Rembrant on the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum beyond The Night Watch

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch painting is by far the most popular item in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. My favourite exhibit is less of a draw and doesn’t even make the pages of the museum’s 250 Highlights book.

Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the many people impressed by the famous group portrait of Amsterdam’s arquebusiers’ guild, in which sash wearing officers – Captain Frans Bannick Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch – stand in the foreground.

The painting measures a whopping 4.53 by 3.79 metres but was even larger when Rembrandt finished work on it, back in 1642. When the picture was moved to Amsterdam’s town hall, in 1715, it was simply too large to be displayed on the available wall space, so The Night Watch was trimmed. That might sound unthinkable today, criminal even, but sections were actually cut away from Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

The Dutch Golden Age

As you wander into the Gallery of Honour, on the second floor of the Rijksmuseum, it’s hard not to be impressed by the golden aura surrounding The Night Watch like the halo of a saint in some medieval altarpiece. (If you’re not sure about my simile take a look at the museum’s extensive collection of religious artwork, dating from the 12th century through to the Renaissance.) The Night Watch draws your gaze from beneath an arched portal as you enter the grand hall containing dozens of oil paintings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, the Netherland’s Golden Age.

With over 800 years of artworks and historical artefacts on display – including paintings by Vincent van Gogh and a biplane dating from 1918, the oldest airplane in the Netherlands – you may well wonder why I find seven woolly hats so fascinating. Yes, my favourite exhibit in the Rijksmuseum features wool caps within a glass cabinet. Wander along to gallery 2.9, The Netherlands Overseas, if you want to see them.

The Dutch on Spitsbergen

They’re not, as far as I’m aware, made of exquisite merino wool and are by no means pristine. In fact, some of the headgear in question is heavily darned and was once worn by fishermen – or whalers to be precise – working on Spitsbergen. The men whose heads they once kept warm were active in the Northern Company’s Smeerenburg settlement, harvesting oil from the blubber of whales.

Did the oil they produced help light an artist’s studio? Did the viscous fruit of their labour illuminate offices managing the trade of goods with colonies in the East Indies? Did captains of one of the world’s great sea empires view their charts at night thanks to the efforts of the whalers in Spitsbergen?

Cornelis de Man’s Painting

Cornelis de Man’s oil painting of life at the Smeerenburg whaling station hangs above the glass cabinet. The work dates from 1639. The icy, jagged mountains that prompted the Dutch to name Spitsbergen so are visible across the bay in which sailing ships lie at anchor. On the shoreline a whale is being cut into strips while men work at ovens, rendering down the blubber into vats while smoke spews from brick chimneys.

Gentlemen in broad brimmed hats – not dissimilar to those worn by the officers in The Night Watch – stand chatting in the foreground of the painting, wearing knee-length leather boots with cavalier-like flaps. The painting shows a fair day; the weather is calm.

I wonder if the men who wore the woolly hats displayed in the cabinet below would say the painting is romanticised? The reality is that life at Smeerenburg was harsh. The station was abandoned in 1657.

Excavating Graves on Spitzbergen

In 1980 archaeologists excavated the graves of 185 Dutch whalers and found the wool caps now displayed in the Rijksmuseum close to the skeletons. Each of the caps was different. The archaeologists surmised that the sub-zero temperatures of Spitzbergen forced the whalers to wear many layers of clothing and, by necessity, only their eyes would remain exposed.

One of the caps has a rim, reminding me of the shape of a boat. Another is speckled orange, heavily patched and bears a bobble; due its narrow, elongated shape it reminds me, anachronistically, of the headwear worn in the first series of Blackadder. A striped blue and beige cap has a felt-like appearance. One has with a lump missing from its patterned rim; of course, that’s unlikely to stem from a polar bear’s bite but perhaps it originated from a work-related accident or simply from years of wear and tear?

The hats allowed the men to identify each other, hence their unique designs. The names of their wearers are not displayed, suggesting they were forgotten centuries ago.

Perhaps, on an Amsterdam street during the Dutch Golden Age, some of those men who worked in Smeerenburg passed by Rembrandt and the guild members he depicted in The Night Watch?

Further information

See the Rijksmuseum website for information about exhibitions, entry prices and opening times. You can purchase tickets online and print them at home. The Rijksmuseum opened in 1885 and, following major modernisation and renovation, reopened in April 2013.

Information about the Rijksmuseum, plus a number of other attractions, is also available on the Amsterdam and Holland tourist information websites.

Painters from the Dutch Golden Age depicted on the wall of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Painters from the Dutch Golden Age depicted on the wall of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The Stockholm waterfront on a Friday night.

A taste of nightlife in Stockholm, Sweden

It’s Friday night and the lights are low. I’m in downtown Stockholm and, following a visit to the Abba Museum, looking out for a place to go.

Sound familiar?

Sweden, like Scandinavia as a whole, once had the reputation for being a prohibitively expensive place for a night on the town. Years ago I remember a fella who’d just returned from a business trip bemoaning “they charge you a tenner a pint!” in an outraged tone. I’d wager, though, that nobody forced him into a bar.

