Monthly Archives: July 2015

Boredom While River Cruising? Not in the Least! Also Info about Future Cruise

Many people are under the misconception that with river cruising you just sit and watch the scenery as we cruise down the river.  They are so wrong.  We were so active on this cruise that a common comment I heard was “we need a sea day”.

I’ll be addressing what we encountered on our recent AMA river cruise down the Danube in June 2015.  Every day you have at least one, if not two, activities to do off the ship.  A city tour is included at every port we went to.  Generally speaking we had regular walkers, active walkers and gentle walkers.  The gentle walkers was a nice way of saying those who either had mobility problems and couldn’t walk far or those who just needed a little extra help.   However you still need to talk to the Cruise Director about how much walking and what type is ahead of you. The trip to Salzburg for the gentle walkers was especially very good as the van took them all over. The Melk Abbey would not have been good for these walkers as there was much walking to do. Again do your homework and talk with the cruise director.

The regular walkers were most of the passengers on the ship.  Then they had active walkers, who for the most part, were part of the regular walkers group with a few exceptions when there was something specific designed for them.

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Additionally, our ship, like many who ply the rivers all along the world, had multi gear bicycles that they brought along.  Almost every day there was a bicycle excursion that you could take in place of a city tour.  One day there was also an optional 30 k bike ride through the Wachau Valley while the ship cruised along.  No shortage of activities.

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If you didn’t want to be part of any tour group, you could be independent and go off on your own.  You just needed to know when you needed to be back on board the ship.  Several people I know did this and they would eat their dinners on land rather than on the ship.

On our ship we also had a very small exercise room, and a very large hot tub that was more like a small swimming pool that I made use of more than a few times.

Overall, we felt that we were very active and did not just sit around though to be honest, sitting around a little would have felt good.  I did skip an afternoon excursion and stayed on the boat making use of the hot tub and putting my feet up.

We also had some evening entertainment – opera singers, gypsies, classical and not so classical musicians, a visit to a winery for a tasting, a concert in Vienna – so much to do.

For this cruise down the Danube, I invited friends and asked that they invite their friends so that we could qualify for group rates.  Also, by booking with my travel agent who is also a Virtuoso Certified Travel Agent, we were also given a free excursion to the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna AND an on board credit.  We were a group in name only although we did sit together a few times, did a couple of group activities that I organized in Prague and it was always nice to see a familiar face when walking around the ship.

I’m doing another group river cruise and I would like to invite you to come with us.  We will continue to sail with AMA Waterways and will sail this time up the Rhone from Arles, France to Lyon, France.  If you choose to do the pre-cruise, it will be in Barcelona and the post cruise will be in Paris.  The cruise will begin on September 9th, 2016 (yes, next year and space is getting limited) though the pre cruise begins September 6th with your arrival in Barcelona.  If you are interested, leave me a note in the comment section and I will respond back to you.  Good news for those who like to travel solo – the single supplement is waived!  Think about it but not for too long.

 

 

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Cruising Down the Danube to Passau, Germany

After we enjoyed our leisurely buffet breakfast in the dining room, we headed to the Lounge for a briefing by our Cruise Director Monika.  For those who have taken ocean cruises, the role of the cruise director is very different than it is on river cruising.  On AMAWaterways, as well as a few other river cruising lines, the cruise director is not on the staff of the cruise line.  They are hired to be responsible for the land portion of our trip and even a little more than that.  They are not out to sell you anything, nickel and dime you but rather to help make the most of your vacation.  They are particularly involved in the daily excursions and even tag along with some of the groups.  I’ll write more about that as this trip progresses.

At noon, we bid adieu to Vilshofen and set sail to Passau, which was about a 2 1/2 hour journey.  As we were sailing down the Danube, a Bavarian lunch was served to us featuring sausages, spetzles and suckling pig at the carving station.  Of course, they always have soups, salad bars, cheeses and much more.

Passau is known as the City of Three Rivers – the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz.  Perhaps because of the confluence of the three rivers, Passau had some of the worst flooding in their history back in 2013 when travel on the river came to a complete stop.  Flooding like this hadn’t happened since 1501!  The river in Passau rose more than 42 feet.  Many businesses and homes near the river were under 7 feet of water.  If you can see in this photograph, the second highest mark is from the June 2013 floods.  Whenever you travel by river you do not want high water or low water.

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Passau is home to 5 breweries and the smallest, Peschl Brau, just happened to be along the Danube where the ships were docked.  The outdoor terrace beckoned many of our travelers to sit, relax and drink some of the local brew.

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During my city tour, we visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  The site that the cathedral is on has had many churches on it, most of them destroyed by fire.  That seems to be a common theme with almost all of the churches and cathedrals that we visited on our trip.  The first church is said to have dated back to 730!  The current church was built between 1668 and 1693.  What is notable about this cathedral is that it has the largest cathedral organ in the world. The organ currently has 17,774 pipes and 233 registers and it should be known that the “organ” is really several separate organ that can be played from one or more consoles.  Here are a few pictures of the cathedral:

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As we continued on in our “city tour” we came across an artist area. What was remarkable about this area was the number of hanging umbrellas.  Just a touch of whimsy.  It did remind me of a similar street in Sydney that had hanging bird cages.  Somehow we always find an unusual street.

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Finally, for my tour, we walked by a shop that sold cuckoo clocks so if you are in the market for one, and many tourists are when they come to Bavaria, then this is the shop for you.

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While I was doing the “city tour” Blogger Hubby was with the active walkers and they were hiking the very large hill in Passau which, when you were hiking to the top gave you wonderful panoramic views of the city and river.  He found that they went at a quick pace and the guide didn’t want to stop for pictures.  Some people did become frustrated and left the group and went on their own.  Nevertheless, he found that for him, it was the type of active outdoor activity that he enjoyed.
P1030411Finally, for me, no tour was complete without stopping to get a lemon gelato and I obliged myself.  It’s the only flavor I order and I always feel so refreshed after having my daily gelato (or two).

