Category Archives: International Travel

When something went wrong at the Airport for Me!!

You don’t think I’m just going to tell you off the bad what went wrong, do you?  I need to set the stage so you can really understand.

I was traveling with a girlfriend to Cancun for a few days.  As we had an early 7:30 AM flight, I spent the night before at her home because I live 125 miles from the airport. Before I left home I checked everything – passport, credit cards, confirmation number for flight, suitcase, etc.  I even went back home to make sure I had turned something off before I was too far from home.  Perhaps you can already tell where this story is going. We were even upgraded from economy to First based on my newly acquired silver status with United that I had earned less than 48 hours earlier.  I was truly excited for this experience.

We got up early (4:30 AM) as she had the spouse of a mutual friend picking us up at 5:00 for our quick 15 minute trip to the airport.  Knowing we would have time in the lounge after check in and security, we ate nothing at her house anticipating pastries, fruit and oatmeal at the United lounge.

He dropped us off, we made our way to the International Check in.  We were asked for our passports.  I took mine out of my backpack and gave it to the ticket agent.  She surprised me when she said “is he going too?”  HE???? What is she talking about?  It was then when I looked inside of the passport that I realized I had grabbed my husband’s passport and mine was 125 miles away at home!  Oh no!  My heart starting beating fast and I needed to calm myself done and figure how we could solve this problem. Obviously I couldn’t make the next flight which was at 8:30 – I would just be hopefully getting home at this point.  After much time searching for the best option for me, the ticket agent found a flight that left at 12:40 connecting in Houston and I would arrive in Cancun around 7:00. instead of the 10:00 AM I would have had.   That was the best I could have hoped for and I was extremely grateful that it wasn’t late at night or even the next day. After telling my friend to go ahead without me and that I’d meet her sometime at the hotel we called our friend again and asked him to return to the airport, pick me up, take me to her house and I would be on my way.

Luckily this was a Sunday morning and it was still dark out.  Not much traffic for which I was thankful for.  Fortunately I have a cousin that lives about 15 miles from my home and is an early riser.  I sent her a text message told her I had an emergency but not life threatening.  She graciously went to my home, grabbed my passport and met me at a highway exit about 50 miles north of my home.  I am forever in debt to her.  As I was driving back to the airport I called my son and asked him to locate a shuttle ride for me to the airport – he is a bargain hunter and I knew he would get a great deal for me.  I called my daughter and gave her my new record locater number and asked that she check me in.  I didn’t want to find out that I had been bumped because I was the last one to check in.  Finally, I called the Hyatt Globalist number and asked them to get in touch with the Hyatt ZIVA, where I would be staying, and let my friend know when she goes to check in, that I would be arriving around 7:00.  I wanted her to know that I did get my passport and I was ticketed on the flight.

I got back to my friend’s house where I left my car, called my friend for the ride again and was back at the airport and checked in.  I now had about 2 1/2 hours before boarding so I went to a United lounge.  I told my tale of woe how I had the wrong passport, drove 150 miles to get it, lost my first class seat and now had economy plus. She took pity on me and told me to go downstairs and rest a little.

First thing I did was to get some breakfast, call my family to let them know I was back at the airport and that I was fine.  It’s irritating when something like this happens but I couldn’t dwell on it as I needed to keep moving forward.  I had checked numerous times that I had my passport – I just had never looked inside to make sure that it was mine.

Meanwhile as I was sitting in the lounge I heard an announcement about a delayed Cancun flight and that when they had more information, they would pass it on.  My ears perked up.  I went to the desk in the lounge and they said that this was the 8:30 non stop flight (it’s about 10:45 now).  When I inquired if there were any seats available I was told “no”.  Never one to take the first answer I was given, I decided to walk down to the gate and ask them there.

Luckily no one was standing in line at the gate agent’s desk when I walked up.  I again asked if there were any seats available and as he was looking on his computer, I looked at the screen over his head and it showed one seat available.  Excitedly I asked if I could have that seat.  He looked at my boarding pass and said that it was First Class and I had an Economy Plus seat.  I then pulled out my earlier boarding pass for the 7:30 flight that I didn’t take, and showed him that I was originally a First Class passenger.  That one available seat became mine but I did ask him to protect me on the 12:40 flight to Houston in case this delay lasts even longer.  While he was doing that, he got a call to begin boarding.  How lucky did I get!

Once again I called my family to share my great news and let them know what flight I would be on and to change the time of my shuttle from 7:00 PM to 2:30 PM.   I called the Hyatt Globalist number again and asked them to send an updated message to the hotel to pass on to my friend who should be arriving within the hour.

I put my seatbelt on, was given a Bloody Mary by the flight attendant when he heard my tale (he thought I needed it) had a fruit breakfast and then slept, and slept and slept.

Going through Immigration and Customs was a breeze. I walked outside and found the Cancun Shuttle representative.  This was the shuttle that my son had arranged at $12 for one way.  I arrived at the hotel around 3:30, got the key to our room and said a little prayer of thanks that for such a disasterous start to my day, everything fell into place.

I couldnd’t have done this without the help of my cousin Linda, Sue W who was the United ticket agent who initially spent time trying to find me a flight into Cancun, our friend who dropped us off, picked me up, dropped me off to get my car and then picked me up again to take me to the airport, my family for arranging a shuttle for me and checking me into the later flight and finally Hasan S who was the United gate agent for the delayed flight and managed to get me on it.

This was totally my fault.  The United employees that I worked with reaslly tried to help me and I think it was because I remained cool, not panic stricken and I didn’t lash out at anyone.  I praised them for the help they gave me.  Flexibility was the key word for the day knowing that I wouldn’t get the same experience if I had made the earlier flight but with all the changes, I came pretty darn close.  I needed to be open to not having a non stop flight as well as having a later one.  Finally, I was able to ask for help and everyone that I asked for help was able to help me.

The take from all of this – we have decided to get some painters tape and put it on the outside of our passport and write our first names on it so it is visible from the outside whose passport is whose.  Another idea is different colored passport colors.  Just something so we know which is mine so this will not happen again.  From every experience that we have, we learn something and generally do not make the same mistake twice.  You can be sure that I will double and triple check that I have the correct passport – you will never have to remind me.

 

Hyatt Regency Aruba – a Winter Getaway

I find that I NEED to get away for some sun and warmth during the winter months even if it has been a mild winter like this year.  It always gives a lift to me since I feel that I have a slight case of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  My last minute cruise to the Caribbean didn’t happen this year due to conflicting schedules but I did have my two free night certificates that I earned late last winter from signing up for the Hyatt credit card from Chase.  The two free nights could be redeemed anywhere in the world.  When Blogger Hubby had this card we used his two free night certificates at the Grand Hyatt Kauai.

I have Diamond status with Hyatt due to them status matching me last year to my Aspire status with Holiday Inn.  The status was effective for all of 2016 and expires on 2/28/2017. The Diamond status gave me 4 upgrades and I had used two of them already as I mentioned in the previous blog about me being a Hyatt Gal.  With a couple more suite upgrades and two free nights, we decided to go to Aruba for our beach vacation.

Getting There:  I already had some points that I had transferred from one of my Chase credit cards that gave me Ultimate Reward points to Singapore Airline’s Krisflyer loyalty program.  Knowing that there is an expiration on those points, we decided to book our flight down to Aruba using the points that I had transferred over to my KrisFlyer account.  As they are an alliance partner with United Airline, I went to the United website and saw which flights had award availability.  I wanted to get to Aruba as soon as I could and from looking at the flights available to me I saw that we would have a connection in Newark.  Never having flown through Newark before I wanted to allow myself enough time to get from one gate to another, particularly since I would have to change terminals.  I was nervous about that since I had been told to take the train but if I took the train, I would have to go through security again. Instead there is a bus that brought me to my terminal.  There was hanging signage so it was easy to find.

The flight down to Aruba was set.  For the return flight, there didn’t seem to be any good flights for us without having a long layover in Newark, which would mean we would have to spend the night.  I instead began looking at other airlines and found that Delta had a good one that would get us back to our home airport at 10:30 PM.  The only concern I had was that there was a one hour connection time in Atlanta.  We booked this flight because we also saw that there was ever a little later flight to our home airport in case we should miss ours.  I don’t have many Delta miles so we paid out of pocket for this flight.  I used my American Express credit card and received 5 x points for this purchase.

HYATT – To add to our two free nights at the Hyatt, we booked three other nights paying cash and points.  I was charged $150 per night and 12,500 points per night.  I knew that at this point (and it will change as of 3/1/17) that suite upgrades are not given on award stays so I tried to strategize and book the points and cash nights first followed by the free two nights hoping that they would keep me in the suite that I would get from using points and cash.  Of course, there was always the possibility that they would have me change rooms after the first three nights and then transfer me to a standard room.  I was willing to take my chance but didn’t tell Blogger Hubby about it till we were on the plane.

Flights were fine and before we knew it we were outside the terminal with our carry on only luggage getting into a taxi cab for the $25 fare to where the high rise motels were located on the northwest side of the island.

We pulled up and my breath was taken away at how beautiful the resort was.  We went to the reception desk and was helped by Junel.  At first we were told that our room was not ready even though I had asked for an early check in (a benefit of being a Diamond member).  We started to walk away and he called us back and said that he could give us another suite, a larger one, but only for three nights in the high rise and then go to the regular suite in the low rise for the remaining two nights OR we could wait for the regular suite and stay there for all 5 nights.  We chose to go to the larger one that had an ocean front balcony.

A little background on this hotel – there are essentially two parts to this hotel and they are connected where the reception area is located – somewhat like a U shape building.  There is the high rise which has 9 floors and the low rise which has 5 floors. The Regency Club is located on the 9th floor of the high rise.

ROOM #1 – We were taken to our suite and it took my breath away.  It was huge, at almost 1900 square feet it encompassed the entire back end of the hotel on our floor overlooking the Caribbean.  We had 4 sets of sliding glass doors, 4 thermostats, three separate sitting areas, an Apple desktop computer on the desk, a bathroom that would equal my kitchen, a dressing area, 4 sofas and numerous chairs, two refrigerators, 2 bathrooms and so much more.  This was luxurious living at its best.  I was giddy but to be honest, we really didn’t use much of the room as we didn’t spend much time there.  It did make it convenient to go up one floor for the Club offerings and the concierge that was there.

the left side of our large living roompart of our living room and the kitchen area

we were the next to the top balcony and the little balcony to the right.

ROOM #2 – if I hadn’t seen our first room, I would have been thrilled with this room.  It was a 2 room suite though the layout and furnishing were either awkward or outdated.  The little kitchen area had only a small dorm size refrigerator and a microwave sitting on top of it.  There are no glasses, plates, silverware in any of the cabinets in this area.  There wasn’t even a sink.  What was strange was one of the two closets was in the kitchen and the other in the bathroom.  The sofa would convert to a sofa bed but it seemed very outdated.  The bathroom counter could have accommodated two sinks but there was only.  There were two doors leading into the suite from the hallway – one into the bedroom and the other into the living area.  The balcony overlooked the ocean and we enjoyed sitting out at the end of the afternoon sipping our wine and watching the sunset.

GROUNDS – The grounds in the back were immaculate.  They had 3 or 4 cages of birds including macaws.  In the water feature, there were plenty of koi swimming around, many green iguana, turtles and black swans.  Enough there to keep the few children that were staying here entertained not too mention my husband as well!

POOLS – there are really two pools although they are connected.  The lower pool has a large very, shallow area for very little ones.  This is where I saw the children with their little floaties on their arms.  Steps led down to the adult pool where there was a net across for water volleyball. This is the pool that has a swum up bar.  Around the corner, but still in the water, is where the water slide ends so be careful of the adults and children who are speeding down the blue water slide.  Blogger Hubby went down numerous times and had a great time.  The upper pool is is just  a pool, although a very nice pool.  Behind it, hidden away by the tropical foliage is the hot tub which was very relaxing.

LOUNGERS, UMBRELLAS, and PALAPAS – I found the way that you sign up for a palapa (the palm frond covered wooden umbrellas that are on the beach)and loungers with umbrellas around the pool to be a little difficult but honestly, I don’t know if I could improve it.  First of all, you can reserve and rent a palapa, umbrella or one of the few cabanas.  The palapas rent for $55 per day or $80 for the cabanas and they can be rented for up to one year in advance of your stay.  They have the prime location, closest to the beach.  They do have some palapas that are not for rent but in order to reserve them you can either go online at 4 PM the day before or stand in line at the towel hut.  I stood in line but to be honest, you need to get in line around 3:30.  It goes fast so have an idea of the number of the palapa you want because you are competing with those online.  Many people found that the online process didn’t work so I wouldn’t risk it because they can, and do, run out of palapas by the beach or the umbrellas by the pools.  If they still have some available, you can go to the Towel Hut at 10:00 AM and sign up for one there.  There are usually empty loungers available by the pool though there may not be by an umbrella.

The towel hut and those in line at 3:30 waiting to sign up for a palapa at 4:00
If you want service, turn the 2 color block so green is up; no service, keep the red up

STAFF – we found the staff to be very accommodating and they always seemed to know our needs and our names.  The Club has a cooler for water, and soda.  I lamented to the concierge that there was no Coke products in the cooler.  When my husband went up later, she gave him two cans of Coke’s for us since she keeps some in a different area for those who ask.  They have a contract with Pepsi so they wouldn’t put out the Coke products but they still had them for their guests.  Every time I walked by the registration desk I was always greeted by name and was always asked if there was anything I needed.  At the towel hut, they knew my room number when I would go to borrow a floating pad to lay on in the water.  They even knew when we changed rooms.  I cannot say enough great things about the staff.

REGENCY CLUB – who needs to eat out when you have such amazing food at the Club.  Breakfast dishes always had bagels, croissants, toast, English muffins, cold cuts, smoked salmon, hot oatmeal and then another dish such as pancakes, scrambled eggs and more.  Fresh fruit was plentiful and we appreciated the pineapple chunks, in season watermelon, slices of grapefruit as well as apples, bananas and plums.  The afternoon was time for sweets such as cookies, nuts and dried fruit and cake.   Appetizers began at 5:00 PM and we found that several days that we didn’t need to go out for dinner – that’s how filling and ample the appetizers were.

When we did want to go elsewhere for dinner, we could walk out of the hotel and turn either left or right.  I would go to the left (near the Hilton) as there were many good restaurants there.  Many of them had outside seating around a small stage where there was live entertainment.  We particularly enjoyed the Argentina Grill but we could have easily gone to many of the other restaurants.

SUPERBOWL SUNDAY – We arrived on Superbowl Sunday and in case you don’t know me, although I live in Virginia and have for over 3 decades, I am a Bostonian through and through as that is where I was raised and lived till we moved to Virginia – my accent will testify to that.  Well you know who was playing on that Superbowl Sunday and I wanted to watch it.  Of course, we had that large television in our living room but Hyatt went one better.  They had out in the water a large inflatable screen that they televised the game on.  Of course, we could have sat in one of the uncomfortable wooden slat chairs in the sun but we had a better option.  Remember we had the entire balcony facing the water.  As we had been up way too early, we changed into our PJ’s and sat out on our balcony and watched the game with the audio on in our living room.  Great fun.

My goal on this trip was just to sit my bottom in a lounger and read, swim, nap and just relax.  We did take a sunset cruise booked from the tent in front of the palapas and we enjoyed it very much particularly since everyone on board was from Boston and they had no trouble understanding me!  Blogger Hubby went on a snorkel trip and he thought it was so so.  Next time, and there will be a next time, I would rent a car for a day or too which you can do directly at the Hyatt.

I thoroughly enjoyed this mini vacation and this is the only Caribbean island that I would consider coming back to.  Most people just know it from a cruise port of call but it is more than just the downtown area that the cruisers know.  There isn’t a lot to do (aloe factory tour, feeding ostriches, touring the island and seeing the Old Lighthouse) but I wasn’t looking for anything except pure relaxation and this fulfilled it.

FYI – when you leave Aruba, you go through their customs and security and then you go through US immigration and customs before you get to your gate.  If you are leaving on a weekend, particularly on a Saturday, this can take up to three hours so make sure you allow yourself enough time.  We had read that and decided to leave on a Friday.  It took us about 90 minutes to go through everything.

 

A Morning in Giverny

As a first timer to Paris, there were many places I wanted to visit and some that I would be willing to wait until my next visit.  One visit that was not going to wait was my visit to Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny.  His impressionist paintings gave a sense of peace and serenity to me, and I wanted to walk in his gardens and see what he saw.

It was easy getting there – remember, for this entire trip we used public transportation.  We were able to take the metro to Gare Saint-Lazare.  We purchased tickets at the kiosk for the Vernon/Rouen/Le Havre train and getting off the train at the Vernon stop.  You do not know before which train track you will be boarding as it is not announced on the departure board till 20 minutes before.  We attempted to find out this information a little earlier by going to the information desk/ticket desk but they merely said to wait the 20 minutes.  There were plenty of pastry shops at the train station so I passed the time by sampling the chocolate croissants at some of the  counters.  One thing I found interesting is that many of the train stations that we were departing or arriving in had pianos where passengers could sit and play.

