After a somewhat mild and rather pleasant start to winter, the beginning of February 2012 saw temperatures across Europe go way below the freezing point, with icy cold winds blowing in all the way from Siberia. Here in Switzerland the temperature went as low as -15 Celsius on some nights. To me, that’s really where it stops being funny, no matter how pretty everything looks covered in snow. So it was around the same time the cold set in that I decided it was time to head for the warmer climes of my native country for the weekend. This trip review is of the return flight back to Switzerland.
Date: 03. February 2012 Flight: KM4901 From: Malta To: Zürich Aircraft: A 319 Cabin: Business Class Seat: 1F
About two minutes after I enter the terminal building, check-in for the flight to Zürich begins. I find my check-in counter and immediately spot something interesting:
As my luck would have it, they are offering the Zürich route for a EUR99 upgrade to Business Class, an offer I simply cannot refuse. The offer is valid irrespective of the original fare you purchased. Which is a good thing as I’m travelling on a rock-bottom promotion fare for CHF225. For the EUR99 upgrade you get lounge access, the full Business Class treatment on board, priority for your luggage, which does not apply in my case, and full Business Class bonus points with Air Malta’s FFP Flypass. Not bad me thinks. Since I first tried out the scheme last summer they seem to have streamlined the process. The passenger is no longer required to queue separately at the Air Malta ticketing office and everything is done at the check-in counter. The friendly check-in agent assigns me seat 1F, hands me my boarding pass and lounge invitation and sends me on my way.
To reach the lounge you first have to go through security and then from there through the rather huge Duty Free shop.
Allow me to introduce you to Twistees. I think they’re Maltese but to be honest, I’m not even sure. Twistees are a Maltese snack. Apparently they’re not too bad for you because they’re made of backed rice. They taste of cheese and they come covered in this strange powder that cakes around your fingers as you eat the Twistees. They sound revolting, I know. And they probably really are too. But they remind me of when I was a child, sitting on the beach with a bottle of Kinnie.
The lounge is quite full. Apart from the Emirates flight which leaves at the same time as my flight, there is also a delayed Alitalia flight and the 07h50 departure to Heathrow, which is delayed to 14h25 due to the weather in London.
As soon as the flight shows up as ‘BOARDING’ on the screen, I leave the lounge and make my way to gate 4. When I arrive most passengers have already boarded so I needn’t queue and can take my time taking pictures.
Once on board, the purser comes round with a copy of the two English language newspapers. A female FA offers me a glass of orange juice as a welcome drink. There are two others sitting in Business Class on the flight.
Departure is to the northwest, from runway 31. Today’s load is fairly light, and with the temperature not too high either, we do not taxi all the way back to the beginning of the runway and instead make our departure from an access taxiway about half way down the runway.
Sitting on the first row, leg room is obviously very good. If perhaps you’re wondering if the EUR99 are worth it for an upgrade, the answer is a very clear ‘yes’. Back in Economy the seat pitch on Air Malta is tight for an average sized person. I’m 184 cm tall.
On the bulkhead Air Malta has these framed pictures of Maltese sceneries. I like them and I think they’re a nice touch for somebody visiting the islands for the first time.
Like most European carriers, Air Malta has a convertible seat in Business Class. Meaning it’s the standard set of three Economy Class seats. In a Business Class layout however, the back of the middle seat folds down to provide some extra space.
Once the seat belt sign is turned off, the crew closes the cabin divider. I like the red curtains, they go well with the dark blue seats.
After take-off, the meal service starts with the distribution of the hot and rather soapy towels. This is followed by the table cloth and the tray with the meal. The tray contains a side plate with two different types a cheese, the blue one is particularly strong. There are also two bread rolls and an antipasto dish with rocket salad, hummus, slices of chicken breast, Kapunata (a Maltese dish made with eggplant, tomatoes and cheese), shrimps, zucchini and a parsley salad with lemon. And last but not least there are profiteroles filled with vanilla cream and smothered in chocolate for dessert. Divine!
Throughout the flight the crew takes good care of me and the other passengers and makes sure we have everything, frequently refilling empty glasses.
The best part of the flight comes as we start our descent into Zurich. It is a lovely, clear day and the Alps look simply stunning, just beautiful!
The route for the approach is rather surprising, as they bring us in right above the airport on a northerly track. This means doing a rather steep right hand turn to line up for an approach to runway 14.
All in all this has been an enjoyable flight with Air Malta. The staff were professional and friendly. I guess it helped that the flight was not full up front, which gave the crew more time for a more personalised service.
In December I’m heading to Malta for a short visit before Christmas. I’ve requested a miles upgrade on the way down but so far it has not been confirmed. I’m not so much alarmed about having to sit in Economy if the upgrade doesn’t come through, but I am slightly worried it may not materialise because Air Malta may decide to abolish Business Class by then. Please don’t!
Before I close, let me share with you a few images of Malta in the winter.
Today I wake up at 05:30. I’ve spent my last night at the Barajas Hilton. This gives me enough time for a leisurely shower and breakfast before heading for Terminal 1 at Barajas. As I check out, the Korean Air crew of the inbound flight from Seoul are just checking in. This is somewhat surprising to me, as it means all passengers continuing to Amsterdam will have a layover here in Madrid of about three hours.
Date: 01 May 2012 From: Madrid To: Amsterdam Airline: Korean Air Aircraft: Boeing B 777-200 Class: Economy Class Seat: 43A, window
Getting to the Airport
I take the shuttle to the airport at around 06h30. It drops me off right in front of the entrance to Terminal 1. The journey only takes about five minutes at this time of day.
I sort of managed to check in for the flight last night. I say sort of because although I was able to select my seat and all that, the confirmation I receive informs me that this is my exchange voucher, which I must present at the airport to receive my boarding pass.
Korean Air’s check-in counter are opposite the entrance. I exchange my voucher for a real boarding pass, head through security and then through passport control to the Cibeles Lounge which is used by Korean Air here in Madrid.
When I arrive, the place is empty, save for one other passenger whom I suspect is in transit from Seoul to Amsterdam. The lounge is enormous and has excellent view of the apron.
And here’s my bird, resplendent in the morning light in her elegant shades of white and blue.
