Sticky toffee pudding served with vanilla ice cream.

The Parcel Yard at King’s Cross station, London

Next time you’re waiting for a train heading north out of London, or for a place to meet with mates after stepping off the train, check out The Parcel Yard in King’s Cross railway station.

It is the biggest station pub in the country and occupies the site once used as the Great Northern Railway’s parcel office. The airy mail rooms opened for business in 1852 as part of Lewis Cubitt’s station design. The location was developed into a pub during recent renovations of King’s Cross, utilising wood and other features from the original building.

Revamping King’s Cross station

Just a few years ago, waiting for a train at King’s Cross was significantly less pleasant than it is today. A handful of fast food outlets and shops opened onto a coldly lit concourse with insufficient seating. Every now and again druggies and drunks would circulate between travellers asking for spare change.

King’s Cross station has long had a pub but the current incarnation is a far more pleasant place to sit and sup a pint than its predecessor. Also, being in The Parcel Yard means waiting away from the draft that can chillily sweep along the concourse, beneath the elegant arch of the criss-cross roof designed by John McAslan.

Thankfully, spending time in the pub also means being well away from the projection of a smiling woman in a collared blue shirt a few paces away from the concourse seating. She stands between a photo booth and escalator running up towards the station’s first floor restaurants.

“Please do not take luggage onto the escalator. Please use the elevators available,” she says between waving, nodding and smiling. She can be irritatingly cheery after you hear her hollow request for the 53rd time; something that takes a mere matter of minutes. Why use a simple, silent sign for that message when you can make things gratingly complex?

Venison pie served with mashed potatoe and vegetables.

Venison pie served with mashed potatoe and vegetables.

Inside The Parcel Yard

The Parcel Yard, meanwhile, has a laid-back vibe. Varnished wood floorboards have a deliberately scuffed appearance, adding to the character of the rooms. Natural light once flooded through the parcel yard’s glass ceiling so that workers below could sort packages. The two upper floors were suspended so that horse-drawn carts could pass through on the ground level unimpeded by columns.

Today the pub has white walls and framed window panes, meaning natural light can still flow into the corridors and rooms. Old-fashioned leather suitcases and travel trunks are a reminder that The Parcel Yard stands in one of the country’s great travel hubs. Look out for framed tickets on the walls, sorting boxes and old railway signage.

Meeting rooms in the pub

The pub is divided into several rooms. They include the Games Room, whose decoration includes a typewriter. Board games and a pinball machine provide ways to while away time prior to a departure.

The Board Room, which is a boardroom style meeting room, has a grand, polished wood table and framed photos capturing moments from lifetimes decades ago. The pictures include an elephant being shoved into a railway carriage.

The Station Master’s Office is a Grade I listed room overlooking platforms 0 to 8 with railway-related artefacts.

Beneath the wooden shelves of the Loft Bar, on the upper level, you can sit at one of the comfy leather sofas. Wood benches run along chunky tables that sometimes see use as informal meeting spaces.

A pub with table service

Waiters take orders and serve food and drink. For single travellers this is a god-send. In so many British pubs bagging a seat at a numbered table is a necessary precursor to placing a food order. Without a companion to watch over baggage while you nip to the bar, you run the risk of losing your table or your belongings. The table service alleviates that concern.

The most expensive dish on the food menu is the eight ounce rib-eye steak served with roasted mushrooms, watercress, chips and a peppercorn sauce (£24.95).

Anyone returning to the United Kingdom after a long trip abroad might be tempted by the fish and chips. The cod is served in batter made with London Pride ale alongside mushy peas and tartare sauce. For people departing the country by train from St Pancras International, this is the last chance to tuck into Britain’s most telling contribution to the world’s fast food culture.

Chocolate brownie served with vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate brownie served with vanilla ice cream.

Quality British pub grub

The venison pie (£13.95) is served with rich gravy, chunks of roasted swede, mashed potato and Savoy cabbage. It’s tasty and there’s plenty of meat within the pastry.

The desserts include sticky toffee pudding served with vanilla ice cream (£5.95). The popular British pud is made with vintage ale and deliciously moist. Pleasingly, The Parcel Yard’s take on sticky toffee pudding steers clear of being overly sweet.

The pub’s pear, apple and cinnamon crumble (£5.95) is also worth dipping your spoon in if you enjoy a sweet finish to your meal. It’s served in an antique-style, flat-bottomed iron pan and comes with a jug of custard on the side.

Normally a cup of tea or coffee would be the ideal end to a British meal. The Parcel Yard has both. But with a decent selection of lagers, hand-pulled ales and draft ciders, it takes willpower as robust as the iron pan in which the crumble is served to resist ordering a pint to finish.

Further information

The Parcel Yard (Tel. 020 7713 7258; ) is within London’s King’s Cross Station. It is located beyond the Harry Potter Shop at Platform 9¾.

Crumble served with a pot of custard.

Crumble served with a pot of custard.

Hieronymus Bosch statue

The Netherlands celebrates Hieronymus Bosch

Grotesque demons and visions of paradise feature in artworks by Hieronymus Bosch. Throughout 2016 a series of events is being held in the Netherlands to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death in 1516.

Many of the events in the multi-faceted Jheronimus Bosch 500 programme will take place in the province of North Brabant. Bosch was born in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the provincial capital, in the middle of the fifteen century.

A city with two names

The surname by which we know him is drawn from the city in the south of the country; Dutch people refer to the place informally as Den Bosch. The artist, a member of an established family of painters, spent most of his life in the city, working in a studio on the market square. Even today, an age of malls, the square fills with stalls and bustles with shoppers every Saturday.

Within the Groot Tuighuis, the free-to-visit city archive. It holds exhibits focusing on ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s archaeology and urban history. You can see the City of Bosch exhibition, recreating how the conurbation looked during the artist’s lifetime.

It takes a little over an hour to travel by train from the railway station at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. People in this part of the Netherlands pride themselves on their outgoing manner and passion for good food and drink. They term themselves gezellig, a word that defies precise translation but implies being sociable and warm.

Nights out in Den Bosch tend to have those qualities. The city centre is peppered with restaurants and café-bars that remain open long after midnight. For the duration of 2016 there’s another reason to experience an evening out; the free-to-view Bosch by Night light and sound show.

