27 Sept 2019 (Friday)
RDU – Getting There…
To make the cut off for a ship inspection in Amsterdam, we took and early flight on American out of RDU to DFW, and then to Amsterdam. This added an extra 6 hours of flying time, but put us into Amsterdam early enough to reach the ship inspection.
28 Sept 2019 (Saturday)
City: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Flying into the Amsterdam Airport, we cleared customs (which is going to require a Travel VISA next year due to EU changes). After a short bus ride, provided by Avalon, we arrived at the cruise dock. If you were traveling independently, the ship could be docked at one of four locations in Amsterdam, and while walking between some of them is not that difficult, they are a fairly well spread out (or across the river). There are free ferries to cross the river from the central train station (with the arched roof). You do have to check which dock the port authorities have designated for your ship.
Because we arrived early, we dropped off our luggage, and departed on foot for the dock location of the AMA Waterways ship we were inspecting. This was nearby, the dock was longer than we had expected, and while we walked, it started to rain. This is not an unusual occurrence in Amsterdam, which gets 200 days of rain a year. However, this was wind and rain, so by the time we got up to the dock we had started getting a little wet. Failing to find the ship, we walked back, again in the rain, even diverting off through the Central Train Station (right between the Cruise docks). This did not help much. At our dock, a sister ship to the AMA vessel we were to inspect had pulled in. Looking back up at the dock we had just left, you could just make out the distinctive colors of the ship just around the corner from where we had searched (so close – eye roll). So we walked back. Again in the rain… Moral of the story, waterproof shoes and rain coats are must, and even carrying an umbrella, which the ship can supply, will not cover you completely, but waterproof pants keep you dry.
The AMA Prima was a beautiful ship, with lots of amenities and was highly accessible. A central elevator is right off the entry rather than being tucked around the corner as in most ships. On the rear of the top deck, there was a private dining room with glass–walled cooking area so you can see the chef preparing your food. Disney uses this ship and three other AmaWaterway ships to deliver the Disney experience on family European river cruises. There’s also a hairdressing salon just in case you didn’t get an opportunity before arriving. During the return walk, the rain mostly stopped. AMA Prima offers a swimming pool and staterooms with either a French balcony, with rails outside of large sliding floor to ceiling windows, or an outside balcony with seating to enjoy your favorite drink and view the castles, vineyards and cities along the river without glass. Great place to take photos too!
Then we returned to our ship, the Avalon Panorama, was relatively convenient and there are hand cleaning stations for the return (and when going to eat). Always welcomed with a hot towel and warm tea drink. The width of the stairways were suitable for two people which were appreciated by anyone who wanted the security of a handrail going up or down. The elevator was discretely located around the corner. There were three decks and we were in the middle, with a French balcony on the Port side (left). Because the temperature was a little on the cool side while we were aboard, we did not open this very often, but the glass was wall to wall – giving you excellent panoramic views right from your bed.
On the first evening, we had the mandatory safety briefing before eating. Note that dining usually started around 7PM and a much quieter buffet style option was offered in the lounge just above the main dining room with nice piano music.
29 Sept 2019 (Sunday)
We started off with an initial canal and walking tour of Amsterdam. These were divided into three groups depending upon the speed at which you wanted to move – we opted for the active group. Whether walking or biking, be very careful when crossing bike lanes, since they are traveling fast and there many bikers too. This is also true in most European cities. Amsterdam adds color through flowers and boats, which really stand out against buildings and helps offset the clouds that bring the rain (and makes for some interesting pictures). The boat used for the canal tour had windows that tended to fog up and it was necessary to open them, despite the rain, so we could see outside. So you may not get photos out both sides depending on how full the boat is. If you look at Amsterdam from a map, the canals are arranged in concentric semicircles around the central train station, with connecting canals allowing you to move from one to another circle. Here is where you get your first perspective on Amsterdam. Everything is close, and bikes are a very common form of transportation – so much so that locals consider trips up to 25 minutes on a bike as normal (and either public or private transportation for longer distances).
