Artwork on the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. The 1.3km section of the Berlin Wall is the longest retained section. Photo by Stuart Forster.

25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

On 9 November 1989 East German border posts were opened, allowing citizens of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) to travel. The Berlin Wall had fallen.

In 2014 commemorations will be held in the German capital to mark a quarter of a century since that momentous event.

“I was in Görlitz [Germany’s easterly most city],” says Manja Grosche, recalling the 9 November 1989.

“We suspected something was up, but were sceptical it might mean war or be dangerous.”

“There had been trains taking people from Germany to Czechoslovakia and things had reached a boiling point. We noticed that, though we didn’t have Western TV. We had limited information but everyone knew that something was happening. There was a tension, an expectation; something was about to happen,” says the quality control manager who now lives in Lisbon.

“That suddenly it meant the wall had fallen and that the events were transmitted on TV was simply unbelievable. We hadn’t expected it. We thought it would guarantee war or a shootout. That they let it happen just like that!” she says in a tone of voice emphasising the disbelief of 1989.

“There had been protests in Leipzig and also the trains. Maybe the tension had been building for half a year. Even when we were celebrating the 40th birthday of the DDR we knew something would happen, somehow. We knew the economy was shot and that the government wasn’t stable. There was a fear it would endure forever or that the government wouldn’t simply take it and would defend itself.”

“I was in Berlin for the 40th birthday celebrations,” says Grosche, about events held on 7 October 1989. “We hadn’t noticed tensions there. It was lovely; a lot of fun. It was a big celebration and well organised. I can’t really remember details, but for me it was a big party; it didn’t have so much to do with the DDR’s 40th birthday,” she tells.

“I was with the FDJ [the Free German Youth movement] and it was an accolade to be there. We marched and then went to concerts. Taking part was a mark of recognition for those who were politically active or good in school. I was dedicated at school.”

So how does she perceive the fall of the wall now?

“It was a positive event. That the DDR was in decline and that there was more out there in the world, we knew that.”

“None of my friends were revolutionaries. I was 17; too young to run away. Directly after the wall fell we had big discussions in school and then soon travelled to Berlin. We used to have school on Saturdays and the positive thing was that came to an end, so we used a weekend to get away,” recalls Grosche.

“It was overwhelming. It was a different world. West Berlin was simply different. We went shopping at KaDeWe and along Ku’damm. The people were friendly,” she answers when I ask about that initial trip into the West.

“As a girl I’d always wanted to travel. For me it meant more opportunities to travel. It brought a different consumer world and opportunities for me to develop. In the DDR things were largely predetermined. It meant a different career and opportunities to voice our opinions. It was clear that the economy was on its knees and my father soon moved to Munich,” says Grosche, on what the events of 9 November 1989 meant for her.

“Görlitz is a beautiful city today. It’s changed a lot since the fall of the wall. It was dirty, ugly and people were given work. Some people suffered afterwards. The East-West divide still exists today, in how people think. People weren’t allowed to think for themselves for decades; for a generation and more. There are still differences that haven’t been fully resolved. I don’t really feel like an East German any more. People in Munich are surprised when I say I’m from Görlitz,” she says when I ask about the impact on her home town.

“For me the 25 year celebrations have real meaning. I’m happy the wall fell; it brought me opportunities and it’s certainly an occasion to fly to Berlin,” she says.

Where to go

Visit the 1.3km long East Side Gallery (Műhlenstrasse), the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. Panels on the wall have been painted by international artists.

Find out about the construction and history of the infamous obstacle at the Berlin Wall Memorial (Bernauer Strasse 119).

Read the stories of victims who died trying to enter West Berlin in the book of remembrance at the Berlin Wall Memorial in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament building.

Learn more about what was behind the wall by visiting the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial (Genslerstrasse 66), a prison used from 1951 until the end of 1989 to detain and interrogate people by the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police. From March to October English language tours are held daily at 2.30pm, and on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout the rest of the year.

Where to sleep

Staying at nhow Berlin design hotel (Stralauer Allee 3, tel. +40 (0) 2902990) places you a two-minute walk from East Side Gallery. The chic hotel, by the River Spree, has electric guitars and DJ-decks for use in your room.

What to eat

Berlin’s most popular snack is Currywurst mit Pommes, sausage served with curry sauce and French fries. This dish is available from kiosks across the city, including Curry 36 (Mehringdamm 36).

What to buy

Take home a piece of the Berlin Wall from Wall House Berlin (Mühlenstrasse 73), where Gerd Glanze sells souvenir pieces of the infamous barrier.

How to get here

British Airways flies to Berlin from its London Heathrow Terminal 5 hub. See the BA website for information on fares and flight times.

Further information

Find out about attractions in Berlin and Germany on the Germany Travel website.

Depictions on females in blue FDJ uniforms on a 1950s mural by Wolfgang Ruppel catchily entitled "the importance of peace for the cultural development of humanity and the necessity of struggle to achieve this goal". Artwork on the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. The 1.3km section of the Berlin Wall is the longest retained section. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Depictions on females in blue FDJ uniforms on a 1950s mural by Wolfgang Ruppel catchily entitled “the importance of peace for the cultural development of humanity and the necessity of struggle to achieve this goal”. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, England

It’s a sunny, slightly hazy day in London. From my position on the ArcelorMittal Orbit’s viewing platform, 80 metres above the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, I can see the horizon 20 miles away.

Before heading down to the lower viewing platform, at a height of 76 metres, I photograph the city skyline and take a look at the ongoing reconstruction work in the Olympic Stadium. When complete the stadium will have a capacity of 54,000 and the world’s longest cantilevered roof. West Ham United Football Club will move in from the start of the 2016-2017 season. Prior to that, the venue will open to host five matches during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. It is also earmarked as the home for British athletics and the venue for the world athletics championships in 2017.

