AY A POSSIBLE NEW LOVE IN THE AIR?

•August 14, 2018 • Leave a Comment

This year in December I will experience for the first time a flight on an Airbus 350 with Finnair. And I got very excited about their business class product, especially after reading the reviews on https://www.airlineratings.com or http://www.airlinequality.com . But as I already learnt my lesson trusting 100% on-line reviews (most of them sponsored by the reviewed company) I decided to manage my expectations and get a pre-view of flying Business Class with Finnair. And here I am, booking a return ticket London – Oslo via Helsinki and ready to get a taste of “BUSINESS CLASS THE NORDIC WAY- the ultimate way to travel whether on business or for pleasure” .

Finnair’s Nordic Business Class is designed to make any travel an experience, which is why tickets include priority check-in, boarding and security, access to our business lounges, two or three pieces of baggage (maximum weight 23 kg/50 lb each), exclusive Business Class meals and drinks as well as other first-rate benefits depending on the flight route. On their website Finnair clearly states that “when it comes to travelling, we believe in quality service” which is not only a advertising slogan, but a reality on board Finnair flights! When flying Nordic Business Class within Europe and the Middle East, Finnair serves a delicious high-quality meal along with complementing beverages with menus vary depending on the flight duration and destination, all built around delightfully distinctive Nordic elements.

The Finnair fleet consists of over 70 aircraft, most of which are Airbuses being one the most modern in Europe, and thanks to it producing less emissions and offering even better travel comfort on our flights. On my round trip to Oslo via Helsinki I was flying with 3 A321s and one A320 enjoying the advantages of a new aircraft (the oldest one being manufactured in 2004)

But let’s unveil my experience with Finnair step by step:

Flight London Heathrow – Helsinki (on AY1340, seat 1A)

The boarding was a little bit chaotic; Finnair use the same system as British Airways, boarding the plane in groups. The difference is that if you travel in business with BA and you miss the boarding for your group (Group 1), the boarding gate has a channel open ONLY for Business class passengers. With Finnair, if you arrive later you must stay in a kind of a line with all the other passengers. But, I wasn’t in rush so wasn’t a problem to wait until the mad rush ended.

For my flight to Helsinki Finnair used a quite new A321 and  Business Class cabin is set out very like most short-haul Business Class cabins you’ll find flying around Europe – 3 seats either side of the central aisle with the centre seat blocked off. The seats on the Finnair A321 offer 18″ of width and 31″ of pitch (leg room) irrespective of which cabin you’re sitting in so, as British Airways’ comparable aircraft offer just 17″ of seat width and 29″-30″ of pitch, this is a step up in comfort….and it felt it.

Another notable negative is the lack of any kind of power supply around the seats. I appreciate that a lot of short-haul aircraft in Europe don’t yet have power outlets but, considering the London – Helsinki route is scheduled to take around 3 hours (so it’s not that short), power should be something the airline provides. Amenity-wise there was as little as you’d probably expect on a intra-Europe flight – just a small pillow and a blanket which were already on the seats when we boarded.

The safety demo and the moving map of the flight was projected on drop-down screens and alternated with promotional videos. Even though the boarding started in time the departure of the flight was delayed and I think punctuality is the major problem of Finnair. On my round trip all 4 flights were delayed, something between 20 to 45 minutes which can make eventual connections in Helsinki a nightmare

After take-off hot towels were offered with a very quick collection of the used ones – maybe BA can learn from this and collect the used towels before the crew will have their first coffee!

No menus were passed out, but the crew verbally offered a breakfast choice of a hot breakfast or cold cuts with yoghurt and muesli. The breakfast served on board was far much better than the one usual served by the partner airline British Airways. Goodbye green scramble eggs and bizarre sausages and hello tasty ham & cheese omelette and delicious polar bred! What was offered was perfectly ok (I particularly liked the dark bread) but if you’ve left home without eating and not eaten in the lounge this may not be enough for you, especially if you choose the cold cuts option (one piece of ham, one piece of cheese and 2 pieces of cucumber)

The service was impeccable with a crew always on duty and somebody in the galley coming in to the cabin almost every 10minutes to check, clear-in or offer more drinks. And everything was done with grace and a genuine smile

The rest of the flight was uneventful (just how I like my flights to be), with some bumpy moments, a quite hard touch down in Helsinki and some nice views of towns and villages encased in green background as we flew over various parts of Scandinavia….

Flight Helsinki – Oslo (on AY0195, seat 1A)

The boarding was decent and smooth and the departure … no surprises here, 25 minutes later than the EDT. The aircraft was an old-ish A320 with Business Class cabin usual configuration: 3 seats either side of the central aisle with the centre seat blocked off. The flight was very short: 1h 05minutes and the full Business cabin was served by a very attentive, friendly and polite crew – Finnair as its best. Maybe I will repeat myself during this review, but the standout feature of Finnair was the crew who were brilliant: positive, great customer service, helpful and professional. And once again during the flight I couldn’t stop thinking of a British Airways flight with the same length (let’s say Munich or Barcelona) when you can consider yourself lucky if you get a very sad salad with 3 halves of very depressed prawns.

Despite all its cost cutting measures, I was pleased to see that Finnair continues to serve all the drinks in Business in design glass ware. Lunch, with a single option, was served on a single tray, which for a short flight was fine. The food itself was decent, but nothing to write home about. Champagne, wines and after dinner drinks were kindly offered by the cabin attendants throughout the flight. One major downside, though; the instant coffee served after dinner was totally undrinkable and even the stewardess had to admit. In economy, where coffee is about the only thing served free of charge this could be acceptable, but in Business?! Despite the fact that was a short flight the crew was taking care non-stop about the drinks and the empty glasses.

Of course, if you are in Economy cabin a wide and interesting selection of snacks and drinks are available at quite decent prices

Flight Oslo – Helsinki (on AY0194, seat 1A)

There are no announcements in the OSL lounge for boarding the next flights, so you should have your own time or scoreboard in mind. Helsinki Airport. I was checking the screen but no information about my flight, despite that the boarding time passed. So, I decided to go to the gate, which was very close to the lounge. Arrived at the gate I discover a very chaotic atmosphere, with everybody waiting in different lines, no aircraft at the end of the jetty and guess what – the boarding time was still the same on the screen, with no changes and no I formation about a possible delay. I asked the staff at the gate but instead of the answer I got a just a “ice cold” look and one word: “WAIT!”. Finally after 10 minutes I saw the plane arriving and I decided to return to the lounge and wait for boarding information to be changed on the screen. After one coffee no changes on the information board so, I decided to have a “wait a little bit more” G&T. And guess what: suddenly from “go to gate” the screen changed to “gate closing”. I run to the gate just to discover that the boarding just started in a very hectic manner with no priority line and no group assignment. Definitely Finnair is not a beloved airline at Oslo airport.

The aircraft for the flight to Helsinki was an old A320 and my seat was 1A.  On-board seating in business class was standard economy class seats with the middle seat blocked. Legroom was not any more generous, but was sufficient for the brief journey to Helsinki. The flight time was a little bit more than one hour but I was still a anxious about the connecting time and the delay (which in the moment of take-off reached almost 55 minutes). The excellent on-board experience was repeated between Oslo and Helsinki with very friendly and professional cabin crew and a product which exceeded the expectation for a very short flight: a wide range of drinks and a 3 course lunch with a not very appealing look but quite tasty.

I really loved the glasses that they use in-flight  and at home I discovered that Finnair have collaborated with the Finnish design house Marrimeko, which was established in Helsinki back in 1951, to create a range of in-flight service wear as well as amenity kits and pillows and blankets.

I landed in Helsinki with a 45 minutes delay and, bad luck, was a remote parking position so more stress waiting for the bus and transfer to the terminal. But Finnair scored again: I was very pleasantly surprised to get to arrival gate to find a Finnair member of staff waiting with new boarding passes for everyone who had missed their connections plus an express escorted connection service for those passengers who could still make their next flight. I was genuinely impressed with this (and it’s not something I’ve ever noticed on BA) because I think most people accept that things go wrong on planes and sometimes they’re late but it’s how the airline handles it that makes all the difference.

Flight Helsinki – Oslo (on AY1341, seat 1A)

Due to the previous flight delay my connecting time was very short and I had to run across Helsinki airport from Schengen to Non-Schengen zone but the electronic passport control speed up the process and I arrived in time in the departure area. Unfortunately, no time for lounge, just enough time for a “technical”, a cigarette and an adventurous slalom between the hoards trying to locate the Far-East departure gates.

My gate was located in a new wing of the Non-Schengen area, at a lower level, so a bus was needed again. When I arrived at the boarding point, looking from the top of the gate, the scene remind me once again of a Ryanair flight to Malaga: no groups for boarding, no priority line for Business Class passengers, no clear announcements – just a hectic crowd pushing to get a place in a long line waiting for the bus. Just I decided to return to the smoking area and arrive at the gate before the flight was closing.

After a long ride around Helsinki airport, which now looks like a construction site due to an expansion project, finally I stepped in to the plane ready to take me home. It was a new A321 and the on-board experience show me again that Finnair is better in the air than on the ground. The 2 hours 45 minutes flight brought back the memories of British Airways golden age on a band 3 flight with an excellent menu and a great service.

I was again on 1A and the seat itself was clean but the light grey material was showing definite signs of wear. Business class was in a 3 x 3 format with the middle seats blocked out. There were 6 rows in business class and it was about 90% full. There were a few drop-down screens in the cabin showing the flight path and some news programmes, but we were not offered earphones and I didn’t ask

The cabin crew made an announcement that passengers in economy class were allowed free water and blueberry juice, but other food and drink items had to be paid for. I think this is a lot better than the BA buy on board offering where you don’t even get that.

Right after take-off, the cabin crew came through to offer drinks and a small snack. Finnair has one thing going for it in its intra-Europe business class: hot meals. For the late lunch no printed menus but the flight attendant was giving an extended explanation of the two options available: chicken with a deconstructed polenta or pork stew with beans broccoli and mashed potato. Excellent dark rye bread as well. How lovely this meal was! Not only from a taste point of view, but it wasn’t too heavy at all, and just the right amount of food. A full drinks service, including champagne, was offered and tea and coffee followed. I had a coffee and enjoyed the chocolates but unfortunately the coffee was again instant. The service was elegant and attentive and during the entire flight, after clearing-in the crew was coming back regularly to offer more hot drinks or alcoholic beverages.

