Viking Cruise “Romantic Danube” cities + Prague: An Anniversary Celebration!
I have posted a separate report focusing on Viking River cruise experience under “Anniversary Viking River Cruise” so if you are curious about that aspect you may want to read that report for specific cruise details. This report will focus on the cities themselves and our experiences from July 20-August 1, 2015.
We decided to add Prague to our itinerary because we were so close. I had always imagined we’d visit Budapest, Prague, and Vienna as a unit. Because the cruise included Budapest and Vienna, we ended up flying in to Prague using our miles on United. Now I sign up for credit cards for the miles, keep them for two years, and then sign up for another. Linda accrues quite a lot through her business expenses. Our last two trips have been on United/British Airways using saver miles on Business class. Yep, the almost-flat seats, the preferential boarding experience, the luggage first out of the shoot, decent food, the lounge at the airport. This trip was regular old economy, though we upgraded for extra $$$ to Economy Plus. The upside to that was on the flight out (both on aisle seats) we both had empty middle seats. Sweet! I have to say that took the edge off THAT flight. We flew from San Francisco to Frankfurt with a 2 ½ hour layover and then on to Prague. I had arranged with the Prague hotel to send their pickup service for a cost of about $25. It was so nice to exit passport control and see a man holding up a sign with my name on it. From landing to entering our hotel room is was about 50 minutes. Good start!
Hotel Pod Vezi in Prague is located on the castle side of the St. Charles Bridge. The hotel is next to the tower that borders the bridge so we were extremely central: a hop, skip, and a jump and you were on the bridge. We were given our keys, had a brief overview from the hotel clerk, and were walked to our room located in their second building across the courtyard. Took the elevator up to the third floor where we were greeted with a large bedroom, a free standing air conditioner going full throttle, a Nespresso machine on the counter, a large bathroom (shower only), and several chocolates on the table. We were thrilled! Prague was experiencing a heat wave that week and that air conditioning was welcome AND necessary. That first night we slept until 4AM, got up and got dressed, and blew out a fuse. Let’s see, air conditioner + lights+ recharging phone+ hair dryer=too much! Fortunately, I was able to walk down the three hundred year old steps courtesy of the light sensors and found a young man in the hotel owned restaurant to fix the breakers.
Prague was beautiful! Just architecturally a marvel. That first full morning after our electrical blow out, we walked the bridge at 5AM. A handful of people were around but it was quiet and peaceful. We walked the old quarter, saw the clock, walked through the Jewish area, and just appreciated the empty streets and the beautiful buildings. I am a huge Rick Steves fan, and his Eastern Europe book, published in June 2015 did not disappoint. I had ripped out the Vienna, Budapest, and Prague chapters to carry as needed. He had so much practical advice about hours of sites and best tickets and trams numbers, etc. We used many of his “walks” in all three cities. In Prague we visited the castle (tram tickets were available for purchase from the hotel) and the cathedral area and walked the shopping area in the early evening when it had cooled down. Purchased a few garnet pieces as well. We have travelled a lot and I have never seen so many tourists as we saw in Prague!
I determined that taking a bus from Prague’s train station to Nurenberg train station (3 ½ hours) was more time effective than a longer train ride with two connections. It worked out well. Comfortable ride, toilet at the back, smooth ride. I had bought the tickets 90 days prior to our trip to get the best price.
Arriving at the Nurenberg train station and waiting for the luggage to be taken out of the hold below the bus, I spotted our Hotel Victoria sign literally across the street. All we had to do was to cross the busy intersection and walk about one minute to get to our hotel. Found it on trip advisor (ranked #3) as well as Rick Steves, it was a good find. Sara, the gal who checked us in was helpful and patient with our questions. Our room was small (108 euros), on the train station side, no air conditioning but there was a very quiet, efficient fan in a clean room and sparkling bathroom. Included would be a wonderful breakfast the following morning. A little noise from the busy street near the train station, but it became just quiet noise in the background (and I am a fussy person about noise). The big windows let in cooler air in the night so it all worked out. We slept most of the day away when we arrived because we had both had little sleep the night before.
The next day (feeling better!) we had the morning before we headed to the ship. Although the cruise began in Nurenberg, the port technically is in an industrial area of Erlangen about a 30-40 minute taxi ride outside of Nurenberg. I didn’t realize that until the paperwork about the cruise came about three weeks ahead of time. Anyway that morning we actually did a load of washing. We took a metro ride a few stops, walked about four blocks, and landed at this laundromat where a wonderful attendant helped get us started. We walked to a nearby park during the wash cycle and found a bank for more euros during the dry cycle. Got back to the hotel, dumped our clothes, and took the tram (using the “family pass” we had bought for the metro) to the Nazi Documentation Center which was Nazi headquarters during the big rallies held in the adjoining field. I knew Viking was going to give us Nurenberg tour that included the rally grounds so I thought this center would be an appropriate complement. The Center focused on movie clips, artifacts, pictures, etc. that explained the “Fascination and Terror” of the 3rd Reich.
We boarded the ship just after 3 PM as Viking suggested. The next day were boarded busses for commentary about Nurenberg, visited the rally field, shown specific city highlights by bus, and then had a 45 minute walking tour followed by an hour of free time. I am glad we had the extra night in Nurenberg on our own to do our own walking and sightseeing as this gave us a better sense of the city.
