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lobourse
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Member since: 10.11.2007

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      27.02.2008 16:30
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      A reasonable no-frills option if in Strasbourg

      12 times a year, I spend Monday to Thursday in the Alsacian city of Strasbourg, as my main place of work relocates in accordance with Treaty provisions agreed by all the governments of the European Union. Leaving aside the huge waste of resources this entails and the enormous carbon footprint of the whole exercise, it is a chore and a source of great strain for those of us who have to endure it. The hours are long, and since the people one is with in the evening are your work colleagues, you never feel off duty. Additionally, since for 12 weeks of the year the city has a massive influx of people, the availability of hotel rooms is severely tested, and I have tried various options over the years. Most recently, I have been staying at the Ibis Strasbourg Expo Congres in Schiltigheim, which is the subject of this review.

      ==== IBIS, PART OF THE ACCOR GROUP ====

      Ibis is one of the brands in the Accor Group of hotels, with establishments all round the world. The flagship brand is Sofitel, then in decreasing order of opulence there are Pullman, Mercure, Novotel, Suitehotel, Adagio, Ibis, All Seasons, Etap and Formule 1. Thus, Ibis is a two star hotel, and caters more for the budget end than the business traveler with a large expense account. The Accor Group offers a number of loyalty schemes, the one I have is called the Accor Favourite Guest Card, which costs Euro130 and entitles you to 10% off your bill (20% for Sofitel, 15% Novotel), with the exception of phone calls, and gives you points which can be redeemed for vouchers that can be used for weekend stays in Accor Hotels. The card also gives a certain degree of priority when it comes to reservations, and without a card during those 12 weeks it is impossible to get a room in the Ibis.

      Reservations can be made online through www.accorhotels.com or directly with the hotel.

      ===== LOCATION ====

      This Ibis hotel lies about 3 miles from the cathedral in the centre of Strasbourg. It is on a very busy road with a tram line running up the middle - tram stop Futura Glacière. Next to the hotel is an Italian restaurant and bar, and a supermarket opposite the rear entrance, in a more residential area. There is on-street parking in the residential roads, and the hotel does have spaces in a local car park, although I've not used that.

      ===== CHECK-IN, CHECK OUT, STAFF EFFICIENCY ====

      Check-in was very efficient. Since the weeks I am there are the busiest for the hotel, the card keys are all prepared and marked up ready to be handed over with the minimum of fuss. Check out is almost as straightforward, although depending on the number of people wanting to check out in the morning, some delay might be expected. I usually settle my bill the night before I leave, and have never had any problems. The staff are friendly and efficient, which was not always my experience in other Ibis hotels in Strasbourg. I generally speak French to them, although all the staff have indications on their name badges of which languages they speak, and all seem to speak English.

      ===== ROOM =====

      For a two-star room, this Ibis provides a good sized bedroom, with double bed, TV with about 15 TV channels (only BBC world in England), a writing desk built in. The bathroom has a shower over the bath, as well as sink and loo. The rooms are spacious for a budget hotel, clean and light. During my last two stays, I have had a room on the tram side, but I have not noticed any noise, although I am not easily disturbed on that score as a rule. There is no mini-bar, and you have to ask reception to unlock the phone, even if you are only intending to ask for an alarm call.

      ===== RESTAURANTS AND OTHER FACILITIES ====

      There are no gym or meeting room facilities. However, WiFi is available throughout the hotel, provided by Orange hotspot, for which you can buy vouchers at reception or by credit card when you log on. The big advantage with this Ibis compared the one I stayed in before is that it has a pleasant bar area, and a restaurant. The restaurant has salad bar and a full menu, with special formulas offering main course and dessert for around Euro12. The pasta dishes are around Euro10, and a reasonable size. Drinks are reasonable, especially after the 10% Ibis discount is included.

      ===== OVERALL ====

      No-one stays at an Ibis if they want luxury. However, Ibis offers a clean and comfortable stay, which is all I am really looking for on my all-too-regular stays, and which is harder to find than you might think. The rate is Euro64 a night, Monday to Thursday and Euro52 for Friday-Sunday, prices before the Ibis Card discount. Breakfast is Euro8, but I've never eaten there, having plenty of breakfast meetings. If you are on a budget, you can do worse than stay here. However, it is a tram ride out of the centre of town, and it is not the height of opulence. In short, it is a reasonable no-frills option.

      This review has also appeared on ciao

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        19.02.2008 12:36
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        Forest tranquility at a cost - be warned

        Center Parcs

        ==== CENTER PARCS - BENELUX OR UK? ====

        We have been to three different Center Parcs in Belgium and the Netherlands, and it is now established as a regular half-term option for us and our three children. This year, Flemish half-term was a week earlier than the main UK one, and the prices reflected this. Faced with Euro620 for a midweek stay in Belgium, I checked the prices for the UK. Up till now, I'd imagined the prices in the UK prohibitive, although I expected that facilities would be a notch above what we'd experienced before. In fact, for the week we wanted to go, a Comfort Plus 3 cottage at Longleat Forest was £315 plus a £6 booking fee for a Monday-Friday stay. A week later, and the figure was a staggering £785!

        ==== BOOKING AND PRE-ARRIVAL ====

        The website - www.centerparcs.co.uk - is very easy to navigate around. You can narrow down your search by village (there are 4 in the UK), length of stay (weekend, midweek, week), type of accommodation. Once you have booked, you get a confirmation email, but what I hadn't realised was the amount of direct marketing that would come as a result, mainly advertising specific Center Parcs activities or recommend to your friends. I did not check whether you can opt out of much of this, so I may have agreed to this inadvertently.

        One of the many emails encouraged me to pre-plan the activities via the website. For the children, there seem to be a huge range of activities available, but there is no indication of charges for any of them. The website is full of suggestions though, and it is well worth consulting before you go.

        ==== LONGLEAT FOREST VILLAGE ====

        We chose Longleat Forest Village near the Wiltshire/Somerset Border. The park is less than a mile from Longleat House and Safari Park (shut for the winter when we were there), although it is only at the final roundabout on the route from the M4 that it is clearly signposted. Longleat Forest perfectly describes the Center Parcs concept - self-catering accommodation, set amid wooded surroundings, with an emphasis on active pursuits, mainly outdoors, although there is a large indoor swimming pool complex.

        We can't give a fair evaluation of check-in, since due to dealing with the consequences of having all our belongings stolen from our car a few hours after arriving in the UK, we could only travel down to the park on the Tuesday, rather than the Monday. Checking in for us was very quick and straightforward, but we were the only ones checking in then, and I do not know how efficient the procedures are when everyone arrives on the same day.

        Our unit was a good mile and a quarter from the arrival point, so we drove to where we were staying, unloaded and then took the car back to the car park. One of the nice things about Center Parcs is that you do not have cars around the resort the whole time of your stay, so it is very safe for children and for cyclists.

        I guess it is a sign that we have been in Belgium too long, but this village seemed very hilly. Indeed, in some places, cyclists are told to dismount, as the gradient is too steep. The resort is also quite extensive, with three main clusters for activities. In one, the Market Plaza, you have the main swimming complex (the Subtropical Swimming Paradise), supermarket, bowling alley, on-site supermarket and various shops and eating places. In another - the Village Square - you have an upmarket restaurant, coffee bar and pottery centre. In the third - Jardin des Sports - you have a vast range of indoor activities, a spa/sauna centre and sports bar. In the grounds around these clusters, there are adventure playgrounds, play areas for younger children, horse riding, archery, a boating lake and a network of cycle paths. If you don't want to walk, or if you are carrying shopping, the resort lays on a free 'land train' - a land rover pulling a couple of carriages - which goes every twenty minutes between all the accommodation areas and the activity clusters, but when it is raining, this gets very full indeed, and more than once not everyone could get on. This was very popular with our 3 year old boy.

        ==== ACCOMMODATION ====

        We had a Comfort Plus villa, which is the one above the most basic level of accommodation, with four higher levels advertised on the website. This notwithstanding, we were quite impressed with the accommodation, certainly in comparison to our experience in Benelux countries, where it all looks a bit tired. There were 3 bedrooms - one double, two twins - a bathroom with shower/toilet - second toilet, storage room and a large lounge/kitchen/dining room. The three elements of the main room form an L-shape, with the kitchen at the angle. The kitchen had full oven, hob, fridge with small freezer compartment, dishwasher, toaster, microwave, kettle, cafetiere, cutlery and crockery. There is also a small welcome basket with tablets for the dishwasher, as well as some teabags and coffee sachets.

        The living area has TV with a few freeview channels, and there is a DVD player. The corner sofa seats 6 people easily, but is not the most comfortable I've known. The dining table is perfectly functional, while the beds, which were made up for our arrival, were very comfortable, and not saggy. In the double bedroom, there was a wall-mounted flat-screen TV, alarm clock and Gideons bible.

        ==== OUR STAY THERE ====

        One obvious destination for us was the swimming pool. There is one main pool, where the wave machine is switched on every half hour or so, preceded by a Tarzan cry. The main attraction is the rapids, which takes you outside and back again on a current of water. There is no big water slide, and the toddlers' pool was slightly tucked away. The theme is subtropical, so there are plenty of trees around, and you can sit in the cafe area and look down at the pool below. Our assessment was that this was OK, but not as well laid out as other resorts, particularly in the Netherlands. However, it was the one thing that was included in the price.

        Since we arrived a day late, finding activities for our children which weren't booked up proved difficult. This was initially something of a surprise, since it was term time in the UK, yet many children had obviously taken their children out of school as this was the only time they could afford it. Among the activities we considered were horse riding (full), an hour watching owls in a bird hide (£6/hour - but it poured with rain) and bowling (£22 for a lane for 55 minutes).

        We ended up spending £120 in the pottery centre where the five of us painted various ceramic objects - a spaceship and motorcar (boy), teddy bear, fairy, star (girls), sugar bowl and castle (parents) - which were then fired and glazed. You pay £5/adult, £4 child for 90 minutes use of paints, help plus the cost of the items you are painting, which range from £7 to £28 a piece unpainted. You can collect them the following day. It was expensive, but as a family activity after the traumas of having all our things stolen, probably justifiable, and the objects have come out very nicely.

        The outdoor play areas were good and nicely maintained, being very clean, and obviously a great of care was given to the maintenance of the resort. The sports bar also had an indoor soft-play area, but this was quite small. Our impression was that, for all the extent of the resort, most places seemed surprisingly crowded.

        ==== FOOD, DRINK ETC ====

        There are a range of food options available. It is hard to give a fair assessment, other than that the food was much, much better than in the Netherlands Center Parcs), but also not cheap - about £50 for lunch for 2 adults and 3 children. We cooked our own evening meals. The coffee is very respectable compared to elsewhere in England (around £2.30 for a cappuccino), although I think I have been in Belgium too long to appreciate the coffee on offer. The hot chocolate, however, was very good, and you can even have a Cadbury's flake with it!

        The toy shop had plenty of things that attracted the children's attention, and we could replace some of the things that were stolen - top trumps, Thomas toys, littlest pet shop. The lady running the shop was very helpful, and the staff on the whole were helpful and efficient.

