Saturday, May 28th 2016
Our flight home was not until 14:10 but the airport is at a distance from the town and we needed to be there in time to complete the usual tedious formalities such as checking in and going through the baggage and person search. After our experience with the taxi (the ride itself was pleasant enough but the fare was expensive), we sought other means travelling to the airport.
On Thursday, we had bought a 48-hour ‘travel card each. This gives you unlimited travel on buses, trams and underground trains in the city. As is usual in European countries other than the UK, you have to ‘validate’ your ticket before use. This involves poking it into a special machine which stamps the date on it. This means you can buy tickets in advance and validate them just before your first use on public transport, maximizing the period of validity. Our travel passes could be used during the 48 hours following the moment of validation. We reckoned that we could use them on our explorations of the city and perhaps also to travel to the airport, saving the taxi fare. Nearly, but not quite.
Let me say a word about public transport in Vienna. We found it excellent. At least, we found the railways and trams excellent, as we did not actually use any buses. Both of us like trams and were pleased to find there is an efficient tram service in Vienna though it doesn’t cover the whole city. A remarkable feature of public transport in Vienna is… no ticket barriers! We travelled by rail and by tram, hopping on and off, and never once did we have to show our tickets or use them to pass a barrier of any kind. Is this because the Viennese are very law-abiding and few people dodge fares? I don’t know. I’m sure this wouldn’t work in London where fare-dodging is a matter of concern.
For all I know, our plan of using our travel passes to get to the airport might have worked if we had studied transport maps and found out the necessary public transport routes. Instead, though, we decided to take the special airport train called the CAT. This runs from the train station to the airport and the trip takes just 16 minutes.
We packed our bags and checked out of the hotel simply by handing over our electronic door keys. Unlike France and Belgium, there are no local taxes to pay on top of the hotel bill. Then we walked up the road to the tram stop and boarded the tram for the last time.
At the railway station, we found our way to the CAT, which is in a separate area of its own. There is a long entrance area rather like the check-in section of an airport, with people sitting behind desks. It was very quiet and there were very few travellers. It was not clear what we were supposed to do so we asked at one of the desks and they indicated where we should go, and where we would find ticket machines.
We bought our tickets from one of the machines (these can be operated in English, of course) and went down onto the platform to wait. A couple of mainline trains ran past on other tracks and then the CAT arrived. It was a smart modern train with comfortable seats and plenty of room for baggage. After the train had started, we realized we should have validated our tickets but had forgotten to do so. In the event, it didn’t matter. An inspector came by and checked our tickets and that was that.
At the airport, we thought about getting coffee and perhaps having something to eat. Although we were well ahead of time, we decided to check in straightaway. As a result we got good seats, together this time. We chose seats near an escape door as you get more leg room in exchange for agreeing to open the door and throw it out in case of an emergency landing.
We then proceeded to the baggage check, thinking that, as at Heathrow and other UK airports, there would be shops and cafes in the waiting area. Mistake! Having been checked, we found that all we could do now was to proceed to our departure gate and then sit on the hard seats and wait. The only facilities available were toilets and a coffee machine. The toilets were fine but I did not manage to make the coffee machine work.
We had rather a long wait until staff arrived and began the long, slow process of preparing the gate for our departure. Then suddenly, all was movement and we were stomping along the tunnel to the aircraft.
Did I say I don’t like flying? Actually, that’s not exactly true. I think flying is a wonderful thing and I often watch gulls and other masters of the air and wish I could do as they do. I imagine gliding through the cold air with the wind whistling in my ears and seeing the world spread out below me. What a marvellous experience that would be. It’s flying in commercial aircraft that I don’t like. For all the cheesy smiles and expressions of welcome, you are herded like cattle and packed in like sardines. My knees are jammed against the seat in front (heaven help me if the occupant of that seat decides to recline it) and my legs and back begin to ache as I wriggle and fidget, trying to find a position that is not excruciatingly uncomfortable.
Happily, there were no delays even though we had to take a slightly circuitous route avoiding France where there was an air traffic controllers’ strike. (When are air traffic controllers in France not on strike?) After a two-hour flight we touched down at Heathrow and I could release my legs from purgatory.
We followed the crowd through doors, up and down stairs and along seemingly endless corridors until we at last debouched into the baggage reclaim area. I am told that this long pilgrimage through the wastelands of the air terminal is not really necessary but is a deceit practised on air travellers to give the baggage handlers time to bring the luggage from the plane and load it onto the carousel. I do not know whether that is true.
We next found ourselves in the passport queue. In Vienna, my passport had been scrutinized by an officer who had had some difficulty with it. As he muttered and ran it through the reader again and again I began to worry. Was there something wrong with my passport? I was already imagining myself sitting in a prison cell and being visited by someone from the British Consulate when he brusquely snapped my passport shut, handed it to me and indicated that I should move on… which I did, though feeling slightly unnerved. At Heathrow, the British passport controller was a pleasant fellow who bade me good day and asked how I was. Having returned the compliments I asked whether there was anything wrong with my passport, as they had had trouble with it in Vienna. “Nothing wrong with it,” said he. “It’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s quite new. Welcome to the UK!”
More corridors to negotiate, and then we passed through the Customs Hall. No one detained us here and suddenly we emerged through a doorway into the noise and bustle of the terminal. We ran the gauntlet of people waiting for friends and relatives or waving cards with other people’s names on them and headed towards the sign indicating the Underground. That familiar icon in blue, red and white and red, more than anything else in the airport, tells you that you are home again.
The train rattled through the tunnels of the airport terminus, then out into the open air and then into tunnels again as we reached central London. The journey did not seem as long as it sometimes does and soon we were arriving at King’s Cross. We left the tube here and climbed the stairs to street level and made out way to the bus stop. We caught a 73 bus for the last short section of our journey.
It would not be fair to judge Vienna on such short acquaintance. We enjoyed exploring the city and visiting the Secession Building, the Clock Museum and even Klimt Villa. We admired the public transport system and enjoyed riding the trams. The people we dealt with were welcoming and helpful and seemed to enjoy talking to us in English. All in all it was a good experience. Will we ever go to Vienna again? I would not like to say no but, on the other hand, there are many other places to see, a longer list than we can ever exhaust.