AVALON RIVER CRUISE FROM BUDAPEST TO PRAGUE
Oct 21, 2010-11-3-2010
Our trip began on Wednesday Oct 20, we both worked that day, so we spent the night at the Clarion Hotel at the airport....they gave us free drink coupons and free parking and free shuttle, so we were set! Up at 4:15, got to the airport at 5:30, and our flight to Atlanta went off without a hitch. Now we have 4 hours to kill....and I can't get on the Internet for some reason....Only 17 more hours left in our trip!
Rog is asleep already in his seat in the lobby....I've got my Ambien, so hopefully I'll be good on the flight.
Oct 22, 2010---Friday evening--Budapest!!
All we can say about the flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam is LOUSY!! The woman in front of me reclined her seat into my lap before takeoff, then the other 2 did the same. Rog and I had a seat between us, so we were hoping for the best. Flight left at 5:30, an 8 hour flight. They served dinner at 8:15!! Didn't clear the dishes till after 9...leaving less than 5 hours for sleeping....tried to sleep, no go, even with Ambien and somebody in my lap....then they brought breakfast around at midnight...very poor planning on their part and very unhelpful Flight Attendants. The screen in the seat in front of me didn't work correctly and noone knew why.....eventually it didn't work at all. Our flight to Budapest was delayed 45 minutes, so we arrived in Budapest around 1 PM. Claimed our luggage, met the Avalon rep, headed out to the bus to take us to the Intercontinental. Had to wait for a few folks whose bags were lost. Upon arrival at the Intercontinental, we were checked in and given a key....to a room that wasn't made up yet and where they were installing a new TV. Waited a while, then decided to try for a new room. Got a room with a view of the roof. Went down and got a new room....on the 7th floor overlooking the street, nice room.
Went to have dinner at a place on the recommendation of the cruise director....it was closed for inside dining and it was freezing outside! Explored on our own and found the Planet Cafe in the walking district, serving traditional Hungarian fare. I had chicken paprikash and Rog had pork...he had a draft beer as the start of his European beer tour. It was a Soproni, and he stole the coaster to prove it.... I had Hungarian wine. It was very tasty and the bill came to 9,000 Hungarian florints (about $45).
Came back to the hotel and had our welcome briefing by our cruise director, Barbara Bocz. She is originally from Hungary and is a very intelligent informative speaker. They had champagne for us, and she gave us the weekends' itinerary...we board the ship on Sunday afternoon. Tomorrow we have a city tour in the morning...a combo bus/walking tour. Tomorrow is a national holiday so a lot of places will be closed. It is the anniversary of the 1956 uprising that led to the revolution. It is a somber day, as the Communist police shot many young people to death during the peaceful march...thousands joined in the march, which was totally unexpected. Tomorrow afternoon we are free to explore, as we are on Sunday.
Our hotel overlooks the Chain Bridge, which we will have a chance to explore this weekend. Right now we've been traveling for 30 hours with no sleep, so we are off to bed. I have to say that no shower ever felt better than the one I took when we got to the hotel after we got off the plane. It was pure bliss!
Oct 23, 2010--Saturday Evening...still Budapest!
