Londonaise International Pétanque Festival in London, England.

Londonaise International Pétanque Festival

The sport of pétanque – or boules – reminds me of childhood holidays on France’s Côte d’Azur. Yet the game is coming to the United Kingdom. From 5 to 7 June 2015 some of the world’s leading players will be playing in London at the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival.

I used to watch games, played with metal boules, unfolding on gravel strips in parks and under trees on public squares. The convivial matches always seemed to have an air of informality and be accompanied by conversation, laughter and an aromatic blend of French tobacco. Fascinated, I’d watch players standing with their feet together – concentrating on the cochonnet (the jack) – before wristily looping a boule into the group of metallic spheres already in play. I was so impressed I invested some of my holiday money in a boldly coloured plastic set so that I could play (and beat) my brother.

Playing Pétanque in London

The Londonaise, thankfully, is not just for experienced players. My boules have not been out of the garden shed for several years now, so I don’t foresee myself challenging for any of the £5,000 prize fund.

“It’s for people to say, ‘you know what, let’s play petanque, let’s play boules,'” says Thierry Tomasin, a co-founder of the event, as we chat in Angelus, his London restaurant and lounge.

“All you need to do is buy a set of boules and you can play anywhere. When the weather is nice you can apply a little bit of technique and enjoy a game. That’s what pétanque is about – being together,” he says with a Gallic shrug.

International Cash Prize Boules

“This year is the second time we’re doing this. The most important day is the Sunday, with £5,000 in cash prizes. We’ve got four world champions confirmed as coming to play,” he adds.

The competition will involve 128 teams with three players. Teams doing well in the Sunday morning qualification stage will have a chance to compete for prize money. The remainder will play-off in a wooden spoon event.

Mercury Phoenix Trust Fundraising

“On the Friday we’re doing a special event for the Mercury Phoenix Trust in order to raise money for AIDS. That’s an invitation-only, celebrity event and we’ll have an auction of a Brian May guitar,” says Thierry, who is a native of Toulouse and a passionate pétanque player.

“People are coming from all over the world to play in the Londonaise. We’ve got a team from Estonia, two teams from Sweden, one each from Spain and Lithuania, two from France and the British champion. It’s serious, in a way, but still fun. The Sunday is going to be serious, because you’re playing for money. But the Saturday is far more relaxed – you can come with your family from 1pm for a 2pm start. Get some fresh air, bring the kids, enjoy! It’s in Barnard Park, seven minutes from St Pancras and the Eurostar,” says Thierry with enthusiasm.

Barnard Park, I learn, has a playing area the size of two football pitches and is surrounded by a grassy bank, trees and benches.

The Rules of Pétanque

I ask Thierry for a quick recap on the rules of pétanque and he’s happy to oblige.

“You can play one person against one, a team of two against two, or triplets. The first team to arrive at 13 points wins the game. So of course there’s a lot of tactics and skill,” he explains.

My face must cloud with concern when I hear those words.

“You don’t need to say ‘I won’t come to the Londonaise because people will be playing much better than me,'” says Thierry, to put me at ease. “The aim of the Londonaise is that people who know how to play pétanque will show you. That’s also the meaning of the Londonaise – sharing pleasure all together…even if you don’t have boules we have some and you can borrow some,” says Thierry.

Before the Londonaise gets underway I’ll be digging out my long forgotten plastic set for a spot of practice.

Further information

See the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival website for more details about the event, including how to register and participate. Stalls in Barnard Park will sell French food and drink during the festival.

The event will be raising funds for The Mercury Phoenix Trust to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. The charity was founded in memory of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, who died from AIDS in 1991.

Thierry Tomasin, a co-founder of the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival.

Thierry Tomasin, a co-founder of the Londonaise International Pétanque Festival.

An Expo Gate pavilion, built for Expo Milano 2015, in Milan, Italy.

Expo Milano 2015: Milan’s universal exposition

The Italian city of Milan is anticipating around 20 million visitors from 1 May to 31 October 2015, the period during which it will be hosting Expo Milano 2015 this year’s universal exposition.

The Expo site is spread over an area of 1.1 million square metres in Rho, a suburb north-west of Milan’s city centre. By public transport the journey between the two will take you around 35 minutes.

Up to 250,000 visitors are allowed onto the Expo site each day. Most guests are drawn by the prospect of browsing pavilions with state-of-the-art exhibitions – relating to the Expo Milano 2015’s theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. An Expo record of 53 participating nations have erected their own pavilions this year while the remainder of the 148 participating countries and international organisations are exhibiting within food- and climate-themed clusters.

Cirque du Soleil at the Expo

For some people the show Allavita!, created by Cirque du Soleil, is the key reason to visit the Expo. Performances of Allavita! will take place nightly, from 15 May to 30 August, at the site’s open air theatre.

This year’s theme will bring together food producers, consumers, academics and representatives from businesses to participate in debates and workshops. Organisers hope that Expo Milano 2015 will contribute solutions to issues relating to sustainable development plus some of the world’s nutrition and food supply problems.

Experts estimate that, at present, 870 million of the world’s 7.3 billion people are starving while excessive food consumption leads to 2.8 million deaths each year. At current rates the global population will rise to nine billion by 2050, meaning there’s a pressing need to find solutions to food and water shortages.

Attending Expo Milano 2015

You can buy open tickets or tickets valid only for set dates. Season tickets are also available. To purchase tickets visit the Expo Milano 2015 website.  The site is also a source of Expo-related news and lists daily events.

Only one of the Expo’s five thematic areas is located within Milan’s city centre. La Triennale – with an exhibition area of 7,000 square metres – is hosting Arts and Foods: Rituals since 1851, featuring paintings, sculptures plus a mixture of other media. The exhibition explores changes in the depiction of food and dining experiences since the inaugural World’s Fair, held in London during 1851.

Expo in the City

The City of Milan and the Milan Chamber of Commerce are cooperating to organise Expo in the City. Around 7,000 events are also being planned away from the Expo site.

See the Expo in the City website for a full listing of events, including art exhibitions, concerts, sporting events plus street entertainment and scientific conferences. The venues include historic palaces, museums and parks around Milan.