After landing in Heathrow I was quite surprise to see my suitcase arriving after a short wait by the luggage bet despite the short connection time available. Another star for Finnair service.

After my 4 flights with Finnair within Europe, I am quite excited about my next trip on December 28th on the so admired A350. I don’t think that there’s an awful lot of difference between Finnair and BA on short haul business class, but the product for short flights and the high standards of the service from the cabin crew made Finnair a winner.

Verdict: An efficient and friendly service with a comfortable business class offering at competitive prices.

 

 

3 AIRPORTS, 5 LOUNGES, 48 HOURS

•August 13, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Last week, flying from London to Oslo via Helsinki and back I had the chance to re(discover) and experience in less than 48 hours 3 airports and 5 lounges.

Heathrow Airport

In London Heathrow the airline operates from Terminal 3 and because my flight was in the first outbound wave, the airport was not at all busy. The check-in area is in the A area of the terminal (close to Virgin Atlantic check-in) and if you travel Business Class you have a dedicated line and check-in desk. The entire process was smooth and fast with an excellent check-in agent ( a charming, polite and efficient young lady who was the check-in supervisor for Finnair) who gave me, with a genuine smile, all the relevant information about the first leg of my trip: boarding gate and time, the location of fast-track line for security, location of the lounge – everything you need for a good start of flight – pure excellence Finnair!

The fast track line for security wasn’t very fast at all and I ended spending more than 20 minutes in a queue. I know, you will say that that’s Heathrow, but I think you need to add the fact that, being so early (5.30AM), the grumpy security agents didn’t have time for their first coffee.

Finally, I reach the air-side lounge where I had to take a decision: which lounge to go to. One of the questions that gets asked most frequently is “which is the best oneworld lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3?” With 4 lounges to choose from now, it’s a great problem to have. Although some people have completely forgotten that in oneworld and other alliances you can use any lounge if you are travelling in business or first or have the correct status level in their frequent flyer scheme. I could use the British Airways having a Gold Executive Club card, but, based on the advice of the charming lady from check-in I chose Cathay Pacific lounge – and for sure was the best choice!

Located in departures lounge, after security is marked with the sign Lounge C, and can be easily found near to Gate 11. As soon as I stepped out of the lift I received a really genuine warm welcome from the lovely lady at the reception desk. From reception, there is a short corridor that leads to the two lounges and other facilities; loos to the left, showers at the end and the all-important lounges to the right: the Business Class lounge is the second doorway on the right and First Class is, as you might expect, the first. As I walked into the lounge, the first thing that struck me was how large it felt and how there was a sense of openness to the space. The first thing area of the lounge is the renowned Cathay Pacific Noodle Bar. The bar offers a selection of noodle dishes and some dim sum, all cooked to order.

There is a self-service drinks area, which includes a tap for draft beer (handy if you’ve overdone the chilli sauce on your noodles). For those of us who can’t leave home without an array of tech, every table has two UK sockets with USB ports so you can fuel your devices whilst you fill up on food. For the foodies, there is bar-counter seating so you can watch the chef’s as they create your dish. Being early in the morning it was the breakfast service time. For an airport lounge there was an amazing selection. There were hot breakfast options of bacon, sausage, beans, potatoes, scrambled egg & porridge, all of which looked fresh and appetising. As well as the hot food, there was a generous choice of pastries and some cereals. The food area had a great selection of juices & other cold beverages, coffee machines and cold snacks fridge. The snacks fridge held a fantastic range of options, that were appealingly presented in glass preserving jars and offered tempting flavour combinations such as ‘Salami Milano with Pickles’ and ‘Grilled Peach and Chicken Salad’.

I dropped my bags, ordered my dim sum and went up to the bar, which was very well stocked. There is an impressive selection of wines, spirits and beers, and any airport lounge that has a cocktail menu gets extra points for style. Spirits on offer included Absolut & Stolinacha vodka, Bombay Sapphire & Gordon’s gin, Remy Martin VSOP and Bacardi. Whisky lovers can chose from Canadian Club 12 year, Johnny Walker Black label, Jameson Irish, Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. The service at the bar was impeccable and the level of service remained high throughout our visit.

The toilet facilities are shared by the First and Business lounges. They were spotlessly clean and stocked with Aesop soap & moisturiser. It’s not often that that I’m impressed by soap, but the combination of mandarin rind, rosemary leaf & cedar atlas in the Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash was a definite winner.

The lounges at T3 are sensibly placed close to the gates, so when the announcement was made I didn’t have far to walk. As I left the lounge the host said a cheery goodbye as I waited for the lift. All in all, an excellent lounge; next time I fly from Heathrow Terminal 3, I’ll be making a beeline for the Cathay Pacific Lounge to repeat the experience.

Helsinki Airport

My flight landed in the non-Schengen zone of Helsinki airport and around lunch time will be the perfect moment to be there: no Far East flights scheduled for that time which means now crowds lead by colourful flags on top of a stick, no running and screaming while taking selfies. The Non-Schengen area of Helsinki’s airport looks like any decent airports in Europe. I was extremely impressed by it:  is simply gorgeous, with wood floors, great shopping, and free WIFI which is easy to connect to. After one or two quick cigarettes in the smoking area – what a blessing for smokers to find something like that airside – I decided to go to the Finnair Lounge, near Gate 36 in the non-Schengen area.

As you enter the lounge, you’ll turn right if you are flying business class or left if you qualify under one of the metrics: Finnair Plus Platinum and Gold members (+ one guest), and oneworld Emerald cardholders (+ one guest), when the departure flight is operated and marketed by a oneworld airline. The “Premium Lounge” on the left side has upgraded food and beverage as well as a quiet area.

 

I decided to stay in the Business lounge with was almost empty in that moment. Greeting travellers is a modern and funky entrance with friendly staff before you emerge into a space filled with modern lighting and divided into various zones across two levels. I liked the two-level design of the lounge, its modern aesthetics, and its selection of food. The food selection contained a mix of hot and cold items, with soup, starches, chicken, salads, and pastries. Most of the food and beverage options here come self-served, with hot breakfast items available between 6am and 10am daily, followed by a salad and soup bar between 10am and midnight. But for a lounge catering to passengers flying long distances, those salads options prove very basic by international standards…Alcoholic beverages (nothing fancy) were also available as well as soft drinks and coffee but don’t forget that in Scandinavian countries spirits can be served only after 1.00PM in public places (something that I found later in the lounge in Oslo airport). While much of the lounge is geared towards relaxing and unwinding before a long flight, business travellers getting work done are still catered for, with laptop work benches offering runway views…The lounge contains a small kid’s room and newspapers/magazines. Bathrooms are clean, and showers are available upon request. For those with long connection and jetlag some funny private beds are available (actually 2 of them, and both were busy when I was there)

Bottom line: the Finnair Business Class Lounge at Helsinki Non – Schengen zone is worth stopping by if you arrive early for your flight. It’s also unusual that Finnair’s fare-paying business class passengers are relegated to this lower-level lounge, while any elite Oneworld flyer booked even on the cheapest economy ticket is instead invited into the superior Premium Lounge next door. I’d love to see that experience improved for pointy end passengers: whether that’s by opening up the Premium Lounge to business class flyers or improving elements of this ‘Finnair Lounge’ to make the two more comparable.

After more than one hour I decided to go through passport control (very easy and smooth using the electronic gates) and moved to the Schengen area of the airport. Big mistake!!!! A place that some time ago was an elegant airport, now is on the victim’s list of low-cost flights and hen and stag parties. The Schengen area of Helsinki airport remind me of Stansted and Gatwick put together in the pick of a bank holiday with “exclusive” delayed flights to Benidorm, Magaluf and Paphos. After passport control you’re forced directly to narrow lanes crossing a busy shopping centre full of passengers just trying to get through to their planes, blocking the walkways. Even if shopping in the Schengen area of Helsinki airport is no longer of interest to passengers travelling within EU, the whole airport is now packed with people panicking to reach their departure gates in time. They’ve even cut down the seating areas at all the gates, forcing passengers to hang around, wherever they can. Forget the days, when Helsinki airport was a pleasant experience!

I first went to the Business Class Finnair Lounge, located near gate 22. and discovered that was under renovation, with the airline apologising at the entrance for the “eventual inconveniences and discomfort”. This lounge was like a zoo in the afternoons, with insufficient seating for the number of flights and traffic in the afternoon, very poor food and drinks offering served from paperware, space was cut to third , air-conditioning worked poorly and appalling service. Thank God that the WIFI signal was good and I located another lounge in the area which sounded better that the Finnair one: the Almost@Home Lounge.

Next to the Finnair service desk was the Almost@Home Lounge, a lounge used by several airlines, though can also be accessed by Priority Pass members. According to www.ba.com the lounge can be used by Gold and Silver card holders and business class passengers on BA flights. After waiting more than 10 minutes at the reception by the entrance a young lady, obviously disturbed from passing a new level of Candy Crush refused me in a “Nordic polite way” mentioned that my Gold Card is not working here if I am not flying with British Airways in spite of the existence of a huge banner outside the reception mentioning the opposite. But I wasn’t in the mood of arguing so I returned (once again trough passport control) to the lounge in Non-Schengen zone. At the end I learn something from every trip.

Oslo Airport

One of three airports serving the Oslo region, Oslo Airport (OSL) is the second-busiest airport in Scandinavia and the 17th busiest in Europe. Passengers can fly non-stop between Oslo Airport and more than 160 domestic and international destinations. Oslo Airport has two runways and one terminal with two wings. Domestic flights operate from the west wing and international flights operate from the east wing. There are a total of 52 gates. Airport amenities include free WIFI internet, retail stores including duty-free shops, restaurants, bars, banks, ATMs and currency exchanges.

Oslo airport offered a better experience than the one in Helsinki. My flight was around lunch time and despite the fact that the airport was pretty busy I didn’t experienced in the check-in area or departure lounge the claustrophobic feeling given by the Helsinki airport. The terminal is spacious and light, I particularly like the wooden structure of the roof, typical Scandinavian architecture. Is indeed what you expect from an European Airport: new, modern and really elegant. The only problem: no smokers lounge after security check – so be sure that you get your nicotine macchiato before going air-side. Oslo airport is very quiet, on arrival the peace and quiet is instantly noticeable. The architects must have paid a great deal of attention to the acoustics, lovely.