Boarding starts right on time. I avail myself of the priority lane and am the first one heading down the airbridge. This is so exciting! I’ve always wanted to give Korean Air a try.
Boarding is a calm and efficient affair. But alas, the powers that be will not permit an on time departure and we are informed of a delay of 40 minutes due to the bad weather in Amsterdam.
But never mind. I am on board Korean Air’s mighty 777, in the capable hands of an excellent cabin crew, which pass through the cabin offering cups of water. How very considerate.
Shortly before the 40 minutes are up, the captain is on the blower again. There will be a further delay of 40 minutes due to the weather situation in Amsterdam. For the time being there’s nothing to worry about. I originally had three hours to make the connection to Zurich. That should still be enough, even with the delay.
In the meantime, the crew come by dishing out more drinks and peanuts.
The cabin of this aircraft is in excellent condition. In Economy Class the colours of the seat cover change every few rows for a bit of variation. It’s a nice touch, but I’m not so sure I like that brown colour.
Eventually, we take off 10:55, 85 minutes behind schedule. I could have slept in. In any case, we depart form the runway point north that runs parallel to Terminal 5, which means a long taxi for us. But our captain is obviously quite eager to get going. You’d be surprised how maneuverable the B 777-200 is even when taxiing at high speeds…
As soon as the fasten seatbelt sign goes off, the cabin crew spring into action. The captain is determined to make up some of the delay and has even loaded additional fuel to this end. Subsequently, the flight time is expected to be 1 hour and 42 minutes. That is how much time the cabin crew have to serve a hot meal to a full Economy Class.
First refreshing towels are distributed.
Next comes the meal and I am delighted. The starter is cold chicken with potato salad, followed by chicken breast in a mustard sauce as the hot meal, served with noodles in a pepper and tomato sauce. Dessert is a lovely, diabolically chocolaty piece of cake with pieces of pear in it. I have a diet coke with the and finally wash it all down with a cup of coffee.
Shortly after the trays are cleared away, we already start a very gentle descent into Amsterdam. We spend one round in a hold pattern above Rotterdam before continuing to Amsterdam and eventually landing on the remote Polderbahn. By the time we arrive at the gate, we’re one hour behind schedule. I will make my connection to Zurich effortlessly.
Korean Air were good fun. I also think they dealt with the delay in a very good way. The cockpit crew made sure to keep the passengers constantly updated on developments and the cabin crew took good care of the passengers while we waited, providing drinks and snacks to keep us going until the flight got underway. The quality of the catering was very good. The entire meal service was like a trip down memory lane. After all, how many other airlines in Europe still serve such a generous hot meal in Economy Class on a flight of less than two hours?
No, in the end I did not make my connection to Zürich, the flight was cancelled. But at least I managed to talk the lady rebooking me into putting me on the flight to Basel instead. This meant was more convenient for me but also meant that I had another six hours to wait in Amsterdam. So I decided to head into town and have afternoon tea at my favourite bakery.
After spending four blissful days on Okinawa, the time has arrived for me to start on the long journey home. It will take me from Okinawa via Seoul to Frankfurt and then on to Basel. Today however, I will only travel as far as Seoul.
Date: 01 June 2012 From: Naha, Okinawa To: Seoul Incheon Airline: Asiana Airlines Aircraft: Airbus A 321 Class: Business Class Seat: 2F
Getting to the Airport
There is a Limousine Airport Shuttle bus – not sure where the limousine comes into it – that connects the major hotels in the greater Naha area with the airport. The journey takes about 90 minutes, mainly due to the fact that we keep stopping at various hotels. My flight leaves at 12h30. According to the bus schedule, the 08h13 bus should get me to the airport at 10h00. Not that many people seem to use the bus service and by the time we arrive at the airport the number of passengers has swelled to a mere six persons.
The bus will drop you off at the departures level, on the third floor of the domestic terminal. To reach the international terminal, you first have to take the lift down to ground level, exit the building at the arrivals end, turn left and then walk about two minutes until you see a small, flat building. That is the international terminal.
It is about 10h05 when I arrive. Check-in for the Asiana flight to Seoul does not start until 10h40. So I settle down in a corner of the building and power up my Kindle until it is time for check-in for my flight. Most airlines seem to do their own handling here in Naha.
When eventually it is my turn to check in, the agent seems somewhat flustered. I suspect she may perhaps never before have laid eyes on a Maltese passport and does not quite know what to do with it. Eventually though, she manages and and checks me all the way through via Seoul and Frankfurt to Basel.
There is none. Instead I am given a voucher to get myself something from the snack bar at the arrivals end of the hall. With more than an hour to go before boarding starts, I decide to leave the international terminal and head over to the livelier domestic terminal.
On the fourth floor I find the lovely Royal Café, with the most godawful coffee I’ve ever had but. At lest the view of the ramp and runway is excellent. Eventually, after watching my flight arriving from Incheon, I head back to the international terminal and go through security.
There is one gate in the international terminal, which has the very simple but appropriate title ‘gate’. There are only remote stands at the international terminal so we are bussed to the aircraft. Goody! I step off the bus and an ANA handling agent sees me with the camera in hand and encourages me to take some more pictures of the plane. How nice is that!
The cabin of this aircraft is newer than the one of the aircraft I had on the flight from Seoul to Fukuoka. It also has slightly different seats and a newer IFE. Of the twelve seats, only five are occupied. I have all of row two to myself, so I can take as many pictures as I like completely unobserved.
The taxi to the runway is short, as the ramp for the international flights is right by the runway threshold. We wait for two aircraft to land before it is finally our turn to depart.
Service begins on the ground with a welcome drink. There is a choice of orange juice or water. After take-off, the cabin crew distribute immigration cards for South Korea and those lovely scented hot towels and shortly after that we are handed the menus. There are two choices for the main course.
The crew on this flight are absolutely amazing. They are watchful, very considerate and pay a lot of attention to detail. One of the attendants sees me typing on my laptop, so before she sets my table, she opens the table of the empty seat next to me and offers to place my laptop on it while she prepares the table for lunch. Later on, once I had finished my meal she brings me a saucer to put the coffee cup on so she can remove the rest of the tray and give me more space.
First the senior cabin attendant places a tablecloth of crisp linen on the tray table. She then asks each passenger for their choice of meal. Every passenger orders the chicken, which leads me to wonder if perhaps they have a full complement of each meal available in Business Class.
