Getting into the Festive Spirit with the Hyper Japan Winter Festival 2017

I attended Hyper Japan for the first time in July this year (review here) and loved everything about it, so I was keen to see what the Christmas edition would have in store. The Japan-themed event was again taking place at Tobacco Dock in London (24-26 November 2017) and was brimming with craft stalls, a Japanese food court, and lots of traditional Japanese products, such as handmade pottery, colourful chopsticks, speciality tea, sweets and clothes, including lots of cosplay outfits.

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Japan is a fascinating place to visit and after two visits I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to see. It was great that there were a lot of lesser known travel destinations represented at Hyper Japan and I enjoyed learning about them from their enthusiastic local representatives. The guys in the picture below, for instance, are from Susaki City on Shikoku Island and had mini versions of their mascot ‘Kochi’ with them plus the human-sized version appeared on the Hyper Live stage.

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Probably my favourite part of the winter edition of the festival was a fantastic Illuminight exhibition, a display of traditional and modern illuminated objects, which ranged from a room filled with giant paper fish (made by local residents and first displayed at the Yanai Goldfish Lantern Festival in Yanai in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Honshu Island) to tiny, fragile ‘akari’ (light) pieces made from real autumn leaves. It was just beautiful!

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I also loved the ‘geta’ (sandals) and other intricate ornaments made from glass.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be a Japanese event without lots of pastel-coloured ‘kawai’ (cute) items and it was great to see that even the staff working at the event – like these two Japan fans from Tofu Cute – were having a lot of fun.

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The food court was back, too, and fans of Japanese food were again spoilt for choice with numerous both savoury and sweet options available, from steaming bowls of ramen to ‘Takoyaki’ (ball-shaped snacks filled e.g. with squid) and even mulled sake as a winter warmer. There was also a chance to sample some sake concoctions created by professional mixologists as part of the Sake Cocktail Awards.

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Those who had a bit of time on their hands and who felt like creating some original Christmas presents for their loved ones, were able to join various paper craft and felting workshops with expert teachers. But don’t be fooled, it is a lot harder than it looks and takes a lot of patience and precision. The results look impressive though, like the framed artworks in this picture.

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When I visited on Friday, the opening day, the Hyper Live stage again hosted a variety of Japanese acts, from the very modern, Dream Stage Idol Competition Runner Up Aimi Ikenaga (if you’ve never heard of ‘Idols’ before, BBC Storyville recently did an interesting documentary called ‘Tokyo Girls’ on it), to the more traditional, but with a modern twist, e.g. a live performance by calligraphy artist Taro Fukushika.

If you missed Hyper Japan this time around, don’t worry, it will be back from 13-15 July 2018 and visits to the Japan Centre and various London-based Japanese restaurants and pop-ups should tide you over until then.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a press pass for Hyper Japan. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

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This Way Up! Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

As far as I’m concerned, the best excuse to visit any place for the first time is attending a great festival. So I hopped on the train to Kendal – the gateway to the Lake District – for a weekend of mountain films and culture, readings by nature writers and a visit to the famous Lakes, of course.

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Kendal Mountain Festival (16-19 November 2017) is the largest festival of its kind in the world and brings together enthusiasts from various mountain sports, such as climbing, trail running, caving, snow sports and other outdoor pursuits. This year, they also had a literature festival, which was a welcome addition.

I arrived on Thursday afternoon in time for the opening ceremony, a procession in the dark from a little park outside a pub in Kendal to the Brewery Arts Centre led by a local traditional band. Once we got there, there was an introduction by the festival organisers and we got to see a few of the shorter festival entries and the pretty awesome festival trailer ‘A Spark in the Dark’ with a poem written by festival artistic director Claire Carter.

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The next day I explored the festival and the town properly. With Kendal being not such a big place, it was easy to walk between various festival venues, a church, the Town Hall, a film truck (very warm and cosy), community centres and a number of screens right at the Brewery. There were also sessions for local schools, ‘secret sessions’ (which were alas sold out by the time I figured out they existed) as well as baby and dementia friendly shows. Most films were packaged up into two-hour long sessions, so you picked a collection of films (called ‘Strive’, ‘Reach’, ‘Seek’ etc.) and each of them had a variety of shorter and longer material. I liked pretty much everything I saw.

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There was also a basecamp in the courtyard of the Brewery Arts Centre, where all the sponsors, such as Columbia and Mammut, as well as some outdoor charities, had stalls to explore. Inside the tent, which was decorated with colourful prayer flags, were also two bars, and the Marmot Café with lots of seats for people to hang out, have their lunch and listen to inspiring speakers, such as Chris Bonnington, Gemmita Samarra, Dan Milner and Steve McClure. The tiny Shackleton Tent, i.e. yurt, just outside offered free films and talks all day. Four-legged festival goers were not allowed inside the tents, but there were lots of dog-friendly cafes and pubs around town and in many other places in the Lake District.

In addition, there was a half-day film summit in the Town Hall for industry professionals with inspiring presentations by filmmakers and producers and a 10K trail run for those actually wanting to go out there and get some exercise done.