The 12-minute display features colourful, high-definition images and conveys Hieronymus Bosch’s oeuvre, work that encompasses grotesque imaginary creatures and innocent faced nudes. The images will be projected onto the facades of buildings on the market square.

The Groot Tuighuis in 's-Hertogenbosch.

The Groot Tuighuis in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius

You can view the original works within Het Noordbrabants Museum, where the exhibition Hieronymus Bosch – Visions of Genius runs until 8 May. It’s being viewed as a major national event. The Netherlands’ King Willem-Alexander opened the exhibition on 12 February. Nineteen of Bosch’s 20 drawings are being shown and 20 of his paintings are on display, including masterpieces loaned from galleries in Berlin and Vienna, plus the Adoration of the Magi from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is the largest ever exhibition of Bosch’s works.

Notably, The Haywain has returned to the Netherlands for the first time since 1570, when Spain’s King Phillip II acquired it for his art collection. Normally it can be seen in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

Like several other Bosch works, The Haywain is a triptych, a three-part altarpiece. Such works were designed to be folded in on themselves, for ease of transport in an era when royals and nobles often had several houses but limited furnishings and fresh food was tricky to move efficiently; they transported their belongings between properties.

Bosch was a respected citizen of Den Bosch and a member of an influential confraternity, the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. His funeral mass was held on 9 August 1516  within city’s St John’s Cathedral, a building that was under construction for the duration of the artist’s life. As part of the Jheronimus Bosch 500 programme the rooftop will be open for visits throughout this year.

The marketplace at 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

The marketplace at ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

Interpreting Hieronymus Bosch’s art

A number of scholars assume his paintings depict the fears and hopes of people of his time. Some suggest he was being critical of society and the priesthood.

Paintings, in the era of mass illiteracy more than half a millennium ago, were deciphered and ‘read’ to unveil moralising stories, often drawing upon widely recognised Biblical themes. Bosch’s paintings also have scurrilous elements that would have engaged and entertained onlookers. As a precursor of artists such as Rembrandt painting themselves into great works such as The Night Watch, Bosch recorded his own thin face in the bottom corner of Saint John on Patmos, which he painted for his confraternity.

Vincent van Gogh, a much later Dutch artist, left a vast body of letters that help us understand his creative thought process and tortured mind. Other than the words Jheronimus Bosch which Bosch signed on just seven of his paintings, nothing penned by Bosch survives. Inevitably, this has led experts to question the provenance of a number of the works attributed to him and to ask whether some were merely painted in his style, by other artists working within in his workshop.

To coincide with the 500th anniversary of his death, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project was established. State-of-the-art analysis has been undertaken on his paintings, including ultra-high resolution digital macrophotography, digital X-radiography and infrared reflectography.

Triptych based on The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Heironymus Bosch by the River Binnendieze in 's-Hertogenbosch.

Triptych based on The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Heironymus Bosch by the River Binnendieze in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

An important discovery

Earlier this year there was a remarkable discovery. Research resulted in the Temptation of Saint Anthony – from the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri – being attributed as a work by Bosch himself. It’s also revealed concealed aspects within his works, resulting in a greater understanding of the artist’s techniques.

Bosch was described as the “inventor of monsters and chimeras” in 1560 by Felipe de Guevara in his book on art, Comments on Painting. Several of the grotesque creatures that Bosch painted take on a 3D form by the banks of the city’s Binnendieze river, which you can tour in an open-topped boat. More can be viewed on foot following The Garden of Earthly Delights sculpture trail, named and inspired by one of Bosch’s most influential triptychs.

Copies of all of those works plus a recreation of the artist’s studio are displayed within the former church that’s now the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center. The tower provides fine views over the city and a place to pause and reflect on Bosch’s creations.

Further information

See the Holland website for travel information.

Figure inspired by the work of artist Heironymus Bosch.

Figure inspired by the work of artist Heironymus Bosch.

Horse racing.

The Grand National – a pillar of Britain’s sporting calendar

The horse race we now know as the Crabbie’s Grand National has been a feature of Britain’s sporting calendar since February 1839. The 2016 edition of the race takes place at Aintree Racecourse, on the north-east fringe of Liverpool, on 9 April.

Now run over a course with a length of four miles, three-and-a-half furlongs – that’s around 7.14 kilometres if you think in metric terms – the race is renowned as being something of a lottery. Any of the runners, even rank outsiders, stand a chance of winning.

Lottery, coincidentally, was the name of the first horse to win the event, when the race was still known as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.

A race over 30 fences

The jockeys have to ride their mounts over 30 fences in order to complete Aintree’s testing course. Over the 168 editions of the race held prior to 2016 many favourites have been unseated during their quest to reach the finishing post.

In 1928 only two of the 42 runners finished the race with Tipperary Tim, a 100-1 shot, romping home first. Perhaps to compensate for that attrition, a year later 66 horses started the race – the biggest field ever to run in the Grand National.

In contrast to 1928, a record 23 horses and riders completed the race of 1984, with Hello Dandy, ridden by Neale Doughty, winning the race.

Of course, the tickets of many sweepstake participants have been crumpled and tossed aside after horses have tumbled at Aintree’s famous obstacles.

The Chair is the tallest of the fences on the Aintree course, standing five feet two inches high. Becher’s Brook, named after jockey Captain Martin Becher, and Canal Turn are among the other fences, which are made from spruce grown in the Lake District.

A jockey riding a horse to the finish post.

A jockey riding a horse to the finish post.

Europe’s richest jumps race

The 2016 Crabbie’s Grand National has a purse of £1 million, making it Europe’s most valuable horse race over jumps. Aintree’s Grand National meeting and the Cheltenham Festival are traditionally regarded the high points of the National Hunt season.

It’s a handicap race and since 2009 the heaviest weight that can be carried is 11 stone 10 pounds (74.4kg). As part of efforts to improve the safety of the race, the minimum age for participating horses was raised to seven years old in 2011.

Horses galloping during a race.

Horses galloping during a race.

Grand National success stories

Only one horse has ever won the race three times. Red Rum ran to glory in the races of 1973, 1974 and 1977, becoming an equine national celebrity in the process. Three other horses have won back to back nationals.

George Stevens, meanwhile, is the most successful jockey in the history of the Grand National. Stevens won the race five times between 1856 and 1870. The latter mount was on The Colonel, one of the four horses to have won consecutive races.

