TGV Lyria, Business First: Paris Gare de Lyon to Basel SBB

The meeting at ICAO ends just after noon. But by the time everybody has said good bye to everybody else and pretended the whole situation isn‘t just one big fat mess caused by ICAO and EASA together, it‘s gone 13h by the time I get to have lunch.

My train isn‘t leaving until 16:23. But the weather in Paris today is something nasty. And so, at 14:15 I descend down into the Metro at Les Sablons in Neuilly Sur Seine. From here I have a direct train on the line number 1 all the way to Gare de Lyon.

The journey takes thirty minutes between Les Sablons and Gare de Lyon.

Today I‘m travelling in BusinessPremière, which is located in car number 11. In BusinessPremière passengers receive complimentary newspapers, a welcome drink and a hot meal. It also means I‘m entitled to use the Salon Grand Voyageur, which is located in Hall 3, one floor down from Hall 2.

The Salon is quite small, which is why I don‘t take any pictures. But it‘s comfortable enough. There are toilets in the lounge. There is also a coffee machine serving complimentary hot drinks.

Boarding for the train starts 20 minutes before departure and terminates two minutes before departure.

The train is quite full, presumably because it‘s Friday afternoon and people are on their way home for the weekend.

The seat is quite comfortable. There is a power socket and a footrest. Seat pitch is good, but the foot rest is in a slightly inconvenient position…

The service begins about 20 minutes out of Paris with the distribution of the scented hot towels, newspapers and drinks. There is a full bar service available. I settle for some sparkling water.

The meal consists of a carrot cake with goat‘s cheese and peppers and two small pieces of salmon quiche.

And for dessert I have a slice of lemon cake with apricots.

It‘s really more of a snack than a meal, but given the time of day, I think it‘s perfectly adequate and quite tasty.

The meal ends with a cup of ginger and lemon tea.

The rest of the journey is uneventful. We arrive in Basel with a delay of three minutes which, funnily enough, we picked up only on the last eight kilometres of the journey from Paris.

As you may have guessed by now, I‘m a great fan of the TGV. It‘s fast, safe, reliable and it comes without the hassle of security checkpoints. And if everything else fails, the train just looks good inside and out.

The BusinessPremière product is attractive and certainly competitive with the airlines, especially when you take into account the much lower ticket price and the city centre departure from the Gare de Lyon.

Virgin Trains, First Class: London Euston to Lancaster

INTRODUCTION
I’m on my way to Lancaster for the graduation ceremony. This is the third Master’s degree I’ll be picking up. I then start on my PhD at Lancaster University in January.

GETTING TO EUSTON
In London I stayed at the old County Hall hotel, which is right next door to the London Eye and close to Waterloo station. The train to Lancaster will be leaving from Euston station, which is roughly 25 minutes away from Waterloo on the Northern line. Given the fact that the tube is prone to unexpected delays, I decide to make an early start. My train will be departing at 11h30. So I leave the hotel just after 10h00.

THE LOUNGE
By the time I reach Euston, I still have an hour to spare before the train leaves. Luckily, Virgin Trains operate a First Class lounge at the station, which is located one floor up from the main public area and the platforms.

The lounge is fairly busy when I arrive, but there is still plenty of room to sit. The lounge looks a lot like the many airline lounges I’ve been to at various airports around the world. In addition, there is also a bar, where you can order freshly brewed coffee. To eat there are mainly sweet snack items like biscuits or brownies.

There is also complimentary wifi access in the lounge, which works surprisingly well.

BOARDING
Our train will be departing from platform seven and there is a ticket check just before you access the platform. The train seems quite busy. Even so, the queues for the ticket check are short and move quickly.

Departure is exactly on time at 11h30. The journey time is announced at 2 hours and 24 minutes, which should get us into Lancaster at 13h54.

THE TRAIN
The seating configuration in First Class is 2 + 1, with seats facing each other. As a result, the leg space, while not tight, is somewhat limited and does not allow you to stretch your legs.

Furthermore, there is a table across the full length of the compartment of four, which cannot be removed. So if you’re seated at the window and need to get out, the person on the aisle seat will have to move first.

Complimentary wifi is available on board and works very well.

THE SERVICE
I count four crew members working the First Class section. They’re polite and all, but somehow they all seem rather unhappy to be there and are not overly friendly either. The service comes across as being a bit rough and unpolished.

THE MEAL
In First Class, Virgin Trains will serve you a complimentary meal of sorts, the content of which varies according to the time of day. There is a printed menu available at every table and there are various options to choose from.

The service begins when the crew pass through the cabin with drinks. There is a fairly large selection of alcoholic and soft drinks.

