Saturday, 31 December 2011

MALTA: SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL


MUST-SEA: Valletta Grand Harbour, the most photographed view on Malta. Is it any wonder?

FOR an intelligent man, Saint Paul was an awful eejit. If only he’d stayed put in Malta, where he was shipwrecked in 60AD during a voyage to Rome, he might have been buried in one piece. But no. This first century Robinson Crusoe converted the islanders to Christianity — they were putty in his hands after he laughed off a bite from a venomous snake — then continued his journey. Big mistake. The Emperor Nero being no pal of Paul, he ordered the executioner to get his axe and look sharpish, and that’s why in 67AD the poor old Apostle turned up at the Pearly Gates with his head under his arm. If he’d turned up at the Ryanair gate they’d probably have made him check it in.
I wouldn’t mind being shipwrecked on Malta, especially in July and August when the average mid-afternoon temperature is 30C/86F and often hits 35/95, though a welcome sea breeze takes the sting out of it. It’s a popular destination in winter too when it’s usually T-shirt weather (around 15/59) and sunny all day — except last Monday, when I got a soaking in the capital, Valletta, and boarded the plane home that evening with the beginnings of a stinking cold. Fortunately, I’d had three runny nose-free days to enjoy the Christmas weekend there.

DIRECT HIT: Bombed Church of the Assumption in Mosta
NAZI SURPRISE: Replica bomb
High on the list of attractions not to be sneezed at is the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Mosta. This splendid structure, which has the third-biggest dome in Europe after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, is well worth a look, but it’s the story of the 1942 “Miracle of Mosta” that has visitors flocking to the place year-round. In the late afternoon of April 9, while 300 parishioners gathered for mass during a German air raid (they felt safe enough within the church’s nine-metre thick walls), a 200-kilo bomb came crashing through the dome. While the congregation rapidly blessed themselves for what they thought was the last time, they watched in horror as the bomb bounced and clattered down the aisle towards the altar — and failed to explode. Good thing too, as there was a fireworks factory next door.
Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Mussolini’s Regia Aeronautica blitzed the bejaysus out of Malta during World War Two — there was only one 24-hour period in the 175 days between January 1 and July 24, 1942, when no bombs fell on Valletta and the island’s other ports and air bases. The Siege of Malta, from early June 1940 until late November 1942, aimed to bomb or starve the strategically-important yet woefully under-defended island into submission. It was the heaviest and most concentrated and sustained aerial bombardment in history, during which 30,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed and the 250,000 islanders were forced to kill and eat all the horses because food was so desperately short.
Salvation came nearer in the months leading up to the Allies’ victory at the second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942 when the Axis commanders began diverting much of their attention away from Malta to northern Egypt, allowing the RAF in stages to station 250 Spitfires on the island. Faced with increasing opposition (21-year-old Canadian Spitfire pilot George ‘Screwball’ Beurling shot down 27 Axis aircraft over Malta in just 14 days), the Germans and Italians eventually scarpered with their tailfins between their legs. When a supply convoy of four merchant ships from Alexandria reached Valletta on November 20 virtually unscathed, the siege was over and the long-suffering islanders were able to emerge from the deep underground tunnels where they’d been forced to shelter for nearly two-and-a-half years from round-the-clock air raids.
BLITZED: Destruction in Valletta's Kingsway street
JUST REWARD: The George Cross awarded to island
Their courage had been recognised the previous April when King George VI awarded Malta one of only two collective George Crosses ever conferred (the other went to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1999). In a letter to the island’s Governor, Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie, the King wrote: “To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.” Dobbie replied: “By God’s help Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won.” The medal, which is depicted on the Maltese flag, and the King’s letter can be seen in the War Museum in Valletta’s Fort Saint Elmo.
Nearby, the island’s top visitor attraction, The Malta Experience, has hourly showings of a fascinating 40-minute film that highlights significant events from 7,000 years of history, including the Great Siege of 1565 when 30,000 Turks failed to overwhelm 6,000 defenders.
Driving in the smallest member of the European Union (it’s just 27km by 15) can be overwhelming, and requires a degree of heroism worthy of mention in dispatches. Locals joke that the slimmest book in the library is the Maltese Highway Code, which had me chuckling until my pal Paula took me out for a spin. It was no tongue-in-cheek statement — my heart was in my mouth more often than in my chest as we were tailgated by insanely impatient motorists, cut across, overtaken on blind bends and wrong-footed by cars indicating left then turning right. In Sliema, on the peninsula across Grand Harbour from Valletta, I watched another example of motoring madness as a young woman directing her husband into a parking space was almost run over by an old fella in a battered Morris Marina who nipped in and claimed it. I don’t know what she said to him during a two-minute tirade in Maltese, but it drew a sharp intake of breath from my neighbours on a cafe terrace and he quickly reversed out and sped off.

JUST THE TICKET: One of Malta's redundant vintage buses
If your nerves are easily jangled, it’s better to hop on a bus — the quaint old yellow and orange ones that feature in countless holiday snaps were replaced in July by a modern fleet — but even then there’s no guarantee of a smooth ride. I’ve seen train-spotters and plane-spotters, but until I boarded the number 52 from Valletta to Dingli for a look at the nearby cliffs I’d never encountered bus-spotters, and I never want to again. For nearly 40 minutes I stood on that crowded bus having to listen to the biggest load of old drivel from a dozen camera-toting public transport fanatics from Lancashire as they excitedly discussed the new vehicles (especially the bend-in-the-middle ones), the new timetable and the new routes. I wouldn’t have minded, but I’d forgotten to recharge my iPod and the battery was drained. And then, just as I was thinking it couldn’t get any worse, a well-meaning teenage girl who recognises pain on the face of a fellow passenger when she sees it added insult to injury by getting up and insisting I take her seat.
The 51, 52 and 53 buses are among the busiest out of Valletta as they stop at Rabat, home of the magnificent medieval walled city of Mdina, a World Heritage Site also known as the Silent City that sits on a rocky promontory and was the Maltese capital centuries before Valletta was even thought of. Mdina’s warren of narrow, cobbled streets that suddenly open on to picturesque, flower-bedecked squares full of noblemen’s townhouses and palaces are dotted with cafes and shops selling tasteful souvenirs (nothing so tacky as mass-produced mementoes here), with the biggest sellers being colourful Mdina glass, amber jewellery and lace. The imposing Cathedral of Saint Paul, built between 1697 and 1702 on the site of a previous church destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, is impressive from a distance and even more so when viewed up close, but the best view in Mdina — a sweeping vista of central Malta to the sea — is from Bastion Square.

