European River Cruise: The Adventure Begins

A view of Amsterdam from our hotel room.

Days One and Two — Amsterdam

After over a year of planning (and paying), we embarked on our two-river cruise with Viking. This cruise began in Amsterdam.  We are traveling down the Rhine River to Basel, Switzerland.  We will transfer to another boat to travel down the Rhone through France.

No air travel is complete without drama.  Our flight left Orlando two hours late because of thunderstorms near the airport.  I am consistently disappointed in how the airlines seem unprepared for Florida’s rain.  Imagine that!  We had a 90-minute layover in New York, JFK, so we didn’t think we would make our flight.  The Viking people, however, booked us on a flight leaving JFK two hours later.  When we arrived at JFK, we were booked on our original and later flights.  Since the original flight was also delayed an hour, we kept the earlier reservation—a big mistake.  The later flight left on time, but the “earlier” flight was delayed four hours.  At one point, we were stuck on the tarmac in a pot-hole that required them to round up a “super tug” to get us unstuck. Instead of six hours in an uncomfortable seat, we could enjoy ten hours.  Thanks, Delta/KLM.

On Viking River cruises they generally offer what I call a “pre-show” and an “after party.”  The pre-show is helpful in getting acclimated to the time zone before the cruise begins.  We decided to take the pre-show in Amsterdam.

A fancy water bottle refilling station in Amsterdam.

Having arrived later than we expected, after checking into our room, we walked around the downtown area of Amsterdam to do some sightseeing.  We also stopped in a place called FEBO, which featured hot Dutch food in vending machines.

It was tight, but Candy could put on these wooden shoes.

The six of us finally linked up around dinner time.  The various restaurants the Viking people recommended required reservations we didn’t have, so we eventually found a German restaurant for some delicious schnitzel at the train station.  Our hotel, the Moevenpick, was a short walk from the train station.  After dinner, we decided to get some sleep and be ready for the next day.

Our group on the bridge leading to the train station from our room.
A view of the city during the walking tour.  There are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam, and they always have the right of way.  This makes life interesting for pedestrians.
The so-called Wailing Tower, where supposedly women waited while the Duch sailors went to sea for months. The guide was unclear on whether those were tears of joy or sorrow.

Our first full day in Amsterdam began with a guided walking tour arranged by the Viking people.

In the afternoon, we sought out the Rijks Museum.  Amsterdam is the home of many of the Dutch Masters.  While I am not big on art museums, we wanted to see some famous artwork, including a few Van Gohs and Vermeers.

Karen, JJ, Duncan, Candy, and Betty. I was there too — at least, that’s the story I’m sticking to. You need a reservation to get into the art museum, so while we waited for our time slot, we enjoyed sampling some traditional Dutch snacks, including bitterballen. These seem like mushroom soup and some chopped meat rolled into a ball and deep fried. The reviews were mixed, but I liked them. (The best ones we had were on the Viking ship the next day.)
The front of the Rijks museum. We successfully figured out the trolly system in Amsterdam and made our way to the museum. It was very interesting that a ticket seller (a human in a booth) was on every trolley.
Candy and Karen are critiquing artwork in the Rijks Museum. They gave this four stars, a thumbs up, two smiley faces, and a “hooah.”

That evening we were scheduled to take a boat tour along the canals of Amsterdam.  After a bit of a death march through the city, we purchased sandwiches and drinks to take on the boat (at the recommendation of the boat people).  There are several boat tour companies.  We used the “Dam Boat Tour” outfit.  The tour was excellent, and our guide was very informative.

There are no railings along the canals. The Dutch have a fascinating, laissez-faire attitude and feel like people should be responsible for their bad choices. Imagine that! Note that the left tires of the white van overlap the canal bank.
The Dutch have planted some foliage to help protect the banks of some of the canals.
Most of Amsterdam is at least a meter below sea level, so the entire city has been built on pilings. The earliest buildings were built on wooden pilings that last a very long unless exposed to the air. That is why most buildings in the area are only five stories high; that is all the weight the wooden pilings can hold.  The Dutch devote a lot of effort to managing the water levels in the city, but over time, as the tops of the pilings have been exposed to air from time to time, the buildings begin to lean.  Note in this picture how the buildings are leaning in several different directions.
Another view of the Amsterdam canals. The houseboats are permanent residences, complete with city water and sewer.

Day Three – Arnhem

On day three, Sunday, the girls walked around the city to do some souvenir shopping and visit the famous Red Light District, but we guys got on the train to Arnhem to see the museum commemorating the fighting around the Arnhem bridge during Operation Market Garden in WWII.  Figuring out the train was relatively easy, but then figuring out the bus to the museum in Hartenstein (Ooosterbeek, near Arnhem) proved tricky, so we just took Uber.

A monument in front of the museum.  I found this sentiment quite refreshing in a world where blamestorming and finger-pointing are commonplace.

The museum was small but well done.  A multi-projector moving map presentation did a nice job laying out the fighting for the bridge step-by-step.  The highlight, however, was the “Airborne Experience” presentation on floor -3.  The presentation began by sitting in a room watching a video of glider troops preparing for battle.  Then a door opened, and upon entering, we found ourselves in a mockup of a Horsa glider.  We were sitting in the seats of the glider, feeling the bumps, and looking through the front window as the glider detached its tow cable and landed (with more bumps).  After leaving the glider, we were treated to a scene of paratroopers landing and animated vignettes depicting the fighting.    It was good enough we all did it a second time.

