ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 10 (Part 2), LOVELY LA PERLA

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Formerly a fishing boat, Ante Bubalo and his son, Luka purchased the 115-foot-long retired boat ten years ago, had it stripped it to its shell, and completely restored at a cost of two million Euros.  It took three years to renovate and rebuild, a better option than purchasing a new boat, since the hull was of much better quality and thicker than the hulls on new boats.

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It was Luka’s dream to make La Perla a reality, after earning an economics degree at university.  Working with a boat designer to carry out his vision, they gave new life to the old fishing boat by creating a luxury yacht for tourists.  Luka’s wife did the interior decorating, and together, they made La Perla into a comfortable cruising yacht perfect for enjoying the Adriatic Coast.

Although now retired from his business of selling prosciutto to stores and restaurants throughout Croatia, Ante assists Luka with his charters that are booked eight months of the year.  Luka is usually on board La Perla for each charter; however, for our cruise, Ante stepped in to cover for Luka.

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Ante Bubalo

Ante’s favorite task of each day was going shopping, picking up needed provisions as well as treats for the passengers.  Each day there was a new surprise—a special cheese, local chocolates, cookies, or other tasty snacks he placed out in the lounge for us to nibble on throughout the day and evening.

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La Perla was wonderful!  Our cabin was surprisingly spacious, well-designed, and had more storage space than we needed.  Suitcases fit perfectly in the bed platform cabinet, so we were able to stow them away and out of site.  The bed was very comfortable, and we were amazed at how smartly designed the bathroom was for a yacht of its size.  We also enjoyed our cozy balcony!

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Open-seating meals were always enjoyable with the other twenty-two passengers.  There was never a shortage of conversation!  We also never left hungry.  The variety of food on the buffet for breakfast and lunch was terrific, and the chef also prepared dishes to order.  Dinner was white-glove service with multiple courses and plenty of wine, which was included in the cost of the cruise.  I especially enjoyed the octopus we had one evening as well as the wonderful views of the sunset we enjoyed during dinners.  A couple of times, a few of us grabbed our cameras and made a beeline to the aft deck to capture some photos!

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The galley was tiny!

 

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The dining room

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Breakfast buffet

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While we were cruising, the indoor and two outdoor lounge areas were very comfortable to relax at and enjoy conversation with the other passengers.  There were also plenty of lounges for sunbathing, and I even found some deck space by the spa to do my Theraband exercises and yoga.  (Try balancing in a yoga pose on a moving yacht; it was a fun challenge!)

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There was also a (very!) small gym; however, we opted to do a LOT of walking in each port and take in a couple of swim sessions when La Perla was anchored.  (More on that in a future post.)

The most memorable part of La Perla was Ante and his staff of nine.  They were always friendly and eager to please, and we enjoyed getting to know them while on board.  There were plenty of laughs and good times!

If you are considering a trip to the Adriatic Coast of Croatia, cruising aboard La Perla is a great way to go. Not only was the boat able to travel much closer to the coast, but we were also able to spend a day on the island of Korcula, which is inaccessible to large cruise ships.  Considering it was a highlight of the cruise, it was a great decision to go small!

As you will see in later blog posts, La Perla also had the advantage of being able to anchor in coves, so we could enjoy swimming off the platform, kayaking in their tandem ‘yak, and circling a small island aboard their tender.  Besides, we got to know all twenty-two of the other passengers as well as the crew.  Try that on a cruise ship!

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The other “Ante” (no relation) was our bartender/ waiter.

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Now, for a shameless commercial, even though I am in no way affiliated with the company:  Book La Perla through Vantage Travel.  This was my fourth trip with Vantage (and Bruce’s second), and we loved it!  Call (888) 756-6677, give them my name and number (Elaine Krugman 2569087), and you each (if you are traveling with a companion) will receive $50 travel credit.

Stay tuned for more adventures aboard La Perla as we cruise south along the Adriatic Coast!  Meanwhile, check out this video from Vantage.

 

 

 

 

 

ADRIATIC COAST: DAY 1, SLOVENIA (PRE-EXTENSION)

Our flight from Atlanta to Ljubljana, Slovenia (via Zurich) was uneventful, and that’s a good thing!  I love being able to fly out of the busiest airport in the world (and Delta’s hub).  It means never having to fly United Airlines ever again (if I can help it!) and opting for Delta and Southwest Airlines (domestically) instead.

