"Panic is the sudden realization that everything around you is alive."
William S. Burroughs

It's hard to top the fun of exploring a new city. Whether they are famous or infamous, full of tourists or never really seen any, the pleasure of finding interesting sites, good places to eat, and tracking down the nightlife is one of my most favourite in travel.

Even in well-known city break cities it pays huge dividends to veer from the beaten track to find places that more authentically reflect the texture of a city. And perhaps even better for me, is the joy of dropping into cities that I'd barely, if at all heard of before visiting...

Moscow honours Peter the Great with a 98m statue...of Christopher Columbus?
posted by Richard Green on 28/06/2017

Moscow's controversial Peter the Great Statue is a 98-metre-high structure that looks something from Terry Guilliam's 'Adventures of Baron Munchausen' film. It sits on a promontory at the western confluence of the Moskva River and the Vodootvodny Canal in the centre of the city. Muscovites hate it as much as the real Peter the Great hated their city - so much so that it was the 2m tall Tzar who moved the country's capital to St Petersberg.

It weighs around a thousand tons and was erected in 1997 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great's founding of the Russian Navy by the Georgian-Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli (born January 4, 1934).

Peter at the helm of one of the world's worst statues. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's not just Muscovites who loathe the statue - most tourists are left non-plussed too, and several times it's awfulness has been highlighted in various polls - being voted the tenth ugliest building in the world by Virtual Tourist in 2008, and it was included in a list of the world's ugliest statues by Foreign Policy magazine in 2010. 

I know that I don't have to live with it on my horizon, but walking from Red Square, over the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, and coming to the momument unexpectedly, and through the buzzing Park iskusstv Muzeon, I rather liked it. Putting the controversy to one side, in a city as heavy with dourness and brutish symbolism as Moscow, it felt like finding some whimsey, even if it is a gigantic twice-the-height-of-the-Staue-of-Liberty whimsey.    

The artist Zurab Tsereteli is a pal of Moscow's former Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and has received several plum commissions under his patronage. But that mayor left office in 2010 and rumour has it that the current authorities lost little time in offering their dog's dinner of a statue to Saint Petersburg and other cities, but the offers were turned down. 

The statue is across the water from the excellent Park Iskusstv. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Adding to its unloved status is the fact that many people are convinced that the statue is actually based on a design intended to commemorate Christopher Columbus. It's said that it was designed in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage, but even that powerful peg seems to have left an entire continent unmoved. Once it was clear that an American home couldn't be found for it, it was tweaked by the artist and repurposed as Peter the Great.

Peter the Great, Christopher Columbus, or even Peter the Columbus; you be the judge? 

Tsereteli denies the story, but my guide in the city pointed out that the ships piled under Peter are nothing like Russian ships of Peter's period, and instead look like 19th Century Spanish Caravel of the type contemporary with Columbus. 

Seventeenth century European naval ships, or 19th century Spanish galleons? Photo My Bathroom Wall

Two more things...

Zurab Tsereteli's Columbus statue in Puerto Rico. This similarly colossal statue is about twice the height of New York's Statue of Liberty or Rio's Christ the Redeemer, and was also designed by Tsereteli, who began the work in 1991. It was gifted to the people of Columbus, Ohio (who awkwardly said no thanks, it's too ugly), Cleveland (likewise), and then it was snubbed by Baltimore, Boston, Ft Lauderdale, Miami, and New York.

Arecibo's Columbus statue was dubbed 'Chris Kong' owing to its perceived ugliness

At least this time the controversy wasn't over the statue's central character, which does appear to be Christopher Columbus - it was completed in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landfall in the new world. But the 60-metre tall creation, known as Birth of the New World, was touted all over the USA until the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico finally gave in and ended the statue's 20 years in the wilderness by agreeing to stump up the $12m needed to build a plinth and assemble its 2,750 pieces of bronze and steel. 

Since 14 June 2016 Tsereteli's Columbus has stood by Highway 681 outside the coastal town of Arecibo, 70 kilometres west of San Juan, but only after a petition by the Taino people objecting to anything that commemorates Columbus arrival in the new world - as for Puerto Rico, like elsewhere in the region, it lead directly to a genocide of native peoples.

Observers hate the small head, the over-long arms and the flippant raised-hand greeting most, plus sticklers have noted that the steering wheel being clutched by Columbus wasn't invented until 200 years after Columbus' voyage.

As if more evidence were needed as a litmus test in taste, presidential nominee Donald Trump likes it - “It’s got forty million dollars worth of bronze in it...” he told the New Yorker magazine in 1997, adding that “The mayor of Moscow has written a letter to Rudy Giuliani stating that they would like to make a gift of this great work....I am absolutely favorably disposed toward [the statue]". 

Peter the Great in Deptford, London. There is a curious statue of Peter the Great in Deptford, London too. It pays tribute to the fact that Peter made a three-month visit the city in 1698, on a reconnaissance trip to help create Russia's navy. Despite being the first Tzar to venture abroad for over a hundred years, mystery surrounds aspects of the visit, but it seems he travelled disguised as one Peter Mikhailov. He met the King and several other movers and shakers, but informally and without the pomp of a state visit, and eventually relocated to Sayes Court in Deptford, so as to be closer to the shipyards. 

The house in Deptford - long since demolished - belonged the the English writer and diarist, John Evelyn. Peter seems to have trashed the place, leaving over 50 chair damaged or broken up for firewood, 300 windows broken and 25 paintings damaged. The property eventually became a workhouse, and these days is a development of flats. 

The surreal ensemble includes a pin-headed Peter, a dwarf and an empty chair. The dwarf is apparently reference to Peter's fascination with human exotica, as perceived in 17th Century Europe anyway, and this chap was his favourite court dwarf. The chair is his travelling throne.  

The curious Peter the Great ensemble in Deptford, London. Photo diamond geezer/Flickr


puzzle Moscow seems to be underrated as a city break destination, largely because of the hassle and expense of getting a visa, plus owing to the relative distance from much of western Europe. The visa cost does make it tempting to visit St Petersburg in the same trip, or even to tour the famous Golden Ring of ancient Russian cities to the northeast of Moscow. 
31 Moscow has several airports, the largest of which are Sheremetyevo Airport, which is 29 kilometres northwest of Moscow, and handled 31m passengers in 2015, and Domodedovo, which is 42 kilometres southeast of the city and handled 30m passengers in 2015. There are flights to Moscow from all across Europe, plus from Asia, Africa and the Americas. See Aeroflot, S7 Airlines.  
weather The best time to visit Moscow is probably in the Spring, when temperatures reach the 50s and 60s, the sun shines for much of the days, and hotel prices are manageable. Summer are great too, with late evenings and warm temperatures - though it can get hot and gritty at times, plus very busy with tourists, and there is a spike in hotel prices. Winter has its special atmosphere in the city, but it can get extremely cold. 
35 I travelled to Moscow as a guest of Political Tours, which specialises in running politically focussed tours in a number of the world's more contentious regions. Or try the Russia Experience or Cox & Kings. See the Russian National Tourist Office

Hamburg; a fabulous maritime city that's 110 kilometres from the sea
posted by Richard Green on 27/06/2017

Captain Hoffman stands on the bridge in naval uniform intently watching an approaching container vessel. But instead of barking orders for a change of course he takes up a microphone and announces in a kindly manner - from two 600-watt speakers - the tonnage, length and homeport of the oncoming ship. Then at the click of a mouse a lofty anthem booms out across the water. 

