Mon04242017

Sunday, 29 June 2014 22:55

Geoff Thompson: 1st Leg in Scotland

eiff-2014-1-600

It's that period of the year again, early summer around Luxembourg's National Day, when I head to the British Isles for two film festivals, in the run up to the 5th annual British & Irish Film Season (BIFS) starting at the end of September.

First up was the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the decision on how to travel there; I checked various options and chose the easiest: taking a Luxair flight to London City, taking the Docklands Light Railway and Northern Line to King's Cross and the direct train to Edinburgh. When at City airport I thought to myself the last time I was there had been just before the London Olympics as I had been thinking of passengers flying in and out of the airport and being so close to the centre of the action, as well as the urban redevelopment and economic regeneration it would bring.

I enjoy such travelling as it enables me to sit back and relax and to ponder issues away from the Internet, a laptop and a phone. Sometimes we all need a little down time and this is one way I get mine, the other being fishing...

It is fascinating watching the countryside roll by, watching the land use change from residential to industrial to tillage to grazing, and for the architectural styles to change too. The route took us up the east of the Pennines, but we weren't by the sea much at all. The only delay we experienced was due to cattle on the track; unfortunately three had been hit by a previous train...

I had booked a hotel that was both close to Haymarket train station to make it easy to walk with my luggage in tow, as well as to Lothian Street and Fountainbridge Road where most of the film festival events were being held. It also meant I would be walking around 10km a day, in my two trips in and out, to various screenings which averaged 3-4/day.

While there are so many strands to the festival, I had to plan mine carefully, focusing on new British films, of which there were plenty - I treated myself to just two outside my remit. There seemed to be a greater preponderance of horror and sci-fi films this year, but I also took in some wonderful dramas - one about Dylan Thomas and another about Robert Watson-Watt and developing Radar in advance of the Battle of Britain - as well as a black comedy and a number of documentaries, one of which focused on locals and environmentalists standing up to corporate bullying, with democracy being presented in a different light.

My attendance there was not just to sit back and enjoy myself - although I did manage to see some of the World Cup games and get to eat at a number of different Indian restaurants - but to start putting together the mosaic of the BIFS film programme and ensuring a geographic spread and mix of genres, as well as meeting with producers, directors, scriptwriters and actors prior to inviting some over to the Grand Duchy in about 3 months' time. I also got to attend some industry events as well as the awards ceremony.

By the way, the EIFF awards included the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film going to Hide & Seek, a drama about love and sex, and the Audience Award going to Tony Benn: Will & Testament, a powerful political documentary.

Last year's BIFS certainly benefited from the support of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Galway Film Fleadh, with attendances up 60%; hopefully this year the trend will continue. The real work has now only just started...

Photos by Geoff Thompson (above: EIFF Awards, L-R) Hide and Seek director, Joanna Coates; Hide and Seek actor, Daniel Metz; EIFF Artistic Director, Chris Fujiwara

eiff-2014-2-600

 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014 02:09

Geoff Thompson: The Garden of Ireland

wicklow-0495-GT-600

I recently got the opportunity to travel to Wicklow, just south of Dublin and labelled the Garden of Ireland.

With so much to see and do, the day's itinerary included a visit to Powerscourt, Glendalough and Laragh; setting off on a blisteringly hot day, thankfully in an air-conditioned mini-bus, the driver took us by the coast road, past Blackrock, Dun Laoghaire, Sandycove, Bulloch Harbour, Dalkey and Killiney. The route took us along narrow stone-walled roads and past where celebrities such as Enya and Bono live, and there was time to stop to admire the sea from both a low-lying harbour and a headland overlooking Killiney Bay.

The temptation was certainly there to hunt for a boat and a fishing road and bait, particularly as the tide was right and there was hardly a breeze about, but I was in a group and we had an itinerary... After passing the Little Sugarloaf and the Big Sugarloaf, the main peaks in the Wicklow mountains, we first stopped at Powerscourt.

Although it was the second demesne to which I remember cycling with the scouts from Dublin, for week-ends of fun and exploration, as well as structure and discipline, it was Powerscourt House and its glorious gardens that were there to visit this time, so no opportunity to visit the famous waterfall either. Well, that's something for the next visit.

Walking away from the house, first stop was the formal Italian garden offering a reminder of superior landscaping and design dating back to the 1840s, with a number of statues and sculptures of mythical creatures dotted about. Then it was around Triton Lake and its amazing winged horses, myriad of lily pads and centre-piece fountain, to the ornate Japanese gardens dating from Victorian times with its famous grotto, all the time stopping to take photographs. We then visited the famous Pet Cemetery where it is not just dogs that are buried and on to the Rhododendron Walk. We then continued past the small Dolphin Pond with its Japanese red cedar trees which were planted in the 1860s, then through the Walled Gardens and past beds of splendid rose blooms.

wicklow-0516-GT-600

Next stop was Glendalough and the former monastic settlement. The famous (intact) Round Tower stands 33 metres high and inside had six floors of wood, the structures built to secure Celtic treasures from Viking raids. This is one of 60 surviving in Ireland, but just one of two that are intact. The area was orginally settled in by St Kevin who came for the solitude and lived for much of the time as a hermit in a cave. However, he was followed by students and scholars, the numbers of which eventually reached nine thousand in the 9th century.

The area also has ruined remains of seven churches, all built of stone - all the wooden structures have long disappeared. However, nothing has been restored since the raids in the time of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century. St Kevin's Church is arguably the best known, for its Irish Romanesque style - it is just one of two remaining in Ireland.

With a relaxing stroll along a boardwalk to the top lake, we got back in the mini-bus to drive across the Wicklow moors to Laragh, all the time appreciating the splendid woodlands and other fauna, dotted by lakes and streams. Lynam's served up traditional fare in a very rustic environment. Large helpings and tasty fare was the order of the day.

With each of the 32 counties of Ireland offering something different, Wicklow still lives up to its reputation as the Garden of Ireland. There is plenty to do, for young and old.

To get there, Luxair fly four times weekly - see www.luxair.lu or www.luxairtours.lu, where their Metropolis offer also includes accommodation in nominated hotels. Tours are organised - enquire at the hotels - but fly-drive options are available too so you can come and go when you want. Just ensure you have a sat-nav installed...

For full photo album (on Facebook), see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.554181028026540.1073741884.238112732966706&type=3

Photos by Geoff Thompson

wicklow-0526-GT-600

dublin-0469-GT-600

I woke up twelve thousand feet above the Irish sea, not a cloud in sight and the sun glistening off the water, rippled by the light wind blowing across the surface.

We had left Luxembourg 90 minutes beforehand on board the Luxair Bombardier turbo-prop, almost full to 76-seat capacity, quickly enveloped in thick cloud once over the city. Like most flights nowadays I managed a read and a snooze either side of the on-board sandwich and drinks.