Back in 1990 the suitably named Mr Frisk covered the course in a record eight minutes 47.8 seconds, more than six minutes quicker than Lottery, the winner of the inaugural race.

Perhaps new names will be written into the history books when the race is run. The 2016 Crabbie’s Grand National is scheduled to start at 5.15pm.

A symbol of Liverpool - The Liver Bird on top of the Liver Building.

A symbol of Liverpool – The Liver Bird on top of the Liver Building.

Getting to Aintree Racecourse

Trains run between the Liverpool Central and Aintree, whose station stands opposite the racecourse. Liverpool Central is a five-minute walk from Liverpool Lime Street station (where you can see a statue of Liverpudlian entertainer Ken Dodd on the concourse).

Further information

The 2016 Crabbie’s Grand National Festival runs from Thursday 7 April until Saturday 9 April. Around 150,000 people attend Liverpool’s Aintree Racecourse over the three days of the festival, which this year has a total prize fund of £2.9 million.

See the Visit Liverpool website for inspiration about things to do and see in the city.

For information on attractions in the surrounding countryside see the Visit Lancashire website.

Liverpool's waterfront - the Liver Building stands on Pier Head.

Liverpool’s waterfront – the Liver Building stands on Pier Head.

Edinburgh Castle on Castle Rock in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Exploring Britain by rail: Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh is a great place to explore over a weekend. Attractions such as the castle, Scottish National Gallery and Arthur’s Seat make it a destination that warrants returning to time and again. If sightseeing sounds too strenuous, the city’s numerous bars and restaurants mean you can simply unwind and graze your way around the Scottish capital.

All aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia

The Royal Yacht Britannia is permanently moored at Edinburgh’s Leith Docks, a 15-minute bus ride from Princes Street. The ship sailed more than a million miles while in service, from 1953 to 1997, yet the engine room’s fittings gleam like it was recently launched.

Boarding the well-maintained vessel gives you a chance to view the royal bedrooms, the formal dining room plus the offices where Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip worked. The audio guide provides insights into royal life on the Britannia.

The informative tour also conveys what being a member of the crew entailed, giving you a chance to see the rooms where the officers and crew worked, slept and relaxed.

The Royal Yacht Britannia.

The Royal Yacht Britannia.

Panda watching at Edinburgh Zoo

Red deer, red squirrels and golden eagles are among the wild animals that draw people to rural Scotland. At Edinburgh Zoo (134 Corstorphine Road; tel. 0131 3349171) it’s the pandas, Yang Guang and Tian Tian, that pull the crowds. To save time at the entrance, pre-book tickets and a time slot for viewing the pandas. The chimpanzees, at the Budongo Trail attraction, are another reason to visit.

Of course, many people question the ethics of keeping animals in enclosures but the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland undertakes important research and educational activities and visiting Edinburgh Zoo helps support that work.

Yang Guang, the male panda, at Edinburgh Zoo.

Yang Guang, the male panda, at Edinburgh Zoo.

The Edinburgh Gin Distillery

Scotland is all about whisky, right? Not any more. The resurgence of gin drinking has resulted in the establishment of the Edinburgh Gin Distillery (1a Rutland Place; tel. 0131 6562810) where two stills, Flora and Caledonia, can often be seen at work.

The distillery’s Gin Connoisseur Tour entails a potted history of the production of gin, a look at the stills plus an opportunity to sample a generous cross-section of the company’s products.

Get your weekend off to a flyer by visiting Heads and Tales bar, also on the premises. The dapper mixologists serve a selection of potent gin-based cocktails.

Ideas and recommendations

Time to eat

Tuck into Scottish cuisine at the Printing Press Bar and Kitchen (21-25 George Street; tel. 0131 2407177), part of the George Hotel. The high-ceilinged dining room has a refined look, thanks to leather-backed seats and dark wood panelling. The menu changes according to the season. Dishes such as fish and chips plus mince and tatties feature as mains. If you get a chance, try the side dish of wilted greens with garlic – it’s delicious.

Take something home

If you enjoy shopping don’t miss the opportunity to explore Jenners (48 Princes Street) while you’re in Edinburgh. The department store was founded in 1838 and sells a wide range of items, including perfumes and clothing plus high-quality Scottish food and drink. Pick up a haggis, a tin of shortcake or jar or marmalade infused with whisky to take home from your visit to the Scottish capital.

Jenners department store on Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Jenners department store on Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Quirky but interesting

The Georgian buildings of the Royal Mile are built on top of far older dwellings. Ravaged by plague and poor sanitation, the tenements and narrow lanes of Old Town were abandoned in the 1600s. Rather than demolishing the buildings, the streets were simply walled up and built over. In part, this accounts for the slope and steep sides of the Royal Mile.

Remarkably, a number of well-preserved buildings can still be seen beneath the Royal Mile. You can stroll along streets that have not been warmed by sunshine for centuries during hour-long tours of the Real Mary King’s Close (2 Warriston’s Close; tel. 0131 2250672). Costume-wearing guides, playing roles of characters who knew the streets centuries ago, lead visitors into several of the long-abandoned homes and convey how life was in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Time for a coffee

Take your pick from Edinburgh’s many tea rooms and cafes. There’s a good number to choose from around the Grassmarket, including Café Jacques (10 Grassmarket; 0131 2205358). Sit by the window for a spot of people watching while sipping a cup of rich-tasting roast coffee. If your legs are heavy after hours of sightseeing boost your energy levels with a slice of home-style cake. The carrot cake is deliciously moist and well presented.

Coffee & a slice of carrot cake.

Coffee & a slice of carrot cake.

It’s beer o’clock

Enjoy a pint in the chic surroundings of The Dome (14 George Street; tel: 0131 6248624). It’s hard not to be impressed by the glass cupola, ornate plasterwork and veined marble columns of this elegant bar-restaurant.

The building, once the headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, dates from the 1840s and has an elegant feel. Look out for the floor mosaics with Latin mottos. The serving staff wear bow ties and it’s easy to imagine you’ve been swept back to the 1920s while supping here.

If you’re keen to impress someone special, consider reserving a table in the Georgian Tea Room for Champagne Afternoon Tea (served from 11am to 5pm).

Getting to Edinburgh

Virgin Trains East Coast provides rail connections between Edinburgh and other British cities. Journeys to and from Newcastle-upon-Tyne take around 90 minutes. Trips to or from London take from four hours 21 minutes.

