Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Wrap-Up

Once again, I have gone to sleep too early and awakened around midnight.  I lay there on the couch trying to get back to sleep, remembering that I did not do my entry for today yet.  I started thinking back over the trip and thinking of all the wonderful things about it, and the few things I wish were better and I decided to do a wrap up.

First of all, I think it would be difficult to travel with anybody but Viking.  We have been so spoiled on all three of our trips.  The crew takes care of literally everything from the time you land in the country until they leave you at the airline counter to return to your own country.  

I love being welcomed aboard ship with a hot (or cool) towel, a cup of hot chocolate, a glass of juice or some other little surprise.  You are made to feel special from the very beginning.

All the wait staff, in the dining room and in the lounge, make an effort to learn who you are and what your preferences were.  I think Walt's eggs benedict order was placed the minute our waiter Milos saw him walk into the dining room. 

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(We sat at the table almost to the very back of the room)

The variety of food was very good and at breakfast and lunch, you could order your meal from your waiter, or you could go to the buffet...or both (get pancakes or eggs benedict from the waiter and sausage, fruit, and cereal from the buffet).

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The Viking Freya is one of I think four "long boats" added to Viking's fleet this year.  It was a lovely boat, but sometimes it seemed a long "longer" than I wanted to handle, as we were in the second to last cabin.

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Viking offered a variety of educational and entertainment opportunities, from the wonderful concert in Vienna to the apple strudel demonstration on the ship and everything in between.  There was a nice balance of fun and "lecture," like Henrietta's costumed lecture on Mozart, a talk on the waterway through which we were traveling, and a very user-friendly lecture on the European union.   I overheard a woman from Texas talking about our evening of light operatic music, saying "I don't usually listen to music like that, but I thought it was real purdy."

My complaints about Viking are so few as to be laughable.  My principal complaint was that while there is always someone, lunch or dinner, with a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine in hand ready to refill a glass the instant the level starts to look low, there is less attention paid to those of us who prefer water and it was a constant struggle at each meal to get a second glass of water.  I got testy one day and ordered a beer and grumbled to our waiter that it was easier to get a beer than a glass of water.  An indication of how much Viking cares about its passengers was that after that, they really seemed to be trying to keep my water glass filled.  One waiter (Vess) seemed to always be at my elbow saying "I know you like to drink water." I appreciated his attention.  Another waitress (Rose) saw me sitting alone at the Taste of Germany lunch and made a special effort to come and ask me if I needed any water.  I almost felt guilty for being so grumpy before.

I also was disappointed in the in-room entertainment.  While you don't take a cruise like this to watch TV or movies, the video system was terrible.   Sometimes you couldn't get any station, sometimes you would choose one station and another one would be the only option.  Often the picture froze.  When it was working, it was very good, but ultimately during alone-times in the room, I would read instead.  

The biggest video disappointment was not being able to watch the Olympics opening ceremonies, which we had been promised we could do in the lounge.   After a long time, they finally got the video working, but could never get the sound.  I was surprised that they had not tested it out ahead of time.  One guy stood for about 10 minutes at the screen, with a remote in hand just looking at it, as if trying to figure out what else to try. I was wishing my son, the video guru, had been along for the evening!

This trip was quite different from Russia and China.  In Russia we were seeing it from the "back side," meaning that almost every place we visited was tiny and unique and not a place you would be likely to drive to if you visited the country.  In China, we spent as much time flying as sailing and stayed in hotels as much (if not more) than we stayed on the ship, so we were seeing it from a different perspective.

On this cruise, we were sailing on the rivers and visiting the old parts of major cities (like Vienna and Cologne).  There was always the sense of wanting more.  Not nearly enough time in Vienna, for example.  But I looked on this cruise as kind of a catalog of neat places to see with the idea to go back on our own later for a more leisurely time.  I enjoyed the actual sailing part as much as the land excursions.

