UNESCO World Heritage Site

Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

After the tour of Weltenburg Abbey, we returned to our longship for lunch.  Then we boarded the motorcoaches once again, this time for the short drive into Regensburg, where we met our guide, Hubert.  He was quite memorable as his name was on his hat and, as he was part of a men’s choir, every now and then he’d sing a little song for us. He led our tour of the medieval city center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We began our tour along the river by the Stone Bridge.  While Charlemagne had built a wooden bridge near this location, by the 12th century a bridge that could handle more traffic was needed.  This one was built circa 1135-1146 and was used by the knights of the Second and Third Crusades to cross the river. Indeed it was the only bridge in the area across the Danube for 800 years.  It served as a model for other European bridges including London Bridge and the predecessor of the Charles Bridge in Prague.

The Stone Bridge of Regensburg

The Stone Bridge of Regensburg

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Categories: Europe, Germany, River Cruise, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Viking | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

Viking offered an “official” pre-trip extension to Prague but when we looked at the price and at what was included, we decided we could do it ourselves a lot cheaper.  Did we miss out on a few things?  Probably.  But we were OK with that.

Our first adventure was getting from our hotel, the Marriott Courtyard Prague, to the Old Town.  We thought we should be able to do that via the tram, so we exchanged money at the currency exchange that’s in the mall across the street from the hotel, then followed the tram tracks to the nearest stop.  I waved some money at the driver and he just waved his hand in what I took to be a “never mind” expression so we hopped on board.  Only later did we realize that we were supposed to have bought tickets elsewhere and validated them in the on-board machine.  Once we became aware of that, we hopped off pretty quickly to avoid any fines.  Fortunately we were just a few blocks from where we thought we needed to be.

prg-municipal-house

Municipal House

prg-republic-square

Republic Square

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Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Kelheim, Germany
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

When booking our flight from Chicago to Prague we had a couple of options: a long layover in Brussels or taking a second stop in Vienna.  I originally preferred the 2-stop option as we’d have arrived in Prague earlier but my friend preferred the 1-stop option.  And then I remembered I had a Twitter friend who lived in Belgium and thought perhaps we could meet up.

We each had a carry-on bag and a personal item that we’d brought on our flight.  Since we didn’t want to lug that with us into the city center, we took them all the way downstairs and outside to the covered area where there are lockers.  It ended up costing us 7 EUR for a single large locker. You make a deposit to get a locker assigned and then you get a slip of paper with a code.  When it’s time to open the lockers, you enter a code and the machine will tell you the cost.  The machine only takes certain coins and you’ll need exact change.  There’s no change machine nearby and if you want to go back into the airport you’ll need to re-clear a first line of security.

We went back into the airport and found the ticket office where we purchased a round-trip ticket to the city center.  We didn’t have to wait very long at all before we were on board for the 15-20 minute trip.

Some levels of the Brussels city center station are quite pretty but others are not.  We found our way outside where it was raining just a little.  As in many European cities there was a beautiful church nearby, in this case the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.  This version of the church building was erected in the early 13th century and took about 300 years to finish.  It underwent a significant restoration 1983-1999.

bru-church-exteriorbru-church-interiorbru-church-organbru-church-stained-glass-1

My Belgian friend arrived and we settled down in a small cafe near the train station to enjoy a nice meal.  So much better than plane food!

Though she doesn’t live in Brussels, she still was able to navigate us around the area.  First stop, the famous statue called Manneken Pis.  Yes, the peeing boy statue that dates to around 1618 or so. There are a number of stories as to its origin but many of them are for tourists only, it seems.  The locals do dress the statue for various occasions, but he was dressed only in his bronze skin for our visit.

bru-manneken-pis

Just a few blocks away was the Grand Place, a large multi-purpose area that’s often the home of flower shows or Christmas markets.  But as we were there between holidays it was simply a large courtyard though the surrounding buildings were interesting.