LUNAR LANDSCAPE: The medieval former capital, Mdina
Valletta, also a World Heritage Site, isn’t short of bastions, many of which are a dizzying 47 metres tall. The city’s foundation stone was laid on March 28, 1566, by Jean Parisot de la Valette, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem which later became the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta but is better known as the more easily remembered Knights of Malta. The city was planned as a refuge for injured soldiers and pilgrims during the Crusades and built over the course of just 15 years, including tea breaks, on a uniform grid system that has been copied countless times worldwide.
As in most historical cities awash with magnificent, centuries-old buildings, it pays to look up every now and then when wandering through Valletta to avoid missing something worth seeing, such as the brightly-painted and well-kept balconies. It also pays to look down. Go to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, lean on the railing and feast your eyes on the most-photographed and famous sight in Malta, the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea which you can visit by jumping aboard a water taxi.
Back at street level, step inside the Pro Cathedral and gaze at Caravaggio’s huge and gruesome painting, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608). Photos aren’t allowed in the room that houses this masterpiece, but that’s OK because the image will stay with you and possibly give you nightmares, especially if you’ve over-indulged in gbejna goat and sheep’s milk cheese, a delicacy from the smaller neighbouring island of Gozo that’s absolutely delicious. I brought some back last week and am rationing myself to a slice a day to make it last as long as possible.

QUALITY STREET: Balconies of houses in Valletta
Sliema — home to umpteen designer boutiques and art galleries and the hub of Maltese cafe life where all the rich kids with fancy cars hang out — and Saint Julian’s are the main tourist resorts around the capital, which is a favourite port of call for cruise liners. In both places you’ll find some of the best restaurants on the island, especially the trendy and brilliant value Italian I Monelli in Saint Julian’s, where the bill for dinner for five with loads of wine and beer came to an unbelievable €123. A short stroll away is The Dubliner pub, a favourite with expats and visitors because a) it’s a genuine Irish boozer, not one of those prefabricated, self-assembly joints that blight holiday hot spots throughout the Mediterranean, and b) the staff are Irish.
In Sliema, Ta’ Kris Restaurant and Bistro serves the most wonderful Maltese cuisine including roast and stewed rabbit, veal escalopes and the national dish, bragioli (savoury stuffed beef rolls braised in wine). It’s always busy, packed with people swearing they’ll never set foot in the place again because the service is so terrible. It isn’t terrible at all: the waitresses are super-efficient and charming, but often there just aren’t enough of them. I had lunch there on Christmas Eve when every table was taken, but only two girls were on duty to seat customers, take orders, pour drinks, serve food, work the cash register and clean up. After waiting 40 minutes for our starters, my five Maltese friends began grumbling (so did my stomach). Half-an-hour then passed before the main courses arrived. One of our group was daft enough to ask for dessert — a slice of cheesecake — and got it 20 minutes later. It took another 20 minutes between asking for and receiving the bill, but at the end of our meal all five left generous tips and were making arrangements to have lunch there the following week. That’s how good the food is.
Despite all the heavy sighing and tut-tutting from diners, the waitresses remained calm and focused. Like their fellow islanders before them they were under siege, but refused to buckle. Those two girls deserve medals.

SPLASH OUT: Book into the Phoenicia Hotel, Valletta
WHERE TO STAY
The Irish-owned 5-star Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta is handily located next to the bus station, and most of the 128 rooms and eight suites have views of the Grand Harbour. Opened in 1947, it has welcomed royalty, film stars, honeymooning couples and families and remains a favourite with regular visitors to Malta. See www.phoeniciamalta.com for details of special deals.

GETTING THERE
For flights from Dublin to Malta, see www.ryanair.com and www.airmalta.com. Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) flies from Belfast. In Ireland, Concorde Travel are Malta specialists. See 
www.concordetravel.ie/featured-destinations/malta/
˜For further information, see www.visitmalta.com

Thursday, 22 December 2011

TURK, REST AND PLAY

THE 'REAL' DEAL: Sign at entrance to Ephesus

HONESTY in advertising is important, which is why it was so refreshing to see the sign offering “genuine fake watches” outside a souvenir shop at the entrance to the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus near Kusadasi, Turkey.
The pint of local Efes lager I had in the airside bar in Bodrum airport on the way home to Dublin was refreshing too, but the price left me feeling I’d just been mugged. How can they charge €7 for a beer that costs only €2.50 in most resorts without having the good manners to wear a mask and point a pistol? It’s a rip-off that’s had holidaymakers ranting for ages, but their outraged howls have fallen on deaf ears. The only answer, until the owners come to their senses, is to give that bar a wide berth. Or buy shares in it.
That said, the €10 entrance fee to Ephesus — one of the biggest and most remarkable outdoor museums in the world ­— which must be paid in local currency or by credit card is worth every cent. The place might be in ruins, but what’s left is phenomenal, as is the heat in summer, so visitors should take a litre bottle of water.
Ephesus, which was once only 2km from the bustling harbour that made it a hugely important trading port, now sits 8km inland following centuries of silt depositing by the Cayster River that created a fertile plain. Well-travelled Greek engineer and mathematician Philon of Byzantium waxed lyrical on his wax tablet, just before it melted (the temperature can hit 40C in August), after his visit in 225BC. “I have seen the walls and Hanging Gardens of ancient Babylon, the statue of Olympian Zeus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the mighty work of the high Pyramids and the tomb of Mausolus,” he wrote, “but when I saw the temple of Artemis at Ephesus rising to the clouds, all these other wonders were put in the shade.
Fifty-odd years later, in the first recorded example of plagiarism, Greek poet Antipater of Sidon sent a postcard home saying: “I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand’.”
At least TV's Idiot Abroad Karl Pilkington could never be accused of being a copycat. This is the dope who looked on the same Pyramids and said: “It’s like a game of Jenga that’s got out of hand.”

