Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Leaving Amsterdam

Since our bus to the Amsterdam Airport leaves at 4:45 we awoke around 4 am to prepare for the return trip home.  We had put our bags outside our stateroom door before midnight they could be taken out to the bus by morning.  Since we were still 6 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Savings Time, we were leaving the ship at 10:45 pm on Tuesday back home.  Because of the darkness we were unable to see anything of Amsterdam on the bus to the airport.  It didn’t take long to get to the Delta Airlines check-in and get our boarding passes with the automated kiosk.  We also used the automated bag check fairly easily.  Security was detailed but fairly easy since we were there early and that the airport had plenty of agents.
There was a fairly heavy rain as we waited on the tarmac at the Amsterdam Airport.  That was a bit disconcerting for me since the airport sits more than 3 meters below sea level.  On takeoff the water really sprayed from the runway but the liftoff was smooth and easy.
The flight from Amsterdam was over seven and a half hours but the flight was fairly comfortable.  Although we tried to snooze, I don’t think that any of us really got much sleep.  Mary watched a few episodes of a new Muppets TV show.  I watch The Revenant which stunk and Good Will Hunting which would have been much better without the profanity.  The rest of the time we listened to music on the in-flight entertainment system that is now free on Delta international flights.  We had a breakfast and a snack on the flight both of which were good by the standards of airline food.
We arrived in Detroit on time and had lunch at Popeye’s Chicken (Ian, Emily & I) and Qdoba (Mary).  We used to the free WiFi at the Detroit Airport to check in then caught the short one hour flight back to Lexington, Kentucky.  We picked up the car from long term parking, dropped Emily & Ian off in Georgetown then drove home.  We stopped for gas in Mt. Sterling and made it home by 6 pm.  We had used up most of the perishable food before we left so we made a pizza on the grill for dinner.  We wanted to stay awake until at least 9 pm so we would start getting back on our time schedule.  Both of us would be going in to work the next day.
In reflecting on the trip we all had a great time.  We were so happy that Emily & Ian could join us.  Having them on the trip made everything so much more fun.  We saw a number of attractions that we had seen when we were in Germany in 2010.  However, it was late December then and everything looked so much different this trip.  In addition, we saw so many things that were new to us.  At dinner the night before we had a discussion of the favorite things that we did and saw during our time there.  Each of us had different favorites or different reasons for the favorites but each of us has some great memories.
For me, the best parts of the trip were when we were not on one of the Viking excursions but were just out on our own.  The included trips were very good but we interacted very little with locals other than the guides that were hired to assist us.  While I am certain that having the cruise passengers somewhat isolated would be desirable to most, we would far rather be more unrestrained in our travels.  If we were in a less culturally friendly part of the world we would have a different opinion perhaps but we would be very comfortable travelling through Switzerland, Germany, France or the Netherlands on our own using rail and other public transit.
It was interesting that we visited a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites:

The photo album that includes many snapshots from our trip is at -

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Kinderdijk, Netherlands

We awoke early on our last full day in Europe.  I suppose the ship casting off at 1 am is what woke us.  We napped off and on for the duration of the night but didn’t get the usual deep sleep.  Around 7 am we walked into the lounge for a view of the widening Rhine River as it flows through The Netherlands.  It has been to see the changes in the topography along the river from Lucerne in Switzerland through Germany and France to here in The Netherlands.  Initially the landscape was very mountainous then became hilly.  Now the area surrounding the Rhine is as flat at the delta at the mouth of the Mississippi. We saw a lot of grazing land with cattle and a few sheep.  Many local people camp and fish along the river although the cool temperatures and light rain this morning may be keeping them in for the time.
Our German/Californian friend, Trudy, joined us again for breakfast.  We really enjoy her stereotypical German perspective.  In fact, while serving herself some cream of wheat from the breakfast bar she was informing the crew of more efficient ways to organize the placement of meal items.  She entertained up with stories of her meetings with Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was California’s governor. 
There was a departure briefing at 10:30 where the cruise director, Chris, gave us details of the procedures for departing the ship and getting to the airport.  Like other aspects of the trip, it seems well organized and efficient.  We also received our satisfaction surveys to provide feedback on our trip.  We were very positive with only a few comments that the onboard entertainment was directed toward people who are older than us and have different tastes.  Even if the entertainment changed it is doubtful that we would have taken part.
Ian, Emily & Mary played Yahtzee in the lounge area as Ian watched for unique birds of the area.  The cool light rain kept us inside.  We were fortunate to have had excellent weather for all of the trip except today so we really can’t complain about a little rain on one day.  It seems very counterintuitive to comment on the cold weather in early August but we were all wishing that we had brought sweatshirts along. 
We opted for the informal lunch on the Aquavit terrace which was lasagna, hamburgers with optional mushrooms, cheeses, bacon and other toppings.  Trudy was in line ahead of us and was scolding the staff for not providing the best and most efficient implements for serving the lasagna.  After lunch the Yahtzee game continued in the lounge.  The temperatures stayed in the mid 50s throughout the afternoon although we are hoping for a clearing by the time we arrive at Kinderdijk, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Viking Kvasir moored at Kinderdijk at 3:30 pm in a light rain.  We donned our rain jackets and walked out into the very small Dutch town to see the sights.  While I found a nearby geocache, Ian & Emily visited a gift shop and purchased some “wooden shoe” slippers for his sister and a Christmas ornament for themselves.  I was happy to drop off a geocoin that I have carried for far too long and am happy to have given it such a long ride but I am certain that it go far as a free coin. 
Since the rain was steady and cold, we came back to the boat fairly quickly and warmed up before our guided tour at 4:30.  The guide was a fourth generation resident of Kinderdijk and was very well informed about the history of the town and the beautiful historic windmills.  He took us to the brick windmills dating to the mid 1700s on one side of the canal as well as the wood windmills that were built a few years later since the shifting wet earth caused instability in the brick foundations.  He even took us inside one windmill to see the inner workings including the main beam that connects the propellers to the water pumps below.  These main shafts are giant oak beams that are original to when the windmills were built in the mid 1700s.  The thatch roof on each windmill must be replaced about every 20 years and the windmill required regular maintenance.  Historically the miller gets free rent and a small stipend in exchange for caring for the windmill.  Unlike mills in many areas, these windmills do not grind grain but only pump water from the town into a canal that empties into the Rhine River. 
We were fascinated to learn how the miller can control the speed and pumping of the windmill by adjusting the amount of each vane that is covered by the cloth.  
We also learned how the position of the windmill vanes communicated to other millers whether they were prepared to pump water.  It turns out that the position of the windmill vanes was used as a way to communicate to allied pilots regarding the positions of German troops during World War II. 
We enjoyed this visit as much as any stop that we made over the trip, mostly because of our guide. The only negative was that the rain was persistent throughout our time at Kinderdijk.  Our guide took a lot of time to answer all of our questions about the importance of pumping water since the town and much of Hollard is below sea level.  He also answered questions about wooden shoes and the dikes along the rivers. 
I don’t know what I expected about the dikes but they were very much like the earthen floodwalls that surround Huntington, WV.  The dikes allow the Rhine to rise for several meters without getting into the homes in the low land of Netherlands.  As the area continues to sink by a centimeter or so each year and sea level continues to rise, the problem of keeping Hollard above water continues. 
After the tour we returned to the ship to shower and dress before the Captain’s celebration.  We enjoyed a glass of champagne to toast the passengers and crew and had a chance to say our goodbyes.  From there we went to the dining room for the final dinner of the cruise and joined our friends from a few nights earlier from Northern California whose daughter, Brooke, now works for Ikea in The Hague.  Chef Mario outdid himself once again.  I had the salmon tartar with bitter greens as an appetizer.  Mary had the roasted forest mushroom veloute while Emily & Ian had the tandoori chicken.  We had kir royale as a palate cleanser before the main course, a deconstructed beef Wellington, Napoleon style with sautéed vegetables, pommes duchesse and Cognac sauce.  Ian opted for the sautéed prawns and saffron beurre blaume with sides of potato soufflé and sautéed fennel.  For dessert we all had crisp dark valrhona chocolate tart which was quite good.  Since yesterday was Brooke’s birthday the maître d, Paul Daniel, brought citrus cheesecake to our table with the same sparkling candle.
Since we have an early flight and a 4:45 disembarkation from the ship we visited the main desk to take care of our bill and leave gratuities for the staff.   We were very pleased with the quality of service that Viking provides.  Although as seasoned European travelers we didn’t need that level of care here it was nice that Viking took care of all of the details.  We just had to show up and enjoy ourselves.  While we didn’t need that care in Europe it will be very welcome on what we hope is our next Viking River Cruise to China.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Cologne, Germany

