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Delta TATL in BE and Europe Sports Trip by Rail

Delta TATL in BE and Europe Sports Trip by Rail

Old Jul 30, 08, 1:13 am
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Delta TATL in BE and Europe Sports Trip by Rail

DAY ONE—Thursday, February 28, 2008

In perusing the Delta website one night, I found a great deal on hard to get “sky saver” Business Elite award seats to Europe. For 90,000 miles and the low fee of $38.37 for all taxes, customs and immigration “user fees” and the “9-11 security fee”, I was able to get an itinerary of DCA-JFK-LGW, and, on the return, BCN-JFK-DCA. This itinerary allowed me to take in some world class horse racing of three different varieties (flat, national hunt and trotting), to visit two cities in France I’d never explored before, and culminating on Tuesday night at Barcelona’s legendary Camp Nou stadium, seating capacity 98,700, to witness Celtic F. C. take on F. C. Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

The alarm clock goes off at 4:00 a.m. in my home in Maryland’s capital city. I’m packed and ready to go, and after a modicum of hygiene, I’m in the car. It is 20°F outside, and as I turn the ignition the clock reads out 4:29 a.m. 20 minutes later, I’m in the so-called Amtrak parking structure at the New Carrollton, Maryland mass transit station, near the junction of the Capital Beltway and US 50. I join about 100 people on the Washington Metro platform, and at 4:58 a.m. the first inbound Orange Line train of the day rolls up and opens its doors. On the stroke of 5:00 a.m., we’re off. A little over 20 minutes and 10 stops later, we reach L’Enfant Plaza station, and I work my way up and over to the Yellow Line platform, where a sign indicates the next DCA bound train is due in 8 minutes. The promised train shows up, and, after emerging from the depths of the District of Columbia and crossing the Potomac River on a bridge, passing underneath the Pentagon and the Arlington County commercial districts of Pentagon City and Crystal City, we reach the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport station at 5:43 a.m.

There was no line at the Delta Medallion check-in (although I couldn’t get my JFK-LGW boarding pass because I was outside the 6 hour period), and a very small line at TSA security, and as a result I was in the Crown Room by 6:00 a.m., enjoying muffins and orange juice, and watching the sun rise over the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

The first leg of the trip, DL 5102, is a new Comair Canadair 900 regional jet, with 12 seats in the forward cabin, and 76 coach seats. Boarding starts at 6:45, as there are only 21 of us on the flight. I’m joined in first by only one other passenger, a talkative and fun female sales executive who is married to a Washington radio personality with whom I’m familiar. Our two lady stew crew, Syble and Cassandra, were just terrific. We push back 5 minutes behind schedule, at 7:05 a.m., and are about number 12 for departure as we head to the south end of the field to reach the top of runway 1. At 7:25 a.m., we get our turn on the runway, and we’re off as the CRJ-900 lurches into the air just south of Roaches Run. We’re on the usual route to JFK—fly out over the Potomac River until passing the American Legion Bridge, then make a big right turn that takes us just south of BWI and then just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, then over to Dover, Delaware, where the unusual Dover Downs complex comes into view (100,000+ seat NASCAR “monster mile” racetrack, with a 5/8 mile harness racing oval in the infield, complete with a slot machine casino, hotel and showroom). We then start turning left, cross over Delaware Bay to Vineland, NJ, then fly north just west of the coastline with Atlantic City and Long Beach Island on our right, then go out over the open ocean to the middle of Suffolk County on Long Island, and then make for runway 22L, passing the Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum on our left and, just before landing, Belmont Park on the right. We touch down at JFK, 55 minutes after leaving Washington. I really enjoyed the comfort and relative quiet of the CRJ-90 from row 2. If you can score an upgrade on this type of plane, you’ll like it, as it at least equals the comfort one would experience in first on the MD-88.

Comair’s performance on this trip is marred by the fact that, despite reaching Gate 16 at the scheduled time of 8:24 a.m., no ramp personnel were on the scene. They got around to it a few minutes later, but the gate agent responsible for operating the jetway didn’t bother to show up until several minutes after that, meaning that we ended up wasting 20 minutes before the front door opened. As I had a long layover in New York, and was having a good time conversing with my new friends on board, the Comair ground staff were forgiven.

Finally off the plane, I head for the first lounge in Terminal 3 that’s open. As the Business Elite Lounge at Gate 14 is open only between 2:15 and 8:15 p.m., and the bigger BE Lounge at Gate 10 is open only between 1:00 and 9:00 p.m., I settle for the Crown Room Club accessed from an elevator across from Gate 6. The staff at the former Pan Am Clipper Club is extremely gracious, I get my complimentary T-Mobile internet day pass, and within 2 hours I’m able to get work done I need to get done, answer e-mails, electronically file pleadings with the federal agency I practice law in front of, return phone calls, and generally relax. By 11:30 a.m. I’m finished with known assignments, and I head off to Aqueduct Race Track to start my sports debauch.

Aqueduct, where horse racing is conducted from the end of October through the end of April, is very close to JFK, and in fact is only one stop on the famous “A Train” subway line north of Howard Beach station, one of the two terminal stations of the JFK Air Train. In a moment of cheapness marking me as a horse player, instead of riding the Air Train all the way to Howard Beach and paying a $7.00 fare, I got off the Air Train one stop short of Howard Beach, where there is free exit to the parking lots there. I walked 15 minutes out through the parking lots, underneath the Belt Parkway and then past the stables and the one mile chute to get over to the Big A’s clubhouse entrance, where $2.00 gets an admission to the clubhouse. After buying my program and Daily Racing Form from an extremely nasty attendant, I head to the elevator that takes me to the Equestris Restaurant, which offers beautiful views of the race course, perched above the finish line (an episode of “The Sopranos” was filmed there, when Tony was out betting on a horse controlled by his crew called “Pie O My”). The reception there is quite a bit warmer than downstairs, and the maitre d’ gets me a nice table overlooking the saddling paddock/winners’ circle and the finish line.