Reasons to Visit Milan

Milan, of course, is known throughout the world as fashion and design hub. Creative and industrious, the metropolitan area contributes around 10 per cent of Italy’s Gross Domestic Product. To window shop in stores showcasing the latest offerings from Milanese fashion houses, take a walk in the Montenapoleone district.

You can also browse shops in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the glass-roofed, 19th century shopping arcade, housing flagship stores of some of the biggest names in world fashion. The arcade underwent major renovations ahead of the Expo.

From there you can stroll to the nearby cathedral, the Duomo, is renowned for having one of the world’s most ornate Gothic facades. Building started in 1387 but, remarkably, was not completed until 1965. From the rooftop you can enjoy evocative panoramas of the heart of Milan, including views onto the Piazzo del Duomo (Cathedral Square) and Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace).

Some people see the San Siro stadium as a cathedral of sorts. Both of Milan’s most successful football teams play their home games at the ground, which has more than 79,000 seats plus a museum recounting the histories of A.C. Milan and F.C. Internazionale.

If you enjoy art and literature then add a visit to the Ambrosiana Art Gallery and Library to your itinerary. The Ambrosiana houses the Codex Atlanticus, twelve volumes binding more than 1,000 leaves with sketches and writings produced by Leonardo da Vinci between 1478 and 1519. Head to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see his mural The Last Supper.

Seared swordfish served at Larte restaurant in Milan, Italy.

Seared swordfish served at Larte restaurant in Milan, Italy.

Where to eat

If you enjoy dining in stylish, modern café-restaurants then book a table at Larte (Via Manzoni 5; tel. +39 (0)2 89096950; closed Sundays) which opened to the public in October 2014. With art displayed on exposed concrete walls, designer seats and Mediterranean cuisine inspired by Capri’s Michelin-starred Il Riccio Restaurant, Larte is conceptualised as a meeting place of the best of all things Italian, including design and fashion.

Chef Gennaro Immobile and his team prepare their tasty, simple but beautifully presented dishes in a kitchen that’s open – save for a mesh screen – meaning you can watch the team at work. Every month Larte hosts an up-and-coming guest chef for one week, providing a showcase for their talent plus culinary product supplied by farmers and producers from their local region.

I’d return to lunch at Larte after lunching on mezzi paccheri pasta with aubergine, vine tomatoes and provolone cheese served with fresh basil followed by a swordfish medallion with a vegetable caponata and rocket pesto.

Where to sleep

Stuart stayed at the 4-star Starhotels Ritz Milan (Via Spallanzani 40).

Getting there

Stuart flew from Newcastle to Milan Linate airways with British Airways.

Etihad Airways is the official global airline carrier of Expo Milano 2015.

By rail the journey from London via Paris Milan’s Rho Fiera Milano railway station takes 11 hours 15 minutes.

Further information

View the Expo Milano 2015 website or download the free app for use on mobile devices. The Expo site is open daily, from 10am to 11pm, until 31 October 2015. If you’re in Milan you can also head to the Expo Gate information centre, close to site of the 1906 Expo and a couple of minutes stroll from the Castello Sforzesco, the fortress built in the 15th century for Milan’s ruling family.

Explora is the official tourism board of Expo Milano 2015. Explora provides information relating to Milan and other destinations in the Lombardy, including suggestions relating to experiences in the region. These include food and wine tastings plus golf and wellness breaks. Explora’s website allows you search for accommodation by type – from camp sites to luxury villas – and according to the distance you’d like to stay from the Expo site.

The Italian Tourism Office’s website has ideas for travel in Italy.

Facade of the Gothic cathedral (Duomo) in Milan, Italy.

Facade of the Gothic cathedral (Duomo) in Milan, Italy.

Half-timbered buildings in Bad Langensalza.

Travel and tourism in Thuringia, Germany

The 2015 Germany Travel Mart, held in Thuringia, proved an opportunity to learn about the travel and tourism opportunities in the state, which for over a century has been known as ‘the green heart of Germany.’

“We claim that in no other state state is the connection between the urban and natural attractions so close,” said Bärbel Gröngeres, the Managing Director of Thüringer Tourismus GmbH, during the GTM press conference.

During 2014 9,924,524 overnight stays were recorded in the state, up three per cent on the previous year. Like Germany as a whole, the Netherlands provides the mainstay of international visitors to Thuringia, which 10,964 Americans and 9,230 Britons visited in 2014.

International delegates, exhibitors and travel journalists attending the GTM stayed in Erfurt and Weimar and had opportunities to visit sites of interest around Thuringia, which actively promotes barrier-free travel. Even the canopy walkway in Hainich National Park is wheelchair accessible.

To find out more about Thuringia I interviewed Dorothea Schäffler (DS), the person responsible for the marketing and sales of Thüringer Tourismus GmbH:

25 years on since the re-unification of Germany, what’s been the story of tourism here in Thuringia?

DS: To a large extent I can only talk about what I’ve heard because when the wall came down I was a teenager in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and tourism was regulated by the state. We did not have the opportunity to travel a lot and, on the other hand, it was difficult for certain countries to visit us, of course.

For 25 years now we have all been able to travel freely and we have been able to receive visitors from all over the world – this is a very big change. After the wall came down many West Germans came over because they were curious and wanted to discover East Germany.

Ever since, we have been experiencing rising numbers of tourists. Thuringia has doubled the number of visitors in the past 25 years and the percentage of foreign visitors is growing, though it’s still outnumbered by the number of German visitors. We have 93 per cent of visitors from Germany and seven per cent from abroad, but this is gradually changing. We’re hoping the GTM will contribute to this development.

In terms of getting visitors from abroad, especially those from English speaking countries, what do you think are the main challenges facing eastern Germany and, in particular, Thuringia?

DS: There are several challenges of course. First of all, you have to make yourself known. Many destinations were not known in English speaking countries because we did not have the chance to promote ourselves like the West German part did. Everybody knows Munich, Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt – we’re still catching up with them. We still have a lot of work to do to explain who we are, where we are and what we have to offer.

It’s very important for those countries that we can offer English speaking guides, service personnel, English language menus and English guided tours.