We made our way to breakfast in the dining area at our usual time and in our usual table.  Our usual server, Kate, made sure that we were all well satisfied.  We did have a very pleasant and interesting breakfast guest.  Trudy is a widow who now lives in Costa Mesa, California but grew up and spent much of her life in Mannheim, Germany.  We enjoyed her German accent that sometimes drifted into complete German especially when discussing one of the many topics on which she is passionate.  Trudy’s late husband was once mayor of Costa Mesa and she is still very active in politics as an elected official as well as serving on local committees.  She is quite a character.
The morning excursion was a walking tour of Cologne and the Cologne Cathedral, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were on a bus with a guide who was very witty and was teasing the driver about how many Smart Car’s he has crushed with the bus.  Although we were initially disappointed that he would not be our city guide, we learned that the German guide, Ute, who was assigned to us was just as amusing but in quite another way.  On our walk around the cathedral she was telling us how easy going and liberal the citizens of Cologne are when compared to most other areas of Germany. 
About that time a bicyclist came riding past and she thrust her guide sign (lollipop) out at the cyclist and shouting in German that he was riding in a pedestrian only area. Later in the cathedral a man was leading a group of tourists who apparently did not have a license to guide from the Bureau of Tourism. She let him have it with a tirade on how it is illegal for him to act as a guide without the proper credentials and how his group should get out of the way of groups who were there legally. As we approached the crypt that is reputed to hold the remains of the three wise men, an American tourist, not with our group, was drinking coffee in the cathedral. Our guide soundly scolded her that she was not in a biergarten and should not bring beverages into a church.
Crypt that is reputed to contain the remains of the three wise men
The Cologne Cathedral is really magnificent.  It is good that Cologne is one of our last stops since if we had visited this cathedral first all of the ones to follow further up the Rhine would have been a letdown.  Although Cologne is a large city, the cathedral spires tower over everything.  Finding the towers of the church make it impossible to get lost in Cologne.  Despite being near 900 years old, the cathedral is still an active and working church. 
Ian with one of Cologne's Kolsch beers
After leaving the church the guide took us along the banks of the Rhine River past the fish market area where many good restaurants and biergartens are located.  She also pointed out directions to places for shopping and other area attractions that we may wish to visit in the afternoon.  We had been to Cologne in 2010 including to the cathedral but since it was in late December, the city looked very different.  There were many more people in the cathedral, the biergartens, shops and on the streets this time of year.
We took the 12:30 shuttle back to the ship and had lunch in the informal grill area of the Aquavit lounge.  We had sliced flank steak, soups, salads and apple beignets for lunch.  We left lunch to walk into the city to spend the afternoon visiting some of the locations in Cologne that we like to see.  We stopped by a shop that sells locally made fragrances and bought a cologne from Cologne for Gran.  We walked along the river and sampled several brands of Kolsch Bier which is only made in the Cologne area. 
Emily, Mary & Ian at ruins of Roman settlement
We made it to the Lindt chocolate factory and visitor center.  Mary, Emily & I had been here in 2010 but it is a very good visit.  There is a lot of signage on the history and making of chocolate.  You can also see chocolate being made into hollow shapes as well as small bars.  The process is very interesting and requires many steps to prepare what we know as chocolate from the raw beans. 
After leaving the Lindt factory we walked across the street to the Mustard (Senf) Museum.  This is actually just a store that sells a wide variety of mustards and has some interpretative displays on mustard.  We had several samples of the mustards including a special Cologne style as well as one made with Riesling wine.  Ian & Emily purchased several as gifts for family and friends. 
Mustard Museum in Cologne
We enjoyed the walk back along the Rhine since the temperatures were back up in the 70s by that time in the afternoon.  These cooler European temperatures seem very pleasant after leaving the upper 90s of home nearly two weeks ago.  We stopped at another biergarten for a final Kolsch and hunted a geocache or two along the way then made our way back to the ship.  Since we were all pretty tired we read, relaxed and just rested for an hour or so until dinner.  I even managed to doze off a little.
We had the daily briefing at 6:45 then dinner at 7:00.  A group was leaving for one of the optional tours that was a tasting of local Kolsch Bier from several of the area pubs.  The charge for the excursion was an additional $90 per person.  We were able to stop by several Biergartens earlier in the afternoon and sample local Kolsch Bier for only about $9 with each of us having sips to compare.  While we like Viking very much we do not think that we would recommend the optional tours as a bargain or even a desirable choice, at least not for us.
Ancient crucifix in Cologne Cathedral
Once again, Chef Mario prepared some excellent choices for dinner.  Appetizers were egg rolls or French onion soup.  The main course choices were roasted chicken, seared sea bass or porcini mushroom ravioli.  Dessert was ice cream, sorbet or a chocolate cake.  Most of us had the sea bass although Mary said that the porcini ravioli was quite good.  We ate with a couple from New Jersey who had lived outside Albuquerque for a number of years.  They were quite pleasant so we chatted with them well past dinner.
Around 9 pm we went up on the sundeck and looked out over the city of Cologne. As the temperature cooled and the wind picked up we decided to return to our stateroom for the night.  The ship leaves for Kinderdijk around 1 am and should arrive in midafternoon on Tuesday.  We have a tour to see some restored working windmills at 4 pm.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Koblenz, Germany