What a wonderful day we had today. We actually slept last night (me thanks to Ambien, Rog thanks to the fact that he can sleep anywhere, anytime, anyplace)...got up this AM and had a marvelous buffet breakfast here at the Intercontinental....it is included with the room. Tons of stuff to choose from, and it was great. We had an included tour today, we met and the tour took off at 8:30 AM. Our guide was Amy, and this was our first experience in a large tour bus ( although there were probably only 35 or so of us on it). We each had Intervox headphones that were tuned to our guide. She was so knowledgeable and really educated us on Hungarian history. We went to Hero's Square which had many monuments of the many Kings in Hungary's history. We also went to the Fishermen's Bastion, which had a marvelous view overlooking all of Budapest. We wandered around there for an hour, found a grocery store and bought Hungarian wine for 299 florints a bottle (about a dollar and a half). Our tour guide said it was actually good wine! We went back to the hotel and made a quick stop in our room, then we were off to explore. We walked to many of the places that Amy pointed out on the tour today....we walked through St. Stephen's Basillica, went by the Opera House, went to the West End of Budapest (by accident!), and then went to the House of Terror Museum that Rog wanted to see. It was free today as today is a National Holiday. The museum shows what happened when the Nazis came in March 1944. I could not make it past the first room with the movie and exhibit because I was crying too hard. Just couldn't do it. It is important to realize the things that happened to make the world the way it is, but I, personally, could not watch naked dead people being bulldozed. I lost it. Rog watched more than I did, but we did not stay in the museum for the 2 hours that normally it takes. There is a wall inside with photos of the victims, and outside there are victim's pictures lining the walls...people light candles in remembrance.
We kept walking and walked across the Chain Bridge to the Buda side. We were there this morning but explored down by the Danube. We had a late afternoon snack/dinner at a restaurant that Rick Steves recommended...Patar Marcus brewery....in Buda by the Chain Bridge. We went down to the basement, which serves a hundred varieties of Belgian beers. We both had a Patar Marcus pale ale...I had garlic soup and a chicken croquette and Rog had cream of asparagus and ham and cheese croquette. We then walked back across the Chain Bridge and walked along the Danube. There were 2 Viking River Cruise Ships docked along the side. We were standing looking at one when a mother, father, and their very young child decided to just go onboard! They went down the ramp, walked up the stairs and walked around the upper deck....nobody bothered them....as a matter of fact an old guy sitting in a chair on the top deck waved to the little girl, and the guy jogging just ignored them!!
We then walked by the other Viking Ship and talked with a cruise member for a few minutes. He was very nice...he's been at sea on a river ship for 17 years.
We made it back to the hotel after almost 6 hours of walking....wanted to go to the pool and Jacuzzi, but they are not working. I had read on TripAdvisor back in Sep that they were being renovated...but they are still not working. The Concierge gave us a pass so that we could go to the Sofitel Hotel (across the street) and use their pool and spa. We considered it, but it is getting dark, it is cold outside, and the thought of putting on coats and having to traipse over there and change and use the pool and change back just didn't appeal....so Rog took a shower and is now snoring loud enough to wake the neighbors.
We need to put our luggage out at 10 AM, but don't have to check out until noon, and we can leave our carryon with the hotel until we go to the ship around 3:30 tomorrow. So hopefully we will have a great night's sleep again!!
Oct 24, 2010-Boarding the Tranquility
Had another wonderful buffet breakfast at the Intercontinental....then we were off for more adventures. Checked our carryon with the bellhop, checked out of the hotel, and took off walking. Went to see the "historic McDonald's"...the first McDonald's behind the Iron Curtain, just a few blocks from our hotel. Folks would line up around the block for a Big Mac. Today it looks like....a McDonald's. Then we headed to the Jewish Quarter, saw the Great Synagogue, which was built in 1859. We also saw the Tree of Life and the Memorial Garden. The sculpture of the Tree of Life is a metal willow, making an upside down menorah, each of the 4,000 leaves is engraved with the name of a victim of the Holocaust.. There is a small memorial cemetery there as well. A lot of the buildings in the Jewish Quarter are the worse for wear...it was interesting to see the facades crumbling outside, and then a floor or two up a balcony of someone's apartment all decked out with plants and chairs. We then headed back up the Danube and went to the Holocaust Memorial....along the bank of the Danube are many bronzed shoes, in memory of those who died there. They would line up rows of people, tie several of them together, then shoot them...they fell forward into the Danube to their deaths. To save bullets sometimes they would shoot only one of the folks tied together, who would fall forward, pulling the rest in to their deaths. A very sobering memorial..
Had some lunch, then met in the lobby for our transfer to the MS Tranquility!!
