Ivan Chen demonstrates the use of a Virtual Reality headset at the Excel London during the World Travel Market in London, UK.

Virtual Reality headsets in tourism and travel

At the 2015 World Travel Market, held at the ExCeL London, I pulled on a headset and took a look at the future of tourism. Virtual Reality – or VR as it’s known to insiders – seems set to become the next big thing in the travel industry.

At one of the hundreds of stands in the vast halls of the ExCeL London I pulled a padded, black plastic headset emblazoned with the words Virtual Reality. Roughly the same size and shape as a scuba diving mask, the headset proved surprisingly comfortable.

Ivan Chen of Anantarupa Studios

Ivan Chen – the Chief Executive Officer of Anantarupa Studios, a Jakarta-based digital content developer – stood by me as I wore the headset. It gave me a 3-D, aerial view of a sun-kissed island landscape.

He encouraged me to move my head and look around. As I did so the view changed, just as it would if I was looking around in real life.

3D views of the world

The 3D footage did a great job of conveying the illusion that I was floating through the sky. Then I descended towards the sea, splashing through its surface to view shoals of colourful fish and graceful rays. When I looked up I was able to see the sun shimmering above through several metres of virtual water.

Impressed by the experience, I asked Ivan for more information about his company and what they were doing at the World Travel Market.

“My company develops games and apps. Recently we’ve developed for Virtual Reality. We develop Virtual Reality products,” he answered.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

“Virtual Reality is different to Augmented Reality. Augmented Reality brings digital objects to our real world. Where Virtual Reality brings us into a virtual world,” he explained.

I was keen to understand what I’d just experienced. Obligingly, Ivan opened the headset to reveal a standard-looking Samsung device housed within.

“Technically this is just a gadget to show the content that we develop. We can use any kind of devices. We have cardboard and plastic ones with a smartphone. This is just a media,” he said. I later learnt that cardboard headsets are available on Amazon (£) for as little as $18.

Experiencing a destination’s ambiance and environment

“We shoot with a special camera. With the film we ask the audience to come with us to a country and experience the ambiance and the environment, as if you are there – that’s the idea,” responded Ivan when I asked him how the technology is being used at present.

For people within the travel industry Virtual Reality appears to have enormous potential. In addition to reading about destinations in books, blogs and brochures people now have opportunities to take a look around the places to which they are considering travelling.

“They can have a sneak peak of the place. They can say this is the kind of environment I want to go to for my vacation. This is one way to promote tourism using technology,” said Ivan.

Booking tickets and hotels

“There’s a lot of interest. We are working on a platform to connect our marketing tools and the marketplace, so people can search hotels and book tickets from our application,” he added.

Let’s see how long it takes before travel agencies have Virtual Reality headsets to showcase resorts, key destinations and iconic landmarks. Maybe we’ll all be watching films on VR headsets a few years from now?

Maybe it’s my imagination but didn’t the Tomorrow’s World television programme suggest we’d all have robots to undertake our household cleaning chores by the year 2000? I’m still waiting. Hopefully the roll-out of Virtual Reality technology will be markedly quicker.

A man demonstrates the use of a Virtual Reality headset at the Excel London during the World Travel Market in London.

A man demonstrates the use of a Virtual Reality headset at the Excel London during the World Travel Market in London, UK. Virtual Reality is also known as VR.

Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos at Mount Athos, Greece.

Cooking with Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos

Epifanios of Mylopotamos is one of around 2,500 Orthodox monks living in the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, the peninsula jutting 50km into the Aegean Sea from Halkidiki in northern Greece.

Most people know the area simply as Mount Athos, after the mountain whose rocky summit, at 2,030m above sea level, dominates the surrounding landscape. On its upper reaches you can still see cells where hermits long ago began praying in isolation.

The monasteries of Mount Athos

“Mount Athos has a long history and a big tradition. Many monks have lived here over the years and some are celebrated as saints, which is very important to us,” explains the 59-year-old Epifanios, who was aged 18 when he joined one of the 20 monasteries still active today. Those monasteries are surrounded by thick stone walls reminiscent of castles, a legacy of the threats faced during the Middle Ages when tales of their wealth attracted raiders, from Europe and beyond, intent on pillaging.

Epifanios lives within Mylopotamos, a clifftop skete, an outlying community affiliated to the Great Lavra Monastery, overlooking the sea. Mylopotamos was in a state of severe disrepair when he transferred here, back in 1990.

One of his first tasks was to undertake essential renovations and to restore the stone tower, which was then badly damaged. In 2008 the monk reintroduced viniculture to the region after Phylloxera, a pest affecting the roots of grapevines, destroyed local wine making in during World War Two. 4.5 hectares of well-tended, organic vines now flourish on the lower slopes of Mount Athos.

Vines under the slopes of Mount Athos in Greece.

Vines under the slopes of Mount Athos in Greece.

Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos

Though first and foremost a monk Epifanios has developed a passion for cooking and is today recognised as successful chef. He has popularised regional recipes in his book, The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos and tours Europe to give cookery demonstrations, including at Jamie Oliver’s Recipease in Notting Hill, London.

Many monks live beyond 90 years of age, meaning the food served on Mount Athos is regarded as among the healthiest in the world.

“Monastic cuisine is directly related to Mediterranean cuisine,” he explains passionately. The meals he serves are based on fresh fish and organic vegetables; Epifanios likes to use natural ingredients and avoids meat. When cooking at Mylopotamos he’ll use herbs fresh from Mount Athos to add flavour to dishes.