        ==== OVERALL ====

        Would we go back? I think the answer would be probably not. Although the accommodation was good, and the setting was nice (although the small waterfall behind our accommodation was turned off after dark, which slightly ruined the natural effect), the hilly terrain meant our smaller children did not want to cycle as much as we hoped, so we were had to cast around for alternative activities. Most activities seemed quite pricy, which is a factor of having to pay for qualified staff, but it still felt like open-wallet surgery. In future, we will stick to Benelux, which all in all, is much more convenient for us, but more importantly, represents better value for money. We can see that for UK-based families, this will still be worth considering, but beware the additional costs.

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          14.02.2008 14:45
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          The first style icon of the new millennium - particularly good for long journeys

          ==== WHY I HAVE AN IPOD ====

          I have never been one of those described by marketing psychologists as an early adopter. Equally, I am invariably wary of products which seem to put style above substance. As a result, I was a late convert to the virtues of Apple's iPod, one of the first technological and style icons of the new millennium. However, just over a year ago, I bought an 80Gb iPod, on which I listened to predominantly audiobooks, radio podcasts and spoken word, mainly in the car on the regular long journeys I have to undertake for work.

          Then last week when on holiday in the UK, car thieves stole my iPod, I had no hesitation in seeking to replace what had by now become an essential part of my car. A cursory glance at the apple website showed me that that the 160Gb classic iPod was cheaper than the amount I paid 13 months ago for my 80Gb, so I now have the newer version.

          ==== THE BASIC APPEAL OF AN IPOD ====

          For those who have not yet succumbed to the charms of an iPod, this is a small device that allows a vast amount of audio files to be stored and played. The real genius of the iPod for me lies in the way it compresses the audio files so that you can fit literally days and days of content into a small hard disk. For instance, an unabridged Agatha Christie would take 6 CDs, but now I can store huge numbers of audiobooks, which barely make a dent in the memory capacity of the iPod.

          A second benefit, which I only really discovered this week, is that the loss of your iPod doesn't necessarily entail the loss of all your music. My iTunes library was safely on my computer back in Belgium, and could easily be 'synced" (transferred) to the new iPod, including the different playlists that I had saved.

          ==== WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE? ====

          My classic 160 Gb iPod is a thin, rectangular device, measuring 104mm x 62mm x14mm, and weighing 162g, with a shiny metallic back casing and matt black front. (My old 80 Gb had a shiny black case on the front). On the front at the top, there is a 2.5inch LCD screen, with an LED backlight, while the lower half is dominated by a wheel. This wheel is one of the style innovations, and is the means by which you navigate to the various items that you have copied to your iPod, and also is used to set volume levels. Initially, I found this quite fiddly, and I still favour a keyboard to this, but it fits in the modern, style image that the iPod has.

          ==== HOW DO YOU USE IT ====

          The audio files, normally audio on CDs, are copied into your iTunes library, using the iTunes software that can be downloaded free of charge from the Apple website. The software also has a short cut to the iTunes store, from which you can buy individual songs to download, as well as whole albums. I also use this to subscribe to podcasts where I get a number of weekly radio programmes that I'm interested in. The software allows you to draw up your own playlists, which saves you from having to search for individual tracks that you regularly listen to from different albums.

          Once you have copied the files into your iTunes library, and defined your own playlists, you connect the iPod through a lead into the USB port of your computer (supplied with the iPod) and synchronise the content of your library your iPod. You can do this manually if you do not want the whole of your library, or it will do it automatically. This is very straightforward, although if you have a lot of files, it is not very quick even with a USB2.0 port. To illustrate this, when syncing my library with my new iPod, it took over 40 minutes to transfer the files. Granted I had over 16Gb of files stored, and this is hopefully a one-off exercise.

          The iPod also comes with the trademark white iPod earphones, which are the small in-ear variety, rather than the over-the-head headphones I grew up with, and which came with the old Sony walkman. I don't like these as I find them uncomfortable, and I generally listen either in the car through a small transmitter device that plays on the car's radio, or I use a docking station on my desk, with speakers.

          To choose a song, you can select your track by artist, album, genre, composer or one of an number of other categories. When selected, the screen shows how long the track is both by means of a progress bar and counting time elapsed and time remaining. The new interface shows the album artwork on the left (or an icon of a musical note) and the title of the song, the album and the name of the artist on the right. If it is part of an album or a playlist, it also displays which number track it is, eg 3 of 9. At the end of the album or playlist, the iPod goes back to the main menu and into standby mode automatically.


          ==== BATTERY LIFE ====

          According to the promotional material with the iPod, the battery lasts between 35-40 hours of normal usage. The charger is not included, and costs £19 from the apple store, but can be found much cheaper through amazon market place. Both my car unit and desktop speakers charge the iPod as it plays, and when the iPod is connected to your computer it is also being charged.

          ==== GENERAL APPRECIATION OF THE 160 Gb iPOD ====

          This is a very fine piece of kit. I was very satisfied with my 80Gb iPod, and had no problems during the 13 months I had it. The new 160 Gb version has all the virtues of the previous 80 Gb, plus a few new features that I like. These include "cover flow", where you can scroll through the pictures of the album covers in your library, and when you select one, shows the track list and times for each song. Another new feature is that you can have the time displayed at the top of the screen alongside the battery level indicator.

          The screen display is clear and generally easy to follow. From the top menu, you can access extras. These include alarm, stopwatch and games (a quiz, solitaire) and Vortex, although I can't imagine people make a decision on buying an iPod on the basis of these features.

          The iPod also allows you to watch videos in MP4 format, and view pictures, though I have not used either of these options so far.

          This 160 Gb iPod Classic is available on amazon for £205, although you can probably get it cheaper shopping around, or directly from the US.

          In summary, the iPod has become an essential companion when I'm in the car, such that I seldom listen to the car radio anymore. It is small, light yet holds an unbelievable amount of material - I have 28 audiobooks on it, which would equate to over 250 normal CDs, plus the music and radio broadcasts. So the iPod is a great gadget even for old fuddy-duddies like me who like opera, country and western and radio 4, as well as trendy young people, with their cacophonous, tuneless 'music' (that makes me sound so old). I would recommend it, although, I have more memory than I could possibly use, until I start putting videos and photos on it.

          ==== TECHNICAL DETAIL ====

          Taken from amazon.co.uk

          Dimensions (WxDxH): 6.2 cm x 1.4 cm x 10.4 cm
          Weight: 162 g
          Sound Output Mode: Stereo
          Equaliser: Digital graphic
          Supported Digital Audio Standards: WAV, AAC, AIFF, Audible, MP3, Apple Lossless
          Supported Digital Video Standards: MOV, MPEG-4, H.264
          Digital Photo Playback: Yes
          Digital Video Playback: Yes
          Built-in Display: Colour - 320 x 240 - 2.5" - LCD
          Built-in clock: Yes, alarm, stopwatch
          Digital Storage Media: Hard disc drive - built-in
          Capacity: 160 GB
          Headphones: Headphones - binaural - ear-bud - stereo
          PC Interface Supported: Hi-Speed USB
          Battery: Player - rechargeable - Lithium Ion
          Manufacturer Warranty: 1 year warranty

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            01.02.2008 14:46
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            An excellent modern translation of the Bible

            The purpose of this review is to not to argue the case for reading the Bible. Rather, it is review one particular modern translation of the Bible, explaining the philosophy behind this translation, my experience of it, what I liked and didn't like, and form an overall assessment of this as opposed to other versions.

            However, before I go onto the New Living Translation (NLT), permit a quick word of what the Bible is. It is a collection of 66 books (the name bible is from the plural of the Greek 'biblion', meaning writing papyrus or later book) written by more than 40 people over a period of roughly 1500 years. The writers included a king, a farmer, a doctor, a fisherman, a shepherd and even the husband of a prostitute. It is divided into two sections - old and testaments - and most versions that are used today are translations from source manuscripts.

            ==== THE NEW LIVING TRANSLATION ====

            The first point to make about the NLT is that is a modern and relatively new translation, having first been published in 1996, with a revised version published in 2004, where the precision of the translation of various passages improved. As a modern translation, and in line with many other translations, there are no traces of 'thee', 'thou', 'beget' or other outdated forms. However, the NLT goes further by (a) using modern dates, eg Ezra 6:15 in the New International Version (probably the most widely read modern translation) talks of "the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius", whereas the NLT renders this "March 12, 515 BC"; (b) the NLT uses US imperial measures rather than cubits, baths, hins and other literal terms, with the original terms as footnotes at the bottom of the page; and (c) money often is put in a modern context - in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18, the NLT says "one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars."

            The NLT was also translated with the clear intention that it would be read aloud. Therefore the style has an immediacy and clarity, which enables you to understand the passage straightaway. The style is direct, and at times very colloquial. Two examples which stand out are from 2 Corinthians 2:17, where the NLT says "we are not like many hucksters...", and Psalm 73:7, where in talking about the wicked who are prospering in spite of their wrongdoing, the psalmist is translated as saying, "these fat cats have everything their hearts could wish for!" The NLT also makes liberal use of exclamation marks, and in places will add an adverb to get across the tone of the original text (eg "sarcastically" in 1 Kings 22:15). Equally, it will explain a figure of speech to ensure clarity, either in the text or as a footnote. Effort has been taken to make the language non-gender specific when this is implicit in the original texts, and sometimes, especially in the book of Proverbs, "he who does something" has been translated as "if you do something". But the NLT does not make a fetish of inclusive language, and I do not remember any particularly jarring examples of gender-neutral phrases.

            Another thing where the NLT differs from other translations is that the names of translators of each of the various books are listed at the front, some of these names being familiar through books I have read or talks they have given.

            The only significant shortcoming with the NLT is that rather than use theological terms (jargon), it will translate these with a whole phrase. For instance, atonement is usually rendered 'being made right with God'. This is very good in unpacking these concepts, but the downside is that it is much harder to see the connections and patterns that are throughout the Bible, where these terms recur. It is thus harder for the reader to see the inter-connections, and for this reason alone I was recommended not to rely solely on the NLT for the purposes of in-depth study. However, this is pretty much the only major drawback with the NLT.

            ==== THIS EDITION ====

            The edition of the NLT I have (which is the subject of this review) is a Premium Slimline Reference edition, bound in two-tone brown and tan leather. I think it must be a sign of my age that the print size is a key factor in deciding which version to buy. The font and font size make it an easy read on the eyes, and the bible is neither too big (42cm x 17cm), nor too thick (1022 pages plus 60 pages of notes, concordance and maps). It has two integral ribbon bookmarks, and the words of Jesus are printed in red, with the rest in normal black type.

            There is a small NLT dictionary/concordance at the back, where the reader can find where certain words appear, but it is pretty limited. There are footnotes where necessary to explain other possible translations at the bottom, but no systematic cross referencing, as you might get in a Thompson Chain Reference Bible. There are cross-references at the end of many paragraphs, indicated by a dagger symbol, although I have not always seen the relevance of these references, which is much more likely to be my fault than that of the translators. There are some maps, although not as many or as clear as I have seen elsewhere.

            ==== OVERALL ====

            I would definitely recommend the NLT to anyone who wants a good, modern translation of the Bible. There are paraphrases, such as the Message, where the language is even easier to understand, but of all the translations, I haven't found one which has a better combination of comprehensibility, accuracy and clarity. As I said above, the only reservation I would have would be in using it as the sole translation if doing in-depth study.

            This particular version has a nice font size, cover and is not too heavy. It is not for a handbag, but it is not bulky either.

            It is available at amazon.co.uk for £13.85
            ISBN - 978-1414302294

            Thank you for taking the time to read.

