Thu08172017

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LuxairTours are again promoting the North African country as a tourist destination which has been very popular indeed over the last 30 years since its inception in 1987, but has suffered due to security issues, most notably in 2015.

LuxairTours now believes that those troubles are firmly behind them but have a contingency in place to be able to evacuate everyone within 24 hours if needed.

Aiming for 25,000 passengers this year (the figure reached 30,000 in its heyday up to 2011), the Luxembourg tour operator already has 7,000+ reservations confirmed for the 2017 summer season (April-October), up 82% on 2016 bookings and, with April capacity already completely sold out, early signs indicate that consumer confidence is returning. They are flying for the moment just to Djerba - a 500m2 island with a population of 170,000 off the north coast, geographically situated south of Sicily, where security can be more easily managed - and hope to return to Enfidha for the 2017-18 winter programme. And LuxairTours has recently added a 5th weekly flight to its Djerba summer schedule to meet expected demand.

LuxairTours has no less than 24 hotels, both 4- and 5-star, as well as one LuxiClub for families with young children, in the tourism area of Djerba island, most within a 30-minute drive of the airport which itself is operating an increased level of security, albeit discreet.

Last week-end, LuxairTours flew a Luxair Boeing 747-800 full of travel agents and some journalists from Luxembourg and throughout the Greater Region, to Djerba. The two-and-a-half-hour, 1,800km flight took us over the Alps, then the Cote d'Azur, past Turin and then over both Corsica and Sardinia, before continuing south to the Tunisian coast. The crew laid on a tasty, fresh on-board meal with drinks, snd the LuxairTours staff accompanying the passengers combined to put on a great effort and created a party atmosphere by holding a mid-air tombola with model planes, merchandise and RayBan sunglasses as prizes. This helped cement the impression of an airline and tour operator being different and treating passengers as real people and part of the family, not just numbers in a system.

Upon exiting the passenger terminal at Djerba, the airport management company had laid on a high-tempo musical welcome and all passengers were presented with a Fez (traditional red North African hat).

It was also comforting to see an armed police presence at a number of points along the coast road from the airport to the main tourist area, across a flat and barren expanse. Instead of creating uncertainty, this reinforced the sense of security in the area. While my previous recollections when travelling this road last in 2015 were the myriad of plastic bags strewn along the roadside, this time - while the volume of discarded bags was significantly less than previously - my attention was caught by the number of different species of birds feeding along the shoreline in the shallow water, and a number of locals fishing from the shore and from boats in the bay. While this signified a big plus from the ecology and environment perspectives, what was also noticeable since my previous trip here was that the condition of most of the (private) cars being used had worsened considerably, one metric that illustrated how the significant drop in tourist numbers had affected the local economy. We were later to learn that hoteliers in the region had received an allowance of not having to pay the employer's portion of social security payments for last year and this year, in order to safeguard jobs in the tourism sector.

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Arriving at the Hastrubal Thalassa & Spa Djerba hotel, all guests were welcomed with a refreshing glass of fresh lemon juice and towels with which to freshen up before the check-in and access to the spacious and comfortable rooms, each with their own balcony and sun furniture, prior to departing for the nearby Fiesta Beach Club hotel - described by LuxairTours as the most popular in their brochure - for dinner and entertainment.

Instantly recognising this location as where I had stayed during the last LuxairTours press trip to Djerba in 2013, it brought back pleasant memories of individual, quiet whitewashed apartments in a spotless landscaped environment, weaving around the main pool and down to the beach with pristine white sand, a calm and warm sea, camel rides along the beach and volleyball courts, etc.

With the main course served at the tables, with the starters and desserts available from extensive buffet displays, the large dining room availed of a large stage where the venue laid on an extensive cabaret show catering for all tastes, including dancing the night away...

In the morning, after a sumptuous and healthy breakfast back at the Hastrubal accompanied by a classical pianist on a grand piano, a stroll around the grounds revealed pristine garden landscaping, aquamarine pools glistening in the glorious morning sunshine, with fonds on the manicured palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze. The shoreline was less than 100m away, dotted with parasols and deckchairs, with camel rides along the beach proving popular even with the early risers.

A beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky and daytime temperatures of 20-21C - it dropped to 15C overnight - with a slight sea breeze, and off to the Houmt Souk, the island's capital, and a visit to the market and a walk to the old city.

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The stroll through the central market place of the town took us through meandering, narrow streets with whitewashed walls and blue-painted doors and window frames, with green plants on balconies and flowers in full bloom. Added to the colour of the wares in the market stalls was the hum of activity and occasional sound of musicians performing in small squares, creating a comfortable and relaxing - if sometimes noisy - atmosphere. The covered souk (market) was primarily clothing and jewellery, with colourful, glazed earthenware - including tajines - also being peddled from outdoor market stalls.

A stop at a foudouk (local traditional café) brought some welcome refreshment in the form of fresh orange / lemon juice, with plenty of seating in the ground-floor square open space close to the local musicians and singers, with comfortable padded chairs and carpets in the alcoves off the first-floor inward-facing balcony.

Off then to the Djerba Golf Club for lunch, and some fun on the putting green for those interested. Again, a great show was put on for the travelling contingent, this time a local easy-listening covers band apparently performing all of The Eagles catalogue of tracks. This time the food served up was half-a-dozen small dishes of mainly French cuisine, on the terrace overlooking the practice putting green.

Back to the airport and a two-and-a-half-hour flight back to Luxembourg in one of Luxair's four 168-seat Boeing 737-800s. again with great service including an in-flight meal.

For full photo album, see http://bit.ly/2omsf0r

For further information on LuxairTour's offers to Djerba in Tunisia, including special deals, see www.luxairtours.lu

Monday, 12 September 2016 09:15

Geoff Thompson: Destination Milan

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While the fact that the week-end I chose to visit Milan coincided with the F1 Grand Prix down the road at Monza, that had little bearing on the trip; however, seeking out the world-renowned Ferrari store in the northern Italian city was certainly on my list of things to do.

Set in Lombardy in the north of Italy, relatively close to both Turin and Bologna, with the Swiss border and the Alps to the north, Venice to the east and Rome to the south-west, Milan can be best described as the centre of Italy's fashion industry - think Prada, Armani and Versace - and financial sector and brimming with cultural heritage, the latter not unlike most of the rest of Italy.

The early flight at 06:30 was probably 2/3 full and took just 75 minutes to fly south of the Alps. With hot and cold drinks, as well as a fresh croissant, and delightful company with whom to pass the time chatting, we were there in no time. Malpensa airport was not busy at all, but a few F1 aficionados were conspicuous by their presence, as was a Martini welcome desk complete with a F1 car on a pedestal. A 45-minute train ride on the Malpensa Express brought us to Milano Centrale, enabling a quick check-in at the nearby hotel before I set out to explore the city.

With temperatures slightly higher than back home in Luxembourg at 32C, the city was basked in sunshine throughout my visit. Walking around with a map in hand was straight-forward, but to see some of the main sights a pre-booked half- or full-day tour is advised, if only to beat the queues. Along the way there were plenty of trees offering not only welcome shade but also green colour to the city, with a couple of large parks attracting walkers, joggers and pedestrians alike.

The vehicular traffic in the city was much lihghter than I had expected; I discovered later that this was partly due to the congestion charge brought in for the city centre, with the city's metro having secured an additional line for last year's Expo. Many people were transporting themselves by scooter and the Vel'Oh!-type public picycle scheme, with cycle paths on the wider streets. While walking around, what struck me was the number of book and magazine stands, as well as the number of book shops. The Italians must love to read!

Within close driving distances of the city are both the Monza F1 track and Lago Maggiore, a favourite escape destination of Milanese city dwellers. More about this lake in former times, later.

The Parco Sempione lies between an impressive arch, the Arco Della Pace, not unlike the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, except without all the traffic bustling around it, and the Castello Sforzesco, an imposing fort that has been extensively renovated to return it to its former glory at one stage in its history. But what is also noticeable is the dry moat that surrounds it.

This leads on to the Duomo, the magnificent cathedral which is the 3rd largest in the world after St Peter's in the Vatican and that in Seville, atop which is a spire that indicates the highes point of any building within the confines of the metropolitan city. The building is constructed of marble which had been quarried from near Lago Maggiore and had been brought to Milan by barge along the canal that used to stretch all the way from the lake to the city.

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Right beside the cathedral is the famous Galleria Emanuele II, a vast, cavernous shopping arcade that is described as the first of its kind. At one of the stores here, Ferrari, apart from merchandising there was a F1 grand prix car on display, and two full-size simulators were in action downstairs.

The ruins of the imperial palace are almost non-existent, but they are there if you know where to find them; Milan is so unlike Rome in respect of the preservation of Roman architecture.

