For our first post-pandemic trip out of the country, we decided to book a Tauck river cruise on the Danube. It would allow us to visit several cities and countries we hadn’t been to before.
To allow us time to get on schedule I booked several days in London beforehand.
We began our travels Sunday evening, April 23, flying out of the new Terminal C at Orlando International Airport. It’s a beautiful terminal. The first-class lounge is okay, nothing spectacular, but it has a great kids’ area designed to wear them out before they get on the plane. Brilliant.
I had found some great deals on business-class flights using Chase membership miles, so we have a weird assortment of airlines. Our first was Iceland Air, connecting through Reykjavik. (In retrospect, none of them except the final Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Orlando was what you would expect from business class, but that was the most important one.)
The trade-off for the great price was a tired 757 with no beds in first class, but the flight to Iceland was only seven hours, and the views of the Greenland ice cap and the Aurora made up for it.
Keflavík Airport is the largest airport in Iceland and the country’s main hub for international transportation. The airport is 50 km southwest of Reykjavík. It’s an okay terminal, but the planes don’t pull up to gates, and the connection by buses on the tarmac is a bit inconvenient. I have no idea what they do with wheelchair-bound passengers.
After a short layover, the flight to London (on a much newer 737 Max) was only two hours. Aside from the mile walk from the gate to immigration, Heathrow Airport was a breeze. Immigration is now all electronic, with passport and face scans, and in no time we had our baggage and met Eddie Manning, our long-time driver while in London. We’ve used Eddie for about ten years now, and I highly recommend him.
The trip into London was slow, as always, complicated by road closures left over from the previous day’s London Marathon.
We tried a new hotel this trip, The St. Martin’s Lane Hotel, and it turned out to be great. It’s ideally located a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and Leicester Square tube station. Our room was one of two large ones in the hotel, in a very utilitarian U shape. It wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, so we hung out in the downstairs cafe, which was a bit weird–my Caesar Salad was more like a bowl of Caesar dressing with a head of lettuce in it!–but tasty enough.
Once our room was ready we got several hours of much-needed sleep, then walked a few blocks to our favorite restaurant in London, Clos Maggiore.
What a meal! Probably a top ten of all time. We sat in a room we hadn’t been in before, an intimate upstairs space with a cozy fireplace. Not a tasting menu, but just two stellar courses that couldn’t have been better. My scallops starter and white asparagus entry were simply stunning. But the real show-stopper was a sublime Grand Cru Burgundy: 2005 Clos de la Roche from Nicolas Potel. I don’t think we will be able to top this meal on the trip!
Tuesday we slept in, and had a lovely traditional French brasserie lunch next door to the hotel at Côte.
After lunch, we walked over to Covent Garden to check out the London Transport Museum. It does a great job of interpreting the history of transport from horses through the latest tube extensions. The signage is just right, interpretive without being overwhelming, and for kids (of whom there were many) there are lots of things to climb on and buttons to push.
Then after another nap, we headed to dinner at our other favorite restaurant, the Michelin-starred Pied a Terre.
Perhaps it was just memories of the night before, but the ten-course tasting menu didn’t really stand out. However, the thing we really love about this restaurant is that they will serve the wine pairings blind and let you guess. So between one standard pairing and one reserve pairing, we had 18 wines to identify!
We did fairly well with varietals (at least the Sommelier said he was impressed) but not so much on regions. It was hard, though–Mourvedre from Greece, and Riesling for Marlborough? Who knew?
Wednesday didn’t quite go as planned.
We slept in and then went to lunch at another charming bistro, Le Garrick, just off Trafalgar Square.
In the afternoon we had a short nap in preparation for seeing The Play That Goes Wrong, one of the funniest things we’d seen in the US from a touring company, and still playing in London at the original theatre. But just as we were about to leave for the show, I got an email from Air France saying our flight Thursday from London to our Paris connection had been delayed. Then I got another email saying they’d rebooked us on another flight at 6:20am so we could make our connection. This meant getting up at 3:00am! Yikes. So I gave our tickets to the concierge at our hotel in the hopes that someone else could use them. Fortunately, shows are much cheaper in London, and these tickets (I had somehow gotten fourth-row center in a fully booked theatre) were only 50 pounds each. Ah well. After a quick light bite at Côte, we went to bed.
To no avail, for me, anyway. Knowing we had a flight in just a few hours, I just couldn’t get to sleep. Oh well.
Eddie Manning dutifully picked us up at 4am, and we headed to Heathrow.
It took only 37 minutes to fly to Paris, and another two hours to Krakow, but with the now almost five-hour layover, we arrived just in time for our 5pm welcome dinner in the salt mine.
There are nine levels to the mine, but our dinner was only on the third level down, at about 400 feet. The elevator was quite fast, a good thing given how we were squeezed in!
This was not a working mine, it is historic, and was clearly hand carved.
Quite a few spaces have been carved into rooms and chapels.
Dinner was really quite good, and it was nice to get to meet some of our fellow travelers. While the river ship can accommodate over 120, we learned there are only 42 on this tour. Perhaps starting in Krakow seemed too close to the war in Ukraine for some, although it’s hundreds of miles away.
It was nice to finally get some sleep after 36 hours!
The next morning we met for a walking tour of the old city, making our way from the hotel to the market square.
It is tradition to play a tune on a bugle in all four directions from one of the towers, every hour, even all night (so don’t stay in a hotel on the square!) The fourth time, the tune ends abruptly to commemorate a bugler who was shot in the throat while warning of an attack.
They serve only breakfast until noon at the restaurant in the square, so I had French breakfast and coffee, and then Linda got a tuna sub from Subway on the way back to the hotel.
In the afternoon we took a 90-minute bus ride to Auschwitz, the first of the Extermination Camps built by the Nazis. It was not what I was expecting, as it is not a wooden stalag, but rather brick buildings constructed as Polish army barracks prior to WWII.
Until 1942 it was a concentration camp mostly for non-Jews, with the intent of killing Russian prisoners and anyone else who couldn’t work in the nearby factories, (which was almost everyone). After that it was a place to gas and cremate as many Jews, Poles, and gypsies as efficiently as possible, 1.4 million in all.
I chose not to take any photos inside the camp.
In the evening we had dinner at the hotel. We chose to sleep in on Saturday, skipping another walking tour, and spent the day at the hotel resting up.
Sunday was the all-day bus ride from Poland through Slovakia to Esztergom, Hungary to board our Danube River cruise boat, The M.S. Joy. The drive through the Carpathian mountains was really beautiful, with many villages, meadows, and mountains still encrusted with a bit of snow. Our lunch stop was at a ski resort near the top of the pass.
The ship is lovely, with large cabins and bathrooms, a Panorama lounge, Compass Rose dining room, and Arthur’s informal all-day dining room. Since we are at 1/3 capacity, there are almost as many crew as guests! The staff is wonderfully welcoming.
Our tour guide said in case the ship sinks, just go up on the sun deck. The river isn’t that deep!
Dinner was a bit disappointing. Not bad, but certainly not Oceania-level dining. And despite the large number of dining staff, some experience and further training are needed.
As usual, I got a cold shortly after the trip began, but have been muddling through. My first night on the ship was pretty restless, and we were both tired after all the travel. Also, May 1st is a holiday, with most shops closed, so we decided to skip the walking tour of Bratislava and have a quiet day.
One thing different about river cruises from ocean cruises is the view when docked. The ships dock side by side, so your view is likely to be of the ship next to yours. In fact, the passengers must often pass through other ships in order to get to and from the port! (This was actually the only time that happened on our cruise.)
In the morning Linda went on a tour of a palace in Vienna, and took a selfie. It might be her first!
In the afternoon she toured the ship’s helm.
We’ve been eating dinner in Arthur’s at the rear of the ship. The server there, Alex, is fantastic. The food is actually better and fresher than in the main dining room, and there’s almost no one there, so it’s like a private restaurant.
Well, Linda got the sniffles just as I was recovering, so I headed off to the Tauck dinner in Vienna on my own. It was in a beautiful palace. The seven-piece chamber orchestra, four opera singers, and two dancers were all extremely talented. The music consisted largely of waltzes, most by people named ‘Strauss’ which means ‘bunch’, so a bunch of bunches. There was a lot of opera. So much opera.
The next day I went on a short morning excursion to Krems, an old town with a population of 25,000. There is a single main street in the old part of town, which is mostly tourist shops now.
We visited an ornate church, and an eclectic museum in an abandoned abbey.
In the cellar they had some beautifully carved old wine barrels, one of which had a carved cat on it.
The story was that the cellar cat would sit on the warmest barrel, which due to its high sugar content was the most prized wine, so that’s the one people wanted to buy. Of course, before the buyers arrived the winemaker no doubt put the cat on the barrel he wanted to sell!
Back at the ship, we went to lunch in the main dining room. Wow, the food is uninspired there. Not sure why it’s so poor, but that’s why we’ve been living on pub food at Arthur’s at the rear of the ship.
We cruised up the river to Spitz where I took a short drive to Weingut Christoph Donabaum, a small 2000-case winery, for a wine tasting hosted by the owner and his girlfriend. We had two 2022 Grüner Veltliners and the tartest Riesling I’ve ever had.
We had dinner at Arthur’s, which we again had to ourselves, with our delightful server Alex, who has been the highlight of our trip. Arthur’s looks out the rear of the ship, so we got to watch as we passed through a lock.
Friday Linda was still sick, so I did the trip to the lakes region of the Austrian Alps solo. This is the area Americans associate with The Sound of Music, although Austrians aren’t into that movie. We took a boat ride across one long lake, then reboarded our bus and drove to another lake and the town of Saint Wolfgang. He’s a saint because he decided to build a church there 1000 years ago, and also struck the ground with his staff and water bubbled up that magically cures your eyes, yada, yada, yada.
The town is very good at monetizing things. You can buy holy water, salt, salami, fake leather purses, and cuckoo clocks, all within feet of one another.
We’ve been seeing these things in every town:
They’re not cell towers. They’re Maypoles. They’re put up the last day of April (by hand) and then guarded for a few days. If the neighboring town manages to vandalize it, you have to buy them drinks. Or something like that.
We had lunch at Dorf-Alm zu St. Wolfgang, a decent meal of sauteed perch and boiled potatoes. I liked their barstools.
Lunch entertainment was provided by our guide’s husband, as this is the town they are from (or close to it). She had traveled by train to meet us in Linz this morning, and will need to go back tonight. It’s about 1-1/2 hours by train, but the cost is essentially free, since you pay 1000 Euro a year for all transportation. The bus ride back to the ship was mostly on high-speed highway, and we were back before 5pm.
The chef’s “signature dinner” was at 7pm in the dining room for everyone, and was actually pretty good.
Saturday Linda was still under the weather, so we skipped the walking tour, and after lunch at Arthur’s, I went for a short walk around Passau, Germany.
Sunday we said goodbye to our ship and took the bus to Regensberg, perhaps the most interesting of the cities we’ve visited on this trip.
The city has a long history, and you can easily spot the Roman fortifications on which the central part is constructed.
Monday morning we should have gone to breakfast earlier–it’s fantastic, with several rooms of buffet including Champagne and caviar! We did a short walking and driving tour around Central Berlin. Our hotel is really near the Brandenburg Gate (it’s outside our window) and it’s really interesting to see all the vibrant new buildings that stretch through the center of the city on the former no-man’s-zone or killing ground where the Berlin Wall was. There’s little trace of it any more, save for some different colored paving stones.
We visited a few of the locations of Nazi bunkers and such, but there is nothing left, as they have been intentionally erased. We also visited an excellent museum about WWII, Topographie Des Terrors, and I ordered a book that contains everything in the museum to look through at our leisure. We also passed tourist spots such as a reconstruction of Checkpoint Charlie, and the place where Kennedy delivered his address.
It’s no longer obvious where East or West Berlin was, as there has been so much modern development. The city is obviously thriving, and is really quite attractive.
After a restful afternoon we walked a few blocks to the two-Michelin-starred Facil for a lovely dinner.
After another amazing breakfast buffet at the Hotel Adlon we took a short bus tour around the city again and spent a couple hours at the Pergamon Museum.
It’s like a tiny version of the British Museum, filled with things stolen from elsewhere.
We split off from the group’s German lunch and wandered back through the Brandenburg Gate and had lunch at Mama Trattoria, across the street from our hotel.
Today is May 9th, traditionally Victory Day, which commemorates Russia’s defeat of the Nazis in WWII. However this year, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Berlin actually tried to ban the display of Russian flags. That didn’t go through, so both Russian and Ukranian flags are on display, but celebrations are muted and there is a large police presence everywhere.
The most likely thing to disrupt traffic in Europe this year, which we encountered in Vienna and Berlin, is protestors gluing their hands to the pavement in intersections to protest climate change. I’m not sure how tying up idling cars for hours improves the climate, but whatever. Because it’s very good glue, the authorities have to cut the chunk of pavement out with their hand still attached, and then send them a bill for repaving. Meanwhile, in Paris, they are still protesting raising the retirement age from 62 to 64! Also while on this trip Charles II was crowned in London. Glad we missed that by a week!
We finished our tour with a lovely visit to the Reichstag, with a view overlooking all of Berlin, and a lovely farewell dinner. A talk by a former escapee from East Germany was the climax.
Then it was back to the hotel for some sleep before our early wake up call to fly home on Aer Lingus via Dublin to Orlando.
In all, an interesting trip with some good highlights, a great group of people, and the usual Tauck professionalism.
After Linda’s push to get “Tree” (AKA “A Bug’s Life”) open at Animal Kingdom, we were able to slip away for a transatlantic cruise. On Friday we picked up a rental car at Disney and on Saturday we packed it and headed for Orlando International airport. (This trick saves us cab fare, and is much less rushed.) We had lunch at our frequent travel stop, McCoy’s and then boarded a Delta jet for Detroit.
Since we live in Orlando we’re used to a really nice airport, but this one might even be better than Orlando’s. It’s spacious and airy, easy to get around, and the Westin hotel is even more convenient than the Hyatt in Orlando.
At the moment there is a shortage of nice places to eat in the terminal, but new ones are coming. For now, the solution is to dine at Dema in the lobby of the Westin, which is just on the other side of a private TSA entrance to the hotel’s lobby.
The Zen-like setting of this lobby restaurant makes it a welcome retreat from the hustle of the airport, and it’s literally feet away from the gates.
Service is friendly and there is an extensive selection of wines by the glass. The pepperoni and bacon pizza and the hummus and tapenade appetizer were both good.
Note that the TSA portal closes in the evening and you have to go back around through the terminal, but it’s still not that far.
Our flight departed at about11pm, the last one out of the airport. I skipped dinner and took advantage of the “pod” in Delta’s business elite class (thank you frequent flyer miles) to get an almost full night’s sleep before our 11 am arrival in London.
On the approach to Heathrow we passed over Windsor Castle, the weekend home of the Queen, and our destination for the following day.
This time our luggage arrived with us (unlike two years ago, on our trip with Martin, Audrey and Emilio) and we were met by our favorite driver, Eddie Manning. It wasn’t much after noon when we arrived at The Ritz Hotel and were able to settle into our lovely room.
I found this room on Hotels.com for about half price, and what a deal it was.
If the the founder of the Ritz could see his hotel a hundred years later I think he would be very pleased. Its maintenance and refurbishment are tip top, and its staff still cleaves to old-time standards of service. While the strict enforcement of the no jeans or sneakers rule may irk some, and the requirement of a jacket and tie in the restaurants may seem old fashioned, they work to enforce the tone attempted here, which some may find a bit snooty. So be it; if that’s not your thing, there are plenty of alternatives. But if you’d like to step back to the glamour of a past age, this is the place to do it.
After a nap we headed out for a snack, and after wandering around a bit ended up at our old standby, Bentley’s. Dani and I first found this play quite a few years ago, up an alley called Swallow Street (lots of bars there?) off of Piccadilly. The place seems to have been the only thing around that survived the bombing in WWII, and has been operating since 1916.
Bentley’s specializes in fresh seafood and shellfish. It has a cozy, pub-like interior, but on this day it was great to dine in the covered area out front, basically the middle of the street.
The wine selection is particularly well-suited to fish and especially the shellfish selections. You can’t go wrong with the Albarino, and it went great with my prepared crab appetizer.
Back to the hotel and a bit of journalling, and then it was time for dinner at the very dressy Ritz Restaurant, right in our hotel.
Regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful dining room, the Restaurant at the Ritz offers a rarefied experience, at rarefied prices. But actually the tasting menu, which included eight courses for 95 pounds, was a good deal. While the food is not likely to garner Michelin stars, several courses were quite good. The matching wine pairings were generous, but few actually matched the food. Service was, of course, impeccable.
Monday morning the alarm got us out of bed, but we were pretty much on time zone for our trip to Windsor Castle. This involved navigating the tube to Paddington Station and catching two trains. This sounds harder than it turned out to be, and we arrived in about 60 minutes (although it must be said that the tickets we bought failed to work in almost every single turnstile and we had to be let through manually, a difficulty that seemed to be a matter of course).
Windsor has a nice mall attached to the train station (and in retrospect this is where we should have eaten), but the castle itself is surrounded by tacky tourist shops. We had a lunch reservation at what turned out to be a chain Thai restaurant, and we were early, so Linda had time for a bit of shopping.
The Thai restaurant, Thai Square, was conveniently located adjacent to Windsor Castle. It features attractive decor in its various interconnected dining rooms.
It was mediocre at best. The curry was the best thing we tried. The “Golden Sack” and rib appetizers were unremarkable, as was the duck entree. Service was pleasant but not particularly attentive.
Then it was on to Windsor Castle. Unfortunately no pictures allowed, but here are some.
A drizzly Monday proved to be the perfect time to visit, as crowds were very light. We had repurchased tickets which were mailed to us by Royal Post, and that allowed us to skip the short line that was there, but on a busy day this would be essential.
The castle offers a self-guided audio tour that is excellent. I was surprised at the amount of access afforded, as we toured nearly every public room, including where state visitors are entertained. At 3:15 we rendezvoused with our pre-booked Kitchen tour, and with a group of only a half dozen were taken on a very informative private tour of the kitchen used to cater dinners for more than 170 dignitaries. I highly recommend this, as there were many insights beyond the kitchen itself, and the tour was provided by a member of the Queen’s staff.
One of the more interesting aspect of both tours was to hear about the restoration following a catastrophic fire in 1992. This afforded the opportunity to restore some things just as they were, improve a few others, and to uncover a considerable amount of previously unknown history. All in all, quite an interesting day, and perhaps the top activity I’ve done in London.
For dinner we originally had reservations at a particularly difficult to ge tot restaurant, Trinity, but decided to change, and I was able to book us a late dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant I’d heard a lot about. This proved to be a great move. And it turned out to be right beyond Bentley’s in Swallow Street.
It’s hardly surprising that all of the best Indian meals I’ve had have been in London, even include some Michelin starred meals. But Veeraswamy may well be the best of the best.
I was actually not expecting it to be quite that good, because the opentable listing emphasizes their corporate connections, plus a recommendation by National Geographic(?!)
Yet everything we tried was one of the best Indian dishes I’ve tasted, and we tried quite a few items, sampling four appetizers and a vegetarian main that included four separate dishes. Particular highlights were the Raj Kachori, a fancy version of Indian street food consisting of a crisp wheat puri filled with goodies, and Scallop Moilee, which came in a stunning coconut and ginger sauce. My wife is a Chicken Tikka aficionado, and proclaimed this one the best Indian dish she ever tasted.
There is also an excellent wine list, highlighted by some very well-described white and red Burgundies.
This will definitely be the Indian restaurant we return to on our next visit to London.
I was not ready to get up when the alarm went off Tuesday! It’s not that I wasn’t on schedule, just that dinner was very LATE.
A quick taxi ride brought us to The Royal Albert Hall, for our tour. We were again fortunate to have a small group of ten, and an excellent guide. It was so much a behind the scenes tour (since there really isn’t a “backstage” in a round auditorium) as a tour that gave us a look at the installation process for a new show (although we did also get to tour the Queen’s private rooms).
We watched the seating installation, sound check and lighting tests for the night’s Spandau Ballet movie and live performance, and learned many interesting things about the 150 year old facility built to fulfill a vision of Prince Albert, who didn’t live to see it completed.
In 1851 Albert organized the first World’s Fair, housed inside the enormous Crystal Palace in Hyde Park (it was later moved to South London, and burned in 1936). With the profits of the fair he bought a huge parcel of Kensington with the intent of creating a collection of science and art museums, which has indeed come to pass. He began with plans to construct a great performing hall, but died before construction began. A devastated Queen Victoria spent the money instead on the incredibly elaborate Albert Memorial. I suspect Albert would not have been pleased. Anyway, the Royal Albert Hall was eventually constructed through the financing device of selling one third of the seats on a 999 year lease.
