Architecture, ART, Attractions, Cruising, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

Szechenyi Baths in Budapest Hungary

1B Hill (59)
Buda Plague Statue – Castle Hill

TRAVEL THERE: TAKING THE WATERS WITH THE HUNGARIANS

Much too soon, IMHO, it was time to leave Castle Hill.  Bill (bless his heart), who does most of my photography, was just getting warmed up.  On the way up the hill he’d scouted out all sorts of lovely photo opportunities, but suddenly we were late for the bus.

Time for Lunch

Never tell Bill he doesn’t have time for something.  He’ll prove you wrong.  It was only the first full day of the cruise and I didn’t want to get a reputation for always being the last one back on the bus.  “You won’t have anytime for pictures,” I warned him, so he took a whole bunch.  Confession:  I wanted him to take the pictures and I wanted him to hurry, so I used a little travel psychology on him.

Back down at the bus, we weren’t the very last to board, but almost.  Warning: Your bus will leave you if you are late coming back from Castle Hill.  Budapest severely limits the number of buses allowed on the hill at any one time.  They monitor the comings and going of the buses and only give them a small window of time to actually be on the hill.  While an occasional infraction yields only a stiff fine, repeated offenses can bar you from the hill altogether.  Therefore, your bus will not pick you up in exactly the same place it let you off, because once you’re off, they’re high-tailing it off the hill.  They come back and get you, but don’t linger in the shops getting a souvenir for granny or you might be hoofing it back to the boat.  Not that bad of a walk, but you might miss lunch.

Here’s the pictures Bill took on the way back to the bus and down the hill to the ship.

1B Spa (5) Time for a Dip

My primary source of information for Budapest was Rick Steves.  He firmly convinced me there was no reason to go to Budapest at all, if you didn’t plan to enjoy one of the Thermal Baths and if you only had time for one Thermal bath, then you had to go to the Szechenyi Baths.  Viking graciously provides an optional shore excursion which takes passengers to a Thermal Bath, but they keep the information about which Thermal Bath very close to their vest.  I could not, for the life of me, find any information about it on any brochure, video or webpage.  My travel agent wasn’t able to get anything either and she even called her Viking rep.  Seems they don’t publish this information in case they decide they want to change up their thermal bath shore excursion locations.  Gee guys, thanks for the anxiety!

I will tell you that Viking took me to the Szechenyi Baths for our Budapest Thermal Bath Excursion, but don’t blame me if you end up at Ruda or Gellert Spas.  If you end up at one of those, be angry.  Be very angry, because there is only one Szchenyi Bath House and you want to go there.

The Viking Tor primes you for the shore excursion with fluffy towels and robes in stateroom when you come back from the City Tour.  They also provide you with a swim cap, because you are not allowed to enter some of the pools without one.

At the spa, you will have access to a changing room and locker.  From the changing rooms you’ll go to the baths, all eighteen of them.  Why eighteen?  Well, some are inside, some are outside.  Some are hot, some are cold and others are merely tepid.  Some have jets and fountains, some don’t.  Some have particular minerals, some have others.  Some are for swimming, others are for soaking.

Bill and I spent the lion’s share of our time in two of the three outdoor pools.  One of the outdoor pools is strictly for swimming laps and it’s where you’ll need the swim cap.  We didn’t go there.  We lollygagged in the other two pools with hundreds of our new Hungarian friends.  Even if you think this sounds icky, you should give it a try.  We loved it!  We did check out the indoor pools but much preferred the outdoor experience.

The Szechenyi Baths are a lot of fun, but they are also gorgeous.  Once we’d gotten prune-y from all the bathing, we got dressed and Bill started taking pictures.  Enjoy!  Then come back next week for the Budapest Sail Away.  It was spectacular!

 

Architecture, ART, Attractions, Cruising, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

Across the River, Thru the Tunnel and Up Castle Hill

Enjoying the sights on Buda's Castle Hill
Enjoying the sights on Buda’s Castle Hill

TRAVEL THERE: THE BUDA PART OF THE BUDAPEST CITY TOUR

With Heroes Square and Andrassy Boulevard under our travel belt, next on the must-see list was Castle Hill.  A couple hours before lunch is not enough time to see it, but that’s what we had, so we went with it.  Castle Hill is every much as touristy as Heroes Square, but the visitors seem a lot more European and there were no sweater ladies.

Matthias Church

The bus parked and we were led to the top of the hill by our apologetic guide.  We waited a few minutes outside Matthias Church while tickets were procured by our underdog tour leader and then made our way into the church.

WOW, just WOW!

The outside of the church was glorious and the deep blue sky didn’t hurt one iota, but once we walked inside the church, we were awestruck.

