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BA's Old Club Europe - Bologna And Florence

Mon Dec 28, 2015 9:37 pm

Welcome to my fourth and final trip report of 2015, a short narrative of a long weekend away in Italy at the start of the winter. This trip was a BA Holidays booking, combining Club Europe flights to and from Bologna, three nights at the Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni, and a self-organised day trip to Florence via Trenitalia Business.

Sofitel London Heathrow

The trip started in the as always excellent Sofitel Heathrow, although for the first time ever we got the room we actually paid for (shock!) which was the standard Classic room. Usually I find I’m upgraded to a Superior room, despite having the basic level of status with Le Club Accorhotels at present. As a consequence, our room was notably smaller than we are used to at this property, with none of the comfortable Eames-style lounge chairs, and downgraded Espa amenities in the bathroom. Despite the category, the room was still comfortable for a one night stay before our flight, and as we were in the wing at one of the ends of the building, we had a rare outside view, albeit of T5’s Short Stay car park and road network.

We ate that evening at Carluccio’s in T5 Departures, a disastrous experience which ended in one meal being removed from the bill after being presented swimming in grease. The waitress who came to take payment, after the manager had come to our table to apologise, was perturbed at having to go back to the till to process my Heathrow Rewards card and made an ill-judged ‘joke’ about wanting to ‘kill me’ which unsurprisingly didn’t go down too well after our dining experience. I definitely cannot recommend the T5 branch of this well known chain - we should’ve opted for room service back at the Sofitel as we usually do.

British Airways Galleries Club South, LHR T5

With hand baggage only, we headed straight for North Security (closest to the Sofitel) and were through Fast Track in under five minutes. At the time of travel, Fast Track was just the usual Tensabarriered-off lane to the left of the main security lanes, but Heathrow have recently opened a new dedicated Fast Track entrance adjacent to Boots in Departures which speeds passengers directly to the search lanes closest to Galleries Club North.

As I don’t like the shape of Galleries Club North (an odd T shape, in case you’re wondering), we headed to its Southern counterpart in the main lounge complex at the other end of the terminal, a wise move as we would be boarding from Gate A22. At this early hour of the day the lounge was fairly quiet as we took seats in my favourite corner of the lounge overlooking the main departures seating area and South Security. As has been well documented across various channels, the furniture and carpets of the lounge are looking distinctly worn, and the washrooms are in notably poor condition. BA’s refurbishment of these facilities can’t come soon enough. The limited food selection was adequate given we’d be eating on the aircraft - our first breakfast of the morning was a light affair of some cereal, fruit, yogurt, (horrible concentrated) juice and coffee.

LHR-BLQ British Airways Club Europe, A319

Boarding was already under way at A22, so I don’t know whether the gate agents adhered to BA’s relatively new policy of boarding in (supposedly) strict cabin and status order. There was a small queue in the Priority Boarding lane and on the airbridge, but we were soon being welcomed by name at the door of G-EUOC (a 2001-vintage A319) by the excellent (and surprisingly not young) Mixed Fleet CSM (Cabin Services Manager). I was surprised to note that this aircraft had the old shorthaul cabin fitted, one of just three aircraft in the extensive BA fleet yet to be refurbished. This meant that the 6-row CE cabin enjoyed a pitch of 34”, albeit with the convertible seats remaining in their unconverted state. Unsurprisingly the cabin was in very poor condition, with the headrest broken, leather coverings cracked, seat pockets hanging off and a missing coat hook and broken overhead light at my seat, with everything covered in the usual BA film of passengers past. Coats and jackets were offered to be hung prior to a five minute delayed pushback, and a flight time of 1h45m was announced, cruising at 39,000ft.

