My First Published Work

March 12, 2012

I had to resort to cyberspace to get it done, but it’s working. People are buying one of my books. If you’ve ever considered publishing your writings you know that most publishers won’t consider you unless you have an agent, and most agents won’t consider you unless you’ve been published.

Only the experienced need apply – unless you’ve already made a name for yourself as an actor, athlete, or politician. Then you can get published even if you don’t know how to write.

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country!”

In any case, here it is!

My travel tips for the tyro.

It is currently available from Amazon.com and is a steal at $2.99. It explains most, if not all, aspects of travel. It begins by talking about documents you might need – depending on your destination, Then it examines how to pick the best times to take the trip – to avoid crowds and high prices.

Many of the trips my bride and I have taken were bargain basement deals; so I explain the steps we take to find those specials. Then we look at how to make the good deals even better, by choosing less expensive travel methods and meals and expanding the itinerary set by a travel agent.

The thing that sets my book apart is that it covers so many aspects of travel. There are many books written by folks like Rick Steves, Fodors, Frommer’s, DK, Eyewitness Travel, Footprint, Lonely Planet, and Moon. They, and the books like them, do a nice job of telling you about various destinations – they just don’t tell you a lot about how to get there.

Clark Howard, a consumer advocate based in Atlanta, provides lots of travel advice, but many things you should know are scattered throughout his website and books, or simply assumed.

Much of the information in my book might be considered common sense. I simply attempt to present a formula for taking a trip – from planning to packing.

Using the information I’m sharing, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars on a single trip! And my bride and I have taken at least one dream vacation every year for the past several years. For three bucks, I think you’ll be able to pack your carry-on and have the same sort of good fortune we’re enjoying. If you buy a copy of the book, come back here and let me know what you think. Thanks.

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Transportation Honor System

January 18, 2011

As I begin to write today’s entry, my mind has gone back twenty-five or thirty years. I’m trying to remember how the public transit system in Vienna worked during my first visit.

I recall buying my ticket in a vending machine. Then I walked down steps to the train platform. There were no turnstiles, just steps. I boarded the train and, several stops later, I got off. I walked up the steps to the street and continued on my way.

Thus, the “Honor System” has been in use for many years in Vienna.

This same system was in use in Munich, and is probably available in many transportation systems throughout Europe.

As I continue to search my memories, I’m pretty sure it was true in Paris. We bought passes that were good for a specified period of time. When riding a bus, we simply showed the passes to the driver. When riding the Metro, we simply got on and off without much ado.

Paris Metro

In London – the foreign  city where I’ve spent the most time – my mind is foggy. For one thing, during my ten-week stay, most of my traveling was on shank’s mare.  When we did ride the public transit, it was for a specific purpose with a specific destination.

The London Tube - Mind the Gap!

On further reflection, on one of our trips to London we did buy a multiple-day pass. So, they must also have the honor system.

One-way and round-trip tickets could be purchased in every one of the cities I’ve named. But the real bargains were with the multiple day passes.

In Munich, we purchased the City Tour Card. It was good for three days travel for up to five people. It also provided discounts at many of the tourist attractions. The cost was forty-eight Euros.

Munich S-Bahn station

On the surface, that sounds expensive. That’s approximately $65. However, to put it in perspective, it cost eight Euros to get from the airport to the main train station in Munich. So, for my bride and I, that would have been thirty-two Euros for the round trip. Then, every time we rode public transit within Munich, it would have cost each of us another two and a half Euros.

We knew in advance that we would be taking one round trip on a tram. That would have been ten Euros added to the thirty-two to get back and forth from the airport. Figuring we would take additional rides just to get a “lay of the land”, the forty-eight Euros was a bargain. It would’ve been an even bigger bargain had our friends been able to join us.

By the way, those people in Atlanta who think the MARTA fare is too high should be happy; $3.50 per ride is almost double what they are currently paying.

If it wasn’t for tax dollar subsidies, MARTA would be out of business unless they raised their fares dramatically. I have no idea if the Munich and Vienna transit systems would operate in the red without tax payers’ support. I do, however, believe that they save a lot of money using the honor system.

For one thing, they have no turnstiles to install and maintain. Next, they don’t have to fuss with tokens. And the operators of the various means of transportation don’t have to deal with selling or collecting tickets.

Tickets are purchased from vending machines or small shops close to the stations. In Munich, we used a vending machine at the airport. In Vienna, we bought our tickets in a small tobacco shop.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages is also their biggest selling point. Getting on and off a bus, tram, or train is much faster when no one is trying to pay. With no turnstiles, it is much faster to pass through a transit station.

All of these advantages encourage people to use public transit. That’s something MARTA definitely needs to do.

I have ridden MARTA from North Springs to the airport during the morning rush hour and have had no problem finding a seat. By the time the train is nearing downtown Atlanta, there may be a few people standing, but very few. People don’t ride the trains; they’d rather sit in traffic.

That brings another thought to mind. I don’t recall seeing a single parking lot in downtown Munich… nor in downtown Vienna. The only parking was on the street, and most of those spaces were taken.