Easter traditions at Mount Athos

“The 50 days before Easter is the strictest and most important fast of the year,” explains Epifanios. The monks live on a frugal diet prior to Easter Sunday, avoiding cheese, eggs and raki.

After an all-night vigil in the Iveron Monastery, throughout Saturday night, they celebrate with a feast of fish soup, fish served in a white sauce and red eggs. The meal is served on long marble tables in a vast hall. Depictions of saints are painted onto the arched walls and ceiling of the refectory. While the feast is taken nobody speaks, other than monks reading blessings.

On Easter Sunday resident monks and visitors to Mount Athos greet each other with cheerful shouts of “Christos anesti” meaning “Christ has risen.” All of the people exchanging this greeting are men, as women are not permitted into the environs of Mouth Athos, whose land-based border with Greece remains closed. All visitors are required to apply for a permit and collect it in person before taking a ferry from Ouranoupoli.

Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos cooking in his kitchen at Mount Athos, Greece.

Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos cooking in his kitchen at Mount Athos, Greece.

Cooking with Monk Epifanios

Monk Epifanios cherishes having guests stay with him to gain an understanding of Mount Athos’s heritage and enjoys showing them how to cook over the open, wood-fuelled fire of Mylopotamos’s kitchen.

What would he be if he wasn’t a monk and chef? “Thin!” he answers, then bursts into self-deprecating, infectious laughter.

Further information

Find out more about the attractions of the region on the Mount Athos Area website.

For more about the country as a whole see the Visit Greece website.

Click on the image of the book cover below to go to Amazon (£) to purchase a copy of Monk Epifanios’s book The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos:

Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos in the cellar of the winery at Mylopotamos, Mount Athos, Greece.

Monk Epifanios of Mylopotamos in the cellar of the winery at Mylopotamos, Mount Athos, Greece.

A sign announces the Rugby World Cup 2015 on the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

England and the Rugby World Cup 2015

England’s team crashed out of the Rugby World Cup 2015 before the knock-out stages commenced. Nonetheless, the country’s rugby union fans continued to stream to games throughout the sport’s most prestigious tournament.

Thirteen cities around England and Wales hosted matches involving 20 of the planet’s leading international teams. The tournament kicked off on 18 September with a match between England and Fiji at Twickenham Stadium, a sporting venue that can often be seen on the flightpath into London’s Heathrow Airport. The Rugby World Cup 2015 reached its climax on 31 October, also at Twickenham, when the Webb Ellis Cup was awarded to New Zealand, who retained their mantle of World Champions after a 34 – 17 victory over Australia.

A tour through England and Wales

For 100 days over the summer, the 38 centimetre tall golden trophy toured cities around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. The tour included Cardiff in Wales, whose Millennium Stadium was the only venue outside of England to host matches during the 48 game tournament.

The cup weighs 4.5 kilograms and is named after William Webb Ellis, who, as a schoolboy, attended Rugby School in Warwickshire. Webb Ellis lived from 1806 until 1872 and is popularly credited with inventing the game of rugby. According to a story with hazy origins, Webb Ellis caught the ball and ran forwards with it in his hands during a football game played in 1823. His is buried in Menton, France, a nation that has reached the final of the world cup three times but whose team is yet to take the Webb Ellis Cup back to Paris.

Rugby School and the game in England

Within the United Kingdom many people continue to associate the sport with elite schools. Rugby School’s influence on the sport includes the tradition of presenting caps to the players of after they represent their country in international test matches. ‘Following up’ caps were originally awarded to the schoolboys who played for the school.

The fact England play in white shirts is also down to the influence of the schools former pupils, known as Old Rugbeians, who dominated the Rugby Football Union, the governing body of the sport in England, during its formative years. A number of the terms associated with the laws of the game – such as ‘knock on’, ‘offside’ and ‘try’ – also originated at the school.

England hosted the eighth Rugby World Cup

In terms of global sporting events the Rugby World Cup is still relatively young. The 2015 tournament was only the eighth. The inaugural tournament was jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand in 1987, a competition that the New Zealanders went on to win by beating France in the final 29-9.

Those same two teams contested the 2011 final – at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand – with the hosts edging France 8-7 to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.

A sign announces the Rugby World Cup 2015 on the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

A sign announces the Rugby World Cup 2015 on the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

New Zealand were the 2015 favourites

The powerful New Zealand team, popularly known as the All Blacks due to the colour of their famous strip, went into this year’s tournament as one of the favourites. England, Australia and South Africa are also among the teams fancied by bookmakers to win the Webb Ellis Cup.

A total of 2,439 points and 271 tries were scored during the tournament. Eight of those tries were scored by New Zealand’s Julian Savea who finished as the Rugby World Cup 2015’s top try scorer, two ahead of team mate Nehe Milner-Scudder. Nicholas Sanchez, of Argentina, finished as the top points scorer, on 97, as his team, nicknamed ‘Los Pumas’, finished fourth.

Rugby’s dissemination around the globe

Several of the participants in the Rugby World Cup 2015 were members of the Commonwealth of Nations. During the 19th century the sport spread to outposts of the British Empire, in which team sports were encouraged because they helped build discipline, character and camaraderie.

British emigrants introduced the game to Argentina and Uruguay, both of which competed in the 2015 finals. Trading links and the movement of students are credited as reasons that helped establish the sport elsewhere in the world. Georgia, Namibia and Romania were among the teams appearing in the tournament. Japan, which has in excess of 100,000 registered players, came to England knowing the Asian nation will host the next Rugby World Cup tournament, in 2019.