Hot towels did the rounds shortly after takeoff from Runway 27R, after which the 14 Club Europe passengers on this flight enjoyed excellent service from the two crew at the front of the aircraft for the rest of the flight. Service was entirely by hand from the galley, a much more pleasant experience than the usual trolley service in CE. Passengers were addressed by name throughout, with the CSM working in perfect tandem with the crew member in the galley, delivering a polished service right down to keeping the galley curtain consistently closed. Breakfast was a choice of the usual English or continental options, with a vegetarian option available on request. I opted for this last choice, an acceptable (but very salty) frittata accompanied by spinach and mushrooms, presented on a tray with a refreshing fresh fruit plate, and accompanied by a choice of warm breads, pastries and preserves from the basket. Further pastries were offered along with several drinks runs, and my tea towards the end of the service was delivered with some of the delicious lemon shortbread biscuits that are usually found on shorter domestic services and in Euro Traveller cabins - a really thoughtful touch by the crew to enhance the CE product.

Despite the slightly delayed pushback, we landed on time into Bologna after some spectacular views of the Alps en route, and were, given the airport’s lack of airbridges, unceremoniously bussed the two feet to the terminal. There was no queue at immigration as we were the only flight arriving at that time, and we were promptly being chauffeured to our hotel in our pre-arranged hotel Mercedes minivan for a very reasonable EUR30.

Grand Hotel Majestic Gia Baglioni, Bologna

A member of the Leading Hotels of the World, and of the Due Torri Hotels Group, the Grand Hotel Majestic is a very elegant, yet intimate property with a history dating back several hundred years (and a Roman road in the basement dating back much further). The hotel’s entrance is tucked away discreetly between shops on the approach road to Bologna’s main square, and if it weren’t for the doorman hovering outside, it would be easy to miss.

We were warmly welcomed by name at reception, given a brief overview of the hotel’s layout and local area, and escorted to our room on the second floor. Our Classic room was of larger than average size, with a small anteroom containing the mini bar, a secondary TV, magazine rack, luggage chest and armchairs. Decorated in completely over-the-top ornate fashion, there was certainly nothing understated about the room, the only disappointment being the lack of a view. The large bathroom with dual sinks was nicely appointed, and featured Culti amenities. Wifi was fast and free, and complimentary still and sparkling bottled water was replenished daily.

Annoyingly there were no tea and coffee making facilities, although on (second, as the first was forgotten) request, housekeeping provided a tray with cups and a kettle. It would have been nice if the hotel had provided some teabags as well to accompany the tray, as well as replacing the tray for subsequent nights rather than clearing it away never to be seen again. Other mild annoyances included the aircon (which didn’t seem to work, but wasn’t required with the opening windows), harsh energy saving lighting in the bedroom, the lack of an ironing board in the room (possibly due to Italian fire regulations?), and the fact that the bath plug had to be removed to prevent flooding whilst showering.

The lobby is beautifully decorated, with a lounge and bar off to one side and the hotel’s only restaurant tucked away around the corner from the bar. Breakfast was taken each morning in the basement breakfast room, which had a view of the internal courtyard. The breakfast room, actually two rooms, featured an extensive buffet of complimentary delicious hot and cold items, accompanied by service that was proactive and unobtrusive, but not delivered with any particular warmth. Drinks were available to order, as were alternative egg dishes, the latter at additional cost.

On our second evening we enjoyed room service at the hotel from a reasonable menu that included the option to order any item from the bar or restaurant menus (in addition to the separate room service menu). Whilst dessert options were limited across all menus, those that were available were enjoyable, if not outstanding - a theme continued in the bar on our third evening, where we dined under the gaze of past guests such as Elton John and Princess Diana.

The Grand Hotel Majestic, the only five star hotel in Bologna, is an excellent choice if in the city. I would, with hindsight, have opted for a room with a view, as I found the lack of outlook a little oppressive. There were just a few too many niggles with the room for me to agree with the ‘Leading Hotels’ tag for this property, but the points outlined above are minor, and on balance I would certainly look forward to staying again if in the locale.

Images from Bologna

Bologna is famous for its porticoed streets, as well as being the home to the world’s oldest university. Not a particularly large city, Bologna offers some interesting architecture that can amply be enjoyed in a day. Its slightly off-the-tourist-trail nature means Bologna is a great base for exploring more of the region - looking back, I’d have liked to have planned a day trip to Verona in the same vein as we did for Florence. I’ve included below a small selection of scenes from our time exploring Bologna.

