Monthly Archives: August 2014

A “review” on my SCOTTeVEST travel jacket

Note: I really appreciated my Sterling Jacket (by SCOTTeVEST) and, after I unpacked it this week from my suitcase, I popped a review over to the SCOTTeVEST folks to let them know. I thought I’d include it here, too, since I was asked about this jacket quite a few times while I was on the Atla. I received no compensation, no free jacket, no nothing to write this review. I wish I had…it was kinda pricey. But worth it for this trip certainly!

———–

I’ve always wanted a SCOTTeVEST product and a three-week river cruise through Europe this summer “justified” it. ‘So glad I bought the Sterling (I purchased several models initially to see which one would “fit” me and my needs the best).

For sizing info, I bought a medium and it fit just right, both “empty” and “stuffed.” Note: I am 138 pounds, 5-ft 7 inches; I’m not particularly top- or bottom-heavy. My arms are short, but everything I purchase with long sleeves tends to be too long; sleeves on this were not so long as to be unattractive or a deal-breaker. I also gained a few pounds while traveling, but that’s another story…thankfully, the Sterling Jacket still fit me with room to spare.

I wore the Sterling Jacket in temperatures from low 50s (with the sleeves) to upper 80s. While the vest by itself was a bit warm to wear in the higher temps, it wasn’t untenable. Note: I’m looking at buying one of the travel vests (lighter weight material, no sleeves) for future summer travel (except it’s pretty pricey to have a duplicated vest, but you never know!).

Sterling_3_weeks_EuropeOn this trip, I would have been lost without the versatility of the Sterling. Zipping on the sleeves kept me warm while spending hours outside on the boat’s top deck, even in the cool evenings (it’s been a chilly summer in Europe this year). Yet you can zip off the sleeves, add a colorful scarf under the vest’s collar and look great in warmer weather.

The Sterling was the only jacket I brought. I had many compliments on it and recommended it to other passengers as well.

I do wish the Sterling had a light hood zipped into the collar; this would have made the jacket a “perfect” in my book.

As far as storage, this jacket never looked bulky from the outside (the slimming seams make it look quite stylish). I never carried the water bottle in the pocket (it’s just too heavy to carry water around) but I did load it up with my iPhone, the listening audio device/earphone provided by the ship, my compact camera, my RFID wallet, my passport, a leather coin purse (I prefer that to having loose change in the “coin” part of the front pocket), aspirin, gum, city maps, hairbrush, lipstick, a pen, key cards and assorted paperwork. When we purchased some unexpected items while out shopping, I even stuffed them into the back pocket–I *hate* carrying things with my hands! It was no problem.scottevest.JPG

I would recommend SCOTTeVEST remove the little white loops in the collar area for “cable management”–or at least soften them up. The one on the right side *always* rubbed me on the neck (where you’re pretty tender) and I had a red, agitated patch there where this loop rubbed my skin. Eventually, I guess, my neck “toughened up,” but at first I kept thinking I’d been bitten by a bug at that point!

Others on our ship had wallets stolen (watch out for the subways in Vienna as well as in Budapest) but I felt secure with my “stuff” zipped safely away–yet it was all easily accessible by me (try saying that about a money belt!).

By the way, we had a great time at the Prater amusement park in Vienna so I can personally attest that the Sterling Jacket survives rough-and-tumble roller coasters in style and comfort. While I might have fretted a bit about losing my supper on the twists and turns, I didn’t worry about losing a thing zipped inside my Sterling Jacket!

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Yes, I’m back—but I’m not done!

Yep, I’m back in the US but won’t be home until later today. But I’m not done!

I have at least a dozen posts remaining which I’ve begun and will continue with to update the site in the next week or so.

These will include:

  • Bratislava
  • Two on Budapest
  • Onboard food
  • Dealing with money
  • Flights and airports in Europe
  • Wifi on the ship
  • Staying healthy and, what, really, is an apotek???”
  • An interview with a couple who combined “running” with a river cruise
  • A post-cruise evaluation of what worked and what didn’t work well on my packing list
  • An essay on whether river cruising is for you
  • Overview of cruising with Viking, including the best as well as where and how I think Viking can improve

And, once back at the office I will scan each of the Viking Daily newsletters for this itinerary and post them.

The chef gave me the menus for all the dinners so they, too, will be scanned and I’ll put them here.

Plus, I’ll finally have the capability at my computer to add in the multiple galleries I’ve put together of photos of the trip (don’t miss my sure to be popular exhibits: “Doorknobs I Have Loved” as well as “Food Treats Held Aloft with Old Buildings in the Background”).

I continue to get questions from other river cruise newbies and I’ll post those as well as my—and your—answers to them.