Times have changed. Going out in the UK has become markedly more expensive in recent years, so perhaps we don’t mind paying a little more when exploring the nightlife in far flung, foreign lands? Also, based upon my research over the first weekend in February 2015, a beer in a popular city centre bar in downtown Stockholm now costs nothing near a tenner. I paid between 56 (around £4.30) and 77 crowns (£5.90) a drink.

Rather than going online for tips on where to experience Stockholm’s nightlife, I undertook my research on the ground. The concierge at Berns Hotel provided helpful pointers, suggesting Nosh and Chow (Norrlandsgatan 24, tel. +46 (0)8 5033 8960) and the Grand Escalier (Sturegallerian 4, tel. +46 (0)8 5194 2272) as potential starting points.

The Sturegallerian Shopping Mall

While on the lookout for the latter, within a smart Stockholm shopping mall, I stumbled upon Tures Brasserie and Bar (Sturegallerian 10, tel. +46 (0)8 611 0210). This stylish bar is located under an arched atrium ceiling, has leather-backed booths and an inviting atmosphere. It buzzes with the conversations of well-dressed locals meeting for post-work drinks. It’s a fine spot to stop for a cocktail or an early evening beer.

Grand Escalier is up on the first floor of the mall. People were standing shoulder to shoulder by the time I arrived and queuing two deep by the bar. I observed as an earnest looking cocktail waiter prepared drinks with entertaining verve. A handful of local beers are served on draught, so I selected a glass of Norrlands Guld.

Heading out onto the terrace I noted the bar outside was serving drinks. However, on a chilled winter night I preferred cosy indoor spot by the fireside. Grand Escalier really is a popular meeting place so arrive early if you want a seat.

Established as a Beerhall

Downstairs I ventured into Sturehof (Stureplan 2, tel. +46 (0)8 440 5730) which opened as a German style beerhall in 1897. The restaurant serves a range of traditional Swedish dishes but I headed into bar and ordered a beer from one of the uniformed staff.

Sturehof has a timeless elegance and is a good place for people watching. The tiled bar has a marble ledge for drinks and a hip vibe, thanks in part to the work of the DJ. Out on the heated terrace, I stood under a canopy and watched life unfold on Birger Jarlsgatan, one of Stockholm’s main thoroughfares.

An Elk or a Moose?

My last port of call, prior to returning to my hotel, was Broken (Kungsgatan 18, tel. +46 (0)8 5451 0633) a vast, multi-room bar-restaurant. What I took to be an elk stood motionless on the bar, towering over me as I ordered my drink (Really. I swear that my powers of observation were still intact). For good measure one of his antler-bearing forest buddies stared out from the white-tiled wall.

While at Broken a couple of locals suggested I should take a look at the Café Opera (Karl XII’s torg, tel. +46 (0)8 676 5807) nightclub. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. Maybe next time?

Clubbing Through the Night

On returning to Berns I requested a VIP wristband from the concierge. Any guest booking direct with the hotel can make use of the VIP bands, which provide priority access to a number of Stockholm’s leading clubs.

The club within Berns cellar is named 2.35:1, after the video format that was once screened here. Artwork is now displayed on the walls, changing every couple of months. If you want to take a good look around, then arrive before 1.00am, when the club starts to become busy. Alternatively stay until closing time, at 5.00am.

Alas, I’m not a dancer. The elk atop of the bar in Broken may well have moved with more fluidity than I did on 2.35:1’s dancefloor, despite the best efforts of the guest DJ.

Returning to my room after a night out has rarely been as easy. No long walk. No need for a taxi. All I needed to do was call the lift in the lobby and head upstairs, taking with me positive impressions of Stockholm’s nightlife.

Further information

Berns (Nächströmgatan 8, tel. +46 (0)8 5663 2200) is a boutique hotel with two restaurants, a bar, a concert hall and a nightclub. The VIP wristbands also provide priority access to Ambassadeur, Hell’s Kitchen, Sturecompagniet, The Spy Bar and The White Room.

Abba The Museum (Djurgårdsvägen 68, +46 (0)8 1213 2860) is an interactive attraction telling the story of the Swedish pop group. It is located within the same building as the Swedish Music Hall of Fame.

Find out more about the Swedish capital via the Visit Stockholm website.

Getting there

Direct flights between London and Stockholm take around 2 hours 30 minutes.

Berns Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden.

The facade of Berns in Stockholm, Sweden.

Anatom V2 Vorlich men's light hiking boots.

Kit review: Anatom V2 Vorlich men’s light hiking boots

If you’re going to really test outdoor footwear on location then winter is as good a season as any. Temperatures were hovering at around freezing as I laced up a pair of grey and navy Anatom V2 Vorlich light hiking boots.

