It's been 25 years since we stayed in the Black Forest; with Luxembourg so ideally positioned that every direction leads to new explorations, we are really spoilt for choice living in the Grand Duchy, and that includes within its borders too.
Anyway, 25 years ago we took a memorable family trip by car which took in the Black Forest, Liechtenstein, Vienna, Venice, San Marino, the Italian Riviera and Monaco; we had actually originally intended to drive to what was then Yugoslavia and stay on its Adriatic coast, but we had to change our plans due to the political situation there. Looking back, how did we manage before the Internet and Sat-navs? By ordering through printed catalogues and reading fold-out maps... For the trip we had set ourselves some ground-rules, including never drive after 18:00 and always include something for the children each day. It worked a treat and we enjoyed a wonderful 2-week driving holiday of which we have very fond memories.
So a return after 25 years to Schluchsee in the Black Forest - we tried in vain to look for the same hotel we stayed in before where the staff were so welcoming and accommodating - we remember one of the girls who had just started to walk went exploring during breakfast, into the kitchen, followed by her 4 year-old sister. The staff were more than tolerant and played them so we could relax and enjoy our breakfast before venturing out for the day to search the source of the Rhine river. Alas, we could not remember the name of the hotel but we found another one which seemed to match our wishes - rustic and traditional. We decided not to book and arrived on spec, shortly before 20:00. Turning into the road of the hotel we had found online, we both exclaimed in unison "That's the hotel where we stayed 25 years ago!".
Further along the same street, the Hoch Schwarzwald-Hof hotel could not have been more cheerful and welcoming. They apologised profusely that their kitchen was just closing (we learnt later many establishments there are finding it difficult to recruit staff) but pointed out two within 200m that would still be serving; this is where we headed after a rapid check-in formality. Oh, and the price was less than had been advertised online on Booking.com and Hotels.com...
The Hoch Schwarzwald-Hof hotel was everything, and more, we had wished for; rustic charm and delightful hosts - service with a smile. while the bedroom was a bit basic on furnishings it had everything we needed - large comfortable beds, a wardrobe to hang and sort our clothes, a wide and deep sofa for relaxing, a mid-sized desk and sturdy chair, tv (DE), bed-side tables and an en-suite bathroom that looked if it had been decorated in the 70s. But everything worked, even the wi-fi which we learnt had been installed recently for the benefit of the guests staying in the 21 rooms. And the room also had a spacious balcony with a decent view over the town and of the lake. But the real charm lay downstairs in the reception area and restaurant / breakfast room, in its rustic pine decor and furnishings. Breakfasts were delicious, by self-service with a wide range from cereal and yoghurt and fresh fruit to boiled eggs, cold meats and fresh bread, with a selection of teas and flasks of coffee. Dinner that (early) evening was traditional Black Forest fare - we opted for the garlic soup (to keep the vampires away...) and schnitzels with creamy mushroom sauce, garnished with salad and potatoes. When we came to check out, the total cost was most agreeable...
So where exactly is Schluchsee, and what is it? Schluchsee is 375km from Luxembourg and the easiest way to get there is to drive via Metz and Strasbourg to Freibourg. Soon afterwards the road zig-zags as one ascends to the Black Forest which is set around 1km above sea level. The lake is 7.5km long with an 18km walking trail around it. The water is dammed so the level is consistent throughout the year; before it flows into the Rhine it passes through three hydroelectric power stations - it reminded me of Tasmania when I was there in late 2014. When we were there, night-time temperatures were just above zero, with daytime temperatures touching 20C. There was still quite a bit of snow around, and the main ski resort of Feldberg is just 15km away.
Preparations were underway for the summer season, with pontoons being erected and positioned at various placed around the lake for the comfort of those who enjoy water sports, with diving, rowing, kayaking, sailing and fishing (mainly for pike) all being supported. The tourist / sightseeing boat was in dry dock for the winter period but is expected to be afloat again shortly. The lake is also home to a number of birdlife, from mallard ducks to geese, as well as butterflies and resident beavers, the latter according to the placards around the lake. Our first walk, counter-clockwise from Schluchsee, saw us pass a lookout post and a small beach, before the path went through the primarily coniferous forest, with the deciduous trees and shrubs sprouting buds in anticipation of the spring and summer ahead.
Our subsequent clockwise walk around the lake, starting from the Schluchsee train station, brought us to another train station just 2km along the shore, nearby a hotel and significant youth hostel, and on to the dam. Both train stations operated as P&Rs, with various groups getting kitted up to start walking or cycling along the paths.
Accommodation-wise, there are dozens of hotels in and outside the town; there is also a campsite and many camper vans were parked overnight. As well as the walk around the lake, there is another hunting trail (Jagersteig) which ventures up the hills from the town. We managed to see some deer while we were there. In Schluchsee there is a swimming pool and also an outdoor Aqua Park close to the lake, comprising many thrills including a large concentric slide. Half-way to Feldberg, on the way to Titisee, we also spotted a Schnaps Museum.
The Black Forest (Schwarzwald, Foret Noire) is not all about their world-famous gateau and cuckoo clocks - these can both be seen in abundance - but as a get-away destination for all ages, with options for relaxation and activities aplenty. The cafés often have great views of the lake, but they all have wholesome goulash and other soups, and sumptuous Black Forest gateaux and other cakes. And most have wifi connections too.
For all the local attractions, tourists can ask at their hotel for a Hochschwarzwald Card which offers free entry as well as free travel on the local train service. For further details on the Hoch Schwarzwald-Hof hotel, see www.hochschwarzwaldhof.de or email firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: +49-7656-9889858. For tourism information, see www.hochschwarzwald.de.
Photos by Geoff Thompson
A city in the sea, of gondolas and ice cream? Or a film setting? Venice is all these and much, much more...
Now in the LuxairTours Metropolis brochure and served by three Luxair flights/week, Venice is now just a quick commute from the Grand Duchy. Instead of dreaming the impossible, it is now possible to book a quick flight direct to this Italian city that is unique the world over.
Apart from visiting Venice 20 years ago, the closest I have got to returning to this iconic city was a number of years ago when I toured the film set in Esch-Belval used for the Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Merchant of Venice, amongst others. Oh, and watching the Cornetto television advertisements... Venice has appeared in many films such as Casino Royale (with Daniel Craig), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Moonraker (Roger Moore); Lara Croft: Tomb Raider , and The Talented Mr Ripley.