Vantage Travel’s arrangements were flawless, and we had a seamless day of arrival.  For our pre-cruise extension in Slovenia, we spent three nights in Bled at the Grand Hotel Toplice, located on Lake Bled, and dating back to 1845.  GORGEOUS!  Although the hotel wasn’t anything special on the outside, it was grand on the inside with a lovely lounge and restaurant overlooking the lake.

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The view of Grand Hotel Toplice from Bled Castle.  The hotel’s private “beach” and swim area is to the right of the rowboat shelter.

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The key to minimizing jet leg is immediately adapting to local time.  Neither of us sleep well on planes, so it was a challenge to stay awake until after dinner.  I chose to go for a refreshing swim in Lake Bled while Bruce lounged on the hotel’s private “beach.”  At 77 degrees (just below competition temperature), I was in heaven!  It did the trick and energized me for the remainder of the day and evening.

After meeting the 12 other Vantage travelers on the pre-extension over a glass of wine and briefing by Sinisa , our program director, we enjoyed dining with sunset views of the lake and Bled Castle.  Dinner was fabulous!  Bruce and I had never tasted grilled calamari (they refer to it as “squid”) so fresh and perfectly prepared that you could cut it easily with a fork.

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By now, many of you may be wondering just where Slovenia is located and why we would travel there.

A small country bordered by Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the northeast, Croatia to the southeast, and the Adriatic Sea to the southwest, Slovenia is smaller than the state of New Jersey.  Formerly part of Yugoslavia, the country gained independence in 1989.  In 2004, Slovenia joined the European Union.  It is one of Europe’s least-densely populated countries with just under 2.1 million people who are mostly Roman Catholic.

I was impressed to learn that Slovenia’s education ranks as the 12th best in the world and that 92% of adults between 25-64 speak at least one foreign language.

Slovenia’s extremely strict gun laws also impressed me.  Before you can purchase a gun, you must undergo a medical and psychiatric exam.  If you pass, the next step is to participate in a six-month training program.  As a result, the percentage of privately-owned guns is only about 15 per 100 civilians compared to about 120 per 100 American civilians!  In addition, most of those privately-owned guns in Slovenia are used for hunting, which is only allowed on Sundays.

A few other facts about the country:  In addition to banking and tourism, Slovenia is known for its production of electronics, wool clothing, wood furniture, beer, wine, and jams.  Apples, pears, plums, and vegetables are the main crops; and the cuisine is a mix of Central European, Mediterranean, and Balkan.

Slovenia is very mountainous with over half the country covered by forests, so it is absolutely beautiful—and, clean!  Conservation, a clean environment, and recycling are priorities of Slovenia, so we never saw litter on the streets, and the air and water were fresh and clean.

Located in the Julian Alps in the northwest region of the country, the scenery surrounding Lake Bled is stunning, making it an ideal locale for destination weddings—very popular for the British.

In my next post, we explore more of the Julian Alps region.

RIVER VOYAGER IN REVIEW

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The previous three Vantage Deluxe World Travel river cruises I had taken in Europe were with my mom, and they were on boats that have since been retired from their fleet.  Vantage had three new boats built, and we boarded the newest of the fleet in Budapest.  Introduced into service this year, we were about to embark on the 14th sailing of the River Voyager.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about the new, modern feel of this boat; but, once we had a good look around, it was love at first sight.  The jazz theme of the décor definitely hit a soft spot in my jazz-loving heart, and the additional outdoor seating in front of the forward Blue Note Lounge as well as behind the Cotton Club café was a nice surprise.  (In retrospect, given the high water level in the rivers these extra outdoor lounge areas on the lower decks were a huge benefit, because the captain had to close down the top sun deck of the boat while cruising under low bridges.)

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Aft deck of Cotton Club Cafe

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Cotton Club Cafe

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Mid-ship stairway

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Along the wall leading into the Blue Note Lounge

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At the far end of the lounge, there were floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the forward deck.  The drapes were closed at this moment in preparation for a lecture.

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The top deck of the ship was closed during portions of the cruise due to low overhead bridges.

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The cabins were wonderfully appointed, and the bathrooms were actually larger than those on the older boats.

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I didn’t photograph the cabin; however, I did get this (distorted!) shot of the bathroom.  The lower right is a very large drawer with a pull-out trash can beside it.  There was plenty of counter space  (on the left), and a shelf full of wonderful toiletries.  There was plenty of room in the shower, and I loved the adjustable shower head and glass door.  The toilet was to the right, and towel racks were located on the walls to the left.  It was actually quite roomy in there!