And here it is.
The salad with the shrimps. There is an Australian dressing with this.
The Main Course
Please note the ginger and the two somewhat substantial cloves of garlic. The guy as immigration will probably pass out when I give him my superstar smile…
Very creamy, very tasty and very good.
And to drink I have a glass of Perrier.
The meal trays are removed and I have some time to relax, enjoy the view and have a nap.
I arrive in Incheon at 14h35, slightly ahead of schedule.
After arrival I’m feeling a bit peckish again, so I head up to the mezzanine floor above departures for some soba noodles.
Getting to the Hotel
After that I take the hotel shuttle outside door 13 to the Hyatt Regency at Incheon. The drive takes maybe 5 minutes.
In the previous post I take a short hop across the Yellow Sea from Seoul in South Korea to Fukuoka in Japan.
I spend the day seeing the sights of Fukuoka before heading back to the airport in the late afternoon. Fukuoka is by far not the most interesting city in Japan from a tourist perspective. But the city is very nice and the people of Fukuoka are certainly among the nicest I’ve encountered on my many trips to Japan!
Date: 28 May 2012 From: Fukuoka To: Naha, Okinawa Airline: Air Nippon for ANA Aircraft: Boeing B 767-300 Class: Economy Class Seat: 22H, aisle
Getting to the Airport
At around 16h00 I decide it is time to head for the airport. I still have loads of time to kill until my 18h30 departure. But I am simply too exhausted from all the walking to do anything else. It is a ten minutes walk to Hakata Station, from where I catch the Metro line number 1 for the two stops to the airport. With a journey time of only five minutes, this must really be the airport closest to any city centre I have ever visited.
Check-in at one of the self-service devices is out of the question for me, as I have none of the information required to avail myself of the service.
So I head over to a check-in counter, where a friendly check-in agent welcomes me. She takes my passport and starts hammering away at the keyboard. After about five minutes of typing, she asks to see my e-ticket number, types some more and eventually informs me that I have 22H, an aisle seat on the right side of the plane on a row of two. She then proceeds to print my first boarding card for this flight. This one is green.
From check-in I head one floor up to security. You pick up a basket and place all your belongings into that. Before you put your things on the conveyor belt, you must scan your boarding pass. Subsequently the machine will print a second boarding card. This one is white and printed on flimsy cashier receipt type paper. Nobody wants to see it, so I’m not sure what it’s for.
There is even a domestic ANA lounge here. It is surprisingly large and beautifully finished in what I would refer to as Japanese minimalist design. It is very nice. Food options are limited to packets of Japanese crackers and the drinks selection is limited. But is serves its purpose and the sofas are comfortable enough.
About thirty minutes before departure I figure boarding is about to begin, so I leave the lounge and make my way to the gate.
Boarding is somewhat cumbersome, to say the least. What ever happened to Japanese high-tech and efficiency? There are four attendants staffing the counter and to be honest, I do not think they are quite sure what they are all supposed to be doing there either. One girl is making the announcements, to which all of them bow, while another shows us how to put the boarding pass on the scanner using an oversized cardboard model of the scanner and a huge plastic boarding pass. To watch her one might easily think she is playing to an audience of kindergarten kiddies. Another one wheels a sign to the front of the gate and flips it from ‘service’ to ‘pre-boarding’, to ‘premium boarding’ before eventually an announcement is made that general boarding has started and the corresponding sign is flipped to ‘general boarding’. As I pass the gate and scan my green boarding card, a third one is issued, this time a pink one, which is subsequently handed to me by one of the four gate attendants. What on earth is the point of having self-service boarding anyway, and what’s with the three boarding passes in different shapes and sizes?
But apart from all this, like everything in Japan, boarding a plane is an orderly affair. Standing by the entrance to the plane, there is another ANA employee, this time one of the James-Bond-You-Only-Live-Twice-With-A-Crash-Helmet-On variety, holding up a sign that explains which seat numbers are on which aisle.
The cabin looks well maintained. Only the old angular overhead bins betray the real age of the aircraft. The distribution of passengers in the cabin is strange. The forward Economy Class cabin is packed, while the rear Economy Class section is only full in the front part. Towards the back there are much less passengers and there are quite a few rows in between the two aisles that are empty.
Later on, as soon as the fasten seat belt sign is turned off after take-off, I walk towards the back of the plane, originally with the intention of going to the loo. That is when I spot 36A, a window on the left side of the aircraft and above all, behind the wing. So I quickly return to my original seat, grab my belongings and change seats. Brilliant, total bliss in fact!
The airport is quite busy at this time of day. We taxi to the threshold of the active runway where we wait for an arriving Hawaiian Airlines B 767-300 before it is our turn to line up and depart.
There is not really very much to say about this flight in terms of service. The crew seem pleasant enough and take their job, especially the safety bit, very seriously. No more, no less.
Catering on this flight consists of drinks only. Luckily I bought myself a couple of sandwiches on my way to the gate. There is also a menu with buy on board items. But when the cabin attendant reaches my row, it turns out there is no food for purchase at all in Economy Class on this flight. But at least the drinks are for free. I am not quite sure what to make of all this, but thanks for the free apple juice anyway.
I spend the rest of the flight watching the lovely views outside until eventually the sun sets and we are surrounded by darkness.
By the time we are approaching Naha it is nearly 20h00 and pitch dark. Further more, the crew do not dim the lights for arrival, despite the darkness outside, making photos perfectly impossible.
Naha airport is a mid-sized facility with a large domestic terminal and a minute international one.
In the arrivals hall there are these containers for you to dump your baggage tags.
Getting into Town
Well, strictly speaking I am not going into town. I am heading for Manza Beach, about a one hour’s drive away from the airport. During the low season, now, the last bus leaves Naha airport for Manza at 15h00, long before my flight had even left Fukuoka. So I have no other choice but to pay the EUR 70 for a taxi.
This concludes this review. I like the ANA brand and I like the Japanese way of doing things. The aircraft on this flight is in mint condition and the service provided by the staff is faultless. However, I also have to say that I am somewhat taken aback by how complicated and cumbersome flying domestic in Japan is. Three boarding passes is simply pointless, as is having a pro forma automated boarding process if you have to show your boarding pass and passport to an attendant again anyway.
