Monday, 29 July 2019

Why business class matters

Relatively few people fly business class, and the ones that never have often do not understand the degree of trouble I'm willing to accept in order to sit before the curtain. This post is meant to explain why I book these ridiculous iteneraries (like the one from Amsterdam to Singapore through Saint Petersburg and Frankfurt).

Here's why: I love flying. The feeling of being miles high in the sky, seeing the curvature of the horizon, leaving every day stuff literally far behind, I love it. There's an added romantic feeling even when it's night, when dinner is served and when you can sleep. It's similar to train journeys, although comfortable night trains have virtually disappeared, at least in Europe.

What I don't like is: being stuck in the middle seat, constantly aware of where you put your elbows (unlike your neighbours, who don't respect your personal space), screaming children not being guarded by their indifferent parents, the chair before you that is put in maximum recline without a word of warning while you're finishing your meal, taking away your personal 5 mm of legroom that you created by emptying the seatpocket entirely.

Flying economy, especially on long haul flights, has become a mild form of torture. Putting too many people in two little space is simply not a good idea, except from an economic viewpoint. I remember my 13 hour legs in the back of the economy section, with children screaming at least half of the flight, and a little bit of fine turbulence thrown in for added fun. My wife have said: no more of this.

The step from economy to business class is not about more room, better food, a bigger screen or priority boarding. The step from economy to business is about flying without feeling the stress of a fully loaded economy cabin and being able to enjoy that you're on a plane. Forget that you're paying at least three times the economy fare - it's money well spent.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Review of Mercure Bologna Centro

When the review mark on Booking.com is below 8, and Tripadvisor shows only 3,5 stars, you know you enter dangerous ground. However, I had booked the Mercure Bologna Centro willingly, for good reasons: a central location right across the Bologna central station, decent room size with a considerable chance of an upgrade because of my Accor gold status, and a right price including breakfast.

I arrived in Bologna when the temperature was 35 degrees, and after 20 minutes in the cramped airport bus I was very happy when I entered the hotel lobby and found it had excellent airconditioning. I had made two separate bookings because they were cheaper together than when booking the same room in a single booking. Therefore the agent had some trouble finding a room that would be available for the full duration of the stay, but she found one and upgraded me to a double room.

Entering the room, I found myself back in the eighties. Carpet, furniture that had seen better days, and a bathroom with fluorescent tubes - had they not been there, I would not have noticed that these have basically disappeared from hotel rooms over the past decade. The bathroom boasted 'vintage' dark green tiling, a bath with integrated shower (the horror! - spoiled brat that I am). However, on the positive side: both the room and the bathroom were very spacious.

Two features made the room stand out of the crowd, unfortunately in a negative way. This was a smoking room, and, yet again, I had forgotten what a smoking room smells like. I was catapulted 10, 20 years back in time once I walked into that room, remembering the smell of a smoking hotel room that seemed not to bother that many people at the time. But after smoking has gradually been banned from public life, its hits you right in the face.

The second 'feature' was a balcony. At least that was what it was called by the receptionist. However, a small strip of some 1 x 2 meters that has no furniture yet shows the signs of a serious lack of cleaning. Especially when the rain starts pooring and the pigeons' excrements start floating because the floor drain doesn't work. But this is where my hotel character assassination stops. Because I really had a fine time staying there, because almost all personnel was friendly and attentive, noticeably the breakfast crew.

The thing with the Mercure brand is that it's not very consistent. That will often be a problem with hotel brands, but only weeks before my wife and I stayed at the Mercure Krakow Stare Miasto, which was really excellent in all respects, and lightyears away from the time capsule that this Bologna property is. But then, you're in Bologna, you're only an hour by train away from beautiful other cities such as Parma, Modena and Ravenna, so who cares about the hotel room anyway? And the airconditioning did a great job in the room as well, by the way.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Get 1000 yums instantly for discounts at restaurants via The Fork

Yums are the 'currency' of restaurant website The Fork, available in a fair number of European countries. Use this link to sign up and make your reservation. When you do so, you get 1000 yums, 'worth' 20 euro in discount. I get 500 yums if you use the link and honour your first restaurant reservation.

The Fork lets you book a table easily. You can always cancel if you change your mind. Note that the restaurant owner pays for the booking. Last time I checked every reservation costs them 1,50 euro. The yums you earn can be used for discount (1000 yums = 20 euro, 2000 yums = 50 euro).

This discount cannot be combined with other offers. Many restaurants offer a percentage of your bill as a discount, varying from 20% to 50%. Sometimes the discount only applies to food items, and not to menus. Restaurants not honouring the discounts are very rare in my experience (I had one occassion only in recent years).

