Monthly Archives: January 2019

Iguazu Falls – Have you Been There or Heard of Them?

Many cruises in South America begin or end in Buenos Aires and the cruise we took last year was no different.  We built in an extra day in Buenos Aires at the end of our cruise and enjoyed our Food Tour and walking around Buenos Aires.

We wanted to do something different, something more.  We both love the beauty we see in nature and I had heard a few years earlier about Iguazu Falls.  These waterfalls are on the border of Brazil and Argentina though about 80% of the falls are actually in Argentina.

Iguazu Falls are one of the new seven wonders of the natural world as voted by thousands of people worldwide.  The falls are  the largest waterfall system in the world.   They are so large that they are broken down into the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls.  From my experience, the park in Argentina has beautiful views of the Upper Falls as you look down and Brazil has great boardwalks out to see the bottom of the falls.  These falls are often compared to Victoria Falls because of the sheer size of the falls.  Iguazu Falls are wider but since they have so many islands in the river that they break up the water into many smaller falls; they do not have the large amount of water going over the falls at one place.  Instead, Iguazu has about 275 separate falls which, to me, adds to it beauty. The spray from the falls can be seen from quite a distance from the falls and was very visable as we flew to the airport.   In some spots the falls reminded me of waterfalls in Hawaii because of all the green vegetation.  

So how did we get to Iguazu?  We booked tickets on Aerolineas Argentina from the city airport in Buenos Aires (airport code AEP) – not the international airport which is about 30 miles outside of the city.  We booked economy tickets but “bid” on an upgrade to First Class which we received.  A lunch came with our first class seats as well as being able   to have a second piece of checked luggage.screen shot 2019-01-28 at 10.13.12 am

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We arrived into the small airport on the Argentina side – Cataratas Iguazu.  There is another airport on the Brazilian side – Foz do Iguaco.  We originally had booked a driver through our hotel, The Melia, but he never showed up.  We saw passenger after passenger go to a little booth near the exit doors where they booked cabs that were waiting outside.  We ended up canceling the driver and took one of the cabs.  The pricing was the same so if you decide to go to Puerto Iguazu, don’t worry about getting a cab to your hotel.img_4030

As we drove into the National Park, our cab driver dropped us off at the ticket office where we had to pay 500 Argentinian pesos each for our fee to go into the park where our hotel is located.  You also need to bring your passport with you when you go to the ticket office.  Save your ticket in case you go in and out of the park.

We quickly got back into the cab and about ten minutes later we arrived at our hotel, The Melia.  When we booked it, it was The Sheraton but sometime after our booking and before our stay, it was purchased and renamed by The Melia.  I booked it on points and I had received an email a few months prior letting me know about the change of ownership and that my point reservation would be honored.  I had read various reviews on Trip Advisor about the Sheraton but it was the ONLY hotel in the park on the Argentinian side so I knew we wanted to stay there.  The hotel was in a state of remodeling which they needed to update it but it did not affect us.

p1030609The back of the hotel had the most beautiful view of the Falls and the lawn and paths leading to the Falls.  There was also a swimming pool with lounger chairs around it.  A great way to cool down after walking to the Falls.

Our room was ready when we checked in and we wasted no time in dropping off our suitcase and heading outside.  What we liked about staying here is that the paths to the falls were all level and very easy to follow. I would say for the most part other than a few steps here and there that it was mobility accessible.  We didn’t go all the way out but enough of the way to be mesmerized by the volume of all the falls, the noise of the rushing water, the beauty, the rainbows that were over the falls and the many butterflies that were all around. You know those times where you are somewhere and just can’t believe it?  That’s how I felt.  I was in Argentina and at Iguazu Falls.  It was really hot and humid here and after going about halfway, we turned around and walked back to the hotel.

While Blogger Hubby took a quick nap, I got into my swimsuit and went into the lower level of the hotel where there was an indoor pool with about 20 jets all around the pool and they felt wonderful.

Feeling refreshed we went to the bar in the lobby and noticed they were going to be having a tango demonstration.  Lots of little bar tables and chair surrounded the dance floor.  The bar area had delicious bar food, appetizers and burgers.  If you wanted something more, there was a dining room downstairs  where my friends and I ate.  Sorry for the blurry picture below.

This is an unpublicized roof top area.  You have to ask at the desk for the key but going up there, the views are unparalleled.  We brought our drinks there, sat on the few chairs they had and just took it all in.

The next morning we walked out front of our hotel and followed a path to the central train station to board the  Ecological Jungle to take us into the Devil’s Throat area.  I’m told this is the only way to get to this section of the Falls.

Once there we walked on some of the walkways to get so very close to the edge of the Falls.  You will get wet if you walk all the way out but I highly recommend it.

Here are a few pictures.  The one of me is not very flattering but it gives you an idea of the sheer volume of water going over the edge of the falls.

All along the walkway we saw many unique butterflies.  In fact, there were so many that were flying around us, landing on us that at one point we felt surrounded like them and they felt like a nuisance.  Can you imagine anyone feeling that way about butterflies?

We walked back and saw a few animals along the path headed back to the hotel.  We were warned by the hotel to not leave our sliding glass door unlocked because howler monkeys knew how to open them.  We saw birds

After we walked back to The Melia, we packed up and left to go to the Brazilian side to see the falls there.  Since we had very little Argentinian money left we had the hotel call us a cab that would take a credit card.  If you do this, make sure you use a credit card that doesn’t charge you any foreign transaction fees.

Tips for visiting the Falls:

  • take insect repellant – this is a subtropical area
  • bring plenty of water and drink it
  • wear toe enclosed and comfortable shoes.  We stayed on the paths but you might not
  • don’t forget your camera.  I brought my cellphone and a point and shoot
  • if you go out to the edge of the falls you might want to consider a rain poncho
  • sunscreen is a must
  • if you plan on spending a long time, bring snacks with you.  I brought a  few granola bars in my backpack
  • did I say bring water?
  • do not pet or feed the animals.  There are signs posted all around letting you know how dangerous they are.
  • if you have the means, book a helicopter tour over the falls.  You may have to book it early.

Next post – going to Brazil!

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Future Cruise – Come Join us in Norway

If you have been reading me for awhile, you know that I love to organize group cruises.  No, I’m not a travel agent nor do I work for one but I do love traveling with people, meeting new friends and saving money.  For that reason I select a cruise that I want to go on and invite others to join me.

As you might have surmised from reading about our South America cruise, we loved it.  What we loved about it were the smaller port cities that we were in, the gorgeous scenery and the cooler weather.  We dislike walking about sightseeing while it is 90 degrees outside.  Wearing a jacket is no problem for us!

Trying to find something similar to that last cruise, yet different, proved to be challenging.  I have found something that we are enthusiastic about – a cruise up the Norwegian coast from Bergen, Norway  to above the Arctic Circle and returning via the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands and Edinburgh, Scotland before docking and overnighting at a port near London.

This is on Viking Ocean Line “Star” ship.  All rooms have balconies and are double occupancy.  I will be upfront and say that it is expensive but the price already includes the port charges and taxes and you get an excursion in every port.  It does not include airfare.  If you book through my group you will receive a $500 per person discount on the cruise – per person, not per stateroom!  There is an included daily excursion at no extra cost with this line.  If you go to the “Day by Day”  scroll down and you will see the first excursion will have the word “included” in it and that it the complimentary tour.  Of course you can add other tours for an additional cost.    On board you will also receive free Wi-Fi, beer and wine at meal time.  Complimentary soft drinks, coffee and tea.  What I really like are the heated floors in the bathrooms – always wanted them.  We are looking at the June 8th, 2020  sailing from Bergen to London.

We are considering flying into Oslo and taking the scenic train to Bergen.  Watch this YouTube video on the train ride.  By the way, it is not just train but train and boat ride to Bergen.  Here is a review on the train ride.

I plan on eating as much fresh crab that I can.

If you are interested in this itinerary, trying out Viking and want to be part of my group in name only or join us in different activities, then please contact our group travel agent, Michelle at McCabe World Travel outside of Washington DC.  Her telephone number is 703-762-5049 and her email address is michelle@mccabeworld.com

Think you might be interested? Please consider joining us.

Did I Enjoy this Cruise? My Personal Opinion

As I have been reviewing what we did on this cruise I had to self examine whether I liked/enjoyed this cruise.  After all, as I have mentioned  previously this was a bucket list trip for me.

I loved going to the Christmas markets and seeing all the decorations and the goods that were in all of the stalls.  I loved the idea of going to the markets at night, having a mug of rouge or blanc gluhwein.  It was like a winter wonderland, without the snow, walking around and seeing all the decorations.  If this didn’t put you into a Christmas mood, I don’t know what would.