The famous La Scala opera house may not be that magnificent a building to view from outside, but from inside it is simply stunning. It was being prepared for the first perforance of The Magic Flute that evening; with the new season launch on 7 December of Madame Butterfly, seats for that special gala evening go for between €1,500 and €2,500.

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Saving the best until last, the Piazza del Santa Maria Della Grazie is where the Dominican manastery is located; this houses the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper. While tickets can be difficult to come by, the easiest way to see this masterpiece is to book a half-day tour with the ticket included, or you could do what I did - go to the ticket desk in the morning and see if there are any cancellations or available tickets for later in the day. due to its importance, groups of just 25 people are allowed in at a time, with one group every 30 minutes. When entering the room itself, the painting is at one end, and it is only with other people standing below it and looking up, do you geta  perspective on its size and importance. Listening to the guide is well worth it as there are so many stories about the painting, including how it was protected by sand bags during the war, meaning that it was left standing when its two adjoining walls (that were not protected) were destroyed to rubble.

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Getting there: Luxair flies direct to Milan Malpensa airport (see www.luxair.lu), with the city accessible by airport train for as little as €12 each (tip: don't forget to validate

your ticket before getting on the train). Most places of interest are within walking distance of each other, but public transport is plentiful.

Photos by Geoff Thompson - for full photo album (on Facebook), see http://bit.ly/2cCvf0I

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Monday, 08 August 2016 20:10

Geoff Thompson: Destination Warsaw

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On 1 March 2016, LOT Polish Airlines (in codeshare with Luxair) launched a new route from Luxembourg to Warsaw, offering direct access to the Polish capital for the first time, as well as using Warsaw as a hub which provides connections to northern and eastern European destinations including Stockholm, Palanga, Vilnius, Kosice, Bucharest, Sofia, Riga, Istanbul and Budapest.

Last week-end I got the opportunity to travel to Warsaw, a city I had yet to visit. I purposefully did little research beforehand, wanting to revel in the discovery of something new. What I did know was two things; firstly, Chopin was born in what is now Poland and, secondly, I remember living through the unrest in the Polish shipyards of Gdansk, with Lech Walesa being at the head of the Solidarity movement, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and later becoming the first elected President of the country.

Travel

The outward flight was on early Friday evening, with a 19:15 departure time. With Luxembourg airport relatively quiet, passing through security was as quick as always. With the scheduled boarding time still a half-hour away, and a 15-minute delay announced, although the incoming aircraft had already arrived, I took the opportunity to boot up my laptop, check emails and do a last bit of work before the flight.

We boarded availing of the convenience of a passenger boarding bridge, straight onto to the 70-seat Embraer 170 jet. The aircraft was surprisingly roomy, with plenty of space in the seat and regarding legroom. Having noted beforehand that the in-flight service was not complementary, I was prepared not to expect any surprises. On the 100-minute trip I managed to read a bit, have a nap and read some more before we came into land.

After taking a short bus ride to the passenger terminal, my first introduction to Chopin, the passengers had a short stroll through the airport, and I remembered to make a quick deviation to an ATM to get some Zlotys (noting an exchange rate of circa 4:1 for Euros) before locating the head of the taxi rank - where I was staying had advised me this would be the quickest and most straight-forward way of getting there, costing just 40 Zlotys (€10), a snip compared to taxi prices in Luxembourg.

For details of LOT Polish Airlines, see www.lot.com,  or via Luxair who operate a code-share, see www.luxair.lu.

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Accommodation

It took less than 15 minutes to get to the Autor Rooms on Lwowska in Warsaw's city centre, very close to Constitution Square, with my initial reaction of the city being of wide streets and many buildings of 5-7 storeys high. There were trolley buses and trams in operation, and I learnt the following day that Warsaw also has a 2-line underground system too. It was wet on the ground, and relatively humid after a thunderstorm.

The 6-storey building had been built in the early 1950s, after WWII when much of Warsaw had been destroyed, and the owners of the large 3rd floor apartment has evidently done a great job recently at renovating it and turning it into a chic guest property with four uniquely-styled rooms, retaining the original high ceilings and double windows, as well as preserving the original stucco and wooden floors. The designers have used mirrors and copper piping to both give a perspective of depth and originality, as well as homely comfort.

I had a separate bedroom with large double bed and balcony, a long sitting room/study with sofa and desk, and a spacious bathroom. Central to all of this was the open common space offering a library and breakfast area, where all guests are served while at the one large table.

Breakfasts included hard boiled eggs, a variety of bread with a selection of spreads and jams, as well as cold meats, tomatoes, cucumber and avocado, and a selection of cheese, also, tea, coffee and fruit juice. Enough there to sustain hungry guests before a long day ahead!

The community aspect was interesting, with some guests there both nights I was there, and others there for just one of the nights, replaced by others I met the following morning over breakfast. Some were visiting from elsewhere in Poland, with others from the UK and other European countries. Always an interesting way to start the day.

For details of the accommodation, see www.autorrooms.pl.

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Lazienki Park

For this trip, the Poland Tourism Office has arranged for a guide for the day. Agnieszka and I discussed what I could do and see and together we planned to first visit the extensive Lazienki Park, then walk parallel to the river and to the Old Town which has been where the Jewish ghetto had been located during WWII, with a bit of Chopin along the way. And we would walk it all - no public transport, no taxis, just by shank's mare; in total we walked almost 20km, and I did almost half that again the following morning by myself.

Before the World Wars, Warsaw used to be called the Paris of the North, and it now has a population of circa 2 million people, of which circa 300,000 are students. While the average wage in Poland is equivalent to circa €1,000/month, wages in Warsaw are higher, but so too is the cost of living. Agriculture is still the main economic contributor to the country's GDP, with Warsaw mainly involved in service industries.

The Lazienki Park is right in the middle of the city and covers an area of circa 74 hectares; once inside, one is in a different world and cut off from the hubbub of city life - maybe this is why the former Polish kings liked it so much. It still has peacocks and the forests are full of read squirrels, so dogs are not encouraged, and neither are cyclists allowed - yet the wide streets in the city centre have plenty of cycle paths and there is a also a public bicycle rental scheme, just like Luxembourg's Vel'oh! system.

The park is dotted with buildings - including one name the Orangerie, like at Mondoef-les-Bains - camouflaged by the green tree canopies, but accessible by the myriad of paths. These buildings all used to be owned and used by the royals, but now one can rent them out for private and/or corporate events. As well as the numerous sculptures there is also an amphitheatre where two open-air Chopin concert recitals are performed daily, and some ponds providing the water features. In fact, the park is one of the locations of around 15 musical benches, made from stone with inscriptions and shot pieces from different compositions he wrote.

I learn that the country had its first constitution in 1791, the first country in Europe to do so. Its kings were from its royal family but were later elected.

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Chopin

Warsaw is immensely proud of its famous musical son, Frédéric Chopin, with its international airport passenger terminal named after him. He father was originally from Paris, and he was born in Warsaw (in 1810) along with his two sisters. Another sibling died young. He showed signs of genius at a very young age but his father wanted his to "get a proper job" before marrying, so he could prove to be able to support a family. He left Warsaw and went to Austria, before moving to France aged 21 for what were to be the final years of his life, until he died aged just 39 years, probably from tuberculosis. He is buried there, but his heart was secretly moved back to Warsaw by his sister and was later publicly located at a church beside where he had lived earlier, in Poland's capital.

We passed the Chopin museum which dates from the 1930s, but has been located at the Ostrogski Palace since 1953 where it also contains a library and collections of photographs and recordings, including a number of original manuscripts of his works, as well as a mutimedia museum. It was refurbished in 2010 for the 200th anniversary of his birth.

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In walking along the streets of Poland's capital, one thing that may have been rather difficult to see if we had been using any other form of transport - the footpaths are frequently decorated with intricate designs involving bricks, stones and cobbles.

I learn that 85% of the city had been destroyed towards the end of WWII, which explains what is described as the city's neo-classical architecture. It doesn't seem to me to be as stark as, say, in Helsinki, but that's a good think for Poland. It would be interesting to visit other Polish cities in the future and see what their architecture is like.

The city is very flat indeed, with only the area along the river showing any real change to the topography. As well as monuments and statues to personalites such as astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, there are others of foreign personalities including Ronald Reagan and Charles de Gaulle.

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We walked along the Nowy Swiat - from the artificial palm tree northwards towards the Old Town - a long street with plenty of cafés, coffee shops and restaurants, with plenty of flower boxes and geraniums blooming, and stopped at one offering traditional Polish fare. I tried the sour rye soup with sausage and egg, with a main course of succulent venison which normally we would have to wait for until the hunting season in the autumn, here in Luxembourg.

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We visited the Warsaw University Library, itself a unique building designed by architects Marek Budzyński and Zbigniew Badowski which incorporates a botanical garden on its roof and which offers stunning panoramic views of the city an od the nearby  Copernicus science centre. Close by there are new apartment blocks and, further away, the skyline is dotted with a few skyscrapers, two of which are for apartments and the others for offices.

