Cities can be strongly associated with all manner of things: drinks, buildings, arts and local crafts, famous residents past and present. Few, however, are associated with an action – and one that provides the doer with no benefit, other than the fun of having done it. Perhaps that is all that is needed. After all, Düsseldorf consistently ranks among one of the best places to live in the world.
1. It’s found at every turn
Look to the streets, from statuary and signage to Alfred Zschorsch’s 1950s landmark fountain in Bergplatz and the fountain on Martin Luther Platz, and to the shops, with their mugs, T-shirts and other souvenirs, and the image of cartwheeling children is prevalent. Notice it on the doorknockers of Saint Lambertus church, on the manhole covers, even in the bakery windows – the cartwheeler often appears in chocolate or in marzipan.
Buy a stamp to send a postcard home and it may well appear there too. From doorstops to sweets, soft toys to graffiti, the cartwheeler is everywhere you turn. It is, in one form or another, the city’s most popular souvenir purchase.
2. The Radschläger is as iconic as the Eiffel Tower...
The figure of the cartwheeler, Radschläger in German, is as much a symbol of Düsseldorf as the Eiffel Tower is a symbol of Paris or yellow taxicabs are a symbol of New York.
3. ...but often overlooked
The association between the city and the cartwheeler’s flying hands and feet is perhaps Düsseldorf’s most historic yet least-known feature, often overshadowed by the high-end shopping of Königsallee, or the impressively condensed 260 bars found in Altstadt’s square kilometre.
4. No one knows exactly how the Radschläger originated
The origin of this association between city and cartwheeling is steeped in local mythology and subject to intense debate. Many believe it is attached to the story of a long-ago wedding between local nobility. When one of the spokes of the happy couple’s carriage wheel broke – an omen of bad luck – a small boy is said to have placed himself in the wheel to allow the wedding procession to continue. In another version of the tale, cartwheeling boys at an unhappy wedding managed to prevent the bride from crying and made her laugh instead.
5. Cartwheels spell happiness
The notion of cartwheeling as an expression of happiness probably comes closest to the truth. Another story says that cartwheeling became a city-wide craze celebrating victory in the battle of Worringen in 1288, when local noble Adolf VIII of Berg defeated the Archbishop of Cologne. Others suggest that this spontaneous revelry was, in fact, organised by Adolf himself in celebration of his military triumph – and sponsored with a few well-placed pfennig coins.
6. Children used to cartwheel for coins
Later generations of children continued the tradition by cartwheeling for visitors, charging a pfennig per spin, a practice that continued well into the 20th century. And when the Jan Wellem monument, a statue sculpted in 1711 of a popular local ruler, was returned to the city in 1945, after years of being kept in protective storage, cartwheeling children appeared on the streets once more.Today, it is less common to see small children perform for the crowds, though this doesn’t stop older visitors to the city trying it out for the camera.
7. Cartwheeling lives on
Those visiting Düsseldorf during the summer months may be lucky enough to stumble upon one of the city’s most unusual traditions, held in the old town alongside the Rhine. While other cities stage marathons, Düsseldorf has held a cartwheeling championship since 1937. Several hundred young people, aged between eight and 12, as well as international competitors, take part; the challenge is to see how many cartwheels can be performed over a 15 or 20 metre stretch. It makes a dizzying spectacle – and one that is as joyous as the less formal cartwheeling of days gone by.