Seeing the Shard from the river certainly has the ‘wow’ factor. Particularly at night.
I am gliding past the newly opened Shard on the Westminster, one of City Cruises sharp, little vessels. The tallest building in Europe soars into the sky and is lit up like a proverbial Christmas tree. I’m on the open deck with the wind blowing through my hair and the turbulent current of the Thames churning below me; the expression ‘ it’ll knock your socks off’ (to steal an American favourite) comes to mind.
City Cruises transport in excess of two million people a year on London’s world famous river. And has recently reported its strongest year to date in 2013 with growth over the previous year of 22%. Apparently, the 2012 London Summer Olympics have really put the city on the map as far as tourists are concerned.
And there really is something atmospheric about travelling up this historic waterway at night. Seeing the Houses of Parliament, palaces and bridges aglow is quite stirring. The Tower of London, The Shard, Big Ben, Canary Wharf, The Globe Theatre and, perhaps most astonishing, St. Paul’s Cathedral are all visible from the river and within a short distance of each other. And it is certainly relaxing taking in major tourist sights without having to jostle with other people for the privilege.
A great way to see these sites either day or night is on one of the City Cruises vessels that navigate the river at any time and in all weather. OK. It is mainly for tourists or for folks who would like a meal and entertainment thrown in with their sightseeing. But, many people just enjoy being on the water and find it a relaxing way to travel
This year City Cruises will have a new Thames Circular Cruise, which is a bit like a hop on, hop off tour bus if I understand the idea. The Circular Cruise will take passengers all the way to Greenwich to see the Cutty Sark and Maritime Greenwich, a UNESCO world heritage site. And the cruise line have acquired another jet powered 315 horse-powered Rib named Blue Thunder, available for booking from March. This is entirely different experience; all speed, thrills, bumps and jumps. The great thing is that these boats run 7 days a week, 365 days a year. So, anytime you fancy a spin down the Thames…
Who could have guessed what a bit of ash can do? But then, it was more than just a ‘bit of ash’ when Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted in 2010. The eyes of the world were on the tiny frozen country when this volcanic eruption filled the skies with dust and debris. The ensuing ash cloud managed to stop air traffic in our bit of the Northern Hemisphere for over a week.
The now infamous ash cloud has literally put Iceland on the map. This is only the second year this young (geographically speaking) country has welcomed tourists during the winter. The incoming numbers are extraordinary. Along with the desire to see the Northern Lights (it is a good year for this peculiar solar phenomenon), the other attractions high on visitor’s agendas are visiting the Golden Circle (Gullfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir) and going on sea-going expeditions.
The folks who work in this trade are grateful and can hardly believe their luck at this turn of fortune. There are only 320,000 inhabitants in all of Iceland; 180,000 of them live in or around its capital and many of these depend on tourism to make a living. Icelandic life is also very much influenced by the sea and always has been, with fishing being its largest industry.
So the other thing tourists are here to experience is the wild life and, particularly, sea life. Whale watching is another extremely popular activity for visitors.
I am staying on the the harbour, at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. There are multiple jetties just around the corner from my hotel and boats are ready to take sightseers out on Whale Watching Expeditions ad infinitum.
The juxtaposition of enormous whale watching adverts situated right across the road from converted fishing stations, now restaurants, is intriguing; because these restaurants offer Minke whale on their menus. How can two such opposing ways of viewing one animal co-exist? Live side by side?
A young man I met, by chance, at my hotel shared his thoughts on the subject with me. He has grown up in Iceland but also spent time living in Central Europe. He and other Icelanders find it shocking that they are judged for whaling and for eating whale. In their view, Icelanders are very restrained in the number of animals slaughtered. Of about 4,000 whales, a non-endangered species he pointed out, a mere 150 are killed each year. He also explained that they see the whales as potentially destroying their economy and needing to be culled. Iceland’s number one export and industry is fishing and whales eat tons of fish in any given day. So they are in direct competition with Icelanders for resource. I actually can see his point. He then goes on to explain that Icelanders see whales as big dumb beasts, not beautiful animals. This description makes me squirm.
I try to explain that Icelanders, perhaps unfairly, are being ‘tarred with the same brush’ as other countries that break the International Ban on Whaling. That includes Japan and the Faroe Islands.
I have met and spoke with the Head of Public Diplomacy on a trip to the Faroe Islands about three years ago. This person vehemently defended The Grind (the mass killing of entire pods of whales at one time). A pod of whales is driven into a bay by small fishing boats and then harpooned by the fishermen in the boats and the people on shore. “Our people have hunted like this for centuries”, he stated. “How can the rest of the world criticise us when they have killed off their own indigenous animals?”
