Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy what you find here. Whilst you may not agree with everything I post, if you respect my right to my opinion I'll respect your right to disagree with it and we should get along just fine. :)

Disclaimer: the views expressed by the characters in these works may not necessarily represent the views of the author. Got that? Good.

Right then, on with the blog...

Thursday, 25 March 2010

#FridayFlash: UCF #5: A Mirror Cracked

A dismal little street, not much more than an alley between two bustling shopping streets, Gallows Close lay in the heart of the inner city, hemmed in on one side by the high stone wall of a churchyard, on the other by the imposing 1970s concrete carbuncle that was the city’s leisure centre.

Few of the buildings in Gallows Close were still occupied, the local council having made repeated advances to the owners, offers of lucrative terms for relocating to more modern premises however, one of two of the more intractable souls just would not go. Goddess Rising, the esoteric bookshop at No. 13 was one of them.

The shop was decrepit, the casual passer-by may well have wondered if it was still in business at all – once glossy black paint flaked from the façade, at least those parts of it not covered with a profusion of faded and torn fly posters. The name board was all but illegible and a thick film of grime across the plate glass almost obscured a few antique volumes mouldering away in the window. It also appeared the shop never opened, either that or its opening hours were known only to a select clientele.

Sitting alone in his rooms above the shop, illuminated only by the flickering light of a coal fire, the Rev Beresford was one of that select few.

A threadbare little man in his late seventies, Rev Beresford had his ancient leather wing-backed chair drawn up so close to the roaring coal fire that a distinct smell of singeing leather hung in the air. A frayed tartan travelling rug was spread out across his knees, but Rev Beresford was still cold. He was always cold. He was sure the house spirit was behind it.

Reaching for the cut glass tumbler of single malt whisky on the side table next to him, Rev Beresford felt the slim leather journal begin to slip from among the folds of the rug on his lap and just managed to grab it, spilling his whisky in the process, before it slithered onto the floor.

“Bother!” he muttered quietly, sucking the spilled whisky greedily from arthritic fingers while regarding the journal with a mixture of awe and loathing. If it wasn’t for this book, he thought, tears welling up in his eyes.

* * *

If it had not been for his Great Uncle’s journal, life for Rev Austin Beresford may well have taken a completely different direction altogether. The journal had been a family secret for years until that fateful day when his elder sister discovered it in their parent’s attic and began to read the entries. Slowly, insidiously, the journal worked its magic and Millie became more and more obsessed with the notion that fairies were real until, at the age of fifteen, Rev Beresford’s parents felt they had no choice but to put Millie away; for her own good.

Austin was twelve when his sister left. He was a newly ordained curate aged 24 when she committed suicide in the sanatorium. His parents already dead, victims of an unexplained accident while he was at university, Austin became the custodian of both their and his sister’s estates. Among the papers and family heirlooms he found the journal, now annotated with Millie’s observations, and began to read. He also found his Great Uncle’s collection, neatly packed into the museum cabinets that now filled one wall of his Gallows Close study; the mere thought of the contents still made him shiver.

Rev Beresford’s career was blighted from the day he opened the journal. After decades of being asked to move every few months, finally ending up at a church in a particularly disadvantaged inner city parish, he was secretly relieved when his bishop invited him to retire early. The bishop for his part was relieved to see Rev Beresford go, some of his stranger notions had made the bishop a laughing stock among his peers.

Despite trying on a number of occasions to rid himself of the journal, it always returned to Rev Beresford. He had tried burning it but the flames would not catch, he had thrown it in the river but some kind soul had retrieved and returned it. He even once gave it to a colleague to take overseas, but it was “lost” at the airport and returned to Rev Beresford by the airline weeks later. In the end he gave up trying.

The only bright spot in his life came shortly before his retirement, the death of Rev Beresford’s Aunt. It was she who left him the building housing Goddess Rising in her will, and a small annuity, just about enough to keep him in perpetuity as long as he didn’t do anything extravagant, like eat more than once a day.

Only after his retirement did the real problems start. On the day Rev Beresford moved into Gallows Close, he was sorting through his sister’s meagre belongings and came upon her vanity mirror. Presumably the cracks must have happened during the long years of storage, he presumed, setting the mirror down next to the open journal.

It was only when he caught a glimpse of the journal’s pages reflected in the cracked mirror out of the corner of his eye that he noticed for the first time the ethereal spidery annotations in pale blue ink. It took a few years of practice to be able to read them as, whenever Rev Beresford looked at the journal straight on, either with or without the mirror, the annotations remained hidden, only out of the corner of his eye did he stand any chance of seeing them; he had almost finished transcribing them.

* * *

Outside, in the gathering gloom of the early evening, amid the grime and pigeon crap covering the windowsill, a fairy crouched, her ear pressed firmly up against the pane. She was sure he was in there, that it was in there; she’d heard him moving about.


Friday, 19 March 2010

#FridayFlash: UCF #4: The Boys Are Back in Town

Met with such a wave of excitement that the news of their recent demise had proved pre-emptive, Swazzle and Pogmorton could do nothing as they found themselves swept along into the Officers’ Mess, and were only able to excuse themselves after three huge plates of slowworm stroganoff, several flagons of acorn beer, and having recounted the story of their near-death experience in the Other World numerous times.

Feeling somewhat light-headed and extremely full, Swazzle and Pogmorton finally managed to escape the festivities and headed off in the direction of Flaarti’s lab, deep in the maze of tunnels under Pixie Defence Force (P.D.F.) headquarters.

They were discussing just how they were going to explain their lateness in reporting to Flaarti, when round the corner came a small figure, dressed in something which looked like a cross between a clown costume and a court jester.

‘Salkeld? Is that you?’ Swazzle asked, stifling a giggle. ‘What on earth are you wearing?’

‘It is Salkeld!’ exclaimed Pogmorton, ‘and it looks as though he’s lost the bet. Again.’

Salkeld scowled.

‘Actually,’ Salkeld replied, drawing himself up to his full height, his nose level with Pogmorton’s chest, ‘I got my promotion – it’s Trickster Sergeant Salkeld to you.’

‘That’s Trickster Sergeant Salkeld to you, Captain Pogmorton. Sir,’ corrected Porgmorton.

‘Trickster Sergeant?’ asked Swazzle incredulous, ‘How did a little worm like you manage that? Things must be bad if they’re employing you to hide the Big Folks’ car keys.’

Ignoring the rebuke, a sly look crept across Salkeld’s face.

‘Oughtn’t you be on your way to see Flaarti?’ Salkeld asked smugly, ‘I saw him earlier and happened to mention you were back. Sir.’