Duncan inspected an airborne bulldozer near the winger of the glider we had just landed.
British paratroopers landed after the gliders.
The moving map presentation of the battle.
See! I was there.
We are not sure there would have been any British 17-lb guns at Arnhem, but two flanked the museum.
The museum had a small food truck where we got a light lunch and then took a longer-than-expected walk to the military cemetery to see the graves of British, Dutch, and Polish soldiers who fought during the battle.

Included in the admission to the museum was a much smaller museum with a short film presentation near the Arnhem Bridge.

The bridge over the Rhine was the objective of the operation. The British were unable to capture the bridge. The Allies later destroyed it from the air to prevent the Germans from using it. When it was rebuilt, it was built to match the original bridge.

After a short walk to the train station, we traveled back to Amsterdam to link up with the girls and board our boat in time for dinner and departure.

Day Four (Monday) — Kinderdijk

The boat traveled through the night, arriving at Kinderdijk the next morning.  Kinderdijk is the most extensive collection of Dutch windmills in any single location.  There are eighteen of them there.  We took the included walking tour of the site.  JJ and Karen took the optional excursion to a factory where they make Gouda cheese since Kinderdijk is in the Gooda region.  Candy and I had done the cheese tour on our previous Viking Rhine cruise.

A view of some of the windmills at Kinderdijk. These windmills were used to pump water from one canal up a meter to another. The Netherlands’ soil is fertile but soft, peat, so the land and canals continue to sink. Most of the country is between one and six meters below sea level. Water is constantly pumped into and out of reservoirs, rivers, and canals to stay above water.
A more detailed view of a windmill. All of the windmills in the area still work. They are used from time to time to maintain them.
Our guide explained how the windmills and the water management system work.

This was a better tour than the last time we visited Kinderdijk.  More was open to see this time.

After the walking tour, we returned to the Kara to resume our journey and have lunch. We had a half day sitting on the deck, reading, and enjoying the ship.

Day Five (Tuesday) – Cologne

German humor. We found this plaque on the ground in Cologne. In cities that go back to Roman times, this is probably true.
Cologne existed before Roman occupation, but there are many remains of Roman times throughout the city. We were told that there is a McDonalds in the city where you can eat your Big Mac in Roman ruins. This is the remainder of a bed of a Roman road. When the Romans built it, the bed would have been covered with gravel and sand.
This was our guide for the walking tour of Cologne.
To get to the famous cathedral from our boat, we had to cross this bridge full of love locks. Unlike bridges in other cities, this is a train bridge, so they don’t have issues with the locks being too heavy.
The famous cathedral in Cologne took 600 years to build. It was one of the few parts of the city that weren’t destroyed during WWII. The Allies used the cathedral as a landmark during bombing missions.
This is a view of the cathedral from our boat on the other side of the river.
This is a statue of one of the Prussian emperors that flank the Hohenzollern Bridge.
There are several of these three-panel displays in the cathedral.
It is difficult to capture the entire cathedral at one time in a photograph.
We ate at a beer hall for lunch. In Cologne, they during Kolsch beer. Unlike the large mugs of beer found in Bavaria, Kolsch is served ice cold in small glasses. The waiters will keep filling your beer and recording how many glasses you drink by marking on a coaster until you put your coaster on top of your glass.

After lunch, we shopped for a few souvenirs and then went to the chocolate museum.

Where’s Buck?
The chocolate museum was fascinating. First, we had to get through a bunch of climate change and fair trade propaganda, but then we got to see how chocolate is made. Since chocolate goes back to Meso-America, I found the large display about Aztecs and chocolate particularly interesting.
Unlike the tour in Hershey, these were machines that were making chocolate. In Costa Rica, we saw how the Aztecs made chocolate, but this tour was more about how chocolate is mass-produced today.

Day Six (Wednesday) – Marksburg Castle and the Middle Rhine

The day began with a walking tour of Marskburg Castle, one of the few castles not destroyed at some point in history.

Our guide in the castle provides some historical context.
Examples of armor are housed in the castle.
JJ prepares to storm the castle. Note how the original entrance, made to accommodate knights on horseback, was later made smaller to make it easier to defend.
A motley crew, indeed! JJ, Karen, Candy, Robert Redford, Betty, and Duncan
Duncan poses next to an adult-sized bed for multiple people.
A view of Marksburg from the boat.
The cannons in this emplacement were sited to control this section of the Rhine.
This is a rare breach-loading cannon. Sadly, none of the guides could tell us anything about it.
Hello, down there!
The kitchen in the castle with a walk-in fireplace.
Another view of Marksburg from the level of the Rhine.

In the 1980s, a Japanese businessman tried to buy Marksburg to move it to Japan.  The German government, of course, denied the request, but they permitted him to measure it.  Today there is a replica of Marksburg in Okinawa.

After the castle tour, we walked around a rose garden near where our boat was moored. We found this German war memorial for the Franco-Prussian War and WWI. You can see Marksburg in the distance.
A close of the inscriptions.
Candy poses among the flowers.
A view from the river.

After Marksburg, we reboarded and contiCenturywn the Middle Rhine, looking at castles and countryside along the way.  While doing so, we also got in a game of “Tens,” a card game.

