Mon04242017

Monday, 28 September 2015 09:52

Geoff Thompson: All Drama at Rugby World Cup

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With all but two teams having now played two games each in the pool stages of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, 19 of the 48 games have now been played, almost 50% of the total.

While South Africa were stunned by Japan during the first week-end, the games since then have seen fewer shocks. Yes, Scotland were losing at half-time to a spirited USA team, but eventually won and even gained a bonus point. Argentina defeated Georgia who had triumphed on the opening week-end, and Italy overcame a spirited Canada team.

But the match of the week-end was undoubtedly England against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday. England, the Rugby World Cup hosts, had home advantage; Wales were without talisman Leigh Halfpenny but had the "Gatland effect". With the match seeing Wales' playing resources decimated even more with two players stretchered off and another leaving with a dislocated shoulder, there was no way that Wales could win the match, or was there?

England's manager, Stuart Lancaster, has not been able to settle on a first-choice out-half, recalling the apparently previously dropped Owen Farrell for this crucial match - Australia are also in this same group, with only 2 sides going through (Australia have won the RWC twice and England once) - and putting rugby league convert Sam Burgess in for his first start. On the other side of the coin, Wales' manager Warren Gatland has already had to call up for squad reinforcements as the injury crisis mounts.

However, Wales' second half performance meant that they triumphed against all the odds to emerge winners 28-25 at the final whistle. This means that England have to defeat Australia next saturday to have any hope of going through to the knock-out stages. It is also entirely feasible that England defeat Austrlia and Australia defeat Wales, ensuring that bonus points will be the deciding factor. However, at this stage the pressure is all on England, with Wales and Australia in the driving seat(s).

To get to England to attend the Rugby World Cup, fly by Luxair direct to LondonCity airport. See www.Luxair.lu for details.

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With an estimated global television audience of 450 million tuning in to Twickenham to watch the Opening Ceremony of the Rugby World Cup 2015 on Friday evening, the Military Band and the Rugby School Choir were joined by the emotionally-charged crowd who sang along to Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline to get the show started, followed by an even mightier Jerusalem led by Laura Wright; watching such a spectacle on tv is nothing to witnessing it live.

The warm-up finished; the Opening Ceremony started with a video recreation of the first time rugby was played, at rugby school, featuring Asa Butterfield and a cameo by Prince Harry, leading into a carefully choreographed spectacle featuring, amongst others, rugby legends from all 20 participating nations and the presentation of the trophy itself before the speeches. Patriotic in part, it highlighted rugby as a team sport and the destiny of this tournament.

Fiji - England

The Fijian version of the Haka may not quite have the intensity of that of the All Blacks, but the preceding singing of God Save the Queen encouraged the partisan crowd to belt it out like never before and create an atmosphere.

With early rain and nervous handling, it was England who started putting points on the board, as expected. But Fiji rallied back and, despite one disallow try, quickly ensured there was no mistake a minute later. However, the action was stop-start, hardly the spectacle the organisers had hoped for, with referee Jaco Peyper appearing reluctant to make any decision without resorting to the  Television Match Official (TMO).

Fiji had the flair but not always the technique, making up for a poor advertisement for the game of rugby. In the third quarter they threatened to score but just came away with three points. England's Mike Brown rise above the mediocracy to score two tries and, maybe, if Fiji had a proven kicker in the team it may have been a different result. England were aiming for a 4th try to claim a bonus point, and they got it courtesy of substitute Billy Vunipola, a crowd favourite, just before the end. Final score: Fiji 11 - England 35 (more importantly, England get a bonus point for scoring 4 tries).

Getting back to central London was not the nightmare it could have been, with a fleet of shuttle buses ferrying spectators to Waterloo as the Twickenham and Richmond stations would be struggling to cope with demand.

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Saturday

Saturday involved a 2-hour train journey to Cardiff to see Ireland kick off their campaign against Canada in the Millennium Stadium with its roof closed. One of the beauties of the Welsh capital is the close proximity of the stadium to the railway station, making the trip west most enjoyable.

In the Media Centre before the Ireland - Canada game, the game between Tonga (ranked #11) and Georgia (#16) was screened, with the Georgians springing the first surprise of the tournament, emerging 17-10 winners over the South Sea Islanders. Compared to the opening game, it was a pulsating affair with the crowd getting behind both teams right up to the final whistle.

Ireland / Canada

No hakas for this match, but the Millennium Stadium crowd was in full force. With the roof closed for the "indoor" match, the sound was magnified as the players entered running on to the pitch.

With the first quarter of an hour seeing both teams seeking out gaps in each other's defences, all changed on 17 mins when Glen Jackson, the New Zealand referee, yellow carded Canada's Kyle Gilmour. Ireland's Sean O'Brien touched down after a forward's drive over the line, then Iain Henderson did the same just 6 minutes later. 17-0 to Ireland after 25 minutes.

Ireland's backs, in particular, were using the loop around and inside passing repeatedly, with Jonny Sexton darting through 3 minutes later for Ireland's 3rd try. Then winger Dave Kearney ripped through the defence on the near side of the pitch to score Ireland's 4th try on 36 minutes. Bonus point secured. On the stroke of half time Canada thought they had crossed the line but the referee adjudged the last pass to be forward. Half-time: 29-0 to Ireland.