With an area of 560 acres, roughly the combined size of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is vast. It’s the home to four themed trails, including activities for kids, art installations, plus information about London 2012 and the area’s biodiversity. The park’s hedgerows and 15 acres of woodland – along with 150 bat boxes and 525 bird boxes – are helping wildlife to settle here.

I overhear one of the tower’s employees talking about the waterways below. I always associate London with the Thames but it’s the River Lea, City Mill River and Waterworks River that cut through Stratford.

The sleek curves of the London Aquatics Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, reflect the afternoon sunlight. A swim at the venue of the Olympic swimming and diving championships is reasonably priced, though pre-booking is recommended. Prior to taking the lift to the top of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, I popped in to take a look at the 50 metre pool, gym and the impressive diving facilities, missing Olympic medallist Tom Daley by a couple of minutes.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit, designed by Sir Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, stands 114.5 metres high and is the UK’s tallest sculpture. From it I can see landmarks including the Shard, the Gherkin and St Paul’s Cathedral. This, I’m told, is the only observation tower that looks into London from the east.

Visitors stare at their distorted reflections in a huge, concave mirror that also helps brighten the lower viewing platform. The shapes of people shift and change as I move my position. People laugh at the mirror’s effect and try to capture the effect on their smartphone cameras.

The spiralling red tower cost £22.3m, with the lion’s share coming from Lakshmi Mittal of the steel producing company ArcelorMittal. I hear how 35,000 bolts were used by the four-man team that constructed the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Of its 2,000 tonnes of steel, around 60 per cent was recycled.

The Lee Valley Velopark stands on the far side of the park, over the River Lee. It’s the first venue in the world to offer BMX, track, road and mountain biking facilities.

As I cross an area with dancing fountains I note that the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is already proving a popular family venue and has a sizable children’s play area with slides and climbing frames. The ground is made of a spongy material that reminds me of the surface of an athletics track, protecting kids from the scraped knees that were a perennial problem during my childhood.

Down at Carpenters Lock I spend a few minutes sitting quietly, looking in vain for the kingfisher that I’m told has made its home here.

Over the coming years this part of London looks set to grow. Five new neighbourhoods, with up to 10,000 homes, are planned by 2030. In the meantime the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park looks set to attract locals, day trippers and sporty types.

Further information

Find out more on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park website, where you can learn about attractions such as the Copper Box Arena, is a multi-purpose indoor sports venue with a café, and the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit (tel. +44 (0) 333 8008099) website has further information about the iconic landmark as well as online ticketing.

For more information about attractions in the British capital see the Visit London website.

Getting there

The Docklands Light Railway, trains and buses run to Stratford International Station. Hackney Wick London Overground station is located on the opposite side of the park.

An urban skyline seen from the ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Urban skyline seen from the ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Men of the Tripura tribe dance in their village in the Bandarban region of Bangladesh. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The Bandarban Hills of Bangladesh

A two hour drive south-east of the bustling commercial hub and busy seaport of Chittagong, the Bandarban Hills begin their rise above the Bangladeshi plains. Characterised by dense jungle, the hills are the home to 13 tribal groups and roll on beyond the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

Until just a few years ago this verdant landscape was off limits to foreign tourists, due to risks posed by armed rebels. Today a steady flow of visitors now trickles in and out of this hill tract and its popularity is growing. Cottages at a handful of resorts provide opportunities for visitors to unwind. The twitter of birdsong, rustle of foliage and rasp of barking deer drown out engine noises made by the few vehicles driving on the local roads.

This is a region that can be visited throughout the year. Even in high summer, the daytime temperature rarely rises above 35°C. The mercury falls by around ten degrees during darkness, allowing most people to sleep undisturbed by heat. Visitors to the region need to apply for a permit, which tour operators can provide. This means the hills are by no means overrun, despite their natural beauty.

The majority of Bangladeshis come here to enjoy the views of the plains and rolling forestation from the vantage point of Chimbuk Peak. At 898 metres above sea level it is the country’s highest summit accessible by road. A forestry cottage with a veranda stands on the hilltop. Most visitors ignore its presence and face out towards the rural scenery below. Bangladesh is the world’s fourth most densely populated nation but you get no sense of that up in the Bandarbans.

The presence of the 13 tribal groups, some of whom rarely come into contact with outsiders, gives this region something unique. Occasionally tribal people will wander into Bandarban town to trade or pick up supplies. If you’re interested in seeing the indigenous people, it’s best to ask for a guide at your resort. Locating the tribal settlements would be nigh on impossible without drawing on local knowledge; the remotest are tucked away near the border with Myanmar. Alternatively, you can go trekking with guides, who’ll lead you along trails and through plantations towards scenic vantage points.

Inevitably, some people question the ethics of casual visits to tribal settlements, arguing that any contact from tourists, photographers and even anthropologists may result in irreversible changes to ancient traditions and result in the erosion of indigenous values. Others argue that change is inevitable and question why outsiders should be barred from seeing long-established ways of rural living, especially those visitors who do all that’s possible minimise the impact of their presence. Regional security guidelines help, to a degree, as outsiders are not permitted to stay overnight in any of the villages and have to sign in and out when passing checkpoints.

You might be wondering why this region has so many tribal groups. War in what was then Burma, four centuries ago, forced a number of hill tribes to relocate. The Bandarbans had fertile land, an abundant supply of water and plenty of animals to hunt. Remarkably, despite having lived in this region for so long, the tribes have managed to maintain distinct identities, languages and, in some cases, belief systems.