The check-in for Finnair is on the far end left of the check-in area and again the process was smooth and fast, using the priority line at the desk. The guy who was operating the check-in was very friendly and polite but unfortunately, he was not able to give me any information about what I can find and look for after the security checks (passport control, lounge, duty free, smoking areas). He was not very helpful but at least he was charming.

I was quite surprise to see that Finnair doesn’t give you access to the Fast Track for security despite the fact that I was flying business class; can be another cost-cut decision? Fortunately security check was really easy and fast (even if there was a long queue)

On the airside the trendy look continues with lots of wooden accents everywhere and high, airy spaces that let in lots of natural light. But it was detail which didn’t impressed me: the departure area feels like the ultimate interpretation of an outmoded and cynically designed ‘airport shopping experience’: “Let’s funnel them through hectares of over-priced perfume and chocolate and not let them sit down.” I’m a seasoned and stoical traveller who’ll put up with most things, but this was memorably bad. In the 21st century it’s not about the retailing, it’s about the experience. Oslo airport has completely failed to comprehend that.

After doing some “window shopping” in the extended Duty Free and get bored to be amazed by the prices, “Norwegian style” I decided to go to the lounge. If you fly SAS that’s an easy task as you have no less than 3 lounges to choose from. But as a Finnair passenger you have one single choice: OSL Lounge. If the SAS lounge takes Gold and premium cabin passengers,  OSL Lounge serves a plethora of airlines including British Airways, Air Berlin, Finnair, Qatar Airlines and nearly every other airline at Oslo which is not part of the Star Alliance. Despite the number of airlines that use the lounge, along with Priority Pass card holders, the lounge was nearly empty when I visited it around noon in the middle of the week. The lounge is located on the 2nd floor of the Schengen area after security but before passport control. As the lounge takes everybody, I was told to be prepared for a mediocre service and crowded spaces.

But the reality was completely different. The lounge is decorated in a modern Scandinavian style with plenty of wood and interesting lighting with tarmac views and a variety of different seating options. The selection of buffet options at lunch was quite extensive and actually very healthy for what can be a carb heavy affair, when mass catered. For those feeling parch, dive into the self-serve beer or wine on tap or opt for water, coffee, or other local beverages. The lounge offers several seating areas made for groups, couples or those travelling alone. There is also some red recliners that are made for napping for the those who need additional time to sleep.

The OSL lounge can’t be accessed via Priority Pass and I think this helps to keep the numbers down. The catering is decent, there are numerous seating options and the staff are also friendly and proactive in clearing glasses and restocking items. By no means a ground-breaking lounge but perfectly nice to spend a few hours in. The WIFI is free in the whole airport and fast enough for streaming Netflix etc. Certain seats don’t have easy access to power points (those in the bar style areas in particular) but other than that, no complaints from me!

And guess what: if you find the way to OSL Lounge, the best kept secret of Oslo Airport is just under the corner, literally! Premium OSL lounge is not another independent lounge at Oslo Gardemoen Airport, in fact, it’s a part of the OSL lounge that’s much newer and is known to the surprisingly few passengers. The Premium OSL Lounge itself is not brand new, as it was first opened three years ago, the problem here is that the receptionists rarely inform passengers regarding this part of the lounge, so most passengers just ignore the small entrance and stay at the rather dated OSL Lounge.

As soon as you enter, you notice the pleasant and modern design of warm wood tones, muted colours and chrome combined with clear shapes and lines. Scandinavian design implemented in an excellent way. The areas are arranged clearly and comprehensibly, lounge and sitting area, bistro and dining area, work area – all very well arranged and spatially separated from each other. The seating area are capacious and the furniture are modern and full of taste. A small drawback here would be the lack of power socket on each individual seat.

During breakfast hours, they offer exactly the same spread of food and drinks for passengers in both lounges, but food & drink offerings are slightly better after 1:00 pm and some other times during the day.

The ambience and the catering offer of the OSL Lounge is really good. Coffee and a few small things to eat make the start much more pleasant and especially if you know the prices at Scandinavian airports (not only for alcohol), you will appreciate the lounge offer twice. Even with a longer stay you will find space and peace to work or to rest a little.

I always consider each trip a perfect occasion to learn something new. At least for my next trip with Finnair or SAS via Helsinki or Oslo I know how to choose wisely  before my flights!

An airport hotel between the clouds of expectations

•August 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Normally when you book an airport hotel you don’t have to many expectations: a comfy bed, a quiet room and a short distance to the terminal. Enough to make you time before, after or between the flights as much stress free as possible.

Radisson Blu Airport Hotel in Oslo Gardermoen Airport offered me a different experience, exceeding all my expectations and placing itself far above similar hotels which I used in Heathrow or Gatwick.

The hotel’s location makes it the perfect accommodation for those, like me, on a short stop-over between two flights. Linked to the Oslo Airport, Gardermoen (OSL) terminal by a covered walkway, the Radisson Blu Airport Hotel is just steps from bus and train stations makes it the perfect place to stay if you prefer a short journey to reach your flight, but still want to explore the many attractions of the Norwegian Capital. Experience the buzzling life on the former wharf of Aker Brygge, which is full of shopping, dining and entertainment possibilities. For a calm and relaxing day, bring your camera to take stunning snapshots in the Botanical Gardens, visit the Sunday market on Birkelunden or have a nice picnic in the Frogner Park. You can also take advantage of the hotel’s proximity to attractions such as the Norwegian Armed Forces Aircraft Collection and the expansive Jessheim Storsenter shopping mall, with 145 stores, cafés and restaurants. The hotel’s surroundings are abundant with restaurants and cultural attractions.

A short train ride takes you to the city centre, ready to discover popular attractions such as the Vigeland Park and Museum, the Frogner Park and the Astrup Fearnley Museum. Of course you can reach the vibrant city centre in about 20 minutes via Flytoget (https://flytoget.no/) , the Airport Express train or you can choose a less expensive options via normal trains (https://www.nsb.no/en/our-destinations/airport-by-train)  or buses (https://ruter.no/en/)  to Oslo, all just walking distance from the hotel.

The upscale Radisson Blu Airport Hotel offers lots of open space and natural light in the common areas, all decorated with metallic touches that echo the industrial design. Each of the 500 rooms and suites includes convenient amenities such Free high-speed, wireless Internet and soundproof windows for a restful stay. Rooms feature New Scandinavian, Chili and Naturally Cool design themes that lend a cozy atmosphere.

Needless to say, starting my day at 3.30AM in South east England and flying to Oslo via Helsinki, I was praying there would be no hiccups between the time I touched ground and bedtime and there wasn’t. Could not be easier…. 5-minute walk from the moment I picked my luggage. The check-in was done in 3 minutes in a very efficient and friendly manner with the basic information about hotel’s facilities offered with a genuine smile.

My room, 4315, a standard one (approximate room size: 22 m²) had everything I needed for a comfortable stay and a good night’s sleep. Even with its proximity to the airport, I was not aware of planes landing or taking off and was no noticeable noise despite the fact that I slept with the window open. In the room a flat-screen TV comes with digital channels (not a great choice but having a very strong WIFI signal I didn’t need the television). The beds sport premium bedding and the bathroom offers a hairdryer and free toiletries. Other standard amenities include a minibar, a coffee maker and a safe. I requested a double bed and in the room, I found 2 single beds with individual bedding put together, which was a little bit weird, but manageable.

One piece of advice regarding the minibar in your room: in a bid to foil cost-conscious travellers who replace high-priced sweets and soft drinks for those bought at a fraction of the price at a airport shop, Radisson Blu Airport Hotel fitted the minibar fridge with motion and weight sensors. Even just pulling out a can of Coke to check how cold it is or moving items around in order to store your own items could cost you. Is a small notice somewhere in the room warning guests about this feature but, at the end of the day, you can dispute payment for items that have not been consumed when you check-out. And the charming girl on duty the next morning did that for me with no fuss. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to check your bill before you check out.

The “air conditioning” the hotel advertised on some internet sites is actually not air conditioning as we know it; it’s just old-fashioned ventilation. So, on that warm night in Oslo, dreaming for a temperature under 17⁰C, I needed to open the window. And since this is an airport, was not fresh air that rushes into my room…

The cleaning was average (I discovered the last night pizza boxes and room-service trays in front of some doors on my way to breakfast) and the attention to details were more or less non-existing.

Wake-up call service and Free high-speed, wireless Internet are just a few of the conveniences offered at this airport hotel, added on top of their key services: 24-hour reception service, bicycle rental (free of charge), luggage room, room service.

The Super Breakfast Buffet at Toot’s International features a wide selection of hot and cold items, including fresh fruit, pastries and organic options The buffet had great variety complete with every imaginable food, opened at 5 am so you can eat before an early flight and the school cafeteria style layout didn’t bother me. The breakfast buffet is however as busy as the number of rooms in this hotel is high. So it is recommended to avoid the rush hour if you want to find a seat at a table, which will be most likely shared with others guests.

Opening hours for breakfast

05:00 – 09:30 (Mon – Fri)

05:00 – 10:30 (Sat – Sun)

As I didn’t want an early night I decided to try 26 NORTH RESTAURANT & SOCIAL CLUB – the hotel’s restaurant promoted as inspired by the Nordic countries, their nature, culinary treasures and design. The real experience was a little bit under my expectations: food was okay, but nothing special, typical of hotel restaurants with a quite slow and not very attentive service. Although the restaurant closed at 11:00pm and had at least 20 visible unoccupied tables (most of which remained vacant), I had to wait more than 20 minutes for a table at 10pm. During the meal, I noted several times that the waiters were chatting with each other for extended periods, while customers tried to place orders, get checks, etc. Bottom line: the restaurant seems to not care about service since it is the only option once airport terminal food options are closed. The hotel has to work with their restaurant staff. Running around like headless chicken, not cleaning the tables, replacing items, fill up things is not 4-star standard. And when you asked for something the answer was mainly “rude” which I feel was because the staff was stressed (and the restaurant was not full of people). And having one person standing at the entrance only to say Hi and Goodbye is a waste of staff, when the rest is not up to speed. Would I come back for dinner next time? Yes, but please give the restaurant manager a friendly kick in the behind.