One of the interesting innovations the organisers have implemented for this tournament is the pre-match, half-time and full-time in-stadium presenters and analysts discussing the match and the teams. Just like as on tv!

Ireland were down to 14 men less than 2 minutes into the 2nd half as captain Paul O'Connell was sin-binned; however, Canada could not make their numerical advantage count. With players tiring on both sides, it was not until both had made a number of substitutions that the scoreboard started to tick over again with a converted try apiece before Ireland's Keith Earls sprinted down the left wing for Rob Kearney to touch down under the posts. Then Madigan burst through for Jared Payne to score with just 3 minutes left on the clock.

Despite disappointing performances in the lead up to the World Cup, Ireland have rediscovered their mojo.

It was then that Japan achieved arguably one of the biggest shocks in sporting history, especially in rugby, by defeating the South African Springboks. I remember a number of years ago, while working on a project for the IRFU, they installed a new scoreboard for the  visit of Japan to the old Lansdowne Road, to 3 digits; they needed it... With Japan hosting the next Rugby World Cup in 2019, this result alone will ensure the country will get behind the competition then. For the now, it has exploded this current tournament with everyone talking about it.

The Rugby World Cup not only brings together team on the pitch, but fans too, from celebrating in pubs to chatting in trains and buses on the way to and from venues, and not just in the host country.

Last up on Saturday saw France avoiding a banana skin by seeing off the threat of Italy.

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Sunday

New Zealand / Argentina

After Samoa had overcome the USA and Wales dispatched Uruguay earlier in the day, it was time for the Pool C heavyweights, New Zealand and Argentina, to meet at Wembley, arguably the top match of the week-end, on paper at least - Japan had changed all that the day before.

There was an equal amount of blue and white as there was black in the crowd who were very vociferous in welcoming both teams, and for the haka, the All Blacks' war dance.

With both teams showing lightning-quick handling and willing to run at the opposition, the scene was set for a classic game, but a bruising encounter such . New Zealand took advantage of poor discipline from the Argentinian players in the loose and went into a 9-0 lead courtesy of 3 penalties, but the South Americans crossed for the game's first try, and took the lead with a penalty of their own. Game on!

Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain and a talismanic figure, was yellow carded, getting a standing ovation from the Argentine fans; when team-mate Conrad Smith was also yellow-carded, New Zealand were down to just 13 men for a minute before McCaw came back on. Half-time: New Zealand 12, Argentina 13.

The second half started with more of the same, except Argentina were deploying a deeper back-line formation in attack, enabling their backs to run onto the ball, thus having more momentum in the tackle. New Zealand also started to deploy thus tactic as both defences were shoring up and seemed almost impenetrable. Almost; Aaron Smith, the All Blacks' scrum-half, danced over the line from a 5m line-out, to bring them back into the lead.

With the on-pitch intensity dropping, the Argentinian fan-base broke into song, chanting to rouse their players who were visibly tiring. The All Blacks upped the pressure and substitute Sam Cane made up for dropping a pass when in front of the posts by crossing near the corner a minute later.

Final score: New Zealand 26, Argentina 16

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8 matches in 3 days, with 16 of the 20 teams in action this first week-end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. But the scene is just being set with teams like Japan needing to repeat their heroics once more to be in with a shout of qualifying for the quarter-finals. Others, like Argentina, need to ensure there are no more slip-ups, for them to quality.

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.

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Photos by Geoff Thompson

Thursday, 17 September 2015 21:32

Geoff Thompson: All Set for 8th Rugby World Cup

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The 8th Rugby World Cup will kick off at Twickenham tomorrow, Friday 18, with England away to Fiji: yes, even though England are playing at Twickenham, they will occupy the visitors' dressing room following the pre-tournament draw - that's why Ireland got to occupy the home dressing room in Twickenham for the first time in their recent pre-tournament friendly.

Who will eventually win and hold aloft the Webb Ellis Cup, which the All Blacks did 4 years ago in New Zealand, and South Africa did 8 years ago at the Stade de France in Paris? To find out we will just have to go along for the ride and experience the thrills and spills, the tackles, mauls, line-outs, scrums, penalties, tries, conversions and high drama. And that's only the action ON the pitch...

Yes, there will be a few cricket-score one-side matches, but this is the one chance that players from less-fancied sides have to play against the top teams in the world. After all, it is the World Cup and, unlike cricket, is not preserved for the elite few, with a comprehensive qualification process culminating with the 20 teams split into 4 pools of 4 teams each, with the top 2 from each qualifying for the knock-out stages.

There will be 48 games in all, mostly played at week-ends, with the final scheduled for Saturday 31 October, back at Twickenham where the opening match takes place on Friday evening. In between, another dozen venues are being used, including the Brighton Community Stadium, Elland Road (Leeds), Kingsholm Stadium (Gloucester), Leicester City Stadium, Manchester City Stadium, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Stadium, the MK Dons stadium, villa Park (Birmingham), Sandy Park (Exeter), St James' Park (Newcastle) and Wembley Stadium. Many of these are traditional football (Soccer) venues and will enable the tournament to raise awareness of the sport to many new followers.