bru-grand-place-1bru-grand-place-2bru-grand-place-3bru-grand-place-4

We strolled down some pedestrian streets with multiple chocolate shops on either side.  We each managed to control ourselves and not go hog-wild over the wares.  But we each bought enough to keep us happy throughout the trip!

bru-side-street

Soon enough it was time to get back on the train for the airport.  We managed to reclaim our carry-on luggage, get past the security checkpoints and run the gauntlet of duty-free shopping to find the Brussels Airlines lounge.  As it was quite a busy place, I did not take photos but we wished we’d checked it out before we went into town.  They had free lockers there where we could have left our bags.  Showers and nap rooms were available too.  Self-serve beverages were on hand though I can’t recall if there was any food or not.  But having just eaten that wasn’t an issue for us.

Our gate was just a two-minute walk from the lounge and though boarding was a little chaotic, we all got in our seats relatively quickly.  Since this was intra-Europe business class, the “business class” section was just the first two rows on the ABC side and only the bulkhead row on the DEF side where we were.  They did offer a single-tray snack, mostly cheese and crackers.  I took the tray just to see what they offered.  My friend decided to nap instead.

Since we landed as an intra-Europe flight, there was no Customs paperwork to fill out.  After collecting our luggage we simply walked through the “nothing to declare” exit and found ourselves in the arrival hall.

We’d arranged a pickup with Blacklane and our driver was waiting for us. He had a large SUV that easily handled our big suitcases plus our carry-ons.  Though he didn’t speak a lot of English, he obviously knew the area and took some side roads that kept us moving when we could see the expressway was bogged down with rush hour traffic.  He dropped us off at the Marriott Courtyard, our home for our first two nights in Prague.

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SPB Around Melbourne

SPB Trip Planning
SPB Qantas First Class to Sydney
SPB Park Hyatt Sydney
SPB Sydney Opera House
SPB Around Sydney
SPB Flying to/from Uluru
SPB Emu Walk Apartments
SPB Uluru and Kata Tjuta
SPB Park Hyatt Melbourne
SPB Around Melbourne
SPB Flying to Fiji
SPB Hilton Fiji
SPB Snorkeling Trip
SPB Fiji Air Business Class to Los Angeles
SPB Hyatt Regency DFW

We weren’t really sure what to expect from Melbourne as its sites are not as famous as, say, Sydney’s Opera House or Harbour Bridge. We did learn there’s a hop-on/hop-off bus and a free trolley system so we grabbed tourist maps from the front desk and walked to the closest stop.

The bus stop was diagonally opposite the Victoria Train Station, which I thought was just a beautiful building. Not wanting to miss our bus we didn’t go inside to explore but I sorta wish we had.

Victoria Station, Melbourne

Victoria Station, Melbourne

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SPB Uluru and Kata Tjuta

SPB Trip Planning
SPB Qantas First Class to Sydney
SPB Park Hyatt Sydney
SPB Sydney Opera House
SPB Around Sydney
SPB Flying to/from Uluru
SPB Emu Walk Apartments
SPB Uluru and Kata Tjuta
SPB Park Hyatt Melbourne
SPB Around Melbourne
SPB Flying to Fiji
SPB Hilton Fiji
SPB Snorkeling Trip
SPB Fiji Air Business Class to Los Angeles
SPB Hyatt Regency DFW

When planning this trip I wanted to include Sydney as a stop since one of my travel companions had never been and I was happy to go back as I really enjoy it. But I also wanted to include places I hadn’t been. One of the great icons of Australia is its Red Centre and the large rock formation known as Uluru. Until I started researching the area I wasn’t aware there’s another formation nearby known as Kata Tjuta. In case you need a pronunciation guide, Uluru is pronounced OO-loo-roo and Kata Tjuta is KHAT-ah JU-tah

We arrived in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon during the third week of October and it was HOT. I cannot even imagine how it feels in the middle of the summer. My advice: stick to visiting in mid-April to mid-October (Autumn through Spring) and skip the summer months.