Matthias Church
Matthias Church

While the actual church building has only been around for about 800 years, a lot of history has happened up there.  Last week I mentioned the Magyars.  Well, they were basically marauding barbarians who made Budapest their winter camp around around 867.  Somewhere in the late 900’s the old Magyar king, Geza, noticed Christian forces were taking over Europe.  Never one to miss a trick, he decided his son, Vajk, should join the up-and-coming religion.

And here’s where the legends start.  At about the same time Geza was planning the strategic step of turning Vajk into St. Stephen, Hungary’s first Christian king, the pope dreamed the Magyars were about to convert and had a gold and silver crown tricked out with the popular gemstones of the day and sent it to Budapest with his blessings.  However, reliefs on the statue outside the church illustrate the pope showing up with the crown himself for the coronation, so you get to choose what you think happened.

Hapsburg Banners
Hapsburg Banners

And speaking of the Hapsburgs, there are some very dingy banners hanging from the columns of the church.  I was all for replacing them, until I heard they’d been up there since old Konig und Kaiser Franz Joseph’s coronation in 1867.  So much for my idea of improvement!

Perhaps the banners wouldn’t look quite so dingy if they weren’t surrounded by blazing color in every direction.  Every inch (and I mean every inch) of this beautiful interior is either gold or painted in intricate patterns.  It’s like a sampler of bargello needlepoint on steroids.

Life in the Matthias Church has not been all crowns and banners.  For awhile some of the various armies passing through used it as a barracks and stable.  I’m sure that endeared them to the population.  Then the Communists found out they could make some coin by opening it up as a tourist attraction, so they allowed the Hungarians to return it to its former and current glory – and it is glorious.

After the official tour was over we wandered around the church.  Even at the risk of sounding redundant, I’d like to repeat that this church is spectacular and you should check out every nook and cranny they will allow you into.

St. Istvan and Fisherman’s Bastion

St. Stephen's Monument and The Fisherman's Bastion
St. Stephen’s Monument and The Fisherman’s Bastion

1896 is an important year in Hungary.  Budapest was in its glory days and someone noticed it was the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar’s arrival, so the city went on a campaign of “Magyarization” and self-aggrandizement.  Not only did they virtually rebuild the city in grand style, but Hungarian became the official language and many other Magyar-honoring endeavors were undertaken.  Part of this was a fluffing up of St. Matthias Church, but they also built Heroes Square, the Fisherman’s Bastion and they erected the St. Istvan (Stephen) monument.

Since Istvan was the first Christian King of Hungary, the whole St. Stephen thing is easy to understand.  The Fisherman’s Bastion requires a little more explanation.  In Magyar times, when someone decided to attack Buda and/or Pest, the people of the area were pressed into military service.  It so happens that what eventually became Castle Hill was in the district where the local fishermen docked their boats.  So while the people of Budapest were honoring their Magyar ancestors, they built a double-decker rampart with seven pointy towers (one tower for each of the Magyar tribes) and dubbed it in honor of those fisherman of the past.

Fisherman’s Bastion is, by far, the best vantage point from which to admire the spectacular Parliament Building, along with the rest of the Pest portion of the two-part city.  We took lots of pictures, so please enjoy them and come back next week for a dip in the Szechenyi Baths.

 

 

 

Architecture, ART, Attractions, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

Let the Shore Excursions Begin

1B heros (14)TRAVEL HERE:  THE PEST PART OF OUR BUDAPEST CITY TOUR

Budapest, Hungary deserves several days on any itinerary, but Viking only gave me the better part of two days, so I had to make the most of every minute.  While I wanted to don my walking shoes and start exploring the city, I dutifully boarded the Viking bus and went on the City Tour included in my cruise.  I can tell you this, if I can ever manage to do it, I am going back to Budapest! 

Andrassy Ut 

Our guide for this tour was overly humble about his city.  He found it appalling that while a city as grand as Budapest was virtually bereft of victories, they chose to call one of their primary tourist attractions Heroes Square.  My research had given me a little different view of it.

The seven Magyars tribes had shown up in Budapest about 896 and terrorized Europe for over a hundred years.  Then they protected the Holy Roman Empire from the Tatars and Turks for several centuries, until in 1867 the Hapsburgs created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, acknowledging they needed the Hungarians in order to keep their empire intact.  During the second half of the 19th Century, Hungary came into its own and for a while was the rock star of Europe.  When the World Wars came along, Hungary was dealt a difficult hand, but I really didn’t understand our guides underdog attitude.

