The rise of female adventure tour guides

Did you know that at least 60% of the global tourism workforce is female, despite the fact that just 23% of board members in the industry are women? And there’s one corner of tourism where women are particularly underrepresented, especially when it comes to female tour guides: adventure travel.

According to adventure tour operator Untamed Borders, just 3% of accredited international mountain guides are women, and in countries where women’s educational opportunities and cultural expectations are limited, women are much more likely to take on lower-paid cleaning and clerical roles than guiding roles. These are the women that keep the world of travel turning – and are most likely to have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But change is in the air.

The three following women, hailing from rural regions of Afghanistan, India and Morocco, represent the green shoots of a cultural shift towards women taking adventure tour guiding roles in global regions where this is unheard of. It’s partly down to the diversification work of companies such as Intrepid Travel, Responsible Travel, GAdventures and Untamed Borders, which are all committed to employing and training more female adventure travel guides.

The solo female travel trend has been growing in popularity in recent years, with Google Trends reporting a 131% rise in interest in 2019. Female-only tours from operators like Intrepid and SmarTours are providing more opportunities for female tour guides than ever before, some in conservative destinations such as Iran, Morocco, Nepal and Jordan, as well as experiences exclusively for women, for their guests. This could mean kohl beauty treatments in Jordan or trying on traditional wedding clothes in Morocco: the world of women that’s not accessible to men in those countries.

“Representation is a fundamental component of achieving equality and access to opportunities,” says Jenna Howieson, Inclusion and Diversity Lead at Skyscanner. “That’s why it’s so important to empower and celebrate the incredible women working in the tourism and tour guide industry. Through training and working as tour guides, women have access to financial autonomy and a well-respected job that connects them to the rest of the world. I hope that tour operators and those working in the travel industry will continue to connect with, amplify and empower even more female tour guides in the future.”

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate some of the women breaking the mould in the world of adventure guiding.

The first female guide in Morocco’s Aït Bouguemez valley: Chama

Credit: Liz Seabrook
Credit: Liz Seabrook

In the High Atlas Mountains, the serene Aït Bouguemez valley is home to many striking things: the towering summit of Morocco’s third-highest mountain, the M’Goun Massif; the rose-coloured, sleepy city of Azilal; indigenous Berber tribes; and a plucky young tour guide making it her mission to break down barriers wherever she goes.

“People say that women can’t do this job,” says Chama Ouammi. “They say it’s too hard for women to hike 20 kilometres, to carry heavy bags, to walk under the sun for more than four or five hours. Women are only to stay in the house, raising children, cleaning and cooking. But I’m opposed to that because women can do everything that men can do, there’s no difference between us. This is why I took the opportunity to go out of my village: to be a good example for ladies in Morocco and to challenge the obstacles of my society.”

Some of those obstacles were very close to home. After studying computer management, Chama began working as a freelance tour guide in Marrakesh before being headhunted by Intrepid Travel to be one of their first female tour guides on their Moroccan women’s expeditions. The company had lobbied Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism to issue some 100 new tour guide licenses to women, on passing a two-part licensing exam, which Chama benefitted from in 2018. But on qualifying, her uncle made it clear that tour guiding was not a path he approved of for his niece.

“My uncle said you can’t do this job, it’s only for men,” she says. “He said, if I had this job I wouldn’t be able to marry in the future, and people would judge me for travelling with different drivers and men. But he was jealous that I am the first female and youngest guide from my region.”

Luckily, Chama’s parents supported her ambitions and respected her wish to opt out of arranged marriage. It’s this support that not only has given Chama the confidence to boldly follow her career path, but has infused that path with such joy and grace. She’s aware of her good fortune: in rural Morocco, over 70% of women are illiterate and arranged marriage, as young as 13 or 14 for girls, is common, typically leading to a life of child-rearing and housework.

“My parents are very smart and always encouraged me to follow my dreams,” she says. “There are ladies in the Berber villages who are very clever, but they can’t finish their studies because no one can support them. I’m happy because I have good, open-minded parents.”

Now working as a freelance tour guide for several tour operators all over Morocco, including Intrepid, Chama gets the most out of the women-only tours that she guides. Speaking five languages and with a warmth that would make any visitor feel welcome, she embodies a kind of joyful, cross-cultural exchange that sometimes, in more conservative societies, is often only accessible between women.

“I really like working with just women because I can talk about anything, and they can too,” she says. “We can stay without headscarves. We can dance together, we can laugh together, in a way that you can’t do when men are there.

“It’s a very real cultural experience, from beginning to end. Some things are only for women.”

The first indigenous female tour guide from northern India: Jangu

Jangu High res4.jpg

India’s West Bengal state encompasses a dizzying range of landscapes, stretching from the tropical mangroves of the Bay of Bengal right up to the foothills of the Himalayas, passing tea fields and plantations along the way. It’s in these foothills that one woman has made history – by becoming the first woman in her indigenous Lepcha tribe to work as a mountain tour guide.

“This path came naturally to me, because I’ve been trekking since childhood and I have knowledge of this area,” says Jangu Lepcha. “I’m blessed to be surrounded by the Himalayas, rivers, forests and birds. All of this motivates me. I’ve wanted to do something like this since my childhood.”

Jangu’s main profession is developing and promoting homestays to tourists visiting her home village of Pedong and the surrounding area. She works as an ad hoc guide for guests travelling to the northern regions of West Bengal, responding to a gap she spotted in the market for a female, English-speaking guide. Capitalising on her lifelong love of nature, she first developed an interest in eco-tourism – and her business concept – while working on a tourism project in Siliguri (three hours’ drive south of Pedong).

“I realised that I could promote and conserve my own rich Lepcha culture through eco-tourism,” she says. “My father always instructed us in our culture and tradition, so I grew up very close to my indigenous culture. We have a unique way of living. The way we dress, our food identity, living habits, architecture.”

But working as a female tour guide was such a novel concept in her community, that Jangu set herself up as a self-employed guide and homestay consultant without even telling her family about her ambitions.

“I don’t know if they would have supported me initially, because I did it completely alone,” she says. “They knew I was into tourism but they didn’t know the passion I had. When I finally told them, they had different expectations – but now they understand and are proud of me.”

The Lepcha tribe, reliant on agriculture, river fishing and foraging medicinal plants from the region’s forests, had different expectations for Jangu, too. But her work has already made an impact on the community’s mindset.

“When I started working in tourism, my people didn’t know what a homestay was and were reluctant to have visitors,” she says. “But since I’ve helped them, homestays and tourism here are becoming very popular.”

It’s just as well, because Jangu is about to launch the project of her dreams: Miknaon, a wellness-oriented homestay in Pedong, due to open in October 2021.

“Being a Lepcha in this region, we own land from our ancestors,” she says. “I want to invite guests from all over the world, be their guide, let them come here to eat good food, do activities, yoga, hiking and be healthy. This is my future goal.”

Afghanistan’s first female tour guide: Fatima

You never know when inspiration might strike. When Fatima was eight years old, she was working as a shepherd – just like many children in the Lal wa Sarjangal district of Ghor province. This mountainous area in Hazarajat, central Afghanistan, relies primarily on agriculture, with families working the same land that Genghis Khan’s Mongol army grazed its horses on, in the early 13th century.

Credit: Untamed Borders
Credit: Untamed Borders

“It may be a little strange to many readers, but running on those high hills after animals was when I was first introduced to guiding and leading a group,” says Fatima (whose surname is omitted for safety reasons). “It was a tough experience, but guiding so many sheep and cows to find their food and enjoy life was a pleasure, too.”

But a long journey lay ahead before Fatima would lead her first group of tourists in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, for adventure tourism operator Untamed Borders in 2020. Age 23 now, she was lucky to receive an education as a child. Designated the least-developed country in the world by the UN, Afghanistan is a challenging place to grow up female: women’s employment opportunities and literacy rates are low, with 2.7 million girls out of school in 2018.

“My family permitted me to participate at a school whose roof was the scorching sun, seats were hot sand, and that most girls were strictly forbidden to attend,” Fatima remembers. “Luckily, I learned basic reading and writing.” It was this foundation that allowed her to continue her education, including English classes from charitable organisations, until it led her to undertaking a journalism and communications degree from Herat university. She caught the attention of Untamed Borders via her posts about Afghan history on a Facebook travel diary group, and led her first tour in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic disrupting trips to Herat.

Fatima’s two sisters followed a more traditional path. They were both married by age 15 and never learned to read or write. And when Fatima first told her parents her plans to become a tour guide, they were firmly against the idea. “I’ll never forget the eyes that looked at me strangely, the people that said, ‘you’re a girl and can’t do it’, or ‘it’s too dangerous’. But no one can stop me from doing what I love,” she says. “What is more beautiful than giving insights into the history, culture, food and traditions of my country?”

But as the first Afghan woman to do the job, no one was more aware of the difficulties ahead than Fatima.

“Before I started my career as a female guide, I often read tourism sites that would discourage women to travel in Afghanistan,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘if it’s dangerous to visit Afghanistan as a tourist woman, how is it possible to be a woman tour guide?’ This was very upsetting to me.

“Then I realised that I am the one who has to create this safe space. Tourist women are role models of courage and change. Women tourists matter, and as a woman tour guide, I matter too.”

In the future, Fatima aims to use her qualifications to work as a professional journalist as well as a guide, while uplifting women along the way. “My next plan is to establish a tourism organisation for empowering female tour guides,” she says. “I am the first female tour guide, but I don’t want to be the last. Afghanistan needs new guiding leaders with new perspectives, who have open minds and open hearts. This need is more crucial for Afghan women. I will do my best to be an agent of change and inspiration for individuals facing similar challenges that I faced as a tour guide and woman journalist.”

easyJet Traveller

Estonian food: inspired by the dark arts

In 2003, Chef René Redzepi opened Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant that made headlines for its artfully plated morsels of seasonal, sustainable ingredients (at eyewatering prices). But, while Redzepi’s New Nordic style held the spotlight, winning the World’s Best Restaurant accolade four times between 2010 and 2014, a quieter food revolution was brewing across the Baltic Sea.

