Wednesday 30 May 2018

Afloat at Last

Amadeus Brilliant moored at Budapest beside sister ship
Amadeus Silver II on a separate cruise
We had never done a cruise holiday before, although it has long been on our agenda as something we might like to do. Brochure pictures of river cruise ships making their way along scenic rivers such at the Rhine and the Danube look very attractive, and brochure descriptions of the delicious meals and "free flowing wine" are pretty attractive, too ... but these are designed to sell these expensive holidays, so we cannot be sure they would live up to the advertising. By booking this holiday with Great Rail Journeys we were confident from our experience that they might well deliver what they promise and now, at the riverside at Budapest, we were about to find out. Arriving late after a train delay and then heavy traffic was not a good start, but there beside the coach was the crew of the Amadeus Brilliant to take our luggage and show us to the ship: a new part of our adventure had begun.

We were to sleep seven nights aboard the Amadeus Brilliant and so would be able at last to unpack all our clothes, most of which had remained in our suitcase since we packed them many days ago in Stamford. We unpacked quickly because we were soon due in the ship's bar for a welcome drink and to hear the ship's Tour Director give us details about our time aboard. Our cabin, the bar and everything we had seen so far were almost perfect, well up to what we had seen in the advertising. After the talk came dinner which finished in time for us to wrap up against the night air and make our way onto the sundeck (or is it moon deck at night?) for a short cruise through Budapest whose riverside public buildings are all floodlit and make a magnificent spectacle. If we had not been on a cruise holiday but staying in a hotel, we should definitely have had to take one of the many night-time short pleasure cruises offered on the waterfront, but for us it was included in our package holiday without even having to leave our floating hotel.

After the night cruise through Budapest it was already very late and we went straight to bed, although it would have been possible to stay up and see all the buildings again from the other direction. Our cabin had a really good air-conditioning system, a safe for our valuables (such as the MacBook on which I was attempting to keep up with blogging the trip!) and a huge window which we could open and sit looking out by day or night - unless we were docked next to another ship and only had a view of another cabin!

It had been an intensive few days by now, and we opted not to take part in the guided tour of Budapest but to set off at a more civilised time - an hour later - and make our own tour of discovery, which included walking up the Gellert Hill to the Soviet liberty statue, which commemorates the liberation of the city from the Nazis by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. The views over the city from there were stunning, and we were reminded of the enormous price paid in human lives by the Soviet Union for the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination. Lower down the hillside is the statue of St Gellert after whom the hill, and the adjacent spa, are named, and we passed this on the way down towards the castle. Various members of our family had suggested the Soviet Monument Park but this was some distance out of the city centre and we only had the morning to spare because our ship was due to depart after lunch and begin the long journey north to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Broadly speaking we had decided to go on all the included tours and none of the optional ones, because unlike most of those on the trip I am not retired and needed this to be a restful holiday. The tour of Budapest was included but we made an exception for this after being up so late for the floodlight cruise, and although walking to the top of a steep hill was still pretty active, at least it did not start until we were ready! We did not go into the castle but did pop into the tourist information office there and bought postcards to send home.

Lunch and dinner were served on the ship each day, along with breakfast and afternoon tea: this is not a holiday on which maintaining a waistline is easy! We opted for the light buffet lunch in the bar rather than the three-course affair in the restaurant, soon after which the ship was cast off and we began to move along the legendary Danube. It was too windy to spend very long on the sundeck but there is plenty of space under cover: the bar area can take all of the ship's passengers at the same time if necessary. I busied myself writing up the first few days' blog posts and filing my photographs, and soon tea time had passed and dinner was served. It was magical watching the sun go down as we cruised along the river during dinner, and to bed while the ship forged on all night. It was still moving when we awoke in the morning, and had docked at Bratislava by breakfast time.

