In April of 2015, three couples took a European vacation together.  The Silvern's (Meg and Reid) arrived several days ahead of the others and visited Madrid before joining the rest of the group in Amsterdam for a seven day cruise up the Rhine to Basel, Switzerland.  The Leicester's (Stewart and Valerie) and Zechiel's (David and Jessica) arrived in Amsterdam on Sunday, April 12th and met at baggage claim at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

  • April 12th: David & Jessica, Stewart & Valerie arrive in Europe - Los Angeles and San Francisco, California to Amsterdam

David and Jessica caught a ride to the airport with their son, John, and left California on Saturday, April 11th from LAX, flying to Amsterdam, arriving on the morning of Sunday, the 12th.  The flight was uneventful, and we sail through customs.  Stewart and Valerie's flight out of SFO is only few minutes behind, and we meet up with them at the baggage claim.

The original plan called for taking the train from the airport to Centraal Station, close to our hotels.  However, they were performing maintenance on the tracks, and the trains were not running from the airport.  After a number of false starts we bought train tickets and had a bus deliver us to a train station that was working.  We caught a train from there to Centraal Station.

Our hotels were a short walk and we found them easily, dropped luggage (the Leicesters did too, at the nearby Marriott).  It turns out the most common crime in The Netherlands is bicycle theft.  While that might come as a surprise to someone who had not visited, it makes perfect sense once you try to navigate the streets of Amsterdam.  Bicycles are abundant here.  The streets have bicycle lanes with their own pedestrian crossing signal.  Sometimes you have to wait first to cross the close bike lane, then the traffic, then another bike lane.  It can be confusing, but we quickly learned to cross on the "green man" only.  We wandered around a bit and got a bite to eat.

Meg and Reid arrived on the train from Eindhoven around 2:00p.  This was Meg's birthday.  Jessica and David met them at the station and led them directly to the hotel where they checked in and dropped luggage.  Then everyone took a 45 minute bus ride and spent the afternoon at Keukenhof (Kitchen Gardens) to see the tulips (and lots of other flowers as well).  This place is huge (about 79 acres), is only open from mid-March to mid-May, and they plant 7 million flower bulbs there annualy.  It shows.

We rode the bus back (many taking the opportunity to catch a few winks) and freshened up, then went to an Italian restaurant for dinner (a very good meal, Jessica and David picked up the tab for everyone), then crashed hard, getting a good night's sleep.

Stewart, Valerie, and David arrive at Centraal Station

Stewart with one of the smaller bicycle lots we encountered

Jessica in one of the Keukenhof greenhouses

Valerie, Meg, Reid, Jessica and David toast their safe arrival in Amsterdam

David, Stewart, Valerie, Jessica, Meg and Reid at the Italian restaurant

David & Jessica met Meg & Reid for the continental breakfast in the hotel basement.  Jessica & David struck out on their own, walking to the Anne Frank house (which had a colossal line), then New Church, Royal Palace, then to Old Church (which wanted to charge us to enter, and that caused Jessica to muse on what Jesus would do in such a situation [she was certain he would turn the money tables over on those scoundrels]) and the Red Light District.  It was surprising how many professional women were in the windows workings early on a Monday morning.  One thing you learn quickly, these women are camera shy.  If they even see a camera hanging around your neck, they quickly draw the curtain across the window, which is a little surprising, considering that most of them were wearing fairly modest lingerie.

Meanwhile, Stewart and Valerie decided to stroll around the neighborhood and found a place serving croissants for breakfast.  Along the way they encountered the Silverns, who were taking the opportunity to do some laundry, since they had arrived on The Continent well ahead of everyone else.  Meg and Reid also visited the University of Amsterdam, found a good used book store and enjoyed their morning.

David and Jessica then walked to the "Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus" and toured the city, learning along the way why carrots are orange (they were bred that way to match the color of Dutch royalty).  We got off at the Rijksmuseum and visited the Van Gogh Museum (which also had a terrific line), so we opted out of that too.  We continued on the bus tour, ending back at the hotel.

Another of the things you learn quickly here is that there are Coffee Shops and there are Cafés.  If you want coffee, go to a café.  The "Coffee Shops" are really all head shops, and there seems to be one about every 50 feet.  Simply walking down some streets is an assault on your nose, getting hit with the pungent odor of marijuana constantly.  It's a wonder the citizens of this beautiful city get anything done at all. 

A few text messages later and we hooked up with the Leicesters and Silverns for lunch.  We dined at "Flame", the place right next to the hotel.

As it was his birthday, we allowed Reid to choose the afternoon activity, and he choose the Heineken Experience.  We walked to Centraal Station and bought tram tickets and Heineken tickets at a discount, then rode the tram out to the former brewery, which had been changed to become one two hour long advertisement for Heineken beer (how beer is made, who were the founders of Heineken, again how beer is made [by a live person this time], more about the founders, again how beer is made [interactive simulation], etc, etc), which concludes in a faux party where everyone is drinking Heineken, and pretending to have a good time.  Then there's the gift shop.

We took the tram back, then everyone got cleaned up, and then we wandered around looking for a restaurant that was a) good, and b) available for business.  It seemed like the first three places we tried to get a table were are booked up with reservations.  We settled for a delightful steak place that served us good food and didn't break the bank.  David ordered and enjoyed the schnitzel.  Meg and Reid were kind enough to pick up the tab for everyone.  On the walk back to the hotel, Jessica, Stewart and Valerie decided to pay a visit to one of the head shops we passed.  On the wall was a full menu for all of the different types of cannabis that you could purchase.  Also a full munchie menu.  Part of the floor of this place was made of glass, and below your feet was an acquarium, with colorful fish swimming about.&nbps; It's not clear if this enhanced your experience or not, but our group thought it was pretty cool.

From there we started back, but Reid and David decided to check out the infamous Red Light District at night.  It was pretty cold on our walk.  What a colossal bust, no pun intended.  You see way more flesh at the beach in Southern California.  We walked back and turned in for the evening.

