10 DECEMBER 2018

The Business Travel News
Published every Monday
PO Box 758
Edgware HA8 4QF
United Kingdom
+44 (0)20 8952 8383
© 2016 Business Travel News Ltd


If you are elderly or slightly infirm, don’t use Luton Airport. That is the advice from Business Travel News

The boarding gates are difficult to use, entry from the drop-off points is problematic and while both Heathrow and Gatwick offer courtesy car access to anyone, the best drop-off facility at Luton, in a move hotly contested by the local taxi operators, was sold to a national firm as a sole concession. It would seem the site owner, Luton Borough Council, could do nothing about it.

The alternative costs a minimum £3 for up to 10min and £1 a minute after that. It is about 200m uphill to the terminal entrance. As one recent correspondent noted, if your driver wants to help with the trudge to the building, it is going to cost more than some advertised flights!

According to the highly-respected publication Which?, published by the Consumers' Association, Luton is Britain’s worst airport, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. The complex, which is Spanish-operated on a long lease from the council, defends itself by saying £160m is being invested to bring it up to international standards. Building works are adding to the less-than-welcoming external terminal area. 

The building itself has a good check-in arrangement and a massive shopping arcade which passengers must pass through. It was the first thing to be developed. 

If you are worried on seeing a queue at security, it is simple to buy a fast-track pass for £5; easyJet passengers on Speedy Boarding can use the facility, while with Wizz Priority it is not included. Confusing. 

Attempts to speed up boarding (it does not work) by the airlines mean travellers find themselves standing in staircases. BTN recently witnessed the absurd situation where passengers had not come off the inbound aircraft while the public address was announcing a final call. Experienced travellers just stood by or sat (if they could find a seat) and waited until boarding actually happened.   

Passengers vote with their feet. While Luton has a commanding position with the M1 running close by to the west and the A1 not far away in the easterly direction, it is expected to move something fewer than 16m passengers this year. Stansted Airport, much more rural, is on target for 27m and could overtake Manchester as the UK’s third busiest airport (after Heathrow and Gatwick) on the less-useful M11. It offers limited rail services on what is effectively a siding off the mainly twin-London – Cambridge railway.  

The Luton – St Pancras line is a major commuter route with up to seven trains an hour. Work is under way with a state-of-the-art £225m Luton Dart (Direct Air-Rail Transit), linking the terminal with the Parkway station. Officials say the system will complete the 2.1km journey in less than 4min, enabling fast access from central London. Who is paying for that and the terminal reconstruction?

Addison Lee operates out of the taxi zone, which is adjacent to the bus bays directly outside the terminal. All other taxis/private hire firms and the public can pick-up/drop-off in the fee-paying dedicated zones or car parks but, as noted, it is an uphill slog to the terminal entrance. Twenty minutes of calling the Special Assistance button was totally ignored.

It's the same for blue badge holders. They are entitled to 30min free parking in the multi-storey car park with a reduced tariff thereafter, but from this area there are no moving walkways and it is down by lift to the ground floor and the same slog to the terminal. It really is bad news for those less mobile, or with roller bags.

The alternative is to be dropped off at the mid-term car park with 15min free time and a courtesy bus ride to the terminal. There is a frequency problem and the buses nose in rather than park parallel. This just clutters up the area in front of the terminal as they try to reverse out. Getting your luggage on and off can be real problem.

Luton Airport has dropped the “International” and now is “London Luton”. However, instead of using the universally-accepted IATA airline three-letter code LTN, it calls itself LLA, further confusing the public.

Luton seems never to have recovered from a series of less-than-inspiring TV ads decades back. What is the problem? The staff are friendly but has the top management lost the plot? Do they use the facilities themselves? Are they trying to satisfy their clients or their masters? But with a council-owned airport, who are the masters?  

Luton Airport will say that things will improve when the rebuilding is completed and that our criticism will not stand the test of time.

We shall see.

If you are elderly or slightly infirm, don’t use Luton Airport.  

ACJ319 in show spotlight

Latest trends in the bizjet market, led by the Airbus ACJ319, are in focus this week at the three-day Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA) show, opening in Dubai today, 10 December.

Highlighting the comfort and space on offer and echoing the move toward larger cabins in new-generation business jets, the aircraft (below) is operated by Acropolis Aviation of the UK.

Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJ) president Benoit Defforge said: “What you get in the cabin, and being able to fly when and where you want, is the bedrock of business aviation.

“And being able to stand upright and move around freely – a trademark feature of Airbus corporate jets – makes a huge difference to enjoyment and productivity.”

Airbus claims its ACJ320 Family aircraft have the widest and tallest cabins of any large business-jet, while being about the same size and delivering similar operating costs.

New members of the family, such as the ACJ319neo and ACJ320neo, feature new engines and wingtip-mounted sharklets, “enabling longer intercontinental flights in comfort and space as well as saving fuel and reducing operating costs”.

The first of this new generation, an ACJ320neo, also for Acropolis Aviation, completed flight trials in November and is being delivered for outfitting in the next few weeks.


Business Travel News last week was privileged with a visit to the Madrid headquarters of Amadeus, the world’s largest aviation technology supplier.

Essentially a global distribution system (GDS), but now with a host of peripheral activities, Amadeus was established in 1987 as a partnership between Air France, Iberia, Lufthansa and SAS. A public offering was made in October 1999, with the company becoming listed on the Paris, Frankfurt and Madrid stock exchanges. 

Progressively and in line with industry evolution, Amadeus diversified its operations by focusing on information technologies to deliver services spanning beyond sales and reservation functionalities, centred on streamlining the operational and distribution requirements of its customer base.

Amadeus is big, with a 2017 turnover of €4.852bn. It has 17,000-plus employees made up 146 nationalities and processed more than 630m bookings, representing 1.6bn passenger boardings, in 2017. According to Forbes, it is one of the world’s top 10 software companies. 

BTN will be featuring Amadeus in the ON TOUR feature ahead of the Business Travel Show (Olympia London 20-21 February 2019), where the company will be demonstrating the latest version of its integrated trip booking and expense solution, Amadeus cytric Travel & Expense.

Also being showcased will be a solution to trip planning management as part of the everyday work environment and its integration with Microsoft Outlook and Salesforce.

Aviation Club celebrates Craig Kreeger

In an exuberant mood with the prospects of winters in California and UK summers, Virgin Atlantic’s CEO Craig Kreeger was the guest of honour for the final Aviation Club lunch of 2018. 

Kreeger retires at the end of the year and there was no mention of a prospective Virgin Atlantic pilot strike over the Christmas period (see in this issue). He has been in charge since 2013 and is now a “True Brit” (see AND FINALLY).

In a very well received speech, he laid much emphasis on Brexit and Heathrow’s role as a major world hub.

“It is for Parliament to decide whether the deal now on the table is the right one for the country, but we’re absolutely certain that leaving the EU without a deal would inflict significant damage to the UK economy and must be avoided,” he said.

Delta, Virgin Atlantic’s largest shareholder, came in for praise as he summed up the relationship. “We’ve been able to learn from each other, share best practice, get operational support in times of difficulty and create what I know is the most successful partnership in aviation."

His final 'dig' was at APD. “In nearly every speech I’ve given in the past six years, I’ve mentioned Air Passenger Duty – I’m nothing if not consistent," he said. "Because it’s still worth making the point that UK APD is the highest in the world.”

Busy week for Ethiopian

The launch of services linking Manchester with Addis Ababa, the birth of a new African airline and reports that Ethiopian Airlines' base has overtaken Dubai as the top transit hub for long-haul passengers to Africa kept the carrier in the news last week.

Manchester becomes Ethiopian’s second UK destination tomorrow, Tuesday, with the start of a four-times-a-week service to Addis Ababa. Flights are by Boeing B787 Dreamliner and operate on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

Meanwhile, the airline has been selected as strategic partner for a new home-based carrier for Ghana, with a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed last week by Ghana aviation minister Joseph Kofi Adda and Ethiopian CEO Tewolde GebreMariam.

A final agreement is planned to be signed before Christmas with the airline also expected to start flying early next year. It follows the collapse of the state-owned Ghana Airways and later of Ghana International Airlines.

In Addis Ababa, figures from travel consultancy ForwardKeys have revealed Ethiopia taking the top transit hub crown in what officials said was a reflection of the continued expansion by the Ethiopian Airlines Group.