Estonia’s capital city Tallinn now has a fine-dining scene to compete with Copenhagen’s, thanks to a new generation of chefs seeking a homegrown culinary identity – via lake fish, foraged herbs, fermented berries and wild game from the forests that cover 90% of the country. Centuries-long occupation by neighbouring powers, including the Nazi and Soviet rulers of the 20th century, left Estonians with an amalgamated diet of sauerkraut, chicken kiev and herring. But the New Nordic food revolution in Denmark mirrored the way rural Estonians had always eaten, regardless of governing bodies. In recent years, those traditions of fermenting, smoking, foraging and hunting have been brought out of the woodwork – after decades, if not centuries, of neglect.

On 28 and 29 May, the Bocuse d’Or chef championships take place in Tallinn, marking the city’s initiation onto the culinary world stage. Here are the five restaurants that are pioneering the new wave of Estonian cooking, and the five sets of ingredients that have come to define their tastes.

From black garlic to billy goats, it’s a wild ride.

Foraged mushrooms at NOA Chef’s Hall

Named the number-one Baltic restaurant by the current White Guide to Nordic dining, this space – a 15-minute drive out of Tallinn proper – overlooks the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows and sets the scene for Estonia’s most ambitious fusion food. Head chef Orm Oja was born the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

“The Danes invented Nordic cuisine when they started fermenting and foraging, but we had never lost sight of that culture in Estonia. When the Soviet era ended, there was a new freedom for chefs wanting to express themselves,” Oja says. “We forage. Even my little sister knows everything about mushrooms.”

Black garlic chocolate and smoking pine at Restoran Ö

In Tallinn city centre, one passionate and patriotic chef brings to the capital the flavours of the cold sea, dark forests, clean air and black soil of his native Saaremaa Island, off the west coast of Estonia.

“I only use 100% Estonian ingredients,” says Martin Meikas, whose experimental dishes use smoking pine cones to evoke the scent of the forest, and infuse chocolate with native black garlic. “I’m influenced by the history of our country, doing lots of fermenting and smoking. After the end of the Soviet Union, it was all, ‘Let’s make pasta, pizza, then fine dining, then street food’. Now we’ve done everything and everyone has calmed down, we’re going back to our roots.”

Summer berries (in winter) at Põhjaka Manor

This renovated manor house, an hour’s drive from Tallinn, was inspired by the Italian tradition of rural farmhouse restaurants, but has distinctly Estonian features. The cellar is packed with jars of preserved jams and pickles; outside, sheep graze and chickens scratch the ground between the herb garden and vegetable patch. In a small onsite distillery, gins are infused with rowan berries and sea buckthorn.

“In Estonia, we say we only have three months of bad skiing weather each year,” laughs co-owner Mart Metsallik. “It’s logical to cook seasonally and Estonians have always made preserves for the winter from things that are fresh in the summer. In fact, the Soviet times helped preserve that tradition, because we had nothing in the shops from the outside world.”

Rye bread at Leib

The highlight of this leafy spot on the edge of Tallinn Old Town isn’t its wonderfully fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, but its namesake: the black rye bread that comes with every dish and translates as leib. It’s the one constant in the everchanging seasonal menu.

“Rye bread has fed Estonians for nearly 10 centuries, which is why we proudly call it our national food,” says head chef Janno Lepik. “There are two kinds of black bread today. One of them is a sour rye bread, like ours, which is flavoured with different spices and seeds, and has a sour taste thanks to the fermented leaven. The other kind is considerably darker and sweeter in taste, which is due to the added sugar and malt.”

Whole goat’s head at Juur

All exposed brickwork and rustic ceramics, the swish dining room at Juur wouldn’t look amiss in Copenhagen – and head chef Kaido Metsa shares Danish trailblazer Rene Redzepi’s focus on the local and the sustainable, sourcing 90% of his ingredients from his own kitchen garden and the surrounding farms and forests. His signature dish comes from a nearby goat’s milk farm, for example.

“The male goats were useless to them,” says Metsa. “It doesn’t make sense to only use the best cuts of the animal when we have world hunger. I buy the male goats’ heads and we serve them with a story.”


Original junglists: walking with India’s Pardhi tribe

In the valley, thick bamboo sticks shoot up around us from the earthy undergrowth. Their vivid-green leaves lace into a natural parasol that shades us from the midday sun, as we crouch down to inspect the ground for animal tracks. Badda points out a faint scuff in the dirt, almost invisible to the untrained eye, and follows its direction to a nearby tree. The gnarled trunk is covered with fresh scratch marks.

“A leopard was just here,” he whispers, running his palm over the rough indents. Sure enough, he finds a fragment of a claw, not much bigger than a fingernail, embedded in the bark. As we move on and begin a steep climb up a forested, rocky hill, a not-too-distant, alien sound – somewhere between a roar, a howl and a bark – ricochets between the surrounding gorge’s rocky walls. I can tell from the knowing smiles of my companions that it’s the sound of a wild, big cat, of the unmistakable golden and black-spotted variety. Badda puts his hands to his mouth and imitates the roar, calling back through the trees, pitch perfect.

I’m on a day-long trek through the jungles of Panna National Park, a protected area of India’s eastern Madhya Pradesh state. The 1600sqkm reserve draws visitors for one valuable reason: its native big cats. And although I’ve found myself within prowling-distance of a leopard, I’ve got my eye on an even bigger prize. Tigers roam this landscape, and one community here knows how to track them like none other.

The indigenous Pardhi (meaning ‘hunting’) tribe, Badda among them, has lived nomadically in this area for five centuries, its people sustaining themselves through foraging and hunting wild boar, birds and other animals. Their unique skill is an uncanny ability to mimick animal calls. If anyone could help me navigate these backwaters and plains – and fend off the sloth bears, snakes, big cats and hyenas along the way – it would be these guys.

Badda is one of 16 Pardhi people to be involved with the Walk with the Pardhis expeditions, which are run from Pashan Garh lodge – a luxury-safari outpost of the Taj Hotels brand, and the starting point for our day. The project was launched in 2018 by Taj Safaris, wildlife conservation programme Last Wilderness Foundation and the Indian government’s Panna Forest Department, and has expanded to other hotels in the Panna region since. No longer able to support themselves by hunting in the protected national park, the once-nomadic tribe (communities of which are found all over India) now use their unparalleled tracking talents to offer guests an immersive wilderness experience, via Taj Safaris’ training programme.

The morning of our walk starts before sunrise. Over a steaming cup of chai tea, I sign a mildly worrying waiver – one that absolves the hotel from blame if I fall victim to the ‘real risk of bodily harm by dangerous animals’. As I do so, the hotel’s on-site naturalist, Dipu Kumar, races into the room to tell me that a tiger was just seen stalking through the lodge site. It’s the second time in four days. We rush outside to see deep paw prints pressed into the sandy forest floor, just metres from where we were sitting. Hearts pounding, we agree that it’s time to meet up with the Pardhis.

By the time we reach the meeting point, on a dusty road dotted with small settlements in the outer ‘buffer’ boundary of Panna Tiger Reserve, the sun is high enough to hit the tips of the treetops with shafts of golden light. We set off through a sandy plain, heading towards the cavernous Ranipur gorge, which we’ll climb down before entering the jungle proper and scaling the Jumanji-size peak by sundown. A walk is generally escorted by five or six Pardhi people – today we’ve got Badda, Batal, Reshna and Lallarsi, all with the surname Pardhi – but we’re also joined by the Taj Safaris area manager Nagendra Hada and Bhavna Menon, programme manager of Last Wilderness Foundation, which facilitates Pardhi community outreach.

We’ve been walking for just a few minutes before Badda begins to point out signs of wildlife, big and small: hours-old hyena tracks, identifiable by their garlic clove-shaped claws; the teeny paw prints of field mice; a caterpillar trail that resembles a miniscule tyre track. Batal points out medicinal plants that have been used by the Pardhis for centuries – the community is still reliant on ancient herbal remedies and witch doctors.

We chew on Ketha leaves, a herbal mouth freshener that tastes like aniseed, and run our fingers through the leaves of a Mahua tree, whose pink flower petals can be dried and crushed into the favoured local hooch. Lallarsi strips the red bark off an Ajun tree, to be ground into a tea that treats high blood pressure. Batal rubs Lantana leaves – a natural antiseptic that can be wrapped on wounds – between his palms, releasing a green juice that’s powerful enough to remedy scorpion stings and soothe boils. “You can also put this in your ear to treat tooth problems,” he advises, “but only on Wednesdays.”

The morning is quickly whiled away like this and before we know it it’s time to prepare lunch, by a jade-green river in the middle of the gorge. Water buffalo laze around us, electric-blue kingfishers swoop overhead and a family of langoon monkeys watch with interest as the Pardhis boil rice in fresh river water and crush gooseberries and coriander into chutney on a large, flat rock.

As we wait, I’m treated to a demonstration of Pardhi animal calls. Lallarsi roars like a jackal and barks like a monkey, to everyone’s hilarity, before imitating mating calls between a peacock and a peahen with Badda. Batal whistles to a partridge perched on a nearby branch – which tweets in reply – before performing the guttural, threatening growl of a tiger. He reveals that the very ground we’re sitting on was the site of a tiger poaching in 2000 – a hunt that he was party to. In fact, all the Pardhi men present have hunted tigers in the past.