I spend a nice couple of days in Manza, either reading or lounging by the beach. The Manza Beach Intercontinental Hotel is a pleasant place to stay. It’s also an interesting experience to watch Japanese tourists on their home turf.
I arrived in Seoul the previous afternoon on the Asiana Airlines flight from Frankfurt. For all practical purposes I might as well have stayed at a hotel close to the airport, seeing as Seoul’s international Incheon airport is rather far out of town. But then again, I always find airport hotels rather depressing, no matter how nice they may be.
Date: 27 May 2012 From: Seoul Incheon To: Fukuoka Airline: Asiana Airlines Aircraft: Airbus A 321 Class: Business Class Seat: 1B, aisle. Just before pushback I move to 3D, window.
Getting to the Airport
To get to the airport, I take the Metro line 1 from City Hall to Seoul Station and then from there the Airport Express to Incheon. The railway station of Lucerne inspired the original main building of Seoul Station. It is now closed for passengers and houses a museum instead.
The Airport Express station is on the second basement floor, the platform for the train is five floors further down on the seventh basement floor.
At Seoul Station some carriers, including Asiana Airlines, provide the possibility to do check-in and even immigration. I’ll have to try this some other time as I only have four minutes to spare before the train leaves.
Once I arrive at the airport, I find the Asiana Airlines check-in counters to check if they will accept the SWISS branded boarding card I was issued in Basel two days previously. The agent looks at my passport, tells me everything is fine and writes the number of the gate on the boarding card for me.
After that I head for security, which, although very busy, is also highly efficient. After security and emigration I head for the Asiana lounge one floor up.
The receptionist welcomes me to the lounge and tells me that I need to exchange my SWISS boarding pass for an Asiana Airlines branded one first. Fortunately the transfer counter is right opposite the entrance to the lounge. So I do that, no idea what the point of all this is though, and then return.
The lounge is elegantly appointed, but there are a few odd items: a piano that does not make a sound and shelves of faux books – covers with empty pages.
The lounge is not too full and I manage to secure a comfortable seat by the window. I pass my time watching the action on the ramp.
When I arrive at the gate I find my bird standing there with a bunch of engineers peering into the left engine. The cowling is open. It is only when I take a closer look that I realise they are doing an engine test. Standing so close to it the noise must be deafening. The gate attendant announces that there will be a delay for technical reasons. Indeed!
Eventually boarding commences some thirty minutes behind schedule. But the flight time is calculated at just under one hour, so we are able to make up time en route. By the time we arrive in Fukuoka we are only 15 minutes behind schedule.
Asiana Airlines has a dedicated Business Class on its Airbus narrow-bodies. There are three rows with four seats on each row, for a total of twelve seats. The colours and patterns are the same as in First Class on the B 747-400. The seat is incredibly wide, has amazingly soft cushions, a footrest and is tremendously comfortable.
I arrive at my seat to find earphones, the menu and a pair of slippers placed in the seat pocket.
Take-off is to the north and as soon as we get airborne we experience some heavy turbulence which lasts for about 20 minutes during the climb. We bank to the right, making sure to avoid getting even remotely close North Korean airspace.
There are two flight attendants working the Business Class section on this flight. Again the crew seem friendly enough. Service begins with one of the flight attendants passing through the cabin with the customs and immigration forms for Japan.
While we’re still on the ground and once boarding is completed, the lead flight attendant passes through the cabin offering either water or orange juice for a welcome drink. This is followed by a hot towel.
When eventually the fasten seat belt sign goes off, my table is set with a crisp linen tablecloth.
Every passenger is served a tray individually from the galley, not from a trolley. And here’s what we get:
I have a Perrier to drink and then later on a coffee. During the meal the crew serve green tea.
The approach into Fukuoka is pretty spectacular. First we fly in over the sea, along the cost. Then we bank right and fly right over the city towards the hills in the background. The hills begin to close in around the aircraft and you begin to wonder where on earth you are actually going. I hear the sound of the autopilot being disengaged and shortly thereafter we bank sharply to the left to execute a 180 degree turn at an interestingly low altitude. It reminds me a bit of the approach to Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport. Eventually we come out of the turn, the wings are levelled again and we gracefully glide down onto the runway. Nice one captain!
Getting into Town
Fukuoka has an international terminal and a domestic terminal, which are located on either side of the runway. There is the metro into town from the domestic terminal. To get there I take the free shuttle across the airfield, the route of which actually takes you airside again. It is an interesting route and runs between the masts of the approach light markings as you round the runway threshold. Once you reach the other side, the bus passes another gate and you find yourself landside once again.
The only problem on this particular occasion is that the bus is stifling. It is so hot and muggy that it takes your breath away. But luckily the journey does not take too long to complete.
The domestic terminal is divided into sections, although I am not exactly sure according to what criteria. One would expect there to be separate sections for ANA and for JAL, but that does not seem to be the case.
The trip into town only takes 5 minutes by metro. I get out at the second stop, which is Hakata main station. From where there are connections onto the JR Shinkansen mainline routes. My hotel is in a shopping mall complex known as Canal City and is some 10 minutes away from the station on foot.
On this flight Asiana Airlines certainly showed consistency in its service in that the flight, although a very short one, was equally pleasant as my trip from Frankfurt to Seoul with them the previous day. The Business Class seat is positively enormous and the crew were pleasant, professional and charming. The food is possibly a matter of taste. Asiana Airlines are certainly catering for the Japanese market here. I like Japanese food, so I don’t mind. But I can imagine there may be people who would not have enjoyed this meal so much.
When the Abbassids took control of the Arab empire in the year 750, they were unable to retain power in many of the more remote areas of the realm and within a short space of time a series of so-called heresies were established throughout the Maghreb and al-Andalus, the Arab dominated part of the Iberian Peninsula. One such heresy was the Emirate of Cordoba, which was proclaimed in 756 by the Ummayyad prince Abd ar-Rahman I.
