Arriving at the quay to board the S.S. Maria Theresa, a couple of things become quickly apparent… most river boats (or ships) on the Danube look a lot alike on the outside: long, low and almost sinister looking with two rows of darkened glass, usually broken by the maw of an entrance approximately amidships. We quickly learn there are highly practical reasons for this look. One, there are A LOT of river boats on the Danube, which means they must often “raft” (tie-up alongside each other) at the quays, such that the passengers on the outside ship must also disembark through the other ship. Having entrances in the same place makes this easier.
They are low because many just clear some of the bridges that cross the river. When on deck, crew will often lower sun awnings and implore you not to stand, lest you lose your head in a most unpleasant fashion. Even the pilothouse from which the boat is steered raises and lowers!
The common spaces were completely uncommon, with marble floors and walls, rich carpets and drapes. I’ll come back to those in a minute.
The over-the-top luxury continued in our stateroom. While not large by any means, the accommodations were sumptuous … Even the bath was all marble with top-of-the-line fixtures and floor heating. The darkened window opened electrically, letting in fresh air (our weather was unseasonably warm for October). Other staterooms featured French balconies that let the passengers sit outside on a tiny deck; friends we would meet later on the cruise opted for the suite, which offered a larger sitting area and bath, along with round-the-clock butler service.
Inside, however each cruise line brings its own flavor to interior decorating. Uniworld ships are among the most luxurious with a gilt-edged baroque style befitting the Austro-Hungarian Empress for which our ship is named.
Now, about those common spaces, there was a small gym and a place to grab coffee at any time on the lower level…you could even book a massage down the hall! Upstairs there was a large dining room and two bars (our kind of place!). The main bar was staffed most of the day and featured entertainment nightly. The smaller bar at the stern had more of a reading room feel to it, offering board games and books in a free lending library. Next to the bar was a small pool that unfortunately, was a bit too cold for our liking.
Let’s face it, one of the most important aspects of any cruise – river or ocean – is the food. Uniworld and the crew of the Maria Theresa did not disappoint!
Breakfast offered any number of American and Continental fare, including omelets made to order and a great selection of fresh fruit. For lunch, there was always a choice of at least two great soups, a wide variety of hot and cold dishes (with new varieties each day) served right – the pasta was perfectly al dente and meats were moist and perfectly done. And bread … there’s nothing in the world quite like European bread with real European butter!
Dinner … well, let’s just say don’t eat too much at lunch. Every night we were offered a chef’s choice of four courses, or you could order a la carte from an offering of meat, fish or vegetarian selections. Wines from the particular region we were sailing through were featured, described aptly each evening by the sommelier. Moreover, deserts were NOT to be missed!
When dinner was over, most of us retreated to the lounge to chat with friends, enjoy an aperitif, and listen to the excellent entertainment. Then, to bed, where the gentle lap of the water against the hull lulled us into a deep, restful sleep each night.
There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it … from a bed with a view of the water!
(First in a multi-part series about our great European River Cruise Adventure from October 2018. We’re only posting now because as soon as we got BACK, we closed on our new home and dealt with moving most of our furnishings out west, the holidays, living out of two houses, etc. We know … excuses, excuses. Nevertheless, here you go).
River cruises are all the rage, and for good reason … they offer breathtaking views from your stateroom, an opportunity to visit several locales that are often off the beaten track, smaller ships that offer more personalized service, and all the conveniences — great food and wine, especially — of more traditional ocean cruises. So when our dear friend and associate Micky Dixon of Travel Planning for You!! offered us a chance to cruise down the Danube in utter luxury, we jumped at the chance.
Let us state for the record that we are not typical “cruise” people. Our personal style is to plan just enough to ensure we see the important things in any given new place, then fill-in the blanks with whatever strikes our fancy. To us, ocean cruises with their, “If it’s Tuesday, you are now in Key West…go enjoy Duval Street and be on-board by 5” approach just doesn’t suit our style. Now, to be fair to the cruise industry and those who like this approach, we recognize this is a vast oversimplification and perception on our part (we’ve never taken a cruise but we’ve been on Duval Street many times when the ships come in) and many, MANY people like a fully tailored approach. If this is YOU, please see your travel professional, they will hook you UP.
