Monthly Archives: September 2014

Budapest with Viking

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The Atla, docked on the Pest side of Budapest. The Chain Bridge is just forward of the ship.

Budapest is a big city. You know that immediately upon waking up in your Viking longboat. Viking docks right in the midst of the city, on the Pest side. Trams, buses and traffic surge along the busy street lining the Danube, alongside the Atla. Our stateroom, on the starboard side of the ship, gave us an early morning view of the city’s bustle (this is your warning to close your room’s drapes before you head to bed when docking in Budapest).

Breakfast was the final “regular” one of the cruise. Tomorrow’s would be similar food but the mood entirely different, with many passengers already off the ship and heading for the airport and crew members flitting up and down hallways carrying outbound luggage while other crew would be prepping the ship for the new passengers to arrive.

We enjoyed the breakfast (I asked for French toast, made with walnuts grilled into the crusty goodness–yummy!) and then headed back to our room to prepare for our last Viking tour. Mom and I had chosen to do one of the “Up Close” tours in Budapest. These feature more walking and typically use the city’s transportation to get around, not the usual Viking-provided buses. You don’t “see” as much of the city with an “Up Close” tour but you get the opportunity to experience more of it, I think. Since Mom and I would be staying a few extra days in Budapest, I thought it would be good to try some of the public transportation: we’d have plenty of time to travel outward later.

Mom is always one of the first to get where she’s supposed to be; I’m a bit of a latecomer. When I met up with the “Up Close” tour group standing on the edge of the Danube, just off the Atla’s entryway, though, I didn’t see Mom. Hmmmm….

Three Viking buses rumbled in rest nearby, passengers climbing up the steps to start the standard tour. I stepped up into the first one and eyed those sitting inside (isn’t it neat how in just two weeks’ time you’ve learned who these other 180+ passengers are?). I quickly scanned each seat to the back. Someone in front spoke up: “What do you need, Tonya?” “I’m looking for my mom,” I explained. “Maxine’s not here,” someone said. “Try the next bus.”

I did just that. This time many of the passengers laughed when I said I was looking for Mom. “She’s a hard one to pin down, your mum is,” someone said. Indeed; Mom had enjoyed the whole cruise and made friends with everyone quickly. Between her “Let’s do it!” attitude—and her enthusiasm for dancing nightly in the lounge—she was known by all the passengers it seemed.

I headed to the third bus. There she was, patting the empty seat beside her. “Come on, Honey,” she smiled. “You’re almost too late for the tour.” “But we’re not on this tour, Mom, we’re doing the walking tour.”

She laughed as she quickly headed down the aisle and outside. “Bye, everyone,” she called out. “We’ll see you later!”

If only I can have that enthusiasm when I’m Mom’s age!

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Walking across the Chain Bridge at the start of our “Up Close” tour of Budapest.

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Riding the funicular to the top of the hill. Much easier than hoofing it, but the lines are long later in the day to ride.

Our tour began with a walk across the Danube on the Chain Bridge, just beside where the Atla was docked. The bridge is busy, one of the few spanning the Danube carrying pedestrians and vehicles from the Pest to the Buda side and back. We ambled across it, listening to the guide as she shared tidbits of Hungarian history and culture. The bridge ends at the foot of the Buda side, with the castle towering above us. While it’s a bit of a vertical hike up to the top, we didn’t have to take it; instead we received tickets for the three-car funicular and rode to the top, watching the city spread out below us as the cables drew us upward.

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Sentries at the Presidential Palace. Just try to make them smile!

Up top we explored what’s known as the “Castle District.” We walked past the Buda Castle and government buildings (watch for the still-faced sentries at the Presidential Palace), museums, Fisherman’s Bastion with its conical towers, the St. Matthias Church and small shops. We also saw the Hilton, where we were booked for two nights on the Viking Budapest “extension” tour; it’s just beside the Fisherman’s Bastion and promised to have outstanding views.

An aside: When we booked this trip, we had no idea of the significance of our final days in Budapest. It turns out that Wednesday, Aug. 20 is considered one of Hungary’s most important patriotic holiday; it’s Constitution Day as well as Saint Stephen’s Day (commemorating the foundation of the Hungarian state as well as the country’s first Christian king, Saint Stephen). As a result, the city on both sides of the Danube was swamped with people celebrating the whole time we were in Budapest. A special mass at the cathedral, a 30-minute, choreographed fireworks show along the Danube, a folk craft festival and street fairs were common. As a result, our visit to Budapest may not be typical of others who don’t see the city during this holiday.

The celebrating—and plans for the next day’s fireworks show—meant that the bus schedule was quite different than what our tour guide anticipated. While she was accustomed to catching a certain bus from the Castle District down to Pest, it seemed that bus line was not runnning where she’dnnnn  planned, nor did it have a stop where we were standing. We stood in the clear sunshine, though, while she figured it out, and we watched the people around us. The Hungarian language doesn’t sound like any languages we’d heard so far—the closest is Slovakian. As people swirled around us, heading for their own celebrations, we were enveloped in unaccustomed combinations of vowels and consonants. It felt very “foreign” to me.