You also need good transport connections, be it flights, train connections or well developed roads. That’s very important for attracting people from foreign countries.

Half-timbered houses on the Krämerbrücke in Erfurt.

Half-timbered houses on the Krämerbrücke in Erfurt.

You have a direct Germania flight from London Gatwick to Erfurt-Weimar Airport. Is that going to continue?

DS: Yes, as far as we know it is going to continue until at least 2016. This is what we heard.

We hope it will work out that we continue to get many more visitors from the UK. It really shows us how important a direct connection is. It makes travelling much more convenient. It encourages people to hop on a plane and come to Erfurt rather than changing in Frankfurt and then taking the train.

Erfurt has a connection with Martin Luther. Weimar has connections with the likes of Goethe, Schiller and a number of classical musicians. Those characters don’t necessarily speak out to young people in English speaking countries, despite the great stories associated with them. German speaking people know how much they have influenced the culture of the German speaking part of Europe. What can be done to get beyond that and get people to experience the culture of this part of Germany?

DS: It’s true we have a lot of history and interesting personalities and that attracts many guests – to a large extent they are 40 or 50 plus. We also have an increasing number of offers for young people and families, starting from hotels, activities in nature, sports and events.

We have a large network of really nice youth hostels that are creative and developing offers for young people.

We say if you come here you experience the ‘real Germany’ and get good value for money.

You say Thuringia offers good value for money. Can you give a couple of examples?

DS: It starts with the accommodation prices. Also if you go out eating you’ll notice a difference.

What would you suggest as five must-see attractions in Thuringia?

DS: I would say Erfurt, our state capital, it’s a beautiful medieval city with a lot of half-timbered houses, narrow lanes and cobbled streets. It has wonderful cafes and beer gardens, and a great atmosphere, especially in the summer.

Weimar, our cultural capital, has 16 places associated with its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I think it’s a city that slows you down somehow. I find Weimar very relaxing.

I like Wartburg Castle very much. It’s my favourite place in Thuringia. It’s such a fantastic castle and has an interesting history and a great location.

Hainich National Park is fascinating because it’s one of the last primeval beech forests in Europe. You could not access it during GDR times because it was a military area. It also has a nice treetop canopy trail with wonderful views.

And number five? I like the Eichsfeld region in the north-west of the state, near the border with Hesse and Lower Saxony. It has rolling hills and a lot of forest. It has traditional villages and wonderful products, like sausage and cheese. You can go hiking and cycling there, visit spas where you can relax or go to border museums.

What should people eat for a taste of proper Thuringian food?

DS: If you’re not a vegetarian you should definitely try Thuringian sausage. The recipe was written down more than 600 years ago, so it’s very traditional and you can get it basically on every street corner. It’s tasty and not as fatty as many other types of sausage!

If you have a sweet tooth you should try Thuringian cakes. The traditional way is to bake many cakes on trays and slice them into small pieces, so you can try a lot of them.

Is there anything else people should know about Thuringia?

DS: What we notice, once people come here, is they are surprised by how beautiful it is, how friendly people are, and how much there is to do and see here. That’s a nice effect for us.

For further information about the state see the Thuringia and Germany websites.

The Bauhaus University in Weimar.

The Bauhaus University in Weimar.

Rembrandt's face on the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Celebrating Rembrandt’s late works in Amsterdam

If you’re in Amsterdam over the next couple of weeks you’ll have the opportunity to view two major exhibitions relating to the artist Rembrandt van Rijn and see one of his works being projected onto the Royal Palace.

Rembrandt lived from 1606 to 1669 yet it has taken until 2015 for an exhibition of artist’s late works to be shown in the city where he spent the majority of his adult life. The exhibition Late Rembrandt, displaying works created from 1651 onwards, continues at the Rijksmuseum until 17 May.

The ninth child in a miller’s family, Rembrandt was born in Leiden, enrolling in the city’s prestigious university aged 14. He did not move to Amsterdam until he was 25. Yet ahead of other creators from a richly productive era of artistic patronage, Rembrandt is associated with the city’s Golden Age.

He married a wealthy woman, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and in 1636 the couple moved to Jodenbreestraat, today the site of the Rembrandt House Museum. He lived and worked there for two decades before being declared bankrupt.

Amsterdam’s Rembrandt House Museum

In parallel with Rijksmuseum’s exhibition, the Rembrandt House Museum is showing Rembrandt’s Late Pupils – Studying under a Genius. The exhibition examines relationships between the master artist and pupils studying under him from 1652 until his death. Sixty drawings and 20 paintings – from private collections and international museums – help elucidate the teaching methods employed by Rembrandt. His influence over young artists – including Willem Drost, Nicholaes Maes and Abraham van Dijck – also comes under scrutiny.

Of course, Rembrandt is best known for his group portrait The Night Watch, which he completed in 1642. The celebrated work is today displayed in the Rijksmuseum, hanging in a grand room that’s known as the Rembrandtzaal, in honour of its creator.

Claudius Civilis at the Royal Palace

The work was hung previously in Amsterdam’s town hall on Dam Square, today the Royal Palace. Until 17 May a reconstruction of Rembrandt’s painting The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis will be projected onto the palace, where it was also previously displayed. The canvases of both of the vast paintings were long ago trimmed down, so the projection marks a rare opportunity to see The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis in its entirety.

The National Monument and Royal Palace on Dam Square, Amsterdam.

The National Monument and Royal Palace on Dam Square, Amsterdam.


The Late Rembrandt Exhibition

The Late Rembrandt exhibition was developed in collaboration with the UK’s National Gallery, where it was displayed from 15 October 2014 to 18 January 2015. However, the paintings Jacob with the Angel, Portrait of Jan Six, Self-Portrait as Zeuxis Laughing and The Family Portrait are being displayed only in the Amsterdam leg of the exhibition. In total, more than 100 of Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings, etchings and prints have been brought together from art museums and international collections.

As he became older Rembrandt’s work become more introspective and his output decreased. Yet he continued to be technically innovative. Girl at a Window, painted in 1651, utilises broad brush strokes – a technique that preempts a facet of Impressionism, the school which evolved more than two centuries later.

