Head for Heights

Determined to conquer his fear of heights, Peter Geoghegan signed up for a rooftop tour of Stockholm. But could sweeping views of the beautiful Swedish capital cure him? (From Ryan Air magazine, May 2011).

A couple of days before I left for Stockholm, Veerle, my rooftop tour guide, had sent me a pithy, one-line email: “Don’t forget your diaper.” Swedes are known for their dark sense of humour, but, as I inch along the edge of the Old Parliament’s roof, I can’t help but wonder if she really was joking. “See all those people,” Veerle smiles, as she points at a sea of bobbing blonde heads far below. “We are 43m above them!” My throat is bone dry, my palms soaking wet, and the nearest clean underwear is back in my hotel room at the Clarion Sign.

Most European city tours don’t begin in the dusty loft of a centuries-old building, but then again this isn’t your typical leisurely jaunt around picturesque Stockholm. Our group of around 25 hardy souls meets on the tiny island of Riddarholm, a cobblestone’s throw from the fabled old-town district, Gamla Stan. From here the only way is up. After a short elevator ride to the top of the impressive former Riksdag, we each get a harness, a comprehensive safety talk, and a hefty dose of panic (at least, I do). Veerle, however, doesn’t do fear. Lean and athletic, she looks like she’s spent the last five years on the roof of the Old Parliament building in all weather, roaming about, carefree. Which, of course, she has.

“Now you’re ready for the roof!” Veerle exclaims, slamming a white plastic hard hat onto my unwilling head, before politely but firmly ushering me towards the small staircase that leads directly onto the open roof. Strict safety rules are adhered to, and you have to be at least 1.5m (4.9ft) tall. But nevertheless my heart starts palpitating wildly as soon as I step out.

Fear of heights is remarkably common, and acrophobia (unlike vertigo) is a purely psychological condition. However, most sufferers aren’t in the habit of taking rooftop strolls on one of the Swedish capital’s most iconic buildings.

Six floors up, the wind is noticeably stronger than it was back on terra firma. Already, I am regretting the horseradish schnapps knocked back after dinner in Matbaren the previous evening. Luckily, help is at hand. “You will be walking the dog,” Veerle says, as she attaches the cable that runs from my harness to a fixed line that follows a foot-wide metal catwalk. This pathway runs for 300m up, across and down the rooftop, covering roughly the same distance as a city block. If anything happens then the bulky safety cable connected to my harness will save my bacon – or at least that’s the plan.

Our group is split into two – English and Swedish – and I file in at the back of the former, silent and rather sullen, looking for all the world like a reluctant miner. However, with a supporting rail to hang onto for dear life and our friendly guide, Inger, at the head of the troop, I begin to warm up (metaphorically speaking – it’s freezing on the roof). I also get to enjoy the spectacular views across one of Scandinavia’s, and indeed Europe’s, most breathtakingly beautiful cities.

Stockholm is built on 14 separate islands in Riddarfjärden bay, where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea, and its nickname, the Venice of the North, is just about the only predictable thing about this diverse, exciting city. On the ground, Gamla Stan, which dates back to the 13th century, is a warren of medieval alleyways and cobbled streets. From the air the old town is transformed into a huddled mass of traditional black roofs. Once home to about 9,000 inhabitants, today barely 3,000 remain but the island still boasts some pretty influential residents. As Inger explains, the Swedish flag fluttering in the breeze over imposing Stockholm Palace signifies that the King is in Sweden, although even from 40m up it’s impossible to tell whether he is at home in his palatial pad or not.

Shimmying along the roof a little further, the trendy Södermalm district comes into view. This old working-class neighbourhood has undergone a massive revival in the last 10–15 years and today Söder (which means south) boasts a plethora of funky shops, hip bars and good restaurants. In fiction, it’s also home to Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium Trilogy. Brave and pugnacious Lisbeth would make light work of a little rooftop ramble – unfortunately I am made of much weaker stuff.

Creeping from the southern side of the Old Parliament building to the west, the handrail finishes. My nerve quickly follows suit. Despite the wind, beads of cold sweat begin to hang on my brow as I shuffle across the roof ’s edge.

“This is the tricky part, but don’t worry, it’s not too hard,” Inger says as she skips with nonchalant ease between the front and the back of our group. Everyone seems to agree, moving quickly along, stopping only to snap pictures and to chat to one another. Everyone except me. Beating a pace that a snail would be ashamed of, I try my best not to look down.

I fail. Far below me, I watch a train disgorge passengers at Gamla Stan station. They seem so tiny, so far away. Dizzy, my pen slips from my clammy hand (what was I hoping to write – ‘save me’?). It bounces down the roof, almost in slow motion, before silently falling six floors to the ground. If I couldn’t empathise with James Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo before, I certainly can now.

In the distance, the three gold-plated crowns on the summit of the stately City Hall glisten in the evening light. Here, on 10 December every year, the Nobel Prize winners’ banquet is held. Unfortunately, I’m too busy concentrating on staring straight ahead to pay it much attention right now. “Don’t worry, you’re almost there,” Inger assures me, but the remaining track feels more like 40 miles than 40m. Resisting (just) the temptation to get down on my hands and knees and crawl to the finish line, I keep on walking. Slowly. Very slowly.

The rest of my group have long finished by the time I limp home – some are standing around taking photographs of nearby Riddarholm Church, the venerable burial place of Swedish monarchs until 1950; others are already getting changed, but I don’t care. About 45 minutes after we started I have completed a full circuit of the roof. And it feels amazing.

“You did it!” Veerle exclaims, slapping me hard on the back. I smile broadly, trying not to look too proud. Out to the west the setting sun shimmers on the still waters of Riddarfjärden bay. It’s my first photograph from the roof.

Half an hour later, minus the harness and the hard hat, I stop for a well-deserved glass of aquavit in a bar in Gamla Stan, to celebrate conquering my fear. From my seat at the window, the Old Parliament building is clearly visible. Clouded in semi-darkness, the roof now seems impossibly, frighteningly high. Was today a fantastic experience? Definitely. Did I leave my fear of heights behind in Stockholm? Not quite.

Eyjafjallajökull One Year On

Like Z-list celebrities, volcanoes are often more infamous than famous. Vesuvius, Krakatoa, Etna: all owe their household name status to the destructive force of their periodic eruptions. Last year, another, more difficult to pronounce name entered the pantheon of volcanic infamy – Eyjafjallajökull.