Football stadiums hosted rugby matches

Several matches were played at stadiums more accustomed to hosting football. St James’ Park in Newcastle, Elland Road in Leeds and Villa Park in Birmingham are among the venues that normally see round rather than oval balls being kicked. Kingsholm in Gloucester, Sandy Park in Exeter and Twickenham – traditional rugby venues – were also used.

Five matches were played in the 54,000-capacity former Olympic Stadium, within London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Many see that as fitting given this is the biggest sporting event to be held in England since the London Olympics of 2012.

Tickets for the Rugby World Cup 2015

The clamour for tickets was strong. Even before a ball was kicked 2.25 million tickets had been sold. In total 2,477,085 seats were filled, making it the most popular tournament in the history of the Rugby World Cup. Many were purchased by the 400,000 international fans who visited the United Kingdom during the tournament. The matches were broadcast in 209 countries, a broad reach that may inspire youngsters around the globe to take up the sport.

Fan Zones were established at 15 locations around the country, including on the Old Market Place in Rugby. A million international and domestic rugby enthusiasts mingled in the Fan Zones. In addition to having big screens for viewing matches, the zones hosted bars and had interactive areas where people could play touch rugby (a form of the game without full contact tackling) and test their passing skills.

The tournament generated more than £250 in revenue, including a surplus of £80 million for World Rugby and £15 million for the Rugby Football Union to invest in the development of the sport. England rugby fans will be hoping that means an improved performance by their team in Japan and beyond.

Further information

Find out more about the tournament, including all results and the locations of Fans Zones and match venues, click onto the Rugby World Cup 2015 website.

Learn more about rugby in England on the Rugby Football Union’s website.

See the Visit England website for information about things to do and places to visit.

St James' Park stadium in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

St James’ Park stadium in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

Oysters at the Brasserie Pakhuis oyster festival in Ghent, Belgium.

Oyster Sunday in Ghent, Belgium

Some might consider a brunch featuring a dozen oysters as decadent. But this is the third Sunday in October and I’m in the Belgian city of Ghent. Stopping at a mere twelve would mean missing out on at least a couple of the oyster varieties available at the Brasserie Pakhuis.

I’ve been told the Pakhuis’s annual oyster market – Oyster Sunday as it is known informally – has become a much anticipated culinary tradition since the event’s inception in 2008. That might seem a tad ironic considering Ghent’s socialist heritage. A ten minute walk from here the Vooruit arts centre stands as testimony to the sometimes tempestuous social history of this Flemish city. It was built over a century ago as a place for workers to meet, eat and be entertained. That, though, is a story that deserves telling elsewhere.

Ghent’s industrial heritage

It’s shortly after noon and I’m standing just inside the entrance of the airy brasserie. In 2016 the Pakhuis celebrates 25 years since opening. It occupies a site erected as a hardware warehouse in 1870. Green-painted iron pillars and skylights hint at the building’s industrial heritage. The roomy, two storey interior was converted into a chic dining and drinking space by the architect Antoine Pinto.

A headless angel sculpture stands to my left, next to a bar with polished brass rails. A barman wearing a waistcoat and red tie shoots me a greeting as he reaches up to grab a tulip-shaped glass to pour a beer.

The oyster market at the Brasserie Pakhuis in Ghent, Belgium.

The oyster market at the Brasserie Pakhuis in Ghent, Belgium.

Champagne and fresh oysters

In front of me the necks of Champagne bottles jut from boxes filled with crushed ice. Forks clatter against plates and the hubbub of conversation fills the busy hall. This is the only Sunday of the year that the Brasserie Pakhuis opens for business.

Over the next four hours around 6,000 oysters will be devoured during an event marking the opening of the oyster season. Pakhuis’s chef, Koen Lefever, believed such an event would prove popular and that’s proved true. It brings oyster producers face-to-face with consumers.

Between October and April diners can order fresh oysters here for their starters or main courses. Today, though, people are purchasing coupons to sample oysters from market style stalls with striped canopies.

Oysters from the Netherlands and France

“We have 14 different kinds of oysters from Zeeland [in the Netherlands] and mostly France. They come from Normandy, Brittany and Marennes-Oléron,” explains Dirk Tanghe, the brasserie’s public relations manager.

The oysters vary markedly in shape and size. Some are relatively flat. Others have shells that are a couple of centimetres deep, reminding me of the scoops at the end of ladles.

Tasting different types of oyster side by side emphasises distinctive differences in their flavours and textures. A variety from La Trinité sur Mer in Brittany impresses me with its nutty undertone. The large, fleshy Gillardeau oysters, cultivated at Bourcefranc in France’s Marennes-Oléron region, have a deliciously creamy flavour.

An oyster at the opening of the oyster season.

An oyster at the opening of the oyster season.

Enjoying an oyster’s merroir

“In wine production people speak of terroir. With oysters it’s merroir,” explains Dirk. Just as the local soil and climate influences the character and flavour of wine, the water in which an oyster grows affects how it will taste.

“We know our oyster makers personally. They are all here, presenting their oysters,” he adds while passing me an oyster produced by Patrick Liron in water off the Normandy coastline.

Brasserie Pakhuis’s signature oysters

I learn how the restaurant has two its own signature oysters. One is called Kara Savi, from Marennes-Oléron. The other is Verte des Bardières, a green oyster. Blue algae in the water of old salt pans reacts on the inside of the oyster to create its distinctive green colour.

Making my way out onto the terrace I pass a couple dressed in the historic costumes of fisherfolk. They sit together shelling North Sea shrimps. The woman, wearing a bonnet and shawl, smiles and passes me a pot of them. ‘Dank u wel’ I say, thanking her in Dutch.

People in the costume of fisherfolk during the oyster festival.

People in the costumes of fisherfolk during the oyster festival.

