Monday, July 29, 2019

Europe and yet another “Grand Tour;” traversing Europe’s heartland!

Over the years, Margo and I have ventured overseas on one kind of trip or another and looking back through the posts to this blog, there has been more than one occasion where we have declared the adventure to be a Grand Tour! This time around, that’s exactly what the tour company called it and whereas in the past we have written about our journeys in Europe as involving cars and trains, well, this time it was all about boats. River Cruise vessels of the Viking line were our primary mode of transportation and the timing was such that we were able to catch up with friends, colleagues and business acquaintances at both ends of the trip.

We are always talking about the need to live adventurous lives and this theme has surfaced in a number of posts of late. Truth of the matter is that the need to add a little adventure into our daily routines is very important as our lives these days are driven by the need to come up with fresh content. Our list of clients has grown and unfortunately, each of them needs unique story lines from us. Fancy that; you think the one story a month would suffice. Apparently, not – but not to take anything away from the challenge of supporting clients, it’s also provides us with a lot of fun and we are frequently rewarded with a kind word here and there. But adventurous lives call for adventures and 2019 has proved to be the year of adventures for Margo and me and no, we haven’t been enjoying a year of living dangerously and we are far from pursuing risky business, but the miles have begun to take a toll on us both. We are now officially dieting!

Our grand tour started in Amsterdam and just a canal or two’s distance from the Rhine River. One of the most noticeable benefits from being in Europe is that you can step out of your hotel room late at night and still find good restaurants serving dinner. On arrival we had had to rush as we were catching up with friends of friends who did a great job entertaining us and showing us a side of Amsterdam that was new for us and no, there we no lights involved. Just small lots, by the river, where Amsterdam’s apartment dwellers could retire to on a weekend and tend to their gardens! The simple dwellings erected on these lots were very basic and, in some ways, completely off the grid. And yet, they represented a true escape from city living and as such, in their own way, were a source of relaxation for those lucky enough to have scored a plot. 

We had made the decision to arrive in Amsterdam a full two days before our Viking River Cruise vessel was scheduled to pull onto the Rhine River. As seasoned travelers, we always consider it prudent to arrive a little ahead of schedule in case there were difficulties arising “en-route!” Turned out, it all went smoothly but only up to a point. On arrival in Amsterdam, passage through immigration was a nightmare and for whatever reason, it took us more than an hour to pass through the gates, but the relief was only temporary as Amsterdam baggage handling was experiencing difficulties such that it took almost another hour before our bags arrived. To think, we had been travelling for less than twenty four hours and already, we were exhausted. Then again, we were in Europe and we could eat at pretty much any time of night so it wasn’t all bad.

In the lead up to this trip, we had spent time driving around the western states of the U.S. as we had made commitments to participate in a number of IT industry events. We had elected to take advantage of our company command center, as this particular RV when all the slideouts were extended, provided us with 400+ square feet. Luxury, indeed! Now, fast forward to our lovely Viking River Cruise vessel – the good ship Gefjon, named after the Norse Goddess of the Plow, which Viking continues to refer to as a Longship - gave us all of 135 square feet. And this was an upgraded room with a French Balcony. Fortunately the layout was such that I could continue to work and each afternoon, hunched over the keyboard of my laptop I continued to provide unique story lines to my clients.

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Our departure from Amsterdam was just a few minutes shy of midnight and with everyone having retired for the night, I pretty much had the upper decks of the Gefjon to myself. Sailing out into the Rhine Canal on our way to join the Rhine River and standing, as I was, on the unlit sun deck taking in the sights as we slowly pushed our way upstream, proved to be challenging. It was cold with a light rain that gave the shadows an ominous feel about them – as if at any moment our longship was about to hit an unsighted obstruction. Amsterdam is rather rigid after a fashion, with plenty of rules that need to be obeyed, but standing on the sun deck at night on an inky waterway there was no escaping the somberness of the occasion. Being of sound mind and having seen enough, I retired for the night!

This was the third time that we had travelled to Europe in 2019. Only a short time ago we were in Scotland and a matter of just a few weeks before that, in Munich. For a family firmly committed to avoid overseas trips at all costs, we were faring pretty poorly this year. On the other hand? Adventures we have had, without a doubt, and at this point it is worth pointing out that with the business model we have developed, we have to pass on our thanks to all those at HPE that we work with as well as to our clients. Without these vendors, none of this would be possible! Now, having thanked my sponsors the reality is that even as these trips to Europe have had their upsides, it is never far from our minds that with each morning, there is work to be done. As we moved slowly out of Amsterdam, we were still able to publish our July issue of the digital publication, NonStop Insider where Margo continues as the Managing Editor.

We like to call these excursions abroad BizCations, and the phrase isn’t without merit. According to recent business travel publications, you may already be familiar with the StayCations and DayCations and BizCations simply represent an opportunity to explore new places even as business pursuits continue. They represent a welcome brake to the normal nine-to-five, working week routines (does anyone still do that in these days of the “gig society”?) and Margo and I have readily adapted to this new travel trend. We passed through a lot of locks  particularly as we made our way between the Main River and the Danube – a couple of which towered 80+ feet above us – and it reminded me that oftentimes, to get to where we next want to be, we need a bit of a boost to make sure it happens. We work, we play, we travel and on occasion, we simply just sit still. And on this adventure we did it all!