Pool A: Two into three won't go - one of Australia, Wales and England will not make the knock-out stages. Interestingly, the Australia - Wales games is not being played in Cardiff

- Australia: 12 months ago they were a poor team, comparatively speaking, under Paul Deans. The arrival of Michael Cheika has seen a turnaround in their fortunes which culminated in their beating the mighty All Blacks and winning this year's Rugby Championship

- England: with the youngest squad in the tournament, will lack of experience be compensated by home advantage? Their forwards' power is complemented by the speed and agility of wing May and full-back Brown. A weak link at fly-half may prove to be their undoing

- Wales: although Wales has a slow start to the 6 Nations this year and did not play well in the warm-up games, they do have the "Gatland effect" with their New Zealand coach a winning Lions coach and hugely respected. However, the will rue the loos of Leigh Halfpenny to injury before the tournament

- Fiji: one of the best rugby 7s nations; large and fast; knocked Wales out of the competition 8 years ago; hoping for an upset in the opening game against England

- Uruguay: the last team to qualify for the competition with their best chance against Fiji

Pool B: The South African Springboks should qualify comfortably with Samoa and the USA being Scotland's biggest threat to reaching the quarter-finals

- South Africa: twice winners of the Rugby World Cup, it would be a surprise if they did not make the last 4

- Samoa: big bruising players who bring the game to the opposition and could be a treat to Scotland on their day

- Japan: eager, but unlikely, to make an impression as they will host the 2019 tournament

- Scotland: a poor record in recent 6 Nations championships and who have not played well under coach Vern Cotter; this tournament could be where this all changes. The game against South Africa is being played in Newcastle, so Scotland should have significant support for this. Possible quarter-finalists.

- USA: spirited team who will feel the biggest chance of an upset will be against Scotland

Pool C: Probably the most straight-forward pool to call with the finishing order likely to replicate the starting order.

- New Zealand: consistently the favourites and the team everyone wants to beat. Not many teams or players can boast having defeated the All Blacks. However, their average player age is higher than most and they have the tendency to trip up in the knock-out rounds, with a 1999 defeat to France in Twickenham still clear in many people's minds

- Argentina: a first win over South Africa in this year's Rugby Championship. Finished 3rd eight years ago. Their destiny will be based on their first game on Sunday, against New Zealand

- Tonga: the 3rd Pacific Islands team and capable of an upset on their day but not expected to progress

- Georgia: many of their players play for French teams. Very good scrum, especially front rows. Gave Ireland a fright 8 years ago.

- Namibia: the "poor cousin" of South Africa, with game against Georgia their best chance of a win

Pool D: the winners of the France-Ireland game, the last in the group, should avoid the All Blacks in the quarter-finals

- France: have not won against Ireland in the last 4 years, with 2 wins and 2 draws in the 6 Nations. Under coach Philippe Saint-André they have underperformed, partly due to inconsistent team selections. However, France traditionally rise to the occasion of the Rugby World Cup

- Ireland: have traditionally underperformed at Rugby World cups, particularly 8 years ago in France when Brian O'Driscoll was in his prime. 4 Years ago they defeated Australia to top the group before succumbing to Wales in the quarter-finals. This year they have arguably the best coach in the world, Joe Schmidt, and are looking for a first ever appearance in the semi-finals.

- Italy: have defeated both Ireland and France in 6 Nations matches, but are not expected to mount a serious challenge

- Canada: similar to the US, they will be aiming for to defeat Italy

- Romania: not expected to test any of the teams in this group.

With Pool A impossible to call, I predict the winner of the first semi-final between South Africa - New Zealand to play the winner of the second semi-final between Ireland and Pool A winners, in the final. At this stage of the competition, it's bets off and down to the 30 players on the pitch. Oh, and the interpretation of the rules by the referees...

Thanks to Luxair's support for getting in and out of LondonCity airport quickly and easily for all 2015 Rugby World Cup week-ends!

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Sometimes we overlook what is in our own back yard and decide that what is farther away must be "better"; when looking for things to do, particularly in the summer months here in Luxembourg, there are so many worthwhile things to do and see right here in the Grand Duchy...

One such thing is to visit Bourscheid Chateau. At around 40km north of Luxembourg city, situated between Diekirch and Wiltz, the chateau is actually located lower than the town. That's is because the promontory on which it sits is so protected.

The drive there is spectacular, with the last few kilometres revealing the ragged terrain that must be so difficult for farmers, with their wheat- and corn-fields tilted at significant angles. That gives a hint of what is to come, with the Sure river meandering through the valley below and flowing alsong Bourscheid-Plage - this currently offers many holiday chalets and space for campers, but the beach itself used to be popular in times past, attracting gentry from neighbouring countries too. But the road here is not the road to anywhere else, so if someone is driving to another centre in north, they would normally bypass Bourscheid. But what a hidden gem it truly is.

Back to the chateau, the origins of which date from the 11th century. There is ample parking at the chateau, necessitating a short walk up to the castle. Entry is not expensive, with the adult price of €5 including an audio tour with no less than 24 stations, describing in detail how the chateau was built, extended, fell into disrepair and was renovated. As well as discovering all about the cultural heritage and particularly the historical perspective, the views from the keep and the outside walls are simply stunning. The tour takes around 2 hours to cover everything. And there are toilets and a café for drinks, on site. They also have a functioning stocks, a great photo opportunity and some horseplay!

The keep and one of the palaces inside have been rebuilt and restored and, together with other components of the tour, give a true insight into how the chateau must have operated. visitors can see where the stables and blacksmith used to be, the four cisterns/wells, the chapel and cellars, as well as how the fortifications worked.