HOW IT LOOKED: Temple model at Istanbul's Miniaturk
All that remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that was built around 800BC and was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, is a single column of dissociated stone fragments sticking out of a swamp, though a model showing how it looked in all its white marble magnificence can be seen in the Miniaturk Park in Istanbul.
Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, written in 62AD while he was a prisoner in Rome, is one of the most popular readings at Christian marriage ceremonies. In it he says: “Each one of you must love his wife as he loves himself, and let every wife respect her husband.” There wasn’t much love or respect for Paul when he visited Ephesus in 57AD and bad-mouthed the silversmiths who earned a living churning out miniatures of the temple. A near-riot ensued, and 24,000 metalworkers and other artisans packed the amphitheatre to hear shop steward Demetrius denounce the Apostle. More recently, similar numbers have gathered there — it’s largely intact and in good condition — to see Elton John, Sting and Ray Charles perform under the stars.
But Ephesus, an hour’s coach ride from Izmir where Homer (the poet, not Simpson) was born and just 20km from the popular tourist resort of Kusadasi, is the real star, and the highlight of any visit to western Turkey.

FAB FACADE: Ruins of Library of Celsus at Ephesus
The ruins include the partly-reconstructed facade of the three-storey Library of Celsus, built in honour of Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus (he was interred in a crypt below the entrance) by his son, Consul Gaius Julius Aquila, and completed in 135AD. The entrance was positioned facing east so that the reading rooms, which housed 12,000 scrolls, received the morning light. Only the facade remained standing after an earthquake hit the area in 262AD, and the popular tale told by tour guides is that the last words uttered by those inside when the building began to shake and collapse were: “Ssh! I’m trying to read.”
Built into the side of Mount Panayor, the huge semi-circular amphitheatre was the venue for public meetings, plays that often went on and on and yawn from early morning until midnight and gladiatorial contests involving wild animals. The acoustics are tremendous, which allowed audience members in the highest seats 30 metres above the arena to hear perfectly well the “Ouch!” and “Aow!” when a lion or a bear got the better of its tormentors.

GRAND CIRCLE: The massive amphitheatre at Ephesus
Curetes Street, which runs from the Gate of Hercules to the Library of Celsus, was paved in marble, and ruts made by cart and chariot wheels can still be seen. I watched as several people crouched and ran their fingers in the grooves, better perhaps to get a feel of the ancient history all around. Named after the priests who kept the sacred flame, the street was lined with shops and inns, pillars, monuments and statues of notable citizens and deities and was also a main processional route. At its junction with Marble Street are the remains of the municipal brothel, where strict hygiene rules of the day obliged visitors to wash their feet before they were admitted, because you can never be too careful. Imagine going to the doctor and having to tell him: “Look, this is embarrassing. I was you-know-where the other night and I forgot to wash my feet on the way in and, well, I think I’ve picked up ... a verruca.” Etched in the pavement in Marble Street is the earliest known roadside advertisement, three drawings of a woman, a heart and a left foot directing visiting sailors to the brothel.
Nearby are the men-only public latrines, a cosy, convivial place containing benches with holes in them ranged along the walls, a channel with running water below and a pool in front where the chaps who could afford to spend a diram (there was no such thing as a free hunch, they had to pay in) would meet for a chat. In winter, wealthy citizens planning to use the latrines, which had no partitions, would send a slave in ahead of them to sit and warm the marble seat. It was from such public conveniences that we get the phrase “wrong end of the stick”. There was no toilet paper in those days; rather, sticks with sponges on the end were used, and if a patron asked his neighbour to pass the stick, he had to be careful to grab the right end.

BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE: The latrines at Ephesus
The remains of the two Slope Houses, currently under a protective tent while excavations continue, provide a fascinating peek into how the other half lived in Ephesus between the first and seventh centuries AD. These terraced villas containing fine examples of restored murals and mosaics behind what was a row of shops on Curetes Street close to the library, the brothel and the latrines — location, location, location — were abandoned when the silting up of the harbour adversely affected trade and their wealthy residents moved on. Ironically, several landslides that buried the houses and their contents also preserved them, and it’s worth queueing to have a look around inside.
A short drive into the mountains, with splendid views along the way of Ephesus below, is the House of the Virgin Mary, a Christian and Muslim shrine where it’s believed the mother of Christ was brought by the Apostle John after the crucifixion of her son and remained until her Assumption. Nestling in a forest on the slopes of Mount Koressos, the small stone house was discovered in October 1881 by French priest Julien Gouyet working solely from the uncannily accurate descriptions of its location and construction by a German visionary who had never been there.
Augustinian nun Anne Katherina Emmerich (1774-1824), who was beatified in October 2004 by Pope John Paul II, spent her later years bedridden in Dülmen, 40km from Dortmund, where she received a steady stream of influential visitors including, most significantly, the poet Clemens Brentano. Over the space of five years until her death, Emmerich recounted her visions of the lives of Christ and his mother to Brentano, whose notes were published in two volumes. It was these books that Gouyet used as a guide (the first, The Dolorous Passion, was director Mel Gibson’s main source of reference for his film, The Passion Of The Christ), and they led him straight to the house which is now a chapel that’s been visited by four Popes, Leo XIII in 1896, Paul VI in 1967, John Paul II in 1979 and Benedict in 2006. The spring underneath the house is reputed to have healing properties, and many crutches and walking sticks have been left behind by the lame who’ve drunk from it and, allegedly, left with a spring of another kind in their step.

SACRED SITE: The house where the Virgin Mary lived
There’s nothing holy about the hooleys that see Kusadasi’s Bar Street hopping every night during the long holiday season. This is the thoroughfare where parents of young adults should fear to tread, lest they see what they get up to when they’re out of sight of their mammies and daddies. With all the unabashed smooching that goes on, they should rename the place Kissadasi. I vaguely remember being young and wild once, but I don’t remember teenage girls running in and out of pubs in their shifts chased by pimply-faced young bucks in those ridiculous jeans with the backside halfway down their legs. But that’s what young ones do nowadays, and good luck to them. Kusadasi ticks all the boxes as far as they’re concerned.
Away from the brashness of Bar Street, Kusadasi’s a firm family favourite, with great hotels, facilities galore and umpteen attractions nearby including waterparks and one of the best dolphin shows in Europe. I stayed a couple of nights at the exclusively-Irish Golden Day Wings Hotel after flying to Izmir, so it was a home from home, except with blistering sunshine when I visited in May. The 4-star Golden Day Wings is a five-minute walk from the waterfront and 25 minutes from Bar Street, so it’s perfectly located for those who like to laze by the pool by day and let their hair down in town at night. I had to see Bar Street, having heard so much about it, but I’d have been perfectly happy staying put in the hotel, where the in-house entertainment is a good old laugh that’ll send you to bed smiling.