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While outdoor sports tend to be dominated by men, as most other types of sport, too, it was the female adventurers that I enjoyed listening to most. My favourite event all weekend was probably the Findra Women in Adventure session on Saturday morning. Four exceptional young women, Jenny Tough (e.g. ran solo across Kyrgyzstan and the Atlas Mountains), Emily Chapell (e.g. cycled alone through Iceland in winter), Megan Hine (TV scout for adventure shows and leads private expeditions) and Rickie Cott (who with Lee Craigie cycled from Canada to Mexico by bike). Each of them had amazing stories to tell of how they overcame obstacles, including people doubting their abilities, and how they pulled through by believing in themselves and becoming more and more resilient with every trip. Way to go!

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I also made it to a couple of author events. One was with Karen Lloyd talking about her book ‘The Blackbird Diaries’ charting encounters with birds and wildlife over a calendar year. The other was with Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley on his latest book ‘The Nature of Winter’. Both told of unforgettable wildlife experiences and discussed the future of national parks, the reintroduction of predatory species to UK forests, the impact of climate change, among some of them.

There were so many great films last weekend, here are a few I especially enjoyed:

My Irnik (family life in the Canadian Arctic), Weightless (fab humorous short paragliding film, won best adventure sport film), The Last Honey Hunter (following Nepali honey harvesters on their dangerous job, won best visual), My Big White Thighs and Me (moving film about womanhood and braving the elements), Skye’s the Limit (a woman circumnagivates the Isle of Skye on a paddle board), Stumped (brilliantly funny climbing film, won best climbing film), Ditch the Van (musician ditches the tour bus and bikes from gig to gig) and Becoming Who I Was (simply stunningly filmed and very moving story of a Tibetan boy searching for his destiny, won best culture).

These are the official winners of altogether 12 categories at this year’s festival.

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As it looked like it was going to be a beautiful, if crisp, day on Sunday, I decided to escape for a day trip around the Lake District. I went on a mini bus tour with Mountain Goat, which was absolutely brilliant. In around 7 hours we got taken to 10 lakes in the area, a slate mine, a viewing point high above one of the lakes, the Castleriggs stone circle, a waterfall (reminded me so much of my recent Iceland trip), stopped in the lively town of Keswick (which has an intriguing pencil museum, as it is the place where pencils were first invented, apparently) and also in Grasmere (where the grave of William Wordsworth can be visited for those with a literary interest and the special Grasmere gingerbread, only made in this village, can be purchased for those with a sweet tooth). Along the way we saw lots and lots of Herdwick sheep, a beautiful local breed, and passed through many lovely villages. While we did run into a bit of traffic towards the end of our tour, the quieter winter months are a great time to explore this beautiful part of the UK, the landscapes were impressive and we had them almost to ourselves.

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with tickets to select festival events by Kendal Mountain Festival. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Essential Tips For Making the Best of the Iceland Airwaves Off-Venue Gigs

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the past two decades, you’ve probably heard or read some rave reviews about Reykjavik’s Iceland Airwaves Festival, which took place from 1-5 November 2017. It’s a music lover’s indoor festival dream come true plus it takes place in one of Europe’s tourism hotspots (literally, given all the geothermal activity there!), so it’s the perfect combo for travellers with a love for live music. What you might not have heard of is that the festival has a large number of fringe events, half hour sessions taking place in venues around town, which don’t require a festival pass and are completely free. Amazing, right? In order to make the best of them though, you need to come prepared. I’ve done all the legwork for you this year and compiled this list of tips for getting the best out of the Airwaves off-venue gigs. Here we go:

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Pick a Strategic Place to Stay

As most of the off-venues are right in Reykjavik city centre, it makes a lot of sense for your temporary digs to be as central as possible, so you can get everywhere on foot, especially if the weather is terrible (I had four rainy days out of six with one proper storm). There are no options like Uber and taxis are dear, unless you can share with friends. After speaking to a couple of long-time festival goers, I opted for KEX Hostel, which is also one of the off-venues (see pic below, Högni) and has a self-catering kitchen. I had been a bit worried it would be more of a party hostel, but a lot of other folks where there for the festival, too, so everyone was friendly and laid-back plus the dorms had good heating and comfy beds. Loft Hostel (even more central) and Oddsson Hostel are other good alternatives and also off-venues. There are also plenty of airbnbs, hotels and apartments you can rent, but they get booked up really fast during this time and most of them are not exactly very budget-friendly.

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Come Prepared – Apps, Deals & Special Events

Download the excellent festival app, which lets you sort the schedule by all events or off-venues only, has maps and notifications for special deals and venue changes. The second app you need is Appy Hour, alerting you about the cheapest drink (and some food) deals around town as a pint is normally around 7-9 pounds and simple meals start at around 15 pounds. The Reykjavik Grapevine (English-speaking news about the city) also publish a great festival special, a free magazine, which you can pick up at venues around town with schedules and additional offers. This is also how I found out about a special venue on Laugavegur street run by Reykjavik Grapevine (keep an eye on the #GrapeWaves hashtag), which was like a pop-up art gallery, where they displayed festival magazine covers and organised special performances by cool musicians like Soley (pic below) plus a fridge with free beer (while stocks lasted) and goodie bag giveaways. Again, make sure you get there before it opens, which on the day I went was 5pm.

