Category Archives: Travel

Duty Free After Brexit

I missed this last week, but the government has published what duty free we will be allowed when travelling after the 1st January.

It is being branded as ‘extending duty free to the EU’, but that’s only partially true.

We will indeed be able to bring duty-free alcohol and tobacco back into the UK, subject to the following limits (the article fails to mention we can bring back what we want as members of the EU or during the transition period).

Alcohol

  • 42 litres of beer
  • 18 litres of still wine
  • 4 litres of spirits OR 9 litres of sparkling wine, fortified wine or any alcoholic beverage less than 22% ABV

Tobacco

  • 200 cigarettes OR
  • 100 cigarillos OR
  • 50 cigars OR
  • 250g tobacco OR
  • 200 sticks of tobacco for heating
  • or any proportional combination of the above

However, it also says:

We are also ending tax-free sales in airports of goods such as electronics and clothing for passengers travelling to non-EU countries, following concerns that the tax-concession is not always passed on to consumers in the airport. In some instances these tax-free goods are brought back into the country by UK residents, putting high street retailers at a disadvantage.

Either they are passing the discount on to the passengers, which puts the high street retailers at a disadvantage, or they are not, surely? It can’t be both.

I have found the odd discount with duty free electronic shopping, but they’re rarely large, and will that stop people buying duty-free electronics, or will they just do it at the other end on the way back?

Virtual Wanderlust via Trains, Trucks, and Maybe Flying a Cessna Around Borneo

Whilst socially distancing and not travelling all that much, one thing I’ve been doing after a day of staring at computer screens is … staring at more computer screens with a bit of Train Sim World, American Truck Simulator, and Euro Truck Simulator 2.

I haven’t played much in the way of computer games for twenty years or more, and needless to say things have come along in leaps and bounds since that time, but it has also been an interesting experience getting to grips with Steam, the performance limitations of virtual machines, and graphics processors, something that has taken a sharper focus with the launch of Microsoft Flight Simulator.

The computer I’ve been doing this on is my work laptop (lets hope they don’t read this), a 2016 MacBook Pro with Core i7 processor and Radeon Pro 455 graphics.

I started off with Train Sim World, which is only available under Windows, and so the first attempt at running that was in Windows 10 under Parallels (virtualisation) on macOS.

Not having much of a gaming background in recent years, I dialled the graphics settings back to “low” and was still impressed. At a guess it was only running at a handful of frames a second and still stuttered when going through the stations which had a lot of close-up buildings to render. Nonetheless, I played a fair few hours this way, mainly on a bit of track I’ve travelled many times in my lifetime, the Great Western line out of London Paddington — it was great to see it from the cab!

I did, however, start wondering what delay parallels was adding into this, so I fired up Bootcamp and created a native Windows partition to boot into and ran some Cinebench benchmarks.

Operating SystemCinebench points
macOS1679
Windows (Parallels)1168
Windows (Bootcamp)1570
Cinebench r20 results

Native macOS was the fastest, but in Windows it’s pretty close, and whilst they’re both significantly faster than running under Parallels, I didn’t think that was too bad for running in a virtualisation technology. I’m marginally surprised that using AMD’s drivers under Windows didn’t match the macOS performance, so I’m curious if you know why that is.

I then spent a bit more time playing Train Sim World in Windows, with the graphics settings still dialled down quite low, but with far less stuttering, even if it sounded more like a flight simulator as the fans on the MacBook spooled up after a couple of minutes of game play.

At some point I then came across American Truck Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator 2. These are available under Windows and macOS (and Linux!), and buying them under one O/S in Steam allows access to the games under other O/Ss, plus state is synchronised in “Steam Cloud.”

Now, Train Sim World is easily playable with just the keyboard and mouse, but the truck simulators less so. I started watching a few YouTube videos and was confronted with a lot of new kit — I mean, TrackIR to keep note of where you’re looking? Definitely looks useful, but I’m not sure my gaming requirements are quite at that level. How about a steering wheel and pedals? That would make the truck sims much more realistic, but again, that’s another good chunk of money to lay down for gaming, and I could see Lucy’s face when I told her what the package was that had just dropped through the door.

So, no TrackIR and no steering wheel, but what about a joystick? I’d not owned a joystick since a QuickShot II attached to my ZX Spectrum, but I managed to persuade myself (and Lucy) that was an acceptable halfway house, so I got a ThrustMaster T.1600M FCS. Even the terminology on joysticks has changed immensely since my days of gaming and it took a while to decide whether to get that or a LogiTech or something else…

It’s better than a mouse, no doubt about that, but it’s still a fiddly way to drive a truck, and I can see why people get the full setup.

Researching the kit then dragged me a little into YouTube videos of people playing the truck simulators, particularly Squirrel and Jeff Favignano.

That’s when something else started popping up in my YouTube recommendations — mentions of a beta of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS).

What? I think. I had a flight simulator on my ZX81, another on my ZX Spectrum, and a (much) earlier version of MSFS on my Pentium 133 back whenever that was a reasonable machine. I thought it had long ago been abandoned, and so I started watching the videos of the beta versions of MSFS and my jaw dropped.

I am under no delusions about how that will run on a MacBook Pro with Radeon Pro 455 graphics, so I started looking at sizing up a gaming machine, mainly via PC Specialist. I’ve yet to persuade Lucy that I can justify the step-up from a £60 joystick to a £1,700 gaming computer as we’ve other things to save for (and whilst I won’t be paying for an Nvidia Ampere graphics card, their imminent release suggests it’s not the right time to buy a graphics card), but should I ever manage to do that, I know what I’ll be doing soon after I’ve got a grip of the flight controls — a tour of the small landing strips on Borneo.

Some day, maybe, but in the meantime I’ll just look at YouTube videos of 212 storey skyscrapers on Melbourne due to some mistaken entries in OpenStreetmap.

24/08/2020: Update to link to a Tom’s Hardware article comparing MSFS performance with different graphics cards and CPUs.

Pandemic Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Express, Swansea East

Unsurprisingly, it has been a little quiet on here of late. Like most of you, I’ve not been travelling all that much since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In fact, I’d hazard that as I don’t have a car and I am able to work from home, I’ve travelled far less than most, the furthest afield being about an hour’s walk away from home to get a rare bit of exercise.

Until this past weekend.

For family reasons I had to head down to Swansea for a few days, which meant finding somewhere to stay, and I ended up at the Holiday Inn Express, Swansea East, located just off junction 43 of the M4 motorway. I have stayed here once before with Lucy, a couple of months before we got married (I think it was when we were sorting out her hair and make-up trial for the wedding), and knew what to expect normally, but not what to expect during the pandemic.

The first thing to note as I drove down was the difference in policy on face coverings between England and Wales. England requires face coverings in public indoor spaces, but Wales does not. However, on the front door of the HI, there was a prominent sign to say that face coverings are required in public spaces in the hotel.

I donned my mask and entered to check-in.

As I checked in, the changes to service were explained to me. Firstly, there is no housekeeping except by request the day before it is required. Secondly, there was no sit-down breakfast, but a ‘grab and go’ to take back up to the room to eat (or take away).

I made my way up to the room which was the same as pretty much every other Holiday Inn Express room I’ve seen, but with one exception. There was no chair at the desk. I assumed this was also due to COVID-cleaning, but in retrospect I should have checked as it meant any writing, work on my laptop, or eating would have to be done either standing up or on the bed, and who likes crumbs in the bed?

The enhanced cleaning hadn’t extended to the thick layer of dust behind the support for the LED lamp over the bed, but a wipe soon sorted that out.

The grab and go breakfast was just an average breakfast buffet. There were croissants, yoghurt, fruit, cereal and either bacon or sausage baps (one or the other each day, not both) as the only hot option. There was no vegetarian hot option. Not a problem for me, but if I’d been travelling with Lucy there would have been comments.

In the evening the restaurant area was open with a limited menu and was participating in the “Eat Out to Help Out” programme, which provides 50% off food and soft drinks up to a limit of £10 on Mondays to Wednesdays in August. Last time Lucy and I stayed here we had eaten in the restaurant, and I did the same again with a pizza.

That’s pretty much it. I was there for three nights so I managed without housekeeping, but bought a tin of coffee from a supermarket as the instant coffee in the room didn’t last long. It was an uneventful stay and I slept well in the bed (there is no air conditioning in the rooms, so I had to leave the window open overnight as it was rather humid in mid-August). Though I am left wondering how much “enhanced cleaning” the rooms actually get (and I’m sceptical of that at most places that claim they are doing it).

An IRROPS Experience with KLM

irrop = irregular operations. It’s when things don’t go as scheduled due to maintenance or weather issues

bitburgr on Flyertalk

At the tail end of Storm Chiara, I was due to fly to Rome for a meeting.  A lot of the work for the meeting had already been done beforehand via videoconferences and email, but nothing beats some face-to-face time to work over the niggles and start planning some of the next work.

