Well I finally got back to Portsmouth at 2am this morning, after a long(er) weekend in Germany!
We flew into Dusseldorf Weeze airport, a small budget airline airport not far from the Dutch border between Kleve and Kevelaer. Weeze is actually an ex-RAF airbase, better known as RAF Laarbruch, where units of RAF Germany were stationed during the Cold War – most notably the Harrier GR force. Much of the RAF base still remains, and there is an RAF Museum on the site, which unfortunately I did not have time to visit.
We stayed in Dusseldorf, and went to watch Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Hamburg on Friday night. German football is a real experience, for anyone who can remember the time before English football sold its soul its a real experience. You can still stand on the terraces, and you can quite happily stand there drinking a beer and eating Currywurst. Its cheap as chips to get tickets, and the whole experience is far more fan focussed, so you’re not being treated like a customer (eg mug) like English football. Borussia have got a strong fan culture, and there is a ‘Fan Haus’ near the ground selling beer and playing heavy metal before and after the game. The atmosphere in German football is electric – as you would expect considering that normal people can afford to go and they still have terracing. Borussia also have an unusually strong British following, thanks to the long-term presence of a large British military presence at nearby Rheindahlen and places like Krefeld. My Uncle John watched a pre-season friendly between ‘Gladbach and Liverpool in the late 70’s when he was based at St. Tonisvoorst with the Army.
Borussia are rooted bottom of the table with 10 points, and haven’t won a game at home all season. Not surprisingly the fans are calling for the Manager’s head. And after a lacklustre 2-1 defeat, unbelievably Michael Frontzeck still hasn’t been sacked. Zweite Bundesliga for Borussia next year… I’d forgotten just how could it is to stand on terraces, and believe me 90 minutes stood still in -15 celsius is no joke. Even when you’re wearing three pairs of socks!
I’ve got a bit of a thing about football stadiums… Borussia moved to their new Borussia Park stadium a few years ago after years at the enigmatic but antiquted Bokelberg Stadion. I went to the Bokelberg in 2003 and it was a real old fashioned ground. The 55,000 seater Borussia Park reminded me very much of the identikit-Meccano stadiums that sprang up in England a few years ago (St Marys, Riverside, Pride Park, Walkers Stadium etc) that look very nice from afar, but are incredibly cheap and cheerful and devoid of character. This isn’t such a problem however, as the atmosphere in German football makes up for the bland architecture. One nice touch I did like was the use of green light to illuminate the stadium inside and out – I’ve never seen that at an English stadium, it would obviously cost too much for clubs to bother about. Near Borussia Park is an innocent looking school, that in fact used to be a hospital used for Hitler’s medical euthenasia programme during the Third Reich.
The next day we went to see Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Greuther Furth in the Second tier. The game was at the Espirit Arena in Dusseldorf, a new 55,000 capacity stadium. I was really impressed with the ground. The U-Bahn station runs right up into the ground, which looks very good from the outside, with an effective screening technique that enclosed the outer concourse. Once inside the facilities are roomy and first class. The whole of one end is terraced, and can be converted to seats quickly for European and international matches. There is a retractable roof in the ground too.
There were only 19,000 at the match, but with the atmosphere it felt more like 30,000. The Dusseldorf fans really made some noise. One guy is obviously the leader, given that he spent most of the match egging the crowd on and hollering into a mic. And it worked! When Fortuna scored to go 1-0 up he even took off his jacket to reveal huge tattooed arms. Quite a sight!
Having fulfilled one-thing-to-do-before-you-die (watch a match with an Orange ball) we went back into Dusseldorf accompanied with some Polish Fortuna fans, and then ended up in a pub serving the excellent Koening Pilsener. A nice evening, even with the German bloke who decided to grab one of the bar girls round the neck! That aside, a night out in Dusseldorf’s altstadt is highly recommended. By now the snow was falling heavily. For most of the weekend my feet were completely soaked, even with multiple pairs of socks on. Why oh why didn’t I take my waterproof walking boots? I ate four Currywurst and fries over two days just to try and keep warm!
The fun really began when trying to get home on Sunday. We had heard that airports and flights were looking dicey, and every other flight from Weeze was cancelled one-by-one. Our flight looked OK right up until we were at the boarding gate, at which point it was cancelled. Faced with the prospect of hanging around at a tiny airport for days, with no information and plenty of backlogged flights, we went back to Dusseldorf, got on the internet and managed to find a hire car to get to Calais. Having picked up the Car and made good time driving the 260 odd miles to Calais in about 6 hours, via Monchengladbach, Genk, Antwerp, Ostend, Bruges, Dunkirk and listening to Europop and dodging veering lorries – we couldn’t find the car hire place to drop it off. A quick call to the car hire firm informed us that there was not in fact a branch in Calais, and they had entered our booking as dropping off in Celle in Northern Germany. Now, for those of you who don’t know, Celle is a British Army Garrison town between Hannover and Hamburg – clearly we were not going to take it there. So in the end we pretty much dumped the car in Calais, handed the keys to someone in the ferry port, and told the car hire company.
Fortunately we walked straight onto the next Calais-Dover ferry, which sailed uneventfully. The serving lady on the ferry refused to open the restaurant ‘until the Fish and Chips is ready’, in her words – brilliant, makes you proud to be British! We then managed to jump on a train from Dover to London… great!… but then the train was delayed at Ashford for an hour after the train in front was stuck on the points. After some nailbaiting the train got going, and using the high-speed rail link reached St Pancras in incredibly quick time. From there a quick hop on the underground, and we managed to catch the last train home from Waterloo. I finally got through my front door at around 2am, some 24 hours late. I really like Germany, but it’s always great to get home.
Obviously it was a seriously stressful time, but to quote Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks:
‘this is a story you will tell your Grandchildren – and mightily bored they will be!’
Don’t be surprised if I don’t go abroad during the winter for a while!