Mon04242017

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Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, is basking in a heat-wave at present; its residents are more used to packing an umbrella and rain coat rather than the sun cream.

Galway is also hosting its 25th annual Film Fleadh (film festival) which grew originally as an off-shoot of the Galway Festival that itself is still going strong.

Luxembourg is the feature country this year, thanks in no small part to the work of the Luxembourg Film Fund leading up to, and since, the signing of the co-production agreement at this event two years ago. The Luxembourg delegation is almost 20-strong and, apart from presenting completed films (The Congress, Doudege Wenkel (Blind Spot), Naked Opera, Ernest & Celestine, Hot Hot Hot, J'Enrage de son Absence and Love Eternal), is also hosting industry events and holding a reception together with Luxembourg musicians.

On Wednesday evening it was the screening of The Congress which was screened initially at Cannes in the Director's Fortnight, as welé as last week in Luxembourg for its premier there; Galway was treated to the third official screening - it will not go on general release in the UK and Ireland until 2014 (it hits France and Luxembourg first). Guy Daleiden of the Luxembourg Film Fund was invited on stage by the festical's artistic director and introduced the film by explaining its 6-country co-production which involved amalgamating animation with real-life acting.

Earlier in the evening, the crew and cast were present for the World Premier of The Callback Queen, a hilarious romantic comedy - an independent film that had an Irish and English cast with the best bits involving the English-Irish "baiting". The main character is so-called as her actress character is frequently called back for second auditions but never gets the part; here she tries for everything from commercials to epic dramas and everything in between - but she does have her principles.

Last up yesterday was Houde of Shadows, a gripping horror drama involving an Italian-Irish co-production; an Irish woman goes with her Italian husband to southern Italy to his family where he has been bequeathed a house by an uncle who was a priest and could be cannonised - she senses the house holds secrets and is determned to uncover the past.

Photos by Geoff THOMPSON (above: Guy Daleiden introducing The Congress; below: cast and crew of The Callback Queen)

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So, the Luxembourg government has fallen; Outgoing Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker will go to Grand Duke Henri later today to tender the resignation of the coalition government.

Grand Duke Henri could ask Prime Minister Juncker if he, or any other politician, could form a government; if this would be possible it would avoid the need for a general election but, in reality, this is unlikely. Particularly so as the junior coalition partner, the LSAP, did not vote with the CSV party regarding the implications of the inquiry into the secret sevice. In essence, Prime Minister Juncker initially claimed that he knew of everything that the Secret Service was doing and he later admitted that he did not know some of specific activities that they were doing.

What is most likely - and this may take one or two weeks - is that Grand Duke Henri will ask Prime Minister Juncker to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a general election is held. This must be done within three months; as parliament is about to break for the summer and Luxembourg schools do not go back until 16 September, it is unlikely the general election will take place until mid October, to give campaigns a chance of being successful.

So what are the likely scenarios? We must look at the current split of seats between parties and look back over the last couple of general elections to see patterns. Currently the 60 members of parliament are split as follows: CSV 26; LSAP 13; DP 9; Green 7; ADR 2; Left 1; Independents 2. Two elections ago (there was little change in the last election) the DP lost 5 seats and it is likely, thanks in no small part to Xavier Bettel's charisma as Luxembourg City Mayor, that they will regain some or all of these seats.

Where are these gains likely to come from? Most likely the CSV, with LSAP seats at risk to the left. As in other countries where there is a coalition government, it is often the smaller coalition partner that comes off worse; in Luxembourg's case it is the LSAP. At risk are not only parliamentary seats but also a role in a government coalition. So will Jean Asselborn, current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign affairs, continue to lead them into the election, or will the reins be passed to someone else, e.g. Etienne Schneider, the current Minister of the Economy and Foreign Trade?

And what of Jean-Claude Juncker himself? The party chairman is already on record as saying that he will lead the party into the election - contenders could have been Luc Frieden (Finance Minister) or Claude Wiseler (Minister of Sustainable Development and Infrastructure).

Will the coalition be the same, or will there be a change? A lot can happen during a campaign, but if the election were to happen today, it would be a tight affair. Although the coalition have 39 seats (they need 31 for a majority), the issue then is just 8 seats. Could the DP re-gain its 5 lost seats and return to 14? If so, the rising star of Luxembourg's politics, Xavier Bettel, could yet have a significant role to play in the new government. Another possibility would be to have a three-party coalition; however, while this may be difficult enough to manage in times of prosperity, in the current economic climate this could be almost impossible.

It may come down to which party has the best grass-roots network and which can get their message out the clearest. Juncker has some explaining to do to the voting public, but he is skilled at arguing his corner and presenting his case. We must remember too that the "public" here are Lucembourg nationals, as non-nationals and cross-border workers are not entitled to vote in a general election. As more than 70% are public servants, economic competitiveness and the finance sector will not feature that high up the list of each party's manifestos. Indexation, pensions, the social security and health systems, as well as education, will feature heavily.

But a week is a long time in politics, and 3 months is even longer...

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Luxembourg prides itself on political stability; this is one of the primary advantages and benefits portrayed by those promoting the Grand Duchy as a business destination and place to live.