At Baganpura, a quiet village inhabited by the Murong tribe, huts stand raised on bamboo stilts. The women here, who have high cheek bones and lips red from chewing betelnut, seek out firewood, which they collect in baskets carried on their backs via head straps. You might see their men building a new hut while the children play together.

Parak Para is a Bawm tribal settlement in which the women weave at looms out on the verandas of their hillside homes. A tiny church with a blue picket fence stands in the centre of the village. Down by the roadside, in purpose built stalls, women from the tribe sell shawls, scarves and colourful bedding to visitors. The Bawm are regarded as the most commercially successful of the Bandarban tribes and trade appears brisk.

The village of Hathi Bandha is characterised by stilt-raised, wattle-walled houses with corrugated metal roofs. More than 300 members of the Tripura tribe live here, making their living primarily from agriculture. The women wear lobe-stretching earrings, blue blouses and dozens of traditionally made silver necklaces. Most of the men, in contrast, wear T-shirts. The children in this village are inquisitive, laugh a lot and engage with visitors, gesturing to see photos on the displays of digital cameras.

If you’re fortunate, you might see traditional Tripura tribal dancing, accompanied by music performed by the older men and women of the village. For this the men pull white robes over their Western clothing and gyrate slowly with their hands in the air. The women dance barefoot, turning their wrists and moving their shoulders to the gentle rhythm of the music.

Would the Tripura have performed like this in the past or is it something they do to fulfil the expectations of camera bearing tourists who pass through their village? Are their values being eroded by the presence of the occasional visitor or two? Those are questions that require much thought. Fortunately the Bandarbans provide just the kind of quietude suited to pondering and contemplation.

What to visit

Bangladesh’s biggest Theravada Buddhist place of worship – the ornate, gold-roofed Jadi Temple – is on a hill 4km from of Bandarban town.

Where to stay

Hillside Resort, Chimbuk Road near Milonchori (guidetoursbd.com, tel: +88 1711 858496) offers accommodation in cottages constructed using traditional tribal methods. Bus transfers and guided trekking costs are also covered in packages.

Further information

Learn more about the country on the Bangladesh Tourism Board and Visit Bangladesh websites.

Early morning mist and smoke from brickworks in the valley at Bandarban, Bangladesh. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Early morning mist and smoke from brickworks in the valley at Bandarban, Bangladesh. Photo by Stuart Forster.

A traditional Indian thali. This non-vegetarian thali has chicken tikka, pickles, a couple of curry varieties, dal, rasam, curd, boiled rice and coin parathas. Boiled rice and a poppadum.

Talking Taste: Chef Vijay Bakshi

I first met Vijay Bakshi during 2006 in Bangalore, while I was looking to learn Indian cooking techniques. We arranged a ten week cookery course, invited expats, and became friends.

Vijay is known within India for cooking European style cuisine but he’s a versatile chef and also enjoys cooking dishes from around the Subcontinent. He’s worked on the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship, at the Taj Residency and Royal Orchid Central hotels in Bangalore and, while working in New Delhi, was a judge in the preliminary rounds of Master Chef India.

“It was always been inspiring to watch my mother cooking in the kitchen. Learning homemade recipes and tips to keep in mind helped make cooking an interesting part of my life,” says Vijay, 45. He has been cooking since the age of 12.

“I come from a family of foodies. My great-grandfather, grandfather and also my father rave about good food. I was born into a vegetarian family and there were always 101 vegetables cooked to different preparations, from simple curries, stuffed kormas, ground into smooth chutneys, sun dried and pickled or even frittered,” says Vijay, who comes from the small town of Rourkela in Odisha and speaks eight languages.

“There are a number of chefs I look up to for their creativity and how they go about their work. I attribute my success to the Austrian chef Josef Jungwrith who was confident about my performance and kept on motivating me. In my three years of association with him in the kitchen of the QE2 I learnt a lot. I could see in him the hunger and desire to perfect and innovate recipes. He was my gateway to European cuisine.”

“My signature dish is garlic and cabbage omlette cooked in olive oil. Garlic and olive oil keeps cholesterol at bay and the cabbage adds fibre. Yes, it’s a rare combination, but it’s very flavoursome and healthy,” he says.

Vijay thinks the most enjoyable place he’s worked was on the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise liner, where he worked in the Queen’s and Princess Grill plus the Britannia and Caronia restaurants. “I worked with a wide range of nationalities, went round the globe three times and managed to visit 58 countries. This was my first international exposure. I was excited to see so many types of ingredients, to learn advanced cooking methods and also latest presentation skills.

While I was on the QE2 a British guest summoned me into the restaurant, as he wanted to compliment me for the Yorkshire puddings that I had made. I’ll always remember that he said, ‘being an Indian you have left all the Brits far behind!’ That’s one of the most unusual and memorable comments I’ve ever been given,” says Vijay.

“My long-term dream is to run my own culinary school and fine-dining restaurant. The menu would consist of my signature dishes. I’d like to provide a great learning experience to my students and provide a delightful experience to all our guests,” says the chef when I ask him what he’d like to do in the future.

“If I could work anywhere in the world then it would be France. French cooking is the mother of all cuisines. The culinary trends and the eating habits in France are inspirational. The use of ingredients and their cooking methods are very special.”

Vijay was certified as a trainer by the Accor Academy in France and worked as the executive chef for Accor hotels throughout India before becoming the group’s regional food and beverage manager.

When I ask which style of Indian food he likes most, Vijay has no hesitation in answering: “Hyderabadi cuisine, there’s an art and real skill attached to Hyderabadi cooking. It relates to the eating style and royal kitchens of the Moghuls and ancient maharajahs. The kebabs and biryanis they used to make were innovative. It takes a lot of attention to detail for anyone to master Hyderabadi cooking.”