There was so much food available to purchase at the markets and I did my eat to try all (not really).  The markets really weren’t that different from each other – some were larger and some were smaller and many had the same or similar items to purchase though some markets had very unique items.   Some had items for sale that were made in China and some were uniquely German.  The decorations were traditional in many ways but also over the top in a good way.  People were outside at night when it was lightly raining, cold, windy and cool all enjoying the atmosphere.  How often do you find a large group of people outside at night in winter?

As I mentioned here  our trip was a little tarnished to begin with.  First we were going, then it was “confirmed” that we weren’t going on the Rhine and then two days before we let we were going on the Rhine again.  For me it was difficult to get the original excitement back particularly since we had already gotten use to a different itinerary and the lure of a free cruise which I had already mentally booked.

Our first night when we met our cruise director I felt an internal disappointment – after all we had been through we now have a rookie who hadn’t been almost anywhere on the Rhine in at least 3 1/2 months,  since the boat had been stranded in Amsterdam due to the low water levels.  He was confusing to listen to and one time the excursion that I signed up for online and had the confirmation, wasn’t even one that he mentioned or had a ticket for.

We did not receive the tour of the Cologne Cathedral because when the ship cancelled the tour, they must have cancelled the reservation for the tour as well.  Another excursions was cancelled in Amsterdam and that was a walking tour of the Jordaan area.

Our room was upgraded from the first room on the 1st level, known affectionately as the Aquarium Class to the 2nd deck but back in the rear.  I would have liked to have been asked if I wanted this change which Im not sure I did.

Our meals were fine, a good size for all the courses we had but the soups did not taste like what they were. In fact, they almost all tasted the same and we were all disappointed with them.  Our bar attendant in the dining room never allowed our wine glasses to be empty.  She was enthusiastic about her job and it showed.  The entire staff was very friendly and helpful and we appreciated all of them.

For the cruise itself, I didn’t like the fact that I felt we were rushed while in port.  Most days we were back on the ship for lunch – only about four hours in port.  Since distances on the Rhine are not that far from each other, why couldn’t we have stayed longer and enjoyed a longer city tour and then have adequate time for the Christmas markets which didn’t open until 11:00 in the morning? I understand we had to leave Heildelberg early so we could sail the Rhine gorge while still light.   We had only one day of German food – why not more since we were in Germany most of the time?  While we were cruising in the afternoons, why not do a German wine tasting?  We did that on our Rhone river cruise and we enjoyed tasting the different wines of the region.

What I did like about AMA, and it goes back to cancellation of our original itinerary on the Rhine, is that they gave us options.  We could either cancel with no penalty and receive all of our money back or we could take the altered itinerary and receive a free cruise within three years.   No other cruise line that I am aware of did that.  Some just cancelled the cruise while others gave an altered itinerary and ship swaps.  When AMA did an altered itinerary the passengers received a very healthy cruise credit.  In fact, the cruise before ours, was suppose to end in Basel but since they couldn’t get up the river, AMA had to provide them flights from Amsterdam to Zurich so they could continue on with their trip or catch their flights home.  Where they failed was lack of information of what was going on even though they had been having this situation for the past 3 1/2 months.  Yes, it was a day by day decision whether there will be rain or not but they should have let us know the current situation and that some changes might be happening and to at least alert us to the fact that there could be changes and what the changes could be.

Would I do it again?  Maybe and I know that doesn’t help you.   I loved going to the different cities and markets and being on the cruise was an easy way of doing it without having to worry about transportation and luggage. I would be more knowledgeable and know that we are rushed and not to expect a lot of time in the markets and would inquire if any of the markets were at night because nighttime is worth seeing.  My advise is when booking a cruise, try to find out how much time you will have after the city tour.  If it is only about 90 minutes from the time the markets open, is that enough time for you.  In the cities like Cologne and Strasbourg, explore on your own – don’t feel that you have to be part of a group.  Look at what you think is important.  Take time, if possible, to eat at a local restaurant and have a mug of Christmas beer…blend in and become local for a little bit of time.

If you haven’t been to Europe, these river cruises are a great introduction as the groups are small enough, at least on AMAWaterways.  Our groups were about 20 people in each group.  We saw groups from Viking that were about40 or more – that is too big for me.

Finally, know that the river levels anytime can change your river cruise to something else, like a motor coach tour,  If you are uncomfortable with a little uncertainty, then river cruising is not for you.  If it is for you, remember that AMAWaterways was the ONLY cruise line that gave options to the cruise passengers on my ship about cancelling or alternate cruise and they did it because we had no sister ship to swap with.  Those that did a ship swap and missed a port did receive a healthy credit good for a future cruise.  It was AMA’s way of making lemonade out of lemons.

I think that I would like to go to more markets but perhaps this time I will take the train.  Some cities I would like to visit are Prague, Vienna, Nuremberg and finally, back to Strasbourg.  What would you like to do and where would you like to visit?

Dusseldorf to Amsterdam

We had tickets for the one o’clock train to Amsterdam and again no reserved seats.  I was the nervous Nelly for this segment though I kept reassuring myself that it was okay if we didn’t sit together or even in the same car.  We would be getting on at a busy city and it would be after the train began in Cologne.

Since breakfast didn’t come with our room at the Radisson Blu in Dusseldorf we decided to go to the train station early to grab something to eat.  We went downstairs to check out and was shocked to see how low the line was to check out.  We couldn’t just leave because when we checked in there was a problem with their credit card machine in paying for our room.  So we waited and was pleasantly surprised that the line moved quickly.

Back to the tram stop and it tram was empty – I guess par for the course on a Sunday morning.  We walked around the train station in Dusseldorf and saw all delicious sandwiches that we could take with us on the train for our lunch.  I then spied a Dunkin Donuts stand and could not resist gett ing a few Bavarian creme filled donuts.  I mean, I was near Bavaria and that is my excuse and I’m sticking with it!

We met an American family who was living outside of Amsterdam and they reminded us we might have problems not having reserved seats.  Nevertheless, we went up to the tracks a little early, followed the overhead signs to see where the second class seats were.  My cruise mate was able to get on first and immediately there were two unreserved seats that she got.  I followed and was able to go a few rows up and put my suitcase in the space between two rows.

We took the train back to the Centraal Station in Amsterdam and from there took another train to Schiphol Airport where we would get a shuttle to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express.

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Centraal Station in Amsterdam

We seemed to wait about 45 minutes for our shuttle and that surprised us but it was extremely foggy out and that may have had something to do with it.  in fact, it was so foggy that they did close down the airport with no take offs.  I do not know about landings though /i would think those would be cancelled as well and all the trans Atlantic would have already landed.  If you want to literally be across the street from the airport, I suggest you stay at the Sheraton.  There was even an elevated walkway from the. airport to the Sheraton.  Sorry for the blurry picture, it was the best I could do.img_2121

Our hotel was further away than we thought and in a business area.  We only saw one restaurant in the area but when we checked with the young man checking us in, he gave us a list and suggested we walk into town.  He assured us it was safe.  We were up for it and it was probably about a 15 minute walk primarily along a major residential street.  We admired the Christmas decorations on the homes we passed and thought that it was a nice community.

We found what was described to us as a bar with pizza but it was so much more.  It was a delicious pizza restaurant that happened to have a bar inside.  We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner and beer. We had an appetizer and for the pizza that we shared it was a four cheese with truffle oil – yum.  There were so many for us to choose from that it was difficult.  We left filled and was once again happy that we walked back to the hotel on this lightly drizzling, foggy night so that we could walk off all that we ate. During dinner we were a bit reflective about the highs and lows of the past ten days.

The next morning we were up, had breakfast at the hotel and took the shuttle back to the airport for our flight on KLM.   Of course, we were there early and we felt it was a good decision.  We had to walk quite a distance to find where checked in and checked our luggage.  The lines were very long.  You know how they say when there is a choice to make whether to go left since it is usually shorter? Well, not this time.  I held my breath when my luggage was being weighed that it was wasn’t overweight and it wasn’t.  I think wearing lots of clothing helped me!

Since I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, I was received as a benefit a Priority Pass which allowed us access to several lounges at the airports.  We found the Aspire Lounge and checked in.  We enjoyed the hot and cold buffet of food, the drinks, nicer lounge chairs and bathrooms/showers.  We hung out here for about 90 minutes.  If you don’t have the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, contact me for all the benefits of which there are many, and I can refer you.  It is one of my go-to credit cards that make traveling much easier in many ways.