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              18.01.2008 16:28
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              Recommended place to stay in the heart of this beautiful old university town

              The Klooster Hotel is a stylish, peaceful upmarket hotel in the heart of the old city centre of the University town of Leuven (about 20 miles east of Brussels in Belgium), filling a needed role in a town which was lacking such a venue for business travellers and the discerning visitor. The hotel is part of the Martin's Hotel group, which runs premier establishments in other locations close to Brussels, such as Genval and Waterloo, as well as in Brugge (Bruges).

              ==== HOW I FOUND THIS HOTEL====

              Before I describe the hotel itself, allow me to explain how I found this hotel. All three of our children were born in Leuven, which is 10 miles from where we currently live. The last one had to be induced at 11 days overdue (he was over 5kg when he was born), and while my wife was having check ups, she sent me off to buy something in the centre of town. Walking along the main road, I happened to glance down a narrow cobbled side-street, at the end of which was a whitewashed archway. I went in for a look around, and a very helpful young lady showed me a couple of rooms, the breakfast room, the garden and the lobby and gave me the leaflets. We were looking for somewhere for my parents to stay when they visited us, and this looked ideal.

              ==== HISTORY OF THE HOTEL ====

              The hotel is a former convent near the heart of the old university city of Leuven (I did a review of Leuven a while back, which I shall revise). It is surrounded by university buildings, five minutes walk from the botanical gardens in one direction, and just over the River Dijle from the main civic squares, the Oude Markt and the Grote Markt with the Town Hall and the Cathedral. The building was also the home of Guy Morillon, secretary of Charles V and Prince of Holland (1516 - 1555), and resembles some of the buildings you find in the older parts of Oxbridge colleges, such as the old library of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

              ==== FACTS AND FACILITIES====

              The hotel is rated 4-star, which is due more to a rather narrow range of facilities than to any lack of comfort and taste in the decor. The upside is that you are not being charged for a gym, swimming pool or sauna you never make use of.

              There are 40 rooms, with four different price ranges from140 -330 euros for a room The hotel describes the grades of room as cosy, charming, great and exceptional, with jacuzzis, fireplaces and a salon included in successive categories. There are special rates available 'with seminar packages, in low season, short breaks, corporate rate and long stay'.

              The rooms that I have seen all seem to be different, reflecting that this is an old, historic building which has been modernised. The colours are natural - darkish woods and shades of off-whites, with lots of up lighting rather than overhead. The bathrooms are modern, with porcelain basins and chrome fittings in modern minimalist style. There are lots of bottles of shower gel, lotions etc, as well as the usual shower cap, slippers and bath robe. The rooms all have minibars, air conditioning and safes. There is a large TV set, with the offerings of local the Belgian cable company, which runs to about 40 channels, including BBC1 and BBC2. There is also pay-TV for fims.

              When my brother's family last visited, they had on the ground floor, and had a 4-poster bed, and a "wet room" for the bathroom, ie no bath, just a shower over tiled floors. The roof was much higher than other rooms and had oak beams as well. For this, for 2 people, they were charged Euro135 bed and breakfast in total.

              We were also told that there is a family room, consisting of two bedrooms on the third floor, described to us by the receptionist as "in the Cinderella Tower". The rate for this was Euro185/night at weekends, Euro245 Mon-Thurs, which is for 4 people, and includes breakfast.

              There is not a restaurant as such. There is a breakfast room, and you can order room service, but this food is provided from outside. The breakfast buffet is standard Belgian fare - pains au chocolat, croissants and Danish pastries; breads, rolls and toast; various types of cheese and ham; smoked salmon; bacon, sausages (pretty ropey by full English breakfast standards) and scrambled eggs; yoghurts; fruit juice and tea, coffee and hot chocolate. The breakfast room overlooks the garden, and has a gas fire and a decor of teak wood furniture and off-white paint, with a variety of abstract paintings.

              There is a sumptuous lounge by reception, where you can have hot and cold drinks, alcoholic and soft, while relaxing in the type of comfortable sofas and armchairs that you would expect to find in a good club. There is also a fire, a plasma screen TV and a laptop with broadband for the use of patrons. Off this lounge, there are a small number of meeting rooms which can be hired.

              One of the delights of this hotel is the garden out the back. Although you see the tall tower of the St Pieter hospital, this is a real oasis of calm. A large green lawn with a magnolia(?) tree runs from the back of reception, alongside the breakfast room and according to the hotel blurb covers 1500 sq m. There is a small car park at the back beyond the garden, which is operated by a number code from the inside, but to gain access you have to buzz through to reception by an intercom.

              Walking up the staircase to the rooms (there are lifts as well), you can see the original brickwork from the old building, as well as some small stained glass windows.

              ==== SERVICE AND OVERALL IMPRESSION ====

              The friendliness and helpfulness of the staff every time my parents and brother's family have stayed there has been exceptional. Language is not an issue - everyone speaks excellent English as well as Flemish (I've not heard anyone try French as this is in the heart of Flanders, but I'm sure the staff would speak excellent French if need be, as practically all Flemish people do, in my experience). Whenever we wanted to have breakfast at the hotel, bringing my children to see their grandparents, the hotel have been very accommodating, arranging for us to have a large table and making the children feel very welcome.

              The usual clientele seems to be professional - there seem to be a lot of conferences, and businessmen staying here for meetings in the university or related hi-tech industries. At weekends, the cars in the car park are expensive as well.

              The only downside we have seen is that if everyone comes down for breakfast at the same time, there could be a shortage of tables. But that is the only criticism I have so far.

              My parents and brother's family have enjoyed their stays here, and now this is where they always stay. Its location makes it an ideal base for walking round this beautiful old town, and transport connections are good. The hotel prides itself on providing an oasis of calm, and it is very tranquil. Overall, I would say the hotel is understated, efficient, comfortable, modern in a traditional setting and the best place to stay in this city. The absence of a restaurant is no handicap as there is any number of good, reasonably priced restaurants within walking distance. You could do a lot worse than make this your base for a stay here.

              CONTACT DETAILS
              Klooster Hotel
              Predikherenstraat 22
              B - 3000 Leuven
              Belgium
              Tel +32 (0)16 21 31 41
              Fax +32 (0)16 22 31 00
              Email: kh@martins-hotels.com
              There are good pictures on both the hotel's website http://www.hetklooster.com/html/en/index.htm and also http://www.belgiumview.com/belgiumview/tl1/view0000724.php4
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                07.01.2008 11:26
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                Interesting, lively small capital, with plenty of bars, nusic and good food

                Ljubljana is the capital city of Slovenia, which is the northernmost republic of what used to be Yugoslavia, sharing borders with Italy and Austria in the Alps, and Hungary to the east and Croatia to the South. Slovenia was one of the 10 countries which joined the European Union on 1 May 2004, and adopted the euro as its currency on 1 January 2007. Slovenia has taken over the rotating Presidency of the EU as of 1 January 2008, the first of the new Members States to have this role.

                ==== BRIEF POTTED HISTORY OF LJUBLJANA====

                Mythology has it that Jason got lost on his way back on the Argo from hunting the Golden Fleece, and sailed up the Danube and its tributaries, ending up on the Ljubljanica river. Ending up in a swamp, the Argonauts had to disassemble the boat and carry it to the Adriatic. However, on this journey they encountered a dragon, which they killed. This dragon has been adopted as the symbol of the city.

                The earliest settlement on the site was Roman, going by the name of Emona, however, the town was sacked by the Huns and disppeared off the map until the 12th century when it was known by its German name, Laibach (literally meaning tepid brook). As Laibach, it was part of the Hapsburg empire until Napoleon conquered it in 1809. Napoleon is remembered warmly since he allowed the Slovene language to be used for official purposes, and there is a memorial column to him near the university. Laibach reverted to Hapsburg rule after 1815, and played host to a congress in 1821 as part of the Concert of Europe, which discussed the settlement of post-Napoleonic Europe. The beautifully elegant and spacious Congress Square dates from then.

                In 1895, there was a major earthquake which destroyed much of the city centre on the left bank of the Ljubljanica river. Much of the rebuilding was carried out under the oversight of Joze Plecnik, a locally born architect, who was also a major figure in architectural circles in Prague and Vienna in the first part of the last century, whose work inclued major renovations on Prague Castle. Then with the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Slovenia became part of Yugoslavia, and Ljubljana became the capital of the newly independent republic of Slovenia in 1991.

                ==== MAIN THINGS TO SEE IN THE CENTRE =====

                Although I've been to Ljubljana on three separate occasions, the visits were fleeting and I have only spent about a day here, so I can't claim to be an authority on the city. However, I have managed to explorer its compact centre pretty thoroughly, and so here are what I would recommend as some of the main attractions:

                Triple Bridge (Tromostovje) - possibly the signature monument in Ljubljana, the white stone triple bridge started life as a single span bridge in the 1840s, before Plecnik added two spans in the 1930s, with staircases leading down to terraces at water level. The central span of the three is for road traffic, while the two either side are for pedestrians. At the end of the bridge on the castle hill side is the city's tourist information centre, while at the other is Preseren Square (see below).

                Ljubljanica River and bridges - the river has been channelled through the city centre, with plenty of outdoor cafes and street artists giving the area a distinctly Bohemian feel, and creating much of the city's buzz. There are a series of bridges over the river quite close to each other. Downstream from the Triple Bridge is the Art Nouveau Dragon Bridge (Zmajski most), which appropriately has 4 dragons on pedestals, one at each corner. Upstream there is the Cobblers' Bridge (Cevljarski most), which is broad and balustraded, and has different sized pillars topped with stone balls, while two of the posts in the middle of the bridge are shorter, offset and often have with lanterns on the top. Guided boat-trips are available, and we were quoted a price of Euro10 per person. Some of those boats offered live jazz in the evening, as well as having a cash bar.

                Preseren Square (Presernov trg) - France Preseren is the national poet of Slovenia, the words of one of his poems have been set to music as the country's national anthem. The square which bears his name is at he very heart of city life, being situated on the banks of the river, by the famous Triple Bridge. On it, stands the impressive 17th century Franciscan Church of the Assumption, with its baroque red facade. When we visited this summer, there was some street art, advertising very localised weather. It transpired this meant that water as showered from the overhead wires on unsuspecting visitors. A more permanent fixture is the 1:3000 scale model in brass of the city centre, which is a useful orientation aid for visitors. There is a similar one to this by lake Bled as well.

                University library - this is one of the most striking of Plecnik's buildings, with orange and grey stone blocks making the façade.

                Congress square ( Kongresni trg) - this part of the town was developed for the Congress of the Concert of Europe in 1821. Half of the centre of the square is given over to a park, where there were concerts during the time we were there. The other half is a car park, manned by the most efficient, courteous and friendly car parking attendants you could hope to meet. It only cost Euro1/hour, we said how many hours we thought we would be there and they assured us there was no problem to pay the difference if we came back later. The buildings around the square evoke the splendour of early 19th century central Europe, with the national Philharmonic building particularly fine.

                Town Hall (Magistrat) - under the shadow of the hill, the town hall square sits half way along one of the main shopping street, with cobbles and exclusive designer shops. The facade of the town hall reflects Venetian influences in spite of several reconstructions. I particularly liked the clocks on the turrets, which reminded me a little of the Trumpton of my youth (showing my age here now). In the courtyard of the town hall is a particularly fine statue, the Fountain of the Three Carnolian Rivers dating from the mid-18th century by Francesco Robba.

