Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Beautiful Budapest

Sailing into Budapest on the Danube ranks second only to sailing into Venice on a cruise ship; it absolutely takes your breath away.  It was cool but clear on the morning of our arrival, and almost everyone braved the sky deck as we approached the city.  Our Tour Director, Eric, pointed out the sites as we sailed along.

Budapest, like Vienna, is worthy of more than one day's visit.  We took the included Avalon city tour in the morning and were driven through the beautiful city divided by the Danube, eventually stopping at the Belvedere on the Buda side to take in the view.
Budapest consists of two cities, Buda on the hilly side which is full of palaces and official buildings, and Pest on the flat side full of shops, offices and homes.  Pest is where most of city life takes place, and our boat was docked just a few short steps from the famous pedestrian Vaci Street.

We had signed up for an afternoon tour to the Hungarian countryside where vineyards flourish and wine is king.  We visited two wineries and tasted their wares altogether spending a great afternoon in the countryside.  One bottle of wine even made it into our luggage and is awaiting Thanksgiving.  Wine makes for good friends and fellowship! We made lots of new friends and acquaintances on our river cruise and would be sorry to see it end, but everyone promised to keep in touch.
A wine cellar in the Etyek wine area of Hungary

Friday, November 4, 2016

Sold on Slovakia

Full disclosure:  I've returned home and must complete this blog from memory.  We returned to bright sun in Durango, but now the weather has turned cloudy and rainy, just the right atmosphere for remembering out river adventure. 

Arrival in Bratislava
The rain abated for our arrival in Bratislava.  Bratislava is a good-sized town to visit.  With a little over 400,000 inhabitants, a pleasant and varied walking area (not all cobbles!), convivial people, and beer which rivals that of the Czech Republic, it suited me.  We entered a bus for a short tour of the city, which was quiet and deserted on a Sunday morning, and drove up the hill to the Bratislava Castle for the view.  Bratislava had been a refuge for the Hapsburgs when the Turks were knocking at the doors of Vienna, but they spent very little time there. 

The Soviet bridge over the Danube
At the castle, we overlooked the Danube where our boat was docked close to the modern bridge constructed by the Soviets as a pride of Communist engineering.  It's know locally as the "flying saucer."  Constructed with no center support in the river, it was the first of a kind.  Unfortunately, however, the Soviets constructed a highway continuing from the bridge which passed with 15 feet of the magnificent St. Stephens cathedral creating a hazard of noise and vibration threatening that landmark.  Beyond the bridge, you can see the many large blocks of Soviet-styled housing where large families often shared 2-3 room flats.  They've been brightened somewhat with designs in bright paint.  Our guide spoke very openly about how happy the young people were that they had been liberated from the Soviet oppression, although she noted that many of the older people wished to return to a society where their jobs and salaries were guaranteed, although there was little to spend money on. She was sympathetic, but she said their attitude was better a warm prison than the unknown risks of freedom. 

A quiet street in Bratislava
Now a member of the European Union, salaries in Slovakia average 1000 Euros a month or less while housing costs around 500 Eros.  Austria is only 14 kilometers away and many people find employment there where annual salaries are more than double those in Slovakia. 

Slovakia broke away from the Czech Republic after the Soviets left because there were two people vying for the position of Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia; they decided to split the country up so they could each have his own country.  Our guide informed us most Slovaks would have preferred to remain with their Czech cousins. 

After lunch on the boat, we walked back into the city to sample Slovak beer and see if it measured up to the well-know Czech product.  It did!

St. Stephen's Cathedral - Bratislava

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Imperial City of Vienna

Emperor Franz Josef as Zeus
I visited Vienna many years ago and remember it as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It did not disappoint on this visit.  Although it drizzled rain, the beautiful boulevards and monumental architecture shone through.  You might say it is a testament to the power of monarchy since Vienna has benefited from being the home of the Hapsburg dynasty and capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.The last Emperor, Franz Joseph, is responsible for much of the monumental 19th century architecture, much of which seeks to give him divine status.  It is now one of the most prosperous cities in the world and is a popular venue for political parlays. 

According to our Cruise Director Eric, Avalon once had a history-themed cruise on this itinerary which included a couple of Hapsburg heirs.  I'm sorry I missed that one.  I've just read through a history of the Hapsburgs on line.  Wow! It makes you thankful that the U.S. never had an aristocracy or monarchy! What a bunch of egotistical maniacs.  I'll take our capitalist barons any day -- at least their incompetent sons don't inherit political power.  It also makes you root for the European Union.  Seventy years of peace and prosperity sure beats centuries of wars for dynastic control.

