Speyer, Germany - Don’t get me wrong – I love Europe. The sense of history, culture and food means any visit is a multifaceted experience. But sometimes, just sometimes, you get your fill of castles and churches. And shopping.
And if you’re a man – and this generally applies to men, because the reality is that most of us are just boys who love technical toys – you long for some technology.
So it was that I listened with half an ear to the recommendation of Hildegard Peikert, tour director on the river cruiser SS Antoinette, on Uniworld’s “Castles along the Rhine” seven-day cruise. In her briefing about excursions on the first night, she spoke about a technical museum near the town of Speyer which, she said, “is something for the men because they tell me it is quite good...”
I made a small mental note to think about it – but, frankly, once you’ve seen one little museum with a plough from 1792 and antique butter churns, you’ve seen them all.
By the time Speyer came around on day five, I was in the mood for some technology – any technology. So I so opted for a walking tour of the town, which would allow me time to return in the afternoon and spend an hour or so in the museum.
But as our tour bus reached the outskirts of Speyer, I was dumbfounded. There, on a platform outside the museum, was a full-size, actual Lufthansa Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
When I returned in the afternoon, I discovered that the jumbo was just the (rather large) tip of an amazing technological iceberg, because Speyer’s museum is probably one of the best of its kind in the world.
I had just two hours (because I had to catch the last shuttle bus back to the ship), but could have spent a whole day there. I scurried around like a kid in a candy store, trying to see and experience as much as possible, and in the end just got a taste.
The highlight of the museum’s collection must be the Russian space shuttle Buran, which was bought in a liquidation sale from a group of business people, who wanted to use it as a touring exhibition.
Buran has to be seen and experienced (you can climb up on to a platform and look into the cargo bay and pilots’ cockpit) to be believed. It is 36m long, 16m high and weighs about 80 tons.
This particular example was one of the prototypes that was used to test its gliding properties and its landing characteristics, and unlike the US space shuttle, features jet engines for propulsion in the normal atmosphere.
The Russian space shuttle programme collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, at Speyer, there are plenty of artefacts from the Soviet era, many of them acquired from the former East Germany.
Most prominent of the Soviet aircraft is a giant Antonov AN-22 cargo plane, the largest propeller-powered aircraft.
You climb up a spiral staircase to the vast cargo hold (which can be rented for special occasions) and peep through the observation bubble in the nose.
There is also a twin-turboprop Antonov AN-26 which is worth a visit. It has been mocked up like a Soviet-era transport, complete with Russian soldier on a bunk in the back and a real GAZ executive limo, as used by Politburo heavies, in the cargo section.
The Lufthansa jumbo includes a section below its floor, which shows how the plane is screwed together on its metal skeleton, while you can walk out on a platform beside the wings to get great pictures of the exhibits below. If you’re so inclined (or if you have kids with you) you can grab a mat and whizz down a tube to the ground.
The aircraft on display will get any enthusiast drooling: F-15, F4Phantom, MiG-23, Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter, Hawker Hunter, Lockheed F104 Starfighter, Me 109, Fokker Triplane, Sukhoi Su-22, Vickers Viscount, Junkers Ju-52, DC-3, Transall C160... and it goes on.
Other exhibits include a retired German submarine (the U-9 from the post-war era) where you can climb in one hatch and explore the cramped confines (marvelling at the torpedo tubes) before climbing out the other side. Then there is a full-size search-and-rescue vessel, as well as assorted mini-subs and even a converted houseboat used by European pop group The Kelly Family (no, I’d never heard of them either).
There are scores of cars (from American Corvettes to pre-war German Mercedes-Benz limos) and trains (steam, diesel and electric); not to mention a massive two-storey working carousel, which dates back to the late 19th century. There is also a huge i-Max cinema theatre (costs an extra E5, or R72, on the normal E14 admission).
There’s also a coffee shop, restaurant, hotel and even a campsite.
What more can you ask for? Actually, Speyer’s sister museum, at Sinsheim (about 40km away) is just as awesome, housing a Concorde and its Russian equivalent, the Tu-144 (Concordski) as well as numerous cars.
l Uniworld’s “Castles along the Rhine” seven-night cruise – www.uniworldcruises.co.za
Website: www.speyer.technik-museum.de - Brendan Seery, Saturday Star