I noticed as well that there were precious few jaywalkers, with tourists respecting the way that residents (pedestrians) would wait until pedestrian lights would change to enable them to cross roads. The same was not the same, though, regarding the illegal use of mobile phones in cars while driving...

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The Old Town and the Uprising

At the time of WWII, 30% of the population of Warsaw was Jewish (circa 380,000 people). During the Nazi occupation, the ghetto was created by adding street by street to the restricted area which eventually turned into an area of slave labour. Due to the atrocious conditions, around 100k Jews died of disease and starvation, with another 300k brought away to camps by train (Auschwitz is 230 km away, just further than Krakow). In fact, there were two uprisings.

The first uprising happened on 19 April 1943, with Jews in the ghetto protesting against the trains and inhumane conditions. It was all over on 16 May when the Nazis set the ghetto on fire and blew up the main synagogue (just 1 of 400 synagogues has survived to this date).

The second uprising too place on 1 August 1944 when the Soviets were coming. The Polish underground wanted to liberate the city but Stalin did not want to help and stopped his troops from crossing the river, so the uprising had no support. Hitler then ordered the destruction of Warsaw and circa 50,000 people were killed in the first 5 days; in total, 200,000 people died, incl. 20,000 members of the underground movement.

The Jewish Museum is the pick of the city's numerous museums and is located just outside the old city walls and the Barbican, the gate house. It has eternal flames burning outside and was designed by the same architects as for the university library

The current Old Town has been completely rebuilt but is a delight to walk through, with cafés and souvenir shops adorning the squares and streets. I re-visited the Old Town on the second day when the sun was shining, when a lot more people were out, both locals and tourists.

The second day of my stay in Warsaw co-incided with a cycle race, with different categories for young and old alike. It reminded me of the Skoda Tour of Luxembourg and the Gala Tour de France held a few years ago in Luxembourg city centre, such were the mass numbers of cyclists who had swarmed into the city centre. And how appropriate too, after Poland's Rafał Majka had won a bronze medal in the Men's Road Race at the Rio Olympics the day previously.

So, overall, Warsaw has a huge amout to offer; while its main offerings may be historical and is therefore perfect for those wanting to discover more about recent history, including WWII, as well as the legacy of Frederik Chopin, its beautiful parkland is just waiting to be explored, along with its neo-classical architecture and modern design.

To get there, see either www.lot.com or www.luxair.lu.

Photos by Geoff Thompson - for full photo album (on Facebook), see https://www.facebook.com/Chroniclelu/photos/?tab=album&album_id=926615234116449.

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Thursday, 04 August 2016 19:10

Geoff Thompson: Destination Galway

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When in Lux-Airport and waiting in the departure lounge to board the Luxair flight to Dublin, it is interesting to see who else is flying that same route that same day: one part of me is saying I hope that the flight is only half-full as I would most likely enjoy more space, etc., while another part of me is telling me that the more people on the flight, the more likely Luxair is to retain the flight on its schedule of destinations – since it re-opened the direct route to Dublin, flying to and from Dublin has never been more easy and convenient, and cheaper too with Luxair’s pricing strategy (the earlier one books, the cheaper the tickets).

When I took that flight on a Monday recently, I got chatting to an Irish couple we have known for many years here and who also embrace the direct flight by using it a number of times each year. The discussion ranged from family to the Luxair flight service, current affairs and more, including a reference (positive, I may add) to my destination reports published on Chronicle.lu.

The Journey

With online and mobile ticket purchases as well as check-in resulting in a paperless flight, with electronic boarding cards in my iPhone Passbook, the only part of the process where human intervention is still required is access to the security area where manual scanning of boarding cards is still undertaken – I wonder with all the infrastructure changes at Luxembourg airport when they will replace the two security staff (one on either side of the passenger terminal) with machines that scan boarding cards, like in many other airports nowadays.

In any case, the real joy of Luxembourg airport is the VERY short time it takes to pass through security and board one’s flights.

The late morning flight ensures that passengers are thirsty and somewhat peckish by the time the plane takes off and the cabin staff serve drinks and sandwiches. As today I’m not driving (any more) today, and I have already started to wind down, it’s a crémant for me, plus a sandwich. Then a snooze and a read, in no particular order. I know many people, family included, who cannot fall asleep on aircraft – my problem is trying to stay awake! Maybe it’s the number of flights I take and I am used to relaxing while travelling?

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Dublin

Once we disembarked in Dublin, we recognise a couple of other passengers who were sitting a few rows behind us, a charming Luxembourg couple, recently retired and who are now doing a number of short tourist trips. We were asked for advice on what to see and do within their three-day stay in Dublin’s fair city. While everybody likes to do different things and have different experiences, we quickly established that they would be staying in Temple Bar in the city centre, so would be walking or getting the bus when travelling. So, it was easy to recommend the Guinness Storehouse close to the Liffey, but out a little bit from the city centre, and the Book of Kells and the Long room of the Library in Trinity College. I could also have mentioned the Titanic exhibition in Belfast (just a couple of hours by train), and a hundred and one other suggestions, but sometimes less is more…

We stayed overnight with family in Dublin and enjoyed catching up and helping out; the following day we took a coach to Galway from Dublin city centre. Again, online bookings and no need for paper receipts. Normally we would take the car and leave it in a garage for the best part of a week, so this time we decided to be more environmentally conscious and to do without our own four wheels.

No Luxair in-flight service this time round, but we had taken drinks and snacks to make do until we reached Galway.

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Galway

We came there for the Galway Film Fleadh (festival) with whom we partner for the British & Irish Film Season (BIFS) that is taking part from 21 September to 1 October, along with the Edinburgh International Film Festival that takes place each June.

With our bags in tow we walked from the Galway Bus Station to the nearby hotel, checked in, ensured the Internet connection worked, and set off (on foot again) for the Town Hall Theatre, the central focal point of the Fleadh. I got my delegate’s pass and picked up our tickets for the Opening Film – we came back the following morning to collect the tickets for the other films we wanted to see during the 6-day festival, which were mainly Irish productions.
Exactly as at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), the listing of the films in the programme didn’t set the mind racing with anticipation; however, I had hoped – like at the EIFF – that I would leave the festival having been spoiled for choice of some great films to consider for the Luxembourg festival. In the end, I was not disappointed, not one iota.

From the hotel to the Town Hall Theatre, there are two different, both direct, ways to walk. One is along the streets, most of which are pedestrianised, along Quay Street and High Street which are thronged with buskers and street performers, and lined with restaurants, pubs and cafés, reflecting Galway’s link with culture and the arts.

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The other way is to walk on the boardwalk along the river Corrib, specifically its outflow from the salmon weir above the town, with most of the stretch being tidal. This is where I could lose myself for hours or days on end, watching the salmon anglers wade, cast (double-handed) their flies and catch the odd salmon. Some of the locals are allowed fish the stretch downsteam, mostly trotting shrimps and sometimes catching the odd salmon too.

There had been a lot of rain recently and the water levels were high, so there were a lot of salmon and grilse (a salmon that has returned to the river after just one winter at sea, and averaging 1.5 – 2 kg) in the tidal stretch, waiting their turn to start their migration upstream. Looking carefully in the water one can spot them, with their silver flanks glinting in the sunlight, or when they jump half out of the water, often to get rid of sea lice on their scales. That stretch is home to many swans and cygnets, and this time I saw a seal in the tidal stretch too.

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We met some family who met us at our hotel and caught up on family, politics, Brexit, et al. We met others too, both friends and from the industry side of the festival, some of whom had been in Edinburgh just two weeks beforehand, also Irish filmmakers, etc., whom I had met at this festival in previous years, and some who had been to Luxembourg too.

I got to see many films, attended some fascinating industry events and made some great contacts, with some hopefully to come to Luxembourg to showcase their films next month, or maybe around St Patrick’s next year. I also got to talk with the great Jim Sheridan!

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Travel Home

The week in Galway had come to an end, another year’s Fleadh had come and gone and I had done my research and networking for the Luxembourg event. So it was like rewinding the tape for our travel home - back on the coach, this time direct to Dublin Airport, took a little longer getting through Dublin Airport (compared to Luxembourg airport), but climbing aboard the Luxair Bombardier Q400 turbo-prop and nodding off before we even left the runway. Maybe it was the smell of the coffee, but I woke in time for my drink and sandwich, then another read of my book. In no time we were landing in Luxembourg and 40 minutes later we were back home in the comfort of our own house.

It was interesting to see on that flight that, possibly for the first time on that route, I knew not one other passenger on the plane. We also worked out that many people were starting their journey from Dublin, so Luxair’s marketing actions in Ireland are having success, instead of all passengers from the Grand Duchy. With a load factor in excess of 80% the Dublin-Luxembourg route is is good shape and, for one, I look forward to using it more over the coming years.

