On to Giverny

paris-bridge
Although we were allowed to stay on the top deck to see the bridges and statues, the pilot house was lowered or it would have hit the structure. These folks are wondering if us passengers will hit our heads.

The River Baroness did indeed sail at 5:30 PM Sunday afternoon, so it was a good thing we changed our airline reservations or we might have literally “missed the boat.” Our Captain gave us a little treat before we left for our first stop. He took us under some of the most beautiful bridges in Paris before turning upstream towards Giverny. Some were quite low, and the pilot house was lowered into the boat during this part of the trip. Then the Baroness turned around and headed towards our first stop,

Parked next to one of the beautiful bridges, a fleet of cement trucks waited. It was Sunday and they had the day off.
Parked next to one of the beautiful bridges, a fleet of cement trucks waited. It was Sunday and they had the day off.

Paris has lots of urban sprawl, and we snagged window seats at dinner so we could watch the mixture of old and new buildings, barges and houseboats, until dark.

On this trip, we wouldn’t spend as much time cruising during the day. The distance we would cover on the whole trip was not that great, and it was sort of a round trip as we would end up back in Paris at the end of the week.

Monday we were scheduled to visit two places, Monet’s house and garden at Giverny. The gardens are the main attraction. Afterwards we would stop near the ruined castle of Richard the Lion-Heart, at Les Andelys. a little further up the Rhone.

Just to show that all the following photos were taken at Giverny, here is the sign at the entrance.
Just to show that all the following photos were taken at Giverny, here is the sign at the entrance.

Monday morning, the Baroness docked at Vernon, a few miles from Giverney quite early. around 6:AM. Our tour busses would leave at 9:00 AM. There were only two busses this time, as many  passengers had cancelled their trips because of the recent  terror attacks in Paris and Rouen. Our ship was half full. This cruise would visit the sites of both terror attacks, but the Ramblers never considered cancelling out of fear. We both believe that when one’s time on earth is up, it’s up and cowering at home won’t extend it by even a minute. The positive side of the cancellations for the passengers tho not for Uniworld, was that there was plenty of room on board the boat and on all the bus tours.

The museum entrance was our meeting place; an ideal spot as it had both benches and a cafe.
The museum entrance was our meeting place; an ideal spot as it had both benches and a cafe.

Before I go any further, when talking about room, having a small group did not make  our cabin larger. The Baroness has the smallest cabins in the Uniworld fleet; even though we were level 1, our cabin was still 138 square feet. This seemed very small to us, but it made our cabin on the Catherine that much larger later on.   We probably should have booked a suite, even though you don’t spend much time in your cabin. And if you are contemplating this sailing, start with the smaller ship and move to the larger one. It would have been much harder to move to the tiny cabins on the Baroness from the spacious ones on the Catherine.

Those who love gardens were all looking forward to the Giverny. The countryside was green and beautiful.

View of water lily pond, some tourists are semi hidden in the foliage across the pond
View of water lily pond, some tourists are semi hidden in the foliage across the pond

Normally it rains a lot in this part of France, but we had not a single drop of rain on either half of this cruise. Uniworld offered a Go Active Bike Ride for the athletically inclined cruisers. There were quite a few younger cruisers on this trip, and many had signed up to ride to Giverny instead to taking the bus. Uniworld provides very nice bikes for its passengers as well as helmets, and the bike ride really looked like fun. Alas, the surgeon who installed my bionic hip joints gently suggested that biking and jogging were a no/no.

I do love gardens, the Senior rambler not so much, but he was a sport and went along anyway despite the fact that he had broken a crown and now looked like a mountain hillbilly. We soon found that Giverny attracted lots of tourists. Even though it was a holiday Monday when all the shops were closed, people were streaming into the gardens.

As you can see, Irene, on the right, is having a hard time keeping us all together on the winding paths of the garden,
As you can see, Irene, on the right, is having a hard time keeping us all together on the winding paths of the garden,

Irene, our proud Norman guide, had a hard time keeping us together. Fortunately even before we entered the gardens,  she pointed out our meeting place, should we get separated. This was at a pleasant cafe outside one of the museums.  To give you an idea of how crowded it gets, the Giverny management had built a tunnel across the road going past the gardens to prevent wholesale tourist slaughter.

The crowds also posed another problem for us photographers. Many gravel paths wound around the pond that featured prominent in Monet’s paintings, and there were even a few waterlilies left and lots of lily pads, but it was very difficult to get good photos that weren’t absolutely filled with fellow tourists. It really was a challenge, but as you will see, I did get a few good ones.

The flowers were amazing, no bloomed out ones anywhere.
The flowers were amazing, no bloomed out ones anywhere.

There are flowers everywhere in the Giverny gardens and Irene asked if we saw any that were bloomed out. I looked really hard and could find none. Those of you who have gardens know how much work it is to cut off the blooms that have withered. Imagine doing it in a huge garden. Irene told us that Giverny employs at least a dozen gardeners who keep the extensive flower beds looking absolutely wonderful and I believe it. Certainly it makes these gardens a magical place. We couldn’t linger in the gardens, as hordes more people were arriving every minute. It is a good thing we got there right when the gardens opened.

Monet's house was nice but nothing special, the gardens are everything here.
Monet’s house was nice but nothing special, the gardens are everything here.
The walkway to Monet's house, the colors of the flowers are amazing.
The walkway to Monet’s house, the colors of the flowers are amazing.

Our last stop was Monet’s house. I didn’t spend much time there as none of the painting in the house are original and it was also very crowded. However the flower beds leading up to the house were in beautiful shades of red and pink. When we reached the house, we had some free time and so after walking around the quaint village, we headed for the meeting place. Our tour director, Emmanuelle Bonneau had handed out Euro coins so we could enjoy a cafe au lait in the little town. Sipping coffee in the museum courtyard was a pleasant way to end our tour of Giverny.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is anything about Monet’s life and importance as an artist. To do justice to his life and artistic career would take way too much space in the blog, and it is a travel blog not an art history blog. However, you might enjoy reading the Wikipedia entry on Monet which is quite good and includes many examples of his paintings

We wandered around the village but didn't get to the cemetery where Monet is buried.
We wandered around the village but didn’t get to the cemetery where Monet is buried.

. Monet had a long and fairly complicated life. For the Wikipedia entry, click the following link.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Monet

However, for those of you who only want to know a little about Monet, here is a brief bio. Oscar-Claude Monet 1840-1926 was a founder of French impressionism painting.

The countryside is beautiful, it is easy to see why he lived here.
The countryside is beautiful, it is easy to see why he lived here.

He had quite a long and complicated life, was married twice but had only one heir, his son Michel. He moved to Giverny in 1883 when he purchased the house and property and began to develop and landscape his garden and pond. In later life his method was to paint the same subject multiple times in different seasons and water lilies were a favorite subject. He left everything to his son who donated everything to the French Academy of Fine Arts who opened the house and garden to the public in 1980. Of course it is a very popular attraction and brings thousands of tourists to Giverny.

Don't worry, he will get it fixed soon , and he looks fine with his mouth shut.
Don’t worry, he will get it fixed soon , and he looks fine with his mouth shut.

On to Les Andelys and the ruined castle of Richard the Lion Heart. This would be an entirely different experience, but before I end, I have to share a photo of the senior rambler minus tooth.

The Ramblers decide to travel to France

Having once spent 5 weeks in France teaching in a study abroad program, the Ramblers had often thought of a return trip. However, the years have flown by and we never did go back. Now, after river cruising on the Rhine and Danube, we considered a cruise on French rivers, the Seine and the Rhone.

The morning sun sparkles on the Seine as we boarded the River Baroness Sunday morning.
The morning sun sparkles on the Seine as we boarded the River Baroness Sunday morning.

Since we had great times on our Uniworld cruises, we decided to book a trip they called Grand France. This was a double cruise on two different boats. The River Baroness would sail from Paris to Normandy and back. Then we would transfer to the SS Catherine, based in Lyon, for a cruise through Provence which ended in Avignon.The two cruises were linked for the Grand France tour by a TGV ride from Paris to Lyon. Although we have often ridden on trains in Europe, we had never been on the TGV and this sounded interesting as well.

Although I would book the Grand France cruise through AAA as before, this time I decided not to get our air fare through Uniworld, but instead book it myself. The main reason was that the Ramblers wanted some control over the times and dates of our flights. Cruise companies often put their customers on flights with arrivals that suit them rather than the passengers, especially for departures. All cruise companies need to get passengers off their boats quickly on the last morning of the cruise so that the cabins can be cleaned and readied for the next group of cruisers. Often it leads, as it did for us, to being driven to the airport at 3:30 AM for an early flight out. This had not been very pleasant, so I decided to see what I could do myself.

The internet has made booking air fare both easy and confusing. Once you investigate flights, you are bombarded with teaser ads or email promoting really cheap prices. Of course, the airlines all have their own websites as well, and most of these are fairly easy to navigate. Michelle Shirley, my AAA agent told me that generally the airlines have taken most of the insider perks away from travel agents and anyone looking to fly can book just as good a deal as they could get from a travel agency. Plus the airlines offer just as good prices although they may not last long, as the websites promoting cheap air deals.

cranes
We were amazed by the number of construction cranes we saw en route to the River Baroness from Charles De Gaulle airport. There must have been dozens.

Armed with this information I began my search for flights from Atlanta to Paris, round-trip. Before I go any further, it is really important to know exactly when your river cruise is going to depart on the first day of the cruise. Really important…  Most cruises stay overnight that first day or sail later in the evening, but not all, as the Rambler found to her dismay. Right after booking a flight that got to Paris at 2 in the afternoon, I realized that our ship would leave at 5:30 that same afternoon! I had thought, without checking, that the River Baroness would sail later in the evening, so always check this first. Arriving at 2 in the afternoon was definitely not a good thing as Paris-Charles de Gaulle is a big airport and there would be little time to make our cruise. AAARGH  This meant that I had to change our booking, a $300 per person charge which negated the pretty good deal I had found. So please do check. It might not even be a bad idea to arrive the day before, which would have saved us $600 minus the cost of our airport hotel.

