Speyer and Vinegar Tasting

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Speyer is one of Germany’s oldest cities dating back to the early Roman Empire. It is also the location of the stunning Speyer Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture anywhere. It has 4 towers and two domes. Originally built beginning in 1033, it features many Art Deco reliefs and sculptures inside and out which somehow blend beautifully with the simple Romanesque arches and red sandstone walls.

Above Donna stands next to Judy and Bob, our new friends from Catskill, New York. The sculpture is titled Jakobs Pilger which means Jacob Pilgrim. The barefoot man is on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The small city of Speyer is famous for its Christmas and New Year Market which takes place on this main street in front of the old Mint (below) not far from the Old Gate.

While riding into town we passed by the Technik Museum Speyer which featured tours of a Boeing 747 and dozens of other planes and vehicles. It looked very cool! The downside of cruising is that sometimes there just isn’t enough time.

That morning we visited Doktorenhof in Venningen. It was like a wine tasting only with vinegar. I know what you are thinking, but did you know that until the age of refrigeration drinking vinegar was very common? Doktorenhof is carrying on that tradition and the tour was really interesting…everyone agreed. They featured dozens of different low acid vinegars with fruit and herb flavors. They are produced from Trockenbeerenauslese vinegar. Look it up! We bought a small bottle of fig and small bottle of herb. Very tasty!

Uniworld: Rhine River Cruise

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antoinetteDonna and I have sailed on many ocean-going vessels, but we had never done a river cruise before. So we were excited to have a Rhine river cruise planned for this Fall. What did we think? We loved it. It really suited our lifestyle and interests. River cruising avoids our least favorite things about larger ships (waiting in line and crowds) as well as those activities we don’t care much about (casinos, large production shows). Instead you get a more intimate and relaxing experience focused on personal service and local culture.

We sailed on Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette, one of their newest riverboats. The latest generation of European riverboats are mostly the same size – 443 long because of the locks on the major rivers. While Viking’s longships hold 190 guests with 50 crew members, Uniworld’s newest ships (the S.S. class) hold 154 passengers with 57 staff. In terms of space per guest and staff to guest ratio, that makes a big difference. Uniworld also has a more inclusive program with gratuities and a wider range of drinks included in the fare. At the end of the cruise we paid for one thing: our optional tour of the Black Forest.

The Riverboat

From the outside, the SS Antoinette looks pretty much the same as all the other riverboats. The only difference I noticed was the top deck which features a pop up restaurant (L’Orangerie) and bar (Leopard Lounge), rather than just umbrellas and canopies. In the pictures below L’Orangerie is collapsed on the left and expanded on the right.

Once you are inside you discover the over the top luxury and design for which Uniworld is famous. Honestly it is not my taste, but it is certainly very comfortable and has many conveniences. Our cabin was near the central lobby, which meant we had only a few steps to coffee in the morning, to meals and to the ramp. Of course, no one was very far from anything. The cabins, pool, leopard lounge and spa were in the rear and the other public areas – front desk main lounge and dining room and L’Orangerie were forward.

Our Cabin

Uniworld has opted for a variation on the French Balcony. While most other lines have railings and sliding glass doors in their mid-priced cabins, Uniworld offers a window that opens from the top so that the full width of the room becomes your balcony with a glass rail. This window is push button and very cool! There is a large closet and plenty of drawer space. The TV had several news channels and a nice selection of movies. The king size bed was very comfy. The bathroom had lots of storage space, a makeup mirror and a selection of top shelf soaps and lotions. However, the desk space wasn’t large enough for a laptop which they should remedy when they do their next renovations.

The Staff

The Captain was from Netherlands, the Hotel Manager from Spain, the Cruise Director from Canada while most of the rest of the staff were from Eastern Europe particularly Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. They were universally accommodating and friendly. Those I remember particularly were Kremena our favorite waitress, Peter the masseur and bike tour leader and Iliya one of the butlers who served us dinner in L’Orangerie. Our cabin attendant, Carla, had the quality of always being there when we needed something. Each of these individuals were devoted and passionate about their work and made us feel at home.

Entertainment and Activities

Several nights local performers were brought on board. From opera singers to comic musicians these short performances were excellent. My least favorite performer was the keyboardist and singer who was on staff. He was talented, but I would have preferred a pianist rather than the synthesizer and drum machine accompaniment he used.

