Life goes on

No matter what is happening in the halls of power, regular life does, indeed go on, and we are preparing for our spring excursion – hoping that nothing that emerges from Washington (or elsewhere) is going to throw too much of a wrench (or for my UK friends – a spanner) into the works.

This time we’ll be heading mostly inland, mostly to Germany, with some side trips into Austria and Hungary, and in preparation I have been reading Danubia and watching documentaries on the history of Vienna (thank you Fiona!) and have learned more about the Hapsburgs than I ever learned in school (which pretty much consisted of Holy Roman Emperors, Electors, Austria Hungary, Ottoman Empire, War of the Spanish Sucession then there was Fredrick the Great and the Hapsburgs weren’t that important any more until Archduke Ferdinand – and that they married their cousins too much and had bad chins.) I now know a great deal more, and they really did marry their cousins way too much, and have really bad chins, but they also had a number of centuries of dominance over a very chaotic region and the seeds of many of the contemporary conflicts are rooted in the family history.

I am really looking forward to seeing this region and getting to explore some of the historic and scenic areas we will be visiting. I’ve also been fascinated with ‘Mad’ King Ludwig for years and we will be visiting at least a couple of his castles as well (he wasn’t a Hapsburg, though.) In addition, we will be spending some time in and around Munich on our own after our back to back river cruises on the Danube, and I hope to get to see some of the ancestral homes of my mother’s mother’s family, the Killians. I always thought, with a name like Killian, they were likely to have been Irish, but it turns out that a St. Killian, who was Irish, came over and proselitzed to the Germans, and these particular ancestors most likely were from the district around the Cathedral named for him. They were engravers and jewelers, the most famous being a contemporary of Durer and it turns out that his engravings – mostly portraits – are in the collections of a number of notable museums. That particular branch of the family was from Augsburg and I have a day trip planned to go there from Munich, just to see if we can find some traces.

I’ll be posting a travelogue as we go along.

La Spezia and Beyond

Terraced vineyards near Corniglia
Terraced vineyards near Corniglia

 

 

 

 

After bidding a fond farewell to our friends after disembarking the ship at Civitavecchia, we boarded the train for La Spezia and the Cinque Terre. The train ride up the coast was uneventful, and we arrived in La Spezia in the early afternoon. We found our hotel – The Hotel Crismar-fairly easily, although it is quite tucked away off the main pedestrian street and down an alleyway. The hotel is family run, quite small, and housed in a former mill. Decidedly two star, but clean and well located about halfway from the train station and the port and in easy reach of any number of good restaurants and bistros and close to the main shopping area as well. Our room was small and lacked any drawer spaces at all, and no black out curtains or shades (and an outside light that stayed on all night and necessitated the use of my airplane eyemask for the duration of the stay)

After a little exploration of the area and an early dinner, we turned in, as we had booked two half-day tours with our Tours by Locals guide Antonella. She arrived promptly at 9 and we set out by train to visit the two most remote of the Cinque Terre towns – Vernazza and Monterosso. We arrived quickly in Vernazza, and learned a little of the history of the Cinque Terre along the way. Although each of the villages has its own personality, all were established as colonies to Genoa (or Genova) in the 1500s. For the most part, although the area was known to the Romans, the Vikings and the Arabs, it was for the most part uninhabited until then. The Cinque Terre were principally outposts with watch towers and fortifications against the pirates and other invaders and raiders, but slowly became agricultural areas concentrating on growing olives and wine grapes as the inhabitants terraced steep hillsides with dry stone walls and painstakingly nurtured gardens. Even today, there is no mechanized farming done in this region, as it is simply too steep and difficult. The vineyards and orchards are maintained, but tourism is now the primary economic driver in the region. From Vernazza, we took the coastal ferry to nearby Monterosso, which is known as the ‘beach’ town – it is the only one of the five with a beach of any substantial size.  As an extra treat, Antonella had arranged for us to be able to visit the interior of the monastery in Monterosso.  It used to house around 15 monks, but is down to a single friar now (and he was in Genova) but the housekeeper showed us around and through the gorgeous interior courtyard garden where, we were informed, the only bearing avocado trees in the Liguria region live.

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Typical Cinque Terre pastel tower houses – Riomaggiore
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Fishing boats, Riomaggiore
Narrow streets of Corniglia
Narrow streets of Corniglia
Town Square Corniglia
Town Square Corniglia
High water marker, 2011 flood, Monterosso
High water marker, 2011 flood, Monterosso
High water markers in Monterosso
High water markers in Monterosso
View from the monastery in Monterosso
View from the monastery in Monterosso
Square in Vernazza
Square in Vernazza

 

Both Monterosso and Vernazza were hit by devastating flooding in the fall of 2011, and there are makers in various places showing the level of the flood waters – in some cases up to the second story of the buildings. Both have made good recoveries, however and businesses and homes have been restored.

After Antonella left us in Monterosso, we enjoyed lunch in a local spot she recommended and wandered about a bit more then headed back to La Spezia for a rest before heading out to the restaurant recommended by the hotel receptionist – a place called Ristorante d’Angelo. Dennis had his favorite pasta with seafood and I had a delicious gnocchi with pesto. We enjoyed it so much, we came back for our remaining two nights in La Spezia, working our way around their varied menu.