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Finally, not knowing each other very well, we felt we were good travel companions.  We had an honesty about us that is sometimes difficult to achieve with friends that you have had for a long time because you worry about hurt feelings.  We were able to work together and divide what needed to be done and trust each other.  We had similar views on public transportation – we liked it and was comfortable using it.  We both enjoyed talking with others and didn’t feel like we had to be with each other 24/7.  I would call this a successful trip.

Coming up – my final review on the Christmas market cruise.  I hope you continue to continue reading this blog.  I will not be posting any further updates to it on Cruise Critic so if you are enjoying it, I recommend that you subscribe.

Dusseldorf, Germany by Train, Tram and Foot – Christmas Market

Saturday morning we finished packing our “stuff” and said goodbye to our cozy room.  We went to the dining room where had our breakfast , said goodbye to staff and friends and then walked to the train station, about 5 minutes away.  Since it was early on a Saturday morning there was no traffic and no bicyclists to worry about.

Deciding to get to the train station early to make sure we knew which track our train would be arriving gave is a little too much time but we didn’t care.  We went up the escalator to the track and we began to have a few doubts.   We had second class tickets (non-reserved) and how would we know which cars  were second class?  How would we know which seats we could sit in since we didn’t book reserved seats.  I’ve got the answers for you.  When standing on the track look up.  On the electronic sign board they will have an electronic image of a train with letters above it and numbers in the train cars.  The letters above is where the train car will stop on the platform; the number inside the train will have a 1, or  2 for first or second class.  Once inside the train, and underneath the luggage racks, if there is nothing in electronic red letters, those seats are unreserved.  Many seats will have a destination and those have been reserved.  We had chosen to not purchase reserved seats as they cost about $30 more each way.  Since Amsterdam was the beginning of the route, we did not have a problem finding seats once we figured it all out.  As the train got more crowded as we traveled to Dusseldorf we began to rethink our choice of not having reserved seats for our return as we saw people standing in the aisle trying to push their luggage.   Dusseldorf would be after Cologne on our return and it was one of the larger stops on this route.  Like Scarlett O’Hara, we decided we wouldn’t think about it today, we would think about it tomorrow when we were leaving.

When we arrived at the train station in Dusseldorf we went to the train/bus office to buy the tram ticket to go to the hotel.  We made one small mistake at our stop – we didn’t get off.  The tram stopped but we thought it was at a light but it wasn’t – it was our stop that we saw as we kept going.   We decided that our problem was that the doors to the tram didn’t open.  What we needed to do to let the driver know we wanted to get off was push the big button by the door for it to open.  Luckily the next stop was about 75 feet away and we just walked to the hotel from there – the Radisson Blu.  Since my cruise mate had booked the hotel we were going to be given a standard room but when I pulled out my Radisson Rewards (formerly Club Carlson) gold loyalty card at the check in desk, we were upgraded to a business room which was larger.  Even though we were there for only one night and used to a small room, it felt wonderful.  The best part – each of us had a queen bed rather than a very small twin bed from the cruise.

Having these credit cards that give you status in a hotel is really worth it.  The ones I have are Radisson Rewards, IHG, and Marriott.  I did have SPG till the merger with Marriott. Hilton will also give you some status as well as Hyatt.  I plan on applying for the World of Hyatt card this spring since it will be 25 months since I closed my previous Hyatt card.

We spent very little time at the hotel and went to the tram stop where we were given help as to which tram to get on and which stop to get off.  Now we needed to figure out how to purchase tram tickets on the ticket machine at the stop.  After about four false starts, we were successful.

We got on the tram and went about five stops  to get to the market area.  Before we left the tram station, we looked around to get our bearings so we would know which side we needed to get back on and which tram would go near our hotel.  We kept getting ourselves confused and finally a young American student studying in Dusseldorf took pity on us and walked us down to look at the electronic sign board and told us what we needed to look for.  He was very helpful and personable and after we thanked him we found ourselves on the streets of Dusseldorf in all of its Christmas glory.

I think we were in the high end of the shopping district of Dusseldorf.  It was much busier here than we had seen the entire trip but then, it was Saturday afternoon and ten days till Christmas.  We passed by Prada, Dior, Chanel, Cartier and Burberry.

In the grassy area in the middle of the park separating  the north and south lanes of the Konigsallee, was a skating rink.  Along the sides were food vendors.  My friend got a big sausage in a hotdog roll and I , I got the best meal!  It was  cheese wheel fettuccine pasta.  Basically it was cooked fettuccine that was put in a hollowed out center section of a big wheel of parmesan cheese and the cook scraped some of the cheese into the pasta.  Some truffle oil was sprinkled on top and the chef  kept stirring the fettuccine around and around so it would pick up part of the parmesan and blend all the flavors together.  Truly a decadent fettuccine Alfredo dish.  It was so good I wanted to lick my plate.

We kept walking down and around corners finding different markets throughout the city.  We found a large ferris wheel at one of the markets that we had seen from the ship as we sailed through Dusseldorf on the Rhine on our way to Amsterdam.  We  found very few restrooms and went into a large department store.  The line was about 45 minutes long but what choice did we have?

Many of the vendor stalls we saw were very similar to what we had seen at other markets nevertheless, it was fun to look at what they were selling and be part of the experience.

The street decorations were similar to what we saw in other markets but only more of them as this was a large city. 

It quickly turned dark and then the city really shone bright and festive.  In the center of the park was a beautiful water feature with lights at the end that glowed as we walked along the sidewalk to get back to the underground station for our tram. 

Thanks to our student from earlier the afternoon, we found the correct tram going in the right direction and knew when to get off the tram to walk back to our hotel.  It was a long day beginning in Amsterdam leaving the ship, getting to the train station, finding our train, getting off and finding our hotel and then going to the markets in Dusseldorf and finally back on the tram to our hotel.

Tomorrow, we go back to Amsterdam, which will be our last night before heading back to the United States from our journey.

 

Arriving and Leaving Amsterdam – What we did and saw

Friday was our last full day on our boat.  We were still sailing on the Rhine in the morning and as we looked out at the countryside along the river we saw the fog rising up from the ground.  It looked a little ethereal.  There is definitely a different landscape look in Germany.  No mega homes, at least along the Rhine like you can find in the United States.  There were some beautiful homes along the river and we were told that they were purchased by many wealthy Americans and I could see why.  It just looked like a serene life, not much traffic, seemed like there was less hustle and bustle than what most of us American are used to.

We docked within very close proximity to Centraal Station, the main train station in Amsterdam.  We were happy about that since the next morning we were going to go to Dusseldorf and hoped to purchase our tickets sometime today at the station and it would make walking to the station on Saturday that much easier.

After lunch we again were divided into groups to take a bus tour of the city.  To be honest, the bus tour did not show what I think is the beauty of Amsterdam.  We were in some run down neighborhoods and I was glad that I had been to Amsterdam before because if this was my first visit, like it was my cruise mate’s, then I probably wouldn’t come back.

There was a little park that had a windmill so we went there and all had a photo op with the windmill.

Back onto the bus, driving around again and finally let off in an underground garage by the Van Gogh Museum and Rijk museums.  We had about 75 minutes to walk around and then we met again to walk to our canal cruise. 

Honestly, forty five minutes was not enough to go into one of the museums.  It almost felt like a waste of time that they built in.  Luckily they had some stalls selling items but mainly food and beer – similar to a Christmas market and we all walked around and around them.  

These stalls flanked a small skating rink which was fun watching  Some  skaters skated like they had never done it before and I’m sure some of them hadn’t.  

While walking around I was able to go into the combined gift shop for both the Rijk and VanGogh – they were near the meeting spot for our tour guide.  Paramount in my mind was the lack of space for anymore souvenirs – remember I had the reindeer hide from Strasbourg!

Everyone got to the meeting spot early.  We then walked to the canal cruise dock and by the time we got there it was already getting dusky – another reason to me why Amsterdam was not being shown in her best light.  Things I had remembered from before we didn’t see this time  like the large parking lot for only bicycles.  Speaking of bicyclists, there appeared to be fewer than when I was here before.  Of course, being winter and late afternoon could have a lot to do with it.

one of the signs I saw by the stalls

We went through several of the canals on the cruise.  We saw the houses along the Singel Canal that were slanting and crooked due to the rotting piling underneath the homes.  We also went near the Anne Frank house as well as a church with a beautiful steeple.  It wasn’t dark enough to see many of the lights yet it was dark enough that nothing was clear and sharp – just, in my opinion, a not very good time to take the tour.  I believe we could have gotten to Amsterdam earlier in the day, perhaps even in the morning from Cologne.  By car it is about 2 1/2  and if we left Cologne around 2:00 in the afternoon why couldn’t we have gotten to Amsterdam earlier so we could see everything during the day as well as having free time – which we didn’t until 5:00 ish.