I woke up at 5 am and went out in the small park in Rudescheim to get some fresh air.  I was back on board well before the 7:30 am breakfast.  I have really been enjoying the cheeses here.  I had Limburger, goat and brie cheese this morning along with some heavy German bread.  As we were finishing breakfast the ship pulled away from the dock at Rudescheim am Rhine and turned downriver toward Koblenz. 
Since the morning was very cold we all wore jackets to sit up on the sundeck and watch the landscape of the Middle Rhine go by. 
Because of all of the historical structures, this 65 km stretch of the Rhine has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The number and beauty of the old castles and ruins amazed us.  We all had binoculars and were able to see details of the structures along the way.  As we went through the countryside and small villages Ian spotted several interesting birds.  At one point we floated by the Lorelei which is a very narrow and deep point in the Rhine River.  Legend has it that sailors who attempt to sail through this passage will be dashed to their death on the rocks.  A beautiful maiden, Lorelei, lures the sailors close to the rocks as they crash.  Local superstition prohibits passing through the Lorelei at night.
We opted to have the informal lunch in the lounge which was shrimp Po Boys and English style fish and chips.  There were also soups and salads as well as lemongrass tea which was quite good. 
By the time we were finishing lunch we were pulling up to the dock at Koblenz just a short distance from the “German Corner” where the Mossell River joins the Rhine.  We all decided to take the guided tour of Marksburg Castle.  This is one of the few castles in the area that was never destroyed in the nearly 1000 century of the castle.  Our guide was a local resident and had a lot of knowledge about the castle and took us to see a lot of the old structure.  It just astounded us that the timber supports that were put into place over 900 years ago are still able to support the building.
As we were leaving the castle we had the first rain of our trip.  The shower didn’t last very long but it felt very cold to us.  We made a dash for the bus for the ride back to the ship.  We dropped off a few things and went for a walk around the “German Corner” or “deutsches Eck” that includes a gigantic statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I who was the German ruler of the late 1800s and early 1900s who brought the separate Germanic states together into what we know as Germany today.  Ian went up into the Kaiser Wilhelm I memorial and posed for some snapshots.  We also walked around some of the area near the dock and found a couple of interesting statues as well as a few geocaches. 
At a cache by the Rhine River we met a group of three geocachers from the Netherlands who were searching for the same cache.  Like most geocachers, they were a very pleasant group.  Fortunately, Emily made the find on the cache.  After we walked into town, I met with a geocacher from Koblenz who helped me make the find.  It was very nice to meet other geocachers.  We walked into the Altstadt and found a really funny statue that portrays a “Rascal of Koblenz” or Schangelbrunnen in a public square.  Each panel surrounding the fountain pictures one of the boy’s many transgressions.  While reading the bronze sign in front of the statue, the boy will spit water on unsuspecting visitors. 
We returned to the ship to dress for dinner that was a celebration of German culture.  The problem was that most of the décor, traditions, music and food were from Bavaria which was not visited by this tour.  That being said, it was all in good fun and everything was good.  The servers and many of the kitchen staff were in traditional Bavarian Lederhosen and dirndl dresses.  Local musicians were hired to play an accordion and mechanical crank organ during dinner.  The menu was a buffet of pork, kraut, pig knuckles, German meatballs and wursts.  Desserts were gelato, kirsch tort, and Apfel tort.  A dry Riesling was offered as was a local Kolsch bier.  Many of the staff came to each table to have shots of cherry schnapps with all of the diners.  After we ate we took a tour of the kitchen with Chef Mario which was nice to see how such meals came from a very small space.
After dinner we changed back into walking clothes and walked back into Koblenz.  We strolled up the Mossell River and through part of the city of Koblenz.  We found a few more interesting statues and a display of three panels from the former Berlin Wall. From our previous trip to Germany, we knew that the town shuts down after 9 pm so we started back to the ship around 9:30 since darkness was setting in.  We had some decaf tea and headed for our rooms.
The ship departs for Cologne at 4 am and we should arrive by 9 am for a guided tour into the city. We will have the afternoon to explore the city on our own.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Heidelberg Castle

