Mammoth Cave, Kentucky – one of our National Parks

Leaving rainy, cold and windy Lexington we headed on the road again to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.  It was so cold and rainy that we drove through the drive through lane at McDonald’s for salads to eat in the car.  We didn’t want to get wet or cold.

Before we left on our trip Blogger Friend Susan made reservations for us for two tours at Mammoth Cave.  Though reservations weren’t required, we didn’t want to drive there and find out that there was no room on the tours for us.  To give us enough time to drive from Lexington to Mammoth Cave, we chose the last tour of the day which happened to be the Dome and Dripstone Tour at 3:00.

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We arrived at 2:30 and walked around the visitor center.  The announcement was made for the tour group to meet at Pavillion B.  As I headed to the door, Blogger Friend reminded me that we were in Central Time zone and that they were actually calling the 2:00 Tour.  Shucks – we knew that Kentucky was in two time zones but we weren’t sure where the divide was.  We tried to get change our tickets to go on the 2:00 tour but they wanted to charge us $3 per ticket since we had ordered them online- we passed on that.  If we had purchased them there, there would have been no charge.  Instead, we walked around the visitor center, did our shopping and found that they and a very interesting exhibit and a few videos of the cave to watch.  Before we knew it, they were calling out group.

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We listened to the park ranger explain about the tour.  He told us that Mammoth Cave has over 400 miles of caves that have been explored to date – interconnected with each other making it the largest cave system in the world.  To get a visual, he said to imagine a bowl of spaghetti, turn it upside down and take the bowl off.  That’s what the cave system looks like in his mind.

He began to tell us about the tour and he said it was moderately strenuous and we would be walking briskly as well as a lot of stairs.  Wait a minute – that’s not the description that was on the website.  For the listed tours, they were rated easy, moderate, strenuous, very strenuous, and extremely strenuous. e said “moderate” meant moderately strenuous though that was not our interpretation. Also nothing had been mentioned about walking “briskly”.  Walking is not a problem but how fast or slow is briskly?  That was our concern as well.  We were also a little concerned since the other members of our 120 person group were high school FFA members (future farmers of America) and their sponsors.  Our ranger had us be the first two people in the line behind him.  We were driven to a cave entrance where we quickly descended about 280 narrow, windy (think spiral stairs at times) stairs to reach the cave floor.  One warning that should have been in the description is that it is not for the overweight or obese because of the narrow ness of the stairs against the rock walls as we descended.  At the bottom of the staircase were wooden benches for us to sit on while the ranger gave his presentation.  Afterward it felt like a race that we were always trying to catch up to the ranger.  It was much more than a brisk walk – it felt like a race.  We  weren’t the only ones having a difficult time keeping up with the ranger, the high school students were huffing and puffing as well.  There was no time to stop and take any photographs or admire the cave.  The was a second area that we could sit on and both Blogger Friend and I heard independent of each other that the ranger was going to “skip” part of the tour.  Toward the end of the tour was an optional climb down 50 steps to the Frozen Niagara.  We did not do this as we knew that we had walked down 280 steps and was saving our energy for the climb up.  We were very surprised that there was no stairs to climb to leave the cave.  If we had known, we would have gone down to see the Frozen Niagara.  Our tour was shorter than what was advertised and we were disappointed.  I have since read some reviews about this tour and a number of other people felt that it was rushed as well.  I would not recommend you take the Dome and Dripstone Tour.

The next morning we had another scheduled tour – The Great Onyx Lantern Tour.  Once again we had warning before the tour – whether you suffer from being in narrow places, dark places, walking in dimly lit areas.  Once again we looked at each other and decided to go ahead and do the tour.  We are so glad that we did.  Literally it was Night and Day.  Every 4th person received a lantern to carry, about 40 steps to go down into the cave.  This ranger took his time, always giving you geological and historical information.  He held us spellbound as he wove stories for us.  The caves were extremely wide and tall – a train could have fit in here.  There was plenty of light even though it was dim, for us to feel safe and secure.  Also, many parts of the tour had hand railings that you could hold onto. This tour I would recommend.

lighting the lanterns for our group
lighting the lanterns for our group
you can see how wide this cave is
you can see how wide this cave is
The nativity formation
The nativity formation

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P1040746Mammoth Cave no longer has the boat rides that they were famous for.  The explanation that we were given was that the underground river would flood and cause damage to the boats and to the docks.  They gave all their boats away to the Lost River Cave in Bowling Green, Ky.

There are many other tours to consider when visiting Mammoth Cave, about 15 minutes from the interstate near Cave City and Park City.  That night we stayed in the Holiday Inn in Glasgow, about 30 minutes from the cave.  This seemed like a good area and the restaurant recommended by our hotel, A Taste of Texas, was good as well.  It seemed like a larger city with more stores if you needed anything.
We left the cave and got back in my car and began our ride to Memphis – home of barbeque and Elvis!

We stopped for lunch and ice cream at Chaney’s Dairy Barn listed in the tour book as the best ice creme in all of Kentucky.  How could we not stop and try it out.  Our sandwiched and ice cream were very good.

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Credit Card Housekeeping – What’s in our Wallets?

Disclosure:  I do not receive any compensation from my links or discussions of the various credit cards.  I have and use these cards and the opinions, are mine and mine only.

The latter part of the summer and this fall seems to have gotten away from me.  We have been really busy and sometimes feel that I haven’t had time to take a quick breath.  I have fallen behind on keeping track of my credit cards and it stresses me out somewhat.   I like to feel organized with all the cards we have and feel good when they are organized.

We have applied for and received a few new credit cards and I hadn’t had time to add them to my spreadsheet or to even begin my spend on them.  We also received notice from our American Airlines AAdvantage Red Aviator credit card, which used to be the US Airways credit card, that our annual fee would be due this month for both my credit card and Blogger Hubby’s card as well.  What I really needed was to have a day of credit card Housekeeping and it is today!

First off was to call my American Airlines AAdvantage Red Aviator credit card to let them know that I was thinking of closing my account.  The reason that I gave was when it was US Airways, we received a companion pass.  I explained my dilemma to the first agent who then transferred me to another agent.  I told them my story again and explained further that I don’t use the card very often and I just didn’t want to pay the annual fee.  They offered to waive the fee as well as give me for 90 days triple points on gas, groceries and utilities.  SUCCESS!

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My husband then called and they offered him the same thing as well as an extra 5,000 points if he spent $1000 in the next 90 days.  This will be in conjunction with an offer he received in the mail, that I didn’t, about earning an extra 15,000 plus 1,500 miles earned if he spent $500 in November, $500 in December and $500 in January.  That promotion would give him 16,500 points.  The two promotions, I was told, would run concurrently so he would stand to receive 21,500 points for $1500 dollar spend.  I can see those VISA gift card purchases looming in our future.  Chalk this one up to another successful phone call.