We sailed to Regensburg, Germany, one of the biggest cities in Bavaria. This time it was a walking tour. The tour guide walked us around the compact city and it seemed that at every turn there was a beautiful building, a certain architectural feature, Roman walls embedded in a newer wall, Oscar Schindler’s lodging, or something else that gave us pause. I can see why this city is deemed a UNESCO site. I found the whole place enchanting. Later that night, Linda and I walked back to the city and I mimicked my walking tour (Linda has stayed on ship to nap) and enjoyed the façade of the illuminated St. Peter’s cathedral.
Passau, another Bavarian city, was our next stop. We separated early from the Viking tour after a boring pattern was established by the tour guide of pointing out marks left by the great flood of 2013. Another very compact city, it was easy to find the two key churches. The big cathedral was actually inaccessible due to an organ concert. Viking treated us all to a 4 euro organ concert later that morning and although we didn’t necessarily want to go to the concert, we had to go in order to see the cathedral! Hands down I preferred Regensburg over Passau as I thought it was much more interesting and varied in what one could see and experience….R. seemed to have a richer history as well as reflected in its architecture.
Vienna, ahhh, Vienna. Felt like a stately and imperial version of Paris... buildings puffed out and standing tall. We were given an hour overview bus tour and when we moved to the walking part, Linda and I took off for the Hofburg Palace. Again, in the Viking literature, there is a lot of “you will see” but not a lot of “you will visit.” Yes, we would see the Hofburg Palace, but we wouldn’t go into it. Well, we walked over to the Palace and bought the “Sisi ticket” which gave us access to the Royal Apartments of the Hofburg Palace, the “Sisi” tour (the interesting story of Empress Elizabeth) and a couple of other of the Hofburg museums. We paid extra to visit the interesting Treasury full of treasures and bejeweled reliquaries. The Sisi ticket included entrance to Schonbrunn Palace (the summer palace) allowing you to bypass the lines for a “fast-track” entrance. We breezed right in! So we enjoyed both palaces that day…taking the metro from one to the other. We also had time to walk the pedestrian-only main drag which let us to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We took the tram back to the port area and then had to walk another 20 minutes, passing a string of ships to find ours. Though we were docked at the #1 spot, it was the furthest out from the tram line. What a full day!
Last stop was Budapest. We docked just outside Budapest so we were driven in about an hour, given a tour of the Buda side, and then walked to the castle area and given a brief tour of the church. We spent the afternoon walking the long, pedestrian-only street Vaci Utca and did window shopping, actual shopping, and ended up at the Great Market Hall. We bought little tins of paprika as take home souvenirs and found some pottery on the second floor (European “first” floor) similar to we had seen at a prior store. We walked the 40 minutes back to our ship which was docked right near the Chain Bridge, a really great location. That night the ship slowly circled the bridge areas for a very gorgeous view of both sides lit up for the night. Truly a slice of the “Romantic Danube”!
After leaving the ship (we all needed to be off by 9AM) we took a taxi (Viking called one of their preferred companies-10 euros) to our hotel for our last night…Hotel Palazzo Zichy. What a find on tripadvisor (#3) and cross referenced with booking.com. This was a chic, boutique hotel located in the shell of an old palazzo. The room was large, the bathroom was large, and it was probably the most upscale hotel I have ever stayed in. There was a fruit plate on the counter wishing us a happy anniversary. There was a bidet! A rainforest shower head with a hand-held nozzle! The bed was firm! The sheets seemed to be all cotton! There would be a wonderful spread (hot and cold) at the included breakfast the next morning! The view was of the nearby church and the little square in front of it. There was a Russian restaurant directly across the hotel where we had a delicious steak dinner that night and then further down the road, a string of outdoor bistros and cafes. It was tucked a bit away from the tourist area but near three different metro stops. We spent that day in the Jewish quarter, visiting the largest synagogue in Europe, taking a walking tour with a guide to another nearby synagogue, and hearing the history of the area. We repacked that afternoon, realizing that the two carry on tote bags I packed would be necessary if we didn’t want to incur a “heavy” baggage fee. I toted a bag of dirty laundry (why are clean clothes so much lighter?) and Linda carried the pottery. One bag ended up being one pound over (no fee for that) and the other… two pounds under so I was glad I packed the extra bags!
I had the hotel arrange the taxi transportation (about $20) to take us to the airport. The driver came a bit early, and it took about 20 minutes to get to the hotel that Saturday morning. So we had about 2 ½ hours before our flight to Frankfurt. There were a few shops to meander through and free wifi at the airport. The Frankfurt to SFO plane was packed. I had finished all my paperback books, read the new Harper Lee book on our kindle, and then unsuccessfully tried to sleep the last six hours.
The logistics of the trip flowed so well, I thought. Our accommodations couldn’t have been better. There is no substitute for doing homework around a trip and it paid off for us. I chatted with my neighbor yesterday who just arrived home from a three week trip to Europe with five family members. The glitches she experienced (such as catching the slow train and not the fast one so missed a flight, didn’t realize you needed a sticker on your car when crossing into Austria, getting caught off guard when Norwegian Airlines made a substitution at the last minute) are the kinds of things we are warned about when we read forums like this and when people share their stories. Not that we can anticipate all glitches and we all have stories we laugh about now but at the time….I do appreciate having sites like this where there is this exchange of information so we can experience travel to the fullest and not waste time or spin our wheels or plan in a vacuum as well as to read about someone else’s trip. Thanks for listening to our travel adventure.
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Viking Cruise “Romantic Danube” cities + Prague: An Anniversary Celebration!