Addis Ababa Airport was said to have increased the number of international transfer passengers to sub-Saharan Africa for five years in a row, a trend that this year has taken it past its Mid-East rival.

CAA acts against Ryanair

Enforcement action was launched by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) last week against Ryanair in a dispute over the airline’s interpretation of the European Commission regulation 261/2004 on compensation for disruption to flights.

The move followed Ryanair’s decision that financial compensation was not payable for delays resulting from industrial action by the airline’s staff this summer. The CAA said claims made directly to Ryanair by passengers had been rejected.

Passengers could then escalate their complaints to AviationADR, a body approved by the CAA, to provide alternative dispute resolution but Ryanair had now told the authority it had terminated its agreement with the company.

The CAA said at the time of the industrial action that in its view the strikes were not “extraordinary circumstances” and were therefore not exempt, meaning consumers should be compensated in accordance with the regulation.

Ryanair said in a statement: “Courts in Germany, Spain and Italy have already ruled that strikes are an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ and EU261 compensation does not apply. We expect the UK CAA and courts will follow this precedent.”

The CAA noted as a result of Ryanair’s action, passengers with existing claims will now have to await the outcome of the enforcement action.

Cathay upgrades Seattle route

A new non-stop service linking Hong Kong to Seattle and due to be launched by Cathay Pacific on 31 March next has been upgraded from a four-a-week operation to daily from 1 July 2019 to meet what the airline calls “thriving demand”.

The airline said: “This is designed to strengthen further the only direct link between Hong Kong and this bustling city on the west coast of the US and offer our passengers more choice and increased convenience.

The route will be flown by Cathay’s technologically-advanced Airbus A350-900 aircraft and is the airline’s eighth US service following existing operations to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York JFK, New York Newark, San Francisco and Washington DC.

Elsewhere, Cathay Pacific is celebrating the launch of services to Cape Town and, through its Cathay Dragon subsidiary, to Davao City (Philippines) and Medan (Indonesia) as its record-breaking year of expansion continues

This month sees a new seasonal service to the Japanese city of Tokushima, further strengthening Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s largest international aviation hub.

FlightPath3D in celebration mood

One of the companies that supplies inflight visual information so passengers can watch the progress of their journeys is celebrating after installing its data on more than 2,000 commercial aircraft and racking up more than 275m viewings.

First flown by Norwegian Airlines on its inaugural Boeing B787 flight on 30 May 2013, FlightPath3D claims to be one of the fastest growing and most innovative tech companies in the IFEC space, with 50-plus airline customers in just five years.

CEO Boris Veksler said: “We’re delighted to have reached this significant milestone. Our ‘We will get it done’ attitude combined with rapid innovation has fuelled our growth. We’re continuing to innovate with Norwegian and will be adding our map to the short-haul fleet shortly.”

Norwegian Air Shuttle vice-president business development Boris Bubresko added: “When we selected Flightpath3D, we looked at all available products in the ‘moving map’ space and the company delivered by far the most engaging passenger experience.

“Since then, they've continued to innovate while providing a flexible and responsive service, paying attention to the details that we care about, delivering on time and making the map a painless experience for us.”

Gatwick plan wins approval

Three-quarters of residents (74%) in Sussex, Surrey and Kent who were surveyed support plans by Gatwick to increase capacity by making better use of its existing runways, with only 14% against, according to a YouGov poll published last week.

A similarly high proportion (67%), with 16% against, also supported plans to continue safeguarding land south of the airport in the national interest in case it is needed for a new runway to meet future long-term demand.

Of those who supported the plans, 38% said they did so because of the potential increase in the airport's contribution to the local economy in jobs, trade and investment.

A further 32% said they recognised the potential increase in travel connections and 27% said they were in favour because the airport already owned the land required to increase capacity.

The polling was commissioned by Gatwick to gather the views of local residents, following publication of its draft master plan two months ago (BTN 15 October).

The plan considers how Gatwick could grow across three scenarios – using new technology to increase main runway capacity, bringing Gatwick’s existing standby runway into routine use or building an additional runway to the south of the airport. Consultation on the plan runs until 10 January.

Heathrow's special-assistance app

Visually-impaired passengers at Heathrow now have access to on-demand, personalised assistance via an app called Aira as part of the airport’s multi-million pound investments to improve journeys for all passengers.