The following morning we were off again with Antonella to visit the remaining three villages, Corniglia, Riomaggiore, and Manarola. Corniglia, alone of the five villages, has no port or sea access, and is reachable only by climbing about 400 stairs from the train station, or (as we did) by waiting for the shuttle bus. The town has only a few hundred hearty souls who live there and consists of one small square and a few narrow streets with tall houses clinging to the hillsides and surrounded by the familiar terraced vineyards and orchards. Riomaggiore was our next stop and from the train station, we followed the alleyways downward to the sea for the obligatory picture of the colorful boats of the fishing fleet and the pastel tower houses, and then back to the train for our last stop, Manarola. After a walk around with Antonella, we bid her arrivederci, and had our lunch in a small café before heading back again to La Spezia for nap time before dinner at d’Angelos.

On our own for our last day in Cinque Terre, we headed to the port to take the boat trip around to Porto Venere, and from Porto Venere, to do the boat tour around the Tre Isoles – the three islands, largely uninhabited now, off the coast of Porto Venere. We had a nice day for it, sunny, calm, and warm, and enjoyed seeing the coast from the sea. Porto Venere is a charming small town with a few large-ish hotels and what seemed like hundreds of cafes and restaurants, and a large castle complex, looking to date from the medieval period and hugging the point and high ground above the entrance to the harbor. Fortifications were also visible, looking like they were probably from the WWII era, on the largest of the three islands. We hopped off the ferry and onto the island tour boat and were off a few minutes later for our circumnavigation of them, often coming close into shore to view caves and grottos, interesting rock formations, and nesting areas for a variety of birds. After a pleasant hour or so, we were back in Porto Venere, and it was time to figure out which of the vast array of cafes and restaurants would serve for our lunch. Finally settled on one that looked to have good salads (it did) and then set out to figure out how to get back to La Spezia by bus (as the return boat only runs once in the late afternoon) We only had a couple of misadventures, trying to figure out how to purchase a ticket (the machine was broken and they don’t sell bus tickets on the buses in Italy) Finally, the driver got off the bus with us to walk us to the grocery that sold bus tickets when it became clear to her that her instructions to me were well beyond my very limited Italian.

 

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Fortifications in Porto Venere Harbor
Lighthouse on largest of the three islands
Lighthouse on largest of the three islands
Island rock formations
Island rock formations
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Castle ruins, Porto Venere
Porto Venere
Porto Venere from the ferry
Part of military base, La Spezia harbor area
Part of military base, La Spezia harbor area

Home again in La Spezia, it was time to pack up and then go for our last meal at d’Angelo’s . Yesterday morning bright and early (7:38 AM) we set out for our series of trains going from La Spezia to Lyon. Everything went well, although it made for a very long day, and we lacked the patience (at around 7:30 PM) to figure out where we should get the bus so we ended up getting a cab and at long last arrived at our hotel, a bit away from the city center, The Crowne Plaza La Cite, but a lovely hotel, looks quite new, and were happily informed that we’d been upgraded to a suite, which feels quite enormous after our tiny room in La Spezia.

Vieux Lyon from the Bonaparte Bridge
Vieux Lyon from the Bonaparte Bridge
Vieux Lyon
Vieux Lyon
Shop in Lyon
Shop in Lyon
One of many bakeries
One of many bakeries
Bakery window
Bakery window
One of the many many cafes
One of the many many cafes
All chocolate, all the time
All chocolate, all the time

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Lyon is also famous for marionettes - the French version of Punch and Judy shows
Lyon is also famous for marionettes – the French version of Punch and Judy shows
Another cafe
Another cafe

 

We’re right on the main bus routes and spent our morning today checking out the old town and going to my one and only museum for this trip – a fun one called the Musee Minature et Cinema with miniatures and sets and movie memorabilia of all kinds. There were costumes and sets and whatnot from some favorite films and from lots of movies we’d never heard of, and a vast collection of miniature rooms and sets housed in building dating to the early 1500s. After our visit there, we walked around a bit in Vieux Lyon, then headed back to the hotel as we are both still in recovery from nasty head colds and it is cold and overcast here today (high in the low 50s, which for us is frigid.)

From the Musee Miniature et Cinema - model used in The Grand Budapest Hotel
From the Musee Miniature et Cinema – model used in The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wand from Harry Potter films
Wand from Harry Potter films
From Gremlins
From Gremlins
From the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka film
From the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka film
Various props and workshop scene
Various props and workshop scene
Mask from V for Vengeance
Mask from V for Vengeance
Various costumes and prosthetics for films
Various costumes and prosthetics for films

We have another half day here tomorrow, and then in the afternoon we leave for Nantes – another long train ride, but it was the only one that didn’t require us to go through Paris and change stations across town – and we will arrive late at night in Nantes, where we will board our next ship – the Loire Princesse, for our cruise of the Loire River – the final chapter in this journey.

What he said….

DAVID COGSWELL | NOVEMBER 18, 2015 8:39 AM ET

Beyond Paris and Beyond Fear

Naturally, in the wake of a horrifying and chillingly coordinated series of murderous attacks as we saw in Paris last week, a wave of panic and dread passes through the human community. Everyone with normal human reactions is going to experience an immediate impulse for self protection, to take cover, to shield yourself and get out of harm’s way.