Next up, my personal Southwest credit card.  There were no offers, no waiver of fees – they offered me nothing when I called yesterday.  Knowing the rule of HUCA (Hang Up, Call Again) I tried again today and still…..no retention offer.  Since I am auto pay and have a balance, once that is paid I’ll call again and have them transfer my credit limit to another one of my Chase cards.

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For Blogger Hubby’s SPG card, we just transferred his points to my account (mine is less than a year open) and once they are transferred, we will close his account unless they offer us some type of retention.  We’ll give it a few days after the transfer to make sure it happens before we close.

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I used to love Club Carlson credit card since it gave us a free award night when we booked a minimum of two nights.  We used to book two nights under my credit card and then two nights under Blogger Hubby’s credit card for a total of four award nights – it only tok points for two of those nights.  They changed the award program effective May 31st where you do not get the second award night free.  It is still a good program but we don’t need two cards anymore.  We called and transferred Blogger Hubby’s award points to my account.  After we saw that they were in my account, he called up and canceled his card.

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Last May I opened two Alaska Air credit cards through Bank of America and then a couple of weeks ago I applied, and was approved, for a third Alaska Air credit card.  I will close one of the first two cards in December.  What I have learned is that you can apply for a new Alaska Air credit card every 91 days.  After you are approved you’ll earn 25,000 points and will receive an annual companion pass from $121.  After having the card active for six months, then  will begin closing them while still applying for them.  Here is the link that I used.  I do not receive any compensation from Alaska Air or any other credit card company.

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That’s what I accomplished so far.  I need to go back tomorrow and look through other credit cards that I have.

Do you go through your credit cards and give them a tune up or as I like to say a Credit Card Housekeeping?  Tomorrow I’ll be going through the rest of my cards and will probably be making a few calls as well  Do you go through your credit cards to see if you still need them?  What cards do you need to add to your portfolio?

Lexington. Kentucky

We decided to spend our first night on the “Thelma and Louise” Road Trip Revisited in Lexington, Kentucky.  After driving seven hours through Virginia, winding West Virginia and part of Kentucky we made it to Lexington.  It was a beautiful day for a drive when the leaves in our area were at peak color.

We had made reservations at the Candlewood Suites at Exit 115 off I-64 in Lexington.  I was disappointed that it was in a small industrial park but the hotel was clean, we had a great room and the ladies that worked behind the desk were great.  When we asked where we should go for dinner that would be a local favorite and not part of a chain they immediately said Packette’s.  Sounded great and soon we were headed to the drive-in diner and restaurant that had been in existence since 1951.  They have 72 bays for  cars!  We also found out that it had been featured in the Food Network’s Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins.

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The ladies working at the hotel told us to make sure we had the fried chicken.  Parking out front is for the drive-ins and since we wanted to eat inside, we had to park out back.  We walked in and immediately knew that we had traveled back in time.  Chrome was everywhere, the old leather red booths and Pepsi Cola signs hanging everywhere.  The best part was our extremely friendly waitress Carla who was so helpful to us.  Chicken – well they pride themselves on being the original Kentucky Fried Chicken until a certain colonel came along and claimed that name.  It was delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

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Fried Chicken with Hot Brown fries. Mmm good!
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This is where we entered the restaurant but not where we ate. It sparkled and shined with all the chrome
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Red and white booths and walls with the glass Pepsi lights
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The famous Packette’s sign by the highway and a few of the 72 bays for the cars.

We woke up to a cold, windy morning with rain spitting down on us.  We drove over the the Kentucky Horse Park.

Kentucky Horse Park
Kentucky Horse Park

Not knowing much about it I was stunned to see all that was at the Park, which has been owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky since 1978.  We began outside admiring the different statues of well known horses such as Secretariat and Man o’ War.  A horses body is so interesting to me – how sleek yet how strong and muscular they are.

Secretariat
Secretariat
Man o' War
Man o’ War

We then went inside to the International Museum of the Horse and was able to only look around for about 15 minutes as it was time for the morning guided trolly tour.  We were in a horse drawn trolley and took a quick 15 minute tour around the more visited areas of the Farm.

15 minute trolley tour ride
15 minute trolley tour ride

We departed in time to catch the golf cart shuttle to go to the Hall of Champions where 4 different champions were brought out and introduced to us via television clips of their winning races.

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The horse that I was more familiar with was Go for Gin.  We also saw quarter standard horses that sulkies and another thoroughbred.

Go for Gin, the 1994 Kentucky Derby Winner
Go for Gin, the 1994 Kentucky Derby Winner

When that was over we headed over to the Breeders Barn where they have many different horses from all over the world.  We didn’t stay long as it was very cold, damp and windy and we needed to be somewhere else, but we saw Chincoteague ponies, Fells ponies from Scotland, a Chinese horse, and a Tennessee walking horse.

We wished we could have stayed longer as there is so much to see and do at the Kentucky Horse Park.  If I were to come here again, I would allow at least 5 hours, if not more.  We stayed off Exit 115 which is Newtown Pike and that was the perfect location to get to the Park very easily.

Next up on our Road Trip – Mammoth Caves and the two tours we took.

 

Road Trip Time

I know that I have recently been writing about our travels through Europe by plane and train but remember, the title of this blog is “Air, Land and Sea” so it only seems fitting that it’s time to write about a Road Trip.  I have a friend who is willing to go on a Road Trip with me.  We did one a couple of years ago through Charleston and Savannah and we were still speaking when we got back – or rather I should stay we were still friends when we got back as she had laryngitis.  Too much talking and laughing.

She wanted to go to the beach, I wanted to go someplace that I haven’t been before and after about an hour, we made our decision.

We are planning to be gone about a week give or take a day.  We will drive first to Lexington, Kentucky to see if any of the horse farms are open to visitors and visit the International Museum of the Horse.  I was told today that the road between Paris and Georgetown is beautiful and with the time of year that it is, it should be spectacular.

The next day we will continue touring a little and then head to Mammoth Caves.  Never having been there, I’m excited but was also disappointed to find that they no longer offer the boat tours through the caves.  We did go ahead and reserve a tour for Tuesday afternoon and then another for Wednesday morning.

After our tour and lunch we plan to continue driving to our furtherest point – Memphis!   have been looking forward to visiting Graceland for decades and that will be one of the first things we’ll do.  We also are interested in walking along Beale Street, eating really good BBQ, taking a riverboat ride on the Mississippi and also Sun City records where Elvis recorded some of his early hits.  We also want to go to the Peabody Hotel to see the duck walk?  What, you haven’t heard of the duck walk.  Follow this link and you’ll learn a little bit more.  Of course, I’ll take photos to show you.

Three days is what we have planned for Memphis and then we move on to Nashville on Halloween.  We had wondered what we would do on Halloween and we came up with a great idea – The Grand Ole Opry.  Now to get tickets – wasn’t easy a week before but we managed to score them and when I write about it I’ll tell you how we did it.  Lots of things to see and do in Nashville particularly if you are a country fan.