They didn’t have many other options. The hunting tribe has been exiled from mainstream Indian society throughout history, notably by British colonial officials, who labelled them a ‘criminal tribe’ in 1871 due to their outlawed existence in the bush – despite exploiting their tracking skills to help them trophy hunt. The tribe was denotified of this label in 1952, but decades of demonisation had made their reputation hard to shift.

Unaccepted by local communities and cut off from the benefits of education and fixed settlements, the nomads continued to support themselves in the only way they knew: by hunting, this time for increasingly valuable species, as a domestic and international appetite for trophy hunting – despite it being illegal in India since the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act – grew in the second half of the 20th century. By no means were the Pardhis the only hunters in Panna, but they were especially good at it, luring tigers into traps with their imitation calls. Tiger numbers dwindled from 23,000 at the time of Indian Independence, before which only British officials and Maharajas were allowed to hunt, to 1,100 by 2006. This was also thanks to habitat loss, from extensive deforestation and the building of human settlements.

“In 2008, the WWF declared tigers extinct in Panna,” says Hada, “and the Pardhis were blamed. Yes, they were involved. But in the last 70 years of independence in India, what had we done for them? We didn’t provide them with education or jobs. People do what they can to survive.”

Batal was the first of his Pardhi community to give up hunting, in 2008, when – convinced by the Forest Department – he became a community advocate for a different way of life. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Last Wilderness Foundation, which had built schools for Pardhi children in the Panna region and hostels for more permanent accommodation. The foundation employed Batal and his wife there to teach the youngsters how to brush their teeth, cut their nails and generally prepare themselves for a life and education in mainstream society. They convinced their whole community to stop hunting for good, which won Batal’s wife a lifetime wildlife award from Sanctuary magazine.

“They’re embarrassed about their past,” says Menon, who’s been managing the Pardhi community outreach programme for nine years. “But we don’t want them to be ashamed of who they are.” The foundation began skills training programmes in the hostels in 2015 and recruited walking guides for Taj Safaris two years later. Now, five families are entirely supported by the Taj programme, and last year, the first Pardhi women were trained up. Reshna, the youngest in our group, was the first girl in her community to leave and work elsewhere. Dressed in crisp khaki safari wear, she’s been trained as a naturalist and now works in a sister lodge in Kahna Tiger Reserve, an eight-hour drive south of Panna and her family. It was revolutionary for the community and has had a huge social impact.

“Reshna’s confidence has really improved,” Menon says. “It’s a big deal that girls like her don’t have to rely on men anymore.” Nomadic life is rare among the Pardhis now, who have settled in villages. But while the older generation worry that the tribe’s heritage will be forgotten, Menon explains that the Walk with the Pardhis programme is actually re-teaching the younger generation the tracking skills that might have been otherwise lost.

After a lunch of lentil daal and slow-cooked potatoes, peas and tomatoes, served on stitched-together banyan leaves with bonfire-baked roti bread, we enter the denser part of the jungle. We pass dark caves that are known leopard dens, see their scratch marks and hear their roars. The path between the trees gets steeper, rockier, more difficult to discern – but the Pardhis know the way. We scramble up rocks and slash through the thicket, squeezing through a narrow crevice that opens up onto a jaw-dropping view of the gorge below.

Our Pardhi guides’ wives are waiting with baskets full of dried spices and rice for our evening meal. We sip on chai as they cook and sing folk songs; melodic, haunting odes to the dramatic landscape around us. The dipping sun casts golden-peach hues as we light lanterns and bonfires and settle in for the evening. “Who needs a five-star hotel?” asks Hada, reclining back to gaze at the twinkling canopy emerging from the night sky. “We’ve got 1,000 stars right here.”

Back in bed at the safari lodge, I lie in the pitch black and listen. Putting my new, Pardhi-style tracking skills to the test, I pick up the rustle of sandy-coloured palm squirrels on the roof and the snouts of wild boars rootling in the undergrowth. So far, so peaceful. Then, I hear a distant, panic-stricken series of barks. It’s a family of langoon monkeys, warning of approaching danger. It’s followed by the honk of a sambar deer, prey to the biggest cat of all, and one that’s eluded us all day.

No tigers have been poached in Panna since 2008, when eight were reintroduced from other national parks. Today, India has an estimated 3,967 tigers and the reserve is home to 55 of them, in large part thanks to the Last Wilderness Foundation’s work to reintegrate the Pardhis into mainstream Indian society. “When tigers, tribes and tourists come together, the future for tigers – and people – is bright,” Hada had told me earlier.

As the monkeys’ calls grow more frenzied, I hear a distant, guttural roar. It’s indistinguishable from the sounds made by Batal and Badda, but there’s no mistaking the animal that made it. With the Pardhis on the tigers’ side, I feel confident that this sound will resonate through these jungles for a long time to come.

The Telegraph

Trundling through Europe on the overnight jazz train to Berlin

Deep in the Dutch countryside, the vintage train trundles past windmill-dotted hay fields and canals stacked with state-of-the-art houseboats. Cyclists stop to watch as the burgundy carriages roll between level crossings, slow enough for the lilting sound of a saxophone solo to lazily drift through the open windows and into the late-June breeze. On board, the Ntjam Rosie Quartet croons out soulful RnB, while a packed-together audience sips on two-euro beers and sways to the rhythm of steel tyres and bongos, languid in the golden-hour heat.

Having departed Rotterdam at sunset, the first Jazz Night Express is in full swing. Travelling overnight to Berlin via Amsterdam, it hosts an eclectic lineup of jazz acts to play back-to-back en route. Engineer and rail travel enthusiast Chris Engelsman is the idea, which took two years to plan and incorporates sleeper cars, two live music carriages, an area for book readings and talks, and a restaurant. Hiring out a rickety, 1980s train to reinvent the magic of old-school travel, Engelsman calls it a ‘jazz festival with a night train message’. In partnership with Rotterdam-based jazz festival North Sea Round Town, the Express links the Dutch music capital with one of the world’s hottest jazz cities.

“The rhythm of jazz and the train goes well together,” explains Engelsman. “I’ve always loved night trains. When I was growing up, every day the Nord Express would pass my house on its way to St Petersburg. But the last night train in Holland was cancelled by 2016 because the railways were focusing on high-speed trains. It was such a pity, because there’s still a demand for them.”

If anything, that demand is increasing. Summer 2019 has been characterised by both sweltering heatwaves (one of which we’re in the midst of on the Jazz Night Express, which arrives in Berlin to the tune of 38 degrees Celcius) and flygskam, a Swedish movement meaning ‘flight shame’ that has translations in German, Dutch and Finnish. Europeans are considering the impact of their holidays on the environment – a train from London to Edinburgh produces 87% fewer CO2 emissions than a flight – and rail travel is skyrocketing as a result.

While the majority are Dutch and German, there’s a great deal of Swedish passengers on the Jazz Night Express, as well as a handful from the UK, Belgium, Portugal and Italy. In a surprisingly age-diverse mix, gaggles of friends lounge on retro-blue banquettes beside older couples and young families. With the windows down and the farmland-scented air rushing through carriages swaying to brass and percussion, our 12-hour trundle to Berlin feels like the epitome of slow travel.

Night creeps in over a Great American Songbook set by the Thijs Nissen Trio and I make my way to the retro dining car, all bright-blue curtains and varnished tables. It’s three courses for 59 euros – including wine that’s topped up whenever your back is turned – and surprisingly gourmet. The first course, under the name ‘Miles Davis’ on the menu, is a sharing platter of steak tartare, chipotle chicken and smoked salmon; the ‘New Orleans’ main course is beef bavette or asparagus and polenta tart; and the ‘Saxophone’ dessert is a pineapple pannacotta impaled by a shard of tempered dark chocolate.

The one-hour dinner slots have drastically run over. By the end of the final serving, it’s gone midnight – and the music is due to come to a close at half past. But all scheduling is thrown out the window in the party carriage, where DJ Maestro (founder of online radio station Jazz De Ville) is spinning funk, house and soul. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the train’s stop-off cities, this crowd is here to party. Reserves of cheap beer are starting to run low as we move onto gin and tonics, dancing ever-more wildly as the train gathers speed into the early hours of the morning. Disco ball spinning, the dance floor lurches from side to side as we meander through northern Germany. We briefly pull in at Bad Bentheim and Hanover, and passengers spill onto the platform to smoke cigarettes and swing each other around in the balmy night air, before the doors slam shut and we hop aboard to visit the bar again.

When the train creaks to a halt at Berlin Zoo, at 7.30am on the dot, I’ve had three hours sleep. We drag our bags off the train and blink blearily at the bustling station. New-found friends exchange hugs and contact details as the train staff and musicians prepare for a sleepier train ride back to Rotterdam.

“We have several ideas for the future, in addition to another Jazz Night Express in July 2020,” grins Engelsman, elated from the night’s success. “We’re considering a Jazz Night Train to Copenhagen, an Oktoberfest edition to Munich, a party train to Eurovision in The Netherlands.” While the passengers are enthralled by the night train’s romanticism, the musicians loved it too – “it was up close and personal, like playing a living room set,” singer Ntjam Rosie tells me – and the first edition even caught the eye of the Dutch national rail network, who hosted an on-board talk on the future of the night train. Meanwhile, Austria’s ÖBB and the Swedish government have both announced plans to invest in night trains. Perhaps the golden years of Europe’s night trains aren’t behind us after all – and you can count on Engelsman to be at the forefront of the new movement.

The next edition of Jazz Night Express runs on 3 July from Rotterdam to Berlin. Tickets cost 159 euros one way and 189 euros return.

N by Norwegian

Moving mountains: the power of women-only tours in Morocco

Fatima sits down at a wooden loom at the mouth of the cave and gestures for me to kneel beside her. Handing me a ball of wool, dyed yellow with saffron, she nods in encouragement as I attempt the fiddly process of weaving the next layer of the rug she’s working on, pushing it down with a metal comb.

