Thu08172017

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Friday's signing of the Programme for Government and the confirmation of the allocation of responsibilities have now resulted in one last main question to be answered by the incoming government.

While the DP's Xavier Bettel will be the next Prime Minister, the LSAP's Etienne Schneider is odds-on to retain the position of Minister of the Economy and Foreign Trade, as well as being Deputy Prime Minister. It would be a big shock if Jean Asselborn was not appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs in light of the work he has started on the UN Security Council. And Pierre Gramegna, Director of the Chamber of Commerce, has been confirmed as the new Minister of Finance, confirming what Xavier Bettel stated recently, in that the position would be filled from industry.

But, apart from individual ministers' names being revealed on Wednesday when they are sworn in at the Grand Ducal palace, the shape of the government ministries is still unknown. However, Friday's allocation announcement may have presented some clues.

With the DP having the responsibility for "national education and professional training" as well as "higher education and research", could this mean that the ministries could be about to be merged? They also have responsibility for "children and youth"...

Another area concerns the two trade ministries, housed in the same building on Bld Royal: the previous government retained the split between the "economy and foreign trade" and "middle classes" (i.e. artisans, freelance, SMEs, etc.) ministries so that both the CSV and LSAP had a role each in the economy ministries; as the LSAP has both profiles in its allocation for the incoming government, could this mean the two economy ministries are about to be merged too?

All is about to be revealed...

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In the current coalition negotiations which are scheduled to continue to 29 November, it will be interesting to see how the three coalition partners (LSAP, DP & Déi Gréng) agree to disagree in some of their fundamentally-different ideologies and policies.

It will also be interesting to see how the parties carve up the ministerial portfolio: will we have Education and Economy still both split between coalition parties/partners, or will the greater good prevail? In order to predict what the likely outcome will be, we need to understand where the various parties are coming from and what their values and policies are.

The probable incoming government made up of a three-party coalition is substantially different in ideology than the main political party here, the CSV.

The CSV (Christian Democrats) have been in government as the most dominant political party in Luxembourg over the past few decades. Jean-Claude Juncker took over as Prime Minister from Jacques Santer in 1995, aged 41. If Xavier Bettel is to succeed him, as looks increasingly likely, he will take over the reins of the country aged 40. One can already see similaries between the two individuals, if not their politics.

The CSV and LSAP were coalition partners in the outgoing government with 26 and 13 seats respectively – against traditional trends, the smaller coalition partner here has survived to remain in government, with the larger coalition partner losing out altogether.

The LSAP (Socialist Workers Party, with a working-class ethos and very strong in the south of the country) retained their 13 seats in the recent election. Very early on in campaigning, the LSAP’s Foreign Minister and Deputy PM, Jean Asselborn, announced that Etienne Schneider (Economy Minister for past 18 months) would top the party’s election list, signalling an “out with the old and in with the new” approach which saved them in the polls. In the outgoing government, it held portfolios in Foreign Affairs, Economy & Foreign Trade, National Education, Health, Labour, Agriculture, Sports.

The main winner was the DP party which is the main conservative-liberal party in the Grand Duchy, very much a centre-right party with a strong emphasis on civil liberties, human rights, and internationalism. The charisma of the Mayor of Luxembourg city, Xavier Bettel, helped the party regain votes & seats lost in previous elections, now back up to 13, on an equal par with the LSAP. The DP is very strong in the centre of the country and the capital. Interestingly, although it is strong on taxation reform, it has never held the Finance portfolio.

The Green party (Déi Gréng) won 7 seats in the election, one more than previously. The party are social in nature and advocates sustainable development and green energy, as well as ecological tax reform and the consolidation of pension funds. They are a strong advocate of the equality, both between men and women and also equal participation of migrants.

The other main parties are the far right ADR which is against dual nationality and is Eurosceptic, but is the champion of pensioners, and Déi Lénk (the Left) which offers a left alternative to social democracy. In a poll in the lead-up to the election, the parties were asked their views and stances on a number of issues, by the 5vir12 initiative:

- Employment: All three seem to be on the same track in relation to job creation, but the methods of how this is to be achieved could be very different.

- Competitiveness: the LSAP seems to be the most committed, yet the issue of salary indexation is one where the parties do not agree

- Voting rights of foreigners: the Greens and the LSAP support the rights of foreigners to vote in general elections, but this is not shared by the DP

- Education: the LSAP seems to be more forceful on this topic that the Greens and DP

- Entrepreneurship: the DP & LSAP appear to support innovation and entrepreneurship more than the Greens

- Governance: the Greens and DP appear to have this higher in their list of priorities than the LSAP

As a result, we could potentially see a split of ministerial portfolios as follows (it is highly likely that some ministries will be merged, split-off, re-named, etc.):

- DP: Foreign Affairs, Finance, Justice, Employment, Culture

- LSAP: Education, Economy, Agriculture, Health, Tourism

- Green: Environment, Transport, Sustainable Development, Public Sector Reform

Photo by Geoff Thompson: Xavier Bettel - Luxembourg's Prime Minister in December?

