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Trip Report AMA Waterways AMACELLO Danube Cruise - Prague to Budapest – A Report

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At the end of October, 2010 after 28 ocean cruises, I went on my first river cruise. I was very curious to experience life on the Danube and had both Prague and Budapest on my wish list for a long time, so when the opportunity to take this trip and visit both cities came up, I was thrilled. I have been traveling for over 40 years, but since retiring from full-time employment, have been able to go at times that were impossible when I was working in education. Of late, I have been doing most of my traveling with my husband, but on this occasion, he stayed home and a former colleague came along with me. I'll post the trip in segments, starting with the three days of pre-cruise activity in Prague. Feel free to ask questions and post comments!

The Journey Begins– Flight to Geneva – October 22, 2010 (Morning)

I began my trip journal while we were en route to Geneva, where we would catch a flight to Prague. It was October 22, and I knew from checking the weather before I left home that it would be cold in Prague, so cold that I needed either a down coat or a raincoat and a set of wool and fleece layers. Since showers were also in many of the daily forecasts, I opted for layers, but while sitting on the plane, I was already unhappy with my decision; while the layers would be handy for changeable weather, they were a hassle to keep track of and to carry around. I wondered if I had all four layers that I brought onto the plane with me and hoped I would remember to retrieve them and not drop something. (No matter how clever I think I am about packing, I always rue my decisions once underway and this trip would prove to be no exception! Stay tuned for the actual weather we encountered....)

Prague – October 22, 2010 (Evening)

Our brief visit to the airport in Geneva turned out to be uneventful, but a little annoying. First, we bought water after going through security (again!) and found that the Swiss airport vendors are gouging tourists even worse than the folks at Newark! It cost 2.8 euros, or approximately four US dollars to buy a small bottle of water – outrageous even allowing for the weak dollar! To compound the highway (jetway?) robbery, no matter what currency you use to pay, they give you change in little useless Swiss coins. On the plus side, the bathrooms were nifty – very techno and environmentally friendly with two kinds of flushes and automatic doors and pretty much automatic sinks, too. Of course the bathroom was also very clean.

My seatmate on the Swiss flight to Prague was a Czech woman returning from a work-week in Geneva, where she is employed by an American firm. She was reading an English language film magazine and told me that we might run into Brad and Angelina in Prague (never happened and funnily enough we were told they were also in Budapest, but we didn’t see them there, either). She also informed me that she studies English as much as she can, and plans to live in the U.S. for a while. After we landed, I asked her how to pronounce the name of the airport, and she said “it doesn’t have a name… it’s just called the airport since there’s only one.” I assured her that it had a name beginning with “R” and then she remembered that it did have a name and pronounced it, “Ruzyne”. The flight was quite good and we were very impressed that this 10:10 a.m. flight had a lunch service with excellent Brie and Tomato sandwiches and drinks. Later they offered us another sandwich, since they had extras, and we were well fed by the time we landed.

I had reserved a ride to the hotel with the Prague Shuttle Service after reading the recommendations on the Living Prague website, by filling out a form with contact and flight information on the website and then received a confirmation email from Chris, who runs the company. He was great about responding to my email questions and assuring me that we could pay in dollars or euros if we needed to. Scott , who was easily found, since he was waiting exactly where Chris said he would be, with a sign with my name on it, picked us up.

Scott was the perfect person to introduce us to Prague. A Californian, who wandered around Europe until he arrived in Prague and fell in love, first with the city and then with his wife, he proved to be helpful, pleasant, easy-going, and a great cheerleader for his adopted city. First he showed us where the ATM was located so we could get some local currency, and then he helped us with our luggage as we walked out to the car. As he drove us into town, he gave us lots of helpful information, some sightseeing tips, restaurant and pub recommendations, and pointed out the sights along the way.

We were fortunate to have arrived on a gorgeous sunny autumn day and exclaimed with delight as we admired the scenery. The leaves were every shade of orange, yellow, red, and green and glistened in the bright sunshine. We commented on the cold weather (the forecast had indicated high’s only in the 40’s for the next several days) and Scott told us some “old guy” had predicted that this would be the coldest winter in Prague in 1000 years, which we thought was an impressive prediction. Given the forecast, for snow showers the night before we arrived, and the need for sweaters, coats, gloves, and scarves (all of which we brought, on October 22, his prediction seemed plausible. Scott dropped us off at the Intercontinental Hotel, and assured us that AMA had provided us with a perfect location for our visit.

Our accommodations, a standard room with a river view on the third floor, was ready for early check-in (which was, of course, terrific!), and we dropped off the bags and put a few things away before heading out. Because it was so beautiful out, we opted to take a walk before napping (the days when we could go without a nap after only a few hours of sleep in coach on an overnight flight were in the distant past!) I should note that check-in was pleasant and efficient. The room has everything you can think of, and both the bedroom and bathroom were very well stocked with all the amenities one would expect. The view was of the river and some woods on the far side (some have written of great Castle Hill views, but they must have been much higher up and farther down the hall to the left from our room.) We both enjoyed the beds with soft comforters and lots of pillows. Two days running I forgot to ask about the orthopedic pillow (listed somewhere among the amenities), which sounded like one I should request, but I kept forgetting about it until it was too late. Pleased with the room, we headed out, stopping at the AMA desk in the lobby to meet Pilar Gil (or Pili as she calls herself) from Argentina who now lives in Germany. She is our AMA Cruise Manager and informed us that she was expecting 60 people at the hotel and 130 on the ship, which is almost full capacity (the ship holds 148 passengers). We are officially participating in a three-day Pre-Cruise visit to Prague, which includes the hotel with breakfast each day, a city tour to take place on the morning of the second day, several optional tours, (which we declined since they involve a trip to the Terezin Concentration Camp Memorial in the afternoon and a Folklore Dinner Show in the evening), and the transfer by bus from Prague to the ship in Nuremburg on the following day. While at the hotel, the AMA desk will be staffed by either Pili or one of the local Prague guides most of the time so we can ask questions and use their advice in planning our free time.

We set out to explore Parieska Street and the Old Town Square, an easy five minute walk from the hotel, which took much longer the first time, because we had to stop every few feet to take photographs of the gorgeous buildings (and even the sidewalks, which are inlaid with lovely designs). Two blocks from the hotel, we passed Josefov street where several of the main synagogues are located. Crowds of people and tour groups filled the narrow street. We planned to visit on Sunday, when the Jewish Sabbath ends. Finishing our stroll down down Parieska Street, we arrived at the Old Town Square for the first of what would be many visits.

The square was filled with horse-drawn carriages, the horses decked out in distinctive costumes, including ear warmers (yes, it was that cold!) patiently waiting with their drivers for customers. Vendors selling some trinkets, beverages, and various food items were arrayed around the square. Among the victuals for sale were huge sausages (we split one for an afternoon snack and found it to be quite tasty), haunches of pork available for slicing, crepes (palacinky) with various toppings, trnelnic with sugar, cinnamon, or nuts, (these are a form of doughnut), roasted meats on a spit, pretzels, sugared almonds, and candy. Somewhere in my online reading, I had picked up a recommendation to try the trnelnic, so I took a long, hard look at the options. Then I noticed a couple sharing one (it was quite large) and asked how they liked it. It turned out they were from Australia and immediately offered me a small piece to taste – such nice people! While it tasted good (like a doughnut!!), there didn’t seem to be anything unusual or extraordinary about it. Their generosity saved me from a waste of both money and calories, since I no longer needed to buy and eat one in order to see what the poster was raving about.

Continuing to thread our way among the tempting eating options, we wandered over for the first of several visits to the famous Astronomical Clock. Much praised, it turned out that this is a tourist attraction definitely worth seeing because it really is amazing for its composite sections and its pleasing aesthetics. Each hour on the hour, there is a little “performance” as the doors above the clock open and a set of mechanical figures move the minute hands to the hour. Then a herald appears atop the tower and trumpets the arrival of a new hour. Later in the weekend, we heard the trumpeter from the Old Town Square while standing on the Charles Bridge, whereupon another herald in the tower on the Castle side of the bridge emerged to repeat the trumpet performance. No doubt this represents the manner in which medieval folks kept time. Nowadays it seems a very easy gig for a trumpeter since his entire performance takes perhaps a few seconds each hour… not sure what he does for the rest of his time in the tower!

After walking around the Square and determining that it was a) a great tourist attraction b) very popular and crowded in late October (so it must be much more crowded in the summer!), and c) that it is indeed only a five minute walk from our hotel, we returned to the room and had a little rest before heading out for dinner. When we first arrived at the hotel, we touched base with the Concierge Desk and asked them to make us a reservation at Mlejnice for dinner, only to be told that they were completely booked for both Friday and Saturday nights… just our luck, to arrive on a Friday! We settled for Sunday at 6 p.m. Then we tried Kolkovna, with the same result, which made me, the restaurant researcher, very sad. Now I was at something of a loss as to where to go at the last minute for a low-priced Czech food option with lots of positive reviews. We asked the Concierge for a suggestion, and she gave us a restaurant near the hotel, which she thought would work. On our way back from the Square, we walked by the restaurant and took a look at the menu, which didn’t look great – not very large and much of it composed of Greek specialties. It would have been okay if we were in Greece, but we were in the Czech Republic and didn’t want to have our first meal in this place unless it was great food. We decided to walk by again at dinner time to see if it was crowded with happy diners. If not, we’d go elsewhere. With this plan in mind, we asked our local guide, named Lucy, seated at the AMA desk when we returned, for an alternative recommendation. She suggested “Pravda,” a restaurant we had passed on Parieska Street, which looked quite nice when we saw it and which seemed to have a full Czech menu and pleasant décor. Later, we checked both restaurants and found the Concierge-recommended place completely empty during the early dinner hour with a couple of sad-looking waiters in attendance. I felt sorry for them when I went in and explained that we had a change of plan and needed to cancel the reservation. Then we walked over to Pravda, found it partly full with people who seemed to be enjoying their meal, and went in for dinner.

Service was excellent and the meal began with promise when we were served an excellent salad. The entrees, one from the Czech specialty section of the menu, consisted of slices of roasted beef with cream sauce, potato dumplings and cranberry sauce, and the other, a roast chicken with rice and a Masala sauce looked good., but both meats were on the dry side and somewhat overcooked. We shared some strudel for dessert, and my companion had her usual glass of wine and I tried some Czech beer. On the way out, we met a woman dining by herself. I asked her whether she was eating Roast Duck, which also looked good, and she told me that it was delicious. Our dinner cost around 1300 Czk or, about $35 each.

Who knows, perhaps the place recommended by the Concierge would have been better or maybe I should have made a stronger case for my first choice, which was the duck. I also had some more expensive, highly recommended restaurants on my list, but my companion preferred to spend less. While I was fine with selecting bargain places and usually prefer them, in Prague, if our first two choices (Mlejnice and Kolkovna) aren’t available and you don’t want to travel to a neighborhood away from the center (where prices are bound to be much more reasonable) or eat in a beer hall type place, you might want to consider a more expensive option if you wish to dine in the center. I think I would do that next time and for sure, make reservations through the hotel before leaving home.

Exhausted from our short sleep the previous night, we went to bed early and slept well in the comfortable Intercontinental beds. We needed to be up early for our city tour on the next morning.