Well, back to my booking experience. For those of you who don’t live in New York or Boston, there are often not many choices for a non-stop flight to Europe, depending on the city. One would think that Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, one of the busiest in the world, would have many choices for getting to Paris non-stop, but this was not the case. Atlanta is a Delta hub and for some strange reason, all the non-stop flights to Paris were either on Delta or one of its partners, Air France. If we had wanted to go to Amsterdam, we could have chosen KLM, another Delta partner, which would have been our first choice. Air France was not recommended by our travel agent, and the Ramblers followed her advice, and booked Delta, tho it surprised us. Unfortunately, we would later learn just how Air France got its bad reputation.

Before we set sail, we had a view of pricey Paris real estate from our ship's sundeck.
Before we set sail, we had a view of pricey Paris real estate from our ship’s sundeck.

Since we were booking our own air fare, I had the bright idea of staying a few extra days in Avignon at the end of our cruise, to see more of Provence. Then we could travel back to Paris by TGV and catch our flight home the next day. Having talked the senior Rambler into this new plan, I booked the air, adding extra comfort seats, and began the search for a place to stay in Avignon. This would be moving out of our comfort zone, as we would no longer have Uniworld to move us around.

Again, the internet makes this both easy and difficult. There are so many choices and so many reviews on Trip Adviser and similar sites that don’t necessarily tell you what you want to know.  Fortunately, a friend who had stayed in Avignon before, stressed the importance of staying inside the walls in the historic center of the city. This was really good advice, although I didn’t realize it until we got there. This decision narrowed our choices somewhat, but I had now to chose between a chain hotel and a small inn or B&B. Both had pluses and minuses. If you stay at a chain hotel and there is a problem, you can usually get it solved in your favor. However, if you stay at a B&B, once you pay, it’s hard to change things. Having read reviews for days, I finally decided on Le Limas, a B&B with a view of the Papal Palace from its 4th floor terrace. Le Limas turned out to be an excellent choice, but the Ramblers wouldn’t be sure of this until we arrived.

River traffic on the Seine is fascinating, lots of barges, houseboats docked along the way and other cruise boats were fun to watch.
River traffic on the Seine is fascinating, lots of barges, houseboats docked along the way and other cruise boats were fun to watch.

Next, was the task of signing up for several day-long tours of the Provence countryside that we wouldn’t be able to see from the boat. Again, after much reading of reviews, I decided to go with two tours advertised by Viator, a company my world traveling daughter recommended. The first was a day long highlights of Provence tour that would take  us all over the Provence countryside, featuring both medieval and Roman highlights. The second was a day long tour of the wine regions of Provence which included tastings and lunch. The senior Rambler doesn’t drink, so this tour was definitely more for me, but as it turned out, he would enjoy it very much.

That done, all we had to do was think about what we might pack, and how to make sure our plants got watered until the terrorist attacks in France , which occurred, as it turned out, in places we were to visit. Soon people began to ask if we were still going, or “weren’t we afraid to travel to France?” Honestly, the Ramblers didn’t think about cancelling our trip. We both believe that when your number is up, it’s up, and still looked forward to the trip. After we arrived in France, we did notice, particularly in Paris and Avignon, a very visible police and military presence, but no violence.

Many people obviously were afraid, because both of our cruises were half full, even though they had been completely booked months ago. Giving in to fear, in our opinion, is playing into the hands of the terrorists. We were thanked many times during our trip by the French men and women we met for having the courage to travel to France at this time.

Before we left, we also applied and were approved for Global Entry cards, although we are not sure if they were worth the $100. fee. It certainly makes entering the US easy enough, but seems to do little when you are going through security before you board. Be aware that if you have some metal in your body, as I do with two artificial hips, you will be x-rayed and patted down. Very humiliating for the Rambler, especially since the senior Rambler walked right through. This time they even made me take my shoes off and x-rayed them.

So much for the Global Entry card at this point. However, we did board our flight, it was uneventful and smooth, and we landed in Paris on time, at 6:10 AM. A Uniworld representative would be waiting for us outside the door after we collected our baggage. Well, my bag was one of the first ones on the conveyor belt, but after 45 minutes, my husband’s still hadn’t shown up. Air France had somehow lost it. We filled out several lost baggage forms, one person said it had been put on a later plane and we could get it later. We did get it later….8 days later.

Tethered balloon in the distance from the top deck of the River Baroness.
Tethered balloon in the distance from the top deck of the River Baroness.

Somewhat flustered, after filling out the lost baggage forms, the Ramblers headed out the exit and were relieved to find a Uniworld Representative still waiting for us after the luggage hassle. We climbed aboard the van and relaxed, Surely we would get the lost bag later in the day. On our way to the River Baroness, we noticed many  cranes, high in the air, Paris was expanding its high-rise buildings. Our boat was moored withing sight of the Eiffel Tower and next to a park where a tethered hot-air balloon took crowds of people up to enjoy the view. We were not tempted to try it after our long flight, and spent the rest of the day relaxing until we left on the first leg of our cruise at 5:30 PM

 

The Ramblers’ views of Route 66 Then and Now

We Ramblers have always loved heading down the open road, although today’s highways are much more crowded with cars and trucks than they were even 20 years ago. Crowded roads were not an issue when the Ramblers’ took  their first long trip together. At this time, the Senior Rambler was stationed at March AFB, Riverside CA, and in January, 1954, the Ramblers  were married in Chicago and drove back to the base in a 1949 Chevy without air conditioning. Fortunately it was January and we needed the heater rather than air  conditioning most of the time. This long and sometimes chilly drive was our honeymoon.

Before the Interstate Highway System Act was signed in 1956, the main  road west to California in 1954 was the now legendary Route 66, which was then a sparsely developed (by today’s standards) two lane highway. There were no fast food restaurants; tourist courts rather than chain motels, and truck stops which were bare bones fuel stops

There were none of these signs welcoming travelers in 1954.
There were none of these signs welcoming travelers in 1954.

Sometimes the truck stops had a restaurant which most times was a “greasy spoon,” with inexpensive but mediocre food.  Those who wax nostalgic about the glamour of the old Route 66 might have felt differently about it if they had to drive it in the winter of 1954-55.  It was really pretty bleak then, although we didn’t care. Of course, by the mid-fifties,  the new Interstates and increased auto traffic  brought development which included chain motels and restaurants. We traveled 66  a few years too soon.

Since we Ramblers left from Chicago, we drove south on an angle along Route 66 from its starting point.

This was the route we followed until we got to California.
This was the route we followed until we got to California in 1954.

Even today if you study  a road map of the United States, you will see that most of the major roads run east-west, rather than north-south. Of course this map only shows Route 66, and there were others, but all were two lane and ran from east to west across the continent. Today we can zip along through the mountains on a four-lane divided highway, then you might crawl along on a windy, twisty road with no turnouts. If you were behind a truck or slow moving car, you just had to relax and take it easy and wait for a stretch where you could pass. Often when you did reach a passing zone, a car was coming the other way.

Instead, you might see signs for a tourist court like the Tall Pines along the way.
Instead, you might see signs for a tourist court like the Tall Pines along the way.

Truthfully I don’t remember too much about that first road trip west. Not only was it 62 years ago, but it was our honeymoon. I had not the remotest idea that I would be blogging about it decades later.  Of course blogs and the internet were non existent then. Frankly 1954  seems even further in the past than  62 years. 1954 might have been 1934 or even earlier as most people still traveled long distances by train rather than car, not to mention flying. However our country was  on the cusp of expansion and change in 1954. The transformation would begin shortly, we just didn’t know it.

You were pretty much on your own if you had car trouble on those lonely miles of Route 66. Yes, AAA was available, but cell phones were not. If you were lucky, you limped into the nearest garage and hoped its owner was a good mechanic. Of course, cars were not computerized then, and many men, including the Senior Rambler, were excellent mechanics. His skill turning wrenches came in handy on our trip back to Illinois a few months later when our Chevy developed valve trouble. A helpful garage owner let him use his shop to change the offending valves so we could get home. We had hoped to stay in California for a while but only a few months later, the Senior Rambler learned he was going to Greenland, courtesy of the USAF. I stayed with Mom and Dad for a year until he got back.

But back to describing Route 66 as it was then.  There were no welcoming Holiday Inns yet; instead we stopped in Tourist Courts, usually a cluster of small, dank and chilly cabins, sometimes connected, sometimes not, that were rented by the night.

The El Tovar opened in 1905. It was constructed to house passengers who wanted to visit the grand canyon and came there by train. It was not yet a national park.
The El Tovar opened in 1905. It was constructed to house passengers who wanted to visit the Grand  Canyon and came there by train. The canyon  was not yet a national park.

No fast food restaurants provided edibles that were  a known quantity. Instead the Ramblers had to take  their chances at truck stops or stopped in one of the towns en route to try our luck at finding something good to eat. Admittedly, it was a long time ago, but I don’t remember that there were that many restaurants to choose from then, even in the towns. People just didn’t eat out that much in  1954,

A few things stand out. One was our side trip to the Grand Canyon. It was truly awe-inspiring even on a chilly January day.

The view from the El Tovar at sunset. If you haven't visited the Grand Canyon, go. It is one of the few places that can't be done justice to in photos.
The view from the El Tovar at sunset. If you haven’t visited the Grand Canyon, go. It is one of the few places that can’t be done justice to in photos.

We were the only folks at the viewing spot where we pulled off, as the park did not yet attract the huge crowds of tourists that flock there today even in the summer  heat. However, in less than 10 years, thousands of people would drive to the Grand Canyon National Park every year, eclipsing the Santa Fe Railroad as the main way to get there. The El Tovar Hotel had been built by the railroad in the early 1900’s to house the tourists who came to visit the Grand Canyon  by train. However, in 1954, we didn’t even think of stopping there. We had a limited military budget and the Senior Rambler had to report back to the base.  A few years ago, when we revisited the Canyon we drove by the El Tovar, thinking to have lunch but just walked through it instead. It was absolutely jam-packed with tourists

They don't look that steep, but these gentle sloped proved to be a real test for the Senior Rambler.
They don’t look that steep, but these gentle sloped proved to be a real test for the Senior Rambler.

