Archive for May, 2009

Proper German airports

May 26, 2009

European airports have undergone radical transformation in the last two decades regarding the provision of services. At first, it was the construction of a business centre, enabling busy businessmen to spend their time productively. Then airlines started to dedicate space for airline lounges. But slowly the airports upgraded their services not only for business travelers but for tourists: showers for the tired, long-flight travelers (for example at London Heathrow), comfortable chaise longues for those who have missed their connection (such as those in Amsterdam Schiphol), a vast array of duty-free shops for the shopacholics and, quite recently, free, wireless internet connection for the Internet savvy (such as the one at the Athens International Airport).

But what would you say is the single most important criterion with which you can judge if an airport is proper or not? Some might say the level of airport services, some for the effiency of its operations, some for the sense of security of the airport or even for its green credentials. But for German airports, I propose we use an even more simple metric, very easy to measure, unlike all of the above that would require careful auditing by a team of independent experts. I propose to judge whether a German airport is proper by the existence of a very special shop.

If you have travelled to Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg or even Frankfurt Hahn airports (to name but a few) you will probably know exactly what I mean. If you go for a stroll to the shops these airports offer, you will discover that among the designer labels, fashion accessories, electronic gadgets and book stores, there exists another type of shop you did not expect to find: a sex shop.

The Beate Uhse sex shop at Frankfurt International Airport (© LambdaPhage)

The Beate Uhse sex shop at Frankfurt International Airport (© LambdaPhage)

I was shocked to discover this the first time I travelled at Frankfurt International Airport. On exiting the baggage reclaim area, I bumped into a small sex shop among the car rental shops. My surprise was even greater when I departed from this airport and found an even bigger Beate Uhse sex shop at the departure lounge of Terminal 1. After some time, I found out that there used to be a sex cinema at the underground area of the airport, but the cinema followed the fate of the small sex shop at the arrival lounge and closed.

After I started living in Germany, I realised having a sex shop in the airport is not a big deal after all. In Greece, a sex shop is confined in certain areas in big cities, whereas in Germany, a sex shops is probably very close to the railway station of every village or city. In Greece, people visiting those shops might feel a bit of a guilt, whereas in Germany things are more normal and even families may visit. After all, sex in Germany is a very big industry, with the Beate Uhse chain being the crown jewel.

The sex shop at Munich International Airport (© Hellabella,

The sex shop at Munich International Airport (© Hellabella,

During my stay in Germany, I visited other airports and found out that they had followed the example of Frankfurt airport. Unfortunately, Stuttgart Airport and Baden Airpark, two small regional airports, did not have one.

There you have it then! I believe you can judge whether an German airport is proper by the existence of a sex shop. Funny enough, Berlin Tegel and Schönenfeld, the airports of the capital, do not have any, but I am eagerly waiting for the time when one sprouts even there.



London Underground at Night

May 23, 2009


The London Underground system, lovingly called the tube, is one of the oldest and longest metro systems in the world. Although many people complain every day that the tube is dirty, the trains often break down and too many line closures for engineering works occur during the weekend, running a network of 270 stations and 250 miles of track is no easy task.

An even bigger challenge is maintaining this network. Many people wonder why the tube is not open 24/7. The answer to this question comes from the faq section of the Transport for London website. Each day, the lines need to stop between 1: 00 and 6:00 to carry out essential maintenance and cleaning work. Unlike the four tunnel structure of the metro system in New York, where one tunnel in each direction can be used for maintenance work while the other allows the trains to run, the system in London, like on most European cities, is two-tunnelled. Therefore, to carry out essential maintenance work, the tube needs to shut, which is conveniently done during the evening hours.

But what is exactly happening during the night? Wired magazine recently went down to one of the stations and talked to the people working at Tube Lines, one of the companies responsible for the Piccadilly, the Northern and the Jubilee lines. You can see the entire video here. In this video, we witness the replacement of track sleepers, track maintenance and cleaning are the principal work carried out during those hours.