‘Happened to mention? Happened to mention, my arse!’ growled Pogmorton, ‘For once in your miserable life Salkeld, why can’t you just keep your nose out of other Pixies’ business? Eh? Remember what happened the last time – you nearly got us drummed out of the service.’

Salkeld smirked.

The smirk was short-lived as Swazzle, whipping out an evil looking little wand from inside his uniform remarked, ‘I think we can do something about Pixies poking their noses in where they’re not wanted,’ and, with a flick of his wrist, Salkeld’s nose detached itself from his face and spiralled off into the darkness.

‘Aargh! By dose,’ whined Salkeld, frantically feeling the newly flattened part of his face above his top lip.

‘Well, must get on,’ said Swazzle affably, ‘so bugger off Salkeld, there’s a good chap. We’re busy.’

Swazzle and Pogmorton hurried away, leaving Salkeld groping around in the shadows for his nose, and grumbling quietly to himself about all the things he’d like to do to the pair of them.

* * *

Professor B. Flaarti, Major (retd), Director of the P.D.F.’s Repugnant and Dangerous (R & D) Division looked up over his pinz nez spectacles, no mean feat there being thirteen lenses in each glass, as the heavy oak door to the lab swung slowly open.

His irritation at the sight of Swazzle and Pogmorton, resplendent in the scarlet frock coats of their dress uniforms, cuckoo feather epaulettes marking them out as fully fledged Captains of the Special Operations Directorate (S.O.D.), was tempered just enough by thoughts of what they ought to be bringing him.

He regarded the approaching Pixies with a steely gaze, twenty-six steely gazes in fact.

Avoiding Flaarti’s gazes, Swazzle glanced around the lab, suppressing a shudder at the sight of a fully dissected fairy floating in a large jar of formaldehyde. Other unmentionable things were being worked on by a variety of Pixie and Goblin technicians, and in the far corner stood a large iron cage containing a rather weak and sickly looking fairy.

‘Well, where is it?’ Flaarti barked, marching over to meet Swazzle and Pogmorton as he spoke.

‘You were under orders to report to me immediately upon your return,’ he continued, punctuating his speech by poking Pogmorton in the chest with a bony finger, ‘not,’ he paused, ‘to go carousing in the Officers’ Mess. It’s a good job I ran into Salkeld…’

Flaarti voice trailed off, his attention suddenly focussed on the small wooden box Pogmorton held out towards him. Putting the bony finger away in the pocket of his lab coat, Flaarti gingerly took the box from Pogmorton and carried it over to a brass-bound, wooden box-like contraption on the nearby bench.

The apparatus looked to Swazzle like a cross between a cuckoo clock and an old fashioned gramophone, a huge trumpet sticking out of the top of it. He watched as Flaarti opened a small door in the front, put the box inside, and began to turn a handle on the side of the machine.

Almost at once, the trumpet atop the apparatus began screaming a warning before a jet of violet flame shot out of the top of the machine, incinerating both it and its contents. Immediately Flaarti began bellowing orders to the lab staff, who frantically started packing things into boxes they conjured out of thin air.

‘Tainted,’ Flaarti screamed at Swazzle and Pogmorton, ‘that Fairy Dust was tainted. Twinkle must have added something to it, an Ethereal Tracking Potion by the colour of the flame. It’s a good job no one ingested any,’ he looked pointedly at Pogmorton, ‘or else the Fairies may well be able to track their every movement. You’d better make yourselves scarce, I have to move the lab, just in case.’

With that he turned and waded into the mayhem, directing the packing…

Pogmorton looked at Swazzle, ‘Oh shite.’

* * *

In the Scrying Citadel of the Fairy castle, operators sat hunched over their glasses in the darkness, scanning the Magical World. One operator suddenly looked up from his glass and called an officer over. After a muttered conversation the officer returned to where Twinkle was waiting.

‘We have the location of Flaarti’s lab,’ he said with grim satisfaction.

‘Right,’ replied Twinkle, ‘Let’s go get my sister back.'


Thursday, 11 March 2010

Future; Nostalgic on Tour 2010 Part 5 – Dig Your Heels In!

After another cracking Slovakian breakfast, it was off to Biela Púť again for Mrs Future; Nostalgic to have another ski lesson from our resident ‘tame’ instructor.

Mrs Future; Nostalgic and her instructor at Biela Púť

She said afterwards that whilst she enjoys skiing, she’d enjoy it even more if it weren’t for the speed, the chairlifts or the vertigo she suffers from! She’s game, I’ll give her that (just don't tell her, she'll kill me!).

Our ski correspondent did say Mrs Future; Nostalgic has good technique and does very well, all things considered; that still didn’t stop her cracking up any time her pupil went her full length getting off a stationary chairlift. I blame the parents.

After lunch, we decided a ride on the new Grand Jet gondola might be a good plan, and we were soon winging our way up towards the top station at Brhiská.

We hadn’t been up to Brhliská since our first trip to Jasná, in those days you had to walk to the base station at Otupné (some 200m from the hotel) and ride up in little red, four-seater Tatra Poma gondolas, nicknamed by the resort ski instructors the ‘X-Egg.’ Not so this year – the Grand Jet gondolas seat eight (if you budge up a bit) and whisk you up the mountain in relative comfort, so we were soon wandering around in the snow at the top of the run.

Panoramic view down the Vrbická piste from The Grand Jet top station at Brhliská

Incidentally, when the resort dismantled the ‘X-Egg’ they put the gondolas up for sale at 10 Euros apiece, so I’m told. I would have been so up for owning one had transport costs back to the UK not been prohibitive; I somehow suspect the airline may have noticed as I tried to smuggle one through as carry-on baggage. Anyway, several of the old pods still languish in the snow at the top of the run…

Disused X-Egg pods languish in the snow at Brhliská

…so maybe there’s time yet. Anyone got a van, a passport and could spare me a week?

After a couple of photos to illustrate one method of measuring the depth of snowdrifts, it was off to Bufet Otupnô for refreshments.

Measuring a snowdrift, Future; Nostalgic style

The party interpreter was called for and we soon discovered the guy behind the counter didn’t speak any English, but hang on a minute, his mate in the kitchen did – after a quick swap round we had our food and drinks ordered; he said he’d shout when our sausage was ready so we sat like spaniels, our ears cocked, in case we missed the call.

No need to worry as soon someone was shouting something in Slovak, which we didn’t quite understand…which soon changed to a shout of, “Sausage!”