. Another event that we both recall was when the Senior Rambler wanted to show off by climbing down a similar incline in the Painted Desert. He really had a tough time climbing back up in the soft and crumbling sand.

In 2014, we left  Marietta GA on I-85 S, turned onto I-65 in and ended up on I-10 in Mobile. We were not thinking at that time to re-visit our honeymoon trip of 1954, just to see family in New Orleans and then head west to the Texas Hill Country Our last stop would be Albuquerque, New Mexico as we love the high desert lands of that state. Without planning, we found ourselves close to the road we had traveled so many years ago and  decided to investigate it.  However, in order to actually  drive along Route 66, we had to get off the Interstate and look for remnants of the highway in towns. This was not as difficult as it might seem as many towns actively promote their ties to Route 66 on ubiquitous billboards that line the Interstate.

In 1954, Route 66 usually went through rather than around  most of the towns on its path.

The El Rey is still there, welcoming travelers, although its surroundings have changed. We stayed there in July 2014.
The El Rey is still there, welcoming travelers, although its surroundings have changed. We stayed there in July 2014.

Many of these urban sections have been preserved and are a source of revenue to businesses which promote the old highway as a place to “get your kicks.” Amazingly a few motels still remained on the old Route 66 that had been built in the 1930s when it was the main road west. Coincidentally,the Ramblers would stay in one in Albuquerque in 1954.

Look for more posts on our trip west in 2014.

No digital cameras or camera phones in 1954, so the photos in this pose were found on the Internet, mainly from Wikipedia Commons.

 

The Ramblers ride Amtrak to New Orleans

The Ramblers have always liked trains, and have ridden a few in various parts of the US including the Durango and Silverton RR through the mountains of Colorado. However, we had never taken an Amtrak train anywhere. Since we’re not doing road trips anymore, and we wanted to visit our new grandson in New Orleans, we thought about taking the Amtrak as something different. We could, of course, fly but the train had potential. We would see the route we had traveled many times by car, from a different angle, which could be fun.  So, as the Rambler travel planner I investigated the possibilities. I did know there was a train that went from Atlanta to New Orleans so it should be doable.

I checked with AAA and found that Amtrak tickets were booked online, through the Amtrak website not at a travel agency. Here is the link. It is relatively easy to use after you play around with it.

https://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak

Amtrak does offer several discount fares, AAA, senior, children’s’  etc., , but I quickly found out that I could use either the AAA discount or the senior discount but not both at the same time. No double dipping here. Since the senior discount was slightly better, I eventually used it to buy our tickets. I found that coach tickets were not that expensive, a little less than a good deal for an airline ticket, and all seats reserved. Of course the schedule showed that the  train took a full 12 hour day to get to New Orleans rather than little more than an hour in the air. Unfortunately the Ramblers didn’t realize just how long it actually would take our train to get to NOLA.

Amtrak also offers 15 and 30 day passes which allows you to visit multiple cities during the stated time period, much like the Eurail passes in Europe. We didn’t consider this option since we only wanted to go to NOLA and back, but it might be something to consider in the future.

I purchased two senior tickets round trip for about $300. for a train that would leave Friday morning at 8:30 AM and arrive in NOLA at 7:30 PM. Not too bad, we thought, since we  would have a different view of the journey from the train and the seats were supposed to be comfortable and roomy. The train also had roomettes available, but they were quite pricey and our trip would only take about 11 hours so we didn’t consider them. It turned out we seriously underestimated the time it would take to get to NOLA on Amtrak.

The day of our trip the weather was sunny and warm in Atlanta. Our only luggage was the backpack I had recently bought.

A romantic poster from the heyday of travel which hung inside the station.
A romantic poster from the heyday of travel which hung inside the station.

We were pretty sure it would hold enough clothes and other necessities for our week-end trip. I planned to use it as my carry-on when we next flew overseas and this would be a trial run. Consequently we packed fairly light but as it turned out, we had more than enough for our trip except for several items we hadn’t considered necessary for a summer week-end in the South.

The Ramblers had never been to the Atlanta Amtrak station and were surprised at how small it was, and how high up.

A view of downtown Atlanta from the station parking lot. The stairs in the foreground lead to the track far below.
A view of downtown Atlanta from the station parking lot. The stairs in the foreground lead to the track far below.

The station  had a wonderful view of the Interstate highway and downtown Atlanta from its parking lot. I later learned that it had been built in 1918, almost 100 years ago, as a suburban station by a prominent architect.. Atlanta had then been much smaller and the close in neighborhoods of Decatur and Brookwood were then suburban and it was originally called the Brookwood station, but is now known as the Peachtree Station.

Peachtree Station in 2016
Peachtree Station in 2016

The main station of the Southern Railroad in 1918 was the Terminal Station, a magnificent 5 story building, in the heart of a much smaller downtown Atlanta. Atlanta was a city that had grown up around the Western and Atlantic Railroad, so it was not surprising that the city had a splendid terminal.

As you can see, the Terminal station was a magnificent structure.
As you can see, the Terminal station was a magnificent structure.

The Terminal Station  had been built in 1905 to serve the many train travelers of the day. There was so much train traffic that the Union Station was added a few years later. Both were eventually torn down after Amtrak was created to handle carrying passengers while the private companies continued to haul freight. Railroad passenger travel began its decline due to  the proliferation of  auto travel before WWII , and the growth of air travel after 1950 sealed its fate. Terminal Station closed in 1970 and was torn down two years later, as were the Atlanta Union Station and many other once magnificent railroad stations around the country. Amtrak took over the passenger service to Atlanta, mainly the Crescent which travels every day from New York to New Orleans with stops along the way.

Since there was no overnight parking at the Peachtree Station, our daughter and grand daughter dropped us off on their way to a shopping expedition.

Door detail of the Peachtree Station
Door detail of the Peachtree Station

However, just as we pulled up to the door, another car was pulling out. The driver told us that the train was delayed 4 hours and they were going out to breakfast. In theory Amtrak was supposed to text me if the train was delayed. Unfortunately the text didn’t arrive until we were already at the station. After a brief discussion, we decided to wait there, as it otherwise would be an inconvenience for them. The station already held quite a few disgruntled passengers, even though the Amtrak clerk had set out coffee and donuts for us to munch on as we waited.

What was the reason for the delay? clerkWell, the Ramblers hadn’t  realized initially that the Crescent originated in New York. Earlier there had been some bad weather along the route which caused the signals to stop working along a stretch of track. Thus the Crescent had to stop until the signals were fixed. Another thing we didn’t know was that Amtrak does not own or service the tracks its trains run on. They are owned and serviced by the major freight-hauling railroads, in this case, the Norfolk Southern, which are responsible  both for fixing any issues and giving the all clear.

The time seemed to move very slowly  as we waited for the Crescent ,and the oak benches, though aesthetically pleasing, were very uncomfortable.

These benches probably date from 1918, they were solid but uncomfortable.
These benches probably date from 1918, they were solid but uncomfortable.

We soon moved to the modern addition which had slightly more comfortable chairs.The wait did give me a chance to go outside and take some photos of the station and its surroundings. To our relief, we noticed that there was an elevator down to the tracks, as well as a very long flight of stairs.  When the train finally arrived at 12:45,  we couldn’t board immediately as the passengers traveling to Atlanta had to get off.

At last we made our way to our train car, and the conductor gave us our seat assignments as we boarded. On the Crescent, the reserved seats are assigned as the passengers board, and you can’t change your seat without the conductor’s permission.  The train was full, according to the conductor as more passengers would get on at other stops.

Many of the passengers made their way down or up the long flight of stairs to the Crescent which had stopped far down the tracks. The Ramblers took the elevator.
Many of the passengers made their way down or up the long flight of stairs to the Crescent which had stopped far down the tracks. The Ramblers took the elevator.

At last, we were underway. We left Atlanta behind and headed south. Thus began the most interesting part of the trip. You get quite a different, and sometimes fascinating, view of the  countryside from the train. All the seats in the car faced forward, although they could be flipped over. The seats were very comfortable, much more so than an airplane seat. The Ramblers settled in for an interesting experience but were uncomfortably aware that we would be getting to New Orleans much later than 7:30. At this point, we didn’t realize just how much later. We had talked to our son in NOLA about the delay and told him we would text when we got close. It was also possible for him to check the ETA of the Crescent on line.

When the conductor announced that the dining car was open, the Ramblers decided to have some lunch. Dining on the Crescent is not a gourmet experience, but we have had worse food.

The dining car in the evening after. We had just finished our stew and rice.
The dining car in the evening after. We had just finished our stew and rice.

Seating was family style at tables for four, as space was limited. We didn’t mind and enjoyed the company of the couple from New York who were traveling to the west coast by train. This turned out  to be a very good idea.

Back in our coach, we  were enjoying the scenery when the train slowed and stopped. There was no station visible, and the train at this point was traveling thorough a heavily wooded narrow valley in the Alabama foothills. Now what, we thought??? What was a tornado in the area.  Passenger trains have to stop if a tornado has been sighted for safety reasons. The conductor assured us that the train would be underway as soon as they got the all clear but this was very slow in coming.  Time really started to drag, as the sky darkened and the wind blew rain against our car windows. The tornado missed us, passing across the tracks in front of the train. Of course the high winds blew some trees across the tracks. AAAARGH! of course we were going nowhere until they were removed by the Norfolk Southern. By now, many of the passengers were downright hostile, and if they could have mutinied, they might have. But we were Amtrak captives at the moment.  By this time, we had been on the Crescent for 5 hours and still hadn’t gotten to Birmingham, AL which normally takes about 3 hours by car.