After our tour we caught the tube across London to see the installation of red poppies at The Tower of London.
The poppies were installed this summer to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI. There is one poppy for each casualty, which really makes the pointlessness of that (and every) conflict quite apparent.
After our brief stop at the Tower, we caught a boat back to Westminster. Cruising the Thames is something we hadn’t done before, and it was interesting to see Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe, The London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament from that vantage point.
In Westminster we decided to see if we could get into Roux at Parliament Square on the spur of the moment, since it was nearly 2pm and lunch hour was winding down. Luck! We did.
Roux is the sister restaurant to and old favorite, LeGavroche. There is a superb prix fixe lunch menu at a very affordable price (so affordable, we couldn’t resist spending several times as much on a wonderful Corton Charlemagne, the perfect accompaniment).
I selected a cassoulet of squid and smoked mussels as my starter. It was richly flavored without being excessively buttery, although there was certainly plenty of that on the wonderful toast served with it.
For my main I had the mackerel. This is a dish for true fish lovers, as it’s of course quite fishy, but was not at all oily, just moist, and with a perfectly crisped skin. The accompanying beets were luscious.
A wonderful cheese trolley capped off a delightful meal. Professional yet friendly service increased our enjoyment, making us feel particularly lucky to have been squeezed in without a booking.
Highly recommended as a dressy, sophisticated retreat from the tourist-choked streets outside!
We walked back to our hotel through St. James’ Park, past Buckingham Palace and through Green Park.
After an evening of journalling, we took the tube north and then walked to Pied a Terre, which has become one of our favorite London restaurants. The atmosphere is intimate, and perfectly suited to romance or business discussions.
The food–especially the tasting menus–is as good as any from London’s other top rated restaurants. But the real difference at Pied a Terre is the wine service.
Rather than simply selecting and pouring wines with each course, it is the restaurant’s practice to offer a blind tasting, where the wine is poured first so you can taste it alone, then the course is served so you can see how it matches, and then you are asked to comment on the wine and (if you wish) guess what it is.
We find this to be tremendous fun. It forges a camaraderie with the sommelier that sets the experience apart from all other fine dining experiences.
On our last visit we were fooled by most of the wines, but I have to say on this evening our performance was impressive.
Linda had by far the more challenging wine pairing, the “Discovery” series, which included very obscure wines and regions such as Croatia. Yet she managed to blind identify an Assyrtiko from Santorini(!), a very unusual pinot noir blanc from Burgundy, and a Grenache from Australia—in each case not just the grape but the region. Wow!
I had a much easier time of it with the “Classic” pairing, and identified four out of eight wines by type and region, mostly by nose alone, including a French Sauvignon Blanc (although I thought it was from Sancerre, not Pouilly Fume), a German Riesling (always the easiest varietal), a red Bordeaux (I even identified that it was a 2009 Pomerol), a vintage port (easy). I was reasonably close but not exact on the others (Pinot Gris, an odd white Burgundy, late harvest botrytised Vouvray, and Vinsanto from Santorini [which we have in our cellar!]).
A very fun evening.
We got to bed late and slept in. At last, a vacation day!
Then is was off to the West End by to to see a show. Before hand we had lunch at The Salisbury, a very historical pub next to the theatre. It’s almost 300 years old.
It’s a good place for lunch before a matinee show at any of the nearby theatres. The food and beverage selections are what you’d expect, and there is a charming period decor. Service is friendly, and accommodating of foreign visitors, so the you can usually order at your table rather than the bar, as is more traditional.
The show we saw was a new Disney-produced stage version of the Tom Stoppard written Shakespeare In Love. This adaptation closely followed the movie, was well staged, brilliantly acted, and made extensive use of on-stage musical performers who created the score as they performed.
I really enjoyed this production, and it brought home to me how parallel the outer story is to the inner story of Romeo and Juliet (but without all that dying). I don’t know how well it will do in the States, but it has certainly been popular here.
After the show we walked a few short blocks to our other favorite London restaurant, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
We’ve dined here both upstairs and down, and at the sister restaurants in Las Vegas and (now closed) New York. Of all of them, this is our favorite, because of the intimate size of the downstairs area. It offers arguably the best tasting menu in London, with wine pairings that superbly match each course.
The artistry of the food arrangement is really unsurpassed, and it’s great fun to watch it being assembled before you, so be sure to ask for a seat at the counter. This makes it easy to chat with the servers and sommelier, making it a friendly, energizing experience. For parties of more than two a few tables are available downstairs, which I recommend over the less intimate upstairs dining room.
After a wonderful dinner we headed back to the hotel to sleep, pack, and catch meet our driver for tomorrow’s cruise departure.
Eddie Manning’s limo service provided our transfer to Southampton, and despite the skepticism with which we viewed the mountain of luggage for the five of us, it fit easily into the back of the seven-passenger Mercedes van. We were at the pier by 1:30, and onboard ship within minutes.
This is our first time cruising on Celebrity, and it’s always interesting to compare ships and lines. The Constellation was built in 2002 and refurbished most recently in 2010. Despite the fact that it’s scheduled for another one in April, everything seems new and shiny.
The layout of the ship makes it seem much more intimate than the 2000 passenger count would suggest. It pinches in at the middle, and there are many public areas where you can see both port and starboard views simultaneously.
This is the nicest suite we’ve ever had on a ship, with excellent fit and finish, and a really nice cabin layout that separates the bedroom, living/dining room and bathroom with a short hall that is also a cleverly designed closet. THe amenities are great except for the wi-fi, which is marginal at best, even on the provided in-room computer.
As with every line we’ve been on (except Costa) the crew is overwhelmingly nice and accommodating, and everyone sees to know your name by the second day.
The five of us got together in our suite for afternoon Champagne and canapés, then went our separate ways.
Linda an I caught an early show in the ship’s theatre, a well designed 4-story space in the bow, that has no columns blocking sight lines. It was a revue of the ship’s performers, and the singing, dancing and acrobatics were impressive, better than I’ve seen on other lines.
After the show we headed for dinner. The food is certainly a cut above Royal Caribbean, the parent company, but not the fine dining quality of Oceania or Regent.
Wine seems to be priced with primarily a fixed markup rather than a percentage, so the more expensive bottles are better deals, although some rare gems listed at great prices didn’t actually exist when I tried for them. A corkage charge is available for wines purchased off-board, a nice feature I haven’t seen on a cruise line before.
We took advantage of the discount available when buying three or more bottles of nice wine to stock up for the trip. The ability to have the restaurants store unopened or opened bottles for you and transfer them between restaurants on the ship is one of my favorite features of cruising.
After a lazy morning Linda and I took the tube to Kensington for an Indian lunch at the lovely Bombay Brasserie, then walked to the Natural History Museum to visit the dinosaurs.
The Natural History Museum is BIG. It must be bigger than the British Museum. The exhibits were very well done, with lots of interactives to keep the kids engaged, and very descriptive and informative exhibits about geology, disasters, the history of the earth (we discovered that it’s older than 6000 years!), floral and fauna, and, of course, dinosaurs. I liked the way each exhibit had a point that was presented clearly and directly, without overwhelming us with information. Well done.
Dinner was at Pied-à-terre, a two-star Michelin on Charlotte Street. It was sublime. Not only was the chef’s tasting menu excellent, the matching wine pairings were served blind, which created an opportunity for interesting conversation with the very personable sommeliers at the conclusion of each course, as the wines were revealed. Great idea, and a lovely last night in London.
Linda and I spent today on our own while our friends were off doing other stuff. We slept in and then found a nearby teeny tiny Japanese restaurant, Ichi-Ricki, for lunch. I’m glad the reviews I’d read warned me it was nothing but a door with a paper sign, because otherwise we’d have missed it. The restaurant is actually in the basement, and has only six tables. The sushi was very good.
After lunch we visited Westminster Abbey, which somehow we’ve missed in all our trips to London. There are a lot of people buried here who spent their lives living off public funds. There are also a few people who actually did something useful.
Outside, we walked through the cloisters, the museum and the garden. One of the more interesting sights was England’s oldest door, which apparently dates from 1050 AD, and appears to still be functional. I looked for a Home Depot sticker, but didn’t see one.
In the evening we walked to Her Majesty’s Theatre to see Phantom of the Opera in its original venue. God, I hate that show. Great music, good staging, completely ineffective story telling. My third time seeing it, and I like it a bit less each time, I guess because it seems like such a missed opportunity to tell a great story. The original movie with Charles Laughton is actually much more moving. It paled next to BIlly Elliot, that’s for sure. Not helped by the fact the audience was full of drunk Chinese who couldn’t follow it. The downside of going to a famous show, I guess.
After the show we cabbed it to Clos Maggiore, three times voted London’s most romantic restaurant. My third visit, and it always wows. Not terribly expensive, great wine list, great food and service. Everyone loved it.
We had a 2007 Ramonet Gevrey Chambertin Blanc and a 1999 Pommard by Ferdinand Laurent Pillot. Both excellent. Martin also had a 1995 Rieussec by the glass with his foie gras. But the 1965 Castarde Bas Armagnac I finished with blew them all away. Great meal.
We’re off to London for a few days before heading out of Southampton on a twelve night wine cruise. This was Linda’s first experience with the airline beds that recline all the way, and they certainly make a difference; we both got about five hours of sleep, and arrived in London already on schedule (although the afternoon nap always helps, too).
Linda claims the food on Delta was the best she’s had on a plane, but I skipped it, except for the salad and pumpkin soup (which I admit was exceptional). We were lucky to make our connection in Atlanta. The only reason we did is because the receptionist in the Delta lounge bumped us to an early flight out of Orlando. Unfortunately his attempt to bump our luggage failed, and it didn’t show up until after dinner.
We used Eddie Manning Limo to pick us up at the airport. We’re traveling with Audrey and Emilio, and Martin, none of whom have been to London before, and the three parties all had different planes distributed between two airports. Eddie was able to react to a 5-hour delay and put another limo on the job with just one email. I used them before and will use them again because they’re so accommodating.
I’m very impressed with our hotel. It’s The Sanctuary House in Westminster, just south of St. James Park. The rooms are spacious by London standards, and everything is brand new or freshly painted. The only downside is extremely creaky floors. For $240 a night it is a steal. We had lunch in the Fuller’s pub downstairs.
Before dinner we showed our friends how to use the underground by taking a ride from the conveniently close St. James Park station to Embankment, and from there walked up into Covent Garden and through the theatre district. The area around Leicester Square has become quite the casino district now that you don’t need to be a member to go into the casinos. It’s lit up like a mini Las Vegas.
Our destination was l’Atelier, one of our favorite restaurants in the world. Because of our large party (and possible our inability to dress for dinner, having no luggage) we weren’t able to sit at the counter, but instead ate upstairs in La Cuisine, which offers the same food but without the interaction with the people behind the counter. The multi-course tasting menu and matching wines were superb, and everyone enjoyed the three-hour experience.
After dinner, Audrey and Emilio were more than ready for bed (as they were the ones with the five hour flight delay) but Martin was game to stroll back through Piccadilly Circus and have a midnight Champagne cocktail with us at a trendy looking Italian restaurant and bar.
On Wednesday we met at 11am and headed for the British Museum. Near the museum we found a little Korean place called Han Kang that had good reviews and indeed we had an excellent lunch.
The British Museum was just a few blocks away, and we spent a pleasant three hours looking at dead people and the things they used to own.
After resting up back at the hotel it was time for the evening’s entertainment. The underground stairs are hard on Audrey’s knee, so she and Emilio took a cab to the Victoria Palace Theatre, but Linda and Martin and I walked, a pleasant half mile stroll.
Billy Elliot is one of my favorite shows, and it’s better here in London than anywhere else. Great, as always. It was fun for Martin to see how much better a show is in its original theatre, and a treat for Audrey and Emilio to experience it for the first time.
After dinner we took a cab to Kensington to an Indian restaurant we like called Zaika, where a snippy receptionist informed us that because we were 15 minutes late the kitchen was closed. I guess it would have been the bum’s rush anyway, so we instead had a nice dinner at the nearby Strada Cucina Italiano, a well-disguised member of a massive chain that is much nicer than the website suggests.
A busy couple of days to start off our trip, but we’re on-schedule and ready for more.
We awoke in the harbor at Fallmouth and tendered over (a slow process because of the small dock) for an hour drive to Lizard, the southernmost point of England. There we took a five-mile two-hour coastal hike along the perilous cliffs of Cornwall. Seeing the caves, smugglers’ lairs, and rocks where hundred of ships have wrecked reminded us of Poldark.
After a superb fish and chips lunch at The Witch’s Ball we retraced our steps and returned to the ship for rest, showers, and the first formal night, where we opted for the other cover charge restaurant, Crown Grill.
Today we bid farewell to London, and its extraordinarily nice weather during this week of gastronomic exploration.
We had a painless transfer by private car to Southampton, a 90 minute drive south. The boarding procedures in the new terminal were quite efficient, and soon we were settled into two cabins. Unfortunately, the two cabins are about a quarter of a mile apart (and that isn’t really hyperbole). Because Dani isn’t twenty-one, Linda and she are technically sharing an outside cabin and I have a mini suite. I have to say that there isn’t a tremendous difference between them, space-wise or in their outfitting.
Since we’re old hands at this cruise thing, the first thing we did was get on the phone and reserve tables at the various specialty restaurants for about half the nights of the cruise. (As it turned out this was unnecessary, as on this cruise the specialty restaurants were not well attended.)
There’s a new event, a chef’s table that sounds interesting.
After the traditional lifeboat drill (which is indoors in the lounges these days) we set sail for the southwestern tip of the UK.
For dinner American Express comped us into Sabatini’s, the Italian specialty restaurant on all Princess ships, and we had a nice meal (and a lovely bottle of Ornellaia) with a sweet server named Yana.
We had lunch at Benares, an Indian restaurant near our hotel. It’s run by a chef with one Michelin star. I was a bit disappointed, as I didn’t really find the food to be the creative twist on Indian cuisine we’d been promised, but Dani and Linda liked theirs. The place is a neat two story building off Berkeley Square with a lily pond on the second floor.
We finished our London stay with a visit to L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Covent Garden. It was easily the best meal of the trip. It’s a dark place with spotlights on the few bar-height tables; most of the seating is at what looks like it was once a sushi bar, but since there were three of us we got a nice table. Service was great (the waiter really reminded us of a twenty-something Henry). Each of the three courses I had were the best version of that dish I’ve encountered: scallop ceviche, caramelized foie gras with cherries and lime bits, and quail. I’m glad we saved this for last, as it blew away Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, and the scallop put Nobu to shame.
For the past month I’ve had sinus headaches and jaw aches, but when I went to my dentist at Starbase Dental last week he couldn’t identify a particular tooth that was the problem. He prescribed antibiotics and told me to check back after vacation. But the problem has been getting worse, with hot or cold foods causing a headache. The trouble is that nothing hurts except when I’m having the problem, which occurs only every few hours (or as soon as I lie down). Now I’m fairly sure the cause was my upper left wisdom tooth because that one hurt (but only when I was having a headache) if I wiggled it.
So rather than put up with another three weeks of sleep deprivation and headaches, today I went to the Carnaby Street Dentist and had it pulled. What a great place that is, with really friendly people; Sarah, who offered me several options, pulled it with absolutely no pain. She sent me off with hand-written instructions and some antibiotics. I’m sure it will hurt again later, but right now my head feels better than it has in a month.
Dani likes this sign because it’s the name of a Star Trek DS9 character. Well, the character’s name is Curzon Dax, not Curzon Plaza.
Earlier today we went to lunch at Nobu, the famous sushi place. We had… sushi. It was… sushi. Hmmm…. I must be missing something. Why is this famous?
Tonight we had theatre tickets to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new show, Love Never Dies, the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. (Full disclosure: I’ve always thought that Phantom was a dumb show with good music and staging.) In this version the Phantom has moved to New York’s Coney Island, and guess who happens to also show up there? This was an odd show that has proven to be unpopular, as shown by the half empty theatre. Defying the odds, I liked it the best of the three of us. The voices were superb, much better than any other Phantom production I’ve seen. Dani hated the music, but I thought most of the second half was very good. The problem is that the first act sucks dead toads. Then, weirdly, the second act manages to tell a more cohesive story than Phantom ever did. Unfortunately, it’s a tragedy. Between that and the rework needed on the first act, we’re betting it never opens on Broadway. Then again, we made the same bet about The Addams Family.
We had a late supper at Clos Maggiore in the theatre district, a romantic little restaurant with good food, a fantastic winelist and disjointed service. Then home to bed, my toothlessness still not a problem. Yay!
We tried another Gordon Ramsay restaurant for lunch, Maze. It was a short walk through Mayfair, a really charming part of the city.
Maze is near all the embassies that cluster around Grosvenor Square. It’s fairly different from Petrus, more casual, with lots of small plates to graze upon. Same pricing: reasonable at lunch, crazy at dinner.
For dinner Dani wanted something simple, so we walked a few blocks to Delfino Pizzeria and had a very pleasant (outdoor!) dinner with a nice bottle of Amarone. Who would have imagined we’d be dining Al Fresco in London?
I loved the note at the bottom of the restaurant’s menu:
“Health and Safety Compliance Notice: Some dishes may contain nuts, olives may contain stones, wine contains alcohol, knives can be sharp, coffee can be hot…ENJOY YOUR MEAL!!”
I was awakened by Linda informing me it was 11:30AM and we were about to miss our lunch reservation! A quick shower and short cab ride took us to Petrus, one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, where we had a leisurely, expensive, pleasant but not remarkable lunch. The room and service were great, and I’m glad we had a chance to check it out at one fourth of the insane dinner prices.
Afterward, I was proud of myself for successfully navigating the surrounding residential area to take us straight to Harrods, where we laughed at the prices and bought some cheese, ham and bread for a picnic.
In the evening we went to our favorite London venue, the enchanting Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. There’s something magical about theatre in the woods, all the more so since the show was Into the Woods! We enjoyed a bottle of wine, some stinky cheese and French bread at a picnic table and then went in to the show, where we had front row seats due to our extreme advance planning. This is the fourth show we’ve seen here, and while all were good, this was superb. As always, Sondheim’s material is challenging to both performers and audience, and the second half of this show is somewhat expendable, but the cast was fantastic, and the direction was genius. In fact, the director discovered a whole second show in the role of the narrator, who he cast as a young boy lost in the woods, telling the story using his toys. Wow!
I wasn’t sure about the place we booked. It sounded good, but you never know in England, where the rooms can be small and tired. But Flemings turned out to be a real gem.
Just a couple minute cab ride from Victoria Station, it’s on a quiet side street off of Green Park near Piccadilly.
Our suite has a private entrance. It contains a large living room, dining room and kitchen (with washer/dryer) on the first floor. Downstairs there are two bedrooms, two baths, and a private garden in the rear. A lovely home base for the next five days.
After a nap we walked around and ended up having the day’s meal at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, a place it turned out Dani and I had eaten at about ten years ago.
The Gatwick Express train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Station runs non-stop and only takes about a half hour. It’s easy to buy tickets at the machines, but less confusing to buy them on the train.
And so we set out for a three week adventure, first to London, then a peculiar repositioning cruise that will take us to odd places on the way back to New York. Our morning flight from Orlando left us a loooong layover in Atlanta, the price to be paid for free first class tickets on the red eye to London. After hanging out in the Delta lounge we head out over the Atlantic.
For Dani’s 16th birthday she asked to take her friend Christina, to Europe. This is the journal of that trip.
The only time Christina has been out of the country was on Dani’s 13th birthday cruise to Nassau, so this will be an adventure for her. We picked her up Friday evening and headed for the airport to catch our nonstop Virgin Atlantic flight to Gatwick airport south of London, connecting on British Air to Rome.
The Virgin flight is one of the few nonstops from Orlando to Europe, and they offer premium economy, which has better seats than coach but is much less expensive than business class. The food is still English, though.
Saturday, June 30, 2007
London to Rome
The girls didn’t get much sleep to speak of on the plane and I got none (my own fault since we were all wearing our ipods, and I was listening to the lyrics).