Baked oyster with 15-year-old Talisker

Outside I wait by a vast mobile oven. Eventually I’m handed a hot, baked oyster with a smoky flavour. A couple of drops of 15-year-old Talisker whisky add a hint of peatiness. It’s a delicious way to round off my first Oyster Sunday.

My hire bicycle is locked up nearby, on railings by the River Leie. Oysters, of course, are renowned for their aphrodisiacal qualities. Pedalling the cobbled streets of Ghent and sightseeing strikes me a way of channelling my energy.

Further information

Brasserie Pakhuis is located at Schuurkenstraat 4 in central Ghent. Call +32 (0)9 223 5555 to make a reservation. Pakhuis is known for its seafood platters but also operates its own organic farm in the Burgundy region of France. It’s from there that the kitchen sources its pork, lamb and free range chickens. The kitchen is open from noon until 11.00pm on weekdays and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

Find out more about the city via the Visit Ghent website. The Visit Flanders site is also a useful source of information about the surrounding region .

A plate of oysters at the Brasserie Pakhuis oyster festival in Ghent, Belgium.

A plate of oysters at the Brasserie Pakhuis oyster festival in Ghent, Belgium.

Lake Windermere in the Lake District, England.

Born Ready: microadventures for city dwellers

Alastair Humphreys, the British adventurer, and clothing manufacturer Wrangler have teamed up to launch the Born Ready Adventures campaign.

The Born Ready page provides activity suggestions for urban dwellers, within an hour’s travelling time of their city’s limits. The suggestions emphasise the suitability of Wrangler’s new performance denim collection for outdoor activities. The collection features insulating, stretch and water resistant jeans.

Activities in the United Kingdom, Germany and Poland

See the interactive map on the Born Ready page to view ideas for activities within an hour of Edinburgh, Manchester and London.

The Born Ready page also suggests activities within an hour’s drive of Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg in Germany. Similarly, the Polish cities of Krakow, Warsaw and Wroclaw are featured.

Activities such as caving, cliff jumping, canoeing and walking are among those listed as part of the campaign. Each entry features the journey time from the nearest major city, a brief overview of why a particular area is worth visiting, the kit required to undertake the activity plus a suggestion of how get there, courtesy of information from Google Maps.

Microadventures on an interactive map

At present swathes of the online map on the Born Ready page are still blank. Anyone, though, can add an activity to those already listed by clicking on the ‘share your adventure’ button. You’ll be asked to submit a photograph plus information relating to the activity.

I tested the system, suggesting walking into the countryside from Newcastle’s city centre – an enjoyable activity when the weather is fine. It’s a great way of getting exercise while gaining insights into the industrial heritage and architecture of Newcastle and Gateshead before heading into the rural landscapes further west. Returning into the city centre at the end of the walk provides a good selection of pubs to grab a rehydrating drink.

The adventurer Alastair Humphreys

Alastair Humphreys travelled 46,000 miles while cycling the world over a period of four years. He passed through 60 countries on five continents during that adventure, which he wrote about in The Boy Who Biked the World. He’s also rowed the Atlantic Ocean, participated in expedition in the Arctic and run marathons in the Sahara desert. Humphreys has also walked across southern India and in the Empty Quarter of Arabia.

The Born Ready campaign draws inspiration from Humphreys’ microadventures. He uses the term to describe challenging and rewarding activities close to home. As you’ll see on the site, these include wild swimming and sleeping outdoors on hilltops. Microadventures is also the title of one of Humphreys’ books.

So, what’s stopping you from clicking on the Born Ready page and heading outdoors?

Dunston Staithes by the River Tyne in Gateshead, England.

Dunston Staithes by the River Tyne in Gateshead, England.

An Eyefi Mobi wireless 8GB SD memory card.

Kit review: photography using an Eyefi wireless memory card & app

Testing an Eyefi Mobi wireless SD memory card with the Eyefi Mobi app that provides access to the Eyefi Cloud prompted me to think about how photos are now shared.

There’s nothing new in the idea that a digital photograph taken right now has the potential to be seen by millions of people around the world within a matter of minutes. Smart phones have made images of breaking news available instantaneously.

Traditionally, the workflow used in producing and sharing images from digital SLR cameras has been slower. However, Eyefi Mobi wireless SD memory cards make it possible to transfer images from a camera to a smart phone or mobile device. Without significant delays the images can be made available online.

SLR cameras versus smart phone photography

As a professional photographer I tend to regard the photographs I take on my mobile phone as snaps rather than serious photography. I work with a Canon 5D Mark III SLR camera but tend to play with the camera on my phone.

In part that’s because I’ve not yet invested in a high-end smart phone with a quality camera. Friends occasionally question that decision, particularly given the growth in popularity of Instagram, the photo sharing site, and the fact I blog.

Sharing photographs via social media

Those factors mean I can be slow to upload images to social media channels such as Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook. Even downloading my memory cards is a process that can take a couple of hours after a major shoot.

I tend to edit the RAW files, tweak them while they are TIFFs, then save them as JPEGs before selecting a handful for distribution via social media sites. That editing process, which includes adding captions and a watermark, can be time consuming. (It does, though, yield quality results and enables me to make my photos available to newspapers, publishing houses and photographic agencies.)

As the perceived significance of social media grows I’ve been reviewing my workflow, looking to accelerate the speed at which I make images available on social media sites.

Eyefi Mobi wireless SD memory card

Admittedly, I’ve been slow to make use of the potential of a product such as an Eyefi Mobi wireless SD memory card. The Eyefi cards enable files to be transferred from cameras to mobile devices.