It had been suggested that we take the 08:20 AM train so that we would be at Monet’s home around the time that they opened for visitors (9:30) and before all the tour buses got there.  The train trip is about 45 minutes in duration and once you get to Vernon you have a few choices to make as to how to get to Monet’s home.  There is a shuttle bus waiting for the train passengers just outside of the train station.  The cost, in 2016, was 8€ for the roundtrip. The downside is that you wait for everyone to board and pay and that does take awhile.  Other passengers that we spoke with took a cab and a few walked the 5 k to get to the home.  In retrospect, we should have taken a cab and found others to share the expensive.  We found that after we were dropped off in the bus lot we had a walk  to get to the home  Those who had taken the cab had said that they were there before too many people had arrived and had wonderful pictures without the hordes of tourist.  It seemed like almost all of my photos have people in them.p1060826

What was interesting about this morning is that is was misty and a little foggy giving that feeling that you are seeing exactly what Monet saw when he painted his pictures.  We were there during the third week of September and the colors were not as bright as they might have been during the summer, but for me bright colors were not reflected in his paintings.

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The grounds looked just like his paintings including the old green rowboat, the bridge, the water lilies.

p1060860I felt like I was walking through his paintings and walked around the loop through his gardens at least twice.  There was a thicket of bamboo and the weeping willow trees that overhung the pond.  It was very mythical and ethereal.  I didn’t want to let go and leave, I was mesmerized.  It was as if I was walking around silently and absorbing all that was Monet.  p1060839

img_1696The crowds and buses had arrived and it was getting crowded so we headed for the tour of his home.  His study with his paintings and his kitchen were the rooms that stood out to me.  The back of his home had many windows that overlooked the gardens but none had the best views like those from his bedroom and his studio.p1060881 p1060879 p1060878 p1060870 p1060877

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What was interesting is that Monet, unlike other artists, did not come upon a scene and paint it.  Rather, through his hard work, he created a landscape that he painted.  It took almost twenty years for him to create his gardens.p1060838img_1686p1060837

If you want to read more Monet, and his water lily paintings that are, in a sense, his swan song, then please read Monet’s Angels.

We were able to get a train around noon to head back to Paris in time for our tour of the second level of the Eiffel Tower which I’ll talk about later.

I do not receive any compensation for the products that I have described in this post. This are strictly my opinions.

 

A Cooking Lesson in Paris

I love food and I especially love cookies and pastries.  When I realized that we would be spending a few days in Paris I knew that I would have the opportunity to strike another item off my bucket list.  I’ve always wanted to take a French cooking lesson and here was my chance!. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to take all the  classes that I would have liked to such as making pastries, croissants, macarons, sauces, entrees and so on.

I needed to focus and decide which one class I was going to take.  It actually came down to two – it would be either croissants or French macarons.  I had tried baking macarons several times by myself and was never able to master it.  I think that was the determining factor in deciding to take a technical class in making macarons and three different fillings.

Like I usually do, I went to Trip Advisor to look at reviews for a cooking class.  Some looked really amazing and the price was amazing as well.  I found that La Cuisine Paris had very good reviews and they had the macaron class that I wanted on a day and time when we would be in Paris.  I was able to sign up on line and was happy to find out that there would only be 8 in our class and that we would leave with a box full of these delicious treats.  What could be better?

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p1060713Blogger Hubby came with me to make sure that I found that facility and since it was near Notre Dame, he would go there during my class.  It’s along the river, south of the Louvre. We walked in, signed and and waited for others to arrive.  Once four of us arrived, we went downstairs into the kitchen.  The other two had called and said they were lost and to stay on schedule, we began the class without them.  Our chef was Eric, originally from Southern California but moved to Paris when he was about 8.  He worked with some of the more famous pastry chefs in Paris.  He was a native English speaker which made it easier for me to understand.  He passed out our recipes and asked us to “buddy up” as we would share a Kitchen Aid with our partner.

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We first made a vanilla filling made by scraping a vanilla bean and then cooking the mixture on a hot plate.  We then made a chocolate ganache filling with chocolate and cream and a little European butter which has a higher fat content.  Finally we made a fresh pineapple filling.  It was important to make the fillings first so they could cool and firm up. Next we made the first of two different macarons – one that was hot and the other with stiffly beaten egg whites.  I learned that most of the pastry chefs use powdered food coloring and a little goes a long way.  Once I used it I realized how much easier it was to use than the gels that I had at home.  I would order some from Amazon.

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p1060722We were instructed in the proper piping method as we piped our mixture onto parchment paper.

p1060729For those who have made macarons previously, we did not have them sit for 30 minutes to dry.  Beautiful trays of macarons came out of the oven and we oohed and aaahed our creations amazed that we made these beautiful cookies.

p1060734After they cooled we were allowed to begin filling them with our delicious fillings.  We decided as a group to have our boxes that we would be bringing home with us to be a mixture of colors and not just the two colors that we had made.  The boxes looked like a pastel rainbow. I did learn that they should be refrigerated after making them for 24 hours and they should be consumer within three days after that.

p1060738These macarons looked just as beautiful and delicious as the ones we saw lining shelves in pastry stores.

Both Blogger Hubby and I enjoy taking some type of cooking lesson where ever we travel – cookies in France, a meal in the Czech Republic, a full Italian meal in Florence, and small group cooking lessons while cruising with Holland America.

 

Getting to Paris via TGV and our Hotel, Le Metropolitan, a Tribute Hotel from SPG

Yes, can you believe that I had never been to Paris before this trip?  I was anxiously looking forward to our four days in the City of Lights.  I had my list of places I would like to go, and things that I wanted to see.  I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it all so I gave myself permission to deviate from the schedule I set up.  Of course I had to save some things to see and do for my second trip to Paris.

For our hotel stay I made our reservations at the Radisson Metropolitan in the 16th Arrondissement using my Club Carlson points more than a year before our trip. Previously with Club Carlson if you booked a reward stay, your last night was free.  In other words, they didn’t even charge you points.  Consequently I booked two nights under my name (remember one of those nights was free) and two nights under Blogger Hubby’s account.  We would spend four nights at the hotel in total but only paying points for two nights.

Before we went to Paris I found out that SPG purchased our hotel and it would be in their luxury collections.  I was concerned that they wouldn’t honor our reservation but they assured me they would.

A month before we left the United States I had made train reservations and purchased our TGV (fast train) tickets to go from Lyon to Paris.  I again turned to The Man in Seat 61 to explain the differences between the trains.  He had recommended purchasing our tickets through the Captain train website which I did.  The Captain Train website has since been taken over by Train Line but it is the same format and I had no problems purchasing and printing out my tickets.  If you plan to go to Europe, for many routes it is much less expensive if you purchase your tickets 60 or 90 days in advance.  For other smaller, local trains it didn’t seem to matter and we would purchase them at the train station either at the kiosk or at the ticket counter once we knew definitively what our plans were. Track information is not posted until 20 minutes prior to the train’s arrival so no sense in asking people which track you’ll be departing from.  Also, since we departed Lyon from Part-Dieu station there was assistance for those with mobility problem as as was the case with our traveling companions.  Her husband went into the office, told them where we were waiting and an attendant came out with a wheel chair and took her to the correct track and helped them on.  If you need help and it is available, take full advantage of it.

For those who are unfamiliar with train travel in Europe, once you have your ticket, you need to validate it prior to boarding at the machine on the platform.  Conductors will still come by and check your ticket to see if it has been validated and if it hasn’t, there is a huge fine to pay.  p1070049

On the Train Line website, which is in English,  you can choose which type of seating you wanted and which class.  We traveled first class (wouldn’t do it again), sat in the upper deck for better viewing and chose single seats facing each other.  Across the aisle were two seats together either facing forward or facing each other like we were.  We had a small table between us with a small lamp.

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I emailed the concierge at our hotel asking for ways to get to the hotel from the Gard Lyon, the train station that we would be arriving in. Obviously the options were to hire a driver, taxi, subway or bus.  He gave us the prices for these options.  We chose to take the bus as it would drop us off about 2 blocks from the hotel and would be inexpensive. We bought a book of ten bus/subway passes called a caret.  If you plan on using public transportation, I would recommend buying a caret as it will save you time.  For us taking a bus was easy as we only had carry-on luggage (me) and a slightly larger case for Blogger Hubby as we allowed room for souvenirs in his suitcase.  The ride took a lot longer than I thought, about an hour, but while we were traversing Paris we got a good orientation to the city and I got my first glimpses of the Eiffel Tower.  Blogger Hubby is always a little nervous about making sure we know that we are on the correct bus/train, that we are going in the right direction and that we know where to get off. Fortunately I have no qualms about asking people.  I found if you have a smile, and ask if they speak “English” people are willing to help you as much as they can.  I’ll tell you this now – we did not get lost once nor did we get on the wrong train or bus or miss our stop.

We got off the bus and headed for our hotel, now called Le Metropolitan, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel.  The hotel is shaped like a triangular between two streets.   I knew that European hotels were small but when they took us to our room, I couldn’t believe how small it was. Both of us could not be up and walking around at the same time.  There was a small chair in the corner but immediately behind it was a floor lamp and if you sat down the back of your head hit the floor lamp.  You couldn’t pull the chair out because there was only about a foot’s length between the chair and the corner of the bed.   When we asked if there was another room they told us no and that we should be happy as this was an upgrade.

I did not know how we would be able to spend 4 nights in this room. That night I sent a tweet out to @SPG assist, sent them the pictures and told them how uncomfortable it was.  Next morning there was a knock on our door and they moved us across the hallway.  This room even had a couch in it – certainly not luxurious but a much nicer room.  I would stay away from room 226 and instead ask for room 230.

There is a wall about 12 inches from the other side of the bed. If I sat in the chair, you couldn't get past my legs and feet.
There is a wall about 12 inches from the other side of the bed. If I sat in the chair, you couldn’t get past my legs and feet.
If we pulled the bench out to sit on it, so one could get by as we would be blocking the narrow passage
If we pulled the bench out to sit on it, no one could get by

 

There is a restaurant on the first floor and it looked nice though we didn’t try it.  I believe the breakfasts there are about $30 each. img_1655 Instead we would go to a pastierrie and purchase our freshly made French pastries.  Around the corner and down the street from the hotel was a Casino – which is a French supermarket.  That’s where we purchased our yogurts, sliced meats, cheeses and wine.

For being branded a “luxury hotel” it did not feel very luxurious to us with the awful royal purple rippled carpeting in the hallway, elevators that didn’t work half the time, the lounge area that had tables where we played cards sometimes and looks better in these pictures than it did in real life.  The lobby is very nice and the staff is friendly and helpful and they met all our needs particularly when we asked for numerous directions, which subway stop to use or how to get to train stations.img_1654

We would walk down two flights of stairs to go down and everyday we had to walk around the housekeeping cart right by the stairs and the elevator. A little awkward.
We would walk down two flights of stairs to go down and everyday we had to walk around the housekeeping cart right by the stairs and the elevator. A little awkward.

As you walk out the door and basically walk straight you will see the Eiffel Tower.  I gasped when I saw it all lit up in the evening.  This is the view as we were about 50 meters from the hotel.img_1649

Nevertheless we are very thankful that we had the points to stay here and that we booked it while we were still able to get one night free through the Club Carlson program.

Next post will be our sightseeing adventures and how we saved some money.

Lyon – The Gastronomical Capital of France

Our week long river cruise ended in Lyon and one of the things I had read on some travel forums is that many people wished they had more time in Lyon.  We booked and extra two nights in Lyon before heading to Paris.  Lyon was founded by the Romans and was the capital of the Three Gauls.  Lyon is also famous for its silk and the silk workers.  I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a silk scarf from a silkmaker while on the AMADagio who came to explain the silk process to us.

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On our AMAWaterways cruise, those who were continuing on the post cruise with AMA were going into Lyon for a cooking experience.  We asked our cruise director Rachel if we could do it as well and we would be willing to pay for the experience.  She graciously allowed us to join the others.  Unfortunately that morning, I was not feeling well and stayed behind on the ship while Blogger Hubby went with the others in the first of several groups going over.  The group was actually making their lunch to take with them on the train to Paris.  Since he had ridden one of the bicycles that AMA has on their ships for us passengers over to Lyon the day before to locate our hotel, he was happy and surprised to find that he were basically around the corner from our hotel.  He came back to the ship when he had finished the cooking lesson to pick me up.  We eagerly got into a cab that our cruise director had called for us.

Initially we had reservations at the Intercontinental in Lyon but in looking at the map that seemed to be further away from the Old City area where we wanted to be.  With that reservation cancelled I needed to begin looking around again.  Rick Steves to the rescue!  I love his travel books and looked at his recommendation where to stay and double checked with Trip Advisor.  Turned out that the Hotel Artistes was a true gem in terms of location, price and the room was fine, a little small but larger than some of the more expensive rooms that we stayed in on this trip.  I would highly recommend this hotel if any of you are going to be in Lyon.  I couldn’t use points for this hotel stay – the only one of the entire trip but I did earn points by using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card and received 2 times points as it was a travel expense.  We were about a block or so from the Rhone River.

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Breakfast room at the Hotel des Artistes. At night it became our card playing area
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Looking out my window at the Hotel des Artistes and seeing the Rhone River

Why this was exciting was because they had large Farmer Markets there and since we were there on a weekend, it was great.  We chose not to buy the breakfast option at the hotel but instead walked the block to the river and perused all the vendor stalls.  Who could resist a freshly made chocolate croissant – certainly not me.  I’m a fan of soft, pungent cheese and they had so many for us to choose from.  Add a baguette, a sausage and I was in heaven.  We enjoyed strolling past the farmers seeing the bright, vibrant colors of the fruits and vegetables in season.  Fresh fish were also very popular as well as chickens on a rotisserie. So many different options and I wished I could just sit there and eat.  An observation that I made was that the prices in the market seemed much less expensive than our farmer markets that are near me.

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An antique flea market with Notre Dame on the top of the hill.  About a block down is where we got the funicular for the ride to the top.

Before we traveled to Lyon we happened to watch an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Lyon and learned that a specialized restaurant there is called a bouchan.  A bouchan serves traditional Lyonnaise food such as sausages, and duck pate and it is a friendlier restaurant where you can talk and laugh.   Of course, we wanted to follow his advice and going to a bouchon was on our list of things to do.

We were able to walk around Lyon, get our bearings and look for restaurants for that evenings dinner.  We found that THE place to go was Rue Merciere – a street lined with restaurants and bouchans.  So many to choose but having the chalk board outside did help us decide which one to visit.  Many times you have a choice of an 2 courses or three with the third being a dessert.  With more than enough food being served sometimes I would just order the entre and Blogger Hubby would order the two or three course and “share” with me.

Other restaurants that we highly recommended to us by locals was Le Petit Garet on Rue du Garet, Chez Hugon on Rue Pizay, Restaurant Chabert & Fils (in Old Town) and as mentioned before all restaurants on Rue Merciere.  We particularly enjoyed Bouchon Lustre.img_1628

Across the Saone is the funicular to go up to the top to visit Notre Dame Basilica. This basilica is on the World Heritage list and another one that we can check off.   European churches are so grand, at least compared to what I’ve seen in the United States and they are also very similar to each other.  I think this was the last church that Blogger Hubby wanted to visited on our because he said “after a while they all begin to look like each other” and he does have a point.  Nevertheless, we walked behind the church and had a panoramic view of the city of Lyon and the rivers that important to it.p1060529

p1060508We walked down the hill from Notre Dame and  stopped at the Roman amphitheatre.  As it oher European cities that we have been in, there was a professional photographer taking wedding shots of a Korean couple for magazines in Korea.  I am constantly amazed at the archetecture of the ancient civilizations.  What they could accomphlish without the tools that we have now is unbelieveable.

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p1060523For a foodie like me, we enjoyed going to Les Halles, the famed indoor food market.  We were able to sample cheese, wine, sausages, macarons (my favorite).  If you enjoy food, I would recommend that you visit this market.

We didn’t do anything special in Lyon but instead meandered around the streets people watching.  If food is your thing, make sure that if you take a river cruise you spend extra time in Lyon, the gastronomical capital of France!

 

Truffles Anyone? Visiting a Truffle Farm in the Rhone Valley

One of the tours we were excited about on our Rhone River cruise on AMAWaterways was the visit to a truffle farm.  I’ve heard of truffles but the kind I like came from Godiva chocolates and have a filling.  These are not that kind but rather the kind that grow underground and are the fruity body of a fungus, something akin to an earthy mushroom  They are prized in cooking particularly in French cuisine.

Harvesting of the black truffle takes place from November to March.  They grow underground which makes them difficult to find.  In years past pigs were used to detect them but now dogs are primarily used because pigs tended to eat many of the truffles they found.  The farm that we visited used Labrador Retrievers.

In order to “train” the dogs to find these delectable treats, they would rub a mother dog’s belly as she was nursing her pups.  The pups would associate the smell of the truffle with “goodness” as they were suckling.  Furthermore, once the pups had been weaned, they would cut up some of the truffles and add them to their food – once again imprinting on them that truffles were good.

Much like animal trainers of seals, dolphins or any other animal rewards their animal with a treat after they have done a trick, the truffle harvester also carries a treat bag wit them when they are out with their dog to give to the dog after the find the truffle and to get them to not eat the truffle.

The truffle harvester walks through a truffle orchard, which is generally a grove of oak trees, watching the dog’s behavior.  The dog has his nose to the ground sniffing for that truffle aroma that he has come to know.  The dog will either mark the spot with his foot and the harvester will dig it up or the dog will dig it up with its paw.  At this point the harvester needs to act quickly to get the truffle before it is consumed by the animal.  Once the harvester gets the truffle then the dog gets his doggie treat.