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This is a public restroom located mid-ship.  Nice!

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The other side of the same public restroom.

Technologically, the River Voyager was very modern, and a great WI-FI system was accessible from anywhere on board.  The front desk staff even loaned out iPads at no charge as well as brand new bicycles with saddle bags and helmets.

The staff on board was fabulous!  Not only were they unfailingly friendly and warm, the service was outstanding.

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Captain Ziggy & Hotel Manager, Enio (and Renata’s husband)

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Concierge, Renata (Enio’s wife) & Tour Director, Vicky

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Our cabin steward, Bowo.  We named our towel dog after him and kept him throughout the cruise.

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The dining room had open seating, so we always gravitated to Robert’s section, because he was our favorite waiter.

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Our favorite assistant waiter, Halil

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A well-deserved break for the crew!  That’s the head chef on the far end.

The food?  Fantastic!  Our Balinese chef did a wonderful job with his staff in his surprisingly small kitchen, and we found ourselves raving at every dinner over the food and presentation.

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Chef Ketut (“Chef”) had a great sense of humor, too, as well as a wide, cheerful smile.  Later in the cruise during the galley tour, when asked how long it took to cook the whole pig they brought out during our traditional Bavarian lunch buffet, he replied, “Cooking the pig wasn’t the problem, it was catching it!”

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As it turned out, that lunch was quite a highlight!  Complete with soft pretzels graciously handed out by Chef, flowing beer served by the staff, and a buffet of sausages of every description (with sauerkraut, of course!); it was fabulous!  (Thinking back, I don’t think I had eaten sausages and sauerkraut since my last cruise in 2011!  Meat isn’t a normal part of my daily diet, but as they say, “When in Rome…”)

Although the previous river cruises were on ships with a maximum capacity of 145 and the River Voyager could cruise with 175 passengers, I would say that is the only negative of the newer river boats.  I like the intimacy and quaintness of small boats, but the trend is going towards larger boats (and larger ships) for economic reasons.  Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to book a cruise on this very same boat again!

As for the passengers, in general, I have found them to be much more experienced travelers than mega-ship cruisers.  Conversations over meals or around the ship were always lively and interesting with plenty of travel stories to go around.  I especially enjoyed hearing about other river cruise experiences, and the advice we received about itineraries was very helpful.

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Marg & Wendell, our dining partners for lunch in Heidelberg, and a few times on the ship.

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We first met Betsy and Mary on our pre-cruise tour, and then in Vienna, Betsy and I ended up going to the hospital together with Renata as our escort and interpreter.

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Betsy, Renata, and Me at the hospital

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Partying it up during the Captain’s farewell cocktail party.

Over all, I can’t say enough good things about our experience.  The best part?  Seeing Bruce enjoy it so much that he already has our next Vantage river cruise picked out!

 

WATCHING THE WACHAU

Having a “relaxing” day on the ship to recuperate after receiving the injection for my raging hip tendinitis was a good thing—and it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.  Although, as you can see by the quotation marks above, relaxing is relative; it depends on who the person is doing it.

Me?  I never stay down for very long, especially when I’m traveling.  The River Voyager cruised past photogenic scenery too beautiful to pass by without jumping to my feet to snap a few photos from time-to-time.

While making our way to Vienna, we cruised the Danube which is Europe’s second-longest river at 1,770 miles long.  It passes through ten countries, including: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.

The 20-mile long Wachau Valley, between the Austrian towns of Melk and Krems is (in my opinion) the most scenic section along the Danube, and we took in the beautiful scenery along the way.

There were many charming towns as well as gorgeous castles, monasteries, and terraced vineyards we passed along the (at-times narrow) Wachau Valley section of the river.

The following are scenes we enjoyed along the way:

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Durnstein, a very upscale village that was visited frequently by Princess Diana, is also known for its wine.

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Spitz, “Land of 1,000 Buckets,” is known as a wine-producing region in Austria.

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Melk Abbey, in the town of Melk, is a Benedictine abbey that was built between 1702 and 1736.

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It was beautiful to see the sun finally shining!  As we cruised through Austria, their nation’s flag was flown with the Vantage Deluxe World Travel flag.