I’m hoping to add some more IHG property nights to my Accelerate promotion that I wrote about here.  I’m on a quest to get more points.

Wish me luck and I’ll keep you updated on our travels!

IHG Hotels and the Accelerate Promotion

Whether I have any intention of staying at a specific hotel brand or not, I always sign up for their promotion.  As much as I think that I know my travel plans, or lack of them sometimes, there have been instances where last minute travel opportunities arise and I wished that I had signed up for a certain promotion.

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I am working on the Accelerate promotion that IHG is sponsoring until the end of the year.  To participate you must first be an IHG Rewards Club member.  You can sign up here.  Once you sign up you can then go to the Rewards Club tab and find your offers.  You do have to specifically sign up for these promotions – it is not automatically done for you.

Some of you may not know what IHG Club or brand is.  IHG is the loyalty club for Intercontinental Hotels, Holiday Inn and all their various sub-brands (Express, Suites, Resorts), Crowne Plaza, EVEN, Staybridge, Candlewood, Hotel Indigo.

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Every person who registers for this promotion has different objectives to meet in order to complete all the offers that have been given to them.  I have six offers presented to me and in order to receive the 50,000 IHG points, I must complete five of the six. Remember, that your offers and mine will probably be difficult – yours could be easier or more difficult.  You do not have to complete all your objectives to receive points.  It is like stair steps in the sense that each step you take will give you extra points.  One of my offers was to have a one night stay and I would earn and extra 5000 points on top of the points that I earned just from staying at a Holiday Inn.

When I did this promotion a couple of years ago there were more points to earn and I wanted to earn them for an upcoming trip we had planned.  I would look for the least expensive hotel rates near Holiday Inns where I lived and book them.  In one weekend I had booked a Friday night and a Saturday night stay near Washington Dulles Airport where I lived since their rates went down over the weekend when business travelers were not staying there.  I went to the hotels, checked in and never stayed there.  You might be thinking that is a waste of money to pay for a hotel and not stay there but for all those points I earned, we were able to parlay that into a 3 night stay at the Intercontinental Hotel in Prague this year.  Since I also have the IHG credit card, I was automatically given top status and when we checked in, I was upgraded to an Executive Suite. Basically, the $54 dollars that I spent in the hotel that I did not stay in gave me this luxury hotel in Prague at no charge at all!  I have taught Blogger Hubby that spending a little money will reap its rewards later.  He’s become a believer.

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This is where I am though I do have three more nights that have not posted.  I have just fulfilled a weekend stay (while attending my Chicago Seminars) and I charged it on  my IHG credit card which means those two offers have been fulfilled.  To date I have earned an extra 10,500 points on top of those that I earned from staying at the hotel.

I hope you consider participating in a hotel promotion particularly if you travel or want to travel.  With these points my plan is to stay at the Intercontinental in Paris next year – I hear that it is nice there.

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EU 261 – Help for Those who Need Assistance in Making a Claim

Last week I posted about EU 261 which dealt with delays and compensation because of the delays from EU country to EU country OR flying on an EU carrier to an EU country from a non-EU country (like the United States) OR flying home from an EU country to a non-EU country on any airline.  If you want to read that post again, click here.

We had a seven hour delay which entitled us to the compensation of 600 euros.  I’ve heard from many people that it is difficult to get reimbursement from the US carriers.  They often deny that mechanical is a valid reason for getting compensation even though the EU Court of Justice did rule that mechanical delays allowed for compensation.

This weekend, as I attended the Chicago Seminars, I learned of a company that could help you out.  It is Get Air Help.  Your flight can go back three years and they will still work for you.  They gather all the paperwork and submit it to the airlines.  If they are still unsuccessful they will even take them to court!  Of course there is a fee and that is 25% of your reimbursement from the airline.

Howie, over at Frugal Travel Guy, wrote last week about another company Botts & Co, solicitors in the UK.  They will do the same as Get Air Help however their commission rate is 25 euros plus 25 % 27% of your reimbursement.  If you are awarded nothing, then you owe nothing to the company.

If you have been delayed and didn’t know to do anything or had difficulty with the airlines, you might want to consider one ofd these companies to help you get your legal reimbursement.

I have not dealt with either company and do not have personal knowledge but thought that I would pass the information on in case you want to learn about these companies and know that there is help for you.

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The Chicago Seminars

By the time you read this, I’ll be winging my way to Chicago for the Chicago Seminars known in my family as the Miles and Point Conference.  Yes, there will be hundreds of us (between 400 and 500 hundred) going to the seminar over two full days.  We will be  learning more about traveling, manufacturing your spending, using Expert Flyer, using ITA for flights, Best Rate Guarantees in Hotels, breakout sessions for the airline of your choice as well as the same for hotels from the bloggers you have grown to respect and follow.

This is my 4th year attending these seminars.  The first year I was completely overwhelmed and they were all talking a language that I was just learning.  The second year I felt that I was beginning to “get it”.  Last year I felt more confident.  I was beginning to recognize people that I had seen in previous years, made friends that I have stayed in contact with and I knew what to expect and I was actually able to participate by offering travel tips.

The conference, in my mind, is extremely reasonable in price.  It runs from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon and costs $100.  The Holiday Inn in Elk Grove Village is the host hotel and they do have overflow hotels.  I have been fortunate to stay at the host hotel for my past three years and will be there again this year.  I book immediately so I will be at the host hotel.  The hotel gives us a great breakfast and the conference fee gives us lunch whether or not you are staying at the hotel.  Sunday, when everyone is leaving, the hotel hires school buses to make sure everyone gets to O’Hare for their flights home.

I have learned so much at these seminars and feel like I am one of their biggest fans and supporters.

In addition to what they do for us, they also run a raffle with donated travel items and all the money raised goes to Wounded Warriors.  How great is this!

I urge you to consider attending next October.  Information usually comes out in May and I’ll write about it here.  I’ll have reports on the seminar in the following weeks.

Target Prepaid Redcard and VISA/MC Gift Cards

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but rumors had been floating that in some Target stores in different locales around the country  their registers were hardcoded so as to not accept gift cards which to load your Redcard with.   Loading gift cards that are pin enabled have become my favorite way of meeting minimum spend on credit cards as well as just manufacturing points.

Paying attention to those rumors I went yesterday to my handy dandy Target store to load two gift cards that I had just purchased at a Simon Mall. After trying numerous times, the clerk called over one of her managers and they as well had no luck in allowing me to load with the gift card (pin had been set to use it as a debit card).  She looked up in her clipboard for a memo or something that might explain it.  All she could tell me is that it is a computer glitch and they are working on it.  She didn’t know if this would be permanent or just a temporary snafu but I am betting on it being the way things are to come.