However, the shenanigans in the courts at the Cité Judiciaire over the past number of weeks has ruffled the feathers of a number of people and institutions, with the ripple effect in danger of building into a tidal wave and drowning the incumbent government.

The Bommeeleer affair has rumbled in the background of Luxembourg society and politics ever since the bombings took place in the mid-1980s; now those tensions are being relived in public court, even though several witnesses claim that they can not remember specific details. And the investigation into the role of the secret service and the surveillance measures it undertook, has been like a cold-war drama being relived in slow motion.

With the royal family being dragged into it, as well as the Public Procesutor, Robert Biever, current politicians including Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Finance Minister, Luc Frieden, in addition to others including former heads of the police and secret service, the voting public is starting to get the jitters.

The current government, a coalition between Jean-Claude Juncker's CSV party, and Jean Asselborn's LSAP party, has a mandate until next year with a general election ear-marked for May. However, the seriousness of the allegations and revelations could have implications that could force an early general election - Sunday 20 October has already been bandied about as a potential date.

The political crisis really started to gain momentum after first Jean-Louis Schiltz, then Jeannot Krecké and lately, Francois Biltgen, have resigned from the government and left politics to further their careers elsewhere. A common thread? Did they see what was coming and abandon ship before it started to sink?

Whenever the next election, will this be a chance for a realignment of government ministries? For example, the Ministry of the Economy and Foreign Trade and the Ministry of Middle Classes (for artisans, etc.) could be merged - after all they are housed in the same building and are split only for each coalition partner to have one each regarding economic issues; then there's the Department of Transport which is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Infrastructure; and should Luxembourg take the lead and re-structure, re-focus and re-name the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Peace? After all, it contributes a higher percentage of GDP for overseas development than most countries, and maybe this could be amalgamated into this re-focussed Ministry?

Also, the two educations ministries, the Ministry of National Education and Professional Training and the Ministry of Higher Education and Research could combine forces.

And who is going to lead the country and this reform? Although Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker has stated that he wants to lead his party into the next general election and lead the coutnry in the next government, his leadership has been questioned by many,

particularly since giving up leading the Euro Zone; he was expected to lead from the front but has been more on the defensive as of late. The government and Finance Minister Luc Frieden have come through no confidence votes in parliament, but with the Bommeleer affair and the secret service investigation continuing in the background, his popularity has waned and the government has come under increasing pressure.

The CSV remains the largest party, but will the voting public change dramatically from the last few general elections and change their allegiance? Luc Freiden (CSV) has been touted as a successor to Juncker (CSV) but his reputation has taken a knock recently, both in relation to the ill-fated Cargolux partnership with Qatar Airways as well as allegations that he tried to influence the investigation into the Bommeleer affair. Claude Wiseler (CSV) has responsibility for a significant budget and Luxembourg City Mayor, Xavier Bettel is currently on the crest of a wave, however he is with the DP, a minority party in parliament.

Normally a Minister of Finance or Minister of Justice would be fore-runners for assuming the position of Prime Minister in the future; the current Minister of Justice, Octavie Modert, has been Minister of Culture and was handed the Justice portfolio in teh recent cabint reshuffle when Francois Biltgen stood down to take up a position at the European Court of Justice; she has a law degree so understands the brief.

The government's task has not been made any easier with the current economic uncertainty, trying to attract foreign investment and making Luxembourg competitive, as well as wrestling with the arguments for and against austerity. While the voting population for a general election in the Grand Duchy being restricted to Luxembourg nationals, the elected politicians are not going to be entirely representative of the population. Ignoring the 160,000+ cross-border workers, just under 55% of the 520,000 population hold Luxembourg nationality, and just over 70% work for the public sector. As a result, the financial service sector which represents over 30% of GDP has almost no say in tha make-up of the national government. There have been calls for the government to change the rules for naturalisation, including dual nationality and changing the language test requirement, but would it be in their interest to make such a change?

A lot of questions, and a lot of if and buts; however, one thing is sure, a lot will rest on the shoulders of the incoming government, whether it will be the same coalition and same political faces as now, or whether there will in fact be change.

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Midday I arrive at Luxembourg airport and park the car; 15 minutes later I've checked in, am though security and am waiting at the gate to board the Luxair flight in the Bombardier Q400 to Nice.

None of this travelling to another airport, adding hours to the travel time, hours that, frankly, I just don't have; it's quick and easy and also is without the hoardes of travellers who can make air travel a chore at this time of year. This is way civilised and enjoyable.

I get a window seat and before long we're in the air and up through the thin cloud layer, heading south-south-west over Mondorf and then Cattenon in France. No more borders to cross, well not really - we do cross over Switzerland and back into France again as we fly over the royal blue Lake Geneva before meeting the Alps with its snow caps glistening when catching the sun's reflection. I bet Hannibal never had this view; had he and I'm sure he would have turned his elephants back. Despite the mountain range being majestic and spendid at this time of year in the summer sunshine, it is still a harsh place to be, let alone cross.

The agricultual terrain changes too when flying south, with a high percentage of forest-covered areas during the first part of the flight giving way to more and more arable land, with wheat, other cereals and sunflowers the main crops. We can also make out the towns and villages and main transport arteries, as well as various other topographical features.