To stay updated, click on the “follow” button over to the right. Since I am returning home after more than three weeks, I have to tackle work this week, too (egads, just imagine my desk!!!) so I’ll be adding these posts in fits and starts.

I’ve enjoyed hearing from so many of you and sharing what it’s like to take a river cruise. For those just planning your trips, be assured you’re in for a memorable adventure.

I have more to share!

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Cafes in Europe—definitely not a Starbucks experience

Here’s the rule of thumb about cafes throughout the parts of Europe we explored: do not go to one unless you have time—and plenty of it—to enjoy the experience.

First you scout out a table. We like the ones not too near someone already smoking; but you need a lot of good luck not to have another patron sit next to you at an empty table and light up a cigarette. Smoking is very popular in these parts and relaxing with a coffee seems to be the best time to light up.

Once you’ve picked out your table, pull the little chairs together so you can talk to one another. Those chairs may not be that easy to pull together since most of these outdoor cafes are on cobblestone or brick surfaces. That also means it’s tough to settle into a chair then scootch it up closer to the table—just warning you! And don’t rock back in your chair in a cafe—most of the sitting, because it needs to accommodate weather outdoors, is done on either folding chairs, metal chairs or plastic chairs. It’s not a sign of less “style,” it’s just practical.

Now comes the first challenge: Figuring out what to order. It’s not really as easy as just saying, “A coffee, black, please.” If only…

Viking passed out a sheet, in fact, giving clues about ordering coffee at Vienna cafes. It’s that complicated. And the document only skimmed the surface of what to ask for.

Okay, as someone who isn’t a coffee devotee, it was pretty darn tough to puzzle out what I wanted. You see, back at home I’ve become accustomed to a mocha a couple of times a week (16-ounce, triple shot of espresso, steamed whole milk, one-third the cocoa and no thanks on the whipped cream). Every place I’ve ever visited makes a mocha. But, evidently, Vienna isn’t up on this bastardization of the coffee protocol. On the Atla, I could push a button and get a “moccacino” from one of the two coffee machines 24/7. It was like a mocha but with coffee instead of espresso; it certainly tasted just fine, though, in the morning when I’d grab a cup and head up to the top deck to greet the day.

But at cafes in Germany and Austria they just looked at me funny when I tried to order a mocha. I’d describe it even and just get shoulder shrugs and a quick suggestion for something entirely different (no, thank you, I don’t need rum in my coffee; at least not at this time). A serendipitous suggestion, though, in Passau (at the Oberhaus cafe view point), resulted in a delicious “iced chocolate.” It was the tastiest cold chocolate milk, a small scoop of vanilla ice cream dropped in the middle and a frothy cap of whipped cream. Yummy, indeed. But not a mocha.

Finally, on a free afternoon in Vienna, I got something close to a mocha—but not without enduring a smirk and outright laughter from two servers. Gary, Marla and I had enjoyed a Vienna adventure outing and decided to top it off with a visit to a real cafe. We chose the Sacher hotel, famous for the eponymous Sachertorte cake.

Side note: It was unexpectedly difficult to find a “real” Austrian cafe that afternoon. We’d visited the farmers’ market with the ship’s chef and had to walk clear back to the center of town to find an Austrian cafe. Evidently we were in the midst of all sorts of international neighborhoods and we found everything but Austrian cafes. We didn’t want Italian or Chinese or French or even English fish and chips—we had a hankering for Austrian (we were in Vienna, you know).

We found an outdoor table just being vacated (don’t ask how; it’s a bit embarrassing to admit we inadvertently cut a queue—which we really hadn’t seen] and perused the minimalist menu. No “mocha” here. I had one more try left in me so I queried the waiter: Could I order steamed milk and espresso with some hot chocolate added in?

The server was incredulous, repeating my request to me. I nodded. The waiter at another table laughed aloud. Really, was it that big of a deal? Starbucks does this all the time…

Our waiter puzzled it out. Finally he complied, but I had to agree to pay for both a hot chocolate and the steamed milk/espresso. Sure, why not? I probably won’t be back in Vienna for at least a week or two.

It arrived and was pretty tasty, but frankly, it didn’t come close to my favorite mochas on the Big Island of Hawaii made from Kona coffee. Hmmm…obviously there are better things to order in Vienna than a “mocha,” but I did it!

After ordering at a cafe you wait. You also wait before ordering, but we’re going to assume you’ve already gotten to this point. And then wait a bit more. Don’t try to catch the waiter’s eye, he has other tables he’s bringing coffees and treats to. And it’s not yours. Not yet.

But the wait is an easy one because the cafes typically are outside on the sidewalk and you can do some world-class people watching while waiting.

