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On Monday I spent a day with the Luxembourg Air Rescue (LAR) HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) at Findel, almost on their 26th anniversary - LAR was created on 18 April 1988, with the first helicopter arriving almost a year later; the offices are prefabs and hangars are temporary, waiting to move into a purpose-build building in a couple of years' time, just beside the present operational area.

With the possibility of a call coming in at any time - or not at all - the crew were able to explain how LAR HEMS operates. They could not have been more helpful and explained how they operate the helicopters, a bit about the fixed wing craft and also from the medical perspective. So, unless a call came in early, I would have the opportunity to research the background for writing this article, with the possibility of an emergency mission at a moment's notice always at the back of my mind. And theirs. The research part revealed that LAR had originally been formed by a group of fire-fighters in Luxembourg who had met with significant political and administrative opposition before succeeding due to their belief and perseverance.

With five helicopters in the LAR fleet (apart from the fleet of planes it operates), two are based at hospitals (Air Rescue #1 in Luxembourg city, either the CHL in Strassen, Kirchberg or Zitha Klinik; and Air Rescue #2 at Ettelbruck) and one (Air Rescue #3) in Findel. The LAR HEMS crews are available from 08:00 until sunset, with the Findel HEMS unit responding to both Luxembourg and German emergency callouts; however, normally the Air Rescue #1 and #2 at the hospitals are responding to Luxembourg emergencies, with the Air Rescue #3 flying missions to the Rheinland-Palitinate (in and around Trier, with as far north as Bitburg and the Eifel region) and sometimes Saarland (down to Merzig, north of Saarbrucken). Air Rescue #3 is also performing Secondary Care Mission for transporting patients between hospitals (for example to transfer a newborn baby with heart problems from the “Kannerklinik” to Brussels). It would be unusual for a Primary Care mission to involve a flight time of more than 10 minutes. A fourth LAR helicopter is used for training with a fifth on standby / undergoing maintenance. Last year, Air Rescue #3 flew over 1,000 missions.

Each LAR HEMS crew consists of a pilot and navigator-cum-paramedic who sit up front in the cockpit, with the pilot on the right (no port or starboard terminology used here, although here's a lot of nn-o'clock to point out positioning of other objects relative to the aircraft), and a doctor in the cabin, along with just enough room for a patient stretcher and medical equipment all carefully stowed for emergency use, and a jump seat where, for example, a mother can take a seat for accompanying her sick child. On Air Rescue #1 & #2, the doctors are from the medical services / hospitals, while on Air Rescue #3 (Findel), the doctor is employed by LAR directly.

LAR employs a total of 12 helicopter pilots, all working 5 days on, 5 days off, with five pilots on duty daily. Apart from the three allocated to the three operational helicopters, another two are allocated to fly the police helicopter also stationed at Findel. The LAR helicopters can be ready for take-off in two minutes for Primary Care missions, with up to 15 minutes for Secondary Care missions. Around 2,000 flying hours are required for flying with LAR. Most of the LAR helicopter pilots have military experience.

The LAR (and Luxembourg Police) helicopter fleet are all McDonnell Douglas MD902 Explorers, manufactured near Phoenix in Arizona. In addition, LAR operates two Lear Jet 35As (for single patient, with a maximum flying time of 4 hours before refuelling) and two Lear Jet 45XRs (for two patients), both requiring a pilot and co-pilot for operations, as well as a doctor and paramedic. These fly on missions for LAR members as well as for insurance companies world-wide. The Lear jets have a one-hour aircraft preparation time with up to another hour for medical staff preparation. As an example, a recent mission was to New Delhi in India.

From the medical equipment perspective, 90% of cases can be treated with equipment and medications contained in one 28kg bag, for trauma and cardiac. Additionally, separate cases are for suction, a defibrillator, oxygen and also one for paediatrics. They also use various systems, some of which they have developed themselves, to aid them on being able to treat patients, for example the colour-coding of straps and treatment packages for different length children (the easiest way to determine dosages, etc.). In case of emergency the reduction of the therapy-free interval is important. The rescue helicopters can bring the doctor with the entire equipment to the patient as quickly as possible.

First emergency call @ 11:05. Pilot, paramedic, doctor and myself on board and strapped in. Once clearance obtained from air traffic control and we were airborne. ETA (estimated time of arrival) in 7 minutes just north of Mettlach in Germany, almost due south. Flying at around 400m height (800m over built-up areas) we passed by Schrassig prison and the Kikuoka golf club in Canach, to name just a couple of landmarks.

Following the contours of the rivers, the pilot aimed for the destination using GPS and landed right beside a graveyard, with the medical team going to the assistance of the German paramedics who had arrived on the scene just 2 minutes before by ambulance. It turned out that a farmer passing by on his tractor had spotted a man unconscious just off the road in a small copse of trees, but nobody else was stopping. After the LAR doctor could release the patient into the care of the German paramedics and the formalities of the paperwork were done, we were airborne again, back to base.

This is when things started to hot up; we were back less than two minutes when the alarm went and we were back on board again, this time heading north-east to Gentingen in Germany, just across the German border along the Our river and close to Bitburg, almost as far north as Vianden. Close to a campsite, we landed in a field right beside a house in which an elderly lady had fallen unconscious and a friend had alerted the emergency services.

This time we had arrived ahead of the ambulance. Examined and treated by the LAR doctor and paramedic, they transferred the patient into the care of the German paramedics when the ambulance arrived and the patient was brought downstairs before being put on a trolley for the ambulance.