A nomadic Berber, Fatima lives in caves across the sparse, rocky plains of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains with her family, herd of goats, chickens and mule. Making a small living through weaving and selling goat meat, she pursues a lifestyle that hasn’t changed for thousands of years – except that, two years ago, she began to supplement her family’s income by hosting tourists for a taste of nomad life.

“She says she weaves for just one hour each day, because it’s such intense work,” says my guide, Chama Ouammi, pouring steaming cups of mint tea. Ouammi acts as translator between visitors and the nomads, who only speak a regional Berber dialect. “I am Berber, too, so I understand this life,” she says.

We’re here for a taster of a Women’s Expedition in Morocco – the first female-only trek from tour operator Intrepid Travel. It takes groups of up to 12 women on an eight-day immersive journey through the country, staying at homestays in the Atlas Mountains. These trips are also organised and guided by women, and men are noticeably absent from our travels. If they were here, we wouldn’t be baking bread, trying our hand at weaving and sipping tea with Fatima and her children.

“With men present you wouldn’t be able to enter women’s homes and break that cultural barrier,” Zina Bencheikh, Intrepid Group’s regional director for Europe, Middle East and North Africa, explained to me prior to this trip. “A lot of customers want to do challenging stuff like a trek, without being judged by men or seen all sweaty, but the main thing they want is to enter the women’s world.”

Women-only travel is one of the fastest growing sectors in the global travel industry – and demand for trips like these has been growing. The number of solo female travellers soared from 59 million to 138 million between 2014 and 2017, according to the World Tourism Organization, and 84% of all solo trips are now made by women.

Intrepid isn’t the only group responding to these figures. American operator smarTours launched women-only itineraries in Egypt, Morocco and Colombia last year, while Condé Nast Traveler invited its online community, Women Who Travel, on group trips to Colombia, Mexico and Cuba. But what makes these journeys into the Atlas Mountains special is that they’re actively encouraging women’s employment in Morocco.

“Intrepid is very committed to gender equality. But in 2017 we had less than 20% of female tour guides globally and in Morocco, we had none,” explains Bencheikh. “It’s a conservative country. Women seen leading groups of men and women in different cities, spending nights out of the house, was problematic.”

When her company instructed its global outposts to double their number of female tour guides by 2020, Bencheikh – who grew up in Canada, France and the UK before returning to Marrakech in her twenties – decided she had to unpick the cultural barriers stopping women from applying. She lobbied Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism to issue 1,000 new tour-guide licences, and campaigned to raise awareness among local women, encouraging them to apply. “It’s prestigious and really well paid,” she says. “Why wouldn’t women want to do it?”

At the same time, she launched a campaign in the M’Goun valley, a popular trekking region of the High Atlas, for an itinerary run by women, for women. “We didn’t want to shock the culture – and this way, the men accepted it,” she says. “In fact, they loved it. Their wives and sisters bring in more income.”

Now around 100 Moroccan women have tour guide licences, and the Intrepid team has built a network of women-led suppliers and homestays that had been cut off from the benefits of tourism. We visit one of these on our first night in the M’Goun valley, after a six-hour winding drive from Marrakech, over the barren, snow-dusted Tichka summit and past the mud-built kasbah of Aït Benhaddou, where scenes in Gladiator and Game of Thrones have been filmed.

We pull up in Agouti, a hamlet of low-rise stone houses surrounded by almond and fig trees, and receive an open-armed welcome from a family of six women, dressed in full-length velvet dresses in purples, blues and greens. I spend the evening cross-legged on the concrete kitchen floor with our hostess Ajo Bendaoud, peeling vegetables for a tagine and making couscous from scratch, rolling flour with water and oil, and steaming it slowly. We eat together, scooping up the delicious, spiced mixture with our hands.

Bendaoud picks up a drum and the women break into song, encouraging me to clap and sing along, making up lyrics as I try to imitate their Berber dialect. Ouammi, who speaks six languages, is our smiley go-between, but for the most part we connect through hand gestures, smiles and hugs. There’s something comforting about being ushered around the house by mothers and grandmothers, finding your place by lending a hand in domestic tasks that don’t much vary between cultures. In a female space, it’s easier to feel like an added-on family member, trusted to have a toddler plonked on your lap or to laugh your way through new dance moves without fear of looking silly.

The next morning, I embark on an early morning trek to visit the nomadic community with another local woman, Mama Bie. We stroll through lush orchards until we reach a craggy gorge, leap over rivers on stepping stones and pause to eat fresh tangerines while she tells me her story via Ouammi.

In rural Morocco, more than 80% of women are illiterate, and arranged marriage is common – at as young as 13 for girls – typically leading to a life of child-rearing and housework. Mama Bie, now in her late fifties, is one such woman. She divorced aged 17 and became a single mother to her young son – her legal right, but a socially precarious decision. “After my divorce I couldn’t trust anybody,” she says. “Society thinks you are a bad woman.”

Luckily, her brother supported her, and she’s worked at his hostel ever since. It was already in the Intrepid network but it wasn’t until the Women’s Expedition came along that Bie took on an active role with guests, leading treks and teaching them to make bread, with a female guide as mediator. “When I’m doing the expeditions, I’m not just thinking about housework,” she smiles.

Ouammi was raised in the next valley along. “There are ladies in Berber villages who are very smart, but can’t finish their studies because no one can support them,” she says. “I was lucky to have open-minded parents who encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

She studied computer management and went on to be a freelance tour guide in Marrakech, before Intrepid headhunted her for the Women’s Expedition. But being the youngest and first female tour guide from the M’Goun valley hasn’t come without obstacles. “My uncle is a tour guide and he said: ‘This job is too hard for you. You can’t carry heavy bags or trek up mountains, you’ll never marry in the future.’” But she didn’t listen to him. “Women can do everything men can, and more.”

After tea in the caves, we trek to the Gîte Tamaloute in Boutaghrar village, the hostel run by Bie and her brother Hussain. We reunite with some women from the night before, who greet us with all the excitement and affection of lifelong friends, before I’m whisked away and dressed up in regional celebration wear: a full-length toga-like dress, an elaborate headdress of pompoms and a back-combed fringe.

We parade outside and I’m thrown into a folkloric dance demonstration, learning the steps as my new friends spin me around to an increasingly frenzied drumbeat. Attempts to sit down are vetoed: we dance and laugh together for hours, unable to exchange words but finding a close bond nonetheless.

In rural Morocco, women lead private, domestic lives. Without the link set up by Bencheikh, and cultivated by guides like Ouammi, it would be near-impossible for women like Bie and Fatima to participate in the tourism industry – and for non-Moroccan women to communicate with them.

A business model like this gives an economic boost to women at every level of the supply chain, whether they are visible or not: from utilising the country’s only female-owned transport company to kick-starting careers for smart, ambitious would-be leaders, like Ouammi. Most striking of all, it leaves misconceptions by the wayside, opening the door to travel that creates real cross-cultural connections.

“With women, I can talk about anything, and they can, too,” says Ouammi. “We can share and learn from each other. My dream is to travel outside of Morocco and show the women who live in the mountains in Morocco, and the world, that Berber women can do anything.”

N by Norwegian

Feminist Renaissance: the Florentine restorers rescuing art by women

As the wooden shutters fold back, the dark restoration studio is flooded with Tuscan sunlight, illuminating an enormous canvas. Seven metres by two, it’s a 16th-century rendering of the Last Supper, a favoured theme for painters of the Renaissance. Versions of the scene are found in monasteries all over Florence – but this one has some unusual traits.

“There’s a wonderful attention to how the table is set,” says Rosella Lari, an art restorer who’s just completed four years on this work – etching away years of dirt and damage, and applying earth-tone paint and protective varnish. “It’s the only Last Supper I’m aware of that has an ironed tablecloth.”

As well as the cloth, with its perfectly pressed folds, the table is replete with chunky bread rolls, fava beans, roasted meat and salad; wine glasses are filled to the brim. It makes a down-to-earth contrast with other Last Suppers, which mostly display empty plates and glasses, and a distinct lack of actual eating. There’s a good reason for this, according to Lari. It was painted by a woman.

While many of us will be familiar with the big male names of Renaissance art who worked in Florence in the 1500s – da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio – few will have heard of their female counterparts. Like self-taught artist and nun Plautilla Nelli, whose newly restored Last Supper is the largest known canvas by an early-modern female artist.

The painting’s crowdfunded restoration is the latest and most ambitious project from Advancing Women Artists (AWA) – a Florence-based non-profit organisation that searches for forgotten works by women artists, restores them, and supports galleries and museums in exhibiting them to the public. Since its launch in 2009 by the late American philanthropist Jane Fortune, AWA’s four-women-strong team has restored 65 works. There are now 124 by female artists on display in the city, but still a further 1,600 in storage – most of which are in dire need of restoration.

“When people come here, they want to see Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci,” says Linda Falcone, a former journalist and close friend of Fortune who now runs AWA and believes there’s just as much to gain from artworks by women. “They’re valuable from both an artistic and social point of view,” she says. “In some cases they’re the only social documents that testify to their lives.”

The organisation was born after Fortune came across a woodworm-infested oil painting by Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, in the San Marco Museum – and vowed to pay for its restoration herself. That led to a city-wide quest for the nun’s forgotten works, eventually found in Florence’s museum deposits, particularly the San Salvi monastery (now a museum).

It’s no coincidence that women’s art is often found in religious buildings, as much of it was produced in convents, which were unexpected centres of female creativity in 16th-century Italy. “To enter a convent like Nelli’s, families had to pay a dowry, and women of talent, who could paint or sing, could pay less because they were considered a resource,” explains Falcone. “People wanted to buy devotional art from nuns to feel closer to God.”

