Ahmed Dickinson Cárdenas on Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Havana

Last February, a friend invited me to FAC, or La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an old oil factory that’s now a thriving arts space in Vedado, one of Havana’s residential districts. The eclectic crowd was typical of Cuban arts centres: imagine London’s Ministry of Sound, Shoreditch House, Annabel’s and the World’s End in Camden rolled into one. For about 1.50 entry, I spent eight hours meeting people from all over the city. There’s an art and photographic gallery and a dance space, a cinema and a very well-stocked bar. I watched a fashion show and a live concert.

In one night you can catch some of the highest-profile Cuban artists of any discipline mixing it up with younger, talented, counterparts. X Alfonso, the man behind it, is one of Cuba’s most respected fusion musicians and based the place on similar venues he’d seen in Europe, mostly in Germany. He belongs to a very well-connected musical dynasty that has always championed new and daring ideas on the island. I am definitely going back during my next visit in December.
? Corner of Calle 26 and Calle 11, Vedado, fabricadeartecubano.com.

Ahmed Dickinson Cárdenas (ahmeddickinson.com) is a Cuban guitarist living in London

Can tourism help save Colombias Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta nature reserve

Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – recently declared the world’s most irreplaceable nature reserve – is under threat. Now it is hoped a new initiative, allowing visitors to explore the area with guides from local tribes, will go some way to preserving this precious and unique environment

Read about Kevin Rushby’s adventure to Colombia’s Lost City in Saturday’s Guardian Travel

Vodafone turned my £90 data access bill into one for nearly £3,000 Money

On a business trip to Mexico in January my phone was almost immediately, and rightly, blocked as I had reached a predetermined data cap.

A call by my wife unblocked the phone and allowed me to continue working with data access and I received regular texts from Vodafone advising on data costs and promising to update me on how much I was spending each day. The last text I received said I had reached 90. But a month later I received a message warning of an impending bill of 2,987.76. How can a company justify extending such impossibly high credit without warning the owner, and why was I warned when I hit 90 but not 2,000? I travel all over the world with my phone and have never had anything like this before. I can only presume that my iPhone 6 went through an operating system update and/or some of the apps continued to download data without my knowledge. AC, Lower Stonnall, Staffs

Readers reeling from astronomical data charges are filling my inbox, and you don’t have to travel far to incur such bills. One racked up a 313 bill, despite a stop limit of 50, because she turned her home internet router off each night to force her children offline and her phone switched to other networks. Another received 1,000 bills two months running when his iPhone automatically switched to the 3G network whenever Wi-Fi signals dropped and auto-updated without his knowledge. The smarter the phone the pricier the data use, for these devices are programmed to offer a seamless service, whether or not you are in a Wi-Fi area, and the only way to avoid this is to disconnect the phone from 3G while using Wi-Fi and turn off data roaming if travelling abroad. Vodafone accepts it should have continued to send alerts and will only charge for the data usage it alerted you to, which amounts to 90.

If you need help email Anna Tims at your.problems@observer.co.uk or write to Your Problems, The Observer, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Include an address and phone number.

Turkey’s ‘turtle beach’, saved from bulldozers in the 1980s, faces new t

The sand is soft, the sea warm and shallow, and at three low-key beach shacks, barefoot holidaymakers pay a few Turkish lira to drink tea, water or cold Efes beer under a corrugated iron roof. The peckish can order a gzleme (Turkish pancake) filled with cheese, spinach or mince from another green-painted shack, where local women roll out the flatbreads to order for 8 lira (just over 2). Down on the sand, a wicker sunshade and two basic loungers cost 2.50 a day. At intervals along the shore, wire cages with scrupulously observed “do not disturb” notices indicate the presence of turtle nests.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest June Haimoff of the Sea Turtle Conservation Foundation, who helped to win environmental protection status for Iztuzu beach in the late 1980s. Photograph: Liz Boulter
This is Iztuzu, or turtle, beach, in south-west Turkey, beloved by holidaymakers staying in the riverside town of Dalyan, 13km inland, as well as by day-trippers from Marmaris, Fethiye and Öldeniz. This is the beach that was famously saved from development in the late 1980s thanks to the efforts of “Kaptan” June Haimoff, the Englishwoman who lived in a hut here from the mid-1970s (and still lives in the area). She managed to see off a plan to turn this 5km of unspoilt paradise – and nesting site for loggerhead turtles – into a resort with large-scale hotel, yacht marina and dozens of holiday villas.

