Category Archives: airports
Picture the scene: it’s late morning at Sardinia’s Cagliari Elmas airport. Monsieur and I have been awake since dawn but haven’t had time for breakfast. The low-cost airline has high-cost sandwiches which we avoid, mostly because they already look curled and cardboardy, and the coffee looks like something that might spurt out of a long-disused farmhouse tap. Monsieur and I are not the types to eat for the sake of it so we wave the snacks trolley past. Besides, we figure that abstinence now will soon enough be rewarded when we lunch on some fine Italian food.
As the aircraft doors opened to a rush of warm, Sardinian air, Monsieur and I were raring to go. That morning, we’d left the spring morning chill of Luton to fly into the deep blue hanging above this craggy isle. We decided to forget hotels for now; they’re for sleeping. Our feet had different priorities: they were itching to reach sand and saltwater.
First, we picked up the hire car, which wasn’t the convertible Monsieur had booked - the previous renter had decided to abscond with it for an extra day and there weren’t any others available. We might have been miffed, but for two things: 1. only the most unreasonable of folk wouldn’t get the temptation to Just Stay One More Day - Sardinian weather in May is glorious; and 2. the alternative on offer was a brand new Fiat 500. Personally, I preferred it to the convertible; it had iconic value and would protect me from being flattened by wind and bugs as Monsieur zoomed along the autostrade.
We sped away from the airport, past mud flats studded with the pale pink of flamingo, to the southern Sardinian coast. There, the road led us to a small town near the beach – formed of clusters of small, stuccoed buildings radiating out from a modern piazza. Everything testified to sensitive yet sensible town-planning, the shops and eateries all freshly painted in the sort of ice cream pastels that made me long for a gelato to drip down my hand. For that, however, I would have to wait a little longer.
On opening the doors of our little ‘bambino’, the heat rushed at us like a blast from the oven. It was more than just warm – you could easily have fried a couple of eggs in less than a minute on the scorching asphalt street. Feeling the sting of the sun on our winter-bleached skin, we sought out somewhere shady to lunch, settling on a buffet restaurant called Su Nuraghe. The restaurant is named after the strange megalithic buildings (nuraghe) that look like stone beehives, marking the Sardinian landscape and now quite the unofficial symbol of Sardinia itself. We found a table in the shade, then ventured inside to order. The interior was cool and practical -sparkling laminate floor, glass and chrome counters, simple tables and chairs. There were no grubby fingernails here.
We ordered lots of good, sparkling Sardinian water and plates of seafood salad to start.
Mussels and crabsticks made an appearance in this simple dish, but fortunately for this lover of octopodes, there was a surfeit of eight-legged sea creature before me. I do so relish the cool, fresh flesh of an octopus, served in the merest drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice.
Next came plates of one of Italy’s simplest seaside pasta dishes – spaghetti tossed with olive oil and fresh sea urchin. The precious orange roe had a delightfully slippery texture and tasted like Neptune’s version of marshmallow – capturing all at once the taste of sea air on the tongue and combining it with a unique, briney sweetness. This was exactly the sort of food Monsieur and I had anticipated. Our morning’s patience had certainly been rewarded.
Before heading off to the beach, we stopped at a gelateria for a refreshing treat. I was interested to note the existence of soya milk-based gelato on their menu, which is a boon for anyone with lactose intolerance! Tempted though I was to taste-test it, today I stuck to my favourite flavours: cocco, stracciatella e banana. I’ll never be size zero at this rate and, in this world of superficiality, I admit that such a thing doesn’t even approach making it onto my bucket list. Truth be told, I’m probably not the norm in this respect. I’d much rather meet my Maker with a stomachful of flavour and the memory of a good old slap-up lunch than arrive at the Pearly Gates regretting the fact that diet coke and a lettuce leaf (hold the dressing) had been my death row meal. As Fellini once put it: “Life is a combination of magic and pasta,” and if you could add the freshest seafood salad and quality gelato to that combination, you’d have a lunch that I’d be happy to enjoy as my last.
