Austrian Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Vienna to Zürich

Transfer in Vienna

Nothing about Vienna airport really makes any sense to me. The impression you get is that the airside facility was built with everything but the passenger and the usability of the terminal in mind. My aircraft from Tirana parks at a remote stand, which means we are taken to the terminal by bus. But instead of dropping the passengers off near the beginning of the pier, which is where the security checkpoint and passport control are located, the bus driver only drives a few meters and then has us disembark at the very end of the concourse. From where it’s a long schlepp to immigration and the Covid certificate check, before eventually you arrive at the very beginning of the pier and the queue for security.

The Austrian Airlines Business Class lounge

The Austrian Airlines lounge is behind security, but in the completely opposite direction to the Schengen gates on the F pier.

The lounge is already quite full when I get there. The food options are rather nice, though. Other than that, the interior design is quite cheap. The seats in the dining area are covered in fake leather and aren’t really all that comfortable either.

Boarding

Eventually, I leave the lounge to walk around a bit and stop me from falling asleep.

The cabin

I am seated on 2F. There are five rows of business class for a total of twenty seats. On this flight, only eight seats are occupied. And funnily enough, I’m the only passenger seated on the right side. I’m guessing the other passengers all chose to sit on the left to get a better view of the alps en route.

The crew

The crew on this flight are all female and very friendly. They’re all smiles and are engaging with the passengers. Unlike SWISS, Austrian does not offer any pre-departure drinks or refreshing towels.

The meal

As soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off after take-off, the maître de starts preparing for breakfast. The curtain is closed, but I can hear her pottering around in the galley as she loads the hot meals into the trolley. But then suddenly, there’s a terrific crash as the whole trolley tumbles backwards and eventually keels over. The flight attendant opens the curtain with a horrified expression on her face and simply mutters: “Na, jetzt is mir der Trolley umgfallen…”. It seems like an odd thing to say because the crash was so loud that I’m pretty sure they probably heard it all the way back in Vienna.

Eventually, the crew manage to get the trolley upright, but most of the food has spilled. I really feel for the cabin crew, because she’s obviously distraught and so embarrassed. She keeps passing through the cabin apologizing and explaining that she can’t possibly serve the meal, as “so was gibt’s nicht amol bei der Ryanair”… Clearly, to her Ryanair is rock bottom and if not even they would serve such a messy looking meal, then she certainly won’t either in Austrian Business Class. She’s really quite funny in her state of upset.

Eventually, we agree for her to just give me the hot meal and a coffee. It just wouldn’t be very gentlemanly to have to lick the yoghurt of the tray… The hot meal is an omelet with cheese served with spinach.

To conclude the meal, the crew pass through the cabin offering small chocolates. They’re not as good as the SWISS ones, but they rarely are.

Arrival

We approach Zürich from the East, which brings us in right over lake Constance. It’s a gorgeous day for flying.

The maître de welcomes us to Zürich amid more profuse apologies at having ruined breakfast. She insists that in all her career, this is really the first time this has ever happened to her. I feel quite sorry for her, because she’s clearly very upset.

Zürich airport is very empty and quiet when we land. Even after all these years, I still think it’s impressive to think that we touched down on runway 16 at 09h00, and by 09h13 I’m already sitting on the train home!

Conclusion

Catering is, and has always been, one of the airline’s strongest points. And today’s two flights from Tirana to Vienna and then on to Zürich were no different – despite the mishap with the trolley. To serve a hot meal on a flight of barely one hour is certainly not bad at all and definitely a lot more substantial than anything I was expecting. On the other hand, I think it’s a shame they won’t even place a bottle of water at every seat as a pre-departure beverage.

The crew were very nice, which is a pleasant surprise. In the past, I’ve had crews on Austrian that were really just plain rude. For Tirana, I really think Austrian has the best and most frequent connections. Which is why I chose them. However, if it weren’t for their extensive eastern European network, I don’t think I would go out of my way to actively seek them out for my next trip. I find the whole experience a bit bland, and the unpredictability of the crew doesn’t help. I wouldn’t intentionally avoid them though, either.

Austrian Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Tirana to Vienna

Introduction

I’m not really sure what made me think a departure from Tirana at 04h25 in the morning would be a good idea. But here I am at 03h00 in the morning, walking the short distance from the Hotel Airport Tirana to the terminal building. Still, at least this way I’ll be back home by 11h00.

The terminal building is small and compact, with departures and check-in on the left side, and arrivals on the right side.