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Next up:  Passau

 

 

VIBRANT VIENNA

Vienna was our next stop after a wonderfully relaxing full day of cruising on the Danube.  At 94 degrees, the temperature was about 15 degrees above the normal average, and it felt very hot!

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I could have used a dip in this interesting floating pool!

The highlight of our walking tour was visiting the library of the palace that dated back to 1774.  It was stunning!

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St.Stephen’s Cathedral was photogenic as well; especially the 250,000 colorful enamel tiles that covered the roof, and the enormous stain glass windows.  Like most of the cathedrals we have seen, though, there was scaffolding in place where workers were cleaning the façade that had been damaged by pigeon droppings.  Many cathedrals and historic buildings throughout Europe now have screen covering surfaces to prevent pigeons from taking up residence and damaging the stone with excrement.

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There are 250,000 of these enamel tiles!

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Look closely at what is hanging from the ceiling of the cathedral.  These are all hand-crocheted lace doilies that have been stitched together.  I believe the words projected on each of these translated to love and peace.  (I forgot to write it in my notes.)

During our free time after the tour, Bruce and I wandered the streets I had strolled back in 2007 when I had visited with my mom.  There were a lot of changes—many more modern chain stores had replaced the small local businesses and patisseries.  Still, the smaller cobblestone alleys had picturesque cafes and boutiques that were pleasant to explore.

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By the time we had returned to the boat, the previous days of walking miles over cobblestones, climbing a lot of stairs, and trekking up the hill in Prague to see the view below from the castle, my hip rebelled.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t the hip that had been operated on in December, 2014; it was my “good” hip.

Knowing I couldn’t let my hip go untreated, I sought medical care the following day.  We would be in Vienna until 3:45 AM, so I asked the concierge, Renata, where I could go to get checked by a physician.  Being a Sunday, my only option was the hospital emergency room.  There was another gal on board, Betsy, who was having a problem with a leg injury, so Renata insisted on taking us by taxi to the hospital and assisting us.

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Betsy, Renata, and Me

Thankfully, Betsy and I both had taken out Vantage’s travel insurance, because all expenses were covered with no hassle, including the 60-euro round-trip taxi ride clear across the city to get to hospital and back.  Unfortunately, the first hospital we went to wouldn’t treat us, because there was nobody there to x-ray my hip or administer an injection.  On Sundays, you’re out of luck.  Unless you are an admitted patient, there is only one place to get medical care—the other hospital also located on the outskirts of town.  Renata called another taxi, and off we went to Krankenhausseelsorge, the other hospital with a very long name.

While Betsy received treatment for her leg, I was sent off for an exam, x-ray, and injections.  What was thought to be bursitis was calcific tendinitis, and the x-rays showed plenty of evidence.  The doctors who claimed to speak “little” English ended up being a breeze to communicate with, and they were wonderful.  I received an injection of short and long-term anesthetic in my hip, and I was sent away with a cd of my x-rays and a stronger anti-inflammatory than the Meloxicam I had brought on board, just in case.

What could have been a miserable experience turned out to be no big deal, and the three of us made the best of it.  We got to know each other during the long taxi rides, had a lot of laughs, and we bonded.  In the hospital, while Renata went to check on Betsy, she made a detour to the cafeteria and surprised me with a couple of cutely packaged Lindt chocolate bars to cheer me up.  (She knew how much I loved chocolate after I asked her the first night of the cruise where the closest grocery store was located in Budapest, so I could purchase chocolate the following day.  It turns out she loved chocolate, too, and she shared some of her private Croatian chocolate stash with me.  We were instant soul sisters!  The following day, she was afraid we wouldn’t get a chance to make it to the store, so she even purchased a few of the bars I was looking for when she went shopping for herself and gave them to me as a gift.  We laughed, because we had bought chocolate to Renata as a gift!  We ended up giving each other the exact same chocolate!)

By the evening time, the short-term injection alleviated the pain enough to be able to join the other passengers for a trip to the beautiful Kursalon Wien music hall for a private concert just for our group.  After being served a glass of champagne on the terrace, we were treated to a fabulous one-hour performance by a nine-piece orchestra, two opera singers, and two ballet dancers.  The repertoire included several recognizable favorites, and the variety of classical music, opera, and ballet was a perfect cultural mix.  All of us agreed it would prove to be one of the highlights of our trip!

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Kursalon Wien

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Enjoying champagne on the terrace with Bruce.  This concert was a casual event exclusively for Vantage, so it we were told to “Come as you are!”