I order the flat iron steak sandwich with caramelized onions and fries, overpriced at $18, but about the only item on the menu that I wanted to eat. I then open up the racing form, and come up with the 7 horse in the first race, who won and paid $6.80, and also the 2 horse in the second race, who also won and paid $8.10; the daily double paid $35.80. I’ve paid for lunch and have a few extra shekels in my pocket that I didn’t have 35 minutes ago. I’m digging in to my steak sandwich and trying to pick the winner in the 3rd when all hell breaks loose on my cell phone, as a project I thought I had finished required a bit of additional work. Luckily for me, I had my laptop with me, and, luckier still, I was able to get a great signal from a wireless internet setup in Aqueduct’s press box not very far away to my left. So, I’m revising a document on the laptop, talking on the cell phone with a partner from a top DC law firm, getting things squared away, when the bugler plays “Boots and Saddles”, the traditional call to the post music at USA race courses. My cover was totally blown.

Instead of having a quality equine experience, I end up closing the Form and working until a good 20 minutes after the 9th and final race went off. It is now 1645, and time to head back to the airport for the scheduled 1900 departure of the appropriately numbered Delta 1. This time I pay the $7.00 tariff for a combination subway ticket and Air Train ride, and get to JFK Terminal 2 by 1720 to get my boarding pass and go through security. There was no line at the ticket counter, and only 5 people in front of me in the security line. Within 20 minutes I’m back at the Gate 6 Crown Room. After a quick drink there, I decide to spend the final 30 minutes prior to boarding in one of the Business Elite lounges, and, since my onward flight is leaving from Gate 4, I end up at the BE lounge near Gate 10. After grazing at the olives and cheese cubes on the buffet and having a very civilized Campari and soda, and being tracked down by two different clients, whose problems I somehow miraculously solve on the phone, it is now showtime.

Interestingly, Delta moved up the departure of DL1 by 10 minutes to 1850. Boarding does not start until 1825; sensing that boarding is going to resemble a cattle drive, I get in position to be one of the first to board. There is no spacing between boarding groups, as coach passengers are pushing past BE passengers who are given little time to stow their belongings and get settled in. Despite a Delta press release that there would be full bar service in BE prior to departure, there is only an offer of a small portion of champagne in a plastic goblet, which I accept with a smile. This would turn out to be the only flaw in Delta’s performance this evening.

Delta Flight #1—Aircraft #176, which has been renovated with AVOD and standard US three prong power ports, is our chariot this evening. Boarding started 6:25 p.m.; doors closed 6:54 p.m.; push back 7:05 p.m.; take off from runway 22R 7:50 p.m.; our route takes us out over Long Island, then south of Watch Hill, RI, over Woods Hole and Truro, MA, reaching Truro, NS, some 660 miles from JFK, in 70 minutes. 30 minutes later, we reach the south shore of Newfoundland, northwest of the French colonial islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon; we’ve reached the imaginary 1,000 mile marker at this point, simply smoking at 659 mph and a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet as we make for Gander and the open ocean beyond; the tail wind is a big 149 mph. Despite the one hour of ground time at JFK past the scheduled departure time of 6:50 p.m., we are looking at landing at Gatwick 30 minutes early (scheduled arrival time is 7:25 a.m. British Time).

I’m sitting in seat 1G, and my personal FA is the wonderful Michele, who is really taking good care of me on this flight. I actually got three portions of hot mixed nuts, and my glass of Kronenbourg 1664 has not been empty since the seat belt light was turned off. Food service on this run is very good. We started with a “Moroccan crab salad”, a big lump of delicious crab meat with a light dressing, served with shaved cucumber, followed by yummy cream of asparagus soup, and then the entrée, the Michelle Bernstein special of the month, filet steak in a brown sauce and two shrimp scampi, accompanied by a rice cake and sliced yellow and zucchini squash. For airline food, this was an excellent feed. The only thing wrong with Business Elite is that the seat cushion is very hard. Otherwise, the electrically controlled seat works very well. Also, contrary to the information on the www.seatguru.com website, seat 1G does have windows next to it.

As we approach Gander, the tail winds are up to 169 mph, pushing us along at 50 mph faster than the speed of sound, and the airshow computer now indicates that we’ll be on the ground 30 miles south of London in 3 hours 53 minutes, at 0630 British Time. If we’re lucky, we’ll beat flights from places like Harare that always seem to clog the immigration lines. At the 1,170 mile marker, we pass Gander. The next point of reference on terra firma will be Roy Keane’s hometown, Cork, Republic of Ireland. 1 hour 57 minutes after wheels up at JFK, we bid North America good bye, as Newfoundland is in our rear view mirror. The tail wind is now at TGV speed, 300 kmph (186 mph). One of the pilots comes out of the cockpit, and I converse with him. He says that this is about as high a tail wind as one will experience over the North Atlantic. We are now at 704 mph, and the tail wind is 209 mph. This is rapid transit.

My in flight repast concludes with Teresa, in relief of Michele, bringing me the ceremonial Delta ice cream sundae (with hot fudge, nuts and whipped cream) and a glass of very nice port. I’ve been lucky enough to have flown with Delta in Business Elite since 1989, and one thing about their service, they’ve never had a bad after dinner wine on board. Time for sleep.

Just before I pass out, the airshow has our ground speed at a whopping 725 mph, aided by a remarkable 215 mph tail wind. The ride is quite turbulent, but I manage to fall asleep. The next thing I know, we’re over Bournemouth, with 100 miles left in the flight.