Jessica and the line to see the Ann Frank House

Jessica at the Dutch Royal Palace

David outside one of the establishments in the Red Light District

How many head shops can you count in this photo?

Jessica on the letter 't' in "Amsterdam", along with the Rijksmuseum

Valerie, Jessica and David enjoy the Heinekin Experience

Jessica, David, Valerie and Reid start drinking early at the Heinekin Experience

David and Jessica met Meg and Reid for breakfast at 8:20a.  Then took a walk with Stewart and Valerie back to the Red Light District so Val could see what all the fuss was about.  On the way back Jessica and David stopped and shopped for some porcelain figurines that she wanted to give as gifts.

We checked out just before noon, and met up with the others.  Somewhere in this process, Stewart lost the first of two hats on this trip.  We trekked back to Centraal Station and took the 26 tram to the dock.  We were told that the ship would be docked down next to the second tram stop, so that's where we got off.  Then we had to walk most all the way back to the first stop, 'cause that's where the Viking Kara actually was.  Security is surprisingly lax.  Instead of having to provide three forms of ID, being photographed and finger printed as on an ocean voyage, they glanced briefly at our passports, gave us our room cards, and sent us on our way.  No metal detector, no armed guards, nada.

River crusing is similar to ocean crusing in the sense that they both use the word "cruise".  Except for that, they are quite unalike.  While an ocean liner will frequently span multiple timezones in length, the Viking Kara has only 95 cabins, and holds at most 190 guests at a time.  There are three decks, along with a top deck where you can sit in a recliner and catch some rays (the top deck also has the wheelhouse, a putting green and an actual herb garden, that David saw one of the cooks picking herbs from before a meal).  The bottom deck has the inexpensive cabins and the crew's quarters.  The middle deck has nicer cabins, the purser's desk, and a small "boutique" (and by "small", I mean about six feet of wall space), and the dining room and kitchen.  The upper deck has the nicest cabins, another small mid-ship space with the concierge desk, a bookcase filled with books and a small game area, and the lounge (which has a full bar).  Just as you are entering the lounge, there is a very nice coffee machine that makes all manner of hot drinks, and usually a very nice selection of cookies.

We dropped stuff off in our cabin, then the Leicesters joined David and Jessica as we visited the Amsterdam Chess Museum.  About half is dedicated to Max Euwe, the 1935 Dutch chess world champion.  He is still a local hero. The rest was about various chess champions going back to Philidor, historic chess sets and equipment, along with other artifacts.  Stewart and David were given a tour by a very nice gentleman named Willem.  He needs to give up smoking.  His cough sounded like he was bringing up a lung.  But he certainly knew his chess history.  We played a quick game and he dropped his queen out of the opening.  We rejoined the women and watched the end of a game played on a large, outdoor set.

At this same time Meg went on the complimentary city tour and Reid had a beer in town, then got lost before just making it back to the ship in time for dinner.  Reid missed the Viking bus, and decided to walk back, as it wasn't all that far.  Unfortunately, while you can see the dock area, you cannot easily walk there from the center of town, as Reid learned the hard way.  Fortunately, Reid was able to make his way back, and buy a ticket for the tram, and all ended well.

The visitors to the chess museum then caught the 7, 24 and 26 trams back to the ship.  Our baggage had been delivered to the cabin, so Jessica put everything away, while David got cleaned up.  Everyone but Reid met in the lounge in anticipation of the Welcome Aboard talk.  The talk was fun, our cruise director, Rene, has honed his routine.  Afterwards we all went down the the middle deck for dinner, still no Reid.  Meg got a text from him indicating he was on the tram, headed our way, and, indeed, he arrived in time to dine with everyone else.  The Zechiels and Leicesters adjourned to the lounge and played a game of Scrabble.  After that it was time for bed.

Jessica and the Viking Kara

Stewart, Willem, and the wall of champions in the chess museum

Outside the Amsterdam Chess Museum

Jessica and Stewart waiting for the tram

Meg, Valerie and Stewart at our first dinner onboard the Viking Kara

David & Jessica at our first dinner onboard the Viking Kara

David & Jessica were up early and met everyone in the dining room for the breakfast buffet.  The breakfast routine aboard ship didn't change much.  There was an omelette station where you could have the girl prepare an omelette to your order, and along with that was a buffet, with meats, potatoes, cereals, breads, jams, etc, etc. . On top of that, you could still order off of the menu, and the waiter would bring you your meal.  About the same quality, and one much faster than the other.

After that it was time for our first excursion, a bus trip to Kinderdijk.  On the way there we passed Noah's Ark.  Really.  Well, almost really.  A replica built to the dimensions mentioned in the Bible.  It seemed totally out of place, and, in fact, we were told that the owner was in the process of relocating it in order to get more tourist business.

Kinderdijk is one of the pumping locations where they keep the countryside from sinking below six feet of water.  In centuries past, this was all managed by a series of brick and wooden windmills, that used wind power to drive the water wheels that lifted the water up over the dikes and into the river.

We were able to climb up inside an operating windmill, and it's quite impressive once you get up close to the massive mechanism as it's in operation.  People used to live in these windmills with their whole family (you had to be trained as a "miller", and even pay rent).  Out front is a small fence to keep people from wandering into the path of the rotating blades.  People have died from such carelessness, even at the very windmill we visited.  We also visited a shop filled with wood working tools where they continue to maintain these ancient machines, as well as witnessed the current, state-of-the-art techniques that are used to keep the country dry.

Throughout our trip, Viking supplied everyone with "Whisper System" ear buds.  You hang a small receiver around your neck, plug in the ear buds, set the receiver to the correct channel, and you can always hear your guide clearly, even if there are many other tour groups standing right around you.  We used this system on nearly every excursion, and it really made following the conversation easy, as you could even dawdle a bit and still hear what was being described.  Each guide also carried a "lollipop" with your cruise and bus number so you could catch up and stay together easily.

