Saturday/Sunday, 18/19 September – Getting there [Posted from the Danube R just entering the Black Sea]

The trip from home to Frankfort, Germany was uneventful, though tiring. But unlike previous trips, all 18 members of the group arrived together.  The Frankfort Airport is under renovation so we had apron disembarkation. It was a quick 2-hour hop to Bucharest, Romania, and that too was uneventful.  By the time we assembled on the bus, though, most of us were approaching a zombie state of sleepiness.  We had a short but interesting tour of the city then off to Oltenita and aboard the Viking Primadonna.  We rested a bit and then off to a briefing.  Looks like a good trip!  Dinner was great with lots of laughter, very good food and free-flowing wine, The great ending for the day was standing on our balcony watching the Bulgarian coast go by [ south shore Bulgaria, north shore Romania on this part of the Danube].  The moon is large and bright and so only a few stars in sight.  Hoping for a good rest tonight as tomorrow is a big day on the Black Sea.

Photos 19 Sep

Monday, September 20

We had a lovely stroll on the top deck, watching the sunrise and enjoying riding downward in a lock.  Then we were among the first at breakfast and enjoyed views of Constanta harbour through the panoramic window of the dining room.  At 8:45 we all gathered for a tour of Constanta and the resort town of Mamaia.  There is a great deal of evidence of what our guide called "both the upside and the down side of revolution".  Much of the economic capacity of Romania disappeared along with the communist officials [ in 1989 ].  Many buildings and much equipment are derelict.  We visited a cathedral and a lovely museum.  It started as city hall and gradually a large and interesting collection, especially of local archaeological items.  The Roman baths and their mosaics are still visible and interesting.  Finally we had coffee at the Golden Tulip in Mamaia [ the next-door resort on the Black Sea ].  We had planned to swim in the Black Sea but of all of us only Lizzie actually did -- the chill breeze and cloudy sky scared the rest of us off.  We did dabble our toes in it.  Back at the ship we enjoyed a light lunch.  In the afternoon there was a talk about the role of canals and locks in the history of transportation [ all the while going through one of the many locks going up the Danube ].  The Captain hosted a champagne reception and dinner, after which several Intrepids spent the rest of the evening in the salon.
Photos Sep 20

Tuesday, September 21

It looked cloudy this morning and we feared another cool, damp day. Luckily by halfway to our first stop the sky was blue. We were docked at Russe,Bulgaria from where we drove south to the foothills of the the Balkan Mountains that cross the middle of the country. We began with a stop at Tsarevets - the King's Hill in Veliko Tarnovo. It's dramatic at the top of a hill with wall off in several directions. In a way it reminded me of the Great Wall of China.
From there we went to a hotel for morning coffee and cookies, then wandered along a cobblestone street of artisan's workshops and stores. There was some shopping and several people came back with bags. We didn't.
We drove to Arbanasi for lunch. Many courses and quite delicious! There were musicians and folk dancers to entertain while eating.
After lunch we walked to a 16-17th century church which was made to look like a stable to be as inconspicuous as possible on the outside since Christians were subject to persecution under the Ottoman Empire. The inside is lavishly decorated with many fresco icons and religious scenes. It was very impressive. I took a pass on the next stop, which was a salesroom for rose products. Roses thrive in parts of Bulgaria and their products are a big part of the economy. They include rose oil, rose water, brandy etc.
The final stop on this excursion was a wealthy merchant's home from the 16/17th century. The eastern influences are conspicuous. There is a 'safe room' where the family sought refuge if the Ottomans raided their home.
Then back on the bus for the trip to our new port, Nikopol/Svistor.
Photos 21 Sep

Wednesday, September 22

Bulgarian independence day!
Early departure from Vidin by bus to Belogradchik for coffee and éclairs (Yum!!). Afterward we wandered up the hill to view the red rock formations and a town square where a band was playing. We danced a bit to the great interest to those around us.
At the beautiful fortress at Belogradchik rock we climbed to the very top to enjoy the view of the amazing rock formations and down into the town.
In all the villages we could see wonderful private gardens - tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, grapes and much other food. They try to be self-sufficient. Buildings are rough brick or stucco, often whitewashed Drystone walls and red tiled roofs and chestnut trees everywhere on narrow rough roads and streets. Our guide explained that they try to maintain authentic Roman roads :)
The Danube Valley is fertile and the climate moderate.
Under communism there were attempts to introduce heavy industry-those failed after communism ended [ and factory derelicts are evident ].
The city of Vidin lost half its population when the chemical industries shut down and is returning to its roots as an agricultural, fishing, tourism and administration centre.
The communists left Bulgaria with a huge debt with which they've struggled ever since. They are receiving EU funds for infrastructure projects. Sitting in our cabin after lunch I could see many barges and ships plying the Danube.
My Uncle Max warned me that the Danube is not blue, and most of the time that's true, but yesterday evening for a few moments it was blue. In any case it flows through beautiful country.
This afternoon, while Larry napped, I walked into Vidin and through the open air market. Some very tempting produce as well as a lot of clothing, shoes, toys and so on. We had no local currency so it was all window shopping.
The town centre is a very large open square with a war memorial and fountain. There's a lovely church and long pedestrian street. Kids were out with firecrackers, celebrating Independence Day.
Later in the afternoon we attended a ship lecture on the Eastern Orthodox Church and icon painting. The icons were gorgeous and they were for sale, but we resisted[ like where would you put it ].
After dinner most of the Intrepids headed for the music quiz in the Lounge. We danced up a storm, but sadly didn't snag any prizes.