Given that, however, we had long believed a river cruise would be different for the reasons mentioned at the outset, and Micky’s trip down the Danube from Passau, Germany to Budapest, Hungary on one of Uniworld’s uber-luxurious ships sounded right up our alley. Since adventure often starts with trying something new, we booked our passage and designated that this trip would aptly fill the requirement for a “World A to Z” trip. After all, the Danube is the “Queen of Europe’s Rivers” so it became our Q Trip.
We weren’t disappointed. We arrived in Munich on a cloudy Sunday morning and were met by the pleasant Uniworld staff at the airport, connected with others who would become shipmates who had arrived from Atlanta, and whisked to Passau to board the SS Maria Theresa. As we were quite early, the staterooms were being cleaned from the previous week’s guests, so our bags were tagged for delivery to our staterooms and we were invited to enjoy the lounge for drinks and a delightful lunch. Our adventure was about to begin.
There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it … from a river!
The best part of having your own plan to see the world is being able to make it fit your personal wishes. That was especially true of the “O” trip. Greg and I wanted to go somewhere romantic, European and hopefully Italian. Neither of us had ever been to Venice (well, to be fair, I spent a few hours there on a day trip once about 25 years ago), so we were looking to head to the “City of Bridges.”
It turns out one of the doges credited with founding the city was Pietro I Orseolo. In fact, there is a small section of the city named for him. So … “O is for Orseolo.”
To make it even more legit, we stayed at Locanda Orseolo, a fabulous boutique inn just a block and a half off St. Mark’s Square.
I knew that a trip to Venice at the end of February was a weather risk, but what the heck, you can’t make the weather, but you can adjust to it. So we packed rain stuff and enough to keep warm if it got a little cold and headed east.
We arrived in the rain … but found our hotel easily thanks to the picture perfect directions provided by the staff. What a gem of a hotel! It totally pays to do your research, read reviews and decide what you really want. We wanted small, close to the center of the city and very Venetian. We got exactly what we wanted!
Tired from travel and feeling a little jet lagged, we asked about a place close by to grab a quick, simple dinner and wandered a few tiny alleys, crossing over a couple of bridges to a small ristorante. WOW! Trust your hotel staff for their recommendations. We had incredible fresh seafood, perfect Italian wine and delightful ambiance.
Exhausted and full, we climbed the three flights of stairs to the Gianduja room and slept under a soft, fluffy comforter awaking to the forecast for another gray, rainy Venetian day. It was, indeed, gray, but the rain was holding off so we jumped onto a vaporetto (Venetian buses are boats!) and headed for the island of Murano to see how the famous glass is made and wander through the shops in search of a real Murano glass souvenir.
The glass museum posted notices that pictures are not permitted, but it’s worth a visit before you hit the shops. You learn about the island’s history and techniques used to produce the myriad of pieces you’ll see – everything from lamps and chandeliers to earrings and cufflinks. One shop sported an incredible selection of insects made of glass; another was brightly lit with ornate chandeliers. Snapping a few shots of the scenes and shopping left us craving lunch, so we stopped into a little restaurant and grabbed something to warm up after spending the morning walking around in the cool dampness of the day.
It was a quiet afternoon of wandering and sightseeing before a classically touristy dinner in a restaurant right on the main tourist street. Be aware – we ate at a place on the tourist street because we wanted to know just how “authentic” it was. After the previous night’s dinner, it was clear the “real Italian food” the man out front suggested we would get was much closer to Olive Garden or Chef Boyardee. We got exactly what we were looking for – campy, mediocre tourist food. The lesson here is: go off the beaten track. Find a place with a bit of a crowd speaking the local language. That’s where the good food is!
