When DAVID HOLMES looked into foreign trips being taken by councillors he sniffed a scandal. But he was in for a surprise.
A NIGHT in fair Verona, bratwürst in Berlin and a pint of the black stuff in Limerick.
These are just some of the tantalising experiences sampled by Chester city councillors last year - and their flights were often funded by the council tax payers of the district.
It would be easy to criticise these trips as jollies and junkets - a helping from the gravy train for public representatives on a small district council.
But those who have sampled the delights of Europe are affronted by such suggestions. They point out that the trips actually mean tiring journeys, hanging around airports and long days sitting through meeting-after-meeting.
Yes, there are excursions to see beautiful sights and beers are sunk at night, but essentially this is work.
Councillors point to the millions of pounds in European grants pulled in to Chester over the years due to gaining knowledge of what money is available and building relationships with the right people.
Labour stalwart and the city council's deputy leader Cllr John Price went on five trips last year, according to details provided by the council in relation to a Freedom of Information Act request. Liberal Democrat leader Cllr David Evans went on four and Tory leader Margaret Parker went on one.
The council says the total cost of the trips for both members and officers was £11,070 over the past two years.
Cllr Price says Chester's relationship with the wider world, including its twin towns of Sens in France, Senigallia in Italy and Lörrach in Germany, is more than just economics.
'There was a politician who used to say that Chester is twinned with the world and we don't need to twin with anyone,' he said.
'That's so introspective and arrogant. We are part of Europe and we are part of the world.
'Our economy is dependent on tourism but twinning started so that we never had a world war again. People become friends with each other and it's about gaining understanding of other people. The stereotypes people have about the Germans and French people are so wrong it's unbelievable.'
Cllr Price is no stranger to the argument that cultural exchanges are a waste of time and money but believes it comes from people who are ignorant of the all-round benefits to both individuals and the city.
'You get these mumblings in the background from people who have no real knowledge of it, but some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It's their ignorance.'
Cllr Price, who is president of the Walled Towns Friendship Circle, of which Chester is a member, is incensed by the suggestion he might be 'on the make'.
'I put more time of my own into this than probably any other single person in this authority or Chester in driving forward international links,' he said.
And he has seen youngsters gain much from the cultural interchange.
'There were some kids with learning difficulties from the Mulberry Centre who had never been out of the country. They went to Sens with some kind of band, banging drums - and their eyes, they were so excited. They were free in a way they had never been before in this totally different environment and it was marvellous to see.'
Chris Lines, the council's international coordination manager, calculates that foreign trips have cost the Council Tax payer £11,070 over the past two years because various funding sources had been accessed.
Mr Lines said: 'Chester received transnational investments of £580,000 during the same two year period and a further £390,000 in partnership with other organisations in Chester, as a result of our representatives attending meetings abroad and on our behalf.
'Over the past 10 years the council has received many millions of pounds as a result of our positive relations with the European Community.'
Cultural activities, trade fairs, economic workshops, an international police conference, the CHEERS recycling scheme and the council's 'Charisma' loyalty card have all formed part of best practice exchanges with Chester's twin towns.
The city council also acts as a lead or supporting partner in a number of multi-million pound schemes.
The 'Water in Historic City Centres' programme is helping to fund the riverside promenade being built between The Groves and the Old Port.
Some of the clearest signs of Chester's growing links have been the popular international markets in Town Hall Square which attract city centre shop-pers to goods and cuisine from Europe.