When the goodies finally arrive, sit back in that metal chair and take little sips. “Little” because you want to savor the experience and also because those coffees come in very little cups. They’re dear things and there’s a miniature spoon accompanying them. Periodically stir your drink with this small spoon to make a satisfying clink—and make you look like you know what you’re doing. This is not your basic, Denny’s Restaurant “unending” cup of brew so sip. Just sip.

Eventually you’re done though and you’ve discussed everything you can think of with your cafe partners. Or maybe it’s time for dinner, or bed or something else. But those waiters have not rushed you by trying to hustle you along with a check. Nope. They can’t be accused of that at all. You have to ask for the check in a European cafe and then you still will likely wait a bit longer to receive it.

But why hurry? You’re in a cafe and time is just a number on a clock.

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Getting along with others on the river (rafting and waving)

Didn’t Mom always tell you to play nicely? Of course she did—and of course she was right.

That’s how the riverboats do on these European river cruises, too. They share space, passengers are obligated to periodically wave and we all float up or down our respective rivers happily.

But space is at a premium at some docking areas and that means sharing space can affect us as passengers. “Rafting” is the term passengers use (I’m not sure what the crew calls it) when your ship is docked right alongside—and I mean, really, really close—another cruise ship. There are only so many docking areas and, with the increasing popularity of river cruising, sharing  is a necessity.

Before the trip, I’d been warned by experienced river cruisers that this happens. Some folks make the best of it (“Hi, where are you from? Where are you going?”). Others blushingly shared how they enthusiastically opened their windows in the early morning only to find themselves looking into another boat’s window; and the other boat’s passengers shockingly/laughingly/disgustedly (pick your adverb) looking into theirs.

Hmmm…our room was to be a Veranda A type of stateroom, on the third floor (starboard side). Part of the appeal of paying the extra money for that room was having a clear view of the river when sleeping and awaking. How many times would the Atla be rafted to another ship and disturb that view?

When we boarded the Atla at Amsterdam, it was rafted to one of those river cruise boats with the roses on them (you’ll see a lot of them on these rivers, but I don’t recall the line). Passengers going on board the rose ship had to walk through the Atla lobby, so I guess I’d say that the Atla had the “primary” dock space.

It didn’t really matter to me because a) it was on the port side (!) and, b) we were so busy exploring our new digs that it was more of a curiosity than an inconvenience. Quickly, however, the rose-logo ship left the dock and the Atla was alone at its docking space.

This occurrence was typical along the river, in my experience. The ship staying longer at a dock was always positioned in the primary space with the short-term visitor rafted to it. In 15 days on the rivers we cruised, I never saw three ships rafted together; ‘not saying it doesn’t happen but it didn’t happen to us.

We were never rafted in a secondary position but there were three additional docks where we rafted with another ship; only once were we beside a Viking ship. The few times we were rafted, it gave us the opportunity to look over the other ship with a critical eye and then rejoice that we were on the Viking Atla. Mom and a fellow passenger tried to walk through a rafted ship one afternoon from the Atla’s lobby but were rejected by that ship’s crew. She’s gutsy. And curious (frankly a lot of us were about that ship; it had a hot tub on the top deck and a sauna-looking thing down one level).

We definitely saw more rafting as we neared the end of our cruise and, in Budapest there were many Viking ships at one city sharing the limited dock space. For our sailing it was never the issue I’d imagined it might be. Your mileage may vary…

More frequently than rafting, though, was waking up in a lock. Either down at the bottom—rising or having fallen—or at the top, staring into an office of the lock officials. Consider yourself warned.

The Atla did much of its traveling at night while we slept. Since Mom and I opted to keep our drapes fully open all night long, I’d often awake to a halide dock lamp shining in, tinging our room in orange. Other nights the moon cascaded into the room, also reflected in the smooth wake splitting out sideways from the ship’s fore.

Our captain evidently is well-known for arriving at ports ahead of schedule—even with delays at locks. That meant we often docked in the very early morning hours. Mom or I would wake up well before our usual arriving time (which got later as the cruise continued; I’m thinking it’s because, as each day went by, we became more and more relaxed), check outside to see if we were “parked” anywhere that would provide a riverside walker/rider/worker a view that we didn’t want them to have, and then close the drapes if that was the case. It usually wasn’t.

Among us river cruisers, there seemed to be a real camaraderie, both towards others on the Atla (it quickly became “our” ship and we passengers were a loyal bunch) as well as towards others exploring the rivers this way. We’d wave happily when passing or being passed. We’d also wave to children, fishermen, bicyclists and others we saw on the shores and bridges. I know, it sounds silly, doesn’t it? Waving our arms in big wide arcs to total strangers, people we’d never see again and could, frankly, only see because they, too, were waving their arms.