KUSA-DAZZLER: View from Golden Day Wings Hotel
STEPPED IN HISTORY: The Temple of Apollo, Didyma

From Kusadasi I headed to Altinkum for a few nights at the 5-star all-inclusive Venosa Beach Resort and Spa, stopping en route to wander among the ruins of the ancient and enormous Temple of Apollo at Didyma, which was completed towards the end of the 8th century BC. The original temple, destroyed in 494BC by the Persians, attracted pilgrims from throughout Asia Minor and farther afield who would consult the famed oracle, a priestess who dished out advice on everything from matters of the heart to the best time to plant crops. When Alexander the Great conquered nearby Miletus in 334BC the temple was resanctified and pilgrimages resumed. However, in 303AD an over-zealous oracle told the Emperor Diocletian to persecute those pesky Christians, which he set about with fervour. When Constantine, the first Roman ruler to convert to Christianity, became Emperor in 306 he put a stop to the persecution and condemned the temple’s priests and the oracle to agonising deaths, which was only fitting for an agony aunt.
The vigorous soaping, slapping, kneading and pummelling that are part and somewhat painful parcel of a Turkish bath might be considered agony by some, but an hour after being subjected to what felt like three rounds with Mike Tyson in the spa at Venosa Beach I was tingling from head to toe and energised like never before (incidentally, the first Turkish bath in the British Isles opened in 1856 at Saint Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment in Blarney, County Cork).
Venosa Beach, where each of the 339 rooms has a sea view, is a new addition to the accommodation options available to holidaymakers in Altinkum, and it’s a beaut. Critics of all-inclusive packages can say what they like about feeling confined to one hotel, but from my experience nobody at Venosa Beach was particularly keen to wander too far from the poolside or the beach. Any wandering they did do was to the in-house restaurants, snack bars, bars, nightclub, leisure centre, gym and spa, there being neither need nor good reason to set flip-flopped foot outside one of the best holiday complexes I’ve stayed at.

WONDER-POOL: The Venosa Beach Resort and Spa
The last (boo-hoo) of my seven nights in Turkey was spent aboard a beautiful gulet, a converted fishing boat named, appropriately, B&B, after a memorable day cruising off Bodrum. Tickets can be bought for a fun afternoon on any of umpteen gulets, or groups can charter one of these fully-crewed vessels for several days of being wined and dined and waited on hand and foot between bouts of sunbathing on deck, taking a dip in the sea and enjoying a necessary siesta. Even the worst of sleepers will have no difficulty drifting off, gently rocked by the nudging of the waves on the hull.
Bodrum is the mostly upmarket resort where Turks like to boast they’re going or have been on holiday, though it does have its noisy clubs and pubs for night owls who want to drink and dance until dawn and sleep until mid-afternoon. Those joints, however, are in one part of town while the quieter and posher bars and restaurants are in another, close to the marina with its multi-million euro ocean-going yachts. At the far end of the harbour is the 15th century Castle of Saint Peter which houses the Underwater Archaeological Museum containing artefacts recovered from wrecked ships. Several submerged wrecks dating back hundreds of years and a wealth of spectacular corals and marine life only a few minutes’ motorboat ride from the shore make the remarkably clear waters a renowned scuba diving spot.
Until the 1960s, Bodrum had for generations been a small fishing and sponge diving community quietly going about its business, but a prolonged stay by Oxford-educated Turkish intellectual Cevat Sekir during which he wrote about his sailing adventures sparked an international interest in the place. His beautifully-written book, The Blue Voyage, had yachtsmen worldwide salivating, and in no time at all they were descending on Bodrum to follow in his wake. Word quickly spread, landlubbers got to hear about it and, inevitably, tourism followed. In a satisfyingly ironic backfiring of the local tradition of farmers leaving their most fertile land to their sons and the unproductive rockier tracts nearer the sea to their daughters, it’s women who are today among Bodrum’s wealthiest citizens. When developers began looking for suitable sites on which to build hotels, apartments and villa complexes, those rocky tracts proved to be the ideal locations and — wait for it, girls — many hard-up daughters cashed-in big time on what had appeared to be worthless inheritances.
You’d need an inheritance if you wanted to buy more than a couple of drinks in that bar at Bodrum airport. As I sat there taking tiny sips from my pint so it would last the 90 minutes until the Dublin flight began boarding, I pondered on my visit earlier in the week to the carpet factory where Bill Clinton had thought nothing of paying $40,000 for an exquisite handmade silk rug. I bet he’d have thought twice about paying €7 for a beer.

BOAT-IFUL: Bodrum's harbour and its medieval castle

GETTING THERE
˜ See Turkey specialists www.sunway.ie

Saturday, 10 December 2011

ESTONIA'S GOT TALLINN — AND BOY, CAN THEY SING

HOT SPOT: Old Town Square and Town Hall in summer
COLD COMFORT: Snowy Square in the dead of winter

THERE are several ways to meet your maker prematurely in Tallinn’s Old Town in winter. You can wander along the pavement and get your skull skewered by a giant icicle falling from a roof, though it’s a rare occurrence. Rarer still, you can be flattened by a rock from outer space — Estonia is the most meteorite-cratered place on Earth. Or you can be killed by kindness.
Walk in the middle of the narrow sidestreets where cars are few and far between and you’ll avoid the icicles (with meteorites you’ve had it), but you can’t avoid the warmth and hospitality extended to visitors.
On a freezing cold February evening, the welcoming smile from waitress Jaana in the Olde Hansa Restaurant (Vana Turg 1, Old Town) where 12 of us sat down to a candlelit banquet would have melted Antarctica. I could have listened all night as she described each piled platter in perfect, singy-songy English which was music to my ears. If she ever decides to release a CD of her simply reading the menu — everything is prepared and cooked following centuries-old recipes — I’ll buy a pile of them as Christmas presents.
For three hours, 11 of us shared 18 delectable dishes featuring game sausages, juniper ripened beef, marinated bear, salmon, roast rabbit, wild boar and several birds which may well have included a partridge in a pear tree while the sole vegetarian pushed some ginger turnip around her plate. All this was accompanied by countless mugs of ice-cold lager, honey beer and shots of schnapps, and when the bill arrived it was delectable too, at €40 a head.

