Sunday, 27 March 2011

Trip Report 5 - BHX-FRA-PRG-FRA-BHX + Hilton Prague Old Town

Ah, back in the air again after a longer than usual break, with two nights in Prague on the menu. As usual, I booked the Hilton Old Town for the location and waited and waited for the authorisation for the ticket. Needless to say, by the time it came, we were up to painful fares on the needed flights. Swiss were cheapest, but the thought of double Fokkers and double bus gates at Zürich gave me the heebie-jeebies. So I made a little deal with me paying for a short haul Z fare and claiming for the M fare to give me access to the flight I needed to be on; otherwise it would be double Fokker.

This, of course, meant FRA, the early FRA and the breaking of a personal rule by having a short connect. So it was hand luggage only, using the small rolling case and the laptop bag for the simple reasons of being able to carry two pairs of shoes and have space for fags on the way back.

The Friday was a nearly perfect day for flying, so I switched from my usual aisle to a window for FRA-PRG. Having a nearly record run in a taxi meant I had plenty of time at BHX, so I quickly went through the painless security, bought some bits from Boots and WH Smug and then confident of being fed on the plane, I decided not to go to Pret for Brekkie but to go to the new revamped Servisair lounge for which I was triple qualified (Priority Pass, LH status, Business Class), it still took the 'tard on the desk about 3 minutes to decided if he could let me in or not. Whilst the revamped lounge is quite bright and airy, it still has the same miserable collection of shelf-stable cakes and packets of Quavers masquerading as food.

There was one of those Circusair "moments" over departure, the flight went from "5 mins to boarding", straight to "Departed" causing a small stampede over to the gate, where the staff looked confused and clueless. As usual, there were about 5 staff there, of which only one did the work. Anyway, with a light load, we were soon all boarded and up and away. Business Class was looked after by a charming (and rather woofy) purser, who quickly handed out the drinks and meals to the four of us in J.

Lufthansa has a new modular service concept of which Birmingham flights will be Band 2. The above was served for Breakfast, which looks about right for a Band 2 flight. The fruit salad was mainly apple with some kiwi and grapes, the "cold cuts" was a solitary slice of salami with a nice bit of Shropshire Blue and the croissant was naff. Seconds were offered on hot rolls and on coffees. They even generously gave me a sample of  the Economy offering, which didn't seem very Band 2.

However, i had it as a snack in the afternoon and it was quite tasty and has to be better than the dreaded cheese sandwich, not sure about it as a breakfast concept, I can see the Pret hot baguette still being eaten.

Needless to say, it was a bus gate arrival, I had been hoping for a stand, but it meant a mad chase was on. After the usual faffing around, we went on the usual magical mystery tour of Frankfurt airport before ending up at the B bus gates. From then the sprint was on, I had about 35 minutes to get through security and onto the next flight. Would there be chance for a fag? would there be a chance for a diet coke in the A26 slum lounge?

Luckily, there were no queues at immigration and it was straight to transfer security where I used the Business Class queue, however, it was proceeding at a truly glacial pace, with the little Beamtin operating it, stopping the belt constantly to adjust contents so that Alles in Ordnung and then huffing, fussing and rewinding, so that the whole process took over 10 minutes from joining a queue of 3 people to starting to stomp down the Tunnel of Hate. The Economy queues were moving faster, but had I gone through there I'd have never made the flight.

I ended up, hot, sweaty and slightly dishevelled at the A23 Raucherhütte with about 7 minutes to go before boarding ended, I had half a cancer stick then made it onto the A321 with, I think, the new seating as not quite the last passenger. I eased myself past a Septic into the window seat and relaxed.

FRA-PRG is a short flight of about 40 minutes, most of which I cheerfully gazed out of the window at the view of Hesse, Franconia, the Sudetenland and the approach to Prague. We were severed the Band 1 snack box which bemused the Septics on board who have been brainwashed over the years by their lame excuses for airlines that the elderly cabin crew can't do any service on a flight of less than an hour.