To get there with Luxair, see www.luxair.lu

 

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When contacted recently by the Luxembourg Slovenian Business Club about a Slovenian organisation selling mobile homes / holiday chalets to a Luxembourg campsite, in Wasserbillig, I was invited to take a closer look and visit the Big Berry Lifestyle resort on the Kolpa river bordering Slovenia and Croatia; having last been to that region on a family holiday ten years ago, and to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia (Dubrovnik - Zadar - Zagreb) earlier this year, I was delighted to be returning to this place of pure, natural beauty.

Big Berry Concept

The Big Berry Lifestyle Resort can be found at Bela Krajina on the south-eastern border with Croatia, the River Kolpa providing the reminder of where one country starts and the other ends. Set in 3.5 hectares of carefully tended grassland sloping down to the River Kolpa, the Big Berry resort is based around a new concept of tailored mobile homes (also described as prefabricated holiday chalets), all fitting in with the concept of sustainable tourism and Winning by Sharing, with just 7 units located at what is currently the showcase site.

This year (2016), the Big Berry Lifestyle Resout is open only for branding; however, it will open to the public from 2017. The resort is fully intergrated with the local community whereby all members of the scheme benefit from each other, and the effect is multiplied, therefore Winning by Sharing.

Here the lifestyle resort is set up as a Showcase were the model can be replicated in other destinations - agreements about to be signed with operators in Italy, Croatia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania - either by franchise (regarding the entire set-up) or by purchasing mobile homes for their existing operation - as in Wasserbilling in Luxembourg which expects delivery in 2017.

The mobile homes have been produced for seven years now by the Slovenian company Hosekra, with all the interiors and exteriors made in Slovenia. Hosekra then established the Big Berry brand which consists of the Winning by Sharing model of supporing local producers, etc., as well as manufacturing the mobile homes, of which there are two main models:

- BLUE BERRY: for coastal and seaside tourism;

- BROWN BERRY: for countryside tourism.

The quality and fittings are the exact same for both, the only differences are the configurations and the colours. These come in three different configurations: 4m x 8.5m (34m2) for 2, 4 or 6 people. All are passive energy houses in that they do not consume external energy.

Big Berry currently employs two full-time people who operate the centre; they are supported by a large number of interns coming from all over the world and all with an interest in tourism, social media, event management, communications, etc., within the Erasmus for Interns programme and who get paid and are provided with food and lodgings.

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Our Big Berry Experience (#bigberry)

Upon checking in and getting the keys to our own 2-person chalet, we quickly discovered a generous Welcome Basket awaiting our arrival. Inside we discovered an arrany of local produce including honey, bread, butter, walnut oil, organic apple juice, red wine, gin, a hemp liquer, soap and shower gel, as well as a host of information explaining each. All are from local partners, emphasising the bond with nature and the outdoors as well as the local economy.

The bedroom is equipped with two large single, adjoining beds, the separate bathroom has a large walk-in shower plus toilet, wash-hand basin and foot bath, and the multi-functional living area has a large flat-screen tv, airconditioning / heating controls and a fully-equipped kitchen (fridge, freezer, microwave, 3-ring cooker, liquidiser and plenty of utensils, crockery and cutlery). In keeping with the sustainable tourism concept, guests are provided with linen bags.

Outside, the covered terrace overlooks the river which is just a stone's throw away, and there is plenty of space for a jaccuzi, a couple of deckchairs and a table and chairs - on which we eat our meals and from which I am writing this article.

On the Croatian side of the river there appears to be a public car-park and access to the riverbank, with concrete steps down to the water's edge every 50m or so, with young and old enjoying an evening swim with others preferring high jinks and a big splash after sliding down a long slide into the relatively cool water. Some were fishing from the banks, with others going up- and down-stream in canoes and kayaks.

We went for a stroll around the resort and discovered a communal barbecue area, other pagoda-style tents with solid bases, equipped with cushions and pillows, allowing relaxation during the day and at night for those who prefer to sleep outdoors.

We discovered a host of wildlife too, from the trout and grayling meandering in the soft flow of the river, to the myriad of dragonflies hovering over the mown grass banks or sunning themselves on stones close to the riverbank. A heron flew close and a stork was out patrolling a tilled field to the back of the resort.

The resort is spacious and also has a central shop and area for the interns, with an extensive covered terrace leading down to the river and close to the children's playground and volleyball court.

The staff, both those permanent and the interns, were all fantastic to a fault. The excursions to the winery, oil producer, bee / honey farm, etc., included everyone who had not been before, providing visitors and staff/interns alike with the opportunity to get to know everyone else in an informal and social setting.

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Dining & Food

While the Big Berry mobile homes / chalets have ample cooking facilities and the Lifestyle Resort has an extensive outdoors barbecue area, dinners are primarily in collaboration with 3-4 local restaurants that are Winning-by-Sharing partners with Big Berry Lifestyle Resort.

This enabled us to have breakfast - picnic baskets of fresh bread (pogaca), fruit, yoghurts, milk and eggs were delivered daily before 08:00 - in the privacy of our own terraces overlooking the Kolpa river. And dinners were either driving 10-15 minutes to one of the partner restaurants or ordering food to be delivered. Availing of both opportunities we were able to sample the local meat and vegetable soups, the bread and, in particular, the local grilled and barbecued meats - primarily turkey, pork and chicken.

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Wine Tasting (www.pecaric.si / #pecaric)

On Saturday evening those staying at Big Berry Lifestyle Resort were treated to a visit to a nearby family-run farm; a family of 9 live off the farm which has focussed on wine production over the past few years, but which also has pigs and other farm animals.

Starting with 2,000 vines the Pecaric vineyard (www.pecaric.com) now spans 5 hectares and 20,000 vines, in the fields surrounding the farm which is used both as a home and a working farm. The original farm outhouses have been rebuilt, from cellars to barns, using wood from local forests, which have also been used to create wood panel carvings depicting scenes from the farm.

The winery uses both steel urns (where the process is much slower as no air gets in) as well as oak barrels for storing the wine, both red and white, with 10 different grapes grown to produce 15 different wines, including both still and sparkling, both dry and naturally sweet. The farmer-cum-winemaker took great delight in describing the process to produce sparkling wine which takes a total of three years before it is ready to drink, after the two phases of fermentation, removing the sediment, corking, etc.

The tasting commenced with a sparkling wine, one of four produced at the winery, this one comprising 80% chardonnay and 20% local grape varieties. Quite fruity with quality small bubbles.

The second was a white wine blend which has 30-40% Reisling with the remainder coming from local varieties; the locals often mix it with sparkling water for a "spritzer". Quite unique but very drinkable. And so were the two reds that followed, one dry and one medium and fruity.

Out came the pogaca, a traditional welcoming bread garnished with salt, poppy seeds and cumin.

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The winemaker was enjoying educating the mainly young audience about wine-making and wines in general, as well as how he works on each individual wine, with plenty of interpreters ready and willing to translate between Slovenian, Croatian and English. One of the issues that has speeded up the learning curve here of tending the vineyards and producing the wines is the annual wine competitions, for which Pecaric has done very well...

The rosé that followed was the most fruity, with a taste of cherries and other red fruits. With all the wines tasted so far being from 2015, we continued with another rose, this time a 2006 Pinot Gris which was heavily flavoured from the (10-year) ageing in oak barrels, but lets the vanilla flavour through. We finished off with a 2015 Muscat, a sweet wine with a strong scent of elderflower, and an ice wine which was like tasting the nectar of the gods...

None left a strong lingering after-taste but all were light and, offering contrasting flavours, are all eminently drinkable, some with food and others just by themselves. Pecaric is testimony to the Slovenian wine industry having come on in leaps and bounds in the last 25 years following the devastation of the 10-day war in the region as the former Yugoslavia broke up.

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Bee / Honey Farm (#cebelarstvoveselic)

We visited the a bee farm nearby which has been in the same family for four generations. From an economic necessity the father and son also have other jobs but they put a lot of time and effort into their passion, a family hobby which is now a commercial venture.

The bee farm comprises a total of 300 bee families (hives), each with one queen bee and 20-80,000 male bees (drones). The queen lays up to 1,000 eggs/day and lives 2-5 years.

The son, an expectant father himself, explained that the largest threat to honey production are parasites which kill the bees, and expressed his particular concern at the future of chestnut trees, and therefore honey production, due to specific parasites that destroy the trees. Other countries are facing similar problems, with Italy introducing wasps to try to eradicate the parasites; Slovenia is being more cautious as the threat of wasps to the food chain, etc., is unproven.

He also explained that clear honey comes from bees harvesting honey from flower pollen, with dark honey coming from bees harvesting honey from insects that take sap from trees, with the latter being higher in quality. He explained that the bee farm produces between 2-10,000 litres of honey annually; however, this year is not good because of the wet weather and southern winds.