Herr Hoffman welcomes arriving ships with an announcement and their national anthem. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

“I have 153 national anthems here,” Herr Hoffman says proudly. “They used to be on vinyl, then cassette tapes, and now they are MP3’s. That one was from the Marshall Islands because that is where the ship is flagged.”

Before you think the German navy has completely lost the plot, we’re on dry land, Herr Hoffman is retired, and his ‘bridge’ is a small office on the side of the Schulauer Fährhaus restaurant. This bonkers little ceremony takes place at a narrow point in the Elbe River 22 kilometres west of Hamburg, conducted for all arriving and departing ships over 5,000 tons. It first began in 1952 – initiated by the restaurateur who was constantly being asked by customers where the ships were from.

A ship passing the Schulauer Fährhaus and so called 'Welcome Point'. Photo Schulauer Fährhaus

Hamburg is Germany’s richest city, the country’s media, design, and music capital, and Europe’s second biggest port. It feels more chilled than Munich, less swaggering than Berlin, and despite being 110 kilometres from the North Sea, the connection with seafaring is ever present.

You can’t miss the giant port that smothers one bank of the River Elbe. The city is clearly proud of it, and flaunts it with an historic riverfront that grandstands the dry-docked cruise liners here for refits, the banks of containers and rows of cranes.

And the love of shipping doesn’t stop there.

The splendidly shipping-themed lobby of the 25hour HafenCity Hotel. Photo 25hours Hotels

I stayed at the 25hour HafenCity Hotel, a funky new place where standard bedroom décor includes a rope ladder, a life size cartoon of a sailor in the bathroom, a globe and a faux antique Louis Vuitton travel trunk. I could however have chosen the Atlantic Kempinski, which was built for first class passengers travelling on the Hamburg-America line and has a lobby bar like a cruise liner’s; or the recently refurbished Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, where older rooms have double doors with a space in between, formerly for the discreet delivery of luggage – just as posh old liners once insisted upon. 

The Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten. Photo Fairmont Hotels

The ‘Love Boat’ theme was playing when I entered the Fairmont bar, which is a cabin-like nook with wood panelling and a spiral staircase. The chap taking red wine and cheese at the bar immediately chatted: “This has been my ritual to escape the hustle of every day life for forty years now.” And with an air-twirl of his fork he added, “Did you know that Hamburg has 64 kilometres of docks and more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam put together?” I looked sceptical, but a short while later the white-coated barman returned and said he’d checked his mobile and it wasn’t correct. “Wikipedia says that there are 2,400 bridges in Hamburg, more than Venice, Amsterdam and London put together,” he beamed. 

The almost seaside vibe at the Strandpearl bar/restaurant. Photo My Bathroom Wall

At the Strandpearl beach restaurant, I joined the tables of beautiful people on a rather grey beach and watched as the mammoth blue bulk of a container ship slide past. As I chomped through a bratwurst and beer, two mates in their 70s asked if the seats beside me were taken. Wolf excitedly told me that the blue container ship was the APL Sentosa – “Too big for the Panama Canal even, 70 meters longer than the Eiffel Tower and carrying up to 14,000 containers!”  His friend Berndt rolled his eyes: “Oh, here we go again,” he bemoaned through a huge smile. “Wolf knows everything about ships.”

The views are fabulous from the open air section of the 'Clouds' Bar. Photo Clouds Bar

The hippest places for cocktails are ‘Clouds’ and the ‘20up Bar’, both topping tall buildings and angled for the best floor-to-ceiling harbour views. There are bars down on the river, too -- cheap eats on the ten Landsbrücken pontoons with a seaside-feeling medley of excitable children and excruciating postcards. Nearby I sat in a deckchair and felt the sand between my toes at the mellower Hamburg del Mar bar, then I had a drink on the floating Astra floating biergarten, and rounded off on the curvaceous wooden deck of a little red lighthouse ship.

The 'Hamburg del Mar' bar, even though the mar is 110 kilometres away. Photo My Bathroom Wall

On the U3 metro line I was startled when the train emerged from a tunnel to reveal fantastic views of Hamburg’s river. Between Landsbrücken and Baumwall stations, the train trundles over rails elevated on spindly iron stilts for views not unlike those heading in or out of Sydney’s Circular Quay Railways Station. Public transport ferries fuss along the Elbe and dozens of harbour cruise options vie for the tourist’s attention, and there’s an extraordinary river tunnel too, built in 1911 for workers to commute to the docks. Glass lifts for pedestrians, and older garage-sized ones that take two cars at a time, descend 75-meters to the tunnel floor.

The late afternoon sun drew me to stroll westwards along the riverbank on my last day in Hamburg. I passed U-434, a Russian submarine (now a museum) and an office block in the shape of a ship, and eventually reached a cute cluster of historic vessels at the Oevelgönne museum.

The welcoming wooden interior of the old ferry boat restaurant. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Inside the cosy dining room of a converted 1952 Hamburg ferry, I tasted the city’s speciality of Labskaus – once a common seamen’s dish - a delicious hash of beef, potato and onion topped with an egg. The young waitress bent beside the table like a First Class airhostess and after the meal suggested that I should get a ferry back to where I’d started - and that one was leaving in four minutes. “At night when I finish it feels like a village here,” she said, “all peaceful and quiet. I get the ferry back to the centre sitting on deck watching the lights of the docks cranes and ships, and I feel very lucky.”

Four minutes later, the tug-like ferry arrived and lowered its gantry. I hurried on and took her advice, sitting on deck to watch the eerily lit cargo ships, their containers stacked like toy bricks, and red lights pinpointing the toiling crane tips.

I felt very lucky too.

Sunset over the River Elbe. Photo Visit Hamburg

puzzle Hamburg makes a great city break. It's an intriguing place with lots to see, a buzzing atmosphere, and outstanding maritime heritage. It's easy to get to, yet noticably less touristy than other top tier European cities.
31 Hamburg Airport is 8.5 kilometres north of the city and handled 16m passengers in 2016. There are flights to many European cities, plus to Dubai with Emirates, and Tehran with Iran Air
weather The best time to visit Hamburg is in summer from May to October. Temperatures rarely top  the high 20s and there is the chance of showers at any time of the year. Winters are chilly to cold, but snow falls only a few times a year. 
35 www.hamburg.com is the city’s website. Public transport day pass is €7.5 and the Hamburg Card is €9.5 a day, including discounted entry to museums and places of interest.  

The writing's on My Bathroom Wall 11th June 2017
posted by Richard Green on 11/06/2017




EasyJet starts new flights to Varna, Bulgaria; and other new routes

The Gatwick-Varna route is operated thrice weekly throughout the summer season with one-way fares from £12.99 and a new summer season twice-weekly flight from Berlin Schoenefeld starts on the 28th of June.

Other new routes include Air Canada, which has begun flying from Vancouver to Nagoya and Taipei, and commences Toronto to Mumbai from the 1st of July; United Airlines, which will start 18hr nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Singapore fron 27th October. 

  See easyJet, Visit Varna, and Visit Bulgaria, and read what it's like to be on an inaugural flight on My Bathroom Wall  



Resort unveils new glass-floored cable cars 

The Awana Skyway transports visitors along a 2.8km aerial route from the new Awana Transportation Hub, to Chin Swee Temple Station and SkyAvenue Station within the resort. Of the 99 gondolas, 10 feature glass floors.

  See Resorts World Genting, and to discover the best vertigo-testing cable cars in Switerland, see My Bathroom Wall



New ferry joins fleet operating routes from Singapore to Indonesian Islands

A new ferry has joined the Majestic Fast Ferry fleet on routes between Singapore and the Indonesian islands of HarbourFront and Tanah Merah ferry terminals in Singapore, the Batam Center and Sekupang terminals in Batam, and Tanjung Pinang in Bintan.