I tested an 8GB memory card in my Canon SLR, after switching the Eye-Fi settings in my camera to ‘enabled’. I shot a combination of RAW and JPEG files, plus a number of photographs only as JPEGs. Both transferred successfully.

Impressively, the ability to transfers files was not dependent on me being online. I can see this being advantageous when I’m travelling in remote areas. It means journey time can be used effectively, so I have images to share on social media sites from my phone once it connects to the wi-fi in cafes or hotels.

I like the fact I can still use my SLR to photograph but don’t need to open up my laptop, connect my card reader and spend time downloading the files.

Seafood photographed in Ston, Croatia.

Seafood photographed in Ston, Croatia.

Sharing photographs across devices

Transferring the files to multiple devices can also prove a time-consuming process. The Eyefi Cloud synchronises their availability across devices and makes them available both on- and off-line.

Files can be transferred to a desktop without the need for a cable and without going over the internet.

Photos can be tagged and sorted as well as shared via Eyefi’s software.

First impressions are positive and I look forward to further testing the functionality provided by Eyefi Mobi wireless SD Memory cards (£) and Eyefi Cloud.

Further information

Three sizes of Eyefi Mobi wireless SD memory cards are available: 8GB (with a recommended retail price of £33.99), 16GB (£49.99) and 32GB (£65.99). They are available in the United Kingdom from retailers including Amazon, Cameraworld and Wex Photographic.

Eyefi Mobi apps are available to download from the Google Play, Apple and Amazon Kindle app stores. Downloading new apps and activating a new account includes a three month membership of the Eyefi Cloud. See the Eyefi website for up-to-date information regarding the cost of using the service for 12 months.

A ship in the Adriatic Sea off Dubrovnik, Croatia.

A ship in the Adriatic Sea off Dubrovnik, Croatia.


The Town Hall (Rathaus) and statue of Roland at the Fischmarkt in Erfurt, Germany.

Exploring Thuringia: the green heart of Germany

The geographical center of Germany lies close to Erfurt, the capital city of the Free State of Thuringia. If you chat to informed inhabitants, they may well present the case as to why the state that’s affectionately known as ‘the green heart of Germany’ is also central to the nation’s cultural psyche.

Over the past quarter of a century – since Germany re-united and the defenses that once prevented movement across Thuringia’s western border were stripped away – this region has become a popular destination with Germans keen to explore their heritage.

There’s even an argument that the modern German language was invented at Wartburg Castle, a medieval fortress on a rocky outcrop that throughout the Cold War was ideally situated for observing the dense, rolling woodland straddling the heavily guarded frontier dividing East and West Germany.

One of Germany’s 40 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Today Wartburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Between 1521 and 1522 Martin Luther completed his translation of the Bible’s New Testament into German within an austere room at the castle. The man who instigated the Protestant Reformation was then an outlawed fugitive and grew a beard to disguise himself as ‘Junker Jörg’.

Luther faced a tricky challenge in selecting words that could be widely understood. The land we now know as Germany was then divided into hundreds of kingdoms and principalities with markedly varied dialects. The vocabulary chosen by Luther became a basis for standardized German thanks to its popularization in printed books, then a relatively new invention.

A portrait of Martin Luther, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

A portrait of Martin Luther, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Goethe and Schiller in Weimar

Two of the language’s most celebrated writers – Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller – lived and worked in Weimar. A statue of the two men stands on Theaterplatz, the square in front of the theatre in which Germany’s National Assembly met, in the wake of World War One, to discuss and agree the constitution of the new republic.

The Thuringian city today draws many visitors because of its palaces and parks, which are collectively celebrated as the Classical Weimar world heritage site. Goethe wrote his celebrated poem Der Erlkönig (‘The Erlking’) in one of those historic buildings, his garden house within the attractively landscaped Park an der Ilm.

The Enlightenment in Weimar

Weimar was an important center during Europe’s Age of Enlightenment. A number of the continent’s great thinkers and creative minds were attracted to the royal court in the 18th century, the beginning of the period now seen as the city’s golden age. Goethe, one of those figures, resided in Weimar for more than 50 years. The story of the polymath’s life is told in his former residence, now the Goethe National Museum.

Another of Weimar’s highlights is the Duchess Anna Amalia Library. The Baroque building was badly damaged by fire in 2004 but impeccably restored. Thorough research ensured its original color scheme was recreated. The climate controlled library holds a valuable collection of rare manuscripts and books, including an original Luther Bible.

The Tourist Information office and former house of Lucas Cranach the Elder on the Market Place (Marktplatz) in Weimar, Germany.

The Tourist Information office and former house of Lucas Cranach the Elder on the Market Place (Marktplatz) in Weimar, Germany.

Music at Weimar’s annual Zweibelmarkt

October 9 to 11 2015 saw the 362nd Zweibelmarkt (meaning ‘onion market’), one of the most colorful events in Weimar’s calendar. Stalls do indeed sell onions and onion cake, a Thuringian delicacy, but it’s also a celebration. Bands perform live on stages around the cobbled marketplace, which is surrounded by buildings with Gothic facades dating from the Middle Ages.

At Erfurt, 26 kilometers from Weimar, you can see one of medieval Europe’s most important secular structures. Half-timbered houses stand on both sides of the Krämerbrücke – meaning the Merchants’ Bridge – which, locals say with pride, is longer and even older than the famous Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

Buildings around Domplatz (Cathedral Square) in Erfurt, Germany.

Buildings around Domplatz (Cathedral Square) in Erfurt, Germany.