For those who have gift cards that have not been loaded on to your Redcard like me, I plan on going to WalMart and getting some money orders.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I went to Simon Mall for my gift cards.  They are the property owners for many, many malls within the United States.  At their information counter in the middle of the malls, they have a rack of gift cards though the VISA gift cards are locked in a drawer.  If you ask the attendant for them, you can purchase up to $1000 per day and the cost for each card is only $3.95. a few dollars less than what you would purchase them from in a grocery store.  Here is a link to the location of Simon Malls.  If you are in one, you might want to consider purchasing a couple.

As soon as I hear anything, I’ll let you know.

EU Rule 261 – Important if you Fly into or out of Europe

I’m going to take a little break from my trip report in Europe to talk about a different subject that may, at one time or another, affect you. That subject is a flight delay or cancellation while flying from an EU country to another EU country OR from an EU country to elsewhere OR flying into Europe on a EU carrier.  In my case I was flying from Milan via Brussels to Washington Dulles this summer.  Since I had a delay, I’ll be addressing that and will not write about flight cancellation.

BACKGROUND – We were flying on an award ticket that we had booked through United Airlines.  We flew from Milan’s city airport – Linate – at 6:30 AM to Brussels on Brussels Airlines and then we were booked on the noon flight on United Airlines to Washington Dulles with an arrival time in IAD at 3:00 PM.  While in Milan I was received  email alerts  informing me that our flight from Brussels would be delayed one, then two hours.  We arrived in Brussels around 8:30AM and after we went through security we went immediately over to the Passenger Assistance desk.  Interestingly enough, there were two lines there – one for Chicago passengers and one for Washington Dulles passengers.  When it was my turn, I was then told that the delay would be seven hours long!  Once I had processed that information, I then began asking questions.  Was there another flight that would leave Brussels before 7 PM?  I was told “yes” but it was through Chicago and it would arrive 30 minutes before my rescheduled flight.  I asked about flying into another city such as Boston, Philly, etc then taking a flight to Washington Dulles.  “No, there was nothing else”, I was told by the agent.

They offered us a 14 euro voucher for lunch, but not dinner and that was it.  We sat down and tried to strategize.  I powered up my iPad and found that there was a flight to Munich that would get me into IAD much earlier.  I got back into the very long line and by the time I reached the agent at the desk, it was too late to try and make the flight to Munich. in order to change planes to get to IAD.  I could have made it if they had rerouted us when I first approached the Passenger Assistance desk.  I expressed my displeasure that they did try to find other flights to get us home other than the one via Chicago.

Remembering that there was some rule about delayed flights in Europe, I asked the agent about it and they gave me a pamphlet about filing a claim.  Apparently they have to have the information on the counter but they don’t have to tell you anything or really answer any questions. Beyond that they were not helpful.

EU 261  – sets out the compensation that passengers will receive in the event of a delay or cancelation, or when they are denied boarding because of overbooking, or when the airline is unable to accommodate them in the class that they had booked their seat in.  You must be departing from any airport in the EU or arriving in the EU on an EU carrier or one from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland.   You must have a confirmed reservation and have checked in; your ticket was purchased at a fare available to the public and that includes an award ticket from a frequent flyer program.  You are not entitled to compensation if you are denied boarding on the grounds of health, safety, security or invalid travel documentation.

DELAYS – if your flight is delayed 4 hours from your scheduled departure, you may be entitled to compensation between €250 -€600 depending on the distance of the flight.

If you are within the EU and are traveling  1,500 km or less –  you are entitled to receive €250.  If you are traveling over 1,500 km then your compensation would be €400.

If you are traveling between the EU and a non-EU country and are traveling 1,500 km or less  then your compensation is €250.  If you are traveling 1,500 – 3.500 km then you may receive €400 and if it is 3,500 km or more then you may receive €600.

ADDITIONAL COMPENSATION – the airlines have to provide meals (vouchers for meals), two telephone calls , fax or email messages for you.  We were given phone cards that could only be used in Belgium.  As I stood in line, I heard the agent calling an elderly couple’s son in the United States to let them know what was happening.  If the delay causes you to spend the night, they will provide a hotel and transportation between the airport and the hotel.

If your airline offers  you an alternative flight with a similar schedule, the compensation may be reduced by 50%.

You also have a choice with either the above compensation OR reimbursement within seven days of the full cost of the ticket at the proce at which it was purchased for the part of your trip not flown

You may not be entitled to the compensation if the delay or cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstance such as bad weather.  This does not include mechanical.

WHAT I DID – I sent a message to United asking for compensation under EU Rule 261.  After two weeks I heard nothing.  I then sent another message and within a week I received an email from United Customer Care apologizing for the delay.  I was given two alternative options instead of the €600.  The first option was a $1000 voucher for travel on United or United Express for one year.  At first glance, the idea of each of us receiving a $1000 voucher sounded great.  We had another river cruise planned for next year however…..we could only use the voucher on United and we could get to Paris but we would either have to pay cash or use points to get to Marseille where we were staying before our cruise.  This is what we were told:

Travel Certificate(s), including but not limited to (1) the validity
period of one year from the issue date with no extension, (2) there
will be no refunds, (3) the Travel Certificate(s) will not be reissued
if lost or stolen, (4) the certificate may be redeemed for credit up to
its face amount only towards the purchase of an electronic airline
ticket(s), where eligible, from United, and (5) if the face amount of
the certificate exceeds the cost of the ticket for which it is
surrendered, any residual amount will be applied to the same Pin for use
toward another ticket until either the original issued amount is
depleted or the expiration date has been reached, whichever comes first

Our second option was 30,000 miles deposited into our Mileage Plus account.  Valuing each point at 1.5 cents, then this would be valued at $450.00, less than the €600 we were entitled to.

Upon further thinking, we had been saving up the miles in our account and as nice as the 30,000 points would have been, I think having €1200 in our pocket would certainly make our trip next year even nicer.  By choosing to not accept any of the alternatives, we have the flexibility to use the cash as we want, we aren’t locked into only using United Airlines – this is the best decision for us.

What I do now is to fax to them the signed form indicating what I am electing to so and it will be processed in six weeks. I will not receive a check but instead will receive a prepaid VISA debit card.

As difficult as it was sitting in an airport for about eleven hours, getting home at 9:00 PM, leaving the airport at 11:00 PM it is nice receiving some compensation for it.  It’s even better that we were on a reward ticket!  I’m sure that most requests for compensation do not go as smoothly as ours did, but we are very satisfied.

If you are delayed, save all your paperwork as they will ask you for your flight number and ticket number.  I also wrote notes to myself to put in my letter when I asked for compensation. I do not know if that helped or not but I am hoping that when they read that we were not offered other flights, that they could understand why we were upset.  Also, you have to apply for the compensation – the airlines are not going to voluntary come to you.  They do have to have information on the agents counter but they don’t really tell you what it is.  Be proactive, ask questions, save everything and research and file when you get home.

Remember, if you have a delay, cancellation, in a different class ticket than what you were booked in, involuntary bumping – there are compensations for you but you must seek them out.  The main exclusion to these is extraordinary circumstances (click on link for examples) such as bad weather and a list of other reasonable reasons why there would be a delay.

