14 Day River Cruise: Hungary-Holland
After many a sea cruise, we finally did our first major River Cruise. We are two very seasoned travelers, both work paid and "on our own dime". In our late mid 60's, we have been retired for over a decade (on average). Leslie does the photo work and I do the write-ups. We try to provide great detail of our trips and lots of pictures of the places we go. You will not find many pictures of us in the lot. This write-up is meant to share with our friends and family, help others who may consider a similar trip, to "payback" in some way the help we get from Flyertalk members to plan our trips and in some lesser way to entertain and inform those that for any number of reasons will not take such a trip.
We have changed our format at bit this Report. Rather than do the trip chronologically, sneaking in various details of sideline issues, this Trip Report is in 5 sections. The content and extent of the coverage will vary based on my notes, time and both my interest and my perceived interest of the various readers. The sections will be clearly marked, so feel free to skip those that might not interest you. The pictures can be found by the link at the end of Report. The pictures were taken from buses (seat, window, wires, wrong side, weather, and etc. being factors). Others were taken as we walked in groups on tour, or from the boat as we cruised down the 3 rivers and one canal. The Sections include: 1) Ground Transport; 2) Flights; 3) Avalon Panorama River Boat; 4) Our Trip, from boarding to disembarkation; and 5) Pictures. We have tried to minimize the overlap and repetition.
A note to those afraid of sea cruises or the "water", the river cruise described had no waves, feeling of boat movement nor should anyone feel "sea" sick. Further, the depth of much of the river was such that you could stand on the top deck and have water no higher than your waist IF the boat sank!!! Great alternative to sea cruises for those with such problems.
We live in Escondido and flew out of San Diego Airport (SAN). Our flight departure was scheduled just past 6AM, so we were concerned about taking a regular shuttle to SAN. For a bit more ($200 total, RT with tip) we took ExecuCar. This assured us of a non-stop drive to the airport in comfort, with perhaps an upgraded driver (it was!). The driver had our schedule, was on time and did not break the speed limit (much). He handled the luggage and offered us water. We were questioned as to our temperature comfort a couple times along the route.
Our pickup on the return was a worry for us. We do not carry a cell phone, so we could only hope the driver made the adjustments for picking us up on July 4. Our plane out of Washington, DC was late about an hour. We should have been back before the fireworks started, but because San Diego had the 18 second embarrassment show, we arrived as people were leaving and traffic was a mess. We were grateful our driver was well versed in the street options and we did not have to make stops for other riders! We usually do not pay the extra for this service.
We booked our cruise with air included. During the 9 months between booking and the actual flight, the airline group (DL) we were originally booked with and the final flights (UA/LH) were changed. The time also changed from a comfortable departure from SAN of almost 9AM to just after 6AM. Our seat assignments on UA, I had made online, had been changed. The three hour "rule" for arrival would put us there before the door to the AP would even open? Even 2 hours was well before the UA counter was open.
A couple of days before the flight, UA sent us an e-mail inviting us to check-in on line. I tried this several times, but to no avail. The system said there was a problem. We called UA with that information. They assured us that there was no problem, but we would have to check in with an agent and show our passports.
Upon arrival (3:45AM) at the airport we went to the roped line and became first in line. Others joined us for the wait, as employees arrived and went into the back room. There was a separate area labeled for those who were going to check-in on the machines. At 4:20AM, someone came out and told us that we should move to the other line if we wanted to check in by machine, that the agents would not be out for a while. We did not move, all the others in line did. The employee asked us why, and we told him our story. He told us that the agents would not be out in time for our flight, and therefore we should now move to the other line as guest number 80 or so!!! From first!!! We stayed. The people in the other line started to go to the machines to check in. There was a lady helping those people, so I talked to her. She took our paperwork and handled everything. One bag each was free, as this was part of an international flight. TSA went easy. Got machine scanned and never touched.
Our first leg was to Chicago (ORD). We had modest advanced boarding with my UA Explorer Card. The flight was 100% full and therefore left a little late. Those in the boarding area with "BIG" carry-ons were offered free checking at the gate! (that saved a lot of people $50 per bag). Many standbys were denied boarding. There was no food serviced on this leg, except for what you wanted to pay for. We brought sweet rolls to eat and used our 1-k drink tickets (from the past) to have some wine.
Our layover in ORD was long. We took the time to handle our eye drops (glaucoma), and I switched from my contacts to my glasses. We also took the time to have some lunch," just in case". Our next leg was from ORD to Frankford (FRA), Germany. We were in aisle 41 (no recline). The woman in row 40, with three kids managed to make our space even smaller by reclining all their seats. We had two aisle seats in the center section assigned for us by Lufthansa. The two girls between us were part of a larger group and were up and down like yoyos, but pleasant otherwise. Two babies in our area took turns screaming thru most of the 10 hour flight. It was a miserable 10+ hours (oh, for the days of first class and business class seats!). Our FF points have been whittled down and the <1% interest rates have changed our ability to pay to get all the best!
Our third leg was FRA to Budapest (BUD) Hungary. We had what we thought was a long time to between flights, but had it not been for the flight being a bit delayed, it could have been tight. The stroll from Concourse A to B8 was a nightmare. I have a bum hip, but try not to complain. It took about 45 minutes to make the transition. You need to go thru passport check (immigration?). Then a walk and multiple belt rides of about 3 blocks. Three elevator rides up and down with walks in between. Once at the gate, it was three short flights of steps to the buses. Finally, one additional flight of stairs onto the plane in the rain. Nice! The flight was a short mixed bag.
Once in BUD we obtained our luggage, again without directions, and we met with our Agent from Avalon. He took us, and several others, the 2 blocks toting our luggage (walking) where we loaded up on the bus to go to the "collecting hotel". The rules for buses had been changed and we had to walk to them, rather than they coming to us. We did not see our check luggage again until we got to our staterooms (good)! The hotel does not deserve a category to itself, so I will just say we had chairs, water and a long wait until, 3:45PM when they took us to the boat.