Check-in

Check-in for the flight to Vienna is already open. And much to my surprise, there’s even a manned Business Class desk that isn’t being laid siege to by a hoard of unruly Albanians who, I’m am finding out, really have a very, very strong aversion to queueing of any sort.

The Tirana Airport lounge

Security and immigration are painless. There are hardly any passengers this time of the morning.

So I decide to investigate the Business Class lounge, which is open at this ungodly hour, even if I only have about 15 minutes before boarding begins.

The lounge is nice enough and looks fairly new. There’s a buffet with pastries and sandwiches to choose from, and there are more dishes in the kitchen that are available on request from the staff.

Boarding

Boarding starts at 03h55. Our aircraft is parked rather far away, which is why we’re being bussed to our remote stand.

The cabin

There are three rows of Business Class, for a total of 12 seats. However, only six of them are occupied. The cabin looks neat and tidy and the splashes of red in the Austrian sign on the bulkhead or the seat covers and seat belts make the cabin look a lot less shabby than Lufthansa’s.

Leg space on row 2 is very good and I am able to stretch my legs easily.

Service

There are four cabin crew on today’s flight, and all of them male. They’re business friendly, I’d say. Not very warm or genuine, but not rude either. There is no pre-departure drink. Passengers are just handed a disinfectant towel as they board.

Breakfast

Given the flight time of only one hour and ten minutes, I’m surprised they’re actually serving a hot meal on the short hop to Vienna. There are no options. Despite it’s rather unappealing appearance, the hot meal is rather good.

Croque monsieur with turkey ham.

Fruit salad.

A very creamy and fluffy yoghurt.

The potion that gives life.

Warm croissants.

During the meal service, the crew make multiple runs through the cabin with the breadbasket.

Arrival

The flight passes very quickly. At some point I think I even nod off to sleep. We touch down in Vienna at 05h40 and make our way to a remote stand. I now have a little less than two hours to make my connection to Zürich.

WizzAir, Economy Class – Airbus A 321: Basel to Tirana

Introduction

It’s a lazy late summer’s evening here in Switzerland. The temperature is warm and balmy, and there are little insects dancing in the last rays of light as the sun slowly dips below the horizon. Just after 20h I leave my flat and make my way across the square to catch the 20h15 bus to the airport.

The bus is nearly empty. Considering this is the airport bus after all, it’s a bit surprising that I’m the only traveller making his way to the airport. Facing me is an elderly lady. Despite the warm weather, she sits there in a woolly hat and a thick coat, absently staring into space, drawing symbols on the wind with her bony index finger. I wonder if she even knows what she’s doing. I follow the lines of her hand and the outstreched finger, but I am unable to decipher the cryptic symbols she is painting in the air.

Check-in

The departures concourse is quiet when I arrive there at 20h30. There are only two more departures this evening. The WizzAir flight to Tirana at 21h45 and a SunExpress flight to Izmir shortly after. There are two counters open for each flight.

I’ve already checked in online using the WizzAir app. Two weeks before my flight, WizzAir starts with the reminders and regular updates about the Covid restrictions in place for Albania. As of 05 September 2021, entry into the country is only with a valid Covid certificate.

Boarding

Airside there are hardly any passengers and most shops look as though they closed a long time ago.

Boarding is an interesting concept with WizzAir. I have a ticket that gives me ‘priority’ privileges for boarding, which means that I can jump the queue – only to end up having to wait the longest until all the passengers have entered the holding pen. The aircraft hasn’t even arrived yet when I get there!

I think what strikes me the most about this flight is the number of babies and infants. Loud, yelling and screaming babies and infants. There are more minors than adults on the flight. And the air around the holding area is rife with the horrific stench of baby poo and the noise of cranky toddlers. You can’t really blame them, either. This is not a time for little kids to be travelling.

Boarding takes for ever and literally leaves me speechless. I’m mean, how do all these people manage to create such complete and utter chaos out of nothing? The aircraft is a mess. Some people who are sitting at the front of the bus obviously thought it would be a great idea to use the rear stairs. Only to then have to battle their way forward to row 3, where they’re actually seated. One woman with a baby thinks the emergency exit looks like a nice place for her baby to sleep on the floor, while grandad mistakes the aircraft’s cabin for a cocktail party and idly chats with whoever happens to catch his eye, completely oblivious to the queue building up behind him. Meanwhile, the guy who just got on the plane is yelling at him from the front, telling him to move the f*@!k on…

The Crew

There are five cabin crew members on this flight, and they do a good job of managing the crowds. They’re very no-nonsense, but I suspect that’s probably the only thing that will work in this case. One of the crew is this petite, young brunnette. But she’s fierce. Even the old patriarchs shy away from her!