Our first Slovakian sausage - no idea what it's called, but it's very tasty

Our first Slovakian sausage was extremely nice, it must have been judging by the speed with which it vanished off the plate; I had to fight for each of the three pieces I managed to grab. We’d have probably stayed for another, but we’d promised ourselves a spot of night sledging, so it was already time to hop the Grand Jet back down the mountain, collect our gear and head off to Biela Púť again. At least we had a gondola to ourselves on the way down, so there was an opportunity for photographs.

Skiers on the Vrbická piste seen from the Grand Jet gondola

Approaching the Grand Jet base station

The Grand Jet base station outside the Hotel Grand

Night skiing (and sledging or snow biking) is available at Biela Púť every evening from 6 – 9pm and the lifties even let you take sledges and snow bikes up on the chairlift, if you’re crazy enough to try should you so wish.

Night time view of the piste at Biela Púť

Leaving Mrs Future; Nostalgic and our ski correspondent to tackle that, I headed off to the Julius Meinl café at the bottom of the slope in search of hot chocolate and slivovica; well, I was beginning to feel a bit on the chilly side.

Julius Meinl cafe at Biela Púť

The hot chocolate served at this café is well worth a mention in its own right – it figures high on my list of ‘must haves’ on any trip to Jasná. When I was a kid, almost every café you went into had a sort of juice dispenser behind the counter with a big glass receptacle, the contents of which were stirred by an electric paddle (maybe it’s a UK thing, but I’m sure anyone of a certain age will remember these things), over in Slovakia, the Julius Meinl café has the same sort of machine, but heated and filled with the most wonderful, thick hot chocolate; it’s more like drinking liquid dark chocolate. I think this is the stuff.

Slovakian hot chocolate is usually served with a good dollop of squirted cream on top, and tastes even better if you dispose of the cream (yum!) and then tip in a measure of the local plum spirit slivovica. Do remember to stir it well in as slivovica floats, then drink and feel the cold and any pain you may be suffering just melt away.

Suitably fortified, I ventured back onto the slope just in time to hear Mrs Future; Nostalgic’s dulcet tones wafting through the night air as the sledge with her and our ski correspondent on it thundered into view; I say dulcet tones, what I really mean is screaming at the top of her lungs, “Dig your heels in!” at her driver, who was taking absolutely no notice whatsoever and trying to go as fast as it is humanly possible to go on a sledge with two people on it.

Mrs Future; Nostalgic digging her heels in,
having wrested control of the sledge away from our skiing correspondent

They shot past me like a racecar and only just stopped before going off the end of the piste and finishing up in the lake – looks like the driver had finally dug her heels in.

Our ski correspondent was forthwith banished from said sledge and proceeded to take great delight in driving her snow bike as close to Mrs Future; Nostalgic as possible without colliding; it was noticeable that, now the sledge was under new management, there was a good deal more digging of heels in than previously!

All too soon it was time to give the snow bike back and head off to the hotel for a late dinner. A certain member of our party also decided she would quite like to have a lie down in a darkened room to recover from all that speed.

Coming soon: The Future; Nostalgics head off souvenir shopping in town.


Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Future; Nostalgic on Tour 2010: Part 4 – Vitajte v Jasnej (Welcome to Jasná)

After sleeping late (we reckoned we’d deserved it) we ambled down for a leisurely breakfast. Breakfast in Slovakia, at least at our hotel, is a fairly expansive affair. The menu comprises (takes a deep breath) coffee, tea (black tea, fruit or herb tea), hot chocolate and juice, a choice of cereals (including rather nice chocolate-covered bran flakes), fresh fruit, cakes and doughnuts, yoghurt, sliced ham, salami and cheese, salads and saukraut (which is sweet in Slovakia), a variety of breads, jams, honey, cream cheese and local butter.

If you’ve any room after all that lot, there’s always a cooked breakfast option for which we coined the term ‘the full Slovak’ on our first trip – fried eggs, scrambled eggs with bits of ham, or little omelettes with peas in them, and some combination of frankfurter-style sausages, fried sausages, little fried sausages, big fried sausages, sliced fried sausages, spicy fried sausages - can you see a pattern emerging here? There was also a sliced spicy sausagey-hamy sort of a thing, difficult to describe but very tasty, and not forgetting Slovakian bacon, which is very nice but has a good deal more fat than UK bacon.

There is a particular sort of bread roll, for which we developed a liking on our first trip, that has so far resisted all my efforts to photograph it so I’ll have to try describing it instead. These rolls, which we nicknamed ‘Litpov Torpedos’ are cylindrical and around six inches long, with a texture somewhere between bread and a croissant; they appear to be rolled in the same way as a croissant but are baked straight, rather than crescent-shaped. If anyone reading this happens to know if they have a particular name, please let me know, it might help tracking down a photo of them; this might seem a bit insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s been bugging me since our first trip as I keep forgetting to take my camera down to breakfast.

The restaurant at Hotel Grand Jasná
Picture © Tatry mountain resorts, a.s. All Rights Reserved.

Staggering out from a very large breakfast, and thinking we really ought to walk it off a bit, we wandered outside to see if much had changed since our last visit. Incidentally, before setting off we stopped by hotel reception to ask for a couple of extra pillows and by the time we returned from our walk, no more than half an hour later, we had an extra pillow and an extra duvet each; Holiday Inn Express Stansted, please take note!

The biggest difference is the brand spanking new Grand Jet gondola (more on that in the next installment), which runs from right outside the hotel to the top of Otupné’s Brhliská ski run. Hang on though, this is going to get a bit confusing without a map:

Chopok Sever Trail Map
Picture © Tatry mountain resorts, a.s. All Rights Reserved.

We decided to walk the five minutes along to Biela Púť, which is technically Jasná’s nursery slope, but which knocks spots off anything available in the UK, before wandering back to the hotel in search of ski hire. It was a bit of a shame to find the Post Office and souvenir shop on the ground floor of the resort headquarters building were no more, now replaced by a ski shop and ski pass sales kiosk. We have fond memories of the souvenir shop from previous trips – the old couple who ran it spoke a little Russian and German but no English, so buying anything was always an interesting experience. Never mind, there was bound to be a Post Office somewhere, we’d find it later.

Ski Depot at Hotel Grand Jasná

Back in the hotel, the ski depot staff were very helpful so skis and poles were soon duly hired and we set off for Biela Púť again and some actual skiing – after all, that’s what we were here for!

Travellers’ tip: Hiring skis (and ski instructors) was something we’d worried about before our first trip to Slovakia as we weren’t able to make contact with anyone by phone or email before we’d travelled. As it turned out, there was no need to panic. If the hotel’s ski depot hadn’t been able to provide the equipment we were after, there were plenty of other places we could have tried – Crystal Ski maintain a ski hire depot next to the bus stop outside the hotel, and there’s also a T-Ski hire shop at Biela Púť; for the snowboarders among us, all three places also hire snowboards and there is a dedicated Burton Snowboard hire and shop on the ground floor of the Biela Púť Apartments.