In our stateroom were two small receivers we used when touring that had stereo headphone jacks so you could use your personal headset or the one provided. Each day we were automatically signed up for the main tour, but we could select an free alternate tour or sometimes two alternates. The alternate tours usually involved more difficult walking. And in most places there was an upgraded tour to a more distant location for which there was a reasonable fee ($69 to $119 per person). The upgraded tours on the Rhine cruise went to Heidelberg, Marksburg Castle and the Black Forest. (For details about these and other tours see my other blog posts.) Our local guides were universally excellent – mature and patient. As always some of those on the tour did not follow the schedule, but the guides handled this professionally.

There were two Uniworld buses (with drivers) that paralleled our route along the Rhine. In some locations other buses were used, but having a staff bus driver made the local tours more timely and reliable.

Dining

Every meal was excellent. Breakfast featured ready made omelets and other egg dishes along with bacon and local sausages, excellent ship made breads, fresh fruits, yoghurts and cheese. Lunch was like dinner only buffet style with a carving station and with an emphasis on local specialties and cheese. Dinner was sit down with four or five excellent courses. There were lots of options and everything was perfectly prepared and presented. I would have preferred that the featured main course be less focused on beef. However, there were always lots of options. And there was cheese. Our chef, Bratislav did an amazing job. (Sorry we didn’t take food pictures!)antoinette-dining

Other Passengers

Donna and I are in our sixties (I know, it’s hard to believe) and the average passenger on our cruise may have been a little younger. The youngest and most popular guests on the ship were a honeymoon couple from Winnipeg. There were several other travel agents we met and everyone agreed that Uniworld had done a phenomenal job. Nearly all the guests were from the US and Canada with a few from the UK. There was one couple from Brazil.

For those guest with difficulty walking, the ship was not a problem. There was an elevator and the decks had no inclines or stairs. To reach the top deck there was a chair lift.

Though alcohol was served generously, the crowd was fun but relatively quiet. I suspect I missed the wild times in the Leopard Lounge! Oh, well…next time.

I highly recommend a fall cruise in the Rhine region. While it was mostly cloudy the fall leaves were at their peak which made our pictures and memories that much more vivid. And Donna and I will be taking another river cruise very soon!

 

Rhine Castles and Ruedesheim

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Fortunately the fog of the day before had cleared…

Our riverboat SS Antoinette stayed in Koblenz through the night so that we would be sailing down the scenic Middle Rhine the next morning. In these mountainous and untamed regions during the late Middle ages, the Rhine was the main trade route between the Netherlands and what is now Switzerland. Faster and safer than land routes, the Rhine was the lifeblood of commerce. And the rulers of the tiny duchys along the river charged tariffs for passage along their shores. And they built castles to display their strength and wealth. You could call them pirates or robber barons, but in that time it was simply business as usual. The castles were built during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They have been bombed and fallen into ruin. The German Castle Association has long tried to restore and maintain them. Many are hotels or youth hostels or restaurants.

I was up on the deck around 730am that morning to see small towns and the yellowing vineyards on the steep slope of the river.

A little later dozens of stone castles with classic crenelated towers and walls started appearing atop the cliffs, many above pretty river towns and small cities. Our Cruise Director Chad narrated the passage, explaining the history and condition of each major castle. That particulars were interesting, but the vistas were most memorable. It was also at this point that Donna and I decided that this was a great time of year to travel the Rhine.

My castle pictures…

Donna’s castle pictures…

Near midday we reached the scenic town of Ruedesheim which was very touristy, but almost empty.

Rain was threatening so we immediately took the seilbahn (gondola) up the slope to a German monument and incredible views of the town and the river.

There were sections along the Rhine which were once dangerous including the section that gives us the story of the Lorelei. One interesting features a Bar-Church combination where you have to enter the church by going through the bar.

I took about 600 pictures that day. (FYI…many of the best pictures here are Donna’s.)

 

Koblenz: The Rhine’s Fortress

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The intersection of the Rhine and Moselle River is called the German Corner (Deutsches Eck) because of its strategic importance for protecting western Germany.In 1897 the Germans built a massive monument at the German Corner to honor their Emperor William I who had died a few years earlier.

Across the Rhine from where the Moselle flows into the Rhine, the German’s built the massive Ehrenbreitstein Fortress at the beginning of the 19th century. It was never captured and served as a home for a few lucky Koblenzers during World War II. It was only bombed once. Much of the population of Koblenz is still military. Most visitors tour the fortress and get there by taking a cable gondola across the Rhine and up the promontory. Sometimes the weather adds to the mystery of a place and so the fog somehow made the gondola ride and tour more atmospheric.