I put these boots through their paces, in the truest sense of the phrase, in wintry Bavaria, over mixed terrain in changeable weather conditions. In places I was walking on snow and ice, at times I was trekking on bare rock and a muddy river bed. Later, while sightseeing out and about in the city of Nuremberg, I was in an urban environment encompassing cobblestones and paving.

Good Grip and Comfort

The grip provided by the V2 Vorlich proved good throughout the test and, importantly, they were comfortable. If you don’t need to think too frequently about the footwear you choose to wear while out on a long walk then, ultimately, you’ve chosen well.

Despite these being lightweight boots – a pair of size 42s weighs in at 1220g – they provide decent ankle support; ideal for a trip in which the terrain was at times challenging but by no means truly wild.

Waterproof Membranes and Torsional Support

The uppers consist of lined, abrasion resistant, breathable grey waterproof membrane and navy blue suede. The soles feature a rubber compound produced by Vibram, an Italian company, and have a calibrated nylon midsole providing torsional support.

These unisex boots are available from size 41 (a British 7.5/US 8) to 47 (British 12/US 12.5) and come with a tube of Nikwax sponge-on waterproofing, that takes a few minutes to apply and should be allowed to dry prior to going for a walk.

Anatom is an Edinburgh-based company launched in 2011 by Gordon Fraser, an experienced footwear designer. The boots are produced in Romania after being designed and tested in Scotland.

Anatom V2 Vorlich men’s light hiking boots have a lifetime warranty.

Further Information

Find out more on the Anatom Footwear website. Anatom V2 Vorlich men’s light hiking boots retail for £100.

Anatom V2 Vorlich men's light hiking boots.

Anatom V2 Vorlich men’s light hiking boots.

Mark Slegers of Rotterzwam shows a harvest of oyster mushrooms in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Harvesting mushrooms from old coffee

A local man jokes that Tropicana in Rotterdam has changed from a zwemparadijs (swimming paradise) into a zwamparadijs (mushroom paradise). The former tropical leisure pool closed its doors to the public in 2010 and in 2013 became the centre of operations for Rotterzwam, a company producing oyster mushrooms.

“We were inspired by the book The Blue Economy by Gunter Pauli, a Belgian guy who tells people you can make new business models out of local stuff, waste especially, and this can make a difference and more jobs,” says Mark Slegers, who, along with Siemen Cox, is one of the two co-founders and directors of Rotterzwam. The idea they are following is one of the sustainable, environmentally friendly business models espoused by Pauli, who was born in Antwerp in 1956. Now living in Tokyo, Pauli founded the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives think tank, ZERI, which, guided by Kyoto Protocol, aims to reduce carbon emissions.

From Coffee to Oyster Mushrooms

“If you drink coffee 99.8 per cent of the bean is thrown away. Only 0.2 per cent is in the cup. In the Netherlands we are one of the biggest coffee drinkers in the world. About 120 million kilograms of coffee is imported every year,” says Slegers, giving background information about Rotterzwam’s source of energy for growing mushrooms.

“We collect coffee waste from cafes in central Rotterdam. We bring it here on a cargo bike and make a substrate out of it, mix it, and put oyster mushroom seeds in. Then it will become a mushroom in five to six weeks and we sell the mushrooms back to restaurants in the city,” explains the entrepreneur within the tiled basement of Tropicana.

Tropicana as a Leisure Hub

The site of Rotterzwam’s operations is a well-known riverside landmark. Tropicana was opened by Center Parcs in 1988, hosting a heated wave pool, waterslides, a sauna, beauty and wellness treatment areas plus a dance club. Unlike other properties owned by Center Parcs, Tropicana did not have accommodation and was sold in the early 1990s. People continued to use the pool and it slides until 2010, when the attraction was closed.

A Base For Local Entrepreneurs

In 2013 the go-ahead was given for Tropicana to be used by local entrepreneurs. The terrace was re-opened as a café-bar, making use of loungers and seating left behind and recycled from the building’s previous incarnation. The concept has subsequently been developed further and Aloha now also incorporates a restaurant and a landscaped, sub-tropical park featuring indoor plants.

The premises are also the head office of Kromkommer, a company promoting the use of misshapen fruit and vegetables; products that are usually rejected by shops because they do not meet the exacting aesthetic expectations which modern society places on food products. Kromkommer found that produce such as double-legged and twisted carrots was being discarded as waste, despite being perfectly edible. The company produces soups and organises initiatives to distribute and sell misshapen farm produce.

In order to create the ideal base for growing mushrooms, Rotterzwam mixes waste from coffee beans, discarded during roasting, with the used grinds. “The mushrooms break down the chemicals in the coffee, so you don’t get the taste; they taste of normal oyster mushrooms,” says Slegers.

There’s also a practical reason why Rotterzwam keeps their operation local and collects grinds frequently. “If you have coffee grinds older than five days your have other fungus in it and you have to sterilise it, so that introduces energy costs,” says the company director.