There was a ham roulade with julienne vegetables, a small salad with pine nuts, a mini roll and some brie with currant chutney. The first was fine, but there was something odd lurking beneath it, the salad was lovely, the brie wasn't bad. All in all, pretty good for a 40 minute flight.

Getting off at Prague, it was straight out, straight onto a 100 bus, quick fag break and the B-line metro all the way to the hotel. Less than 45 minutes, 26Kr cost as opposed whatever the average Prague taxi driver feels like. 

My room was ready at the Hilton and I was upgraded to an Executive Plus room, lovely big room with somewhat bathroom but a nice view (a bit noisy at night, but nothing too bad). I decided I just about had time for a real meal, so I nipped around the corner and had a plate of goulash (and a half litre)

The Goulash was very nice, especially with the added chilli and onion and the latkes were superb. I love Prague food, especially when eaten outside on a lovely afternoon.

Anyway, after a busy afternoon, it was just time for a wash and brush up before going out to eat for the evening. A lot of places were crowded and I ended up on somewhere on Hybernská having a decent if unusual pork schnitzel and some very good potato salad and a bottle of very strong dark beer. Afterwards, I went for posh drinkies in Buddha Bar, which was nice for the free prawn crackers, but a bit dark and pricey - nice range of spirits though. With such an early start, the tiredness was showing and it was back to the hotel for some kip.

The next day, sadly, wasn't so nice and sunny, in fact it was a bit grey and cloudy. After having a decent continental brekkie in the lounge (good coffee, good breads, poor sossidge), I met a friend and we went for lunch in the Potrefená Husa again on Hybernská, this is part of a Staropramen chain which looks to produce an upscale modern beerhall experience and succeeds very well. Good menu, nice decor and very good service standards. I was lured into the veal special, with mushroom sauce and gnocchi by the description from the server, washed down, of course, with Staropramen, my friend had an enormous plate of goulash.

Doesn't look a lot, but those gnocchi are very filling. A highly enjoyable meal after which, we went for a wander around the shops and then on a riverboat trip. After all this, I retired back to the hotel and went to the lounge for a cup of coffee and some snacks, as with last time, a nice little selection with the highlight being the rather good cheeseboard.

Having a project to work on, I stayed in that evening and ended up with a room service burger to fill the gap. The Hilton Burger is a variable feast, but the one at the Prague Old Town is truly excellent with good cheese, bacon, ripe tomato and very good chips. 

Anyway, after a nice day and a half in Prague, it was time to get up early and make my way by bus and metro, I did try and check in online, but the Lufthansa website was throwing a wobbler, which isn't unusual. Arriving a little later than I had planned, I swiftly saw all the self-service check-ins out of order and the queue snaking for ages - so I went into the business class queue where boarding passes were swiftly issued on Austrian stock (which is sort of fitting for Prague). Using the fast track security was a joy and then it was off to duty free to obtain fags for me and goodies for the office. I then wandered up to the Crystal Lounge which is operated by Czech Airlines (and used by Lufthansa), it was a bit ummm, sparse.

The seating was as uncomfortable as it was colourful. However, a quick soft drink, a riffle through a French newspaper (Air Chance use the lounge as well) and a rest stop were all welcome as I carefully repacked the bags to full expansion mode. There was a selection of drinks - sadly no beer tap (just canned Gambrinus) and some food in a fridge as well as a selection of nuts, crisps and FarmFoods broken biscuits.

Boarding the Airbus 321 was perfectly on time, although Business Class and Star Golds had to fight their way through people hanging around the gate. Boarding was very efficient for a flight with about 2 spare seats in Economy and 1 empty seat in Business. The crew on this flight were very efficient and had the lunch boxes out very quickly, they even managed to offer drinks 3 times on this short flight.