The Cabin

The cabin is rather dirty and obviously hasn’t been cleaned for a few days, I’d say, judging by the grime and crushed potato chips littered across the floor. I can literally feel the crunch under my feet as I make my way to my seat at the emergency exit on row 12.

WizzAir has a very high density configuration on the A 321. Seat pitch is tight, so if you’re more than 6ft. tall, I would really recommend you pay the extra fee for the emergency exit. It’ll save you a boatload of health bills for the chiropractor to realign your vertabrae.

Catering

Catering on WizzAir is buy on board. The prices are reasonable. I order a bottle of still water and a KitKat, which sets me back four Euros. Payment is possible in Albanian Lek, Euros or by credit card.

Arrival

The flight passes quickly enough. It helps that I have a whole row of three to myself to spread out. We land ten minutes ahead of schedule at 23h35. The transfer to the terminal is by bus. Luckily, immigration is empty when we get there. Even so, the process takes quite a while, as obviously not everbody got the memo about the new requirement of having to present a Covid certificate.

Conclusion

This was a fairly short post. As usual with the low cost carriers, there isn’t really all that much to say about the experience. Mainly, because the experience has been stripped of anything that might make it memorable. The ride was comfortable and convenient, because I could fly directly from Basel. Other than that, flying with WizzAir feels a lot like getting on a bus. And not much else. What ever happened to the romance of flying and travel…?

Air Malta, Business Class – Airbus A 320 NEO: Malta to Zürich

Introduction

Goodness, the heat! I hadn’t been to Malta in the summer for a very long time, even before Covid19. And I think I now remember why. The heat is incredible. The day I arrived it was 41 degrees and it was so hazy it looked overcast, when in fact it was just the humidity. Fortunately, two days into my stay, the temperature cooled off to 37, which at least made the sky look a lot clearer.

Today I’m flying back to Switzerland. The Air Malta flight departs at 14h20, which gives me the whole morning to do some shopping and have one last Kinnie before I leave.

Getting to the airport

Once I’ve checked out, I brace myself for the heat outside. I’m dreading having to go out there carting my luggage… There are four busses that take you to the airport. The X4 is the dedicated airport line and stops right outside the terminal building. Then there are the lines 71, 72 and 73, which all go in the general direction of Zurrieq on the other side of the airport. The stop Cintra is right before the airport tunnel that goes under the runway. From there it’s only about three minutes on foot to the terminal building. The journey time is the same for all busses, more or less.

Check-in

The airport is very busy when I arrive. All counters are open, checking in flights for Ryanair, WizzAir, EasyJet, SWISS, British Airways and Air Malta. There is one Business Class counter open for Air Malta, and the guy working the counter is struggling to deal with two young couples and their satanic brood (six cranky kids) and what looks like a metric ton of suitcases, strollers, car seats and god knows what else. Still, the check-in guy uses the group’s apparent lack of functional English to his full advantage and manages to get them sorted and out of the way in about ten minutes.

At check in, passengers need to show a completed passenger locator form, which is sent by Air Malta by email a few days prior to departure, as well as their digital Covid certificate. At check-in, you are then handed another two forms that need to be completed before boarding. Without the two sheets of paper, you will not be allowed airside. One of the documents is for the Swiss authorities. The other form is for Air Malta. It is collected at boarding and handed over to the ground agent upon arrival in Zürich.

La Valette lounge

Fortunately, the priority lane for guests of the La Valette lounge is open, as is the lounge itself. Inside the lounge there is a strict seating regime, and passengers are assigned a seat when they enter. The guy who enters behind me is absolutely scandalised by this, tells off the poor lounge attendant (like it’s her fault…) and storms out again. As I’ve said before, if you think wearing or not wearing a face mask in public is what defines you as a man, you must have a really very small… personality.

The buffet is semi self-service. On the one side, facing the room, are cold dishes that are packaged, like salads and sandwiches. Passengers can help themselves to these. On the other side of the buffet are the hot dishes and drinks. This area is closed off and a lounge attendant serves the food and drinks to passengers from there.

I go for another Kinnie and a selection of unhealthy Maltese snacks: two pastizzi, one arancini and Twistees. Okay, and a bowl of salad as my saving grace.