We’d scheduled a food tour for Monday mid-day and met Francesca at one of the dozens of churches in the center of Venice along with the other three people who would be taking the tour with us. We met a pair of sisters from England and a single mom from Berkeley, California and headed out to learn about Venice, Italian wines and something called ciccheti (the Italian word for tapas). What fun! The sun flirted with us and the rain held off as we weaved our way through passageways to four different bars to try the flavors of Venice. We wandered past the fruit and vegetable market and marveled at the huge purple artichokes and pink cabbage. The tour was over too soon. We decided to continue on our own, discovering more hidden treasures in a city known for its challenging layout.
Tuesday we took a side trip to Florence, which left Wednesday for us to see and do everything we had missed earlier. We declared a photo day and headed out to see what incredible views we could find as the sun blazed brightly for the first time during our visit.
We snapped pics of little churches on hidden piazzas, gondolas gliding along the canals, architectural oddities and sights familiar to anyone who’s ever seen images of the famous Venetian landmarks. We grabbed a pizza in a little pizzeria tucked into an alley in the “artists” section of the city. We snapped a shot of a father and his daughter walking near a church. We found the scene depicted in a painting we have in our home and tried to recreate it in a photograph.
Thursday came all-to-soon and we packed our belongings and made our way back to the airport (once again in the rain) for the flight home.
Venice lives up to its reputation as a charming, romantic city with great food and a fascinating culture unique to a city with no roads, just waterways. If you get a chance, this is one of those places you should try to see. Despite its fame, you can still soak up the culture without being assaulted by “tourist traps,” although there are places that define the phrase.
So what are you waiting for? Book a flight, pack your bags and go! Even if it’s not Venice, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored.
Before we even got to Prague, we knew that we needed to go to the Prague Castle. There it was outside our airplane window on our approach to the airport, sitting on top of a ridge overlooking the entire city. As we got out of our taxi at the hotel, there it was above us, urging us to visit. We just had to see it.
When we first arrived at our hotel, the clerks provided a list of tours offered by licensed, local guides. So we jumped at the chance to take a tour of the castle with a personal guide and booked a three-hour walking tour (“a three-hour tour” … you’ll thank us later for that ear worm) for the following day.
We came downstairs bright and early where Eva was waiting for us. She offered us a choice: walk and enjoy the views or head straight for the castle and tour the inside. We chose the walk and started our trek up the hill. Young and vibrant, Eva talked while Judy and I huffed and puffed our way up the steep incline. She pointed out the many type types of architecture in Prague, ranging from Gothic to Baroque to Renaissance. We found out she was an architect, which fed the inner wanna-be-architect in me. Our first stop was the Strahov Monastery, which afforded wonderful views of the river and the old city beyond, despite the gloomy gray skies.
Next we walked past the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through a charming neighborhood that included the smallest house in Prague, onto the expansive grounds of the castle.
Avoiding the crowds gathering for the palace’s changing of the guard, we ducked through a side entrance into the main square outside the cathedral. Eva pointed out the rich history of the classic Gothic church.
Remembering a cartoon book I read in my early teens about the building of the Notre Dame Cathedral, I relished in the intricacies of the flying buttresses and gargoyles, and was amazed to learn that while originally planned in the 13th Century, the Cathedral wasn’t fully finished until the mid-20th Century! You could even see the differences in the stones through the ages. We continued down the hill through Prague’s oldest vineyard, bidding Eva goodbye right where – and exactly three hours after – we started. All-in-all, it was a great introduction to Prague history and architecture from someone who really knew her stuff and was incredibly charming. Starved, we had a late lunch at a riverside restaurant Eva had recommended just as it started to rain.