If you have received a denial letter from your airline because they consider mechanical delays to be extraordinary circumstance, know that they are wrong.  Send a copy of your letter seeking reimbursement and their letter denying your claim to the National Enforcement Body of the country you were flying out of or on whose airline you were on.  Here is a link to the list of the various enforcement bodies.

Have you been delayed?  Have you applied for compensation?  If so, what was your experience?

 

UPDATE – I was successful and received my prepaid debit card for $677 for both myself and Blogger Hubby.In this instance, it was not as difficult as I had been led to believe.  Thank you United Airlines.

Milan, Italy – How to Turn Lemons into Lemonade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Verona, Italy, Juliet’s Balcony and Aida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venice – St. Mark’s Square and Sightseeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you enjoy some of our photos of Venice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Budapest Zoo, the Local Train and the Overnight Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up – our arrival in Venice.

Budapest and the Central Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budapest – the Pearl of the Danube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – have you ever heard of it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our docking location in Bratislava

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, here are a few more pictures of Bratislava:

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Vienna, Austria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demel's in Vienna
Demel’s in Vienna

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

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

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

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

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

Next post – Bratislavia

Here are some more pictures of Vienna to enjoy:

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

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

Written by Blogger Hubby

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cruising Through the Wachau Valley, Austria with AMAWaterways

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

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

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

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Ice Cream social while cruising through the Wachau Valley

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

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

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The Weissenkirchen in the Wachau Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Melk, Austria and the Melk Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some more photos from the Abbey:

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

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

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

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

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Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up – Melk and their magnificent Abbey

Linz, Austria – AMA Waterways Cruise

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

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

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

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

The Plague Column
The Plague Column
close up
close up

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

Bust of Mozart
Bust of Mozart

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

 

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

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

Next up – Cesky Krumlov, CZ

Here are a few more photos of Linz:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cruising Down the Danube to Passau, Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Cruise Director Monika from Budapest
Cruise Director Monika from Budapest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a Few Days Off

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

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

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

Jane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Exciting Numbers About this Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few more pictures from the bone church

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

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

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

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

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

Our tour guide Milan
Our tour guide Milan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cornerstone in Kutna Hora
cornerstone in Kutna Hora

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

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

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

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Our Czech Cooking Lesson with Tereza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Arrival in Prague and What We Did – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Day in Nuremberg, Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings – KLM and Amsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More to come!

What I take on the Plane with me for an Overnight Flight

I tend to be a hoarder with my points and want to save them for Business Class tickets when we have long flights.  Our flight, on KLM, is under 8 hours and I did not want to waste points for that so…we are flying economy.  Even though I wish we were flying Business Class for a myriad of reasons, I just can’t justify it for this flight.

One of the things that I will be missing on our flight home (on Star Alliance) is the lounge since we will have about a 3 hour layover.  I do not have the Chase United Explorer which would give me 2 United Club passes a year.  Instead I went to DansDeals to the Buying/Selling forum and was able to purchase 2 lounge passes for $20.

Sitting as long as we will be, my ankle will get very swollen.  I went to our medical pharmacy yesterday to purchase a compression sleeve for my ankle.  I do have the knee high support hose but the top rolls down and they are very, very hot.  The sleeve that I have is open toed and goes just slightly above my ankle.  There was another one that was open heel and open toed and was much easier to get on though my thought was that it would give me less support and structure.  I’ll report back whether I made a mistake or not.

I have downloaded books to both my iPad (for me) and my Kindle (for Blogger Hubby).  They need to be preloaded in order for you to read them when there is no WiFi available or it is very expensive.  We’ll be reading for awhile and won’t run out of books.

I am wearing on the plane very comfortable pants, a short sleeve shirt with a sweater over it hoping I can find a comfortable zone.  I also have little knit slippers from one of my amenity kits to put on my feet to walk up and down the aisle of the plane – I have to take my shoes off.  I also bring a scarf as another layer or just a light layer over me.

I always wear my heaviest shoes and in this case it will be my running shoes (for me, it’s walking shoes) from Saucony.  I hesitated to bring them but we will be in some rain and my other shoes are more open on top and I thought these shoes would keep my feet drier.

I have Sjogrens Syndrome, an autoimmune disease,  and my skin,mouth and eyes are always dry.  In my CamelPak that I’ll bring on the plane I’ll have a bag of hard candies to suck on as well as eye drops to help my dry eyes.  I’ll also bring hydrating moisturizer for my face.

In my backpack, I will have all of our cords for our electronics and a small travel cord that I can plug multiple items into.  If we need to recharge our electronics, I’ll be ready.

I’ll also have in my pack my knitting and my smocking – need to keep my hands busy and flexible.

Have I forgotten anything?

Pre – Travel Preparation – a little old school for us

Yes, we are at it again.  We leave in a couple of days to begin our trip to Prague and then the Danube followed by northern Italy.

As I have mentioned before, we tend to be a little “old school” in that we take paper copies of confirmations, tickets, maps with us.  We have a 3 ringed flexible travel notebook with divider tabs to help organize ourselves.  We just spent two nights going through our notebook and updating our Excel spreadsheet of our itinerary.  The spread sheet is basically a condensed version of what we are doing, confirmation numbers, activities, lodging information, transportation info arrival/departure times, etc.

We have also emailed ourselves scans of our passports and wrote down all the international phone numbers of our credit cards (disregarding our banks instructions of writing down the actual credit card numbers).  Additionally we have ordered three different foreign currencies so we will have some money when we arrive in each country; notified our credit cards companies that we will be traveling and making sure that I only bring the credit cards that have no foreign transaction fees; also notified our Schwab Bank, whose no-fee ATM card we will be carrying, that we will be traveling.  I have reconfirmed all of our confirmations that are made with individuals, confirming the date, time and location of where we will meet.  I have down loaded onto my cellphone the Rick Steves audio walking tours of the cities/area that we will be in.  Finally, I have stopped our mail and our newspaper delivery.

Traveling in the spring I wanted (wanted, not needed) a new safety purse in a lighter color.  I went to my favorite bag retailer – Ebags –  and found just what I wanted.  Going through my Chase shopping portal, I received 8 points per dollar for my purchase at Ebags.

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What I really liked about this purse is that its heavy-duty water-resistant nylon bag features cut-proof Chain Link construction, it protects me from pickpockets with a lock where you main zippers are located so it can’t be easily opened, it has a cut proof chain link construction on the shoulder strap, it also has a RFID blocking card to prevent thieves from getting wirelessly our information from our chip enabled credit cards.  There is even a side mesh pocket for my water bottle.  If you are interested in this purse (and I do not get get a commission, just like to pass on what I like) you can go here.