But while their talents were recognised – and some were commercially successful – a life of quiet chastity left little opportunity for nuns to study the human form, leaving them mainly with drawings from prominent male artists to work from. “They were painting things they had access to when they weren’t allowed to go to academies or paint nude models – so women’s portraits, and what they were preparing for dinner.”

It’s not known how many women artists were working in this period, but Giorgio Vasari, their contemporary and the world’s first art historian, mentions just four in his Lives of the Artists. There are complex obstacles to uncovering their works. “When we first approached galleries, they had no gender-based records of what they had,” reveals Falcone. She has personally sifted through countless museum archives to find art by women – a frustrating task, as the records are often handwritten, inconsistent and gender ambiguous, listing artists by initials rather than their full names.

This is, however, good news for today’s visitor who’s interested in knowing more, as they don’t have to do any digging. There’s now a Women Artists’ Trail, put together by the AWA, which is printed at the back of Invisible Women, Fortune’s book charting her hunt for forgotten women’s art. Following it, book in hand, is an easy way to see art by women while also taking in some of the city’s finest institutions.

One of the stops is San Salvi, which Falcone says has become known as “Nelli’s home… There are five of her works there now, four of which we restored and asked them to exhibit. Before, they were covered in pigeon droppings, they’d been gnawed by rats, someone had gone at the warping with a hammer.”

The revived paintings have a raw, emotional power that sets them apart from their more idealised counterparts by male artists. Nelli’s Lamentation puts the feminine experience in focus, her female characters’ eyes red-raw from crying as they cradle Christ’s lifeless body.

One of the trail’s other must-visit spots is the Palazzo Pitti – a vast Renaissance palace linked to the Uffizi by the arched Ponte Vecchio bridge, where the Pitti and Medici families (the world’s first modern bankers and the primary patrons of Renaissance art) lived between the 15th and 18th centuries. The setting alone is a visual overload, thanks to its deep-red walls, gilded cornices and chandeliers.

AWA runs an Invisible Women tour through the Palazzo Pitti with guiding company Freya’s Florence, that even goes into locked-off areas to view a set of 21 still lives by Giovanni Garzona – the most represented female artist in the gallery, although her work is not on public display. It’s also home to an unusual Baroque masterpiece: David and Bathsheba by Artemisia Gentileschi – the “poster child” of early modern female painting, according to Falcone. She and Fortune campaigned to have the work restored in 2008 after 363 years in storage.

A 10-minute walk north is another hidden work by Gentileschi at Casa Buonarroti – a mansion once owned by the artist Michelangelo. On a wood-panelled ceiling alongside 41 works by men, it’s a self-portrait under the guise of an Allegory of Inclination. Invoicing records show that she was paid three times more than her male counterparts for the work.

“Artemisia was a smart businesswoman and very successful,” says Falcone. “Because of the institutions’ focus on the male masters, people aren’t aware of that. We’re restoring more than paintings – we’re restoring these women’s identities.”

Nowhere is this more important than at the world-famous Uffizi, which houses the most works produced by women before the 19th century. In 2017, the gallery held its first Nelli exhibition, with free entry to women on International Women’s Day and a pledge to run an annual series on women’s art.

“We spent 10 years restoring 13 works by Nelli, which laid the groundwork for the Uffizi show,” Falcone explains. “Our attitude is collaborative and kudos to those who get the message, but there’s still a lot of art that’s not accessible to the public.”

There are still plenty of frustrations, too. “There are directors who ask why you’d want to restore art by women, and the general public wants to stay on the beaten track, which doesn’t yet include work by female artists. It’s about educating on the value of these works and understanding who your public is.”

It’s slow progress but early women’s art is becoming increasingly visible around the world. Visitors this month to the Prado, in Madrid, can see an exhibition on Renaissance artists Sofonisba Anguissola, a painter in the court of King Phillip II, and Lavinia Fontana, thought to be the first professional female artist. In London, the National Portrait Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters reveals the hidden stories of those on both sides of the easel (until 26 January). Next year will also see the UK’s first Gentileschi show, at the National Gallery.

Eike Schmidt, the Uffizi’s director, has seen an exponential rise of interest in Gentileschi’s work, which appears on social media second only to Botticelli’s.

“She’s a kind of Quentin Tarantino of the past, which has become fashionable,” he says, referring to her violent portrayal of Judith Slaying Holofernes – which shows the artist herself taking a sword to the throat of her antagonist (and, as some like to think, the patriarchy).

The drama surrounding Gentileschi has somewhat overshadowed Nelli’s more contemplative work, but her Last Supper, which went on permanent display last month at the Santa Maria Novella Museum, should up her profile considerably. Nelli was clearly proud of the work, as she has, unusually, signed the art, in the top corner, followed by the words: “Pray for the paintress.”

“Artists didn’t sign their work at that time,” says Lari. “She’s saying, ‘Plautilla made this.’ She knows she’s worth something.”

This is even more poignant when you consider that Nelli sold small devotional paintings in order to fund the huge painting, with the sole intention of hanging it in the refectory, just as the men did in monasteries. “Women’s history is just not told,” says Falcone. “But restoring a painting is restoring a moment in history. Plautilla’s signature makes an appeal to the future – and we’re answering it.”

Conde Nast Traveler

Meet the woman recreating the journeys of history’s forgotten female explorers

By the time she was 16,400-feet high in the Himalayas, Elise Wortley had learned to deal with altitude sickness and blistered feet. She’d even gotten used to her uncomfortable leather boots slipping on the rocks as she picked her way between sheets of ice and tufts of coarse grass. But as the sun went down near Kangchenjunga basecamp—the third highest peak in the world—it was the extreme, bone-chilling temperature that nearly broke her.

“I’ll never forget that night,” says the 29-year-old Londoner. “It was -15 degrees Celsius and I had ice in my hair and all over my blanket. The ground was too wet to make a fire. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”

Nowadays, trekkers in Thangu Valley are equipped with snow-proof tents and buttoned up in state-of-the-art clothing to protect them from the harsh conditions that characterize that strip of northern India. Not so for Wortley. In 2017, she embarked on a journey that she’d been dreaming of since age 16, when she read a book that changed her life: My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Néel. Published in 1927, the autobiography charts the French female explorer’s 14-year expedition to Tibet, between 1911 and 1925. She traveled overland across Europe before finally reaching the town of Lachen in Sikkim, a northern region of India that juts out between Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Making the region her home for four years, it was from there that she first caught a glimpse of Tibet and vowed to enter it, eventually making it over the border by disguising herself as a beggar. Entry was forbidden for foreigners at the time, and it was unthinkable for a solo European woman to embark on such a journey alone.

“Women just didn’t do things like that,” Wortley says. “When I was a teenager I was shy and I dealt with extreme anxiety for years. The fact that she’d done this epic voyage fascinated me. I always had this inkling that maybe I could follow in her footsteps, but at the time, I was so anxious, I struggled to get on the bus.”

Part self-funded and part-funded by travel company Exodus, for whom she was working at the time, Wortley set off for Sikkim in 2017. An avid traveler, both personally and professionally, it wasn’t her first trip to India (she had already traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, Senegal and South Africa), but it was certainly her most adventurous. Joined by camerawoman Emily Almond Barr and local female mountain guide Jangu, Wortley recreated a portion of David-Néel’s journey from regional capital Gangtok to Kangchenjunga on the Tibetan border, covering some 435 miles by foot in a month-long trek. Keen to recreate David-Néel’s experience to the full, she made a mad-cap pledge to only take with her the equipment available to the French explorer in the 1920s. She traded in all modern-day comforts (minus emergency medical supplies) for a yak wool coat, rubber-soled boots, and a wooden backpack that she’d fashioned from an old chair, some rope, and an Indian wicker basket that she bought from a market in Gangtok.

“I went the whole hog. I had 1920s underwear—a cotton bra and high-waisted pants, and a woolen undergarment that was so itchy,” Wortley says. “The ropes on my backpack rubbed a lot, I had scabs on my shoulders. But I had to know how it felt to do it that way. The journeys of female explorers were way more hardcore than for their male counterparts. It was much more dangerous [for them] and they had to deal with the physical elements but also their periods, and even having to hide the fact they were women.”

Despite the decades separating their adventures, it wasn’t just the old-school underwear that aligned Wortley’s experience with David-Néel’s. “The scenery that she describes so beautifully in the book hasn’t changed. Mountains don’t change, not in 100 years anyway,” she says. “And she writes about how any house she passed welcomed her in, as they do now. You have a Tibetan tea with salt and butter, you have a chat even though no one knows what anyone’s saying.”

Wortley and her small team had to stop short of Lhasa due to similar difficulties in entering Tibet today, but the experience inspired her to celebrate other female explorers of the past. She pledged to continue to undertake expeditions to other extreme terrains explored and catalogued by intrepid women, under the name Woman With Altitude, in 2017.

“There are so many women like this and they’re not household names, but they should be,” Wortley says. “Annie Smith Peck was the first person to climb the north peak of the Huascarán in Peru. Ursula Graham Bower left England for India and ended up marrying the chief of the Naga tribe. And no one knows about her! The only problem is that it’s hard to find much written about explorers that aren’t white and European. But I’ve found some warrior queens and Tibetan nuns that I’m looking into.”

While Wortley’s main aim is to celebrate the achievements of historical female explorers, there’s a charitable element to her expeditions, too. “Because the project is woman-based, I wanted to help women in the areas I’m going to in some way,” she says. As part of the Himalayan project, she raised £2,500 ($3,000) for the charity Freedom Kit Bags, which provides girls in rural Nepal with reusable bags of sanitary products.