Initially the range and strength of the emirate varied considerably, nominally on the fringes, where it bordered and subsequently clashed with Christian civilization. Eventually though, by the year 912 prince Abd ar-Rahman III. had managed to restore and secure power in all of al-Andaluz and even managed to expand the emirate’s territory into North Africa and the Maghreb. By 929 Abd ar-Rahman felt sufficiently confident in his rule to proclaim himself the rightful ruler of the Caliphate of Cordoba. In doing so he was openly challenging the legitimacy of the Abbassid claim to power as the supreme rulers of all Muslims. Abd ar-Rahman’s proclamation set the stage for a confrontation with the Abbassid Caliphate in the heartland of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula, and the ambitious Fatimid Caliphate of North Africa. Eventually, it was the Fatimids who would emerge as the winners of the conflict. Not necessarily because they had the strongest armies but because they had managed to retain unity within their realm during the course of the ensuing power struggle.
The Ummayyad Caliphate never fully recovered from the efforts of war and subsequent defeat and gradually went into a decline. Eventually the Caliphate of Cordoba was officially abolished in 1023 with the deposition of the last Caliph, Hischam III. The Fatimids in turn, went on to conquer Egypt, where they would eventually establish Cairo – the City Victorious – as their capital.
On my first evening in Cordoba I have a ticket to visit the cathedral of the city. The doors open at 22:30 and the guided tour takes a bit more than an hour. The tour is similar to the Sound and Light Show they have in the evenings at the Giza Pyramids in Cairo.
If ever you have the good fortune to visit Cordoba, I can only recommend the night tour. First of all because there are far less people there by night, and secondly, more importantly, because the atmosphere is simply magical. The cathedral was originally built as a mosque and repeatedly expanded during the reign of the Ummayyad Caliphate of Al-Andalus. Later, when the Christians had reconquered the Iberian Peninsula, the mosque was converted into a cathedral. And what a mess they made of it! Even so, it is a fascinating place to visit, it is unique and very likely the only place on the planet where you are likely ever to see statues of those plump little Christian angels alongside traces of Islamic architecture at its very finest, with beautiful inscriptions written in Arabic praising the virtues of the rulers who had commissioned the construction of some part or other of the original mosque.
Unfortunately photography is not permitted so the only pictures I have to share with you are from the outside.
Here are some pictures I took of the cathedral in daylight.
On my second day in Cordoba I head out of town to Madinat Az-Zahra, the former residence of Caliph Abd Ar-Rahman III. The Madina was essentially a city inhabited by the people who worked, in some form or other, at the court and in the government of the mighty Caliph. Only ruins remain today of this splendid city.
Have I already mentioned just how bad the weather was in Cordoba during my stay? Just in case I haven’t, let me tell you it was something nasty! There is little or no shelter from the elements among the ruins of the Madina. Just as I start to make my way back to the shuttle that takes passengers from the site back down the hill to the museum, there is a torrential outburst of rain! It must have been this kind of down poor that convinced Noah to build his arch, and I don’t blame him!
This trip review is a radical departure from my usual theme in that it is a review of a trip I make by train and not by plane.
Date: 27 April 2012 From: Madrid To: Cordoba Carrier: Renfe Vehicle: AVE Highspeed train Class: Club Class Seat: 7C, aisle
Getting to the Station
I arrive in Madrid on an Air Europa flight from Amsterdam. The flight is certainly nothing to write home. It doesn’t help that we arrive in Madrid with a delay of 90 minutes. If everything had gone according to plan, I would have had three hours to make my connection by train from Madrid’s Atocha railway station to Cordoba. I have now only 75 minutes. So I deplane straight away and head for the Metro. There is a direct train from the airport to Atocha, but that only runs from the new Terminal 4, not from Terminal 1 where I arrive.
But the journey proves to be an easy enough one. I take the Metro to Nuevos Ministerios and from there change onto a suburban train that gets me to Atocha in no time. I even have time for one of those lovely baguette sandwiches with a tortilla and grilled green peppers in it!
The Spanish railways are simply amazing. They’re fast, reliable, very clean and stylish and the service is absolutely outstanding. What’s more, it is obvious the railways are competing head to head with the air carriers. And if you ask me, right now they have the upper hand in Spain.
At Atocha station there is something like a transit area. To access it you have to have a valid ticket and you have to put your luggage through the x-ray machine. You are then inside the departure lounge. The platforms are one floor up from the tracks. To access them you have to wait for your train to start boarding, at which time your ticket is scanned at a counter that looks very much like an airport gate. And then from there you descend via escalator to your train, where your attendant is already expecting you.
The cabin of the train is very nicely appointed, with use of wood for the tables and the back of the seats. The seat itself is very comfortable and made of leather. Fortunately, the train is not very full today either.
The service is simply amazing. We start with a welcome drink served in a real glass, with dried fruit and nuts to go along with that. A short while after earphones are distributed.
Once we leave the station we receive a hot towel to refresh us, followed by the distribution of the menus.
And then comes the meal. It is served in real crockery and with real metal cutlery. As it is the afternoon, we are served an open canape sandwich with a Russian Salad and peppers. For dessert there are two small and very tasty cakes. With that I have a diet coke. I comment on the funky design and ask the attendant if it’s okay for me to take the empty bottle with me. He replies that yes it is and even gives me an extra bottle to have a nice, unopened one to keep. How nice is that.
After the meal comes the coffee and a Lindor chocolate praliné, which I’ve demolished by the time I remember to take a picture of it. Yes, I really am impressed! Next stop: Cordoba.
The journey by Renfe is a smooth and quiet one. For a place as small and as densely populated as Europe it really would make more sense to expand the railway network instead of further adding to the seemingly inevitable congestion in the air. Travelling by train simply makes more sense: the stations are usually not that far out of town, security is not quite such a pain and you can basically take as much luggage as you like. Perhaps therefore, the time has come for the railways and the airlines to stop competing head to head and instead to understand that they are two different transport modes that could very easily complement each other. In some countries this is already a reality: in France Air France has slashed a number of domestic routes in favour of a code-share agreement with the TGV, with trains running directly to the Roissy Airport in Paris. Lufthansa has a similar set up in Germany and so does Switzerland. But so far all these collaborations have been on a purely national level. And for a change it’s not the airlines being overly protective of their markets, but the railway companies.