But we did it. From Amsterdam to Budapest.

Passenger tip: Try to tone up those flappy upper arm muscles before your river cruise. Those tricep toners will definitely come in handy on your trip when those body parts become especially visible as you wave and wave.

 

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Vienna: Not quite what I expected

Perhaps I’ve watched “The Sound of Music” too many times. Yes, I know that was Salzburg, but, hey, it’s Austria and Vienna is pretty darn close (I looked at the map). So I expected some kind of magical city. One with music oozing up from its very subway staircases. A city with style, class and a clean kind of mountain clarity.

But that’s not what I found.

Vienna is a big city. Really big. It’s rich with bustling busy-ness, preciously-maintained old buildings, dancing horses who live downtown (does the horse manure go in the “green waste” trash bins outside their city-center stalls?) and people. Lots of people. Vienna reminded me of San Francisco. Without so many vagabonds and homeless.

Now I realize that I only received the very briefest introduction—just a sample taste—of this cosmopolitan city. We were there for just a full day (and boy, was it a full one—keep reading my post below on Prater to see how we tied the day up with a bow) and how could I get any true sense of Vienna from less than 20 hours? But I’m not totally sure I’d return.

We did the “Up Close” version of the day’s introductory city tour. On Viking, the “Up Close” tours involve using the locale’s public transportation system and more walking, usually at a bit faster pace. Under the tutelage of our tour guide, we learned to punch our subway tickets, read the subway maps and travel under the city to get where we wanted to go. And, in case you wondered, Mom does just fine on these more “involved” tours–she’s a savvy traveler who’s ridden subways around the world and she’s a strong walker and not a slow ambler.

We walked all around Vienna, returning to the ship’s dock just before lunch (the standard city tours used a bus). After lunch, I opted for the “extra shore excursion” (as in, no cost, but do sign up early because slots go fast) featuring a visit to Vienna’s Farmers’ Market with Chef Noel. Another subway ride for this one (Viking buys booklets of tickets and passes a ticket out to passengers on these tours at no cost). We taste-tested our way through antipasti, cheese and juices. I definitely didn’t need dinner tonight. Okay, well, I’ll just skip the appetizer, thanks…

A large percentage of the passengers chose the optional “Mozart and Strauss Concert” excursion. It’s advertised as, “Lose yourself to the timeless music of two musical masters, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Strauss.” Hmmm….sounds like a classy way to spend the evening. But probably not my style.

Instead, Gary, Marla and I pop on the subway after dinner and ride to the near stop for the Prater, a rollicking (especially on a Saturday night) amusement park in the midst of the city. Generations of Viennese have been thrilled, amazed, amused and entertained for years at Prater. We joined them.

Three roller coasters and one very large Ferris wheel later, we could say we knew why Prater is so popular: It’s not Disneyland.

Now, I really like Disneyland; I grew up seven miles from “the happiest place on earth” and for a few years my singular goal in life was to become one of the guides (plaid vest, blue skirt, leather cap, little riding whip thingie). I still smile when I think of entering the front gates by the Disneyland Railroad.

 

 

But Prater was definitely not a part of Walt’s imaginings. In fact, it is likely one of the reasons why Walt developed Dsineyland as he did; he would have simply stopped drawing Mickey Mouse if he thought his dream park would ever be compared to a Prater.

Prater is earthy. And raucous. And unpredictable. And garish. But we had a great time!

Dogs wander along beside their owners strolling through Prater’s thoroughfares. Ride operators don’t even glance up from their phones, texting unconcernedly as the Ferris wheel spins overhead. Beer and more potent liquids are the beverages of choice at Prater. Neon, loud music and swirling lights compete for your attention.

And the rides! There is no way some of these rides would ever be allowed in the United States. OSHA and insurance companies—and mothers—would squelch the highest swing ride, would pad the inside edges of the roller coaster (I think I’ll have bruises under my left arm at least until I return home) and would definitely add at least two additional forms of security strapping to the ride that throws its passengers upside down. You know they would.

We watched some of the rides (at this point in life, round-and-round action doesn’t really set well with my inner ear) and rode others. And we laughed until our stomachs hurt.

Returning to the ship after 11 pm (“back on board” was just after 12:30 am), we mingled a bit with the classy crowd who’d attended the Mozart/Strauss concert. Gee, they sure looked spiffy in their nice clothes and, to a passenger, they said the event had far exceeded their expectations.

We nodded. Of course they had enjoyed a great time. But we’d been to Prater!

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It’s Austrian night on the Atla!

Ummm…how do I share this? I’ll just say it directly: Tonight we got to know some of Atla’s employees a bit differently: As in, we saw their kneecaps.

