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February 24 2014

February 20 2014

February 16 2014

February 10 2014

Street artist Phlegm’s murals from around the world

London-based street artist Phlegm has painted his distinctive, fantastical murals in London, Sheffield and beyond. cities all over the world. Here we pick some of his best works









February 06 2014

Shard hotel to finally open in May

The 200-room Shangri-La hotel in Britain's tallest building will offer spectacular views at a price when it finally opens in May

The much-delayed opening of a £40 million hotel within Britain's tallest building is to finally go ahead this spring.

The 202-room Shangri-La hotel in the 1,000ft-high The Shard in south London will open to guests on May 6.

But it will not be until September 2014 that all the rooms will be available in the hotel, which will occupy levels 34 to 52 in the towering structure which stands close to London Bridge station.

And although guests are all guaranteed fantastic views over London, their nightly stays will set them back a pretty penny, with room rates starting at £450 and suites going for as much as £3,250 a night.

This is the first Shangri-La hotel in London and only the third in Europe - after Paris (2010) and Istanbul (2013).

The hotel at The Shard had been originally expected to open in spring 2013 but got gradually put back.

Those with deep pockets who can afford to stay at The Shard will be escorted in a high-speed elevator from the hotel's entrance to the sky lobby on level 35.

Subtle Asian touches in the lobby and lobby lounge will reflect Shangri-La's heritage, while modern and classic art with pieces from a mix of acclaimed Asian and British artists will be showcased throughout public areas.

The hotel's 202 guestrooms and suites will open from levels 36 to 50 and will be among the largest in London. Rooms will feature floor-to-ceiling windows.

The hotel will include three wining and dining venues and there will also be a gym and a pool as well as conference facilities.


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February 03 2014

Summer lovin': share your art about holidays

Step out of the dark and into the light, forget the rain and send us some artworks from your holidays









January 31 2014

Letters: Michael Jacobs had a genius for conveying the thrill of travel

Bruce Boucher writes: The death of Michael Jacobs is a great blow to those of us who knew him while he was studying history of art at the Courtauld Institute in London, and later as a free spirit and bon vivant. Most people are afraid of failure and hold back from grand gestures, but Michael wasn't like that. He tried his hand at a variety of artistic endeavours, and early on decided to make his living by writing. His grandiloquent defence of Anthony Blunt in a letter to the Times in 1979 did provoke the wrath of Bernard Levin and others, but Michael was loyal to his mentor, and never temperamentally suited to following an academic career. His was a cosmopolitan temperament, and travel writing suited him down to the ground.

It was remarkable that he managed to support himself through writing books, especially travel books, and he had a genius for conveying the thrill of discovering a new part of the globe. He will be sorely missed.

Peter Eaton writes: Michael Jacobs did much admired and appreciated work as a leader of cultural and gastronomic tours of Spain, Morocco and South America, particularly for Ace, the Association for Cultural Exchange. This educational charity based near Cambridge since its foundation by Philip Barnes in 1958 runs cultural tours all over the world, and Michael was one of its most inspiring and entertaining tour directors. My wife and I well remember going on a tour of Moorish Spain in 2002 led by Michael. As well as the celebrated sites and monuments, we had a mystery trip to Frailes, where he had his house. We had a convivial lunch in a crowded local bar situated in what appeared to be a cave – and were all introduced to the local residents, who obviously knew Michael well.


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January 30 2014

Super rich shift their thrills from luxury goods to costly experiences

Gourmet dining, private flights, bespoke safaris, slimming clinics and art auctions emerging as top status symbols

They say money can't buy happiness but the world's super rich are still giving it their best shot, spending $1.8tn (£1.1tn)last year on luxury goods and services – with extreme holidays, gourmet dining and art auctions emerging as the status symbols du jour.

Whether that means spending a record $142m on a Francis Bacon triptych or diving with sharks, the rich are increasingly hunting for unique objects and experiences, sometimes laced with the thrill of danger, a study reveals.

Perhaps jaded by regular visits to plush boutiques in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay or Paris's Champs-Élysées, the world's millionaires are increasingly preoccupied with spending on the kind of things that money – usually – can't buy, said the report by the Boston Consulting Group.

"Luxury is shifting rapidly from 'having' to 'being' – that is, consumers are moving from owning a luxury product to experiencing a luxury," said BCG senior partner Antonella Mei-Pochtler. "They already have the luxury toys; the cars and the jewellery."

Of the $1.8tn spent on luxuries in 2013, according to BCG an estimated $1tn went on services – from private airline flights to luxury slimming clinics, to a five-star hospital stay where the patient will be waited on by a butler and the en-suite facilities include a marble bath.

The £1.1tn spent is slightly more than the wealth controlled by the poorest half of the world's population – 3.5 billion people. Oxfam recently estimated their combined wealth at £1tn in a report on inequality, where it pointed out that this sum was the same as the wealth controlled by the world's richest 85 billionaires.

