Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Cruise Part 5

The last day, we took an optional tour from Basel, Switzerland to the Alps. At Jungfraujoch, the top of the world at 11,333 feet, is a small village accessed by a tram system. The magnificent Alps rise above the village, which caters to tourists. We had a group dinner shared with 3 other tour buses full of guests, then spent a little bit of time finding souvenirs, including my t-shirt and some Swiss chocolate bars.

It is challenging to describe the majesty of the mountains rising above Jungfraujoch, covered in snow and almost menacing in appearance. It snowed the whole time we were there, but green grass and flowering trees covered the valley below the tram ride pathway. The snowline was quite distinct and really did look like a line drawn across the mountains. There were many chalets in the lower part of the valley, as well as what appeared to be full-time residents. Leaving the immediate area, we saw a beautiful sky-blue lake which is allegedly stocked well with fish.

On the way up to Jungfraujoch, we stopped at a woodcarving shop and saw a carver at work making a crèche. The prices for the finished figurines and collectibles was quite high, but still tourists were clamboring to get something to take home. They also had a display of cookoo clocks, but they too were highly priced to be considered by this tourist.

We returned to the ship, arriving at 7 pm, and then had to pack up to leave at 4:00 am. Yes, 4:00 am, but our suitcases had to be in the hallway by 3 am, so sleep wasn't on the agenda for the night. We took a flight from Basel to Amsterdam and arrived back in Los Angeles in the afternoon, then drove the 2-1/2 hours back to the desert.

It was a wonderful trip and I would gladly take another river cruise as it is so relaxing and well-paced for cruising, then stopping to visit the locale. Viking cruises did a great job of pampering us when we were on-board, and caring for us while we were out touristing, so I would consider them for my next cruise.

Cruise Part 2

In Germany, we toured small villages and castles that became a bit muddled in my memory as we went from one to another. One that stands out, however, is the huge castle on top of a mountain in Heidelburgh, where the famous university is located. It’s difficult to show in words how large the castles are, how thick the walls are, how many rooms there are. The castles are walled-in, with fortifications still evident against marauders who came to the villages to take possession of the land and the people. As we cruised down the river, we saw the ruins of many castles along the way. At least one of the castles has been modernized and become a hotel. Other castles are used as venues for weddings, and one is used by a society of people dedicated to keeping alive the medieval traditions. The group meets monthly in the castle and prepares meals in the kitchen area of the castle. There is no running water in the castles and the ovens use wood for fuel, but if you're into the Medieval times, it must be fascinating to participate in the events of the society.

There were many, many churches, too, each one large and imposing. It seems that the churches were protected from the warfare of the ages as most of them were still in good condition and continue to be used for worship services today, as we found as we entered our tour during services. The famous cathedral of Notre Dame is huge and beautifully maintained, and I felt awkward gawking my way through Sunday service. Interestingly enough, there is another Notre Dame cathedral, smaller than the one in Paris, but still impressive.It is difficult to believe that these magnificent buildings were erected by mere men: the vaulted ceilings raise hundreds of feet into the sky, with bell towers that still toll the times for worship to the surrounding villages.

Cruise Part 4

There was a special bit of the cruise for me alone. The head of the hotel on-board is a very nice, very outgoing person. He was in the lobby one morning, talking about his hotel being the best (the sleeping quarters of the ship is called the hotel). I told him it was good, but could be better, to which he gave a shocked look and asked why I said that. I told him that there was no chocolate on my pillow -- and the best hotels, the 5-star hotels, always put a chocolate on each guest's pillow. He laughed, asked me my room number, then wished me a happy day touring the venue.

Sure enough, that night there was a piece of chocolate on my pillow -- and every night thereafter. The next morning, he was standing at the gangplank as we departed for the day, holding a big basket of candy pieces. He gave me a wink and a big smile, and I thanked him nicely for his kindness.

Throughout the week, he kept finding me to ask how the cruise was going and how well I was enjoying my hotel accommodations. I always told him it was perfect -- especially the piece of chocolate on my pillow each evening. He laughed, winked, and went about his duty.