90 minutes after taking off, we're landing in Nice on the Cote d'Azur in the South of France, in amongst the myriad of palm trees. The aiport appears as we descend over the hills and head for what seems to be a narrow strip of flat land close to the sea's edge. It's Monday and the 100th Tour de France is arriving from Corsica in a few hours' time. We get a shuttle service downtown and check into the hotel before heading off to the Promenade des Anglais where we get our first glimpse of the Tour de France.

No cyclists yet, mind, it's just the Nice Fete le Tour, a village open to the public for a few days with various promotional stands, including that of the Luxembourg Ministry of Tourism, together with Yorkshire (from where next year's tour will start), Carrefour, Eurosport and multipe others too. Behind us the beach (stones and gravel, not sand) was packed with sun-bathers, with few opting for the sun loungers close to one of the bars. Those not on the beach were either walking along the promenade or swimming or diving in the aquamarine sea, or messing about in boats on the surface or in paragliders in the air high above the water.

We're with the Minister of Tourism, Francoise Hetto-Gaasch, to learn how the ministry, together with the National Tourism Office (ONT) are utilising their presence to promote tourism in the Grand Duchy. Apart from the spanking new portable stand, they are handing out various gadgets including key fobs, beach balls and ponchos. The feedback is very positive and the echoes are good. After all, we had the royal weddign last year and many people remember that clearly; however some believe Luxembourg just has banks and is as small as Monaco...

We also get to meet the eight volunteers who left Luxembourg at 03:00 that morning and drove down to Nice, taking 11 hours in total, in the four vehicles sponsored by Autopolis for use in the caravan that precedes the riders on each stage of the Tour de France. Strategically they decided to skip the Corsica stages and pick up the tour in Nice. While they could share the driving, they were tired. I was so glad I had flown...

Off for a meal that evening just off one of the town squares where the main course was a local speciality of baked fish covered in aniseed-flavoured oats and breadcrumbs. Yum.

Enquiring about what's happeining in Nice this summer, after the Tour de France that is, there's a Matisse exhibition until September and there's a Jazz festival from 8-12 July. To get around, I observed many motorcycles and scooters, the vast majority with completely mad riders, as well as buses and trams, not unlike the mock-ups of those coming to Luxembourg. They also have a public bicycle scheme in Nice akin to the Velo in the Grand Duchy; in Nice they call it VeloBleu. Surprisingly with the Tour de France èpssing through, the VeloBleu system did not appear to be used that much.

After breakfast we made our way up to where the caravan constituent parts were assembling. Luxembourg's supply/support van which was laden with half a ton of publicity brochures and 90,000 gadgets was relieved of a day's supply, and put into the three Fiat 500s all decked out in their red and white, with a magnificant lion atop one. We witnessed the organised chaos and left them to is as we went in search of our passes to gain entry to the VIP village. This had been erected overnight as it had been in Corsica the day before, and the various sponsors had their own corners where they could entertain their corporate guests. In fact, all drink and food (fresh fruit, bread with salami and cheese, and cakes and biscuits) were free, as was the entertainment, all bicycle-related of course. But no cyclists, they were preparign for the afternoon's racing ahead of them.

Time to leave and make our way to the arport to catch the Luxair 90-minute flight aboard a Bombardier Q400 turbo-prop back to Luxembourg. But not before we caught a glimpse of the tour's publicity caravan in operation - apparently it takes an hour to pass any one spot. On Tuesday it was a late start due to the team time trial; ordinarily the caravan leaves at aoround 10:00 - 10:30, with the cyclists setting off at 12:00.

Anyway, it was a great short trip. We saw the caravan in operation, specifically from Luxembourg's point of view, with the various partners, including Autopolis, in operation, and we discovered a bit about Nice too, including witnessing the canons going off at midday...

Photos by Geoff THOMPSON. To see further photos, click here (Facebook album).

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Last week I was in Scotland for the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF). Far from being a junket and chatting to people over a cocktail or two (well, apart from all this), I was there as the EIFF has agreed to support the annual British & Irish Film Season (BIFS) in Luxembourg in the autumn.

Like the Galway Film Fleadh that’s happening next week in Ireland, the EIFF has agreed to act as a source of up-and-coming local film-making, much of it independent and some of it experimental. In essence, the EIFF was like a morphed version of the Discovery Zone Luxembourg City International Film Festival with multiple strands of films and activities, many of them specifically for industry delegates, of which I was one.

I did manage to get to some industry seminars addressing casting and distribution challenges and opportunities, and these were certainly worth it, nit least for the primarily young film-making attendees. They congregated each evening at the same time for networking drinks and were joined each evening by people who were either behind or in front of the camera lens of films that had been screened that day or the next. Sometimes this was quite surreal, not least at/after the screening of “UWANTME2KILLHIM?”, a gripping suspense drama cum psychological thriller whose leading two actors (Jamie Blackley & Toby Regbo) won Best Actor gongs at the end-of-festival awards. It also features Joanne Froggatt, known for her role in Downton Abbey…

While not wanting to reveal too much about this film – if I did, I would probably have to kill you, as the saying goes – if it set 10 years ago in England and involves schoolchildren communicating in online chatrooms - I got talking with the director and producer afterwards and am really hopeful of including the film in the BIFS line-up.

