Friday, 30 November 2012

Neirs is not so far away...

It was in 2008 that we first flew from Stansted to Weeze (pronounced Vetzer) on one of Ryanair's one penny flights.

After I wrote a story a story about it for the German news site The Local on the delightful the town of Kevelaer, which is a twin town of Bury St. Edmunds, and the nearby family theme park Irrland and the efficiency of the local public transport, I was contacted by Kevin Betts, the proprietor of Kevin's Pub, a guesthouse in Weeze saying if I ever came back, he'd like to show me his small hotel and bar/restaurant and have me try his canoes on the Niers river.

It was a tempting offer but unfortunately my efforts to promote Germany to British tourists must have worked too well as within a year the traffic to Niederrhein Airport, the former RAF Laarbruch (pron. Larbrook), had increased so much, the one penny fares were now like hens teeth as people discovered the airport was a cheap gateway to Europe.

Google hits on my newspaper story and blog entry brought me all sorts of enquiries on connections with the German and Dutch train network - which are very good - and Ryanair's rather deceptive advertising about its proximity to Düsseldorf.

One day we thought it would great family fun to go canoeing somewhere like the Lake District but after working out what that would cost in the UK, another visit to Germany seemed very attractive.

So in June 2010 we made our second visit to Weeze; planning on a sparrowfart departure from our home in Suffolk to catch the 7:20 AM from Stansted and returning on the 20:15 the same day as we had done before, costing us a very reasonable £15 per person each way, once we'd got ourselves a euro debit card. We also invited along a travel writer keen to practise her German because I had noted in our prior trip, British visitors to the area are so few (perhaps for reasons we mustn't mention!) there is very practically no tourism information provided in English yet everything is dutifully reproduced in French, Dutch and Belgian.

There's not much point in hating on Ryanair as everyone does it but even if Saile & Sabga coffee is Fairtrade, this instant coffee Ryanair serves is utterly vile and 3 euros too. I'd fire the expert who thought this would be a good way to promote their brand. Perhaps they know Ryanair passengers don't expect a pleasant experience, they just want the result they paid for. In this case a jolt of caffeine is all you should expect.

On arrival at Weeze we noticed things had really changed. No longer was the airport deader than a rural market town on a Tuesday night but the queue for the taxis snaked around the terminal. We had figured a taxi was cheaper than five bus fares and it would be faster so we passed up the hourly bus into town, at least the line was moving.

Wrong decision! It took nearly an hour to just to get within single figures of passengers ahead of us. The stream of taxis arriving at the airport became a trickle and then suddenly dried up and we waited for another half an hour while no more taxis arrived. I learned from an airport employee that taxi drivers come from far and wide to collect passengers at Weeze and many are going over the border to the university town of Nijmegen or Düsseldorf with their fares but there aren't that many local taxi companies. There was a big religious festival starting tomorrow so today was their busiest of the summer. With the clock counting down I rang Kevin to say we'd be late for our planned arrival. Kevin said "why didn't you say so..." and he jumped in his van and collected us.

Driving around the abandoned air base (its beautiful desolation captured here) Kevin told us that he was originally from Cornwall but stationed here as a young military policemen he'd married a German girl and never felt since he wanted to go back. The Royal Air Force Station Laarbruch was one of four 'Clutch' air bases of the British air forces in Germany during the Cold War. There's a museum with lots of memorabilia and a Bloodhound and Rapier missile, a ZPU2 AAA gun and Canberra and Buccaneer cockpits. The base motto was "Ein Feste Burg" or in English: A Party Town! British Forces News have a story about the base closure and redevelopment that either Youtube or Blogger won't let me embed.

We got to Kevin's place in under five minutes from the airport to be greeted with a warm welcome from his family and a full-on traditional German breakfast of fresh rolls, meats, jams and boiled eggs, all done to perfection and lots of good coffee. Kevin talked us through what sort of canoes we'd like to use - he has Canadian and kayaks - and how far we wanted to paddle and then suggested an itinerary for us.  After a tour of his place and their 'Hay Hotel', a big barn you can bed down in straw for a few euros, we set off for the Niers and a thorough briefing on river safety. He also provided water tight drums to stow our gear.

safety instructions

Launch point

Within five minutes we'd seen otters playing in the water.

We paddled downstream and the river was wide and placid and without motorboat traffic. All of us are good swimmers and the water was not very deep so we felt comfortable dispensing with life jackets and helmets, though I wouldn't do that on the Broads.  

Within five minutes we saw our first family of otters in the wild, scampering about on the bank and playing in the water, something that would be truly remarkable in the UK. They are just as cute in the wild as they are in the sanctuaries they need in Britain. I'm not much of a twitcher so I couldn't identify all the copious wildlife we saw apart from swans and ducks but there are grey herons which are huge when you get close to them.