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Get recommendations From Those in the Know

As I knew zero of the off-venue bands, my strategy was to discover as many different venues as I could fit in and hopefully find some great bands along the way. I started (very conveniently!) by walking down the stairs to the KEX hostel bar where the fab Seattle radio station KEXP was live streaming gigs every day. All their sessions were excellent and I was glad I’d made the place my base. In between the half-hour shows, it was easy to get talking to music fans from around the world and asking them to help you figure out which bands to see next. So much fun!

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Awesome Music from All Sorts of Genres

In no particular order, these are some of the bands I discovered at Airwaves and really enjoyed listening to this year. Quite a few of the bands sang (at least some songs) in Icelandic, which sounded beautiful and I was also pleased to see that there were lots of great up-and-coming female musicians in the off-venue line-up.

Between Mountains (young female Icelandic duo, beautiful harmonies), Groa (three female Icelandic musicians rocking out),  Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra (probably my fav performance all week, beautiful sound), HAM (if you’re a metal fan, one of the singers moonlights as Iceland’s health minister), Bangoura Band (world music, the first gig I caught, groovy and fun), Fox Train Safari (Icelandic Soul Music, so great), Hatari (crazy show, worth it just for that), I Am Soyuz (Swedish singer-songwriter), JFDR (experimental Icelandic pop), Myrra Ros (Icelandic singer-songwriter), Kiasmos (Icelandic electronic group), Mammut (great live show), Snorri Helgason (very humorous songwriter and storyteller), Soley (beautiful Icelandic alt-pop), Graveyard Club (American melodic synth-pop band), Högni (Icelandic singer-songwriter, also in electronic group GusGus).

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Great Quirky Venues from Book Shops to Cinemas

These are some of my favourite off-venues around Reykjavik:

KEX Hostel – beautiful bar setting and great sound
12 Tonar – tiny but great record shop (see pic above)
Boat Andrea – on an actual whalewatching boat in the harbour, seating and good sound, one of my fave venues, see pic below, stunning, right?
Solon Bar – stylish bar on first floor (restaurant downstairs)
Kaffibarinn – quite small bar, so arrive early
IDA Zimsen Bookshop Café – cosy bookshop café with seating
Aurora Reykjavik – by the harbour, gigs in room with Northern Lights video on giant screen behind musicians, quite magical, quieter music
Bruggjan Brugghus  – this place is quite big (by the harbour) and it was packed when I got there for a pretty popular band, a good place to have food while seeing a gig if you can grab a table early in the day
Loft Hostel – take the lift to the 4th floor and enjoy music and a nice Swiss mokka in one of the cosiest places in town (spent half a day there when the storm was raging outside)
Kaffi Vinyl – great vegan food, records and nice seating, arrive early
Bio Paradis – the lobby of a local cinema, always space to join for a gig a bit later, some seating, coffee/bar
Dillon – great attic space in a whiskey bar
Reykjavik City Library – I love libraries, so I made an effort to make it to this one, music on downstairs, some seating

The off-venue gigs usually ran from around lunchtime each day until about 8pm and most of the spaces had free wifi, hurrah. There are lots of additional venues I didn’t have time for, which even included kindergartens, fashion stores, gyms, barber shops, museums, churches, hotels etc., so it’s great fun to do a venue crawl!

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Hunt for Cool Souvenirs

In most countries, you can pick up a handful of small souvenirs for family and friends pretty cheaply. Not so in Iceland. While on Reykjavik’s high street Laugavegur every second shop seems to be selling overpriced puffin stuffed toys, magnets and Icelandic scarves, you’re much better off bringing home CDs or vinyl by a brilliant Icelandic band you just discovered, a 12 Tonar tote bag or some official Airwaves merch. That way you’re supporting independent musicians and help keeping the lively Icelandic music scene alive, which in turn helps them putting on great events like the one you’re attending. Win, win!

Extra Tips

If you want to see some of the official bands playing at an off-venue, get there super early! Seriously, most of the off-venues are tiny bars or cafes and they fill up extremely quickly. You don’t actually have to consume any drinks or food in the venues, but of course it makes sense to buy something here and there to support them. This year the festival also included two days in Aykureri, which is a nice excuse to explore the North of Iceland, too (about an hour’s flight away).

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What is the Festival Like for Solo Travellers?

My Airwaves visit was one of the easiest trips for getting to know other travellers. Everyone is a music lover and it’s like the United Nations, I met lots of people from the UK, the US and Canada (some very cheap stopover flights from there) but also festival goers from as far as Jordan, Ukraine and Israel. All the people I met were happy to share festival tips and pass on music recommendations and I kept messaging with people I’d met at shows or at the hostel about what bands to catch next.

Was it worth it and would I do it again?

Absolutely! Apart from finding lots of awesome new music, it was also a revelation for me to get exposed to live bands from genres I normally never listen to. It did feel a bit strange being at a festival and not actually attending any official gigs. Having said that, buying a full festival pass would have not been worth it this time around as I did sightseeing tours (Golden Circle, South Coast, Northern Lights) on all the good weather days. So you can have a great time at the official festival, just the off-venues or both. I’m definitely considering getting a full pass next time around, as they also had a conference with films, discussions on the Icelandic music industry and networking events.