The viewing terrace is also open, mainly for the smokers. I go out to check the view, but the heat…!

Boarding

Boarding is from a bus gate. Passengers are instructed to scan their boarding passes themselves and leave the passenger locator form on a pile for the ground staff.

Today’s flight is operated by an Airbus A 320 NEO, of which Air Malta currently has four in service. It’s really quite surprising how few flights I’ve had on a NEO, especially given that they seem to be everywhere these days.

The Business Class cabin

I’m seated on 1F, which is the window seat on the right side of the aircraft. There are three rows of Business Class for a total of 12 seats. There are only two other passengers in the forward cabin with me today, one on 3A and the other on 3F.

The headrest on these seats is adjustable in height and the sides can be folded up for better support. The recline is decent, and the pitch on row 1 is very comfortable. Not so sure about the colour though.

The crew

The crew are business friendly. They’re polite, but that’s just about it. Because of the Covid measures that have been put in place by the government, there is no welcome drink anymore, and instead of offering newspapers, the crew pass through the cabin with hygenic wet wipes and kits.

We take off from runway 34, which means we fly along the length of Malta and Gozo, from where we turn north towards Palermo. From there it’s more or less a straight line until we hit the mainland near Genova.

St. Paul’s bay, where St. Paul is alleged to have suffered shipwreck on the island on his way to Rome.
L-Ghadira bay near Mellieha. My favourite beach.
Gozo.

The meal

The meal is rather extensive and nicely presented in typically Maltese crockery. It’s a nice looking tray. There are no options to choose from for the meal and no menu is handed out. The crew bring the tray out without even as much as asking if I’d like to eat or telling me what’s on offer. The meal is served with the covers on. The photo was obviously taken after I’d removed them all.

The main dish is a salad of shrimps and boiled egg.

The meal is served with a ramekin of three buns that have been heated in the oven.

Dressing for the salad.

A very tasty but very rich dessert of chocolate mousse and dried figs. It’s very unsual but so, so sweet.

A bowl of cheese with Gbejna (Maltese), Cheddar (British) and Camembert (French).

And a fruit salad.

Vinaigrette instead of butter.

I really wonder how much kerosene could be saved if airlines stopped carting around what must be tons of unnecessary cutlery. Air Malta is no exception. I unfold my napkin to find two forks, two knives and two teaspoon. I mean, am I supposed to be sharing…?

And to drink, one last Kinnie.

Arrival

The flight passes very quickly. As we approach the Alps, thick clouds appear, some of them towering high above us as we make our descent into Zürich.

The descent is rough until we break through the clouds. Below, everything just looks so lush and green!

Arrivals are on runway 28, which brings us in right past the town where I work.

The airport is busy when we land. As we taxi in, the crew advise passengers to remain seated, and that initially only rows 1 to 10 should stand up to get ready for deboarding. I figure this is never going to work, but much to my surprise, the people in the back of the bus actually seem to be complying with the request.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this trip a lot, although I think in future I will avoid going to Malta in the height of summer. The heat just really got to me, as you may have noticed. In comparison, the flight down on SWISS was more polished and ‘normal’ than the return with Air Malta. I felt that the SWISS crew went out of their way to make passengers feel comfortable and to put them at ease. The SWISS flight was nice.

The service on Air Malta was a bit lackluster. Right now, I think it’s easy to give in to the temptation and blame everything on the pandemic and the Covid restrictions in place. But I don’t think it’s just that. Having an extensive meal service is nice, but an airline must also be willing to invest in its staff.

Swiss International Air Lines, Business Class – Airbus A 220-100: Zürich to Malta

Introduction

It’s been more than 18 months since I last visited Malta, and I’m seriously starting to have withdrawal symptoms. Add to that the fact that it has rained pretty much every day here in Switzerland since mid-June, and I’m feeling positively ecstatic at the prospect of some sunshine!

I booked this trip at relatively short notice (one week before departure). Even so, I was still able to secure a miles tickets in Business Class on SWISS for the outbound, which suggests that tourist traffic to Malta is still only just picking up again. It probably also helps that the school summer holidays are nearing the end in Switzerland, which means that most of the traffic on the route will be heading back north at this stage.

As per 11 August 2021, passengers from the Schengen area are required to complete the PLF form, that Italy is also using, to enter Malta by plane. You need to create a login before you can complete the form. Once you’re done, you will receive a mail confirmation that you must be able to present at boarding and upon arrival on the island – either in print or digital form.

