Trail of the unexpected: Europa Park

Germany's largest theme park may be a bit kitsch, but the kids will love it, says Justin Rowlatt

"I love this, Daddy, I really love it!" screamed my four-year-old daughter Elsa, beaming up at me with an ecstatic grin. I can't say I was enjoying myself quite as much as she was. In fact I was beginning to feel distinctly sick. We were sitting in a giant spinning teacup on a Delftware-themed roundabout in Europa Park, Germany's largest theme park. It has probably the least-promising organising concept of any amusement park anywhere in the world: it takes as its theme "Europe".

It wasn't the theme that was causing me problems. A ride based on blue-and-white Dutch pottery is a deliciously surreal treat and Elsa was clearly finding our teacup great fun. However, all that spinning had me looking forward to returning to solid ground.

I'm a novice when it comes to theme parks. Family holidays when I was a kid tended to involve trudging up bleak fells in the rain lugging my own pint-sized backpack. As I lay in a sodden sleeping bag I would often dream of visiting the Magic Kingdom – and I guess this trip was, in part, a way of satisfying those long-suppressed childhood yearnings.

Florida was out of the question, though. With a pregnant wife and three young daughters it would be too much of an ordeal. What's more, I'm known as the BBC's "Ethical Man"; the carbon consequences of my blooming family weighs heavy enough on my conscience without adding the tonnes of carbon dioxide generated by a family holiday across the pond.

Europa Park seemed a good alternative, despite its worthy-sounding theme. It is just eight hours by train from London, right down in the far south of Germany next to the Black Forest. So once you get sick of being twirled, tossed, shaken and flung, there are no end of other things to do: mountains, forests, medieval villages, farmhouse restaurants and – conveniently for an Ethical Man – Germany's greenest city, Freiburg.

Each country in the park has its own collection of nationally themed rides, distinctive architecture, and eateries selling national dishes. The stereotypes are all mercifully gentle. There were no bulldogs or tattooed hooligans in "England"; instead we found a charming London taxis ride.

The real delight lies in the park's incredible attention to detail. Our spinning teacup was in a picture-perfect Dutch square complete with 17th-century Protestant chapel and a sweet-smelling waffle stall. A short walk and you are in Scandinavia, with pine trees and wooden shops. A couple more minutes and you are in Portugal, with what appear to be genuinely ancient olive trees, a full-sized galleon and the fabulous Atlantica ride – a rollercoaster based on a Portuguese adventurer's journey to the New World.

What could have been a dull exercise in Euro propaganda turned out to be real joy: kitsch and garish, yes, but also innocent and charming. The children would happily have stayed there all week, but after a couple of days, I felt it was time to leave Europa Park to experience the real Germany. (The theme-park version consisted of a schloss, a boat ride into the land of the elves, a section of Berlin Wall and a beer garden with an oompah band.)

We took a day trip to Freiburg. It is easy to see how the city justifies its "greenest in Germany" claim. There seemed to be solar panels on every other roof; indeed, one office block appeared to be almost entirely built out of them. The city has impressive CO2 reduction and sustainability targets and includes one suburb of more than 5,000 people which has banned cars. The roads here have been replaced with flower beds, which isn't likely to happen where I live in London any time soon.

Here we took a cable car to the top of a local mountain, Schauinsland, and in the Black Forest café at the top we ate deliciously salty Flaedlesuppe, a local soup packed with shredded pancake. From our cosy eyrie we looked over pine forests and out to the great plain of the Rhine, stretching out into the misty distance.

But then things moved up a notch. We entrusted our children to a Europa Park babysitter and headed off to the local thermal baths. Now, attitudes to bathing vary dramatically between European countries, as I discovered in France last year. I tried to wear a pair of baggy beach shorts in a public pool and got a stern "Non" from the lifeguard: only skin-tight Speedos allowed. In Germany they take the dress code one step further – nakedness is compulsory.

My wife and I visited the spa section of the Keidel Mineral Thermalbad on a weekday afternoon. For these Germans, taking off your clothes was the natural way to enjoy the saunalandschaft – the "sauna landscape" – but public nudity felt anything but natural to me.

Let's be honest, we Brits don't like to take our clothes off in public. I felt desperately self-conscious as I explored different ways to hold my towel in order to provide discreet cover. But I soon relaxed and began to enjoy "the landscape", and it was impressive: 15 or so saunas and steam rooms, a swimming pool, a freshwater pond, wildflower gardens and a café with some of the best local food we ate on the entire holiday (you have to wear a towel to eat).

The baths and the park were very different experiences, but both felt uniquely German. Which other European country would build – without a hint of irony – a park dedicated to Europe? Nowhere except Germany, the country that was the main impetus and the bedrock of the European integration project. So here's a challenge for you. Imagine a British version of Europa Park. Which rides would be built in it? Would there be room for a Dutch teacup ride? I think not.

Justin Rowlatt is the BBC's "Ethical Man" and a Newsnight correspondent

Travel essentials: Europa Park

Getting there

Trains from London St Pancras to Ringsheim (the park's closest station) are via Brussels, Cologne and Offenburg or alternatively Paris, Basel and Freiburg (08718 80 8066; bahn.com).

Visiting there

Europa Park, Europa Park Strasse 2, Rust, near Freiburg, Germany (00 49 18 05 77 66 88; europapark.de). Open 9am-6pm daily until 7 November. The park will reopen thereafter on 9 April 2011. Admission €35 adults, €31 for four-to-11 year olds, free for under-fours.

Keidel Mineral Thermalbad, An den Heilquellen 4, Freiburg (00 49 761 490 590; keidel-bad.de). Open 9am-10pm daily; €18 adults

Staying there

Accommodation at Europa Park comprises four hotels, a guest house and tipi village. Prices at the Colosseo Hotel start at €123 per adult B&B including two days' admission to the park.

More info

Germany Tourism: 020-7317 0908; germany-tourism.co.uk

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