                Market - within spitting distance from the Triple Bridge, you will find noisy, bustling market in the mornings. Under the Plecnik colonnade by the river, there are tourist-type stalls the whole time as well. The locally crafted wooden objects were particularly interesting.

                Cathedral (Church of St Nicholas) - Next to the market, and 200 metres from the town hall is Ljubljana cathedral, the current modern Baroque building dating from the early 18th century on the site of a much earlier church. Two new brass doors were installed for the occasion of the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1996. These doors have portraits of past popes, which the churchgoers have rubbed, so that they are now quite shiny in places.

                Ljubljana castle is the prominent feature, perched on a hill high above the Ljubljanica river. There is plenty to see from the viewing tower, and this can be reached by a funicular railway.

                ==== FOOD AND DRINK =====

                The open air bar on Preseren Square near the Triple Bridge is a great meeting place on summer evenings. When we were there, there were two guitarists playing great live music, adding to the vibrancy of the area.

                The restaurant to which we were taken by our friends who live in Ljubljana was called Julia close to the town hall. We had an excellent 3 course dinner with drinks for Euro30 a head.

                There are many bars and cafes, all very reasonably priced. Coffees and soft drinks should cost no more than Euro1.50. Local beers, such as Zlatorog (lager) and Crni Baron (dark beer) should not cost more than Euro2.50, even in the bar on Preseren Square. Our experience of Slovenia generally would lead me to say that you are likely to be able to find good, wholesome and reasonably priced food without too much difficulty, particularly when you consider that Ljubljana has a very large student population.

                ==== OVERALL ASSESSMENT ====

                Ljubljana has a very compact city centre, with the river very much the heartbeat of it. Even though badly damaged by the earthquake in 1895, the period charm of the Hapsburg empire is complemented by the originality of Plecnik. There is a vibrancy to the city, but the atmosphere is very gentle and laid back. Ljubljana would make a very good destination for a weekend break, or as a base for exploring this beautiful country. We certainly intend to go back when we can.

                ==== GETTING THERE ====

                Flights from London take just over 2 hours, with both Adria (the Slovenian national carrier), and EasyJet flying daily. Brnik airport is half an hour away by car.

                There is a very good bus service in the city, and the Ljubljana card is worth considering, which offers not just cheaper, unlimited travel and free entry to museums and galleries, but comes with a guidebook and entitles you to discounts in hotels, restaurants and taxis.

                Time zone: Central European Time, ie UK time +1 hour

                Currency: The euro as of 1 January 2007

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                  03.01.2008 12:51
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                  The Toy Store of your dreams, with a little storyline tacked on - good family fare

                  We went to see Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium just after Christmas, as we were looking for something we could go to as a family with three young children (9,6 and 3). We hadn't heard of it before we got to the cinema, so we went without any expectations.

                  ==== PLOT SUMMARY ====

                  Mr Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is the 243 year old owner of a toy shop with a difference (the Wonder Emporium), since he has imbued it with his magic, his emotion and his sense of wonder. In short, it is the sort of toy shop that is the stuff of dreams. The store manager is Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), an insecure 23 year old, whose promise as a child prodigy pianist has been dissipated and who has rather lost her way, and does not really know how to find it again.

                  Mr Magorium wants to hand bequeath the store to Mahoney, so calls in an accountant, Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), to do all the necessary paperwork. The other main character is a 9 year old misfit, called Eric (Zach Mills), who hangs round the toy shop and tries to befriend the workaholic Weston.

                  The film follows the last few days of Mr Magorium's life before he hands the shop onto Mahoney, who struggles to see this as something she can or even wants to do.

                  ==== EVALUATION ====

                  This is quite an unusual film in that there is not a lot of plot to it. You obviously have to suspend disbelief more than normal to accept that Mr Magorium could really be that old, yet still full of the same imagination, enthusiasm and vitality that makes his store so magical. However, once you accept the basic premise, aided by the zebra in the living room, the story moves you along as you get to know the characters. Magorium is eccentric but sets the rules, Mahoney is unsure, but lovable, Eric is there to help, even if he has no real friends, and Weston is the accountant, as drab and dull as the popular impression of accountants would sometimes have us believe. This is summed up when Magorium is asked what an accountant is, and he replies, "it's a cross between a counter and a mutant", from which point on Weston is only referred to as Mutant.

                  The special effects are really good. The thing that I particularly liked was the way in which the toy shop is brought to life. It is done so that the toys come to life in a way which brings out their essential nature and therefore do not overwhelm the film, but enhance it. One particular soft toy, a monkey with a mournful face) is a good case in point. The big book which contains all the products in the shop is a particularly memorable and clever effect.

                  The character of the Mutant is drawn out sympathetically and realistically, with the burgeoning friendship between him and Eric amusing and touching. You can feel the pathos when Eric asks if he'd like to play checkers when he finishes work, to which the Mutant replies "I never stop work". Equally, it is the unlikely friendship between the Mutant and Mahoney that is the catalyst for self-belief.

                  Interestingly, the main sub-theme of the film is death and coping with it. I think it rather passed over the heads of our children. Magorium approaches his impending death as the most natural thing, and makes preparations accordingly, without becoming maudlin or showing any signs of ill-heath, which causes not a little confusion. The references to King Lear were particularly thought-provoking, where Magorium says after 5 acts of the ultimate drama, Shakespeare merely says, 'he dies' - the point being that it is a simple departure. Although the shop and Mahoney mourn for Magorium, the next chapter remains to be written.

                  The film is structured as chapters from a book of the life of Magorium and the shop. This is a helpful device for breaking up the different episodes, which otherwise could have felt too bitty, not least because the plot is so light.

                  Other downsides include the character of Mahoney. I couldn't understand why someone who was a concert pianist, who could play Rachmaninov's 2nd concerto as a part piece when she was 12, would be in this shop, and Portman's portrayal seemed to convey a similar lack of conviction. Some of the events are too twee and too saccharine for my taste, but I guess you have to accept these in this type of film.

                  Overall though, my immediate reaction was that I had really enjoyed what I thought was a nice film. It is a good family film, and the two older children were completely entranced by the toy shop, although my 3 year old's attention wandered at times. I liked the old-fashioned feel to the credits, with clever faux-simple ideas, eg special effects is described as "people who put in things which weren't there". The Mutant's performance was warm and human, and Eric the 9 year old is played with aplomb. Dustin Hoffman's Magorium has too much of Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter for my taste, and I found Portman disappointing. All in all, a very enjoyable family film, but nothing totally overwhelming or earth-shattering.

                  This film is currently at the cinema, and I have not been able to find out the release date for the DVD.

                  ==== PRACTICAL DETAILS ====

                  Mr Magorium - Dustin Hoffman
                  Molly Mahoney - Natalie Portman
                  Henry Weston (The Mutant) - Jason Bateman
                  Eric - Zach Mills
                  Bellini, the Bookbuilder - Ted Ludzik

                  Director - Zach Helm
                  Producers - Joe Drake, Nathan Kahane, Richard Gladstein
                  Screenplay - Zach Helm

                  Running time - 94 mins
                  Certificate - U
                  Website - www.magorium.com

                  Personal rating - 7/10

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                    29.12.2007 14:09
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                    Much cheaper and more comfortable than the tunnel

                    As British expats working in Belgium, we regularly come back to see grandparents (and even football occasionally!) Originally, Eurotunnel was the preferred option, but now we more often than not take Nofolk Lines on the Dover-Dunkerque route. The crossing takes approximately two hours, and the fleet has been modernised over the last eighteen months, with ships such as the Maersk Delft now operating.

                    So, what are the factors when making the decision whether to take a boat or the tunnel.

                    Advantages with Norfolk Line:
                    1) The price - unlike for the Tunnel, you do not pay more if you stay more than a few days. For the tunnel, one you stay more than 5 days, the cost rises appreciably. For our last crossing of 8 days, the cost was Euro58 for the return, which included a Euro6 booking fee (£4 if quoted in sterling). I was quoted in euros since the outward crossing was from Dunkerque. For the tunnel, we were quoted nearly Euro300.

                    2) The travel experience - the crossing gives you a break in your journey of three hours or so, taking into account that you are requested to check in an hour before sailing. On board, the new ships give a great impression of space and light. For younger children, there is a soft play area, with tables and chairs in lounges throughout the two passenger decks. There are flat screen TVs showing BBC1, ITV and Sky News regularly spaced through the ship, with the TV near the children's play area showing CBeebies. There is quite a large area on desk outside with a reasonable number of wooden benches, so those who want to get some sea air can do so.

                    In all the journeys we have made with these ships, there has never been a problem to get a table near the play area (our children are currently 3,6 and 9 so this area is a real boon). There are at least five separate lounge areas, and I have never seen people having to stand or even looked cramped for space.

                    There is a canteen on board, with main courses costing around £6.50. I had a very passable steak and kidney pie, and there are a range of other options, including fish and chips, kids' meals for £3.50, salad bar, sandwiches etc. There is what they call 'The Deli', where you can get sandwiches or pasta, although these looked as though they were heated up in a microwave. There is a large bar, serving hot and cold drinks, including alcohol on one floor, and upstairs there is another smaller bar. There is a shop, which is limited and pricy, but for those who feel they simply must stock up on cigarettes and drink, there is at least the opportunity to do so. I would advise paying in sterling, as the euro exchange rate is pretty penal.

                    One other element with Norfolk Lines is that they do not take coach parties - only individual passengers and freight. As a result, there is no need to worry about parties of rowdy teenagers, and the lorry drivers have their separate areas.

                    Lastly, we came back most recently just after Christmas and although the sea was rough, the stabilisers on the ship did an excellent job, and there was no trace of seasickness from any of us.

                    Loading and unloading is relevant quick, although I am not sure that you go on board in accordance with the order you arrived always. However, since there is plenty of space on board, this is less of an irritation. You are not allowed on to the car decks once the ship has started sailing, so you need to remember to take everything with you.

                    3) Dunkerque - Norfolk Lines is the only ferry company operating out of this port, so consequently it is much less crowded than Calais or Dover. It is also 15 minutes nearer to Brussels, which suits me. Obviously this could be a disadvantage if you are going to Brittany or somewhere else further west.

                    4) Website - the website is very easy to use, and their system seems very efficient, since on the odd occasion when I didn't have the booking reference number, the car registration number and passport information was sufficient to get on board without any hassle.

                    Disadvantages with Norfolk Lines:

                    1) Frequency - the crossings are only every 2 hours, so if you miss one, you have a longer wait. On the other hand, they are very flexible about re-booking you on a different sailing.

                    2) Crossing times - the crossings take 2 hours more or less, compared to the 35 minutes of the tunnel. Also you also need to allow an hour to check in at the port and get loaded before sailing, which is definitely longer than with the tunnel. In addition, you have the extra driving time in Kent, which is roughly 15 minutes longer than the tunnel.

                    3) Terminal facilities - at Dunkerque, there are vending machines for hot drinks, and sometimes sandwiches. The shop closed a few months ago, although a small kiosk has now opened, serving surprisingly tasty burgers, sausages, chips etc. At Dover, there are more shops - a coffee bar, Burger King and WH Smiths - which are also used by passengers of other lines.