He’s keen to point out that, despite its fiery reputation, good Indian food is not always spicy and varies markedly from region to region. Taste, in his view, comes from choosing the right balance of flavours and cooking methods.

“The best Indian food is found in homes and made with simple ingredients,” he says with conviction. “One needs to understand the chemistry between ginger, garlic, turmeric and chili. They are used extensively. The tempering or ‘chaunk’ is the final finish on most dishes.”

As a flourish to this interview I persuaded Vijay to share one of his favourite recipes, a prawn curry, which he recommends you try making home.

Chef Vijay’s Chingdi Malai

Ingredients:

400g prawns

3 tablespoons of mustard oil

2 tablespoons of ghee

2 tablespoons of ginger paste

1 tablespoon of cumin paste

½ tablespoon of whole cumin seeds

1 teaspoon of chilli powder

1 teaspoon of turmeric powder

1 teaspoon of garam masala

2 slit green chillies

1 ¼ cups of coconut milk

Salt and lime to taste

Method

  1. Boil water and cook the prawns for two minutes with a twist of lime and a dash of salt and turmeric. Put to one side.
  2. Heat the mustard oil in a frying pan and add the whole cumin until it crackles, then add the ginger plus the cumin, chilli and turmeric powders and stir to ensure the ginger cooks.
  3. Add the prawns and slit chillies.
  4. Pour in the coconut milk and season.
  5. Sprinkle garam masala and ghee on top.
  6. Serve hot with steamed rice.

If you want to get in touch with Vijay, drop him a line via email on vijaybak@gmail.com.

Chef Vijay Bakshi. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Chef Vijay Bakshi. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The city of Glasgow in Scotland. The Gothic style University of Glasgow Library, designed by Gilbert Scott, in Glasgow, Scotland. The building stands beyond the Clyde Arc bridge and in front of Campsie Fells. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Glasgow: A look at attractions in Scotland’s most populous city

2014 is proving a big year for Glasgow. Scotland’s most populous city has made positive headlines across the world thanks to the warm welcome provided to international athletes throughout the twentieth Commonwealth Games, held from 23 July to 3 August. It’s also attracting global citizens celebrating their ancestry, as part of the Homecoming, an event marking the impact of the Scottish diaspora.

Some people might argue the city is reinventing itself, distancing itself from its industrial heritage, but others will tell you that the vibe in this city of almost 600,000 inhabitants has long been buoyant and the fact that the wider world is finding out what Glasgow has to offer is long overdue. Head out to one of the hip bars, cafes or restaurants of the centrally situated Merchant City district and you may also hear locals tell you the fact Glasgow was named both the 1990 European Capital of Culture and the United Kingdom’s City of Architecture and Design in 1999 indicates that things here have been on the right track for a generation now.

As that latter accolade indicates, the city centre is the home to a number of attractive edifices. One of the most striking is the grand Glasgow City Chambers, opened by Queen Victoria back in 1886. The building – which houses an ornate, Italianate marble staircase – faces George Square, the location of numerous statues of dignitaries, including Sir Walter Scott, Prince Albert and Lord Clyde, a 19th century British military Commander-in-Chief in India. The square is also the site of the cenotaph, the sombre memorial to the 200,000 Glaswegians who served during World War One, a conflict currently in the public consciousness due to commemorations marking the centenary of the conflict’s beginning.

Unfortunately, there was bad news on 23 May, when one of the city’s best know pieces of architecture, the Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and built at the turn of the last century, suffered significant fire damage. Rennie Mackintosh was born in Glasgow in 1868 and is regarded as one of Britain’s most influential Art Nouveau and Modernist designers and architects. One of the easiest ways to enjoy his legacy is by taking a self-guided walking tour around the city and viewing sites including the Lighthouse building – constructed in 1895 as an office for The Glasgow Herald newspaper – and Mackintosh House at the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery. If you feel the need to pause on your tour, one of the best spots to do so is within the elegant Room de Luxe at the Willow Tea Rooms (217 Sauchiehall Street), which were designed in 1904.

You can also see examples of Rennie Mackintosh’s work within two rooms of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, one of 13 free-to-visit museums and galleries in the city. The vast Kelvingrove museum opened in 1901 and displays artefacts as diverse as a Spitfire aircraft, medieval armour plus art from across Europe, including Salvador Dali’s celebrated Christ of St John of the Cross painting. Kelvingrove’s grand, central hall features a huge pipe organ and, one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions, warrants the short trip from the city centre.

If you prefer the sleek metallic facades of contemporary architecture then head towards the River Clyde. Glasgow Science Centre, an interactive hub with exhibitions relating to science and technology, comes highly recommended by many of the city residents. It’s also the site of the 127-metre tall Glasgow Tower, the world’s tallest freestanding rotating structure. During the journey to the top of the tower, which provides panoramic views of Glasgow, you’ll learn about aspects of city’s history.

Strolling along the south bank of the river gives you great views of the Clyde Auditorium – known to locals as ‘the Armadillo,’ after the armour-plated creatures – due to the angular segments which span the concert hall. The iconic building was designed by the famous Foster and Partner architectural bureau and forms part of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, which is known popularly as the SECC. One of the best times of day to view the modern buildings and the neighbouring, 13,000-capacity SSE Hydro arena is during the evening, as the translucent, modernistic facade can be illuminated in a number of colour schemes.

If you’re a transport buff the plan a trip to the Riverside Museum, which was named Europe’s Museum of the Year in 2013. You’ll see motorbikes, motorcars and locomotives but also have an opportunity to stroll along recreations of Glaswegian streets of bygone years. The angular, contemporary attraction also has more than 90 touch screens providing information about exhibits if you’re eager to learn more.

