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.


Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 4)

December 31, 2010

I’m a person who likes to know as many details about a destination as possible. Therefore, I used Google Earth™ to extensively track our course once we boarded the Amadeus Diamond… I did this prior to leaving home. In so doing, I discovered that the Danube River flows nowhere near Nuremberg; but I was able to trace a body of water from Regensberg, Germany back to, and beyond, Nuremberg. It was the Rhine–Main–Danube Canal that links the Danube with the Rhine. It’s Europe’s answer to our Northwest Passage (which is yet to be found).

The locks along the canal - We started in Nuremberg and went up!

The canal was created, not so much for the cruise ships, but for the cargo vessels. It has proven to be a tremendous commercial success in allowing goods to be transported less expensively across parts of Europe.

Using Google Earth™ I took a guess at the most logical place for us to board the ship, and shortly after boarding, I asked a man in a naval uniform for details about our location. He informed me that we were in an inlet of some sort and would have to back out and turn around once we got to the main canal.

His answer caught me off-guard. I was sure we could simply start forward and continue that way. But what did I know?

I later learned that the man I was speaking with was the “Hotel” manager and had nothing to do with the navigation of the vessel. I could only wait until we actually began sailing to learn which was correct – his answer or my guess.

On December 19th we woke with no need for a wake-up call. My internal clock was still somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. We made it to breakfast with ease and ate too much. The breakfast buffet included bacon, sausage, baked beans, scrambled eggs, and triangles of minced potatoes that had been deep fried. There were also numerous choices of cold cuts, cheeses, Kippers, raw salmon, hard boiled eggs, rolls and pastries, various dry cereals, fruit, and other platters I bypassed. Each table also held a menu of items that could be cooked to order, such as omelets, pancakes, French toast, and the like. Of course, there was a wide variety of juices (including prune for the less than regular guys), tea, and coffee. The one mistake I made was imbibing in the Kippers. The taste was with me the rest of the day.

While preparing to board the buses for our tour of Nuremberg, I discovered the answer to a mystery from Munich. A day or so prior, as we were leaving the HofBrau Haus (Note the spelling of HofBrau – I had it wrong in earlier installments), there was a group of people gathered around a man speaking into a microphone. I thought it rather odd because I could hear him perfectly well – but not because of some sort of amplification system. I wondered if the man new his amplifier had died on him.

The magic sound system for walking tours.

Now, as we left the ship, we were given small audio receivers to hang around our necks. Each was numbered and we boarded buses or hooked up with tour guides with the same numbers. When the guides spoke into their microphones, we heard them through our headphones.

Our first guide took us on a bus tour of Nuremberg. I’m sure there were many points of interest, but the young lady was more inclined to chat about herself and her Christmas traditions. From time to time she’d say. “What should I tell you about now? Does anyone have any questions?” She did go into detail about the Nazi parade grounds.

Nazi Parade Grounds in Nuremberg

Another view of the Parade Grounds

We learned that Hitler began his rise to power in Munich – at the HofBrau Haus – but later moved his base to Nuremberg. Adolf Hitler would rally his troops and the local citizens by standing on the highest point of the grandstand and delivering his fiery speeches to thousands of cheering supporters. As I stated in an earlier account, his message was one of “Hope” that most Germans needed desperately to hear. His country had been broken by the Treaty of Versailles, and his actions brought the country out of depression and hyperinflation. Who wouldn’t have seen him as the savior? It wasn’t until years later that the German people discovered the true monster in whom they had placed their trust.

The building that housed the Nuremberg Trials after WW II

The above photo is the Justice Building where the Nuremberg Trials were held. A number of Nazis were tried; most were convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. A few were acquitted. Of the ones sentenced to hang, some committed suicide; if they couldn’t face a firing squad, they did not want to die by hanging. No one knows how cyanide was smuggled into the prison.

Close-up of the statues on the Justice Building

Does anyone know what the statues along the Justice Building represent?

After visiting the various Nazi historical sites, we were taken to the Christmas Market inside the walls of the old city.