                    Overall:

                    Norfolk Lines is generally cheaper than the tunnel, for all but special day returns. Off season, the price saving is significant, but can be enormous in the summer and even at Christmas as we have just found out, particularly if staying for longer than 5 days. The ships on the Dover-Dunkerque line are modern, light and airy, with plenty of space to sit, a number of food and drink options, and areas for children to play in. If time is not a pressing factor, this is a very relaxing way to travel, not least because there are no coach parties on board. The staff seem helpful and friendly, which has not been my experience at the tunnel recently. Even if it is not always the best option, Nolfolk Lines is an excellent alternative to the tunnel, which we take now as a matter of course.

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                      28.12.2007 20:56
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                      Wild, rugged, beautiful and tranquil gorges - strenunous walking though

                      ==== INTRODUCTION ====

                      The Tolmin Gorges are in the Triglav National Park in north-western Slovenia. Slovenia is the northernmost republic of what used to be Yugoslavia, sharing borders with Italy and Austria in the Alps, and Hungary to the east and Croatia to the South. The national park takes its name from Mount Triglav, which at 2864m (9396 ft) is the highest mountain in the Julian Alps and therefore the highest mountain in Slovenia. Its distinctive triple peak is the reason for its name (in Slovene, it means 'three-headed'), and it is depicted on Slovenia's national flag. This is a good clue for identifying Slovenia's flag in quizzes.

                      The Soca (pronounced 'sotcha' to rhyme with 'Gotcha!') river is famed as an Alpine river with beautiful clear, turquoise water. Just north of the town of Tolmin, the Soca river flows through a steep gorge where it is joined by the river Zadlascica (pronounced - 'zad-lash-cheat-sa'). It is the area around the confluence of the gorges that is the tourist destination.

                      ==== THE GORGES ====

                      -- First impressions --

                      We had visited the Vintgar Gorge just outside Bled the previous day. Vintgar is very easy walking, but crowded, and our children aged 8, 6 and 3 had really enjoyed it, so, we thought we would risk talking them to Tolmin. However, the experience of Tolmin is very different.

                      First, there is only a small parking space at the entrance, probably enough for 15 cars maximum. There is also a small cafe, selling hot and cold drinks, ice creams and snacks. You park about 300m from the little hut where you pay to enter the gorge. You also get given a leaflet showing the route and pointing out various things to look out for on the way. The second big difference with Vintgar is the absence of other people. We saw fewer than 20 people in the time we were here, whereas as Vintgar you often had to stop to let people pass coming the other way. The third difference is that whereas at Vintgar, everything is on a very gentle gradient and with solid wooden handrails, here the path is steep and can be hard going. In fairness, on the leaflet, it does warn that this may not be suitable for small children, and our children found it very hard going.

                      -- The Walk--
                      The paths are very clearly set out. On the ticket, you have a small version of the route map, and at the different stages of the walk, there are boards explaining the feature you are looking at. These signposts were mainly in Slovene, with translations in English, German and Italian, and it seemed that what was on the panels was the same as could be found in your leaflet.

                      The first part of the walk takes you increasingly steeply down to the level of the river, just above the confluence of the rivers, with the noise of rushing water getting progressively louder. At the bottom, you are level with the river and you can go and dip your feet in the water, which is freezing, or skim stones or just look up towards the steep walls of the gorge from fish-eye level.

                      You then cross the river on a suspension bridge across the river, which does bounce when people are on it, and head on up towards the only thermal spring in the area. This is one for the purist, as the spring has been blocked by a rock fall, but you can see where it is. Apparently, the water here is warmer, about 20 deg C. There were three impressions I took away from this. The first two reminded me of the Lord of the Rings as I'd imagined it before Peter Jackson's films. The high cliff walls with the river racing below were imposing, claustrophobic and echoing dampness reminded me of the description of the Gates of the Argonath in the Fellowship of the Ring. The second impression was where the path is carved through a cliff, with greasy, slippery stairs going up in the darkness. Although only for 20 metres or so, this made me think of the stairs of Cirith Ungol (from the Two Towers in the book or the Return of the King in the film). The third impression here was the dawning realisation that the bridge fully 200 ft above (60m) was part of the recommended route which we were to follow.

                      After the detour through Middle Earth (in my mind at least), the path leads you briefly over another bouncy suspension bridge, this time over the Zadlascica, and then back climbing up a mountain path, sometime over stone steps, in one place up a wooden staircase, but always steep, and always densely wooded with sound of the river in the distance. Down one side path, you are led to the Medvedova Glava (Bear's Head), which is a huge, roughly triangular rock that somehow got wedged between the walls of the Zadlascica canyon. Owing to the moisture and warm Mediterranean temperature here, the rock is covered with moss, giving it the shaggy look of a bear's head.

                      Doubling back to the main path, after one last steep climb, you arrive at the road. Following the road uphill for ten minutes brings you to what the locals term Dante's Cave, which local legend holds to have inspired the poet while writing about hell in his Divine Comedy on a visit early in the 14th century. The cave is actually a complex of three halls stretching over 1km into the mountainside.

                      The recommended route now takes you back down the road, giving some nice Alpine views, before taking you over Devil's Bridge. The bridge was built in 1907, and was of great value to the Italian army during the First World War, but the road was only widened to accommodate more than a horse-drawn cart in the 1960s. The bridge has metal railings, but I am ashamed to admit I had an attack of vertigo crossing it and didn't linger to enjoy the views. The Soca is 200ft below, crashing noisily through the narrow gap between the cliffs where we'd walked an hour or so earlier. From the bridge, it is a very gentle fifteen minute walk downhill back to where you came in.

                      ==== GETTING THERE ====

                      The Tolmin Gorges are just outside the village of Zatolmin in north-western Slovenia. If you are based in or around Lake Bled or Lake Bohinj, you have to find a way across the mountains. The mountain road will take at least an hour, with lots of hairpin bends and narrow roads, which may not be the most relaxing. Alternatively, there is a car-train, which is the way we went. The train goes from Bohinjska Bistrica (5km from Lake Bohinj) to Most-na-Soci, 7km from the town of Tolmin and 10km from the gorges.

                      Taking the train, you drive onto open bed trucks and stay in your car throughout the 45 minute journey. Straight after setting off, you go through the 6339m long Bohinj tunnel under Mount Kobla, which plunges you into almost total darkness. On the return journey, we spotted distance markers ever 500m, so we could count down the distance with the children. The other end of the tunnel brings you out at the village of Podbrdo, but there are three trains a day all the way through to Most na Soci. If I'm honest, the scenery on this leg of the journey wasn't that stunning, although in one place, there was a good view of the Alps. We were advised to get there at least fifteen minutes before departure to be certain of a place on the train. For this we were grateful, as at least three cars were turned away for the outward journey. The railway is single-track and the pace is leisurely, and much more relaxing than taking the mountain road. The cost was Euro18.10 return for the car, irrespective of the number of passengers.

                      ==== OVERALL ====

                      Having visited Vintgar near Bled, this was a day out much more off the beaten tourist path. The gorges reflected this too, being more rugged, wild and undiscovered. There is a grandeur in the cliffs which fired my imagination, and not just mine as apparently some of the footage used in the computer game for the latest Harry Potter video game was filmed here. It is hard going for small children and not entirely straightforward for unfit middle-aged men, who don't do any hill walking. The beauty of the place and the clear blue hues of the water make it well worth the effort, and the entrance fee is exceedingly reasonable. I would also recommend the car-train through the Alps as well. All in all, we had a good day out.

                      ==== BASIC FACTS ====

                      Cost: Adults Euro3, children 7-14 Euro1.50, children under 7 are free
                      The confluence of the gorges is the lowest point in the Triglav National Park at 180m. The walk is entirely within the park, so you are requested to comply with the park's rules, notably don't pick any of the numerous wild flowers, stick to the paths and keep dogs on a lead.

                      The notice about the steepness of the paths reads: "The tracks in the area of the Tolmin gorges are not long, but they are steep, and in places very exposed and demanding. They are not appropriate for small children and those visitors who should avoid strenuous physical activities. Proper trekking footwear is obligatory."

                      Train from Bohinjska Bistrica to Mostna Soci - cost Euro18.10 return, journey time approx 45 mins. There are 3 trains a day in each direction. More information at the Slovenian Railways website http://www.slo-zeleznice.si/en/

                      This has appeared with pictures on ciao

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                        22.12.2007 17:49
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                        Simply fantastic museum, respectfully remembering the horrors of the First World War

                        Christmas is the time of the year when we start finalising plans for next year's summer holiday. When discussing it last year, one place I was really keen to visit was Kobarid, in particular the First World War museum. Kobarid is in the north-western corner of Slovenia, the northernmost republic of what used to be Yugoslavia, sharing borders with Italy and Austria in the Alps, and Hungary to the east and Croatia to the South.

                        ==== THE TOWN OF KOBARID ====

                        Kobarid is surrounded by peaks of the Julian Alps, and is quite remote, being 90 minutes drive from Ljubljana and 2 hours from Treviso in Italy. To describe it as sleepy would perhaps be overstating the activity, but the town draws a steady stream of visitors because of its history. During the First World War, this town was in Italy, going by the name of Caporetto, a name that became synonymous with the horrors of trench warfare in the mountains.

                        There are a couple of good restaurants near the church. We ate in the Hotel Hvala, which was very good, but not the cheapest, and we paid around 25 euros per head for lunch. The Hisa Franko was also recommended. Other than that, the town itself has little to offer.

                        However, the reason to visit Kobarid is an unprepossessing building on the narrow old main road through this quiet town, which houses one of the best presented and most moving of museums you are likely to find anywhere.

                        ==== WHAT IS THE MUSEUM ABOUT? ====

                        In England, we are familiar with the horrors of life in the trenches of World War I. Here in Kobarid is a museum which is packed full of artefacts, objects and documents which give an insight into life on the Isonzo front between 1915 and 1917, when the most decisive breakthrough in that war took place leading to the rout of the Italian army. Trenches has been dug up the Isonzo (Soča) river valley, which was the border area between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, stretching 400 km from the Alps to the Adriatic. This river with amazingly clear turquoise water has its source in the Julian Alps, and armies were stationed along its course, high up on the mountains, frequently over 2000m.

                        The museum depicts some of the hardships endured, exacerbated by the fact that the winter of 1915-6, was one of the most severe in that region in the last century. In the Autumn of 1917 however, the Austrians were reinforced by 7 German divisions, and with the use of poison gas, they made a decisive breakthrough at Kobarid on 24 October 1917, advancing several hundred kilometres into Italy towards Venice, although there was no final capitulation and a further stalemate ensued until the end of the war. Casualties were enormous on both sides, with the final total in the region of half a million, many due to frostbite or illness caused by the weather or simply falling off the mountainside.

                        ==== THE MUSEUM'S EXHIBITS ====

                        The museum is in a building which housed the Italian army's military court during the war. All the exhibits are labelled in the three main languages of the combatants - Slovene, Italian and German - and English. On the ground floor, there is a temporary exhibition - when we visited this showed various military fortifications in the area - the cash desk with postcards and books for sale, and a room with a large plasma screen and chairs, where a 25 minute documentary in English of the military campaign is shown.

                        The main part of the permanent exhibition is on the first floor in a series of rooms, which lead of the main hall. The rooms have names which give a feel for the different nature of their contents: Kobarid rooms (3 rooms explaining the development of the town and area through the ages), the hinterland room (showing the campaign on the home front), and the Krn room, (which has a scale model of the highest mountain in the area at 2245m and was captured by the Italians in June 1915). There are also rooms containing armaments, the equipment the soldiers used (canteens, bottles), signalling equipment etc, all retrieved from the battle site. It is the white and black rooms on this floor however, which make for the most harrowing part of the visit.