Recycling Waste For Profit

Tropicana’s erstwhile changing rooms house the various phases of Rotterzwam’s operations, from the preparation of the substrate to mushrooms that are about to be harvested. Slegers shows off discarded clothes hangers, which he found on the site, from which plastic bags hang riddled with white fungal growth. Oyster mushrooms protrude from holes. Around 7,500kg are harvested annually.

Each bag is good for two or three mushroom harvests then becomes part of the 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of compost produced by Rotterzwam each year. The company sells its compost back to the city, helping plants around the municipality to grow.

This isn’t Rotterzwam’s only by-product. “Mushrooms break down the coffee grinds with enzymes. We extract them and sell these enzymes back to the water and sewerage companies who have waste. You can make biofuel from that waste. The yield of the biofuel will rise 20 per cent with enzymes, so they become more profitable,” says Slegers.

The entrepreneur believes that exchanging ideas in an open source manner is an effective means of spreading the popularity of the blue economy and changing how people think while benefitting the environment. “Nature makes no waste. If you look at nature and learn how it works you can make a profit,” he says.

Further Information

Rotterzwam is based at Maasboulevard 100 in Rotterdam.

Learn more about the city via the Rotterdam Info website.

For more about tourist attractions in the Netherlands see the Holland site.

Here’s a link (£) to Gunter Pauli’s The Blue Economy on Amazon:

Bags full of compost from coffee grinds at Rotterzwam in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Bags full of compost from coffee grinds at Rotterzwam in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

The window of the Versace store in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping mall in Milan.

A food and fashion tour of Milan, Italy

If you were on the road and given an opportunity to select a guided tour from a handful of themes that pique your interest what would influence your choice? I was recently faced with exactly this dilemma in Milan, Italy.

Would you plump for something you already know well or choose a tour about something you know very little? Do you base your choice on personal interest or, if you are a travel writer, select the theme that you’re most likely to write about?

Milan, of course, is one of the hubs of the global fashion industry and Italian food is perennially popular. So when I was shown a list of guided tours in Lombardy’s capital – the host city of the Expo Milano 2015 - one entitled Milan: Food and Fashion caught my eye.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy in Milan

I would have loved to have learned more about the works of Leonardo da Vinci and to view The Last Supper in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. However, one of my great passions, after a long day at my laptop, is cooking supper. Any opportunity that might provide insights into Milanese style cooking sounded delicious.

Among the dapper dressers of downtown Milan I joined a band of camera toting tourists shambling along the broad streets behind a guide named Laura. “Not Law-ra, Low-ra,” she explained with elegant hand gestures that rose and fell like those of a conductor in front of an orchestra. The Teatro Alla Scala, the famous opera house that’s often known simply as La Scala, was one of the first stopping points on our three hour tour. The building was commissioned in 1776 by Austria’s Empress Maria Theresa.

Milan Under Austrian Rule

In the late 18th century Lombardy was still under Austrian rule. Italy was not then unified and “a mere geographical expression,” according to Klemens von Metternich, the aristocrat who served as the chancellor of the Austrian Empire from 1821 to 1848. The Risorgimento – Italy’s national awakening – would change that. We paused to hear Laura talking about Milan’s grand, Neoclassical architecture in front of the house once occupied by Alessandro Manzoni, the author of The Betrothed, and a key figure in the evolution of Italian patriotic feeling.

We sashayed into the airy Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, which is sometimes described as one of Europe’s oldest shopping malls. Some of the biggest names in haute couture have stores in the glass-ceilinged gallery. Keeping tourists together during a tour has been compared to herding cats.

Laura let us off the leash to view store windows dressed with clothes fresh from the catwalks then rounded us up to head to the Duomo. Remarkably, the vast cathedral was not completed until the mid-20th century, though the ornate Gothic façade hints at origins 600 years earlier.

The Heart of Milanese Fashion

Walking on, we learned that nobody wanting to see the current season’s designs in the flagship stores of leading fashion houses should miss a stroll along Via Monte Napoleone, Corso Venezia, Via Sant’Andrea and Via della Spiga, streets in Milan’s fashion district.

Was it was the chilly January breeze that caused my eyes to water when I saw a price tag for €21,000 neatly printed by a chic red handbag in one shop window? Many stores don’t display prices, making me wonder if viewing the displays can then really qualify as window shopping.

Stylishly Presented Italian Cuisine

Prior to commencing the tour I’d eaten lunch at Larte (Via Manzoni 5, +39 0 2 89096950), a smart restaurant serving well-presented, modern interpretations of traditional Italian dishes. Food though, had been conspicuously absent from this alleged food and fashion tour. Maybe in Milan, with strong culinary and couture credentials, it would have been better to take a tour focusing on food or fashion rather one that attempted to combine both?

Laura said arrivederci (goodbye) at the entrance of the wonderfully named Eataly (Piazza XXV Aprile 10, +39 02 49497301) food concept store. Occupying the site of a converted theatre, this cavernous place should be on the itinerary of any foodie visiting Milan during the Expo. It’s a combination of delicatessen, book store, grocery shop and wine emporium with several areas to dine and drink, including a Michelin-starred restaurant, Alice (tel. +39 02 4949 7340). Eataly has a kitchen for cooking lessons and live music is performed each evening.