The last night aboard, everyone got a piece of chocolate on their pillow, and he gave me a quick wink as one of the guests mentioned it specifically. As I left the ship to return home, I gave him a small box of chocolates and a thank-you note for his kindness.

Cruise Part 3

The people are the best part of the cruise. The first night, we're all strangers, but by the end of the 10 days, we know each other well. Nadine and I sat at a table toward the back of the dining room and were joined by two women and then a couple. As we enjoyed introducing ourselves, we found out that we had an amazing amount of commonalities, and by the end of the cruise, felt more like friends than strangers who found themselves randomly seated together. Before we disembarked, we shared names, addresses, phone numbers and email contacts. We have already discussed an anniversary cruise in another couple of years.

But one cannot mention a cruise without raving about the food! The day began with an endless variety of breakfast options, including an omelet station that also made amazing eggs Benedict; a wide variety of fresh fruit; a never-ending selection of bread products; and every kind of beverage one could want for breakfast, including freshly-squeezed options. The lunch meals were a repeat of breakfast, with five different options every day, beginning with appetizers, then including the main dish, and followed by dessert. Ice cream was a favorite because it was delicious, both at lunch and at dinner.

Dinner was amazing, with a wide variety of appetizers, followed by a good assortment of main dishes, and then ended with desserts. Each dinner featured a variety of wines, as well as other drink options to meet anyone's taste. The food was so delicious and so varied that no one could complain. And, of course, it was served by a professional wait-staff anxious to make a good impression so s/he could earn extra tips.

After dinner, there was a lounge area with a bar that became the central gathering place for the party people. And boy, did they party. The entertainment was low-key, but my two favorite offerings included classical music night (an opera singer accompanied by a French horn and a pianist), and the "dance" night, when all the favorites from the 60s, 70s, and 80s were played by the pianist. The guests, divided into teams, had to first dance the appropriate dance to the music, then answer 2 questions about the time period/events. My team, the Spice Girls, came in second after tying for first in 2 elimination rounds. We were exhausted after that evening, but it was exhilarating.

There was a captain's dinner, the chef's dinner, and the farewell dinner, all of which were made more special by the little touches. The staff, from the captain to the food servers, were all so professional but friendly, and made the experience memorable.

Cruise Part I

It occurred to me as I was sitting on the sundeck of the Viking Vidar that it’s too bad all the passengers shared grey hair in common. This is an experience that younger people should enjoy as it’s the living history of another civilization that puts one’s own history into perspective. In America, we have 200 years of history; in Europe, there are literally thousands of years of history on display, including a series of castles that we either cruised by or stopped and toured. Walking where the footsteps of others had walked centuries before was at least thought-provoking.

The cruise began with a land tour, two days in Paris. The tour buses took us past the most prominent places, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the left bank of the river, and many, many more. It provided a quick snapshot of all the scenes people associate with Paris, but we did stop and tour Notre Dame. My reaction to the glass pyramid at the Louvre is ... why? It is so totally anachronistic and out of place that I now understand the reaction of the Parisians to this monstrosity.

As we toured this first day, we saw that there was a race/walk along the Seine. It is estimated that 30 thousand people participated – and I believe that number as we saw walls of people along the route as we toured the city. It was a “color” run/walk, so each kilometer was a different color of chalk that was thrown out onto the participants, who were covered in a rainbow of colors when they finished the event. In addition, there were bicycle riders, both adults and children, sharing the fun.

But what really stays in my memory is the dinner we had at a restaurant close to the hotel. The tables are arranged quite close to one another, so when we (Nadine and I) were shown our seats, it was as if we were sharing the table with another woman sitting right next to Nadine. The waiter brought her a cheese tray with wine, then some muscles with more wine, then bread and wine, then her dinner and wine, and, finally, her dessert. This was a woman of small stature, so I don’t know where she put all this food or why she isn’t the size of a small cruise ship herself!

I talk to anyone anywhere about anything, so I asked her if she was Parisian, to which she said yes. It turned out that she knew a little bit of English and Nadine remembered a little bit of French, so we “talked” about Paris a bit. It was interesting to find out about her life and to share a bit of ours.
This was the first, but certainly not the last time, of meeting people in places during the 10 days that served to show just how much we have in common, rather than how much we are different.