                        In the white room, there are letters and postcards sent home from the front by the soldiers, train tickets, ration books etc. Various passages are highlighted, one which sticks in my mind is of a soldier explaining how he was in four solid days' fighting, using the dead bodies of his comrades for shelter from the wind and rain and cover from the bullets. He describes vividly the smell of stagnant water, infested with dead bodies so that he could not drink for more than two days, yet in a style that is so matter of fact, that it brings home the stoicism with which these ordinary men faced extraordinary hardship.

                        The black room was too much for my children, as it had photographs taken in the army hospitals of men who had suffered extreme frostbite or most horrifically had bits of their faces blown away. This room is understated, and has a simple crucifix made by soldiers mourning fallen comrades and a gun carriage on a pile of rubble.

                        On the top floor, there is an audiovisiual room where the Slovene version of the documentary is shown, and a room dominated by a 1:5000 relief model of the Upper Soča region with lines drawn on it. I found this not very easy to follow, but there are explanations on the walls. In the corner is a little hut, which is a replica of an officer's quarters in the trenches. Although small, you do not really get a feel for the squalor or terror of the normal life of a soldier, in the way you can at the WWI museum at Ieper (Ypres). This room deals above all with the battle for Kobarid which saw the big breakthrough on 24 October. One young German commander who was singular successful and daring on that day, was 1st Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, an interesting detail which is well highlighted.

                        ==== OTHER IMPRESSIONS ====

                        This museum is developing a deserved international reputation. There is a small room devoted to tributes and letters received from foreign dignitaries, and even pictures of the visit of the previous president of the European Parliament (although they would not give me a prize for being one of the 15 people in the world who would have recognised him ). It was even awarded the Council of Europe's Museum of the Year Award in 1993.

                        The staff at the entrance were very friendly, and made a note of where everyone came from, and even gave us a leaflet in Flemish on hearing we lived in Belgium. The postcard selection is interesting, with views of the mountains, exhibits of the exhibitions and even some reproductions of the propaganda postcards of the period, but the book section was limited unless you read Italian or Slovene.

                        The museum is also keen to say that it is just 1 point in a walking tour of the battle sites, which unfortunately we did not have time for. We did see 2 of the places on the route, however. First, up a winding road besides which are images of the stages of the walk to the cross, is a great charnel house, which Mussolini had built in the 1930s. In it, were burnt the remains of over 7,000 known and unknown soldiers who fell on the Soča front. This is currently being renovated, but you can walk round and see the great granite slabs listing the names of the fallen. The other part we saw was the Napoleon Bridge at the entry into the town. Built in the 1750s, it spans the river at its narrowest point, some 20 metres above. A head carved by Partisans in the Second World War is at one end, and provides continuity between the different military campaigns to have been fought in this frontier region.

                        One other noticeable feature of our brief visit to Kobarid was the number of Italians who had come to the town, presumably to visit the museum and the charnel house.

                        ==== OVERALL =====

                        I found this a moving experience. In the middle of our holiday, on a hot summer's day, I was taken back to the horrors of World War One, where many young men willingly and bravely bore hardships and sufferings beyond my imagination. The museum is not mawkish or sentimental, but matter-of-fact and sets out in painstaking and comprehensive details what life was like for the soldiers, while always setting it in the context of the military campaign at the time.

                        The town of Kobarid sits in the valley and is overshadowed by these high mountains, and the geography feeds your imagination as you go through the museum. It is above all now a place of calm remembrance. The people who run the museum should be congratulated for the way everything is set out, and the small details are attended to. Even the lone artillery piece outside the white washed museum sets the tone for what is inside. The documentary is well done, although you can tell that the English is a translation from the original. They did not charge for our children either, although it must be said this is not a place for younger children and there is no cafeteria in it.

                        We were very pleased we took time out to go to this museum, although it would have been even nicer if we had had the time for the full 5km walk they recommend. It is worth taking a day out of your holiday to come to this beautiful place and learn about the horrific events of nearly a century ago.

                        ==== PRACTICAL INFO ====

                        Kobariski muzej, Gregorčičeva 10, 5222 Kobarid, SLOVENIA
                        Website: http://www.kobariski-muzej.si/ang/home.html
                        Entry: Euro4 Adults, Euro3 Retired persons and students, 3Euro Students (University, Secondary levels) Euro2.50 Schoolchildren
                        Guided tours both in the museum and on the 5km walk are available at a cost
                        Opening hours: April - September, Mon-Fri 9.00 - 18.00, Sat., Sun., Holiday 9.00 - 19.00
                        October - March, Mon-Fri 10.00 - 17.00, Sat., Sun., Holiday 9.00-18.00

                        This is a revised version of a review I posted on ciao (with photos)

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                          21.12.2007 14:21
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                          Everything a history on TV should be

                          ==== WHAT DO YOU GET ====

                          Simon's Schama's 'A History of Britain' is a 15 part overview of British history, that was first shown on BBC 1 from September 2000. These come in a 6 DVD set, with 3 episodes per DVD, plus a final disc with additional features. These come in a nice, stiff, glossy cardboard wallet, and cardboard sleeve, with the signature image on both - three wooden beams on a beach, with Schama walking in the background. In the title sequence to each episode, these beams are lit, like a beacon.

                          ==== CONTENT AND STYLE ====

                          Schama presents his history in a wide-ranging, but by no means comprehensive series of essays. His style is that of a lecture for television. He tells history as a ripping yarn, set in the relevant location, talking to camera as he walks around the site. The range of locations is stunning, and his pieces to camera are inter-cut with pictures of manuscripts, props and the occasional reconstruction of the events being described. Sometimes these can be surprisingly effective, one standing out in my mind is where Henry II and Thomas Becket meet on horseback near a lone oak on a ridge. There are also some readings of contemporary material by well known actors. The music for the series is composed by John Harle on period themes, and performed by top notch names, such as Emma Kirkby.

                          The first part of the collection, certainly until the episode on Cromwell and Charles II (Revolutions on Disc 3) follow a pleasantly conventional chronological style. From the 18th century onwards, Schama is more selective in what he describes, almost as if he is keen to focus solely on those events which have shaped modern Britain. It is perhaps overstating it to say that until 1700, Schama gives us a richly painted narrative, based on kings and battle, while from 1700 we have themes illustrating elements that made us what we are today, but it conveys something of the transition in style.

                          Through the series, Schama tries to draw out certain key themes which run through British history like a scarlet thread: the notion of Britain, and how this sense of Britishness shaped events; the role of religion and how the wars of religion went on into the 18th century; the uneasy relationship between England and its empire, not just in the Caribbean, Africa and India, but also Wales, Scotland and most of all Ireland; and how change and evolution have melted into the national character, out of a ferment of ideas and revolutions.

                          The additional features include an interview with Mark Lawson, which is worth looking at, two other pieces which explain Schama's approach and what he is trying to achieve, as well as the inaugural BBC History Magazine Lecture. There is a biography, which could have been included in a flysheet rather than there, plus some of the music from the series. A couple of the songs are quite haunting, particularly "Three Ravens" which is the backdrop to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

                          ==== PERSONAL EVALUATION ====

                          STRENGTHS
                          Schama has an engaging style. Although his voice is very nasal, his enthusiastic manner grips you. He has also very cleverly written this as a history for television - it is not a book that is then transferred to the small screen. Each of the episodes is a rounded essay. This is particular true of the parts dealing with the more recent history.

                          Schama also has a flair for highlighting how the interaction of personalities affected the course of history. In my job, I see politicians close up, and the personal dynamic should not be underestimated in determining the outcome. There are three 'set pieces', where he shows us one key relationship between two people: Henry II and Thomas Becket (in Dynasty); Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots (The Body of the Queen), Winston Churchill and George Orwell (The Two Winstons).

                          Schama is not afraid to highlight the social changes, but never does so at the expense of neglecting the political and military. For example, the episode King Death focuses on how England coped with losing a third of its population, with the effect on social mobility. For Schama this is more of a story than Henry V or the War of the Roses. Equally, he devotes over 10 minutes to the first major feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, while consigning the Duke of Wellington to a minor bit part.

                          Schama provides lots of revealing details, which make the events so much more alive, some of which are quite gruesome, such as the descriptions of the deaths of Becket and Simon de Montford. I was curious to learn that Anne Boleyn learnt many of her courtly wiles in Mechelen, not far from where I now live.

                          Some of the pieces are very timely. Schama goes into great detail over the negotiation of the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, even telling us of the bribe of £386,000 paid (the equivalent money), which is an issue not without relevance today. The treatment of Ireland, both under Cromwell and during the potato famine of 1845-6, emphasises the extent of the English mistreatment of the Irish which has been the background to the Troubles.

                          WEAKNESSES
                          Inevitably, Schama cannot and does not cover everything in equal depth. Having watched the recent David Starkey programme on William III, it seems to me that Schama neglects the enormous contribution William made. Depending on your particular viewpoint, it is possible to argue that Schama is too anglo-centric to the neglect of the Scots, Irish and Welsh, yet I think he can be partly exonerated, since he wants to show how the central dynamic is how England expansionism and imperialism affects its neighbours.

                          I personally did not agree with his take on the British Empire, but this is almost certainly due to having read Niall Ferguson's 'Empire: How Britain made the modern world' around the time I watched the episodes 'The Wrong Empire' and 'The Empire of Good Intentions'.

                          I also felt there were huge gaps after 1800, although what Schama does provide in those episodes, which are really lectures on a theme, is interesting and well argued.

                          ==== OVERALL ASSESSMENT ====

                          This is excellent, informative television. It does not set out to be definitive, but it is entertaining, intelligent without being too high-flown or pretentious. For me, the most memorable episode is the one on Henry II, where Schama makes a compelling case that history has been unkind to this, our greatest medieval king.

                          Schama's gift is in identifying the true giants of our history, and explaining why they matter. He devotes 4 episodes to the 16th and 17 centuries, but does so in a way that you do not feel this is disproportionate. He also takes time to explain how many of the features of our modern society evolved, not least philanthropy, with the moving story of Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital.

                          I love history, and find this collection well worth the £40 I paid for it. No history is ever perfect, but Schama's personal version is good television, informative and something I have no hesitation in recommending.

                          FACTS

                          The episodes:

                          Disc 1:
                          Beginnings (3100 BC-1000 AD)
                          Conquest! (1000-1087)
                          Dynasty (1087-1216)

                          Disc 2:
                          Nations (1216-1348)
                          King Death (1348-1500)
                          Burning Convictions (1500-1558)

                          Disc 3:
                          The Body of the Queen (1558-1603)
                          The British Wars (1603-1649)
                          Revolutions (1649-1689)

                          Disc 4:
                          Britannia Incorporated (1690-1750)
                          The Wrong Empire (1750-1800)
                          Forces of Nature (1780-1832)

                          Disc 5:
                          Victoria and Her Sisters (1830-1910)
                          The Empire of Good Intentions (1830-1925)
                          The Two Winstons (1910-1965)

                          Additional features (Disc 6):
                          Inaugural BBC History Magazine Lecture, 'Television and the Trouble with History'
                          3 interviews
                          Music from the series
                          Biography of Simon Schama

                          Total running time - 14 hours 30, plus 90 minutes additional material

                          Cheapest current price: £29.99 from play.com

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                            20.12.2007 16:31
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                            Clean and comfortable hotel in Blackpool, albeit not on the sea front

                            The Blackpool Central Premier Inn is situated in Yeadon Way, pretty much half-way between Bloomfield Road (the home of Blackpool Football Club) and the Pleasure Beach (home of the Big One rollercoaster). Premier Inns are part of the Whitbread group and were recently voted among the best 20 big companies to work for, as attested to by the certificate proudly on display in reception. It claims to be the largest hotel chain in the UK, with over 490 hotels nationwide. This Premier Inn is an unprepossessing, modern brick building, just off a dual carriageway, near a petrol station. Quaint the location is not, but reflects the functional rather than flashy character of the hotel.

