Tom is not allowed to travel more than 150 miles from Ft. Rucker, AL, so we met him at Panama City Beach, FL, this weekend for some deep sea fishing. The day started very early, when he met Captain Alicia. We came back with a pretty good haul. There was a processing facility at the marina that cleaned our fish. Across the street was a restaurant that offered “hook and cook,” where they cook fresh fish that you bring them. You couldn’t get any fresher than mackerel that we just pulled from the ocean.
It was a nice weekend, but a little too short. Despite rain in the morning that put a little damper on the fishing, we had a successful trip.
Our son is a student at US Army flight school at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. He and his classmates first got into a helicopter three months ago, after the Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC) and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training. Yesterday was family day. For the students it was just another day — academics in the morning and stick time in the afternoon. Familes were invited out to Toth staging field about a half hour from the fort where we were able to watch our son training on the Lakota helicopter. In April he will find out which platform he will be assigned (e.g., Blackhawk, Apache, or Chinook). The flight school cadre did a nice job of explaining what we were seeing and what to expect. We were even allowed to go up into the control tower and listen to the air traffic controllers talking to the pilots. I just happened to be in the tower when they were talking to Tom on the radio. It was probably routine for the students, but it was a very nice event for the families. He even had a 20 minute break to get out of the aircraft and talk to us. He was assigned helicopter 75K for the day.
Considering how little flight time these young officers have had, I think their skills were pretty impressive. In particular, most of them were doing a very good job at hovering, despite the windy conditions.
Tom’s class is part of an Army experiment to use virtual reality for part of flight training. We have been using flight simulators for many years, and that is still part of their training, but for the first couple of month, the VR training replaced some amount of simulator and actual stick time. I think this is an idea that will work whether or not it works, because someone has decided this is a good idea. Tom said the VR system, adapted from a commercial tool to train fixed-wing pilots, had a lot of artificialities that made transition into the cockpit difficult, but when they work out the kinks, this may turn out to be effective.
Tom demonstrates autorotation at Toth staging field near Ft. Rucker, AL.
Autorotation is an important skill for pilots. If the aircraft loses power, by manipulating the pitch of the blades, the pilot can maintain enough energy in the rotors that he can flair at the end and land safely. With a two engine aircraft, like the Lakota, you are not allowed to autorotate and land intentionally, so they came to a hover at the end.
I was having operator headspace and timing issues with the camera and phone yesterday (the iPhone kept defaulting to still photos, so sometimes I thought I was taking video but wasn’t). We still managed to get a few good videos.
A “running landing”
Towns outside Ft. Rucker roll up the streets pretty early, even on a Friday night, but I then took Tom and the others to a very nice Mexican restaurant with great food and amazing service.
Our next full day began with a morning cruise through the Netherlands. Kinderdijk is the only place in the world with so many windmills so close together. It represents the relentless fight against the sea. From the Viking daily, “The village of Kinderdijk is surrounded by the Groene Hart (Green Heart), an extensive peat landscape right in the middle of Randstad, the bursting region of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht… One of the charms of the picturesque low-lying lands of South Holland are the windmills. They are not only an innovative method of water management developed in the Middle Ages, but also iconic structure that have becoming synonymous with the Dutch landscape.”
We got off the boat and took a walking tour of the Kinderdijk area, stopping at the visitor’s center and climbing into one of the windmills.
After our walking tour of the windmills, the four of us took a bus tour to a family-owned, small cheese factory nearby. We had a chance to sample some cheese and see how cheese is made.
We returned to the boat a little after dark for another terrific meal. This was our last night aboard ship. During the night we docked in Amsterdam. We had a nice, light breakfast in the lounge and then took a bus to the airport for our flight home.
It was a great trip, and we will certainly take another Viking river cruise in the future. It was really nice to be in a floating hotel room and be in a different city each day. The service was terrific, the food was excellent, and the whole experience was wonderful. It was also a lot of fun to share the experience with another couple.