In Atlanta, there are too many reasonably priced parking lots. If the City Council really wants to make MARTA a success, they need to place heavy taxes on those parking lots and discourage people from driving into downtown.

Combine that move with installing the honor system, and they can expand MARTA and quit using tax dollars to keep it afloat.

By the way, there is one major factor that helps insure the honor system works.

Security personnel spend their days getting on and off transit vehicles. Their sole purpose in life is to ensure that all riders have valid tickets. Being caught on a tram, bus, or train in Munich without the proper ticket results in a forty Euro (about $55.00) fine.

In all four of the cities I’ve mentioned, their mass transit systems are far superior to most I’ve seen in the states. The only one that comes close is New York City. It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the Big Apple, but as I recall, the cleanliness of their trains left quite a bit to be desired.

So, in summary, I think that, next to the real German and Austrian food, the most important European item that we should import is the honor system for our public transportation.

I invite your thoughts.


Cuts of Meat

January 17, 2011

Nothing like a good meter-wurst!

Before I go any further, does anyone know of a good German butcher shop anywhere near Atlanta, Georgia?

In truth, there are lots of things as good, and better, than a good meter-wurst. We discovered that throughout our travels in Germany and Austria.

Our first day in Munich found us dining at a small cafe in the VictualMarkt. I’ve always loved old fashioned market places and Munich’s is better than any I’d seen before.

The first shop we saw was a butcher chop and its front window looked similar to the photo at this flickr website. Next door to that shop was another butcher shop with a similar display. Next came, you guessed it!, another butcher shop. There were three or four before the cheese shops started. Later we saw side-by-side seafood shops, pastry shops, and produce shops. All the food items displayed looked marvelously delicious. It would’ve been easy to spend hours just grazing.

By the way, there was also a soup shop or two. It made me think of the soup Nazi on the Jerry Seinfeld Show.

Instead of buying something and standing at an outdoor table (which many folks were doing), we opted for the cafe that would allow us to sit in a warm place and enjoy being served by a waiter who spoke very little English.

The name of the cafe is the Lowenbraun Pub and I highly recommend it. We each ordered a “sampler” platter. Lu’s was various cuts of meat cooked in different ways. It included schnitzel (with breading) and similar cuts (sliced very thin) cooked without the breading. Mine was a collection of wursts.

Mine came with sauerkraut and potato salad. Lu’s had vegetables and potato dumplings. All the meats were tender and delicious. As is often the case, I was very disappointed when I found myself stuffed to the gills and unable to even think about dessert.

Of course part of our problem was the basket of pretzels and bread that was on the table even before we sat down.

Over the years, Lu and I have had numerous soft pretzels, but these were the best we’d ever tasted. (This statement holds true even after we had a humongous pretzel at the HaufBrau Haus and numerous soft pretzels at other stops along the way.)

Fortunately, I remembered the words of Rick Steves.  The bread basket is part of the honor system. It was up to us to let the waiter know how many items we consumed so the cost could be added to our bill.

The next day found us “doing lunch” at the HaufBrau Haus.

Appetizers at the HaufBrau Haus.

I have to be honest and tell you that Lu and I did not eat all of this pretzel. To imagine the size of it, think of taking two French baguettes sitting end to end. Then tie them into the shape of a pretzel.

To us, the secret that made the German soft pretzels so good was that the dough itself tasted salty. In the US, it seems the salt is only sprinkled on the outside of the finished product.

For my main course at the HaufBrau Haus, I had the crisp roast knuckle of pork (it was the “bee’s knees”; no! Make that the pig’s knee.) It was delicious.

Lu had the roast pork with crackling. They cook it in such a way that the fat on the outside gets very crispy, yet the meat remains juicy and tender. It was also delicious and much better than any roast pork I’ve ever had.

Later in the trip, I dined on pork neck and various cold cuts like I’ve never seen outside of Europe. And I’m left wondering…

Where can I find a good German butcher shop anywhere near Atlanta, Georgia?


Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 10)

January 13, 2011

Christmas morning and we were up before the sun… thanks to the wake-up call we’d requested the night before.

Wrapping up our Christmas Gift.

This was the last day of our trip – the final chapter of the gift we gave ourselves. The trip to Germany and Austria represented our Anniversary and Christmas gifts to each other, and it was a fantastic gift.

But we still had to get home!

We knew the train would take approximately thirty minutes to get us to the airport; we just didn’t know the time-table. Thus, we had already decided to get moving as early as possible, get to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and then worry about breakfast.

We checked out of the Imperial Riding School (although I never did see the horses) and headed up the road to the train station. Our wait was less than five minutes and we were at the airport before 8:00 AM.

There was only one position open at the KLM check-in desk, and the people in front of us were taking forever. Suddenly there were about fifty people behind us in line. They must have been part of a tour group, and once one couple discovered the self-serve kiosks, the entire swarm moved over to gather around the six or seven terminals.

Suddenly it was our turn to check in. Sadly, we were informed we had to use the self-serve kiosk first. Dang!

It took a while to get our turn and once we did, the system was most uncooperative. I had a choice: I could scan our passports or key in the Reservation code. I tried both and was told I had no reservation.