While I was looking at my purse on E-bags I also decided to look at the packing cubes that  have heard so much about.  I really didn’t understand why everyone was raving about these cubes since I feel that I already packed very well.  I use ziplock bags, roll my tops to take up less room and feel that I “stuff” things in every nook and cranny that comes with having odd size items.  Nevertheless, I purchased a set of medium as well as small cubes.  Now that I have packed, I’m beginning to realize why travelers like them.  All my tops are in two medium size cubes, underwear in a small, accessories in another.  My pants are not in cubes. It is very easy to unpack as well as to pack again.  My suitcase looks a lot neater and Blogger Hubby thinks that I am bringing less because it looks so neat.  These are the cubes I purchased, again getting 8 points per dollar spent by going through my Chase shopping portal.

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I also purchased new shoes.  I ordered them Shoes.com (going through Chase also at 8 points per dollar) and as soon as I put them on my feet it felt like my feet were in feet heaven.  I kid you not!  The adjustable heel strap made sure that my narrow heel fit well in the shoe.  It also has a Velcro strap that goes over my foot which will come in handy with swollen feet (elastic straps do not work well for me).  Additionally it has a roomy toe box which is where I find shoes snug.  I put them on and felt like they were already broken in.  If you are interested in these shoe here is the link:

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To help me know what the weather will be like, and therefore what clothes to bring, I went to http://www.worldweatheronline.com  With their 10 day forecast I would plug in every city that we were visiting.  I also saw that I should bring an umbrella and raincoat!

Finally, with our daughter due to deliver her second child while we are traveling, I looked into finding and purchasing an unlocked phone (didn’t find one), and into the Verizon Global Plan to use on my phone.  All of our children have our itinerary with telephone of our hotels and the ship.

I think with all this, I am done and can relax.

Hope you enjoy this YouTube video about packing

 

 

Cruising Questions and Answers

Believe it or not, I have had about 10  different people ask me questions about cruising within the past week.  Although there are different types of cruising (ocean cruising, river cruising, barge cruising, etc) the questions were asked of the big cruise lines which ply the waters of the Caribbean, Alaska and the Mediterranean.

I was first asked how how to choose a cruise line and this may be the most difficult.  Each cruise line, in my mind, has a different reputation and yet that is somewhat subjective and there are always exceptions primarily because of itineraries.  I feel that Carnival has a much younger crowd, particularly when sailing in the Caribbean.  The twenty, and thirty year olds tend to hang out around the pool all day long and it can be difficult getting a chair.  Drinks flow freely and they are all having a good time.  Royal Caribbean, again in my opinion, tends to be more thirty and forty year olds, and again for Caribbean sailing, all the action will be around the pool.  However, for both of these lines, when not sailing around the Caribbean, it can be very different, a little older and not quite as lively as the what you would come to expect on the Caribbean.

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Celebrity and Princess, again in my opinion, tends to be more of a middle age/young seniors cruising with them.  Princess made a name for itself on the Love Boat television show and that one show probably is responsible for sparking the interest in cruising among the younger than senior generation.  I am also of the opinion that Princess is the cruise line that developed Alaska for cruising.  They have wonderful lodges if you opt in for their pre or post cruise land portion .  We cruised with Celebrity on our Eastern Med cruise and we thoroughly enjoyed it – not sure if it was the 100 plus people that we met through Cruise Critic Roll Call and we very very tight or because of all the on board lectures that we could attend to hear about our upcoming ports.  They also had, on the Equinox, a glass blowing demonstration every day from Corning Glassworks.

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Finally, Holland America which in many reasons is my favorite cruise line as well as being known as the geriatric cruise lines.  Yes, there are lots of seniors in wheelchairs, scooters, etc but there are also many younger people in their40’s, 50’s and 60’s.  They have an on board kitchen where you can sign up for small classes cooking instructions and demonstrations.  We do enjoy that.  They are also know for the large, and at times rowdy Team Trivia where you will have about 200 very competitive trivia experts vying to win little Holland America pins, trinkets and bragging rights.

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Once you have narrowed down your choices, then I highly recommend putting your trip out to bid.  Contact an online travel agency, a brick and mortar travel agency and the cruise line.  See what they offer you for the fare, the On Board credit, whether their On Board credit will go down if the price ofd your cruise goes down.  Do they print out your documents or do you need to do it.  Do you want to pick out your stateroom (which I highly recommend looking at deck plans – what is next to you, across from you, above you and below you) or do you want them to do it for you.  Another tip:  once you decide on your stateroom, google it and see if there are any reviews on it.  For those who cruise and are very familiar, you may not need a lot of personal attention but for those who are unsure and need their hands held, you might want a travel agent at a brick and mortar.

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Once you book your cruise you still need to do work.  Your travel agent most likely will not check to see if the price has dropped – you need to do that and you can by signing up with Cruise Fish (which I use) or Cruise Fare Monitor.

Look at the ships you are interested in, do they have an indoor pool or an outdoor pool that has a retractable roof (like Holland America)?  Are you interested in computer classes – some cruise lines have it.  Do you need a rock climbing wall, enhanced pool activities?  What are your needs – knowing that you’ll be more confident in choosing your line.

If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comment section then come back to read the response.

Happy Sailing

Trains in Europe

I’ll be honest….we don’t have much experience with  train travel in Europe.  We have taken a train from the cruise port into Rome as well as from the airport in Amsterdam into the city and then a local one for a day trip from Rome to Sienna and from Florence to Luca.  We have wanted to expand our train travel experience – the kids seem to do it all the train and if they could, why couldn’t we?

With our upcoming trip we will be taking a bus between two locations as well as several trains including an overnight train. We need to be in Prague and I just couldn’t find a flight on the date that I wanted however, there was a flight to nearby Nuremberg and that is what we are going to do.  We fly overnight on KLM and will be able to spend the day in Amsterdam.  A short train ride into the city and we’ll enjoy strolling around, sitting at some of the outdoor cafes and I hope being able to visit the Rijk Museum since it was closed the last time we were in Amsterdam.   Later that day we’ll take a commuter hopper flight to Nuremberg.

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We have booked a hotel room at a Holiday Inn Express that is near the train station.  After doing a little touring during the morning and afternoon we’ll get on a bus to Prague.  Bus travel wasn’t something that I had thought of until it was suggested to me by members on Trip Advisor.  Apparently the bus has a direct route to Prague while the train is longer since there is a change of trains with a layover at one of the stops. So, we are doing the train.  We purchased our tickets online from a Czech site to save money.  It was suggested that we do that since the Germans tend to have transportation strikes and we didn’t want to risk it.

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Our cruise on the Danube finishes in Budapest and after we spend some extra time there we’ll head to Venice.  This is where our real dilemma happened.  Do we take the night train from Vienna to Venice or do we take the ten hour train ride during the day and see all the beautiful scenery?  After going back and forth we decided that we wanted the extra time in Venice as we had only scheduled two nights there.

 

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After we leave Venice, we’ll be on the final leg of our trip but still more train rides to come.  We’ll take the train from Venice to Milan with perhaps a stop in Verona to see the famed, but fake, Juliette balcony in Verona.  Once in Milan we’ll be taking regional trains to go up to Lake Como and Lake Maggiore and, if I can talk Blogger Hubby into it, the World’s Fair in Milan this year.