To pass the time, and gain a little good will, the Conductor announced they were going to feed all the passengers red beans and rice. I was pretty hungry as I had virtuously ordered a large salad for lunch, and even the senior Rambler was ready to accept the offer of food. We really shouldn’t be complaining, I thought as I watched a young mother with two small children manage them without tears and tantrums despite the delays. As it turned out, red beans was actually canned beef stew over rice with rolls and butter. Almost all the passengers ate their stew with few complaints and some even went back for seconds. Not only did it assuage our hunger pangs but it helped the time pass.

Three hours later, we were on our way again and chugged into Birmingham at dusk. The smokers, including the Senior Rambler, were allowed to get off the train and indulge their habit.

Smokers and passengers mix on the Birmingham station platform.
Smokers and passengers mix on the Birmingham station platform.

There is absolutely no smoking on the train. Unfortunately as the sun went down, the temperature in our car dropped like a rock. Most of the other passengers brought out fleece blankets and jackets and hunkered down. The Ramblers, of course, had neither and were really cold. The Senior Rambler got out some t-shirts and we put our arms into them which helped a little…If  you are planning to travel on Amtrak in the future, bring a jacket and fleece blanket as otherwise you will be COLD. Most of the people in our car were frequent train travelers so they were prepared for this. No where on the Amtrak website do they mention the temperature of the cars, but our Conductor told us they had three settings, hot, cold and off.

The sunset that night was beautiful, but it didn’t really make up for the fact that we still had many hours before we would reach NOLA.

A relic of Birmingham's steel and iron producing days, The Sloss Foundry is now an historic site visible from the tracks. One of the points of interest before dark.
A relic of Birmingham’s steel and iron producing days, The Sloss Furnaces is now an historic site visible from the tracks. One of the points of interest seen before dark.

There was no more scenery to enjoy, just scattered lighted buildings and a few stations. We finally got to New Orleans at 3:30 AM, and our son was waiting for us. We didn’t get to see much of the station as everything was closed and we just wanted to get to a comfy bed.

Would we take Amtrak again? Probably, as it seemed that everything outside of a breakdown or collision went wrong on this particular run.

Another view of the long abandoned Sloss Furnaces.
Another view of the long abandoned Sloss Furnaces.

People we talked to on board said they usually enjoyed riding the train, so we shall see. The Ramblers didn’t go back to Atlanta on the Crescent. Our children had arranged a birthday surprise for me in NOLA. The shopping trip was a ruse and my daughter and grand daughter drove to New Orleans, leaving after they dropped us off at the station. Naturally they got there hours before we did.  The next night I was mightily surprised when they walked through the door at dinner time.

Needless to say we rode back to Atlanta with them.

The Ramblers talk about choosing a Camper; Part One

Although the Ramblers are leaving the driving to someone else these days, they spent many years cris-crossing the US and Canada by camper or car. We visited every state except Alaska and Hawaii by camper, and every Canadian province except the Maritime Provinces and Nunavit. Never kept count on total mileage, but it must have been over 50,000.

Recently a friend asked me for advice about choosing a camper. As I started to explain the various types available, I thought, why not blog on this topic. With the current low price of gasoline and the high cost of hotel rooms, the Ramblers are sure many people will  be buying campers this summer. Picking the right model is not as easy as it seems, since there are so many kinds available. The Ramblers have camped in nearly every type of rv available from a borrowed school bus conversion to a 40 ft. diesel pusher motorhome and enjoyed them all.  So here goes…

First off, campers are divided into classes,  self- propelled vehicles or motorhomes, and tow-able campers or trailers.  Motorhomes are again divided into three classes. class A campers are motor-homes built  built on a chassis designed for them. Class B campers are van conversions. Class C campers are often called mini-motorhomes although they can be quite large, because they are built on a truck chassis and the truck cab is part of the rig.

The pull-along campers include trailers of every shape and size which are attached with a trailer hitch to the back end of a car, truck or SUV. The hitch for 5th wheel trailers is mounted in the bed of a pick-up truck which allows them to be towed smoothly on the highway and they have some over the truck bed living space.  Finally truck campers are specially designed units that slide onto the bed of a truck. They are not strictly a trailer because they are not towed, but neither are they motorized. Trailers, no matter what the type, are not self-propelled. However, in order to camp in a 5th wheel or truck camper, you need to own or buy a truck that has enough power to pull the 5th wheel or fit the camper.

In recent years, another type of trailer has been added to the mix, the toy hauler. The Ramblers have never owned a toy hauler, but toy haulers are designed, as their name implies, so that an ATV or a motorcycle can be carried in their rear compartment. The forward area is fitted out as  living quarters. Even horse trailers sometimes have a cabin area for their owners to sleep in these days.

So now you know there are even more varieties of campers to choose from than you expected. How do you zero in on what kind you want? If you have never camped or hauled a trailer or have never driven or camped in  a motor home of any size, the Ramblers suggest renting a small version of the kind you are interested in first, to see how you like rv camping. Many dealers have campers for rent, and at least one company rents mini-motorhomes nationwide. You may find you hate either camping in or driving your test camper and that will solve your problem! The Ramblers have heard many folks scoff at RVing, saying the only kind of camping they like is staying in a luxury hotel. However, they have never looked at some of the high end campers on the market or visited a luxurious campground. Some match the luxury of the finest hotels. However, you don’t need a fancy rig to enjoy camping. Campsites range from free,  with no facilities in a national forest or Corps of Engineers Campground, to a luxurious campground complete with pool, landscaping, paved roads and campsites and hook-ups for water, electric and sewer.

If you have tried camping and like it, the next step is to decide on what kind you might want to buy. HOWEVER, the Ramblers strongly suggest that you look for a used camper, not a new one. If you think cars depreciate quickly, motorhomes depreciate in value even faster. If you buy a new unit, no matter how good the deal seems, it will take a big hit in value the first year. Looking at used campers can be discouraging, as some are amazingly run down or the supposed non-smoking unit reeks of smoke and/or pet odors. However, if you persevere, you will eventually find what you are looking for. Most RVers these days travel with their pets. That makes camping attractive for those who have a beloved furry companion, but often times makes for a smelly unit. Also, if  you want to camp mainly at state parks, don’t get too big of a camper. Most state park campsites were laid out 30 or 40 years ago when campers were much smaller. Very few state park campsites accommodate  a 40 ft. diesel pusher motor home. In fact, the Ramblers have found that 28 ft is the maximum length for most.  When we got our 35 ft 5th wheel, we couldn’t fit in many.

Another thing to consider for those of you who live in states with an Ad-Valorem tax; you will be paying several thousand dollars(or more) to license your motor home every year. Some people try to get around this by licensing their unit in another state, usually Montana, which doesn’t have an Ad-Valorem tax and actively encourages this. However, the police are wise to this ploy and while some get away with this somewhat illegal ploy,  others have had to pay large fines and back taxes. State police often check to see where the folks driving that RV actually live. After all, Montana has a small population . When the Ramblers had their motorhome, they thought about trying this, but decided they didn’t want to break the law. If you can’t afford the tax, buy a less expensive unit.

Of course, you will have to insure your new pride and joy. Insuring a motorhome is more expensive than insuring a trailer. You might also check on the cost of on the road service as well. A good source of information on this and many other RV related topics is the Good Sam Club website.

Motorhomes depreciate faster than trailers and have more parts that can fail. However, many people enjoy being able to walk around inside their camper while they are rolling down the road. The down side is that during your stay at a campground, you have to un-plug your unit if you are hooked up to electricity or water,  if you want to go to a store or sight-see. Thus quite a few people tow a car behind their motorhome, which they use to get around when they get to their destination. The main problem with this is when the car is attached to the motorhome, it is impossible to back up unless it is unhitched first. Obviously this involves some careful planning. The Ramblers were going to tow a car behind their motorhome, but then decided to plan their trips differently. When they stopped at a place which offered many side trips, they rented a car from Enterprise or any  company that would pick them up at the campground. This worked very well for.. Another option is to carry a scooter or a motorcycle on the back of your camper. We toyed with this idea but felt that safety might be an issue as would riding one in bad weather.

On the other hand, if you want something inside your trailer, you have to stop at a rest area or parking lot so that you can go inside. Not so much fun if it is raining. And, if you have a pop-up camper that folds down for towing, you can’t get inside unless you open it up. Finally, the advent of the slide out, has further complicated the issue. A slide out is a part of the wall of a trailer or motorhome which slides out (you either do this electrically or with a crank) to extend the sides of the camper, giving you much more interior space.  Slide outs are great, but when they are retracted, they often make it difficult to get around inside the camper. Be sure and see how and where the slide outs retract in any unit you like.

Oh yes, one more thing. Where are you going to keep your camper once you have it? Many subdivisions have rules against parking campers anywhere, and yes, your neighbor will report you. LOL If you are lucky, you own a place in the country, live in an unincorporated area or in a neighborhood without restrictive rules. If you don’t, you will have to find a place to keep it and factor this cost into the total upkeep.

Now comes the fun part, shopping for your camper. The best way to get a feel for what’s out there is to attend one of the big RV shows held through-out the year in many parts of the US. There you can not only see a huge variety of campers but go inside and check out the living space and furnishings. The dealers who exhibit at the show will have many seemingly great deals…resist them unless you have already done your research or money is no object. Keep in mind, it is far easier to buy a camper than it is to sell one.

Next, shopping for your camper.

 

A wonderful afternoon in Budapest and then home ward bound.

The last day of our cruise was jam-packed with activities. Uniworld obviously wanted to make up for the low water problems by adding as many activities as could be squeezed into  our last day in Budapest. Fortunately we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the Gundel Gardens restaurant after our visit to Heroes Square, which gave us time to re-charge our inner batteries.

On the way to the restaurant, I noticed a clunky little white car parked along the curb. It stood out among the sleek modern cars and I realized it was a Trabant.

The little white Trabant caught my eye, parked along the curb.
The little white Trabant caught my eye, parked along the curb.

The Ramblers have an interest in automotive history and I had read about the “car that was made out of cardboard in East Germany.”  Actually while the Trabant frame was made out of steel, its body was formed of a hard plastic (Duroplast) in the days before fiberglass was commonly used in cars. While it wasn’t particularly study, the Duroplast was light weight. This was a good thing because the Trabant’s tiny engine (600 cc) produced perhaps 26 hp and slowly accelerated to its maximum speed of 62 mph.