Still, as we made our way along Andrassy ut, the main boulevard of Pest (pronounced Pescht), our underdog-leaning guide apologized his way past a number of spectacular sites.  Rick Steves calls Andrassy ut “the Champs-Elysees and Broadway rolled into one.”

My favorite sight along Andrassy ut was the Opera House.  During the Austro-Hungarian portion of Budapest’s history, the Holy Roman Emperor might have been Emperor everywhere else, but he was only the King of Hungary.  Good old Koing und Kaiser Franz Joseph agreed the city needed an Opera House (What else was he supposed to do for fun when he was in Budapest?), so he provided half the funds needed for the building of the theater, with one teeny tiny stipulation.  The opera house in Budapest had to be smaller than his opera house at home in Vienna.  The architect followed the letter of this stipulation, if not the spirit of it.  In every way except size, the Hungarian State Opera House is supposed to be very much grander than its sister theater in Vienna.  Bully for Budapest!

1B Heros (19) Hosok Tere (Heroes’s Square)

At the end of Andrassy ut is Heroes Square.  Though I had never heard of him before this trip, György Zala became one of my favorite sculptors.  The 14 sculptures populating Heroes Square were created by him and I think they are gorgeous.  In fact, the whole thing is gorgeous.  It certainly deserves to be seen by one and all, but I wish we’d had time to see more of the city park which surrounds the square, especially Szepmuveszeti Muzeum (Museum of Fine Arts).   It’s probably a good thing the museum has been closed since last year for renovation or I might have slipped away from the tour for a peek and never been heard from again.

While the Square is very beautiful and quite impressive it is very much a tourist trap.  You will see millions tour buses and you need to plan on being harassed by bevy of Hungarian ladies hawking sweaters that very much look as if they were made in China.  As you stroll around gaping at the impressive monuments, you will most likely bump into the other ten billion tourists (mostly American) who have also been dumped on the Square out of the tour buses.

While I didn’t get enough to time wander off from the tour, we were given plenty of time to explore the square.  Then we were herded back to the bus, shown a smidgen of the park and then whisked away to Castle Hill over in Buda.  I’ll be back next week to tell you about that, but in the meantime, enjoy the work of my new favorite sculptor.

 

 

Architecture, Attractions, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

Getting Our Bearings in Budapest

Romantic Budapest
Romantic Budapest

TRAVEL THERE: OUR FIRST NIGHT ABOARD THE VIKING TOR

I always over-plan my trips, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I enjoy the planning and sometimes a small tidbit I glean from studying my destination affords me the best moments of a trip, like in Oregon when we visited the Maryhill Museum and White River Falls.  This over-planning paid off in Budapest, too.

Welcome Aboard

As I boarded the Viking Tor I immediately noticed a big difference in River Cruising and Ocean Cruising.  I didn’t have to stand in line so a photographer could get a picture of me.  Though I do usually buy that embarkation photo, by the time they let me get that near the boat, I just want to go to my room.  On Viking I got a warm welcome, spent a few moments checking in and went to my room, where within minutes I had my luggage.  It was like observing a miracle!

1B Stroll (18)
Castle Hill from the Sundeck!

While a part of me wanted to get out there and start exploring Budapest, I knew the rest of my cruise would go better if I took time to unpack my bags and organize our stuff.  That accomplished we took a stroll around the ship to get our bearings.  Up on the Sun Deck I was once again struck by the remarkable parking spot Viking had scored on the Danube.

The Fun Begins

Dressing for dinner is one of my favorite things, whether I’m on a ship or not.  So it makes sense that I planned my outfits for dinners on the ship as carefully as I planned my shore excursions.  Though I’d spent most of two days getting to Budapest and several hours aboard the Tor, it was getting ready for that first dinner which made me feel as if we were finally on vacation.

A corner of the Lounge
A corner of the Lounge

About 6:15 we made our way to the Lounge.  It was on the same deck as our room and getting there only took moments.  Bartenders chatted with patrons and a pianist offered popular songs.  Soon the cruise director officially welcomed us aboard and gave us an overview of what to expect in days ahead.

Next came dinner.  From the moment we entered the chic dining room with it’s muted tones and cheerful staff we knew we were going to enjoy our meals on the Tor.  From the dining room’s large windows we were able to enjoy the hustle and bustle of Budapest while we ate three delicious courses, generously laced with wine.

Out on the Streets

Here’s where the over-planning came in handy.  Music and dancing were available in the Lounge after dinner, but Budapest was calling.  We picked up a shore card at the desk and crossed the gang plank.  I’m sure a spontaneous ramble through the dock environs would have been just fine, but I was able to suggest we take a look a Gresham Palace.  Rick Steves had alerted me to the venerable old palace’s juxtaposition to our docking place.  I knew all I had to do was cross Szechenyl ter (Square), which honored the man who had built the Szechenyl Chain Bridge (and many other Budapest sites), and I’d be in front of what was now a luxurious Four Seasons Hotel.  Bill loves to visit swanky hotels and I was dying to see the place where, according to legend, an aging actress held off developers for a number of years.  We hadn’t brought along a camera on our stroll, so Bill went back the next day and got these shots.