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Vaci utca: Pedestrian-only street with great architecture (and shopping!).

We boarded a bus finally and rode it down to Pest. Warning: Just climb on the bus, no one asks for your bus ticket. But as soon as you board, look for one of the validating machines located on posts inside the bus. Insert your paper ticket and do whatever it takes to “punch” your ticket (sometimes it’s a whack on the top, sometimes it involves spinning a dial). But do make sure your validate that ticket or else, if you’re stopped by someone asking for your ticket, you’ll be fined. Since none of us were too fluent in Hungarian, we definitely didn’t want that happening so there was a lot of concern to try to figure out the punching machines as the bus wended its way through the streets.

We got off in the midst of Pest and wandered the streets looking at the Royal Palace and castle buildings and hearing more history from our guide. Eventually we found ourselves on Vaci utca, well known as a pedestrian walkway with shops, cafes and restaurants. I spotted an ATM and, with a few other passengers as well as Lucia, our concierge, we stopped to slide our cards and extract Hungarian forints (abbreviated as “HUF” in price tags). Hungary doesn’t use euros; our guide said that, with the state of the Hungarian economy, people were afraid that converting to a euro-based system would cause a dramatic rise in prices, so they stuck with forints. Fine and well, but after getting accustomed to euros and not needing to “convert” prices after that adjustment, we were back to square one with a new monetary system. And there are so many forints to translate!

While we were there, one US dollar equaled about 244 HUF. That meant lots of zeroes and numbers in the “thousands” on price tags. Somehow it was just a bit intimidating to be considering purchasing something for almost 5,000 HUF, even though it was only a bit over $20. Hungary was the only country in which I carried my iPhone with the app, Currency (used “offline”), to help me convert prices. I think it was just the idea of those numbers being so high. FWIW, one passenger on our ship, later in the day, pulled out what he thought was about $100 USD worth of HUF but instead was ten times that (244,000!). Oops. He converted it back, paying $12 for the privilege.

IMG_1885Our goal for the morning’s walk was Budapest’s Great Market Hall, a huge, three-level building with a bit of everything for sale. Wild game, meat, pickles (and not just the cucumber kind) and fish are in the basement. The street level floor has produce, spices (don’t miss the paprika), candies and caviar. Up top are souvenirs and places to eat, including one selling the Hungarian deep-fried treat, langos. Our tour guide gave us more than an hour here on our own to wander, shop and take photos. Watch your wallet here: it can be really congested, especially at the stairways, and it’d be easy to be a theft victim and not even realize it. Also, try to time things so you don’t have to use the (paid, of course) restrooms inside: pretty dirty.

Passengers had the option of staying in this part of the city on their own or traveling back to the dockside with the tour guide via one of the public trams. We opted to head back and refresh ourselves a bit before heading out on our own that afternoon. On this itinerary, you have an entire day in Budapest (since the cruise ends the next morning and you’re already docked). Our “Up Close” tour gave us a great introduction to places we wanted to return to later.

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How much are the optional tours?

I’ve  been asked a few time about the cost of the optional tours on our Viking “Grand European Tour.”

I don’t have a scanner with me (surprised, aren’t you?), but I pulled out the sign up sheet for those optional tours and took a photo of both so you can see.

Look on the “Photos” page on this site for both tour sheets.

An alert about optional tours: Study the tour details ahead of time (on the Viking website is easiest) and decide early on if it’s a tour you’d like to take. Keep in mind not only the financial cost of the optional tour but also whether you’ll be “missing” anything else on that day if you take the optional tour.

Sign up as soon as you board or as soon as your cruise director passes out the info sheets about the optional tours. On our cruise, many of the tours filled up very quickly and Viking isn’t always able to make room for extra passengers.

Signing up is a contract though (as in, “this will be charged to your room whether you go or not”) so do make sure it’s what you want to do before signing your name to the excursion sheet.

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Packing evaluation—What worked? What didn’t? Part 2—Clothes and shoes

“Okay, but what did you really wear most of the time on this trip?”

That’s what several readers asked me—so I’ll help out here and continue my post-trip packing evaluation with an overview of the clothes I took as well as what was good, what wasn’t so good and what I would have changed.

No need to read further, though for my best suggestion to you: A week or so before you leave, look up the current weather in all the cities you’re going to be visiting on your itinerary. While you’re at it, look up the average historical temps for the time you’re going to be cruising. Got all that? Now, just take all that information as input, but definitely not gospel truth.

Because they were all wrong for our trip this summer.

Average temps in the cities we visited (including Amsterdam, Cologne, Passau, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest) were whole handfuls of degrees less than usual. As in, it was chilly!

