Dusseldorf

Boringly efficient, straight-laced and humourless – that’s Germany, right? Wrong. James Goffin found Düsseldorf in carnvial mood and ready to party.

Trips can be memorable for different things.

Sometimes it’s the people you are with, sometimes the things you see and do. If you head to the German town of Düsseldorf during carnival season what’s most memorable are the phrases you never thought you would hear – surreal snatches of conversation. Because if you enter properly into the carnival spirit they’ll probably be the only thing you remember through the constantly-lubricated celebrations that take over the city.

There’s much more to the city than carnival – it has a rich architectural heritage and some stunning modern buildings, a thriving artistic community and great luxury shopping – but for a few days each year there is only one thing that matters, and anything goes. And that’s carnival.

“Is he dressed as an apple?”

The whole escapade actually begins on November 11 at 11.11am when the Hoppeditz – who we would recognise as a jester – awakes, kicking off the party season. A few months later on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, events begin to build to their crescendo when the old women of Düsseldorf storm city hall and take the lord mayor hostage, taking over control of the city and kicking off one of the first of many street carnivals. (They also have a habit of cutting men’s ties – try not to think of the symbolism.)

Cue my arrival on the Friday night, just as things were hotting up. After a short taxi ride to the city centre – think Norwich airport to the city, rather than Heathrow to London – we were in a hotel bustling with people in costumes ranging from military uniform to pieces of fruit. There isn’t really a theme to carnival, other than to enjoy yourselves and, apparently, to get all your sinning out of the way before Lent.

There are more than 300 carnival events and costume balls in this period, and in the final weekend the old town is branded the longest bar in the world thanks to the sheer number of revellers filling the streets. We retired reasonably early after a late flight… the city kept going.

“What’s the German for cobblestone?”

The Saturday morning of carnival is quieter – not least because most people are still in bed – and is a great time to explore the more shy and retiring parts of Düsseldorf.

The city’s history goes back to the eighth century, but modern-day Düsseldorf sprang up in the 14th century. It has a charmingly compact and very walkable centre, that includes narrow streets and squares with many older buildings well-preserved and sensitively renovated for modern use.

The Konigsallee – or King’s Street – is perhaps one of the most impressive roads, comprising wide tree-lined boulevards around a central canal and lined with dozens of upmarket shops. It is known throughout Germany for its shopping pedigree, and is topped off with a large park for when the capitalism gets a bit too much.

Other escapes include the city’s many museums and art galleries. Perhaps the most unusual is the KIT on the banks of the Rhine. A subterranean gallery, this strange and captivating space was left over from construction works on road tunnels and converted in to a highly unusual exhibition space that rapidly tapers out in height at one end and bows out in to a gigantic curve at the other. It hosts regularly changing exhibitions that mix modern art from across Europe with the work of Düsseldorf’s own artists.

Also nearby is the quirky Apollo Theatre, hiding under a bridge and offering modern vaudeville and circus-style shows – perfect for a night out without language barriers.

The city has a prominent Japanese population. That influence was felt in our hotel, the Hotel Nikko, which was originally founded by a Japanese company and still features a top-notch traditional Japanese restaurant. It is also evident in the surrounding shops, and in the calm environs of Düsseldorf’s Japanese garden – created by the local Japanese community in the northern park to reflect the links between the two countries.

“Well, it’s a story…”

Our visit to the old town was led by Renate, a local tour guide who was certainly enjoying carnival and determined to fill us in on some of the city’s strangest folk stories.

Take for one the legendary Schneider Wibble. A tailor working under French occupation, Wibble decided he’d had enough of Napoleon’s ways and said as much – prompting his quick arrest. Suddenly he realised that being in prison might not be good for his wife or his business and so persuaded a friend to take his place (the French apparently didn’t notice). Things got more complicated when the patsy died in custody, prompting local outrage and a virtual state funeral – all watched by the still-very alive Wibble. He eventually came back as his own long-lost brother and (re)married his wife, and is now remembered with statues and animated clocks in the city.