We are fairly new to train travel and we could not have done all this without the help and guidance of Mark who is known as The Man in Seat 61   All he asks for all his help is a donation, if you can, to UNICEF’S Syrian Appeal.  He knows train travel all over the world and is willing to share his knowledge and expertise.  Not only did I read his blog but I also emailed him more than a few times.  He told me how far out I should purchase the tickets from, which sites and about how much it would be.

What has been your experience use the train around the world?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about Cape Town to come!

 

A Change has come to Club Carlson

I’ve touted in the past my love of the Club Carlson VISA credit card and all the benefits that come with it in particular a free award night when you book a two night stay using your points – book the two nights and only pay for one night with points – the second night is free!  That benefit is going away the end of May, 2015.

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With that in mind I’ve been trying to anticipate some of our travel and booking hotel rooms to be grandfathered into the existing benefit.  I know that we are going to be taking another river cruise next year on the Rhone and we will spend some time in Lyon and Paris.  Unfortunately the Radisson in Lyon is under construction and will not be open.  I was able to book two nights under my name at the Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Hotel.  These stays are for September 2016 !  I still have more points in my account and will need to spend some more time thinking of where we could possibly go before May 31st so I can book them under the old system.

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What are you doing with your Club Carlson points?  Have you made any reservations knowing that the benefit is going to be changing?

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC

Living outside of the Washington DC area, we were fortunate that we were close enough to take advantage of all that Washington has to offer.  When we first moved to the DC area from Boston, I didn’t think we would be there for twenty six years so we made an effort to do it all.  We went white water rafting in the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (the town made famous by John Brown capturing the federal armory).  We took our children to roll Easter Eggs on the front lawn of the White House.  There isn’t a museum that we haven’t been too in DC and for many years we were FONZs – Friends of the National Zoo.   Being a Bostonian, to me there was nothing  as spectacular as being on the Esplanade for the 4th of July listening to Arthur Fielder or John Williams leading the Boston Pops in the 1812 Overture with the Howitzer cannons firing across the river that is until……we stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial watching the fireworks that were illuminating behind the Washington Monument.  The booms of the fireworks reverberating against the buildings, flags flying and all many of our country’s landmarks all around us.

I could go on and on about Washington but that is not the purpose of this post.  Rather, there is another event which doesn’t garner as much attention but is a favorite of our family.  It is the National Folklife Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.  This cultural and educational event  is held outdoors on the National Mall the last week of June and the first week of July.  The festival is ever-changing since they choose a country, a state or even one year The Silk Road to highlight.  The day is full of demonstrations of cooking, traditional crafts (woodcarving for example), living traditions  and usually some type of entertainment.  There will also be events and exhibitions at other Smithsonian museums and it is recommend that you will allow time to visit those.

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This year Peru will have the honor and distinction of being the main focus of this festival.  Due to some construction on the Washington Mall, the event will be held in front of the National Museum of the American Indian, one of the Smithsonian museum’s.  According to their website “visitors to the Peru Festival program will experience these unique connections through cooking and craft demonstrations, music and dance performances, moderated discussions, ritual and celebratory processions, and other participatory activities. In addition, there will be robust involvement with Peruvian American and diaspora communities.

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The public will have the opportunity to learn, to eat, to dance, to shop, to witness these vibrantly connected cultures and create their own connections with Peruvian artists and specialists on the National Mall and beyond.

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Don’t forget to stop at the Marketplace to view and possibly purchase unique gifts and at the same time support artists and artisans from around the world.  Some of the items you’ll find for sale are

  • Jewelry
  •  Music CDs
  • Textiles
  • Books
  • Baskets
  • Toys
  • Pottery
  • Sculpture
  • Clothing
  • Paper arts

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This is a great opportunity to combine two events at the same time in the Washington DC area – the 4th of July and the Folklife Festival.

It WILL be hot and humid in DC at the time so be sure to bring water with you and take it easy.  There are many things to do inside as well as outside.

Target RedCard Primer for Newbies – how to Manufacture Spending for Points

UPDATE:  This is, unfortunately, no longer available.

It seems that lately a lot of people have asked me about how Blogger Hubby and I are able to travel as we do.  Between credit card sign-ups, shopping through credit card shopping portals  and knowing bonus categories for each of our cards we do pretty well.

I do like to make sure we have enough points by doing what is known as manufactured spending (MS).  The Target Prepaid  Redcard (pictured below), affectionately called Redbird certainly helps us and it can help you to travel the world for almost free by racking up frequent flyer points/hotel points.  It is so easy and I often wonder why more people don’t do it.  Really, it’s that easy.  In addition, when you use it at a Target for purchases, you get an automatic 5% off your total.  That’s a WIN – WIN proposition for me.

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Get the right card – Target has several cards (credit card, debit card) but the one you want may not be in YOUR Target as it is still be tested in several markets throughout the country.  It has to look just like the one pictured below.

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Locating – To find the nearest Target to you that sells the Prepaid Redcard, please refer to this map.  If there isn’t one near you, you might be able to purchase one on Ebay or find a friend who does live near a store that sells them and have them get a card for you.  You can load them at any Target store even stores that do not sell them.  I have heard that you cannot load them  in North Carolina if the store does not sell them but I have no personal experience.  If you look at the map you’ll see that there are several Targets in  North Carolina that do sell them.

Purchasing – When you go to Target you are purchasing a temporary card.  In purchasing it, you need to activate it at the store.  The register will ask for your social security number and you can put yours in or a fake number – at this point it doesn’t matter but it will later on.  You should load it with some money – either cash, debit card or credit card.  Even though it says you can only load it with cash, you CAN load it with a credit card, debit card, VISA or MasterCard gift card or cash.  When you load it with your credit card, you are earning points on that card.   You will not be able to reload till you have registered it online though can can reload once registered but before your permanent card arrives in about a week.

Loading your Redcard – I use either a SunTrust debit card which gives me Delta points; any of the Chase cards that I have which give me hotel or airline points; and any of my American Express cards where I can earn Membership Reward points.  I find that I’m using my American Express SPG (Starwood) card more frequently because  I can get Starwood status based on my spending and their points are very valuable.  I have also used VISA or MC  gift cards that I have purchased at grocery stores (where I get 5 x points with certain cards).  With some gift cards I have to set a pin first though with others I just make one up the first time I use it.  You can always call the number on the back of the card to change a pin if you want to.   HINT:  you might want to let your credit card know that you will be making a large purchase at Target otherwise it might trigger a fraud alert.  If, when you try to load money on your credit card, it gets declined, wait a minute and see if you get a text message from your card asking you if this is your purchase.  There is no fee to load money onto your card.