Opposite the Slovakian parliament, a memorial to
Alexander Dubcek who earlier had tried to bring more
freedom to Czechoslovakia 
Our docking point was right in the city centre at Bratislava, a much smaller city than Prague or Budapest and with an interesting history. A guided tour of Bratislava was included in our holiday package, going by coach to the castle, opposite which Slovakia's new parliament building has been built, and then down into the city centre with the rest of the tour completed on foot. This is another beautiful city, well-kept and ready for tourists. After the guided tour we were free to explore for a while before returning to the ship (which we did in time for lunch). We had to dodge (simulated) gunfire from a celebration of the liberation of the city from Napoleonic forces - although in the town squares a fusillade is as noisy as artillery fire in open space. Stories of Napoleon were nearly as common as stories of the Nazis and Communists everywhere we travelled in mid-Europe, but only here did we get the shock of loud gunfire outside while we were peacefully looking at information in the Tourist Information Office.

After lunch we explored the city on foot again, looking at what had been the Jewish quarter with its small artisan houses, and walking on the short length which remains of the city wall, then strolling along the bank of the Danube and seeing briefly the new shopping centre there which contrasts with the old city centre. I found it interesting that various embassies are mixed in among other city-centre land-uses such as shops and offices because this is a very small city to be a capital, and so the nations are placing their embassies wherever they are able to obtain space, some of them in upper storeys over shops or restaurants, for example. There are still plenty of shops in the main streets, in spite of the new shopping centre on the edge of the central area and the pressure from the diplomatic services for space for embassies.

We returned to the ship for tea and to rest and write up a bit more of this blog before dinner. The "Port Talk" had to cover announcements for the next two days because the following evening would be too busy to fit in a Port Talk then! An early night sounded essential, although having decided not to undertake optional tours we would be less busy than we otherwise might have been.

St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
The following morning was Sunday and our ship had left behind the former communist states and had arrived in Vienna, capital of Austria. It was Pentecost Sunday, a principal Christian feast day, and most shops etc were closed but the streets were still crowded with tourists and with people going to church. After breakfast our tour of the city started early and was punctuated by church bells calling people to Mass. To me as a priest it felt very odd not to be joining them, but there was not time in our programme. During the 50 minutes or so that we had free we did have a brief look in the cathedral but although Mass was about to start it was a sung Eucharist with the Cardinal Archbishop presiding so I did not imagine that it would have been over within the time we could spare! Perhaps I should have thought to bring a stole and some service books and offer to hold a service on board the ship for those who wanted to attend ... but I didn't.

Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism
Our mooring at Vienna was well outside the city centre and we were taken there by coach and given a brief tour on wheels, then a walking tour and some free time before continuing by coach and being taken back to the ship in time for lunch. A very large city, well cared-for and with a fabulous cultural history. Austria is high up among the nations that have produced world-famous classical composers and musicians, and opera is a large part of the city's leisure provision to this day, as are several other art forms. Vienna still smarts, though, as a place where Hitler managed to stir up a crowd and build his Nazi movement, and right in the centre of the city is a moving Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism. Those decent people who were persuaded to the Nationalist cause and lost their lives fighting for it are, of course, among the victims. In all of the cities we had visited so far, Hitler and the Nazis, or their policies, had a significant impact on life in the city which has continued to this day, even those that had been through a Communist era since then.

We returned to our coach for more of the tour of the city and to be taken back to our ship for lunch. There was another, optional, tour in the afternoon but we opted not to take this and had a short stroll along the riverside and spent some time relaxing on the sundeck. Dinner was earlier to allow for an optional visit to a concert of Viennese music, which again we opted not to take: I am sure it would have been wonderful, but the idea of this holiday was to rest, not to pack in as much as possible! For those who lives are leisurely a holiday full of activities and tours is great, but those of us who are busy there needs to be more empty time! Great Rail Journeys have the balance about right for me: enough included activity (which we can omit if we like, although we've paid for it) and plenty of optional activity if we wanted to do more - which we'd have to pay for.