Photos 22 Sep

Thursday, September 23

Luckily, we moved from Eastern European Time to Western European and so gained an hour of sleep, because we had to be on deck by 7am to experience the passage through the Iron Gate. The scenery is spectacular - high mountains surrounding the river on both sides, interesting buildings, ruins, carvings, and caves, all in the narrow, fast-flowing part of river.
We moved into Serbia, stopping at Donji Milanovic for customs and immigration formalities.
We were able to go ashore and see the sights. We even did a bit of shopping (a water colour). The church was lovely, and we were able to look through the door in the icons and see the altar. This was a surprise after the churches in Russia where those doors were tightly closed. It is a nice town and we saw more evidence of entrepreneurial initiative than in either Romania or Bulgaria. Lots of lovely handmade goods for sale.
We sailed on up the river for several hours before stopping at Kostolac to visit the Roman Ruins at Viminacium. The excavations there have been underway for more than a century, but strip-mining for coal in the close vicinity has some urgency to it. Already part of the burial grounds have been destroyed. We sampled local wine (not bad) and learned more about the country.
Kostolac is largely a resort town with few permanent residents, but the houses are very nice.
Across the river in Romania we could also see large estates. That area looks more prosperous than the ones we visited earlier.
After dinner it was time for (ta-da!!) the Canadian Quiz. We had a fine time and I think the guests did too! 

Photos 23 Sep

Friday, September 24

Another fairly early morning for the Belgrade tour. There were vendors of home-made items at the waterfront. Again we admired the beautiful workmanship and were pleased that they were not aggressive about selling. Our guide today was particularly good, conveying the important historical and political facts in an interesting way. The weather was perfect all day, too.
We passed several embassies on our way to the Kelemegdan Fortress. The embassies are impressive and beautiful, as are many buildings in Belgrade. We walked through the Fortress, moving backward in time. This point of land at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers has been a crossroads and strategically important location for millennia. Consequently, its history is blood-soaked. The views and fortress itself, though, are wonderful.
We then drove to Republic Square and walked through pedestrian streets to a hotel for a soft drink, then back to the bus.
It's a bustling city for sure, with many signs of growing prosperity. However, we also saw some pretty grim residential areas, and a lot of damage remaining from the NATO bombing 11 years ago.
Traffic is pretty heavy and in many places has out-stripped the capacity of the streets.
Our last morning stop was the church of St. Sava. It is simply awesome! Huge and white, with the largest open area I've ever seen in a church, under a huge, high graceful dome. At noon the bells in the bell-tower all rang out.
After lunch on-board, we got back on the buses to visit the town of Kovacica. It is north of the Danube and so not on the Balkan Peninsula. It sits in the midst of a vast, flat, fertile plain. It is the home of many "naive" style artists. At the main gallery, we saw much of their work and had it explained.

As well we enjoyed a performance by a small local orchestra and ate really delicious strudels.
We also visited the home and workshop of a famous violin maker, Jan Nemcek, who showed us how he selects wood and many of the violins he has created. Quite amazing!
On return to the ship we decided not to eat in the dining room, but just to snack in our cabin.
The evening entertainment was a Serbian folk dancing group who amazed us with their energy - to say nothing of their many costume changes!
[ Before the entertainment a historical expert lectured on Serbia today. There was pretty good history but when he got to the last 10 years his comments where very Serbia-serving on issues such as Kosovo and Bosnian war. Tomorrow there will be another point of view from the Croatian as he pointed out. ]