The North Dublin coastline came into view, islands and strands, and we flew inland to approach the runway from the west. A smooth landing and then taxi on one engine to the terminal building with only a short walk to go through security and collect our luggage from the carousel on this special day, Bloomsday, in honour of celebrated Irish author James Joyce and the main character of his Ulysses novel, Leopold Bloom.

Staying on Dublin's O'Connell Street, I was able to get a different perspective of Dublin. Not needing to battle my way through traffic to get to the city centre, it was very comfortable to rise early and have a leisurely breakfast before the activities of the day started in earnest.

Dublin, and Ireland for that matter, offers a myriad of choices for tourists; we were here to do a couple of things, one of which was to sample the top three tourist attractions in Dublin, only one of which I had done before, and that was over 30 years ago when I was a student...

No.1: the Guinness Storehouse. While this may be located a little bit out from the inner city centre, it's only a few minutes by bus or by taxi. The venue attracts 5-6,000 visitors daily, some tourists and some locals, whether to take the tour or to attend a private event. Either way, it's a unique experience. Firstly, the old warehouse in Dublin 8 has been completely gutted and modernised, to the extent that, apart from the crowds outside on the street and the rooftop bar, one would hardly know from the outside that it was such an experience inside.

The original girders are almost all that are left internally, and they have been painted a bright turquoise; lifts and elevators have been installed anda lot of glass has been used. The effect alone is stunning, but each floor, as one makes one's way upwards, is filled with stories and information, from the 9,000 year lease for the site, through the ingredients and brewing process, to the transport by train and ship, the list goes on... The audio / guided tours are well worth taking and are available in multiple languages, so too is the accompanying literature.

Almost at the top and you can learn how to pour the perfect pint, and drink it too, and then upwards to the rooftop bar, circular and with glass almost the entire way around. The view on a good day (we had a great day) is stunning, from the Wicklow mountains in the south to Howth in the north-east, the rooftop view was absolutely fascinating.

dublin-0536-GT-600

No.2: the Viking Splash has come from nowhere a number of years ago to be an all-year-round hit, and is now the second most popular tourist attraction in Dublin. The seven vehicles in the fleet of amphibious vehicles are army surplus and were actually used in the D-Day landings... Such city tours are normally won and lost with the personality of the driver/guide, and we won hands down - Paul had the banter, the personality and the knowledge to ensure that nobody was bored and everyone had a smile on their face.

He did a tour-de-table before setting off to learn from where people hailed - we had the groups from Canada, Luxembourg and ... Milton Keynes. Setting off from St stephen's Green, we trundled across the streets, both south and north of the River Liffey and learned some of the history of the city. The water part came on the Grand Canal basin were we were introduced to U2's recordign studios and many other delights.

dublin-0457-GT-600

No.3: The Book of Kells in Trinity College. We arrived before opening and already a queue of well over a hundred people had formed outside. Our tour guide in hand, we learned about early copying of texts by monks and scholars, with the Book of Kells being the most celebrated - the copying of the Gospels in such an illustrated way that has survived the centuries is amazing in itself.

Up into the Long room above and one is immediately struck by the cavernous interior and what it has to offer. Currenly on display here is an exhibition on Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf, it in itself a justifiable reason to include this on a city itinerary.

dublin-0549-GT-600

Back out into the glorious sunshine - Dublin was sweltering in the early summer heatwave - and strollign alomng the streets and the riverside boardwalk, up O'Connell Street again, past the Spire and General Post Office, thinking back to what happened in 1916 and the East Rising and thinking ahead on how it will be commemorated in just two years time.

To get to Dublin, Luxair flies four times weekly, all year round. LuxairTour's Metropolis brochure includes various places to stay. See www.luxair.lu and www.luxairtours.lu.

dublin-0553-GT-600

dublin-0555-GT-400

 

minho-9923-GT-600

While many travellers may be familiar with some or all of Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve, the north of Portugal in the Minho region is relatively unknown and unexplored: it is ideal for a getaway, offering wellness, golf, wine  and gastronomy and much, much more; its emblem is the stag which used to be wild in the region.

To get there, Luxair has regular flights to both Lisbon and Porto, with access by train and by road in each case to the northern reaches of the Iberian country. One has the option of spending a couple of days/nights in Lisbon and/or Porto, then traveling an hour north of Porto, or simply going to Minho from the airport.

I decided to take the train; the ride through Portugal was extremely comfortable in modern rolling stock which was air-conditioned with tinted windows to guard against the glare of the sun. To cap it all, there was wifi, one router per carriage, which worked a treat.

The tracks took the train north, across rolling countryside with plenty of vegetation including citrus and apple and cherry orchards, olive groves, vineyards and tillage. They also grow mango (in the south), kiwi (in Minho; the plants look suspiciously line vines) and pineapple too. And some place-names along the way were interesting too, including Fatima, of the shrine, and Coimbra too. Once the topography began to get hillier, small forests cropped up, of both deciduous and coniferous trees, and grew larger the further north we got. But the countryside also betrayed the country's industrial heritage, with many former factories lying vacant and delapidated in the countryside. But such sights were more than compensated for when the line ran right along the coast for a while, offering spectacular views over the serene Atlantic ocean.

At the end of the line, the city of Braga (pop. 300k) is currently hosting its annual Roman market where it comes alive at might, including street stalls, music and theatre, as well as restaurants offering special menus. The city is decked in red and white flags, all around the cathedral which dates from 1075.

Arriving relaxed at the Hotel Minho in vila Nova de Cerveira by courtesy car available to all guests - they also provide complimentary collection from Porto airport- it was time to get a feel for the place, including its magnificent spa. First, though, it was interesting to learn that historically the region was heavily influenced from Santiago di Compostela, around one hour's drive in today's Spain. The region is known for its Vinho Verdi white wine and wild horses, the latter which goes some way to describe how rural the landscape is. It was also interesting to learn that in some parts the vines are still cultivated as they used to be centuries ago, with long tall plants, allowing the grapes to hang down enabling easy picking, and also providing shade from the sun.

The area is also known for its dairy herds and milk production, as well as honey. Industrially, it has paper mills and granite quarries, and the largest wind farm in Europe is being built there by a German company. Driving along the excellent roads, one is taken by the expanses of the forests masking the hillsides, only broken by the red-tiled rooftops of private houses. The region is partly covered by the only national park in the country.

minho-9848-GT-600

Nearby, the famous medieval town of Ponte de Lima is the oldest town in the country with its bridge part-Roman and part-medieval; it used to be part of the pilgrim trail to Santiago di Compostela. This and other towns are spic and span, with many large private houses (we would call them stately homes), some with large stone and wrought iron gateways and some with extensive gardens; there's even a "little Versailles"...

Although Spain's hillsides are visible from the hotel and the Spanish border is only a couple of kilometres away by road, there is plenty to do around the Minho region within Portugal, with the road network superb.

