Proceed with extreme caution

Monday, 16 March 2009

children on motor bikes everywhereI’m back from an overnight trip to Cornwall, where we stayed in the lovely Lizzy and Dave‘s TPO camping coach at St Germans, drank lots of wine and waved at trains. Sometimes whilst wearing Cybermen or Dalek Sec helmets. Hen nights, eh?

We also wandered around the village the next morning, including into the pub for a breakfast and then across a field in which the sheep singularly failed to turn out into ravenous hordes, and got sunburnt in March. Truly, Cornwall is a magical place.

The night before we had cocktails at Exeshed (overpriced and weak, to my mind – I miss Rachel at the Kino bar), followed by sangria in La Tasca (because I wanted spanish food), a trip to another bar and then, finally, a farewell to arms. In other words, a 45 minute visit to upstairs at Timepiece where I realised that the smoking ban makes nightclubs a lot less fun. Or, perhaps, reveals just how dank and desperate they always were. I think it is safe to say I am not filled with grief at leaving that world behind.

Thank you very much to all the friends that came along: aren’t you impressed I didn’t actually a) throw up, b) start a fight or c) get thrown out of anywhere? Well, technically, we were thrown off the landed gentry’s estate, but that may have been the most polite and genteel ejection from a place I’ve ever had and certainly didn’t involve any armlocks.

How to lose loyalty and alienate customers

Monday, 27 October 2008

If you’re going to Bristol (or London, Birmingham, Glasgow or Manchester), don’t stay in the City Inn.

We’ve used it at least three times in the past, usually for the Comic Con but also for PPH’s birthday. It’s handily near the station but also an easy walk to St Nicholas Street and up into Park Road etc. So when we decided to stay overnight for the Pipettes at the Cooler, I booked an ‘autumn package’ with them so we could also have a good nose around the new Cabot Circus. Two nights, with champagne and canapes on arrival plus newspaper, breakfasts etc. Not the cheapest hotel around, but then we love the location and the iMac in the room (very handy if you’re going to saunter back at midnight and use iPlayer to watch Strictly Come Dancing). Everything was fine. OK, so the canapes included fish but also some yummy cheesy ones.  The Guardian and Observer appeared without fail. Everyone from the bar staff to the chamber maids were friendly and helpful. But there was one problem, and it’s a problem which means not only will I not stay there again, I’m now posting why here and advising others not to.  They have taken money from my account which I did not authorise.

Like most people, I’m used to handing over a card for ‘an impression’ at the start of a stay, in case you eat all the chocolate in the fridge and don’t declare it, or if you flee in the night with all the pillows. What I was not told on check-in was that they would be taking both the total for the stay and an additional £100 “in case”. It was ‘an impression’, not a payment, and I was not asked to authorise anything by putting in a PIN or signing a credit card slip. As my card is a debit, the amount was immediately taken from my available balance, and my available credit with the bank plummeted. Something I discovered the next morning, when I withdrew some cash for the planned shopping wander and noticed a couple of hundred quid missing.

Not knowing that the hotel was the cause, I therefore spent the weekend – until I could get home and check my balance carefully – wondering where the money had vanished to. Had my card been cloned? There were no suspicious withdrawals on a mini statement from a machine and my bank is usually pretty quick to lock the card if something odd does happen. Had my bank made an error not in my favour? Given the various state of various banks, you had to wonder. So, I spent very little for the rest of the weekend and spent quite a lot of time worrying instead. When we checked out we were presented with the actual bill, which we put on the Chap’s credit card as something mysterious had happened to my bank account. This was the first time any transaction was described as payment.

The idea of an ‘impression’, so my bank tells me, is that a company puts through a minor transaction to check the card is valid. £1, perhaps. Then you pay up when you check out (or if you flee in the night with the mini-bar, then they charge it all to your card). If you pay with a different card on departure, the minor transaction is cancelled and you never notice the credit check. But City Inn decided to not only charge me the full amount without saying that was what they were doing, but also to take an additional £100. Which maybe I’d not have noticed if it weren’t for the fact that I use a debit and not a credit card. As it was, I suddenly had a black hole in my accounts.

The bank informs me that the transaction will be automatically cancelled within 7-10 working days, and the person I spoke to at City Inn yesterday said that they would fax the bank a cancellation today but none the less, that credit is effectively gone without my consent and I will not receive it back for a couple of weeks.