And then there is the wave of anguish from watching the aftermath, seeing the suffering of all the people directly affected by the senseless tragedy.

Then, somewhere down the line, when the fear of immediate threat has subsided and some sense of normal life has returned, it is time to consider the implications of the events from as rational perspective as you can muster at that point.

The mass killings in Paris give us every reason to be frightened. But they give us even more reason not to give in to fear.

Claiming no expertise, but just as a shoot-from-the-hip layman’s analysis, it seems the moments just after an incident of terrorism are the least likely to be dangerous. At that point, everyone is hyper alert. Anyone planning a terror attack is likely to lie low at that time and wait for vigilance to subside.

If that supposition holds any water, one could then ask where we might rationally expect terrorists to attack next? Then you have bumped up against the great unknown.
Certainly there are criteria for educated guesses. Some places are more likely targets for terrorism than others, because of their visibility, their familiarity to people or the density of their populations. The World Trade Center for example.

There are intelligence agencies tracking movements of money and people who may be planning terrorist activity — but ultimately, it is impossible to perfectly predict the activity of these rogue elements of the population. It is impossible to completely eliminate risk.
Inside the United States, we have proved to be fairly effective at blocking terrorist activity from the Middle East, but we have proven ourselves unable to stop our own local breed of unpredictable, insane violence in the form of random mass shootings.

If I am sitting in New York, I have every rational reason for fearing that New York is a more likely target right now in the aftermath of the Paris attacks than is Paris.

So how do I stay safe? And if I am in Paris, or New York for that matter, what is and what isn’t a safe place to go?

As horrendous as the attacks were, the vast majority of people in the city only learned about the incidents from their TVs, as did other people around the world. Ultimately there is no logical, rational way to change your behavior in such a way that you are no longer at risk.  You can lessen or increase your risk, for example by driving to the middle of Death Valley all by yourself where no one can get you (you hope). But you can never completely eliminate risk.

If you start trying to consider all the rational possibilities during the time you are in a state of fear, there is no end to them. The mind can just keep generating possibilities, because in the actual field of activity, the possibilities are endless.

Paranoia, by the way, is not a failure of logic, but a loss of faith. When one is under the spell of fear, the mind can generate plenty of paranoid plots that are based on fairly sound logic, but are still fantastic and unrealistic. When there is a loss of faith, there is nothing to ground our fantasies in. They can go wild.

Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times Monday, pointed out that the whole purpose of terrorism is to spread fear, and this incident has effectively done that. But the incident is not a sign that Western Civilization is about to collapse under the force of such terrorist attacks.

Krugman said the fact that the perpetrators are using this kind of tactic — bombings at public places — shows their weakness, not their strength. If you assign to them some massive power that is beyond what they are really capable of, you have given them too much power.

That is the purpose of terrorism, and that is the biggest reason we cannot give in to fear. That is the one thing that people on the scale of ISIS — who are looked upon with horror and loathing by almost all civilized people no matter what side of the conflicts in the Middle East they may be on — can achieve.

We have the power to deny them that. Each of us in our own lives can refuse to give them the power to destroy our lives.
Krugman says, and I agree with him, that “the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire.”

I hate to bring up bad memories, but after 9/11, there was an attack on a country that demonstrably had nothing to do with the attacks and posed no threat to the U.S. The mess we made there helped set the stage for a band of lunatics like ISIS to gain a footing.
Letting ourselves be ruled by fear, hiding away, trying to avoid the risk one incurs by moving around, is to make ourselves prisoners. For us as individuals, it is important that we resist the tendency to get carried away in the wave of fear. By letting fear take over our thinking, we have the power to destroy our own quality of life right now.

The justification I hear for unplugging life support and letting people pass on is because the person has lost “quality of life.” And if those of us fortunate to still be of sound mind and body give into fear, we are giving up our own quality of life voluntarily.

Not me. I won’t do it.

 

Me neither, David.  And thank you for this eloquent statement.

Blackwell House

Our objective for today – our last in the Lake District – was to visit Blackwell House, an historic Arts and Crafts home completed in 1901 for Sir Edward Holt, a prosperous brewery owner from Manchester, as a summer home. Designed by Mackay Baillie Scott, a prominent Arts and Crafts architect and designer, who was influenced by William Morris and John Ruskin, Scott also supervised the decorating.  He incorporated the Rowan leaf and berry pattern in many of the decorative details, taking the theme from the Holt family crest.  Most of the architectural detail miraculously survived and is original.

This place appears to still be in private hands - on the road on between Bowness and Blackwell House
This place appears to still be in private hands – on the road on between Bowness and Blackwell House
Maze hedge in the gardens of the big pink manor
Maze hedge in the gardens of the big pink manor

The house lies just outside Bowness, above the Lake and commands lovely views from both inside and outside the house. The house is not on any public transportation route, so we walked the mile and half between our hotel and Blackwell House. Most of the walk was fine, but there are some unnerving bits where not only is there no sidewalk, there isn’t even a shoulder on either side of the road, so we spent a fair bit of time pressed up agains the characteristic slate walls as traffic whizzed by. People walk all over here, so it was surprising to find no pathways along this stretch of road.

The walk brought us by a large number of holiday rentals, bed and breakfast establishments and stately homes that have been converted to hotels and B & Bs. We also saw one that seemed to be still in private hands that was quite spectacular, featuring its own shrubbery maze.