See Majestic Fast Ferry. Other ferry operators between Singapore and Indonesia include Batam Fast and Sindo Ferry




'Vegimite' on shortlist of names for new Qantas planes  

Qantas has revealed that over 40,000 suggestions were received in the competition run by the airline to chose names for the Boeing 787 Dreamliners that will operate next year's nonstop flights from London to Perth. Others making it to the shortlist include Skippy, Uluru, Boomerang, Great Barrier Reef and Don Bradman.


See Qantas 



Qatar isolation row hits passengers travelling to or connecting through Doha

Qatar Airways have been banned from flying to regional neihghbours Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and the Maldives. Etihad, Emirates, Gulf Air have suspended all flights to and from Qatar. Contact your travel agent or airline if you are booked on Qatar Airways flights, or are travelling to the region.


Atmospheric souks, three flavours of chocolate fountain and dune bashing. Twenty reasons to holiday in Dubai...
posted by Richard Green on 11/06/2017

Getting happily lost in the narrow alleyways of Bastikiya. But fear not, it will only be for a matter of minutes, as this former Persian fishing village next to The Creek and Dubai Museum is only a small patch of what Dubai would have been like before the arrival of oil and airlines and the like. 

Souvenir shops down an alleyway in Bastikiya. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's been restored and turned over to arty boutiques, cafes, and guesthouses. I mooched between its coral-built houses and pushed open a magnificent wooden front door or two. Indoors I discovered romantic courtyards and spaces cooled by traditional wind towers that ingeniously funnel down even the faintest whisper of breeze. One door revealed the gorgeously arty courtyard of the XVA Hotel, gallery and cafe, another the The Majlis Gallery with it’s wonderful collection of water colours, fabrics, and a 3m long bronze fish mobile. I spent an unintentional but blissful few hours at the Basta Art Café here too – settled with a book on an outdoor sofa, in the shade of a Narra tree, slurping creative melanges of fresh fruit juices and picking at a chicken and apricot salad.

Arabian Oryx 
Getting face to face with an Arabian Oryx. The open-sided safari Range Rovers drive close to this beautiful white antelope with two foot straight horns. They are probably the origin of the Unicorn myth too – either seeing one from the side when the horns appear to merge, or from an injured single horned creature. 

The Unicorn fable apparently started when sailors spied very still and side-on Oryx. Really? Photo Sir Bani

Yas Desert Islands
Sir Bani Yas Island is 160 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi, where Sheikh Zayed - founder of the UAE – kept his private island and made a reserve and saved the Arabian Oryx from extinction. He had a great eye for beautiful and secluded desert islands, and now it’s open to tourists too. The rugged island is home to the largest herd of Oryx in the world, a lovely 64-room hotel, and no other buildings except for the high-walled Sheikhs palace. My balcony had intricate wooden carvings and overlooked the swimming pool and bright blue waters of the Gulf beyond - the occasional oil tanker gliding by to anchor the scene. I kayaked through the mangroves; mountain biked over crags, and took far too many Oryx pics on the jeep safari. See www.sirbaniyasisland.com 

Swaying in front of the best sushi display I’ve ever seen. It was a tipsy sway too, thanks to the waiters rapid refilling of my champagne flute, but I took aim and plucked more perfect parcels of fish from the ice-field of a counter. Friday brunch at a restaurant or swanky hotel is an institution in the Emirates – as the Muslim weekend falls on Friday and Saturday.

The chocolate fountain station at the Abu Dhabi Shangri-La brunch. Photo Time Out 

My favourite all you can eat extravaganza of crab and curries, carved meats and couscous, is the giant spread offered by the Abu Dhabi Shangri La (www.shangri-la.com/abudhabi, £42pp with alcohol, £59pp with champagne). How to top the many flavour of ice cream left me in a quandary – should I aim for the milk chocolate fountain, the dark one, or the white one? It has won the Best Brunch award several times, but the local Time Out magazine lists the latest venues – currently more than 85 of them. 

Dubai Museum
Descending into history underneath Dubai’s oldest building. I was surprised to discover a state-of-the-art-museum beneath the coral built Al Fahidi Fort. It’s a pretty Beau Geste like castle by the Creek, dating from 1787, yet underground is a large area of interconnecting displays and of Emerati life through the ages.

The lighting is twighlight, and there’s sand on the floor and sound effects as you walk-through life size dioramas of merchant shops, dhow loading and pearl diving. Uncannily convincing enough to mistakenly ask directions of, and all you need to know about Bedouin life. Dubai Museum (Al Fahidi Fort, Bastikiya).

Rounding a corner revealed the cheery sight of everyday Emirati's on ice. Girls in head scarves and lads in brilliant white dishdasha’s were whizzing round the shopping mall’s the ice rink. There are hundreds of souks and small shops in Old Dubai, but the mega malls are so daft they are fun, and full of bonkers surprises too. The Mall of the Emirates has an indoor ski slope and ice rink and Dubai Mall (thedubaimall.com) has the largest aquarium-viewing panel in the world.

Not a Shanghai junk shop, but the China Court of the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai. Photo Ibn Battuta Mall

My favourite is the Ibn Battuta Mall, with country-themed sections in tribute to one of the world's greatest travellers. A stroll past some of its 400 shops is made much less daunting thanks to the cheery decor in the sections devoted to India, China, Persia, Egypt, Andalucia and Tunisia.

Learn about Islam
Discovering the funny side of Islam. I learned more than I bargained for in the Grand Jumeirah Mosque because the local Muslim guide was so funny. She wisecracked about the LED display not being today’s money change rates, but actually prayer times and won us over. She explained the pre-prayer washing ritual by an outside fountain, talked us through the prayer technique, and then sat us all down on the mosque’s Persian rugs for ‘any questions’ session.

A talk for tourists inside the Grand Jumeirah Mosque. Photo Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

I’ve been into dozens of mosques around the world, but this was a more intimate and informative an insight than any. This introduction to Islam is run by the not for profit Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Visits last 75 minutes on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, at 10am, and cost £1.70; no reservation necessary. 

Feeling the quick-to-cool desert sand flow through my fingers at sunset. There’s nothing quite like tearing off into the desert Emirati-style, to enjoy a sunset picnic on the dunes.

A fiery Dubai desert sunset. Photo John Karwoski/Flickr

You don’t need local pals either; as there are several desert hotels to help, including the desert fort like design of the Qasra Al Sarab, the grand-arched infinity pool overlooking the desert at the four-star Tilal Liwa Hotel, and the giant tented suites at Al Maha. I try not to miss sunset gazing each evening wherever I’m in the UAE, but desert facing is always the best. 

Burj Khalifa
Relishing the view from the tallest building on earth. The views are astonishing, with the Dubai Fountain immediately below, more lowly skyscrapers stretching along the coast, and cargo ships out in the Gulf. In fact the Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building by far – 642 feet taller than its nearest rival to be precise. The tip of its mast scrapes the sky at an extraordinary 2,722 feet.

Photo Burj Khalifa

The lift whisks you from inside the Dubai Mall to the observation deck on the 124th floor. Painfully large wall to wall and floor to ceiling windows are fantastic for drinking in the skyline way below, not so great for vertigo sufferers like me. And for better and worse, there is an outside open to the elements area with wooden decking too. Days can be hazy, so to contrast daytime and the brilliant night time lights of the city, aim to visit a little before sunset. Be sure to book your slot online at www.burjkhalifa.ae before you arrive, at £17pp, as tickets bought on the day are £68pp.