DAY TWO—Friday, February 29, 2008

After flying past Brighton, the 767-300ER makes a sweeping left turn to a point probably 10 miles east of the field, and we land to the west on runway 9. I switch on my cell phone, and it reads 6:29 a.m. British time, 5 hours 39 minutes after wheels up. The distance traveled was about 3,600 miles. We park at gate 49 and, unlike with Comair at JFK, we park without incident, and the jet bridge was quickly and efficiently positioned. The first clock I see inside the terminal reads 6:40 a.m. It took me 11 minutes of continuous walking to reach the “UK Border” immigration hall. As I arrived, passengers from a Continental TATL flight and Delta 12 from ATL were also on hand. There were 5 “switchback” lanes of travelers between me and the immigration officers when I joined the queue at 6:51. Within 5 minutes, the line had grown to 11 switchbacks. Things seemed to be going more smoothly at LGW this morning than at other times I’ve been there with big crowds; I made it up to booth 13 at 7:05 a.m., and an efficient male immigration officer asked me three questions, stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

After stopping for toothpaste at the Boots pharmacy immediately across from the exit from customs, I make my way over to the Sofitel attached to Gatwick’s north terminal, and walk all the way through the lobby to the far end, where a glass elevator takes me down to the new arrivals facility operated by Arora Hotels, the owner of the Sofitel. A very friendly gent named Matthew welcomes me to the lounge, tells me he’s been expecting me as my name was on a list of BE passengers, and tells me I’m free to take a shower any time I’d like. The new lounge has a number of nice features: a TV lounge with sofas and plasma screens; a kitchenette stocked with coffee, tea, pastries, juices, milk, water, and a number of Kellogg’s cereals (I had Coco Krispies for the first time since I was a kid); a computer room with a number of computer stations with free internet access and also room to plug in a laptop; and the shower facility. The shower facility was more than adequate, although not quite as spacious as Delta’s former arrivals lounge, where each shower suite had a dressing ante-room in front of the bathroom. I enjoyed a 90+ minute respite, and, being fed, showered, dressed in fresh clothes and generally feeling good, I bade farewell to Matthew and his assistant Victoria and headed out into the UK.

My first day on this particular excursion involved attending the national hunt (steeplechase) races at Newbury Racecourse in west Berkshire, approximately 75 miles northwest of LGW. One of the privatized railways in the UK, First Great Western, operates an hourly direct train from LGW’s train station attached to its south terminal to Reading, the capital of the “Royal County of Berkshire”. I make the 9:17 departure, and arrive in Reading 68 minutes later on a moderately busy but very pastoral double tracked route that left the Brighton-Victoria line at Redhill, and bypassed metropolitan London. I had reserved a room at the Ibis Hotel, just over one block from the station. I arrived before my room was ready, but I checked in and got the desk clerk to store my bag. I headed out to walk around central Reading for a little while before taking the train to Newbury. I made a frolic and detour into one of the bookie joints (aka turf accountants) on the “High Street”, William Hill, and managed to make a number of losing bets on the greyhound races at Walthamstow Stadium in north London totaling about £60 (there are greyhound races available for off track betting somewhere in the UK every 10 minutes between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m., with the schedules and venues arranged by the bookmaking industry). Frustrated but not chastened, I head for the railway station, buy a snack at the “M & S Simply Food” shop inside the station, and board the 12:11 First Great Western service, which arrives at Newbury Racecourse about 25 minutes later (there is actually a train platform across the street from the track, which is located about one mile east of the town of Newbury).

By American standards, Newbury has a small clubhouse and grandstand “plant”; however, the clubhouse, which was constructed circa 1910, is an absolutely elegant brick building, similar in certain respects to the clubhouse at Lord’s Cricket Ground. There is a fear that a housing developer has made a deal to buy the property, tear down the plant and build houses on the site. The track is larger than the usual USA racecourse; in fact, during the summer months when flat racing is conducted, the horses run 1 mile in a straight line on a turf course that parallels the railroad tracks.

When I was standing on the platform at Gatwick Airport station, it was dry, the winds were relatively calm and the temperature was in the low 50s F. When I reached the racecourse, it was spitting rain, and the winds had picked up considerably. After paying my £15 admission and £2.50 for a “racecard” (official program) (I had purchased the UK’s version of the Daily Racing Form, the “Racing Post” for £1.60 at a news agent in Reading), I was ready for handicapping. The good news for me was that my luck changed, and within a 60 minute period of betting variously through “The Tote” and at the grandstand betting shop operated by “Tote Bookmakers” I had hit the “Tote Exacta” on the 2nd at Newbury for £96.70 on a £1 bet, then cashed a “computer straight forecast” bet on a race at Doncaster worth over £200, and then hit four separate forecast bets at Monmore Green and Swindon greyhound tracks worth over £100 each, and all of a sudden I’ve got a serious infusion of quid. Meanwhile, outside, the weather is seriously deteriorating, and, after the 5th race, small droplets of windblown rain are abrasive on my skin, and the temperature can’t be more than 42°F. As I am physically exhausted from non-stop traveling and action except for 3 hours of sleep on the plane, I leave the track and catch a return train to Reading, arriving at the Ibis by 5 p.m. I get my key and my bag and head upstairs to my room, crashing as my head hit the pillow. I’m sleeping the sleep of the just when at 8:30 p.m. my biggest client calls me on my cell to ask me to write a contract for him; he has no idea I’m 6 time zones east of him. I work until about 1:00 a.m., when I finish my work and e-mail it off. I get to sleep for about 4 hours, until it is time to get up and set out for Paris.

DAY THREE—Saturday, March 1, 2008

I love the location of the Reading Ibis; it is a terrific base for exploring south central England, as Oxford is less than 20 minutes away by train, Salisbury is less than 45 minutes away, and Paddington Station in west London is as close as 37 minutes away by express train. The Ibis is a no-frills but clean, comfortable and reasonable establishment; the tariff for one night was £52, although it charged an exorbitant £10 for internet access (both Ethernet and WiFi were available). My train ticket from LGW to Reading cost £18; my round-trip ticket to Newbury Racecourse was less than £6; and my one-way ticket from Reading to Paddington cost £14. So, it took me less than 3 minutes to exit the hotel, make two left turns, and reach Reading Station for the 0545 First Great Western departure for Paddington, which made most of the local stops but reached its destination in about 50 minutes. At that hour, Paddington, which is non-descript from the outside but beautiful on the inside, was sparkling clean. After taking a number of photographs, I headed for St. Pancras International railway station, the new Eurostar terminal. Eschewing the tube, I caught the number 210 bus which boards on the street parallel to the left side of the station. I was able to get a front seat in the upper deck of the bus, and thoroughly enjoyed the 20 minute ride, which ended at the bus stop in front of Kings Cross station, which is across a street and east of St. Pancras International.