Note: I am an almost religiously DIY traveler, and this tour with its regimented schedule and early start time was something of a shock to my system. Throughout this trip, I would need to balance my desire for a more relaxed schedule with later start times, with the benefits of the early start each day and the tremendous quality of the tours, which I certainly would not have wanted to miss.

Saturday, October 23, 2010 - Prague

We went to breakfast bright and early on Saturday and speculated about which people in the restaurant were part of our tour group. Breakfast, as advertised, was fairly extensive, although not as wonderful as some people have reported. There is a good assortment of fresh fruit and yogurts, various cold cereals, hot cereal, and all sorts of toppings including dried fruits and nuts. For the many Asian hotel guests and those non-Asians who like a varied breakfast, there were Asian beef stir fry dishes, noodles, soups and vegetables. There were all sorts of breads, croissants, rolls, and a great assortment of jams and marmalades in various fruit flavors. These could be spooned into little cups that looked like miniature ice cream cones – a clever way to carry the jams to the table.

There was a guy making eggs and omelets with assorted fixings for the omelets and there were also pancakes available. The fellow made lots of fried eggs and left them under a warming light that didn’t do much warming so both mornings that I ate eggs, they were cold. The alternative was to stand on a line and wait for him to make fresh eggs. The same dysfunctional heating system resulted in cold pancakes. Another problem was with the bacon – soft and greasy and not crisp and none of the “hot” food items were actually hot or even very warm… so the tomatoes, beans, sausage, and little potatoes were all lukewarm to cold. Servers did provide very good coffee, tea or hot chocolate (served in a lovely glass with whipped cream – one of my favorite breakfast treats when away from home in a cold climate!) We were happy with breakfast since it was included in our pre-cruise package, but I would have been dissatisfied if I had paid for it separately since it’s very expensive if it’s not included.

AMA does a great job of organizing every aspect of the trip. We were divided into two groups – green and red for the City Tour buses and then further sub-divided into “gentle” walkers and regular walkers. We were in the red group with Lucy as our guide. First we drove around the city and were shown some major sites such as highlights of the Nove Mesto (New Town) including Wenceslas Square and the “Dancing House of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers” designed by Frank Gehry, the old Cattle Market now Charles Square and the old Hay Market now the Namesti Republiky.. Then we were driven to the top of the Castle hill, where we saw what was once the world’s largest stadium, passed the Strahov Monastery, and were dropped off at the St. Vitus Church for the start of the walking tour. Those in the gentle group were driven down to the Old Town Square, while the rest of us went on the walking tour with Lucy.

Lucy gave us a lengthy history lesson, took us on a tour of the Church, and then led us on down past the other buildings associated with the Castle. Periodically we paused to examine a building or an inscription or ponder some aspect of Czech history. After leaving the Castle area, we continued walking down toward the Most Karlovy (Charles Bridge), passing by interesting shops, restaurants, and fascinating building facades (so fascinating that at one point I tripped and fell on the sidewalk – not the best way to introduce yourself to a group of strangers on the first day, but I was not the only one to do that!) As we approached the bridge, the photogenic qualities of the sights on both sides increased. I ran from one side to the other, taking pictures of the Vlata River, the autumnal oranges, yellows, reds, and golds of the leaves, the portal to the bridge, and then the bridge statuary. With the sun shining and the spires of Prague lining both banks of the river, it was magical… okay, I admit it, I fell in love with Prague on that walking tour!

After the bridge, we strolled to the Old Town Square where Lucy explained the Astronomical Clock and we watched the hourly “show.” Back to the hotel, we stopped by the Concierge Desk to make another dinner reservation (this time built around a concert for which we had purchased tickets) and then went to the Duke’s Bar and Café in the hotel for a light lunch. I had a traditional Czech Kulajda Soup - potato, mushroom and cream soup with an egg. It had a chicken broth base and a lovely lemon flavor – delicious! Lunch came with the computer code for the day so I could go online for free using the hotel WIFI in the lobby (or so I hoped until my computer refused to cooperate although I did meet some very nice people from Chicago who were also using their computers in the lobby who tried to help me.)

After lunch we took the number 17 tram over to the Modern Art Museum… did I mention that I was traveling with an artist and art teacher, who never misses the opportunity to visit an art museum? Tickets for the tram could be purchased from the concierge desk and were only 18 Czech Koruna or Czk (about $.95). It cost us 120 Czk ($6.30) for the general exhibits and the special exhibit, on loan from the Batliner Collection and the Albertina Museum in Vienna, called “From Monet to Warhol.” Although it consisted of works by many famous artists, it was the ugliest collection of art I have ever seen in my life. It was almost as though the curator had chosen the most unaesthetic work of each artist. Even the Water Lilies Study was green and scummy – amazing to me since every Monet water lilies painting I have ever seen up to this point has been lovely! The introduction to the general collection explained how difficult it has been to collect art in the Czech Republic because of its Communistic past, so it was understandable that the general collections were sparse, but why the Batliner Collection pieces were so aesthetically displeasing, I have no idea. We could probably have spent this lovely afternoon exploring a much more beautiful part of Prague than the Modern Art Museum…. I had opted for a return to the Palace or the Monastery, but was out-voted and we never did get there the following day, so I guess I’ll just have to return to Prague soon.

We took the tram back to the hotel and then went to dinner. This was another concierge recommended restaurant called U Zlate Konvice, located in a cellar off the Old Town Square, which was almost mid-way to the concert at the Municipal Hall for which we had tickets. Their specialty was roasted meats and these were served in an ancient cellar, supposedly the oldest cellar in Prague. Service was excellent and we had a conversation with our very nice, sad waiter, who told us he was hoping to get out of the cellar, have a real life with a family, and get on a plane to the U.S. (perhaps this was his effort to get a larger tip or be adopted by one of us! I don’t know, but at any rate, he seemed unhappy with his job.) We ordered Roast Duck and Roast Lamb. They were served with risotto, and dumplings (having sampled what folks in Prague call “dumplings” the night before, we didn’t eat them this time...way too heavy and a surefire way to get indigestion!) We also had a good what the Czech call “Balkan Salad” (with Feta or similar cheese, cucumber and olive), and we would call a “Greek Salad,” which was even better than the salad from the previous night’s dinner. The meal cost approximately 600 Czk per person ($33) and was good, although not great.

After dinner, we walked over to the Municipal Hall for the concert, which was performed by a 60 member orchestra. No programs were distributed and there was open seating in the rear of the auditorium for the 900 Czk tickets, which were the ones we purchased.. Because there were no programs, I had no idea who conducted or who the soloist was while I was at the concert, but later I found the flier, displayed in the Concierge area of the hotel, which advertised the concert, and noticed it listed both names. So, for the record, Jacob Chi conducted and Ms. Haeyoung Song was the soloist for the Schumann. The program consisted of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor op. 54, and the Dvorak Symphony, No 9 from the New World. We both enjoyed the concert and the opportunity to visit the Municipal Hall. (Note: There are many concerts in Prague each evening at various concert halls and churches as well as at the Palace in addition to the operas put on at several venues so there are many good choices for music at reasonable prices.)

The Municipal Hall has two auditoriums, and this concert was held in Smetana Hall, which is a lovely concert space. We were also glad to see the building and the area around the Powder Tower, where it is located, next to the Republisky Square. If we had more time in Prague, we would have returned here to explore this area in daylight including what appeared to be (scattered among the tourist places), a series of interesting shops in the streets between the Clock Tower Square and the Republisky.

Sunday, October 24, 2010 – Prague

Our main agenda item for Sunday was the self-guided tour of five synagogues and the cemetery of Josefov, the Jewish section of Prague. First we bought a comprehensive ticket for all the synagogues which are now musuems, including the Old-New Synagogue and the Cemetery. I also paid an extra 40 CZK for a photography permit, which turned out to be a gift to the people who maintain the properties, because when we got to the Cemetery, I discovered everyone taking photos in the cemetery and no one there checking for the permits. It is interesting to note that there are a variety of possible combination tickets which may be purchased for Josefov (and lots of people standing around the ticket booth pondering the options!) It seemed simpler to us to just buy the one for everything and then make our way from one synagogue to another until we had covered the entire area… that way we didn’t miss anything.

After we finished the tour by visiting the Spanish Synagogue, which is the most beautiful of the Synagogues, we had lunch at Kolkovna, just a short walk away. Since we couldn’t get there for dinner, I figured we might as well try it for lunch. We both ordered Goulash Soup, which was served in a mug with a huge pretzel. My companion suggested that I take the pretzel and use it to moisturize my face and hands because it was very greasy, but despite the joke, the pretzel was delicious. The goulash was tasty but lukewarm. (Up to this point I had not had anything I would describe as hot to eat on this trip despite the chilly temperatures outside.) Service was quick and pleasant, and the place was filled at almost mid-afternoon. With a big menu, reasonable prices, and friendly wait-staff, I can see why Kolkovna is so popular.

We walked back to the Charles Bridge along the Vlata River after lunch and retraced our route across the Bridge from the day before, but the magic was gone – no sun and with the clouds, it was much less lovely. Shopping on Sunday wasn’t satisfying either – many shops were closed although the vendors were out on the bridge and the touristic shops were open in full force.

Sunday night we finally had dinner at Mlejnice, my number one choice. Although we had been disappointed that we couldn’t eat there Friday or Saturday night, it actually made sense to cap off our visit to Prague with a meal here. If we had eaten here first, we would have found every other meal a let-down and spent our time comparing the other restaurants to this place, which sure enough, has better food and much cheaper prices. I always read this many rave reviews with a grain of salt, but in this case, they were entirely accurate.

Because the prices were so reasonable and everything looked so good, we over-ordered and then over-ate… it’s difficult to avoid doing that here! We shared a Balkan Salad, Pork Ribs, Chicken Stuffed with Spinach, Oven Baked Potatoes with Leeks, Mushrooms, and Cheese (they have about five or six potato choices and they all sound delicious!) Apple Strudel with Whipped Cream and Ice cream. With Mint tea, Iced Coffee (with whipped cream), a Bottle of Water, a Coke Light, and two glasses of house wine the check came to a total of 966 Czk for both of us. ($25 a person).

Eva, our waitress was delightful – she provided very good service and spoke excellent English. All of the reviews for this place are accurate except for one point… that it’s difficult to find, but actually, it’s very easy. Kozna Street, where it is located, is a narrow, twisty alley between two streets leading away from the Square in the area of the Astronomical Clock. Just walk to Zelezna Street, (with your back to the clock, turn to the left and walk a block), turn right on Zelezna, turn right at the first right (Kozna Street) and you’ll see the restaurant after you walk around the curve (it’s on your left) after you pass the big pizza restaurant, which also looks quite popular,, based on the crowd.

The restaurant is small – we witnessed two couples in a near collision as one made a bee-line from the door for an empty table while another moved into it from the smaller table where they had been sitting (and no doubt waiting for that one to open up). By getting there early, we had our pick of tables and were pleased with our location next to the window. Given our schedule for the next morning, we strolled back to the hotel after dinner, packed, and had a relatively early night.

In the next installment I'll describe our bus trip across the Czech Republic from Prague into Germany via Karlovy Vary, a spa town which used to be known as Carlsbad. From there, we journeyed on to our ship, the AMACELLO for the quickest, easiest embarkation imaginable!