Look closely and you can see the houses leaning.

We were disappointed in the day as we had purchased online at home tickets for the Ann Frank House for a 4:30 tour but if we had done the tour, we would have missed the canal cruise which my cruise mate didn’t want to miss and I don’t blame her.  The order for the afternoon was bus tour, free 75 minutes and then the canal cruise.  I wished the free time was at the end so we could have done it all and go to the Ann Frank House but sometimes you just have to make choices and can’t do it all.

The canal boat took us close to our ship.  Once off the ship we decided to walk to Centraal Station and get our tickets for Dusseldorf.  Now I have purchased many trains tickets in Europe from kiosks and never had any problems.  We walked inside the station and see a ticket office.  The manned counters are for local trains/buses only and we were international – going back into Germany.  I found a machine, punched in what I wanted, found the train to and from and tried to pay.  My credit card was declined even though I had been using it throughout the trip.  Luckily I also brought my Charles Schwab ATM card (no money conversion fees and no foreign transaction fees) and was able to use it.  We had a lot of problems with the ticket machine.  We found someone who works for the train company to help us and even he had problems.  The first machine would make our reservations, gave us a confirmation number but never let us actually print the ticket.  We had to cancel out, use the confirmation number and go to another machine.  When we tried the second machine to book my friend’s ticket, it wouldn’t let us do it.  It probably took us, with help, about 90 minutes to book and print our tickets.  The agent was really helpful, told us what track it would be on and pulled up on his phone the stops we would be making and had me take a picture of his phone with my phone.

Our last night we had plenty of time to say goodbye to those we met, exchanged email addresses or FB names for those we wanted to stay in contact with and packed our bags.  Now we were off for an adventure on our own – Dusseldorf!

 

Cologne or Koln

We arrived in Cologne in the early evening and some passengers chose to have their dinner in town as well as walking around. With temperatures around 30 degrees I chose to stay on board and participate in the Christmas activities.

A Christmas tree was brought into the lounge and we were given a box of ornaments to decorate it.  There were two other trees that others were adding to the decorations already on t.  We tried to have fun and sabotage the other trees but no one did it back.  One tree was all white and we would add bright pink ornaments OR put a banana in the tree.  No contest, just a fun activity.  We also, with the crew, sang Christmas carols.  Then, the guest of honor arrived – St Nicholas (Santa Claus) came by.  We all lined up to sit on his lap and receive a gift.  Some of the lap sitters had a LOT of fun on Santa’s lap.  IMG_1873

Up the next morning fortified with my daily oatmeal, juice and tea we walked outside to meet our tour guide.  We were divided for most of the trip into four different groups based on the color ticket you picked up on your way out.  We found that for the most part we were part of the blue group.  With our Whisper Boxes we then held the receiver up to the large lollipop sign that the guides held up high for us to follow.  By touching the receiver to the lollipop we were then on their frequency.

We docked in town so there was no need to have a bus take us to Cologne.  Due to all the changes in this cruise because of the water level we were told that we did not have scheduled a tour of the cathedral in Cologne.  That was a disappointment for us as on this cruise we did not have any tours of any cathedral.

We walked along the river and saw some very old buildings with the dates written on them.  Cologne was originally a Roman settlement and during some of the construction of the city post WW II, many Roman artifacts were found.  Most of Cologne was destroyed during WW II and a master plan was developed for the rebuilding of the city.  With most of the downtown area destroyed, it was easy to lay out a new plan for the city and wider streets for the automobile.img_1655

Wandering up and down some pedestrian streets we saw unique statues including one on the side of a building of a little boy pulling down his pants and “mooning” the church across the park.  Germany was once Catholic but with the reformation many chose the Protestant denomination.  This little boy was protesting something that the church had done.

We walked past an excavation site where they were going to build  however, once they were digging Roman artifacts were found.  They were taken to the Roman Germanic  museum that housed many of these artifacts.  We were able to look into the windows at the museum and could go back on our own if we wanted to.

Before you knew it we were at the Cologne Cathedral.  Due to the fact that there were many changes to our itinerary, the ship somehow lost our reservation to tour the cathedral.  It was suggested by our tour guide that we go in before noon as a service would be happening then.  

We were at the end of the tour and followed out tour guide’s recommendation and visited the cathedral.  I was somewhat upset at how loudly people were talking in the church.  It is a church and a place for reverence.  I chose not to take any pictures inside the church but it was beautiful.  This church was begun in 1248 and continued being built until around 1478 when it was stopped for about three hundred years.  Building began again in 1880.  It is the largest Gothic church in northern Europe.  Unfortunately during World War II the church was hit fourteen times yet it still stood.

Across the street from the cathedral we decided to go into a small restaurant, Cafe Reichard,  to get something warm/hot to drink and use the rest rooms.  Once we sat down we decided we  wanted more and ordered a light lunch.  The soup was absolutely delicious and so was the hot tea.  If you are in Europe and looking for restrooms, always look for the stairs and go down.  Make sure you bring a 50 cent euro piece for admission.

Our tour guide told us about a miniature tourist train that went around the city to four of the eight Christmas markets in Cologne.  It was at the corner where the cafe was. While we waited we looked across the street and saw a fun and unique building.

When the train arrived we boarded quickly and sat down.  Turns out it wasn’t free as we thought but was 10 euros. It was well worth it to be taken to the markets.

We paid and went to our first Christmas market, then our second which was on the river, our third which seemed very popular with the after work crowd and then back again to where we began, the market by the Cathedral.  What the markets carried was very similar as were the prices but there were still somethings that were very unique.


A bar at the market by the river with Santa on the roof

Walking back to the ship we were a little sad as we knew this was our last Christmas market on the cruise.  We knew that the next day we would be in Amsterdam and they didn’t have any while we were there.  We did have our collection of gluhwein mugs as a wonderful souvenir of the Christmas markets.

My cruise mate and I did have another city to look forward to – after the cruise we were going to go to Dusseldorf and was excited about that.

Rudesheim, Germany by Day

Once again the little train was waiting for us as we stepped off the AMAPrima.  We had several options for this morning but we decided to stay in Rudesheim for our tour of Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Museum.  This is a stop for almost all river cruises and one most people would have overlooked on their own.  The building isn’t very large and you can do the tour in about 45 minutes to an hour.

The museum is housed in an old fifteenth century historic building in Rudesheim around the corner from the main street.  This museum was founded by Siegfried Wendel who began collecting and restoring these old mechanical musical instruments.  Some of these instruments were one of a kind and you will not see it anywhere in the world.

Other instruments were one of only several hundred.  People would donate to Siegfried old instruments for him to restore.  For those that he could not restore he saved them so he could use parts from those instruments to restore other instruments that could be salvaged For those instruments, Siegfried was able to take parts and pieces from those that would not be restored and put them in the ones that could be restored.  These mechanical musical instruments were used to entertain people in the 19th century.  You would see these at World Fairs of this time.

As we were taken around by our period dressed tour guide she explained some of these instruments and was able to have a few played for us.  Who doesn’t remember the organ grinder?  Obviously there was no live monkey but we did have the organ and we could take turns “grinding”.  One of their prized possessions is a machine that is a combination of a piano and six violins.  The one that drew me in was somewhat grotesque – it was a machine that had lots of puppets in it and some of those puppets were little monkeys with what appeared to be real teeth in their mouth.  I was mesmerized but repulsed at the same time.There were about 350 mechanical instruments from the small music boxes to these large mechanical instruments.

When the tour ended we were given tickets to ride the gondola up to the a famous statue and a beautiful view of the river.  If you would like to listen to some of the music these machine played, click here and here. We were riding over the vineyards and if it had been earlier in the fall, we would have seen the grapes and the workers harvesting these grapes for the vineyards.  We gathered at the top with our tour guide and began our walk but for us it was too much German history that we were unfamiliar with.  We said goodbye to our group and took the gondola back down and since it was almost 11:00, we decided it was time to stroll through the Christmas market.

If you go on a Christmas Market river cruise, you might want to make your purchases here in Rudesheim.  Items that I had seen at other markets, were here as well but they were less expensive.  Perhaps because it was early in the day as far as the market is concerned, it was not very crowded.  It was a very pleasant experience walking around here. I thoroughly enjoyed this market and other than being in Strasbourg, this was my favorite market.   There was a restaurant where the entrance was lined with about forty Christmas trees.  Christmas trees were all over the place, even leaning against a store on the outside.  We found a Christmas trees made out of crates – you could make a tree out of anything!