However, one drawback could be claimed to be the lack of suitable restaurants nearby. While down at Bourscheid-Plage there is a choice between a Friterie and a 4-star hotel with inflated prices, there is another hotel and separate restaurant back in Bourscheid town. We decided to plough ahead and go on to Diekirch where there was plenty of choice in the town.

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Friday, 24 July 2015 10:43

Geoff Thompson: Destination Galway

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Galway in the west of Ireland is kind of special in two ways for me; firstly, it holds arguably the best wild brown trout fishing anywhere in Europe and, secondly, it hosts the annual Galway Film Fleadh (festival).

While I try to get each May to Connemara, the region to the west of Galway city amassed with mountains and lakes and incredible scenery, July is the turn of the city and its arty folk to put on one of the most genuine festivals I've had the pleasure to attend for a number of years now. Like the Edinburgh International Film Festival I visited last month, the Galway Film Fleadh is the other main sources of new independent films to screen at Luxembourg's British & Irish Film Season (BIFS) each autumn, this year from 21 September to 2 October. And, like the Edinburgh event, the Galway Film Fleadh was borne out of the city's main arts festival which still continues in its own right.

And yes, the weather in Galway is not the same as Luxembourg - we left the Grand Duchy when it was 38C and arrived to 17C in the west of Ireland. Rain was threatened, but it stayed away apart from one day. The idiom that in Ireland it is either already raining or about to rain did not hold true that week, the temperatures were mainly in the low 20s and it was short sleeved shirts every day.

By staying at the central Jury's In hotel we got a delightful room at the back; instead of overlooking the end of the strip of bars and restaurants, we had the serene view of the tidal stretch of the River Corrib as it flowed the short distance from the lake to the sea. Daily we heard the screech of the seagulls - something completely absent from land-locked Luxembourg - and marvelled in the sight of the swans, their cygnets, the ducks and the herons, all going about their daily business on the river.

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And it was walking along the river path and riverbank that made the Fleadh attendance even more enjoyable and soothing. Listening to the gurgle of the water and watching the fishermen tempt a salmon to their line, for the few minutes it took to reach the festival venue, the old Town Hall Theatre, opposite the courthouse. The upper stretch of the "Galway Weir" stretch is reserved for fly fishermen, most using two-handed salmon rods, and they use chest waders and sticks to make their way downstream as they cover the water in the deeper channel towards the far side. And then, downstream and closer to the hotel, it was the turn of the local residents who have free access to fish that stretch of the river, from the high bank using long spinning rods with shrimp as bait. On two successive days I managed to see salmon, each around 4-5lbs, being caught. Interestingly, a second person needs to descend a metal ladder in the wall, armed with a net, to lift the fish up to safety.

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I also got the opportunity to fish Lough Corrib from Oughterard one afternoon; while it was very different from fishing it during the Mayfly season, it was great to get out on the water and pit my wits against the aquatic life just under the surface. I'm delighted to report that I was triumphant on no less than three occasions that afternoon, with all three returned safely and alive to live and fight another day.

With one part of my brain keeping reminding me of the time by which I must stop fishing so as to be able to return to the city in time for the evening's screenings, I ensured I was able to fit in this favourite pastime of mine between the strict timings of the festival. But there are plenty of other things to do in Galway too - lots of shopping, restaurants and cafés, nightlife and access to the Burren (an hour's drive to the south) and Connemara (half an hour's drive to the west)...

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Overall I managed to watch no less than 14 feature films in the 6 days and attend a number of industry events too, including the annual get-together of organisers of Irish film festivals abroad - with representatives from Australasia, across the US and also Europe. With the centenary of 1916 and the Easter Rising - one of Ireland's most important dates in history - to come next year, I took in a couple of documentaries (in Irish, sub-titled in English) set around the time of the Irish Civil War in the early 20s and another about the sustainable energy project engineered at the end of the 1920s on the River Shannon. An Klondike was set in Alaska in the late 19th century but filmed in Galway, with other dramas and comedies also having their premiers at Galway.

The awards were numerous, with My Name is Emily and You're Ugly Too jointly receiving Best Irish Feature Film, with Song of the Sea (a Luxembourg-Ireland co-production) also among the winners, with An Klondike picking up the annual Galway Hooker Award (named after a type of boat, not a type of person...).

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The week-long stay had come to an end, so back in the hire car and the 2.5 hour drive back to Dublin and the airport, most of which was along motorways. A quick drop at the car hire returns and an even quicker check-in at the airport. Strangely, one we took our seats on the Luxair plane it was as we were back in Luxembourg. A quick nap, a read and a snack on board and the two-hour flight was over, and back to mid 30s and the Luxembourg summer.

How to get there: fly-drive with Luxair (www.luxair.lu).

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Sunday, 05 July 2015 20:32

Geoff Thompson: Destination Edinburgh

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Edinburgh in Scotland is always a joy to visit; while it may not offer the sunshine and warmth of the Mediterranean (or of Luxembourg this week, incidentally) it is steeped in history, with its cultural heritage and festivals always offering the visitor something special.