In China we had the same guide from the time we arrived in Shanghai until we left Hong Kong.  On this cruise we had a different guide for every excursion.  Some were great (especially Erwen in Cologne), most kept a pace that I could follow.  The only time I was left in the dust was at Kinderdijk where the guide was so far ahead of me within minutes that there was no way I could hope to catch up, but it was the kind of place where one could drop out and explore independently.

We have become very spoiled.  Viking takes such good care of us and offers such a variety of experiences that it's almost scary to think about going with another company.  We are running out of places to tour with Viking but there are still at least three other tours that I would like to take...by then we'll probably be too old to cruise anyway!

Monday, July 30, 2012

What Time Is It?

Well, if you want to know, it's 2:30 a.m. where my physical body is located.  Not sure where my brain is at present. We arrived home at 4:45 yesterday afternoon, sat down to watch Beaverbrook at 6, and I was asleep before 15 minutes had passed (not a review of the video itself!).  I don't know why.  We had only been awake for about 20 hours.  I moved to the couch at some point, thrilling the dogs, and was awake after 6 hours (confusing the dogs), which puts me in the middle of the Pacific Time Zone.  But it's going to be a couple of days before body time zone and actual time zone are in sync, I suspect.

Toward the end of yesterday's entry, I said "So my trip tale is done (except, of course, for whatever disasters befall us on the trip home tomorrow!)." 
Prophetic words!

The day started at 3 a.m. with a call from my buddy Gabor, the night guy at the front desk of the Viking Freya, with whom I had a waving relationship every night when I trudged to/from the ship computer at 2 a.m.  By 3:30 our bags were out and at a bit before 4 we were in the front with Branislav waiting for the taxi driver.  To our delight, Kitch came down to say goodbye one more time.  He and Joyce became such great trip friends and I hope that we continue to stay in contact.

The cab arrived and we trudged out to the van and said goodbye to the Viking Freya.  The cab driver gave us a quick driving tour of Amsterdam...hard to see much of anything except the red lights on the windows of the red light district, where even the prostitutes had closed their curtains and were (presumably) sleeping.
Branislav helped us with checking in and then left us standing in a long line to check our baggage. Our latest Viking relationship had officially ended. I couldn't believe how many people were waiting and how Lufthansa had ONE clerk to check us all in!

Eventually we were checked in and walked, I swear, a mile to our gate.  Half a mile at least before we found a moving walkway. But we arrived early, as the sun was rising over our plane in Amsterdam.

Mike went off in search of water, Char and Walt amused themselves with their electronic toys.

We had fairly good seats.  Mike and Char were in row 82, each on the aisle, Char on the side and Mike in the center.  Walt and I were in row 83, with Walt on the side aisle and me on the center aisle.  There are 4 seats in the center and there were only two other seats filled and the woman and I on either side of the empty seat were thrilled and, as they announced that the plane was all loaded, we began to unload our floor crap into the empty seat.

That's when the flight attendant came around to ask if we would be willing to move to allow a father and his son, who were in separate seats, to sit together.  The couple did not, but when the attendant talked with me and Walt, we agreed.  She promised Walt a nice other seat--even a window seat, and they would be "very nice" to him.  So I moved over into his seat and he moved up to the window seat.  The father and son moved into the better seats.  I ended up sitting next to a young girl and her brother (her parents sat next to Char).

The boy got up about once an hour to stagger to the bathroom and two times he vomited into a bag and a third time almost did.  I'd just get started listening to something or eating a meal or something and the damn kid would have to get up again.  One time I was listening to my iPad and he nearly ripped the earphones out of my ears.  He seemed like a nice boy, maybe 8-10 years old, and his sister was obviously devoted to him.  Except for getting up and down like a yoyo, they were nice kids, but by the end of 10 hours I hated them both.

As for Walt's special window seat, it was over the wing so he had a view of nothing.  They gave him a glass of cognac and an overnight kit (toothbrush and a zippered pouch)

The father and son who had the good seats didn't acknowledge that we'd rearranged ourselves for him and even pushed me in annoyance at the end of the flight when I didn't move fast enough for him.