Another tale involved one of the symbols of Düsseldorf – a cartwheeling boy. According to Renate the tradition started when a carriage carrying a noblewoman broke down, the spokes of the wheel splintering. A boy took the place of the spokes to enable the carriage to continue on its journey. The more official version is that children began spontaneously flipping when they learned of Düsseldorf’s victory in the 1288 Battle of Worringen. Either way, it’s a story…

A story that is a little easier to believe is that of Killepitsch – a speciality liqueur made in the area since 1955 and apparently born out of the bombing raids of the second world war. The story goes that two friends were huddled in an air-raid shelter and promised each other that if they survived they would invent a drink to celebrate, and the liqueur – which is made up of 98 herbs, berries and fruits – was born. It certainly packs a punch and is one of the mainstays of carnival.

“Did I just pay to wax a man’s leg?”

Lined with a few shots of Killepitsch ourselves we headed to Saturday’s Tunten Laufe – or drag race – an annual event where the city’s transvestites battle it out for primacy.

There are some things that transcend language and – helped by some traditional locally-brewed altbier – we got on with joining in the carnival songs and double-entendres even though we didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on. But that’s carnival.

Later things got even stranger when hopping between bars in the very busy old town I somehow managed to get involved in waxing a man’s leg in the street. I’ll never be entirely sure what happened, but he seemed to leave happy, if a little less hirsute. Which, I was assured, was perfectly normal.

The next day the festivities continued with a family day where the normally serene Konigsalle is taken over by thousands of people in fancy dress, spending the day drinking, dancing and singing. The streets are stuffed with people, with a fantastically warm and friendly atmosphere, although it would be hard to take offence from someone dressed as a tub of Nivea.

Events round off on the Monday with a giant parade of floats through the streets, drawing in a million spectators who all get in to the spirit too – and then carnival is finished for another year, the streets go back to being spotless and all our sins our forgiven. Hopefully.

Switzerland

James Goffin returns from Switzerland full of positive praise about a country he had believed to be extremely ‘neutral’.

I’d been warned about the Swiss.

The report was that they are very pleasant, and very organised. But when it came to having a good time, they were a bit too, well, civilised.

Referenda and clean streets are one thing, but occasionally you want to cut loose, have a few drinks and relax – and not get up in curfews and noise laws. Everything would be, like Property Ladder on steroids: extremely neutral.

As I was going to Switzerland to visit a series of festivals and see what the country has to offer outside of its traditional winter skiing holidays, this was something of a worry.

My trip started with something of a quirk – a brief stay at the Yotel at Heathrow. A cross between a caravan and a container park, Yotel offers compact beds rented out by the hour. The rooms can’t be described as spacious but that’s not the point – they are stylish, surprisingly comfortable, freakishly purple and have everything you need to ensure you start or finish your trip refreshed. Because you’re not paying for floorspace you’re not using, they also cost must less than a standard airport hotel and are sited right in the heart of the airport terminal.

Flying into Geneva got things back on a more conventional tack. The airport sits directly on top of the railway station so we were quickly on the way to our first stop thanks to the startlingly efficient Swiss train service.

Travelling by train is a great way to see Switzerland – many routes offer spectacular views with the tracks twisting round corners to reveal mountains and lakes. Tourists can buy a Swiss Pass rover ticket that offers either inclusive or half-price travel on most trains, buses and boats, plus free entry to 450 museums. Prices start from £163 for four days of second-class travel.

We headed first to the Lavaux vineyards – and with wine from the outset, chances of a good time were increasing. A series of terraces leading down to the shores of Lake Geneva, the area has been producing wine since the 11th century and was declared a world heritage site in 2007. The Swiss are a little selfish with their wines and you’ll struggle to find it outside of the country, which given the quality is a shame.

The wines are produced in small quantities by family growers, many of whom offer tours and visits in the summer.

Next stop was Montreux for the annual jazz festival. We boarded a paddle-steamer on the banks of the lake for the transfer. Our journey was pleasantly sedate, but the boats run at night as party boats – complete with bars and bands.

It was becoming clear that things wouldn’t be so straight-laced after all.

