A Valencian Vista: The Ghost of British Midland International
Back at the beginning of October, I took my first international trip since the start of the pandemic. With no testing or quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated visitors at the time of travelling, Spain was the chosen destination. More specifically, we opted for one of the country’s slightly less touristy cities and its third most populous: Valencia. LHR-VLC
Despite numerous negative reports during these changed times, we had no problem checking in online and getting mobile boarding passes, allowing us to bypass the short queue at the First Wing at Heathrow T5. As regular readers will know, I prefer a paper boarding pass, which the Guest Services desk in the lounge was able to issue once through an empty security.
I reviewed the current state of affairs in the Galleries First lounge in my recent Glasgow trip report, so won’t go over the details of the changed layout and offering here. We found a seat in the central seating area, opposite the main News Zone (which was devoid of any reading material, save a few COVID-secure copies of Business Traveller), and I went up to the nearest Coffee House to request a latte and a pain au raisin.
We moved to the Refectory a while later for a light lunch of black rice, quinoa and edamame salad topped with smoked mackerel; this was fresh and nicely presented, although did require tracking down from the waitress who seemed to be having trouble working out table numbers.
Whenever scones are on a menu, I have to order them, and so the cream tea was the natural conclusion to the meal – note this is available all day after breakfast, and is not the same as the afternoon tea which is only available – as the name suggests – between certain hours in the afternoon, and comes with sandwiches, a macaron and cake of the day in addition to a scone.
Boarding at Gate A13 was reasonably efficient, with group numbers called in order (although there remained no dedicated lanes as there were pre-COVID). BA have recently re-introduced a Group 1-3 lane at T5. The self-service boarding gates were not used, with the gate agents checking all boarding passes and passports manually. Vaccine certificates and Spain’s version of the passenger locator form were not requested.
As the title of this report suggests, today’s flight was on board an ex-bmi A319, G-DBCD, delivered new to bmi in 2005 and integrated into the BA fleet as part of their acquisition of bmi in 2012. These aircraft retain the last iteration of bmi seating fitted in 2011, although BA did re-upholster the seats in blue leather, replaced the carpets and curtains with trademark blue versions, and substituted the flowery bulkhead wrap for something distinctly blander. It’s somewhat ironic that BA should’ve swapped out bmi’s dark brown colour scheme for blue in 2012, when just two years later, BA would introduce their own darker colour scheme across their shorthaul fleet. The ex-bmi fleet of 11 A319s and 7 A320s were never upgraded with this interior, and with retirement of the remaining 16 of these aircraft planned in the next few years, they are not expected to receive a refurbishment.
We were met at the door by the cabin crew offering a Dettol wipe from a basket – this time, minus the waste bag that is sometimes offered with it. Settling into 1D of an 8-row Club Europe cabin, I noticed how tired the interior of the aircraft looked in comparison to the mainline BA fleet, the stained and frayed carpet and scuffed literature pockets being the main giveaways of the lack of recent refurbishment.
As with the Pinnacle product found on the mainline (non-neo) BA fleet, seats that can be converted to Club Europe (Rows 1-8 on the A319 and Rows 1-12 on the A320) feature a central console table blocking the middle seat. Unlike on the mainline fleet however, this table folds down from the back of the seat, rather than swinging up from below it. The armrests of the centre seats move inwards to secure the table in place, with the effect of providing a little more width for the window and aisle seats – in a very similar fashion to the old BA convertible shorthaul seating that was phased out between 2014 and 2018.
The overall aesthetic of the cabin is more utilitarian on these ex-bmi aircraft than their mainline BA counterparts, with no mood lighting or leather trim anywhere to be seen, let alone a speedmarque logo on the bulkhead. Tray tables for Row 1 window and middle seats are located on the bulkhead, rather than in the armrest – and have the initial appearance of a bassinet table.
The washrooms are probably the most similar aspect between the fleets; a stained sink that hasn’t seen bleach for a long while is par for the course on shorthaul BA aircraft.
The flight crew announced a flight time of 1h50, and after a 20-minute wait to push back, we departed Heathrow from Runway 27L. The cabin crew were quick to commence service, with a bar service from the trolley first up that afternoon. Drinks were served with packaged nuts.
Since January, when BA reverted to some semblance of normality in their onboard service, shorthaul sectors have been combined into two groups; Express and Band 1 flights in one, and Band 2, 3 and 4 flights in the other. This has the effect of upgrading Band 2 flights to a Band 3 / Band 4 hot meal service, whilst downgrading Band 1 flights to a slimmer Express selection. VLC is a Band 3 destination, and so continues to receive a hot meal service on all flights, as it did pre-pandemic, albeit with some modifications.