The app, available free, connects passengers directly to a trained professional agent for advice on navigating through Heathrow and assists with finding specific locations including gates, special-assistance facilities, retail outlets and restaurants.

It also provides live information on news affecting their journeys. It can be accessed by pre-loading on mobile phones or passengers can pre-book special assistance through their airlines and seek information on the app at the same time.

The number of passengers requesting special assistance at Heathrow is rising by some 8% each year, with more than 1m requests in 2017 alone – more than any other European airport.

Heathrow director of customer relations and service Jonathan Coen said the airport was taking proactive steps to transform its service to these passengers, backed by £23m investment in an upgraded contract with special-assistance partner  OmniServ.

Last year, the airport launched the use of the ‘SignLive’ app which connects passengers to trained British Sign Language translators on demand, before and after their travel through Heathrow.

Iceland Asia first non-stop link

Keflavik Airport has gained its first non-stop link between Iceland and Asia with the launch by Wow air last week of a three-a-week service to Delhi using 345-seat Airbus A330-300s.

The further expansion by Wow offers the first direct flight to Asia and a low-cost option for passengers between India and North America via a seamless transfer at Keflavik. The airport to date has had direct flights to Europe and North America only.

Airport operator Isavia commercial director Hlynur Sigurdsson said: “With 27% of international visitors to Iceland coming from destinations outside these regions, and with this market having grown by 11% during the first nine months of 2018, it is great to see Wow air expanding Keflavik’s global reach.

“There are also strong cultural relations between India and North America. With this low-cost option for passengers, we are happy to support Wow in offering a new travel option to the 6m passengers that fly between the two regions each year.”

The addition of Delhi to Keflavik’s network tops another record-breaking year for the European hub with just under 10m passengers using Keflavik this year –making 2018 the ninth consecutive year of double-digit passenger growth.

Minister set for Airlines UK dinner

Bookings are now open for the Airlines UK 2019 annual dinner, taking place on 30 January at the Park Plaza Hotel in Victoria, London. It is the largest airline social event in the UK and one of the highlights of the aviation calendar.

Keynote speaker for the 2019 gathering is aviation minister Baroness Liz Sugg, who will be joining around 250 senior representatives from across the industry, including airlines and airports, the government, CAA and media.

The minister’s speech will come at an important time, with government support for a third runway at Heathrow under scrutiny and just weeks after publication of the Green Paper on the UK’s aviation strategy setting out initial thoughts on aviation through to 2050 (see also Strategy consultation launched in this issue).

The first proposed measures from the strategy consultation were outlined just last week by the minister during a visit to Gatwick, including the proposal for the creation of a new “passenger charter” to be adopted by airlines and airports, and backed by the government.

To reserve a table or individual places at the dinner, contact

More airports go high-tech

Better boarding for American Airlines customers arrived at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) last week with the launch of the carrier’s first pilot biometric boarding programme.

Passengers on selected international departures from LAX Terminal 4 can now use technology using a one-step facial recognition system that scans and verifies identity with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the gate in seconds.

American senior vice-president Suzanne Boda said: “As our gateway to Asia-Pacific, LAX is the perfect location to launch biometric boarding with the goal or providing a more efficient, modern experience for passengers and team members while enhancing aviation security.”

The high-tech surge at world airports has also been joined by Delta Air Lines, which has brought in with what it calls kerb-to-gate biometric facial recognition at its Terminal F facility (below) at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International (ATL).

Following the rollout, the Atlanta-based carrier also announced it will expand end-to-end biometric facial recognition to its hub at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) in 2019.

Testing of the DTW system, which began in July, is now being extended to all 14 international gates at McNamara Terminal, with the rest of the airport to follow.

Now Canada signs UK air deal

Passengers will have the same access to routes between the UK and Canada post-Brexit following a new air services agreement between the two countries, transport secretary Chris Grayling announced last week.

It follows the government’s recent announcement of a similar deal with the US, guaranteeing passenger journeys and further bolstering a trade relationship worth £50bn (BTN last week).

Grayling said: “This new aviation arrangement between the UK and Canada will further strengthen the strong economic and cultural bonds shared between our countries.

“International cooperation is essential to a thriving economy and this latest arrangement continues to build momentum for the UK as we leave the EU and take a more prominent position on the world stage.”