Walls of the old city - seen from a speeding bus.

I was fascinated by the many walls around certain parts of the towns we visited. It was like traveling back in time to the days of castles and knights. I’m not sure where Germany stands as far as the number of castles, but they seemed to be everywhere… as did the old walls surrounding parts of the cities. Although this was a “Christmas Market” tour, I would’ve loved to devote more time to exploring the walls, towers, moats, and castles. Obviously, we have to go back and take a slower tour of the country!

Entrance to the Nuremberg Christmas Market

This sculpture was at the entrance to the Nuremberg Christmas Market. By the time we saw it, our guide had already left us on our own and had given us a time and place to meet so we could re-board the bus and return to the ship.

Close-up of Sculpture

I’m sure there was a story behind the people adorning this structure, but our guide saw no need to explain.

Roman Catholic Church near the Christmas Market

This is the Roman Catholic Church that stood at the rear of the market. We went into the church hoping to take some pictures, but they were in the middle of Communion. We’d forgotten it was Sunday.

The nearby Lutheran Church

This is the Lutheran Church which was a few blocks away from the Christmas Market. It too had a service in progress. Had we been able to go in, it would’ve cost us each one Euro for the privilege. I guess that’s a better way to raise money than a fish fry.

It’s interesting that we’d been dropped off to wander the market and spend our Euros, but Lu and I had spent so much time at the Christmas Market in Munich that we were quickly bored and spent more time exploring the town around the market.

Lu on bridge

This is Lu standing on a bridge overlooking a stream that might have filled the moat – although our guide said the moat had always been dry. Makes one wonder why anyone would bother having a moat if it isn’t full of water. Note that had a moved my gloved finger a bit more to the right, I could have taken Lu out of that picture entirely.

Jim on bridge

Lu did a much better job of taking my picture.

Nuremberg Castle

High on a hill overlooking the town and Christmas Market stood the castle. I walked half-way up the hill with Lu and decided I’d eaten too much for breakfast to go any farther. (The snack of brat wursts I had at the Christmas Market had nothing to do with it.) Lu, being much younger than I, continued on.

More of the castle

The complex was extensive with all sorts of buildings, walls, and storage structures. At one point Lu aimed her camera back down the hill and tried to find me.

Looking down from the Royal position

I may be that person standing down there wondering what happened to my bride, or that might be a total stranger. In all honesty, I was off taking more important photos.

A relic from the past

With the advent of cell phones, this may become obsolete. Future travelers may not be able to view such relics.

All too soon our fun in Nuremberg had to end and we returned to the bus and the ship. We were scheduled to set sail just as lunch was being served.

We were hardly into the soup course when I realized we had come to a stop. I looked out the window and saw a wall. We were in a lock! And I wasn’t out on deck to witness this wonder of modern engineering. I had waited weeks to experience going through a lock for the first time, and there I was – stuck eating soup!

As I finished my soup and waited for the next course, I saw the wall going down. By the time I finished the main course, we were looking out over the wall and waiting for the gates to open. All too soon we were on our way again… and I had only seen the process from the limited view of the dining room. Poop!

After lunch, we went up to the lounge and found seats near the front of the vessel. I had no idea how long it would be before the next lock, but I wasn’t about to miss it.

By the way, the Hotel Manager was totally wrong in his prediction of our sailing. We simply pulled away from shore and headed in the direction I’d determined based on my research. I didn’t say, “I told you so”, but I didn’t bother asking him anything more about the navigation of the ship.

Approaching the second lock

It wasn’t long before my wait was over… or so I thought.

Getting closer - OH! The Excitement!

The lock was within reach, and we began to slow down. However, we also started to move to the left. I hoped the captain knew what he was doing, because the way he was going, he was going to ram the wall to the left of the gate. It was then I noticed the cargo vessel to our right.

A "parked" cargo vessel

But it was tied up and it seemed to be parked there permanently. Before long, we were tied up on the left side of the canal and we were informed that a ship was stuck in a lock a dam or two further on. Traffic was halted until they worked out the problem. They expected us to be stalled for at least two hours.