Next, one of the crew passes through the cabin with a choice of oatmeal biscuits or mini brownies. After that, two other crew members pass through the cabin offering either tea or coffee. I try the coffee, which is quite horrific. Apparently, the same goes for the tea, because that’s what the lady across the aisle has ordered and she’s positively outraged…

And then after that comes the hot meal. They’re really just snacks that are easy to heat up in a microwave. I have the vegetarian option, which is some sort of bubble and squeak with a vegetarian pesto sausage. And this dish is just about as vile as the tea and coffee. I knew I should have bought a sandwich from Marks… But I will say that it’s nice to be able to use proper cutlery on a train, instead of some flimsy plastic.

Over all, the sequence of the meal service seems a bit random to me and doesn’t really follow any logical pattern. Once the meal service has ended, the crew come to remove all used items and advise the passengers to help themselves to the bottles of water that have been set up in the middle of the carriage.

ARRIVAL
By the time we reach Lancaster, the train has managed to pick up a delay of twenty minutes. Which is not really surprising on a British train, even though I also have to admit that I didn’t notice any period during the journey when the train was going exceptionally slow or even stopped. But it makes no difference to me, one way or another.

Lancaster station is located on the fringe of the town, roughly ten minutes on foot to the centre.

CONCLUSION
Virgin Trains has a pricing system similar to that of the airlines. For this trip I booked an advanced purchase, non-changeable and non-refundable ticket that was relatively cheap for a First Class ticket for a journey of more than two hours. Even so, the next time I make this journey, I don’t think I would buy a First Class ticket again. Seat comfort is not really that good and the catering they might just as well do away with completely in my opinion.

Amtrak, First Class – Acela Express: Boston South Station to New York Pennsylvania Station

amtrak-logo

GETTING TO THE STATION
Transport:
Walking.
Journey time: 15 minutes.
Departs from: Long Wharf.
Arrives: Amtrak South Station.

The boat from Provincetown arrives at Boston’s Long Wharf in the old part of the city. It is 12h35 as I step off the boat and my train will not be leaving until 15h10. So I head for the Wagamama restaurant in the old warehouses on the wharf that have since been renovated and converted into shops and restaurants.

From the Long Wharf to South Station is a walk of about 10 to 15 minutes.

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BOARDING
Priority Boarding:
The First Class coach is at the very back of the train, which means it is closest to the beginning of the platform in Boston. First Class passengers are invited to board at their own leisure ahead of the other passengers. Boarding for the train starts about 15 minutes before the train’s departure.

An electronic ticket is sent as an attachment to the booking confirmation once you have completed the online booking.

CABIN
Configuration:
2 + 1.
Seat: The First Class carriage has a number of different seating configurations. On the row of single seats there are some seats facing each other for two persons travelling together, or individual seats behind each other. The same goes for the seats of two on the opposite side of the aisle. The seat itself is wide and very comfortable and has a good recline.
Facilities: Reading light, two power plugs.
Audio and Video: Wifi is available throughout the carriage.

SERVICE
The journey time is announced at 3 hours and 45 minutes for the 344 kilometres from Boston to New York. After New York the train continues to Washington. There is one young man serving the First Class carriage and he really is brilliant. He has an easygoing attitude and interacts nicely with the passengers.

As I take my seat, he comes to welcome me aboard and hands me the menu for the journey to New York and a packet of nibbles. He also takes my order for drinks. I order a Diet Pepsi, and much to my surprise, the drink is actually served in a real glass!

THE MEAL
Choice:
There are five dishes to choose from for the main course. The salad is the healthy option.
Delivery:
Individual tray service.
Type of meal:
Late lunch.
Meal:

  • Quinoa salad with edamame, tomatoes, mixed greens and an olive oil vinaigrette.
  • A warm bun with butter.
  • Cheesecake crumble with a raspberry coulis.
  • Coffee.

The meal arrives shortly after we leave Providence. And again I am pleasantly surprised that it is served in real crockery and with proper metal cutlery.

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The meal hits the spot nicely, which is hardly surprising, given that I only just had lunch at Wagamama’s…

For the rest of the journey the young man passes through the cabin, checking if passengers have everything they need of if they would like anything else.

ARRIVAL
By the time we arrive in New York, the train has a delay of nearly 15 minutes, which is not too bad. As we approach Manhattan, the young man passes through the carriage with hot towels.They are rather flimsy, but I guess they serve their purpose.

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From the platform I head one floor up and follow the signs for the C and E subway lines heading uptown.

All in all, I must say I enjoyed this trip on Amtrak. My only grippe really, is that the journey seems unnecessarily long. 344 kilometres should really be possible in under three hours by train.

 

 

RENFE, First Class – AVE: Madrid to Cordoba

INTRODUCTION

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: Friday, 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.

BOARDING

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

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.

SERVICE

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.

THE MEAL

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

EPILOGUE

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!