All the way through Sunday 9th February, I’d been watching the go-arounds at Manchester Airport on Flightradar24, and Lucy had been convinced my flight on Monday would be cancelled.  I was equally convinced it would go ahead, but I must admit, I was starting to worry when we saw an A380 make two or three attempts at landing then head off to Frankfurt instead — and we all know how strong the crosswinds need to be to stop an A380 from putting itself on the tarmac.

If all went well, I had about 75 minutes between the flight from Manchester arriving in Amsterdam, and the flight leaving Amsterdam for Rome.  My first flight was due to leave at 10:40am, but I wasn’t all that worried when it was delayed almost 30 minutes to 11:08am.

Keeping an eye on the KLM app whilst I was waiting, they offered an upgrade to business for £63.30 on the AMS-FCO sector.  I was curious what the KLM business offering was like, and I also figured that if I was late I might still have some room in the overhead bins, so I went for it and ended up in seat 1A. Win!

As I headed to the gate, I was slightly more concerned when the flight before mine, KL1072, originally scheduled for 9:05am, had an estimated time of departure two minutes after ours — 11:10, I sniggered with self-satisfaction at not having chosen the earlier flight and having had a bit more time in bed in the morning instead.

Pride, of course, comes before a fall.

We all boarded and the pre-flight announcement came from the flight deck.  Apparently Storm Chiara had reached Amsterdam and Schiphol was down to single-runway operations.  As a result, we would be sitting on the tarmac for another hour before we were allowed to push back.

30 minutes delay plus 60 minutes on the tarmac. Even with some schedule padding, that means my 75 minute connection was ‘tight.’ Shortly after the announcement, from the window I could see KL1072, on the stand next to us, pushing back.

I held out hope that KLM would rebook me on one of the later flights from Amsterdam to Fiumicino, and a new boarding pass would pop up in the app when I got to Schiphol.  Attempts to reach KLM via WhatsApp naturally had a response of ‘all our operators are busy.’  No further reply came. 

Thumbs were twiddled for a while, elbow wars were had over the armrest, and we eventually landed (landed, not reached the gate) in Amsterdam at about 14:10.  I wondered whether the Rome flight, due to leave at 14:15, was also delayed, which might offer me a glimmer of hope, but no, it had left promptly — perhaps one of the only flights that afternoon.  The KLM app helpfully offered that I had a “0h -7m transfer at Schiphol.”

I headed for one of the KLM self-service machines near the arrival gate and it offered me a number of choices, all of which appeared to be the following day — although that wasn’t clear, as whilst the time of the flights was prominently displayed, the day was not.  The best option at that time appeared to be the same flight 24 hours later, entirely unsuitable as it would mean missing half of the meeting I was heading out for, but hoping I could sort it out later I picked that from the screen and a few passes were spat out by the machine — one for the new flight, one for food at the airport, and another for a hotel.

I hadn’t given up hope of still getting to Rome the same day, so using Expertflyer I checked availability on the two other KLM flights that day.  Unfortunately they were all showing no seats in economy, but one of them had a seat in business.  I wondered if that last-minute upgrade at Manchester might save my bacon^WParma…

I went looking for manned desks to see if they could help, but the signs said there was a “75-90 minute” wait, and looking at the queues backed that up.

I tried the machines again, but they no longer offered an option to rebook — or even to cancel and head home, which was an increasingly attractive option.

There followed an extremely frustrating 36 minute phone call with a call centre where I tried to get myself rebooked.  If it was a simple “no” at the start, I might have accepted that and moved on, but the agent kept putting me on hold whilst she tried to do something, or spoke to the back office.  Armed with the information from Expertflyer, I pointed out there was still availability in business on the last flight of the day.  She went to the back office and came up with a sum of £480 to move to that flight, saying that the ‘upgrade’ I’d done that morning was just a seat assignment and didn’t change the booking class, so I couldn’t get a seat in business otherwise.  To rub salt into the wound, she offered that they’ve waived the change penalty to provide that fare.  That was the cue to finish the call.

That is where I started to accept I’d be staying in Amsterdam overnight.  I looked at the hotel voucher, which was for an NH hotel.  That’s not too bad, and I’ve got some friends in Amsterdam, so let’s make some lemonade from these lemons.  It wasn’t a hotel I’d heard of before, so I looked it up.  Leeuwenhorst … where’s that?

Oh.  It’s actually further away from the airport than Amsterdam itself, and public transport from the hotel to the centre of Amsterdam takes over an hour and a half.

Thanks, but no thanks.  I looked to book a hotel in the centre of Amsterdam and opted for the Toren, I’ll write up a review of that later, but I wanted to make sure KLM cancelled the other hotel so that it wasn’t wasted.  I wasn’t going to wait an hour and a half just to do that, so I approached one of the staff managing the queues.  They couldn’t/wouldn’t take the voucher and pass it to someone to cancel, but promised that the queues would be shorter in the baggage hall.

They were, but not by enough that I was willing to spend more time in the airport.

