Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Grand Tour: Great Rivers of Europe Part II

About in 2007, just before my husband's retirement party, I went to the mall to look for a spring jacket. Retirement was on my mind. How would we fill up the time? Would we ever travel? If we could take just one big trip, where would we go?

The sales clerk who helped my pick out my new jacket sang its praises. She said she had worn the same style jacket every day on her recent trip to Europe. That is when I first heard of Grand Circle Travel and their tour called: Great Rivers of Europe.

Jim, who doesn't really like to travel and hates to fly, began to research taking a European trip. We asked ourselves many questions. Where shall we go? What will our mode of travel be? Will we join a touring group? How much do we want to spend? When can we go?

Finally, it was decided that Germany had to be a destination. After all, Germany is the homeland of Jim's family. German was Jim's primary home language as a child, his major in college, and the subject matter that he once taught. After deciding on the destination, we then selected the river trip tour offered through Grand Circle Travel.

Getting There and Back Again

Once on a trip to Las Vegas, my husband turned to me mid-flight and said, "Sally, I have to get off this plane." The look in his eyes told me he meant it. Somehow, I was able to convince him that he could survive the stress of that particular flight. When it came to flying to Europe, I was more than a little anxious about how we both would handle the flight. Whenever, we talked about going overseas, my husband would say he was driving over. Since this was not really an option, and since he really wanted to get to Europe, we were fortunate to be able to fly with Lufthansa on our first trip overseas together. The flight accommodations, flight crew, and meals could not have been better. Yes, while it is unheard of in today's flying experience, we had two wonderful meals provided for us while on board the flight.

We did feel cramped when it came to leg room. On our flight home, being the more seasoned travelers that we had become, we purchased economy plus status for 100 Euro each. This upgrade gave us very generous leg room on our United flight from Paris to Dulles to Denver. Both of us still consider the upgrade one of the best purchases we made on the trip. The additional room was worth every penny. At our ages, and after Jim's two knee replacements and hip replacement, he just can't sit in a cramped position for very long, and neither can I!

We decided that we would try to get the most bang for our travel dollars that we could by taking both the optional five-day pre-trip extension to Vienna, Austria, and the six-day post-trip to Brussels, Belgium and Paris, France. This meant that we would be gone for 25 days. More than once prior to the trip, during the trip, and after the trip, I questioned our sanity at making such a choice. That is a very long time to be gone from home, especially for my homebody husband. Surprisingly, he handled the flight, and the length of the time we gone better than I. In the end, we are happy we did the "whole enchilada."

A quick overview of the trip:

Vienna, Austria - April 21, 2010 - April 26, 2010

A bit dazzled and dazed by the long flight, the short layover in Frankfurt, and the cab drive to the hotel, we were amazed to actually find ourselves in Vienna, Austria. Our program director, Miriam, met us at the hotel and took us on a brief walk around the area near the hotel in order to familiarize us our surroundings. Within the hour, we were expected at a Welcome Drink Event where met the others who would be in our group of fellow travelers for the next 18 days.

Vienna is a wonderful city that lives up to its reputation of being a place of charm and beauty. We loved our time there. Beginning with a city tour, we visited such places as: the 'real' Belvedere, The Museum of Fine Arts, and Schonbrunn Palace.

Two of the highlights of our time in Vienna included evenings when we paid a visit to the wine district of Grinzing, and to the beautiful Kursalon where we listened to an orchestra playing the classical music that one associates with Vienna. Probably, the most unexpected delight and surprise of the entire trip was our visit to Bratislavia, Slovakia.

Cruising the Danube, the Main, and the Rhine

On April 26, we boarded the M/S River Adagio in Vienna, Austria to begin our tour of Germany via the Danube, the Main, and the Rhine. This was our first time aboard a ship of this size. We really didn't know what to expect from our accommodations, but found the size of the room, the quality of beds, the size of bathroom, and storage space was perfect for us. We liked being with a smaller group than you find on a large cruise ship. We found the social gathering areas to be comfortable and welcoming. The meals were fantastic. Just think, I was able to enjoy three wonderful meals a day for two weeks without shopping, cooking or cleaning up the kitchen.

Once onboard, we did encounter problems that could not have been foreseen. On April 29th, while in Regensburg, Germany, we learned that one of the major locks of the more than 60 locks that we would encounter on the trip was malfunctioning. We were told that it would be at least until May 1st before we could leave Regensburg and proceed on our way.

Much speculation, worry and doubt began to be expressed by our fellow travelers. Would we be able to actually make all of our scheduled stops? What if the lock was not repaired for days? Would we leave our ship and be driven through Germany on a bus? Would we be given our money back and sent home? What would become of our long dreamed of tour?
Fortunately, the trip was saved because the lock was repaired and we began on our way again.
Unbelievably, the same thing happened again a few days later. These problems and delays caused some adjustments to our travel, but we were able to complete the trip on-time and as planned. We were very impressed by the way the staff and the company handled a very difficult situation. According to all sources, this problem with the locks has never happened to any of tours before.

Our cruise began on April 27, 2010, in Vienna and ended on May 9, 2010, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In the 14 days that we were on board the River Adagio, we visited the following cities and towns:
  • Melk, Austria
  • Passau, Germany
  • Regensburg, Germany
  • Nuremberg, Germany
  • Bamberg, Germany
  • Wurzburg, Germany
  • Rothenburg, Germany
  • Wertheim, Germany
  • Heidelberg, Germany
  • Frankfurt, Germany
  • Mainz, Germany
  • Koblenz, Germany
  • Cologne, Germany
  • Amsterdam, The Netherlands
We made many new friends, took many photos, ate a lot of wonderful food, and stored up memories that we will forever treasure.

As our new friends departed from our ship and our lives on May 10, 2010, Jim and I felt many conflicted emotions. We were so sad to see our new friends leave. We were tired and a bit envious of those who were returning home. The only couple who did both the pre and post trip, we had to adjust to and get to know a new program director and a new group of fellow travelers. We couldn't decide if we were sorry or excited about traveling on to Brussels and Paris.

It was with these ambivalent feelings that we disembarked from our familiar surroundings and boarded a bus on its way to Brussels, Belgium where we would stay for two days before boarding another bus to take us to Paris, France for two more days.

By the time we got to Delft for a late cup of coffee and pastry after touring a porcelain factory, and then on to Antwerp for lunch, we were back in our groove and happy to be touring again. As news of delayed flights because of volcanic ash began to be sent to us via our BlackBerry emails capabilities, we were even more convinced that we not only had it in us to keep out the touring, but we were also happy that we had decided to do so.

In future posts, I hope to share a few stories, insights, photos and memories that we picked up in our travels.