Finally a young lady from KLM came over to assist me. I still have no idea what I was doing wrong, but she worked her magic and we now had boarding passes for both flights. (Our itinerary had us flying from Vienna to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam to Atlanta.)

We then got back in line and worked our way back to the check-in counter. The only bag we checked was our handy-dandy collapsible Holland America bag that was stuffed with our dirty clothes. That gave us room for the Christmas ornaments we’d bought for our children and grandchildren.

We then made our way to the food court and had one more Continental breakfast. By the way, a true Continental breakfast includes cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, cereal, various types of bread and rolls, herrings or kippers, and coffee, tea, juice, and milk. The next time that hotel in the US serves you Danish and coffee; ask them where the rest of it is.

We still had to go through security, but we had plenty of time.

Surprisingly, security at the Vienna airport did not require us to remove our shoes. Nor did they insist on a full-body scan or pat-down. Think back to what we went through prior to 9/11.

Soon we were squeezed into a plane and on our way to Amsterdam. I think this is what surprised me most about our trip. I’d expected very few people to be flying on Christmas Day. Perhaps that was true and the airlines simply cut back on their flights. In any case, both of our flights were absolutely stuffed with travelers.

A few years ago Lu and I had passed through the Amsterdam airport, so we knew what to expect. Instead of having one centralized security point, they have one at every gate. Perhaps the original design of their terminal gave them no choice.

At this checkpoint, we did get the pat-down. They had no multimillion dollar scanners, so they had no choice. The American government insists that anyone flying to the US be frisked. The gentleman who frisked me apologized and said people flying to the US were the only ones treated to this special service.

Aside from being unbelievably cramped in a jumbo jet, the flight was uneventful – just long… very long. In reading the KLM in-flight magazine I discovered that they had changed the configuration of the plane’s seating and made the first several rows in economy class a bit more inviting – and expensive. They’d added 10 centimeters of leg-room to each seat.

That’s about 4 inches.

Now, I have to ask, where did those 4 inches come from? I’m sure at least 3 of them came from my allotment.

I had my special circulation-inducing socks on and I did my best to exercise my calves from time to time, but I was thrilled when the plane came to a stop and I was able to stand up. We had arrived almost an hour early, but that created a problem – there was no place to park! We had to wait until the plane that was loading at our gate completed the process and moved.

Finally we were able to disembark. Now, we had to go through customs and pick up our luggage (dirty clothes).

I thought we were home free at that point. Wrong! We had to pass through US security once more. I’m still not convinced of the necessity of this step, but off came the shoes and belt, out came the computer. I walked through the metal detector and, even before the alarm sounded I knew I’d blown it. I’d forgotten to take the cell-phone out of my pocket.

Surprisingly, the TSA agent allowed me to step back, put my cell phone on the conveyor and try again.

Perhaps that was his way of saying “Merry Christmas”. In the past when I’ve forgotten to remove a belt or something else obvious, I was not permitted to step back and have a do-over. The TSA agents I’ve encountered in the past seemed to relish such situations. All I can say is I am deeply grateful. We were soon on our way out… into the snow.

We had parked at the Crown Plaza and I called to request their shuttle. I figured that their regular schedule would be pushed aside on Christmas Day. Once again I was wrong. I was informed that there should be one arriving within minutes.

Sure enough it was arriving as we got to the pick-up point. The snow was falling harder now, but I wasn’t worried… yet.

It didn’t take long to clear the snow off the car and within a short time we were on our way out of the parking lot. I followed the instructions at the electronic gate and was instructed to insert my credit card to pay what I owed. I figured I might be an hour or two over what I had previous paid, but was not prepared when the $98.00 figure flashed before my eyes.

After a relatively calm discussion with the folks at the hotel’s desk, we were again on our way.

We live approximately sixty miles north of the airport. The Interstate south of Atlanta was wet, as was the highway through the city. However, once we left I-85 and got onto Georgia 400, the wet pavement turned to white pavement.

We pressed onward and I was thankful for the meal KLM served about an hour prior to our landing. Had we needed to stop to eat, we may have spent the night in a Waffle House.

The roads grew progressively worse as we neared our home and I began to wonder if we’d be able to make it up our driveway.

We did, and sad to say, that was the end of our Wonderful Winter Vacation.

I realize I did not include many photos in this section, but since I have lots I have not yet included in this series of articles, I’ll add some now.

In the meantime, watch this space. Now that I’ve gotten back into the habit of writing, I plan on doing it on a more regular basis.

Munich

Nuremburg

Nuremburg Christmas Market

Regensburg - Franchise opportunity?

A Church in Passau

A real shoemaker in Vienna


Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 9)

January 7, 2011

December 24th was our last day aboard the MS Amadeus Diamond. We had to leave the ship no later than 9:00 AM because they had to sail to Linz, Austria to prepare for their next cruise.

We had signed up for a taxi, and tried to make it perfectly clear that we were not traveling a great distance. Most of the people requesting cabs were headed for the airport… a trip that would cost them at least 30 Euros. We were headed for Nussdorf, less than a mile or two away.