Medieval Muiderslot Castle – what Eileen refers to as the “Shrek” Castle, which is a beautifully preserved castle. As part of a tour, the group was served a glass of wine and given a brief historic talk on castles in general and how some castles were positioned on waterways as toll gates to collect fees on goods and control access, leading to massive increases in prices the further goods had to travel. Within the castle are climbable towers, displays of armor, and the tour split to go through some of rooms and their roles, The tower stairs are steep and uneven and some of the doorways are rather low (as Mike discovered – several times). The green fields beyond the castle grounds are part of the defenses as it was common to flood the fields to slow or stop invading armies. This castle also serves a touch of irony as one ruler over this castle became a prisoner in it.
After the castle, we regrouped and walked down along the river to a restaurant that appeared small on the outside, only to find it was quite a bit larger on the inside. Each of us had a drink (coffee or tea) and desert (this was covered as a part of the excursion). Then we walked back through town in a gentle drizzle to bus to for a ride back to the ship.
30 Sept 2019 (Monday)
City: Nijmegen, Netherlands
Hike in the Hoge Veluwe National Park in the morning. Our group was paired with a nature guide who provided information on the plants and conditions in the park as well as its uses and history. We started through a pair of vertical stone slabs, where the method used to collect these without modern tools was shared, drilling holes in the rock and placing dry wood in the holes, which expanded when wet to crack the stone into a rectangular shape. The pace was relatively modest, until the end when we needed to move quickly back to the bus for our return to the ship to eat and prepare for the afternoon’s activities. As with Amsterdam, there was a periodic rain, but less of it, and that would diminish the further we cruised up the Rhine. For now, we were on our way back.
We visited some of the battlefields of Operation Market-Garden in and around Nijmegen, Netherlands. The week prior to our cruise was the 75th Anniversary of the parachute and glider landings to liberate the area in WWII. On arriving, part of our group immediately departed on the tour and the rest first visited the Vrijheidsmuseum or Freedom Museum (Designed to resemble a parachute) on the liberation of the Netherlands. Some exhibits cover the battles, some others provide some of the details of the nature of some government types and how their beliefs led to barbaric practices, a few exhibits provided simulations of a civilian’s experience of being in or around war, and still others are designed to make you question what you would do as a young member of local population in what became occupied areas. These are moral dilemmas with physical and emotional risks for choosing an action (or for not choosing one).
When our time came, we went with a Canadian couple in the back of the jeep. For this, we took a Jeep Tour (Dodge Powerwagon – for the size of group) on a ride through Nijmegan, Groesbeck, and the Glider and Parachute Landing Fields near them. Passing through some of the town, the tour played broadcasts of major events and period music, with the lead driver providing information on some of the statues and meaning. Some sites still had the wreaths laid in remembrance of those who had fought here. One such place was the field where General Gavin landed (US commander of forces on the ground in Nijmegen). Another marker showed the townspeople taking advantage of being given two hours to evacuate in a truce and other markers commemorate various events or locations. One site had a full-scale model of a glider that moved some of the heavier equipment and troops towed behind other transport planes – this is where we stopped to get our bearings near the center of this battlefield. The tour guide had us sit in the model glider and told us in more detail the war at this location. Pointing out areas around us and showing us maps. Saying thanks to the Americans and Canadians who help their country fight this war.
Before we returned to the ship, we stopped at the Groesbeck Canadian War Cemetery. It is beautifully maintained with flowersand wreaths from last week’s ceremonies were still fresh. Moving through these markers was a solemn reminder of the costs paid by others so we can be free. On leaving, Mike saw one couple still in the cemetery and approached them to see if they were part of the group. Instead, he found this couple was from the north of the Netherlands and had come here every year since they were young. He thanked them for their remembrance. No sacrifice made in the cause of freedom is in vain.
After night fell we departed for our next destination.
01 Oct 2019 (Tuesday)
City: Dusseldorf, Germany
Bike tour – this is labelled an active tour for a reason. You are in traffic part of the time, you stop and go, and the pavement is uneven. After relative dryness the previous day, rain came with a vengeance. It was quite easy on bikes to get separated from the group at crosswalks. We got absolutely soaked going back over the bridge with driving rain. Stopped at a café for coffee and tea (and some sweet bread), and to dry off. Then back out to continue the tour after the rain let up, or really just slowed down a lot. Past scenic spots, a park, old buildings, a palace, and the town hall (known as a rathaus).