When we spoke, Wortley was preparing for her second trip (which she has since completed), following in the footsteps of Scottish explorer Nan Shepherd, who scaled the six highest peaks in the Cairngorm Mountains and catalogued it in her book The Living Mountain. Written in the 1940s but not published until 1977, it’s now considered a masterpiece of poetic non-fiction.

“It was written when people were racing to be the first people to scale peaks,” Wortley says. “She was into Taoism and saw it in the water, rocks, the sky, and the air. She wrote this about seeing the mountain as a whole.” Mostly alone, Wortley wandered between the peaks and lochs of the Cairngorm National Park for three weeks, equipped with a wartime gas cooker, a canvas tent, and old-school food supplies—mostly potatoes, cheese, and eggs. Part-sponsored by Wilderness Scotland, she was raising money for Scottish Women’s Aid and hopes to use these two projects to pitch a television series to fund forthcoming expeditions.

Wortley’s adventures are all the more impressive when you consider how alien the concept felt to her at the beginning. “Five years ago, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even get on a bus,” she says. “But I could read Alexandra David-Néel and think, if she managed to leave Europe on her own and do this, I’m sure I can get on the Tube. I just want to make people more aware of these women, so they can inspire others.”

The Independent

A ‘new’ new Nordic food tour of Tallinn

On the stripped-pine table before me sits a glass bell jar. Chef Kaido Metsa lifts it and a cloud of wood smoke pours out to reveal a thick slice of almost-translucent raw white fish, topped with horseradish ice cream, pickled morel mushrooms and a scattering of foraged leaves.  

I’m at Restaurant JUUR, near Tallinn’s Unesco World Heritage centre. Until a few years ago, fine dining was an alien concept in the small EU country bordered by Latvia, Russia and the Baltic Sea. Centuries of occupation by Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Russia – not to mention the Nazi and then Soviet Union rules of the 20th century – left Estonians with a diet of sauerkraut, rye bread and herring, an amalgamation of its neighbours’ cuisines. 

But a new generation of chefs is spearheading an emerging food revolution in the capital and beyond, turning to the thick forest that covers 90 per cent of the country to forage for ramson berries, wild mushrooms and pine cones to be fermented and pickled just as their ancestors always did – regardless of occupying powers.   

Beautifully plated and served in a Scandi-inspired space that’s all exposed brickwork and filament bulbs, the food at JUUR seems a clear nod to New Nordic cuisine – a Copenhagen-led movement led by Noma chef Rene Redzepi and characterised by immaculate presentation, foraged ingredients and a sustainable ethos. But at €60 for six courses, two-year-old JUUR offers a level of fine dining that’s not only radical in Estonia, but far more affordable than its Nordic counterparts – roughly five times cheaper than a meal at its Copenhagen counterpart.

“Salaries are low here but we’re getting more modernised and eating out more,” says Metsa, who grows vegetables, hand-makes crockery on a pottery wheel and sources 90 per cent of his ingredients within the border, advocating old-school methods as a way to celebrate Estonian food traditions. 

“In the old times there weren’t refrigerators, Estonians had to cure or dry fish and meat,” he says. “Fermenting is the natural way of preserving. In the spring and autumn we gather berries and herbs and cure, dry and ferment them to use in the winter period.” Unlike in Germany or Denmark, these traditions never died down in Estonia. Cellars are still stocked with jams and pickles, and on crisp autumn days, cars line the forest edge where good mushrooms are known to grow.

But until recently, Metsa’s passion for his nation’s food culture wasn’t widely shared.

“Ten years ago, Estonians weren’t proud of their produce,” says Märt Metsallik, co-founder of countryside restaurant Põhjaka Manor, an hour’s drive from Tallinn. 

“We were such a young nation and we’d been so cut off from the world, that these colourful, imported ingredients were fascinating for us. The mindset was that everything from Estonia was bad. I didn’t think so.” 

With two friends, Metsallik renovated the 19th-century manor house and opened it as Estonia’s first countryside restaurant in 2010. Today, the restaurant is thriving and everything but spices and citrus fruits is sourced in Estonia, delivered by specialist farmers or grown in the kitchen garden. As for meat, much of it is game bought from local hunters controlling the populations of wild boar, elk and deer. Not only is it an ethical priority for Metsallik to support local producers (despite the sometimes-elevated cost), it’s a way to realign with the land of his ancestors, whose culinary traditions survived despite the political turmoil of the 20th century. 

“The Russian and Soviet times helped preserve our traditions of foraging and preserving because there was nothing in the shops from outside Estonia,” he suggests. “You didn’t have this variety, so people made things themselves.”

Back in Tallinn, there’s one chef managing to use 100 per cent Estonian produce while stamping out the stereotype of bland Baltic food for good.

“There’s a lot to be foraged and found if you know what you’re doing,” says Martin Meikas, head chef at Restoran Ö, who relishes the creative challenge of cooking seasonally. “Cooking isn’t frying a scallop and putting some caviar on top. Anyone can do that. Cooking is inventing, taking a cabbage and making it the best it can be. Everything on this menu, you have never seen or tasted before.”

The €76 euro, 11-course tasting menu spans potato black pudding with hay-smoked cream; marinated eel with leek-infused oil, pureed artichoke and seaweed paste; beetroot-glazed goat’s curd and black garlic-infused chocolate. It’s Estonian to the core and, true to Meikas’s word, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

A 15-minute drive from the centre is seafront restaurant Noa, where €14 main courses demonstrate better than anywhere the affordability of fine dining in Tallinn.

“Ten years ago, Estonian cuisine didn’t exist,” claims executive chef Orm Oja, who at 27 years old was born the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

“Under Soviet control, restaurants had such strict rules – a chicken Kiev had to weigh 128 grams,” he says. “When the borders opened, people started to travel and experience new things, and chefs came here too.” 

Oja’s menu best reflects the cultural exchange that independence brought, blending Asian techniques with home-grown ingredients: he even makes “Nordic Dim Sum” that wraps Peking duck mousse in sourdough batter. Noa’s Scandi-style dining room is modern and aspirational – not unlike its fusion menu. The chef’s dextrous approach makes it clear that the only Estonia he’s ever known is an independent one, unafraid to take influence from the outside world, while treating his entire homeland as a kitchen garden. 

One thing’s certain: with Estonia’s rising Rene Redzepis at the stove, there’s never been a more exciting time to eat there. And it’s only a matter of time before the prices rise to prove it.

Travel essentials

Getting there 

Wizz Air flies from London Luton to Tallinn from £30 return.

Staying there

The four-star Hotel Palace has been a fixture of Tallinn’s main square since 1937 and has an excellent on-site restaurant and pool. Doubles from £127 including breakfast.

More information

Conde Nast Traveler

Meet the world’s longboarding women

When Valeria Kechichian started longboarding in Madrid in 2008, there were just three other women in her crew. It represented freedom; an escape from a soul-crushing job as a secretary in a law firm and a self-destructive spiral of partying. ‘It was this very pure kind of joy,’ she says. ‘It completed me somehow.’ Still, when she first stood on a board in the Spanish capital, people would ‘turn their heads and look at me as if I was doing something weird’.

It’s fair to say that Argentinian-born Kechichian’s gang has grown a bit. Longboard Girls Crew (LGC), which she co-founded in 2010, now claims to be the world’s biggest action-sports community, with 233,400 Facebook followers and counting, and representatives in 70 countries. With some of its videos being viewed as many as 3.6 million times on YouTube, the group has ignited an international scene built on female empowerment and dreamy images of cruising golden-hour open roads. Kechichian has become the global face of it all, launching and partnering with NGOs, giving TEDx Talks and motivating Nike ambassadors and Facebook employees with the free-wheeling gospel.

The sport was invented in Hawaii in the 1950s, when surfers started customising skateboards with bigger wheels and looser trucks to make them more like surfboards. These Hawaiian pioneers would drive up volcanoes and glide down, carving S-shaped turns as if on a peeling wave. Over the years, longboarders developed tricks and started speeding down hills at more than 90mph – but the primary appeal has always been a certain languorous elegance; a free-spirited surfer vibe, more at home in nature than gritty skateboarding. There’s a scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, of Ben Stiller whizzing alone through the mossy Icelandic landscape, grinning at the wild freedom of it all.

That spirit is central to the movement, which includes all kinds of women across the world. In Nice, Marina Corrêa spins along the old boardwalk, flicking her dreadlocks to a reggaeton soundtrack. Seoul freestyle longboarder Ko Hyojoo (pictured below) is the queen of a flourishing Korean community, dancing on her board in cute knee-high socks to the tune of 568,000 Instagram followers and partnerships with Chanel and Gucci. Chinese boarder Mu Qing skates through Chengdu in a hoodie and Vans, filmed by a friend on a smartphone for her 500,000 followers on the Douyin video app. In Malaysia, Fatin Amalina whooshes between Kuala Lumpur’sshiny skyscrapers in a hijab.

The riding styles are as diverse as the women. On the Venice Beach Boardwalk, Natalie Pluto (pictured below) is part of a small band of balletic freestylers, doing kick-flips and shove-its as she weaves among the tourists. Based in Virginia, Emily Pross, who styles herself ‘the Prossecutor’, wears a shiny black speed suit and aerodynamic helmet to beat the men in downhill races – her speed record is 83.88mph. All of them are celebrated on the LGC social feeds, from the cruisers to the leather-clad competitors posting under the #girlscanride hashtag.

The group had its Endless Summer moment in 2011, with a film of seven women road-tripping across Spain and the Balearics in a red VW camper van, riding their boards through white-stone villages and down sun-flared roads overlooking limestone cliffs. Endless Roads, the result of this 2,670-mile journey, became a clarion call for a certain type of female-powered adventure, with 1.4 million views on YouTube. ‘It was more rare for something to go viral back then,’ says Kechichian. ‘But our video was suddenly everywhere. It resonated with women who thought, “Hey, we can do this.” It started a global movement.’