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Pecaric Oil Producer (www.oljarna-pecaric.si / #oljarnapecaric)

Another trip was to the Pecaric oil producer - no link to the wine producer of the same surname which we visited the previous evening - which has also been in its family for three generations.

The family tradition is based on not using heat to extract oils, an approach that may result in lower quantities but higher quality. All their oils have good health benefits, being anti-cariogenic and containing anti-oxidants. They make oil from 20 different raw materials, including walnut (particularly good for the brain and heart), hazelnut (Vitamin E), grape, apricot (good for the skin, including acne), sunflower seeds, almonds (for baby's skin), flax seeds, hemp seed (painkiller), poppy seeds (for strengthening nails), black mustard, blank and white sesame seeds (white seeds for massage), pumpkin seeds, peanuts (arthritis), rose hip (skin) and cumin seeds.

The ingredients for the oil made from hazelnuts, walnuts and grapes are all sourced locally, with the others being imported. They are currently looking for more local producers to supply them. A tasting followed, with local bread.

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Vizir Kraft Brewery (www.vizir.si)

Another trip organised was to the Pivovarna Vizir artisnal or misco-brewery in Črnomelj, around 15 minutes drive from the Big Berry Lifestyle Resort, where they have both a winery and a brewery, but it was the latter we came to see.

The owner, a passionate and knowledgeable man, talked about the the art of brewing and the beer-making process, about hops and yeast, and about the difference between lagers and ales. The tour of the brewery, including the massive steel vats, was followed by a tasting of some beers that are already commercially available as well as some that are still being "in development". Some of the beers included the following: Black Jack (American Stout), Kostanko Kostanjevo Pivo (Fruit / Vegetable Beer), Vizir Gringo (American IPA), Vizir Lucky Luke Sexy Ale (American Amber / Red Ale), Vizir Meggy Medeno Pivo (Herbed / Spiced Beer), Vizir Mirko Pale Ale (English Pale Ale), Vizir Nori Franc Strong Ale (American Double / Imperial IPA) and Vizir Pšenično Pivo (Wheat Ale).

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One of the interesting options in the shop was the 6-pack of six different Vizir beers for €12.

Architecture and The Three Churches

The architecture seen through rural Slovenia presents a sense of a cross between that of the Black Forest (white walled houses with dark stained wooden balconies decorated with red geraniums) on the one hand, with old ramshackle wooden barns with overhanging rooves on the other, presenting a direct link with the past, conjuring images of horse-drawn ploughs to till the fields, etc. Another impression was how spic and span the entire area is, with nothing out of place.

One of the trips we manged to do in the vicinity of Big Berry was to visit the three churches - the Tri Fare Pilgrimage - where three churches have been constructed (at various times, and the older ones (dating back to the 11th century) rebuilt and renovated at different stages - right next to each other, with the others built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century.

The surrounding graveyard is very well tended with most graves having electric candeles that are lit (until the batteries die) and many have fresh flowers too.

We also got to visit another church at the top of a hill in the middle of the vineyards, where the congregation had climbed earlier in the day for a pilgrimage and church service, before settling down to a community meal outdoors, overlooking the hills and valleys below. Inside, the church was very ornate with frescoes decorating the walls and ceilings.

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Fishing / Nature (www.kovac-kolpa.com)

On the 80-minute drive to the fishing lodge/hotel (River Kupa Lodge), still on the Kulpa (Kupa) river bordering Slovenia and Croatia, we noticed the fence that is still being erected along the Slovenian border to keep out refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, etc. the razor wire is still visible in many areas but is being replaced by fencing which is less inhumane and because the razor wire has resulted in the deaths of many wild deer which have tried to reach the river for water.

We travelled to thus spot as downstream the river is much warmer and better suited for fishing using other techniques; so we headed upstream for the cooler and faster-flowing waters.

This region is famous for its extensive wildlife, including deer, brown bears, wild boar, wolves, badgers, raccoons, and many birds too. The scenery is absolutely stunning - 70% of Slovenia is covered by forest - with narrow rural roads meandering an zig-zagging their way through the forests, through remote villages and up and down hillsides and along valleys. We stopped at a look-out with a Church stop, pausing long enough to take a few photos and admire the view.

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Having purchased a fishing licence from the fishing lodge / hotel, we surveyed our options and decided to start from a bridge around 2km downstream and fish first upstream and then downstream from the bridge - with the river upstream accessible from the Slovenian side and, later, the river downstream accessible from the Croatian side. With one fly only allowed, setting up the rod - I had brought a 7-piece collapsible 7-foot rod with me in my carry-on luggage, together with a couple of fly reels, a couple of small boxes of dry flies and nymphs, and some flurocarbon line for tying traces, plus my waders - was simple and quick.

I managed almost 4 hours on the water, using my polaroids to search for grayling and trout and casting my line, trying different techniques and flies. Most of the fish - some small and some a decent size - were taking advantage of the shade offered by overhanging branches from trees growing along the Croatian bank. Few fish were rising to the surface, instead concentrating on the many insects and larvae on the bottom, so it was nymph fishing then. And some of the river was relatively shallow - up to 70cm deep - and rocky, with other stretches having muddy bottoms, deeper channels and slower-flowing stretches. It was between these that I found the best spots.

From the centre of the river and one foot in Croatian waters and the other in Slovenian waters, the scenery is arguably even more attractive. Fishing is not really about catching fish, it is more about appreciating nature and the outdoors. The sheer cliff faces rising up out of dense deciduous and coniferous forests, the angles of the rocky peaks and the valleys in between, coupled with the gap forged by the river are all marvels of nature, with the numerous bunches of wild flowers growing along the river banks providing an array of colour against all the shades of green in this luscious forest area.

The fishing lodge / hotel was also a centre for adventure sports in the area, including rafting, kayaking, paint-balling and rock climbing / abseiling, amongst others.

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How to get there: fly to either Zagreb in Croatia or Ljubiana in Croatia, with a 90-minute drive to the Big Berry Lifestyle Resort.

Photos by Geoff Thompson - for full photo album (on Facebook), click here

 

Thursday, 02 June 2016 20:11

Geoff Thompson: Destination Almeria

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With LuxairTours now flying to Almeria in the southern Spanish coast, I was able to sample the service offering on a quick trip there this week; interestingly, the Luxair Boeing 737-800, after the early morning flight landed in Almeira, then took off for Reykjavik in Iceland in a clever piece of fleet optimisation that sees an Icelandic tour operator fly their customers from Almeira to Reykjavik, then from Reykjavik to Almeira, ready for the return flight to Luxembourg with LuxairTours passengers on board.

We took the LuxairTours Boeing 737-800 from Lux-Airport, one of the first flights out just after 06:00, and were served a fresh breakfast on board half an hour into the flight which was just over two hours in duration. Flying over southern Spain, we had a bird's eye view of the Sierra Nevada and the rugged mountains which gave way to land covered by grey-white coverings used extensively for agriculture; otherwise the landscape was fairly featureless outside the towns.

Coming in to land on the runway, we saw it was situated just a couple of hundred metres from the flat blue sea. The main difference, though, was while we left Luxembourg in torrential rain, the southern Spanish coast offered blue skies without a cloud in sight and the thermometer hitting almost 30C.

The airport was small so we were quickly through it and on our way to the region's capital, Almeria, just 20 minute away, passing tomato, cucumber and bell pepper (capsicum) cultivations along the way that we had seen from the air. The region also grows plants from which they extract fibres which are used for making ropes, etc., after being exported to Norway.

The surrounding hills/mountains in the Sierra Nevada around Tavernas may not be very high but they have been used for shooting films such as Indiana Jones and Conan the Barbarian. The region is also home to a 3.5 metre diameter telescope, one of the largest in Europe.

We took a stroll through the town with its narrow streets, spick and span, with plenty of tress offering shade and flowering shrubs providing a colourful contrast, plus a mix of old and new architecture - some still standing from before the Spanish civil war. We climbed the mount to the restored Alcazaba fortifications, allowing a wonderful view over the town, across flat-rooved buildings to the port and glistening sea beyond. The port is split into three parts, with one for large passenger ships which travel to and from Morocco, and another for the town's commercial fishing fleet.

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Staying on the theme of economics for a second, we learned that the area's unemployment rate is 30%, with youth unemployment at 65%...

The town also has a statue of John Lennon, who used to visit Almeria, and the public can view around the house in which he stayed. There is also the incredibly ornate interior of the cathedral with its fortified external walls and which also offers an intriguing upper-level inner courtyard.

We had a quick spin around the surrounding towns too, all looking similar, and we headed out to Roquetas de Mar where LuxairTours has 3 hotels in their Vakanz catalogue and where we had a leisurely lunch in a restaurant on the beach.