We were given the option of walking back to the ship or going to the meeting place to catch “the train”.  My travel mate took the train, I walked back.  The night before in the dark I thought it was going to be a long walk home but in the light of day, it wasn’t.  All I had to do was point my feet downhill and walk to the river and then take a left.

We left around 1:00 in the afternoon so we could cruise the Rhine Gorge while it was still daylight – remember sunset happened around 4:30.  This is the section of the Rhine where there are many castles and the famed Lorelei Rock.

Legend has it a siren was sitting on the rock, combing her golden hair and sailors would be so distracted by her beauty that they crashed into the rock.  Here is a song about Lorelei sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

Rudesheim, Germany by Night

We left Heidelberg and sailed toward Rudesheim, Germany.  After dinner we had a choice of two excursions.  We could go into a wine cellar and have a sampling of some of the fine Reisling wines grown in this region OR we could go to a little restaurant and sample the famed Rudesheim coffee.

You might ask “what is Rudesheim coffee” and I have the answer for you.  It is coffee with brandy, lit on fire and then whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles on top,  though where I am from they are called jimmies. (PS virtual points if you can tell where I am from by the word jimmies – if you know me, please don’t spoil it).

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All Aboard!

Guess which one I chose?  Yep, the wine tasting.  After we finished our dinner on the ship, we put our jackets on and headed for the gangplank.  There, waiting for us on the other side, was a train that would take us near where we were going.

We walked to the wine tasting cave while the other group walked to the restaurant for the coffee.  The wine cave is all that I thought it would be as we walked down the stone steps into the cave.

There were tables with benches that we sat down on and in front of us was a small glass, the size of two shots glasses.  Our host reminded me of the late Robin Williams.  He spoke like him and looked a little bit like him but more importantly he had his sense of humor.  He seemed to have his finger on American foibles and that gave him fodder for humor. We all laughed quite a bit that evening.

We began with a dry Reisling, then a semi-dry and finally my favorite, a sweet.  He told us about ice wines and if they are truly ice wines they cost in the range of a hundred dollars for a bottle about half the size of regular wine bottles.  I think I would really like ice wines but at that price I’m not sure if I will ever get to sample one.  If you wanted to purchase some local wine, our host would certainly sell it to you. I have brought wine home from other countries using these wine skins from Amazon

I never had any bottles of wine broken.  I  made sure that they were secure in the suitcase and wouldn’t move around much.

As a side note, our son  purchased a case of wine from South Africa and checked it as luggage when returning to the US.  When arriving back in the US, he paid the customs tax on it since he was over the tax free amount.  The taxes were not much.  I think we all assume that custom taxes are very high but they really are not!  I believe, and do not hold this as gospel truth, that the duty tax is 3% of your purchase price so for some wines that he purchased at $17 USD he would pay that price plus 3%, much less than the $45 it is retailing for in the US.

Back to Rudesheim, since we were docked overnight in Rudesheim, rather than taking the train back, you could stay in the city.  Our cruise director knew of some restaurants and bars that would be fun.  HE also thought some of the Christmas markets might still be open.

A number of people did decide to stay and then walk back to the boat.  When we took the train up to the wine tasting, it seemed like a long ride – maybe about 15 minutes of weaving in and out of the streets but we were told that the walk back was much quicker and just to point your feet downhill.  We chose to go back to the boat.  I think we were a little concerned about roaming around at night trying to find the ship.  Hearing stories the next day, I’m sure some of the passengers on this ship closed several bars and had a great time.

For those wondering, here is the recipe for Rudesheim Coffee:

Coffee drink  with Asbach Uralt brandy and topped with vanilla whipped cream and grated chocolate.
Servings:
INGREDIENTS
3 cubes sugar
1-2 parts Asbach Uralt Brandy
hot coffee
vanilla whipped cream
grated chocolate
INSTRUCTIONS
Place cubes of sugar in a warm coffee cup
Add Asbach Uralt Brandy, set aflame. Stir and allow to burn 1 minute.
Fill up with hot coffee to within an inch of top of cup. Stir well.
Cover with layer of whipped cream with vanilla, and sprinkle with grated chocolate. 

Next up, our day in Rudesheim.

How I Stayed Warm during Winter Travel

One of my concerns when I chose to go on a December Christmas Market cruise was being able to stay warm.  Being comfortable with the weather is paramount for me and it does determine to some degree, how much I enjoy the trip.

Last February I went on a southern South America cruise and knew that it could be cold.  I try to take a minimum amount of luggage with me and that is a challenge when you are bringing bulky heavy, warm clothing.  I’ll talk about some of the items I brought with me and if you are interested, you can click on the underlined links.  I do not receive anything for recommending what I use.

I purchased from LL Bean an ultra weight down jacket that could be packed in its own pocket.  Since it did pack in its own pocket, I also used it on the airplane as a pillow for the overnight flight!  It kept me nice and warm, had sufficient pockets for me to shove stuff into.

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From LLBean again, I purchased a wool sweater  which was warm.screen shot 2019-01-10 at 11.11.01 am

Concerned that it would be too itchy for me, I also bought a couple of turtlenecks from my local WalMart.  I’m generally not a WalMart supporter but I live in a small rural city and to be honest, it is the only place in my city I could purchase that item.  The other reason was I knew that it would be inexpensive and if my suitcase became too full on the way home, I would not feel too bad leaving the turtleneck behind.  Continuing on, underneath that I wore a camisole.  I did bring two other sweaters with me but the wool one was the one I wore the most.  In hindsight, I just needed two sweaters.

For the lower half of my body I purchased a pair of fleece lined leggings, again at WalMart to wear underneath my pants.  I brought one pair of leggings with me on the trip.  I think the price was 2 pair for about $15 and again, if I needed space coming home i could discard a pair.  They were really the secret to staying warm for me and I would highly recommend them if you are going to be in cold weather.

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I brought three pairs of pants with me – one pair of jeans and two pairs of pants.  If you are wearing fleece under your pants, try them on at home to make sure you can get your pants up with the leggings on underneath.  I did have to stretch out my jeans and since they had some spandex in them it was easier than not.  With the regular pants, I could wear thinner tops at dinner since I wasn’t as concerned about staying warm on the ship.

I did not purchase boots or shoes for the trip and used what I had at home.  I had a pair of thick soled shoes that were perfect.  They were similar to these.

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To keep my feet warm in these shoes I relied on SmartWool socks.  My feet are never itchy in these socks and they keep my feet warm and dryscreen shot 2019-01-10 at 11.23.04 am

A wool hat kept me toasty.  I would suggest getting one that has a fleece band instead around the part that goes around your forehead.  I don’t like wool on my forehead.

I had somewhat of a fail for keeping my hands warm.  I did bring handwarmers with me but they were too large for the leather gloves I brought.  I also brought wool mittens but that didn’t work either.  I had to keep taking them off to take photos.  My travel mate wore ski gloves and she was warm so that is a possibility for next time.

Additionally, I brought a knitted scarf to wear around my neck and over my jacket.  It was particularly useful when it was a little breezey.  This scarf was purchased at TJMaxx and was a wool blend.  Didn’t use it often but I had it if I needed it.

For possibility of rain, I purchased a rain poncho from the Sporting Goods department in WalMart.  I didn’t want one of the very thin ones in the event it rained more than one day.  I found one that seemed a little heavier that seemed to fit the bill.  I wanted a poncho so I could protect my backpack that I wore as well as me!  I did use it one day, was able to refold it and keep it with me till I left and then, like some excess clothes I had, I left it behind.  I deliberately decided not to bring an umbrella hating the feeling of rain running down my arms.

Instead of a purse, I used a hydration backpack.  Mine has a separate compartment in the back (the part of the backpack that is next to your back) where the bladder for the water goes.  Instead of the bladder, that is where I kept my important documents and money think that I would feel if someone was unzipping something that was against my bag – it seemed a little awkward for them to do it.  Not being totally foolish, I did separate my money and put some, as well as an additional credit card and ATM card, elsewhere.

What are your tips for staying warm?

Heidelberg, Germany – our 1st German market

We left beautiful Strasbourg and set sail for Heidelberg, Germany.  The day was overcast and cool/cold depending on how cold you like it.  Once again, if you dress for the weather you’ll be fine.  For us, this was not the time to look fashionable but rather dress for warmth.  We took a bus from the  port up to the top of the hill over looking the Neckar River and the tile roofs on the buildings and homes below us.  I had always thought that the orange terra cotta tile roofs were found in hot, humid areas and not in European countries.  That’s what is so great about traveling – the knowledge you pick up!  The castle dominates the landscape.

Our tour guide was so smart and knowledgeable that we thought he was a little arrogant and obnoxious.