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Waking up to African sunshine streaming through the window blinds and already around 25C, what more could one want... maybe a sun lounger by the pool, but that would come later in the day.

From the hotel one could get a fair impression of Agadir - mobile phone masts were cleverly disguised as tall palm trees, illustrating that the city, if not the country, has a strong environment / technology / architecture set of policies. While many (most) of the city taxis would never have passed the Controle Technique - not that they are pollutants, well maybe a little, but the aromas of Agadir are predominately fragrant, and this is not just from the spices in the markets.

While the shopping in Agadir is traditionally strong regarding leather goods - cow, calf, camel and goat - it was interesting to learn which are used for which goods. Some are made centrally at factories while a number of market traders have their own small workshops upstairs or out the back. Then there are the spices, from saffron and turmeric to curry and everythign inbetween too. Honey, too is a local produce that is sought-after. As is Argan oil - we were wondering what elderly women were grinding and kneading at the markets, and were informed they were producing Argan oil - which in its finest is used for cooking, with cosmetics also a major use, including skincare products.

Then there are the silver jewellery and wood carvings, as well as garments, including pashmena. The tajine cooking pots are typical of the region and are used to cook meat dishes, with couscous another speciality. Interestingly, dinner guests at locals' homes would be offered just a meat tajine dish, with rice or couscous only served at family meals. The preparation of the dishes is the important aspect of cooking here.

The staff in the hotel, as well as in restaurants and shops, and also in the Souk (bazaar), speak enough French and English to make it easy to communicate. Haggling at the stalls while walking around the souk was interesting - while on one hand we didn't want to get ripped off, there is also the nagging feeling that one's first bid is so low that it's almost insulting, but then it's all about meeting somewhere in the middle.

The reason for Agadir being the top tourist destination it is, is based on its magnificent 8 km-long bay located just south of the Atlas mountains. That bay offers safe swimming and diving from its sandy shoreline which is bordered by a 5 km-long esplanade, itself landscaped beautifully to blend along the meandering shoreline, separating hotels and restaurants from the beach.

At one end, under the Casbah where the magnificent fortifications were almost completely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1960, the modern sea port is a busy maritime metropolis comprising dry docks for boat repairs and a shipyard for boat building, as well as piers for small boats fishing for sardines inshore, and also trawlers for offshore fishing. We got the opportunity to survey the massive harbour from the hillside, calling into the fish market on the way back amidst wafting aromas of grilled sardines and other white fish, before walking around the pristine marina from where catamarans and other craft brought tousists out to the bay.

This area, to the north of the bay, around the marina, is where many self-catering apartments are based - there are others dotted in between the hotel complexes off the esplanade and along the bay, but most accommodation appears to be all-inclusive hotels. Marine sports, from surfing to jetskis, as well as snorkelling and scuba diving, are available, but not so that they impinge on the enjoyment of others.

In fact, it was not only at our hotel, but everywhere we went, we noticed that the tourists were from all ages and various countries, both east and west, as evidenced by the tour operators present at the hotels and languages used in notices. Young families, retirees, young singles and middle-aged couples, all catered for equally. The hotel arranged various activities around the pool, as well as in the lobby in the evening, but these stopped at 23:00, with nightclubs taking over from then, therefore providing the entertainment to those who wanted it without disturbing the peace and tranquility sought by others.

So, Agadir, a holiday destination with something for all ages and all tastes, both activity-wise and regarding culinary wishes; the shopping is varied and plentiful too, and not expensive - as long as you are prepared to haggle - as is access to the local culture. For those wishing to remain by the poolside or down at the beach, that option is there too. While mobile access is excellent, wifi access has still a lot of catching up, with most hotels providing it just in the lobbies.

The return flight on board the LuxairTours Boeing 737 was relaxing - with the images of the new Disney film "Planes" emblazoned on the plane's fuselage garnering smiles and pointed fingers from many of the passengers upon boarding the plane. The bags may have been slightly heavier than on the outward journey with a couple of purchases from the Souk and market stalls, but that was inconsequential. Disembarked, through immigration and customs, back to the car in the underground carpark - the cost of parking at Luxembourg airport is included with LuxairTours - and home in 25 minutes, planning my next trip along the way...

Click here for photo album (on Facebook).

Click here for Part 1/2 of Destination Agidir, Morocco.

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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Early afternoon, a civilised time for a flight departure, and from Findel airport in Luxembourg to boot.

It had taken less than 25 minutes to reach the airport from home, just a couple of minutes to check in as there was no queue whatsoever, just another few minutes through airport security as there were again no queues at all - it was as if we were receiving VIP treatment every step of the way, and then the flight boarding was called, with direct access to the plane along the airport walkway; no steps, no walk, no bus... And there had been no hassle with luggage either, with a 20kg check-in allowance as well as cabin luggage which comprised just my camera, laptop and a book. Travelling light.