Although St. Pancras International is still a work in progress (£400 milllon will be spent on redevelopment of the entire St. Pancras/Kings Cross complex), what has been done there is fantastic, and there’s more to come. The station continues to be the terminal for the so-called Midland Mainline line to places like Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield, but the platforms for those trains have been pushed out well north of the original train shed, and the space there has been taken over by the terminal for the Eurostar. The building is a stunning blend of the orange color brick common in England and glass and steel. I entered the Eurostar area of the terminal about 70 minutes prior to my 0832 non-stop train to Paris Gare du Nord.

In contrast to the comfy conditions of my Delta trip across the pond, there were some unsettling incidents prior to the blowing of the whistle and the closing and locking of the doors. Upon reaching the Eurostar, the first order of business is to check in. I had a flimsy paper ticket issued by raileurope.com which would not fit into the faregates at the check in area; a courteous female employee stamped my ticket and let me pass next to the glass control booth there; that was a breeze. I then went through the customary magnetometer and baggage check; an overofficious security employee demanded that I open my bag, and then he proceeded to take every item out, in a slow one by one examination, designed less for security than to irritate me—I kept my mouth shut, and 10 minutes later all of my toys (my cellphone, radio, headphones, camera, laptop, laptop accessories, etc., etc.) were sitting on a table, and I had to repack my little duffel bag. Immigration formalities with the French National Police were quick and uneventful, as I passed into the “sterile zone”. After this, I still had 40-45 minutes to kill until departure. I decided to change my winnings from Newbury from sterling into euros; the less than friendly attendant at the one money change booth available wanted a stunning $80 commission to change £400 into €500. I decided to hang on to my quid for the next trip to the UK.
Finally, at about 0815 boarding was called. A full-sized Eurostar train has 18 carriages and conveys 205 first class seats and 565 second class seats. I think there were over 700 people traveling on this train, and all of them seemed to hit the boarding door at once (there is no separate boarding for those sitting in the first class carriages).

When I got up to first class Car 12, my conveyance for this run, I amused the Eurostar car attendant, a nice man named Ronan, with the pictures I was taking with him in them—I had to take several as passengers kept walking in front of me. Ronan was an excellent service employee, as was his female colleague Iman. They took good care of me, served me a nice breakfast and kept me irrigated with plenty of coffee, OJ and water.

Prior to the train’s departure, Iman was verbally assaulted by a man speaking English with a French accent. Iman was helping the guy’s female companion (who was pregnant) with a large suitcase, which Iman was hefting up to the overhead rack with no apparent difficulty, when the guy screamed at the top of his lungs for her to stop, as he claimed she was close to dropping the luggage on the pregnant woman’s midsection. He then continued his jerk routine, screaming to speak to her supervisor, and making her life miserable. To her credit, Iman did not talk back to the guy other than to try to explain herself. This incident put a damper on what is for me an “E Ride”. There’s nothing quite like the Eurostar.

Oblivious to what was going on in Car 12, our engineer eased the Eurostar out of St. Pancras on schedule at 0832, headed north for a few hundred yards, and then made a sweeping right turn over a bridge crossing the Kings Cross-Peterborough-York-Edinburgh mainline, then passing through tunnels, shooting through the new Stratford station (which will be a major rail hub at the 2012 Olympic Games) after 7 minutes, tunneling under the Thames and passing through the new Ebbsfleet station after 14 minutes, crossing the pretty river Medway after 17 minutes, and reaching the channel tunnel in a frantic 32 minutes. After 21 minutes in the tunnel, we emerged into La Belle France south of Calais, roaring through Lille Europe station after 79 minutes, and stopping the clock at Gare du Nord 55 minutes later, one minute ahead of schedule at 1146 CET.

I had purchased a package from raileurope.com for $576.00 which included a one-way first class (“Leisure Select”) ticket on the Eurostar and a four day first class pass good on SNCF trains in France and RENFE trains in Spain. Although the good far outweighs the bad with European train passes, the bad is encountered first—getting the pass validated. The Eurostar people wouldn’t validate the pass in London, directing me to the SNCF people in Paris. When I arrived at the large ticket office in Gare du Nord, there were at least 50 people in line ahead of me. I learned later in the day that all train stations were mobbed, as this was a three day weekend in France commemorating Mother’s Day. As first post at Hippodrome Paris Vincennes was at 1340, I decided to try my luck over at Gare de Lyon, from where my TGV train later in the day would depart for Avignon.

The next problem was buying a ticket on the Paris mass transit sytem (RATP) to get over to Gare de Lyon. The RER express trains were frequent and made the trip in less than 10 minutes; but the ticket machines only took French coins and credit cards (no paper money, no foreign credit cards), and the two ticket windows that were open had at least 20 people in front of each one. Some enterprising scalpers were selling €1.50 tickets for €2.00 each; I found that to be a bargain, as they took my paper money and actually made change. I got down two levels to the RER platform, and soon I was at Gare de Lyon. Once again, I found the ticket bureau to be a mob scene, with even more people in line there, so I gave up on trying to validate the pass until after the races. I was able to find the left luggage office, and stored my bags in a locker there (I think the charge was an outrageous €7.00 (over $10)), but, what’s a horseplayer in Paris gonna do? I went outside, found an ATM, got some euros, went into a store to buy some water and get change in coins, and then went back to the station.