So, if you are thinking of staying in the City Inn hotel in Bristol, London, Birmingham, Glasgow or Manchester, bear in mind they will effectively take money from you without necessarily informing you of it or gaining your consent. Avoid.

ETA: according to their Terms and Conditions, “Please note that upon check-in, an additional credit card authorisation for various amounts as an incidentals guarantee or a cash deposit to the same value per day” might seem to cover their arse. Unfortunately, it was not described as such and I was not told of the amount (doubtless as people baulk at it). Also, the T&C claim that “All cards will be charged for your full stay within 72 hours of making the booking”. As I booked on 4 October 2008 and was not charged then, the company itself is in breach of its own T&C.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Sébastian’s new kill count:

  • Rodents:
    Rats – 1
    Mice – 34 35
    Voles – 11
  • Birds:
    Sparrows – 5
    Dunnocks – 1
    Robin – 1
    Wood-pigeon – 1
    Uncertain – 8
  • Other:
    Frogs – 1
    Unidentifiable remains – 3

I am stupidly busy, but I have (probably) sold a short story and got around to tagging all my photos from Berlin. I will get around to writing it up, at some point, but it already seems an age ago.

Musical Interlude

Monday, 18 February 2008

I have a small mountain of images from Berlin and Brussels to tag, title etc. Here are a tiny handful as a sample. They make it look like Berlin was all 1960s utopian futurism whilst Brussels was all fin de sicle art nouveau, which was not true:
Telefurm from Marx-Engels Platz Inside the Dalek mothership Falstaff's ceiling La Presse Socialiste Cooperative

In the meantime, here is a video of people dancing at Exeter Goes Pop!
Click to see dancing

Un Americano y un cafe amb lait…

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Or, Barcelona bars & cafes.

An Americano is also un grande cafe solo i.e. a large black coffee. A cafe amb lait (which I pronounce by pretending it is a cafe au lait) is a milky coffee. It’s important to get these things sussed early on. Dos cervesa, por favor is easier but also less important. Also, the latter is in Espanol rather than Catalan. Here, in no especial order, are some of the bars and cafes we visited.

Cafe Zurich
At the top of Las Ramblas, this is an old-school cafe. So old-school that I can’t even bring myself to call it “old-skool”. This was where we tended to end up when we needed a little pep up mid afternoon/early evening. The coffee is excellent but the real joy are the waiters. We had plenty of fun playing “spot the waiter who is merely in his 30s” as the majority were older. They were all fast, slick and professional. When I ordered dos cafe amb lait, y un torte he ran down a list with practise, doubtless guessing I would go for the chocolat. When it arrived he handed me the slice of cake and gave the chap a small fork as “you may have a little”.

Cafe de l’Opera
Another old-schooler, more old time waiters but this time halfway down Las Ramblas. It has some lovely fin-de-sicle interior work and a great chocolate lime green paintjob.

Cafe Schilling
In the Gothic quarter, this place has dark wood furniture and peeling distempered walls along with quite a metro crowd stopping in for a drink or two. The service is variable but the bar snacks are delicious. They did a superbly filling vegetal sandwich with goat’s cheese, along with a great hummous option. The beer is Damm, which is fine, and the coffee was good.

Milk bar toilet decor Cocktails with serious punch, and very filling bistro food. They also did good veggie food, happily producing dishes sin pollo for me. Another good interior, dark and mellow, with comic book pages decorating the toilet walls and velvet curtains hiding things. The second visit was a bit let down by an Irish bar bore and his pal but we just moved on.

Not a bar or a cafe but an Indian restaurant. This is one of my “known places”, somewhere I go back to when I return to a city. That’s often on the first night, when we’re still settling in and I don’t feel like searching out some place in a backstreet. Milk, for example, is up a narrow backstreet and the chap was suspicious of my map-reading until we found the place.
Placa Villa de Madrid, where Govinda is, was all dug up when I was last here in 2001. Now the rennovations are finished part of the square is still excavated, revealing remains of the Roman city beneath.
Govinda does a mighty fine Thali, and the owner will spice the meal up for British diners. A medium here is a mild back home, mind.

Everywhere else we stopped in were just cafes or bars near where we were when we got hungry. As always, I enjoyed a fair few queso bocadillos, which is my default choice when faced with little or no veggie choice. Barcelona is a city which suits grazing: you can wander for hours and nearly always find a place to stop when you have the need. And I love any culture which doesn’t eat till 10pm at the earliest. (She says about to go downstairs and start cooking at 9pm.)