Yet 25 years after the doughty June, now 91, battled with an international property consortium to win special environmental protection status for the beach – the bulldozers were lumbering into position as she fought – the 5km delta spit could once again be under threat.

Changes to local government boundaries this year have seen Dalyan and Iztuzu beach come under the aegis of nearby Ortaca district, and the licence to run beach facilities being sold to Oruç, a Turkish/British company of carpet merchants and property developers. June – and her Turtle Conservation Foundation, started in 2011, the year she was awarded an MBE for her environmental work – are, of course, not taking this lying down. There is an online petition calling for cancellation of the licence.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest The unspoilt sands of Iztuzu Beach. Photograph: Alamy
Interested tourists might spot June as she takes a glass of tea at the bar at the southern end of Iztuzu. With a cut-glass accent and Vanessa Redgrave manner, she submits graciously to requests for photos, but is determined to go on fighting the good fight. “Oruç see this beach as a wasted opportunity,” she said, indicating the basic tables and benches. “They will knock this down and put in something much more upmarket: expect plate glass and overpriced tea.”

However, Louise Marie Hollis, property sales manager for Oruç, stressed that while the company is planning to knock down the shacks once the season ends next month, it is with a view to improvement, adding facilities for children and disabled people. “There will be better food, new sunbeds are on order because the existing ones are a bit shabby, and there are plans for more wooden walkways to protect beachgoers’ feet from the hot sand. There may be a small increase in the prices charged.”

Ever-vigilant for the welfare of her beloved kaplumba (turtles), June and her foundation also persuaded the Ankara government earlier this year to make illegal the common practice of baiting turtles with their favourite blue crabs for the entertainment of tourists at the seaward end of the Dalyan channel. Enforcing the law is another matter, however – the baiting was as popular as ever this summer – and June is also campaigning for all boats in the channel to be fitted with (free) propeller cages to prevent injury to turtles.

Dalyan townspeople are generally supportive – the municipality has run the beach shacks for 16 years now – but she struggles to get the boatmen on side. “They say the propeller cages are a thing they’ve never used. They say they’re not worried about killing or hurting turtles because more will come.”

They’re wrong about that: sea turtles are one of our oldest species, roaming the earth’s waters for around 100m years. But the 21st century has seen numbers declining by up to 7% a year.

Present regulations mean Iztuzu beach is out of bounds at night between May and September, and no umbrellas or beach towels are allowed on a crucial strip close to the waves, where turtle eggs lie incubating for several months. With a natural paradise this precious, for humans and reptiles, concern at commercial involvement is understandable. As the petition says: “Whose beach is Iztuzu, and whom are you handing it to?”

Norways amazing hiking cabins

Jutting out of the mountain, as stark as the landscape in which it sits, the Rabot Cabin is the latest addition to Norway’s collection of spectacular refuges for hikers.

Located in Hemnes, in the north of the country, the contemporary structure, which opened to the public this week, is a welcome retreat for those trekking across the difficult terrain.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Photograph: Svein Arne Brygfjeld/PR
The cabin, which is only accessible on foot or skis, was designed by Jarmund/Vigsns Arkitekter, who drew inspiration from the rugged surroundings. The shape of the chimneys deliberately mimic the outline of the mountains behind it and huge windows overlook the Okstindbreen glacier.

Fittingly, it is named after Charles Rabot, a French glaciologist and geographer known for his explorations of the mountainous area. And the remote location is not without its risks; a rescue hut is located 50 metres away should the main cabin be destroyed by extreme conditions.

Rabot is just one of 500 affordable cabins offering basic shelter and accommodation to trekkers and skiers that is operated by the Norwegian Trekking Association. We’ve rounded up five more amazing hideaways run by the organisation that you can stay in.

Mount Skla Tower
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Photograph: Norwegian Trekking Society
Located on a 1,843-metre peak, with views over the fjords and glaciers that surround it, the Mount Skla tower was recently voted the most original tourist cabin by visitors according to the Norway tourist board. The 20-bed, self-catered tower was built in 1891, the brainchild of Dr Hans Henrik Gerhard Kloumann, who conceived it as a place for visitors to rest body and soul. The tower is also a welcome sight for athletes competing in the brutal Skla Up race – Europe’s toughest uphill race, which takes place on the mountain every August.