Our trip back was from Amsterdam (AMS) started with a 5:15AM wake-up call in our cabin. We did not have to put our luggage out until 30 minutes before our bus departure for the airport (none of that night before stuff like on a sea cruise aboard a megaship). We had a leisure get up and went to breakfast. Sheila and John showed up just after we were through, to see us off (you will hear more about them, but this was early for them!). At 6:45AM we were out and on to our 7AM bus to the airport. We IDed our luggage outside the bus, so we were assured of it coming with us (good)! It took about 45 minutes to get to the AP (AMS). The check-in process was very unusual for us. We checked our bags and got our boarding passes, but then headed for the gate without all the security procedures beyond passport control. Once at the gate, we sat down in the waiting area. There was a second wait area, at our gate, with security between. We sat and watched as the TSA equivalent, searched under all the seats, behind the curtains, in and around the equipment, etc. Once satisfied it was secure, they then processed all of us from the "open waiting area" to the secure area. Here we were scanned and wanded, but not touched. The carry-on luggage was screened. The plane was a single isle, 3 seats on each side, with business and first in the front. With plenty of time, the gate agents managed to wait until 22 minutes before departure to screen everyone. Once on the plane, the lead flight attendant continuously yelled at everyone to get to their seats and settle in. We missed our slot for take-off, and had to sit for 45 minutes or so before leaving. The flight to Washington, DC (IAD) was fine. Food offered, but declined by us (we had a big breakfast).
Our second leg was IAD to SAN. The plane is not scheduled for about 3 hours, and is expected to be in an hour late! Once thru immigration, we go thru a full scanning again (shoes and belts off, full "monte"). Next we go to claim our luggage only to recheck it. We asked at Customer Service about the certainty of our flight and are assured that it is in the air and will depart at 7PM. We were concerned because of the rules at SAN about curfew. The flight was fine. We had aisle-aisle across from each other. The plane was not full, but most of the empty seats were in economy+. Guess they charge too much for people to pay for the unused space. We are told not to upgrade ourselves. Our arrival is at just past 9PM, instead of just past 8PM. The fireworks show for July 4 was to start at 9PM, so our original schedule and the revised one should be fine, but the fireworks went off all at once and were over 18 seconds after the start! Horrible traffic! We were delighted to see our driver and our name sign once we got our luggage!
AVALON PANORAMA RIVER BOAT:
There are several river cruise companies to choose from. We choose Avalon, as they have a reputation better that the others (our research), and have newer ships, with greater comfort. Our ship was put in service in mid-2011. It holds no more than 166 passengers (we had 160). It is the largest of the ships making our trip, but some others carry up to 190 passengers. That space has to come from somewhere. Our ship has queen beds (most others offer smaller bedding). Our ship offers "balconies" (more later). Finally, Avalon promotes heavily in Australia (overwhelmingly the largest group on our boat) and we like traveling with them (7 trips to Australia and New Zealand, accounting for about 160 days for us)! The price was competitive, perhaps slightly more that some others...hard to compare. We did get a big discount off the 2-4-1 price Avalon offered by booking on line at Pavlus Travel (866-436-9445). We have booked many of our cruises with them. Agent Pam Tafoya (firstname.lastname@example.org). They have a referral program, but you will need to contact me by e-mail, or private message (flyertalk), as this gives you a bit more discount, but also gives me something on a future trip too. I do not want to use this Trip Report for my purposes. We do recommend you get a quote from them. We have not ever found a cheaper honorable vendor. No handholding here. If you are new to travel, you might want to go to a brick and mortar business.
Arrival Day: Some people had time to do a bit of sightseeing from the hotel, but most passengers waited for the transfer to the boat. Most people arrived on board between 4PM and 4:30PM. The boat is small enough to find your way around in short order, but someone took us to our room. At 6PM we had the mandatory lifejacket drill. This took only a few minutes. The lifejackets are stored somewhere on the sky deck and were handed to us are we came up the stairs. Attendance taken, by room number and it was over. Gave back the jackets and that was that. We were later told that the Danube River was shallow enough, that one could stand on the sky deck and be only a little wet in most places.
Next we went to the Captains welcome champagne orientation. Over the next 40 minutes or so we sat comfortably in the lounge, had a glass of champagne and were introduced to the crew section leaders. We were also give a rundown of the evening events and a bit on what is planned for tomorrow (a daily guide was left in our room each night for the following day). We were also given a brief on the ship resources, but again it is simple to get around.
Our next stop was dinner. As many of you know I maintain a "minimum food like list", and that will explain my discussion of food later on in this Trip Report. More on food later.
Next we went up on the Sky Deck to admire the views, lights and finally cooling temperatures (been 85 or so today and humid). The lit buildings are beautiful, almost surreal. Leslie takes some pictures and we call it a night about 10PM. We have been up about 35 hours without sleep!
Luggage: Our luggage was collected just outside the airport by Avalon, and delivered to our room. Everything in our two near 50# suitcases, and three carry-ons fit just fine somewhere in our cabin. When the cruise was over, our "to check" luggage was required to be outside our cabin only 30 minutes before our bus pickup time to go to the airport. We did ask and received 6 extra coat hangers (12 were originally in our closet) and one additional shower towel. Lots of room in the bathroom to store all your "stuff" and their fancy toiletries. The suitcase slides under the bed, making a great place for dirty clothes.