Al fresco cinema
Watching cinema under the stars on a clear winter’s night. The Wafi shopping centre shows free film screenings on its rooftop every winter Sunday. I plumped a giant lime green bean bag, sank into perfect viewing comfort, and tucked into a plate of large nachos here. By the unmistakable Wafi Pyramid shopping centre, the gardens are a great live music and chill out venue too, with fake rocks and some real grass and palms crafted into a vague amphitheatre. Bring a light jumper for the cooler winter evenings – generally from 15 to 20 degrees.

Bean bags and the al fresco screen at Wafi. Photo Wafi Dubai

Films start at 8:30pm and entry is free; see www.wafi.com. Alternatively Vox Outdoor shows outdoor films, on the roof of the Galleria Mall, see www.uae.voxcinemas.com.

The Metro
Staying cool at a futuristic Metro station. The giant golden scarab-like design of Dubai’s overhead metro stations are a pleasure to look at and use. Two lines zip past many of Dubai’s hotels and sights, with one to and from the airport. I always smile to see the gridlock of yellow Lamborghini’s, red Ferraris, and black Bentleys below, having forked out my 34p for the metro.

The typically understated design used for most of the metro stations. Photo Aedas/Flickr

There are women-only and family carriages, and with summertime highs topping 50 degrees, air-conditioning is ubiquitous; even in the overground metro stations and bush shelters. (www.dubaimetro.ae)

Swanky cocktails. Sipping cocktails with one of best skylines in the world for a backdrop. The manmade tree-shaped island that juts into the Persian Gulf, called The Palm Jumeirah, is more impressive from the air than from the ground. It’s one of several grandiose reclamation schemes to turn patches of the Persian Gulf into a island outlines of The World, The Universe, and three giant Palms. The views of Dubai from the Palm Jumeirah – especially from The One & Only’s floating 101 bar  – a trendy tented and wood decked bar at the tip of the first frond – are fabulous though (wwww.oneandonlyresorts.com).

The Skyline Deck. Photo One & Only Resorts

A sassy South African barmaid talked me through the cocktails on my first visit here, and helpfully tipped me off to the free speedboat service to the Royal Mirage Hotel back on the mainland – itself with a great Moroccan themed roof bar for late night boozing and schmoozing. (www.thepalm.ae)

Driving into the desert
Driving towards a desert mirage. Away from the cities, and the infamous Sheikh Zaid Road (which connects Dubai with Abu Dhabi and alternates between gridlocked and larey), driving in the UAE is a breeze. The desert roads are often dead straight, quiet, and dissolve into mirages. With open road to the horizon, sand dunes to the sides, dirt-cheap petrol, and some of the best direction givers on the planet, driving here is a hassle free fun.

Perhaps stick to the roads though, but the desert is just on Dubai's doorstep. Photo Land Rover MENA/flickr 

Like the locals I soon got obsessed with finding shade to park in – on one day temperatures reached 53 degrees and I had to wrap the fiery hot steering wheel in a t-shirt before I could handle it. Oh, and locals give exquisitely detailed directions – several times I was asked to follow the bloke I’d asked, who lead me right to the place. It comes from the desert past, where telling a stranger good or bad directions to the next watering hole or oasis could be the difference between life and death. You’ll need an International Drivers Permit, your own driving licence, and there is zero tolerance for any alcohol in the bloodstream.

Visit an oasis
Breathing in the cooling shade and sound of water in a picture book oasis. The desert Oasis town of El Ain is 75 miles south of Dubai. It’s a pleasant place partly shared by the UAE and Oman and surrounded by scorched desert. It reminded me weirdly of Carmel in California, with smart shops, diagonally parked cars, and a certain sophistication that belied it’s remote and unforgiving location.

An olive grove inside the Al Ain oasis. Photo Geneva_wirth/Flickr

The green palm grove at its centre is silent save for the swish of fronds and the tinkle of ancient irrigation channels. I took a walk through here and imagined how mesmerising it would have been to stumble on such lush cooling freshness in after days on a camel. The nearby Jebel Hafeet mountain is graced by the finest short drive I know – a three-lane road snakes from the desert floor to the 4,100ft summit in just seven miles. 

Ferrari World
Lurching back into the seat on the world’s fastest rollercoaster. I swore, a lot, when the aircraft carrier grade catapult let fly and my face pressed onto my skull. Careering out over the empty desert towards the first fearful turn was faster and scarier than his F1 Ferrari, according to Alonso. At Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World, the Ferrari red on the rollercoaster cars is applied at the Modena factory in Italy, and the thrill of accelerating up to 240 kilometres per hour and experiencing 4.8G is just as genuine too.

The extraordinary design of Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World

There are many Ferrari themed rides, from a pootle round a miniature Italy in a model Ferrari California, to a multi lane ‘racing’ rollercoaster. Paradise for petrol heads, but I was taken by other details too, like the replica of the worker’s trattoria that’s adjacent to the real Ferrari plant, serving pizza and pasta, but not beer though. www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com; entry, over 1.5m £38pp, under 1.5m £28.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Standing aghast on a 48 ton Persian rug. I reigned in my lower jaw and paced the length of the vast marble prayer hall inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The two cities are 98 miles apart – just under a two hour drive on a good day. The hand knotted carpet is the largest in the world, and the building itself rivals the Taj Mahal in grace and craftsmanship.

Photo My Bathroom Wall

It’s a modern, stunning structure, with more than 80 domes, miles of marble, and vast chandeliers. The intricate inlay work is mesmerising, as is the gigantic scale of the prayer hall, which can hold 14,000 people. I stayed here way longer than I had planned, sitting on the carpet watching other people being enthralled by the place. www.szgmc.ae; entry free

Gulf cuisine
Rounding off a meal with an apple flavoured sheesha. After a feast of grilled meats and mezze, the done thing at most local restaurants is to order a sheesha pipe to share. The Sheesha – known in different regions of the world as hookah or nargileh, or perhaps hubbly-bubbly, is an intricately designed way to smoke flavoured tobacco by sucking the smoke from an ember tray at the top, down through water and along a pipe to your mouth.

Arabic breakfast selections at Reem al Bawadi. Photo Reem al Bawadi

Restaurants are as posh, pricey, and as international as you like in Dubai, but don’t miss out by overlooking its fine Arabian and Middle Eastern cuisine too. There are several of them now, but the original Reem al Bawadi on the Jumeirah Beach Road, is a great place for good food in a convivial semi-rustic atmosphere. Staff are very friendly, and the Lebanese mezze and local grilled dishes are excellent. (www.reemalbawadi.com)

The Creek
Crossing the Creek on a rickety wooden boat. Crossing the main artery of Old Dubai, called The Creek, is a blast, on a long wooden boat known as an Abra. It costs 17 pence one-way and is the best way of getting from the Dubai Museum, Bastikiya and the Textile Souk, across to the Perfume, Gold, and Spice souks.

Abra-cadabra; the fun way to cross the Creek

I always say hello to my neighbour – they often beat me to it too – revealing cosmopolitan Dubai - tourists from Turkey, Taiwan, or Tadcaster; immigrant workers from the Levant, Lahore, or Lemington Spa. Abra's cross the Creek every few minutes, with a journey time of about 10 minutes and a one-way fare of 17p.

Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House
Loudly slurping thick Arabic coffee and eating sticky dates, Bedouin style. Towards the mouth of The Creek, on its south side, is the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House (Shindagha waterfront), a fine 19th century mansion with a large courtyard and several wind towers. The grandfather of the current ruler of Dubai lived here until his death in 1958.