The Eyjafjallajökull glacier, in south-west Iceland, had been dormant for some 200 years when on, April 13 2010 it erupted for the second time in less than a month. The first explosion, in late March, measured just a 1 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) but was so powerful that it ripped a 1km-long fissure in the ice-sheet, spewing basalt lava, which streamed in rivers creating awesome lava falls.

But is it the second phase of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption that everyone will remember. Registering 4 on the VEI, it was one of the biggest ever recorded in Iceland – and one of the most disruptive. A plume of ash, estimated at some 300 million cubic metres, was sent around 11km into the earth’s atmosphere, bringing chaos to our skies as aviation authorities struggled to access the risk for air travel.

The closure of much of Europe’s airspace between April 15 and 20 was the largest disruption of air travel since the Second World War. ‘I hate Iceland,’ one grounded Scottish tourist memorably roared at a television crew vox-popping disgruntled would-be passengers in one British airport.

For Icelanders, however, volcanic activity is simply part of life in the land of fire and ice. While scientists from around the world continue to monitor the island’s myriad volcanic sites, famers living in the shadow of the spectacular Eyjafjallajökull glacier have, for centuries, used a rather more traditional method to detect ashfall. Each night a white plate is placed next to the main door to the farmhouse: if, next morning, the plate is black with dust and ash then has been an eruption somewhere in the vicinity.

‘This is a volcanic island, there is activity, it’s just a fact of life,’ Heather Millard, a documentary film-maker, originally from Cambridge now living Iceland, explained to me in a café in downtown Reykjavik recently.

Millard is currently working on ‘Ash: Aftermath Under the Volcano’, a film following the lives of three Icelandic families living in the ferocious shadow of Eyjafjallajökull. ‘People by the volcano are still really worried,’ she says. ‘One of the famers’ wives has recurring nightmares of lava coming towards here.’

Arguably the most surprising aspect of last year’s eruption was not the force and scale of the explosion and its aftermath, but that it happened at Eyjafjallajökull and not Mount Hekla.

Located in the south of Iceland, Hekla is overdue a major eruption. Nicknamed the ‘Gateway to Hell’ in the Middle Ages, the effects of an eruption at Hekla could be far more devastating than anything witness last year: many historians trace the roots of the 1848 revolutions that swept across Europe to a series of massive explosions here in 1845 and 1846 that led to crops across the continent being ruined.

Given increasingly levels of global uncertainty about resources and climate change, another massive eruption could have equally sweeping effects.

The US by train

‘I’m not like anyone you’ve met before. Not in Europe, America or anyplace else.” Rider, my unexpected travelling companion for a sizeable tranche of the train ride from Washington DC to New York, is not delivering an idle boast — just the opposite, in fact. At 6ft-plus, with lank, straw-coloured hair and a wide-rimmed Panama hat, he is Crocodile Dundee if Paul Hogan had arms like tree trunks, a southern drawl and a mischievous glint in his eye.

Rider and I have only been sitting together five minutes — I was forced to switch carriages when the air-con in mine packed in before we had even left the District of Columbia city limits — but already he is halfway through the Cliff Notes version of his life story.

As Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, drifts past our window, and we slip seamlessly from Maryland into Delaware, Rider solemnly recounts his annotated successes and failures: he became a furniture maker after he lost his job (and his marriage) in the aftermath of the financial crash; he now lives in Kentucky, but is headed for Philadelphia to see his sister’s newborn baby for the first time; he’s 38 and would dearly like “to kick my 19-year-old self’s butt”.

Rider is certainly sui generis, but his openness, his desire to tell his story, is surprisingly typical of rail travellers in America.

In a country where nobody takes the train because they need to get somewhere fast, railway carriages double up as public places, spaces where strangers meet, talk and, at times, argue. That most Americans seldom set foot on a train — the average annual distance travelled by rail per head of population is just half that of Pakistan (and a whopping 30 times less than those train-loving Swiss) — contributes to a garrulous sense of conviviality, of shared experience, that you’ll struggle to find on any European rail line.

Alfred Hitchcock perfectly understood the possibilities, both for benign chatter and malignant plotting, American train travel presents.

His classic ‘Strangers on a Train’, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of its release later this year, centred on a plan for the perfect murder hatched by two complete strangers during the course of their journey from Washington to New York.

Just like amateur tennis player Guy Haines and the nefarious Bruno Anthony, Hitchcock’s pair of would-be murderers, my trip begins in the rather grandiose setting of Washington’s Union Station. Designed by the renowned American architect Daniel Burnham, the façade’s triumphal arch and neo-classical colonnades were inspired by the old Euston station in London. Unfortunately, nowadays the station’s interior feels a little too much like present-day Euston; glass-fronted shops, ubiquitous queues and precious little passenger information.

“The first thing you learn about rail travel in America is that the trains are late,” the acerbic English novelist Jenny Diski warns in ‘Stranger on a Train’, her singular account of travelling across America in 1997. Almost a decade and a half later, not much has changed.

After a half-hour wait, my train — the Crescent — finally appears and I gladly clamber aboard. The Crescent was once the jewel in the crown of the American railways. It still runs the 1,377 miles from New Orleans to Penn Station in New York daily, but its halcyon days are well behind it now.

The high-speed Acela does the journey from DC to New York in a little over two-and-a-half hours (my train will take upwards of five), while it’s less than an hour by plane.

A hundred years ago, America’s railroads were the envy of the world. Now, for vast swathes of the population, they are practically defunct.

Back in 1916, the US boasted some 254,251 miles of track; today, that figure stands at just 140,695. Many states have seen their public railways decimated, while two contiguous states, Wyoming and South Dakota, have no trains at all anymore. That Amtrak, the government-owned rail company, makes its money from freight (passenger trains run at a loss) is hardly a state secret.

Despite the poor condition of many US lines — or maybe even because of it — train travel is one of the best ways to see Uncle Sam in his most natural state. To stare out at an unfamiliar landscape as it goes by outside your control, in time to the rhythm of the wheels and the swaying of the carriage, is one of the few ways to truly comprehend the sheer vastness of America. And it’s only a fraction of the cost of an internal flight.

Few stops compare to spectacular Harpers Ferry, the historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers where the states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet, on the DC to Chicago line.