By this point I felt I’d spent enough time dealing with KLM for the day, so I sent them another message on WhatsApp about the hotel (which also didn’t get a response) and headed into Amsterdam.

~~~ Time Passes ~~~

The following day, I braced myself and headed back to Schiphol as the meeting I was heading to had already started in Rome.

This time things were smoother, though when I reached the far end of the airport (Gate D86) I thought I’d ask what had happened to the upgrade I’d paid for the day previously.  All three gate staff spent a bit of time with me, going through the computer and their tablet (refreshingly not an iPad), which didn’t allow them to make any changes — one of the staff commented that even some of the options that were normally available to them weren’t present.  I felt rather guilty at the amount of time they spent on it, repeatedly telling them not to worry, but they persevered to no avail, and I reached the Eternal City 24 hours after I should have.

I am currently waiting for the refund of £63.30 through a claim via klm.com/refund, which has been approved but not yet paid.

All in all, there was probably little that KLM could do given the disruption, though it was a slightly frustrating experience. I had little confidence that the call centre had looked at other options (e.g. via Paris with Air France, or something with Alitalia), and the reliance on self-service machines with defined workflows left me feeling that there might have been options that hadn’t been explored.

A few short flights with KLM

As I hinted at in my previous post, flying from Manchester where many destinations are one change away whoever you fly with, it’s often as easy to fly with KLM and change in Amsterdam as it is to fly with British Airways and change in Heathrow.  My 2020 travel kicked off with a meeting in Amsterdam followed quickly by a meeting at CERN in Geneva.  The best option for this turned out to be flying with KLM to Amsterdam, spending a couple of nights there for the first meeting, flying down to Geneva and spending a couple more nights there for the second meeting, before retracing my steps at the end of the week to head home.

Perhaps it was a quirk of the multi-city booking, but even though the flights were cheap and I was in economy, I ended up with a booking class that gave me a choice of seats before check-in (I’ve looked at future bookings, but I’ve not been so lucky with them, it’s £9 to reserve a standard seat and £13 to reserve a seat with extra legroom).  As a result, for three of the four sectors I was able to choose a window seat somewhere between rows 7 and 9 (for the final sector I was in row 22), and when I checked in on the app, I ended up with a boarding pass that said “Sky Priority” and boarding zone 2.

KLM leaves from the same terminal at Manchester as British Airways, terminal 3, and security there needs no further discussion.  Naturally, no fast-track access, but a lunchtime departure meant the queues were short.  I’ve managed to avoid a bag being sent to secondary screening for most of my recent trips, and managed to do it again this time, although there is always that moment when the bag pauses at the junction of the belts and you’re thinking it has been there a couple of seconds too long and is about to be sent behind the barrier.

No KLM status, so therefore I had no lounge access, but at least being an off-peak time there were spare seats in the departure area to settle down and do a bit of work.

Priority boarding worked well and there didn’t appear to be that many passengers that had it.  It turned out to be useful as I had a carry-on bag and space in the overhead lockers ended up quite tight.  It may be my imagination, but the seats in the 737-700, -800 and -900 of the trip felt a bit narrower than the Airbus 319/320/321 on BA, and on three out of the four legs there was someone in the middle seat whose elbows were well over the armrest, making for very uncomfortable flights as I tried to contort myself around a stranger’s left arm.  The other flight was a dream in comparison as a colleague was booked into the B seat, but C ended up as a no-show, so we had the row of three to ourselves.  Small things and all that.

Not the approach to Amsterdam (or even Manchester).

For a small charge there is the option of “Economy Comfort” seats — I hadn’t chosen them, but SeatGuru suggests they have a couple of extra inches of leg-room.

Something that KLM still provides is a complimentary drink and a snack.  On the various flights I’ve had a cheese sandwich, a wrap, and a slice of cake as the snack; a small cup of water with a foil lid (there’s probably something that can be done there to reduce the use of plastic); plus coffee, tea, or juice for the drink.

Despite Schiphol being their home airport, KLM isn’t exempt from being sent to the Polderbaan for landing, with the ensuing quarter-of-an-hour taxi to the terminal building.  On the return journey I had nearly three hours between flights.  Fortunately Schiphol is such a vast airport that you can largely wander freely about, it’s possible to find a quiet corner when you need to make a couple of phone calls without disturbing anyone.  I’m not sure the same can be said of Heathrow Terminal 5, even with access to a lounge!

One thing that both Geneva and Schiphol have over Manchester Airport is the use of 3D scanners to check your carry-on luggage.  With these everything stays inside your bag, and I mean everything — laptops, iPads, bags of liquids, just plonk it in a tray and wait for it to emerge at the other end.  The speed of the operators seems to vary quite a bit, but the whole process is so much easier, especially if you’re not used to travelling and forget to pull something out of your bag and place it on a separate tray for scanning.  Roll-on the introduction of them to Manchester Airport, please!

The final flight home was the one where I was in row 22.  The airport decided to disembark from both the front and the rear doors, but it took some time to get the steps up to the rear doors.  Do you want to guess which of the 33 rows was the last one out of the plane?

British Airways or London Airways?

A lot of the air travel I write about has used British Airways so far, but looking at my flights over the next eight weeks, I’m starting to realise that the flag carrier doesn’t provide the best connections from the regions.

The flights MAN-LHR-ZAG will take me to exactly 600 tier points (I’m currently at 585), the number required to renew Silver, and are four days before my collection year ends. Coming back with BA would require an overnight stay in Heathrow, or heading into central London and getting the train up (if I made the train, which would be by no means certain).

Now that I’m living in Manchester, has the time come to start seeing if I can get SkyTeam status instead of BA?

BA100 Anniversary Flights

Early in 2019 (I appear to have booked the tickets on 24th January) British Airways celebrated its 100th birthday by offering some long-haul tickets for £100 each way, including taxes. You had to be online at mid-day to grab them, and there were only a few destinations available each day. Instead of trying and failing to get to some of the more popular far-flung destinations, Lucy and I managed to grab a couple of seats for a long weekend in Philadelphia later in the year (September).

When the promotion was on, we were still living in Twickenham, well within the range of catching bus number 490 to Heathrow Terminal 5. However, by the time the trip came up, we’d been living in Manchester for four months, so we had to book a couple of flights to connect us to the Philly flights. As these would be on separate bookings, we also had to make sure that there was enough buffer such that disruption on the flight from Manchester wouldn’t cause us to miss the flight to the US.

I’ve already reviewed our stay at the Hilton Garden Inn at Terminal 2, and our hotel stay in Philadelphia, so I’ll concentrate here on the flights between Heathrow and Philadelphia.

For £100 each way transatlantic, the seats were naturally in economy. Almost all of my flying is done in the back of the bus, so this wasn’t a problem. We were scheduled for a 747, and as I could select seats for free, I’d opted for two seats towards the back of the plane where the configuration changes from 3-4-3 to 2-4-2. It does mean being some of the last to be served, and the last to get off, but on the other hand it is just the two of us, without someone else either in the aisle or window seat.

The days of amenity packs with earplugs, an eyemask, a pen and over-the-ear headphones are long gone. These days what you get is a plastic wrapper with a set of earphones and a Flying Start envelope.

I’m 6’1″, but sitting very upright for my knees not to be touching the seat in front.

However, it was a refurbished plane with a fairly large in-flight entertainment screen. As a minor niggle with BA’s moving map on the new IFE, I’d prefer the image of the plane itself to be smaller so I can see more of the ground beneath it, especially when zooming in (this was better with the old moving map), but that’s not much of a complaint. During the flight I could (and did) easily watch Rocketman on the screen.

As economy meals go, I couldn’t really complain about this. Quinoa salad, chicken curry and rice, a dessert, bread roll, crackers and cheese, and a can of Brewdog’s ‘Speedbird 100’ IPA. Sitting down the back of the back of the plane there is a risk that you can’t get your first choice of meal, but you do have the option to pre-book on the outbound flight from Heathrow, and I had no such problem here.

One thing British Airways still haven’t quite got the hang of is couples where one person has a special meal booked (Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian — or VLML — in Lucy’s case). The special meals are all brought out at the start of service, and her food had been served a good 20 minutes before the trolley reaches me with mine. Perhaps one reason to pre-order a meal, which at least might work for the outbound flight.

There’s not much else to report about the flight. There was the half-way mini Magnum that BA have recently introduced and we made good time to Philadelphia. Immigration wasn’t too bad (I have Global Entry, but didn’t use it). We were lucky with timing and took the train to downtown Philadelphia.

The Return

A couple of days before heading back to London, the usual POUG (Promotional Online UpGrade offer) appeared for an upgrade to Premium Economy (World Traveller Plus in BA parlance). They’d been popping up ever since I made the booking, but not at a very competitive price, but this time it had dropped substantially. As it was an overnight flight and we then had a short layover in Heathrow before finally getting back to Manchester I booked it.

I started getting slightly concerned when I went to select our seats.

OK, not a whole lot of options there, but something will appear with online check-in, right?

Wrong.

I’m past the days of stressing over this sort of occurrence, and figured that they’d be able to sort it out at the airport. The worst case would be that we’d end up back in economy (actually, the worst case might be that we’d be bumped to a different flight and miss the connection to Manchester, but let’s not dwell on that).

We got to the airport, checked in and dropped our bags off, and we are told they still do not have seats for us, but we are issued boarding passes to get us through security, though they have no seat assignment on them.