Florence via Trenitalia Business

Of our three days in Italy on this trip, the highlight for me was our day trip to Florence, just a half hour train ride away from Bologna. Trenitalia offers four classes of service on their high speed trains, loosely along the lines of economy, premium economy, business and first (although not necessarily stylised as such). Business on Trenitalia offers 2-1 comfortable seating, but that’s about it. No lounge access is included, and the paltry complimentary coffee and snacks were so dismal it almost wasn’t worth them offering them. That being said, Business is worth the incredibly small additional cost (of under EUR5 in some cases) for the more spaced out seating. Unfortunately the sector of track between Bologna and Florence is largely through tunnels, but there were tantalising glimpses of the Tuscan countryside to be enjoyed from the few bridges and open sections we crossed through. Florence’s station is notable for its 1930s Art Deco architecture.

Our day in Florence was spent mainly wandering the fascinating and ancient streets, squares and bridges of the city, although we did take some time out to explore the delightful Pitti Palace and gardens, from which there were spectacular views over the city. Here is just a small selection of images captured from our day in Tuscany’s capital.

Marconi Lounge, BLQ

Our final morning in Bologna was rudely interrupted by a text from British Airways informing me that our evening flight back to London had been cancelled - something I’d been aware was a distinct possibility since the day before and the news that there had been extensive fog in London. A lightning glance at the schedule told me that there was a, albeit slim, chance of catching the still-operating and delayed lunchtime flight, and so having already packed we made a quick getaway in a taxi to the airport. The outstation ground staff at the BA check-in desks were preparing to pack up to head to the gate to board the lunchtime flight when we arrived. Despite me explaining that the evening flight had been cancelled and the lunchtime flight delayed, my request to move to the lunchtime flight was met with initial steely (and entirely predictable) resistance. Several minutes of investigation later, the ground crew became aware of the delay and cancellation to their two remaining flights of the day, and much tapping of the computer keyboard later we had secured the last remaining seats in CE back to London on the lunchtime flight, although not seats together.

BA use the third party Marconi Lounge at BLQ, located before security. We had no time to stop in the lounge and walked through it to access the Fast Track security lane which links the lounge directly to the main departure lounge and gate area. At the gate, the check-in staff were milling around along with the hundred or so passengers on the flight. I had been keeping track of the schedule on the BA app, as well as the inbound flight on FlightRadar and knew at this point that a departure in the next couple of hours was looking extremely unlikely. Before long an announcement was made that CE and status passengers should return to the lounge and that another announcement would be made in an hour’s time for those waiting at the gate. Exiting the gate area the wrong way through passport control, we took seats in the lounge and watched the hours roll by, before boarding finally got underway almost three hours later. This was about 2h59m too long to spend in the Marconi Lounge, an incredibly glum space comprised of an older and newer room with mismatched seats, miserable bar, virtually no food and slow wifi. Priority Boarding was already in progress through a clearly signed and enforced lane at the gate when we arrived for the second time that day. A bus took us on a slightly longer trip (by one foot) to G-EUPG, an A319 delivered new to BA in 2000, and bizarrely the second of the three aircraft still sporting the old cabin interior.

BLQ-LHR British Airways Club Europe, A319

As with our outbound flight, the 4-row CE cabin remained unconverted, but thankfully this cabin was in slightly better condition than that still gracing G-EUOC. Coats and jackets were hung by the very young Mixed Fleet crew, headed by an equally young CSM who served the 16 CE passengers entirely alone for the duration of the flight. Service was consequently extremely slow, but started well with hot towels on the ground and PDBs of orange juice or still water in glasses during another delay on the ground of almost an hour. PDBs were also offered in ET during the delay. At this point I was seriously questioning whether the flight would leave at all that day, and was relieved when we finally took to the skies for our 1h35m flight almost four hours after the original scheduled departure time, and ironically closer to our original evening departure time than the SDT of this flight.