The buildings on the grounds of the castle are beautiful to look at even though they are more ruins than anything else.I think back to when these buildings were built and the sculptures were made and marvel at what they were able to do without modern machinery. Are you sometimes in awe at what was made centuries ago like I am?

We were taken into the lower level of one of the buildings where they had a brewery and a keg that held 60,000 gallons of beer! We were also told a tale of why there is a footprint in one of the stone bricks on the ground. Whether it is true or nor we will never know.

Afterwards we took the funicular down to the street level where we were able to go to the Christmas market which had just opened at 11:00 AM, like all the other markets we had been to.  This town was a little different in that it had a small skating rink where you could rent skates and have a spin on the ice.  At this market is where I had the best crepe that I had during the entire trip – a Grand Marnier crepe with sugar.  It was hot and steamy and had puffed up.  Eating that warmed my insides, of course I ate it with my mug of gluhwein.  What was not to like?

We enjoyed watching a preschool group walking around with their teachers.  The children were so cute and they all wore brightly color vests over the coats so they were quite visible.

There were some public restrooms in a trailer that were very clean and cost about .50 euros.  I don’t mind paying money for a clean restroom.  It seems to me that many European cities of a certain size have a carousel in the center of time because I have seen so many of them.

We met our group at 12:30 to walk to the bus for our return to the ship.  In the evening we would go on a wine tasting in Rudesheim and we were not going to miss that.

During the afternoon cruise, some took naps, some stayed in the lounge to meet gather and snack.  I think I sat in the lounge and fell asleep.  Vacationing is hard work and tiring! We wanted to be well rested since we had an evening tour!

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Strasbourg, France – the Oldest Christmas Market in France

I had been to Strasbourg previously and fell in love with it.  That is why when the cruise line was going to alter our Christmas market cruise because of the low water levels in the Rhine, I was most disappointed.  I needed to go back to the city that I fell in love with.  You may not know it but Strasbourg is like a mini Venice with canals and canal boats for you to view the city.  When I was there previously there were flowers galore, window boxes on many windows adding color to this beautiful, old city.  I loved going into the French patisseries for chocolate croissants – I mean, could anything be better than that?

Before we docked near Strasbourg we had a few choices to make.  We could go into Strasbourg and do the city tour and then on our own go into the Cathedral to see the Astronomical Clock and then take the 12:40 shuttle back to the ship for lunch and then gingerbread decorating OR we could stay longer and take the 2:40 shuttle back to the ship.  For both of these options we could then go to Gengenbach at 4 PM to see their City Hall decorated as an Advent calendar since it has 24 windows.  Our cruise director did not know what the theme was.  The third option was that we could stay in Strasbourg and take another shuttle back to the ship with the last one leaving at 5:40.  I decided that Strasbourg  was important enough for me to stay there as long as I could.  My cruise mate decided that she wanted to do both.

We got on our buses and off we went to drive around Strasbourg while listening to our guide talk about the city especially how old some of the buildings were – older than when settlers came to Jamestown in 1607!

unadjustednonraw_thumb_4aec qeez7lyfq1kxypjvwnis%g_thumb_4af1It was a beautiful day though cold and crisp.  We walked past some of the markets, stores where he recommended fresh gingerbread cookies.  We saw a section where Finland was invited to have s special display and stalls.  We went by where the Finns were smoking fresh salmon.  When we finished our tour he showed us where we would meet a guide who would walk us to where the shuttle bus was parked.  He gave us tickets to get into the cathedral, bypassing the line to view the Astronomical Clock.

I had seen it before on another cruise/tour and our guide at that time explained everything about the clock.  This time it was, for me, disappointing.  First of all there was scaffolding around and over the clock.  We had no tour guide explaining it although there was a screen with a video that we could not see if we were standing in front of the clock.  Although we were there at noon and there was some activity on the clock, it was a let down for me.  What brought it to life before was the exceptional tour guide.  unadjustednonraw_thumb_4b04Additionally, this time, probably because we were on a Christmas cruise and didn’t have time, we did not get a canal cruise.  In my mind, the entire day should have been spent in Strasbourg.  Of course, others had the option of not going to Gengenbach but really, you want to do it all.

I found two couples from our cruise who let me join them for the day.  They were so friendly and inclusive and I appreciated it.  After the disappointing cathedral experience we decided we need to sit down since we had stood on hard stone floors in the church for about 45 minutes.  We found a little cafe where we could get coffee or hot chocolate for me.  Once sufficiently warm up we walked around some more.  We found the restaurant that our tour guide had recommended for lunch.  It was typical French food and it was delicious.  Wondering around we just admired the city, the store decorations and several of the markets we visited.

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unadjustednonraw_thumb_4af7unadjustednonraw_thumb_4abdunadjustednonraw_thumb_4a86With sunset occurring around 4:30 PM, we started back to the meeting place when I spied the Finnish stalls at the market.  What to my wondering eye should appear?  A stand with fur hides and these were not any regular kind of hides like sheepskin or cow but rather (remember this is a stand from Finland) but reindeer hides.  They were beautiful, soft and very unique.  I was told this was what was leftover after the animal was used for food for the people of Lapland.  Hoping that the price would persuade me not to purchase one, it did the opposite – they were so reasonably priced.  The hide is now on one of my floors and it is so soft and warm these winter nights.

With paperwork in hand and the hide nicely wrapped up we continued our walk down the beautifully lit up and decorated streets in Strasbourg.  Each street seemed to have different decorations and lights going across the streets.  It was magical.  At one point looking down a street we saw the cathedral and it front were angels lit up blowing their horns at the cathedral.  unadjustednonraw_thumb_4aacunadjustednonraw_thumb_4ac8unadjustednonraw_thumb_4abcunadjustednonraw_thumb_4ad1unadjustednonraw_thumb_4ab5unadjustednonraw_thumb_4a88unadjustednonraw_thumb_4ad8unadjustednonraw_thumb_4a95

I’m very glad that I stayed to see the city all lit up as all the other markets we saw were int he daylight.unadjustednonraw_thumb_4aaa

The day after we were in Strasbourg is when the shootings at the Christmas market happened.  It feels so strange to know that we were there 24 hours before and that but for the grace of God, we could have been involved in the shootings.  I will not let this stop me from traveling – it can and it does happen anywhere.  I don’t avoid Washington DC, I don’t avoid Charleston, SC; Las Vegas, NV and the many other locations of shootings in our country.  This will not stop me.

 

Riquewihr, France – Our First Christmas Market

Though we docked in Germany, our first Christmas market was in a little quaint village in France.  We did have three other options for our first tour, one being in Freiburg, Germany; the second a bicycle tour in Breisach, Germany and the third was an excursion to the Black Forest.  I was anxious to begin my tour of the markets so without hesitancy I signed up for this tour.

With our Whisper Vox around our neck, our money safely put away, we left around 9:00 for Riquewihr.  A Whisper Vox is a little receiver and earbuds that allows you to listen to your guide without hovering around the guide trying to listen to their narrative.  I think these are the best thing for tours.

It was lovely driving through the countryside.  My travel friend had never been to Europe before and she was interested in how the landscape of houses looked in comparison to our area.  This are of France is in the Alsace region and had gone back and forth between being part of France and part of Germany.  Most people, because of this speak both French and German.  There are many vineyards in this part of France

We arrived in Riquewihr and departed the bus.  Our local tour guide walked around with us explaining about the area, this village as well as answering any questions we might have.  The main street was cobblestone and many of the buildings of this main street were half made of timber.  Near the back of this main street village was the medieval wall around the city.  She showed us some of the older buildings in Riquewihr and some of them were older than our country!  We all took in the decorations on the buildings, the scent of the gluhwein and all the goodies that we could purchase.  We had to remember that this was our first Christmas market and we needed to pace ourselves to be able to have room in our suitcase to bring home what we purchased.

I wandered around, drank my first rouge gluhwein, bought some nougat and a few seasonal cookies.  The day began with sun and many people here.  It was a Sunday and two weeks before Christmas.  People came from all over to go to this market due to the quaintness of this market and village.  It was crowded.

  At the beginning of the tour, it was sunny and cool but it turned into a rainy day.  Luckily for me I had purchased at WalMart in their sporting goods department one of their thicker rain ponchos I could put in my backpack.  I was able to find a spot to get it out and out it on over me and my backpack.  

I think that most of us were ready to leave before the time was up due to the small size of the market, the crowds and the rain.  It was a nice introduction to the markets on this cruise.