Photos 24 Sep

Saturday, 25 September

We were slowed down today by the breakage of one of our two engines this morning. That put our arrival in Vukovar, Croatia down a bit as we lost a lot of speed. However we had a really interesting talk on the history and present situation of the European Union.
It's cool, cloudy and breezy, but we're hoping that the possibility of rain is unrealized. In this light the "blue" Danube is definitely brown.
Just as we arrived in Vukovar the rain begain. However it was light enough that we soldiered on.
Vukovar was one of the most damaged places in the war of 1991; it was the first line of defence against the Serbs. 1200 of the towns people held out for 3 months against the professional Serb Army but secumed at last. [ As a reward for this the the Serbs drove most of the families out of the town, killing many along the way and burying many, including the whole hospital patients and staff in mass graves. Unbelievable! ]. Most buildings, including the large and beautiful church, were destroyed, or badly damaged. Some are still in a state of collapse; others show much damage from shrapnel but many have been rebuilt and repaired [ giving the town a very surreal look ]. The reconstruction of the church is still ongoing on the inside.
From Vukovar we drove to Osijek. Though it did come under attack too, the UN peacekeepers arrived in time to save it from such great destruction. We toured the fortress which dates back to Roman times but the visible part is more recent [17/18 century].
We visited a lovely church and a pub [ Yes!! ] on the way back to the bus. On the trip back we saw fields with warnings of land mines! They are left from the 1991 war and records were not kept of where they were placed;[ about 15% of the land is uncleared ]. That means that the farmers can only use those fields that have been cleared.
On our return to the ship we went to the lounge for our normal briefing of the next day's activities. To our surprise Marek was joined by the Captain and another officer, all in full uniform [ my thinking: this can't be a good sign! ]. Well it turns out that the strain of driving the ship on the single engine caused it to fail as well so we are down to no engine at all. We cannot leave Vukovar on schedule. Engineers are on rushing in from Spain tomorrow to assess the problem and we'll get another report at 6:15 tomorrow.
We all felt like we would rather be "stranded" in Budapest or Vienna but we will see how this goes.
Later in the evening Marek gave a marketing presentation on other Viking Cruises that can be enjoyed. Afterwards we gave him a jolly hard time on the challenges of his presentation, given the current circumstances.

Photos 25 Sep

Sunday, 26 September

Since we were not able to see the horse show in Hungary we were taken by bus to a Lippizaner stud farm in Dakovo, Croatia. The horses are really beautiful and on Sunday they do not go out of their boxes so we only saw them over the edges and through the bars of the stalls.
It was rainy and cool, but just as we boarded the bus to return to the ship, the sun came out. We got back to the ship and rain set in again.
After lunch we walked through the town.
Later we joined the rest of the Intrepids for drinks and speculation about whether and when we'd set sail from Vukovar.
At the daily briefing our hearts sank when champagne was passed around as we gathered. However, the news was good. The engineers had arrived and had succeeded in repairing one engine!! We would depart at 10pm and spend a whole day underway, attempting to make our way to Budapest.
After yet another tasty dinner, we were well entertained by a lively 6-piece local band playing traditional Croatian music on traditional instruments with lots of the unique short, sharp whistles and shouts of "HOPA,HOPA!"

Photos 26 Sep

Monday, September 27

Most today was devoted to getting us as far along the river as possible. We had to stop for a couple of hours at the Hungarian border for formalities, but couldn't leave the ship.
The program director, Marek, gave a morning talk about his home country, Slovakia - very interesting [ a small country, he said, but cute - and on most maps of Europe (he had found one where it was missing) ].
In mid-afternoon we stopped for a couple of hours at Kalocsa, were we could walk among the fields, stop at a small souvenir shop or have a few beers at a couple of local spots. Larry walked several kilometers [ 11 round-trip; Jan thought I would miss the 6pm departure ] into town.
At the daily briefing we learned that we will get a full day in Budapest tomorrow.
In the evening, Marek was busy once again relating the story of Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. Very funny. Sweet dreams!

Photos 27 Sep

Tuesday, September 28

Wonderful Budapest! Our tour left early ( we still have 24 hours to make up) and we were driven around both sides of the city divided by the river Danube. It is a wonderful, beautiful city. Highlights were pointed out.
Our first stop was Hero Square in the centre of the city. It is vast and impressive, with towering monuments depicting people or events of the past and surrounded by exquisitely decorated buildings.
We stopped at. the Citadel for panoramic views of the city, then on to Mathias Church with its gorgeous interior and more fantastic panoramic views from the terrace.
From there we made our way to a very old restaurant near the river for a delicious noon meal. On the way we passed a memorial consisting of many pairs of shoes, caste in metal, along the edge of the Danube. Towards the end of the Second World War many Jews were simply lined up here, shot and thrown into the water.
We then had free time so Larry, Lizzy, Mary Angelica and I walked to the great synagogue we had had pointed out on our drive around. MA had a look, then went back to look at the market. The rest of us took the tour inside and in the garden. Inside we were privileged to see the great gold doors opened, the screen removed and the Torahs revealed! What an amazing sight!
Walking through the arcade to the garden, we saw photos and memorial stones of many of those who died in the ghetto in WWII, and in the garden the silver tree with names inscribed on the leaves, and a lovely stained glass memorial.
We then had to hoof it back to the bus, to head back to the ship, which had gone on ahead to the next port ( to make up time ).
Carol wanted me to print the story of Princess Margaret into the Blog. So here's how I remember it: She was the daughter of King Steven and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Cici). In gratitude for something (coronation by the Pope? a victory over the Turks? conversion of the population? ) he promised that he would give his daughter to God. He built a convent/abbey/monastery on an island in the Danube where she became a Religious and spent the rest of her life dying at the age of 24 or 27 roughly. The island was named for her. (Carol - maybe you should Google it). [ Typing this up I did Google it, and here is the real story: "In the middle Ages it was called the Island of Rabbits and it functioned as royal hunting reserve. In the 13th century King Béla IV. founded a nunnery on the island after the Mongol Invasion. The king made a vow to sent her daughter, Princess Margaret to a Dominican nunnery if he could rebuild the country devastated by the Mongols.
The Mongols had to suddenly return to their homeland so King Béla had a chance to reorganise and rebuild the country. Faithful to his vow Béla sent the 11-year old Margaret to the convent. Since then the island has bore her name."