Yep, really. And legs below those kneecaps, too. And, let me tell you, I saw a lot of ladies looking at those legs tonight!

You see, it was our “A Taste of Austria” dinner and many of the male Viking employees wore lederhosen, the official name for those nifty, traditional leather breeches with the suspenders. Zuzana, a server in The Restaurant, looked fetching in her pink and green dirndl.

It takes a certain amount of panache and confidence to wear leather shorts around people who’ve, until this point, only seen you in black dress slacks and a white shirt, tie and patterned grey vest. Kudos to those Viking men who pulled on those leather pants (how long does it take them to feel “soft,” I wonder? And, if you eat an extra wienerschnitzel or two, is there any “stretch” to those lederhosen? I have questions…)

But the evening was about far more than catching glimpses of hairy knees…there was food involved, too. On second thought, of course there was food, everything on the Atla eventually returns to the topic of food (and my waist is bearing the truth of that). Tonight’s dining was buffet style (and, yes, I did hear some grumbles from one couple who really detest buffets on holiday; they like to be served and spend a longer time enjoying the repast) and the buffet ranged from getting food in the Aquavit Terrace, to The Restaurant, the Lounge and even the kitchen.

 

That’s right, Chef Noel invited all passengers to visit the kitchen and fill their plates there as well as receive a short tour on the wonderful workings in such a small facility. I think the kitchen staff must be hired for small fronts and backs because they certainly couldn’t squeeze around the Atla’s stoves, sinks, prep areas if they had normal-sized tummies and behinds. I think we passengers proved that as we twisted our way around the ship’s kitchen.

The food was varied—I just wish the portions had been smaller (really, a dumpling the size of a tennis ball when you’ve never had one before?) so I could sample and not feel like uneaten food was going to waste (and, yes, I hear your laughter, I know it’s going to my waist, right?). We had weinerschnitzel, sauerkraut, fresh roasted pig (with head intact; “Look, he’s still smiling,” noted Andreas, the Atla’s hotel manager, as he pointed to what was left of the unfortunate porcine), Sacher torte, potatoes, and other things I can’t remember but for which I will be running miles back home to eliminate from my body’s memory.

But the best part? Those kneecaps!

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Two stops in a day: Melk and Krems (sounds like a dairy project, huh?)

For a few times on this trip we visit two ports in one day. This was one of those days and we got the chance to see and experience not one, but two, Austrian port cities.

The first was Melk. We’d arrived there early in the morning and I walked up on deck to experience some Danube sunshine (oh, so welcome) and peek around the end of the ship to spot the Melk Abbey up above the river. While it looked pretty close by, it was atop a hill (all the important things around here are hill fixtures—’makes sense, I guess, since that was the place of power where everything could be overseen) so we walked a bit down the dock and caught the tour bus up around the hill and to the abbey.

[Side note: I think every time we’ve docked on this trip, the Alta has been the last ship in the lineup of the boats. That means more walking to get there but, hey, let’s look at it as more time to experience a port city. And that’s all good…except when it’s raining.]

The Melk Abbey is a very distinctive building—painted an deep yellow and cream, it looks like nothing so much as a child’s drawing of a palace (if all they had was a yellow crayon). It’s symmetrical and straight up and down—in short, quite regular. It features lovely artwork—including a jeweled, hinged cross said to contain a sliver of wood from the real cross Christ was crucified on—ceiling frescoes and ornate details.

I didn’t really enjoy it.

I’ve discovered I enjoy most the attractions which are more “original” and a bit rough around the edges. The Melk Abbey is lovely. You’re guided through the rooms in the Imperial Wing with a proscribed tour featuring a “theme” and very professional museum effects (videos, music, lighting, rotating exhibits). I rather felt as if Disneyland had arrived at the Danube; it just felt a bit plastic and contrived. But I guess that’s just me because I spoke with others who really enjoyed the morning tour.

I got more fun from the walk back down the hill. It was a Catholic feast day so all the stores were closed except a few cafes and tourist-oriented shops. But the sun warmed our backs as we stepped sprightly (yes, really, that’s the word) down the stairs. White clouds decorated the blue sky like cotton puffs. We window shopped and then decided, with more than an hour left before we needed to walk back to the boat, to stop at one of those cafes.

It takes a while to truly enjoy an Austrian cafe (see my post about that specific topic), but it was worth it to sit and relax and watch the people saunter up (or down) the hilly street in front of us.