Once the concert-goers were back aboard, the ship moved off again to travel overnight to our next destination, the village of Durnstein in the small wine-growing valley of Wachau. We woke to find that we were moored against two other ships: three further ships were at an adjacent mooring just in front of us on the edge of the village. Considering the village has a population of 85, it does well to cater for visitors from six ships at a time! We were given a short tour of this small Austrian village, where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned and held for an enormous ransom, whose main products are white wine and various apricot products, and then along with several other groups of visitors attended a wine-tasting at a family winery. This village was amazingly efficient at getting large numbers of tourists through the variety of attractions they had to offer. Anyone can buy tickets to the wine-tasting, but ours were provided for us as part of the included tour and our local guide worked his talk around the timing that had been booked. The winery operated a gift shop but we thought bottles of wine a bit too large for our luggage and brought back jars of apricot jam as gifts instead. I was amazed that American guests there were trying to buy from this small family business in US Dollars: Austria uses the Euro, which you'd think anyone touring Europe would be able to spend even they had come without Hungarian Forints or Czech Koruna. Back to the ship and we set off again on a lovely sunny afternoon with much time spent on the sundeck.

Melk Abbey, seen from Emmersdorf
At about 15:00 the ship docked at another small village, Emmersdorf, where an optional excursion left by coach for Melk Abbey. We walked into the village to explore on foot: it was set on a fairly steep valley side and single-track railway line crossed a side valley in the centre of the village on a stone viaduct reminiscent of northern England. From the upper level of the village we could look across to Melk Abbey where some of our travelling companions were enjoying a guided tour of a small part of this extensive monastic campus.
St Nikolaus's Church
It was a hot, sunny day and we continued to climb to a church overlooking the whole scene. We were mystified by notices explaining that the building was protected by the Convention of the Hague dated 14 May 1954 in the event of armed conflict: why this church of all the churches in Europe? Would ISIS respect this; would the Nazis have respected it? We went inside and it was astounding in its baroque decor and sheer size for a small community, but that applies to many a parish church all over the Christian world (and to many a Mosque, Temple or other place of worship).

Back at the ship it was tea time and then time to prepare for the evening: tonight's dinner was pirate-themed and the crew dressed in "pirate" costume and left the dining table in a state of disarray as it attacked by pirates (but enough cutlery, glasses etc for everyone!), and some of us managed to cobble together something like pirate dress - I happened to have a suitable t-shirt available and a handkerchief that could just be worn as a headscarf. Our little group of eight who had done so well in a quiz two nights earlier reconvened as pirates and never really quite got over it ... Pirates of the Danube for the rest of the trip ... The ship set sail during dinner and tomorrow was to be a busy day, but that can wait for the next instalment.

My photographs are gradually being uploaded to my Flickr album at

Saturday 26 May 2018

Such a Pretty City!

When I was growing up it was hard to imagine that I would ever be able to visit eastern Europe, or if I did I would be constantly under suspicion and in danger. There were exotic cities like Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade, Berlin, Prague and Warsaw which I never expected to see and yet now all are easily accessible. They are in EU countries and as an EU citizen I can visit them and feel at home – until next year anyway, and even though language and currencies vary, it is easy enough to mix with fellow citizens of what Mikhail Gorbachev called “our common European home”. This year I managed to visit some of these on an escorted rail tour with Great Rail Journeys. I have already written about our very brief introduction to Berlin, probably the city that symbolises the past division of Europe, and from there we moved on to Prague which was a totally different experience. Prague was almost completely untouched by 2nd World War bombing whereas Berlin was almost destroyed; Prague was the centre of an early attempt to break free from Soviet domination; Prague has an enormously long history as a capital city of an historic principality, then kingdom and finally a republic as it is today.

We arrived there by direct train from Berlin, and when we left we took a direct train to Budapest, both operated by the Czech national railway with comfortable, modern carriages and electric locomotives. They were not high speed trains but reached 90mph at times and some very good food and drink were available from the restaurant and buffet car: this was neither the down-at-heel slow and dirty train of film-noir spy stories nor the glamour of international expresses of the inter-war detective story.

Down to dinner!
Getting off the train at Prague's main station we were amazed at the highly decorated circulation space at the main entrance with its vaulted ceiling and classical style. There was clearly still some restoration work to do at this station, but what had been completed was stunning. A coach took us through the city's congested streets (we arrived at the evening rush hour when an accident had closed a main road tunnel) and eventually got us to our hotel on the other side of the city centre. The hotel had two buildings at the top and bottom of a steep hill and we were delivered to the upper building where our rooms were. To get to the restaurant for dinner we had to go down by a cable-hauled funicular railway to the lower building. The view from our room over the city was brilliant, although the same could not be said for the weather for most of our stay, although it had some good patches.