There are a few different types of truffles – black (associated with France) and white (associated with Italy).  The white ones tend to cost the most, about $175 per ounce and the black ones about $100 an ounce.  As you can tell, harvesting truffles takes lots of time and that factors in to their price.

We found this tour to be excellent.  After we saw the dog digging up the truffles, we went inside their “shop” area and was treated to slices of baguettes with truffles and truffle oils on them.  They were delicious, so delicious that we purchased a bottle of truffle oil to bring home.  This is an ingredient that we have seen in cooking and now we have it to enhance our flavors.

smelling the area for that distinctive smell of truffles
smelling the area for that distinctive smell of truffles
staying close to the dog to be able to get the truffle
staying close to the dog to be able to get the truffle

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the size of a truffle
the size of a truffle
in the shop area where we were treated to truffle products
in the shop area where we were treated to truffle products

Papal Palace or Pont du Gard – which one to choose?

We had one of our first dilemmas on this trip when we arrived in Avignon as to which excursion we should choose?  We had our choice of The Papal Palace or Pont du Gard – both of which have the designation of World Heritage sites.

Avignon was once an important center of the Catholic Church .  It was so important that the papacy relocated here to Avignon during the 14th century.  Six papal concaves were held here and led to the election of Pope Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V, Gregory XI, and Antipope Benedict XIII.  I am not Catholic and did not know that there was another location other than the Vatican that was home to several popes.  So much history that I could learn but my other choice was…..

Pont du Gard is an aqueduct that’s considered a  masterpiece of Roman engineering.  Having worked in the school system where I lives, we studied the ancient civilizations and of course, Roman was considered one of the foremost ancient civilization.  We taught about the aqueducts but I had never seen one.  What finally helped me decide to choose Pont du Gard was that a friend of mine is a teacher and her students were learning about different structures.  She had asked if I could send back some post cards for her students to see, ask questions about and learn about different structures.

Obviously with that request I knew our decision was made – this is what we visited:

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Touring Arles, Roman Ruins and Van Gogh’s Asylum

Arles, once a metropolis of Roman Gaul, developed into a symbol of Christianity through the colosseum, amphitheater and the Roman baths that were built there. Bull fighting is held twice a year in the same arena (colosseum) that was the scene of Roman games in the first century.  We all know that Van Gogh loved Arles and many of his famous paintings show his love of the area but did you know that Picasso also spent a lot of time in the area?  He spent a good part of his life in a political exile in France.  He was a Spaniard through and through and, loved bullfighting. The last 12 years of his life were spent in the village near Arles. He would travel with his friends to see the bullfights at this arena.  Many of his later paintings and drawings were inspired by what he saw in Arles.  These Romanesque monuments have a UNESCO World Heritage designation.  It is our goal when we travel to seek out these sites. p1060291

After we visited the quarry featuring the works of Marc Chagall we rode the bus again to some of the Roman ruins and Triumphal Arch near the asylum where Van Gogh lived for a year.   I’m still so amazed at these structures and how they were built by hand – no machinery, cranes or other modern day machines that helped build these still standing structures.  Our guide told us that the Romans loved arches and would construct them to commemorate victories.  This was also the case in St. Remy where these ruins were.

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We walked across the street to the asylum where Van Gogh lived for about a year. During the time that he was self committed he painted various scenes all around the grounds of the asylum including the “Irises”, “Starry Nights”, “The Wheat Field”, “Sunflowers in a Vase”, scenes around St. Paul’s Asylum and so many more.  What was interesting to me if that they had reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings propped on easels at the spot where he painted the landscapes so you can see what he saw when he painted the pictures.  Remember how I spoke of the mistral winds in the Rhone Valley?  If you look at Van Gogh’s paintings you’ll see swirling brush strokes which, I was told, represent the mistral winds.  When I think of Van Gogh, I generally think of these paintings which are representative of the Provence area.  During his one year in at the asylum, he painted 151 paintings.p1040891

p1060267p1040887p1040896Hope you enjoy these pictures of Arles, the ruins and viewing the locations where Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works.

The AMA Dagio

I got a little ahead of myself when I spoke about our tour to the Artist Experience.  I neglected to tell you about our ship, the Ama Dagio.

We had been on the newer AMA Primo the year before and for the cruise up the Rhone, we were to be on their oldest ship.  I had been told that it was in great shape, which it was, but on first glance, it left me a little wanting.  Before on the Prima, our bedroom had a small little round table with chairs by the French balcony.  Our stateroom on the Dagio did not have that or a mini refrigerator.  We had bought cheese anticipating a refrigerator.  Also, on the Sun Deck (the top deck) there was a hot tub,not the small pool that we had on the Prima.  There was also less furniture and groupings than on the Primo where there were many rattan sofas and chairs as well as loungers and chairs with canopies and screens to shade you.  The only seatings under the umbrellas on the Dagio were loungers.  We had to move some chairs so we could sit and have shade while we were playing cards.  A reoccurring problem for us on the Dagio was the very loud dining room.  On our first night we could barely hear our table mates.  The Prima had a divider down the middle with booth seating.  I think that might have absorbed some of the noise.  We found out the next night that if we sat in a rear corner near the doors where the food comes out, that the noise was much more tolerable.  That’s where we sat for most of our meals.img_1366

What made up for some of these minor problems was the crew.  I have never had a better cruise director than Rachel Couto Gomes.  Not only did we learn French in an amusing way, we learned a little French etiquette.  We all left her daily briefings with a huge smile on our faces.  She was really a part of “us” – she participated in the dancing one night, came along to some of the tours, helped with problems that were not cruise related as well as helping with cruise related questions.  I would follow her on any AMA cruise and to be honest, before I booked another cruise, I would email her to see what her schedule would be.  Every single crew member went out of their way to be helpful to all of us.

On one of our first cruise days I learned why our staterooms were as small as they were – the locks!  I could open our French balcony and touch the lock wall.  There were no ships on the Rhone that had regular balconies because of these narrow locks.  Also, for many of the times that we were cruising during the we were not allowed on the top deck due to the low bridges that we would be sailing under.  In fact, while we were on our cruise a Viking cruise line ship’s bridge was not lowered (and no one knows why yet) and it was flatten and torn off the ship with the occupants inside killed.  That made our captain’s decision to close off the Sun Deck even more meaningful to us.

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p1060418Something new on the Dagio from the previous year was when we boarded the ship, our photograph was taken, like an ocean cruiser.  Whenever we left the ship, we had our room key card scanned so they could be sure it was us getting off and us getting on.  They were increasing the security because of events that had been happening in Europe this past year.

We found the food to be delicious and there was always something that we wanted to eat.  What we especially liked was that their food was lighter than our American food.  The Fettucine Alfredo’s sauce was delicious and light – unlike the heavier versions that I have tasted.  The same with their salad dressings.  I asked the Maitre ‘d for the recipes and he complied.  I look forward to making some of these recipes.

We did have dinner one night at the Chef’s Table on 3rd deck aft.  It was a beautiful view as we sailed down the Saone on our way back from a winery to Lyon.  It was a fixed menu and it was received mixed reviews from those on the ship.  It was more like a tapas meal, small offerings and there are a few choices you can make.  The service was outstanding as they only have a few tables and stagger their reservations.  I’m not a seafood fan and felt that there was a lot of seafood.  On the other hand, Blogger Hubby loves seafood and pates and he was in seventh heaven and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m not sure that I would do the Chef’s Table again though some people did enjoy it. The experience was worthwhile to me. My only suggestion is to look at the menu before you book

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I did book myself a massage on the ship and although the massage was fine the room and location where it was done was not good.  The hairdresser and the masseuse share a room, a tiny room at the back of the ship.  There was no room to change into or out of clothes and barely with the chair for the hairdresser, the room was tight to open up the folding massage table.  Throughout most of the 60 minute massage I listened to the boat rattling and the sounds of a ship that was moving.  I asked if this was unusual and she replied that it wasn’t.  It did distract from the relaxing environment that I had envisioned for my hour long massage. Before I book again, I’ll take a look at the room where is done.

Our first night on the ship, we had a very special treat.  If you read my previous blogs, you will recall that this weekend was the Festival of the Harvest of the Rice.  This area of France, the Rhone Valley, is known for the mistral winds.  They are a strong, cold, northwesterly wind that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion (a gulf of the northern Mediterranean but can reach about 115 mph.  It is most common in the winter and spring, and strongest in the transition between the two seasons.  The Rhone Valley is particularly susceptible to these winds and in fact the winds get faster as they go through the valley on the way to the coast.  Seems like the mistral winds went through this area on Bastille Day in July and they were not able to have the fireworks for their national holiday.p1060196They “saved” the fireworks and chose to combine them with the fireworks for the Harvest of the Rice festival.  As it got dark, we all headed up to the Sun Deck (or maybe Star Deck) to grab a chair and watch the festivities.  We had the BEST seats in the entire area, at least in my opinion.  We were on one side of the river and the fireworks were shot off directly opposite of us.  It was amazing and rank up in my mind with fireworks that I have seen in both Boston and Washington DC on the 4th of July.

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We looked forward to more experiences and memories like these.

Arles, France and Marc Chagall at the Carrieres de Lumieres

We had a choice of two excursions for our morning in Arles.  They were a difficult choice and in fact, I did change my mind.  On the AMA Waterways cruises, our choice was either Les Baux and the Olive Farm or Artist Experience.

I had been advised by William, our tour guide from the day before that we did not want to miss the Artist Experience.  We drove by the site where this excursion was to take place and it was in a limestone quarry. William wouldn’t tell us anything about this, he wanted us to be surprised.p1060257

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SPOILER ALERT – I am going to talk about this excursion and if you do not want to know about it, you need to stop reading NOW.

We really did not know what to expect.  Our bus took us to les Carrières de Lumières – an exhibition of some of the work of Marc Chagall.  We walked into a large cavernous dark area – think of a gigantic , wide open cave.  At first it was a little disconcerting as I wasn’t sure if the floor was level or not.  Once my eyes got adjusted to the dark, I felt more comfortable.  All around us, on all different wall surfaces, ceiling and the floor was works of Marc Chagall in a multimedia show.  Some of it was animated, some not but it all seemed to move seamlessly from one picture to another.  It was an overwhelming sense of color and movement.  We didn’t quite know where to look as many of the “walls” had different scenes than other walls.

We were able to walk around the inside of this quarry viewing different scenes on every surface.  There were, we were told, over 100 video projectors and about 30 audio speakers playing a soundtrack specifically chosen to complement what we were seeing.

interior of the quarry before the images are projected on the surfaces
Interior of the quarry before the images are projected on the surfaces
Can you see Blogger Hubby int he picture? This gives you an idea of how large the images are
Can you see Blogger Hubby int he picture? This gives you an idea of how large the images are
This person seemed to float across the wall
This person seemed to float across the wall
the images projected on the walls and floor. It was like a carpet that we were walking on.
the images projected on the walls and floor. It was like a carpet that we were walking on.

Most of the artist’s best known masterpieces have been digitized and are screened on the quarry’s walls.  This exhibition is called “Midsummer Night’s Dream”  and it is in twelve parts and it includes Vitebsk (Chagall’s home town), Life, Poetry, Collages, The War, Stained Glass, The Opéra Garnier, Daphnis and Chloé, Mosaics, The Circus, Illustrations and The Bible showcasing his creativity and many of his sources of inspiration.  These themes are  displayed here at the Lumieres in all their vibrant colors.  A beautiful backdrop for his paintings.

If you are in this area, about 15 miles north of Arles, please stop in.  You may not see Marc Chagall’s paintings as they choose a different artist or artists each year.  Last year, there were over a half million visitors coming here to see the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael in the Giants of the Renaissance.  I have no idea who the artist or artists will be next year.No matter which artist they choose, it truly is an experience.  If you are on a river cruise, this will be one of your choices for an excursion and I cannot stress enough that you should choose this as your excursion.

Enjoy the rest of our photographs.

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One Day in Provence – One of our Best Tours

As I mentioned before, I turned to Trip Advisor to find a tour guide to take us around Provence rather than renting a car.  We were with another couple and decided that we would hire a guide/driver for just the four of us.

One Day in Provence had great reviews and after several emails I knew that we would be in good hands.  We were going to do this tour on a Friday, the day we were to embark on our AMAWaterways cruise up the Rhone.  I inquired if he could arrange the tour so we would end up in Arles and then drop us off at our ship.  He readily agreed.  To me, that helped offset the price of a private tour since we wouldn’t have to take 2 taxi rides as well as a train ride from Marseille to Arles.  Turned out that this was a great decision since, unknown to us, there was a huge festival that weekend in Arles and we probably wouldn’t have found a taxi.

William, our driver/tour guide, was prompt in picking us up at our hotel in a Mercedes Benz van.  As soon as we got into the van, he pulled out his map to review what we wanted to do and to make sure that we were all on the same page.  He gave us a few options and explained the pros and cons.  We decided to go to some of the smaller villages and around behind the mountains.  We did want to go to a winery since we were in the Rhone Valley with all their wonderful wines.

As we traveled along some of the backroads outside of Marseille on our way to the winery, William began telling us the history of France…how it was first settled by the Celtics, then the Greeks and the the Romans. Marseille is the oldest city in France and was an important port during the Roman Empire. He went on to tell us more about the history of the area which we found fascinating.  There are four islands off the coast of Marseille and on one of the islands, a fortress turned prison, was built. This fortress was the setting for Alexander Dumas’ story The Count of Monte Cristo.

Just before William turned off the road for the winery, he called them up to let them know we were coming.  They were closed since they were in the midst of harvesting the grapes but opened for us.  We were able to sample the same wine twice; once in an oak barrel and again in a stainless steel barrel.  We all enjoyed the oak barrel over the stainless steel.  It was quite and education for us.p1060164 p1060167

William, our tour guide extraordinaire, in front of the winery
William, our tour guide extraordinaire, in front of the winery

On our way to the small village of Lourmarin, we passed by the Pont (bridge) Julien which was built in the 3d century BC.  Until recently cars still used this bridge as a means to go over the Coulon River.  That information just blew my mind seeing something that old and still in relatively great shape way we passed by.  The village is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France.is surrounded by vineyards, olive trees and almond trees. The day that we were there was an French market that all from around the area go to.  I’m a sucker for the outdoor markets featuring all different types of foods, clothing, crafts and so much more.  One of my favorite foods is cheese, particularly French, pungent cheeses.  We were able to get some to take with us on our cruise and since William had a cooler in the back of the car, we knew we could keep it cool till we arrived on board.  Walking along the alleys and pedestrian ways, I felt so at home even though I could not understand the French language.  I felt like I had come home.p1040857After walking through the narrow passageways and back to our car, we set off for lunch.  William had a suggestion where we should eat and we let him make that decision.  He called ahead to let them know we would be coming.  This meal turned out to be the BEST meal we had in all of France.  Le Carillon, located in the small main square in Goult, turned out to be a Michelin restaurant.  We sat outside and enjoyed the scenery, the entire ambiance of these delicious meal.  We had the fixed price meal which included an appetizer, main course and dessert.  I had the best beef carpaccio that I ever had with shaved parmesan cheese on top with a few capers. We would most likely have never found this restaurant if it hadn’t been for William.  Here we are in a very small French village in the countryside, no traffic at all, sitting outside under an awning eating one of the best meals we have ever had.  This is what travel is all about.

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The rest of the day was traveling through more little, quaint villages.  Another of our favorite was St. Remy which has become quite popular and expensive due to celebrities who live around here.  William asked if we liked chocolate.  What a silly question to ask us, of course we all do.  He took us to a well known chocolatier and even though the shop was quite small, the chocolate had great taste.  They had small squares of chocolate and on each top was a letter of the alphabet.  This letter corresponded with what type of flavoring it had.  One of the flavors was lemon and clove; another was violet.  Many were traditional flavors and others were different combination.  We were able to hand pick the chocolates that we wanted.

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As we were getting closer to Arles, William told us how lucky we were to be here at this time since Arles was celebrating The Festival of the Harvest of the Rice – honest!  The next day there was to be a bull fight in the their colosseum, bulls running through the street like in Pamplona and fireworks in the evening.  We sometimes “luck” into special events like this and were happy to hear that it would be happening again.

William pulled up to the dock, we hopped out, gave him a hug and a huge thank you for all that he did for us, all that he shared and showed us as well as enriching our experience in Provence.  Our vacation continues to get better and better and we are anxious to see what adventures we will have on the river cruise portion of the trip.

More coming up in future posts.

Provence Explorer: Aix-en-Provence and Cassis

NOTE:  I know this is a repeat for many of you but a number of people also told me that they never received it.  Bear with me while I repost this recent article.  New one tomorrow, I promise.  Jane

Before we flew to Marseille, we had decided that we would NOT book a rental car to drive around the area.  Everyone had recommended that to us but we had a bad memory of a previous European trip when we did rent a car.  Driving in cities, finding parking, understanding road signs and getting lost were a few of our problems from before.  With the extra money that we received from United Airlines from our trip last year (7 hour delay because of mechanical problems and EU Rule 261) we had the flexibility to book tour guides to take us around.

On my list to see was Aix-en-Provence and on Blogger Hubby’s was Cassis.  I was able to determine that Thursday was the day that Aix had their market and I, of course, wanted to go to a French outdoor market. I knew that we would not see the famed lavender plants in full bloom as that happens in July but nevertheless, Provence was a place I did want to see, feel, smell and walk through.  Cassis was a seaside city known for its limestone bluffs and best viewed from a boat.  I could not get much information online about Cassis but we had spoken to someone who had been there recently and they recommended it to us.