Back in the air again and halfway back to the airport, we received a 3rd call. That mission was quickly aborted so we continued back to Findel. Preparing to land, we then received another call, this time for Merzig. Again, flying south and across the Moselle, before following along the Saar river. This time the patient was in an apartment block, so the closest we could get to it was a school playground, although the feasibility of landing at a supermarket was initially considered but quickly discounted. As soon as we landed, a German police car arrived to take the LAR doctor and paramedic to the patient. While they looked after him and accompanied him to the hospital in Merzig, I got back on board as the pilot flew to a small airfield where he refuelled the chopper. Saarlouis Duren was just like a truck stop, with three fuel pumps and one payment point which accepts credit card payments. With a 600l tank, we put in almost 200l and proceeded to the hospital, by which time the patient had been transferred and the LAR doctor and paramedic were approaching the helipad.

Back to base in Findel for more paperwork and waiting for the next call to come through. But that's all for the day. Thanks to pilot Marcel Kurpiers, paramedic Sebastian Hanf and doctor Christoph Schüller for being so accommodating and allowing me a glimpse inside their daily working lives at the Luxembourg Air Rescue!

LAR membership costs just €54 annually per person, or €97 for a family. See www.lar.lu on how to join, as well as further details of benefits.

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

Photos by Geoff Thompson (above, L-R): pilot Marcel Kurpiers, paramedic Sebastian Hanf and doctor Christoph Schüller

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Sunday 30 March @ 17:50; the Luxair Bombardier Q400 turbo-prop (LG4887) lifted off from Luxembourg airport with 56 people on board, destination Dublin.

Earlier, Luxembourg airport had been a hive of activity, with staff at the Buy Bye airport shops promoting the three new routes - Stockholm and Lisbon, as well as Dublin - wearing special t-shirts featuring the three new destinations, as well as Luxair staff presenting everyone with Guinness / Luxair co-branded glasses and t-shirts, as they left the departure gate.

The Departures board and Gate 08 at the new passenger terminal at Luxembourg airport listed Dublin for the very first time, creating an air of nervous anticipation as the passengers on the inaugural flight travelled the short distance across the tarmac by airport bus to the waiting plane. Even the bus had "Dublin" on its destination board!

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With most passengers having availed of their courtesy 20kg baggage allowance to check in a bag in the hold, there was plenty of space in the overhead lockers. With the temperature in Luxembourg a positively balmy 20C, the temperature at our destination was certainly not at the same degree, so warm jackets and coats were the order of the day.

The trail through security and passport control - Ireland is not a signatory of the Schengen Agreement on free movement - was swift, with a number of pauses along the way as I took a number of photographs with Niamh Bergin, Luxembourg Rose 2014, and other passengers, marking the occasion of the inaugural flight.

Sam was travelling with a group from a Belgium school to Dublin, Luxembourgers Guy & Denise are spending a few days in Waterford and Carlow, and Luxembourg residents Bryan and Dominique are visiting family in Dublin before spending a few days in Cork.

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Up and away, and the captain delivered a special welcome for the inaugural flight to Dublin, and Luxembourg Rose Niamh Bergin - suitably attired in her sash - was handed the microphone to deliver her own welcome on this auspicious occasion.

With a window seat I was able to follow the first phases of the flight plan. First Kirchberg and over the financial centre and European institutions, then over Luxembourg city, Merl, Strassen - with the Stade Josy Barthel standing out - Mamer and Capellen - I even saw my own house with my naked eye - and then Ikea, signalling we has crossed the border into Belgium, then the churches in Arlon and the Belgium army training range, along a road I travel when going fishing near Virton. The E411 was in the distance, beyond the forests which by now were starting to fade as the Q400 continued to climb through the hazy air that wasn't quite fluffy cloud.

The drefreshments them came round courtesy of the cabin staff and offered with a smile - they, too, were very much aware of the significance of the flight - with fresh sandwich rolls and hot and cold drinks - even cans of Guinness to keep the Irish theme alive, were on the menu.

The pilot had announced we would be flying over Brussels, across the channel and over London, then up to Manchester and over the Irish sea to Dublin. As we finally broke cloud cover while descending, we could make out houses and fields, roads and the Dublin mountains as we circled the airport and came in to land. In Dublin, in just under 2 hours after leaving Luxembourg; what a massive difference from having to get 2 flights, or a 2-hour drive (twice) and then a flight... But that experience is now consigned to history.

Upon landing, a round of applause rippled its way to the front of the plane, the passengers acknowledging the significant achievement associated with the inaugural flight. However, there was a slight delay as the local ground staff had never apparently had a Q400 at the airport and struggled to open the luggage compartment. But we had landed and the delay was just a few minutes.

Passport control was quick and the next milestone was seeing "Luxembourg" on the luggage carousel. And the WELCOME TO DUBLIN signs.

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

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Photos by Geoff Thompson

 

 

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Saturday lunchtime and Luxembourg airport was fairly quiet, with the morning passengers having come and gone, and before the evening flights started; apart from, that is, 156 people from travel agents and tour operators in Luxembourg, France, Belgium and Germany, with a small press contingent and accompanied by Luxair representatives, including Luxair's CEO, Adrien Ney.

The reason? In fact, there were two: this was the inaugural flight of Luxair's new Boeing 737-800 and also to discover Enfidha in the north of Tunisia, plus Carthage, nowadays a suburb of the capital, Tunis.

The 737-800 is the bigger brother of the 737-700, with 186 seats instead of 141 of its sibling. It is the third 737-800 in the Luxair fleet, with three 737-700s. The Boeings are primarily used by its tour operator, LuxairTours, whereas the 6 Embraer jets and 6 Bombardier turbo-props are primarily used by Luxair the airline.

The in-flight entertainment included a time-lapse video of the plane being constructed and fitted out in the Boeing facilities in Seattle. A tasty on-board lunch and drinks were served, topped off by a digestif.