Upon our return we participated in the mandatory safety drill, then all attended lunch.  After Meg, Jessica and David attended an art (and Dutch culture) lecture given by the cruise director, Rene.  He was pretty funny and engaging.  This was followed by tea (and some alcoholic-coffee beverage).

After spending some personal time, we all attended the Captain's Reception.  Afterwards, it was time to eat again, and everyone met for dinner.  We had a window table and got to see just how much traffic there is on this river, a lot!  We have passed countless cargo ships and tankers going both up and down river.  Everyone agrees that the Chateaubriand was really delicious, and that our meal tonight was a big step up from yesterday's.

Meg, Valerie and Jessica nearly get their heads taken off by a windmill vane

David & Jessica visiting Kinderdijk

They no longer depend upon the wind to keep the country dry

Reid and Stewart back on board for dinner

Everyone off the boat and onto the buses at 9:15a. We were driven into the center of old Cologne while our ship continued up river.

We followed our guide to the Cologne Cathedral, visiting both the interior and exterior.  The place is really massive. From there we wandered through the city, visiting an assortment of sites, including the statue of the Tailor's Wife.  This involves the local legend that the citizens of Cologne used to enjoy the benefits of House Elves, small beings that would visit your home each night and perform all the housework.  The story is the tailor's wife put some dried peas on the staircase, and the house elves tripped and fell.  She came out with her lantern and discovered them, but the elves were so upset at being spotted, that they left and never came back. To this day, people still visit this statue and call her "bitch".

We also saw the local seat of government, and the Schmitz Pillar, a tounge-in-cheek tribute to the common man. Along the way we also happened upon an archeological dig, where ancient Roman ruins were being processed.  Since this area has been continuously occupied for over 2000 years, it's very difficult to dig anywhere and not come across some sort of ruins.

After our guide departed, we wandered around the city on our own, stopping at a delightful outdoor café for lunch and Internet access.  Jessica and David shared a bratwurst and fries.  We found out that they were very happy to bring us all the ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard you wanted, because they were charging €1.00 for each little packet.

We continued to meander, and found the local gelato place, which everyone enjoyed.  We finally made our way to the Chocolate Museum, where most of our party bought some chocolate and headed back to the ship.  Jessica and David decided to check it out.  We have now been given an education in all things chocolate, from cultivation, transportation, production, marketing, sales, etc, etc.  My favorite part was the collection of 19th century chocolate vending machines.

Jessica and David got back to the ship around 4:30p, in time to relax in the lounge, then listen to the talk on modern Germany.  The speaker was well versed and polished.

After that we changed and joined the others for dinner.  Everyone at our table ordered the braised beef and filet mignon; very, very, tasty!  After the meal, Jessica, Reid and David attended a concert given by two women on board the ship.  One played the viola, the other, the guitar.  They were quite good.

Stewart and Valerie made an attempt to cross the Rhine and visit the Festival on the opposite bank, but were turned back by construction.  A big day.

Our tour guide with her lollipop speaks into the Whisper System mic

David & Jessica and the old cathedral in Cologne

Jessica with the Tailor's Wife and the House Elves

David & Jessica at the outdoor café

An inlaid tile floor from the Roman Empire era, next to the cathedral

Jessica and old cocoa butter press in the Chocolate Museum

Jessica and David met the others for breakfast at 7:45a.  Off the ship at 8:45a and onto the bus, headed for Koblenz and the famous Marksburg Castle tour.  It turns out that "Burg" means "fortified castle" in German.  This 800 year old castle was impressive, with many rooms and staircases.  One staircase was so narrow and steep as to defy description.  The place is filled with ancient artifacts and tools, including armor, kitchen implements, blacksmith tools, etc.  This is one of the few castles never to be conquered or destroyed in a war.  The tour moved right along, I guess a little over an hour.

The bus took us back to the ship (which had moved up river).  The practice of dropping you at one spot, and picking you up at another seems to be quite common, probably to allow lots of ships to take advantage of a limited number of docks.

Back on board we lunched together, then hung out in the lounge, listening to the cruise director's narration of this portion of the Middle Rhine, which has an extensive number of castles and other points of interest.  We later listened to the talk on Rüdesheim, where we made port late in the afternoon.  An onboard demonstation was given on how to make Rüdesheimer Kaffee, and naturally Jessica volunteered to help make the alcoholic beverage.  Also the pitch on future cruising with Viking.

We made port and the six of us wandered into town following Reid (as he had been here many times before).  After a couple of wrong turns by Meg, we found the main tourist area, and Jessica starts shopping with a vengeance.  Nothing for herself, but for everyone she loves.  We had a very nice walk around, but promptly at 6:00p they started rolling up the sidewalks.

We moseyed back to the ship, arriving just in time to drop our purchases, then off to dinner with the entire gang.  After the meal David took his book up to the lounge, and read until Jessica texted complaining that the TV wouldn't work.  She was right, and David had to get the ship's engineer, who rebooted the DVR.  David left to read some more, and when he got back Jessica was just finishing her movie.

David & Jessica tour the Marksburg Castle

Our tour group. Note the door has been reduced
as people no longer enter on horseback

Reid tries on a knight's helmet and sword for size in Marksburg Castle

View down the Rhine from Marksburg Castle

In Rüdesheim, like most everywhere else in Europe, it's pay toilets.
Some people refuse to pay, no matter how badly they need to go

Jessica making Rüdesheimer Kaffee onboard the Kara

Breakfast with the gang at 8:30a.  We made port in Mannheim around 9:00a, and were bussed to Heidelberg quickly.  The bus drive was strait forward, and we started with the big castle in Heidelberg.  It's slowly being restored, and has many interesting features, including the Elizabeth Gate, which was erected overnight as a surprise to the new bride.  We also saw the library, the wine cellar (which has a cask so large that they built a dance floor on top of it), the funicular, the BIG empty moat, the wall of duke statues and the former saddlery.  A lot to take in.

