Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'm trying to run a hotel here

This is typical. Absolutely typical... of the kind of... ARSE I have to put up with from you people! You ponce in here, expecting to be handwaited on hand and foot while I'm trying to run a hotel here! Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not! You're all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren't you? Well, let me tell you something - this is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble! Well, I've had fifteen years of pandering to the likes of you, and I've had enough! I've had it! Come on, pack your bags and get out!
-Basil Fawlty
Last weekend, Mrs H decided to take me away on a romantic weekend as an early celebration of my birthday. We went to one of Romania's top spa hotels, which has 4 stars (how do these star rating work? Is it self-assessment, or something more complex? I'm never really sure).

Anyway, the whole weekend was very enjoyable, and romantic, and celebratory. Though sadly this was despite, rather than because of the hotel itself, which was, to be honest, utterly farcical rather like a 4 star, large chain, Fawlty Towers. Much of the weekend was spent laughing about the whole incompetence of the experience.

We were booked in on a special Valentine's Day weekend package (though we actually went a week after Valentine's Day, but the package was still available). This included a number of extras. Chocolate, champagne and a rose in the room, romantic aromatherapy bath for two, breakfast in bed, etc etc

Some "highlights" of this experience:
  1. The rose in our room was dead. And I don't mean it had been cut and put in a vase, I mean that it had been cut and put in a vase some days (possibly weeks) earlier.
  2. The breakfast in bed involved extremely cold coffee, the wrong food, and no cutlery. We called to ask if we might get a knife and fork, perhaps, and a little while later there was a knock at the door, and when I opened it, the apologetic waiter bustled past me and handed the cutlery to Mrs H - who was sitting, naked and uncovered, in bed. (He did have the presence of mind to apologise and say "I'm not looking")
  3. The special romantic aromatherapy bath took place in the "wellness centre". the room was absolutely brilliant and I wish I had got a picture. It was in a curtained off area of the treatment area. I think I've mentioned before that "spas" here are not into all that relaxation stuff that tends to be part of the "spa experience" in the US and increasingly other places, rather they are the sort of health concentration camps beloved of Victorian Britain. So this romantic bath took place in what was basically a hospital room, with a large plastic tub in the middle. To make it a bit more conducive for its Valentine inspired purpose, some strings of cheap red heart shaped balloons with "I Love You" written on then had been hung from the ceiling. And there was CD player with soothing music. That's it. It was still not exactly the most romantic place I've ever been, and in fact would not really make the top thousand. It would, however, probably make it in the top ten of most comical places I've been, and the top 50 of least romantic places I've ever been.
These problems were all, as you can see, actually pretty amusing in their own way, and as we're not exactly the world's sappiest couple, they didn't really dampen our weekend, as much as provide us with a selection of amusing stories to tell on our return to the real world.

One or two other things were a little bit more annoying, however. The hotel website clearly advertised that there was a swimming pool, something which we were both quite looking forward to. We looked everywhere for this mysterious swimming pool, but it was not to be found anywhere. When questioned, the staff looked a bit sheepish and confessed that actually there wasn't a swimming pool at all. In addition, it was all but impossible to get a drink of water in the whole spa area. This seemed a bit off to me since there were saunas, steamrooms, a hot salty bath, massages etc going on, and you'd think that water to drink was a fairly essential commodity. But no. Even the taps in the sinks in the changing rooms were turned off. The only real option was hanging around the "snack bar" for 15 minutes while someone was found to serve us, and buy a bottle of mineral water at (wait for it) a 2000% mark-up (from the retail price I pay for the same water in the shops).

It was, in short, the Eastern European customer care experience writ large. The hotel was nicely renovated, well decorated etc. but the details were, shall we say, not really taken care of. At all. The attitude often seems to be "We've done the place up, and it looks really good. Isn't that enough?"

So anyway, I complained, and received a couple of emails telling me how sorry they were (and they've now removed the phantom swimming pool from the website), but not really satisfied my complaints (in fact, each new email that arrives makes me more pissed off for what it doesn't say and the apparent lack of understanding why I might be a tad peeved about this).

[Since I often seem to be read as having some kind of nationalist agenda vis-a-vis Hungarian/Romanian issues, I'll point out here that while the hotel is in Romania, it's in a very Hungarian town, and is actually part of a large Hungarian chain of hotels. I wondered whether I ought to keep the actual name of the hotel out of this, but in the end, have decided that there is really no reason why I need to protect them from anything, since I am increasingly regarding them as a bunch of dishonest chancers who really couldn't care less, so I feel my message of (extremely) limited reach can go ahead and warn people away from the Danubius Hotel Sovata/Szovata. Based on this experience, I'd go as far as to warn people off any of the hotels in the Danubius chain]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is there a Monoathlon?