I was prepared for hot weather (I’d read more than once that cruise passengers baked in the August temperatures and it wasn’t a very nice “season” to cruise Europe in) so I had far more sleeveless tops than I should have. I wore them, but always with a sweater over them. This was not a cruise to easily get a sunburn on because we were so covered up much of the time! I would definitely have switched out one of my two pairs of cropped pants for a pair of full-length pants I could have worn socks with. No, I promise, not socks with sandals; our concierge, Lucia, told me, “We all know Americans because they wear socks with sandals.” Hmmm…maybe that’s where the “ugly American” saying came from? [No, really I know that’s not it at all; I was making a joke but you can’t see that in text.]

Always on the lookout for scarves!

Always on the lookout for scarves!

I also was a bit surprised to see that other passengers seemed dressed up in *different* clothes every night for dinner (when we ate in The Restaurant, the sit-down dining room). How did they get all those clothes in their suitcases? While I was anticipating nice attire for dining I had no idea some women would wear a new outfit every evening. I had sharp-looking, ankle-length slacks as well as a black skirt and paired these variously with different tops (sparkly, plain, multi-colored), two lightweight cardigans (choose from black or beige) and different scarves to make combinations of outfits. But there’s no way someone wouldn’t have guessed that I was doing the mixy-matchy thing rather than the “Hey, here’s something completely different tonight” approach.

Oh well, I hope I didn’t visually bore anyone at our table any evening… Still, my advice to you is to be prepared for that. I don’t think it would have changed my actual packing, but I wouldn’t have been so astonished and left feeling a bit “plain” every evening when we entered the dining room.

So here goes….here’s what I took and how everything worked:

  • Two pairs of ankle-length, straight-leg pants. One in black. One in cigar brown. YES. I bought these at Macy’s (Style Co. line) and they were great: no wrinkles, washed well and had a nice smooth look.
  • Two pairs of cropped straight leg pants. One in black. One in cigar brown. YES/NO. Same Macy’s line as above. “Yes” because they were easy to wear and appropriate. “No” because I should have swapped out one pair for a pair of standard-length pants instead. In black. Of course.
  • Black, just-at-the-knees swirly skirt. YES. But don’t wear a swirly/gored skirt if you think you’ll be on a castle wall overlook that day. Wind catches skirts in an unexpected way. I do not resemble Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven-Year Itch” windy dress scene. Nor do I want to imitate that scene. And it’s really hard to take photos of the landscape below you while you’re holding down your skirt tucked between your knees.
  • Black, lightweight polyester-type cardigan. YES. Modern fit, gathers in back. Mom had the khaki and white versions of same sweater; we switched out over the evenings. It seems to be a standard item at Macy’s in the “Charter Club” design section and it’s available in many colors.
  • White dressy tank top for under sweater. NO. Only wore it once. Since it was chilly, I had short-sleeve tops that served the same purpose and kept me a little warmer.
  • Black/white-striped s/sleeve top. YES.
  • White sleeveless ruffled top. JURY’S OUT. This gave me some variety, but I think I should have taken a 3/4-length sleeve top instead.
  • Two multi-colored sleeveless tops. YES. But I could have gotten by with only one of these. Of course, my dinner attire would have been even more unchanging but….
  • Mountain Hardware Canyon s/sleeve shirt (light blue). YES. Mark bought this for me for camping but it arrived a few days before I left for this cruise and I thought it’d be a fun top to take with me. What I especially liked: It looked good with scarves, it was the only top with a “collar.” It washed easily and dried uber fast. The little zip pocket up by the chest was perfect for holding the room key card (otherwise I just, ahem, slipped it down my shirt, into the top of my bra; but don’t tell anyone…)screenshot_430
  • Three scarves. YES. I color-coordinated everything (black and cigar brown) so these scarves provided a pop of color to either contrast or match the separates. Note: Go online and check out different—but simple—ways to tie scarves ahead of time. I enjoyed demonstrating these (at their request) to a number of other women on the Atla.
  • One pashmina. YES. Used as a wrap over plain old white shirt at dinner. Doubled as a lightweight blanket on the longer plane flights.
  • Bathing suit (for”the baths” in Budapest). NO. Well, at least I was prepared for the possibility, but not only did we run out of time in Budapest, I just wasn’t sure if taking a dip then riding in a subway/bus back across the Danube to our hotel was what I really wanted to do…
  • Lightweight wind/rain jacket. YES.  This is a “self-stowing” jacket, meaning it folds up (easily) into it’s own 4×4 pocket. Mine is by GoLite and it’s not meant for heavy rain, just sprinkles. I wore it over my SCOTTeVEST jacket when it rained pretty heavily in Regensburg and I stayed dry. It also helped keep me warm when it was windy. It’s not really stylish, but it has a hood and, combining this with my jacket and Tilley hat, I was dry. The pocket has a little fabric tab on it so you can hook it to your belt, bag, whatever when it’s all stuffed inside.
  • Jammies. YES. If you’re one of those who prefer to slip under the duvet with nothing on at all, please do not leave your drapes open. Locks happen. So does docking in areas where early morning people like to run and walk their dogs. These people might have 20-20 vision. Even at a distance.
  • Three pairs of ExOfficio quick-dry undies. YES. Before the trip, I wondered if washing these would be a hassle. Nope. I love these for travel—they dried easily in under four hours.
  • Tilley LTM6 AirFlo hat. (I have the khaki/olive color; it’s deeper in tone than it looks on the website). YES. A Tilley hat, I’ve read, is the sign of the “older” North American tourist. Too bad it has a “boring” reputation because I really liked it for this trip. My Tilley stayed on my head on the breezy top deck (I like the chin strap that can be used or pushed up in the hat when not needed), kept sun out of my eyes while eating lunch on the AquaVit Terrace and was a rainhat in Regensburg. Versatile. Non-fussy. A straw sunhat might have been more chic, but my Tilley did the job.
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    Naturalizers