Castle Liebenstein and KM 566 on the Rhine. Built in the 13th Century, Liebenstein is the highest castle on the Middle Rhone. The tower now contains a restaurant and hotel.
Sterrenberg Castle shared a defensive wall with Liegenstein and is still known as one of the two “hostile brothers,” a legacy from a 13th Century feud.
A picturesque building along the river.
The owners of the larger Centurystle named Maus Castle (pictured) at KM 558 along the Rhine.
Rheinfels Castle (KM 556) was initially built in the 13th Century. Today it is a hotel and restaurant.
Katz Castle, KM 555, was built in the 14th Century and was heavily damaged by Napoleon’s forces in 1806. It was rebuilt during the Victorian era.
This is a train tunnel entranced disguised as a castle in an attempt to fool the Allies during WWII.
Shoeneburg Castle (KM 549) was built in 966. It was burned by the French in 1689. The castle was reconstructed to include three medieval fortresses and towers.
Gutenfels (KM 546). This castle, along with Pfaltzgrafenstein, was built as a toll station to control the river and extort merchants.  Reportedly the guns from this castle could stop any merchants who attempted to slip past.  There were also narrow channels and thick chains to help control the river traffic.
In this picture, you can see Gutenfels in the distance and Pfaltzgrafenstein in the foreground.
Pfalzgrafenstein (KM 545) sits like a battleship in the middle of the river.
The “back side” of Gutenfels, shows that we are indeed in Reisling wine country. Note how the vineyards are planted vertically up the slopes of the hills and mountains.
A view of picturesque scenery along the river..
Another view along the river. There is something about the architecture and colors of German buildings and towns that I find really appealing.
Stahleck Castle (KM 543) was originally built in the 12th Century. It was attacked several times and eventually captured by the French in the 17th Century. It contains a youth hostel today.
Nolig Castle (KM 539) dates back to 1300. These ruins were never part of a castle, per se, but were part of the fortifications around the town of Lorch am Rhein.
Sooneck Castle’s romantic style dates to 1834, when the crown prince of Prussia built it.
Reichenstein Castler (KM 534) is also called Falkenburg. This castle is an example of neo-Gothic construction. Today it holds a collection of porcelain, furniture, and weapons that span five centuries.
A church along the river.
Rheinstein Castle (KM 533) was built in the 14th Century and features a still-working drawbridge.
The Mouse Tower (KM 530) sits on an island in the middle of the river.  It gets its name because supposedly an archbishop imprisoned there was eaten by mice.
Erenfels (KM 530) was built in the 13th Century amid vineyards.
A view of Ehrenfels and its vineyards.
A picturesque church overlooking the Rhine.

In the evening we docked in Ruedesheim.  Four of us went on the Dine in Ruedesheim excursion.  I have to say that this was the first time I have been really disappointed in Viking.  We went to a restaurant in town.  The food was okay, but not nearly as good as the food on the boat.  The music was so loud, that even with earplugs (which I always carry due to tinnitus), that is was physically painful and my ears are still ringing (more loudly than normal) 12 hours later.  The music selection was also disappointing.  We were hoping to learn some German drinking songs, some polka, or something traditional.  There was some German music, but there was no effort to teach any German songs.  The playlist was from the ’80s, featuring those famous German songs: Sweet Caroline and YMCA.  And then a bunch of the other passengers on our boat became loud drunks who thought they were hilarious.  It was a real let-down after a nice day on the river.  At least it was expensive, so we have that going for us.


Our final destination on the cruise was Budapest.  Viking scheduled our arrival at night so that we could see Budapest along the Danube all lit up.  Despite years of communist rule, the palatial buildings (some dating back to the Hapsburg empire) are quite impressive when lit up.

One of the many bridges across the Danube that links the historic cities of Buda and Pest.
The parliament building all lit up. Interestingly, this building was created for the greater Austro-Hungarian empire. Hungary doesn’t need such a large parliament by itself, so half of the building is the parliament, and half is rented out to businesses for offices. One can imagine that if you are trying to get money from the government that having an office in the parliament building might be an advantage.
This is where we eventually docked.
A slightly closer view of the parliament building.

This picture gives you an idea of how dark it was on the “sun deck” as I was taking these pictures. My Pentax digital SLR did a nice job of getting the various lit buildings captured with crisp detail at night.

Looking up at Fisherman’s Bastion in the castle district of Budapest.

The green bridge

A view of the “sun deck”

The next morning, despite some drizzle, we took a panoramic bus tour of Budapest.  One of the stops was Hero Square, including the Hungarian tomb of the unknown soldier.

The Hungarian tomb of the unknown soldier.

We didn’t stop here, so the picture is pretty bad. This is an area with bronze shoes along the Danube. The Nazis lined up Jews here during WWII, made them take off their shoes, machine gunned them, and pushed them into the river.
St. Stephan’s church
The church is dedicated to Mary.
A view of Roman ruins under the church.
The tour continued on foot through part of the downtown shopping district.

Most of the downtown buildings had amazing decorations if you looked up.
Even the manhole covers were ornate.
Another decorated building.
The “Statue of Liberty.” This was originally built by the Russians to commemorate their “liberation” of Hungary from the Nazis. After the communists were ousted, the people wanted to keep the statue but re-dedicated it to liberation from the Russians.
Nicole and Greg on board.