Seated with plenty of leg-room, the flight was almost full on departure with passengers of all ages. No window seat this time, so no possibility of studying the terrain from my aisle seat as we took off and headed south, destination Agadir, a beach resort on the south-west Moroccon coast, close to the Balearic islands.

After an on-board snooze, a surprisingly tasty in-flight meal, a couple of drinks, a read of the first few chapters of a new book and the break had well and truly started in the air. It seemed like an eon ago I was organising the 7th annual Discover Luxembourg event and the 4th annual British & Irish Film Season, not to mention MCing the recent AMCHAM Marketing Seminar on RoI and the Irish Chamber's Innovation Contest, oh and covering the general election in the Grand Duchy. But that's the way it should be.

I managed to get a few glimpses out of the window when crossing the North African coast and then the descent over what appeared mainly desert until we neared the Atlantic coast and the vegetation increased, initially with sparse trees - which I was informed later to be Argan trees, grown for their nuts from which oil is extracted for its cosmetic and cooking uses - to tilled fields for agriculture. The mountains were to the north; besides that, the terrain was very flat.

Disembarking in bright sunshine and 26C heat was very confortable indeed. Just a couple of minutes to queue for immigration - it was interesting to see the authorities encouraging mothers and children through to the baggage turntables while the men waited in line - and the bags were waiting for us. The airport terminal was functional, a large covernous space with tall ceilings and the walls decorated with colourful mosaics. A quick detour to change some Euros into Dirhams - the exchange rate was circa 10:1 - and to move my watch back an hour.

The LuxairTours rep was waiting outside by the coach - he had a colleague inside the terminal building beside a large LuxairTours roll-up banner indicating where to find it, we just had to navigate the swarm of airport porters determined to carry our bags all of 20 metres, but we were having none of that. We received prepared info from the LuxairTours rep about various aspects of Agadir and local customs, as well as specific info re our trip.

The 25km drive from the airport to the hotel - we had chosen the Hotel Beach Albatros, a mid-range hotel, but any would have done - involved dropping others to their hotels too. Along the way, through the city with a population of around 900k, we would not help but notice droves of cyclists and motorcyclists on the streets. The road surfaces were surprisingly good, with the tarmac near the airport windwsept with sand from the desert making the margins and hard shoulder tricky to differentiate from the actual roadway. The short trees were almost like tall shrubs, then we came across the traditional walls with straw and mud facades reminiscent of wattle and daub. Palm trees dotted the margins of the roads and flat-rooved buildings and whitewashed walls eschewed an image of brightness and tidyness. There were many open spaces too, but mostly concreted. Dogs slept on traffic islands and cats strayed everywhere - apart from near the beach, we were to discover. Initial impressions were of a city doing well, with many building projects under construction - the ones we came across all seemed to be built within the last couple of years - mainly 2-4 storey residential units and some commercial/retail units in the suburbs.

Dusk was falling as we reached the hotel and settled into our room overlooking the pools and with a sea view. The all-inclusive package meant we didn't have to shell out continuously for drinks and food - we had a wide choice of European and North African dishes at the self-service buffet-style restaurant, or from a small menu at the Tajine restaurant - named after the terracotta cooking pots with turret-type lids - serving local delicacies.

A stroll around the grounds, the pools and the promenande along the shoreline before bed and waking up to another day in a new country.

Click here for photo album (on Facebook).

Click here for Part 2/2 of Destination Agidir, Morocco.

 

Photos by Geoff Thompson

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Wednesday, 16 October 2013 01:48

Geoff Thompson: The Suspense is Killing Me

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A few days after the end of the 4th annual British & Irish Film Season and I can look back and see how the planning which started at the end of last year, all came to fruition.

The over-riding result was a 60% increase in attendance compared to the 2012 event, and a host of great memories, including the Special Guests, the Opening and Closing Screenings and the Young Journalist Awards: we had received almost 50 entries from 10 separate educational establishments, but there were just eight winners. There was suspense in the air when waiting to see who had won the two Oscar statuettes for the top prizes - with Loius Jordan and Lina Jacob Carande topping the list.

Of all the films being screened, I had hinted beforehand that my personal favourite was the UWANTME2KILLHIM? suspense drama based on a true story that happened in Manchester in 2003. While everyone has their own private tastes in film - whether it may be romantic comedy, drama, thriller, horrow, abimation, documentary,... - mine would normally be in the suspense drama / thriller / adventure mould.

Since the BIFS, I've had the delight to watch two other superb suspense films, both of which I have reviewed recently: Prisoners (about two young girls kidnapped and a father's desperation at doing whatever he can to get his daughter and her friend back) and Gravity (with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, about two astronauts whose craft is destroyed by space debris and they must try to get back to earth alive) - both had me literally on the edge of my seat in suspense throughout.

Then, this Sunday, we have the general election here in Luxembourg. Like most in the international community, I don't (yet) have dual nationality and with it the right to vote in general elections - but I am am registered and have the right to vote in local and European elections. While only about one third of the working population can vote this Sunday (one third Luxembourg nationals, one third international community and one third cross-border workers), and around 70% of Luxembourg nationals working in the public sector, the election issues are very traditional, with salary indexation, pensions, social security, etc., being at the forefront of the political parties' manifestoes. This time round, though, youth (un)employment has been an issue from the outset, as has the future of the Luxembourg economy as we strive to escape the economic crisis.