Our Room: We are in room 228. Our beds are made up as a queen bed, but separate duvets. They are the foam type mattresses. The bed and four plus pillows provided a great deal of comfort. The area between the end of the bed and our fully opening sliders (floor to ceiling) is small with a tiny table and one chair. Nearby is a settee. The desk for the chair can be put next to the tiny table to make a seating group for two (4 with the settee). To use the "balcony" you first imagine yourself sitting in your "living area/dining area" at the end of the bed. Now open the 3 pane sliders that overlap into one, leaving a massive opening to the outside. You are now sitting on your "balcony"! The opening has bars across to keep you or the furniture from ending up in the river! The upgrade does not exist on the first floor, only a window. I spent some time with my feet out the sliders on the bars sitting in "my" chair. You need to beware of the wall in the locks and ships being added on (more later). Opening the slider allows you to get plenty of fresh air and to waive at people along the shore line. The opening also makes for better picture taking. The biggest downside to this opening is the heat from the reflection off the glass. Closing the curtains and turning the AC on takes care of that while you are gone. The AC works well but did take a long time when we first arrived on board and they had left the AC off and the curtains open. The electricity (230 V, European plugs) required an adaptor, which we brought. Ours did not fit, but they gave us one to use. Lighting in the room is quite adequate, except when passing through some of the locks, under wide bridges or when a ship parks next to our sliders. The quality of lighting in the bath is very good. Hair dryers are provided. The bathroom has a shelf with a large lip to keep thing in place. It was adequate to hold our stuff and theirs. There are cabinets under the sink. The sink water flow is single handle and provides water temperature up to steaming. The pressure is good. The shower is an adequate size, but could be a challenge for some. Pressure, temperature and controls were all good. The toilet seemed a bit high and was the typical "shuttle lid, vacuum type flush". There are two built in kleenex dispensors and an extra roll of toilet paper in the cabinet. A mirror covers almost the entire wall in the cabin. There is a table with drawers and a mini-fridge filled with opportunities to spend money. There is also a bit of space for some of your own "stuff". Each side of the bed provides a night stand, with drawers and a light. There is a built in 3 door closet, providing lots of shelf and hanging space. There are a few extra-large suites on board, but we did not observe them. The room is serviced twice a day. Once in the morning they make the bed and deal with the towels and cleaning of the bathroom. The free water is replenished. Most of this happens while you are at breakfast or on shore. WE never ran into these people (they kept track of us!). You are greeted by everyone multiple time each day by most of the crew! There is a door hanger to prevent, delay or rush this process, but they seemed psychic! The room is again serviced in the evening during dinner. Your bed is turned-down, a candy added, perhaps a towel animal (not consistent), and the room squared away as needed.
Laundry: We used the laundry service, as the weather turned out to be much more consistently warmer that we had packed for. Leslie had 5 blouses done for 15 euros, and I have two shirts done for 5 euros. The service took less than 24 hours. The items were washed, pressed and returned on hangers. Rush orders were a 50% premium. Items were placed in a provided bag, forms filled out and picked up in your cabin.
Room Service: I do not believe there is any room service provided unless you are sick, for real. The size of the crew and cabins do not lend themselves to food served in this manner.
Computers: There are 2 computes provide for free in the lobby. No time limits were posted, but there seemed to be access available to everyone who needed it, except the most impatient. Most people had their own equipment and the ship provided free WI FI. There was also a printer.
Lobby: The lobby had some chairs for sitting. Tables with cold drinks were set up for those returning from tours. The Tour Director maintained a desk there. The "purser/problem solver" desk was located here. Lost and found was an area on the counter. Your shore-onboard passes were here. You pick up your listening devises here before each tour. Most sums of change were maintained to break a euro bill into coins. This was the area for most departures and returns (except when double parked, read later).
Bow and Stern: both areas were open to passengers to sit and enjoy the view. Great area to view the process of going thru the locks. No smoking was allowed at either of these two areas. Smoking was limited to a small portion of the Sky Deck. These were good areas to relax, have a drink or perhaps take some pictures.
Lounge: An area larger than the dining room. The space served many purposes throughout each day and night. While most of the eating was in the dining room, the early and late breakfast (continental), tea and late night snack are served here. The onboard entertainment was done here. The bar is located here. The daily briefings (port talk by the cruise director)are done in this room. The lounge has the piano. It is also open all day for......well, lounging! Happy hour in the area overlapped with the daily briefing before dinner.
Club Room: On the 3rd floor there is a room with the library, a multi-task coffee maker and some comfy chairs. Next door is the hair/nail salon.
Dining Room: Use by the passengers three times a day and but the crew for their meals at other times, as well. Breakfast was buffet. Eggs as you like and omelets were made as you waited. The balance of the items were available for self-serve pick up. 4 or more juices, water, coffee and champagne (included) were available every morning. Various fruit, rolls, toast (you toast it), and an assortment of hot and cold meats were also served. Beans, hash browns and some surprises were also served. Coffee and tea was served sometimes, but always refills were. Each day something "special" was also featured, ie French toast. The time for breakfast varied with the day's schedule, but was always preceded by the early breakfast and late breakfast in the lounge. Lunch was also buffet, but some order items were also available on the menu (these are the "everyday items for those not opting for the many other choices"...my list sometimes). Usually three or more mains, with several items that could be made into a main for some (salad). The carver was often turkey, or leg of lamb. Several deserts, including a few "ship made ice cream" were available at this meal. Coffee, tea and sodas were included. Dinner was menu service. It was a bit odd. You selected your choices and "ordered" what you did not want as well?! Each night the menu included a cold appetizer (opt in or out), a choice of a couple of soups, a salad (opt in or out), a hot appetizer (opt in or out), 3 mains (choose or opt out), and a variety of desserts (pick it NOW). At the bottom of the menu were the everyday items (my first choice most nights) which included a minimal size steak, Caesar salad, x and y. I had the steak and Caesar salad most nights because of my fussy eating (see prior disclosure). You can mix the main menu and the everyday items, which I did always. Many of the mains were passed by me because of a sauce or similar. Fortunately, they did not seem to mind substituting vegetables. Rice was often available to trade for the too common broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, strange potatoes or even stranger baked potato. Wine was included with dinner. A red, white and a rose were offered each night from different regions of our voyage (plus). A selection of beer was also included. A selection of pricy wines was also available for purchase. The wine flowed somewhat unlimited if you chose.
Daily Newspaper: Besides the ship paper distributed to your room each night with all you need to know for the following day, there is an 8 page newspaper (8 1/2x11)in the lobby for everyone. They are grouped by country.
Passengers and crew: Well over ½ of the passengers were from Australia. Those from the US and New Zealand made up the next largest group. Canada was well represented, as was to a lesser number, the UK. A few others, that may have lost their way, also came along. The crew was a mix of nationalities. Most spoke English. As you got to the engineering and boat operating group English faded. Surprisingly, the tour director's command of English was much less that he thought, so miscommunication occasionally took place.
Tours: Included in the fare is a tour of each port that we visited. As the boat is usually moored close to the main city center, the tours are often walking or a mix of bus touring, with an optional get off and continue on your own center city location. A few times we were let off with a bus back option at a set time. Many of the passengers chose to make their way back on their own, often a 5-20 minute walk. Generally, if a fee was changed, it was included. REMEMBER keep some coins or dollar bills with you for the restrooms! Required! There were optional tours available too. Sometime these overlapped the included tours, and often we in addition to the included tours. Payment (cc) was in Euros for these tours. We took two. The average was more likely 4. Two or three of the optional tours started by our temporarily stopping at a port, letting the passengers on tour off, and then going further down river to join them later at a different port.