Where to stay in Edinburgh

Enjoy design hotels but don’t want to spend a fortune? Book to stay in the Hub by Premier Inn – Royal Mile hotel (37 East Market Street; tel. 0333 3213104).

The official opening of the hotel was in March 2016. The reception staff are friendly and very helpful. The hotel has a hip, modern look and feel. It makes good use of technology and there’s a downloadable app via which you can control the lighting, air-conditioning and television settings. The TV has a selection of movies on demand, for which there’s no extra charge.

Impressively, the Edinburgh map on the wall above beds can be read by the app, revealing attractions plus places to eat and drink.

Unlike many British hotels, the guestrooms don’t have kettles. Instead, coffee and tea are available, free-of-charge, from the deli, where a selection of snacks and alcoholic drinks are also available.

Further information

Find out more about the Scottish capital on the This is Edinburgh and Visit Scotland websites.

Edinburgh at sunset.

Edinburgh at sunset.

Boxing gloves signed ny Muhammad Ali.

I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2

“Living legend” is too easily applied when describing sportspeople. Muhammad Ali is one of the few individuals on this planet who really do warrant such an epithet. The exhibition I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 – on the life and career of the three time heavyweight boxing champion of the world – runs until 31 August 2016 at, as the name suggests, the O2 in Greenwich, London.

Even before you enter the exhibition proper you’ll see colour images of magazine covers featuring the charismatic boxer who’s known as the ‘Louisville Lip’. As you ride the escalator up to the second floor you’ll see monochrome photographs of the boxer on London’s streets. As Cassius Clay, he visited the British capital in 1963 to fight Henry Cooper at Wembley Arena.

Henry Cooper versus Cassius Clay

The famous split glove from their ‘63 match is displayed inside. Changing the torn glove is reputed to have given the American time to recover and go on to win the bout. Cooper’s hefty shot prompted Clay to remark, “Henry hit me so hard that my ancestors in Africa felt it.”

He looked vulnerable in the moments immediately after Cooper’s punch. That happened rarely during the long boxing career of the man who started his career as Cassius Clay and ended it as Muhammad Ali. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali the following year, 1964.

Float like a butterfly around the exhibition at the O2.

Float like a butterfly around the exhibition at the O2.

Inspiration for the film Rocky

More than 100 artefacts are on display in I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2. The items include belts, signed gowns, plus headgear dedicated to Sylvester Stallone.

Today, many people associate Stallone primarily with the Rocky series of boxing films. Rocky, the first of the films, propelled him to global stardom. Reputedly, Stallone was inspired to write the script of the Academy Award winning boxing film after seeing Chuck Wepner’s 15-round fight against Ali at Richfield Coliseum during March 1975.

The audio-guide adds significant value to this exhibition, whose circular, central room features a bronze statue of Ali with arms stretching upwards; the expression of a victor. The recordings recount episodes from the boxer’s life.

Headguard signed by Muhammad Ali to Sylvester Stallone.

Headguard signed by Muhammad Ali to Sylvester Stallone.

The helpful police officer

As a boy in Louisville, Kentucky, young Cassius suffered the misfortune of having his bicycle stolen. Upset and brimming with anger, he told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he was going to ‘whup’ the person who took it. On learning the lad in front of him didn’t know how to fight, Martin made a suggestion: “You better learn how to box first.”

The exhibition tells of Clay’s participation and gold medal winning performance at the Rome Olympics of 1960 and conveys aspects of the racial tensions simmering in 1960s America. Segregation was still enforced between blacks and whites in the southern states of the USA.

Some people came to see Ali as a champion of the civil rights struggle, able to make use of his standing as heavyweight champion of the world to get across a message that would have been ignored had he not excelled at sport. He did so in a way that reached beyond the racial divide.

The words of Muhammad Ali on display in the exhibition.

The words of Muhammad Ali on display in the exhibition.

Scenes from Ali’s fights

The exhibition’s first room holds a cinema screen and a boxing ring. Red and white benches are ranged around the ring. A short film with highlights from Ali’s career are screened. Stop your spine from tingling at the grace and power of the boxer, if you can.

Footage show later in the exhibition conveys Ali’s boxing talent plus the wit, charisma and eloquence he displayed during interviews.

Posters and photos from Ali’s fights are displayed. There’s also original artwork depicting Angelo Dundee, the trainer who was in Ali’s corner for all but two of his professional fights.

Davis Miller is a co-curator of this insightful exhibition. Miller’s book, Approaching Ali, was published by W.W. Norton to coincide with the launch of I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2.

Ticketing to this exhibition

Adult admission to I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 is priced at £18.00 plus a booking fee of £2.75, in other words £20.75. Is that a knock-out blow that will keep some boxing and Muhammad Ali fans away from this exhibition?

Child tickets cost £9.00 plus a £1.50 booking fee. The sliding scale of the booking fee (£2.50 on top of concessions admission costing £15) raises questions about the widespread application of such fees to gain entry to British events and exhibitions.

Booking fees are widely accepted but aren’t we on a slippery slope if we accept them as justifiable to cover transaction costs? What if shops used a similar argument in order to justify additional charges for using a card or even for paying in cash? After all, for most businesses cash also results in bank charges when it’s paid into a bank. Shouldn’t people be charged only for their tickets, nothing more?

Some will argue the heavyweight fee to enter an exhibition about the life of a man who has been named Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year more times than any other boxer is justifiable.

Anyone departing I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 should simply be focusing on the life of a man whose personality and achievements – both inside and outside of the boxing ring – mean he’s one of the few people on this planet who truly transcend sport, nationality, religion and race.    

More information

I am the Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2 runs until 31 August 2016. See the exhibition’s website for full information regarding opening times and ticket prices.

Getting there

The nearest London Underground station to the O2 is North Greenwich.

Boxing poster at I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2

Boxing poster at I Am The Greatest: Muhammad Ali at The O2

The tower of St Anthony's Church (Antoniuskerk) in Breda, the Netherlands.

Breda – off the beaten track in the Netherlands

Many international travellers will give you a blank look if you ask them to point out Breda on a map of the Netherlands. Dutch people, though, are well aware of the charms of this historic city and instinctively point towards the province of North Brabant in the country’s south.

