The Finale, Grand European River Cruise – Netherlands

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Kinderdijk windmill

This is the last installment of our Grand European River Cruise, here is a link to my 5 previous posts.

Windmills at Kinderdijk

It was a windy, chilly and rainy morning when Viking Bragi docked at Kinderdijk, our first stop in the Netherlands.  The included tour was a rain or shine affair, so everyone grabbed provided umbrellas as our guide led us to the only place in the world with so many windmills so close together.  Our guide was formerly a teacher, which was apparent as he informed and entertained the group while talking about life in the lowlands and the modern day hydro-engineering techniques of the Dutch.

Kinderdick windmill

Original Kinderdijk windmills

We learned that the Netherlands is flat and nearly a third of the country lies below sea level, with nearly half of its terrain existing as reclaimed land.  As part of a large water management system designed to prevent flooding, windmills were built in the mid-1700’s to pump water from low areas into the river at higher elevation.  It was quite captivating to hear how ingenious the Dutch were and are.  Today the working windmills symbolize Dutch water management, and in 1997 they were inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage.

An iconic Dutch scene – the windmills.  They continue to help manage the Netherlands’ ongoing fight to stay above water

Amsterdam

Although the cruise was fabulous, we were excited to set foot at our debarkation point in the capital city of the Netherlands.  We added a couple of days to explore the city, even if the weather was intermittently gloomy.  Because it was mostly wet outside I used my point and shoot Lumix camera and phone to capture sights and experiences so these photos may appear to be a bit moody 😉

Tram and people crammed the street

At the outset I have to say I really liked Amsterdam, it’s an exciting and diverse city that maintains its laid-back feel.  We were drawn to its miles of canals, brick bridges, old churches and 17th-century architecture.  With only a couple days to spare we didn’t let the rain dampen our spirit as we experienced everything, we could fit in.

The Netherlands (or Holland) has big shoes to fill!

Right away we noticed the city had several unique characteristics that separated it from all the others we had visited.

Bicycles Galore!

Our ship’s program director had warned us about the insane bikers in Amsterdam, and he wasn’t kidding.  The 834,000 inhabitants own more than 881,000 bicycles, and 58% of them cycle daily!  They are everywhere, traveling at high speed with no intention of stopping for naive tourists!

Amsterdam

The insanity near Central Station

Amsterdam

Tourists fascinated by a custom cargo bicycle

A chic way to go to work, helmets not required

Better remember where you parked it!

Canals and Bridges

Amsterdam is a city of canals and bridges, with unique sights from land and water:

Swans are a common sight here, and they’re actually considered to be pests

We were told a visit to Amsterdam would not be complete without taking a canal cruise, a unique and memorable way to experience the city and its waters.  We took one but found the crowded enclosed ride was not very informative.  There are several operators to choose from, and we had to pick one that fit into our time frame.  Perhaps we could have done better with more time and research.

One of many canal cruise tours

Amsterdam has 165 canals snaking their way through the city, with a combined length of 60 miles

Charming decorated houseboats lined the waterway, a partial solution to a housing shortage

Not sure where this was but there are seven arched brick bridges that could be seen in close proximity

The 17th century canal ring is a symbol of the city and is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites for its cultural and historical value.

Gables and facades

Wandering through the city, we couldn’t help but notice another distinctive feature of Amsterdam, the gables and facades of houses lining the canal.  These homes are ornately crowned with soaring gables of various styles and long sleek windows that provide awesome visual appeal.

Some gables are elaborately decorated indicating wealth

All canal homes have lift points in their gable, used with pulleys and ropes to haul large objects to the windows above.  We were told the stairways in these homes are extremely narrow and there is no other way to get bulky items inside

Dating back to the Dutch Golden Age, a building tax was calculated on the width of a property’s façade.  OK, now I get it!

Canal homes are tall-and-skinny, a signature of the city

Coffeeshop, Coffeehouse or Cafe?

If you just want to buy coffee beans or get a caffeine fix, go to a cafe or a coffeehouse.  But if you want to kickstart your day in an herbal way you should head directly to a coffeeshop where you’ll be given a menu loaded with “greens”.  There are hundreds of them in the city, and even stores had displays full of different forms of the goods.  We were in too much of a hurry to be slowed down by that stuff!

To be sure you are in the right place look for green and white sticker in the window, a license which designates the establishment is a coffee shop

 

Over-the-top dark chocolate.  Hon, can I take this home?