And another issue has raised its head too, that of the international community being allowed to vote in general elections. Whether this is due to the issue being raised by various industry and lobbying groups, including ASTI, and the certain parties reacting on the defensive, or whether they really want to change things in time for the next general election, only time will tell. And it will be telling too how the incoming government deat with this, and other issues too.

A total of 60 members of parliament will be chosen by the electorate, with nine parties (1.Déi Lénk; 2.ADR; 3.KPL; 4.DP; 5.Piratepartei; 6.Déi Gréng; 7.LSAP; 8.CSV; 9.PID - in order of the draw for the electoral lists by Eliette Bauler, President of the District Court in Luxembourg, on 22 August) and independents standing for election in the four constituencies in the Grand Duchy.

Currently the 60 members of parliament are split as follows: CSV 26; LSAP 13; DP 9; Green 7; ADR 2; Left 1; Independents 2. It is highly unlikely that the CSV will lose their position as the party with most seats as they have double the next; however, they could lose some seats as the electorate appears to be looking for fresh ideas and new leaders; Jean-Claude Juncker is a known quality but this could count for or against the party. The LSAP would ordinarily be tipped to lose seats for being junior coalition partner in the outgoing government and therefore giving way to CSV policies on more occasions than to their liking, but they did stand up to Jean-Claude Juncker and would not support him in a vote of no confidence; and Etienne Schneider, despite only 18 months in the job as Minister of the Economy and Foreign Trade, has done very well to date and has replaced current Deputy PM, Jean Asselborn, as heading the LSAP party's election list. Then there's the DP, who are still trying to recover the 5 seats they lost in 2004, and have taken the slightly unusual step of announcing 4 separate leaders who will top the party electoral lists in the four constituencies, with Xavier Bettel the shining light there.

Normally, though, the DP would get their support from CSV voters. Let's surmise for a moment that the CSV could drop slightly and end up with 22 seats, the LSAP may just drop one to 12, the DP may gain most to get 14 and the other parties may not change much. That would give the LSAP and DP two more than the CSV, but not enough for a parlimentary majority. Would they then form a three-way coalition with the Greens? Thay may work in times of growth but would be very difficult in times of austerity. Would the CSV form another government with the LSAP, or would they enter negotiations with the DP? Personally, I would see more towards the latter. If that were to happen, the government would lose the services of Etienne Schneider; and woudl Xavier Bettel give up his position as Mayor of Luxembourg city for surely a ministerial position?

But there are too many unknowns at this stage. Firstly, though, the electorate has to vote. Andy only then can the jostling for positions towards forming a new government can begin.

As I wrote above, the suspense is killing me!

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With Movie Days (cinema tickets just €4 over 4 days) just behind us and the British & Irish Film Season starting this evening, it is certainly a busy time all round at the cinema these days.

Then there’s the NT Live, with both Othello and Macbeth featuring on the programme, as well as Pompeii at the British Museum yesterday evening. And not to forget the CinEast film festival featuring films from many countries making up former Eastern Europe, that’s starting the day after the British & Irish Film Season ends. And all this is not counting the various avant-premiers happening continuously…

For the British & Irish Film Season, I’m currently thinking of what to say at the Opening Screening this evening. There will be a number of VIPS present and most people will want me to hurry up and start with the screening itself, the new Irish “recession comedy” Life’s a Breeze, starring comedian Pat Shortt and actress Fionnula Flanagan. And the reception afterwards…

But for me, most of the effort has been in the build-up. Also in my agenda has been the annual Discover Luxembourg event last Saturday week which attracted no less than 60 teams in the end, and was in aid of the Foundatioun Kriibskrank Kanner. As soon as that was over, my attention had to switch primarily to the BIFS planning, from finalising the films and the screening programme, to liaising with actors, directors, producers, etc., as well as airlines and hotels, to ensure that they would be available to come over for the screenings of their films, as well as the marketing material (brochures, t-shirts, rollup-banners, etc.) and a hundred and one other things too.

In the lead-up to this evening’s opening, there has been the planning of all the related aspects too, from the Young Journalist Competition and the BIFS Dinner in collaboration with the Whisky Club Luxembourg, not to mention the negotiations and arrangements for the Season Special ticket, as well as the Shorts programme, the Documentary Day and the Industry Masterclass – the local film production industry has been very supportive indeed of the Film Season in previous years as well as this year, as they get the chance to see independent films from Britain and Ireland whoch they may otherwise never get the chance to see.

So hopefully the public will warm to the 2-week event and take the opportunity to see one or more screenings – after all, with the mix of genres, there is something to suit everyone’s taste.

Now back to thinkign of what to say this evening. Anyone know of a good "An Irishman, a Scotsman..." joke?