Located in the deltas of the Po and Piave rivers, Venice has an intricate network of canals, footpaths and bridges, mostly rather narrow, which give the city its charm, as it actually consists of 100+ islands. Following its importance as a naval and trading port, its heights came in the 18th century when it became a centre for art, architecture and literature, but fell to Bonaparte in 1797, following which it had periods of Austrian rule. It is reportedly sinking, but at the very slow rate of 1-2mm annually. Currently tourism counts for the majority of Venice's economy, with upwards of 50,000 people from around the world thronging the footpaths, bridges and all varieties of transport daily, year-round. Geographically, it is accessed along a bridge that caters for trains, cars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians, with the train station, bus station, car park and sea port all grouped together centrally.
This offers a wide choice in how to experience the city. Yes, there are the gondolas and their gondoliers (many relate snippets of history and some even sing too!), but there are many options.
One of the most important destinations in Venice is St Mark's Basilica on the Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square), and the nearby Watchtower. To get there - it's located the other side of the city from the main bridge entrance so, to get there, one has a significant choice. There are the (public transport) water buses - which can traverse the main waterways including the Grand Canal which snakes like a serpent through the city - the water taxis (which each take up to circa 8 passengers), the gondolas (with a capacity of up to 4-5 people), or via shank's mare (walking). Note: there are even transport boats to ensure that private residences and commercial operations have deliveries of fresh supplies...
What we wanted to do is to experience the interior of the city, so we bought a reasonable city map for €3 and set off. Venice may be a city on water, but its sizeable number of bridges over the canals means that pedestrians are continually walking up and down steps. Not that they are tricky or difficult, they're not at all, it's just the number of people we came across who were trying to drag wheelie-suitcases up and down the steps... the porters from the train & bus stations had the right equipment to deal with the steps though - trolleys with two wheel axles which could be maneuvered easily up and down the steps - they had perfected it to an art form.
So, off we traipsed, map in hand, plotting a route to Rialto Bridge, then on to St Mark's Square. Many of the streets are so narrow that it's impossible to have a conversation with someone beside you, so sometimes it's progressing in single file, while other times there is ample space for two, or even three, abreast. The streets are lined withshops, many offering all types of masks, with others offering plates, tapestries, lace and all manner of souvenirs.
Upon reaching Rialto Bridge we were amazed by the number of hawkers and market stalls, but the actual bridge is currently undergoing renovations so no photographs would be possible, either from or of the bridge. But that's not to say there were few photo opportunities, not at all, it was difficult to not use a camera, such was the magnificence of the buildings, the churches, the towers, the squares, the canals, all manner of boats, and the people...
Choosing where to eat was itself a challenge, as there are so many restaurants, etc., from which to choose. Many Italians choose to buy snacks - and this extends from sandwiches and slices of pizza to ice cream - and eat them on the street or walking around a square. Others have tables and chairs both inside and outside, with prices quite reasonable altogether. And although there were many people around, we got a table easily and we weren't rushed at all.
We arrived in St Mark's Square and marvelled at the ornate buildings, particularly the Basilica and the Watchtower. Surprisingly, the square wasn't as densely populated with tourists as some of the paths and streets had been, but the pigeons were certainly out in numbers, akin to what Trafalgar Square certainly used to be like.
We arrived at high tide; this became evident during the afternoon as the water-level dropped and the stench in some of the canals with brackish water become more pungent. But this was a mere distraction and did not really impact on our enjoyment.
We looked out over the bay and took in the sea breeze, before crossing to Dorsoduro and the Accademia. This was also the university quarter, with a student campus to boot. Here too, construction was ongoing, and the architecture a joy to behold.
We were reminded there of the Opera, with the Teatro La Fenice putting on Puccini's Madame Butterfly that evening, there are also countless museums, art galleries and churches to visit, including the Church of San Maurizio which houses a Vivaldi collection of musical instruments.
One of the special events happening in Venice is the Celebration for the Festa del Redentore on 14 July with a parade of floating pontoons links Venice with Giudecca and involves boats, fireworks and much more... Before that, on 15 May, the city hosts the 42nd Vogalonga, a festival of boat races. Two very colourful festivals, but there is always something happening in Venice...
I'm not going to wait for another 20 years to pass by before I visit Venice again...
To get there, Luxair is operating three flights/week (on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays) from 29 March to 29 October - see www.luxair.lu. For hotels, check the LuxairTours' Metropolis brochure for a number of hotels well-located throughout the city. From Venice, it is also easy to get to nearby cities by train, within a two-hour radius - to the west Verona (for the Amphitheatre and Juliette's balcony), in the south Bologna (the university city and its famous two towns) and Trieste (beaches) to the north.
For the full photo album (on Facebook), see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.848310201946953.1073741904.238112732966706&type=3.
Photos by Geoff Thompson
On Monday, I sampled the new HOP! Air France service from Luxembourg which was announced in November, aboard a 48-seater ATR 42-500 turbo-prop plane.
The trip involved a transit flight via Lyon, a hub for HOP! Air France, offering connections to many locations in France and Europe, including Biarritz, Bologna, Bordeaux, Brest, Caen, Clermont-Ferrand, La Rochelle, Lille, Marseille, Montpellier, Nantes, Nice, Pau, Poitiers, Rennes, Toulouse, Brussels, Milan, Prague, Rome and Venice. From Lyon we took the flight to Toulouse where we took advantage of almost 8 hours before the return trip back to the Grand Duchy.
Okay, it was an early rise, with the departure at 06:30, but with Luxembourg airport offering rapid check-in and boarding, it meant that we were in the air in no time. Boarding the ATR plane - which arrived in with 30 passengers on Sunday evening; the HOP reps had traveled from Paris by train - was via the rear door, with the configuration offering the forward door for emergencies only. Inside, the navy blue and white interior, with red headrest covers, immediately betrayed the Frenchness of the airline, and the seats did offer ample legroom with announcements as well as the in-flight magazine both in French and English.