The hotel’s ski depot also hires what they term ‘snow fun tools,’ snow bikes and snowboard bikes, as well as sledges, the latter of which makes life much easier for the mobility-impaired traveller getting around the resort; I must remember to pack the huskies next time.

Biela Púť is around three times wider than the dry slope our ski correspondent uses back in the UK, and at 770m long, it’s about five times the length too. The old POMA ski tow was replaced by a four-person chairlift prior to our last visit, which takes around eight minutes to transport skiers up to the top of the run.

Our first view of Biela Púť

Since both our ski correspondent and Mrs Future; Nostalgic were taking to the slopes, yours truly decided to go in search of refreshment and, err…leave them to it!

Our ski correspondent was in full ‘ski instructor’ mode as she put Mrs Future; Nostalgic through her paces for an hour or so before heading off for some ‘proper’ skiing (her words, not mine!).

Mrs Future; Nostalgic and our ski correspondent on the slopes.

Having adjourned back to the hotel after lunch, Mrs Future; Nostalgic and our ski correspondent headed off to the hotel’s Wellness Centre - much more than just a swimming pool, the Wellness Centre features multiple saunas, the pool, a gym and you can book a variety of massages and other treatments to work the stiffness out of a skier’s muscles following a day on the slopes.

Hotel pool and Wellness Centre at the Hotel Grand Jasná
Picture © Tatry mountain resorts, a.s. All Rights Reserved.

There’s also an after-sauna shower, which comprises a rope-activated bucket of freezing water, nicknamed by us the ‘Monkey Shower’ on account of the, “Ooooooh-ooooooh-ooooooh, aaaaaah-aaaaaah-aaaaaah” noises heard issuing out of the cubicle when icy water hit nicely warmed skin!

I’d thought I might get down to a little writing while the family was enjoying the pool, and I would have done…if they hadn’t woken me up on their return.

A panoramic evening view from our hotel room window.

It was soon time for dinner, after which I managed to keep my eyes open just long enough to take a few photos out of our window before giving in and having an early night. Aprés ski would have to wait till tomorrow then.

[edit: Thanks to a lovely comment left by island, the mystery of those bread rolls has now been solved - they're called rožok. Thank you island, I really appreciate your help. Now, if I could only find a source for them in the UK...]


Thursday, 4 March 2010

Awards, Awards

Back at the end of January I was honoured with blog awards from my two good friends Anne Tyler Lord and Laura Eno; profuse thanks to both of you.

I received the You Are My Sunshine Supportive Comment Award from Anne Tyler Lord. The purpose of this award is to acknowledge those who blog and spend countless hours giving other bloggers feedback by leaving comments, adding themselves as a follower or dropping by just to let you know there are people reading your stuff. Thank you, Anne!

This award goes from me to:

Anne Tyler Lord at Don't Fence Me In (yes Anne, right back atcha!)
Laura Eno at A Shift in Dimensions
JodiMacArthur at Fiction Writer - Jodie MacArthur
Laurita Miller at Brain Droppings
Amy J Taylor at Ad Astra (To the Stars)
Marisa Birns at Out of Order Alice
PJ Kaiser at Inspired by Real Life
Deanna Schrayer at The Other Side of Deanna
David Masters at Truant Pen
David Shrock at Draco Torre
Eric J. Krause at Eric J. Krause's Writing Spot
Skycycler at Skycycler And Other Stories

The Circle Of Friends Award came from Laura Eno. This award is to be passed on to five friends, so time to get my thinking cap on as it's not going to be easy limiting the list to just five. Thank you, Laura!

I'd like to pass this award on to:

Julie at Whatever
Lauren at Pennington on the Paper
Josie at The Inner Homestead
Emma Newman at Post-Apocalyptic Publishing
Caroline at Life With Siamese Cats

At the time I received the awards, preparations were well advanced for my trip to Slovakia, and to be honest, the thought of transiting through London's Stansted airport was rather weighing heavily on my mind so I didn't manage to get news of the awards posted before I left.

On my return I was both surprised and delighted to have been honoured again with the Honest Scrap Award by Anne Tyler Lord. This award requires that I share ten things about myself that you probably didn't already know. Now then, let me see...

1. My cats rule my life (OK, so that one you may have worked out already).

2. I'm fond of a good cup of coffee.

3. I once crossed the North Sea in a submarine.

4. I own more empty notebooks than I could possibly ever use (doesn't everybody?).

5. I am mobility-impaired.

6. I'm like a fine wine - I don't travel well! (see #5 above, and my posts here, here and here for details).

7. I have visited eleven countries so far in my life.

8. I have an abiding fondness for the colour green.

9. I hadn't written fiction since school before being talked into trying #fridayflsh back in November.

10. Contrary to popular belief, I do not ski (see #5 above).

I'm now passing the Honest Scrap Award along to...

Phonelady at The Older Side of Life
Karen from Mentor at Miscellaneous Yammering
Maria Protopapadaki-Smith at Mazzz In Leeds
Cascade Lily of Ten Seconds a Day
Eric C at Sircram's Blog


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Future; Nostalgic on Tour 2010: Part 3 – A Long Stand

Apologies for the length of this post, you might want to get a coffee before reading. I will however, get you to the hotel before we finish today - this trip has already taken a day longer to write about than it took in real life!

So there we were, nicely tucked up in a corner of Bratislava airport's Arrivals hall with nothing to do for the next nine hours but wait. I have to say though, spending nine hours in an airport does, if nothing else, give you time, plenty of time, to explore and consider the facilities.

Exterior shot of Bratislava airport's Terminal building.
(The smoking area is next to the silver pole visible just to the right of the pedestrian)

This took all of 15 minutes as Bratislava airport is what your average Western European tourist might call a little basic. I, on the other hand, loved it. Mind you, it may be a little on the basic side, but it's spotlessly clean (I wonder if Stansted airport's reading this, as lessons could be learned, hint hint).

Future; Nostalgic's skiing correspondent did spot something in this vein that made her laugh - shortly after a cleaner had passed by us, riding on an electric floor cleaning truck, a passenger wandered through Arrivals leaving dirty wet footprints as he went. By the time he left the airport, the cleaner's truck was about three steps behind him, cleaning his footprints as he walked! I have a sneaking suspicion this may have been funnier at the time.

Speaking of facilities for passengers, there are a couple of cafes and a newsagent landside on the ground floor, another cafe and a souvenir shop on the second floor and a restaurant on the third floor with a lovely view out over the airport apron (more of that later).

