Category Archives: Tourism

Behind the scenes: on assignment in the Alentejo

Hit the North has been out country. The Alentejo region of Portugal, since you ask, on assignment for Wanderlust magazine.

The feature, combining wildlife spotting in the Vale do Guadiana Natural Park and hiking the Rota Vicentina, will be out probably in the autumn.

It wasn’t the smoothest assignment at times but I think I found a good angle in the end. Let’s just say that, after much searching, I found the quintessential example of rural village life.

Look out for the full story but, by way of a preview, here are some images from the trip.

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Behind the scenes: Titanic Belfast

Titanic frenzy has reached fever pitch this week.

There are events, programmes and exhibitions from Southampton to Nova Scotia to mark the centenary of the world’s greatest passenger shipping disaster.

But most of all in Belfast, where I returned this week to see the newly unveiled Titanic Belfast, and to catch the light show on the slipways.

I’ve been several times now and you can read some of my previous stories from the Daily Telegraph here.

A new story for Real Travel magazine will be out in May. Meanwhile, some images from my trip.

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Wales Coast Path Blog for Visit Wales

Hit the North has been moonlighting.

The reason for silence on this forum has been that I’m working a guest-blogger contract for Visit Wales, walking sections of the soon-to-be-launched Wales Coast Path in advance of the May 5th inauguration.

You can read the first post about North Wales here.

The second post from Ceredigion is here.

And the latest post from the Llyn Peninsula is here.

There are two more posts to come, so please join me for the hike and post your comments here, at the Visit Wales blog, or own my Twitter.

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Portugal’s big cultural vision – full version

My Guimaraes story was in the Express at the weekend. You can read it here.

But, as it has been delayed and took a hefty cut for lack of space, I’m running the full version here.

As ever, post your comments below.

Capital of Culture

As the lights go down, I take my seat for the late-night screening. The Baron, it transpires, is a Portuguese take on the Nosferatu story.

After the premiere we gather in the foyer of the Sao Mamede arts centre for post-screening drinks, elderly relatives of the cast rubbing shoulders with serious young men in black sweaters, who smoke with a faux-intellectual ferocity.

It’s a low-key start to this year’s European Capital of Culture in Guimaraes, a small, post-industrial town with a hard-to-pronounce name some 60km northeast of Porto. The other capital is Slovenia’s equally low-key Maribor.

But for film producer Rodrigo Areias, a black-and-white Hammer Horror pastiche is fitting introduction to Portugal’s post-austerity take on the capital of culture bandwagon. “Times of economic turmoil can produce great art,” he says.

Areias has programmed the cinema strand for the year-long event, including a series of experimental shorts by the British director Peter Greenaway and the French auteur Jean-Luc Godard.

He flashes a dark-eyed smile. “We already survived the big textile crash some 15 years ago, so we’re used to crises in the north of Portugal,” he says.

Low-key events

Guimaraes will celebrate the official opening ceremony this weekend (Jan 21), while next weekend (Jan 28) sees some 40 private homes across the city host small-scale concerts by local musicians.

The city may already host major international jazz and contemporary dance festivals, staged in November and February respectively, but Guimaraes’ moment in the cultural floodlights eschews headline-grabbing showcase events in favour of small, organic projects, and long-term residencies by a handful of chosen artists.

For Carlos Martins, the softly spoken CEO of the Guimaraes 2012 Foundation, it’s about turning economic turmoil across Europe to his advantage.

“We’re not the Guggenheim, we’re not Tate. But we can experiment. An old city can be a fantastic place for new projects,” he tells me over lunch at the Vila Flor Cultural Centre, his thick black glasses and casual trainers betraying his academic, rather than Eurocrat, roots.

“The more individual writers, visual artists and performers tend to come from the north of Portugal,” he adds. “They don’t have the comfort zone of Lisbon. We want to create a network of places here for artists to showcase their work.”

Heritage city

Guimaraes was the birthplace of modern Portugal in 12th century and it retains its medieval ambiance, rich in cultural heritage and historic buildings. The numerous churches are packed with examples of sacred art and the cobbled backstreets of the Unesco-listed old town offer glimpses of Baroque architecture.

Traditionally, the city lacked cultural spaces but Martins and his team of young, enthusiastic cultural programmers, are changing that.

The Platform for Arts and Creativity, the landmark new three-section arts centre on the site of former public market, receives its official inauguration on June 24 — a public holiday to mark the Battle of São Mamede.