One of the people who watched Endless Roads on repeat was a teenage Valeriya Gogunskaya (pictured above), who lived in the forested Finnish city of Kuopio. ‘It just looked super-cool,’ she says. ‘I used to roller-skate, and I gave my skates to a friend in exchange for his longboard. I downloaded some YouTube tutorials and started cruising.’ A year later, Gogunskaya moved to Santa Cruz, a beach town north of Lisbon, with hopes of finding other skaters: ‘There was just one guy there at the time. I was always whining to my boyfriend that there was no one to skate with. He said, “Why don’t you start something?”’ Inspired by LGC, Gogunskaya organised a meet-up in 2017 at Praia de Santa Cruz’s white-stone-balustered platform, which looks out over the hazy, rocky coastline. To her surprise, around 30 people showed up – almost all of them female. She launched a skate camp, Longboarding Days and Nights, and single-handedly sparked a scene in Santa Cruz, where many are now women in their 30s and 40s.

Gogunskaya practises most evenings, carving wide turns and hanging 10 like the old-school surfers. Just as Kechichian used longboarding as a form of therapy, Gogunskaya applied her passion to face down her own challenges. ‘I began when I was struggling with bulimia,’ she says. ‘It helped me relax, nurture self-love and respect my body again. I just want to share that chance with other people, especially women.’

But while Gogunskaya and Kechichian have both used longboarding as a way to process their issues, behind it all is still that simple, joyous feeling of gliding along a road: ‘When I’m skating, that’s all that matters,’ says Kechichian. ‘Me, my board and the road. It creates some sort of magic, a bubble where nothing else matters… You feel like you rule the world.’


Celebrating 15 years of Tomorrowland

It’s nearly midday on a baking-hot Friday afternoon, and the crowd that’s gathered at the gate is beginning to jostle. Singing, laughing, dousing each other in body glitter and draping flags from every corner of the globe around their shoulders, these people are ready to party. The dress code is cut off denims and string bikini tops, suntans and face paint the order of the day.

Suddenly, the rhythmic thud of a techno beat strikes up, vibrating the ground underfoot. A collective roar emanates from the crowd, and finally, the gate opens. Hundreds of twenty-to-thirty-somethings pour through, fl ashing their wristbands and running towards the music. An enormous, theatrical stage sits in the field’s natural basin, and a tiny figure can just be made out at its heart, bopping his head and raising his hands to welcome the revellers tumbling down the hill towards him. It’s legendary techno DJ Carl Cox. Screaming with excitement, some festival-goers actually drop to their knees and kiss the grass at their feet.

We’re at Tomorrowland, the world’s biggest electronic music festival, where even the site is considered hallowed ground. Like Glastonbury, but for electronic music, tickets are like gold-dust – and for some of these music lovers, arriving at this festival is the stuff of dreams. It’s not an exaggeration. As I watch the Mainstage fill with fans, jumping with elation and waving their native country’s flags (it’s a Tomorrowland tradition to represent where you’re from), I spot the national colours of Bulgaria, Brazil and Australia. In fact, up to 214 nationalities travel from all corners of the world to the tiny (and aptly named) town of Boom, an hour’s drive from Brussels – to attend the party to end all dance parties. We’re talking 16 stages hosting 1,000 artists and 400,000 festival-goers, over two three-day weekends each and every July.

But the festival experience begins long before the gates open. For some, it starts at airport departure gate parties and DJ-hosted flights – of which Brussels Airlines puts on 147, from all over Europe and the United States, for each festival. Others start the proceedings at Invited, the secret pre-party that takes place in central Brussels, or at The Gathering – a Thursday night warm-up concert at the festival campsite, DreamVille.

For me, it kicks off on Friday morning in the DreamVille campsite, which is a temporary, self-contained town, with wooden boardwalks, a supermarket, clothes shops and hair salons (there’s even rumoured to be a tattoo parlour, although I can’t find it). Joining the hordes heading towards the main gate, which is impossible to miss beneath an enormous, painted-wood rainbow, I realise in a moment of dismay that this is a festival to dress up for. All around me, the guys have seemingly spent months in the gym preparing for this day, while the girls have all perfected the messy-chic, boho look. Hair piled up and in a T-shirt and trainers, I feel decidedly un-glam. Something catches my eye. A make-up stand is placed near the final walkway to the festival ground. I duck in and emerge with smudgy, smoky eyes sparkling with gold glitter, and freshly tonged hair. I’m ready to go.

Walking the final stretch from DreamVille to the festival is an experience in itself. With boom boxes and dancing all along the way, there’s never a dull moment. The kookier festival-goers are jumping on ‘crazy bikes’, which you’d think would be a quick hack for speeding to the gate by bicycle. It’s the opposite. Some have steering wheels for handlebars; others have backwards pedals. Suffice it to say, these bikes will double the journey time from the campsite to the entrance – but they definitely make it more fun.

Once inside, it’s clear why people talk about Tomorrowland as if it’s a world of its own. At every turn, there’s a wacky spectacle to behold. Mime artists pull someone to the side, sit him down and pretend to polish his shoes (it doesn’t seem to matter that he’s in flip fl ops). Marching bands on stilts parade through the site, parting the crowds like Moses in the Red Sea. Game of Thrones-esque, fur-clad warriors trudge in packs, brandishing staffs and intimidating glares at anyone not quick enough to jump out of their way. Ethereal fairies fl utter their wings and eyelashes at passers-by, dressed in silk leaves and sequins.

I make my way to the huge Brussels Airlines Ferris wheel that overlooks the festival site – to get the lay of the land. From the top, it’s dizzyingly high and the view is impressive. Nearly every stage can be made out, from the cavernous indoor Freedom Stage, renowned for its pyrotechnics and light shows, to the dingy Rave Cave and the Mainstage where Eric Prydz is just beginning a set.

You can even spot the Jacuzzis and swimming pool, and the twinkling fairy lights peeking out from the hidden, glade-like forest stages. It’s the perfect place to set out a plan of action, and there’s a lot of music to enjoy. But first, it’s time for a pre-party refuel. I’ve got a ticket to BEAT – a one-hour, three-course meal accompanied by an intimate DJ set. My slot is DJ’d by Filipino-Dutch music producer and martial artist Laidback Luke, in a purpose-built room covered with fake foliage, from ivy-covered walls to flower-threaded tablecloths. The set is already in full swing as I step into the dark space, taking a neon-green cocktail from a raised table by the door. I was expecting something of a low-key dinner party vibe, and I completely missed the mark.

It’s carnage. The wooden floor vibrates and creaks from the heavy bass and the jumping feet of 50 or so ticket-holders, each one buzzing to find themselves in the Boiler Room-like setting. A guest chef has prepared a beautiful three-course meal, but it’s difficult to work out what’s being served through the darkness and above the din.

And that’s if you can get your hands on a plate of food in the first place. Waiters carry in tray after tray of braised pork cheek and mashed potato, in polystyrene bowls, and the crowd – clearly famished from a day’s worth of dancing (and most likely, a hangover from the night before) – immediately pounces on each one, devouring that meltingly soft, lovingly prepared meat in three mouthfuls at best, before casting the plate aside and hitting the dancefloor again. I find a quieter corner to tuck into mine, and it’s delicious – but not as delicious as the disco funk being laid down by Luke. I shove it down in a few mouthfuls and get back on the floor.

The hour flies by, and I head outside to check out the stages. I catch Russian DJ Nina Kraviz’s pure-vinyl, minimalist techno set as the sun goes down and, at dusk, I follow a string of fairy lights into a woodland where German DJ duo Claptone are playing otherworldly deep house in their signature gold-beaked masks.

There’s only one place I want to be for the final act of the night. Around 50,000 people can fit into the Mainstage arena, in a natural amphitheatre that allows for unobscured views from just about every angle. I clamber up the hillside to the very top centre as David Guetta – a Tomorrowland veteran, who played the first-ever edition and has been on the bill every year since – steps into the booth. It’s clear that Guetta loves this festival. He launches into a euphoric set filled with classics, grinning from ear to ear. His enthusiasm washes through the crowd – we raise our hands to the heavens and sing our hearts out. The staging is an incredible feat of ingenuity: acrobats swing from platforms embedded high in the rafters, as all the zany elements of the festival design collide in one breathtaking scene.

At just before 11pm, the sky erupts into a kaleidoscope of fireworks – a twice-nightly occurrence throughout the festival. There’ll be another fireworks display at midnight, but I’m heading back to the DreamVille campsite for a nightcap of Jupiler beer and some shut-eye before it all starts again tomorrow. And this time, I think, I’ll bring the glitter.


Designer dining: fashion guru Phillip Lim turns his creativity to the kitchen

THE TANGY-SWEET SCENT of chilli pepper, ginger, garlic and oyster sauce spiked with a splash of pungent fish sauce wafts from the wok. I stir through pieces of chicken, which sizzle stickily, the sauce caramelising into a thick, spicy-sweet coating. A handful of shredded basil later, it is ready. This is “Mom’s Ginger and Basil Chicken”, the signature dish from Chinese-American fashion designer Phillip Lim’s new cookbook, More Than Our Bellies, which he created in collaboration with Dutch artist and photographer Viviane Sassen to celebrate food, travel and family.

Lim co-founded fashion label 3.1 Phillip Lim in 2005 and is now one of the most successful independent designers in America. His structured, wearable designs have won him accolades from the Council of Fashion Designers of America – for womenswear in 2007 and for menswear in 2012 – and his Fall 2019 collection continues to build on the label’s signature structured yet casual aesthetic, with clean tailoring and muted palette. But this year also spells a new creative outlet for Lim, who recently discovered the pleasures of home cooking – a humbling antidote to high fashion.