I’ve decided to make the best of the long weekend ahead of the 1. May, which is a public holiday in Switzerland. But where to go? For quite a while I’ve been entertaining the thought of taking the Korean Air flight from Madrid to Amsterdam. While still deliberating where to go for the long weekend it emerges that Korean Air will be ending its Madrid to Amsterdam service in favour of serving both destinations with separate direct flights from Seoul. Perhaps this is something they usually do for the summer season. In any case, the decision is taken from me it seems and I book myself to fly on 1 May 2012 with Korean Air, the last day of operation of the service.
And how do I get to Madrid? Feeling an urgent compulsion to try out a further new airline, I do a bit of exploring and experimenting on the net and eventually settle for a flight with KLM from Zürich to Amsterdam – nothing new there – and from there with Air Europa to Madrid. This trip review is about the first part of the trip and covers the journey from Zürich to Amsterdam.
Date: Friday, 27 April 2012 From: Zürich To: Amsterdam Airline: KLM Aircraft: Boeing B 737-700 Class: Economy Class Seat: 10B, middle seat – later move to 11A, window
Getting to the Airport
Things are quiet today in the office. It looks like others have the same idea and have already left for the long week-end. At 15:30 I call it a day, pack my things and leave the office for the airport. I catch the train at 15:55 and by 16:10 my train pulls into the station at Zürich Airport. My flight is not until 19:30 so I head for the observation deck, which I still have not visited since the new dock opened in December 2011. The entrance fee is ChF5.- and there are lockers to but your bags in.
It has turned warm and sunny again here, after three weeks solid of the most god awful weather. As soon as I step outside on to the terrace, I feel like I’ve just gone through a time warp and I realise just how much I have missed being out here. I think of the many hours I spent here as a kid, watching planes from around the world coming and going!
The new dock is very nice, I must say. There are these screens in front of every airbridge, providing information on the aircraft parked at that particular gate. There is also a huge playground, which is well frequented and evidently very popular with the kids. And there are the aircraft themselves of course, which you can get quite close to on the deck.
I spend quite some time outside. Then at around 18:00 I head inside to collect my things and pass through security. From there I head to the Skyteam lounge for a drink before my flight.
There really is not very much to say about the KLM flight. It’s another solid performance. Yes, I know I’m biased. I just really like KLM. Boarding starts right on time but the Swissport agent handling the flight makes a complete dog’s breakfast of the whole process.
but eventually we manage and I am on board.
I have the middle seat on the emergency exit. Once boarding is completed though, I notice that the row behind me only has a female subject sitting on the aisle reading a book, and evidently, and it is quite unimaginable for me, she is completely uninterested in looking out the window. So I collect my things and move one row back to claim the window seat. The middle seat stays empty, so I have just as much space as on the exit row.
For sure the Embraer I normally travel on with KLM is a nifty little plane, and the 2 + 2 configuration is quite convenient for the passenger in terms of comfort. But somehow, sitting here and glancing out at the wing of the B737 I must confess that I find the larger size of the Boeing far more appealing. The whole thing just seems more solid and, well…big.
As usual take-off is from runway 28.
The meal is the standard drink run you get on KLM with a choice of a sweet or savory snack. Coffee and tea are served at the same time due to the short duration of the flight.
All in all it really is a pleasantly uneventful flight and before long we’re already flying through the clouds again on our descent into Amsterdam.
We arrive in Amsterdam a few minutes ahead of schedule. I pass through customs and make a beeline for the CitizenM at the airport, where I will spend the night before my onward journey to Madrid on Air Europa the next day.
The four blissful days I spend at the Six Senses Resort in Con Dao are just so relaxing. In essence, I spend my time sleeping, swimming, reading and eating. Even so, I must say I’m also glad to be leaving again. I think another day of doing absolutely nothing at all and I might slowly start to get bored. Apart from that, I am more of a city person, so I’m looking forward to exploring Hanoi.
This trip review covers two sectors: first, the flight from Con Dao to Saigon in Economy Class, followed by the flight from Saigon to Hanoi in Business Class.
Date: 8 September 2012 Airline: Vietnam Airlines, on behalf of VASCO Aircraft: ATR-72 From: Con Dao To: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Cabin: Economy Seat: 3G
Getting to the Airport
There is only one road on Con Dao island, which runs from the airport to the harbour. The term ‘road’ should be used in the most liberal sense here so as not to insult the sensitivities of the local population… The road in in fact a path covered with gravel and littered with heaps of cow shit. The perpetrators are usually not far off and to be found standing either on the road itself, seemingly oblivious to the traffic (such as it were), or by the roadside. Towards the airport the cow shit subsides and makes way for the proverbial sleeping dogs, lazily waging their tails in the heat of the midday sun.
I am driven to the airport by the hotel’s very own shuttle service. The trip from the hotel takes about 15 minutes. On our way there, we drive along the cost, which looks beautiful today with the waves breaking against the coral reef.
As soon as we arrive, one of the concierge’s sidekicks ushers me to a seat, takes my passport and heads over to the only one of the five check-in counters that’s open. The place is empty when I arrive, so the check-in process is quickly done.
I’m not usually one for collecting boarding passes, but I think this one I’ll keep, a boarding pass of VASCO printed on an ancient matrix printer.
About 45 minutes before departure, my ride arrives on the inbound from Ho Chi Minh City. The line for security does not open until the aircraft has landed and stopped in front of the terminal. There are two departure gates.
The gate is at ground level and there are a few large windows open to let in the breeze and also allow for some good photo opportunities of the admittedly rather quiet airfield.
At exactly 12h00, as stated on my boarding pass, boarding begins. Con Dao airport is a gem in that you get to walk across the apron to your aircraft. What’s more, none of the officials seem to mind the picture taking. At all airports I make a point of asking if I may take pictures. But Con Dao is the only place I’ve been to so far, where the official offers to take a picture of me in front of my plane!
This aircraft carries the full livery of Vietnam Airlines. I step inside to find the cabin is also Vietnam Airlines branded. Unlike the aircraft I flew down to Con Dao with, this one looks very neat and prim and I wonder just how long it’s been in service. Can’t be long by the looks of it. This bird has leather seats in the Vietnam Airlines colours and also the head covers carry their logo.
Originally I’m on 9B, an aisle seat. But fortunately, the flight is not entirely full and as the engines power up, I quickly move forward to grab a window seat on 3G. We backtrack down the runway and do a 180 degree turn at the end, with some nice views of the beach. We already have our clearance, so once we’re lined up with the runway, the props immediately spool up and we go hurtling down the runway. Right after take-off we do a sharp right turn to point us in the direction of the mainland and Ho Chi Minh City.