After the walking tour, Nicole, Greg, Karen, JJ, Candy, and I walked a short distance to the huge indoor market near where our boat docked and not far from the downtown shopping area.  We were hungry for lunch, so we stopped at a Hungarian cafeteria style restaurant for traditional Hungarian food while being serenaded by a violinist.

Our cafeteria lunches. The restaurant had a Hungarian sampler that included goulash, “layered potatoes,” and other tasty items. You can see it between Greg (who was really happy — really, no kidding, he was) and Nicole. It was a LOT of food, so Candy and I split one, and we were still full.
A view of the shopping market, which is three stories high. The top floor had a lot of souvenirs, the ground floor was mostly food (where we picked up some paprika), and the basement contained an Aldi grocery store.
The violinist who serenaded us with traditional Hungarian tunes as well as some Sinatra.

That afternoon Dave and I took a biking tour of Budapest.  There were just two from our boat (Dave and me) and two from another Viking boat.  It was a great tour.  Our guide took us to places we couldn’t see from the bus tour, and we covered a lot of ground that we couldn’t have covered on foot.  We even rode out to Margaret Island, where vehicles are not allowed.

Out guide giving us a talk during one of our stops of the bike tour. Riding a bike through Hungarian traffic was sometimes high adventure.
This statue and fountain is somewhat controversial. It depicts the atrocities committed by the Nazis, including rounding up and sending to extermination camps 600,000 Jews in four months after the Germans occupied Budapest. It is controversial, because it depicts the Hungarian government as victims, but as our guide pointed out, the government had to have collaborated willingly to round up that many Jews in so short a time. On a happier note, the fountain occasionally opened a path into the center where people would walk. It was pretty neat.

We had four birthdays on this trip:  Nicole our first night aboard, Candy a few days later, and Dave and Brenda the same day, our last night aboard.  The Viking staff brought a passion fruit cheesecake to both our tables and sang to Dave and Brenda.

A passion fruit cheesecake provided by the Viking staff.
Dave is officially old.
Our last night on board, the Viking folks brought on board three singers from the Hungarian national opera to entertain us, including their own violinist and pianist. They were really quite good, and I am not fan of opera.

The next day we transferred off the boat to our hotel in the castle district for the remainder of our stay.  Before even checking into the hotel, we were whisked away on one of our tours.

The next day, Eric, Vickey, Candy, and I took a van trip to Skanzen near the town of Szentendre.  Skanzen (pronounced like the back half of Wisconsin), is like the Dutch outdoor museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.  In this case over 240 buildings were moved with painstaking care from around Hungary to build several authentic villages depicting live in Hungary in different regions at different periods of history.

One of the many “peasant homes” from the great planes area of Hungary. The family house and barn were all one building.
These peasant homes were all constructed in a similar fashion, regardless of social status. Some were a little bigger, and some had nicer furniture, but they were very similar. As you walked into the door, you were in the kitchen with a fireplace that nearly filled the room. To the right is the “clean room” where you would entrain guests. To the left is the family room where you would spend most of your time. In the winter, the door still needed to remain open for proper draught of the fireplace, so the fireplace had smaller fireplaces leading to both the clean room and family room.
A family room in one of the houses. You can see the smaller fireplace and stove to the right of this picture.
A view of the fireplace in the kitchen with the smaller fireplace leading to the family room.
Some sort of smithy.

Our guide showing us a line of “row houses” where multiple families had connected houses.
Eric, Vickey, and me preparing goulash.
Goulash we are helping to create simmers over an open fire. I don’t think peasant Hungarians in the 1600’s used propane. 😉

We only had time to visit 20 or 30 buildings of the 250 on display at Skanzen.  Afterwards our guide took us to Szentendre, a real town filled with interesting shops.  There were some of the tourist souvenir shops, but there were also a number of legitimate local craft shops too.

Candy walking through a “street” of Szentendre. This one led to a church on the hill and a nice view of Szentendre and the Danube beyond.
We visited the small Retro Design Center museum. It was small, but it had some interesting items among its eclectic collection.

The next day, Eric, JJ, Dave, and I walked a quarter mile to the Hungarian military museum.  While not nearly as ornate or extensive as the one in Vienna, there were some interesting items on display.

Another double-barreled submachine gun. This must have been something that the Austro-Hungarians were really interested in during WWI, since several were on display in both Vienna and Budapest.
Our last night together, ten of us went to dinner: Eric, Karen, JJ, Greg, Nicole, Vickey, and Candy with Fisherman’s Bastion in the background.
Fisherman’s bastion and St. Mathias our last night.
Candy from Fisherman’s Bastion with parliament lit up behind her.

We all had different flights the next day, so we didn’t see each other.  Travel home was high adventure for most of us with cancelled flights, delayed flights, delayed takeoffs, and lost baggage.


The next morning we found ourselves in Bratislava, the capitol of Slovakia.  We took the panoramic bus tour around town and up to the castle.  This portion of the trip seemed rushed.  We took the quick bus tour, walked around downtown for a few minutes, and then got back on the boat.  Another two hours would have been a perfect amount of time to explore downtown a little more.

Our first view of Bratislava. This was right across from where our boat was moored.
The rather modern “UFO” bridge from our boat. The UFO is actually a rotating restaurant.
Departing the boat for our panoramic tour.
Bratislava castle in the distance.
The interior grounds of Bratislava castle.
The gardens behind Bratislava castle.
A church downtown.
The main square in downtown Bratislava.
Bratislava is known for its whimsical statues, like this Napoleonic soldier.
Legend says that if a young woman touches this figures hat, she’ll get pregnant, and if an old woman touches his hat, she’ll get money. The story behind this is that during communist times, people got paid for doing nothing, and nothing got done.
The Danube with the setting sun.