The park is about a 10-minute ride from the Ayers Rock Resort and entry is at a single ranger station. Each person in the vehicle must have a park pass so if you get behind several cars where people do not have passes, the line can back up. Park passes start at $25 AUD for a 3-day pass which should be all you need. If by chance you’ll make more than one trip to Uluru during a year’s time, opt for the annual pass at $32.50 AUD.

Uluru itself is about a 10-15 minute drive from the park entrance. As we were driving towards it we could occasionally catch glimpses of it in the distance and then we came around a bend and there it was. Pictures really don’t do it justice and I wanted to pull the car over right there and then and start taking photos. Apparently a lot of other people had the same idea because there were “No Stopping” signs all over the place! Well, at least I was in good company with my idea.

Uluru Farewell

Hello Uluru

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Categories: Australia, Oceania, UNESCO World Heritage Site | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

SPB Sydney Opera House

SPB Trip Planning
SPB Qantas First Class to Sydney
SPB Park Hyatt Sydney
SPB Sydney Opera House
SPB Around Sydney
SPB Flying to/from Uluru
SPB Emu Walk Apartments
SPB Uluru and Kata Tjuta
SPB Park Hyatt Melbourne
SPB Around Melbourne
SPB Flying to Fiji
SPB Hilton Fiji
SPB Snorkeling Trip
SPB Fiji Air Business Class to Los Angeles
SPB Hyatt Regency DFW

 

A few days before we left on our trip I happened to notice a tweet that the Sunday we’d be in Sydney was the one day of the year that the famed Opera House held its (free) open house. On my previous visit to Sydney I’d paid to take a tour and hoped to convince my friends that it was worth it but this was even better, even if we did have to line up early on a Sunday morning.

The iconic Sydney Opera House as viewed from the point in front of the Park Hyatt

The iconic Sydney Opera House as viewed from the point in front of the Park Hyatt

In the 1950s when Sydney decided an iconic building was needed, a world-wide competition was held. The winner was Jørn Utzon from Denmark. Construction began in 1959 with the podium being finished in 1963, the outer shells in 1967 and the interior work was completed in 1973 – only 10 years overdue and 1457% over budget! Due to conflicts with government officials, Utzon resigned from the project in the mid-1960s and his name was not even mentioned in the building’s grand opening ceremony. However he and his son were asked to help with some remodeling efforts that opened in 2004, completing the reconciliation process between the two parties. Continue reading

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Ephesus, Mary’s House and Basilica of St. John

Turkey Trip Overview
Booking Flights To Turkey
British Airways First Class Lounge IAH
British Airways 777 First Class IAH-LHR
Transiting Heathrow and British Airways A320 Business Class LHR-IST
Marriott Courtyard Istanbul Airport
Pegasus Airlines Istanbul to Izmir and Back
Ephesus, Mary’s House and Basilica of St. John
Swissotel Efes
Pamukkale Bus and Preiene
Ritz-Carlton Istanbul
Major Sites to see in Istanbul
Radisson Blu Bosphorus
Turkish Airlines Lounge Istanbul
Turkish Airlines 777 Business Class IST-IAH

I knew that Izmir (the ancient city of Smyrna) was close to the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus, which I had toured before while on a cruise. I thought it was fantastic and wanted my friends to be able to experience it. Through a travel agent friend I was put in touch with the folks at Sea Song, who are top travel specialists in Turkey and Virtuoso agents. While we probably could have put together some of these details on our own, we were able to concentrate on flights and hotels in Istanbul and we put our ground transportation and tours in their hands.

Our guide and our bus driver, yes we had a small bus even though there were only three of us, picked us up at our hotel and we were on our way. The ruins of Ephesus are about an hour away from Izmir via a modern highway, so it was an easy ride. The ruins are on a hillside and the driver drove us to the entrance at the top of the hill and we wound our way through the town down the hillside.