Arguably an attraction in its own right is the Subway, the subterranean public transport system which was opened in 1896. The long-established underground network is often dubbed ‘the clockwork orange’ due to its colour scheme and circular route. It’s one of the easiest and most cost-effective methods of travelling between a good number of Glasgow’s attractions.

No visit to the city would be complete without a stroll along Sauchiehall Street, the pedestrianised shopping artery that’s also the site of Glasgow’s first skyscraper, the Art Deco style Beresford building, which opened as a hotel in 1938 but now hosts private apartments. Its presence is another example of bold architecture within the city.

Following the success of the Commonwealth Games there’s a palpable buzz around Glasgow. As autumn colours begin to add their golden hues to the trees of Queen’s Park, whose hilltop provides one of the best spots to gain an overview of the city skyline, there’s no time like to present to explore this Scottish city.

Further Information

Further Information

Take a look at the Glasgow Life website for more on Glasgow’s museums, art and cultural events.

See the Visit Scotland website for more information about Glasgow and the country as a whole.

The metallic facade of the Imax Cinema in Glasgow, Scotland. It stands in by the Glasgow Science Centre. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The metallic facade of the Imax Cinema in Glasgow, Scotland. It stands in by the Glasgow Science Centre. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Sunset in the desert of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Dune bashing tours drive out of Abu Dhabi city in the late afternoon. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Abu Dhabi as a destination for family and activities vacations

Abu Dhabi was, until recently, widely regarded primarily as an oil-related business destination but diversification and leisure developments are changing that perception. Increasingly, the emirate is evolving into a viable family destination with much to offer beyond the state-of-the-art shopping malls and striking high-rise architecture that draw murmurs of awe and appreciation from visitors to the city centre.

Yas Island, a 30 minute drive from the city centre and fifteen minutes by road from the airport, has become one of the emirate’s premier entertainment and leisure destinations. Every year, the island is now seen around the globe during the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the twilight Formula One race held at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Yet you don’t need to visit on a race weekend to catch a glimpse of the 5.5km long track. Throughout the year you can dine overlooking the circuit at Kazu, the chic, modern Japanese restaurant with live teppanyaki cooking within the Yas Viceroy Hotel, which straddles the track. If you’d prefer to actively experience the tarmac you can do so on Tuesday evenings by participating in one of the weekly Yas Training Nights. The events are free and give you the opportunity to get out and walk, run or cycle, at your own pace, on the circuit that Formula One cars roar around in under two minutes.

If you’re a motor racing fan you’ll recognise the famous 65 metre prancing stallion logo on the roof of Ferrari World, the indoor theme park which you can see while landing or taking off at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Inside you’ll find family-orientated attractions and driving simulators as well as a collection of vintage Ferraris. You can learn about the story of the famous Italian racing team and enter a wind tunnel to learn more about testing aerodynamic designs.

On the Formula Rossa rollercoaster – the world’s fastest – you experience the same acceleration as a Formula One car; you’re thrust back in your seat by the gravitational force of 4.8Gs as the ride takes you from zero to 240km/h in less than five seconds. Yet you don’t necessarily need to be an avid speed lover to enjoy a visit to Ferrari World; Viaggio in Italia is a 4D cinema experience that provides you with the sensation that you’re flying over Italy’s countryside.

From Ferrari World it’s a just a short hop to Yas Waterworld, the vast, family-friendly water park which has 43 rides, slides and attractions beyond its turreted, Arabian style fortress gates. The 15 hectare park has poolside cabanas, for relaxation by the pool, plus four kids’ play areas, but many visitors are drawn here by the high-speed thrill rides. These include Dawwama, the world’s first hydromagnetic-power waterslide, which propels you along a 238m run before plunging into a 20 metre high funnel, and Bandit Bomber, which at 550 metres in length is the region’s longest suspended rollercoaster and reaches heights of 35 metres.

Kids can follow Pearlmasters, an interactive treasure hunt adventure game featuring 11 of the characters you’ll see within the park. The story echoes an important aspect of the region’s heritage as, before oil was discovered, pearl diving in the Persian Gulf provided people here with an important source of wealth. Anyone aged eight or over can experience pearl diving, following training, in a tank holding oysters with cultured pearls. The story of diving for pearls is also depicted in the Spirit of the Pearl, a show featuring synchronised swimming and held six times a day.

You can see both Yas Waterworld and Ferrari World from the clubhouse of Yas Links Golf Club, the location of one of the six pay and play golf courses in Abu Dhabi. The lush, par 72 championship course was designed by Kyle Phillips, one of the world’s leading golf course architects, and its fairways provide views of the city skyline and shoreline mangroves. The club has an academy course, with par three holes, plus a training area where total beginners can participate in introductory courses with the club’s professionals. Intermediate and experienced golfers can take lessons to hone aspects of their game. Additionally, you can hit balls out onto the floodlit driving range until well into the night, making this a good spot to unwind after a day of sightseeing.

A very different type of driving experience is available out in the desert of the mainland, close to Al Wathba, approximately 90 minutes from the city. With a professional driver behind the steering wheel of a four wheel drive vehicle you can head out onto the soft sand, range up and down wind-rippled dunes and burst over their crests, spraying sand along the way. The jolting, adrenalin-inducing experience is akin to rollercoaster riding in the passenger seat of a car.

The tours set off in the afternoon, so that after a session of dune bashing you see the sun set over the arid landscape and feel the air temperature drop rapidly in the moments after it disappears below the horizon. The drive also provides insights into regional heritage. Pausing at a camel farm gives you a chance to shoot photos with dromedaries, the creatures that allowed man to penetrate the desert prior to the invention of the combustion engine. You can also choose to spend an evening in a Bedouin camp, eating traditional cuisine and experiencing dancing and music by the campfire.