The journey from Washington to New York is not all rolling countryside and rural idylls, however. Barely 45 minutes after we leave Union Station a view familiar to fans of HBO’s remarkable series ‘The Wire’ pulls into view: dominated by John Hopkins and tall, shiny waterfront developments, Baltimore’s skyline formed the outer edge of the dystopian world rendered by ‘The Wire’s creator David Simon.

There’s no sign of McNulty, Omar Little or Avon Barksdale — the arbiters of good and evil in Simon’s fictional Baltimore — but, as our train moves out of the station and skirts through the city’s impoverished western edge, the urban scars left behind by decades of drugs and crime are all too visible. Rows and rows of abandoned houses zip past my eyes; wide, empty streets where nothing seems to move except intermittent clouds of dust.

Even the dark underbelly of the American Dream, it seems, cannot escape the train traveller’s gaze.

“Gee, did you see that back there? That looked really rough.” Rider, with all his worldly experience, is still shocked by our five-minute glimpse of inner-city Baltimore. Not that shocked, mind — 30 seconds later he resumes the telling of his life story.

As Rider recounts his move into carpentry, I keep the corner of my eye fixed on the window, where the east coast of America drifts by dispassionately. Ours is a journey through the industrial heartland of the US, a tract of land once packed full of busy shipping lane, and tireless cities that built the America we know today.

Past Chesapeake Bay and we’re into Wilmington, the largest city in the state of Delaware. Wilmington itself is unremarkable, its adherence to the unwritten diktat that all medium-sized American cities must have a shimmering high-rise urban core depressingly complete.

From Wilmington, it is a short hop across the invisible state line into Pennsylvania and on to Philadelphia. The ‘City of Brotherly Love’ is Rider’s destination, and my newfound travelling companion refuses to depart until he has given me some of its fabled fraternal affection.

“You take real good care now,” a lifetime of cigarettes and bourbon audible on Rider’s gravel-encrusted voice. “And don’t go forgetting me.” There’s precious little chance of that, but as the mass of concrete that entombs Philadelphia’s train station disappears from

view, I’m happy to my turn my attention once more to the blue-collar country beckoning outside my window.

Thirty kilometres or so past Philly, the Crescent pulls into Trenton, on New Jersey’s southern lip. “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” reads the large lettering on the two-lane Lower Free Bridge that crosses the Delaware river.

Installed in 1935, the slogan is a throwback to better times: remarkable as it now seems, in the late 19th and early-20th centuries, this sleepy, rather ramshackled town was a manufacturing powerhouse, where vast quantities of rubber, wire rope, ceramics and cigars were produced.

By the early 1960s, America’s manufacturing industry — and with it Trenton — was in terminal decline. In 1950 the town’s population was almost 125,000; now barely 80,000 hardy souls call it home, the decaying chimneys and abandoned factories reminders of its former glories.

Trenton, in many ways, is a microcosm of much of modern New Jersey. Although one of the wealthiest places in America by average income, the south-east coast of the much-maligned Garden State is no thing of great beauty. From New Brunswick to Elizabeth then Newark, we slowly plod past remnants of a rich, productive past lost forever.

This is classic rock country — Bruce Springsteen grew up in nearby Long Branch, Bon Jovi emerged from down the road in Sayreville — and I can’t resist humming ‘Glory Days’ as the train shuffles down the rail.

Finally, over an hour north of Trenton, the majestic New York skyline appears, almost out of thin air. Where scrapyards were, just moments before, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the iconic lower Manhattan skyline now fills my vista.

As our train ambles into Penn Station — some 70 minutes shy of our scheduled arrival time — a much smaller coach passes, heading in the opposite direction. ‘Hicksville’ reads the sign on the front carriage.

I’m about to step out into the probably the most vivacious city on earth, but a little part of me wishes I was riding the rails to Hicksville. Just imagine who you might meet on that train!

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent 12 February

Argyll peninsula: Lochs, Scots… and two whisky barrels

There are two types of season in Scotland,” Billy Connolly once quipped, “June and winter.”

As the warm evening sun flickers one final time on the calm, aquamarine waters of Loch Goil, near Loch Lomond, before disappearing behind the ruins of Carrick castle, I glance at my wristwatch. If the Big Yin ever tires of stand-up comedy, he could certainly have a future in meteorology: it’s 10.46pm on June 1.

Scotland is often described as a land of contrasts, both physical and cultural, and it’s not hard to see why. The bright lights of Glasgow are barely 40 miles away, but out on the loch, as porpoises bob up and down and gannets and oystercatchers soar majestically overhead, the big city feels like another, distant world. Only the slow, steady hum of the generator punctures the silence.

As darkness draws quickly in, I drain the last amber drops of Scotch from my glass and slip back into my lodgings for the night — and for the next week — the Glen Massan.

The boat, a converted fishing trawler, is one of two belonging to The Majestic Line, an Edinburgh-based outfit that specialises in luxurious cruises along the west coast of Scotland. I’m on board for a six-night wildlife-spotting cruise around the south Argyll peninsula.

The Massan, an 85ft slab of Irish oak, has been stripped and redecorated for less able seamen, with a stylish saloon, surprisingly salubrious and spacious cabins, and a viewing deck replete with sun loungers (for those occasional non-June afternoons when a bout of high pressure interrupts Connolly’s long-term outlook).

The brainchild of keen amateur sailors and old school friends Ken Grant and Andy Thoms — inspired by a jaunt on a Turkish gulet, they founded the company in 2004 — The Majestic Line operates from Dunoon and Oban, two of the most famous fishing ports in west Scotland. Both are little more than an hour’s drive from Glasgow, but there’s no need to hire a car: I’m one of a handful of guests collected from the international airport by shore manager Andrew Manwell.

“It’s all part of the service,” Andrew smiles, before going on to entertain his rapt audience with salty tales from the Clyde’s long shipbuilding history, the remnants of which are clearly visible in rusting industrial towns such as Greenock and Port Glasgow that pockmark the road from Glasgow to Dunoon.

Andrew’s friendly, informative manner is typical of The Majestic Line, where luxury seldom equates with stuffiness. Indeed, our vessel has barely pulled out of its berth when there’s a knock on my cabin door. “Sorry to bother you but we’re going to be sounding the horn in a moment,” explains engineer Bob McLean, who I’d been introduced to only moments earlier over a bon voyage glass of bubbly in the saloon.