BELLES OF THE BANQUET: Waitresses at Olde Hansa
Food and drink are, on the whole, reasonably priced. A generous three-course dinner in a decent restaurant costs an average €20 a head, a fast food meal is about €2 and a pint of lager can be had for €2.50. I was amazed to find a pint of Guinness for €4.40. In my experience it’s always a lot more expensive outside of Ireland. Take the ferry to Helsinki, just 80km north of Tallinn, and you’ll pay up to €9. Smoking’s banned in bars and restaurants throughout Estonia, so you’ll have to light up outside or in the ventilated rooms provided (a packet of Marlboro Gold costs €3).
Traditional dishes are big on fish — umpteen variations of herring and salmon are favourites — and meat. Lots of meat, much of it preserved in jelly, reflecting the cuisine’s peasant origins. The Estonians, who’ve galloped into the 21st century and embraced it in a bear hug, generally can’t stomach spicy food, but they’re masters at concocting herb-rich sauces, so it’s by no means the land that thyme forgot. It would be wise, though, to keep in mind that the last person publicly executed in the main square was a guy who complained about a bad omelette, so think twice before sending anything back to the kitchen.

CURE-IOSITY: Lunchtime outside Town Hall Pharmacy
I skipped breakfast following my night in Olde Hansa and, more out of necessity than curiosity, popped into the historic Town Hall Pharmacy in the square where they’ve been dispensing hangover cures since 1422 (it’s the oldest apothecary in the world). Among the remedies on display in jars in its mini museum are sun-bleached dog turds, a deer penis, a mummified human hand and a toilet brush that turned out to be a hedgehog when I put my glasses on. Fortunately for me, they also stock Alka-Seltzer, but unfortunately for the 15th century Brotherhood of Blackheads, a local guild of unmarried merchants (no wonder with a name like that), Clearasil didn’t reach the pharmacy until independence in 1991.
Not one drop of blood was spilled during the four-year campaign that led to Estonia’s break from the Soviet Union and became known as the Singing Revolution. It began in 1987 when, instead of holding secret meetings and breaking into weapons stores, the Estonians held hands and broke into song during spontaneous demonstrations. The protests reached a crescendo on September 11, 1988, when more than 300,000 people — a quarter of the then population — came together in Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds and sang every banned patriotic hymn in the book.
The country’s political leaders could no longer ignore the wishes of the people, so they added their voices to the snowballing independence movement and on August 20, 1991, nearly two years after the Berlin Wall came down, Estonia was finally free, though it was another two years before the last Red Army troops went home.

HYMN AND HERS: Women's choir at the Song Festival
The Soviets have gone, but they’re far from forgotten. On the 23rd (top) floor ­— which didn’t officially exist — of Tallinn’s Hotel Viru, KGB operatives spent  20 years snooping on unsuspecting foreign guests via phone taps and listening devices in 60 of the 516 rooms and bugs in the restaurants, bars and other public areas. Today, the area behind the thick steel door is the KGB Museum (www.sokoshotels.fi), one of the quirkiest and most popular attractions in the city.
It’s not much to look at, just a few tatty rooms with desks, chairs and the wire-spewing remains of receivers, transmitters and tape recorders, but guide Jaana told a fascinating and entertaining tale of intrigue during the one-hour tour (€7). Opening a drawer, she took out a purse and showed the small explosive charge sewn into it — a nasty surprise for an unwitting thief, who would end up even more light-fingered. Then she pointed to an ashtray full of cigarette butts on a desk. “The KGB left in a hurry,” said Jaana. “Whatever equipment they could carry, they took away. Everything else was destroyed or ripped from the walls. Look at the mess. They didn’t even empty the ashtray on their way out!”
So secret was this spy base, which also monitored every phone call, telex and fax in and out of the hotel, that the lifts don't go beyond the 22nd floor, where there are great views of the Old Town and the Baltic from the balconies on three sides. Another photo opportunity, in the museum itself which recently won a well-deserved tourism award after just 10 months in operation, is the bright red telephone — the former hotline to the Kremlin. Tours are restricted to two dozen people at a time, so pre-booking is a must.

I SPY: The red hotline to the Kremlin
The Cold War’s over, but the cold winter weather is an inescapable feature of life in Tallinn. February, the driest and chilliest month, sees an average daily high of 30.7F/minus 1C and gets 17 days of snow. October is the wettest with an average monthly 83.4mm of rain, and July is the warmest (71.8F/22C).
While most overseas visitors descend on the city in the summer, snow turns it into a winter wonderland best viewed from a window seat in any of the quaint cafes with a mug of steaming hot chocolate and some marzipan nibbles. We can thank the Town Hall Pharmacy for marzipan. According to the Estonians, this staple ingredient of wedding cakes was invented there by a sweet-toothed apprentice 200 years ago, but confectioners in the German Baltic coast town of Lubeck beg to differ, insisting it was first produced in the local Niederegger marzipan works, also 200 years ago.
The bragging rights have for generations been the subject of a bitter, or rather, bitter-sweet dispute that came to a head in 2005 when Niederegger boss Willi Meier announced plans to celebrate his factory’s gift to the world with a series of festivities. “Oh, really?” said Otto Kubo, the founder of Tallinn’s marzipan museum. “We’ll see about that.” And he organised a big party as well. The argy-bargy is still going on, with no clear winner in sight, except perhaps for both town’s dentists.
What’s beyond dispute is that Estonian software engineers were the masterminds behind Skype, the computer application much loved by grannies that allows 663 million registered users worldwide to make free voice and video calls over the internet. Founded in 2003, it has kept loved ones often separated by continents in touch and, after changing hands a couple of times, was bought earlier this year by Microsoft for $8.5 billion.