In painting the sleeve of Lucretia, on loan from Minneapolis Institute of Art, Rembrandt applied overlapping layers of paint with a palette knife. Today there is nothing remarkable about using a knife but Rembrandt, remarkably, was the first artist to paint in such a manner.

Rembrandt’s Innovation and Etching

The exhibition has ten themed areas, including Experimental Technique, Self-portraits and Intimacy. Works such as The Jewish Bride, Young Woman Sleeping and The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild are celebrated for their intimacy.

Rembrandt rejected the accepted conventions of beauty and ugliness. He painted and sketched from life, resulting in works depicting an older woman at her bath, the execution of a criminal and the dissection of a criminal’s brain. There’s realism in his works unlike few artists of his time.

The interplay of light and shadow in a number of his etchings evoke a masterful plasticity. Even in this area, Rembrandt was innovative, developing the dry-point technique of etching.

The exhibitions close on 17 May 2015. If you visit Amsterdam after that date you can see works by Rembrandt on display in the Rijksmuseum (Museumstraat 1) and the Rembrandt House Museum (Jodenbreestraat 4)

Further information

Combine a boat tour with an introduction to places associated with artist as part of the Rembrandt Canal Cruise (Blue Boat Company, tel +31 (0)20 6791370).

If you enjoy walking why not follow the Rembrandt in Amsterdam walking tour, a guided tour of places in the city where he lived and worked, plus the Wersterkerk (West Church) where he is buried.

The Late Rembrandt exhibition catalogue, a beautiful 304-page book – written by Gregor J.M. Weber, the Head of Fine Arts at the Rijksmuseum, and Jonathan Bikker, Research Curator at the Rijksmuseum – is available in Dutch, English, French and German. The hardback edition costs €40 while the paperback version retails at €25.

Find out more about museums, art galleries and other attractions on the I Amsterdam tourist information website. The Visit Holland site also has ideas for travel to the Netherlands.

Dutch Golden Age artists on the facade of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Dutch Golden Age artists on the facade of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The registration area of the Germany Travel Mart at Erfurt Messe in Erfurt, Germany.

Thuringia hosts the 2015 Germany Travel Mart

From 26 to 28 April 2015 Thuringia hosted the 41st Germany Travel Mart (GTM), the annual business-to-business event organised by the German National Tourist Board (GNTB).

Over the past four decades the event has become established as a key sales platform for inbound tourism to Germany. This year the GTM attracted more than 1,000 members of the international travel and tourism industry. Travel professionals and journalists from 45 nations were in attendance. Around 340 German exhibitors were present to discuss regional and local tourism, including transport, tourist attractions and hotels.

Seminars provided buyers with an overview of the attractions of Thuringia, which was hosting the event for the first time. Delegates stayed in Erfurt and Weimar, and could take guided tours of both cities. A number of the attendees took opportunities to visit sites of interest elsewhere in the state, including Wartburg Castle (where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German), Hainich National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) plus Bad Langensalza (an attractive spa town with half-timbered buildings).

Record Inbound Tourism to Germany

At the GTM’s press conference Petra Hedorfer, the Chief Executive Officer of the GNTB, announced record inbound tourism numbers to Germany for the fifth year in succession. During 2014 international visitors spent 75.6 million nights in the country, up from 71.9 million in 2013. That means that arrivals from abroad climbed by 4.6 per cent, well above Europe’s average growth rate of around 3.9 per cent. Spain, however, remains the most popular worldwide destination for European travellers, with five million more visits than Germany.

Just under three-quarters of overnight stays in Germany were by visitors from other European countries. The Dutch accounted for almost 11 million of those overnight stays, making the Netherlands Germany’s largest source of tourism. Arrivals from the United Kingdom, by comparison, registered around 5.2 million overnight stays, up 254,989 on the preceding year.

Germany’s Overseas Tourism Market

For the first time, Chinese visitors accounted for more than two million overnight stays in Germany. With growth of 20.6 per cent year on year, arrivals from Arabian Gulf States remained just short of the two million mark. However, the USA remains Germany’s largest overseas market, with 5.2 million stays by Americans during 2014, a rise of around five percent on 2013.

During 2014 tourism contributed 4.4 per cent to Germany’s Gross Domestic Product in 2014. Remarkably, that’s around double the input made by the country’s automotive industry. It’s estimated that €278.3 billion was spent by people on day trips and hotel stays last year, resulting in the direct employment of 2.9 million people.

Holidays remain the biggest reason for travel to Germany. Approximately 61 per cent of trips made to the country during 2014 were for vacations, compared to 11 per cent for family visits and 27 per cent for business reasons.

Modes of Transport into Germany

Nearly half the visitors spending time in Germany arrived by car while eight per cent also used roads to cross the country’s borders in coaches. Roughly a third of visitors touched down by plane last year, up 5.3 per cent on 2013. With numbers up by 10.8 per cent on 2013, the mode of transport showing the most marked growth was railways. Rail travel brought nine per cent of Germany’s inbound tourists during 2014.

“The secret of Destination Germany is that we have something for every guest,” said the GNTB’s CEO during the press conference.

However, one reason why tourism to Germany is increasing may be the country offers value for money. During 2014 the average cost of a night in Berlin was €89, matching the average room rate (excluding breakfast and taxes) for stays in cities within the European Union. Munich was, on average, the most expensive German city, at €110. This compares to €151 a night for a room in Paris, €157 in London and €211 in Geneva.

Baerbel Groenegres (Managing Director of Thueringer Tourismus GmbH), Klaus Lohmann (Director of the German National Tourist Office in the UK & Ireland) and Petra Hedorfer (CEO of the German National Tourist Board) at the Germany Travel Mart.

Baerbel Groenegres (Managing Director of Thueringer Tourismus GmbH), Klaus Lohmann (Director of the German National Tourist Office in the UK & Ireland) and Petra Hedorfer (CEO of the German National Tourist Board) at the Germany Travel Mart.