Breidablik Cabins
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Photograph: Helen Ødven/Norwegian Trekking Society
With a distinct Middle Earth feel, the Breidablik Cabins (there are two at the site) are a unique pair of constructions built from stone which was lugged up the 1,160m mountain. The grass-roofed huts enjoy panoramic views and are only open during the spring and summer; in winter the risk of landslides means it’s unsafe to visit.

Preikestolen Tree Camp

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Photograph: Kjell helle-Olsen/Norwegian Trekking Society
A bit like a Nordic take on the futuristic jungle homes from the film Avatar, the Preikstolen Tree Camp consists of five pods that can each sleep up to three people. Constructed from steel frames wrapped in canvas, with wooden floors inside, the pods are connected by a hanging walkway.

Preikestolen Mountain Camp Photograph: PR
Another dramatic accommodation option at the Preikestolen base camp, the mountain camp is a vertigo-inducing construction of mesh and metal rigged to a cliff face. Up to 15 people can bed down for the night in what resembles a lobster trap from the inside – but looks remarkably minimal from the outside, blending in with the stony mountain. As for those who toss and turn at night, fear not; there are nets around the edge too, so you don’t need to worry about rolling out of bed.

Vasstindbu Cabins Photograph: Norwegian Trekking Society
Exposed to the elements on a mountain ridge, the builders of this pair of cabins between the Horndalen and the Kjøvdalen valley were forced to come up with new solutions, constructing them without the use of nails. Described as so solid “it’ll stand till Doom’s Day”, the first of the two cabins has stood on this spot since 1974.

Cabins can be booked through the Norwegian Trekking Association . Prices for self-catered cabins include basic food (crispbreads, tea, coffee) and cost 18 a night for members, 28 for non-members. A dorm bed in a serviced cabin, where you need to bring all your food, start at 13 for members and 18 for non-members. Membership is 55 per year and can be bought at turistforeningen.no.

Most cabins cannot be booked in advance, apart from those in and around Oslo , but no one is turned away, even if the cabin is full. Still, if you’re using a serviced cabin it is worth contacting it in advance to make sure it is open.

Anyone for ant tea Hangover remedies from around the world

Pickle juice, Russia

Not surprisingly, Russians have a lot of great hangover cures. One of the favourites is chugging a glassful of the brine out of a jar of pickled gherkins. Apparently, the fermentation process creates digestive probiotics and the salt helps replace lost electrolytes.

You can buy a big jar of Uncle Vanya-brand gherkins at Sedmoi Kontinent supermarkets all over Russia for 80 roubles (about 1 and falling). Better still, take your own mug along to one of the babushkas selling pickled cucumbers from barrels in the farmers’ market. Pickling things is a passion in Russia and involves salt, peppercorns, garlic cloves, dill and a dacha-load of magic optional extras, such as horseradish and blackcurrant leaves.

Where to find it in the UK
There’s nothing to stop you glugging gherkin juice at home, but it’s worth noting that “picklebacks” (whisky followed by a shot of pickling brine) have become trendy in London bars. Pitt Cue Co in Soho, where a pickleback is 4.50, makes its own pickle juice with cider vinegar, demerara sugar and aromatics such as fennel and mustard. The addition of star anise can help clear the head and soothe the stomach.
Phoebe Taplin

Pancita (tripe stew), Mexico
Pancita mondongo soup – a popular morning-after pick-me-up in Mexico. Photograph: Alamy
Let’s face it, beer and mezcal don’t mix well. After a heavy session of cantina hopping, Mexicans make a beeline for the nearest pancita stall. Pancita, also commonly known as menudo, is a rich, spicy soup made of beef tripe, slowly cooked in broth with tomatoes and chillies until buttery and tender. Famous as a remedy for la cruda – a hangover – it is served with optional onion, lime, chopped coriander and oregano sprinkled on top.

Where to find it in the UK
Mexican food has finally come into its own in the UK, with restaurants such as the Wahaca chain across London and in Cardiff, and stalls selling authentic street food rather than the stodgy, American-style Tex-Mex. Savina in Liverpool and La Choza in Brighton consistently receive good reviews, too. Pancita doesn’t feature on any of these menus, but a burrito stuffed with refried beans, rice, cheese and more is the sort of culinary ballast required after a big night out.
Nick Gilman, author of Good Food in Mexico City

Leche de tigre, Peru
A boy sells servings of ceviche at Agua Dulce beach in Lima. Photograph: Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reute
Leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), the citrus-based marinade used in ceviche, Peru’s national dish of raw fish, is said to cure all hangover ills. The name derives from its milky colour and energising properties. Containing lime juice, coriander, chillies, garlic, onion, salt and pepper, the Peruvian elixir can either be drunk as an invigorating aperitif, or poured over a hearty plate of ceviche. The piquant mix of spice and citrus juice is said to levantar muertos, “raise the dead”. With a high concentration of raw herbs and vitamin C, tiger’s milk is also said to be an aphrodisiac. A popular variation that is equally effective for a hangover is leche de pantera, panther’s milk, which uses black clams, lending the marinade a dark hue.