 

Friday, 06 September 2013 13:41

Geoff Thompson: Destination Vienna

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I got the chance on Thursday to spend the day in Vienna, Austria.

Without going outside the Schengen area or the Eurozone, the trip was to sample the offers from Luxair (Luxembourg-Vienna return, flight only) and LuxairTours (Metropolis destination; flight + hotel).

Starting off at Luxembourg airport, I arrived 45 minutes before the scheduled departure time of 06:55 and flew through security, stopping to chat with a couple of familiar faces waiting for other flights, and sitting at the departure gate for literally a couple of minutes before the flight was called. Relaxed, I started to think about what action of the plane airlines use to determine actual take-off; is it when the plane starts to taxi to the runway, is it the time the take-off starts at one end of the runway, or is it when the wheels actually leave the tarmac? In our case, the wheels left the tarmac at exactly 06:55.

With the flight three-quarters full, my window seat - which I secured when checking-in online the previous evening - gave me a bird's eye view of the Luxembourg landscape as we took off in the direction of the rising sun. With almost 30C forecast and a hazy morning, the meteorological conditions resulted in what looked like balls of cotton wool strewn around the countryside, hugging dips in land contours and valleys. We turned SE and crossed the River Moselle near Grevenmacher. Soon after, breakfast was served, with fresh croissants, orange juice and Luxair's great coffee served at just the right temperature.

A short while later the sun started to rise and made various man-made surfaces glisten as the reflected rays. I read a couple of a novel I had been meaning to read and had a nap as there were no mountain ranges or sea coastlines to pique my interest. The next thing I knew we were preparing to land, which we did 1 hour and 35 minutes after taking off, which was actually 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Either the tail winds were with the plane or the captain was in a hurry, or else a certain latitude is built into flight schedules - mind you, I've been on my fair share of delayed flights in my time. The wheels touched down, the airelons were activated and we had landed at Vienna, greeted by glorious sunshine.

The hotel had arranged pick-up, so we were on the road in no time at all (on the way back I took the train - one has the option of the CAT (City Airport Train, an express that takes 15 minutes at €14, or the slow train for €2.10 which takes twice the time). The region appeared very industrial and we passed the OMV which the driver explained is the largest oil refinery in Europe. There were motorway signs for Praha (Prague) which the driver explained was circa 250 km away) and Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, just 30 minutes away.

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Getting closer to the city centre, the architecture could be classified three ways: classical / ornate, plain and modern (mixes of steel & glass). But the famous murals and frescoes of Vienna were everywhere, as were statues, either atop classical buildings or in city parks. Like Luxembourgers, the Viennese are very orderly and nobody seemed in a rush, waiting patiently for the lights to change at pedestrian crossings. There is a comprehensive tram system and an underground network, and cycle lanes were painted on the roads and pavements, including pedestrian lanes too, all obviously linked in a consolidated mobility programme for the city. 

The hotel in question, the DO & CO is directly opposite the cathedral in the city-centre pedestrian zone. The owners started as a catering company and employs 6,000 people at various international destinations, with Vienna and Istanbul the headquarters. It is active in airline catering, event catering (Formula1, football championships,...) and restaurants. In Vienna, the group opened a restaurant in 1990 and, in 2006, was completely renovated to become a hotel offering five-star service and acting as flagship for all the group's services.

The DO & CO has 41 rooms and 2 suites, a popular bar and a 120-seat gourmet restaurant in which they offer Austrian, Thai, Japanese and other cuisines, as well as two function rooms, the Winter Garden and The Temple - offering an exclusive dining experience in a glass-walled room atop the building with a 360 degree rooftop view - not for sufferers of vertigo!

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By midday the tourists were out in their droves, flocking to the cathedral the other side of the (pedestrian) street from the hotel. By then I had walked to Prater just outside the central 1st district; it resembles Tivoli in Copenhagen, but with free entry, offering fun and relaxation: my quest was the Ferris Wheel which featured in the iconic Orson Welles film, The Third Man, based on a novel by Graham Greene and which was shot in Vienna. The even more memorable scene in which Welles is chased in the underground system can now be relived by going on a 45-minute tour; the first part explains the extensive sewer system, the third part shows the clean river that also flows underground in the same system, but the second part shows how they used just one 20-metre-long chamber to shoot all the underground scenes. So, I went down the sewer; a truly memorable experience and all for just €7 - no fleecing tourists here.

To get there I had strolled down the main pedestrian shopping street, Karntnerstrasse, and then explored an extensive market, unusual in that it comprised one side of stalls selling primarily many varieties of food and drink, both raw and cooked, i.e. a retail / take-away service, with the other side restricted to restaurants and cafés where one sat down to eat in (or outside) the premises. Very civilised indeed. I had also crossed the Danube a couple of time, via the many bridges in the city. One of these, beside Schwededn Platz) is the terminus of the hydrofoil to goes up to Bratislava and back, something for the next (and longer) visit.