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    I'm reading your report with interest. DH and I did our first river cruise in July - Budapest to Amsterdam on Viking Pride. We enjoyed it very much and are talking about another river cruise one day - so I'm looking forward to hearing about the AMA experience.

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    Continuing the trip report - here is the actual cruise starting with the bus trip from Prague to the ship.

    Monday, October 25 - Prague to Nuremburg

    We had been instructed to put our luggage outside our room by 6:30 a.m, .and then to identify the bags downstairs at 7:30 so they could be loaded onto the buses. Departure would be at 8:30 a.m. so we had to eat breakfast very early and attend to all these errands as well as check out. We managed to get on the bus with time to spare, and exactly on time, the two buses in our caravan set out for the two and half hour trip to Karlovy Vary previously known as Carlsbad. En route, we had more Czech scenery and received more information regarding the sights we passed from our tour guide. We also stopped at a highway gas station and shop for a bathroom break. When we got to the spa town of Karlovy Vary, we were told a little bit about its history and current status (popular with wealthy Russians among others), driven to a car park where we transferred to shuttle buses, and brought to the center of town. Lucy walked us to the geyser, pointing out various facilities along the way, and we were given time to eat lunch before reporting back to the shuttle bus stop for our return to the car park.

    Lunch was at a nondescript Italian place which appealed to the six of us who had banded together that day. The place was inexpensive, took credit cards, and the waiter could communicate in English, so it fit our needs. We were also able to eat within the time limit, so all in all, it worked out, but I wished I’d taken the trouble to do a little lunch research prior to our visit… very unlike me to have no idea where to eat!

    Lucy told us about a special wafer sold in Carlsbad for generations and still sold there in Karlovy Vary today (Oblaten Wafers). As we boarded the shuttle, Pili distributed samples and this was not our last cookie sample for the week! Back on the bus, we found it difficult to avoid dozing off as we watched the Czech scenery flash by. Forests and fields predominated as we passed rolling hills… too much pasta and an early start were a deadly combination for trying to stay awake!

    As we drove along, Lucy provided lots of information about the area through which we passed and its history. Finally we crossed the border into Germany and she told us a story about a visit her mother made to Vienna when Czechoslovakia was a Communist State and how meaningful it was to her that she could now easily pass from the Czech Republic into Germany. During the time she spent with us, Lucy provided us with many personal anecdotes that helped make recent Czech history come alive. When we reached the Amacello docked outside Nuremburg, our Czech guides (we had two – one for each bus group) said goodbye. Our group thanked Lucy and gave her tips for her excellent work, (she was truly outstanding and we were very happy to have had her as our guide.)

    Before we left the bus, Pili gave us a run-down of what to expect during and after boarding the ship. First impressions are always important, and our Cruise Manager had already made an excellent one in Prague and on our trip to Nuremburg. Throughout the week, she continued the pattern set on the first weekend - cheerful, energetic, smart, and very much in charge. She attended to everyone’s requests and needs and not only said that she loved her job, but also demonstrated it every day. Today she shepherded her flock from the pre-cruise in Prague to the ship in Nuremburg very smoothly and provided us with a wealth of information in the process.

    As we walked on board, we were greeted by the Amacello’s staff, most of whom would quickly become very familiar to us. All we needed to do was hand in our passports and pick up our room key cards, a painless and very quick operation. Tea, coffee, and cakes were on offer in the lounge along with some open faced sandwiches for anyone who was hungry. Most people went to their cabins, unpacked the suitcases that were swiftly delivered from the bus (in our case by the same fellow who would later be our dinner waiter), and took a few minutes to explore the ship (small enough to be seen in practically no time at all!) This was followed by a safety talk by Pili and Christian, Head of Housekeeping, a champagne reception with the Captain and then the first dinner on board.

    Dinner was delightful. We were given a small and delicious amuse-bouche of crabmeat and I followed this with a Crab Cake, Mushroom Carpaccio (a wonderful soup), Butterfish in a yummy sauce, and a chocolate cake, which tasted like a melted cake or chocolate souffle with vanilla ice cream. Both white and red wine were offered with dinner and beer and soda were complimentary in addition to the wines. It should be noted that each evening there would be specific wines recommended, but requests were honored on more than one occasion at our table when people asked for different wines. My wine drinking companion was quite pleased with the wines on board and that seemed to be the case with everyone else with whom we dined. I invariably had diet cokes with dinner and iced tea with lunch and was quite happy with this arrangement all week (although complimentary soda at lunch would have been even better!)

    Before I complete the description of our first day on board, I’ll take a moment to describe our cabin, which like all the other cabins on the AMACELLO except for a few junior suites, is 170 square feet (large for a river boat, but quite compact, and so is the bathroom). It was located in the middle of the cabins on the top deck, which is a convenient location and affords us a French balcony. Although it’s too cold to keep the balcony door open, it’s handy to be able to check the outside temperature and I like the light, so the balcony is a real plus. Because we will usually be tied up right in the middle of town on either a walking path or sidewalk, we were told that we need to keep the drapes closed in the morning. Lots of folks will walk by us and at times other boats will be docked next to us so that we could look into our neighbor’s cabin and they could look into ours, if we didn’t keep our drapes closed.

    The cabin needs to be small because the boat has to fit in the locks on the river. Our twin beds are also small and I can’t help but wonder how a larger person would feel comfortable in such a narrow bed. They are also fairly low to the floor (leaving a king-sized bed at the Intercontinental for this narrow bed, I thought I might easily roll right out during the night so it was comforting to know that at least I wouldn’t have far to fall if that happened – and,of course, I didn’t fall out) and covered with good quality linens and a duvet that is the perfect weight. There are two small chairs next to the window and a narrow desk on which the computer/TV sits. I love having a computer in the cabin with free WIFI, but wish we had better reception when we're sailing (it’s often unavailable, which has to do with the satellite and bridges or other obstacles to reception). When we're in town, it’s quick and quite excellent. (Of course, we're usually on tour and off the boat when the reception is best!) There are a number of channels available on the television including CNN and the BBC, but barely any time to watch it. We each have a night table with a lamp and lighting is well placed and quite adequate throughout the cabin. The bathroom has a medicine cabinet and some under-sink storage. Towels are plentiful and, of course, more are available if requested. The best part is the shower with glass door, which comes equipped with both an overhead and hand nozzle and six settings…it’s big for the size of the bathroom and an excellent shower!

    The cabin is serviced twice a day and is always spotless and well cared for. Complimentary bottles of water are replaced daily in the storage area under the desk, but there is no refrigerator, and you have to go and get your own ice from either the bar or the area outside the dining room. I like that the water is available to take with us on our tours. There is a decent sized safe in the closet and enough drawers and shelves plus hangers to store our clothes for this one-week cruise.

    On the first night after dinner we were entertained by a singer from Nuremburg, named Valerie May. She was quite good and performed an international medley in a variety of languages that was very well received by the audience.

    Note from the end: As is always the case on this boat, the entertainment and daily briefing was presented in the lounge, where all the passengers fit because the seats are crowded together to provide sufficient seating for everyone. There is one entertainer who sailed with us – a keyboard artist named Metodi, who played background music in the lounge and dance music at night. He’s quite good. Every other performer came on when we were in town, and then left after the performance, so if we have no evening stop, there is no evening performance. I have noticed that on some ships they have crew talent shows, but not on this one. I’m not sure if that’s because they do that on longer sailings or because there is a dearth of “talent” on the AMACELLO... I'll have to ask or perhaps someone else knows the answer? There certainly were plenty of amateur comedians.

    Tuesday, October 26 - Nuremburg

    This morning we were divided into regular and slow or gentle walkers. As would be the daily routine, before departing from the boat, Kinga (the Pursar) and Andrea (Front Desk Staff Person Extraordinaire) gave us our boarding passes and a VOX amplification unit with which we hooked up our earpieces (previously supplied and re-supplied when they were lost or broken – the latter happened to me on the Vienna tour and I was very happy to note that Pili kept a supply in her purse for just such an occasion!) Since we took red units, we were in the red group with Tour Leader Igon, who carried a red lollipop-shaped sign. There were three other groups, so no group was too large and each group had its own bus and guide. Each day we plugged our earphones into the unit so that we could hear the tour leader even if we weren’t standing near him or her, which was great… very easy to wear the ear device since it sat over the ear, and very easy to hear the guide (even when we were in the bathroom at one point and he was outside until he remembered to switch it off!) Igon was an excellent guide and gave us a lot of information about the city, its history, and its architecture. As a sociologist, he also expounded on the sociological aspects of the city’s Nazi past. We visited the Zeppelin Field where Hitler gave speeches to the Nazi Youth and the Law Courts where the Nazi trials were held after the war.

    Based on previous reviews, it would seem that there used to be a choice of tours between Medieval and World War II Nuremburg, but now they have combined them into one tour for everyone. That’s fine with me since I am interested in both. So, then it was on to the Castle with a walk across the moat and a climb up to the gates, with considerable information regarding medieval strategic defense systems. The inside of the castle provided gorgeous views in every direction and another excellent bathroom stop. (I will note here that on this trip virtually every bathroom was excellent including those we used at the highway rest stops! AMA and its guides are careful to select only clean, well kept places for its recommendations.) Our group then strolled down to the Main Market Square where we saw the interesting medieval fountain and watched the clock chime the hour in the tower of the church. Pili had some Lebkuchen Gingerbread cookie samples to pass out while we were in the square...I’d already learned that it paid to locate her during our free time! In addition to various goodies, she always had answers to our questions. We strolled across the canal and over to an island to the right, where there were some lovely shops (drawn in that direction by a big sign, which said “ART!”). Our one-hour of free time didn’t give us enough time to buy much, but it was clear that there is some good shopping in the area. All in all, our brief view of Nuremburg was excellent and gave me a very positive sense of the city and an interest in returning some day. While waiting for the bus, Pili assured us that even better shopping awaited us tomorrow in Regensburg – her favorite shopping city, and one she said, in which she would like to live. While I don’t know anything about Regensburg, that little piece of information certainly provided a strong sense of anticipation for the day ahead!

    Just a side note, on this trip, all of our tours were outstanding. Each day we followed the same routine, picking up the a Vox box to amplify the guide, so we could hear them speak through our headphones, even if they were outside and we were inside the bus or if we lagged behind to take a photograph or were standing in the back of the group. The color of the sound box denoted the color of the group which was then reflected on the AMA sign carried by the guide and displayed in their bus. Those needing a slower pace (and sometimes those who wanted a quicker pace to cover more ground) were assigned a special group. When we returned to the ship, we returned the Vox unit to Andrea or Klinga or just put it in the box so it could be recharged for the next day, and also handed back our boarding pass so they knew we were back on board the ship. (Before sailing Pili would call out over the P.A. any cabin numbers that had missing passes just to be sure everyone was accounted for.)

    At lunch I passed up Lamb Curry, which others said was tasty, and had a good salad and Penne Carbonara, with Chef Walter “cooking” pasta at the cooking station on the buffet. The Pasta was good, but would have been delicious if it hadn’t been lukewarm. I think the actual cooking took place in the galley and then the pastas were put on hotplates for serving. I asked the chef about the temperature and then noticed steam coming off the pans, so I guess he turned up the burners. Ice Cream with various toppings was one of the two choices offered for dessert, but it was always possible to have both desserts, and, of course, to have as much of anything as you pleased.