In the pre-Christmas rush to reach loved ones, we’re not having a lot of success here in the UK. A bit of snow has sent everything into chaos – flights have been cancelled or delayed, roads closed, warnings to stay at home issued, and trains stranded mid-line. The snow has also caused Eurostar to restrict the speed of trains on both sides of the Channel, adding at least two hours to journey times, with the knock-on effect of a great many train cancellations.
And so, Monsieur and I have been watching developments with interest, as we wonder whether or not we’ll reach our French famille for Christmas. With queues like the one in the film below, we expect it to be quite hard work. Since the chaos ensued on Monday, tempers have frayed, Eurostar staff have reportedly been rude and unhelpful (not the best P.R. at a time like this, Eurostar!), and it’s only through the goodness of the Salvation Army that people queuing in freezing conditions for hours on end have been fed and watered. Some poor folk have suffered hypothermia, St John’s Ambulance has therefore been on hand to treat the effects of standing for long periods in sub-zero temperatures, and if all that weren’t bad enough, yesterday the transport police were called to deal with travellers who’d had enough of being mucked around in what we’d all call the most amateur of company responses to their many thousands of stranded customers.
What is it about snow that we don’t seem able to deal with here?
And what is it about so-called customer service that allows so many thousands of travellers to be treated with such lack of care or respect when all they’re trying to do is get home for the holidays?
Eurostar has had no clear plan of action this week apart from cancelling services, cancelling pre-Christmas ticket sales and telling ticket-holders that they’d be dealt with on a first-come, first-serve basis. For simply OBVIOUS reasons, that was a big, fat FAIL, (a case of early bird with the pushiest elbows catches the worm) so today they’ve decided to try honouring tickets and getting their customers onto the next available train. Estimated waiting time? It still stands at a horrendous 3+ hours. I’ll be interested to see what happens when we try to travel. Will we make it or won’t we? The suspense is killing me. (Not really. The cold outside St Pancras will probably take care of that).
From what’s been said, things aren’t much better in the freezing cold station that is the Gare du Nord. Angry travellers + Gallic policemen do not make for a happy mix. Add a few truncheons and the picture becomes very, very messy, indeed. In fact, at the rate they’re going, Eurostar will be subjected to annual pre-Christmas service failure enquiries. Remember this time last year? I’ll give you a clue: trains. Stuck. Under the Channel. Services cancelled. As our friends in France would say: plus ça change. With that, here endeth the second Eurostar ranting.
Went to see Gordon Gecko’s latest incarnation in Wall Street 2 recently and just about spat out my water in giggles at this ad in the cinema. Don’t worry – Monsieur didn’t get too wet, he’d brought his brolly. In particular I really dig the pole dancers. It’s even funnier because it’s total fiction – Monsieur and I couldn’t begin to describe how frustrating our Virgin flight back from honeymoon was – crashed online check-in so Monsieur could get a seat but not me (computer said I didn’t exist)… had to forego bag drop because of that. Stood in line FOREVER thanks to understaffing only to be told that we couldn’t sit together (on our way back from honeymoon???) thanks to a cruise liner that had deposited its UK passengers on this flight, which was now overbooked. Try to swap your seats at the gate? Not blooming likely. The flight’s full to bursting with cruise ship lovers. That means that most of them are COUPLES. Even the nicest person in the world wouldn’t want to swap away from their partner so I could be with My New Hubby on a 10 hour flight. We tried regardless. All the couples around us said sorry but no. Big Fat FAIL.
Monsieur and I weren’t the only ones with seat allocation troubles. People behind me (Monsieur was on the other side of the plane in a completely different cabin) bickered all ten hours of the way home. They hadn’t been seated next to their bridge partners from the cruise, one woman had issue with the man in front of her reclining his seat, and because we were in the back of the plane and one of the meal options had run out by the time the dinner trolley reaches us, there was a near revolt. Little wonder why the crew were grumpy and not the perfectly coiffed divas and gods of this ad.
NB Don’t you think that if Virgin Atlantic crews really looked like they do in this ad, they wouldn’t be trolley dollies? Like, maybe Calvin Klein models or XXX movie stars? Hmm. Moi aussi.