Inside the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House. Photo Instagram/@dubaiculture

There is a great collection of pre oil pictures of Dubai, showing the meagre roads and modest landing strip. Behind it, and also worth a look is the Heritage and Diving Village; a slightly scruffy stab at demonstrating traditional life – you can sample Bedouin pancakes, have your picture taken with a falconer, or climb onto a camel. During Eid celebrations you might even stumble on a rifle-throwing competition.

Jumeirah Madinat Resort
Glide on a boat through bayou style backwaters. I really rate the evening atmosphere at the Jumeira Madinat Resort, with boats passing ornamental lamps, in between faux souks, and restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. It’s hard to believe that like everywhere else beyond Old Dubai, it is utterly and fabulously fake.

The fabulously fake bayou of the Madinat Resort. Photo Jumeira 

Go with the flow I say and join locals, expats, and tourists, in enjoying a sashay through some of the most magnificent hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants in the world. Head to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel for great views of the Burj Al Arab (www.jumeirah.com/burj-al-arab), or to the Burj for dining in an underwater Al Mahara restaurant, or for a nightcap at the Skyview Bar 650 feet above the Persian Gulf. Or pop into Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace for coffee under the chandeliers. Staff at all of the swanky hotels are welcoming and courteous, service generally excellent. I conquered my case of posh hotel lobby apprehension syndrome in the UAE, and you can do too. For a good list of other hotels, see definitelydubai.ae and visitabudhabi.ae.

The other Emirates
Dipping over the mountains towards the gin clear Gulf of Oman. I pointed the car east, crossed some impressively craggy mountains, and entered a pocket of Omani territory too – no border crossing at this one though – and drove along the impressive Fujairah corniche. Seven Emirates make up the UAE, and exploring them by car is a great way to discover the patchwork of land that make up the country.

Trekking in the mountains of Ras al Khaimah. Photo Visit Ras Al Khaimah

As well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there’s Sharjah with its nicely restored souk, Ras Al Khaimah for a scattering of new hotels - including the Waldorf Astoria and Banyan Tree, Ajman for the Kempinski (www.kempinski.com/ajman) and dhow building, and sleepy Umm Al-Quwain, except for the Dreamland water park (www.dreamlanduae.com). The bling is spreading farther and wider across the UAE, but venturing away from the coastal strips of ultra modernity in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is a highlight for me. I’ve magical memories of the super courteous Emirati’s and the rugged desert land they live in.

04 Reasons to be cheerful: the city has come a long way since Wilfred Thesiger passed by in 1940s, when it was a small fishing village of about 2,000 people. There is now an outstanding choice of restaurants, shopping malls, and attractions. Taxis are cheap and the metro system is efficient.
24 You can't always get what you want: a bit of a Marmite destination is Dubai - as people either love it or hate it. It's true that there are still areas blighted by ongoing construction, plus the traffic along the Sheikh Zaid Road can be terrible. And shopping and eating out have become very expensive
puzzle Fitting Dubai into a holiday: most holidaymakers use Dubai as a stopover destination in between long haul flights, or alternatively a beach break holiday. Car hire is cheap in the UAE and so self driving to Abu Dhabi and the other Emirates is very easy.
31 Getting there: the main gateway airport is the Dubai International Airport, which handled almost 83 million passengers in 2016. There are direct flights to many world cities, including Bangkok, Barcelona, Delhi, Dublin, Hong Kong, London, Nairobi, New York, Stockholm, Shanghai, and Tokyo with Emirates. Other airlines include Aeroflot, Air India, FlyDubai, KLM and Singapore Airlines. 
weather When to visit: Dubai has fearsomely hot summers, when daytime highs can reach 50 degrees or more. Some hotels have to chill their swimming pools and spray mist over sunbathers. November to mid April is a better time to visit, though it is the high season, when temperatures are hot rather than boiling.
35 More info: see www.visitdubai.com
30 Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


What's it like to be on an inaugural flight? EasyJet's first ever flight To Varna...
posted by Richard Green on 08/06/2017

EasyJet's first flight arrives from Gatwick and is given a 'water salute' by two of the airport's fire engines. Photo easyJet

What is an inaugural flight? An inaugural flight is the first flight for an airline to a new destination, or the first flight an airline makes using a completely new aircraft type that it doesn't currently have in its fleet, or it can be the first ever flight of a particular new type of plane. 

An airline's first ever flight to a destination: e.g. easyJet from Gatwick to Varna. Being on an inaugural flight is not a thing that you would plan for of course - or even notice until you got onto the plane - but you might accidentally find yourself on one. And this is what happened to around 180 passengers who flew with easyJet from London Gatwick to Varna in Bulgaria 6th of June 2017. And I tagged along as part of a small press and PR group that was also on the flight.  

A captain, a Bulgarian flag and an easyJet A320. Photo easyJet  

Before we got under way, the captain stood on the passenger side of the cockpit door and made a cheery address about it being the first flight, and what to expect on landing. I don't mean the thud of the undercarriage locking in the down position or the roar of the thrust reversers pushing air backwards to act as a brake, but instead the surreal prospect of being flanked by fire engines and sprayed at close range with around 3,000 litres of water from their cannon. 

Cheerleading in easyJet's colours (that's pantone orange 021c and white) at Varna Airport. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

As the whole point of the fire truck and cannon are for emergencies, it's not the sort of thing you'd normally be wanting to see outside the window of your plane. In fact though, this is a harmless tradition that always happens to inaugural flights called a 'water salute'. Perhaps it harks back to the days when ocean liners were sprayed with water jets on entering or leaving ports, but the tradition of soaking first flights is well-established in the aviation industry. 

Big wigs from the airport and the city stand for a photocall by the steps of the plane. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The buzz of the welcome arch over, the plane taxied to its parking space as normal, and instead of the trudge or short bus ride to the arrivals area, we disembarked into an energetic melee of people and activity that had more the air of a village fete. Cue orange and white balloons tied to the steps, a troop of dancing girls, and loud music from portable speakers. Everyone was given a blue kiss-me-quick Panama hat bearing the slogan, 'I love Varna airport', and a family booked on the first returning flight to Gatwick received a return ticket to a city of their choice on the easyJet European network of 130 cities.  

Balloons, banner, and a berk in a 'I love Varna' hat. Photo My Bathroom Wall

While the rest of the passengers trooped hapilly through immigration and customs - most still wearing their blue Panama hats - the official welcoming comittee walked into the departure lounge. Here we were greeted by more balloons, a large three-tier wedding style cake (complete with taxi and telephone box motifs), cup cakes, cocktails, and speeches. 

Cocktails, cake, and more cake, in the departure lounge welcoming ceremony. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I've been on several inaugural flights, and usually on landing - except for the traditiona water salute - it's just a case of getting off the plane and through immigration as normal. Not in Bulgaria though, where Varna Airport and EasyJet laid on by far the best welcoming ceremony that I've yet to experience.  

The second type of inaugural flights is where an airline uses a new aircraft type on a route: e.g. the Ethiopian Airlines Airbus A350. The airline has been flying to London for decades, so it wasn't a new route, but the airline was celebrating when its first passenger flight using a new type of plane. For example, I flew on the inaugural flight of the Ethiopian Airlines Airbus A350 from Heathrow to its capital city and hub airport of Addis Ababa, in August 2016. All passengers received gifts on boarding the plane in London then on board the crew served a celebratory cake and bubbly.  

