I’m the King of the world!

If your only knowledge of the Titanic story is through Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet, you’ve a lot to learn. I’ll confess now, I’ve never seen the film. And nor did I really know much about the doomed ship. Five years ago, and at a cost of £77 million, the Titanic Belfast opened on the site of the slipway from where she was launched. And it’s pretty hard to miss it.

I’ve been to a fair few “tribute” museums over the years, and a lot of the time they’re simply too overwhelming to take everything in. For instance, Nahville’s Country Music Hall of Fame is so crammed with stories and memorabilia, it’s almost too difficult to recall a single thing I saw. The difference here, of course, is there’s one central story.

Although there’s a lot to digest, the history of Belfast’s rich industrial heritage is told well, and much of the exhbition is given over to the Titanic’s construction at the Harland  and Wolf shipyard. Titanic Belfast is billed as an experience rather than a museum – and the most bizarre experience comes in the form of a ghost-train like ride through the shipyard’s workings. The small cars are lifted and lowered up, down and around – it’s clear that this is where a lot of that £77 million went.

Sadly there’s no full size replica of the Titanic, but there is the tug boat Nomadic, resting in a dry dock nearby – and giving you a small insight into life on board – complete with a hologram of a snotty French bar tender.

Back in the city centre, there’s a massive range of shops, many housed in historic buildings. Who knew that Primark could look so classy?

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Posted by on January 26, 2017 in Belfast 2017, Travel Stuff


A warm welcome in a Windy City

“The weather’s pretty good but there’s a still southerly breeze blowing – so the final approach might be a bit choppy.”

When a pilot is so specific, you know it’s going to be a rough landing. Fortunately, we’re flying on a smallish properllor plane, so we feel every last jolt as we descend into George Best Belfast City Airport. It’s the kind of staggering home he’d probably have approved of.

That said, it had been pretty much smooth sailing for the journey so far. I’ve made a note to book more afternoon flights in the future, having printed off my boarding card and cleared security at East Midlands Airport in about 15 minutes. This is something of a personal best – at busy times it can take over an hour.

So I’m pleased to be on the ground, and with the brisk southerly blowing my eardrums out, I can just about hear the woman at the bus stop, who’s just heard there’s been a major crash on the link road, and “the whole of Belfast is gridlocked”. She wasn’t wrong. Over an hour later a packed bus is crawling through the city centre. But what a pretty sight it is.

This is City Hall. Built in 1906, a centrepiece of civic pride, and home to Belfast City Council. I always think it’s a good sign of a place that makes an effort to light up public buildings. And there are free daily tours. But right now it’s time to substitute public buildings for public houses. And this one has its own personalised doors for customers.

The Crown on Great Victoria Street is probably the best known in Belfast. Its lovingly (and expensively) restored features are considered so important that the building was acquired by The National Trust. Midweek, and the bar slowly starts filling up, the air filled with a whole host of European accents and languages.

High class whiskies could almost be the name for a band, and my primary reason for visiting is to see as much live music as possible. Various websites list The Garrick on Chchester Street as a good bet for a Wednesday, though when I get there the crowd is engrossed with a football match. I ask the bar tender when the music session is likely to start, getting a typically Iridsh reply of “Sure, it’ll be on anytime – as soon as the turn arrives.”

It turns out that the turn is, in fact, four traditional musicians complete with flute, pipes a guitar and a drum. These small sessions happen almost every night in towns and cities across Ireland. The key word is “informal”. Although the customers clearly enjoy the performance, there’s almost no acknowledgement of the band at all. Loud conversations continue all around, mostly about Donald Trump, or, in the case of the very drunk youngsters across the bar, how many Jaegerbombs to order.

But what do the kids know? Guinness is clearly the order of choice, though other drinks are on offer with a definite hierarchy that could also be the first line of a racist joke.

I may save the tastings for a different night.

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Posted by on January 26, 2017 in Belfast 2017, Travel Stuff


Looking Up and Looking Down

Berlin is blessed with lots of green spaces, but none ar as grand as the Tiergarten. An ancient hunting ground, the sprawling parkland was badly damaged during the Second World War but has since become a focal point for joggers, doggers and walkers. During. A mid morning stroll I see two of those (I won’t say which), before reaching the area’s biggest erection.


The Siegessaule or Victory Column commemorates those wars that Germany managed to win. It’s also at one of the city’s busiest road junctions, and although it looks inviting, I already have a date booked later on from an even higher vantage point.

But first, a train ride to the town of Postdam – technically the capital of the Brandenburg region, but these days effectively a large add on to Berlin with fast transport links for commuters. However, it’s bigger than it first appears, and it’s a somewhat confusing journey from the main rail station to the centre. Postdam has its own tram network, and without a map – or knowing what I’m looking for – my introduction is a combination of farce and fear.