Also up for a gong (Best Picture) was Leviathan, an experimental documentary that is set aboard a fishing trawler operating in harsh conditions which was also screened at the Discovery Zone here. The film polarises opinion, with audiences either loving or hating it. While the effects are indeed well done, particularly the extra-sensory angle, et’s say I wasn’t one of the former.

I managed to see a raft of short films while I was there, either on the big screen or in the videotheque, and I’ll see how I could bring some of these to Luxembourg too, possibly for a younger audience. I focused on the Michael Powell Awards Competition stand, of which the two films above were part. Blackbird was about a young ballad singer who remote Scottish village is eroding with fish dying and jobs hard to come by – a rich drama. Dummy Jim, another documentary, featured a deaf man cycling from a Scottish village to the Arctic circle. Everyone’s Going to Die was labelled as a gangster screwball black comedy which features two different melancholy characters who meet by chance, but in reality was a melodramatic drama with a couple of light-hearted moments.

For Those in Peril was a powerful drama which focused on a Scottish fishing village trying to come to terms with the loss of five fisherman with just one surviror. We are the Freaks was not unlike Everyone’s Going to Die in some respects and was a mix of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (where he talks to the camera) and This is England, set in the aftermath of Thatcher’s leaving Downing Street in 1990. Svengali was another likeable comedy drama with Welsh and English components, again a mix of John Cusack’s High Fidelity and the recently-screened (at the St Patrick’s Film Festival in March) Good Vibrations, with more than a hint from The Commitments : an endearing film (with a superb soundtrack) of belief and aspirations about a youngster who dreams of being a music band manager and the rocky road he faces to get there. Maybe also for BIFS in the autmn?

The Great Hip Hop Hoax was another film I got to see, although not in the above strand. Another music-based film, mainly documentary but part drama too (this new term docudrama which I quite like) that was very well done indeed – it tells the story of two Scottish musicians who convince the British music industry they are from California… 

Another documentary I saw was Natan, about Bernard Natan who was the power behind Pathé in France in the war years. The previously untold story looks at both how he came from nothing and built up the empire only to have his name blackened and shipped off to Auschwitz. Were the allegations about his past true or were they to discredit him and, if so, why? A powerful and thought-provoking film. Shanghai, an Indian political thriller was very well directed and acted too, and worthy of general release.

All-in-all, a thoroughly enjoyable, but exhausting, experience and one which I hope to repeat next year. But not before I use the experience and information to best use for the British and Irish Film Season from 25 September to 8 October this year…

Photo by Geoff THOMPSOn of the main cast and crew of UWANTME2KILLHIM?

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Sunday evening at Luxembourg airport and people are coming and going, some flying and others seeing others off or welcoming them upon arrival into the Grand Duchy. For me, I’m off to Copenhagen on the new Luxair flight inaugurated just last Monday.

Just 5 minutes to go through security and a quick post on Facebook. All around are travellers, some business, some leisure and some sore bodies after yesterday’s ING Night Marathon… The flight is called and we’re on one of the Embraer jets, the ones with one seat on one side of the aisle and two of the other. I decline the offer of a newspaper and instead settle into my book. There’s no point in trying to trace the flight-path out of Luxembourg as we’re soon in the clouds upon take-off. So it’s a snack and a drink, a read and a snooze, and 90 minutes later we’re descending to Copenhagen airport. The terrain is flat, but the long bridges over the sea, linking the mainland with islands and dotted with ocean wind farms and various fishing boats. All bright and sparkling in the brilliant sunshine.

We land and it’s a couple of minutes’ walk to the metro station within the airport terminal. A quick visit to the currency exchange (Denmark is still using Krone; current rate 7:1) and I purchase a return ticket to go three zones which works out at around €5 each way – note: the automatic ticket machines at the metro station only accept plastic. I grab a tourist map from the information desk and study it on the metro. Eight stops and 20 minutes later I’m in the city centre, at Kongens Nytorv – even easier than the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in London City. I pass by the picturesque Nyhavn waterfront and charming restaurants and cafés as I walk a couple of blocks to the hotel, close to the Amalienborg royal palace. 2 hours to the minute after leaving Luxembourg airport, I’m checked it at the hotel.

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The Copenhagen Admiral Hotel (http://admiralhotel.dk, double/twin rooms at circa 2,000 DKK/night, incl. breakfast) has 366 rooms – all unique – and was opened in 1976 – the original building dates from 1787 and was two buildings originally used as granary warehouses on the dockside, joined together and still with the original wooden beams and brickwork that give the hotel its character and charm. The lobby is decorated with numerous large model ships in cases, with the bar, dining room, meeting rooms and bedrooms all continuing the warehouse and nautical themes. From my sixth floor room I have a view across the water (where the Battle of Copenhagen was fought in 1801) to the Royal Opera House - with its glass supplied by Guardian from Luxembourg - and a number of schooners berthed at the quayside below. With the temperatures in the low-mid 20s and hardly a cloud in the sky, it’s time for a drink on the quayside terrace before the sun goes down. Breakfast in the morning was sumptuous!