“Don’t be alarmed. It’s because we’ll be passing by Andy Thoms’ mum’s house and we’re giving her a birthday salute. She’s 94 today. You’re more than welcome to come up and have a wave if you like!”

Scurrying up the stairs, I’m just in time to spot a white tea-cloth furiously moving back and forth across the front window of a semi-detached house on the shore. “There’s Mrs Thoms,” Bob smiles, as we glide by, picking up a gentle speed. We begin the voyage towards Loch Goil, our first night’s port of call.

As the sun sets over the rolling hills, the guests — eight in total — unwind over a long, languorous and consistently excellent evening meal in the saloon.

My girlfriend and I are, by some distance, the youngest members of our party, but the group has little of the static, retired air I had expected from a cruise boat. Two middle-aged English couples, Viv and Robin, and Jean and Gordon, have come north separately but share a love of wildlife, while Carol and her octogenarian father George have travelled from the east coast of the US especially for the trip. “I come for the whisky, really,” George laughs, admiring the two fingers of Talisker single malt in his tumbler.

It’s impossible to gauge how guests will gel beforehand — and it could be a long week if they don’t — but thankfully there are no personality clashes, and we’ve nothing to distract us from the remarkable scenery of Argyll and its myriad islands. The area’s roads are notoriously bad (think Cavan circa 1987 but worse), so water really is the best form of transport for exploring Scotland at its wildest and most dramatic.

Our daily itinerary is pleasingly flexible: each morning, skipper Martin McWhirr puts down his sextant and alights from his cosy, wood-panelled bridge to inquire of the breakfast table, in dulcet Clydeside tones, “Where do you want to go today?” McWhirr’s ‘suggestions’ are generally accepted — he is the captain, after all — but where we decide to stop, and for how long, along the day’s route is always up for playful negotiation.

On the island of Bute, past the faded seaside glamour of its main town, Rothesay, we spend a sunny afternoon exploring Mount Stuart house, home to the current Marquess of Bute. The house was built by the third Marquess in the second half of the 19th century: a dyed-in-the-world eccentric, he installed one of world’s first heated swimming pools, decorated his pile with astrological symbols, collected fine art and built a majestic white marble chapel. (An orphan, the Marquess converted to Catholicism at the age of 18.)

Mount Stuart also hints at the rich history Argyll shares with Ireland. Throughout the sixth and seventh centuries, the powerful, Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada encompassed Antrim and the west coast of Scotland, and some historians argue that the Book of Kells was produced on the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides.

The old language hasn’t died out completely, and a quick stop at the picturesque village of Tighnabruaich, nestled on the east coast of Loch Fyne, provides a golden opportunity for this journalist to wow his fellow guests with a cúpla focal.

“Aye, it means ‘the house on the bank’,” Dougie Wilson confirms my guestimate. Dougie, the Glen Massan’s hugely talented chef, moved from Falkirk — an unremarkable commuter town midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow — to live on one of the many farmsteads dotted along Loch Fyne.

“I love it here. It’s so peaceful — there’s never a sound, except the nature all around you.” And Dougie is dead right. Apart from the occasional puffin squawk, as it flies past the bridge, or the expectant chatter of seagulls circling the fishing trawlers that still work the Kyles of Bute, life on the open sea is remarkably quiet, though never dull.

Our land legs get regular exercise, visiting pretty fishing villages such as Tarbet, or strolling around ruined churches, as at Lochranza on the Isle of Arran.

There is no shortage of on-board adventure, too, whether you’re learning to drive the small, motorised tender to lay lobster pots in still loch waters, or just standing on deck, binoculars glued to your face, scanning the horizon for signs of otters or basking sharks.

Pitching up in a different spot every evening has a definite nomadic charm. Each night, we eat dinner with a fresh vista through the saloon windows, and often with some pretty distinguished neighbours for company: along the Kyles of Bute, we drop anchor not far from Richard Attenborough’s boreal bolthole, while a little further north, at Loch Fyne, we moor across from Ewan McGregor’s palatial Scottish retreat.

The pace of life quickens — but only just — on Great Cumbrae island. This tiny lump of rock, a stone’s throw from the mainland town of Largs, is still popular with day trippers from Glasgow and its main drag, Millport, is filled with retro cafés, fishing shops and, most importantly for cyclists, bike hire shops. With a circumference of exactly 10 knots — sorry, I mean miles — and little in the way of hills, the island is perfect for a leisurely cycle. The route is littered with orchids and other wild flowers, while Goat Fell, Arran’s imperious peak, dominates the western skyline.

Back in Millport, I treat myself to a well-deserved 99 in the Ritz Café, a hallowed name among Scots of a certain generation that still serves some of the best ice cream this side of Milan. After a quick nosey around Britain’s smallest cathedral and a photo outside the country’s narrowest house — scarcely the width of a door — it’s back on board for our final evening meal.

The unmistakable (should that be inescapable?) sound of Wings’ Mull of Kintyre is blasting across the PA as we clamber back on board the Glen Massan. In the distance Ailsa Craig, or Paddy’s Milestone, halfway between Belfast and Glasgow, shimmers in the bright, warm sun, while fat, round-headed seals loll on the rocks opposite the boat.

Ten minutes later, Dougie emerges from the kitchen brandishing a plate of canapés: Stornoway black pudding and locally caught scallops.

I doubt even Billy Connolly himself could conjure up a more fitting punchline for a wonderful week on the Scottish high seas.

This article first appeared in The Irish Independent on July 24

Aarhus: A city that's second to none

This feature on the beautiful (and wonderfully vibrant) Danish city of Aarhus appeared in The Irish Independent on June 6.

“Why wasn’t Jesus born in Aarhus?” starts a popular Danish joke. “They couldn’t find three wise men.” Evidently, second-city bashing is not a sport confined to Ireland: Copenhagen’s urban sophisticates love to mock Denmark’s other city, but just as Cork has far more to offer than most Dubs would like to admit, Aarhus is no provincial backwater.

At just under 300,000 inhabitants Aarhus might be a fraction of Copenhagen’s size, but the latter’s reputation for studied cosmopolitan cool is alive and well among the Friday afternoon drinkers in Café Under Masken, a dive bar near Aarhus’s imposing Romanesque cathedral.