Breda lies just a handful of kilometres from the border with Belgium. So close, in fact, that you can enjoy breakfast at a café-bar or restaurant at the Grote Markt – the cobbled market place in the heart of the city – then walk to the border and be back in time for lunch. After all, mealtimes are important here. Good food and drink plays an important role in the rhythm of the day in Brabant, where people have a reputation for enjoying life.

A beer at the Café Beyerd

If you want to understand why, try popping in to a traditional brown bar such as the Café Beyerd (Boschstraat 26; +) where you can order an espresso coffee to perk you up or select from a chalkboard menu featuring more than 100 different craft beers.

People are generally chatty as they relax over borrel, the late afternoon snack that’s enjoyed with a drink. Traditionally, borrel features dishes such as a cheese platter or a plate of bitterballen, a cross between a meatball and a croquette that’s deep-fried in breadcrumbs and served with mustard.

Perhaps inevitably, borrel is compared with afternoon tea in England. Coincidentally, the man whose spouse, Catherine of Braganza, introduced that tradition resided in Breda during his exile in the 1650s, while Oliver Cromwell governed England. The restoration of the monarchy was formulated in the Declaration of Breda, the document dating from 1660 that established the framework for the ascent of King Charles II to the English throne. That, though, is just one of several moments during which this small city helped shape Europe’s destiny.

Carnival season in Brabant

Instead of focusing on history, most locals like to live for the moment, particularly during the Carnival season, when many don colourful costumes and party on the streets. They’ll tell you this part of the Netherlands is very different to the north of the country.

People here pride themselves on their openness and warmth. It’s known as gezelligheid, a word that’s not readily translatable into English. It’s more than mere sociability, it’s something people strive to embrace.

Nights out in Breda, which has a multitude of bars, are known for being gezellig and draw people from around the Netherlands for weekend breaks. Most don’t need to travel for long to get home. Direct trains take just 69 minutes to reach central Amsterdam from Breda.

Key landmarks in Breda

The city centre is compact, making it easy to explore on foot. That’s one of the charms of this vibrant student city. The best known landmark is the 97-metre tall tower of the 15th century  Grote Kerk or Church of Our Lady, which dominates the urban skyline.

The airy, Gothic style place of worship holds the tombs of several members of the House of Orange-Nassau, whose descendants constitute the modern day Dutch royal family. In total seventeen members of the dynasty are buried in the ornate Prinsencapel (Princes’ Chapel), whose centrepiece features a tomb guarded by four sculpted marble figures.

The Grote Kerk (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) in Breda.

The Grote Kerk (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) in Breda.

A short walk to Breda Castle

From the church it’s a five-minute stroll to Breda Castle, which also has late medieval origins and underwent major expansion on the orders of the Counts of Orange-Nassau. Since 1826 the moated fortress has been utilised as a military academy, so isn’t open to the public. Its presence explains why you’ll see uniformed men and women cycling on Breda’s streets.

Back in 1581 the castle, and indeed the whole of the city, was besieged as Spain attempted to cling to its possessions in the Netherlands. A murderous rampage, known as the Fury of Haultepenne, followed Breda’s surrender. The event caused outrage and helped give the Dutch resolve in what would prove an eight decade fight for independence.

The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez

Within Breda you can still view key locations associated with that long struggle for nationhood. The Spanjaardsgat – a fortified gate by the harbour – is reputed to be the entry point for a barge in which 68 highly trained Dutch soldiers hid beneath turf before an operation to liberate the city in 1590.

Additionally, the lobby of the town hall holds a copy of Diego Velázquez’s epic oil painting, The Surrender of Breda, depicting the city changing hands again, in 1625. The highly valued original version of the work hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain.

Stalls on Breda’s marketplace

As you stroll around the city centre you’ll see a number of commercial art galleries and artists’ supply shops dotted among the boutiques of Breda, which is a highly regarded shopping hub. Every Tuesday and Friday mornings market stalls are erected on the Grote Markt, and shoppers stream into the city to purchase cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables plus fish.

Yet come the evening there’s no evidence they were there. Tables and chairs have replaced them on the cobbled square, in front of cafes and restaurants. Regardless of the ambient temperature, people can sit and enjoy spring evenings on the square thanks to outdoor heaters.

The tower of the Church of Our Lady peeks above buildings on the Kasteelplein in Breda.

The tower of the Church of Our Lady peeks above buildings on the Kasteelplein in Breda.

Museum of the Image

If it’s a rainy day and you enjoy graphic design and marketing, swing by the Museum of the Image, which explores visual culture. The museum – known to locals by its acronym, MOTI – is located within a stylish modern building hidden behind the façade of a house dating from 1643. The museum’s permanent collection encompasses posters, items of clothing and photography, along with media stored digitally that’s accessible by the MOTI’s computers.

Afterwards you may think twice before sharing your selfies and photos from around Breda via social media. But in a photogenic city such as this one you’re sure to have plenty of pictures to choose from.

Further information

Take a look at the Breda Tourist Information and Holland websites.

The Nassausingel canal in Breda.

The Nassausingel canal in Breda.

The Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Rotterdam’s UNESCO Van Nelle Factory

On 21 June 2014 the Van Nelle Factory, located in Rotterdam’s north-western Spaanse Polder district, became the Netherlands’ tenth UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Perhaps it’s poignant that the inscription took place on the longest day of the year as one of the key considerations during the building’s protracted design phase was for the interiors make optimal use of natural light.

Dutch Functionalist design principles

The factory complex was built to process and package coffee, tea and tobacco, a purpose it fulfilled for 64 years, from 1931 to 1995. The company, whose name it bears, was founded in Rotterdam by Johannes van Nelle in 1782.

What makes the site truly remarkable is the careful planning that went into every aspect of the design, by Leendert van der Vlugt of Rotterdam’s Brinkman and Van der Vlugt architectural bureau. The factory was commissioned in 1923 and is regarded as a leading example of Dutch Functionalist design.

A thoroughly modern workplace

When the Van Nelle Factory opened it was seen as an ideal workplace. Conditions for the 1,200 employees were good. The workplace was brighter and more spacious than most factories of the inter-war period.

Employees could make use of changing rooms and washrooms with showers before starting work – facilities we now take for granted but were then progressive. These factors helped make Van Nelle a popular employer while simultaneously facilitating a hygienic environment and enabling high quality products to roll off the production line.

