Iceland – Cold Blast

“IT’S A beautiful country. It will be even more beautiful when it is finished!” My Icelandic friend Jens laughs as we dodge the hot spray from Strokkur geyser. It is a more regular performer than nearby Geysir, which gave us our English name for these spouts of hot water, issuing from deep within the earth where the process of volcanic creation continues. Continue reading “Iceland – Cold Blast”

Amsterdam: Life Cyle

OUTSIDE Amsterdam Centraal Station is a sprawling multi-story parking facility. For bikes. Row after row stretch into the distance, more than you could easily count. There is very little variation in style; most bicycles are beaten-up, old-fashioned, sturdy and black, with little personality but lots of rust. Continue reading “Amsterdam: Life Cyle”

London: The City

“IT’S AN odd thing how most tourists who go to London never actually visit it,” says City worker Patrick Johns. “Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, the West End, Changing the Guard… these are all in the City of Westminster. Even Londoners consider the City of London a place apart.” Continue reading “London: The City”

The Hague: Peace Central

THE TRAIN to Den Haag Centraal pulls in past one of the largest greenhouses I have ever seen, a kilometre or more of blooms under glass. The land is flat and criss-crossed with neat drainage ditches and canals. I can’t escape the thought it is only borrowed temporarily from the North Sea. Nothing has come easily to the Dutch. It is a land where every field is made by hand, and you depend on a well-ordered infrastructure – and your fellow citizens – to survive. Continue reading “The Hague: Peace Central”

Northern Ireland: Coast Road

FROM Torr Head, on the coast of Northern Ireland, I can see the lighthouse on Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre, only 17km away. The North Atlantic and Irish Sea meet here, surging around Rathlin Island to create a maelstrom of tides and rough seas that has left a legacy of wrecks. Ancient stories tell of a fleet of 50 currachs, the hide-covered canoes still used in Galway, being swallowed up by a whirlpool while trading across the channel. Continue reading “Northern Ireland: Coast Road”

Rome: Hidden History

“ROME IS like Kuwait,” says archaeologist Marco Mancini. “In Kuwait, no matter where you dig, you hit oil. In Rome, you hit historical treasure. It is not a city – it is a museum.” We are at the famous Trevi Fountain, although there are none of the crowds you usually associate with this most famous of Rome’s landmarks. Continue reading “Rome: Hidden History”

Netherlands: Dutch Masters

AS THE efficient NS Dutch train system carries me effortlessly across the country, I look out to the distant horizon. The flat landscape makes the blue sky seem even higher, causing my thoughts to soar, while the many waterways reflect and soften the light. This is the light that has inspired so many Dutch painters and I am on a journey to visit the homes of some of the most famous. Continue reading “Netherlands: Dutch Masters”

Lapland: Sámi Ways

“LET’S JOKE! You can joke your friends, joke a beautiful mountain or just joke being sad or happy.” Anna-Reetta Niemelä, a teacher of Sámi language and culture in the village of Karesuvanto, high in northern Lapland, has me baffled for a moment. Clad in her bright red and blue “gákti” tunic, her thick accent – different from the usual Finnish one – takes me some time to tune in to. Continue reading “Lapland: Sámi Ways”

Malta: Knights’ Treasure

FROM my restaurant terrace, I can look out over Grand Harbour towards the fortifications of Valletta. Intimidating even now, in the age of aerial assault and cruise missiles, the massive walls must have seemed impregnable when they were first built. Made of the same honeyed sandstone as the island of Malta itself, they grow organically out of the rock. It is hard to believe they are the work of mere men and best not to think of the suffering endured by the slaves who built them here under the searing Mediterranean sun. Continue reading “Malta: Knights’ Treasure”

Dublin: Irish Pubs

“WHEN you have everything, what do you want? What else will make you happy?” I’m in the Palace Bar in Dublin’s Fleet Street discussing the meaning of life, via football and young Russian oligarchs with enough money to buy English football teams. My philosophical companion, supping a lunchtime pint of Carling lager, possibly not his first nor even his third of the day, is a complete stranger and his thick Dublin accent means I understand only every other word. The Palace is a long, narrow but high-ceilinged room that opens into a larger, bright, glass-roofed space, filled with regulars who all give me a glance as I step in before going back to their pints. The only noise is a quiet hum of conversation and the clink of glasses. Continue reading “Dublin: Irish Pubs”