    This first lunch was set up the way lunch would be for the rest of the week. The menu would indicate what was available from the kitchen and what was being prepared at the cooking station on the buffet. It also listed the desserts (at least one of which would be on the buffet or in a serving dish next to it) and the sandwich which was available in the warmer. A salad buffet was always laid out, and this was excellent – a good selection of greens and just about every kind of ingredient you could imagine or want. There was also a great cheese assortment every day with crackers and breads. We found that the soup was the most reliable dish to order from the kitchen (always good!) and enjoyed that for both lunch and dinner since they varied the choices throughout the week. Ice Cream was always available, usually served by the same cheerful staff member (Lazlo), but the flavors were fairly limited. Although an abbreviated version of the same lunch (minus the menu offerings I think) was also served in the lounge for those who preferred to stay up there and enjoy the scenery through the big glass windows (as opposed to the smaller ones in the Dining Room), I ate in the dining room all week long and never actually tried the lounge lunch.

    Service was a problem at the beginning of this first lunch since everyone returned at the same time from the tour. It was after 1 o’clock when the buses got back, and since we were all hungry, the entire crowd went straight to the dining room. Those of us seated at our table had trouble getting someone to take our drinks order since we were told by the waiter that only the bar staff could do that, and they didn’t seem to be able to keep up. After we were halfway finished with lunch and had yet to get someone from the bar staff to come over, Christian, the Hotel Manager, finally noticed our distress. He apologized and took our order. At the same time, our waiter decided to get the drinks, too so we ended up with a double order, which was certainly better than none. Drinks service was noticeably better the rest of the week and we were pleased that Christian was so responsive and apologetic.

    Later in the afternoon, ice cream was served in the lounge, but I didn’t have any more. This afternoon we sailed from Nuremburg along the Main-Danube Canal to Regensburg, later crossing the Continental Divide in the process. We went through locks and more locks, always moving upward in the locks before we reached the Divide. For a while I went up on deck and watched the Captain lower the wheel house in order to fit under a low bridge. Those of us standing on the upper portion of the deck had to sit down when we approached it. We went up on deck because Pili had announced that we would sail over a highway. Two new-found friends and I thought that would be an interesting sight and went up to explore, but when the bridge loomed and the wheelhouse descended, we got two interesting sights for the price of one visit to the deck! In the evening, after we had passed the Continental Divide, we all received certificates in our cabins attesting to the fact that we had, indeed, crossed the Divide. From this high point on, the water would be lowered in each lock.

    On this second evening, I found dinner to be a disappointment, particularly after the excellent dinner the previous evening had raised my expectations. I had difficulty finding anything on the menu that interested me and when I compared noted with my tablemates, they had the same problem. I had the Vegetable Bouillon since the other choice was a Kidney Bean Soup, which is not my favorite, then Breaded Pork – dry and dull in my opinion, followed by a Mango Charlotte. The options I didn’t select were Grilled Catfish Fillet wrapped in Prosciutto or Freshly Baked Vegetable Strudel (which a few people at the table had and said wasn’t bad) for the entrée and a Poppy Seed Parfait with Cinnamon Sauce for dessert. It is rare when I can’t find something good to eat! In addition to the regular menu items, there are a few always available choices listed as “Daily Classics”, and these include Grilled Entrecote, Chicken Breast, Broiled Norwegian Fjord Salmon, Caesar’s Salad, Coleslaw and French Fries and a Factory Chopped Salad as a Main Course with Romaine, Chicken, Tomato, Avocado, Corn, Bacon, Blue Cheese, Apple and Vinaigrette. Needless to say, no one goes hungry, but the difference in quality between the first night’s dinner and the second was too much of a drop-off for me. The good news is that this was the only dinner menu I thought should be improved.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010 – Regensburg

    We had been warned about docking in town, and this morning was our first experience. When we pulled our curtain aside to check the weather, there were people walking right by us with their dogs and riding their bikes. We were docked alongside a much-frequented park running along the river, and it seemed as though half the town was out for their morning constitutional.

    Breakfast was good. I ordered oatmeal from the kitchen, and then while I was filling my plate with some fruit, Christian, the Hotel Manager, who was at the cook station with no one on line, offered to cook me an egg – so how could I refuse? Hash browns and Bacon plus the Fresh Fruit, Juice (there are pitchers of three or four kinds on the buffet every day), and Hot Chocolate were all excellent. (The Waiters come around and offer Coffee, Tea or Hot Chocolate, which are brought from the kitchen.) As it turned out, it was a good day to fortify myself with a large breakfast because when we walked out off the gangplank for our walking tour, we discovered that the air was very cold, the wind was blowing, and as we knew, there was no sun. Everyone in our group was bundled up with hats, shawls and gloves. There were two or three drops of rain in the early part of our morning tour, but that was the only time we felt any rain at all for the entire two weeks (so much for the showers in the forecast!)

    This morning our group toured with a guide named Helmut who provided an excellent tour of the city except for one omission (a recommendation - or at least one strong enough to leave an impression - to visit the beautiful Baroque church, the Alte Kapelle, or Old Church, which we missed as a result. It was on our map, but I didn’t look at it until we returned to the ship for the second time and then it was too late.) Once again, the tour was filled with historical information and local culture. We began with Roman fortress ruins and then walked to the fabulous bridge, built in the early 12th Century. Since we were in Bavaria, that was one of the major themes, particularly since Regensburg was once the capital of Bavaria. Another dealt with the role of Regensburg as a major trading center with Italian city states and for quite some time, a major city in the Holy Roman Empire. Today the medieval city center is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the towers, built by the very wealthy trading families are highlights of the tour. At the end of the tour we visited the beautiful Gothic Cathedral, and it was interesting and strange to consider that this was once the mother diocese of Prague!

    We were told by Helmut to be sure to sample the local sausages, made at the sausage house (the Alter Wursthaus) next to the bridge, supposedly the oldest sausage house in Bavaria. On the way back to the ship in the afternoon, we happened upon three of our friends with a plateful of them, who were full, and happy to share some with us. We enjoyed the sausages with the delicious mustard and were very glad we had just purchased several tubes of the sweet variety (also available in mild, medium and extremely hot!) at the mustard shop called Handlmaier’s – this was a recommendation we picked up from some other friends during the course of the day since the tubes make excellent gifts and are an unusual and distinctive present.

    After the tour, we returned for lunch, served on board with a Bavarian theme. There were special outfits worn by the wait staff and a Bavarian menu that featured Pork Three Ways – Suckling Pig plus regular Oven Roasted Pork and Smoked Pork, all carved by Chef Walter, Bratwurst with mustard and Saurkraut, (I like the sauerkraut in this part of the world better than at home because it’s sweeter!), Potato Salad, Beets, and Greens, cheese, a special dessert dough with sugar and plum sauce plus ice cream and toppings. Then we returned to town for more shopping. I went back to the glass jewelry shop and paid for my jewelry (he needed a VISA card and I had only brought two other types of credit cards in the morning) before doing quite a bit of window shopping.
    We liked Regensburg a lot; it’s a prosperous small city with beautiful shops with well priced items; and from what we could tell, friendly people. We went to a big camera store because my companion on this trip forgot her camera battery charger, and while waiting for her, I ended up looking for a camera case (to replace one lost on a previous trip). Miguel, a photography student on the trip with his mother, who compared himself to a kid in a candy shop, helped me find the cheapest case in the shop and I bought one for nine euros (and then wondered for the rest of the trip how I ever managed to deal with my camera before purchasing it!)

    We returned for the second time to the AMACELLO for Pili’s daily briefing, followed by the Oberfalz Duo - two performers with a guitar and accordian who sang a series of Bavarian drinking songs (and I think sampled quite a few themselves!) Pretzels and beer were passed around and a hat game with two of our shipboard friends highlighted the entertainment. They frequently serve complimentary refreshments in the Lounge that have something to do with the place we are visiting so that’s why today it was pretzels and beer.

    Tonight, I thought we had an excellent dinner. I had Cream of Salsify Soup, Salad, Lamb Shank and Potatoes Anna and chocolate ice cream with Mandarin oranges. This meal restored my faith in the Chef. Dinner in the dining room is, like Breakfast and Lunch, Open Seating. Some people seem to eat with the same companions every night and others seem to switch around. We have found several regular companions and usually eat with some combination of four or six of them (depending on the table size) each lunch and dinner (while breakfast can be just the two of us or sometimes with two others since we’re all in a rush. Sometimes we have extra seats and others join us, which I like because then I get a chance to meet some new people. I also like that the tour groups vary from day to day, depending on which color amplification device you select, so you usually know some people and have the opportunity to meet some new ones. On a ship this small, it should be possible if you wish, to get to know most of the people by the end of the week.

    Thursday, October 28, 2010 Passau-Linz (with the Salzburg option)

    For breakfast I had oatmeal again, but thought the Eggs Benedict one of our tablemates ordered looked very good, and so made a mental note to order that another day. As I have been doing every morning, I filled a bowl with fresh fruits, and some excellent yogurt. Today’s specialty in the device called a warmer was cold waffles - the warmer seems to be totally useless for keeping food warm (assuming, of course, that they went in there hot to begin with, which is questionable.) Accompanied by ice cold honey (there was no syrup – I know because I asked and was handed the honey from the buffet), the dish was less than satisfying. I asked Christian the Younger (the Maitre ‘D whom I call Christian the Younger to distinguish him from the other Christian who is the Hotel Director) about it and he went off to warm the honey, although it was still only lukewarm in the end. Maybe it’s me… I know I like cold things cold with ice and hot things hot, but maybe they don’t like them very hot.

    Today the two of us (and a number of our friends as well) opted to skip the optional tour to Salzburg so we took a Passau Walking Tour with Britta – up to the schools and university building and then over to the Town Hall, then up to the Cathedral and then back down to the shops and along the river back to the ship. We liked Passau – lovely vistas and interesting shops – another prosperous German town filled with cafes, shops, restaurants, and churches. As was true for Nuremburg, we didn’t have very much time for shopping, and would have enjoyed more time to walk around than we were afforded, but we were on a tight schedule today in order to meet the bus from Salzburg in Linz and also to have a chance for those of us on the ship to walk into Linz, so we needed to get away quickly. As we were told all week, timing on the river often depended on the lockkeepers and their schedules since we frequently had to stop and be lowered to a new river depth.

    Up on deck as we sailed away from Passau, we had a lovely view of the city and the two rivers – the Inn and the Danube (we had seen the city’s third river called the Ilz from up on top of the city) and then went down to lunch, which was very good today – Cream of Corn soup, followed by a big salad with Artichoke Hearts, Hearts of Palm, Olives, Tomatoes, Sunflower Seeds, Cucumbers, and Lettuce. I ordered Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy off the menu (not sure how it would be, but it turned out to be quite good), and then Pistachio Ice Cream with toppings. Lazlo, who serves the ice cream every day with a huge cherubic smile, promised me Capuccino ice cream tonight when I looked so crestfallen after I mistook the Caramel flavor for Coffee ice cream. (I love coffee ice cream and was disappointed to discover that there wasn’t any on the AMACELLO. Poor Lazlo apologized later when he realized he had been mistaken. It was the same five or six flavors all week and coffee was not among them.)