KEEP IN TOUCH: Free wifi everywhere
Estonia is internet-mad. Voting in parliamentary elections is done online, as are 98 per cent of bank transactions and 92 per cent of tax declarations. And free wifi, financed by the state, is available everywhere in Tallinn, including shops, bars, restaurants, parks and on buses. The government views it as a fundamental right, though it doesn’t half kill conversation with so many people tapping away at their iPhones and Blackberries. I thought the Perfect Silence Festival held every February might have had something to do with Facebook fanatics getting together for a couple of days of mute messaging, but it’s actually a packed programme of classical music concerts.
The Estonian language, most closely related to Finnish with some Hungarian influence, is fiendishly difficult for foreigners to learn, but it does throw up some comic combinations if your sense of humour is of the sniggering schoolboy variety. For example, one of the historical attractions on the Tallinn tourist trail is a formidable artillery tower dating from 1475 with enemy cannonballs still embedded in its four-metre-thick walls. It’s called Kiek in de Kok (tee-hee!), meaning “peek in the kitchen”, though the name does have its roots in old German. The 38-metre high tower stands on a series of massive earth bastions riddled with long, deep tunnels that have been used over the centuries as storerooms for munitions, air raid shelters and, until they were opened to visitors, a hangout for the homeless and punk rockers. It’s rumoured that the world hide-and-seek champion is still down there somewhere, praying to be found.

WHAT'S IN A NAME: The historic Kiek in de Kok Tower
Talking to God isn’t high on the pragmatic Estonians’ priority lists. Only 14 per cent of the 1.35 million population (412,000 live in Tallinn) profess religious beliefs, and they’re mainly Lutherans. That said, the capital's full of splendid churches reflecting 800 years of influence by various faiths. The 12th century Saint Olav’s was, for 76 years from 1549, the tallest church in the world at 159 metres, but a lightning strike and ensuing fire in 1625 destroyed the spire, which the Soviets used as a surveillance point and radio mast for blocking broadcasts from Finland from 1964 until 1991. After several rebuildings and remodellings it now stands at a still impressive 124 metres and is the tallest building in Estonia, with a 360-degree viewing platform near the top.
There’s only a couple of famous Estonians known beyond the country’s shores. Model Carmen Kass, the former face of Dior’s J’adore and a chess whiz, is from Tallinn. Her hero, grandmaster Paul Keres, who was born in Narva in 1916 and died in Helsinki in 1975, was honoured with a state funeral attended by 100,000 people, and in 2000 was named Estonian Sportsman of the Century. His portrait appeared on the 5 krooni banknote, and just about every household kept one when the euro became the sole legal tender last January.
The lack of notable names on the world stage in no way demeans fiercely proud Estonia’s reputation. A stroll through the Old Town will quickly show why Tallinn is known as Europe’s most beautiful medieval capital. If that’s not something to sing about, I don’t know what is.

HIGH CHURCH: Saint Olav's soars above the Old Town
TALLINN FACT FILE
FLY: See www.ryanair.com for flights to Tallinn from Dublin. Estonian Air (www.estonian-air.com) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick.
STAY: The Merchant’s House Hotel (www.merchantshousehotel.com) is in the heart of the Old Town at Dunkri 4/6, just off the main square. Rooms cost from €89 a night including hot and cold buffet breakfast and use of the sauna.
EAT: Kuldse Notsu Korts (The Golden Piglet Inn), next door to the Merchant’s House, serves traditional dishes with the emphasis on pork. Hell Hunt (The Gentle Wolf, Pikk 39), where a big plate of fish and chips costs only €5, has a sign on the wall that reads: “Large groups and stag parties are not welcome. Management reserve the right to evict disturbing customers.” Now, that’s my kind of pub/restaurant, and it brews its own lager and dark beer which are great. NEH Padaste Manor Seasonal Kitchen in the City (Lootsi 4) offers a two-course lunch for €13 and three-course dinner for €22, and the walls are given over to exhibits of Estonian artists’ work. MEKK (Suur-Karja 17-19, Old Town) sources most of the produce used in the kitchen from Estonian organic suppliers, and three courses cost €30. Restaurant Tchaikovsky in the 5-star Telegraaf Hotel (Vene 8, Old Town) is very posh, which is reflected in the prices, so it’s more of a special treat venue. The cuisine is a fusion of Russian and French, and it’s one of those places where diners photograph each dish to show off to their friends.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

IRELAND: ALL ABOARD AS TITANIC GETS SET TO SAIL AGAIN

REFLECTED GLORY: The remarkable Titanic Belfast building
Something very big is taking shape in Belfast, much as was the case just over 100 years ago. Back then, the finishing touches were being put to RMS Titanic, which was launched on May 31, 1911, an occasion commemorated six months ago with a series of celebrations.
Now, just a stone’s throw from the great ship’s long-redundant and filled-in slipway, a spectacular new addition to the city’s skyline, the £97 million Titanic Signature Building (www.titanicbelfast.com), is nearing completion. With its light-reflecting aluminium and zinc shell in place, the TSB, which will be known as Titanic Belfast, is already a sight to behold. When it opens on March 31 it’ll be the biggest purpose-built visitor attraction on the island of Ireland, with up to 500,000 people a year expected to pass through its doors. But I think that’s a conservative estimate. Or as they say in Belfast: “Aye, right.”
The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is presently the most visited purpose-built attraction in Ireland, but I can see them crying into their pints when the first-year figures for Titanic Belfast are announced. That said, the massive investment in the North will hugely benefit tourism on both sides of the border, with so-called Titanoraks flocking to Belfast and to Cobh, Co Cork, the liner’s last port of call where 123 passengers boarded on April 11, 1912.
A band of dedicated people have taken on the monumental task of refocusing the world view that Titanic is synonymous solely with disaster. Its loss, and the deaths of 1,517 of the 2,223 passengers and crew on board four days after it set out across the Atlantic, were an appalling tragedy — most sorely felt in Belfast — that should never be forgotten. But the ship also represents a triumph of engineering and craftsmanship of which the city should be chest-burstingly proud. What happened to Titanic was a disaster, but the ship itself was a marvel.

LINK WITH THE PAST: Susie Millar and the two coins
Happily, as Titanic Belfast creeps closer to welcoming its first visitors there’s a buzz on the streets, but don’t expect the excitement to bubble over as the big day dawns — Belfast doesn’t do fever pitch. If ever a place had its feet set firmly on the ground and its emotions kept in check, it’s this one. For decades, any local asked about Titanic and the terrible fate that befell it would say: “It was all right when it left here,” and change the subject.
But that attitude is changing, and it’s thanks in no small part to people like Susie Millar, the great granddaughter of 33-year-old Harland and Wolff engineer and widower Thomas Millar who went down with the ship, leaving his two young sons orphaned. Susie, who runs the acclaimed Titanic Tours Belfast (www.titanictours-belfast.co.uk), tells the story of how, before he left on that fateful maiden voyage, Thomas gave both boys two shiny new pennies and told them: “Don’t spend those until I see you again.” The younger son, William Ruddick, who was just five at the time, kept his pennies all his life and passed them on to his son, Susie’s late father Rupert, who in turn gave them to her. Those coins are her most treasured possessions, and she has them framed along with a photo of Thomas in his straw boater.
Former TV news reporter Susie recently published a book, The Two Pennies, that tells the story of the Millar family in the lead-up to the Titanic’s launch and how its sinking affected the lives of so many people, particularly Thomas’s sons. It’s poignant and superbly told, and copies are available from Susie’s website.