Locks: This trip included passage thru 68 locks. Some took us up, some took us down. Unlike going thru the Panama Canal on a mega ship, this adventure you were "close-up and personal". The process is clearly viewed from the ship. Many of the locks were daytime passage, but we also did many at night. The locks make the trip timing a bit more-iffy. We often had to wait for passage.
Bridges: There are a lot of bridges to pass under. The passage of the boats is water level dependent. Warnings in the brochures discuss what happens in the event of swollen rivers. The height of the bridges vary from place to place and river to river, as well as water level issues. The Sky Deck is equipped with railings that fold down and the captains driving compartment (bridge) can be lowered into the ship. When these events take place no passengers are allowed on the Sky Deck.
Dress Code: Smart casual is the most formal, and on this ship that does not require a tie or jacket. Many wore such things, but even then only two nights even listed this dress code level. Again no woman would have to have a dress with her to be in "code" here, but would find many did wear one a night or two. Some shapes fit better into one kind of attire or another. No T-shirts or shorts at diner EVER, please.
Payments: Everyone had two accounts on board. The first account was for everything not in the second, and was payable by cc. The second account was for the Cruise Director. This account included all optional tours and his tip, if you wished to charge it. Tipping for some was included. For others, tipping was divided into two pools. The first for everyone on board except the Cruise Director, the second for only the Cruise Director. You can see the CR had his own operation. The job is Extremely difficult. He did it fairly well, with some glaring omissions, some of which I will relate to briefly in my report.
OUR TRIP, BY DAY
Our first full day in Budapest...we are still at the dock. At 8:30 we begin our first included tour. We bus through "Pest" first and then we cross the Danube to see "Buda" (yes, they are two cities). We are split into 4 groups on the buses and the tours. The buses have AC and comfortable seating. Photos from the bus on this drive are quite challenging.
The "Pest" side is the newer, Eastern side of the river and is where we are docked. It is a flat plain. We bus past Elizabeth Park, the Embassy area, the huge zoo with elephant feeding, the permanent circus building, City Park, the museum area and the SPA (Szenchenyi, mineral baths), etc. Our first stop is Hero's Square. There are massive columns and arches adorned by statutes of various important and some infamous people of Hungarian history. We had more than 10 minutes here, so Leslie took lots of pictures. We will have to see how many "made the cut". I apologize to anyone I might offend by poor spelling, but there will be a lot of challenging words, many of which I could not confirm in writing, so I just "went for it". We then drove past the Jewish Temple (the Great Synagogue), said to be the second largest in the world at +-2200 seats. It is hot and humid today (36 degrees).
Next we bus to "Buda" (the "old" or "original" city). "Buda" is on the western bank and is hilly. We cross over one of the nine bridges and head to the Castle District (Varhegy). If not in a car or bus, you can take the 130 year old funicular up this hilly area (see picture). Our destination is the section of the district containing the Fishermen's Bastion (the home of the first fish market), church and the Royal Palace. The views from this area are wonderful. The church is undergoing some face lifting, so it's a bit of a construction zone. An entry fee is required to inter a side area, as well as the bathroom. Where you buy the ticket is not obvious, but we were told to skip it anyway. The bathrooms are just under a US dollar, but the fee is in Forint (about 225 equals one $), the local currency. I had no change, but they would accept a $20 bill as payment, as well as a 5 # note from the UK resident behind me. As no change is available we passed, as did several others in our bus group. To get from the bus to the district, Bologe (our guide) took us up 6 blocks. He mostly stopped in the sun to do his presentations! Our driver, Thomas, and Bologe both did a mostly commendable job, but no one tipped them, as we all thought the tips were included. Again our Cruise Director dropped the ball in our orientation. It actually was three days in before he spoke about VAT!
We were back to the ship before noon to enjoy our first lunch. There were two optional tours offered this afternoon. The first was Szentendre and the second the Communist tour (fees required for all optional tours). One could also just walk off the ship and browse around town. This evening we were treated to Folklore performances by 8 professional dancers. It was quiet colorful and LOUD. The activity was held in the lounge, as was all the onboard entertainment. The troupe was in period costumes. The men wore full skirts and aprons (refer to pictures). They also played music. We were both entertained and informed. After the performance, we had our port talk about Bratislava (tomorrows stop). As usual this was followed by dinner, piano music, and late night snack. We spent some time on deck viewing the city lights until after 22:00. We left port about 19:30.
Our second full day (further reference will be just third, fourth etc, skipping day one) was in Bratislava. Breakfast did not start until 7:30.
We approached our first lock about 8:30 (Gabcikova). The process took about 30 minutes in total. Another boat was already in the lock waiting for us to join it (see pictures). The facility is quite large. Lots of equipment can be seen. Major power lines (from this operation?) crossed our area. We were raised up 40 feet. We have been thru the Panama Canal, but on a major ship. This time we were "close-up" and could see the whole operation. This is really pretty cool, but soon became "just another lock" before the trip was over.
A presentation of the itinerary and optional Excursions started at 9:30 by the Cruise Director. There was so much history presented that many passengers were snoozing or had glassy eyes. All requests for optional tours were required by noon (one could pre-buy some of these tours before leaving home). It was a lot to digest for those who did not do any pre-cruise research. The Cruise Director needed solid counts so he could arrange all of the tours for the trip to insure our fulfillment.
Boat parking is one of the big surprises on the cruise. There is limited dockage at each port. The popularity of river cruises has required boats to double, triple and more parking. Yes, at one port we were parked along three other boats. From our boat we went up to the sky deck to cross over to the next boat, then went downstairs to their reception to cross over to the next boat and then again to the reception to the last and out on the deck! When we returned two of the boats had left and the configuration had changed. This was repeated in a couple other ports! Watch your feet, if they are hanging out the slider in port, as another boat can come up and park next to you quite quickly!