 

A daylight shot of Vaci utca
A daylight shot of Vaci utca

From the Gresham Palace my research told me Vorosmarty ter was just steps away, which would connect us with Vaci utca, the primary shopping area for Budapest and a lively pedestrian mall.  Since it was late enough for the shops to all be closed, Bill was amenable to checking it out.  We loved it!  Elegantly dressed Hungarians strolled among the gorgeous buildings.  Food vendors and musicians entertained energetic patrons.  We definitely knew we weren’t in Dallas, because no one had on yoga pants or jeans.

Though we yearned to linger, we were also running out of steam, so we crossed over to Dunakorzo, the Danube Promenade.  We only enjoyed a few blocks of it, but as reported by others, this is a place to enjoy some of the best views of Budapest.  It is also populated by a number of charming statues, so keep your eyes open.

From Dunakorzo we returned to the Chain Bridge and took a stroll to the other side.  We were not alone.  Strolling the beautiful bridges across the Danube is a pastime enjoyed by tourists and natives alike.  After the bridge we headed back to the boat and went to bed.  The two days of travel put me to sleep immediately.

The evening sites along the river are marvelous to see, but I’m saving the rest of the nighttime pictures for the sail-way.  For now, enjoy some of the shots Bill got the next day as he took and afternoon stroll along the Danube.

 

 

Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

Welcome to Budapest!

Could it be that this was the most important thing I packed?
Could it be that this was the most important thing I packed?

TRAVEL THERE: OUT OF THE AIR AND INTO THE WATER

There wasn’t a jetway from the terminal to the plane in Frankfurt.  We boarded a bus.  While waiting for the bus to board I dug into my snack stash.  There was supposed to be a snack on the plane, but who knew what that would be or when we’d get it.  A few minutes later as I settled my belongings onto the plane, a lady asked me if we were on Viking’s Danube Waltz Cruise.  It was a little unnerving, but I acknowledged we were, in fact, Viking passengers en route.

1B Stroll (16)
Not our bus, but proof we were there!

Arriving in Budapest

I’ll admit I have arrival anxiety.  Perhaps if you’d traveled in Egypt for 19 days without your luggage you’d feel the same way.  We nervously watched the luggage carousels go around and around, hoping our luggage would eventually show up.  It did and we breezed through customs.

My next worry?  Would the Viking people find us?  I had followed their instructions, putting Viking luggage tags on my bags and adhering the big Viking sticker to my jacket.  Nothing like donning a few tourist alerts for any pickpockets or con men hanging about the airport.

It would have been impossible for me to miss the Viking staff.  As we escaped the secure section of the terminal everyone I saw had on a bright red t-shirt with the Viking logo and each one had a clipboard.  I found one who had our name on their clipboard and they corralled us into a corner.

From there, they loaded us and our luggage on a bus.  As the bus departed the airport we got our first real look at Budapest.  Except for an alphabet which looked more Russian than American (imagine that) the city seemed not so different from any other city with an international airport.

1B Stroll (26)
The Szechenyi Chain Bridge

As we entered the older parts of the city I was so excited I could barely breathe.  Suddenly, I recognized everything around me – the Parliament building , the bridges, the Danube and the Viking Tor.  What’s more, the bus pulled into a parking lot right next to the famous Chain Bridge.  My dreams were coming true!  The scenes around me fleshed out all the research I had been doing in the months before the cruise.

Making Friends   

As we made our way through the logistical hoops, we had a few snippets of conversation with the lady who had asked me if we were Viking passengers back in Frankfurt.  Come to find out they were from one of my favorite places on earth, Oregon and they were traveling with another couple from that great state.

As we got to know them over the next eight days I discovered that it had been my snack stash which had ratted me out as a Viking passenger.  I’d tucked my snacks into the complimentary zippered bag Viking sent me with my tickets.  I loved everything about the cruise, but I confess, getting to know the Radcliffes and the Penkerts made the whole thing a lot more fun.

Come back next week!  We’ll take a romantic evening stroll along the Danube.

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL

Meals You’ll Love on Viking River Cruises

Taste of Austria (8)TRAVEL THERE: MEAL BY MEAL ON THE VIKING TOR

Every meal is a treat on Viking River Cruises!