A breakdown of last year's figures shows about $460bn was spent on one-of-a-kind travel adventures such as expeditions to the Antarctic or bespoke safaris, while $170bn was spent on the more typical trappings of wealth: designer clothes and handbags.

Other growth areas include fine art and wine, which are seen to be attractive alternative investments to the stock exchange.

One Chinese multimillionaire, according to the report, spent $1.5m on a two-year tailor-made package holiday that took in nearly 1,000 Unesco heritage sites. His son, meanwhile, not content with adding a second Piaget watch to his collection, spent his vacation diving with hammerhead sharks.

The son is an example of what BCG dubs the "sugar generation", a label used to describe China's affluent young consumers who, against a backdrop of a booming economy, have grown up surrounded by luxury brands.

This group accounts for 13% of China's affluent population, a figure that is expected to reach 30% within five years as the "wealth history" of the average Chinese family becomes longer.

"Both women and men in the sugar generation espouse very different buying habits than, say, China's successful entrepreneurs do," said Mei-Pochtler. "The latter group are men, many of whom are the [sugar generation's] parents."

The change in shopping habits is forcing the big luxury companies to add new strings to their bow, with Louis Vuitton owner LVMH recently snapping up the Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France in the Caribbean.

To ensure it doesn't miss a trick Burberry has launched a customisation service for the well-heeled shoppers who buy from its catwalk collections. The service means customers can see sketches and videos of their item being made on their mobile phone.

Faced with the problem that some shoppers have enough haute couture and designer accessories to last a lifetime, the luxury industry is trying to glamorise mundane activities such as going to the gym or eating lunch.

In the US, upmarket brands such as SoulCycle offer the chance to sweat it out on stationary bikes for $3,500 a term, spurred on by instructors tweeting and using Facebook to "energise" customers. With Girls star Lena Dunham said to be among the fans of its gruelling workouts, the brand also has its own line of designer gym gear.

The scars of the 2008 banking crisis mean demand for luxury goods and services is not quite back at the heady level of conspicuous consumption seen before the fall.

Until recently the luxury goods business was being propped up by the growing number of millionaire shoppers in markets such as China, India and Brazil, who picked up the slack as cowed consumers in traditional luxury markets such as western Europe, Japan and the US spent more cautiously. But recently even they have been showing signs of strain, creating problems for luxury brands big and small, while a crackdown on luxury gift giving in China has not helped.

This week British handbag maker Mulberry warned its profits had been hit by a collapse in sales while French giant LVMH has been battling weaker demand for its fashions in Europe and Asia. Nonetheless, BCG predicts the luxury market will grow by another 7% this year.


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January 21 2014

Wright there: Derby artist's sojourn in Bath revisited

Joseph Wright of Derby was, for a short while, Joseph Wright of Bath. A new exhibition in the Somerset city sets out to show why

It probably won't be used on the city's promotional material, but for one of the 18th century's greatest English artists Bath proved an ideal place to come for a midlife crisis.

An exhibition opening this weekend will for the first time explore the little known period during which Joseph Wright of Derby was, for 18 months at least, Joseph Wright of Bath.

The show is at the city's Holburne Museum, where the curator Amina Wright – "no relation" – said she had been intrigued by the connection since she arrived there in 2001. "Everyone has kept very quiet about it and it is not something that has been much researched," she said. "I wanted to find out more. What happened? Why did he come? What did he do? Why he did he leave so soon afterwards?"

The exhibition argues that his time in Bath played a pivotal role in his later development as an artist. And it shows that there is more to Wright of Derby than the usual assessment: yes, he was a masterful, genius painter of the industrial revolution, but he was also more than that.

There were a number of reasons Wright came to Bath, one being his health.

In 1775 Wright, just back from Italy, was overworked, exhausted and stressed. Bath, with its relaxing waters, would have been seen as the perfect solution. How ill he really was is another question. "He's a real moaner," said Wright (the curator). "In his letters it's, 'I've got a headache' and, 'I can't see very well' and, 'I've got rheumatism in my head and my bowels.' What does that mean?"

But there were also professional reasons for his relocation. The pre-eminent Bath portrait painter in Bath was Thomas Gainsborough, who had just left for London. Could there have been a gap in the market?

Wright, though, proved to be a spectacular failure as a celebrity portrait painter.Among the reasons cited for his failure were his grumpiness and his terrible salesmanship. Plus, he had little reputation in Bath and he was a slow worker.

His failure did mean, however, that he could finish two important and spectacular paintings, of Vesuvius and fireworks in Rome, which proved incredibly popular.

He also met William Hayley, an encourager of lost, depressed artists who had a direct effect on his later work, in which Wright began exploring subjects in contemporary sentimental literature.

"I'm seeing his time in Bath as a midlife crisis, a time when he decides who he is," said Wright.

During the time in Bath, Wright conceded that he would not be the leading artist of his generation; he would not be the next Gainsborough. And he went home to Derby. Today, however, his works hang in the national collections and many consider him a superstar.

