Diary Europe 2001
This is an account of a trip taken on the Radisson Seven Seas Navigator starting in Lisbon, Portugal and ending at Stockholm, Sweden. It was in two segments and lasted 17 days. (We hate to go through the agony of long airline travel for a short stay at the destination.) Our two older grandchildren, Natalie and Nathan, accompanied us.
Weíve been on the ship two full days now and I havenít begun to record the fun of getting here. I must start with the most enjoyable part, the reason to avoid ever flying through Newark.
We left LA June 23rd at a reasonable time of 9 am on Continental flight 64, a direct flight to Lisbon with a stop in Newark. The first suggestion of a problem reared its head when we checked in. The ticket agent issued us some reboarding passes since it appeared that, although flight 64 did in fact continue on to Lisbon, the airplane that we left LA on did not. The second warning was when the plane slowed down and entered a holding pattern south of Chicago. The pilot explained that ATC had directed a hold for some unexplained reason. (Although the plane had been flying at 37,000 feet, it had to drop down to 35,000 feet since it couldnít maintain the higher altitude when directed to reduce speed.) When we finally reached Newark we found that it had been raining, not a violent storm but just some rain. Our flight was late arriving.
After an hour and a half, the plane on which we arrived left for Germany. There was no airplane at the gate from which we were scheduled to depart and the departure time had been slipped from 7 to 7:30 so we went to the Presidentís Club to wait. Then 7:30 became 8, 8:30, etc. The plane that was to become flight 64 was late arriving. When it finally arrived, it had to be moved from another terminal to our designated gate. A mechanical defect was found; they were going to fix it; they couldnít fix it so they were going to try to find a substitute; they decided once again to try to fix it. Finally a substitute was going to arrive at 10:30 and could probably be ready for our use by midnight.
Let us now step back a bit and consider our meals so far for the day. We had a very early, light breakfast before leaving home. Sometime after the flight departed at 9 am we were served breakfast. Sometime before the flight arrived in Newark (5:30 pm, 2:30 pm LA time) we were served a very light snack of cheese and crackers. The only sustenance available in the Presidentís Club was some fruit and more crackers. Since we were continually promised departures in half hour added increments, we didnít seek other food. We would get a full meal on the plane. With the final announcement that we couldnít possibly leave until midnight we decided we should eat. By this time, all the restaurants except Miami Subs were closed. Continental offered to feed us there so at 11 pm a swarm of locust descended on the totally unprepared place. We ate whatever we could find.
The plane pushed back from the gate at 1:03 am. We declined the offered meal and went to sleep. We awakened about 10 am local time and were offered a very light breakfast consisting of some pieces of fruit plus some rolls. We landed in Lisbon, passed through immigration and claimed our bags by 2 pm and then waited on the shuttle bus until 3 before going off to the ship. We were processed and in our cabins by 3:30 and rushed off to the pool deck for a quick hamburger, the only food available at that time.
Lessons learned: donít fly through Newark and avoid Continental. Although the plane was comfortable and the in-air service good, the gate agents were kept uninformed as to what was happening with the delay. They bore the brunt of angry passengers with good grace.
We saw little of Lisbon since we went directly from the airport to the ship which then sailed. The next day we stopped at Villagarcia. The reason for the stop was to allow a tour of some pilgrimage site. If we wanted any tours on the Spain segment, we had to book by 6 pm the day we arrived on the ship. Since we were quite jet lagged, we opted out of any tours in Villagarcia but did book the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. We took the free shuttle bus into downtown Villagarcia and wandered about the shopping area, buying a bit and eventually found ourselves surprisingly close to the ship so we walked back. We had to dress for the Captainís Welcome festivities. This was our first opportunity to see Nathanís new suit. Natalie, as always, was elegantly attired.
Today we arrived in Bilbao around 2 pm and went off on the tour at 2:30. Fog and light drizzle impeded our views of the city from the overlook. The Guggenheim however was a delight. It is an architectural wonder, typical of a modern museum with wildly convoluted surfaces covered either with titanium sheet or white limestone. The inside is filled with very modern things that are considered to be art; a 60' serpentine of sheet iron, video, mazes, laser things, multiple video projections of a candle flame.
Our two day visit to Bordeaux was quite pleasant. The views of the vineyards started as we entered the very broad mouth of the Gironde river. The area map we received at the Bordeaux wine lecture indicated that most of the wineries and the designated areas were all to the right (southwest) side of the river. From a scenic standpoint this was true. It is 100 km from the mouth of the river to Bordeaux by river but only 50 km by road.