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The Copenhagen Admiral Hotel is a great place from which to plan a walking tour of the city which – apart from the water and smell of the sea – was not unlike Luxembourg in that it’s a safe place and people are orderly. The canals made it a bit like Venice or Bruges, the pavements were of a mix of paving slabs and cobble stones not unlike some Belgium towns, with most roads having cycle paths with the volume of cyclists making it feel more like Amsterdam or The Hague, and the pedestrian shopping area felt like Grafton Street in Dublin, street artists and all. Then there are the numerous statues and fountains, reminiscent of Rome or even Vienna.

However, the architecture is unique; there are many churches and spires, with many being ornate and designed in spirals. Many of the buildings in the harbour area have been renovated with the facades retaining the original brickwork and window openings. Climbing up the spiral walk inside the unique  Rundetarn (round tower, dating from the 17th century) in the centre of the city results in a skyline view of these, as well as noticing the red tiles; the sound of the bells chiming across the city from up on high was quite special too.

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Danish design is enjoying a strong period at present – the Illumsbolighus in the pedestrian zone from Kongens Nytorv to Radhuspladsen (Town Hall Square) is well work visiting as a showcase-cum-shop. There are scores of coffee shops dotted around the capital, so walking from the eastern location of the must-see The Little Mermaid, to the Tivoli fun-park to the west of the city centre, there are plenty of places at which to stop off along the way. The number of places to visits and things to see is extensive; I managed to also get to the 18th century Queen’s Palace at Amalienborg (which features four identical palaces facing each other), the Kongenhave King’s Garden and Rosenborg Castle, to list but a few.

While I did reach the gates of Tivoli – upon which Walt Disney is understood to have based his theme park – I didn’t get to go into the grounds, but for those who would be looking for a hotel on a more modest budget, nearby is the Absalon City Hotel (http://www.absalon-hotel.dk) three blocks to the west of Tivoli and close to the main city train station, in the former meat-packing neighbourhood that has also seen urban regeneration over the past 15-20 years. Win a twin/double room from 900 DKK/night including breakfast, the 200-room hotel has been in the same family for 75 years. Across the road, and operated by the same family, there’s the 73-room Andersen Boutique Hotel (http://www.andersen-hotel.dk) based on an Icelandic design with double/twin rooms at 1,500 DKK/night.

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So, what’s happening in Copenhagen over the coming months? At present, there’s a Photographic Festival, in July there’s a Jazz Festival, there’s a popular Gastronomic Festival at the end of August with a focus on local produce and local cuisine, there are regular Friday rock concerts, there is a zoo and an aquarium and there’s a new Maritime Museum about to open soon. There’s the Opera House across from the Admiral Hotel, as well as the Royal Danish Playhouse and Royal Theatre. Denmark may be best known for its Carlsberg beer, Hans Christian Andersen and his stories (including The Little Mermaid), innovative designs, top-notch tv series including The Killing, Borgen and A Royal Affair, and Hamlet, and Sweden’s Malmo is a quick ride by car or train in tunnels and over bridges, but there’s much more to Copenhagen than these.

Everyone will have their own favourites but, whatever they are, Luxair’s new flight to the Danish capital makes it that much easier, with return flights starting from €149 – see http://www.luxair.lu for details.

Click here to see complete photo album (on Facebook) from Copenhagen.

Friday, 31 May 2013 03:41

Geoff Thompson: Chronicle Anniversary

 

Tomorrow, 1 June, it will be 12 months since The Luxembourg Chronicle was launched. The work did not start then; the idea had been conceived months beforehand, the technical side worked on and the commercial side too. I remember clearly the prototype development presented to potential sponsors who were then asked to decide on the final logo, with a choice of different fonts suggested.

 So, on 1 June 2012, Chronicle.lu went live, thanks to the belief and trust put in the project by the inaugural sponsors who had committed to support the project before it went live. Since then, over 3,300 articles have been published on the website and posted on social media, with the daily emailshot being a huge hit since it went live just one month ago.

 Hardly a day goes by without someone new registering to access content, be it News, Opinion, Competitions, the Event Calendar or Classified Ads. Tracking user behaviour and listening to what is requested, is interesting. I have received significant feedback on articles published and numerous requests to attend and cover specific events. (I acknowledge that I also get the odd feedback pointing out typos, normally achieved when the volume of work is high and/or deadlines to be met). Whatever anyone says about Luxembourg, there is always something going on in some corner of the Grand Duchy, of interest to the international community here.

 And that’s where it starts to get really interesting. The international community comprises people here primarily for the European Institutions, the financial services sector or other sectors, and it is certainly not limited to people whose mother-tongue is English. As well as many whose second language is English, there are many native Luxembourgers who say (and write) that they enjoy the information service provided by The Luxembourg Chronicle.

 It’s also the events, from free ticket competitions to watch films or see shows, as well as the Discover Luxembourg event (this year on Saturday 14 September – see http://www.discover-lux.lu) and the British & Irish Film season (this year from 25 September to 8 October – see http://www.bifilmseason.lu).

With new sponsors coming on board recently, and others in the pipeline too, the future is bright. Over the summer I’ll be able to sit back and be able to see the wood from the trees, look at things objectively and plan for the autumn. Ideas and suggestions? Please send them to me at geoff@chronicle.lu.