After we finished our breakfast and said our farewells to the crew members who had taken care of us so well, we retrieved our luggage and prepared to depart. When we turned in our room key for the last time, they returned our passports and we were ready to set off on the final day of our wonderful winter vacation.

A note to first time travelers: When we boarded the cruise ship, we surrendered our passports. Whenever we left the ship for a tour, we were given boarding passes to prove we belonged with that ship. Had we found ourselves in trouble with the local authorities, the boarding passes would’ve led us to the place where we’d be able to show our passports and prove our identities… prior to being thrown into the slammer.

While no one ever stated what I thought was obvious, by holding our passports, the crew of the ship forced us to pay any outstanding bills before taking off for parts unknown.

In case you’re wondering, my camera was packed away at this time. So I took no pictures until after we had checked into our hotel.

The crew announced that our taxis had arrived, and the mass exodus began. I tried to make it clear that “our” taxi might be different… one who was prepared for a short trip and a shorter pay day. No one would listen and we were soon sitting in the back seat of a car with a driver who was less than pleased.

Our driver tried to convince us that he was perfectly capable of taking us to the airport. When we finally got him to understand that we were staying in Vienna for another day, he quickly volunteered to take us to the hotel. There was no doubt he was not a happy camper.

That all changed when I paid him about four times what was on the meter. I truly felt for him and figured he probably made out better with the very large tip. Had he driven us any further, the tip wouldn’t have been as large and, more importantly, the cash I gave him would have been part of the fare – money he would’ve had to turn into his boss. His demeanor changed dramatically and we wished each other a Merry Christmas.

Our savings from buying the 48 hour transit pass was significantly reduced, but neither Lu nor I minded one bit. We made the cabbie’s Christmas a little merrier and we were right on schedule to catch the tram that would take us to the U-Bahn that would take us to the tram that would take us to our hotel. All was right with the world!

We performed a small experiment on the way to our hotel; we waited until the stop after the Imperial Riding School before getting off the tram. Not only was it a shorter walk, we discovered an S-Bahn station where we could catch the train to the airport. Prior to that discovery, we were thinking we would have to backtrack a good deal to find the proper station.

As with the hotel in Munich, we were pleasantly surprised when they allowed us to immediately go to our room. I think part of our success resulted from the fact that both hotels had more vacant rooms than normal. They didn’t have to wait for housekeeping to prepare rooms for new guests.

As soon as we were settled in, we headed back to the inner-circle of Vienna. My goal was to see if I could find the hotel I stayed at back in the 1980s. Beyond that, we would simply wander around and do whatever seemed interesting. I was now re-armed with my camera!

Lu eventually figured it out.

We took the “O” back to the U-bahn station and traveled to the tram station where I thought we could catch a tram that did nothing more than make continuous loops around the inner-circle. I wanted to get back to the channel in front of the IBM building.

This looked like the winner!

We boarded the Ring Tram and immediately recognized our mistake. A man approached us with ear phones and guide books and asked for payment for the guided tour. We told him we had made a mistake and got off at the next stop.

We then consulted our transit map and took the next regular tram that would take us to the waterfront.

We got off at the “river” and walked across the bridge. I’m not sure it was the same bridge I stood on during my first visit, but it certainly felt the same. The major difference was that I now knew I was not looking at the Danube.

We walked past the IBM building and tried to locate the hotel I stayed at during my earlier visit. It was a losing battle. My memory was not at all sufficient to guide me to my destination. However, we did find something interesting.

St. Peter’s church?

The beautiful carving seemed to depict St. Peter being led to his own crucifixion.

We soon gave up trying to find that hotel. It may have gone out of business decades ago. We decided to simply wander around until we saw something of interest. Unfortunately, the first thing that jumped out at us was a great price on schnitzel.

In Vienna, any place to grab a bite to eat that is right on the street front has very little seating; most of their business is the “to go” variety. Finding a place to sit down comfortably to eat your snack or meal is a bit of a challenge. We were lucky? We found two places that were side by side. The one was an Irish Pub.

No offense to the Irish – I love Irish food and drink – but we were in Austria. I wanted something that fit in with our surroundings.

We walked into the alley way that led to the Austrian restaurant and were soon seated at a table that would have done the best North Georgia Bar-B-Que place proud. It looked to be hand-hewn out of Georgia pine.

Lu ordered a sandwich and I ordered some sort of chicken dish. Chicken seemed to be a rarity in Germany and Austria; their dishes were usually heavy on the pork and beef. I also ordered a dark beer. When I asked the waiter if he was sure of what I wanted, he responded by saying, “A large glass of dark beer”. He knew precisely what I wanted. Whatever he brought with the beer would’ve been fine with me.

Lu wasn’t able to finish her sandwich and wrapped half of it in a napkin to take with us. This was a good move because we had already been warned that most of Vienna would close down in the middle of the afternoon.

The people in Austria – and Germany – celebrate Christmas with their families on the evening of December 24th. It seems that December 25th is just another day.

Thus, it was important for us to have our evening meal taken care of long before the evening. Otherwise, we would go hungry. So, at this point, Lu was taken care of and I was on the outside looking in.

Following lunch, we roamed the city some more.