Our included afternoon tour started about 13:15. Bratsilava, Slovakia is a city of "previous owners" and governments. Not until 1993 did Slovakia become a country on its own. Our tour started with a three block walk (rushed) to where the buses could park. We were again on 4 buses (color coded signs, assignment and communicators). This time a 5th color, white was added to the "yellow" bus. The white group became the group that need a bit more time to get around, or the so called "slow walkers". They had their own guide at each port, but shared a bus with the yellow group (the group we chose). The yellow and white groups were both half size so they were premium, in my opinion. It also allowed "marginals" to switch back and forth from day to day based on their condition that day. Our first stop was the Fortress (Hrad) that houses the National Museum. The bus first takes a drive thru the hills so we can see the "castle" from above (no chance for pictures). Once at the fortress, we are treated to a two block uphill walk. Fortunately the rain had stopped and the cobblestones were not too slippery (see pictures). Footing was still iffy, as the walkway had many areas buckled and or missing. We entered two massive doors into an open empty courtyard. There was no access to the building open here. Once back outside, a sign in Slovakian, told of where to buy a ticket and how to get in. That did not happen for any of us and was not included. Today everyone has change for the toilets (80 cents, and 26 stairs each way)! The views included down to the Danube River (see pictures). The bus took us back near the boat, where our guide helped some us find the ship. Here again, only a few tips were offered, as there was still confusion of those who thought they had prepaid tips (no offshore service tips were included in anyone's fares)!! This was particularly difficult for the Australians and New Zealanders, for whom tipping is a rare occurrence in their countries (round up cab fares, etc). A bit more than half of the passengers opted to go on the second half of the included tour, which was by foot. First we went to the Cathedral of St Martin. For centuries this was the coronation church of the kings of Hungary. The entry fee here is included in our tour. Once inside you can see why it is so popular. While many fine words can be used to describe its splendor, I still found it a bit redundant to the many such churches we have visited before. I must be getting "churched-out" for travel experiences. Our next stop is the old city. It is really hot and humid, my hip is starting to scream and I am worn out. Leslie continues on while I limp back to the boat. So as I write this, I have not seen the pictures yet either. On the couple block walk back to the ship, I pass the monument to those who died of the plague (1/2 the population at that time).
Tonight, after the port talk on Vienna and dinner, we have a classical music presentation with "Aphrodite's". Hans, our Cruise Director, again gave a rambling presentation filled with double negatives and misuse of the language. Listen, but verify! Dinner was a third night in a row that I selected the alternative "always available" mini steak and the Caesar salad. The music presentation tonight was certainly entertaining. The music was a rendition of works written in that area of Europe. There was a piano, 2 violins and a viola. Only one girl spoke English, and she had a great dry sense of humor. They played some pretty serious music, but the hip gyrations out of the speaker on occasion added a whimsical feel. The group was a highlight event in my opinion.
Stayed up late with John and Sheila again tonight. We are getting good sleep otherwise, but doing our eye treatments is difficult the number of times required each day. Been waking up early, doing my drops and going back to sleep.
Our third day we have early breakfast (7 AM) and depart for our included tour of Vienna at 8:15. Our groups start off with a bus ride along the Ring road. We eventually end up in the city center at St. Stephens Cathedral. We tour the Cathedral and take a walking tour though parts of the old city. . Our guided walk in the old city was only a couple blocks. Lots of upscale vendors have taken root here. Numerous coffee houses, ice cream shops (see picture), and bakeries fill many other stores. One bakery had a life size "bride" cake sculpture (picture). The ice cream in one shop was too pretty to scoop into! We are then let loose on our own. Those wishing a ride back to the ship could go with the guides back to the church or could meet at the church in an hour. Everyone else could do as they please and meet back at the boat. We had signed up for an optional tour at 13:15, so we opted to tag along with the guide (and a trainee) back toward the church. We dropped off when we were comfortable with our location, joining up again when the bus time came. The bus ride back to the ship made major use of the circular road around the old town that was built over what was at one time a moat around the town for protection. We passed the homes of famous composers, facades of the Nazi past, churches and museums. The pictures from the bus are not likely to be too good, as the bus did not slow down, lots of wires and we are only on one side. Once back at the boat, we have lunch and prepare for our afternoon optional excursion to Schonbrunn Palace.
Our optional tour (44 euro) starts at 13:15 on the bus to Schonbrunn Palace. Our bus drops us off a few blocks away, and we walk to the entry. Parking closer is not allowed, nor is drop-off. The walk is flat, and is filled with the guide telling us the history. Note: NO pictures are allowed inside. YOU will be required to check your bags, including purses of fairly modest size. The check area is not patrolled or guarded, although there are lockers with a refundable 1 Euro deposit for the key. The Palace was completed in 1743. There are a 1000 plus rooms.
The Palace served as the summer home of Maria Theresia (mother of 16 children, including Marie Antoinette). Today many of these rooms are rented as apartments, a few as commercial operations with several available for touring. The facilities are on about 250 acres. Large gardens also house a zoo, the Tiergarten Schonbrunn. It is very hot today. The tour starts out in the gardens (pictures). After a bit, our group is called to tour the Palace (admission included), but I decide to walk the couple kilometers to the zoo. Leslie does the pictures but none were allowed inside. I do the write-ups and I did not go in, so here you are on your own. The gardens are very large, allowing for many large groups to mass waiting their turn to go into the Palace. The Palace is somewhat crowded, but the spacing seems to work. The gardens have both paved and gravel paths. Fountains and statutes add to the trees, shrubs and flowers. The entry to the zoo ( http://www.zoovienna.at/en/zoo-and-visitors/visitor-information/) was a bit far from where I first encountered the walls, but I was able to see some Wallabies from a window. At 250 years, this is arguably the oldest zoo anywhere. Unfortunately, I did not have time to go in and enjoy the zoo. I was to meet the group after the tour of the Palace, before the strudel demonstration, or at least before the bus departure. As I start my walk back, I find a remote bathroom. New rules, 50 cents for men, free for women. I take a slightly different route, passing by a beautiful Japanese Garden. After a bit, I reunite with the group and go to the apple strudel making demonstration, tasting and a bit of coffee or tea. It is a tiny room in the cellar. Tables of two have four chairs around them. It was a fun 20 minutes followed by a blatant request for tips! The cost of this optional tour was 44 euros. Back on the bus and back to the boat.
We have our port talk on Durnstein and Melk when we returned.
A second optional tour leaves tonight at 19:30, to attend a Concert (@49 euro pp, 3 buses, so it is popular). We are not going, nor are John and Shelia, so we have a glass of wine and hold off on dinner to give the others a head start for their departure. This served the people on tour well, but we were the last to leave the dining room, perhaps not serving the wait staff so well.