Options today, served from the trolley, were sausages and mashed potato, tomato pasta or a cold beetroot and quinoa salad. We opted for one each of the hot meals; both had clearly been in the ovens for far too long (or at far too high a temperature), with the vegetables in the sausage dish and much of the pasta inedible. Whilst main course salads have broadly held up in quality, the quality of hot main courses and side salads is much diminished from the pre-pandemic era, and cheese and crackers are no longer offered. Dessert – apple crumble – was passable. Note that all cold meal elements were served covered in plastic, although the foil covering the hot meals was removed by the crew prior to service.
A hot drinks run from the trolley concluded the meal service; my peppermint tea was served with a practical drip dish.
Arrival into Valencia Airport was smooth, with cabin crew requesting passengers remained seated, calling rows to disembark in groups of four – far more civilised than the pre-pandemic free-for-all. There was no queue at immigration, despite the eGates being unavailable. A separate and somewhat chaotic checkpoint post-immigration, into which two different streams of passengers were being funnelled, was responsible for scanning the passenger locator form QR code. A further agent positioned behind this checkpoint was visually checking vaccine certificates, although was struggling to keep up with the volume of passengers coming through – leading to some passengers simply sailing on past unchecked. Once through, it was a short walk to the taxi stand for the 20-minute ride to The Westin.The Westin Valencia
Built as part of the Valencia Regional Exhibition in 1909 and located between the Mestalla and Exhibition neighbourhoods of the city, the building that is now home to The Westin has been variously a textile factory, a fire brigade headquarters and a police horse stables, before opening in 2007 as the hotel of today following a EUR21m conversion.
The dual-height art deco lobby is an impressive welcome to the property, with reception located in an alcove to the right and a concierge desk opposite.
The lone receptionist was on the phone as we arrived, and so there was a short wait to check-in, but once she was free, we were attended to swiftly, with the key features of the hotel explained. We were handed a letter detailing arrangements for breakfast and asking us to choose both our preferred food and the sitting time; whilst I appreciate capacity is limited during the pandemic, this is pretty restrictive for a 5-star property and certainly not a decision you want to have to make the first evening you arrive.
Our standard room on the first floor of this three-floor property was spacious but dated, an impression not helped by the lack of natural light coming from the windows overlooking the adjacent narrow street and apartment building.
Whilst all rooms feature a similar art deco design (including crazily patterned carpet), rooms in the next category up have an outside terrace area, with those one grade higher still featuring a private outdoor whirlpool.
The spaciousness of the room meant there was ample space for both a sofa and an armchair, even if the cushions had been deemed not to be COVID-compliant. The single bedside table on the other hand, both too high and too far from the beds, was a little stingy. Technology-wise, the room was adequately equipped with fast wifi, although there was only one power socket by the beds.
Above the stocked minibar was a tea tray containing a random collection of unbranded tea bags. There was no coffee machine, which is pretty rare to be excluded in a 5-star property these days. Complimentary water bottles were placed on the occasional table and were replenished daily.
Off the entrance lobby, a vestibule housed a large wardrobe and separate toilet room.
The vestibule led through to the bright and spacious bathroom, clad head to toe in marble; this was my favourite aspect of the room by far. A single washbasin was flanked by a large walk-in shower on one side (the water pressure for which could have been better), and a bath on the other.
A slimmed-down selection of Westin’s own Heavenly Spa amenities was provided, the smell of which always reminds me of my trip to Hawaii in 2017 and my stay at the Moana Surfrider, another Westin property.
The bathroom’s oddest feature was an infrared heat lamp in the ceiling, a feature I’ve only ever heard about in reference to older hotels; it was therefore quite surprising to see one in a 2007-era property, unless the interior designer was channelling the art deco concept in more than just the carpet.
Whilst the public areas of the hotel were well maintained, our room needed a little TLC in areas; the overhead feature lamp had at least one failed bulb, the in-wardrobe safe didn’t work and needed re-setting by engineering, and the wall behind the desk was badly scratched with peeling wallpaper, presumably where previous occupants had carelessly placed the suitcase stand over time.
Despite some light road noise, sleep quality was good; the air conditioning was audible but quiet, and the beds were comfortable with the on-request addition of some firmer pillows.
With the hotel’s breakfast venue Rosmarino Restaurant closed for refurbishment at the time of our stay, we ate each morning in the hotel’s tranquil courtyard garden. Talking to the staff, it seemed like the refurbishment was running late, and so blankets and heaters had been made available on request, with covered (but still external) areas available too in case of inclement weather.