Photos 28 Sep

Wednesday, September 29

During the night we were awakened by thumps and bangs as we travelled through a lock. We woke up in time to watch the docking process in Bratislava.
At dockside we were met by our local guides and a little "choo-choo". It took us on a short tour so we could see the highlights, then we had a brief walking tour of the old city.
During the free time that followed, some people visited St. Martin's Church, where many coronations took place when Bratislava was Hungary's capital.
The rest of us wandered to the little market and did some shopping. Then aboard the buses to drive to Vienna (only an hour and a quarter).
On arrival in Vienna we went straight to a restaurant for what was the first disappointing meal of this trip. They were so understaffed that eventually Lizzie and Elsie started carrying dishes of food from the kitchen. The strudel was excellent though.
From the restaurant we left for a bus tour of Vienna, seeing the highlights
When we disembarked from the buses we were at Stephan Platz and immediately went into the church. It is magnificent!
From there, we had a walking tour and some free time. It was chilly, windy and damp but luckily we felt only a few drops of rain.
Wandering along the edge of the stables of the Spanish Riding School we were lucky enough to be able to glance into the courtyard and see the ring of stable and several Lipizzaner Stallions hanging out of their stalls. This was a better Lipizzaner visit than the farm in Croatia by far! Great surprise!
Eventually Larry and the two Johns, Mary and I made our way to an Australian pub near the Opera House for a drink. Back at St. Stephen's we went inside again and were lucky enough to hear a very good choir rehearsing.
Half a day seems very little for Vienna and it's really unfortunate that our engine troubles meant that both Bratislava and Vienna were short-changed. As of tomorrow though, we're back on schedule.

Lovely buffet dinner on-board tonight enabling those who opted for the Mozart Concert to get away.

Photos 29 Sep

Thursday, September 30

This morning we transited the Wachau Valley which is a particularly scenic and historic part of the Danube. Marek pointed out sites of particular interest, such as the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned.
Following that we had an entertaining session on Coffeehouse Culture and a demonstration of apple-strudel making. Looks pretty easy; maybe we should try it.
After lunch we walked through the town of Melk to the Benedictine Abby, shopping a bit along the way. We had visited the Abby in 2002, but much has been added since then, and the Church itself is still extremely impressive. [ Anne, we looked at the cherubs - were you in the organ loft, or one of the 6 or so niches up along each side?].
Once back on board, we started our celebration of Sally Joe's birthday with a round of 'Ladies' Dreams'  or what we used to call Harvey Wallbangers  in the bar.
Then, after our daily briefing, we continued it and our celebration of John and Sue's 38th anniversary with champaign, speeches, laughter, tears, stories and finally cake.
We had to dash to hear the last half of Marek's story of Mozart ( the true story ) and by then we were ready to witness the ship's entry into the next lock and go to bed.

Friday, October 01

It was another early start as we set out for Cesky Kumlow, Czech Republic at 8:30am by bus from our docking in Lintz, Austria.
The countryside was lovely and Marek entertained with jokes.
Cesky Kumlow is a fantastic place - kind of like an idealized medieval town. There is a castle and narrow cobbled streets, little shops, and a beautiful church, to say nothing of the stories of love, betrayal, ghosts and vampires.
After a very interesting walking tour John, Mary, Lizzie, Marie Angelica and I wandered around until we found a tiny restaurant where we had a great and inexpensive meal. We watched the creation of ham and cheese crepes right by our table (the only one in the place).
A brewery tour then followed, but it was a disappointment.
Back at the ship we had a champagne reception with the captain, and then the Captain's Farewell Dinner; it was really delicious.
Afterward we took the Intrepids group photo and retired to our cabins.