The first-generation child of a Chinese couple, who moved to the United States in 1974 via Cambodia and Thailand, Lim grew up with a south-east Asian-influenced Chinese diet, cooked from scratch by his mother. But as a typical kid in the American school system, he rebelled. “I grew up in two worlds,” he says. “My parents wanted me to assimilate into Western culture, but the rules, food and language at home were all Chinese. When you’re a kid, you want McDonald’s and boxed cereal.” It wasn’t until Lim moved to New York City 14 years ago, to forge his fashion career, that he eventually reconnected with his ancestors’ food.

“For the first 10 years, I’d order takeout morning, noon and night,” says Lim. “I didn’t realise how bad it was for my body, but I was sluggish and feeling kind of hollow. Then, one day, I was missing my mother so much. She used to make me this basil ginger chicken which always put me in a good mood. I bought the ingredients I thought were in it, and went home and recreated it.”

That must have been no mean feat for a man who had never cooked before in his life – “My mum never taught me to cook,” he says, “she was old school that way” – but the chicken dish revealed to Lim that there’s more depth to food than its flavour.

“In South East Asia, they use humble ingredients that are actually antioxidants and superfoods,” says Lim. “Recently, I took a trip to Cambodia and in that humid climate there are a lot of mosquitoes. As a tourist, I was putting on loads of repellent and [I noticed] that the locals were not. It is because they eat food that naturally repels bugs, such as lemongrass. It is a traditional way of healing.”

Lim paid attention and, as a frequent traveller, uses his newfound food ethos to keep jet lag and fatigue at bay. “One of the major ingredients in Thai tom yum soup, for example, is galangal, which rebalances you,” he claims. “And kaffir lime de-puffs and helps remedy jet lag. Now, whenever I have been away and come home, I make that soup.”

Despite this, Lim insists that he is no chef – and it is clear that More Than Our Bellies is no ordinary cookbook. The accompanying photography by Lim’s friend and long-time collaborator Viviane Sassen does not correspond to the recipes. Instead, the artful shots, taken on her travels in Asia and Africa – Morocco, Ethiopia and Madagascar – display ripe, cut-open tomatoes on a market stand; sacks of rice glowing white under the sun; and trays of fried fish laid in silvery rows on a street-side stall. “We had travelled the world together and developed a mutual love and respect for non-Western cultures,” explains Lim. “This book is a love letter to each other.” It blurs the line between cookbook, travel documentary and fine-art tome – and for Lim it was a way to celebrate and connect to the people he loves.

“When I make clothes, I think of who wears them, how he or she might feel,” he says. “My goal is to make them feel at home, to give them armour to create memories in. And I do not know how it is going to turn out, which is the same with cooking. You are just trying to capture what was in your imagination.”

Born from an imagination as fruitful as Lim’s, it is no wonder that More Than Our Bellies has drawn the attention of the fashion, food and art worlds all at once. But the proof is always in the pudding. I place the ginger basil chicken atop a steaming bowl of white rice, grab a pair of chopsticks and dig in. It is tender, sweet and spicy; comfort on a plate. If Lim’s way of healing body and soul is this delicious, I think, then let him be my guru.,

N by Norwegian

The beast goes on: 10 years of bearpit karaoke in Berlin

The scorching sun is momentarily masked by a cloud as the young woman softly breaks into song, wavering over the opening cadences. Her voice cracks as the first verse draws to a close. Lifting her eyes to the dozens of rows of listeners – shoulder-to-shoulder and silent in anticipation – she takes a deep breath, and launches into the chorus at full power. The crowd erupts into euphoric applause, swaying and singing along as she belts out Adele.

“This is the first time I’ve sung in public in two years,” says Rhona Smith afterwards, visibly shaking as she puts the mic down. She laughs, then cries overwhelmed tears as the audience’s applause turns into a standing ovation.

This is Bearpit Karaoke – and it’s just reignited a former singer’s love of the stage. Consisting of a microphone hooked up to portable speakers, powered by a car battery and transported on a bicycle, it’s a Berlin institution that, this year, has been running for a decade in Mauerpark – the green lung of the upmarket Prenzlauer Berg district.

The event is held each sunny summer Sunday, in a concrete amphitheatre built on a spot that was once on the “Death Strip” that straddled East and West Berlin. Today, Mauerpark welcomes up to 50,000 people each weekend, who come to meander through flea-market stands piled high with knick-knacks and street foods; watch buskers and basketball players; spray-paint tags on the remaining 800m stretch of Berlin Wall; and test their mettle singing in front of some 2,000 spectators.

Although it’s now one of the capital’s most legendary alternative spectacles – attracting professional singers, wannabe stars and total beginners alike – Bearpit Karaoke had modest beginnings. Dublin-born expat and bike courier Gareth Lennon (who runs the event under the name Joe Hatchiban) saw the potential in karaoke for creating alternative tourist souvenirs.

“YouTube was just getting big,” remembers Lennon. “My idea was to film karaoke around the Brandenburg Gate or something, and offer it to the singer as a YouTube upload. I got a rudimentary loud speaker, battery and converter, and set off on my courier bike in February 2009.”

He would set up the speaker, start singing and grab people from the street to join in. “I could tell there was something in it, because I was able to get people to sing and others would watch. It was cool,” he says. “But the random nature of it meant that if someone didn’t want to sing, the crowd would break up.”

The way to mediate that was to find a permanent location – and Lennon was living near Mauerpark at the time. He decided to try out the concrete pit; the first hosting of Bearpit Karaoke was primarily just a technical test. “I hadn’t established the life of the car battery, so one Sunday I decided to set it up at the amphitheatre and find out how long it would go for,” he says. “It was cold – there weren’t many people about, but I got a lot of them to sing.

“As the weather improved I started to go back regularly. Word got around and by the end of May, there were people there waiting every Sunday. I knew if I wasn’t going to be there the week after, I’d have to tell the crowd. That’s when I knew it had begun.”

It might have been an instant hit with the public, but over the years the karaoke has come up against obstacles with the local council, which tripled the cost of its permit in 2012. The event was almost cancelled for good this year, following a series of noise complaints from local residents.

Its saving grace was its popularity with the party crowd – who, luckily, also happen to make the rules. “The council is made of very young people,” explains long-term Bearpit supporter Dr Martin Haring, who sat in on their meetings. “They listened to the neighbourhood but ultimately were positive about the vibe that’s created by the karaoke, where everyone is welcome.”

This vibe plays out in the diversity of performers that have played here over the years. Syrian refugees have taken to the stage. Hopeful young men have proposed to their future wives and opera singers have graced the amphitheatre with arias in between Staatsoper shows. And a grey-bearded older man in a grubby chequered shirt has performed My Way by Frank Sinatra, in German, every single Sunday, his eyes misting up with tears as the audience rises to its feet to applaud his final note.

“A lot of moving stuff happens, and all sorts of weird stuff,” says Lennon. “But those moments when everyone feels the same thing at the same time, when something clicks? You can almost reach out and touch it.”

Bureaucracy dictates that it would be a difficult event to pull off anywhere else in the world, and Lennon is convinced that he wouldn’t be allowed to run Bearpit Karaoke in Berlin now if it wasn’t already so established. While the popularity of karaoke reaches near-hysterical levels in South Korea, the Philippines and Japan (where it originated), it’s generally confined to soundproof booths rather than in the open – as it is in the West, if not before an inebriated pub crowd.

But Bearpit’s atmosphere of freedom and acceptance is unique thanks to Lennon. Despite having received advertising offers from the likes of Coca-Cola and Volkswagen, he’s rejected any notion of commercialising the event, preferring to fund it via small-change donations that he discreetly collects when he’s not emceeing. Every performer is equally encouraged and all of Mauerpark’s weird and wonderful characters (and there are many) are welcome. If Lennon sees a singer falter, he joins in the verse, dances beside them, nods in encouragement.

“He coaches the singers and helps them perform better,” smiles Dr Haring, who has sung here more than 10 times and is sporting a Bearpit-branded T-shirt. “He knows how to pick out the right people from the crowd.”

Lennon is also a born showman, and bookends each Sunday session with his own performances. Today, he rounds off proceedings with a theatrical, gravelly rendition of Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher, getting the crowd going one last time as the police arrive to shut things down at 7pm sharp.

“Standing in front of so many people and performing is a thing I usually never do,” says firsttimer Marjolein Bieri, who’s in Berlin celebrating her engagement. “But everyone claps, sings along and cheers.”

One performer, Mario Giacometto, has been singing here since 2009 – around 14 times so far. “Sometimes we’ve had famous singers,” he remembers (in May, the winner of 2017’s The Voice of Germany, Natia Todua, performed). “But really it’s about losing your fears and being one with the public. Singing is a spontaneously happy act. It resonates with and unites people that hear it.”

For Dr Haring, attending Bearpit Karaoke since day one has even informed his university research. A professor in entrepreneurship at an Amsterdam university, he uses karaoke as a core part of his teaching programme. “It gets them out of their comfort zone,” he explains. “I’ve specialised in karaoke as a way for people to connect with each other. Singing makes us more open and friendly.”

It’s all high praise for a one-man set-up that happened almost by accident and that still takes place under a striped parasol in one of Berlin’s scruffiest parks. But Lennon doesn’t seem fazed by its success. His thoughts on the phenomenon’s 10th anniversary are typically understated – never overhyping the come-one, come-all vibe of what is arguably both the city’s coolest and most accessible event.

“It’s something to stick on a T-shirt, for sure,” he says. “But 11 years would be cooler than 10, and so would 14. It’s just another year.”