Journalist for Life

Tag: Europe

On the road again – with 26 strangers, in Ireland

On the road again – with 26 strangers, in Ireland

Above: Passengers get a mini-concert by a driver on his button accordion.By Robert N. Jenkins Gougane Barra, Ireland –“It’s all about getting into the landscape,’’ driver/guide Deidre “Dee’’ Harman advises as she wheels a 14-pasenger Mercedes Benz minivan through southwestern Ireland. “When we are out […]

No chance that Germans will run out of beer varieties

No chance that Germans will run out of beer varieties

Above: Beer kettles dominate the ground floor of Freiberg’s 250-seat Hausbrauerei Feierling. TRIER, Germany – Located on the banks of the Moselle River, whose vineyards produce the grapes for Riesling, the No. 1 industry in ancient Trier is winemaking. Indeed, there are five vintners within city […]

Danube river boat: One smooth history lesson

Danube river boat: One smooth history lesson

Above: The Scenic Jade is docked across the Danube from Hungary’s spectacular Parliament buildings, in Budapest.

MELK, Austria – The question is not who created the design. Perhaps not even who executed the idea. No, what grabs your attention is HOW the artist reached the ceiling in the famed Melk Abbey to paint the glorious images, at once delicate, lively and even forceful.

The busy scene above the abbey’s Marble Hall includes mythical Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, being drawn across the blue heaven in a chariot pulled by lions. To one side of her is mighty Hercules, bashing a three-headed monster. Melk Abbey

Elsewhere in the clouds and sky, dozens of figures — winged angels and humans dancing together, cherubs flitting, and other gods, demigods or mortals — show exuberance, joy or fear.

The masterwork, finished in 1731 by Paul Troger, is symbolic of the artistic and historic surprises awaiting visitors such as those stepping off the riverboats on the Danube.

Indeed, taking a riverboat cruise in Europe is one smooth history lesson.

You’ll tour splendid, even spectacular, palaces, government halls and cathedrals.

You’ll stroll or bike along cobblestone lanes laid before Columbus set sail.

You might decide to climb to the ruins of the castle where Richard the Lionheart was held captive by a former ally in the Crusades. Or perhaps you want to stand where Adolph Hitler did when watching the carefully choreographed parades of tens of thousands of troops.

You might even wander the mountain tunnels of what was constructed to be a WW II hospital but under later Soviet occupation became a nuclear-bomb shelter.

All the while your floating hotel and restaurant is docked nearby, perhaps with a view of a charming, centuries-old, village or a verdant vineyard – or both.

So many riverboat companies operate on the same handful of waterways that often the vessels of competing companies tie up side-by-side at the docks. Passengers simply walk through or across the boats to reach the shore or their own ship.

That provides a brief chance to see what the competing companies offer in their reception area or open upper deck.

And this was the only occasion when I thought my boat company, Scenic Cruises, came in second. That is, the reception area on the Scenic Jade is a one-level, smallish lobby designed to be functional, not impressive: It provides access to the three decks of staterooms, entrance to the boat’s only bar and lounge, its main dining room and top deck.

Nor does Scenic Jade’s reception area boast seating arrangements, a multi-deck atrium or chandeliers with crystals of varying colors, as I saw on other boats.

Nonetheless, the 169 passengers aboard the Scenic Jade, launched in May 2014, seemed to have the best elements of a riverboat voyage – and then some.

Salzburg in the rain    The company promises an “all inclusive, five-star, luxury’’ experience. Which means all of your alcoholic beverages are included in the fare, even those you have asked to have stocked in your cabin mini-fridge (it is re-stocked daily). There is butler service for every cabin, on a sliding scale, so that passengers in the most-expensive cabins can have their luggage unpacked and re-packed.

Also included in the fare are dinners with a select Italian cuisine and an elegant fixed-menu/wine-pairings meal.

Ashore, such as in this classic shopping street in Salzburg, Scenic Cruises provides each passenger with a third-generation radio receiver for guided tours:

Not only does it receive broadcasts by tour guides, but each of these “Tailormade’’ devices contains narrations for dozens of specialized tours within each city.

Select one of these tours for your own walkabout and a GPS system within the Tailormade plays 2-minute discussions of the sight you have reached. The place is also located on a map shown on the Tailormade’s screen, as is a photo of the attraction.

Along the popular Danube route, Scenic Cruises has about 600 sights whose narration again is triggered by the GPS. If you aren’t listening but are in your cabin, the narration, as text, will be flashed across the cabin’s 32-inch flatscreen TV.