One of Europe’s great trade routes

On it stands homes built for merchants who made their fortunes by buying and selling goods for transport along the Via Regia trade route, which ran between Moscow and northern Spain. By 1500, Erfurt’s strategic location helped it grow into the fourth largest city in the Holy Roman Empire.

Many of Erfurt’s historic buildings remain intact. The city’s 11th century synagogue was recently restored and hosts an impressive hoard of jewelry and silver in its cellar treasury. One of the towers of Erfurt’s cathedral is the home to the world’s largest medieval free-swinging bell, the 11-tonne Gloriosa, cast in 1497.

Pavilions by the ornamental pond in Kofuku No Niwa (The Garden of Bliss), the Japanese Garden in Bad Langensalza, Germany.

Pavilions by the ornamental pond in Kofuku No Niwa (The Garden of Bliss), the Japanese Garden in Bad Langensalza, Germany.

The gardens of Bad Langensalza

You can also see a number of half-timbered buildings at Bad Langensalza, the attractive spa town that’s known as Germany’s ‘Town of Roses’ because its growers have cultivated more than 90 rose varieties. Consequently, there’s a museum dedicated to roses. Many visitors head to the town to view its 13 landscaped gardens, including Kofuku No Niwa, the Garden of Bliss. The Japanese style garden features a pavilion plus a tea room which is open throughout the year.

So too is the Baumkronenpfad, the canopy walkway zigzagging through the treetops of Hainich National Park. Two inter-linked wooden trails run for more than 500 meters, providing views over Germany’s largest protected area of deciduous forest plus opportunities to spot the birds and animals that live within, including wildcats, rare bats and raccoons.

The top of the walkway’s 44-metre high central tower is the best place to gain impressions of the density and expanse of the surrounding beech forest, which forms part of a UNESCO natural heritage site. Interestingly, the regeneration of Hainich’s woodland and wildlife owed much to the fact the forest was a militarized zone and off-limits to civilians for the four decades prior to German re-unification on 3 October 1990.

The cultural heritage, historic cities and natural attractions of Thuringia help make ‘the green heart of Germany’ a rewarding region to explore.

A traditional Thuringian 'Brotzeit' meal, featuring seasonal fruit plus cheese and sausage.

A traditional Thuringian ‘Brotzeit’ meal, featuring seasonal fruit plus cheese and sausage.

Where to stay

The Hotel Elephant (Markt 19, 99423 Weimar, tel. +49 3643 8020) traces its history to 1696 and overlooks Weimar’s cobbled market place. The luxury hotel has 99 rooms and suites, in six categories. The Hotel Elephant’s Michelin-starred Anna Amalia restaurant serves Italian and Thuringian cuisine. Local dishes are also served under the vaulted arches of the Elephantenkeller.

Further information

To learn more about the region, visit the Weimar, Bad Langensalza and Erfurt websites. The Thuringia Tourism, Cultural Heart of Germany and Germany Travel websites are also a good source of travel and tourism related information.

The Media Harbour Dusseldorf. Photo provided courtesy of Dusseldorf Marketing. (© Düsseldorf Marketing & Tourismus GmbH – photographer U. Otte.)

Dusseldorf – an arts & shopping hub

If you’re planning a trip to Germany and looking to add a hip, multi-faceted destination to your itinerary, then you may find Dusseldorf is worth a visit.

Over recent years this city by the River Rhine has been quietly winning positive reviews for its luxury shopping and innovative architecture. The city celebrates its openness and cultural diversity, facets that are reflected in Dusseldorf’s influential contemporary arts scene.

Is it Dusseldorf or Düsseldorf?

Germans balance a pair of umlauts over the ‘u’ of this city’s name, so don’t be surprised that you’ll see Düsseldorf written on signs and departure boards when you’re in the country. Over 590,000 people live here, the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia. With more than 17.8 million inhabitants it’s by far Germany’s most populous state.

Locals suggest the exchange of ideas from so many minds and the multiculturality of the region helps account for the vibrancy of their city. They also joke that staying ahead of neighbouring Cologne, with whose residents they share a long-standing rivalry, is driving them onwards to bigger and better things.

You’re also likely to hear proud boasts, about how Dusseldorf’s public transport infrastructure, broad range of entertainment and sporting opportunities, plus parkland and riverside spaces means it’s ranked as one of the most liveable cities on the planet. The consulting firm Mercer’s currently rate Dusseldorf sixth on their global quality of living index.

Germany’s sixth most popular city

If you like to consult facts and figures before travelling, you might be interested in knowing Dusseldorf was the sixth most popular city in Germany last year. The city totted up a total of 1.85 million overnight stays by international visitors.

Many more guests spent a day in the city before moving on to stay elsewhere. Estimates suggest more than four million foreign visitors walked on the streets of Dusseldorf during 2014.

Cafes and restaurants in Dusseldorf’s Altstadt

The narrow streets of the Altstadt (Old Town) are a popular draw for the region’s residents as well as sightseers from further afield. The lanes of the historic city centre are dotted with 260 restaurants and bars, meaning it is both literally and metaphorically a good place to get an initial taste of Dusseldorf.

After strolling through the Altstadt turn onto the Königsallee, known locally simply as the KÖ, the city’s main shopping artery. In addition to flagship stores of luxury fashion houses and the Galeria Kaufhof department store at Königsallee 1, you’ll be able to dip in and out of numerous cafes and chic restaurants.

Shopping on the Königsallee

The Königsallee was built around a moat and originally conceived as a residential area. You can still see the moat and fountains at the heart of a park in which the leaves of chestnut trees provide shade during summer months. In addition to venerable buildings with stone facades you can head into airy, contemporary malls.