An icon of industrial architecture

“The site is one of the icons of 20th-century industrial architecture,” according to UNESCO’s description as to why the building was selected as representative of our planet’s cultural heritage. The elegant design was effusively described as “a poem in steel and glass” by Howard Robertson, who travelled through Europe and North America during the 1920s and 1930s to document contemporary architecture with the photographer by Frank Yerbury. The factory’s aesthetics meant it was soon regarded as archetypal of international Modernist architecture.

The significance of the building has long been recognised within the Netherlands. Since 1985 it has been a listed national monument. Nonetheless, after the production lines closed in the mid-1990s questions were raised about how best to preserve the complex, whose structure was constructed using reinforced concrete by the civil engineer Jan Gerko Wiebenga.

In 1998 plans were drawn up use the former factory as business premises. It now provides office space for more than 80 companies and is a conference and event venue. Up to 5,000 delegates can attend events held in 12 rooms with more than 10,000 square metres of floor space.

Long-established environmental credentials

Extensive renovations were carried out to the property between 2000 and 2006. The environmental credentials of site were enhanced but the integrity of the original structure was retained. Even before green thinking became fashionable, practical considerations for maximising efficiencies had a strong influence on Leendert van der Vlugt’s design.

Form and function were intrinsically interlinked. The areas once used for processing tea, coffee and tobacco have different heights. Each floor of the factory was utilised for a different step in production. Blending tobacco had more steps (eight) than packaging coffee (five) or tea (three). This explains why the tobacco packaging zone is the highest in the Van Nelle Factory, with eight storeys.

The Van Nelle Factory's neon sign in Rotterdam.

The Van Nelle Factory’s neon sign in Rotterdam.

Aspects of the factory’s design

Among the first things visitors to the site notice are the sloping bridges, containing a conveyor mechanism, for transporting wares through the factory – they are practical yet aesthetically integrated into the building’s form. Another corridor, wide enough for just one person, runs along the factory, enabling coffee to be quality controlled without exposing the olfactory senses of the tester to the aroma of tobacco.

Male and female employees used separate staircases, with chrome handrails, to climb to their workplaces. Equality awareness means we now frown upon systems that accentuate gender differences. The staircases sweep past each other within airy wells.

They gave the men and women of the factory a chance to cast their eye over colleagues heading in the opposite direction. It’s said numerous romantic relationships began on the staircase, helping foster contentment and stability in the workforce.

Driving to the office

By contrast the Van Nelle Factory’s three directors – Kees van der Leeuw, Bertus Sonneveld and Matthijs de Bruyn – could drive into garages directly below their offices. That’s something many people today take for granted but it was ground-breaking in the 1930s, when few people owned cars. The directors’ office windows provide an overview of the site, which is surrounded by lawns.

From the upper storeys of the factory workers could look down to the Delfshavense Schie canal, whose proximity is no coincidence. Raw materials, imported from the Netherlands’ colonies, were transported along the waterway from Rotterdam’s docks. In cold weather water from the canal was heated then piped around the factory.

On warm days the factory’s greenhouse-style windows still open in either direction, depending upon the breeze. Swivelling on their hinges, only half of the glass’s weight hangs outside the building. This minimised the cost and weight of the frames, and helped engender an airy workspace. Off-set, north-facing rooftop windows above the coffee sorting floor maximised the natural light available to workers selecting beans according to their colour.

Neon lighting from New York

The roof bears a neon which sign reads ‘VAN NELLE’ in red capitals. It was shipped from New York City in 1932 and is symbolic of the international modernism of the factory below. The architect Michael Brinkman, who first sketched that now feted form to paper, died suddenly, in 1925.

Considering the functionality of all aspects of the design resulted in the factory’s construction taking six years. An example of this is the presence of wedge-like curves next to doors with rollers on their underside, ensuring the heavy doors closed in a controlled manner with the aid of gravity, minimising both noise and the risk of fire. The simplicity of such a solution is part of its ingenuity.

Further information

Tour the Van Nelle Factory with Urban Guides.

Find out more about the city on the Rotterdam Partners and Visit Holland websites.

Getting there

Stuart travelled to Rotterdam by rail, from London, courtesy of Voyages-sncf.com.

Spiral staircase in the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam.

Spiral staircase at the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam.

Brightfire: A Tale of Sutton Hoo.

The Anglo-Saxon treasures of Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo is synonymous with the Anglo-Saxon burial site in Suffolk, England. Now a National Trust site, Sutton Hoo provided an unparalleled haul of Anglo-Saxon treasures during archaeological excavations.

A long ship, 27 metres in length, plus a host of ornately crafted treasures were unearthed from the site by archaeologist Basil Brown after the landowner, Edith Pretty, asked him to excavate her land in 1939.

Novels by Pauline M Sabin Moore

Pauline M Sabin Moore is a volunteer guide at the historic site. She has written the novels Storm Frost and Brightfire, set during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Brightfire is a sequel to Storm Frost” explains Sabin Moore. “The first is rooted in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poetry, and the second builds on that, using what history of the early 7th Century we know from the Venerable Bede. Both are historical fiction.”

“I hope they bring to life the life, customs, beliefs and behaviour of people in the early 7th century, telling a lively story, which includes the tale of the great, historic High King Raedwald. On the site we do try to show people their phenomenal craftsmanship, which includes jewellery and sword-making, their language and contribution to our heritage. I believe the books reinforce this,” she says.

“I loved creating the character of Niartha, my heroine,” says the author. Niartha is “courageous, self-reliant and resilient in the face of extreme hardship and danger… their world esteems powerful women.” Adding that not all of those powerful women were necessarily queens.

“I also enjoyed building the evil character, Eorpwald – who gets a couple of sentences in Bede… very tantalising, but enough to strike a spark,” adds Sabin Moore.

The National Trust’s Sutton Hoo site

“Guides at the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo are trained by the Sutton Hoo Society. We offer the guided tours to the burial mounds, to bring to life the archaeology found over the years, and to share the exciting story of the discovery in 1939 of the great treasure ship, on the property of Mrs Edith Pretty, who generously gave the treasure to the nation in the care of the British Museum,” explains Sabin Moore.

The rarity of Anglo-Saxon era finds is a factor that makes Sutton Hoo all the more remarkable.