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    Cobb Hill “Paige”

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    Jambu “Blossom”

  • Three pairs of shoes, all black. All flats. ALL YES. I have “problem” feet (wide toe box, high instep, high arch, narrow heel) and I have a really tough time finding shoes that fit. Once I find them, I know that I shouldn’t wear them day-in, day-out without switching ’em out: my feet just like variety in order to feel their tippy-toe best. So, yes, I intentionally took three pairs of black flats. Pair one was a no-nonsense pair of Naturalizers (Mary Jane style); these were my comfy shoes to wear in flight because they had plenty of room to expand for flight foot fatness and I could wear wool socks with ’em on the flight, too (plus they came in wide and had great support for walking on cobblestones). Pair two was a cute black pair of Cobb Hill Paige Sandals; again, these came in multiple widths and were very comfortable. They looked “open” like sandals but provided plenty of coverage for no stubbed toes (which can easily happen on those cobblestones). Plus, I got a lot of “those are cute!” comments from other passengers who were in less “styled” footwear. Pair three was a pair of black (no kidding, huh?) Jambu Blossom flats; multiple widths, cute “flower” stitching design, lots of comfort and sole support. I loved having a choice of so many “styles” of shoes and even more I enjoyed knowing my feet were comfortable every day, despite how much walking we did. And all looked great with pants, crops and my skirt. Throughout the trip, I felt that my shoes were some of my best purchases. My feet were happy every day!
  • Teva Ventura sandals, black leather, flat. MAYBE. These were a last-minute stuff-in-the-suitcase item (I had lots of room left and was well under 30 pounds total so I said “sure” to having them accompany me to Europe). I’m glad I had them for afternoons on top of the ship, but they were a total splurge as far as space/weight/bulk.
  • ScottEVest Sterling Jacket, black. YES. Sleeves zip on and off–this doubled as my jacket for the trip. See my full post-trip review of this jacket here.

What I bought while traveling to add to my wardrobe:

Two scarves. One, bought in Miltenburg is an electric blue color, all puffy and shiny (thanks, Mom). The other (Regensburg) is a textured print rectangular print scarf with blacks, browns and bright blue accents.

I fell in love with the products made in a little Rothenburg shop, AnRa. Lovely clothes and accessories and all made right there in Rothenburg. Out came the credit card when I saw this great, drapey sweater with flowers. My version is in deep grey with tones of black—so it “went” with my trip wardrobe colors. But I really like wearing it back home, too!

Green satchel by ZWEI. I don’t really need another “bag” but the inexpensive bags by ZWEI seemed well-made and are really easy to carry. I found one in Bamberg that’s just perfect to tote my iPad and assorted paperwork to meetings back home (or up to the top deck of the Atla when I did my on-board writing). And it was a lovely sage green.. So I bought it!

So how much did it weigh?

Heading from home, my suitcase (a lightweight Tarmac bag by Eagle Creek) was 28 pounds. My Patagonia carry-on was a bit over eight pounds. Coming back from the cruise, the luggage weighed 6 pounds more (I bought the items listed above and some souvenirs for family members, including chocolates for Mark from almost every place we docked); same weight for the carryon. As far as myself? Fortunately, I only weighed one pound heavier than I had setting out (but only because we walked so much every day, I’m certain)!

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Packing evaluation—What worked? What didn’t? Part 1—Electronics, travel gear, comfort items

I’ve unpacked my suitcase and looked at every single item I packed (an aside: Isn’t it sad to unpack and realize vacation is over? Sigh…). In these two posts, you’ll get the benefit of my thoughts on what I actually used, what I didn’t and what I should have packed for my river cruise but hadn’t

Before I get to the list, understand that I value the concept of “packing light” for many reasons: economical (who wants to pay extra luggage fees?), easy (who wants to drag heavy ‘ole suitcases around cobblestone streets?) and safety (if you don’t bring it, you can’t cry about losing it).