It’s not even 4.30pm but already the low-ceilinged lounge — it literally is the ‘cafe under the mask’, as an ornate African head smiles down from over the front door — is full of hip twentysomethings in skinny jeans and trilby hats (men and women), smoking like it is going out of fashion and shouting to be heard over The Pogues’ greatest hits.

Danish avant-garde artist Hans Krull owns Café Under Masken and the bar is decorated with myriad examples of his eclectic work — except, of course, on the three walls that the café’s gigantic aquarium runs along. As I sit slowly supping bottles of lager from the local Fur brewery and watching the tropical red snapper through a fug of cigarette smoke, the opening verse of Sally MacLennane kicks in, to howls of approval from the locals. Doubtless Shane McGowan is still longing to back in “the greatest little boozer” but I feel as if I’ve found it — and, much to my surprise, it’s in the middle of Denmark.

Aarhus, to borrow a phrase from one of Denmark — and Copenhagen’s — most famous literary sons, Hans Christian Andersen, is something of an ugly duckling. The harbour, one of the largest in northern Europe, is filled with Maersk containers and passenger ferries, and large factories still dominate skyline around the docks. A romantic stroll along the waterfront might not be possible but, over the past 25 years, Aarhus has transformed itself from the industrial powerhouse of the Midtjylland (Mid-Jutland) region into a vibrant, bohemian city with a reputation for food, drink and live music.

At the heart of this reinvention is the Latin Quarter, the rather incongruous, tourist office-invented sobriquet for what was formerly known as the Old Town. The warren of narrow, stone streets with historical names such as Klostergade (Convent St), Volden (The Rampart) and Borggade (Castle St) in and around the cathedral were, until recently, run-down and unloved but now are among the most trendy addresses in Aarhus and, indeed, Denmark.

Stella McCartney and Bang and Olufsen are among the designer stores vying for shoppers’ attention alongside independent craft-shops and small galleries on Badstuegade, one of the Latin Quarter’s main thoroughfares. Around the corner, on Rosengade, Casablanca is the city’s oldest café, dating back from the mid-1970s, a time when a lozenge-shaped ‘Tabac’ sign outside and a bottle of Chartreuse behind the bar was the height of Parisian sophistication (both, by the way, still present).

While Scandinavia is often held up as a model for what Europe should aspire to — socially liberal, progressive, fair — our Nordic neighbours are often traduced as safe, predictable and rather boring.

But, as I discovered when I lived in Aalborg, a nearby city of 100,000 folk in North Jutland, a few years back, Danes are anything but dull — as befitting the country that brought the world Carlsberg, Denmark is a nation of beer-drinkers and pub-goers. And Aarhus is blessed with a fine selection of bars to choose from.

A stone’s throw from Café Under Masken, the achingly cool clientele in Ris Ras Filliongong recline on opulent chaises longue, drink draught beers from Denmark and Germany and puff on cigars. Smoking is banned in public in Denmark but paradoxically allowed in bars of less than 40 square metres. It feels a bit too much like sitting in the smoking carriage on the old Dublin-Sligo train for my (ex-smoker) liking but, thankfully, the bar’s basement is larger and, consequently, smoke-free.

During my student days in Aalborg I often ventured south for gigs, and, outside urbane Copenhagen, Aarhus remains Denmark’s undisputed live music capital. Venues such as Voxhall and Train host top-notch international acts most nights of the week, while the burgeoning Danish music scene is well supported: bands such as Efterklang and Oh No Ono are closely connected with Aarhus and still return to the city regularly.

Not everything has remained the same since my last visit, however. The town centre is now almost completely pedestrianised, part of a broader initiative, begun back in the early 1990s, to reduce traffic. Bicycles have become the main mode of downtown transport in Aarhus — city bikes that can be rented by the hour are available on most street corners and are a great way to enjoy this most compact of European cities — and the area along Aaboulevarden (literally “the river boulevard”), once choked up with cars, is now the perfect place to kick back and enjoy the city’s burgeoning café culture.

Foodies take note: Copenhagen might be more than three hours south on the train but the Nordic food revolution that has gripped the Danish capital — Noma in Copenhagen was recently voted best restaurant in the world — is evident in Aarhus, too.

Noma famously uses only produce available in the Nordic region, a commitment to seasonal, local cooking shared by many, including Thorsten Schmidts, head chef at Nordisk Spisehus.

A favourite among Aarhus’s chattering classes, if the packed house on my Friday evening visit is anything to go by, Nordisk Spisehus is a pleasing marriage of minimalism, with sleek, white walls and unfussy service, and maximalism, with portions generous to a fault and all dishes available as takeaway. And, unlike many fine-dining establishments, beer is actively encouraged as a wine alternative. Jutland has undergone a brewing revolution in recent years, with more than 50 micro-breweries appearing in the past decade alone, and locally brewed beer is available in restaurants and bars throughout the city. Nordisk Spisehus boasts a particularly impressive selection (many in special 750ml bottles so you don’t feel left out among the wine quaffers).

Although Copenhageners mock Aarhus as backward and unsophisticated, across Scandinavia the city has a reputation as a cultural capital.

The annual Aarhus festival, which runs for 10 days in late August/early September, is the biggest arts festival in the Nordic region, with past events featuring everyone from the Rolling Stones and Ravi Shankar to Latin American rainmakers and African choirs. The theme for this year’s festival, which starts on August 27, is “neighbours” — expect music, dance, theatre, sport, opera and exhibitions for all ages.

Elsewhere, the Kvindemusset, or ‘women’s museum’, provides a fascinating feminist history of Denmark, while the nearby Frihedsmuseet tells the story of Danish resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War.

Across town, a five-metre tall Boy hunches down, hiding his face behind his left arm. It might look thrillingly lifelike but Ron Mueck’s hyperreal sculpture is the main attraction at the ARoS museum, a magnificent Guggenheim-esque edifice complete with spiral stairs and a light, airy glass roof. This remarkable contemporary art gallery wasn’t named after the Greek god of love but actually borrows its title from the city’s original name, Aaross, or the mouth of a small river.

From small acorns (well, rivers) Denmark’s second city has grown into an engaging, invigorating and vibrant destination. Don’t believe the hype from sniping Copenhageners, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better spot for a weekend break in Europe. And before you ask, yes, I have heard the one about the Aarhus man who threw his clock out the window…

Easter in Alicante

Feature on the spectacular Easter celebrations in the Costa Blanca from todays Irish Times.