The introduction card for this - mentioned the dread words molecular gastronomy and the large number of Septics on the flight looked at it all very dubiously. I thought it was all rather splendid, there was a "sambal" prawn mounted on a herb jelly with couscous, a small piece of parma ham, some shaved and delicious cheese, a smidge of the dreaded Kräuterquark and a cherry tomato. There was also a mini chocolate muffin in creme anglaise. For 50 minutes, I thought this was excellent, although from the amount left by most pax, it wasn't a success in general.

On arriving in Frankfurt, it was swiftly through the Tunnel of Hate and immigration and into the Raucherhütte to top up levels. I then decided to head to the B4x Business Lounge rather than the B2x one, there's no real difference, but plenty of space to charge the iPhone and get some more work done. The food selection was, of course, abysmal - it's Mexican month, celebrated by Pickled Pepper salad and yes, a Mexican version of Kräuterquark. I had a piece of apple cake and a Coke Light or two.

I noticed that after a few months of the pleasure of a real gate with an airbridge for the BHX, it was back to the buses and the remote stand half way to Groß-Gerau, where I was surprised to see a BMI Airbus 319 on stand, then I remembered that some BHX's this summer will be Lufthansa flights operated by BMI (who are now owned by Lufthansa). 

We were welcomed on board by the BMI crew who did the usual rounds of newspapers and asked for drinks and food orders. It seems that these flights are not using the LH catering at least at the start and we had a choice of hot meals.

I choose the pasta, which was cheese tortellini in a spicy tomato sauce. There was a small salad with cottage cheese and a lemon panacotta, I had a white wine with it, but it was fairly hideous. The BMI crew were great and I look forward to a few more flights with them over the next few months as they operate the LH.

We landed a bit early and seeing the Emirates 77W land behind us, I made a determined effort to get through immigration and out to the taxi as fast as possible and I made it.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The early FRA

It's a loathsome thing, God wot. 07:10, which means even with hand-luggage having to be there for 6:00am, which means a taxi at some obscene hour.

Good Thing: I'm flying
Bad Thing: I could really do with out it this weekend

Good Thing: It's Prague
Bad Thing: Change at Frankfurt (sorry but FRA is preferable to props via MUC)

Good Thing: Saturday to myself
Bad Thing: 4 hour meeting on arrival

Good Thing: New revamped Shorthaul Business Class
Bad Thing: Short connections at Frankfurt (you'd think I'd learn)

Good Thing: The Hilton Q1 Promotion is still going on
Bad Thing: The room rate

Good Thing: Czech beer
Bad Thing: Can't drink much on my meds without falling asleep

Full report on return.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Two short UK trips

I had a bit of training to do on Saturday in Cardiff and rather than get up at O-dark hundred to get here and leave at O-dark hundred to get back, I decided to treat myself to a couple of nights in the capital of Wales, after a bit of a struggle to find a smoking room, I ended up deciding to go non-smoking in the Hilton for the quarter 1 promotion points. Amusingly enough, smoking rooms had opened up again. 

Luckily, there is a direct service from my workplace to Cardiff, once an hour, so I booked a ticket and reserved a seat via the dire "Trainline". I got to the station on time, but as it was just after work, everything was running late and very, very full. I swiftly turfed a chav out of my reserved seat and found to my joy that it was broken.  Feck all room in Standard on a Cross-Country Turbostar which was full to the gunnels and no trolley service either. It was warm and unpleasant on board and I swiftly necked a bottle of water on arriving at Caerdydd Canolog.

I received a warm reception, access to the Executive Lounge and a nice castle view. The room was otherwise ordinary, but I suspect they haven't got any smoking premium rooms (this is increasingly common, I will have to give up one day). The room was very comfy, if a little over heated and had a great bathroom with a walk in shower, the bed was pretty decent as well.