I was there for the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), taking in the British Strand of films as preparation and research for the autumn's 6th annual British & Irish Film Season (BIFS). With the EIFF one of the two festivals with which the BIFS has established a firm collaboration, this allows me to watch many World Premiers and British Premiers of new British films, enabling me to make judgement calls on which films could fit into the jigsaw of suitability, genres and countries, as well as meeting the actors, directors and producers, and inviting them over to participate in the post-screening Q&As of their films. In total I saw 23 films that week and also took in the live audience interview with Ewan McGregor.

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At the EIFF Awards Ceremony, the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film went to 45 Years, a drama starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, with Charlotte Rampling and James Cosmo (The Pyramid Texts) sharing the Best Performance Award. The Student Critics Award went to Black Mountain Poets, a comedy drama set in Wales, while the Public Award went to Big Gold Dream about Scottish Post-Punk music.

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Edinburgh's skyline in dominated by the castle, located in the middle, the heart of the city; to the north is Princes Street, a lively shopping district, and then one block back is Rose Street with numerous pubs, cafés and restaurants; to the south there's the famous Grassmarket, another site for fine dining, socialising and partying. To the east, Lothian Road was the main area for the film festival, with the FilmHouse, Traverse Theatre, Lyceum Theatre and Odeon cinema, with the Cineworld multiplex just a few minutes away by foot. That area, too, has a significant choice of restaurants from which to choose...

All around the city are various universities and faculties but Edinburgh is also well-know for its arts. But it's the stroll along Princes Street, walking parallel to its now-operational tram lines, turning right up North Bridge, climbing all the way, then right again up the Royal Mile, up to the Scotch Whisky Experience and Edinburgh Castle. While it is technically possible to walk this in one go, in reality there are so many distractions along the way, it really is an impossible task. Whether you stop for a coffee, a bit of shopping, whisky tasting or you decide to take the tour of the castle, there really is something for everyone. And afterwards, if you continue your way down, you can get to the Grassmarket and have a relaxing meal there in great Scottish atmosphere. This is plenty more too, but that's just a snapshot...

So, what's on in Edinburgh this summer? This year the Edinburgh Festival is happening from 7-31 August featuring theatre, music, opera, dance and talks and workshops, with the almost-as-famous Fringe taking place in parallel, a celebration of arts and entertainment. The Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival will take place from 17-26 July, with the Hard Rock Café festival from 30 July to 1 August, during which the St Andrew's Square Garden will be back, an open-air place for entertainment and relaxation open each day between 11:00 and 02:00.

Getting to Edinburgh is a little tricky, however, from the Grand Duchy. However, a relatively straight-forward and relaxing way is to take a Luxair flight to London-City, take the DLR to Banknand the Northern line to Euston or King's Cross, from where you can catch a direct train to Edinburgh (check before you book whether you want Edinburgh-Waverley or edinburgh-Haymarket).

See www.luxair.lu  and www.thetrainline.com  - booking both well in advance will save you money!

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When in London on business, there is always something to do, something within walking distance or a quick Tube or cab ride, to while away an hour or so.

I was presented with such an opportunity on a recent trip to London when I found myself in London EC4. With the hotel and meeting destination either side of St Paul's Cathedral, sandwiched between Blackfriars Bridge and the Bank of England, and opposite the Tate Modern on the Thames, the choice this time was easy.

Walking through the grounds to the front entrance of the cathedral, hundreds of people were taking advantage of the balmy afternoon to relax on the manicured lawns surrounding the magnificent structure that rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of London that destroyed much of the city in 1666. Hearing a multitude of languages and accents reminded me of Luxembourg; it was interesting to people-watch and seeing all ages from groups of school children to elderly in wheelchairs, with many others using the entrance steps as a pre-dertermined meeting point or resting area after a day spent exploring what London has to offer.

The decorative plasterwork, ornate pictures and (electric) candle chandeliers ensured that the cavernous interior had something around each corner, on each wall and ceiling. Climbing up the 163 steps to the Dome afforded magnificent views from the various Galleries, both across London as well as inwards into the cathedral itself, with the famous Whispering Gallery attrcating the attention of young and old.

Designed by the famous architect Christopher Wren and labelled his masterpiece, it is used for special occasions from time to time, including the unforgettable wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana which brought London, the cathedral and the ceremony into the homes of millions world-wide via tv broadcasts. Lord Nelson's tomb is in the crypt, nearby to the shop and café which is notable for its cave-like cellar setting.

St Paul's Cathedral attracts 1.5 million visitors annually. With entrance fees of up to £18 for an adult (it's free if you are going to pray or attend one of the 4 services daily), these goes towards its upkeep which reaches £7 million annually.

And to get to London City airport from St Paul's? Although there is a St Paul's Underground station, it is almost the same distance to walk to Bank as from there it's straight ride via the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to London City airport - choosing the St Paul's station only means an additional 1-stop journey on the Circle line and change at Bank for the DLR. The flight is only just over an hour back to Luxembourg. If you're early arriving at the airport, as I did, there's free WiFi to enable you to catch up on work, emails, etc., and the opportunity to get something to eat and drink too.

How to get there: via Luxair - see www.luxair.lu

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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Travelling to Ireland is nowadays much easier than it has been courtesy of Luxair's increased-capacity service to Dublin which it now serves 6 days/week.

While every individual/family has a different reason to visit a specific destination - business, family, friends, holiday, etc. - some choose their destination based on activities available; my passion is angling, fly-fishing for wild brown trout, to be exact.