A shop that would interest my sons.

Lu and I didn’t go into this little shop, but it immediately reminded me of my sons. They are big fans of comic books and have invested quite a bit of money into uncirculated titles. Hopefully, those comic books will pay off like the baseball trading cards that I threw away as a child would have.

Christmas Markets were everywhere.

The thing that made this market unique was that it was operated by two international Service clubs. This stall was run by the LIONS.

Kiwanis Booth.

This one was sponsored by the Kiwanis.

In our wanderings we soon came across something that our “official” tour guide had completely ignored. Roman ruins had been discovered beneath the street and were uncovered by archaeologists.

Ruins of a Roman settlement.

Another view of the ruins.

Yet another view.

I have no idea why our guide did not point these out to us. We were less than fifty feet away! In any case, we found them and they are most interesting.

So often during our trip, the Roman Empire was acknowledged. They were (and are) a civilization to be reckoned with!

From that point on, it was more of the same and I took very few photographs. Besides, we were running out of steam and getting concerned about finding a restaurant open for dinner. Lu had her dinner packed away, but – unless she’d be willing to share – I was about to go hungry.

We found our way back to a transit stop and began our transfers back to the hotel. We took a closer look at the train station near our hotel to be sure we could catch the train to the airport and found a restaurant nearby that was still open. I bought a sandwich and a beer to go and Lu bought a dessert for us to share. We then walked back to the hotel and settled in for a quiet Christmas Eve.

We ate our dinner and settled in to watch whatever Austria deemed important enough to televise on such an auspicious date. We soon fell asleep. I guess we were even more tired than we thought.

Tomorrow – the trip home: One last adventure!


Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 8)

January 6, 2011

It had been almost thirty years since my first visit to Vienna. Back in the early 1980s I was attending a series of meetings for IBM Europe; my place on the agenda was to provide an update on the relatively new System/38.

It might be the same building.

While so much of Vienna seemed familiar to me, I felt the same during my first visit. It was like walking back into downtown Pittsburgh in 1955. The cobblestone streets and old store fronts on five and six story buildings were vivid reminders of the city of my birth.

Vienna tram.

This next photo might justify my feelings of Déjà vu.

Old photo of a Pittsburgh trolley.

In Vienna, and other cities in Europe, these vehicles are known as trams. We called them streetcars, or trolleys, in Pittsburgh. Seeing the age of many of the trams in Munich and Vienna, it’s obvious Pittsburgh made a big mistake getting rid of them and replacing them with gas guzzling buses.

On that first trip to Vienna, so many years ago, I decided to shun the airport-to-hotel transfer IBM would’ve paid for. Rather than taking a limo, I asked directions as to how a resident of Vienna would get to the hotel as cheaply as possible. I then boarded a bus and headed off into the unknown.

The bus driver spoke enough English to let me off where I could get a subway into the part of town where my hotel was located. I had difficulty finding the subway station until a shopkeeper told me to look for the large “U” on a sign near a set of steps leading Underground.

My next dilemma was trying to figure out the vending machine that dispensed U-Bahn tickets. I had three strikes against me: I couldn’t read German; I wasn’t sure where I was going; and I didn’t fully comprehend their monetary system.

As I stood staring at the mass of incomprehensible information a gentleman approached and, in perfect English, asked if he could help. Luckily he was familiar with the hotel’s location and told me which ticket I needed. Unluckily, the machine did not take bills. I needed coins.

The gentleman took one of my bills and walked me to a pastry shop nearby. The next thing I knew, there was a heated argument between my new friend and the store’s proprietor. It turned out that the storekeeper wanted 10% for making change. That did not happen! My Guardian Angel handed me the money and we returned to the vending machine. He made sure I deposited the proper amount and selected the correct ticket.

Next, the man walked me down the steps and told me which train to take and how many stops I needed to go prior to getting off.

I set down my suitcase and briefcase and turned to thank him. He was gone!

Standing and waiting has never been a forte of mine. Soon I picked up my luggage and began walking around to see what there was to see. Suddenly an elderly woman grabbed me by the arm and took me back to where my friend had left me. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but the message was clear. “Stay here until the train comes and then do what that fellow told you to do!”

I learned a lot about the people of Vienna by making things difficult on myself. Judging by the age of those who helped me, I can only surmise they were young adults when the Allies liberated Austria from the Nazis. When they saw an opportunity to help an American, they didn’t hesitate!

All this is to say I had a personal agenda when we arrived in Vienna. In addition to tracking down the IBM building, I was hoping to find the hotel I occupied during my stay. I also wanted to confirm the big mistake I’d made all those years ago.

Map of Vienna.

If you look in the upper right section of the map you’ll see an “X” showing the approximate location of the IBM building. Based on an assumption (I didn’t have a map back then), I stood in the middle of a nearby bridge and felt a thrill knowing I was looking at the famous Danube River.

The truth is that centuries ago I might have been accurate in my assumption. I’ve since learned that the Danube was once very much like the Mississippi River in that following a massive flood, it would find a new course. So, the waterway I thought was the Danube was no longer the Danube. It is now simply a small channel off the main river. That also explains why the main part of Vienna is not directly on the Danube… any more.