What about a party?, I hear... We'll be doing something in September. Until then, I’m going to do what I try to do on certainly my own birthday, is go fishing…

Sunday, 26 May 2013 18:32

Geoff Thompson: Back from Italy

 

For part 1 of my Italian travel blog, click here.

We checked into the hotel in Bologna but were disappointed that, unlike the hotel in Florence, we had to pay extra for car parking and wi-fi; sometimes it’s the little things that count.

The following morning enabled us to see the sights in the centre of the university city of Bologna. We found a delightful small café a couple of blocks back from the main square and enjoyed a selection of bruschetta and cheese and cold meat platters. We had by then understood the Italian approach to never eating pasta in the evening, but with three generations of the family in town, and a birthday dinner planned that evening, we went for a light lunch and a large evening meal. The concept of being served glasses of water along with coffees was also new to some of us. We also got used to some Italian bathrooms having foot pedals to operate the taps on sinks – a little bewildering until you find the solution…

The city centre, although all traffic except buses and taxis was banned during the week, was alive with push-bikes and mopeds. But the covered walkways – Bologna’s architectural trademark – provided pedestrians with safety from traffic as well as shelter from the sun. We had heard Luxembourg was suffering from downpours, but we were far removed from the Grand Duchy by then.

We discovered the university’s law faculty, known as the oldest in the world, as well as the seven churches (all in the one complex)and various other gems as we cross the extensive traffic-free city centre. Off to a quick rugby training session led in part by one of the girls, following which we enjoyed a wonderful family celebration in a restaurant coincidentally with the same name as my favourite Italian restaurant in Brussels…

Celebrations over and heading home, with a car boot laden with winter clothes and belongings returning home, we went via Modena, Verona and Brescia to drop off family to Bergamo airport (50km from Milan), instead of via Modena and Milan as we had passed on the way down. Along the way, crossing Emilia Romagna and into Lombardia, past Lake Garda, we passed various fruit orchards and vineyards, as well as paddy fields – yes, rice is grown in the flat lowlands of Italy. Along the roads – we stayed mainly of the toll motorways - the traffic flowed freely, despite the occasional motorist who insisted in using the lane markings to drive along, instead of between them; others changed lanes without bothering to use indicators. Very frustrating, but we survived without incident. On to Milan from which we could already see the Alps looming, past Lake Como, Monza (home of Italian motorsport) and San Pellegrino (like Rosport in Luxembourg) and across the border into Switzerland, back on twisty roads and tunnels…

On our travels we like to experience local culture and customs, as well as gastronomy, etc., but often globalisation has spread its tentacles far and wide. While motorway service stations are necessary for refilling fuel tanks, they are not the first port of call for gourmet meals, particularly when one sees the same Autogrill brand festooned across almost every service station we came across in Italy. We needed a break upon entering Switzerland, se we stopped at the first Swiss service station, and what a delight that turned out to be. We decided to eat there and waited while our stir-fry dishes were cooked fresh in front of us. What a treasure to discover something unexpected like that! On the downside, though, we had left the land of the gelateria…

Back in the car and throught he 17km Gotthard tunnel, leaving one bright and warm climate for another one 15C cooler and much, much wetter. One could sense the break had come to an end there and then. But we had the majestic scenery of Switzerland to compensate. Another comfortable overnight in Lucerne and back on the road mid-morning the following day, with rain almost the entire way back to the Grand Duchy. Just one observation from the trip back, in that the multitude of agriculture water sprinklers for the crop fields were very much redundant.

After travelling 2,400km in less than a week, we were glad to be back home, but we were also glad to have been away for a joyous family celebration in a different corner of Europe.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013 02:27

Geoff Thompson: 21 and Over in Italy

Tyre pressure: check; full fuel tank: check; full windscreen wiper fluid: check; oil: check; drinks in for journey: check; vignette: check.

And so we set off on Friday afternoon for a roadtrip of sorts that would see us drive through France and Switzerland to Italy... The weather forecast for the next few days was for an average of 20C and mostly sunny skies (for where we were headed); leaving behind a wet and grey Grand Duchy with no respite on the horizon...

The traffic on the French autoroutes was moving more-or-less as expected, with just some tailbacks around Strasbourg, but nothing to complain about too much, despite being accompanied by the Luxembourg climate conditions until we crossed the border near Basle; almost immediately, the sun came out and the landscape and mood changed.

The river was deep blue, the trees were bright green, the architecture was striking and the speed limits were different; we tried to keep the speed up without losing too much time, yet within the limits; but when the limits are different to what you are used to, it gets a little complicated.

Out of the urban jungle and driving along rolling green hills and dense evergreen and deciduous forests, the traffic thinned and I was able to use the cruise control without fear of interruptions. One I got the speed limits sorted, it was a relaxing and serene drive along the winding roads and tunnels, with picturesque scenery to boot.

With almost 500km from home, we pulled off the motorway near Lucerne and stayed overnight in a modest hotel with a convenient underground car-park and free wifi, two of the most important essentials when staying elsewhere, at least when on the road. After a sound night's sleep, a decent breakfast and a couple of hour's work, we set off again for the second half of the drive south.