After dinner, our entertainment for the evening was a young man and woman who comprised “The Sound of Austria” singing favorite tunes from operas, operettas and musicals – mainly from “The Sound of Music”.  It was an enjoyable evening.

We departed Passau around 10:00 that evening as we headed to Linz, home of the world famous Linzer Torte.

 

 

Vilshofen, Germany and the AMA Prima with Pictures of the Ship

We got back on our buses in Regensburg for a couple more hours drive to Vilshofen.  We were all getting a little excited to get onboard our ship and begin our cruise.

The Danube River, or the Donau as it is known in Europe, is Europe’s second longest river flowing almost 1,800 miles from its source in the Black Forest in Germany to its mouth in Romania where it empties out into the Black Sea.  Vilshofen, where we were to embark on our ship is on the southern edge of the southern Bavarian Forest where the Vils and Wolfach flow into the Danube.

The buses pulled up to the dock and we walked across the gangplank to the lounge area of the ship.  There we would have delicious little pastries and treats as well as refreshing fruit drinks as we would wait to be called to the reception desk and given the keys to our room.  While we waited, we met the crew, our cruise director Monika and our Captain.  It didn’t take long for them to call us.

Cruise Director Monika from Budapest
Cruise Director Monika from Budapest

We did not book a full balcony as others in our group did but instead we had the French balcony.  The name is a little misleading because it is not what you think of a balcony.  It is essentially a sliding glass door that will slide all the way open with horizontal bars across so you will not fall out – that’s it.  It does allow fresh air and there are two chairs inside by the French balcony.  Other staterooms had two balconies – the traditional one where you sit outside and a French balcony.  I went into one of those rooms to get pictures for you.  If you have never taken a river cruise, the staterooms are small but functional.  On AMA Waterways, all rooms have computer/television for our use as well as free WiFi.

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Computer on desk with free WiFi
Computer on desk with free WiFi
Stateroom with an open balcony that you could sit on as well as a French balcony
Stateroom with an open balcony that you could sit on as well as a French balcony
Stateroom on the first deck where most of your room is under the water line. They do have ample light with the window - much more light than I thought. This is affectionally called "Aquarium Class"
Stateroom on the first deck where most of your room is under the water line. They do have ample light with the window – much more light than I thought. This is affectionally called “Aquarium Class” and is the least expensive stateroom category.

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We were in a Category C stateroom and if you look at the deck plans and the above photo you’ll see that the shower is triangular in shape.  Only one door slides and you are getting into the shower on the narrow end where two sides of the triangle meet.  Just wanted to “alert” you to this design flaw, in my opinion.

Dining Room where there was Open Seating
Dining Room where there was Open Seating
Not a pool but a large hot tub
Not a pool but a large hot tub

There is a pool/ whirlpool with a bar and stools but no bartender assigned there. The pool is about 98 degrees and it is regulated remotely so it can’t be cooled down. Nevertheless it felt good to me particularly when I got out.

Upper level on ship where you could lounge - other end had large umbrellas for shade
Upper level on ship where you could lounge – other end had large umbrellas for shade
loved this lounging are with rattan furniture and comfy pillows
loved this lounging area with rattan furniture and comfy pillows

I love the rooftop at the front of the ship as it has unique seating arrangements. It is rattan sectional furniture set in a large U shape figure with lots of pillows. Inside each U are 2 square shaped coffee tables. There are also 4 person regular tables with rattan chairs. The lounge is very nicely appointed. There is a small game room to the left of the lounge with a fireplace glowing but no heat thank goodness. The two tables in there are too low to play games on. Also they do not have cards for your use since they sell cards but there is a nice assortment of games and books in the mini library.

Heading to my favorite spot on the couches.
Heading to my favorite spot on the couches.

After we all got settled, we left the ship to go back on the dock for an Ocktoberfest – which was our welcoming reception.  I was having too much fun to take pictures but I did meet a lot of very nice people.  We were given two tickets for beer each which I initially thought was a little stingy but there were so many tickets floating around that there was no need for worry.  We had an Oompa Band, German dancers and they even got us up for dancing.  This was a wonderful way to begin our cruise.

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We spent the night docked in Vilshofen and didn’t leave till mid-morning the next day.  Many people checked out the bicycles that the ship carried for us (about 25 of them), others walked back into town and others just relaxed on the ship.

Excitement was growing in all of us as we introduced ourselves, asked where they were from and began to make fast friends for this one week journey down the not-so-blue Danube.

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Regensburg, Germany – the Beginning of our AMA Cruise Down the Danube

After our time in Amsterdam, Nuremberg and Prague, it was time to get on with the focus of our trip – our AMA Waterways cruise down the Danube.  We elected to do the “cruise only” portion  but the majority of the passengers chose to do a pre-cruise in Prague with the cruise line. The additional cost for the pre-cruise with AMA Waterways covered transfers from the airport, three nights at the cruise hotel, the Old Town Hilton, a tour of the city and transportation to Vilshofen with a stop and tour in Regensburg where we were to embark on the AMAPrima.

We found out from our travel agent that we could pay for the transportation only with the group to Vilshofen from Prague even though we did not do the pre cruise portion. Since we do have hotel points, and perhaps even if we didn’t, we decided to make our own pre cruise arrangements.  For us, it makes economic sense as well as somewhat of a travel adventure to plan our pre and post cruise.  We are not afraid to research what to see and do as well as public transportation and tours with guides.  However, some people are a little more timid about venturing out on their own or they don’t want to think and plan or make any decisions and have all the details arranged for them – then this is ideal.  There is no right or wrong but rather what works for you and for many this works well for them.