The transfer was painless....hopped on a bus, drove 10 minutes, then hopped onboard the ship! The staff was there to welcome us, they took our passports, and escorted us to our room. Our room is very nice....we have floor to ceiling windows with a "French Balcony"...which means there is a railing so we don't fall out!! Spectacular views from our cabin. We have a nice comfortable queen size bed with 2 duvets....no cover hogs here!! Unpacked, then set out to explore. The ship is really nice....a nice little lobby area and the "lounge" (ie:bar) on our floor, a fitness center one deck down with a treadmill, a couple of bikes, and weights...the dining room one deck up, and a huge sun deck above that. It is very nicely decorated in shades of blue...very peaceful.
We had a reception with champagne before dinner...our cruise director Barbara gave a running commentary as we sailed out of Budapest under the Chain Bridge past Parliament, and on to the little villages.
Dinner is open seating in a very nice dining room...we sat with 2 other couples who were very pleasant....from Wisconsin and from Toronto. We had a very pleasant evening, good conversation, lots of laughs, and GREAT food!! The food was incredible....the main entrEe that we all chose was the pork tenderloin...very tender and tasty. They have a red and a white wine from the region we are sailing through included with dinner each night...they keep filling your glass...never empty. Draft beer is also included... Chocolate mousse for dessert...nice and rich.
Barbara had told us that around 11 we would be passing by a large cathedral that would be lit up...St. Stephen was born in the town where the cathedral is. We went outside to look at it and I got some great photos of the illuminated cathedral with the reflection in the water. Then, off to bed....another great day.
Vienna to Regensburg...
Well, we skipped the evening concert in Vienna...everyone said we missed a great evening, so, lesson learned!
Our meals on onboard have been fantastic...much more and better than we expected. We have been kind of hanging out with 2 other couples and we have a great time at our dinners! Every meal has been wonderful....and they have "cake and coffee" in the lounge each afternoon (we haven't partaken) as well as "late night snack" (ditto). All of the staff is wonderful, and our fellow passengers are all very nice.
Breakfast every morning is a buffet with made to order omelets and always a special of the day...one day waffles with chocolate sauce, one day potato pancakes, another eggs with salmon. There is also champagne in an ice bucket free for the taking. Lunch is also a buffet with a different theme each day...all excellent.
In Vienna we did the included city tour...saw St Stephen's (each town seems to have a St. Stephen's), the city square, the pastry shops everyone raves about, had a nice walking tour. It was a National Holiday (funny, because it was a national holiday in Budapest as well, which means the shops are all closed, so no shopping!!! Doesn't bother me because I hate to shop, but some folks were disappointed.). We saw a big assembly of military folks and locals gathering, as the President was going to make a speech. Lots of horse and buggies around as well. To be quite honest I'm going to have to look at my pictures to remember what we did, it's all starting to run together!! After the walking tour we walked back into town to a big park we had seen from the bus...there are 2 giant ferris wheels, one of which takes 40 minutes to make a revolution, 20 people fit in a car, and folks actually have their weddings there! We wandered the park and the neighborhood for a while, then went to a church we could see from our ship....it turned out to be a "regular" church...St. Francis of Assisi....gorgeous.
After dinner (wonderful as usual) that evening we had entertainment...2 guys from the Bratislava Orchestra...one is actually the conductor and the other the first violin. The conductor played the piano and accordian and the other guy played the pan flute, the violin, and an instrument that looked like a didgeridoo but wasn't. It was a really enjoyable evening.
The next day we were in Durnstein, Austria. Our local guides met us at the ship and took us for a walking tour. What a wonderful quaint village. Lots of winding streets, cobblestones, old buildings, hills...just a gorgeous place. There is a castle ruin overlooking the village and we tried to climb up to the top after the walking tour, but we started a little too late. Made it up the many hills to the base of the ruin before we had to head back to the ship. Got some beautiful photos anyway.