Museums, Museums, Museums

The legacy of the Dutch Golden Age lives on in the lush paintings of Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Frans Haals, to name a few of the Dutch Masters whose collections are housed in various museums.  Unfortunately for us it was too many museums and too little time 😦

Rijksmuseum

If you have time to admire 6000 collection of art and paintings by the Old Masters, the Rijksmuseum is the place to be

We thought we did a lot in those two days, but there was one place I missed — the flower market.  I suppose I’ll just have to go back in the spring for the Tulip Festival!

Fields of flowers seen from way above

If you’re thinking about taking a trip like this (whether on a cruise or not), don’t let the possibility of language or currency issues stop you.  All countries we visited accepted Euros, with the only currency hitch being that Budapest gave change in their currency (the Forint).  This is a great place to use credit cards; the small conversion fee is totally worth it.  And the only language issues we had was at airports, in which case we just looked around until we found someone who could help us.  The residents in all of the cities we visited were friendly, and we had no security concerns during our trip.

That concludes our wonderful cultural experience in Central Europe.

And with that, we wish everyone a Merry Christmas and may your season be full of joy, love, peace, and optimism for the year ahead!



Grand European River Cruise Part 5 – Germany

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We’re having a lot of fun socializing here in San Diego, so completing my river cruise posts has become a challenge.  But I have to hurry up or risk forgetting what we did just this past October!  Be prepared for a lot of pictures, for this post is loaded with them.  So enjoy your favorite beverage as you scroll along…

This is the 5th of 6 installments covering our European river cruise:

  • For Grand European River Cruise Part 1 click here
  • For Grand European River Cruise Part 2 click here
  • For Grand European River Cruise Part 3 click here
  • For Grand European River Cruise Part 4 click here

Wurzburg, Germany

Surrounded by Franconian vineyards, Wurzburg was heavily damaged during WWII and has since been completely restored — including the most pristine example of pomp and glory, the Bishop’s Residence Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Visiting the palace was an included tour, and this was the only one for which we gave the guide low marks.  She seemed very knowledgable but just didn’t communicate information to the guests very well.  She was a transplant from Australia, giving tours about Germany to mostly American tourists and a few Filipinos.  Something got lost in translation there!

Wurzburg Bishop's Palace

Restored Bishop’s Palace

One of many ornate rooms

Bishops Palace Würzburg

Overhead ceiling with its 2,000 sq ft “Four Continents” fresco painting

A little colonnaded chapel inside the palace — so pompous!

Wurzburg, Germany

Wurzburg is surrounded by Franconian vineyards, planted vertically as opposed to horizontally as they are on the hills of Austria

The German version of TJ Maxx, one of my favorites!

Old River Bridge

A “must-do” in Wurzburg is getting a glass of Franconian wine at the Old River Bridge, with a chance to hobnob with locals, students, and other tourists

Architectural splendors are part of Wurzburg life:

Sylvaner

That night we were served with the local Sylvaner white wine

Wertheim, Germany

When a town sits at a confluence of two major rivers, stories of epic floods over the centuries dominate local conversations.  The tiny town of Wertheim has been affected many times, being located where the Main (pronounced Mine) River meets the Tauber River.  Several markers in the town show just how high the waters have crested over the past 800 years, and exhibits detail how residents have coped and helped one another.

Photos of the latest flooding in 2011

The town is so small and charming that it’s nearly impossible to get lost!

Wertheim, Germany

Engelsbrunnen (Angel’s) wishing well is situated at the center of town

Historic marketplace surrounded by half-timbered houses of the 16th and 17th centuries

Our guide Ursula was a character, and her knowledge, passion and humor made this a great walking tour.  At one of the stops she pointed out that the dog in the display below appears to look at you no matter where you are in front of it, just like the Mona Lisa.  The whole crowd had a good laugh when I jumped up and told her that was my name!

A MonaLisa!

Even on a foggy day we decided to climb the hill to see ruins of the Wertheim Castle that overlooks the small town:

Wertheim, Castle

A 15-minute walk up the hill took us to Wertheim Castle

Koblenz, Germany

The included tour on our first stop on the Rhine river was a visit to the only castle in the Rhine Valley to have never been destroyed.  We were bussed to Marksburg Castle, which watches over the town as it has since the 13th century.

We met this bus on the way to the castle, and the driver actually backed up the hill to let us by.  These drivers are amazingly skilled!

The castle was originally built in 1117 to protect landowner’s harvests, hired hands and the town of Braubach.  As times changed it became a prison and then a home for disabled soldiers.

Marksburg Castle

Our destination – Marksburg Castle

It’s strategically located on a 550′ perch to see incoming enemies from all directions

Unlike others we visited, this castle was not a place of luxury.  Yes, there were a lot of rooms but the multiple gates, fortifications, cannonades and a torture chamber indicated it was a fortress for protection.

