Best Clubs For Your Travelling

Tired of BPM-obsessed bores, queue-jumping liggers and fascist security? Looking for a new clubbing experience? David Hillier explores ball pools, bondage gear and spa parties to find the best alternative club nights across Europe.

Each year tourists flock to all corners of Europe to get loaded and have a weird time, whether it’s in an Ibiza superclub, a Berlin technohaus or on a party boat in Belgrade. Of course, it’s all fine and well when you’re travelling with someone who loves dance music as much as you do, and who only needs a box room, a DJ and a Void sound system to achieve disco enlightenment.

But if your companion is not a techno fiend and needs more from a club than untarnished BPMs, here are some of the best nights out on the continent.

Regression Sessions (UK)

Strictly speaking, it’s a night rather than a club, but let’s not concern ourselves with trivialities. Regression Sessions have been putting on events all over the UK for the last five years and are famous for their ball pits, bouncy castles and expansive production. The vibe is very much adults indulging their childish sides, so if you’re not feeling the drum and bass, house and techno spun by Fabric residents, there’s always something else to do. That might just mean face painting.

Fluxus Ministerija (Kaunas, Lithuania)

Housed in an abandoned shoe factory, the Ministry of Fluxus is an accessible art project that happens to throw twanging raves. You’ll find a different vibe in every cavernous room, and the swirling visuals and chin-strokey art installations will make more sense when you’re two pingers down. The lengths of their parties are legendary – come on Saturday, leave Sunday afternoon. Spend the next two days in your hotel room squinting through the curtains and watching Lithuanian dubbed reruns of Diagnosis Murder.

Elrow (Barcelona/Ibiza/Madrid)

Elrow states that its primary function is to “entertain and amuse” and it does so through a magical alchemy of the finest tech house and techno in the style of a throbbing technicolour carnival. Their spiritual home is Viladecans in Barcelona, but they’ve had a recent residency at Space in Ibiza, as well as shows in Madrid, Zaragoza and the UK. Expect elaborately costumed actors, confetti drops and endless blow-up toys to joust with.

House parties are great, right? You don’t have to pay to enter and there are no bouncers. You don’t have to secrete your drugs anywhere near your genitals, and no-one’s going to chuck you out for getting frisky in the toilets. Renate doesn’t fly in the face of all these conventions, but the vibe inside this old apartment block is more unhinged house party than urban nightclub. Lose a night and day exploring the labyrinth of rooms, nooks and baroque-decorated bars. There’s a latex covered bed in one room, and rumors of a maze in the basement. Door policy can be tough- don’t expect to roll up singing Oasis tunes and be beckoned down the rabbit hole.

Torture Garden (London/Edinburgh)

A grand old lady of the fetish club scene, Torture Garden started life in the basement of a converted church in Brixton in 1990 and is now Europe’s largest of its kind. A vast celebration of all things sexual fantastical, you won’t get in without donning the sort of bondage outfit you pray your parents never wear. As renowned for its elaborate theatrical performances as its ‘play’ rooms, the bondage side is something you can get involved with as much you wish. There are whipping horses, spanking benches and places for you to get naughty, but if you just want to hang out and party in your gimp suit, that’s cool too.

Travel buddy could be Bear Grylls

If you want a holiday that isn’t just good but spectacular, you should perhaps put more thought into who you go with. And Mike Peake suggests that the ultimate travel companion is a world-famous guide or explorer…

In April 2007, long-distance backpacker Andrew Skurka set off from the Grand Canyon to walk ‘The Great Western Loop’, a 6,875-mile journey which takes in a vast swathe of the left hand side of America. Upon his triumphant return in November the same year, his status in the adventure community skyrocketed. National Geographic named him an adventurer of the year and everyone from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal wanted to speak to him.

Skurka became a hot ticket.

With brains to match his brawn, he realised that ‘exposure’, while nice, wasn’t going to buy him a house or convince his girlfriend he was serious marriage material. In fact, he now says, he was “a backpacking dirtbag,” spending as many days on trails each year as he could and then working as little as he had to in order to get by.

When Skurka hit 30 in 2011, he decided to turn the thing he knows and loves into a business and set himself up as a backpacking guide offering less-experienced hikers memorable and meaningful adventures in the Rockies. Five days with Andrew costs around £1,200 – not bad considering the experience, planning and fireside stories he brings to the table. “I was tired of financial uncertainty,” he says, “and going into business doing something I loved was a more appealing option than a 9-5 job.”