The plane sat on the ground in Amsterdam for about an hour, by which time we knew that there was zero chance of our making our connecting flight in Frankfurt. They never did say why we were delayed, but I'm guessing it had something to do with Frankfurt weather because as it turned out, the plane out of Frankfurt was delayed so long that we were able to make it after all, despite the next mile walk to the moving walkway and half mile to the plane...moving walkways here, but they were not working.  I was missing the contraptions we had on our ship excursions where our guide gave us descriptions of what we were seeing along the way.

This Luftansa flight was SO MUCH more pleasant than the United Flight we had coming over.  The food was much better, the service was great (we got big chocolate bars at some point and regular distribution of glasses of water or juice).  There was also an in-seat TV screen, so lots of viewing options.  Unfortunately none of them was particularly interesting to me.  I DID watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (good, but not as good as I hoped) and every nature special but then I just listened to Diana Gabaldon's book on my iPad.  Couldn't sleep.

Coming into San Francisco we were able to watch the plane from various cameras.  We could see a cartoon-like picture as we got close to the city.

and then the actual shadow of the plane on the water of San Francisco Bay as we approached the airport.

We had finally arrived and it was a welcoming sight to see fog on the hills by the airport from the camera mounted to show the plane's nose:

We thought for awhile that our luggage had not arrived, but it finally did.  We loaded up the car and drove Mike and Char home.  I still hadn't slept, but Walt did a bit on the plane, so he drove home while I napped.
We were met by very happy dogs and I climbed gratefully into my recliner to be comfortable in a chair for the first time in 3 weeks.  Tomorrow I am going to write an overview of the trip, what was good, what could have stood some improvements.  But for now I have laundry to do and souvenirs to sort out.

But just so I end this entry, like all the others, with a picture of our dinner...

I think our vacation is definitely over.

Milos, I miss you!

Sunday, July 29, 2012


I knew we had left Germany and were sailing through the Netherlands when I saw the first field of contented cows.

No castles, no half-timbered houses, no ancient walls, just some nice, friendly looking cows taking in the morning mist and eating their breakfast.

It was definitely a leisurely day. Everybody has to be out of their cabins by 9 a.m. tomorrow, so everyone has to pack tonight. We have the better part, I guess, since we have to leave the ship at 4 a.m., before anybody else, so we don't have to worry about what to do while waiting for a van or bus to arrive. The four of us are the only ones leaving that early. Kitch and Joyce leave an hour after we do, but won't be going to the airport with us.

So there wasn't a lot of formal activity planned. We did have a tasting of some Jenever, which is some gin-like drink, but much stronger. I didn't drink mine. Walt did and tried to put a Russian panache on it.

We also tasted Gouda, which I grew up pronouncing "goo-dah" but today learned it is actually pronounced "GOW-dah."

It didn't seem possible it was already time for lunch, but it was. We had a nice lunch and began to realize that we only had one more meal with our wonderful waiters.

(Alexander is actually the maitre d' and a wonderful guy)

We missed the shuffleboard game, but did get in to the lecture on windmills and polders. I think my brain is on information overload. I heard the lecture and still don't have a clue what polders are!

We got to Kinderdijk an hour early and the gift shop was right there, so Walt and I (and a lot of others) went off exploring on our own.

(no, we did not buy wooden shoes!)

On the way back, we saw Kitch and Joyce on the balcony of their stateroom, which is exactly above ours.

Eventually the tour to the windmills began and lemme tell you, if Erwen yesterday was leisurely, Henrietta today was Speed Racer. There was absolutely no way I could keep up with the group--for the first time. Walt had rushed off in search of Mike and some nice girl decided to walk with me to keep me company, but I didn't want to drag her down, so I just gave up and took some windmill pictures from where I already was.

That turned out to be a good decision because some folks from our ship passed me and told me that when we left the store earlier in the day. Walt had forgotten to take the postcards we bought, so instead of going closer to the windmills, I doubled back and got the postcards.