Last point: having a vague idea of how much per-second TV or cinema ads cost to make and show, this one replete with special effects must have cost a blinding amount, possibly even the GDP of a tiny third world country. And whatever my recent issues with Virgin Atlantic, I’ve also enjoyed fantastic flights with them, love their in-flight ice-cream and red-hot (or should I say ‘hot red’?) sleeping socks and this ad certainly makes me giggle.
(Hoan Kiem Lake in Central Hanoi. Don’t be fooled by how calm it looks; there are tens of thousands of mopeds buzzing around its perimeter!)
Flying into Hanoi saw my nose pressed firmly against the window, craning to view the Red River in all its glory. With such a bird’s eye view it was possible to see why it had been named ‘Red’, for the earth colours it a rich terracotta. It is a mighty beast, this river, and cannot be trusted. It certainly feeds the agriculture of the region but also floods regularly, causing havoc and destruction.
Back on the ground we were soon inside the airport, where we had our first proper taste of Vietnamese bureaucracy whilst waiting for our visas. They’d already been approved through an online visa agency but could only be issued in person, so here we were. A wordless attendant gestured at us to hand over our passports and complete another form, which only replicated information already given through the visa agency. Then he waved us around to the other end of a glass-walled office to pay the 50 USD processing fee and retrieve our passports. Flipping through the pages we checked that they contained our visas, which they did, but with our surnames first and middle names second. I guess they don’t understand how our names work, but in any other country, getting the names muddled could result in the document being rendered invalid. Curious.
(Moped rider near the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Many women wear bandannas to protect them against traffic fumes, but also to protect their skin from sun exposure. Light skin is beautiful skin in Vietnam.)
Next we presented our documents at queue-less immigration counters where surly men in uniforms scowled as they stamped our passports. There was a total lack of welcome. You might be forgiven for feeling like an intruder with first impressions like these, but we were so excited to be in Vietnam, at long last, that we dismissed the grumpiness and looked forward to better experiences elsewhere.
Thanks to the time-consuming bureaucracy of immigration, the baggage handlers looked super efficient with all bags waiting for us on the carrousel. Now we just needed cash, so we approached an ATM. There are a lot of zeros involved with the Vietnamese currency, called Vietnamese Dong, so it confused me as I extracted 1.5million Dong, hoping beyond hope that I’d done my calculations correctly and I now held the equivalent of £50.00 in my hand, not £5,000.00 or some other outrageous sum.
Then we negotiated a cool 270,000 Dong for a taxi to our hotel in central Hanoi. It sounds terrifying, to pay 270,000 in any currency for anything less than a super yacht or piece of property. It was, in fact, equivalent to $16.00 USD and the tariff was government-regulated so the haggling wasn’t really necessary; our driver just tried it on a bit. At the end of the fare he was to receive a nice tip, so bless his Vietnamese cotton socks, he shouldn’t have worried so much at the start.
(Traffic in central Hanoi.)
As we left the airport, the road was immediately bumpy with potholes, which are a common issue throughout Vietnam, but I wasn’t interested in how comfortable our ride was; the views around us were attracting my full attention. Not only did the mountains behind us resemble those monochromatic ink-wash paintings found in Chinese restaurants, all around us were women wearing conical hats as they rode their bikes past rice paddies of the sort of vibrant green that tells of fertile land and plenty of precipitation. It was like travelling through an oriental wonderland.
Our driver didn’t seem too confident on the road; his brow bore the concentration furrows of a relatively new driver. We soon stopped for petrol at a service station and I watched one of the female attendants who’d tied a bandanna around her face to protect her from the fumes. She watched me back with smiling eyes and when we left, I waved at her. Her eyes lit up and she returned the wave with vigour. This was more like it: some friendly, smiling faces instead of the surliness back at Hanoi Airport.
(More traffic in central Hanoi. Crossing the road takes some doing in this sort of traffic.)