He noted that since 2012, the number of passengers travelling between the UK and Canada had increased steadily, with more than 3.5m people travelling between the two countries last year.

The announcement was also another step forward as the UK continued to build on an important trade relationship which saw goods worth £17.5bn traded between the two countries last year, he added.

The deal replaces the EU aviation agreement which is currently in place.

Poland celebrates

LOT Polish Airlines was much the talking point last Friday (7 December) as the country of its founding celebrated 100 years since independence from Tsarist Russia. 

The Churchill Room at the House of Commons was the chosen venue, hosted by Dan Kawczynski MP, very much a Brit but proud of his Polish extraction. He arrived in the UK as a seven-year-old (he is now 42) and is the member for Shrewsbury and Atcham in Shropshire. 

The Polish National Tourist Board in London put together the evening with Ambassador Arkady Rzegocki present and generous highest standard catering. Surrealist artist Rafal Olbinski made a presentation backed up by British poet Ian Lukins, and the evening was completed with live music including a multi-national jazz rendition of Silent Night by a Polish jazz trio of Leszek Kulsazewicz, Monika Liedke and Tomasz Zyrmonth.

Next year will see LOT becoming a major player at London City Airport with a new twice-daily service to Warsaw starting on 7 January and Budapest on 19 February. Another new LOT introduction due to begin in May is to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. The airline is adding four Embraer E190 jets to operate the flights in a two-class layout.

Radisson for Moscow and Budapest

One of Moscow’s legendary landmarks joins the Radisson Hotel Group’s elite Radisson Collection division next month as the group also starts work on another property in Budapest.

In Moscow, the Radisson Collection will welcome the arrival of the Ukraina Hotel, currently the Radisson Royal. Formerly the tallest hotel in Europe, it stands on the banks of the Moskva River and is one of the capital’s ‘Seven Sisters’ neo-classical skyscrapers.

Features of the property, which has 501 rooms and suites, include an art collection, a diorama of Moscow, 26 on-site shops, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and its own collection of 10 yachts offering city river cruises.

Radisson Hotel Group executive vice-president and chief development officer Elie Younes said: “This property is the perfect illustration of what Radisson Collection stands for, combining timeless architecture with exceptional experiences.”

In Budapest, Radisson has started work on the Radisson Collection Basilica, which will offer 71 rooms and suites in an historic building facing the landmark after which it is named.

Set to open in mid-2020, the hotel, which occupies a prime central location, will feature a fitness centre, restaurant, lobby bar and a second rooftop bar with extensive views over Budapest’s historic skyline.

RuMa opens in Kuala Lumpur

Set in Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle and steps from the Petronas Towers, the newly-opened RuMa Hotel and Residences is the latest luxury property from Urban Resort Concepts (URC) and the company’s first development outside China.

The RuMa, which boasts 253 guestrooms and suites with a design inspired by Malaysia’s colourful history, will also become the only property in Kuala Lumpur to join the Leading Hotels of the World consortium.

In collaboration with Shanghai-based MQ-studio, the hotel’s interiors have been designed to exemplify URC’s hallmark features, integrating luxurious and understated metaphorical design in a modern space with cultural influences.

Guests enter through a Moorish-inspired, woven bronze screen to be greeted by a locally-handcrafted bronze water fountain enclosed by an interlaced terracotta bird cage, in reference to the bird cages that once held canaries used to check carbon monoxide gas leakages in mines.

The rooms and suites are fitted with handcrafted and artisanal furniture amid views of the Petronas Towers while other benefits include 24hr check-in and check-out, 24hr gym, free access to a fully stocked mini-bar.

Guests can also breakfast anywhere in the hotel, while a variety of indoor and outdoor venues fully-equipped with leading edge audio-visual technology cater for both corporate and social gatherings.

Sir Terry quits Crossrail

As predicted by BTN, Sir Terry Morgan is leaving his job as chairman of Crossrail after resigning last week. The announcement was made by transport secretary Chris Grayling and London mayor Sadiq Khan.

In his Crossrail role, Sir Terry was a popular and “hands-on” chief executive. He also, controversially, took on the role of CEO at London City Airport (LCY), but left recently, saying the HS2 role was devouring all his time. Rob Holden has now taken over as LCY chairman (BTN 26 November).