The museum district is extensive, to say the least, and one could spend the time just admiring the classical architecture without ever venturing inside. With history, natural history, history of art, etc., the city has it all. Vienna is also doused in music, with Mozart (and other) statues everywhere; sadly, I didn't get to listen to any on my whistle-stop tour. But the weather was fantastic and encouraged being outdoors. Then there was the butterfly garden and the opera. Sadly I didn't get to go into either the winter (Hofburg) or summer (Schoenbrunn) palaces, including the legendary "The Kiss", or Belvedere which had been suggested to me by more than one person beforehand. An then there is the famous 7 km2 of vineyards in the city, another thing for the next trip there. But that illustrates the point exactly, there is so much to see and do that you need a few days to get real value from a stay in Vienna.

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I stopped off beside the Opera House at the Hotel Sacher where they serve the original and world-famous Sacher-Torte, a kind of a chocolate cake slice served with cream, and a spritzer of course! Most refreshing and tasty. Staying on the topic of food and drink, one could not visit Vienna without having a traditional Schnitzel - the famous Plachutta-Gasthaus zur Oper, a mix of Viennese tradition and modern design, serves arguably the best.

So, after a meal I then got the train to the airport and got back to Luxembourg after an entirely comfortable Luxair flight (20:40 departure), including a tasty snack and Luxair's coffee again. Driving home, I was back before 23:00, tired but very content. Thanks to all who provided suggestions of what to see and do in Vienna.

For those wishing to visit Vienna over the coming weeks and months, there are the following events to consider:

- Christmas Markets: all around Vienna starting mid of November until 24 December normally

- The Albertina - Birth of a world-class collection: 12 March - 29 June 2014. This exhibit presents the masterpieces of the collection in the context of its chequered and exciting history, from the age of court Baroque under Maria Theresa through the years of revolution in America and Europe until the reconsolidation of the conservative monarchies after the Vienna Congress.

- Kokoschka. The Self in Focus: 4 October 2013 - 27 January 2014. The Leopold Museum dedicates to one of the most significant 20th-century Austrian artists (one of the most important protagonists of modernism) an exhibition that will for the first time give a prominent place to photographs from Kokoschka's life.

- Matisse and Fauvism: 20 September 2013 - 12 January 2014. The Albertina will present a major exhibition comprising some 140 works by Henri Matisse and the Fauves, whose works are nowadays considered true trailblazers of Modernism. The works by these artists, who were once dubbed what translates as "wild beasts", are on display in Austria for the first time. Besides Henri Matisse, the movement included André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Braque, and Kees van Dongen.

- Monet bis Picasso. The Batliner Collection: Under the title "Monet to Picasso", the Albertina exhibits its vast holdings of paintings from the period of Modernism, which are primarily made up of works from the Batliner Collection. The epochs covered by this reinstallation of the museum's permanent collection range from Impressionism and Fauvism to German Expressionism, the Bauhaus, and the Russian avant-garde; the presentation concludes with works by Picasso.

- Schiele rediscovered. An Artist and his Collector: 21 March - 1 September 2014. In 2014 the Leopold Museum will dedicate an unusual exhibition to the exceptional talent of Egon Schiele (1890-1918) who was arguably the most radical Austrian artist of the 20th century. The Museum will for the first time present its world-famous Schiele collection in its entirety. It comprises more than 40 paintings, over 180 watercolours and drawings, numerous photographs as well as over 200 letters and autographs.

Photos by Geoff THOMPSON

Click here for full photo album of visit to Vienna (30+ photos)

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I recently got the opportunity to be a tourist back in Ireland, an island and country from where we uprooted our young family almost a quarter of a century ago now.

Yes, it's great to go back and meet family - grand-parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins and extended family - and to catch up on what they've been up to and what you've been up to, and we did all that, taking in a niece's wedding to boot, but we also got the chance to escape, something that's not too easy to do nowadays.

While it does take a few days to unwind before one can actually start to appreciate a break, it doesn't mean that you can't start to enjoy the "detox" experience. While the Internet was still accessible a couple of hours each day, this is still August and nothing much happens in this holiday month. Life goes on, but at a slower pace and, particularly from the news and media perspective, there is a noticeable slowdown. So, while I was still working, it only consumed a fraction of the time it normally does.

We got to stay on the West Cork coast and the sea air knocked us out in the evenings. With hardly any rain and no schedule to run to - our return to Dublin wasn't even planned, we just had to get back from "beyond the Pale" before the wedding - we were able to take in some activities, take long walks, relax and read a couple of books, eat out at various culinary establishments and chat with the locals.

We visited a new Open Farm (Rumley's) between Cork city and Kinsale, and talked to the innovative owner who has established a new business alongside his beef farm, where he opened a shop, restaurant and an open farm wild animals from Llamas to Owls, from Snakes to Lemurs, from Monkeys to Wolves, ... The next phase is to apply for a zoo licence, but this means a permanent vet on-site, etc. An interesting and bold venture at the time the country is (hopefully) about to emerge from the economic recession.