Blackwell House has had quite an interesting history, serving the Holts as a vacation home until World War II when it housed a relocated girl’s school, and it served as a school until the mid-1970s when it went back into private ownership before being purchased by the Lakeland Arts charity in the late 1990s who then undertook the restoration of the interior, preserving the original Arts and Crafts detailing, cleaning and restoring the home and obtaining furniture and objects from the period to give a sense of what the house would have contained in its heyday.

Blackwell
Blackwell

 

 

One of a large number of window seats and nooks framing the views
One of a large number of window seats and nooks framing the views
Another of the nooks
Another of the nooks
Another nook, another view
Another nook, another view
View from one of the nooks
View from yet another one of the nooks
When the house became a girls school from the 1940s to the 1970s this room sometimes served as the gym
When the house became a girls school from the 1940s to the 1970s this room sometimes served as the gym but originally the billiard table sat where the table is now
Detail of hand made copper lamps that hung above the billiard table
Detail of hand made copper lamps that hung above the billiard table
Detail from one of the Arts and Crafts chests
Detail from one of the Arts and Crafts chests
Stain glass between hall and great room
Stained glass between hall and great room
Peacocks hand painted on 'hessian' - a linen like cloth and used as wall paper
Peacocks hand painted on ‘hessian’ – a linen like cloth and used as wall paper
Fireplace in the 'White Drawing Room'
Fireplace in the ‘White Drawing Room’
Acorn shaped ash receptacle at fireplace
Acorn shaped ash receptacle at fireplace in great room

 

 

 

 

View from the front of Blackwell House
View from the front of Blackwell House

By the time we had walked there, spent time exploring the house (and the wonderful tempting gift shop – so many gorgeous things and no room in the luggage…sigh…) and then walked back to Bowness, the weather had really started to turn chilly and overcast, so we headed back to the hotel. Soon I will have to do the dreaded packing up for our next phase, the train trip to Southampton and our transatlantic cruise towards home which will start on Saturday. I think from here on out we are going to be going from cool to cooler until we get back to the US later in September. I’m really regretting not picking up one of the cashmere sweaters I saw on sale for 39 Euro back in Germany…but – no room in the luggage there either…

Further Afield

Scenery on the way to Keswick
Scenery on the way to Keswick

 

Our adventures in public transportation continued today as we utilized our Explorer bus passes again.  Our objective for the day was Keswick.  Along the way we saw gorgeous scenery, lots of sheep, stately homes and loads of hiking paths across and up the many hills and fells.

More scenery
More scenery

 

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Miller Howe Cafe just outside Grasmere

Our first stop of the day was in Grasmere, the home of William Wordsworth and also the site of his grave. Gasmere is a beautiful spot and we had a nice time wandering on the public footpath along the stream and strolling around the town.

Williams Wordworth's gravestone, Grasmere Churchyard
Williams Wordworth’s gravestone, Grasmere Churchyard
Field along the public footpath in Grasmere
Field along the public footpath in Grasmere
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Typical slate wall along the public pathway in Grasmere
Grasmere St. Oswald's Church
Grasmere St. Oswald’s Church

 

We then reboarded our Stagecoach bus and headed for Keswick (pronounced Kes-ick) which is the largest of the towns we’ve visited here in the Lake District. It is located on the Derwentwater Lake and is quite a busy town with a lot of walkers using it as a starting point for the numerous hikes and walks originating nearby. It is also quite close to a neolithic stone circle at Castle Rigg, but, unfortunately, it had started to rain by the time we started back and our bus reached the stop for that so we passed on doing the hike out there.

Keswick
Keswick
Some of the many well behaved dogs out with their people
Some of the many well-behaved dogs out with their people

We returned to Windermere, checked in at the railway station there to see about our best options for our trip to Southampton on Friday. By then it had cleared up so we decided to walk home from Windermere to Bowness – about a mile or mile and a half, but pretty much all downhill so it was a nice walk and there are so many pretty houses and businesses with gorgeous plantings and hanging flower baskets and boxes.

 

One of the Windermere B & Bs
One of the Windermere B & Bs
Windermere flower boxes
Windermere flower boxes

The end of another pleasant day in the Lake District was crowned by a gorgeous sunset! Tomorrow we are planning to walk out to a place called Blackwood – an Arts and Crafts home now open as a museum.  It is supposed to be about a mile or so away from the hotel here and if the weather is good we will do it.  We asked about getting there on the bus, but is isn’t on any of the bus lines so it is walk or take a cab.

Sunset over the harbor at Bowness
Sunset over the harbor at Bowness
Sunset at Bowness
Sunset at Bowness

 

 

Exploring Lake Windermere

After getting the laundry done – I should note that we are traveling for 37 days with one 21″ case each, so laundry is just a fact of life on this trip-and resting up, we went out looking for a pub to have dinner.  Not finding any that were open and had any room (Bank Holiday) we ended up in a side street Chinese place that turned out to be a good choice – very tasty and not too expensive.

Today we decided to explore the Lake itself with a day ticket on the lake cruises boats.  We started out with a trip from the Bowness pier to Brockhole, the Lake District information center and activity center.