The attractions illustrate that this is a region proud of its heritage yet also successful in embracing change. It’s not just the skyscrapers that are now wowing visitors to Abu Dhabi.

Further Information

Learn more about the emirate on the Visit Abu Dhabi website.

See Golf in Abu Dhabi for information on golfing packages.

Yas Waterworld in Abu Dhabi. Yas Waterworld is a themed waterpark. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Yas Waterworld in Abu Dhabi. Yas Waterworld is a themed waterpark. Photo by Stuart Forster.

 

Chef Tim Davies at The Willow on Wascana restaurant in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo by Stuart Forster.

The Willow on Wascana Restaurant in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

The Willow on Wascana is the only restaurant by the shore of Lake Wascana, within a 44 acre park of the same name, in the Canadian city of Regina. Peeking through the restaurant’s venetian blinds I catch a view of the grand Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan building.

The tables on the patio would be a good place for a bite to eat or a cold beer on a sunny day but today the sky is unseasonally overcast. I head inside, where brass and wood rotating fans hang from the ceiling.

Atlantic Canada and New England are well be known for their seafood chowders but here it’s land chowder – made with wild boar belly and leek – that stands out, for me, among the starters.

Rather than going from the menu for my choice of main course I order the chef’s special; potato hash topped with two fried eggs. The fresh flavours of raw tomato and crisp onion burst through, adding a crispness to the texture of the pleasantly spicy but simple dish.

“Usually we do fine-dining with casual, upper-level comfort food,” explains head chef Tim Davies, aged 32, who left Banff, Alberta, at 18 to travel to Europe and work in kitchens in England and Spain. A six course tasting menu is offered during evening sittings, in addition to dishes such as steak frites and maple cherry pork.

“We change our menu seasonally. This year our winter lasted longer so we skipped the spring menu and went straight into the summer menu. Then we get a crazy flash flood, from rain, and a lot of our suppliers lost almost 50 per cent of their vegetables and crops, so we’re struggling trying to keep up with them,” he says.

“When I started running this place, four years after I started working here, I found there wasn’t many places in Regina where I could find things I wanted to eat. So I started making things I wanted to eat for other people…but mostly so I could eat them. It took off from there. Every couple of months we change our menu and it’s focused on things I like eating,” explains Davies, in a matter-of-fact way.

Regional produce features highly among the ingredients used by Davies and his team: “In summertime we go 95 to 98 per cent local produce. Yearly it’s all local proteins; so we have local meat suppliers all year round. We’ve outsourced a couple of standard ingredients that are grown locally. We have a mushroom supplier who grows indoors, so we get them year round. We’ve recently started replacing our olive oil with camelina oil, which is grown here, so we have that all year round. And we have a guy in Saskatoon who grows our spouts all year round. We try and keep 80 per cent of our dishes local.”

So, have I tried his signature dishes?

It transpires that the land chowder is very popular.

“That’s been on our menu since the day we opened. The presentation changes but the menu never does. We’ve had threatening letters that if it’s ever taken off the menu that someone will burn the restaurant down, so I’m not allowed to change it,” says Davies, laughing about an epistle expressing deep admiration for his chowder.

“Our most popular dish at present is our mushroom gnocchi; it’s on the night-time menu. It’s a creamy truffle sauce with our handmade gnocchi and some black garlic puree. That’s been on our past three menus, with different variations,” he adds.

The Willow on Wascana wins accolades for its cuisine yet also provides a learning environment for young chefs.

“We do a lot of pasta work. We’re a learning kitchen, so everything is from scratch. We have wild boar burger; we get whole wild boars and butcher them down. Half gets made into Mexican pulled pork for pizzas and tacos. The other half is used in the burgers,” he explains, mentioning that bison, whole lamb and whole chickens are also worked in the kitchen.

The Willow on Wascana opens for lunch and dinner sittings.

Further Information

The Willow on Wascana is at 3000 Wascana Drive, P.O. Box 1031, Regina, S4P 3B2, tel., +1 306 585 3663 and stocks fine wines, selected by sommelier David Burke. See the menu on the restaurant’s website, where you can check opening times and make an online reservation.

See the Tourism Regina website for more information about the city. You can also find more on the Tourism Saskatchewan site.

The Canadian Tourism Commission has information about destinations and attractions across the country.

Land Chowder at The Willow on Wascana in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Land Chowder at The Willow on Wascana in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Nathan Guggenheimer, Dale MacKay and Jesse Zuber (Head Chef) at Ayden Kitchen and Bar in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo by Stuart Forster.

Ayden Kitchen and Bar in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

Bearded chefs busy at work and the background buzz of relaxed conversations provide my first impressions of Ayden Kitchen and Bar in downtown Saskatoon, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

As I’m shown to my table – under a high ceiling hung with spherical, wrought iron sculptures – I glance over at the well-lit open kitchen. I’ve been informed that this place is widely regarded as one the hippest spots in Saskatoon for dining and drinking cocktails. Dale MacKay, a Saskatoon native and the winner of the 2011 series of Top Chef Canada, opened Ayden Kitchen and Bar in November 2013. It’s located within a roomy, 113 year old heritage building.

I sneak a peek into the bar, where the antlered head of a 206 point buck stares out from the white tiled wall. Mixologist Christopher Cho is busy at work. He prepares cocktails that are delivered to a group of women sitting at a high-backed, purple banquette in the adjacent room.

This part of Canada has a reputation for its steaks, so unless one of the specials of the day grabs my attention, I already know what I’m going to order; the restaurant’s signature dish, silver rib eye served with twice baked potato and an arugula (rocket) salad.