As an early breakfast consisting of a cup of hotel vending machine coffee doesn't really do a lot to sustain a traveller throughout the day, we headed over to Bistro Airport for breakfast - in my case a huge ham, cheese and salami baguette-type sandwich and a bottle of Fanta. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to photograph it, not because it was huge, but because each sandwich came wrapped with a little strawberry sweet for pudding; nice touch that, I thought.

Bistro Airport - ground floor of Check-in Hall.
Photo © Letisko M.R.Štefánika Bratislava. All rights reserved.

Right, that's killed half an hour, only another eight to go.

Now then, as some of my regular readers may already know, I don't mind the occasional cigarette, so next on my agenda was locating the airport's smoking area. Living in the UK as I do, I have become increasingly used to my leprous status and resigned to having to smoke outside anywhere other than my own home; and I'm fine with that - I'd rather, for example, have a non-smoking table in a restaurant and go outside for a cigarette rather than breath smoke all over other diners, or have them do the same to me.

Bratislava is however, Eastern Europe, and attitudes to smoking are still a little more relaxed than at home as a much greater percentage of the population still smokes. There are a couple of smoking areas airside, one adjacent to Gate A4, the other a Cigar Bar opposite Gates B1 and B2; you never know, someone may need that information. Landside however, it's off out the front of the terminal building to the handily located ashtray.

This is a far cry from both Stansted and Newcastle where, not only is smoking only allowed outside the terminal buildings, it is only allowed within the areas marked by yellow lines on the ground. Just sayin'.

Anyway, the point of this part of the story is that, barely had I lit up than a young woman (no, not that sort of young woman, before anybody gets the wrong idea!) asked me something in Slovak, which I didn't understand. I replied with my stock phrase, explaining in Slovak that I was English and didn't speak much Slovak. She immediately switched to (very good) English and we, and her male partner (I couldn't work out whether he was her boyfriend, husband or just a travelling companion), spent a good while chatting about this and that.

Her name, it turned out, was Gabriela, she lived in Bratislava and was returning home from a trip to...somewhere or other (I wasn't taking notes!). Gabriela was mightily impressed with my homemade English-Slovak phrasebook and, after I'd explained how difficult it is to buy a decent Slovak phrasebook in the UK, email addresses were exchanged and she promised to send me a suitable book. Friendly place Slovakia, one of the reasons I like it so much.

Back in the terminal building...

There are the usual vending machines in the Arrivals and Check-in halls from which various snacks and hot drinks may be purchased - the hot caramel drink was strange, not unpleasant, just strange. The Zummo fresh orange juice machine on the other hand, was a revelation - you actually got to watch it squeeze four large oranges into a glass for you, all for the princely sum of 1 Euro.

Just in case you're getting the idea I'm a bit easily pleased, I'd just like to point out that I don't get out much!

The Zummo orange juice machine.

A variety of these snacks were purchased to pass the time, the most unusual of which, and again something we don't get in the UK, were peanut butter flavoured crisps. They're also a bit strange, very pleasant, but a bit strange - crisps just oughtn't to taste of peanut butter.

Arašidové chrumky aka peanut butter crisps.

Come lunchtime I noticed the Departure board was now listing our flight to Poprad-Tatry as "delayed," and I began to wonder if lightening does indeed strike twice. Always in the back of my mind was the feeling of being stranded at Stansted on our first trip, not something I would wish on my worst enemy! At least this time I figured we were in the correct country and, if push came to shove, we could always catch a bus to the railway station and complete our journey by train (incidentally, should you ever be in the same position, catch the No. 61 big red bendy bus from outside the airport to the railway station, Hlavná stanica in Slovak.).

Check-in was due to open at around 4.30pm so we figured we'd wait till then and ask about the delay as the airline staff we'd asked previously weren't sure how long it would be, the plane having not yet left its previous destination; or arrived at it as things turned out.

Bearing in mind we'd been in Bratislava since 9.35am that morning, and by the time 4.30pm rolled around we were rather looking forward to completing our journey, so you can imagine our faces when the check-in staff announced our flight to Poprad-Tatry was delayed by 4 hours (departing at 10.00pm rather than the intended 6.15pm). How long?!

The delay was due to de-icing problems in Bologna, terribly sorry, would we rather go on the flight to Košice, which was due to leave on time? thanks, the problem with that being we had a taxi booked to collect us from Poprad-Tatry and anyway, Košice is some 160km further away than our intended destination, or around an hour and a half extra by road, so no, if it's all the same with you, we'll wait.

Are you sure? Yes. Really sure? Yes! Ok then. Once our bags had been checked in we were issued with a bit of paper to take to the airline sales desk where it was exchanged for food and drink vouchers, no questions asked. The airline sales staff were also happy to call our taxi driver (more on him later) and our hotel to advise of the change in arrangements before pointing us in the direction of the 3rd floor restaurant.

We'd thought of trying this restaurant for lunch, but luggage trolleys are not allowed in the lift from the Check-in hall so we'd passed. Mrs Future; Nostalgic had wondered about leaving our bags at Left Luggage, until that is, I'd pointed out the Left Luggage hut was a fair walk away across the sheet ice of the airport car park. She thought better of it.

Bratislava airport's Left Luggage hut in the middle of the car park.

Restaurant Panorama has a great view out over the airport apron, so with hindsight it might not have been such a bad idea to try it earlier, at least we'd have had a view of the planes coming and going. Never mind, we're here now, we thought. Our skiing correspondent and I opted for the pork schnitzel and fries, while Mrs Future; Nostalgic settled on the "Chicken Pan," which turned out to be a concoction of chicken, bacon, wild mushrooms and roast potatoes all served in an individual frying pan.

Washed down with bottles of Coke, we enjoyed an excellent meal for around £28 all in. One thing we all liked about the restaurant was, unlike in the UK where "international beige" cuisine is de rigueur in places like airports, this was a Slovakian restaurant serving Slovakian specialties, much more fitting to the setting in our opinion.

Checking the Departures board on the way out of the restaurant, we noticed something a bit odd - our flight was now booked to leave at 9.15pm, not 10.00pm as we'd been advised so, as that time was fast approaching, we dashed round to the Security check and passed through airside, just having enough time to buy bottled water before being called to the Gate. Bratislava's Departure Gates are on the 1st floor of the terminal building, passengers go down a flight of stairs to the tarmac and either walk, or are bussed to their plane, so it wasn't really a huge surprise to see my two new best friends with their chair again and off we went, swaying down the steps into the icy evening.