Italian fashion is highly regarded but who says food needs to be regarded as any less stylish when it is presented correctly?

Further information

Find out more about tourism in Milan and the Lombardy region from Explora, the destination management company formed to offer travel opportunities during Expo Milano 2015, which runs from 1 May to 31 October. is the official tourist website of Milan and Lombardy, (available both in B2B and B2C) containing information, updates, descriptions, images and videos about the attractions of the region, as well as a range of proposals of travel, accommodation and services offered by Lombardy to its visitors.

Eataly in Milan, Italy.

Eataly in Milan, Italy.

Sea scallop flavoured with common ivy, served at Peppino in Villars, Switzerland.

Chef Joël Quentin and his wild Alpine garden

Joël Quentin is the head chef at the Peppino restaurant in Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland, and a busy man when we meet midway through an evening during which I’m tasting his Alpine Garden menu.

Each of the dishes being served is based around local ingredients (with the obvious exception of his seafood creations) and flavoured or garnished using wild mountain herbs, leaves and flowers.

Foraging In The Countryside

Alpine flora adds taste and visual appeal to Joël’s dishes. Farmers and chalet owners around Villars-sur-Ollon have become accustomed to the sight of him foraging on their land. Over the past dozen or so years he’s built up relationships with locals, gaining their permission to go onto their properties. He heads out from Peppino most days to harvest ingredients that most people would consider mere weeds.

He picks herbs, leaves and other edible items from April until October or November. The precise length of the season depends upon the first snowfall. This region is prone to heavy snow coverage, meaning there’s no chance of picking fresh stock during winter.

All of the plants, berries and flowers used by Joël grow at an altitude of between 500 and 2,000 metres above sea level.

As we chat in his busy restaurant he explains that everything used to flavour his Alpine Garden menu has been picked from meadows and mountain slopes within a 20 minute drive of the Eurotel Victoria Villars.

Knowing What To Pick

He became interested in the idea of foraging for wild ingredients and attended a course run by a specialist. Joël tells me that expert knowledge is important when foraging, as plants, roots, mushrooms and flowers can be toxic or carry parasites. Some, I learn, need to be boiled to make them edible to humans. Others have medicinal properties. Knowing what to pick and how to collect them, so as not to kill the plants, is important.

“We live in a natural garden so it would be crazy not to use it. That’s why we call this kind of menu the Alpine Garden,” he says. “Our ancestors used to do it naturally, picking up herbs in the gardens around their chalets.”

To ensure he can serve his Alpine Garden menu during the winter Joël preserves a stock of ingredients. Some can be frozen or dehydrated while others need to be prepared as syrups and marinades.

The hotel receives a large number of Indian guests and has a chef specialising in Indian cuisines. Joël tells me he has forged a productive working partnership with the Indian chef, blending Alpine herbs with spices, to create a fusion that appeals to South Asian palettes.

A Booklet in Multiple Languages

Joël has set his knowledge of the region’s wild edible plants down on paper and is seeking a publisher. His booklet is written in French, German and English and includes the taxonomical names for ingredients.

He lists the habitat, recommended uses and months of availability of wild Alpine ingredients, along with descriptions of their flavour, medicinal qualities and the number of species found across Europe.

As you’d expect from a chef, he also shares a number of recipes. Dishes such as shin of lamb in wild garlic pastry and grated potatoes with hogweed are listed, alongside salmon with cowslip bread and braised Good King Henry with potato balls.

Tonight my meal began with sea scallop flavoured with common ivy, which has earthy, minty tones. It was followed by a main course featuring loin of lamb with creeping thyme and served with a purple clover flower. The white from the centre of the clover is edible and pleasantly sweet. The dishes have been creatively presented and delicious.

Joël excuses himself and returns to the kitchen, promising to send a dessert that features poppy, wild mint and woodruff. As I wait for it to be served I can’t help wondering what I’ll be able to find within 20 minutes of my own kitchen.

Further Information

Taste Joël‘s work at the Peppino restaurant within the Eurotel Victoria Villars (Route des Layeux, Villars-sur-Ollon, tel. +41 (0) 24 495 3131). Reservations are recommended.

See the Villars-Gryon, Lake Geneva Region and Switzerland. tourist information websites to learn more about the area from which Joël collects his ingredients.

GED Alpine Garden 3

Loin of lamb with creeping thyme and served with a purple clover flower.


The Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.

The best view of the Munich Oktoberfest?

Aficionados of the Munich Oktoberfest will tell you that the best way to experience it is inside one of the tents with a Mass, a one litre glass of beer, in your hand. But one of the best views of the Theresienwiese, the site of the annual festival, is from the tower of nearby St Paul’s Church.