Back to the eastern side of Almeira, this time to the Cabo del Gato nature reserve and along a 25km stretch of beach without any buildings at all on either side of the road. Once outside the towns there is very little vegetation, with the porous red sandstone support only scrub, making it clear why the region has been used for shooting westerns with notable actors such as Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef and many more.

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At the end of the 25km stretch of unspoilt coastline we stopped at a lighthouse at Las Sirenas, no named as the ricky pinnacles off the headland are as beautiful as mermaids. Shortly before our stop we saw the salt lakes where the locals harvest fine salt by hand and sell it for €6 for a 125g jar. A stop at the "Salinas" confirmed there are many different birds, etc., to be seen there, including herons, egrets and flamingoes. And another stop was at a quiet secluded cove with a small jetty and s number of small fishing boats moored, with the mountain backdrops and mottled turquoise waters picture-postcard quality. Having a drink at the water's edge in the late afternoon was refreshing, relaxing and peaceful as we watched the shoals of fish swim by underneath us.

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We also passed by the world-wide Michelin test centre, including a track where new tyre compounds and designs are tested prior to being marketed. This is the area where both silver and gold used to be mined.

While Almeira may not be the most developed of the Spanish tourism regions, being maybe 10-15 years behind the most developed, it is relatively unspoilt, ideal for families in the summer and retirees in the winter. The only spoiler for this is the roadside litter outside the towns and the national park; while there is never that much in any one spot, it is consistent and could be cleared up with a little effort.

How to get there: LuxairTours flies to Almeira three times weekly during the summer season (Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays) and offers both packages and flight-only deals. See www.luxairtours.lu for details.

Photos by Geoff Thompson - for full photo album (on Facebook), see www.facebook.com/238112732966706/photos/?tab=album&album_id=888431557934817

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Sunday, 29 May 2016 19:01

Geoff Thompson: Destination Athens

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With the launch of the twice-weekly Aegean Airways flight from Luxembourg to Athens, I was lucky enough to be able to travel on the official inaugural flight last Thursday.

With their 174-seater Airbus A320-200 aircraft serving the route, the three-hour journey was punctuated by the cabin staff serving drinks regularly plus, rather surprisingly, a small hot meal.

After flying over the Alps and then down the Adriatic Sea, while coming in to land we could see from the topography of the hilly terrain that between the undulating hillsides - some of which have been quarried - had a mix of tilled arable rectangular fields. Just off the irregular coastline were shallow turquoise waters off white sandy beaches, with linear and distinct roads winding around the hillsides and through towns. As the plane got lower, the buildings started to come into focus and the multi-storeyed flat-rooved apartments mixed with tiled single- and two-storey houses, all followed by a mix of scrubland and olive groves.

Stepping out of the plane, onto the ground with was the home of the ancient Greek civilisation for 4,000 years, but which was destroyed by Herulians in 267 AD. But before we could see the sights, we needed to get into the city. The Athens Metro has just three lines, but its introduction a few years ago immediately resulted in a drop of around one third of the total number of vehicles in the city as the new public transport system was embraced to enthusiastically. With €10 for a one-way ticket (€18 for a return) we needed just one change and we were within a couple of hundred metres of where were were staying.

Up early the following morning we decided to climb the 2,500 year-old Acropolis before the sun got too high and the heat became too much. Unlike Rome where the main archaelogical remains are in the city centre on more-or-less the same level, Athens is very different, with the Parthenon and other must-see ruins located at the top of the rocky outcrop. A €20 entry charge (or €30 which also includes access to other attractions) is well worth being able to walk around the Acropolis (one side of which was under wraps while it is being restored), as well as the Old Temple of Athena and the Erechtheum.

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If those are not enough to satisfy one's thirst for architectural and cultural heritage, there is the truly magnificent outdoors Theatre of Dionysus viewed from above where the opera Aida is to be performed early next month - one great reason to return to Athens... But while we were up at the summit we got our bearings and worked out how to get to various other sights on our list that day.

Interestingly, there were no hawkers at all present around the Acropolis - they were limited to the shopping and market areas we later discovered. Also, the refugee crisis that has hit Greece was almost non-evident, with the local authorities keeping them away from the tourist areas. 

Walking through the gardens with plenty of flora, we then discovered and explored other sights including the Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus as well as the Museum of Ancient Agora, before exiting to Thissio.

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Hungry and thirsty from our morning exertions, we chose one of the many local eating places and sampled some of the traditional dishes - the souvlaki (grilled pork on skewers) and gyros, both large helpings and served with tzatziki sauce and pita bread.

Walking around the pedestrianised shopping streets of Plaka we stumbled into a fish spa, where customers pay to dip their feet in water whereupon Garra Rufa fish (a small member of the carp family) eat away at dead skin and leads its rejuvenated. The shops and stalls were offering everything from replica Greek pottery to Greek sandals and everything else inbetween.

We then made our way towards Hadrian's Arch (constructed in AD 131 as part of the wall separating the old and new parts of the city at that time) and the Temple of Zeus with its imposing 17 metre-high Corinthian columns - just 15 of the original 104 still survive.

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The (new, opened in 2009) Acropolis Museum is a spacious four-storey building built over ancient ruins which can be viewed through glass floors. With a €5 entry fee, the museum has much ancient pottery, statues, busts and wall carvings on display, with explanations in both Greek and English.

While we took advantage of just one full day exploring the ancient monuments, etc., there is so much more to do and see - not just other parts of Athens but also other Greek

cities and numerous Greek islands.

Full schedule and network information can be found online at www.aegeanair.com. The airline flies the route on Thursdays and Saturdays until 29 September 2016.

Photos by Geoff Thompson. For full photo album (on Facebook), see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.885856524858987.1073741909.238112732966706&type=3

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For Part I of Destination Croatia - Discovery and Exploration, see http://www.chronicle.lu/categoriestravelopinion/item/16902-geoff-thompson-destination-croatia-discovery-and-exploration-part-i

Biograd

We stayed the second night at another of LuxairTours' partner hotels, the Hotel Ilirija in Biograd, further up the coast. The 4-star water-front hotel offers a wellness centre providing an array of services, and its Restaurant Marina Kornati offers a buffet meal, with plenty of choice, in the evenings. A marina is in full view from the hotel rooms and the hotel bar offers a commanding eye-level experience of the nautical comings and goings.

The small marina in front of the hotel houses the smaller pleasure craft, while the larger one is situated just around the corner and is the base from which the teams competing in this week's Siggy's Cup (Luxembourg's corporate sailing competition) are operating - the day we were there the participating craft were south, between Dugi Otok and Murter, and due to return to Biograd that evening.

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Wine-Tasting & Cuisine

Inland, the ground is surprisingly fertile, at least compared to what we have seen along the coast for the past couple of days, with much of it used as arable land for growing crops, and later on for vineyards and orchards of fig trees and olive groves, with many producers adopting organic practices.

15 minutes outside Biograd, we stopped off at Iliriga Biograd for another sampling session of local brews, including sherry, wines and liquers, before moving on for something to eat. The property has been in the same family for 600+ years and includes their own distillery. The property has been developed as an agri-tourism centre, with renovated chalets, a swimming pool and more for residential guests, as well as the facilities for hosting events from seminars to weddings, catering for up to 60-75 people at a time. Of the wine produced here, 70% is red and 30% white; they have their own winery which produces around 4,000 litres annually. Traditionally the wines from this region are blends of grapes from local varieties (that can thrive in the soil unlike traditional varieties which have deep root systems) producing both quality and quantity.

Another short trip in the minibus and we stopped a second winery, Skaulj, for a quick tour before lunch. It's a family business producing 5 different varieties of organic red wines, much of the 80,000+ litre production being for the export market, using traditional grape varieties, as well as local varieties. The Skaulj winery offers Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Maraština, as well as Syrah, Cuvee and Tomislav; some of their wines have won medals at prestigious international festivals.

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One of the challenges of both these wineries is that, although the people in both are extremely friendly, welcoming and accommodating, the locations are rural and would be difficult to locate unless going on an organised tour with a driver who knows how to access both places.

To eat, we were served up charcuterie  starters of cold and smoked meat and triangular pieces of local cheese, with main courses of trays of barbecued meat (mainly pork chops, lamb chops, veal steaks and some chicken) and of grilled fish (from whole squid and octopus tentacles to white fish, etc.). In addition, for two meals we were served pasticada, a meat stew cooked in the traditional way of covered skillets on embers.  Traditional side-salads were also served with most meals in place of vegetables. While Croatia has specific regional differences in its cuisine, coastal cooking involves the use of herbs and some spices, with both fish and meat part of the staple diet and traditional dishes.

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Zadar

The origins of the city of Zadar date back 3,000 years; it it strategically positioned on the end of a peninsula and parts have been restored, including architectural remains dating from the Roman and Venetian periods. Part of the city has a significant Italian influence as a result, with flagstones at the former Roman Forum dating back over two millennia.