We were alongside, an hour late, at noon, although our progress up the river with the very strong current seemed normal. Prior to reaching the crescent bend in the river, two tugs assisted the ship in pivoting so that the bow was pointed downstream. Then we slowly backed almost a mile upstream to our mooring. A gangway was rigged from shore to deck 6, making it very convenient to our suites. When we left the ship after lunch the descent to the dock was quite steep. When we returned after sightseeing and shopping the angle was much more moderate.
At 6:30 we departed by bus for Chateau Lafitte-Laguens for dinner. This special event was included. We somehow wound up on the first bus so when we arrived we had first crack at the champagne and hors díoeuvres. The winery and surrounding vineyards were quite beautiful. Three different wines from the chateau were served with the meal. The first was white, the other two were red. In France, the wines are blended and named from the chateau and region, rather than from the variety of grapes used. The consumer must select the wine by the winery and region he prefers, rather than grape. The reds in this area are predominantly blends of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Thursday morning we had room service breakfast in our room since we had an early tour departure. There was room for all four of us to eat at our table.
Our tour to Chateau de Cazeneuve left at 9 am. Since only 13 passengers were taking the tour, we had plenty of room on the bus. It took about an hour to reach the chateau, journeying through the picturesque countryside. There were many vineyards, small villages, and farms. The chateau was once the home of Henry IV and was the home or prison to one of his discarded wives who failed to produce a male heir. There are still some furnishings that belonged to the royal pair.
In the depths of the chateau there is, of course, a large wine cellar. The star of the cellar is a bottle of 1890 Sauterne. There were several hundred wines of various vintages. The owner has to recork the bottles when they are over 25 years old.
After lunch we shopped a very long pedestrian mall and then wandered back to the ship for swim time. The ship was moored conveniently close to the center of town.
After a day at sea we arrived at the small town of Honfleur, France, selected as a stop since it offers easy access to the WW II Normandy invasion beaches. Our first stop on the bus tour was Pointe du Hoc. This promontory offered the Germans a superb location to site some artillery since it overlooks both Utah and Omaha beaches. It was heavily bombed and shelled prior to the invasion. Then 250 US rangers attacked it from boats, climbing up the cliffs. Unfortunately they landed at the wrong place and had to advance across the open ground after the bombardment ended. The German defenders had an opportunity to come out from their shelters and vigorously defend their position. The rangers eventually prevailed. When they were finally relieved, there were only 90 left. The ultimate irony is that there were no guns. They had been removed and moved further back from the beaches.
The hedgerows that so bedeviled the invasion forces are still much in evidence. Along the way we passed some 14th century fortified farm houses, still in use. They were fortified for protection against marauding brigands. We also saw a 25-year-old hospital in Caen that needs to be replaced since the building is worn out. Interesting contrast.
We then quickly drove past Omaha Beach without stopping. There is almost nothing remaining from the war except a couple of small monuments. The beach is now lined with many nice homes. One can still see the long flat beach and see where the sea wall that impeded the advance for so long. There were, and still are, only two roads that leave the beach and climb to the flat lands above. These routes were easy to defend.
The final stop before lunch was the American cemetery. It is a very sobering experience, viewing the neat rows of white crosses and stars of David. There is an interesting Jewish custom. When someone visits a grave, they place a small stone on the headstone to signify that it has been visited.
After lunch we visited a small museum at Arromanches. This was where one of the two artificial harbors were constructed to support the invasion. Prefabricated sea wall sections were towed over from England and sunk to protect the prefabricated wharfs that were also towed over.
Dover, England, was the final stop for the first segment. Most of the passengers left the ship there. Those of us who were continuing on were offered absolutely nothing to do by Radisson. There wasnít even a shuttle bus into town available. The boarding passengers received a tour of the town however we got nothing. We complained to the concierge who said she would see if anything could be done. We never heard another word from anyone.
We walked into town and found that, even though it was Sunday, many stores on the pedestrian mall were open. After shopping and before returning to the ship we visited the lovely gravel beach. Between having to walk on rocks and having to endure the cool water, swimming must not be too popular here. By the way, the cliffs really are white. I expected that with the Chunnel in operation the ferry activity in Dover would be minimal. This was not the case. Very large ferries hurried in and out throughout our stay.
We enjoyed our bottle of Dom Perigon, courtesy of Joy, on our balcony as the ship sailed out of Dover and up the English Channel. Cocktail hour with the kids became something of a regular activity as the trip continued.