It comprises a permanent collection of work by Jose de Guimaraes, the best-known living artists in northern Portugal, plus a series of incubator workshops, a library and restaurant, all built round a central plaza. The €25m project, designed by local architects Pitagoras, has a striking modernist design and complements the redesign of nearby Toural Square as a car-free central public forum.

Former leather and textile factories in the south-central Couros district, hub of the city’s industrial-powerhouse era, also house new arts spaces.

Art spaces 

At the Centre for Art and Architectural Affairs (CAAA), a former textile factory re-opened in October 2011 as a multi-purpose arts space with a pared-down, industrial feel, I catch a photographic exhibition of images rescued from the city’s Muralha Photography Collection.

Coming in March is a season of work celebrating the avant-garde American composer John Cage.

Later that day I delve into the labyrinthine streets of the Unesco centre, stopping to take in a visiting exhibition of contemporary ceramics at the Alberto Sampaio Museum.

After a short, black coffee under the shade of an olive tree in Oliveira Square, I find two small exhibitions at the Gallery Gomes Alves, a series of sketched nudes and a set of landscape etchings, both by young artists from Portugal’s rural Alentejo region. Tate it’s not, but it reflects the atmosphere of the city and the mood of the times.

The wider region

The next day I head out of the city, hiring a car for a self-drive exploration of the wider Minho region to explore the cultural identity of the north. I take the backroads, winding my way through lost-in-time villages and green-verdant smallholdings.

Vines and olive tress wrap their arms around canopies by the roadside; oranges and lemons ripen on trees ready for a February harvest. It may be January but the first vital signs of spring are already evident, daffodils opening to welcome the first rays of sun.

Just outside Ponte de Lima I find Count Francisco de Calheiros, the landed gentry owner of Paco de Calheiros. The 17th-century manor house has opened its doors to visitors under the count, joining a group of restored heritage properties turned luxury B&Bs as part of the Solares do Portugal group.

With a vineyard in the grounds and dinner in a banqueting hall, it’s very old money. The house will host some spin-off musical events from nearby Guimaraes during spring.

“Portugal was born in the Minho region and the area retains a strong sense of cultural identity,” says the count, sporting a rather natty green-tweed jacket tailored on Saville Row.

“The Minho has a folklore tradition of music and costume, a rich heritage of medieval monasteries and manor houses, and the only national park in Portugal.”

Afterwards I head into Ponte de Lima for lunch. Restaurant Encanada is a simple but bustling place, popular with locals, on the fringe of the river-facing market. A huge lunch of rojoes (pork, tripe and blood sausage), served with roast potatoes and rice, washed down with a chilled glass of the local vinho verde, and coffee, sets me back a very reasonable 17€.

There are no tourists, just two widows with tightly tied buns under their black headscarves and old men with crumb-filled moustaches, picking their teeth after the corn bread.

Guimaraes and the Minho may be keeping it small scale for its year-log cultural jamboree, but the culture of the north is still worth exploring. You just need an open mind, a strong stomach and a sense of curiosity to see another side of Portugal away from the high-rise beach resorts.

Low key, yes, but somehow quite charming.

Travel credits

TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932/flytap.com) flies daily from London Gatwick to Porto from £56 one way including all taxes.

Keytel International (0207 953 3020/keytel.co.uk) is the booking agent for the Pousadas de Portugal group (www.pousadas.pt) in the UK.

It offers short breaks, based on two nights BB, starting from £39pp per night at the Pousada Monte de Santa Luzia in Viana do Castelo and £32pp per night for Pousada Nossa Senhora da Oliveira in Guimaraes; details from www.keytel.co.uk/pousada-short-breaks.html.

Further information from guimaraesturismo.com; guimaraes2012.pt.

Visit Portugal: 020 7201 6666/www.visitportugal.com.

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Behind the scenes: European Capital of Culture in Guimaraes

Hit the North has been away. To a small city in northern Portugal with a name people can’t pronounce, a penchant for salted cod and an unhealthy interest in recreating Hammer Horror films in a uniquely Portuguese style.

It’s called Guimaraes and it’s the new European Capital of Culture. Look for Porto on the map and head northeast.

Better still, look out for the forthcoming stories about my trip, horror film premieres et al – links on my Twitter feed.

City Walls from Toural Square

And if you think Guimaraes is obscure, then the other Euro capital this year is Maribor in Slovenia. No, I don’t either.

But, before you say “Roll on Marseilles in 2013”, this former industrial city is not without its charms.

It was a strangely low-key trip and I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by a culture-fest glut during my time, but their no-big-names approach to the Euro juggernaut is quite endearing.