We took the bus back down to the main tourist trap / shopping area.  We continued to follow our guide as she showed us the church, the Alte Brucke (the Old Bridge) and the water level marks from various floods, the shops and restaurants.

We also saw the childhood home of the first democratically elected president of Germany, Friedrich Ebert.  Meg and Reid moved on without us, so David, Jessica, Stewart and Valerie opted for lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall place.  We had Spargel and Schnitzel, along with beer, and it was super tasty.

We got back to the bus right on time and connected back up with our ship in Speyer.  We received a very nice "Welcome Back", as if we had been gone for months.  Everyone up to the lounge for drinks.

At 4:00p it was everyone back off of the ship for a walking tour of Speyer.  We saw several sights, including the statue of the Eight Emperors and the Mariner, the Imperial Cathedral, and a several block long outdoor shopping district.  David was finally able to replace his reading glasses that were lost during the windmill tour on Wednesday.  Everyone had a very nice walk, and we were able to get some more Euros at an ATM.

Back on the boat again, we had just a few minutes before dinner.  This was a special event, "A Taste of Germany".  All the tables had pretzels, cheese, sausages, etc.  They handed out beer before you could sit down.  A big buffet meal, all of traditional German dishes.  They also handed out Schnapps, some of the nastiest stuff you can put in your mouth.  Finally, delicious ice cream for dessert.  Managed to spill a Coke and a glass of water in just a few seconds.

Next it was time for Music Trivia up in the lounge.  Everyone but Stewart was on our team.  We did well, but others did better.  Finally to bed.

Valerie and Jessica look at the now dry castle moat

Jessica checks out the largest wine cask you will ever see

Jessica and Valerie on the Alte Brucke, castle in the background

You would think we were gone for a year

Jessica and Valerie take a moment in the Imperial Cathedral of Speyer

Breakfast with the gang at 7:30a.  Leaving for Strasbourg at 8:40a, a little earlier than usual.  We met our guide, Valerie, just off the ship and she walked us to our bus, which was a 15 minute brisk walk.  Along the way we passed under the spectacular Passerelle-Mimram pedestrian bridge that had been completed in 2004.  This pedestrian and bicycle bridge spans across the border between Germany and France.  In 2009 the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit was held, and all the world leaders had their picture taken on this bridge.

Even though the sun was shining, the weather was cold and crisp, in the mid-40s.  We drove around for ¾ of an hour, while she narrated, mostly about government buildings and the unification of nations.  David slept through much of this.

Upon arrival in Strasbourg, we still had a significant walk into the city center where the Strasbourg Cathedral and tourist shops all exist.  We passed by ancient city defences on the River Ill.  Large towers to hold defenders, and a bridge that could be used to dam the river causing a flood to deter attackers.  We saw a large church, St Thomas (a Lutheran church at which Albert Schweitzer used to play the organ), that was holding services.  We crossed over a bridge that rotates 90° to clear the way for canal traffic, and encountered the statue of Johannes Gutenberg, local hero and the inventor of movable type.

We saw Petite France, a small district that had its own personality.  We walked mostly on pedestrian paths, making our way towards the very tall Notre Dame (Our Lady) Cathedral.  This one did not disappoint, a truly huge and magnificent structure.  We went in during mass.  This is also where we encountered the lines for the toilets.  And by "lines", I mean "line", as it was no effort to get in and out of the men's room.  The line for the lady's room was much longer and moved much more slowly.  Upon my exit, David told the women standing in line that they "shouldn't take it sitting down".

This is the point where we left our guide and started wandering around on our own.  We made our way back to "Petite France" and had lunch, dining on tarte flambée (a type of flatbread pizza with a cream cheese base) at a place called Le Kougelhopf.  The effort to get on their free WiFi was almost comical, as there must have been 25 networks present, and their password was suitable for protecting nuclear launch codes.

From there we made our way back to the cathedral, but by a different route, window shopping all along the way. Some stopped for ice cream, Reid bought a new watch and a "gold" chain from a street vendor.  There were several street performers, artists and musicians.

By 2:10p we had found our guide again, and she walked us back to our bus by a direct route.  Once again we had the 15 minute walk back to the ship.  We dropped stuff in the room, then David settled into a corner of the lounge with his book, "Dead Wake", and tried not to walk unless it was absolutely necessary.

We were docked next to a long, very pretty park that stretches along the river.  It is filled with families and couples that really seemed to be enjoying themselves.  Everyone but David attended the "Leave the Ship" talk, while he read and grabbed a table in the dining room.

We all had a very nice dinner, then some attended the concert being given in the lounge.  David found another comfortable chair and read more of my book.  Turned in around 10:00p.  Around 11:00p there was some thumping and bumping and David's phone displayed the text "Look out your window!"  As he had guessed, the ship was passing through a lock.  Back to sleep.

Passerelle-Mimram pedestrian bridge, linking France and Germany

Valerie, Jessica and Meg with local hero Johannes Gutenberg

Dave, Reid, Stewart, Valerie, Meg and Jessica in front of the Strasbourg Cathedral

WiFi networks in one little street of Petite France

Valerie investigates the noise and sees only the lock wall

Jessica and David arose 15 minutes later than normal, and were consequently 15 minutes late for breakfast.  A quick meal, then out onto the busses for our trip to the Black Forest.

We left Breisach and drove up, up, up through Bavarian style villages.  The scenery was beautiful.  We passed through the Glottertal Valley, and made a stop near the top to stretch our legs at a place called Zwerisberg, near Sankt Märgen.  We saw many farms, each with its own farmhouse, and each farmhouse with its own pond, that held water to be used in putting out fires.  Everything is so spread out, that, by the time a fire department could be contacted and help arrive, everything would be burned to the ground; hence the ponds.  Also, each farm seemed to have its own tiny chapel, in order to allow the family to worship on Sunday, without having to make the long journey into town.  From there we continued on to a tourist trap near Hinterzarten.