                            ==== BOOKING PROCESS ====

                            The website (www.premierinn.com) is cheerfully laid out in the company colours of purple and white. It helpfully has an express booking section where you can make your reservation without further ado, or you can search locations, special offers or see the latest news. The total price for the stay was given, as well as alternative hotels nearby.

                            The information on the hotel on the website includes not just a list of on-site facilities and directions to get there, but also information about what is in the area, such as cinemas, shops, banks and museums.

                            A text message confirming the booking, complete with the booking reference, was sent the Saturday the day before my stay (which was Monday to Wednesday), which was reassuring.

                            ==== LOCATION ====

                            I arrived in Blackpool by train from Manchester, which brought me into Blackpool North station. Unfortunately, I had assumed that the station depicted on the little location map on the website was the one I'd be arrive at. Instead, the hotel is a couple of miles south of Blackpool North station, but close to Blackpool South. The taxi fare there was just over £5, which was not too bad. However, the tram, which runs all the way along the sea front promenade, is just a ten minute walk away, the far one way being £1.50.

                            There is a large car park outside the hotel which was never more than half full when I was there. Although this is a fee-paying car park, hotel guests are given a pass to display in the window while they are there, entitling them to free parking.

                            ==== CHECKING IN AND RECEPTION====

                            Checking in was very smooth and efficient. Although I had been sent the booking reference and had the form with me, my name was sufficient for the receptionist. Unlike most other hotels I have stayed in recently, I had to pay up front, which I did by credit card. There was a notice explaining that if you wanted to pay by cash, you would need some form of ID, such as a passport or driving licence. I have not seen this before, nor can I see why this should be necessary. The receptionist was friendly and explained the options for food (see below).

                            The receptionists were helpful whenever they were asked for something, be it replacement coffee and milk for the room, a map of Blackpool or general directions. The only slightly disconcerting thing was that the receptionists wear telephone headsets, so you are not sure they are talking to you or on the phone. The reception area has a courtesy phone to call a taxi and a vending machine selling confectionery.

                            ==== THE ROOM ====

                            The room was clean, light and airy. It had a reasonably modern feel, although the door had a Yale lock rather than a swipe key. The double bed had a nice firm mattress, and had a bedside table with a Gideon's bible. There was a sofa bed in the corner, which for some reason had been made up even though I was on my own. There was a desk with a kettle, tea and coffee and even a hairdryer. The TV had the standard 5 channels, plus CBeebies, BBC News 24, ITV 2, Chartshow TV and Men and Motors. The TV also provided radio. There was no wardrobe nor a chest of drawers but an open-fronted hanging space and shelves for clothes. There were additional pillows and blankets above the hanging space, although the room was at a comfortable temperature, with an easily operated thermostat.

                            The bathroom was well equipped, with a shower over the bath. While not the most powerful of showers, the water came out at more than a trickle, and the temperature was good. There were plenty of towels too.

                            To use the phone, you have to give your credit card details so any usage will be billed directly. WiFi internet access is available in the room, with cards available from reception of either £5 for an hour, where you can log on and off as you like, or £10 for a continuous 24 hour period, which runs from the moment you first log on.

                            ==== FOOD ====

                            Next to the hotel is a Brewers' Fayre pub. We ate dinner there one evening, and the food was very respectable modern pub food. The menu offered a good range of pasta, salads, steaks and burgers. For two people, a main course, some onion rings and a pint each came to £11 a head, which was pretty reasonable value for money.

                            The same place also offers an all-you-can-eat cooked English breakfast for £7.50.

                            ==== CHECK OUT AND FEEDBACK ====

                            Since you have to pay in advance, check out need involve nothing more than dropping your key off. However, since my train back to Manchester wasn't till the afternoon, I was pleased that the hotel offered a secure room where I could leave my bags until I was ready to leave town. Collecting them later went without a hitch.

                            The afternoon the day after I checked out, I got an email asking me to fill in a feedback questionnaire. As an incentive, if I filled in the survey I would be entered into a draw to win a 3 night stay at a Premier Inn of my choice. The survey was quick to fill in, showed you how much of the survey you had done and I could see the logic behind the question.

                            One thing that emerged from the survey was that Premier Inn offer a good night's sleep or your money back. There was something about this in the room, but I didn't take any notice of it at the time, and I wouldn't have claimed anyway since I slept very well.

                            ==== COST AND VALUE FOR MONEY ====

                            With all the horror stories with which I had been regaled about the standard of hotels in Blackpool during a busy conference, I was prepared for hotels to charge a premium. The Premier Inn was £71 a night, room only, which I don't think was too bad for a work trip. Coming to Blackpool for leisure, that would strike me as a bit steep, although the weekend the room price is £58. This is a clean, comfortable, unpretentious and friendly hotel, and on the basis of this stay, I would be very happy to consider staying at a Premier Inn in future.

                            This review also appears on ciao with photos.

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                              19.12.2007 15:22
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                              Welsh singer-songwriter sings from the heart about the struggles of being a modern father

                              Martyn Joseph - Martyn Joseph

                              Last week, we went to see Martyn Joseph at Haren Church, near Brussels airport. I don't not what surprised me more, that a Welsh singer-songwriter should turn up at a small venue in cold, dark Flanders or that this was the fifth successive year he had been there. We had seen him once before, back at Spring Harvest in Minehead in 1996, and had a couple of his albums. One of these, the eponymously entitled Martyn Joseph is the subject of this review.

                              ==== MARTYN JOSEPH - WHO IS HE? ====

                              Martyn Joseph was born in Penarth in 1960, and came to prominence in the 1980s, primarily among Christian circles. As he said in his self-deprecating manner at the concert, he was originally classified as a rock and pop artist, then this changed to folk, and most recently, a new category has been found, that of funk folk. He is a singer-songwriter, whose material is not overtly Christian as some of his earliest work (as is his album 'Ballads'), but which covers a number of the issues that tend to get skirted round in the folk genre, more of which later. He has a real sense of his Welsh heritage, has a strong desire for social justice, and in the promotional literature was described as the Welsh Bruce Springsteen (which might have been over-egging the pudding a little).

                              ==== THE ALBUM ====

                              The two most distinctive features about the music on this album (and his music in general) are the accomplished, rich and vibrant acoustic guitar, and the raw, emotional power of his voice, with just a hint of Welsh lilt. There are also some keyboards and synthesisers in various of the tracks, but they are very much backing instruments, and the emphasis is very much on the guitar.

                              For me, the stand out track is 'Cardiff Bay', the story of a Sunday spent with his 4 year old son by the sea, after he was upset at church. It is a simple, moving song that captures the emotions of being a father of a young child, wanting to show him your home town, teach him some of its history, and hoping that this day will mean something to him in years to come:

                              On a Sunday over Cardiff Bay
                              This is one day of our lives
                              And on a Sunday over Cardiff Bay
                              Know that I love you
                              I hope that's alright...
                              All of my life....

                              The atmosphere is enhanced by some Celtic pipes, which bring a hint of the sea to my mind's eye.

                              A couple of the songs deal with the struggles of making marriage work, in spite of the twin problems of busy lives and temptations faced when travelling for work. 'Let's talk about in the morning' conveys the staleness and ennui that came afflict long term relationships, and the way in which all discussion of difficult issues is put off to avoid conflict. I found this very honest. 'Home to you' gives a glimpse of the potential frisson of a fling while away from home, but the triumphant chord in the second verse shows the temptation has been successfully resisted.

                              Joseph's wider social commentary is evident in 'Condition of My Heart', where the insistent guitar rhythm is combined with coruscating criticism of hypocrisy and injustice, before the twist at the end of the song, which comes with the line "there's none that's so blind as they that can't see / and right now that finger's pointing at me". Throughout the CD, Joseph's complete honesty when dealing with issues is compelling, whether they are big and existential questions ('Everything in Heaven comes apart' and 'If Heaven's waiting') or in day-to-day situations. There is also a hope for a better world which comes across in the lighter, more upbeat tone of 'Change your world', 'Between the Raindrops' and 'Carried in Sunlight'.

                              ==== OVERALL ASSESSMENT ====

                              I really like this album. The music is polished, engaging and vibrant, while the lyrics have a depth and honesty which can be challenging, and are not at all syrupy or sentimental. I came back to this CD after the concert last week, which reminded me of the power of his work, and these songs capture the daily struggles of a young working father in Wales. As I hinted earlier, this is not a Christian music album in any real sense, but definitely belongs in the folk rock category. It is a really enjoyable listen, and I shall be digging out a couple of his other albums as well soon. Overall, I would give it 8 out of 10.

                              ==== TRACK LISTINGS ====

                              1. Change Your World (3:46)
                              2. Gift To Me (4:01)
                              3. Between The Raindrops (4:37)
                              4. Talk About It In The Morning (4:26)
                              5. Everything In Heaven Comes Apart (4:16)
                              6. Home To You (4:29)
                              7. If I Should Fall (4:54)
                              8. If Heaven's Waiting (4:16)
                              9. Condition Of My Heart (3:24)
                              10. Cardiff Bay (5:02)
                              11. Carried In Sunlight (4:39)

                              Release year 1995

                              Available from partnerstores_uk (amazon marketplace) for £7.45

                              Martyn Joseph's official website is http://www.martynjoseph.co.uk/
                              His record label is http://www.piperecords.co.uk/martynj/

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                                17.12.2007 11:31
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                                Beautiful river gorge, close to Bled, good even for small children

                                Slovenia is the northernmost republic of what used to be Yugoslavia, sharing borders with Italy and Austria in the Alps, and Hungary to the east and Croatia to the South. The highest peak in the Slovenian Alps is called Triglav (owing to its triple-headed peak) and gives its name to a national park, at the south-eastern corner of which is Vintgar Gorge, a few miles outside the town of Bled. The gorge is carved out of the rocks by the fast-flowing Radovna river, and is 1600m long.

                                === WHAT IS THERE TO SEE ====

                                On parking the car, you buy your tickets at a little chalet at the entrance of the gorge. This is an ideal destination if you do not want to have any tricky decisions about which way to go, as you simply follow the path along the river. The banks of the river start off tree lined, but as the paths go further in, you pass between steep rocky cliffs. The path follows sturdy wooden bridges, with solid handrails, which criss-cross the swift-flowing water at several places.

                                The noise of the river in places is deafening at is goes down rapids, or narrow channels. In others, the river flows more serenely, giving your senses a breather and you have the chance to relax and enjoy calm surroundings.

