Last Wednesday Mrs Bocking and I flew with our two children to Germany for the day.
When the flight screenscraper at MoneySavingExpert.com told me in June that Ryanair was having a reverse price sale; I found could fly to Niederrhein Airport (the former RAF Larrbruch) located at Weeze in Northern Germany for one penny each way. Yes, that is including all the taxes so long as I paid with an Electron card. Debit cards incurred a charge of £1.20 per flight.
Being a cheapskate dad, I thought what the heck? It could be a fun father and son outing for a boy who is obsessed with filming trains. Despite that everyone has a Ryanair horror story and the risks you take with Ryanair's terms and conditions, a flight anywhere for a penny has to be worth it just for the ride, even if we just land, do a bit of train-spotting and get the next flight home.
Ryanair advertises the route as Düsseldorf (Weeze) but Düsseldorf is over 60 km away and within Germany Ryanair is not allowed to advertise without a big disclaimer saying so but then, Ryanair has always had a bit of blarney in its advertising.
You have to be quick when these deals come up. They're often only available for 24 hours. There's no time to umm and ahh and research the possibilities if you don't know the area well. You book and then decide what you're going to do.
There was a 07.15 flight out in the morning from Stansted and a 20.35 (19.35 GMT) flight back in the evening. With a 50 minute flight time and a low volume of passengers at Weeze it could allow enough time for a family day out in any of the surrounding towns and villages along the Dutch/German border. We could treat this as a reconnaissance mission and if we liked it, we could perhaps make a second trip when another deal came up.
A few minutes on Google showed there was likely plenty to do and see around Weeze but very little of this information was in English. So I boldly booked the whole Bocking family. After all, if we didn't take the flights, I would only lose my tuppeny investment. It made me wonder though, if something went wrong, what would Ryanair do? Refund my money?
A breakthrough on my internet research conducted via Google's translation tools was finding that the Irrland amusement park was only 7 km away from the airport. This looked from the many flickr photos and Youtube videos posted of toddlers by doting papas like a not very sophisticated but potentially interesting playground with many climbing, sliding and water features dotted around a huge field of corn planted in a labyrinth or 'maize-maze'.
An e-mail to the park got a quick and friendly response that the airport shuttle bus service passed their front door. On that basis the rest of the Bocking family became committed to exploring the unknown and reporting it back to you. So, in penance for those greenhouse gases, here is what we found:
I think it would be rather boring to report all the trials and tribulations of parking at the airport, our boarding cards not working and the darting back and forth to the check-in to sort it out and all the various service failures of Stansted Airport and the hassles that the present security measures cause.
When landing at Weeze you could think, if you are familiar with East Anglia, that you had been tricked and arrived at Bentwaters Airbase instead, like those hapless participants in the TV hoax 'Space Cadets'. The single runway airport is surrounded by abandoned concrete aircraft hangers and nuclear bomb stores nestled amongst the Scots pines. There is no fancy air-bridge; the plane pulls up to the new terminal and you walk down the steps and across the apron to the arrivals hall. It is however a brand new terminal with all the usual car hire counters and a cafe with friendly staff, as we found out later.
We got outside the terminal at 26 minutes past the hour and it being Germany (as my German friends had warned) the hourly shuttle bus had left on time at 25 minutes past. I thought this was a bit odd as our aircraft had been the only one on the apron but I can see the knock-on effect of their schedule so instead of waiting we took a taxi to Irrland which was only 12 euros.
I'm not sure how you pronounce the name properly in German, various intonations of ERR-LAND and IRELAND got blank stares but when I said "park für kinder" the driver understood. He nodded enthusiastically as if to say our kids were in for a treat. The taxi passed the abandoned base facilities and a tiny museum and the dilapidated 'Astra' cinema. For me these would be worth a look if I had an hour to kill and didn't have two young children in tow.
Irrland has two parts, Nord and Süd, which are connected by an underpass to cross the road that separates them. You arrive at the Süd end opposite the Plantaria nursery and aviary which is what the bus stop is called. The entrance cost per person, regardless of age is just under 4 euros and parking is free.
We noticed that everyone ahead of us was paying an extra 3 euros on admission to hire these brilliant little wagons to carry their stuff as they were all arriving loaded with cool boxes and bags of charcoal. It was apparent that people come in large groups planning to stay all day.
In the Süd side is the main maze which has three main features we gave our attention too. The Pirate Ship is not a touch on the one in Kensington Gardens but it has a waterslide beside a giant paddling pool with a gantry in the centre holding eight giant dump tanks that slowly fill and randomly dump water on the kids gathering under them with expectant anxiety.