The only good reason to stay at an airport hotel is to ease the pain of a late-night flight arrival, or an early morning departure. Radisson Blu Airport Hotel in Oslo Gardermoen Airport, unlike some, is well aware of its role, and fulfils it quite competently. And I am sure that, if they will adjust the little “cons”, I will check-in here again in the future.

WHY A B2B ON MSC FANTASIA?

•July 6, 2018 • 1 Comment

It is not a secret anymore that I am in love with MSC and their exclusive product Yacht Club, which is why I always come back 6-7 times a year. But this time was slightly different: I booked a back-2-back cruise on MSC Fantasia’s Yacht Club.

A couple days ago, having a drink with a lovely American couple, first time cruising with MSC, I was asked why I book the same itinerary twice, in the same cabin, on the same ship. So, after couple of Chili Passion Caipirinha and a good night sleep, I decided to share with you 10 reasons why somebody would book a back-2-back cruise with MSC.

So, in no particular order:

Reason 1 – The ship

Simply put, MSC Fantasia – a 133,500-ton, 3,300-passenger floating gem – it is a beautiful ship. Cruise lines throw that “beauty” description around a bit too liberally, but Fantasia is special with its colours in the public rooms and cabins vibrant without a hint of gaudiness. I know that everybody can’t stop admiring the new floating MSC resorts: Meraviglia, Seaview or Seaside, but I am in love with Fantasia in each and every aspect: from the real stone piazza where an espresso bar serves freshly-baked pastries and Italian-inspired ice-creams to designer-themed lounge bars bringing a metropolitan vibe to the on-board experience. MSC Fantasia is a luxurious ship, big enough to give a wide range of choices but small enough to ensure a high-quality service. And the cruising market is a field were size is not necessary a guarantee of excellence. My home away from home for 2 weeks knows the secret of balancing the warmth and comfort of the Mediterranean atmosphere with a stylish design.

Click here to see a video of MSC Fantasia

Reason 2 – Yacht Club

After 25+ cruises with MSC I am still impressed with Yacht Club – a ship-within-a-ship ideal for travellers who want to blend a luxury cruise experience with big ship features and amenities. On MSC Fantasia, Yacht Club is indeed an exclusive haven of refinement, a place where in every moment of my journey I had the privilege to savour exclusivity and privacy in a real world of choice. From the moment when you arrive in the embarkation port and until you step out from MSC Fantasia on disembarkation day, the Yacht Club experience is priceless; in every moment of your cruise you feel “a privileged few among many” rather than one of many privileged, which heightens the sense of luxury. The MSC Yacht Club provides quiet exclusivity, but guests were still able to enjoy all the other areas of the ship. The MSC Yacht Club Daily Planner included services and hours for everything going on around the ship – entertainment highlights for the day and evening, services, activities and events along with hours for bars, lounges and restaurants.   With a wide array of lounges, entertainment, as well as diverse shows every evening, it was fun to take these in as well. Looking back to my first Yacht Club experience couple years ago, I’m admittedly a huge fan. The MSC Yacht Club on MSC Fantasia does provide the best of both worlds, and gives a refreshing definition of “The butler did it!”

Reason 3 – The Captain

I had the privilege to sail couple of times on ships under the command of Master Giuseppe Maresca, but on this trip, I took some time to question why he is one of the most respected, admired and loved captains on MSC fleet both by passengers and crew. And I didn’t need too much time to find the answer. Master Maresca knocks down the old image of the rigid and rather stuffy cruise liner Capitan and brought to life a modern leader with loveable personality and charismatic presence in addition to incredible experience and professionalism. Despite a busy schedule with new ports every day and sailing on busy waters The Captain found always time to be in public areas, talking with passengers and sharing his love and dedication to his second family: MSC. Walking the talk, Master Maresca lead his team on the path of understanding that every feedback is a gift and his professional and genuine approach of each and every matter makes his presence on board a guarantee of excellence. It is no surprise that passengers patiently queue to take home a photograph together with an amazing Captain with a charming smile as a souvenir of their cruise, and the crew embrace with passion his vision about creating the perfect holiday

Reason 4 – Yacht Club Team

Why do I have to talk again about this fantastic group of professionals? Maybe because there’s something rather distinctive about the service on board an MSC Yacht Club. You’ll recognise it from the very first greeting when you embark. It’s a combination of courtesy and confidence that tells you you’re in the hands of a very professional crew. Idris Esergul the experienced Yacht Club Director and the amazing Dani Agung Sri Prasetyoi, the Head Butler lead a unique team made up of individuals who take great pride in making your journey an unforgettable experience. For Idris, Yacht Club guests’ satisfaction is just a day in, day out, ongoing, never ending, unremitting, persevering, compassionate, type of activity. And the results are here, on-board MSC Fantasia.

Dwi Yatnawati, the butler for my suite and her assistant the Afaka Andrianjaka surpassed all previous experiences, placing their 24 hours service above all my expectations. Gracious and personal, attentive and friendly, polished and unobtrusive but always available, Dwi and Afaka created that feeling of being home away from home that made me fall in love with MSC Yacht Club.

Dwi knows very well that customer satisfaction is about exceeding expectations and how well it works knowing that people like to be pleasantly surprised, within limits, and she is a master of building relationships with every guest.

Wherever you turn, the Yacht Club crew is there to greet you or extend help. And Anna and Mario from the Concierge were fitting perfectly in this team effort. Instead of having to call an anonymous reception desk for problems or requests, Concierge was always available helping guests with almost everything even to connect to the Internet (which, incidentally, was the best Wi-Fi connection we’ve ever experienced on any ship), make reservations for activities on the ship, or for excursions or transportation on shore.

On port days, they arranged butlers to accompany me off the ship and directly to the doors of waiting vehicles so there is no confusion or long waits in the disembarkation process. Unfortunately, the exclusive feel of the Yacht Club is totally lost and forgotten on excursions. Although well-organised and on time, tours tended to be comprised of large groups from all areas of the boat, with guides simultaneously explaining sights in more than one language, and shorter times that the ones mentioned at the time of booking.

Reason 5 – L’Etoile Restaurant

Sailing MSC Yacht Club is one of the most exciting and wonderful experiences one can imagine, but if you read my previous review of the L’Etoile restaurant you got the idea that this was maybe the weakest link in the amazing chain of MSC Fantasia Yacht Club. This time the experience was far above all my expectations and L’Etoile was one of the reasons why I booked a second week on board. Bringing an understated romantic atmosphere, LEtoile is inspired by the Parisian Belle Epoque era with an ideal choice of soft lighting and the glow of candlelight. But what really impressed me this time was the excellent service, surpassing the famous Cunard White Star service. The extra professional Maître D’ Luigi Fusco and charming sommelier Ferdinando Buonocore set the standards very high for the entire team in L’Etoile and the attention to the finest detail transformed every dinner in a 5 star experience.  Our waiters Oogar and Amina matched perfectly this ambience knowing that a great service takes its lead from the guests, whilst the dining experience in L’Etoile is perfect; it isn’t stuffy or hurried. It’s always friendly, but never over familiar. With this being a private restaurant, there was no rush to get through the different courses, and was a leisurely, high quality dining experience.

Click here to see a video of breakfast on MSC Fantasia Yacht Club

Click here to see a video of El Sombrero – Tex Mex restaurant on MSC Fantasia

The culinary experience was another huge surprise for my journey, taking in the account the not so successful experiences in my previous trips with MSC in Yacht Club. Normally the food is an interesting fusion between Italian and International cuisine but, sometimes the lack of consistency made the culinary experience on board MCS ships a hit and miss experience. This time the Executive Chef Attilio Ascione, consistent with the concept of refined luxury upon which the Yacht Club experience is based, created a culinary experience designed to provide top level gourmet dining. Working with the corporate menus, carefully crafted to offer a balance of new dishes with traditional Italian favourites with Chef Ascione on-board, you will quickly discover that perfection is, in fact, in every detail, in every meal served and you have to prepare your palate for an exclusive and exquisite gastronomic journey. In addition to having different menu selections each evening, beautifully cooked and plated, ongoing traditional choices were available as well. Just don’t forget to book yours “lose weight fast” programme at your return.

Click here to see a video of Gala Dinner on-board MSC Fantasia L’Etoile restaurant

Reason 6 – Dining under the stars

I am bored with counting how many WOW moments MSC Fantasia can fit in a 7 days cruise, but the Yacht Club team showed me again that I can be wrong when I am reaching a conclusion too soon. In our day in Palma de Majorca both Idris (the YC Director) and Dani (the Head Butler) were trying to persuade me to cancel my plans of having dinner in the city and joining them in The One Pool area that evening for a special event: Dining under the Stars. I wrote about that before and I mentioned the fact that the event was an amazing success and an idea which I hope will be part of the YC product on all ships. But this time everybody was dropping hints that the evening would be different. Normally I am not a “short of words” person, but this time, the Yacht Club Team on MSC Fantasia managed to transform me into a child celebrating Christmas for the first time in his life.

The way how the entire One Bar & Pool area got a full makeover with elegant round tables with white table cloths and refined decorations, sophisticated candlelight, exquisite cuisine, divine live music with Carey and Dario and a team of butlers and L’Etoile waiters floating around guests with style and grace, placed “Dining under the Stars” far above similar events organised by Cunard, Regent or Seven Seas on their cruise ships. Hotel Manager Antonio Volpicelli, Carmelina Iuliano – the Guest Relations Manager, Yacht Club Director Idris, Executive Chef Attilio, F&B Director Alfred Linha and Head Butler Dani were perfect hosts for an event which could made envy any party planners on land, a wonderful option for those who wanted to experience a sophisticated, classy, elegant evening on board MSC Fantasia.