Though he perhaps didn’t realise it at the time, Skurka had cottoned on to something that is only now starting to become a bit of a ‘thing’: namely that big-name adventurers are not only there to bag sponsorship money and chase news headlines, they can also show us lesser mortals how to we can have an awesome adventure, too.

At one end of the spectrum is Bear Grylls. His popular Survival Academy offers trips ranging from 1-5 days, but he’s not normally there to haul you up the mountain or help you build a raft. If you want the man himself to show up, you’ll have to pay an incredible – wait for it – £110,000, though that does include all fees for a group of up to 10 people.

Rather more affordable is TV’s Ray Mears, who leads several adventures a year to places like Namibia and charges a jolly reasonable £5,000 for 10 days. Even more wallet-friendly is Kenton Cool, the famous mountain guide who helped Sir Ranulph Fiennes make it up Everest. It’ll set you back around £475 a day to get one-on-one tuition from Cool, one of the world’s most vaunted mountain guides, which is not a whole lot more than what you’d have to pay to go climbing with someone no one has ever heard of.

There are other adventurers who are starting to smell the potential of offering themselves up as personal guides, too – people like Jason Lewis, the first person to circumnavigate the globe using human power.

“I’ve certainly thought about it,” says Lewis. “Getting amateurs into the field and having a grand adventure is something I’ve always felt passionate about, and I’ve done it several times, though I’ve only asked people to cover their costs. But seeing as I’ve already done it for free and a couple of times it’s not been very pleasant, then hell, why not charge for it?

American ultrarunning legend Karl Meltzer has given some thought to the matter, too. “I really do think my future may be in giving people running tours in really cool places,” he says. “Something for later life – especially if there’s decent money in it.”

While there’s little doubt that accomplished adventurers can bring a wealth of experience and opportunities to the table, might it also be true that once money changes hands it suddenly becomes a little bit corporate? Can clients ever really be anything other than this week’s meal ticket?

It’s a question not lost on Andrew Skurka, who tries to get to know his guests months before every trip for this very reason. He acknowledges that each of them has paid good money to be there and that he needs to match their enthusiasm.

But he says he is “unapologetically comfortable” with having turned something he adores into a business, even though he could never have envisioned this would be how he pays the bills when he first started hiking. “My earliest trips were motivated by nothing but passion, and at the time I fully expected there would be a stage in my life at which point I’d have to get a conventional job,” he says. “This is far better.”

Jason Lewis has no qualms about paid hand-holding either. “As long as there is complete transparency, then it is no different to any other kind of consultancy work,” he says, pointing out that while consulting is certainly not the reason he got into adventuring, he first considered the idea more than a decade ago.

The chance to hit the road with a seasoned adventurer is something that usually most of us would only dream of, but it’s becoming a reality (if you can afford it). Why trudge aimlessly through the Rockies when the king of backpackers could show you how it’s really done? What you’re really paying for here is expertise that will turn your incredible adventure into the experience of a lifetime.


Healing in Bled

Following Noel Edmonds’ claims that a magnetic pad can cure cancer, Jane Alexander explores whether Zdenko Domančić’s bio-energy healing weekend in Bled Slovenia makes for miracle cure or esoteric bullshit.

A small boy races across the room, his trainers flashing neon green. He’s just like any other six-year old except that he’s running on crutches. Around 50 people sit around the edges of the stuffy conference room, a fair few in wheelchairs. A man comes in, pulling an oxygen tank alongside him. I slide into a seat at the back and watch.

Most visitors to Bled in Slovenia spend their time enjoying the scenery and the sights. It’s almost Disneyesque with its wildflower-peppered meadows and its fairytale castle perched on a crag over the lake. The lake itself winks beguilingly, begging you to hike its perimeter (an easygoing two hour walk), swim in its silky water or take a gondola-style boat out to the little island with its church (ring the bell and apparently your wishes will come true).