The plane got into Gatwick a little late but we had a five our layover. Good thing! What a mess it was! At first the immigration line simply wasn’t moving, and there were hundreds of people in front of us from several large planes. But finally, after they processed all the EU people, they must have put more people on the non-EU line. Still, it rook more than an hour to clear immigration, Another hour to get our bags and get checked in at British Air, and then more time to clear security back to the gates. We had to run a gauntlet of eight guys with assault rifles (they must have had some inside intelligence since there was a problem later at Glasgow airport), do the normal X-ray, and then X-ray our shoes separately in a small, shoe-sized X-Ray machine. Gatwick really is broken. The flow and policies make no sense. I don’t know if I’d try to connect through there again or not.
For lunch number 2 (or was it 3?) the girls picked a revolving sushi place that was excellent. That’s where there is a conveyor belt and you take what you want, and then pay according to the stack of empty color coded plates.
Then the plane for Rome was delayed an hour getting into Gatwick. We were dragging by this time, But we had hot chocolate and got our second wind.
The main problem was that the entire population of Western Europe was at the airport. I suspect that’s because it was the first Saturday of summer and everyone was headed for the Mediterranean. Given the cold, rainy weather in London I can see why.
By contrast the Rome airport was a breeze. First time I’ve seen someone stamp passports without looking at them at all!
Our driver was waiting for us and the trip into Rome was quick. We rode with another threesome embarking on a different Globus tour from a different hotel. They are from San Francisco and just spent two weeks in Spain.
The hotel is in a great location, just a half block from St. Peter’s. It’s fairly newly refurbished with nice wood flooring and trim and new furniture.
It was so late the girls didn’t want to nap, they just wanted dinner and bed, so we walked the half block to the edge of the Vatican and had pizza in a local hangout – located literally within the thickness of an ancient wall — that sold it by weight from a deli case. Then we crossed the street and had the best chocolate gelato I’ve had since the last time I was in Rome. The weather was great. 77 degrees.
Now I need to answer a pile of ed2go postings and get to bed.
Sunday, July 1, 2007
I was awakened by the phone this morning. It was Dani informing me it was 11 AM! Admittedly, I was up until midnight doing email, but I was surprised how late I slept.
The weather was beautiful today, mid 80s and a slight breeze. We slathered ourselves in sunscreen and set out to walk across the city.
We passed St. Peter’s square at noon and saw (a teeny dot in the distance) and heard the Pope speaking to the multitudes. Then we crossed the Tiber, bought some postcards in an antique book shop (Dani’s postcard torrent begins) and made our way to the Pantheon.
In the square there we had lunch at the same outdoor cafe as on our last visit, then ventured into the immense coolness of the Pantheon.
I didn’t bring a guidebook on this trip, so I had to wing it, but I think I got most everything right except possibly the part about it having been built by Haliburton.
Next stop was the Trevi fountain, where we all threw coins in to guarantee our return to Rome on a future visit.
On our way back we spotted the Roman ruins (pictured on many of the local postcards) where there are hundreds of cats fed by local cat ladies. Then we meowed for a taxi and caught a ride back to the hotel. A very successful day.
We met our tour group this evening in the lobby. They seem very nice. The demographics are interesting. It’s a much younger group than usual, with 8 of the 44 being teenage or recently teenage girls. This is nearly everyone’s first visit to Europe.
Out Tour Director is Lia, short for Cornelia. She is a middle aged Dutch woman with a great sense of humor.
Dinner was at “The Grotto of the Emperors,” a basement restaurant similar to all the other basement restaurants that cater to tourist groups. The six course dinner and free wine were tasty, and the entertainment by a trio of accordion/guitar/opera singers was. . . clearly audible.
By the end the group looked ready for bed, but we felt completely on schedule. Good thing, because our wakeup call tomorrow is 5:45 AM.
Monday, July 2, 2007
The early wakeup call wasn’t all that bad. After a traditional European hotel buffet breakfast we took our coach around to the other side of the Vatican to queue for the tour. We arrived about 40 minutes before the group opening at 8 AM, which was a good thing, because I’ve never seen the Vatican so crowded. This was because Friday through Sunday it was closed for a holiday.
Our local guide, Patricia, spoke exceptional English, but the microphone on her Whisper audio system wasn’t picking her up all that well. When she narrated on the bus it was great, though.
At the Vatican Museum we toured the Roman sculpture gallery, the tapestry gallery, and the map gallery. In other words, the usual hallway that leads to the Sistine Chapel. Patricia provided an excellent explanation of the history of the frescoes in the chapel before hand, since there is no talking (only mooing) allowed in the chapel. We found an uncrowded corner with only about 400 people in it and admired the art for 20 minutes.
Then it was next door to Saint Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. The dome in Saint Peter’s Basilica is so high the 34-story Sun Bank building in Orlando would fit in it. Our exploration was somewhat cursory compared to the private tour Linda and I took a couple of years ago, but everyone’s feet were tired anyway.
We walked across St. Peter’s Square (it was hot!) to a (you’ll never guess) Vatican gift shop. For the past two days I’ve been trying to cash a 500 Euro bill, but the hotel never has enough cash. But guess who does? Yup.
The girls bought Vatican stamps to mail their first pile of postcards, we had a soft drink, and then entered a tunnel that led to an amazing parking garage designed for tour buses. Next stop: the Coliseum.
We got a nice break in the weather, as it began to cloud over and a breeze came up, and there were even a couple of sprinkles. By the time we reached the Coliseum. it had probably cooled off ten degrees.
Did you know that “Coliseum” is only a nickname, because it had a colossal statue in front? Unfortunately, like every other piece of metal in ancient Roman it has long since been melted down. But the name stuck. I guess “The Flavian Amphitheater” didn’t have much of a ring to it.
It was a lightning fast tour, but it worked (Linda would have been frustrated, though). Then we climbed the hill to overlook the forum.
There is an exhibition being put together, and they have erected stark white plastic(!) columns in the places where the original columns are missing from the temple that overlooked the Coliseum. That gave us an interesting impression of how big the thing was.
We arrived back at the hotel around 1 PM, freshened up, and strolled a block toward the Tiber, where we had lunch in an outdoor cafe down the street from St. Peter’s Square. As we walked back, it was beginning to sprinkle lightly.
Nearly all of our group went back out again at 3 PM for an optional $80 tour, to do what we did on Sunday, followed by another group dinner (but will there be another demon accordionist?) We, on the other hand, got to relax, do postcards, journals, and naps. At 8 PM we went out and wandered around the neighborhood until we found a trattoria that suited us and had a leisurely dinner. Then we walked back to our gelato place for desert.
I’m really glad we had the extra day. We got to touch on all the highlights of Rome without overdoing it.
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Rome to Florence
We left Rome at 8 AM and had an easy drive to Florence, entertained along the way by Lia’s sense of humor, and arriving a bit after noon.
We had a fairly poor lunch at the Grande Café at San Marcos Square and then queued for the Uffizi Gallery. It takes a month to get reservations, so I had never seen it. Our local guide was fine, but took us only to a room of religious icons and to see Michelangelo’s David. I explored an extensive and ornate musical instrument exhibit and quickly walked through a sculpture hall while she prattled on the headset.
David looked just like the exact replica of him in Piazza Signoria. I really don’t see what all the fuss is about David. His head’s too big for his body and his hands are too big for even his head.
We then walked to the cathedral to view Brunelleschi’s Dome (only from street level, although some brave soles had climbed 34 stories) and the brass doors of the baptistery (which are copies of the originals).
Next we walked to the Piazza Signoria where we saw the Rape of the Sabine Women (not the actual event, a sculpture). We had seen the plaster model for this at the Uffizi, and it looked just the same only cleaner.
Finally we walked to the Piazza San Croce, where we met up with Lia, who ushered us into a gold and leather shop. Expecting one of the normal hard sells, I was pleasantly surprised by the brief and entertaining presentation about Florence gold. But what was really good was the leather presentation, which was very funny and informative. A number of the people on the tour got to model the coats for us, most amusingly, and Dani actually ended up buying a very nice (i. e. expensive) leather coat that looks great on her. Since she spent her schoolbook refund money on it, I like to think she’s wearing everything she learned this year.
By the time we walked to the bus (did I mention they’re not allowed anywhere in the old city?) we were ready to sit down. Florence is cute, and has some nice art, leather and gold, but for me, five hours was just the right stay. It’s not a place that excites me, the way Rome does.
Our hotel, the Cosmopolitan, is a bit west of the city. It’s very new and European chic, with proximity switches at the door. The group dinner on the third floor was okay, and the Montipulciano was excellent. .
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Florence to Venice
We left Florence at 8 AM and header over and through the Apennines on the fours hour drive to Venice. The scenery along the way was initially green mountains with a sprinkling of houses and olive groves, but near Venice it changed to pastureland. The weather in Florence looked threatening, but in Venice is was mostly clear and about 90 degrees.
A water bus took us from the end of the bridge to Saint Mark’s square. With a little time to ourselves, we strolled along some of the smaller passages and had some delicious sandwiches and calzones at a snack counter. Then we met our local guide back at Saint Mark’s for some information about the history of Venice.
While we waited to enter the cathedral we noticed water coming up from the drains as the tide came in, driven by a strong wind. Before we could enter they had to change to a door at a higher elevation. Inside, the cathedral is fairly ugly, although it is admittedly almost 1000 years old. The tiled floor rolled like the sea due to settling.
The local guide dropped us off at the Murano Glass shop — not the real one on the island, but a huge shop a block or two from Saint Mark’s Square, with many floors and many rooms on each floor. We saw a demonstration of glass blowing, where the craftsman mad a fairly elaborate vase in about three minutes. It was really impressive and fun to watch as always. Afterwards we shopped for glass thingamabobs and wandered the narrow passageways until it was time for our gondola ride.
Unfortunately, it was also time for a storm, and it got cool and began to pour. On the bright side, we weren’t already in the gondola.
Instead, we went to one of the cafes off of the square where we paid extortionist prices for espressos and listened to live jazz.
After about thirty minutes the rain stopped and the girls ventured out to feed the pigeons. One of the decided to go for a ride on Dani’s head, and was content to sit there as we strolled about a block. It must have been migrating.
A few people did stick around and got a gondola ride, including a couple celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary. Last year she lost the stone from her wedding ring and has been wearing a cheap replacement. On the ride he took her ring, threw it overboard, and gave her a nice new one.
Then we caught the water bus back to the land bus to our hotel. The Hotel Anthony is not far from the bridge to the island. It’s an older hotel in fairly good shape, but it’s the kind of place where the shampoo comes in a Taco Bell hot sauce packet. Definitely not four star. My first stop was the front desk, to pay three Euros for the “free” wireless Internet service.
We had a group dinner at the hotel that was fine, and shared our Ferrari Spumante (fairly dry, like off-dry Champagne) with the anniversary couple.
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Venice to Lucerne
We spent Thursday on the bus from Venice to Lucerne. Leaving the hotel at 7:30, we took a wrong turn at Milano and so had lunch in a truck stop. It was delicious! Unfortunately, this cost us an hour or two of extra driving time.
Our morning drive paralleled the Dolomite Mountains. After lunch we turned north and began to climb up into the Alps.
The buses here record the driver’s hours on a paper disk (to become electronic next year), and the drivers have lots of restrictions, including a 45 minute break every four hours. (In fact, tomorrow our driver isn’t allowed to drive at all, hence our two-day stay in Lucerne. )
We stopped in Lugano for one of these breaks. It’s where the home office of Globus is. Lugano is a beautiful and pricey shopping area and resort just past the Italian/Swiss border.
It seemed strange to have to stop at the border at all, but of course Switzerland isn’t part of the EU (which means we’ll need some Swiss Francs, too).
After Lugano the road climbed steeply, and we entered the most picturesque scenery I’ve encountered. Sharp, snow rimmed peaks towered above us, their bases blanketed by emerald grass. Cows with placid brown eyes and real cowbells around their necks grazed on the steep slopes, well above the treeline.
We stopped at 6000 foot Gotthard Pass to take photos and discovered the temperature had dropped from 90 degrees to 50 degrees during our half hour ascent.
On the other side of the pass, rivulets collected in a small pond, flowing out in a gradually increasing stream — the headwaters of the Rhine. It twisted between grass-carpeted shoulders and rocky outcroppings.
Passing through the narrowest gorges, the scenery resembled a model train layout, with its exaggerated topography, crisscrossing railroad and foot bridges, and cascading waterfalls. In many spots the road was covered to prevent avalanches or rock slides from scraping the cars off. Occasional outposts or solitary cottages appeared unexpectedly around each bend.
As we descended we passed from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland to the Swiss-Deutsch part, which represents 70% of the country. The road curved through many tunnels, the longest of which was 9 kilometer. There is a far longer tunnel that bypasses the pass, but we didn’t take that one because we would have missed the scenery.
We arrived in Lucerne at 7pm, after almost 12 hours on the bus. Good thing it’s a comfortable bus and Lia is so entertaining! The temperature was back up to 80 degrees .
Our hotel, the Astoria, is in the center of downtown. It has many restaurants, and there is a lot of shopping nearby, and it’s a short walk to the lake. The hotel is the poorest of the trip so far, but is, frankly, more like what I was expecting. The soap is literally less than a square inch, and comes in its own hot sauce packet.
The hotel’s atmosphere isn’t helped by major construction of a meeting hall. The view outside my window is of a twenty foot square concrete room, and their is scaffolding inches from the glass. On the other hand, the street noise we were warned about won’t be a problem in this room!
Anyway, it’s nice to be off the bus. Most of the group was going to a folklore dinner, but we weren’t really in the mood for something so touristy, so we strolled across the historic wooden bridge to the other side of the river and had fondue and dinner in an outdoor cafe at the Hotel des Alpes.
I stayed up until midnight doing my journal, responding to students and trying to upload files through the lame Internet service at the hotel. I was sitting in the temporary lobby when our well-oiled group returned from the folklore dinner. Reports were enthusiastic, but I’m not really into events that include a beer drinking contest, so I’m glad we skipped it.
Friday, July 6, 2007
Another 6 AM wakeup call, for an early breakfast and ride on a coach borrowed from another group. We were the first ones to to board the cog wheel railway that ascends Mount Pilatus. The weather at the base was mixed sun and overcast, so we weren’t sure what it would be like on top.
Legend has it that after Pontius Pilate committed suicide the area where he was buried was cursed. So the Romans moved him to the most remote spot they could think of. This was it. (Personally, if I’d been assigned to do that, I would have dumped him off a bridge and just claimed I buried him on top of a 7000 foot mountain, but hey. ) There was also something about a dragon guarding it, but I missed the connection somewhere.
Anyway, Globus gave us these really nice embroidered caps with the dragon on them, so our entire group looked like a coed baseball team.
The cog wheel train ascends the mountain at a steep angle, near 47 degrees in most spots, so the trip up was spectacular. Towering fir trees gradually gave way to grassy slopes broken by the occasional slide of gravel sliding down a sheer face, or rivulets splashing over jagged boulders. Halfway up we passed a farmhouse. The farmer had already taken his cows even higher on the hillside, and in another few minutes we heard their cow bells ringing, and then passed them as they grazed. (I’d love to have heard the conversation: “Hey, look at that really tall mountain. The top of that would be a great place to graze cows. “)
At the top we passed into the underside of the clouds, so except for occasional glimpses, visibility was near zero. It was about 40 degrees, with a stiff wind blowing. Stiff enough that we couldn’t take the gondolas down, which is too bad, I’m sure it would have been amazing. But we enjoyed the ride down on the cog wheel train, too.
Back downtown we visited the Lion sculpted from the rock face, the most famous site in Lucerne. It commemorates the Swiss Guards killed while unsuccessfully defending Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. If you look carefully you can see that the sculptor played a joke on his patron, who he thought was a pig. Look at the outline of the opening.
Nearby we stopped at Bucherer’s department store to use some vouchers for free spoons and buy some chocolate. Nice jewelry and Rolex watches here. The prices aren’t as outrageous as the rest of Europe.
Near the lion sculpture is a restaurant Lia recommended called The Old Swiss House. Its traditional architecture in the midst of the modern city makes it look a bit like a tourist attraction, but the three of us decided to try it. Wow! What a fabulous meal. The gazpacho was the best I’ve ever tasted (sorry Linda) with fresh diced ingredients served on the side to dump in to your taste.
Weinershnitzel was prepared tableside. Let’s just say a serving for one involved two sticks of butter. And the creme brulee (called burned cream catalan here) was possibly the best I’ve ever had. Best of all, I discovered they were a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner with a very deep list of old Bordeaux at crazy prices. Would you believe 1961 Ch. Croizet-Bages for $130? I couldn’t resist. What a fantastic bottle of wine that was! On the way out the proprietor pointed out their Mouton vertical — every vintage back to the 19th century! Because every year’s label is unique, the worst years are the most expensive, since those bottle were not laid away. So the 1946, which I’m sure would be undrinkable, set them back $12,000! Anyway, it was an amazing experience, and all three of us really enjoyed it.
After lunch we did some tourist shopping. While the girls were in a bookstore I found an inexpensive digital camera as a gift for Christina. Her camera has been eating batteries like a demon, so I think she’ll have a lot more fun with this one.
We strolled back to the hotel and had a restful afternoon, then a group dinner (tasty sauteed fish with a lemon sauce) in the dining room.
Saturday, July 7, 2007
Lucerne to Paris
We spent most of Saturday on the bus. Almost as soon as we left Lucerne, the scenery changed to rolling hills and farmland. We skirted a few outlying vineyards in Burgundy, but the most memorable sights were the many vibrant colored fields of sunflowers. Several truck stops provided breaks and lunch, and we arrived at the Holiday Inn Republique around 5 pm. Dani and I stayed here once before, but it has been remodeled since then. It’s a large, older hotel with nice rooms. They serve a full complimentary breakfast and the worst (i. e. American) coffee in Paris.
After a couple of hours rest we headed back out for an evening sightseeing tour. We’ve only purchased two of the optional excursions on this trip because we know our way around these cities. This tour was particularly popular, with 100% enrollment by the group.
Because Miguela couldn’t drive any more that day, we borrowed a bus from another group, a Trafalgar tour. This bus had 52 seats compared to our 44, and would have been very uncomfortable for daily use.
We began by passing through one of the seediest parts of Paris, an unlikely combination of wedding shops and sex shops. We disembarked in front of the Moulin Rouge, which I hadn’t realized was in the midst of this detritus. A tourist tram took us up the hill that is Montmartre. The district turned first trendy, then touristy as we reached the top, where Sacre Coeur overlooks the city.
Searching for a non-touristy restaurant we walked away from the square and tried a restaurant called La Bonne Franquette. Unfortunately it turned out to be just as touristy as the rest, and they tried to pull a bait and switch on the wine I tried to order. The food was mediocre by French standards, but certainly adequate.
After dinner we purchased chocolate and Nutella crepes from a take out window and strolled back to the tram stop.
It was now past 10 pm and the lights of the city began to come on. We drove around the city admiring the lights along the Champs Elysee and then stopped at the Eiffel Tower, where Lia convinced everyone someone was going to jump off. Of course what we were really waiting for was the strobe light illumination that occurs for ten minutes at 10 pm, 11 pm and midnight. This is part of the system installed for the Millennium, and recently put back into use.
On the way back to the hotel we drove past Notre Dame and through the Marais district, with its bustling gay bars.
By the time we returned to the hotel and I did some email it was nearly 1 am, not leaving much sleeping time before our 6 am wakeup call.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
The streets were nearly deserted Sunday morning, a big contrast to Saturday night. Our local guide, Isabella, took us, past Notre Dame and the Sorbonne, then to the Eiffel Tower to get into line early, before its 9 am opening. We had tickets to the second floor, but considered leaving the tour and going to the top. In the end we opted for convenience and stayed with the group, getting dropped off on the Rue de Rivoli outside the Louvre. We had a late breakfast or early lunch at Angelina, a tea room similar to our favorite, La Duree. Ahh! at last! French food. Baguettes, cheeses and super rich hot chocolate.
We walked to the pyramid and entered the Louvre, which was perhaps a bit less crowded than on our last couple of visits.
We spent about two hours doing the highlights, including the medieval castle they unearthed when digging the new basement, the Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa and Winged Victory of Samathrace.
We probably spent the most time in the 17th century Flanders galleries. All told I estimate we walked though about five percent of the Louvre.
Back on the Rue Rivoli we had drinks in a sidewalk cafe and the girl went to the nearby fun fair and rode one of those rides with the swings around the edge.
Henry, the director of Alcorn McBride sarl, picked us up a bit before 5 pm and took us to the Champs Elysee for dinner. His son Zacharie came along tool. Zacharie is now fours years old, a handsome little boy.