    On this afternoon I had an opportunity to catch up on my trip journal while sailing down the Danube at a good clip. We went through two locks and passed three or four castles along with a series of towns as we left Germany and entered Austria. On the last lock, we shared space with a boat called the Heidelberg. Many doubted the Captain could maneuver the Amacello beside the Heidelberg in the lock, but he did it with space to spare. Every time there was something photo worthy, I went outside and took a picture, but it was cozier in the lounge and there was a biting wind on the river so my excursions outside were brief. That is definitely the downside to this itinerary at this time of year. The leaves are gorgeous and the prices are lower, but the chilly air makes it cold out on deck so most of the time we stay cozy in the Lounge.


    During the afternoon, the pastry chef and the head chef, Walter, gave a demonstration on how to make strudel. Later, as they do every day, tea time snacks were put out on the big table and folks helped themselves to coffee, tea, or hot chocolate from the service area. There’s a machine to make coffee drinks such as lattes and cappuccinos, and there’s also pitchers of iced tea and water as well as milk. I'm generally way too full from such a big lunch to eat anything between lunch and dinner so I mostly just looked at the tea offerings (for research purposes, of course) and occasionally tasted a cookie.

    Pili told us we might have time to take a quick look around the Linz town square if we got there before the rendezvous time, which was 7 p.m. About 5 o’clock Pili came on the P.A. and announced that we’d be in Linz in about an hour and she would then lead a tour for anyone interested. We ended up taking a brisk walk to the Main Square, called the Hauptplatz, where she did a brief summary of Linz’s history. Some folks strolled off to shop, but we made a beeline for the modern art museum, (yes, once again consequences of sailing with an art teacher/artist) housed in a pink lit box, which happened to be open on Thursday night. We hurried up to take a look at an exhibit, which, I have to admit turned out to be fairly interesting (more interesting than I’d expected anyway). Most interesting to me was a painting of the Linz Town Square arrayed with Nazi banners as it appeared in 1939. To view this scene of Nazi life in a place we had just visited in its present state was, to say the least, haunting. There were works by Warhol, Kokoshka, and other well known artists and quite a few Linz-born artists, but this one vision of Linz’s past made the greatest impression.

    Later, the folks who went to Salzburg rejoined us for dinner and a post-dinner show while docked in Linz. Dinner was Vitello al Tonnato, a Virgin Pina Colada, (sort of a palate cleanser I guess), Prime Rib, Cream of Leek Soup and Crepes Suzettes… a very good dinner, followed by the La Strada Trio – guitar and two violins playing classical and semi-classical and what they call, gypsy music. We enjoyed the performance very much and I especially enjoyed their rendition of “Thais,” which is one of my favorites. Pili had given La Strada a big build-up and said they were her favorites, and we were not disappointed – they really were excellent.

    Friday, October 29 – Melk, Austria and the Danube to Vienna

    We started early today with an 8:30 a.m. tour to Melk Abbey, high on a hill overlooking the charming little town of Melk, Austria. Our day was gorgeous – sunny and although cold, the sky was clear and the countryside was golden and filled with autumnal colors.

    We had a local guide to take us up to the Abbey with the bus, and then an Abbey guide to take us through the many incredible rooms of the huge monastery turned school, museum, and library. This is an incredible stop – the abbey is well worth seeing and the views from the top are fabulous. Following the tour, we had a choice of a bus ride down to the ship or a walk down through the town. As has been our custom, we walked and enjoyed a chance to see the small, but prosperous and pretty commercial area at the foot of the hill on which the abbey sits, while taking a series of great pictures. There wasn’t much time to shop, but we enjoyed a little window-shopping and a few quick dashes into stores before walking across the green bridge across the canal and over to the Danube, where our ship was docked. With the exception of Prague and Regensburg, we have had very little shopping time on this trip. With the weak dollar and a shopaholic history, I suppose that is for the best, but more than once on this trip, I have felt frustrated by the limited amount of free time in lovely shopping areas. Here I am without my husband (a golden opportunity for shopping) in towns filled with lovely shops and even reasonable prices, and there's no time to shop. I hope to return!

    Once on board, we followed our familiar routine of lunch and a cruise down the river to Vienna. This time it was the sensational Wachau Valley – with the same hardy folks as usual up on the top deck to take photographs – windy and brisk, but worth it to see castles and vineyards and towns and churches with the Durnstein Blue Church serving as the climax of the afternoon– wow! I loved this part of the cruise (yes, I took a great many photographs this afternoon and have thoroughly enjoyed looking at them ever since!)

    As always, Pili was in the wheelhouse, narrating our journey, describing what was to be seen on both sides of the river and telling us tales of the castles up on top. We went through more locks and our view at one point included not one, but two AMA ships – the AMALYRA and AMADAGIO coming from Budapest, one behind the other, with some passengers riding bikes between Durnstein and Melk (a slightly longer and different itinerary), which makes a nice flat run. It was funny to wave at the AMA passengers passing by, feeling some strange kinship with a bunch of strangers who selected the same cruise line and were having similar experiences on two different ships with the ports we’d just experienced still to come, and Vienna and Budapest behind them.

    Later, they served iced coffee drinks in the lounge (by now you probably can guess that the iced coffee was lukewarm) and that was followed by a Vienna briefing by Pili. Each day there were complex arrangements and various options, so it was very helpful to have a detailed explanation by our excellent Tour Manager. She outlined information about where we would be docked, shuttle bus arrangements, and optional tour opportunities. Once again, we declined the optional tours (an expensive tourist concert of Mozart and Strauss works and a visit to Schönbrunn, which I have visited on a previous trip to Austria and ditto for Salzburg, which is why that trip didn’t interest me either.)

    I needed to book some tickets for the opera house in Budapest for Tuesday night and make a dinner reservation for Monday night, so I tried to contact the Concierge at Le Meridien in Budapest. I had thought about booking the tickets from home, but with the rush to leave, it didn’t get accomplished and then once we were underway, there never seemed to be enough time to get things done (especially when there was WIFI available.) When I went to click on the hotel website email, our room computer wouldn’t allow me access to it. I asked Kinga for help (in addition to being bursar, one of her jobs is resident “techie”), and she immediately offered to lend me her computer to contact the hotel. As a result, I sat down behind the desk and began to type and to chat with both Kinga and Andrea, the Front Desk Manager, who are always friendly and helpful. While I was there, one of the passengers asked me a question about hair curlers on the boat… guess she thought I worked there! I told them it seemed like fun to work there, and maybe I’d apply for a job on one of the AMA boats, which elicited a big laugh from both of them. They asked me what I would say they need to do in order to improve and I told them I thought they were perfect and that in addition to the Cruise Manager, and the Captain’s Staff, one area of operations on this boat that operated optimally in my opinion was the front desk where these wonderful ladies always had a good answer and a smile for everyone. It was a pleasure to deal with them all week. (There is a third member of the team, rarely seen because he has night duty. We put in a wakeup call every night and each morning received it exactly as requested, so he was excellent, too!)By the way, I now know the answer to the hair curler question if anyone needs to know. I always bring my own and as usual, it worked fine since it's 110/220 and I have a bunch of European plugs for trips like these to handle all the charging I need to do these days.

    When we arrived in Vienna they had early supper for the concert goers and later supper (regular time) for those of us not going to the concert. I had Potato Soup, Salad with Chicken McNuggets (their description – not mine!), excellent Wiener Schnitzel and potatoes, and Apple Strudel, which was not up to Viennese or even New York standards. Andrei, who was our waiter for this dinner, was great – very efficient and helpful, despite all of the rushing around he had to do to get everyone finished in time for the buses. Of all the staff in the dining room, he was, by far, the one who impressed us the most.

    AMA supplied a shuttle bus to the city since we were docked in a suburb called Nussdorf (from which it was possible to take a streetcar although we didn’t try it). When we arrived in town, we walked across to St. Stephens Cathedral and then over to the Staatsoperhaus, window shopping and enjoying a lovely evening in Vienna. As we got closer, I could hear singing and wondered if it was coming from the Opera House, and if so, what it could be. When we arrived there, much to our surprise they were telecasting a live performance of l’Elisir de Amore on the big screen in front of the Opera House – what a fantastic way to spend some time in Vienna! There were even chairs put out on the plaza and after a while we sat down and watched until the end of the Act. We walked back to the shuttle bus for our rendezvous time and then drove back to the ship, arriving at the same time as the concert-goers. Tonight we were “parked” alongside a Viking River Boat which was tied up at the dock. As a result, we had to walk through the lobby of that ship to get to our own. The lobby was not as elegant as ours, and I was tempted to ask if I could have look at the public rooms, but I didn’t.

    Saturday, October 30 – Vienna

    Today we had a morning City Tour with an excellent guide, and it pains me to note that I forgot to write down her name and have lost it. We abandoned the tour a little early at the Hofburg to go to the NaschMarkt on our own - instead of having an hour of free time followed by a bus trip to the Market (which was a short walk on a beautiful morning). We both enjoyed the walk through the Market, which is an indoor/outdoor food market with all sorts of wonderful stalls and shops as well as a flea market with lots of inexpensive gift items. On the way over, we stopped to admire a building with a Klimt-like frieze on it and a gold cupola, wondering about its origins. (We would shortly learn all about it.) Then we walked back to Café Tirolerhof for lunch (recommended by our guide and on my list), where we each had soup (mine was Goulash soup which the waiter said was good) and we shared a Mozzarella and Tomato “sandwich” (they gave us a bread basket and then checked on how many pieces each of us used for our sandwich since the cheese and tomatoes came on a plate although I was expecting a ready-made sandwich!) As had been the case throughout the trip, the waiter was busy, but pleasant and helpful and spoke perfectly good English, although the “sandwich” part was confusing.

    After lunch, we had a funny experience on our way to the Belvedere Palace. We walked over to the tram and took a D as indicated in my guide book. My companion didn’t trust that the D was correct because I once made a mistake in Italy. I thought there were two train stops when there was only one, causing us to miss our stop so that we had to double back - it’s true we had to go way out of our way and in my mind it’s one of my three worst travel mistakes in over 40 years of traveling, but it was about seven or eight years ago and I’ve been right countless times before and after that. Anyway, that’s why she likes me to check with people. The funny thing is that I actually checked that time in Italy, and was led astray by the guy I asked! To please her, I checked with not one, but two two people – who nodded “yes” D to Belvedere. Then as the tram stopped at Schwarzenburgplatz – the local with whom I had first checked and who had gotten off and double checked with an elderly woman waiting at the stop banged on the glass and motioned to quickly get off and change trams! We jumped up and off, although I was fairly certain we had been on the right tram to begin with. After all, I imagined, perhaps the local person knew a better way, and maybe that D didn’t go all the way to Belvedere or something? Then he and the old woman insisted we take the #71, which was just arriving. Now doubtful, we hopped on, and sure enough, we ended up at Belvedere, but at the Lower instead of the Upper Terrace. Since we were headed for the Upper Terrace, which houses the Klimt, Schiele, and other artists, we had to walk uphill through the gardens. This was not a major problem, since the gardens were beautiful, and after lunch, the exercise probably did us some good. Of course, this fellow and his friend regularly took the #71 past the Lower Belvedere, so when he heard the words, Upper Belvedere, they translated in his head into Unterer Belvedere, which means “Lower Belvedere.” Even though we went the “wrong” way, we got there easily and quickly and I did feel good that the locals cared so much about us and were worried we’d go astray if we strayed on the D Tram. Needless to say, going back was much easier and less eventful. The D was right outside the gate and took us straight back to the Opera in about three or four stops.