The following day, after a morning stroll in the old town, it was time to pamper ourselves. We took full advantage of the Ecsotica Spa at our hotel, the Alchymist, having booked their “Fairytale Afternoon” spa and dinner package. Descending the steps into the grotto-like spa, the receptionist gave us each a glass of prosecco while she told us about the spa and its features on a brief tour. We enjoyed a swim in the underground pool and a cleansing private sauna. Then, we were led to inner sanctum of the spa for our 90-minute couples’ massage. Judy and I are huge fans of massage therapy, having learned the value of a good, relaxing time at the hands of a professional muscle manipulator, but this was something completely different. For one, the room’s décor was in the manner of old Bali, with ancient looking teak massage tables, tropical flowers and heady aromas. Our massages were traditional Balinese deep tissue rub downs; at one point, the therapists even climbed up on the tables to ensure they applied appropriate pressure on our backs! Too soon, however, the massages were done, and we had about 30 minutes before our dinner reservation that was part of the “Fairytale Afternoon” package. We returned to our rooms to shower and dress, and then headed downstairs.
Up until this point, we had only eaten breakfast at the hotel. But the hotel restaurant was fantastic! The package included an excellent three-course meal with wine and an after-dinner drink. The food was incredible and the service impeccable. We laughed and smiled as we enjoyed each other’s company, and quietly dished about the other restaurant patrons.
The next day, Thursday, we were up early to get some pictures and make our way to another kind of spa experience. Thursday was the coldest day of our visit, but also the clearest, so we walked down to the river and got some excellent shots in a park and along the waterfront.
From there it was just a few short blocks to Spa Beerland, Prague’s Number One Beer Spa.
Wait…what? The American couple who joined us on our food tour had told us about this unique experience and we had to try it out. Once again, spa itself was downstairs in a very private room for our one-hour experience. The hour-long package included 25-minutes in a beer-hops-and-malt-filled hot tub, a sauna followed by a very brisk cold-water shower, and time to relax on a straw bed while eating fresh beer bread. Of course, unlimited beer flowed from taps in the room so you could drink beer to your heart’s – or stomach’s – content. The receptionist told us the beer bath is very good for the skin and metabolism. I cannot vouch for that, but I can tell you that the experience is nothing like we’ve ever experienced before and completely worth the price of admission (which was still quite affordable). We paid for the deluxe package that included the larger of the rooms…big enough for a small party with its three hot tubs and spacious straw bed for relaxing. I’ll let your mind wander from there…
Back to reality, we had one other quest to fulfill on our Prague adventure. The Czech Republic is known for its crystal, and we had come with our minds set on buying crystal aperitif glasses to round-out our wide-ranging bar collection. We had shopped dozens of stores and finally found a set we liked. It was time to break out our credit card and make our purchase… The clerk very carefully wrapped each piece in layers of bubble wrap and boxed up our find. Having fully met our Prague goals, we made our way back to the hotel to pack for our return flight. We were ready to come home, but certain that Prague is one of those places worth a second visit.
If there’s one thing we’ve come to count on in our travels, it is German efficiency. Trains and planes run on time. So we were quite a bit surprised when our flight from Prague departed late. We had a tight connection in Frankfurt, but one that Lufthansa said was well within their window of acceptability. We RAN nearly across the entire Frankfurt airport to catch our connection to Dulles, only to be loaded onto a bus that took us to our plane located mere steps from the flight we just got off! Apparently, there was a last minute “equipment” change that necessitated the histrionics. The good news is that we made our flight and enjoyed an uneventful ride home. The bad news is that our bags did not arrive with us. Since, thanks to Global Entry, we breezed through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, we were early to baggage claim. We were surprised to hear my name announced over the PA system with a request to see the Lufthansa rep. He let me know our bags were delayed, would arrive the next day and be delivered to our home. This was GREAT customer service in my view…we didn’t have to wait until all the bags came down the carousel before realizing that ours didn’t make it.
We grabbed a cab for the ride home. The adventure continued when the brand-new hard-sided composite bags were delivered the next day. They were BOTH broken. To say we were a bit miffed is an understatement. All’s well that ends well, however. Judy contacted Lufthansa and after a few quick weeks, we had a full refund for the cost of our bags.