Flying to Dublin via Luxair takes around 2 hours in the Bombardier Q400 turbo-props, so time for a read, a sandwich and a couple of drinks - all complimentary - and a nap before touching down in Dublin. Unfortunately there was thick cloud cover for almost the entire flight, so no chance to visually scan the topography to make out landmarks along the way, over Luxembourg, Belgium, across the Channel, over England and Wales, across the Irish sea and then over north Dublin.

With a hire car organised at the time of booking, it just took a few minutes for the paperwork to be finalised, for both a car and a MiFi (portable wifi router which allows a passenger to connect any mobile device and use it as a SatNav) which is less expensive than a stand-alone SatNav.

With the car loaded up with equipment, rods, tackle and appropriate clothing (to protect against the elements, not only rain but also wind), off we set, first to Lough Sheelin in the midlands. We managed to collect some natural mayflies around a slipway so we were able to "dap" natural mayflies as well as fish wet flies (through the water) and also dry flies (sitting on top of the water. So, everything we could do to tempt a hungry trout. Not a sausage though! In their defence, the mayfly was not yet "up" on the lake, the temperatures were too low and the wind was almost too strong. If we had come across a fish there, though, it would have been a decent size, with the average around 3 lbs, quite a bit larger than in other lakes, although volumes are significantly lower.

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Over to the west, with Ireland's motorway infrastructure enabling quick access to almost all the country. We were aimed for Oughterard, to the west of Galway and at the edge of Connemara. A couple of days on Lough Corrib and deploying all three methods, we started to have some luck. by the end, we had fish every day - no blanks! And one day I actually managed a hat-trick - one fish on wet-fly, one on dry-fly and one on the dap...

Like at Lough Sheelin, the Mayfly were not "up" properly on Loughs Corrib and Mask; however, there were regular small hatches and even smaller windows when the fish were feeding. Also, while the winds were conductive to a good wave across the lakes, and really neither too weak nor too strong (averaging Force 3-5, with Force 4 the best), the temperatures were consistently below average. We had a few showers but even more periods of sunshine; the interesting thing was that the reactions of the wild brown trout in Ireland's western lakes are completely different to those in lakes in England, Scotland and Wales regarding changes in weather and feeding patterns.

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Our guesthouse near Oughterard on the shore of Lough Corrib was full, with the family owners explaining "up to now 95% of guests are anglers and now that the Mayfly season is effectively over, 95% of our guests from now on will be non-anglers". With a full Irish breakfast in the mornings and a snug turf and wood open fire in the evenings, it was way more than comfortable. Like at home in Luxembourg, many languages were spoken as guests made up many nationalities - from Dutch, German, Swiss and Italian as well as Irish, Welsh and English. And the town of Oughterard has undergone a mini-revival. Gone are the days of another shop or restaurant having closed down since our last visit - now most building had received a lick of paint, new shops had opened, the hotel had re-opened (again) and a couple more restaurants were open for business. Choice, at last, and quality too. And the hotel was offering a special "Fisherman's Catch" menu whereby anglers could bring their catch to be cooked for them as a main course!

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Back to the fishing; we would normally move a couple of trout late morning, then a quiet spell until lunch when they went on the feed again, then the "4 o'clock rise" and another just before we headed back to the mini pier-cum-boatyard. But with the wind changing direction and intensity, it meant that drifts over shallows were nearly always changing from the time/day before. But that spiced things up and meant that we had variation. there was plenty of other life on the water too, with numerous varieties of duck, house martins and swans all present in numbers. A couple of canoeists were paddling away and a couple of pleasure craft were motoring up and down the lake. A number of sheep, rams and cattle were on the islands, with the farmers able to transport them to/from the mainland on pontoons pulled by boats. You should have seen the horns!

This was no holiday, we were up before 07:30, to get into the town for the young merchants to sell us their wares - schoolchildren in this neck of the woods are given time off school to collect natural mayflies for dapping, with visiting anglers congregating before 08:00 with their wooden boxes, another example of how the region has adapted to servicing the angling industry.

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On the day we went to Lough Mask, we drove through Connemara and parts of the Gaeltacht (Irish/Gaelic speaking area), with clear skies affording us magnificent landscape scenery and wonderful views over Lough Corrib. After going through Maam Cross and Maam, before we arrived in Ballinrobe we stopped off in Cong to walk the grounds of the Anglo-Norman Ashford castle where US President Ronald Reagan stayed and where, in 1951, film director John Ford filmed scenes for A Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara - a life-size statue stands in the town close to the ruins of an abbey and church, which is also worth a hour or two.

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We waited until the last 15 minutes on the last day to get the largest fish in the boat. A fish took my fly like an express train, dived under the boat, then screamed line off the reel not once, but twice, before I got it in the net. A glorious fish with golden brown colouring on his underbelly with a myriad of sport - some bright red - along his flanks, just tipping the scales at 2.5 lbs. Frankly it looked much bigger that the 2-pounder caught a couple of days previously. Just as an example of how we did overall, the day out on Lough Mask resulted in 8 fish for the day, but just 2 were over the 13 inches regulation size, with all the others over 12 inches... those we kept are in the freezer, ready for the pot!