Originally we had intended to hang out for a while and then go to dinner later, but we were all tired and Zacharie was feeling a bit under the weather, so we decided to have an early dinner at Fouquet’s, a famous restaurant across from Louis Vuitton on the Champs Elysee.
The food was surprisingly good for a touristy place, and we enjoyed having a chance to relax and chat with Henry. We were back at out hotel before 8 pm, and enjoyed a good night’s sleep.
Monday, July 9, 2007
Paris to London
After breakfast we took a short bus ride to the Gare de Nord, where we said goodbye to our driver, Miguela, and caught the TGV train. Once on the outskirts of Paris, the train accelerated to over 200 miles per hour, and the French countryside raced past.
It goes slower in the chunnel, because of the amount of air is displaces as it moves through the relatively constrained space. The chunnel transit took about 20 minutes. When we emerged in England we traveled slower, because the track is not as good. We arrived at Waterloo Station shortly before 1pm, with a one our time change.
A bus ride across London brought us to the Hilton Metropole, a large convention hotel that is quite comfortable. We said goodbye to our tour director, Lia, and were handed over to the Globus representative who work in the office at the Hilton. We didn’t sign up for any of the optional London tours, so we’ll be mostly on our own, now.
Dani and Christina took advantage of the comfortable beds and had a long nap. For dinner we rode the elevator up to the 23rd floor and had a nice Japanese meal at Nippon Tuk (is that name a joke?)
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
We were extremely lucky with the weather today It has been raining in London for a month, but today was lovely, with scattered clouds and temperatures in the mid seventies. More importantly, it was a lovely evening for the open air theatre.
Our day began with the last Globus event, a city tour around London. We passed all the usual sites and then stopped at St. Paul’s where we left the tour and walked across the Millennium Bridge to Shakespeare’s Globe theater. Dani and I saw Coriolanus here on our last visit, but this time we just took the guided tour, which was quite interesting, and gave us a chance to experience to view from the yard and the lower seating. We discovered that the second tier seats have more legroom than the third tier seats we sat in last year.
A couple of performers in one of the current shows were rehearsing while we were there, and they seemed to be fairly mediocre.
After the tour we crossed back over the Thames and caught the underground to Embankment, where we had fish and chips and curried chick for lunch in the cafe in the park. There are many fewer pigeons in London than there used to be because it’s now prohibited to feed them. They seemed quite put out about this.
We walked to Trafalgar Square and spent an hour in the 18th century painting wing of the National Gallery. It was quite impressive to see rooms full of paintings by Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Van Gogh.
I think everyone’s favorite painting was “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” in which artist Joseph Wright perfectly captured the varied emotions of each person present.
Our next stop was Harrods, which is more like an entire city inside one store. Dani wanted to proved to herself that you can even buy bridles for your horse in this department store. You can. But like almost everything else at Harrods, they’re expensive. Our purchase was sandwiches, bread and cheese for tonight’s picnic.
Back at the hotel the girls took a long nap and then we took the tube to Regent’s Park. Outside we picnicked under the tents, but the girls didn’t like the yellowjacket that was interested in our sandwiches. Ah, the joys of outdoor dining.
Macbeth was interesting. It was staged very similarly to Trinity Prep’s production, using a mixture of modern costumes and traditional plaid. The set was several large cargo containers.
All of the performers were either marginally or significantly better than their Trinity counterparts, with one glaring exception: Lady Macbeth. She played only one emotion — ruthlessness — throughout. And her sleepwalking scene was completely emotionless. I could feel Dani next to me, struggling not to jump up and show her how to do it.
After the show we walked back to the tube, and were back at the hotel by 11:30.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
We took advantage of a rare day with no wakeup call to sleep in, and nearly missed the 10:30 cutoff for breakfast. Then we took the tube across town to The British Museum, where we spent a couple of hours looking at all the stuff the British stole from Greece and Egypt.
Avoiding the mediocre Indian restaurant we tried last time, we found another a half block north, called Chambeli, and enjoyed a leisurely four course lunch before returning to the hotel for naps before the show.
Linda had arrived for her day and a half in London, and was napping, too.
In the evening we went to the West End to see Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre. The staging of the show was amazing, with an entire house moving up and down, the attic and roof top expanding as needed, and lots of ‘magic. ‘ It used the original songs from the movie to great advantage, but more closely followed the book. The performers were all terrific, and the audience loved it.
I like act 2 better than act 1, because it does a better job of finding the story, which is about the father. The new songs they added are formulaic, and don’t measure up to the originals, but there aren’t many of them. It builds to one of the best endings for a musical I’ve seen.
After the show we crossed the street and had an Excellent Thai meal at Patara. We got back to out hotel a bit after midnight, answering the question: “Do underground day passes really expire at midnight?” Not if you’re already inside the turnstiles.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
We slept in, then took a rather circuitous three segment underground ride to Marble Arch, a nearby place that’s hard to get to from our hotel. Today was the culinary highlight of our trip, a visit to Le Gavroche, London’s first 3-star Michelin restaurant (although now two start, since the original chef retired and his son has taken over.
Lunch consisted of eight courses:
Rare peppered tuna
Asparagus tips with truffles
Wild salmon with crispy skin
Fois Gras and a duck pastry
Rack of lamb
Cheese cart with about 50 selections
Chocolate Gateau and sorbet
Yes, there were two desserts. Plus petits fours! Oh, and an amuse bouche to start. Oh, and hors d’oeuvres upstairs before hand.
There were about as many employees as guests, and the service was orchestrated like a ballet. Linda and I had the wine pairings with the lunch, and shared a taste with the girls. All eight wines were top notch, and brilliant matches to the food. The standout was a 1928 Maury Solera. The wines:
Liefmanns Kriek Cherry Beer (amazing!)
Don Jose Sherry Olorosa (bone dry)
Puligny Montrachet, “La Truffiere,” Morey, 1999
Tokay Pinot Gris, Beyer, 1997
Ch. de Villegeorge 1999 (Haut Medoc)
Le Soula 2002 (Rhone)
Maury Solera 1928
Vin de Constance 2001 (muscat)
I particularly enjoyed the Boulette d’Avesnes, an orange pyramid of cheese that we also had at L’Arpege, the 3-star Michelin in Paris.
It was an amazing three hour lunch.
To complete our European spree we headed for The Victoria Theatre and London’s greatest musical, Billy Elliot. It’s a particular treat to see this show, because it will probably never play in the US, due to its apparent appeal to young people but its extremely salty language. Dani and I saw it last year, but Linda wasn’t with us. This show is the reason for her whirlwind trip.
The show was terrific, but not as good as when Dani and I saw it last year with the original cast. This Billy was perhaps a better actor, and had a more modern dance style, and his enthusiasm made us suspect it was one of his first shows. They made some staging and dialogue changes that sometimes worked better but other times didn’t. The final half hour was particularly good, though. The show has a unique way of dancing through the bows that it quite exciting.
All in all, a very fine last day to our trip.
Friday, July 13, 2007
London to Orlando
We took advantage of Globus’ transfer service to get to the airport. It’s a really easy and economical way to do it. Meanwhile Linda headed off separately with a driver to catch her Delta flight.
Gatwick airport wasn’t the madhouse it was two weeks ago, although security was very, very tight. The only complication was that our tickets were for the next day(!) I’m not sure how that happened, but an extraordinarily helpful Virgin Atlantic agent at the baggage counter took care of getting our tickets changed, and we were all set.
I dozed during the nine-hour nonstop to Orlando, and Dani read Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, about her tenth book of the trip.
We cleared customs in record time, and despite a jam on I4 dropped Christina at home before 7pm. Linda arrived shortly after 9pm.
First Day in Rome
The Old Swiss House
Dani’s final postcard tally for the trip: 43.
Some Tips for Next Time
Globus buses seat 44, while Trafalgar buses seat 52. That would be a big difference in comfort over a week or more.
The little, laminated, folding map of London is great.
Chambeli is a good Indian restaurant on Southampton Row between the British Museum and the Russell Square underground station.
There also is a large Indian restaurant on the circular road around Regent’s park, a bit west of the south entrance.
When in Lucerne — even passing through at noon — eat at the Old Swiss House.
Consider avoiding connections in Gatwick. Orlando to Miami/Atlanta/JFK to Rome would be better.
Best seats for Billy Elliot would be front row of the balcony, because nearly all of the orchestra puts your eye level below the stage floor, so it’s hard to see the tap dancing.
Rome – Starhotels Michelangelo **** Florence – Cosmopolitan Hotel ***** Venice – Alberghi Antony Hotel *** Lucerne – Astoria Hotel ** Paris – Holiday Inn République **** London – Hilton London Metropole ****
It was an easy trip. We took off about half and hour late for unexplained reasons, so arrived about the same amount late, shortly after 7am London time. The “premium economy” cabin on Virgin Atlantic was spacious. It occupied the top deck of a 747, with only two-and-two seating, plus a wide center aisle and side storage bins (since the overhead bins were small). There was lots of legroom, but the seat was narrow and the hardness of a church pew. Worth twice economy? Hmmm. . . that’s a close call. Which I suppose means they’ve priced it just right, from a business standpoint. I did get a few hours restless sleep, between trying to find new positions for my tailbone. I’m not sure Dani did. Alcohol flowed freely. These Brits like their booze. The food was also tasty, with beef stew turning out to be pot roast in barbecue sauce. No mistaking it for Air France, though. The lack of a connection and quickness of the flight were certainly selling points.
Immigration was slow. Our plane only had a dozen or two Americans. The English breezed through, while we got stuck in the midst of two planeloads from Ghana. As we waited in line we discovered we were next to a family with a seventh grade son in Trinity Prep!
Thursday, June 8, 2006
The Renaissance Gatwick is a good choice for the stopover. It’s next to the airport, has spacious rooms (by Europeans standards) and they let us have the first room that got cleaned, so we were able to get settled after only a half hour wait in the lobby. We were napping by 9:30am.
When we awoke we hooked up our Gordian knot of electrical cords to get everything recharged. In the afternoon we had a room service lunch of fish & chips and cottage pie. English food is amazing. It’s the only place in the world where they brag about your meal coming with “mushy peas”. The fish was actually decent, if greasy. There’s a bit of sticker shock here, though, as the exchange rate is $2 to one pound. So lunch was about $70.
Tomorrow’s flight leaves at 7am, so I arranged for the shuttle at 4:45am (ouch)! I guess there’s no point in even trying to get on local schedule quite yet. Our goal is just to get plenty of sleep and then hit the road again.
Friday, June 9, 2006
We arrived in the lobby at 4:46 for our 4:45 shuttle and discovered it had left. But the 5:15 shuttle got us to the airport in time — thanks to kiosk check-in — to have a pretty awful bagel while waiting for our gate to be assigned. The bagel was nothing compared to the almost indescribable snack served on British Airways, which was rendered all the more appalling because I suspect it turned out exactly as intended. Picture a stale dinner role with a slice of hard-boiled egg and a fragment of half-cooked bacon, and you’ve got the picture.
Air transit has suddenly become competitive in Europe, and even British Airways has been forced to drop their prices. A table in the flight magazine compared the rates from 1996 with this year: London to Nice – 239 pounds vs. 39 pounds.
The approach into Nice was beautiful, with clear, temperate weather to enjoy the view: golden beaches and Mediterranean villas, dotting the San Diego-like coastline.
Quite a few of our fellow passengers arrived on the same flight or about the same time; a whole herd of them were loaded onto buses. Since we didn’t book our airfare through the cruise line, I’d asked our travel agent to arrange a private van. This worked out well, as Dani enjoyed testing her two years of French on our driver, her first opportunity to try communicating in the real world. It seemed quite successful.
The trip from Nice to Monaco takes about thirty minutes. The road crosses several long viaducts and passes through a dozen or two tunnels, the last of which is nearly one mile long. After winding through one final French village, we arrived in Monaco, a country comprised of one bay, filled from edge to edge with the city of Monte Carlo. We threaded our way past the famous casino and fancy hotels on a narrow street still lined with barriers from the grand prix, held two weeks ago. By 11:30 we arrived at the Hotel Meridien, where a continental breakfast was provided during our two-hour wait for transport to the ship.
Since there’s no terminal in Monte Carlo, check-in was on-board. Everything went speedily — possibly because of the total absence of any security screening — and we were soon in our cabin. It’s the farthest cabin toward the stern on deck seven, so there’s some engine vibration, but this was the price we paid (or didn’t pay) for not having a pre-assigned cabin. At a savings of $1800, it was a good decision.
The cabin is pretty much the lowest category on the ship, yet it’s as nice as almost any we’ve had: a bit larger than category AC on Royal Caribbean, and outfitted in the same quality as that ship’s suites. In fact, the vast majority of cabins on this ship are identical to this one, and some of the suites have no more square footage, so this is an excellent buy.
Our cabin stewardess is a Pilipino (of course!) named Priscilla. She’s very cheerful and super efficient. Throughout the cruise she would anticipate our needs and adapt her housekeeping to the way we used the cabin. She certainly wasn’t unique, though. During any walk down the hall we were likely to be engaged in conversation with several stewardesses. It’s a surprising result of the no-tipping policy, that every employee has a stake in every passenger enjoying their entire cruise. The ship carries 700-odd (well, actually “old”) passengers, but doesn’t seem tremendously smaller than the Coral Princess. Service is extremely polite, interesting since there’s no tipping. We had a salad and burger for a late lunch on the pool deck, and the food seems typical.
Wireless Internet in the cabin seems solid, although the actual connection to the internet is iffy, so we’ll see how this goes. . .
We thought lifeboat drill would be more pleasant than usual because our muster station is the upscale Signature restaurant, but after gathering there we had to march outside single file with our hands on each others’ shoulders to our lifeboat stations. Princess and NCL seem to feel this step is unnecessary. I wonder if our captain is a pessimist.
Dani got a much needed — although unintended — nap, and then we we had dinner in The Compass Rose, the ship’s main dining room. An oddity of this ship is that all the dining areas close at 9am, so the only food available after that is from room service.
The dining room was very busy, but we were cheerfully greeted and offered our choice of several nice tables. The menu degustation was a multi course affair consisting of a shellfish assortment, consume, mussels, intermezzo, chicken cordon bleu, and dessert. The food all looked spectacular, but its taste was, in general, typical of cruise ship food — nothing spectacular. The standout was actually the Kahlua sorbet served as the intermezzo. For dessert I had a cheese plate which has some nice cheeses including L’explorateur and Maytag blue, although they were much too cold to really taste. I’m not sure why this was the case, as on subsequent night a real cheese cart was available, with room temperature selections that changed each day.
Service was beyond excellent — this continued to be the case throughout the cruise — and the wines that accompanied dinner were very nice, including an interesting South African sauvignon blanc and a superb California pinot noir from Alapay.
Dani took a break in the middle of dinner to attend the organizational meeting for teens. She reported that there are about fifty kids on board, including many seasoned 13-year-old travelers, but almost no one 14-17.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
We slept late, but I awoke in time to shower and dress before our 9:30 room service breakfast arrived. It’s temperate but overcast today, a pleasant day for sitting on the balcony and watching the waves, or working on my new writing class.
In the afternoon we walked around the ship. All of the public areas are on decks 4, 5 and 11, which is similar to the design of the newer Princess ships such as the Coral Princess. Although the ship is scaled down from that size, it stills seems fairly large, and since there are only 700 passengers, it feels deserted. Perhaps it was deserted — everyone we saw was younger than 60, which is not representative of the demographics in the dining room last night.
The fit and finish are certainly better than any other ship I’ve been on, with tasteful decorating and top notch materials. It doesn’t handle that well in rough water, though, and even today’s swells had us weaving in the corridors.
There are some very nice spaces on the ship, including a piano bar, coffee and espresso bar, and a cigar room. All but the coffee bar were deserted this afternoon.
We ordered a late room service lunch and ate on our balcony. Delivery was prompt and the food quality was as good as if we’d gone to the dining room.
I had been meaning to have some pants taken in before the cruise, but didn’t have time. The onboard tailor did a top notch job in less than 24 hours, and at a bargain price.
At 8:30 we dined at Signatures, the ship’s top restaurant, which is operated by The Cordon Bleu. Dani looked lovely in one of her new outfits. In general the passengers were better dressed than on other ships’ formal nights, although there were not that many tuxes.
The food was certainly better than on other ships, with fois gras, freshly shaved truffles and a real cheese cart. It wasn’t exactly a gastronomic experience, but it was certainly good. And true to their word, we haven’t yet spent a cent on this ship.
We did discover that fresh mint leaves and Rousanne wine are an amazingly horrible combination!
After dinner we went to a show in the ship’s main theater. This is a very nice two-story space that seats perhaps 200 at individual cocktail tables. The show was a credible Broadway review, with sets of songs from 42nd Street (of course!), West Side Story, South Pacific, Cats, Les Miserables and more 42nd Street. In typical cruise ship tradition, the women were all about 15 years too old and the men were all the wrong sexual orientation. A pleasant hour, nevertheless.
By 10:45 the public areas, including the piano bar, were deserted. All the 20-somethings were easy to locate, though. . . in the Internet cafe.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
We docked in Málaga, Spain about 8am and after a light room service breakfast ventured onto the pier for our tour. There were about a dozen tour buses bound for various destinations including Costa del Sol, Granada and the Alhambra, but we opted for a half day visit to the local sites.
Málaga is a charming city, a mixture of styles from the past few centuries. Adjacent to the port is a beautiful beach, lined with thatched huts and seafood cafes. The season hasn’t quite arrived (although it was certainly a gorgeous day), so the beach was nearly deserted, but Málaga plays host to 11 million tourists a year, mostly in July and August.
The main street is lined with tropical palms and flowering shrubs, and there are scenic parks and fountains at every major intersection. It almost never rains here, so the river is dammed in the mountains to collect the water needed to support the city. But the riverbed isn’t completely dry, as seawater is let in to flow down the last mile.
Our first stop was at the Alcazaba, a fort constructed by the Moors in the 8th to 11th centuries. It sits atop the hill overlooking the city. Now in ruins, it was destroyed by French troops when they burned their munitions dump prior to withdrawing from the city in the 1820s.
The view of the city was spectacular, with the Málaga bull ring prominent in the foreground, and our cruise ship in the distance.
Our next stop was at the bull ring, which looked exactly like the one in The Three Stooges short. We watched a short demonstration put on by an aspiring bullfighter (the guy in blue) and his friend, who played the bull. The only difference was that the friend wasn’t actually killed at the end of the demonstration.
The aspiring bullfighter then had to rush off to his afternoon match in another city. Since he isn’t yet famous, he won’t be paid, but maybe they’ll let him keep an ear. Or, if the bull wins, may it gets one of his ears.
After visiting the bullfighting museum and enjoying some photos of the injuries bulls can inflict on the long-suffering matadors (although there seemed to be a general lack of sympathy among the viewers) we had a sample of the local wine, Moscato Málaga, which was quite nice. Made from raisins, it is fairly complex, reminiscent of Tokaji.
Our final stop was at Plaza de la Merced in the old city, for a short walk through the narrow pedestrian streets. We started at the birthplace of Málaga’s most famous native son, Antonio Banderas– er, I mean Pablo Picasso. A short walk took us past the Picasso museum (mostly early sketches) and the cathedral. Since it’s Sunday, the shops were closed. But church was open. Fortunately, it wasn’t open to tourists.
Across from the cathedral we sat in an outdoor cafe and had Perrier and a sort of French bread pizza, then bought some postcards before returning to the ship.
I would definitely come back to Málaga. It has the same relaxed feel as Barcelona, but in a more intimate setting. I guess that’s one of the nice things about a “positioning cruise” like this one — it takes you to less-frequently visited ports.
We spent the afternoon in our cabin discussing Dani’s book, which is tentatively titled The Last Telepath. She actually started planning this book two years ago, but it has gone in fits and spurts. After a five-hour brainstorming session, she had completed a pretty tight outline of her 88 scenes. I think she’s about ready to start writing the long form.
After a surprisingly mediocre dinner in the main dining room (which I think was the fault of the guest chef, Norway’s “leading” chef, not the ship) we headed back to the cabin, then realized it was already after 10pm, and we were scheduled to be passing Gibraltar. We hurried up on deck, and sure enough, there it was, wrapped in a halo of fog. Very eerie, looming up out of the dark.
That’s one big rock.
Monday, June 12, 2006
The seas were 6-8 feet today, so the expression “bounding” comes to mind, but we spent a pleasant day in the cabin, writing. Buffet breakfast on the rear deck outside the Veranda was very nice. I don’t think the outside temp has varied by 2 degrees from 69 since we sailed. At 4pm we docked in Lisbon, but we won’t go ashore until tomorrow. Today is a special holiday, and we understand the partying is pretty wild.