Inside the Roman Catholic place of worship you’ll be able to experience a very different kind of mass to those served in the tents of the Oktoberfest. The airy, neo-Gothic edifice was designed by George Hauberrisser, the architect who also drew up the blueprints for the Neues Rathaus, the New Town Hall, on Marienplatz.

Part of Munich’s Skyline

St Paul’s was built between 1892 and 1906 and its twin spires, which rise 76 metres on the western side of the church, are an integral part of Munich’s skyline. The tower that’s open to visitors dwarfs them by 21 metres, reaching 97 metres into the sky.

The narrow observation platform is at a height of 45.5 metres, providing a vantage point over the Theresienwiese and the rooftops of the Bavarian capital.

I didn’t count them, but have it on good authority that 252 steps run between the church and the observation platform. Despite it being an apparently calm day down at ground level a stiff breeze was blowing up there.

All the Fun of the Fair

The shrieks of people riding the roller coasters and the whirr of fairground rides rose through the buffeting wind. Looking down from the tower of St Paul’s makes it clear that the Oktoberfest really is much more than merely a beer festival. Locals are proud of the fact it’s the world’s biggest Volksfest or people’s fair. In 2014 6.3 million people visited, downing 6.5 million litres of beer. Many, though, come only to enjoy the fairground rides.

Heading up the tower allows you to observe the crowds ambling along Wirtbudenstrasse, the broad street running between the festival tents. Many of the women wear Dirndl dresses and the men Lederhosen, some of which are cut in the style of breeches and others reaching to the knee.

Spectacular in the Evening

This, arguably, is a place best visited before you head into the tents for a beer. I visited during the middle of the day and was impressed by the views. Yet I imagine it’s a fantastic spot during dusk, when the evening sky is blue and the colourful lights of the rides and tents are visible.

If you enjoy photography, the tower of St Paul’s Church a good spot to click photos from an elevated position and offers a good alternative to the steps by the statue of Bavaria.

Further Information

Find out more about the St Paul Church (St-Pauls-Platz, 80336 Munich), including times of services, on the church’s website. Restoration of the church roof and façade will be ongoing until 2017 and information on how to donate to the work is also available. The church also hosts exhibitions and concerts.

For information on the city’s attractions see the Munich website and take a look at the German National Tourist Board’s site.

The Munich Oktoberfest begins at noon on the penultimate Saturday in September and runs for approximately a fortnight. In 2015 it will be held from 19 September until 4 October.

People on a swing at the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. .

People on a swing at the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. .

A dramatic landscape on Iceland.

Viewing the Northern Lights in Grundarfjörður, Iceland

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland is renowned as a leading destination for viewing the Northern Lights, the natural phenomenon also known as Aurora Borealis.

I’ve headed north with a friend, intent on coming home with a spectacular set of photographs of the lights dancing colourfully in the night sky behind Kirkjufell mountain and, with a bit of luck, water flowing from the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall.

Our pre-trip research was, we still maintain, flawless. We’ve travelled to the peninsula when it’s cold and the solar activity high; factors that help maximise chances of sighting the polar lights.

We Didn’t Predict Clouds

Unfortunately, we couldn’t have predicted – when booking our trip six months in advance – that the weather conditions would not be ideal. Clouds cover the night sky and, consequently, with visibility limited, we are unable to spot the Aurora Borealis. Maybe the lights are indeed dancing up above, but if they are we have no way of knowing for sure.

Naturally, I’m disappointed, but, ultimately, it’s the unpredictability of the natural world that make outdoor activities such as spotting weather related phenomena, wild animals and the Northern Lights so rewarding.

Back at our base, the Hotel Framnes in the small harbour settlement of Grundarfjörður, I can’t help but pop my head out of the back door one last time – just to check if there might be a break in the clouds – before admitting defeat.

What the Locals Say

In the lobby I begin chatting with the hotel proprietors, Gísli Ólafsson and Shelagh Smith, and learn that a lot of people come here in order to view the Aurora Borealis.

“In winter, from October to April, it’s probably about 70 to 80 per cent. Especially in January, February, March because then we have groups coming from England and they come here specifically to see the Northern Lights and killer whales. We have lots of killer whales here so people stay here four nights and look for killer whales during the day and for the Northern Lights at night,” says Gísli.

“If they are just normal – light in the sky and not moving or doing much – then we look up, okay, they are. We keep our eyes open for them but we don’t go outside to look or anything. But if the activity is high and they are moving we can stand outs for hours. Nights when they are moving a lot – dancing – then we locals stand outside too. We are amazed each time; it is special,” he says when I ask how locals regard the lights.

“I think it’s difficult not to be enamoured by the Northern Lights. If you’re blasé about them then you don’t deserve to see them. They’re special every time. It’s a very special feeling being outside in the freezing cold, looking up and just seeing this spectacle going on in the sky. It’s amazing. It really warms up the winter, especially the dark hours here; this is what we look forward to in Iceland,” says Shelagh who is originally from South Africa.

Memories of the First Time

I’m intrigued as to whether she regards the lights differently to Gísli, having grown up in a different part of the world. So what how did she regard the lights, the very first time?