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On the way back we stopped off in Galway with the intention of watching salmon anglers at work at Galway Weir (the outflow from Lough Corrib) but sadly the water was too high. We also stopped off in Kilbeggan on the Dublin side of Athlone, to visit the world's oldest licenced distillery, before catching the Sunday evening flight back to Luxembourg.

Plans for next year's Mayfly trip are already underway...

For fly-drive holidays to Ireland, see www.luxair.lu.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

Tuesday, 19 May 2015 09:12

Geoff Thompson: Destination Puglia 2/2

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For the first of these two linked articles, click here, which covered my overall impressions of the Puglia region on the heel of Italy; this article deals with the specific visits we made during the 4-day trip.

TRANI

Visiting this coastal town north of Bari, we received an introduction to the cultural heritage of the region, including Cathedrals and Churches - both Catholic and Orthodox - as well as the Norman influence on the region. Walking from the market square (with stall-holders offering all regional produce for sale - most markets here feature fruit & vegetables, flowers, sea food and pasta) along by the fortified Norman castle to the coastal wall and impressive cathedral with its tall bell-tower and underground crypts, murals, mosaic floors and ancient copper/bronze door. In fact, this building is really three churches in one, with two being in the crypts and one over-ground

The sea air was whipping up the water, but the breakwater ensured the water inside the harbour was almost flat calm. A stroll along the harbour wall enabled us to get up close to the yachts, pleasure craft and fishing boats, with some small fish for sale, including sardines, bream, eels and monkfish - these small ones are used for preparing a traditional regional fish soup.

Hungry and thirsty, we had a table booked at the Restaurant Il Melograno in Trani for lunch. We were about to discover the extreme Puglia hospitality at first hand; not only is the food based on fresh local produce and regional recipes, but one's hosts present a large number of dishes and large volumes. Along the coast the main focus was seafood - fish shellfish and crustaceans, with meat more the focus inland, served both cold and freshly cooked.

On then to the Castel Del Monte, a unique octagonal structure with 8 rooms/floor built by Emperor Frederick II and dating from the 13th century which is now a World Heritage Site. Standing over 500m above sea level at the top of the hill and offering magnificent views down to the coast and out to sea, it is quite an imposing structure with an inner courtyard, but unfortunately all the interior marble had been removed centuries ago.

Dinner was at the Hotel Palace (the largest in the town) back in Bari, with seafood and pasta washed down by some excellent Italian white and red wine, before retiring to our spacious and airy rooms for a decent kip after the early morning start and a packed itinerary on Day #1.

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OSTUNI

Day #2 saw up on the road by 8am for a drive south along the coast road and fertile land with mainly olive groves and vineyards - while some grapes are grown for wine, most vines are covered and are for table grapes.

A walk through the narrow streets of Ostuni with pristine exposed stonework and white-washed walls, as well as potted plants providing greenery and colour on the building's balconies throughout the quaint town, with dozens of cafés and restaurants showing how popular this is for relaxing, socialising and dining on summer evenings.

The minibus then took us inland to the Valle d'Itria for a ride by horseback through the olive groves at the Parco di Mare. All the mounts were docile, so no unexpected dismounts. then to the Masseria Oasi San Giovanni where a magnificent lunch was prepared from bread, cheese, cold meats and much more, all from the locality.

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LOCOROTONDO

Locorotondo is known for its magnificent views over the Itria Valley, and out first glimpses of strange round stone buildings with conical rooves, the trulli. These were used for dwellings by wine-growers and were unique in that they did not rely on any form of cement, but were entirely dry-walled, and also that the outside rooves hand a separate interior ceiling that formed an early form of air conditioning as they kept them cool during summer and warm during winter. Most now are white-washed inside and out; the shape at the apex designated the owner's family, etc.

TENUTA MONACELLE

Some of us, including yours truly, were lucky with the draw and got the unique opportunity to sleep in a trulli that night, at the rural resort of Tenuta Monacelle, where we also dined at the rustic restaurant. The ONLY downside to staying in a trulli was that the thick stone walls did not allow any wifi signal to get through, but the resort bar had both a strong wifi signal and a great menu of wines and grappa. A morning stroll amongst the cherry orchard of 900 trees in blossom was a great start to the day.

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ALBEROBELLO

With hardly a cloud in the sky, photographs of the centre of the trulli universe, Alberobello - a Unesco heritage site - allowed much contrasts of blue and white. Their origins are thought to have both Greek and Byzantine influences, but the modern ones are from the 15th century.

CASTELLANA GROTTE

Discovered in 1938, the Grottes de Castellana comprise stalactites, stalagmites, columns and curtains, with a 1km and a 3km from which to choose a guided tour, available in a multitude of languages. Not too dissimilar to the Grottes de Han half-way to Brussels, these subterranean caves are a fascinating place to explore.

CONVERSANO

Then on to a participatory cookery demonstration-cum-lesson and meal of the results at the Dire Fare Gustare in Conversano - a rustic farm that was completely renovated by its present who now delight in culinary tourism - starting with focaccia with tomatoes and olives, to a Cavatelli dish of fried mushrooms and diced bread, to one with bread-balls with a light tomato sauce in pasta prepared and cooked there and then, to fruit biscuits for dessert. All the ingredients used they grown in their self-contained masseria, just like in years gone by - a masseria was a type of communal farm project.