Helping passengers with the history lesson is Scenic’s own paperback travel guide, provided to each traveler to consult and then take home. The guide for the popular Amsterdam-Budapest route – 18 ports of call, 38 Tailormade pre-recorded tours — is almost 430 pages.

Because history is the thrust of most riverboat companies’ itineraries, the passenger demographics tend to skew to curious retirees. (Scenic Cruises will not accept passengers younger than 12.) And recognizing that many folks want more activity than a slowly paced walkabout or museum tour, riverboats carry dozens of bicycles for individual or group excursions.

Again, Scenic Cruises has gone the extra measure, outfitting most of its bikes with electric-assist motors. As you pedal, you can select any of six gears to boost the power. That greatly aids on the cobblestone streets or occasional distance rides.

But you’ll be a pedestrian again as you explore the museums and palaces, or the sprawling Melk Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage where you can marvel at the innovative museum that discusses its centuries of existence and presents marvelous artisanry in religious objects. Then there’s the multistory spiral staircase that descends into darkness.

The history lesson goes on and on … 

 If You Go

Scenic Cruises does charge significantly more than such major competitors as Viking, which has 50 ships to Scenic’s nine (each line plans to launch more ships in 2015). Scenic, however, provides at least two tour options in every port, whereas Viking typically offers one tour.

For instance, on the standard eight-day itinerary between Nuremberg, Germany, Budapest, Hungary, Scenic offers 16 guided tours; Viking offers six.

Fares for Scenic’s cruise start at $3,625 per person, while Viking’s fare start at $1,856.

Among other items Scenic’s higher fare covers that Viking does not:

/ All tipping, including for onshore staff.

/ Liquor and Champagne; Viking includes only wine and beer.

/ Butler service.

/ Balconies measuring roughly 33 square feet, for 84 percent of its cabins. Viking ships have far fewer true balconies.

/ Airport transfers. Viking includes these only if airfare is purchased through the cruise line.

Many passengers figure they can do without all these inclusions, so they fill the cabins aboard Viking and several other less-expensive lines. Recognizing this, Scenic Cruises spun off a less-inclusive/less-costly brand, Emerald Cruises, with two ships in 2014.

A note for those who have not taken a riverboat trip: Most of the vessels carry about the same number of passengers, 150-169. Those numbers are arrived at because of limitation on the length and height of the vessels, which must transit several locks and pass beneath low bridges.

Scenic Cruises does claim that its staterooms have roughly a quarter more space than its competitors. But some of that space aboard other ships is used for more or larger public areas such as bar/lounges, fitness rooms and spas than the Scenic ships offer.

For more information, go to:

Sceniccruises.com

Vikingrivercruises.com

Or type into a search engine, European riverboat cruises.

 

Robert N. Jenkins has sailed aboard about 70 ships to write about them.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on Amazon.com. View a sample at Smashwords.com. Read more about End Bag here.

Days of wine and noses

Days of wine and noses

Above: A worker rolls a barrel through the wine aging room at the Muga bodega. HARO, Spain—Juan Muga peers through his black horn-rims as he pours red wine into the tall stemmed glass, then swirls it about. New to wine tasting and seated next to a […]

In Ireland, bringing the ancient to life

Long before it was separated into the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, this island was occupied by dozens of contentious tribes. Jealous and aggressive, they were often embroiled in battles against one another, or a few of them might briefly join forces against another tribe. […]

Driving in Ireland: round and round

The lesson to know before hand: You CAN get there from here, but more slowly.

Ireland has about 54,000 miles of paved road, but less than 100 are classified as highway. Most of the rest is two-lane, rural roads and on these you are bound to find yourself behind tractors or large trucks.

So remember that you can’t go anywhere quickly. Distances on road maps do not equate with the sort of driving times learned in the United States.

The Irish Republic’s traffic engineers are more than just fond of roundabouts — what we call traffic circles. They seem to be more frequent than gas stations. When approaching a roundabout, learn to slow down, always yield to the traffic coming from your right, point the hood ornament to where you need to go and accelerate.

Of course, actually understanding where you need to go is another matter:

Any time you approach a roundabout, or an intersection from which you may need to turn, swallow your Interstate pride, slow down or pull off — on the left side of the road — to decipher the basic roundabout sign. This is a whole or partial circle – the “round’’ – with spokes projecting to the outside. Those are your choices of exits from the roundabout.

The spokes will at least be labeled with road numbers, possibly also road names. You must know which of these you want to turn left on before entering the roundabout. Then you simply assert your right to whatever lanes you need within the roundabout to reach that exit spoke, use your turn signal and leave quickly.

