Well, it finally arrived. We had booked this trip over 2 years ago, and kept thinking about how far away it was, when suddenly, it was here. We made our lists, checked them twice, repeated I don’t know how many times, and headed to the airport. To save time and money we opted for the shuttle service to take us to the airport and back. Uh oh…bad vibes. The driver wasn’t familiar with the vouchers we had purchased from AAA, so valuable time was wasted as he tried to figure it all out. Finally, someone in dispatch said it was good. Oh joy…on our way….with several stops along the way. We got to the airport, checked in, and headed to our gate. Since the plane hadn’t arrived yet, we waited (not so patiently) for our boarding. Finally it arrived, disgorged all the people arriving, cleaned up, and we were boarded. Once on board I got the chance to check out the aircraft. It was an Airbus A-330-300, 2 class (business and economy) and they had JUST added Economy plus…a bit more leg room, a bit more seat pitch. It was almost a cattle flight, in that most of the seats were occupied. It became the longest flight in history!! The seats do not go back far enough, there isn’t enough leg room, and no matter how you configure yourself, there is no way to become comfortable. One “good” thing that occurred, we arrived in Zurich 1 hour earlier than scheduled. We headed out for our connecting flight, waited for it to start the boarding process, and mayhem ensued! Everyone felt that they just HAD to be the first….on the bus, on the stairs, in the aisle, in their seat. Yet, for a much smaller aircraft (max 90) it was considerable more comfortable. It was a 4 engine jet, similar to the BAC series, and you almost got the feeling, as it raced down the runway, it was going,” I think I can, I think I can…” then leaping into the air. After a short 90 minute flight we arrived in Prague where we were met by our Viking host, led to our waiting limo, and “whisked” to our hotel, the Prague Old Town Marriott. This is a wonderful hotel, right on the edge of Old Town and New Town, with a Metro stop and several tram stops within a block. Our room overlooked a small courtyard, so it was nice and quiet. We had made reservations for our restaurant prior to leaving the states, so I gathered our maps, our reservations, and headed out. Having no idea of how long it would take, and it being “rush hour” I allowed for a bit longer. We got off at the correct tram stop, found our way along the street, finally arriving at the restaurant 45 minutes early. We went in, and I apologized for being so early….not a problem, our table was waiting for us. Talk about great food! We had pig’s knuckle, roast duck, and the required beer to wash it down with. There was so much food, we absolutely could not finish it all! We tried, believe me! We left very happy campers, and headed to the tram stop to return to our hotel. When we arrived, the first order of the day was to crash, since we had a tour scheduled for in the morning. We got up, had a very nice breakfast (included) and met our tour guide, an athletic Czech who had 2 speeds…fast, and faster. Everything was, “it’s just a short distance from your hotel”. Well, we walked from our hotel, zig-zaging our way through Old Town, across the Charles Bridge, where we met up with our motor coach. We motored up the hill to the castle, and started walking again, then down the castle steps to our waiting bus. We arrived back at our hotel around 1:30, again beat, cold, and still had another tour scheduled for that evening. We took a nap, then headed out for our second tour. What a difference!! Niki, our tour guide, was a young (early 30’s) Finn who had married his Czech girlfriend. As luck would have it, the other couples failed to show, so we had a private trip with him, doing several pubs with various Czech foods (beer snacks) as well as various types of beers. It included all trams and Metros, so by the time it was over, we had gone several places, using all the various modes of transportation, getting completely filled with the great food (and beer!) Niki made absolutely sure we were comfortable heading out on the metro back to our hotel, and we parted. We got back around 11:30, so lights out for the next day. Friday was our shopping day, and boy did Barb find things to buy! We were able to find Faith & Tim some great things, and Barb got her garnet necklace she wanted. That evening, we headed out for another foray to find a restaurant. I had the hotel book us reservations, and we headed out on the trams again, this time going in the opposite direction to the end of the line. We backtracked 1/2 block to the restaurant, they were delighted to see us, and again we had a delicious meal. This time I had the roast duck, and Barb had a beef and vegetable gravy dish that was, in her words, to die for. Again, served with the beer. We both felt that the prices we paid were well under what we could have spent, and the food and ambiance was just great. Saturday morning we got up to take the motor coach to Nuremberg where we were to meet our ship, the Viking Longboat HLIN (pronounced lean). We arrive after an uneventful 4 hour ride (the “highlight” being a rest stop on the autobahn with a … [wait for it] McDonald’s!!)We were hoping to get in some sightseeing, but the last shuttle bus stopped at 4:30, it was now 5:00, and we still had to get settled in.