The bus trip included a walking tour of Regensburg on our way to Vilshofen, another small city and a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its medieval city center.  Off we went on our buses for a few hours bus ride which included a stop at a McDonald Cafe and before you knew it, we were in Regensburg.

We met our tour guide at the area where the buses parked, across the river from the city area.  She walked us across the Old Stone Bridge, built in the 12th century and the one that the Crusaders used to get to the Holy Land.  While we were there the bridge was under construction having some needed repairs made.  The city’s architecture includes ancient Roman, Romanesque, and Gothic buildings. Regensburg’s 11th to 13th century architecture still defines the character of the town marked by tall buildings, dark and narrow lanes, and strong fortifications. The buildings include medieval Patrician houses and towers, a large number of churches as well as the 12th century Stone Bridge that I previously mentioned.

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The cathedral in Regensburg, Dom St. Peter, is a massive cathedral with twin spires that can be seen all over the city.  It was built in the 12th century in the Gothic style, though like many other historic churches and buildings, it had a Baroque “facelift” in the 16th century and then later in the 19th century reverted back to Gothic.  This cathedral, like many that we saw in cities, have been undergoing a cleaning, getting rid of the black soot that is on the outside walls.  The church, in 2009, finally received its organ, a massive free hanging organ.  The 5,871 pipes in this organ is able to fill the space in the church with its beautiful sound.  If you are in Regensburg on a Sunday, you can go to church service and listen to this mighty organ.

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After we had our tour we were free to have lunch on our own and we knew exactly where we wanted to eat.  The oldest continually operated sausage restaurant in the world is in Regensburg.  Workers building the 12th century Old Stone Bridge needed a place to eat and thus, the Sausage Kitchen was born.  The speciality of the  kitchen is the thin, long fried sausages served with rolls made with caraway seeds, home-made sauerkraut and mustard.  I’m not normally one that enjoys sausages or sauerkraut but I’ll ell you that I ate it all up.  We sat outside on picnic benches but you also have the option of easting inside the restaurant.  The restaurant is next to the Old Stone Bridge and on the Danube River.  Can’t beat that scenery.

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After a little more “looking” around, we boarded our buses again for Vilshofen and the AMA Prima – our home for the next week.

Taking a Few Days Off

Last parents alive un my mother-in-law passed away.  I envy my husband, who is 71 years old, in having both of his alive until last evening.  By the time I was 55 I was the only one left of my family.  With all the planning that needs to be done whenever there is a funeral, I’ll be quite busy.  I’ll need to take some time off to attend to my family/

When I return, I’ll write about Regensburg, Vilshofen, our cruise on AMA Waterways down the Danube and so much more.  I hope you have enjoyed what I have written so far about Amsterdam, Nuremberg and Prague.

If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider signing up as a subscriber so it will be delivered to your mailbox every time I write a post.  Also, please consider sharing my blog with your friends – I appreciate it!

Jane

How to Book a United Award Ticket and Save in Two Different Ways

Blogger Hubby received an invitation that he would not refuse a few weeks ago.  Blogger Son #2 went out to Bozeman, Montana from the East Coast with his family the middle of June to begin work on his Masters in Science Education.  Spending some time in the West with his wife and two little children had been something he had wanted to do.  Combine that with his desire to begin his masters and the two ideas were able to come together this summer.  Of course, since he doesn’t live in Montana he will continue to work on his masters online and to go back out next summer for more classwork.

Blogger Son #2 recently took up fishing although he did have some lessons a few years ago from my husband in fly fishing.  Additionally when he was younger we took a family vacation in Montana at the 9 Quarter Circle Ranch and he watched his older brother take an avid interest in fly tying and flyfishing.

Knowing that my husband loves, did I say loves, flyfishing, he invited him to go to Montana and join him for some fishing in the Madison and Gallatin Rivers.  The Gallatin River was made famous in the movie “A River Runs Through It”.  Blogger Son #2’s family would be flying home while our son would be driving the family van back to the East Coast.  The plan was for my husband to overlap with our daughter-in-law and their two children then to spend some time alone with our son after his family left.

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The only airline that made sense for him to fly was on United using our Ultimate Reward points that we earned with our Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  Actually, United had good flights out but not any returning.  Instead, he would fly Delta home now that they had one way flights for half the points.  I quickly transferred our American Express Membership Reward points over to Delta and booked the return since we didn’t have many options.

For the flight out there United didn’t have any economy seats so I was forced to consider First Class but since he was only doing it one way, I was going to have to use 25,000 points AND have to pay $80 in fees.  Yikes, I could do the 25,000 but $80 in fees.

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Then I began thinking.  What if I transferred the points over to Singapore Airlines; would that change how many points I would need?  I called up Singapore Airlines and was told that it would be 20,000 points and 7.50 Singapore dollars which I quickly converted to be $5.49 USD.

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Instead of transferring my Ultimate Rewards points to United I would be transferring them to Singapore Airlines.  I called up Chase and it took about 5 minutes to do the transfer since I already had a Kris Flyer (Singapore’s Loyalty Program) account although the points did not show up in my Kris Flyer  till about 12 hours later.  Once in my account I called up Kris Flyer to make the reservation.  The seats were still there luckily but one thing that I didn’t know was that since the points were in my account with Singapore Airlines, I needed to “nominate” my husband to be the recipient of my points.  That was easily done online and then I quickly called up Singapore to continue booking.  I asked for the Record Locator number so that we could go on the United site and reserve his seat.

Final analysis was that I saved 5,000 Ultimate Reward points and $75 dollars.  Sounds like a successful award booking to me.  Remember, even though you might to fly on United, it might be better to book the trip through Singapore or another Star Alliance airline.

Some Exciting Numbers About this Blog

When I began this blog about two years ago it was primarily designed to help family, friends and friends of my family learn how to travel using points and miles.  Everyone kept asking how Blogger Hubby and I how we were able to do it since we are on a “fixed income” as two seniors.