We found a half day tour through Provence Explorer which would take us to both Aix and Cassis.  I emailed the company and explained that we had a mobility issue with one of our friends that was coming on the tour with us and would that be a problem as she couldn’t walk far and did use a cane.  He had said that it would be no problem.  I reiterated it when I paid online.

We went to the designated meeting spot, outside of the Tourist Information office,  and arrived about 10 minutes early. We waited, and waited and waited.  Finally our driver arrived about 15 minutes late due to traffic. We were also missing 3 others that had booked this tour so we waited again. Our driver had not been told that we had a person with difficult walking. Not her fault but it showed lack of communication with the company and their drivers. Finally we took off without the other three passengers. It was a pleasant drive to Aix. We would ask her questions which she answered.  She did not give us any background on where we were going or any background about France. For a driver that is fine but when someone is a tour guide that is not acceptable. You can tell that she was a summer tour guide and not a professional one by the way she handled the tour as well as telling us she was thinking about going back to school to get a degree is tourism.

She dropped us off at the market and told us where to wait for her while she parked the van. We looked around a little bit but needed to be close meeting spot for her to find us.  Of course, that took longer than usual because there was no quick parking. Not many things were told to us as we walked around other than the famous cookies that Aix is famous for. My friend and I each purchased some lovely scarves for 5€ each.  My friend also purchased some beautiful kitchen linens.  Our guide wanted us to walk to the produce section of the market which was way too far for our friend. The guide really had no idea about how far is “too far” when you are mobility challenged and didn’t explain distances to us.  Instead our friends went back to the meeting spot where we were dropped off.  We quickly went through the produce area, purchased some lavender walked around with her a bit.   The driver went to get the car and we went to the spot to meet our friends and to wait again for her to bring the car around.  And wait we did..and wait…and wait. We knew another person was joining us who was going to do the Cassis/Marseille portion of the day but when she finally showed up the missing three were in the van as well as the other person that was expected. The van was very tight with 8 passengers and one driver; three had to sit in the front.  It was a beautiful day to be outside and Aix is a charming destination spot to be.  I’m hoping this will be a place that we return to in the future.img_1406p1040820

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After we got back on the road we made a “pit” stop and our driver was clear in telling everyone to only take 5 minutes so we could leave. Apparently the 3 that were late for the morning and joined us as we were leaving Aix decided to do some shopping at the convenience store where the bathrooms were. Once again, we were waiting. The driver (who looked like Monica Lewinsky) finally went in to get them. Not her fault but it just added to all of our wait time.

We had a pleasant drive to Cassis, again without much of a commentary about where we were going. When we arrived she dropped us off and told us to get our boat tickets and then have lunch. We immediately went to the ticket booth and was told we could not purchase tickets yet since the boat trip before our desired time hadn’t left. We went to have a quick lunch and then we purchased our tickets. When our friends tried a few minutes later, the ship was sold out. Little did we know, or apparently did our driver,  that there are only 12 tickets on the 45 minute boat tour. We wished she would have advised us better so the four of us could have gone on this boat trip together particularly since our friends sat and waited in Aix.p1060068p1060134p1060113

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I would not recommend this tour company because of the lack of a knowledgable  “summer hire” tour guide, and the lack of communication about our friend’s mobility issue and the fact that they didn’t really do anything, other than park the car, to help us. There wasn’t even a bottle of water for us as most tour guides have.  There was no consideration of our time as we were at the appointed meeting spot and had to wait (I understand giving a 10 minute window but we were closer to 25 minutes) and as we waited to be picked up at Aix. I learned from this to spend the extra money and get a professional tour guide wth a private tour and not shared.  Granted this may have been an off day with this tour company but are you willing to risk it?

I would like to go back to Aix and Cassis.  In Aix,  I would take a better tour and see more than just the market.  In Cassis, rather than the 45 minute boat ride, I would take the longer one along the coast.

In spite of all this, the day was enjoyable, we were outside and were in a lovely part of the country.

Our First Full Day in Marseille

Our long awaited vacation has begun!  We woke up in lovely Marseille. the start of an almost month long trip to France and Belgium done mainly on points and miles.  We did pay for our AMAWaterways cruise but since I got the group together, we did save money with the group rates and a discount for being a past cruiser.

We woke up and glanced out our motel room to see the sun shining over the Mediterranean Sea with parts of the medieval wall in full view.  This structure was probably about 600 or more years old.  As our eyes wandered, we looked to the harbor and how beautiful it was with the sailboats and their masts.  We felt so luckily that we had the Club Carlson points to be able to stay here (Club Carlson brand includes Radisson, Park Inn and Country Inn and Suites).

Breakfast was not included and I did not want to pay 20€ per person for breakfast at the hotel.  Blogger Hubby did what he usually does when we are traveling in cities.  He finds a local bakery for our pastries and small super-ette for our yogurt.  Yummy chocolate croissants were in the bag that he brought back to the hotel.

Blogger Hubby and the husband of the other couple with us chose to do a tour of Marseille on E-bikes.  Have you heard of electric bikes.  They are not like a motor scooter but instead give you a little  kick when you are starting. Here’s his account:

We met in front of the National Theater on the Old Harbor in Marseille; almost next door to our hotel. Our guide, Remy was a young man in his late 20’s who is from Marseille. He spoke very good English, and was very friendly. We walked a short distance to their office and storage area in a parking garage on a back street behind the theater. Each rider was individually outfitted with a bike, helmet and water bottle.

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This was my first experience with an electric bike (e-bike). My bike was a regular size bike and wheels. There were some smaller bikes with small wheels and a high seat. I am an experienced recreational biker, and I bicycled before the cruise to make sure I was in shape for bicycling in Europe. I even bought a bright-colored biking shirt with back pockets and padded liners to wear under my shorts. My travel companion and I were the only ones with ‘biking appeal.

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I have experience bicycling in Europe having done so on our Danube River Cruise. Bicycling in Marseille was more difficult than my prior experiences, and it is not good for beginners. Most roads we traveled did not have bike lanes, and we had to travel on some narrow roads with parked cars on one side and moving traffic next to us. There were also steep uphill and downhill sections. Nevertheless, we stayed together, went slowly, took back streets to the extent possible, and crossed at traffic lights on busy streets. Only one person in our group had difficulty, and that was because she was not familiar with shifting between low and higher gears.

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For me this was one of the best tours I had on our trip. Marseille has a beautiful coastline, many scenic points to overview the harbor and the city, and interesting historical sites and buildings. We got to see them up close and personal. Remy was very personable and low-keyed, knew the city, and shared a lot of stories. At a couple of locations, he stayed with the bikes while we walked around to tour a particular site. During the tour we stopped at a small take-out lunch place in an out of the way neighborhood for lunch that we took and eat on the steps of a museum overlooking the harbor. Bicycling around the harbor on the promenade was a great way to end the tour.

The company was “E-Bike Tours Marseille,” and the tour was the “Grand Tour of City and Seaside.” The tour lasted four hours (10am-2pm), covered 23 km, and cost 52 €. Their website is here.  They provide detailed information about the tour and instructions regarding the meeting place on the harbor.

While they were doing that, my friend and I did the HoHo bus tour of Marseille.  We found that to be a better deal than the petite train that also took tourists around Marseille.  To do all of Marseille like we did on the bus, you would have had to do 2 or 3 different trains.  We felt comfortable just sitting in the open air upper deck.  We were given earphones that we would insert along the inside of the side of the bus.  We were able to have the narrative in almost any language we wanted.

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That evening we walked around the city, feeling very safe.  We saw that the city had an Eye but to see it in the evening, it really lit up the sky.

p1060147 There are many restaurants, puns and bars around the harbor and even a few streets back.  Once we did go behind the main boulevard there were many, many streets with all different kinds of restaurants.  We gravitated toward the pre fixed 3 course dinner. As we were close to many vineyards, we were advised to buy wine that had the AOC designation (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) which means the controlled designation of origin under the auspices of the French government.  Those three letter designations helped guide us throughout our journey in France.

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We have fallen in love with Marseille.  Coming up next our tour in Aix-en-Provence and Cassis.

Flights and Preparing for our Trip to Marseille and Provence

Excitement was building in our home as we finalized all of our preparations for our AMA Waterways River cruise up the Rhone River.  As some of you know, I always invite friends to travel with us so we are in essence “a group” and are entitled to group rates.  It was no exception on our AMA Waterways cruise on the Rhone.

Some in my group were doing the pre cruise in Barcelona with AMA while others joined us in Marseille for our own pre cruise.  Ito be honest, I wasn’t overly confident about our stay in Marseille and we were only going there for two reasons.  Since we weren’t doing the pre cruise, this was the closet airport to Arles where we would board our ship and secondly, we were able to use our Club Carlson points to reserve a room at the Radisson Blu on  the Waterfront.  I had booked this hotel before their devaluation of points in May 2015.  I booked 2 nights under my name and in essence paid for only one night with points with the other night being “free”.  We thought that this would be a good opportunity to explore Provence a little with some tours from Marseille.

With that in mind, I began searching through Trip Advisor for tour guides.  Being frugal is always our traveling motto though we do not want to miss a unique opportunity for our frugality – it’ s a fine balancing act that we walk.  As we were going to be in Marseille with another couple we wanted to do things that all of us could enjoy and do.  The husband of the other couple enjoys bike riding as does Blogger Hubby.  I knew that they would enjoy going on an E-bike tour while the wife and I would do the HoHo bus around town.  My friend has some mobility issues so we didn’t want to be walking all around town.  The other two tours we booked were with Provence Xplorer to go to Aix en Provence on market day and spend part of the afternoon in Cassis.  The next day we were booked with One Day in Provence to go into the small villages, a winery, St. Remy and what ever our tour guide suggested.  For the Provence Xplorer, the 4 of us would be doing a shared excursion, joining others and for the One Day in Provence, the 4 of us would be doing a private tour.  More about those later.

We flew Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic into Heathrow and then British Airways to Marseille.  A concern we had was that we would have to pick up our luggage in Heathrow and then check them in to British Airways for the flight to Marseille.  Luckily when we asked the Virgin Atlantic ticket agent at departure if they could Interline them.  He said ” yes” and put a luggage tag on them requesting them to be transferred over to BA.  Nevertheless, I took a photo of our bags just in case they should get lost.  According to him, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic don’t like to play nice with each other but we had no problem.

I was not overly impressed with the Virgin flight although the flight attendants were very nice, friendly and helpful.  The cabin seemed crowded and very little room to move around and, to me, seemed like there wasn’t much storage in our pod.  The food, for airplanes, was fairly decent.  I had a steak and I actually ate most of it.

With the entertainment system along the wall to my left, I had to pull it out and swivel it to be in front of me.  With the food tray fully engaged, if made if very difficult getting in and out of my seat.  I also thought the cabin was warm and was glad I wore a tee shirt under my top.

Would I fly VA again?  Probably not.  It was okay but not the experience I was looking for.  I’m not sure what I am looking for and it may not exist on a transatlantic flight or if it does, perhaps I’m too frugal to spend too many extra points for it.  Nevertheless, it was fine.

The short flight to Marseille was no different than a domestic flight in the U.S.  Once again we were business class but what that means is that you are in a row with 3 seats and they put a tray over the middle seat so you do not have someone sitting next to you   To reserve your seats ahead of time, you need to pay $49 per ticket.  I did not do that.  If you go online 24 hours prior to your flight, you can reserve your seats for free.  When I went on, they had the two of us together and in good seats.  I made no changes.  It was interesting to me that a flight as short as this one we were still able to be served a hot lunch.  Why can foreign airlines do this but American Airlines can not?  As we were closer to Marseille we could see the Rhone River out the window and then closer to landing, we could view the cliffs and the calanque (a narrow, steep-walled inlet that is developed in limestone, dolomite, or other carbonate strata and found along the Mediterranean coast).

approaching Marseille
approaching Marseille

To get to our hotel we could either take a taxi which would cost about 52€ or we could take the city shuttle bus from the curb outside the airport to the central train station for about 8€ each and then either take a cab to the hotel or a bus.  The shuttle was perfect and saved us a lot of money.  We opted for the cab once we got to the train station since it was very hot and we were tired. The taxi which was about 22€ to go to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Waterfront in Marseille.

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As we rounded the bend and got our first view of the waterfront, we were taken back at how beautiful it was.  This was not the grimy port city that I was expecting; instead there were hundreds of sailboats of all sizes around this rectangular shaped harbor. Our hotel faced this harbor.  After we settled in, we went exploring.  Along all 3 sides of the harbor there were restaurants, pubs and shops.  Along the harbor, it was an expanded sidewalk that was well lit with dark sky approved lights.  I felt very safe.  There is even a ferry that crosses the harbor for 1 €.

Ferry across the harbor
Ferry across the harbor

One of Blogger Hubby’s concerns in traveling to France is that neither of us speaks French.  For that matter we don’t speak any other foreign language but his lack of French bothered him.  Our first restaurant we had to pull out the English-French-English dictionary but as time went on, we were able to read about half of the menu.  Most French people that we met spoke a little English but to me they spoke quite a bit.

The hotel, in addition to the beautiful view, was very nice with a restaurant attached that had good reviews on TripAdvisor.  Nevertheless, we didn’t eat any meals there.  For breakfast, we were on our own because when we booked the hotel on points it did not include a breakfast.  As usual, Blogger Hubby offered to go out  early and find a bakery to bring back some delicious just made pastries.  Our room overlooked the secluded pool area,and the harbor.

view from our room at the Radisson Blu Waterfront
view from our room at the Radisson Blu Waterfront

We went to bed a little early so we could catch up on our sleep and be ready to explore Marseille and Provence.

Sunset in Marseille
Sunset in Marseille

Hope you enjoyed our photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are You Going to Change Your Travel Plans?

Our hearts go out to citizens of Brussels as well as the rest of Belgium.  We are still reeling from what happened in Paris last Fall.  It’s made some of us question our travel style and whether it will make any impact on our desire to travel.

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This past June, we flew out of the Brussels Airport and we are scheduled to fly out of it this Fall.  Will the events the other day make me change my mind about flying out of this airport?  Absolutely not.

After our river cruise in the early fall, we’ll be in Paris, riding the metro, going to high visibility tourist attractions.  We are not renting a car but rather doing our touring through public transportation.  Will I worry and wonder if something will happen…..probably.  Will it stop me – not at this time.  We may alter when we do certain activities.  Perhaps go to the Eiffel Tower very early in the morning or very late at night.  Instead of the metro, maybe we’ll take buses.  We’ll also be in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels.  France and Belgium, at least this year, seem to be the “hot spots” for terrorism.

I find that a lot of people ask me if I worry about terrorism when I travel and honestly, up to now I haven’t.  Blogger Hubby and I were planning our first European vacation for June 2002 but then 9/11 happened and I got very nervous.  Living outside of Washington DC I had conjured up so many different scenarios that I wasted a lot of time worrying.  I packed an emergency bag for school (I worked in an elementary school) in case we got stranded there due to attacks, I had an emergency bag in my car and I had a big emergency box at home.  I made so many preparations just in case.  I felt uncomfortable going to Europe so instead we did an Alaskan cruise.  Nothing did happen and I missed out on an opportunity. That missed opportunity taught me to not do something because “something” could happen.

We will continue to make plans for our trip, try not to let the world events affect us but yet be so ever vigilant and, to a due, cautious and aware of our surroundings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Milan, Italy – How to Turn Lemons into Lemonade

Both of us were so excited to travel to Milan not so much to see Milan, though we were excited about that, but more for using it as a jumping off spot to take the train up to Lake Como, Lake Maggiore as well as visiting the World Fair being held in Milan.

We left Verona, our fascinating stop on the way to Milan and hopped on the train to continue our journey from Venice to Milan.  I very much enjoyed looking out the windows to see the landscape of northern Italy pass us by.  Within a few hours, and after a quick nap, we arrived in the Centrale train station in Milan.  Walking into the station we were struck by how beautiful the station is.  I later found out that it is considered one of the most stations in all of Europe and we can certainly believe it.IMG_1867

We had reservations at the Hilton using the points that we had earned for our American Express Hilton Honors credit card that has no annual fee.  Why I like this card is that I get 5 times points when I use this card at grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.  That is huge.  I make it even better than that because I buy merchant gift cards at my grocery store and get 5 times points.  If I am going shopping at TJ Maxx I will go into my grocery store and buy a TJ Maxx gift card and use it for my purchases.  Let me not digress any more – we had reservations for three nights at the Hilton and then our final night in Milan at the Holiday Inn at Linate Airport to save us travel time in the morning before our too early o’clock flight!  The Hilton is a short 2-3 block walk to the train station.  After our nights at the B&B in Venice, this room looked like a palace to us though in reality it was fine, nothing special.

After walking outside and finding a little outdoor cafe where we had great pizza, we headed back to our room.  It had been a long day that had started too early in Venice.  We looked on the television and on my iPad for the weather in Milan and it was not looking good at all.  They were predicting rain, heavy rain and then more rain for our entire time we would be in Milan.  Our hearts sank as most of our plans needed good weather.  Who wants to be on a boat in the middle of Lake Como when it is raining very hard.  We “Facetimed” with our daughter, who had a baby girl three days earlier, and she gave us great advice and we wondered why we didn’t think of it.  Her advice – leave; go somewhere else.