The Trabant was built in East Germany from 1957 to 1989 and in Germany from 1990-1991. The Trabi, as it was called,  was a joke in the West, but a prized possession in East Germany. Those who had Trabants took good care of them as if you ordered one, it might take years to get it. The average Trabant ran for 28 years. Today they are collected by some who appreciate a low cost way to buy a collectible car. Trabi enthusiasts race them in rallies and modify them in various ways. However, the one we saw parked in Budapest didn’t seem to have been modified in any way.

Gundel’s is located in the city park, near the Budapest Zoo.

The fanciful 19th century entrance of the zoo was hard to miss.
The fanciful 19th century entrance of the zoo was hard to miss.

The zoo seemed a little neglected although it has a famous history, in fact it is one of the oldest in the world, founded back in 1866. Many of its buildings seemed to be in an intriguing  art noveau style. I learned later that the zoo is quite up to date, although the paint on the buildings was somewhat faded, like many others in Budapest.

I wish we could have had a chance to visit but our busses rolled right past and stopped at the door of Gundel Gardens.

The senior Rambler and his New Zealand friend enjoying a smoke break in the Gundel gardens.
The senior Rambler and his New Zealand friend enjoying a smoke break in the Gundel gardens.

Gundel’s is probably the most famous restaurant in Budapest. It was founded in 1910 by Karoly Gundel and taken over by his son in the 1930’s. Unfortunately, the Gundel family lost the restaurant when it was socialized by the communist government of Hungary in 1949. After the fall of communism, it was taken over by two Americans and restored to its former glory.

Gundel’s serves traditional Hungarian food and Hungarian wines. Would have love to have seen a menu, but Uniworld had ordered us a traditional Hungarian lunch and the famous palescinta or crepes with chocolate sauce for desert.

Our entree, chicken paprikasz
Our entree, chicken paprikasz

The wines were also Hungarian and excellent. The entree was chicken paprikasz,  The food  was tasty  and efficiently served by waiters in traditional formal uniforms. We sat at large round tables with fellow passengers, who by this time, were our old friends. All in all, it was a very pleasant experience in a beautiful paneled dining room, and over too soon.

Pleasant lunch at Gundels, although the senior Rambler looks a little wary.
Pleasant lunch at Gundels, although the senior Rambler looks a little wary.

Gundel’s has a tiny gift shop where I was able to buy some equally  tiny cook books as souvenirs for the cooks in our family and some Hungarian chocolates. The Rambler had finally  realized she would be boarding a plane for home the next day and had bought absolutely nothing for her family and friends at home. However, our next stop was the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church, and I knew from a previous visit that I would be able to buy some authentic Hungarian paprika there. Must be in the genes because we all enjoy chicken paprikasz and use lots of paprika. Most of the better Hungarian brands are not imported into the US, so it makes a great souvenir.

The sun had come out again when we reached our last destination, the Fisherman’s Bastion.

The fanciful towers of the Fisherman's Bastion.
The fanciful towers of the Fisherman’s Bastion.

We had stopped there the previous December on the Christmas Markets cruise. However we didn’t bother to walk onto the viewing platform as the skies were pouring  down chilly rain. Today the view of both Buda and Pest with the Danube in between, was wonderful. Many consider it the best view in Budapest. Despite its medieval appearance the Bastion was built between 1899 and 1905 of white stone. Its style can only be described as a meeting of Neo-Gothic and Neo-Romanesque.

From the Fisherman's Bastion on Castle Hill, you can see a long way across the Danube and along its banks.
From the Fisherman’s Bastion on Castle Hill, you can see a long way across the Danube and along its banks.

it looks like something that might have been conjured up by Sleeping Beauty and King Arthur.

The Bastion has seven towers, representing the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian basin in 896 AD, which later became Hungary. To reach the viewing terrace from the lower level streets, you must climb a massive double staircase but if you were bussed to the top to view the Matthias Church, you need climb only a few steps. If you are wondering how this fairy tail confection got its name, it was built on the site of an old rampart dating from the middle ages.

Sweethearts enjoying the book fair at the Bastion Square.
Sweethearts enjoying the book fair at the Bastion Square.

This particular rampart was defended by the fishermen who lived in a town on the bank of the Danube.

The day we were there, a  book fair had been set up in the square in front of the Bastion. The Rambler had a brief thought of buying a children’s book in Hungarian for her little grandson, however cooler heads prevailed and she later settled on a  T-shirt.

We didn’t enter the Matthias Church, which is actually St. Stephens.

The magnificent tile roof of St. Stephens. It is called the Matthias Church because of its association with Matthias Corvinus a medieval Hungarian king.
The magnificent tile roof of St. Stephens. It is called the Matthias Church because of its association with Matthias Corvinus a medieval Hungarian king.

You can read about it in my Christmas Markets post on Budapest. It is beautiful both inside and outside and has an amazing tiled roof, much like the Stephensdom in Vienna we had seen the day before.  The Ramblers decided they surely would not like the job of replacing the tile on that roof.

As we walked back to our bus, busses were not allowed at the top of the hill, I noticed a small supermarket. Just what I was looking for. I knew they would have a variety of paprika’s and at better prices than the souvenir stores. Sure enough, they carried an extensive line of what seems to be the Hungarian national spice and I was able to chose an excellent variety for the family at home. At this point, we hadn’t even seen our hotel yet but when we got there, we wouldn’t have time for the great paprika hunt, and I was right.

In Budapest, our friends from the MT were split up among four or five hotels, all close to the Danube. Ours, the Sofitel Chain Bridge, was visible from the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Pest side of the Danube, however we didn’t realize this at the time.

View of the Chain Bridge over the Danube from the Sofitel. Two Viking ships are rafted together at the quay in front of the hotel.
View of the Chain Bridge over the Danube from the Sofitel. Two Viking ships are rafted together at the quay in front of the hotel.

As we neared the hotel, we could see a number of police vehicles and police personnel in riot gear. Fortunately they were ready to leave and we were able to check into the hotel  with no problems. We later learned that there had been a protest about the Syrian refugees right in front of the hotel. Luckily we didn’t get caught up in it.

The Sofitel  was also a 5 star hotel but very different from the Ritz, much more modern in decor and architecture. However, it had one thing the Ritz did not, a wonderful view of the Danube and the Chain Bridge.

The modern interior of the Sofitel
The modern interior of the Sofitel

The Ramblers could have just relaxed in their room and enjoyed the view but that was not an option as we would be going to a folklore dinner in about an hour. We had a strong temptation to miss it, but if we did, we wouldn’t have a chance to say good-bye to our friends from the cruise, or eat dinner. Actually the Sofitel had a fine restaurant but we ended up going to the Czarda dinner with our friends from the cruise.

Getting there was half the fun.

The rural country exterior of Szeker Csarda
The rural country exterior of Szeker Csarda

We learned that the Szeker Czarda Restaurant and hall was on an island in the Danube and it was not easy to get there. We went quickly from urban to rural, and our bus driver had to carefully cross an arm of the river on a narrow old bridge. Wish I could have taken a picture, but it would have needed hopping off the bus, which wasn’t going to happen. The restaurant itself looked like a hunting lodge and its reception room was furnished as a rural Hungarian home would have looked around 1800. We were welcomed by smiling hosts who offered us a traditional shot of fruit brandy and a piece of salty cake. From there we were ushered into a large room with banquet style tables where we were served a home-style Hungarian meal accompanied by Hungarian wines.

The Lugosi Gypsy Band.
The Lugosi Gypsy Band.

From the beginning we were serenaded by an excellent Gypsy band and as the meal was winding down, the Honvel Dance Ensemble entertained us with traditional folk dances. The dancers were wonderful and the Ramblers were glad they had chosen the Csarda Dinner. At the end, the dancers invited some of the guests to participate, as I slunk back in my chair. Dancing has never been my forte. Not surprisingly some of our fellow passengers did step forward and at least one of the guys did very well.

Energetic dancers were always in motion.
Energetic dancers were always in motion.

When the performance ended, we knew it was time to head back to our hotels, but there was time to exchange hugs with many of our friends. On the bus, we realized how tired we were, and sank gratefully into our seats for the last drive to our hotel. We got a short tour of Budapest at night; it is one of the most beautifully illuminated cities in Europe.

View of Chain Bridge from our hotel room that night. Castle in distance.
View of Chain Bridge from our hotel room that night. Castle in distance.

When we finally got to our room it was almost 11 PM. The Ramblers debated whether to put on our jammies or just sleep in our clothes. The jammies won, but it was really hard to get up when the alarm went off at 3 AM. We had an early ride to the airport; our van was to leave at 3:45 AM.

One thing to keep in mind if you get your air fare from your cruise company, you are probably going to leave the boat early. They want to clean the ship ASAP as the next group of guests will be arriving shortly. So we with our luggage, sleepily headed for the waiting van. The Ramblers were the last to climb aboard  which just shows how tired we were.

The Budapest Airport is small  and this was early on Sunday morning so we were amazed to find a huge crowd already there when we arrived. As it turned out, they all wanted to leave because of the refugee situation. It was not fun to be part of a struggling mob, but Uniworld had a representative there who helped me print out our Lufthansa boarding passes. We got our bags checked and then managed to get to the back of a very long line of people waiting to get through security. The Hungarian airport personnel were overwhelmed by these unusually large numbers and for a time we wondered if we would make our connecting flight to Frankfort. Fortunately we did make it, although because of the metal I carry around, I had to endure a very unpleasant search. I have found that explaining that have had a double hip replacement makes absolutely no difference to the security people. The Senior Rambler must have looked harmless because he got right through. C’est la vie!

On the final leg of our adventure we enjoyed an uneventful flight on Lufthansa. Due to the kindness of a flight attendant, we were able to move to the Lufthansa extra comfort seats. I had tried to book them at Frankfort, but the representative was not very helpful. When we boarded we walked right past a bunch of empty extra comfort seats. As tired as we were, it was wonderful to move up for a long flight. We had bulkhead seats, and even though the same crying child was again on board, it gave up early on the return trip.