Breakfast

From 6 – 11 AM a Cafe Breakfast was available at a coffee station next to the Lounge.  In fact, food and beverages were always available there.  The food ranged from croissants and danish in the morning to cookies mid-afternoon, but there was always something.  The liquid libations offered even more variety:  coffee drinks both hot and cold; hot tea and hot chocolate; both bubbly and still water; even juices in the morning.  The Cafe Breakfast service satisfied the needs of both the early risers and late sleepers, while the coffee station itself kept the rest of us from getting peckish throughout the day.  There was at least one day we visited it for a second breakfast and on most days we took advantage of it for an afternoon break.  At 7 the Aquivit Terrace served a Continental Breakfast.

At 7:30 the Restaurant opened up for a Full Breakfast and I do mean full.  There was a lovely buffet where you could get anything from a made-to-order omelette  to a bagel with lox.  A list of all the things available would take up more word count than I want to spend on it.  I was particularly fond of the mushrooms sauteed in butter, not something I usually eat for breakfast, but once I tried them I ate them every morning.  Healthy things like fresh fruit and yogurt were available as well as diet-busters like bacon and breads of every sort.  I’m not very experimental in the morning, so I had no interest in things like pickled herring and other local “delicacies” they offered up, but you might be.

Were you able to visit all the stations on the buffet and still not find something you were interested in, a menu was available for other selections.  My husband chose to order from the menu on several mornings, but that wouldn’t keep him from enjoying the buffet too.  The menu included all those taboo treats like French Toast, Pancakes and Waffles.

Of course, coffee, tea and a variety of juices were available, but should you have an interest in it, champagne was also being poured.  Many of the passengers enjoyed mimosas, but I can’t start the day drinking.  I’m a wimp!

Lunch

Most of the shore excursions were planned to get you back to the boat for lunch at 12:30.  Lunch was served in the Restaurant in much the same way as breakfast, but with different selections.  Instead of a chef preparing fresh egg dishes, the lunchtime chef offered made-to-order pasta.  There were a wide variety of casual foods offered around the buffet, but you could also order off the menu.  The Aquavit Terrace was also available.

20160417_130007Most days we’d order off the menu and then graze the buffet for tidbits until our meal arrived.  The menu items were served in European proportions.  You could get as many as you wanted, but a three course meal could be eaten without feeling as if you’d just ingested half the boat.  Well, perhaps the desserts were overly indulgent, but the other two courses were very reasonable.

The items on the menu offered a wide variety.  There was usually a regional specialty, something for the meat-and -potatoes sort and something else for the vegetarian.  The vegetarian choices were delightful, even if you weren’t vegetarian.  I would usually opt for the regional specialty, unless it was pickled something or other.

The wine started flowing at lunch, but that’s when I got my caffeine fix.  I’ve already complained mentioned the fact that Diet Dr Pepper was not an option, so I’d have a bottle of Coke Light, Europe’s answer to Diet Coke.  Pretty much any other non-alcoholic beverage you were interested was available at lunch.

I did mention desserts didnt I.
I did mention desserts didnt I?

Dinner

If you liked the idea of a buffet, then you could go to the Aquivit Terrace for dinner, but in the Restaurant dinner was off the menu.

Passengers generally dressed up a little for dinner, but if you happened to stroll in from enjoying free time at the port and were still wearing your sneakers, you wouldn’t be turned away.  For the most part Viking passengers dressed up the scale from your average ocean cruiser, but there was no formality.  There was no pool or beaches, so folks weren’t running around in swimwear.  The chilly weather discouraged shorts, tank tops and the like.  I liked dressing up for dinner and you could tell other women did, too.  My husband usually wore nice trousers and a long sleeved shirt.  Jackets and ties were not worn.

Each evening before dinner there was a briefing of some sort up in the lounge.  The cruise director would ask if we enjoyed our day and then give us the lowdown on what would be happening next.  Some evenings this event would be accompanied by a glass of free champagne.  We always took advantage of that, but we never ordered drinks.  The bar was always open, but unlike the wine with meals, alcoholic beverages in the bar were not free.  With so much wine flowing at dinner, we saw no reason to invest in cocktails.  That was not true for all the passengers though.  We saw the bartender mix a lot of martinis.

Most evenings we’d find our cruise buddies, Deb, Mike, Gwynne and John at the briefing and then take a table with them for dinner.  The fun we had around the table made dinner one of the best parts of the day.  The food was to die for and as I’ve mentioned the wine never stopped.

At both lunch and dinner the menu was divided into two parts, but different things were offered for each meal.  The left side had the chef’s daily menu and the right side was labeled “Always Available.”  I usually ordered from the day’s selection, but Deb was all about the Grilled Salmon on the Always Available side of things.  The dinner choices on either side were divided into three courses, but you could order it anyway you wanted.  Also, like lunch, they provided a variety of things to please the adventurous, the meat-and-potatoes sorts and the picky (for whatever reason).