Dinner in the main dining room was the best meal of the trip so far — sushi and duck a l’orange. In the evening we checked out the DVD of Lethal Weapon. I’d forgotten how funny it was, and it was amusing to see Mel Gibson trying to conceal an Aussie accent.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
A Taste of Lisbon by Coach and Tram
Lisbon is a jumble of buildings that sprawls across many hills on the northern shore of the Tagus River, one of Europe’s best natural harbors. The city was destroyed by earthquake in 1755, so most of the buildings date from that year or later, which is coincidentally the last time any maintenance was performed on them. The historic port district of Belém (Portuguese for “Bethlehem”), located in the southwest part of the city, is in a particularly decrepit state. Here the building coloring choices are natural stone, pink, yellow or graffiti.
Our vivacious tour guide, Christina, met us at the pier and gave us a thorough — and interesting — history of Portugal and Lisbon. Her vocabulary was inventive, to say the least, and words like “touristical” kept us informed and entertained. Portugal rightfully regards itself as the nation at the forefront of 16th century world exploration. At one time they owned or had trade monopolies with much of Africa, China India and South America. I had been unaware that England’s involvement with India began when they received it as part of a dowry. Of course, now Portugal is pretty irrelevant, and the Portuguese seem pretty content with this. They even missed World War II.
Our first stop was at the Monument to the Discoveries, an impressive obelisk erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator, who wasn’t a navigator, but did start a school for them. Constructed in the waning days of Portugal’s dictatorship, it looks like 1930’s propaganda art.
A mosaic map in front of the monument highlights Portugal’s discoveries around the world, of which there were many. The stop afforded Dani an opportunity to brief me on the history of trade, about which she knows a great deal.
Next was the Torre de Belém, built in a mish-mosh of styles called Manueline. Constructed in the harbor as a sort of check-in point for visiting ships, it’s now high and dry due to the river’s sedimentation.
Nearby was a bronze of the first airplane to cross the Atlantic, from Africa to Brazil, in 1924. Don’t get too excited. It took them three months. I guess they should have used wood instead of bronze.
The Mosterio dos Jerónimos was both a monastery and a cathedral. Conceived by Dom Manual I in 1502, it was financed with the riches brought back by explorers such as Vasco de Gama, who is now entombed there. The influence of these explorations is further in evidence at the tombs of Manuel and other kings and queens, which are supported on the backs of marble elephants. Successive kings were less enthusiastic about the project, leaving bare the columns and niches originally intended for statuary.
Departing the cathedral, we drove over jacaranda-lined streets to the new part of the city on the other side of the hills. This area — especially the Avenida de Liberdad, lined with four rows of trees and one row of Armani-type shops — is particularly nice. Continuing east we came to the oldest part of the city, a tangle of little streets on steep hills reminiscent of San Francisco. Here we boarded an electric tram for a tour of streets far too narrow for our tour bus.
This area was really quaint (if somewhat ramshackle) and the ride, although much too long, was fun. Along the way we were served some tasty ruby port and delicious Pastelle de Belém, a crispy pastry filled with custard. Throughout our day in Lisbon things were eerily quiet, as yesterday was St. Anthony’s Day. As the patron saint of the city, this of course requires observance with massive consumption of alcohol and all-night revelry. In fact, we understand most residents don’t make it to work all week.
We arrived back onboard in time to sail (barely) under the harbor bridge, which looks very much like the golden gate bridge. This is not surprising, since it was built by the same contractor.
Out on the open seas be resumed our bounding course northward. I suppose it’s just the combination of a smaller ship and being at the very back, but the ride — even on very slight seas — might definitely be a problem for some passengers. Fortunately it doesn’t bother us.
Our dinner reservation was at Latitudes, the ship’s Asian-themed restaurant. It’s an attractive space, with only about fifteen tables, which were never all full. Food presentation was beautiful (as with all the food on the ship) and many of the items were excellent — particularly the lobster curry. There were a few too many fried items in the appetizer assortment, but it’s one of those restaurants where they serve you some of everything, so there were many choices. Service was perfect, as has been all service on this ship.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
At Sea (with stops at Vigo and La Coruna)
This morning we sort of slept through a brief stop at Vigo, Spain. The only way I noticed was that my bed stopped swaying like a hammock, and the stillness woke me up.
The purpose of the stop at Vigo was to let off passengers wanting to make the pilgrimage to the alleged final resting place of St. James. In the 12th century, 11 million pilgrims did; but last year it was down to 19,000. Apparently these days it’s harder to find people who believe that, after being beheaded, his body magically floated along the river in a stone coffin filled with scallop shells. Or something like that.
A brief afternoon stop in La Coruna is planned, to pick up the survivors.
Today the ride has been slightly rockier than in the past, but then we learned from the navigator that there has been a 100 kilometer per hour wind and 30-36 foot swells all day. Given that, I’d have to say the ship is doing quite well. In fact, the passengers seem to be doing pretty well, too. I wouldn’t want to have to use a cane to get around this ship with the deck pitching ten feet.
Here are some interesting tonnage figures Linda sent me:
Regent Seven Seas Voyager – 46K NCL Norwegian Dream – 50K NCL Norway – 70K NCL Pride of America – 81K Coral Princess – 92K Star Princess – 109K Royal Carribean Explorer of the Seas – 138K
During the day we had a nice lunch in the main dining room (we sort of missed breakfast) and then did a lot of writing. In the afternoon we played trivia, and would have won if we’d known how many stripes on an Israeli flag, which ear you can hear better out of, or which part of the body is most often bit by insects. (Two, right, foot. )
After we rounded the north west tip of the Iberian peninsulas the seas calmed a bit, and the gray skies began to lighten as we docked at La Coruna, Spain. It looks like a fair sized, rather non-descript city.
When our pilgrims returned from Santiago de Compostela at 7pm we sailed for Santander .
Dinner in the main dining room seems to improve each night. There were some excellent selections this evening, accompanied by a white wine from Provence that was quite pleasant. The wine selections on the ship have been almost entirely sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, or their cousins. I think this is an attempt to match as many foods as possible, but Linda would be disappointed in the lack of buttery Chardonnays. Of course, they have an extensive list of high end wines that I have even looked at, since it would be a waste to order an expensive bottle when Dani only has a sip. Drinking age onboard, incidentally, is 18, although it’s 16 in most of the ports. But no one really cares here in Europe.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Bilbao and Guggenheim Museum (Santander)
We docked at Santander (even accent on all three syllables) this morning. Santander is a non-descript city that hugs the coast of the Bay of Biscay. At 9am we joined one of six coaches headed for Bilbao, about an hour and a half north.
Bilbao is in the Basque region of Spain, which is a culture different than Spain or neighboring France. The main language is Basque, which looks really weird, with lot’s of X’s. The sign are all in Basque and Spanish.
Bilbao is an absolutely beautiful city of tree-lined (and traffic-clogged) streets, beautiful parks, and daring architecture. It’s hard to believe just twenty years ago it was a depressed industrial port. Now the entire waterfront area has been turned into cutting-edge buildings. The whole city is a vital, walkable place, with inviting shops and restaurants, lots of foot traffic, and beautiful old buildings lining streets that radiate from dozens of lushly landscaped squares. There are construction cranes everywhere. Leading this renaissance of new architecture was the Guggenheim. It was designed by Frank Gehry, and opened in 1997 at a spot that used to be part of the industrial riverfront. It’s really a fantastic building, three stories inside, taller outside, with every surface covered in either limestone or titanium, and no flat surfaces or right angles anywhere. Much neater than it looks in a photo.
Our extraordinarily knowledgeable guide provided an architecture and art history tour of the museum for 18 of us. I was concerned this would bore Dani, but her World history classes brought new meaning to what we saw and heard.
Two of the permanent exhibits in the museum were particularly memorable. One was comprised of nine multi-story columns of scrolling LEDs, red on one side and blue on the other, that told a rather surrealistic story/poem in many languages. Sounds dumb, but it was quite effective. The other was a room larger than a football field, filled with twisting walls of rusty steel, fifteen feet high, two inches thick, and sometimes over 100 feet long. I’m glad I didn’t have to install them! These shapes formed spirals, twisting walkways, and concentric notched circles– all very clear when viewed from above, but a completely different experience as we wandered around inside them, a living part of the exhibit. Again, it sounds dumb, but it was neat.
The bulk of the museum is currently filled with art on loan from The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In fact, I recognized several pieces from our visit there two years ago. Here it has been better arranged, and we were able to trace the history of Russian art and art collecting from the 12th through 20th centuries, in chronological order. It was fascinating to watch religious icons morph into romantic oil paintings, then impressionism, cubism, and op art. One small room by itself contained two Picassos, two Matisses and a Gaugin. Two and a half hours was only enough time to walk past everything; then we headed back to the ship, arriving about 3pm. Ravenous, we sat on the pool deck and had a grilled salmon burger (me) and hamburger (Dani).
The weather has been temperate but overcast, but it’s supposed to improve this evening.
A few hours after sailing we were out in the middle of the Bay of Biscay on the way to Bordeaux. The sea was almost glassy. A strange change from Wednesday.
Dinner in the dining room was excellent. The South Africa pinotage was an eclectic wine offering, but it seemed oxidized.
Friday, June 16, 2006
Today I found a way to use the $200 shipboard credit Vacations To Go gave us when we booked the cruise. The self-service launderettes on this ship are free but completely inadequate — I’ve seen seven people crammed into the room waiting for two washers. I did manage to get a load done a few days ago before everyone else started running out of clothes, but today, even though I was there at 7am, there were already people waiting. It would help if they were open 24 hours instead of 7am to 10pm. Anyway, we’ll just have the ship do our laundry and dry cleaning. It’s only slightly cheaper than buying new clothes, but hey, who wants to spend their vacation in a laundry room?
This morning we sailed up the Gironde River and then into the Garonne, traveling 100 kilometers to reach Bordeaux. I didn’t realize how far inland it is. The land is fairly flat, and the banks are lined with agricultural and industrial facilities, but when we reached Bordeaux it was a complete surprise. I was expecting Bordeaux to be a collection of villages and vineyards. Instead it is a beautiful city, a sort of miniature Paris. Best of all, the ship docks along the quay in the exact center of town. It is as if you’ve pulled up between the Louvre and Notre Dame! Everywhere there are 19th century facades, their wrought iron balconies and sloping roofs lined up just as in Paris. The streets are lined with shade trees, and brasseries spill out onto the sidewalks.
I watched as the ship extended its gangway from deck 4 and then puzzled over a crane truck that drove up and installed another gangway from deck 5 to the quay. This latter gangway was at about a 45 degree angle, and would have made a good water slide if it hadn’t ended on the concrete. What was that all about? Later in the day my question was answered when we learned that even though Bordeaux is 100 kilometers inland, the Garonne is still a tidal river, with a difference of 16 feet between low and high tides every six hours! By the time we returned to the ship in the afternoon, deck four was below the quay and the other gangway was nearly horizontal! In fact, the ship sailed both in and out near high tide, and with the current in each case.
When I say the ship is in the center of town, I mean it. You can almost step off the gangway onto the sidewalk of the boulevard that runs along the river. The absence of security was either refreshing, amazing, alarming or simply French — I’m not sure which.
In the morning Dani and I ventured ashore and strolled the streets of Bordeaux, covering a lot of territory. We ended up at a circular building in the center of town called Grande Homme. On the top floor was a giant toy store, the middle floor was upscale shops (and a tobacconist where Dani stocked up on postcards), and the subterranean lower floor was a supermarket and food court. When I say food court, I don’t mean an American food court. Instead it was a collection of tables surrounded by the market’s bakery, fromagerie, charcuterie, plus prepared salads, Asian food, and so on. We purchased a loaf of bread, a pain au chocolate, and an epoisses (my favorite stinky cheese), then strolled back to the ship to construct our own bizarre lunch in the cabin. The bread was, of course, the best we’ve had since the last time we were in France, and amazingly, Dani discovered she likes epoisses. A home run!
At 2 pm we met our tour group on the dock for a trip around the city and then an excursion to a local winery. I was surprised to see how much of the city we’d discovered on our own, although the driving tour did reveal a really neat pedestrian street, Rue Sainta Catherine, filled with shops and bistros that runs 2 kilometers through town. We also passed the WWII German sub base. This concrete bunker is divided into 11 bays, and its ceiling is 25 feet thick, making it impossible to get rid of.
Then we headed out of the city center to the selected winery, which turned out to be Chateau Smith Haut Lafite, a Graves grand cru that has been totally renovated since changing ownership in 1990. In a few kilometers we were in wine country, and is wasn’t more than twenty minutes before we arrived at the chateau, passing Chateau Bouscat and several other properties I didn’t recognize on the way. The area is fairly similar to Santa Ynez, but not quite as arid.
The tour, conducted by the winemaker, was the best I’ve experienced. The winery has beautiful new pneumatic presses, stem separator conveyors where twenty people hand select berries, and extensive cellars. They also make half of the approximately 800 French oak barrels they need each year. Every detail of the white and red vinification process was described. Here are just a few things I remember:
White: 90% sauvignon blanc, 5% semillon, 5% grey sauvignon. Fermented in 50% new oak and lees stirred for 12 months. Sold upon bottling.
Red: 55% merlot, the rest cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc with sometimes a trace of petite verdot. Fermented in open topped stainless tanks for seven weeks, pumped over three times a week. Aged 18 months in 80% new oak. Sold upon bottling.
After the tour of the vinification area we descended into the (chilly) main cellar for a tasting of the 2004 white (peaches, grapefruit and black pepper, very balanced, no malolactic fermentation 92/100) and 2002 red (very smokey, blackberries, complex finish 93/100). Wine was available in the small boutique, and the winemaker himself processed the transactions. But there was no pressure to buy, and few people did (including me, although I eyed a double magnum of 1982 at 200 euros) as it was too hard to transport. I assume the winery was well-compensated for this terrific tour, though. (By the way, in addition to the winery, there is a beautiful spa resort on the property. )
Even in Friday afternoon traffic we were back at the ship in half an hour. Dani and I strolled through the city, trying to keep out of what had turned into a hot late afternoon sun, to the Rue Sainta Catherine, which was nice and shady. We looked for an open bistro and browsed the shops. No luck on the bistro. There were lots of great menus, but no one serves food until 8 pm, and we were to sail at 9 pm. At fnac (think trendy Best Buy) she bought some manga in French and then we headed back to the ship.
We had an excellent dinner in the main dining room. High praise in the face of the on-shore competition in France! My opinion of this ship’s food is going up. I think the trick is to avoid the guest chef’s menus. As always, service was Perfect with a capital ‘P’.
Wine selections were an oxidized Woodbridge Chardonnay (first chardonnay of the cruise) and a weird Zinfandel that still had one or two percent residual sugar. It grew on me, though, as it went really well with the little pieces of braised shortribs under the seared tuna appetizer. Who on earth came up with the idea to combine those two things?! It was excellent, though.
This morning’s 48-hour dry cleaning submission was already hanging in our cabin when we returned.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
It’s a long way around the part of France that sticks out into the Atlantic. We’ll spend today sailing up the coast, and then turn the corner into the English Channel this evening. Seas are smooth.
So smooth, in fact, that this afternoon they opened the bridge to guests from 1 pm to 5 pm. This is an opportunity you never have on the huge Caribbean ships, but Voyager’s bridge is no less complicated. The ship’s propulsion is by azipods on the hull, which can be swiveled 360 degrees. Even with these, we learned that yesterday in the Garonne they used the anchor to complete their 180 degree turn without danger of being washed by the tide into the 17-section stone bridge that marks the end of the navigable channel.
The ship was running on autopilot when we visited today, as it usually does, except when in harbor. A tiny wheel, smaller than what you’d find on a go-cart, is the only obvious control. We visited just as the ship was completing its turn into the English channel, a turn that occurred over a distance of eight miles, and required only a one degree adjustment of the azipods.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, at top speed the coasting distance is half a mile if they don’t reverse the pods.
Dani looked lovely in her new blue gown for our final formal dinner aboard the ship. We had a lovely table and delicious meal. They brough out the good wines, tonight: Pouilly Fuisse by Lois Jadot, and an excellent Chianti Classico by, I think, Binti.
After dinner we caught the last half hour of the show, a Broadway review by singer Amy Baker, and bought a couple of her CDs. Amy has been mingling with the passengers all week, and has quite a following.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
The approach to Honfleur took us up the Seine a few kilometers, past the industrial port of Le Havre. We were docked by 8 am. Although only 64 degrees in the morning, the day promised to be sunny and hot.
Dani surprised me with some Father’s Day gifts this morning, and a card from Linda, who sent me an email greeting, too. Originally we had scheduled a hike and visit to a goat farm today, but there weren’t enough others interested, so our tour was cancelled. We decided to explore the village of Honfleur on our own, rather than make the trek to see the Bayeau Tapestry.
What a great plan that turned out to be! Honfleur is a captivating small town just a few minute shuttle ride from the dock. At first it looks too cute to be anything but a tourist trap, but just a block from the waterfront the streets are filled with the “real” France: boulangeries, charcuteries, and wine shops. The local residents come out to walk their dogs and dally over lunch in the hundreds of sidewalk cafes. Heaven.
As in Bordeaux, it was great to blend into the crowd of locals — plus the weekend visitors from Paris — rather than be part of a storm surge of American tourists. That’s probably the biggest advantage of a smaller ship visiting smaller ports.
Dani spent the morning buying a few gifts for friends and more postcards — 37 sent, so far — as we strolled through the backstreets. Most of the tourist shops sell paintings by local artists, gourmet foods, cooking supplies, and souvenirs. The church here is wood, and was built in the 14th century. It looks faintly viking.
At lunch time we pretty much at random selected a sidewalk cafe overlooking the harbor and had a wonderful meal, of salad (lettuce, endive, sun dried tomatoes, and lots of other great stuff) and galettes. A galette is like a crepe, but made of buckwheat and browned with the ingredients in it. Dani had ham and cheese, and I had seafood. On top of mine were the most incredibly delicious baby mussels, a local specialty. Amazingly wonderful food. We dawdled over lunch, enjoying our favorite water, Badoit (two liters! Hey it was hot. ) After lunch we continued browsing, and made it four blocks before we had to stop for chocolate crepes. Yum. Then it was time to head back to the ship and pack. Sigh.
What a great place Honfleur is!
Leaving the harbor, we had a great view of the Pont de La Normandy, a two kilometer long suspension bridge completed in 1995. We also passed the Normandy beaches where the D-Day invasion occurred, which where filled with sunbathers on this beautiful, sunny day. Unfortunately we were too far away to determine the dress code.
We played tea time trivia a couple of times during the cruise, and due to our terrific skill (and considerable leniency in the interpretation of the rules) we won five cruise tokens. So this evening Dani visited the table on the shopping promenade and redeemed them for a sun visor and book mark.
Packing was easy, since we haven’t really bought anything other than a few tiny souvenirs. In fact, as advertised, we’ve spent almost nothing on this cruise. Our final bill included little more than the shore excursions and Internet time. Even the laundry charges were minimal.
The farewell dinner in the Compass Rose was excellent, with prime rib and Caesar salad, and accompanied by Caymus Conundrum and a good Chilean merlot.
Monday, June 19, 2006
London Rubens at the Palace Avenue Q at the Noel Coward Theatre
The Regent Seven Seas Voyager offers normal service on the morning of debarkation, so we had room service breakfast before debarkation. Getting off the ship was easy. We just waiting for our color to be called. It was star salmon. I had no idea star was even a color.
We stepped onto the coach and were on our way for the logarithmic drive to London. I say “logarithmic” because we approached Victoria Station asymptotically, seeming to go slower and slower the closer we got.
Ah, London, city of traffic, bad manners and inedible food. How you draw us back, again and again. And it’s nice to see how the Londoners have embraced the return of the traditional red phone booths. It’s solved the serious problem of what to do with all their trash. They should simply rename them “trash booths. ” Everyone has a cell phone fastened to their ear, anyway, so it make perfect sense. And you can tell when they start to get full, because you can monitor the trash level through the little windows.
It was only a few blocks from Victoria Station to our hotel, Rubens at the Palace, but we were heavily laden, and it was nice to get rid of the bags at the front door. The hotel is called “at the Palace” because it is right across the street from the slave entrance to Buckingham Palace. It’s a fairly nice hotel — for London — with fairly large rooms — for London — and is fairly quiet — for London.