We departed Luxembourg in a rain shower and had ascended through thick cloud which only parted once we were over Sardinia. With the benefit of a window seat, clearly visible were a mix of towns, the rippled terrain of hillsides and tilled fields for agriculture. We could make out a farm of around 25 wind turbines positioned up high, with a few lakes filling the valleys, and some roads became visible to the naked eye. We passed another jet flying north, seeing its jetstream fading quickly. The southern coastline with long sandy beaches quickly passed below and we were over the Mediterranean Sea, headed south towards Africa.

After a while of blue skies above and blue sea below, we were soon crossing the Tunisian coast. The obvious difference here was the white-washed buildings making up the coastal communities, in the suburbs of Tunis, with a large elliptical sports stadium standing out from the crowd. Then over rugged hills which gave way to fertile farmland which was surprisingly green, with many fields of symmetrical olive groves. A light industrial zone with large warehouses broke the pattern, in turn giving way to sand, rock and mountains, with some small rivers and even lakes and one area with quarries. From then on, throughout the rest of the descent, the terrain was as flat as Normandy.

Upon landing at Enfidha airport, the plane, its crew and passengers, were greeted to a water baptism courtesy of the airport fire brigade. Once inside the bright, airy and modern airport, everyone was presented with flowers and offered a slice of cake. They say you cannot make a second first impression; ours were definitely favourable. The wait to pass passport control was only a few minutes and the security check was over in the blink of an eye. On to the awaiting coach outside in bright sunshine and a balmy late afternoon's heat. Straight onto the motorway for the 40-minute trip to the coastal resort and the Radisson Blu at Hammamet. Along the way the countryside was neat and tidy, with roadside trees alternating with symmetrical olive plantations, all the time with hillsides in the far distance across the billiards-table, flat-as-a-pancake terrain.

Off the motorway and through the white-washed buildings on all sides, some gardens had lemon trees with ripe fruit. Signs were in Arabic and in French, with populated neighbourhoods alternating with construction sites with waste grounds that could have been tidier. The low 2-storey buildings were interspersed with some higher, as well as minarets visibly equipped with tannoy systems.

Arrival at the Radission Blu Resort & Thalasso and check-in took all of 15 seconds as the room keys were waiting for everyone. The hotel foyer was palatial in style, with the back overlloking the pool, deckchairs, palm trees and the ocean, with the only sound that of the waves lapping on the shore. A welcome (fruit) cocktail and then to freshen up in our rooms. On the ground floor (first floor in American), with a balcony overlooking the pool and sea, with a low hum of the air conditioning in the background. A spacious and luxurious room with the decor in yellow - almost as if they had planned it exclusively for LuxairTours customers... The one surprising item was a booklet advising guests of the correct dress code for the swimming pools and restaurants: no Bermuda shorts or long attire allowed in the pools, but Speedos and bikinis utterly acceptable; for dining, no swimsuits or bathrobes, not even short trousers, and skirts and dresses must be below the knees; however, breakfast time was a bit more lenient. Now for the press conference and, later, the dinner and entertainment. Not a second to lose in the packed itinerary...

Press conference over and a banquet laid on for the visitors, with featuring prawns, anchovies and tuna, with entertainment by a local cover band which included renditions of various artists from Frank Sinatra to Pink Floyd and a lot inbetween. It's interesting how one culture wants to adopt and portray another, even though the audience may actually be seeking some local authenticity. But, credit where credit is due, they put on a very good show indeed.

A very good night's sleep, but not before writing up the day's events, and up in time for a pre-breakfast interview with Adrian Ney, the CEO of Luxair. We did this on one of the hotel's balconies, overlooking the pool with the sea 50m behind, but unfortunately not much sunlight as it was a bit hazy this time of the morning. But a couple of fishing boats were out, trying for their early morning catch while the tide was still on their side.

Access to the water was to 10 kms of golden sandy beach, albeit 550km north of Djerba which is the most popular tourist destination in Tunisia. What Enfidha offers, though, it access to the country's rich country heritage, part of which we were about to discover courtesy of the day's pre-planned itinerary. (An interesting perception was that, although smoking indoors is not yet banned in Tunisia, most smokers still sortied outside for a puff.)

The main difference, strikingly apparent as we leave the hotel after breakfast, between Djerba and Enfidha, is that the hotels in the former are in individual security compounds, while here they are  located in the towns and suburbs, freely accessible and without boundary security.

Along the road are many wild cactii and other shrubs, as well as orange and lemon trees, with the fruit on sale at roadside stalls, interspersed with stalls of homemade bread. These give way to tended olive groves: Tunisia is the 4th largest producer of olive oil worldwide. It also produces wheat in the north-west, with vineyards in the centre for red, white and rose wines, with desert in the south. One can see orchards, vineyards and crops including beans along the road, traveling north towards Tunis.

The morning is still overcast but pleasantly warm, with some light showers, with the sun breaking through during the hour-long trip to Carthage.

Driving through Tunis, the architecture is a mix of forts on hilltops and a few skyscrapers, with flat-roofed buildings of 3-5 storeys on average. Many avenues are lined with palm trees; traffic is heavy, even on a Sunday, as schools are on holiday. Flower stalls are plentiful; leaving Tunis behind, we drive out alongside an inlet which is a sanctuary to various birds, including flamingoes. Fishermen and anglers were out in force, the former in small commercial boats and the latter on the shore for leisure. The road infrastructure in impressive, with flyovers and underpasses to allow traffic to flow freely. Construction rubble litters the suburbs, between established residential quarters and half-finished projects.

Carthage was founded in around 900 BC and is now almost a suburb of Tunis, the capital. Due to its inlets and natural harbours, it was a powerful Phoenician trading post on the Mediterranean, geographically the closest point to Sicily which is just 140km by sea. Following the Third Punic War, it was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, but they also rebuilt it before it was destroyed again in 698 AD.