In just a few minutes we saw a cuckoo clock demonstration (which included the history of the clock, the different types, and the construction).  Basically a sales pitch, but it was informative.  Then the glass blower.  Then the outdoor clock struck eleven, a giant bird poked out through a door, and a very deep "cuckoo-cuckoo" emanated forth.  This was followed by music and dancing couples on a rotating wheel.  Then we watched a guy prepare a chocolate-cherry Black Forest cake, which used more whipped cream than you could imagine.

After all that we bussed down the mountain, everyone secretly wondering how much it would cost to retire there.  Back on the ship we had lunch with the Leicesters, as Meg and Reid were off on one of the optional tours.  Lunch was delightful, and we cast off just as it ended.

Our first order of business was to pass through another lock.  David was in the lounge, seated right next to one of the windows.  As the ship pulled into the lock, the lock wall appeared directly outside my window.  Had there not been glass, one could have easily touched it with their hand.  Once we were completely in the lock, and the doors closed, the lock began to fill and raised the ship with it.  An interesting experience.  We once again moved upriver towards Basel.

We passed through four locks, stopping to pick up Meg and Reid (and the others who booked the extra excursion), then everyone met for our last dinner on board.  We met the entire staff, it is always sad at the end of a cruise.  Jessica packed, while David settled the tab.

Jessica visits Zwerisberg, way up in the Black Forest

Jessica and Valerie with a genuine Black Forest cuckoo clock

How to make a genuine Black Forest Cake

Our long ship enters one of many locks going up river

Such a sad day, the end of a cruise!  Jessica up at 6:00a, David rose when she was finished with the bath.  More packing.  Met the others for breakfast at 7:30a.  Final packing.  Our luggage was delivered to the dock where our taxi was waiting.

After realizing that we had eight pieces instead of seven, we were on our way to the SBB Bahnhof.  We purchased tickets for Lucerne and the train left right on time.  Along the way we passed through a lengthy tunnel.

We reached Lucerne with no problems, and after a couple of false starts, walked to our hotel, the Drei Koenig (Three Kings).  We were able to check in right away, so we dropped our luggage and headed back out to Mt Pilatus.  We scampered back to the train station to catch the #1 bus.  This was probably the biggest hiccup, trying to buy a bus ticket.  The machine has a zillion options, depending on which zones you want to ride in, first or second class, what bus you want, single ride or all day, how many tickets you want, etc.  We finally got it figured out, but could have saved ourselves the effort, as nobody checked our tickets on the way there, or the way back.

Surprisingly, we got off of the bus on a city street that looked like any other.  Signs directed us up a path to "Pilatus".  We followed the signs and after 10 minutes found ourselves at the base cable-car station for Mt Pilatus.  About 70 Swiss francs each later we were on our way up the mountain.  The first cable took us up to a midway station where we stayed in the same car and were automatically transferred to the next cable.  This took us quite a way up the mountain, where you must disembark and transfer to a larger car for the third leg.  This one takes you to the very top, the Esel Summit, where there is a large visitor's center, two hotels, shops, cafes, etc.

My favorite part was the "Dragon's Tunnel", that seems to have been blown right out of the rock.  This tunnel goes around one of the peaks along the cliff face, and a series of "windows" gives some of the best views imaginable.  We spent almost three hours checking the place out, taking lots of photographs, and admiring the beauty.  While there we saw a guy walking to the top.  This seemed almost unimaginable, as we were over 6600 feet, and there was snow everywhere.  On our way down Meg and Reid were in a gondola with a girl from Korea, and the guy who climbed up the mountain!  He said he did it in 6½ hours, slowed down considerably by the snow. In summer he does it in 2½ hours!

We finally reached the bottom, and after a short walk were back on the street.  Our bus came along immediately, and we were back at the train station in no time.  We decided to take the scenic walk back, crossing the Reuss River on the Chapel Bridge.  This bridge dates from the 14th century and has a series of gable paintings, dating to the 17th century, that you walk under.  It passes by a 13th century watch tower that later became a jail and torture chamber.

We got back to our rooms and freshened up a bit, then headed out for dinner.  We were told of a fondue place that was pretty good, but when we saw the prices, there was a revolt, and we ended up Wandering.  David followed as we looked at menu after menu, always with the shaking of heads.  Finally David choose a place called La Terrazza, and everyone seemed to be hungry enough to agree.  Jessica & David shared lasagna and an asparagus pizza, very, very tasty.  The Leicesters were nice enough to pick up dinner for everyone this evening.  Everyone strolled back to our hotel and prepared for another big day.

Stewart, Valerie, Meg, Reid and Jessica in the Basel Bahnhof, on our way to Lucerne

Reid, Jessica, Meg, Stewart and Valerie at the top of Mt Pilatus
You can see the tramway station, one of the hotels, and the visitors center

Stewart checking out the Dragon Tunnel

Reid walks along the famous Chapel Bridge

Jessica relaxes along the Reuss River and Chapel Bridge, while waiting for dinner to be served

Twilight on the Reuss River

  • April 22nd: Off to Paris

Nice breakfast with everyone in the Drei Koenig breakfast room.  Everyone was on time to depart the Three Kings and our walk to the train station was uneventful.  We caught our train to Basel and met a lovely couple from Connecticut, who were joining a river cruise down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam.  We spoke with them the entire ride.

Arrived in Basel, got off of the train, rode the escalator up, found our next train departed from the same platform, rode the escalator back down.  We parted ways with Meg and Reid here, as they were catching another train to visit friends of theirs in Germany.  David stood watch over the luggage, while the others ran off looking for a snack.  They didn't find snacks they wanted, and this worked out well.

Our train arrived, and our first class car was at the other end of the train.  Even though our seats were 63-66, they were in two groups, separated by several rows.  French Customs came through our car, but barely glanced at me and Jessica.  When they got to the Leicesters, it was the third degree.  It looked like Valerie underwent a body cavity search.