Tourism Trends in Germany

Trends indicate that sustainability and barrier free travel will be growth areas over the years to come while annual themes allow elements of the country’s culture and heritage to be highlighted. During 2015 Germany’s customs and traditions are being showcased. In 2016 holidays in the heart of nature will become the focal point. 2017 – 500 years on since the Protestant Reformation – will result in destinations associated with Martin Luther receiving a greater push.

Berlin registered 12,495,526 overnight stays by foreign visitors in 2014, making it by far the most popular city in the country. Munich followed, with 6,650,914 stays, ahead of Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg and Cologne.

Those cities were hosts during the 2006 FIFA World Cup, which proved a turning point in the worldwide perception of Germany’s as a tourism destination. During the first quarter of 2006 Germany was ranked 19th but is now seventh. Over that same period the nation’s image as a cultural destination has climbed from fifth to first.

The 2014 results were overwhelmingly positive and the future looks good for tourism in Germany.

“Our analysts have predicted further strong growth up to 2030, consistent with modelling done by the United Nations World Trade Organisation (UNWTO). Based on an annual increase of 3.5 per cent, there is realistic potential for the number of overnight stays in Germany generated by inbound tourism to reach 121.5 million,” said Ms Hedorfer.

Further information

The Free State of Thuringia lies at the geographic centre of Germany and is the home to more than 2,221,000 people.

Thuringia is bordered by five other German states (Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony) and has good rail connections with major cities such as Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main and Munich.

Direct, low-cost flights are available on Germania between London Gatwick and Erfurt-Weimar international airport.

The Netherlands provided the highest number of foreign visitors to Thuringia in 2014, well ahead of the Swiss. Sixth on the list is the USA. With 9,230 arrivals, the United Kingdom was down in eighth place.

Find out more about Germany and tourism destinations throughout the country on the Germany Travel website.

Thuringia stand at the Germany Travel Mart. the travel trade show at the Erfurt Messe.

The Thuringia stand at the Germany Travel Mart. the travel trade show at the Erfurt Messe.

Snugpak Softie Mountain Leader's Smock

Kit Review: Snugpak Softie Mountain Leader’s Smock

The Snugpak ML 3 Softie Smock is a lightweight, insulated piece of outdoor clothing developed for use during climbing, hill walking plus other activities exposing individuals to cold weather.

The smock, which you pull on over your head, was developed with input from experts including mountain leaders, climbing instructors, military personnel and professional navigators: the ‘ML’ in the name of the smock stands for ‘Mountain Leader’. It is designed for use in a variety of weather conditions and a mixture of terrains, providing protection against wind and effective insulation to temperatures of between 0°C to -5°C.

Comfortable and Lightweight Outdoor Clothing

This is an extremely comfortable piece of kit to wear. The durability and lightness of the fabric makes it a pleasure to wear in place of a fleece or as part of layering. I’ve tested the smock outdoors and was impressed by the protection it offers against cold and wind but also enjoyed wearing it while sat indoors at my computer during chilly spring days.

Breathable Paratex lightweight fabric makes the Snugpak ML 3 Softie Smock windproof yet enables perspiration to wick away rapidly. The material is water repellent and effective in showers. In extreme conditions this piece of kit can be worn under waterproofs.

Thumb loops on the elasticated cuffs allow you to pull the sleeves down over your wrists for extra comfort and protection against cold.

Hardwearing Fabric and Wind Protection

The close weave of the external fabric is said by the manufacturers to be hardwearing yet it remains soft to the touch. It zips up to chin level, offering a cosy sense of protection on blustery days.

Importantly for me, when I’m photographing outdoors, the Snugpak ML 3 Softie Smock gives me freedom of movement and doesn’t restrict my movement as I pan to follow birds crossing the sky or get down low to photograph plants or insects with a macro lens.

YKK zips give access from each side to a deep pouch-style pocket on the front of the smock, which also has a zippable map pocket that’s protected by a flap. A strip of Velcro closes the compass and equipment pockets on the centre of this piece of clothing.

Brite-Strike APAL Illumination

You’ll also find Velcro strips on the arms of this smock, enabling you to wear identification during expeditions or make use of Brite-Strike All Purpose Adhesive Light (APAL) strips, lightweight illumination that can be set to flash or emit a constant light. These enhance the visibility of the wearer in low light conditions, so may be beneficial to safety on roadsides.

Snugpak equipment is used by military forces around the world, including by British, Australian and American service personnel. Softie products have been used in all major conflicts since the Falklands War. A camouflaged version of the ML3 Softie Smock – Camouflage has been designed for military uses and retails at £179.95.

As a piece of kit for heading outdoors in Britain’s changeable climate I find the Snugpak ML 3 Softie Smock to be highly recommendable. It also packs down well, so doesn’t take up much room if you decide to carry it.

Further information

See the Snugpak website for more information about the company’s range of outdoor clothing and equipment, including sleeping bags, tents and rucksacks. Snugpak started to produce their first insulated vests in 1977. The Softie range was launched in the early 1980s for lightweight, insulated sleeping bags.

Snugpak’s clothing and equipment is British-made. The company’s manufacturing base is a factory at Silsden, West Yorkshire, in a mill built on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales during the 19th century. The quilting of Snugpak products is undertaken using computer-controlled technology before individual pieces and sewn together. Quality control checking is undertaken by hand.

Take a look at the Snugpak website to find out more about the product specifications of the ML3 Softie Smock, which retails for £159.95.

Snugpak Softie Mountain Leader's Smock

Snugpak Softie Mountain Leader’s Smock


Connections - photo courtesy of the food festival.

Talking taste: Bristol Food Connections festival

A major food festival is being held in Bristol from 1 to 9 May 2015. Around 185,000 people attended events during the first edition of Bristol Food Connections, in 2014. Lorna Knapman, Creative Director and Curator of the festival, anticipates a similar number this year.

More than 130 events are being organised across the city, including food and cider trails.

One of the key aims of Bristol Food Connections is to change how people think about food.

“We’re trying to reach a great number of people; people that aren’t necessarily interested in the traditional food festival format,” says Lorna.

“Food, obviously, is a vital part of everybody’s life. Through food as a medium we’re trying to bring together people of all ages, all backgrounds and all walks of life, and make the event really accessible. We offer lots of usual events,” she adds, of a festival that has been described as revolutionary.