Don’t forget to check out my other Iceland post for additional tips on outdoor activities, cold weather clothing, walking tours, eating out and how to save money during your first trip to Iceland.

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How to Save Money and What To See During Your First Trip to Iceland

In early November I visited Iceland for the first time and spent a week combining sightseeing with listening to great live music courtesy of the Iceland Airwaves Festival off-venues (see my essential tips). Here is a guide for your first visit to Reykjavik and beyond: how to choose tours, save money and have a whale of a time!

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Dress for every kind of weather 

The climate in Iceland is pretty unpredictable all year round and there are not a lot of reasonably priced options to buy extra gear, so come prepared. Pack your waterproofs (long insulated jacket and waterproof trousers), gloves (ideally touchscreen ones and maybe another warmer pair), base layers (merino long johns and long tops are great) and a tight-fitting woollen or fleece hat you can wear under your jacket hood. Forget about umbrellas, they will just get blown to shreds in two seconds. For my November trip (which seems to have been warmer than usual, ca. +2/-2 and almost no snow but one really big storm) I brought a pair of good quality waterproof hiking boots with good grip (I still slipped on some of the paths by the waterfalls, so be extremely careful and trust your intuition) and a pair of light, waterproof, insulated boots, which were great to use in the city and for the night-time Northern Lights tours. It’s a good idea to dress in layers and to bring plenty of t-shirts for indoors as most places are rather warm once you get inside. Make sure you have travel insurance and/or your E111 card with you (for EU citizens), it will make you just a lot less worried in case anything unexpected does happen.

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Bring as much food as your suitcase will hold

Obviously, this depends a lot on the kind of trip you are planning and the budget you are on. I was staying at a hostel with a self-catering kitchen, so I brought all my breakfast items (muesli and almond milk plus coffee and tea), pasta, pesto sauce, apples and bananas for a few days. I also packed enough energy bars and chocolate to last me for the week as I spent all my days on bus tours or at concerts and didn’t have much time to shop for food. There are supermarkets like Bonus and Kronan (and also the Icelandic equivalent of 7/11 called 10-11) in central Reykjavik and some of the other towns and touristy spots around the island, but they are all fairly expensive (roughly about double of what you’ll pay at home including for basic things like bread, cheese and milk) and they really made me appreciate (and miss) the choice we get in UK supermarkets – who would have thought?

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Shop around for day tours and Northern Lights trips

As I was travelling by myself, I decided to join some bus tours. There is a lot of competition and many combination offers available, e.g. horseriding, glacier-climbing, helicopter trips, caving and super jeep tours. I did some online research before my trip and compared the tour schedules for a few tours I was planning on taking. The prices vary considerably (ask for a discount if you’re doing more than one tour with one operator) and the bigger companies do a lot more advertising, which doesn’t mean they are necessarily better tours. I ended up going on three tours with Thule Travel and found them friendly and helpful. The most popular trips you can do in a day include:

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  • The Golden Circle tour with three main stops at Þingvellir National Park (walk between the North American and European tectonic plates), the geothermal area in Haukadalur (with the geysers Geysir and Strokkur) and the impressive Gullfoss waterfall. We also got to pet and take a selfie with some Icelandic horses on the way back, which was a great little bonus for me. All day/8 hour tour.
  • South Coast Tour: We stopped at Eyjafjallajökull (the famous volcano which erupted in 2010), the Solheimajökull glacier (you can walk up to it, so great), Seljandsfoss waterfall (possible to walk behind it if weather decent), for lunch in Vik town (also a nice beach with puffins flying around the cliffs), Reynisfjara beach (Iceland’s most dangerous beach with huge waves, so keep an eye on them when you’re taking pictures) and Skogafoss waterfall (you can climb up to the top). All day/10 hour tour. Probably my favourite day during my trip.
  • Northern Lights tour: I had not been sure if I should go on one of those, but even though we didn’t see very much when I went (they give you a free repeat ticket, if the lights don’t show), I quite enjoyed the ‘hunt’ being driven around lakes and fjords in the dark and met some nice other travellers on the bus. The one time I did see the lights more clearly was from my hostel window one night at around 1am, so you never know! The bus companies tell you around 5-6pm each night if the tour goes ahead (based on the likelihood of seeing the lights) and they depart between 8-9pm and bring you back to your hotel/hostel around midnight or 1am.
  • Blue Lagoon tour: I didn’t end up going there this time, but do book this well in advance, as it is super popular and the daytime slots go quickly. You can also go there on the way from or to the airport and lots of people seemed to bring waterproof cameras for the obligatory silica mud-caked selfies. There are also several popular outdoor pools around Reykjavik, where you’ll probably meet more locals and will still have a good time. Hotpot Iceland lists all of them with GPS details.

If you’re renting a car instead, make sure you check the weather forecast and follow the locals’ advice as well as take a look at Safetravel. My tour bus driver worked for the Icelandic search and rescue associaton ICE-SAR and told us many stories of people who got lost or had accidents and not all of them made it back home alive.