Taking advantage of a guided walking tour of the city, starting from the People's Square and also taking in the 5 Sisters Square, we learnt the 5th largest city in Croatia has no less than 44 churches on the peninsula alone. The city is spotlessly clean, like all the towns and villages we visited, and easy to explore thanks to the stone pavements in the pedestrian city centre; all we needed was a map illustrating the main attractions, both historical and cultural. These extend to the waterfront walkways and piers, with the unique sea organ creating music from the motion of the sea, not unlike the sounds of whales, a hypnotic sound from another wonder of nature. Then there was the celestial circle which is fed by photovoltaic cells during the day and which emits a rhythmic light display once the sun goes down.

The city also has a number of marinas, in keeping with the nautical influence of the rest of the country's coastline onto the Adriatic Sea.

Overnight was at the hotel Falkensteiner, located 10 minutes by road outside the city; with spacious rooms and modern 4-poster double beds, all flooring and furniture in light wood; the breakfast buffet in the morning was extensive, offering everything from cereals and fruit, cold meats and cheese, breads and pastries, to a range of cooked alternatives, both meat and vegetables.

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Plitvice

On the 3-hour drive to the country's capital, Zagreb, we stopped off at another of Croatia's national parks, at Plitvice. The drive brought us up through forests and hillsides, where the villages would not have been out of place in the Black Forest or the Tyrol, such is the architectural style of the houses and buildings. For parts of it, specifically driving through the (primarily) deciduous forests, we could even have been back home in Luxembourg.

Upon stopping briefly at one of the local hostelries en route, it was apparent that this terrain is home to a number of large wild animals, from brown bears and deer, to wild boar, badgers and more. Roadsigns indicated that numerous facilities existed for adventure sports in the area, including rafting and quad biking, as well as kayaking and fishing (for trout and grayling).

Plitvice is the oldest of Croatia's eight national parks and is a Unesco heritage site. It has a series of walking trails, boat rides and a tourist train, with the various series of waterfalls the main attraction, as well as hundreds of species of birds, bats, orchids and butterflies that live there.

The waterfalls are indeed truly spectacular, both higher and more numerous that at Krka. When we were there, however, the weather was somewhat overcast, thus preventing the sun from showing off the glorious aquamarine colours of the water, as we had experienced in Krka. But what helped immeasurably was the extensive network of boardwalks - in great condition - which enable visitors to maintain a sure footing. While we were making our way through the forests, moving from one level to another, passing waterfalls and lakes both large and small, there were two persistent sounds - that of the falling water and that of the myriad of birds, enduring an incredible audio experience, as well as being visually stunning.

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Arguably keeping the best until last, The next  stop was at Rakovica in Slunj, also known colloquially as "Little Plitvice". The village used to be a milling centre, with just four mills remaining, with groups able to visit. While most people will bypass the town and not witness the exceptional waterfalls, those who do stop are in for a real treat; water flows snd cascades beside, under and around houses, all merging into the confluence that then slows down as it meanders downstream. Apart from the main flow, many of the other tributaries are very short as much of the water originates from underground springs. Due to the limestone bedrock, the area has many caves, some favoured by speleologists, with one cave accessible from behind one of the waterfalls in the centre of Rakovica.

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To sum it up in one sentence, Croatia is a country with an incredible coastline and outstanding natural beauty where one would go to Discover and Explore the Dalmatian coast, sail in the Adriatic Sea and visit islands, or visit the national parks inland - or a combination of any or all the above.

How to get there: Luxair / LuxairTours fly weekly Luxembourg-Zadar-Dubrovnik-Luxembourg: see www.luxairtours.lu  or www.luxair.lu.  This enables visitors to avail of a choice to base themselves at either destination, or start at one and work their way along the coastline to the other, exploring and discovering along the way. The only restriction here is that the LuxairTours / Luxair flights are on Mondays only - at least, at present - so for those who prefer to return another day can take in Plitvice on the way to Zagreb airport, as we did.

For Part I of Destination Croatia - Discovery and Exploration, see http://www.chronicle.lu/categoriestravelopinion/item/16902-geoff-thompson-destination-croatia-discovery-and-exploration-part-i

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Photos by Geoff Thompson (for full photo album (on Facebook) see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.873158812795425.1073741908.238112732966706&type=3)

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With LuxairTours now flying to Zadar (and Dubrovnik) in southern Croatia, it was time to sample the new destination courtesy of a press trip there; the four-day excursion included an itinerary that would involve a lot of travel and enable us to see many of the sights, providing a close-up glimpse of this beautiful and relatively undiscovered country.

With its dramatic coastline onto the Adriatic Sea and renowned forests and nature inland, my preconceptions were of an unspoilt haven, ideal for lovers of nautical sports and the outdoors; I have holidayed there once before, staying close to the border with Slovenia and enjoying the grayling and rainbow trout fishing in the unspoilt rivers there. We had flown that time into Ljubiana and driven through the Slovenian forests, coming across a couple of massive red deer along the way to the Croatian border. Another memory of that trip had been listening to locals recounting stories of the Balkan conflict that had let to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and their views of the economic, rather than religious, reasons for the origin of the war.

Back to the future and this week's trip, taking the red-eye Luxair Boeing 737-800 departing Luxembourg at 06:20 for Zadar and then on to Dubrovnik. Great service on board, with ample space in the seats and an appetising and tasty breakfast. Just 100 minutes later we came into land at Zadar, with great views of the blue sea and islands complete with sandy beaches, on the right, and extensive green forests on the left. 45 minutes later we took off for the 600km, 40-minute hop to Dubrovnik. Flying in to land, the islands dotted the blue sea, with the historic town a splendid sight; it was only when landing that the hilly terrain became apparent - still very green but with more sand and stone showing through the foliage. Dubrovnik's airport is small so the bags arrived quickly, but not before we had an opportunity to notice the tourism leaflets which included, not only walking tours of the town, but also tours of the ship used in the making of the Game of Thrones tv series.

Dubrovnik

Just 5 minutes away by road from the airport, the 5-star Hotel Croatia has 480 rooms and is open from March to November each year; almost all guests arrive by air. It has a spa and health centre, with both indoor and outdoor swimming pools, it is surrounded by cypress trees and is very popular as a MICE destination.

From the hotel we took a stroll through a quaint seaside down, Cavtat, on the outskirts of Dubrovnik, which allowed us to appreciate the crystal clear water on one side, with a small harbour with small pleasure craft and fishing boats, and the stone buildings with tile rooves on the other, with rows of palm trees on the quayside.

Relaxing in a waterfront café it became clear very quickly that Croatia still allows smoking in cafés, but not restaurants. Apparently, when the no-smoking law was introduced, café owners revolted and achieve a derogation of sorts, allowing smoking in ventilated areas; in practice the concept of ventilation does not seem to be applied stringently.

Reflecting on a film screened at the British & Irish Film Season in Luxembourg in 2014, A Dangerous Game, in which film-maker Anthony Baxter investigated local opposition to Donald Trump planning golf courses in Scotland, the US, Co Clare in Ireland, and Dubrovnik in Croatia, in which the issue of democracy was featured strongly, I talked to some of the locals who seemed openly relieved such a project has not gone ahead, although another investment project for a 9-hole course has just received Unesco approval to proceed.

A boat ride aboard a passenger ferry catamaran across the bay brought us to Dubrovnik itself which has a population of around 45k, which is more than doubled to 110k when taking in its surrounding neighbourhoods, a bit like Luxembourg city. The old city, with the monstrous city walls, is predominately a huge pedestrian zone, with a relatively small harbour. We were informed that tourism has not yet reached its peak in Dubrovnik and Croatia as a whole, which focuses on adventure, exploration snd getaways, also encompassing history and cultural heritage; it is now focusing on attracting families too.

A walking tour of the city, a former medieval trading port, revealed a mix of architectural styles, which is still recovering in some ways from the early 1990s war, as well as the earthquake which struck in 1979 (there was also a massive quake back in 1667). The city is spotless, helped no end by the cleaned stone walls, with narrow alleyways (not unlike Venice) and steps everywhere. Taking a step back to appreciate the ornate buildings, one cannot help but marvel at the hillside backdrops.

Pre-dinner drinks that evening were at the Panorama restaurant, situated at the top of the 400m-high hill overlooking the city, and reached by cable-car. The view allows one to marvel at the coastline, the islands and the walled city of Dubrovnik, with its various neighbourhoods outside the walls too. No photos or videos could do the view justice, a sentiment to feature regularly throughout the trip.

We stayed at the magnificent Kompas Hotel, overlooking a small bay around 15 minutes to the north of Dubrovnik. Wonderful staff, spacious, modern and comfortable rooms, with a great view over the bay. Indicative of such buildings and the steep cliffs and rocky terrain, one enters the reception at level 10 (at the top of the cliff), with rooms on that floor or below, down to level 0 where one finds the restaurant. Strange but true...