We had a spacious, comfortable room and after a good night's sleep were ready for the tour of Prague following morning. It was the same sort of early start which had one of our Australian fellow-travellers on last year's holiday ask the tour manager, “Do we get a holiday some time?” but, really, if you've come all this way to an exotic place you do really need to get out and see something of it! At least this time we did not have to have packed before the day started, as we were staying a second night at this hotel.

St Wenceslas' shrine in the cathedral
The tour began with a coach transfer to Prague Castle, and then we were on foot for the rest of the morning, for Prague is very much a "walking city". Unfortunately the morning was punctuated with showers, some of them moderately heavy, but we were prepared for the weather from the accurate forecast and everyone had umbrellas or hooded coats. Prague Castle is the biggest castle in Europe (Windsor is the second biggest) and includes a cathedral and three other churches as well as the presidential palace. The palace has been the official seat of the rulers of the Czech people ever since it was founded, surviving changes from principality through kingdom to republic. Wenceslas, the nation's patron saint, was probably the most famous resident, but he was a prince, not the king of the well-known Christmas carol.

The castle is on a hill overlooking the rest of the city and after a thorough exploration of all the public areas, and a coffee break, we walked down through a vineyard area to the city centre via the famous Charles Bridge with its statues of the saints (which have remarkably survived both Nazism and Communism). Many of the tour party then made their way by tram back to the hotel, but we decided to walk back through the city and see some more of Prague's sights.

It was by now lunchtime, and one thing we needed to do was to try the trdlo, a sweet confection made from bread in the shape of a cylinder, similar in taste to a Danish pastry, for example, but much less sticky. We had no Czech currency with only being here a short time but in the tourist streets where these things were on sale we could pay with Euros (like the UK, the Czech Republic is an EU member state which still has its own currency). We found a place where we could sit outside with a coffee and a trdlo (mine filled with strawberries and whipped cream, Alison's plain). As we were about to leave the heaviest shower of the day began, so we waited until it subsided before we walked on - fortunately there was no queue for our table. The principal place we wanted to see was Wenceslas Square, scene of the demonstrations and meetings which ended the communist era just a few years ago. Wenceslas Square is not actually square, but a long rectangle (like Eaton Square in London) and is a major shopping street, now with a large branch of Marks and Spencer in it: the capitalists have moved swiftly into eastern Europe!

And so back to our hotel through the streets of Prague with their varied, often Parisian-looking, buildings and over the River Vitava. The hotel grounds, full of trees and climbing steeply up the hillside, looked great, but the new highway in front of it, with bits still under construction, rather spoilt the effect its architect had intended. Still, reunited with the rest of our party it was soon time for dinner, a shower and sleep ready for our next move. The following morning we were to depart at a similar time again, but this time packed and ready to catch our train. We were driven slowly through the morning peak traffic back to Prague main station and waited for the platform indicator to show where we needed to wait for our EuroCity train direct to our next stop at Budapest, capital of Hungary, another city I once never imagined I would be able to visit.

This was a long journey of around seven hours, all on one train, which this time did have the scheduled buffet/restaurant car which served superb hot and cold snacks and full meals. We had a hot snack lunch with Prosecco which we took back to our seats, but there was also seating the bar area and a small restaurant where we could have opted to have a waited meal. We also had our morning coffee and afternoon tea on board the train. I wrote much of the previous blog post during this journey, too!