We took the tour called the Rhine Tower ascent with sparkling wine. Ok, when they printed the 789 foot tall statistic for the height of the tower, my first thought was – that is a lot of stairs. But it’s not – it’s an elevator. Leading up to that was a walking tour along the river showing a theatre started by a man who was told by his family he would end up living under a bridge. So he built a theatre under the bridge decades ago on the banks of the Rhine. The tour focused heavily on the architecture of Dusseldorf, including the glass government building – guessing they know they should not throw stones! The center of German WWII radio broadcast propaganda was from here and after the war, rather than tearing it down and rebuilding elsewhere, the Germans decided the broadcast facilities themselves were neither good nor bad, but it was the men in them that made the broadcasts good or bad, so they still use the same facilities.
After walking up to the twin hotel buildings with the stainless steel spaceship-looking bar over the Rhine, we walked back and ascended the tower by elevator. One note, this is tall. After around 20 minutes, we descended and walked back to the ship for dinner.
02 Oct 2019 (Wednesday)
City: Cologne, Germany
City Walk in Cologne, Germany (Köln) along the Rhine and then through some Restaurants and Pubs past the City Hall up to the Cathedral that is the heart of Cologne. There were many beer gardens and restaurants – mostly empty given the time of day (and day of the week)
The Cathedral in Cologne was once the tallest building in Europe and took around 600 years to complete, quite an act of faith in those who laid the foundations. The degree of craftsmanship is amazing on a scale where details even in the hard to see spaces are a clear indication of care. It’s the old story of two workers – one is cutting and stacking stones for a living and the other is building a cathedral – there is just a sense of awe in the construction. In WWII, allied bombers made a conscious effort to not hit the structure and even then, 14 bombs impacted. The surrounding blocks were nearly completely flattened. After the war, Cologne rebuilt all of what was around the Cathedral. In some cases, the dates of buildings were changed at different points in history.
One of those buildings is almost directly in front of the twin spires where a café operates. We stopped inside to enjoy some tea and coffee with cherry cake. From the window you could see rather large seating areas for outdoor dining or drinking.
The cruise continued further up the Rhine past some of the most dramatic scenery of the trip with a mixture of the ruins of castles and some old and new palaces in scenic places – as this is the heart of the wine country, there are terraced vineyards on both sides of the river and many of these are quite steep.
We took breaks to get a short nap in the afternoon though Mike visited the coffee dispenser for a latte and cookies, which would recur all through the trip (two or three times a day). Eileen enjoyed the tea and hot chocolate daily too.
In the evening, we docked in Engers, and walked up to Schloss Engers, for a two-man mini-Concert produced by Villa Musica, for yound musicians. Even though it was Wednesday, when the concert ended, we walked briefly out into the town before coming to the conclusion that most of the town had closed for the night. After walking back down the hill to the ship, Eileen and some friends (and Mike) went to the lounge where Eileen proceeded to demonstrate her well-practiced dancing skills (and dragged Mike out on the floor for a little two-step, swing, and slow dancing). Like old times. The musician on the ship was excellent and all enjoyed the show.
03 Oct 2019 (Thursday)
City: Koblenz, Germany – Boppel, Germany
We started our day docked in Koblenz, Germany, near the intersection of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers. Our tour today started with a walk to the Memorial to German Unity and then bus ride to Marksburg Castle in Braubach.
Marksburg Castle holds the distinction of being the only castle along the Rhine that was never conquered. Once you reach Marksburg Castle, you can see it has great views out onto the Rhine. Marksburg Castle remained a fortification into the gunpowder age, even sporting cannons which could shoot over the river. The interior reflects a working defensive fortification and living arrangements. This castle is not for show but is all business. Some of the furnishings reflect those of the period, including the trunks used for clothing (on wheels for travel). Has a wine press with cask storage and a stocked blacksmith shop. After the tour, we enjoyed a lunch of various wursts, (sausages) a pretzel, and beer. We stopped at the gift shop for a toy knight and small statue before the walk down the hilltop.
Some of the group walked down to the bus for a ride down into the village below. However, we walked with around 10 others. The trail down the hill is quite steep and can be uneven. The village itself is very much controlled for appearance as a historic UNESCO site and so a building cannot be repaired to a condition matching its age, it must be left unrepaired until it can be restored fully. So some places fall into serious disrepair. The streets we followed had occasional bursts of color from gardens or flower boxes and colorful furniture.