Here there is a 'kiosk' selling cold drinks and coffee (real cafe-presse, not instant) and chips (fritten) and dispensing sun loungers. Something I immediately sensed about the park is they are not setting out at every turn to take your money. I didn't notice any ranks and ranks of vending machines and grotty gift shops and there are only a few kiosks with a very basic menu
but the food is good and cheap by British standards. One thing apparent about Germany is that they take chips seriously; they are always cooked to order so it requires a few minutes wait but then, a perfectly cooked and fresh real potato frite, with mayonnaise of course, is well worth it. You leave a two euro deposit for a tray and there are bins just about everywhere you turn.
You could just spend the day right there as all around the paddling pool are picnic tables and every alternate one is shaded from what was very welcome but unexpected sunshine.
We soon encountered the infamous complaint about the Germans that they 'bagsy' everything before the British can. We took our wagon (we had quickly realised that carrying our backpacks was going to be tiresome and our stuff would get in the way if left on the ground) and parked it by a picnic table to go explore. When we got back another family had taken the table because we hadn't spread our stuff all over it to claim it. I think this was because we didn't know the rules rather than rudeness on their part or perhaps they thought we were Russians. Of course it's a sweeping generalisation but on the whole, I found nearly everyone we met very civil and I noticed many things that could never happen in England because somebody would steal, abuse or vandalise it or just take advantage.
Two hours after it opened at 9.00 a constant stream of coaches was still disgorging hundreds of people. It appears there are more popular parts of the park than others. You have to get there early to find a table beside the 'Sandmatschberg' (sand hill) because it has the most shade from the trees and something for everyone is in shouting distance but be warned, by lunchtime the smog from the barbecues provided at every table for cooking sausages would put Beijing to shame. The Germans love barbecue. There must be a very sensible approach to Health and Safety legislation in Germany as I cannot envisage barbecues in public in England without six foot railings around them and waivers of liability.
After a happy hour in the Pirateschiff and on the inflatable Kletterpyramid we tried out the Riesengebirge which are three 20m diameter inflatable domes before moving on to look at the Menschen-Waschanlage (human car wash). Here there is a giant pit of mud - thankfully enclosed - where children can emerge like New Guinea mudmen to be sprayed with firehoses by the enthusiastic staff. This must be one of the more fun assignments for the teenagers working at the park although I put any comparison to Alabama civil-rights marches out of my mind.
We then went over to the Nord side where there is a race track with pedal cycles (one euro needed to unlock them like a supermarket trolley so you don't abandon them on the course when bored) and more inflatable areas for the toddlers.
There is more to do on this side so it does get more crowded. The literally standout feature is the 30m gantry of the 'Tyrannosaurus Rex' slide. You collect a carpet mat and climb onto a steel deck built above the wings of an Antonov An-2 to take a terrifying plunge into the unknown. There are other slides from here for the less brave. One tip you should observe is do not go onto the gantry in bare feet. All the paths in the park when we arrived were impeccably groomed sand and you can go shoeless almost everywhere but on the slides, after a few minutes of waiting (and you will wait) the tiny teeth of the steel grating become incredibly painful on bare feet.
Another big feature here is the 70m water slide and when we felt we had too much sun, we went into some huge open-sided barns filled with pool tables and table football and a rope gym and tunnel system made of straw bales offered blissful shade. There is much more than that to do here which is why you should discover it for yourself.
By now it was 13.00 and we'd had enough sun and wanted to see the nearby town so we went to the entrance kiosk to ask when the next bus was and was told it was another forty minutes so I asked if there was a taxi service. I appreciate that the park workers didn't speak English and I don't speak any German but their answer to "dial 2121" was I thought not very helpful as I had no idea of what area code I was in.
We walked outside to the bus stop as I thought maybe we'd catch a taxi dropping someone off. We didn't see any and after about ten minutes in the sun, (there seems to be a lack of bus shelters, I didn't see one anywhere all day) everyone was really thirsty so I walked over to Plantaria as I had read online they had a cafe reputed to serve excellent cakes.
This was the only disappointment in the day. Although the cafe was large and did have a big chiller filled with tasty looking cakes, it was totally deserted and a 300ml bottle of water cost me 2 euros. Maybe it gets busier later in the day but as I felt I was gouged when a 500 ml bottle had cost less in Irrland and 300 ml of Volvic was 45 cents in the local shops, they deserved to be deserted although judging from their car park, plenty of people must have been going there buying plants and looking at the collection of parrots.