I understood his argument. In the United States, buffalo herds that roamed the Great Plains in their hundreds of thousands were nearly hunted to extinction. The same was true of the Pacific Coast’s Southern Sea Otters which have still not recovered, as a species, from intensive hunting. In the 1920s, they were thought to be completely extinct.
But the bloody pictures of The Grind are hard to shake and hard to forget. I can’t think of anyone that isn’t repulsed by the photographs that are circulated of an entire bay red with the blood of slaughtered wild animals. It certainly gives pause for thought.
I said goodbye to my new friend, but not before we had a rousing discussion about economics. Iceland has always been isolated, historically, and islanders’ attitudes develop without much influence from the outside world. These people have always been self-sufficient. The rest of the world did not come to their rescue in times of trouble. Now the outside world is arriving en masse, they are finding it a bit difficult to understand our perspective on many issues, particularly whaling.
Perhaps with a bit more discussion and mutual understanding, we will each eventually come to appreciate each other’s viewpoints.
It is a crisp cold day and the sun is glistening off fields blanketed with fallen snow. About an hour’s drive from Weimar, and after a sodden winter in the UK, it is magical traveling under piercing blue skies with stinging, fresh air hurting my lungs. This pain is good.
We are on our way to an ancient Thüringen forest in Central Germany – between Mühlhausen, Bad Langensalza and the Wartburg city of Eisenach. It was a Soviet military base in the not so distant past. After WWII, Stalin’s Red Army gained control of Eastern Germany which became the German Democratic Republic. This enormous beech tree forest, and its peripheries, were used for military exercises with barracks and administrative buildings scattered around its perimeter.
It was a ‘no-go zone’ for anyone other than the Russian army.
This 7,500 hectare forest is now the Hainich Nature Park. It is probably as near to primeval forest as you can find in Europe and, when it became a nature park in 1996, had not been impacted by humans for fifty years. This has allowed nature to return and flourish.
Not only is there dominant beech trees but also 30 other species of deciduous trees all competing for their place in the forest. 49 species of mammals including wild cats, middle spotted woodpeckers and 15 types of bats reside here.
But the piece de resistance in Hainich Nature Park is the remarkable Canopy Walk. The top of the Canopy Walk Tower is 42m high and the vista extends for miles and miles. We are very lucky as the park’s director, Manfred Großmann and his team have opened the attraction for us to experience. At every level, as you walk up, there are ‘arms’ of walkways that extend out into the forest. In the winter, with the entire forest covered in snow and ice crystals, it is inspirational. The views…stunning.
We also visited the Wild Cat Village in Hütscheroda which opened in April 2012. This centre is so popular, particularly with domestic tourists, that there have been 55,000 visitors in 2 years. The information centre offers brochures, a cinema and also features exhibits. It is also associated with an ambitious project to create ‘Green Corridors’ that connect forests in Germany and even other countries so wild creatures have more freedom to roam.
The enclosure for the captive wild cats (about 1/4 mile walk from the information centre) houses four males: Toco and Carlo from Germany and Franz and Tosca from Switzerland. As these cats are being fed, they can never be returned to the wild. The keeper skins the mice to make it easier for the cats to eat, thus coining the term ‘Naked Mouse’.
In the afternoon, I was thrilled to visit a very old medieval walled city. Mühlhausen is famous for its two market squares, each with imposing churches – St. Blaise (Divi Blasii) and St. Mary’s. Mühlhausen was also famous for being the epicentre of the Peasant Uprising of 1523 – 1525. Supported by Martin Luther’s right hand man, Thomas Müntzer, a resident of Mühlhausen, many of the peasant’s demands were ideologically similar with changes coming about with respect of the Reformation.
Our group enjoyed an impromptu organ concert given by the organist of St. Blaise on an instrument inspired by the one played by J.S. Bach in this very church. It was unfortunate that we each had to be given a blanket to cope with the perishing and bitter cold. Even as the sun slipped away, and the temperature dropped, it was a fascinating place to visit.
It was a visit to the town’s City Hall, built circa 1300, that was quite breath-taking. Steeped in history, there is a late Gothic mural depicting the town’s first council that is captivating. The archives, in the basement of the building since 1615, have daily correspondence of the city starting from 1382. The oldest book written in German, a law book from 1213, is housed here in the archives.