Stilwerk, a lifestyle and fashion hub, and Kö-Bogen, a luxury retail centre with an eye-catching façade designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind, are just two of the edifices encapsulating the modernity and vibrancy of Dusseldorf.

The largest fair on the Rhine

If you’re visiting during July and want to enjoy a taste of regional heritage then head to the Größte Kirmes am Rhein, literally the “largest funfair on the Rhine.” The annual festival with a funfair took place for the 114th time between 17 and 26 July 2015. Visitors were able to ride carousels, roller coasters and view the Altstadt from the revolving vantage point of the big wheel. DJs and musicians perform on the site, helping to create a fun, entertaining environment that reaches across age groups to draw well over four million visitors each year.

Currywurst and roast almonds

This broad appeal makes the Largest Fair on the Rhine the fourth biggest city festival in Germany. You’ll be able to taste a selection of snacks. The aroma of roast nuts drifts temptingly from the stalls they are prepared and you can also grab freshly made fish sandwiches and Currywurst (sausage smothered in ketchup and served with a dusting of curry powder). Currywurst is by far the most popular snack in the country and usually served with a portion of French fries.

Along the bank of the Rhine you can visit city landmarks such as the twisted steeple of the 14th century St Lambertus Church and the Castle Tower. On summer evenings you’ll see hundreds of residents out enjoying the evening sunshine on the promenade along the waterfront.

The best places to photograph in Dusseldorf

If you want memorable photos of the Dusseldorf skyline you have the option of including the Rheinturm, the telecommunications tower that rises more than 240 metres over the city, or heading up to the observation platform or booking a table in the tower’s revolving restaurant to point your camera down at the city.

Within it you’ll see Wilhelm Marx House, designed by Wilhelm Kreis and built between 1922 and 1924. By today’s standards the 57 metre building may not seem overly remarkable, yet it’s regarded as Germany’s first skyscraper.

If you appreciate modern architecture then stroll along to the Media Harbour, where you’ll see designs such as the striking Neuer Zollhof buildings by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry. The district is regarded as city’s creative hub and a pleasant place to wander if you want to gain an impression of the positive buzz palpable in Dusseldorf at present.

Dusseldorf’s Academy of Fine Arts

Creativity, though, has long been associated with the city, whose Academy of Fine Arts is associated with many outstanding names, including Joseph Beuys, Andreas Gursky and Gerhard Richter. If you enjoy visiting independent art galleries then it makes sense to check local listings for the latest shows. You also have a number of art museums to choose from.

The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen has three exhibition spaces showing works from the 20th and 21st centuries. If you’re pressed for time but want to see artworks by the likes of Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and Andy Warhol then prioritise a visit to the K20 gallery at Krabbeplatz.

With an upbeat international atmosphere there’s much to explore in Dusseldorf, making it a good entry point to Germany and well worth exploring during a stopover or over a weekend.

Further information

For more information see the Dusseldorf Tourism and Germany Travel websites. Find out more about the city in this promotional video, Dusseldorf – Come Closer.

Both of the photos illustrating this feature were provided courtesy of Dusseldorf Marketing (© Düsseldorf Marketing & Tourismus GmbH – photographer U. Otte.) The headline image shows the city’s Media Harbour.

If you enjoy art, take a look at the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf website for exhibition news.

The Kögraben in Dusseldorf in autumn. Photo provided courtesy of Dusseldorf Marketing. (© Düsseldorf Marketing & Tourismus GmbH – photographer U. Otte.)

The Kögraben in Dusseldorf in autumn. (© Düsseldorf Marketing & Tourismus GmbH – photographer U. Otte.)

Bridges of Paris, a coffee table book by Michael Saint James.

Book review: Bridges of Paris

Bridges of Paris, a coffee table book, tells the story of the 37 bridges crossing the River Seine in France’s capital.

Michael Saint James, an American photojournalist, is the author and photographer behind this attractive book. It contains more than 350 colour photos of Paris and its bridges.

The book is organised into four sections, starting with Paris’s island bridges before moving on to those by the city’s palaces. The bridges downstream of the city are grouped third. The final section explores the upstream bridges.

Michael Saint James’ copy and photographs

Saint James’ introduction explains how he became involved in this project. He immersed himself in Parisian life for a year in order to create the photographs illustrating this book. Over that time he got to know the city and its bridges, discovering facts that enable him to weave stories and make insightful images. By getting a feel for the City of Light Saint James steers clear of stereotypes and conveys Paris with verve.

He reveals his favourite bridge is the Petit Pont, the structure that he chose to illustrate the cover of Bridges of Paris. That shot, framed by the arched underside of a neighbouring bridge, is, like several of the images in the book, a well-balanced long-exposure taken at night. A bridge has spanned the Seine at this point since at least 52BC, though the Petit Pont dates from 1853.

Parisian history and insights

Bridges of Paris is dotted with facts and facets of the city’s history. Although Paris has more than 300 bridges only 37 of them span the River Seine. The 482-mile (776-kilometre) long river is named after a Celtic goddess, Sicauna.

The chapter entitled Bridging the Past looks at the history of the city from Roman times though to the modern era. Nineteen of Paris’s bridges over the River Seine were built between 1800 and 1900.

Each of the bridges is introduced with a page or two of history-laced copy. A fact box includes the date of the first bridge on the site and the year the current structure was opened. Its length, width and number of arches are provided, along with the present purpose of the bridge. The introduction to the Mirabeau Bridge also includes Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem Le Pont Mirabeau, in both French and English.

