Following the success of the mystery trip, I’ve been keen to make further short, less elaborately planned visits to unfamiliar locations. This was certainly one of those, thrown together a couple of weeks before travelling after my wife made similarly short-notice plans for a trip to Holland. Since we wouldn’t be travelling together, I didn’t want to claim anywhere that was on our joint wish-list; but it also meant I could indulge some aviation geekery. BA operates a daily widebody service between its Heathrow hub and Madrid, home base of IAG stablemate Iberia. So I could pull off a trick I previously used in Oslo, redeeming Avios for Club Europe but getting a Club World seat. I’d assumed this would be on a 777, so was particularly happy to find that for the upcoming winter schedule they’d be using a 787! This was the only aircraft type BA operates which I hadn’t flown in Club World, a situation I hadn’t quite been able to remedy before leaving their employ. Better still, I could cut out some of the London hassle by flying to Madrid from Bristol on Easyjet – but didn’t have to feel guilty about not simply flying back with them, as they don’t operate the route on a Saturday.
For my last week at BA I’d lived out of hotels, jumping between various options at Heathrow to make the most of either loyalty programme promotions, or heavily discounted industry rates. In particular, two reasonably-priced stays with Club Carlson (first the Radisson Blu Edwardian, then the Park Inn) had earned me a voucher for a free Friday night anywhere in the next few months. Granted, I’d spent £60 more than I needed to by staying with them instead of at the Terminal 4 Premier Inn – but the Carlson properties were both nicer and better located, and now the voucher would cover a €200 room at the Radisson Blu Milan Prado! For convenience, I booked my Thursday night there too (for a less painful, but still rather steep cash rate), so I feel they didn’t lose out completely.
Both bookings were for a standard room, and although I didn’t receive an upgrade on either, they were able to merge them into a single stay to avoid the need for a room switch. The room I received also offered a decent view across the square rather than the internal courtyard. In retrospect I should have picked a cheaper single room for the first night, and hoped that a combination of status and convenience would have placed me in the same standard room for the whole stay.
The room was to the usual decent standard I expect from the brand, but the real selling point of this hotel is its location. On short stays I like to be as central as possible, and although I had no feel for what that might mean in Madrid, I was very happy with the Radisson’s neighbourhood. Getting there from the airport by metro would be a three line faff, but the express bus is straightforward. I enjoyed a pleasant evening walk from the Plaza de Cibeles stop – with a park full of trees, statues and fountains running down the middle of it, Paseo del Prado doesn’t feel anything like the eight-lane highway it actually is, and gave me my first taste of Madrid’s grand architecture. Alternatively, Atocha station (where the bus terminates) is even nearer to the hotel. Once settled in, you have easy metro links from there or Antón Martin; but apart from a trip to an english-language cinema I was generally happy to explore by foot, especially with the beautiful Retiro park just a few minutes walk away.
Since I was alone and don’t speak a word of Spanish, I took the easy option of dinner via room service one night – the Cod fillet baked on the skin, walnut meuniere butter & tomato fondu was reasonable, but the glass platter that had been innocently described as Vanilla Crème brûlée with a berry sauce was excellent! Since local custom seems to favour a very light breakfast – possibly just coffee – I was glad that the chain stuck to its Scandinavian roots and offered an extensive breakfast buffet. Sadly, despite a hefty asking price you have to pay even more to unlock the ‘premium’ options like made-to-order cooked items, which my appetite couldn’t justify. Probably better to just do as the locals do, then fill up on tapas at lunch…
…which is precisely what I did on the other day of my trip, as a looping route back to the hotel took me past Platea:
This former cinema turned ‘gastronomic centre’ hosts a variety of options, from mix-and-match tapas bars through to Michelin-starred dining. I stuck to traditional Spanish choices on the ‘patio’, but on a future visit would like to sample the international offerings a level down. But any of them would allow you to enjoy the impressive settings!
The Tourist Attraction
I deliberately went in under-prepared, and was delighted by what I found. Madrid offered up soaring buildings in a crisp architectural style; parkland still resplendent in autumnal colours in November (with pleasantly warm sunshine to match, despite threats of storms); and plenty of curiosities during my largely undirected wanderings, from a station-turned-tropical garden to an open air book market.
However, I did stick to a couple of traditions rather than visiting completely blind. Searching for an architectural museum didn’t quite hit, but did point me towards the Museo ABC, which focuses on design; on seeing its geometric exterior, I knew I had to check it out in person, and it proved a photographic treat. I also consulted the Atlas Obscura, which suggested the defunct metro stop at Chamberí. Now known as Andén 0 (platform 0), it’s a museum whose few opening days, limited operating hours and one-out, one-in entry policy make for hefty queues. But they turned out to be faster-moving than you’d expect, and although not likely to be to everyone’s taste, exploring what remains of the 1960’s station definitely appealed to me:
A one-way from Bristol to Madrid runs to just £48 on Easyjet; another £16 for an ‘up front’ package secured me seat 1A, an extra item of hand baggage, and speedy boarding. My office in the airport’s old terminal building has a view across to the gate this service departs from each evening, so I appreciated getting to experience the reverse angle for a change. Once doors closed I discovered that seat 1B was also vacant, for that Club Europe feel. We picked up a ten minute departure delay, and I opted to spend a bit more on the meal deal package. Other than that, not much to report from a routine European shorthaul hop.
However, with a 787-9 rostered the return leg would be a bit more special. As one way tickets priced up at over £600 in Club, this was clearly going to be a redemption flight! Standard rates would have been 12,750 Avios and £17.70 in fees, but as I was looking to preserve our Avios balance for a big award next year I chose ‘Avios and money’ (not to be confused with ‘Part Pay with Avios’), taking the most extreme option of 6800 Avios and £72.70. This is equivalent to paying less than 0.88p per Avios, which is far less than it would cost to make up any shortfall later.
Since Madrid is Iberia’s hub, I was hoping for decent lounges, and it didn’t disappoint (in fact, the whole airport was impressive – and massive). One upside of the UK’s refusal to participate in Schengen is that I would be departing from Terminal 4S. This meant access to the Velázquez lounge, which had completed refurbishment a few weeks earlier. This turned out to be far less crowded than BA’s own Galleries at Heathrow, with excellent plane-spotting opportunities, comfortable seating, and a wide array of food options- top marks for having Ben & Jerry’s ice cream!
I’d spent some time stalking the seat map between booking and travel, but access never became available (for me, at any rate) to the First class seats or forward Club World mini-cabin. So I stumped up an extra £22 for 10K in the main cabin: a rear-facing window seat, my preferred arrangement even if it runs the risk of blocked access to the aisle. This also turned out to give a great view of the 787’s distinctive wing:
Most passengers seemed unaware of what they’d be getting – a younger group even expressed surprise that such a large plane could possibly fly! I like the idea of an unexpected treat, particularly for those booked into Club. Of course, we didn’t get the full experience: the IFE isn’t active, the electronic windows didn’t respond to controls, and the catering is Club Europe standard. But I definitely enjoyed the extra comfort, and hope to do so again in the future when heading somewhere further afield.