The airport shuttle bus came on time and its air-conditioned luxury was by then very welcome. The bus driver told us that the day before it had been pouring down with rain and today was expected to be wet but had turned out fine, so German weather reports are just as reliable as British ones. The fare for all of us to the Bahnhof was under 7 euros. I had also read online that the best currywurst in the region was near the Bahnhof and I had promised my son a chance to film some German trains.
Kevelaer train station is being modernised and the girls went to use the toilets which were clean but covered in very rude and graphic graffiti which amused my pre-teen daughter and embarrassed her mother (it just goes to show it's not a gender thing). The trains run half-hourly between Düsseldorf and Krefeld and one soon arrived and it looked very comfortable, modern and fast. With that promise fulfilled we went off to look around the town.
The currywurst stand I thought was at the Bahnhof might still be there but it wasn't visible so we skipped that idea for lunch as the kids had had their fritten. We soon found ourselves in the main drag of Hauptstrasse where the Ital Eiscafe has a huge range of ice cream flavours. By then I had developed a thirst for my first authentic German pilsner and Mrs Bocking fancied a coffee. Two drinks and two ice creams came to 6 euros although the waitress was an extremely grumpy sort who the very amenable Mrs Bocking somehow got on the wrong side of when ordering and her demeanour hadn't improved when we paid the bill.
Suitably cooled and refreshed by beer and with children busy with ice creams, we sat and watched the world go by as our 03.30 start from England was catching up on us. More than 800,000 pilgrims, mostly from Germany and the Netherlands, visit the shrine to the Virgin Mary in Kevelaer every year and it seems all of them go up and down Hauptstrasse checking out the shops and al-fresco cafes. Most of the shops are the regular 'high street' sort and there are many selling religious souvenirs but all are in good taste. There wasn't much stuff branded as 'Kevelaer' and much to my disappointment, I didn't see anything gloriously kitsch like a six foot neon illuminated Pietà which I would find in the USA. Something I did notice was, like Holland, that over fifty percent of the pedestrians of all ages, including nuns, were pushing bicycles.
We carried on and remembering all the virtual walking I had done on Google Earth, we went down an alley to the museum which had a big display of Playmobil figures outside and beyond them there was a grassy 'pocket' park with a rope climbing frame, some swings and very inviting shade trees and a nature study pond (fenced of course). The adults lay down in the shade for a nap whilst the kids climbed on the ropes but they soon joined us. It was very peaceful. There was a couple of mothers with toddlers so it seemed perfectly safe although I was mindful that one blogger had described his visit to Kevelaer as walking into the kind of place that had inspired 'Deliverance'. The park is overlooked by the back garden of a pizzeria which seemed an inviting place for a summer evening to have cheap meal where kids could go off and amuse themselves but we hadn't come to Germany for pizza.
After a short rest which lasted until the kids got fidgety again we made a plan; as the kids still weren't hungry, we could look around for a place for an evening meal as we carried on strolling around the town. A few streets later we found ourselves in what must be the cheaper part as there was a thrift store (charity shop) so we checked it out. Not exceptional bargains but very good quality stuff that looked tempting but we didn't fancy carrying anything more with us. The Luxemburger Galerie is a mall with pricey shops opposite the thrift store for a nice juxtaposition.
Given that there once was an airbase here, I wondered where the servicemen would have gone for their off-base R&R? There didn't seem to be any dive bars or discos, even closed down ones, and I thought it unusual for a tourist town that I didn't see any buskers or street entertainers.
After wandering aimlessly down some other streets we thought we had pretty much covered downtown and were getting a bit disenchanted with the possibility of an evening meal as by now it was 16.30 and a couple of cafes we went into said they closed at 17.00 Anywhere that look like it stayed open later was a bit more pricey but we weren't about to panic.
Thanks to the German Watertower Society I knew that Kevelaer had a water tower and suddenly I realised what I could see from the top of the slide at Irrland was now only a few blocks away. To a chorus of disappointment from my long suffering family who don't understand my interest in such things, we set off to visit it.
The wasserturm is not normally open to visitors but the staff of the town's water, sewerage and bus company, who turned out to have offices inside it became interested when I explained that I was a committee member of the British Water Tower Appreciation Society and after some conversation they understood I had a genuine interest. Kevelaer is twinned with Bury St. Edmunds (and Weeze is twinned with Watton in Norfolk) so perhaps our East Anglian connections swayed them to kindly allow us all in to see the offices and a conference room, all recently refurbished, inside the tower but the tank room for now is off limits.
The plaque on the door says the tower is 54m high, has a capacity of 450 cubic metres and the tank was constructed on the 'Intze' system.