Click here to see a video of “Dining under the stars” event on-board MSC fantasia  

Reason 7 – Top Sail Lounge

The Top Sail Lounge is your private retreat where you are greeted by name upon entering. You couldn’t ask for a lovelier location to relax and unwind after a busy day or doing some work in a quiet ambiance. It is not just the tranquillity and comfort that makes the Top Sail Lounge special, it is the little extras that the fantastic team working here brings in every day. Efficient Roberto, always smiling Bogdan, Sudarta, Germain, and Mahendra (and I am so sorry if I forgot somebody) ensure that your glass or cup is, should you wish, never empty. In the Top Sail Lounge the feeling of being a club member is stronger, and as such your drink is delivered with minimal fuss, grace and elegance. After couple of days I started to get used to the fact that everybody in the lounge knew that I like to start my day with a double express on the rocks. No questions needed, just a genuine and warm “Good Morning” and a smooth start of the day … every day! And after a long day the lounge was the perfect place for a night-cup and a lovely chat with the charming Donny

Reason 8 – One Pool

The Yacht Club has its own private sun deck, pool and hot tubs, along with accompanying bar and grill, on the forward portion of Deck 18. Dubbed “One Pool,” the area is really an oasis, albeit a windy one at times. There will be no battles for sun loungers, either, as there are plenty, but do note that families book suites in the Yacht Club, so the pool area is not an adults-only experience. The pool and hot tubs aren’t large, but they suffice

When you go up for the first time to The One Pool on Deck 18, you will be amazed by this expansive area, complete with a pool and hot tubs. The One Pool provided some extraordinary views for MSC Yacht Club guests to enjoy as well as relax and if, after couple of days, you get blasé with this sunny heaven, just take the elevator only two decks down and discover the “pleasure” of 20 in a hot tub experience or the sardines sunbathing style, which reminded me of a Benidorm resort, around the main pool. The bar and grill are what make the area shine, however, and give the area a feeling of liveliness. Food is served all day at the grill, starting with an omelette station in the morning, changing over to a pasta station and salad bar at lunch, afternoon tea and, finally, canapes in the early evening. Covered tables allow you to eat and drink in the shade, and if you still want sun, waiter service is prompt. The morning and afternoon snacks will take care of your cravings and the excellent noon option with healthy salads and fresh made pasta will delete the restaurant from your lunch options. And once again the pool team and the bar staff – David, Hector and Ajay will make you feel spoiled and lucky to be part of this experience.

Located on Deck 18 at the very bow, this spot also affords a perfect vantage point on a balmy sail away evening.

Reason 9 – Dani Agung Sri Prasetyoi

No surprise here! It was the 3rd time when Dani was our Head Butler and guess what? Being far above expectation is his daily routine. The first thing that strikes you when you meet Dani for the first time are his communication skills. He is a great communicator who inspires people, creating an immediate connection with his followers (guests and team members) that is real, emotional, and personal, forging this connection through an understanding of people and an ability to speak directly to their needs. Watching him over the days, I realised that Dani is a very generous human being, sharing credit and offer enthusiastic praise. On many occasions, I saw him committed to his colleagues’ success as they are to his own, being able to inspire the entire team in Yacht Club to achieve their personal best—not just because it will make the team more successful, but because he cares about each person as an individual. During one of our daily chats Dani explained to me that tapping into the power of passion is essential to being able to accomplish what you want with yourself and with MSC. When passion is strong and it is identified and understood, Dani found easy to harness that energy to create great things and have a big impact on everyone’s holidays.

Excellent customer service is all about bringing customers back, about sending them away happy – happy enough to pass positive feedback about your business along to others, who may then try the product or service you offer for themselves and in their turn become repeat customers. Dani knows that the essence of excellent customer experience is forming a relationship with each guest – a relationship that each individual customer feels that he or she would like to pursue. How does Dani go about forming such a relationship? By remembering the one true secret of good customer service and acting accordingly; “You will be judged by what you do, not what you say.”

Reason 10 – It’s party time

I’ve never been a big fan of the on-board shows and, apart from the licensed productions on board NCL ships (Blue Man, Priscilla Queen of Desert or Legends), I prefer live bands to “standard shows” in ship theatres. MSC have never invested a great deal in the on-board productions and their shows are placed somewhere just above average. On MSC Fantasia the colourful mixture of nationalities (UK, USA, Italy, France, Australia, Germany, Spain, Russia and couple of others) created a perfect framework for the evolution of the animation team and on-board musicians. The musical flow on MSC Fantasia was tailored to every moods, ages and styles: some sophisticated piano bar music in the Top Sail Lounge with Hugo and Olga, unforgettable old favourites and timeless classics in Il Transatlantico (worth it for an introduction to  cocktail mixology) and Fantasia bars with Riz and Duo Carey and Dario, or dancing the night away in Manhattan Bar (I love the deco and the every night vibe) with the amazing Pop up Band Quartet, Duo Giranote and the excellent Fantasy Band. What I enjoyed very much this time was the fact that the entire entertainment team put a lot of energy and passion in organising various parties on board instead of pushing everybody to do monotone line dancing in lounges all around the ship. It was great to have a choice between dancing all night long in Manhattan Bar and Liquid Disco (a space created or invaded by the teenagers on-board) or getting involved in a party in L’Insolito Lounge where the animation team will “infect” you with the party virus. This big step away from the cheap summer resorts fun, Carnival style, was a huge plus for MSC Fantasia.

Click here to see a video of a night out on-board MSC Fantasia

Click here to see a video of Flower Power party on-board MSC fantasia  

Importantly, when they threw a party on board was a 100% success: The White and Flower Power parties in the Aqua park kept me awake late after midnight with great live music, inspired animation and fantastic ambiance. The Black Card and Welcome Back cocktails, both stylish and well hosted, were a great chance to meet once again the charming Captain Maresca and officers on board in a casual and friendly atmosphere – an excellent sign that MSC values and recognises their loyal guests.

Bottom line: On board MSC Fantasia you can be as crazy or as quiet you want; they give you the choices, you need to make the decision!

Click here to see a video of MSC Fantasia Black Card Party

Click here to see a video of MSC Fantasia White Party

But, being honest I do have a reason why not to book a back to back cruise on MSC Fantasia. Do you remember that void that you experience in the last day of the cruise, when all those fantastic days on-board start to smell of memories? I am thinking very seriously to buy some heavy antidepressants for my last day on-board; after 2 weeks of pure luxury and style how can I leave MSC Fantasia thinking that my next cruise in their Yacht Club is in 79 days?

But at least I will be in the gorgeous Royal Suite!

 

 

Oops! … MSC did it again!

•May 22, 2018 • 1 Comment

After 20+ cruises on MSC and couple of reviews I started to worry a little bit about my “unconditional love” for Yacht Club. WOW moments are part of the daily routine in Yacht Club and MSC creating this concept of “a ship-within-a-ship” knows exactly how to make you feel “a privileged few among many” rather than one of many privileged, which for some, heightens the sense of luxury.

My last MSC cruise in Yacht Club was on MSC Fantasia and started in Genoa in a sunny day of May visiting in 7 days Cannes, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Ajaccio, Rome and La Spezia. And of course, my choice was an YC1 cabin, starboard, room 16014.

Of course, after being spoiled so many times in MSC Yacht Club (as you see I already forgot my New Year cruise on MSC Meraviglia) my expectations were quite high and being back on MSC Fantasia was a pre-cruise guarantee of an amazing experience.

But I was wrong! My 7 days in Fantasia’s Yacht Club were far above any expectations, creating space for a sad, depressing moment (don’t remember last time when I felt the same) when leaving the ship and stepping in to Genoa Cruise Terminal.

How many “WOW moments” you can create in a 7 days voyage? To be honest this time on MSC Fantasia I lost the count and every day, every moment was a memorable one.

And it is not only about the ship, itinerary or concept! It is more about the people and their passion and pride in creating 27/7 an unashamedly elitist experience

At embarkation in Genoa … business as usual: When arriving at the Cruise Terminal to embark, the personalized touches began immediately.  At a special tented area, just for guests staying in MSC Yacht Club, with no lines (there was a huge line for the rest of the ship), I provided preliminary information. From there, one of the butlers took my carry-on bag, and personally escorted me to a special embarkation lounge where the welcome glasses of prosecco were waiting and where I did the rest of my check-in paperwork. A butler waited for me, then escorted me through the MSC Yacht Club Concierge lobby area on Deck 16 and to my suite.  He mentioned the butler for my suite would be stopping by and that happened just a short time later. Another butler took me to my stateroom, and then our personal butler throughout the cruise took charge. There wasn’t an unaccompanied step. I mentioned that was “business as usual”, but this time MSC managed to beat it’s own embarkation record: from the moment when I stepped out of my transfer to the moment when I entered my cabin: only 5 minutes! WOW no.1!

Click here to see a video report about the MSC Fantasia check-in experience

Dwi Yatnawati, the butler for my suite, made introductions and also mentioned that Budiasih, the junior butler would be assisting her.  I could reach out to them for any special requests, even down to additional help unpacking if needed.  Despite the fact that I forgot the number of nights spent in Yacht Club in the last 3 years provided details on the suite along with areas within the MSC Yacht Club and special VIP one-of-a-kind amenities. Within those first two hours, I could immediately tell butlers within the MSC Yacht Club took pride in roles. Professional, yet personable, and at my “beck and call,” the butlers and staff were making this the beginning of an extraordinary experience.

Dwi and Budiasih, two lovely ladies from Bali were simply perfect bringing a sense of security and comfort during the entire cruise in an unnoticeable way. They knew how to think ahead quietly and discreetly and ensure that every detail that makes the day go smoothly happened with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss. On the second morning of the cruise, my partner was in the Top Sail Lounge enjoying breakfast and called to see if I wanted any cappuccino. I mentioned that would be great, but instead of him bringing the cappuccino back to my cabin,  Dwi delivered it to me promptly. Another evening while getting ready for dinner I casually mentioned to Budiasih that I was heading over to El Sombrero  Restaurant for dinner. I still don’t know when the information was shared, but Dwi personally walked me over herself. The cabin was always sparkling clean and tidy but more important was the genuine and kind smiles of Dwi and Budiasih. After a long day I couldn’t stop myself to ask them the secret behind their genuine excellence. The answer was simple, sharing a wonderful point that was part of Yacht Club work ethic: “Service has to come from the inside out.”