Fear, because on every street corner there are police vans. Some static, some moving slowly – and around every junction they seem to be breeding. It’s only later I discover that many of Europe’s foreign ministers are in town for a summit, so security is at epic levels. Because of this, I’m reluctant to take too many pictures. BitnI can’t resist this one of Postdam’s own Brandenburg Tor.


Sunset – well, dusk and there’s just about time to ascend the TV tower. By day there are long queues and I thought that my pre-booked “priority ticket” might afford me some special attention. I did something similar at Chicago’s Hancock Tower – whose bar insisted on smart casual clothing and offered great table service. Berlin’s equivalent is a little less impressive; just a small cocktail bar in the 360 degree viewing floor, with the one bar tender saying barely a word to customers. But it’s all about the views here.


The district running North from the Hackescher Market has some of the loveliest boutiques and coffee shops around. But in an alleyway off Rosenthaler Street is a little bit of a Berlin that’s refusing to give in to progress. Haus Schwarzenberg is a collective of independent businesses and artists – including a cinema, a gallery and a funky bar.


There are customers here – but they were reluctant to be photographed. It could have been because they’re rebels of the mainstream, refusing to conform to society. It might have also had something to do with the light smell of weed in the air. There’s also some pretty good street art on the walls.

“You are a tourist and you found this place?!”

Uwe sounds surprised that I’ve dared to venture off the beaten track. But does he have a story to tell. He’s from the Dortmund region and works in local Government. His job is varied, but at the moment is concentrated on helping the hundreds of thousands.of refugees fleeing places like Syria and North Africa. It’s a result of Germany’s open door policy in 2015, where virtually nobody was turned away.


“You would help too,” says Uwe, with a sense of civic pride. Though his commitment to the cause is almost certainly connected to his own family history. Growing up in a divided country, where the Brandenburg Gate lay abandoned in no man’s land. His father worked for six years in Russia – but six weeks after returning home was killed because of a casual joke he made about the Stasi.

I’m touched by Uwe’s story – and his openness. I’m even more impressed that he’s told me all of this in English. And I probably wouldn’t have heard his story at the posh place next door.


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Posted by on September 2, 2016 in Berlin 2016, Travel Stuff


Der Muggelberge und Der Blues

Like many big cities, the best way to deal with Berlin is by treating it as a series of smaller towns and neighbourhoods. And the city is surrounded by a series of interlocking canals, rivers and lakes. Which gives the locals plenty of messing about on the water, and the tourist industry plenty of money making opportunities.

I’ve opted for one of the longer boat cruises today – Around The Muggelberge – which sounds like it might be a village just down the road from Balamory. At five hours, it’s a long journey to take in, especially on the open sun deck in the company of a generally older clientele. The first hour or so weaves through some of Berlin’s industrial heartland – and although it looks a bit grim, I learn some useful German phrases. “Zement werks” being just one.

But then, just beyond Kopenik the water opens wide into a network of lakes. And all manner of transport is using them today.

That’s the back end of a seaplane in the middle, with a barge to the left and a kayak to the right. After a circuit of a couple of the lakes (Der Muggelsee – not exactly creative) it’s up a canal flanked by impossibly beautiful waterside homes.

The sun is shining, drinks and Bratwurst are being frequently served (all at an additional price) and it’s a slow cruise back to town.

Kreuzberg is one of Berlin’s most diverse communities. Street carts dish out curry wurst and falafals, while Italian and Turkish influences are everywhere to be seen. And then there’s Yorcksclosshen, where tonight there’s just a little bit of New Orleans.


Well, the music may be from the Big Easy, but guitarist Michael Hardie is from Houston, Texas. Yet he plays and songs the blues as good as anyone in Louisiana. He’s been doing it for years, and although his set list is rooted in the Deep South, he tells me it was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul that first made him want to play.

Fifty years on, he’s still playing.

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Posted by on September 1, 2016 in Berlin 2016, Travel Stuff


A Home Fit For Heroes 

On an ordinary street in the Shoneburg district of a Berlin is an ordinary looking door. It sits among a row of run of the mill cafes and shops. But its door was used for a couple of years in the mid seventies by anyone other than ordinary. Because this was David Bowie’s home.

The great man wrote three albums here, including Heroes. And for a time, his flatmate was Iggy Pop. Just a couple of weeks before my visit, a memorial plaque was placed on the building. And, it would seem, Bowie’s death in 2016 has revived this place as a shrine. The neighbourhood itself wasn’t posh then and nor is it now.


They do history well here. In fact, there’s a whole island of museums. For €18 you can get a ticket providing entry to all of them, which lasts three days. Just as well as they’re huge affairs. Doing all in just a day would be exhausting – though a good option in wet weather. But there’s no rain today and the Berlin Cathedral is looking stunning in the sunshine.

But just a stone’s throw away, they’re extending one of the museums. On a pretty grand scale.

All of this sightseeing is thirsty work. Prenzlauer Berg provides plenty of choice, including Prater – a bar with a sprawling beer garden that’s straight out of Munich. The Pilsner is tasty, the Bratwurst good value. And today, a film crew apparently making a a documentary. About beer, obviously.