HULL OF A GUY: Titanic walking tours boss Colin Cobb
Brothers Colin and Richard Cobb, who conduct walking tours (www.titanicwalk.com) of Queen’s Island where Titanic was built and launched, know everything there is to know about the great White Star liner and impart that knowledge with healthy doses of humour. Among the sites of interest their tours take in are the Harland and Wolff drawing offices where Thomas Andrews designed Titanic and her sister ships Olympic and Britannic; the Thompson graving dock, 880 feet long, 128 wide and 44 deep and holding 184 million pints of water, Guinness or whatever floats your boat, which was last used in 2001; and the adjoining pumphouse whose massive motors could drain the dock — which took 500 men seven years to build — in 110 minutes and where a fascinating video of archive footage is shown.
A couple of hours in the company of lifelong Titanic fanatics Colin and Richard is time well spent as they take visitors back to the days when Harland and Wolff ruled the waves. The yard, which employed 15,000 workers in 1912, has had to diversify to survive, and is now a world leader in the construction of wind turbines.
WHITE STARS: Sister ships RMS Olympic and Titanic
DRY THAT FOR SIZE: Thompson graving dock where Titanic was fitted out 

WATER SIGHT: The Thompson graving dock pumphouse
If Charlie Warmington ever gets tired of being the foremost authority on the history of shipbuilding in Belfast and the heritage of the River Lagan that runs through it, a new career awaits him as a Spike Milligan lookalike. The resemblance is uncanny, but while the late, great former Goon was a giggler, this guy’s humour is of the dry-as-a-cream cracker variety.
Charlie provided the chuckle-a-minute commentary when I joined an hour-long cruise of Belfast Lough and the Titanic sites on the little red and yellow puffer Mona (www.laganboatcompany.com), and everyone on board was hanging on his every word. We were also hanging on to anything we could when the skies opened and made the going a bit choppy, but that only added to the adventure as we viewed Titanic Belfast and the giant Harland and Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath, and stopped for a few minutes at the edge of the slipway.
Last May 31, hundreds gathered on the same slipway to remember the day 100 years before when Titanic began her 62-second journey towards the water. TV crews from around the world mingled with the spectators and pointed their cameras skyward as a single flare whooshed into the air at 12.13pm — the exact moment the ship was cut loose — and all the vessels in the lough sounded their horns. It was a moving, magical moment.
Among those enjoying the celebrations was Noel Molloy, the Titanic Belfast project manager who has the huge responsibility of delivering the new building on time and who has latterly become one of the most avid Titanoraks around. Here’s a man who takes immense pride in his work, as did all those thousands who built Titanic, and his enthusiasm is contagious. If Noel, Susie, Colin, Richard and Charlie appeared on Mastermind, specialist subject you-know-what, the smart money would be on a perfect-round, five-way tie.


PIER-FECT: Titanoraks on board the Mona at Titanic slipway
MAKING WAVES: Young Carl Grant at launch event
Countless other people have minor and major yet equally important roles in ensuring next year will be one to remember, none more so than the team at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board whose wider brief is to keep Titanic Belfast and the whole Titanic experience in the domestic and international spotlight far beyond 2012. While they have an initial promotional budget with more zeroes in it than a colander, it won’t be hard to fill planes, trains, ferries and hotel rooms once the doors of the new building open, because word-of-mouth alone will pack the place for years to come.
The six-storey Titanic Belfast, which some local wags have said — not entirely inaccurately — looks like an iceberg, though its four 90-foot jutting wings more closely and intentionally resemble the liner’s bow, will house nine walk and ride-through exhibition galleries equipped with the latest 3D CGI and video technology. They’re Boomtown Belfast, Arrol Gantry and Shipyard Ride, The Launch, The Fit Out, The Maiden Voyage, The Sinking, The Aftermath, Myths and Legends and Titanic Beneath and Ocean Exploration Centre.
Nearby, in the Hamilton graving dock where it’s being restored, sits SS Nomadic, the Harland and Wolff-built Titanic and Olympic tender that was launched in April 1911 to convey first and second class passengers in Cherbourg and is the last remaining White Star vessel in existence. Now in the care of the SS Nomadic Charitable Trust and the Nomadic Preservation Society, it more recently served as a floating restaurant on the Seine in Paris before falling into dereliction and being moved to Le Havre. In January 2006 the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development bought it for €250,001 and, six months later, it was brought back to Queen’s Island, where it rightly belongs.
When Titanic left Belfast on April 2, 1912, never to return, scores of thousands of shipyard workers and citizens waved their handkerchiefs and sang “Rule Britannia”. Thirteen days later, when news of her loss reached the city where she was built, big tough men wept openly and unashamedly in the streets. In a few months’ time there will be good reason to sing again and, no doubt, tears will be shed. It’s taken 100 years, but Titanic’s finally coming home.

TITANIC BELFAST FESTIVAL 2012 HIGHLIGHTS
April 7-11, Titanic Light Show: Titanic Belfast will be in the spotlight in more ways than one when it’s officially launched with five nights of lights and laser shows and installations.
April 11, MTV Music Event: The Titanic slipway will be the venue for a huge outdoor concert.
April 14, Titanic Centenary Commemoration: On the 100th anniversary of the night Titanic struck the iceberg, the Waterfront Hall will host a spectacle of words, music and memories in honour of the thousands of ordinary Harland and Wolff workers who built an extraordinary ship and in memory of those who lost their lives.