If the confounding signs or traffic cause you to miss your exit, remember these solutions:

/ If you are still in the roundabout, you will be circling toward your preferred exit again, so this time prepare to leave.

/ And if you have already taken an incorrect exit, realize there almost certainly is another roundabout a few miles down the road. Enter that one and circle all the way through, until you can exit back toward the direction that brought you to this second roundabout. Then, understand in advance of the upcoming roundabout which is your correct exit and when you will need to be in the left-most lane to use it.

It takes some getting used to — just as you have to remember to look to the right when leaving a parking lot.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on Amazon.com. View a sample at Smashwords.com. Read more about End Bag here.

In western Ireland, hear the voices, hear the stones

DINGLE, Ireland — All five bar stools are occupied this spring afternoon in Dick Mack’s, a pub of some acclaim in this village at the western edge of Ireland. Yet untouched on the bar are pints of beer just served to new customers. Two of […]

In Ireland, the old stories are everywhere

KELLS, Ireland — Ireland’s ancient past whispers from its ruins, fallen remnants of war and religion, fragments of communities that flourished centuries ago. Quiet here, at Kells Priory. So quiet you can hear the sheep tear the grass as they graze. Birds flit about the […]

Imagine a Ferris wheel, filled with water and boats

FALKIRK, Scotland — There was a time, a couple of centuries ago, when the best way to move people and freight across the land was on canals.

Scotland, surrounded by water on three sides, became the first nation in the world to dig intersecting cross-country canals. They connected the North Sea, near Edinburgh on the east, with the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles to the west of Glasgow.

That was in 1790, and the trip took most of a day, including the 6-10 hours to move through 11 locks needed to raise or lower the boats 115 feet.

But in the next century, an enhanced steam engine greatly cut the transit time — and also opened other routes, on land and sea. The railroad further reduced the need for canals.

Finally, widespread use of the internal combustion engine meant trucks and cars could take people and cargo much faster than could boats.

What had been a busy canal system was largely abandoned in 1933. In the 1960s, it was closed when two major highways were constructed through the canals.

But everything old is new again, and then some.

The national government spent the equivalent of $124-million to eliminate the need for the original 11 locks by creating the world’s first “rotating boat lift.” Opened in May 2002, it is named the Falkirk Wheel, after the middle-of-the-nation town where it was constructed.

The structure is futuristic in appearance, yet it uses an ancient law of physics to operate. Basically, a huge wheel is fixed to an axis, and on either side of the wheel are two boxes that hold water. Each box, called a gondola, is 70 feet long by 21 feet wide.

This is when Archimedes’ Principle comes into use. This states that an item placed in water displaces its own weight; thus one or more boats push out of the gondola an amount of water equivalent in weight to the boat’s weight.

The opposing gondola has the same weight, whether it is water only or also boats. A number of electric motors turn a cleverly designed series of gears that rotate both the large wheel and lesser gears that keep the gondolas level while the big wheel turns.

The gondola on the bottom is filled with water from a basin, and boats glide in before a water-tight door is closed behind them. The gondola at top opens onto an aqueduct that connects through a tunnel to the original, higher canal.

When both gondolas are closed, the wheel rotates — eerily quiet, considering the size of the structure. What was below goes up and what was up comes down.

When the big wheel’s half-rotation is complete, the water doors are opened and the boats glide out, to continue their canal journey in either direction. The cross country canal is about 68 miles long.

Since it opened, thousands of pleasure craft and more than 1-million visitors have come through the gates to watch it happen, with many of them booking rides on the 40-passenger tour boats kept in the basin.

The half-rotation takes about 15 minutes; the tour boats going up send their boats into the 330-foot-long aqueduct, which leads to a 475-foot-long tunnel beneath an ancient Roman wall. From there the tour boats enter a small lake, turn around and come back.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Several trains a day from Edinburgh and Glasgow stop in Falkirk; the ride takes little more than a half-hour. Phone your departure train station for the schedule.

The Falkirk Wheel is on a bus route from Falkirk’s Grahamston and High train stations. The No. 3 Red Line Bus, operated by First Bus, runs about every 15 minutes from stops near both stations to the Wheel site. Or, cabs can be hired at the stations.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to


The Lake District: meadows, mist — and a mishap

Even from the back seat of a tow truck, England’s Lake District is lovely. Gentle slopes give way to steep hills, often faced with granite. Lush green meadows are stitched by stone walls, to corral the livestock. On a chill fall morning, horses wear blankets, […]