I’ve enjoyed sharing the about credit card sign-ups, understanding your credit score, what miles/points that I particularly like and why and of course sharing some of our trip reports and how we did it with miles.  Sometimes I seemed to have more information that I wanted to share and other times it seemed to be a struggle. I really wanted to set myself apart from many of the “mainstay” bloggers.  I tried not to write about the new hot subject that I knew would be covered by all the other travel bloggers.

I am truly amazed that this little blog has readers in 132 countries – that’s about 100 more countries than I’ve been to.  I have also had over 33,000 views of my blog.  I am continually amazed at these figures and I sincerely thank you for your loyal readership, your questions and your comments.  I thank you for sharing my blog with your friends.  Word of mouth helps my blog be seen by more travelers.

Here’s a map showing my readership.  Help me fill in some other countries.  Anyone know anyone in Greenland?

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Wrapping Up Prague – Weird Stories, a Great Restaurant and Activities on the Main Square

We spent 4 nights and three full days during our recent Prague visit. When Blogger Hubby and I travel we really pack a lot into our time.  Our philosophy is that we may not return and we want to see the usual sights as well as something a little different and Prague was no exception.

You’ve read about the free Walking Tour we took with the green umbrella man but did we tell you about St. James Church and the story of the mummified arm that hangs inside the church entrance?  Really.  First off our guide calls this the Bling Church because of all the jewels and gold in the church.  But back to the story.  As soon as you walk in to the church turn to your right and look UP.  You’ll see a withered, black, shriveled arm hanging from a meat hook.  The story goes that after dark one night over 400 years ago, a thief went into the church to steal the jeweled necklace off the statue of the Virgin Mary.  As he reached up to slip it off her neck, she came to life and grabbed his arm and he remained like that till the next morning when the parishioners arrived.  They could not release the grip of the Virgin Mary.  Supposedly the thief suggested that they cut the arm and the parishioners thought it was a good idea.  Since many of them belonged to a butchers’ guild, they went to their shop and got a large saw to cut the arm.  When they put the saw against the thief’s arm he became hysterical – he meant for them to cut off the arm of the Virgin Mary but they were not going to do it.  Without any anesthesia, they cut his arm and as soon as it was cut, she released her grip and returned to her normal pose.  The arm was hung up in the narthex as a deterent to future thieves.

entrance to the church
entrance to the church
the beautiful church of St. James
the beautiful church of St. James
the ceiling is impressive to view
the ceiling is impressive to view
The Virgin Mary statue who grabbed the thief's arm
The Virgin Mary statue who grabbed the thief’s arm
Walking into the church, turn to the right and look up
Walking into the church, turn to the right and look up and see the meat hook with the dangling arm
a close up of the withered arm
a close up of the withered arm

Changing to a more pleasant subject, I want to let you know of a wonderful restaurant to eat at in Old Town Prague.  Around the corner from the Old Town Hilton is the Cafe Imperial.  We had read about it on Trip Advisor and it had been mentioned on the River Cruise thread on Cruise Critic.  I quickly pulled up the website and the restaurant was beautiful, with carved walls and an art deco interior.  The ceiling was a large mosaic and it was difficult to not look up.  The columns, the walls, the ceiling – it was the most ornate yet beautiful restaurant that I have been to in a very long time.  With a restaurant looking this beautiful I imagined that it would be out of our price range……but it wasn’t.  I needed to continually remind myself of the conversion rate.  I tried to make a reservation as it was suggested but to no avail.  Disappointment set in and then I remembered that we were staying at the Intercontinental and wrote to the concierge and asked them to make a reservation for us.  Success!  Old world service, delicious food and prices for us which made it a steal.  I had ordered the Chicken roulade stuffed with salsiccia  and it was priced at 277 CZK which equaled about 11USD.  If you have a chance, treat yourself to a meal at the Cafe Imperial.

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If you want to do something very touristy, I would recommend going to the Czech Folklore Dining and Dancing.  Yes, it is for tourists and may not have the highest ratings on Trip Advisor but for our group, it was great.  You need to make reservations online (you pay when you get there) and fill in where you are staying.  They send minivans to pick you up at your hotel and that is included in the ticket price.  We went about 30 minutes outside of Prague to the countryside.  We walked into a large, but not too large, room where picnic style tables and benches are set up.  In the front of the room is a small stage for the singers, dancers and musicians.  As we walked in we were given a choice of drinks – a honey wine or juice.  The wine was delicious. Beer and wine, both red and wine, was included though to be honest I think the wine was watered down.  The drinks flowed freely even when you didn’t want anymore!  The meal was served family style and although not the best food I’ve had, it was certainly fine.   As we ate, we were entertained and even a few members of the audience were brought up to the stage. The singers and dancers were in their native clothing and it was colorful to see.  We all enjoyed the evening particularly when it included transportation, wine, beer, dinner and entertainment.  They take cash and credit cards.  I would recommend taking in this show as it was a fun evening.

P1030392 P1030388 P1030386 P1030385Finally, go to the Town Hall Square and just sit.  There is so much activity around and you never know what you will find.  The weekend that we were there they were celebrating diversity.  All different areas were represented by dancers in their native costumes dancing to music.  There was also a young man making the giant bubbles for the kids.  We had a great time people watching and relaxing.  Hope you enjoyed my series on Prague.

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Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora aka The Bone Church, Czech Republic

I’ll be up front and honest, when I told friends where I was going they were terribly aghast.  I was going to a church (really, it’s a chapel) filled with bones.  Sometimes, I tell myself, there is beauty in something macabre and I wonder if I would find it so in this church.