Take-off was smooth and quiet for a small plane and, with cloud cover high, those in the port (right-hand side) window seats could see Kirchberg from a different angle, the steel and glass structures gleaming crystal clear in the dry morning and sparkling street lights, with those on starboard (left-hand side) enjoying the sunrise and the patterns it created in the sky as the sun made its daily entrance. Once at cruising altitude of 20,000 feet (circa 6km) the drinks trolley came round with a simple choice of tea, coffee, hot chocolate or water, with slices of cake too.
Flying in to Lyon the sky was clear, enabling a bird's-eye view of the surrounding countryside - flat, agricultural and pot-marked with lakes and water courses - before flying lower over the suburbs and light industrial zones.
After the 75-minute flight, a (very) quick transfer in Lyon airport, the main hub of HOP!, with a brief pause for immigration control still in force following the terrorist attacks in Paris, we boarded an Airbus A319 - which afforded even more room - for the 55-minute flight to Toulouse. We were in the air again just 30 minutes after touching down, with no rush or hassle whatsoever: a leaf out of the German manual on efficiency. Unfortunately, due to (rain) cloud cover over Toulouse, the topography of the land could not be experienced during the descent. No second security clearance needed here. However, by 10:10 we were in a bus travelling away from Toulouse airport and towards the ATR production facility.
Literally three minutes later we had arrived at our destination, located across the road from one of the main Airbus sites. The media briefing included presentations from both HOP! AirFrance and ATR. Hélène Abraham of HOP! talked about Lyon being a hub and offering flight connections to other destinations in France and abroad, and that the bookings for the Luxembourg-Lyon flights for February are already above 50%. She also mentioned the temporary use of Luxembourg airport while Metz-Lorraine is undergoing renovations, for other HOP! flights.
Jérome Gabory of ATR explained that the company was formed in 1981 with an Italian-French collaboration, with Airbus holding 59% of the shares. He described ATR as the #1 turboprop aircraft manufacturer in the world (77%), ideal for regional airlines (routes up to 600km) with a 40% less fuel burn than any regional jet, with the fuselage coming from Naples, the wings from Bordeaux, the propellors from Elsewhere in France and the engines (Pratt & Whitney) from Montreal (the components arrive by boat/road and by rail). It also has 37% of the world market in 50-90 aircraft segment (Embraer is the market-leader). ATR delivered 88 planes to customers in 2015 and have an order backlog for 260 planes, equivalent to 3 years of production. HOP!'s fleet comprises 24 ATRs (13 ATR 42s and 11 ATR 72s).
The formal part of the visit was followed by a tour of the ATR-Airbus assembly line, so back into the bus to the Saint Martin facility in the outskirts of Toulouse. ATR operates two (indoor) assembly lines, one for standard assembly and the other for customisation, before the 23-tonne aircraft are brought to the delivery centre (outdoor) - this included planes almost ready for delivery to airlines all over the world, including in South America, North America, the Caribbean, Northern Europe, Southern Europe, the sub-continent, Oceana and South-East Asia,... Interestingly, certainly for aeronautics nerds, this same space had previously been used for the Concorde assembly line...
After completion each plane has two 2-hour flights, plus a third one with the customer, before delivery/handover; a brand new aircraft is therefore delivered with just 6 hours flying time on the clock. Additionally, the vast majority or aircraft are now leased instead of being purchased outright, with delivery prices at €24-26 million per aircraft.
After a fine lunch at ATR we then got the opportunity to visit the Aéroscopia flight museum. Having previously had the experience of visiting the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC - undoubtedly my favourite museum in the world - the Aéroscopia in Toulouse would never reach those heights. However, it made for a stimulating and informative 70-minute walk round, with the information panels in both French and English covering an array of topic from the history of flight, early commercial and military aircraft, through to speed records. And it was not just confined to French aviation either. There were circa 20 aircraft on display, including a Concorde and an Airbus A300B which you could explore inside as well as see the exterior and walk underneath to get a full perspective of these special craft.
The return flights by HOP! via Lyon went smoothly, meaning a return to Luxembourg by 21:30 as scheduled, suitable refreshed after a nap and a couple of on-board drinks.
The one thing I didn't get round to doing in Toulouse was getting to De Danú, the Irish pub owned by former Irish rugby international Trevor Brennan, but maybe that's an excuse to return...
A few weeks ago, HOP! Air France announced that, as planned, it is transferring its flights to Luxembourg Airport in Findel between 29 February and 15 April 2016 as Lorraine (Metz-Nancy) Airport closes its runways for repair. Throughout the construction period, HOP! Air France will adapt its flight schedule from Findel. The airline will operate 3 daily direct flights to Lyon and 1 flight on Saturday and two on Sunday to Nice.
For further details including reservations, see www.hop.com and www.airfrance.lu.
Photos by Geoff Thompson - for full photo album (on Facebook) see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.829070620537578.1073741901.238112732966706&type=3
Now that the Christmas and New Year festivities are behind us it's time to look forward to the next 12 months.
2015 may have brought Luxembourg the EU Presidency and the second year of the three-way coalition government, but the larger picture also saw Luxembourg affected by the refugee crisis and fall-out from international terrorism.
At the end of 2015 Luxembourg started planning for the influx of refugees primarily from civil wars in Syria and Iraq, with four refugee centres being planned for Diekirch, Junglinster, Mamer and Steinfort. Other infrastructure modernisation initiatives will continue by way of various civil engineering projects in the cities and towns to support capacity growth. One change to the country's social fabric is that rural areas will see a further erosion in services, with 35 post offices to close; this on top of the various train stations which started to lose staff from 2015.
While global GDP is expected to be 3.5% in 2016 (it was 5% before the 2008 economic crisis) and 2.0% in Europe, here in Luxembourg it is expected to be 3.4%.
One key to economic growth is to get public finance under control, others involve the EU external border issue and the Brexit potential, both affecting Europe as a whole. The economic situation in China as well as the issue of the Fed raising rates in the US will also have a bearing on European economics in 2016. Nevertheless, European business leaders are optimistic for 2016.
In Luxembourg, the Chambre de Commerce is planning to provide the underlying platform for business growth with the launch in late 2015 of the House of Training, and the Higher Institute of Economy, the House of Entrepreneurship and the House of Fintech to come in 2016. Corporate taxation is also due to be reformed in 2016. And the Minister of Finance is predicting higher VAT income in 2016 to offset the losses regarding eCommerce-related VAT which is now charged in relation to the country of delivery.
