Bars not cars, culture not cargo. Germans enjoyed the quiet life on one of the country's busiest highways, if only for a day. As the A40 autobahn closed to anything with an engine, it opened up for walkers and visitors.
The usual bland asphalt highway of the A40 is not the place you would expect to listen to a ukulele orchestra, watch a woman celebrate her 40th birthday and take in a bridal fashion show.
Yet this is no usual year for the Ruhr region. As part of its year as the 2010 European capital of culture, visitors on foot, bike and inline skates have displaced the usual noisy traffic of the highway at the heart of this industrial region.
It is all part of a piece of living artwork called "Still life: Ruhrschnellweg" or the "Ruhr speedway." Where normally thousands of cars and trucks rush by everyday, the highway was transformed into a huge area for a summer party.
By early afternoon, Ruhr.2010 spokesman Marc Oliver Haenig estimated 2 million people were meandering down the autobahn. Some cyclists even complained that there were too many people on the road and that they felt crowded - much like the trucks that filled the street six days a week.
Drivers listening to the traffic reports in the Ruhr area have already been warned: "Attention on the A40. There is a 60-kilometer (37-mile) closure between Duisburg and Dortmund due to the longest table in the world."
A festival of cultures
This is no normal table. It's actually 20,000 tables are lined up on the northbound lane of the A40, forming the main event area. Several smaller stages and tables are also set up for local cultural groups to give visitors a flavor of the cultural diversity of Germany's Ruhrgebiet. The southbound lane is kept free for cyclists, skaters and walkers. What was Germany's highway with the most traffic is now miles of small theaters.
Among those taking part are local sports clubs, comedians and actors. There are also school reunions, birthday parties and even weddings, all of which are taking their place at this 60-km long table.
The event is one of the biggest in the "RUHR.2010" calendar. The idea was that this long table is a meeting of "cultures, generations and nations." Fritz Pleitgen, the director of RUHR.2010 said he sees the event as a way for "citizens to not only see the cultural capital, but also to participate with it."
'Founding moment of the Ruhr'
Pleitgen had the idea for the event when he was working as a correspondent in New York for the German public broadcaster ARD in the 1980s. He said he saw how a highway was closed on Sundays in the summer to allow walkers, inline skaters and cyclists to use the lanes.
Pleitgen brought the idea to Germany and said he hopes that this will create something that "connects" people. He thinks the "Still life" project has the ability to become "an emotional founding moment of the Ruhr metropolis."
The massive table and its connected events is not just a regional festival, but has attracted visitors and participants from all over the world. Groups from five continents have reserved tables, according to the organizers.
Once the industrial heart of Germany, the cities in the Ruhr have suffered in recent decades as steel and coal jobs left the region. The area does, however, still host several of Germany's great theaters and museums.
The long-term effect the so-called "Still life speedway" will have on the people of the Ruhr region is not known. However it is already clear that this will not only be the world's longest table, but also the longest street of culture in the world too.
Author: Nader Alsarras (cb)
Editor: Sean Sinico