Mooring at Amsterdam was schedule for 9 am so I was surprised to hear the engines change pitch at around 5:30 am. I had forgotten that there is a long channel between the North Sea and the town. As scheduled, we were alongside by 9.
Our tour left at 9:25. We drove across the table-flat countryside to the recreated village of Zaanse Schans where there are still several functional windmills. We visited Verfmolen de Kat, part of which was built in 1782 however it was put into its current, functional shape in 1959. Its current configuration is that of a color mill (e.g., used to grind colored stone into powder for use in paints.) We also visited a cheese factory and a wooden shoe factory. Using some old machinery, the operator made a complete wooden shoe from a popular log in about 5 minutes. In all places we were offered the opportunity to buy souvenirs.
As expected, the land is billiard-table flat. Regular drainage channels cut through the fields, fed by small windmills. There are no fences to constrain the cows and sheep. The steep sides of the channels seem to be all that is needed to keep them in place.
Lunch was at the village of Volendam in the Spaander hotel. Both are located on the Zider Zee.
We spent the day transiting the Keel Canal. Although the surrounding land is quite flat, a lock is required at each end to compensate for the tidal changes.
The ship arrived in Warnemunde, Germany, early the next morning. Since we were to leave early for our day in Berlin, we ordered breakfast from room service. It arrived pretty much on time. Many passengers were not so lucky; their meals were either quite late or it didnít arrive at all.
This being the 4th of July, we were welcomed by a German band playing mostly American tunes. The bass was provided by an electric bass rather than the more traditional tuba. As we left the ship we were handed little American flags. We gathered in groups according to our plans for the day then trooped off 100 yards to the waiting train. The cars were rather old and not air conditioned, however the windows opened and if you didnít mind the wind the temperature remained fairly comfortable.
A two and a half hour train ride brought us to the Berlin train station. We all were led down the platform, down the stairs, under the station, up the stairs and to the waiting busses. Ours took us to Brandenburg Gate and dropped us off for a few hours of independent wandering. The gate is being restored so it is completely covered however life sized representations of the gate are painted on the covering. On the way to the gate we passed the largest remaining section of the infamous wall. All of the spontaneous graffiti is being sand-blasted from the wall and replaced with commissioned art. Although some to the commissioned art is better that some of the spontaneous art, I think the original was more genuine and emotional. There seem to be two feelings about the Wall. Some seem to think all traces should be eliminated and others feel just the opposite.
We immediately checked out the line waiting for entrance to the Reichstag however it was quite long so we reversed course and headed for the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Checkpoint Charlie was one of three access points between East and West Berlin and was the scene of many confrontations during the Cold War. As we passed through Potzsdamer Platz we encountered a very small segment of remaining wall, about 100 feet long, on a little patch of land that it shared with a portable lunch stand. It was around noon and we had brought some of the light breakfast from the train so we bought drinks and ate a bit in the shadow of the wall.
Our maps lacked detail so we were somewhat unsure of the museum location. We settled on the expedient of following the cobblestones set in the asphalt streets and sidewalks that denote the former location of the wall. This led us to the museum. The exhibits feature many of the techniques or devices that were used to escape from the GDR. They are a stirring testimonial to the spirit, inventiveness, and determination of people to be free from a corrupt, oppressive regime.
After touring the museum there were still a couple of hours remaining of our time in Berlin so we shopped our way up Fredrichstrasse to Unter den Linden and back to the front of the Russian Embassy where we were to meet the bus at 3:15. We enjoyed a delicious ice cream cone while waiting.
The ride back was quite similar to the morning ride, except hotter. We were again served an airline snack. It was a long and tiring day, but worthwhile from my standpoint. I think N&N drew some knowledge from the museum and the remnants of the wall.
We awakened as the ship was making its way to the mooring in Copenhagen. The dock was in another typical shipping area with tall cranes and containers all around. I think that most harbors tend to look the same.
We caught the shuttle bus into town and then took a one hour harbor tour. Copenhagen is similar to Amsterdam in that it has many canals. The boat tour provides a nice overview although it is a bit tedious having the narration first in Danish, then English, and finally in German. The tour, of course, passed the Little Mermaid. She was surrounded on land by hundreds of tourists. Being water born, we had a much clearer view of her, although of her back.
After the tour we found one of the walking streets and shopped without buying much. We got back to the ship and had lunch then went back into town to spend the rest of the afternoon at Tivoli Gardens. Natalie seemed to enjoy it more than Nathan. After Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain the rides seemed rather tame to him, I suspect. Tivoli has really pretty gardens but is somewhat tacky or worn. The first coaster they rode had a brakeman or operator riding on a raised seat between the two cars. There were no automatic controls nor were there any seat belts or passenger restraints.