There are a lot of bicycle riders in these parts but not the “let’s hop on our bike for every trip around town” type as in Amsterdam. These riders are traversing the Danube River Bike Path and we saw them from Passau to Bratislava at least. Ttey have maps in between their handlebars and their gear loaded over the back wheel. I noted that their traveling attire is a bit different than ours—those padded shorts certainly help with hours on the bicycle seat but, frankly, they’re not that attractive as “let’s explore this little castle town” duds. But maybe my sensible black flats and travel vest look like odd accessories to them…

After walking back down to the Atla (passengers also had the option of taking the tour bus immediately after the Melk Abbey tour), we set sail (do you do that with no real “sails” or is just a phrase?) and enjoyed the afternoon hours cruising through the very lovely Wachau Valley area.

Castles (we are really getting blasé about those lately; passengers actually simply shrug when we see another of these atop a forested hill) and acres and acres—and then even more acres—of vineyards line this stretch of the Danube River. Viking River Cruises has a contract with a winery in this area to provide the wines for its ships. Looking at how much wine was poured, enjoyed and refilled (thanks, Zuzana!) every evening, I’d say that winery has a very lucrative proposition going for it. But the wine on board was always quite good!

Late in the afternoon we docked at the tiny town of Krems. Another quick bus ride into town. Another town with almost everything closed because it’s still that same holiday. That’s okay because Gary, Marla and I decided to wander around the town and see how high we could walk along the streets until we found something “interesting.” We meandered up from the center of town, always aiming higher up the hills. Our semi-goal was to get to one of the churches we’d seen from below.

We overshot our mark and had to head down to the church we were aiming for. We approached Piaristenkirche from above and entered it quietly. My goodness! After seeing huge cathedrals, this church was definitely a change. And a nice one. Much smaller in scale but very pleasing on the inside (not too much of that gold leafing to distract). I really liked the “feel” of this church and wish we’d had more time to spend just sitting and looking and praying. There’s been a church on the site since at least 1284; most of it was rebuilt, though, in the 1500s. It’s still a lot older than my church—and at 128 years, it’s the oldest in our community…

We stepped out of the church and discovered a covered walkway leading down to Krems’ Pfarrplatz and the nearby rathaus (city offices). A few steps away was another church: Pfarrkirche St. Veit, so we went inside it as well. Baroque with really colorful frescos. Hey, a few weeks ago I couldn’t have told you a thing about old church buildings and here I am, throwing out terms like “baroque” and “gothic” and actually knowing what they mean. It’s pretty nifty what travel can do for you, isn’t it?

We continued downward, back to the commercial street we’d walked about earlier (and found nothing open). And this time we spotted a small doorway that was open and we went inside. It was another church, this one in need of some major restoration.

Three churches in one quick afternoon–a triple-header! And each was just right. Marla and Gary agreed with me that, even though we’ve seen a lot of churches and cathedrals in the past 10 days, this trio was the most enjoyable to discover.

See what happens when you go out on a “wandering” walk?

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An organ concert and views from the top—that’s Passau!

Passau was one of those cities that, frankly, I’d never heard of before packing my bags for this cruise. I’m not saying that that is due to Passau not being quite a nice city—it’s more the fault of my (typical?) lack of detailed awareness of other countries than my own. But really, if someone from Germany were plopped down on the edge of Columbus, Ohio, I’m thinking they might be similarly city-challenged.

But I digress.

Passau is a nice little city and we spent a nice little morning and afternoon here. And we had a nice little time.

Our guide, a student in Passau (evidently 20% of the town are students at the local university) shared the town’s history (confluence of three notable rivers, great location for trade) as well as a more personal history (living through the exceedingly high floods of Passau in June 2013).

I’m pretty sure, after speaking with guides in cities from Amsterdam to Passau, that every community has some claim to fame; a little tender bit of knowledge that your guide tosses your way for you to gobble up so you will always remember at least that element of that city (or, I suppose, you could memory tag cities by the beer garden you enjoyed and the type of yeasty brew you had there, but there are so many of those, too, for most tourists…).

In Passau, I’ll remember the momentous floods, the organ concert in the city’s cathedral and the lovely view from the fortress overlooking the town.

Passau is still rebuilding from the floods. Our walking tour passed construction workers painting, plastering and bringing the lower part of the city (which is truly almost all of Passau) back into shape after the destruction of the flood. Our guide pointed out the highest river level from the flood as it is marked on a building near the river promenade. Yep, that was definitely a lot of water.

We tramped through the town’s very narrow streets (the narrowest of any I’ve seen in the past 10 days), eventually reaching the cathedral in the square at the top of the narrow peninsula which forms Passau (rivers on both sides of this city; I guess you’re not surprised that it gets flooded, are you?). His explanation of the difference between gothic, baroque and romanesque architecture will definitely stick with those of us who had him for a tour guide.