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BRATISLAVA TO BUDAPEST

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On the way to Budapest to meet the River Voyager, our home for the next 16 days, our pre-extension group enjoyed a wonderful community-hosted lunch in the tiny village of Dunaalmas, Hungary.  We were greeted by the villagers dressed in traditional Slovakian costumes, and one of the little girls held out a basket of freshly baked flatbread with garlic butter, similar to Indian naan.  Next, we were given glasses of locally-produced liquor to enjoy before watching flat bread and strudel-making demonstrations.  Some of the group rolled up their sleeves to assist, but I got a kick out watching the older of the two girls teaching her little sister the fine art of making strudel.  At her young age, she was already an expert at handling the dough.

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Lunch was traditional vegetable and beef soup served in a crock with a pastry cap baked over the top.  Along with some tasty local wine, we were completely satisfied.  Then, the strudel was served.  It kept coming, and coming!  In all, we had three types of strudel:  cottage cheese, apple, and cherries with poppy seeds.  It was amazingly delicious (especially for not being chocolate!), and we were overwhelmed by the feast we had been served.

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Needless to say, the remainder of the bus ride to Budapest was quiet.  Very quiet.  I think most of our group crashed on the bus for an afternoon siesta.

Upon arrival to Budapest, we were welcomed aboard by the entire staff of the River Voyager, Vantage Travel’s newest riverboat in their fleet.  Just thirteen voyages old, the 175-passenger (and 46-crew) vessel looked sparkling brand new.  I was impressed at how much more beautiful and technologically updated it was compared to the previous Vantage riverboats I had traveled on in the past.

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What we didn’t know until just recently is that we came very close to not being able to cruise the Danube at all.  Just two days before our sailing, the river level was too high from flooding for riverboats to be able to pass under the lower bridges.  If that had still been the case, we would have had to be bussed from place to place—not our idea of a river cruise!  Needless to say, all of us aboard the River Voyager feel extremely fortunate to be able to cruise the Danube, Main, and Rhine!

 

PHOTOGENIC PRAGUE

It was 2007 when my mom and I took our second Vantage Travel river cruise (Belgium & Holland was our first), and we had chosen Eastern and Central Europe as our destination.  We enjoyed the countries we visited very much.

I never thought I would have the opportunity to return, but I was delighted when my suggestion to Bruce of going on a river cruise was met with enthusiasm.  Bruce suggested I choose the itinerary, so I opted for one that combined portions of two river cruises I had previously enjoyed and thought Bruce would enjoy.  The itinerary also included unfamiliar stops in Germany that would be new to both of us.

Germany was featured on the third river cruise I did with my mom, and I was pleasantly surprised at how clean and beautiful it was.  The country surpassed my expectations so much in every way that I wanted to share it with Bruce, especially since one side of his family was of German heritage.  My last name is German, so it is somewhere in my family tree as well.

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Our journey started with a pre-extension in Prague, a post-cruise destination of my 2007 adventure.  I loved the city and couldn’t wait to share it with Bruce.

Upon our arrival from our red-eye flight from Atlanta, we immediately hit the streets to explore the old town, and St. Charles Bridge area.  Although it had been nine years since my previous visit, my memory served me well as I led Bruce through the cobblestone streets.  For a bit of a chuckle, we stopped on the hour to see the astronomical clock put on its little “show” for the tourists.  I’m not sure which was more fun—watching the clock or watching the crowd photograph the clock!

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Prague has never suffered a major natural disaster or been the victim of an attack, so the architecture from hundreds of years ago remains intact.  If you enjoy seeing old architecture (and I mean, OLD; “New Town” buildings are from the 14th Century, and “Old Town” architecture dates back to the 13th Century!), this is the city for you!  Just be prepared for a neck ache from constantly looking up at the beautiful details on all the buildings!

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The following day, we joined the others in our group for a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, Old Town Square, and the St. Charles Bridge.  Prior to World War II, 120,000 Jews lived in the area; however, 80,000 were hauled off to concentration camps never to return alive.  The cemetery was so space challenged that bodies were buried 12 layers deep.  Today, there are only 2,000 Jews living in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.

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Following our fascinating tour, we hiked up to the castle to enjoy views of the city and admire the architecture.  On the way back, we enjoyed casually meandering the streets on each side of the bridge along the river.