Again we were glad to see our daughter waiting after going through customs. As we didn’t have anything to declare except paprika, we walked right through with a “Welcome to Atlanta!”  Another great trip for the memory bank….

 

Budapest!

Budapest has always  captured my imagination since my mother told me wonderful stories about her visits there when I was little. She claimed Hungarian ancestry on one side, although my Slovak cousins don’t agree. They can’t imagine that she would claim a heritage that to them meant centuries of oppression. Yet, she did, and so I was anxious to see more of Budapest in the daylight.

I had my first glimpse of the city when we flew into Budapest for our Christmas Markets cruise in 2014. Unfortunately, our flight arrived in the late afternoon, and it was nearly dark by the time we rode from the airport to our boat, the Uniworld Beatrice. The next day was equally dark, gloomy and rainy. Although we toured the city, we certainly did not see it at its best.

Today our bus neared the outskirts of Budapest in late morning, and we saw first hand, the industrial impact of Soviet occupation in the outskirts of the city.

A rusting railroad bridge and abandoned factories aw we neared Budapest.
A rusting railroad bridge and abandoned factories as we neared Budapest.

Drab, sometimes vacant factories and buildings lined the highway on both sides of the freeway as we neared the city. This time, we wouldn’t be going to the quay to board our boat. Instead we would have a day long city tour and lunch at a famous restaurant before we got to our hotel  We soon saw that Budapest  had visible scars remaining from the Hungarian uprising in 1956.  At first, the city looked very drab on an overcast Saturday despite a vibrant social scene with many people, both young and old on the streets.

Lots of activity at the book and music store.
Lots of activity at the book and music store.

Yet Budapest would not disappoint me. Its mix of  ornate 19th century buildings next to modern construction, its heroic monuments and construction zones were fascinating.

One of many once fine buildings awaiting repair
One of many once fine buildings awaiting repair

It has a raffish charm, unlike that of other Eastern European capitals.  As we drove through the city towards our first stop, Heroes’ Square, the Ramblers noticed  many once grand buildings with boarded up windows patiently waiting to be restored, although the lower floors were obviously occupied.

We had stopped at Heroes’ Square on our Christmas Markets cruise, but it was pouring rain, and we didn’t get out of the bus. Today it was cloudy with intermittent drizzle. but I was eager to see what I had missed.  The largest square in Budapest was full of people. It is a very popular destination for tourists and local residents alike. There were many other tour groups already following their guide’s upraised signs towards the statuary that had given the square its name. They had obviously disembarked from the long  line of busses  parked nearby.

So what is Heroes’ Square? At one end of the large paved square next to City Park is its central feature, the Millennium Memorial built in 1896. The Memorial was built to commemorate both the thousandth anniversary of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin and the founding of the modern Hungarian State a thousand years later. Ironically, when the monument was first proposed, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (tho considered a separate entity). The last five statues on the left side were reserved for members of the then ruling Hapsburg dynasty including Maria Theresa and Franz Joseph. However, the monument was severely damaged in WWII and when it was rebuilt the Habsburgs were gone.

Looking towards the Memorial.
Looking towards the Memorial.

The new statues depicted earlier Hungarian rather than Hapsburg kings and leaders.  The seven statues in the center depict the Magyar chieftains who led the roving bands of Hungarian people into their final home in the Carpathian basin. These statues are in no way historically realistic but rather an artistic depiction of these men.  The are magnificent sculptures which tell the story of Hungary’s heroic past both mythic and historic.

To the Ramblers, the square recalls the more recent past as the place where 200,000 or so Hungarians assembled in 1989 for the funeral of Imre Nagy, who had been  summarily executed by the communist government of Hungary in 1958.

The Serbian Embassy, too bad the flag is furled in photo. Memorial plaque in front of the building.
The Serbian Embassy, too bad the flag is furled in photo. Memorial plaque in front of the building. He Nagy stayed before his arrest.

Nagy, though a communist, wanted to move Hungary out of the Soviet sphere. His attempt triggered the Revolution of 1956 which ended very badly for the Hungarians and Nagy. ( He had been buried upside down in an unmarked grave with his wrists and ankles chained, but was re-interred with honor in the Budapest Public cemetery in 1989. Facing the square is the Serbian Embassy where Nagy fled when the revolution failed.

in addition,  in back of the cenotaph which is surrounded by a decorative chain a plaque marks the site of an artesian well drilled in 1878. The well still provides water for the famous Szechenyi Baths at the back of the monument as well as the Dagaly Baths.

The Szechenyi Baths are right next to the square, the domed building in the center of the picture is part of the bath complex.
The Szechenyi Baths are right next to the square, the domed building in the center of the picture is part of the bath complex.

This is a very deep well which taps into one of the hundreds of thermal springs which were formed eons ago deep underneath Hungarian soil. The original artesian well pumped out 831 liters of water at 74 degrees Centigrade (165 degrees Fahrenheit) while the new well, drilled in 1938 produces water at 77 Centigrade (171 degrees Fahrenheit). Needless to say, the water temperature has cooled down by the time it reaches the many swimming pools of the baths.

Here is a link to the more modern Dagaly Baths which also gets its water from thermal springs under the square. There are more than 50 spas in Budapest alone, as more than 70% of Hungarian territory is blessed with underground thermal springs.  Sadly we did not have a chance to visit even one of these famous spas while we were in Budapest.

http://en.dagalyfurdo.hu/

Heroes’ Square also holds two of the cities’ most important museums, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art or Kunsthalle Budapest. Both buildings were erected around the turn of the century in similar yet strikingly different styles. They both have elements of Greek Temple in their design, popular with museum architects at the turn of the last century but one is gleaming white, while the other is built of tan bricks with a more Byzantine style of decoration.

The Museum of Fine Arts was built in the neoclassical style and opened in 1906.

Note the benches on the steps of the Museum of Fine Art.
Note the benches on the steps of the Museum of Fine Art.

It contains an eclectic collection of international art, excluding Hungarian. Its galleries are devoted to Egyptian, Antique, Old Sculpture, Old Masters paintings and a Modern collection. The more than 100 year old Museum was closed for renovation in 2015 and is expected to re-open in 2018. Interestingly there were people walking up and down the steps when we were there. I am not sure why. In addition, several brightly colored benches had been placed on the steps. I am not sure why but you can see them in the photo. If anyone who reads this knows the answer, let me know. I couldn’t find one on the internet

The Hall of Art on the other hand was doing a brisk business.

A glimpse of the details on the Hall of arts on a busy afternoon.
A glimpse of the details on the Hall of arts on a busy afternoon.

It is slightly older than the Museum of Fine Art having been opened in 1895.

The Hall of Art or Kunsthalle contains contemporary rather than classical art. In fact, its mission is to display works that illustrate the latest trends in art and photography both Hungarian and international.

As our bus was leaving the square, an incongruous modern building caught my eye. It really stood out among its 19th century brethren.

The very non-traditional Deloitte building, which has one several architectural rewards.
The very non-traditional Deloitte building, which has one several architectural rewards. It looks like it is leaning but the image is not tilted.

I later learned that the  extremely modern Deloitte Building, flanked by two 19th century baroque structures, opened in 2008 as the headquarters for ING. It has been praised by architects but the Rambler is not sure about it. What do you think?

More on our Budapest adventures next time.

From Vienna to Budapest, and Refugees at the Border

On our way back to the bus after our city tour, I glimpsed what looked like an amazing group of statuary around a column visible at the end of a narrow street. As we drew closer, its details became more distinct. The figures surrounding the column were amazing; angels and saints near the top where dwelled  the Trinity while at the bottom, piteous figures held out their hands. The Ramblers learned that this was the famous   Pestsäule, or Plague Column that was built in the 17th century to commemorate both the end of  the Great Plague, and the impact it had on Vienna.

Amazing sculpture around column and of course, gilding at the top.
Amazing sculpture around column and of course, gilding at the top.

The plague came late to Vienna. The Black Death, as it was called, had already resulted in the deaths of millions of Europeans, depopulating whole areas of Europe, beginning in the 14th century. This  feared “Black Death” was carried by migrant black rats who lived in the filthy conditions of cities without sewers and garbage collection  Vienna, in 1679, was just as filthy as any other city of the time, perhaps more so. Although the plague was still deadly, 200 years later, religious men and women who ran most of the hospitals at the time, had learned a little about the disease. The Brotherhood of the Holy Trinity, a Catholic religious order, created special hospitals to care for plague victims. The simple nursing care they provided was far better than any other Viennese medical facilities of the time, Thus the Viennese plague was not as deadly as it could have been. The 69 ft. high Pestsäule was built to commemorate those who died and those who worked to save plague victims.

We saw yet another uniquely Viennese building on the way back to  the bus.

Was not sure just what this building was at first, a church bu also a burial place.
Was not sure just what this building was at first, a church bu also a burial place.

This was the Kaisergruft or the Imperial Crypt. In this modest Capuchin Church dedicated in 1633, lie the bones of 145 members of Hapsburg royalty along with a few urns containing ashes and hearts of others.

The Austrian flags tell you this is not just an ordinary church.
The Austrian flags tell you this is not just an ordinary church.

The  Capuchin friars still care for the crypt which is open to the public. FYI The Capuchin’s got their name from the hood which is part of their brown Franciscan habit.  The latest Hapsburg family member was entombed in 2011. Needless to say, this is just the kind of weird exhibit that would intrigue the Rambler, but it was not to be. The Kaisergruft was not on our schedule. It became just one of the many fascinating  spots in Vienna we had no time to explore.