Located on Deck 15 and just off the reception area, the Top Sail Lounge is a favourite meeting place for many of the guests in the MSC Yacht Club, including me. Was great to have a good cocktail there before dinner or before heading to one of the night parties on board or it was fun just taking in the beautiful panoramic views. On MSC Fantasia was great to see that one of my previous suggestions was taken on-board and the musical performances in the lounge alternated two different excellent musicians (Eduardo and Olga) with different repertoires. Of course, was another WOW moment to see that previous acquaintances from previous cruises remembered my likes and dislikes with an incredible precision: my 9.00AM Bloody Mary, my passion for Grok (- a divine crunchy cheese snack) or the way to make a perfect Dirty Martini before dinner. Dony, Carlos and Bogdan always delivered an impeccable service spiced every time with a pleasant and genuine chat.

Click here to see a video report about the Top Sail Lounge experience on board MSC Fantasia

The itinerary of the cruise was perfectly balanced with interesting ports of call and enough time to fit in my day a self-guided tour or a perfect organised MSC Shore excursion plus enough shopping time and pleasurable on-board wondering.  The MSC Yacht Club provides quiet exclusivity, but guests were still able to enjoy all the other areas of the ship. The MSC Yacht Club Daily Planner included services and hours for everything going on around the ship – entertainment highlights for the day and evening, services, activities and events along with hours for bars, lounges and restaurants.   With a wide array of lounges, entertainment, as well as diverse shows every evening, it was fun to take these in as well. And everywhere the same gentle, genuine high class service made me to find difficult to split my time on-board between Yacht Club and the rest of the ship. My favourite places? For sure Manhattan Bar where the professional service of Pandri and Viktoria balanced quite well the pretty mediocre performance of the Pop-up Band Quartet and L’Insolito lounge where Dan was the master of cocktails with a twist, mandatory ingredient to enjoy the on-board parties organised by the Cruise Director Jimmy and his animation team.

Click here to see a video report about White Party on board MSC fantasia

One evening I decided to try the “El Sombrero” restaurant and that’s why another WOW moment was added to my list. El Sombrero Tex Mex is Fantasia’s Mexican speciality restaurant with a show gallery kitchen where guests can watch the food being prepared; and bar serving traditional Mexican drinks from beers to Tequila and Margaritas with Latin American music playing in the background. Is hard to say what I enjoyed the most: the tastes of Mexican cuisine from Texas steaks to enchiladas, fajitas, burritos and tacos or the superb service

Normally I try to avoid the “official & social events” when I am cruising, but this time two massive WOW moments were created by the F&B Manager Gennaro Andrione (what a charisma this guy has, covering the lack of presence of the Cpt. at the cocktail party) and his team.

The Yacht Club cocktail, normally a basic, quite boring event for passengers and a “tick the box duty” for crew involved had a completely different dimension. Fabulous venue (The One Pool area), exquisite service from the Yacht Club butlers’ team, elegant passengers and charming officers, everything embedded in a stylish atmosphere made this cocktail a memorable moment in cruise’s diary.

Click here to see a video report about the Yacht Club Cocktail on-board MSC Fantasia

It was quite a surprise when I returned to my cabin in Palma de Mallorca to find an invitation to an exciting event: “Buffet under the stars”. Again, WOW! The new concept stimulated my imagination, but the dimensions of the real event surpassed all my expectations. In the area of “The One Pool” transformed in an elegant and stylish dinning & mingle space, with an exclusive service provided by the head butler and his team, the great live music performed by Duo Overmoon and Riz, excellent food, the presence of Executive Chef and officers, transformed a “concept” in a successful event which, for sure, will be part of cruise’s memorable moments for everybody in the Yacht Club.

Click here to see a video report about “Buffet under the stars” on Board MSC Fantasia

During this cruise I lost the count for all this WOW moments but, at least, I know who’s behind all these unforgettable memories.

Without doubts and without exaggerations the only one “guilty” for this list of WOWs was Dani Agung Sri Prasetyo the Head Butler on MSC Fantasia. His genuine, polite, kind and professional way which can’t be described in words and experiencing his service on board raised the bar for MSC very high.

Dani was in the Top Sail Lounge at 8.00AM to check if my laptop needed an adaptor and my cappuccino didn’t get cold.  On the days in port, Dani was around the reception before going on shore to be sure that somebody will escort me down to the disembarkation area and help you to skip the lines. At 1.00PM Dani will quietly approach me in the lounge or by the pool reminding me about the lunch served in the One Pool area and suggest something not to be missed in the menu. In the afternoon Dani was checking that the high tea served in the lounge was at 5 star standards and had always handy some suggestions about my evening on board. Before dinner Dani would be in the Lounge just to be sure that my Dry Martini was perfect and to suggest which party would be the best choice that night. And guess what, close to midnight Dani was in the Lounge asking about dinner, the evening’s party and being sure that I would not go to bed without a nightcap. The next day history would repeat itself!

I couldn’t stop asking myself: how many “DANIs” MSC Fantasia had on-board? Did they clone him or what’s the secret of his around the clock excellence? The answer came one day, when chatting with Dani by the pool: “I love what I do, and I do what I love”. Simple like that and he moved smoothly to his next duty. What a treat to have Dani on-board!

His passion and his professionalism was clearly transferred to his team in Yacht Club. Dani was not only a perfect butler, but he was an excellent leader too. His ability to learn from himself and others, no matter the situation, his humbleness that was inspiring, his integrity, honesty and his strong moral compass made the Yacht Club team unbeatable in high performance. Everybody defines leadership differently, but Dani gave another dimension of leadership, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” During my week on board MSC Fantasia he proved to be a difference maker between success and failure knowing how to turn his ideas into real-world success stories.

It’s clear now: I suffer from an obsessive unconditioned love for MSC Yacht Club!

But…wait a second…they were some weakest links on board MSC Fantasia this time. Shall I, or shall I not? OK, I like to be honest and I know that for MSC feedback is a gift so:

The Concierge

It was the weakest link in Yacht Club, more like a 3 start hotel reception than a real Concierge, with a service based on “The answer is NO! What’s your question?” philosophy. The two ladies and the gentlemen in the night shift were masters of avoiding guests, hiding behind the computer screens and always typing something when somebody approach the desk with a request or a question. For sure “eye contact”, “anticipating guests needs” or “being approachable”, basic rules of customer service were erased from their training. Irina, for sure, deserve a diploma in “how to avoid/ignore guests” skills. After the first days I gave up waiting for an answer to my “Good Mornings” and directed all my questions to the butler’s team far more efficient and approachable. When assistance was needed (I had couple of minor maintenance issues in my cabin) I had to check couple of times that the night shift will pass the message or better sort everything with the butler. It was a big surprise the way how the Yacht Club Reception aka Concierge performed, especially when I still have fresh excellent memories about of Leandro and the Concierge on MSC Divina from couple of weeks ago

L’Etoile

Fantasia’s MSC Yacht Club exclusive restaurant located on deck 15 supposed to provide guests with a gourmet dining experience inspired by both Italian and French culinary traditions. This time the Sommelier was missing but his duty was excellent covered by the waiters. Excellent managed (big change from my previous experiences on board MSC ships) by Maître D’ Ionut, the waiters provided an efficient and excellent service. The hiccup, as always on MSC vessels, was the food. Let’s be honest MSC is not famous for offering a gourmet experience in Yacht Club restaurants across the fleet, but this time the standards were very low; cold food (a moussaka with a frozen core and just microwaved outside it is not a food hazard?), weird recipes for well-known dishes (a Bouillabaisse which would make Marseille to frown or a hummus which never meet tahina or olive oil) or culinary experiments (a not at all flambé “Flambé Cherry Supreme”) made me choose instead of L’Etoile the excellent dishes in the Top Sail Lounge and twice the Mexican restaurant on-board. But still the question of quality & consistency need to be addressed by MSC.

 

You can not save a restaurant only with a good service, they need to have good food to serve, too.

Top Sail Lounge

The dedicated lounge for Yacht Club passengers has one of the ship’s premier locations — at the absolute front of the ship, with panoramic views from the slanted windows and the tranquillity and comfort of the Yacht Club are at their best here. At least in theory…the reality on MSC Fantasia was a little bit different. Couple of evenings I had the unpleasant surprise to discover that part of the lounge, especially the smoking area, was taking over by members of the security team, having a break. Despite being in a public area (all the cruise line observes very strict the rules of staff presence and behaviour in guest’s areas) the security staff seemed to have a “nice break” in a space reserved for passengers who paid quite a lot of many for their privacy and comfort. The MSC security staff is renowned to be rude and unpleasant (despite the fact that you can be assertive and polite at the same time as other team from Greece or Nepal proved on other ships) but using a private space designed for high paying guests and treating the lounge staff like their personal servants is a little bit too much. Interesting is that, when I mentioned that in a twitter post, the replies showed that my experience was not singular.  One was the replay to my twit was quite interesting: “Absolutely typical of MSC. I complained about just this on my last cruise on Fantasia, their amazing reply was that it was “their home too”. What a joke, which other cruise line have you ever known this. Disgusting!”. Still waiting for a reaction from MSC.

Every MSC Cruise is distinguished by the quality of hospitality and the attention paid to the little details that make the difference. The MSC Yacht Club takes these distinguishing features to unprecedented levels, setting new benchmarks in guest comfort and satisfaction. While providing all the comfort, service and privacy of a personal yacht, MSC Yacht Club also offers the best of both worlds, bringing full and privileged access to the incredible variety of superior sports facilities, shopping, dining, gaming and entertainment found on the magnificent floating city And, like all private clubs, the only way to appreciate it is to experience it for yourself.

After my last MSC Fantasia experience I am so tempted to book another MSC cruise and not wait until the next booked one (in September, again on MSC Fantasia, this time in the Royal Suite).

And guess what, I just found an available YC1 cabin in 4 weeks time!

Parque del Capricho: Madrid’s Hidden Park

•March 1, 2018 • Leave a Comment

When you come up from the metro and step into the busy Puerta del Sol plaza, smack in the centre of the city, the only tree you’ll see is the one that the bear is hugging in the city’s symbolic statue, ‘The Bear and the Madroño Berry Tree.’ But don’t let the concrete-filled city centre fool you. When you think of Spain’s capital city, greenery is probably not the first thing that comes to mind but trust me, there are some stunning parks in Madrid that will blow you away!