Hands On Food Events

“We offer lots of hands on events rather than the traditional food festival format which, quite often, is expensive to get in and there’s quite a lot of fancy skills and techniques that aren’t very helpful to the food movement. We try to have something for all levels of interest – some of them more complex, some of them quite basic – to give people confidence to get into the kitchen,” says the festival’s creative director.

Talks involving chefs are scheduled, gourmet dinners will be served and people can also learn skills such as filleting fish and dumpling making.

Bristol Food Connections Legacy

“One very important thing about Bristol Food Connections is that we aim to leave a legacy. It not just for nine days and then away. It’s about starting conversations and lightbulb moments, understanding issues in communities and what can be done to improve things.”

The BBC played a key role in initiating the festival.

“BBC Food is based in Bristol and they could see that there are some great organisations and projects in this city. So they got together cooks and food producers and started a conversation. It’s gone on from there,” explains Laura.

A Bristolian, Laura is upbeat about what her city has to offer foodies.

Independent Eateries in Bristol

“Bristol has got some amazing independent eateries. We’re really lucky there are lots of great places to discover. We’ve got over 50 restaurants and cafes, coffee shops and street vendors taking part in Bristol Food Connections and they’re all going to be doing something special for the nine days of the festival. It might be they’ve got a special Bristol venue or are doing a tasting.

They’re be a deli counter that only has food from a ten mile radius for the nine days. It’ll all be labelled, so you can see where the cheese has come from and the charcuterie and will bring to life what’s great about Bristol,” she says.

“The type of food we eat has a massive impact on the land on which it’s produced or grown. We want to get people to think about whether their money stays in the local economy or goes further afield. Thinking about packaging and nutrition and how real food really does help our bodies and minds to be the best they can. If we’re going to make big changes we need to work together and we need to think about the food we’re eating, where it’s coming from and how we can solve issues,” says Laura.

Changing Perceptions About Food

A number of events are being held to change perceptions about food while aiming to inspire people to use quality, local ingredients. An example of this is the Veal Night, on 1 May, at Source Food Hall and Café (1-3 Exchange Avenue; tel. +44 (0)117 9272998). Five savoury dishes – all featuring veal – plus a dessert (a strawberry sundae patterned in the style of Frisian cow) will be served with the aim of dispelling the myth that calves are reared in crates to produce British rosé veal. Richard Young from the Sustainable Food Trust will talk at the event.

“The male calf of the dairy herd would be killed at birth rather than being given six to eight months to live out in a field and a happy life, then making its way to the butchers. British rosé veal is outdoor reared in grass fields,” says Joe Wheatcroft of Source.

British Rosé Veal Dishes

“We’ve got a real classic dish we’ve borrowed from Fergus Henderson’s St John restaurant in London. We roast the bones with the marrow inside and serve it with salad and sourdough toast. We’re also doing a smoked veal brisket with a summer salad…we’re using every part of the animal, we’re not just taking the prime cuts,” he adds.

“It’s an evening to highlight what veal is, how versatile it can be and what would happen if we didn’t eat veal,” explains Joe.

Source is an independent restaurant and shop which opened in 2009 with the aim of connecting suppliers of seasonal, locally produced ingredients with consumers and, according to Joe, “raises awareness of the whole industry and local produce. We’re not just selling food, we’re selling the whole concept of outdoor reared animals. We make sausages here ourselves. The integral part of the concept is we’re using natural ingredients to preserve sausages, rather than just using chemicals as you might find in a larger production unit.”

A number of leading chefs, including Rick Stein, Mitch Tonks and Cyrus Todiwala, will participate in Bristol Food Connections.

The food festival’s diverse range of events includes a post-election coffee rave at the Extract Coffee Warehouse on the morning of 8 May. Coffee brought along with rum and cocoa by sailing ship from the Dominican Republic will be roasted locally and served.

A foraging walk will be held on Blaise Estate on 9 May, the closing day of Bristol Food Connections.

Further information

See the Bristol Food Connections website for a full listing of events throughout the food festival, including the routes of the city’s food and cider trails.

First Great Western railways supports Bristol Food Connections. The majority of their ingredients are sourced within 15 miles of the track.

Learn more about Bristol, the first city in the United Kingdom to be the European Green Capital, via the Visit Bristol website.

Source Food Hall and Cafe in Bristol.

Source Food Hall and Cafe in Bristol.

The Sunset Retreat Ceremony at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Depot in Regina, Saskatchewan.

A look at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is an iconic institution. Mounties dressed in their red serge parade uniforms are seen as symbols of the nation yet are also members of a police force using modern methods to maintain law and order in a country that their predecessors helped forge.

The North West Mounted Police

The Mounties trace their history back to 1873 when the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) was established, after a report to the government described Canada’s western regions as being “without law, order, or security for life or property.” It was decided that the lawlessness had to end and three troops of 50 men were recruited from Ontario, Quebec and Canada’s Maritime provinces. The force’s current name was adopted on 1 December 1920 when the NWMP and Dominion Police forces merged.

Then, as now, recruits to the force were expected to be of upstanding character. Recruitment notices promised constables one dollar a day and stated: “Candidates must be active, able-bodied men of thoroughly sound constitution and exemplary character. They should be able to ride well, and to read and writer either the English or French language.” Their duties including calming unrest among First Nations people – then known as Indians – who had lost possessions to unscrupulous traders and suppressing illicit whiskey trafficking.

A March Out West

The initial march west, under the command of Commissioner George A. French, has entered into Canadian folklore. On 8 July 1874 the scarlet clad force set out from Dufferin in Mantoba, filing through a sparsely settled region with a baggage train that included field guns, agricultural equipment and cattle. They reached their destination – near modern day Lethbridge, Alberta – and established Fort Macleod, named after the NWMP’s Assistant Commissioner, James F. Macleod.

The first outlaws to be brought to justice were four whiskey traders. Remarkably, in the era of the Wild West, no member of the force fired a shot in anger during the first five years of the NWMP’s existence. In a region with few permanent settlers the officers won respect by undertaking tasks beyond merely enforcing the law. These included carrying mail, arranging weddings and funerals and helping fight prairie fires. When required, a Mountie could also undertake the duties of a coroner and acted as a Justice of the Peace.