We were all taking pictures, of course. This may be my favorite picture of the trip--definitely of today.

During the cocktail hour, there was a formal farewell from the staff.

By this time tomorrow night we will be on a plane and these guys will be welcoming another 191 passengers aboard the Viking Freya to make the return trip to BudaPest.

Our last dinner was just as good as all the others before it, except for the amuse bush...

I'm guessing I'm not the only one who doesn't like mussels since Walt seemed to get most of them, but my Amsterdam cheese souffle was delicious, as was the roast chicken drumstick and pork rib. Dessert was a very rich, but delicious pot de creme, with a pineapple mint salsa, which was a little odd, but tasted good.

So my trip tale is done (except, of course, for whatever disasters befall us on the trip home tomorrow!). Now to pack up the computer and all the electronic gear, and hope that maybe I can get on the computer upstairs earlier than 1 a.m. so that I might get at least a couple of hours sleep before we have to leave!

See ya from California, I hope, tomorrow night. For those in the Bay Area, try to catch Beaverbrook on KQED at, I believe, 9 p.m. It is a film made by our friend Matt Callahan and it will transport you back to the days of your youth...and you'll love it! It has won several film festival awards.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

New Streets for Old

What happens when your home city is 95% destroyed?

As we have wandered down this river system, seeing one old town after another, and hearing how much of the place was destroyed and by whom, I have often thought how terrible it was that someone should destroy a city. It takes a second before I remember why all these cities were bombed. But the German people are so nice...

War is definitely trouble for me
It starts when two people disagree
Then they go out and have other people kill other people for them.
War's a bad thing and it makes me mad.

Whereas the other cities we've seen suffered major damage and have rebuilt, Cologne was almost entirely destroyed (the red outline there is the bridge, as you can see). There was nothing to rebuild. The cathedral looks unharmed but it suffered major damage too.

But I'm getting ahead of my story. There were two cities I really wanted to see on this tour: Cologne (for its magnificent cathedral) and Kinderdijk (windmill country, which we will see tomorrow). But this ol' body is crying out after 2 weeks of city walks, so I finally decided to swallow my pride and sign up for the "leisure tour," an option I've had all along but was determined not to take. As it turned out, it was probably the best decision I made. First of all, Char decided she would join me, so she signed up too, then Mike decided to keep her company, so he signed up, then Walt decided he might as well sign up too, and finally Kitch decided that if the rest of us were going to sign up, so would he. So our tour group was intact...and leisurely.

Second, we drew Erwen Resch as a tour guide, an older gentleman who has lived in Cologne all of his life and knows it like the back of his hand. It was indeed "leisurely" but I'm sure he didn't eliminate anything. We just had longer stops...and usually in the shade (for which we were grateful, since it got up to 90 degrees today!)

You won't find quaint narrow streets with historic buildings and those damn cobblestones (though there are new cobblestones, to give the effect!), but there were other details that were fun. Like this figure outside the house of a man who refused to pay his taxes and mooned the tax collectors

Erwen explained that the humor of Cologne may not be the same as in other parts of Germany, and proved his point by showing us the statue of the designer of City Hall, a building covered with statues.

The statues are of people who are important in the history of the city, and so there is a statue for the man who designed this building, but the people didn't like him very much, so this is his statue.

Erwen pointed out several times that the figure under the statue was anatomically correct in every way.

We ended up at the magnificent cathedral.

I took lots of pictures that need to be cleaned up and posted to flickr eventually, but I loved their crypt area, with all of the sarcophagi of former bishops. I did wonder what this guy was about, though.

After we left the cathedral, we wandered around a shopping area and tried to decide if we were going to eat in town or go back to the ship. We decided to look for a place to eat. As we were settling in to drink our Kolsch beer (specific to the Cologne area) and check out the market plaza, we saw our tour guide Erwen going into the place to get coffee. We invited him over and he sat with us and we just had a delightful time chatting with him about all sorts of things.