Its city walls used to stretch 37km, most of which were along the coast; the 4.5km of walls on the isthmus were never penetrated. The Tunisian presidential palace is located in Carthage where its Roman history, in particular, is still very visible.

At the Carthage museum high up on the citadel (not unlike that of Namur) at Byrsa, our guide gave us glimpses into the former Roman city, including telling us about the amphitheatre and the 132km aqueduct that carried water from outlying springs, to the populace in the city. The 2-storey museum contains artefacts from Roman times, in particular a number of restored mosaics, as well as pottery, coins and sarcophagii.

Next stop was the ruined Antonin Baths, of which just some of the lower storey remains, located close to the current Presidential Palace, with its walled perimeter, armed guards and massive flag; the extensive complex was used a social meeting place, as well as for relaxation. Then to lunch where the most amazing seafood platters were served up, all with local produce offering deep-fried prawns and white fish on skewers, cockles and mussels, squid and octopus, garnished with fresh salad and spicy sauces; this was followed by barbecued steaks from the whole fish which had been presented to us upon arrival. The restaurant was elevated on the coast, with incredible views of the glass-calm ocean which enabled us to watch both large commercial and small leisure craft glide by, with the guests mainly expatriates and the diplomatic corps. No sea breeze to mention, just a balmy afternoon in 22C sunshine...

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Next stop, Sidi Bu Said, a charming town/suburb in Andalusian style, distinctive by its blue and white architecture - whitewashed buildings with blue doors, window frames, shutters and ornaments, reminiscent of a certain Villeroy & Boch design. Its narrow streets were heaving with tourists and locals alike, with market stalls and street hawkers offering everything from leather handbags and belts to scarves and ceramics. A short stop, no time for shopping but enough to savour its quaintness and character, plus take some photographs including an elevated shot of the marina, a certain destination for my next visit when I undoubtedly will have packed my fishing rods, reels and tackle...

Back to Enfidha airport and the return flight on LuxaurTours' new Boeing 737-800. This must have been the quickest passage through an international airport ever - from arrival and check-in, through passport control and security, to locating the departure gate and walking straight onto the plane took less than 15 minutes. With no other planes landing or taking off, it was a piece of cake. With the weather overcast and dusk falling, there was not much to see out the window until we cleared the cloud cover; then it was blue sky and red horizon as the sun quickly dipped and said adieu to another day. A more than comfortable flight experience, enabling a read, a meal and a snooze before landing back in Luxembourg just under 2.5 hours later, to a chilly 1C, relieved that all my articles are already written and I just need to go through the photographs...

All in all, a far-too-short visit where there is so much to see and do, in addition to relaxing at the hotel, poolside and on the beach. Next week: Dublin.

Click here for the complete photo album of the trip, on Facebook.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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Monday, 17 March 2014 09:07

Geoff Thompson: Painting the Town Green

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Back home in Ireland, before we move to the Grand Duchy, St Patrick's Day was traditionally cold and wet; while many people would plan to go into Dublin city centre to watch, or even participate in, the annual parade complete with floats, etc., all I would be thinking of would be a day off work/school and the first day of the fishing season on the local river.

Invariably I would come home empty-handed, but it was getting out for the first day of the fishing season that was the most exciting and eagerly-anticipated part of the experience.

Here in Luxembourg, the weather on St Patrick's Day (17 March, today) is normally very cold and often wet too. This year it is not; last week-end we had Buurgbrennen which traditionally allows up say goodbye to winter and hello to spring - this year the temperatures have been unseasonally high and we have had almost no snow whatsoever. It almost felt like saying goodbye to autumn and hello to summer...

The build-up to St Patrick's Day this year has been as hectic as ever, with the various Irish organisations here all involved in arranging and hosting their own events, from the Irish Chamber event with Luxair last Tuesday - in advance of the launch of the new Dublin route from 30 March - and then the Irish Club's Dinner Party at the Abbaye de Neumunster on Thursday evening, to the Comhaltas-organised Ceili at the week-end.

But this year the lead-up to St Patrick's Day has been given a massive fillip with Ireland winning the RBS 6Nations Championship in Paris on Saturday, only their second win there in some four decades. The last time was in 2000 - I was there when the revered Brian O'Driscoll scored his hat-trick of tries to launch himself on the world stage; and I was there again this Saturday for his last international appearance. while there is no doubt he has lost a lot of his dazzling pace iver the past few years, BOD's defence has been heroic and his offloading has got better each year he has played - simply witness his performance against Wales a week beforehand.

With Paris just 2 hours and 8 minutes away by TGV, the French capital has never been closer. Arriving on Friday in time for an evening at Chatelet before the big day on Saturday. We returned there on Saturday morning and strolled alongside the Seine, watching the Bateaux Mouches half-full with tourists while the cold wind ripped through the streets. We passed the Royal Palace, the Louvre, the Jardins des Tuileries, the Place de la Concorde and the Egyptian Obelisk.

The Eiffel Tower was visible along the banks of the Seine but we din't check if the traditional game of touch rugby betweeh opposing supporters was being played that day or not; but we did notice the haze of smog around it that had caused the authorities to provide free access to all public transport around the city over the entire week-end, due to the pollution.

Then up the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, with banter aplenty along the way with supporters of both teams.

The game itself was rightfully the last in the triple-header to be played that day, following the results over the previous rounds. Earlier in the day, England needed to record a huge score against Italy to put the pressure on the men in green; in the end they almost succeeded, but their result was that Ireland entered the French match needing just to win.

That was all - needing just to win in Paris, where Ireland have suffered on so many past occasions. However, under new coach Joe Schmidt, the team was fired up and ready for the challenge. The game itself was a see-saw affair, but the Irish held on for a 20-22 win and took the championship in the process. The last few minutes seemed an eternity and were nerve-wracking in the extreme, but cometh the hour and all that....