Again, one could see many homes with vines growing in their gardens, with forests of eucalyptus for paper production, plus the naturally-occurring pines.

First stop on the tour was Valenca - a medieval town with walls from the 17th century which split the new and old parts of the town, not unlike Luxembourg city and the Pétrusse/Grund. The remains of the fortifications (designed by a French engineer) have been preserved and the town is in the process of applying for Unesco heritage accreditation; there are many similarities with the fortifications in Kirchberg around the Drei Echelen museum, but quite a bit larger.

The town has buildings dating from the 12th - 14th centuries and has still some artefacts from Roman times; the streets are narrow and paved, with plenty of cafes and restaurants. There are some souvenir shops, also selling linens and fashion as well as antiques, but it is mainly unspoilt, ideal for walking and discovery. The town is geographically located on a citadel, with single lane access through narrow one-way arched gateways through the ancient walls; it will be interesting to see if Unesco will insist on a new access, or not.

20 minutes away by car in Moncao, the heart of the Vino Verde wine-growing region, which is also accessible via a 17km Eco Way, along a former railway line favoured by cyclists and walkers; similar projects are being planned and implemented across the region, for locals and tourists alike.

The wine production here is primarily by private family vineyards and wineries, with some cooperatives too. Production volumes are kept low to retain quality for the region's brand.

At the Quinta da Pedra winery, part of the Ideal Drinks group, wine-maker Miguel Alves explained that the owner is Swiss and they have 42 hectares under cultivation, all with the same Alvarinho grape. With new vines being planted in 2010, 2011 and 2013, last year's production was 28,000 bottles (from just 7 hectares). The vineyard is being completely overhauled, with 5,000 vines to each hectare instead of 1,000 previously; with the greater concentration, overall production is expected to eventually increase to 100,000 bottles annually - while there will be more vines, the theory is that the greater concentration will mean less grapes per plant, but of superior quality.

minho-9858-GT-600

Their harvest at the end of September is a 2-stage process, with the first taking the most golden grapes and the second just 15 days later. Production takes two years, including 6 months in (French) oak barrels for the premium wine, with the bottles coming from Porto and the cork from the south of the country. Their market it domestic and worldwide, including Brazil, Angola and Europe, via the group's distribution network. The wines can be opened for drinking from when sold up to 10-15 years after production.

A second winery we stopped at was the Palacio da Brejoeira, a palatial building built in 1806 and occupied by its 96 year-old owner. The vineyards were originally planted in 1964, many of which are still producing grapes with the wine produced according to traditional methods. And the gardens are fascinating to discover, with meandering paths in wooded gardens and man-made lakes and fountains to boot.

But it is the house that is the true treasure, including a 64-seat private theatre, a bedroom with a 4-poster bed ready for the king, a mini botanical garden annexed to the house, intricate ceiling plasterwork and paintings, and a magnificent wood-panelled dining room where Franco and Salazar once met (in 1932).

minho-9885-GT-600

Driving along the roads one cannot help but conjure up images of the Moselle vineyards against the rolling forested hills of the north of the Grand Duchy around Vianden.

Next stop was in Cerveira at the late 14th century convent dedicated to St Pelayo/Payu, a Spanish priest who became a martyr by defending Christianity in the 9th century. It was renovated by artist Jose Rodrigues who lives there and welcomes other artists to come and work there too. The interior is full of works of art including, in the Orient Room, a piece given by the Dali Lama who stayed there unknown to outsiders in 2004 before he visited Fatima. Through the cloisters is the former chapel which includes religious statues and icons, including from ancient Greece, India, the far East and Europe. Some remains of the 15th century frescoes still adorn the original stonework.

But there is plently to do in and around the hotel too. The Hotel Minho has been recently renovated and offers a comprehensive 600m2 spa on its ground floor, complete with two outdoor pools. The rooms are almost in a Scandinavian design offering plenty of space and sleek wooden furniture, complete with spacious private balcony overlooking the pools below and vineyard-lined hillsides just beyond. To contrast the modern interior, the setting is very rural and rustic.

The hotel owners are the same for the brasserie in the grounds, offering an upmarket dining experience in a trendy yet serene environment, ideal for the hotel guests and public alike - there was certainly enough space with circa 50 tables. Service was quick and with a wide smile. Even though the menu was only in Portuguese, the staff were well able to help translate into English for this linguistically-challenged diner. Before the starter, we were served a taster of Brie with apple and jam, with a choice of local bread, and another plate of mini curried pies, local delicacies, and yet another of a pomengranite and mango salad. Such different, but delicious, tastes!

The (main) starter when it came was grilled local gambas in a garlic and citrus sauce, something I hadn't tasted before but which was very special indeed. With a pescatore starter, a traditional large Portuguese meat dish of grilled chicken and bacon for the main course put to bed any pangs of hunger I may have had before entering the restaurant...

The following evening, when dining with the hotel director, David Pacheco, we received the same treatment of multiple starters...

And breakfast (in the hotel itself) was healthy, with plenty of muesli and fruit available from the buffet, along with eggs, bread and cold meats and cheese all also available, to he washed down by locally-produced natural orange juice and the traditional strong Portuguese coffee.

The hotel was originally opened in 2005 and was completely renovated before it reopened last September. In a Scandinavian design using only local materials, it encourages natural light and is very eco-friendly with solar panels. It offers 60 rooms and 5 suites, as well as the 600m2 spa encompassing indoor and outdoor pools, a jaccusi, sauna, hammam and both sensation- and vichy-showers, as well as reflection rooms. The breakfast room is spacious and bright, with an expansive lounge for relaxation, with its private Wine Bar with extensive list of local wines from throughout the Vinho Verde region.

The hotel also has a private tennis court and bicycles for use by its clients, plus access to kayaking on the river and kite-surfing off the Atlantic beaches a short drive away, as well as horse-riding, bird-watching, etc. The hotel also arranges private guided tours of the region on demand for guests whcih can be tailored to individual demands (with expert guides speaking fluent English).

minho-9920-GT-600

One of the main differences of the Minho region compared to Lisbon and Porto is that there is so much to see and do outside the main cities and towns, from adventure holidays to cultural and historical tourism. And now Wellness too. The forested hillsides provide suitable habitat for a number of wild animals including wolves, weasels, wild boar, wild horses, feral short-legged cows and foxes, not to mention a wide variety of bird life, including eagles. The many rivers are said to be teeming with fish too; howver, I didn't get the chance to prove/disprove this claim.

Rooms at the Hotel Minho cost €70 - €100 per night, inlcuding brerakfast and access to the water circuit component of the spa, included. See www.hotelminho.com (in PO & EN).

Flights with Luxair, to both Porto & Lisbon - for city hotels, see the Metropolis brochure of LuxairTours. www.luxair.lu  and www.luxairtours.lu.