Coinciding with the show is a gift of a Wright of Derby portrait from the Holburne's former chairman David Posnett. The portrait, of Elizabeth Balguy, will be the Holburne's first owned Wright of Derby work, and is the third work to be gifted under the new cultural gifts scheme introduced by the government last year, which allows tax relief on nationally important works gifted during owners' lives.

The small, revelatory show in Bath will travel to Derby in the spring. The Holburne says it is not trying to claim the artist, although Wright the curator has taken a photograph of a label on the back of one portrait.

It says: "Joseph Wright of Bath, formerly Derby".

• Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond is at the Holburne from 25 January to 5 May.


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January 12 2014

London is losing its way on streets

Ten years after Ken Livingstone's transport chief praised Danish architect Jan Gehl's ideas for humanizing London's public realm the capital must renew its embrace of them

The marvellous thing about reclaiming London's streets for human beings is that a wide range of human beings approve. Public squares, high streets and residential roads where it is easy to walk, safe to cycle and just pleasant to exist are desired by environmentalists, pedestrians, businesses, shoppers, public-transport users, planners, bike-riders and property developers alike. The consensus is neither perfect nor complete, but its embrace is broad and deep. For much of this century the capital has travelled strongly in its direction. It could and should go further. Lately, though, its compass has strayed.

Making streets more "liveable" depends vitally on calming and restricting their use by private motor vehicles. Monday's announcement by Transport for London that it's consulting on raising the congestion charge was a reminder of the ways Boris Johnson has, to strain a metaphor, shifted the city into reverse. A second increase in the charge under the Conservative mayor would be welcome but should be judged in the context of his halving of the charging zone at the end of 2010, a move which not only invited more cars, vans and HGVs into west central London but has cost TfL, by its own estimate, around £55m a year.

This was not the only early Johnson measure to end or undo the reforming programme of his predecessor Ken Livingstone. Plans to pedestrianize Parliament Square and introduce a tram service linking north and south London by way of Waterloo Bridge were dumped soon after he took power in 2008, as was Livingstone's "modal hierarchy" which prioritised pedestrians, cyclists and bus-users. Since then, traffic lights have been re-phased to help drivers get around faster but there are no plans to increase bus service capacity. Johnson, although an impressively visible cyclist, has suffered mixed fortunes implementing his various shades of "cycling vision." The latest, though well resourced, will have the look of a face-saving indulgence detached from any broader perspective until proven otherwise.

The mayor's transport strategy, always a bit of a dog's dinner, seeks a large increase in journeys on foot, but a planned Year of Walking (2011) never happened and the London Assembly's transport committee heard on Thursday that "green man" time has been shortened at many busy crossings with no thorough analysis of its effect on collision rates.

In his defence, Johnson can point to TfL's road safety action plan published last year. But much attention is centring on recent casualty stats. Adam Bienkov and the Green Party's Jenny Jones have calculated that the rate per journey at which cyclists have been killed or seriously injured has gone up in recent years when the opposite might be expected to apply under a mayor whose use of pedal power is so central to his jovial persona.

Johnson has denied that the same trend holds for pedestrians, and, in truth, this is hard to calculate. TfL points out that the numbers killed and badly hurt in 2012 (the most recent year for which data are complete) are down compared with the 2005-09 average but also acknowledges that it was a very bad year, showing a sharp rise compared with 2011.

It would be wrong to oversimplify the bigger street management picture across London as a whole. Led by Islington, there's been a strong move towards the boroughs, which are in charge of the great majority of London roads, introducing 20 mph speed limits. The mayor's transport deputy Isabel Dedring, who led his roads task force, has said these could apply to almost all the capital's high streets and residential roads by 2020. That task force has also managed to keep alive the case for further congestion charging.

In Hackney, there is great pride in the priority given to buses along with measures to help both cyclists and pedestrians without putting the former before the latter, as some new cycling infrastructure is claimed to do. In Kensington and Chelsea, the redesign of Exhibition Road, whilst a disappointment to some, does show the potential of the "shared space" principle.

It will not do to glibly blame every negative trend in this vital area of transport policy on the mayor – it may, for example, suit his Tory instincts to shift the conversation towards individual responsibility, but that doesn't invalidate the case for it. Yet his approach looks piecemeal and half-hearted at best when compared with imaginative recent programmes in New York or the Vision Zero pledge on traffic fatalities made by that city's new mayor Bill de Blasio. Johnson has allowed the momentum towards a more "liveable London" created by his predecessor to become diluted and diffused.

In 2004 the Danish architect Jan Gehl produced a report, co-commissioned by TfL, containing imaginative recommendations for gradually transforming London into a place where a better balance between road traffic, cyclists and, in particular, pedestrians worked for the good of the city as a whole. Welcoming the report, TfL's head the time, Bob Kiley, wrote of the key role Gehl had played in "the transformation of Copenhagen city centre into a lively and prosperous place where people can move and meet in comfort and in safety." Gehl's ideas, he went on, "have been exported around the world with similar extraordinary results: now it's London's turn."