Photos 01 Oct

Saturday, October 02

In Passau, the end of the Danube cruise.
We had a luxurious later start this morning and a really interesting walking tour of the town. Since our tour guide has a PhD in Fine Arts, we got an authoritative story on the decoration of the many buildings we saw.
In the late morning we headed to the huge beautiful cathedral (another St. Steven's)for an organ concert. Since this is the largest church organ in the world, it was quite amazing! The 30 minute concert showed the full range of possibilities.
We wandered back to the ship for lunch, after which I left Larry aboard and walked back into Passau with Mary, Maria Angelica and Lizzie.
Now it's time to pack up and get ready for the next adventure. [ our pickup is at 7:30 for our transfer to Munich Airport where we will pick up our car. ]
The Captain's Farewell Dinner was lively and fun. We sung "Go Down In Peace" afterward, then went down to the lounge for a viewing of the official ship photo collection and the raffle draw. I'd had my eyes on an orange pashmira all week and couldn't believe it when I won it.

Sunday, October 03

Early up and off to Munich.
We said goodbye to the 14 who were off to Prague, and then at the airport to the Cartwrights who fly home today.
At the airport we picked up our car - a double upgrade to a VW Passat
. Wahoo! Built in GPS and everything else!
Once we figured out the navigation system, we got to our hotel with no problem. It's the lovely Meridian Hotel in the heart of Munich. A very comfortable room and convenient location.
It's the last day of Oktoberfest and a national holiday, the 20th anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
It is a beautiful sunny, warm day so the streets are packed with lederhosen and dirndl-locals and imports.
We walked to Oktoberfest for lunch and a stroll around the grounds. It was quite the carnival scene. Like a cross between the EX and Burlington's Ribfest on steroids with overcrowded beer halls everywhere. We couldn't get into any of the beer halls, so after picking up some souvenirs, we joined the throngs leaving the grounds and worked our way back to our hotel,
In the late afternoon we asked our concierge about alternatives and he suggested a large beer garden (seats 3000) about 15 minutes walk from the hotel. We had to walk through the main train station to get there - another interesting experience. It was mobbed, but there are many interesting shops and restaurants along one wall and the trains are opposite, right in the main part of the station. No dark stairways leading up and down to other levels and tracks like Union at home.

The beer garden was immense with a small hill in one corner with kids playground very active. We had no experience about how it worked and sat at an empty table hoping to be noticed. After some time, during which several servers had yelled at us in German, the family at the next table told us in very broken English that it was a serving table, so we moved to a larger round table next to them. That got some attention, and we had 3 of the largest mugs of beer I've seen plus pork schnitzel and chicken.
By the time we walked back, stopping at a bakery for pastries, the revelry of the sidewalk crowd was beginning to leave an unpleasant edge so we thought it was time to get off the street.

Photos 3 Oct

Monday, October 04

We had a rather poor excuse for breakfast at Le Meridian, where we stayed, but they gave us a late checkout, so it all evens out.
We caught the earliest bus tour of the oldest part of Munich, and saw lots while hearing some of its history.
We also discovered that Oktoberfest was still going on so there was lots of colour and activity on the streets. We ended our tour with a stroll around Marienplatz, and the market and then back to the hotel.
We plotted our next move over lunch in our room, and then headed out in the direction of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Once again we were very grateful for the built-in navigation system, which got us quickly to the south-bound autobahn.
The countryside is gorgeous - still very lush green on the fields, even though some trees are turning colour and dropping their leaves.
Very soon the landscape developed more contours and we could see mountains ahead.
We took a coffee break in Wolfrathausen, after a somewhat alarming trip through a rural road that seemed more like someone's driveway. When the navigation system told us to turn there, we overshot because we didn't think it looked like a public road!
Wolfrathausen is a picturesque little place and we strolled there for a while, seeing among other things a mural painting underway.
Then on to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. We drove through on the main road trying to spot "Zimmer-Frei" (rooms available), but kept missing the turnoffs when we did see them. Traffic was heavy, so when we finally got turned around to work our way back, we jumped at the chance to pull in to the Best Western. It's actually very much in the Bavarian Style and we're liking it.
It's also very convenient to town, so we walked into the main square and along the pedestrian mall, drank some beer and had a delicious dinner.
Then we wandered through a grocery store, just to see what the choices are. They seem very limited.
Back at the hotel we sat on our balcony for a while enjoying the mountain view and the sound of church bells.

