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 4 – Germany

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This is the 4th 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

A German feast dinner theme

Looking back at our itinerary I realized we stopped at 8 cities in Germany along the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers.  I’ll have to break these 8 port calls into two posts, for there is so much to share.  Our stops in Germany were at Passau, Regensburg, Nuremberg, Bamberg, Würzburg, Wertheim, Koblenz and Cologne, and of course each has its own unique history and distinctive character.

The first five cities we visited are all part of the state of Bavaria in southeast Germany.  We learned that Bavaria traces its history back to the 6th century, and evidence of its time ruled by dukes and kings can be found in the grand palaces and residences peppering the region.  The castles in these quaint towns remain partially surrounded by protective walls and bastions constructed in medieval times.  So much so that our program director joked that the alternate name of our cruise was “The ABC Cruise” – Another Bloody Castle 🙂

Passau, Germany

Heading north on the Danube River, Passau is the first major German city past the Austrian-German border.  It lies at the confluence of three major European rivers – the Inn, Danube and IIz  – hence dubbed the “City of Three Rivers.”  Because of that, flooding is inevitable and the 2013 flood brought the waters to their highest level in 500 years.

Passau, Germany

Levels of past disastrous floods in Passau.  Second from the top is the 2013 flood

Founded by the Celts more than 2,000 years ago, Passau is one of Bavaria’s oldest cities.  Because of its strategic location it grew to great economic and political power.  After a fire in the 17th century, the city was rebuilt to reflect the baroque style that remains today.  During our walking tour, the legacy of its past was detailed in the form of graceful arcades, colorful houses with rococo facades, and the jumble of cobbled lanes, underpasses and archways leading off the main thoroughfare.

Passau, Germany

Altes Rathaus

The Old Town Hall, Altes Rathaus is a striking gothic building that faces the Danube River.

Our walk ended at the glorious 17th century baroque style St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  It is home to the largest catholic church organ in the world, and Europe´s biggest organ.  We were fortunate to hear the organ played at a concert during our visit.  The cathedral was an acoustic delight that was the highlight of this stop.

St Stephen's Cathedral

Facade of baroque St. Stephen’s Cathedral, featuring its distinctive onion-domed towers

St Stephen Cathedral

Looking up at the many dome paintings was a pain in the neck!

Facing the alter with the gold chancel on the left

The cathedral organ is a technical marvel, with its 17,974 pipes, 233 ringing registers and 5 carillons that can all be played from a single console

I thought it interesting that the little German town of Passau has the largest cathedral organ in the world!

Regensburg, Germany

This walking tour took us around the oldest and one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe.  Its city center escaped WWII bomb damage, and its well preserved condition earns its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Here the local guide pointed out to us some of the remaining Roman city walls erected by Marcus Aurelius in the year 179AD, the many old patrician houses, the Gothic St. Peter’s Cathedral and the 12th century Old Stone Bridge.

Porta Praetoria

Porta Praetoria is one of only two remaining original Roman city gates in Germany

Uncovered and freely accessible wall fragments from the Roman fortress

Regensburg, Germany

The Stone Bridge behind me is Germany’s best preserved bridge from the middle ages

Stadtamhof

Stadtamhof

Beer Stein

I can’t even move Germany’s largest beer stein that holds 32 liters of beer!

We took an optional tour here, where we learned the secrets of making weisswurst, Bavarian white sausage.  The ingredients were simple: veal and pork sausage flavored with onions and fresh parsley.  Once mixed, cased and simmered in hot water, we ate them paired with wheat beer and a pretzel – a classic Bavarian dish.  Weisswurst is eaten without the skin, and we were taught techniques for skinning the sausage that are also traditional.

Nuremberg, Germany

This is a great stop for history buffs.  Known among other things for its metal and toy craftsmanship, Nuremberg is also remembered as both the seat of Nazi propaganda and the site of punishment for Nazi war criminals.  Viking offers an optional tour (we did not take it) that immerses folks in Nuremberg’s WWII history.