Eventually we rejoined those who had opted to ride down rather than walk and could get a clear picture of the castle from the village. We were slightly delayed in returning from the castle by some emergency vehicles, and returned to catch the ship at Boppel, where the ship had repositioned while we toured Marksburg Castle. Then we continued further up the Rhine and into the Rhine Gorge, past Loreley. Then through Oberwesel, where the Liebfrauenkiche’s red hued walls tower over other buildings.
In later afternoon, we sailed into Rudesheim, Germany. Disembarked and took a short mini-train ride into the village. This dropped us near a Christmas shop, where we picked up a new ornament for the tree. Walking just outside, there was a cute sitting area with red flowers, and we walked up to take a picture. As we did, we saw a gondola rise up to the left we paid around 18 Euro for a round trip for the two of us. The Rudesheim gondola ride was like a ski lift to a hill overlooking the valley. Gliding up nearly silently over the vineyards with the sun getting lower, it was beautiful. This particular hilltop had statues on a very large pedestal as a tribute to the original unification of Germany in the late 1800’s. Now, it was particularly interesting, because it was October 3rd, 1990 when Germany reunified after the Cold War (So we were there on the 29th Anniversary of this reunification – and Mike was stationed in Germany in the Army when the Wall came down and when Germany reunified).
The Captain repositioned the ship during dinner across to Bingen, Germany with a bus ride taking us to Rheinstein Castle, and a walk up to the Castle – lots of steps to see the rooms and structure. It was beautifully lit with many colors and we were welcomed with sparkling champagne. Ending with a performer entertaining the crowd with fire and other tricks. There is a hotel and restaurant at the castle as well but was a little separated from the tour area.
04 Oct 2019 (Friday)
City: Mainz, Germany
We dropped off the Pre-Paid Gratuities Vouchers at the main entrance, and were soon off for a walk into Maiz to meet buses to Eltville, with wine tasting. Our tour started with some history of the town after we reached a castle that was partially restored and partly left in picturesque ruins – one of I believed totaled around 26,000 or so castles or palaces in and around the Rhine River Valley. Rain was back in the forecast and stayed with us all day, but this is one of the reasons for Eltsville’s most prized products, roses. These were known for their beauty and those who acquired them would note they had come from Eltville. As we moved from one wine tasting to another, more details of the town were revealed, such as the city walls facing the river, where gaps were opened in the wall for streets, but you could see other parts of the wall still used as part of a building.
After lunch we walked to the Mainz Cathedral past an old Roman wall tower, then an orphanage, as streets get more and more narrow, until you can touch both walls easily, just before opening into a street filled with shopping. We stopped at a small church in the shopping area, then continued until the streets opened to a large plaza with a performance hall on one side with a statue of Johannes Gutenberg facing it on the left, then around the corner, where the main cathedral of the town sat behind a low row of two story buildings, and (at that time), an open air market. In our other visits to cathedrals, the space was essentially a museum, but here, posted signs notified visitors that worshipers were not to be disturbed.
Mainz is also home to the Johannes Gutenberg Museum, which is only around 100 yards from the Mainz Cathedral. It contains two Gutenberg Bibles and many other historic printed books from the legacy of moveable type.
From there, we walked to St. Stephen’s Church to see the beautiful Chagas (a famed artist) stained blue glass windows. It was a very brisk walk to get back to the ship with only around 15 minutes to spare.
It had been a long week seeing a lot of sights. But on this last day, we had walked around 8.6 miles (19K steps if you count those) Ready for a nap when dinner rolled around and we sat down to share a meal. Afraid, I (Mike) was not much of a conversationalist. After dinner, Eileen led us up to the lounge, with to goal of getting on the dance floor and we sat and talked with new friends. Went to say goodbye to some other friends. Decided to walk into town. It was such a hurried decision that Eileen did not have her coat (it was cool) and left her cell phone in the chair in the lounge. Fortunately, good people that they are, our friends brought it up to the main desk. Then we walked around the town for a bit with other new friends and after everyone had a beer, walked back to the ship. So many interesting people and so little time.