Ten years on, Gehl is to return to London to attend a screening at the Hackney Empire theatre on 23 January of a film about his work – entitled The Human Scale – and participate in a panel discussion afterwards. The panel will – full disclosure – be chaired by me and also include Patricia Brown, who has helped bring about some of the best improvement to London's places and spaces and was another key backer of the 2004 Gehl report. There may be some tickets left but you'll have to move fast.

The event will, I hope, help place the debate about London's streets right back at the heart of political debate in this year of borough elections and with the next mayoral poll in 2016 already on the horizon. It's a vital debate as well as sometimes a difficult one. While there are many common interests in taking the Gehl approach, they aren't always neatly aligned. The right mix of measures is the key, but the politics can be complex. And there remain powerful opponents of any attempt to curb the privileges of the private motor car, as famously demonstrated by the Evening Standard's extraordinary response to the idea of weekend and evening parking charges being levied in Westminster. It's time to renew the argument for change.


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January 09 2014

Sun in the city: your photographs

Dawn at the Kremlin, Christ the Redeemer at dusk, sirrus clouds over Sydney Harbour and a Marrakech minaret ... here are your best sunrise and sunset snaps from cities all over the globe









January 08 2014

Readers' best smartphone travel photos

We invited readers to share their best photos taken on a smartphone and received over 700 images. Here's a selection of our favourites









Readers' best smartphone travel photos

We invited readers to share their best photos taken on a smartphone and received over 700 images. Here's a selection of our favourites









January 06 2014

Looking at 2013

Now 2013 is over, 2014 has started, and it’s a new year with new possibilities, challenges and experiences. I thought I’d take a look back at what 2013 was like for me. Thinking about all the things that happened in 2013, it’s hard to fathom just how many things one can experience in one year, […]

January 03 2014

Top 10 urban tours and activities in Cape Town and Johannesburg

With the much-anticipated Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom released in the UK today, we visit some of the key locations from South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle on these inspiring and moving tours in and around Cape Town and Johannesburg


CAPE TOWN

Footsteps to Freedom Walking Tour

This walking tour of central Cape Town gives some context to a visit to Robben Island , the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years. Taking in sights such as a 17th-century slave lodge, and historic characters including the diamond-digging Cecil Rhodes, the tour uses South Africa's oldest city to narrate the country's journey through the colonial era and apartheid to democracy. Alternatively, the From Prisoner to President walking tour focuses on Mandela-related sights including the Tuynhuys presidential office, where he held secret meetings with the apartheid leaders.
footstepstofreedom.co.za/tours-rates/cultural-historical/walking-tours. Tours last 2½-hours, 10.30am Tues-Sat, R220 (£14), museum entries extra
Also recommended: Coffeebeans Routes is launching a series of Mandela-related tours, including a cooking safari based on freedom fighters' favourite meals, and walks led by locals who came into contact with Mandela

Cape Malay Cooking Safari

This walk through Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighbourhood, where minarets overlook brightly coloured cottages on the slopes of Signal Hill, introduces the area's history through its food. The tour starts at the Bo-Kaap Museum, which tells the story of the neighbourhood and its Cape Muslim community, descended from slaves shipped from Asia by the Dutch. As the indomitable Faldela Tolker demonstrates in her bright orange kitchen, this mix of influences resulted in distinctive Cape Malay dishes including mild, aromatic curries. Visitors learn how to roll rotis, wrap samosas, make sambal (a tomato-and-onion side dish) and "cook with love" before feasting on a curry.
andulela.com/malay_cooking_tours.html. Half-day cooking safari £45
Also recommended: Take a seat on a vintage sofa at Haas cafe and design boutique near the museum, then climb Signal Hill to try Cape Malay food at Biesmiellah restaurant or the Noon Gun Tea Room, with city views and the Noon Gun, a cannon fired at noon Monday to Saturday

Township Futures

This cultural route takes a positive look at the Cape's townships. Meeting the locals and stopping for lunch in areas such as Khayelitsha and Guguletu, the tour looks at community schemes, businesses and innovative responses to township challenges. "We look at how the townships are shaping the future," says Coffeebeans Routes' owner Iain Harris. The antitheses of disengaged bus trips, these tours show how design has played a role in social mobility – one of the reasons Cape Town was named World Design Capital 2014.
coffeebeansroutes.com/tours-cape-town/township-futures. Tours run on demand, 9am-1pm or 2pm-6pm. The tour costs £47, including a hot meal
Also recommended: Half- and full-day World Design Capital 2014 tours from the same operator look at projects in Cape Town and the townships as part of the city's design-focused year