“Only three Anglo-Saxon ships have been found in the United Kingdom and all were located in or near Sutton Hoo,” says the author, who describes the site as “potentially as exciting as Stonehenge.”

The author counts the “mysterious peacefulness of the burial mounds site” and a visit to the exhibition hall “for colourful information” among the highlights of a visit to Sutton Hoo. She also recommends talking time to explore the woodland around the site, “especially in bluebell time.” Bluebells normally flower from late April into May.

Discovering the Anglo-Saxon world

“Apart from historical and archaeological works, there are not many novels about this early period: but look up Carla Nayland (Paths of Exile) and Kevin Andrew (The Rune of Ing). Anglo-Saxon Books publish a lot of good works, including many by the excellent Stephen Pollington, whose scholarship is to be trusted. See the superb modern version of Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, the great poet,” answers Sabin Moore when I ask which books she recommends for further insights into the Anglo-Saxon period.

What would be the main differences between life then and now?

“Some differences are obvious, like our technology, literacy and comfortable living…but we are still the same kind of human beings, with emotions, loyalties, prejudices, skill and courage,” answers the author, who is currently looking for a UK-based publisher and mulling on ideas for a novel set during the 5th century.

Brightfire: A Tale of Sutton Hoo

The novel Brightfire: A Tale of Sutton Hoo (RRP £7.99) by Pauline M Sabin Moore is set during the seventh century, and based mainly around Sutton Hoo. It tells a tale of rivalry and jealousy in Anglo-Saxon society.

Visiting Sutton Hoo

The 255-acre Sutton Hoo estate is operated by the National Trust. It hosts burial mounds and has an informative exhibition about the site. Visitors can see an original royal sword and enter the house where Edith Pretty lived. Food and drink is available at the King’s River Café.

Adult entry to the site costs £8.20 (2016 price). See the National Trust website for up-to-date admission prices and opening times.

The closest railway station is at Melton, about 20 minutes’ walk away. Buses from Ipswich to Framlingham pass Sutton Hoo.

Nearby sites of Anglo-Saxon interest

Mildenhall Museum, near Bury St Edmonds, and West Stow, which hosts a recreated Anglo-Saxon village, are within easy driving distance of Sutton Hoo.

Anglo-Saxon finds in the British Museum

The treasury room at Sutton Hoo holds carefully crafted replicas of the jewellery and famous helmet found at the burial site. The original Anglo-Saxon relics discovered at Sutton Hoo are displayed at the British Museum in London.

The museum is Great Russell Street and open daily from 10.00-17.30, with extended opening, until 20.30, on Fridays.

Map showing Sutton Hoo and the British Museum.

Map showing Sutton Hoo and the British Museum.

Chef Jamie Scott. Photo by Laura McKinnon supplied courtesy of Posh Communication.

Talking Taste: Chef Jamie Scott

Many British foodies recognise chef Jamie Scott from his success on television in 2014. The winner of MasterChef: The Professionals will open his own place on 1 March 2016. The Newport Restaurant is at Newport-on-Tay, across the River Tay from Dundee.

Scott grew up in Arbroath, about a half-hour’s drive from Newport-on-Tay. He spent four years working at the Rocca, a chic bar and grill restaurant overlooking the Old Course at St Andrews.

In 2015, following his success on MasterChef: The Professionals, Scott moved on to cook in pop-up restaurants and took spots as a guest chef.

Cooking with local Scottish ingredients

Scott is helping to change perceptions about Scottish food, whose stereotyped image is of being unhealthy and typified by dishes such as deep fried Mars bars. His dishes feature high quality, locally sourced ingredients.

I think it’s the local produce and about supporting your local supplier. From fishing boats to the local butcher shop; I’ve got friends in all of them. That’s from the industry, cooking over the past 11 or 12 years,” he says.

“I’ve taken that same influence to Fife, the food capital of Scotland just now. The delis, the cheese and the meats – it’s an amazing place to be right now,” he adds.

“We use quite a lot of local fish. We have a lot of line caught mackerel and use crabs caught at Angus, just outside Arbroath. We have amazing lamb from just north of Arbroath as well. There’s a drinks brand, Aribike Vodka, from just outside Arbroath,” explains the chef.

“One of my favourite dishes to do right now is based on a tattie field. All my family grew up in Arbroath. One of my first jobs was digging up the tatties in winter. So I’ve got a dish called the tattie field, based on potatoes all grown just outside of Arbroath on the farms,” says Scott as we chat in 2015. It features a potato soup, bacon, Maris Piper potatoes plus black pudding ‘soil’ and crème fraiche.

Influenced by his family

Scott admits his family have had a “massive” impact upon his career.

“My mother was the first female sous chef in the United Kingdom and my first cooking was probably my Gran Lou’s baking. I used to sit in the kitchen and watch her. My mam and dad were in charge of a golf club in Hamilton, just outside of Glasgow, and they used her home baking. My Gran used to make hundreds and hundreds of cakes. I used to watch her in awe as she made amazing brandy baskets, millionaire shortbread or scones. She used to make hundreds every day,” he recalls.

“When we moved up to Arbroath my mum and dad bought their first restaurant, a pub. I was in there very young, helping out and making some money. That’s where I got ideas; everything I learnt, my mum showed me. She’s the one arranged for me to go and work in different places, using her connections. I went from Inverness to Thurso to London, all through her connections, so she was a massive part in it,” he says.

The Rocca and MasterChef

Working hard in a small team at the Rocca also helped Scott develop his skills. The restaurant held two AA rosettes when he joined and, shortly afterwards, added a third.

“After three months I helped them clinch three rosettes. It was one of 24 places in Britain to have three rosettes, so it was a really exciting time to go in,” he recalls.

Scott describes the experience of participating in MasterChef: The Professionals as “invaluable” and the critical feedback offered by the judges as “very fair”.

Their feedback was key to me winning…I improved every dish,” he adds. Every round I was getting better… and worked as hard as I normally do.”

Winning the MasterChef title has had a positive impact on Scott. “It’s given me a lot of confidence in my cooking ability and myself.”

His wife Kelly, who he met in a restaurant more than 10 years ago, will be involved at the front of house. “She’s my best friend and my rock…I’m not worried about people not being welcomed in because I know how she’ll do that and what she brings to the rest of the team,” says Scott.