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The Dalmatian Coast

Driving north from Dubrovnik along the coast allowed us to appreciate once more the impressive stone walls, stone buildings and tile rooves. Twisting and turning, climbing and falling, drivers need 100% concentration at all times; the main distraction, though, is the scenery with spectacular view after spectacular view, of bays and islands, with dark green vegetation and deep blue seas, with one inlet acting as a harbour for outsized cruise ships while their passengers enjoyed some time ashore. Seriously impressive.

At Ston, the 14th century town is still surrounded by a magnificent 5.5km long high wall - it used to be much longer - and a 1km stretch is open to the public to walk along; entrance tickets go towards restoration. It is described as second only to the Great Wall of China. A nearby bay is a source of oysters and mussels, and surrounding areas have been used fir centuries to cultivate olives, grapes and even salt.

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A trip out into the 28km-long bay in an old-fashioned transport boat (65 years old), refurbished to accommodate tourists, revealed the oyster beds and the significant marine aquaculture industry active in this area. The oysters are initially incubated on nets, then matured on vertical strings as they get older, strung out over 100m lengths, each accommodating 250 oysters, between buoys, and are harvested in spring and autumn. The water in the bay is 10-11m deep and is a mix of salt water and fresh water (from underwater springs), an ideal ecosystem in which the oysters can thrive.

Back in the minibus for a 2.5 hour drive, including a short detour into and out of Bosnia, towards Skradin. The scenery continue to cast its spell, with another wondrous landscape or pretty village around every corner of the long and winding road that eventually gives way to a dual carriageway, then a motorway. The hills get bigger and, after a couple of short tunnels, the terrain changes to ensure the drive becomes flatter. The terrain is beyond rugged but it is still amazingly covered in rich green foliage. Sometimes we get a view of a large plain surrounded by rocks, hills and mountains, and these fertile lands are farmed for agricultural produce. Eventually the ruggedness of the mountains evolved into a more rolling countryside, but one which is still based on rock and stone, and green trees and shrubs.

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Krka

Croatia has preserved a number of natural areas of beauty, rich in flora and fauna, in the form of national parks, one of which is Krka which was formed in 1985 and spans 109km2. Taking a boat from Skradin, it follows the contours of the River Krka, meandering upstream to the natural waterfalls, a sight to behold.

Park rangers are out in force and are easily identifiable in their khaki uniforms. The national park has been equipped with bridges, wooden walkways, stone steps and viewing platforms from which to admire the beauty of the natural phenomena which have formed over centuries and millennia out of the limestone bedrock. As a result, the water is a bright and clear turquoise, which only turns white when being aerated as it cascades. The wildlife here includes amphibians, reptiles and fish, and especially birds.

Walking up along the cascading water, one comes across the original turbine from the hydro-electric power station which dated from 1895, as well as the watermills which were so important to the local economy.

The area also offers Roman remains, including catacombs and a military camp, a Franciscan monastery on an island, an Orthodox monastery and caves.

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Sibenik

In Sibenik, at the mouth of the Krka river, and situated beside the Jezina Palace, the Cathedral of St James, the dome of which is currently being renovated both inside and out, is very ornate from the outside, including statues of the twelve apostles surrounding the main doorway. Inside, the baptismal font, including the architecture of the small chamber in which it is situated, is of specific interest regarding its historical and cultural heritage.

Next door to the cathedral is another church, the one with a most unusual 24-hour analogue clock.

We also visited the renovated gardens of the monastery of St Lawrence, and also saw where noble families had 4 wells dug to be able to draw water from a large underground cistern.

The town is very animal-friendly, with the streets having built-in stone drinking vessels for stray dogs and cats. It also has a public bicycle rental scheme, like Luxembourg's Vel'Oh!, and a number of yachts were tethered to the harbour wall.

One observation of interest here is that many buildings are constructed of brick rather than of stone, a change from earlier in this trip when all were of stone.

For Part I of Destination Croatia - Discovery and Exploration, see http://www.chronicle.lu/categoriestravelopinion/item/16915-geoff-thompson-destination-croatia-discovery-and-exploration-part-ii

How to get there: Luxair / LuxairTours fly weekly Luxembourg-Zadar-Dubrovnik-Luxembourg: see www.luxairtours.lu or www.luxair.lu. This enables visitors to avail of a choice to base themselves at either destination, or start at one and work their way along the coastline to the other, exploring and discovering along the way. The only restriction here is that the LuxairTours / Luxair flights are on Mondays only - at least, at present - so for those who prefer to return another day can take in Plitvice on the way to Zagreb airport, as we did.

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Photos by Geoff Thompson (for full photo album (on Facebook) see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.873158812795425.1073741908.238112732966706&type=3)

 

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Sometimes it is the wonders on one's doorstep that are overlooked; a couple of years ago I reported on a trip in Belgium that took in a numbers of chateaux - from castles to stately homes - there; this time round I decided to do a similar trip a little closer to home.

For those who may not be aware, those who have seen the signs and heard the term "Vallée des Sept Chateaux", it runs from close to Steinfort, north-east to Mersch. All in all, the round trip took around 50km, so it's no massive excursion, it's one that can be achieved quite relaxingly in 2-3 hours.

We decided to start from the south-west, from Koerich. One of the first things that struck me was the bird songs whenever we stopped. Without seeking out any specific species, we came across a pair of jays, a common woodpecker, a kite (with its distinctive tail) and a number of buzzards.

Koerich - this ruined castle - also known as Grevenschlass - lies in the centre of the village and appears to be in dire need of attention as it crumbles away, taking history with it. It dates from the late 12th century and one can still make out the moat and the keep, with a number of Renaissance and Baroque additions noticeable. In September 2013, Luxembourg's Minister for Culture, Octavie Modert, led a ceremony at the medieval chateau which was to be secured and renovated in a project overseen by the Service des sites et monuments nationaux. Not much work appears to have been done since, with the original fencing still in place. However, it was possible to view through a gate and numerous windows to get a perspective of the inner courtyard beyond the 3-storey building walls.

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Septfontaines - not to be confused with the chateau of the same name in the Rollingergrund, that is owned by Villeroy & Boch, the ruined chateau sits atop a hill and is accessible with a short walk. Its windows (with full glass) and stairways are visible from outside, with a feeling that initial renovations have been carried out while much more is still needed to stop it from falling into further ruin. It dates from the 12th century and is privately-owned.

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Ansembourg - there are two chateaux here, but the old chateau which sits atop a hill is only visible when approaching from the north and the only access seems to be via two private roads -  the building dating from the 12th century is the private residence of the current Count and Countess of Ansembourg. However, the new chateau is in stark contrast to the first two ruined buildings and is owned by the Japanese cult Sukyo Mahikari. The magnificent wrought iron gates welcome motorists to park in the gravel courtyard which is surrounded by a number of buildings, most of which are in use - they date from the 16th century. It was a lovely day for a stroll so we took in the ornamental gardens which date from 1750 and included wonderful trees, a maze and water features, as well as statues, with orchards beyond the walls. The buildings are not open to the public (the gardens are) but were busy while we were there.

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Hollenfels - the trick here is to park above the chateau (once below, it is almost impossible to turn around) in the village. Built on a promontory, one side is a sheer drop to the valley which offers amazing views over the forests and undulating hillsides. The chateau dates from the 14th century and includes a 40m tall tower; it was purchased by the Luxembourg state in 1848 and the outbuildings house a youth hostel and youth centre. The chateau itself is used as a ecology centre and also has a dungeon.

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Schoenfels - here the state is renovating the out-buildings in a significant project, as well as maintaining the trees and recovering the grounds from decades of neglect. Dating from the late 13th century, the tower is significantly impressive, in particular the roof-top turrets. The castle lost its fortifications in the 17th century when they were removed by the French. When the renovations to the tower are complete is will serve as offices for the Administration des Eaux & Forêts and a visitor centre.

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Mersch - the last stop at the north-eastern end of the valley. The "pink chateau" - the colour of the walls of the gate-houses - houses the administrative offices of the municipality of Mersch. It originates from the 13th century but was completely rebuilt in the late 16th century following a fire, with 7 towers, the foundations of some which are still visible. Also in the square opposite is the very distinctive baroque tower, the sole remains of the former church, and an amazing statue of a dragon, complete with water feature. The tourism boards there are interesting to read (also in English) and reveal a Roman tomb being discovered there.

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Another wonder was the rolling countryside and the charming villages we drove through on our 7 chateaux quest, not to mention the number of interesting landmarks, from old wash-houses to farmyards and barns, with old farm implements on display. Plus the number of youth hostels and youth centres was significant. Still spring, the deciduous trees were sprouting green shoots, while the coniferous trees made up much of the forests. A wonderful countryside, and right on our doorstep...

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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