Neighbourgoods Market

Food and craft markets have become weekly rituals for urban South Africans, building on Cape Town's centuries-old heritage of selling supplies (including cures for scurvy) to sailors. Leading the charge of fashionable markets is Neighbourgoods, which opened in 2006 at the Old Biscuit Mill , a converted factory in the suburb of Woodstock. Every Saturday, galleries, boutiques and gourmet restaurants are joined by a mind-boggling array of stalls, with local artisans and farmers offering tastings and live bands entertaining the happy grazers. Neighbourgoods also offers its cocktail of urban regeneration, organic produce and craft beers each Saturday in a former multi-storey car park in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
neighbourgoodsmarket.co.za. Saturdays 9am-2pm (Braamfontein 9am-3pm)
Also recommended: On Sundays and Thursday nights, Market on Main fills the Arts on Main complex in Johannesburg's Maboneng Precinct with stalls selling everything from Ethiopian curries to handmade ravioli. In Cape Town, a quieter alternative to Neighbourgoods is the City Bowl Market on Saturday mornings and Thursday evenings

Woodstock art tour

Between the docks and the slopes of Devil's Peak, Woodstock is Cape Town's version of Shoreditch or Williamsburg. Derelict warehouses and factories have been converted and reclaimed, with galleries and creative businesses appearing among the dilapidated Victorian cottages. Michelle Obama even dropped by in 2011, lunching on aubergine ratatouille at The Kitchen. See Woodstock's street-level creativity on a tour of the area's public art, taking in 40 mural-covered walls with guide Juma Mkwela. Get a feel for the area's creative pulse, on the main drag, Albert Road, with its galleries, shops, restaurants and more galleries: don't miss the Woodstock Exchange at number 68, and Woodstock Foundry at number 120.
• Book a 90-minute public art tour (£10pp) by calling +27 73 400 4064 or emailing juma.mkwela@gmail.com
Also recommended: On the edge of Cape Town's business district, the Fringe is another regenerated neighbourhood with an art and design focus. A good starting point is steampunk-style cafe Truth, with its ornate metalwork and baristas dressed for the Mad Hatter's tea party


JOHANNESBURG

Joburg Places

Walking tours led by former journalist and landscape architect Gerald Garner showcase the regeneration of inner-city Johannesburg. Garner, who has written books about this urban rebirth, looks at public art, converted warehouses, rooftop bars and squares. Stops include the fashion district, the Ethiopian neighbourhood known as Little Addis, and the shopping area, where international brands compete with an African fruit and veg market. With young locals moving to the newly vibrant inner city from the suburbs and townships, says Garner, the tours offer a glimpse of a fully integrated South Africa. "You don't find such a dynamic and diverse social mix elsewhere in the country," he says.
joburgplaces.com. Tours typically last six hours and cost £20pp. Saturday and Sunday tours generally include eiyhrt the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein or Market on Main, Maboneng
Also recommended: Past Experiences walking tours on themes including Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle, graffiti and Chinatown. Outside the centre, tours also cover Soweto, the Cradle of Humankind archaeological site and inner-city Pretoria

Maboneng Precinct Tour

Maboneng means place of light in the Sotho language, but place of hipsters is a better description of this regenerated warehouse district in central Johannesburg. Beanie-clad locals mix with international artists in the galleries, restaurants and bars. Schemes such as the artist exchange program, in which artists can swap work for accommodation, have encouraged Maboneng's creative community. Tours with Main Street Walks wanders between sights, including a traditional healers' market, pointing out murals along the way. "Maboneng is proud of the role art plays in its community – it gives it character and identity, a degree of consciousness and intellectual life," says guide Bheki Dube.
mainstreetwalks.co.za/tours/maboneng-precinct-tour. Tours 10.30am Tues-Fri, £10pp, or £25 including lunch and a film about Johannesburg. At 2.30pm on Sunday, the company offers free guided walks focusing on Maboneng's public art
Also recommended: Pick up a free neighbourhood map (or download one) and hire a bicycle (£3) from Maboneng information office on the corner of Fox and Kruger Streets

Cycle Soweto

The shack-lined byways of South Africa's largest township may not sound like an obvious place for a ride, but a bike tour is an enjoyable way to see the sprawling area. Residents are used to foreigners wheeling past, and will happily pass you a gourd of homebrew at the shebeen (township bar). Given Soweto's role in the fight against apartheid, there are numerous historical sights, including a museum and memorial to the 1976 uprising. Also on the route is the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived – Mandela, whose house is now a museum, and Desmond Tutu. Hearing local stories and seeing Soweto's many faces, from corrugated iron shacks to the mansions of post-apartheid tycoons, is fascinating.
urbanadventures.com/johannesburg_tour_Cycle_Soweto. Beginning and ending in central Johannesburg, an eight-hour tour costs £104 including lunch and stops at the Apartheid Museum and a former migrant workers' hostel. Alternatively, Soweto Bicycle Tours, based at the Soweto Backpackers hostel, offers tours by bicycle or tuk-tuk from £19
Also recommended: Cape Town's Awol Tours has a township bicycle tour of Masiphumelele on the Cape Peninsula, tying in with a bike-based community scheme