Montreux is at the heart of an area dubbed the Swiss Riviera. It’s a compact town dominated by the rows of classic hotels lining the lakefront. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic which boasts traditional yellow awninged balconies on the outside but has been completely modernised inside, including a glitzy but unpretentious terrace bar and restaurant.

The annual jazz festival in July is a huge draw, and has grown to encompass a much wider range of music than its name suggests, from Simply Red to Massive Attack, as well as the more chin-stroking jazz acts. It is housed in two large concert halls by the lake, but spills out into the surrounding streets with free concerts, discos and outdoor bars and stalls running into the early hours. If you want to cut loose, you can and there is a brilliantly relaxed atmosphere.

For a less formal – and cheaper – festival experience, Lausanne’s Festival de la Cite is a great alternative to Montreux. Sponsored by the city authorities, it includes 120 music, theatre, dance and art events – all free to attend – and attracts about 95,000 people a year for events as diverse as classical performances in the city’s 13th century Gothic cathedral to pop acts on a specially-built stage in the main square.

Lausanne is much bigger than Montreux, extending up the rising slopes next to Lake Geneva, but it’s easy enough to get round thanks to its metro system – the first in Switzerland.

Walking through the old city is rewarding in itself, though, with a complex street pattern of hidden alleys and steps, including unusual covered wooden staircases.

The Ouchy district is home to the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, and the Olympic Museum, set in a gorgeous landscaped park. My interest in sport normally extends only to avoiding it but the museum still captured my attention, exploring the history of the Olympic movement and issues like the use of science in sport. For those who want to get sporty themselves, Lake Geneva offers every sort of watersport, with dozens of land-based sports catered for on the Ouchy embankment.

Lausanne has a much wider selection of hotels than Montreux, making it an ideal base to explore the region. We stayed at the impressive Hotel Angleterre & Residence, which actually consists of six differently-styled blocks reflecting 18th, 19th and 21st century design, close by the waterfront.

A very different atmosphere is to be found in the nearby Alpine mountain regions. Already very busy in the winter months thanks to its high-quality skiing, the area is increasingly popular in summer too. There are more than 180 miles of marked walking routes and 80 miles of bike routes, taking in mountain lakes, Alpine farms and some spectacular views. Col de la Croix farm is open to the public with the chance to see cheese-making in action – and then relax with some fresh bread, coffee and examples of the cheese you’ve just seen being produced.

Stay in a hotel in Villars, Gryon or Les Diablerets during the summer and you’ll receive a free pass for activities and transport in the region, including golf, tennis, swimming and archery, steam trains and gondola lifts; although just strolling and resting in the mountain air while taking in the chocolate box vistas of wooden chalets, forests and streams is refreshing enough on its own.

A major attraction all year round is Glacier 3000. Part-owned by Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, it offers summer activities that include huskie rides, hiking and snow bus tours, as well as mountain views from its vantage point, restaurant and terrace. If you’re brave enough you can also try the Via Ferrata – or Iron Road – a climbing route up the mountain so named because of the metal steps fixed in to the cliff face.

Glacier 3000 also boasts the Alpine Coaster. A first glance this doesn’t look much, a winding track carrying 30 sleds, but once you’re on it and are being thrown around the 520-degree loop at 25mph it’s suddenly a lot more nerve-wracking.

There may be little après-ski in summer, but there is still good food and drink to be had. We stayed at the Eurotel in Villars and while the hotel facilities are more basic than those in the main cities the restaurant was easily a match, with chef Joel Quentin offering unique Alpine flower gastronomy using freshly-picked local plants.

The nightime activities are a little more restricted – and more pricey – than in the city, but even in a small town like Villars there is still a decent range of restaurants, bars and clubs to visit.

Summer in Switzerland offers much more than the straight-laced stereotype might suggest. From world-class music festivals to summer sports, I came away anything but neutral about Switzerland. It got a big thumbsup.

Baltic cruise

Worse things happen at sea, or so the saying goes. James Goffin took a cruise around the Baltic and its famously picturesque cities, to see what a holiday on the high seas is really like.

WHEN I told my friends I was going on a cruise, their reactions were a little mixed.