The next morning, 24 November, we were docked on Cologne, Germany. From the Viking daily, “An intriguing mix of old and new, Cologne reveals its Roman heritage in its city layout and the ancient ruins that lie scattered through the town. Cologne’s modern plazas and Hohe Strasses, a pedestrian-only shopping zone, host welcoming shops, enticing restaurants, and of course, cologne boutiques. Of particular note is the city’s 14th century cathedral, a stunning example of Gothic artistry… Spared Allied bombs during World War II, the cathedral’s imposing twin spires are visible for miles; stained glass windows felt he interior with brilliant colored light. Its 509 steps lead to the 312-foot platform with astounding views.”
Being Sunday, most of the shops were closed, but we did get some food in a bakery. Some of the stores catering to tourists were open, so we did a little shopping. We also found a cafe for a nice lunch.
Cologne is renowned for its wealth and boasts over 100 traditional brew pubs. While Bavaria is famous for the large mugs of beer, in Cologne small glasses are common. In Cologne they like their beer cold, so they serve it in small glasses so the beer doesn’t get warm. The waiters will keep bringing beer when your glass is empty unless you place a coaster over the glass.
From the Viking daily, “The history of Cologne’s signature beer is an interesting one. In 1603, the city passed a law stating that only to-fermented beers — that is, ales — were to be brewed within its limits. The reasons for this are unclear, thought many hypothesize that, without any means of refrigeration, the city’s climate was not able to accommodate lager brewing’s necessary fine-tuning of the beer’s fermentation temperature. Whatever the logic behind it, this law allowed few medieval styles of German ale — forerunners of today’s Koelsch to survive into modern times. The first instance of the word Koelsch used to describe the city’s trademark brew can be tracked to 1918.”
The term “cologne” originated in the city of Cologne, and we purchased some as a souvenir; although, we were told that the scent is considered old fashioned these days.
After our walk, we returned to the boat for a little down time. While everyone else was being a slug, I put on my running gear and ran along this side of the river. The path ran along the river, and there were lots of German walking, running, and pushing strollers. I ran through a few parks. Later we had another great dinner about our boat as it began our journey for the night.
The next day, 23 November, was the first time we travelled in daylight. Until then, we travelled at night and were docked in a new location by morning. We traveled along the “Middle Rhine” while our program director, Andrew, narrated descriptions of the various castles along the river.
Our journey along the Rhine ended in the city of Koblenz, Germany. From the Viking daily, “Koblenz is a traditional German country town at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Founded more than 2,000 years ago, this former trading settlement rests on a massif of the Middle Rhine Highlands. Its cobblestone streets, wood-beamed houses adorned with flowers, ancient market square, and medieval churches recall the fairy-tale Germany of old. At the “German Corner,” Deutsches Eck, where the two rivers converge, a massive equestrian statue of Prince William I observes the lovely riverside scene The famed Teutonic Knights set up their first base here in 1216. The Romanesque Basilica of St. Castore, Koblenz’s oldest building, dates to 836.”
Greg and I signed up for the optional excursion to visit the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein, and the girls were on a different excursion to see Marksburg Castle. Greg and I had about 90 minutes between when the girls left and when we were to depart, so we walked off the boat a couple hundred meters to the German Corner to get a closer view of the statue.
From the Viking daily, “Set on a hill overlooking the Deutsches Eck, the “German Corner” where the Moselle and Rhine Rivers meet, Ehrenbreitstein is Europe’s second largest preserved fortress. The hill upon which it rests was settled as far back as the 4th century BC, and a Roman fortification existed there around 400-500 AD. Constructed on the current fortifications was begun around 1100 and expanded during the 16th century. In 1801, Ehrenbreitstein was partially destroyed by Napoleon, and the French occupied Koblenz for the next 18 years. The fort looms some 400 feet above the Rhine’s left bank.”
After dinner we had a few hours before our boat was going to shove off, so the four of us walked into the old town of Koblenz to enjoy their Christmas market and more great German food.