So, we finished packing for our 4 AM departure. Checked in for our flights. It was past midnight when we went to sleep (and we paid for that after returning). Jet lag – bad jet lag for around two weeks.
05 Oct 2019 (Saturday)
Eating in the morning – we were docked very near Frankfurt, Germany and opted for a very early departure – 4AM. So the ship prepared a boxed breakfast, which we ate at the airport. We had a very long layover in Heathrow. Ate second breakfast here in an English themed restaurant.
US Customs did not ask us to make a list of purchases – just if the total was over $800 US (which it was not). However, after picking up our bags we were moved over to the special inspection line, which took quite a long time, standing there exhausted – we could have taken a later flight. Of course, Eileen (and the officer) indicated it was Mike’s favorite bag – and old olive/tan thing that did not match the rest of the luggage. But that bag has been on every trip Mike had taken (Except for when it was left behind – neatly packed with the shoes, pants, shirt, and tie that he was going to wear in Hawaii when we got married). We found it upon our return still neatly packed.
General Notes on Travel…
Money – The Netherlands and Germany use the Euro. But some Europeans are unfamiliar with the exchange rate – in giving change for a tip, one tried to give us more in change than the tip and, of course, we made sure that did not happen. The Airport in Amsterdam actually had a decent exchange rate on the ATM’s for withdraw (did not even check at the manned kiosks as these are generally not great deals).
It is a good idea to carry some Euro’s as merchants have no obligation to accept cards or foreign currency, and may refuse for small transactions. If you don’t see the VISA, MasterCard, or American Express sign, ask about using your card before you order. One note: Avalon Waterways scheduled the itineraries so that you could participate in any activity and be back aboard for each meal (or the meal was a part of the excursion). This greatly reduced our need for local currency – roughly 50-66% less than during our Danube cruise. This goes back to working with a travel advisor on what you want since there are advantages to either approach.
You will still need some local currency for bathrooms, as bathrooms are not free, unless you order food, or coffee (sometimes not even then). The price was generally a half Euro or a Euro and some have attendants to collect the fee.
And while we are used to paying one price, ordering to go, or not ordering to dine in, might get you chased out since there is a tax for sitting down to eat not paid when you order to go. Pay the extra amount and use the facilities anytime you eat. So, always have a little cash on hand.
Food – Deserts in the lower Rhine are lighter in general than in Southern Germany or in the United States.
Climate/Clothing – Rain, wind, rain, cloudy, rain, wind, sun (well, I think there is sun). We had a few rainy days, and while there are umbrellas on board, they cannot keep your shoes from getting wet – the rain at times was heavy with a wind making it fall at an angle and some cheaper umbrellas had difficulty. Waterproof shoes are a really good idea in and around Amsterdam, which has around 200 days with rain each year. In Amsterdam, the locals all wear rain gear, waterproof shoes, and only some carry umbrellas but this gets less common further up the Rhine. Bring a waterproof case for electronics or at least quart and gallon zip lock bags, even better if you have a waterproof backpack. These came in handy for wallets, phones, and a number of other reasons.
Communication – Let your wireless carrier know you are traveling. But if you are going to wander about in a new city, it is not a bad idea to make sure your phone is activated and that you can access your 3G/4G/LTE service (not just WiFi) before you go – Google Maps can’t help you if you cannot connect to the network. WiFi was provided on board the ship, and it was always available when we tried, there are points on the cruise where they advise that WiFi access cannot extend to shore. Now, using two phones for this trip with Verizon was $10 per phone, per day… So these daily access charges added up.
Pictures – Another thing, the camera on a phone do not do justice to the scope and scale of what you will see both in size and in the distances. Some of the castles are on mountaintops (a half mile away). Without an optical zoom, these might not show much detail. There are times when a heavier camera, especially one that is not waterproof is just not practical.
The TSA Trusted Traveler program was totally worth it – individual offices are contracted and the one at RDU was great (needs 3-4 weeks to complete the application and background)! Streamlined and quick…no shoes off… Even if you can’t do it, the lines moved quickly in all of the airports. Just don’t forget that the size limit for lotions is for the bottle, not for the amount left in the bottle. See also Online passport http:onlinepassport.us