The castle’s armor museum displays all sorts of armor dating from Celtic times, this one for a Knight in the 12th century

Today the castle is home to the German Castles Association, which works to preserve medieval fortifications all over Germany.

Cologne, Germany

Our final stop in Germany brought us to a city with a million inhabitants, Cologne (or Koln).  It was founded by the Romans in 50 AD and during the Middle Ages flourished as one of the most important major European trade routes between east and west.  It was also one of the most heavily bombed cities in Germany during World War II.

Cologne by the Rhine River

Colorful facades of five old houses

Hohenzollerntbrucke Bridge

The Hohenzollernbruke Bridge is the busiest train bridge in Germany with over 1,200 crossings per day.  It spans the Rhine river and holds thousands of padlocks inscribed with couples’ names and romantic messages

For many years, “love locks” have been considered one of Cologne’s most charming traditions.  As proof of their love, couples fix padlocks to the railings on the Hohenzollern Bridge; to ensure everlasting love, they then throw the key into the Rhein river below:

But what survived and was spared by Allied bombs is the 14th century Cologne Cathedral that towers over the Old City and a treasured heritage.  Construction began in 1248 and continued in stages over six centuries, with final completion in 1880.  It is the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe, and a magnificent church with two soaring spires that are visible for many miles.

The cathedral facing south

How big is it?  I can only get detail of a third of it in a frame!

I was so overwhelmed when we stepped inside that I forgot it was a house of worship.  Our necks hurt from looking up and around so much.  The details were amazing, as the beautiful stained-glass windows filled the interior with brilliant light.

Floor Mosaic made out of thousands of tiny pieces of tile

Shrine of the Three Kings, the relics of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar

The highlight here was an incredible optional tour that entered the cathedral through a rooftop door via a construction elevator used by restoration crews.  We enjoyed amazing up-close views of the cathedral’s gothic architecture as we passed through tight spaces to see the vast tower interiors and massive iron structures holding up the roof.  We also visited the restoration workshops before climbing a 104-step spiral staircase for a 360º panoramic view of the city and the Rhine River below.  What a wonderful and unique experience!

The steel structure that supports the main dome, which is several centuries old

Imagine the toolbox that holds that 80 lb. wrench!

Looking down at the main church from a passageway during our tour

The 104-step staircase to the top

The views from the top were incredible:

The huge train station and railway bridge

Looking down at the plaza

Scenic Rhine River Cruising

The Rhine River begins as a trickle in the Swiss Alps and flows 820 miles through several countries to the North Sea.  In the heart of Germany, the Middle Rhine flows past quaint villages, steep vineyards blanketing hillsides, picturesque forest, half-timbered homes, and historic castles and palaces.  This stretch of the river Upper Middle Rhine is often called the Rhine Gorge or Romantic Rhine and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you will see below why.

Castles and wines take center stage along this panoramic stretch, and our cruise director called out the names of every property we passed, which added interesting bits of historical trivia about Rhine culture. As we recalled at the beginning, he did mention that the alternate name of the Grand European River Cruise is the “ABC” River Cruise…Another Bloody Castle!  This is the Germany once ruled by dukes, brought to magical life by the Brothers Grimm who grew up here and wove fantastic tales from these banks, remember Grimm’s Fairy Tales?

Everyone was happy the sundeck was back up again and we enjoyed the Rhine River scenery


 

Next up: 

The Final installment of our Grand European River Cruise – The Netherlands



 

Grand European River Cruise Part 3 – Austria

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Melk Abbey

This is the third installment of our European river cruise:

  • For Grand European River Cruise Part 1 click here
  • For Grand European River Cruise Part 2 click here
Vienna State Opera

Historic buildings here are marked with a plaque and a City of Vienna flag

We left Budapest and headed for Vienna, the capital of Austria.  During the cruise program director’s port overview, we were intrigued enough to purchase an optional tour, a classical concert in Vienna.  Steve and I are not known to be highly cultured folk, but being in Vienna we decided to broaden our horizons, if only for one night.  We were after all in the center of European classical music, where Mozart and Strauss composed many of their masterpieces.

Wiener Konzerhaus

Concert hall where the Vienna Residence Orchestra played at Wiener Konzerthaus

We were not disappointed, as we enjoyed the beautiful strains of Strauss waltzes and selections from Mozart by a small orchestra of talented musicians.  The evening was topped off by opera singers and ballet/waltz dancers accompanying some of the pieces, and some added humor.  Being cultured for a night wasn’t so bad after all!

