Hello everyone, and welcome to this TR, I had to ask it to be removed on first attempt because almost every picture had gone bonkers, I hope nothing will happen this time.
As for many other people in the Northern Hemisphere, I was about to go on holiday. Well, mine was something more than a short break between weeks at the office, since my employer suddenly decided that intern was needed no more and I was “made redundant”, as those more polite than me would say. However, I was still on holiday and, as a result of the “labour cost-cutting techniques” they've been adopting on me, my source of earnings had dried up and I had to soldier on with a fewer bucks than I thought. But they would be enough to carry me to my destination: Hungary, my girlfriend's homeland.
BACKGROUND – GETTING THERE
Back in my cash-rich (sort of) heyday, I decided to add some pepper to an otherwise normal trip. I've flown the Milan-Budapest several times now and I wanted to do it somehow differently... I've been trying all the airlines flying it, from Wizz to Malév to the new kid on the block, Lufthansa Italia. The latter was particularly fine, I felt absolutely good with them and I've never let them down ever since, but... this was going to be my only flight of the summer and I wanted something more.
I started checking on the Net for suitable alternatives including stopovers in places I've never been or with aeroplanes I've never tried. I dare to say that I've checked 'em all but, eventually, I stumbled upon a good deal: the outbound leg would have been done with LOT, while the return was due to be done the simple way, BUD-MXP with LHI. In a nutshell, this is the route your aficionado would have been flying: MXP-WAW and WAW-BUD on LOT, and then MXP-BUD on the Italian-flavoured branch of Lufthansa. I was particularly happy with this itinerary because I could fly LOT, which I haven't tried yet, done a little stopover in Warsaw – which I haven't seen yet as well – and, finally, I booked two trips on LOT's Embraer E-170. You see, flying an E-jet has been on my to-do-list ever since I saw Air Dolomiti's E-195 and I thought “Gosh, what a brilliant looking plane!”. Now I was on to see how the Brazilians are good at making things with wings.
The whole package came out quite cheap, about 130 euros. The flight off to Warsaw was, above the others, extremely cheap, and I would be surprised if it wasn't so: with at least 4 daily frequencies from Star Alliance carriers, seats on that particular route are quite abundant.
Things kept going normally until August 10th, with just a couple of days to go: a gentle lady called me. She wasn't obviously interested in dating me, but she was replying to an application letter which I sent, almost hopelessly, some days before. I was obviously glad to hear that, as you would imagine. So what's the fuss about Murphy's law all about? Well, said the gentle lady at the phone, would you like to come for the interview on August 23rd at 10.00?
I should have been on holiday on that very day at that very hour. Indeed, it should have been my last day of holiday, dammit. But, you know, beggars can't choose. She couldn't find another day, “you see, we're such in a hurry” she said, so I had to agree. It seemed that your JL418 was about to break another personal record: first time on LOT, first time in Warsaw, first time on an Embraer, first attempt at Lufthansa's call centre, trying to make the ends meet. Was I allowed, with my low fare, to change dates so close to departure? Wasn't sure at all, and indeed I was just by paying a big fine. Frantic phone calls followed, coupled by similarly frantic web searching. At the end of the day, I cut the holiday short of one day, and I was 200€ under. Cheap flight you said, didn't you? Well, not any more.
THE OUTBOUND LEG.
My first flight of the day is scheduled for 10.50AM from Milan-Malpensa airport. I am starting frommy birthplace, Biella, which on paper is closer to the airport than Turin, the town I've settled in. Thing is, though: if you don't own a car – and, surprise! I don't – what looks like a gentle drive of an hour or so becomes REALLY longer. I planned to rail down to Novara and then to catch the local airport bus, but the gods of timetabling were against me: I would have made it to the airport just at 10.00, which wasn't really my cup of tea; call me boring, but I prefer to have plenty of time to enjoy a forthcoming flight. So, the only possible solution was to get, earlier, to Milan and then to catch one of the dozens of bus – or a train, if I was in the mood – to the airport. So rail was, and on an unusually cold morning I find myself walking to the station.
Biella's station hasn't changed a lot from the Fascist era and, until a couple of years ago, the trains seemed to date back to that era too; luckily, I think while carrying my bags, 21st century has arrived even here, under the form of some Alstom's Coradias, re-named by Trenitalia “Minuetto”. Ever heard of a more stupid name?