I’ve chatted for too long about food, but it is an important part of a cruise.  Next week I’ll start sharing our exciting stops along the Danube.

 

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL

What Do You Eat on a Viking River Cruise?

Happy Tummies on Viking River Cruises
Happy Tummies on Viking River Cruises

TRAVEL THERE: THREE SQUARES A DAY & ALL THE WINE YOU CAN DRINK ON THE VIKING TOR

From first meal to last, Viking River Cruises does everything right.  Everything I loved about meals on other cruises they incorporated into their food service and what I hated they left out.

Single Seating Service

The overriding difference between river and ocean cruising is size.  For me that was good news.  Everything I wanted was either on the same floor as my stateroom or one floor down.  I could be in my room one minute and in the next I could be sitting in the dining room.

Here's a peek of the dining room on the evening of the regional buffet. dig those desserts!
Here’s a peek of the Restaurant on the evening of the regional buffet. Dig those desserts!

Each meal was served in one seating and you sat wherever you wanted.  One thing I had really liked about assigned seating on ocean cruises was that your server really got to know you and within a day or two they had all your preferences down.  It also narrowed down the thousands of possible table mates to a table-full of people to have dinner with and I’d always been lucky enough to really like the people we sat with.  Well, on the riverboat, we got to know all the servers and by the end of the cruise each of them knew us well enough to provide incredibly individualized service.  The small number of passengers also made cruise friends a lot easier to find.

Two Dining Venues

We chose to eat all our meals in the Restaurant.  The spacious room had tables of various sizes spread comfortably around the room.  On both sides were large windows looking out onto the river, sometimes at a city where we were docked and at other times at changing scenery, as the boat made its way to the next destination.  In the center of the room was a three-sided buffet for breakfast and lunch.  Dinner was usually from the menu, except for a special regional buffet one evening.

The Aquavita Terrace Buffet on the Regional Buffet night.
The Aquavit Terrace Buffet on the Regional Buffet night.

The other venue was the Aqauvit Terrace.  Had the weather been a tad warmer, we would probably have been all over this, especially at lunch.  The Terrace was at the bow of the boat, offering a view of the scenery ahead.  Half of the seating is actually outside on the deck, but some is inside a glass-encased section at the end of the lounge.  That’s where the buffet is and all the meals in the Terrace are served buffet style.  Rumor had it that the Terrace menu focused more on sandwiches, salads and small plates, many of which were included on the Restaurant’s menu.  Perhaps I should have checked it all out for you, but I was on vacation after all.

All the Wine You Can Drink

This was one of my favorite things about the cruise.  The battle of the bottle on the other ships was a confrontation we could not win.  On Viking we couldn’t lose, because there was no battle.  Each evening they had a small selection of wines, both red and white, which were included in the price of the cruise.  Most nights it seems there were only two (one red, one white) but on some of the evenings regional specialties were included which expanded the selection.

My husband, who is a little more picky about wine than me, was always quite pleased with the red choice.  I adored the white wines, especially the regional specialties.  If you are a wine snob, there is a package you can buy that affords you premium wines, but we didn’t need it and we didn’t meet anyone who did.

It really is all the wine you can drink.  Once the wait person finds out which color you prefer for the evening, they’ll keep pouring it for you until you tell them to stop.  If mid-meal you want to change colors, that’s fine too.  I don’t exactly know how they afford to be so generous, but this single act of generosity endeared me to them forever.

I’ve still got a lot more to say about food, but I’ve run out of words today, so come back next week for a description of the meals.

Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL

The Question of Food When Cruising

Our Taste of Austria Dinner
Our Taste of Austria Dinner

TRAVEL THERE: WHAT I LIKE AND DISLIKE ABOUT DINING AT SEA

Food is one of the biggies on a cruise and Viking has it down pat.  You’d have a hard time feeling hungry at anytime on board, yet it’s not the obscene food orgy of ocean cruising.

Cruise Food I Have Loved

My favorite food I’ve ever had on any boat was a dessert on the Carnival Ecstasy.  I ordered it the first night, because it was chocolate.  I ordered it the rest of the nights, because it was the best thing I had ever put in my mouth.  The name of the chocolate creation, which I cannot for the life of me remember, did it no justice.  I have no picture of it, but will never forget it.  The rest of the food on the boat was good, sometimes really good, but it wasn’t the best overall I ever had.