There weren’t many cars on the road; but it was positively teeming with two-wheeled vehicles, and from time to time we spotted a cart being towed along in the traffic by skinny oxen with horns that could do a lot of damage to a car windscreen, should push come to shove. As we drank in our new surrounds, it amazed us how many people could squeeze onto a tiny moped. Whole families, babies included, seemed able to fit on the one seat. Mopeds and motorcycles were the main form of transport here, carrying everything from people to bamboo cages filled with chickens or other animals destined for market or even the odd oven. If that weren’t a balancing act in itself, then the manoeuvres of the moped riders as they weaved daringly through the heavy traffic or drove out of side streets at right angles into the traffic flow without looking made them the equivalent of two-wheeled contortion artists. For these riders, no gap in the traffic was too small, and the air was alive with the honking of horns. This was one busy city and it was easy to think that it might just never slow down.
(Mopeds really DO go everywhere in Hanoi.)
We were now approaching central Hanoi. The houses lining the main thoroughfare on which we were travelling were tall and skinny. Many of them operated businesses from their ground floor room. We saw Pho bars, coffin makers, grocery shops and florists. Hairdressers had the freedom of the footpaths. Intrigued, we noticed that they set up shop by hanging a mirror on a wall and placing a chair for their clients on the footpath. Mounds of shorn hair grew from the ground around the chairs populated by a clientele who seemed perfectly happy to be groomed in public. Vietnam was already full of surprises yet we’d only been here for a short while. In any case, Monsieur and I were happy about that, because different was exactly what we’d signed up for when we decided to visit this fascinating country and different it was certainly proving to be.
When Monsieur and I travelled through Vietnam some time back, this fascinating country and its people had such a profound effect on me that I haven’t yet blogged about it. Every time I think of our journey, my mind fills with such a kaleidoscope of vistas and tastes and people and experiences that it overwhelms. But now, sixteen months later, I’m going to try to share our experiences.
To start with, here’s a synopsis of how we did it. We didn’t see everything that we wanted to see, because Vietnam is a big place with troublesome roads and slow trains and we only had two weeks within which to learn how to cross the roads and explore as much of the country as possible. The upshot of that is that there’s plenty to keep us busy when we go back one day. And we will go back one day. If I could wangle it, I’d go back right this minute.
GETTING THERE AND BACK:
Monsieur and I flew on Eva Air from London to Bangkok because direct flights from London to Vietnam are exorbitant and this way we’d both save money and see a little bit of Thailand. It’s significantly cheaper for UK residents to fly to Bangkok and then hop across to Vietnam on one of the region’s low cost airlines. In our case we flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Hanoi, and from Ho Chi Minh City back to Bangkok. Air Asia is cheap and efficient, but the baggage allowance is a meagre 15 kilos. Going out, this wasn’t a problem and my packed suitcase only weighed 10 kilos, which is somewhat of an achievement for this girl scout who likes to be prepared for all eventualities. Quite naturally, as we travelled about, Monsieur and I picked up more baggage weight in the form of clothes and gifts for family and friends, so that by the time we left Vietnam, our baggage excess was such that we had to pay a hefty $125 US dollars. The way we looked at it this was that once added to the cost of the flights themselves it just made the flights feel more regular in price as opposed to a real bargain. You have been warned.
Internally we flew Vietnam Airlines, which we found to be pretty good. We later found out that they have a terrible reputation but that wasn’t our experience at all. Had we had more time, we would have liked to try the train that travels up and down Vietnam, but unfortunately the journey times were too long to be practical for us.
So here’s what we got up to. It would be great if you pick out something that you’d like to hear about, leave it in the comments and I’ll write it up for you.
Day 1 – Arrive in Bangkok. Stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Swim off the travel grime and enjoy lovely buffet at the hotel.
Day 2 – Breakfast by the river. Hire a driver to take us around Bangkok for 5 hours for the equivalent of a 15 minute cab ride in London. We manage to take in the Golden Buddha, the Grand Palace and a vibrant weekend market before returning to the hotel. Cocktails at the Sirocco Bar with fantastic views over Bangkok and dinner at the Blue Elephant.
Day 3 – Fly to Hanoi. Have fun with immigration officials and ATMs at Hanoi airport. Stay at the beautiful Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Learn to cross streets without being mown down by a tidal wave of mopeds. Walk to old town via Hoan Kiem Lake. Visit Ngoc Son temple. Circle the lake. Dinner at the Spices Garden restaurant at the hotel.