Finally moving again

Night had fallen by the time we got the go-ahead to move into the lock. I decided to go to our cabin and get my jacket. I planned to stand on the deck (in sub-freezing weather) to get some good pictures. While in the cabin, I turned on the television to see if the crew was sending us any messages on their on-board network. That’s when I discovered they had a camera mounted on the front of the ship and it did a much better job of recording our journey after dark.

The view from our cabin's TV

The picture on the TV in our cabin was much better than I could hope to take with my Kodak, but I had to get the first hand experience or being on deck.

View from my camera

I rest my case.

That night, the ship televised an old movie, “Judgment at Nuremberg”. Lu and I decided to watch a bit of it before falling to sleep.

Did I mention the ice in the canal? Well, after going up through a number of locks, we were quite a bit higher above sea level and the ice on the canal was very much thicker. Lu began fearing we might duplicate the fate of the Titanic. I kept reminding myself that the canal was no more than ten feet deep and, even if we did sink; we could go up to the lounge and be high and dry. We could then walk across the ice to solid ground.

In the meantime, we turned the volume on the TV as high as it would go and still couldn’t hear the dialogue over the sound of ice crushing against the hull of our ship. I likened it to being in a thunder storm with constant thunder.

We finally gave up and turned off the television. We soon fell asleep to the calming sound of ice being crushed and shoved aside by our relentless moving toward our first port of call. Morning would find us arriving at Regensberg. This time it would be a walking tour, but we were looking forward to walking off as many calories as we could prior to another round of delicious meals.


Wonderful Winter Vacation (Day 3)

December 30, 2010

On Saturday morning, December 18th, we checked out of our hotel and headed for the train station. In our previous wanderings we’d learned that we didn’t have to traverse the entire distance above ground. There was an entrance to the central train station less than half a block from the hotel. That path allowed us to avoid walking – and in Lu’s case, pulling a wheeled piece of luggage – through the slush that covered all the sidewalks and pedestrian areas of Munich. In all fairness, the city employees and business owners tried to keep the walkways clear, but the snow kept falling.

We stopped at a pastry shop in the underground mall area of the train station and had more delicious pastries for breakfast.

I don’t know if it’s true for the majority of the U-Bahn (subway) stations in Munich, but most of the ones we visited included underground malls complete with department stores, convenience stores, cafes, and all sorts of other retail outlets. That’s something else the folks at MARTA might consider as a way of reducing dependence on tax payer dollars.

S-Bahn station beneath the streets of Munich

We took the S-8 back to the Munich airport in order to catch up with the Gate 1 tour guide and be transported to the cruise ship docked somewhere near Nuremberg. We met Monika at the entrance to the Cafe Leysieffer. She was rather surprised to see us as she’d been told to expect us later… rather than sooner. There were two buses scheduled to take us to the ship; one departed at noon, the other at 3:00 PM. We’d decided to get to the airport in time to get the early bus. Gate 1, knowing we had spent extra time in Munich, had assumed we’d arrive back at the airport later.

As it turned out, some of the folks who were supposed to be on the early bus were on flights that were delayed; so there was plenty of room for us on the early bus. However, when I say we arrived early, we arrived early. We had about two hours to kill.

So, we ate a second breakfast at the café, which was really an early lunch; we’d be on the bus from noon until two or two-thirty, and had no idea when the cruise ship was planning to feed us.

We wandered around the airport terminal to see what retail outlets were available there.

The sign maker did not make a mistake

I had to take a picture of this place because it reminded me of a time, years ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a running back out of Penn State University. We thought he was of Irish decent – Frank O’Harris. Obviously, some Germans believe that the early Italian explorer was actually Irish.

In truth, I did a bit of research and discovered that Marc O’Polo is a company that was founded in Sweden by three men: Gote Huss, Rolf Lind, and (this might be part of the answer) Jerry O’Sheets. I could find no explanation for the name of their company. We can only surmise Jerry had something to do with it.