That item checked off, we walked back into town and now Mrs Bocking was getting a bit antsy that we weren't going to find anywhere but she too, like me, didn't fancy dropping a big wedge on somewhere that just didn't feel right for us and the kids and by now our two were getting a bit too fractious
Heading back into town we passed a Müller drug store and rewarded the kids' good behaviour by letting them spend their pocket money on German chocolates (for eating when back at home) with one rule; no brands you can buy in England. For a friend with a collection of over 250 jars we failed to find a peanut butter brand he didn't already have. We asked the checkout lady if she knew of good places to eat and she replied in perfect English that "they're all good" but we could try the Golden Swan or the Ital Eiscafe. We had looked at the Swan and passed as it was expensive and had already been to the Eiscafe...
We thought we were now near the Rathouse which we had seen from the shuttle bus and recalled there was a couple of food stands near there. I said let's go there and have a look and see if one was a currywurst one and if not, there were a couple more restaurants at the furthest end of Hauptstrasse we hadn't been to.
I don't know the proper name of the place but it is where Marketstrasse joins Bahnstrasse and there in a square with a water feature is where we hit upon Roland's Grill-Kuche and next to them was Hacco's Grill, a currywurst stand, and a farmer's stall selling home made strawberry jam and vegetables and all of these were outside a REWE supermarket.
Before I tried my currywurst, we looked at the racks of roasting chicken and ribs and saw the spotlessly clean truck and counters and got into a conversation with the woman who offered us a sample. It was delicious and we were hooked. Two portions of the most tender and perfectly cooked ribs were only 5 euros so we decided to ditch the currywurst plan and buy some cold beers and salad in the supermarket (plus some German sausages and peanut butter) and have a picnic in the square. The kids typically didn't like this idea and so settled on having more fritten from the currywurst stand. The woman serving there was kind enough to bring them out to us as we sat in the square beside the fountain thinking this was a marvellous dinner on a glorious summer evening.
Too soon it was time to end our bucolic repast and walk back to the Bahnhof and get the shuttle bus to the airport. On the way there was an unexpected bonus of a train going through a level crossing and so we could film that event as well. At the Bahnhof was a group of young female German students waiting and we joined them in putting our 'barking dogs' into the fountain whilst we waited for the shuttle bus.
The traffic was getting busy now and a battered Fiat Panda with four teenage boys inside, playing heavy metal at full volume on the tinny bog-standard stereo, kept cruising past, no doubt trying to impress the girls. Apart from the party of Goths on the plane, this was the only sign of an alternative culture I'd seen all day. On the dot of 18.45 the bus turned up as expected; getting us to the airport for under 12 euros at 19.00 which meant we had just over one hour to pass security and passport control before the gate 'closed' at 20.05
Although I knew the hour was more than sufficient to pass through security, it would be Sod's law that if we had taken the shuttle an hour later, some oik from Ryanair would say we had missed the flight. Security was exceptionally thorough and we remembered the bottles of warm water in our backpacks and we gladly dumped them in the bins but when the security guard went through our shopping bags, he seized upon the peanut butter and said it exceeded the 100ml limit and it must be given up.
One tip I'd give for leaving Weeze airport is don't pass through passport control after you have been through security and wait in the UK-bound lounge. The EU (aren't we all?) lounge has more tables and chairs and you can get better service from the cafe. The EU lounge was full of smart looking people waiting for a flight to Treviso whereas the UK lounge was the lumpen proletariat heading for the rain clouds of England. Although the waitress told me our plane was over half and hour late, (how come she knew and no one else did?) the departure board resolutely kept promising a scheduled departure at 20.35 and an expected departure at 20.35 even though by 21.00 there was no sight of our plane. Somebody triggered a panic rush to queue up in front of the exit doors even though there wasn't any Ryanair staff collecting boarding cards and after half an hour of standing in line for no apparent reason, I drifted back to my seat. I would remind anyone who pays extra for early boarding on Ryanair that first-on is last-off and all you get is a head start on a rather unseemly footrace to the plane.
A huge cheer went up when our incoming plane touched down at 21.10 but it was another three quarters of an hour before we could get on board. On arrival at Stansted there was no triumphant fanfare over the tannoy saying yet another Ryanair flight arriving on-time nor any explanations. On the Monday after we got back, Ryanair announced it was going to cancel millions of tickets recently purchased through the screenscrapers.
According to Martin Lewis, you needn't worry if you have found Ryanair deals through his site. All his site does is provide info, you can’t book through it, but sadly a by-product of Ryanair's attempt to block booking-fee websites is to block access to ALL flight comparisons, including the MSE FlightChecker. They are talking to Ryanair's board to sort this out.
This story was taken up by the English language online newspaper The Local and is now on their website. The best part? I get paid! Thanks guys.