We were about half and hour late getting to Budapest, so our coach ride along the Pest side of the Danube towards our home for the next seven nights, the MS Amadeus Brilliant, took place in the thick of the evening peak and added several more minutes to the delay to our arrival, so we missed tea on the ship but at least we were in time for the briefing for life aboard the vessel, followed by the welcome drink (more sparkling wine) and dinner. After dinner our visit to Budapest began, and of this I shall say much more in the next post.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Another Brick in the Wall

Now and again when I'm browsing through the Great Rail Journeys brochure one particular trip stands out, and I've always liked the thought of their Grand Imperial Cities holiday, visiting some of the capitals of Europe. It has therefore long been on what I call "the list," a list that has no physical existence yet but is a mental wish list of places and routes which are to be visited eventually, but in the current brochure the itinerary has been combined with a river cruise on the Danube to create an even more interesting (and longer) holiday, so this particular list item rapidly rose to the top and was booked for 2018. We had GRJ also book a hotel in London for the night before departure to ensure that we would be able to catch the morning Eurostar with which the holiday was to begin, and our First Class tickets to and from London at the beginning and the end. Booked and paid-for, the only thing was to wait for the dates to come round (distracted by the Birmingham holiday so that the wait was not too excruciating), and check our EHIC validity, order the currency etc..

The holiday itself began on a Monday so we travelled to London on the Sunday afternoon. The Virgin Trains East Coast on board staff were excellent as usual and we enjoyed smoked salmon sandwiches, crisps and biscuits on the way to Kings Cross. Wine is not included in the complimentary refreshments at weekends, but I bought Prosecco from the cafe-bar to get the holiday off to an appropriate start. From Kings Cross it was a stroll along the Euston Road to the Ambassadors Bloomsbury hotel which had been booked for us, and needing no further refreshment after Sunday lunch and the light meal on the train we were able to get to bed early ready for the morning's excitement!

Eurostar E320 awaiting departure at St Pancras
Eurostar light breakfast
The first train of the tour itself was the 08:54 Eurostar departure from St Pancras to Brussels. Because of the terrorist threat level, check-in for Eurostar is currently one hour, so the latest we could check in was 07:54, and we needed to get to St Pancras well before then to meet our tour manager and get our tickets from him, which meant that we did not have time for breakfast at the hotel, but they made up a boxed breakfast for us which we then carried to the station in the morning and were able to eat after check-in while waiting to board the train. Arriving at the station was lovely: up the carriage ramp to what had been the main entrance at platform level, because that was where, on what is now entitled the Grand Terrace, the Great Rail Journeys office is located and where we were to meet our manager, Steven, and the rest of the group.
Thalys sweet snack

The check-in was busy and the waiting area well-filled with people waiting for the 08:31 train to Amsterdam as well as our train, and when the Amsterdam people had gone up to their train people started arriving for the following Paris departure. It is a huge waiting area but Eurostar's trains are the longest in Britain and take a lot of people, so they need a lot of space. 

Our packed breakfast, together with coffee purchased from the bar in the waiting area, occupied our time until our train was announced and we made our way up to the platform. I was delighted to see that the train consisted of one of Eurostar's new E320 sets which I'd never used before. The comfort and facilities lived up to expectations, and as we sped across Kent we were served the Eurostar light breakfast which, added to the corn flakes and yogurt from the hotel box, meant that we were well fed for the start of our holiday.

At Brussel Zuid we changed to the Thalys high-speed train to Cologne, with another included snack, this time with wine, and then at Cologne caught the ICE (inter city express) train to Berlin, a new route for us, a new type of train and, most importantly, a new destination. No included refreshments on this part of the trip but as dinner was still some way off we bought wine and cake to ensure we were not ravenous on arrival at Berlin. This was not an especially fast part of the journey, although speed did pick up a bit on the high speed line after Hannover. One highlight of this leg of the journey was that we passed through Wuppertal, with many glimpses of the Schwebebahn underslung monorail line. We arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the new triple-decker central station recently built to provide a fitting railway station for the reunified capital, and were taken by coach to the hotel, the Maritim, an enormous establishment near the Tiergarten. Dinner was served soon after our arrival and we slept our first night of what was to be an interesting tour of some hugely significant historic capital cities: indeed, I thought as my mind drifted, we were already in our third capital of the day!

Replica on the site of Checkpoint Charlie
On this tour we only had half a day in Berlin, a taster which taught us that a proper visit will be necessary in the near future: so much (recent) history in one city. We were taken on a coach tour of the city with several stops at which we could visit briefly some of the sites associated with the Berlin Wall, and we were shown the new buildings now occupying what was empty land between the two walls and sites near the wall which had not been worth developing when a Soviet invasion had been expected at any time. Along with other international tourists we visited the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol both of this city and, when it was stranded in no man's land, its tragic recent history. 