Where to find it in the UK
In London, Peruvian restaurants Andina (1 Redchurch Street, Shoreditch) and Ceviche (17 Frith Street, Soho) don’t do the marinade as a drink but both have a selection of ceviches on the menu. Classic ceviche is made from sea bass but alternative versions include beetroot, salmon and scallop (from 5). To really chase away the effects of the night before, wash it down with a superfood smoothie from Andina – try the lucuma (a tropical fruit), kiwicha (a seed grain similar to quinoa), banana and hazelnut concoction called the Chaska.
Kiki Deere

Stick to fernet, Argentina

The polite way to describe fernet – a herbal Italian spirit – is as an acquired taste. But get beyond that bitter first sip and, some say, you’ll be spared a nasty hangover. In Argentina, where it’s hugely popular, that belief persists. (You might still suffer if you overdo it, the local lore goes, but you’ll still feel better than a night on any other spirit.) In Buenos Aires, it’s the party drink of choice, mixed with Coca-Cola and on the menu at any one of these top bars. In the country’s second city, Córdoba, it’s as common as water. (Try the Fernet Club, Jacinto Rios 126)

San Franciscans are also big fans. Fernet gained a footing in the city after masquerading as medicine to sneak through prohibition. A morning-after shot with a ginger-ale chaser is said to be a miracle cure.

Where to find it in the UK
Fernet is cropping up on more and more cocktail menus, with chef Fergus Henderson singing its praises as an antidote to overindulgence. His Dr Henderson – mixed with an equal quantity of crème de menthe – could be the perfect hair-of-the-dog remedy for the season. Try it at his restaurant, St John in London’s Clerkenwell, or mix it yourself.
Vicky Baker

Haejang soup, South Korea
Haejang Guk soup. Photograph: @shuvramondal/Instagram
Potent stews for sobering up have ancient roots in Asia, and haejang guk, “soup to chase away a hangover”, is the contemporary Korean cure for one too many sips of soju. Ingredients for the potent stew vary from region to region and kitchen to kitchen, but most are composed of a bone-based broth enriched with napa cabbage, vegetables and congealed ox blood. When pork or beef bones are used, they are simmered until any remaining meat falls off the bone. The piping hot, meaty stew can be accompanied by noodles, rice, or rice cakes. In Seoul, soya-bean paste is often added; other regional variations might use soya beans, radishes and fish.

Where to find it in the UK
New Malden in Surrey is home to the largest population of South Koreans in the UK, making it the place to find authentic Korean cuisine. Su La (79-81 Kingston Road, 020 8336 0121) is one of the best local restaurants, and does a non-meat version of haejang soup.
Katie Parla

Pork bones ‘tea’, Malaysia
The Malaysian stew of pork and herbal soup known as
bak kut teh. Photograph: Alamy
Translated into English, bak kut teh hardly sounds the most appetising cure. Literally “pork bones tea”, it has nothing to do with a good old cuppa, but is actually another delicious, health-restoring Asian broth. Pork ribs are slow-braised in a clay pot for hours with a blend of weird and wonderful Chinese herbs and spices, from star anise, cinnamon, whole bulbs of garlic and ginseng to the invigorating radix astragali, a medicinal dried root. A huge bowl of the rich dark soup is accompanied by deep-fried tofu puffs and a thick, black soy dipping sauce with lethal chopped red chillies. Watch the locals and you’ll see most order a side-dish of pork liver and tripe, too.

It may not have the nightlife profile of Bangkok or Hong Kong, but Kuala Lumpur is a serious party city. Bak kut teh is served late at night through till early morning, and while some prefer to head off a hangover by ordering a bowl before going to bed, others wait till morning and choose their favourite stall for a breakfast pick-me-up. The Sun Hong restaurant (35 Medan Imbi) serves it from 5am to midday.