I made my way back to the RER part of Gare de Lyon, had no trouble buying the right tickets out of a machine, and caught a train which headed east and south, out the Marne Valley, to Joinville le Pont, roughly 1 km from the gates to trotting nirvana. A free shuttle bus was waiting in a parking lot on the right hand side of the station, and a few minutes later, after having bought a “Paris Turf” newspaper and my €3 “pesage” (general admission ticket), I was inside arguably the world’s finest standardbred racecourse. I arrived just as the first race was commencing. As I wanted to enjoy my afternoon, I went upstairs to “Le Sulky” restaurant, and got a table (cover charge €19), and was seated next to a group of avid French horseplayers, one of whom spoke English, and included me in their conversations. In contrast to my struggles at the French train stations, I was served a wonderful entrecote avec sauce béarnaise, pommes de terre, two bottles of refreshing mineral water and two cups of espresso for €45 with tip. Although I had a couple of small winners, I ended up down for the afternoon, and left unhappy after messing up a bet on the trio (like a box trifecta in the US) that could have won me over €800.

To blow off steam I walked back to Joinville le Pont and caught the RER that got me back to Gare de Lyon about an hour before the 1916 TGV departure to Avignon. This time, I had no choice but to get in line and hope I could get my pass validated and a seat reservation in hand within 45 minutes, then run to the left luggage office and retrieve my bags. After about 25 minutes of waiting my turn came, and, unhappily for me, I was waited on (if you could call it that) by the SNCF employee from hell. She refused to validate my pass (it was a pass good on any four days within a two month period), which I thought was absolutely outrageous, as I had the right to choose what days on which to travel. She told me that all seats to Avignon for use by passes were sold out the rest of the evening; and that, unless I was willing to pay for a ticket, I would have to come back tomorrow to get my train pass validated. I was stunned; however, I had prepaid for a hotel room in Avignon, and I wasn’t willing to lose out on that, so I decided to bite the bullet, bite my tongue, buy a first class train ticket, not use the pass but buy point to point tickets instead, and contact American Express when I got home. My one way ticket to Avignon cost €137.30.

The happy news was that I was able to get my bags out of left luggage, and that I was able to reach my train with 5 minutes to spare. The train was a double-decker model, and my seat was on the upper level. We eased out of Gare de Lyon on time at 1916, and then proceeded to cover 742 km in a dazzling 2 hours 40 minutes non stop, arriving at Avignon’s futuristic TGV station on time at 2156. The municipal bus system in Avignon serves the TGV station, which is about 1.5 miles east of the original railway station (Gare de Avignon Centre). Our bus left 10 minutes after the TGV pulled out to complete its run to Marseille, and dropped us off inside the city wall, across the road from the city station. The fare was €1.10 for a single ride. My lodgings were at the Ibis, which shares a parking lot with Avignon Centre station. I checked in, went out and bought a snack at a convenience store across the street, and did not take long to fall asleep.

DAY FOUR—Sunday March 2, 2008

There were no races or other spectator sports on the agenda today. In fact, without the flexibility and economy of the train pass, my options were somewhat limited, which actually turned out to be a blessing, as I was about to enjoy two consecutive tremendous days of slow paced touring. I started Sunday off right with a traditional Roman Catholic Mass. Avignon, the seat of the papacy for 100 years between 1308 and 1408, drips with church history. The fathers of the Society of St. Pius X operate one of the city’s historic churches, the “Chapelle des Penitents noirs” on the Rue de la Banasterie. Not being exactly sure how to walk there, I took a taxi, which drove me along the river Rhone beneath the walls of the Palace of the Popes, and then found its way onto the right side street, where I found this remarkable place of Christian worship, with its walls covered with priceless art. Particularly stunning above the main altar was a mural of Christ crucified, and then, atop that, a portrait of John the Baptist’s head in a dish. The Mass is said in Latin according to the 1962 Roman Missal, with the congregation responding to the priest in Latin in the “Dialogue Mass”; thus, I could take part in prayers like the Confiteor and the Nicene Creed. For me, the experience was sumptuous and totally uplifting. I felt great as I left the chapel after getting quite a few pictures, and decided to walk back to the Ibis through the wonderful streets of central Avignon. Avignon is the south of France at its finest. Even though there is relatively little activity there at midday on Sunday. I was able to find a small supermarket called Shopi, and put together a picnic of cold cuts, cheese, olives, a cheap but hearty red table wine and a baguette. The male clerk who waited on me at the check out was extremely friendly and helpful.

I consumed my feast back at the Ibis, from where I had to walk about 90 seconds into the Avignon Centre station to catch the 1335 TER train to Marseille’s Gare de St. Charles. I had no wait in the ticket office and was able to buy my one way second class ticket for €17.10. The 121 km trip took 72 minutes and stopped four times, at Arles, Miramas, Rognac and Pas des Lanciers, before reaching the city made familiar to Americans by the movie French Connection II. The Gare de St. Charles is an impressive facility, particularly the original train shed which is used by the TGV fleet.