About a week before my departure, I start receiving almonst daily mails from SWISS, reminding me to check the entry requirements for Malta and to ensure that I have completed all the necessary paperwork before I depart. SWISS’ approach is sensible and makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s clear that we’re all going to have to come to terms with the fact that Covid19 is here to stay, so we better start getting used to it. It is every individual’s own responsibility to stay safe and with that, to decide how much they are willing to let this virus run their lives.

Getting to the airport

The flight to Malta departs at 12h15. I have not been to Zürich airport in six months, and I have no idea what the situation will be when I get there. So I take the 08h33 train from Basel, which runs nonstop to Zürich main station in 49 minutes. In Zürich I change trains to the airport, where I arrive at 09h42 with plenty of time to spare.

The second class carriages are quite full, but I have a First Class carriage nearly all to myself!

Considering how crowded the trains are, I’m expecting the airport to be very busy. But much to my surprise it’s quiet. There are people, but it’s certainly not as busy as it used to be.

Check-in

I’ve already checked in online, but I don’t fancy schlepping around my suitcase. So the first stop is one of the Business Class check-in counters in Check-in 1, the home of SWISS and the Lufthansa group.

The young lady is friendly and efficient. She tags my bag, issues the boarding pass and wishes me a safe journey and a great holiday. As I turn to leave, she eyes my Maltese passport: “I’ve never seen one of these…”. Yes, I know. I get that quite often… she does not ask to see the completed entry form or my Covid certificate.

My next stop is security. There is a dedicated entrance to the checkpoint for First and Business Class passengers. Not that it matters today, because the place is deserted and I can just walk straight up to any one of the entrances without having to wait at all.

SWISS Business Class lounge for Schengen flights

The lounge situation in Zürich is a bit confusing right now. When I arrive, the Business Class lounge is closed, so all passengers must use the Senator lounge instead. Initially, the place is far from crowded. However, as the time for the midday bank of departures approaches, the place begins to fill up until eventually they have no other choice but to open the Business Class lounge too.

The lounge is well stocked and SWISS seem to have upped their game with the catering. Due to COVID19, there is no longer a buffet, but there’s a very charming lady behind the counter serving passengers. There is a choice of warm or cold breakfast sets, but they’re quite generous and willing to provide you any other combination of dishes you might request.

Much to my surprise, by the time I leave the lounge just after 11h30, there’s a queue forming at the entrance. I’m not entirely sure if this is because of social distancing or because the lounge is just too busy.

Boarding

My flight is boarding from gate A56, which is good news and bad. It’s good news, because it means the aircraft is parked on a remote stand. So I’ll get to take a few pictures. It’s bad news though, because gate A56 is in a dreadful hovel that was erected provisionally many moons ago but that they then conveniently forgot to tear down again. It’s small, and cramped and simply not large enough for all the people waiting to board their flights at the same time. There are people everywhere!

It’s not until boarding for my flight starts that I realise what the problem is: in order to maintain social distancing, they’re only allowing about 35 passengers per bus. Which means that even for our small Airbus A 220-100 with a load of only 84 passengers they still need to use three busses.

I wait to board the last bus. And all my woes are forgotten to moment we pull up next to our aircraft for today’s flight. Well hello, Sweetness…!

The cabin

There are five rows of Business Class for a total of 15 seats, of which twelve are occupied today. Right in front of me is an obnoxious old bat, who won’t even let her poor husband sit by himself. So instead of taking advantage of an empty seat next to her on the row of two, with him on the aisle seat on the other side, she insists that he sits with her on the twin seat. She spends the rest of the flight chatting at the top of her voice. Thank God for the Sony WH-1000XM4 earphones I remembered to pack this time. Let me see, the Sisters of Mercy should do the trick to drown out the sound of her horrible voice droning on… “… she looks good in ribbons…just walk away…”.

Oh yes, and there’s a bottle of still water at my seat when I arrive. Excuse me while I go off on a tangent, because this is yet another instance of useless SWISS marketing rubbish: according to the SWISS website, the water is bottled exclusively for SWISS in Glarus, from a source at an elevation of 1156 metres. Hence the name. The website also tells us that the bottle comes in a ‘distinctive design’. I mean, I’ve lived in Switzerland long enough to know how much pride they take in the spectacular beauty of the Swiss Alps. Even so, I’m pretty sure most people honestly won’t give a rat’s bum about the altitude at which the source is, as long as they can rest assured that taking a sip of the bottle is not likely to give them diphtheria or something equally disturbing. And second, with all due respect, a distinctive design is the timeless shape of the Perrier bottle or the iconic Evian logo. But not this.