Constitution Hill

This hilltop complex in central Johannesburg is home to South Africa's Constitutional Court, built in 2004. As a powerful symbol of the post-apartheid constitution, the light-filled structure has many windows, representing transparency in the workings of the court. Skylights dapple the floors with sun and shadow, as if you are sitting under a tree, the traditional African setting for justice and community decisions. Also on the site is the Old Fort, a notorious apartheid prison complex that incarcerated both Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi. The prison museum throws open famous inmates' cells and shows how the penal system supported the apartheid machine. Exhibitions and installations make the site an informative and moving illustration of South Africa's path to democracy.
constitutionhill.org.za. Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat, Sun 10am to 3pm, entry£3.50pp, including an optional 60- or 90-minute guided tour, departing on the hour
Also recommended: The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg's southern suburbs gives an overview of the 50-year era and a sense of its terrible human toll, with first-hand accounts and interactive exhibits

Shebeen-style bars

For some township flavour in central Johannesburg and Cape Town, try a shebeen-style experience – they're popular with young black professionals and students. Amadoda Braai in Woodstock, Cape Town, is a typical example. BMWs line up outside, and their glamorous owners unload to down Castle lager within Amadoda's graffiti-splashed walls. A braai (barbecue) produces platters heaving with drumsticks, chops and boerewors (beef sausage). In Johannesburg, Sophiatown is a hipper take on the concept, in the Newtown Cultural Precinct, a regenerated section of the inner city. Named after Johannesburg's famous township, and decorated with black-and-white photos of anti-apartheid heroes, the lounge-bar is on the city's Jazz Walk of Fame, which honours local musical greats.
amadoda.co.za; sophiatown.co.za
Also recommended: Pata Pata , under the same jazz-loving ownership as Sophiatown; and Sha'p, both in Joburg's Maboneng Precinct


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December 30 2013

VW camper van: farewell to the symbol of 60s freedom

The last ever Volkswagen Type 2 Kombi van has rolled off the production line. We bid a fond farewell to the much-loved, multipurpose shed on wheels

It was the defining image of nomadic hippydom, gracing Bob Dylan album covers, hauling surfers and their boards in search of killer waves and serving as the vehicle of choice for Scooby-Doo and his hapless, ghost-busting gang. But this month the last ever Volkswagen camper van rolled off the production line, 63 years after it was first unveiled at the Geneva motor show – because it can't be fitted with an airbag.

Brazil is the last remaining country where the iconic Type 2 Kombi van is still produced, where more than 1.5m have been made since 1957. But new health and safety laws to be introduced in 2014, requiring every vehicle to have airbags and anti-lock braking, mean it is no longer compliant. Production in Germany was halted as far back as 1979, when the Kombi no longer met European safety requirements. It seems strangely fitting that the symbol of 60s freedom has gradually been hounded from existence by bureaucratic regulations.

The curvaceous minivan won hearts and minds after being promoted as not just a vehicle, but more of a holistic lifestyle choice. "Do you have the right kind of wife for it?" asked adverts for the van in 60s America. "Will she let your daughter keep a pet snake in the backyard? And invite 13 people for dinner even though she has service for 12?" Hell, with that kind of free spirit, you're clearly suited to driving a Kombi!

Transporting revellers to Woodstock and innumerable gap year travellers around Australia – all at the stately pace of no more than 60mph – more than 10m Kombis have been made since they were first manufactured in postwar Germany. Following the success of the Beetle, the Kombi was the second vehicle produced by VW, its name short for "Kombinationsfahrzeug", or "cargo-passenger van", a multipurpose shed on wheels.

The origins of the nine-seater love wagon are credited to the Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon, who spotted an improvised vehicle while on a visit to the car plant in Wolfsburg – a Beetle chassis, jury-rigged for moving parts around the factory floor. He thought others could benefit from the flexibility of a big movable box, and so the Type 2, also known as the Transporter, was born.

With is trademark profiled wings that sweep around the front and down into a point, forming a valley beneath the split windscreen, it was an instant hit. Numerous iterations followed, including the Camper version, with a cooker, sideboard and folding bench seat, as well as models with trapdoor sunroofs and concertina pop-tops, which rose dramatically above the van like a great inflated accordions. To mark the momentous end of the beloved minibus, Volkswagen is releasing a final limited edition of 1,200 priced at about $43,000 (£26,000), which are expected to be snapped up by eager collectors.

A little house on wheels, the Type 2 has proved as versatile as the standard semi, being converted into everything from mobile restaurants to libraries and miniature music venues. In Brazil it has long been the workhorse of choice, used for everything from shuttling schoolchildren to transporting mail – and even used by funeral directors for carrying corpses. Anyone for a flower-power fun-hearse?


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December 27 2013

Readers' travel photograph competition: 2013 winners

After 12 months of judging your travel photos under very distinct themes, we round up the best of the best









December 22 2013

The Keeper's House: restaurant review

Buried deep in London's Royal Academy is one of the gallery's best-kept secrets – the cooking of Ivan Simeoli

Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 (020 7300 5920). Meal for two: £120

Recently a new restaurant called Steam and Rye, which serves an on-trend menu of American barbecue, hamburgers and worrying deep-fried pickles, announced it would be running a 50% off night for women only. Except they didn't call them women. They called them "fillies", beneath a cartoon of a woman with large breasts – she was pictured wearing only a bra – reclining in a martini glass. I checked my watch to see whether it was suddenly 1957. Nope, still 2013.