Now that we’re all thoroughly confused, let’s return to the last full day of our cruise.

Dropped at the Christmas Market again.

Actually, the buses dropped us off at City Hall. The Christmas Market simply occupied the park that sat between the University, City Hall, and the Parliament buildings. Our walking tour began at that point.

We were led through a huge set of gates.

Gates leading to the inner city.

If you looked at a large map of Vienna, you’d see that there is an inner-circle. One edge of that section abuts on what had been the Danube. At one time, this inner-circle was enclosed by a wall. As the city grew and became more secure (or did the weaponry improve to the point that the wall no longer protected the citizens?) the wall came down and the city expanded.

The bulk of our walking tour concentrated on the buildings and sites inside the circle.

The Museums Quarter.

This building may have been a palace at one time. The massive edifices so prevalent in European capitals are a testament to wealth and power. The surrounding buildings are also a testament that we in the states need to learn – just because a building is almost fifty years old doesn’t mean we need to tear it down and build something new!

The thing that most people find interesting in European cities is the age of buildings. To dine in a restaurant that has been serving food for hundreds of years is a unique experience. Which reminds me, why do hotels and inns in the U.S. no longer brag that George Washington slept there? Have those buildings been razed, or were the proprietors caught in lies?

Not sure what this is.

I had Lu stand in front of this because I at first thought it was the entrance to a Chinese restaurant. Upon further review, it might have had something to do with the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It was probably just a fancy entrance to an apartment building.

Just missed it!

A moment before I took this photo I man rode by on a bicycle… with a rather large Christmas tree slung over his shoulder. I would’ve preferred to take his picture, but I was too slow.

The Americans have invaded Europe.

While such establishments are in the vast minority, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and other American retailers have shown up here. I find myself wondering how anyone surrounded with such wonderful food would even consider frequenting these American icons, and then answer my own question. They are different. Just as Lu and I enjoyed dining on different foods or familiar foods prepared differently, the Europeans might enjoy a “break” from their regular diet.

A Pedestrian area?

After wandering around many side streets and alleys, we came into this area. By the looks of the paving stones and the number of people walking down the middle of the ‘streets’, we wondered why the vehicles were even there. We were nearing St. Stephen’s Plaza and had to dodge cars the entire time we were in the area.

An Advent Wreath of epic proportions.

This wreath was hanging on the side of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. By this time we were convinced that St. Stephen was one of the most popular saints in all of Europe!

St. Stephen’s was also undergoing renovation.

Like many of the buildings we saw, a protective material covered the scaffolding. In this case, a picture of the building was printed on the covering. Notice there were also advertisements. This was a way of defraying the cost of the renovation.

At this point our guide gave us some time for ourselves and told us where and when to meet the bus. We kicked around a bit more and then took the bus back to the ship for lunch.

Transportation had been arranged to take us back into the city for the afternoon. It would cost us just 8 Euros per person. Since Lu and I had our own agenda which included finding the least expensive transit into town and eventually to the airport, we elected to walk to the tram station and find our own way back into town.

Once again we found the bargain basement prices of European city transit. For 10 Euros each, we would have unlimited rides on all forms of public transportation for forty-eight hours. It was around 2:00 PM on December 23rd. We had to be at the airport no later than 8:30 AM on the 25th, the forty-eight hour tickets were perfect.

Allow me to add a word about the walk from the ship to the tram station. It was a lot farther than we were led to believe. Sloshing through the ice and slush made the walk even more arduous. We did not look forward to carrying our luggage the next morning. We made up our minds to take a cab. More on that tomorrow!

Every transit stop kept riders informed.

The tram we took between the ship and town was the “D” Nussdorf (that letter that looks like a fancy capital “B” is read as a double “S”.

That’s us!

On the afternoon of December 23rd, we wanted to accomplish two items on our agenda. First, we wanted to locate the hotel we’d be staying in the next night, so we’d know which transit connections to make.

Second was to determine what transit would get us to the airport on Christmas morning.

The Imperial Riding School - our sleeping quarters for Christmas Eve.

To get there, we took a tram to the public park near the Lipizzaner Museum. We then took the U-Bahn to the first stop outside of the inner-circle. We quickly located the road on which our hotel was supposed to be and started walking.

We took note that a number of “O” trams passed by during our walk. We also took note that we had walked a long way and had yet to find our hotel. Finally we stopped to ask directions. (Please don’t tell my male friends!)

I asked the woman behind a reception desk if she spoke English. She gave the typical answer, “A little.” When I explained what we were looking for she smiled and told us it was directly across the street. We thanked her and went back outside.

We looked across the street and saw no indication of a hotel. But we crossed the street and entered the building anyway. We were met by a nun who spoke perfect English. She quickly recognized what we were saying and told us we were very close… just another few blocks in the same direction we were heading.

It became obvious that the woman who could speak “a little” English knew her limitations and sent us to someone who could offer better assistance.

Once we found the hotel, we confirmed our reservations and then headed back to the inner-circle.