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Let me give you a little history of how all this came to be.  As we learned yesterday in the post of Kutna Hora, this area became wealthy during the 1300’s because of the silver mines that was used to make the coinage in Europe.  This area was a favorite of several kings of Bohemia and because it was the city competed with Prague as a cultural and economic center till about the 16th century when the Hapsburgs took over the region and the city became to fall apart.  Due to flooding the mines were abandoned, the Hussite Wars raged through the area and the Black Plague took many lives.  With all these events there were many dead bodies they needed to be buried.

In 1278 Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec was sent to the Holy Land by King Otaker II of Bohemia on a diplomatic mission. On his return Henry took with him a handful of earth from Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery of the Sedlec monastery. Word spread about what he did and the cemetery became famous throughout Central Europe. Many wealthy people desired to be buried here because of the connection to Jesus.  The church was built on a cemetery many bodies were dug up in order to build

In 1278, Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec, was sent to the Holy Land by King Otaker II of Bohemia. Henry took with him a handful of earth from Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery of the Sedlec monastery.  Word spread about what he did and the cemetery became famous throughout Central Europe.  Many wealthy people desired to be buried here because of the connection to Jesus.

Around 1400 one of the abbots had the All -Saints church built in the Gothic style in the middle of the cemetery. Underneath it a chapel was built and it was for the bones from the graves that were dug up to build the church.  Legend has it that in 1511 a half-blind priest was tasked with stacking all those bones, allegedly of 40,000 people, in the basement Ossuary.

In the late 18th century,  the Schwarzenberg family hired Frantisek Rint, a woodcarver,  to put the bone heaps into some type of order.  In each of the four corners of the Ossuary there are large numbers of bones are stacked in pyramid shaped towers.

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The left side of the nave is the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family made up entirely of human bones.  It is interesting to note that in the lower right hand corner of the coat of arms is a crow eating the eyeball of the skull.

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The large chandelier is supposedly made of every bone in the human body.

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If you visit here, look for the signature of Frantisek Rint written entirely of bones.

There is a small charge to go down into the basement of the Ossuary where the bones are.  When you have seen all that you can see, walk around the cemetery. After we were finished our driver picked us up and back to Prague we traveled, a little less talkative than we were heading out to Kutna Hora.

If you decide to go there by train you’ll need to go to the main train station in Prague and catch one of the trains leaving every two hours in the morning and afternoon for Kutna Hora mestro as that ticket will include the local train ticket.  At 3:00 PM they leave every hour.  You’ll arrive at the main train station in Kutna Hora but it is not within walking distance from the city center so you’ll need to transfer to a local train which leaves about 5 minutes after the train from Prague arrives.  If you should miss the connecting train, there is also a local bus (no 1 and no. 7) that will take you into town where you can walk to St. Barbara’s Church.  Another option is to take the private 8-passenger minivan (Tourist Bus) which runs between the Kutná Hora train station, Sedlec Ossuary and Church of St. Barbara in town.  You can always see if one is waiting at the station when you arrive. It leaves as soon as at least three people get on.  Check what the price is and you may find that it meets your needs.  If you are going to the Ossuary first both the local train and bus (and the minivan) pass through the Sedlec suburb, so you can get off there (1st stop by train, 2nd stop by bus) and visit the Ossuary.  There is also a direct bus leaves the Praha-Háje bus stop (metro line C, station Háje) every hour throughout the day and the trip takes 1 hour 40 minutes.

Here is a video that you might be interested in showing the Ossuary and bone church.

A few more pictures from the bone church

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one of the grave stones from the cemetery.  Milan told us it was a pilot
one of the grave stones from the cemetery. Milan told us it was a pilot

Kutna Hora and St. Barbara’s Church outside of Prague, Czech Republic

After a few days of walking the streets of Prague, we felt like we needed to get out into the countryside and away from the hustle and bustle of city life.  Knowing that we would feel this way, I had arranged to have a private guide and driver take Blogger Hubby and myself as well as four other people in our group out to Kutna Hora and the Sedlec Ossuary.

We booked with Personal Prague Guide and after a number of emails, I firmed up our itinerary.  I also received a picture of our tour guide, Milan,  which was handy in meeting him in our hotel lobby as well as his biography.  I’m grateful that his biography accompanied his photo because it eased my mind that he was indeed a licensed tour guide and his interests were varied and very interesting.  Being a “senior” like us, he fit in just fine.  Here is his bio and tell me what you think of him:

Milan is a licensed tour guide of the Czech Republic and Prague. He has worked as a tour guide for 15 years for several local companies, so he can speak English very well (and also German, French, Italian). He is very informative guide with a human approach and a great sense of humor. He can bring the history alive and let you understand the fears and the dreams of local people.   He was an active member of the anti-communist Velvet Revolution 1989, so his stories definitely cross the borders of the guidebooks!  Milan is the co-founder of our company, and by the way my – Sarka`s – father (and a big tutor!). We have a very similar guide style. In a joke we always used to say “he’s as smart as a radio” 🙂 As he is getting older, he sometimes talks longer – mentioning all the details and context. But he also gives a lot of tour time for free to his clients … so you do not pay for his “talkative moments” 🙂   He is very entertaining – a local character! Do not be surprised if he plays the songs of the Velvet Revolution on his flute during the tour.  His hobbies are numerous: sightseeing, history, traveling, diving – Ceylon, catamaran boat in Croatia, languages, bio-farming …

Our tour guide Milan
Our tour guide Milan

The cost, for May 2015, was 6100 CZK which worked out to be $45 per person for our group of 6 plus entrance fees of places that required them. This was much less expensive than the tour guide that our local travel agent suggested which was 100 Euros per person.  Our tour was to last 6-7 hours and if it went beyond that, then there would be an additional charge.  We didn’t think that would be necessary and that 6-7 hours would be more than sufficient.  We had only planned to go to St. Barbara’s Church and the Sedlec Ossuary (known as the bone church). Both St. Barbara’s Church and the Ossuary, in Kutna Hora, are on the UNESCO World Heritage site.  As we are traveling more, we are drawn to sites that are listed as UNESCO sites.  Trivia question – what is the abbreviation UNESCO stand for?  Answer at the bottom of the blog.