And, while the cobbled backstreets off Oliveria Square were pretty quiet in mid January, I can see how the place will come alive with the spring, the first signs of which were already starting to manifest themselves across the northern Minho region.

One of these typically low-key events was a photographic exhibition at the new Centre for Art and Architectural Affairs (CAAA), where the young and enthusiastic team eagerly hung on my questions with answers ready in word-perfect English.

Shame I was feeling a bit low key and didn’t really have any.

In the end I didn’t use these images of old Guiamaraes, rescued from the Muralha Photography Collection, for my stories. But I did like them and I thought I could share a few here *.

Besides, it beats the stills from that vampire flick.

* I’ve now taken down the images after the organisers moaned. Perhaps if they had spent more time turning up for appointments and thinking about quality editorial, and less time moaning, we would all have taken more from this trip.

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First view: on assignment in Ghent

Feeling a bit gloomy about the wasteland days at the start of a new year? I often do at this time of year.

But I was in Ghent just before Christmas and I saw light. Well, I had a preview of it anyway.

The second city in Flanders (after Antwerp) will be brightening up the historic centre of town with Light Festival Ghent, a series of public-art installations from January 27-29.

Light festivals are rather en vogue across Europe currently with Lyon the leading, err, light. But I also recently covered Lumiere in Durham, which brought the concept to the north of England.

It’s a good idea. Anything to brighten up the black-hole skies of January across northern Europe in the weeks to come.

It’s like Kaat Heirbrant, Project Leader for Light Festival Ghent, says.

“Light creates a sense of wonder. It provokes an emotional response in us. In the dark months of winter, it makes us move.”

Catch my story in the Independent later in January.

And look out for another major public-art event, TRACK, coming to Ghent in May. The manifesto is all over the city right now – more stories to follow.

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Eurostar is on the wrong track – again

* Update 27/10. Eurostar have now been in touch to discuss compensation. Anyone else resolved this issue? Please post your update below.

* Update: Tues, 25/10. It’s one week on now from the great Eurostar PR disaster. In the aftermath, I was promised an official response to this blog from Eurostar. I was also told that customer relations would be in touch to discuss.

But so far: nothing. Is this yet another example of Eurostar handling the situation badly? Has anyone else had a follow up from the Eurostar team?

Or does Eurostar simply not give a %^& about its customers?

Please post your comments below.

Original post: 18/10/11

It happens to us all. The travel-chaos nightmare when flights/trains/boats are delayed or cancelled, leaving you feeling drained, bewildered and frustrated.

It happened to me last night aboard the 17.04 Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi. It was hell.

Major delays

Short version: a ten-minute delay just outside the tunnel past Ashford, Kent, turned into a three-hour delay.

During this time, in coach eight we were offered water and biscuits.

We were eventually sent back to London, arriving around 11pm – some six hours after setting out.

The queue for Eurostar customer services to request hotels and taxis and looked like this:

Radio silence

The most frustrating thing about this experience – apart from the disruption and loosing work due to blown meetings – was the lack of information from Eurostar staff.

Passengers became increasingly irate as we were kept in the dark about the situation.

Should we cancel meetings? Arrange new connections? Contact loved ones? Nobody would tell us anything.

I turned to Twitter for information (check my increasingly irate feed from last night).

We soon established that it was a suicide on the line, all trains were cancelled and a Burger King in Kings Cross was far more likely than moules frites in Ghent that night.

But where was the official source? Eurostar communications only posted info on the website at 20.00 UK time; the incident was reported to have occurred at 17.50pm.

And where is the emergency action plan? After all, this isn’t the first time there’s been a major incident on the high-speed line to Europe. Remember last Christmas?

Have Eurostar learnt nothing from all this? Seems not.

Lucky me

I was one of the lucky ones. I was traveling on tickets booked through Railbookers and, while Eurostar floundered, their representative swung into action, booking me a hotel for the night.

I dropped off my bag by 11.30pm and walked across the road to a late-night bar.

I saw families with huge bags and small kids spilling out of the Eurostar terminal, trudging down the Euston Road to find hotels. They looked ashen.

I thanked my lucky stars my two daughters were tucked up safely in bed at home and steadied my nerves with a pint of Guinness.

Learning points

So what do we take away from this sorry scenario?

Of course, force-majeure events happen to anyone who travels regularly and it was simply my turn (again, after the ash cloud).

But why is Eurostar not learning from its mistakes. Surely it could have avoided yet another PR disaster?

For me, the lesson is clear: book tickets through a specialist operator or agent, not Eurostar direct.

The former are the ones to keep their heads while all around are loosing theirs.

And that matters.

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