I was able to buy a 5 ride “Carte de Liberte” from an efficient female clerk at the entrance to the Marseille Metro station at Gare de St. Charles for €5.50 (full price is €1.60 per ride), and set out to explore Marseilles. Within 5 minutes of departing St. Charles, we reached the Vieux Port station, where the exit brought me right up to the water’s edge at the old port, which somewhat reminds me of the City Dock area here in Annapolis, only larger and older, today filled with pleasure sail craft. There were a number of street musicians playing, including a couple of Zamfir pan flute wannabes. Looking up to the east, one is captivated by the signature of Marseilles, the incredible Basilique de Notre Dame de la Garde, on a hill almost 500 feet in height above the harbor. I caught an open top bus tour (a ticket good for two days goes for €17), which took well over 90 minutes to complete, and gave a good overview of the city, with narrations in multiple languages, including English. After returning to Vieux Port, I caught RTM bus 60, a direct bus to the top of the hill where Notre Dame is situated. This place is a must see for all Catholics who visit Marseille, as well as others who love art and architecture. This place was built with love, and is a wonderful symbol of Marseille, which actually is a lovely city and well worth a visit. Marseilles has rough spots to be sure, particularly the tenement slums visible to the right of the railway in the northern reaches of the city, and has a significant population of north Africans. However, the good in this city outweighs the not so good.
I continued touring the city until after dark, and made my way back to St. Charles station. There, an extremely helpful SNCF ticket clerk named Yann sold me a one way second class TGV ticket back to Avignon (fare €26), and also helped me with my onward train ticket to Carcassonne for the next morning. Feeling much better about the SNCF, I boarded the 2028 rocket sled on rails, which covered 121 km (roughly 74 miles) in a sizzling 28 minutes, arriving in the capital of the Vaucluse on time at 2056. Exhilarated but exhausted, I used my laptop to make a hotel reservation in Carcassonne on the SNCF website as well as arranging for my train ticket from Carcassonne to Barcelona, and then hit the hay.

DAY FIVE—Monday, March 3, 2008

The great thing about a hotel next to a rail station is that one can roll out of bed 30 minutes before departure and still make the train. That was my experience, as I overslept my 0600 alarm, rising at 0700 to meet the 0726 departure of a “TER” train bound for Cerbere on the Spanish border. I would ride this train as far as Narbonne, and then change to a “Corail TEOZ” semi-express ultimately bound for Bordeaux, riding it for one stop to Carcassonne. My second class accommodation cost me €33.10 for the 255 km journey. I reached the platform at Avignon Centre 2 minutes ahead of departure, got on, got settled in an eight person compartment in which I had as many as four “companions”. We made several stops, but the main stations on the route were Nimes and Montpellier St. Roch, then, after reaching the Mediterranean, Sete, Agde (near the famous Cap d’Adge), Beziers, and finally Narbonne. Sete and Beziers were particularly picturesque. At Narbonne, the eastern end of the Canal du Midi, I had less than a 15 minute layover before the CORAIL TEOZ, supposedly the nicest train service in France next to the TGV, arrived. The final 59 km took 29 minutes, and we arrived in Carcassonne on time at 1024.

I had booked a room at the Royal Hotel on the Boulevard Jean Jaures through the SNCF website for €44. This unpretentious but clean and comfortable little hotel was just about halfway between the rail station and the walled city of Carcassonne, accessed by crossing one of two bridges over the river Aude and walking up a decent sized hill. Carcassonne’s history is over two millennia; it is significant in the history of the Roman Catholic church as one of the places where the forces of St. Dominic stanched the Albigensian heresy of the late 12th and early 13th Century—the people who rejected Catholicism and attempted to do their own thing were called Cathars. I’ll be posting the pictures of the walled city and castle that I took on my photo website in the near future. While I was glad I had a chance to visit this place, another of the UNESCO world heritage sites, I didn’t like it as much as places I’d visited in the past like San Gimignano in Italy or Haut Koenigsbourg in Alsace. One nice thing about my visit is that I met a terrific father and daughter team from British Columbia who were travelling in the south of France, and I went around the walled city with them.

I walked back into the center of the new town (I’m guessing Carcassonne has about 40,000 inhabitants; it is the capital of Aude department), which was laid out in the 19th century in a grid pattern. As it was a national holiday, very little in the way of shopping was open; my lasting impression of Carcassonne is that it is a sleepy “southern” town. I did find a small grocery store and put together a cold supper. I headed back to the hotel, ate and took a nap, then got up and worked a few hours before turning in at about 2 a.m. local time.

DAY SIX--TUESDAY, March 4, 2008—Match Day in Barcelona

I had three goals on this day—one to make my train to Barcelona; two, to see the famous Sagrada Familia, the greatest church in the world that has never been finished; and three, to spend an evening with my favorite soccer team, Celtic, as they fought the mighty F. C. Barcelona at one of the world’s great sporting venues, the Camp Nou.

It took me about 10 minutes to walk back to the Gare in Carcassonne, picturesquely situated at a lock on the Canal du Midi on the north side of town. Unlike the day before, I was actually on the platform 20 minutes before departure. The return run to Narbonne took 34 minutes including one stop, departing at 0714 and arriving at 0748. I bought separate tickets for the different legs; Carcassonne to Narbonne in second class cost €9.40; first class on the Narbonne to Barcelona run, the “Catalan Talgo” service originating at Montpellier and terminating at Cartagena utilizing RENFE’s “Talgo” rolling stock, cost €56.00.

The southbound Talgo reached Narbonne on schedule, and departed promptly at 0820. I don’t have exact distances, but it is believed that the Spanish frontier is about 50 miles south of Narbonne, and Barcelona is about 100 miles further down the line. We reached the final French station, Cerbere, at 0920, just less than one hour later after a stop in Perpignan. The process of crossing the border at this place is quite cumbersome, in that France and Spain have different train gauges as well as different electrification. Within the next 10 years or so, this will be remedied, as the new AVE/TGV line between Barcelona and southern France will use “standard” gauge and current in the catenary; for now, upon leaving the platform at Cerbere, the train is drawn through a tunnel and then into a “hangar” where the SNCF locomotive is uncoupled, and each car’s “bogies” (wheel assemblies) are widened from the French standard gauge to the wider gauge used on the Iberian peninsula, and then a RENFE locomotive draws the train onward into Port Bou station. While all this was going on, Spanish police checked the identity papers of all passengers (even though both France and Spain are part of the Schengen treaty, which supposedly eliminated passport checks on border crossings between member countries). This process took about an hour (the Cerbere and Port Bou stations are about 3 miles apart). We were scheduled to make two stops prior to Barcelona, at Figueras and at Girona; we made a number of unscheduled stops and slowdowns due to work on our tracks as well as on the adjacent under construction AVE right of way. Despite a scheduled arrival time of 1146, we arrived at 1220. The car in which I was riding, so-called “Preferente” class, featured comfortable three across seating, and, after crossing into Spain, a National Geographic video was shown on CRTs attached to the ceiling of the car. The RENFE car attendant passed out headphones in a little cardboard box.