The Irish in Paris painted the town green on Saturday evening and the team's welcome back to Dublin airport on Sunday was a boisterous affair by all accounts. Back in Paris, meanwhile, Sunday morning was quiet as the achievement set in, and the trip back to the Grand Duchy by TGV was relaxing. Glad to be back home and proud to be Irish!

Saturday, 01 March 2014 22:13

Geoff Thompson: Discovering the Zone

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The annual Discovery Zone Luxembourg City Film Festival kick-started on Friday evening at Utopolis-Kirchberg.

With the audienced requested to be in their seats by 19:30, it wasn't until 19:50 until the limousine carrying Grand Duke Henri and Grand Duchess Marie-Therese pulled up outside. Waiting patiently by the tickets desks were the Mayor of Luxembourg city, Lydie Polfer, Luxembourg's Minister of Culture, Maggy Nagel, as well as Colette Flesch, President of the Festival, and also Nico Crelot, Director of Utopia SA, a crowd of photographers and security guards.

Once of of the car, the royal couple were ushered upstairs and posed for formal photographs against the roll-up banner backdrops which moments before had been where the International Jury - headed by Kate O'Toole, President of the Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland and daughter of the later Peter O'Toole - has themselves posed.

The packed 500+ capacity screening room #10 all got to their feet as the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess entered and took their seats. The formal speeches by those in the welcoming party mentioned above, plus Alexis Juncosa and Gladys Lazareff of the organising committee, where everyone connected with the festival was ackowledged and thanked, including the sponsors who ads then preceded the screening. There was no formal ribbon-cutting or announcement that "the Festival is Now Open", but it was. The speeches were over and the film - not the first one, as there had been a school screening earlier in the day - started.

Her is the latest film from Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich) and starring Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Gladiator, The Master), also with Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara. It is set in the future and features Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man who is going through a divorce. He works as a letter writer and spends his leisure time playign virtual reality games. He then upgrades to a new (artificially intelligent) operating system which/who has a personality (named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and with whom he develops a relationship.

At 126 minutes, the film may be a bit long for some. It is an emotional roller-coaster which portrays how relationships can develop and can be tested to breaking point. Sometimes one part in a relationship can do something they feel would help the relationship in the short- or long-term, but the other part in that relationship does not see it from eactly the same perspective.

The reception that followed the screening saw the crème of the Luxembourg cultural scene present, with producers, directors and others involved in the Luxembourg film production and cinema industries in the Grand Ducy, as well as representatives of the Culture Ministry, other film festival organisers and other invited guests. However, conspicuous by their absence were Guy Daleiden, Director of Film Fund Luxembourg, as well as Stephane Roelants of 352 Productions (which co-produced Ernest & Celestine) and Laurnet Witz of Zeilt Productions (which produced Mr Hublot), as they are currently in Los Angeles for the annual Oscars ceremony on Sunday evening for their respective films...

This year's Discovery Zone Film Festival is quite different from last year, with the fare served up then having a strong emphasis on documentaries; this year, there are many more English-language films or films with English sub-titles; there is also a new Youth jury, and the international film selection spans from Kazakhstan to Venezuela. Discovery Zone Luxembourg City Film Festival continues until 9 March 2014. See www.discoveryzone.lu for details.

Photos by Geoff Thompson (below, L-R): Mayor Lydie Polfer; Collette Flesch; Grand Duchess Marie-Therese; Grand Duke Henri; Minister Maggy Nagel; Nico Simon, Director of Utopia SA

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Recently I had the opportunity to explore some of the Belgian countryside and decided on exploring a number of its relatively hidden chateaux.

While those in the Loire valley may attract more column inches in glossy magazines, I started to do some online research, and the results were both surprising and revealing; I knew then that this was then something worth exploring!

When the new TREK Factory Racing professional cycling team was officially unveiled in Tournai a few weeks ago, I went up to cover this event, after when I backtracked to Mons where I stayed overnight in order to start my day of discovery relatively early, so as not to waste the limited daylight available.

Waking up in the middle of a forest with trees and birds all around was a delightful experience - whiich could only have been bettered by waking on the shore of a lake, river or the sea, knowing I was about to go fishing for the day - and certainly made for a positive start to the day. While the skies were grey overhead, the ground was dry. We knew we would not be able to see much, certainly regarding the insides of the chateaux during this winter period of hibernation, but rarely in winter do we get to be able to go on an exploratory drive in this region, normally the snow or ice, or even plummeting temperatures, put paid to any such notions.

Out in the carpark packing the car, I was also aware of music being played over a tannoy system - around the corner we discovered we had been staying right next to SHAPE - Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), one of NATO's two strategic military commands. An interesting start to the day.

First stop was the Chateau de Seneffe, located between Mons and Charleroi; this is a beautiful stately-home form of a chateau which was, in fact, open and was indeed manned. We saw more people in the grounds out walking their dogs than visiting the chateau, though. It houses a museum of medicine and its ornate gardens are maintained and manicured. The chateau is open to tours, it hosts various exhibitions and sometimes classical musical concerts too.

Back in the car, consult the itinerary and reset the sat-nav. Corroy-le-Château is a real-life medieval castle surrounded by (dry) moats and located in a small wooded - and very muddy - demesne that is open to the public during the tourist season only. The 13th century chateau's original construction was actually completed by Godefroid de Vianden; it is still lived in and has a wonderful history that can be seen by its contents which include furniture and antiques, paintings and pottery.

Into Namur now, and to the top of the citadel in the city. The Hotel Chateau de Namur is a 4-star hotel and its restaurant is operated by the hotel school of Namur. It is in daily use throughout the year and is a popular venue for business seminars and particularly weddings. A couple of photos as the rain started to fall, and back in the car.