The south of Switzerland immediately started to offer unrivalled and stunning scenery that only Switzerland can offer, with temperatures already up to 20C, yet with views of snow-capped mountains stretching skywards from the fertile and green lower reaches, dotted with picture-postcard Swiss chalets and farmhouses, with the odd tourist out cycling and others sailing or wind-surfing on the lakes as the wind ripped along the valley, throwing up white horses on the water surface as well as almost bending roadside trees in half, but not quite.

Yes, the traffic did slow to a standstill as we approached the Gotthard Tunnel, but at least we had the magnificent scenery to admire in bright sunshine and warm sun's rays, rather than being stuck inside a gloomy tunnel, sucking lorry fumes.

While the villages had started to take on a more meditteranean look the surther south we travelled in Switzerland, soon we had cossed the border into Italy. And soon after, we stopped to refill the car with diesel, after almost 700km on the clock; first heart-attack of the trip when I saw the price: €1.70/litre, no less than a 40% increase on what I usually pay back home in Luxembourg. Ouch!

The terrain by this stage was flat, completely flat, and the motorways were all three- or four-lanes, alongside railways with fast trains and regular sound barriers to protect local residents from noise pollution. And this was rural Italy too, with fruit trees and cereals planted in the fields as far as the eye could see, until the foothills of the mountains on either side.

We arrived in Bologna, Italy's student city where our youngest is 21 in a few days' time, the main reason for the trip. We met up and caught up over a meal, wandered into the city in the evening to see some sights (including the two towers) and sample the wares from one of the myriad of Gelateria (ice cream shops) before hitting the sack. It was interesting to note that the city centre is off-linits to cars and only tolerates buses and taxis on week-days. Even though it's celebration time, it's also exam time, so in the morning we departed and headed over the Apennines to Pisa where we were to pick up other family members at the airport.

bologna-at-night-600

The 2-hour drive was motorway all the way but, as one would expect with driving over a mountain range, the roads were not exactly straight. But we enjoyed the lush green vegetation which gave way only to small habitations or significant quarrying, presumably for marble, etc. The hillsides diminished and gave way to horticultural plots, with hundreds of acres used for growing trees, shrubs and flowers.

We then did the touristy bit and saw the Leaning Tower and headed off for Florence. While the hotel was easy to locate thanks to the sat-nav, it was very tricky to access as a couple of strategically-placed No Entry signs had been strategically placed to make it as difficult as possible for us. However, we managed to see half of the city by car, and eventually parked at the hotel which was just a couple of minutes' walk from the Ponte Vecchio and just across the river from the Uffizi Gallery.

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With a wonderful welcome from the hotel staff, spacious and clean rooms, we were recommended a cosy restaurant that wasn't too touristy and catered for all our tastes without denting our wallets too much. After a great sleep and hearty breakfast (I would certainly recommend the hotel for a central and cheerful place to stay in Florence - http://www.hotelsilla.it), we sought out some of the places to see, marvelling at all the jewellery shops adorning the Ponte Vecchio.

But we also came across a number of electric vehicles, including the Renault Twizy, linked up to charging points, a great advertisement for eMobility and green technologies in action. We saw Dante's House, the Piazza Signorina, the Palazzo Pitti and the Cathedral and Giotto's Bell Tower, amongst others.

florence-ponte-vecchio-2274-GT-600

Florence could well have entrapped us for a week or more, but we said our adieus and headed back on the 100km trip over the Apennines to Bologna for another Italian meal, this time a Bolognese special - no, not Spaghetti Bolognese, but a mouth-watering meatballs dish with tagliatelle. And we sampled another Gelateria...

To be continued...

 djerba-plane-2117-GT-600

I admit it's not very European of me to escape Europe on Europe Day, 9 May, but I grabbed the opportunity to try out Luxair's new Boeing 737-800 on a day-trip to Djerba, the island resort off the coast of Tunisia in northern Africa.

Nice one, I hear echoed, but in my defence I was up at 04:00 to be at the airport at 05:00, for a flight at 06:30, and didn't get home until 23:30 yesterday evening. At time of the morning (05:30), Luxembourg airport was very busy with holidaymakers and business travellers mingling to board flights for verious destinations. From entering the terminal building and collecting my boarding card to going through security and border control to the departure gate, it took all of 20 minutes.

The flight itself was two and a half hours, with the 186 seat Luxair Boeing 737-800 full of travel agents as well as some Luxair / LuxairTours staff and a handful of journalists. Sitting and chatting with Adrian Ney, Luxair CEO, and Asko Schroeder, Luxair Press Officer, with other Luxair senior management and Boeing's Communication Manager for Europe in the rows in front and behind, I was set for the trip.

One of the reasons for the excursion was to experience first-hand the new Sky Interior of the 737-800 and the enhanced on-board service, as well as visit a couple of the LuxairTours partner hotels in Djerba. While there wasn't enough room to take out my laptop and the comfort of my office desk, there was plent of room, even in the middle seat. I could easily see why the new Sky Interior, with Luxair had specifically ordered from Boeing, was so-named; with dimming cabin lights, increased luggage bin space and two pockets for documents in the back of the seat in front, it made for a serene environment, designed to ensure passengers could feel their break had started once on board the plane, rather than just upon arrival at the desitnation airport.