It took about an hour to drive from Prague to Kutna Hora.  Milan was able to talk to us while the driver was negotiating the traffic and roads and tell us about the history and importance of Kutna Hora.  Kutna Hora was a silver mining town and a very prosperous one.  In fact, most of Europe’s silver coins came from the silver that was mined here. and the wealth it brought to the mine owners.

Because of the mines,  Kutna Hora became one of  most important cities in Bohemia and  was also one of the richest cities in Bohemia.  The Church of St. Barbara  was founded by Kutná Hora’s rich mine owners in 1388.  It became the second most important city in Bohemia during medieval times. You can go down into the silver mines if you make an appointment in advance but be forewarned, I’m told it is very narrow using the original narrow corridors and is 50 meters underground.

The Cathedral of St. Barbara is one of the most famous buildings in all of central Europe.   It was built in the Gothic style and later, as the building process continued for over 500 years, Baroque began to take over.  St. Barbara, as we learned from Milan, was the patron saint of miners which is important to note as this area received most of its wealth from the silver mines.  St. Barbara’s is the most spectacular gothic cathedral in the Czech Republic. It’s difficult to appreciate the cathedral from close up as there is so much to see, and almost impossible to capture it in a photograph though I did try. The intricacy of the flying buttresses, the unique tent-like sailing spires, and the marvelous cliff-top setting just made this church absolutely beautiful inside and out.

St. Barbara's Church
St. Barbara’s Church, front entrance
Blogger Hubby and me outside of St. Barbara's Church
Blogger Hubby and me outside of St. Barbara’s Church
St. Barbara's Church on the highest hill in the area overlooking vineyards
St. Barbara’s Church on the highest hill in the area overlooking vineyards

Milan also showed us some of the markings on the pillars in the church. Each straight line represented work that the stone carver did on the pillar and this is how they were paid.  Sort of a medieval bookkeeping system.  If you go to this church see if you can find some of these markings on the pillars.  They look like this:

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The church itself is very beautiful.  We walked in and immediately our eyes were drawn upward to the “ribs” on the ceiling.  To think about how they constructed this building without all the modern machinery that we have now is mind bogging.  The stain glass windows, the mosaics and when you looked up, you saw coats of arms from many of the miners.  I wished I had thought to bring binoculars to view the details in the ceiling.

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The church also had a statue of a miner who represented all miners in the town.  Miners would come and pray to St. Barbara at her church and they would also pray to her while underground particularly during the cave-ins.

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After viewing the church we left and walked down a wide cobblestone pathway that was lined with statues that lead us to the center of town.  To the left of the pathway was a Jesuit college and to the right was a beautiful vista of vineyards and gardens.

cobblestone pathway to town lined with statues overlooking vineyards
cobblestone pathway to town lined with statues overlooking vineyards

As we were walking to town, about a ten minute walk, Milan explained and showed us what a real cornerstone was.  Apparently homes had place outside of their homes so that horse drawn carriages would not run into the homes and destroy them.

cornerstone in Kutna Hora
cornerstone in Kutna Hora

Once in the town, Milan took us to one of his favorite restaurants where we ate in the back gardens – a very relaxing luncheon.  We tried to pay for his lunch but he would not hear of it.  Apparently he tells his guides not to accept anything other than the fee for the tour and tips.   He did buy a glass of the special liquor that the Czechs drink in order for us to have a taste.

Trivia Answer: UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Our next stop – the Bone Church otherwise known as the Sedlec Ossuary.  Wait till you see the pictures I have of that!  Meanwhile, here are a few more pictures of St. Barbara’s and Kutna Hora

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Our Czech Cooking Lesson with Tereza

Blogger Hubby and I both love to cook and we always enjoy learning new dishes particularly dishes of the country we are visiting.  For that reason I researched through Trip Advisor for a cooking lesson for us.  I found a few but I was not willing to pay a hundred Euros per person for us to learn to make a new dish – that was too expensive for us.

I did find a young woman, Tereza, who charged, at the time of booking, 69 Euros per person.  There would be just my husband and I in her kitchen preparing dishes that we had chosen a few weeks earlier.  She also had a Facebook but doesn’t really keep up with it.

The arrangements were that she would pick us up at our hotel and we would go to her apartment by public transportation.  We would return to our hotel by public transportation (subway).

Tereza had given us our choices of dishes and we chose two soups and a beef dish.  She was very happy about this because many of her students had chosen the duck dish.  In fact, she said that they had duck for almost two months last year.

She was right on time and we conversed as we made our way to the subway station.  She taught us where to buy the tickets and which line we would take to get to her place and how to come home including which exit to take out of the station.

Tereza is also a licensed tour guide in Prague with a college degree in Tourism as well as a degree in Art History. She is easy to understand so Blogger Hubby had no problem. She told us of an interesting story about one of her first jobs as a guide.  She was hired to be a guide at Auschwitz and came home and told her grandmother.  Her grandmother asked her if she wanted to know something about it.  Tereza asked if her grandmother had ever been there before and her grandmother replied “just once”.  She then told Tereza that she had been a prisoner there during World War II because she was Jewish.  No one in the family, either Tereza or her mother, knew that her grandmother was in a concentration camp or that they were even Jewish.  She has now embraced her religious and cultural heritage.  Listening to her speak of her grandmother and how no one knew nothing about her experience at Auschwitz or their Jewish heritage really puts into perspective what many of the citizens went through during this dark time.  As we would do more touring of Prague we would learn more about other revolutions.