The next day when we woke up, the boat was docked near Heidelberg, German. We took at bus into town and a walking tour of the ruined castle and the old part of town.
From the Viking Daily for Heidelberg: “Heidelberg is unquestionably one of Germans oldest and most unashamedly romantic cities. Famous for its historic university, it boasts may other obvious attractions, such has its beautiful baroque Old Town and the magical, partly ruined fairy-tale castle that overlooks it. With a history as dramatic and romantic as its Gothic-Rennaissance character — of of palatinate princes, stampeding Swedes, Protestant reformers, raging fires, and lightning bolts — it is little wonder that the castle serves as inspiration for artists and writers alike during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is still home to the world’s largest wine barrel, a 250-year-old vat shaped from 130 oak trees that once held 50,000 gallons of wine… Heidelberg was left in ruins by French troops one the command of Louis XIV. It was totally rebuilt during the 18th century, give us three picturesque cobblestone streets lined with half-timbered houses and baroque buildings that remain in the Old Town.”
The walking tour was short, and I felt like I would have liked another hour on our own in town. This portion of the cruise seemed rushed.
We had 15 minutes of free time after walking around the old town (briskly) and the bridge, so we popped into a bar, called Vetter. They serve the beer with the highest alcohol content in the world: 33%. Yes, 33%, not 33 proof. It was very mild and smooth tasting, thick like a stout, but not bitter. In fact it tasted sweet.
That evening the boat docked at Rudesheim, German. We elected to leave the boat and experience their Christmas market. Most other towns started the market after our cruise, but this one actually started the day before we arrived. We had a very nice time winding our way through the byways of Rudesheim, sampling the food, and looking at souvenirs in the various street stalls.
Greg and I were on the prowl for curry wurst, which we found and enjoyed.
We had a very nice time wandering around the Christmas market. It rambled through the city, so every time we turned a corner, there were mall stalls and shops. We spent about two hours in town before returning to the boat.
There has been a really long delay in me finishing the blog posts for our Viking river cruise of the Rhine. The Internet onboard was very, very slow, so I couldn’t keep up along the way. When we got home, life went back into overdrive with Thanksgiving, Christmas preparations, and the move from Maryland to Florida.
Our next stop was Strasbourg. Candy and I elected to take the optional “Taste of Alcase” tour. This involved the normal walking tour, but we also stopped at several shops for food sampling.
Our guide walked us around the old, medieval part of the city. Our first stop was a gingerbread shop where we learned about the various spices that go into gingerbread, tasted different types, and purchased some for our upcoming Christmas party.
Our next stop was a small French cafe. Our guide took us upstairs to a semi-private room where we were treated to “torte flambe.” This is sort of like French pizza. A creamy cheese sauce is spread over thin dough and then covered with onions and bacon and then baked on high heat for just a few minutes. They were really good. We tried several different toppings, including a sweet version as dessert. I don’t think we would have tried this dish or found this restaurant without a guide.
We were a weekend too early for the Strasbourg Christmas market / festival, but the town was largely decorated for Christmas. Most of the shops had decorations and festive window displays.
Our next stop was the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral in Strasbourg. The mechanical clock was amazing, the way it tracked moon phase, day, date, time, and motion of the stars.
The cathedral had an amazing nativity on display. I have never seen one that depicted five scenes before. They usually focus on just the manger scene.
After visiting the cathedral, our guide walked us around various shops. At one shop we picked up bread, at another desserts, and and another cheese.
In some of these pictures, you can see that we are all wearing ear pieces, and the guide is wearing a small microphone. This allowed him to talk to us without have to shout or bother others not on the tour. I also allowed us to hear without having crowd up to him.
The Taste of Strasbourg tour culminated with a dinner at a winery in town that included the wine, cheese, bread, and desserts we had been picking up along the walking tour.
This was a very nice tour, and we saw things we would have been unlikely to discover on our own. My only complaint is that it wasn’t a taste of Strasbourg, it was two full meals. I think they could have cut the amount of food in half without detracting from the tour, and we wouldn’t have felt so bloated at the end of the day. The meal on the boat was the one I had been looking forward to — Bavarian food buffet — but we were so stuffed from the tour that we really couldn’t enjoy the dinner.