I then heading out for dinner with an old friend who moved to Cardiff a few years ago, we went to Casanova on Quay Street which was described to me as "a family Italian", it was very nice and I greatly enjoyed my tagiatelle with cheese, potato and sage. My companion very much enjoyed his risotto, my only comment would be that I found the wholegrain tagiatelle a little too al dente. We had a pleasant but undistinguished bottle of wine to go with it, as a couple of groups of loud lady diners had moved in, we skipped dessert and went back to the hotel for coffee in the lounge. Sadly, the Cardiff Hilton removes the booze at 8pm at weekends. Nice and quiet in there with a lovely view of fireworks at about 10pm.

The next morning I was up early, had a light continental breakfast in the lounge (some hot options, good coffee, very nice staff). The training went well, including a pizza lunch, so when finished, I dived off to look around the new developments in the centre, raided TK-Maxx for a Ralph Lauren jacket and ended up with room service sandwiches in my room - which were very good and very large. I do miss the old Cardiff I used to know *mumble* years ago when I was a student. I horribly overslept not rising until 9am and ended up scooting out sans brekky to make my train back to Birmingham. A nasty sarnie and coffee at the station had to make do, but at least the Turbostar back was nice and empty and I had room for my Sunday Times.

The next weekend saw another quick tripette, to go to the Parteitag in Sheffield. Sadly, there is no direct service, so on leaving work it was a quick trip on the Cross-City to Barad-Dur Hbf New Street and then transfering onto a Class 221 "Super" Voyager to Sheffield. Voyagers are nasty, so I had taken the precaution of booking in First Class - where they are marginally less nasty, unfortunately, the previous HST had been cancelled and it was so full that there were people from Standard Class standing in the aisle of First Class all the way to Sheffield. As usual, there was that slight nasty smell from the toilet systems which defines this class of train for me. Due to overcrowding, there was no at seat catering, however this time, I was prepared and had water with me. 

I swiftly wheeled my bag from Sheffield station to the Sheffield Hilton, it was a slightly longer journey that I remembered, but still only 10 minutes or so. This Hilton is a former Stakis and therefore on facilities struggles to make four star, however I remembered that like its cousin the Hilton Islington, it had very good staff and it was not too far away from where I wanted to be, but far enough away as to not have to mingle too much with my fellow delegates. My room was basic and sadly a twin, but was clean and had a new bathroom. I was given free internet access and some bar vouchers which I didn't use, I also got complementary water and newspapers. After having a wash and unpacking, I went out in search of proper Yorkshire Fish and Chips (and I don't mean bloody Harry Ramsden's), it took a little while to locate somewhere that looked right and I was soon sat down by the quays on a bench enjoying a very nice bit of Haddock, some decent chips and sadly the mushy peas were nasty. 

Anyway, I was up early the next morning in order to get inside the Ring of Steel before the Trots turned up, so I went downstairs for breakfast. The breakfast staff are very friendly, very pleasant and very good at their jobs. As usual, the Hilton provides a buffet, which has both hot and continental items, as we were in Yorkshire, the continental side looked a bit weak :-) Anyway, one full Yorkshire later and with a sensible sized pot of tea on the table, it was off to do my democratic duty for a few hours, I even cheated and took the Supertram three stops - because I like trams.

After that was done and having had wander around the City Centre - which has some very nice smart areas, some well done up older areas and some manky grotholes, I returned to get washed up and then went out to dinner with a friend. We said he'd booked somewhere out in the country and we ended up at  The Chequers at Froggatt which was a very nice country pub/restaurant with a nice locally biased menu (but not totally localvore). I had good sardines with a sort of pico di gallo salsa, followed by a selection of sausages (one pork and herb, one beef and one venison) with some very rich mash and finally, the dessert - which was Bakewell Pudding with Custard. A lovely meal with good company in nice surroundings.

After another decent nights sleep and a full Yorkshire, I headed back to Birmingham via another Voyager, as is usual on Sunday mornings, it was fairly quiet and I did get a free cup off coffee - no food was available but after a full Yorkshire, I didn't have room for any food. The journey back was via Lichfield City which is an usual routing, but I was head down in the Sunday Times.