Creative Traveller: Lieven Bertels

What’s your ultimate holiday destination?

The Japanese countryside south of Nara – it’s the cradle of Japanese civilisation and a very different experience from the bustling city life of Kyoto or Tokyo. Around villages such as Asuka you can ride your bike in between the rice fields going from one amazing temple to the next, and local people are extremely helpful and welcoming. I would strongly recommend a traditional farm stay – what you give up in comfort you’ll get back in authenticity and picturesque experiences.


Where is the most luxurious place you’ve stayed?

Probably the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg which is the epitome of a classic European Grand Hotel; it really is like stepping straight into the movie Grand Hotel Budapest (bar the mountains), although I must admit the butler service that unpacks your suitcase into the lavish walk-in still feels strange. The hotel is perfect if you want to catch a performance at the nearby Hamburg State Opera, the former home of Australian conductor Simone Young.


What’s the most creative city you’ve ever been to? What’s the most creative district within that city?

Perhaps an unusual choice but I’d say Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Africa is definitely the continent of the future and cities like Dakar are buzzing with creativity. Resources are scarce (and you don’t go to Dakar for a five-star hotel experience), but the youthful energy of West Africa is just infectious. One creative hub to check out, just south of Dakar, is the “École de Sable”, the dance school founded by Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny.


What’s the first thing you do when you enter your hotel room?

If the room offers an espresso machine: make myself a strong coffee and unpack. As I’m on the road a lot I do enjoy not having to live out of my suitcase if time allows, so whenever I am in the same hotel for more than one night I will actually make use of those wardrobes and even try to tuck my suitcase out of view to make my room a little more homely. Next I’ll connect my iPod to the hi-fi or docking station and play one of my classical music, jazz or Jacques Brel playlists.


What’s the first thing you do when you reach a destination? How do you like to explore a new city?

Walk! I love exploring cities on foot, often with my pocket travel camera. Walking through downtown Detroit or Buenos Aires, people watching, getting lost or (language permitting) conversations with locals are amongst the most pleasurable moments of my trips, since I often travel alone.


What do you consider to be the cultural capital of Europe?

Hands down: Paris. The amount of international theatre, dance and music that happens there, the exhibitions and permanent collections, the way the city stays connected to all continents, the quality of food and fashion, and the easy public transport really make it the most cosmopolitan, but also the most cultural city in all of Europe. People who feel they know Paris all too well should check out Brussels, more of a hidden gem. You might want to find yourself a local to take you around and discover how the political capital of Europe has an amazing bohemian pulse, great design stores and a lively jazz scene.


What’s left on your destination bucket-list?

Vietnam and Vancouver Island are high on my wish list. An ultimate traveller’s dream would be to spend a few days on St. Kilda in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, a tiny island that counted only 36 inhabitants when it was evacuated in 1930 after more than 2,000 years of habitation.


Have you ever flown first class? What’s your most memorable front-of-the-plane experience?

On long-haul work trips I tend to fly business but as a frequent flyer, I do get the occasional upgrade. One of the nicest “seat 1A” experiences was with China Southern Airlines on their A380 between Guangzhou and Paris – attentive crew, nice Cantonese cuisine, Australian wines and a surprising Asian movie selection.


You have a strong musical background. Can you think of a must-do international experience for music lovers?

There are so many to choose from. At one end of the scale I would recommend the very civilised experience of a night at the Glyndebourne Opera: dress up, bring (or pre-book) a picnic hamper and mingle with the who’s who of British society on the lawns of this amazing purpose-built modern opera theatre, which has no foyers or corridors so you will spend the intervals outdoors taking in the sights of the gardens and surroundings. Australian director Barrie Kosky just got rave reviews for his Glyndebourne debut with Handel’s Saul and both the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are the excellent house bands.

A totally different music experience well worth the trip is to attend the world’s largest music festival, the Madras Music Season in Chennai, India. With massive crowds and over 1,200 performances of Carnatic music throughout the month of December, this is not for the faint-hearted, but it certainly is a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience in one of India’s culinary and musical capitals.


You’re originally from Belgium. Can you recommend a special dining experience for visitors to try there?

My favourite place remains Peter Goossens’ Hof van Cleve about 20 minutes west of Ghent. The restaurant is set in a charming farmhouse and serves modern versions of fine Belgian and French cuisine, including amazing variations on white asparagus. With three Michelin stars and regular appearances in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants list, this is a place to impress your guests or to enjoy with your beloved ones. Peter has a great wine list but is also adventurously pairing his food with unique craft beers. His cheese selection is to die for and even the tableware and linen are unique and tell a creative story.


What inspiration have you taken from your travels and infused into your work?

No matter how far we travel, it’s about people. In my work I try to keep events human-sized: I strive to bring personal, memorable experiences and to create true meeting places. Sydney Festival is not just about seeing great arts; it’s about jointly celebrating what our amazing city has to offer in January, with locals and visitors alike. A shared experience is a memory for life!

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