Saturday morning came in at a glorious 40 degrees or so, cloudy, grey, and damp. We piled onto the buses and headed to see the sights around the city, ending up at the Christmas Market. Although they are nice, in the case of the Danube cities, they are a bit of a letdown. The markets are smallish, and a lot is of the same items. Yes, made in Germany, but mostly mass produced. Ah…but the gluwein!!!!! Each city has a Christmas Market gluwein and mug. You purchase the wine, and it’s served in a mug with the name of the city, the year, with a deposit of roughly 2 Euros…to be returned with the return of the mug. (We have a collection of 12 mugs.) After returning to the ship we set sail through the Main-Danube Canal, a series of locks that raise the ship from (roughly) sea level to over 1500 feet, and back down to join the Danube. As was stated, after the first lock or two, its no longer ‘WOW’ but, “Oh, another one”. We arrived in Regensburg, Germany the next morning, tied up, and took our walking tour of the city, then were cut loose to explore on our own. Again, Christmas Market time, more gluwein, more shopping, then back to the ship for dinner and sailing. We left early evening and sailed through the night, with our next stop in Passau, Germany. This city is at the confluence of 3 rivers, and flooding is a major problem. The last “big” flood was in 1580’s, yet the flood of 2013 was only a few inches lower. Awesome! More gluwein, more shopping, on to Vienna, Austria. From here we sailed during the day to see the castles (and ruins) and it’s really an awesome sight Castles…..the original toll booth! Vienna is really a pretty city, with enough culture to satisfy everyone. We didn’t opt for the optional excursion to go to a concert, but everyone who went raved about it. Here I was able to take a tour into the city with the Chef and visit the Fresh Market. Stall after stall of fresh fish, meats, vegetables, as well as candy, small eateries, and myriads of items I can’t even imagine what their use is. I purchased some dried fruit called physalis, which is a yellow fruit roughly the size of a grape, when eaten fresh it has a slightly sweet/tart flavor, and a texture similar to a grainy apple. When dried, it looks like a large golden raisin, has the texture of a fig, and has 4 distinct flavors, sour, sweet, bitter, and earthy, in that order, and very quickly. It was here I was able to purchase my Chef’s Knife, a beautiful well balanced piece of work that should last me for the rest of my life. We spent the night here, then in the morning set sail for our final stop, Budapest, Hungary. This is a beautiful city, with the most striking piece of architectural wonder, the Parliament Building, especially when illuminated at night. Our biggest “problem” with the cruise was the weather (or lack thereof). It was cold, grey, and damp. The sun only came out once, and that was in Budapest, and only for a few hours. Saturday, when we left, it was raining. Now the fun began! We were scheduled to depart the ship at 6:30a.m. for a 9:00 flight. We arrived at the airport, there was a Viking rep there to assist us, and we checked in and started our wait for the flight. We had an opportunity to pick up a few more items at the duty free shops, then it was time to get on board.
Aircraft in Europe are smaller than what we are used to here stateside. Our plane from Budapest to Dusseldorf only carried 60+ passengers, and their rules about carry on are totally different as well. Carry on there, means, you take it to the plane, they put it on a baggage cart, put it in the belly, then unload the belly, put it back on the cart, THEN allow passengers to disembark. As a result, our connection time of 45 minutes was seriously compromised, and we had less than 30 minutes to get from a non-controlled (local) area to a secure (international) area. Oh joy! Well, we made it, but not without some frantic moments! Because of serious headwinds, we arrived in Newark, N.J. about 45 minutes late. Although I’ve heard some people like going through Newark, for us is was a real pain. Passport control was overly crowded (3 agents open for U.S. Citizens, 6 agents open for visitors), and both lines snaking around, and around, and around, and around, and…yeah, you get the idea. After clearing there, we had to go back through the TSA position to get to our flight to Florida. Again, TSA is a real pain-in-the-ass! Priority position was the only one we were allowed into (the others were at a standstill…only 3 positions open) to service the entire air wing. What should have taken 30 minutes (at most) took well over 1 hour.
The cities. Prague was wonderful! We had the chance to really see the area, and it was by no means complete. To really see the city you would need at least a week! The one thing I got was the “feel” of the city. Pictures are fine, but to get the feel, one needs to look past the fancy monuments, gorgeous statues and buildings, and pay attention to the ebb and flow of the area. The food and the beer are excellent, and you can easily make friends at one of the pubs.Nuremberg, Germany has history galore, some good, some not good. They have embraced the fact Germany failed to see Hitler for what he was, and have taken steps to get across the message. Uncomfortable? Sometimes, but absolutely necessary. Very sobering. Regensburg, Germany. Here’s a nice Medieval Town that has embraced the past eras, where workmanship and pride of achievement is paramount. Lots to see and do. Passau, Germany. The confluence of 3 major rivers, it’s subject to flooding. Right on the river, it’s easily accessible from the ship to town, and the action. Plenty of shops, including Simon’s, the origin of the gingerbread. Only sold during Advent, with the original recipe (3 ingredients…flour, honey, spices). It’s biggest draw is it’s chocolates. Vienna, Austria. Although right on the river, you need to take the Metro to reach the best areas. Here you can find a mix of modern and Gothic, tastefully existing together. Mozart is found on virtually every block, either named in some building, pictured as the name of the store, or as candy treats (that are excellent, by the way!) Budapest, Hungary. Right on the river, it’s easily accessible from the ship. Buda is on one side of the river, Pest is on the other. The Parliament Building is absolutely stunning, both during the day, and especially in the evening, when it’s all lit up. The entire city is beautiful, and well worth an additional visit just to see it all.
So, let’s recap. The river cruise is different than an ocean cruise. Some of the biggest differences are the size of the rooms, the size of the ships, the “lack” of fancy entertainment venues, just to name a few. Our room, a mid priced “French Balcony” was listed at 135 square feet. (Carnival, for comparison, is 185 square feet) Passenger capacity on the river boat is near 180 passengers, vs. over 2000 for most ocean ships. Because of the lower number, it’s possible to really get to meet the entire crew, and even visit the various areas. Entertainment is either brought onboard (local talent, from Opera/musical groups) to folk dancers, to food prep specialties, or optional excursions to similar venues in town. The biggest “problem” in my own view is the cost and agonizing pain of flying over the ocean. The airlines have taken the attitude that it’s much more valuable they carry 10 – 20 more passengers than to have some semblance of comfort. The seats are crammed in and have virtually no ability to recline to anything resembling comfort. Upgrading to “Premium Economy” is one option, but can be costly. Still, it’s a valuable option. Business Class, or even First Class, is out of reach of most people. We would love to do this type of cruise again, on a different river, different time of year, but because of the cost of flights, and the lack of comfort, not in the foreseeable future.