Vienna Residence Orchestra

Vienna Residence Orchestra

I managed to record my favorite waltz of all time, the Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss.  It is my favorite for it reminded me of my high school days when I danced the waltz.

Watch and listen…it gives me goosebumps each time I replay it!

An included walking tour of the city was a must for us first-timers.  It was then that we got the sense and taste of Austria’s opulent past.  For centuries Vienna was the seat of the Hapsburg Dynasty and center of the Holy Roman Empire, but I won’t bore you with all that.  Our glimpse of the city focused primarily on buildings that still reflect 18th- and 19th-century elegance from when this place was at the forefront of the arts and sciences.

We walked around the area known as the Ringstrasse, a boulevard of grand and elegant architecture encircling the historic center of Vienna that was built in the 19th century.

Hofburg Neue Burg section, seen from Heldenplatz

Hofburg Neue Burg section, seen from Heldenplatz

Hofburg Neue Burg section, seen from Heldenplatz

Getting a history lesson

One of the many gigantic drinking fountains around Vienna.  They are proud of their water which is fed by alpine glacial meltwater

Winter Palace of the Hapsburg Dynasty

A Lippizaner horse

Lipizzaner Stallions ready for their exercise at the Spanish Riding School

Vienna

Pot growing right along main street

Vienna, Austria

Shopping district at the Gaben

Vienna, Austria

Not sure who I am holding hands with, but he’s quite a hunk (of metal) 🙂

St Stephans Cathedral

Mesmerizing multicolored mosaic roof tiles on Gothic-style St. Stephens Cathedral

St Stephan's Cathedral

Inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral

St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the background

A sampling of marvelous head-turning architecture:

Vienna, Austria

Modern buildings on the east side of Vienna, including “DC tower 1”, are more current distinctive landmarks for the Austrian capital

On another optional excursion we joined a tour of the sprawling summer home of the Hapsburg Dynasty, the Schönbrunn Palace.  We were forewarned this was the most visited tourist attraction in Vienna, and yes, the crowds were there!  Thankfully our group got to skip the line and moved right along.

At the back of the palace

Our guide showed us just a few of the palace’s 1,441 rooms, as we heard rich stories of its former residents.  We were free to take photos outside, but not in the 12 imperial apartments that we toured inside.

Schorbrunn Palace

Front of the sprawling Schönbrunn Palace

Gloriette

Lovely view of the hilltop Gloriette and the palace gardens, sort of reminded me of the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina

Melk, Austria

Our next stop was a charming city set amidst an important wine-growing region at the confluence of the Danube and Melk rivers, and at the base of the Wachau Valley.

This was a memorable stop for Steve, as some very nice people at an eyeglass store fixed his glasses for free!

Melk, Austria

A narrow busy street in Melk

The renowned Melk Abbey, rebuilt in the 18th century, was the main objective for our stop along the Danube at another UNESCO World Heritage site.  Since we’d never been to an abbey, we didn’t know what to expect.  This one is perched on a dramatic hilltop overlooking the Danube.

Originally a royal palace, this abbey was gifted to Benedictine monks in the 11th century. Since 1089 the monastic community of Melk and black-robed Benedictine monks have worked and lived in the restored abbey.  What we saw is an 18th-century Baroque considered one of the famous abbeys of Austria.  The institution currently relies on agriculture and tourist fees to support its existence.

Melk Abbey

The interior of the church is a kaleidoscope of red, orange and gold with colorful ceiling frescoes – the highlight of this tour

Melk Abbey

Incredible spriral staircase leading to the church

Melk Abbey

Abbey courtyard

Melk Abbey

Garden pavilion at Melk Abbey

 Wachau Valley, Austria

About 24 miles of the Danube as it makes its way toward Vienna is locally known as “The Wachau.”  This stretch has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding example of a riverine landscape.  Our program director complemented the passage with a commentary about the region’s history and culture.

The dining room was a great place to sit, look and listen on the chilly mornings

Our timing for this trip was good, as the fall foliage added much beauty to the terraced vineyards on the hills:

Wachau landscape.

Man-made stone terraces help facilitate cultivation – despite the steepness of the terrain – and are typical of the Wachau landscape

There was a story about this nose sticking out of the ground, but I forgot it 🙂

Schönbühel Castle sits on the Danube’s south bank between Melk and Willendorf

So many castles, churches and little villages dot the landscape here

As expected my camera was in overdrive, and now I find it challenging to choose which pictures to include in my post!

Note: In every port, guests may choose to join the included tour, purchase an optional tour or go out on their own.  The ship provides a map of each city, along with contact information and the ship’s location so folks can find their way back.

 

Next up:  Grand European River Cruise – Germany