Since it was drizzling when we arrived in Vienna, we ducked into the Sacher Hotel to sample the original Sacher torte and then crossed the street to seek refuge among the modernist paintings in the Albertine Museum.   Between the two is a Monument against War anf Facism.
Albertina Museum
It's a really ugly monument.  At least the Empire produced beautiful monuments.  The evening ended with the beautiful music Vienna is known for at a concert at the War Museum...don't you love irony?  It was performed by excellent musicians, mostly female, and provided a perfect bookend for the sweet torte which had started the day.  Vienna is worthy of a longer visit, but we loved the visit we had.

Waltzing through the Wachau Valley

Terraced vineyards in the Wachau Valley
The day dawned foggy and wet, but the sun soon burned off the fog and revealed the beautiful terraced vineyards of the Wachau Valley.  I'm claiming this as my favorite stretch of river so far  -- both Rhine and Danube.  We docked at a little town called Durnstein.  Like most of the towns we've seen, it has impossibly cobbled streets, and you also must dodge the BMWs racing through the one narrow street.  Durstein's claim to fame is the ruins of a fortress where Richard the Lionhearted was held for ransom after he was captured on his return from the crusades; England ransomed him at great cost -- one third of the treasury.  A better place was a little village we drove through up the valley.  It is the site of a wine cooperative which processes the grapes of small growers. With its quiet, narrow streets, farm machinery, combined with new housing, it reminded me of Collex-Bossy, the village where we lived while stationed in Geneva. I will admit to being a little weary of cobblestones and tourist shops.

In the afternoon, we made a visit to the Gottweig Abbey, a large complex on a hilltop a little further down the valley.  This monastery is home to 43 monks and also provides refuge to pilgrims travelling to Santiago de Compestela and others on retreat.
Our tour guide in the courtyard of Gottweig Abbey
Our tour was made more special because it was guided by one of the resident monks.  I most enjoyed seeing the manuscripts which had been hand written as long ago as the 13th century.

Library of Gottweig Abbey
We weren't allowed in the library, but were shown photos of it and several of the individual manuscripts were on display.  It's astonishing to think of the monks stooped over their work in a cold, damp and dark scriptorium. I'm grateful to them for keeping alive the tradition of learning.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Hills Were Alive

Mirabelle Garden in Salzburg where the children cavorted and sang in Sound of Music
On Thursday, 28 October, we docked in Passau, Germany, at the confluence of the Danube and the Inn Rivers.  We were booked on the all-day excursion to Salzburg, so we boarded the buses at 8:30 a.m. for the 2-hour drive.  It was another rainy morning, but cleared to partly cloudy by the time we reached the hills.  Salzburg is a beautiful little city nestled under a craggy bluff in the gently rolling hills made famous by The Sound of Music.  Aside from the fame gained from the movie, Salzburg is also noted as the birthplace of Mozart.  (He called it the "pisspot" of Europe after being banned from the city. Bad sport!)

Birthplace of Mozart
We were on our own for lunch, so we chose a nice, warm cafe and enjoyed the local beer and wiener schnitzel.  We then wandered around the streets of the old city until we were due back at the bus.  It's a really pleasant place to wander.  There are no cars in the old town and, unlike most of the places we had visited, the cobbled streets had for the most part been smoothed out.

Walking city tours are included in the cost of our Avalon trip, and there is always one group reserved for "gentle walkers."  Even then, we often have trouble catching up, especially with cobbles.  We knew this would be the case when we booked the trip, so it hasn't been a problem, but our guide in Salzburg was particularly thoughtful and nice.

On the way back, we stopped at a small resort town called Mondsee.  The church in that town was used as the site of the wedding between the Captain and Maria in Sound of Music. They were actually married in the chapel of the convent where Maria had lived before joining the von Trapp family as nanny, and that chapel was was off limits to the movie camera crew.  They chose a beautiful alternative!
Our guide played us a recording of the original von Trapp family singers...beautiful, classically trained voices!
Mondsee church and interior

We rejoined the ship at Linz and got a short driving tour of that city when we returned.  I really liked it, although the guide said it is not as popular for tourists as some of the other Danube towns.

The evening finished with a talent show by the crew.  I got to dance YMCA with our "Young Man" steward.  It was a fun evening for crew and passengers both, and we went to bed tired but happy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall

If there were 99 bottles of beer on the wall this morning, there are fewer now.  On our last day in Bavaria, it seemed appropriate to drink a few of them.  We started out last day in Germany with clouds and cold and finished with beer, Oom pah pah and fellowship.  We started off in the morning on an optional excursion through the Danube gorge, upstream from where the Impression had entered the Danube after leaving the Main-Danube canal.  Gorgeous scenery with the leaves in their best autumn colors.   The boat ride finished at Wertheimer Abbey which advertises itself as the oldest brewery in the world.  They can document a brew-master being there from 1050.