IT’S ALMOST midnight, but the street lights are off in El Barrio. Thousands of people line the narrow backstreets of this part of Alicante, creating a din of excited chatter in the warm evening air. The scent of fresh flowers and burning incense hangs heavy while, in the distance, bugles sound and drums beat.

Pressed hard against an aged stone wall by the weight of the crowd, I can see only the empty street immediately in front of me. Then, from around the corner, a troop of men in cloaks, like Klansmen but with blue instead of white capriotes , or pointed hoods, emerge, followed by a parade of ostentatious floats so large they take 16 men to carry.

First there is El Cristo Gitano (the Gipsy Christ), then El Descendimiento (the Descent) and, finally, more penitents in pointed hats. The whole procession lasts an hour and a half. It’s only Holy (or Spy) Wednesday, but already Alicante’s traditional Easter festivities are well under way.

If merely passing through the arrivals hall qualifies as a visit, then Alicante is one of Ireland’s favourite destinations. Each year tens of thousands of us, sombreros, shorts and factor 15 in tow, thread through the city’s international airport. Most head straight for the apartment blocks and sandy beaches of Benidorm, but less than 20km from the terminal building lies a vibrant city teeming with culture, history and, at Easter, some serious celebrations.

Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, processions ranging from the flamboyantly colourful to the darkly solemn are a daily occurrence in the Costa Blanca’s capital, but it is Holy Wednesday and Maundy Thursday that mark the pinnacle of the Holy Week calendar.

On Wednesday La Procesión de la Santa Cruz (the Procession of the Holy Cross) begins in the working-class district of the same name that hugs the lower slopes of Mount Benacantil, the imposing mountain that dominates the city skyline and atop which sits the dramatic Castillo de Santa Bárbara.

From Santa Cruz colourful floats and banners, accompanied by sombre brass bands and hundreds of priests and cloaked penitents, move slowly through the 20,000-strong crowd sandwiched into the Barrio’s streets.

If the procession is reasonably reserved, the festivities that follow are anything but. No sooner have the floats and on-lookers dispersed, around midnight, than the Barrio’s legendary nightlife kicks into gear.

Calle Labradores, the old town’s main thoroughfare, is home to myriad bars offering €2 cocktails and trashy Euro-pop, but venture a little farther along the quaint stone streets and you’ll quickly stumble on something a little more civilised. Spanish clubs are renowned for starting late and finishing even later, and Alicante is no exception: by 4am the entire neighbourhood, bulked out by the city’s sizeable student population, is thronged, mostly with under-25s. A friendly barman assures me that the discos keep going until the sun comes up. With one eye on Thursday’s parade I hit the road long before last orders.

The next day, the city beach at Playa Postiguet is the perfect place to relax in the April sun before heading on to Piripi (Avenida Oscar Esplá 30, 00-34-965- 227940, noumanolin.com), one of Alicante’s top tapas bars, for a Maundy Thursday dinner: the arroz con sepionet con alcachofas (baby squid and artichokes) is a local delicacy.

Then it’s out on to the street again for the imposing Procesión del Silencio (Procession of Silence), a candlelit – and largely quiet, save the odd rap of a kettledrum – prelude to the Crucifixion. This short parade features two of Alicante’s most iconic Holy Week figures: Nicolás de Bussi’s 17th-century carving of Jesus, El Cristo de la Buena Muerte , and the 18th- century Virgen de las Angustias by Francisco Salzillo.

Given its long (and often bloody) religious history, Alicante is a fitting spot for such dramatic Easter celebrations. The Moors arrived in the eighth century and built the present-day settlement. Their influence is still woven through the city’s fabric, from the truncated street patterns of the Barrio through to the town’s name: legend has it that the Moorish king’s daughter, Cantella, threw herself into the sea when her beloved, Ali, failed to gain her father’s permission to marry. Ali did the same, and the city was renamed in honour of the two doomed lovers.

Now the city is overwhelmingly Catholic. As if to emphasise the point, the Easter Sunday procession of the Virgen de la Alegría takes place among the swaying palm trees on the majestic waterfront esplanade. Alicante’s Holy Week festivities are finally over – and I still haven’t bumped into anyone from the flight.

Lough Rynn Hotel, Mohill

This review of the Lough Rynn Hotel in Mohill appeared in The Irish Times on Saturday 16 January ’10.

I first visited Lough Rynn well over 20 years ago. It was the day of my first communion. We squashed into my mother’s blue Renault 5 for the half-hour journey north from our Longford home to spend a sepia-tinged afternoon roaming around the adventure playground (myself and my brother) and the two-century-old big house (my parents).

The Victorian manor house once belonged to arguably Ireland’s most notorious landlord, the eviction-happy third earl of Leitrim, William Sydney Clements, who was murdered in 1878.

The swings, slides and climbing frames that I remember from my last visit have disappeared, and this ancestral pile has been transformed into a four-star hotel. Opened in 2006, it sits on 120 hectares of green lawns, Scots pines, manicured gardens and lake-shore paths.

With the Arctic winter blowing a gale outside, and a queue at check-in – we were there for a wedding – I took refuge with a hot toddy by the fire burning in the enormous inglenook fireplace in the high-ceilinged baronial hall.

When we were led up to our bedroom it was difficult to avoid feeling pretty privileged – if not quite like Lord Leitrim, at least like one of his more favoured guests. The amiable porter gave us a whistle-stop tour of the room – is it just me or are hotel televisions becoming increasingly difficult to switch on? – but left just as I was getting out my wallet to tip her. Lough Rynn’s staff clearly weren’t trained in the US.

The dark-wood theme from downstairs continued in our room, although a mahogany writing desk, full-size standing wardrobe and large TV unit left what should have been a reasonably spacious double room feeling cramped.

A pair of upholstered chairs provided the perfect spot for savouring the room’s best feature, a spectacular view of Lough Rynn; swans were sitting on its frozen surface as the sun set.

A marble floor gave the spacious en-suite bathroom a pleasingly opulent feel. The good-quality toiletries and powerful shower, with its wide metal head, were just the thing to revive us for the wedding reception. The trouser press came in handy, too.

Suited and booted, we made our way to the meal, past walls lined with all manner of golf memorabilia, from vintage tees and scorecards to putters and V-neck jerseys. Unfortunately for golf enthusiasts, the hotel’s vaunted Nick Faldo-designed course is still being built; it is not expected to open until the end of next year.