At some point, I shall rave about modernista architecture. However, in the meantime here is footage of the Magic Fountain playing up to Rachmananov. I love this thing with a childish glee. You may be able to hear my little squeaks of amusement.

What I Did On My Holidays, Part 1

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Or, there and back again.

We went to Barcelona by train. Not out of some Grauniad-reading eco-smuggity but because it is just much more enjoyable than spending three hours at Gatwick. Also, due to the usual arcane train rules, it worked out cheaper to travel to Paris on Eurostar first class.

We started the journey with the Misery Line, however, getting the Tube from the chap’s to Waterloo. Security, even with the patdown I got, is just so much less stressful on the Eurostar. No standing in long snaking queues wondering why the people holding you up hadn’t noticed the large multilingual signs telling you to remove your jacket, belt and shoes. Then we were whisked at slow speed past Battersea and at slightly higher speed towards the channel, being given champagne and a pretty good late lunch. The trolley dolly was so camp he should have been in Ugly Betty.

Estacio Franca Main Hall Having once been caught out by the change in timezones, I’d given us lots of time to cross Paris to Gare D’Austerlitz. As the Metro train swooped out onto a bridge crossing the Seine, I could see the Eiffel Tower through the girders. I’m fairly sure my travels with my family, which also entailed many a trip across Paris from Gare D’Nord, have taken me to Gare D’Austerlitz before but it may just be the curious familiarity of major rail terminii at night. There’s always an orange sodium fuzz and too much echo in the marble hallways. There was a rather 70s bar, suitable for a beer or two before boarding the Trenhotel aka the Night Sleeper.

I love sleeper trains. Really love them. There’s something just too fascinating about falling asleep looking at one world and waking in another. We went Gran Classe, which got us a private ensuite cabin, dinner including drinks and breakfast. Whilst at dinner our beds were made up for us, complete with chocolates with pictures of trains on them left on our pillows. I kept waking in the night and quickly recalled the trick to watching the night landscape: keep the curtain pulled, put your head under and you can see things beyond the glass. I gave out a small squee as we drew into Perpignon, as it was a place I’d used in H101. As we crossed the Pyrannes we went close to the coast, and there was a moonlit view down into a bay. On a sleeper, you can imagine that only you will have seen that moment unlike the shared vistas of daylight travel.

When we got to Estacio Franca (after more H101-related eeping from me), we locked our bags up and strolled into the city ready for more cafe on Las Ramblas.

The journey back was similar yet different. I warn anyone going not to drink the beer in the bar at the Estacio Franca. Really nasty. There’s also the sad realisation that you are heading home, so rather less excited midnight wakings to look out of the window. And the drop in temperature was more noticeable, with my toes feeling the cold Northern European air. We breakfasted as the train ran along next to the Seine through, arriving back into Paris with plenty of time to get back for lunch in London with Smith and Robson. Then I got on a train back to Devon and was sitting on my sofa with a bag of chips less than 24 hours after I’d been in a bar in Barcelona.

It’s not the fastest or even the cheapest way to travel, but you gain a sense of distance and of change which planes just don’t give you. Also, there was champagne included, which always sweetens a journey.

Details of how to travel from London to Barcelona are available on the fabulous Man in Seat 61 site, which provides me with many happy moments of idle speculation (“ooooh, they’re opening the silk route…”). We booked via RailEurope.

We did mention at the time of booking that I was veggie but this info didn’t appear to reach the actual train companies (something which I’ll be sending an email about). The Eurostar always carry a spare veggie meal but I was ticked off for not having mentioned my special dietary requirements. The Trenhotel doesn’t carry a spare, but I had the ensalade for a starter and the soup as a main which was yummy. I emailed Elipsos re the meal before we returned and they changed my booking. However, I didn’t enjoy the proper veggie options as much as the make-do stuff I’d had on the way down. The starter was a much heavier salad, and the main a plate of grilled aubergine and courgette which I could have done better. The breakfast was different as well, being some heated egg and cheese thing instead of those well known meaty foods of pain au chocolat and fruit. It’s possible that the veggie food is lovely – the chap had to send his chicken back as it wasn’t heated properly so the crew was definitely less good – but I think in future I’ll ‘forget’ to book veggie and just workaround from the normal menu.

All my photos are now available on flickr: photos tagged barcelona07. I’ll do Montserrat and architecture and bars in future posts.

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