Tuesday, October 05

A very nice breakfast, followed by the disappointing realization that the cloud cover was so low, there was no point in riding the gondola to the top of the nearby mountain. So on to Plan B, which took a while to put together - a trip to Neuschwanstein Castle.
So we tried to program the navigation system, now named "Helen" (as she sounds like Helen Miron) to go there. Try as we might we couldn't get her to recognize as a point of interest or anything else, so finally we got her to take us to the nearest town. From there we thought we could see the castle, but there were no signs pointing the way. However, by an absolute fluke we ran across the parking lot for it.
We bought tickets, found a washroom and started the trek to the castle. Signs warned us that if were late we would forfeit, others that it was a 40 minute climb at a hiker's pace or 45 if we were walking a dog. As we started we realized that our tour was starting in 42 minutes, so we started to hoof it! Couldn't sustain that uphill pace though, so moderated it a bit. Part way up it started to rain and we got quite wet [ though Larry said he was wetter from sweat than rain ].
Suddenly we were at the castle. It had taken 19 minutes so we had 23 minutes to hang around in the rain.
The castle is very different from any other we've toured. It's very Bavarian, with heavy beams, lots of wood carving, brightly painted details, and beautiful paintings on the walls representing Wagner's operas which he loved.
On the way back down the mountain we bought some deep fried cream cheese balls, covered in powdered sugar( when you're wearing black! ) I was well-dusted almost as soon as I started, but they were really good!
Back at the car we worked out a plan to get to Switzerland tomorrow. That brought us through the rain to Lindau, Germany, where we're in a hotel for the night. We're near the edge of the lake, so an interesting part of town.

Photos 5 Oct

Wednesday, October 06

Last night we walked to the harbour, which is very cute, and found an interesting, picturesque restaurant, where we had an excellent meal and a bit of conversation with our server. This part of Lindau is an island, attached by a couple of causeways to the mainland. It's on the north-east edge of the Bodensee (which we know as Lake Constance). We had a nice walk last night and again this morning, around the area.
After breakfast, we told Helen (ok, yes we have named the GPS - she sounds like Helen Miron) to navigate us toward Basel, Switzerland. Our maps had very unclear border markings and it turned out we had to cross a bit of Austria, so had to buy a permit.
We stopped only once in Switzerland, to look back across Lake Constance, then followed Helen's directions back into Germany and to Freiburg. We found parking & walked around the old city centre. We admired the mosaic sidewalks, people-watched from a café, wandered around the impressive and very old Munster Cathedral, then hit the road for Lahr, Germany.
It wasn't easy finding a place to stay, but we've ended up at a nice small hotel. Luckily, yesterday's rain has moved on and we had clear weather today. It was warm and bright. The autumn colours are really starting to show, but everywhere the farm fields are bright green & prosperous-looking. We think Swiss Air films its ads in Bavaria, because Switzerland looks more like Ontario.

Photos 6 Oct

Thursday, October 07

We had a late start this morning since we decided to take advantage of the excellent internet connection to check over Sunday's church service. A few hitches, but it got done.
Then a very nice breakfast at our hotel and on the road again. We asked "Helen" to find us the city centre in Heidelberg and she came back with a bunch of unintelligible options. Choosing one at random, we crossed our fingers and set out. It was a bit alarming to pass a few roads and arrows clearly pointing to Heidelberg, but we continued to follow her directions, traveling down ever-narrowing roads and up ever-steeper slopes until she announced that our destination was on the right. So our right was a cow pasture - hardly Heidelberg city centre! So we turned her off and backtracked to follow those clear signs.
Soon after entering the city we spotted Tourist Information - hooray! But where to park to get in there? We drove a bit further and spotted a big 'P', and better yet it was next to a public toilet, which I really, really needed. [bless McDonald's at home - they are really hard to find here!].
So we parked and looked for a machine to pay, but it became apparent that it was a permit holders lot. Next priority the toilet. Had to drop $.25 (Euros) into the slot to unlock it, then the door resisted closing, so I looked for a button to close it - chose the wrong one and the next thing I knew it was spraying, flushing and blowing hot air and Larry was outside forcing the door shut. I avoided any serious harm, did what I was there for and wondered if I was locked in. Would Larry have $.25 to release me if necessary. Larry says: "I was outside checking my change". However all was well.
Larry stayed with the car while I hiked the 3 or 4 blocks to Tourist Info and got the word on tours, then we set off to find real parking and the English language tour of the city and Heidelberg Castle.
We found both, along with 2 other couples who turned out to be from Michigan. We enjoyed their company during the tour and shared travel adventure yarns; we recommended Viking river tours.
The city is pretty and interesting with one of the oldest universities in the world.