Contrary to the service standard, the bar service was delivered alongside the meal service by the CSM, single handedly wheeling a trolley down the aisle and running back and forth to the galley for drinks. Three standard options were available - tomato and basil gnocchi with breaded chicken, cod (which ran out in Row 2) or a prawn skewer salad. I opted for the gnocchi, which was of the standard M&S microwaveable meal quality, and not one of the best CE dishes currently doing the rounds by a long stretch. My chicken was served on a tray alongside some oatmeal biscuits and an uninteresting mango mousse, with warm breads being offered from the basket. Not having received my mixed nuts as a consequence of the bar service being combined with the lunch service, I requested the nuts post-lunch, and enjoyed them with a Baileys. A green tea completed the lunch service as we crossed the English Channel. Whilst the CSM was professional and trying to do everything by the book with painstaking accuracy, the slow service made for a not very relaxing flight.

Several circuits in one of the Heathrow stacks over East Anglia later, we landed many hours late (or a couple early, if you look at it that way) and held ahead of Gate B45 awaiting BA to switch on the stand guidance. From the airbridge docking to getting in the taxi in the car park took under 20 minutes, concluding a rather hectic and unsatisfying day of travel, but an altogether much more enjoyable three day trip to Northern Italy.

That’s it for this relatively short report. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it - please do let me know your thoughts or questions. Safe travels for the new year ahead.
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RE: BA's Old Club Europe - Bologna And Florence

Mon Jan 04, 2016 11:48 am

Fantastic TR, lovely pictures...Florence is beautiful place.
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RE: BA's Old Club Europe - Bologna And Florence

Mon Jan 04, 2016 6:53 pm

Very nice trip report! In a way you were lucky to get the original Club Europe as it's almost gone. I had the old Club on a 767 from ARN last month and interestingly I found the seats to be less comfortable than the new ones, which is the opposite impression I had from when I first flew in them.

Well done on heading to the airport early and getting on that earlier flight!   I would have loved to have known whether it would have been an overnight on BA or if you would have been on an alternative carrier instead, but nice work!

Excellent pictures throughout the report and I liked your opinions too. A good read!
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RE: BA's Old Club Europe - Bologna And Florence

Mon Jan 04, 2016 11:06 pm

Nice trip report, I like your style.

We recently stayed at the Due Torri in Verona. It is also a very good hotel. We love Bologna and Florence too. You are correct about the reason for the lack of an iron in the hotel room - irons are banned from Italian hotel rooms in case someone manages to set fire to the hotel whilst ironing their shirt! It is also very rare to find tea making facilities in the rooms.

I'm amused you started your Italian holiday with dinner at Carluccio's! Were you deliberately trying to prove to yourself how good the food is in Italy by starting with some average chain-restaurant Italian food?
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RE: BA's Old Club Europe - Bologna And Florence

Tue Jan 05, 2016 8:26 pm

Thank you for a great report. Bologna is a lovely city and I would like to go back there some time. When we flew back with KL we actually had an aborted takeoff resulting in a cancellation and a lot of hassle with rebooking. It took 4 hours from the time we got of the plane until we had a new ticket in hand for the following day.
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RE: BA's Old Club Europe - Bologna And Florence

Thu Jan 07, 2016 11:33 pm

Hi Genius.

Sorry to learn that your travel plans were disrupted and the initial unwillingness to move you to the earlier flight. To have this compounded by a delayed departure would have been frustrating.

The hotel in Bologna is impressive. Certainly different from the nordic sterility that passes for taste these days.  

Thanks for sharing.
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RE: BA's Old Club Europe - Bologna And Florence

Wed Jan 13, 2016 9:36 pm

Thanks for all the comments!

Quoting camohe (Reply 3):
I'm amused you started your Italian holiday with dinner at Carluccio's! Were you deliberately trying to prove to yourself how good the food is in Italy by starting with some average chain-restaurant Italian food?

Haha, not a conscious decision at all! There are only two restaurants landside at T5 (and the other is a very mediocre pub). With hindsight we would have eaten at one of Sofitel's restaurants, or in our room.

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