Then we were cruising through the beautiful Wachau Valley. Barbara, our cruise director, kept up a running commentary as we sailed up the Danube, pointing out the vineyards, the orchards, the steep hillsides, castles, villages, and gorgeous foliage. What an irresistible photo opportunity. We went up onto the sky deck to watch...of course we had our jackets! They came around with snacks (bread with onion and garlic and hot tea). There was something to see around every corner. I hope my pictures do it justice, but somehow they never do! Barbara's commentary was piped outside as well as in the lounge.
That afternoon we were in Melk, Austria....took a 5 minute bus ride up to the Melk Abbey, where we had a guided tour. The Abbey is a vast monument in yellow, overlooking the Wachau Valley. It was originally built for monks sworn to poverty, which is pretty unbelievable considering how ornamental and extravagant it is...all in the Baroque style. Picture lots of gold and marble and relief paintings. Instead of taking the bus back to the ship we wandered down to the village and explored a bit....another beautiful place full of cafes and shops and lots of cobblestones. Walked back to the ship through the woods, which was beautiful with all of the leaves changing and the "fresh" weather. We've been very lucky and had no rain, just a few drops...it's been chilly but enjoyable. In the afternoons the skies clear and turn blue...nice and crisp and clear.
There was a wine tasting before dinner in the lounge.
That evening there was a "crew show"...I was tired and went to bed, but Rog went and said it wasn't a "crew talent show"...it was a show with guys in ballerina tutus, dressed up as nuns, some in bathrobes with frying pans tied around their waists...you get the idea. I saw pictures....looked funny but I'm glad I went to bed...all of this walking and "hill climbing" is tiring..but fun!!
Yesterday morning we arrived in Linz, Austria...and the ship was sailing for Passau Germany. We took an excursion to Cesky Kumlov, Czech Republic. We were on a bus with a guide....stopped on the way in Budweiser...yes, my friends, Budweiser beer actually originated over here. There was a big fight over the name and the Budweiser beer here does not taste anything like the US Budweiser. We wandered that town for a while....but most things were closed as it was, once again, a National Holiday!! 3 countries, 3 National Holidays!
Then off to Czechy Krumlov, an enchanting town. We walked with our guide past the huge castle, the Old Town of shops and cobblestones, delightful restaurants, and beautiful waterfront. We had lunch at a local restaurant...something that they said was beef with cranberries on it and dumplings and a sauce of some kind (it was sort of pink). Also a beer or a glass of wine. The restaurant was really neat...the walls had raised frescoes depicting Cesky Krumlov....don't remember how long it has been there, but a long time. After lunch we wandered for a while, took the waterfront path and of course took photos. Our guide told us that in the summer tourists rent canoes and rafts and go down the river (with a little waterfall). Folks stand on the bridge and cheer each time one capsizes, which I gather happens quite often.
We headed back to the bus, which took off for Passau Germany. Our guide on the bus was very informative, and she played Bavarian music on the way to Passau.
Last evening after (yet another) fantastic dinner with our new buddies we had some entertainment in the Lounge. It was a guy playing the electric violin. I'd never heard of an electric violin, but let me tell you, he was fantastic. He had so much energy, walking and running around that lounge (and, of course, if someone came in late he walked behind them playing the violin as they found their seats....and they didn't usually figure it out till they turned around to sit down). Turns out our maitre'd is married to him...she met him here onboard the ship last year.
Speaking of the maitre'd, last night the lights dimmed and the waiters et all came out bearing a cake with a firecracker candle in it singing Happy Anniversary. We were clapping and watching when they stopped at our table! Rog and I will be celebrating our 30th anniversary on Nov 11, and I had no idea how the heck they knew who we are or where we were sitting as it is open seating. When she put the cake in front of us I asked her...how did you know?? She said "Facebook"! I had posted on Avalon's Facebook quite a while ago that we would be celebrating our 30th anniversary on this trip, and I posted a few times after we got onboard saying what a great time we were having. I asked her later how the heck she knew who I was and she said she was reading Facebook and decided to figure out which one of her guests was posting and saying these nice things. Avalon is a top rate cruise line, and to see how she went above and beyond was really wonderful. It made it very special.