We began our time in Vienna with a walking tour of the downtown area and the Hapbsburg palace with its many courtyards.  After the walking tour, there was some scheduled free time for shopping.  Instead of shopping, Greg, JJ, and I met Duncan at the Vienna military museum.

Preparing to take out tour. This is a view of the “foyer” of the boat.
Wow! This was taken from the bus window while moving to the start of our tour.
Part of the Hapsburg winter palace
Downtown Vienna
St. Stephan’s church in the center of Vienna’s old town area. I really like the colored shingles/tiles on this roof.

Duncan had found this gem while looking for things to do in Vienna many months ago.  Duncan skipped the walking tour entirely to make sure he had time to see everything.  JJ, Greg, and I spent over four hours there.   It was well worth the time.  The architecture in the museum and the artwork, but might have been “over the top” in an art museum.  It is unprecedented in a military museum.


We passed through a park on the way to the museum. Greg and JJ made a new friend.
This is a small part of the entrance hall of the military museum.
In the WWI and WWII sections, most of the signs were in both German and English.

There were several of these maps in the WWI section. The displays were organized by year of the war. As a result, the displays did a great job of showing the evolution of technology throughout the war.
A unique, double-barreled automatic pistol. I found the thumb, leaf trigger (like on the US .50 cal. machine-gun) interesting.
Duncan really WAS happy to be there.
This drum magazine was interesting.
Another double-barreled submachine gun. This one appears to have been mounted on an airplane.

I took over 350 photos in this museum.  These are just a small sample.

Frescoes high above the first floor (second floor to Americans) galleries.

The famous Austerlitz surrender painting.
Throughout the Napoleonic area, there were many of these excellent figurines to show different uniforms of the period.
A Storch aircraft in the WWII section.
An interesting automatic rifle with a side-mounted box magazine that was on display as a weapon of paratroopers.
A fallshirmjaeger.
This is an interesting glass landmine. It is unclear if the glass was because raw materials were becoming scarce toward the end of the war or whether this was to avoid mine detection. My theory is the latter.
A Goliath. I hadn’t seen one with the top off before. This was used to drive explosives under enemy tanks.

After seeing everything in the museum itself, we walked around the corner to the panzerahalle (Tank Hall).  This included an excellent display of Russian and Cold War equipment that you rarely see.

A 1:1 scale model of an Austrian tank design in 1911. This was way ahead of its time, but no prototypes were ever produced for testing.
A view of a portion of the panzerhalle.
After the museum we took the underground back to the center of town.
Before returning to the boat, we stopped in a Viennese coffee house for coffee and desserts: JJ, Greg, Duncan.

Gottweg Abbey, Krems

The day of the Wachau Valley cruise, we also stopped at Krems to visit the Gottweg Abbey.  They abbey was impressive.  The tour ended in the gift shop for some wine tasting, as the abbey seems to be famous for its wines, and it is in the Wachau Valley, which is wine country.

There are less than 50 monks in the abbey. Many of them also perform as priests in the many local parishes. This is a view over the wall of the abbey at a nearby local church.
The entrance to the abbey grounds
The group milling about.
Interior of the Abbey grounds
One of the ceiling frescoes within the abbey.
The fresco ceiling and one of the walls.
The front of the church within the abbey
The church altar. There was a crypt below the altar with some relics.


We had a little time after returning from the abbey, so then Dave and I hike into the hills around Krems for an hour.

Along the Danube, Through the Wachau Valley

After our day at Linz, the next morning we set sail along the Danube toward Bratislava.  This was meant to be a relaxing day absent a bunch of excursions.  The morning was foggy, but along the way, I was able to capture some pictures of some castles and the countryside.  Violeta, our program director, was providing a narration during this porting of the trip, but for some reason, it was difficult to hear and understand her on the top (sun) deck.  As a result, I don’t have a lot of details about these various sights, other than they are picturesque.

There were a lot of interesting sights along the river, but this one really caught my eye.
This portion of the Danube, the Wachau valley is wine country. you can see the terraced vineyards in the background, despite the mist.
This might have been a great picture if it wasn’t for the mist and rain.
This is the castle Violeta referred to as the Watcher on the Wachau.

As is typical on Viking cruises it seems, much of the staff is from Central Europe.  Violeta was from Romania.  She recognized my name immediately as we came on board as being Romanian.  In Romanian “Surdu” means the deaf.  One evening, Violeta gave a presentation about what life was like under the communist regime in Romania that all Americans need to hear.  It was long and suffered from a little meandering, but the content was good.

Český Krumlov

The next day was in Linz.  We elected to take the excursion to Český Krumlov, a quaint mediaeval village back in the Czech Republic.  This town was largely untouched by WWII, so the castle and town are like they have been for hundreds of years.  After a walking tour of the town and castle grounds, we all sat down for a traditional Czech meal and then had some free time to spend money on stuff we didn’t need.  We also climbed the tower of the castle and looked at the museum inside the castle tower during our free time.  Despite the hour and fifteen minute drive in each direction, we arrived back in Linz in time to walk around the town a bit and get some Linzer tortes.