For the photo album (on Facebook), see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.543394382438538.1073741880.238112732966706&type=3.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

 

ilcc-irish-journalists-9226-GT-600

The visit to the Grand Duchy by a number of journalists at the end of April to promote Luxembourg as a leisure destination was initiated by Luxair in order to encourage take-up of the route, not only from here towards the Emerald Isle, but from there too.

With the national tourist office (ONT) here arranging the visit and setting the itinerary, I got the opportunity to participate along various stages of their visit, having been involved at the early stages by suggesting that they be exposed to the cultural heritage of the city and a chateau, as well as the Moselle wine industry and golf - some "hooks" for tourists to want to travel here. I was intrigued to then read what they wrote, having been conscious throughout their visit of not influencing their perceptions, yet being helpful as to answering their questions.

It was interesting to talk with them when they were here too, as most had no idea what to expect - their preconceptions were basically of bank-lines streets. With four of the journalists' articles having now been published, it seemed like a good time to review them.

Firstly, one issue raised concerned shopping, with the author pointing out that while Ireland, in particular Dublin, has access to various fashion brands, such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel, etc., in department stores, the fact that they all have their own stores on or around the Grand Rue means that they have larger selection and stock. But it was not only this end of shopping that was picked up by the Irish journalists, they also marvelled at the week-end open-air markets on Place d'Armes and Place Guillaume II too.

Another point stressed on more than one occasion was that while Luxembourg is small, it offers lots of variety, with easy access, including to both the Moselle valley for the vineyards and wineries, as well as north to Diekirch and Vianden, the former where the Military Museum was such a huge hit with the journalists, as was the charm of Vianden and its "fairy-tale" castle, even though the interior did not live up to the expectation from the approach. They were entirely smitten, though, with the tales of Victor Hugo living in exile in Vianden, and this shone though in some of the writings too.

One article cited the population of the Grand Duchy and how it swells during office hours thanks to cross-border workers, with the message being that hotel accommodation is much cheaper at week-ends as a result, therefore pushing city breaks. The Luxembourg Card (how many people living here avail of this?) was touted, as was the low cost of public transport.

Praises were sung of the Philharmonie and MUDAM, with the common theme of the modern and the ancient gracefully merged across the fortress city. The Casemates were also cited as a must-visit, as was the Corniche "balcony", with the Parisien feel of the city squares and cafés, etc. Kirchberg was described as Luxembourg's La Defence, in Paris.

Luxembourg's gastronomy was praised too, with restaurants offering good quality for reasonable prices, including the wines as well, particularly when compared to price/quality available in Ireland, with crémant giving the best of French champagnes a run for their money. However, one mentioned the lack of choice for vegetarians here. The visit had been planned over a week-end so that the journalists could sample the night-life; those that mentioned it described the "trendy, cosmopolitan hotspots".

One journalist emphasised Luxembourg's forestry and facilities, emphasising the possibility and opportunity for outdoor activity holidays.

Rather surprisingly, just two remarked on the Grand Ducal palace and the lone soldier on guard outside. Another, his generation giving him away, referred to Radio Luxembourg to which he listened in his youth - his first memories of Luxembourg.
 
Another interesting research / comparison was the photographs they used to illustrate their articles, with most going for city landscapes including the Grund/Clausen, with MUDAM, the palace, wine and food all featuring too.

This exercise was also interesting from the perspective of Luxembourg's ongoing exerise on Nation Branding, where members of the international community living here are often quick to point out what Luxembourgers should be doing to promote the Grand Duchy. I often use the phrase "You can't see the wood from the trees" and, in this context, the perceptions of the Irish journalists may be teaching us a lesson too.

Photo by Geoff Thompson

Tuesday, 20 May 2014 09:23

Geoff Thompson: The Magic of Connemara

connemara-9723-GT-600

Going to Ireland could not be easier and more convenient courtesy if the new Dublin route operated by Luxair; but it would be very wrong to presume that Dublin is the only destination to consider.

With the Wild Atlantic Way recently opened, offering a guided coastal route all the way from Kinsale in the south all along the south-west and west, with each bend in the road offering something different. Then there are activity holidays, ranging from golf to fishing, from historical to cultural heritage, as well as cultural festivals involving music, dance, drama and film, the list is endless...

What brought me to Ireland this trip was the Mayfly, or rather fishing during the Mayfly season, for wild brown trout in the large western lakes of Connemara. Some describe it like an annual pilgrimage, and I suppose in some ways it is just that.

After a short sojourn in Dublin with family, and meeting long-standing friends (calling them old is aegist) and squeezing in a couple of meetings, it was time to pack the car and head west. Fly rods - check; dapping rods - check; landing net - check; boots & waterproofs - check; fly box - check (this had included a replenishing mission to Rory's tackle shop in Temple Bar in Dublin's city centre the previous day); tackle bag - check.

The drive to Oughterard in Co. Galway from south Dublin took just under 3 hours door-to-door, thanks to the investment in Ireland's road infrastructure during the years of the Celtic Tiger - motorway almost all the way. We did notice some evidence of the devastation caused by the January storms, with coastal roads and walls needing repair, and we heard tales of trees being uprooted night after night; the silver lining here is that many people now have enough firewood to keep their homes heated for the next couple of years...

Here in the heart of Connemara, it's a different world altogether. The town of Oughteard has seen new shops and fast-food joints breath a new life into the community, while others are closing for not keeping up with the times; the thatched cottage in the main street (yes, there's more than one street in the village) was a sorry sight, but we did hear the delapidated structure is to be given a new lease of life by being converted into a restaurant. Beside it, an inn has been completely renovated and is now a restaurant with a bar, rather than the previous focus of a bar that served dome food. A couple of the pubs from my last trip there were still open and serving good quality meals, but one of the old-style pubs had closed its doors as the bank had foreclosed. The hotel was still closed but we heard a local had bought it and has plans to reopen shortly, initially offering accommodation before opening the restaurant and bar to the public - this hotel must have had 5 or more owners in the last 15 years; we never know if we're going to find it closed or open for business when we arrive each year.

It's outside the hotel where half a dozen youngsters can be found at 8am every day during the few weeks of the Mayfly season: they collect Mayflies in the afternoons and evenings, then sell them the following morning to anglers who prefer to use the natural flies as bait, rather than artificial flies.  For their entrepreneurial nature they get time off school, such is the importance tied to their role as contributing to the local economy.

Out on Lough Corrib and we can't fail to notice the significant increase in the number of duck on the lake, some with broods of ducklings in tow, and some flying overhead. Whether this is due to the fact that the weather during the hunting season was bad, and therefore kind to them, or there were other factors to play, I'm unsure. But I did notice a large number of other birds too, from lapwings and other local species, to coots, cormorants and shags, as well as swans, seagulls and terns. And we all heard a cuckoo too.

