Thursday, 25 November 2010

Trip Report 3 - Part 1 - Lufthansa BHX-DUS

I didn't get chance to do any posts about different types of aircraft, it's been a busy couple of weeks one way or another. However, I'm on the move again, this time to Köln for a bit of work and a bit of leisure.

After a busy morning at the office, I managed to get a taxi to Birmingham at about 1pm, the driver was a tad late because he assumed I was psychic about the pick-up point. However, the roads were fairly clear and by 1:30pm, I had deposited shiny case at the drop off desk, gotten my fast track security pass and was standing outside in the smoking zone to get freezing cold before making my way through the maze.

This time, despite being only 20 minutes later than last time, there was virtually no-one at security - fast track really wasn't needed. Two machines operating and four people waiting, straight through, no silly business with swabs and no Nude-O-Scopes or Gropes. This meant I had plenty of time to get a copy of The Economist, buy a couple of items from Boots and even get a salad at Pret. As is usual, I didn't bother with the truly dire lounge at BHX.

Boarding was the usual bait and switch, called to the gate ten minutes before they were actually ready. Four staff at the gate, one doing the work, three doing the hindering of the one doing the work with important news about X-Factor. They really do need some better staff, there again, perhaps if they paid a bit better and didn't have horrible split shifts.....

The aircraft was a CRJ-900, I've come to like this type over the last year. I loathe its little brother the CRJ-100/200 as being cramped, noisy and unpleasant, I'll tolerate the CRJ-700 as being better as long as you don't have a window or need to go to the loo, but the CRJ-900 is OK.

We had about 20 minutes waiting for slots and the crew were good enough to tell us we could keep our electronic equipment on. I see a growing number of iPads and Kindles on flights as the year progresses. I'm still not tempted by the iPad, but I'm starting to think about an Kindle.

We took off about 30 minutes late, which doesn't really matter because there's a silly amount of padding in the schedule anyway, although not quite enough in this case as we ended up arriving about 15 minutes late. Service was the usual LH standard, a drink (my choice was water) and a choice of repulsive half sandwiches ("cheese" or "meat not pork" - declined as I'd eaten). The crew were fine, although the one had trowelled on the make-up to a drag queen standard.

As usual, arrival at Düsseldorf was to a bus gate, although at Düsseldorf at least you don't end up half way to Essen. In contrast to my last three trips through DUS, we immediately end up in the baggage area, but went through immigration into the main terminal, which would have been nice on the last three trips to stop me having to re-clear security, but this time wasn't needed.

I had to wait a little while to collect my bag, not a BHX-type wait, but sadly, shiny case was the last one off the belt by which time it was 17:45 and I had 12 minutes to get to the train station via the Sky Train. This is pushing it, it's even more pushing it when the ticket machine isn't accepting coins or non-German Eurocards and there a couple of eejits in front of you trying their card again and again. Mind you, Deutsche Bahn, a better error message might help the feckless. Anyway,  wasn't going to make the 17:57 train by this time.

Little known DUS facts - yes, you do need a ticket to ride on the SkyTrain, yes, you do need to validate it after purchase, yes, they do inspect the tickets on the SkyTrain and yes, the Grippenführer can fine you 50€ if you are caught. 

At this point, it was a choice between the 18:34 Regional Express or going down to the other station (Düsseldorf Flughafen Terminal Bahnhof) and getting the rather slow S-Bahn at 18:12 which would get me in about five mins later than the 18:34 as it goes round the Wrekin. I chose to stick with the Regional Express as it gave me the chance to have a cigarette whilst waiting at a station which can best the described as a larger slightly more desolate version of Bristol Parkway. It arrived on time and was already rammed to the gunnels, so I stood for the 40 minute journey to Köln Hbf. Next time I'll get the S-Bahn, as it starts at DUS, there must be a decent chance of getting a seat.

Luckily, my hotel is less than 5 minutes shiver from the Hauptbahnof and I was able to get to my rubber chicken dinner with a couple of minutes to spare. I probably should have lingered, then I'd have had something decent to eat this evening :-)

Next: Köln, possibly Wuppertal, a nice ICE ride from Köln to Frankfurt and then another boring FRA-BHX leg.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Luggage

You'll excuse me whilst I pontificate.