MAIN MAN: Oceanographer Dr. Ballard
April 14, Robert Ballard: American oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in September 1985, will present previously unseen material from the liner when he addresses an audience in the new building.
April 22-May 20, Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912): A specially-commissioned verbatim play by Northern Ireland’s premier playwright Owen McCafferty to be staged at the new Metropolitan Arts Centre. Described as an emotive courtroom drama full of intrigue, bravery and human frailty, it’s guaranteed to be a sell-out, not least because it comes from the pen of Belfast-born and bred McCafferty.
September 8, BBC Titanic Proms: The songs and music of Northern Ireland and Belfast will be celebrated with a massive concert in the city’s Titanic Quarter.

FIRST CLASS FARE
Conor McLelland and his wife Bernie, who own and run the award-winning Rayanne House guesthouse and private dining restaurant (www.rayannehouse.com) in Holywood, just outside Belfast, have recreated the last menu served to first class passengers on the Titanic.
The nine-course menu (originally 13), which is available for private parties at £69 per person, makes for mouthwatering reading. It comprises canapes a L’Amiral; cream of barley soup with Bushmills whiskey and cream; asparagus and watercress salad with champagne-saffron vinaigrette served with roast squab (baby pigeon); poached salmon with mousseline sauce garnished with cucumber and fresh dill; rose water and mint sorbet; pan-seared fillet mignon topped with foie gras and truffle drizzled with a cognac, Madeira and red wine reduction served with potatoes Anna, creamed carrots and zucchini Farci; spiced peaches in Chartreuse jelly and French vanilla ice cream; cheese and fruit; coffee and petit fours.
Rayanne House, the former home of the Smith family, has its very own link with the Titanic — a print by JW Carey depicting the liner steaming down Belfast Lough on April 2, 1912, at the start of her maiden voyage, includes the house and hangs on the wall opposite reception.


FOOD SPEED AHEAD: Titanic menu at Rayanne House
CROWNING GLORY: Belfast's best-known bar, the Crown
A BELFAST JEWEL
The Crown Liquor Saloon (www.crownbar.com) in Great Victoria Street, opposite the Europa Hotel, is the best-known, most ornate and most photographed pub in Belfast, a gas-lit Victorian gin palace that’s on every visitor’s list of must-sees whether they drink or not. Step up to the red granite bar and you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with film or TV stars who don’t get a second glance from the regulars, so used are they to famous faces dropping by (Brad Pitt, Bill Murray, Michael J Fox and Ruby Wax are among the big names who’ve recently enjoyed a pint there). The Crown’s connection with the big screen stretches back to Carol Reed’s gritty 1947 movie Odd Man Out in which it featured as a location. When the cameras stopped rolling it was a hangout for James Mason and his fellow cast members.
Owned and preserved by the National Trust, The Crown — a Grade A listed building where the men who built Titanic enjoyed a pint — was established in 1849, although it was previously the Railway Tavern. The remarkable original interior is the work of Italian craftsmen who were brought to Belfast in the 1880s to fit out several new Catholic churches and who were persuaded to decorate their favourite watering hole after hours.
On the business side of the counter, barmen Michael Cosgrove and Jim McCann are a brilliant double act who keep customers entertained with the wittiest line in banter. Jim once convinced an American tourist that Michael, who was flashing a new gold tooth, was changing his name to Clint “in honour of his favourite spaghetti western — the one with cash in the title”. “You mean A Fistful Of Dollars?” asked the visitor. “Naw — A Mouthful Of Money!” said Jim.


SIGN OF THE TIMES: Tickets for Titanic
Belfast are like gold dust
OTHER 2012 EVENTS IN NORTHERN IRELAND
May 3 to 13, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (Belfast): From the most humble of beginnings 12 years ago when he had to beg, steal and borrow to put a programme together, festival founder and director Sean Kelly has turned this annual event into a winner. If ever there was an unpretentious arts festival that catered to the man in the street, this is it. I remember having a pint with Sean in Lavery’s pub in Belfast in the run-up to the first CQAF, and he was a nervous wreck, but he believed in what he was doing. His faith has paid off — next year’s festival will be his 13th. I hope he’s not superstitious. See www.cqaf.com
June 21, Peace One Day Concert: The venue is Ebrigton, County Derry, and Massive Attack are one of the headline acts in an event marking the opening of the London 2012 Festival of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. See www.peaceoneday.org for updates on the line-up.
June 30, Land Of Giants: The Titanic Slipway will be the site of the biggest outdoor arts event ever staged in Northern Ireland, with spectacular fireworks and more than 500 acrobats, aerial dancers and musicians performing before an audience of 20,000. This small but fiercely proud country will be punching far above its weight when it celebrates the iconic giants from its history — the legendary Finn McCool, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, the Giant’s Causeway, the Samson and Goliath cranes and, of course, Titanic itself. See www.landofgiants.info
June 30 to July 8, Clipper Round the World Yacht Race & Maritime Festival: Derry, the 2013 European City of Culture, will host the mother of all parties when it celebrates the arrival of the yacht Derry-Londonderry and the other competitors on the homecoming leg from Nova Scotia. See www.derrycity.gov.uk/clipper
September, Giants Causeway Visitor Centre Opening: It’s a World Heritage Site, and rightly so, and the new interpretative centre will be inaugurated in a blaze of glory. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giantscauseway
October 19 to November 3, 50th Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens: This packed programme of domestic and international music, dance, opera, visual arts, theatre, literature and film attracts performers, exhibitors, speakers and visitors from around the world. See www.belfastfestival.com
˜For more information on Belfast’s Titanic centenary celebrations and details of accommodation and holidays in Northern Ireland see www.discovernorthernireland.com and www.belfastcitycouncil.gov.uk/events
˜Cobh, which was called Queenstown until 1922, has its own programme of centenary events (www.titanic100.ie) and a renowned heritage centre (www.cobhheritage.com) with a permanent Titanic exhibition. Visitors to the centre can also learn about mass emigration — 2.5 million people left Ireland from here between 1848 and 1950. See www.titanic.ie to book a historic walking tour, and www.titanicexperiencecobh.ie for details of a new interactive visitor attraction due to open in the original White Star Line offices in January.
˜The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, just outside Belfast, is home to a £1 million exhibition, TITANICa: The Experience (www.nmni.com/titanic), which features more than 500 original Titanic artefacts.
˜Titanic Stories is a fabulous website jam-packed with information, interviews and videos on everything to do with Titanic and Belfast. It’s so fascinating that you’ll have to set your alarm or you’ll lose all track of time and miss appointments. Do yourself a favour and visit www.the-titanic.com