He's a man of many hobbies, including being the author of several books about naval battles, an amateur pilot, tour guide, insurance salesman and some other things I can't remember. He also has a wife and a 26 year old son.

It was 90 humid degrees out and I limped back to the ship, my feet and knees killing me, sweat dripping down my whole body, and I collapsed with my bottle of ice water and the fan Walt bought for me in China, which is always in my bum bag.

There was only one word that could get me to move from that spot: chocolate. The ship is docked near the Cologne Chocolate Museum and we had made plans to tour it.

The flag is of the Lindt Company

Of course when we planned to tour it, it was about 200 ft from our ship and in the interim, the ship had moved from docking slot 10 to slot 4, a considerable way away. It also had not been 90 degrees when we made the decision, before our tour. But we decided to go anyway. It was a painful crawl for me, I'll tell ya! By the time I joined Mike and Char inside, I was drenched with sweat and could hardly walk.

But we used the elevator for handicapped people only and went to the third floor to start the tour, which was kind of fun. I can no longer say "I've never seen a purple cow..."

We eventually got to the floor where they let you watch them work with chocolate. I took this photo for Jim Brochu...

We got some sample chocolate from the famous chocolate fountain.

We did some damage in the chocolate store, what I had really come to see. The chocolates were beautiful.

I was really reluctant to go back into that heat again, and was delightfully surprised when not only had the temperature dropped by at least 10 degrees, but that it looked like rain. That was great until the gusts of wind started, so strong that it ripped bark off trees, sent dust clouds swiring into the air, and I held onto my glasses, for fear the wind would rip them off my face.

I felt like saying, "It's a twister! It's a twister!" I sent Walt on ahead with the stuff that could get drenched if the clouds opened up, which I feared they would do. I didn't mind the rain and was actually looking forward to getting wet. It was really a struggle to hurry back to the ship, while thunder and lightning kept the skies exciting. But I made it without getting drenched. The torrent opened up just minutes after I got back on board, and then just as quickly as it had come it left.

Tonight was the captain's cocktail party and captains dinner. I had an hour to nap before the party, but when Walt tried to wake me up, I told him I was too sleepy and would give up the cocktails. I did however, show up for dinner.

Starting with some tubed meat in a flaky crust, then the most delicious soup of the entire trip, a roasted forest mushroom veloute with crisp bacon, mushroom chips and truffle sabayon. Then came "Tournado Rossini," grilled filet mignon and pan sauteed foie gras. I'm sorry, even if you give it a fancy name and fry it it's still liver to me and I gave my foie gras to Walt. Dessert was white chocolate and cherry pudding.

They did a lovely "parade of staff" in the dining room, introducing everyone who has served us visibly and behind the scenes on this cruise. My camera battery had died, so I got no pictures, but it was surprisingly moving as various people were given standing ovations by a grateful group of passengers.

When dinner was over, we had entertainment in the lounge, 3 young men on clarinet, cello and piano who played light classics and songs like "Moon River." They were OK,,,the clarinettest wasn't all that good, but he was definitely sincere.

We were supposed to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and that is the operative word "watch." It all looked exciting, but with no sound it definitely lost something. Walt and I ended up giving up and coming back here. I'm sure I will be able to catch it on line somewhere.

So...on to our last stop before Amsterdam. Getting anxious to return home, though not looking forward to having to leave the ship at 4 a.m.!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Death on the Rhine

Well, maybe not death, but certainly suicide on the Rhine. We went up to the Aquivit lounge this morning and found piles of thousands of dead mayfly bodies. They covered everything--floor, tables, chairs. Everything. Musta been quite a party last night.

There was great rejoicing at the announcement that the sun deck was finally open. They have to close it all through sailing the Main (several days) because there are so many low bridges they have to remove all the guard rails, chairs, etc. But we are now off the Main and on the Rhine, finished with locks and with low bridges. The crew was busy setting up deck chairs again.

Happy people were walking laps around the deck again and everyone was settling into their own little nests to watch the scenery.

