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Eastern Europe with River Cruise: Slovenia the Star

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Jan 7th, 2019, 07:13 AM
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Eastern Europe with River Cruise: Slovenia the Star

Once again, Fodorites helped me fine tune our itinerary for Eastern Europe in September 2018, built around an AmaWaterways 7 nt river cruise on AmaLea from Vilshoven, Germany to Budapest, Hungary.

Overview: 4 nts Prague (Czech Rep.)…2 nts Cesky Krumlov (Czech Rep)…7 nt River Cruise (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary)…4 nts Budapest (Hungary)…2 nts Bled (Slovenia); 2 nts Kobarid (Slovenia), 2 nts Trieste (Italy); 2 nts Ljubljana (Slovenia.

Day 1: Prague, Hotel Pod Vezi

We used the airport shuttle provided by the hotel which worked well and pulled up to this charming small hotel located on the western side of the Charles Bridge right next to the Bridge Tower….excellent location. There’s not much of a reception lobby to speak of but we received a friendly welcome and a large room on the first floor (Rm 13). The ceilings were high, the view over the top of the outdoor restaurant umbrellas and the side of the tower, the bed was very comfortable with split duvets, and welcome chocolates. Actually, every day there was a new treat brought to the room. The decor was simple but included a large bath tub, which I always covet to soak aching walking muscles.

There was a discount voucher for dinner and we ate the first night outside on the terrace…convenient for when jet lag strikes. I thought the dinner was just OK…the salad was boring, the veal and the pork chop chewy and I didn’t like the two wines I had by the glass. Other than that….Meal for two about 40 E. Slept well.

Day 2: Prague

Breakfast was served in a lovely, vaulted dining room with a great buffet and cappuccino made to order. Beautiful sunny day in mid-70’s .

Walked across the northern bridge to the Jewish District, but alas, all was closed due to the Jewish Holidays. So, explored Old Town with its gorgeous architecture and tried to ignore the crowds around the Square but they prevented us from going up the Tower. Had a great lunch in the gorgeous Municipal Building’s Obsceni Dum cafe, then on to New Town to try and see the Museum of Communism, which had moved to a location back to where we had started in New Town. By then my feet were screaming at me so didn’t go back but still managed to walk the length of Wenceslaus Square, then searched awhile to find the Fransciscan Gardens for some rest. Wasted time trying to find a recommended Cukarna, which looked disappointing when we finally found it. I would’ve skipped this whole area.

Figured out the Metro so we could save some walking back to the hotel…and again looking for a cake place I never did find. We did stumble upon an Angelato outpost , for great gelato.

Collapsed back in the room for a nap and lukewarm bath (some problem with temp that afternoon) and received a beautiful fruit basket.

Dinner was at Hergetova Cihelna, within walking distance on the Vltava River with a perfect table overlooking the river, watching the lit up boats glide past and the illuminated Charles River before me. It was a mild evening but they provided blankets for warmth. First try of Bohemian Brut (great!), duck wontons, beef tenderloin tips (Svickova), Pike/Perch in a delicious sauce, two glasses of a delicious Czech red wine and and a chocolate dessert. Meal was about $130 with tip for two but worth it for the lovely views and decent food.

To be continued:
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Jan 7th, 2019, 08:21 AM
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Day 3: Prague

After another great breakfast, we rushed to get the tram to the Castle District’s North Entrance after reading you need to arrive by 9a. Then, rushed to St. Vitus Cathedral, where the worst crowds gathered. The gothic cathedral soared with ribbed ceilings and spectacular stained glass windows. After admiring the nave, we left the throngs behind with a ticket that allowed us to enter the rest of the cathedral in peace. The impressive, colorful windows left dancing reflections on the walls and the modern one by Mucha was outstanding. This was the best part of the castle complex.

It was very hot, upper 80’s, and we felt it as we walked along the rest of the complex. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed with the rest. Had a good black forest cake and coffee on the terrace overlooking the red rooftops of Mala Strana inside the Lobkowicz Palace, an art museum that we should have toured. The famed Golden Way was cute but very crowded, there was a simple church to enter, and we walked along the ramparts and gardens back to the Main Gate, which was a more impressive entrance to the complex, with colorfully uniformed guards. Couldn’t believe how long the lines stretched for entry and was glad we had come early…and this was on a Wednesday.

Found the old steps to walk back down to Mala Strana and ducked into St. Nicholas Church but the acclaimed ceiling frescoes were under restoration. Then, walked too far to see Wallenstein Garden, which wasn’t worth the effort although it did have an interesting grotto and panels detailing Czech history.