Annevoie Castle is located between Namur & Dinant and offers magnificent seventeenth century landscaped gardens with many water features, including lakes and fountains, weirs and cascades. This is one that deserves a return trip all by itself, during the open season. Here the focus is on the gardens rather than the chateau, which is still standing.

The Chateau de la Poste in Dinant dates from the 1880 and was entitely renovated 6 years ago into a contemporary and modern hotel which focuses on wellness packages as well as offerign numerous sports; it is situated high up, overlooking the town and coutryside. A visit back here would take an entire week-end, if not a whole week...

The ruined Château de Montaigle has a long history. It is accessible by path and is a wonderful place for a hike, with rivers and ponds along the access. Archaelogical digs have resulted in the discovery of remnants dating back to the Iron Age. Montaigle's history can be dated back to Roman times when a small garrison was installed there. The ruined castle and fortifications can be dated back to circa 900 AD.

The Chateau de Freyr is located along the river Meuse from Dinant - a wonderful long and narrow town that deserves a return visit - and boasts a large maze along the narrow banks of the river. The chateau has housed 20 generations of the same family but, like Annevoie, it is the gardens that are the most appealing. Its terraced gardens include 300 years old orange trees and 6 kilometres of mazes.

Last stop before we joined the E411 and headed home as the light faded, was at the 13th century Château de Spontin, a medieval castle with massive walls and water moats, not far from Yvoir.

For the full photo album of the various chateaux and gardens, see (Facebook). https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.478069975637646.1073741858.238112732966706&type=3 

Monday, 17 February 2014 10:33

Geoff Thompson: Planning Ahead

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"The best-laid plans of mice and men" is a term paraphrased from a line in a Robert Burns poem, "the best laid schemes o' mice an' men", which in turn was also adopted by John Steinbeck for the title of his 1937 novel Of Mice and Men. Sometimes planning can unravel spectacularly, sometimes it can be a life-saver.

We took the week-end off to hop over the channel to Blighty, with detailed planning going into some aspects, and none into others, leaving our desting to chance. Tracking the various winter storms turned into almost an art form during the week, to ensure that we would be travelling in a lull between storms. We wanted to drive across as shopping was on the agenda, so flying was out; we have used the ferries previously, and Eurostar, but not the Chunnel. But we stuck to our plans of travelling by ferry.

In the end, the trip up to Dunkerque was fairly uneventful, with the only traffic jam around Brussels, so we drove through the city, with the only rain of the journey starting to fall around Aalst until we got to the ferry port. Yes, there were white horses on the sea, but there was no gale blowing. The mid-afternoon sailing was on time - they expected serious delays later in the day - and allowed time for a snack, a read and a nap before disembarking.

With no reservation made in advance for a St Valentine's dinner, we opted for "on spec" and decided to try the hotel restaurant, presuming that most restaurants would be booked solid. There were only a few other tables occupied and we were able to enjoy a delicious meal, even though our dessert choice was "hors carte". The wind was getting up and was howling through the trees of the nearby forest and in the car park outside.

A quick glance at the news that evening, as well as the following morning, and we saw how horrendous the storm had become, with various restaurants swamped by flooding, particularly those located near the coast or rivers, as well as a fatal accident on board a ship in the Channel. Our planning had certainly worked in our favour, certainly in this case.

Travelling in to Canterbury saw much localised flooding, such as we normally see in Luxembourg this time of year following torrential downpours leading to low-lying areas flooding from rivers bursting their banks - but not this year, thankfully. There was one detour as the emergency services were out, trying to remove a large tree that had fallen across the road, meaning one tranquil village saw as much traffic that one morning as it would normally see in a month. But there was no impatience or frustration to see and everyone eventually got to where they wanted to be.

The wind was still very blustery, bring with it a number of heavy, but short-lived, showers. In the town's city centre we visited a quaint family-run coffee shop just beside the entrance to the cathedral; but, unlike many places there, they did not offer wi-fi... Frustrating, disappointing, but no matter.

In between the various retail establishments encountered, we took shelter in a building that has been closed on previous visits, and turned out to be a most interesting museum, the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge - well recommended for a break from the bustling pedestrianised shopping area. Offering exhibits from fine art to natural history and everything inbetween, it has something for everyone.

With the energy levels dropping, we later retired to an Asian buffet. ChomChom is not where one would go for a quiet tete-a-tete, but we had the choice of a Mongolian Barbecue, as well as main dishes from countries including Thailand, China and India. Everything is made fresh - with ginger obvously favoured by the chef - and some dishes are indeed spicy, making a change from most asian restaurants in the Grand Duchy. While it was disappointing to see pizza and chips also decorating the starters' buffet table, the restaurant was also noticeable in that all children there were well behaved and enjoying the food and company, meaning we could too.

In fact, everywhere we went the entire trip was marked by cheerful and pleasant faces and attitudes. Upon returning to the hotel - and the main road had been cleared by now - we noticed a number of helicopters flying overhead, but not all in the same direction. We raised the issue with one of the hotel staff who turned out to be most knowledgeable: he informed us of the proximity of a military base and described the type of exercise they would be undertaking. We were right, he had had a career in the military before.

More images of the latest storm on the tv news, inbetween reports from Sochi and how the British team was doing in the Winter Olympics, but the weather prognosis for Sunday was holding to the forecast earlier in the week.

All told, the trip home was calm and uneventful; the sea was relatively calm, there was a lot of maritime traffic out in the Channel, and the only real traffic on the roads was around Ghent and the approach to Brussels. Back safe and sound and looking forward to our own beds. Oh, and the Bafta Awards...