The book of Ephesians in the Bible is actually a letter written from the Apostle Paul to the city’s inhabitants. He spent a fair amount of time there, preaching and making tents. Shortly before the birth of Christ, Ephesus became both the seat of the regional governor and a major center of commerce – in short, a very prosperous city. Much of the remains we see now are from that time period.

It’s best remembered for its temple to the goddess Artemis, the library of Celsus and its amphitheater, which could seat 25,000.

Amphitheater in Ephesus

Amphitheater in Ephesus

Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus

We also got to tour the Terrace Houses, where excavation is on-going. Here we saw where the wealthier citizens lived. The floors all had mosaics and the walls were intricately painted too. These homes were up a side hill from Curetes Street, the main street of the city. The street itself is made of marble, which made it quite slick with all the dust from the area. The sidewalks, which were roped off, were elaborate mosaics that have held up amazingly well over the centuries – or perhaps just beautifully restored.

Mosaic on the floor of one of the Terrace Houses

Mosaic on the floor of one of the Terrace Houses

Sidewalk Mosaic on Curates Street

Sidewalk Mosaic on Curates Street

After finishing the tour our bus took us to a small restaurant in Selcuk, the town closest to Efes, where we had lunch and enjoyed some time in the shade. Aside from our time at the Terrace Houses, an area that’s covered, the rest of the time in Ephesus is out in the open and there’s very little shade to be found. So it was nice to be able to cool down for a bit.

Our next stop was the House of the Virgin Mary. While it’s not known for sure whether the mother of Jesus spent her final years here, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. There is a whole list of reasons why this might have been her house, but no one knows for sure. Additionally, the structure now on the site was “reconstructed” based on the finding of about a 2-3 foot section of wall. No photos are allowed inside. It’s very small and even though there was a line, it moved reasonably quickly. It was nice to see but if you don’t see this site, you haven’t really missed much.

The final stop was at the Basilica of St. John. It’s believed that the man charged to take care of Mary upon the death of Jesus lived out his final years and was buried in this area. Some 300 years later a small chapel was constructed over his grave and that was expanded into a basilica in the 6th century AD. The building became a mosque in the 14th century when the Turks invaded the area but later that century an earthquake left it unusable.

Ruins of the Basilica of St John

Ruins of the Basilica of St John

Grave of St John

Grave of St John

We enjoyed our tour and our guide, Tilda, was fantastic. She was our point of contact within Izmir, escorting us to and from the airport as well as on this tour. I’d highly recommend her as a guide!

After traveling for three days in a row and then being gone all day on this tour we were definitely ready for some recovery time and looking forward to our day of relaxation.

Categories: Europe, Turkey, UNESCO World Heritage Site | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Rhine Runaway – River Cruise Part II

Other parts of this series so far:

Rhine Runaway – Booking Process
Rhine Runaway – Houston to Amsterdam
Rhine Runaway – A Short Visit to Amsterdam
Rhine Runaway – River Cruise Part I

 

The next day we visited Heidelberg Castle followed by a visit to the town of Heidelberg. The castle was very interesting as it had once been left idle for decades but had since had a lot of restoration work, some of which was still on-going. It houses the world’s largest wine cask – large enough to have once had dance parties on top of it! – though it hasn’t held wine in many years.

World's Largest Wine Cask

World’s Largest Wine Cask

The university town of Heidelberg was a study in contrasts as it had the youth of the university surrounded by buildings dating back five centuries.

Later that afternoon we docked in Speyer and took a stroll into town where we got to visit the incredible Kaiserdom, an 11th century cathedral that’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sadly, many of the other sites in town were closed since it was Easter Monday, which is part of the holiday weekend in Europe.

