Category Archives: River Cruising

Arriving and Leaving Amsterdam – What we did and saw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

one of the signs I saw by the stalls

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

Look closely and you can see the houses leaning.

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

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

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

 

Cologne or Koln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Rudesheim, Germany by Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudesheim, Germany by Night

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

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

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All Aboard!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up, our day in Rudesheim.

Heidelberg, Germany – our 1st German market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strasbourg, France – the Oldest Christmas Market in France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Riquewihr, France – Our First Christmas Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMAPrima on the Rhine – our Journey Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Basel, Switzerland – Pre Cruise visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


One of the store window displays

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

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


Bought two of these stars to bring home.

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


A miniature ferris wheel for the children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

River Cruising During a Drought in Europe

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

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

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

Our original scheduled cruise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our altered itinerary was similar to this, excluding Hoorn

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

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

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

 

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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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.

River Cruising and Viking Cruise Line – Strictly My Opinion

For those who know me and ask my opinion about which river cruise line to choose when sailing through some of the European rivers, I’m quick to say “avoid Viking”.  I know, many of you have had wonderful experiences on Viking and when things go right, then they have many satisfied passengers.

The problem in my mind is when things do not go right, how does each river cruise line handle it.  After all, high water or low water affects all the cruise lines and they handle these problems differently.

Last year when there was low water on the Danube and a few other rivers, most of the cruise lines let their passengers know ahead of time.  Some of their passengers had “cancel for any reason” travel insurance and they were able to cancel their trips rather than be docked for most of their river cruise and be bussed to their ports.  These passengers said that they paid for a river cruise, not a bus trip.  From my understanding after reading all the different threads on Cruise Critic – River Cruising thread, is that Viking did not alert their passengers to the potential that they would have a bus trip or have to switch ships halfway through their journey.

Another reason, particularly when the rivers are low, that I do not like Viking is that their ships have a longer draft to them and therefore are deeper in the water.  Last summer when there was low water levels in the Danube, Avalon, AMA Waterways, Uniworld and other lines were able to complete the majority of their cruises without interruption but not Viking.

Viking is the largest provider of river cruises in Europe and you will hear more negative reports about them.  It seems that some of the common themes is lack of communication to their passengers alerting them to a problem or the potential of a problem.  Having high water (like currently in Europe) or low water (like last summer) is nothing new and all the cruise lines should have some notion of what to do and have alternate plans in place.  They generally do a good job except for Viking.

Found this article about the high water that is affecting many of the central European rivers.  Which which cruise line is having to make alternative itineraries and which ones are not.

I have cruised both Avalon (Rhine River) and AMA Waterways (Danube and shortly the Rhone) and I feel that they are both excellent cruise lines with very good reputations.

Have you done a river cruise and which cruise line did you sail on?  What was your experience?  Were you sailing during a “normal time” or one when there were problems with the water levels?  I’d love to hear your opinion.

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!

If you have enjoyed this blog, please consider following me and having my blogs delivered to your email address whenever I write one.  I’ve reached my goal of 500 followers and now I need a new goal of and I need you to help me reach my goal of 600 followers!

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.

The Romantic Danube Cruise Booked! Will you join us?

I have often written about my desire to sail on the Danube River.  After speaking with some friends, I knew that a few of them did as well.  The idea came to me to get a “group” together for this cruise.  The benefit would be traveling with friends as well as receiving a group discount of 5% off the fare.  To me that’s a win-win situation.

After weeks of research, reading countless reviews, looking at temperature charts (cooler in Prague, warmer in Budapest), when fares went up or down…I have finally made a decision and booked a cruise.

ama

I have booked with AMAWaterways which received excellent reviews from our travel agent and reviews I read about online. They offer both a land and cruise tour or a cruise only option.  This cruise is called The Romantic Danube.  They also offer The Legendary Danube but I liked The Romantic Danube’s itinerary better as it stops in Bratislava before ending in Budapest.

 

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The land/cruise itinerary would include three nights in Prague and begin on May 29th, 2015. When you arrive in Prague on the 29th you check into your hotel and have the balance of the day to get acclimated to Prague as well as beginning to get over jet lag. Your first  tour will take you to the historic city center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You will visit the 1,000 year old Prague Castle followed by walking over the Charles Bridge to the Old Town Square. That evening you will have an opportunity to go to an optional Folklore Dinner. The next day you have your choice of two optional excursions. You can visit either Terezin, the infamous Nazi WWII concentration camp that is now a memorial to those who perished or visit Lobkowicz Palace. Your last morning in Prague you will depart to transfer to the ship but on your way you will stop in Regensburg for a guided walking tour of one of Germany’s best preserved medieval cities – another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lunch will be on your own. You will continue on to Vilshafen, a 1,200 year old Bavarian town.