Paddling a Canadian canoe is quite easy although it does take a lot of coordination between the front who has to be the 'engine' and the rear to be the 'driver'. Along the banks were herds of cattle - destined for bratwurst we think - and several impressive schloss and orderly plantations of oak trees lining the roads and willows creating shady banks. Happy families like ours cycled past on the path. According to a river guidebook, a little way down stream a sign says: "Dear paddler, you have reached a renewed river, please stop and drift a while for the best view."

Our stop was to be the town of Kevelaer. Here under a road bridge was a dock where we pulled up the boats and left them on the bank as Kevin had told us, he was confident the local NEETs wouldn't bother to take them for a joyride. I wondered if any towns like that existed in England. We then strolled around sightseeing, the first stop on the kid's itinerary was to hit the shops for chocolate. We found a legacy of a massive British presence here for last forty years was most of the local's speak perfect English. Once sated, and as we had visited the town before, we quickly ticked off the must-see sites like the museum and then headed to do what we'd unfortunately missed on our first visit, to have lunch in the Golden Swan. 

A stroll around the town and lunch

It was a lovely lunch and and their schnitzel we sampled for the sake of being a typical tourist was perfect and the sun was shining. As we sat in their pleasant garden the kids were amused by a playground and we started to feel the fact that we'd got up very early that morning. The restaurant staff were very attentive and so yes, we'll have another round of beers, thank you. The Golden Swan is what the English call a country coaching inn; it has rooms and it offer both formal and casual dining and it even has a traditional bowling alley.

Pilgrim statue
We reluctantly dragged ourselves away to get back to the boats and stowed coats which were just as we found them. When back on the water we found after a while we were making slower progress than we had the morning, a change of engine and driver still needed more time to work it out but, being siblings, neither going to concede control to the other. The uncertainty of getting back to Weeze and Ryanair's strict rules about check-in times began to concern me.

I rang Kevin to describe where we were, we had just passed a chain ferry, and he sounded doubtful we'd get to our planned meeting point at Geldern about two miles further but we would soon be coming up to another dock and if we stopped there, he'd collect us. It took another half an hour of paddling and by then the portaloos there were a welcome relief for the girls. Kevin quickly loaded us all up and took us back the pub to wash and settle up and he then took us to the airport bang on the latest check-in time. We said our goodbyes. By then he'd done more than enough to deserve a good write up on Tripadvisor.

Thanks Kevin!
Weeze airport's security, customs and immigration halls are akin to a country train station where a solitary stationmaster is the ticket clerk, porter and crossing guard so you can pass through in a minute but then you have nothing to do on air-side to wait for hours for the plane to arrive. Unless the airport is very busy, it's best to wait on the ground-side until you're absolutely certain your plane is incoming by checking with But whatever you do, don't be late for the check-in time on your ticket.

Our plane ended up being an hour late but the departure board just repeated the same lie of imminent arrival over and over. Not wanting to stop at Stansted airport or en-route for supper, we were mighty thankful for Kevin's wife pressing on us the leftover 'aufschnitt' and rolls and so had a picnic in the departure lounge.

The museum is well worth a look

For two airport transfers, portage to the launch and collection, hire of 2 three-seater canoes and a full breakfast - all done on his Tuesday day off - we had paid 120 euros including tip. For an utterly memorable day out for five people, that is unbeatable. I appreciate inflation may take its toll, your mileage may differ. All-in it was less outlay for us than a recent trip to Alton Towers.

Far be it for me to suggest this is the best itinerary but given the public transport links: seeing the RAF museum and a day at Irrland, overnight at Kevin's and a day on the river and sightseeing in Kevelaer would be a great two-day family break. I should book now for half-term. There are many other attractions nearby I would like to explore myself including Wunderland, a massive theme park-hotel complex inside an unfinished power station.

If you live in reach of Stansted, Leeds or Edinburgh and you're really canny, you can also use Weeze as stop-over as there are plenty of bargain flights from here to Portugal, Italy, Spain, Greece and other places that British, Dutch and German holidaymakers seeking sunshine go to.

Kevin's canoeing season starts on the 15th April and runs until the 15th October.

The Niers is a river in Germany and the Netherlands, right tributary to the river Meuse. Its source is near Erkelenz, south of Mönchengladbach, in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany). The Niers flows through Mönchengladbach, Viersen, Wachtendonk, Geldern and Goch before flowing into the Meuse just across the border with the Netherlands, in Gennep. Its total length is 116 km - 108 km in Germany, 8 km in the Netherlands.

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