St. George slaying the dragon is honored here.  Achieved with natural light, the dragon is in the dark and the virgin is in the light
We visited the gorgeous baroque chapel (still a little too busy for my taste, but gorgeous nevertheless) where the guide explained all the significant allegory involved with St. George slaying the dragon, the forces of light vs. the forces of darkness, and the possibilities for reaching heaven.  

The lighting effects achieved with hidden windows and natural light used to tell this story were remarkable.  Visit it! As a farewell. we were offered a stein of beer and a pretzel. We were told that the most important part of the Benedictine monks' vows "to pray and to work" was to remember the "and." Proost!

Regensburg Cathedral - Gothic
The boat stayed in Regensburg for the afternoon so I was able to stroll about the old town, visit the cathedral, and shop a little.  Back on the boat, we were treated to a Bavarian beer tasting.  My favorite beer so far is the Kolsh in Koln, and the presenters didn't change my opinion.  In fact, my vote goes to the Durango brew-masters, although the Wetheimer beer was pretty good, too.  Those Benedictine monks know what they're doing after 1000+ years.

We had dinner with a really nice Texas couple.  It was so great to hear the accents of home, much as I've enjoyed getting to know the Brits, Aussies and Canadians.  Home will always be home, and Texas is my home.

The evening finished with an entertaining One Man Oom Pah Pah band.  Good-bye Germany.  Hello, Austria.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

An Impressionable Day

The bottom of a lock can be a little claustrophobic.  Scotch solves all problems.
The cold, rainy weather continues so it felt like the perfect opportunity to enjoy a day on the Impression, and it turned out to be a great decision.  The lounge was quiet and empty after the crowds left for their tours at 9:00 am.  A "light" breakfast awaited, just for us.
Our personal breakfast buffet
After a chocolate croissant and a coffee, I took a long walk  down the canal and into the damp woods.  Perfect!
The woods are lovely, dark and deep...

The hordes returned around noon and we were treated to a special Bavarian lunch with several types of wurst, potatoes, sauerkraut and beer.  This is a very friendly boat...only 118 passengers.  After one week travelling together, you get to know several people well.  The pace of travel also lends itself to socializing and making new friends,although the pace will pick up once we start downstream on the Danube.

Since Wurzburg, we've been travelling on the Main-Danube Canal.  After lunch, we were treated to a local lecturer who told us the history of the canal.  He also gave a detailed description of how all the locks work.
Our Cruise Director Eric-Jan Bleeker
Shortly after his talk, we crossed over the continental divide which separates the watershed in Europe north and south, unlike the one in the US which separates our watershed east and west.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Rauch-bier in Bamberg

The Bamberg Altes Rathaus

Bamberg should be on everyone's list when visiting Germany.  The whole town is a World Heritage Site.  It remains much as it was in the Middle Ages, and if you half-close your eyes you can see people in the dress of the Middle Ages striding about the city.  A bishopric was established here in 1007 by HRE and King Henry II and his wife Cunigunde.

While we have bee travelling through the parts of Franconia noted for its wine, Bamberg is noted for its beer.  Our guide proudly announced that Bamberg has 10 craft breweries, which seems to be pretty light on a per capita basis compared to little Durango's six.  The most famous Bamberg beer (Rauch-bier) is made from malt roasted over beech wood which gives it a smokey aroma and flavor.  Dwight confirmed that it tastes like a stale ashtray; I thought it tasted like smoked bacon.

The afternoon's entertainment was a lecture on the European Union which encompassed its history, 
Can you imagine coming home to this house when you've had too much to drink?
current challenges and future.  It was an excellent lecture given by a young German Ph.D. history student.  The Brits on the boat were somewhat defensive about their recent vote to leave the EU.  Although most of the Brits aboard are upper middle class, I was surprised to find that most had voted for the exit.  Misguided votes, in my opinion, but time will tell.  The U.S. has its own political and economic challenges.  Needless to say, the "foreigners" on the boat have strong opinions on our upcoming elections.  
For my Durango friends. (You know who you are.)