And let me tell you, there was scenery aplenty. As we began our tour through the Middle Rhine, people were all rushing to the rails to take a picture of the next castle. One woman, who was making a circuit of the deck, getting her walking in, said on one of her passes that she would walk until she saw a castle, then she'd have to stop and take a picture.

I felt like I'd come into Castle Commons, the housing development where every mountain peak had its own castle, some crumbling, some in good repair. After more than an hour of this delicious scenery, the thrill of seeing a castle had faded. I overheard one woman looking ahead and moaning "Oh god, another castle. I'm going downstairs to take a nap."

It was gorgeous scenery, with one picturesque village after another, flashing their half timbered fronts for the passing ships, church spires reaching up to the heavens. We even passed the smallest village on the Rhine, so small that the church and the local pub shared the same building and the only way you can get into the church is through the pub. Sounds like one stop shopping!

I was looking forward to sailing around the Lorelei (or Loreley in German)

The legend of Lorelei says that when the rocks in the Rhine Valley glowed in the evening sun or when the rugged cliffs were reflected by moonlight in the swirling waters of the river a slight figure could sometime be seen on the hilltop and a mysterious voice could be heard echoing through the rocky landscape. It belonged to the enchanging maiden Lorelei. The heart of countless men beat found.

The idea is to check her rock and see if she is sitting there, combing her golden hair. Not bloody likely on this trip.

Whoda thunk there would be scaffolding on a rock???

At noon, one of the lunch options was "A taste of Germany" on the upper deck. I went on ahead and saved a table for us, and then got myself some Germany hamburger, some pork on a bun, German potato salad, and some great pretzels.

I sat there, drinking my beer and waiting for the others, but it turned out they had chosen to eat downstairs in the dining room, so I sat there like a little wallflower, watching everyone around me partying. (some appropriate hearts and flowers music, please!)

When we arrived at Braubach, Walt, Mike and Kitch and the other "physically fit" travelers got off to explore the Marksburg Castle, while Joyce, Char and I stayed on board. On hearing later of the steep hill to be climbed to reach the castle, the uneven path and the steep claustrophia-enducing stairs to get into the castle, I decided I was happy to have stayed on board, where I took a shower, took a nap, and watched Idea of March on TV.

When the travelers returned to Koblenz, a town founded by the Romans in 9 B.C., where the boat had sailed in their absence, Branislav lead a "stroll" into the city center. Not a walking tour, we were reassured, but just a pleasant stroll. We started out at the monument which is at the meeting of the Rhine and the Mosel.

I'm afraid I can't remember anything about this monument except that it is surrounded by 16 flags, representing the 16 states of Germany and that in 2001, they added a U.S. flag, indicating support for the US after 9/11.

This was to be a 20 min leisurely stroll, but as it started getting longer and longer, and the temp was about 86 and where we were headed was the shopping street, which didn't interest me anyway, I left the group and headed back to the boat. I was followed soon after by Joyce, who had also opted to return to the ship and we had a lovely visit as we walked back together. At the cocktail hour, Walt opened the bottle of sparkling wine he had won the other night and we shared that.

It was then time for dinner.

We started with something mixed with cream cheese squirted onto a thin slice of a heavy dark bread (probably pumpernickle), then had a clam chowder, which was quite different from either Boston or New York clam chowder, but very good. I chose the duck breast with duck confit for my main course, It was delicious. And for dessert, I had the chocolate mousse.

We skipped the after dinner showing of pictures of this cruise, taken over the past 2+ weeks by Viking crew and instead the six of us took a ride on a gondola up to the top of the hill opposite where the ship is docked.

From there we were able to watch the sun go down on Koblenz.

Tomorrow we will be in Cologne. I really want to see the cathedral there, so I have signed up for the "leisurely tour," designed for the "not physically fit," and maybe it won't be quite so difficult on my feet and knees. At the end, as a reward, will be a tour of the chocolate museum near the ship.