 

Looking up the lake from rail of the Teal on our way to Brockhole
Looking up the lake from rail of the Teal on our way to Brockhole

 

 

We’ve noticed on prior trips in the U.K. that it is very dog friendly (and that the dogs are amazingly quiet and well-behaved – unlike a certain pair of Papillons I could mention!) but today was amazing – at least 25% of the people we saw walking around  and many on the lake boats as well, were with their dogs.  We met an adorable King Charles spaniel/beagle mix, a foxhound named Albert, and an aging Rottweiler on board various legs of our lake tour today.

 

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Brockhole Lake District Visitor’s Center

 

Brockhole is a large former home or manor that has been converted into an information center, cafe, and activity center and draws many families for a huge play area, and a ‘tree walk’ – suspended walkway – leading to a small zipline.  There are extensive grounds and gardens as well and a gift shop and tourist information center for the whole Lake District.

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Slate wall from the garden
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Esplanaded fruit trees on south-facing walls in the gardens

There are formal and informal gardens as well as a kitchen garden and all sorts of walls, made of the typical slate that is the most common building material in this region, walkways and tucked away vista points with benches and seats.  It makes for a lovely place to spend a bit of time stretching your legs after being on the boats.  There is a fairly large cafe/restaurant and a number of areas both indoor and outside to sit and enjoy your snack or meal.

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All kinds of ‘Secret Garden’ type corners in the Brockhole Gardens

After wandering around the gardens and grounds and watching folks doing the zip line, we returned to the pier and continued up the lake to Ambleside to change over to the boat that took us up the other side of the lake and all the way down to Lakeside.  During the hour or so that this took the weather went from brisk but sunny, to windy and cloudy, to dark threatening clouds to a fairly violent rainstorm which then turned into a thunderstorm with hail.  This drove everyone into the rather confined indoor quarters at least for a short time.  We were soon out of the storm and by the time we were back at Bowness, it was dry again, although still cool and overcast.  We took a stroll through town to find our dining spot for tonight – we’re hoping for the Village Pub, as the crowds are thinned down today.

Weather starting to brew up on the Lake
Weather starting to brew up on the Lake
All kinds of weather on the Lake today - sunshine to thunder and hail!
All kinds of weather on the Lake today – sunshine to thunder and hail!

 

Lake Lucerne to Lake Windermere

Our room is right above the beige colored glass atrium
Our room is right above the beige colored glass atrium in the center

 

LONG day yesterday – but all went very smoothly and we got to see a lot of countryside in the process.  Started at 7:00 AM in Lucerne at the train station adjacent to our hotel.  Made our connection in Geneva and saw a lot of lovely countryside along the way, included beautiful views of Lake Geneva.

Lake Geneva from the train
Lake Geneva from the train
From the train coming into Geneva
From the train coming into Geneva

 

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to get any kind of decent pictures from the trains as, in general, they are really moving fast.  We changed over from Switzerland to France in the Geneva train station and took off on the TGV (Train Grand Vitesse or Very Fast Train in English) and met a really nice English couple who were also changing over to the Eurostar in Lille and had done it before, so we asked if we could follow them and we did.

French countryside from the TGV train
French countryside from the TGV train

 

 

They stayed in first on the Eurostar, we went back to standard class – we should have ponied up the extra, as standard on the Eurostar is pretty crowded and not very comfortable, but it is only about 90 minutes and I couldn’t talk myself into the extra charge. Next time…At any rate, Rob and Roz helped us navigate the Lille change (follow the Union Jack signs!) and also Rob volunteered to walk us to Euston Station when we arrived at St. Pancras, which he did!  Way above and beyond for chance met strangers!  We just wanted to be sent to the right exit, but Rob insisted, and, frankly, I’m really glad he did, as it was a bit further and less obvious than my ‘Maps.com’ print out looked.

 

We then made our connection to Virgin Trains from London to Oxenholme.  We were standard class there as well but they offered a 15 pound each upgrade to first and we took it.  Much nicer carriage and more comfortable seats, and hardly anyone else in the carriage with us, plus wifi and a place to charge up our devices.  We were able to confirm our taxi pick up in Oxenholme and were checking in at our hotel by around 10 PM – tired but happy that none of the things I was worrying over – immigrants storming trains, strikes on the French and British rail systems and so on happened.  We did see what appeared to be new fencing and razor wire around the facilities in both Lille and, particularly, in Calais and there was a decided increase in the police and military presence in the port areas over what we remembered from other Eurostar crossings.

After a good night’s sleep in our new digs – much nice than our last hotel and about six times bigger than our ship cabin – it would fit into the (very nice!) bathroom here.  We have a gorgeous lake view room at the Laura Ashley Belsfield hotel in Bowness-on-Windermere.  Bowness is, by the way pronounced like ‘bonus’ not like bow of a ship with the w articulated. Keswick, which is a nearby town is Kes-ick- not large on articulated ‘Ws’ here.   The hotel was constructed in the Victorian period for a Baroness as a private home and it has a real “Upstairs Downstairs” atmosphere, and the included breakfast was nice although not terribly well-organized.  We had been seated at a lovely table for two in the corner by the windows, went to the buffet to get our breakfast and came back to find someone else had been seated at ‘our’ table.  She was NOT moving, either, so we ended up at a rapidly cleaned and reset table adjacent but not as desirable in terms of view.  It almost ended as ‘turn about is fair play’ when the lady left to get her food and someone else tried to sit there as well.  The public rooms are lovely and the whole place has just been renovated by the Laura Ashley folks.  I had expected a lot of little flower prints everywhere, but was happily surprised by the muted colors and mix of geometric patterns.  It is really very pretty and in keeping with the architecture as well.