If this joint were in one of those southern US states where an equal opportunities policy means beating up all minorities with equal vigour it might have been understandable. But it's not. Steam and Rye is in the City of London. It has big-name backers. (Including actress and calendar model Kelly Brook – go figure.) I'm minded to turn up wearing only a bra, recline in a giant martini glass and demand my 50%. Some people may need post-traumatic stress counselling after witnessing that, but I believe it's a price worth paying to make a point. (The point being that gender-based discounts amount to unlawful discrimination.)

The restaurant sector has not always had the cleanest of records when it comes to patronising women. The last time I went to the otherwise lovely Le Gavroche a few years ago it was still giving the "laydees" menus without prices, because obviously having ovaries meant you couldn't possibly be settling the bill. At the far thinner end of the wedge there's the business of serving women first. This, I recognise, is tricky. Some people still like it. They see it as an old-fashioned but rather charming form of good manners.

And some, like the women with me at dinner at the Keeper's House of the Royal Academy, see it as a cue for eye-rolling so vigorous you can hear the balls rasping against their skull sockets. What matters is how the front of house staff deals with it when told to stop. The staff here dealt with it brilliantly. They acknowledged the request, altered their service, and just moved on. Throughout they were engaged without being stalkerish, funny without being intrusive. They were really good at bringing us things to eat and checking we were OK while eating them. After some weird, uneasy service recently it was a blessed relief.

Then again it's an Oliver Peyton restaurant, and that sort of professionalism does come with the territory. As a restaurateur, Irish-born Peyton is a very safe pair of hands. We know this because many of London's most significant institutions have consigned their dining rooms to his grasp. From the Admiralty at Somerset House in 2000 through the restaurant in St James's Park in 2004 to the dining rooms of the National Gallery, the Wellcome Collection, the ICA, the Royal Academy and many more besides, if it's a London landmark or stuffed full of pretty things, Peyton has probably fed people there. He has the immigrant's intense love of his adopted city. He has made London a better place than it was when he arrived.

I have reviewed many of his restaurants and they usually do the job. There's nothing overtly showy about them. It's all understated good taste. It's bourgeois, ingredient-led food that sits comfortably alongside a diet of high culture without attracting too much attention to itself. They are the Penguin Classics of restaurants. Which is where the Keeper's House, a newly renovated townhouse off the Royal Academy courtyard, differs. There is some very clever, very modern cooking here. The problem is it may all just be a little too clever for its own good.

The restaurant at the Keeper's House is the sort of thing a clattering, showy city like London needs: a room that's tucked away from view. The building is meant as a kind of club house for Royal Academicians and friends of the RA. From 4pm, however, the two-roomed basement restaurant opens to the public, if you can find it (through the arch off Piccadilly, head to the top right-hand corner). You can easily hide here. That said, it feels uncomfortably like a stage set, the curving green baize walls, hung with lumps of carved stone, appearing oddly temporary as if, were it all to go wrong, the whole restaurant could literally fold, like a piece of flat-pack furniture.

Perhaps it's meant to make you focus on chef Ivan Simeoli's food, which has a rugged structural quality. It's all haute peasant, if the peasants were haute enough to afford a £10 starter and a £20 main. It begins with the offer of "foraged" red currant and prosecco and from there disappears deep into the hedgerows, a delightful pose given the nearest field is the condom-strewn Green Park and nobody should eat anything foraged from there. You can imagine arty types nodding sagely over each plateful and pondering meaning. Clay-baked potatoes arrive looking like buff globes of Henry Moore masonry. There are splodges of truffle cream and bits of artichoke both deep-fried and roasted. It's lots of earthy, desolate things shaking hands. A mushroom broth with chestnuts and bits of pickled turnip is brown – very, very brown. There is an intense depth of flavour. And lots of brownness. Cured mackerel with pickled fennel is a little brighter, but again, it is to be admired rather than swooned over.

Mains are various riffs on protein with bitter brassicas. There are outbreaks of black cabbage and chard and garlic leaves. There are dark-skinned heritage carrots instead of carrots from the local housing estate. Glazed pumpkin with the lamb offers a rare burst of colour. All the key players, the fillets of brill or bass, the roast lamb, are very well cooked indeed. Saucing is powerful without being over-reduced. It's all knife-edge poised. But we end up craving something a little sticky and, well, less good for us. These dishes feel knowingly like a northern European winter, all twilight and pungent green herbs. It's an episode of Borgen fashioned from food. My suspicion is that, come the spring, the menu will, like the rest of Peyton's places, head towards something less self-absorbed and more French rustic.

