cow Gate.
The literal name did at least help explain why Kempen’s lovely central square is called the Buttermarkt. When I stopped for a bite to eat in this shady spot, it was filled with a relaxed Sunday crowd eating and drinking at the many cafes. I did one more loop around the church before setting off on the next 5 hours of the trip back to Berlin.