William Cook

Leuven: Belgium’s most underrated city

From the vertiginous belltower of Leuven’s university library, you get a great view across the mottled rooftops of Belgium’s most underrated city. Leuven isn’t swarming with sightseers, like Bruges. It isn’t choked with commuter traffic, like Brussels. It’s lively and compact, ideal for a weekend away – so why have most British travellers never even

You can’t cancel Picasso

In the sunlit courtyard of the Picasso Museum in Málaga, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso is telling me about his grandfather, the greatest artist of the 20th Century. ‘He’s very inspiring – a powerful artist and thinker,’ says Bernard. ‘He was super-cool, and also super tough.’ Not so long ago, such an uncontentious compliment would have seemed entirely unremarkable.

Walking the Suffolk Coast Path

When was the last time you woke up bright and early on a weekday morning, with no need for an alarm call, rested and impatient for the day ahead? My last time was a week ago, when I awoke in the Pier Hotel in Harwich, eager to walk the first bit of my latest hike, along the Suffolk Coast Path. The Saxons sailed up this river to conquer East Anglia after the fall

Walking the Essex Way is a wonderful adventure

I’m hiking along a footpath through glorious English countryside, across lush green meadows framed by ancient woodland. I’ve hardly seen a soul today, just a few solitary dogwalkers. I’ve been walking all day and my legs are aching, but I can’t recall the last time I felt so contented, so alive. Welcome to the Essex

How the British intelligentsia fell out of love with Germany

An economic slowdown, the far right on the rise, even apocalyptic hailstorms – what on earth is happening in Germany? Is Europe’s industrial powerhouse on the slide? Well, yes and no. Germany is in recession, and Germany’santi-immigration party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), is growing stronger, but the bad news coming out of Germany indicates a

How Salzburg made Mozart

Arriving in Salzburg, ahead of this week’s Whitsun music festival, the first thing that greets you is a rather grumpy statue of the greatest composer who ever lived. Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in this implausibly pretty Alpine city, and each time I return here the boyish creator of the world’s most beautiful

The rise and fall of bohemia

In the Kunsthalle Praha, a smart new gallery in Prague, a Scottish professor from UCLA called Russell Ferguson is trying to explain to me the meaning of bohemia. Like a lot of fashionable buzzwords, it’s surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is a bohemian an artistic rebel? Or merely a pretentious layabout? Ferguson is an expert

In defence of Brussels, Europe’s most underrated city break

Strolling around the Belgian Comic Strip Center, admiring the elegant artwork of Hergé (creator of Tintin), I wonder for the umpteenth time why so many of my British friends are so disparaging about Brussels. It’s one of my favourite cities, but most Britons I know wouldn’t dream of planning a break here. They don’t know

Dresden’s Rumpelstiltskin and the strange tale of European porcelain

Strolling along Dresden’s Brühlsche Terrasse, an elegant promenade above the River Elbe known as ‘the balcony of Europe’, the wartime destruction of Germany’s most beautiful city seems like the echo of a bygone age. Since reunification, the reconstruction of its baroque Altstadt has been meticulous – the panorama Canaletto painted has been painstakingly restored. Reduced

How Dickens invented Christmas

Time was, the Christmas shopping season used to last a week or two. Now it drags on for months. Never mind wage inflation – what about present inflation? The whole thing is like a gigantic poker game, where the stakes are raised remorselessly every year. How did Christmas mutate into this orgy of rampant consumerism?

Why Germany shouldn’t cancel Bismarck

What’s in a name? On the face of it, the Bismarck-Zimmer in Berlin’s Foreign Ministry building looks like just another boring conference room: functional office furniture, bland bureaucratic décor – an ideal forum for those tedious, conscientious meetings at which German politicians and diplomats excel. However, that nondescript committee room has now become headline news

Why Munich is the ideal Advent destination

Ambling through the Christkindlmarkt, Munich’s biggest Christmas market, feeling distinctly tipsy after my third (or maybe my fourth?) mug of Glühwein, I experienced a strange sensation, something I hadn’t felt in ages. For the first time in a long while, I realised I was feeling rather festive. Back in Britain, I’m the archetypal Christmas grouch –

What will be the legacy of the Qatar World Cup?

In the glitzy Fifa museum, in squeaky-clean downtown Zurich, there is a new exhibition which sums up the upbeat, inclusive image which football’s world governing body is so eager to portray. It’s called ‘211 Cultures – One Game’, and it consists of 211 items of football ephemera, one from each of Fifa’s member associations all

North star: Berwick-upon-Tweed is the ideal winter weekend away

What’s your favourite railway journey? Mine is the journey from London to Edinburgh, and my favourite moment on that journey is when you cross the Royal Border Bridge, which straddles the historic frontier between England and Scotland. As the train glides across this graceful viaduct, high above the River Tweed, you look down upon my

Why Antwerp should be your next city break

In a sleepy side street around the corner from Centraal Station, there’s a restaurant I return to whenever I’m in Antwerp. From the outside it doesn’t look like much – a perfunctory shopfront, more like a takeaway café – but inside it’s charming, like eating in someone’s home. Welcome to Hoffy’s, a cosy Yiddish enclave

How to spend a weekend in Riga

In Ratslaukums, Riga’s central square, there is an ugly brutalist building which encapsulates the contested history of Latvia’s beautiful, battered capital. This modernist eyesore was erected in 1970, when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union. It was built as a museum dedicated to Lenin’s crack troops, the Red Latvian Riflemen, who helped him overthrow

Why the Baltics fear Russia

In the historic heart of Riga, Latvia’s lively capital, there is a building that reveals why the Baltic States remain so wary of the Russian Bear. From the street, it doesn’t look like much – just another apartment block on a busy boulevard full of shops and cafes. Only the discreet sign outside gives the

The halcyon days of Anglo-German relations

In Brenners, Germany’s grandest grand hotel, in Baden-Baden, Germany’s smartest spa town, there’s a corner of a foreign drawing room that is forever England. Above the fireplace hangs a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of the Honourable Mrs Beresford – a quintessential English Rose in a quintessential German Kaminhalle. At first sight it seems incongruous

How to read Ulysses

In the labyrinthine basement studio of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Irish actor Barry McGovern is doing something that would be inconceivable in any other country. Remarkably, he’s reading the whole of James Joyce’s Ulysses out loud. Even more remarkably, a substantial audience are paying good money to sit and watch him. He’s been hard at it