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We made two soups – a potato and dill creamy soup as well as a garlic soup (no, it wasn’t very garlicky).  Our beef dish was similar to one that I make.  Mine is a German dish called Rouladen, the Czech version is called Spanelshy ptacek.  It is a piece of beef (I use top of round sliced thin), pounded if it is not thin sliced.  Spread Dijon mustard on it and then add chopped onions, crumbled cooked bacon and chopped dill pickles.  For the Czech version they also add 1/4 of a hard boiled egg, no chopped pickles but rather a gherkin pickle.  Roll up the beef and tie it to keep all the filling in.  Once browned, then you cover the meat with water and let it simmer for about 2 1/2 hours.  Take the meat out and thicken up the broth and use it as gravy.  Delish!

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As we were talking and getting to know each other, we were served Czech liquor and boy, did it taste like firewater to me. After two shot glasses, I was finished!  Tereza’s husband attorney, came home from work and we proceeded to enjoy our two soups and then main course.  To compliment the meal two bottles of wine appeared on our table.

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We enjoyed the time we spent with Tereza and it really personalized our time in Prague. I would also highly recommend her as a tour guide and wished that I hadn’t already booked a tour guide for the next day to Kutna Hora.

We have taken cooking lessons in Italy as well and will try to continue taking lessons wherever we go.

If you are interested in arranging a cooking lesson or a private tour in Prague, please contact Tereza at http://www.praguewithme.com or email her at tereza@praguewithme.com   I do not receive anything for recommending Tereza other than the joy of knowing that others may enjoy her and her services as we did.

Our Arrival in Prague and What We Did – Part 1

We arrived in Prague by bus from Nuremberg around 7 PM and was driven to our hotel, the Intercontinental right on the waterfront, by the driver that I had arranged prior to our visit through the hotel.

The hotel has the appearance of a Soviet era building, very unattractive and sterile on the outside but was very modern on the inside.  As we were being checked in we were told that we had been upgraded to a Junior Executive Suite since I was Platinum Elite.  No, I don’t stay in hotels very often but having the IHG credit card gives me automatic platinum status.  Our room was very nice and large, especially by European standards.

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We dropped off our luggage and headed out to follow our driver’s recommendation of where we should have our dinner.  We went to VKolkovne which seemed to be a gathering place for after work drinks and dinner for residents of Prague.  Our hotel was unable to make reservations for us but we decided to walk over and see if we could get seated which we did with no wait!  Food was delicious and the beer was even better.  I became a beer drinker on this trip when I quickly realized that beer was less expensive than wine and even water!

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After dinner we went exploring.  We walked over to Old Town Square. The historic center of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of many that I was sure that we would visit during this trip.  Many people  where many people were waiting in the dark for the Prague Astronomical Clock to strike on the hour.  This clock was installed on a wall on the Old Town City Hall in 1410.  When the clock strikes on the hour there is a Walk of the Apostles showing the figures of the Apostles and other figures including Death.  Once all the figures came out, the crowd around it seemed to disburse though the square remained lively.

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Food vendors were around the square with an array of food included a version of fried dough slathered with garlic butter and topped with a generous amount of shredded cheese.  My other favorite street food was chimney stacks which is like having dough wrapped in strips around a metal cylinder and then cooked over coals.  It is topped with cinnamon sugar and you can peel off the strips one layer at a time.

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For our first full morning we headed over to Old Town Hall Square to take a Free Walking Tour.  They seem to all advertise themselves by holding up an umbrella – different colors for different tour companies.  There are several companies that do this and you need to find the one that you are comfortable with.  My recommendation is to talk to the person who is actually going to be doing your tour.  Blogger Hubby found that some guides had a heavier accent than others did and he wanted a guide that he could have an easier time hearing and understanding.  We found a tour guide holding a Green Umbrella and he was from Seattle, Washington.  We determined that he was the “perfect” guide for us.  We were very happy with our decision, the amount of information he passed on to us and our entire tour.  It was shorter than some of the other umbrella companies but that is only because we took a shorter break than others did. If you look at his umbrella it shows the countries where English is the primary language.

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We needed to get back to our hotel by 1:30 since we had booked a Czech cooking lesson for the afternoon and evening in our hostess’ home.  My next blog will tell you all about our experience.

Fun Fact:  Many South Korean bridal catalogs shoot their photographs for the catalogs in Prague.  We saw many “fake” weddings in the square and in front of the astronomical clock.  Who knew!

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A few more pictures from Prague featuring some of their more beautiful buildings:

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Our Day in Nuremberg, Germany

When I booked our KLM flight using 25,000 American Express Membership Reward points per person for a one way flight I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a flight directly to Prague from Amsterdam. When that happens the best advice I can give is to look for alternate cities that might be close to where you want to go.  For us, it was Nuremberg, Germany.

Nuremberg was a city that I have never been to.  All I knew of it was that it was the site of the famous Nuremberg War Trials that were held after World War II as well as the parade grounds where the Nazi soldiers would march around as a show of force.   I began looking at other things to see and do using Trip Advisor as my guide.  I knew there were a lot of Nazi related buildings to see but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see them or not. Since we were not going to be there very long, we actually decided not to do the Nazi tour and instead focus on the city as it is now and also to see it as the medieval major city that it was.

I’m so fortunate that we were able to spend a night here as I probably wouldn’t have vacationed in Nuremberg.  Nuremberg Airport is a small airport and we had no problem getting around or finding the ticket kiosks for the trains outside of the airport.  A German gentleman who was on our flight decided to “stay” with us as we purchased our tickets and directed us to the appropriate track.  We have found that people are friendly and helpful particularly if you ask for help.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Hauptbahnhof which indeed was a few short blocks to the train station where our bus for Prague would depart from.  We did not use points as the rooms were not very expensive and it was a good opportunity to earn some points and there was also an IHG promotion going on.  The room was fine and it would be what Americans would call small but I believe it was an average size for European hotel rooms.