I wrote this piece for the Telegraph to accompany news of the flight: Five reasons to visit Ethiopia - on the world's newest passenger plane


The crew with cake and champagne, and the A350 at Heathrow. Photos My Bathroom Wall and Ethiopian Airlines 

The first passenger flight of a new aircraft type: e.g. ANA's first Dreamliner flight. There is another excuse for razzmatazz when a new plane type makes its first or last passenger flight. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is a revolutionary aircraft that first flew passengers commercially on the 26th of October 2011 - it was operated by launch customer All Nippon Airways of Japan (ANA), it flew from Tokyo to Hong Kong, and I was invited on board to write a piece for the Sunday Times.  

The 787 landed in Hong Kong and was met by a Chinese Dragon and a mob of media. Photo My Bathroom Wall

This flight was rather special in that the aircraft represented a big leap forward in terms of fuel efficiency and quietness, thanks to the use of so much composite materials. There was a huge press conference at Tokyo airport, then a saki ceremony at the boarding gate. On board though there were more journalists, cameramen and Boeing reps than 'real' passengers.

In order to gather some of the passengers thoughts on the experience I asked one big-haired woman how she was enjoying the first flight of the 787. She choked up and said "it's like when your first child leaves home, so I am feeling rather emotional to be honest". Before she became any more upset, I asked for her name and where she was from all the same. It turned out she was from the Boeing plant in Seattle, where the aeroplane is made - and had been working on the project for six years, so I let her off.    

One more thing...the water cannon salute takes place hundreds of times a year without incident, but this wasn't the case on the 30th of March 2015 when a Virgin Atlantic A330 was about to leave on it's inaugural flight from Manchester to Atlanta. On this occasion the hapless fire engine crew accidentally performed a 'water salute' with foam. Used to put out fires, the foam made a pretty good job of putting out the engines too, and clogged the sensitive turbine blades with gunk. The 252 passengers on board were initially delayed for five hours and then had their flight cancelled.   

Virgin's A330 flight was delayed and then cancelled after a foam party style mishap at Manchester Airport



Easyjet's Gatwick-Varna route is operated thrice weekly throughout the summer season with one-way fares from £12.99, and a new summer season twice-weekly flights from Berlin Schoenefeld start on the 28th of June. See easyJet, Varna AirportVisit Varna, and Visit Bulgaria

Anna Aero pushes the aviation niche envelope to its limits by celebrating new airline routes through an Arch of Triumph of the week section, and even with pictures of the best new route cakes - in Cake of the week.  

The giant babies sculptures that nonchalantly scale Prague's TV Tower...
posted by Richard Green on 04/06/2017

Six of the 10 fibreglass babies nonchalantly crawling up and down the tower. Photo Tower Park Praha

Prague's Žižkov Television Tower was completed in 1992, and since 2000 its distinctive outline was softened by the addition of what look like 10 giant babies crawling up and down the tower. The brief was to help the people of Prague love their tower a little more - and in that the sculptures were only meant to be temporary, and yet they are still there, it seems to have worked.  

As a passing tourist, I was drawn to the tower as a diversion from the swathes of gorgeously attractive buildings in the Old Town of Prague. What caught my eye were the babies crawling up the outside of the structure. 

Prague's TV tower dominates the skyline. Photo Tower Park Praha

The tower has attracted much criticism over the years, not least because it dominates one of Europe's most beautiful and low rise skylines, but also due to the very nature of its rather brutal design. It's an example of Structural Expressionism (also known as High-Tech Architecture), which evolved in the 1970s in reaction to the thinking that modern architecture of that period had become an endless parade of monotonous structures.

The rather brutal design has been softened by the infant climbers. Photos Tower Park Praha

No self respecting East European capital missed the opportunity under Communism of building a very tall, very modern, and usually very much despised TV tower, and Prague's offering is a three column steel structure that is 216 metres tall, and with an observation deck at 93m. 

The 10 baby statues are made from fibreglass by renowned Czech sculptor, David Černý, who has form at creating controversy and making onlookers double take; having in 1991 provocatively painted a Soviet tank bright pink, and courted more controversy by exhibiting a statue of Saddam Hussein in a tank of formaldehyde in 2005.

Close up the babies are cute enough below the neck, but their heads are actually far from pretty, or even human, but have a strange mutant crease where facial features would normally be. Yet Černý's remit was to help transform the way that people feel about the tower, and in that he seems to have successed. It began as a temporary project, but because the sculptures proves so popularly appealing, they are now very much permanent fixtures. 

I'm a sucker for getting an aerial view of any city that I am visiting, just for some context and plain old interesting views, but the observation deck and restaurant at the Žižkov Tower are well worth a visit, and for a closer look at Černý's daredevil infants.

Three bronze babies to the same design, also by David Černý, in Kampa Park. Photo Anguskirk/Flickr

See Tower Park Praha


Icelandair is at it again; this time converting a plane into a flying glacier...
posted by Richard Green on 01/06/2017

A special promotional flypast of the Vatnajökull Glacier. Photo Icelandair

Following on from Icelandair's earlier Northern Lights livery, the company has come up with another bold and bonkers design - this time the theme is a glacier. Specifically, a Boeing 757-200 into has been transformed into the Vatnajökull plane, a colourful representation of Iceland's (and Europe's) largest glacier mass.

The natural phenomenon that covers over 8,000 sq km (or about 8% of the country's land area) of the country's southeast with an average thckness of ice of 400 metres. The glacier played Siberia in the opening sequence of the 1985 James Bond film 'A View to a Kill', in which Bond (played for the last time by the late Roger Moore) bumped off a cabal of armed villains, before apparently escaping by submarine to Alaska. The glacier was used as a location for the second season of the HBO fantasy TV series, Game of Thrones too.

Icelandair's glacier liveried 757 at Orlando Airport. Photo Orlando Airport

Each of the Icelandair fleet are named after Icelandic volcanoes and commissioned this special livery as part of its 80th anniversary celebrations for 2017.
The plane was spray painted by hand by a team of artists - the same gang responsible for the Hekla Aurora plane. In case you'd like to know, the process of airbrushing the plane is a specialist task that took 24 days to complete, using 1,062 litres of paint to cover the entire plane.
Skilled spraypaint artists at work on the fuselage. Photo Icelandair
And like the Aurora concept, the new Vatnajökull plane also features touches of glacier detail inside the cabin. Ambient moving LED blue lighting is installed in the main cabin; headrests have a fresh ice white and brilliant turquoise design. Even the drinks trolley will be transformed into a mini ice-cave, while cups, napkins, and yes even sick bags, are decorated with glacier prints.
The cool blues and greens of the aircraft cabin, mimicking the hues of a glacier. Photo Icelandair
The Vatnajökull glacier has three active volcanos under its mantle of ice, and is the most active in Iceland and has erupted around 60 times in the last 800 years. Icelandair has been a supporter of the ‘Friends of Vatnajokull’ since the non-profit organisation was formed in 2009 to support research and educational activities.
The glacier theme even makes an appearance in the toilets. Photo Icelandair

For more information on the plane see http://www.icelandair.co.uk/vatnajokull/.

And for My Bathroom Wall's take on the airline and its Aurora Borealis livery, see My Bathroom Wall

Is Cologne worth staying in for a day or two...?
posted by Richard Green on 01/06/2017

I'm planning to see some of Europe by train and as I it seems I will have to change trains in Cologne, is it worth staying for a day or two?