    In visiting the Belvedere Palace, our main objective was to see Klimt’s most famous painting – “The Kiss,” and in this we were certainly not disappointed. We enjoyed all the Klimts, Shieles, and other paintings including one I hadn’t heard of by Oppenheim of an Orchestra – a huge painting with amazing detail and accuracy. The views of Vienna and the grounds of the Belvedere palace were gorgeous and it is a beautiful place, and well worth a visit. Before leaving, we stopped in the gift shop and the tea room for some coffee and cake.

    After taking the tram to the Opera stop, we retraced our path of the night before and walked to the shuttle bus, which took us back to the ship and a series of activities including a Disembarkation Talk and a Farewell Dinner (a week goes by way too fast!). We were served a Goose Liver Amuse-Bouche, and I had Cream of Asparagus Soup, Salad, Fettuccine with Mushroom Sauce, Baked Alaska (yes, they did the Baked Alaska parade… a cruise ship tradition is a tradition after all!) with Chocolate and Vanilla Mousse and layers of cake… not your typical Baked Alaska, but it looked right even if it didn’t taste right. Then we sailed to Budapest.

    Sunday – Budapest October 31

    8:30 was announced as the “sail- in” time for our arrival in Budapest and I wanted to be up early and out on deck to photograph the city from the river, which is a great way to arrive in this beautiful city! First there were bucolic early morning views of fields and woods and wavy Danubian patterns, (and amazingly, after days of looking every other color imaginable on this day the Danube appeared to be blue!) which were quite lovely. Then we went through a lock and under a series of bridges and signs of a city appeared. Pili urged us to come up to the top deck to view and photograph the spectacular buildings even though it was still quite misty. On the left was the Parliament., ahead were beautiful bridges, and on the right we had a great view of the Fishermens’ Bastion and the Hapsburg Royal Palace. Everything looked gorgeous in the morning light. It was cold up on deck, but worth it. By this point in the cruise, those of us who liked to photograph the scenery from the deck were always up on there, and so it was no surprise to see the same familiar faces, swathed in scarves, taking picture after picture.

    For breakfast this morning I had two Eggs Over Easy, Muesli, Juice, Hash Browns, Bacon, Toast, Jam and my usual Hot Chocolate. I have enjoyed breakfast on this ship every morning except for the one when I had the lukewarm waffles (and learned to avoid the “warmer!”)

    After breakfast we went on our last city tour. We were with the red group, who toured with Andrea Hadas whose great, great something was a hussar who, according to Andrea, was so close to Maria Teresa that he may have fathered some of her children. Andrea proudly showed us his equestrian statue close to the Fisherman’s Bastion. We went back and forth between Buda and Pest to see city highlights, on and off the bus for this excellent tour which covered all the city’s major tourist attractions.

    For the last lunch on board the theme was Hungarian and I enjoyed the Salad, Mussels, Cabbage Soup, Goulash, special Langos bread (a type of Hungarian deep fried flat bread served with sour cream, so no wonder I liked it!) and some ice cream for dessert.

    Then there were a few free hours in Budapest, which was all the time available for those going home the next day. Pili told me about 90 % of the people on board were headed home so those who planned to stay on in the city were in a small minority. This really surprised me because Budapest is a great destination and surely needs more than one day! Both my companion and I worried that perhaps we wouldn’t have enough time to see the highlights in the three days we allotted, particularly since we’d discovered that the next day was a National Holiday on which almost everything would be closed!

    We decided there wasn’t enough time for a city activity since it was already 3:00 and we both needed to shower and wash our hair. (Daily schedules were packed with activities, and yet we also needed time for mundane tasks. Since we had to get up really early in order to view the city on arrival, today seemed to be one of those days when there just were not enough hours.

    Of course it was the last day, and that meant taking care of the cruise questionnaire and gratuities. I found that interesting. On these ships there is a single tip pool for everyone who works on the vessel with the exception of the Cruise Manager, who is tipped separately. She, alone of all the staff, is actually hired by AMA Waterways and moves from ship to ship. Everyone else is hired by a river ship staffing company to staff this vessel for AMA and they stay on the ship for the season. When you consider that many of the itineraries begin and/or end in cities with extensions, it makes sense that the managers would be scheduled differently than the ship's staffers, but it’s hard to imagine that they have to interact with different Captains and staffs on each of the ships with which they sail… quite interesting to me after all those ocean cruises. I know Pili made it appear “seamless” and I’m told that the others do it that way, too – quite a feat!

    Entertainment from the “gipsies” as they were listed in the program) - a violin trio and dancers was scheduled for 6 p.m. and then there would be a Halloween dinner with the waiters and bar waitress transformed into vampires (pretty funny since they were mostly Romanian!) and a humorous menu with each item described in ghoulish and unappetizing terms (some people at our table insisted on ordering that way - boiled eyeballs or something like that and lots of bugs!) I ate Tomato Soup, Salad, Salmon over Sweet Potato, and Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream.

    After dinner it was time for the “Illuminations Cruise” of the city. The Captain took the AMACELLO out for our final spin sailing up and down the river as Pili described the nighttime sights. I went up on deck and said some good-byes, missing some other people who headed back to their cabins to pack. I thought they were also headed up on deck, but they never made it up there, and so we didn’t get a chance to exchange farewells with several people. Although this was only a one-week cruise, and even with the Prague extension, we only spent ten days together, it felt much longer, The nature of the river cruise with its daily tours and briefings, close quarters, and open seating created real intimacy and positive feelings, and I liked that aspect very much. I just wish, in retrospect, that I’d been more organized in my leave-taking of the many new friends I made and not assumed that I’d keep on seeing them until the very end. So, if you are out there reading this and I didn’t say good-bye (or even if I did), please get in touch!

    As usual, packing took more time than I expected. I always manage to bring too much and then accumulate more! As a result, I went to bed later than I had hoped – one of the biggest problems on this trip was that I constantly went to bed late and got up early, consequently getting too little sleep. I thought at the time that I’d need a vacation when I got home, but, of course, when I got home, there were piles of work to do.

    I'll conclude this segment here and finish up the trip with Budapest next.

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    Here is the conclusion of the trip. Kathy, I'll be very interested in your comments and comparisons.

    Monday, Nov 1 – Budapest

    We had ordered a taxi (yes, Pili took taxi orders from everyone on board for trips to the airport and the various hotels to which we were headed) to take us from the ship to the hotel at 9:30, which was pretty much when they wanted us off the boat. We got up as late as possible, put our suitcases in the hall since they wanted them out there one hour before departure, and went down for breakfast. Today I had eggs cooked to order by Walter, the chef. I asked him if he got lunch “off,” but he said they would prepare a light lunch for the new passengers. When we got on in Nuremburg, our first meal was dinner. These guys really don’t get time off and seem to work every day for the entire season until they go home in December… maybe I won’t apply for a River Cruise job after reconsideration!

    Our 9:30 Taxi arrived at 9:15, and apparently even earlier for friends who also were supposed to have a 9:30 taxi, but who were gone when I went into the lounge to say goodbye (no problem as it turned out although at the time I was distressed to think we had not said goodbye.) Either the taxi company was in a hurry, or AMA was, because it seemed as though every taxi arrived before the requested time! As soon as the taxi arrived, the guys came to get the bags off the ship and knocked on the door to say our cab was waiting, so it was rush, rush and off we went.

    We booked the cab with two of our regular companions, and shared the 20 Euro taxi charge, to the Le Meridien Hotel – a very easy transition! Pili booked the rides with a taxi company that took Euros since most of us hadn’t yet changed money in Hungary and had English-speaking drivers. We checked in just before 10 a.m. and were delighted to find that a room was ready for us - and a terrific room at that with a view of Elzebet Park and St. Stephens Cathedral.

    The traditional furnishings included twin beds and night tables, a wall unit with television and mini-bar, a big desk and chair, an easy chair, and a suitcase rack (a second one was quickly found for us by our excellent bellman). The bathroom was excellent and included both a bathtub and a separate shower, which had very good water pressure. Robes were provided along with all sorts of lovely toiletries. There is a hair dryer located in the drawer of the bathroom vanity. Both the bathroom and the bedroom were quite spacious and were kept in perfect condition during our stay.

    The hotel seemed very empty (we arrived on a national holiday) and perhaps as a result, service was extraordinary – friendly and yet still highly professional, attentive to the nth degree. The folks who work here are outstanding and made us feel immediately at home. To be fair, even when it seemed much busier on Tuesday, service was still at a remarkably high level. I can’t remember any other large chain hotel where all the desk staff knew who I was (or certainly seemed to) every time I walked in the door! Kudos to Kristina Zsok, who booked our room for us (and was charming in our correspondence although we never got to actually meet), all the front desk folk, and especially Janos Horvath, who never failed to have a smile and a joke to enliven our day and Daniel, who was similarly cheerful and helpful, Zsolt Bogdany, Concierge Extraordinaire, who obtained seats for us in the center of the orchestra for the Verdi Requiem on Tuesday evening on short notice and also booked us a table for dinner at Café Kor, sold us subway tickets, and answered our innumerable questions, and also to the afternoon/evening Concierge, who had his share of questions to answer and transit tickets to sell us as well (and even ran down to the Metro to buy more for us when he ran out!).

    The hotel is perfectly located right next to major tram lines, the Metro, and the pedestrian shopping street and only a few blocks from St. Stephens and Andrassy Boulevard as well as the Danube. Had we wanted to, we could have walked to the Opera House and many of the major sights and those farther afield were easily reached by either the tram or the Metro, both of which are inexpensive and extremely easy to use (just be sure to validate your ticket upon entering either mode of transportation!)

    Although we didn’t eat breakfast (or any other meals) in the hotel, we did make use of the computers to check email each evening (internet if free with an Ethernet in the room or in the Business Center after regular business hours.) We also didn’t have time to use the swimming pool, although it is reported to be excellent.

    I loved staying at this hotel and hope I’ll be able to return here again on another visit to this wonderful city. The accommodations of this hotel are first-rate, but it is the staff that makes it truly exceptional.

    Knowing that it was All Saints Day, a National Holiday, we walked to the Jewish ghetto area and immediately found the big synagogue closed. Why it was closed on this Catholic holiday eluded me, but instead we did a self guided walk of the neighborhood, surveying several other synagogues and decaying buildings dating from before the Nazi era. I found it haunting… it made me feel as though I were back in the thirties or forties. The two friends we had missed at 9:25 on board ship were lunching across from the Synagogue and so, we said our goodbyes (not for the last time as it turned out).

    After our walking tour, we had lunch at Café Gerloczy, which turned out to be a terrific lunch spot. It was a mild and sunny day, so we sat outside on the terrace with a heat lamp lending some extra warmth. We shared a large salad and each of us had a slice of quiche… very tasty since they bake their own crust and bread, and then shared a beautiful chocolate soufflé/sundae for dessert. Service was outstanding and we both wished we had more time in Budapest to sample another meal here.