For those interested in the cruise only portion you begin your trip when you embark onto the ship in Vilshafen. Blogger Hubby and I are planning on doing the Cruise Only portion and doing Prague on our own. We can book through AMA Waterways seats with them to transfer from Prague to Vilshofen with the stop in Regensburg and the tour there.  That will run about $100 per person.  It’s nice to have the option to do Prague on your own as well as having transport to get to the ship.

We overnight in Vilshofen and are able to explore the city before we set sail for Passau. That afternoon we will have a guided tour of this 2,000 year old city noted for its Gothic and Italian Baroque architecture, cobblestone streets and St. Stephen’s Catherdral, home of the world’s largest pipe organ.

Passau Germany

We sail during the night and arrive in Linz, Austria home of the Linzer Torte. I know that I’ll need to find a bakery to taste (um, eat) some(lots) of them. We’ll have a walking tour of Linz which is the second largest city in Austria. Afterwards, we’ll have a choice of three different excursions. The first is to visit the Lake District in the scenic Salzammergu region, another UNESCO World Heritage Site; the second to the Czech town of Cesky Krumlov, a preserved medieval town nestled in the hills from the Austrian/Czech border. The final choice is to Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace where you will take a walking tour of the historic center made famous from the “Sound of Music” We’ve been to Salzburg so we will probably choose either the Lake District or the Czech town. Free time will follow this tour.

Once again, we’ll travel during the evening, going through the numerous locks on the Danube River. During the morning we’ll cruise through the narrow Strudengau en route to Melk where once again we’ll have a guided tour through to Benedictine Abby, Europe’s largest and most famous monastic site. We’ll return to the ship and cruise through the breathtaking Wachau Valley to Krems. In Krems we will board a motorcoach that will take us to Durnstein. We will see this picturesque old town on our walking tour as well as the blu facade of the local abbey church and the ruins of a castle where Richard the Lionhearted was once imprisoned. After dinner on board the ship we will enjoy a wine tasting from a winery in Krems.

Vienna – what can I say about Vienna. We will spend a full day here where we will see the famed Opera House, the Ringstrasse and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The afternoon is free to stroll and explore the city, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. You have an opportunity to take an optional excursion to Schonbrunn Palace. At night, you will have the opportunity to enjoy an optional Mozart and Strauss concert and then overnight in Vienna.

Next cruise stop is Bratislava, Slovakia and once we arrive we will have a walking tour that includes the Old Town Hall, Mirbach Palace, and St. Martin’s Cathedral. There is an alternative “Communist” tour that will include architectural landmarks as the Radio Building, Liberty Square and Soviet War Memorial.

This will be our last night of cruising as we sail toward Budapest. When we arrive we’ll see the Buda Castle which offers us a view of the river and the twin cities of Buda and Pest. We’ll go to the Fisherman’s Bastion, Royal Palace, St. Stephens Basilica and Heroes Square After dinner we will sail a special “illuminations cruise” past the illiminated river front of Budapest.

Finally, after breakfast, we will disembark. We plan to spend a few days in Budapest before heading home. Are you ready to join Blogger Hubby and me on this adventure?  Although we have group rates, we do not have to do things together but are a “group” in name only. Of course, if you want to have dinner, a drink or sit and chat with us, we would welcome it.

For the bicyclists amongst us, the boat does have 2 or 3 guided bike tours as well as having about 25 bikes on board for our use. WiFi is free as are the beer and wine with dinner. There is on board entertainment during the evenings as well though nothing like the ocean liners.

Please contact Michelle Bemis of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia to become part of our group at 703-762-5049. Please let her know you are with Jane’s Group. You can also email Michelle at Michelle@mccabeworld.com You can discuss where you would like your stateroom to be located (on a riverboat there aren’t any “bad” rooms”). For those who are thinking about cruising solo, there is a single supplement and our travel agent Michelle will go over with you the various costs and options.