We appear to be adjusting to the six hour time difference of Central European time since we were able to sleep in again until nearly 6:30 am.  Breakfast was very good but since I wasn’t very hungry I just had a few bits of brie and bleu cheeses as well as some of the dense coarsely ground bread that is very common in Germany. 
The bus from the ship to Heidelberg left at 8:30 and arrived at Heidelberg Castle about 30 minutes later.  We recalled visiting here in 2010 and having to walk from the Bahnhof up the steep hill to the castle.  Our guide is a graduate student of art history at Heidelberg and was very well informed of the area’s history.  We are constantly amazed at the antiquity of the castle that was started around 1300 mostly destroyed in the 1600s.  When lightning struck Schloss Heidelberg in 1764 it was uninhabitable.  We enjoyed the old castle and learning a lot of the history behind the construction of the immense castle. 
After walking around the castle we walked down through the Marktplatz and to the scenic Alte Bruke bridge across the Necker River.  This bridge was originally constructed of wood but was rebuilt from stone in 1786 on orders from Prince Karl Theodor. We had about 90 minutes of time on our own to explore and shop.  Mary & Emily bought a few things from the Christmas shop and Ian enjoyed a Curry Wurst from a street vendor.  We all enjoyed our day in Heidelberg.  We had to chuckle about the street urinals that are in Heidelberg.  There is no curtain or cover just open urinals in the plaza. 
By 12:30 we made our way to the parking area along the Necker River to board the buses for the ride back to the ship which had moved while we were away to a loading facility a little further downriver.  As soon as we boarded we went to lunch and the ship continued on.  It was nice to be sailing during the day when we could see the towns and fields along the way.  We sat at lunch with a technology professional who had chaired the printer division of IBM (Lexmark) and came to Lexington, Kentucky frequently since Lexmark printers are made in Lexington.  I had a duck breast appetizer with Wiener Schnitzel as a main course and potatoes as a side dish.  Mary, Emily & Ian had the gnocchi which they report was very good. The wines were a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Malbec
We went up on the sundeck and played a little shuffleboard and visited with other passengers onboard.  The lounge had demonstrations most of the afternoon including glassblowing, a discussion of nautical terms and an overview of other Viking cruises. 
Dinner was a choice of crab cake or quail legs as an appetizer.  Main entrees were a choice of brisket or butter fish.  Most of us enjoyed the crab and brisket although Emily reported that the quail legs were quite good.  The brisket was excellent but was nothing like the grilled brisket that we enjoy in the US.  This was very tender and flavorful but was covered in a mushroom gravy that was a good bit like sauerbraten.  Creamed spinach was on the side with roasted potato wedges.  Several of us had apple crumb with whiskey ice cream but several had a French apple tart.
Two nurses from Charleston, SC joined us for dinner. They were a lot of fun and suggested some places for us to visit when we come to Charleston.  As we were finished our dinner the staff came to our table to wish us a happy anniversary with a cheese cake and a candle that was more like a sparkler or Roman candle.  Even though our anniversary is over a week away it was still fun.
After dinner we sat up on the sun deck and played shuffleboard for a while before the cool air sent us inside.  We stayed up reading for a good while before turning in.  The ship isn’t moving tonight since we will want to travel down the Middle Rhine from Rudescheim to Koblenz in the daylight so we can see the many castles, ruins and the attractive vineyards.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Strasbourg, France

The ship went through three locks by the time I went to sleep at nearly midnight last night.  Everyone was impressed that the water level drops by over 40 feet at each lock.  There was also rain at some point in the night since the drops on the window awakened me at some point in the night.
We awakened around 6:30 this morning and made our way to the dining area.  Most of us ordered from the breakfast menu rather than from the buffet this morning.  Ian had the French toast and Mary & I had the eggs benedict.  Emily had a scrambled eggs and selection of fruits from the buffet.  We also sampled the cheeses including St. Albany, goat cheese, boursin and dilled Swiss.
At 8:30 we boarded a bus to drive the 15 minute route from our ship’s mooring in Kehl, Germany to Strasbourg, France.  Our guide took us on a walk through the old part of the city where the Ill River enters the Rhine.  Most of the old buildings have a brick, stone or masonry first floor and a timber frame construction for the other floors.  Many of the buildings along the Ill River were originally tanneries or grain mills.  Most of the attractive old buildings now hold high end restaurants, hotels and stores. 
Our tour culminated at the Strasbourg Notre Dame Cathedral which is a huge red sandstone church in the center of the city.  Construction on the church was started in 1015 and continued through the early 1400s as elements were added and the size and grandeur of the church was increased.  Much of the art from the church was stolen during Nazi occupation and was recovered from Bavarian salt mines by the Monuments Men.  We were surprised to learn that the foundation of the church was built on a church that dates back even before 1000 AD. 
There were many ornate stained glass windows to bring biblical lessons to the largely illiterate population of the time.  There was also a large clock that changes characters every 15 minutes to represent the cycle of life from childhood, youth, adulthood and old age.  The day of the week is represented as is the moon phase and the position of the planets that were known at the time that the mechanical clock was built. The clock is quite a sight to see.  There is a line to enter the church and all bags have to be inspected prior to entering.  There are six armed military guards outside the church. With recent terrorist acts across Europe and in France specifically, the added security isn’t surprising.
We had some time to explore on our own before walking down to the buses to drive back to the ship for lunch.  Rather than eating in the dining room we opted for the informal area on the Aquavit area in the ship’s bow.  We had reuben sandwiches, sausages, salads, Swiss style kraut with honey and a variety of cheese and bread.  I had a local Weissbier and the others had soft drinks or iced tea.
After lunch Mary & I took a shuttle back to Strasbourg but Emily wasn’t feeling well so she and Ian stayed in until taking the bus into town around 3 pm.  Mary wanted to take the guided tour boat around Strasbourg and met up with the lady from North Carolina, Amber, to take the 75 minute ride around the city.  I walked around the “Little France” area to take some snapshots of the beautiful old buildings and to look for a few geocaches.  By the time I had walked over to the cathedral I had met up with Emily & Ian who had been to a local bookstore.  I met Mary and several others from our ship at the gathering spot between the cathedral and post office to walk to the bus.
Before dinner we relaxed and cleaned up.  Everyone in our group except me had the spinach salad with blue cheese and bacon.  I had the beef Carpaccio which is raw tenderloin served with bitter greens and a spicy mustard.  Each of us ordered the marinated pork tenderloin wrapped in local ham and skewered with potato croquettes, yams, squash and onion.  It was outstanding.  Despite that being the overwhelming consensus for the main course, the seared halibut steak sounded pretty good.  All but Ian had the vanilla and dark chocolate mousse duo.  Ian’s passion fruit sorbet was excellent as well.  The wine that was added this evening was an Alsatian Riesling which is a more dry wine than a typical Riesling.  We all enjoyed our meals greatly then took a glass of wine up to the sundeck as the ship was powering down the Rhine River.  We went through a lock that appeared to be more modern than others we have seen but the drop in elevation is just as great at between 35 and 45 feet.