The opening of the Newport Restaurant marks the beginning of a new chapter for the talented chef, who’s still in his 20s.

The Newport Restaurant

The Newport Restaurant is at 1 High Street in Newport-on-Tay (tel. 01382 541449).

Chef Jamie Scott and Kelly Scott. Photo by Laura McKinnon supplied courtesy of Posh Communication.

Chef Jamie Scott and Kelly Scott. Photo by Laura McKinnon, supplied courtesy of Posh Communication.

Jessy wears a Delft-inspired dress on National Tulip Day in the Netherlands.

National Tulip Day in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

The third Saturday of January is celebrated as National Tulip Day in the Netherlands.

Tulips tend to be associated with springtime rather than wintry mid-January, but National Tulip Day marks the official opening of the tulip season.

“We start with National Tulip Day to celebrate the flowering,” explains Arjan Smit, the chairman of Tulpen Promotie Nederlands (TPN), the Dutch organisation established by around 500 tulip producers to promote their flowers around the world. Remarkably, 1.7 billion tulips are grown commercially in the Netherlands each year. Many of them flower on fields in North Holland and Flevoland, on land painstakingly reclaimed from the sea.

Tulips from Amsterdam

“We start the new season in the shops…it’s more than beautiful,” he explains as we chat on Dam Square a few paces from a brass band belting out well-known tunes, including a foot-stomping rendition of Tulips from Amsterdam.

We’re standing in a temporary garden consisting of 200,000 tulips. It’s set out on the cobbled square by the Royal Palace Amsterdam. The grand building opened as the city’s town hall in 1655 and became a royal palace during the Napoleonic era. It stands open for visits by members of the public for much of the year.

An electronic screen counts down the minutes until the official opening of the tulip season, at 1pm. When the clock strikes one members of the public will be allowed into the garden to pick the tulips and take them home in plastic carrier bags. Volunteers in orange jackets stand ready to distribute the bags to the 15,000 enthusiastic onlookers currently standing behind a waist-high fence.

Tulips on Dam Square by the Royal Palace Amsterdam.

Tulips on Dam Square by the Royal Palace Amsterdam.

A modern tradition flowers

National Tulip Day was established as recently as 2012. A couple of women wear colourful hats made from tulips and topped with the number five, to mark the fifth anniversary of the event.

Jessi – a blonde woman wearing a white dress decorated with blue patterns from Delft style porcelain – poses for photographs among the tulips.

“Tulips are a sign for Amsterdam, everybody loves them. People come from across the world to see the flowers,” she says as I shoot photos.

Also posing is a woman wearing a costume to look The Milkmaid, the 17th century oil painting by Johannes Vermeer. The original hangs in the Rijksmuseum, less than 15 minutes by tram from Dam Square.

A woman wears the costume of Vermeer's 'The Milkmaid' on National Tulip Day.

A woman wears the costume of Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ on National Tulip Day.

Presidency of the Council of the European Union

From the vantage point of a temporary bridge I notice tulips have been arranged to read 2016, commemorating the Netherlands’ presidency of the Council of the European Union, from 1 January until 30 June 2016.

Bert Koenders, the Netherlands’ Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Kajsa Ollongren, the deputy mayor of Amsterdam, join Mr Smit to raise a toast to the newly unveiled Spinoza tulip.

I ask Ms Ollongren why the day is special for the Netherlands.

“First of all, National Tulip Day is always a special day. Secondly, we’re now president of the European Union and Amsterdam is hosting meetings of the European Union. And we have a special tulip, which we call the Spinoza Tulip. Spinoza, of course, is a famous philosopher, born in Amsterdam – an important person for democracy and for freedom. All of these things together makes it a very important day for Amsterdam,” she answers.

But what if people can’t be in Amsterdam in mid-January, where can visitors see tulips?

“We have tulips all over the city and, of course, people can always go to the Keukenhof to see tulips. For many Dutch people tulips are their favourite type of flower and this time of year is the tulip time,” she adds.

With thousands clamouring to pick the flowers in the garden we’re stood in, that passion for tulips is palpable.

Arjan Smit (left), Kajsa Ollongren (centre) and Bert Koenders (right) toast the Spinoza tulip.

Arjan Smit (left), Kajsa Ollongren (centre) and Bert Koenders (right) toast the Spinoza tulip.

Getting to Amsterdam

Stuart travelled from Newcastle to Amsterdam with KLM. The Netherlands’ national airline currently operates flights to Amsterdam Schiphol from 15 airports around the United Kingdom. A 16th service starts from Southampton on 16 May 2016. A day later a 17th route will be added from Inverness.

Getting around in Amsterdam

Avoid queuing for tickets for services operated by the Dutch Railways by purchasing an OV-chipkaart, a smart card costing €7.50. The cards can be topped with credit for use on bus, ferry rail and trams. Tap in when boarding transport and remember to tap out.

If you’re planning a weekend break you might benefit by using an Amsterdam Travel Ticket. The tickets are valid for one (€15), two (€20) and three (€25) days and sold at a number of places, including the airport’s railway station. They include unlimited second class rail travel between Schiphol Amsterdam Airport and stations in Amsterdam, plus travel on most local transport.

Where to stay in Amsterdam

The smart Mövenpick Hotel Amsterdam City Centre (Piet Heinkade 11; tel: +31 (0) 20 5191200) stands by the waterfront of the River Ij, a 15-minute stroll or a brief tram ride along the river from the central railway station. Rooms on the upper floors of the hotel provide fine views over the city and across to the Eye Film Institute and A’dam Tower on the north side if the river.

The superior 4-star hotel has 408 contemporary rooms and suites. The onsite Silk Road restaurant overlooks the river and there’s a lounge for the exclusive use of executive guests. The Lifestyle Studio wellness centre holds a range of fitness equipment and has a sizable sauna area. Double rooms start at £91 per night, based on two people sharing, including free wi-fi and shuttle transfers from Amsterdam Centraal Station. Reserve by visiting the Mövenpick website or calling the free (from the UK) on 0800 898317.

Further information

See the Amsterdam Marketing website for ideas about things to do in the Dutch capital. The Holland site is a good source of ideas for travel throughout the Netherlands.

Tulips Amsterdam's Dam Square on National Tulip Day 2016.

Tulips on Amsterdam’s Dam Square during the 2016 National Tulip Day.