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Hunt for food and beer bargains to beat the inflated prices

Download an app called Appy Hour to get the best deals for drinks (and some food) at any given time around Reykjavik. Trust me, it’s worth it, as it will reduce the price of a pint (normally ca. 7-9 pounds) by up to a half and often lists food deals as well. If you’re vegetarian (like me) or vegan, there are a few options around town but I highly recommend bringing as much food with you as possible before you arrive. I really enjoyed the vegan lasagne plus salads at Glo Restaurant (2000 ISK/15 pounds). Meals with fish or meat can be considerably higher. Coffee and tea is about 3-5 pounds a pop, so bringing a thermos might come in really handy. As the fast food restaurants are nearly as expensive as regular restaurants, there is no reason to eat there unless you’re really craving a burger. You can drink the tap water, just make sure you don’t use the warm/hot tap as it is geothermal water and will taste of sulphur. Apart from nice local foods like Skyr (thick yoghurt) and ‘volcano’ rye bread, there will also be options for you to try all sorts of meat, but please think about what you consume and do not support the unnecessary killing of beautiful species such as whales, sharks or puffins and rather see them in their natural habitat and support organisations, such as Seeds, who work in nature conservation.

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Time your stay right and you’ll get to listen to great live music for free

My first visit to Iceland coincided with Iceland Airwaves Festival, which attracts around 7000 music lovers from around the world for a week every November (review coming up). They have a huge fringe programme (free events in off-venues around town), but even if you’re visiting during another time, the city’s bars and cafes often host live music, readings and other events. Some of my favourites included IDA Zimsen book café, Kaffibarinn and Kex Hostel (where I was staying). There are also other festivals (literature, beer, music) year-round, just make sure you book your accommodation well in advance during those peak times.

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Make an effort to meet the locals including Reykjavik’s most famous cat

When you’re walking around Reykjavik it can sometimes feel like there are no Icelanders left in the city as it’s such a popular tourist destination. So it’s definitely worth making an effort to meet and learn about the locals. As an animal lover, I always pet any dog or cat I come across and then talk to their owners. This time I was extra lucky as I crossed paths with Baktus (Reykjavik’s most famous cat, pictured below, with his own Instagram account) several times and also met up with an Instagram friend in real life to cuddle her cute older dog and cat. I also joined one of the free walking tours (pay what you can), which takes about 2 hours during which we not only learned about Icelandic history, but also met some high school students and visited a beautiful neighbourhood with historic wooden houses (see pic above).

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No matter whether you’re visiting Iceland on a stopover for a few nights, during a festival or have more time to expore the island, it’s a beautiful and quirky place to discover and you’re sure to have a great time. Iceland is a destination which has many different seasons (Northern Lights in the winter months, puffins and whales in spring and summer etc.) and you can easily combine nature with culture. The Reykjavik Grapewine and Iceland Review are two great English-speaking print and online publications to learn about local culture, news and events while you’re visiting. Just make sure you start saving now as you’ll definitely need more money than expected!

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Maritime Vibes at Hamburg on Tour Festival 2017 in London

The first thing that greeted me when I arrived for Hamburg on Tour in London last weekend were a couple of smiling, oversized sailor statues outside the Boiler House venue in Shoreditch. Hard to miss! As was this free festival put on by the marketing team of the German port city of Hamburg for the first time in the UK.

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I had been invited to Hamburg in September for a visit during Reeperbahn Festival and thoroughly enjoyed my time exploring the creative, down to earth Northern German city. The London event aimed to present the best of the city’s festivals, sport, film, street art and beer and coffee culture on 20 and 21 October 2017 and by Saturday night, I felt like I was back in Hamburg for the weekend, what a great party!

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But let’s start at the beginning, which, for me, was a speciality coffee cupping session with Speicherstadt Kaffeerösterei in the workshop corner of the Boiler House venue. At that time, there weren’t all that many visitors yet and it felt a bit like your usual travel trade show, with stalls to browse and tourist brochures to pick up.

As soon as the first band, the Nathan Ott jazz trio, got on stage, however, things started picking up and more and people came through the doors to celebrate Hamburg and its many cultural offerings. I had invited a number of friends (from the UK, Germany, USA) along and we had a great time tasting some German craft beer (them) and making my own lemonade from fresh limes (me) at a charity stall.

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One of the highlights of the weekend was Stefanie Hempel’s Beatles Tour, the London version (pic above). Her longer, actual tour takes you through the streets of Hamburg’s red light and music club district where the Beatles had their first break as a band and spent two years in their late teens in the early sixties. Stefanie soon had our group singing along to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and other Beatles hits, accompanied by herself on ukulele and we got talking to lots of other Hamburg fans from around the world afterwards.

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Hamburg and its surrounding area are also a great hub for festivals of all kinds: music, film, arts, literature. The London event included sample sets by bands such as Hundreds (see pic above), Odeville and UK-based To Kill a King. In addition, you could watch short films about Hamburg and get up-close to the brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall by putting on virtual reality glasses for a 360 degree tour, which impressed my friends, who hadn’t been there before. Definitely worth a visit on your next trip to Hamburg!