While most thought the idea of travelling to Scandinavia, the former Eastern Bloc, and Germany all in one trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there was also a little concern that at a tender 28-years-old I’m a little short of my pension to go on a cruise.

Those suspicions were somewhat confirmed when I arrived at Harwich to board the Ocean Majesty – my home for the next 11 nights.

Not only was there was a dedicated security queue for people with pacemakers, but the only people my age at the departure gate were dropping off their parents.

Still, with the promise of some fantastic destinations at the forefront of my mind I climbed the gangplank. I didn’t have much time to get my sea legs before we left port. We weren’t always blessed with the calmest of seas for the five days afloat, and, we were a bit buffeted by the waves.

The ship was subject to a £1m refurbishment last year, and now has 273 cabins.

Poor weather meant the first formal night of the cruise was postponed, to allow the seasickness to subside before we got to meet the captain, with a bit more dignity in our dinner suits and cocktail dresses.

The evenings have one of three dress codes – and although the service lives up to the formality, the food sadly doesn’t. The servings were plentiful and there’s a good choice, but the quality was more microwaved than Michelin.

The subject of food divided the guests I talked to, with as many praising it as avoiding it. The main problem for someone as picky and impulsive as me was that the set meal times and menus grew frustrating; whereas on a normal holiday you can pop down the road to find something you fancy, on a boat no-one can hear your stomach rumble but the waves.

By the third day we had arrived in Oslo.

I found myself on a coach heading to Vigeland Park – a sculpture park with hundreds of pieces created by Gustav Vigeland over 16 years.

Interesting though it was, the tour was overlong, and the next stops to the world’s first ski-jump, and a roundabout close to where Edward Munch was inspired to paint Scream, didn’t help. My advice (with the exception of Russia) would be to take either a walking tour with the option to abscond if necessary, or go it alone.

Prior to arrival in each port there is an informative talk on the city and the country. With free maps available and English speakers in most of the stops, it is easy enough and much more enjoyable to find things for yourself – not to mention cheaper. The excursions range from £19 for a two-hour bus tour to £89 for a fullday trip to Berlin, and can soon add up.

For Copenhagen I started off on a walking tour before splitting off to explore independently. The city is beautiful and so are the people, which makes relaxed people-watching a particular pleasure here.

The family behind the Carlsberg brewery funded two museums, a botanical garden and the famous Little Mermaid statue.

Next we headed to St Petersburg. Tourists in Russia need an £80 visa unless travelling in a tour group, which makes booking the organised trips crucial if you want to avoid two days stuck on the ship – and the city is far too good to miss.

The gaudy wealth on show in the gold-leafed roof caps, sits strangely with the obvious deprivation around the port.

The scale of the Hermitage Museum and Catherine’s palace at Pushkin serve as reminders of the extent of the Russian empire in years gone by.

Evening trips to the ballet and a folklore show went down well too.

I was doubly lucky to be able to team up Rebecca, a gorgeous and talented young lady the same age as me and a Russian speaker to boot.

Together we ditched the coach tour and explored St Petersburg on our own – risky but worth it and the definite highlight of the whole trip. But a strong word of warning: our plan to get the Metro back to the ship that evening descended into chaos when we found the station shut.

Without Rebecca to translate and help find an alternative way to the port I would have found it impossible to get back – and the Federation’s immigration officers aren’t known for their understanding.

Our next stop was Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

At its heart is a rambling connection of narrow cobblestoned streets, with churches and cafes nestling down alleyways. Its simplicity was a sharp contrast to St Petersburg, and if I hadn’t got food poisoning from my lunch there I could have easily fallen for its charms.

Warnemunde in Germany was our final destination, ostensibly as a gateway to Berlin – so long as you fancy 12-hours on a coach.

The town itself and nearby Rostock are pleasant, serving as small seaside resorts for natives and tourists alike.

There are plenty of boutiques and cafes that make for a relaxing day of strolling and shopping.

The question that remains for me at the end of the trip is whether a cruise with a few precious hours in each destination is worth it when city breaks by plane are so easy and affordable.