After our visit to the fortress and another tasty lunch on the ship, Donna walked around the town and I took a bike ride with the Peter from the ship staff (masseur, yoga instructor, wellness coach and tour guide) sixteen miles along the Rhine. Unfortunately it was All Saints day and in the Catholic town the store were all closed.

For me it was time to experiment with the Yi Action Camera (a Chinese version of the GoPro). Unfortunately, the experiment was not that successful. As you will see, I didn’t have it level on the bike helmet! Next time I will do better.

The ride took us down the Moselle to the Deutsches Eck and along Koblenz’s beautiful Rhine waterfront with large homes and small inns. The holiday and the cool afternoon brought out many locals and tourists. After we left the city we rode parallel to the train tracks riding through some small towns and viewing the large Marksburg castle which houses the German Castle Association. Most of those on the SS Antoinette took the premium tour to this castle instead of the bike tour.

Riding back we got a great view of the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress from a different angle. Our luxury boat stayed put that night in Koblenz until early morning so the next stretch of our cruise would be in daylight and we could see the Castles of the Rhine. More on that…next!

 

 

Copenhagen: The Greenest City

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Disembarking from our ship on a rainy day in Copenhagen, we got into a line for a taxi to take to our hotel. The line was not moving. As in many large cities a good portion of the taxi drivers are Muslims in Copenhagen and as luck would have it, our cruise ended on a Muslim holiday. Travel is like that. There are many situations you can’t control or predict, so you have to be ready to adapt. We decided to take the hop-on, hop-off tour (with bags in tow) around the city to the stop nearest our hotel. The ride itself was probably three times as long, but we got the extra bonus of a recorded tour of the city and saw some sections we were not going to have time to visit. And we learned… that Copenhagen is the greenest city in the world and will likely become carbon neutral by 2025. And we saw lots of bikes!

After a half mile walk to the hotel, we headed to Nyhavn, a touristy little boat harbor with restaurants and shops. We had a nice lunch there (I had the famous Smorrebrod – open faced sandwich) and visited a store in the small building where Hans Christian Andersen lived. We could have taken a harbor tour from there.

A few blocks north of our hotel was the Bosenborg Park and Castle. This is one of Copenhagen’s most popular attractions. It is an interesting contrast to the massive palaces of St. Petersburg…more compact and less ornate. The interior shows how the Royal Family lived from the 17th through 19th centuries with portraits, wall treatments and furniture. Three floor above ground are the living and public spaces of the royal family. The top floor is the throne room. But the highlight of the museum is the treasury housed in the basement, where you will see the gold, royal guns, amber and ivory sculptures and much more.

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In the late afternoon we strolled down the city’s main pedestrian shopping street, Stroget, which starts near Nyhaven and ends a block from Tivoli Garden. There were street performers and many tempting shops along the way.

Eating out in Copenhagen is surprisingly expensive. We looked at a dozen or so menus hoping that we would find something with prices closer to what we were accustomed to, but it never happened. We finally settled on a trendy little place across from our hotel. My small pizza and dinner salad were about $20. Being on a cruise insulates you from local prices, since you generally only eat lunch on land and the other likely purchases are of decorative items. Tallinn and St. Petersburg were relatively inexpensive, but the other cities (Oslo, Warnemunde / Rostock, Helsinki and Stockholm) were closer to Copenhagen.

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The list of things we didn’t see in Copenhagen is long – Tivoli, other palaces and museums, Christiania, the Little Mermaid. Like Stockholm, this is a city with many treasures and there is no way for a short visit to do it justice. But the nice thing about a cruise is the opportunity to sample many places and find out which are the ones where you want to spend more time. Sadly our Baltic cruise did not help us narrow down the list. They were all wonderful!

Stockholm: Island City

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Our ship was too large to dock in Stockholm proper so we were at Nynashamn which is about a 45 minute to the south. We saved money by walking off the ship and taking a walk-on, walk-off bus into the city. Our ticket included the hop-on, hop-off boats that the islands of Stockholm as well. In order to accommodate our large ship, Nynashamn built a folding dock which unfolded to connect with the Regal Princess. (The picture below is actually from the evening when we were about to leave.)