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In lieu of lunch, we opted for a snack of “Trdelni’k,” a donut-like pastry shaped like a hollow coiled tube.  It was placed on end in a cup, filled with ice cream, and topped with Nutella.  It was the tastiest $4.50 treat we have ever shared!

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Dinner in Prague was at a little restaurant along the cobblestone streets where they serve traditional fare—cuisine that is completely opposite of our normal healthy diet.  Bruce ordered duck which was served whole along with red cabbage and sauerkraut.  I opted for goulash served in a hollowed out small round of bread.  We also shared an appetizer of potato dumplings as well as a basket of bread served with pate.  Pilsner Urquell on tap was our beverage of choice for three reasons:  It is Czech Republic’s national beer, it has been voted the best pilsner in the world in major beer competitions, and it was less expensive than mineral water!  We enjoyed it all for a reasonable tab of $37.

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Our next destination:  Bratislava…

THE GRAND FINALE: A PERFECT DAY IN LUCERNE

My final post of this trip is a long one, but I hope you feel it was worth it in the end! 

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This was the view that greeted me as I stepped out on the balcony upon wakening on our last full day abroad.  On our final day in Lucerne, we were scheduled for a group tour of the lake and Mt. Pilatus, so we were hoping for good weather.  We had a wonderful lake cruise in a boat chartered just for our group of 40 Vantage Travelers.  It turned out to be a gorgeous day, so the photographers opted for the top deck and enjoyed the fresh air and warm sun.  The views were spectacular, including the top of Mt. Pilates, 7,000 feet up.  There were beautiful white puffy clouds hanging about, however, so we were hoping they would stay put and not cause a white-out at the top of the mountain.

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It was a day of experiencing many forms of transportation.  Following our one-hour boat tour, we disembarked at the railway station and boarded rail cars for our 30 minute trip up to the top of Mt. Pilates.  It was a steep ride, often at a 25-30% grade and I was fortunate enough to get the spot right behind the conductor where I could either shoot photos out the front window or out the open side window.  In many cases, I stuck my camera out the side window and pointed straight ahead where I was able to get some dramatic wide-angle (24mm) shots.  FABULOUS!  The conductor was a sweet man, too, pointing out everything he thought I should capture with my camera.

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The railway had quite an interesting history.  We were amazed it was built 125 years ago and took 600 men four summers to build.  They did a fabulous job!

 

When we arrived at the top of the mountain, we were in awe with the fabulous view.  The facilities were quite nice at the top with a restaurant, self-serve takeaway, and wonderful walking paths with stairs leading up to view points or down through tunnels leading to the backside of the mountain.  I hiked up the two main paths to the highest points of the mountain and down through two tunnels.  In between, we were entertained by Swiss men playing haunting tunes on their traditional Swiss horns, as well as by three paragliders!  Now, that wasn’t something I expected to see, but we sure were entertained, especially when one of the paragliders returned to buzz by the onlookers a couple of times, so we could get some good shots.  I was so surprised at how close they came and how quick he flew by, I wasn’t able to get a good shot off.  Instead, I cheered him on!

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After almost an hour and a half we were given to explore the hiking trails at soak in the beautiful picture postcard scenery, we boarded a large cable car that took us part of the way down the mountain.  While we were boarding, a cloud enveloped our car for a complete white-out!  We all just laughed, because we knew how lucky we were to have enjoyed perfect weather up at the top of the mountain, so we would have been asking for too much to expect it to continue any longer; especially since white-outs are common up on the mountain.

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As we descended, we were ecstatic to drop from the cloud, back into bright sunshine, again!  My Vantage travel mates, Mom and I were back to snapping away…

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On the way down, we took in the scenery of gorgeous trees and cows happily grazing on bright green grass.  We loved hearing the bells around their neck, but I wondered if the cows ever get tired of hearing them…

The remainder of our 20 minute cable ride was spent in smaller cable cars that seated four people, after transferring from the larger car, part-way down the mountain.  What a breathtaking experience it all was!  Again,  I felt like I had lived in the pages of a photo calendar or coffee table picture book; the kind I loved to pour over as a kid (and still do).