Please be aware that yums are a currency that is entirely paid for by restaurant owners. The restaurants that accept yums in return for discount only get a 50% discount on their The Fork cheque in return, insofar as I could check.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Visiting Auschwitz

During the preparation of a recent trip to Krakow my wife and I decided we wanted to visit the concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Obviously, this is not your regular day trip on a regular holiday. It's important to be prepared for the visit.

On a practical level, there are many offerings for day excursions from Krakow, which combine a bus return and guided tour, and sometimes a lunch. Because of an allergy of group tours, I decided to organise my own itinerary. It's doable, but probably not advisable. Our return consisted of a single trip with Flixbus from the bus station next to the main railway station of Krakow. It cost next to nothing, at 2,50 euro for the bus ride, and 3,00 for a front row seat. The trip took effectively 1.15 hour. Contrary to my expectations, the ride was comfortable and on time.

The way back was on a local Polish train from Oswiecim railway station, some 1,5 km from Auschwitz I (0,50 euro on a local bus). This station does not feature a station building, we did not see any ticket machines (but you can buy your tickets on board). There are no facilities so on a cold day take care of decent clothing, and on a hot day, do not forget to bring water and sunscreen. I bought my tickets beforehand (also for only a few euros) and the ticket inspector was kind enough to let us use our tickets on an earlier train. This train takes 1.30 to 1.45 hours for the 60 km to Krakow, and it has no airconditioning.

During the peak season, it is only possible to visit Auschwitz in combination with a guided tour. This is mainly to keep control over the large numbers of visitors. Although I'm generally not a fan of being guided, in this case I would highly recommend it. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and very direct about the history of the camps and the holocaust.

The crowds that visit these camps unfortunately do not all respect the basic rules that apply: not eating, not taking pictures in a few of the most sensitive places, and dressing modestly. Although it was 35 degrees celsius on the day of our visit, it should be clear that shorts are not something to wear in Auschwitz. And even after repeated requests not to take pictures in the part where stacks of victims' hair are on display, someone from our tour group still took a picture. On a positive note, we noticed that there are many young visitors of these grounds, and that the tour groups operate in almost complete silence (apart from the guides, obviously).

When you plan your trips, take into account the following advice:

  • Plan well ahead, especially if you want to book the trip yourself. I found most tour groups sold out already three weeks before the actual visit. You can book a day and time slot for approximately 15 euro per person (that's the fee for the guided tour, access itself is free but must always be booked).
  • If you choose to join an organised trip, there might be availability much closer to the actual visit.
  • Pardon me for stating the obvious: Auschwitz is not an amusement park. Places where you can eat or drink are very limited. Once on the premises, there is a vending machine in the room where you await your tour guide. On a hot day, take water with you. The first part of the tour takes 1,5 hours and there's no break. Remember that on premise, you are not allowed to eat.
  • You will enter cramped, dark places with uneven floors. If you have physical restrictions, be aware of this. I managed to get around despite my visual impairment but had to retain strict focus.
  • There are places where you can get some food and drinks but they are all small and unpretentious, even those outside the perimeter of the museum. Anything else would also be entirely inappropriate. 
Auschwitz (camp number I, the camp with the infamous 'Arbeit macht frei' sign above its gate) is actually rather small. It contains several baracks that have been converted into a museum. On display are photos taken on the premises during its functioning as concentration and extermination camp, as well as the countless objects that were confiscated from the victims by the nazis and then sorted and put to reuse. After freeing the camp, the authorities found some 200 thousand objects that have been partly converted in the gruesome, surreal setup of stacks of shoes, combs and suitcases currently on display.

The aforementioned room with victims' hair not only shows stacks of hair, but also some products it was put to use by the nazis, one of many signs of the industrialisation of genocide. Some of the barracks indicate how the victims 'lived' in the barracks, showing the lack of sanitary equipment and the space available for sleeping. The end of the tour leads you to the actual gas room and cremation oven built in Auschwitz I. The larger constructions of gas rooms and ovens in Birkenau were all destructed by the nazis when they left Poland. 

On a sunny day, with birds singing and green trees on the premises, the looks of Auschwitz I might still be deceiving. Any such deception will disappear when climbing the watch tower of Birkenau, the much larger camp that you will visit as the second part of the guided tour, after a short break and a bus ride between the camps. Railway tracks in the middle distinguish the male and female camps, barracks filling a large, empty plain. We visited one barrack with the original setup, showing the three layers on top of each other, each measuring (my estimate) 1,5 m x 1,5 m on which 5 to 7 people 'lived'. 

It is not recommended to take children below 16 to Auschwitz. Plan nothing for the rest of the day. For obvious reasons, I decided not to take any photos.