Kahn noted he had “had concerns” about the effectiveness of Crossrail Ltd’s governance and was angry when Crossrail Ltd revealed the project would be delayed.

Khan said there had also historically been a lack of adequate information shared by the senior Crossrail leadership with the project’s joint sponsors, the Department for Transport and Transport for London. This begs the question whether he was aware that the previous Silvertown for London City Airport station was not part of the Crossrail project approved by his predecessor Boris Johnson.  The Elizabeth Line surfaces just by the Executive Terminal.

“Under new leadership, Crossrail must provide the joint sponsors and Londoners with the confidence that it has robust mechanisms in place to deliver a revised schedule, operating with a renewed sense of urgency and transparency,” he added.

Snow Leopard flies

The first new-generation Embraer E190-E2 for Kazakhstan’s national carrier Air Astana arrived at Nursultan Nazarbayev International airport in the Kazakh capital last week, following ferry flights from the manufacturer’s factory in Brazil.

It is the first of five Embraer E190-E2s ordered to take over from older E190s currently operating domestic and low-density regional services, with the first aircraft having entered service in 2011.

The new aircraft features a special Air Astana “Snow Leopard” livery intended to draw global attention to the threat of extinction faced by the large wild cat, which is a native of the mountain ranges in southern Kazakhstan.

Air Astana, which flies to more than 60 domestic and international routes from hubs in Astana and Almaty, says the twin-engine single-aisle Embraer E190-E2 offers lower operating costs, emissions and noise levels than before and has a range of more than 5,000km.

The Air Astana fleet consists of Boeing B767s and B757s, Airbus A320 Family aircraft including the A320neo and A321neo, and Embraer E190s. In 2012, it became the first carrier from Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe to be awarded the prestigious 4-star rating by Skytrax.

Strategy consultation launched

The first proposed measures from the government’s aviation strategy consultation, including creating a passenger charter, were outlined on Friday by aviation minister Baroness Liz Sugg during a visit to Gatwick.

She said the idea, designed to build on the “positive steps already taken” by the industry, would be adopted by airlines and airports, and backed by the government.

It would set out to promote best practice and create a shared agreement of the required service levels for passengers, ensuring improvements were felt throughout their journeys.

The minister said a major focus of the charter centred on improving the flying experience for less-able passengers, providing clarity on the assistance that should be provided to people travelling with reduced mobility and hidden disabilities.

Airlines UK and the Airport Operators Association (AOA) welcomed the consultation. Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade said: "UK airlines operate in one of the most competitive sectors in the world, and look forward to working with government towards a new Aviation Strategy.”

AOA CEO Karen Dee said: “The UK aviation industry offers a great experience for passengers, but we are always looking to build on our success. We look forward to working with government on the passenger charter to improve the experience further.”

Virgin dismisses strike threat

The threat of industrial unrest looming over Virgin Atlantic at Christmas was dismissed by the airline at the weekend as British Airways also faced the prospect of fresh problems with pilots and cabin crew.

Virgin posted a message on its website saying: “A small group of pilots (16%) have voted to strike, however all of our customers will be able to complete their journeys this Christmas as planned – this is our absolute priority.”

The pilots have voted to strike from 22-25 December over what they say is the airline’s refusal to recognise their union, the Professional Pilots Union (PPU). Officials said the union had also been excluded from talks about changes to benefits.

At BA, there is renewed industrial tension after the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) joined forces with cabin crew and ground staff unions Unite and GMB to submit a joint pay claim.

They want improvements in the carrier’s financial results to be reflected as well as enhanced profit-sharing arrangements for staff and the introduction of an employee share ownership scheme.

The unions – noting BA had gone from a £230m operating loss in 2009 to a £1.8bn profit in 2017, “with an even better result forecast for 2018” – said negotiations are scheduled to begin this month.

ON TOUR: Fiesole and Florence

Hertfordshire-based photographer Brian Arnopp, whose interests range from food and drink to restaurants and travel, reports on a belated return trip to two of Italy’s most alluring attractions. He also took the pictures.  