“You really want to know?” she asks, laughing. “The first time I saw the Northern Lights I wasn’t impressed at all. It wasn’t a very good show. My sister was here, she was getting all excited, knowing what was to come. We were walking down the street and she said ‘Look, the Northern Lights,” and it looked like clouds to me. I was like ‘oh, well.’ I was expecting disco lights in the sky!”

“As we watched them they grew stronger and stronger. It is awe inspiring. It is a very humbling sensation actually. It’s not a circus, it’s a spectacle.”

I’m interested to know how the lights look here, above Iceland.

All Kinds of Colours

“We get all colours. Green in the main colour but I still remember when I saw the best Northerm Lights of my life. I was eight years old. It was 1968. That winter there must have been a hell of a lot of action in the sun because the Northern Lights were every night for a long time and they were always red and pink. I remember that very clearly. It was in January; night after night it was beautiful Northern Lights,” recalls Gísli.

“Mainly now we get them green, blues and white of course. They turn pink when they are moving a lot,” he adds and tells me even his teenage son enjoys watching them.

Sheila has also seen all the colours too and at different strengths. “To see red and blue and orange just all fading into each other, rippling, it’s amazing; the skies are alive,” she says.

Light pollution diminishes the effect of the lights and Gísli suggests people take a drive out of town to watch the Northern Lights. Nearby Kirkjufell is a popular location. The neighbouring fjord, which is uninhabited, has an old bridge and a lava field is also a good spot.

I’ll bear those in mind for next time. I may not have seen them on this trip but the dramatic Icelandic landscapes are providing compensation and proving rewarding to photograph.

Useful Information

The Hotel Framnes (Nesvegi 6, 350 Grundarfjörður; tel. +354 438 6893) has a total of 37 single to family-sized guestrooms, with en suite bathrooms, a 60-seat dining room and a sauna. Twenty-nine of the rooms are in the hotel and eight are in new premises 50 metres away. See the hotel website for room rates and availability.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a popular destination for activities such as horse riding, bird and whale watching plus hiking and glacier visits.

Find out more about the island’s tourist attractions on the Visit Iceland website.

Hotel Framnes in Grundarfjordur, Iceland.

Hotel Framnes in Grundarfjordur, Iceland.

A houseboat on one of the canals near to Alappuzha in Kerala, India.

Houseboating on the backwaters of Kerala, India

Stress is a distant memory as we glide, in defiance of the passage of time, in a houseboat on Kerala’s placid backwaters. For centuries people survived on board these vessels without watches, mobile phones and laptops, so for the three day duration of this trip I’ve packed mine away and pledged to undertake a digital detox by not even glancing at an electronic device.

This allows me to focus on the verdant scenery as we sail slowly southward between Kochi and Alappuzha. By road, 53 kilometres and just over an hour’s travelling time separate the two South Indian cities. Trucks now zip along carrying the locally produced goods – including rubber, rice and spices – that were once transported in these boats; vessels known as kettuvallam in Malayalam, the local language.

A History of the Boats

Kettu means ‘to tie’ and vallam means ‘boat’ in our language,” explains Abhey, the easy going skipper of my boat. “Look around but you won’t find a single nail onboard,” he jokes. “These boats were made using coir rope to bind planks of jack wood. Cashews were boiled down into a black resin to treat and preserve the wood of the hull, that’s why it looks like mahogany. Some of the boats you’ll see today were afloat in my grandfather’s day.”

Over on the bank, just meters away, a man shimmies up one of the palm trees jutting out over the water’s edge. Using a sickle he harvests a bunch of pale green coconuts. On seeing me he smiles. I shout to him, asking if he has any for sale; he answers to the affirmative. Abhey steers us alongside a nearby jetty and we do business. The harvester slices into the top of a coconut and I savour the cool, mildly salty juice within. Refreshments rarely come any fresher.

We’re travelling without a motor. A crew member is propelling us with a long bamboo pole, known as a kuzhukol, just as people would have done in bygone days when these boats carried up to 30 tonnes of freight towards the region’s ports. Carrying tourists is a relatively recent development but I can see why they’ve become popular. The tranquillity allows us the listen to palm leaves rustling in the breeze and the song, screeching and warbling of every bird.

Birdlife Galore on the Backwaters

“If you enjoy bird spotting we can sail by Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary,” suggests Abhey, seeing me transfixed by the sight of a brightly coloured kingfisher perched on a waterside branch. “Early morning is the best time; that’s when the birds are most active. If you want, you can take a walk there. The sanctuary covers 14 acres, but I prefer the view from my deck. Sitting here I’ve seen teal, Siberian cranes, sea eagles and egrets. Birds fly all the way from Europe and Russia to nest at Kumarakom…just as the tourists do these days,” he adds with a toothy grin, referencing the popularity of the district’s Ayurvedic resorts, which are known for their range of massage treatments.