Stopped at a good shop for blown Czech glass, Blue, where DH bought a lovely blue bottomed beer glass.

An early dinner at V. Zatisi for a four course special meal by a visiting Michelin chef from Marseille (grilled foie gras app, snail & pea cream soup, quenelles of pike and lamb…all delicious) …only ones there at 5:30. But, we had tickets for 8p at the Rudolfinium for a Dvorak Festival concert with Academy of St. Martin in the Fields featuring Sharon Kam, a brilliant clarinet soloist from Isreal who did an amazing Mozart Concerto. Fun to see all the locals dressed in their finest for the event. Lovely walk back along the beautifully lit Charles Bridge.
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Jan 7th, 2019, 08:51 AM
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Day 4: Prague

Rushed out again to walk to Pinkus Synagogue by 9a as recommended, but there were no crowds. Today is cooler and bit drizzly…fitting weather for viewing the somber history of the Jewish District. The Pinkus was memorable as they’ve written in calligraphy on the walls of the Synagogue the 80,000 names of Czech Jews who were killed and listed what towns they were from. Truly staggering to see. Also had sobering panels with photos from the transports, etc.

Then, explored the Jewish Cemetery with all the topsy turvy ancient head stones. Then, toured the Old/New Synagogue, one of the oldest, with a very high ticket price.

As a note, I was disappointed in the shopping options. The few stores I had read about and sought out didn’t do it for me. The best were the local blown glass stores like Blue and Botanicus, natural bath, etc. products.

Another walk through Old Town Square to have coffee and cake at the Grand Union Cafe with it’s cubist design. Admired the Estates Theater from the outside. Took the Metro to the Southern bridge and had an excellent Czech lunch at the Olympia…Beef Goulasch, Dumplings & Red Cabbage and Kuljada Soup and a great dark Czech beer, Krusovice Cerne. Walked back to the hotel in the rain then on to a double massage in the Augustine Hotel’s, Spa Esocetria, with a gorgeous, Bali-inspired decor. Very relaxing on a chllly, rainy day.

Dinner was at Cotto Crudo, in the Four Season’s Hotel, where we met up with friends who’d be cruising with us shortly. I regretted picking this over- priced restaurant when we could have enjoyed a more typical meal at much better prices. Tomorrow, we’ll be leaving this atmospheric city for the fairy tale village of Cesky Krumlov.
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Jan 7th, 2019, 12:29 PM
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Happy to hear you enjoyed your trip! We love Prague and Cesky Krumlov! Am interested to read your details about Slovenia. We will be there in early May.
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Jan 7th, 2019, 03:28 PM
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Really enjoying your report! Will look forward to more. We liked both Prague and Cesky Krumlov, for different reasons.
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Jan 7th, 2019, 03:41 PM
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KarenWoo...hope you're patient...that's at the end of our trip but SO worth it!
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Jan 7th, 2019, 03:42 PM
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Tomarkot, It's easy to love both those places.

Last edited by barefootbeach; Jan 7th, 2019 at 03:42 PM. Reason: add name
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Jan 7th, 2019, 03:45 PM
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Day 5: Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic, Hotel Dvorak

I’d arranged a private transfer with Sebastian Tours, which included an option of sightseeing en route. The three stops we made weren’t that great, especially as it was raining. Perhaps a nice sunny day would’ve changed my impressions. First, we stopped at Hluboka Castle, reached by climbing a steep street to arrive at this pretty castle and gardens. No time to visit inside with a 40 minute stop. (We could have paid more money for additional time). Then drove to Ceske Budejovice, home of the Budvar (or original Budweiser) brewery. Again, just had time to walk around the large and scenic town square, with it’s Black Tower…for some reason one area had fake snow on the ground. A brewery tour was an option, but having grown up in Milwaukee among breweries, not high on my list. Final stop was Holavisce, a Unesco small farming village community with painted barrels shaped architecture. Again, all of this would have been more enjoyable if it hadn’t been raining, but at least we got to see more of the Czech Republic.

Arriving at our hotel in the pedestrian only Old Town was challenging and I’m glad we didn’t try this ourselves. Hotel Dvorak is located right on the Vltava river and as I entered our huge room #401 I couldn’t believe the incredible view. Above the rushing river and across to the frescoed Tower of the Castle Complex and down to Butcher’s Bridge, the wooden gateway connecting part of the Old Town with the Upper Castle district…a peninsula surrounded by the river with rafters drifting by. Idyllic. This room was more like an apartment, with windows on three sides and a huge marble bathroom. Not luxurious but comfortable and a ‘to die for’ location.