Day 4 – Take tour to Halong Bay. Long day. Epic ingests an entire dish of MSG. By herself. And suffers the consequences.
Day 5 – Walk around Hanoi. Visit Temple of Literature, Hanoi Hilton. Just about evaporate in the heat and humidity.
Day 6 – Fly to Danang. Pass China Beach on way to Hoi An. Stay at Ha An Hotel. Lunch at Banana Leaf. Do walking tour of Old Town – temples, Japanese Bridge, a ‘real’ Vietnamese home etc. Visit Yaly tailors. Dinner at Mango Rooms.
Day 7 – Fitting at Yaly then a lazy day at nearby Cua Dai Beach. Lunch at the beach. Dinner at Brothers Café.
Day 8 – Fly to Nha Trang. Stay at Six Senses resort. Laze around at the beach and in the pool. Dinner and DVDs in our room. We need to slow down for a couple of days, and so we do just that.
Day 9 – All meals taken at the hotel. The much-needed chilling-out period after so much travelling helps a lot so we spend another day at the beach.
Day 10 – Travel by road to Dalat. Looks close on map. Takes hours each way. Visit our driver’s family shrine, rest stop in village, see Dalat train station, Prenn Falls. See coffee/ tapioca/sugar cane plantations. Afternoon at Dalat Palace Golf Club. Interesting drive back to Nha Trang with our fascinating driver. Much of our conversation is taken up by what Vietnamese eat, which is just about everything.
Day 11 – Another day chilling out. Vietnamese coffee rocks. We watch Vietnamese musicians at dinner. We also have a sunburn relief massage with fresh aloe vera. I’d never had a massage before. What total decadence!
Day 12 – Fly to Ho Chi Minh City. Stay at Majestic Hotel on Dong Khoi. It rains buckets. Visit the post office, haggle with street vendors, give thanks for safe travels at Notre Dame Cathedral. Walk to Reunification Palace. Dinner at M Bar with great views over river. That river is a floating highway, even at night.
Day 13 – take tour out of HCMC. Visit Cu Chi Tunnels and My Tho on the Mekong Delta. Boat ride to Ben Tre for lunch. Coconut candy factory, snakes and longboats. Cao Dai Temple. Lacquerware factory visit. Dinner with Adam from Vietnam Travel Notes – we go to Bin Thanh Market together. REALLY good night!
Day 14 – last day in Vietnam. Shopping in town. Lunch at Lemongrass. Dong Khoi. Back to the airport. Long delay because of riots in Bangkok. Stay at The Peninsula Hotel.
Day 15 – Fly home with a head full of wonderful, colourful memories of Vietnam.
+16 months – Epic finally gets around to blogging about it.
(Painting by Manuela Gouveia, in Lisbon’s Sofitel Hotel, Room 7-11, just like the convenience stores.)
Until November, Lisbon was uncharted territory for Monsieur and me, yet we’d decided to go and check out both Lisbon and Madeira for various reasons, being: (a) we’d never been to Portugal, (b) the flights and accommodation were insanely cheap as November is low season, (c) it’s not too far from us in London and (d) the weather would be considerably warmer than in England. We also had a bunch of leave to use up before the end of the year.
We’d heard unending positive reviews from those who’d been there before us. One colleague has a holiday home in the Algarve and another goes to Portugal for R&R every year without fail. The Epic Brother had visited friends there earlier in the year and raved about the Portuguese, how helpful and welcoming and warm they are without being flashy or in-your-face. Then others told me that to be in Portugal was like being in a world between worlds; that sometimes it seems modern and at others it’s quite medieval, but nonetheless enchanting. Monsieur and I were now keen to check it out for ourselves.
Our first good impression on arriving in Lisbon was created by the weather: for a Northern Hemisphere November, to find 18 degrees Celsius awaiting us at 7.30pm on a Friday night was an excellent way to start our holiday.
Customs was unusually straightforward, the luggage caroussel quick to produce our suitcases, and, as an added bonus for the traveller disembarking with a growl in their tum – all around baggage claim were opportunities to grab a snack. There were little shops selling food, a well-stocked café, and a woman with a trolley laden with crisps, drinks and plastic containers filled with fresh fruit. Now, that’s what I call civilised.