“We can also stop at Pathiramanal Island. That’s also good for birdwatching, with almost 100 species, depending on when you visit,” says my captain with knowledgeable enthusiasm. He tells me how the island is uninhabited these days, though fishermen lived there until the 1970s.

A motorised houseboat approaches from the opposite direction. Its high wooden prow is reminiscent of the shape of a Viking longboat and the open, straw-coloured hatches of the boat’s domed living area remind me of the gun portals on an ancient warship. The people aboard, though, are friendly, waving cheerily from seating in the open-sided, shaded area behind their captain’s wheel. While Abhey appears to be comfortable in the sun, their skipper holds a black umbrella to provide himself with respite.

Onboard Decor and Comfort

I’m impressed by the on board comfort level. The thatched bamboo matting of the vallavara, the dome over the bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen, is by no means indicative of simplicity within. The rooms are air-conditioned and the furnishings polished dark wood, while coir matting hints at the region’s eco-friendly heritage. Artwork depicting a colourfully made up kathakali performer stands above the wash basin, reminding me of the traditional dance-drama performance I viewed in Kochi the night before setting sail.

We navigate along a narrow channel, passing local people in front of their houses and kids playing. One lad sees an opportunity to impress us and somersaults into the water, grinning as he resurfaces. A couple of his friends leap through the air – like practitioners of kalaripayattu, the region’s ancient martial art – before splashing down and laughing.

Dinner of Locally Caught Fish

The aroma of spices and fish cooking on shore mingles with the scent of food being prepared by our cook, Pradeep, making me peckish. He was angling earlier from the side of the boat and I’m intrigued as to whether he hooked the fish himself. Maybe our dinner was caught in one of the Chinese fishing nets that we’ve seen. The vast cantilever structures made of bamboo are operated by teams of men on the shoreline, having been introduced to Kerala by Chinese explorers in the early 15th century.

As the sky turns golden Abhey brings our boat to rest for the night and Pradeep calls us to dinner, serving delicious fish and crab dishes with white rice and flaky parottas. I’m enjoying the Keralan pace of life and feel like I have all the time in the world to enjoy the meal.

Further Information

See the Kerala Tourism and Incredible India websites for more information about travel and tourism in Kerala and South India.

Sunset over palm trees in Kumarakom, Kerala, India.

Sunset over palm trees in Kumarakom, Kerala, India.

Forty book review.

Book Review: ‘Forty’ with 40 seafood recipes

Forty is a book with 40 seafood recipes. It was published as part of celebrations to mark 40 years since Chris and Liz Ramus established their seafood supply business in Yorkshire.

The hardback book has 80 pages and includes recipes by chefs, food writers and food suppliers plus one from Danny Mills, the former England footballer who became a finalist in the 2012 series of the BBC’s Celebrity MasterChef television series. Mills provides the details required to prepare red mullet with pea risotto and tapenade dressing.

Four of those pages tell a potted history of Ramus Seafoods, which was named Seafood Supplier of the Year 2014 at the maiden Food Awards England and Wales in November 2014. The first of the company’s shops opened back in 1975 while the initial Ramus Seafood Emporium was established in 2000.

How to Dress Seafood

The chapter with shellfish recipes includes easy-to-follow, step by steps guides on how to dress lobsters and crabs, each illustrated with five photographs.

The recipes that follow are written with metric measurements for the ingredients and lucid methods of preparation. A number of the recipes – such as those for potted crab tartlets, Coquilles Pierre and moules marienière – also include suggestions as to matching wines.

Several of the pages include ‘fish fact’ boxes with snippets of information relating to the key ingredient used in the associated recipe. You can learn, for example, that mussels contain similar levels of iron and folic acid to red meat and are regarded the most environmentally sustainable of shellfish.

The fish recipes chapter runs to 40 pages and begins with guides on how to fillet sea bass and plaice, the steps needed to butterfly a mackerel and tips on how to boat fillet sea bass.

Recipes and Cooking Methods

In addition to the recipes – which include fish pie, fish stew and spicy monkfish with mint yoghurt – the pages provide information on how to make shellfish sauce and fish stock. As you might hope, given the locations of Ramus’s shops, you’ll also find a recipe for Yorkshire fish and chips with tartare sauce.

The final chapter of Forty, entitled Our Catch, lists 40 of Ramus’s most popular species of fish and seafood along with their taxonomical names and photos. The appearance, seasonality and geographical source of each one is listed, along with recommendations on how to cook them and suggestions on alternatives. If you can’t obtain a gurnard, for example, you might want to source a red snapper or a red mullet.

Forty has a recommended retail price of £9.95 and can be ordered online on the Ramus website.

Further Information

Ramus Seafood Emporium sources fish responsibly from fishermen based in ports around the United Kingdom and has stores in Harrogate (136 Kings Road, Harrogate, HG1 5HY) and Ilkley (2 South Hawksworth Street, Ilkley, LS29 9DX).

A contribution from the sale of each book is being donated to the Fishermen’s Mission, which supports retired as well as active fishermen and their families.

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