Our fourth day we again have 7 AM breakfast to be ready for our 8:15 included tour of Durnstein. Approaching the town we pass a large castle up on a hill at marker 79. Most of the scenery along the river is made up of trees and flood plains in this area. We pass Krems and its suburbs, before reaching our destination. Just outside town is a "camping" park with RV's and tents. There is also a "marina". Leslie and I decide to skip the walks into Durnstein (60 minute tour), in order to catch up on my write up and her photo notes. We can see many of the buildings of the town from where we sit, outside the lounge, on the bow of the ship. There are 17 boats in town today, so there is a constant flow of passengers walking the road to town. Note: the white group was provided street train transportation into town. As town is very small, and very close, few people are missing it. Can you say souvenirs? We will be departing town by 10:45 AM.
Now we sail for Melk. During the sail there is a commentary on the Wachau Valley given on the sky deck, followed by lunch.
Our second included tour today starts about 15:00 and goes to the Melk Abbey. The bus ride to the Abbey is about 10 minutes. It is several levels of steps down from the bus park, as well as a couple blocks, to get to the entrance of the Abbey. A minivan is provided for the white group. There are many buses ahead of us, and the wait is nearly 30 minutes in the sun/partial shade. It is quite hot, but no rain today. We are provided a young guide for each group of 20 or so. The spacing is tight, but it is spaced. Unfortunately, individuals are also touring and they just mix/blend/pass as they choose. We see the great hall, the library (one of ten), the marble room, the church and a couple of others. The pace is quite fast. There are gardens to view but no time to do so. Note: you can get water bottles on ship and bring them on the tours...included. Most of us assume there was a planning failure, and that's why we did not get our planned time spot.
Back on board, we have an included wine tasting (3 tastes) presented by a representative of the wine industry in Wachau Valley. No one of our table of 4 found an acceptable wine. The presentation was made by a clearly inebriated presenter and was not a highlight on the trip. After this, even Hans' presentation on our next ports of Linz and Passau, seemed clearer than others.
After dinner most of the passengers were treated to a violin concert in the lounge. I chose to do my eye treatments, which have not been that well done some of the cruise.
Our fifth day we go to breakfast late, as all the passengers except a dozen or so (including us) are taking one of three optional excursions. These are all day excursions. The passengers will depart the boat in Linz around 8:15 AM and then rejoin us in the port of Passau this evening. There are 3 optional tours: 1) Salzburg (64 Euro); 2) Cesky Krumlov (64 Euro); and 3) the Lake District (64 euro). Rain coats and umbrellas are suggested, and were needed! It was raining heavily before the groups got on the buses and continued until about 10AM (our location).
The balance of the passengers had a leisurely boat ride on the Danube. We visited the third floor club room and sampled a horrible coffee. We did several locks. Approaching Passau, the Danube is joined by the Inn and the Ilz rivers. The Inn comes with a lot of silt. About 16:00 we arrived in Passau. Minutes later we went on the included tour of Passau. The tour is a walking one. The town is located on the Austrian and Czech border. The highlight of the tour was St. Steven's Cathedral. Burned down in 1662 and then rebuilt by Carlo Lurago. The organ has about 18,000 pipes (not a typo, eighteen thousand), 233 stops and 4 carillons. This is the largest cathedral organ. The city, besides its beauty, is famous for its Bavarian beers and its dumplings.
Tonight we have our port talk on Regensburg, before dinner.
Our sixth day and the first stop is Bach. It was scheduled at 8 AM, but we arrive an hour late due to some lock delays. This stop, like Lenz yesterday, is purely to let off passengers taking an optional tour (41 euros). The tour offered here is of the Danube Gorge. There are 3 buses for the tour, leaving about 3 dozen passengers on board (including us). There is no way to make up time on the river. We arrive in Regensburg about 1 ½ hours late.
The included tour of Regensburg is a 90 minute walking tour. There will be a later included tour of Regensburg for those returning from the optional tour. The walk is, as always on cobblestone and contains some modest steps and inclines. We visit Dom St. Peter. The Cathedral is still under renovations. Acid rain caused by the switching to coal in the area has played havoc with much of the town. The town is famous as a survivor of WW II. Much of the town was by passed by the bombing, as sausages and beer just did not seem like a good target. The tour ends at the Alte Wurstelkueche (old sausage factory), for included Bratwursts, sauerkraut and beer. Later there is a demonstration planned at the Drubba store of Cuckoo clocks. We were given a coupon for a small gift at Drubba, but it turned out to be a come on requiring minimum purchases. The sausages were very good (I said that?) as was the beer. Eaten outdoors, with a number of locals and visitors from the general surrounds visiting the city. A nice stop. The whole of the Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a little tricky today, as the ship relocated while we were on tour. The new location enabled us to gain some time lost before.
Upon return, we have our sailing and port talk for our next stop in Nuremberg.
Tonight, after dinner, we are treated to entertainment with Hans O'Marusch in the Lounge. Best described as comedy-music, Hans spoke about 95% German in his act. He giggled a lot, sort of a bad clown presentation. When he picked up one of several different musical instruments and played, he was very good! His playing on the Pan Flute was a special treat. Part of the act was to have 5 men and then 5 women make up a band with odds and ends instruments. Hans, like some of the other entertainment onboard while sailing, got off at a lock later and was driven back to town.
Our day seven breakfast is later, and the pace seem to slow, but we know that will change. We have a lecture on board on the Main Danube Canal. Efforts date back to Charlemagne, who tried to connect the Danube to a smaller river a couple KMs away through a series of ponds. The process involved portage of the boats in between. Later the second King Ludwig started a 172 km canal in the 1830's, but by the time it was finished the RR had come in and this 100 lock canal was almost useless. Another 100 or so years passed, and Presidents Strauss and Streibi proceeded with a modern canal with only 16 locks. The work was paid 66% federal and 33% Bavarian Government. The cost approached 3 billion and was completed in 1992. The finished product was sold to four utilities in 1995 for 400 million euros. From the top to the bottom there is a 1400' difference. Three of the locks each make a 75' drop. Some of the area is channelized and you can look from the ship down and see car traffic! All this is necessary to cross the continental divide. This stretch has speed controls, no anchoring to avoid damaging the structures and is narrower than the Danube.