Our first glimpse at a portion of the castle.
Our guide, Stephan, did a great job showing us around the town.
Two movie stars we met during the tour. Viking provides a “Vox” device with an ear piece. This allows the guide to narrate the tour without yelling or bothering others not on the tour.
Another view of the town.
School is ending soon in the Czech Republic. There were many school groups in town. Here you can see one school group rafting down the river.
The castle walls. Here you can see how different sections of the castle were built in different decades with different styles.
The town was hosting a group of high wire enthusiasts. In many of these pictures you can see the lines high over the river or town.
Approaching the castle.
The castle was built over many decades. The castle, consisted of five courtyards, each built in a slightly different style. Many of the walls had frescos on them. This is the archway leading from the castle to the town.
The town from the castle walls.
The government is in the process of adding a military museum to the castle. Here are a couple of cannons on display.
They claim that this is one of the first two breach-loading cannons ever built, but the guide was a little hazy on the specifics other than that it was produced by Krupp.
Another of the courtyards. We later climbed to the top of that tower.
Another courtyard picture.
Many of the walls were painted to look like large bricks, but the walls were actually just flat plaster.
Another view of the faux brickwork painted on the walls.
Karen and JJ
A gingerbread shop in town. Cookies and booze seem like an unusual taste combination.
We had a traditional Czech meal in several courses in a restaurant, called the Water Mill.
The meal consisted of a very tasty soup. Then a tray of meats, including duck, chicken, beef, and pork, was brought out family style. This included red cabbage. Like most means over the past two weeks, vegetables other than cabbage were in short supply.
Many of the buildings in town were decorated with these detailed frescoes.
Another view of part of the town. The buildings were painted in a number of pastel colors.
Český Krumlov
After lunch we were released for some free time. We chose to climb to the tap of the castle tower.
The tower from below.
Candy in the tower with the town in the background.
A view of the town from atop the tower. You can see some of the high-wire lines in this photo.

After a little shopping we boarded the bus and headed back to Linz.  I don’t fee like we missed anything in Linz by spending the day in Český Krumlov.  It is a largish German city with a handful of churches to see.  We had a couple of hours to walk downtown and shop for Linzer tortes to bring home.  The shopping area in Linz was just a city street and was not really unique or quaint.

Passau and Beyond

After our time in Prague, we boarded a bus for along ride to Passau, Germany, where we boarded out boat.  Arriving a little before dinner, we received out orientation and unpacked in our rooms.  We stayed in Passau at the dock the first night.  The next morning, Duncan, Dave, and I took the “Hiking the Hills of Passau” walking tour, while everyone else took the normal walking tour of town. Our tour covered the same downtown (Old Town) area of Passau, but we also saw a monastery / church overlooking Passau from one side of town and the castle on the other side of the river.  The tour was billed as “strenuous,” but it really wasn’t too bad except for the climb up the hill to the castle.

JJ, Karen, Betty, Candy, Greg, and Nicole get ready for their walking tour of Old Town Passau.
A picture of Passau. We started the “hiking the hills” tour pretty early.
The altar in the church / abbey / monastery overlooking Passau that was the starting point of our our.
The group preparing to hike the hills. Viking combined us with a group from another Viking ship traveling the opposite direction along the Danube.
The church that was our first stop.
The cemetery for many of the priests and monks who had lived at the abbey.
A view of Passau from the abbey.
We’re walking, we’re walking…
Oh, how artistic…
A fountain in the middle of Passau.
This is my kind of garden. This is what I call the “riot of color” look.
Walking along the Danube toward the bridge to the castle.
A good view along the wall of the castle. You can see how the styles changed over the hundreds of years of construction.
Another portion of the castle.
Passau from the castle. You can barely see our boat behind the vegetation.
A building along our hiking route.

A portion of the castle.
Dave, me, Duncan at an overlook on the hill we walked up to get to the castle.
A view of Passau from the castle. In the distance, on the hill, you can see the abbey where we started our perigrination. The white line coming down from it and then turning to the left of the picture is the covered pilgrim’s way with 300+ steps.
A partial view of the interior of the castle.
Sitting on the sun deck as we departed from Passau: Duncan, Betty, Karen.
In the afternoon, there was a demonstration in the lounge of how to make strudel.

Overnight we docked in Linz for our tours the next day.


Danube Cruise, the Adventure Begins in Prague

Well, it finally happened.  After our Viking river cruise of the Rhine in 2019, we scheduled a cruise along the Danube in 2020, which was postponed to 2021, and then 2022.  Along the way, we encouraged several other couples to participate: Greg and Nicole with whom we took the Rhine cruise, Duncan and Betty, Dave and Brenda, Eric and Vickey, and JJ and Karen.  Our journeys began seven days ago with our flights into Prague for the “pre show,” three days in Prague.

Our first night in Prague Greg had identified a pretty neat restaurant called “the skewer.”  All of the food had a skewer stuck in it.  Some had two skewers.  The food was self-serve, and at the end you paid for the number of skewers you had eaten.

JJ, Karen, Candy, Greg, and Nicole.
Eric, Vickie, Brenda, Dave, Betty, and Duncan

After a stroll around downtown Prague (Praha), we all returned to the hotel to try to get some sleep despite the jet lag.

The next morning, we all took the included “Panoramic Prague” walking tour through the city.  The guide, Radick, did a nice job of showing us the highlights of downtown Prague, despite some heavy rain.