And 2016 will see the 3-way coalition government in its 3rd year of power; this will be the crucial year of its tenure when it will need to convince the electorate that its programme of government is, in fact, bringing it back to balancing the books and reducing the need for austerity.
The Nordstad will continue to grow; the A7 is now open to traffic and the new railway station in Pfaffenthal will be constructed, with the funicular rail shuttle up to Kirchberg benefitting passengers as well as alleviating congestion during peak travel periods at Luxembourg-Gare somewhat. The other side of the valley will see the opening of the Pfaffenthal-Pescatore lift-passage.
Staying on transport, Luxembourg ville will be disrupted with retail trade and traffic affected as the tram network is installed - at least planning foresight in Kirchberg will reduce the disruption there due to additional tram lanes already constructed. The city will also witness the Royal Hamilius project rising from the giant hole in the ground that once housed the underground car-park, La Luxembourgeoise, the police, the Bierger Centre and others.And progress will continue on the new ING Luxembourg headquarters opposite the train station.
While 2015 saw KPMG, EY, Arendt & Medernach and other significant employers move to new buildings in Kirchberg, it will see more new projects underway in 2016, with the Infinity project in Kirchberg seeing a 25-Storey residential tower constructed. Work is also expected to start on another tower for the European Court of Justice and the Batiment Jean Monnet, one of the original buildings in Kirchberg to house the European Commission, is to be replaced. Kirchberg will also see more affordable housing projects come to fruition too, as well as the opening of the new BGL BNP Paribas headquarters.
Esch-Belval also continues to grow, with 2016 seeing Luxembourg University moving more of its faculty staff there; the overall effect will see the former industrial location complete its transformation now that the shopping centres, restaurants and cinema complex are joined by more academia as well as various institutes and other private sector entities continuing to move there.
The new European/International school is due to open in Differdange in autumn 2016, with construction too on the Opkorn commercial centre adding to the ongoing transformation of Luxembourg's 3rd largest city. On the education front, the latest new building at St George's International School in Hamm is expected to open before the summer recess, a fitting finale to the school's 25th academic year celebrations.
The Cloche d'Or will also continue to be developed with work starting on the new Auchan hypermarket as well as on the new National Stadium, the site of which is just the other side of the motorway between Cessange and Gasperich. And in Findel the move to the new headquarters of Luxembourg Air Rescue will be completed.
FinTech & Entrepreneurship
The Grand Duchy has evolved from an agricultural economy to one based on the steel industry to the current financial sector reliance forming the basis of its economic growth. While the satellite communication industry is also doing extremely well, the financial sector continues to evolve.
The traditional financial sector will see the arrival of additional services being developed for a client base that expects additional digital services. Further regulation is coming (AIFMD, BEPS, etc.) which Luxembourg must embrace and leverage, using them to its advantage - just like they have been doing with the Chinese banks which continue to set up their European operations in the Grand Duchy.
2016 is being labelled as the "Year of Disruption for the Financial Sector"; I prefer to look at things from a "glass half-full" than a "glass half-empty" perspective, and believe that new products and services will hit emerge on the financial service sector, but not affecting Luxembourg's financial service sector too much. Yes, the sector will still evolve, with family offices and wealth management possibly seeing the most (percentage) growth, but the core fund management offerings will remain, with regulation shaping the future of the market, awaiting leadership to leverage the opportunies presented.
The FinTech (r)evolution continues unabated and is surely more than just a rebranding of traditional ICT firms working on financial projects. The government will continue to support the growth of an entrepreneurship culture in the Grand Duchy with incubators such as Nyuko and Technoport gaining momentum, and creativity and freedom of expression promoted by a variety of players to encourage a change in mind-set. After all, between 70-75% of Luxembourg nationals currently work for the civil service...
This burgeoning sector will be supported by the growing R&D activities throughout Luxembourg.
As well as the likes of Starbucks opening at Luxembourg airport, new airlines will start using the airport during 2016 including Aegean (to Athens from 19 May), LOT Polish Airlines (to Warsaw from 1 March) and HOP! (to Lyon from 21 February), offering more choice to passengers.
And Luxair and LuxairTours will add new routes, including to Reykjavik in Iceland (in March), Zadar in Croatia (from 2 May), Chania in Greece (from 5 May), Venice in Italy (from 29 April) and Naples in Italy (from 27 March).
With 2015 seeing the Rugby World Cup in England in the autumn, all eyes will turn to France in 2016 in June and July for the European Championship Finals being contested by 24 teams, the largest number ever. Outdoor screenings of matches will surely be organised for Luxembourg city centre and other locations; notably there are no matches scheduled for 23 June but there there are 4 scheduled for the evening beforehand when the Grand Duchy's eve of the national day celebrations will be in full swing.
While August is traditionally very quiet across the Grand Duchy, the Olympic Games will happen between 5 - 21 August at which a small number of Luxembourg athletes are expected to qualify to compete.
The world will see other things happening too, including the US Presidential Election and TTIP negotiations. And Luxembourg will keep its fingers crossed to see if Brand New Testament will make the final short-list for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars ceremony in February; the film industry in Luxembourg has seen significant improvements in quality productions over recent years, especially in the animation sector.
A number of years ago I found myself planning to attend a conference in New Delhi in India. As this was my first time travelling to the sub-continent, and unsure if it would be my only trip there, I decided that I would explore some of the country.
I got out the map and examined the location of the city in relation to the goegraphy of the country and specifically its proximity to the Himalayas. I then began thinking: What if?
What if I could go fishing for Mahseer, one of the prized fish of that part of the world, one that I had only read about up until then. So I did some online research and discovered a company called Tiger Paw Adventures headed up by Inder Jit (IJ) Singh. We communicated and planned an excursion and, boy, was I looking forward to it.
Fast forward to the trip itself. I packed 2 cases, one for the conference and one for the trip. I landed in New Delhi, was collected by IJ, I dropped my conference bag at the hotel, had a quick shower and change, and headed for the train station. If I had throught that the airport was crowded, it was nothing compared to the train station! I then discovered that there are 6 or 7 different classes; we travelled in 2nd which I deemed to be the lap of luxury. Around 7 hours later we arrived in Hardwar and were collected by IJ's crew and driven to Risikesh and onto IJ's lodge on the side of the Ganga (Ganges).