Having left the locks on the Main- Danube canal, it was the cities on the Danube we were most looking forward to as our previous attempt to sail down the Danube left us tied to the dock in Vienna, neither able to go forward or backwards with the Spring runoff rising all boats. However, before leaving the canal, we just had to visit the township of Nuremberg as it has historical significance. I had eaten Nuremberg sausages many times so it was a good opportunity not only to hear more about the town but to try Nuremberg’s favorite meal – sausage and sauerkraut, with a beer. With the old town of Nuremberg dating back to the Middle Ages and with clever fortification (it was never conquered), a lot of post war effort went into returning the city to its former glory and today, it is a must-visit place. And for the history buffs, yes this was where the post-war trials were held and where the former leadership was held accountable for the atrocities they instigated and oversaw. 

However, it was the opportunity to enjoy a side trip to Salzburg that really sealed the deal for us when it came to sailing with Viking River Cruises. Even as it required a two hour bus trip, who would want to miss out on visiting the city that provided the backdrop to the musical, Sound of Music. Our walking tour took us to many of the places, fountains and gardens featured in the musical even as we were able to walk by several hotels that could be good places to stay if the opportunity ever presented itself for us to enjoy an extended stopover in Salzburg. I know that there are family members who would have liked to have joined us for lunch as we dined in the world’s oldest restaurant dating all the way back to the ninth century but more impressive still? We were entertained by Salzburg soloists performing live all the songs from the Sound of Music.

One disappointment, perhaps? There wasn’t enough time to climb up to the fortress and walk its battlements. This was something I did back in 1983 and the views were spectacular. Oh well, next time. On the other hand this trip was planned in order for us to take a look at a small portion of Germany’s famous Romantic Road that starts in Füssen and ends in Würzburg – not a long drive by any stretch of the imagination for us living in the western states of the U.S., but one that takes you on a trip through history and for us, the road to Salzburg included many miles of this most famous road. What do you reckon? When it comes to choice of vehicle it will either be a new BMW i8 Roadster delivered in Munich (of course) or a wonderful white 1971 Mercedes Benz 450SL with burgundy interior. It will be a hard decision to make so stay tuned! Whatever path we go down, the Romantic Road is one bucket list item we would like to check off at some point before they take our drivers licenses from us.

Viking River Cruises gave us two full days to enjoy the sights of Vienna and we took full advantage of this opportunity. There is a back story here as the first river cruise we ever did was with Peter Deilmann Cruises on their sole river cruiser, the MV Mozart. Unfortunately, our booking was early April and that year, the snow continued to fall even as we set sail from Passau. We managed to get to Vienna whereupon we were advised that the river had risen to heights that prevented the MV Mozart from going forwards or backwards so, would we mind spending a week in Vienna? And oh yes, we will bring the music to you each night! Hard to resist, I know, but we had been looking to travel the full length of the Danube all the way to the Black Sea, but not to be.

Imagine then our surprise to read only a short time ago the Crystal River Cruises launched their river itineraries featuring a completely revitalized MV Mozart having acquired it from a now defunct Peter Deilmann Cruises. What was unique about this vessel is that it was built as a double wide river cruiser and that is why it could only sail on the Danube which features doublewide locks. However, don’t plan on booking any river cruises on the MV Mozart in 2020 as it is being rotated out of the fleer as Crystal add four new singlewide river cruisers to replace it. This is why we just have to tip our hats to the AMA river cruise line having just introduced their own doublewide river cruiser – the AMAMagna. We tied up alongside it and made our way through it to the dock and Viking shouldn’t have done that; in RV-parlance it was like walking from a modest Tiffin RV to a luxury Prevost RV!   

Vienna and then Budapest that followed were once again, absolutely wonderful places to visit. As the centers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire they had much in common at some point, a competitive thread emerging in the process. You build a palace and yes we will build one too! But for us, it was the Demel coffee house in Vienna that remains the highlight even as in Budapest, it was the citadel atop Buda. When it comes to Demel, don’t sit outside on the sidewalk (a recent addition), but rather enter the shop and find the passageway that leads back to a handful of tables all fronting the kitchen where chocolate delights are being created and yes, strudel, too, naturally enough. You may have to wait for the table but watching the craftsmen work their magic over rich cups of Vienna coffee (with whipped cream) and a Vanilla slice is heavenly. Not to mention, a great substitute for lunch!

We last visited Budapest in April, 2003, and a lot has changed and yet, looking up at Buda from the Danube, you could easily imagine it as it was in the nineteenth century. The skyline remains mostly unchanged with a new hotel springing up here and there. While not in the photo, the Four Seasons is the place to stay and if you have as yet not made plans to visit Budapest it would be our recommendation. It is situated across the river in Pest and remains one of the grand hotels of the region. In Budapest, the BizCation kicked in once again and yes, there is nothing better to do when stepping off a boat than to spend time with the locals and business acquaintances of ours just happened to have time available to show us around. The view from the citadel was magnificent! There is much more we could talk about but in reality, I will leave further coverage to other posts. Suffice to say, in closing, at this time of the year emulating our cruise is problematic. 

Leaving Vienna for Budapest we were advised that we were the last vessel to pass through the shallows of the upper Danube – requiring at least 290 cm of water under the vessel, we made it through with just 292 cm and yes, authorities closed the river to all vessels no sooner than we had made it through. It was a sad sight indeed to see vessel after vessel at rest in Vienna for the remainder of the season. Bus fares, anyone? Overall, this grand tour was one of the most exciting ones. Most of the time we had great weather, sunny skies, and balmy temperatures where service from Viking River Cruises was exceptional. When it rained one day the ship provided umbrellas, allowing us to take a colorful picture of the folks returning from the tour.

So, yes, our adventurous life definitely continues with further chapters yet to be written!