We stayed up on the top deck until the air got so cool that we headed to our staterooms.  Tomorrow we will disembark in Mannheim and will be bused to Heidelberg then will reconnect with the ship downstream and travel to Rudescheim where we will spend the night.   

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Breisach, Germany

As with most days, we awoke around 5 am so we did our Duolingo lessons then went up on the sun deck to see the day arise.  The small German village of Breisach was to our port side with the St. Stephan’s Cathedral looming over the city. 
Once Ian & Emily got up we made our way to the breakfast where the buffet was excellent.  I enjoyed a mushroom, bacon and spinach omelet along with some of the typical coarsely ground Central European breads.  We picked up the boarding passes that let the ship’s crew know that all passengers were back on board for departures then prepared for the adventures of the day.  We were in group B for the trip to the Black Forest and the small town of Hoffstadt near Freiburg.  Known for the cherry schnapps, Schwartzwald Kirsch torte (Black Forest Cake) and cuckoo clocks, the town was about a 90 minute drive by bus including time on the Autobahn.  While in the village we saw demonstrations of how they build cuckoo clocks and blow artisan glass.  A pastry chef demonstrated how a Black Forest Cake is made that includes a chocolate cake, cherry schnapps, cherry marmalade, sour cherries, shaved chocolate and a huge amount of pure whipped cream.  It was a sight to behold.  We watched a cuckoo clock the size of a building and learned about the history of the Black Forest and how many of the German folk tales originated there. 
Because of construction, our bus was delayed and arrived at the ship after 12:30.  We had a brief safety drill that involved putting on the life jackets from our room and going to the sun deck for a check in.  Lunch was at 1 pm.  A lady, Amber, who we met on the bus to the Black Forest joined us for lunch.  She is a high school guidance counselor traveling alone from Raleigh, North Carolina and was excellent company for lunch.  I had a nice portion of veal and Mary had a Monte Cristo sandwich.  We exchanged parts and were both pleased with our choices. 
After lunch we walked around Breisach including into the St. Stephan’s Cathedral that was built in the 12th and 15th Centuries.  The site of the chapel was even used by the Roman emperor when passing through the area in the 300s AD. The chapel was a beautiful old sandstone church and is an imposing figure over the small German hamlet.
We spent most of the afternoon just walking around the town and enjoying the day.  The temperatures were in the upper 70s and there was a nice breeze for most of the day.  Ian was able to spot several birds that were new to him and I found a few nearby geocaches as we walked along. 
Around 5 pm Mary, Emily and I returned to the ship to relax on the sun deck while Ian wanted to spend more time birding in town and along the German shore of the Rhine.  We chatted with several people as they passed and Mary whipped me soundly in a game of shuffleboard.  At 6:30 we dressed for dinner and the daily briefing by the cruise director that preceded.   
We sat with a lady from Sacramento and her adult daughter who is employed by Ikea in The Hague.  They were both very pleasant dinner companions and we enjoyed the conversation.  Mary had the mixed greens salad and goat cheese appetizer, Ian had the roasted tomato soup, Emily had the marzipan but I had the smoked salmon with the salmon caviar.  Everyone was pleased with the first course.  All of us had the Chateaubriand as the main entrée.  The perfectly prepared medium rare beef was served with potatoes, mixed vegetables and a light sauce.  It was outstanding.  Desserts were a choice of ice cream, peanut butter crunch or Black Forest Cake.  We enjoyed sharing the desserts.  We had a nice while wine from the Alsace region with our meals. 
As we were finishing dinner the ship turned and started down the Rhine.  We were on the sun deck as the ship went through a lock.  We chatted with a retired civil engineer from Derbyshire, England and a retired faculty member from Dennison College as we locked through.  We have certainly enjoyed the people we have met on this trip. The cool air drove us inside to take a place in the lounge area for a short time until we decided to go to our staterooms for sleep. 
We are all looking forward to the day on Friday exploring the French city of Strasbourg. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Exploring Basel, Switzerland