Yet everyone here is holed up indoors, patiently waiting their turn for a dose of ‘bio-energy healing’.  It’s a package run by the Hotel Lovec (part of the Best Western Premier chain) and it’s hugely popular:  many people come back time and time again to attend the twice daily healing sessions by Zdenko Domančić and his team. A lecture by Domančić and a sightseeing tour are thrown into the package and, on the face of it, it’s a pretty good deal. The hotel isn’t drop-dead stylish but it’s comfortable, friendly, and has a great restaurant and a rather nice spa (with a slightly incongruous Thai theme).

Zdenko Domančić, originally from Croatia, is a burly 65-year old with rock star billing – his face stares broodingly from monolithic posters and people hang on his every word. Aside from the children, everyone is sitting yogi-style, palms upturned in their laps. I look quizzically at the woman next to me and she gives an encouraging smile. ‘Turn your hands up,’ she whispers. ‘It opens you to the energy in the room.’ She gestures over at Domančić who is standing over an elderly man, making sweeping movements as if he were brushing away something nasty. ‘He is the best man in the world,’ she adds, nodding firmly. ‘The very best.’  I smile politely and obediently present my palms to the energy of the room.

Domančić speaks with a deep rumble of a voice. ‘Everything is energy,’ he says.  ‘And we treat everything the same – from diarrhoea to cancer, from AIDS to autism.’ Bio-energy healing, he says, simply puts the body ‘back in order’, restoring balance. ‘Every cell holds information about the entire system. If you restore the original environment, you will fix the energy field. Your body will heal itself.’

Domančić catches my sceptical frown. ‘We are not weirdos,’ he says, wagging a stern finger. ‘It’s quantum physics. We’re conducting agents for energy. When there’s not enough energy, we are sick. When there is no more energy, we die. All information is energy. We can heal anything – trees, animals…we upgrade the system, if you like.’

Domančić has a team of healers working at four stations around the room. They usually work in pairs but, every so often, a whole bunch of them swoops in to ramp up the healing factor.

I watch as Domančić stands behind a young woman and makes ‘come to me’ moves with his hands.  She starts arching into an extreme back bend before losing her balance. He smiles, moves in front of her and gestures again. This time she bows down towards Domančić, seemingly completely under his control. It smacks of stage hypnosis, of manipulation and it makes me distinctly uneasy.  Domančić wanders over to me, leaving the woman immobile, bowed down in the centre of the room. ‘It breaks down scepticism in people,’ he says with a sardonic smile. ‘Their mental concrete can start to crack when they see energy in action.’ Even so, once released the woman is visibly shaken and

It’s my turn. Domančić beckons me forwards and asks me to walk up and down. He asks if I have cold feet (yes, sometimes), any ovary problems (hmm, yes, according to a recent scan), bladder issues (thankfully no, but now I’m worried), occasional heart palpitations (yes), heavy legs (not really). He reckons I’m badly dehydrated (that’s highly likely). So far, so perceptive but he hasn’t picked up on my major problem – a bad shoulder impingement that’s keeping me awake at night. He places his hands on my shoulder and I feel a tingling in my hands and a warmth spreading around the shoulder.  I stand up, I sit down. I stand up again. Domančić and a helper perform a series of movements over me and my shoulder feels a little easier. I go back to my seat wondering if it’s for real or just my wishful thinking.

Across the room I spot a couple cradling a young child. Marco and Barbara Foxon tell me that they come to Bled every couple of months from Dartford in Kent with their son Luca. Aged 3, Luca has cerebral palsy. ‘I was hugely sceptical at first,’ says Marco, ‘but Zdenko spun me round; I could feel the energy working.’ But has the healing helped Luca? ‘Oh yes,’ says Barbara. ‘He has made a huge improvement – it’s like it opened up something. His sitting is better, he is stronger and his speech has improved – he’s generally much more aware of things. Our physiotherapist is amazed.’

Nighttime Economy Can Learn From Berlin

Clubber and scribe David Hillier investigates London’s moribund late night scene and asks what the city can learn from the clubbing capital of Europe, Berlin.

“A creative city with a powerful clubbing scene must have three things: affordable space, tolerance, and minimal regulation. These enable self-expression and innovation.” So says Lutz Leichsenring, press officer for Club Commission, a Berlin-based union set up in 2001 to represent the needs of its nighttime economy.