Off the Rhine and Locked into the Main

The Avalon Impression pulls away from Miltonberg

After leaving Rudesheim, we traveled about 3 hours before arriving at the confluence of the Rhine and the Main Rivers.  We unfortunately were unable to visit the great city of Mainz where the Guttenheimer Bible resides; that visit will have to wait for a trip downstream on the Rhine.  But it's at Mainz that the boat turned East and entered the Main river.  Our entire trip will encompass over 1600 kilometers, 68 locks, three rivers, and one cana.  The route between Amsterdam and Budapest can be driven in a little over a day, but will spend 12 days on the rivers. Over half of the locks we must pass will be on the Main. The Main meanders to the north and south as it heads east.  Its water level does not vary much like that of the Rhine and the Danube. We'll be headed upstream and the locks will take us up over 400m above sea level to the continental divide where we will drop down to the Danube to travel downstream for the first time.

The Pis Mannequin times three
But first we have to stop at the quaint German village of Miltenburg which Walt Disney put there for us to visit (sorry...I'm at that point in a trip where things begin to run together.)  The boat left us at Miltenberg to continue through several locks and pick us up at Wertheim.  Dwight had some problems with the cobblestone streets, but we managed to find our way to a warm pub in Miltenberg.  We waited there until we could catch the bus for Werteaim where we would rejoin the boat and continue on our way.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Weisswein and Wurzburg

Vineyards and castles on the Main River at Wurzburg

We've been travelling through gently sloping hills which are filled with vineyards.  While most of Germany is noted for its beer, the region of Franconia and Wurzburg are noted for production of white wine.  We were fortunate, as were the grapes, to finally see the sun in Wurzburg. Dwight decided to remain on the ship during our city tour, which turned out to be the right decision since when we first stopped at the Prince/Bishop's residence we were confronted with a hundred yard walk over cobblestones.
The cobblestone parade ground/parking at the Prince/Bishop's Residence in Wurzberg
Franconia and Wurzburg are now part of Bavaria, a fact which does not please Franconians since they used to be independent (remind you Texans of anything?).  It seems the Prince/Bishop of Wurzburg (an elected official with both political and religious power) managed to bankrupt the state by building his residence and the King of Bavaria bailed him out.  The palace, like most of Wurzburg, was destroyed by fire bombing in WWII, but since much of the palace was stone, it has been restored. (Photos of Wurzburg after the bombing look like photos of Allepo today...sad!)  The frescoes in the residence were done by Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and are magnificent.  Much of the palace is too rococo, i.e. full of gilded curlicues and cupids, for my taste.

Back on the boat, we enjoyed the sunshine and watching our progress through a series pf locks.

Tight fit!

Gorging on the Romantic Rhine

Like the Swiss, the Germans love to adorn their houses with flowers.

The Rhine River is know as the Romantic Rhine because of the stretch of river known as the Rhine Gorge.  Unfortunately, I can't include any photos of the gorgeous castles along this stretch because of the cloudy, rainy weather; fortunately, both Dwight and I had cruised this stretch before with better weather conditions.  We didn't mind the rain and cold -- it was a relaxing morning rolling on the river. The Lorelei looked like they weren't too happy, however. They were beckoning some sailors to come over and keep them warm.

Preparing the Rudesheim coffee
After lunch, we arrived in the quaint German town of Rudesheim.  Redesheim is noted for it brandy, and we can attest to the quality of that product.  We sampled the famed Rudesheim coffee which is made much like Irish coffee only made with local Asbach brandy, just the ticket for a cold, damp climate.  The Romans first brought grapevines to Germany, and the Germans have learned how best to use them. The vines grow on the steep banks of the riverside where the grapes must be picked by hand, but they are warmed and nurtured by the warm rays of the sun reflected from the river. 

Another product of the area was Hildrgard of Bingen.  An abbess who lived in the 12th century, she is one of the best-known women in European history ad achieved amazing things for a woman of her time and place.  Read all about her here.   
Hildegard von Bingen.jpg
We returned to the boat and were greeted by a towel art creation of our steward.  The evening finished with a performance by an incredibly talented trio of musicians (violin, viola, and 12-string guitar).  Another great day on the Rhine ended and we headed for bed.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Rolling, rolling, rolling on the river...

Our first day on the river dawned cold and rainy, but that was OK.  The Avalon Panorama Suites are made for cold and rainy days.  Somehow Avalon managed to face the beds in the room towards the river.  It's absolutely mesmerizing to lay there pretending you're reading and watching the countryside and occasional quaint village pass by.  The bathroom is even a decent size; you can drop your soap in the shower and bend down to pick it up.  I came here for a true relaxing vacation, and I can already feel my blood pressure dropping.

