Cropped picture of a stop sign, in the background are pink old buildings, the street sign Bilker Strasse and blue sky

The Dorf magazine on Düsseldorf’s streets – #1 Bilker Strasse

Carlstadt district

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Bilker Strasse - the grande dame of Düsseldorf’s streets

So where is it, the old and real Düsseldorf? The answer is simple – in Carlstadt. This is where you’ll find the venerable Bilker Strasse, which runs south from bustling Carlsplatz to Schwanenmarkt. It is grande dame of Düsseldorf’s streets. Since 2020, Bilker Strasse has also borne the title ‘Street of Romanticism and Revolution’. Why this is the case, why the German poet Heinrich Heine was originally called Harry, and who lived in the buildings on either side of the street are revealed below as part of our collaboration with The Dorf magazine.

Bilker Strasse, with old houses on either side of the street and trees visible at the end.

Cobbles, historical gas lanterns and a sense of tranquillity that you won’t find in many places in Carlstadt are the hallmarks of the 331-metre-long Bilker Strasse. Look up from the pavement and you’ll see grand town houses, memorial plaques and beautiful old doors. As well as being steeped in the history of the great German poet Heinrich Heine, Bilker Strasse is home to the Institut Français and to the last shared residence of the composer couple Robert and Clara Schumann. Indeed it is thanks to Heine and the Schumanns that Bilker Strasse earnt the title ‘Street of Romanticism and Revolution’. The Heinrich Heine Institute occupies house numbers 12 to 14, while the Schumann House is next door at number 15. The former is home to the world’s only permanent exhibition on the life and legacy of the poet, writer and political journalist, known for his sarcasm and satire. Coincidentally, the young Heinrich Heine’s walk to school actually passed the building that now houses the institute dedicated to his work. His original name was Harry Heine and he attended the Max School in the Carlstadt district of Düsseldorf for four years. Heine is said to have got very annoyed by the name Harry and later changed his name to Heinrich.

The Heine House features not only stories and anecdotes about his life, but also temporary exhibitions focused on various literary, musical and cultural themes. Guided tours are available and those lucky enough to meet Dr Sabine Brenner-Wilczek, who has been director of the institute since 2009, will learn all about Heine’s eventful and fateful life from a human rather than academic perspective. The ever-critical free spirit fled from censorship to live in exile in Paris, what he called “the fatherland of champagne and the Marseillaise”. The exhibition, curated with great attention to detail, provides an insight into the inner life of the self-proclaimed “last king of Romanticism”. And real literary nerds can look forward to 70 per cent of all the handwritten manuscripts by Heine, whose ability to move people with words was undimmed by his death in 1856. Heine’s confrontation with themes such as exile, loss of a sense of home, and censorship still serve as a warning and starting point for discussion today. His memoirs, such as ‘The Book Le Grand’, feature lots of local colour and historical events, giving his home town of Düsseldorf a small place in the annals of world literature.

Did you know? Johannes Brahms babysat for the Schumann children

Our historical journey along Bilker Strasse continues at number 15, where from 1852 to 1855 husband and wife Robert and Clara Schumann found accommodation commensurate to Robert lofty position as the city’s music director. The apartment that once housed the Schumann family extends over the first and second floors. Two of the couple’s five children were born there, and it became not just a home to live and work in but also a place to entertain their arty friends. The writer Bettina von Arnim was a regular visitor, as was Johannes Brahms, who also stood in as a babysitter from time to time. The music faded into the background when, for example, the children slid wildly down the banisters with him. And perhaps he occasionally sang his famous lullaby to them. In 2012, Düsseldorf’s Schumann House Society was founded to support the expansion of the museum and the memorial site. Work to renovate and extend the entire building and convert it into a dedicated Schumann Museum began in 2018. Once it is finished, the museum will then be integrated into the overarching concept of the ‘Street of Romanticism and Revolution’. More than 1,000 objects related to Clara and Robert Schumann are on display in the Heinrich Heine Museum while the renovation work is ongoing. The collection is considered one of the most important in the world.

The Institut Français team consists of six women.
The Institut Français team.

The next stop is Bilker Strasse 7–9. The building, now known as the Palais Wittgenstein cultural centre, was built when the Carlstadt area was first settled in around 1790 and today houses the Institut Français, Düsseldorf’s marionette theatre and the chamber music hall, a venue for readings and concerts. So what exactly does the Institut Français do? Well, its friendly team of native French speakers ensures that the language of the tricolour is kept alive in Düsseldorf, the little Paris of Germany. Around 1,000 people register every year to study French in various classes for all abilities. The institute also offers free placement tests, language certificates and much more besides, and it has an attractive library and extensive media centre. Thanks to a varied cultural programme featuring film festivals, exhibitions, readings and the Bibliobus mobile library, it is a place not just to learn the French language but to experience it. Children and young people have access to a large selection of French films and comics, and they can also bust out their breakdance moves as part of the ‘piste de danc’ project.

Puppet time at Düsseldorf marionette theatre

Another highlight is located in the inner courtyard of Palais Wittgenstein. It is the Düsseldorf marionette theatre, which has been run by Anton Bachleitner for over 40 years. A bronze puppet version of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream welcomes visitors to the theatre from the street. The venue hosts around 230 performances a year, with high-end productions suitable for adults and children from the age of eight. A visit to the theatre is an experience that connects generations. Indeed, it is often the grandparents who accompany their grandchildren here. The programme comprises 22 productions, which include opera, modern music theatre, dramas and fairytales, with a focus on adaptations of Michael Ende’s works. The theatre also hosts workshops and has a display collection comprising more than 500 puppets. Everything that can be seen on stage is created according to the designs of the founder and artistic director, Bachleitner.

And that concludes the romantic, revolutionary part of the grand dame of Düsseldorf’s streets. But there is more to Bilker Strasse than just history. After a short walk and a few glances into the shop windows and studios, it soon becomes clear that this is a place that blends the old and the new. You will meet people who are living their own version of romance and revolution, whether that means oysters and champagne, artistic lighting, or eye-catching design. We’ll tell you about all that are more in our second part about Bilker Strasse.

A feature by The Dorf
The Dorf is primarily Tina Husemann and David Holtkamp, the founders of the charming online and offline magazine. Together with their team, they review the Dorf – i.e. Düsseldorf – and lift the lid on its contemporary culture and its highlights and hotspots.
In the series ‘The Streets’, they shine the spotlight on Düsseldorf’s many facets through the medium of its streets.

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