Upon reaching Sants station on the west side of central Barcelona, I found my way to the Barcelona Metro, and bought an all day pass for €5.50. Prior to leaving for Europe I found an Ibis hotel near the airport, near the Almeda station in the suburb of Cornella’, with a €69 rate. It took me the better part of an hour to get out there and get checked in. I walked the 10 minutes back to Almeda station, and rode three different trains until I reached Sagrada Familia, located east of central Barcelona, which has its own station on the Metro. It cost €8.00 to tour the inside of this “Temple Expiatori”, which is about 95% filled with floor to ceiling scaffolding, and then to visit the Museum located in a lower floor. This place has been under construction for something like 126 years. The artist/architect Antoni Gaudi developed the front façade of this remarkable edifice with ornate and intricate sculptures and different kinds of art work depicting scenes of the story of the nativity of Jesus Christ, from the Annunciation, all the way through the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents. One could stand in front of this for days and not pick up all the intricacies and nuances—truly a remarkable place. As ornate as the front façade is, the rear façade is stark—it depicts the story of the agony and death on the cross of Christ. A sculpture of the scourging at the pillar is one of the most moving pieces of art I’ve ever seen.

After about 90 minutes at Sagrada Familia, it was time to move on and try to buy a match ticket for Celtic-Barcelona. As it turned out, the match was far from a sell out, and tickets were on sale at windows in front of the stadium, which is located on a major street, Travessera de les Corts, less than 10 minutes walking from the Collblanc station on the Metro. As I had my USA passport, I was sold a ticket for a seat at one end of the ground in the second deck for the princely sum of €94.00 (my wife and I had seats on the half-way line 15 rows up in the San Siro one year earlier for €75 each). Although there were thousands of Celtic fans in Barcelona who didn’t arrive with tickets, the Barcelona management would not sell tickets to them. My ticket bore the legend “not valid with UK passport”. I then shopped at the souvenir stands set up outside the Camp Nou, and bought a scarf commemorating the match, having fun bantering with the operators of that particular stand.

As it was still 4 hours before kickoff and I was starved, I took a bus in the direction of my hotel, and found a supermarket along the route. I was able to buy some fantastic Serrano ham, as well as a wax paper one liter “brick” of Don Simon Sangria priced at €1.05, which turned out to be the best cheap wine I’ve ever tasted. I also stumbled onto Vichy Catalan brand sparkling mineral water, which I really liked. I went back to the hotel on the bus , ate and relaxed, and then at about 6:30 p.m. I went back to Almeda station to take the commuter train and metro back to the Nou Camp.

I’ll be posting photos of my visit to the Nou Camp. I was impressed with the overall classiness of the Barcelona operation and their fans. No soccer hooligans were in evidence anywhere, even though the Barcelona police weren’t taking any chances. Barcelona and Celtic appear to have an amicable history; both of them share one of the greatest players of the past 20 years, Henrik Larsson, the “Bhoy Who Would Be King”—Larsson scored something like 245 goals in his seven years wearing the Celtic green-and-white “Hoops”, and then at the end of the Martin O’Neill regime was signed by Barcelona, and ended his two years there by coming on as a substitute in the Champions League final versus Arsenal with the Blaugrana down by a goal to nil with 20 minutes left, and then creating memorable assists on the two goals that carried Barca to the European crown (Larsson wanted to retire after Barcelona, but was convinced to sign with his hometown team in Sweden, Helsingborgs, and is still playing—he played for Sweden in the Euro 2008 tournament this month). In honor of Celtic, the PA system belted out “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

Celtic entered the second leg of their round of 16 “tie” with Barca down by 3 goals to 2; Celtic actually led that match at Celtic Park two weeks earlier at halftime, but ended up getting beat by a marvelous goal from Barca’s Argentine superstar Lionel Messi with 10 minutes left. In order to progress to the quarterfinals, Celtic needed to beat Barcelona by at least 2 goals; if Barcelona were to score, then Celtic would need to win by at least 3-1, as Barca owned the tie breaker under the “away goals rule”. Sadly for the 15,000 of us who were in the Camp Nou bleeding green and white, the dream ended after 132 seconds, when Barca star Xavi controlled a pass with the outside of his foot and directed the ball past Celtic’s excellent goalkeeper Artur Boruc. Now having to win the second leg by at least a 4-1 score, Celtic just were never in it. In ice hockey terms, Boruc “stood on his head” with a number of great saves to keep the score at full time a respectable 1-0. Sadly, Celtic had only one moderately good chance to score in the entire match, with the ball being shot over the cross bar. The announced attendance for the match was 75,002. Sadly for Barca, the aforementioned Messi tore his hamstring shortly before halftime and limped off the field—his season was prematurely over.

Still, the worst day following Celtic beats the best day working, and it had been a unique experience for me to visit the Camp Nou. The match ended shortly after 2230, and I was back to the hotel within 45 minutes; a number of the Celtic faithful staying in the hotel were drinking at the small bar in the hotel lobby. I decided to head for bed, as I had a relatively early flight.

DAY SEVEN—Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I was showered, shaved, dressed, packed and out of my hotel room shortly after 0700 for the Business Elite flight home, which was scheduled to depart at 0935. I was going to be cheap and take the train system to the airport, but as a cabbie was in the lobby looking for a fare who didn’t materialize, I became a sport and took the cab to the airport. Upon arrival at the airport, the meter read €12.00; however, there was a hidden €6.00 charge for pick-ups and drop-offs at the airport, so my total fare was €18.00. By this time, I was really glad to pay it and get inside. Check in was extremely quick, as was security (only 2 people were in line), and I reached the Air France lounge by 0745, where I had a really nice continental breakfast, and met a gentleman who was at the match the night before and had a nice discussion with him. BTW, Barcelona’s airport is extremely nice, and the airport authority there is building a new terminal on the other side of the field. Supposedly, Barcelona-Madrid is the busiest single air route in the world; airlines like Air Europa (a SkyTeam “affiliate”), Vueling and Clickair have sprung up to compete on this route.