The moral of this story…when traveling, stuff happens. But it’s no use ruining a trip just because your bags don’t make it or you miss a connection. Roll with the punches, be firm but nice with the folks trying to help, and let things work themselves out.
There’s a whole world out there, just waiting to be explored. Isn’t it time you booked a trip?
Christmas in Germany is magical, at least for me. The Germans are the best at Christmas markets and somehow walking around a market square sipping gluhwein and shopping for seasonal specialties feels very Christmas-y.
That’s why we decided to head to Nürnberg for the “N” trip. The Christmas market there is known around the world and the idea of spending a piece of the season in Bavaria evokes thoughts of snow and gingerbread and sounds of “O Tannenbaum” ringing in my head.
Sure enough, the sights and sounds of the season did not disappoint us. Our boutique hotel just two blocks from the world-famous Kristkindl Markt was an easy train ride from Munich and a 10 minute taxi ride from the Bahnhof in Nürnberg.
We arrived just in time to get checked in, change and refresh and head out to the market where the medieval atmosphere and architecture added to the festive spirit in the air.The main Christmas market is row upon row of classic German gifts and treats.
There are ornately carved wooden ornaments.
Nürnberger gingerbread hearts hang from stalls and offer greetings.
Some of the stalls showed off unique items …like the Nürnberg angels …
a twist on the classic German angel Christmas tree topper.
Window boxes, filled with brightly colored flowers much of the year, are filled with greenery and ornaments.
Daytime in the market is festive enough, but when the sun sets, the lights go on and the entire market square is illuminated for the holidays.
But Nürnberg is more than just the Christmas market. The city really is ancient.
The river that runs through the town is crisscrossed by charming walking bridges reflected on the still,
gently flowing water and dotted with charming views that transport you back to ancient times.
When it’s time for a break … there’s nothing better than a German bratwurst … hot off the grill. That is unless you opt for another German delight … the pretzel sandwich (in my case stuffed with ham, cheese and German pickles.)
I rave a little about Germany. Living there as a teenager has always given me a bit of comfort about traveling throughout the country. I feel a bit at home there. That’s a lot of what draws me there during the holidays, but it’s a beautiful country year round. If you get a chance, go and visit. Drink a beer. Eat a bratwurst. Sample the culture. Remember, there’s a whole world out there. Go see it.
Before I go on with my travels, I should probably fill you in on a little background about me. I grew up an Air Force brat. We lived all over the U.S. and in Germany. That means by the time I had graduated from high school I had seen most of the states (well ¾ of them anyway) and a pretty good chunk of western Europe. I supposed that gives me something of an advantage when it comes to traveling. It certainly makes me more courageous. I am never worried about “fitting in” or getting lost. Actually, I find that getting lost has distinct positive aspects. You find all kinds of cool things when you end up somewhere you didn’t plan to be. The trick is to remember that travel is an adventure. You should always keep an open mind and relish the experiences. There is always something to be learned from every stumbling block. In a lot of cases, the most fun I’ve had, the most interesting people I’ve met, the best local food I’ve eaten has come from a wrong turn or a delay that wasn’t planned. Once you’re in a situation, you’re there … the key is to make the most of it EVERY TIME.
Anyway, traveling in Europe as a high school student also taught me a LOT about how to get around on public transportation. When I travel, I rarely rent a car. Cars isolate you and you can’t watch where you are and check out the scenery if your eyes are on the road. It also taught me a lot of little ways to get around Europe without spending a lot of money. I know more ways to cut corners on a budget than I can count. You’ll see some of those as this blog unfolds. It will also explain why, at least early on in my plan, I ended up in Europe a lot. Until somewhere around “G” the primary goals of each trip were to 1) keep traveling and 2) not spend a lot of money I didn’t have. Then I got a pretty good job, paid off some bills and had a little more cash which I used to fund nicer trips. But the point is, you can see the world without spending a lot of money if you try. I tell people all the time that it’s just a question of priorities. Ask yourself, “What’s more important – that Starbucks double cappuccino non-skim latte every day, or a trip to the Alps?” Then start saving a little at a time and soon you’ll have what you need to start your own plan to see whatever it is you want to see.