He bid us adieu at the cathedral and our program director, Caspar, spotted all of us Atla passengers (how could you miss us, really?) and gave each of us a ticket to the organ concert to be held in the cathedral at noon. Mom and I opted to head in to get our seats on a wooden pew right then, even though the concert was 35 minutes away.

Good move. The cathedral, though huge, filled up as the noon hour approached. We sat quietly, studying the gold accents, the paintings and (for me at least), the people who streamed in the tall doors to listen to the concert. It was a doozy, indeed. While the “set list” for the 30-minute concert didn’t seem terribly well-integrated, the variety of songs did demonstrate the monster organ’s capabilities. Tinkling bells, seemingly tumbling down to our pews from high up in heaven’s crystal air blended with bellowing, deep tones that I felt right through my Naturalizer shoes and into my toes.

I really enjoyed watching the faces of listeners. Many tucked their chins into their chests and appeared to doze, others looked upward, eyes fixed on the tall ceiling, seeing something I did not but which certainly looked as if it delighted them. I heard from others, later, that some thought the concert was twice as long as it “needed” to be, but that wasn’t my opinion. After days of absorbing ideas, facts and feelings about different cities, it was wonderful for me to just sit and open my ears to nothing involving words. The music left me relaxed as well as refreshed—and in awe that mere man can create such a sound and a way to deliver it throughout the entire sandstone cathedral.

After a lunch on the plaza, I popped into a bakery and bought a single serving of apple strudel. I posed Mom’s hands so I could take my now-requisite photo of an edible treat in front of an old European building. This treat was a disappointment; too much apple, not enough crust and seasoning. I’m not thinking I’ll return there to buy another 😉

Walking back to the Atla, we met up with two shipmates, Gary and Marla. They were headed up to the Oberhaus fortress which clambered up the hill above the river into a mass of stone towers and walls. We joined them, climbing into the local bus that offers one-way or round-trip rides up the steep hill (1,70 euro each way). We figured we’d walk back down; I needed to do something to work off that apple strudel.

The view from the top—and the treats at the cafe perched alongside the old stone buildings—was lovely. The Bavarian town unfolded below us, punctuated on all sides by a dark green carpet of trees and bisected by the mighty Danube.

 

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What high water levels look like from the top deck…

A river cruise is different from an ocean cruise. Sure, the boats are different, passengers’ expectations are different and the crusing part of the experience is different.

But what’s really different is that river cruising puts the passenger, the crew and the ship company at the mercy of the water levels. It’s not that way in the Pacific Ocean…

No matter what river, or set of rivers, you’re cruising on, you’ve gotta have just the right amount of water. Too little and there’s not enough depth for the ship to clearly navigate the channel. Too much and the ship floats so high that it may not be able to get under some of those low bridges spanning the river.

This summer I think the rivers we’re exploring have gone both ways—pretty darn low in mid- and late June and so much water in July that ships were occasionally unable to pass under those extra-low bridges.

Here on the Viking Atla, docked this evening at Krems, the Danube is flowing quickly due to a higher than normal water level.  There’s been rain all around Germany and Austria and that rain eventually finds its way into the same rivers that we are traveling on, giving us a boost in speed (since we’re currently heading down river) but also making some of those bridges on a close collision course with the top of our ship.

Our boat’s top deck was off limits for four days due to the high water levels: the deck chairs, awnings and all non-essential items were cleverly designed to drop down to deck level to allow for more clearance. Even the wheelhouse (or is it a “bridge”?) is on hydraulics so it can be recessed right down flat with the deck. We’d been told that, when a bridge is so low, the captain can sit in this lowered space (which has an opening in the roof) and stay in place until the span is just over him, hunker down and then pop his head back up like a jack-in-the-box.

It sounds funny, doesn’t it? We were walking down to Passau from an overlook today and saw a captain from another ship line do exactly that as they passed under a bridge leading to the city. It looked quite odd from above: Now you see the captain, now you don’t, now you do!

Tonight I had my own experience with a low bridge and high river water. I was seated on the top deck, in front of the wheelhouse, happily typing away on a post for this site. Well, really I was typing quite quickly because I hoped the speed of my fingers would generate some body heat: it was chilly up there. The day was fading in a grey sky of heavy clouds and I kept typing, figuring I’d catch a bite of dinner later.

I hadn’t looked up at the river for several minutes so when a crew member approached me from behind I was a bit startled. “We are going under a very low bridge up ahead,” he told me in heavily-accented English.”The captain says you can stay here but please not to stand up.”

I looked around. I was the only passenger remaining on the deck. I looked back at the wheelhouse. It was dropped entirely down into its safe pocket. I looked ahead as we gained steadily on a lock with an overhanging bridge.

The crew member smiled. “It is okay. Captain says you can stay. You will be okay. Don’t stand up.”

