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.