Our first full day on the Sigyn was a Breisach, German, the “gateway to the Black Foreset.” Breisach is built on a basalt rock outcropping in the Rhine plain. It is located in one of the warmest parts of German, across the river from French Alsace, which is famous for its wine growing. Breisach, too, can boast about its winter; it is home of Europes largest cellars, which a storage capacity of more than 160 million liters. The most prominent landmark of Breisach is the Romanesque-Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral , built between the 13th and 13th centuries.
We took the included excursion into the Black Forest, which is actually a mountain range. Due to weather, we were not allowed to hike the Black Forest trails, so we instead viewed a glass blowing a cuckoo clock demonstration in a tourist area in the Black Forest.
In the afternoon, Candy and Nicole went on the tour of Medieval Colmar tour, but Greg and I took the WWII Colmar excursion.
It was a good, but long, first full day aboard ship.
Our last day in Lucern we checked out of our hotel and then walked round the old town (altstaedt) to do some shopping. By 1500 we boarded busses for the 90-minute drive to Basel, where we boarded out boat, the Viking Sigyn, unpacked, received the introductory briefing by Andrew our program director, and had dinner.
I have never had any interest in taking a cruise. First, the Caribbean holds little interest for me. Second, the notion of sitting on a private beach in an all-inclusive resort while abject poverty stares at me through a chain link fence just doesn’t interest me. Some friends of ours took a Viking river cruise of the Danube a couple of years ago and came back with glowing reports. We decided to give a Viking river cruise a try by traveling from Basel to Amsterdam along the Rhine with stops every day for excursions and sight seeing.
The trip began with two days in Lucern after a flight into Zurich. The first day was raining and cold, but we had nice weather for the second day. While we waited for Greg and Nicolle to arrive, we got a quick bite to eat at the nearby train station, I worked out for an hour in the fitness center, and I talked Candy into experiencing the sauna. It was a bit of culture shock for Candy to be in a sauna with naked people.
When Greg and Nicole arrived, we set out to find some traditional Swiss fondu at a restaurant, called Pfistern. Instead of fondu we had raclette. It was really good, but somewhat heavy with all that cheese. Lucern, like many European cities has a downtown area (the altstaedt) that is pedestrian only. We felt at ease walking around town, window shopping, and chatting.
The next day we took a guided walking tour of Lucern led by an expatriate American from Ft. Lauderdale. The tour was interesting, and it gave us ideas where we wanted to go the next day to do some shopping.
After the morning walking tour, we grabbed sandwiches from the Coop grocery store in the train station and hopped on the train to Interlocken, north of Lucern. Interlocken is a ski resort town. The Viking people recommended the trip as a way to see Swiss countryside. The views were very nice, but the glare off the train windows made photography a challenge.
That night we walked to another restaurant that the Viking people recommended, called the Rebstock. It was more meat and potatoes than cheese, but still traditional Swiss food. It was quite good, and we enjoyed the walk to the restaurant and back.
Our final morning in Lucern we checked out of our hotel, handed over our luggage, and then walked round town, even experiencing (briefly) a farmer’s market in town. We did a little shopping, and we enjoyed lunch in a small restaurant along the water specializing in burgers and craft beers; although, none of us had burgers. What’s the point of visiting a foreign country and eating food you can get easily at home.
We met up with the Viking folks at 1500 and took a bus to Basel, where we boarded out boat for the rest of the trip. Once we were underway, we had an excellent dinner and sat around the lounge listening to an Eastern European piano player, Gigi, play old American tunes on the piano while we enjoyed some cocktails.
We all slept very well as our boat traveled northward on the Rhine, going through four sets of locks before docking at Breisach am Rhein for the remainder of the evening. There is almost no sensation of being on the boat as it travels. We slept very well as the effects of jet lag, early mornings, long days, and booze lulled us to sleep.