    We walked back to the hotel to pick up our bathing supplies and then found the Tram that would take us to the Gellert Baths. Because they are tearing up the street next to the hotel to put in another tram line (or Metro line, not sure which), we had to walk to the second stop to board the Tram. The Baths turned out to be quite an experience! This is one of those places where you just keep asking questions and follow directions because as a first-time visitor, you have no idea (at least we didn’t) exactly what to do or where to go. The entrance to the Baths is on the right side of the building (the tram exit is at the front). You go in, pay at a booth, get a wristband, and then (in our case) go to the entrance for ladies. There you go through a turnstile, and get sent upstairs to changing booths where you can leave your clothing in a locker. I brought a bathing suit, but my companion was under the belief that there would be some sort of apron she could wear and so brought nothing. They gave us a long sheet to wear over our suits (or in her case birthday suit). Flip flops are essential, too. Then you go downstairs. With a bathing suit, you can go out into the big swimming pool, but since she didn’t have one, we just went to the thermal bath in the women’s section. (This was, of course, as she expected.) There were two sides, but the water seemed to be about the same temperature in both. We thought one would be cool and one hot, but they were both warm. There were a couple of other women without bathing suits, but everyone else (maybe 30-40 people in all) had suits. We left our towels/togas and flip flops on benches and waded into the water, which supposedly comes from hot springs. It wasn’t exactly hot, but it was pleasantly warm and we found it relaxing to loll about for a while. There are also showers to get clean before and after using the baths, and it’s possible to pay for a massage, although we didn’t book any. Then we went back upstairs, changed into our clothes and left. By this time, it had gotten dark. We both had a good laugh, observing a gentleman in his hotel bathrobe and slippers, smoking a cigar on the sidewalk outside the entrance, as we departed… not a sight you see every day!

    We didn’t have much of a wait for the tram. Just as we were about to get off, I said in English (of course) “the next stop is ours.” That caught the attention of an inspector (we were told later that they only seem to go after foreigners) who demanded to see our tickets just as we were getting ready to jump off. Fortunately we both had our tickets and had put them into the machine so he could see they were properly punched. Otherwise, we would have been charged with a sizeable fine.

    After reading many excellent reviews and a few that said this restaurant had been resting on its laurels, we decided to have dinner at Café Kor and see for ourselves. When we arrived, we were offered several different tables and chose one next to a young couple. When they both took out cigarettes and began to smoke heavily with smoke wafting in our direction, I thought we had made a mistake, but then they offered help – I wondered out loud about the preparation of a dish, and the guy told me the answer with a British accent. It turned out that they were owners of two hostels and managed a third. This was their favorite restaurant and they were happy to help us get through the menu and make recommendations. I love meeting people in this serendipitous way! It was quite interesting to see Budapest through the eyes of these young British entrepreneurs who have adopted the city and love living there. We ended up having a great conversation and with their assistance, probably a better dinner than we would have chosen on our own.

    Dinner was delicious. I ate Tomato Soup (served with floating pieces of cheese), Duck Breast with Tangerine sauce, and Cheese Pie (sweetened cottage cheese in a pie which tasted like a delicious cheese cake and my companion had another type of soup and Beef Goulash for her Entree. As is our custom, we shared dessert.) We were served by an excellent waitress named Irene. When we ordered the Cheese Pie (on our new friends recommendation, of course!), Irene managed to snag the last piece from the kitchen for us, much to the chagrin of some folks sitting at a table nearby who were disappointed to learn it was finished. The Daily Specials were listed on a chalk board and as we ate, more and more of them were erased from the board, so I would suggest getting to Café Kor earlier rather than later if you want to eat whatever is on the Board that day – specials go fast! After dinner, we strolled past the magnificent St. Stephens Cathedral, (which we planned to visit on the morrow) and back over to the Meridien. We stopped in the Business Center to check email, before heading to bed, thoroughly exhausted, as usual.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 – Budapest

    Since breakfast was not included in our room rate and was extremely expensive in the hotel, we strolled over to the famous Café Gerbeaud, just a block or two to the left of the hotel’s front door. This is a lovely place, where you can read about the history of its founders while you sip coffee and munch on a delectable piece of pastry, chosen from a large display counter. Not the least expensive place to dine in the neighborhood, it shouldn’t be missed and this was our one opportunity to have a bit to eat here. Once again, service was pleasant and efficient.

    After eating, we walked back to the front of our hotel, and entered the Metro (so conveniently located right there!) for a short ride to Hero’s Square. We had our tickets (purchased from the Concierge Desk) and stuck them in the validation machine where not one, but two guards stand and watch you to make sure you are indeed validating your ticket! We noticed that this station (and every station we passed along the way) was very nicely decorated and extremely clean, as were the cars of the trains. Trains were frequent and quite excellent. Our destination was the Museum of Fine Arts, where we had noticed a large banner proclaiming a Klimt and the Secessionists exhibit while on the city tour. This exhibit was excellent and neatly tied together both the building with the gold cupola we had seen on the way to the Naschmarkt and the Klimt paintings we had seen at the Belvedere Palace with the Klimt and other Secessionist paintings we viewed in this museum. It almost seemed pre-destined that we should see this exhibit on our last day! After viewing the exhibit and another excellent exhibit of the paintings of Botero, we walked into the Museum Gift Shop, and there were our two shipboard friends (yes, again!) examining the excellent gift items. We exchanged more trip information (both happy with our hotels, our Gellert Baths experience, the museum, dinner, etc.) and laughed at how small Budapest must be if we could run into each other twice in two days.

    Next we strolled back down Andrassy Boulevard, admiring the charming mansions erected by the city’s richest citizens during the last half of the nineteenth century. We were in search of a spot for lunch, glancing at menus posted outside cafes (clustered near the metro entrances) and checking my notes for recommended spots. After a few blocks, we arrived at the Andrassy Hotel, where its Baraka Restaurant had been recommended in one of our articles. Since I wanted to save my appetite for dinner, I ordered soup for lunch and was quite happy with the delicious Corn Soup they served, while my companion ordered a salad and enjoyed that, too. They have a small, but affordable lunch menu, which is much less expensive than the upscale version offered for dinner. (The gourmet tasting menu, which looks fabulous, is offered for 15,900 Hungarian Forints or about $74 before tax and tip). My soup, which came with bread, cost about $8. Who should also show up to eat here? You guessed it – our same two friends. Definitely on the same wave length, but alas, this was our last sighting of them for this trip, and who knows when we’ll see them again!

    After lunch we headed back downtown to the Dohany Synagogue to view the interior, which we missed on All Saints Day, when it was unaccountably closed. Two minutes after I started taking pictures of the magnificent walls and ceiling, I looked up to discover my traveling companion sitting in a pew with the two friends who were also staying at our hotel, who were listening to a guide explain the history of the building. Thinking the docents (there were four or five groups seated around the Synagogue, each with a docent describing its history in a different language) were part of the admission ticket, I joined them and learned quite a bit while looking around. The tour then moved out to the Cemetery, where our excellent guide provided more information. Finally, she took us to the Museum and then asked us for our tickets. I thought she meant for the museum, so I took that out, but in fact, she meant for the tour – we had inadvertently joined a tour for which we hadn’t paid when we went to sit with our friends, who had motioned us over to sit with them. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “you were my guests,” which was certainly gracious of her since I suppose she could have marched us back to the ticket booth to pay (although I suspect it had closed by then).

    I next wanted to stop at the Murano Glass shop in the hotel, called Millefiori, and also visit St. Stephens, but my companion was exhausted, so I was on my own. I enjoyed examining all the jewelry on display and chose a set to take home, while chatting with the friendly shop clerk. He told me he was studying jewelry making and was extremely helpful (in fact, he shortened the bracelet, which was way too long for me). You see, I had to get one last shopping experience in here! I then ran over to the Cathedral for probably one of the quickest visits anyone had ever made. I walked down both side aisles, took a number of photographs of the beautiful interior, examined the historical photo display on the way out, and strolled back down the steps and over to the hotel, glad that I hadn’t missed seeing it before our departure.

    I hoped to pack before dinner since we would need to leave the hotel in the very early morning for our 7 a.m. flight to Munich. As usual, there wasn’t sufficient time, so we hurriedly changed, and dashed out to the Metro again to head for the Opera House. From there, our restaurant was about a three block walk. After first turning left when we reached Zichy Street , we quickly realized the numbers were going in the wrong direction, and reversed course to find Café Bouchon to the right. Located in the 6th district, which is now known as Budapest’s “Broadway,” (although it has quite a long way to go!), this place has great reviews. Many people describe it as “what Café Kor used to be.” Although I can’t speak to this, I can say that we loved our dinner at Café Bouchon. As virtually everyone notes, the owner, Lazlo, is incredibly helpful and totally flexible with his menu. My companion wanted to try the Blinis with Caviar and I wanted a different appetizer, so he simply gave her a much smaller portion at a lower price than the one listed on the menu so she could have a “taste.” I had the Tokaj Grape Salad with Camembert, Apple and Walnuts to start, and we both had the Knuckle of Lamb, which was fabulous. For dessert, we had an incredibly delicious dessert which was called “Dessert de Somlo” on the menu. This was a variation on a well-known Hungarian dessert, Somlói Galuska made by layering chocolate sponge cake with vanilla custard, raisins, walnuts, chocolate sauce, rum and a topping of whipped cream. In this case, mandarin oranges were used instead of raisins, and the bites of sponge cake, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, nuts, and oranges were heavenly. This dinner, which cost more than the one at Café Kor but was totally worth it, was outstanding and I would highly recommend a visit to Café Bouchon. In total, we each spent about $40 at this terrific restaurant.

    After dinner we walked over to the Hungarian State Opera House for the Verdi Requiem. Although I would have loved to have seen an opera here, the program on our only night when the House was open, was the Requiem, and this was a great finale to our visit. The names of the soloists were unfamiliar to me, but seemingly much loved by the audience and the soloists, orchestra and chorus were all seated on the stage, filling every available space. I can’t imagine how they stage grand operas on such a small stage (I’ve been spoiled by decades at the Met where there is enough room for entire armies if necessary. At any rate, I loved the Opera House, loved the performance, and was completely mesmerized by the rhythmic clapping at the end (described in a review of another orchestra as captivating rhythmic applause in unison. At first the applause was spontaneous and sounded as audiences normally do, but then suddenly it happened in unison. Fascinated, I had to google this phenomenon and here is what I found:

    "This synchronized clapping is called 'iron' applause in Hungarian," he says. "There was a time when an iron curtain would descend after a performance between the stage and the audience, which would clap rhythmically to induce the conductor or actors to appear in front of the curtain, through a little door at its center." … They all know that they're trying to synchronize,"


    In Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe, an audience expresses appreciation for a good performance by the strength and nature of its applause. The initial thunder often turns into synchronized clapping, which has a well-defined pattern: strong incoherent clapping at the outset is followed by a relatively sudden synchronization process, after which everybody claps simultaneously and periodically.

    After the performance, we retrieved my companion’s coat quickly and easily (everyone with a coat must check it – I suppose because the seats are very closely packed together in the theater although I have read that it’s simply proper etiquette here), walked down to the Metro right in front of the building, and almost immediately caught a train back to our hotel. It reminded me of the hundreds of times I did the exact same thing after leaving Lincoln Center and taking the #1 train back uptown… very easy! We finished packing and tried to get a few hours sleep before our 3:30 a.m. wake up call. We had settled our hotel bill and ordered a taxi the night before to save as much time as possible.