The next few days were among the most memorable of my life, being surrounded by some incredible people - including some avid anglers and many locals, some being poachers-turned-gamekeepers - and stunning scenery and wildlife, including tracking cheetahs' footprints in the sands to monkeys and many varieties of birds with colourful plumage and distinctive calls. We rafted down stretches of the river, camped on the banks, explored villages that had no road access and just one generator was acquired so that the villagers could watch the cricket on television, not for lighting or heating. The topography was stunning too, with contours showing the irrigation systems for the tilled land, with much of the flatter land under cultivation or for animal husbandry.
And, yes, I did catch some Mahseer in the Ganges and, yes, they were all returned alive to grow bigger and fight another day. (I subsequently returned to India a number of times and caught a number of Mahseer in the Cauvery River south of Bangalore (including one of 17kg) from the aptly-named Crocodile Pool, the same day we had come across a herd of wild elephants. We also fished the river from coracles...
So why this historical flashback? IJ contacted me a few months back and told me about a wildlife/fishing expecition he is organising next March (provisional dates: 5-12 March 2016) and has invited me to be part of the team. What a tempting opportunity! And it's not just the thought of fishing, it's the extraordinary location which would arguably be once-in-a-lifetime! But anyone else can join in this unique opportunity too.
The expedition is set around an Angling and Rafting Itinerary in Arunchal Pradesh (in the remote north east of India, near the borders of Tibet, Bhutan and Myanmar) for seasoned anglers in search of the Mahseer, described as the greatest inland river fighting fish, rated highly by anglers from the times of the Raj to the present. Due to their locations, the waters have been preserved and the fish are abundant - it's just that anglers need to be skilled to catch them! While the habitat of the Mahseer may have been affected by various factors, it is eco-tourism companies such as Tiger Paw Adventures that have helped create a sustainable environment for the fish, locals and visiting
Day 01: Arr Kolkata
Having arrived Kolkata by flight, transfer to hotel for overnight
Overnight: Taj Bengal
Day 02: Kolkata-Dibrugarh
After breakfast, board flight # AI 705, 10:05-11:40 to Dibrugarh
Overnight: Mancotta Chang Bungalow
Day 03: Dibrugarh-Basar
After breakfast, cross the River by private ferry and drive to Basar (150km, 5-6hrs)
Day 04: Basar-Damporijo
After breakfast, drive to Damporijo (140km, 5hrs), take off on rafting & angling trip.
Day 05: Subansiri River for Angling
Rafting and Angling along the Subansiri River
Day 06: Subansiri River for Angling
Angling along the Subansiri River
Day 07: Subansiri River for Angling
Angling along the Subansiri River
Day 08: Subansiri River for Angling
Angling along the Subansiri River
Day 09: Subansiri River-Geruka Mukh
Disembark at Geruka Mukh
Overnight: Guest House
Day 10: Geruka Mukh-Dibrugarh
After breakfast, drive back to Dibrugarh and cross the River by private ferry
Overnight: Mancotta Chang Bungalow
Day 11: Dibrugarh-Kolkata
After early lunch board flight # 6E 206, 14:30-16:05 to Kolkata, connect with onward International flights.
Group of 4: USD 4,565 per person
Group of 5: USD 4,150 per person
Group of 6: USD 3,725 per person
The costs cover almost everything from when the tour group meets up in Kolkata:
• Accommodation on twin/double sharing basis
• Meals plan is on full board basis (breakfast, lunch and dinner) except Kolkata, Guwahati and Dibrugarh where it is on bed and breakfast basis only
• All restricted area permits
• All transfers and sightseeing by AC vehicle
• Domestic economy class air fares as per the Itinerary
• English speaking guide as per the Itinerary
• Fuel charges
• All State Entries
• Two tribal cultural performances
• All currently applicable taxes
What are excluded are items of a personal nature like alcoholic drinks, Mineral water, laundry, telephone calls, tips, etc;
All good things must come to an end; we have recently completed our stay at BUROS, the serviced office facility in Strassen, as we move on to a more permanent premises.
So, why the move to BUROS? The decision was simple, really. Our company has grown from a one-person operation to one with a few people, and we have plans to grow further still. While working from home certainly has its advantages, it certainly isn't conductive to having regular meetings, primarily strategic, so we wanted something that allowed us to both work together on operational matters as well as discuss strategy, planning and logistics.
With the events pillar of the business seeing arguably its busiest time of the year either side of the summer holidays, their planning necessitated regular interaction, including storage of equipment, which also required space, as well as meeting with suppliers and the like. We also needed interaction between sales and editorial staff too, from time to time. Such planning requires meetings, and we needed plenty of those, without disturbing those working on the publishing side of the business. So, when we needed extra rooms, all we needed to do was to ask to reserve one - big / small, etc. - which was fully serviced and included refreshments, etc. That meant we did not have to worry about organising such things ourselves and we could get on with our core business.
Another thing we didn't have to worry about was car-parking, as there was ample on-site parking for us and for visitors, all included in the overall package. So what did this package include, exactly? Firstly, the offices: we could choose which of the office combinations best suited our requirements, with desks, chairs (super comfy!) and office stationery all included, as were utilities (electricity and heating - not that we needed it during the summer months, though). So what else was available to us at BUROS? Apart from the building-wide wifi, the technicians were on-site should they be required; thankfully this was just once during our stay there.
There was at least one person at reception the entire time who assisted with receiving deliveries, queries about stationery and helping explain how the coffee machines worked! Yes, there is a kitchenette area plus a large fridge. We didn't need it, but we had use of an IT server room, plus there was a fully-fitted-out gym downstairs too. With the security system in place we could gain access outside of office hours too, so we weren't shut out in case of emergency, not at all.
Location-wise, the office is just a few minutes' walk from a bakery and an Indian restaurant, plus a Chinese and Italian just a little further, plus a supermarket and filling station.
But for us the best thing was its central location being equidistant for those coming regularly to the office and it allowed us both operate efficiently and effectively while, at the same time, planning for the future.
Thank you, Janice and your team!
After a week's lull since the last of the pool games, it came down to just 8 teams left in the competition, with all four quarter-final matches pitching southern hemisphere teams against their northern hemisphere counterparts.
All eight remaining teams combined a mix of the walking wounded and those ruled of the competition due to injury, as well as being more battle-hardened than a month ago when the tournament kicked off, thus peaking for the business end of the tournament.