There are two cabin crew on board this bird, a young woman and a young man. Both of them are very friendly and helpful which, on second thought, I think I can say about all the Vietnamese I met on this trip. Both of them look very serious, but as soon as you interact with them they break out into a beaming smile.
As the seat belt sign goes off, we are given a lovely jasmine scented, prepacked refreshing towel. This is followed by a bottle of VASCO branded still water.
The flight is only 40 minutes. About 15 minutes into the flight the lovely shades of azure of the sea beneath turn a muddy brown as we approach the Mekong delta. A short while later, we make landfall and immediately start our descent into Ho Chi Minh airport.
Upon arrival, we taxi all the way back, past the domestic and international terminals, towards the threshold of the runway we just landed on. Space is scarce at Ho Chi Minh airport, so we park on a kind of mini apron which is capable of holding three aircraft the size of an ATR.
Transfer in Saigon
We are then bussed to the domestic terminal. In the arrivals hall I make my way to the Vietnam Airlines counter, where I receive my boarding pass for the onward flight, as well as an invitation to the Business Class lounge.
From there I go landside again, turn right and walk over to departures hall from where I left for Con Dao earlier in the week. From there I head upstairs for security and I am airside again.
Date: 8. September 2012 Airline: Vietnam Airlines Aircraft: A321 From: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) To: Hanoi Cabin: Business Class Seat: 3G
There are two Business Class lounges in the domestic terminal and both are operated by SASCO, the airport authority. One lounge is located near gate 1. It has great views of the domestic apron but it’s also the smoker’s lounge and I don’t much fancy that. So I head for the other lounge near gate 12, from where my flight will be departing. This lounge has no views, but it has wifi instead and there are no smokers in sight. The food options in the lounge are interesting. I help myself to a plate of chips but I only find out once I sit down that they’re stone cold!
Boarding starts on time, incidentally from the same bus gate I boarded to fly to Con Dao. There is a separate lane for Business Class passengers, and when I arrive at the bottom of the stairs I am pleasantly surprised to find there is also a separate bus for Business Class and premium passengers.
In due course, we are bussed to our aircraft, an Airbus A321 registered VN-A348. I take my time and let the others board ahead of me, which gives me an opportunity to take pictures of the gorgeous Vietnam Airlines livery.
An old Vietnam Airlines Tu-134 and a Lusinov L-2 next to it. Not very likely every to fly again.
I salute Vietnam Airlines for redefining the term ‘tight squeeze’!
Vietnam Airlines has a dedicated Business Class cabin on its A321 fleet. Interestingly though, there is only a standard curtain cabin divider between Economy and Business Class. The seat looks positively enormous and wide and is very comfy. I settle into my seat and wait for the service to begin.
One of the flights attendant comes through the cabin with scented cold towels, which are very welcome given that it’s 33 degrees outside and humid. Behind her, the lead flight attendant has a tray with orange or apple juice. I choose the apple juice.
And then we have a Problem
I barely have the time to finish my drink when captain Costas (surprising name for a Vietnamese…) comes on the blower to inform us that our plane will not be going anywhere because of pressurisation ‘issues’. He informs us that we will all have to deplane, return to the terminal and wait until a replacement aircraft becomes available. For a moment I suspect that this is where my holiday starts to go pear shaped.
The buses are already waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs, the smaller one for the premium passengers and two larger busses for everybody else. Inside the terminal, the Vietnam Airlines ground staff are already expecting us and hand out transit passes as we enter the building.
I return to the lounge and wait for further news. Originally, my flight should have left at 16h00. When I check the departure screens at around 16h30 to see if there’s any news, I notice that there are two other flights to Hanoi leaving soon. One is at 16h50 and the other at 17h30. So I make my way to the counter and ask the friendly young lady if perhaps it might be possible to rebook to one of those flights. To which she gives me a surprised look and informs me that actually my delayed flights has started boarding again from its original gate and will now also be leaving at 16h50.
So I return to gate 12, where indeed the flight is boarding. So we do the whole process again. I’m actually getting quite good at it in the meantime, only this time the bus heads to another corner of the airfield and indeed to another aircraft, VN-A345.
… or maybe not
Much to my surprise and pleasure, this aircraft looks and feels much newer. Apart from the fact that it has newer, nicer looking and even more comfortable seats up front, I am amazed by how clear the view is through the window. No greasy spots where some uncouth slob decided to lean his greasy bonce against the window and have a nap, no kiddie paw smudges and not a single scratch. Just my luck really, because by the time we reach Hanoi it will already be too dark anyway.
Eventually, we depart at 17h15, nearly two hours behind schedule. As we taxi out for take-off, we pass VN-A348, which has since been moved to the maintenance apron and is being taken care of by a bunch of engineers.
Once it becomes clear that the new plane is ready to fly, we get another towel and drinks round, although this time it’s only still water. In their announcements the crew welcome us aboard and repeatedly apologise profusely for the delay.
We take off in a southerly direction and subsequently do a wide right turn to point us north. This departure route brings us round to pass over the airport.
Once we’re airborne and the seat belt sign is switched off, the service begins. There is a choice of beef in some kind of pastry, dim sum or some Asian beef dish. I go with the dim sum of course and a soda water with that. Vietnam Airlines have this interesting system. Once you make your choice, the cabin crew will put a sticker on your seat which matches the tinfoil on your meal. Like this they can see at a glance what you’ve ordered, which I find rather nifty actually.
First, the table is set with a yellow tablecloth at the centre of which is the lotus blossom that is the Vietnam Airlines logo. When the tray arrives, it contains, apart from the dim sum, a salad with an Australian brand of dressing, a fruit salad, butter and additional chilli sauce. I’m not sure what this is for because the red stuff in the tinfoil served with the hotmeal is already quite sufficient to blow the top of your head off. There is also warm bread on offer and I choose the lovely garlic bread.
After a coffee round, my tray is collected again. Throughout the flight the crew does a number of drink runs. I’m quite impressed.