First though, I share a sausage platter, consisting of three succulent, intensely flavoured sausages served with vegetables and crisp slaw on a wooden board. My favourite of the three is flavoured with lemongrass.

Sharing means I also have opportunities to sample the crispy coated chicken wings and dip into the charcuterie plate, the work of Nathan Guggenheimer, Ayden Kitchen’s executive chef and butcher.

My steak, tender and with a textured edge, comes served on a wooden board.

“It’s the one dish we’ve never changed since we opened and probably won’t. It’s one of those things that you want it there for the people who just want to come and have a nice steak. You don’t want to screw around with it too much or put anything on top; just a little bit of pepper corn and butter. People want to say they’ve had a steak, especially in Saskatchewan, right?” says MacKay with a smile.

I’m intrigued as to how he’s prepared the potato.

“We bake them in salt, just to release the moisture out of the potato. We scoop them out and then we actually fry the skin, so it’s nice and crispy, season inside, take the insides of the potato and mix them with roast garlic, lemon zest, olive oil, crispy shallots, basil, salt and some Gruyere cheese. That’s it,” he says, making it sound easy.

“I’ve always done quite formal fine-dining. Actually, I lived in England for about three years and worked for Gordon Ramsay back then, before he got quite famous. When I decided to come and open this up it had to be financially feasible. Getting people to come in three or four times a week rather than once a month or once a year is part of that,” says MacKay, who defines his concept as “refined rustic” dining.

“We’ve got everything from chicken wings, which are one of my favourite things on the menu, to much more refined desserts and soufflés, so it’s a nice blend. We’re not trying to be everything for everyone, we’re just cooking things the way we like to cook. I like the fact you can have chicken wings or popcorn prawns or sausage platter right beside a beautiful beef dish and they still fit together; it’s just because of the flavours,” he explains with relaxed confidence.

“We do everything in house, even the burgers. We grind the meat every day, fresh. Once we run out we run out. We bake our own buns. We make all of our sausage with no additives and no preservatives. The charcuterie is all made in house. The only thing we don’t do is the prosciutto, just because I’ve tried it a few times and it didn’t work out. Maybe you need a cave or need to be Italian; I don’t know,” he says laughing.

“Everything else, we do in house, which takes a bit of time.” MacKay usually arrives between 6.00 and 7.00am to bake ciabatta, buns, hoagies and sourdough bread for the day ahead.

MacKay and Guggenheimer work with farmers from close to Saskatoon to source their meat, preparing it down in the vast, cellar kitchen that’s the same size as the restaurant.

I ask about the sharp facial hair displayed by the chefs, suspecting there might be a competition as to whose is best.

“This is the beard basket of Canada, right? We’re Saskatchewan! I had one for so long and shaved it off recently and looked foolish. My jaw just shrunk, I think, when I had a beard, so I grew it back,” he says jokingly.

“We wanted to be super casual. I don’t wear a chef’s jacket any more. We keep it super chilled. We want it to be the place you come twice a week for lunch and dinner three times. It should be a fun place to go. Yet in Saskatoon this is somewhat of a formal place,” he says, surprising me as the vibe here strikes me as essentially laid-back.

“We’re one of the more, I wouldn’t say expensive places, but we have the cool factor and it’s exciting,” he adds.

Judging by the buzz around me it seems plenty of Saskatoon’s residents agree.

Further Information

Ayden Kitchen and Bar is at 265 3rd Avenue in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Reserve online or by calling (+1) 306 954 2590. See the restaurant’s website for opening hours and to take a look at the menu.

Find out more about attractions and events in the city via Tourism Saskatoon’s website.

Take a look at the Visit Saskatchewan and Canadian Tourism Commission websites for more information about attractions, events and accommodation across the province and to plan a visit to Canada.

Rib eye steak with twice baked potato and an arugula and arugala salad at Ayden Kitchen and Bar.

Rib eye steak with twice baked potato and an arugula (rocket) salad at Ayden Kitchen and Bar.

The Grant Museum in London, England.

The Grant Museum of Zoology in London: Quirky, Free & Fascinating

In an age when interactive exhibitions are par for the course in museums, with many focusing on engaging youngsters and infotainment, heading somewhere like the Grant Museum, in London, makes a refreshing change.

This zoology museum opened in 1828 and is packed with skeletons, stuffed creatures and fascinatingly gruesome looking exhibits preserved in formaldehyde. With a creaking wooden floor and humorously postured primate skeletons up in the gallery, seemingly looking down at visitors, the Grant Museum still has something of a nineteenth century feel about it. Far from being a flaw, the old-fashioned nature of the museum and its displays, within glass cabinets and wooden shelving, helps make spending an afternoon here an informative, quirky, pleasure.

Would you rather view some slickly produced video on the lifecycle of burrowing mammals or stand by a glass jar, topped with preserving fluid, attempting to guess how many dead moles are inside? If the latter is more your thing, then you should plan a trip to the Grant Museum.

The museum is named after Robert Grant, who lived from 1793 to 1874 and built a collection of specimens in order to research and teach zoology and comparative anatomy. Grant organised his collection by taxonomic groups and was, essentially, researching aspects of evolutionary theory even before the publication of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking On the Origin of Species, in1859.

The Grant Museum’s collection is vast. Just seven per cent on the 67,000 artefacts are displayed. They range in scale from insects and tiny creatures preserved on microscope slides, displayed in the back lit micrarium, to a mammoth tusk and the antlers of a giant deer that roamed the earth 11,000 years ago. Not everything is old-fashioned here; a QR code provides access to information about the prehistoric mammal.