Unfortunately, the only train up and running is an Aln668 older than me, interesting as its name and perhaps uglier. The only interesting feature of this gas-guzzling old relic is the fake first class cabin. Bear with me, this tip will save you a little unpleasantness if you will, and I wish you won't, find one of these Aln on your path. This sort of trains came with a first class car, which differs from the coach because of wider seats, a number 1 painted on a glass shade, and some fake wood trays. Everything else, from windows to the plugs, is the same. Moreover, trains like this are run on routes where there's no need for a first class, which isn't sold indeed. So here you are, a fake first class, one of the secrets commuters won't ever share with fellow travellers who, in good faith, would read the “1” sign and stay away from the car, saving a little bit of space for those who are more used to this daily torture.
Four modern trains at everyone's disposal, and what am I travelling onto? The oldest of the lot.
My derelict convoy soon leaves the land of Ermenegildo Zegna and Cerruti with the sun's first rays peeping over the rice fields, while I sit yawning and reading the book I have chosen for the trip, Oriana Fallaci's “Intervista con la storia”. Mrs. Fallaci was one of Italy's finest journalists, probably the last of the breed who didn't simply wrote down a list of servile questions to their interviewees. In this book, written during the '70s, Oriana third grade interviews, among the others, Kissinger, Ho Nguyen Giap, Golda Meir and Indira Ghandi. She had a charming, all-Tuscan way of writing, I can feel her talking with her Florentine accent, from the printed letter on paper. It always saddens me to think she ended up writing bitter Islamophobic articles and books before succumbing to a cancer.
The railway ride was surprisingly uneventful, with a brief change at Santhià. By 7.45 we steam into Milan's Stazione Centrale, the great train hall, usually crowded by busy humans and omnipresent pigeons, somehow quieter than I am used to witness. Maybe it's because of the date, August 16th is the very peak of holiday season down here, but there's no sense of rush in here – one wouldn't even say we're in Milan at all!. But, unfortunately, I have no time to spare wandering around, looking at the newly refurbished monumental station: I have to catch the shuttle bus, and it's leaving in 10 minutes. I manage to do so and I am offered an uneventful ride to MXP, perfect for a brief snooze as I am always inclined to do. As I finally wake up, Malpensa's T1 is emerging from the morning haze: what a glorious sight.
twopictures about Milan's new developments. First, Lombardy Region's new HQ; second, a part of Porta Nuova project;
“Glorious sight”? Really? Well, don't point and laugh all at once, please. I know MXP's exterior wouldn't earn the top cover of a Swedish architectural digest and the interiors look like coming from an era when a beige Morris Marina looked like the coolest car on Earth (and they kind of are indeed!) but... no other airport makes me smile such like a big idiot like Malpensa. It's like seeing an old friend: odd, perhaps. Maybe even a little bit nerdish. But he's an old friend of yours nonetheless. Malpensa, with its dark stone floors, its greenish lavs, its “beigeness”, is the place where a young JL418 left off with his dad, heading towards big adventures. It's a place which carries a lot of memories, and a place which I fly from whenever I have the chance.
The departure hall is crowded with people, today. No, it's packed. Boy, haven't seen all this humanity at MXP since...well, for a while. Queues at Lufthansa Italia's self-service counters are long and, judging by the number of Blackberries and chaps wearing initials-adorned shirts, not everyone in Italy is on the holiday rush. I got plenty of time for spotting but, first of all, let's get rid of the bags: where's is LOT's counter?
crowds at MXP T1's departure hall
Sheraton Malpensa Airport Hotel, grand opening October 2010
As I finally get there, one thing is clear: I am not going to be the most interesting male on the plane today. A full line of young, tanned, muscular and sporty boys are neatly queuing to get their belongings tagged and sent through the deeps of the BHS system. Who the hell are those pretentious dandies, who the hell do they think they are? A quick look to their sporty polos and bags tell me they're the Italian canoeing and kayak national team; later on I'll discover they're on their way to the World Cup, which will be held in Poznàn. Ouch, there's no match with the oarsmen.
Among the youngsters, I think I spotted the Olympic athlete Josefa Idem, gold medal winner at Sydney 2000 and silver at Beijing 2008 for the K-1500. By the way, the blonde Polish girls who're queueing beside me doesn't seem to care a lot about Josefa, as they're rather keeping their eyes glued on the boys in blue. And they got plenty of time to do male-spotting, mind you! There are less than 30 people on queue and two desks open, but it takes an eternity for the girls manning the counters to get one's bags tagged and the boarding passes issued. The drop-off bag, to add insult to injury, is even slower, so slower that 4 Indian Italians, getting checked-in at a Etihad counter I can easily spot from my place, manage to send in about four items each faster than what it takes for one of us to get his single suitcase arranged.