Luckily (for them - I'm not a small person!), the aircraft was a matter of yards away, so the chair was rolled over to the door, which was where the fun really started. Our final plane of the day was an Alenia ATR-72, the advantage of which is that there are only around six steps up into it. The problem is that these steps are narrow and, as our skiing correspondent later recounted, there is a lip on the top step into which the burly guy walking backwards got his foot stuck - I really thought I may have come adrift at this point but no, a bit of frantic swaying and a few curses later there I am on the flat in the rear of the aircraft, dreaming of my release from the contraption and a short stagger to my seat.

Exterior and interior shots of our plane.
Photo © Danube Wings. All rights reserved.

Wrong! This being Slovakia, where things are IMHO done properly, I was manoeuvred (heaved!) round and up the aisle to my seat, all I had to do was slide from the chair to my seat, shake the guys by the hand and express my thanks in Slovak for all their help before letting them stagger off for a lie down. A stewardess appeared as if by magic, strapped me in with a seatbelt extender (just like to point out here, I could have managed without it - I may not be small, but I'm not that big!), made sure I was alright, then sorted out seats for the rest of our party.

One thing to note regarding carry-on baggage if you ever fly on an ATR-72 - the overhead lockers are narrow, a well-stuffed envelope may be pushing it a bit! Our new carry-on bags, bought just before the trip because they boasted as being "suitable for any airline, worldwide," were too big so the cabin crew kindly stacked them at the back of the plane for us to collect when we got off.

The penny dropped while we were waiting for take-off. What the airline had done was re-route their on-time flight from Košice onto our route, meaning we were able to leave three hours late rather than four. Nifty thinking, eh?

There followed a pleasant, if a bit noisy, 45 minute flight to Poprad-Tatry, complete with complimentary drinks (you listening to this, UK budget airlines? C..O..M..P..L..I..M..E..N..T..A..R..Y drinks, yes, that's right, for free!) and an interesting touch down on Poprad's sheet ice covered runway. If that had been a UK airport it would have been closed on Health & Safety grounds (as they are as soon as three flakes of snow fall every year), in Slovakia they know it's often icy in the winter so the pilots are used to it; at least that's my impression.

OK, so we've finally reached Poprad-Tatry airport, so where's the Assistance people? You may have spotted that by now I was thinking I'd really, really like to get to the hotel and my bed. Oh, there he is. He. Singular. This ought to be fun.

It wasn't until much, much later that I realised what he was after with all the hand gestures - he didn't speak much English and my Slovak wasn't extensive enough for this situation. Having taken extra pain meds on the plane, just in case, I took one look at the Assistance guy and decided I'd try to make it down the six steps of the plane on my crutches. Which I managed. Just. With hindsight, I realised that what I think he had intended was to fireman's lift me down the steps. Eek!

Into the waiting wheelchair and off across the windswept icy tarmac we went, straight to the new Arrivals building, collected our bags and then out front to the taxi rank. No taxi. Sh...shame!

The conversation went something like this:

"You need taxi?"

"No thank you."

Raised eyebrow. I could see him wondering how we were planning to get from the airport to our hotel.

"We have a taxi booked to collect us. This one," brandishes taxi driver's card.

"You want me telephone taxi?"

"Yes please."

And just when you think all your problems are over, here's another traveller's tip - if you have an Orange network mobile phone, ignore their website where it says it will work throughout Slovakia. It won't. At all.

Good job I have a phone on another network. I'm soon through to our taxi driver and, once we've sorted out the confusion over us having arrived an hour before the airline staff in Bratislava told him we would arrive all is well.

"30 minutes," he says and rings off.

Champion! The wait provided me with ample opportunity to finally dig my camera out of my bag and take a few photographs (aided by the airport having now closed and all the staff gone home!), and enjoy a coffee from the Arrivals vending machine, the best vending machine coffee I have ever had - I measured the machine, but there was no way it'd fit in my bag otherwise I'd have been tempted to bring it home with me; it could teach UK vending machines a thing or two about hot beverages.

The entrance to the new Arrivals building at Poprad-Tatry airport,
and that coffee machine.

Around 20 minutes later we spotted headlights, and shortly afterwards our taxi arrived. We'd met Stanislav Kubovčík on our previous visit back in 2008 and he'd given us his card, saying if we were ever coming back, please email him and he would pick us up at the airport. This we had duly done, and here he was; he'd said by email that he was very happy we remembered him. As he got out of the car he looked at us and exclaimed, "I remember you!" Excellent!

We were soon zipping along the newly completed stretch of the D1 motorway between Poprad and Liptovský Mikuláš, chatting away with Stanislav like long-lost friends. When we'd first met him I had the impression he was a single owner-driver (with his Mother on the bookings phone at home), but now a couple of years later he has eight cars and both his parents now drive for him. He wouldn't be able to take us back to the airport however, as he was off to Germany to buy two more cars, though not to worry he would send one of his drivers to collect us at our hotel. Nice man, is Stanislav. If you're ever travelling in this part of the world, please do get in touch with Stanislav - tell him I sent you.

...and here's the man himself, Stanislav Kubovčík,
having just dropped us off at our hotel.

A quick note about Slovakian driving - I have the impression that speed limits may, just possibly, be advisory only, and that the white lines separating two lanes of a motorway may just possibly be there only so you have something to follow while driving at night - as long as they pass directly under the middle of your car you're still on the road. Of course, I could be completely wrong!

Now that the section of D1 between Poprad and Liptovský Mikuláš has been completed, the airport transfer has come down from 1 hour 30 minutes to around half an hour, and the Bôrik tunnel has really made a difference to the last time we did this part of the trip. As I was too tired to dig out the video camera, here's a YouTube video of a trip through the tunnel, just in case you're interested.

It wasn't long before we turned off onto the familiar road up the mountain and soon pulled up outside our hotel. So here we were, Jasná at last. Now we could finally begin to relax.


Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Future; Nostalgic on Tour 2010: Part 2 - I'm in the UK, Get Me Out of Here!

Well, that was a pleasant surprise, the TV early morning call system actually worked. What wasn't such a pleasant surprise was that we'd had to set it for 03.45. I hadn't realised my watch did 03.45!

A quick coffee in the room then we're heading down for our 4am early breakfast, then back to Stansted to be met at the Special Assistance desk by the same staff we'd encountered the previous evening, who greeted us with all the warmth of something they'd found floating in their bath.

The guy allocated to assist us through the airport this time looked like he'd be assigned punishment duty, and I do wonder how much training he's had in pushing wheelchairs as he appeared to have two speeds - 90 miles an hour and stop; he also seemed only able to make right-angle turns, so it with some relief that we reached the airline check-in desk relatively unscathed.