We hadn’t paid for our room and most likely we would be able to get the points back for one of the nights.  Here we are – the travel planners having to make a sudden,  decision to just go somewhere else.  Were we up to it?  Could we be spontaneous?  Were we willing to try?  With a resounding yes we decided the next morning (after we had slept on it) that we would leave but not check out in case we wanted to come back to our room.  I quickly pulled up the radar and weather.com on my iPad and we kept looking at where we could go.  Turin – nope, was going to rain there as well.  Switzerland – rain there as well.  San Marino – too far since we had to return for our flight and hotels too expensive.  Bologna – hmm, that might be interesting.  After more searching, it was Bologna home of Bolognese Sauce!  We checked on Trip Advisor for a hotel that would be close to the train station and we booked a hotel that I had never heard of – Starhotels Excelsior which was across the street from the train station, had very good reviews and cost less than $100 per night and it included a breakfast.  With a leap of faith we walked to the train station, purchased our tickets and made the 8:30 AM train to Bologna.  Since we were being so adventurous, we decided to make another stop in a small Italian city – Parma, home of Parmesan cheese. Do you see a “food” thread running through some of the towns we are visiting?

It wasn’t long before we were in Parma.  We searched the station for a luggage locker and couldn’t find one.  Apparently Parma doesn’t have a Left Luggage locker.  Blogger Hubby thought we would have to get back on the next train to Bologna because we couldn’t enjoy Parma pulling our luggage.  I asked him to give me a minute and I walked into the hotel next to the train station – the NH Hotel Parma and asked the reception desk if we could leave our luggage with them as we were just visiting for a few hours.  They had no problem with it, gave us a claim check and even gave us a map and their recommendations of where we should walk.  Blogger Hubby couldn’t believe I asked and even more that they agreed.  I really believe that people in the tourism business want to be helpful particularly Europeans.  If you are ever in Parma, I would recommend this hotel by what I saw in the lobby – it was very nice and convenient to the train station as well.

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Off we went with our map in hand.  This being Saturday we weren’t sure what we would find.  Saturday apparently is market day in Parma.  I’m used to farmer markets with stalls or tables of fruits and vegetables.  This was nothing like that.  Streets were crowded and bustling with people looks for deals on clothing, kitchen wares, shoes, purses, etc.  We could barely get through the crowds.  I thought it was great and I was in my element wanting to be like these Italians, searching for great buys.  I guess I forgot that whatever we purchased, we would have to fit in our already full and heavy luggage.  I could still vicariously enjoy what they were doing.  One vendor caught my eye.  He was standing on a corner and had a sheet on the ground with beautiful designer purses.  The cobalt blue Chanel purse caught my eye and before I could approach him and ask how much, he quickly grabbed everything in the sheet and ran down the street.  I looked around the corner to see what spooked him and it was two police officers.  I knew that he was selling counterfeit purses but honestly (and don’t get angry at me) I really, really liked that purse.  I liked the color, the shape and it didn’t matter as much that it was a Chanel.  I missed my chance.  Believe it or not, I would see him a few more times as he was always looking over his shoulder or listening to the signal his spotter would give. Blogger Hubby would not let me purchase that purse.  I know he was right but that purse, it was really great.

 

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All the little stores selling meats, cheeses and pizza slices were open.  We bought what we wanted to eat and went across the street to sit on a park bench and eat our lunch overlooking the river.  Parma is home to one of the world’s oldest universities having been founded in the 12th century.  This would be a good city if you have college age children to spend a semester abroad – lively city without being overly crowded.

As we walked back to the hotel for our luggage and subsequently to the train station to continue our travels to Bologna, we were again in awe of the beautiful architecture that was in Parma particularly the Governor’s Palace that dated back to the 13th century.

We were pleased with our stop, would welcome a return to Parma and would like to have more time so we could take a cooking lesson or a food tour of this area.

 

Verona, Italy, Juliet’s Balcony and Aida

We left Venice on the morning train to travel to Milan for our next four days.  We planned to get off the train in Verona in an attempt to see more of Italy than just Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan and Venice.  Some of the smaller cities interest me because I think that they be more authentic and less touristy.  For these reasons we decided to explore Verona and the fact that it was another UNESCO World Heritage Site added to our desire to explore this city.  The city has been in existence since 1 BC and has flourished for over two thousand years incorporating the old with the new.

We departed our Milan bound train car and walked into the Verona station.  Our first course of action was to find the luggage locker area.  At 5 euros per bag, we shoved as much as we could into our bags, checked the hours of the luggage locker, found out what time the trains to Milan (our destination ) were and then we headed upstairs and out of the train station to find the tourist information counter.

Our train ride from Venice to Verona
Our train ride from Venice to Verona

We really didn’t do any homework about visiting Verona and were traveling somewhat blind.  As we waited for the bus to take us downtown, we were befriended by another American couple that were probably our age.

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We got off when they did and were amazed when we saw a Roman amphitheater similar in appearance to the Roman Coliseum only much smaller.  This was the Arena and it was located by the largest piazza in Verona, Piazza Bra, convenient to the buses and public restrooms.  The Arena is the third largest amphitheater in Italy after Rome’s and Capua’s. The Arena could seat 25,000 spectators in the 44 tiers of seats while they watched gladiator shows.  While we were walking around, we even saw a gladiator ourselves!

A surprise finding this in the Piazza Bra in Verona. We didn't know that they had a Coliseum.
A surprise finding this in the Piazza Bra in Verona. We didn’t know that they had a Coliseum.
Our own gladiator!
Our own gladiator!

What was even more amazing to us were all the huge props outside the Arena. I never expected to see a huge Sphinx or Egyptian soldiers. I couldn’t stop taking photographs as I walked all around the Arena. What I found out is this is where open air operas are performed in the warmer months and they were getting ready to perform Aida about a week later.

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Verona is the scene for three of Shakespeare’s play – Romeo and Juliet, Two Men of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew.  The one thing that I really wanted to see was Juliet’s balcony.  Before you get upset, I know that it is a work of fiction however there is Juliet’s Balcony and a statue of Juliet.  With our map we were able to locate it.  It was very crowded.  I was somewhat upset that many, many people were all over the Juliet statue rubbing their hands on her breasts.  To me they were sexualizing this innocent love story by what they were doing to her and it left me very unhappy.

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You might be able to see the statue of Juliet a little to the right of the center
You might be able to see the statue of Juliet a little to the right of the center
The "famed" Juliet balcony
The “famed” Juliet balcony

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By now it was getting hotter and we were thirsty and hungry.  We headed off to the Piazza Erbe where we refilled our water bottles at the spigots by the fountain.  It was Friday and the market was in full swing.  We were lucky that we found cups of fresh fruit being sold.  Each of us buying a cup of delicious melons, pineapples, and apples quenched our thirst and revitalized us.  I’m sure we weren’t the only tourists at the Piazza but to us it felt more like a neighborhood than a tourist destination.

Piazza Erbe with the white tents of the market area.
Piazza Erbe with the white tents of the market area.

As we walked back to Piazza Bra to catch the bus to go to the train station, we saw the original 3rd century Roman gates in the original city walls.  I am constantly amazed at the age of some of the structures in Europe even though I know logically that Europe is much older, at least in civilizations, that we are.

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If you have an opportunity, explore some of these other Italian cities.

Venice – St. Mark’s Square and Sightseeing

As a child, a young adult and even as an older adult, I always had a mental list of places that I wanted to visit.  They either came about from books that I had read, places mentioned in school by history or literature teachers, even movies and television shows.  Venice was one of those places.  I certainly learned of it from Marco Polo’s travels.  There is a certain mystique about Venice and that may come about from the ornately decorated masks that Venetians wear during carnival time. Whatever the reason I was very anxious to spend some time in Venice. Blogger Hubby – well he would have been happy with half a day thinking that it was very odorous and crowded.  Two nights was our compromise that made both of us happy.

After we left our luggage at Ca’Bella B&B, we headed out to see what we could see.  We set out on foot, trying to follow signs to the Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges to cross the Grand Canal.  This stone bridge was completed in 1590 and has become somewhat of a tourist photo op.  We initially began walking by ourselves  with very few people in the little alleyways that  wind throughout Venice’s neighborhoods but the closer we walked toward the more touristy areas, the more crowded it became.

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The Rialto Bridge – to me it looks prettier from a distance

As we were making our way to St. Mark’s Square we would see  winged lions all around Venice.  The lion is the symbol of the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark.   St. Mark was among the earliest founders of the Christian church, and the man who wrote one of the four gospels.   Theologians believe it is the oldest of the four gospels.   St. Mark went to Alexandria and founded the Church of Alexandria.  He was killed when the pagans of the city resented his efforts to turn the citizens away from their traditional gods and was buried in Alexandria.  Around the 8th century  two Venetian merchants stole the bones of St. Mark and brought them back to Venice, who at that time, had no patron saint. That’s a brief history of how St. Mark came to Venice.

We stood and viewed the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica.  The sun was beating down as we just stood there trying to take it all in.  I had wished that there were benches that we could sit down on to rest our weary feet so that we could appreciate our surroundings but it wasn’t to be.  I guessed that I had imagined that there were many steps to sit down on and feed the pigeons, benches all around the square….but it turned out that it was my imagination only.  Nevertheless, the square was spectacular.

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I love symmetry
I love symmetry
Can you see the four horses that were stolen by Napolean but recovered?
Can you see the four horses that were stolen by Napolean but recovered?

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By now it was lunchtime and getting hotter.  We hopped back on the vaporetto to head back in the direction of our B&B.  At our stop there was a little cafe that was on the water and looked to be perfect for lunch.  We eagerly ordered our first real Italian pizza made in Italy with a small antipasto to share.  A glass of chianti complimented our lunch.  What could be better – sitting with a glass of wine, eating authentic pizza on the water in Venice?

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We strolled back to our B&B for our, now typical, afternoon rest to get out of the hot and humid weather.  It was a chance to recharge our internal batteries and be ready for what will come later in the day.

Once it cooled down, we went to that terrible restaurant that I wrote about last with the tomato paste bruschetta.  We had fun after dinner just walking and getting lost, as we had been advised to do.  We viewed the gondoliers in their typical striped shirts and black pants.  We did not take a ride in one of the gondolas as they were very expensive and we did enjoy watching them ply the waters.

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After we people watched and waked around, we decided to head back to our room.  We hopped on a vaporetto that we thought (operative word – thought) would take us back to our neighborhood, however the vaporetto was going in the opposite direction.  Instead of going west, we went east.  It seemed like this vaporetto was taking the working people back toward mainland Venice.  All in all we considered it an adventure, saw a great view of Venice at night and went about 90 minutes out of our way.  It gave us a good laugh that would continue until the next night.

Hope you enjoy some of our photos of Venice.

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Arriving in Venice – Riding the Vaporettos and our B&B

After somewhat of a hot evening on the overnight train from Vienna, we arrived around 8:30 AM at the main train station for Venice – Santa Lucia. We walked from our train car into the station that was brimming with activity, people rushing to their trains so they wouldn’t be late for work, tourists rushing to get on the train to take them to the airport.  We too were rushing to get to our next adventure – this time in northern Italy.

From all the advice we were given and had read prior to our trip, it was suggested that we purchase our vaporetto (water ferry) tickets online so we could save some money as well as long having to stand in the long line to purchase them in Venice.  We did just that at this site, printed out the confirmation number and was told where we could redeem our tickets once in Venice.    I believe we paid about 30 Euros each for unlimited vaporetto rides for 48 hours.   As we were walking out of the train station on our way to redeem our tickets, a very nice American couple came up to us and asked if we were just arriving.  They very kindly gave us the rest of their 7 day pass indicating that they had over 48 hours left.  It was very sweet and giving but we had just purchased our tickets though they were not validated yet.  We kindly thanked them, took the tickets and hoped for a refund of our tickets.

We found the station on the canal for the #4 vaporetto which would bring us to the stop for the B&B that Blogger Hubby chose.  I REALLY wanted to choose where we were staying in Venice but I needed to let him do some of the planning.  After all, how bad could it be?  One of the first things that I noticed about Venice, and you may call me an ignorant American, was that it didn’t smell.  I had been warned by so many people about how smelly Venice is so I was very pleasantly surprised that it didn’t.

Riding on the vaporetto we enjoyed the breezes that came our way form being out in the open on a boat.  That got to be a regular theme for us and we really enjoyed it.

Most vaporettos had forward facing seats with an aisle in between - this one was different than the usual
Most vaporettos had forward facing seats with an aisle in between – this one was different than the usual

We got off at our stop and after I took a photo of the stop so we could show if we got lost or needed to get back here we began to try to follow the directions we had received.  Almost immediately we were lost looking for the first street to turn into.  We walked up the sidewalk where we got off the boat and then turned around and found it.  The name was on the side of the building that we couldn’t see from the direction we were walking along.  We were told to turn left at the first square, bear left then right and after a  little bit of backtracking, we finally found the Ca’ Bella B&B.  I walked into the main lobby and the decor, to me, was different than what I was expecting.  It looked like they had a chandelier with pink and blue pacifers – really, that’s what I thougt.  This is their picture of the lobby on their website:

Ca' Bella website lobby picture
Ca’ Bella website lobby picture

Doesn’t look too bad but now here are my photos from the lobby and yes, I know the lighting is different but so is the furniture, etc:

Ca' Bella - my photo
Ca’ Bella – my photo
and from this angle where their picture had chairs
and from this angle where their picture had chairs

That was part of the problem with this little place – there was really no place to sit and perhaps meet other travels..  The “little garden” area was just that – we had a little patio table for two for our breakfast.  The manager, Krystina, was very nice and helpful though for dinner suggestions we were sent to her friends that owned restaurants.

The first night’s dinner was so bad that Blogger Hubby insisted we only go to restaurants that had pictures of their meals.  I was salivating for some fresh bruschetta – you know, the chopped up fresh tomatoes with some basil and olive oil on top of some really good bread.  Are you in agreement with me?  What I got was tomato paste like substance spread over a thin toasted slice of bread.  Absolutely disgusting 😦  He had a fish stew that he didn’t feel was too good either though he ate it all up – after all, he is a charter member of the “Clean Plate Club”.  Me, I left the tomato paste bread behind.  We also found out that if you sit for dinner, or lunch, there is an extra charge, sometimes about 3 euros per person, that is for the bread, silverware, napkin, etc.  Some restaurants that are further away from the touristy areas do not charge it.

As we have found during our entire trip, it was another hot and humid day in Europe. We are finding that we will go out in the morning, have lunch and then go back to our room till it cools down, generally just before dinner.  We know that we are missing time in some of these great cities however, the high heat and humidity is not my friend and I tend to get a little (mind you, I said a little) grouchy and whiney and uncomfortable.  When we were in Singapore back in 2013 I did have a heat related episode where my skin got bright red, and I couldn’t cool down even with a wet towel around my neck.  I’ve been cautious ever since then.  We just do what we need to do to stay as comfortable as we can.

Now that we have checked into Ca’ Bella, it was time to go explore Venice.

 

The Budapest Zoo, the Local Train and the Overnight Train

Waking up we knew that if we were going to do anything we needed to do it early because of the heat and humidity.  After looking at some of our options we decided to go to the Zoo.  We often do this and enjoy seeing the different zoos around the world.  Our favorite to date is the zoo in Singapore where they do not use any fences. I knew nothing could surpass Singapore so I was anxious to see what the zoo in Budapest would be like.

Again we headed to the subway, was able to get sign language directions as to what line, where to switch and where to get off.  We arrive at the zoo just before a large camp/school group did.  We were able to pay our admission, grab a map and off we went.  There were a number of “special” houses that didn’t open till 10:00 so we needed to wait about 15 minutes before they did.  What a disappointment.  Many times there were no animals in the cages or special exhibits in buildings.  We kept looking for the animals but didn’t see many. We did make it over to the seal show and that wasn’t too bad.  The interesting part for me was the music they played during the show – Cotton Eyed Joe, a traditional American country song. Here we are at a zoo in Hungary and this is what they were playing!  Disappointment with the zoo kept adding up and we decided just to leave.

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We went back to the hotel and just hung out in the lobby reading and staying nice and cool.  Our train to Vienna was at 4:05 and since we were just a couple of blocks from the train station and we had our “real” tickets, we left the hotel at 3:10.  We got to the train station and didn’t see our destination on the boards.  While I watched the luggage, Blogger Hubby went to find out what track we would be departing from.  He came back rather quickly and said we were at the wrong train station.  The option he was given was to take another train to the correct station.  As we started to go down to the lower level, I told him that I thought it would be better if we took a cab to the other station.  That was what we decided to do.  We quickly got a cab, showed him our ticket and motioned to him to take us to the station.  We were leaving the city, or at least it appeared to us we were.  Initially we thought it would be about a ten minute ride but instead it was more like 25 minutes.  We began to get a little panicky – would we make out train?  Rain starts pouring down, lightning is in the sky and now people are beginning to head home, leave work – just more people out than there was a little earlier.  Finally at 3:55 we pull up to the train station.  We needed to find our way, go up elevators, go up some stairs – I motioned Blogger Hubby to go ahead while I went a little slower lugging my heavy suitcase.  I needed to keep my eyes on him so I wouldn’t get lost.  The minutes are ticking away.  I finally find him at the top of a staircase that I have to go down and the escalator is not working.He motions me to go down while he carries my suitcase down the stairs.  We hurriedly get on the train and exhale a sigh of relief.  A minute later the train departs the station and we are on our way to Vienna.  Lesson learned is to always check to make sure you are at the correct station.  We actually though that the train clerk that we went to the day before would have told us but then, we didn’t ask, we just assumed.