Everyone has heard of Florence, but in the nearby hills just above the city is a little jewel of a town called Fiesole. It dates from Etruscan and Roman times and there is plenty of evidence of their occupation. For a long time the settlement was a serious rival to Florence but it was eventually subdued and is said to be where Leonardo da Vinci first experimented with his thoughts on flight.

My wife and I first visited Fiesole 17 years ago (before she was my wife) and found little changed on our return this year. We stayed previously in the Hotel Villa Bonelli, so decided to make it our base again – the only change was the breakfast room was now downstairs instead of at the top, so it no longer enjoyed the views on to the surrounding landscape.

Rooms are basic and the hotel is on a steep hill but breakfasts were good and the staff friendly and helpful. A taxi from the airport at Florence cost us €40. We could have made the journey by two changes of bus and a walk, but it was late ...

A principal reason for our return was to see the art of Fra Angelico in the church of San Marco in Florence. We missed out on our previous visit because the church was closed. This time, after making the 20min journey by No 7 bus from the main square in Fiesole, we found it open. Tickets for the bus cost €1.50 and are valid for 90min. It is important to have a valid one, as there is a spot fine of €50 if you don’t.

Fra Angelico was a 15th-century friar who moved from the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole to San Marco and created magnificent art works in the church that look as fresh as the day they were painted. Another repository of magnificent art is the church of San Lorenzo, but it is huge inside and very different in style from San Marco. Another monastery in Fiesole, that of San Francesco, can also be visited and still has friars living there; it is very dark inside and retains a great sense of peace. However, If you want to visit, it is a steep climb and not for the faint-hearted.

On our last trip we visited Florence's Duomo and the Uffizi but although our stay this time was out of season the queues were huge just to get the timed tickets; to avoid the queues, it is best to visit early morning. Fortunately, October is a pleasant time to visit; it was 26deg C in Florence with Fiesole, being higher, slightly cooler.

Also on our to-do list was a visit to Montepulciano but it proved too difficult to reach by public transport, so we went by bus to Siena instead at €8 per person for a one-way ticket. Normally somewhat quieter in terms of tourists, it was lively in other ways this time as it was the first day of the allocation process for the horses set to compete in next year’s Palio di Siena race. This led to much singing in the streets and groups from Siena’s municipal districts, the Contrade, eating at outdoor tables as the handsome horses were being led round for their inspection.

Siena’s Duomo, dating from the mid-14th century, was another magnificent sight. With its black and white columns and its inlaid marble floor, it is reputed to be the best in Italy. Normally only a few sections of the floor are on display but when we visited it was completely uncovered, which happens six to 10 weeks each year.

Back in Fiesole, we spent our last day visiting the well-preserved Roman amphitheatre and remains of the bath house and temple. A museum there has many Roman and Etruscan artefacts on display and there is also a lovely walk turning left out of Hotel Bonelli which gives stunning views over Florence.

Eating out in Fiesole is not an issue as there are a number of restaurants, including an Indian eatery which was very good. We had pizza and lasagne and both were excellent. At another location, we had a complimentary grappa from one restaurateur who was very cordial but spoke no English. As a result of that, we are now going to take Italian lessons so we can discuss the finer points of grappa on our next visit.

Being a food photographer, I went hunting for some shots of the local speciality, wild boar and pasta. We found some in Fiesole and also at Antico Fattore, a highly-recommended restaurant in Florence near the river Arno. Sadly, the dish was served without the truffle shavings – although I did manage to pick up some truffles in Siena.

Fiesole has always had a fair number on writers and artists associated with it. The French writer Alexandre Dumas, German author Hermann Hesse and the German painter Paul Klee among many others were residents at various times, so there is a strong cultural background which should inspire you to seek out the local offerings. If after that you also want the art of Florence but not the chaos of the tourists, Fiesole is well worth considering as an alternative place to stay, with the No 7 bus into the big city running every half-hour up to midnight.

When we talked about going, my wife mentioned remembering an artist painting by a tree overlooking Florence. I couldn’t remember it but when I saw that tree again in the evening light and the view over Florence on our walk up to San Francesco, it evoked memories that will stay forever.

AND FINALLY: A true Brit

American Craig Kreeger, the retiring CEO of Virgin Atlantic, likes the UK so much that he has become a British (not European) citizen. And he calls the most popular sport of them all by its proper name, “Football”!  (See Aviation Club in this issue.