At some point, captain Costas, who initially I thought sounded Spanish but is now sounding increasingly Greek, comes on the blower. I figure this must be the ‘we’re about to start our descent’ speech. But instead, he informs us that we still have more than an hour to fly. Because of thunderstorms en route we’re having to circumnavigate. Rather than flying a straight line, our route takes us from Ho Chi Minh City in a northeasterly direction towards Da Nang and then from there we do a left turn towards Hanoi.
Eventually, we land in Hanoi at 19h25, with more than two hours delay. The hotel has sent a car to pick me up. The journey to the centre of Hanoi takes about 50 minutes to complete by car. The pick up is a BMW 7. Once I get in, the driver shows me the drinks menu and asks me what I’m having. There are also refreshing towels and a few macaroons sent as a welcome gift by the hotel’s pâtissier. Something tells me I’m going to enjoy my stay…
Despite the delay, or perhaps I should say precisely because of the delay, I had a very good experience with Vietnam Airlines. I am particularly impressed with the way they handled the irregularity of our aircraft going tech. I think they put a lot of effort into minimising the inconvenience for the passengers as far as possible. Throughout the process they were very apologetic but also very professional. So thumbs up for that! I would certainly have no problem at all flying Vietnam Airlines again. And I am rather curious about what their long-haul product is like…
So about Hanoi… Personally, I love the place and the people, both of which draw you in with their openness and charm. While Saigon is the economic powerhouse of Vietnam, Hanoi is far more laid back in the way that only a capital city can be that knows it has nothing to prove to anybody because it is, after all, the capital city.
With its horrific traffic, busy crowds and French boulangeries Hanoi leaves you confused, dazed and gagging for more. I am still trying to figure out why. There are certainly prettier and more spectacular cities around Asia. But I think that is precisely it: unlike ambitious Kuala Lumpur, chaotic Bangkok and sterile Singapore, Hanoi and her people are surprisingly untypically Asian. The obvious conclusion to draw from that might be to assume that the city has managed to retain some of its heritage as part of the French colonial territory of Indochine. But that would be to do the city an injustice, for it has its very own distinct style. So I think I’ll just leave it at that and simply say that Hanoi is unlike any other Asian city I have visited so far. And I like that!
It’s the Wednesday before Ascension, and I’ve decided to travel to Genoa in Northern Italy on the new Darwin Airlines service from Zürich. I leave the office at 14h40 and head for the airport by train.
Date: 16 May 2012 From: Zürich To: Genova Aircraft: Saab 2000 Airlines: Darwin Class: Economy Class Seat: originally 6A, then moved to 7F
The airport is quite busy when I arrive.
Let’s just see if I can trick the DCS check-in system. I select ‘Swiss’ on the self-service machine, knowing very well that my ticket has the F7 flight number and was issued by Darwin Airlines. But there is a code-share in place. And perhaps if I check-in as a Swiss passenger, that may give me access to the lounge. It works like a charm with Air Malta every time.
I manage to have a boarding pass printed with the Swiss logo on it, but no matter how hard I try, the Senator number cannot be inserted in the booking. They seem to be learning…I might as well make my way to security.
Later on I inquire at the lounge and it transpires that indeed, only passengers booked on a Swiss 724 ticket for the Genoa flight have access to the lounge. Not that the system Swissport uses is very sophisticated. Quite the contrary in fact. The staff manning the reception desk at the lounge have a print out of all passengers for the flight, with the names of those passengers entitled to use the lounge.
It’s not important, so I take a seat by the window, close to gate A63. The weather is indeed awful, I think it’s actually hailing. The positive effect of this, of course, is that it means aircraft are coming in on runway 28, which runs parallel to the terminal. I take a seat, unpack my Mac and in short sequence I have the pleasure of watching three Swiss Airbus A 340-300s battling the elements as they touch down right before my eyes. Welcome home!
At the announced boarding time of 16h25, I head down to gate A56, a bus gate, which is in a provisional building that was erected about ten years ago and then decided to become a permanent fixture.
We pull up by the side of our aircraft. I haven’t been on one of these for ages. Despite its age, the Saab still looks very modern and streamlined.
The flight is not entirely full, with only a few empty seats here and there. Talk about a trip down memory lane. From the inside you might easily think you’re sitting in a Crossair plane, you can see it in the seats and the fonts used to indicate the seat numbers. And even the service is reminiscent of the old Crossair.
Once the door closes, I observe the very young flight attendant as she walks through the cabin slowly. From the way she is moving I guess she is passing through the cabin holding something in her hands, which is concealed from my view by the passenger seats. I assume it’s a tray or basket of sweets, but I find it somewhat strange that so many people decline. It’s only when she reaches my row that I realise she is holding a basket in her hands but that it contains application forms for a Corner Card Visa or Mastercard. So no sweeties then.
We take off from runway 32. On our way there we stop before crossing runway 28 to allow an A 321 to land.
Take-off is powerful but not very steep.
As soon at the fasten seat belt sign is turned off, the sole flight attendant working the flight springs into action. Quite surprisingly, service consists of some rather tasty sandwiches. There are Silserli buns with Salami and salad, or otherwise a bun with cheese and tomato. I opt for the Salami and I have to say it really is very tasty. What’s more, even in Economy drinks are served in proper glass, not plastic. Now how quaint is that? Shortly after the flight attendant moves on to serve the row behind me, the pilot comes on the blower to inform us that we will already be landing in approximately 20 minutes. That was quick!
The approach into Genoa is truly magnificent and fortunately the weather here has decided to play along. Genoa is located on a thin strip of land between the mountains and the sea. Space is so limited that in fact the airport had to be built on reclaimed land. The approach takes you along the coast and offers excellent views of the city, the shore and the mountains behind.
I disembark and emerge into the beautiful sunshine. It’s quite amazing really that one hour ago I was watching the aircraft at Zurich being pelted with hail stones!
Getting into Town
I exit the airport building and catch the bus into town. The return ticket costs EUR12. The journey takes about 30 minutes to the railway station.
Darwin Airlines really was an eye opener. To be honest, I was not expecting anything at all. In hindsight though, I have to say that they were great. With their little airplanes they really celebrate an art of customer service and hospitality in air travel that has long gone in many other parts of the world. The Saab 2000 are kept in mint condition. But alas, it is of no avail and sadly, the route has since been discontinued.