Lunch today is Bavarian themed.
At 14:00 the optional Nuremberg Trials (29 euros) tour departs.
Ten minutes later the included sightseeing tour of Nuremberg starts. The tour starts with a panoramic drive through the city. We next do a short walking tour in the city center on the Market square. The city underwent material bombing during WW II, eliminating most of its historic buildings. The city seems more noted for the Nazi war crimes trials than anything else.
We have the normal port talk of our next port, Bamberg followed by dinner.
Tonight our entertainment is Bavarian beer tasting in the lounge.
Our day eight starts with a 7 AM breakfast and arrival in Bamberg at 8 AM.
The included sightseeing tour of Bamberg starts with a coach ride to the city center for the start of a 90 minute walking tour. Access to the city is too far to walk to (rare). Our first stop at a church is omitted because of a funeral taking place. Our guide, a man of age beyond mine, was excellent. He freely shared his vast knowledge of the area and all its history and how that fit into the rest of the world! He actually took us on an excess of 2 hour tour. He often offered anyone who wished to go it alone, to do so. The first half of the walk was generally uphill. Bamberg is about 70,000 people. During the war the city had no manufacturing or war significance and therefore was largely unbombed. The City Government office is built over the river, as the Bishop at the time (all controlling) refused to cede any land!
We get back before lunch, eat and then a lecture on the European Union is offered in the Lounge. I skip it to do my write-up and rest. This was a tough tour. At 15:00, the first of 3 galley tours are offered. We avoid these as well.
This afternoon we go through the last of the canal and enter the first lock of the River Main. We are now back to more normal river banks, no more concrete walls. We have more hilly sides as well. Homes are built high above the river with great views (pictures).
The port talk with Hans covers Wuerzburg. He also lets us know about a form we can use to grade our tour guides. Now he tells us? Momma Mia is to be shown tonight with popcorn for everyone. The show is taken over by some soccer match (Italy vs. Germany), and no popcorn makes it around.
Side note: So far the cities we have visited in Germany are occupied by people who generally obey the traffic signals in the city, unlike most of America and many other countries we have visited.
Our day nine is yet another early breakfast. The view from our cabin is Kappele (a multi-spired church) and the Marienberg Fortress
The included tour of Wuerzburg starts with a short ride to the Residence, once home to the Prince Bishops. No photos are allowed inside, and large purses must be checked. The rooms are very ornate. Ceiling Frescos are enhanced by relief statues. Massive rooms are a tribute to the engineering greatness that allowed this building to stand since the mid 1200's and for its main halls to survive despite massive damage from bombing during the war to the other side of the building and wings. We had some brief time to visit the gardens before being split into two groups. One group, by far the largest continued with a walking tour of the central city (followed by a walk back to the ship). The second group (35+-) returned to the boat (us) joining the few dozen that had passed on the included tour.
Lunch offers an alternative (limited #, sign up required) BBQ on the Sky Deck. Having signed up, we had to return with the second group. The lunch included minute steaks, chicken, sausage, salads, corn and ice cream. Drinks were handled as if in the dining room, that is, you pay for beer and wine. Only 20 people came to the BBQ, which offers 40-50 max.
At 13:15 there is an optional tour to Rothenburg (39 euros). We pass.
Tonight we have our port talk on Miltenberg. The delayed showing of Mama Mia occurs, however the announced popcorn does not. Hans sometime offers, but cannot deliver. Did I say how hard his job is!?
We are still on the River Main. We were late getting though dinner, and took our remaining wine (3/4 glass) back to our cabin, no problem.
Our day ten has me with a bit of the sniffles. I start taking medicine, so drinking is over. Breakfast is a bit later today.
At 10 AM, we are treated to Tomy Temerson's performing on the Zither (picture). Such skills are quite rare. He played over a dozen musical pieces for us. He became the "best seller" so far with his CD's (10 euros), scoring sales of about 30. His last piece was Edelweiss, and we were encouraged to sing along. We are cruising the whole time, so we let Tomy off at the next lock. We are expected to reach Miltenberg around 11:30.
The included tour of Miltenberg is totally a walking tour. We are really in luck. The town is celebrating its 775th year anniversary! This small town of about 4,000 is bursting with about 20-25,000 today. The week-long celebration includes parades, encampments recreating the early days of the town, special exhibits, food and beer. No way to get lost. There are two streets paralleling the River Main. One has the building, the other the encampments. The Catholic Church (represents about 80% of the population) is right downtown. We visit it, as a refuge from the mob outside and a bit of shade from the heat. The church is quite plain, a relief from all the glitz of most (pictures). There is a Protestant church just outside town (2 blocks) that represent most of the balance of the community. We did not visit it. The city has one bridge over the River Main. The included tour took a bit less than an hour.
Tonight we have our port talk on Ruedesheim.
After dinner we are treated to the Crew show. I skipped the show in favor of getting some sleep and maybe kicking the sniffles. Leslie took in the show and has some pictures that made the cut for you to see. She said the show was mainly skits, with one of the crew playing the saxophone.
Our day eleven is an easy start day, with arrival in Ruedesheim not expected until 11:30 AM. We passed Frankfort early this morning. Note lots of things happen at night and early morning, which most people miss. One of the things about river cruising is the continual "stuff" to see, unlike sea cruises. There are still plenty of locks to pass through, but that will mostly end once we enter the Rhine River. We will also get rid of those pesky low bridges. After breakfast we make the transition on to the Rhine. During the change, we pass the City of Mainz. Rain once again joins and the temperature finally drops a bit. The Marker is about 500, where we enter the Rhine. Mansions dot the hillside on the right side (not ours). There are also lots of vineyards on the right. The water is much wider here on the Rhine. We see many more commercial boats. The number of birds starts increasing too (swans and herons). I am, and have been, surprised at the number of trees growing in the River, and here the great variety of trees. The weeping willow types are really spectacular.
Our afternoon (13:00) tour of Ruedesheim starts with an orientation drive on a street train. I am feeling a bit better and decide to join the tour. We end up at a Music instrument museum (WOW), where we are taken in too big a group and much too fast. We are not allowed to browse at our own speed or to stay behind to really get a good look at the displays. Seeing or taking pictures is very challenging in such a large group and with so little time. We are left to fend for ourselves for a bit, and then optionally to meet at the Ruedesheimer Schloss at 14:15 for wine tasting. The tasting was at tables, attended by too many people and held during all other activities at this very busy restaurant. The wines were average to us, and only three. One was very sweet and Leslie and I found it undrinkable. Everyone who went on the included tour were free to join the street train back to the boat at the appointed time, or to make their own way back.