On Tuesday we visited Strasbourg, wandering its streets and visiting yet another gorgeous, massive cathedral. Some of our group took an optional tour of an Alsatian winery and brought back a few bottles to share.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France

Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France

Our final day of the cruise took us into the Black Forest where we saw rolling hills and stopped in a tiny town that had once been a place where carriages stopped. The inn there was painted with a mural of Marie Antoinette, one of the more famous guests. There was a cuckoo clock shop as well as a shop selling blown glass items. In the afternoon there was an optional tour of the medieval city of Colmar, France. We had a delightful guide and enjoyed the architecture differences that he pointed out from various eras.

It was a lovely tour and I would definitely not hesitate to sign up for another Viking tour. In fact, a couple of us have our eyes on a tour in 2016…

Categories: Europe, France, Germany, River Cruise, UNESCO World Heritage Site | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rhine Runaway – River Cruise Part I

Other parts of this series so far:

Rhine Runaway – Booking Process
Rhine Runaway – Houston to Amsterdam
Rhine Runaway – A Short Visit to Amsterdam

I must say that Viking knows what they’re doing. Our rooms were on the lower level, below the waterline and very compact, but had what we needed. A lot of forethought had been put into the design of the rooms. There were quite a few US 110-volt plugs as well as the standard European ones. That was great as it allowed us to use all of them since we’d brought adapters along.

Guided tours are included with the price of the cruise and there are optional tours available for purchase. Our longship could carry approximately 190 passengers but we weren’t quite full on this trip so they could divide us into relatively small groups which made our tours much easier. Each cabin has radios that will tune to the guide’s transmitter so they don’t have to shout. That’s great because the average age of passengers on this particular ship was probably early-to-mid 60s so I felt like a young ‘un! There’s also usually a “leisurely tour” group for folks with mobility issues so that they don’t slow down one of the other groups. I thought this was great planning on Viking’s part.

On Friday we were in Kinderdijk, Netherlands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the numerous windmills found there. When we arrived, we thought all the windmills looked the same but our guide soon pointed out differences in the ones on our side of the canal vs. the ones opposite. There was one windmill restored for touring and I was struck again at how compact everything was and how difficult that must have been for a family to live in.

Kinderdijk Windmills

Kinderdijk Windmills

Saturday we stopped in Cologne and docked right next to the city. We had a walking tour in the morning and then had the afternoon to ourselves. The cathedral there is the most-visited tourist site in Germany and it’s easy to see why. It’s a huge building with gorgeous stained-glass windows and fantastic architecture. Some of us also toured the German-Roman museum and viewed a number of mosaics that had been uncovered on the site (right next to the cathedral).

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Just about every place we stopped had a magnificent church or cathedral that was several hundred years old. It just reinforced to me how young the US is! It was amazing to think how these huge buildings could have been built 300-500 years ago!

Easter Sunday found us at the port in Koblenz where we boarded motor coaches for the drive up to Marksburg Castle. It was never invaded due to its perch high on a river bend and it’s not close enough to a major city to have been damaged during the World Wars so it’s everything you might imagine a castle to be. They’ve done a great job preserving this castle and it has lovely views out over the river.

Marksburg Castle

Marksburg Castle

Later that day was one of the highlights, cruising down the Middle Rhine. Fortunately the weather was great and we sat up on the sun deck in lounge chairs beneath an awning and watched a number of castles and towns as we cruised past. The cruise director provided narration as we passed. It made for great photos and was a wonderful change of pace.

In the evening, there was an optional excursion to a local restaurant in Rudesheim. We boarded a small tram (made up to look like a train) that wound us through the streets of the town and dropped us off near the restaurant. It’s a quaint town and I wish I’d taken the time available before our outing to walk through it.

The dinner was quite good, served by friendly staff. We were serenaded by a live oompah band and after dinner there were several audience participation activities. From a half-dozen people downing shots off the same paddle at the same time to audience members being recruited to play bass drum & cymbals as the band marched through the restaurant, the staff did their utmost to be sure everyone had a good time. All in all it was worth the extra charge for the visit.

Categories: Europe, Germany, Netherlands, River Cruise, UNESCO World Heritage Site | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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