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Another fun session which was offered at Hamburg on Tour was a street art workshop with award-winning artist and illustrator Macha (pic above), who taught participants to create their own graffiti stencil designs, which were then transferred to a wall near the festival venue to add to a larger work created especially for the event.

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For those not so much into art and culture, football was another topic for the weekend. Hamburg on Tour had invited Ewald Lienen, FC St. Pauli’s technical director, as well as Nick Davidson, who has recently published the first English-speaking book on the famous and quirky Hamburg football club. There is even an FC St. Pauli fan club in London, so you can watch the games with other fans in a local pub.

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All in all a fantastic event, which goes to show that this creative approach to marketing a city to visitors in such a refreshingly different way is definitely a great idea. Don’t forget to check out my Reeperbahn Festival 2017 review and my Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg for more travel and festival tips. I’m already thinking about another visit for some more festival fun.

Caledonia Dreaming: Banbury Folk & Hobby Horse Festival 2017

I had only been to  Banbury Folk Festival (6-8 October 2017) once before, as a volunteer steward a few years ago and had very much enjoyed spending a weekend in this historic Oxfordshire town with its canal boats and lots of friendly pubs with live music. It is a mostly volunteer-run community festival, which cherishes the folk club tradition and is never really that much about well-known artists, but about getting together with a pint around tables and listening – and often singing along – to talented musicians you will most likely not have heard of (yet). As this year was the 18th and last year for festival organisers Mary and Derek Droscher, it was definitely time for another visit and I certainly didn’t regret my decision!

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Last weekend was a great example why I love volunteering at folk festivals and why they are such a nice weekend getaway, particularly as a solo traveller. From the moment you check in for your shifts (usually jobs like taking tickets, doing reception for stewards or artists, helping with the café, setting up venues, cleaning up after gigs, helping with the parade etc.) you’re part of the team and often run into people you met at similar events (like one of my favs, Shrewsbury Folk Festival). It’s always a good idea to be cheerful and helpful, especially as a newcomer. Offering to make cups of tea or carry things from A to B are always appreciated. So is flexibility about shift times. Helping out with stewards’ reception on Friday afternoon was a nice and busy start as a lot of people were arriving around that time. I also met a guy who must have had the best volunteer role I’ve ever seen at any festival: Hobby Horse Liaison. Just brilliant!

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After a quick dinner on the go and dropping in on the main venue, Banbury Town Hall, for the start of the evening concert, I had to make my way over to the Banbury Cross pub where I was doing the door for the club room at the back were a couple of traditional singers were on until late. I’m glad I stayed on for a set by the energetic Granny’s Attic in the front bar of the pub and it made up for missing most of the Irish concert over at the town hall.

As October isn’t the best time to pitch your tent anywhere in England, the festival offers the option of ‘indoor camping’ upstairs in the Methodist Hall, the second largest venue. Sleepovers in a room above a church are a bit like being on a school trip decades after you’ve left that part of your life behind. People just bring their sleeping bags and there are tea making facilities and bathrooms available. Basic, but it makes for a nice atmosphere among your fellow volunteers (just make sure you don’t forget your ear plugs!) and Dave the Hat (see pic below) made sure we were all happy campers.

Gisela & Dave the Hat

After a lazy breakfast in the local Wetherspoons just around the corner, I was ready to explore Banbury’s charity shops for some second-hand book finds and the UK’s oldest working inland waterway boatyard, Tooley’s, which happened to have an open weekend with narrow boat trips and historic engine displays.

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At 11am it was time for the Hobby Horse Procession and some Morris sides to parade through the middle of town. There were so many great handmade costumes, mostly horses, of course, but also a unicorn, sheep, boar and a bear. Luckily the weather played along nicely, too, most of the weekend.

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This year’s headliner was award-winning Scottish songwriter (including an OBE) Dougie MacLean and as the festival organisers anticipated a lot of demand for his two appearances, they had come up with a pre-queueing system for tickets (free for festival pass holders), which required people to line up separately for his afternoon and evening events. I would have quite liked to see some other bands as well, but the timings were so tricky that I ended up doing a shift organising the first queue and doing audience mic for Dougie’s ‘Meet the Artist’ session at the Methodist Hall and then queued again for his evening concert in the Town Hall. It reminded me a bit of volunteering at Toronto Film Festival a few years back, where queueing had such a capital Q that it ended up being quite an entertaining experience.

As it turned out, it was well worth making it to both events though. I had never seen Dougie live before, but once he started singing, I realised I knew most of the songs from the cover versions of Irish sisters Mary and Frances Black, who I saw live many times when I was living in Ireland in the past. The ‘Meet the Artist’ session was a great format, an hour of audience questions interspersed with songs, just him and his guitar and that lovely, subtle voice. It was easy to see why he has so many fans around the world. His songwriting is a winning combination of memorable, often fairly melancholy melodies and thoughtful lyrics, which seem to resonate with many people.

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After a well-deserved coffee break, I joined a few others for the next queue at the Town Hall, which was a little chaotic and actually quite fun as we met lots of other festivalgoers. After all the wait, we scored first row seats – success. While we were passing the time chatting with other folkies, Pat Smith and Ned Clamp, who had run a beginners’ ‘spoons’ workshop earlier that day, began handing out pairs of spoons, which was followed by instructions on how to behave during our ‘performance’. Yep, we had just been volunteered to join the ‘Spoons Orchestra’ and were basically warming up the audience for the other (real) acts to come. Defo time for a drink or two!