Cue the first argument of the day - when your disabled passenger has checked themselves in, is it a good idea to (a) wait until they've put their paperwork back in their carry-on bag before setting off, or (b) start wheeling them away from their bag as they reach out to put the paperwork away? Suffice to say, he won't be making that mistake twice!

In all fairness, I ought to point out the one advantage of transiting through an airport with a disabled person in your party, namely that you get to skip the queues for Check-in/Security/Immigration/Customs checks and go directly to the head of the line, you have assistance through the checks themselves, and you are collected after they've taken place. In theory.

After whisking us through Security, Mr Surly hurtled off in the direction of the departure Gates, and speaking of Stansted’s departure gates – when you get airside there is a little sign stating all Gates are 12 minutes from this point. Ignore it. It's fibbing. They’re not. All Gates are much, much further than 12 minutes from this point, they may be 12 minutes from this point if you were, say, an Olympic sprinter or perhaps a cheetah, but even as an able-bodied Human Traveller Mk1 you’ll be going some to get to the Gate in 12 minutes.

And then there are the Departure boards. They also fib. As we discovered on our first trip through Stansted a few years ago, what is displayed on the Departure boards bears little relationship to reality – on that trip, the gate allocation for our arriving aircraft resembled a game of bingo with numbers popping out all over the place; the gate changed four times in the space of five minutes, and I still have visions of the aircraft waving its wing in the air and shouting, “House!”

Once that plane had settled on where it was going to stop, the Departure board display read as follows: "check-in call" all within the space of 30 seconds. I kid you not. That first time, we did the whole thing without the benefit of assistance and arrived at the gate puffing and blowing like championship Woodbine smokers.

This time however, Mr Surly headed off in the direction of Stansted's (dreaded) Transit System. That's a two-carriage driverless train type thing to you and I. BTW, I should mention here that requests to stop for bottled water airside, or to visit the facilities prior to boarding the plane were silently ignored (Yes, you. Remember me now, do you?). The transit system could only take us halfway as it turned out, the remainder of the journey being made through the maze of back corridors of the airport until we shot out of an anonymous-looking door onto the tarmac reasonably adjacent to our aircraft. All at 90 miles an hour without a word being said.

Thankfully, a medi-lift was already in place, so we were soon aboard the plane for our flight to Bratislava. Our aircraft it turned out, was one of those formerly owned by a certain Eastern European airline (which sadly went bankrupt in 2009) and came with a Slovakian crew. This made things much easier as the current operator of the aircraft insists on disabled passengers sitting in row 2ABC (make a note of this bit, it will all make sense when I describe our journey home), but yours truly doesn't bend in the middle like that (or at all, come to that) so there was no way I was getting into my allocated window seat. Problem? Not a bit of it. With a Slovakian cabin crew aboard it was absolutely no problem for us to be seated in row 2DEF, the extra legroom seats directly behind the forward galley and, incidentally, the same seats allocated to us by the other airline which flew us from Newcastle to Stansted (make a note of that bit too), as long as I didn't occupy the aisle seat. Thanks very much, that will do nicely.

It was a very pleasant flight, of around 1 hour 50 minute's duration and the extra legroom seats were very much appreciated as I was able to travel without my knees being up round my ears, a familiar sensation for travellers in budget airlines’ cattle, err…economy class. Also nice was the communications system fitted to this aircraft, which allowed for the use of mobile phones and other electronic equipment during the flight, like cameras.

Dawn is just about breaking over the wing of our plane.

Before long the pilot came over the PA system (though he had to time his announcement to fit in between the "hard sell" of airline products, food, duty-free, smokeless cigarettes and scratch cards) to inform us we were cruising at around 35 000 feet somewhere to the south of Rotterdam. This handily coincided with a break in the clouds, so I had a vague idea of what I was photographing.

Our first view of Rotterdam, apparently.

Our on-time arrival at Bratislava was greeted with the cheesiest pre-recorded PA system announcement, complete with fanfare, that we had ever heard. We just looked at each other and burst out laughing; I'm sure I glimpsed the cabin crew roll their eyes at the PA system. I can only presume the Chief Executive of the airline thinks this is a good idea; IMHO it just makes the airline look silly.

Anyway, returning to the story. There we are on the tarmac at Bratislava airport, having followed the "Follow Me" car from the end of the runway to our stand, an icy stretch of exposed concrete in case you were wondering.

After letting the remainder of the herd stampede bleating down the aircraft steps, we began to cast about for sight of a medi-lift, or something. Nothing. Shortly afterwards however, I got that sinking feeling again when two burly guys dressed in red paramedic uniforms carried a rather too familiar looking chair up the aircraft steps. Gulp.

I needn't have worried though, as a closer inspection revealed a lack of electric stairclimbing attachments, but did reveal handles on each end of the chair. The penny dropped. Gulp. Many hand signals later I was strapped into this contraption, very securely as it turned out because breathing was a bit of an effort, being cut in half as I was by the straps. Next thing I knew, I was hoisted into the air and experienced, rather than enjoyed, an interesting view as I was carried down the aircraft steps. I found chanting quietly, "They will not drop me," over and over seemed to help as I swayed from side to side.

Released from the chair, I was transferred to a wheelchair, hoisted aboard the airport bus (mind your ankles!) and whisked to the terminal, where the Special Assistance person, who spoke better English than his Stansted counterpart, helped us collect our bags before taking us through to the Check-in area where we were to wait for our final flight to Poprad-Tatry airport that evening, pointing out en-route which Check-in desks we would use for our final flight of the trip.

The Check-in Hall at Bratislava airport
Photo © All rights reserved.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men? I figure I may need a word with those mice as you may well be wondering whatever possessed us to spend nine hours in Bratislava airport. Well, I'll tell you. The original plan had been a lunchtime flight from Stansted to Bratislava, a couple of hour's wait, then the connecting flight to Poprad-Tatry however, about a month before we traveled, the airline which flew us from Stansted emailed to say they'd changed our flight to an early morning departure (nothing whatever to do with their having broken a plane the previous week when it skidded off an icy runway in Scotland), which meant something like a 9 hour wait in Bratislava. Marvelous.

And so, we settled down for a very long wait. At least we got to keep the airport wheelchair.

I’ll pick up the rest of the journey in the next installment. Right now, I need a coffee…


Monday, 1 March 2010

Future; Nostalgic on Tour 2010: Part 1 – South by North East.

The story begins with the Future; Nostalgic posse ensconced at Gate 19, Newcastle International Airport, awaiting the Special Assistance people to arrive and take us to the aircraft for our flight to London's Stansted airport and an overnight stay before traveling onward to Slovakia.

