Story of the Day #24: Industrial Germany

The stench should have been a clue. I couldn’t work out whether it was a really foul cesspit, or a really good cheese. Whatever it was, it was strong and it was wafting into our tent.

In the photographs, our camping spot under trees on the banks of the Rhine, water lapping feet away from our… feet, will look romantic. The reality was suffocating, as the effluent sloshed the sulphuric assault past the feeble defences of two lines of canvas.

The signs were clear. After a week of deer frolicking, river burbling, bird tweeting Teuton we were about to enter Industrial Deutschland.

And about time too. So far, I’d seen no evidence that Germans did anything to justify their reputation as Europe’s most productive nation other than their consumption of a prodigious amount of baked goods and ice cream.

The change was immediate and well coordinated, like when the school bell goes to end playtime and everyone starts belching noxious fumes into the air.

The only thing that I knew about Worms was that a treaty had been signed there in the eighteenth century. I assumed, therefore, that modernity had yet to arrive, as if a mention in a history book was sufficient to hold back the exploitation of saltpeter and the discovery of cement.

Scores of chemical laden lorries, a horizon pricked with chimneys, complexes cased in steel piping and a constant drizzle put paid to those ideas. There was even a warning that cyclists should wear helmets. We had breakfast in a graffiti spewed motorway underpass.

I suppose it’s all understandable: heavy industry demands a lot of water and the Rhine has been a faithful servant to the landlocked southwest.

But all is not lost for the passing tourist. On the other side of a four lane highway in the riverside town of Ludwigshafen sat an unmissable attraction, a must-see museum, a touristic temptress: the BASF Visitor Centre.

Ducking inside from the continuing drizzle, decked head to foot in Decathlon’s finest waterproofing and several local varieties of mud, we enjoy the appreciative attentions of a sixth form chemistry school trip. Ignoring the less politely stifled sniggers, we muster as much self-respect as the puddles under our feet will allow and present ourselves at the reception desk. ‘We are visitors and we are at the visitor centre. What happens now?’

What happened then was a very expensively assembled version of that bit in chemistry when your teacher tried to convince you that science was FUN. We learnt how to cook the perfect steak by exploiting the Maillard reaction, investigated the properties of cobalt with anti-radioactive gloves and set off a rocket by cleaving water into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen.

In among the fun and games, we learnt how BASF stands for Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik (I even had a glass of soda water) and how BASF Ludwigshafen is the world’s largest integrated chemical complex, with over 2000 buildings covering 10sqkm. Their overground piping, arranged more creatively, could carry soda water from here to Seville.

We could watch archive footage of their history and swish interactive interfaces over their future as BASF heroically struggle with balancing the needs of the economy, the environment and society.

As we enviously watched a gaggle of US students (what were they doing there??) cooing over a console that showed you what you might look like with different hair styles, I started to wonder whether there was more to this outing than a three minute steak and a cut and blow dry.

A lot of money had been spent on this visitor centre. It had even won awards for its creativity. But there was something else in the air: not quite the gangrenous lung-stopper that accompanied our slumbers, but something not quite freshened by the fancy display panels and interactive modules. The faint but unmistakeable smell of greenwash.

What do you think?