After appearances by Granny’s Attic as well as local band Scarecrow, the wait was eventually over and Dougie performed his main set, which included harmonica playing AND didgeridoo. But seriously, who could be envious of the talent of such a humorous and soft-spoken man? I was just grateful he not only sang some songs from his latest album ‘New Tomorrow’ (the title track being a very moving one for his grandsons), but also a lot of my favourites including ‘Broken Wings’, ‘Talking to My Father’, ‘Caledonia’ (probably for the 3578th time in his life…) and the best encore ever, ‘This Love Will Carry Me’. Sigh. Singing along en masse to beautiful folk songs just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy (me anyway) no matter whether the majority of the audience hit the right notes or not. This concert certainly did! The very low-key ‘after show party’ (as it would be called in London) was held at the Cricket Club where we did more singing along to mostly shanties and traditional folk songs and got to chat with Dougie over a pint about his musical adventures around the world before getting herded onto the shuttle bus for a transfer back to our church home for the weekend.

Sunday was basically a recovery day following two fairly late nights. In the morning, what felt more like the middle of the night to me, I caught a lift with the festival shuttle back to the Cricket Club for a ‘singing breakfast’. It wasn’t the greatest start to the day if you were vegetarian like myself, but the atmosphere totally made up for it. Seasoned and entertaining performers Pete, John and Andy of Alhambra led the singalong and then we went around the various tables with people contributing songs or tributes to Mary and Derek, who had some great stories from 18 years of making Banbury Folk Festival history. Back in town, I caught one more singer-songwriter, Irishwoman Paula Ryan, at the Banbury Cross Pub before my last shift of the weekend back at the Town Hall.

Banbury Paula Ryan

This was supposed to be a ticket checking shift, but as they were short of a hobby horse handler (lol), I got volunteered for the second time this weekend for something I had no qualifications for. It reminded me of dressing up for carnival as a child back home and my horse with no name was actually a beautiful specimen handmade from papermache. So I trotted into the town hall following a cow, with a furry brown bear hot on my heels. Can you think of a more hilarious way to spend a Sunday afternoon?

After all this excitement, it was time for Keith Donnelly’s and Anna Ryder’s (she also has a pretty cool website about moths!) humorous set and Anthony John Clarke closed the festival including a tribute to Vin Garbutt, who sadly passed away in the summer. Mary and Derek deserve to be very proud of their achievement in the past (nearly) two decades, what a lovely festival with so many friendly people.

Hobby Horse Farewell

Like every last festival day, the post festival blues hit me soon after leaving Banbury, but the good news is: the folk festival will most likely continue in the future and I found out that Dougie and his wife Jenny (who looks after all his merch at gigs and is a very talented artist in her own right) have been running their very own festival called Perthshire Amber each November (taking a break this year). So it took a weekend in the wilds of Oxfordshire to serve as an unexpected reminder that I need to spend more time in Scotland. I’ll hopefully also make it to a few of the island festivals in 2018, watch this space…

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Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg

In September I spent a long weekend in Hamburg visiting Reeperbahn Festival (see full review and festival tips) and exploring Germany’s second largest city. While I was part of a small group during the festival, I also planned in two days to explore the city on my own, which I love doing as I tend to get more done and can decide the pace and path myself. Here are some of my top tips for a first visit to Hamburg, so you get a great mix of sightseeing, culture, coffee and food spots plus some awesome views to impress your friends back home.

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Discover the City’s Many Facets on a Walking Tour

I always make a point to join at least one walking tour during any city trip. As a solo traveller, this gives you a chance to mingle with other visitors and you get to ask a knowledgeable local about up to date tips for the best spots to eat and hang out.

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Hamburg has a lot of history and quite a few neighbourhoods to discover, so you can do a general tour to give you an overview when you’ve just arrived (or are short of time) or pick a particular area, such as the Speicherstadt (see pic above), Hamburg’s docklands area, or go with a theme, like musician Stefanie Hempel’s Beatles Tour (it passes through the main streets of the St. Pauli red light district, so you basically get two in one). There are also many other historic or quirky tours on offer. If you have more time, Hamburg surrounded by the most beautiful countryside and there are fantastic walks and idyllic lunch spots along its waterways and smaller rural communities.

Great Neighbourhoods to Explore

Hamburg has many distinct neighbourhoods, so it’s a good idea to take your pick and discover a few of them on foot. If you’re after traditional sights, beautiful old buildings and sea views, the old town and harbour area are for you. If you manage to stay up very late or get up very early (neither of which I managed on my trip) on Sunday morning, the Fischmarkt and its boisterous market criers are an unmissable experience (5.30am to 9.30am, but until midday on Sundays with live jazz music).