After unpacking we walked down Buckingham Palace Way, looking for some edible food. Then we walked through St. James Park, looking for some edible food. Then we walked through Green Park, looking for some edible food. Then we walked down Piccadilly, looking for some edible food. We went in to Fortnum & Mason’s, a gourmet store. They also have a restaurant, but instead of selling the items they have out front, for some reason they’ve focused on boiled lamb, calf’s liver, and other, even less appetizing items.
Near Piccadilly Circus (it’s not really a circus, you know, just a semi-circle) we found a fairly dressy place called Bentley’s. It was full of business people and we decided to spend an hour with them, looking out of place. The food was surprisingly good, and they had the best mushy peas we’ve had so far this trip. The luncheon entertainment was provided by the woman next to us, who was trying to sell a Frenchman a house. Or lease him a flat. Or sell his current flat. She was certain she could do all these things in two months or less, but I wasn’t convinced.
I’ve been feeling like I’m flirting with a cold, so I started sucking zinc last night, and have continued today. Now I feel like I’m flirting with a cold and have zinc poisoning. Perhaps that accounts for the acerbic wit.
After lunch we found Dani a bargain leather jacket, because she forgot to bring anything warm and it’s going to be down in the 50’s tonight.
Then we walked back to the hotel for a little rest before the show. At 6:30pm we walked to the Hyde Park underground station and took it to Leicester Square. The Noel Coward theater has just reopened after refurbishment, and Avenue Q is still in previews. There was no sign of that in the show, though, which was very polished. It’s a sort of Muppets on steroids musical, with most of the performers carrying a Muppet and acting its part. The show doesn’t seem to have made any concessions for the UK audience, and is still set in Brooklyn. The voices and performances were great, and the set, a miniature city block, does all kinds of tricks. The audience was tremendously enthusiastic. Afterwards most of the restaurants in the West End seemed to be winding down, so we took the tube back and ordered room service before hitting the sack after our busy day.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
London Lunch at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s Coriolanus at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
We slept late since we hadn’t gotten to bed until 1am. Then Dani wanted to have her picture taken in front of Buckingham Palace wearing her Buckingham T-Shirt from her performance in Richard III. We stopped at a place called Pronto Manger (not to be confused with the sandwich shop Pret a Manger, of which there is one in every block of London) and purchased a croissant-shaped object we managed to choke down on the way to the palace. It was very crowded in front of the palace because it turned out they were changing the guard. (Why these guys aren’t old enough to change themselves, I don’t know. ) There was a marching band in the palace courtyard which was, oddly enough, playing the theme from Star Trek.
After our photo op we headed back to the hotel to change, then down to Victoria Station to take the underground to Oxford Circus. We strolled around looking in the shop windows for a while ($$$) and then relaxed in a quiet corner of the mezzanine at Claridge’s Hotel until our 2:30pm reservation at Gordon Ramsay’s.
Our six-course lunch consisted of:
Chilled Charentais melon soup, crab vinaigrette
Ballottine of foie gras marinated in Beaumes de Venise, pickled mushrooms, toasted brioche
Roasted sea scallop, broccoli purée, poached quail egg, Port reduction
Steve: Steamed line caught sea bass, crushed Jersey royals, braised radish, asparagus velouté
Dani: Best end of new season Oxfordshire lamb with confit shoulder, spiced aubergin, asparagus, tarragon jus
Steve: French and English cheeses
Dani: Banana and coconut bavarois, passion fruit jelly
Peanut butter parfait with milk mousse, cherry sauce
Including a glass of rose Champagne, a bottle of Chablis and the 12. 5% gratuity, it came to a bit more than . . . Needless to say, we didn’t eat again that day.
I must say that the food was everything we expected, with many surprising flavor combinations, and the service was much less stiff than in most upscale restaurants.
After lunch we strolled up Oxford Street and walked through Marks and Spenser, home of the £500 shirt. After recovering from the sticker shock , we took the underground to St. Paul’s. Linda gave me a laminated pocket map of London or father’s day, and it’s sure been invaluable for navigating the city and the underground. That’s definitely the way to get around in London, rather than sitting in a cab stuck in traffic.
From St. Paul’s it was an easy walk across the Millennium bridge to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
The reconstruction of the Globe was completed in 1999, and it is as accurate as they could make it, not even bowing to modern fire regulations for the most part. The largest part of the audience stands in the “yard” for the entire three-hour performance, but we had seats on the top level, in the front row. I use the term “seats” loosely. It’s a wooden bench about six inches deep, with no back. Cushion rental is another authentic touch, and one we definitely took advantage of. There’s definitely an age gradient of twenty or thirty years between the yard and the top tier!
It actually wasn’t as uncomfortable as I had expected, and the top level front low location allows you to lean on the rail and watch the performance and the people suffering in the yard. It turned cold during the show, and there were quite a few defectors during the interval (insert by Dani: Losers!).
Here’s Dani’s review of Coriolanus:
Well, let me start with my impressions of the building. WOW. We were walking into a building built right where Shakespeare preformed these plays for the very first time more than 400 years ago. How cool is that? And the fact the building looks like the original is even better. It was amazing, like stepping back into a piece of history.
For those of you who don’t know what the globe looks like let me describe “this wooden O” (Henry V Act 1 Scene 1). The building isn’t actually circular but is comprised of twenty sides and is 100 feet in diameter. The rectangular stage juts out into the yard and is graded downward towards the audience (thus leading to the expressions upstage and downstage). The stage is covered by a roof supported by two pillars. There are three levels to view from, the yard (where the plebeians stand), and the middle and upper sections (for nobles and lords). The walls are made of oak beams covered in a lime based plaster.
Coriolanus is about a roman general who fights many battles for Rome and defeats many of their enemies. After his third war they want to make him consul, which requires the support of the people. Unfortunately he is a little egotistical and fails to properly ingratiate himself to the people. When stirred up by the two tribunes, the people riot, demanding his exile. Disgraced, he leaves Rome to return to his old enemy. With their forces, he leads an army to Rome to destroy it. But at its gates, his mother and wife convince him to make peace instead. As a result, his old enemy and new ally turns on him and kills him.
It was very interesting for me to see a professional production of Coriolanus after performing in so much Shakespeare. The show was very good with one glaring exception: the Stage Combat. In Julius Caesar we had a ten minute escrema stick battle followed by three other smaller battles. In this show, they didn’t know how to hold their swords, and there was a thirty second altercation where the only exciting thing to happen was they got one spark off their swords. The rest was very forgettable. But aside from that, the production was very good. Coriolanus’ mother was a remarkable actress. Every word she said was clear and understandable (no mics) and she knew what she was saying. Coriolanus himself was very good but I lost some of what he said when he was being too quiet or yelling too loud.
It was neat to see Shakespeare cold for the first time, without being in it or having read it before. The first ten minutes were rough going, trying to understand, but then something magical happens in your brain and you adjust to the Shakespearian language.
The show was amazing and it was amazing to see it where Shakespeare actually preformed it. To look down at the stage and — even though it’s a recreation — to imagine Romeo and Juliet and Henry V and Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth being preformed there for the very first time. It’s an incredible feeling.
(Did I mention I love Shakespeare?)
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
London A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre
These blackout drapes are essential when it’s only dark a few hours on summer nights, but they have the side effect of causing you to miss the morning. But I guess that’s what vacations are all about. Dani got up at the crack of noon, and we took the tube over to Holborn, having a late lunch at Hason Raja, a recommended Indian restaurant (hey, anything to avoid English food). It started out well, but ended up being fairly mediocre. But it was Dani’s first try at this cuisine, and she enjoyed it.
Then we walked over to the British museum and strolled the galleries for a couple of hours. Dani posed in the same spot by the cat mummies that she did four years ago.
We took the tube (at rush hour!) to Baker Street (which has a new bronze of Sherlock Holmes in front of the station) and walked up into Regent’s Park, stopping to sip coffee by the tennis courts, and watch a tennis lesson. Then we made our way to the Open Air Theater in the park. The theater opens early, and there is outdoor dining and also picnicking on the grass. A cold wind was blowing some clouds in, and we wisely invested in a “picnic rug,” which kept us cozy later on. At the “Barbeque,” we unwisely invested in objects shaped like hamburgers and hotdogs, which were truly appalling.
The production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream we saw was brought back after a very popular run two years ago, and I can see why. I really enjoyed it. It was presented without amplification, except for a bit of singing. Our seats in the third row were perfect. This was a particularly interesting show for Dani, as she has a major part (Helena) in Trinity’s production, which begins rehearsals in August. Here’s her review:
I was a little surprised to walk in and find the stage completely covered in grass. The theater was really neat, it’s completely open air. The seats are arranged like an amphitheatre, but the stage has no back, just trees. It was the perfect setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where much of the action takes place in a forest. It was perfect the way it kept getting darker and darker.
For obvious reasons I watched Helena, for the most part. She was brilliant! Her timing was perfect and she was crystal clear, without sounding like she was yelling. I wish I knew how to project like that. The whole cast had found so many nuances in the text to play with. It was fun watching them, knowing in a month I’ll be rehearsing it.
The acting was very good, especially Helena and Bottom, but what was truly brilliant was the direction. The director found so many spots for wonderful stage action that really accentuated the comedy of the situation. He also added many hilarious gags not evident in the text. The way he coached his actors to characterize themselves was genius. He also had an interesting concept for the fairies, equating them to Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. The show was set in mid-Victorian times for the mortals, but the fairies were unique: bald and filthy, and wearing tattered clothes and work boots. Oberon looked like Elrond from Lord of the Rings.
It was interesting to see that the types of people cast were almost identical to who is cast in Trinity’s production. Bottom is over the top theatrical (David G. ), Oberon is commanding and kingly (David VB. ), Titania is mystical (Lexi). Their casting was perfect, so ours should be to.
I can’t wait to perform this show!
Thursday, June 22, 2006
London Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre Dinner at Le Gavroche
We finished our trip off with a highly anticipated visit to Billy Elliot, The Musical. The show, based upon a surprise hit movie, has a fantastic score by Elton John.
We had high expectations for Billy Elliot, and I was afraid the show might not live up to them, but it definitely did. I’d have to place it right up there with Wicked as one of the greatest shows I’ve seen. The story, the songs, performances and dancing were all exceptional. 12-year-old Liam Mower, as Billy Elliot, is a phenomenon. He’s one of five boys who alternate in the role, but it’s hard to imagine he’s not the very best.
Because of the subject matter — Labour vs. Conservative party, coal miner’s strike, adolescent homosexuality, and a deluge of four-letter words — it’s hard to imagine this musical ever playing in America in its current form. That’s a shame, because it really is an experience. In retrospect, I wish we had another day here in London to see it again (although it’s sold out for months).
After the theater we took the tube to Marble Arch and walked to La Gavroche. This classic French restaurant opened in 1967, and was London’s first Michelin three-star (although since it was taken over by the founder’s son it is now two.
Although expensive, our nine-course dinner (mine matched with seven wines) was no more than lunch Tuesday — an exceptional buy, given the perfect food, service and wines. In fact, I’ve never had wines close to this caliber in a food and wine pairing dinner. Perhaps the best course was the fois gras accompanied by duck pastilla with cinnamon, matched with an Alsatian Gewürztraminer. Heaven. And they also had the most extensive selection of French cheeses I’ve encountered. Even Dani enjoyed a few of them. Our three and a half hours at table seemed to fly past. Then it was back to the hotel to pack and sleep before our early morning call .
Friday, June 23, 2006
London to Orlando
Up at 6am, that’s a change! It was easier hauling the luggage the four block to Victoria Station than the other direction, due to it being slightly downhill. The Gatwick Express runs every 15 minutes, so we climbed right on and were at the airport in a half hour. We had a fairly appalling breakfast and then hung out in the terminal for several hours, Dani working on her book, and I reading Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote (already listened to it on tape, but it’s probably his best work). Meanwhile Dani is reading an earlier novel in the same series, The Black Echo.
The Virgin flight was a nonstop to Orlando in a little over eight hours. Just enough time for both of us to finish our books. It’s a bit of a pain to clear customs in Orlando, because you have to wait for your bags, clear, and then recheck them, then wait for them again at baggage claim. The first wait was short, the second loooong, but we spent it telling Linda all about the trip.
Then it was home to our comfy beds and a shower that doesn’t require contortionism.
Dani’s final postcard tally for the trip: 44.
Nice things about the Regent Seven Seas Voyager
Free beverages including almost all alcohol, plus bottled water for shore excursions
Free self-service laundry (use it early in the cruise)
Unbelievable service from everybody
Food presentation beautiful
Fresh flowers everywhere
24 hour espresso bar (free, of course)
Nice theater and (largely unused) lounge
Extensive DVD library
Relatively inexpensive Internet, with good wireless connectivity
Not-so-Nice things about the Regent Seven Seas Voyager
Somewhat rattle-prone cabin and a fairly rocky ride at the back if the seas are heavy
Guest chef menus were not as good as the regular ship’s menus
Small casino with no video poker (not that I cared. )
Small pool (I saw two kids in it once, so it’s not a pool kind of cruise)
No greasy pizza
Some Tips for Next Time
Transfers to and from the ship are expensive unless you get a package that includes hotel. The offered hotels in Monte Carlo and London were very expensive, but in retrospect, spending a night in Monte Carlo might have been cheaper than the transfer.
The Rubens was an excellent price. Its proximity to Victoria Station was great for the transfers, although the disadvantage of the Victoria Underground is that you must make a connection to get to most places in the city.
The Meridien in the West End might be the most convenient hotel location for London theatre.
This summer we decided to explore a completely different part of the world. None of us had ever been to any of the ports on this 12 day cruise around the Baltic.
We left Orlando Friday afternoon, August 2, and arrived in London around noon on Saturday. This timing seems to work better than the usual morning arrival, because the hotel room is likely to be ready by the time we get to the city.
Even though we were lugging nine(!) bags — including carry-ons — the express train from Gatwick to Victoria Station was an easy connection, and London cabs are big enough for almost anything. The Marble Arch Thistle hotel is a recently refurbished art deco building on Oxford street, the main shopping drag. Although we’re not shoppers, we were pleased with its convenient location. The Marble Arch underground station is right beneath the building.
Saturday night, after a refreshing nap, we wandered around the neighborhood looking for a restaurant that didn’t serve English food. Since Danielle is still wary of most ethnic cuisine (the best bet in London) this provides a challenge. We happened upon a Marriott hotel and had a delightful meal of broiled scallops, pasta and salmon, and a mediocre Australian Cabernet by Wynn’s (a good producer).
Sunday we wanted to go to the food courts at Harrods, but it was closed. Since it was our only full day in London there wasn’t much we could do. Our contingency plan was Covent Garden. Originally a “convent garden”, in the 1600s it became the main produce market for London. Falling out of favor in the 1900s, it was largely derelict before being converted to tourist shops and cafes. We had a nice lunch of wine, cheese and pate in a cellar-turned restaurant, and listened to an excellent quintet play spirited classical selections to an appreciative crowd in the courtyard.
Dodging raindrops, we walked down to the mall and took Linda to the Cabinet War Rooms, which Danielle and I had enjoyed the previous summer. This is the underground complex where Churchill and his cabinet operated during the Blitz. It is virtually unchanged from the day it was vacated in 1946. Next year they plan to open a new section of it where Churchill’s family lived. (Interesting: they had a collection box and it was full of dollars. . . )
Dinner was at the Sugar Club, an Asian fusion restaurant near Piccadilly. An Australian Semillon went well with the lemongrass soup and Danielle’s duck. Yes, Europeans aren’t hung up about serving a kid a taste of wine.
Sunday morning we survived a disorganized crush of geriatric travelers and caught our transfer “coach” to Dover. We heard that there were 186 rooms(!) of fellow cruisers booked at out hotel for the two-night pre-stay option. That amounts to almost 25% of the ship’s capacity. Average age of these guests appeared to be shy of three digits, but barely. If there’s anything more disagreeable than a tired American traveler. it’s a tired old biddy American traveler, so we spent most of our time trying to look Belgian.
It took the usual hour to find a way out of London, and then another hour to reach Dover, where the cruise check-in was fast and efficient. We were onboard by 1pm. Hey, the cliffs of Dover really are white, or at least ivory.
By chance, our friends the Siegles were traveling out of Dover just a few days later aboard a Radisson ship. You see it here, docked behind our ship, the Norwegian Dream. And yes, Ron, size does matter.
The Norwegian Dream is a smaller and older ship than most of the others we have taken, but it has a certain charm. It was launched in the early 90s, then had a 160 foot section added to the middle in 1998. It features NCL’s “freestyle” cruising, which allows you to eat in any restaurant at any time and at any size table you like. This feature is pretty unique, and works perfectly. While we slightly missed the experience of meeting new friends at an assigned table, it was great to have complete flexibility — and no schedule — every evening. We met our maid, Madalina, our butler Karan, and concierge Carlos.
Linda was lucky to book the cruise only a couple months in advance, when a balcony stateroom cancellation opened up, and was lucky again to upgrade to one of a dozen “owner’s suites” just two weeks before sailing. That was a fortunate upgrade, because our cabin was a lovely space, with a living room, bedroom, bath with tub, and a large enough walk-in closet that we made Danielle sleep in it (I’m not kidding). The room also came with free drinks, hors d’oevres, a concierge and two butlers. The next level of accommodation down was a shoebox with a pet door in comparison. The cabin came with a DVD player and library, and an assortment of CDs.
The Kiel Canal cuts across the base of Schleswig-Holstein, linking the North sea with the Baltic Sea and thus avoiding the dangerous route via the Skaw and through the Danish Sound and Belts. (Interesting that they worded it that way, since that’s exactly the route we’re taking on the way back. . . ) Monday, after a lazy morning, we entered the Kiel Canal. I was somehow expecting the locks to lift us up to cross the peninsula, but instead we went down about three feet. Maybe it was high tide. This was the first day of an uninterrupted string of perfect weather that would follow us throughout or entire trip. At times the crew seemed amazed at the wonderfully temperate days and absence of clouds, and when we crossed the North see, it was apparent that even the captain was startled by the smooth sailing.
While waiting in the lock a German band boarded and played marching music for the rest of the afternoon. Built in 1887, the canal is 338 feet wide, 37 feet deep, and 61 miles long. It takes eight hours to traverse it. The Norwegian Dream is the largest ship to ever make the trip. To do so, it must collapse its funnel and mast (seen here on the way down) to fit under the seven 140-foot high bridges that cross it.
It’s quite an event for this ship to pass by. All along the way townspeople stood along the bicycle paths, waving to us and shouting greetings. Many waved handkerchiefs or American flags. It was quite moving.
In one village a brass band played as we passed.
And on this bridge a crowd of more than a hundred who have “adopted” the ship display a different banner for each passage.
Wednesday we spent a relaxing day on the Baltic Sea. The ship’s facilities are a bit modest compared to the Voyager class of ships we’ve been on before, but our cabin is great, and the food is substantially better than on Royal Caribbean. After lunch Linda and Danielle played a windy game of ping pong, and Danielle and I went swimming. The day before, the aft pool had accidentally been heated to over 100 degrees, and we felt like lobsters. Today is was a much more pleasant 80 degrees. With cool air wafting past and the scenery floating by it was quite pleasant.
Around noon on Thursday we docked at Tallinn, Estonia, a picturesque town on the southern Baltic near the entrance to the Gulf of Finland. The country of Estonia is only 45,000 square km, and has only 21 towns. Tallinn is the largest, and with a population of 500,000 represents about a third of the total Estonian population. It is clear that Estonia is benefiting greatly from getting out from under the thumb of the Soviets in 1991. Every evidence of the Russian language had been erased from public signage, and the young people don’t even know what the Soviet-era monuments symbolize. 30% of the buildings in Tallinn are less than 10 years old; and unlike the Soviet buildings, they are attractive. 60% of the population are ethnic Estonians, with 35% Russians who, according to our tour guide, “All work at McDonalds for $1 an hour. ”
The weather was beautiful — mid 60s and clear. We took a bus ride around the city, then walked through the medieval town, looked at a couple of churches, and bought a fabulous piece of amber containing a complete lizard.
We awoke Friday morning in St. Petersburg. The cruise ship dock is. . . well, rather industrial: coils of raw steel and bags of fertilizer stacked between giant cranes. Considering this is the main seaport for a country the size of the US, there is amazingly little activity. Yes, our tour guide and bus driver really were named Olga and Vladimir. All of the people we met were extremely friendly. They were well dressed and drove reasonably nice cars (although not many could afford them). But St. Petersburg is a city of 4. 5 million people clearly struggling to recover from the Soviet era. They’ve restored the city’s name (after nearly a century as Petrograd and then Leningrad) and the streets’ names, but restoring the city itself will take a lot more work. The entire central city is comprised of buildings in various states of decay. The Soviet apartment blocks on the 1970s look worse than some demolition zones I’ve seen. There wasn’t a single building that didn’t need work.