 

Registering your card on your computer – You cannot register a Prepaid Redcard if you have an active Bluebird or Serve account.  They must be closed first.  You are allowed one Prepaid Redcard account per social security number.  At this point you will need to go to a computer and register your card on the website.  Here is the link for it.  You must use your social security number – no fat fingers allowed.  You and your spouse can each have one and your children can have one in their names as well.

Lately a lot of information has come out as to how to use and load your Redcard.  Previously I was loading about $1000 per visit but then it was suggested that I do odd amounts so that it wouldn’t look suspicious as to what I was doing.  Now I am loading $912.56 or $869.44.  It was also suggested to not just pay your credit card bill that you used to load your card with online but use it for other purchases.  Now when I go out, I’ll use this card as a debit card and pay for my small purchases.

ATM – Lastly, it was also suggested to use the card at an ATM.  That I hadn’t done but was successful in doing it today.  Yesterday I tried using it at my bank and it kept failing.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted the withdrawal from my credit card or checking account.  I tried both and it still failed.  Last night I did a little research and found that I could only do it at Allpoint ATM’s.  There is no fee to use the Allpoint ATM machine.  I found where they were located and one was in the 7/11 near my home.  When I walked in the ATM said it was Citibank – didn’t see anything that indicated that it was Allpoint.  Nevertheless, I inserted the Redcard, typed in my PIN, indicated that it was coming from a checking account and put in the amount that I wanted to withdraw.  Again, no fee.

Fees and Limits – For a list of all the load and withdrawal amounts, please follow this link.  You find out how much you can load per day/per month as well as withdrawing.

Remember the family that loads their Redcards together,  flies together!

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them.  I’ll do my best to try and answer them

Airlines Make Changes and You Need to Be Aware of the Changes!

Last October I had booked a one way award ticket for Blogger Hubby and myself home from Milan after our river cruise.  We are going over on KLM using my Membership Rewards points and coming home on Brussels Airlines using my UR points that I transferred over to United.  I was ready excited about trying Brussels, particularly their  transAtlantic flight.

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In the course of updating my Excel spreadsheet on my credit cards and points, I went to the United website to see how many points I had through my Mileage Plus Account.  While I was there, I “reviewed” my reservation.  The reservation looked fine.  My first flight from Milan to Brussels on June 16th was there, the correct date and time.  The second flight was right underneath it from Brussels to IAD with the correct time but wait…..it was for the June 15th – the day before.  “How did this happen?”, I wondered.  I was the one that made the reservation.  Had I made a horrible mistake?  As I thought back to the night that I made the reservation, I had remembered that I did it on the telephone as this was a reservation that I was unable to book online.  Surely, the United agent would have caught that mistake.  What happened?  I hurried to tell my husband about the mistake.  As I am telling him, I’m also beginning to mentally wonder if there are any seats left on the day we need to fly.  Blogger Hubby, ever the calm person, goes to our travel folder (see this post) and pulls out our printed copy of the reservation confirmation that United sent me when I made the reservation.  It clearly showed both flights on the correct day.  Times I this make me appreciate us having a paper copy of our confirmation.  Now I’m realizing that a change has probably happened but can I get the flight back?

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I called United and spoke to an agent who pulled the reservation and saw that there would be no way for me to make the connection in Brussels (as my kids would say, duh!) the day before I was leaving Milan.  Apparently Brussels Airlines had made a change and they now do not fly to IAD on Tuesday.  Since both legs of the flight are with them, why did they leave me with a connection that I couldn’t make?  There was no communication between us and them, no indication that there had been a change – I heard nothing and was totally taken back by this new itinerary.  We kept saying that we’re so glad that I caught the change otherwise it could have been the day of departure in Milan when we caught it.

While I was on the telephone with the United agent, I was pulling up the United website and looking at what was available for our flight home on the correct day.  I did not see any award seats available from Brussels.  My thought would be that they would change my entire itinerary and have me fly to Munich or Frankfurt and then flying to IAD from there.  Luckily the agent working with us was able to force open two seats for us from Brussels to IAD.  Although we’ll have a longer layover over in Brussels (3 1/2 hours versus 90 minutes) we still get to fly to Brussels, Belgium.

My message to you is to check your reservation, line by line, date by date, flight by flight and times as well as the time between flight.  Have you found a mistake like this on one of your flights?

United worked diligently to solve this change and opened up seats that were not previously open even though this change was nothing that they had done.  I merely had booked the Brussels Airline flight through them.

Now it was time to “fix” the problem.  As I am talking on the telephone to the agent, I’m also pursuing the United website seeing what is available.  I didn’t see anything from Brussels.  The only possibilities was to change our first flight from Milan (LIN – the city airport) to a flight leaving out of the international airport and going to Munich or Frankfurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gift for Travel Photographers – or for yourself!

I don’t know if you are anything like me but sometimes I don’t like  gift giving.  I guess I should qualify that statement and say that  I really do love giving gifts.  I love seeing the joy when a gift is a hit, the excitement of something random that is just what they want.  This is what gift giving should be like but most times it’s not – it tends to be a nice gift.  Most times  I stress too much about what to buy, is it something they want, does it fit their style, does it fit, etc, etc, etc.  This year I found the PERFECT gift for our son.  Here is the story about the gift – now stay with me because you may like this gift as well.

Blogger Son #1 has a great eye for photography.   He is our family photographer photographing the babies that have come into our family, engagement photos, candid wedding photos, and all family gatherings. He has been in art shows with his photographs, he is a published photographer for two cookbooks and wrote a travel blog about his travels around the world told in part through his photographs.

When you think of travel photographs what do you think of?  For me I think of all the beautiful photographs that the National Geographic photographers have taken to grace their articles and magazines.  Many people have commented to Blogger Son #1 and to me that he should submit some of the photos to Nat Geo but he hasn’t yet.

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I read on the National Geographic website  that they have seminars for amateur photographers.  They have half day, full day and a weekend long seminar this year.  They offered different themes in different locations around the country.  Some of the themes that they offered are Creative Travel Photography, Adventure Travel Photography, Nature and Landscape, People and Cultures, Photographic Eye, Storytelling Photography, and stories from actual National Geographic Photographers telling the stories of how they were able to capture some of those images which we are all familiar with that have been on the covers and pages of National Geographic.

Knowing this and seeing where the locations were made my Christmas giving easier for me and a great gift for our son – there was even one in the city that he lives in!    We typed up a certificate offering him either two half day seminars or one full day seminar.  If he decided to travel to go to these seminars, then he would be responsible for the travel.

Each seminar has a different photography focus and I wanted  him to find the one that best suited his needs.  He chose “Creative Travel Photography”.

If you want to give a gift of photography or if you would like to improve your photographic skills or take them to a different level, please go to this link for  National Geographic  and find the seminar that holds your interest.

Here are a few of the pictures that he has taken during someof his travels.  I hope you enjoy them and if you want to look at more or perhaps purchase some, please go to this website.

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Puerto Limon, Costa Rica – Rain Forest Aerial Tramway Excursion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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