I was advised to leave the lounge by 0845 in order to clear passport control, which was located just in front of the cluster of gates including Gate 53, DL95’s gate on this date. There were maybe 30 people in line, and it took about 10 minutes to get through passport control. I got to the gate just as boarding was called, got to seat 1G and was greeted by flight leader Kimberly B. with a plastic glass of Champagne.

As everyone was on board ship #173 (N173DZ) in advance of the 0935 departure time, we pushed back early and were in the air by 0933. Our route took us down the coast line to just past Tarragona, then across north central Spain, north of Madrid, and then crossing into Portugal at about the 500 mile mark, passing just south of Porto at the 582 mile mark in 1 hour 13 minutes. We flew straight across the ocean (as opposed to heading north toward Greenland), aiming at Cape May, New Jersey before turning north to get into the pattern to land at JFK. We touched down at 1133 EST, 8 hours after departure. We ran into heavy turbulence at about the midway point on the flight; cabin service was discontinued for about 30 minutes as we fought to get through the rough air. The second half of the flight was uneventful. I didn’t save my menu, but I did eat a reasonably sized filet steak accompanied by asparagus and mashed potatoes, and it was quite tasty. I worked for a couple of hours and slept most of the rest of the way. Our ship was equipped with AVOD and three-prong socket power in BE.

As I didn’t have a checked bag and I was one of the first off the plane, I shot through immigration and customs (I think the BCN flight is the first DL TATL flight to get back to JFK) in about 5 minutes tops. I had encountered the same customs officer before—he noticed the name of my home town on my customs form, and told me that he had taken his son to an ice hockey tournament at Dahlgren Hall at the Naval Academy, and raved about how much he liked Annapolis and the steamed crabs he had eaten at a local crab joint. He had done the same thing the previous time I came into contact with him. Nice guy.

Although there is a TSA screening station just outside the customs exit to get back into the “sterile area” of the Delta Flight Center, it doesn’t open until at least 1 p.m., and I was directed to exit the building, go up to the departures level, cross the street and re-enter the building, and go through security there. This turned out to not be much of an inconvenience, and I was back on airside in Terminal 3 maybe 10 minutes later. I hung out in the Crown Room near Gate 6 until my scheduled flight time on a Comair CRJ 900 (DL 6195), about 1545. However, at 1545, the Comair gate staff left the assigned gate (Gate 1)—it turned out that our equipment, which had reached JFK from Pittsburgh, was sitting out on the tarmac somewhere on the airport grounds—it was not allowed to reach the gate until almost 90 minutes after landing. While sitting near the gate in the historic Pan Am Worldport, I was treated to a flying exhibition by a number of small birds who had invaded the terminal and were flying above the fast food outlets on the open mezzanine level. Appetizing. Our flight left the gate around 1730 and did not reach the gate at DCA until 1930. Fortunately, I was so tired that, after having a drink on board after sitting down in F, I slept through the delays and woke up when the plane touched down at DCA.

After getting a soft drink in the Crown Room at National, I staggered off to the Metro, reached New Carrollton about 45 minutes later, and, then 30 minutes after that, stumbled through my front door and went to bed. The end of another eventful field trip.
ND76 is offline  
Old Jul 30, 08, 5:02 am
  #2  
 
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Wow - what a neat trip report. Thanks for sharing! I think I would be exhausted, but I like how you make the journey as much of your trip as the destinations.
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Old Jul 30, 08, 9:08 am
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Great trip report! Thanks so much for sharing.
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Old Jul 30, 08, 2:35 pm
  #4  
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Your writing style is appreciated. Great report!
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Old Nov 29, 08, 9:29 pm
  #5  
Ted
 
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Never considered flying in to London and going to the races the same day.

Wow.

At Newbury... did you stay in the grandstand enclosure or pay over to the "premier" enclosure? Looks like about GBP7 more for the day I will attend in March '09.
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Old Dec 15, 08, 11:05 pm
  #6  
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I'm Cheap--I Bought Grandstand Admission

This was more than adequate for me. As it turned out, as the weather deteriorated, the track employees that were guarding the passage between the clubhouse and grandstand "enclosures" disappeared, and I was able to walk around inside the beautiful clubhouse and take some pictures from down along the rails in front of the clubhouse without paying extra.

I made friends with the staff at the Tote, both the pari-mutuel sellers and the clerks at the Tote Bookmakers counter on the ground floor of the grandstand.

I did splurge the next day in Paris--it costs only E3.00 to get into Vincennes, but the cover charge for the restaurant level was an additional E19.00. I had a superb lunch there, and met some interesting horseplayers in there, so it was a good experience.
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Old Dec 20, 08, 4:03 pm
  #7  
 
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Really enjoyed reading your TR.

Fun way to travel around Europe on the trains, how did you go getting a refund on your pass from Amex?

Adam
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Old Dec 20, 08, 5:35 pm
  #8  
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As we approach Gander, the tail winds are up to 169 mph, pushing us along at 50 mph faster than the speed of sound,


No it's not. The speed of sound is variable. At a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius and at sea level, the speed of sound is 761.2mph. At 36,000ft for example it could be as low as 654.6mph. Irrespective of that though, your speed is only relative to the air surrounding the aircraft, and you will have been cruising at about Mach 0.81, which is 81% of the speed of sound.
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Old Dec 21, 08, 1:02 am
  #9  
 
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great TR, loved the read and it inspired me to try and do something like this in the near future. thank you!
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