25 kilometers from the pier we came to Peterhof, the village and palace build by Peter the Great. Well behind Nazi lines during three years of siege, there was little left of the area by the time the Germans were forced out. But in the past decade an incredible restoration is taking place. While we waited to enter, we listened to a brass and woodwind quintet play traditional Russian songs, such as “I wish I was in Dixie”.
Everywhere they are rebuilding things exactly as they were before, and repopulating them with the treasures that were removed to Siberia in advance of the German assault. What was lost they are recreating. We were skeptical of the claim that the palace and fountains were more beautiful than Versailles, but it was true. Only thirty rooms have been completed inside the enormous palace, but they were impressive. And it was quite interesting to see the rooms under reconstruction — elaborate woodwork still without gilt, or bare walls waiting for 18th century silk to be applied. It’s not hard to see why there was a Russian Revolution. Isolated in their beautiful palaces, speaking French instead of Russian, the rulers were completely out of touch with their subjects.
We walked through Peter the Great’s throne room, and the boudoir of Catherine the First.
Over 100 fountains are perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the Peterhof. They are all gravity-fed, yet reach heights of over 100 feet. Many are whimsical: metal trees sprouting water from their twigs, or a park bench that unexpectedly erupts in spray.
This is where you buy your Kacca (tickets). Letters in Cyrillic are pronounced differently. The Russians haven’t been able to shake off their penchant for bureaucracy. It cost 100 rubles ($3) for a permit to take photographs inside the palace, and 10 rubles to use the restroom. We also had to wear slippers over our shoes to avoid damaging the parquet floors. Most amusing was the requirement that we receive a temporary visa for the day, which consisted of a red piece of cardboard. Lose it and you had to pay them 50 bucks. Perhaps that was its point. Olga told us that 1/3 of the population of St. Petersburg consists of retired people. The typical family has less than one child. The average family lives in a one-room — not one-bedroom — apartment. And the population is shrinking by 30,000 a year. It seems unlikely that the careful immigration control is to prevent cruise ship passengers from sneaking into the country permanently.
There were some nice single-family homes being built near Peterhof. These belong to the 1% of Russians who became wealthy as a result of perestroika (restructuring) — often through illegal means. On the way back to the ship we stopped for 60 seconds in front of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul to take pictures. Danielle posed with the Eeyore we bought for Henry and Marjolaine’s Nathaniel. For more about Eeyore’s travels with us, click here.
Each day there is a new treat for us when we return to our cabin. Today was hors d’ouvres of salmon, caviar and pate. We’ve also had chocolate dipped strawberries.
The drive to The Hermitage on Saturday took us through a completely different part of St. Petersburg. We were accompanied by guide Natasha and bus driver Sasha. In this part of town nearly every building’s exterior had either been restored or was surrounded by scaffolding. The workers are rushing to finish in time for the city’s 300th anniversary next year. Along the river the pastel colored buildings looked charming in the cool northern light.
The Hermitage is comprised of five major buildings, including Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace. The museum has over 3 million items in its collection, and is the world’s second largest behind the Louvre. In two hours we rushed through as much as we could, seeing countless Rembrandts, Van Dyks, Titians, and more. In the last twenty minutes we tried to see a dozen rooms filled with Monets, Renoirs, Picassos, and Van Goghs. Back on the ship we had a relaxing afternoon and wrote some postcards. It’s funny to realize how close the time zones are this far north. We’ve lost an hour almost every day since London, so now we’re three hours ahead of GMT, 8 hours ahead of Orlando. This is our easternmost port, so we’re about to starting getting some of those hours back.
What a difference a day makes. Helsinki is a beautiful, clean, manicured and well-maintained city. The Finns are fiercely proud of their independence from Russia. Our tour guide, Tulla, kept emphasizing that they have nothing in common with their Russian neighbors — not even the roots of their language, which is related to that of Estonia and Hungary. Since they have one of the highest standards of living in Europe, it’s hard to disagree. Our tour took us about 150km out of Helsinki (a beautiful city that it would have been fun to explore) to the second oldest village in Finland, Porvoo. But our first stop was at a cattle farm.
With only 220 cows, a small gift shop, and some sugar beets, I’m not sure I understand the economics of this farm.
We enjoyed out hayride, coffee and pastries. It was great to get some country air after two days in St. Petersburg’s very industrial harbor.
They raise the cows to age 18 months, then sell them for beef. During the winter they have to heat the watering troughs to keep them from freezing in the -40 degree pens. Of course, this only works in the warmer southern part of Finland that we visited! Perhaps in the north the cows give ice cream.
The Finnish constitution declares that all signs and documents must be rendered in both Finnish and Swedish, even though only 6% of the population speaks Swedish as their primary language. This seems silly, as all Finnish Schoolchildren learn Finnish, Swedish, English and a fourth language of their choice.
Because the buildings in Finland are made primarily of wood, not many of them are very old. But 59 have survived in Provoo since the 16th century, and are now mostly tourist shops.
The cathedral, constructed in 1418 is also primarily wood. Needless to say it has been reconstructed a few times. It is a tradition to hang a model of a ship in the church to protect those who sail aboard it. Nearly the entire religious population of Finland is Lutheran.
Other interesting facts:
The Finns are shy, love solitary houses in the forest, and often have remote summer houses where they can live a very primitive existence during the temperate part of the year. The currency is the Euro. The accent is always on the first syllable of every word, as in SOWna for Sauna. There are eight vowel sounds. Education and healthcare is free. As a result taxes range from 35-56%. Over 90% of Finns own their own homes. With a population of only 5 million, all of Finland has only a few more residents than the city of St. Petersburg.
On the way in to Stockholm we passed the most unbelievably beautiful archipelago. 24,000 thousand islands — really the tops of rocky underwater mountain ranges — line the way, dotted with houses and docks.
An amusement park on one peninsula (or island?), the Vasa museum on another, and downtown Stockholm on a third.
Stockholm is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It is built on a collection of islands connected by short bridges, and is located between a freshwater lake and the Baltic.
Our guide, Anika, showed us around the city and took us to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a warship constructed in 1638 for King Gustav to use during the Thirty Years War. One thousand oak trees, many selected for their specific shapes, went into its construction. The masts were 150 feet tall, and it was covered with elaborate carvings.
A crowd gathered on a beautiful August day to watch its launch. With four of its ten sails set, it left the dock, caught the breeze and heeled over. Water poured into the open gunports and it sank in 110 feet of water.
It was discovered in 1956. Over a period of four years divers carefully tunneled under the hull, then raised it with cables. Because of the low salinity, it was amazingly well preserved, to the point where — once drained of silt — it could actually be floated to a temporary museum for restoration. It took almost 30 years to complete the task. At the Vasa museum this enormous ship is wonderfully displayed and interpreted, recapturing its very brief moment of glory.
After our tour we caught a shuttle back to Old Town and had lunch in what turned out to be a local hangout. Because it was off of the main tourist street we had a delicious meal for less than the price of a single entree at the restaurants one block away!
Then we did some shopping. Danielle found a copy of Harry Potter in Swedish and I bought some comics books, including Spindle Manne (Spiderman).
As the ship headed out we were treated to several more hours of the beautiful Swedish Archipelago.
After a restful day at sea, we arrived in Copenhagen (which is really called Kobenhavn) in the evening, and took a bus to Tivoli Gardens.
Created in 1843 by George Carstensen, it is the world’s first theme park. You enter through an area surrounded by charming bistros, interspersed with bandstands and fountains. Farther into the park there are rides and redemption games. It’s sort of a blend of World Showcase and Knott’s Berry Farm.
Danielle and I went on this boat ride where you could steer your own boat, which proved challenging and fun.
Pick up the fish, add up the numbers, and get a $1 stuffed toy for $6. The park was quite expensive because there was a charge of 1 to 5 tickets for each ride, at 10 Kroner per ticket ($1. 40). Not counting general admission, we dropped about $70 in two hours.
Linda and Danielle enjoyed the small roller coaster.
This is the ride where you pull yourselves to the top. Danielle and I tried it at Legoland, and Linda got a chance here.
Tivoli lives up to its fairyland billing after dark, when the lights come one everywhere, Linda liked these tables.
Wednesday morning we set out on a three hour tour of Copenhagen. Our first stop was the statue of the Little Mermaid, which is within walking distance of the dock. The city of Kobenhavn regards her as their city symbol.
I had thought the statue was “in the harbor”, but you can walk right up to it. She’s lost her head twice, but was wearing it the day we were there.
We took a boat ride tour of the canals and harbor. This is the best way to see the city, as the view of the more interesting sites is unobstructed.
The tour boats have been constructed to just fit through the smaller tunnels, as evidenced by this picture of the tightest spot. After going through this tunnel, the canal turns so sharply that it took our captain about five minutes to jockey us around the corner.
Our tour bus stopped at a few somewhat pointless locations, including this pretty courtyard, so we decided to leave the tour and strike out on our own for lunch. We walked to the New Harbor. It’s a canal lined with colorful buildings, sidewalk cafes and shops. It used to be the red light district.
We had a lovely lunch of Danish specialties, then walked about a mile along the seaside back to the Norwegian Dream.
Thursday morning we set off right after docking (7:45 am) for our final — and longest — excursion of the trip, Oslo Highlights and the Hadeland Glassworks. Guide Turidy and driver Odd took us first to Vigeland Sculpture Park. For over 30 years prior to World War II Gustav Vigeland, with the aid of stonecutters and the support of the government, created 200 sculptures depicting the phases of life. I wasn’t really expecting that much, but the statues really do capture the people they depict, from birth to death.
Next stop was the Holmenkollen Ski Jump high above Oslo. Originally constructed in 1892, it has been lengthened 15 times and was used for the 1952 Olympics.
Current record: 137 meters. Watch that first step.
Oslo is geographically one of the largest cities in Europe, with an area equal to that of Los Angeles. But the population is only 500,000, and the geographical center is in the middle of a forest. Many of the houses have extremely shiny roof tiles, to discourage the snow from sticking.
After an hour drive north we arrived at the Hadeland Glassworks. In operation for almost 250 years, the glassworks makes art glass, bowls, and stemware. We watched in fascination as three glassworkers turned clear molten blobs into one beautiful piece after another — all of the same design, but each unique.
The bus struggled up 1100 feet of twisty mountain road past beautiful chalets to reach this spectacular viewpoint overlooking Tyrifjorden, Norway’s fifth largest lake.
After a delicious lunch at a hotel near the lake (a smorgasbord almost identical to that in Epcot’s Norway pavilion) we headed back to Oslo. Our final stop was at the Viking Museum, where we saw three 11th century Viking boats excavated from burial mounds over one hundred years ago. The detail work and artifacts accompanying them gave a much more elegant picture of the Vikings than I was expecting.
Tomorrow we spend a day on the North Sea, arriving in Dover Saturday morning. From there we transfer by bus to Gattwick for our flight home.
Notes for Baltic cruises:
A starboard cabin is definitely the way to go. The view is better.
The two night pre-stay in London is a great way to make sure you’re rested enough to enjoy the first few days of the cruise.
We’d never been on a cruise with so much scenery passing near the ship. It’s so much more interesting than the Caribbean.
The Kiel Canal is a surprisingly good part of the itinerary.
If you want to really see the art in The Hermitage, you need a Russian Visa and to hire a driver.
The most scenic part of the cruise is the entry and exit to Stockholm. It’s worth getting up early to enjoy it.
Skip a bus tour of Copenhagen. A boat ride is fun, but it’s an easy city to see on your own. You can just walk to New Harbor or the shopping districts from the port.
Norwegian Cruise Lines had substantially better service than the others we’ve taken. Every one really made an effort to get to know us. All the more amazing since their fixed gratuity is simply added to the bill, a great feature that avoids a last day scramble for cash. The sommelier in the Bistro, who I would have guessed was 22, told us she’d worked for the line for 17 years!
Norwegian Cruise Line’s freestyle dining is the way to go — no schedules, and a choice of restaurant every night. They also have a great debarkation system. You have an assigned time based upon your destination, and you can enjoy breakfast or hangout in your cabin until then.
The Norwegian Dream is a modest ship. I would like to try an NCL cruise on one of their newest, larger ships.
Amber is a great deal in Estonia. I would skip the tour and go shopping next time. Scandinavia is very expensive, so this is really the only opportunity to shop for anything other than souvenirs.
Seven Countries, Seven Currencies:
Estonia – Krooni
Russia – Rubles
Finland – Euros
Sweden – Swedish Kronor
Denmark – Danish Kroner
Norway – Norwegian Kroner
England – Pounds
The contrast between Peterhof and the ruins of Leningrad
In the spring Linda informed Danielle and me that she would be too busy to travel this summer. So Danielle and I began looking for something interesting to do, and hit upon this relaxed two-week trip to Europe. Although Danielle lived in France from the time she was three months to six months old, this would be the first trip within her memory. I’m pretty familiar with London, even more so with Paris — where Henry Corrado is a good friend — but we settled upon a tour because it was economical, would be a good introduction for Danielle… and I wouldn’t have to lug both of our suitcases.When I signed us up for this European tour, I never suspected we’d be setting out only five days after returning from Australia! But opportunities arise, and the Australia trip was great. Best of all, Linda was able to go along on that one.So feeling like expert travelers, at midday we headed for the airport, and the overnight flight to London.
Sunday, July 29, 2001
The Australia conditioning is still working. The trip to Charlotte seemed instantaneous, and the trip across the Atlantic passed fairly quickly as well. We took an Airbus A330, which is a lovely plane. It offers much more coach seating room than the competitors, and has personal video and CD on-demand players in every seat. We were lucky; the seat next to Danielle was empty, so she was able to sleep with her head on my leg most of the way.
I brought a Palm Pilot that came free with a new computer we purchased, and Danielle immediately seized upon it. She’s gotten quite good at the Graffiti writing, and is keeping her trip journal on it.
We arrived at Gatwick a bit early, about 7:50am. The Far & Wide travel reps met us, moved our baggage onto the express train to London, and gave us tickets. The train was the Eurostar style; Danielle immediately noticed the absence of clacketa-clacketa noises.
At Victoria Station another Far & Wide rep met us, and escorted us to a minivan for the ride to the Hilton Metropole. The hotel looks nice, and is conveniently located just north of Kensington. We were met by our Tour Director, Gloria, who secured us a room in the new tower. Unfortunately, our room wasn’t ready yet — no surprise at 10:00am — so we checked everything and, at Gloria’s suggestion, headed by taxi to St. James Palace. Just for the record, the taxi driver was the same surly bastard type that I’ve had every time I’ve ever taken a London cab.
At St. James Danielle posed with the guard, and then we walked through Green Park to Buckingham Palace. At 85 degrees it’s hot here in London — yesterday set a record — so the ice cream stand was doing some serious business. We sampled their wares while we waited for the changing of the guard. On Sundays the Mall (rhymes with Al) in front of Buckingham Palace is closed to automobiles, so we were able to jump into the street in advance of the trooping guards and take pictures — mostly of Japanese tourists doing the same thing. Rather than wade through the tourists to see the actual change of the guard, we headed down the Mall past St. James Park and under the Admiralty Arch to Trafalgar Square. There we had a extraordinarily mediocre pizza buffet, bought tourist trinkets, and caught the tube at Charring Cross.
Six quick stops brought us to Edgware Road, where we emerged across the street from the hotel. I’m always amazed by the comprehensiveness of the London Underground. The trip took ten minutes and cost $3, as compared with the $15 cab ride. And no surly driver.Although I was skeptical of the Palm Pilot, it’s been useful for three things so far: currency conversion when I wanted to change Danielle’s $165 into equal parts Pounds, Francs and Lire; Figuring the most efficient Metro route (I downloaded the data for all three cities we’re visiting); and, of course, entertaining Danielle.
On returning to the hotel at 1:30 our room still wasn’t ready, so we camped in the lounge and updated our journals, looking very high tech with our dueling electronic appliances. It was nice to be offered free drinks, but a bed would be much nicer.
At about 2:00pm our room was ready. Danielle was asleep in seconds.
At 5:30 I went down for orientation and then collected her for dinner in La Fiama, the Metropole’s downstairs restaurant. We dined with a nice couple from Arizona, the Drumms, who have been in the UK for twelve days, most of it at the British Open. The demographics of this tour are quite different from the Tauk Tour, although I guess that’s a seasonal thing. The average age of this group is probably late forties, and it’s fairly evenly distributed.
Monday, July 30, 2001
Feeling surprisingly like we’re on the right time zone, we breakfasted in La Fiama and then joined the group for a city tour. We started by retracing our steps yesterday to St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace. I took the opportunity to peek into the window at Berry & Rudd Ltd., one of the oldest wine merchants in the city. Our walk this time took us through St. James Park, along the Princess Diana memorial walkway. Rejoining the bus, we drove through the West End, pausing at Westminster Abbey for a quick photo. Then it was on to the British Museum.
Trying to do the British Museum in an hour is the ultimate exercise in futility. But Danielle and I split off from the group and shifted into high gear, hitting the highlights in rapid fire: The Elgin Marbles (stolen from the Parthenon), the Rosetta Stone (stolen from the French, who stole it from the Egyptians), many, many mummies (ditto) and Latham Man, a 200-year-old man perfectly preserved by being tossed into a peat bog after being ritually killed (this last item was from Northern England, and actually wasn’t stolen).
Next stop: Covent Garden, for lunch and shopping. Danielle and I had a baked potato and a waffle (you can guess who assembled the menu) in an open air cafe, and then Danielle bought several hundred stuffed animals. She’s now in the hole $48 — time to do some math workbook pages and earn some spending money.
The afternoon tour took us to St. Paul’s Cathedral (no photos allowed). It’s big, but not as attractive as Notre Dame. Danielle was hesitant to visit the crypt until I pointed out that it couldn’t be too creepy, as there was a Crypt Cafe. We visited the tombs of Christopher Wren, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson, and Danielle learned some history. She says they’re studying English history this year in school, so this should put it wonderfully in context.
Our final stop was the Tower of London, where Danielle learned a LOT of history, particularly about Henry VIII and his sexual proclivities. The displays in the White Tower have been significantly improved since I was there last. I still think this original structure, built by William the Conqueror starting in 1066, is the most impressive.
It was extremely hot in London today — hotter than Havana! — and we were all pretty tired by the time we headed back to the hotel. A cool shower improved things, and then Danielle and I headed up to Aspects on the 23rd floor for a leisurely four course dinner. They featured a California cuisine which was the best non-ethnic food I’ve had in London.
Tuesday, July 31, 2001
The wake-up call for Stonehenge and Bath was at 6:45am, but we still got almost nine hours of sleep. If we weren’t reading such an interesting bedtime book — the fifth volume of The Indian in the Cupboard series — we would have gotten more.Danielle caught a nap on the tour bus as we headed through the English countryside to the Salisbury Plain. This is the third Mercedes tour bus we’ve had in as many tours (including Australia) and they’re really comfortable. The ride is smooth enough that I’ve spent it bringing this journal up to date.
Stonehenge:According to Danielle, “The stones are larger, and the circles smaller than I’d imagined.” I concur. There’s an eeriness about the place in its very improbability. Even the busloads of tourists, and the rope that maintains a fairly distant perimeter don’t prevent you from getting the feeling that some really strange things went on here 5000 years ago.
There are four stone rings inside an earthen ditch, with an alley leading to their center. The inner rings are horseshoe shaped, and the outer ones circular. Two of the rings are relatively “small” irregular stones called “blue stones”. These were transported from Southern Wales, over 240 miles away. No one can imagine how, and recent attempts by college students to duplicate the feat have ended with the stones at the bottom of the ocean.
The upright stones and horizontal lintels that we associate with Stonehenge are from much closer — about 30 miles away. But they weigh up to 50 tons. They’re fastened together like giant furniture, with pegs and holes.
Stonehenge was built by a group we call the “Beaker” People, from the fact that they placed beakers in their burial mounds. These mounds are called “barrows”. Several are visible from Stonehenge itself. Little else is known about the site, except for the fact that it’s a calendar. The flat stone near the front aligns perfectly with the central “altar” stone at sunrise on the longest day of the year, and sunset on the shortest.
Stonehenge really only occupies you for about an hour, and the free interpretive audio tour isn’t terribly informative. Nevertheless, it’s well worth the trip because it’s just so darn strange.