We took the “O” back to the U-bahn station and took the subway back to St. Stephen’s Plaza. We made one other stop… at the Tourist Information office and confirmed which train would take us to the airport. As luck would have it, the train station we needed was less than a few blocks from our hotel. We were all set for our return to the states – assuming air transportation was back to anything close to normal.

Eventually we worked our way back to the Christmas Market. We knew we could catch the “D” tram back the ship from there.

Lu in front of an even larger Advent Wreath.

By this time many of the booths were already open for the evening’s business.

City Hall in the background.

As I mentioned earlier, the area where they set up the Christmas Market was a large park. Walking around, we discovered a pony ride that might be a year-round thing.

Pony rides in the park.

The large balls seen in the trees above the pony ride are ornaments that light up at night. All the trees in the area were decorated in this manner. The balls look prettier when they’re lit up.

There was only one thing left before heading back to the ship for dinner. I had watched people eating meter-wursts for a week. I finally succumbed to temptation. So, while Lu shopped for ornaments to take back to our daughters-in-law, I feasted.

Eat your heart out, foot-long!

We were soon on our way back to the ship. We would spend one more night on board.

The dinner served that night was the best of all. And later – after we had all moved up to the lounge – the crew put on a show that left us all laughing.

One other thing happened that evening; the captain moved the ship. Recall I said there were two ships between us and the shore. Now, the ship was moved farther up river to a totally different docking location. It would make it easier for us to depart, but it also put us much farther away from the tram station. Any doubts about taking taxi in the morning were immediately erased.

We packed our bags prior to going to bed. We wanted to get an early start in the morning – following breakfast of course.


Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 7)

January 5, 2011

Finally, a day to sit back and relax… for the most part. December 22nd was listed in the brochure as “Daylight Sailing”. Every morning since we arrived in Munich, it had been “up before the sun, find a place to have some breakfast, and start touring some sites we’d never seen.”

On this day, we could sleep in a bit, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and then wander up to the lounge to find a nice seat with a view. We were armed with our cameras and binoculars and wishing we could be sitting up on the open deck above us. The sub-freezing temperature combined with the wind-chill factor put that idea out of our minds rather quickly.

One of seemingly hundreds of churches along the Danube.

We had crossed into Austria and were headed for Vienna. There would be two stops before reaching our final destination. The first was to allow people taking an optional tour of the Wachau Valley (a grape growing/wine making region) to get off, and the second was to allow them to re-board the ship at the end of their tour.

I must have been half-asleep when we docked to let the folks off the boat. I have no recollection of it and no pictures to document it. I believe at one time Lu and I discussed getting off briefly just so we could take a short walk and stretch out legs. I don’t remember doing either. And all I had to drink by that time was coffee!

Another of the many villages along the Danube.

I took one hundred sixty-one pictures between Passau and Vienna. That’s what a digital camera with extra memory cards does to people like me. I used to take lots of pictures with my 35mm camera, but considering the cost of the film and the cost of processing the negatives, I was much more selective.

Now, being a person who hates to throw away anything with the slightest value, I’m stuck with hundreds of photos that no one but me will ever see. Doesn’t that make you feel better? I’m not going to include all those photos… just most of them!

These folks know how to handle falling rocks.

As I’ve stated earlier, there are many things the Europeans do that I think should be carefully examined by us – the non-Europeans. Whenever I saw something that seemed like an interesting idea, I took a picture. I also took lots of other pictures, but I’ll try to confine what I include to the things I found unusual or interesting.

Another field covered with netting – What is grown like that?

I took this picture as we were entering the grape growing region. We’d seen similar fields on our way between Munich and Nuremberg. Surely someone can tell us what is being grown. In this case, we saw no grapevines under the netting.

Terraces for grapevines.

I included this picture because it reminded me of the terraces around Acapulco, Mexico. There they were growing corn on every available inch of land. I guess the Austrian wines are so popular that they do likewise with grapes.

I believe this was known as the Devil’s Mountain.

Someone explained that this mountain stood between people who lived outside of the village and the church. Any time someone would try to go to the church, more of the mountain would break away. You could say this was an effective way to keep people from being regular attendees. I wonder if they still sent in their tithes.

Yet another old castle.

I think the churches outnumbered the castles, but the castles usually occupied the higher ground. Could there be a metaphor in that?

The standard size and shape of a dock on the Danube.

Spitz might have been the place we dropped off the people for the optional tour. The shape of the dock was similar to the shape of many bridge abutments – the pointed end faced the current of the river and reduced the pressure on the structure.

The pick-up point?

I’m assuming this is where we picked up the optional tourists. We were permitted to go ashore and were given a good amount of time to roam about… which is precisely what we did. The bus loads of our fellow shipmates may have returned and unloaded while we were climbing the steps of an old church. If I’m not mistaken, we were doing our “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” routine to see what we could see.

I can’t forget to show this one!

As we were nearing the dock in Krems, I went up to the top deck to see how the captain could possibly bring the ship carefully up to the dock while sitting in the pilot house – in the middle of the upper deck. I had figured he was communicating via radio with his crew members who were giving him instructions.