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Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, was established in the center of a massive archipelago of 30,000 islands. The four islands of Gamla Stan are the historic center where you will find the Royal Palace and walk narrow cobbled streets with shops, restaurants and a few museums. The changing of the guard is fun to see. Apparently there is a horseriding band that performs as part of the ceremony, but unfortunately we missed that. Not all the long-haired guards are women.

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The most popular attraction in Stockholm is the Vasa Museum which is built around the wooden warship, Vasa. Warships of that time (1628) generally were usually lost in battle, but this ship was just a little too narrow and tall, so it sank 40 minutes into its maiden voyage in the Stockholm harbor where it was left undisturbed for 333 years. Perhaps the most interesting part of the history of the ship is how it was raised from the sea floor in 1961 and preserved. This museum is fun for everyone!

The Vasa Museum is on the island of Djurgarden which also includes the open-air museum, SkStockholm-Coasteransen, featuring replicas of historic buildings and dwellings of Sweden’s past. This museum was built 125 years ago and was the original on which other Open-Air Folk Museums were copied, including the Oslo Folk Museum in a previous post. You can visit several other museums on Djurgarden, including the new ABBA museum – tragically we missed that one. Or you can ride roller coasters at the amusement park.

From Djurgarden we hopped on the tourist boat to get to Gamla Stan, where we wandered, ate and shopped. And saw the changing of the guard (see above). Below are some typical street scenes on those streets.

After a while the shoppers and the non-shoppers (that would be me) separated. I wanted to see the Stadtshuset (City Hall). Sadly, I was not carrying an ID so they wouldn’t take my credit card to pay for the inside tour (rookie mistake – always your driver’s license in Europe.) But I did see the stunning exterior.

Here we are on the docks of Djurgarden enjoying a beautiful day.

Helsinki: Trendy Harbor

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We arrived in Helsinki on a gloomy Sunday. On every tour or cruise some destinations fall on a Sunday. Sadly, there is no way to avoid it. Large ships dock about mile from the center of the city, so we took a shuttle from the New Terminal in an area filled with new construction of ultra modern apartments and offices. Somehow this area was tidy and clean – so typical of the region. (Of all the places we visited on our cruise, only St. Petersburg had the ugliness you see in some areas of North American cities.) Helsinki_Balcony

Helsinki is the newest of the Baltic capitals and grew during the early 19th century so that most buildings are from the the 19th and 20th centuries. The iconic Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral (above) stands on a hill one block from the Central Market and City Hall. It is a gathering place for tour buses. With a church service going on we were unable to go in.

We arrived downtown and by about 11am the stores in the center city started to open and the boutiques offered high quality products, both local and international. Slightly off-kilter public art and advertising dotted the squares, streets and parks. Helsinki clearly relishes it’s reputation for modernism and progressive politics. The Blacksmiths sculpture, just outside the Stockmann department store, is from the 1930s and shows the Finns enterprising spirit.

The Central MaHelsinki_Marketrket was right at the small central harbor and the stall sellers were waiting for us. Fried smelts and reindeer kabobs were on offer at the Lapland food stalls. A sample smelt was tasty, but I was not hungry yet. Local crafts were high quality, even the t-shirts. Temptations were many, purchases few. Having to haul everything on a plane tends to dampen the desire of acquisition.

Across frHelsinki_City-Hallom the Market was the City Hall which had another display of the Finnish imagination. The surrounding streets and alleys had small boutiques with locally crafted items mostly with the clean, modern look that is typical of the region. The city is filled with Museums, but our limited time and the lovely city kept us outside wandering. We took the local tram about a mile north of the center to visit the most popular architectural attraction in the city, the Church of the Rock. The exterior is a pile of rocks with an entrance. The interior walls are cut from stone capped with a copper disk roof and edged with fanned windows. Most of the time the interior features recorded sacred music, but we arrived during a pipe organ concert.

We had a tasty lunch at the Kiasma Museum and admired the gigantic moving plastic flower above the entrance. Back at Stockmann’s the shoppers shopped and the others (that would be me) watched the heavy traffic in the store. Men and women seemed a bit taller, fitter and blonder than in the US. Make-up and high heels were uncommon though I sat near the make-up and perfume kiosks. People getting in and out of the elevators seemed decidedly polite and patient. All in all Helsinki seemed a nice place to be – open and friendly…despite the gloomy Sunday.