Last year London formed its own industry group, the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), and it’s desperately needed. The oft-quoted statistic that 50% of UK clubs have closed in the last decade is sadly correct, with totems such as Dance Tunnel, Cable and Passing Clouds all forced to shut. This mass cull reached its apex last month when Farringdon’s Fabric – the spiritual doyen of UK club culture – had its licence revoked following the drug-related deaths of two teenagers on its premises.

“The spiritual doyen of UK club culture”: Fabric remains closed after the latest Islington Council ruling
Creative Commons / Ben Hartley

According to Alan Miller, co-founder of the NTIA, “What people, and the authorities, need to realise is that nightclubs are a part of our ecosystem. They are an intrinsic part of a whole host of things, from fashion and design to advertising and retail. Everywhere, from Hackney to Peckham, from Tottenham to Hounslow, whole areas are being shaped by what’s happening with the nighttime economy.”

Across the country, £66 billion is spent in nighttime venues every year. The industry accounts for 8% of UK employment, with 1.3 million people pulling pints, manning doors or serving tables. And it’s increasingly a reason tourists come to the capital. “People aren’t just flying in for Madame Tussauds or Buckingham Palace any more, they’re coming for XOYO or Oval Space. Clubs are part of London’s repertoire,” remarks Miller.

Feeding this narrative – that clubs are ultimately about so much more than clubbing – is a major part of Miller’s role. He’s hoping this will be made easier when London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has come out in support of Fabric’s plight, appoints a ‘Night Czar’. The Czar will act as go-between for all the related parties and, most importantly, work in the best interests of late night culture in London.

In many senses Miller takes his lead from Leichsenring, who has championed this approach since joining Club Commission in 2004. Berlin is a long-time incubator of creativity, and Leichsenring also places heavy emphasis not just on the financial value that nightclubs bring to the city – although 35% of visitors to the city come for the nightlife – but on their ability to inspire the next generation of free thinkers and maverick artists. And he sees gentrification, a longtime bugbear of London’s creatives, as the mortal enemy of this.

“Lots of clubs in Berlin are in temporary spaces, and some owners decided that maybe they would like to turn them into a shopping mall, or a hotel, “ Leichsenring says. ”But around 15 years ago people started rethinking: maybe we don’t need another shopping mall. Because if you are young and creative, and have ideas about changing the world and you want to be free, then highly gentrified areas are not places you will go.”

Selling Shangri la at a premium

Is the world’s most expensive visa fee a way for tourists to pay for Bhutan’s road to riches? Or is Bhutan truly the last Shangri-la? Kara Fox investigates.

At first glance, Bhutan is just that – a magical landscape seemingly immune to the pull of the ever-tightening grip of modernity. Situated at a dizzying 2235 meters above sea level, most journeys begin with a steep descent into Bhutan’s sole international airport. The adventurous flight in can feel as reason enough to want to visit – a mix of altitude, excitement and vibrant green rice paddies growing in the shadow of imposing Himalayan snow-capped peaks will create a pungent cocktail of sensory overload for even the most experienced traveller. The Bhutanese word namasame literally translates as ‘between the heavens and the Earth’ – and landing in Paro town can feel that’s exactly where you’ve arrived.

Like all foreigners, my experience in Bhutan began by being greeted at the airport and whisked away to Paro town, a world of white washed houses, quaint roadside vegetable vendors and tidy, winding roads.

A few months earlier I had been offered a job working at a luxury resort in Paro town. Securing a working visa allowed me to avoid paying the mandatory $250 per day visa costs, which clips most travellers’ trips to about a week or two maximum. The luxury of this ‘free time’ allowed me to form more lasting friendships, to learn Dzongkha, the national language, and to adapt my taste buds to the national dish, ema datse – a diet of never ending chillies and cheese. But most importantly, it allowed me to gain a more coloured perspective into the friendly debate between tourism’s model Buddhist pleasantries and the Bhutanese internalization of those ideas.

When I arrived I rapidly began to notice the discrepancy between what I had thought existed as a land untouched by modernity in this ‘Shangri-La’ versus its reality. Tour guides sporting Oakley sunglasses walked around the town in traditional ghos (a large man-skirt of sorts), complimented by knee high socks. Old women spinning prayer wheels in one hand could be seen typing on their iPads in the other. Monks on mobiles, DJs at discos spinning top 40 tracks, everyone under 30 obsessed with social media. Was this so foreign after all?