You’ll also see rarities such as the skeleton of a quagga, a zebra like creature, and a thylacine, a doglike marsupial, better known as the Tasmanian tiger, that became extinct in 1936.

Some of the exhibits made me contemplate how a Victorian might have felt while visiting a freak show. The partially dissected head of a monkey, preserved in formaldehyde, gave me the impression it was winking and sticking out its tongue. You’ll see a jar containing an elephant’s heart, weighing between 20 to 30kg, and the penis bone of a walrus, roughly the size of a rounders bat.

The museum has a number of thought provoking exhibits, including a Surinam toad, whose female carries fertilised eggs in pouches on her back. Her offspring emerge fully developed. Elephant birds, from Madagascar, became extinct in the 1700s. The cast of an egg, roughly two-and-a-half times the size of an ostrich egg, prompted me to think about human impact on the environment.

‘Little Nicky,’ who in 2004 became the world’s first commercially cloned cat, is also among the exhibits. Touch screen displays allow you read about the subject and enter into an online debate on the ethics of cloning.

The Grant Museum may be Victorian in appearance but as part of the University College London it is still used for research and teaching. It’s free to visit and a fascinating alternative to the British Museum and other popular attractions, which can become extremely busy over the summer holidays.

Further Information

The Grant Museum of Zoology is in the Rockefeller Building at the University College London, 21 University Street, London, WC1E 6DE. It is open from 1.00pm to 5.00pm from Monday to Saturday. You can also book to visit on weekdays between 10.00am and 1.00pm.

See the Visit London website for more about attractions in the British capital.

Here’s a list of tips of things to do for free in London.

Primate skulls at the Grant Museum in London, England. The museum holds 67,000 zoology exhibits.

Primate skulls at the Grant Museum in London, England. The museum holds 67,000 zoology exhibits.

The La Soupe Populaire restaurant in Berlin, Germany.

La Soupe Populaire Restaurant in Berlin, Germany

La Soupe Populaire is a fashionable restaurant with a hip, post-industrial vibe and menus by Michelin-strarred chef Tim Raue. Michael Jaeger and his team work in the kitchen, preparing traditional German dishes with a creative edge.

The restaurant stands within the former Bötzow Brewery, which was built in 1885 and used to store seafood during the era of the German Democratic Republic. The expansive site is owned by Professor Hans Georg Näder, who has unveiled plans, drawn up by British architect David Chipperfield, to re-redevelop the brewery into a creative and manufacturing hub with a boutique hotel and an art gallery.

Regularly changing contemporary art exhibitions are already held in the studio below the restaurant. While I dined, works by Dominique Auerbacher, a French photographer, were on display. Raue develops a menu to accompany each of the exhibitions and, in this case, included French dishes and wine suggestions.

Tables are set out on the pressed metal plates of a mezzanine level located by two concrete hoppers, which presumably stored grain when the site was a brewery. A skylight allows daylight to flood into the dining space, whose brick walls are burnished in places. Retro style lamps and bare bulbs hang by concrete pillars and metal girders.

The setting is a chic yet gritty memorial to Berlin’s industrial heritage but the cuisine, by contrast, is contemporary and delicate.

While I was mulling over the menu I nibbled on crisp Brandenburg Forest gherkins, a local delicacy, served with lightly spiced sausages, a creamy lovage and herb spread plus freshly baked bread.

My waitress spoke good English and was happy to answer questions about the restaurant, which opened in May 2013. She explained that the mustard egg plus the cod, served with tarragon and cucumber in summer and lentils in winter, are both very popular. I asked to be pointed me in the direction of Tim Raue’s signature dishes.

White asparagus is a seasonal delicacy throughout Germany. Here at La Soupe Populaire it is served as a starter with melon, grapes and buttermilk cream. Elderflower provides a floral tone balanced by a twist of Tabasco that gradually reveals its fire.

For my main course I ordered the Königsberger Klopse, an East Prussian dish named after the city today known as Kaliningrad. Königsberger Klopse are essentially meatballs made from minced veal with capers and anchovies. Traditionally, every family has its own variant on the basic recipe. They are served here with a sauce, featuring a Riesling reduction, that’s deliciously custardy in texture and appearance. Red cabbage and mashed potato accompany the dish, which is hearty without being heavy.

You can order a selection of wines by the glass or go for a bottle. Most of the wines on the menu are from French and German estates and there’s a handful from Italy and Portugal. I plumped for a crisp glass of Kaitui Sauvignon Blanc from the Pfalz region.

La Soupe Populaire’s signature dessert is Bienenstich (bee sting cake), whose filling includes sorbet, topped with caramelised almonds. A chocolate bee, complete with almond flake wings, sat patiently by the cake before I dismembered it, head first, with my spoon.

If you’re looking to get closer to the action, down by the kitchen, then book a seat at the chef’s table, giving you an opportunity to see Jaeger and the La Soupe Populaire team at close quarters.

Additionally, if you’re into industrial heritage, you might be interested in booking a place on one of the free tours of the brewery premises. You can enter the former stables and vast vaulted cellars, which once stored ice, cut from nearby lakes during winter, in their triple-layered walls.

If you enjoy good food and thought provoking insights into urban heritage then consider adding La Soupe Populaire to your itinerary for your next visit to Berlin.

Further Information

La Soupe Populaire is at Prenzlauer Allee 242, 10405 Berlin, tel. +49 (0) 30 4431 9680. See the restaurant’s menu and opening times at www.lasoupepopularie.de. Make your reservation eight weeks in advance of dinner and a couple of days ahead of lunch.

Koenigsberger Klopse served with mashed potato and red cabbage at La Soupe Populaire.

Koenigsberger Klopse served with mashed potato and red cabbage at La Soupe Populaire.