The train we are on is an Inter-City which means it is a slower, more local train and not as new as the other train.  With the rain, the windows could not be open as the rain was coming in the train car.  Hot, humid and exhausted from our rush, we just leaned back and thanked our lucky stars that we made it.

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We arrived at our train station in Vienna and we had several hours to wait till our connecting train to Venice.  Lots of food choices at the train station.  The ATM wasn’t working and although we had a few Euros, we wanted more to bring with us into Italy.  I left the station and walked around outside till I found an ATM machine where I used my Charles Schwab debit card that has no foreign transaction fees or ATM fees (they reimburse your account).  I returned to the station and found that our train was already on the track.  We decided to go up and get settled, make sure we were in the right car and correct room – sometimes for us we flounder trying to determine the car number and we wanted to give ourselves a little more breathing room since we had just had a big rush in Budapest.    We had booked a double sleeper and we wanted to get settled and explore a little.  I had traveled by train quite a bit when I was a child and I was looking forward to reliving my memories of traveling in a Pullman car.

Imagine my surprise when we entered our room to find out that it as super tiny. It was bunk beds, which I had expected but I didn’t expect the room to be so narrow.  With both suitcases in the room there was hardly any room for a person.  There was no room to store our suitcases.Panic settling in again.    Blogger Hubby was able to climb up on the his top bunk and put his suitcase on a shelf over the door but what to do with mine?  The stewart came by and lifted up the bottom bunk and showed us a small space for my suitcase and we were able to squeeze in it.  With Blogger Hubby and I both standing in the room, there was no space.  I have never been in such a tight quarters……ever!

P1040182There was no place to sit other than in our respective beds.  The room was very hot and humid and we reported it to the stewart.  What did he do – he opened the window but it was so loud when we were traveling that I knew I would never be able to sleep.  It seemed like heat was coming out of our vent but in reality, nothing was coming out, no circulation of the hot and humid air.  He agreed to put us in the next room and so it began all over again…..bringing down the suitcase, lifting it back up in the new room, putting the lower bed back up, taking the suitcase out and then going into the new room, lifting up the bed, putting suitcase in and then putting bed back down…..and so on and so forth.  We were so hot and exhausted, not what I would call a good start to our train adventure .

We did receive a “goodie” bag in our room with slippers, a bottle of water, a snack and since breakfast came with our room we were given a menu where we could check off six items to be delivered to our room.  The room did not have a toilet so we had to use the one down the hall.  I began thinking that I had made a mistake in booking this sleeper car – it was not what I expected. Hopefully you can see how narrow the room was.   Nevertheless, we were able to get some sleep, breakfast was delivered close to the appointed time and we made it to Venice on time. Would I travel by train again – maybe but I would be a more intelligent train traveler.  I had noticed that one room at the end of the corridor was more in a L shape and it had a chair in the room even with both beds down and a small bathroom.  I found our that theirs was a triple for two people.  Lesson learned.

Next up – our arrival in Venice.

Budapest and the Central Market

With an extra day in Budapest, we were on our own.  Monika, our cruise director on the AMA:Prima, had taken care of our departure transportation.  She had cabs in place for those who needed them at times requested.  It was very easy to depart our home for the past week – no need to put our luggage out the night before as you do with the ocean liners.  Completely different experience and a positive one at that!

We had reservations at the Radisson Blu because of the promotion that they had.  A short taxi ride from the dock and we were there.   I’m always looking at way to get more points and value for my points and by booking here and paying cash we earned quite a few number of points.   Since we arrived around 9:30  in the morning, our room was not ready.  We left our luggage and set out exploring on another hot and humid day.

One of the things that I really wanted to do was to go to the Central Market in Budapest.  I had read quite a bit about it and was excited to go.  Through sign language and the map we had showing a picture of the Central Market, we were able to ride the subway to the correct station.  This was the first time on our trip where language was a problem yet we were able to make our request known and they were able to gesture and point to where we needed to go.  People generally want to be helpful and that’s what we found.  Of course we needed to purchase tickets for the subway and we used our normal routine of watching those in front of us. Most ticket machines have a language button and by pushing the British Union Jack flag, we were able to understand  what we were being asked to do.  My tip in riding the subway when I am unfamiliar to the area is to take a picture of we you enter the subway so you know what your return stop is.

We emerged from the subway tunnel to a large tiled building. I’ve found out through this trip that I’m a sucker for a really interesting tile roof and this was no exception.

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Excitement was mounting and Blogger Hubby could hardly hold me back.  I walked in to cacophony of sounds, all sorts of scents, goods all over, stalls of fresh produce, butcher shops with all different cuts of meat and stalls selling ready to eat food.  I enjoyed looking at the native embroidered blouses they were selling but I didn’t purchase one.  We wandered up and down the market even going upstairs and walking around and then downstairs in the basement.  I’m not sure how much of this is a tourist destination or if it is a place where the people of Budapest shop.  I really think it was the former.  We did go upstairs to have some lunch.  So many delicious and delectable looking choices we had.  Blogger Hubby had goulash and I had a repeat of what I had in Prague – fried dough slathered with garlic butter then topped with shredded cheese.  Yum!  All I purchased was some paprika to bring home – Blogger Hubby was beginning to be concerned about how heavy my suitcase was beginning to be and we had all of our train rides ahead of us.  If you are going to stay in Budapest after your cruise do not buy the ship’s paprika in their little store – it is much less expensive at the market.

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P1040163P1040162P1040164While we were walking around, we found the train station was right by the subway line.  We had made our online reservations for the next day to go from Budapest to Vienna where we would change trains and board an overnight train to Venice.  We knew we had to bring our confirmation number to the train station to collect our ticket.  We walked into the train station to an information counter and showed them our confirmation letter with the details and the confirmation number.  They directed us to a machine where we could get our ticket.  It was quite easy to do.

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Back to our hotel we went to finally we able to check in.  Once in the room, I was really not impressed.  We had a funky window in our room – a circular window that we had to step up to.    Wouldn’t recommend staying here.

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Since it was so hot and humid, we stayed in our room for the afternoon.  Once it cooled down and got to be around dinnertime, we left and walked to Andrassy Street where there were many outdoor restaurants and cafes.  After looking at several different menus, we found the one to our liking and had an enjoyable dinner.  Walking back to our hotel, we stopped for a delicious, refreshing lemon gelato

IMG_1829Next post – our day in Budapest and the train experience we had in Budapest.

Budapest – the Pearl of the Danube

At the encouragement of our cruise director Monika, we were on the top deck of the AMAPrima as we sailed into Budapest around 8:00 AM listening to her commentary.  Monika is from Budapest and was able to give us first hand accounts and her impressions of her city.  Cameras were ready as we sailed in past Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube.  We were told how the Hungarian ruler in the 13th century made a promise that if he was able to rebuild his country following the invasion of the Mongols, he would send his daughter to live at the Dominican nunnery that he founded on the island.  He was able to do it and fulfilled his vow.  His eleven year old daughter Margaret was sent to the nunnery to live.  Her grave is still there so if you go, and I would highly recommend it, walk by Margaret’s grave.

Views of the city as we sailed into Budapest
Views of the city as we sailed into Budapest

P1030984As you have heard me say throughout most of this trip, it was another hot day projected to be in the low 90’s and this was only June 7th.  I believe this was the start of the heat wave that seems to have invaded Europe during the summer of 2015 and in August caused some river cruises to be canceled and other had to bus their passengers.

At 9:30 AM we met our group on the dock to board our buses.  This time, rather than following a female tour guide as I had recommended in another post, we had male tour guide and he was fantastic!  He actually trains tour guides in Budapest so I believe we got the best of the best.

The best tour guide - get him if you can
The best tour guide – get him if you can.  We are at Buda Castle

We rode the bus through the city to get a general overview and then ended up at Heroes Square.  Heroes Square with its Millennium Monument is one of the most visited sights in Budapest and is the largest square.  What I learned was that the monument was built in 1896 to mark the 1000th (that number is correct) anniversary of the arrival of the Hungarians (Magyars) into the Carpathian Basin which became Hungary.  The monument consists of two semi-circles.   On the top are the symbols of War and Peace, Work and Welfare, Knowledge and Glory. The statue, which is the main focus of Heroes Square, is of the Archangel Gabriel.  He stands on top of the center pillar, holding the holy crown and the double cross of Christianity. The seven chieftains who led the Magyar tribes to Hungary can be seen on the stand below. Statues of kings and other important historical figures stand on top of the colonnades on either side of the center pillar where Gabriel is located.

Heroes Square
Heroes Square
The 7 Magyar Chieftains who led the Hungarian people here
The 7 Magyar Chieftains who led the Hungarian people here from the east
The archangel Gabriel
The archangel Gabriel

After walking around Heroes Square we boarded the bus again to drive to the Buda Castle District which is on the Buda side of the river.  This area is made up of little cafes, crooked and narrow streets, little parks, cute shops and of course the historic section with the Royal Palace, St. Matthias and a few medieval buildings.  To me what was most striking was the roof of St. Matthias Church – absolutely beautiful with the different colored tiles.

St. Matthias Church
St. Matthias Church
The tiled roof
The tiled roof
Turrets on the walkway by the church and palace
Turrets on the walkway by the church and palace
Another scorching hot day
Another scorching hot day
St. Istvan who converted Hungary to Christianity and integrated his kingdom into Europe
St. Istvan who converted Hungary to Christianity and integrated his kingdom into Europe
Close up of the tiles on the church
Close up of the tiles on the church
medieval building by the Buda Castle
medieval building by the Buda Castle
View from the Castle
View from the Castle

When we returned to the ship after our tour, we had a Hungarian Folklore Show featuring gypsies who played music as well as male and female dancers doing some traditional dances for us.

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After dinner, when it got dark outside, our Captain took us on a Illumination Cruise of Budapest at night.  This was my very favorite part of the trip.  With the city bathed in a soft yellow glow from the illumination of all the buildings along the river, soft classical music playing and delicious wine to drink, we all sat back in awe of this beautiful city.  What a way to end our cruise – it couldn’t get any better than what we experienced this evening.  It was a chance to say goodbye to our new friends, get email addresses and Facebook contacts.  Enjoy these few photos of our last evening:

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Our group on the last evening. Please consider being part of my next group cruise on the Rhone in September 2016 and save money with group rates. Leave a comment if you want information about the AMAWaterways cruise
Our group on the last evening. Please consider being part of my next group cruise on the Rhone in September 2016 and save money with group rates. Leave a comment if you want information about the AMAWaterways cruise

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – have you ever heard of it?

When I told friends that we were going to stop in Bratislavia on our AMAWaterways Danube River cruise, they seemed a little perplexed and unsure.  Turns out that most of them had never heard of Bratislavia or Slovakia.  In fact, one of the reasons that I chose the Romantic Danube cruise over The Legendary Danube was because it did stop in Slovakia.

Slovakia was established following the Velvet Revolution which ended the Communist rule in 1989 in Czechoslovakia . The former Czechoslovakia was separated into two different states.  The Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic went their separate ways after January 1, 1993, after an event sometimes called the Velvet Divorce (staying with the “velvet” theme of smooth transitions).  Both countries remain close with one another.  Slovakia has been a member of European Union since 2004.

Slovakia has beautiful landscapes, mountains including the Carpathians, hundreds of caves beneath its mountains, over 175 lakes,  and ski resorts.   Knowing all this has given me reason to revisit this country.

We set sail mid-morning from Vienna, one of our few times that we sailed during daylight time.  We sat up on deck to watch the countryside as well as to watch the entry into Bratislava.  This was the hottest day yet with high humidity – made us long for cooler weather sailings.  We sailed past the New Bridge with its alien looking restaurant at the top.

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The New Bridge with its space ship “alien” inspired restaurant on top

Rather than doing a city tour, Blogger Hubby (who was tired of city tours) and I opted to do an optional excursion called “Slovakian Treats” where we would taste some food as well as having a mini-cooking lesson.  This optional excursion filled up quickly as friends of ours wanted to partake but couldn’t get in.  Unfortunately many of those who signed up did not show up and there were only 5 of us when 12 were expected.

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Our docking location in Bratislava

All the tours left from the dock first and we walked “a short distance” to the Bratislava Sheraton where our cooking lesson would take place.  One of the passengers in our group was a “Gentle Walker” and walking a distance is difficult for her.  To be honest, it was not a short distance – it was about 20-25 minutes walking on the city street amidst construction that we had to walk around.  If you have mobility problems, really question the cruise director as to what type of walking is involved and how long it is.  To her 20-25 minutes was short but when you have mobility problems, that is not short.

We were taken into the restaurant of the Bratislava Sheraton where our chef was waiting for us.  We were served cool drinks after our hot walk and began to feel a little refreshed.  Our first, and only, food we made was a Slovakian version of pierogies called pirohys filled with a sweet jam.  He then demonstrated a soup as well.  It was an okay excursion and the one very redeeming part of this excursion is that we were inside an air conditioned building on this very hot and humid day.  After we had our samples of the pierogies and the soup the class was over.

Eating our pierogies that were filled with jam and sprinkled with poppy seeds
Eating our pierogies that were filled with jam and sprinkled with poppy seeds
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Following along as our chef made a delicious soup for us to enjoy
Our yummy looking soup
Our yummy looking soup

A couple of the people in our class took a taxi back to the dock.  Blogger Hubby and I walked along the river.  After a bit I decided that I didn’t want to explore more though Blogger Hubby did.  If it was cooler, we would have sat along the Danube in one of the cafes but that wasn’t to be today.  When Blogger Hubby did return to the boat about an hour after I did, he realized that he wasn’t feeling well – not at all.  I thought of heat exhaustion as I have had that a couple of times but he wasn’t red in the face.  Turned out he was suffering from dehydration.  He climbed into bed and stayed there throughout dinner and part of the evening till around 10:00 when he felt that he could partake of some of the snacks in the lounge area.  Unfortunately this was the night that we were invited to sit at the Captain’s table at dinner.  Instead I took someone that was in our group and we had a good time and received a memento of a AMA silver napkin ring.  Apparently these are collectables – never knew that!

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Upcoming blog posts – Budapest, an European overnight train experience, Venice, and more of Italy and trains.

Meanwhile, here are a few more pictures of Bratislava:

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Vienna, Austria

Vienna was one of the stops that I was looking forward to visiting. This was another hot and humid day on our cruise and thankfully our tour of the city was during the morning when it was a little cooler.  Blogger Hubby and I went on different tours – I did the regular City Tour while he did the Hidden Vienna Walking Tour for the more active walkers.  I could have done it, really, but I wanted to see the regular tour of the city as it was my first time in Vienna.

Vienna is a grand city with its Ringstrasse and the beautiful buildings all around it.  I liken Vienna’s Ringstrasse to a pearl bracelet around  Vienna where each pearl signifies a different monument or building that makes this city special.  It truly is an Imperial City.

The boat did not dock in Vienna but rather in a city ja short distance away.  We all boarded our buses and began our tour of Vienna and it began driving to the Ringstrasse.  The Ringstrasse dates back to 1858 when Emperor Franz Joseph had the city walls torn down in order to unite the suburbs of Vienna with the city center where the imperial power was located.

The result was a beautiful collection of  buildings built in different architectural styles  that was spread out between the parks and public gardens. In addition to having the State Opera and the City Hall along the Ringstrasse, wealthy citizens bought land along it to build magnificent town homes.  The Ringstrasse became the Austrian version of Paris’ Champs d’Elysees.

We were then dropped off and our tour guide walked us around Vienna, which by the way is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We went by the Hofburg Imperial Palace winter residence of the Habsburg family.

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Next we walked by the famed Spanish Riding School. when I was a young child, my mother took me to Boston Gardens to watch a performance of the famed Lipizzan horses.  I never forgot that experience and here in Vienna at the Spanish Riding School is where they trained.  We “peeked” through to look in the courtyard to see if we could see some horses but none were to be seen.

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the courtyard at the Spanish Riding School
the courtyard at the Spanish Riding School

We found ourselves walking over to the main square, the Stephansplatz where the main Roman Cathlic church in Vienna is located.  This cathedral, like others we have seen on our trip, was in the process of being cleaned – getting all the black soot off the sides of the building.

St. Stephan's Cathedral, Vienna
St. Stephan’s Cathedral, Vienna

One thing that I love when I travel are sweets – I know I shouldn’t but I do love them and always try to eat at least one a day.  Blogger Daughter had told me about a bakery that she went to while in Vienna and suggested that I might want to “stop in”.  While on our tour we went right past Demel’s  established in 1786.  Unfortunately since we were on the tour I did not stop and when I did go back, the shop was extremely busy.  Here are a few photos of Demel’s.  Perhaps if you go to Vienna, you’ll find time to stop and taste their pastries.

Demel's in Vienna
Demel’s in Vienna

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in the display window of Demel's - all handmade
in the display window of Demel’s – all handmade

Friends that went on the cruise with us wanted to have a treat at Aida’s close to the cathedral.  It had been recommended to them by a neighbor of theirs who lifter our tour was concluded, we headed to Aida’s.  I found myself pointing at the glass cases as to which treats I wanted.