There was a lecturer who spoke about the last 20 years in Germany.
Today we were in Regensburg, Germany. Our local guides met us for our walking tours...ours was named Ella and she was fantastic. The waterfront here is gorgeous, all kinds of walking paths, trees with the leaves changing...folks out riding their bikes and walking their babies in their strollers. The strollers all have a built in cover that zips up and covers the baby to keep it warm. Only its head is sticking out. All these babies get used to fresh air very quickly. Our guide took us through the town, to the cathedral (not named St Stephens for once)...showed us the stone bridge and many towers and old buildings, cobblestones, winding streets...as well as the Oldest Sausage House in the World right here on the banks of the Danube (Wurstkuchl). Avalon gave us gift certificates good for 6 sausages with sauerkraut and a beer that we could have for lunch or we could come back to the ship or we could have both!
After the walking tour we took off and walked across the Danube on one of the bridges...many photo ops. We also went inside the cathedral...all made of stone. If you go to services this time of year you better be wearing a coat! There are stained glass windows on all sides of the cathedral, and the light coming through was spectacular. We then took another walk on the waterfront and headed to the Sausage House for our sausages. They were wonderful! We had kartoffel (potatoes) instead of sauerkraut. Enjoyed the companions at our table....the nice thing in Germany is you just walk up to a table with empty seats and ask if you can join them. As long as they speak English we're good!
Headed off again to walk along the river....went a little too far and needed to backtrack to find a bridge back to "our side"....by this time we'd been walking for almost 6 hours, so it was time to come back to the ship.....and now I have a little time to update my trip report...we've been so busy I haven't done it!
Rog has been sitting up on the Sky Deck reading as I've been typing...he just came back and said they are dismantling it...ie all of the chairs are being taken in, all of the railings are being dismantled and put down. We are going under some low bridges, so it all has to be removed. The navigation bridge is on hydraulics, and it will be lowered as well. Barbara, our cruise director, said that there is radar to guide the ship while the navigation bridge is down. She also said the captain has a great view of the lobby of Deck 3 when the bridge is down.
Nurnberg to Prague
We arrived in Nurnberg unscathed....while sitting in the lounge it was unbelievable how close we came to the underside of the bridges! We had less than a foot clearance. Eerie when you looked up. A port lecturer came onboard while we were going through the locks and he gave us a lecture on the history of the locks. We then had a "Bavarian Lunch"....pork, sausages, some kind of meat loaf thing that I've had my German Sister in Law's house, dumplings...Yum! Then, off to explore Nurnberg.
We were docked in an industrial area of Nurnberg...there was a park right there but nothing else within walking distance. We got onto the coaches again and were taken on our tour.
We went to yet another castle and I'm going to have to look up the name because they are all running together now. In front of this castle was a biergarten that was themed after witches. We headed to the main square where there was a huge market...lots of cheeses and sausages, fruit, flowers....and my quest to find duct tape continued. My suitcase ripped on the flight over and needs emergency repairs. Found a department store but it was so crowded and the lines were so long I had no time to wait in line to purchase what I thought might possibly work (based on the picture). We wandered around the market for a while...saw another couple of churches (ABC)...another bloody church!....and then headed to the ship via the bus as it was way too far to walk. We had our farewell dinner and cocktail with the captain and cruise director, then off to bed and finishing packing! Rog attended the beer tasting in the lounge after dinner...they had 4 different beers to taste and 2 local beer experts.
The next day....off to Prague. A buffet breakfast (with champagne, as usual)...then we boarded the coaches to get to Prague. It took a little less than 4 hours, including a rest stop where....in a little gas station store...in the Czech Republic...I found my duct tape! We checked into the Prague Hilton, which is one of the largest Hiltons in the world. We're on the 5th floor with a street view...nice big room. We took off exploring and to find lunch. We wandered down some of the side streets and found a fabulous restaurant. It looks like a pub from outside, you go in and go down the stairs and there is the greatest restaurant down there....arched ceilings, all made of brick, many different rooms, chandeliers...it was really nice. We had a great lunch...huge plates of Wienerschnitzel, potatoes, beer, and wine, and including the service charge it was only 500 Czech crowns...or $25. Quite the bargain.