Desserts offer relief: a very good chocolate caramel concoction, a soothingly light, frothy rice pudding flavoured with clementine, a splodge of buttermilk pudding with dribbles of honey. The wine list doesn't try to mug you on the way in or out. Even so, the bill mounts. If only they would offer 50% off for those of us with, say, testicles. Is it really too much to ask?

Jay's news bites

■ For impressive dishes from a restaurant attached to a public venue, try the Bristol Lido. Swimming catering was never like this when I was a kid; they don't even serve Bovril. Instead enjoy food from the wood-fired oven, on a menu which takes inspiration from southern Europe. Lunch might include scallops with herb and garlic butter, honey and bay-roasted chicken with date and almond stuffing, or roast bass with winter tabbouleh (lidobristol.com).

■ Think your Christmas is going to be extra special? Here's the service for you: a London sculptor will use 3D printer technology to scan and then miniaturise the carcass of your turkey before casting it in solid silver as a ring. Yours for £650 – because you're worth it (scrapbook jewellery.com).

■ The Well Hung Meat Company is offering a "thrifty box" for those dealing with the financial excesses of Christmas: a selection of slower cooking, cheaper cuts, including a 1.5kg piece of hogget (12- to 18-month-old lamb) and a braising beef joint. "Thrifty" is relative. It's still £50 (wellhungmeat.com).

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk. Follow Jay on Twitter @jayrayner1


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December 20 2013

Tomorrow's Tube: heritage, improvement and development at South Kensington

Improving one of London's most cherished Underground stations presents opportunities but also some delicate challenges

For me, South Kensington station means excitement, adventure and history. Much of the excitement has been transmitted by the children I've arrived there with over the years in order to visit the great museums of Exhibition Road. History is, of course, what those museums supply but so does the station itself, which was opened on Christmas Eve, 1868 and wears much of its heritage proudly. The adventure? You don't need to be of primary school age to get a kick out of walking down the Grade II-listed pedestrian tunnel linking the station to those cathedrals of learning north of Cromwell Road.

Yes, destination "South Ken" is packed with promise and complexity, a dual-layered station with open platforms serving the District and Circle Lines, the Piccadilly Line tunnels deep below and an elegant arcade entrance. Yet it is also a little down-at-heel. Visiting it recently with Transport for London personnel, during the same excursion that took me to Harrow-on-the-Hill, a rejuvenation vision was described.

First, the station itself. There is much to be improved in TfL's view: the ticket hall is too small for the large crowds of visitors; the stairways are too narrow; there are no lifts and no ramp down to that wondrous subway; there's not enough of the excitement of the museums conveyed to passengers on arrival.

Then there are the TfL-owned environs. We headed out to Thurloe Street, with its seven-figure flats and mix of shopfront styles. The Medici Gallery was picked out as the one retail premises where the original design has been maintained. It would be better, thought a TfL companion, if the others conformed. They'd like the same principle applied within the arcade. In its case a pharmacist serves as the template. Above its windows, the legend "Anglo Persian Carpet Co - Founded 1910" is preserved.

The other end of the arcade opens on to Pelham Street, which runs parallel to the District and Circle tracks down to your left as you walk east. A former, original entrance to the station from Pelham Street - designed by Leslie Green, ox-blood tiles and all - would be brought back to life if possible, along with two disused lift shafts.

On the opposite side of the street as you walk down the buildings are imposing and stately - very SW7. On the left, there are none, just a wall and a fence. TfL envisages 20 three-storey town houses being constructed there - not very affordable but therefore maybe profitable enough to pay for a lot of improvements. Looking back at the platforms and station buildings from the junction with Thurloe Square reveals a surprising accumulation of shabbiness.

South Kensington station offers TfL great potential for its policy of holding on to its land assets, rather than selling them off, and looking to develop them in partnership with commercial property firms. This, they believe, is the most sensible way of making money from them in the long term within the pincer movement context of diminishing government funding for transport in the capital and booming demand for more and enhanced capacity.

But the station also presents a delicate planning challenge. Redevelopment ambitions have burned since the 1980s but a variety of schemes have come to nothing, due largely to the opposition of local residents. "However it's come about, they have felt that they've been defending their station from us," it was explained by TfL. "We've somehow never managed to convince them that as the owner of the station for a hundred years and for a hundred years to come we are as interested as they are in doing the right thing for the station and the area."

The most recent proposals, dating from 2009, envisaged keeping the District and Circle Line platforms open rather than having them roofed and built over - a key issue for the conservationists - and included residential development along Pelham Street, but these have joined a substantial list of schemes not taken up. A Thurloe Residents Association account of a public meeting held in February records optimism that Graeme Craig, TfL's commercial development director, "is receptive to working with the community to create an Underground station that is efficient for passengers, profitable and reflects the character of the area and its needs," but only "cautiously" so.

A large task, then, and urgent too, but also a sensitive one - a good test, perhaps, of an important part of TfL strategy as it unfolds into the future.

Previous articles in my Tomorrow's Tube series can be found here.


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