Well, first class has its benefits, shortly after getting underway, the steward came along with his trolley and handed out a hot lunch to everyone, including wine!  Pretty tasty.  One couldn't help but notice that there was a little girl seated behind the Leicesters who talked non-stop.  It appeared that Valerie was having some dark thoughts.

We were trucking right along.  The fastest reported by my GPS app says 197mph.  The countryside is just beautiful, huge patches of canola, with yellow flowers against the rolling green hills, but as soon as you see something you want to take a picture of, it whisks by, and the moment is gone.

Arrived in Paris in about three hours. Asking directions several times, we found our way to the métro, and figured we needed to take the 1, transfer to the 4, go about four stops and voilà!  We easily found the room, and were met by George who showed us around the place and gave us several tips.  The room was very nice in terms of location and spaciousness.  There were two bed rooms, to bathrooms (but only one toilet, separate from the baths), a nice kitchen, a dining room and the living area.  We took a few minutes to decompress, Jessica and Stewart did some shopping, then it was off to Sainte-Chappelle.

Decided to walk when we realized our métro tickets were no longer good.  Arrived to find the place was long closed for the day.  Decided to walk over to Notre Dame Cathedral, most impressive.  Continued walking, found the bridge where people attach their "love locks".  Difficult to describe, but you could not see the bridge through all the locks.  Really.  We walked along the Seine some and decided to head back on the métro.  There's a station right near Sainte-Chappelle, but it's really well hidden.  We used GPS to spiral in on its location.

We popped out near our room, but decided to walk to a pedestrian street, Rue Montorgueil, nearby for dinner.  We found the street, and it was very nice, but all the menus were in French.  Finally we settled on this little hole-in-the-wall place on one of the side streets.  Had chicken for dinner at Paris Abidjan Lisbonne.  Seated next to us were Michael and Claire, a newly married couple who spoke English very well, and offered to translate the menu for us.  Michael had actually visited California, and specifically the city of San Ramon, where Stewart & Valerie live.  It took some real effort to pay the bill, finally resorting to cash.  After we enjoyed a brisk walk back to the room.  David got the "Don't drink my earrings lecture."

Back in the Basel Bahnhof, on our way to Paris

Our Air BNB room in Paris

Jessica, David and Valerie visit Notre Dame the first time

Stewart & Valerie smooch it up on one of the bridges covered in locks

Notre Dame at sunset

The view out the back window of our room

  • April 23rd: Paris in a Day

David slept poorly.  The room is right over a busy boulevard, and, if the windows are open, the sound of traffic is very loud.  We kept the windows closed, but that meant the room got very warm, and at one point it was time to throw off all of the covers.  Early in the morning the room cooled to the point that we woke up shivering, and finally the covers could do their job.

After breakfast we walked to our first stop, the Pompidou Centre.  This place looks so out of place in Paris that it's difficult to imagine.  While most buildings in the center of the city look like they are out of the 18th century, this looks like it was built using an Erector Set.  There was a Starbucks nearby, and everyone got their morning jolt.  Outside some people were introducing a new product called "Coke Life", in a green can.  Everyone agreed it was OK, but nothing to write home about.

From there we walked to the Hotêl de Ville, a most impressive building.  This is the seat of local administration, especially the Paris Mayor's office.  Completed in 1357 and expanded in 1533, the ornate design and statuary is something that today's unionized worker rarely produces.

From there it was a quick walk back to Notre Dame Cathedral, and this time we went inside.  It truly boggles the mind what engineers 1000 years ago were able to construct.  Again, nothing like this being built today.  We wanted to take the exterior tour, but the line was long and didn't seem to be moving at all.  We reluctantly had to abandon that effort.

Another short walk to Sainte-Chappelle.  For some reason, this place had the tightest security, and when they spotted my pocket knife, they wanted to confiscate it.  David choose to remain outside while Stewart, Valerie and Jessica toured the ancient church.  Next door was the Cour d'Appel de Paris, which is their Court of Appeals and is housed in the Palace of Justice.  Egress from Sainte-Chappelle is through this building, which may explain the heightened security.

Everywhere you look there is armed military.  You get the sense that Paris is undergoing some sort of security threat.  Now it was time to use our métro tickets.  First stop was the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House.  This grand building, finished in 1875, is simply magnificent and used today mostly for the ballet.

After that it was off to the Musée du Lourve.  Getting on the métro, David tried to beat the buzzer, and managed to get caught in the door.  Fortunately, after a couple of moments the door reopened, and David was able to step inside the car.  However, Stewart was still on the platform, and after witnessing David's confrontation with the door, was not about to try and enter behind him.  A moment later David, Jessica and Valerie left the station, waving goodbye to Stewart.  We sent text messages back to Stewart and spread out on the station platform waiting for the following train, hoping that Stewart would see us as he entered the station.  Sure enough, two trains later, Stewart got off to join us, but, once again his hat was missing.  Another excuse for a souvenier.  Leaving the métro station, we encountered a large, underground, very modern shopping mall.  You would never guess that this huge shopping mall exists beneath the Lourve.

Then we took the métro to the Champs-Elysée about a mile away from the Arc d' Triomph.  We had a nice walk up, admiring all the fancy shops along the way, and getting some great pictures.  We decided to go to the top of the arch, and it was 268 steps.  It can safely be said that Parisians seem to really love their spiral staircases.  We took lots of pictures as the view in all directions is spectacular.

Finally, we took the métro to the Tour Eiffel.  We wished we had had more time to spend here, but by now time was running low to pick up the key for Meg's apartement in Paris (Meg was unable to get to her room to collect the key at the designated time, so Jessica and David pulled that duty).