Heading back into the city centre is easy. If you can’t find a train station, there’s always an alternative. Even if the trams have no doors.


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Posted by on August 30, 2016 in Berlin 2016, Travel Stuff


You’re Very Wilkommen 

I’ve always tried to support my local area, using its services whenever I can. Previously I’ve praised the facilities at East Midlands Airport – which were never going to match anything that the big boys could provide – but at least the place ran efficiently. 

But no more. There must be a dozen early morning flights today, and while all lanes in the security area are open, it still feels like a cattle shed. The staff are doing their best to get everyone through, but the process takes around 45 minutes; not great when you’ve already got up in the middle of the night. And now, due to its growing popularity, an extra few gates have been added. Not in the main building but a 15 minute walk away. Given that the gate to Berlin isn’t even listed until 30 minutes before the flight, it’s hardly surprising that some people barely make it in time.

Still, that’s the price you pay for budget travel. And Berlin’s “second” airport – Shoenfeld – isn’t much better. Twisty corridors lead to a baggage area with just two belts for six current flights. But my case arrives promptly, and it’s a relatively easy 45 minute journey into the city thanks to the extensive S-Bahn rail network.

The Leonardo Hotel near Friedrrichstrasse has an air of modern and functional; more of which later. First stop, though, is a little entrance to the city.

Even on a cloudy day, with spots of rain in the air, the Brandenburg Gate is impressive. And like every other big ticket tourist attraction around the world, it’s surrounded by the sounds of many (mainly European) languages, and tour guides promoting walks, cycle rides, horse drawn carriage tours and just about anything else. But despite the cacophony, there is an air of modesty. The are no tacky cafes or souvenir shops crowding the immediate area – though you don’t have to go too far to find them.

In the shadow of the Holocaust Memorial, a collection of solemn stone blocks stretching out across a plaza, is a parade of cheap coffee bars, kebab shops and gift stores. But it’s a welcome change from some locations I’ve visited, where only the high end eateries get a look in near the big sites.

Just a short walk away is the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, the epicentre of divided Berlin in the twentieth century. No irony, then, that fake troops pose for photos next to one of the biggest symbols of a city occupied by unwanted incomers.


There’s also a Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which I’d thought was well worth a visit, until I discovered that another nearby project has plotted the key points of the whole story on the street – free of charge. And the hoardings marked another example of local enterprise reclaiming the neighbourhood, in the form of an urban beach.

Tacky much? You bet. But amid the curry wurst and bike hire is an ice cream van unlike any other. Here,they create your dessert right before your eyes.

That’s liquid nitrogen in the mixer. Instant. And delicious.

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Posted by on August 29, 2016 in Berlin 2016, Travel Stuff


Tell Laura I Hate Her

I’ve made this point before; journalism is perhaps unique as a career where you can expect to be openly, personally abused simply for reporting what others have said. And as public figures, perhaps we should accept that strong differences of opinion are part and parcel of the job.

It’s even harder when you’re part of an organisation which is publicly funded. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a petition to sack the BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, has attracted so much attention – possibly for all the wrong reasons.

It was started amid allegations that she was regularly showing bias against the Labour Party and in particular Jeremy Corbyn. But the petition site 38 Degrees removed it following reports of sexist abuse. This made some even more angry, suggesting that there were just a couple of abusive comments posted on the site, and that 38 Degrees itself was caving in under pressure from the establishment. 

In fact, most of the abuse was on other social media platforms, notably Twitter. Many of the comments had nothing to do with bias, but were deeply personal. Several bloggers have since moaned that nobody took screen grabs of tweets which have subsequently been deleted – the charge now being that if you can’t see it, it never existed.

Frankly, I’m getting a little exasperated by the conspiracy theories. But I’m more concerned about the growing trend of my profession being easy pickings for the anonymous keyboard warriors, who think it’s perfectly acceptable to openly demand sackings, accompanied by filthy and nasty abuse.

Imagine if we were to apply the same principle to all publicly funded jobs. Should a council street cleaner, for example, be openly mocked if he misses a pile of rubbish outside a school, but meticulously polishes the flagstones at the Town Hall. Equally, ashould a police officer be disciplined for cautioning a “peaceful demonstrater” using language akin to incitement? Surely he’s suppressing free speech?

It goes wider than just journalism. I’m often baffled by the same online conspiracists who hate the “mainstream media” because we “don’t report the facts” – yet in the same breath praise, for example, Russia Today. Only this weekend someone on Twitter said he preferred the “independent” Planet Rock to anything that the “state sponsored” BBC Radio could offer him. Planet Rock is operated by the German multi media giant Bauer.

As for Laura, it’s at least pleasing to see that some in Labour are backing her; the Press Gazette reporting support from MPs Chuka Umunna and Jess Phillips.

But the hates will probably only moan that she’s not reported it.

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Posted by on May 14, 2016 in Journalism