Over the years, I have spent quite a bit of money on various bits of luggage - some of which have been good and faithful friends, some of which have fallen victim to baggage handlers and some of which fell apart at the first possible excuse.

Whilst I have a couple of other things tucked away in the armoury, my use of luggage these days comes down to four pieces - which serve just about every need I can think of.

The smallest piece is my laptop bag - now I'm hard on these, cramming bits and pieces into every possible pocket and I've gotten through two in eight years. The most recent acquisition is a Targus Global Executive Plus in a sale a few months ago, it's suitably anonymous (I always felt a bit wary tromping some of the streets with a Sony branded laptop bag), it holds a laptop, accessories, a book, some paperwork and two cartons of cigarettes with ease and could probably be used for a stripped down overnight if required. 

The next smallest is the "cabin bag", it's used for trips of one or two nights and has been stretched to three nights before now. It's approved by Lufthansa as cabin luggage on anything but Barbie's Fun Jet  or a Crash-8 and was acquired during a bored moment at the Lufthansa World Ship at Berlin Tegel. It's the old design of the Titan Lufthansa Flight Cabin Trolley and comes with LH branding (which has allowed me to whisk through the Crew lane at Sydney). It's advantage is the laptop compartment, although that can be a pain for extracting the laptop at security when full and that it is soft sided and can be crammed quite full - although this can lead to fun with overhead bins on the Fokker 100 with Swiss's best jobsworths ready to pounce and gate check it. The other disadvantage is whilst it will hold a pair of shoes in the shoe holders, the addition of a pair of shoes constricts the capacity to two days. It also gets used as the cabin/laptop bag on longer trips. At two years old and in fairly frequent use, it is wearing very well. I used to be very happy with it, but now I have a terrible urge to replace it which I really shouldn't do as it's good for a few years yet.

The newest item in the collection is what I have now called "Shiny Case". A Rimowa Classic Flight 63L Trolley, it is exceptionally light (4.6kg), very well made and rather stylish. I can see me wailing about every minor dent and scuff on in for years to come. RImowa is sufficiently unusual to get appreciative comments from Brum Taxi Drivers, but common as muck in Germany. Shiny Case is for trips up to a week, or maybe five days if I have to get dressy. A four day Ruhrgebiet with three sorts of clothes, books, various ancillary tat,  a pair of boots and a pair of shoes is no problem and there's even some room left for a couple of boxes of choccies for the office. The sticker shock on purchasing one of these beasties is quite large and even more if you wish to pay in pounds Sterling. I recommend searching carefully through on-line German baggage retailers.

The oldest and largest item is my 20 year old Delsey Club. Purchased for what seemed like a small fortune back in the mists of time, the shopkeeper told me that it was a suitcase for life. It only really gets an airing once a year these days, but despite being a bit battered by baggage handlers, it's still in fairly good nick and holds enough clothes for a couple of weeks and still has some room left for gifts/books/etc. Main problems with it are that it doesn't have TSA locks, so can't really be taken to the USA and that parts are no longer available, so if the wheels go, it may have to face retirement. As an old hardshell, it's a heavy beast, so you do have to watch out for the 20kg piece limit found on many airlines if you overfill it.

I'm not off anywhere for a couple of weeks, so I might add some thoughts on aircraft next week.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


I must admit, I didn't do a lot after arrival on the Friday night, I had a shower and thought about room service. I wasn't impressed by that, so by just after 8pm, I went wandering in search of something to eat. Luckily, the hotel is quite close to the Altstadt as often the area around a Hauptbahnhof can be a bit of a desert for decent eating.

I ended up with a meal of Soup and Schnitzel at a fair typical Gastätte not far from the hotel just inside the City walls with a couple of half litres of Tucher Helles. It was fairly decent but a bit food for fuelish, don't ask me the name, but it's on the left just as Königstraße starts inside the city wall.

After breakfast the next morning, I went a wandering, I started off quite early and started by bimbling along the restored city walls enjoying a lovely morning and a mixture of ancient and modern.