                                As for the water, I simply do not have words to do the colours justice. While it is white and churning through the cascades, in others it runs through the whole palette of greens and blues - turquoise, aquamarine, periwinkle, and myriad others that I don't know the name of. My 6 year old daughter tried to count all the different colours and gave up after 25! The water is also very clear, and at various points you could see fish facing up stream to swim against the current.

                                The walk ends by an old sluice gate, 30 metres above which is the elegant arch of a single-span bridge. The water runs over a small weir, before dropping over the highest single drop waterfall in Slovenia, although unfortunately this is not nearly as dramatic or spectacular as it sounds. This is the end of the path, which is marked by another entrance to the gorge, and a coffee shop. You can follow a footpath all the way back to Bled via the church at Katarina, which is some 4 km distant. The coffee shop here is very reasonably priced considering the location - the ice creams being the same price you would expect to pay in a newsagent, rather than those at a top tourist attraction. The coffee, while cheap, was undoubtedly the worst we had in Slovenia. There are also toilets available.

                                ==== GETTING THERE ====

                                Vintgar Gorge is no more than 3 miles out of Bled, tucked away down pretty side roads with their tidy Alpine cottages. Although there are signposts all the way along the route from Bled, some of the signs are not obvious, and you can end up doubting that you have come the right way. The final approach to the gorge is down a very steep narrow road with hairpin bends, but the volume of cars and walkers there leave no doubt that you are in the right place.

                                ==== COST, ACCESSABILITY ====

                                Entry to the gorge costs Euro3 for adults, and Euro1.50 for children aged 3-14. Although we did see a couple of people carrying pushchairs, this is not really suitable for them as the bridges are both slippery and narrow. In some places, the path is only narrow enough for one person, because of rocks jutting out. On the plus side, my 3 year old was happy to walk all the way, as it is not particularly steep anywhere on the path. You should allow at leat an hour and a half for a visit, although with a coffee and ice-cream along the way and a leisurely pace, we took nearer two-and-a-half.

                                We saw some people stop and eat a picnic on the rocks by a particularly tranquil spot, while others climbed over boulders to take pictures. The only downside is the crowds, which are a problem in certain parts where you have to wait and let people pass - some nationalities seem more willing to do this than others! However, you do get to hear lots of different languages and accents.

                                ==== OVERALL ====

                                Vintgar is a great destination for an excursion if staying in this part of Bled. I would advise getting there as early in the day as possible as it can get crowded, but if you take it leisurely, the crowds are not too big a problem. It is fine even for quite small children, but not for people who cannot walk unaided. The temperature is very pleasant, making a contrast from the heat elsewhere. Half a day is enough, possibly even less although you need to allow time to drive there and find a parking space.

                                An earlier version of this review and pictures is on ciao.

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                                  15.12.2007 17:08
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                                  Alpine jewel of Slovenia - simply a must for any visitor

                                  Bled is the number 1 tourist destination in Slovenia, and it is not hard to see why. Slovenia is the northernmost republic of what used to be Yugoslavia, sharing borders with Italy and Austria in the Alps, and Hungary to the east and Croatia to the South. Although just a very small town with a population of 10,000, its Alpine location and beauty draw visitors from all over, to see its lake, its castle, play golf and sample its hospitality.

                                  ==== HISTORY ====

                                  The first mention of history was in 1004 when the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II awarded it to the Bishop of Brixen. The 1000 years of Bled logo can be seen throughout the town, as part of a big tourism campaign three years ago. In the nineteenth century, Bled became known as a health resort, and the grandeur of some of its buildings gives an indication of its clientele. Tito had a summer house here, which is now the Relais and Chateaux Hotel Vila Bled overlooking the west end of the lake.

                                  ==== WHAT IS THERE TO SEE? ====

                                  The obvious things to see are the lake and the castle. The lake is not particularly big (at its longest and widest 2.12km by 1.38km, maximum depth 30.6m), but is very scenic with an island in the middle. You can take a local boat ( out to the island in the middle of Bled Lake, where there is a church, gift shop, cafe and small exhibition showing local art. The boats on the lake are called pletnas, they are covered, rowing boats propelled by the pletna keeper standing up like a gondalier without a hat!

                                  We went out on 15 August, which is the Feast of the Assumption. The church on the island is the Church of The Assumption, and as a result of the feast day, the island was heaving and we couldn't see inside the church, where normally you can ring a bell and make a wish to return. The fare was Euro10 per adult, and took the man rowing us abut half an hour from shore to island.

                                  The castle sits atop a 130m hill on the north side of the lake, and is reached by a road which snakes up the back. Entry is Euro6 for adults and Euro3 for children. The walls of the castle date from the 16th century. There is a chapel - currently being renovated - a museum, showing the history of Bled, a cafeteria and a wine shop, although you have to make an appointment to visit this. From the terrace, you get a good view of the Julian Alps and the lake. I would not recommend walking up here - car or bus.

                                  The gardens at the eastern end of the lake (the end where the road from the airport and Ljubljana comes in) are very pleasant for walking in, and when we were there seemed to be a craft market every day. I imagine at times other than peak season, this would not be the case. There are a couple of interesting objects in the gardens - a chess set in a glass class showing the position after the Pirc defence, Vasja Pirc being a Slovenian grandmaster. Further round the lake side, there is a brass model of Bled and the lake on a scale of 1:2700.

                                  There are a few craft stalls near the main centre of the town, and a shopping centre on three levels, with cafes. There are some quite nice souvenirs to be had here, particular honey and local jam. There are the usual tee-shirts, calendars, pens etc, but no worse than in other popular tourist places, plus the standard services - supermarket, chemist, opticians etc.

                                  ==== ACTIVITIES FOR CHILDREN ====

                                  There were 2 main things which our children enjoyed doing in Bled. First was the toboggan down Straza, which is a 634m hill on the south side of the lake. In the winter, there are ski runs, but in the summer they have a toboggan run where you hurtle down the 500m track at up to 40km/h, with a drop of over 120m. The top is reached by a chairlift, and children over 8 can go unaccompanied. An adult and a child can fit in the same toboggan, although my hips felts bruised after going round corners with my giggling 6 year old on my lap. It is very safe, looks impossible to fall off and they shut the track if it rains. Costs for adults are Euro6 - 1 ride (up with the chairlift, down by toboggan), Euro8 - 2 rides, Euro10 - 3 rides: children aged 5-14: Euro4, Euro5 or Euro6. Chairlift only is Euro3 adults, Euro2 children. At the top, you can get ice cream, drinks and enjoy the view across the lake to the castle and beyond to the hills of the Vintgar gorge. The Karavanka mountains are all around as well.

                                  Second, there is a mini-golf. The Slovenians take this seriously, having a league and proper tournament, so don't call it crazy golf. The course is well maintained (concrete rather than Astroturf), and the children found the holes interesting if a bit challenging at times. Entry is Euro3.50 for adults, Euro2.50 for children, and is open until 11 at night, as it is floodlit. It is also very shady, so can provide a respite on hot days. You can also get hot dogs, burgers, ice creams, hot and cold drinks, and buy postcards.

                                  There is a tourist train which goes round the lake and even up to the castle, but we did not go on it. There are traditional horse drawn traps which you can hire from upwards of Euro30. The drivers (fijaker) wear traditional Carniolan dress, and seem to do a lively business.

                                  ==== EATING AND DRINKING =====

                                  Undoubtedly the best view when eating is from the terrace of the Panorama restaurant, which is part of the Hotel Toplice. The restaurant has a salad bar, and full ala carte menu, the fish being particularly good. Main courses cost between Euro10-15. The meal should be rounded off with a coffee and a slice of kremsnita, which is a delicate pastry slice filled with two types of cream. The view is almost as good from the terrace of the Park Hotel, and prices are fairly similar.

                                  Further round the lake is Mlino, and the pension has a restaurant which has very hearty Alpine food - schnitzels, steaks, cakes etc, and the best wild mushroom soup I have had in Slovenia. However, the food is cheaper away from the lakeside round near the bus station. We ate at a couple of good gostilnas last year, but did not visit them this year. That area has a number of bars, and has more of a vibe than by the river side.

                                  For bars, in the evening, I enjoyed the laid back atmosphere in A Propos, which is in the shopping centre at the entrance to the town. The coffee is very nice, they have live music some nights, and have free wireless internet which a whole host of people were using. There are good ice cream shops here as well, prices being roughly Euro1/scoop.

                                  ==== ACTIVITIES NEARBY ====

                                  Last year, I had a golfing holiday in Bled. Bled Golf and Country Club is magnificent, with 27-holes. The original course was opened in 1937, then re-designed in the 1970 by Douglas Harradine. The 18 hole King's Course is a demanding par-73, undulating, although the worst of the hills are reserved for the walks from green to tee. The par-3 7th is particularly dramatic, hitting to a well-guarded green from a raised tee, while looking at the 2236m peak of Mount Stol. The 9-hole, par 36 lake course is, if anything, more demanding, the 9th being particular brutal with a blind drive, then a long second over a lake, all on a dog-leg right. There are 2 clubhouses, serving excellent food, with the pasta just right if playing morning and afternoon. Green fees are not unreasonable - Euro59 midweek, Euro69 at weekends.

                                  Radovlijce is a medieval market town, 5 miles south of Bled. Every year there is the Radovlijce music festival with classical, folk and modern jazz music in the church and manor house. The quaint old town centre also houses a beehive museum of note.

                                  Vintgar Gorge is just 4km north of Bled, and is an excellent half-day excursion. There are a number of places which will organise rafting, walking, biking and other outdoor activities.

                                  Lake Bohinj is a 25km further into the mountains in the north-east. The lake is crystal clear, and surrounding by high peaks. It has a real serious outdoor feel, with adverts when we were there for a brutal looking triathlon to held at the end of August - 8km swim in the lake, 36km cycle ride, climbing 800m, then 10km run up to an altitude of over 1800m in total.

                                  ==== ACCOMMODATION ====

                                  We always prefer self-catering, but finding self-catering accommodation with 3 bedrooms in Bled proved impossible. In the end, we rented an apartment just outside Radovlijce, owned by someone from Essex, which was fine. There are a number of hotels and guesthouses nearby, and a camp site, but form experience, you are better off exploring on the internet than going through any of the tourist offices in Bled.

                                  ==== GETTING THERE ====

                                  Bled is 35km from Brnik airport and 55km from Ljubljana. The good news is that the road from both of these is a motorway, however, there is a 9km stretch either side of Bled which is not completed and so is single track. At the moment, there are major road works which have closed the Radovlijce turn off and caused big queues heading into Bled, so allow an hour from Ljubljana now.

                                  There are buses and trains to Bled, although the train station is at the far end of the lake, so not the most convenient.

                                  ==== ANYTHING ELSE? ====

                                  On the Saturday that we were there, we saw a number of wedding parties at the town hall equivalent by the lakeside. From the voices, they were English people who had chosen to get married here, and in one place we saw a leaflet advertising a service that could arrange everything.

                                  Bled prides itself on being a conference centre, and a management school has been set up at the western end of the lake. There have been international summits here, and one of the fountains in the gardens records the 9th Summit of the Presidents of Central European States in 2002. The world rowing championships have also been held in Bled three times.

                                  ==== OVERALL =====

                                  Bled is a beautiful, peaceful setting. It has a little of something for everyone, even the younger children. Take time to savour the calm, try the kremsnita and enjoy the relaxation.

                                  This is a slightly modified version of a review I posted on ciao earlier

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