And our hosts installed many years ago a bird table directly outside the breakfast room window. First thing in the morning it was a delight to gaze absent-mindedly (a euphenism for sleepily) at the various finches and tits fending off the sparrows from the hanging feeding basket. And occasionally there would be some more exotic feathered visitors to the table. The above-table roof structure may have succumbed to the elements a number of years ago, but the vertical structure and table top is still a safe haven from cats and other, more feral, predators. This made the problems of decent Internet access seem not to be that important...

As for the fishing itself, there was a nice wave thanks to a force 3-4 wind on Lough Corrib, the wind direction was WSW and the skies were mainly overcast with the sun peeking through on occasion. But it was dry, although when we fished Lough Mask on the last day, the wind was up to Force 5 and the rain pelted down while the front moved across Connemara. And we got some fish too, wild brown trout, all in excellent condition, with a few kept for the table.

But this is not about the fishing, it's experiencing Connemara. Particularly the drive from Oughterard, clockwise around Lough Corrib, through Maam and Maam Cross, to Cong and alongside the estate walls of Ashford Castle, and across to Ballinrobe in Co Mayo. The roads and twisty and uneven, not to mention undulating, but it is the sense of freedom one gets when travelling through this majestic, yet often barren, landscape, that makes it so attractive.

Connemara is another world, and is still waiting to be explored.

Luxair operates four return flights weekly to Dublin on its 76-seater Bombardier Q400 turbo-prop aircraft - see www.luxair.lu. Connemara has never been so close to the Grand Duchy...

Photos by Geoff Thompson

lough-corrib-0776-GT-600

 Luxair-logo-600

 

Sunday, 04 May 2014 19:00

Geoff Thompson: Destination Lisbon

 

luxair-lisbon-9389-GT-600

A lunchtime flight on Monday to Lisbon, with Luxair following the opening of the route on 30 April, at the same time as the new flights to Dublin and Stockholm; I had got up early and got a day's work done by then, so I could sit back and enjoy the 2hr 45 min flight to another destination in Luxair's expanding European network.

Lisbon is situated on the west coast of Portugal, almost equidistant between Porto in the north and Faro on the Algarve in the south, so the journey takes a little longer than to Porto. A light meal on board with a couple of drinks, a read and a long nap, certainly helped by the generous legroom, and we had arrived at the destination, refreshed and ready for what the rest of the day had in store.

Unlike on the flight to Porto, most passengers to Lisbon were not Portuguese but from the Greater Region, with Luxembourgish, French, German and English all being spoken. An interesting mix, with some in business suits and some with young children in tow.

And unlike Stockholm, where I've also been to recently with Luxair, the airport is close to the city centre, with many tall buildings visible from the air, both business and residential, with plenty of green spaces, both large and small, spread across the urban landscape.

On the drive in to the city, it was interesting to see the line of old villas in various states of repair and disrepair, many surrounded by wrought iron fences for security - a street I remember form last being there ten year previously, on business. The arrival at the Hotel Mundial was memorable; while we were waiting the short time for our bags from the minibus, we were admiring the castle ramparts on the top of the hill, when a tram clattered around the street corner behind us and we realised we were standing on the tram rails...

Unlike other Luxair and LuxairTours destinations, check-in was certainly not quick, but we eventually got our room keys and could freshen up. The room was spacious with twin beds and a good-sized desk, with wifi access according to time, so I went for the 24-hour option. However, my personal experience with the hotel wasn't great - I seemed to get one of only 2 rooms at the hotel in which wifi didn't work, so I spent a few hours working from the lobby; not ideal, but at least it worked, and was reasonably fast. An unusual experience at breakfast the following morning: I was refused entry to the dining room as I was alone and was ushered along the corridor to a separate entrance where single tables were available. As it happened, another of the group was there so I was able to join him. Then, when not being able to find any cutlery, the waiter told me it would cost €2 - from not having a great experience so far, this joke passed me by. However, the staff were sympathetic and changed my room for the second night - I checked and the wifi did work - but the party going on in the next room at midnight was more than a trifle disturbing... None of the others experienced any such problems, though. In any case, Luxair has agreements with a total of 4 hotels in Lisbon and 5 on the coast at Cascais.

After the press conference and meeting Luxembourg's Ambassador to Portugal, Paul Schmit, we enjoyed a delightful cocktail on the roof terrace from where we had a spectacular view if the city from on high.

A quick minibus ride through the city revealed a large number of squares with statues and monuments galore; most pavements and many streets are cobbled and tiled, offering fascinating designs, with many building facades similarly adorned. Across the tram tracks and along the railway, parallel to the river, and uphill along more cobbled streets to the La Travessa restaurant hidden from view but what a treasure inside.

Our experience here, and elsewhere during the 48-hour trip, was to share a delightful array of starters, primarily of local delicacies, with main courses mainly à la carte, including Bacalhau (salted/dried cod), and speciality desserts. The main difference between here and Luxembourg, though, was its proximity to the sea, and therefore access to fresh seafood, meaning that the fish and shellfish dishes were simply outstanding.

On Tuesday morning we were joined by a guide from the local tourism office and we set off on foot to the Castelo St Jorge which we had viewed up the hillside from the hotel. We were in fact led up via two elevators which had been installed for the locals, especially the elderly, so they would not be forced to walk up the steep steps with the tourists. The castle's fortifications have been impressively restored and offer an unparalleled view over the city which is one of the oldest in the world; while the Phonecians traded here as far back as 1200 BC, the modern city was founded in 1255 BC. The castle dates back to the 5th century and is one of many hilltop fortifications used back then; it was later used as a royal palace. The amazing panoramic views include the Tagus river and the many bridges and ferries, but particularly striking are the red tiled rooftops, particularly in the old city with its narrow streets and many staircases.

The city also offers much shade from the sun - it was 21C when we were there but it felt warmer, and hardly a cloud in the sky during the entire trip - courtesy of the many trees, some of them citrus. But most striking was how neat, tidy and clean the city was. We strolled through the Alfama old-town district, up and down steps and continually changing direction while navigating the narrow streets which did not remain straight for long, but were quaint and full of character, enhanced by the magnificent decorations on the pavements and squares, as well as many cobbled streets.

The Fado museum was on the itinerary which presented the traditional Portuguese music via a multi-lingual audio guide; it also included many display panels and some instruments, but not that much in the way of actual music which originates from the 19th century and urban neighbourhoods, with links to the English guitar which had been introduced to Portugal in the early 18th century (the museum was created in 1998).

Then onto, and into and around, the Baixa district closer to the river, and the Triumphal arch on Augusta street which had recently been opened to the public, and the Lisbon Story Centre which was superb. Another multi-lingual audiovisual experience, but this time providing a comprehensive education on the history of the city (Phoenician, Roman, Moor & Crusader), including from its link with Ulysses and the earthquake that destroyed much of the city on 1 November 1755, as well as its sailing and exploration history.

luxair-lisbon-9461-GT-600

After lunch at the Populi restaurant on the Terreire do Paco, then on to the Belém district and the spectacular 16th century Jeronimos Monastery which has UNESCO heritage classification, with its decorative gothic architecture - all cameras certainly worked overtime here!