At this point, I found on a poster street map, a sort of official city walk up through Sankt Lorenz along the river and up through Sankt Siebald to the Schloß, so I decided to follow that, with the usual variations for "ooh, that's nice". The poster maps are quite common and it was quite easy to follow. Essentially it was a wander down Königstraße to the Sankt Lorenz church and then over the bridge over the Pegnitz to the Hauptmarkt. Of interest was the U-Bahn station which was carefully arranged to fit in with the surrounding area, the attractive church and the bridge over the river. I also noted a couple of shops for a later exploration.

On getting to the market, I had a good look around, I love food markets and it can take me hours to get around one. This one wasn't really exciting, but pleasant, my hands filled with some nice looking tomatoes, some bergkäse (after careful taste tests) and the prize of some echt Lebkuchen for the offices and friends. I also bought a couple of Apples after trying to remember which side of the Speyerer Linie I was - full speed ahead and damn the isogloss.

The walk then wanders away following the Pegnitz, via the Fleischbrücke which can be quite enchantingly pretty, crossing onto a small island and then off it again ending up at Maxplatz and then back down to the Hauptmarkt. I stopped for coffee on the way, I don't usually do a certain world wide chain which burns its beans a little, but if they are open and have tables by a nice river on a sunny morning, then I can be tempted.

On getting back to the market, it's a slow slog up a not very big hill to the former castle and residence, going past Sankt Sebald's church to the Albrecht Dürer Haus and then culminating at the Tiergartenplatz. There's lots to see here, but as it was now heading just past 11, it was starting to get a bit more tourist filled. The Tiergartenplatz is particularly attractive and has lots of places to eat and drink with suitable supplements to the prices. If I had been their a couple of hours later, I may well have indulged as it was, I had a quick cig break and then moved on.

I then wandered around for a while, mainly in the Schloßgarten area, admiring the views of the City before walking back down along the garden by the walls back to the river before deciding to go and do some Kultur. I headed off in the direction of the Kunsthalle Nürnberg stopping only to pick up a small snackette of Drei im Weggla (three sossidges in a roll) to keep me going. The main feature at the arts hall was an exhibition of the various work by the multi-talented Dutch artist Mathilde ter Heijne, it wasn't really me and by this time I needed a proper lunch. The first place I tried had very poor service, after waiting a few minutes, I decided to leave. I then found another bar near the Lorenzkirche U-Bahn stop, where a couple of dark beers and some Goulash were consumed. This was highly satisfactory and I would recommend the place if I remember what it was called.

I then decided to return to the hotel for a while and headed back their via a bakery to purchase some rolls to go with the cheese and tomatoes later. After a short comfort break at the hotel, I decided to head out to the Transport Museum.  Normally, I would with such nice weather do an outdoor activity, but choice number 1 was football and 1. FC Nürnberg were playing away. Second choice was the Zoo, but I've had a surfeit of cute animals lately, so I decided on the Transport Museum.

On the way I was accosted by some young Americans who were in search of the local red light district. I told them that I wasn't local, was complemented on my English and they wandered off. I'm not even sure that such things exist in conservative Bayern, but as I bat for Team Gay, I tend not to notice such things unless they are bleeding obvious (i.e. by Frankfurt (Main) Hbf or the "Four Floors of ******" on Orchard Road in Singapore). 

I won't bore you with the pleasures of the Railway Museum, I know that there are those who would find it intensely dull and those who would find it very exciting. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot, it it has some splendid exhibits including a DB class 05 Pacific, King Ludwig's Royal Coach which is as camp as his castles, an excellent display of the history of the passenger railway station, a very enjoyable model railway and a hands on signalling exhibition. However, to get the full enjoyment out of it, you will need to be able to read German. I managed to avoid temptation in the Museum shop, where my lust for maps nearly had me spend a couple of hundred Euros, saved by them not taking Amex. I spent a good three hours there including a nice coffee break in the attached cafe.