Where to find it in the UK
In London’s Chinatown, it is served at the no-frills New Fook Lam Moon (10 Gerrard Street, 020 7734 7615). Good equivalents at one of the most popular restaurants in Manchester, Ning, are kari laksa or tom yam soup, both also soothing Asian comfort foods.
John Brunton

Ant tea, Australia
Green tree ants, Queensland – Australia’s indigenous people know all about their properties as a hangover cure, and their nutritional benefits. Photograph: Alamy
Indigenous Australians have used natural remedies for thousands of years, and green ants have been the traditional go-to insect for headaches and colds, usually taken ground up in a tea – a sort of grub Lemsip. Take a bush walk in Kakadu national park in Australia’s Northern Territory, and your guide may go a bit Crocodile Dundee, plucking a handful from a nest and simply chewing off the bottom half. A dip in the bone-cold Jim Jim Falls plunge pool, reached via a 2km walk through monsoon forest and over boulders, should work wonders, too. There’s also the frisson-inducing possibility of what lurks beneath the surface, though the dangerous “salties” are downstream of here.

Where to find it in the UK
This is a tricky one to recreate back home. “Ants are notoriously hard to rear because of the complex societies they live in, which is why most of the ants eaten in Asia and South America are hunted, not farmed,” says Shami Radia, co-founder of eatgrub.co.uk, which sells edible insects and hosts pop-up insect food “events”. In the absence of ants, go for nutritionally rich crickets (they taste like nutty shrimps) – 69% protein and high in iron and calcium. Alternatively, curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a packet of eatgrub’s cricket nut fudge. Mmm.
Lydia Bell

Vodka for breakfast, Mongolia
A typical morning-after cure in the Gobi desert. Photograph: Alamy
Internet lore mystifyingly claims that Mongolians drink pickled sheep’s eyes in tomato juice as a morning-after treatment. They don’t. While Mongolia’s notoriously mutton-dominated cuisine breathes new life into the concept of nose-to-tail eating, your average patriarch would blanch at anything as plant-based as tomato juice, opting instead for, well, more vodka. Be it the traditional mare’s milk distillate the Chinese call “Mongolian liquor”, or Russian-style vodkas, like Chinggis or Alta, when it comes to alcohol, the typical rural Mongolian makes Poles, Icelanders and Koreans look like models of sobriety – so whatever is left from the night before is consumed in the morning. A couple of tea bowls of vodka will undoubtedly take the edge off even the gnarliest hangover, albeit only by delaying it until the second day’s alcoholic glow gives way to the ultimate dark night of the soul.

Where to find it in the UK
If you have arrived at the conclusion that you have the constitution of a Mongolian herder, go to Vodka Wodka (Ashton Lane) in Glasgow, which stocks more than 100 brands from 15 countries; Siberia Vodka Bar (Belmont Street) in Aberdeen; or Baltic bar (Blackfriars Road) in Southwark, London (60 varieties including horseradish and basil). Black Cow is a West Dorset-made milk vodka said to be inspired by an old Siberian recipe. It is available across the UK.
Theodora Sutcliffe

Coffee with a goose egg, Bali

Hangovers are almost de rigueur for tourists in Bali’s Kuta party zone. Yet the women selling hangover cures very rarely attract a foreign customer. Their pick-me-up concoction of strong, sweet coffee, with a heavy dose of condensed milk, might be appealing enough … but a raw goose egg dropped into it is, apparently, the ingredient that works the magic. There are no cafes selling kopi telur – just look out for the street vendors carrying oversized thermos flasks and a tray of equally oversized eggs.

Where to find it in the UK
Countless exotic treats have taken root in this country, but not kopi telur. For an alternative take on the Balinese hangover cure tuck into a plateful of Soto Ayam Besar, a spiced chicken broth topped with a boiled egg, at Krakatoa in York krakatoayork.com), then head home to make your own eggy coffee (a hen’s egg is an acceptable substitute). Find the recipe on saveur.com.
Mark Eveleigh

A meat feast, South Africa
A township braai near Cape Town. Photograph: Alamy
When South Africans complain of a pounding head, chances are they’ll grab a painkiller with one hand and an Underberg, the German herbal tonic with a bitter, medicinal kick, with the other. After that, it’s out with the big guns – a full-fat meat feast, chargrilled over a braai, or barbecue.