No visit to Lisboa is complete without a traditional Lisboan dessert (Pastel de Belém), so we stopped off at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém - the pastries/desserts are essentially custard tarts sprinkled with cinnamon, but SO tasty... Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the nearby Belém tower is a masterpiece of military architecture in the Manueline style.

luxair-lisbon-9469-GT-600

Then off to the Luxembourg embassy for a reception before an outing to the trendy Aura club for its 3rd anniversary party - dress code was leopard skin print...

While Cascais is only 25-30km away and only takes 20 minutes by motorway, the coastal drive took around an hour the following morning, and was worth every minute of it. We had a guided tour of the Condes Castro de Guimarães museum and library, and learned of the Irish link courtesy of Jorge O'Neill who constructed the building in 1910 - his family descendants had been traders from Ireland and had settled there a few generations before, in the early 17th century.

luxair-lisbon-9510-GT-600

The building itself - a mix of a palace, chateau and house - is decorated in a variety of styles, including Portuguese, European and Arab; gothic, medieval and baroque. It offers fireplaces, an organ, decorated plaster and wooden ceilings, an inner courtyard and its own private beach, while the contents include a magnificent illustrated manuscript, furniture made from wood from Brazil, and others from China and India, as well as silverware from Brazil; the Arms Room included an O'Neill family tree and muskets from Japan; other treasures included an ancient tea box inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

We passed by the Casa Santa Maria - the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg stayed there in 1940 - and Visited the Hotel Villa Italia which is one of those featured in the LuxairTours Vakanz Brochure. The building has recently been renovated, having been owned previously by the last King of Italy. Not only is the location splendid, it now also offers a 1,000 m2 wellness centre / spa featuring ten treatment rooms, a gym, a sauna, hammam and Thalasso.

Onto the nearby Farol Hotel for lunch; overlooking the sea, we watched the tide turn and the river rise, over a sumptuous meal of shrimp salad and octopus. Interestingly, the area is attracting many guests from what they call Northern Europe - France, The Netherlands, Germany and the UK.

luxair-lisbon-9525-GT-600

An hour of free time allowed a walk around Cascais town centre - it seemed to offer a mix of eateries (including various Indian) and tourist shops - along the beach to the harbour and marina. The smell of the sea and fishermen's nets and pots in the sea breeze - all I needed was a fishing rod...

Back on the minibus and to the airport which is certainly not as small and efficient as Luxembourg's. Onto Luxair's Boeing 737-700 which full apart from just a few free seats, and lift-off back to the Grand Duchy on Wednesday evening. Another comfy and relaxing flight with plenty of legroom, tasty sandwich and drinks provided, a read and a nap. And no passport control to go through as we came from within the Schengen area.

For details on how to get to Lisbon, see www.luxair.lu or www.luxairtours.lu. My advice is to spend a day or two in Lisbon before heading out to Cascais for a relaxing few days...

Photos by Geoff Thompson. For the full photo album (150 photos, on Facebook), click here.

luxair-lisbon-9385-GT-600

 

ilcc-irish-journalists-9226-GT-600

Following on from the recent corporate reception in Dublin to promote the new Luxair route to and from Ireland's capital to the business community based in the Emerald Isle, this weekend saw a group of Irish journalists in the Grand Duchy to tell the story of Luxembourg as a tourist destination to the Irish leisure market.

The focus for this trip was the Irish daily newspapers, with representatives from the Irish Independent, the Irish Sun, the Irish Daily Star, the Irish Examiner, the Galway Independent, the Tuam Herald and the Limerick Post, as well as PCPhoto.ie providing images to compliment the written words.
  
With Luxair and the ONT (national tourist office) collaborating to prepare a snapshot of the country in a 48-hour period, the initial challenge had been to focus on what the Irish tourist would be interested, with cultural history, gastronomy including wine, golf and chateaux being identified.

First stop upon arriving off the Friday afternoon Luxair flight from Dublin was the Golf Club Grand Ducal, less than 500m from the passenger terminal, where the Ireland Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce (ILCC) hosted a welcome reception. A quick introduction to Luxembourg's crémant was followed by brief words of welcome by Ireland's Ambassador to Luxembourg, Diarmuid O'Leary, Sasha Baillie from Luxembourg's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ILCC Chairman Joe Huggard and Luxair's Eric Anselin, before Alain Krier of the ONT presented an overview of Luxembourg and its tourism - the feedback from the visiting journalists was extremely positive.

Cultural history: the packed itinerary included a walk through Luxembourg city including the markets on Place d'Armes and Place Guillaume II, before a guided tour including the Bock Casemates, the Corniche and the Plateau du Rham; the Place de l'Europe and the Philharmonie, as well as the MUDAM modern art museum and the Drai Eechelen museum; the Military Museum in Diekirch and Victor Hugo’s house (the ONT President and Mayor of Vianden, Marc Schaefer) explained how in 1891 the writer stayed as political refugee.

Wine: the itinerary included a tour of the Caves St Martin along the Moselle valley near Remich, where they learnt that the winery has 50 hectares of vines and produces one million bottles annually, of which 50% is crémant and most of the rest is white wine, with some rosé; they also learnt the difference between crémant, methode traditionelle and vin pétillant, with crémant the most prestigious - the smaller the bubbles, the better, and its takes around 3 years to produce a bottle of crémant; 2 fermentations are included in the process as well as freezing the yeast in the necks of the bottles to remove it. There are around 1,300 hectares of vines in the Grand Duchy, with the tiny vineyard on the Alzette by the Abbaye de Neumunster the only other location in Luxembourg authorised to grow grapes; historically, grapes were grown by monks in Vianden for wine production there, but in 1794 a bitterly cold summer destroyed all vines in Luxembourg and new laws addressed the wine industry along the Moselle. Interestingly, the frost experience that June is now thought to have possibly been from a volcano eruption, possibly as far away as Indonesia.

Chateaux: a visit to the town and the Chateau in Vianden was included in the itinerary, with impressions higher regarding the exterior (that achieved the "wow factor") than the interior. By this stage, the journalists had seen the landscape of the city and understood why Luxembourg had been called Gibraltar of the North, as well as the flat farmland of the south and the gentle sloping vineyards down to the meandering Moselle river, then the contracting terrain in the north of the country, with the quaint and steep cobbled streets of Vianden.

Gastronomy: a traditional Luxembourgish meal of ham and broad beans at the rustic and charming Am Tiirmschen in the “Ilôt Gastronomique” in the old part of Luxembourg city; a light lunch at the Chocolate House, facing the palace; the modern and trendy Pier 29 at the Hôtel de l’Ecluse in Stadtbredimus which served up a breaded fish dish, while overlooking the river; then a big lunch at the quaint and rustic Auberge Aal Veinen ‘Beim Hunn’ in Vianden which served up a traditional cold ham platter, with salad and chips - this was to store the energy needed to climb up to, and around, the chateau afterwards. the also got to taste various Luxembourg crémants as well as white wines (Auxerroix, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Reisling) and beers (Bofferding, Diekirch, Battin) and water (Rosport, Viva)...