Zeppelin Field

Zeppelin grandstand – the former Nazi party rally grounds

Nuremberg is the second-largest city in Bavaria, filled with traditional half-timbered houses and Gothic churches with intricate spires.  Our walking tour explored the old town still surrounded by 13th-century walls with many gates and watchtowers.  We toured the Imperial Palace grounds, which lay in ruins (except for the Sinwell Tower) after WWII.  Fortunately it was rebuilt almost exactly as it had been before the war.

Imperial Palace

Sinwell Tower was built in the 13th century as a defensive position in the bailey of the Imperial Palace

Nuremberg

Busy afternoon at old town

Nuremberg Germany

Half-timber home, we loved this look and style

Nuremberg

A panoramic view of Nuremberg from the castle walls

Schooner Brunnen

As we left I made a wish at the Gothic Schooner Brunnen

Bamberg, Germany

Bamberg is one of the loveliest German towns we visited.  It was founded in 902 and remains a medieval-looking city with its city center as another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We took our walking tour around yet another old town.

Bamberg, Germany

Little Venice, Bamberg

The frescoes that adorn the facades of the 14th century Old Town Hall are impressive, for they lend a three-dimensional quality achieved with trompe d’oeil architecture.

Old Town Hall is now a museum sitting right in the middle of the Regnitz River

Two special details on the frescoes made us smile:

Bamberg was founded in 1007, and several centuries later a prince bishop “modernized” the city by covering medieval half-timbered framework with stone facades in the baroque style.  It survived all the wars of past centuries, and we experienced it as it has been for the past several hundred years.

I was busy pointing my camera at playful decorative elements on building facades.  We enjoyed walking around old town, despite the oh-so-many other tourists doing the same.

We had to taste what this city is known for, it’s distinctive “rauchbier” – simply a smoke-flavored beer.  We enjoyed it at the birthplace of the original Schlenkerla Smokebeer, where many people were congregated to get a taste.  Old-style smoke beers are becoming a rarity due to the “clean malt” brewing methods used today.  We liked the taste – robust, bold and smooth.

Midway through our cruise, Steve found that he was eating salads and drinking beer.  Just as his doctor had said would happen, his swallowing pain was receding and his sense of taste was coming back so slowly he really didn’t even notice.  Yay!

Okay, that’s it for now – we’re moving on!

 

Next up:  Four More German Cities



 

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



 

Grand European River Cruise Part 2 – Budapest, Hungary

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French macarons

Authentic French macarons are divine

With our cruise running Oct 7-21, we maximized our first European visit by adding extra days to explore our embarkation city, Budapest. We were glad we did, since our 6AM connection in Amsterdam had been canceled due to bad weather and we lost the rest of the day waiting for another flight.  Fortunately we had booked our air travel through Viking Cruises and they had done the rebooking for us.  We were eventually rerouted through Paris and arrived in Budapest at midnight instead of 10AM.  How awesome that our Viking driver was still at the airport waiting for us!  Although we lost a day of exploring, the episode gave us our first good impression of Viking’s first class service (here is the first installment describing our cruise).  Advice to cruisers – ALWAYS add at least a day to the beginning of your cruise in case this happens, or your stress level will be through the roof as you start your cruise.  And if everything goes well you’ll have a day or two to explore a new city in relaxation!

Budapest

The Danube River runs through Budapest; across the river to the east is Pest and the foreground on the west is Buda

Budapest is Hungary’s capital city, truly a riverside beauty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It straddles the banks of the Danube River, making it a combination of two cities, Buda and Pest, united into a single city in 1873.  Buda is the historic half, sitting on the hilly west bank, and the livelier and more modern Pest (pronounced “Pesht”) covers the plains on the east bank.  The two halves of the city are connected by 15 bridges, several of them very beautiful and architecturally interesting.