The Blackfoot Treaty of 1877

The red coat became a symbol of authority, honesty and fairness. The NMWP played a key role in pacifying warring tribes and negotiated the Blackfoot Treaty of 1877. Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Confederacy said; “If the police had not come to this country where would we all be now? Bad men and whiskey were killing us so fast that very few of us would have been left today. The police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter.”

Today the RCMP has more than 28,000 employees and the largest jurisdiction of any police force in the world, stretching 5,240km from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and 4,828km from Canada’s border with the USA up into the Arctic.

The Sunset Retreat Ceremony at the RCMP Depot in Regina, Saskatchewan.

The Sunset Retreat Ceremony at the RCMP Depot in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Royal Patronage and Exploration

In 1903, the year prior to King Edward VII bestowing royal patronage, the NWMP established its first post within the Arctic Circle on Herschel Island, in order to stop whalers harming Inuit people. Under the command of Sergeant Henry Larsen Mounties even became pioneering navigators when, in 1940, the RCMP schooner St Roch became the first vessel to navigate the North-West Passage from west to east, while on patrol and delivering supplies to isolated police stations.

Thanks to such deeds and the influence of Hollywood the reputation of RCMP grew internationally. Many people falsely assume that the force’s motto is “a Mountie always get his man” but it’s actually Maintiens le droit, meaning ‘Maintain the right’. Television and movies also tend to convey the idea that officers their red uniforms and Stetson hats for everyday duties. That isn’t the case; these are now parade dress. When you’re on the streets of Canada you’ll see members of the RCMP on patrol wearing blue uniforms.

Values of Honour and Integrity

Honour and integrity – values emphasised in screen depictions of Mounties – do play an important role in the RCMP creed. The principles of justice, mercy and truth are reinforced during the training of members of the force. Today every Mountie’s career begins with a 24-week basic training programme at the RCMP Academy, known as a Depot Division, in Regina, Saskatchewan, which was established in 1885 along the lines of the Royal Irish Constabulary’s Depot of Instruction.

Around 14 per cent of recruits drop out of the course, with is offered in English and French and currently attracts approximately 18 per cent of participants from ethnic minority groups. In 1990 Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Sikh, was permitted to wear a turban rather than a Stetson. The first female Mounties graduated in 1975 and about a third of the cadets at Depot Division are currently women.

The Sunset Retreat Ceremony

During summer months visitors are permitted into the Depot Division to watch the weekly Sunset Retreat Ceremony, held on Tuesday evenings. Mounties drill and march in formation while bands perform. As the sun begins to set the Canadian flag is ceremonially lowered.

The adjacent RCMP Heritage Centre is open throughout the year and tells the story of the force. Visitors can see early uniforms, learn about the RCMP’s diverse roles and read about episodes from its history, including serving in South Africa during the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 and on the Western Front and in Siberia during World War One (1914-1918). Artefacts on show include the Sioux chief Sitting Bull’s rifle case, medals and vehicles.

The RCMP has evolved into a modern police force. Visiting the RCMP Heritage Centre illustrates how its traditions and values reflect those at the core of Canadian society.

Further information

See the Tourism Saskatchewan and Canadian Tourism Commission websites.

Learn more on the RCMP and RCMP Heritage Centre websites, including opening times and temporary exhibitions.

A Mountie in stained glass at the chapel at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Depot in Regina, Saskatchewan.

A Mountie in stained glass at the chapel at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Depot in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Wisps of cloud under the summit of the Dents du Midi mountain, in the Chablais Alps, Valais Canton, Switzerland

Exploring the mountains of Switzerland

Looking across the Rhone Valley from the Swiss town of Villars and you’ll see seven jagged summits gnawing 3,257 metres into the sky. Ask a French-speaking local the name of peaks and you’ll be told they are the Dents du Midi meaning ‘the teeth of the south.’

If you enjoy mountain scenery there’s certainly plenty to get your teeth into in Switzerland’s Lake Geneva Region. Vaud, a canton that joined the Swiss Confederation in 1803, stands central to the region. Within its boundaries you can visit the Alps, of which the Dents du Midi are a part, plus the Jura range of mountains.

Walking in the Waadtlaender Jura

The Jura are not so rugged as the Alps, nor do they match their altitude. The peaks of the Waadtlaender Jura rise to around 1,700 metres above sea level. Their densely forested slopes make them scenic. Trails through their arboreal coverage prove popular with walkers of all ages.

The mountains themselves were forced upwards during the Cenozoic Era – about 65 million years ago – around the same time as the Alps were formed. However, the Jura’s limestone base is significantly older and, as their name hints, can be dated to the Jurassic period, of around 200 to 145 million years ago. The Prussian geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt did indeed find fossils in what he termed the Jura Limestone but none of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, which may have terrorised visitors to Jurassic Park but actually walked the earth as recently as 68 to 66 million years ago, long after the Jurassic period.

The Jura are dwarfed by the Alps and the highest peak in Vaud is on the Diablerets massif, at an altitude of 3,209 metres (the Dents du Midi, in case you are wondering, are in the neighbouring canton, Valais).

Golf in the Mountains

You don’t need to be into winter sports or a skilled climber to appreciate the Alpine scenery, though skiers and snowboarders are drawn to the mountains above Villars-Gryon to enjoy 125km of pistes, including some that zip straight over the top of the inclined, snow-covered fairways of Golf Club Villars.

Early Alpine tourists, in the mid-19th century, would have needed to carefully prepare if they wished to reach the summit of the Col du Pillon (1,546m) or gaze at Tsanfleuron glacier above Villars. Today the latter is known as Glacier 3000, due to its altitude, and cable cars make the ascent accessible to all.

A sleek, modern mountaintop building – something that might not look out of place in a James Bond movie – houses the Restaurant Botta, named after its designer, the architect Mario Botta. On clear days diners have panoramas of snow-capped summits, including views of the Matterhorn, which peaks at a prodigious 4,478 metres above sea level. Many people come here to relax on sun-loungers and enjoy the views on sunny days rather than to exert themselves descending the 7km long Olden piste.