We made our way to the lounge and helped ourselves to snacks, and perhaps a beverage, whilst I kept on refreshing the app. Some time goes past and eventually 35E and 35F pop up in the app as our seats. OK, middle seats, but bulkhead, I can live with that.

A bit more time passes and an announcement comes over the tannoy asking us to go to the front desk. We get the new boarding passes and is it 35EF? Nope, it’s 21F and 21G. Yes, we’ve scored an upgrade!

I’ve rarely travelled in BA Club World before this, and Lucy never had, so this was a bit of an experience for us. We had the limited edition #BA100 amenity kits and tucked into a very nice meal.

How the other half travels… Wines, champagnes, and champagne cocktails are on the reverse of the menu.

Breakfast was a bit confused. We’d clearly marked our preferences on the cards they distributed before take-off, but when it came time (after just an hour’s sleep), mine was delivered but not Lucy’s. When we asked the cabin crew, they said they’d been laughing about it in the galley as it said she were vegetarian, but had asked for the full breakfast.

Firstly, the card most definitely did not say that, I’d looked at it myself, and secondly, the crew saying they’d been mocking a passenger’s actions, even if there had been a mistake, is not really what I’d call a premium experience. Breakfast was soon on the way, but this was the one exception to an otherwise excellent experience of being upgraded!

As an aside, this started a run of three consecutive upgrades from World Traveller Plus to Club World for me on BA. After this flight there was Heathrow to New Orleans, and Dallas to Heathrow. I think I’ve exhausted my upgrade karma for the next decade, but one suggestion BA, can you put a better pen in the amenity kit? On two of the three kits the pen was useless — one the ball had been pushed back into the nib, and the other just didn’t click.

The Independent Hotel, Philadelphia

As part of a weekend trip to Philadelphia in September, using flights booked during the #BA100 sale, Lucy and I stayed in The Independent Hotel. Whilst we were planning the trip, it had reasonable reviews and wasn’t badly priced.

We had taken the train from the airport, and walked down to the hotel from City Hall Station. In retrospect, not the best choice given we each had a suitcase, but it wasn’t too bad.

The entrance to the hotel is no more than that — a doorway that leads into a lobby about 6ft square with a lift (elevator) that takes you to reception, which is one floor above. There are no obvious stairs (as someone that prefers to take the stairs for a floor or two).

Reception is a large wooden desk, and it took a little while to find someone to check us in, but as we were being checked in it was explained to us that there was cheese and wine in reception every evening, and that breakfast was delivered to the rooms in baskets every morning, we just had to fill in the card the night before.

The first impression of the room was favourable. It was reasonably large and had a high ceiling, even if the floors were a bit worn.

There was a small selection of books to read from, though the title of the top one was curious!

The bathroom was slightly odd, being an ‘L’ shape with the sink at one end of the L, close to the door, and the shower at the far end of the L, in what I guess might originally have been a different building given what appears to be a keystone in the lintel. As you can see from the photo above, the ceiling was a little uneven.

There was also the usual in-room coffee machine (which leaked whilst in operation). When we arrived there were two ‘normal’ coffee capsules and two decaffeinated. However, even though I was leaving out a tip for housekeeping, it obviously wasn’t enough, as one day when we arrived back (for a second time, when we got back at 4pm the room hadn’t yet been serviced), this is what was waiting:

WHY?!?!

We only had the in-room breakfast once, and it was a bit of a disaster. This is what we ordered (for two people):

A bagel and two hard-boiled eggs each, plus some juice and milk. This is what was delivered:

A croissant and a snack bar, with butter and jam each. There were also two small bottles of orange juice, not pictured. No bagels, and no eggs. Looking at other reviews, this doesn’t seem to be an uncommon occurrence, and as we had plans for the day, we didn’t bother asking them to rectify it, we just nibbled on the croissants, put the snack bars in our bags and headed out.

The less said about the cheese and wine reception the better. The cheese was cubes of American-style cheddar, accompanied by some rather bland plonk. We only partook once.

The rooms are single-glazed, and being towards the bottom of the busy bits of 13th Street let in quite a bit of noise at night. However, perhaps that’s a sign that we should just have been staying out later.

All in all, I was mildly disappointed with the hotel. We had paid over £800 (including tax) for four nights, but the room we had was nothing like the bright, airy rooms portrayed on the website. The power sockets were almost hanging out of the wall, and the breakfast experience was poor.

The New Northern Railway Timetable

December 15th saw the twice-yearly reshuffle of the rail timetables. Among the changes, Northern Railway promised more frequent and longer trains. This was welcome, as most of the trains on the Hope Valley line through Reddish North are two or four carriage long Pacers from the 1980s, some of which are still complete with the original repurposed bus seats.

It was a bit of a joke with a colleague in the office that the 08:46 was due into Piccadilly at 08:58, but never arrived before 09:00am. In the new timetable the train is rescheduled to 08:47 with a 09:02 arrival, which is probably a better reflection of reality.

Now it’s difficult to know how long the trains are scheduled to be for each service, but given the trains during peak hours were largely four carriages before the timetable change, I was naively hoping that at least the same would be true afterwards.

Come Monday morning, I headed down to the station with Lucy for the 08:11. We were there a few minutes early and the delayed 08:04 pulled in. Two carriages, and when the doors opened there wasn’t enough room to get on. We waited for the train we’d been planning to get, which was four carriages and we even had a seat.

Heading home was a different matter. The Northern Railway Journeycheck showed no problems, but my own scripts that query the Network Rail ‘Live Departure Board’ service showed that most of the peak hour services were two carriages. We put it down to teething troubles, had a drink, and caught the 18:49, which was two carriages, but not unexpectedly so. Out of curiosity, I asked @northernassist what was going on, and their reply was:

This was a slightly confusing answer, and my interpretation of it was that a peak hour train can be two carriages and not be “short formed” as long as that was the plan when the diagrams were created that morning.

Tuesday the pattern repeated. Lucy caught the four carriage 08:11, after a crammed two-carriage 08:04 left the station, and I went for my more usual train, the 08:47. The departure board (both my script and the display at the station) claimed this was a four carriage train, but when it turned up, we had to shuffle to the centre of the platform to squeeze onto a two carriage Sprinter.

The evening was a repeat performance, all the peak hour (17:00 to 19:00) trains from Piccadilly to Reddish North were listed as two carriages, and the sample of Lucy (17:19) and myself (17:49) suggested that was accurate. Again I asked @northernassist, and the answer was identical.

I tried to clarify whether “all available” meant there was a shortage of carriages, or that the ‘increase’ in service had redirected them from the Hope Valley Line to somewhere else, but there was no further reply.

Wednesday has been an exact repeat in the morning. Delayed, overcrowded, 08:04 leaving people on the platform. Delayed 08:11 eventually leaving at 08:19, and a two carriage 08:47. The evening was a bit of a farce. Prior to leaving the office I looked at Journeycheck which claimed that 16:49 was short-formed, but the rest was as normal.

My script to query the Network Rail departure boards claimed the opposite. A four-coach 16:49, and two coaches everywhere else.

Lucy travelled on the 17:19, which was indeed two coaches. I aimed for the 17:49, boarded, and waited. It was soon crowded and 17:49 came and went. There was a driver in the cab, but no guard, and no announcements. I could overhear platform staff saying there was no guard, and eventually going to the driver and asking him to make an announcement.

More time passed. About a quarter of the people on the train got tired of being crammed on and headed off to see what else they could get. Eventually the platform staff (not the driver) announced that the train would be going fast to New Mills Central, and we should cross over the platform for the 18:19 for earlier stops.

The 18:19 ended up just as crowded, but there was a bit of friendly banter on board and departed fairly close to time. (For info, I lived in London and commuted on both the Central Line and South West Trains / South Western Railway for nigh on 30 years, so I do know what crowded trains are!)

After three days of the new timetable, I’m wondering what’s going to happen between now and next May when the timetable changes again. Are we stuck with the current formations, or will the delivery of new trains on other lines (I don’t think we’re getting any on the Hope Valley Line, but I’d be happy to learn otherwise) free up Sprinters and Super Sprinters for us?

I have no idea whether taking the franchise from Arriva would change the service, but the sentiment on the train this evening was “anything would be better.” I’d just like a better idea about how long this (presumably) short-term pain is going to last, and what the plans are for longer trains on the Hope Valley Line — not only over the coming days, but over the next few weeks, months and years.

I think I’ll work from home tomorrow.

You can tell I’m not a serious traveller

I have just checked my IHG status. To get to “Gold Elite” (the first non-basic level, despite how fancy it might sound) requires 10,000 points.

This year I have 9,940.

If I was a serious traveller I’d be trying to find a way to get that final 60, but to be honest, even though I’m pretty sure that any one-night stay in any of the IHG brands would net that, I’m not sure the ‘benefits’ are worth another night away from home. Ah, well, I shall have to settle myself with being 99.4% of the way to status.

ibis Budget Whitechapel

I wasn’t going to review the ibis Budget Whitechapel as I was only there for a night, but the check-out experience tipped my hand, and here we are.

My brief stay here followed a night in the rather more upmarket Park Plaza London Riverbank, but I was prepared for what it was supposed to be — a budget hotel (even though the night I was there was costing £120).

On walking in, the reception is on the first floor (for our American friends, that’s the floor above ground level), and I was momentarily confused as there’s a table tennis table to your left, and a surprisingly similar table to the right, but with a couple of screens and no net. It may not surprise you to learn that this is the check-in desk.

The staff were friendly and check-in was swift, and I was soon on my way to my room.

Bags top bunk!

As I was expecting from a budget hotel, the room was basic. A double bed with a single bunk above it. A small desk, no separate bathroom, but a student-digs style shower and a loo. No toiletries other than a couple of bars of ibis Budget soap. The view was nothing to speak of, but I’m not sure what else to expect.