The astronomical clock in the Old Town Square that chimes every hour. The 12 apostles process past the blue windows. The skeleton rings a bell to summon people, but the other statues shake their heads to stay on earth at least another hour.
A street in Prague
A view of Prague, including the castle on the hill.
A building in the town square. Many of the buildings had these nice frescoes on them.
Another building in the Old Town Square.
Taking cover from the rain.
This is a church in the Old Town Square. Note the mutliple spires. This seemed to be common among many of the churches in Prague. Also note the connector from the main spire to the corner spires. This too seemed to be common in Prague. I am not sure if this is decorative or structural or merely provides a covered walkway to the corner spires.
By the time we reached the Charles bridge on our tour, the rain and clouds were fading.
Crossing the bridge.
A canal near the Charles Bridge.
A paddle boat made to look like an old car on the river near the Charles Bridge.
A long shot of the bridge.
Another canal near the Charles bridge looking in the opposite direction toward an old water wheel.

The tour continued by taking us up to the castles, which includes a church and the President’s offices.

One of the many stained glass windows in the church within the Prague castle.
Our guide provides information about the church.
Looking down the long axis of the church toward the altar.
Because the castle hold’s the president’s offices, there were both ceremonial and real guards on duty.
Candy and me in front of the church within the Prague castle.
The inner courtyard of our hotel looking down toward where we had an included breakfast each morning.

That night Duncan, Betty, Dave, Brenda, Candy, and I attended a traditional folk dinner in a rural area outside of Prague.   This included dancers performing traditional folk dances and a three-piece band playing traditional music.  The food included some kind of cheese spread on bread, soup, meat, cabbage, and potatoes.  It was a fun evening.

The band playing at the Folk Dinner.
Our servers.
The entertainment.
Dave and Brenda
Betty, Duncan, some movie star, and Candy.

The next morning, on our own, we went to find the History of Communism.  I don’t know how anyone can support Communism, Marxism, and Socialism after visiting this museum.  The Czechs know first hand the evils of these philosophies, and they are not afraid to oppose them.

Some of the displays at the Museum of Communism.
One of the boards next to some of the displays.
I love this quote. Centralized, government control has never and will never work. The museum provided a number of examples of how a powerful and controlling central government created hardships and shortages for the people.
Reassembling after the museum tour. Duncan, Betty, Brenda, Dave, and Candy.

We walked around the Old Town Square in much better weather than the previous morning.
I saw this winged moose on a building in Prague and thought is was interesting. I need to add one of these to one of my games.
Several of us took the optional Operation Anthropoid tour. Anthropoid was an OSS operation in WWII to assassinate Heydrich Reinhardt, the “Butcher of Prague,” who also designed the “final solution” resulting in the creation of the concentration and death camps throughout Europe. While the operation was a success, in that they killed Reinhardt, all of the Czech parachutists involved were killed.
We took an evening tour of Prague. One of the stops was a monastery on one of the hills near the castle for a beer and a scenic overlook.
Some of the gang waiting for their beers: Dave, Brenda, JJ, Karen, Candy, and Eric.
The monastery
Karen and Candy with evening Prague behind them.

Our last morning we had to drop off our bags by 1000, but the bus wasn’t scheduled to depart of Passau until 1300.  So, Karen, Candy, JJ, and I walked across the river and along it to the Charles Bridge.  We stopped at a couple of shops to look at stuff we didn’t need, then we crossed the bridge and made one last trek through Old Town Square back to our hotel.

A local group performing on the Charles Bridge.
Assembling for the trip to Passau: JJ, Betty, Duncan, Candy, Eric, Vickey, Dave, Brenda, and Karen. Where is Buck?
The bus ride from Prague to Passau. Like any good paratrooper, Dave was asleep before the bus door closed.

We arrived at the boat in time to unpack our rooms and have dinner.

Eric, Vickey, JJ, Karen, Betty, and Duncan


Long Weekend and Three National Parks

We had some miles on Southwest we need to use by the middle of August or lose them, so Candy planned a four-day weekend to Colorado and Utah to see three National Parks.  There are 63 National Parks, and we plan to eventually see them all.  We have seen well over half after this trip.  I will have to check the exact count when we get home.

Our trip began poorly.  Our flight from Orlando to Denver was delayed several times by lightning.   We eventually left three hours late.  Then when we landed in Denver, they didn’t have a gate for us, and when they found a gate, it took a while to find someone to drive the jet bridge to our plane.  We ended up driving three hours in the dark through unfamiliar mountains to get to our hotel for the first night.  We arrived at 0200 local time, or 0400 Florida time.  Ouch.

The next morning, we got going early.  Interstate 70 was closed due to mud slides, so instead of a three hour drive to get to our first destination, it took over seven hours.   Along the way, we saw some interesting scenery.

A rest stop along I-70
Rain in the distance. It seemed strange to see rain so far away coming toward us.
Roadside views enroute to Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands National Park

Finally we arrived at Canyonlands National Park.  Due to the long detour, we only had about four hours at the park, so we only took a small number of hikes to various vantage points and overlooks.

Entrance to Canyonlands National Park.

Our consistent disappointment on this trip was that the visitors centers at the national parks were essentially closed.  All the interior displays that described the park, its formation, what to do and see, etc. were all covered, or the building was closed.  (They did have the gift stores open for people to spend money — the hypocrisy of that is hard to ignore.)  Part of the enjoyment of the parks for us has been spending an hour in the visitors centers to LEARN something before going on hikes.  In many cases, there weren’t even any hiking maps or other propaganda available.