Looking down to our platforms at Berlin Hbf
Our tour finished back at the railway station where we awaited our train to Prague for the next stage of the holiday. The train indicator showed that for that day there was no restaurant car on our train, so there was a rapid scurry round to buy sandwiches at the station and then we boarded the train and were off deeper into eastern Europe. It was a lovely, sunny day and the line beyond Dresden closely followed the River Elbe with its tree-lined valley punctuated by rocky outcrops and attractive towns and villages. Although there was no restaurant car, catering staff had fixed up a makeshift buffet in a compartment in one of the second class coaches, so we were able to buy coffee to go with our lunch. There was the occasional shower but basically this was a long journey in very comfortable seats with fantastic sunlit scenery. We were heading south, but also inching further east than we'd ever been before, and soon the spectacular sight of Prague greeted us as we glided through the outskirts of what must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. That city will wait for the next instalment of this international adventure ... along with Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and a host of smaller places along the Danube.

Of all the places we visited on this trip, I think it is Berlin and Vienna to which we must return before too long. Has anyone any comment to make on Berlin?

Thursday 3 May 2018

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style

We were planning to bring our young granddaughter to stay and were fortunate to see an advertisement for an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum which we could visit while we were there to fetch her. As we have done before, we visited the museum and then went to meet her from her nursery and took her home on the train. The exhibition was on Ocean Liners: Speed and Style (still on now, but ends 17th June) and we booked our tickets online in advance. It seems to me that "speed and style" could subtitle any exhibition about transport in the inter-war years: aircraft, cars and trains all went for speed and style as well as the ships, but when it comes to style it is perhaps only the Pullman trains that can compare with the great liners.

Their day did not end with the second world war, though, and the great liners were still very much part of life in my 1950s and 60s childhood and youth: I remember the Queen Elizabeth 2 being launched as a working trans-Atlantic liner, and each nation had its prestige ship, most of them now either rusting away or already cut up for scrap, defeated by cheaper, faster air travel but most certainly not surpassed for comfort and style!

There is still one ocean liner making its living on the trans-Atlantic route, the Queen Mary 2, the only new ship built for this work for a very long time, quite different in shape from the other cruise liners which are not built for speed because they are not really going anywhere. (The exhibition was sponsored by Viking Cruises so it was light on the difference between the stylish liners of the past and the great hulking cruise ships of today!) I'd like to do a rail tour of the United States one day, if Amtrak is allowed to survive, and would love to arrive at New York by ship to do it. We'll have to see: it would not be cheap!

Ocean Liners was a good exhibition, although tickets were quite expensive and I am not sure were especially good value. I was particularly interested in the political issues around the prestige of the ocean liners - there were pictures of Adolf Hitler on Germany's national prestige ship, for example. Britain had a huge number of these great ships to service a world-wide empire.

We took a moderately early train to London, Standard Class this time because we were booking to close to the date of travel to get cheap First Class tickets at the time we needed get there, but Virgin Trains East Coast Standard Class is comfortable and we were soon in London. It does not have the same relaxed atmosphere as First, with rather more people in the same amount of space, and we returned First Class with our little companion because it is useful to have the space for a small child, and travelling before the peak time we were able to get affordable tickets and a carriage with plenty of empty seats.

From the museum at South Kensington it was a short Underground trip and then a walk to meet our granddaughter and then we were with her on the Hammersmith and City line to Kings Cross and back home, all neatly timed, if a bit tight in places. We even managed to cram in a cup of coffee with our son, carefully avoiding him meeting his little girl who otherwise might not have let him go and our train home would have been missed! Changing trains at Peterborough we had enough time to pop into Waitrose and let her choose her breakfast cereal for her stay: really handy having the shop right beside the station. Virgin Trains East Coast train staff were really good with a child and ensured the she did not miss out on the First Class food and drink, even though she did not have to pay a fare at her age.