By this time, it was dusk and heading towards dark. I headed back to the station where I knew there would be some shops open, bought some drinks and chocolate and headed back to the hotel for a nice bath and some cheese and tomato rolls (I can be very frugal at times but in general I find two German hot meals a day a bit too filling).

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Hotel Review: Le Meridien Grand Hotel, Nürnberg

The hotel is situated on the Bahnofstraße directly opposite the main railway station and on the U-Bahn line from the airport, as well as being a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of Nürnberg, it certainly has location.

I was greeted cordially at the front desk and we switched from my ropey German[0] to the young lady's excellent English. The hotel was in the throes of a 1920's reenactment night (oddly enough, Germany rarely has 1930's reenactments) and I was informed that a smoking room was not available, but I could be given a non-smoking room and an ashtray. I was offered a map, a wake-up call and informed of breakfast arrangements.

After the usual formalities, I found my way to my room on the fifth floor, which was pleasantly decorated (a common feature of many Le Meridiens) and of a good size. There was plenty of storage space, plenty of hanging space and a good sized bathroom - done out in a faux retro mode. The bathroom had the usual range of free toiletries (Le Meridien branded) and a window of its very own.

The room proved to be well heated, had a good sized proper opening window (out of which i smoked my fags) and reasonably quiet (rooms facing the Hauptnahnof might not be so quiet). The only fault I found with it was that the desk chair really wasn't suitable for sitting in for more than 30 minutes. The bed was very comfortable and I slept well.

There was a minibar, I eschewed it. I did look at the Room Service menu, thinking of being decadent, but apart from being annoyingly printed on semi-transparent paper, it was short and extremely uninspiring. The internet connection was a typical price for Europe (20€) and stuttered a bit, but was otherwise fit for purpose.

Breakfast is taken in the Brasserie restaurant. This is an extremely pleasant and attractive room to have breakfast in with nice furnishings and very pleasant decor. Oddly, the food is split into two, bread and cakes in the main room and the standard buffet off in a side room. There was an egg station, but I don't like eggs much, so I didn't bother with it. Good cheese selection, good bread selection and a fine selection of yoghurts. Fresh fruit was a bit limited as were pastries. I had a small variant on my usual hotel breakfast each morning, a couple of Nürnberger Rostbratwurst, some cheese, some tomato, some cucumber and some wholemeal German bread. I'd normally have fruit, but it was a bit limited and contaminated with slices of Satan's Globes (oranges). Coffee was, frankly, meh, although the Sunday I asked for expresso and got Illy (which isn't bad).

Check out was swift and pleasant, although no offer of taxi or assistance with luggage was made. I would happily return to the hotel. 

[0] I am told that my German as well as being somewhat ropey comes with a distinct Ruhrgebiet accent, which can be a bit tricksy south of the Weißwurstäquator. I really must try and get some practise in, which will go with giving up the fags and cutting back on Chocolate as potential ideas for 2011.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Trip Report 2 - Part 2 - Lufthansa NUE-FRA-BHX

Nurnberg and Hotel Review to follow - both are positive reports.

Not feeling at my best, I proceeded to get the U-Bahn to NUE about 10am, it's a nice easy trip about 15 minutes later, I was directly outside the Lufthansa Departures area. I wanted to go and sit down and rest, so I didn't bother with a cigarette and proceeded directly through security. With a selection of Nürnberger Lebkuchen in my bag, I was grateful that it wasn't weighed as it was well over the allowed amount for hand luggage. Security was really, really quick, easy and friendly at NUE and there didn't seem to be any ramping up due to the weekend's incidents. I know that it was cargo, but that doesn't usually stop the powers that be "keeping up the skeer".

I went very quickly to the LH Business lounge where I had about 90 minutes to wait, I sat quietly and drank plain water and hoped that the paracetamol would kick in. There were a couple of times where I thought I might ask about deboarding, but as it came up to boarding time I was feeling considerably better. The NUE lounge was very quiet, which was nice and had the usual selection of decent drinks and poor quality food.