Several of you have asked for more details about not packing and taking an empty suitcase. Here’s what we did: First, you have to know that when I was younger I lived in Germany and Italy so I know a little about shopping in Europe and I appreciate how the clothes there fit my body. That said, I usually plan to buy clothes and shoes in Europe anyway. In this case, we talked about that idea and decided that carrying nothing on the plane (well, except my purse) would be a great way to move about unencumbered. We packed our own U.S. underwear. I have a theory that once you find the knickers that fit, stick with them. We also took jeans. There’s no way you’re going to get a good deal on Levi’s, Lee or Wranglers overseas! Finally, we packed a change of shirt so we would have something to change into the first day. (There’s nothing worse than a day-old, funky, I’ve-been-traveling-all-night shirt).
Since we arrived rather late on the first day, we showered off the travel funk and put on our clean shirts for dinner, then wandered around Krakow a bit just to stretch our legs and get acclimated. Our first full day meant re-wearing that shirt from the night before, but it was still clean (just don’t spill dinner on it). After some morning sightseeing, we popped over to the local shopping area and ended up in an actual mall. The goal was to get at least two changes of clothes each here and see how that got us through, then possibly buy more clothes when we got to Germany.
Remember versatility is key. Buy clothes that are all mix and match … as if you were packing for a trip since you are, after all, ON a trip. Two sweaters for me and a couple of t’s for underneath, we got two sweaters for Greg, too. Heavy gloves and hats for the cold weather were also on the list. That’s good for the time being.
In Germany, where I am much more familiar with my options, I snagged two pair of pants, three skirts and three pair of shoes. Greg picked up two pair of pants, a fabulous, useful-for-anywhere blazer, and some t’s. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it was more than enough to get us through the rest of the trip and, in the end, nicely fill the extra suitcase without overfilling it.
Here’s where we ended up: The big suitcase was comfortably packed (not FULL), the two carry-on size bags were each comfortably packed so we could carry one on the flight home, if need be. We mailed a few small boxes home with Christmas gifts. It’s worth pointing out that the big suitcase also carried a pretty good-sized pile of toys for the grandkids.
It was a great, EASY way to get around, although if I had it to do over again I might go backwards so that the train trips at the end didn’t involve three suitcases, rather the two we started out with. The fabulous Lufthansa clerk at check-in on the way home, offered to check our third bag for free since the flight was full and there would be limited space for carry-ons. Score one for us! That was a great option!!
We’ve already decided packing super light is the way to go and will try other options in the future. Stay tuned.
It’s a little unnerving for this Cold War veteran to be in a former Eastern Bloc country … but not my first time. Nonetheless, everytime I find myself in a country that was once part of the Soviet Union I feel a little nervous. That said, the Krakowians are delightful. Everyone here speaks English (thank God since I don’t know any Polish and the alphabet has some fairly strange-looking characters.) It’s cold and snowy, which is exactly what I wished for. Greg and I have had a great time bundling up and seeing the sights. Our hotel is a little apartment, Ventus Rosa Apartments, so we’ve had breakfast in after a fun trip to a local grocery store. The Christmas season is in full swing and the store was chock full of Christmas goodies. There is a classic European Christmas market on the old town square, complete with mulled wine, hand-blown ornaments and all kinds of local treats.
Last night we even found Restauracja Galicyjska (The Galicyjska Restaurant) that specializes in “Old Polish Favorites and Wild Game.” I dove into a scrumptious hunk of wild boar in a bison vodka sauce, while he had pork shish kebab. It’s a blast here, but we aren’t staying forever. Tomorrow we hop on a flight to Germany and the town where I went to high school. Until then, more sightseeing.