Chain Bridge, Budapest

The iconic Chain Bridge was the first span to connect the two halves of the city when it opened in 1849

Budapest Bridges

Looking south at the slender white Elizabeth Bridge with the green Liberty Bridge in the distance

 Margaret Bridge

Looking north at the yellow Margaret Bridge

Our first day of exploration began right next door to our digs at the very nice Hilton Hotel.  The Hilton stands within the walls of the historic Castle Hill district on the Buda side, which we realized during breakfast when our window seat view was one of the turrets of Fisherman’s Bastion.  Along with Buda Castle and Matthias Church, it comprises the castle complex that resides on a large hilltop that was once home to royalty here.

Budapest

Breakfast with a view of Fisherman’s Bastion

St Mattias Church

Colorful rooftops of Matthias Church, the coronation church of Hungarian kings of the past.  Folks here take their roofs seriously, and there are many beautiful ones on display

Fisherman’s Bastion with Matthias Church in the background

An honor guard ready to strut their stuff on the cobblestone streets

From Castle Hill we ambled down to the banks of the Danube River, walking through several residential streets.  We crossed the Chain Bridge and continued onto the Danube Promenade, feasting our eyes on the multitude of riverfront attractions.

Walking across the Chain Bridge.  A bit chilly on our first full day, as you can see

Shoes of the Danube River

Shoes of the Danube River.  This display commemorates the local victims of the Holocaust, who were lined up and shot into the Danube River after being ordered to take off their shoes, valuable belongings at the time

Castle Hill in Buda

Calvinist Church

A Calvinist church.  Churches here exist at an architectural level far above most in the states

Church of St Anne

Church of St. Anne

Peter Mansfeld

A statue of a falling man commemorates teenage martyr Peter Mansfeld of the Hungarian revolution.

Colorful residential facades

Budapest

So many colorful and unique designs of front doors!

House of Parliament

The House of Parliament on the bank of Pest is the iconic attention-grabber here, day and night

Hilly Buda

Our first included excursion was a guided panoramic tour of Budapest, beginning along elegant Andrassy Avenue.  It is recognized by UNESCO World Heritage, and is the reason why Budapest is often called the Paris of the East.  The entire stretch is filled with luxury shopping and culture such as theaters, the Opera House, villas and mansions, embassies and dozens of cafés and restaurants.

Heroes’ Square

Spacious Hero’s Square is a tribute to Hungary’s national identity

The equestrian statues of the seven Magyar (Hungarian) tribes’ chieftains encircle a column

A sampling of eclectic architecture:

We also booked an optional guided walking tour to get a taste of the city on foot.  We were taken inside the pompous interior of Hungary’s largest building and the third largest parliament in the world, the Budapest Parliament Building.  I took hundreds of pictures of this building, let’s see what’s inside:

House of Parliament as my background

The inside was as impressive as the outside.  It houses one of Hungary’s greatest and most closely guarded treasures, the Holy Crown of St. Stephen (no photography allowed of the crown, orb, sceptre and Renaissance Sword display), which is more than a thousand years old.  The docent shared that this was the coronation crown used by the Kingdom of Hungary for most of its existence, and in Hungarian history over 50 kings were crowned with it.

The imposing grand staircase is encircled with 16 statues of Hungarian leaders

We were led on a short walk from the Parliament building to Liberty Square, where our guide pointed out buildings of architectural value that flank the pleasant green area.

This tired tourist doesn’t look so happy to pose at Liberty Square

President Reagan on his way to the U.S. embassy.  Hungarians like him so much that he has a statue on the square 🙂

Abracadabra, let me out water ! At the interactive fountain on Szabadság Square

We stopped and browsed the produce at Bejaras Market, where we tasted local sausage and “pogacsa”, a salty scone.  We finished our tour with a bowl of goulash soup and a delicious strudel.