Exploring Bex Salt Mine

If the weather proves less favourable you could always take shelter underground while exploring a historic attraction. The importance of winter sports on the region’s economy might lead you to think it’s snow that the Swiss would nickname ‘white gold.’ In actual fact, the term has long been associated with salt. For centuries salt was essential for the preservation of food. Bex Salt Mines have been a source of this valuable commodity since 1684.

The narrow-gauge trains once used by salt miners to reach their place of work now take you into the heart of the mountain. Guides then lead you on foot to explain the history of the mine on a guided tours lasting approximately an hour. An audio-visual presentation, providing detailed background information, is held at the site of a reservoir excavated in 1826.

Trains also prove an effective way of travelling around the Lake Geneva Region. Many travellers fly into Geneva, at the western edge of Lake Geneva. The outline of the lake, when seen on a map, bears a striking resemblance the arched form of a leaping yet tailless fish. Geneva would be located at the tail while Villars is situated in front of the head.

Rail Travel in Switzerland

Trains skirt along the scenic northern shore of the lake – through Lausanne, the capital of the Olympic movement, and Montreaux, a city renowned for its annual jazz festival – then use their rack and pinion system to climb into the mountains. It’s worth having a camera at hand throughout the journey.

Swiss cheese is known throughout the world and the hamlet of Etivaz gives the name to one of the country’s finest. Production of Etivaz takes place from May to October on farms at between 1,000 and 2,000 metres above sea level. Alpine herbs consumed by grazing cows help give the cheese a distinctive flavour. Wheels of freshly made cheese are delivered to the La Maison de l’Etivaz, where they mature with the help of salting and regular turning.

Sharing Fondue and Drinks

At Le Chalet in Château-d’Oex you can see demonstrations of traditional cheese making over a log fire. The wooden building dates to 1837. You can also taste cheese fondue, a national delicacy and a dish made for sharing, at Le Chalet. There’s more technique than initially meets the eye to scooping up gloopy fondue on pieces of skewered bread. According to a light-hearted local tradition, diners who lose their bread in the fondue pot end up paying for a round of drinks.

Fondue isn’t the only method of consuming mountain cheese. Within the Refuge de Solalex, in the mountain hamlet of Gryon, you can take a seat by the fireside and watch as cheese is melted by the fire for raclette, another popular Alpine dish.

As locals well-know, there’s much to explore in the mountains of the Lake Geneva Region and good food is essential to making the most of life.

Further information

The Switzerland website is a good source of tourism related information and Swiss Travel Passes.

Evening in a mountain valley at the village of Solalex near Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland.

Evening in a mountain valley at the village of Solalex near Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland.

Pablo Larrazabal addresses the ball on the 18th fairway of the 2014 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Golf in Abu Dhabi

“If it’s a first trip to Abu Dhabi it’s a bit of a whammy because at this time we’re beginning to really reap the benefits in the growth of tourism to Abu Dhabi,” says Chris Card, the Group General Manager of Troon Golf, within sight of the falcon-shaped façade of Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s clubhouse.

Though we’re in the United Arab Emirates, a nation often associated with the arid landscapes of the Arabian Peninsula, the fairway we’re on is well tended and lush. The only sand in view is within a carefully raked bunker.

It’s a January afternoon and a soft breeze is swaying the palm fronds along the edge of the course. The sun is shining and the temperature is about 23°C. The weather is ideal for golf.

Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship

Some of the world’s best golfers play along the fairway during the annual Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, which was established in 2006 and has helped raise awareness that the emirate is a viable golf destination, especially during winter. Players such as Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have competed in the event.

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship is part of the PGA European Tour. Gary Stal, the French golfer, lifted the silver falcon trophy upon winning the 2015 tournament, following the examples of Pablo Larrazabal, in 2014, and Jamie Donaldson, in 2013.

Peter Harradine Designed Courses

Abu Dhabi Golf Club has two courses, both designed by Peter Harradine. The championship standard National Course has 90 bunkers along its 7,334 yards. The nine-hole, 3,399 yard Garden Course is floodlit and easier to play, making it accessible to less experienced players.

The National Course is one of three championship standard courses in the emirate.

“Of the three main championship golf courses, you’ll have three completely different experiences. From a links style golf course at Yas Links to more of a beach style at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club to a traditional style at Abu Dhabi Golf Club,” says Chris, who still plays when he can find the time.

Pablo Larrazabal during the 2014 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Pablo Larrazabal during the 2014 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Abu Dhabi’s Tourist Attractions

“It’s a good time to be here. We experience not only fantastic golf, fantastic hospitality with all of our resort partners and hotels and a great service from Etihad. But we also have things like Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld. You can’t miss the heritage side of Abu Dhabi,” says Chris, who previously managed at the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland.

The emirate is experiencing rapid development of its tourist attractions and the opening of a number of leading museums is planned over the next few years. The doors of the Louvre Abu Dhabi are scheduled to open in December 2015.

It’s anticipated that golf will be just one of the reasons visitors head to Abu Dhabi in the years to come.

How to get here

Etihad Airways is the national carrier of Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi International Airport is Etihad’s hub for international connections. Check the possibility of arranging a stay over in Abu Dhabi to get a taste of what the emirate has to offer.

How to play

Take a look at Golf in Abu Dhabi to find out more about golf within the emirate. The site offers a number of golfing packages. Abu Dhabi has six pay and play courses, including three of championship standard.

Most hotels can arrange tee-off times for guests. You can also contact courses such as the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and Abu Dhabi Golf Club directly.

Where to stay

The 172-room Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort and Spa (P.O. Box 126797; tel. +971 2 616 9999) provides stylish accommodation with private balconies and views of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s championship golf course. The Westin’s Heavenly Spa has six treatment rooms. The 700 square metre, lagoon-style pool area is fringed by palm trees, with sun loungers and a pool for swimming lengths. The hotel has six bars and restaurants serving international cuisine, including Sacci, where Italian food is served.

Further information

See the Visit Abu Dhabi website.

The Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.

The Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.