After being transported by bus (our final mode of transportation for the day) back into town, we visited the Lion Monument.  The dying lion of Lucerne, carved into natural rock, was created in 1820/1821 in memory of the Swiss heroes who gave their lives at the Tuileries in Paris, in 1792.  As you can see, it is quite the stone carving!  We were all in awe…

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We still had a few hours to enjoy the gorgeous weather, so Mom and I stayed in town to do some (more!!!) photography.  Needing to cool off from the warm sun, we also popped into Denner to write down some grocery store prices and pick up some (more!!!) chocolate.  Prices in Switzerland are steep.  A lake-front home will set you back 3-9 million Swiss Francs (which is stronger than our dollar).  A Big Mac will cost you 12 Francs; $15 in our currency.  Dine in a restaurant and you will go broke in a hurry.  Main courses start at 25 Francs and shoot on up from there- even at small, casual restaurants in the city.  (Something as basic as a bratwurst at a cart is 6 Francs.)

In Denner, these are some of the prices I noted (all are in Swiss Francs):

Yogurt- 175 grams (about 6 ounces) = 1.25

Bag of four small oranges = 2.25

Baguette = 2.20

6pk cans of Coke = 3.95

1 kg (2.2 pounds) of sugar = 1.95

100 g (3+ ounces) of Denner store brand chocolate = .45 (Wooohooo; what a deal!)

So, my conclusion was that some prices were comparable to prices in our stores (cereal and several other items were priced the same), however, others were steep.  Basically, if you do all of your own cooking and avoid dining out, you would be ok in Switzerland.  But, their standard of living and income is one of the highest in the world, so it is all relative.  The lowest annual salary anyone makes there is 30,000 Swiss Francs.

As for how the prices affected me, I quickly learned to only photograph the chocolate in the chocolatier displays and admire their artistry.  At US $60 per pound, on average, purchasing any was not an option.  Instead, I stocked up at the three grocery store chains, mostly buying their store brand at bargain prices.

“Dining” on our own was stopping for to enjoy Gelati for lunch or eating a bratwurst at a cart in the square.  One night for dinner, we found a back street takeaway and picked up a couple of falafels that we ate at the little café table outside.  It wasn’t a bargain at 8 Swiss Francs, but it sure beat the ridiculously high price of dining.

Mom was determined to dine by the river just once, though, so she treated us to a shared Tarte Flambe and main course-sized Swiss salad (with Swiss cheese, sausage and mixed greens).  Thanks Mom!

Our last night was lovely, dining at the Palace Hotel with a view of the lake.  It was our included farewell dinner and we dined in style.  What a wonderful way to end a spectacular trip on a high note!  And, to cap it off, Mom and I took the funicular to the hotel up the hill from ours, so we could soak in this gorgeous view:

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And, on that note, I will wrap up this marathon post by saying this trip was no less than PERFECT.

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Nico was a wonderful program manager (our guide for the 44 of us in the yellow group) and Vantage Travel was excellent.  I feel completely comfortable highly recommending them, so please let me know if you are interested, so I can provide them your contact information to receive a catalog.  Disclaimer:  I do receive a $100 discount on future travel if somebody I recommend books a trip; however, that is not my motivation.  Besides, whomever I refer ALSO gets $100 credit!  Vantage Travel is fantastic, and, from what I hear from other passengers, a better deal than competitors and (almost) everything is included in the price.

Thank you for sticking with me and reading my posts; I hope you enjoyed them!

 

IS IT “BAAASEL” OR “BaSEL”? NO, BASEL IS “BAHHSEL”!

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We have left France and Germany behind (sort of) and are now in Basel, Switzerland, for the last day aboard ship, before departing for our post-extension in Bern and Lucerne.  I say “sort of”, because Basel is in the northwest corner of the country, just across the river from France and next door to Germany.  Each day, 30,000 commuters come from France and Germany to work in Switzerland, then return to their countries in the evening.

Although Basel, the third largest city in Switzerland has a population of only 90,000, it is quite a cultural mecca, with 30 museums, a symphony, and a large theater.  It is also home to Switzerland’s oldest university.

In addition to being an important banking center, Basel is also known for its chemical and pharmaceutical industries, as well as publishing.

I found it interesting that Basel has three railway stations; one French, one German, and one Swiss!

What I wasn’t surprised about  and definitely expected was the high cost of EVERYTHING.  The Swiss Frey chocolate bars I bought at Migos, yesterday, in Germany, were actually cheaper than at the Migos, in Basel!  And, a Toblerone bar that was on sale for 5.49 Euros (regularly 10 Euros) at the German Migos was priced at anywhere from 16-19 Swiss Francs (CHF), in Basel.  Keep in mind that the exchange rate was 1 Euro = 1.20 Swiss Francs.