Later on, on the way back up to Dublin, we stopped off at the Rock of Cashel - a landmark we had passed dozens of times over the year but never actually stopped at and visited - and joined a tour group. While there were groups in French, German and Italian, we went stuck with English. While the guide went a bit too much on the folklore side of the venue for my personal liking, the historical facts and relics were fascinating.

When in the car, and at mealtimes, we listened to the radio and caught up on much of the social and cultural side of Ireland, as well as employment with the daily announcements of companies (e.g. Big Fish) closing and others (re-)opening. Politics and sports dominated the radio chat shows.

At least we had a comfy hire-car and the road network in Ireland is significantly better than when we (originally) left. We saw a lot of wildlife and experienced various degrees of customer service, some excellent and some not-so-excellent. We got caught up some of the local villages' summer festivals which incldued fancy-dress parades, pig-racing along the main street with on-course betting, the list could go on. And, yes, we did go fishing couple of times,...

But then, it's nice to come back to one's own house where one can properly relax once again...

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This new Mi-Fi Concept is amazing - it's basically a mobile version of an Internet router one has as home, except this one has no wires dangling out of it.

I had one in mind a couple of months' back and I put it on my list of things to do, in sequence after a number of other tasks which I wanted to achieve first. However, the big electrical storm a couple of weeks' ago that caused chaos with electricity supplies and, in particular, Internet connectivity, changed my priorities and moved this further up my list.

So, one morning I then resolved my land-line Internet connectivity issue (my Router was not blown as such, it just needed a software reset) as well as getting a 4G Mi-Fi unit from Orange Luxembourg.

What this unit - around the same size and weight of an iPhone - does is similar to a fixed Internet router apart from the wires. Okay, it has a charging cable whcih can be plugged into a power socket or into a laptop, but apart from this it is wireless. As long as it receives a signal itself from the Orange Luxembourg network, it can then provide wi-fi access to up to ten units simulataneously.

And, as it is mobile, it doesn't have to be right next to your devices. So, it would be placed, for example, on the inside of a window (to get better reception than from the middle of a room when in a large office building or similar) and your smartphone or tablet or laptop would then be connected. As it has its own SSID and password, you can give this out to just whoever you wish. this could be family at home, or colleagues at work or at a business meeting. Froma  work perspective, it's secure, as companies are not providing access to their own network, but just to the Internet through a mobile unit.

How it really helped me a couple of days later was when I needed to drop the car into the garage to have a sensor replaced and the job was to take an hour. I had my laptop with me, I turned on the new Mi-Fi unit and had full Internet connectivity. I was able to keep up-to-date with my email and I was also able to achieve a couple of work-related tasks, culminating in being able to publish two articles. And all this while being on the move. Needless to say, I was impressed.

Yes, I have been able to go to cafés or other locations on other occasions where I have been able to acquire the wi-fi password and go online. But sometimes the number of people online at the same time has resulted in slow downloads, or some settings have restricted me in sending emails, etc. With the Orange Luxembourg Mi-Fi I have been in complete control and it has helped me enormously.

This is not a ad for Orange Luxembourg - this is my true experience not embellished in any way, honestly! It has made my life easier and I really do sincerely recommend it to others. Orange Luxembourg is currently offering a discount for the first 6 months, and they also have other linked deals involvign tablets, etc. But, for now, this is all I need to be connected everywhere I go (within Luxembourg).

 

Sunday, 28 July 2013 17:33

Geoff Thompson: Total 24 Hours of Spa

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Although Mondorf Domaine Thermal were celebrating their 25th anniversary at the week-end, the kid of spa I had in mind for Saturday was of a different kind, one more akin to high-octane thrills than in the wellness brigade, I didn't feel too guilty though, as I had been at Mondorf on Friday in advance on their Open Doors on Sunday.

So, on Saturday I drove north to spend most of the day at the Spa-Francorchamps motor racing circuit in the Ardennes. Just an hour and a quarter drive - arriving at 10am and approaching from the south meant I avoided the tail-backs that confronted many trying to get to the circuit later in the day, particularly from the Brussels direction, and got parking at the circit itself, just 100m from the starting grid.

The drive there was interesting in itself, not simply as I started off from the Grand Duchy wearing sunglasses to protect my eyes from the bright morning sunshine. These came off soon after I turned onto the E25 to Liège when the foreboding skies darkened with bolts of lightning almost the only light around, streaking across the sky. By this stage the terrain had changed too, with the forests becoming larger and denser. Off the motorway to aim towards Stavelot - which sounds as it came right out of a Monty Python sketch - and the road really started to undulate and twist with the hilly terrain that stands about 400m above sea level. And all the time passing through charming villages and quaint hamlets all calling out to be revisited when not driving through to get to somewhere else.

By the time we arrived at the circuit there had been a few rain showers, but nothing heavy. The ground was wet underfoot - as it frequently is in the micro-climate of the Ardennes.

