Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Schiphol Saga

Sorry, been a bit quiet of late due to trekking halfway across the continent.

I was working in Armenia the week before Christmas. The game plan was to take an Armarvia flight from Yerevan to Amsterdam, Schiphol, then a KLM flight from Schiphol to Bristol, and a train home to Gloucester where I'd collect my car and drive over to Mum's in Northamptonshire just in time for Christmas Day traditional trimmings. 

Looks simple, huh?

Didn't quite work out as planned. More sort of like this:

Armavia was an hour late taking off from Yerevan, which meant missing my Bristol connection. It turned out to be one of the last planes leaving for the UK.

Schiphol looked like a UNHCR camp - igloos built out of abandoned luggage, staff handing out bottles of water, queues the length and breadth of the airport: queues for new tickets, queues for hotels, queues for queues...

Instead of queueing for another ticket, I made a call to family, who booked me an Easyjet flight online to Doncaster. I checked my luggage in, then sat and watched as everything West-bound went down like snowflakes.

The world has been cancelled.

When they finally called 'cancelled' on my flight, I joined a queue and made the decisions to reclaim my baggage and head to a friend's house rather than risk booking another flight and finding out in a couple of hours that it, too, was cancelled - which would have meant spending the night in the airport.

Two trains later and I was in Haarlem, where my friend Thorsten put his steaming hot bath, TV, and take-away pizza delivery menu at my disposal. Truly magical.

I spent Monday just chillaxing. We went to a local café and had hot chocolate with an Everest of whipped cream on top - apple pie and brownies to compliment.

Had to wade through fairly thick snow to get there:

Feeling much better, I spent Tuesday trying to get to the ferry. Started with a train from Haarlem to Hoek, but the train got snowed down and I had to get off halfway. Work was really good about it, and offered to help cover the cost of getting back. So, with no other trains in sight, I forked out €110 on a taxi to the dock.

The ferry was superior to the airport in every way possible. Hardly any foot passengers - either people didn't know about it or they couldn't get there. The staff were really friendly and smiled a lot, unlike those at the airport who looked like they'd rather abort you than deal with your problem.

So, instead of being cramped up in an airport or herded onto a late flight, I lounged out on a sofa with a range of restaurants and bars to choose from - fully stocked duty free shop, free internet, and a plug for my laptop. Amazing. Lovely experience - so thank you Stena Line. Treated myself to a three-course meal: game pâté, hare with pear and white wine sauce, rounded up by crème brûlée. Nom nom nom...

The coast was covered in snow - it looked almost like white sand. Holland or the Seychelles? You decide.

We finally docked at Harwich, where I got a train to Liverpool Street. My friends Jo and Pierre picked me up and took me back to their place in Camberwell.

I took another day's R&R. We went for drinks and a meal under the London Eye with another friend. Just what the doctor ordered after that travel ordeal. But it wasn't quite over...

If all had gone according to the original plan, I was supposed to be in Gloucester by Sunday. Instead, by Thursday I was broaching the hell that is Victoria Coach station, sitting in the café upstairs with an all-day breakfast and a can of coke. It was like Schiphol in miniature. People waiting on a bus to France that had been delayed since ten in the morning. No heating, only eyes peeking out from beneath thick blankets. Children crying. Standing room only.

But at least the bus was warm. It took me from London to Northants via Milton Keynes. There was a one hour delay due to traffic, caused by weather conditions. I crawled out at the other end, through Northampton town to a cash machine, and into my final taxi of the trip - which took me the final twelve miles home.

Never been so glad to get there. But, having said that, it was one hell of a lesson in friendship. You never realise how wonderful friends are until you need them. So, heartfelt thanks to Thor, Jo and Pierre for helping me hopscotch my way home in comfort. Sure beat braving the airports.

Have to say though - hats off to Easyjet, their online refund system is extremely fast and efficient. Nice to see an airport getting it right for a change. Could teach KLM a thing or two - their customer service office won't even answer the phone to you unless you're a member of their exclusive 'Flying Blue' club, and their 'customer care' representatives at Schiphol look at you with unbridled contempt even when there isn't a weather crisis on. Seriously, KLM are right down there on my list next to stepping in dog turd and having my credit card stolen. Never had a pleasant experience with them. I know Easyjet have their moments too, but it's nice to see a budget airline outperforming Royal Dutch.

And the countryside is very pretty in the winter. Some lovely photos from Mum's place of a seasonal wonderland:

So all's well that ends well. Got a lift back to Gloucester yesterday. Eating and drinking myself to death before I tackle my new year's drive to Edinburgh. This time I may take an arctic tent and a husky sled - just to be on the safe side.

Hope everyone's having a festeringly festive season, and a safe and happy New Year.

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