By the way, for the uninformed, that Penn State football player was really named Franco Harris.

After spending a relative fortune (almost 20 Euros) on a book for Lu and a puzzle magazine for me, we boarded the bus and headed off to Nuremberg.

I was totally surprised to see thousands of acres of open land. A good friend from England had told me that wide open spaces were rarely seen in Europe. Perhaps his opinion was based on spending time in large cities. However, there was one thing that truly intrigued me.

Strange netting over farmers' fields

We saw netting like that shown in the picture almost everywhere. It appeared to be some way to keep birds away from the crops, but it made us wonder what sort of crops were grown beneath the netting – and how would the farmer get a tractor in there to till the ground? Perhaps one of our German friends can supply an answer.

The only other photo I took while on this bus was one showing the electric wires for the high-speed train that ran between Munich and Nuremberg.

A train runs alongside the highway

Considering the cost of that train ride was almost 300 Euros per person, I was content to ride the bus that had cost us 95 Euros apiece.

Just before 2:00 PM (the driver had a heavy foot), we arrived at our destination.

The Amadeus Diamond awaiting us

We were able to get ourselves and our luggage on board, but our cabins were not yet ready. Thus, we were forced to spend some time in the lounge and imbibe in alcoholic beverages.

Lu saved our place in line

In the above photo, the white tablecloths were a clear indication that some sort of finger food was about to be served. We wanted to be first in line because it had been awhile since our second breakfast/early lunch.

The time between our arrival and our first snack gave us time to meet some of our fellow travelers. When we saw how many folks were traveling with friends, we realized once again how much we missed the folks who had been scheduled to go with us.

As we killed time, I couldn’t help noticing the ice on the water.

Would we need an ice-breaker?

What first caught my attention is the fact that the ice would occasionally change directions. One time I’d look out the window to see the ice flowing left to right. The next time, right to left.

Lots of ice and the temperature was dropping!

It was then I remembered that we were in a canal. I correctly surmised that the flow of the water changed whenever a ship passed through a lock. It wasn’t until we set sail the next day that I discovered how close we were to that first lock.

The remainder of this day was nothing more than time to relax. We were served a light meal of small open-faced sandwiches and pastries, along with tea and coffee. Later, we would be served a champagne welcoming cocktail. That was soon followed by a wonderful cruise-ship dinner.

Every dinner on board the ship began with some sort of salad or appetizer. That course was followed by soup – always a choice between a clear broth based and a cream based soup. Then came the main course followed by a luscious dessert. The wine, being complimentary, flowed freely throughout. (I would’ve preferred beer, but the choice was simple – almost 4 Euro per glass, or free.)

After dinner, we sat around and got to know some of our shipmates, and then retired rather early. Many of the folks joining us for the cruise had flown in from the States that day. They were exhausted.

Breakfast would be served at 7:00 AM the next day and the bus tour of Nuremberg was scheduled to leave at 8:00. So, we called it a day as well. We’d be well rested by morning.

Before I bring this chapter to a close, let me say a bit about the planning that went into this trip.

December 18th is the day we would have landed in Munich had we just gone with the package offered by Gate 1 Travel. I had received an email telling me that the price of the cruise had been slashed from $899 per person to $499 per person. The cruise included six nights lodging/cruising and three meals a day (for December 19th through the 23rd.) It also included dinner on the 18th and breakfast on the 24th. AND complimentary wine at all dinners. Such an unbelievable price did not go unnoticed.

The kicker was the airfare. Leaving on Friday, December 17th and returning on Friday, the 24th meant we’d be flying on some of the airlines’ busiest days. By tweaking that schedule and leaving on a Wednesday and returning on Christmas Day, we reduced the airfare by over $300 per person. That gave us $600 to cover two night’s hotel in Munich, one in Vienna, and something left over for meals and transportation in those cities.

So, my advice to fellow travelers is to always look at ways to reduce the airfare. In most cases, you can probably save enough cash to cover the extra days at your final destination. The added bonus for us was that it gave us time to adjust to the six hour time differential.