On our day at sea, in this case the Baltic Sea, we had harp lessons and were invited to dine with the Cruise Director Sandra Bowern. The Baltic is quite polluted. We passed through areas of brown goop floating on the surface.
We spent three days in St. Petersburg. This is the largest port in Russia, an easy statistic to believe when entering the port. The docks go on and on and on. The entry is through a long, curving channel which eventually reaches the docks. We worked our way through all of this to dock very close to the center of town. The larger ships, such as the Princess hulks, canít make it in so far.
We arrived around noon however we had no tour planned until that evening when we went to the ballet. When departing the ship we had to show our passport and our ballet tickets to the border guard at the dock. We bussed off to the theater for a performance of Swan Lake. Jodie and I enjoyed it: Nathan was bored to tears: Natalie may or may not have enjoyed it. Two minor negative points, it was very warm and the chairs were extremely uncomfortable. Since the only other ballet I have seen was The Nutcracker many years ago, I was not prepared for the dancers take taking bows at the end of each dance. I felt this destroyed the continuity of the performance. They also took extended curtain calls each time the curtain fell. It would have been helpful to have known the story prior to the performance.
We did nothing the next day again until evening when we went to a folk dancing performance. It was terrific. Nathan didnít express any opinion however he thought we should buy the video to show his folks.
For both evenings, the Compass Rose Dining room opened early at 5:30 so that we could eat before leaving for the shows at 7 pm.
We booked two tours for the last day. The first one was an abbreviated tour of the Hermitage. This immense museum has such an extensive collection that if you spent 8 hours a day viewing each item for only 30 seconds, it would take you 8 years to complete your tour. When it was electrified, the Phillips company received a purchase order for 300,000 light bulbs. It covers 7,000 square yards. Surprisingly enough, it does not have a large collection of Fabergeí eggs; of the 52 eggs made, 2 are in the museum. The Forbesís collection in New York is the largest.
The second tour was to the Spilled Blood church. All of the interior walls, including the soaring ceiling are covered with beautiful, detailed mosaics. It is so named because it was built on the location where Alexander II was assassinated. There is a patch of preserved cobblestone inside that is the place where his blood fell.
After the church we spent some time at a nearby flea market then went on a useless walking tour of the downtown shopping area.
For our day in Estonia we went on a fishing trip. Actually the best part was the ride in the country side. We stopped at a church and the ruins of a Manor House. Once there were over 100 of these elegant country estates however as a result of the war and Communist neglect they are ruins. The state has taken ownership of this one and has placed a good roof on it in hopes of arresting its decline.
The fishing at Türi wasnít too good. It was a large pond stocked with very large (100 g) trout. Only one passenger managed to catch a fish with the supplied poles and bread bait. The remainder of the meal was supplied from their stock. The fish was coated with a lot of salt and some lemon pepper and smoked. The rest of the meal was cole slaw and bread. No drinks were supplied.
Jodie had been packing, bit by bit, for a couple of days so she was able to complete the job after the final dinner. Nathan, on his own initiative, packed his and Natalieís suitcases, leaving just the final packing to Jodie. Although Jodieís birthday is the 11th, I was able to get the galley to prepare a lovely birthday cake.
We left the ship about 9:15 in Stockholm and learned that it was a 45 minute ride to the airport. We were a bit concerned since our flight was scheduled to leave at 10:55. When we approached the check-in counter we first encountered a security check point. We spent at least 20 minutes there answering such strange questions as, "How old are each of your suitcases? Do you have any battery power things in your suitcase? How old are your cameras?" She also reviewed our passports.
We were then allowed to approach the ticket agent who issued our boarding passes for both Copenhagen and Chicago. As we approached passport control we heard the somewhat welcome announcement that our flight was delayed. After a strange delay at passport control we were allowed to go to our gate. Eventually we boarded and eventually the plane left, not too late. The flight was uneventful; Chicago immigration and customs passed quickly after an incredibly long hike from the arrival gate to the immigration hall. We spent the wait for the next flight in the Presidentís Club and finally flew on to LA.
Conclusions: The ship accommodations, meals, and staff were every bit as good as on our previous trip. The daily activities, tours, etc., however, were disorganized. For example, the daily news bulletin, Passages, was frequently late coming out and sometimes had errors.
Finally, travel with the Wonder Grandchildren is possible and overall a pleasant experience for us. I canít speak for the kids.