The estate’s stables and pheasantry have been converted into additional suites. A long glass corridor leads past these rooms to a new banqueting hall and bar. The views are stunning.

After plenty of eating, drinking and dancing we finally headed for bed after a nightcap in the intimate Dungeon Bar. Ignore the name: with its underfloor heating, it is the hotel’s cosiest bar.

It was a pity to arrive upstairs to find our room vibrating to the whirr of the air conditioner. It might be great for those balmy Leitrim summer nights, but I had to call reception to figure out how to turn it off.

Peace restored, I slept soundly in a very comfortable bed, heavy purple curtains ensuring I was undisturbed by the early-morning sunlight.

Breakfast was passable at best. The continental buffet was well stocked with fruit and cereal, but poor sausages and black pudding let the cooked breakfast down. Pots of tea and bottomless glasses of orange juice helped soothe any lingering disco aches and provided fortification for a refreshing stroll around the hotel’s majestic grounds. The walled gardens, with their ornate fonts and ponds, are particularly impressive, and the nature trail is well worth exploring.

Looking out across the frozen lake on a beautifully clear, if bracingly cold, morning, Lough Rynn felt as familiar and as striking as ever. A few days later my girlfriend received a kindly-worded automated e-mail from the hotel management, asking us to come again.

Next time I’m looking for a classy break in the heart of rural Ireland, I certainly will.

Where Lough Rynn Castle Hotel, Mohill, Co Leitrim, 071-9632700, loughrynn.ie.

What Four-star hotel in Victorian manor house overlooking Lough Rynn.

Rooms 43 rooms and suites, plus six houses available for rent on the estate.

Best rates Rooms from €79. Specials include Winter Warmer of BB, plus dinner and a bottle of wine, from €85 per person sharing; and two-night St Valentine’s break, with bed, breakfast and dinner one evening, plus a bottle of champagne, for €185pps.

Restaurant and bars Sandstone Restaurant, Cocktail Bar Leitrim and Dungeon Bar.

Amenities Excellent John McGahern Library, broadband internet, beautiful walks, boating.

Friday Interview on W[r]ite Noise NI

I’m very flattered to be the subject of the Friday interview on Maeve O’Lynn’s excellent W[r]ite NI blog. If anyone wants to read it in full it’s here but here’s a few select questions:

You’ve variously written a thesis, an academic book, many travel articles and news reports. What’s your favourite style or mode of writing and why?
The more I write the more I think my favourite genre is the opposite of whatever genre I am writing in that day! But seriously, to borrow Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor about the fox and the hedgehog, I’m something of a fox in that I’m interested in knowing a little about a range of subjects rather than a lot about a few. (Not a good trait in an academic). For that reason I prefer journalism, particularly book reviewing and travel writing,
PGprimarily because both have the most scope for going off on wild tangents! News reporting is quite constrictive and requires rather more tenacity than I have, especially when subjects are unwilling to speak on the record.

Tell us about your involvement with Culture NI…

Well, I guess I should start by saying that, regrettably, my involvement with CultureNorthernIreland is coming to an end next week. I’ve recently been appointed editor of a new magazine called Political Insight, which is being published by the Political Studies Association of the UK and Wiley-Blackwell and will appear three times a year. It’s a full-colour magazine which aims to present research on politics in an entertaining way to a wide audience. First issue is April 2010 so it’s all systems go!! (ed: ok – I’ll allow the obvious plug since it does sound rather impressive!)

But I’ll definitely miss Culture NI. I actually started working for CNI years ago as a freelancer while I worked in the Art College in Belfast. I liked it so much I gave up the day job! Covering music, books and theatre in Northern Ireland has been great fun and, thankfully, the good shows far outweigh the bad. I’ve also had the chance to interview heroes like David Simon (creator of the Wire) and Animal Collective, though I think my most memorable interviewee was Josh Harris – he’s a self-promoting American artist/Internet mogul who told me variously that the mafia were after him, he was the most important living artist and he had 10 years left to live. If only all interviewees were such good copy!

You’ve taken a keen interest in local culture and you’ve written numerous book reviews as well. Have you ever thought about dabbling in writing your own novel/screenplay/poetry? If so, what would it be about? Or, if not, why not?

Hmmm, that’s a bit of a thorny question. I think that if you peel back the surface of most critics (and, indeed, most journalists) and you’ll find a frustrated wanna-be artist… and I guess I’m loathe to admit that I’m one too! I did write a lot of fiction when I was younger, though I fear it was juvenalia, and every so often I scribble the odd short story but at present I like both the time and inclination to write anything more serious. Perhaps this will change, I was heartened when Ian Sansom told me that he discovered how to write when he met a novelist who told him to write 500 words a day every day. At the time Ian was a painter and decorator, and look at him now.

You’ve stayed in some pretty top notch hotel establishments around the world (ah the life of a travel journalist!). But if you could take a fantasy trip somewhere and stay in a hotel (either real or imagined, past or present) with a fantasy group of travel companions, where would you go, where would you stay and who would go with you?

It would have to be the original Hotel Adlon on Unter Den Linden in Berlin during the roaring 20s. I’ve always found Weimar Germany, with its decadence and abandon, a fascinating historical period and, of course, Berlin was at the heart of it. You had Bauhaus (in Germany), directors like Fritz Lang, amazing writers like Thomas Mann and, of course, Marlene Deitrich. Back then the Adlon is visited by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Louise Brooks – I think I’d be happy to spend a few days with a random selection of its patrons, just soaking up the atmosphere. The hotel was badly bombed in the Second World War, it ended up on the East German side was eventually demolished, though it was rebuilt in 1997 I’ve not stayed in it… maybe some day!

The rest of the interview is available here.

Hotel Chelsea, New York

This review of the (in)famous Hotel Chelsea appeared inThe Irish Times on November 21.

Few hotels have influenced popular culture like the Chelsea. Jack Kerouac stayed here when he wrote On the Road ; Brendan Behan, Jean-Paul Sartre and Frida Kahlo are among the countless artists and bon viveurs who, at one time or another, called the Chelsea home; its faded glamour inspired Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Even punk rock has a claim on it: Sid Vicious was arrested for the suspected murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in room 100.