Bath:I wasn’t expecting much from Bath — frankly I had no idea what it was; but it turned out to be quite a nice mixture of history and ambiance. Bath is all about water — hence the name. It’s a good sized town built around the site of England’s only hot spring. The story goes that it was discovered by a leper who noticed that his pigs’ skin problems were healed when they bathed in the mud of the hot spring. He did likewise and was cured, then went on to become the king.
Later the Romans set up one of their elaborate bath houses on the spot, and it is chiefly the archaeology of this period that is presented at the historical site. The Roman building incorporated a temple, hypocaust, calderium, and a sacred pool into which you could throw pewter scrolls for the goddess Minerva — chiefly requests to curse people who had done you wrong.
Following the Romans, the Victorians rediscovered the spring, and turned it into a fashionable resort. The discovery of the Roman ruins in the 19th century further encouraged tourism. Today the town is filled with tourists, cafes, shops and flowers. Well worth the trip.
After a late lunch overlooking the river Avon (not Shakespeare’s Avon: Avon is Celtic for “river”, so there are a lot of River Avons — literally “River River”) we headed back to London, arriving at 5:30. Showered and changed, we headed out at 7:00pm for Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap”, which at 49 years is London’s — and the world’s — longest running play.
It’s presented in a small theater that reminded me of the Victorian music hall described in the Indian in the Cupboard series. The play is quite good, although we’ve watched so many Perry Mason episodes that we had it mostly figured out at intermission. At the end, the audience is sworn to secrecy, but I can assure you that the butler didn’t do it (there isn’t one).
We spent our cab fare on a T-Shirt, so we didn’t stay in the theatre district for a late supper as planned, but instead headed back to the hotel on the tour bus and went to bed.
Wednesday, August 1, 2001
This tour may be called “Leisure Europe”, but the pace hasn’t been too leisurely so far. I’m glad we didn’t select “Frenetic Europe”! So we decided to take this morning off. We’ll skip the optional Windsor Castle trip and rejoin the group for tea at Harrod’s.
After a truly appalling breakfast as only the English can ruin it, we caught the tube to Westminster for the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms. To our surprise, this turned out to be the highlight of our London stay.
The warren of underground rooms, protected by a 3-foot-thick concrete ceiling, housed Churchill and other key planners and military figures during the London blitz, from late 1940 until the end of the war. It has been preserved EXACTLY as they left it — right down to the last paperclip and cigar butt. The narration of the self-guided audio tour was excellent, capturing the uncertainty of the times with bits of actual recordings. Highly recommended.
On the way back to the Westminster tube station we walked past the Horse Guards. Incidentally, Westminster Station is quite amazing. It’s about eight stories deep, with crisscrossing escalators and interlinking tube platforms, and is entirely concrete and steel. It looks a lot like a scene out of Star Wars.
Back at the Hilton we had lunch downstairs. The Caesar salad consisted of equal parts lettuce, ham and eggs, all put through a meat grinder, with two sardines on top. Yum. (How can these people live only 40 miles from France?)
At 4:00 pm the motor coach dropped us off at Harrod’s for tea. Harrod’s is a really, really, really friggin’ big store. It’s six stories of an entire block filled with merchandise, much of it ridiculously priced, but with enough reasonably priced items to cater to all tourists and many locals. There are — get this — 300 departments, and 4000 employees. You can get furniture, plasma screens, furs and lettuce all under one roof. The cheese case alone was about 50 feet long. Tea was the usual finger sandwich and cardboard pastry nonsense, but we enjoyed conversing with the couple from Arizona.
Danielle, who is still trying to “math” her way out of debt, dropped another 32 pounds on stuffed bears and the hard cover special edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.I bought a bottle of water for 99p.
Thursday, August 2, 2001
Our wake-up call came at 5:00 am, for the 8:23 am Eurostar train to Paris. Is it coincidence that the London station that connects to Paris is named Waterloo?
The train poked along through England until the coastline, when it hit the smooth tracks of the Chunnel. As we pulled away from English soil, we bid a fond farewell to all the history of London, and a not so fond farewell to everything else about the place! Rudeness, inefficiency and bad food dwindled in the distance, as we continued at about 50mph throughout the 20 minute trip deep beneath the English Channel.
As we emerged into Normandy, the train gathered speed and soon we were hitting close to 200mph. It’s most impressive when you pass another one of these TGV’s going the other direction. At 400mph, they’ve disappeared in a little over a second.An hour later we arrived at the Gare du Nord. Our tour bus stopped at the Opera to pick up our local guide, Nicola. Since his mother was American, he speaks with virtually no accent — he sounds like someone out of a1950’s western, in fact.
Our city tour took us down the Champs Elysee, stopped at the Eiffel Tower for photos, and then took us to Notre Dame. The cathedral is impressive, but I think we’re both cathedralled out. More impressive to us was the food from the sidewalk cafes. Danielle says it was the best hot dog she ever tasted, and the brie was even better.
We checked into our hotel at 4:00 pm, and arranged to meet Henry at 7:00 pm for dinner at Quay Oest, his favorite riverfront restaurant, out on the west side.
Friday, August 3, 2001
Henry picked us up at 9:00 am and we had breakfast at La Duree, near the Place Madeleine. Now Danielle understands what a croissant is. Wow.We reached Paris Disneyland shortly before noon, where we went on Space Mountain — which Danielle loathed — and then met Jean Claude Boyer and Frederic Sauthier at Walt’s on Main Street for lunch. Afterwards, we did mostly Frontier land, which is a lot different than Magic Kingdom.For dinner we stopped at the mall in Serris to buy food, and then had a nice evening, dining on the table in Henry’s backyard in nearby Chalifert.
Saturday, August 4, 2001
Today was Eiffel Tower day. Henry picked us up at 11:30am for our lunch at Jules Vernes, the restaurant on the second level, 270 feet above the Seine. Lunch was fabulous. Particular highlights were the butter(!), foie gras and the incredibly complex flavor of the chocolate truffles. Better bring money, though — even the appetizers were $40 each (yeow!) At least it satisfied Danielle’s request for a fine dining experience in Paris, and it could have been worse — it could have been dinner pricing.
After lunch we took the elevator to the top of the tower to experience the view of all of Paris from about 1000 feet. Spectacular. We took the elevator back to the second level and then climbed down the 649 stairs to street level.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Le Bon Marche, a fancy food store in the 7th Arondissment and bought some gourmet foods to bring home with us.
After relaxing for a few hours, we decided that since it was our last chance, we’d venture out onto the Place de la Republique in search of the true Paris bistro experience. The neighborhood was one that seemed to specialize in mussels and other shellfish, which wasn’t quite what Danielle had in mind.
We settled on the brasserie Maitre Kanter because they had duck. It was decent food, but the ambience was great, sitting at a table out on the sidewalk and dining late into the evening. Before desert it started to rain lightly and they moved us inside, where we enjoyed watching the crabs try to climb out of their large rock aquarium. By the end of dinner the skies had cleared, and we headed back to the hotel.
Sunday, August 5, 2001
We slept late again this morning; Henry picked us up at 11:30 and we drove to the Champs Elysee for lunch at the other La Duree. This one serves a complete menu, not just pastries. Mmm.
Next stop the Louvre. The Louvre is really, really, really big. In three hours we walked through perhaps 10% of the collection, pretty much without stopping. There were more Egyptian antiquities there than I remembered, and that area was less crowded than the painting section. The Mona Lisa (La Jaconde, the French call her) is mandatory, of course, but getting to it is another matter. Danielle finally squirmed through the crowd to get a glimpse. It is true that her eyes always seem to be looking at you, wherever you stand, a feature not apparent in the reproductions. It’s just a shame it’s impossible to really appreciate it because of the crowds. After visiting my favorites — the Flemish paintings — we headed back to the hotel for showers, fancy clothes, and a meeting with our tour group — the first in three days. Many thanks to Henry for entertaining us for our entire Paris visit; it was great.
We all boarded the bus at 7:00pm looking very different, in our jackets and ties. The group had obviously grown together during their Paris stay (many had taken up to four optional trips together). Several mentioned that they’d missed us. I guess Danielle tends to liven things up a bit. She enjoys talking to both the teenagers and the older people. I particularly like the Chinese family from San Francisco, the Midwesterners who now live in Marin, and Gloria, our tour guide. At 8:00 we boarded the Batteau Mouches for a dinner cruise on the Seine. Champagne was followed by a four course dinner of surprisingly good food. There were no complaints about the wine, either — a 1998 St. Emilion Grand Cru. It flowed freely, a fact that I’m sure was regretted by a few the next morning.
As the boat rounded the Isle de la Cite and Isle St. Louis, a band began to play dance music, and Gloria coaxed quite a few of us out onto the dance floor — Danielle and I included. A light rain outside, floating down almost like snow in the bright lights of the boat just added to the atmosphere. I was nearly midnight before we got back to the hotel; all in all a very pleasant evening, one I recommend to all Paris visitors.
Monday, August 6, 2001
Our wakeup call wasn’t until 7:45, but I was up at 7:15 to shower and pack. After breakfast we piled onto the bus and headed for Charles De Gaulle airport. I think everyone was reluctant to leave Paris, as always.The flight was only about 90 minutes, and Air France food was good, as usual. But with the logistics at both ends figured in, it was 5:00pm before we checked into the Mediterraneo in Rome.
Coming into Rome we passed though many mid-20th century buildings, most of which were marked with graffiti. Gloria explained that it could be expensive to clean your building, because it might attract the attention of the tax assessor! As we passed through the ancient Roman wall surrounding the old city there began to be many more ornate and Renaissance buildings.
Our hotel is located near Termini, the main train station, which the guide book says is not the greatest neighborhood, although it looks nice enough. The hotel appears to be about 100 years old, but is in good repair. The floors are marble, and there are rare woods throughout. Our room is large by European standards, with a nicely remodeled bathroom, including a bidet (“If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium” comes to mind). The beds are twin size, though.
Danielle walked through the door and fell asleep. We decided to skip the evening’s walking tour, including the Trevi fountain (of “Three Coins” fame) and the group’s many course Italian dinner, because we had a 6:00am call for the city tour on Tuesday. I went out to a small local market for some water and snacks and scoped out the neighborhood while Danielle slept, then caught a nap myself until 9:00pm.
When Danielle awoke she was ready for dinner, so we walked up to the Piazza di Republica and had pizza and pasta (yes, that’s really what they eat) in a sidewalk Tratorria overlooking the square. For dessert she had a fantastically rich chocolate gelato.
Tuesday, August 7, 2001
Rome is busy, but not like in the movies. We’re told that it’s “empty” because it’s August and everyone is out of town. It’s not empty, but our guide, Gloria, was surprised at how early we got to the Vatican: about a half hour before opening. We were the second or third group in. Our local guide, Amelia, was informative, but not as interesting as Gloria. We visited a single corridor of the Vatican Museum, then entered the Sistine Chapel.
It’s amazingly colorful since the cleaning of a few years ago. I had read some descriptions of the different sections in the excellent Dorling Kindersley Rome travel guide (don’t leave home without it), so it was more interesting than I was anticipating. Gloria rented personal radio headsets for us for the entire day. These were fantastic, as they allowed Amelia to speak in a whisper, even from 100 feet away, and we could all hear her. It made it very easy to collect the group as we moved from area to area, and saved us a lot of time throughout the day.
The Sistine Chapel empties into St. Peter’s square, where we made a U-turn and entered St. Peter’s Basilica. This is the largest of the cathedrals on the trip; the tallest building in Orlando would easily fit under the 448 foot high dome. Inside is the Pieta, now behind bullet proof glass, and many works by Bernini, who shared architectural credit with Michelangelo. Unlike the other cathedrals we’ve visited, this one is a work in progress, with many new mosaics honoring recent popes and parishes around the world. The large “paintings” in the various shrines are actually mosaic copies of famous paintings in the Vatican painting gallery; when examined extremely closely it becomes apparent that they are made of millions of colored glass beads.
After St. Peter’s we took a break so that Danielle could get fleeced in a tourist shop, and then wound our way through the historic part of the city to the Colosseum. On the way we saw many sights in the forum and surrounding area. While it would have been nice to walk, it was over 90 degrees, and the bus’ air conditioning felt great. I was a little surprised to discover that the forum is not only surrounded by modern highways, but is actually bisected by one. Those postcard photos must be shot very carefully.
Inside the Colosseum Amelia led us around the edge of the main floor, describing how the area beneath the floor was used to store live animals. Their cages were winched through trap doors to provide a dramatic entrance at the proper moment. Then they were slaughtered. Fun.
Because of the light crowds, we finished our tour by 1:30, a couple of hours early, and decided to have a quiet afternoon. (We have a 4:30 am wake-up call tomorrow… groan.)
We had dinner in a trattoria on a small street near the hotel. When I say “on”, I mean on — our table was almost in the middle of the pavement. Oddly, it was run by a Japanese man, but the food was strictly Italian, and better than last night’s. I had fettuccine Bolognese and we shared a ham pizza; this flatbread pizza style, reminiscent of what I fix on the barbecue, is apparently the true Italian style, invented in Naples.
Wednesday, August 8, 2001
This was the big day of the trip: Naples (Napoli), Capri and Pompeii. We were on the bus by 5:00am, but I think we were all comatose for the first ninety minutes until we hit a rest stop with a coffee bar.
At 9:30 we reached Naples, a big, unattractive city on a large bay. The culture is different in southern Italy, and the activities of the mafia and the underground economy have hurt the southern cities, which lag the north in prosperity. We were early, as the roads were empty, so we killed a bit of time in a square in front of what was the palace of a southern king. An interesting note is that stray dogs here are not rounded up, they are fed by the citizens.
At the docks we met Marco, our local guide for the day. He was a handsome and charming Italian, but fairly worthless as a guide. During our visits to Capri and Sorrento he was invisible most of the time, and did little more than point out good places to take photos. We emerged knowing nothing of those two places.
In Pompeii he was more informative, but spent much of his time making sure we bought books from his friend. But I digress.We took a hydrofoil to Capri, a 45-minute trip diagonally across the bay. The water was smooth, almost glassy, even as we ventured out into the edge of the Mediterranean. Seagulls floated on it all the way across.
Capri is a dramatic saddle of limestone jutting over 1000 feet upwards out of the bay. There is almost no level ground, but thousands of narrow terraces have been cut into the stone, and are planted with trees, shrubs or vines. A road switchbacks its was up the saddle and then across the vertical cliff face of the northern end. Wherever possible, it is lined with narrow houses squeezed against the cliff face and each other. There are few spots wide enough for even the tiny minibuses to pass, and scooters are the preferred method of transport. Our minibus ride was reminiscent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride; at one point we had to negotiate a complete 360 in order to make a sharp right turn. We drove though three of the four villages on the five-square-mile island, starting from Marina Grande and proceeding through Capri to Anacapri, perched atop the northern end. Even with the early morning fog still shrouding much of the island, the views were spectacular: deep blue water dotted with dozens of sailboats and yachts, rocky limestone cliffs plunging to the sea, and everywhere colorful bursts of bougainvillea.
In Anacapri we boarded a skyride to the very highest point of the island. This was pretty exciting, as the seats were individual ski lift chairs, so our feet dangled above the scenery as we climbed almost another 1000 feet to the highest point on the island. On the way up our feet nearly grazed the tops of some of the trees, and we passed over many vineyards, gardens, and a backyard filled with what appeared to be shrines made from Barbie doll parts, plastic toys and seashells. From the top of the mountain we looked down another steep cliff to the small grotto where mermaids lured the Greek sailors in the Odyssey.
Back at the base of the lift we walked through the narrow shopping bazaar to the Hotel Saint Michele, an attractive white complex on the ridge, overlooking the harbor. We had a pleasant lunch, sharing a table with the Drumms, then retraced our minibus journey back to the hydrofoil for the shorter trip to Sorrento, at the southern end of the bay.
Sorrento is as charming as Naples is homely. Beautiful old buildings cling to the cliff tops, and the public squares are lined with interesting restaurants and shops. Unfortunately we were just passing through, taking a bus back to our tour bus, but this town definitely merits an extended stay.
The road from Sorrento back to Naples definitely tested the skill of Daniele (accent on the final ‘e’), our tour bus driver for the Italian portion of our trip. It clings to the rocky cliff top, skirting many volcanic beaches, and plunging through long, winding tunnels at several spots. The beaches were crowded with sunbathers and swimmers, but traffic was light.I was surprised to discover that Pompeii is surrounded by a suburb of Naples; I had imagined it in some secluded spot. But unlike the forum in Rome, which is bisected by a major highway, Pompeii is isolated by its size and the local topology, a lot of which is volcanic ash and pumice. Incidentally, Vesuvius erupts about every 50 years. The last time was in 1944. You do the math. There are 500,000 people in the immediate vicinity, and a single lane road leading in and out.
Pompeii is a city. Yes, I knew that, but somehow I was thinking four square blocks. In fact it’s huge, stretching in all directions as far as you can see. The second floors of most buildings are gone, but the first floors, including mosaics, frescoes, and even plumbing survive.
Buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii was only discovered in the 19th century, and excavation still continues. Delicate objects such as amphorae and wooden things have been gathered up and placed in storage areas or museums, but most of the structures are open for you to walk through.
Marco seemed to be fascinated by anything that was a penis, so we got what amounted to the erotic tour of Pompeii. There were penis stools, frescoes with giant penises, penises carved into the pavement to point you to the brothels, and penises mounted above the apothecary where you got treated for the clap you caught at the brothel. Inside the brothel were detailed paintings of the “menu”. I guess Danielle won’t be needing any sex ed classes.
We also toured some of the baths (which were much more interesting than the complex in Bath), an ornate private home, a bar and casino, and the public square. The level of detail in Pompeii is amazing, and we left with many unanswered questions about mysterious objects that we passed on the way through. Two hours is not enough. I’m not sure two days would have been. We will definitely want to return.
It was another three hours on the bus back to Rome, but the time went quickly, as Gloria told us stories on the way, including the history of the Hapsburgs, the gossip on the British royal family, and a hilarious tale about her vacation in a “camping machine”.We arrived at the hotel about 9:00pm and received sad news. Danielle’s Grandpa Dean passed away today. He was the kindest man I’ve ever known, and we’ll miss him very much. We’ll fly to Los Angeles on Saturday to join Linda at her mother’s.
Thursday, August 9, 2001
A late morning. While much of the rest of the group headed out at 6:00 am for the optional Florence tour, we hedonistically spent the morning in bed. We didn’t actually make it out of the room until after 1:00, but we had an energetic afternoon, walking halfway across the old city, through the Quirinal district, one of the original seven hills of Rome.
We lunched at a charming trattoria in a narrow alleyway, then spent the better part of an hour wandering around looking for the Trevi fountain. In retrospect, I think we missed it by one block three times, but the sightseeing was interesting; in the maze of twisty little streets there were many upscale shops and restaurants. We passed a bronze guy on a horse, a very ornately carved column, and a brand new water fountain built in 1957 where Danielle discovered that by covering the spigot it would water the top of your head (it was hot). Our map wasn’t good enough to identify any of these.
At the Trevi Fountain we threw in three coins: one from England, one from France, and one from Italy. Legend says that if you toss a coin in the fountain you will return to Rome. We’re hoping surrogate tossing works, because our third coin was for Linda.
On the way back, along the Via Nazionale I bought Danielle a gold heart pendant as a remembrance of our trip together.
In the evening the entire group went out to an Italian restaurant for our “last supper”. There were opera singers, and they had our frequent dining companions, the Drumms, play Romeo and Juliet in honor of their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
Friday, August 10, 2001
What an expedition we had getting home! It was supposed to be a nine-hour flight from Rome, but we hit a holding pattern over Boston and then had to stop in Baltimore to refuel. Then we spent an hour waiting for clearance to Philly, and an hour sitting on the runway in Philly waiting for a gate. Finally, after 13 hours in the plane, we got off to face an hour line in immigration. After clearing customs there was a three-hour line to rebook, since all the flights had been missed or cancelled. In fact, the soonest flight we could get was 24 hours later.
Anyway, we spent the night in Philly, and are rerouting ourselves directly to L.A. on Delta, where we expect to be for the next week.
And so we say “Arrivaderci Roma”, and bid a fond farewell to all of Europe. Thanks to Gloria and all the nice people who traveled with us for making it such a special trip.
In 1990 I visited Gothenburg, Sweden for a week to install one of the first Iwerks Turbo Tour Theater simulator rides. on the way back I met Linda in Europe, and we spent a week visiting Paris and London.
Hotel Bretonnerie, The Moray District, Paris. A good, cheap place to stay, in a charming area.