For urbanites, the coolest spots to brunch on steak, boerewors sausage and cold beer are township shisa nyama (grilled meat) joints such as Mzoli’s in Gugulethu near Cape Town, Max’s Lifestyle(maxslifestyle.co.za) in Umlazi near Durban, and Chaf Pozi (chafpozi.co.za) in Soweto, Johannesburg. Cheap, loud and smoky, they’re great levellers, attracting a mix of locals and “black diamonds”, members of South Africa’s affluent black middle class. You choose some meat at the butcher’s counter and wait for it to be delivered, sizzling, on a wooden board or enamel plate, with pap (maize porridge) and vitamin-rich chakalaka relish on the side.

Cafes in the ostrich-farming town of Oudtshoorn offer vegetarians a satisfying alternative – a huge, healthy, protein-packed ostrich-egg omelette. Just make sure you bring a dozen hungry friends to help polish it off.

Where to find it in the UK
If you want to take this kill-or-cure approach, try Shebeen in Edinburgh, which serves all the boerewors, lamb, steak, pork, oxtail and chicken you could possibly want, plus the South African fast-food favourite, bunny chow, a hollowed-out loaf filled with curry.
Emma Gregg

Mons its the European Capital of Culture – but locals just want Ikea Ar

A cloud of planks swirls above the streets in the Belgian city of Mons, thrusting neon-painted splinters out in all directions. Like the jazzy nest of some mutant raver-crows, it is a curious arrival to the sleepy medieval lanes, a 90m-long torrent of orange sticks between the classical law courts and the baroque bell tower. It can only mean one thing: the European capital of culture 2015 has arrived.

That was the scene last week. Now all that remains of the ?400,000 centrepiece of the city’s cultural jamboree is a few broken stumps jutting out of the pavement. The entire sculpture, designed by Belgian artist Arne Quinze and intended to stand here for the next five years, has been dismantled after just five weeks, following concerns over its stability after chunks of wood fell to the ground.

“It’s a precautionary measure. We will not take any chances,” said the city’s usually ebullient mayor, Elio di Rupo, who recently returned to lead his hometown after three years as Belgium’s prime minister. “We have talked about reconstruction, but we must first absorb the shock.”

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Arne Quinze’s 90m-long sculpture was supposed to stand for five years, but it has been taken down after only five weeks. Photograph: John Thys/Belga/AFP
The collapse of the neon nest heralds a rocky start for a year of cultural celebration that has so far been defined by a notable absence of the promised projects. The flamboyant bow-tie wearing Di Rupo was first elected mayor of Mons in 2000, since when he set his sights on bidding for capital of culture status to reverse the fortunes of the depressed former mining town. Having lured the likes of Google, Microsoft and IBM to form something of a Silicon Hill on the edge of Mons, he initiated a lavish series of grands projets to revitalise the city centre for 2015 – most of which have yet to materialise.

A ?155m new station, designed by Santiago Calatrava as a swooping sci-fi bird, is so far no more than a concrete foundation slab. It replaces a much-loved 1950s station by a local architect, and it’s now optimistically scheduled to open in 2018, having escalated to four times its original budget. There will eventually be five new museums too, from a war memorial centre to an art library in a restored convent, but all are still very much building sites and won’t open until April at the earliest.

“They call Mons ‘The First and the Last’,” says the capital of culture’s curator, Yves Vassuer, “because it’s the place where the first and last British soldiers were killed in the first world war.” It could also be the subtitle for its cultural year: the first city to bid and the last one to be ready.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest The ?155m new station, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, has escalated to four times its original budget and won’t open until 2018. Photograph: Calatrava
One of the showcase projects has thankfully finished on time and on budget – although, from a distance, it looks like it might have suffered the same fate as the doomed nest. Lying like the twisted hull of a shipwrecked boat, marooned across the railway tracks from the old town centre, stands Daniel Libeskind’s new ?30m conference centre, the afternoon sun bouncing off its fractured hull.

“How cool!” says a beaming Libeskind, standing in snakeskin cowboy boots on top of the building, hot off a plane from New York, as he admires the golden glow of a shard poking through the roof. “What else is architecture if not a ray of light on a wall?”

Below him, a tilted facade of wooden slats sweeps out in a broad arc, forming a streamlined front to the building, before colliding with another curving wall clad with gold-anodised aluminium. It is Libeskind’s trademark brand of acute angles and collisions, with windows liberally slashed into the skin; but, as his projects go, the architectural acrobatics here are relatively restrained.

As usual, he says the dynamic geometries are generated by the context: the building acts as “a vortex that connects the outside elements,” drawing connections with the future station and pointing its sharp prow in line with the belfry, as “a hinge between the old city and the new”. The new city has yet to materialise – there will one day be a hotel, financial centre and apartments nearby – so the success of his strategy is hard to judge. For now, the energetic performance of leaps and twists plays to a silent audience of concrete foundations, echoing across an empty street, whose name, Chemin de l’Inquiétude, translates fittingly as Anxiety Way.