View from the hotel to Lake Windermere
View from the hotel to Lake Windermere
Interior of hotel
Interior of hotel
The Laura Ashley Belsfield Hotel
The Laura Ashley Belsfield Hotel
Gardens on the hotel grounds
Gardens on the hotel grounds

 

 

Having been completely unsuccessful in finding a coin laundry in Lucerne and unwilling to pay the extortion that they called laundry charges either there or here, we went off in search of a laundromat in the Lakes today.  Turns out (Bank Holiday here) the nearest open one was in an adjacent town about 30 minutes away by bus, so we took our stuff and bought a three-day bus pass and went to Ambleside to do laundry.  It was a lovely morning and a very nice drive on the bus, and now we have clean clothes again and that will do us until the Princess cruise and on board laundry is available.  By the time we returned to Bowness it was starting to cloud up and all the predictions are for worsening weather by the afternoon. What happens with that will determine what we do for dinner – if it is okay, we’ll probably walk into the town.  If it is raining, we’ll hit one of the hotel restaurants, but in any event, this afternoon is a rest up time.  Tomorrow we will start to explore in earnest with our bus pass.

Some general thoughts on the Viking Experience

Our experience with Viking was a little odd. It was sort of like a sandwich with really good filling and moldy bread.  The middle part – the on board experience – was really really good, but the beginning and end, not so much.

We had handled our own pre-cruise arrangements, and had informed Viking of what those were, flights, hotel, etc. as is required in their registration process.  Everything seemed to be going along fine, we had received our pre-cruise documents just when they said we would and everything seemed complete.  Then, much to our surprise, we ran into people who were also on the same cruise while on a canal boat ride in Amsterdam, and found out from them that the whole embarkation process was going to be totally changed.  We went immediately back to the hotel, contacted both our travel agent and the online ‘chat’ help service on Viking’s website.  Neither my travel agent nor, initially, the chat desk guy, had heard anything about this change.  After prompting, the chat desk guy finally contacted someone who DID know what was going on, but even then, the initial information we were given by him was in error, and it took quite a while to get everything squared away and to get the right procedure for our embarkation.

Once at the rendezvous point, there were two ships impacted and somewhere around 400 people to get fed lunch and put on buses to go to Rotterdam to meet their ships.  Everything was chaos – no one was directing people to the lunch location – guests were informing each other.  No one was sorting people out by ship, assigning spaces on the buses, or in any way turning this into anything approaching an orderly process.  When we lined up for the bus, it was a shoving match as people tried to get on the first bus out.  I got separated from Dennis and we very nearly ended up on different buses until the driver intervened for me.  After arriving, it turned out that there were several cabins other than ours that had not been informed of the changes, and the Program Director did question us about our experience and seemed to genuinely be working on figuring out what had gone wrong, but at no time was there any real apology, not even a complimentary glass of wine.  Everyone on the boat was comped for one extra cost excursion for the inconvenience, but those of us who had never even been told about the change got nothing extra, or even a ‘sorry about that’ which didn’t seem like good business practice to me, particularly with first timers like we, and several others, were.

From that point, though, things went very well.  The complimentary excursions – while having a certain sameness – were well-organized.  The use of the Quiet Vox (a first for us) was a great improvement over the usual ‘herd’ tour where you follow along behind the flag, umbrella, or, in Viking’s case, the ‘lollipop’ sign with your tour number on it, and if you are close to the tour leader you hear and if you are not, you don’t.  With this head set, you can hear the tour leader up to a half a kilometer away, and the tour leader can comment all along the walk, not just when s/he can gather the group together so everyone can hear.

The accommodations, while cozy, were well designed and had ample storage, particularly for a 7 day itinerary with no real ‘dress up’ requirements – a big difference between river and ocean cruising.  Public spaces were light and airy and decorated in a spare and very Scandinavian style that I really liked.  The Lounge was the heart of the ship, where everyone gathered for the ‘social’ time and also for any lectures, port talks, entertainment, etc.  Meals were in the restaurant or, if you wanted lighter fare,  at the Aquavit Terrace – an indoor/outdoor space at the bow of the ship.  Food was ample and generally of good quality – a couple of notable exceptions with really tough steaks, but overall, tasty and well prepared.  The included house wines and beers were more than adequate.  Premium wines and liquors are also available in both packages and by the glass.  Viking controls most of the variables, at least on the Rhine, from owning or leasing the dock facilities to maintaining their own fleet of (very nice Mercedes-Benz) buses.  The guides are free lancers however and the quality was a little uneven, both from day-to-day and among group assignments.  Nonetheless there were certain standards and procedures that they all followed and that were clearly part of the Viking requirements and counts were taken religiously of all the tour participants at beginning and end and at key points along the way as well.