We depart Ruedesheim at 17:15. Hans provides us with a narration on the "Romantic Rhine", later followed by his port talk on Cologne.
Our day twelve starts with 7 AM breakfast.
Today our tour is a 90 minute walking wonder into the oldest city in German (I regretfully stay behind to nurse my sniffles, rest my hip and do my write-up). The Cologne Cathedral is a highlight. There is the Domforum, an information center on the Cathedral.
At 14:00, there is a performance by "La Strada", said to be the best classical music performers on the Rhine. Again, Leslie attends and I pass. She graded the performance satisfactory. Music included 2 Violins and a guitar.
The port talk tonight is quite long. Covering both our next port, Amsterdam, and our eventual disembarkation. The talk is 15 minutes of history, 15 minutes on Amsterdam, and the important stuff was crammed into the remaining time.
We have our farewell dinner. A bit of show, but does not begin to look like the parallel on a sea cruise.
The food choices were the best, but the quality of the food and preparation, agreed by all at our table, was perhaps among the poorest. The Halibut was well overcooked, and had a few bones. Leslie's beef was tough. The scallop appetizer had one tiny scallop! The sorbet was bitter. My Caesar salad had no bacon. The baked Alaska was fine.
Our thirteenth day is our final full day on the cruise. We arrive in Amsterdam. The area is filled with boats and ships (Costa Romantic passes us). Other cruise ships and heavy commerce ships ply the waters.
Our included tour today starts with a five minute drive to the canal boat docks. We, after a horrible set of logistics, load onto our canal boats. The boats are designed for viewing, comfortable and we hire enough that no one is crowded. I am not missing this tour. The building, along the canals, are built on pilings. Many of the house lean one way or another as the "foundation" begins to show failings. Some of the buildings have major support members added on the outside to keep them from falling. Most of the buildings were storage for the port city until the rail came in and the city grew. Now these "storage" buildings are apartments. Buildings continue to be added, built in the water, often blocking the view from all other adjacent buildings. Zoning seem nonexistent. There are lots of construction cranes operating suggesting the economy is still viable here in Amsterdam. The next program is a diamond factory tour (anyone sales presentation?) which we skip. We opt to go back to the ship, while some decide to go it on their own. Many of the passengers have been to Amsterdam before and have targeted things they plan to do. Many are also staying for a post cruise few days.
Some places to visit include the Anne Frank house, Rembrandt's house, and many museums. We have a bit of packing to do, as do many of the 30% or so that return to the boat with us. We work on our write-ups, pictures, questionnaires, gratuities, as well as packing.
Tonight optional tour is the Red Light District. The buses live at 21:00 and return at 22:30. There are two buses going. The ride to the area was really quite nice. Unfortunately, we did not bring the camera, as we were told no pictures were allowed in the district. Turns out this is incorrect. No pictures are allowed of the "girls in the windows", but everything else is okay, including the shops that sell illicit drugs. The rules here are strange. A mix of drugs are okay to sell in stores. Of those not legal to sell, some are sold without a problem, others are not sold? The one rule that is enforced is no nudity visible on the street or alleys, even of the "girls in the windows". They dress skimpy, but no nudes. All negotiations are done at the glass doorway, with the door close. The girl then decides either to let in the gent or not. The tiny rooms have access to the street, and access to a hallway that houses the "bouncers". All rooms have panic buttons. There are several "clubs" in the area. Some provide dancing girls (and more?), while others provide various smoking options, coffee and food. The tour is not especially recommended. The area is filled with young and older kids, druggies, and drunks.
Our fourteenth day is one to say goodbye, and face the prospect of a length trip home.
Final thoughts: We enjoyed the cruise and recommend it to others. We hope the write-up and pictures provide enough general information to help you make a decision. The Report is long and undoubtedly full of typos, misspellings and hokey sentence structure. I did reread it twice and made lots of changes! Sorry for the balance. Hopefully these short comings did not cause you too much angst. Some statements, ie: largest, tallest, only, etc. are for the most part copied from handouts or other materials. The same can be said for the spelling for foreign cities, sites and referenced language. Happy travels!
Steps for Viewing Pictures in Webshots
1. To access pictures of our June and July, 15 day River Cruise - Budapest, Hungary to Amsterdam, Netherlands, with stops at the following cities: Bratislava, Slovakia, in Austria, Vienna, Durnstein, Melk and Linz and in Germany, Passau, Regensburg, Nuremburg, Bamberg, Wurtzburg, Miltenburg, Rudesheim and Cologne, (a couple of the cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites), click on the link below. All of the cities included walking tours with visits to churches, palaces, museums, historical sites and gardens, to name a few of the highlights.
Click on the Danube, Main & Rhine River Cruise 2012 (615 Pictures) album, by clicking the Pictured Album with this title and "New" in Red.
2. Select "slideshow" (recommended) from the Box (in light green) to the right of the picture(s). (1 of 4 choices). Slide Show allows for about 5 seconds between each picture. You can sit back and enjoy without any other actions (except you may need to move the mouse every hundred pictures if the screen goes dark). The slide show will start immediately after the selection of that option. (to pause, see item 3 below).
3. While in the slideshow, one can place ones cursor just below the picture and select pause (from the pop up choices), you can also adjust the time between pictures or choose previous or next to view each at your own pace, there is a volume option shown also but there is no audio with this presentation. To return to the slide show select Play and it will continue from where you left off.
4. As explained above you may wish to select the pause option should you have an interest in reading any of the Information Signs, that have been photographed, which explain more fully about the next picture or the subject matter of the next several slides.
5. Alternative viewing. You can view the pictures at your own pace by clicking the first picture (to view it). Each additional picture maybe viewed in order by clicking on the small picture to the right, labeled "next". Continue through all the pictures
5. Once done (or anytime you wish) you can then exit the program in one of two
ways: (a) if you wish to pursue other options available in webshots, select
the "back to full album" to the right of the picture, or (b) if you are done then
just click the "X" in the top right hand corner of your screen.