He’d already told me one more time than I needed. I was not going to stand up. In fact, I eyed the chairs around me and made sure I slouched down lower than the chair backs.

The captain walked forward of me (evidently someone else was doing the steering at this point). He looked ahead, behind and to both sides. The dark span was almost upon us. He ducked down, squatting below chair level. I slouched a little further (I truly believe now that it is possible for a human to collapse upon herself, shortening her spine by at least four inches temporarily; I know this because I’ve done it now).

We skimmed under the first horizontal beam with seriously just a few inches to spare over the chair backs. The captain lifted up briefly to eye the back of the ship moving forward.

The second span approached and this time he reached up to touch the metal beam overhead as he squatted on the deck. I just sat very still and breathed out the remaining air in my lungs; every little bit of collapsing helps, I think, don’t you?

We scootched under that bridge. Barely.

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Raining in Regensburg

We’ve had excellent weather so far on this cruise—sunshine yet cool enough temperatures to not be uncomfortable while touring in all the cities we’ve sampled along “our” rivers.

I guess it’s only the odds working out that would have us in a bit of rain. And it happened today, in Regensburg on the banks of the Danube. First, let me tell you that where I come from (rural Northern California, in the Sierra Nevada foothills/mountains) we simply don’t see raindrops between May and October. Oh, we may have some lightning storms (and those electrical spikes to the ground certainly start their share of wildfires), but we don’t have rain. It’s just not happening.

It was certainly happening, though, when we woke up this morning. The drops dimpled the river’s surface and wetted the balcony outside our room. It tapered off a bit while we cruised the Danube after breakfast (gee, have I mentioned lately how great the food is?) but by the time we reached Regensburg it was a steady drizzle once again.

Of course Viking is prepared for this: Two large containers each holding dozens of beyond-full-size red umbrellas (yes, of course they’re emblazoned with the Viking logo; passengers out on city tours become ruby-colored walking advertisements for the cruise line) sit by the ramp leading down to the dock. Grab one and you’re ready to brave the elements.

PACKING TIP: Egads, I promise, I did check the weather frequently in the various dock cities before leaving, but I had no idea it would be this chilly in the middle of August, for goodness’ sake. I brought two pairs of ankle-length pants and two of crop pants. I wish I would have switched out one of those for full-length pants: what I wouldn’t have given for warm, dry ankles on our rainy Regensburg day…

My ScotteVest Sterling jacket has been a real treat to wear for the past few weeks. When I bought it, I thought it might work for me for this trip—as well as future adventures—but I didn’t realize how easy it would make our daily tours off the ship. I just stick in my “must have” personal items (wallet, coin purse, hairbrush, camera, lipstick) and then add in my room key card as well as the cards from Viking for port location, tour group and boarding pass. But I’m not done yet: I add in the day’s city map (pick one up at the reception desk when you’re ready to head out), my iPhone (I don’t always take it, though) and, when the tour’s done, one pocket gets stuffed with the QuietVox speaker unit we use for touring. It all fits and I still have room for extra stuff I pick up along the way.

I’d planned on using the jacket mainly in its vest configuration—and that’s what I did in Amsterdam and the earlier city ports. It’s been a bit chilly lately, though, and I’ve really appreciated the extra warmth achieved by zipping on those sleeves. When I became warm this afternoon, I zipped off the sleeves and stuffed them (as well as just-purchased deodorant–egads, 10 euros??–and two postcards) in the back pockets of the jacket. I had nothing to carry with my hands–yahoo! I even ran back to the room this evening to get the sleeves from the drawer so I could be more comfy up on the top deck after the sun went down. Versatile, useful and cute. I like this jacket! My idea for improvement would be to add a zipped in hood in the neck for days when the extra warmth/protection would be useful…

…And one of those days would certainly have been Regensburg. Did I mention that it rained?

The dreary, wet day didn’t dampen the ebullient spirits of our guide for the day, though. Katerina kept us engaged with interesting information and a true passion for her city. She walked us through the streets of Regensburg and we learned of the community’s earliest days (gee, those Romans conquered everything everwhere didn’t they?) right up through current time. Our group was an “extended” tour (that means it didn’t cost any extra but did include 30 minutes additional) with the extra time devoted to information and locations relating to the Jewish presence in Regensburg.

By tour’s end the rain had slackened enough that we wandered into several little shops (I really like listening to cuckoo clocks!) and then stopped in at the old sausage shop at the base of the Stone Bridge to order a few bratwurst for our late lunch. The picnic table bench was a little damp but the sausages were hot and the view of the Danube memorable (but we liked the flavor of the bratwurst in Nuremburg a bit better; if you can only try bratwurst at one place, make it Nuremburg, not Ragansburg.)

 

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