Photo by Geoff Thompson: Gateway to Canterbury Cathedral

Wednesday, 01 January 2014 13:46

Geoff Thompson: Resolving for a Brighter Future

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We're now into 2014 with many of us wondering what the year ahead will bring.

Many of us have made new-year resolutions; however, instead of threatening to change the way we do something, would it not be better to acknowledge that we have actually started to do something and to see the results of that change? Like "promising" to change one's work-life balance by going to the gym or eating more sensibly, or by stopping smoking or cutting down on alcohol. Or cutting down on spending money on certain expenses and putting more money away in savings, or simply being more selective on how we spend our salaries?

These are areas where we have control over our decisions. We may also decide to volunteer some our time to those less fortunate than ourselves, to a charity, voluntary organisation or support group; or we may even decide to set one up ourselves, and even get others to support us. This is Leadership, setting the example for others to follow.

But there are other areas that may impinge on our lives ver which we have little or no control. One of these concerns national policies on taxation (rates, benefits) and grants/benefits, etc.. With the international community here not (yet) eligible to vote in national elections, the wording of the 2015 referendum, together with the support from various political parties, may prove be crucial regarding this matter.

The new government and Prime Minister are in a great position to show leadership. They have taken their time over setting out the programme for government (like defining the "strategy") and are now in place to implement it (i.e. the "operational" phase). The coalition is based on a platform of reform, yet they have the opportunity to do more than just change what was done before. For example, they may change the way that ADEM encourages young people to look for jobs, but unless they actually stem the flow towards nemployment and get young people into the workplace, they will not have done anything new; changing the way things are done is one thing, changing results is a very different matter indeed.

Getting back to New Year resolutions, how long will we be able to keep them up? Many people who start a new fitness regime, for example, will do so until they find an excuse (to convince themselves, more than others) - "I had to work late", "there was snow on the ground", ... If we REALLY want to achieve something, we will.

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Firstly, and lest I forget by time I reach the end of this tome, I would like to wish all readers, contributors, sponsors and advertisers, clients and customers, as well as collaborators in various guises, a truly Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!

The end of the year is a time of reflection, a time to reflect on what we have done over the past 12 months and a time to think about others. Some are no longer with us, 12 months down the road, having either departed this life or left to emigrate to pastures new or back homefrom where they originated. And we must reflect too on those who have suffered during this year, whether in war-torn regions of the world, in natural disasters, accidents or violence, or whose health has suffered and are being treated for various silements, some serious and life-threatening. We all know someone in at least one of these categories and our hearts go out to them.

There are also changes in the job market, particularly among the youth of today, tomorrow's future. It is becoming increasingly difficult for university gradualtes to find their first job, the first rung on their career ladder. While some industry sectors and countries are not as badly affect as others, gone are the boom times of the nineties and the noughties. The economic downturn has taken its casulaties but there is light at the end of the tunnel, with more hope for the future than there was even 12 months ago.

Throughout 2013, I have received such incredible support, for which I am truly humbled. While what I do consumes a huge number of hours, it is extremely rewarding and I get to meet a wide range of interesting people, all with a story to tell. And I also get to see a lot of good, whether it is in volunteering for charitable organisations or working towards a more environmentally-friendly future... As well as reporting on what is happening across the Grand Duchy, I try to bring you such stories of good deeds and good intentions too. I also seek out sparks of creativity and entrepreneurship, with many avenues of innovation beign promoted.

But it is also a time of incredible change. It wan not too long ago when we were fiddling with cassette tapes and video cassettes; nowadays even DVDs are on their way out when everything is available online, and on demand. What did we do, and how did we do it, before the advent of computers? Now everything is computerised, the world is at our fingertips and we are continuously switched on.

The government has changed too, the three-way coalition launched on a mandate of reform. What change will this bring? More transparency, means-tested benefits, separation of church and state, possibly the right of non-nationals to vote in general elections (this could hinge on the wording of the planned 2015 referendum and backing by parties), the list goes on...

But's it not just the political landscape that has changed. Looking at how we celebrate Christmas, this is continually evolving with it becoming evermore commercial. Many of our traditions are around 200 years old, from the Victorian era (Christmas trees) and family celebrations, meal and presents (Charles Dickens), with Santa Claus himself an amalgam from different traditions, commercialsed by the red Coca Cola suit. While the tradition of giving gifts may be based on the bible stories of Jesus' birth and the gifts from the Magi (wise men), the competition to decorate and send cards increases yearly. But overall it is a time of family, celebration and festivities, followed by recharging of one's batteries and resolutions of how we will be tacking the challenges of the year ahead, be they work, health or personal.

Here's adieu to 2013 and welcome to 2014!

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Thursday, 05 December 2013 23:53

Geoff Thompson: Destination Porto

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An early morning alarm, a quick 20-minute drive to the airport from the other side of the Grand Duchy, a decision to leave my scarf in the car despite the chilly temperature outside.

The afternoon temperature in Porto is set to reach 17C, a full 17C higher than when leaving Luxembourg. Into the warm terminal, use the queue-less check-in machine and whisk through airport security, before waiting at the departure gate for no more than two minutes before it opened for boarding through a bitterly cold walkway; but it certainly beats taking the bus and walking out on the tarmac.

On board Luxair's Chateau de Berg, one of their Boeing 737-700 aircraft which was two-thirds full on take-off. A quick on-board breakfast and a nap before the 85-minute flight landed. Hardly anything was to be seen through the aircraft's windows, apart from some city lights on the descent, such was the early hour. Through the modern, spacious airport which was almost deserted at that hour, and outside in the nippy air (it hadn't yet quite warmed up yet) and into the shuttle bus to the city, with the low rising sun to our left.