The hotel’s bohemian heyday is now firmly in the past: rock stars and artists are less-frequent visitors, and, with maximum stays recently reduced to 21 days, many of its long-term residents have moved on. Today the Chelsea – 12 storeys of red brick and wrought-iron balustrades in the heart of Manhattan – appeals primarily to out-of-towners, like me, who want to experience a New York institution without decimating their holiday budget.

CHELSEAThe Chelsea may have been taken over by ambitious new management in 2007, but it has not yet morphed into the well-oiled boutique hotel many patrons feared it would become. Rooms with shared bathrooms are available from €89 (€60) a night, and, as my yellow cab rounded the corner on to West 23rd Street, I was relieved to see the neon lights still flickering intermittently on the iconic Hotel Chelsea sign pinned to its front.

Inside, happy anarchy was the order of the day. The narrow marble-floored lobby was decorated with an eclectic collection of quirky art and even quirkier individuals, at least two of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Bob Dylan circa 1975. “Bear with me,” implored the overworked receptionist as he fielded phone calls, signed for deliveries and placated a pair of irate guests before eventually finding my booking.

“It’s crazy, man. I’m the only one here,” Pete the portly porter said with a laugh, sweat dripping off his forehead as he carried my bag from the old-fashioned elevator to a third-floor double room at the back of the hotel. “But it ain’t always like this.” If he was trying to sound convincing he was failing.

The room was an interior designer’s worst nightmare. Nothing matched, from the rendition of Malcolm X in red and black paint beside the door to the garish green walls and mauve flower-patterned drapes. Worse, it had the distinct air of an undergraduate’s unloved bedsit: an empty fridge in the middle of the room; an out-of-date copy of L, the listings magazine, on the scuffed dressing table; only two working lights.

The en-suite bathroom looked passable if cramped. Closer inspection proved less forgiving. The pastel ceiling was decorated in bluish mould, the combined bath and shower unit did not drain and, most egregiously, the toilet overflowed after just one use.

Judging by the phlegmatic reaction on the other end of the phone, blocked pipes are par for the course at the Chelsea. Within five minutes a gruff workman appeared with what might have been the world’s largest plunger. It did the trick – the toilet flushed without fail for the next two days – although he made no attempt to mop up the dirty water that sloshed around the bathroom’s tiled floor.

Of course, you come to the Chelsea for the ambience, not the opulence. And in that regard it did not chelsea2disappoint. The hotel is an art lover’s paradise, with murals, abstract paintings, modernist sculpture and photographs lined along the majestic brass-railed staircase that dominates the centre of the building.

My fellow guests were equally colourful: birds chirped excitedly from the room across the hall, while the smoke that crept underneath my neighbour’s door was unlike that from any tobacco I’ve ever smelt.

Location is the Chelsea’s other great selling point. Best known for its art galleries, the area is one of Manhattan’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, and the theatres of midtown and the Meatpacking District’s trendy bars are all within easy walking distance.

The Chelsea does not serve breakfast, but the Empire Diner – once popular with Bette Davis – is just one of a number of great places to eat within a few blocks of the hotel.

Unfortunately, owing to a paucity of sleep, I found myself in constant need of a cup of strong coffee during my short stay. The bed was of reasonable quality, but its starchy sheets were as uncomfortable as they were ancient.

I left the Chelsea longing for a night in a conventional, well-run hotel. They say you should never meet your idols. Perhaps the adage holds true for hotels, too.

Manhattan Transfer: the Jane

Last month I checked into the New York hotel that has gone from seamen’s flophouse to celebrity hangout for the List. Here’s my take on it:

‘Hey, can you get me in?’ a woman with a brash New England accent squawks at me as I approach the entrance to the Jane hotel in New York’s West Village. Friday night is turning into Saturday morning, and what was a quiet residential street hours earlier is choc-a-block with yellow cabs, burly bouncers in high-vis jackets, and what looks disarmingly like a trope of frustrated extras from MTV’s The Hills.

Rooms cost less than 100 bucks a night, but with recent celebrity guests such as Kirsten Dunst and the Untitled-1Olsen twins, the Jane hotel’s stylish bar is just about the hottest spot in NYC right now. To make it past the imposing doorman it helps to be famous or know somebody who is: I shrug half-heartedly and the imperious bottle blonde in the designer dress moves on to the next guy. ‘Hey, can you get me in?’

Residents at the Jane may not be given preferential access to the bar, but they do get to stay in one of the most unusual and best value for money hotels in Manhattan. The bulk of the hotel’s 200-plus rooms are wood-panelled single-berth cabins, festooned in pink and gold wallpaper. Despite measuring little over 50 square feet, a $99 standard room comes equipped with all mod cons: flat screen television, air conditioner, wireless internet access. There’s even storage space beneath the bed and on a brass rail running above a mirrored wall.

Modelled on ships’ cabins, the surprisingly comfortable sleeping quarters are a definite nod to the hotel’s maritime heritage. The neo-classical red brick Jane began life in 1908 as the Seaman’s Institute and, before
reopening last year, was best known for giving shelter to sailors who survived the Titanic in 1912.

As New York’s docks declined, so did the Institute’s trade. In 1944 the hotel was taken over by the YMCA, becoming a flophouse for the poor and homeless.

So it remained until hip New York’s hoteliers Sean McPherson and Eric Goode bought the establishment in 2007. After renaming it in honour of the street it sits on, they set about transforming it into one of the city’s funkiest hotels. Refurbishment work is still on-going – the entire second floor is closed during my visit – but thankfully the Jane has managed to retain some of its original character(s). Over 60 permanent residents remain from the flophouse days, and with most bathrooms communal and uni-sex, you’re bound to bump into at least one or two long-term guests.

With the bar effectively off limits to the hoi polloi after dark, I head along early to sample its high-art meets low-kitsch vibe. It’s 6pm and virtually deserted; though in the cavernous cocktail room reserved signs are laid out across the chintz sofas. In the gorgeous lounge, modernist sculpture, paintings of Kaiser Wilhelm and a stuffed monkey with a fez number among my drinking companions – it’s not hard to see why A-listers and their entourage flock to the Jane.

You might not get a night-cap but for regular Joes, like me, the Jane is everything you could want from a New York hotel – cheap, central and consistently charming.

The Jane, 113 Jane Street, New York, NY 10014, 001-212-924-6700.