First up on quarter-finals week-end was Wales against South Africa in Twickenham. Despite their astonishing opening match defeat to Japan and losing significant and influential players due to injury, the Springboks have played very well in their games since. Wales have had their squad trimmed to the bare bones following injuries before and during the tournament, including during that astonishing win over England that helped send the host out of the tournament at the pool stages.
On Saturday, the two sides played an exciting game, with plenty of line breaks, up-and-under kicks, rolling mauls, crunching tackles and long penalty kicks - an open, expansive game of rugby that yielded the first try to Wales who, in turn, conceded far too many penalties to their opponents. A great game for the spectator, but not necessarily for the rugby purists as there were far too many mistakes in this end-to-end encounter. Half-time: 13-12 to Wales and all to play for in the second half.
With a drop-goal apiece either side of half time, there was hardly anything between these two sides in this pulsating encounter. The teams started to tire and it showed: South Africa's out-half Pollard missed a couple of penalties but were committed to passing and running with the ball, trying to prise open the Welsh defence.
But 5 minutes from time, the Springboks managed to breach the Welsh defence and touch down in the corner. The match was destined for a grandstand finale with South Africa having 4-point lead and they held on to the final whistle, 23-19. South Africa were through to a Rugby World Cup semi-final against the winners of Saturday evening's match between New Zealand and France in Cardiff. And Wales were out of the tournament.
The Welsh capital had been invaded by French and Kiwi supporters for the second game, as well as those from Wales who had not made it to Twickenham, plus a hoarde of Irish as an advance party for their Sunday afternoon game against Argentina. A mix of colour and languages filled the pubs, restaurants, cafés and hotels in Cardiff as the rugby supporters were eager to see the first quarter-final in advance as the one for which they had actual tickets.
Only one team with a haka left in the tournament, New Zealand, and the players performed it with even more passion than they had in the first game of their group, and arguably the most difficult, against Argentina. They changed it round too, from those performed prior to previous games in the tournament. And they changed their style of play too; they upped the intentity a number of notches and started - and ended - the match at breakneck speed. France were able to get on the scoreline with two penalties and a converted try, but it was the All Blacks who blasted through a weary France team, managing to score no less than four tries in the first half, three involving searing breaks and clinical finishing by the wingers, with one following a knock-down. Half-time 29-13 for New Zealand. Surely there could be no fairy-tale ending for France - they would need to score 17 points more than the All Blacks in the second half...
It was not to be for France; in fact they were on the end of a hiding never before witnessed at a Rugby World cup quarter-final. And New Zealand score more against France than they had in all their pool games; ignomy indeed for Les Bleus. Arguably one mitigating factor was their out-half Frederic Michalak, leaving the field in the 11th minute with a hamstring injury. Try as they could, they were no match for the New Zealanders who blasted away the opposition like they were schoolboys to record a record 62-13 win, setting up a semi-final with fellow Southern hemisphere team, South Africa. In total they scored no less than 9 tries, 6 of which were converted by Daniel Carter, with wing Julian Savea touching down three times for a hat-trick. Not bad for a time to click into gear!
Interestingly, one of the loudest noises in the stadium all afternoon was a rendition of The Fields of Athenry, by the Irish supporters in town for Sunday lunchtime's match against Argentina.
Third up was Sunday afternoon's match in Cardiff between Argentina and Ireland. If not quite the Falklands War, Ireland and Argentina have had some rugby history between them, with the Pumas twice putting Ireland out at the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals stage. Both teams had played solidly during the pool stages, with Argentina losing just one game, their opener to New Zealand. They came into this game having defeated South Africa in the most recent Rugby Championship, while Ireland had won the two most recent 6 Nations Championships. Ireland also have the "Joe Schmidt" factor, with their coach arguably the best in the world, but had suffered a raft of injuries, including to their playmaker, out-half Johnny Sexton. So, two teams on the up, with a semi-final to play for.
Amongst a sea of green the match kicked off after referee Jerome Garces (France) blew the whistle. Ireland started slowly and Argentina flew out of the blocks, scoring two tries within the first ten minutes. Ireland lost wing Tommy Bowe to injury; Luke Fitzgerald replaced him on 12 minutes and 14 minutes later he crossed over after a lightning run down the left wing. A couple of penalties to each side and Argentina went into the break 20-10 ahead.
The Irish supporters were very vocal in their support, and sometimes the Argentinians too, with the closed roof amplifying every decibel. Ireland started the second half strongly with first-half substitute and try-scorer, Luke Fitzgerald, breaking through the Pumas' defence to put Jordi Murphy over the line. Ireland narrowed the gap to 3 points and were looking sharp. But Argentina upped the intensity of the play and ran out worthy winners with a 43-20 scoreline after 80 minutes. Ireland were visibly disappointed but did not play to their potential on the day, conceding 4 tries in total to Argentina.
Last up was Australia against Scotland and the last opportunity for a Northern hemisphere team to qualify for the Rugby World Cup semi-finals. Three down and one to go. Twickenham was the venue for a humdinger of a game which saw Australia seal the last semi-final spot thanks to a last-minute penalty to overcome the brave Scots 35-34 at the final whistle. While Australia scored three tries to one in the first half, they missed all three conversions and Scotland led 16-15 at the break.
In the second half the two sides traded scores and it looked like it could be Scotland's day when they touched down for a converted try with 5 minutes to go, but it was Australia's day when Foley slotted over a penalty to send the Wallabies into the last four and meet Argentina next week-end for a place in the final.
To travel to England, fly Luxair to LondonCity airport. See www.luxair.lu.
Tip: Upon arrival at LondonCity Airport, purchase / top-up an Oyster Card for use on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and London Underground. For intercity rail travel, book well in advance to get the best deals.
Photos by Geoff Thompson
While Tegel airport in Berlin does not emit the same nostalgic aura as Templehof - particularly from its prominence during the Cold War era - it is a modern example of German efficiency and offers a delightful welcome to the most intriguing of German cities when flown there by Luxair.
The early morning Luxair flight on Monday allowed a view over the expanse of German landscape, breaking only for evidence of industrial output and vast residential areas. The flight offered a wonderful red horizon under a ruch blue sky until the blood-red sun rose to greet us; on descending to land, a myriad of green expanses and waterways came into view offering a taste of what we could expect by way of the ground-level geography.