Whether due to COVID or the refurbishment, the breakfast menu was slim to put it politely; the same slate platter featuring cut fruit, yogurt, bread, pastries, and preserves was brought to each table, with the main course variable by preference; American, continental or vegetarian.
In reality the waiting staff were able to bring off-menu items such as porridge or whole fruit on request and add/delete items for the main course, but the lack of offered choice was quite odd and not remotely 5-star. Whilst everything was of decent quality, by the fourth morning I’d tired of eating essentially the same thing for breakfast each day.
The courtyard was beautifully lit at night.
The El Jardi restaurant and bar has been refurbished in recent months and exudes sophistication in tones of walnut, dark green and brass. We light lunched here on our final day in Valencia; after three days of Spanish fare, we opted for something a little closer to our home palette – both the club sandwich and the cheese and ham toastie were flavourful.
Located adjacent to the entrance to Rosmarino is the hotel’s third eatery, Komori – we didn’t get the opportunity to dine here, but reviews place it amongst the best in the city for Japanese cuisine.
Also having undergone an elegant refurbishment in recent months, the spa, gym and pool (collectively known as Jardi Wellness) are located in the basement of the property and are all well appointed; times must be pre-booked, although the staff were accommodating for last-minute requests. Pool sessions come with a towel, flip-flops and mandatory swimming cap. The pool is decently sized and is adjoined by a sauna and steam room, although there is no jacuzzi. When I used the pool one weekday afternoon, I had the pool to myself for a good while, which was very relaxing.
Meeting facilities are fairly extensive and have the benefit of their own entrance from the street.
When it came time to depart, despite me holding no status with Marriott Bonvoy, the front desk team were able to accommodate a 14:00 check-out; this is always much appreciated and makes a later flight much less tiresome.
Whilst the bedrooms are more than overdue for refurbishment, The Westin Valencia’s public areas are a tranquil oasis in the city, meaning we enjoyed our stay at this historic and slightly quirky property. I’d gladly re-visit post-pandemic to see the outcome of the refurbishment that has only recently commenced, and when the hotel (most critically the breakfast buffet) is unconstrained by pandemic palaver. Four Days in Valencia
We started our exploration of Valencia in the old town, where highlights included the chaotically colourful Mercado Central and the UNESCO-listed 15th-century La Lonja de la Seda (the Silk Exchange).
El Carmen is the original Valencian neighbourhood, and we strolled back to the hotel on our first day through this area, pausing at the 14th-century Torres de Seranos, part of the ancient city wall.
We dined at Rinconet, just around the corner from The Westin; this is the home of unfussy home-cooked food, that was just the ticket after a long day walking in the Valencian sun.
Day two saw us walk through the lower half of the Jardines del Turia, the park built in the original Turia riverbed after the river was diverted in the 1960s.
At the foot of the park, the City of Arts and Sciences is a hugely impressive architectural feat, although as with many such similar structures, seems to lack a defining purpose.
Just around the corner, L’Oceanogràfic, Europe’s largest aquarium, is worth a visit for its creative presentation of water-dwellers, although animal lovers may feel uneasy at some of the larger species being kept in captivity.
We ended the day in the El Cabanyal beach neighbourhood, where surprisingly the Rice Museum – set in an original early 1900s rice mill over several floors – was the afternoon’s surprise highlight.
A Huevo’s tasting menu that evening was the culinary highlight of our trip, even if service was a little haphazard.
We took the train to the town of Xàtiva on our third day, where the rather stiff hike up to the Castle, dating in parts back to the 6th century BC, revealed spectacular vistas.
The town of Xàtiva itself is also well worth exploring.
During our trip, we also found time to visit the Jardí Botànic, a calm oasis in the heart of the old town showcasing flora from six different global zones spread over 14 hectares, and located just a short walk from the Torres de Quart – the smaller glasshouses were particularly impressive. VLC-LHR
We used VeriFLY for the first time ahead of checking in online for our return flight to London. This was a little clunky to set up and to subsequently enter our pre-departure information (the UK Government’s passenger locator form and the NHS vaccine certificate). Had I known that my profile picture in the app would be unchangeable I might have made more of an effort – as it is, I’m consigned to a selfie background featuring the Westin Valencia’s (admittedly nice) bathroom tiling for eternity, or at the very least until the end of the pandemic. At the time of travelling, a pre-departure test was not required on return to the UK for fully vaccinated passengers, which did simplify things somewhat.