But I also approached packing for this three-week itinerary with comfort in mind. Mom and I weren’t heading to the wilds of Borneo (are they really so wild anymore anyway?) and, if the river levels held steady, there’d be minimal packing/unpacking (two nights in an Amsterdam hotel, 14 nights on the Atla, 2 nights in a Budapest hotel).

In past trips in the US, I didn’t really stress about packing much—hubby always told me there’d certainly be a Walmart anywhere so we could always pick up any forgotten items. That’s wasn’t so true, though, on this trip. While we were certainly docked in cities which had stores, the stores nearest the boat weren’t necessarily the ones where you’d find what you’d forgotten (look for my post on apotheks and staying healthy) and, if you did, it might not be so very economical.

I’ll list the items I packed below along with the thumbs up—or thumbs down—and why.

Electronics:

  • iPad with two charging cables (sometimes a cable goes bad unexpectedly). YES. This was my “computer,” my text messaging machine (so much easier than texting on the phone) to stay in touch with Mark, my photo backup device and my reader. In a pinch, it was even a camera and video recorder.
  • iPhone. with one lightning charging cable. YES. But I didn’t carry it every day when we were off ship as I thought I would. In fact, I didn’t even use the maps apps that I’d preloaded on it—Viking provides a printed map of each town you dock at and I decided the risk of carrying (and possibly losing) the phone didn’t offset the convenience. Do turn off roaming as soon as you leave your home territory, though, and only use wifi.
  • Old iPod Touch (just for music on the plane). YES, with caveat. It’s stingy with power so didn’t “use” much on the long flights even though I was listening to music most of the time. If you don’t listen to much music, though, save the space and weight. Note: Lufthansa had in-seat USB charging, even in Economy Coach; check to see if your plane does. Be aware, though, that the charging oomph is low, only enough for iPhones and their ilk. iPads, which have a heavy hit on power, wouldn’t completely recharge in the air.
  • Trent Airbender bluetooth keyboard for my iPad and MicroUSB charging cable. YES. No question on it. Who likes to type on glass for lots of keyboarding? Without this, I’d never have been able to write those posts late at night while sitting up in bed!
  • Canon S110 camera. YES. Bring the charger and buy an extra battery; that way one is charging while you’re using the other one to take all those memorable images. Note: I brought two 16gb memory cards; I only needed one for my wealth of photos, but I always like to have a back up.
  • Earbuds for plane. YES. Two-prong adapter is needed if you want to listen to airline-provided audio/video in stereo.
  • Camera card connector for iPad. YES, no question. This transferred photos from our camera cards directly to the iPad, no wifi required) and it not only let us “see” our photos at day’s end but provided a backup of the photos. I never erased the camera card while traveling so I had photos in two locations if something had happened to the camera or iPad.
  • MonsterPlug four-plug “extension” powerstrip/cord. YES. This allowed us to use the adapter and then plug in four items. In our case, it always had a camera battery charger and the USB hub. Plus, it put the plugs in a more convenient location, especially in the hotel rooms (why do they hide those plugs below desks where you have to be a contortionist to plug anything in???).
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    My iPad with the bluetooth keyboard, charging via the USB hub. The camera charger is also plugged into the extension cord.

  • Targus Power Adapter. YES. A friend loaned this adapter (it is not a converter) to me; borrow or buy one, you will want it. While Viking provides some US-style outlets in the stateroom, they also have the European style outlets and having this means you can use more of the outlets, if needed. We used this in both hotels (although the Budapest Hilton said they’d loan guests one for a deposit if you needed it).
  • Anker 36W, 4-port USB hub. YES. Two of the ports are the “high” charging output for iPads. This was always plugged in our powerstrip.
  • Wristwatch. YES. Duh, I hadn’t put this on my original list but, since I always wear one, it was on my wrist when Ieft home. Yes, I know, you have a phone with the time on it, right? But you’ll need to know the time a lot (believe me, you will) and you may not always want to pull your precious cell phone of its hidey pocket to check the time. Clocks didn’t seem to be all that prevalent in view (if you don’t count those big ones, outdoors in the churches!) so you’ll want a wristwatch. A friend and his wife didn’t have a watch with them when we were at Budapest’s Great Market Hall so I loaned them mine for the morning (mom had hers on and I knew I’d be hanging around with her). Take one. Even a cheap one.

Comfort items on the plane (these were carry-on shoulder bag)