There aren't many Americans on this boat.  (I finally decided this is a boat, not a ship because a ship should be sea-going.  You can join that argument if you'd like because it appears to be ongoing.) Mainly, we've met Brits, Aussies, and Canadians.  I'm making an effort to remember names . So far we've met Croyden and Valerie, Mike and Judy, James and Gracia, Peter and Pam, Gavin and Stephanie and Linda.  You'd be surprised how someone's head snaps up when you call their name after meeting them once. I figure it's a good brain exercise.

Our Panorama Suite
This afternoon we visited a cold and rainy Koln (Cologne) just long enough to take a peak at the magnificent cathedral and to sample several authentic Kolsch beers.  I remember this kind of weather from our three years in Geneva, Switzerland...perfect weather for ducking into a warm pub to sample the local brew/wine/brandy!  That's my kind of travel.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Still Amsterdam

Amsterdam Canal
We spent the night on the boat, but when we awoke we were still in Amsterdam.  A canal tour followed by a walking tour of the Old Town was included in our cruise, so we took off in the pouring rain tethered to our guide by a wireless audio system.  This tour did the outer canals, so it didn't repeat territory already covered.  The rain soon cleared, the guide was knowledgeable, and it was a pleasant morning  even for someone who has already admitted to not being a very good tourist.

Back to the boat after our tour where we had lunch and an early departure.  It seems the water levels in the Rhine are low, so the boat will have to fight its way up the river against the current and take longer than usual.  Water levels are the bugaboo of river cruises ---- too low and the boats can't get through the locks or run aground, too high and the boats can't get under the bridges.  I was surprised to learn that our big boat draws only around 1 1/2 meter; the Rhine averages only 3 1/2 meters; it's now at about 1 1/2 meter but rising.  Thus, we can be thankful for the rain.  Often the boats have to dock and what are supposed to be cruise tours continue by bus/hotel, but Avalon manages to complete about 95% of their cruises close to schedule.
At any rate, I'm on vacation and quite content to let the captain and crew worry about water levels, just like I'll leave the weather to God.  We loved Amsterdam, but it's finally time to move on.

Rembrandt's House

Anonymous Public art in the Amsterdam City Hall

A replica of Henry Hudson's ship sailing for the new world

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Goodbye Amsterdam

Windmills in Holland!
The last morning in Amsterdam we decided to leave the city behind and tour the Dutch countryside.  For all my travels, I have to admit to being a lousy tourist.  I guess I just don't like to be managed.  Anyway, we climbed aboard a double-decker bus and were hauled around to visit a tourist village with windmills and six souvenir shops, a "quaint" fishing village with a restaurant that had the freshest fish I have ever eaten and many more souvenir shops, and finally an even quainter fishing village without souvenir shops which we just walked through to get to the bus.  Enough said.  The moment had finally come to board our floating home.

We assembled at the meeting place in the Movenpick Hotel where we met our Cruise Director Eric, and were transported to what would be our home for the next two weeks, the Avalon Impression.  What a magnificent boat/ship/vessel (you choose).  I'm ready for someone to take care of us.

Monday, October 17, 2016

I Amsterdam

The Rijksmuseum

Over 65,000 bicycles lost or stolen in Amsterdam each year
A new day dawns, 12 hours of sleep, and Amsterdam awaits.  We took a taxi to the Amsterdam Museum and had a nice cheese and meat platter for lunch.  You can skip that particular museum when next you’re in Amsterdam, but the cafĂ© was nice.  Afterwards, I conquered the transit system, taking the tram to the Museum Quarter.  While it was too late to attack the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum looked to be just the right size.  Humming “Starry, Starry Nights” to myself, I toured 3 stories of Van Gogh memorabilia.  The museum lacked the “Great Works” of Van Gogh; it concentrates on his life story.  Most of the memorabilia in the museum was donated by Van Gogh’s nephew, the only son of his brother Theo.  Being more of a historian then “art” lover,  I probably enjoyed it more for that reason.

My impressions of Amsterdam so far:  it is representative of modern Western culture as (choose one):

Most Magnificent
Most liberated
Most decadent
Most banal
Most crowded
For my Colorado friends...You know who you are.

Van Gogh Museum - Amsterdam

Black Death awaits in Amsterdam.....
..,or salvation
There is something for everyone in Amsterdam.  My personal favorite is the architecture. But then, I’m a practical person.  Is it just me, or have museums become modern cathedrals?  If so, the 90-year retrospect of Marilyn at the New Church in Dam Square would be good example.
Celebrating 90 years of Marilyn at the New Church in Amsterdam