We were all so tired when we returned to the room that we all slept very well awakening around 6:30 am.  Although that was half past midnight back home, we appeared to be adjusted to the time zone here that is six hours earlier.  Another outstanding breakfast awaited us in the lobby of the Pullman Hotel and we were all quite full when we left for our morning walk.  We had packed and prepared for departure but had not checked out of the hotel.  We took an electric streetcar and walked to a church that we had seen earlier called the Elizabethenkirche.  Although relatively recently built by European standards in the early 1800s, the architecture was very beautiful.  We all enjoyed the steam punk metal and water sculpture in the courtyard near the church.  
From there we walked to the Rhine River and took the walking path downstream toward the French/German border.  We decided that we needed to head back to the hotel for the noon checkout so we made our way to the nearest streetcar stop.  We stopped at a local Swiss grocery store where we bought some Swiss chocolate bars as souvenirs for family and friends.  We were back at the hotel around 11:15 where we met John, a human resources consultant from New York City who was coming on the same Viking ship.  Our limo driver Rene, met us at 11:30 and brought us to the Viking ship, the Kvasir.  Emily & Ian’s room was ready so they checked in but our room was still being cleaned.  We had a nice lunch of soup and sandwiches before heading out for a walk in the area. 
The ship was docked in a very industrial area with recycling plants and industrial vessels docked so we walked into the nearby Basel neighborhood just to see what was there.  
We continued walked from Switzerland into Germany and were surprised that we did not have to show documentation or go through customs.  The agent at the border just waved us through as we walked across.  We walked around a small park in Germany then walked across another footbridge into a small village in France.  We walked to a little park in the village square but didn’t stay long before retracing our steps back through Germany into Switzerland and back to our ship.  Of course, we stopped for snapshots at the juncture of the three countries.
We went up on the sun deck for a couple of hours chatting with Ian & Emily and enjoying the view of the river.  We got acquainted with the ship and our rooms.  Although the ship can accommodate 190 guests there were 174 aboard on this cruise.  Most are from the US but there are people from every part of Great Britain, Australia, Canada and other locations.  People are here of all ages but most are retirees. 
Our cabins have what is called a French balcony which is a sliding glass door overlooking the river.  Since we are on the third floor we have a very good view.  The cabins are small, mostly taken up by the bed but the space is used very efficiently.  The room has a small refrigerator and adequate space for clothes and travel items.  There are spacious lounges and dining areas throughout the ship so no one appears to spend much time in the cabins. 
We went to our rooms to change for dinner then met up with Ian & Emily in the lounge for the pre-cruise briefing with the staff.  There were a lot of bad jokes and an overview of the trip before we headed for dinner up in the dining room.  We were happy to be joined by a nice couple from Connecticut.  He is on the faculty at University of Connecticut Medical School and she is a financial planner.  Both were very pleasant and made outstanding dinner conversation.  Our first course varied from a beef consommé to a goat cheese Brule.   All of us ordered the beef with mashed potatoes and vegetables prepared Austrian style.  I had the walnut ice cream for dessert but the others had the selection of chocolate pastries.  We could choose from a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Malbec as our wines and both were very good.  Both the service and food were excellent.  The wait staff, maître d, Paul, and the head chef, Mario, came to each table to assure that each guest was happy with the meal and the service. 
We went to the foredeck after dinner to finish our wine and enjoy the view as the ship left the dock at Basel.  Around 9:30 we decided to turn in and watch the ship go through the locks on the Rhine River from our rooms.  We are all looking forward to visiting Breisach tomorrow and taking a short tour through the Black Forest.  From what we have seen so far, the Viking River Cruise people are taking great pains to assure that everyone is enjoying the trip.  The degree of pampering is a bit more than we would prefer but the staff onboard is very professional and accommodating. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Swiss Alps