Fast forward to the closing days of the cruise and the transition to the post-cruise land portion.  Our Program Director announces in his daily briefing that everyone who is going on the Lucerne extension should have received various materials in their cabin the night before and to fill out X Y and Z forms and get them back to reception.  We are not on the manifest, nor are some of our new friends.  Turns out that there are a number of cabins who are not showing up even though we have all booked, paid and been confirmed.  Much scrambling ensues.  Calls and emails go out to travel agents, papers are copied and taken to the desk, finally, we all receive our paperwork for the extension, board our buses, and arrive at the Radisson Blu to discover that, once again, we are not on the list, although we are assured that we will, indeed, have rooms for the two nights.  Once again, like with the embarkation mess at the hotel in Amsterdam, and in spite of having hundreds of Viking guests coming and going daily from this hotel, no one seems quite prepared for the arrival.  Our luggage sits on a sidewalk beside a busy road, with no one in attendance.  I realize that Switzerland is supposed to have a low crime rate, but this seems a little risky to me, so I set myself to watch over our luggage until it is moved into the hotel, a process that takes some little while as there was, initially, one person assigned to do this and he was managing about two to three cases per trip.  Finally some other folks, including some management types, showed up to help, but in the mean time, the luggage is sitting on the street unattended.  My worries were not assuaged when somewhere in the evening around 10 PM someone from the hotel came knocking on the door to see if we had picked up an extra bag as someone’s had gone missing.  Add to this, our walking tour in the afternoon with the local land based guide.  After our first stop where people were trying to access ATMs to get some local cash, we kept on walking, until the guide realized we were a few people short. How many?  she wasn’t sure.  So, we were told to walk ahead, she went back looking and found some but not, evidently, all.  How many did we lose? She wasn’t sure – hadn’t counted when we started…

So, bread not so great, filling quite tasty, but it could have been a much better sandwich with more attention to detail on the land bits and better handling of paperwork all around.

Some pictures of the ship and our cabin:

Atrium stair with picture of Eir - goddess of healing who decided the fate of wounded soldiers
Atrium stair with picture of Eir – goddess of healing who decided the fate of wounded soldiers at the head of the stair case.  Each Longship is named for a Norse deity and there is a similar portrait in the same position.
very awkward chair - didn't fit anywhere and easy to stumble over at night if you had to get up
very awkward chair – didn’t fit anywhere and easy to stumble over at night if you had to get up
Cozy but well organized
Cozy but well organized
As much of the ship as I could fit in - they are called Longships for a reason!
As much of the ship as I could fit in – they are called Longships for a reason!
Open airy atrium
Open airy atrium
Another angle on the atrium
Another angle on the atrium
The Lounge - heart of all the action
The Lounge – heart of all the action

Leaving the Rhine for the Lake

Disembarkation from the Eir was as efficiently handled as the embarkation was botched.  Everyone was sorted and on their various ways – some of our new-found friends were headed to Paris on the train, others to Zurich to fly home, and a goodly number with us to Lucerne for a post cruise visit to the lake and town.

The bus trip from Basel to Lucerne through the foothills to the Alps was picture postcard pretty – Switzerland is a clean and tidy country, and Lucerne is likewise very picturesque and has been a tourist town since the 1800s. Our bus stopped at the Wounded Lion memorial – a memorial to the Swiss guards who lost their lives in defense of the French royal family during the French Revolution, and then we made our way into the town of Lucerne.

 

The Wounded Lion memorial to the Swiss Guards who lost their lives in defense of the French Royal Family
The Wounded Lion memorial to the Swiss Guards who lost their lives in defense of the French Royal Family

 

 

Vintage 5 Star Hotels along the lake front
Vintage 5 Star Hotels along the lake front
Paddlewheel lake tour boat
Paddlewheel lake tour boat

Home to a number of lake side 5 star hotels, as well as some more modest establishments like the Radisson Blu that is our home base for the stay here, Lucerne offers lake cruises on paddlewheel boats of the same vintage as the lakeside hotels and mansions, opportunities for hiking, visits up the local mountain – a ‘pre-alp’ according to our guide – called Mount Pilatus.  The story goes that Pontius Pilate was buried there and that the presence of his body created a region of perpetual bad storms and in the 16th century climbing Mt. Pilatus was forbidden for fear that the curse of bad weather would be brought down to the town.  This prohibition has long since fallen and it is one of the most popular excursions now.  Others of our group signed up to take a full day excursion to Mt. Titlus, a true Alp, with a glacier, located some 90 minutes away.

Mount Pilatus
Mount Pilatus

 

 

On arrival, we dropped our luggage and checked our hand baggage and took off on a walking tour of the town and a boat tour of the lake while our rooms were readied. The old town here is authentically old and Lucerne has the first Baroque cathedral of our trip – dominated to date by Romanesque and Gothic.  I have to admit, I prefer the Gothic ones.  Romanesque ones are dark and the Baroque was a bit over the top.

 

 

Detail, Lucerne Cathedral
Detail, Lucerne Cathedral
Side chapel, Lucerne's Cathedral
Side chapel, Lucerne’s Cathedral

 

 

Lucerne's Baroque Cathedral
Lucerne’s Baroque Cathedral

 

 

Summer homes and mansions along the lake
Summer homes and mansions along the lake
Mount Pilatus from our lake cruise
Mount Pilatus from our lake cruise
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Outlet from the lake to the Rhine River
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Portion of the Old Town

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Then we joined some of our shipmates for dinner in a traditional Swiss style restaurant recommended by our guide. We shared two kinds of cheese fondue and three typical entrees – one chicken, one sausage, and one veal in various sauces, followed up by apple strudel.  As we strolled back along the waterfront, the full moon was rising over the mountains as the colors of the sunset remained in the sky – really spectacular!