So the bottome line, boys and girls, is that SWISS serves a no name brand of still water that nobody has ever heard of. But they’re trying to pretend it’s because it’s so exclusive.

The crew

The crew on this flight is absolutely brilliant. I really cannot praise them enough, especially the maître de. If every SWISS crew were like this, I seriously wouldn’t bother flying any other airlines. The maître de is German. His announcements are clear, properly enunciated and nicely structured to form well-rounded and grammatically correct and coherent sentences in both German and in English. What’s more, he makes a point of remiding passengers repeatedly during the flight about the requirement to wear a face mask.

During the service, his interaction with the passengers is charming and easy going. Honestly, it’s a joy being taken care of by him! But first, let’s get the flight underway…

The meal

The meal is a very pleasant surprise. The maître de informs me that there’s going to be a hotmeal for lunch and there are two choices. The meat option is beef meatballs, whereas the vegetarian option is rice with grilled vegetables.

I decide to go with the meatballs pretty much the moment he mentions that they are served with mashed potatos and green beans in a creamy mushroom sauce. Total sucker for the mash here.

Also on the tray, there is a salad of mixed leaves with sunflower seeds.

A plate of soft and hard cheese. I have no idea what cheese it is, and at altitude everything tastes different anyway. My guess would be that the soft cheese is a French Camembert, whereas the hard cheese is probably a Gruyère.

There is also a selection of dark and white bread and crackers and a small bottle of vinaigrette for the salad.

And finally, for dessert there is a slice of rhubarb crumble with raspberry coulis and what I’m guessing is either a vanilla or white chocolate mousse.

To drink with that I have a glass of apple juice, which the maître de serves me together with a glass of sparkling water without me even having to ask for it.

To complete the meal, I ask for a mint tea, which is served with a small piece of chocolate. SWISS serves Sirocco tea on its flights. Now that, to me, would be a lot more worthwhile to mention if I were SWISS. Sirocco is a very old Swiss company that has been in the tea trading business for over a hundred years. Their teas are excellent, and apart from the more traditional blends, they also have a few fairly unusual and very tasty ones too.

The quality of the food is very good, well done SWISS. The salad is not at all limp and the main course is just very tasty and filling.

Arrival

The flight passes surprisingly quickly. There’s a lot of heat haze, making it difficult to see the ground. I can barely make out that we’re just leaving the coastline behind and figure that must by Sicily. So it can’t be much longer.

Our approach into Malta is quite unusual. I’m not sure I’ve actually ever arrived like this. We’re making the approach from the southeast. What is unusual, is that we’re flying down along Malta’s southern coast, putting the island on our left. We pass Filfla island below and continue out to sea, past Malta, before eventually turning back to line up with runway 13.

The Med looks lovely, with the sun glittering on the surface. The pilot informs us that the temperature on the ground is 39 degrees Celsius, and expected to rise to a high of 41 degrees before it starts to cool down again. As soon as we cross the shoreline, the aircraft is hit by the hot air rising, making the last few minutes of the descent rather bumpy. But we land safely. Malta l-hanina, I’ve missed you, 18 months is too long, and I’m so glad to be back!

There are only three aircraft standing on the apron, one Air Malta A 320, a Ryanair B 737-800 and the Emirates B 777-300. However, right behind us, another Air Malta, then a Ryanair and an Easyjet arrive.

We’re parked on a remote stand away form the terminal, which means we’re going to have to take a bus to arrivals. By the time I arrive at the luggage belt a short while later, my suitcase is already there. Behind customs is the health check that all passengers have to go through upon arrival on the islands. You will need to show your passport, the completed health declaration form and your Covid certificate if you ticked the box that you are fully vaccinates. The process is fairly painless and efficient. There are twenty counters open processing arriving passenger.

With that out of the way, it’s time to make my way to the hotel.

Il Duomo di Milano

The main objective of my brief stop in Milan was to visit the duomo in the heart of the city. Like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the building is enormous. But that’s probably about as far as the similarities go. While St. Peter’s is built in the elegant Renaissance style that would later give way to the more opulent and gaudy Baroque style, Milan’s duomo is in the sombre and austere gothic style.