Please ignore the man in the mirror!

I settled down to do a bit of work, then headed out to meet up with some friends. I noticed the battery on my laptop hadn’t charged whilst I’d been working, but I know there’s a dodgy connector unless it’s plugged firmly in, so I put it down to that.

Later that evening, I got back and put all the things on charge — except they wouldn’t. All the sockets in the room were dead, as was the TV and the air-conditioning (which has a note on the wall that it isn’t air conditioning, it’s just a fan). I had a look around the room for circuit breakers, but it was late by this point, and I had my travel battery, so I didn’t bother telling reception, I just planned to mention it on the way out.

In the morning the shower did its job, though washing your hair with a bar of soap is less than ideal, and at this point I noticed that even if I’d had power, there was no kettle, tea, or coffee.

On checkout I mentioned about the lack of power and was told “you should have told us!” I politely replied that I was telling them now, and they insisted that I should have told them last night. I didn’t want to get into a long conversation about time, etc, all I’d been hoping for was “sorry about that, thanks for letting us know, we’ll get it fixed,” so I bade the hotel farewell.

I’ll not be rushing to return.

Twenty years of travel.

Twenty years ago today, on 6th November 1999, I stepped on a plane for the very first time to leave the UK for the very first time.
Was this a long-awaited family holiday? Nope, they never really stretched further than Swansea or — once — Tenby.  It was for IETF 46 in Washington D.C..

The BA 777 that I flew on that day is still in service.

Now, the sum total scheduled duration of flights I’ve been on (or plan to be on) during 2019 is one minute shy of five days and 18 hours. I wonder what little me, reading Look and Learn with talk of supersonic planes (in addition to Concorde) and even ballistic travel would have thought?

Travel is disruptive, a lot of it is at weekends and evenings (and if you add a couple of hours at airports for each flight, that’s another four days on top of the 5d18h).  I know there are a reasonable number of people reading this for whom that amount of travel would be considered a sabbatical, but I still consider myself lucky to be able to do this interaction with other NRENs, service providers and global Internet governance groups as part of my job, and still enjoy travelling for pleasure, even more so now that after travelling on my own for so long I can get to do it with a wonderful companion (my wife, of course).

It’s very easy to creep into isolationism, which can happen on so many levels, whether it’s the Network Operations part of a very large company, Jisc as opposed to other NRENs, NRENs in general compared to the wider commercial Internet, or even countries thinking they can ’take back control’ and go it alone. However, it’s something we need to constantly fight against. The Internet, like everything else, can only work as a collective effort.

Of course, this rally against isolationism doesn’t detract from “me time.” 🙂

Hilton Garden Inn, London Heathrow Terminal 2

Whilst we were still living in South-West London I booked a return for my wife and myself to Philadelphia as part of BA’s 100th anniversary sale.  These were tickets that cost £100 each way in economy, including taxes.  Since then we’ve moved to Manchester, and so to avoid problems with missed connections for the 12:40pm BA67 to Philadelphia, we flew down the evening before and stayed at the relatively new Hilton Garden Inn at Terminal 2.

Why a hotel at Terminal 2 when the Manchester flight arrived into T5 and the Philadelphia flight would leave from the same terminal? Well, predominantly cost.  The Sofitel at T5 was substantially more expensive than the HGI, I didn’t want the hassle of buses or taxis from outside the airport, and it’s not too difficult to get from T5 to T2.

Previously living close to the airport, I’d never taken the Heathrow Express to travel between terminals, so after pausing to wonder if I needed a free transfer ticket at T5, I decided to pick one up to be on the safe side — just as well, as I’d have had to make my excuses at the T2 ticket barrier without it.

The next step was finding the hotel itself.  T2 is a reasonable walk from the train station along several moving walkways, and then you need to find the right level to get to the hotel.  For reference, you want to walk to the hotel across the car-park, and then a walk-way, from the arrivals level (level 1) of T2.  Whilst you can see it clearly from the departures level, there is no obvious way to get there from across the drop-off zone, as we found out whilst hauling our cases!

There are four check-in desks, and no queues when we arrived.  I was somewhat disconcerted when the young lad said he paused because I looked like his best friend’s Dad, but at some point I have to realise I’m getting older.  At least it wasn’t his friend’s grandfather, and a suggestion that my wife reminded him of his friend’s mother might have gone down even worse.

Using the Hilton app on my phone, I’d already booked a room on the 11th floor (out of 13) with a runway view — try and claim you’re surprised by that.  The runway-facing rooms look south-west onto 27L/9R, which was on easterly take-offs whilst I was there.  The soundproofing is good, so it allowed a view of the runway without airplane noise being noticeable.

Apologies for the room reflections!

The bed was fairly standard, with a large screen TV and a desk.  The bathroom was spotless, although the waterfall shower was relatively weak, with Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries.

The room.

Having some time to kill, we went downstairs to the bar, one floor down from the lobby.  I had a beer, my wife had a white wine, and we shared a (small) bowl of chips (“hot chips” or “fries” for those that use a different variant of English).  This came to £20, so we made our way back to the terminal, and to The Flying Chariot, the Wetherspoons on the departure level of T2 for a couple more drinks.  It’s not a bargain compared to other Spoons, but it was cheaper than the Hilton, and had a wider selection of drinks — plus you can still get the drinks delivered to your table using the Wetherspoons app.

It was quite an enjoyable couple of hours people-watching at the airport as passengers arrived to fly off somewhere, some more prepared than others.  There were a few groups obviously heading off to Japan on JAL for the Rugby World Cup.

Instead of eating there, we picked up some sandwiches from the Marks and Spencer on the arrivals level and headed back to the hotel room.

After a sound sleep, blissfully unaware of the planes taking off not far from our eardrums, the following morning check-out was easy enough, again with no queue, and from there it was just the walk to T2, then the walk to the Heathrow Express and onwards to Terminal 5 for the flight to Philly.

This was the first time I’d spent about 24 hours within an airport perimeter, as most other times I’ve stayed at an airport hotel, I’ve either been arriving late, departing early, or the hotel itself has been just outside the airport.  I’d happily stay in the Hilton Garden Inn T2 again, even if my flights were based in T5.

Hampton by Hilton, Belfast City Centre

This is a little review of the Hampton by Hilton Belfast City Centre, where I stayed for a couple of nights for work at the start of September 2019.

I’d flown into Belfast City airport (BHD) and caught bus 600 into the city centre, which dropped me off at the Europa Bus Centre, a journey costing the total of £2.60 (though I felt sorry for the driver who had to arrange a lot of large suitcases from students starting to arrive for the start of the new University year at Queen’s University), and handily on the same block as the Hampton and indeed the massive Europa Hotel itself.

The reception desks are straight in front of the door, and lead onto the bar and breakfast area.

Reception

Check-in was easy, and the pre-payment arranged by the travel agent was on file, which doesn’t always happen.  I had a room on the fifth floor out of eight.  As an aside, why does the sign in the lift (elevator) correctly refer to ‘G’ for ground floor, but the button is marked ‘0’?

Zero G

When I got to the room it was almost entirely made of bed.  For some reason they appear to have been expecting me to arrive en-masse and the sofa-bed was also made up.  I momentarily worried that a colleague from work had been booked into the same room too.  I could, and perhaps should, have called reception to ask them to stow the bed, but I wanted to get a couple of things done before heading out for dinner, so I didn’t bother (and so no fault lies with Hampton, though I was surprised to still see it there when I got back on the second day, but by that point it was too late to say anything — he said, Britishly).

I remember when this were nothing but Hilton bedding…

There was a large TV in the room which I could see well whilst lying on the bed, but as it was mounted on a narrow shelf could only be swivelled a small amount and so didn’t have a great angle to see from the desk.  It was the usual (for the UK) Freeview channels.  There were double sockets with a USB outlet either side of the bed, which is good news.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

As a minor issue, there was some tape that was flaking in one corner of the room.

The same door covers the bathroom and wardrobe in an interesting space-saving arrangement — if the door is closed to the bathroom then the wardrobe is open, and vice versa.  The shower is easy to operate, not something you can always say, especially in cases when hot water takes a little while to reach the shower head.  Toiletries are large pump-bottles mounted on the wall, but there was shampoo, shower gel and conditioner, plus a hand-wash next to the sink, all of which were full, and all of the pumps were working!

I slept well overnight, and headed down to the buffet breakfast in the morning.  There is the choice of a cooked breakfast (bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, baked beans, small potato bites, etc), toast, pastries, cereals, and a new one on me, DIY waffles, along with tea, coffee and fruit juices.  It was a reasonable way to set me up for the day, and after that I checked out and headed on home.

Breakfast time!

I’d be perfectly happy to stay there again, plus it means earning HHonors points if that’s your thing.

Manchester to South Wales (via the Welsh Marches Route)

There are two main routes between Manchester and South Wales. There is the “Heart of Wales” line, which is the very scenic route, and the Welsh Marches line, merely quite scenic. A few (ahem) times over the last couple of months my wife and I have taken the train from Manchester towards South Wales, and back again, and this is about the Welsh Marches line, not quite as scenic as the Heart of Wales line, but still an interesting journey.

The route runs through Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Leominster, Hereford, Abergavenny, Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and then through to Milford Haven or Carmarthen. It isn’t, however, all that quick — over three hours to Cardiff, over four to Swansea (which might test even Michael Portillo’s patience), and it could certainly do with a few upgrades.