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If you’re more into alternative culture or after music, fashion or bookshops, the Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel are for you. Get off at Sternschanze and your first speciality coffee stop, Elbgold, is only a 5 minute walk away. Walk down Susannestrasse with its many small cafes and boutiques, turn  left into Schulterblatt (ahead on the right you can see the Rote Flora, which has been squatted since 1989 and has had a pretty turbulent history ever since), which has Zardoz Records (and books) on the left hand side and Herr Max (great cakes and ice cream) a bit further down. Keep walking and aim for Marktstrasse with more small design and music shops along the way, such as Hanseplatte (see pic above). If you get tired, Hatari on Schanzenstraße is a great place to have a burger (veggie options available) or other yummy lunch options. For those on a budget, Turkish restaurant Pamukkale (Susannenstraße) does an all you can eat brunch including filter coffee for €7.90 on weekdays. In order to get a different view of the old town, you can do a walk along the banks of the Außenalster.

Best Instaworthy Views from Above

The brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall, nicknamed ‘Elphi’ by the locals, is a must do and you can just turn up and get a visitor’s ticket for free (or book a slot online in advance for a small fee). This allows you entry to the viewing platforms with fabulous views of the harbour which you can enjoy with a glass of bubbly from the café or restaurant.

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My favourite viewing point, however, was the Michel (see pic of view from top below), the 132m high tower of the St. Michaelis church between the Rödingsmarkt stop and St. Pauli stop. It’s €5 (or €4 with the Hamburg Card) and the elevator zips you up to the top in just a few seconds. The views are fantastic, especially on a good day. From there, make your way along Ditmar Koel Straße with lots of Portugese and Italian restaurants down to the Landungsbrücken where all the ferries and harbour tours leave from.

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Quirky Things to Do If You’ve Already Seen the Main Sights

The subterranean Alter Elbtunnel, constructed in 1911 nearly 24m underground the Elbe river, acts as a transport link for people, bikes and vehicles. I was surprised to learn it was modelled on the Clyde Tunnel in Glasgow (another one of my fav cities).

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While you’re there (on the Landungsbrücken side), have lunch or dinner outdoors at Dock3 Beachclub. Watch the ships go by from your deck chair on this artificial beach with real sand and enjoy some seriously delicious food. Something that’s a bit more nerdy than quirky, but also a big attraction is the Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest miniature railway and kids with a maximum height of 1m go free.

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As I love coffee and animals, every time I visit a city that has a cat café, of course that’s where I’ll go. Hamburg’s Cafe Katzentempel (2 min from U3 stop Schlump) is the home of 6 rescue kitties, 5 from Ireland and 1 from Greece, offers vegan food and great coffee and is also a good place to meet other animal lovers if you’re travelling solo. If you still have energy at the end of the day, why not party in a real WWII bunker? The Übel und Gefährlich nightclub is housed in the Flakturm IV (U3 stop Feldstraße, I told you, this line is all you need!) and hosts diverse music events.

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Festival City All Your Round 

Hamburg truly is a city of festivals all year round from music of all genres (Reeperbahn Festival, MS Dockville, Elbjazz, Hurricane, Hanse Song, A Summer’s Tale), to literature (Harbour Front Literaturfestival), theatre (Hamburger Theater Festival) and other cultural events (Comicfestival, Cruise Days, Altonale etc.). Plus there are lots of lovely seasonal events, for instance at Christmas time. So whenever you’re visiting, you’re probably arriving smack-bang in the middle of some sort of celebration you can join in on.

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A Cosy Night’s Sleep Right in the City

Hamburg has a well-organised public transport system and the U3 is the line you’re probably going to use most, but any place near a U-Bahn stop will be a good location, so you can get out and home again quickly. I stayed at Superbude St. Georg (see pic below), a quirky hotel and hostel near the Berliner Tor stop (2 stops from Hauptbahnhof) with a very yummy breakfast buffet (including make your own waffles) and communal tables, so it’s easy to get to know other travellers. Other options include the Generator Hostel right beside the Hauptbahnhof, a huge, well-run hostel with comfy beds, which is also a great base in case you’re arriving late or leaving early.

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Getting Around Hamburg

Hamburg’s Fuhlsbüttel airport has a lot of nice shops and cafes and is only a 25 minute ride from the city (€3.20 one way) on the S1 from the main train station (Hauptbahnhof, so relaxing compared to London. While in Germany shops are generally closed on Sundays, the many shops and cafes at the train station are open all weekend, great for last minute souvenirs. You can rent a locker for your luggage for just €4 (fits a small trolley plus backpack) or €6 (large suitcase) for 24 hours. A daily public transport pass is €7.60 (or €6.20 after 9am) and the Hamburg Card (which in additionncludes discounts on museums, harbour tours and other attractions) is €9 per day. Like in most large European cities, you can also rent a city bike, the Hamburg version is called StadtRAD.

Hamburg on Tour in London 20-21 October 2017

Don’t forget: Hamburg on Tour is bringing the Northern charm of Hamburg to London’s Boiler House (Shoreditch) this October with a fantastic free programme of events for everyone to enjoy. And you can quiz the folks from Hamburg Tourism about visiting Europe’s second largest port city.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival visited Hamburg, the Reeperbahn Festival and stayed at Superbude St. Georg as a guest of the nice folks at Hamburg Marketing. Prices are as of September 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.