There is an interesting contrast between the outside of the cathedral and the inside. While the former is in bright, white stone that is nearly blinding to the eye on a sunny day, the interior is dark and gloomy and with very little decoration.

Next to the church is the duomo’s museum, which is interesting to visit. It houses a collection of many of the figurines that once decorated the church’s interior and exterior.

And if you’re weary from all the culture and spirituality, the Galleria Emanuele Vittorio II with its glitzy shops is right next to the duomo.

I visited the duomo in the late afternoon, and there were no queues to enter the cathedral itself nor the museum.

Trenitalia, Executive Class – Frecciarossa: Roma Termini to Milano Centrale

Introduction

This visit to Rome has been quite an eye-opener for me. This is not the first time for me to visit the city, but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it quite like this. The temperature during my stay was in the mid- to upper 30s, but it was a dry heat. Add to that the fact that we’ve had more or less nonstop rain back home in Basel, and the hot weather is a nice distraction!

The main objective of this trip had been to see some of the sights, as they say, which are otherwise only very difficult to access because of all the tourists. In as much, I think I’ve been very lucky. Although there were many tourists like me around, I never had to queue to enter anywhere, tickets were still available even at short notice and in the evenings I was able to enjoy the best of Italian food without ever having to wait for a table to become free and without making reservations. What I don’t know, though, is whether this is one of the few positive effects of the pandemic, or whether it is because of the summer holidays, when most self-respecting Romans tend to leave the city to head for the beach. One way or another, I’m not complaining. And I definitely want to return to Rome soon.

Getting to the station

Today I’m taking the train from Rome’s Termini station to Milano Centrale, which is a journey of three hours and thirty minutes. From the Sofitel to Termini it’s a twenty minutes walk, and there’s plenty of shade to protect me from the sun. Even so, the concierge at the hotel looks slightly alarmed when I refuse his offer to call me a taxi.

The Frecciarossa lounge

There are two lounges available at Termini: the Freccia lounge and the Freccia club. If I understand correctly, the former is for passengers holding an Executive Class ticket, whereas the Freccia club is for members of the frequent travellers programme.

The Freccia lounge is very basic. It has individual seats with small tables, as well as larger tables for groups to have meetings. There are no snacks to eat but there are hot and cold drinks available. Other than that, it offers welcome respite from the sweltering heat!

Just as a side note, the Frecciarossa is Trenitalia’s brand of highspeed trains. The word translates as ‘red arrow’. The fare system is quite complex. There are four classes of service, and for each class of service there are another four fare types that can be selected, depending on availability and restrictions. The Executive Class is the highest service standard on the train.

Boarding

There is a rear exit from the lounge through which passengers reach the ticket readers to enter the platforms.

Admittedly, the train may not look as funky as the French TGV, but this model can actually go as fast as 300 km/h, although that speed is never reached during my journey.

The seat

The seating configuration in Executive Class is 1 + 1 abreast, and there are four rows for a total of eight seats. Seats 2 and 3 face each other. The leg space on these seats is amazing.

Every seat has its own power outlet, a reading light, a button to automatically lower and raise the blinds, a foldable table, and storage space. The seatback has a good recline and there is also a leg rest that can be raised for additional support and comfort. And it really is a very comfy seat. The only drawback is that the seat covers are leather.

The crew

Interaction with the crew is minimal, which I suspect may be because of Covid. Still, they seem friendly enough and go about their duties professionally. There is also a cleaner on the train who I see passing through our carriage three times on the journey.

A sealed face mask with disinfectant gel is already at my seat, together with some still water and a sealed paper cup.

The meal

As soon as we depart Termini, the meal service begins. And it’s huge! First, there is box containing a few goodies:

In addition to another disinfectant towel and a can of sparkling water there is a packet of crackers and potato crisps.

A doubledecker tramezzino, with one layer filled with prosciutto cotto and the other with cream cheese and grilled veggies.

A chocolate and coffee cake.

And with that the crew also bring me rather a large platter of bresoala and cheese. The meal is really good, but there’s just so much of it. It’s also a bit of a shame that the whole thing is served in one go, taking up all the space at my seat.

To drink I have a Coke Zero, but there are also complimentary alcoholic beverages available.

Arrival

After its departure from Terimini, the train makes a brief stop in Roma Tiburtina, and also calls at Florence and Bologna stations before reaching Milano, from where it continues to Torino. The train originates in Napoli.