AMAPrima on the Rhine – our Journey Begins

After taking the tram to the closest location to the ship, we had about a 5 minute walk.  When we arrived at the dock, we  found that we were one of the first guests to board. We booked a room on the first level, known affectionately as the Aquarium Class since most of the room is below the water.  There are large windows on the wall near the ceiling.  Since we thought we would be off the ship most of the day and that it would be winter with no need to open the French balcony.  It was a fine choice for us as well as being less expensive.  We were surprised when we were led to our room on the second level with a French balcony.  Enough people had cancelled this trip when given the chance the week before cruising when we were told we would NOT be sailing on the Rhine.  The cruise line decided to upgrade those on the first floor to the second and third floors and keep the first floor empty.  Now we had a balcony and we did enjoy looking out it though sunrise was late, around 8:27 AM and sunset was early around 4:26 PM.

Since this was a Christmas cruise, the ship was all decked out in decorations.  There was a lighted wreath on all staterooms.  In the reception/lobby area, there was a large Christmas as well as two other ones in the lounge area.  On top of all the windows in the lounge area was garland with ornaments hanging down.

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_49bdThe first night we were all introducing ourselves, finding out where we were from and if we had cruised before.  Of course one of the main topics of conversation had to do with the cancellation then the reinstatement of our itinerary.  Many others felt the same way I did – we were glad to be going but did not like all the changes.  We were putting it behind us and moving forward to begin this cruise that we were excited about.

Before dinner our cruise director, whose job is taking care of us off the cruise, introduced himself and gave us an overview of the week.  Unfortunately for us, he was a first year cruise director and because of the water levels had not been down to this part of the Rhine – he was a newbie like many of us.  This was the first time in 3 1/2 months that the Prima had been in Basel due to the low water levels.  He was very confusing at first and none of us knew what our options were or what he was saying.  Many went to him after his talk to get a one on one with him.  He was a very nice person, just inexperienced and not clear in his presentations.

After listening to the Cruise Director we all left to go downstairs for dinner.  There is one dining time on a river cruise and you can sit wherever you want.  We always seemed to gravitate to a table of six so we could meet other people.  Wine and beer were complimentary and they were very generous with the pours.  We had appetizers, soups, entrees and dessert. Thankfully the size of the courses were modest thought you could ask for more if you wanted.

The sundeck of this ship was lovely though very few of us went up and out due to the temperatures and at times the breeze/wind.  There is also a  heated small pool with bar service on the sun deck.  We used this quite a bit when we were on her on another river cruise.

Keeping with the Christmas theme, we were told one evening that we needed to put our shoe outside our door in the hallway in case St. Nicholas should come to visit.  We awoke the next morning to a chocolate Santa in our shoe.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4b16

Another evening we had a carol sing in the lounge and a surprise visit from the big man himself, Santa.  We took turns sitting on Santa’s lap and getting a gift – one that I had looked at in some of the markets.

IMG_1873Another night we decorated a couple of the Christmas trees as well as having a game of finding the pickle ornament (hint – it was not on any of the trees).  The cruise line and staff did a great job of making this a very festive time for all of us.

Though it can be a difficult time to be away just prior to a major holiday it forced me to be more organized by having my gifts purchased and wrapped.  Being in Europe with all the holiday decorations and a holiday spirit without all the stress and crowding that I feel here was such a wonderful change of pace.  A word of advice – try it, you might like it.

 

Basel, Switzerland – Pre Cruise visit

I have a cardinal rule of cruising and it has nothing to do with a cruise.  I will never fly into a city the day that any cruise is beginning – you just never know what can go wrong.  Also, flying in at least one day before gives you a chance at getting over jetlag.  Following that philosophy my friend and I flew into Basel the day before the cruise was to begin.

We booked our flights with the cruise line – something I never do but their rates were so good.  We had a choice of Delta or KLM and we chose KLM for two very important reasons – EU261.  That’s the EU regulation that protects airline passengers for delay – any delay other than extraordinary circumstances.  I know that weather is a non-covered reason.  Basically if you have a delay of mechanical, etc and are on a European airline flying into Europe you are covered/  The amount depends on the distance you are flying and how long your delay is.  The maximum that you can collect is 600€, even on an award ticket!  The other reason is that European airlines, or for that matter, almost any airline other than American airlines, have better food and nicer/friendlier flight attendants.

We upgraded ourselves with points that I transferred over from one of my Chase credit cards that gives Ultimate Reward points to Premium Economy and that gave us a little bit more room and something I would suggest.  Arriving in Amsterdam we had about a two hour layover.  We then took a regional flight to an airport near Basel, Switzerland.  My trusty travel agent booked us at the Hotel Spalentor, a lovely boutique hotel.  When I wrote to the hotel prior to our arrival inquiring how to get there from the airport, they told me that our confirmation letter was our bus passes.  They gave us easy directions on how to get there.  Luckily my friend had no problem using public transportation.  We went three stops to the train station and changed to another bus, went three more stops and there was our hotel.

Hotel Spalentor, Basel
Across the street from our hotel and where we got on and off the tram.

It was a small, boutique hotel with a large room at least based on European standards.  There was a little bar area as well as a sitting area in the lobby.  The hotel had a very clean exercise room and a game room.  Breakfast was a delicious buffet of hot and cold items.  The staff was incredibly helpful to us particularly in mapping our route to the riverboat.  I would highly recommend this hotel particularly if you are going on a river cruise.  If you are not going on a river cruise, I would still highly recommend it for the location, the size of the room, the buffet and the staff.  Our room also came with a public transportation card that we actually used going to the markets and the ship the next day.  Since I did not use points to book this hotel I made sure that I used the right card for me to pay for it – I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card which gives me three times points for travel and staying in a hotel is travel!

Waiting for our room to get ready, we walked around the area and went to an ATM machine to get a few Swiss francs for the Christmas markets we would be visiting that evening.  Some vendors, we had been told, would only take francs while others would take euros.

Around 5:30 PM we met a family friend at our hotel and took the tram to one of the Christmas markets. As I mentioned earlier, the tram was across the street from our hotel in a beautiful area in front of  “The Gates”.   As we got close on the tram, I could see the storefronts and buildings decorated in bright white twinkling lights, displays in their windows that would put New York windows to shame.  It was festive, bright and very inviting.


One of the store window displays

One of the stores we passed on the tram near the market
Sheepskin blankets to sit on in this enclosed outdoor, temporary restaurant

It was exciting to see in person the lighted pyramids, stalls/temporary restaurants with Swiss raclette cheese melted over potatoes or bread with pickled onions and cornichons. Do you ever get the feeling when you are traveling that you are living your dream?  I certainly felt that way and everything that I thought I would see, I see.  It was like walking in the middle of my technicolor dream. We saw stalls with homemade cookies, gingerbreads, candies, wooden figures, lots of ornaments and cardstock paper stars with a light on a cable in them.


Bought two of these stars to bring home.

I was officially in heaven and overwhelmed with all we saw.  This almost seemed like we were at the county fair with all the great food and some rides for the children.


A miniature ferris wheel for the children

Adults were standing around tall tables drinking their gluhwein and talking with each other after a day at work nibbling on appetizers.  Another market was within a 10 minute walk and we went there as well.  This one was in the main square and had a kinder area for little rides for children.  Walking around we even saw two animated elk above a food stall.  The last time I saw something like this was in Disney World in the Country Bear Jamboree show.

We are glad that we went to this market as this was the location where we would meet our tour guide the next morning.  My heart and my eyes, not to mention my stomach were full from all we had done that day. Neither one of us had problems sleeping.  We were now excited about our week visiting different Christmas markets and seeing the landscape around the Rhine River Valley.

Since we couldn’t get to our cruise ship before 3 PM, I had arranged a Chocolate Tour in Basel.  I needed to find out who had the better chocolate – Switzerland or Belgium.  We booked this tour on AirBnB in their Experience tab.  I had recently learned about these experiences on AirBnB done by local people.  Now who could resist a chocolate tour?  Certainly not us.  To get to these experiences just log into AirBnB and in the bar for the city type in the city you will be in .  The drop down menu will show homes, restaurants and experiences it will show “homes”, “experiences” and “restaurants”.  Click on experiences and then begin looking at all that is offered where you are.