What a great day!  We woke at the Basel Pullman Hotel around 6 am and went to the complementary hotel breakfast at 7 am.  There were scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage links, fresh fruit, cheeses, breads, cereals, smoked salmon and meats and much more.  We all especially enjoyed the orange juice that was squeezed as we were being seated.  After breakfast we took the streetcar to the train station where we purchased tickets for Mount Pilatus near Lucerne in the Swiss Alps.  The route we preferred was recommended by our concierge, Jean, and called the Golden Round Trip which took the train from Basel to Lucerne then a boat from Lucerne where we caught a cog rail incline train (Funicular rail) up to the town of Alpnachstad that would take us up on Mt. Pilatus.  We would take a gondola car down the mountain to Kriens then a train to Lucerne where we would change trains for our return trip to Basel.  It turned out that our chosen trip was currently on sale for a 20% discount which pleased us all.  In addition, our tickets included a $10 voucher for food at the top of the mountain for each of us.
On the ferry from Lucerne to Mount Pilotus
Our 9:04 train left the station precisely on time and we had a pleasant ride for about an hour from Basel to Lucerne.  Since the train station was at the edge of Lake Lucerne we had a short walk to the boat that would carry us to Alpnachstad.  There was a covered area on the boat but everyone was enjoying the day out in the breeze.  Ian saw a number of water birds including gulls, mute swans, grebes and a few others.  The boat stopped at a number of small villages along the way and let a few people off and on at each stop.  Most people disembarked at Alpnachstad.  
Funicular railway up Mount Piliotus
We picked up the passes for the mountain quickly and caught the cog railway incline up the mountain.  We learned that this is the world’s steepest rail line and includes grades up to 48%.  The ride was very nice and passed through for beautiful scenery.  
Contented Swiss cow on Mounty Pilotus
Everyone enjoyed seeing the Swiss cows grazing in the Alpine meadows with the large melodious bells around their necks.  We arrived at the end of the line at the top of the mountain around 12:30 and walked around the visitor center there.  
Alpenhorn players on Mount Pilotus
We saw Alpenhorn players and a small band playing traditional Swiss music.  A number of visitors danced in the visitor center including a fun loving nun.  There was also a great deal of yodeling involved.  We attempted at have lunch at the restaurant but it was quite busy so we went to a sandwich stand were we had some local beers and very good cold sandwiches.  After lunch we walked out the “Flower Trail” that had excellent signage marking the many Alpine wildflowers along the trail.  The trail was quite narrow and had a very steep drop off into the valley below.  
Steinbock on Mount Pilotus
As we walked along the trail a small group of 4-5 Alpine Ibex (Steinbock) were spotted by Emily & Ian.  We hadn’t watched them long when the fog rolled in and we were no longer able to see them although we could hear their high pitched bleat.  Mary, Emily & Ian decided to take a break from the walk while decided to continue along the rocky path to the top of Tomlishorn and visited a geocache near the peak.  I chatted with several nice visitors along the way including a family from DC, a couple from Texas and two sisters who grew up in Lucerne and one sister who now lives in Australia.  As I started back toward the visitor center, I ran into Ian who pointed out a group of 20-30 Steinbock grazing within a few feet of the trail.  There were animals of all sizes including several playful wooly babies.  We were entertained by them for some time before we started back toward the visitor center were Mary & Emily were waiting. 
Gondola car coming down Mounty Pilotus
We took the short Dragon Trail through the mountain that has a great deal of folklore associated with it.  At one time residents of the area believed that the caves held fierce dragons.  Other stories held that Pontius Pilate lived in the mountain.  That story gave Mt. Pilatus its name.  The caves have many windows that open into the side of the mountain that overlook steep valleys.  After a quick stop at the gift shop at the visitor center we caught the gondola down the mountain.  The first gondola was a very large car that held about 50 of us crowded into a small space with only a very small area to stand.  Fortunately, the ride only took about three minutes until we arrived at the lower platform where we caught a gondola car with only four seats that took us the rest of the way down the mountain to the small town of Kriens where we took a bus to the Lucerne train station and had only a 3 minute wait before our train left for Basel. 
A nun having fun dancing with musicians on Mount Pilotus.
We got to the Basel train station around 7 pm and the streetcar back to our hotel arrived a few minutes after we left the train station.  As we crossed the Rhine River we saw even more people floating down the river than we saw yesterday.  Although the Rhine is a large navigable river, there are a surprising number of people who get in the river and float along with the swift current.  We got off the streetcar a couple of stops before our hotel to have dinner at the same restaurant as yesterday, Kaffi Sandwich.  I was still full from the lunch of the mountain but was very thirsty.  Like throughout Germany, beer is less expensive than water so Ian and I enjoyed a .3 liter glass of a local lager.  Everyone reported that their sandwiches and salads were very good. 
We walked the short distance from the restaurant to the hotel and crashed in the room.  We didn’t want to go to sleep too early so we could sleep throughout the night so we watched the BBC, the only English language station we have on the television.  Our room is very nice but the air condition is not very strong and we felt that the air was stuffy.  We really liked the remote light and other electrical controls.  When we enter the room we must put a room key in a slot to activate the electricity in the room.  It took us a while to get used to it but the system appears to work well.  Tomorrow, we will walk around Basel in the morning but need to return to the Pullman Hotel by 11:30 to checkout and have our bags picked to be placed in the Viking River Cruise ship.  We understand that we will have much of the afternoon on our own in Basel before the ship leaves.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Arriving in Switzerland

We awakened early and had a nice onboard breakfast with some very strong tea.  We were just flying over some of the small French islands in the Atlantic as we were waking.  There was less than two hours of flight remaining after breakfast. 
When we deplaned in Zurich, Switzerland we were pleased to be met at the baggage claim by our Viking limo driver, Rene.  He had a very nice Mercedes limo with facing leather seats and a lot of comforts.  The limo still had the new car smell.  We were hardly out of the airport and in Rene’s limo when Emily looked out of the window and saw a 60+ year old fat man watering the plants on his balcony . . . stark naked.  Welcome to Europe!
Rene made the 90 km drive from the Zurich airport to the Pullman Hotel in Basel, Switzerland in less than an hour.  When we got out of Rene’s limo, we were met by the Viking concierge, Jean Yves who had a bellman take our bags up to our first floor rooms.  We were happy to learn that we could get into our rooms although it was only a little after 9:30 am.  Our hotel is exceptionally nice and we were happy to have adjacent rooms.  We cleaned up a bit then walked a few blocks to a nearby biergarten, Holz Schopf for lunch.  We had pizza and salad for lunch and all enjoyed our meals.  A local beer on tap in Basel is Feldschlosschen which is a nice light lager without too much hops. 
We met up with Jean around 12:24 (Basel is 6 hours ahead of US Eastern Time so it was only 6:24 am back home) for a walk around some of the city.  Basel is best known for the two major employers, drug companies: Novartis and Hofmann La Roche.  Viking had secured a mass transit pass for each of us for the time of our visit so we hopped on the streetcar and rode to the Marktplatz and the old part of the city (Altstadt).  We visited the Munster cathedral that was constructed over 1000 years ago and has graves within of people who were born in the first millennium AD.  Many of the streets in the city are still hand laid cobblestone and some bridges’ foundations date to the era of Roman occupation. 
Jean is a native French speaking native of Switzerland who is not only very knowledgeable but is an outstanding communicator.  He shared many amusing stories of the area including the story than Bern was so named because wild bears were kept in an area surrounding the city.  Before we parted around 2:30 Jean gave us instructions for getting to Lucerne and how to buy the required transportation passes.  He made sure we could get around in the city including to the Bahnhof for our train to Lucerne.  After we left Jean we walked around the city a bit before feeling tired and ready to return to the room.  No one intended to take a nap although each of us did so since no one really slept well the night before on the aircraft.  Around 5 pm we started stirring and decided to go out for a walk and to find a place for dinner. We were not terribly hungry after our large lunch but we wanted something.  We walked around the Marktplatz then made our way to a small sidewalk café called Kaffi Sandwich.  We all had sandwiches and salads that were very good. We walked back to the room rather than using mass transit. 
One of the things that always strikes up as odd in Europe is that very little ice is used in drinks.  I guess it is an American thing but we noticed that soft drinks came with one or two ice cubes.  There was no ice maker in the hotel so I gave up and went to the front desk to ask for some ice and the bar gladly gave us a bucket of cubes but it was obvious that ice isn't usually requested.  From prior European trips we knew that drinking water was less common in restaurants than wine or beer.  Buying a glass of water is typically more expensive than either beer or wine. 
We were all fascinated by the variety of automobiles in Basel.  There were a lot of Citroen, Fiat, Audi, Mercedes and other European models. We cleaned up and made plans for a trip up to the Swiss Alps near Lucerne on Tuesday.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Leaving for Europe