The small chocolatiers were outrageous, so I passed on making any purchases.  One chocolatier was charging 26 CHF for 250 grams of chocolates; about one half pound.  The exchange rate for U.S. $1 = .75 CHF, so do the math and those are some expensive chocolate!

How about paying 5.90 CHF for 100g of salmon?  100 grams is only 3oz.!

Rather than return to the boat for lunch, following our walking tour, Mom and I stayed in town to do more exploring, then took the shuttle back later in the afternoon.  But, we passed on dining at one of the cafes.  Instead, we split a bratwurst at the Market Square; a 6 CHF purchase.

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After lunch, we continued our exploring of the downtown streets.  The following are pictures taken during our morning walking tour, as well as during our free time.

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Although we enjoyed our day (and it was a beautiful one at that), Basel doesn’t rate at the top of my list for favorites on this cruise.  The highlight, by far, was our day spent exploring the Alsace wine region’s quaint villages.  My next favorite would be Bernkastel-Kuse, in Germany.

Overall, this was a fabulous cruise and we were lucky to have mostly terrific weather.  The food was excellent on board and the service and friendliness of the staff was fabulous.  Where else would the Executive Chef pick up special chocolates for a passenger, just because we had a conversation about it and he knew I was crazy about chocolate?  I returned the favor by sharing my Bernkastel truffles with Chef and my mom, two nights ago, in a makeshift tasting session in the lounge, after he was finished with his dinner duties.  And, during our tasting, he couldn’t say enough good things about Vantage Travel, their management, and the staff; his “family”.  I agree! I will always choose Vantage Travel for my river cruises.  There were several people on board who have traveled with Grand Circle, Uniworld, and Viking, however, they all preferred Vantage Travel by a long shot.  And, in the end, it is less expensive.  Everything is included with Vantage, however, the others nickel and dime you to death, so we were told.  In the end, although the cruise was less expensive at booking time, by the time they were done, it had cost them more per day.

So, tonight, we spend our last night docked in Basel, and then depart for Bern in the morning.  We will spend one night in Bern, followed by two nights in Lucerne.  Originally, we were supposed to spend all three nights in Lucerne, however, there is a huge music festival, so none of the hotels were available for the 40 of us doing the post-extension.

I sure hope this gorgeous weather holds out!

AMSTERDAM & THE RIVER NAVIGATOR

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Having spent a few days in Amsterdam, in 2002, at the end of our Belgium & Holland river cruise, we were familiar with the city, making our visit there today a relaxing one.  We felt like we could give a miss to a second visit to the Rijksmuseum and take a walk along the canals to the flower market, instead.  So, we took the bus with the group to the museum, and walked through the city back to the ship, making stops along the way to buy my some Dutch chocolate and stroll through the flower market.  A walk to Amsterdam would not be complete without a walk through the Red Light District, so we did that, as well.

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Lunch on board our river boat was followed by our cruise through the canal.  Now, we are on our way to Cologne Germany, as I write this, while enjoying the sights along the way.  There are plenty of farms we can see from the boat with grazing Holsteins and very green grass.  No wonder why Dutch cheese is so rich and tasty!

So far, life on board ship is as wonderful as I remembered it to be from our previous two river cruises with Vantage Travel.  There are 133 passengers on board; all American.  And, so far, everybody we have met is well-traveled; a common trait of river cruise passengers.

The food on board is delicious and the boat is quite comfortable.  Our cabin may be small, but there is more storage than in cruise ship cabins.  We have more shelving than we know what to do with; so unpacking was a breeze.

I thoroughly enjoy river boat cruising, because it is so much more relaxing than on the large cruise ships.  There is no assigned table seating, no casino, no fancy entertainment, no constant announcements and waiters trying to sell you expensive cocktails, and no tendering into port.  Instead, the only entertainment is a pianist at night, except for the occasional cultural entertainers or lecturers that will come onboard, then disembark before we sail on to the next town.

River boats mostly stop at small towns and villages, so the passengers disembark (All 133 passengers can disembark in about one minute!), walk up the ramp, and the town center is right there.  For other stops, we will split up into 3 busloads and take a driving tour, before returning for an afternoon of free time.  It is very convenient; if we’re in town and need to use the restroom or grab something to eat, we can choose to take the short walk back to the ship, then return to town.

The best thing about river boat cruising, however, is unpacking once; the hotel travels with you.  It sure beats being in a different hotel every night!