You can see how wrong I was. Modern technology allowed him to take a wireless joy stick to the side of the ship. He didn’t need any help from his crew members. They were taking directions from him.

Narrow cobblestone streets were typical even in the larger cities.

Old stone steps led to the church on the hill.

Almost everyone who had gone ashore felt the pull of those steps. While I had quit on Lu in Nuremberg, I was determined to make it to the top of this hill. I took some pictures along the way to allow myself to catch my breath.

An ally way between a newer church and the hill.

The structure behind the church seems to have been built right into the side of the mountain.

About half way up the hill.

Two thirds?

Almost there.

Made it!

No way. I refuse to go any farther.

Fortunately, there was no way to get to the steps leading up to the top of the tower.

This is the inside of the small church on top of the hill.

The iron gate kept us from entering the church, but we couldn’t help wondering what happened to the pews. Perhaps the much larger church at the bottom of the hill now served the community and this was simply a chapel used for other purposes.

A small cluster of homes sat behind the church.

We saw there was yet another hill to climb before we could claim that we reached the top. I was more than glad to forego that claim. Besides, we didn’t want to miss the boat.

The Diamond was still there.

Lu in front of a statue in the town square.

It’s amazing how many monuments and statues can be found throughout this part of the world. The sad part is that we had no tour guide to tell us the history or meaning of many of these memorials. When we go back, I’ll have to learn how to read German so the plaques will make sense to me.

A defensive position facing the river.

I had seen slots in so many structures similar to this one, that I knew right away they were openings for the archers. The archers in the tower had freedom to move around and take careful aim, but only a Robin Hood could hope to guide an arrow through the slot to take out that marksman. Of course, I find myself wondering if any attacker ever got lucky and took out an enemy holed up in the tower.

We soon re-boarded and continued on our way to Vienna. However, the ship’s captain and crew had one more surprise for us before we reached our final destination.

Instead of the tiny sandwiches and pastries normally served in the late afternoon, we were served a Bavarian buffet. Soft pretzels, schnitzel, bratwurst, and beer were served and there was enough for everyone to have more than his or her fair share.

Lu was gracious enough to accept a glass of beer, take a sip, turn up her nose, and politely ask if I would like to finish it. (We’d gone through a similar routine when we toured the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.)

I graciously accepted and thoroughly enjoyed the two beers while savoring the Bavarian delicacies. All the time I was wondering how I would manage to eat my dinner after such a marvelous “snack”.

Somehow I managed.

We arrived in Vienna and tied up next to another ship from the Amadeus line. It wasn’t until after dinner, when we departed for our bus ride into the Vienna Christmas Market that we discovered there were two ships between us and the shore.

Austrians know how to make an incinerator look interesting.

Our bus drove us to town with one goal in mind – drop us off at the Christmas Market. Along the way, our guide made special note of the garbage incineration plant. It was more than a little bit interesting.

Otherwise, the Christmas Market was pretty much the same as the others we had seen. There was one major difference. Gate 1 Travel had given us each a coupon to redeem for a free cup of glühwein (hot mulled wine). What made it really special was that the coupon also covered the deposit on the mug.

The only mugs we kept.

In Vienna’s Christmas Market, the glühwein cost 3 Euros fifty cents and the deposit on the ceramic mug was 2 Euros fifty. So, not only did we get 7 Euros (about $9.50) worth of hot wine, we didn’t have to pay the deposit (about $6.75). Thus, we brought home two souvenirs.

We kicked around the market for an hour or so and then went back to the bus and back to the ship. Most of the next day would be spent in Vienna, and we had a lot more than touring to do.

Before I close today’s recap of events, I’d like to put in a good word for Gate 1 Travel.

This was the second trip to Europe we took through their company that is headquartered in Pennsylvania. A few years back we spent five days in Paris, then rode the train through the Chunnel and spent five more days in London. They arranged the flights, the hotels, the train, and a couple of side trips. We had a marvelous time.

On this trip, they arranged the flights and the cruise. We booked the hotel and transportation for two days in Munich and an extra day in Vienna. They did a great job of matching our plans to their packaged tour. Once we caught up with Monika, their guide, at the Munich airport, everything was in their hands until we parted company in Vienna. Monika and the crew of the MS Amadeus Diamond did a fantastic job of making us feel like honored guests. Each town included a bus or walking tour as well as free time for us to wander as we saw fit.

The one and only negative I found was with the local tour guides. While a few were excellent, too many seemed to know very little about the towns they were guiding us through.

There were too many of us for Monika to take on the tours; besides, she had her hands full trying to track down missing luggage and missing passengers – having all the London and Paris airports tied up from the snow storm really made things difficult. As for the missing luggage, the ship’s crew took it upon themselves to launder the clothes for the unfortunate passengers until they were able to purchase new clothes during our ports of call.

I have the web site of Gate 1 Travel bookmarked and I’m on their mailing list. I recently checked out future cruises hoping that our friends – who were not able to join us this time around – might be able to go with us in the near future. I was astounded by the prices. The lowest cruise price I saw was four times what we paid! Gate 1 Travel had found us an unbelievable bargain.

I’m sure they can do it again… and I wouldn’t think twice about using them again.