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BEER, BALLET AND BED FOR £170, BY LUKE JENNINGS, EVENING STANDARD 29TH APRIL 2002EVEN A PLANE TICKET AND A HOTEL, A NIGHT OF CULTURE IN FRANKFURT COSTS NO MORE THAN IT WOULD HERE.
Visits to London by top flight European dance companies are few and far between, and when they come the scramble for tickets can be ferocious. The recent visit by Pina Bausch's Tanz Theatre Wuppertal - their first in ten years - was a case in point. Sadlers Wells sold out weeks in advance of the handful of shows and an army of fans was disappointed.
New, aggressively cheap fares by airline companies, however, make it possible to zip over to Europe, catch a show, and head home after breakfast the next morning - and all for the price of a front stalls ticket at Covent Garden and a braised tuna steak afterwards. That's the theory, at least, and I decided to try it out. Ryanair, which offers extravagantly cheap-sounding deals, was my carrier of choice.
The way to buy Ryanair tickets is online (www.ryanair.com). No hideous phone-queue muzak for you, no call-centre staff to pay for them. One of the site's best features is a link to a listings service called DIVENTO (www.divento.com), the brainchild of Fiona Lazareff, former financial analyst, turned magazine editor.
With the click of a mouse you can see which shows, art exhibitions etcetera are playing in each Ryanair destination, check ticket availability, and make an online booking. Within minutes I had narrowed my choice to upcoming performances by Frankfurt Ballet, the La Scala Ballet in Milan, and the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen.
I decided on Frankfurt, where a new William Forsythe piece was premiering. A front stalls ticket at the Opera House, I discovered, costs 30 E (about £'7), less than a third of the Covent Garden price. Clicking back to Ryanair I checked flight availability. Ryanair prices are demand-driven. If you're prepared to pay a couple of months in advance you can fly to Frankfurt and back for £9. If you want to go tomorrow the same trip will cost you up to £32. As each flight-date approaches the flight-cost rises, with daytime and weekend flights filling up first. My return ticket, booked a fortnight ahead, cost £80.
There are add-ons, however. None of their quoted prices include what Ryanair call ³service charges², or taxes. In my case these totalled more than £25, and if you pay for your ticket with a credit card, you'll be charged a further £5. So the effective minimum return price to Frankfurt is actually £50.
You can sort a hotel out online too (www.frankfurt-tourismus.de) and compared to London the prices are low. Singles in the Pension Schneider on Taunusstrasse, a few minutes walk from the Opera House, start at 35 euros (about £20) a night. If you want to spoil yourself with ultra-modern architecture, a swimming-pool and smoked halibut for breakfast, the Hilton on Hochstrasse has singles from 299 E (£160).
But you're not in Frankfurt yet, and if you're flying Ryanair your journey will start with an hour's train ride from Liverpool Street to Stansted. Check in queues are long - I arrived an hour and a half before my departure time of '2:30 pm and found more than 100 people standing in line - and if you're not checked in 30 minutes before departure time you risk getting bumped. Ryanair promise a no-frills flight and that's what they deliver. My fellow-passengers and I were ordered to three departure gates in succession - the third a chairless holding area where we were penned for 25 minutes without apology. The aircraft eventually left an hour and a half late.
It's also essential to find out which airport Ryanair flights actually land at. These tend not to be the main city terminal. Frankfurt flights go to Hahn, almost 2 hours drive from the city. Coaches meet each flight, and for '' E (£6) will deliver you to the Hauptbahnhof, the main railway station - a smooth but uninspiring ride. By the time I arrived at my hotel - about 7:30 pm local time - I had been traveling for eight and a half hours. I had to run to make it to the Opera House on time.
I was glad I did. The performance in the modernist blue auditorium had all the surreal smoulder I had hoped for, and Thom Willems's electronic score slammed into us at a volume that would have dislodged the gilt cupids at Covent Garden. And because the Frankfurt Opera House is properly subsidised by the German government rather than reliant on big business, the audience was full of genuine dance-lovers rather than corporate stiffs. The buzzy atmosphere might also have had something to do with the fact that the champagne cost £2.50 a glass, so you could quite sensibly have four, rather than guiltily have one for £10, as at the Garden.
Afterwards, inspired by the dancers' finely-toned limbs, I addressed a plate of pork-belly and fried potatoes at Wagner's on Schweitzerstrasse. The next morning I visited the Goethe museum, whose painting collection includes Fuseli's sublimely creepy ‘The Nightmare' - a treat for the gothically inclined.
Would I do it again? Yes, if there was something I wanted to see badly enough. The Ryanair process is firm but fair, and with good forward planning it's possible to do the whole thing for £100 - beer, ballet and bed included. But you'll need to write off a day for each journey. And take a very good, very long book.