But firstly, the trip. Normally I enjoy surveying the landscape from in the air, but leaving Findel this morning, that was not an option due to the cloud cover. However, the tips of the western Alps poked through to provide an indication fo where we were, and then the southern France coastline as we started over the Mediterranean, then over Sandinia and a wide expanse of deep blue sea until we hit the north African coast and turned left. The low-level pass over inland Tunisia gave me a first glance of the African continent. Yes, much of it was various shades of brown, but what surprised me was the myriad of lakes, rivers and green forests.

On the way we had enjoyed a delicious in-flight breakfast prepared earlier that morning by Luxair's catering. Not hot, but it needn't have been, considering the sunnier climes to which we were headed. A quick nap, a leisurely read - both of the newsworthy in-flight magazine and a novel I had put in my bag at the last minute alomg with my swimming trunks (just in case!) - and viewing a fascinating time-lapse Boeing video of the making of the exact plane in which we were flying, Luxair livery and all. Together with the stimulating conversation, the flight was over in no time at all.

But the adventure was just beginning. The LuxairTours ground staff and representatives from partner hotels put on a fabulous welcome when exiting the the terminal building, including the LuxairTours mascot, presentation flowers and cheers for the entire group of passengers. After feeling the trip had already started on board the plane, instead of just when landing, this added to the sense of enjoyment. It was 25C at 08:30 in the morning and the sun was blazing down so off came the jackets, on went the sunglasses and out came the cameras.

The travel agents had three coaches to take then to the Radisson Blu Resort, about a 25 minute drive, while the press and Luxair managements and representatives travelled in a minibus which included its very own local tour guide who explained everything in both French and German, plus English if required.

While we travelled along the coast road and past areas resembling no-man's land (until we got to the resort area, that is), littered with plastic bags and blue plastic bottles which certainly didn't leave that favourable (second) impression, we were treated to a lesson in history and culture. Djerba is the largest island off the North African coast and has 120,000 inhabitants whos religion is split between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. There are 120 hotels which cater for more than one million tourists annually, predominately coming from French-speaking countries, including Luxembourg which has established a significant (positive) reputation among the Djerbians thanks to LuxairTours flying tourists there since 1970.

The local industries are predominately fishing (shrimp, bream,...), tourism (both direct and indirect) as well as agriculture (olives, sheep, goats,...). Construction of new buildings is restricted to 3 stories. Nearing the tourist area, we passed the marina, a theatre, a Spanish fort and a street market, and we we informed of the link with Ulysses and its historical links with the Phonecian traders, Romans, Spanish, etc., as it is located on a strategic sea route in the Mediterranean.

A quick tour around the Radission resort, including the pools and restaurants, as well as the beach which, admittedly, wasn't quite the white gold (sand) I was expecting (this came later, don't worry!). We then were ushered into a conference are which had been transformed into a mini exhibition area primarily for the benefit of the travel agents to browse stands of various hotels and tourism services, before we were all treated to a presentation by the Boeing rep. It didn't focus specifically on the new 737-800; rather it gave an overview of the 737 brand which started out in the 1960s with Luxair receiving their first 737 in 1977; in 1998 Luxair acquired their first next-generation 737 (new engine, new wings, new interior, new flightdeck...).

The 737 has become the airplane of choice for short-haul flights and has received orders for over 10,000 planes - it is the best-selling single-aile passenger aircraft of all time - with oders of over 4k for the 737-800, primarily due to its extreme reliability and fuel efficiency. A Boeing 737 takes off or lands every 2 seconds somewhere around the world, over 2,000 737s are in the air at any one time, and are used in one third of all commercial flights (265 different customers).

After a LuxairTours press conference (see the Travel Headlines...) we traipsed back through the manicured and landscaped gardens and hopped back on the coaches and shuttle bus to the Fiesta Beach Hotel, by far the most popular resort for LuxairTours' customers. Again, the welcome, reception and hospitality were truly magnificent, with horsemen in traditional costume, musicians and dancers welcoming everyone again, before a pre-dinner drink and a pool-side buffet lunch with local entertainment. But first we had to meander though the whitewashed residental units, palm trees and swimming pools, then back to the lobby afterwards where I managed to get a lot of this blog post written up. In the lobby, though, it was interestign to experience that Tunisia must not yet have a no-smoking policy as some people were indeed smoking indoors (the vast majority did so outdoors, conscious of non-smokers).

I managed to then grab a short leisure break before the shuttle bus ferried us back to the hotel. At around 29C I strolled through the maze of paths between the various residencies, past the pools and bars, the water chutes, boules area and across the decking and past the crowd of around 40 or so dancing to the party music played by the DJ and down to the beach. It was interesting to see all ages relaxing and enjoying the beach together, with youngsters following organised activities by resort staff, young families attracted by locals offering rides on their horses and camels, and the various water actities on offer, from water-skiing to water-parachuting and wind-surfing, as well as kayaking...

So, along the decking, through the mushroom forest of straw parasols and sun-loungers and across the pristine white sand to the water's edge. But it was just a standard swin in the ocean I was after. Not a Brrr to be uttered, mimed or heard, the water was just the right temperature. Swimming different strokes along the beach around 30m from shore, I stayed in the water (and afloat...) for around half an hour before emerged suitably refreshed and exercised, ready for the 1,844 km trip home which was over in no time at all.

Photo by Geoff THOMPSON

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