  • Patagonia Lightweight Travel Courier Shoulder Bag. YES. My carry-on did duty at ports, too. Folds up in a tiny pocket. Padded shoulder strap, a few little zip pockets. Really a nifty bag. Back home I’m finding lots of uses for this bag, too.
  • Zojirushi travel water bottle. YES. Simply thebest water bottle around. Sturdy, insulated, never ever leaks (unless you put carbonated liquid in it before flying. Oops…) The only place I used this was on the plane, though, coming and going. And be aware that European airports (at least Frankfurt, Budapest and Amsterdam) just don’t seem to have drinking fountains; they expect you to buy all your water. Sigh…I filled up my Zoji from the bathroom faucet at Budapest Airport (I know, you’re cringing, huh? But people were brushing their teeth with that water for goodness’ sake).
  • Travelrest inflatable pillow. Oh, YES. Looks weird, but worked great (if only I’d actually been able to sleep a lot, but it wasn’t my pillow’s fault). The whole thing rolls up tidily to a small size. This pillow kept me from flopping over forward while sleeping, or, worse, flopping sideways on to the college-aged seatmate to the right (who was elated to realize, at the end of our 10-hour-plus flight, that he’d watched all three Matrix movies in a single sitting. Imagine that! I, too was amazed).
  • Bucky 40 Winks mask. YES. I liked this one because it’s contoured—not just a flap of material pressing down on my eyeballs. It’s really pretty comfortable and does make it easier to doze. And no, they don’t pass them out free in Coach (but I guess you could ask). Don’t worry about people looking at you funny when you don this little beauty—when I lifted mine up to look around, I saw lots of others with ’em on, too. There’s acceptance in numbers, you know.
  • Trail mix, nuts. NO. Lufthansa fed on every single leg of our flights. An eggplant and cheese sandwich triangle, even, on the short Frankfurt-to-Amsterdam flight. I don’t really like eggplant, though, and it was less appealing to me at 15,000 feet… YES to breath mints, though. Especially if I had partaken of the eggplant sandwich.
  • Tylenol, Bonine, antihistamine, decongestant and lomotil. YES. But thankfully didn’t need anything but the Tylenol. No-Jet-Lag pills. No. They didn’t work for me coming back (I was still fighting weird sleep patterns six days after the westbound flight home). But heading to Amsterdam I felt fine, so maybe they do work–sometimes? Or perhaps it’s just because at the beginning of the trip I was so darn excited to do those tourist things that the jet-lag wasn’t evident? I dunno. At least they didn’t taste obnoxious.
  • Olba inhaler. YES. I’m in love with these things; one little sniff and I get a blast of wintery freshness that just cheers me up. Especially nice when flying and you wake with that icky feeling that your head has been bouncing around in a clothes dryer for hours. Also great if you do (sniff, sniff) get a bit of a cold while traveling.
  • Disposable wipes for seat trays, armrests, etc. Hand sanitizer. YES. Hey, during boarding I even saw one of those “richer” customers in Business Class using wipes to clean off their seat area. See, you can do it, too, and be smart, just like them.
  • Black Diamond Headlamp. YES. I always fly with one of these. I know, I know, if a plane were going down you probably would be no better off with a headlamp, but it makes me feel like I could find my way out of someplace more easily in the dark. But maybe that’s just me…
  • Stain stick. YES. ‘Had to use it. I hate spilling things, but I seem to do it. Especially mocha drinks…
  • Firm-sided glasses case. YES. While I dozed fitfully in my Coach seat, at least I knew I wouldn’t be squishing my glasses.

“Other” items for this 15-day river cruise, plus pre- and post-trip extensions:

  • ID and travel documents. YES. You’ve gotta have those; my advice is to take a backup as a PDF (or a photo) o your table/smart phone as well as a copy left at home. Also, I guess you’re supposed to carry your passport with you at all times. I liked keeping mine in the Atla’s room safe, though. Instead, make a color copy of the passport to carry “out” with you.
  • 1″ Titanium BaByliss Flat hair iron. YES, with caveat: Only if you have hair… This one did just fine with the 220 current you’ll find in Europe and was small and quick to heat. I also liked that it’s cheaper than my “regular” flat hair iron at home so if I accidentally blew it up on the weird European electricity (you never know!), I wouldn’t feel so bad—and I’d still be able to do my hair when I returned home. This is very important; upon returning from “three weeks in Europe,” one really needs to look her best so it doesn’t belie that such a sophisticated trip was wasted on a total goofball.
  • Makeup, lotions, favorite shampoo. YES. I loved the l’Occitane products Viking provides in your bathroom, though, but my favorite shampoo is just, well, my favorite.
  • Sunglasses. YES. Great for those afternoons up on the top deck spotting (still more) castles.
  • Small binoculars. NO. I had them but never used them. I did see a few folks who really liked castle-spotting with the binoculars. Maybe it’s just not something I like to do that way. I wouldn’t take them next time.
  • Laundry stuff. YES. I used all these items more than once. It included eight small wire clips for hanging items to dry on shower clothesline. Also, two old-fashioned wire hangers to use for damp clothes on the clothesline, if needed. The stateroom does have hangers in the closet (and you can ask for more, I found out), but the thin wire hangers multiplied our “hanging” space for damp stuff. Especially when it rained. I left my hangers in Budapest (not quite as poetic as leaving my heart in San Francisco, huh?).
    IMG_1469

    Our “laundry room” after a rainy day…

  • ZipLoc bags (3 gallon size, 4 quart size). NO, not in the quantity I took; only a few for the purposes I thought I’d use ’em for. I was told the large size could be used for washing clothes if the sinks were too small—but the sinks were just the right size for my small bits of laundry so I didn’t need them for that. I was also told to take the smaller bags to help spirit a few pastry/fruit/cheese treats back into the stateroom for between-meal munchies. Definitely not needed for that! Fresh fruit, cookies and biscuits were always available; frankly, we were so well fed by Viking that by Day 12, I was weary of even thinking about food. If you like ZipLoc bags, go ahead and pack a few, but you won’t need them to save yourself from hunger pangs. I promise.
  • Bonner’s liquid soap for laundry. NO. The Viking-provided l’Occitane shower gel and shampoo worked fine for laundry and rinsed out easily. Plus it smelled really good.
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    Zipper pulls “locked down” on PacSafe bag kept things secure.