The best dining experience on any ship was on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas.  I was traveling with all the people I loved best, so that may have enhanced the enjoyment.  This was old fashioned cruising where you really dressed up for dinner and had assigned seating at a specific time in a single venue.  Every meal, every night was a unique and wonderful experience.  We also had the best waiter I have ever had aboard any ship any where.

What You Won’t Suffer on a Viking River Cruise

I am not a fan of multiple restaurants on a cruise.  I don’t want to make reservations.  I don’t even want to have to make a decision about which restaurant I’m going to choose.  I don’t want to pay a premium.  I like it the way Viking had it.  They just fed me.

On our “Free-styling” Norwegian cruise a few years ago, my husband felt like the only style unavailable was the one we wanted – particularly when it came to breakfast.  Breakfast is his favorite meal.  He loves to linger over the menu and the meal.  The only sit-down breakfast service on that cruise was quite early in the morning and on a cruise, Bill doesn’t do anything early in the morning.  On top of that he had to navigate the huge buffet, when all he really wanted was for someone to bring him exactly what he wanted for breakfast and he wanted it piping hot.  Was it a lovely breakfast buffet?  Yes, but he didn’t want a breakfast buffet.  Viking solves all of this.

Another of our pet peeves with Ocean Cruising has been the battle of the bottle.  We like wine with dinner.  While we love a particularly good wine, we’re perfectly happy with a decent wine.  On-board various ships we’ve ordered by the glass, ordered by the bottle and pre-ordered a selection of wines.  Either way we’ve done it we’ve felt the ouch of the price, because we know we can get a perfectly good wine at Trader Joe’s for around $10 a bottle and it bothers us to pay more for less.  To make things more interesting Bill loves red and thanks to my sinuses I prefer to drink white.  Viking made wine with dinner a breeze for the same price of a breeze.

And speaking of bottles, even getting a glass of water on your average cruise ship is a hassle.  They’ll sell you a soft drink package, they’ll tempt you with fancy cocktails and they’ll charge you for a bottle of anything – even water, but try whetting your thirst for free.  It’s not easy.  Viking completely abandoned that business model.  There were bottles of free water all over the place and a dispenser for bubbly and still water at the coffee station.

On most cruises I sort of feel like the emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLAble, as my mother used to say.  There’s entirely too much attention paid to shoving food down your mouth.  It takes a page or two of the daily newspaper to explain all the food choices and then if all else fails, they will deliver food to your stateroom 24 hours a day.  I had all I could eat and more on Viking, but I didn’t have to make a career of managing my food choices.

So now that we have discussed cruise food in general, next week I’ll introduce you to the way Viking does food.

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

Who Do You Cruise with on Viking River Cruises?

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Our best cruise buddies with one of our favorite waiters.

TRAVEL THERE: MY SAILING COMPANIONS ON VIKING TOR

Our first cruise was our honeymoon.  We sailed around the Hawaiian Islands on a line that no longer exists.  It gave us taste for cruising that hasn’t gone away, but our first moments in Hawaii made us very nervous.  When we climbed aboard the bus to the boat terminal, it looked as if we’d caught the wrong bus.  Surely all those people with canes, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks were on their way to the hospital, not to a cruise!  Come to find out, we were on the right bus and once we were aboard the ship, the wheel chairs and oxygen tanks melted into the general population of passengers. 

On our last ocean cruise, the geriatric set was also in proportion, but we wondered where the beautiful people had disappeared to.  Apparently Norwegian had corralled them behind the walls of The Haven.  We’re not the suite sort, but we also felt a little out of place among the 30 million screaming kids and a large contingency from OUfFWG (Overeaters United for Further Weight Gain).  We kept reminding ourselves that diversity is good, but we also wanted a few more people from our team to show up.  I’m not exactly sure what to call our team.  Maybe MBSK (Mature But Still Kicking)? Or Thirty Something Plus?

Viking Had Our Team 

From the moment we boarded the Viking Tor Longship, we felt at home.  Diversity was immediately evident.  Though the primary language was English, you could also hear a polyglot of other languages.  Skin colors ranged from Nordic Pale to nearly black.  However, throughout the week I noticed the darkest passengers seemed more Indian than African.    There were zero kids.  The youngest person I met was either late twenty-something or early thirty-something.  I didn’t ask. I just guessed.  The oldest was in her nineties.

I’d say about 70% of the passengers were hetrosexual couples.  Most of the other people I met were various groups of women traveling together – either friends on a girls trip or multi-generational family groups.  I didn’t meet everyone and certainly didn’t quiz anyone about their sexual preferences.