When I asked the person working the front desk for a recommendation for dinner she was quick to recommend Barfuber located in the pedestrian mall area inside the old walled city.  It was a lively spot and one that seemed to attract many local residents as well as a few tourists. I had the fried dumplings and Blogger Husband had roasted pork with gravy and a bread dumpling.  Portions were more than ample, the beer was delicious and we had a great time here people watching.  If in Nuremberg I would definitely recommend this restaurant.

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The next day we arose bright and early and after having a good breakfast at our hotel we took off to walk around the city.  We had a 4:40 PM reservation on the bus to Prague so we were anxious to see as much of Nuremberg as we could.

I was really amazed at the intact wall that went around the older part of the city.  I’ve been in other cities that were walled, but this one was spectacular since it appeared to me that the entire wall was intact and not just a portion.

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One of the entrances to get inside the walled portion was also the entrance to the Handwerkerhof where many of the items are handmade, especially those involving metal.  If you were to be here in December, this would be a very popular area for the Christmas markets.

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Since we were up and out early none of the stops were open but we did do some window shopping and planned to come back on our way back to our hotel.  We then walked toward the open air market…the  Hauptmarkt where fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, food trucks, soaps, etc all for sale.  Apparently we were there during the harvest of the white asparagus and I was told Germans love their white asparagus!

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We continued walking and headed toward the castle admiring all the buildings and scenery on the way.  Like almost all castles, it is an up hill walk but as you were walking up there were spots to stop and view Nuremberg from an elevated position.  I still am amazed at the number of terra cotta tiled roofs  – roofs that I had only previously seen on our south.  They certainly added color to the landscape.  After walking around the castle it was a much easier descent back down to the street.

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We headed back to the Hauptmarkt for some “looking” and “buying” and perhaps lunch as well.  We found the sandwiches we wanted and took them to the bridge over the Pegnitz River which ran through the pedestrian mall area.  It was a beautiful spot to eat our lunch.  The buildings along side of the river or even in the middle of the fork of the river  seemed like they came out of a fairytale.  What do you think?

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I’m so glad that we were able to spend some time in Nuremberg and it is a city that I would love to come back and spend more time seeing some of the sights that we didn’t get the chance to see during our 24 hours.

To get to our final destination of Prague we looked at traveling on a train or, as suggested on Trip Advisor, to take a bus. Hmm, buses just aren’t my thing but the train required a layover and a change where the bus would be a direct route from Nuremberg to Prague and would take about 2 hours less than the train.  I figured I could “suck it up” for a few hours and if it were really bad, then it would give me fodder for a great blog.  The bus left from the train station and it was a double decker bus.  It was wonderful.  There were probably about 15 of us on the bus and we all had plenty of room.  As I mentioned, it was a direct bus that took us through the countryside on our way to Prague.  I was amazed at the hundreds and hundreds of solar cells that were alongside the highway in Germany.  Again, this was a rural area dotted with farms except for all the solar cells.  I wonder why our country hasn’t adopted this idea of harnessing solar power?  We had arranged with our hotel in Prague to send a car to pick us up and as we got off of the bus, there was a gentleman holding a sign with our name on it.  We jumped in his car and off we went to our hotel in Prague.

Beginnings – KLM and Amsterdam

We usually do one big trip a year and this was our trip as we were heading to Europe for our cruise down the Danube as well as time on our own doing some exploring.

I’m a points hoarder so for this 7 hour flight, I chose for us to fly economy class on KLM.  The flight was just a little over 7 hours and I kept thinking of all the other trips I could go on by saving the difference between economy and business class.  I had transferred 25,000 American Express Membership Reward points for each f us (total 50,000 points) over to KLM in order to make the one way booking.  I was very impressed with economy on KLM, the food and with our service from the flight attendants.

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I’m not going to bore you with minutia details but everything on the flight worked out fine though I would have liked to have a larger entertainment screen but what we had was fine.   After all,  we did want to sleep.

We arrived around 7:30 AM in Amsterdam and the plan was to walk around the city, the flower market and the Rijk (it was closed the last time we were there).  When we arrived we went to the ticket office at the airport to purchase a  24 hour transportation ticket to go into Amsterdam.  Yes, we could have used the unmanned kiosk but since we were using a chip and signature card we wanted to use it first at a manned kiosk.  Downstairs we went to catch the train into the Central Station.

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I found the train system very user friendly.  Above the track it shows the next 3 trains, where they are going and what time they should be at the station.  We got off the train just before we got to the Central Station and went looking for something that I again hadn’t been able to do during our last visit – eat Dutch pancakes!  You know, those little dollar sizes  saucer shaped pancakes that are sprinkled with powdered sugar and boy, were they good.  A serving is a platter of 12 of them.  I really didn’t think I would eat them all but you know what – I did and I did it quite easily.

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Next stop on the bus – The Rijk Museum.  The more I travel the more I realize how much I appreciate and enjoy looking at some of the works of the famous Old Masters and this museum certainly didn’t disappoint. The museum, to our somewhat sleep deprived mind, seemed a little confusing and we kept asking directions to find certain exhibits. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our time taking in the paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Raphael. Botticelli and many more.

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After walking around the city and going to one of my favorite places, the flower market,  we found that we were tired.  Really tired.  We still had about three hours before our flight to Nuremberg.

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Rather than wandering around more, we decided to catch  the train back to Schiphol Airport.  Clearing security was no problem and we found where the gate was for our next flight.  But then an amazing thing happened – we found an area that had loungers for us to get comfortable in and actually (speaking for myself) catch up on a little sleep.  Actually I lied…I think I slept about two hours in those loungers.

Our little hopper flight took us from Amsterdam to a city I had not been to before – Nuremberg.  Another train ride from the airport to the central station area where our hotel, the Holiday Inn – City Center was located.  Once we were settled in , we began to explore this city that I am so glad we happened to be in.

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More to come!