I was able to tag along for some of the ride; it was interesting to observe and listen to the reactions to specifics as well as overall, from the visiting journalists. The main messages were than not many had a clue what Luxembourg had to were offer beforehand, and were astonished that the small Grand Duchy has so much diversity (in tourism offerings). And while Ireland is green, they were delighted to hear that one third of Luxembourg is forested. The ONT had plugged the Luxembourg Card tourist pass which was very well received, as were the quality of the food and wines for the prices quoted. For fly-drive holidays, the cheapness of diesel and petrol was seen to be an advantage, as well as the attractiveness of the hotels and youth hostels, the latter which are of a high quality here.

Questions were asked about public transport too, with trains and buses detailed, and all acknowledged the hidden gem that is Luxembourg, with the direct Dublin-Luxembourg flight courtesy of Luxair making it easy for Irish tourists to now visit the country. Many also suggested they would like to return in a personal capacity themselves to explore more of the country as they admitted that there is too much to discover on just one short trip. It will be interesting, though, to read what they write...

Photos by Geoff Thompson (above): Irish journalists and representatives of the ILCC, Luxair and ONT; (below): Marc Schaefer, ONT President

irish-journalists-Marc-Schaefer-vianden-9291-GT-600

vianden-chateau-9289-GT-600

caves-st-martin-9279-GT-600

wine-tour-9280-GT-600

Luxair-Bombardier-Q400-8663-GT-600

 

luxair-stockholm-8977-GT-600

Firstly, if there's only one thing you get to do in Stockholm, it's visit the Vasa Museum; if you're not planning a trip yet, my advice is to do so, if only solely to visit this incredible exhibition.

Those of you who may not necessarily put museum visits at the top of your list of things to do when visiting new places, should seriously consider - the Vasa Museum is a unique experience, one for all the family. The museum is similar in concept to that of the Mary Rose in England; the Vasa sunk on her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour on 10 August 1628 (not enough ballast) and was salvaged in 1961. The reconstructed vessel is 98% original thanks to the brackish waters of the Baltic sea and one can walk around it on 4 levels, with detailed explanations on the workings of the warship, life on board and its intricate carvings. Even some of the original sails have been preserved.

Ok, so the Vasa museum was my No.1 experience in my 48-hour stopover in Stockholm courtesy of Luxair's recently-inaugurated flight to the Swedish capital, and my stay at the Hotel Clarion Sign in Stockholm's city centre; but the "Venice of the North" has so much more to offer. First, though, a few observations.

luxair-stockholm-9010-GT-600

The Arlanda Express (train linking the airport and the city) runs from Central Station, less than 5 minutes walk from the hotel; this station has no "station area" around it, like in many other cities around the world. It is in the middle of the city, with decent shops and restaurants all around. Secondly, many Swedes appear to be continually having conversations with themselves, until you realise they are using hands-free (sometimes wireless too) mobile phones, and talking while walking along the streets. In the hotels, etc., the staff are on first name terms with all guests - this may be a bit disconcerting at first, particularly to those of us raised in more formal societies, but you get used to it quickly. The Swedes are REALLY friendly, though, as evidenced by the many offers of help I received during my stay. And this made my trip that more enjoyable.

Just outside the Arlanda Express terminal is the Ice Bar, a related experience to the famous Ice Hotel. While I didn't get the chance to go there, I understand it's a pretty cool experience, in both senses of the word; you are given hooded capes and gloves and the bar - and glasses - are made out of ice, right in the city centre. And then there's the cost of alcohol in Sweden...

With the suggestions of friends and advice of the concierge, and with a map of the city, I planned where I was going, and when. I divided the city, as well as places/things to see, into 4 distinct zones and set out on foot, wearing strong walking shoes - I calculated afterwards that I walked over 30km in total... Personally I prefer to walk cities, unless the only realistic way of getting somewhere is using another firm of transport. In Stockholm, there were cyclists galore, with cycle lanes alongside most footpaths, as well as their version of the Vel'oh public bicycle rental scheme. Then there were town buses and the Hop-on, Hop-off tourist bus, an underground network and tourist boats, ferrying people between the islands and up to see the Drottningholm castle, where the royal family live.

Another thing that became clear as I walked around was that while some buildings are very ornate indeed, others - much more modern - have very plain facades, but their interiors more than making up, with their Scandinavian / Swedish designed interiors.

Friday late afternoon - early evening I took myself upriver to the west of the city. The first thing I had to do was to work out how to get to the City Hall (where the Nobel Prize ceremonies are held) as I had to cross a couple of waterways first, with a vast array of boats and water craft, some commercial, some private and some converted into cafes, restaurants and shops. And people were fishing too, but looking as if they were not having much luck. The esplanade gave way to a city park before I worked out how to get up to one of the large bridges, across the river to a couple of islands, one of which (Langholmen) houses a youth hostel in a former women's prison - I later discovered another youth hostel was on board a former schooner, anchored close to the city centre.

With the city being built all around water, travelling by boat is common here. But the city has many green parks too, with families in particular enjoying the sunshine while I was there, with an additional attraction being that the daffodils and cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

Continuing along the esplanade, it was interesting to see a number of pontoons with public benches offering an opportunity to while away an hour or so "out on the water", while others were out for a stroll or jogging, with cyclists galore to add to the mix. The Friday evening was offering bright sunlight until sundown, with not a cloud in the sky, but a light breeze from the east keeping the temperatures down. This did not stop some locals venturing out in shorts and t-shirts, while others were still in their winter coats. Interestingly, few were wearing hats.

Following an excellent breakfast at the Clarion Hotel Sign, I made the conscious decision to embark on two separate walking trips on the second day. The weather had changed with cloud cover overhead, but at least it was dry, but the wind had got up. The sun tried to break through as I strolled down the pedestrianised Drottninggatan which could have put me in any city in Europe given the brand shops lining the street, another symptom of globalisation.

Getting to the Old City on Gamla Stan (another island, in the centre of Stockholm) led me past the Parliament House (on ita own island), across a narrow but very fast pasage of water, and onto the Royal Palace, both magnificent structures. The Old City dates from medieval times and is a maze of narrow cobbled streets which acted like funnels for the wind. Old squares and shops, many offering handcrafts, traditional clothing and antiques, as well as the odd souvenier shop. And a lot of Swedish flags! I returned to the Royal Palace in time for the changing of the guard, an interesting spectacle held in a palace courtyard with ornamental cannons. Not a viking or troll to be seen, or an Ikea store for that matter, but there was a Viking Bar. And lots of seagulls, screeching overhead. A little farther south, on Sodermalm, is the bohemian quarter with boutique shops, etc.

luxair-stockholm-9016-GT-600

Back to the hotel and onto the Spa terrace for a relaxing drink 9 floors up from street level. After lunch it was off to the south-east, to the Vasa musuem and then the ABBA museum, located on Djurgarden which appeared as an island but was actually part of the mainland but accessible from the west by yet another bridge. Before them, though, was the magnificent castle-like structure that houses the Nordska museum, with a Tivoli-like funfair park the other side. Again, something for all the family...