Most of the times we have travelled on it, we’ve booked Advance tickets, which require that you travel on a specific service and usually come with seat reservations. Each time the booking form has asked for seat preferences (table / airline; aisle / window). However, each time we’ve picked the tickets up, they’ve been “Coach *, Seat ***”. However, I’ve seen “reserved” tickets in the back of some seats, so there must be some magic we’re missing.

You keep using that word (reservation), I do not think it means what you think it means.

Getting on at one of the major stations (e.g. Manchester Piccadilly or Cardiff), you need to be at the right part of the platform to be by the doors when the train arrives, or you’re likely to be standing. One time we got lucky and bagged a seat whilst others stood, another time we were standing for 30-40 minutes until the train reached Crewe and a few people got off. I’ve also seen people standing at Hereford just as the local college finishes (and presumably just before it starts), which makes the lack of definite seat reservations a worry if you really want to sit down, and particularly, sit down together.

The time we weren’t lucky.

The trains are “Class 175“, and it has varied as to whether the trains are two coach (175 0nn) or three (175 1nn). On one journey to Swansea there were people standing for quite a bit of time, and it wasn’t helped when we reached Shrewsbury to find another train had been cancelled and they were shuffled onto the train we were on to get down to Newport and change for another service.

I have to feel a bit sorry for these little trains, they run for almost six hours from Milford Haven or Carmarthen up to Manchester, then have about 15 minutes before they’re on the way back for another six hours. This does mean they don’t get a proper clean for twelve hours other than the Transport for Wales staff doing their best to clear loose items into rubbish bags. Which means, fellow passengers, when you leave the train, please take your rubbish with you, as someone else will almost certainly be sitting in your seat within a few minutes!

At a couple of points through the journey, as long as there’s room, a trolley service will pass through the train offering tea, coffee, snacks, beer, wine, gin, tonic, you know the drill. Sometimes they may ask you to pay cash if the machine isn’t working — or if the reception is bad.

Speaking of reception, there is free WiFi on the train, but the uplink speed isn’t great, and some sites, including Google Drive, are blocked, which might make working on the train a bit of a challenge. If you’ve got a signal and a generous data plan on your phone, you might be better off tethering to that.

Getting the negatives out of the way, the route itself passes through some historic towns on the borders between Wales and England.

Regardless of history, according to Wikipedia Ludlow apparently once featured three Michelin-starred restaurants in the not too distance past, but now has none. Leominster was the site of “one of” the last ordeals by ducking stool in England. The stool itself is on display in Leominster Priory and depicted on the town clock.

Leominster Town Clock, image from Likeaword at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leominster_Town_Clock.jpg

Not forgetting larger towns of Shrewsbury, curiously twinned with the Royal Navy submarine of HMS Talent, which would have some trouble getting anywhere near the town, and Hereford, birthplace of King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynne (I wonder if my new MP Andrew Gwynne is a descendent?).

Whilst we’ve been using this route for trips for work or family of late, we’ll have to use it to explore some of the historic towns on the route soon, and some of the scenery it passes through is really quite beautiful. Some longer trains, though, please TfW?

Dragon Hotel, Swansea

According to the hotel’s own website, the Dragon Hotel is “…this fully airconditioned lesisure [sic] hotel was featured as South West Wales’ premier 4-star hotel.”

As someone that was brought up with frequent trips to Swansea to visit family, the Dragon Hotel has always been around, though I’ve never had need to stay there, as I was always staying with family. The road outside the hotel has changed substantially since I was a child, it used to be a roundabout with pedestrian underpasses leading to an open area in the centre of the roundabout. That was filled in a couple of decades ago to make it more friendly to bendy buses, but it is in the middle of yet another regeneration as Swansea City Council tries another traffic management plan along The Kingsway.

As time has moved on, I’ve had more reason to find nearby hotels and my wife and I have stayed at the Dragon a few times. Most recently, towards the end of August 2019, I stayed in three different rooms on the sixth and seventh (out of seven) floors (due to three different bookings) during a week as I wasn’t sure how long I was staying around.

During the week there were some good deals to be had, between £50 and £60 per night, but that rose substantially for the weekend. The best deals were on twin rooms rather than doubles, but as I was staying by myself, that wasn’t a problem.

The rooms are functional, two single beds, a large TV with Freeview channels, a hospitality tray with the usual selection of teabags, instant coffee sachets and UHT milk. There are no in-room safes, nor a mini-bar.

Most of the rooms appear to have a mobile phone for complimentary use around the city, provided by “Handy.” I have no idea what sort of personal information those things hoovered up, which I assume they must to pay for themselves, so I haven’t used one, but it also looks like they might not be around for much longer.

The bathrooms are surfaced with white ceramic tiles, with a large illuminated mirror that has two vertical fluorescent tubes (though in one of the bathrooms, one of the tubes flickered). Toiletries are large pump-action soap dispensers.

One evening, as I got back to my room, I was greeted by a gentleman, wearing only his shorts, laying across the corridor on a speakerphone, but the hotel didn’t provide entertainment the other nights.

There is a comfortable bar on the ground floor with a few local beers, though I’ve tended to head into town for a drink when the urge takes me (particularly to “Copper” or “No Sign Wine Bar”).

All in all, it’s clean, slightly tired, and I wouldn’t describe it as South-West Wales’ Premier Four-Star Hotel, though I don’t know what would fit that description, but it’s very convenient for the centre of Swansea, as opposed to some of the others that are closer to the Marina, or slightly out of town, and what are you expecting for that sort of price?

Hotel Indigo, Cardiff

This will be a brief review, as I was only there for one night and didn’t take any photographs.

Hotel Indigo is part of the IHG chain (Holiday Inn etc), but as I type this, the Cardiff hotel is currently rated the #1 hotel in Cardiff on TripAdvisor. [Hotel’s website here.]

From Cardiff Central train station the hotel was about a 10 minute walk (not trailing any suitcases). The entry is quite well disguised in an arcade off Queen Street, which is in the pedestrianised shopping area in Cardiff, and within that the reception is quite small, just 2-3 desks in a cosy lobby, but the staff were friendly. There is a single lift (“elevator”) to the guest rooms and the hotel’s restaurant/bar — a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Bar. When I checked in we were offered a 15% discount voucher for the restaurant, but that is a limited time offer.

My room had frosted windows with no view, but the room and bathroom (with monsoon shower) were obviously relatively new and well-decorated. The hospitality tray had a selection of Welsh teas and coffees (as an aside, I grew up in Wales and don’t remember many tea tree and coffee plantations, but that must be global warming for you), and a small fridge.

A nice touch was the rocking chair with a “nos da” (“good night”) cushion, and Welsh decorations on the wall. A tea pot and tea cosy would have topped that image off to perfection!

The bed was firm, and quite high off the ground, which may or may not be to your preference. Whilst it was a busy weekend in Cardiff, and I could hear the occasional voice of someone walking down the corridor outside, it didn’t disturb my sleep.

All in all it was a nice hotel, in a very good location, and not too badly priced. Worth a shot.

A day at the rugby

I was lucky enough to go to the Wales v England warm-up match at the Principality Stadium last weekend. It wasn’t a pretty match, but the end result of that and the other matches on the weekend is that for the first time ever, heading into the Rugby World Cup starting next month in Japan, Wales just about top the World Rugby rankings. They’re not playing this coming weekend, but Ireland are (away at Twickenham), so I don’t know if they’ll stay there, but they’re there for now.

World Rugby rankings.

Spain gets a little bit Moorish.

The Alhambra. Just the name conjures up a mental image of the medieval clash between Europe and the Middle East, between Christianity and Islam, a time of religious quests and bloody battles. These days, the tales of battles are limited to the legendary queues to obtain tickets to visit it, so after a particularly busy start to the year, I decided to do my duty as a Londoner during the Jubilee double-Bank Holiday weekend and get out of Dodge to make way for the tourists that were on the way in.

An extra day of leave booked either side meant I was heading out to Granada on Friday, then had all of Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and the best part of Wednesday out there before flying home that evening. I booked tickets to visit the palace on the Monday morning and a night-time visit on Tuesday evening, thinking that would be a perfect way to round off the trip, then waited until it was time to head out.

Granada airport is really rather small. Nothing so fancy as a jet-bridge, just steps down from the plane to the tarmac, and if you’re travelling without luggage, as I was, you’re out of the airport in a couple of minutes. I was ready to treat myself to a €20 taxi ride into town, but as I exited, the €3 coach was sitting there, which made the choice simple. I’d left a dull London that was about to head into a rain-soaked weekend, and I couldn’t help but feel a little smug as the sun hit my face.

I’d booked a single room at the hotel, but when I checked in they actually apologised that was all they had available, and promised that when it emptied out a little on Sunday I could move into a double. The single room was quite small, but no smaller than it is in many hotels, and it was very clean. I resisted the urge to head straight up to the palace and wandered around some of the older parts of the town, the Albaicin, for a little while instead, stealing the odd glance of the fort towering over the rest of the city, and trying to ignore the sounds of ‘Eloise’ blaring out of one of the jukeboxes that didn’t quite fit with the feeling of the whitewashed twisty, steep, narrow paths.

In retrospect, the t-shirt and shirt I’d needed at home was perhaps a little overkill for the south of Spain, and even at 9pm I was rather warm walking around, which meant I had to stop off at the odd bar for a cold beer, and in Granada almost every place that serves beer, serves a plate of tapas with it, frequently fried in lots of oil and not uncommonly covered in batter. This is not a place to come to lose weight.