Madrid boasts a number of amazing parks, even though most people only know of a few of the main parks (if any at all!): Parque del Buen Retiro, usually shortened to El Retiro, Royal Botanical Gardens, Casa de Campo, the biggest of all the parks in Madrid or Parque del Oeste, most famous for its English design.

During my last visit to Madrid, taking the advantage of a glorious sunny end of February I discovered Madrid’s Best Secret Garden: Parque de El Capricho

The Parque del Capricho located northwest of central Madrid,  is off the common tourist trail but is a hidden gem of Madrid as it is considered by many of capital’s residents as the finest park in Madrid. The park was designed as a retreat for Madrid’s nobility, a place to escape the clamour and commotion of the inner city during the 18th century.

The gardens were commissioned by María Josefa Pimentel (1752 – 1834) a leading and influential women in the Spanish nobility. She was a great supporter of the arts and sponsored many Spanish artists. The land was purchased for María by her husband, Pedro Téllez-Girón (the ninth duke of Osuna). In 1783 the area was used as farmland but the vision was to create a recreation property and grounds outside of Madrid’s city limits that could be enjoyed by the couple. María Josefa commissioned the royal court architect, Paul Boutelou to design the garden and work began in 1787. The gardens were designed in the French baroque style. The project was completed 52 years later in 1839 but the Duchess died without seeing her beloved park completed, she died in 1834. The park was very popular among the Madrilian aristocracy and it was an honour to be invited to visit it. The Duchess wanted to compete with the Duchess of Alba and even the Queen Maria Luisa. Therefore, she hired two well-known French gardeners who had to promise not to work in any other garden in Spain.

The closest Metro station is El Capricho on line number 5 and bus that pass the park are 101, 105 and 151. One reason the gardens are not on the common tourist trail is due to the very limited opening hours of Saturday, Sunday and public holidays between 9:00 to 18:30 (winter months) and 9:00 to 21:00 hours (summer season). After taking the L5 (green line) to almost the end of the route, I got off at the El Capricho metro stop and followed other couples and families over to the park’s entrance. Admission is free, but they keep track at how many people are in the park at the same time, and food and drink is prohibited. Is quite a journey to reach the park but the one hour and something travel time is worth it!

Upon entering, you’ll be transported to another world not just of greenery, but also whimsical architecture combining French, Italian and English styles. Start by entering the towering gates and head left towards the small house, Casa de la Vieja, which seems as if it was built for elves thanks to its stone construction, slanted tiled roof and tiny doors and windows. Casa de la Vieja (Old Woman´s House) was the place where the duchess and their friends, wearing fancy dresses, liked to imitate what they thought was typical country life. The inside, empty today, was once set as a house of farmers, with walls decorated with objects and elements, painted in Goya style instead of real ones There were also imitations of food made of wood, and perhaps, most curious, the inhabitants of the house themselves, materialized in dolls of real dimensions endowed with movement: one representing an old woman spinning and another a boy. Years after the building was completed and to complete such a unique set, another automaton representing a farmer was added to the scene. The kitchen had a closet, a coffee set, a sink, a table, three stools, a jar, pots, plates, cutlery and wood reproductions of two hams, seven sausages, three blood sausages and a cake, in addition to a melon, asparagus and some peppers.

A small wooded path will take you to another fascinating building: El Casino del Baile which constitutes one of the most significant caprices of this peculiar garden. It was one of the last constructions that were built during the life of its owner and promoter, the Duchess of Osuna, by then already a widow for eight years. With the arrival of the French, the duchess moved to Cádiz and the estate was confiscated by the invaders, who produced considerable damage. Upon her return to the property, and with Ferdinand VII installed on the throne, the Duchess put great effort into recovering the farm, beginning an intense task of improving the vegetation that was not interrupted until her death in 1834. Although a ballroom already existed in the palace, the Duchess considered it inappropriate for the time and in 1815 she had the casino built, choosing a very particular location above the well that feeds the estuary. This location offered the noble and her distinguished visitors the attractive possibility of reaching the casino by boat sailing by the estuary from the nearby jetty. The Master Mayor of Madrid, the architect D. Antonio López Aguado, devised a building in two superimposed bodies perfectly differentiated. The lower one of square shape accommodate the well of 15 meters of depth from which the water that falls to the estuary flows through an ornamental element – the stone carving of a boar that lodges in a hollow located under the double staircase to the lounge. This rises just above adopting its structure an octagonal shape. Inside you can admire the reliefs realised in the over-doors representing the four seasons of the year. The interior was decorated with mirrors as was customary in this type of room, with floor of fine woods and a neoclassical fresco representing the Zodiac.

Water is present throughout the walk. The Duchess of Osuna wanted all the elements that characterised the “Anglo-Chinese” garden that was in vogue at the end of the 18th century throughout Europe. Among the most characteristic elements of these gardens were the estuaries, the lakes with irregular edges and the islands. A sinuous stream goes makes its way across the property, deep enough for row boats and in fact, uniting the games area and the lake with the Dance Casino, which can be reached by a small wharf. In the centre of the lake there is an island with a waterfall and a monument erected in honour of the third Duke of Osuna, Viceroy of Naples

On the shore near the estuary of the river rises a small pier known as the “Casa de Cañas“- another caprice of the Duchess, because its exterior is covered with this material. This building was used not only to store the boats but also includes a small pavilion for resting that opens onto the water and served as an occasional dining room. The architect of this construction was the Milanese set designer Ángel María Tadey who worked for the Duchess between the years 1792 and 1794. Both the interior of the jetty and the living room are decorated with wall paintings that simulate a false architecture. The pictorial technique known as “trompe l’oeil” or visual deception serves so that the spectator who is inside the buildings can contemplate a landscape drawn through holes also painted. On the jetty, false curtains simulate the interior of a tent and in the dining room fine columns support an awning. Through the holes painted in the walls the viewer contemplates a non-existent landscape and at the same time can see, through the authentic doors and windows, the reality of the lake where the Casa de Cañas stands.

Close by Casa de Cañas, hidden within El Capricho is the first example of an iron bridge in Spain.

Another 5 minutes’ walk will take you to another intrigue building of the park: El Fortín. In the Geographic and Statistical Dictionary of Spain (1845), Madoz describes the Fort, as: “… a strong triangular figure with bastions, stable bridges and a draw and water pit that surrounds it. trimmed by 12 pieces of artillery of various calibres with their corresponding coffers of ammunition, with weapons, antler, flag and other defence and decoration tools “. This building is attributed to Martín López Aguado, although the date of construction and the reason for build it are unknown. The first time the current battery was mentioned is in an inventory of the furniture of the garden dated in 1829.

And the surprises of the park are not finished yet: another 5 minutes’ walk and you reach another remarkable edifice: El Abejero (the Buzzer or Beehive). No documents have been found to accurately determine the date on which the Buzzer was built, although it is estimated that it should not have been much before 1794, the year in which certain works were made, directed by the architect Mateo Medina.

It is an unprecedented construction that combined the sumptuousness granted by its ostentatious interior decoration with the originality provided by its most remarkable feature, consisting of having a series of beehives incorporated into one of the facades. But the most remarkable thing about this  was that, while the bees entered and left their combs through metal trapdoors located outside, the activity that took place inside them could be comfortably contemplated from the inside of the building through of glass windows that for this purpose closed the hives by the opposite end. The ingenuity was complemented by the landscaping that surrounded it, based on plants preferred by the bees to elaborate the appreciated honey that was then properly collected.

The circular room through which the beekeeper is accessed, contains 8 Corinthian columns with a base and golden capitals that support a cornice and the dome that closes the whole above. Although the marbles, stucco, polychromies and carvings that were then in this room all contributed to confer the desired distinction, the authentically valuable piece would run to a Venus sculpted in Carrara marble, the work of Juan Día, who dominated this space from the top of an ornate pedestal located in the centre of the living room on an elegant walnut table. From this central roundabout of octagon plant, the construction extends to the right in two elongated pavilions, also once, ornamented, where the combs are located.

The gazebo – Templo de Baco perched on a hill might just be the most romantic spot in Madrid. In 1845 Madoz makes a description of the construction:  “in the highest part immediately to the parterrre, and among thick forests there is an oval temple on 5 steps of berroqueña stone and marble pavement. Twelve fluted columns white stone capitals of Colmenar marble, support their annular corners, and form this temple, in whose centre there is an isolated pedestal of marble from San Pablo that holds a statue of White marble Bacchus”. The construction of the temple, located in the highest level of the garden, began in 1786 and ended in 1789. The idea seems to be inspired by the temple that Villanueva built in Aranjuez and of course the Petit Trianon that Marie Antoinette had in Versailles fashionable English garden.

The Palace of which only the walls are currently conserved, with three floors, a large Dance Hall and the largest Library of the time, was built between 1792 and 1795 by the architects Mateo Guill and Manuel Machuca. It constitutes one of the best examples of Spanish romantic architecture. The inside has been remodelled and houses the offices for the park services. There is a grand ballroom, dining salons, a 6,000-volume library, as well as the alcoves and chambers of the family members.

On the way to the estate, one passes a circular plaza which used to be the site of a bull-fighting ring and which later became the Paseo de los Duelistas, with two sculptures representing the distance separating two people about to engage in a duel unto death. A little further is the Plaza de los Emperadores, showing the busts of two Roman emperors along with the Exedra, which is a semi circular building in the classical style, and from which one then proceeds into the Palace’s front gardens.

The Plaza de los Emperadores was decorated at an undetermined date in the last decade of the 18th century with an Exedra, an architectural and sculptural ensemble equipped with benches to rest. This monument consists in its central part of a small temple, consisting of four Ionic columns that supported a semicircle decorated with floral motifs and shells. Originally, such a structure was conceived as a source, so it came to be called “Source of the Columns”, although it seems that it never became such, currently known as the whole “Exedra”. The monument was remodelled from the year that the Duchess of Osuna dies, running the works by the architect D.Martín López Aguado, son of the architect who designed before Casino de Baile.

The landscape excellence of El Capricho is manifested in three types of classic gardens: the parterre or French garden, the English landscape painter and the Italian giardino. The only disappointment is that El laberinto  is not open to the public. Conceived for the amorous game and the hiding places, the labyrinth is made with laurel and respects the plans of the one that was planted in the life of the duchess.