Jessica & David split off from Stewart and Valerie after just a few minutes at the Tour Eiffel.  They took the métro all across Paris to meet the woman, arriving just a few minutes late.  She was very nice and showed us the room and parking situation.  Jessica & David texted Stewart & Valerie to see where they wanted to meet up, and all agreed the room would be best.  We arrived a few minutes behind them, and we quickly changed and walked to dinner at a pizza place that had a good rating.  The food was great, and the beer hit the spot.

We got back to the room just in time to meet with Meg and give her our brain dump and keys.  She drove off with her friends, and everyone here went quickly to sleep.

David and Stewart outside the Pompidou Center

Valerie and Jessica visit the Hotêl de Ville

Jessica and Valerie inside Notre Dame

The Ezekiel Window in Sainte-Chappelle

Valerie & Stewart in front of the Cour d'Appel

Jessica and Valerie outside of the Paris Opera House

Valerie and Jessica on the famous Champs-Elysée

Valerie & Stewart visit the Arc d' Triomph

David, Jessica, Valerie and Stewart below the Eiffel Tower

Up early, as we are traveling to Bayeux in the Normandy region today.  A quick breakfast, then we were out the door.  The métro is right outside our door, and we took the 3 to Saint-Lazare train station.  We found our way up to the platforms, but purchasing tickets proved to be an issue.  The lack of a "chip" credit card meant we couldn't use the machines.  If you wanted to buy from a human being you stood in line (which wasn't that long, but moved quite slowly).  Stewart reached the front and bought our tickets to Bayeux with about seven minutes to spare.  After we punched tickets, David started looking for a second class car with four empty seats together.  David found one, and got on to verify, and seeing that the seats were there, he went back out to signal the others.  It turns out they had lost sight of him and didn't see me board the train.  When they saw him again, Jessica let David have it for leaving without them.  She was as upset as has ever been seen.  She even resorted to cursing to drive her point home.  David tried to assure her that this was not his intent, but she was having none of it.  It seemed mildly embarrassing for Stewart and Valerie.  After a few moments it had blown over.

We traveled through the idyllic French countryside towards our transfer in Caen.  The transfer went smoothly, and it was only one stop to Bayeux.  We arrived well before our appointed tour time, so decided to visit the famous Bayeux Tapestry.  This embroidered cloth is about 220 feet long, and tells the story of the Battle of Hastings at the beginning of the Norman Conquest in 1066.  It is very impressive and the display is very well put together.  Leaving that, we stopped for a bite to eat at a nearby cafe.  The fish-and-chips were tasty enough and we scarfed down our food in order to return to the train station by 1:00p, our pick-up time.

Our guide arrived in a mini-van that seated nine (four couples plus her).  Her name was Sunny and she took us to four stops, with detailed explanations along the way.  First stop was at the La Cammbe cemetery for German soldiers who died trying to defend against the invasion.  She explained how General Eisenhower had ordered all dead buried within a week.  Because of this, Allied and Axis soldiers were sometimes buried together.  Later the Americans were exhumed and either returned home, or moved to the American cemetery we would see later.

Next stop was Point du Hoc.  This was the main German observation post that had views of Omaha and Utah beaches.  It was built on cliffs in super hardened bunkers.  The entire area has hundreds of craters from the naval shelling and aerial bombardment that took place in the months leading up to D-Day.  On June 6th, 1944, 225 Rangers scaled these cliffs in bad weather and disabled the big guns that could have pounded the invasion.  You have to see it, and you still won't believe it.  Then our guide took us to Omaha Beach, where the Americans suffered the worst casualties of the invasion.  There are several monuments on the beach, including "Les Braves", which was unveiled in 2004 at the 60th anniversary of the invasion.  Sunny vividly described the invasion for us.  She knows this subject well.

Our last stop was the American Cemetery and Memorial.  This is where all the unclaimed or unknown American bodies are buried.  Thousand of them.  The white crosses stretch out forever in amazingly neat rows and columns, interrupted by the occasional Star of David.  There is also an extensive visitors center, with a very interesting collection of photographs, memorabilia and film clips, all providing insight into Operation Overlord, and especially D-Day.  We stayed to watch them lower the flags and play Taps, then rejoined our group for the trip back to Bayeux.

We had Sunny drop us off at a restaurant, where we had one of our favorite meals of the trip.  The girls were each drinking wine, and got a serious case of the giggles, all about the type of a tree outside of the restaurant.  After dessert we walked back to the train station, passing another beautiful church (this one also named Notre Dame) and boarded our return train to Paris (the 8:10p, getting in around 10:30p).  Most of our group tended to doze off along the way.  As we were approaching Paris, David overheard a man say that he planned to take the 14 métro to connect with the 4 to get to his destination.  Jessica & David tried to do that yesterday, and it was a colossal hassle because of construction.  David advised the guy to take the 3 to the 4 as the transfer was much easier.  He asked to tag along with us and we said that was fine.  We last saw him going to the 4 train.  We got back to the room, and everyone decompressed.

This same day, Meg & Reid, and their friends Lanny & Kathleen visted Versailles, and we were told everyone had a very good time.

Meg & Reid visit Versailles

Tour guide Sunny points for Jessica and Valerie

Jessica atop a viewing platform, with cratered ground behind at Point du Hoc

David stands in front of one of the destroyed German pillboxes

David, Jessica, Valerie and Stewart on Omaha Beach at the Les Braves monument

Some of the thousands of graves of Americans who died during the invasion

Jessica with the "Spirit of American Youth" statue at the cemetery

Pituresque Bayeux

Still another church named Notre Dame, this one in Bayeux

Valerie and David on the train ride back to Paris from Bayeux

Rose around 8:15a to find Valerie already up.  Jessica next, then Stewart.  People slowly getting ready, finally out the door, heading towards a recommended restaurant called "Twinkie".  We got in there, looked at the menu prices, clutched our collective chests, and left.  On the way out Jessica left her purse behind, but David grabbed it up.  We headed up the street to a bakery where a snippy counter girl sold us some croissants and pastries.  We took those to a Starbucks to get a cup of coffee larger than a shot glass.