The replacement of sleepers is the main task being carried out by a team of people. During the night, the team can manage to replace only 3 sleepers. The work involves drilling the old sleeper from the concrete, lifting the sleeper (which is essentially a 4 man’s task) and then replacing it with the new one. On the other hand, the track work is now done by a special milling machine. The machine scrapes off the track to make it even and ensure a more comfortable ride for the passengers. Finally, the cleaning of the stations and the ballast is also an enormous task. Rubbish and newspapers are cleaned by hand by the staff, whereas grime at the side of the station and the ballast is being cleaned by special machinery.

Each day, therefore, the team maintaining the network faces a race through time to complete all those works and get the line to acceptable standards for the passengers for the next day. While it sounds simple, it is not an easy task considering that temperatures can go up to 40 ℃. And all that, during the time that we are having our dream in the comfort of our home.


River Café

May 9, 2009


In many ways, when I set out to experience a fine dining restaurant, I expect to be amazed. Amazed by the careful choice of exotic ingredients and the unusual combinations of the chef creating interesting dishes. But to say that I have encountered this when I recently visited River Café restaurant in Hammersmith, is a gross understatement. In fact, River Café has challenged my notion of fine cooking to date. It was not that the restaurant did not offer delicious Italian dishes. Quite the opposite; the selection and the combination of ingredients had been carefully thought. It was rather the proof that everyday ingredients – pasta, rice, greens and beans – if cooked properly, may outperform more expensive combinations like lobster, caviar and paté, typically on offer at other restaurants.

The garden of the restaurant on a sunny April day

The garden of the restaurant on a sunny April day

The philosophy of simplicity is instilled in every corner in this restaurant. The dining, space, a big rectangular space is painted in tones of reassuring blue. The restaurant is bright, as one side is completely covered in windows overlooking the beautiful garden and river Thames. In fact, if the weather is nice, do not resist the temptation to dine outside. At one corner of the restaurant you will find the open plan kitchen and the majestic oven that is used to cook many of those wonderful dishes. In fact it looks as if you can easily walk to the kitchen – although we did not really try it – to see how your food is being prepared like you would in an Italian home. Etched glass and metal has been used extensively in the kitchen and the bar area, that cover most of one side and overlook at the dining area and the garden.

The oven at the open plan kitchen, © River Café

The oven at the open plan kitchen, © River Café

The service is impeccable, friendly and simple, without any signs of authority. And when it comes down to food, I do not remember experiencing something so delicious, yet so simple. As it happens with all the restaurants of fine dining, the menu changes daily, depending on what is fresh in the season. I visited the restaurant in April and the menu featured a variety of green and beans combined with fish and meat. We tried a spring pea risotto, spinach ravioli and spaghetti with Devon crab for first course and wood-roasted turbot, chargrilled sea bass and slow cooked osso bucco –veal- for main course. But it was neither the primi nor the secondi that have left me such a lasting impression – although they were cooked to perfection. It was the antipasti, the simple dishes offered at the start of the meal to prepare you for what is coming next. In the menu, prosciutto di parma with peas looked like a straightforward dish, but in reality, the saltiness of the meat with the sweetness and the oily texture of the slow cooked peas and cipolline onions, lifted the dish to a different level.

Whereas River Café is not exactly cheap, paying £50-70 per person (service inclusive) for a two-course lunch with antipasti and desserts represents a good value for money. It is only after you taste the food at the restaurant that you will realise what the restaurant truly has to offer.


(all images © LambdaPhage, except for the image of the oven)

P.S.1: One week after I visited the restaurant, I read that River Cafe is regarded the 8th best restaurant to eat in London and in the top 100 restaurants in the world. Yes, it all makes sense.

P.S.2: River Café is located at Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London, W6 9HA (Google map, Google Street view) and the closet tube station is Hammersmith.