I'd say yes, for sure. It's true that Cologne isn't in the top tier of Europe's city break destinations, but it has a lot going for it. It’s an energetic place with a magnificent Gothic cathedral that looks a little like it may have just burst through the earth's crust. The lively Old Town has a redeveloped riverside district called Rheinauhafen, and there are great museums.

The train station is right by the gigantic double-spired cathedral called the Dom. It’s about the most jaw-dropping exit from a train station you can imagine - perhaps only pipped by the exit from the main station in Venice, which delivers you down some steps by a canal and commotion.

Apparently, the Dom took 600 years to build and most certainly gives Milan’s more famous Duomo a run for its money.

Be sure to climb the south tower for a peek at the world’s largest swinging bell ­- St Peter’s Bell, weighing 24 tons - and for the panoramas from the 300ft high viewing platform. You can play 'spot the Romanesque church' from up here, as there are 12 others in the city.

Museum-wise, start at the modern Ludwig Museum, which has an excellent collection of 20th-century and contemporary art. Or for something more whimsical, head to the hybrid old-meets-new construction by the Rhine, housing the very entertaining Chocolate Museum. There’s a good Sports Museum in the city too.

Punters about to get stuck in at the Chocolate Museum. Photo Schokoladenmuseum

In the evening, the Old Town’s street life pulsates, as revellers head here to down small glasses of the famous Kolsch beer, and fill the many busy cafés and restaurants. Watch out though, the less than half pint glasses and super-speedy table service have a way of creeping up on you.

For somewhere to stay, the three Hopper hotels are a good bet. The latest of the trio is St. Josef’s which, like the other two, occupies a historic building (this one a former Kindergarten cum soup kitchen for the poor) and has design-style rooms and a classy feel. Alternatively, St. Antonius is close to the train station and the Et Cetera is in the trendy Belgian Quarter. Personally I'm intrigued by any city with a bona fida Belgian Quarter. 

For something very different there’s the Hotel im Wasserturm, which was converted from what in its day was Europe’s biggest water tower. It's now a design hotel with a spectacular roof terrace - be sure to visit even if you aren't staying.

One more thing...Eau de Cologne (Cologne Water) is usually abbreviated as just Cologne and can be traced back to Johann Maria Farina, who first mixed the citrus-spirit perfume in 1709. Today it has become a generic term for perfume - especially men's - in the way that Hoover, Speedo and Jacuzzi have done for all the similar products associated with thiers. There's a museum attached to the company premises now, which is run by the eighth generation of the family. See www.farinahaus.de and www.farina1709.com

An upstart perfume called '4711' was created by a rival in 1799 and is still going strong too. Eau de Cologne is still produced today, and you can visit its imposing shop. See www.4711.com

The 4711 shop then and now. Photo House of 4711


Fitting Cologne into a holiday: Cologne makes for an interesting city break, and Dusseldorf is just a 20-minute train ride away. Anyone Interrailing will likely pass through the city, as the train station is a major hub for regional and internation trains. 


Getting there: Cologne Bonn Airport is 15 kilometres southeast of the city and handled over 10 million passengers in 2015. There are flights to most major European cities, plus Eurowings has flights to Bangkok, Havana, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando, Windhoek and others. Train services from the city include Brussels in under 2hrs, Berlin around 4hrs and Paris around 3hrs.


When to visit: Spring is popular as temperatures become warm and the beer gardens come into their own. July and August are high summer - warm, but tend towards being a little humid. September to November and April to June are pleasant for sightseeing, though it's the Autumn that has slightly cooler temperatures, colourful foliage, and cheapest hotel prices. Winters are chilly or downright cold, but Cologne has good Christmas Markets.

35 More info: see www.koelntourismus.de and the German national Tourist Board.

Seeing the funny side of a close encounter with a 32 stone mountain gorilla...
posted by Richard Green on 01/06/2017

The following article first appeared in the Sunday Times

A 32 stone silverback is 7ft away from me. It's majestic and magical - and, to prove it, I'm giggling uncontrollably. My shoulders are quivering, my eyes are streaming and all the lip-biting in the world can't stop it.

I'm in trouble. Big, hairy, gorilla-sized, 7ft 6in arm-span trouble. Just a few moments ago, this giant ape was gazing benignly over his family and the lush landscape of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, but not any more. He turns his enormous head towards me, slowly and purposefully, like the turret of a tank swivelling to select its next target. And now he's staring right at me.

The small part of my brain that's not finding him funny starts to wonder what it'll feel like when he rips my head off and my windpipe squelches in two. And all because, right here, right now, I've hit a stupid seam of mirth. I just can't stop laughing.

A Silverback's silver back is a saddle of silver hair that displays sexual maturity. Photo Volcanoes Safaris

This is not what I'd expected. In fact, the day had started seriously enough, at 5am, when a super-friendly member of the lodge staff bounded up to my bungalow and rapped on the door. With a chirpy "good morning", he handed me a Thermos and was away. After I'd taken a reviving hot shower and a slurp of some tea, I was raring to go too.

Not only was I one of the day's fortunate 56 people who would be allowed to spend an hour with Rwanda's gorillas, I was staying at the brand-new Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. It's only a mile from the park entrance, enabling trekkers to stay in real comfort for the first time.

One of the eight cottages at the lodge, with Mount Sabyinyo in the background. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

It's one thing to be cosseted by a smart new lodge, but is it really possible to relax in Rwanda? There may be gorillas in the jungle, but what about that elephant in the room: the genocide? It's just 14 years since almost 1m people were killed in 100 days of bloodletting.

You might think that the ministry of tourism has beaten a safe path through to the gorillas, but not to anywhere else. In fact, the whole country, from the stunningly beautiful Lake Kivu to the southern Nyungwe Forest full of chimpanzees, is remarkably safe. Even in Kigali, the rather appealing capital, it's fine to walk about at night.

Landing at Kigali, you'll have to swap any duty-free bags for locally produced home-woven affairs made from banana leaves, as plastic ones are banned here. And on the two-hour drive to the lodge, you'll see not a single Coke can or juice carton of litter. Just smiles and waves all the way.

The lodge itself occupies a clearing halfway up the extinct Sabyinyo volcano's 12,000ft cone. Each of the eight bungalows has a large open fire, a dressing room and a giant bathroom, but in daylight hours it's impossible to sit inside. The veranda front-rows the most magnificent slice of Africa imaginable - the fabled Mountains of the Moon, vast equatorial peaks that are the suitably peerless habitat for the world's only mountain gorillas.

Comfy cottage bedroom at the lodge. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

The low-rise reception building has a fine terrace, perfect for breakfasts and sundowners; inside, there's an attractive dining room, adjoined by an embryonic library and a cosy lounge.

This location comes at a price. You have to stay full-board, which, thanks to the miracles worked in the kitchen, is far from a hardship, and all drinks (including alcohol) are complimentary. At a rack rate of £347 a night in high season, however, they would need to be.

It's revolutionary luxury as, previously, visitors had to make do with the nearby Mountain Gorilla's Nest hotel - an unsympathetic mishmash of a place, robbed of views by a ring of eucalyptus - or the Virunga Lodge, which, though enthusiastically run and overlooking Lake Bulera, meant battling with bucket showers, long-drop loos and an hour's drive to the park.

An unusually clear view of Mount Sabyinyo, part of the Parc National des Volcans. Photo Volcanoes Safaris

After a quick briefing, we entered the thick jungle in single file, the imminence of the gorillas' appearance heightening our senses to every cracking twig and crash of the tracker's machete. Trackers stay with the animals all day to guard against poachers, while others lead the groups; at the back comes a soldier escort, which does the same, but with machineguns.