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In Aid's hanging sign explaining the different types of coffee
In Aida’s hanging sign explaining the different types of coffeeand I ended up

After these treats, we parted ways and I ended up window shopping as most things that I looked at were very expensive.  I found the Lanz of Salzburg store and it reminded me of the dresses that I had in the early 1990’s that came from this manufacturer.

We were told when and where we could meet the bus to go back to the ship.  The afternoon we had an optional trip to Schonnbraum Palace which our wonderful travel agent had given our group because we had booked with her – a Virtuoso Travel Agent.  Unfortunately, I decided since it was so hot that I needed a partial “sea day” and elected to stay on the ship, get in the whirlpool, take a needed nap and rest up for the rest of the week.  The heat really played a major part in my decision to not go to the palace and in hindsight, I regret it but at the time, it was for me the right thing to do.  We spoke to one couple on our cruise and what they did was just to stay in Vienna, stroll around, stop for coffee and eventually they had a delightful dinner in Vienna.  That sounded wonderful and I have to remember to give myself permission to not always do what the cruise line sets up for us – I can go off and be “independent”.  I will remember this for future trips.

Next post – Bratislavia

Here are some more pictures of Vienna to enjoy:

it really is a curvy building
it really is a curvy building

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Biking through the Wachau Valley from Melk to Krems while on a River Cruise

Written by Blogger Hubby

While Jane was cruising through the Wachau Valley, I was doing something different and what I did became one of the memorable highlights of our cruise for me.  For me it was the bicycle ‘tour’ on the bike path alongside the river between Melk and Krems.  This was an excursion you could not sign up for prior to the cruise.  The staff wanted to see everyone to make sure that all who went on a guided excursion were able to do the tour.  This was one of three organized shore excursion for bicyclist enthusiast aboard the cruise ship.

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At the beginning of the cruise, I was not planning to do the Wachau Valley bicycling trip because I felt I was unprepared for the distance involved. However, I did sign up to bicycle on a shorter tour earlier in the cruise, and I bicycled on my own at a couple of other stops. There was a core bicycling group that formed during the week who encouraged each other. It included a very senior, rather petite woman from England. So when the time came for the Wachau Valley tour, I decided to take the leap. And I’m glad it did because bicycling 36 km along the river was a special trip. I should warn you that the length of the trip and the hilly terrain made it suitable only for experienced riders.   There was one reasonable steep hill to climb where I needed to walk my bike up a portion.

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The ride was memorable because it provided a different perspective of the countryside than seen from the ship. We passed through riverside parks where people were gathered for picnics and fishing, through small hamlets of homes and a few small stores, and through orchards of apricots. There were public toilets at one location and a source for drinking water.

Can you see me biking on the path by the road?
Can you see me biking on the path by the road?

The trip was well organized by the ship. Two crew members who were experienced bicyclists led the trip — one up front and the other at the rear. They carried drinking water and snacks, as well as first aid items and equipment to communicate with the ship. The pace was steady but not fast, and we had a target time to meet the ship. We made three rest stops that I remember. In the end I was tired but happy I had accomplished the feat. One thing that helped me was a desire to keep up with the little old lady from England.

Having bicyclists on our AMAWaterways ship certainly added to our overall experience.  Knowing that some ships had the bicycles was a factor in choosing this cruise line and because of it, it really added to our overall experience.

 

Cruising Through the Wachau Valley, Austria with AMAWaterways

This afternoon on our AMAWaterways Danube River cruise we had the option of staying on the boat as we cruised on the Danube through the scenic Wachau Valley in Austria.  The Wachau Valley is the name given to the 40 km stretch of the Danube between Melk and Krems.  The Wachau River Valley is another UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the Cultural Landscape – another check mark on my list of UNESCO sites visited.  The river cuts through the  picturesque narrow, rocky valley between the foothills of the Bohemian Forest and the Dunkelsteiner Waldone and is one of the most beautiful and well known regions in all of Austria.  It reminded me of when we cruised through the Rhine River Gorge years ago on the Rhone River.  So much beauty around the rivers of Europe.

The other option for the afternoon, and Blogger Hubby chose this option, was to bicycle from Melk to Krems on a bicycle path along the banks of the Danube River.  He’ll be writing of his adventures in a separate blog post.

I didn’t feel that I was up for the 36 k bike ride to Krems so I chose to stay on the ship and listen to the narrative of what we were seeing by our Cruise Director Monika.  Another reason was that we were going to have an ice cream social while cruising and I had heard they were having lemon gelato – my favorite.

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Ice Cream social while cruising through the Wachau Valley

As we plied the waters of the Danube we went passed Schonbuhel Castle .  This castle was built in the 12th century on the site of a former Roman fort.  Like other castles and churches, it has undergone repairs and remodeling.  What we were seeing was the remodel from the early 19th century.

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We also cruised passed the ruins of Aggenstein Castle.  Picturesque village dotted some of the landscape and none prettier than Weissenkirchen which means “white church” with over 1200 acres of grape vines growing in the area.  This is a major winemaking area.  They produce some world class Rieslings (my favorite wine) and apricot brandy  (Marilleschnaps).

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The Weissenkirchen in the Wachau Valley

Finally, we passed by the ruins of the Duernstein castle.  This castle, which is linked to the Crusades, was the the castle said to have been the prison of Richard the Lionheart in 1193. The story goes that when Richard was trying to get back home his boat washed up on the rocks of the Adriatic and he tried to sneak through Austria disguised as a peasant.  He was turned him in, arrested and imprisoned by Leopold V, the Babenberg duke ruling the country at that time.  Leopold was seeking revenge since he felt that he had been insulted by Richard in Palestine during the Crusades.     History comes alive for me when I see historical sites such as this castle.  I use my imagination to see the event as it happened in my mind.

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The castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned
beautiful white and blue church in Durnstein
beautiful white and blue church in Durnstein

Finally we docked at Krems.  We boarded our buses to go to Durnstein where, the optional tour I took, was “Apricots and Sweets” which I would not recommend.  We went up a small flight of stairs to a room over a little shop where we sampled numerous apricot product.  It was an unventilated, small room where we sat on a bench against the wall.  It was so hot with no air circulating that  I asked them to turn the fan on that was in the corner of the room.

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“Apricots and Sweets” excursion – not recommended by me. Here we are in a hot, windowless room with no ventilation.

This part of Durnstein is not one that I would recommend for anyone with mobility problems as it is uphill and cobblestoned.  Many older people had difficulty and even if they were in the Gentle Walkers group and traveled there by train, they still had to walk on the cobblestones and go uphill a little.  We were there on the Corpus Christi holiday and spread all over the cobblestone were grasses which made it even more slippery.

the train from the pier that the Gentle Walkers or those who needed assistance took to Durnstein
the train from the pier that the Gentle Walkers or those who needed assistance took to Durnstein
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Corpus Christi Day – you can still see some of the grass that was on the cobblestone. Made for slippery walking.
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Narrow streets with cute shops featuring a number of apricot products as this area has many apricot orchards.

As we walked back to get to the bus, we passed a little boat that was docked waiting for passengers to ferry across the river to Rossatz.  I could not believe that this was an actual ferry.  Look at this picture and tell me what you think.

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Finally a few more pictures that I took while we cruised.  Tomorrow Blogger Hubby’s post about bicycling along the Danube from Melk to Krems.

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sign in Durnstein locating all the castles along this stretch of the Danube River
Richard the Lionheart
Richard the Lionheart
the beautiful white and blue church in Durnstein
the beautiful white and blue church in Durnstein

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Melk, Austria and the Melk Abbey

When we woke up on our recent AMA Waterways River cruise we were in Melk, Austria.  We  had another delicious breakfast sitting at our usual table served by Marius.  This was going to be another busy day for us (you’ll find out why later on) and we needed to start our day off right with a good breakfast and we were not disappointed.

We boarded our buses to visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Melk Abbey.  I was given a color chip to find my guide  but I decided to follow my new rule of having a female guide since they had all, till this point, received great reviews from my fellow passengers.  I hopped over to the Yellow Bus and I was ……right!  She was great.

The Melk Abbey is a Benedictine Abbey on a high bluff overlooking the Danube River in the city of Melk.  The Abbey had been named Best Historical Destination by National Geographic Traveler Magazine in 2008.

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The golden color of the Abbey felt like a warm welcome to us – not an austere gray color that you might imagine.   It really was beautiful outside and we couldn’t wait to go inside and see what that was like.

To begin with, like most things in Europe, the Abbey had been built and destroyed several times.  The Abbey, as we saw it, dated from the 18th century although since 1978 there have been extensive repairs of the Baroque buildings.  The restoration was paid in part by the sale of the Abbey’s Gutenberg Bible to Harvard University.   The Benedictine monks have lived here for over 900 years during all types of political turmoil for Austria.  Additionally, they run a school for about 900 students.

As we walked into the courtyard of the Abbey, our guide told us that she would not escort us in but rather an official Abbey guide would. Ours was great but a little (hmm, perhaps a lot) overly enthusiastic and energetic.  I would rather have that than an indifferent guide.

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Our tour took us through the church, the museum, the library (which is the second most important part of the abbey just behind the church) and the marble hallway.  The library holds over 16,000 very old books, some being about 500 years old.  The ceiling in the library was painted in vibrant frescos, and the bookshelves were what you would expect in a very lavish yet old and distinguished library – all this for the monks who studied and did research there.  Just pass the main library is the smaller library with its spiral staircase.  We were not allowed to take photographs otherwise you would be seeing how beautiful it was.

Here are some more photos from the Abbey:

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view from the Abbey of the city of Melk
view from the Abbey of the city of Melk
some of the gardens of the Abbey
some of the gardens of the Abbey

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I love walking into the churches and cathedrals and marveling at all they were able to do without all the modern machinery and equipment that we have nowadays.  To me it is just awe-inspiring.  Here are a few pictures from inside the Abbey church:

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After we toured the Abbey rather than taking the bus back to our ship, Blogger Hubby and I decided to walk back partly because today was a holiday.  It was the Corpus Christi holiday in Austria.  As we peered over the side of the Abbey and looked down to the town, we saw a small marching band playing and people outside.  We wanted to partake of this holiday however by the time we finished our tour, the band was gone.  However, we did walk through the small town and got to see some of Melk itself.

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Later this day, we would cruise through the Wachau Valley while some more industrious people, Blogger Hubby included, biked the 36 k to Krems.

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Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

As I mentioned in this post, Blogger Hubby and I chose to take the afternoon excursion into Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic) rather than Salzburg or the Austrian Lakes District.  Once again, we felt the need to get out of the cities into something a little more quaint. There were probably about 20 of us on this excursion and that was fine with me. Our tour guide, and I have forgotten her name, was wonderful.  The family stories she shared with us, how she came to visit this area as a young child and her general wealth of information was a welcome change from the other two tour guides we had in Passau and Linz (hint – go for the woman leading the tour, many times the male guides were not that great like in Passau and Linz).

As we were crossing over the Danube in Linz  our bus our tour guide told us how Linz was divided after World War II into the Soviet section, which was north of the Danube and the American section which was south of the Danube.  Linz became a city divided.  All these facts were new to me and that is why I love going on tours like this.

Cesky Krumlov is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.   This area is an example from the Middle Ages of a central European small town dating from the Middle Ages.  This area remained relatively undisturbed for over 5 centuries though it did begin to fall into some decay after World War II and once the restoration was begun, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As we got closer to the city we saw the Vltava River meandering by. Families were outside enjoying the beautiful weather, camping, rafting and canoeing.  This was the real scenery we were looking for; everyday life in the Czech Republic.  People are people no matter where they live.  This could have been a scene in the United States.

The Vltara River is the same river that runs through Prague and it surrounds the city of Cesky Krumlov.  The town grew up within a meander of the Vltava river, which provides a natural setting.  It has profited from a relatively peaceful history in that it has retained its entire medieval layout and most of its historic buildings relatively intact. Restoration  has been slight other than some restoration work after World War II.  Once it was completed then it was eligible to become part of UNESCO.

Our tour guide with a map of Cesky Krumlov
Our tour guide with a map of Cesky Krumlov

We toured for about an hour with our guide and then she told us what time we had to meet and where.

part of a wall around Cesky Krumluv
part of a wall around Cesky Krumlov
typical views of the area
typical views – love the quaintness

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The cobblestone streets, the castle with its own “little zoo”, the gingerbread shop, all the jewelry stores selling Czech garnets  and the original and authentic Budweiser beer that is served in the quaint cafes around the town square make this area a fun to visit.  Beginning the last half of the 17th century they were mining for graphite in the Cesky Krumlov area and from what we were told, it is superior graphite.  In fact, there is an artist store that sells all sorts of pencils and has been selling them since 1790.  Of course, we had to stop and buy a few mechanical pencils to bring home as a small memento.

As we walked over one of the bridges in the town, we looked down in the river to see all the large rafts with 4-8 people in them having a great time.  They even have a canoe shoot off to the side where there are rapids.  It’s a great recreational area and it is obvious that people come here to take advantage of the river and the small rapids.

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My favorite shop was the Old Gingerbread shop.  If you are like me, gingerbread denotes cute little gingerbread men and women with a little licorice, beady little eyes and some white frosting on them.  These are nothing like that.  The designs on them are so intricate that they look like lace.  Others were larger rectangular pieces with scenes on them.  I really want to purchase one and bring it home but I had visions of gingerbread crumbles when I reached home almost two weeks after I would have purchased them.  Instead, I will have the photographs to remind me of them.

The Gingerbread Shop that I fell in love with
The Gingerbread Shop that I fell in love with
believe it or not, this is gingerbread
believe it or not, this is gingerbread
Lacey looking gingerbread.  Looks too good to eat.
Lacey looking gingerbread. Looks too good to eat.

The other interesting thing that we saw for the first time here, but not the only time, was the initials C+M+B and then a year (C+M+B 2014) written in chalk over a door frame.  Another way of writing it is 20+C+M+B+14).  (deciphering it is 2014 C+M+B)  What we learned was that this is done to celebrate the Epiphany church season.  The initials are for the Three Wise Men – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.  Chalk is distributed at masses and in some areas children receive the blessed chalk and dress up as the Three Magi.  They go to homes to bless them and sometimes collect a little money for a charity.  Here we were told that it is adults who do it and they go around on horseback leaving their chalkmarks.

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We met our group at the appointed time and waked back to our bus.  I think most of us slept on the way back as we had been “toured out” with Linz in the morning and Cesky Krumlov.

Next up – Melk and their magnificent Abbey

Linz, Austria – AMA Waterways Cruise

Sunrise woke us up at around 5:00 AM – yikes that’s even early for Blogger Hubby.  We got up and closed the curtains even more for a little bit more sleep.  We followed the same routine as yesterday with breakfast in the diningroom.  There is an omelet station at the back of the dining room but we found that it took a LOOONG time to get an omelet so we reverted to the menu which was just fine.

This was going to be a busy day for us.  Blogger Hubby had a scheduled Bike Tour of Linz while I went on another city tour.  In the afternoon we chose a tour of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.  Another choice for this day was an All Day Excursion of Salzburg which many people took.  That tour lasted about 9 1/2 hours.  We had just been to Salzburg a few years earlier and didn’t find the need to go back for just a day.  In addition to our afternoon tour of Cesky Krumlov, the two other afternoon choices were a shortened version of Salzburg or going to the Austrian Lakes District (which we had done by car a few years earlier).  We wisely saved a few of our Czech money when we were in Prague knowing that we were going to visit Cesky Krumlov.  I’m getting ahead of myself – let me get back to Linz.

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We docked right in the city center and it was easy getting to the main square using a pedestrian bridge to get over all the traffic on the road.

What I remember most about Linz is the Plague Column in the center of town.  We have been fortunate in our country that we never really had plagues though perhaps the native population may feel differently because of the many diseases that the Europeans brought to the New World when they explored it.  Nevertheless, most of Europe has had to deal with plagues over the centuries and it is estimated that about 25 million people died.  The column, built in a Baroque style, was erected in gratitude by those who had survived a variety of disasters and protection against war, fire and the plague. The Column is located in the centre of the main square (Hauptplatz).

The Plague Column
The Plague Column
close up
close up

We walked by where Mozart, upon visiting Linz with his wife, wrote in 4 days the Symphony No. 36.  To this day that symphony is know as the Linz Symphony.

Bust of Mozart
Bust of Mozart

To me, there was nothing else really remarkable about Linz.  Our guide was so-so (kept telling us how much better Salzburg was) and I ended up leaving the group early and heading over to one of the bakeries in the square to get myself a slice of the Original Linzertorte to bring back to the ship, as if I didn’t get enough to eat there!  Our tour guide mentioned that a number of bakeries claim to be the original in making the Linzertorte but the bakery I went to had a big old sign out front indicating that it was them.

 

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As like the day before, I ended the tour with a lemon gelato that I bought.  I enjoyed every lick as I walked back to the ship.

While I was on my tour, Blogger Hubby did a bike tour of the city.  They actually passed me going back to the ship and it looked like they had a lot of fun.

Next up – Cesky Krumlov, CZ

Here are a few more photos of Linz:

love the detail on the buildings
love the detail on the buildings
This store sold honey
This store sold honey

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.

 

 

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.

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!

What to Do in Cape Town, South Africa – Part 1

There is so much to see and do in the Cape Town area that I am not sure where to begin.  If you do come to South Africa to go on safari, you should definitely go to Cape Town  I am so thankful we had the opportunity to explore this unique area.