As a lasting symbol of East-meets-West, including the former wave of communism meeting the capitalism of western Europe, Berlin continues to evolve yet harbour reminders of times past, not least from the Cold War. On the one hand it is a city-wide innovation hub whose creativity and ingenuity is the envy of all of Germany and further afield; on the other, the likes of Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate are bastions to a former age.
The Berlin Wall stretched 166km around Berlin, was erected in 1961 and came down in 1989, with reunification in 1990.
It is now a quarter of a century since the 166km-long Berlin Wall came down (in 1989; it was erected in 1961) and reunification (in 1990) became a word used the world over to describe the historical changing of the political landscape; many of us remember those seismic moments as history unfurled on our television screens before us. The Internet was not yet in its infancy so there were no selfies or self-styled bloggers broadcasting instantaneously across the world, but history was indeed in the making. Now, 25 years on, Berlin is forging ahead while keeping tabs in the past.
Knut, the world-famous polar bear may not be any more, but Berlin Zoo has not lost any of its allure; while the Victorian way of bringing nature to us has long dissipated due to the emergence of the Internet and travel becoming ever easier, as well as animal-rights campaigners having their say, such venues still offer an insight into the lives of animals and plants that books and LCD displays cannot, and Berlin Zoo stands tall at the top if this list.
The German city, now a long time rid of its American, British, French and Russian quarters, offers wide tree-lined streets with monuments and statues dotted around the place, with memorials too, evoking memories back to the time of the 3rd Reich, the persecution of the Jews and beforehand to the French Hugeneots, and more. The tour guide we had spent a lot of time and effort explaining the difference in architectural styles since the Reunification and Berlin becoming Germany's capital - the hodge podge of architectural styles is striking and the hidden courtyards behind fascinating; they are still rebuilding after WWII and reunification. The bus tour, with parts on foot, also took in the new political quarter and the Brandenburger Gate which dates from the 18th century and, later in the 19th century, Napoleon, and the restoration of the Pariser Platz after reunification.
All in all, Berlin has a huge amount of history and cultural heritage waiting to be discovered - to help, VisitBerlin has put together a Berlin Welcome Card which, from €19.50 for 2 days, allows discounted (25%-50%) access to museums and other tourist sites across the city (+ €2 to include Potsdam); it also offers free public transport in the city.
But Berlin has much, much more to offer in addition to stories of the past. There is the Rosenhofe artistic quarter to explore including the original Ampelmann shop. And another way to get around is by bicycle. We took a bicycle tour, courtesy of Berlin on Bike (BOB); the tour guide was a mine of information, explaining the growth of the city historically and the different neighbourhoods and architecture, describing the reasoning behind the different heights of the two walls - to trap those fleeing from the East and for photographs from the West showing just low walls...
The expansive network of Cycle Lanes on the roads and pavements throughout the city - as well as there being very few inclines - make this an ideal way to see the sights, many of which are hidden away from the main tourisic spots. In reality, there is much more stopping than cycling, but the success of such excursions are "make or break" according to the personality of the guide - we were extremely lucky; he told us anecdotes involving his own family and the scars that remain to this day, as well as many not-so-public accounts involving the people of Berlin themselves, and also some stories in the general public realm.
We also came across the site of The House of One, a construction of a 3-in-1 religious building encompassing Jews, Muslems and Christians; another example of looking forward while learning from the past. Another discovery was the small area of squats from which the (East) German punk band Rammstein originated. Stopping by Checkpoint Charlie was another item checked off the list of things to do; we did see some of the other former checkpoint locations too. With Berlin being home to many, many museums and galleries, the one that tops my list is the Checkpoint Charlie museum itself: set in three adjoining buildings, one is led along a specific path, discovering the stories behind many of the escapes, from tunnels and secret compartments in cars to airborne escapes, etc. - an incredible legacy to remind us of the desperate measures people went to in order to cross (under, over or through) the wall. My #2 museum experience ever!
One dinner was at the Clärchens Ballhaus, nicknamed the Gypsy Restaurant, in an old-fashioned music / dance hall, a building which is thought to originate from the time of Kaiser Wilhelm II's butler, on Auguststrasse in the Jewish quarter. The building certainly has history and plenty of character - and could do with a lick of paint - even though we were there in the middle of the day without any live band performing, although instruments littered the stage and piped ballroom music filled the air as tasters of what happens there on week-end evenings. The food was primarily traditional fare, with pork medallions, schnitzel, meatballs and goulash among the dishes ordered, all delicious and devoured after a long morning.
Another meal was as the majestic Adlon hotel, a stone's throw from the Brandenburger Gate; a sumptuous offering from a delightful menu, with staff pampering to one's every desire. And, like the rest of Berlin, the cost was surprisingly low, confirming the attrcativeness of the destination.
In the evening, Berlin's Festival of Lights starts at around 19:00 - this spectacle has allowed artists using light, with some displays some supported by music too, to project an artistic creation against various buildings in the city, including the Brandenburger Gate; the festival lasts until Sunday (18 October).
Travel & Accommodation
Thinking of planning a trip to Berlin? Why not do so around one of the many festivals coming up over the next weeks and months? see www.visitberlin.de/en for details.
Berlin in just 600km from the Grand Duchy as the crow flies and can be reached in just 70 minutes courtesy of Luxair and its Bombardier Q400 turbo-props. See www.luxair.lu for timetable and reservations.
We stayed at the Riu Plaza Berlin, close to buses and the ultra-efficient underground; a class hotel in the LuxairTours Metropolis catalogue.
For the full photo album (on Facebook), click https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.771360496308591.1073741898.238112732966706&type=3.
Photos by Geoff Thompson
With 40 of the 48 matches now played at the Rugby World Cup 2015 in England, there are just 8 teams left in the competition; Over 1.8 million fans have attended the pool phase matches, of which 460,000 have travelled from overseas.
While Japan may have caused the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history by defeating South Afica in the opening weekend, and have scored two other victories in the tournament group stages, they have not survived, with South Africa and Scotland going through at their expense. And the other big shock was the host nation, England, being eliminated after defeats to both Wales and Australia; one of these power houses of world rugby was always going to lose out with the three in the same group (Pool A) and only two going through.