There were blind people, wheelchair-bound people, people with walkers or canes and one lady whose hair was growing back in after some sort of brain surgery.  The woman growing her hair didn’t like to walk and was just taking the cruise for the benefit of her husband.  The cruise staff made every effort to accommodate handicaps of any sort.  In each city there was an “easy” walking tour to facilitate anyone who wanted to enjoy the tour but was worried about hampering the progress of other passengers.

Our Best Cruise Buddies

Usually in the mornings Bill and I made a point of finding someone new to sit with for breakfast.  Most of those encounters were very pleasant and we enjoyed the acquaintance of several groups through our endeavors.  One morning we bombed out completely.  I think we inadvertently interrupted a couple having a disagreement, but didn’t realize it.  When we asked to join them they welcomed us to the table.  There just wasn’t very much said after that.

We’d also crowd hop in the evenings when the passengers met in the lounge.  On the first evening, we ran into someone we’d seen in the airport in Frankfurt. They ended up being our best cruise buddies.  I was excited when we met them in the airport, because they were from one of our favorite places, Oregon.  They were there with some of their best friends and the six of us really bonded.

The couples, Deb & Mike and Gwen & John were traveling together to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversaries, which were only a few days apart.  The girls had know each other for an even longer period of time.  We were roughly in the same age group and shared many of the same interests.  As the days passed, the friendship grew and I hope we’ll be friends for ever.

I’ve used up all my words today.  Come back next week and we’ll talk about the food and beverage service.

Accommodations, Attractions, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

Waltzing Along the Danube with Viking River Cruises

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TRAVEL THERE: OUR VIKING RIVER CRUISE, WONDERFUL IN EVERY WAY

On Monday I had a little fun with you about the joys of coming home from a vacation, but the truth of the matter is that I thoroughly enjoyed our Viking River Cruise.  I can’t think of a single reason why you wouldn’t want to call your travel agent this minute and book one of their marvelous experiences.  My frustration with the size of the room could have been resolved by one of the Viking suites if money were no object, but money is always an object.

River Cruising vs. Ocean Cruising

This was our sixth cruise and our second on a river.  We definitely prefer river cruising, but you might not.  If you like the casino, shopping arcade, pools, kid’s activities, theaters, gyms and spas, then you should stick to ocean liners.  If you think you’d like remarkable access to amazing destinations, individualized service and a relaxing atmosphere, then I might have just the thing for you.

We loved being two of the only 190 guests on the Viking Tor.  Everything (and I do mean everything we wanted) was included in the price of the cruise.  The boat was full of cozy little places to relax and enjoy our time on board, instead of the craft being stuffed cheek to jowl with attractions designed to separate us from a little more of our money.  We returned to the same dining room for every meal where our waiters quickly learned our preferences  and we made friends around the table, instead of being shuffled from dining room to dining room with a new waiter every night, never seeing the same passengers twice.  We sat on the Sun Deck with plenty of elbow room and a pair of riverbanks to watch, instead of suffering the frenetic pool scene of an ocean liner.  Best of all, there were no roving photographers trying to get us to pose for yet another picture every time we turned around.

More River vs. Ocean Trade-offs

I’ll admit we’ve enjoyed some great entertainment on ocean liners.  There are no Broadway spectacles aboard a Viking Longship, but they still managed to provide satisfying entertainment.  I wouldn’t have minded a gym, for morning workouts, but with walking tours at almost every stop, I usually managed to meet my step goal for the day.

And speaking of walking tours, I adored the shore excursions on Viking.  I’m not a big fan of getting drunk on a pirate boat or a private island.  I don’t snorkel, scuba dive or participate in other water sports.  While I enjoy shopping excursions, my husband is not really happy with the dings on his credit card bill.  There’s usually one day on an ocean cruise where I really enjoy an excursion, like the Road to Hana in Maui or Dzibilchaltun on the Yucatan peninsula, but on the other days, I would gladly trade my experience in on a good museum.

Aboard the Viking Tor, we woke almost every morning to discover we were docked at yet another wonderful destination.  After breakfast we joined a knowledgeable guide, usually for a walking tour, but in the bigger cities, a bus tour.  Even with the bus tours we’d get out of the bus and wander around various sites.  The guides were knowledgeable, personable and delightful.  The focus of the tours was to teach us something about the destinations and familiarize us with the lives of its inhabitants, now and in the past.  Drinks were not served and we weren’t abandoned at shopping opportunities with no hope of exit without a purchase.  Instead we drank in the beauty and chewed on the history.  If we were interested in shopping, there was plenty of free time.

And There’s More!

I’ve only begun to rave.  Come back next week and I’ll cover some more of the generalities of the cruise, like who our fellow passengers were and what the food was like, so you can get an even better idea of whether you are a river cruiser or an ocean cruiser.