On Saturday, I was prepared. I didn’t know what to expect on Monday, so I was heading up to the Alhambra to pick my tickets up. It was just a fifteen minute walk from the hotel to the ticket office, passing the dilapidated remains of the ‘Hotel Washington Irving,’ named after the American author that in the late nineteenth century spent some time living in the palace and wrote “Tales of the Alhambra.” He also wrote “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and was later the US Minister to Spain, trivia fans.

My worst fears of the ticket office were far from realised. There was a queue, but that was simply a queue if you wanted to tickets with cash for entry that day. A short walk around the corner presented the machines for picking up tickets pre-booked with a credit card, or buying tickets with a credit card for that day, and there wasn’t a queue at a single one of them. Not that it mattered, it felt much better to know I had the tickets as otherwise I’d have known no more than the reputation and would have been worrying whether I’d have ended up paying for a trip to Granada and not having been able to visit the main reason for going there.

Given I’d gone to all the effort of climbing up the hill, I wasn’t in a rush to head back down, and had a wander around the parts of the fort that didn’t need a ticket. Starting with the “Justice Gate”, perhaps the most impressive of the entrances to the complex, the passage inside the gate doubles back on itself twice in an attempt to slow down invading armies that had breached the outer door.

Inside is the palace of Carlos V. An imposing, late addition to the Alhambra. Late in this context means the sixteenth century and it was designed by a pupil of Michaelangelo. Inside is a large circular courtyard and the palace houses two museums, one of the Alhambra and the other, the Museum of Fine Arts. I was pleased and surprised with how quiet it was inside.

Later in the afternoon I had another wander around the Albaicin. I was on the hunt for the Mirador de San Nicholas, supposedly the best place to get a view of the Alhambra, but after finding a small square with a reasonably good view, the Placeta Carvajales, I was confronted with a human traffic-jam. A human traffic-jam in their Sunday best. From the back, I could see a bunch of people, and in front of them a platform with the statue of the Virgin Mary towering 12-15 feet high.

However, I could only see the back, so there then began a slightly comical sequence of events where I’d dash through some back streets, trying to get ahead of the parade, only to end up out of breath and sweating slightly back at the end of the procession. Eventually I managed to pick the right choice of streets, and to be fair I think the procession paused in front of a couple of churches that allowed me to take the lead, and I emerged at a street that was cordoned off ready for the procession to hit it.

Leading the statue were two columns of people, mainly women, on either side of the road carrying large candles. Behind them a man was reading from a text, closely followed by a group of other people. I began to think this was a funeral procession and this must have been the family. Behind them, were some young men and women dressed in robes, swinging incense, and carrying more candles. Then there was the statue. If this was a funeral, perhaps there was a coffin underneath the statue, but it wasn’t obvious. It was borne by almost 20 men and looked heavy. It was moved for a few steps, they set it down and paused, and then moved it again.

Whilst I was standing out of the way to take a couple of photographs, and feeling self-conscious even with that, there were other that were getting much closer to the procession, and even wandering amongst it to take their photos. I’m not convinced that they were all tourists either.

Still not entirely sure what I’d just witnessed, I settled down for some food at the Paseo de los Tristes, the ‘Promenade of the Sad’. I ate here a few times, I’m not sure what that says. It was 9pm, so still on the early side for food in this part of the world. I was surprised it was still light given I was now considerably further south, but perhaps Spain cheats by being an hour ahead of where it should be based on longitude. As I sat there, a pretty good violin player was playing and a woman was writing her diary on the wall, with the Alhambra towering over all of us, as it has done for 800 years. I thought there could be few places on earth that I would rather be at that particular moment.

After dinner I crossed the river and walked up Cuesta del Rey Chico back to the Alhambra. This goes up the other side to the “main” road and is much quieter. It is overshadowed by the imposing stone walls, but like the rest of the Alhambra there is water everywhere. A stream follows the side of the road and at one point there is a drain one of the other parts of the complex pouring water out a short way up one of the walls. For the south of Spain the amount of water that is constantly flowing around the Alhambra is astonishing, and more than welcome. You are never far from the sound of running water.

I reached the top and turned around again, realising that the shallow steps were much easier to see on the way up in the dark than on the way down, so I ambled down, meeting a few more people than I’d met on the way up. Some of them were already pausing for breath, still much closer to the bottom than the top, I was hoping they weren’t going to ask me how much further it was as I wouldn’t have had the heart to tell them.

Following those exertions, a cerveza and tapas was in order, so I went to La Gran Taberna opposite the hotel. Given they come with every drink you buy, the tapas are delicious in some of the bars, as they were in this one. Some bars focus on seafood-based dishes, others meat, others mix them all. It was 11:20pm and there were still families out eating with young children. On the wall of the bar was, I thought, an old poster for some bullfighting. Then I checked the dates and realised it was a poster for this weekend’s bullfighting. I was momentarily tempted, but thought I still had enough to see before I was heading home.

Sunday was a quiet day. This time I was determined to find the Mirador de San Nicholas. It was much higher in Albaicin than I’d expected, and I’d not been as close to it when I was at Placeta Carvajela than I thought I’d been, but worth it for the view. It was busy, not just with tourists but also with its fair share of people selling tourist tat. The view of the Alhambra is fantastic, and I could see the Sierra Nevada in the distance, still with snow on some of north-facing slopes that look towards Granada.

Whilst the Mirador was busy, it was quiet only a street or two away, so I wandered down the side-streets to Fuente del Triunfo (Triumph Gardens, not named after a British motorcycle), and thence a spot of lunch whilst watching the final laps of the Catalunya MotoGP with some seafood tapas. Following the MotoGP there was quite a bit of coverage of the Jubilee celebrations from Britain, which looked rather wet.

Monday was the day I’d been looking forward to. This was the day I was visiting the Alcazabar, the Palacios Nazaries and the Generalife at the Alhambra, the day I’d been building up to. I had a morning ticket, which allows entry from 8:30am to the ‘untimed’ part of the Alhambra, and I had a timed 10:30 entry to the Palacios Nazaries. I decided to start at the Alcazabar, the oldest part of the Alhambra and the western-most part, looking out of the city. I was there at 8:20 waiting for it to open, and I was the third person in through the gates.

Looking out over the rest of the city and the valley stretching westwards, the views from the towers of the Alcazabar are fantastic, and all the better for getting there ahead of the crowds. When the Cross was first raised on the Torre de la Vela (Bell Tower) on January 2nd, 1492, the fleeing Boabdil (Muhammed XII of Granada) who was heading for exile, cried, and was admonished by his mother with “you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

Next was the Palacios Nazaries. You can only enter this within a 30 minute window printed on your ticket, but once inside you can stay as long as you want. You enter into the council chamber, and from there take a route through to the Hall of the Ambassadors, the largest room in the palace, the Court of the Myrtles, the Court of the Lions, the Hall of the Abencerrages, the Queen’s Tower, the Patio de la Lindaraja before exiting to the Partal Gardens.

Parts of the palace are undergoing renovation, but that doesn’t stop each new room from making your jaw drop. Not only are they impressive to see, but the history that has taken place in each of them. The Hall of the Abencerrages, for example, is beautifully intricate room with a eight-sided vaulted ceiling. It is also where according to legend, Boabdil’s father killed sixteen princes of the Abencerrage family after one of them had fallen in love with a woman of the royal family.

The Court of the Lions is nearing the end of a lengthy restoration and it’s centrepiece, a fountain mounted on the backs of lions, was half open from the protective wooden shroud that has been surrounding it for some time.

From the Partal Gardens, you walk to the gardens and the palace of the Generalife. This is a much more modest building, but surrounded by a number of gardens with trees, fountains and neatly tended flowerbeds.

Before heading back down the hill for a spot of lunch I dropped into the Palace of Carlos V again. A stage was being set up inside for some event or other, so I was glad I had taken some photos on Saturday. There was also a chap there employing what appeared to be the ‘blunderbuss’ method of photography. With a relatively expensive camera set to continuous shooting, he kept the shutter pressed down and waved it around. I know that at the end of the holiday I had trouble cutting down my 450 photos to under 200. I don’t know how long it would have taken him to edit his album. I presume he must have a mighty hard drive on his computer.

It had taken the better part of the morning to explore the palaces, but there was still the afternoon to fill, so I stayed on the cultural theme and headed to the Convento de San Jeronimo. You enter into a cloister that surrounds some orange trees, off which are a number of rooms — a refectory, a sacristy, and with the names of past abbots set in tiles in the floor. As you near the end of the cloister you enter the church and my eyes widened. You have to be a little bit insane to be the architect of a cathedral, and the architect of this one was certainly a few collonades short of a cloister.

A little bit of a walk north and I ended up at La Cartuja, another former monastery. Walking around the cloisters here, most of the rooms are now full of art related to martyrdom, but again as you get to the church at the end of the walk around the cloisters you have to pause for a few moments. The church is full of stucco ceilings and has a chapel that has columns on the wall that appear to be all capitals and no column.

At first glance the marble altarpiece is reflected in a series of mirrors behind it, then you realise that the mirrors don’t match the altarpiece, and they are actually windows into a room behind with another, much darker, altarpiece in complete contrast to the white and light church. Photographs are not permitted in La Cartuja.

Granada feels like a relatively small city, and several times wandering around I saw the same faces again and again. Some of those will have been tourists on the same path as I was, but others were definitely locals.