The Cape began as an outpost  by the Dutch East Indies Company for their ships and sailors to stop on their way to the Indies so they could get fresh water,  supplies, fruit (to combat scurvy) and the sick could be treated.   Reports were made to the Company that the land was fertile for farming.  What began as the outcrop then turned into a land for agriculture.  Slaves were imported and Huguenot exiles from France came to the area.  The French, who were known for wine making even back in this time, went over the mountains and began planting grapes for wine but more on that later.

Some people will say that you do not need a car to explore Cape Town and the  Cape Point area.  You might not need one but it sure does come in handy and I wouldn’t think of exploring without one.

During the weekends, particularly in the morning head over to the Old Biscuit Mill.    As you approach the area, you’ll see men holding areas along the street for drivers to park their cars.  If you park there, and I do recommend it, you will need to tip them.  They watch over your car, you have a convenient spot to park and they get to earn a little money.  It really saves time from driving around trying to find parking and then walking long distances.

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The Old Biscuit Mill is a foodie as well as an arts and crafts lovers site.  I could have spent hours there.  All different types of crafts including custom made tables, clothing, leather goods, etc.  You browse in this open air market while listening to live music.  There are also shops surrounding the open air part and one of the best shops, in my opinion, is the chocolate shop where you can sample many fine delicious treats.

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If you are hungry afterwards, and I hope you are, head over to the building where food vendors are located.  Part of the front of the building has as farmers market like feel but the second part, behind the first is where foodies will love to congregate.  There were four of us and our collective challenge was to buy something you have never tasted before and bring it back to the picnic bench style tables to share.  Here are a few pictures that I hope make you hungry:

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There are also a a few restaurant in the area and the most notable is The Test Kitchen.  I had read about them in the Washington Post and was excited when I saw them at the Old Biscuit Mill.  Unfortunately we did not have reservation s but I was excited to be there.  They were voted the Best Restaurant in Africa!

More about Cape Town to come!

 

A Personal View of OAT – Overseas Adventure Travel – small group travel

I pleased to introduce my guest blogger Roberta – a world traveler who just happens to be related to me by marriage.  Blogger Hubby and I always enjoy seeing her and receiving her Christmas cards to read about where she has been during the year.  It might have been all the cards that began my lust for traveling after hearing about all her adventures.  Hope you enjoy reading what she has to say about OAT.

My name is Roberta and I am Blogger Jane’s cousin-in-law as her Blogger husband is my first cousin. She asked me to share some of my impressions about Overseas Adventure Travel Company better known to all as OAT. I have traveled with them 44 times and my fiancé Joe 45 times.

We both lost our spouses many years ago and luckily found each other, two people with a lust for life and love of travel. Not long after we met Joe informed me that for his vacation next year (1998) he had found a company that specialized in “adventure travel” and he was going to go on an African Safari with them. I was not invited as “we did not know each other well enough to share a tent” and I was also still teaching plus the trip had been booked months before we met. His month in Tanzania and Zanzibar was a life changing event and he couldn’t wait to take me there and every other place on his bucket list.

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We started traveling, slowly at first until we retired and then with a vengeance, having now visited over a hundred countries many more than once.
OAT became our travel company of choice because their trips are an excellent value, their Tour Leaders are top notch, they want to show you a country up close and personal warts and all and the places you stay, foods you eat and things you do are all cultural experiences and adventures.

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The people you meet in this small group travel company (land tours have a maximum of 16 guests) are just an added bonus. You do not simply get on and off the bus, you take rides in rickshaws, in canoes, on camels and horses, you hike in the jungle, you climb sand dunes, your Zodiacs take you to see the penguins in Antarctica and have leopards and lions walk so close to the vehicle you could touch them. Obviously our list of OAT trips is too long to complete but some of our favorites have been SAFARI SERENGETI (6 times for me 7 for Joe and every adventure was different even though we were in the same country), Morocco, China, Thailand, Italy, Bhutan, Vietnam, Namibia, South Africa, Japan, Turkey and Myanmar are just a few.

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Overseas Adventure Travel has changed since we have traveled with them both in good ways and some we haven’t liked. One excellent change this year is to include the tips required for everyone except your Tour Leader in the cost of the trip. This has been one area that the post trip evaluation forms kept emphasizing as something that needed to be done by the company. Another change that we found “troublesome” is the price for the airport transfer if you book your own air. We feel that they are extraordinarily high since the “bus is heading there” anyway and today if you are interested in accumulating air miles the airlines will not give them for third party ticketing or consolidation fares. In order to keep prices down we have seen a decline in the quality of properties OAT uses for their accommodations. They are always clean, often hotels reflecting the culture and/or unusual in some way but they are definitely not what they used to be when we started traveling with OAT.

The company does an excellent job of getting travelers up close and personal with people in the country where you are by school and orphanage visits, home-hosted meals and sometimes an overnight stay and trips thru local markets and villages. These are wonderful ways to really get a feeling for what it would be like to live in this country. The Tour Leader is a citizen of the country he is representing and shares his or her knowledge and love of country with you and/or the problems there as they see it. No topic is off limits to questioning.

We have traveled with many other companies but I would say OAT has a very good product if you prefer small group travel and you are physically able to take a little more adventurous trip. You will not be required to lug your gear or climb Mount Everest but you will have fun!

Thank you Roberta for your perspective of traveling in a small group with a tour guide.  I think what I took away from this is the difference between OAT and other tour companies in that you are welcomed into the lives and culture of the people of the land that you are visiting.  A more intimate visit than just wandering the streets.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica – Rain Forest Aerial Tramway Excursion

Our last stop on our eleven night cruise was at Puerto Limon in Costa Rica.  This was the only port that had a number of local vendors right at the docks in a huge tent.  I imagine that there is some government involvement as to who is actually selling their wares as all the vendors are wearing the same “uniform”.  Also in the tent you can get a pedicure, manicure and massage.  I’ve had a pedicure here twice!

I had been here before and had gone on a boat ride on the Tortuguero Canal, stopped at Bonita Beach, visited Dole Banana Plantation, saw cashew trees  and had lunch at an authentic restaurant on a bluff overlooking the harbor.  Since I had seen so much, I decided to stay on the boat (other than getting my pedicure).  Blogger Friend Susan did take an excursion and she has written about her aerial tramway tour in the Rain Forest in Costa Rica.  Here is her account:

Our day in Costa Rica dawned early and brightly. The sun rose as we pulled into port at Puerto Limon (San Jose) on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. After a brief rain shower, the sun came out and the temperatures were warm. It was not nearly as humid as it had been in Panama.

I was up early, excited to see a new place.   I had already packed my day bag with bottles of water, a hat, sunscreen, a few snacks, camera, binoculars and bug spray (which had been recommended.) Those going ashore on HAL excursions gathered in the Vista Lounge and waited to be called by group.   The cruise line offered quite a variety of day trips, as we were going to be in port for a long day.

I chose the Rain Forest Aerial Tram trip, which lasted over seven hours, for $124.95. We boarded a comfortable, air-conditioned bus right at the dock. Our guide Dennis was quite personable and knowledgeable. As we passed banana groves, pineapple fields, coffee plantations and views of the fog-covered semi-active volcano ranges; he gave us many facts about what we were seeing. Our driver Freddie did a wonderful job of navigating the potholes, truck traffic and narrow sections of road. Rain overnight and that morning had caused landslides in several areas. Our drive to the rain forest took almost two hours, but we were allowed to pass traffic on the “wrong” side of the road in order to meet our appointed time there. A baby sloth was spotted in one of the coconut palms, so we pulled over to watch it hang upside down.

Costa Rica is known world-wide for its progressive environmental policies and sustainability, and has a high literacy rate. The government has announced a goal for it to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country.

The Rainforest Adventures Atlantic activities can be found at www.rainforestadventure.com. It received Trip Advisor’s Certificate of Excellence.   Its property borders Braulio Carrillo National Park.

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Our bus of forty passengers was divided into two groups upon arrival. Half the group went on a 20-25 minute walk with Manuel, an enthusiastic guide. The path was clean, packed dirt or concrete with slight elevation changes. He stopped often to discuss the floor and sub-canopy species of plants. We heard many birds, and saw evidence of travel through the area by animals (most of whom are nocturnal.) If you did not want to walk; there was a shaded, covered area with benches to wait. There was also an air-conditioned gift shop with bathrooms conveniently nearby.

When we returned, we climbed aboard a seven person gondola for a 70-75 minute excursion through the canopy of the rain forest. Our guide Damien was thrilled to be able to show us several birds and butterflies, including the beautiful blue Morpho.

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The tram runs in two directions, one higher and one lower, so you actually see different layers of the rain forest. He pointed out and explained many different plants, bushes and trees at each level.

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A wonderful typical Costa Rican lunch awaited us on the patio. We had been encouraged to try to mixed guava/papaya juice and the white soursop drink, both of which were delicious. Buffet choices included chicken, rice, black beans, fresh fruit, salad and warm plantains.

As we awaited our shuttle bus back to the parking lot, a sloth and baby snake were spotted. What fun to watch the sloth right over our heads.

On our return bus ride, a pineapple, banana bunch and large cacao bean were passed around the bus. Trivia questions were asked and answered by our guide. Then Dennis came to each set of seats with a map of Costa Rica to orient us, and answer any further questions we might have. We were the last bus back to the ship, after a very informative day. I would highly recommend this excursion, and would love to return here to try the zip line and stay in the lodge!

Thank you for detailing your day and your excursion into the rain forest of Costa Rica.

Taking a Ferry Boat through the Panama Canal – an Optional Excursion

This post was written by Blogger Friend Deb who was on the Panama Canal cruise with me.  She and I both did different tours while in the Canal.  Here is her account of the ferry ride through the canal and the locks that they went through.

If you are only doing the partial transit of the canal on the cruise ship, I would recommend doing the rest of the canal on the ferry boat excursion (Canal Experience to Colon on Holland America ). Make sure you take binoculars, a hat, sunscreen, and wear cool and comfortable clothes. Water and other cold drinks are provided on the ferry boat, as well as a lunch of finger foods, small sandwiches, pasta salad, fruit, and a muffin. There was ample food and not difficult to carry to any place on the boat to eat.

We went ashore by tender in Lake Gatun after exiting the Gatun Locks. After a bus ride of about an hour or so to Gamboa, mostly on an expressway, we boarded the ferry, which was fully loaded. We were some of the last people on, and had to take seats on the top deck at the back and in the sun. I first thought we’d be stuck there all day, but once people stopped saving seats and staking out their territory, they began milling around, talking and meeting new people, it was not a problem. We got to see everything up close and personal and more down at eye level and on a different perspective than on the cruise ship. From Gamboa, we left Lake Gatun and went through the Culebra Cut past Gold Hill and under the Centennial Bridge to the Pablo Miguel Locks. Passing through the Pablo Miguel and Miraflores Locks, we were right up against the sides where we took pictures of each other touching the slimy green walls of the locks. Great fun! Exiting the Miraflores Locks, the trip continues past Balboa and under the Bridge of the Americas where we disembarked near Panama City.

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We were able to move around the ferry and even ended up at the very front of the boat with good seats. There were adequate toilet facilities on the ferry. It only got crowded again when we were close to getting off the boat at the Pacific end, and everyone crowded the stairs. We were bused through the out skirts of Panama City and then about an hour by expressway back to the Caribbean side where we re-boarded the cruise ship at Colon.

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The cost of the excursion was not cheap at about $170 each, but when you consider that we had a bus ride each way, a meal on the boat, and the boat had to pay a substantial fee to the Canal to transport through, it was probably not unreasonable. We thought it was well worth it to go through the whole canal, something we would do only once in a lifetime.

Cruising the Panama Canal

Excitement was building the night before we were to sail into the Panama Canal.  We were all asking each other what time we would be up in the morning and wondering how long it would take to go through the locks.  We actually went to bed somewhat early as I had set my alarm to 5:00 AM (yes, you are reading that correctly).  I had been on this cruise before and “knew” a few things that would be happening as we got close to the entrance to the Canal.

We were notified that the ship would be opening up access to the bow on the 4th deck for our viewing pleasure at 6 AM.  When we cruised last, we were there at 6 AM but it was already filled with people lining the rails.  I was not going to make the same mistake a second time – I wanted to be at the rails to get a good view of going through the locks and seeing the lines on the wall on the canal as water entered to lift us up to sail through the Gatun Locks.

The alarm went off and although I  it was really early we left our room and was out on the  bow at 5:20 AM.  It was BLACK outside – not even dusky but pitch black.  We did find a few spots along the rail and watched the few lights along the shore.  We were able to watch the sun rise over the Pacific (that is not a mistake – due to the curve of the Isthmus of Panama and that the canal runs in a north and south direction the sun rises over the Pacific and sets over the Atlantic ( Wikipedia explains it better than me).

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We were going to go through the left berth of the Canal.  The gates were closed as there was a ship already in the locks.  As we made our approach slowly, with the aid of tugs, we noticed around us that there was a road in front of the gates that cars and even school buses were on.  That is the only way that cars can cross the canal.  We were told by the speaker on the PA system that with the new canal, scheduled to open in 2017, that there would be a bridge over the canal.  When the locks are about to open, the portable road splits and each section of the road goes to the side.  Here is a picture of the road:

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As we watched the gates open for our passage, we could see the water from Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake ever, fill up the chamber of the lock.  Numbers are written on the wall of the locks for us to see it filling up.

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The ship was tied to the electric towing locomotives on either side of the canal in order to pull the large ships through the canal straight.  There isn’t much wiggle room for the large ships.

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After our chamber filled up with water, the gate opened and we sailed out to Gatun Lake.  From this spot on Gatun Lake, those of us who were taking an excursion were tendered to shore.  The Vista Lounge was the staging area for the excursions.  By now it was 9:15 AM, we had been up for 4 hours and still a long day in front of us.  I had my backpack with a deck of cards, bottles water, snacks that I packed from the buffet breakfast in my ziplock bags that I had brought from home and some cash in case I wanted to purchase souvenirs.  Blogger Friend Susan and I took the Panama Railroad to the Miraflores Locks and Observation Tower (this will be in a future blog) and Blogger Friend Deb took the ferry boat ride to the other end of the canal.  She has written about her experience and you can read that later this week.  So many adventures, so little time.

Enjoy some of my pictures from the morning.

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Boulders Beach, outside of Cape Town, South Africa

There are so many beautiful beaches in the Cape Town – some are known for their surfing and surfing lessons, others for their ambiance.  Boulders Beach is known for its thriving colony of African Penguins.  They are also called jack ass penguins because they have a donkey like braying call.  Perhaps I’m on a penguin quest but after seeing penguins in New Zealand last year, I felt that I needed to see the African penguin.

The drive to Boulders Beach is spectacular.  You’ll find this beach is nestled in a sheltered cove between Simon’s Town and Cape Point.  You have to stop in both of these areas.

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This colony of penguins began in 1982 and began nesting at Boulders Beach.  From that pair in 1982, there are now about 2,000 penguins.  There are two area in which you can see the penguins outside of Simons Town.  Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach are the places that visitors and locals go to see the penguins.  We were told to go to Boulders Beach where the penguin interaction is really quite incredible. There is a specific secluded area of the beach that we were told to go to.  Essentially you can be the only person with like a dozen penguins just like huddled around you looking at you from 4 feet away. It’s no zoo it’s just a beach with penguins. It’s really pretty amazing. The secluded areas are a lot more accessible for low tide which is something to consider if you do this.  What you do is to go past the signs for Penguins and take the next left turn where there is a sign for Boulders Beach.  You park your car and then walk to the admission booth.  After you pay your money you have a choice – either follow the sign for the beach or follow the sign for the boardwalk to the penguin viewing area.  If you follow the sign to the boardwalk, bring your receipt showing that you paid.  Blogger Hubby and our son, his wife and baby went toward the beach. Now these are huge granite boulders that you can crawl through, squeeze through and just continue walking back to the direction of Simons Town (to the left of the beach).

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You will end up on a beach where you may find (or not) penguins walking around.  Remember these are wild animals and I would not get closer than 4 feet.  You may have an opportunity to be on the beach alone with the penguins.  I will say when our family went, they only saw a handful on penguins.

I, on the other hand, decided not to crawl through the boulders and to stay on the boardwalk.  If you look closely as you are walking to the viewing area you’ll see penguins as well as large plastic jugs laying on their sides which are  nesting boxes.  I came to an area where I had to show my receipt that I paid at the other admission booth and was allowed in.  I went to the viewing are and there, on this sandy beach, were many penguins.  They were walking on the sand, walking toward the water, jumping in and swimming.  I couldn’t believe how many penguins were there.

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If you don’t want to have the option of the beach or the boardwalk and know that you want just the boardwalk, then turn off the road where you see the signs for the penguins, which is Foxy Beach.

Hope you enjoy some of our pictures from Boulders Beach and the African penguins.

Photo Essay of Kruger National Park

I hope you enjoy these photos that I took during our recent safari in Kruger National Park:

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Warthog greeted us at the Paul Kruger Gate

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Lions on the road made us wonder if we would get to Satara Rest Camp before the gate closed (we did).

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We learned the difference between white rhinos and black rhinos – these are white rhinos

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Magnificent elephants in their natural surroundings.

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This male kudu has such unique markings on his face – almost like war paint.  Love the length of his horns as well.

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An endangered Saddle Billed Stork – it stood about 5 feet tall!

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What a cute little monkey

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A pride of lions took down this Cape Buffalo and was able to finish him off in about 5 hours.  Hyenas ate the bones.