Dinner that night would be on our own, and we decided to go back to the Cafe Schwarzenberg.  We had enjoyed the atmosphere, it was close and the food was tasty. However, before eating, the Ramblers wanted to change some of their Euros into Forints. We would be traveling to Budapest by bus tomorrow, and our schedule seemed a busy one. Might as well take advantage of some free time to visit a bank. First we checked with the Ritz concierge, but we learned they did not exchange currency in the hotel. She suggested visiting the Bank of Austria which had a branch nearby. So we did, only to find that the Bank of Austria had no Forints to exchange. To complicate matters, it was Friday afternoon and many banks had closed early. Fortunately, we found another bank that was open, don’t remember its name, but they had lots of Forints and were happy to make the exchange.

Walking back to the Ritz after finding our Forints.
Walking back to the Ritz after finding our Forints.

Mission accomplished, we enjoyed an early dinner in the delightful wood-paneled cafe which first opened in 1861. It is considered a concert cafe, as a musician plays the grand piano prominently displayed in the middle of the cafe in the evenings. We were too early for the music, but I would be going to another kind of concert later that evening. The senior Rambler took a pass, as he is not a fan of concerts of any kind.

Several river cruise lines including Uniworld offer a chamber music concert for their passengers on the evening their boats are docked in Vienna. On the Christmas Markets cruise, the concert was one of the included tours, however on European Jewels, it was an option. I had decided not to attend, since I had gone to the Christmas one, and it was fairly expensive, 75 Euros. Uniworld changed my mind for me. Because we had to leave the Maria Theresa due to low water, they made the concert to an included event. I was only too happy to take advantage of this special option. It is really a treat to hear a chamber orchestra of talented musicians play in a small hall with excellent acoustics. The program was, as before composed of Mozart and Strauss music performed with much skill and enthusiasm by less than a dozen fine musicians. Uniworld has a contract with Waltz in Vienna which provides these programs which include musicians and dancers for a number of occasions.

This place is a photographer's nightmare. The lights reflect off the beautiful paneling But you get the idea. The photos in their brochure are not much better.
This place is a photographer’s nightmare. The lights reflect off the beautiful paneling But you get the idea. The photos in their brochure are not much better.

.  The concerts are held in the beautiful  19th century hall of the Austrian Engineers and Architects which was recently renovated and has wonderful acoustics in an intimate setting. It isn’t often that one gets to attend a private concert and it was a fitting end to our stay in Vienna. Of course, the final encore was a stirring rendition of the Radetsky March, which is traditionally played at the end of classical music concerts in Vienna and involves much clapping to the stirring march.

Back at the Ritz, the Ramblers packed their bags, since we would be leaving early the next morning for Budapest. Unfortunately we would be able to spend only a long Saturday in Budapest as we had to be at the Budapest Airport at 4 AM Sunday morning. All along we had been hearing news stories about the Syrian refugees who were trying to get into Austria but didn’t realize that we would tangentially get caught up in this unfortunate situation.

After  breakfast, we boarded our busses and headed out for Budapest. We had little time to hang out with our friends from the cruise as we were going to be staying at different hotels once we got to Budapest. Although the Hungarian capital has many excellent hotels, none was able to take in so many people at such short notice. The Ramblers were staying at the Sofitel Chain Bridge, which seemed to be an excellent location. However we wouldn’t get there until much later in the day.

Since Austria and Hungary are both members of the European Union, there would be no  check when we reached the border. However, when we got there, we were startled by what we saw on the highway going towards Austria.

There was a lot going on, but I was on the wrong side of the bus this time. You can see the traffic backed up tho and the truck driver staring wistfully at us.
There was a lot going on, but I was on the wrong side of the bus this time. You can see the traffic backed up tho and the truck driver staring wistfully at us.

There was a gigantic back-up of cars, trucks and busses, and dozens of people milling about. We learned that the police were checking the credentials of everyone trying to cross the border on the interstate-like highway. They had brought in extra personnel, but they were not having much success in keeping the traffic moving. The Ramblers  could see busses from other cruise and tour lines caught up in the mess on the other side of the road, along with other busses which seemed to be filled with refugees. Our bus did not stop and we were able to move along quickly. I would have liked to take some photos of this historic event but unfortunately I was sitting on the curb side, not the street side.

After trying a shot or two, I decided to give up the attempt and just observe history in the making. We later saw a number of groups of refugees, mostly young men,  marching along towards the border for  miles after we crossed it. The traffic jam extended for miles  as well.

There were several people who probably got good photos but none I knew well enough to ask  if they would send them to me. I did, however, get a picture of the Hungarian rest area where we stopped briefly.

The McDonald's, Neat and nicely landscaped and not very crowded.
The McDonald’s, Neat and nicely landscaped and not very crowded.

It featured a McDonald’s’ and you can be sure some of our bunch stopped for a snack.

On to Budapest!

 

A wonderful day in the warm and welcoming city of Vienna

Needless to say, we didn’t jump out of the comfortable beds in our room at the Ritz at 6 AM. Our scheduled tour of the city and the Winter Palace wouldn’t leave the hotel until 10:15, so there was no need to rush. Breakfast was included in our stay so we headed to the Melounge, the first floor dining area, around 8:30.  On our way, we took some time to admire the comfortable but elegant design of the Ritz.

The Ritz, entrance is under the flags,
The Ritz, entrance is under the flags,

The hotel, like many other buildings in Vienna in the area, had been put together from four 19th century palais many years ago.Elements of 19th century decor had been incorporated into the modern building very successfully.

We noticed a number of our fellow passengers were already in the dining area intermingled with the other guests when we arrived. The Ritz is a large hotel, with more than two hundred rooms so it was able to accommodate the 100 plus passengers of the Maria Theresa fairly easily, especially since most were couples who would stay in the same room. We enjoyed an excellent breakfast in the Melounge which offered a variety of choices, however by this time, we were eating less and less for breakfast and lunch. Our bodies were telling us it was time to return to the simple breakfasts and lunches we ate at home.

Uniworld offered a lecture on European Art and Architecture before the city tour, but I find that I really don’t have much enthusiasm for lectures at this stage of my life. Too many years spent giving rather than listening to lectures, I guess, especially on history and art. I did make an exception and went to the program on the construction of the locks on the Rhine Main canal, and it did not disappoint. The senior Rambler was only too happy to skip this lecture as he is not a  lecture fan. He had found his friend from New Zealand, a fellow smoker at the Ritz. They again got together in one of the smoking-allowed spots and enjoyed both cigarettes and conversation instead.

One good thing about the upcoming Vienna City Tour was that we wouldn’t spend much time on the bus. The Ritz was centrally located along the Ringstrasse, so on the first part of the tour,

Just one of many impressive buildings that lined our route, complete with gilding.
Just one of many impressive buildings that lined our route, complete with gilding. Not bad, considering it was taken f rom a  bus win dow.

we enjoyed   a driving tour of central Vienna and its major landmarks.   After an hour or so, we disembarked near the Stephensdom to meet our guides for the tour of the Winter Palace.

The Ramblers haven’t minded the time we spent on busses on our cruise excursions. The bus time usually  wasn’t very long and it did give us a chance to see some of the non-touristy towns and the often beautiful countryside. It was pleasant to be driven around the Ringstrasse on a sunny day  and we enjoyed the scenery, Vienna has lots greenery mixed in with beautiful buildings, many attractive landscapes, and even a large woodland. In an odd way it reminded me of Atlanta, and  is very unlike my birthplace Chicago. In Chicago, once you leave  Lake Michigan’s shores, the landscapes become mostly brick and mortar. An infestation of Dutch Elm disease which killed  the columnar elm trees that shaded Chicago streets and boulevards didn’t help.

Since the  Danube is a fair distance from the Ringstrasse and the historic center of Vienna, we were now much closer to the sights, shops and cafes at the Ritz then we would have been if we were still on the MT.

Many people were walking or riding along the streets not like last December.
Many people were walking or riding along the streets not like last December.

The last time we visited Vienna, on the Uniworld Christmas Markets tour described in some of my earlier posts, we were bussed into the City Center and toured the wonderful National Library. After the tour was over, we had free time to visit the  Christmas Market at the City Hall. Because the weather was cold and rainy that day, we didn’t stay long . For those who wanted to spend time in Vienna and browse the Christmas Markets, Uniworld ran shuttle busses every hour at an agreed upon stop. We and some of our friends waited anxiously for the first shuttle back to the boat, while others didn’t return until much later. Those who missed the last shuttle took taxis or public transportation back to the Beatrice.

This time, we would have a different kind of tour. We now had two cruise directors on board( figuratively speaking) to sort out the logistics of our new destinations. Today, Jan, from the Netherlands,  who had just joined us, would ride on our bus. He was a very interesting guy who had a more European point of view than Chad ( who was Canadian).  The Uniworld tour directors had to not only make new arrangements for the last 3 days of our tour but do the same for the next group of river cruisers who would be arriving in Budapest on September X. The Maria Theresa was still trapped in Regensburg as the Danube was still too low.

Our starting point for the city tour was the Winter Palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Then we would tour the surrounding area, taking a look into the Spanish Riding School which was not in session, and eventually wind our way back to the bus

Better look at a fiaker, these folks seem to be waving at us.
Better look at a fiaker, these folks seem to be waving at us.

I don’t have much of a sense of direction and had only spent a little time in Vienna, so I was glad we would have a guided tour and then would get a ride back to the Ritz. The streets were filled with both locals and tour groups enjoying the pleasant day. We saw several fiakers (carriages) filled with happy tourists carefully winding their way through the crowded streets.

We were with the Gentle Walkers again,  our old friends from the MT. Our guide was a Viennese lady who was very proud of her city. Touring the the inside of the Stephensdom, the magnificent cathedral which dominates the skyline of Vienna, was not on our schedule. although the cathedral was visible from our bus stop.

However our guide felt we should get a closer view of the church as it was such an important part of Vienna’s history… even tho it was’t part of the tour.

The cathedral is surrounded by buildings and it is difficult to get a clear shot. It really isn't leaning.
The cathedral is surrounded by buildings and it is difficult to get a clear shot. It really isn’t leaning.

While the other groups moved off, we learned about the cathedral’s history. Archaeologists have found that a church has stood on this spot since the 4th or 5th century, The building we saw before us was constructed between 1300 and 1450, enlarging on an existing structure. The massive 450 ft. south tower  was added at this time and the smaller north tower, 233 ft. was supposed to match it.  However its construction was abandoned around 1500 as the money was need to repel the Turks, It is possible to climb to the top of both towers, but only the north tower has an elevator.