Photography of Paris’s bridges over the River Seine

The pages of Bridges of Paris display photos ranging from close-ups of love locks on the Pont de l’Archevêché through architectural details to images of people exploring the crossing points of the city. Arguably, some of the most impressive photos in the book are those of landmarks illuminated at night. There are elements of street photography too, with scenes from everyday Parisian life.

This book is likely to appeal to Francophiles, lovers of Paris and, of course, bridge aficionados.

Further information

Find out more about Michael Saint James’ coffee table book on the Bridges of Paris website, where you can order copies.

The site includes information about the author and photographer, reviews of the book, plus a blog about Michael Saint James’ experiences while living in the French capital for a year and working on the book.

The hardcover book measures 14” (35.6 cm) by 9.5” (24.1 cm) and has 280 full colour pages. Bridges of Paris is published by Citron Bay Press and costs US$85.

You can also order the book via the Amazon website.

Bridges of Paris, a coffee table book by Michael Saint James.

Bridges of Paris, a coffee table book by Michael Saint James.

Shoppers and bicycles on Ree Straat in the Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets) in central Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Amsterdam’s ‘Nine Streets’ shopping district

Ask a local and they’ll tell you Amsterdam’s Nine Streets (Negen Straatjes) area is known primarily for its stylish boutiques and designer stores. The district occupies a fairly central location and has a chic, laid-back vibe plus a host of cosy cafes. You don’t need to be an avid shopper to be enchanted by this part of the Dutch capital.

The Nine Streets offers a far different shopping experience to the high street stores on and around Kalverstraat, which runs southwards from Dam Square. Walk west of the Royal Palace and within a matter of minutes – five at most – you’ll cross the Singel canal and be heading along Gasthuismolensteeg, which leads onto Hartenstraat then Reestraat, the northerly most trio of streets. Wandering here is by no means merely about shopping, it’s just as much an insight into the heritage and soul of the city.

Facades from the Dutch Golden Age

Look upwards and you’ll see brick facades and ornate gable ends dating from the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, when wealthy merchants invested money made from overseas trade in homes and business bases. Over recent years apartments in this area of Amsterdam have once again become desirable and property prices have spiralled upwards.

Part of the allure of the Nine Streets is you’re never far from the broad waters of the Herengracht, Keizergracht and Prinsengracht canals, which loop around the city’s core. In August 2010 Amsterdam’s canal ring was inscribed onto UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Strolling along allows you to observe locals out with friends on pleasure boats and catch snippets of commentaries from low-slung barges touring the tree-lined waterways.

Dining and drinking by Amsterdam’s canals

In fine weather you can stand by bicycles chained to the railings of gently arching bridges and capture photos. Should it rain you may be able to grab a window seat in the Koffie Huis de Hoek, Pancakes Amsterdam or the De Struisvogel Restaurant, just three of the many cafes and eateries on the Nine Streets. Several places list their specials on chalkboard menus and enticingly display freshly baked cakes.

Tourist attractions such as the Anne Frank House and Westerkerk, where the artist Rembrandt van Rijn is buried, lie just north of the Nine Streets, allowing you to combine browsing shops with sightseeing. On the Keizergracht you’ll see the elegant, Classical façade of the Felix Meritis House, where regular concerts and cultural events are held. At Brilmuseum, part museum and part shop, you can see historic spectacles and purchase vintage frames.

Sign for Ree Straat in the Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets) in central Amsterdam.

Sign for Ree Straat in the Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets) in central Amsterdam.

The origins of the ‘Negen Straatjes’ name

The district also encompasses Berenstraat, Wolvenstraat and Oude Spiedelstraat plus Runstraat, Huidenstraat and Wijde Hiesteeg. This explains why this part of the city has been known as the Nine Streets since 1997. Shopkeeper Djoeke Wessing, now 70, was the driving force behind the establishment of the area’s identity. She felt it needed to be recognised as a neighbourhood, in the same way as the nearby Jordaan. For her achievement, King Willem-Alexander this year decorated Djoeke with the Order of Orange-Nassau.

The evolution into a recognised district took around a dozen years and involved a lot of hard work networking between independent shopkeepers and tourism authorities. “There were nine streets, so I thought I’d just call it the nine streets – Negen Straatjes in Dutch. Nearly everybody was against the name. They said it was a stupid name. I thought it may be stupid but it tells exactly what it is,” says Djoeke. Despite reservations the name was ratified at a meeting.

Brand names and boutique stores

Over the past 18 years the area has evolved. Inevitably, there’s been an element of gentrification as rents have risen. That said, the Nine Streets remains an attractive hub with a broad mix of store types, some unique and charmingly small. You’ll see well-known brands such as Replay, Fred Perry and Marc O’Polo as well as the likes of Boekie Woekie, a shop run by artists to sell art books, and Mendo, where you can purchase art and photography books. Windows displaying antiques, vintage goods, art, jewellery and watches, delicious looking chocolates plus designer household items make this a great place to browse for ideas and inspired purchases.

Two years ago the opening of a Karl Lagerfeld concept store on Hartenstraat reinforced the notion that this is a trendy district popular with the young and discerning shoppers. It’s also evolving into a sought after place to stay and is the site of the Dylan Hotel Amsterdam, a boutique five-star property with 40 rooms and a Michelin-starred restaurant, Vinkeles.

The Nine Streets remain bustling and vibrant. The patter of footfall and hubbub of conversation reverberates and is part of their distinctive allure.

Further information

See the Nine Streets and de Negen Straatjes websites for more information about what there is to see and do in the area.

For more about the attractions of Amsterdam see the Iamsterdam website or the Holland page.

A busy shopping street in the Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets) in central Amsterdam.

A busy shopping street in the Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets) in central Amsterdam.