A view from one of the overlooks. The rock formations in the distance look similar to Monument Valley.

To me Canyonlands had the feel of both the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley.  While the Grand Canyon is certainly deeper, there was a majesty to the wide vistas of Canyonlands.

An overlook
A sweeping vista. This view is reminiscent of Bryce Canyon.
This view really looks like the Grand Canyon

We took a hike out to Mesa Arch, which was not too strenuous, and the view at the end was well worth the walk.

A view of the valley floor through Mesa Arch. Again, note the similar look to Monument Valley — but much, much larger.
A descriptive plaque.
Posing in front of Mesa Arch.

That night we stayed in Mesa, Colorado.  We stayed in the only hotel and restaurant in town.  Friday night was karaoke night.  We enjoyed a drink and some local color.  Everyone was friendly.  The karaoke varied from excellent to awful, but everyone was having a good time.

Grand Mesa National Park

Our destination for the next day was Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, or “Black Canyon.”  We could have taken two routes to Black Canyon.  We elected for the slightly longer route that took us through Grand Mesa National Forest.

Entrance to Grand Mesa National Forest

After a day of desert, a forest was nice.  Grand Mesa is the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.  It was wild to see lakes and creeks on the top of a flat mountain.  Unlike the national parks, the visitor center at Grand Mesa was open and fully staffed.  There were displays and rangers to show us the high points.

A descriptive plaque
A view across the Mesa.
One of the many lakes atop Grand Mesa. The most common activity in the forest is fishing. It makes one wonder how fish climbed 10,000 feet to get into one of these lakes. They are probably stocked now, but how did they get there originally?
We walked out to an overlook and saw “Island Lake” from above. The lake is on top of Grand Mesa, as were we, so you can get a sense of scale.
Atop Grand Mesa looking back toward Mesa, Colorado, and high desert.
Candy and her trophy husband.

Pioneer Town, Cedaredge, CO

From Grand Mesa National Forest we headed toward Black Canyon.  We stopped at a roadside attraction, called Pioneer Town, in Cedaredge, CO, which was surprisingly nice.  There were a number of buildings, a frontier street, and many historical artifacts.

A display of household artifacts inside one of the three original corn silos.
The frontier street in Pioneer Town.
Candy at the bar in the saloon.
The frontier mercantile.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Finally, we arrived at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, named after the railroad engineer who first explored the area looking for a place to lay a bridge.  He eventually determined that it was impassible.

Park entrance.

As with all the national parks, the gift store was open, but the visitors center with all the educational displays were closed.  Sigh.

Panoramic view from near the visitors center.
A view into the Black Canyon. The canyon is so deep and narrow at the bottom, that the very bottom gets very little light. Apparently the nearby Indians were afraid to go into the canyon for fear of never returning.
In this view, you can see the Gunnison river far below. This view also shows the the south side (to the right) is more gently sloped and more heavily vegetated than the north side.
Another view in which you can see the difference between the north and south sides. The south wall gets more sun and rain. The north face gets less sun, so the longer ice and snow cause the rocks to break off and form the steep cliffs.
The “painted wall” overlook.
Another view of the north side of the Black Canyon.
If you look carefully, you can see the river way down below.
You had to lean way over to see the river from the Devil’s overlook.
How did we get this picture of a movie star mixed in with our trip pictures?

That night we stayed in the GG Ranch bed and breakfast run by a German expatriate couple.  I was looking forward the the German breakfast during the whole trip.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Four hours from our bed and breakfast was Great Sand Dunes National Park.  Again the visitors center was essentially closed, but from what we could gather, there is an ancient lake bed across the valley that left a “sand sheet.”  The prevailing winds have blown the sand into dunes, because the tall mountains stop the sand from going farther.  Apparently these are the tallest sand dunes in North America and some of the tallest in the world.

The dunes are huge, and you can see them from a great distance. At this point we are more than 20 miles from the park entrance.
A field of wild flowers nearby.
It is difficult to get a sense of scale. LT Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) was the first explorer to see the Great Sand Dunes as he conducted his “reconnaissance.” He described them as waves at sea except for the color.
This is Pike’s first view of the dunes we saw during a hike.
It is difficult to get a sense of scale from these pictures. If you look very closely, the little dots in the center left are people.
Park entrance
A panoramic view of the dunes.
Just before the park entrance is the Oasis restaurant. Being the only food for at least 50 miles, it is a gold mine. Here you can rent sleds to use on the dunes.

We rented a sled to use on the dunes.   The guy warned us about going too fast, because the sleds can achieve 50 miles per hour.  As we were entering, an ambulance passed us, and when we got to the dunes, they were putting a guy in a cervical collar into the ambulance at the base of the dunes.  We were starting to wonder if this was a good idea.

Once we parked at the dunes, we had to walk almost half a mile to get to the dunes themselves.
This is a view from one of the shorter dunes back toward the parking lot.
A creek runs through the valley, creating the “Riparian Zone.” We had to cross this from the parking lot to get to the dunes. A lot of young kids were enjoying the creek.
Approaching the dunes.

Watch these video clips of us sledding on the dunes.  It was hard to make sure the the sled didn’t turn around while going down the dunes despite how much we waxed them.  By the end, we were getting the hang of it.