The first time we did this trip a few years ago, all was well until we boarded the plane only to be told it had a fuel leak and we'd all have to get off again. Not to worry, the airline was sending a spare plane up from London, so we should still make our Stansted connection. We didn't. In fact we watched our connecting flight taxiing to the runway as we ourselves taxied to the gate, so it was with a certain sense of deja vu that we watched the Arrivals board at the gate click over to "Delayed" next to our flight. Oh goody. Here we go again.

Thankfully the delay was only an hour and we were soon aboard a very nice little Airbus something-or-other winging our way south. We began to relax. Silly us! Arrival at Stansted was bang on time. Shame the arrival at our plane of Stansted’s Special Assistance people wasn't. After around fifteen minutes of waiting, the ground handler finally managed to raise someone on the radio and shortly after a guy arrived with the dreaded C-Max stair climbing chair.

A word to the wise here. Being mobility-impaired, yours truly has personal experience of said stair climbing chair from my last transit through Stansted, and there’s no way I’m doing that again. The C-Max is an electric contraption that wouldn't look out of place in the arsenal of a modern day Inquisition IMHO; the last time I had cause (ie: no choice) to use one of these things I ended up flat on my back in excruciating agony for the next two days, popping painkillers like Smarties. I declined and asked for my pre-booked medi-lift which, apparently, wasn’t available. Funny thing that, the medi-lift not being available, as during our transit through the airport, Future; Nostalgic’s skiing correspondent spotted a number of medi-lift vehicles parked up on the tarmac. Hmmm.

Representative pic of an airport medi-lift.
Picture courtesy of SOVAM S.A.S, France.

To cut a long story short, during which our pilot played a blinder on our behalf for which I will be eternally grateful (and confirmed that he’d personally radioed ahead to ensure the availability of a medi-lift), and a further fifteen minute delay saw us finally aboard a medi-lift and, we thought, headed for Arrivals. Silly us. If you'll indulge me here for a moment, let's have a quick compare-and-contrast moment:

Newcastle International Airport - medi-lift meets passenger at Gate 19 and drives them to the plane, jacks itself up hydraulically and deposits said passenger by wheelchair through the plane's forward galley door. Reverse the procedure for inbound passengers.

Stansted Airport - medi-lift attaches itself to the plane's forward galley door, passenger has to make their own way onto the medi-lift where they are met by a wheelchair. Medi-lift lowers itself hydraulically before the passenger is wheeled straight through onto the tail lift of the vehicle and dropped down onto the tarmac to continue their journey to Arrivals accompanied by a Special Assistance person pushing the chair. Again, reverse procedure for outbound passengers.

Which do you think is the better system? Answers on a postcard please.

In our case, we were allocated a particularly disgruntled Special Assistance person, and were then routed through the gate we would have disembarked at had we all been able-bodied. At the gate stood a planeload of people waiting to board our aircraft, now around thirty minutes delayed - the profusion of black looks with which we were met was not lost on any of us.

Bags were collected from Arrivals (eventually – they’d been pulled off the carousel and stacked next to the Help desk as potentially discarded baggage), then off to the Special Assistance Desk to make a complaint. Forewarned as I was by our pilot, it came as no surprise to me at all that Special Assistance blamed the airline for not requesting the appropriate offloading equipment, but what was a surprise was their telling me I ought to have called them the day before to book the medi-lift. ‘Scuse me?

Well, I checked my airline paperwork (booked months earlier and including a wheelchair assistance on/off the plane request), and nowhere within it was there any indication of me having to telephone Stansted myself (or any other airport for that matter) to make my own arrangements. I mentioned this, which went down like the proverbial lead budgie. Nevertheless, my requiring a medi-lift was booked into the Special Assistance diary for the following morning and for our return trip a week later, and I was kindly provided with their direct telephone number in case I needed it in the future.

Since this is not the number Stansted airport publishes on the Special Assistance section of its website, if you happen to have the misfortune to transit through London Stansted with a disabled passenger in tow, you might like to drop me a line so I can give you the correct number for Special Assistance; and don’t forget to ring them the day before you travel.

Bearing in mind we were now around an hour behind schedule, and had yet to reach our hotel, eat, shower, or sleep before returning to the airport at 5am the next morning for our next leg of the trip, we cut things short and headed down for the shuttle bus to the hotel, thankfully accompanied by a rather more reasonable member of the Special Assistance team. Just as well - Stansted is a warren and without her help we'd probably still be wandering the halls even now.

So there we were, shivering in the rain on the dark, windswept expanse of concrete that is Stansted's coach park and guess what, yes, that's right, we'd just missed the bus; another one along in 30 minutes. Eventually we reached the hotel and checked in, only to be given the wrong room number on our electronic key by the receptionist. Funnily enough we’re not surprised, this is the UK after all; just wait till I compare it with the service you can expect in Slovakia. Once that was sorted out and we finally found the correct room, it was a pleasant surprise - a spacious and clean room complete with disabled facilities. Nice.

Dinner was a bit basic, a read-the-menu-then-order-at-the-bar sort of place, this hotel. Never mind, the food was reasonable, though whoever thought it was a good idea to serve mushy peas, and rather dried out mushy peas at that, with scampi and chips ought to have their chef's qualifications checked.

We figured we'd better find out about breakfast before retiring for the night, and see if the hotel could rustle up a couple of extra pillows. Breakfast it transpired, was served from 6am - we're leaving at 5am. Not a problem. Oh, goody. There was an early breakfast available from 4am. Even better. Hang on a minute though, if the full breakfast, which was available from 6am, was a continental breakfast, whatever in the world could the early breakfast be? It turned out to be coffee and cereal. Cosmic.

Bearing in mind we'd had a good look at the restaurant setup while waiting for our evening meals, and waiting, we wondered just how much of a stretch would it have been to put out a tray of croissants (or similar) at 4am, since the rest of breakfast service would appear to consist of switching on the coffee machine, the cereals, milk, jam and butter being already in situ in little racks.

Extra pillows? No, we don't have any extra pillows (he looked like we’d just asked for his firstborn). But you're a hotel, aren't you? I'll see what I can find. Thanks. With hindsight, we really wished he hadn't bothered as it took him an hour and a half to find one and we were just dropping off to sleep when there came a hammering on our door.

And then there was the issue of an early morning call - not, I would have thought, beyond the scope of your average hotel. Apparently they didn't do early morning calls, guests had to organise their own through the TV in their rooms; and if there had been instructions, that would really have helped!

Anyway, we eventually dropped off into a fitful night's sleep, looking forward with some trepidation to another visit to Stansted airport in the morning.

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