The Castle ("Schloss")is a ruin but beautiful, huge and fascinating, and with a very interesting history.
We rode the funicular down from the schloss and walked through the old town to our car. We had missed lunch in the scramble to catch the tour, but decided to wait a bit for dinner. We told Helen [after we chastised her for the previous misadventure] to get us on the road to Rothenberg and figured we'd look for a place to stay along the way. After a piece down the autobahn, she announced that our selected route involved "traffic disruptions" but didn't suggest an alternative. Sure enough we got into backups, construction and so on, so I scanned the map and got us off the autobahn at Neckarsulm which looked promising. However we missed the turn to the hotel area and ended up in a small place called Bad Friedrickshall. Soon we spotted a sign for the Hotel Schloss Lehen and pulled in. So OMG! we're staying in a castle! We have a room that's bigger than some apartments I've lived in! Our bathroom is bigger than the room we had on the ship last week! It's really nice and the added bonus is a terrific dining room with great food. Definitely worth skipping lunch for!
There are still lovely dark red roses blooming in the garden and on every table in the restaurant. Wow!
Oh yes, and friendly, caring staff to take care of our every want.
We had a drink in the lounge before dinner and read a bit about the history of the place via wall and ceiling paintings. It dates to the 16th Century and is part of the Castle Road tour. Just terrific all around.

Friday, October 08

It was lovely to wake up in our enormous castle chamber, and hen have a nice breakfast in the dining room.
We asked at reception for a reservation in Bamberg, and she kindly made one for us, hopefully another castle.
Then we set Helen to take us to Rothenberg ob der Tauber, a town we've been told is a must-see.
The on-ramp to Helen's autobahn route, so we proceeded trying a U-turn to get on from the opposite direction - no luck, closed. So I had to go old-school, and try to figure out a route on the map to see if that would work. We succeeded but Helen kept yammering on about U-turns, etc, etc, trying for about the next 35 minutes to get us back to the blocked highway. {Larry: I know you can turn her off but we thought she would "get it" and reroute us]. Finally it occurred to us to instruct her to avoid motorways and she suddenly LOVED the route we were on. That is until we hit another road blocked as we approached Rothenberg. Once again, as we followed detour signs ( once we figured out how to recognize them in German) se kept wanting to go back. So finally, we turned her off.
Rothenberg was everything we'd heard it would be.
We parked well-outside the walls, and enjoyed strolling the ancient cobbled streets, sitting outside enjoying lunch and generally soaking up the atmosphere. It was a bright, warm sunny day, so even better to enjoy such a place.
By mid-afternoon it was time to head out to Bamberg. Once again we crossed our fingers and programmed Helen with the address of our hotel.
This time, she did an excellent job right to the last block. She even recovered well from a wrong turn.
The hotel is not a castle: sad!, but is in the Cloisters of a Carmelite convent. It has been renovated into ultra-modern, large suites. So again we're liking the space and luxury.
Arriving, though, it was hard to figure out: small entrance, locked with intercom. I buzzed, identified myself and was buzzed in - to a large, blank hallway. What now? There was an elevator, but it was closed and no buttons. Suddenly it opened. I got on. There was a button for reception. I rode up, got off into darkness! Groped my way along a long corridor towards a light and was rewarded with the reception desk, where I got a key to everything (front door, elevator, room and a tag to open the gate to the parking lot. [Larry: meanwhile through all this I am parked in front of the powered gate, hoping Jan would arrive with the "key" before the next resident with their car.] Some people who arrived later after dark without a reservation were unable to rouse reception. I hope they got a room.
Anyway we set out on foot to get a feel for the town and found a very popular restaurant where we had a good dinner.
Nice town and we plan to walk around a bit more in the morning.