We booked a three hour tour with Stephanie and we were excited.  We had great online communication with her, we exchanged phone numbers in case we got lost in finding the meeting spot.  Since we were at this location the night before for the Christmas market we had no problem walking there.  We could have taken the tram but it really was only about a 20 minute walk and it felt refreshing.  We walked to five different chocolatiers and had samples everywhere we went.  Our first spot, Xocolati,  was similar to a  Fair Trade chocolate store that made the best hot chocolate.  They must have had about 30 choices with many different flavors, some I would have never put together.  It was fun with each of us ordering a different drink.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_4d38 Our next stop was at Confiserie-Schiesser and after looking at the chocolate through the glass at the counter, we went upstairs to what I could call a little tea room for samples.  There was one sample that was filled a raspberry liquor which although strong was delicious.  This chocolatier was directly across the street from Markplatz which has a farmers market every Saturday and it was in full force the day that we were there with many live Christmas decorations (wreaths, trees, flowers) as well as fruit and vegetables.  The city hall was there as well.unadjustednonraw_thumb_4d3a

p1070611Aas we walked from shop to shop we couldn’t help notice how beautifully decorated the shop windows were.  More of a traditional view of Santa than anything modern. unadjustednonraw_thumb_4d40

The other three were very nice but these were my two favorites.  To get to the final shop, we had to take a wooden ferry boat across the Rhine River.  As we were on the ferry boat we saw Santas kayaking on the Rhine.  unadjustednonraw_thumb_4d49This last shop reminded me of a small coffee shop.  It was closed but Stephanie had the key and showed us the seed pod that the cacao grows in.  We sat and listened to her.  Stephanie answered any questions we had about anything.  Since it was  just the two of us on this tour we were able to get to know Stephanie, and get, what I fell was a personalized tour.  At we left Stephanie gave us a goodie bag with different chocolates in it.  I would highly recommend this tour. If you are interested in this walking tour eating chocolates with Stephanie and learning all about it, you can contact her at xocotours@gmail.com.

As we were walking back to the hotel, we even saw a little bar on a “food truck” on the street in Basel.

Finally, to add to my collection of photographs of items hanging above the sidewalks, here is Basel’s version of umbrella hanging over us.

We made it back to the hotel, checked out and with the directions from the front desk, we were able to take the tram to the dock for our ship.

We had been in Basel for about 27 hours and enjoyed every second.  It was fun traveling with someone who had no fears or concerns about walking around at night, taking public transportation and had an adventuresome spirit.

 

 

River Cruising During a Drought in Europe

I love both ocean cruising and river cruising.  Unpacking once is very appealing to me.  With ocean cruising you do make an impact in the port cities you visit particularly if there are more than one ship in port.  With river cruising, typically there are only about 150 people or so on a ship so your impact is much less and you can blend in easier in your ports. Another way that a river cruise is different from an ocean cruise is that water levels DO make difference.  The rivers can be too high to allow sailing under bridges.  Conversely, rivers can be too low to allow sailing on the rivers.  In these cases, your river cruise can change into a bus tour through Europe or even a ship swap – which I will explain in this post.

I have been checking travel experiences and destinations off my bucket list for a few years now.  One that I was particularly excited about was visiting the Christmas markets in Europe.  I could picture myself in a yellow bathed glow of the lights, holding a mug of gluhwein in my hand, admiring the handmade items in all the stalls and streets and Christmas trees all lit up.    This year it came true.  I invited a woman that I didn’t know very well or had seen in decades to travel with me but on I thought she would be a good travel companion.  Blogger Hubby had no desire to go to Europe to shop although it was so much more than that.  She readily agreed when I proposed this trip and before you knew it, we were making plans together, and sharing all the details that make up a trip like this.

We booked again on AMAWaterways since I had such great experiences with them in the past.  Our trip was scheduled to leave Basel, Switzerland on December 8th and arrive in Amsterdam on December 15th.  We added an extra day in Basel prior to the cruise and two extra days in Amsterdam afterwards thinking we’d get out into the countryside of Delft, Gouda and see windmills.

Our original scheduled cruise

Trouble seemed to be looming around the the beginning of November as I read on the “River Cruising” thread on CruiseCritic.com that Europe, and particularly the Rhine Valley was in the throes of a major drought and the river was at historic lows.  It was so low that marine traffic, for the most part, was stopped around the Rhine Gorge area.  Cruise lines were having to do ship swaps – where one ship  goes as far upstream as you can and you meet your sister ship which could only go as far downstream.  You pack your bags and they are then transported to the other ship for your to continue your cruise.  Ship swapping is never desirable but at least you get most of your advertised cruise and the inconvenience of having to pack and unpack again.  Other cruise lines were doing motor coach trips from the boat and that is no fun when you are expecting a river boat cruise and docking near the city you are visiting.  Driving takes some time away from your city.

I kept reading the posts from a contributor who lives in Germany and he kept us all updated with river levels and the weather.   Things were not getting better.  Lots of people who were counting down to their cruise was complaining about ship swap, some cruise lines cancelling, some had entirely different cruises than what was booked.  I wasn’t getting nervous until the middle of November.  I just wanted to know that AMA had a plan.  They never wrote to us as other cruise lines had but they were always receptive when I would call.  Of course, they kept saying things could change last minute but I was skeptical.  The water levels in some spots was only 29 cm!  Our ship had no sister ship to swap with.  I called AMAWaterways several times to see what would be happening with my sailing on the Prima.  Of course I got the “we are monitoring the situation” which wasn’t good enough for me.  I had read on CruiseCritic.com from past passengers that compensation would be decided AFTER the cruise.

After several telephone calls and writing on their Facebook page, which I don’t think they cared for, I found out that if our cruise was going to be  a substantial deviation from what we booked we could either cancel and get all of our money back and no penalty OR we could go on the altered cruise AND receive a credit for the full amount that we paid for the cruise applied to another cruise in three years time.  The altered cruise would be the Tulip cruise but without the tulips – we would be cruising through Belgium and the Netherlands.  This was not public information but shared with me because I felt like I needed more information.

Ten days before our cruise all of us passengers on this sailing received our first communication from AMAWaterways stating that we were “confirmed” that we would not be sailing on the Rhine and that we had the two options I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  I feel that what they offered was very fair.  Some cruise lines just cancelled and those who independently purchased their airfare were scrambling for something else to do.  Others were very upset when some cruise lines did bus tours and they missed some of the very important port cities they were looking to do.  In fact one cruise on AMA didn’t even go into Germany for the Christmas markets.  They were driven in coach from Basel to Amsterdam where they did the altered itinerary.  What they were offering us gave us a choice.  That was very fair of them.

One cruise didn’t even go into Germany but instead went by motorcoach to Antwerp where they would meet their ship.

My friend and I decided that we would do the altered itinerary with the free cruise to use later.  We began researching some of the new cities we would be sailing into.  We decided that we would take the full day tour to Bruges which was exciting to me – a city that I really liked and wanted to show my friend.  Blogger Hubby and I were deciding where we wanted to go on my free cruise – we had decided on the Bordeaux region of France.  This trip, although not what we had booked, began to get a little exciting.  Yes, we were going to miss Strasbourg, Cologne, Heidelberg but we would go to the area of windmills in the Netherlands, we would go to Bruges, Rotterdam and other places in the lowlands that I had never been.

Our altered itinerary was similar to this, excluding Hoorn

Two days before our departure we received another email telling us that the original cruise was back on, the offer of a free cruise and the altered itinerary was rescinded.  It had rained sufficiently that marine traffic had resumed on the Rhine .  WOW, I felt like the little girl in the Exorcist with my head spinning around.  I had lost the free cruise, the windmills, Bruges and now back to the original itinerary that I was originally excited about but now, it seemed like the glow and sparkle was quite a bit tarnished.  My friend and I decided that there was some mourning naturally but by the time we would get to the airport, we would be excited again.  We felt bad for those who had taken the option of canceling the cruise.

Wrapping this up, don’t rely on the cruise lines to to you up to date.  Join CruiseCritic and go to the river cruising thread.  You will be educated more than you probably wanted to be.  When booking your cruise, look to see if there is another ship with the same line leaving on the same day as your cruise but from the port city where you would be disembarking from.  I say that because it could allow a ship swap if there is low or high water.  Our ship had no “sister” ship with to swap so we were offered the alternate itinerary.  Some cruise lines would cancel this sailing but AMA offered something else.  How comfortable are you with this.  Finally, AMA did it right – rather than cancelling, they offered the altered itinerary.  For those that just wanted the Christmas markets and nothing else, they allowed them to cancel with no penalty.  They are the only cruise line that gave us choices and that means a lot to me.

UPDATE:  I “guessed” at the email address of the owner of AMAWaterways and told him how disappointed I was in AMAWaterways for the lack of communication with us and how the excitement of the trip was very diminished.  He wrote back and asked how I would have handled it and I told him.  One of my main points is when they sent us the letter “confirming” we would not be sailing on the Rhine they did not reserve the right to go back to the original itinerary if conditions changed – which they did.  To me, that was a sticking point and it caused a number of people to cancel and then some who had cancelled decided to rebook, again at the last minute, to do this cruise.