    As others have reported, the Meridien has an arrangement with a cab company and the cab was waiting for us when we came down at 4:15 a.m. We learned when checking the night before that the fare has gone up, and it cost us 5500 Forints (about $27) to get to the airport. Because the guys at the desk were concerned about road construction, they advised an hour to get to the airport, but because I had seen travel times as short as 20 minutes and it was so early in the morning, we ordered the cab for 4:15 and, of course, we arrived there in about 20 minutes – early enough to stand in line waiting for the Lufthansa staff to arrive and start processing departures. Once they arrived at 5, the process was quick and easy and we were soon at the gate, awaiting our departure on the 7 a.m. flight to Munich, where we were to connect with a flight back to Newark.

    On the plane, where breakfast was served, I had a nice conversation with a friendly Hungarian guy on his way back to Munich where he is on assignment for his company. He told me a) it rained all summer in Budapest and we really lucked out on the weather, which he characterized as “Indian Summer” (not quite that warm, but excellent for early November!) and b) He loved NY when he was there on his honeymoon last year (en route to Maui!). The transfer from the Lufthansa flight to the Continental flight at Munich was far from optimal– not my favorite airport experience! For a start, we were late getting in and we only had a one hour and five minutes between flights if the flight had been on time. Then, there was nobody to direct us and poor signage so although we wanted to stay in the transit area and avoid leaving and having to go through security again, sure enough, we all walked out and had to go back through after leaving the bus that dropped us off who knows where. Lost on the arrivals level, we had to go back through security, and stand in line at the information desk to find our flight, then hurry to the gate. Once on the wide-bodied Continental flight, things improved, however. I was seated on the aisle in the middle section next to a lovely woman from Houston, and we chatted for a while after I had a nap (and another meal.) Back at Newark, it was hard to believe it was only 1:30 in the afternoon!

    This was a wonderful trip. I finally got to two cities I had long wanted to visit. They didn’t disappoint – I loved both Prague and Budapest and would like to return to both. I thoroughly enjoyed the river cruise experience and the AMACELLO. While I’ll never lose my love for ocean cruising (and am now up to 30!) I have a special place in my heart for the Danube and found the river ports to be interesting and lovely. I re-discovered Vienna and liked it much more than I did in 1973, when I last visited. I loved many of the AMA folks including Pilar, Lucy, Kinga, Andrea, and have great appreciation for many of the other hard-working folks on the ship, including our almost stealth Room Steward, who did such a great job while rarely being seen! Last but not least, we were fortunate to travel with a great group of people on the AMACELLO – interesting, well traveled, cheerful, gracious, bright, and unfailingly great company. We enjoyed being with them and would be glad to travel in such company again.

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    Thank you so much for all of this information; we are doing a similar itinerary next June with Uniworld, and also spending extra days in both Prague and Budapest. It will be our first river cruise, and we are really looking forward to the adventure.

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    Thanks for the excellent detailed review. In September, we also took the AMA Prague-Budapest river cruise (our first) after a number of ocean cruises. We went to many of the same places, of course, and also stayed at the Le Meridien in Budapest. I wish that I had the benefit of your review of some of the restaurants before our cruise as our pre- and post-cruise meals were somewhat "hit-or-miss." For that matter, I think the ship's meals were also variable.

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    Royal - I think you are likely to enjoy it. It's very different from ocean cruising if that has been your past experience. At the beginning of our cruise, Pili asked how many people had previously taken ocean cruises and virtually every hand went up. Then she asked how many had taken river cruises and there were very few people who had, so we were mostly new to the river. Virtually everyone I spoke with at the end had enjoyed the experience.

    Socaltraveler - I wish you a wonderful trip. I'm glad this can be of use to you and would love to hear about your trip when you return. If you have questions, feel free to ask.

    Dreps - I always try to research restaurants since eating is such a major interest for me. For the same reason, I post reviews that include descriptions of where and what I ate to benefit those that come after me. I will post information related to eating on Chowhound and some of the city information on Trip Advisor as soon as I get the time.

    Eating is, of course, very subjective. I enjoyed every meal on the ship with the exception of one dinner, but I know what you mean about hit or miss. Most people were very happy with the food but others were less satisfied... so much depends on what you are accustomed to eating and your basis for comparison, that it's difficult to generalize.

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    wiselindag,

    Thanks for the very detailed trip report - it was fun to revisit some of the places we stopped on our cruise. As for comparing AMA to the Viking cruise we took, I think the basics sound very similar - the city tours with the amplifiers and earpieces, free seating at meals (which we very much appreciated, as we soon learned which fellow travelers we wished to avoid), complementary wine with dinner.

    We walked through some other ships at docking points, and would agree that the other lobbies seemed "fancier" - but we had no complaints about the condition of the ship or the service.

    As you noted, food is a very personal issue. I found the food on Viking Pride to be completely acceptable, if not generally of "gourmet" quality. Several times I ordered the vegetarian option, as I was not interested in the other offerings - and I always enjoyed it.

    One more brief comment - we stayed in Budapest for a week on our own before we started our cruise, and we actually stayed at the Café Gerloczy. We quite enjoyed it except for the bathtub with shower attachment - impossible not to get water all over the bathroom!

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    Kathy - I looked at photographs of the rooms at Cafe Gerloczy and they looked very nice. The rates are certainly excellent, but I know what you mean about the bathtub. We had a huge, wonderful shower at the Meridien and I loved the service provided by the folks at the desks... was there anyone to do bookings, sell you transportation tickets, etc. at the Gerloczy? I can so easily get spoiled but the Meridien is usually way above my price point. I just had a great rate in Budapest that made it affordable. I definitely would have enjoyed breakfast at Cafe Gerloczy and plan to eat that meal there on my next visit!

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    No, no one was available to make bookings, etc., but everyone was very helpful concerning where to catch buses, find ATMs, and so on. We were only a few blocks from the main transportation hub, so never had a problem getting around.

    Only a block away was a laundromat staffed by ladies who spoke not one word of English. Fortunately there was a printout in English sort of explaining the process. Getting our clothes washed was one of our "interacting with real people" experiences.

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    Thanks, Cali. Marlib, if you contact me, I'd be glad to share my trip notes with you. I always research like crazy before I travel and collect all sorts of things I think I might find useful while I'm away.

    Kathy, the thought of you in the laundry made me laugh, especially the part about "interacting with real people." Although sometimes difficult, even excruciating at the time, those are always the experiences we seem to remember the most later on! I know about the transportation hub, since our hotel was right there, too... very handy!

    Thanks to all of you for writing!

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    What an incredibly detailed and informative report. I originally intended to just read it hastily to glean information about a river cruise (we're planning to take one next year or in 2012 for the first time) but I ended up reading everything for the delight it gave me to relive experiences in the places you traveled to.

    You make the time on ship sound fine. I've been a bit concerned about boredom but it doesn't sound like you were bored at all and the entertainment while not glitzy like a cruise ship sounds perfectly good as did the food. Thanks for all the info.

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    Julie,
    I wasn't worried about being bored on the ship because I had my Kindle loaded up with all the books I hadn't gotten around to reading in the summer plus my Book Club book, which was 500 pages and had to be finished soon after I returned, and I had my netbook to write my trip report. As it turned out, I barely got the trip report down in draft form and didn't touch the reading until the return flight. No boredom problems whatsoever and many lovely people to chat with, which is another great way to pass what little free time there is on a river boat.

    The entertainment is nothing like an ocean cruise. It's very low key, very local, and quite short (although on cruise ships it's about the same amount of time, but usually gets padded out with the orchestra playing and the C.D. doing his or her routine and announcements and whatnot. This is very pared down and basic. The food, while quite good, is also somewhat like that. There is plenty, but it's never "over the top" and it's not 24/7. There is simply not enough staff and not enough room, and, of course, it's not necessary. I never heard a person on the ship say they were hungry and although there was a nice machine for making coffee drinks and such, I never tried it - no time and no room!

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    I'm thinking about taking my father on an Danube cruise this fall. Was it interesting going over the continental divide and through the locks? Debating between AMA and uniworld and it seems that uniworld cruises start further downstream. Thanks for the report.

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    Thanks for your recent comments... as you might have guessed, I've been traveling and haven't looked at the Forum in several weeks... new reports just need editing and coming up soon!

    TJ, I found the Divide and the locks interesting, but I'm not as much into the technical side of riverboating as some others are... perhaps your Dad would be... I know my DH would have found that aspect interesting if he had been with me. I once did a summer cruise with Dutch friends on canals and through locks in the Netherlands, but that was a small boat and a totally different experience. I didn't realize until just before we left, how many locks we would have on this trip, and while the fact surprised me, the ease with which the Captain handled each and every lock even when the fit was tight was amazing. Also, with regard to Uniworld, I don't think they have computers in the cabins as AMA does ... not sure if that matters to you, but I found it a great convenience, especially since WIFI was complimentary.

    Rosieg - I just did research on the latest "recommended" eating in Amsterdam for someone who went there a few months ago, so if you're staying on there and you'd like a copy of the notes, let me know.

    It really makes me feel good to know my report is helpful and being put to practical use!

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    We did this trip, san Prague, in reverse in mid-October. It was fabulous in every way, and I would cruise again with AMA in a heartbeat. When we arrived at home, there was a thank-you postcard, hand signed by every member of the crew. I found the locks very very interesting...thanks for a wonderful report.

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    Thank you from moi too wiselindag : ) My DH and I are already booked for the AMA Waterways Nuremberg to Budapest Christmas Market Cruise on the Danube, also on the MS Amacello, this coming December. We are opting to do the Prague portion on our own, renting an apartment to give us more time to explore (like you I love to plan great restaurant meals!) and so we just signed up for the Cruise's bus transfer to Nuremberg. And like you, we will not be any hurry to return to North America after the river boat portion ends in Budapest. We plan to return to Vienna for six days, followed by a week in Venice, renting an apartment in both to give us lots of time to enjoy these fabulous cities. Our independent plans plus the time on the Amacello that you described so wonderfully, in great and helpful detail, is making my excitement and anticipation almost unbearable! Is it December yet?

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    Encantadora - I would love a report on what sounds like a fabulous trip when you return, so please let me know when you post one or at least how your trip went if you think of it. I have spent lots of time looking at other people's Christmas market trips, but I'm not a lover of cold weather and think I'll stick to the Caribbean and the Southern hemisphere for December-January-February! I'll be back on AMA (on the Amadagio) in October with a group of friends and am very much looking forward to returning to some favorites in each city and finding some new and wonderful restaurants in Prague and Budapest.

    Love Maine and Leslie - glad you liked the report. I'm still behind on trip reports and now have three more to post on CC and four to post here, but life and especially travel keeps getting in the way. I have been on four ocean cruises since January 1, but now plan on taking a break.

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    We are heading back to Prague and our cruise on the Danube in a few weeks and I'd be very glad to hear from anyone who has been on AMA during the past few months. If you read this trip report, did you notice any changes? Are there any activities not on the tours in either Prague or Budapest (or perhaps in the other ports) that you would recommend? Since food is always high on my priority list, any dishes on the Amadagio you would recommend or suggest we avoid? Thanks for any assistance you can provide.

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