We passed street cleaners out early, sweeping up autumn leaves that had recently fallen. Nearing the centre, we started to see typical Portuguese building facades decorated with colourful tiles, and marvelled at the workmanship that has gone into the laying of cobbles, etc., on the city pavements and streets. Interestingly, the city tram still operates in the centre, but in the suburbs the tracks are being replaced by cycle lanes. The city is home to around 1.3 million people and its port has been moved to a safer location just up the coast; the new container port has strong trade links with Angloa and other locations.

Check-in at the Hotel Infante Sagres, one of the four that LuxairTours offers in its Metropolis city-break brochure - Porto is developing a strong reputation for a week-end or midweek short excursion destination. Soon I could see why - the friendliness of the people, the climate, the culture and the historical city centre, to name but a few. But it was the tidiness and neatness that hit me in my first impressions of the city.

Porto lies at the mouth of the D'Ouro (of gold) river; inland, the banks are lines with vineyards from where the Portuguese wine and famous port originate. The city has a compact historical centre, including a small funicular railway and cable car on opposite sides of the river, and one can explore along the river banks or take a short bus ride to the coast.

With the mix of architecture styles across the city, there is something for everyone; narrow streets are interspersed with neatly maintained green spaces and trees offering shade from the overhead sun. For wine lovers, there is the Wine Institute, the Wine Museum, the Urban Wine Route and Wine Ambassador Restaurants dotted around the city... what not to love?

Still not 08:30 and the press conference started. With the formal business then out of the way (see the separate Headline published yesterday on the promotion of Porto flights), it was time for the sight-seeing to commence. With the city split into districts - the hotel is in the central historical district with the main shopping area - we took the shuttle bus into Boavista, the business district, for the first stop, the Casa da Musica - an ultra-modern and multi-functional concert hall complex. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, a renowned Dutch architect, and inspired from the as European Capital of Culture in 2001, it was opened in 2005; from outside the building resembles a concrete box resting on a corner; inside, the blend of materials including glass, concrete, stainless steel, aluminium and tiles, all with discreet signage throughout, offers unique bevelled glass windows around the two concert halls designed with specific acoustic features and boasting a baroque organ which complements the modernity of the rest. The building also boasts unique sound rooms and other facilities to encourage children to attend and enjoy music.

Next stop was the Fundacao Serralves which comprised a contemporary art museum set in the grounds of an old family estate of which the gardens have restored to their former Versailles-esque glory, albeit with a contemporary twist. The building housing the museum was based on the art deco style of the International Exhibition in Paris and boasts pieces on display from many international artists. The museum can host two collections simultaneously and it is continually being changed, enabling even frequent visitors to observe something new each time. The building is designed with accentuated natural light across its 6,000 m2 gallery space. The gallery currently hosts an exhibition by a Palestinian photographer which is both political and philosophical. The 18 hectare garden estate has been renovated from the 1930s - including a 1,490 year-old olive tree and a 19th century bird house - with a modern touch too.

Then a quick journey to the river and the famous Luis I bridge (Porto is known as the "city of bridges") where we disembarked for lunch at the Dom Tonho, conveniently located in the same building as the Porto Tourist Board. It is located across the river from many warehouses which used to be used for storing and loading onto ships, barrels of port wine, one of which we were to visit later. There must be plenty of fish in the water as not only were there myriads of anglers trying their luck from both banks, but the cormorants were continuously diving.

The five-bridge boat tour allowed a different perspective of the city. While not going upstream as far as the vineyards, we were able to observe the quaint buildings on the steep sides of the river, as well as - downstream - the various former warehouses used in the port trade, some of which are still used for storing vats and barrels. It was one of these that we visited later for a guided tour and tasting. Before that, though, we strolled around some of the streets and met none other than Henry the Navigator - well, his statue, at least.

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The guide explained that the grapes are harvested from the hilly terrain inland, with the tasks still split between women and men. Around one hundred varieties of grape are still grown in Portugal, with all ports produced from a blend from more than one grape variety; alcohol is added during port fermentation, so the alcohol level settles at circa 20%. Port production started in the 16th century. The oak for the vats comes from either France or the US; the oak in Portugal has too many knots. Ruby port is aged for up to 5-6 years in small casks, and tawny ports are aged in vats for up to 50 years, during which time both the aromas and colours change. Each of the giant vats contain 57,000 litres, enough for 100 barrels.

We stayed there for a delicious dinner of succulent lamb and rich chocolate cake (the guide explained dark chocolate goes with ruby port and milk chocolate is best with tawny port), before being entertained by a 22-strong Fado group of students who, with their enthusiasm and harmonies, not to mention smart costumes, regaled us with music, song and dance. Then back to the hotel for a few hours sleep before the trip back to the Grand Duchy with Luxair in the morning.

The hotel's interior - the external facade is fairly non-descript - is very elegant, regal almost, with furniture and soft furnishings complementing the exquisite detail in the decoration, from walls to ceiling and floors. The entrance to the lift resembles an old telephone box, or Dr Who's Tardis, but it worked more than efficiently, allowing a glimpse of the different floor landings as one ascended. The elegant high-walled dining room with wooden panelled ceiling was where breakfast was served before we boarded the shuttle bus and headed back to the airport to catch the Luxair flight back to Luxembourg.

On board and after lift-off, a mug of steaming Luxair coffee and plenty of room to stretch one's legs in the 737-700. The northern European storm forecast hardly affected the flight at all and we landed on time. Again, the terminal walkways extending to the aircraft's door made it very comfortable indeed, and having travelled within the Schengen area meant we didn't have to go through passport control. Half an hour after landing I was back home, writing this blog.

Luxair flies to Porto five times per week, with flights to Lisbon to start from 30 March 2014. For city breaks, see LuxairTours' Metropolis brochure.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

To see all the photos of the Porto trip in the Facebook photo album, click on https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.461382067306437.1073741853.238112732966706&type=3

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