After having our fill we jumped on the métro and headed to Sacré Cœur.  The station off of the 12 line is close, but well below Montmartre.  We climbed at least 90 steps to just get to where you could see daylight, then more after that.  We popped out into a swap-meet of sorts where it looked like the contents of Paris's attic had been emptied.  We were exchanging texts with Meg during this time.

We opted to take the funicular up to the church itself, a wise decision.  We took the interior tour, this being perhaps the most beautiful cathedral we encountered, with banks and banks of candles everywhere you turn.  On exit, Meg, Reid, Lanny and Kathleen (the couple the Silverns were now traveling with) met up with us on the steps.  They toured the interior while Stewart and Jessica took the exterior tour up to the top of the dome, an additional 294 steps.  We posed for photos, and soon the two groups split up to continue touring Paris.

We wandered around and ran into a group of street musicians, all brass and percussion.  A lot of trombones, saxophones, trumpets, even a tuba.  They were young and seemed to be enjoying themselves.  Around this time Jessica was finally able to buy postage for the postcards she wanted to mail.  This made her very happy.

Back on the métro we rode to the Musée d'Orsay.  We went into Wander mode for a while, looking for a place to buy a sandwich.  Finally, success, and we chowed down on the museum steps.

From there we wandered onto another of these bridges with the "love locks".  This was a much larger bridge than the first one we saw, and had a TON of locks on it.  When you see all the people who have made a pilgrimage to one of these bridges in Paris to profess their love, it almost restores your faith in humanity.

This bridge also provided easy access to the area down by the river's edge, so we went down there and found a kiosk that would sell us tickets for a river cruise.  We bought four, and now had to hike to Pont Neuf, where the cruise departed.  Along the way we passed the original "lock" bridge, and it had so many locks attached that you could not see any parts of the actual bridge structure.

This walk to the bateau was our only encounter with rain on our whole trip, and it was still pretty mild.  About 15 minutes later we were on board and underway.  This cruise started downriver, going as far as the Tour Eiffel, turned around then went well past Notre Dame, passing under about a dozen bridges along the way.  It was informative and fun.

After it was decided that it was time to head back to the room, and prepare for our departure tomorrow.  We stopped in the local grocery store and bought provisions for dinner and breakfast in the morning.  Drinking wine, eating cheese and crackers, everyone is ruing the end of our time together.  For some reason there was no hot water in the room.  Stewart and David poked around looking for a solution.

Valerie and Jessica check out the attic sale at Montmartre

Stewart checks out the view from the top of Sacré Cœur

An interior shot from Sacré Cœur

Stewart & Valerie with Sacré Cœur

The last time we were all together just below Sacré Cœur, with all of Paris behind

Valerie, Jessica, and Stewart on the Bateau ride of the Seine

  • April 26th: The Voyage Home

Lanny & Kathleen drove Meg & Reid to the airport.  They had some trouble finding out that they needed Terminal 2 but finally got it straightened out.  They had no trouble getting past customs or security.  The first man to question them asked how many checked bags they had, and they reported "none".  He didn't seem to believe them and asked how long they had been in Europe.  Meg convinced him that they only had carry on bags.  Then it was a reasonable walk to the plane and quick boarding.  Meg & Reid transferred flights in Dallas and had a two-hour layover and then a four-hour delay after boarding, two different mechanical problems and then weather issues.  Once in the air, all went well, then they took the shuttle to their car and drove home to see their cats.  The cats had survived.

The rest of us were up at 6:00a.  Fortunately we had hot water (there was some concern about this the previous evening).  Everybody breakfasted and out the door right on time.  Easy walk to the métro, had to wait about seven minutes for a train.  Arriving at Gare du Nord, we found the platform, but had issues finding the ticket window.  That resolved, we managed a direct train to CDG.  Then some guy on the train started playing his accordion.  Really.  Jessica and Valerie met a young woman who is a stewardess for Air France.  They talked her ear off the entire ride.  More interesting was the couple sitting across the aisle from Stewart.  The guy has some serious anger management issues.

We arrived at CDG and immediately found out why this is the second largest airport in Europe.  It just goes on and on, and we were only in Terminal 2.  First order of business is to get our boarding passes.  This is the first of about six times we had to show our passports.  The boarding passes and luggage tags went smoothly.  Next we must check our large luggage.  Everything that they used to do for you, you must now do yourself.  I'm surprised that they didn't ask me to fly the plane.  Next is customs.  Long, long line.  Somewhere along here Stewart and Valerie got yanked out of line and told to check one of their carry-ons.  While we could still text with them, we didn't see them again.  Once through customs, we jumped on the shuttle for concourse M.  Getting there, we now had to pass through security.  Once again they frisked me and gave me a complete pat down.  We were still far from our gate and started walking briskly.  Gate 48 was about as far away as you could get and still be on the European continent.

They were already boarding so we jumped in line, showed passports for the last time and stumbled to our seats.  We pushed back from the gate just a few minutes late.  The safety briefing prepared by Air France was clever and fun to watch.  Jessica seems to have already fallen asleep.  Watched a movie about "Hector and the Search for Happiness".  Then "Into the Woods".  Watched "Horrible Bosses 2".  Then "Big Hero 6".  Wow.  Then "Night at the Museum 3".  Whoa.  All the movies did make the flight go by quickly.

Landing at LAX we got off the plane about as quickly as you could want.  Exchanged texts with Meg and Valerie to confirm everyone arrived safe and sound.  Customs wasn't too bad, only had to show passports a couple of times.  Baggage claim also not too bad.  Alex was there quickly, we loaded up and were home inside of an hour.  This was another wonderful vacation with the Leicesters and Silverns, only coming in second to the Mediterranean cruise of 2011.  Fell asleep at 8:00p.

Getting ready to pack for our return

Back on the street after leaving our room in Paris

Selfie on the flight home from Paris to Los Angeles