On a more romantic note, as we waited for our bags, a tall black man walked past us in robes of flowing gold. On his feet were pointy-toed slippers of cream silk and on his head sat a loosely-wound turban. Not only was the man a reminder of Portugal’s colonialist ties, he was the picture of orientalist elegance as he glided on by, a good head or more taller than anyone else in the hall, his robes glistening against the blue-black of his skin.
Once land-side, I noticed something rarer than a two-trunked elephant: a properly-stocked information desk with real maps, not just those freebie maps for tourists that only show one in four streets (never the one you’re actually looking for) and which never, ever show the routes to or from the airport. Here at Lisbon airport there were city maps, regional maps and maps of the entire country, stood on racks alongside guides from various publishers. This is just what’s needed at every airport in the world. I was impressed.
We didn’t wait long for a cab to our hotel on Avenida da Liberdade and our driver was patient with our novice attempts at speaking Portuguese, phonetic phrasebook in hand. The road leading away from the airport was lined with big, square houses, reminiscent of the architecture we’d seen in Melaka, Malaysia, where the Portuguese once ruled the roost. Many sported a deep rusty red colour, also familiar from our Malaysian travels. It struck me that we’d seen the effects of a country out there before understanding it’s background, which was now right here in front of us. It may be a back-to-front way to travel, but it works.
It was also soon apparent that the Lisboetas like their monuments, especially large ones parked at the centre of busy roundabouts. We circled two elaborate examples and spotted a couple more during the 15 minute ride to the hotel, and would see a lot more in the course of the next few days. Lisbon’s stonemasonry rocks.
(I’m terrible at night photography but this is one monument at Restauradores, on Avenida da Liberdade, and this monument is small compared to some of the others we saw!)
A modest €7.00 later, we arrived at the Avenida da Liberdade. It is a long, wide thoroughfare, with dual carriageway through the middle separated from extra lanes at either side by islands planted with mature trees. For November the branches were decorated with weepy drops of twinkling white lights and one corner building was wrapped like a gift box with a gigantic illuminated bow, a hint that Christmas would be upon us within a matter of weeks.
Monsieur and I like the Accor hotel chain when we travel. They always look after us well. This time we were staying at one of their Sofitels. The lobby was decorated in reds and blacks and golds in what would have been quite an asiatic style but for the pair of golden angels clinging to the wall behind reception. The concierge treated us to free welcome drink vouchers and a room upgrade as we checked in – another positive to travelling out of season, no doubt - and a few minutes later we were walking into our room overlooking the Avenida. Once again the décor had the hint of asia with dark wooden furniture of Japanese style and the walls hung with striking paintings of silhouettes on a red background – by Manuela Gouveia.
(a Sofitel bed. See how SOFT it looks? And it’s even better when you lie down on it. If you never go to Sofitel for any other reason, do at least go to try out their beds.)
There was also an unexpected surprise waiting for us: on the desk sat a cellophane-wrapped plate of half a dozen pasteis da nata, or the special custard-filled tarts for which Lisbon is famous. But best of all was that Sofitel bed. All you have to do is look at one to know that when you slip into it, the linens will be cool and their trademark mattress topper will support you in such luxurious comfort that you will dream of sleeping on marshmallow beds in a land constructed entirely of clouds. Monsieur and I are not the only ones who feel this way, either; next to the bed was a brochure outlining Sofitel beds and Sofitel pillows and the Sofitel bed linens and mattress toppers and everything you could possibly wish for when trying to recreate the Sofitel bed experience at home. Alas, the prices are steep. You’ll have to be an exceptionally good girl or boy for Santa to put Sofitel bed things in your stocking at Christmas. Either that or exceptionally rich.
(I’m not even into custard but these cunning little pastries foxed me into enjoying their sweet creamy wickedness. Note that there are only 5 on the plate in this photo. One has already been wolfed. I won’t say by whom.)
Before we could even think about sleeping, however, Monsieur and I had a date with a rotisserie chicken at the nearby Bom Jardim restaurant. It was time to see whether this bastion of Portuguese chicken was all it was cracked up to be.