To my surprise I have found myself getting into the Winter Olympics of late. Partly because this is because we have a genuine bona fide local hero(ine) to watch competing. This is Eva Tofalvi who is a biathlete and, despite the Romanian biathlon team having barely a ski to rub together, has done superbly well. She's finished 14th, 19th, 11th, and 24th in the individual events she's been in, and 10th in the relay, which is a great set of results.

Biathlon, by the way, is a great sport. I've really enjoyed watching it. It's a race where every now and again they have to stop and shoot targets and then do extra bits of racing every time they miss one. It's a fantastic spectacle, and I reckon all races should have this extra bits tacked on. Formula One, for example, would be improved immensely if the drivers had to parallel park 5 times every 15 laps, and if they made any mistakes they'd have too do an extra lap, while horse racing could have a stop every mile during which jockeys would have to find some oats and feed the horse. No idea why these sports don't learn from the biathlon's greatness. I've even got into cross-country skiing (though it lacks the crucial penalty bit of the biathlon).

What baffles me is the fact that it seems like the sports which are most popular to watch in the Winter Games are the ones which are most tedious. Ski-jumping, for example, is incredibly tiresome. I also find the whole bobsleigh/luge thing to be as fun as watching paint dry (they used to have a little frisson around the possibility of crashing, but now that someone's gone and very publicly died doing that, this pleasure has gone out of the window). The less said about figure skating the better.

I haven't managed to point you in the direction of the biathlon in time, I'm afraid as I think they've now finished all the races, but watch out for it on Eurosport or similar in the future.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Skistone Cops

Last week we went skiing more or less every day. It was half term for the kids, so each day I drove them up the mountain to our local resort Hargitafürdő / Baile Harghita, and Bogi had an hour long lesson while Paula got pulled around on skis by me, and then went down shallow slopes on her own. Except on Saturday when she went down a much faster slope and I had to grab her and lift her off her feet before she careered into a tree. After that she didn't want to go again.

Anyway, things at Hargita have improved a lot over the last few years. There are far more places to stay, cafes, and there is even a new small ski lift for kids and a tubing place (where people sledge down the hill on an inner tube and then get pulled up by some kind of special lift). The other thing that has changed is the demographics - when I first went up there 5 years ago, one only ever really heard Hungarian spoken, but slowly over the years it's become far more of a Romanian resort, to the point now where you barely hear any Hungarian, and the majority of the cars are from Bacau or Neamt or places. Having said that though, it was pretty quiet last week seeing as it was a school holiday nation-wide, and it's a very good winter for skiing. I guess that's a visible indicator of the crisis.

Saw two new kinds of police up there too, to add to my collection of various different Romanian police forces, of which there appear to be a huge number. This time I encountered Mountain Gendarmes (Jandarmeria montana) (not sure what they do exactly, but since I've never been really sure what the normal lowland gendarmes in Romania do, this is par for the course). There were also a bunch of blokes in a thick brown uniform skiing around, who were part of the Brigada Antiterorista. Which of course raised the question in my mind as to what the hell they were doing there. Were they on a work outing, and if so, did they really need to wear the uniform? Were they there to counter some specific threat that had been made to the small Csipike ski run? (live webcam here) Which as you can see is not exactly the kind of place that you'd think would be high up the Al Qaida hitlist (they were there all week too, before Romania had announced it was going to spend money it doesn't have installing some bizarre American missile defence shield. Not sure why the US can't pay for all of this, but there you go. Perhaps it's part of the oddly lopsided and with no corruption at all no sir Bechtel deal) . Or, were they there to reassure Romanian skiers that they were being protected from some previously unknown violent Hungarian secessionist movement?

(In the course of checking some spellings for this bit, I have discovered that there is a "Special Intervention Brigade" within the Jandarmeria who go by the name "Vlad Ţepeş" (Vlad the Impaler). I swear I'm not making that up. Look.)

This week there will be a big event up there. The world cup in ski orienteering (round 3) is being held here. (You can find it here and here), and this is apparently the biggest winter sport event held in Romania for many decades. Personally I'd never even hear of ski orienteering (though now I have, it does sound like an event that makes perfect sense), and we've had short course speed skating championships and Junior Ice Hockey world championships here since I've lived here, so that does sound quite a claim.

Just to finish off the winter stuff, we had another big snowfall this weekend, but everybody seems to be managing. Unlike in Bucharest where the city is apparently paralysed, schools closed and all sorts. Soft southern jessies.