Saturday, October 09

Well, it's the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend and we're missing all the Canadian stuff - picturing the lake outside Nels and Marilyn's cottage, with all the brilliant colours, and seeing everyone around the dinner table. But, on the other hand, we woke up in Bamberg! We could hear church bells from every direction as we had breakfast and set out to walk around the town.
First we visited the famous Bamberg Cathedral with the four spires, but we were not able to go very far into the church as a service was underway. We stood quietly and listened for a few minutes and we could see that it is huge and relatively unadorned. The music was lovely and the priest had a nice voice.
From there we walked down to the river and over it to the Saturday morning market - colourful and busy.
Then we stopped at another church, St. Stephan's, which was virtually empty. A lovely peaceful place, with lavish decorations (likely baroque, but I didn't really study them enough to know).
When we left Bamberg, we programmed Helen to take us to Dachau because we wanted to visit the concentration camp memorial. We tried to program the camp as our destination, but failed. So we pointed her to the town centre, expecting to see signs when close. But no, we got no hint! After driving up and down narrow, cobbled streets for a while, we decided we had to give up. Larry said, "maybe we'll run across it on the way out of town". And guess what? He spotted a sign .pointing the way! We'd seen signs reading "KZ" (plus a bunch of German) several times, but he spotted one with English underneath.
Anyway we got there and spent a couple of sad hours understanding what went on there 70 or so years ago. Although it was not an extermination camp, it was still a terrible place where thousands of people suffered and died and we were told that the camp was a model for the many camps where millions were killed.
Leaving Dachau, we tried to program the address of our hotel. The GPS (Helen) didn't recognize the address as given us on our voucher. Apparently there's no such town as "Munich Airport" which was give. So Larry tried "Airport Hotel" in the vicinity of Munich and got one - not ours. Decided to go to it and work from there. It was in a town called Donstadt, quite a distance from the airport. Riding around we saw nothing! Near giving up, Larry programmed "Marriott", "near here" and it turn out to be just around the next corner! So calling these airport hotels is at the very least an exaggeration! [Larry became a hero for the second time today]
Anyway, it's comfortable and has a nice bar and good food, so we're happy to relax here this evening and it'll be an easy 20 minute hop to the airport in the morning.
Today must have been something special, because we saw many, many trailers and RVs on the road, as well as a fair being set up in Bamberg Square. The stores in Dachau were all closed too.
Once again today I was impressed with the richness of the farmland we passed. It was rolling countryside and each town seemed to occupy the highest hill in the area.
We encountered one traffic tie-up because of an accident, but otherwise it was pretty smooth.
[Larry: At this stage I must comment on autobahn driving in Germany. Around Munich the first day it was pretty congested so pretty normal for a QEW fan. But out in the countryside the speed limits disappear; right there are non. Riding in the centre lane the survival speed is around 135-140km/hr. Regularly at 140 in the centre lane several cars (we called them Zoomers) would shoot past with their wind moving our car enough to notice - I give them at least 40-50 over the 140 we do. When you pass someone in the left of 3 you had better keep your eyes on the rear-view mirror as a small speck of a car the will be on your back bumper in seconds! Needless to say that accident we encounter was in the left lane with 3 or 4 cars mashed together. I can guess what happened. But the really scary thing is that after a week you get used to it. I'm going to have to revise my driving back in Ontario.
Bill Shaw is always amazed by the plethora of expressways in USA. He should see it here! They cross Germany like normal highways in Ontario.]

Photos 9 Oct

Sunday, October 10 - Final comments and reflection during the flight home.

It was indeed an easy hop to the airport, with very smooth car rental return. We were in plenty of time for our flight and were able to relax while we waited.  It seems to be a very full flight, but we have a nice pair of seats so hope for a comfortable trip.
    This has been a very good vacation. Trying to think of individual highlights is difficult.  Of course a very great aspect was spending two weeks with the Intrepids. Our trips are always well-planned and smoothly run. And it's a great bunch of folks to socialize with.
    Larry was a great chauffeur through Germany, and thanks to his "location charisma" we never were lost for very long, even when our GPS, Helen, let us down. I kept track of our progress on some very difficult maps, being very thankful that I wasn't solely responsible for navigation.

    So many of the places were beautiful that it's hard to pick out any one, but I particularly liked Bratislava, Slovakia and Schloss Heidelberg. Neuschwanstein Castle was crazy over-the-top opulent. Vienna was wonderful and Cesky krumlov, Czech Republic was amazing. Vukovar was sad - Even after 19 years it's still a place of pain as a result of the Balkan Wars.

    We ate some great food. I love schnitzel, and ate my fill of it. We enjoyed "apfelstrudel", and the most amazing hot chocolate. The "wet" muesli available everywhere at breakfast was really good and there was always nice, moist very dark rye bread. Talk about pigging out! Wow!
On board the Viking Primadonna we were so well-cared-for by all the staff. It was fun each night to see how Slavka arranged out sleep wear: even Larry's tea shirt can be made into a nice design.
Marek, the Cruise Director, kept the excursions and activities interesting and evening briefings for the following day were most helpful and entertaining as well.

    We all felt sorry for the Captain, crew and staff when first one, and then the other ship engine failed. They all worked very hard keeping us entertained and comfortable for the few days it took to bring in engineers and parts from Spain to do the necessary repairs. We understand that the Captain worried off about 10 pounds over the whole situation. The Viking planning staff at headquarters did a fine job of preplanning so the tour continued regardless and eventually the schedule was caught up.
Driving around Germany ( with our little loop into Austria and Switzerland ) in our super-comfortable VW Passat (+ Helen) was very interesting. There was everything from tiny cow-tracks to the super autobahns [Oh! the scary thrill of the speed-limitless autobahns], and from steep cobble village streets to wide-open countryside.

    It's clear that Germany is prospering these days and we did hear some grumbling about the EU and how much better-off Germany would be without it.
In Eastern Europe we heard a lot about the Ottoman Empire, and how long and hard they'd struggled to get out from under it. For now, they seem to be OK, but we've, of course, been concerned about the huge toxic spill in Hungary that is threatening that country and the Danube River too.
And now we're tired and happy to be going home where we'll see family and friends and won't have to struggle with the language. [ However most everywhere we went we could deal in English + a little sign language ]