After a steep but short climb of less than 30 minutes, we sidled round a clump of greasy bamboos, and there they were - 22 gorillas, dotted about like hairy black Buddhas. Several of the animals were hugging themselves, keeping warm with the same exaggerated "My, it's chilly" gesture humans use. Wow.

Old hairy arms surveying his domain

I had David Attenborough's reverent whispers to camera firmly in mind, but as we slid right into the heart of the group, the atmosphere seemed altogether tamer than when he was filming: mesmerising and wonderful, yes, but not threatening. The trackers spoke at normal volume and even chuckled, not when the gorillas did something cute - they'd seen all that before - but at the antics of us tourists. A Belgian girl tripping over her boyfriend set them off. Then a mobile phone rang and a camera bleeped. Then, amid the sound of bamboo crunching under clumsy people, someone - possibly a gorilla, possibly an Australian - farted.

So I didn't whisper. It felt library-like naughty, but nobody told me off, and the gorillas didn't seem to mind. They didn't seem to mind anything, which made sitting with 22 of the world's last 700, well, rather odd. They appeared less fearsome and more lummox-like than I could ever have imagined, parodies of themselves, even. All I could think about was the Cadbury's drummer, and a sweaty guy I'd met at a fancy-dress party.

A group of Cadbury's drummers - I mean mountain gorillas - relaxing in a jungle clearing. Photo Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Soon, I slid my way to within a few feet of Agashya (the silverback) and sat down to stare. He was playing with a yellowy-brown paste, concentrating on it in the way a child does when sculpting mashed potato - except that he was rubbing it into the pad of his foot. It looked to me as though he were massaging a cut.

Amazed, I turned to the nearest guide: "Is that paste a natural remedy that the gorillas find in the root of plants?" I imagined our nearest genetic neighbours fashioning a pestle and mortar from bamboo, grinding the potion from leaves and roots.

The guide leant in close to me, our raincoats colliding with a rubbery squeak. "No," he said. "He's playing with his poo."

Which is when my giggling fit began. I didn't mean to laugh, but really. Agashya soon saw, though, that my buffoonery was no threat to him or his family, so he just scratched his ear (with his poo-covered fingers) and went back to rubbing his foot.


One more thing...Paradoxically, when you think of Rwanda's recent history, is that after a few days in the country's capital, backroads and jungles, the calm, friendly and safe atmsphere there lead me to drop my guard. The country never once felt threatening - silverback encounter aside - and I grew relaxed enough to allow myself to be robbed of my camera when changing planes in Nairobi. So alas the many hundreds of photos that I took of the gorillas, and more importantly of the scenery, villages and people, are lost. 


Fitting the Volcanoes National Park into a holiday: Most visitors to Rwanda head straight to see the gorillas, and then head home. But a great loop is to include a wild chimpansee safari in the Nyungwe National Park and a a day or two at Gisenyi on the tranquil shores of Lake Kivu. Plus the Akagera National Park (just 110 kilometres from Kigali) has great game viewing,


Getting there: Kigali International Airport handled around 600,000 passengers in 2015, and is just five kilometres from the city. Rwandair destinations include Accra, Brussels, Dubai, London Gatwick, Johannesburg, Kilimanjaro, Mombassa, Mumbai and Nairobi. Other useful flights include Brussels with Brussels Airlines, Kenya Airways to Nairobi, KLM to Amsterdam, Qatar Airways to Doha, and Turkish Airlines to Itanbul.   


When to visit: slightly south of the Equator and at altitude, Rwanda has a very pleasant climate. The long dry season is from June to September, with a short dry season from December-February. The long rainy season is March-May, when rain can be torrential and prolonged, and then there is a less deluged short rainy season October-November. Although the jungle and mountains ensure mists and the chance of showers at any times of the year, gorilla trekking is best during the dry seasons, when the steep dirt paths are easier to negotiate and there is a better chance of sunshine. However the best time to see the chimps in Nyungwe is in the rainy seasons when the apes are easier to see owing to their abundance of food.


More info: see Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda Tourism. I travelled as a guest of Audley Travel, which can tailor-make trips to Rwanda. Other UK based tour operators include Tribes Travel and Rainbow Tours, with Volcanoes Safaris being a good local tour operator. The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is still the closest lodge to the park, which is just three kilometres away, but there has been a big improvement in accommodation option - like the Virunga Lodge, and due to open in June 2017, the Bisate Lodge.  


Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.

The writing's on My Bathroom Wall - travel news 1st of June 2017
posted by Richard Green on 01/06/2017
33 Rwandair starts first ever direct flights between Kigali and London

The inaugural flight touched down at London's Gatwick Airport on the 26th of May, after an 8 hour 40 minute flight from Kigali. Rwanda's national carrier will connect the cities three days per week using a wide body Airbus A330-200, with return fares starting from £368. This also opens up new connections from London (via Kigali) to Dar es Salaam (from £308), Entebbe (from £345), Mombassa (from £378) and others. Other Rwandair destinations include Brussels, Mumbai, Dubai and Istanbul. 

  See Rwandair and Rwanda Tourism, and My Bathroom Wall for a write up of what it's like to be caught giggling at close range by a Silverback Mountain Gorilla.
33 Qatar Airways offer free Doha stopovers, and Dubai airport instals sleeping pods

Passengers changing planes in Doha offered free transit visa and a night in a hotel - with an additional night for $50USD per booking. Four star properties free for economy passengers include the Holiday Villa Hotel & Residence, the Radisson Blu, and the Amari; and hotels for First and Business Class passengers include the InterContinental, Four Seasons, and Shangri-La.

A new Sleep-n-fly lounge has opened in Terminal 3 at Dubai airport, with 27 sleeping pods and cabins. Designed in Scandinavia, the single pods costs from $17USD for an hour, and seven hours from $77USD, while double-bedded cabins with pull out beds for children are from $60USD for two hours, and seven hours for $160USD.

  Find more details at Qatar Airways and Visit Qatar. And re Dubai see Sleep-n-fly. For the world's best airport hotels, see My Bathroom Wall
Perfectly located for tourists, three new metro stations open in Old Delhi

Delhi's new 'Heritage Line' opened on May 28th, an extension of the Violet Line with three new underground stations perfectly placed for visitors wanting to see the Delhi Gate, Jama Masjid (mosque) and Lal Quila (for the Red Fort).


See Delhi Metro and Delhi Tourism 

33 Other new airline routes for June

Low cost carrier Norwegian will start more long haul flights in June - from Belfast, Dublin and Edinburgh to New York (Stewart International) and Boston (TF Green Airport, Providence); Cork to Boston, and Edinburgh to Hartford/Springfield.

Plus Delta starts flights from London to Portland, Air India starts flights between Delhi and Stockholm, Aer Lingus start Dublin to Miami, AirAsia is to connect Kuala Lumpur with Sihanoukville (Cambodia's premier beach resort region), and Air New Zealand is to lay on 52 extra flights to assist fans getting to Ed Sheeran's 2018 concerts in Dunedin, Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington. 


See Norwegian, Delta, Air India, Aer Lingus, Air Asia, and Air New Zealand.

34 British Airways damaged by technical and customer service meltdown 

British Airways suffered a catastrophic computer failure on the 27th of May, grounding hundreds of flights around the world, and clogging London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports with aircraft unable to depart and huge numbers of angry passengers. British Airways may well be up and flying again, but the reputational damage will last for months, if not longer. The company seems to have forgotten the basics of how to deal with people during disruption, with only mealy mouthed and slow responses from the unsympathetic CEO, Alex Cruz. 

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