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POLIGNANO

To walk off the results of our labours, we had a walk through Conversano itself which also boasts a Norman castle, beofre heading back down to the coast to Polignano, with the town of white-washed buildings built atop a cliff of limestone rock which was being eroded by the power of the sea, with Casemates-like caves underneath.

BARI

Back to Bari and the Palce Hotel, but not before a last (again, substantial) dinner at the nearby Restaurant Giampolo. Day #4 was relaxing with a tour through the city on tousist tricycles with pedal-guides, tasting fresh focaccia again, as well as seeing some of the city sights, including the basilica - serving both Orthodox and Catholic - with its incredibly ornate ceiling. With a population of 320,000, it is over 2,000 years old which explains why the streets are so narrow, and then there is the new part of the city which started to emerge as recently as 200 years ago. The old city walls and castle are very impressive indeed, and imposing too, with the guide also talking about the region's saint, St Nicola, who was dark skinned, probably from Turkey. An interesting statistic is that in the old city alone, there are no less than 27 churches.

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I hope that I have been able to convey that the time is ripe for Puglia to be properly discovered, and before the tourism industry in the region starts to explode. Yes, it gets very hot in August, so my advice would be to go sometime other than during the height of summer. Where we went and I have described above hopefully serves as a flavour of what is on offer; from this menu one can take one's pick, with so many other things to do and see too.

How to get there: twice-weekly flights to Bari by Luxair (Sundays and Wednesdays), with a fly-drive highly recommended. See www.luxair.lu.

To see the entire photo album,, click here.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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Thursday, 07 May 2015 09:10

Geoff Thompson: Destination Puglia 1/2

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With Luxair recently increasing capacity on their route to Bari by flying twice weekly from March to October, I got the opportunity recently to participate in a press trip to Puglia (the "g" is silent), the heel of Italy.

So, departing on a Sunday and returning on a Wednesday, what could this relatively unknown part of Italy have in store? Having been to Rome on countless occasions, both as a tourist and on 6Nations rugby week-ends, to Sicily, Milan and Genoa in 1990 when supporting the Irish soccer team at Italia'90, a family (driving holiday) to Venice - San Marino a few years later, and flying business meetings to Milan, not to mention visiting Bologna, Pisa and Florence within the past couple of years when one of the family was studying there, this was certainly new territory for me.

Checking my weather app before departure and the temperature was almost identical to that of Luxembourg, but in the height of summer, daytime temperatures can reach 40C, thus explaining why certain tourist attractions actually close during August.

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The flight on Luxair's Bombardier turbo-prop took just over two hours (slightly less on the return as one of the Embraer jets was deployed). With on-board snacks and space to stretch my legs, a snooze and time to read a few chapters of a novel, we were there in no time at all.

With two nights in Bari at the Hotel Palace, sandwiched between one night in a Trulli (more on this later) down south, we got a true flavour of the region. With our hosts eager to please at every opportunity, the meals were superb both in terms of quality as well as quantity (again, more anon). The region's speciality - apart from the seafood - is undoubtedly focaccia, a cross between pizza and bread, with everyone's recipes unique.

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With a minibus (plus driver, plus guide) at our disposal - a fly-drive is by far the best type of holiday in these parts to explore the region's historical, cultural and culinary heritage - the first day was spent north-west along the coast at Trani, with the other two days south-east at Alberobello, Ostuni and surrounding countryside. Yes, most time was spent inland as this specific coastline does not have much beaches and those that are there are unfortunately littered with plastic bottles and other rubbish. However, before readers jump to any negative conclusions and abort your read, the multiple positives far outweigh this singular negative. I'm sure not all of the 900km Puglia coastline shares this concern.

The region is famous for its limestone quarries (the coastal wave erosion was most noticeable at Polignano, with Casemate-type caves etched out in the cliffs supporting the town), olive plantations and also almonds, grapes (table grapes, not for wine), figs and cherries. Interestingly, the olive oil in the north of the region is deemed the best, but one cannot purchase this or similar regional produce at the airport as the concession is handled by the same company that operates the retail outlets at a number of airports in the south of Italy, from a common stock. It is estimated that there are around 60 million olive trees in Puglia alone, making up 70% of Italy's olive oil production. These range from saplings to some that are decades old with gnarled trunks.

The tourism industry is really in its infancy, with just three years of marketing. Nevertheless, there are direct charter flights from Canada and China to the region already established. This being Italy, there are countless Churches to explore, both Christian and Orthodox, each different in its own right; but for those wishing something a bit more activity-focused, there is horse-riding, cycling, caving and a safari park, as well as kit surfing on the water as the coast is continually windy.

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Travelling inland a few kilometres, suddenly the rock rises steeply as one rises to the hilly plateau; at times the views on either side are stunningly beautiful, particularly into the Itria valley.

Historically, the region has seen Greek and Byzantine influences, as well as Roman, and later in medieval times, including Norman.  While we were there, the issue of immigrants arriving by boat was high on international news; when we enquired it was explained to us that they come ashore much further south, around the province of Lecce. The port of Bari services passenger vessels travelling to/from Albania as well as Dubrovnik in Croatia.

Staying on transport, the roads are plentiful with motorways servicing the major arteries; from time to time the surface of minor roads was a tad bumpy, but no less than in Luxembourg.

The second half of Destination Puglia will feature specific visits. Watch this space! For the second of two articles on Puglia, click here.

To see the entire photo album,, click here.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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