No Swedish meatballs to be found, but I enjoyed a succulent steak dinner. And another brisk walk around the city in the morning before getting back to the airport for the return flight. The countryside vegetation is still brown with little greenery around, apart from the coniferous forests all around. The flight was on time, Luxair's 49-seat Embraer jet compeltely full this time. With a large breakfast ealier, I waited until the flight took off for the drinks and sandwiches to come round. The cloud cover only broke as we started the descent. Eventually I made out the roundabout on the N7, west of Useldange and north of Saeul. A short while later we were approaching Luxembourg city from the west, obviously to land into the easterly wind.

That would also explain why we were around 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and why the flight from Dublin which left at the same time and was to get in 10 minutes beforehand, was around 20 minutes late. I only mention that as I was meeting family off that flight, coming to Luxembourg for Easter...

So, if you want to take in a city trip to Stockholm, you can fly there with Luxair, or take a LuxairTours Metropolis city break...

For full photo album (on Facebook), click here.

For Part 1/2 of the Destination Stockholm glog, click here.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

luxair-stockholm-9021-GT-600

 

sweden-embraer-8932-GT-600

Almost a record, going through Luxembourg airport's passenger terminal on Wednesday morning; with the rush-hour business flights all departed, the mid-morning 10:40 to Stockholm was scheduled among other city trips serviced by Luxair and other airlines, as well as LuxairTours departures to the south.

20 minutes was all it took after parking the car to drop off a bag at the check-in desks, go through passport control and security and to walk through Gate 18 and onto the bus which would bring the passengers out to Luxair's Embraer jet on the tarmac. On board, seated at 6A on the "single" side of the aisle with a window PLUS aisle seat (all-in-one, the attraction of the Embraer jet...). With around half the passengers speaking Swedish, it was interesting to surmise the reasons for travelling, some passengers obviously on board for business and other for leisure/family, with some returning home for Easter. The flight was two-thirds full so there was plenty of room on board one of my favourite aircraft.

Taking off on a crystal-clear morning, to the east, we passed by Senningerberg and Niederanven before banking left and heading north-east. Flying at 12,000 feet it was interesting to observe the contours in the forested Luxembourg landscape before they gave way to flat agricultural lands of Germany, with wind farms, smoke stacks of nuclear power stations and large industrial plants, interspersed by towns and cities dotted with the odd sports arena and split by meandering rivers and almost straight canals and motorways, both carrying different modes of traffic.

The sandwiches and refreshments came around around 20 minutes into the 2 hour 20 minutes flight, in between a read of a newspaper and a book, with a nap also planned. Then the coffee break.

With half an hour to go, a glance out the window revealed that the scenery had changed significantly. I had missed seeing Denmark from the air as the flight route continued north. Inhabited areas were just towns and hamlets, roads were far less numerous, forest fire-breaks were distinctly noticeable and there were lakes everywhere, of all shapes and sizes. Like an optical illusion in an Escher drawing, the lakes suddenly started to contain a few tiny islands which started to multiply in number and increase in size, before shrinking, with the lakes themselves expanding, until we were over the Baltic Sea with just a few islands hugging the coastline. We followed the coastline, such as it was, irregular and all, and dropped altitude when the reverse started to happen as the islands grew larger and the sea became lakes. Towns became larger and we approached Stockholm, with it impossible to determine which bodies of water were salt- and fresh-water.

I quickly discovered that the destination airport is not in Stockholm, it's Arlanda airport, and one with 5 terminals to boot. On the tarmac were Boeings from Icelandair, SAS and Emirates, to name but three; and now Luxair, since the airline starter this route on 30 April, along with Dublin and Lisbon. At least Sweden is a signator to the Schengen agreement, so no customs or immigration queues at all. But Sweden is not yet a member of the Eurozone so first thing was to get some Krone (exchange rate around 9), then to the information point to get a map of Stockholm and a city guide, as well as work out how to get there. The options were a 20-minute trip by the Arlanda Express train (platform down one floor) for 260 Krone (€29) which would take 20 minutes, or the airport bus for 119 Krone (€14) which would take 40 mins. I decided to go in by train with the intention of taking the bus back to Arlanda to catch the return flight. Next train in 5 minutes. The journey was very smooth and the sun was still out, allowing great views of the countryside, the outskirts and then the city centre. The Clarion Hotel Sign, one of Luxair's Metropolis hotel partners, was just one block and a couple of minutes' walk from the Central Station.

The Clarion Hotel Sign hotel overlooks a large square, with the front facade at a 4 degree tilt, meaning that the rooms at the top are slightly larger; mine is on the 10th floor. The lobby was quite different, in a very pleasant way; with Scandinavian decor and furniture, a bar and then the restaurant, with the breakfast room off to the left. Mostly open-plan, with finger- and foot-tapping tunes being played over the sound system. Checked in and then the first surprise - a choice of three lifts, each offering a different genre of music - rock, pop or jazz. I made sure to try all three... The decor of the guest rooms follows similar Scandinavian design themes, with a fairly minimalistic approach and certainly no clutter. Plenty of space and a desk and wifi (I was even asked how many devices I wanted re wifi).

The hotel offer 558 rooms, with leisure guests primarily at week-ends and business guests during the week when the 13 conference rooms are in use, with the largest offering seating for up to 700... The Clarion is part of the Nordic Choice Hotels, with each focusing on art, design or music; the Clarion Hotel Sign in Stockholm has chosen "design", so various Scandinavian designers have their chairs, etc., in use on different floors of the hotel, clearly indicated in the lifts. Its ground-floor (open) restaurant is run by Marcus Samuelson, a famous Swedish chef, particularly in New York, offering community tables (catering for diners working online) as well as traditional tables. It also offers a terrace snack-bar in the Selma City Spa in the hotel which has been recently renovated and is popular particularly in the evening with drinks and music, for what is described as a "quick fix" of wellness and relaxation; the menu is Japanese, including Sushi. It offers full spa facilities, including saunas (men, women & mixed) as well as an outdoor heated pool (36C) open all-year round. Somewhere to relax any time of the day, but particularly after work.

With great assistancefrom the hotel's conceirge, as well as map in hand and recommendations from friends, I was then all set to start to explore the city from the central hotel base.

Click here to read Part 2 of my blog on my trip to Stockholm...

Photos by Geoff Thompson

stockholm-airport-bus-GT-600

swedish-flag-8942-GT-600

 

 

Social Media

Website Information