Not your usual apple strudel, this is a variety of yummy Hungarian strudels

Outside the city limits we were driven to Szentendre, a colorful village of galleries and artists.  The guide informed us that what we saw today was the foundation that the Hungarian-Serbian community laid down in the 1500’s.  Churches, museums, galleries and cafés in Baroque settings symbolize this lovely town.  We walked along narrow, picturesque streets and browsed galleries that displayed folksy souvenirs and the works of local artists.

A local shows what he made out of a mushroom – a purse and a placemat

Hungarian sweet paprika – yum!

Narrow cobbled and colorful street

Finally, we explored Skanzen, a reconstructed version of an old Hungarian village.  Here we learned to prepare goulash, the most celebrated dish in Hungary.  I discovered that paprika is considered the national spice of Hungary and is the main spice in goulash.
Racka Sheep

Getting friendly with a Hungarian Racke Sheep, check out his horns!

Some facts we learned here – Hungary is part of the European Union but does not use the Euro as its currency (they use the Forint).  Budapest was also our initiation to paying to use restrooms in Europe (called toilets or water closets here), between 50 cents and 2 dollars Euro.  A Euro was $1.18 U.S. during our visit.

On embarkation day, we noticed that our ship, the Viking Bragi, was docked side by side with another Viking riverboat.  The guests of the other ship had to access by walking through ours.  In terms of security it seemed like an odd arrangement, but it was used several times during our journey where 2 or even 3 ships were moored at a single dock.  We looked at it as yet another way to meet new folks!

Bragi is on the left

We thought the two extra days we included would be enough to explore one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, but we could have easily spent a week here!  With so much to see and do it was Steve’s favorite stop on our itinerary.
Budapest

Finding our way along the Danube Promenade

Striking bridges, a majestic Parliament Building, spectacular Art Nouveau palaces and picturesque castles are some of the sights to see by day.  But when nighttime falls Budapest comes alive with lights and color, turning it into a romantic city of lights where all of the monuments and bridges shine:
Fishermans Bastion

Fishermans Bastion at dusk

Chain Bridge, Budapest

Lighted Chain Bridge

Buda Castle

Buda Castle at night.  It houses the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum

House of Parliament, Budapest

The House of Parliament turns a glistening gold

Mattias Church

Mattias Church shines bright on Castle Hill

 Elizabeth Bridge

Looking north at Elizabeth Bridge

Budapest

Full moon over Budapest

 

Next up:  Grand European River Cruise – Austria



Grand European River Cruise – Part 1

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Long before Steve’s cancer was confirmed in March, we had already booked our Viking River Cruise in Central Europe.  We’d heard details about Viking River Cruises from Rocky and Marsha, whom we’d met during our train ride across the Canadian rockies on the Rocky Mountaineer last year Although Steve’s treatments cut things a bit close, his doctor cleared us for this cruise and we were even hopeful that 14 days of “binge eating” might put some weight back on his bones.

Viking Bragi

Our ship, the Viking Bragi, cruising down the Danube River to pick us up

Between the two of us, Steve has always been the cruise lover – me, not so much.  We’ve been on several ocean cruises and I thought a river cruise would be just another expensive boat ride.  Wow, was I wrong!  Being aboard a Viking longship for 14 days turned me into a hardcore river cruise fan.  We took their Grand European Tour aboard Viking Bragi, one of the ships specifically designed to navigate rivers with low bridges and narrow locks.  We docked at 14 destinations along the Danube, Main (pronounced “mine”) and Rhine Rivers between Budapest and Amsterdam, visiting the countries of Hungary, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Grand European Tour

Our itinerary traced the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers from Budapest to Amsterdam

Viking Bragi in one of our ports of call.  The ship is 443′ long and features 95 outside staterooms

The Viking longboats are much smaller than ocean cruise ships, and with less than 200 guests and around 50 crew members they are not at all crowded.  They lack the swimming pools, casinos and grand ballrooms of the ocean liners, but are plenty elegant.  Dining is casual with no formal nights and only one seating for dinner.  The setup really promotes meeting new people, as folks can sit wherever they wish for each meal.  Our stateroom was slightly larger than the ones we’ve stayed in on large cruise lines, and it had several amenities we enjoyed – how about a heated bathroom floor?  Nice!