Eventually everything's done and I'm off spotting. Unfortunately is morning, and my point-and-shoot camera has issues dealing with sun setting right in front of my eyes, so please forgive the reflections on some pictures. I'm posting them just to show some of MXP's fauna, consisting of CX, QR, TAM, Alitalia, the American carriers (with two DL 333, what a day!), some smaller guys and other stuff at Cargo City. I missed Korean Air's Big Smurf, apologizes for that.
The American family: Continental, Delta and American Airlines ready to cross the Atlantic. Apologizes for bad quality.
CX 77W, Etihad 333, TAM 345. Again, apologizes for the poor quality.
The view over Cargo City: Austrian A320, a Delta 333 which must have had technical problems, CargoItalia MD-11, Air Italy 752, Saudia 74F
A close-up on a SAS' 320 bound to CPH
Downstairs, there's much less to be spotted: the long queue for security control is extending in front of me. Schengen and non-Schengen passengers are mixed all together, but everyone is moving and all gates seem to be up and running. It looked long, and indeed it was quite a stroll, but in less than 20 minutes it was over. Airside, my reserve of good luck suddenly dried up: the plane had 1 hour delay. Then 2. Damn. I thought about going around in Warsaw while waiting for the WAW-BUD segment to lift off, but such a delay meant my dreams were over. And, if things keep on going bad, even the connection is at risk! Not a good way to start an holiday.
Since there was nothing I could to change the situation, I took plenty of fatalism: Que sera, sera, sang Doris Day. Whatever will be, will be, and it's better to brave the future with a full stomach I'd add. Indeed, after getting ripped off for a slice of pizza, it is time again for Mrs. Fallaci and her interviews with the powerful. Eventually my fears are unfounded, as the magic words “Now Boarding” appears close to LO 318 on the screen. A quick stroll to gate A27 and I am one of the last to board a shining new (smell of plastic included) Cobus 3000.
Our ride, and Embraer 170, is waiting on a remote stand and, surprise, it's the 600th E-jet special livery one. Okay, the specialness resides in a “600” painted on the fuselage, but it's a special livery nonetheless; my first one, actually. I let the oarsmen climb the stairs before me, and then is my turn.
A special livery's always a special livery!
16th August 2010
LO310 (LOT Polish Airlines)
Duration: 1h 49m
Departure: 10:55 AM Scheduled 1:39 PM Actual
Arrival: 1:05 PM Scheduled 3:28 PM Actual
Embraer 170-200LR SP-LII 600th E-Jet Livery
Seat: 16A (window)
Row 16A is almost at the back of the plane and, as I walk down the aisle, I can't avoid noticing that, despite Italy's finest rowers and their newborn Polish fan club, the load is somewhat around 60%. The last rows are completely empty and I don't have a seatmate, which is a good thing since I will be able to spread around.
The generous pitch
A few words about the E-jet: I was told that, comfort-wise, they were better than an Airbus 320 or equivalents from Seattle. Well, whoever told me was right. The seats feel wider and softer than the new Recaro slims you find on LH Italia and the adjustable headrest, which can also be folded around your head, is an absolute plus which smells of long-haul flights. The pitch, moreover, is generous, I doubt that any tall Pole has ever recriminated over this. In a nutshell, I'm feeling great, too bad we hadn't two hours delay while onboard! The only slight issue is the window: row 16 is somehow between two of those and this drives me quite mad: should I twist around myself like a fusilli to snap a picture from the one behind me, or should I bend over to reach the other one? As I am struggling with this dilemma the cabin crew performs their usual safety show and we're off heading for Chopin Airport, some 1h50 away from us.
Movement at MXP: EK's 77W has just arrived. Also visible: a Fokker 100 from Helvetic Airways, TAM's 345, AZ's 772ER with new livery and part of the currently under construction Concourse 3
The Varese Lakes soon disappear in a thick cover of milky-white clouds, leaving us floating over a sea of white on strong winds. The small Embraer soldiers on bravely, facing the jetstreams – or what feel like them – with impressive courage: winds that, I remember, simply caused a distant buzz on JAL's 744 over Siberia, en route to Tokyo, now shake the little twin-engine like a hot air balloon. But nothing worries the smiling crew and the sudden bumps give some pepper to the task of drinking my glass of beer without spilling it everywhere else. Wouldn't be such a waste, anyway: the Zywiec lager is, to say it mildly, quite awful. I am not expecting the likes of Samuel Smith's Indian Pale Ale, but something which doesn't require an effort to be swallowed, well, yes. Fortunately the sandwich provided by LOT is tasty, a cheese roll with some spicy dried tomatoes which, a nearby Pole assures me, is a Polish speciality.