There aren’t any tall buildings in this part of Vienna and the Stephensdom’s tile roof and two towers dominate the skyline. The cathedral was heavily damaged during WWII but it wasn’t until last-ditch fighting between the Nazi’s and the Soviet’s in 1945, resulted in  setting the original Gothic wooden roof ablaze. The great bell  Pummern, made from melted Turkish cannons, plummeted to the ground.

As you can see in the background the roof of the Stephensdom is gone except for a few ribs.
As you can see in the background the roof of the Stephensdom is gone except for a few ribs and the street is lined in rubble.

There was much internal damage as the fire burned for two days. However, the civic pride of the Viennese had  in their cathedral  resulted in an outpouring of funds making it possible to completely restore the building by 1952. This at a time when much of the city was in ruins and money was scarce. The multi-colored tiles that now make up its roof were financed by the citizens of Vienna. Alte Steffi , as the Viennese call the cathedral, unlike most churches of its importance, is surrounded by buildings which makes it difficult to photograph.

I think many of us would also have enjoyed seeing  the equally impressive interior, but we had to stick to the schedule.

A close up of the roof tiles, the roof itself is very steep and snow slides off easily in the winter.
A close up of the roof tiles, the roof itself is very steep and snow slides off easily in the winter.

Even so, we had been left behind by the other groups.  This meant the Gentle Walkers had to move more briskly through the rest of the tour than they would have chosen. We didn’t mind the extra information, you couldn’t help appreciating the enthusiasm of our guide.

Fortunately our destination, the Winter Palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy was not far from the Stephensdom. Although born in France in 1663, Prince Eugene served the Habsburg emperors for 60 years. He was a very able commander who made possible the Habsburg dominance of Central Europe and the Netherlands. Prince Eugene was awarded many honors and grew wealthy because of his military prowess.

Prince Eugene direction his troops in battle, with spyglass in hand.
Prince Eugene directing his troops in battle, with spyglass in hand.

He spend much of his fortune building the Belvedere Palace complex ( which includes the Winter Palace) and collecting fine art. We got to tour the state apartments which were opened to the public for the first time in centuries in 2013. Throughout his life he was noted not just for his skill as a general but for his honesty, loyalty, bravery and sense of personal honor. Unfortunately he was not blessed with good looks or an impressive physique and he never married. After his death, at 72,

The Winter palace has the most elaborate gilded ceiling I have ever seen.
The Winter palace has the most elaborate gilded ceiling I have ever seen.

Maria Theresa bought his palace at auction for the use of the imperial court, and it housed many government departments until the empire was dissolved in 1918.

The beautiful white interior of the Winter Palace
The beautiful white interior of the Winter Palace

The palace that we toured was renovated between 2007 and 2013, and is today a magnificent example of Baroque architecture, “one of the most magnificent in Vienna,” according to the experts.

After leaving the palace, we walked along Kärntner Strasse, a pedestrian boulevard that links the Stephensdom with the Vienna State Opera. Incidentally, the operas and the concerts are always the hottest tickets in Vienna, a city that loves opera, ballet and music  of all kinds.

Mini-Steiff bears in the shop window
Mini-Steiff bears in the shop window

We walked along a street that was lined with a melange of historic buildings inviting shops and cafes, including the ubiquitous Starbucks. I had to go into Steiff Vienna. I have always loved their stuffed bears and have gotten several for our children over the years. As we were late, there was no time to shop but I did get my photo taken with the gigantic bear they have on display.

One of the biggest Steiff animals I have ever seen.
One of the biggest Steiff animals I have ever seen.

 

 

The Wachau Valley and then on to Vienna (Wien)

We straggled onto our busses for the short ride to the town of Melk situated below the abbey on the Danube. If we had still been on the Maria Theresa, our ship would have been docked there. Then we would have gone on to dock at the ancient town of Krems. Our original tour choices for the day had been a visit to Melk Abbey, which we had just finished, a farm day tour to the pretty little town of Weissenkirchen, or a bike ride along the Danube.

The ticket office for Danube excursions and other things at Melk
The ticket office for Danube excursions and other things at Melk

Unfortunately we were not able to chose options two or three this day. The Ramblers enjoyed Melk Abbey but probably would not have taken this option if we had a choice. I was attracted to getting up close to the producers of the wonderful fruits and apricot products of the region in Weissenkirchen. However I did manage to get a variety of fairly priced and attractively packaged apricot gifts in the Melk Abbey gift shop; all was not lost, but still…

Instead of cruising the scenic Wachau valley in wonderful style on the MT, Uniworld had arranged a substitute cruise with a local company, Brandner and we trooped onto the Austria Princess.

Photo of the Austria Princess from the Brandner website. She is much smaller than the MT.
Photo of the Austria Princess from the Brandner website. She is much smaller than the MT.

It was quite nice and is reviewed well on Trip Adviser, but it was not the MT. The crew and waitstaff would do  their best to accommodate the somewhat spoiled passengers from the MT but they were not accustomed to dealing with such a large group at short notice. Uniworld had contracted with them to serve us a buffet lunch, as we were by this time fairly hungry. Unfortunately as I learned later, they don’t usually serve lunch and as it turned out, they probably shouldn’t. To make matters worse, there was barely enough seating for all of us as they usually don’t carry so many passengers.

As the Princess moved away from the dock, we got a better lock at a charming in and campground along the Danube.
As the Princess moved away from the dock, we got a better lock at a charming in and campground along the Danube. Looking through the colored windscreen actually makes the Danube look blue.

The Ramblers had not scurried to get into line and found themselves scrambling to find a place in  line for the buffet. After we finally did reach the food, it took a while to locate a table where we could  sit and eat what we had selected.  They did serve wine and had an open bar in the dining room, so all was not lost except for the Senior Ramblers and others who don’t drink alcohol. I don’t want to be too hard on the crew of the Austria Princess. They did their best but the food was certainly not spectacular.

To make matters more difficult, the weather changed and a gusty wind blew in cloudy weather, blowing over glasses and table settings on the upper deck.

As we stepped onto the top deck, we could see Melk in the distance. The wind has started to blow away the napkins.
As we stepped onto the top deck, we could see Melk in the distance. The wind has started to blow away the napkins.

This was the best place to view the scenery. We Ramblers had sailed through the Wachau Valley on a Christmas Markets cruise. That day it was chilly and overcast, so no one went up to the top deck. To our surprise, we saw the Beatrice, the  ship on which we had taken our first Uniworld cruise,  pass us in the other direction. Of course we waved enthusiastically. However no one on the Beatrice knew that the people waving away were actually exiled passengers from the Maria Theresa and didn’t pay much attention to us.

The Uniworld Beatrice heading towards Melk.
The Uniworld Beatrice heading towards Melk.

Also since the Beatrice was moving at a good clip going the other way, they were soon out of sight. The Beatrice sails from Passau to Budapest and then from Budapest to Passau. They don’t go as far as  the low spot in the Danube which kept us from completing our cruise.

As the Danube flows through the Wachau Valley, it is bordered by a variety of pretty little towns, resort hotels with attached campgrounds and castles. One of the towns we passed is Durnstein. It’s claim to fame is that Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned in its castle. Durnstein is hard to miss because its church is painted blue and white rather than the more common pink or gold and white.  It also has some what of a Disneyesque appeal. However, the Ramblers did miss it. The Princess must have sailed past it as we were standing in the buffet line.

We did see the well kept-up Schloss Schoenbuhel which I learned had been restored in the early 1800’s when it was nearly a pile of rubble.

Pretty hard to get to it from the river side, over those cliffs.
Pretty hard to get to it from the river side, over those cliffs.

It is a real castle though, and a fortress has stood on the spot since the 11th century. Not far from Melk, although not visible from the Danube is the museum that houses the famous Venus of Willendorf, the prehistoric fertility figure that was discovered near there.

It had been a busy day and we were not sorry to disembark from the Princess and climb aboard our bus. The first leg of our bus trip had been about 200 miles, but the second would be slightly shorter. According to our schedule, we would arrive in Vienna between 5 and 5:30 PM, depending upon traffic. They do have rush hours in Europe but not like those in Atlanta or Chicago. To be honest, I don’t remember just when we did get to Vienna, just that we were glad to get there. The checking in process didn’t take very long and we were soon headed to our room on the 4th floor. Although I didn’t take a picture, too tired, the Ritz Carlton building started life much earlier and when it was transformed into a 5 star hotel, the builders left some of its earlier features.

The amazing bathroom, all chrome, marble and mirrors.
The amazing bathroom, all chrome, marble and mirrors.

Our room was next to a sitting area paneled in dark wood with comfortable chairs and a coffee table. It seemed quite large compared to our cabin on the MT, although it was good sized. The bathroom was spectacular, all marble chrome and mirrors.

In the hallway there was a counter set up with a coffee service. It was my first experience with a Nespresso machine.

Nespresso!!!
Nespresso!!!

Although we were only there for two nights, I used up all the coffee capsules although we were in a city famous for its coffee. I would receive one just like it for Christmas from the Senior Rambler.

All though we didn’t feel much like going anywhere, it was a nice evening and we needed to get a bite to eat. Fortunately we weren’t that far from one of Vienna’s old style coffee shops, the Cafe Schwarzenberg which had opened in the 19th century. We carefully dodged cars, trams, scooters and bicycles to reach our destination and were not disappointed.

The senior Rambler relaxing at the Schwarzenberg Cafe. The windows look out onto the busy street and are great for people watching.
The senior Rambler relaxing at the Schwarzenberg Cafe. The windows look out onto the busy street and are great for people watching.

We both had traditional Austrian dishes which were excellent. Afterwards we headed back to the hotel. This was one night where we appreciated the comfort of our room,  in spite of the fact that the Ritz has a wonderful roof-top bar which provides a view of many of Vienna’s favorite buildings.

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