Please be aware that staterooms go fast since there are only 164 passengers on this river boat. Already the suites and category A staterooms are sold out and we are more than a year away from the cruise. If you are thinking about it, my suggestion is to not delay in talking about it or thinking it.  There are only about 18 staterooms left.  Finally, please share this cruise with any friends you think might be interested in joining us. I think the more friends we have, the more enjoyable the cruise will be.

Leisurely Cruising on the Danube

 

Setting Sail – Traveling the Danube

If you’re thinking of trying something a little different for your holiday this year, then why not try a river cruise? The number of people cruising has risen dramatically in the last few years, with river cruising in particular seeing a huge rise in popularity – especially within Europe.

With a vast network of rivers, river cruising in Europe enables you to see lots of different countries and types of scenery all in one holiday. For example, a Danube river cruise passes through cities such as Budapest, Vienna and Bratislava, and flows through ten different European countries including Austria, Germany, Romania and Hungary.

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The Danube is  Europe’s second longest river, running southeast from the Black Forest in Germany to the mouth of the Black Sea in Romania and the Ukraine, through lush valleys, patchwork fields, historic castles, tranquil villages and spectacular cities, making a river cruise the perfect holiday for anyone wanting to see as much of Europe’s splendour as possible. Travelling through 2,000 years of history at a gentle pace, you take in the sights of the river that inspired Strauss to write the Blue Danube.

avalon1Starting at the source of the river in the wonderful German Black Forest, the Danube river cruise follows the meandering river up to the medieval towns of Regensburg and Passau before the reaching Austria’s picturesque Wachau Valley, where you have a chance to try some of the region’s best wines in the town of Melk. The next stop is Dürnstein, an enchanting town steeped in history with a ruined castle that was once prison to Richard the Lionheart!

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One of the highlights of the Danube is Vienna. The capital city of Austria, Vienna is celebrated as the ‘City of Music’ having inspired composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, and it’s treasures include the imperial Ringstrasse, and the ornate Hofsburg Palace and Opera House.

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Leaving Austria, the Danube travels to Slovakia, passing through Bratislava, before arriving in the capital of Hungary, Budapest. The imposing Parliament building and historic Matthias Church make the city a ‘must-see’. Downstream from Budapest is a beautiful Baroque town called Kalocsa, where visitors can purchase some of the towns ‘red gold’ – paprika.

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Serbia is the next stop on this tour of Europe, as the river brings cruise passengers into the atmospheric capital city of Belgrade. The home of Serbia’s film industry, it is a hotbed of cultural events with film festivals, theatre festivals, music festivals, book fairs and a beer festival taking place as annual events. It also boasts many museums such as the National Museum which is home to paintings by artists including Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.

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After leaving Belgrade, take some time to relax whilst traveling through some stunning scenery before reaching the Iron Gates, a gorge that forms part of the boundary between Romania and Serbia and separates the northwestern foothills of the Balkans and the southern Carpathian Mountains.

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The cruise then moves on down the river within easy reach of Bucharest, another capital city with a lively and historic air. Visit the colossal Palace of Parliament, home to both chambers of the Romanian Parliament, and the world’s largest civilian building, most expensive administrative building and heaviest building. The Danube, along with the cruise, finishes at the Danube Delta at the Black Sea, one of the least inhabited areas of Europe. The area is made up of wetlands; the habitat of some extraordinary wildlife.

If you’re not quite ready to leave the luxury of the river cruise behind you, there’s the option to extend your stay in Europe with a voyage from the Danube to the Main and Rhine rivers via the Main Danube Canal. The canal, completed in 1992, crosses the European watershed, running from Kelheim to Bamberg via Nuremberg. The breathtaking scenery continues with quaint villages and romantic landscapes as the Main merges with the Rhine, which takes you past Cologne and all the way to Amsterdam – an ideal destination for a few days to spend enjoying the city or the perfect transfer point for journeys back to the UK.

If you are interested in cruising the Danube with Avalon, clickhere and the link will take you to all the cruises that they offer on the Danube.  Of course, you might want to cruise another river so take a moment and look at all the offer.  As I have mentioned before, this was the line that we cruised the Rhine on a few years ago and had a wonderful time

Article contributed by Avalon Waterways, specialist in first class river cruising experiences in Europe and Worldwide.

NOTE:  I am trying arrange a group to travel on the Danube River probably in the Spring of 2015.  I am looking at all river cruise lines to get the best deal.  If you would like more information and might be interested in joining to group to hopefully get group rates, please leave a comment and when I have information, I’ll forward it on to you.