Hanging out in the lounge.  Nice and quiet, and instead of endless open ocean there’s always sights to see on both sides of the ship as it moves along

He found a book by his favorite author to read

We spent lots of time on our veranda

We enjoyed the sundeck often – it took over 12 laps to get in a mile of walking!

The sun deck was not available when we were in the Rhine-Main-Danube canal, as the bridges were very low.  Notice how everything on the sundeck collapses flat

Our cruise included a guided excursion in each port of call, and there were other optional excursions (for a fee) to choose from to further maximize time at each destination.  We experienced organized and informative city tours with well-trained guides using high-tech wireless devices so we could hear their every word.   The way they organized groups on the buses and tours made everything easy-peasy during our time off the ship.

Synching our QuietVox devices by touching the paddle for our group

We were impressed with the QuietVox receivers and earpieces that were used during our city tours.  Before each tour began we activated our receivers by touching them to the paddle for our assigned group, which synched them to a unique frequency with our guide.  The device enabled me and other “wanderers” to take pictures up to a block away without missing a word the guide said, even in loud and crowded places.  These devices are the wave of the future for guided tours!

Listening to the guide while waiting for the ladies to complete their “WC” (water closet) stop

On cruise days Kane, the entertainment coordinator, conducted informative lectures related to historical and cultural topics specific to the current area of our travels.  We learned about the history of the 68 locks that we traversed, the Rhine-Main-Danube canal that links the North Sea to the Black Sea and other information about the water and geography of the Netherlands.  Each night before dinner he gave port talks with an overview of the next day’s port of call, as well as highlights of must-see landmarks and hidden food gems.  The master chef also participated, giving us an insight into the preparation of the upcoming dinner and what to expect throughout the meal.

Kane gives one of his informative lectures

Some of the locks were so tight that it was easy to reach out and touch them as we were raised or lowered to the next water level

At this lock in the Rhine-Main-Danube canal we were lowered 90 feet! (Photo credit: Linda)

Steve took a tour of the wheelhouse and learned how it is lowered into the ship’s hull when passing under low bridges

An exciting part of the cruise was that Steve discovered as time went on that his jaw and throat were feeling better and he was able to eat salads.  His goal on this cruise was to gain weight, and he ate everything in sight!  But because we also did miles of walking on our city tours, he gained only a couple of pounds.  On the other hand, I gained several pounds and have a lot of work to do…

Hmm, what will I have for breakfast this morning?

We met many interesting people and forged friendships on this trip.  Among them was David, a cancer survivor who’s condition several years ago was very similar to Steve’s.  He gave Steve much appreciated information and inspiration.  Another person we came across was Ivan, who shared a cell with senator John McCain as a Vietnam POW.  He had quite a story to tell about his life during and after the war.

David and Steve exchange information and phone numbers

This was our first time in Europe, and our first river cruise.  The itinerary allowed us to get a glimpse of central Europe and a good sampling of its regions and cultures.  The pace was comfortable and allowed us to relax and enjoy a part of the world we had never seen before.

There was never a dull moment as we cruised along, with lots to see and take pictures of on both sides of the river:

It was “all cameras on deck” in many areas on river days

How about this, fellow RV’ers?

An unusual bus ride in Budapest

Rock formations and beautiful homes

A blue longboat cruising under the Chain Bridge in Budapest

Folks chilling by the river on a Sunday morning

Those are vineyards on the hillsides

Cathedrals, churches and castles could be seen all along the river

Swans are considered pests here 😦

We cruised past several “parking lot” type RV parks along the river

Playing with reflection shots!

A busy port in Germany

The autumn foliage glowed in the setting sun.  The weather really held up for us during most of the trip

 

And that’s just for starters!  There is more to come about our country stops!

 

Next up:  Grand European River Cruise – Hungary