Thanks to being able to check in online post-VeriFLY, we didn’t have to wait the ten minutes or so for the check-in desks at VLC to open (3 hours before departure), and so headed straight to security with our mobile boarding passes. We were unceremoniously rejected from the Fast Lane at security as BA seemingly don’t pay for it at VLC, but this was no hardship as the regular lanes were flowing freely and the Fast Lane merged with the regular lanes at its head in any case.
BA were fairly slow in re-contracting with the third party Joan Olivert VIP lounge, running much of the summer 2021 schedule with no lounge access at VLC. There had been mixed feedback on social media about whether BA passengers were able to access the lounge here in the autumn, but happily we were welcomed in to the Aena-run facility, located on the far right of the Schengen part of the terminal building. The lounge is surprisingly spacious, spread over two floors. The upper floor is larger, extending over the gate seating area below, and enjoys airport views – sadly, this level was closed due to lack of demand. The lower level is, consequentially, rather dull given its lack of outlook.
Turning left from reception, an empty newspaper and magazine rack is located ahead of the dining area, which extends until it reaches a children’s play area at the end of the lounge.
The buffet, opposite reception, was barriered off due to COVID, with a solitary member of staff at times struggling to keep pace with demand. A typical third party lounge selection of food and drink was available, none of which we touched beyond water.
The main seating area runs from the buffet to the right-hand side of the lounge, at the end of which a relaxation area is located.
Washrooms are found at this end of the lounge, with a small business centre (with empty desks) tucked behind and to the left of the exit from the lounge. The overall design is modern, if a little utilitarian.
The lounge was reasonably busy when we arrived, but soon emptied out, after which the staff were quick to clear empties. The space remained quiet for much of the rest of our time, which made our experience pretty relaxing, if ultimately unmemorable as far as airport lounges go.
Boarding at Gate 1B meant a fairly long walk to the opposite (non-Schengen) end of the terminal building; passport control was mercifully quick, with the added spectacle of an irate passenger who couldn’t find her gate. Once at our gate, I was pleased to see a clearly signed Group 1-3 lane and an agent checking eligibility to enter. Presumably as we hadn’t visited a check-in desk, our mobile boarding passes turned the gate scanners red, and we submitted to a PLF and vaccine certificate check, holding up the rest of the priority queue in the process. This was no matter, as a combined 10-15 minute wait ensued once in the node and then again on the airbridge; the very definition of ‘boarding but not boarding’. At least the glass-sided airbridge afforded a nice view of the setting sun.
20-year-old G-MIDT would be ferrying us back to Heathrow that evening, one of five remaining ex-BD A320ceo aircraft in the BA fleet. These aircraft have the same interior as the ex-BD A319 aircraft. Our particular aircraft today was configured with 8 rows of Club Europe.
As I settled into 1D, an in-air time of two hours was announced by the flight crew, with our cabin crew quick to commence a bar service after takeoff. The usual packaged nuts were handed out along with an open choice from the bar; Nicolas Feuillatte was the fizz of the day, offered in quarter-sized bottles rather than poured from full size bottles as is the pre-pandemic norm on Band 3 and 4 sectors.
In an effort to reduce cost, BA have taken to offering the same ‘choice’ on both inbound and outbound Club Europe sectors. This is really poor form, and not befitting of a business class product – even a European one. Mercifully, Bands 2-4 feature a choice of three options (two hot and one cold); we sampled the cold offering this time around – the perfectly respectable beetroot and quinoa salad, the same as what would be offered for lunch and dinner on an Express or Band 1 sector (minus the side salad). The usual hot drinks run concluded the dinner service.
Whilst these ex-BD A320 aircraft are not fitted with power, unlike the ex-BD A319 fleet, they do feature wifi, priced at a reasonable GBP7.99 for the full flight; I had no need to use it on this occasion, but it’s always a valuable feature to have.
The rest of the flight passed by swiftly, and we landed at Heathrow on time, parking at a remote stand at T5C. Buses took us to T5A and immigration, where there was no queue, and we were in an Uber far quicker than expected, lucking out with a Mercedes-Benz E-Class (on UberX) for the short ride home. Landing too late to take our Day 2 PCR test on arrival (and preferring an administered test to a self-test), we returned to Heathrow the following day to visit ExpressTest in T3 Departures.
This was an enjoyable trip to delightful Valencia. Whilst I was disappointed with the shabby ex-BD aircraft and poor quality in-flight catering, the ground experience at both ends of the journey was good, and BA’s crew continued to provide their usual reliable service. Valencia comes highly recommended as a slightly quieter alternative to Madrid or Barcelona, with plenty of unique history and culture to explore. The Westin provided a well-located and comfortable base, despite its refurbishment needing a gentle acceleration. Thanks as always for reading, and I look forward to your comments and questions.