I'm normally much more acquainted with Formula One but when I received the invitation from Total Luxembourg to attend the Total 24 Hours of Spa, I jumped at the opportunity, particularly as the circuit is arguably the best in the world. Total Luxembourg was main sponsor of last week-end's 9th Rallye de Luxembourg and their involvement and support has helped to transorm the event into a professionally-organised international motor sports event, and they were included in the larger event courtsesy of Total Belgium's primary involvement.

Back at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, meanwhile, title sponsor Total had extensive hospitality suites for their invited guests from their four main business lines including filling stations, central heating oil, petrol cards and lubricants. The air-conditioned 1st-floor suite at the La Source hairpin was a welcome sanctuary later in the day from the searing afternoon sun which, when it came out, left no evidence of the morning's inclement weather which had led to torrential rain during a couple of the early races.

The 2nd-floor suite, although covered, was open at the sides which afforded perfect views of the (new) pit lane and start/finish straight, the turn into the first courner at La Source, the long straight which served as the old starting grid, and down into the dip before the sharp left-right-hander up into the (in)famous Eau Rouge, both teriffic and terrifying in the same breath. It also afforded a bird's eye view looking vertically down into the new pit lane which we were immediately above, and we could equally see the southern straights of the circuit in the distance, meandering between the forests and conspicuous by the sun glaring off vehicle windshields during races.

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The motorsport meet had actually started on Wednesday, but the main action happened at the week-end. First up on the track on Saturday, after the 24 hours endurance series warm-up, was the Formula Renault 2.0 NEC followed by the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo, special not only for the racing and spray but also for the unmistakable roar of their engines and the occasional glancing off the bodywork as they vied for position when attempting various overtaking manoeuvres. Then came the Cooper Tires British F3 International Series and the BRCC - Sprint, the GT4 Challenge Great Britain and the HDI-Gerling Dutch GT Championship, not forgetting the (non-race) public drive around the circuit that had been pre-arranged through various motor sports clubs beforehand.

We also had a bird's eye view of the paddock which we wandered around, avoiding the pit crews and hospitality organisers who were nipping around on quad bikes, scooters, electric vehicles and Segways. Many of the teams were hosting hopsitality guests and sponsors and giving them tours of their facilities and motor-homes, as well as other sponsors having sales and merchandising outlets at every second corner, not to mention the "pit-lane babes" who were there in abundance, not only representing the organisers but also many sponsors and individual teams. And the myriad of incredible vehicles parked in the paddock ranged from Lamborghinis and Aston Martins to MacLarens and Ferraris.

With special access to the pit lane, we got to see the teams in action up close, with pit-wall telemeteries, spare nose-cones, racks of spare wheels/tyres with various treads, tyre warming units and re-fuelling jigs, to mention just a few. We also has special Grid passes for the main race. I need to point out at this stage that as there were 50+ starters in the main 24-hour race which started at 16:30 and concluded at the same time on Sunday, both the new and old pit lanes were used, making Spa Francorchamps one of the few circuits worldwide that could host such as race and field. As a result, the pit lane was amended so that each car would enter at the start of the new pit lane and re-enter the circuit at the end of the old pit lane, ensuring parity.

The Grid Walk happened as the 72 cars (58 in the main race and 14 in the Gentlemen's Trophy) were pushed by the mechanics into their initial positions (remember, this race has a rolling start), so no grid line-up as in Formula One, and as the drivers had their parade lap in open-top antique sports cars. The driver line-up included both up-and-coming hopefuls as well as established stars, including Bruno Senna and Olivier Panis, ex-Formula One drivers. With camera shutters clicking right, left and centre, we made our way down past the (old) start line and to the rubber-scarred kerbs that mark the dip in the track and left-right launch up into Eau Rouge. We were standing on the very spot where the 24 hour drivers, as well as those in every race during the meet and also the Formula One drivers in a month's time, will have their hearts in their mouths every time they approach this very spot and face the challenging Eau Rouge...

Back up to the hospitality suites and ready for the off. Already on the first courner (up into Eau Rouge) one driver spun, with those behind him successfully avoiding hitting or being hit by another car. And 20 minutes into the race the Safety Car came out for the first time as another car had gone of at none other but Eau Rough and into the tyre wall. Noticing the track marshalls helping the driver, thankfully uninjured, and managing the stricken car until the yellow flags came out (signally the safety car and therefore a prohibition on overtaking) and the recovery vehile arrived, they are brave souls indeed. Racing resumed when the wreckage and debris was cleared and the tyre-wall was rebuilt.

For those interested, the Total 24 Hours of Spa was eventually won (24 hours later) by HPT Gravity Crarouz team in a Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 driven by an all-German crew of Maximilian Buhk, Maximilian Gotz and Bernd Schneider. They were one lap up on Monthey Racing in a Porsche 911 GT3 R, with third placed WRT Belgian Audi Club in an Audi R8 LMS ultra. The top Ferrari finished 5th and the top BMW finished 11th.

Photos by Geoff THOMPSON: (top, the 24-hour race in action; below: Total Luxembourg's Sofie Maene and Frédéric Santoni; bottom: the winning race team).

To see all photos, click here for Chronicle.lu's photo abbum, on Facebook.

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