Fritschi Restaurant
Fritschi Restaurant
Sunset/Moonrise over Lake Lucerne
Sunset/Moonrise over Lake Lucerne

 

 

Unlike our friends, we decided to take it easy today – we checked out our platform at the train station to see where we need to go tomorrow.  Then we walked into the town, being treated to impromptu musical entertainment at various points in town and then we walked through the weekly farmers market along the river and walked through the iconic covered wooden Chapel Bridge.

Wooden Chapel Bridge
Wooden Chapel Bridge
Saturday Market
Saturday Market

 

Saturday market
Saturday market

 

Some things we’ve learned about, at least this town, life in Switzerland.  Pretty much everything is charged for – water at restaurants (even tap water), ice brought to your room at the hotel (free if you pick it up yourself from the bar, 5 swiss francs if they bring it to you), 2 swiss francs for the ‘public’ restrooms. A couple of sandwiches, salads and 1 coke from a local deli-type chain called Bachman’s was over 30 Swiss Francs.  Our share of the bill for dinner with 2 appetizers, three entrees and three desserts and drinks shared by three couples was 82 Swiss Francs.  Small apartments in the center of Lucerne run around 4,000 Swiss Francs per month, not including utilities, around 2,000 if you are fifteen or twenty minutes outside of town.  It is VERY expensive to live here, even more expensive to be a tourist.  Unlike their European neighbors, there is no public health care.  Everyone must carry private health insurance, otherwise you can not be hired to work.  Education is quite unique.  Only approximately 20% of young people go on to a university education.  The typical pattern is for the students to undergo a pretty rigorous evaluation somewhere in what would be middle school in the US and then they are tracked into various types of apprenticeship programs, getting paid internships while studying part-time, and when they graduate from the equivalent of high school, they have work experience as well as specific education in their field. Pretty much everyone here also speaks between four and five languages.  Impressive.  Something about the system seems to work well, as unemployment here is around 2%.

 

 

Reflections

Well, we’re back safe and sound in Singapore waiting for our next set of flights to take us home tomorrow – or- oh, well, I never get the date line stuff right and it makes my brain hurt. We depart on Monday at 6:15 AM and arrive in Honolulu on Monday at 6:55 AM after flying all day and night and having a 4 hour layover in Narita.  And, by the way – the airport in Siem Reap is uncannily similar to the Kona Airport!  Right up to no jetways and stairs at front and rear of the plane, so it was very deja vu all over again flying from there today.

We’ve been talking about the trip and have decided it is certainly up in the top two or three we have ever done, principally because everything was so unfamiliar to us, I think. Myanmar and Cambodia were certainly the highlights and they are similar in many ways, with extremely tragic recent history, deep and profound historical roots and past golden ages, and alike in the focus of the current working generation’s focus on making sure that their children and grandchildren have a better life in a more peaceful and democratic world than they and their parents have had.

Both countries also have something of a ‘missing’ generation – which felt particularly weird to us since it is our generation that is missing. It was less noticeable in Myanmar, but in Cambodia, due to the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge massacres, there are very few people in the 60 plus age group. I could easily count on my fingers the number of people we saw in our several days of touring, which included a couple of long drives through the country side and several passages back and forth across the city of Siem Reap, who had wrinkles or gray hair. It was very easy to note and keep track of the few we did see. Our guide had lost his mother, father, older brothers, grandparents and some aunts and uncles as well as more members of his extended family. Very few people had living grandparents, many also had lost parents, and all we spoke to talked of their hopes for the future, for their children and grandchildren, and about how important it was to them to work hard and assure that the next generations had more opportunities and happier lives.

That said, it isn’t that the people of Myanmar and Cambodia are melancholy – far from it! They are gracious, humorous, good natured, and friendly. In Myanmar, foreigners are such a novelty still that people stop you on the street to take your picture with them on their ubiquitous cell phones – they may not have electricity at home, or indoor plumbing, but everyone has a cell phone! Cambodians are more accustomed to visitors, albeit the bulk of their tourist trade comes from within Asia, with Koreans and Chinese predominating, so there were less requests for pictures.

But still, there is great curiosity about what life is like in the west and a surprising openness in discussing what is still amiss in their own country, as was also the case with the people of Myanmar. They are pinning many of their hopes for the future on the next election and on hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi will finally take her place as the head of government. I was so sad to see on the news yesterday that she is casting doubt on the validity of the upcoming election process and may not be participating, as it is going to be a great disappointment to her many supporters there who see The Lady as they call her, as a savior. Sadly, the political scene in Cambodia is so bleak that there doesn’t even seem to be anyone or any party that holds out hope for change in the near term and there is open discussion both in speech with individuals and in the press of the wide spread corruption in the government.

When I look around at what has been accomplished in the last several decades here in Singapore by, essentially, one man with a vision and a strong grip on the mechanics of governance, I can also be hopeful for my new friends in Myanmar and Cambodia. I certainly will be taking a lot more notice of political and other news from the region after having this amazing opportunity to experience these emerging nations and to meet and get to know, a little bit, some of their people, their history, and their aspirations – which, after all, is what travel is all about.