“I have a track record with inauspicious street names,” laughs Libeskind. His ?80m Grand Canal theatre in Dublin bay, the trophy of an ill-fated billionaire property speculator, fronts on to Misery Hill. It was recently sold for ?28m, four years after it opened, its developer racked by debt.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Daniel Libeskind’s ?30m new conference centre is one of the few projects to be completed on time. Photograph: Georges De Kinder/Studio Daniel Libeskind
Stepping inside the conference centre, the gold and timber shell envelops a bright white world, sliced with slanting staircases and wayward walls. The three conference auditoriums are linked by an airy space criss-crossed with lighting tracks recessed into the ceiling, described in Libeskind-speak as “a matrix of dynamic lines that give proportionality to the movement of people”.

Sensing I might not buy his quasi-spiritual ley-line rhetoric, he is frank: “I just wanted to make it a fun place to be in,” he says. “When you’re stuck in these monotonous conference events all day, the important thing is to make it very lively.” Bright and lively it is, but you can’t escape that feeling of being trapped in a re-run, listening to a Libeskind deconstructivist symphony on loop.

When the seminal Jewish Museum opened in Berlin in 2001, Libeskind’s unique language of jarring fissures was a shock to the system. Here was a gigantic metal shed, wrenched open by the trauma of the Holocaust. It was architectural space wrought with the power of an earthquake. Almost 15 years on – with a plethora of wonky shopping malls and faceted apartments under his belt – Studio Daniel Libeskind has flattened the aesthetic of trauma into a form of appliqued styling. No matter whether you want a memorial or a conference centre, you order the same angular outfit of Holocaust lite.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest The interior of Libeskind’s conference centre is punctuated by slanting staircases and criss-crossing lighting tracks. Photograph: Georges De Kinder/Studio Daniel Libeskind
Flanked by the white wings of the mail-order Calatrava station, is this really what the plucky Mons needs? The forthcoming museums – mostly conversions of historic buildings by local Wallonian architects – look promising, so why not pick one of Belgium’s rising stars (of which there are many) for the job?

The answer can be found in the Mons marketing material, which breathlessly describes how the city’s new “nerve centre” will boast “two major projects by internationally renowned architects, who are currently working on Ground Zero in New York!” Never mind that Ground Zero is one of the most compromised developments of the decade, or that Calatrava’s alleged track record of spiralling budgets inspired a website called “Calatrava bleeds you dry”.

The whole European capital of culture endeavour breeds a relentlessly shallow logic, that a dose of metropolitan sparkle can be bought by importing a clutch of celebrity architects and their signature shapes. Like children drawing up a Christmas wish-list, it encourages mayors to dream big and lust after buildings they don’t need and can’t afford, too often leaving a slew of oversized, underused cultural monuments in its wake.

Leaving Mons by train, I ask the city’s press officer what the new station will eventually be like. “Oh it’s just the same as the Calatrava station in Liège,” she says, referring to the ?300m rail hub that opened five years ago. “Most people in Mons are much more excited about the imminent arrival of Ikea – it will be the first ever branch in the region.”

Let’s go to … Newcastle

Why now?
Newcastle Castle has just reopened after a 1.67m renovation project, and has fun events for kids over the Easter holidays – including egg-jarping (think conkers, but with eggs). The medieval keep is one of the best in the UK.

Anything else for children to do?
Yes, you’re genuinely spoilt for choice. Moving Stories at the National Centre for Children’s Books showcases film and TV adaptations of fairytales and kids’ classics (until 20 April). Maker Faire at the brilliant Life Science Centre is a family-friendly festival of invention, from 3D-printing to bio-hacking (26 and 27 April) – plus there’s the biggest planetarium in the north. The Great North Museum has a lifesize T-rex, mummies from ancient Egypt and a virtual Hadrian’s Wall.

Related: The UK’s best city: in praise of Newcastle upon Tyne

Where shall we go for dinner?
They’ll love bowling, UV ping pong and “sea dogs” at Lane7, a smart bowling alley; mini burgers in the new Bar Cafe at the art deco Tyneside Cinema; or posh pizzas at the Herb Garden.