It ultimately came down to teamwork and following the coach's game strategy. This was clear in both these encounters, but particularly so in the Wales-Australia decider. Austrlaia were conceding penalties when under severe attacking play from Wales and at one stage actuall had two players yellow-carded, i.e. off the pitch for 10 minutes each. This resulted in a period of over 7 minutes when Wales were two men up; but they could not breach the resolute Australian defence once in this period; such was the resolve of the Australians, the Welsh were never going to win that game.
The previous Wales-England game was another contest in point. At one stage in that game Wales had two players stretchered off and another appeared to have dislocated his shoulder and was helped from the pitch. Here, England should have gone for the jugular but they could not take advantsage of Wales' misfortune, particularly as the Principality's squad had lost the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, arguably the game's best full-back, even before the tournament started, with injury.
On Sunday, a similar fate befell France when up against Ireland who lost their captain, Paul O'Connell with a badly torn hamstring and talismanic out-half Jonny Sexton with another game-defining injury, and also Peter O'Mahony who was stretchered off with a knee ligament injury. Again, France should have been able to exploit Ireland's weakness, on paper at least, but again it was the team with the greater cohesion and will to win, that won the day.
It may be no coincdence that Ireland and Australia have the tournament's best defensive records, conceding just 35 points apiece. On the other end of the scale, Agrentina (179), New Zealand (174) and South Africa (176) have scored the most points in the pool stages.
The quarter-finals will take place this coming week-end, with both Twickenham and the Millenium Stadium hosting two games each:
- Sat (Twickenham): South Africa - Wales
- Sat (Millennium Stadium): New Zealand - France
- Sun (Millennium Stadium): Ireland - Argentina
- Sun (Twickenham): Australia - Scotland
On paper you would have to go with the four teams topping the groups, in emerging victorious to qualify for the semi-finals. But it is also worth noting that, apart from the 8 teams above, plus England, neither Italy or Japan have ever qualified for a Rugby World Cup quarter-final. The top teams are still the top teams, but at least once every four years some of the second tier nations do have a chance to play them and sometimes, just sometimes, the world sits up and takes notice. Just look at Japan.
To get to LondonCity, see www.luxair.lu.
Two weeks on from the opening week-end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and some things are becoming clearer.
New Zealand, while not (yet) playing at the top of their game, are the first side to qualify for the knock-out stage, following their midweek win over a spirited Georgia side. Argentina, as anticipated, will probably also qualify from this pool as the only other side with a mathematical possibility of qualifying, Tonga, have to play the all Blacks. On Sunday, Argentina dispatched a spirited Tonga side with some clinical finishing.
Last week-end's stunning victory by Wales over hosts England really set the cat among the pigeons, with everyone giving their own opinions as to how and why that happened, and what would subsequently play out. With Australia also in this group, and just two qualifying for the quarter-finals, England's match on Saturday evening was in effect a knock-out game; lose and they fail to qualify.
Well, what then transpired was that England's chariot became unstuck against an Australia side under the guidance of the wily Michael Cheika who out-thought his English counterpart Stuart Lancaster. England's decision to change their first-choice out-half mid-tournament did not help their cause, but ultimately their scrum was their biggest handicap. Once a cornerstone of their power play, England's scrum was pushed backwards more often that it moved forwards. Wales and Australia now qualify from this group and meet next week-end to see who tops the group.
This was not before Newcastle, St James' Park to be exact, played host to Scotland and South Africa. In this cauldron of north-east football lore, the wounded Springboks came to right their shock defeat to Japan in the opening week-end. Scotland, meanwhile, have slowly and quietly emerged from the shadows of mediocracy in te last couple of years of the 6 Nations tournament to start on a high, with convincing play, despite the shallow depth of their playing resources.
In Newcastle, this was supposed to be a "home game" for Scotland. What transpired was that there were arguably Springboks' supporters there - they were definitely more vocal. While Scotland rested a few of their best players in a rotation of their squad, South Africa returned to close to their best, despite rumours of discontent in their camp. This was a bruising encounter in which the surface was chewed up every time a scrum was awarded. While Scotland started the second half strongly and gave their supporters some hope with a try 8 minutes after a restart, South Africa came back and ran out worthwhile winners.
Scotland (10 points) still have a banana-skin of a game against Samoa while Japan (8 points) play their remaining game against the USA (pointless). While Scotland should progress, it is utterly conceivable that Japan will win three games and still not qualify for the knock-out phases.
On Sunday, all eyes were then on the Olympic Stadium in London where Ireland and Italy were battling horns. Ireland had started the tournament on a positive note when achieving bonus points in both their matches, against Canada and Romania, when playing attractive, free-flowing rugby. The stakes were upped against a spirited Italian side who had previously injured talisman Sergio Parisse back in the starting line-up. What transpired was en edgy affair with the Irish winning 16-9; they tried running through the Azzuri, they tried chipping over them, they tried up-and-unders and they tried kicking for position, but Parisse's presence revitalised the Italians, but untimately was not enought to secure a win over the Boys in Green.
Ireland and France are both on 14 points and meet next Sunday in Cardiff with the loser probably to play the All Blacks in the quarter-finals. Interestingly, Ireland have the meanest defence of all the teams after 3 games each, having conceded just 26 points.
So, desite the surprises of Japan and, to a lesser extent, Georgia, it looks like Pools B, C and D will see the world rugby order retianed; meanwhile, in Group A, England have suffered the fate of being the only host not to qualify from their group in a Rugby World Cup - with three top teams in their group, three into two would just not go and England were the team to lose out, with Australia and Wales surviving.
One of the best things about the Rugby World Cup, off the pitch at least, is the camaraderie of supporters of opposing teams. Two weeks ago it was chaos on the trains between London and Cardiff for the Irish and Canadian supporters, but the two sets of supporters put the logistics nightmare behind them and talked, joked and cajoled throughout their travels. Likewise, on Saturday's train ride from London to Newcastle, those Scotland supporters travelling north for the game mixed and mingled with the South Africa supporters, most already togged out in their team's colours, with some even wearing Spingboks' jerseys on top of their kilts...
To travel to England, fly Luxair to LondonCity airport. See www.luxair.lu.
Tip: Upon arrival at LondonCity Airport, purchase / top-up an Oyster Card for use on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and London Underground. For intercity rail travel, book well in advance to get the best deals.
Photos by Geoff Thompson