On one of the beautiful alleys of the park one will discover La Ermita (house of the hermit). According to the legend two hermits had lived there: Arsenio, who lived in the hermitage until his death in 1812 and his friend Eusebio who succeeded him until his replacement by…a doll. Apparently, Arsenio was buried in a pyramid-shaped tomb that was built next to the hermitage. The architect Tadey gave the building a dilapidated and aged appearance by painting the cracked and mossy outer walls. He used the popular “trompe l’oeil” when drawing on the exterior and interior walls false cracks, windows and furniture. In 2001 the building was restored by reconstructing the wooden side porch and eliminating successive repainting. Right now, inside the hermitage can be seen again the original decoration that reproduces the interior of a ruined church, a torn picture of San Antonio, an altar table with a prayer book and a hollow where wine is kept. the mass On the sides of the altar there are false windows symmetrical to the authentic ones of the main facade, where the bells were installed.

El Capricho keeps another secret: the bunker of the Jaca Position, the only example in Europe of this kind of structures from the Spanish Civil War. The bunker was home to the headquarters of the Republican Army of the Central Region. Covering 2000m², the shelter is covered by 15m-deep soil and offered protection against bombs of up to 100kg. It was built in the park in 1937 on a site that was far away from the front line, had excellent communication infrastructures and was surrounded by trees and bushes that would provide concealment. The shelter has seven rectangular rooms (four to the right and three to the left), four exits to the park and a gallery reaching the street that runs across the basement of the Duques de Osuna Palace. Kept closed for more than 80 years, the bunker, which was built to protect up to 200 people from bombing, opened to the public in 2016 after much political controversy. Visitors can only see the bunker via a guided tour.

After the death of the dukes, the park went through numerous hands and in 1882 the estate of Capricho was auctioned and acquired by the Bauer family (agents of the Rothchild House in Spain). Although in 1934 the farm was declared an Artistic Garden, during the civil war the palace was occupied by General Miaja as Republican Army Headquarters. After the war it became the property of a real estate company and finally in 1974 El Capricho Park was purchased by the City council of Madrid and in 1985 was declared a cultural monument. Since then the park has been slowly improved to recreate the vision of María Josefa. The long abandonment finally ended.

The fairy-tale Capricho gardens are a relaxing haven, especially in a busy city like Madrid. A visit to the park is an unforgettable experience. Still today it is amazing to find such a splendid example of romantic park, so no tourist should leave Madrid without having seen this park. Arrive by taking line 5 metro, getting off at the Canillejas stop and walking a few minutes to the park’s entrance in the Alameda de Osuna district of town.

From October to March, opening hours 9:00 am to 6:30 pm (weekends only). From April to October, opening hours are from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm (weekends only). Guided visits (anyone over the age of eight is allowed) of the bunker are on Saturdays between 10:00 am and 11:30 am. Each tour lasts 30 minutes and a maximum of 20 people can do the tour at one time. You must reserve your tour by emailing paa@talher.com or calling +34 916 397 869 Monday to Friday from 9:00 to 1:00 pm.

CHAMBERI – The ghost metro station of Madrid

•February 26, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Spain’s glorious capital city can win just about anyone over thanks to its endless sunshine, beautiful streets and delicious food. For some reason Madrid doesn’t always have the best rep and people tend to compare it to Barcelona a lot. Madrid versus Barcelona is more than just an epic football rivalry, and tourists tend to love the flashy beachside Catalán capital a lot more than traditional Madrid. For me, Madrid is the real Spain. It doesn’t get anymore Spanish than Madrid. With great food, amazing arts and culture, historic neighbourhoods, fabulous shopping and super fun events, Madrid is the real deal when it comes to Spanish lifestyle. It often feels like you are stuck in a time warp when all the small shops close for siesta and locals gather around barrels in bars, downing tapa after tapa. Madrid has all the amenities and activities of a large capital city, but still retains its Spanish charm, with endless tapas bars lining the cobblestone streets, family-owned stores and restaurants scattered around the city.

If you already marked as seen the “must visit” museums and sites in Madrid why not trying something different and … free: a trip back in time, in 1918!

Normally a ride on the metro is just a way to get around, and a metro stop is just a place to catch a train. At Andén 0 of the Estación de Chamberí, that is definitely not the case. For many years travelling on the Madrid Metro’s line 1 (the “blue” line) I was intrigued by an old station flashing through the train car’s windows for a few seconds between the Bilbao and Iglesia stops. Searching the internet, I was surprise to find that one of Madrid’s newer attractions is actually quite old: Estación de Chamberí, a station closed since 1966, but now fully restored and reopened to the public as a museum with no entrance fee give you a chance to step back in time in 1918. And it probably is one of the best experiences I have lived in the Spanish Capital to date.

I had thought about going there so many times, but somehow it kept slipping my mind and plans. Finally, during my last trip to Madrid, this last Sunday late morning after a big night on the town I walked over to and stood in the long line for Andén 0 – Estación de Chamberí

King Alfonso XIII officially opened Madrid’s metro in 1917.  Back then it was only one line stretching four kilometers from Puerta del Sol to Cuatro Caminos.  A few years later, more lines were beginning to be added and by the 1960’s the metro system couldn’t hold Madrid’s growing population.  More cars were added to each train to hold more passengers and likewise the platforms were lengthened. In the case of the Chamberí station, it wasn’t touched at all. Being that it was built on a curve and already too close to the Bilbao and Iglesia stations, it was just abandoned. It wasn’t until 2006 that the station would be restored to it’s original state. As a result of the restoration work carried out for its final re-opening in 2008, it is now possible to view those brilliant, colourful, luminous finishes inspired from Paris metro stations. This project is the outcome of a cooperation agreement concluded between the City Council and Metro de Madrid and allows the public to become immersed in the history of the Madrid Underground and in the history of the city of Madrid itself, with which it is closely interwoven.

Chamberí Station is located under the square of the same name in one of the most famous neighbourhoods of the capital’s city centre and is very easy to find: just pick up the metro on line 1 and get off at Bilbao station. After a 10-15 minutes easy walk, on the corner of a random busy intersection in Madrid, a door opens to a spiral staircase which goes underground.  From the door, a line stretches down the street.  I knew this had to be it.

With the “one person out, one person in” policy it took 10 minutes to finally get down there.  I didn’t mind too much though, the attraction is free and the lack of people inside made the atmosphere much more pleasant once inside.

Visitors descend into the station, now dubbed Andén Cero (Platform Zero), through a modern spiral staircase and glass elevator (the only new additions to the station). Immediately to the left upon entering is a small theatre created from the old street entrance, which repeats a 20-minute film summarizing the history of the Madrid Metro system. While fascinating, the movie is in Spanish, without subtitles. Some of it is quite self-explanatory, however, so it may be worth watching even if your knowledge of Spanish is tapas-sized.

I walked past the old ticket counter then through the creaky turn-stalls.  From there I could see a few old, cracking metro maps which outlined the few stops on the old line.  As I walked down the corridor ( heard the sound of a train passing through. It was eerie to hear the sounds of a train, like an actual ghost train, still making its rounds. It was just one of the modern trains running on line 1 – since May 22, 1966 none of them stopped here in Chamberi. As each consecutive metro car passed through I watched as the passengers looked out the window at me and me to them.  With every passing train I felt like I was part of the attraction, rather than just visiting it.

Walking down to the platform I couldn’t get enough of the old advertisements made of tile lined the curved tunnel of the station. These bright ads have been hand-crafted, made up of many small ceramic tiles that put modern billboards to shame. Opposite this wall, on the far side of the platform, projectors display films of Madrid’s past. A clear glass barrier separates visitors from the tracks on which trains still speed through the station every few minutes.

The adverts on the wall, as well as the white tiles that cover the walls and vaults of the station are original and were designed by architect Antonio Palacios, creator of buildings like the Palacio de Cibeles and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. This was the first such project in Spain, and the architect was inspired by the look of the Parisian stations of the time. He managed to mitigate the possible reluctance of the public to use the subway, by using bright, colourful materials in the spaces in contact with travellers, such as hallways, tunnels, passage and platform finishes, extensively using tiles and other white and cobalt blue ceramic pieces. Its design met the criteria of functionality, simplicity and economy.

In the 1960s, due to increased passenger traffic, it was decided to upgrade Metro Line 1 to allow commissioning new trains with greater capacity, up to six cars. To accommodate this, the platforms of all stations needed to be expanded from the previous specification of 60 meters that they had since the Metro’s opening, to the new standard length of 90 meters. Given the technical impossibility of extending Chamberí station and its proximity to those of Bilbao and Iglesia, the Ministry of Public Works decided to close it on 22 May 1966. The station remained unused for over forty years, with trains reducing their speed when passing through it, to which the platforms were cut to facilitate the movement. The fact that the external access had been bricked up allowed the conservation of many of the everyday objects of the time, such as billboards, turnstiles and even paper money.

This station served as a refuge for the homeless for many years, and there are legends that tell of strange apparitions, when the trains crossed, by this dark subway station. One of the most endearing things about the visit was seeing several older couples, who probably used the station when it was still open and had wanted to return to see it one more time.

I wandered around down there a little while longer, until I decided to go back above ground, to 2018 reality.  But just being down there and imagining I was travelling back in time, in a Madrid circa 1917 was a unique experience.

The Estación de Chamberí is a captivating step into the past. Especially given that admission is free, there are few compelling reasons to skip this small portal into Madrid’s history, even if the topic is more foreign than the Spanish language. There are few museums that really give visitors the sense of being in a different time: Andén Zero is one of those few.

The best way to get to the station is by Metro, appropriately enough. The museum is within five minutes of stops Bilbao and Iglesia, both on line 1. From the Bilbao Metro station, walk uphill on Calle de Luchana. From the Iglesia Metro station, walk south on Calle de Santa Engracia. The modern entrance to the museum is easy to find on the Plaza de Chamberí.

Opening Hours

Tuesday-Friday: 11:00 a.m to 7:00 p.m.

Weekends and holidays: 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Mondays: Closed.

Entry is free for everyone, but make sure to get there early, as a there is usually a long line of visitors due to the “one person out, one person in” policy.