    PacSafe Metro 100 Hip/Shoulder Bag. YES. I typically carried my daily cash in my PacSafe hip bag (I learned from Australians that you should never call these a fanny pack; but I’m too polite to explain why. Go ask a friend who happens to be from the land down under. You will blush.) I like this because it is “slash proof” and has multiple anti-theft features. I’ve used it for years when I want to be “hands’ free” yet carry important stuff safely. I just wish the strap could be made shorter (but, in reality, it makes me smile when I realize the strap is at the shortest point possible and it’s still a little big for my hips. Hee hee; I’m not as big around as I thought). Anyway, back to the bag: I alternated between wearing this bag and wearing my SCOTTeVEST jacket/vest setup. Both served the same purpose.
  • Eagle Creek Undercover Money Belt. MAYBE. While my passport and larger amounts of cash were usually stored in my room safe onboard the Atla, there were a few travel days that I needed to have all my high-risk stuff with me (passport, cash, extra ATM card). That’s when I wore this money belt. It was soft and I really didn’t remember that I even had it on most of the time. This model is better than the Lewis & Clark belt because the “extra” elastic on the waist is caught up nicely in this one, on the L&C belt the elastic just dangles unattractively. If I was a guy, though, I think the Eagle Creek Undercover Neck Wallet would be more accessible; it just wouldn’t have looked right with my build, I don’t think.
  • ZiCam Cold Remedy Rapid Melts. YES. I only brought a half-filled bottle of these and I wasn’t able to find any more anywhere in my travels on this itinerary. I did go to an apothek and showed them the bottle label, but they had nothing close; I ended up spending almost $30 for zinc capsules but they were definitely not the same. Thank goodness Mom had an unopened bottle in her toiletries; we stayed healthy after all, even with a nasty cold making its rounds among the passengers. ZiCam is my go-to when I feel a throat tickle or my nose suddenly tells me something bad seems to be happening. The secret of these, at least in our family’s experience, is to take them soon enough (right at the start of feeling a cold coming on) and taking them often enough (every couple of hours, really). It seems to help fight off a cold and lessen the severity.
  • Eagle Creek Bi-Fold Travel Wallet. YES. I carry this wallet every day because it’s thin and easy to manage. For this trip, it was even more ideal because the paper money section is tall enough to handle euros and it has a secure zipped area behind the bills; I used this area to store euros, for example, when we were in Hungary and our currency was forints. This way it didn’t get the two currencies mixed up. No, it’s not really pretty, but it works! Also is RFID.
  • Coin purse. YES. Just one of those little leather coin purses with the metal snap-type closure. You use a lot of coins in Europe (think of the toilets!) and you don’t want to have to access your entire wallet just to pull out 70 cents in euros. Of course, if you have a pocket, that can work, too. My pants didn’t have pockets…
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Bratislava: The capitol city you’ve probably never heard of

I always liked geography in school. I enjoyed memorizing rivers and capital cities and mountain ranges. I was even pretty good at it.

But when I read about our “Grand European Tour” river cruise, I have to admit I was baffled by one stop: Bratislava. As the capital city of Slovakia, I figured it was important, but I simply didn’t remember it from my student days. I finally figured out why: Slovakia, when I grew up, was Czechoslovakia, a blended country. The Slovakia we were going to visit was the result of the two countries splitting in a “velvet divorce” in 1993 after the break-up of many Soviet countries.

Well, gosh, no wonder I didn’t remember it 😉

But after our visit to this lovely city, I’ll never forget it. Bratislava is a delightful old city, without being preciously cute. You can still feel the years of Soviet influence, though. The infrastructure doesn’t seem overly modern and the town, while rigorously tidy, has a sense of working really hard to escape from a less-than-pleasant recent past. 

A bevy of buses met us at the dock where the Atla sat in the Danube, the water sparkling in the cool sunshine (it’s been unseasonably cold this summer in the regions we’ve visited; I really should have brought fewer sleeveless tops). The first part of our 1.5-hour tour was a bus tour, punctuated by a visit to the old castle/fort above the city (yes, another one of those; I really think Viking should call this itinerary “Old Buildings on Hills” rather than the “Grand European Tour”).