Is there stuff for grown-ups to do?
Plenty. Have a pint at the new Bridge Tavern brewpub, or a watering can full of raspberry and sage cocktail at The Botanist. Get dancing at the Boiler Shop Steamer, a monthly event with street food, booze, live music and art. For more culture check out Sage Gateshead, the iconic concert venue on the Tyne, with a busy programme offering music for all tastes from classical to jazz.

Anywhere to stay for under 100?
Yes, there are options for all budgets. Sleeperz Hotels (doubles from 49.50) is a budget mini-chain (the only other one is in Cardiff) in the heart of the city. Comfortable and stylish family rooms come with bunk beds. Or, for a touch of 1930s glamour, try the Vermont Hotel (doubles from 85), which has a cocktail bar and a mini-spa.

Do I need a car?
No. Trains run from across Britain to Newcastle Central station, including Virgin’s East Coast service from London.

? This article was amended on 7 April 2015 to correct the spelling of Lane7.

After El Capitan thriller, inspired Britons flock to climbing walls to emul

As Kevin Jorgeson, 30, and Tommy Caldwell, 36, approached the summit of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park last week, they were willed on not just by their friends and family but climbers around the world.

Their remarkable achievement, which saw them spend more than two weeks scaling a near-vertical 3,000ft rock face, was praised by Barack Obama and discussed by millions on social media. Now the pair hope their achievement will raise the profile of a sport already enjoying a surge in popularity before they became international celebrities. As Caldwell told the New York Times: “I would love for this to open people’s minds to what an amazing sport this is.”

His message seems to have already been heard in Britain, where climbing is enjoying a renaissance at both the grassroots and club levels. The latest Active People Survey suggests about 252,200 people over the age of 16 go climbing or hill walking at least once a month, while 79,500 take part at least once a week. The British Mountaineering Council has seen its membership increase from 25,000 in 1990 to more than 75,000 now. Almost a quarter of the council’s members are women. Some 300 clubs are affiliated to the BMC.

The building of indoor walls across the country, up from about 300 five years ago to 400 now, is being cited as the major factor in more Britons getting the climbing bug. Between them, the clubs receive some five million visits a year.

“When I started in the early 80s, there weren’t many climbing walls at all,” said Ben Moon, a former member of Britain’s climbing team. “Since the mid-90s they’ve taken off. I’d have died for the sorts of facilities they have these days.”

Mark English, general manager of Rock City, a climbing centre in Hull, said new walls were opening all the time. “We’re seeing the numbers of people go up as well as the frequency of visits,” he said. “There’s more emphasis on training these days. People want to excel at it.” The competitive streak starts young. The number of competitors in the BMC youth climbing series has risen by 50% in the past five years.

“Climbing is particularly attracting young adults,” English said. “The people who traditionally have the income to go to the gym. It’s replacing a lot of monotonous gym activity. It’s more challenging and there’s more of a mental element.”

The media have also played a part, English believes. The internet has introduced a new generation to what climbing can offer them. Television is also taking an interest. “Climbing long routes doesn’t work as a mainstream spectator sport, but the Bouldering World Cup has been getting a lot of attention on TV, and GB have been getting medals.”

Bouldering, once a niche form of climbing that is performed without the use of ropes or harnesses, is now the preferred option of many enthusiasts.

“A lot of new centres are boulder-only centres; they don’t even bother with the tall walls,” English said. “At centres like mine, demand is so high that we’re converting and extending a lot of space to deal with the growth in bouldering.”

Performed at a relatively low height above crash mats, many people are attracted to bouldering because it requires little equipment. “For bouldering, all you need is the rock shoes and the chalk dust to drive the sweat from your fingers, as well as a crash pad if you’re climbing outdoors,” said Paul Craven, UK sales agent at Moon Climbing, which has seen demand for its mats soar.

“Sales have probably quadrupled in the past 10 years, and the range of pads on sale has changed,” Craven said. “We do four different pads now, where we used to do just one or two. What used to be a generic product is now a fashionable item.”

However, Nick Colton, deputy CEO of the British Mountaineering Council, believes the fundamental reason climbing’s popularity is increasing is as much to do with the human psyche as it is with a desire to find new ways to keep healthy.

“When you climb, whether you’re on a wall or a mountain, you’re in your own little bubble,” he said. “You are focused only on your climb and everything else clears out. You do it for an hour and a half and when you’ve finished you’re refreshed in some way. It’s all about getting off the hamster wheel.”

Or as Caldwell described his climb up El Capitan: “It felt like a very spiritual experience the whole time.”