We arrive exactly on time, despite there being a slight delay until they allow our train to enter the station. Milano Centrale is an enormous railway station. The weather here is not quite so pleasant as Rome. It’s only slightly less warm but a lot more humid.

Getting to the hotel

As I will only be staying the one night, I picked a hotel near the station, the Innside by Melià. The hotel only opened recently, as I suspect there haven’t been all that many guest staying due to the pandemic. The hotel is conveniently located five minutes away from the station on foot, close to several tram and metro lines.

The Sofitel Villa Borghese, Rome

In Rome I’m staying at the Sofitel Villa Borghese, which is perfectly located in a fairly quiet part of the city (as quiet as it gets in a place like Rome…). From the hotel it’s a twenty minutes walk to Roma Termini railway station. The Spanish steps and the luxurious Via Condotti, the Fontana die Trevi and the Vittorio Emanuele monument are all within walking distance.

The hotel’s facilities are excellent, the rooms and reception are elegantly appointed and very comfortable. What’s more, the restaurant is located on the top floor of the building and offers excellent views of Rome. Most importantly though, I think this Sofitel’s outstanding feature is its staff. Everybody at the hotel was very friendly and open, and gave the impression of actually liking their job.

The room I stayed in had a fully stocked fridge, tea and coffee making facilities and bottles of still water. The room overlooked the street leading up to the hotel, but it was still quiet enough to get a good night’s sleep.

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum gets its name from the statue of a colossus that once stood near its entrance. The colossus has long since decayed to dust, but the huge amphitheatre, which is part of the Forum Romanum, still stands, and a lot of it has remained largely intact.

A visit to the Colosseum is certainly worth it. I must confess that my prior knowledge of the construction and its history was somewhat limited and relied heavily on the Gladiator film, which featured Russell Crowe strutting around, showing off his chest hair and being perhaps just a tad overly dramatic. Fortunately, as you enter the Colosseum, there is an interesting exhibition which tells you a lot about the histroy of the building and its purpose through history.

Just a word of warning though: there isn’t really all that much shade inside the Colosseum, so if you’re visting in the summer, like me, make sure to take a hat and use a powerful sun screen.

Tickets to the Colosseum and the Forum Romanum can be purchased online. Entry to the Colosseum is for a specific time slot, and the guards will only give you twenty minutes leeway to enter. For the Forum Romanum however, you do not need to have a specific time slot.

The Vatican Museum – I Musei Vaticani

Introduction

The Vatican museums house an huge collection of art that has been collected over many centuries by the catholic church. The collection ranges from ancient Roman statues to contemporary pieces by Salvador Dalì. The collection is immense, and a visit to the museum leaves you with a sense that probably there is a lot more to show but that is not on display.

The Stanze di Raffaello refers to a set of four reception rooms that were originally commissioned as the living quarters for Pope Julius II. Each one of the four rooms is decorated in frescos done by Raffaello, which is where they get their name from – The Rafel rooms. Probably the best known of these frescos is that of the School of Athens in the Room of the Signatura.

But without a doubt, the absolute show stopper of any visit to the Vatican museums is the Sistine Chapel that was painted by Michelangelo. Perhaps the best piece of advice to give anybody visiting the Vatican museums is to make sure they keep looking up, because the decorations on the ceiling are truly amazing, and this is even more the case in the Sistine Chapel: in the centre of the ceiling is The Creation of Adam. And this, I must admit, left me completely speechless. Again, it’s one thing to know about these famous pieces of art and reading about them in books. But to see them for real is quite humbling. Not just because of the artistry and craftsmanship that when into their creation, but also because one cannot deny just how much these unique works of art have shaped Western civilisation and culture as we know it, irrespective of whether or not one approves of the catholic church.

Practicalities

Tickets for a visit to the Vatican museum can be booked online. From what I’ve heard and read on the web, in usual circumstances tickets sell out fairly quickly. So it’s normally best to book as far in advance as possible. However, I visited in July 2021, when Italy was only just starting to recover from the Covid pandemic. There were quite a few visitors on the day I visited, but the facilities are obviously used to coping with significantly larger crowds. There were no queues for security and I was actually allowed in thirty minutes ahead of the scheduled slot I had registered for. Upon entering the museum, you first need to exchange your online ticket for a paper ticket, simply to let you through the turnstile to enter the exhibition.

Photography, as well as video or audio recordings are not permitted in the Sistine Chapel. The photos below are all from the actual musem and not the chapel.