Eva was our tour guide. She wore her years easily, sporting a jaunty black hat and carrying the de rigeur tour sign “lollipop” with a smile. While she shared many of the “facts” about her country, the highlight of Eva’s tour was her personal insight and remembrances of living in Slovakia when it was effectively a Soviet satellite state. A student in the 60s, Eva shared with us that life was limiting in those years.

Atop the castle hill, she strongly encouraged us to climb a bit further to a favorite overlook of hers. From this vantage, she pointed out we could see three countries: Hungary, Austria and Slovakia. Quietly she gestured to a greenly-wooded area abutting the Danube River below us. That, she told us, used to be a “no man’s land” where those trying to escape Communist society and rule would venture to the river and try to swim across.

“It was sad,” she murmured. “The river can be dangerous. People died trying to leave.”

And so Bratislava and Eva gave me my first exposure to Eastern Europe.

Boarding the bus for the tour’s remainder, most of us were more sober than we had been earlier that morning. We swung by the Grassalkovich presidential palace (hardly any security, it seemed to me, in comparison with what I’ve seen in Washington, D.C.) as well as a hilltop enclave of the city’s newest rich (this is where many embassies are; I took a photo of the hillside home housing the US Embassy) and a monument to WWII war heroes. We were deposited near St. Michael’s Gate and from there walked into Old Town to explore more of Bratislava.

Walking toward Old Town, I looked around and I felt it; Bratislava just had a “different” sense to it than the previous “old” cities we’d been to on this itinerary. Bordering the oldest part of Bratislava were many grey, style-less, blockish buildings. It was obvious without asking: these were part of the Communist’s legacy to Bratislava. But the people of Bratislava continued to hurry past the buildings—whether oldly artistic or grey and serviceable—and into their days. I think that’s what struck me most about this city: it’s a town that seems determined to rise above, to grab onto a life far more colorful than its recent past —and to welcome us as visitors.

I tried to help out by spending more than my share of euros in Bratislava. While it had its allotted share of souvenir shops tucked around the old town plaza, there seemed to be a higher percentage of stores selling crafts, baked goods and art. I especially enjoyed a side street store (advertised as the “oldest” in town) that carried all locally-made items, from bottles of honey wine to intricately painted and etched eggs (choose from hen, duck and turkey sizes!). And all very affordable.

This place also sold my very favorite pastry (so far) on this trip: a palm-sized crescent of golden dough, baked with a filling of honey and chopped nuts. Oh—if they had these specialties within 20 miles of me back home, I’d certainly weigh more than I do—and I’m positive my doctor would be chasing after me with an anti-cholesterol prescription! I bought one. And then another…

Cafes encircled the plaza and the sun shone on the fountain. Bratislava felt intimate and safe yet excitingly different (maybe it’s the language—I couldn’t figure out how to even attempt pronouncing half of the letters in the combinations displayed in Slovakian). Buildings weren’t perfect, but still they stood, a testament to perseverance.

In short, I liked Bratislava. A lot. It’s plucky.

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Heading to Budapest on our itinerary? You won’t need the night-time Budapest boat ride…

Before heading from home to start our cruise, I’d scoured Google to create a “what to do” list of things in Budapest. After all, we were adding a two-night extension to our river cruise in Budapest and I was curious what the city offered (and, I learned, those in the know definitely pronounce it as ‘Budapesht’ so don’t say I didn’t warn you).

I looked at CruiseCritic, TripAdvisor, Rick Steves’ site, tourist websites and oodles of blogs. One activity that rose to the top in every list was “seeing the lights” along the Danube at night. Okay, duly noted and added to the list: I’d make sure we book an evening cruise along the banks of Budapest (there, did you say it with the “sh” sound???) while we were there. It didn’t seem too pricey (about $26). Not that we wouldn’t have already been traveling on a river for a while, but, still…everyone did say it was a “must do.” We’d do it.

But we didn’t need to.

That’s because the Atla entered Budapest at about 10 o’clock on our next to the last day of the cruise. That’s at night. At night, you know, when the lights are on.

And yes, “they” were all correct: this is a sight you don’t want to miss.

While Budapest has its share of grey, smoggy skies in daylight hours (or at least it did while we were there), its nights belong to golden lights and inky skies. While our tour guide told us the next day that the economy is pretty tough and unemployment is much higher than they’d like, you wouldn’t guess it from the light show this cosmopolitan puts on each and every night.

Buildings glow from thousands of globes placed below and shining up into the sky. The Parliament building (second in age only to the parliamentin London), the Fisherman’s Bastion, Chain Bridge, the castle and the cathedral all are luminscent in golden light. Birds dipped and circled in a spinning dance over many of the buildings, drawn to the bugs which had been attracted by the light.

Almost every passenger stood on the top deck as we glided into the city’s center. It was beautiful—and bittersweet, our last docking on this itinerary. But the lights dispelled any sense of sadness. How could you be sad when the world around you looked like a fairy tale and morning would bring another city to explore?

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