We left home at 7:30 am on Sunday, July 24 to drive to meet Ian & Emily to fly out of the Lexington, Kentucky Bluegrass Airport.  We arrived at the airport before 11 am, well in advance of our 2:45 pm flight.  Other than Emily having a pat down because of her pump we navigated the check-in and security process easily.  We used the time at the airport before our connecting flight to Atlanta to visit.  We had lunch at a Mexican restaurant in the airport as we waited in Lexington.  We arrived in Atlanta before 4 pm and didn’t have to fly out until nearly 8 pm.  The layover was fine with us since we had to travel from one end of the airport to the other to get to the concourse for international travel.  We grabbed a quick snack in the airport as we waited. 

Our flight was on time and we were happy to see that the flight was not full.  Many people in a row for three had the row to themselves which made sleeping very easy for them.  We were pleased that Delta has free streaming movies so I watched Hail Caesar and the new Jungle Book.  Mary watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.  Emily & Ian also found some movies to their liking.  Dinner onboard was a choice of curry chicken or three cheese tortellini.  Everyone enjoyed their meal.  We were able to sleep off and on during the 8 hour overnight flight. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Tamiami Trail & Everglades National Park

The Tamiami Trail is the name of the route, mostly US 41 from Tampa to Miami, hence the name, Tamiami.  Locally, the name is pronounced, “Tammy Yammy” Trail.  No matter where we are in South Florida, we find ourselves driving the Tamiami Trail to the Everglades.  From the west end of Rt. 41 the Everglades City part of the glades is closest but from the Miami area, the Flamingo area with the Anhinga Trail and more popular areas of the Everglades are closer.
The list below provides a set of mile markers for our favorite stops on the Tamiami Trail:
Far less visited than the more popular Everglades NP areas near Miami, the areas near Everglades City have a lot to see and do.  The visitor center has a knowledgeable staff and a gift shop.  A couple of boat trips are available from the gift shop including the 10,000 Islands tour and the Mangrove Wilderness tour.  We took the 10,000 Islands tour when we were there in 2013.  This is a large boat that accommodates 20 or more visitors and goes through areas of the park that are more open water.  The Mangrove Wilderness tour that we took in 2016 is on a much small boat that seats only 6 visitors and goes into the mangrove areas up the streams.
This visitor center has a nice interpretative display and a small boardwalk where we have seen a manatee every time we have visited.  The roads behind the visitor center offer a number of trails for sightseeing.
Mile Marker 72 – Ochopee Post Office
This former storage shed is the smallest US Post Office in the US. 
Mile Marker 70 – H. D. Williams Wayside Park
This small roadside park is perpendicular to the Tamiami Trail and follows Turner Road for a short distance.  The boardwalk is along a Turner River Canal that contains alligators and many bird.  The parking area is usually very busy for this popular stop.
Mile Marker 59 – Loop Road Intersection with the Tamiami Trail
We were not familiar with this loop road until we were there in 2016 but it is by far one of our favorite Florida locations now when it comes to wildlife viewing.  This paved and gravel road is not well traveled with many visitors to the area unaware of the road.  We were able to get very close to many alligators, birds, turtles and even a water moccasin snake.  The 24 mile loop goes from mile marker 59 to about mile marker 40 of the Tamiami Trail.
If you take the Loop Road you will miss the Oasis Visitor Center.  However, doubling back or visiting on the return trip is advised.  This visitor center has more amenities than many in on the Tamiami Trail including good restrooms and a boardwalk that parallels Rt. 41.  There are usually naturalists on the boardwalk pointing attractions out to visitors.  We have seen many alligators, birds, turtles and invasive walking catfish in the water there.  A trail from the visitor center goes out through the area.
Mile Marker 40 - Loop Road Intersection with the Tamiami Trail
Entering the Everglades National Park at the Shark Valley or the two visitor centers south of Miami (Ernest Coe and Flamingo) costs visitors $20 for a seven day pass.  Of course a National Park Annual Pass works as well.  The highlight feature of the Shark Valley area is the 15 mile loop trail.  Although we have never walked to the end of the trail, there is an observation tower that provides a breathtaking view of the Everglades.  Visitors can rent bicycles or ride the tram around the 15 mile loop trail.  In 2016 we walked over 2.5 miles out the trail before we turned around and came back,  When we were there in 2013 we saw a great deal of bird life as well as many alligators in the first half mile of the trail.  On our 2016 trip while we saw a number of birds and a good many alligators, it was far short of what we saw three years earlier. 
This is the first of two visitor centers in Everglades National Park in the area south of Miami.  This visitor center is near the park entrance and gets far more visitors than the other park visitor centers.  There are many rangers and naturalists to answer questions as well as gift shops.  The very popular Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail are nearby. Many trails depart from near the visitor center as well as the road to Flamingo that has a number of pull offs and trailheads for sightseers and hikers.

This visitor center is at the end of the road in the east part of the Everglades.  There are many naturalists and rangers pointing out wildlife and sights.  There is a marina and boat trips available out into the park.  During our visit there in 2013 we were fortunate to see both American alligators as well as American crocodiles.  This is one of the few places where both species coexist.  There are several osprey nests that often have young when we are there.  We have also seen manatees and many species of birds.  Between the Ernest Coe Visitor Center and the Flamingo Visitor Center there are many places to stop for hikes, birding or photography.