We headed out and wandered around Prague for several hours...had no idea where we were but the lights at night were beautiful, and there were lots of people wandering the streets....and I mean LOTS! Quite a vibrant city. I took lots of nighttime pictures, hopefully they'll turn out. After we got cold we headed back to the Hilton to go for a swim and relax in the Jacuzzi (indoors!). We went to the grocery store across from the Hilton and bought some meats and cheeses and rolls to have for our dinner in our room....I think it all cost $6. We ended up doing that each evening...very economical and after the breakfast buffets and big lunches that was all we really wanted.
The next morning we had our included tour, which took us to Prague Castle (Hradcany Castle) across the Charles Bridge. Traffic was really bad, we could have walked faster! Nice views of Prague from the hill....we saw the changing of the guard (how those guys don't crack a smile I'll never know). There are some gardens up there that are gorgeous in the springtime, I'm sure, but even in the fall they were nice. We headed to Old Town Square to see the Astronomical Clock which is on huge bell tower that overlooks the square. I just asked Rog when it was built and he said "a long time ago". We're not so good with the dates. After the tour was over a lot of folks went back to the Hilton on the bus but we stayed and went up to the top of the Bell Tower....gorgeous 360 degree views overlooking Prague. Too bad the day was overcast, but I took pictues anyway. We then walked for several hours, walking across the Charles Bridge...it spans the Vltava River and is totally built out of stone with huge statues and carvings. Lots of people walking across there as well.....a 4 piece band playing in the middle of the bridge... and on the way back over there were 12 kids (probably young teens) playing the accordians! It was pretty cool and I got many pics of the castle from the bridge, as well as the river.
We then headed off to UFlekU, my brother had recommended that we go and have a dark beer there. This pub was founded in 1499!! Imagine!! So we not only had a beer, we had a late lunch. We visited with some folks from Germany at our table who were vacationing in Prague for a week. Wandered back to the Hilton and headed for the pool and Jacuzzi.
On Tuesday we had our best day in Prague....I had hired a private guide, Jana Hronkova, who was recommended by Rick Steves. What a great day we had! She is a marvelous young woman, in her mid 30s, who grew up in Prague and now does private tours. It was like exploring Prague with a good friend. She gave us so much more information than the tour guides on the tour groups that we did with the ship (and those tours were good)...and she is relaxed, easy going, ready to answer questions and tell us about her personal experiences. We went to the Jewish Quarter of Prague. 54% of the population in the Czech Republic is atheist. Of the remaining, 87% is Catholic, the rest are Protestant, and there are only 1500 Jews in the entire city of Prague, which is over a million people. The churches in Prague are all so beautiful, and are obviously underutilized for worship, and are used for concerts, etc.
Jana brought us to Old Town Square again and explained to us in detail about the Astronomical Clock. Rog had written up a list of what he wanted to see, and we saw it all. His highlight was the Lennon Wall, which folks painted as a memorial to John Lennon when he was assassinated. It is now a lot of graffiti, but the main intent is the same. We also went to the Strahov Monastery, walked across the Charles Bridge again, took some local trams for transportation and just thoroughly enjoyed our day. We left wishing that we had done more of that type of touring, as it was just so persona., and we didn't get lost once! After spending several days getting lost in Budapest and Prague it was kind of nice to not have to pull out our maps!
Back to the hotel for our nightly swim and Jacuzzi, repair of the suitcase with duct tape, and final packing, as we had to get up at 3:15 for our flights back to Tucson....a 27 hour journey including layovers.
I'm a river cruising convert....if only my wallet were! We're going to start saving for the next one!!