We boarded quickly onto a 737-500 with about a 70% load, we were off-stand on time and quickly on our 30 minute flight to Frankfurt, unlike on the Friday evening, we had a quick service as a tray of Toblerones was passed around. Obviously, LH is learning from LX :-) We landed quickly into a sunny Frankfurt and proceed to taxi for about 10 minutes to the northern inferior aircraft holding pen. There was then the usual bus ride to a bus gate I haven't been to for some years (behind A1-5), the most interesting bit was going under the tail of a LH Whalejet. Moving quickly through the Tunnel of Love, I went through immigration and end up non-Schengen side in B. It must be said, the B-terminal experience is getting better and better over the years, although there's an awful lot of "you are in a maze of twisty passages all alike".

First up was doing some watch shopping, I managed to break my previous watch about 3 months ago and I've been thinking about getting a new one. I'm not a huge spender on watches as I used to have a nasty tendency to leave them in hotel rooms (where, of course, they would never be found), usually something about 50-100€ will do nicely. However, I had allocated slightly more than that for this purchase. After spending a few minutes looking, I'd come down to two I wanted to actually see. However, there was an assistant problem. There seemed to be four assistants, three of them we fawning over a pilot who was trying on a Rolex. The fourth was just standing around, so I asked her for assistance. Blank look. Hmm, try again in German. Looks away, uninterested. I leave the shop, the watch can wait.

I have noticed that certain shops at FRA have staff with a somewhat superior attitude, I remember once going through FRA and looking at sunglasses, I was suited and booted and assistance came immediately.  I decided to wait and thought about purchasing on return, I was wearing jeans and a rugby shirt and got the ignore treatment. I shall get my watch in Birmingham, if I get chance, otherwise, I suspect it might be duty-free in transit at SIN.

I then decided I should eat, even though I wasn't particularly hungry. The B-Non-Schengen options are poor but improving, I actually decided on MacDonalds! I'm not a big fan, but you do get a nice apron view and it's quick. I had fries and a diet coke and 45 minutes of watching aircraft move around the bust Frankfurt Apron - including a WhaleJet take off.

I then went to the B23 Lufthansa Business Lounge, where I found a nice comfy chair, got some more water and curled up with Monica Ali's "In the Kitchen" whilst keeping an eye on the football scores. It was quite a long connection, so I hoped the paracetamol which had cut in would stay working and luckily they did. I generally ignored the food side, the Oktoberfest promotion had ended and there was the usual dismal display except for a small tray of mini chocolate eclairs. I stayed on the water. About 40 minutes before the flight, I left the lounge, had a cigarette and then got ready for the boarding zoo.

We had a proper gate again, for what has now been renumbered as LH956 and it was deceptively uncrowded (B23 is often used for widebodies), boarding was a zoo and the document checkers weren't helping at all, they wandering around taking random people at the gate and looking at their documents and then getting all confused when it came to boarding. I had to have three tries with my mobile boarding pass before it register (note to self, clean screen on iPhone), but I managed to get on board fairly quickly and get the all important binspace. I managed to snag an Independent on Sunday on boarding which makes a nice change from the Daily Hate.

We managed to leave the gate just after "time" and were quickly in the air. The flight wasn't completely full, but the load must have been above 90%. I settled down with my book and had the iPhone headlines ready in case the two sets of small children nearby were screamers. I also thought about offering my seat opponent my seat as he looked very uncomfortable at about 2m tall in a middle seat, but such altruistic thoughts quickly disappeared from my head at the thought of a middle seat.

We took off a couple of minutes late and were promised a very short flight back to Birmingham. As usual the service consisted of a sandwich (declined, I could see the Krauterquark lurking with in it) and choice of drinks, I just had water and read the paper. It was quite a quick flight for a FRA, taking about one hour 15 minutes, with no queue at immigration and no bag to collect, I was in a taxi back home about 10 minutes before our scheduled arrival time! I must admit the new arrival arrangement at BHX terminal 1 are growing on me, they do imitate FRA's twisty passages a bit, but they are better than the old ones. BHX is quite a smart arrivals experience now, except for the dingy baggage hall where you have some very long waits for luggage.

This could have been a very enjoyable trip, unfortunately, only the first half of it was but that was down to my not feeling too well rather than anything else. I will have to return to Nürnberg at some point to do it justice.