In one of the city squares whilst I ate a meal in the evening there was what appeared to be a flamenco competition or demonstration. On top of the procession I was starting to think I’ve been quite lucky.

Tuesday was my last full day in Granada and I started it off by heading to the remains of the Arab Bath House on Carrera del Darro, the road winding along the river that runs through Granada. Following this was a bit of walk to the Sacromonte Caves, a museum of the cave dwellings that were used until quite recently. They’re well preserved and there are detailed signs, in English as well as Spanish, telling the stories of life and industry in the area. Of course, it also has the obligatory panoramic view down the valley towards the Alhambra and the rest of the city. The caves weren’t the easiest to find, and as I got back to the city to the Paseo de los Tristes I overheard a couple of other tourists trying to find them, so I pointed them in the right direction.

In the afternoon I headed up to Carmen de los Martires, a nineteenth century stately home and ornamental gardens. I’d read there was a great view of the Alhambra from there (what, another one?), but when I reached what I thought was the viewing platform there were trees and grass blocking the view. Then I noticed another pathway that climbed further up. I followed it, zig-zagging as it wends its way up towards the top wall of the gardens and then I realised that was where the view was. If you’ve been to Granada and not found the way up to top of the gardens, you have missed another great view of the Alhambra. If you are going to Granada, don’t give up until you’ve reached the wall at the top of the hill in the garden for a view of the palace, the valley, and behind you, the Sierra Nevada.

When you get back down, don’t forget to have a walk around the rest of the gardens, filled with grottos, fountains, and a small lake with a keep in the centre of it.

As the day drew to a close, it was time for the second visit to the Palacios Nazaries, but this time by night. It follows much the same route as the daytime visit, but the floodlighting adds a different view. It is also much quieter, so I had more time to pause along the way. Alas, the amount of light means that photography with a compact camera is difficult and requires a steady hand.

Finally, Wednesday dawned. I checked out of the hotel, which had been very helpful and friendly throughout my stay. There was still much to see before I left for the flight though! Starting with the Royal Chapel, which contains the tomb and displays the coffins of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos) under whom other religions were expelled from Spain. One one hand, Ferdinand and Isabella approved Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World. On the other hand, they segregated communities and created ghettos for Jewish people.

The altarpiece in the Royal Chapel continues the theme of martyrdom with scenes of John the Baptist being beheaded and John the Evangelist being boiled alive. Also in the chapel are a crown, sceptre and sword from the fifteenth century. They look simple, but it is evocative to think of them being used 600 years ago.

To round the visit off, the cathedral was the final stop I had planned. I had seen the cathedral from the Alhambra and it is large enough to dominate a fair part of the city from there, it appears even larger when I got inside. The organ has four banks of pipes that dominate the nave and lead up to another stunning altarpiece, this one several stories high covered with art.

So that was that. Lunch, coach and back home. Except when I left the cathedral there were queues of people lining the street. I might as well hang around and see what is going on. I say “see” what is going on, because I still have no idea what actually was going on. There was a procession of four large models, that looked perhaps like Ferdinand and Isabella, perhaps followed by two Moors? Following them was a dragon with a women in a white dress standing on its back, then people dressed in various costumes and at the end a number of people wearing papier-mache heads who were going around bashing kids on the head with paper balloons.

If anybody can fill me in on what this was, I’d be very grateful. Put together with the other procession and the flamenco event I either planned my trip very fortuitously, or this was just another random weekend in Granda.

I worried that the roads weren’t going to be open again in time for the coach to get me to the airport, because taxis were also pretty thin on the ground, but it all worked out.

From 35C at lunch, when I got back to Heathrow it was 12C or less, the tube was broken due to flooding at Stratford and I spent 25 minutes standing outside Walthamstow Central station until the last bus of the night arrived at 12:15am to get me home just before 1am (I’d landed just after 10pm), in time to watch the weather forecast with warnings of wind, rain, and possible localised flooding. Welcome home.

A Middle-Class Whinge

I’ve called this post a ‘Middle-Class Whinge’ for reasons that will become obvious as you read it. It isn’t about a matter of great importance, just a couple of disappointing instances of customer service at the end of a long week. I’m not asking for pity, I am just venting.

It was the end of the TERENA Networking Conference, which together with accompanying events meant I had been in meetings from Sunday lunchtime until Friday lunchtime. After a very pleasant stroll down from the CESNET offices in Prague, close to Dejvicka, through the Royal Gardens, the Castle, and the Old Town to my hotel near Florenc, I picked up my case and caught the metro and the bus back through the Friday afternoon traffic to the airport (paying little over £1 for the public transport, bargain!).

I checked my bag in, went through passport control and wandered around the airport for a little while before stopping by the “Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant” at the ‘A’ gates for a beer and a bite to eat. Compared to the city, the beer was expensive — CZK145 per 500ml, which made the CZK100 for a grilled sausage with mustard and ketchup feel a bit of a bargain, especially when it also turned up with a pretzel as part of the trimmings. I ate and drank whilst trying to see if I could get any WiFi, then had a second glass of beer whilst waiting for my flight’s status to change to ‘Go To Gate.’ Table service was fairly efficient, but at no point did a bill turn up, so I went to the till to pay.

At the till the drinks came to the expected CZK290, but the food was CZK150. It appears the pretzel was an optional extra, included without asking for it. I whinged a bit to the barman, to no avail, but I was even further wound up when the sign at the till proudly displayed words to the effect of “if we don’t give you a bill, your meal is free.” Free, my arse. Almost £16 for a couple of pints of beer, a sausage and a pretzel. I’ll stick to a bottle of mineral water from the newsagent next time I’m in Prague Airport, or maybe just head to the KFC instead, I’m sure there is less chance of them charging me for things I didn’t order.

Never mind, at least after a last-minute schedule change to fit in an extra meeting or two I was flying home with British Airways. They pride themselves on customer service, right? That’s why they are still a “full-fare” airline.

On the way into Prague I had flown via Munich with Lufthansa. The Munich to Prague sector is only about 150 miles and takes half an hour with a small jet. Even so, Lufthansa managed to perform a full bar service to the entire plane. I was impressed.

BA was a different story. It was 45 minutes before the trolley even reached me, all the way back in the twelfth row of a 26-row Airbus A320. When they reached me they reported that they had not loaded any beer onto the plane in Prague. How is it possible not to load beer onto a plane leaving Prague?!?! I’d have thought the quantities of beer that reach the airport are only matched by the quantities of Jet A-1 (fuel).

Fine, some red wine and a packet of crisps, then. The red wine was possible, the crisps not so much. They’d also run out of those and only had biscuits left. By the time they reached the row behind me, I heard them telling another unfortunate passenger they had run out of something else too. Take note, BA, it isn’t poor industrial relations that are losing you passengers, it is your attitude to customer service that always tends to favour penny-pinching rather than treating your passengers with a modicum of dignity. I have two more trips to make over the next few weeks, one to Zurich and another to Munich. Swiss and Lufthansa it is, then.

I had shied away from British Airways towards Star Alliance lines recently for a few reasons. One is their poor ‘frequent flier’ rewards for anyone other than passengers on fully-flexible (i.e. expensive) tickets, another was the customer service, which has always tended towards “slow and haughty,” and the third was that it means using Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

I know that British Airports Authority will tell you all the problems that beset the birth of terminal 5 have been solved, and that may be true, but for me it almost always means that when I leave or arrive I will not be using a jet-bridge to cross from the airplane to the terminal, but a bus. When we arrived 20 minutes late at Heathrow, this was the inevitable news that greeted us.

I estimate 60-70% of the flights I take to and from T5 use a bus from/to the airplane. This means that instead of being able to walk at my rapid pace along the terminal, I have to head down some rickety stairs, into a bus with all the other passengers crowding around the doors, then a drive to the terminal building from some remote stand. This is time I could be going home, and time off being AT home. It is probably the extra five minutes that mean I just miss a Heathrow Express. It doesn’t end there either. The lottery of immigration queues is the next opportunity to be a winner or a loser.

The first choice is Iris or manual? The Iris queues are always shorter, but they can also be slow moving as people shuffle backwards and forwards in the booth to get the pictures of their eyes just right. If you decide to go for the manual check, then instead of a single, snaking queue which is strictly first-come, first-served, you have to choose which of the queues to join, just as if you were in a supermarket, except that instead of waiting for the checkout, you’re waiting to find out if you’ll have the dubious privilege of being let back into your own country. Of course, as with supermarkets, you’ll always have somebody ahead of you in your queue that should have been in one of the other queues, or for some other reason takes an inordinate amount of time.

How can this be so hard? We’re British! We are world-renowned for queuing. Surely we could come up with something more efficient. It reminds me of the long, slow queues to get through immigration in Cuba, where the officer at the head of the queue I was in decided to go on a break when I was just two people away from the front. Oh, and if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t the non-EU section at T5 use a single, snaking queue instead of the multiple lines?

Yes, this is all just whinging about small items, there are much bigger problems in the world and I don’t want to sound spoilt, but at the end of a long, tiring week, it was disappointing when a bit of customer service would have been oh-so-welcome.