Saturday, October 1, 2011

The emerald airport

You can laugh as much as you want about the CamelCase in FitzGerald, but it is still one of the oldest and most famed Irish families, tracing back to Maurice FitzGerald, Lord of Lanstephan, whose son Gerald settled in Ireland in 1169 as part of the first Norman invasion. From this event and the Siege of Dublin in 1171 leads a direct line to the foundation of Dublin Airport, which is kind of hard to believe, but there it is: Desmond FitzGerald, brother of the former Irish head of government Garret, was the architect who designed the original terminal of Dublin Airport. It opened in 1941, a year in which other people opened concentration camps. It is likely that most of the design was actually done by Desmond's minions, but who cares.

The old terminal in Dublin is, to make it clear, a must-see for any serious airport hiker. It is one of not so many airport buildings that is actually of architectural relevance. I know almost nothing about architecture and I don't care about relevance, but look at the building and you'll understand what's going on:

Now, this is a terminal. The idea was to make it look like an ocean liner, which might become more obvious if you see the backside towards the runways. Today the walkway to pier D, finished in 2007, curves around the old terminal. In the satellite image this reinforces the impression that the old terminal is in fact the secret focal point of the airport - although it is mostly used for weather forecasts and other boring stuff. Yes, weather forecast is boring in Ireland, because the weather changes so quickly that the only relevant information is the weather report in real time.

I know Dublin airport since 2004 when pier D, now the starting point for trillions of Ryanair flights for 10 Euros plus fees, was non-existent. Instead we had to walk miles to some sort of gigantic shed. I've watched in agony as terminal 2, finally opened in 2010, was growing slowly over the years. Dublin airport has so many cheap flights to other European cities that it is a prime location to go for a walk on a rainy Sunday, even if you live in Croatia or Finland. It's not extreme and doesn't offer really ambitious hiking trips like Heathrow or JFK, but it's not too small to run out of options in less than one hour. With other words, it is perfect. With the quick Air Lingus connections to Boston or Chicago, it might even make sense for a daytrip from the US. Dublin might be the best airport hiking destination in Europe. Seriously.

The classic walk at Dublin airport is the famous Three-Terminal-Trip. Starting in front of the spectacularly ugly terminal 1, which was the main terminal for more than 3 decades but looks more like a malformed parking garage, you walk straight up the road to the brandnew terminal 2. This brings you to the first sensation - walking through the road tunnel underneath the bulging bridge that connects the two parts of the terminal. The blue illumination of the tunnel is a little bit creepy, but nothing an adult with some experience with blue lights can't handle in dignity:

At the end of the tunnel a flight of stairs leads up to the front of terminal 2 from which you can go on vast excursions through parking lots, hotels, and utility buildings until you ultimately reach the big roundabout at the East end of the airport, which leads directly to the M1, one of the two-and-a-half motorways on the island. If you like that sort of thing. The shorter and more scenic hike leads from the bus station a few hundred meters to the north, then to the west and in a straight line towards the old terminal. The whole way you have a good view on the strange trias of terminals: the classic old building, the desastrous terminal 1, and terminal 2 which looks like it could have happened in a cheesy SF movie from the 1990s. One wouldn't be able to guess that these three radically different buildings are siblings. Wait, they aren't, so, anyway.

When your reach the old terminal it's important to imagine being a Red Army tank or a horde of Mongolians on wild horses swinging spears or your preferred scene from an old-fashioned Chinese martial arts movie. It just makes more sense if you are trying to conquer the building, a long homerun to the promised land where you will raise your kids and all that. In reality, of course, you can't conquer the old terminal because it's locked most of the time. A lock is the ultimate deterrent against the Mongolian invasion. And you wouldn't want to give birth there either. Once you have realised that it's time to stroll back to terminal 1.

This whole trip through colours, spaces, and stories takes only about half an hour, even if you include the time to take pictures. Now you can invite yourself to a Strawberry Sunrise at the juice bar and head to, whatever, Rome or Moscow or wherever you came from. Don't go to Dublin. It's entirely unnecessary.

Because the jewel of Dublin is its airport.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

London Lethargy

I wanted to write about the London airports, but there was so little to write about. I postponed and postponed, a year went by, weed was growing everywhere on this blog, and there is still little to write about. London has five airports; to be fair, I only know four of them, but it seems unlikely that the little city thingy can save London's airport face. London is a gigantic airport hiking fail.

But it wasn't easy to accept this. I don't have an exact record of my visits to London airports, but I certainly spent more time on London airports than in London itself. This sounds sad, but it's not, really, because initially, in the early London years, I had high hopes, particularly for Heathrow. Such a big, massive, complex thing, there must be lots of potential. Must. Be. Originally, as you can see here, the plan was clearly to build an airport shaped like the Star of David, but nowadays it looks more like the inside of an octopus womb, plus Terminals 4 and 5 placed inconviently somewhere way off. Do octopuses actually have wombs?

But then reality hits. Terminals 1-3 are just too much stuff at the same place, it's not even funny. Good for a few quick minutes to get the circulation going in the legs and maybe a peaceful moment in front of St. Georges chapel, but that's it, as far as I can see. 4 and 5 are too far away for most stopovers. If you really want to walk from the new terminals to 1-3, it must be more than 10 miles. Still, this is an option for extreme airport hiking and someone will do it, some day, it might even be me. If there is one thing I learned over the last years, there is always someone out there doing the things I consider to be too extreme for the moment.

I'm not going to say anything about Gatwick and Luton, other than 'been there, done that'. The thing with these smallish airports in the UK: They look so similar that you really need a clear, distinctive feature to remember them, like the tower in Edinburgh. Gatwick and Luton have nothing like that. I wouldn't even buy a T shirt there.

The consolation price then is Stansted. It's the Ryanair airport, so you expect exactly nothing, but this is slightly too little. Stansted is in fact an okay hiking airport. This year alone I spent about 20 hours there and it wasn't boring, which means a lot. The terminal building itself is charmingly unoriginal, just a large, transparent block. I imagine it was 4pm on a Friday afternoon, the architect has spent the whole week playing Angry Birds, and he still has to come up with this airport design, and at some point he goes 'fuck it' and 'block'. It's the perfect way to save the weekend.

The other good thing about it is its size. Big is good. Spring nights, like all nights, can be fairly unpleasant in England, and it's always good to be able to do long rounds in the warm, dry terminal, watching the sleepers, marvelling at the imagination these people use to find vaguely comfortable sleeping positions on an airport bench. Or, conversely, at the fuck-it-all mentality of those people just lying flat on the ground somewhere in the middle of the huge hall.

Spring days, on the other hand, like all days, can be quite pleasant in England. From the terminal building it's just a short walk past the Radisson or across the parking lot to reach open land. With this type of airport (Edinburgh or Stockholm Skavsta are other examples) it's not easy to define what airport hiking is all about. Because they merge with the countryside, ordinary airport hiking quickly becomes ordinary rambling. Is the cow meadow ten minutes down the road still the airport? Can I claim the next village, too? The airport becomes bigger and bigger and ultimately the world is an airport.

Another fun game: Catching the wireless internet while walking around the Stansted bus station in front of the terminal. Since the internet is driving around with the buses, this requires to watch buses and switch between various wifi stations which all have the same name, while checking emails. With other words, it's a nightmare.