Dinner was supposed to be at their Riverside Terrace but due to rain, it was closed. You could’ve eaten in the bar, but I didn’t like the looks of it. So, at the last minute, we scrambled to find a restaurant on a Friday night. Luckily, we snagged the last table at the uber cute, Svejk, based on the Czech soldier character, upstairs in their cozy two room dining area. We had excellent local fare, duck and pork tenderloin, with Blueberry Dumplings for dessert…all at a very reasonable price. Basic pub atmosphere with efficient yet friendly service. DH loved it.

Although we didn’t walk around the town a lot today due to the rain, the number of tour groups crowding the streets taking excessive numbers of selfies, was noteworthy.

Day 6: Cesky Krumlov

Breakfast was in a lower level room without atmosphere but a good buffet. Drizzling rain again as we ascended the steps to the Castle Complex, each set steeper than the previous, snapping photos of the fairy tale village scenes below. At the box-office, I couldn’t believe I was able to get English Speaking 10am tour tickets to the Baroque Theater, which normally are hard to come by, and it turned out there was only one other couple with us. This is an extremely interesting tour of a 16-17th Century theater that had figured out how to create the appearance of depth with various set panels, how to recreate sound effects for thunder, wind and rain, and trap doors to raise/lower actors. Due to our small number, we got to go above to see the Royal Box and below the stage to see the workings. Fascinating.

Afterwards, we kept climbing up to see the Gardens and back down to go through the Castle Museum to see what Castle life looked like. By now, the sun had come out so had to retake all those pretty village shots. Able to eat lunch at our hotel’s Riverside Terrace, which was very good….goat cheese salad and goulash soup. Then, walked all around the charming little streets and alleys that make up old town, dodging the throngs of tour groups. Disappointed with shopping here too, although there’s a charming store that sold products made from beer, like beer shampoo.

In the evening, the streets become much more pleasant and atmospheric as the tour groups leave. We’d booked dinner at Le Jardin, a cute, small French fine dining restaurant, where we finally got great service. The service up to now had been rather brusque, but not bad. Great duck (but not better than Svejk at half the price) and rack of lamb and Kulajda soup.

Tomorrow, we board the AmaLea.
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Jan 7th, 2019, 04:17 PM
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Looking forward to reading more. We’re going to be doing the reverse cruise itinerary in September of this year (hopefully) although our land portion (before and after) will be different than the itinerary you did.
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Jan 7th, 2019, 05:00 PM
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patandhank...September is a great month, weather wise for this cruise. What line will you be on?
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Jan 8th, 2019, 01:41 AM
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just found this and enjoying reading about your impressions of Prague, which Bill and I visited between Christmas and New Year about 12 years ago, and never got round to revisiting in a warmer time of the year. Looks like we missed something [though not the crowds]. also looking forward to reading about the cruise as I have a yen to doing one in eastern Europe.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 03:10 AM
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Looking forward to more of your report. We are most definitely not cruise people; I do like to read other's impressions of our neighbors for something I might be missing, though.

We have had a memorable dinner at Pod Vezi; a lightly snowing January night on the terrace with the heat lamps and blankets, enjoying seasonal duck and a bottle of excellent Czech red wine. I am sorry to read your meal was just okay.

I have shopped at Botanicus, but my preference is Manufaktura. Were you able to drop into any of their shops?
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Jan 8th, 2019, 05:04 AM
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annhig, glad you're enjoying this. stay tuned for the cruise.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 05:08 AM
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fourfortravel, I keep saying I'm not a cruiser yet occasionally take them...and then say I'd rather have stayed on land! Funny you should mention Manufactura....I kept looking for that shop and it wasn't until the morning we left that I realized one was very close to the hotel and no time to browse! Yes, the restaurant gets good reviews so I think we just had an off night...and also their wines by the glass probably don't match the quality you get in a bottle.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 08:23 AM
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Onboard and looking forward to more.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 09:05 AM
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bon voyage...thank you!
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Jan 8th, 2019, 12:10 PM
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View of Charles Bridge towers


View of Charles Bridge from Helgetova Cihelna restaurant


St. Vitus Cathedral stained glass window


Early morning brings out brides for photo shoots and street sweepers
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Jan 8th, 2019, 12:10 PM
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Let me know if these photos come out too large
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Jan 8th, 2019, 12:28 PM
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View of Castle Complex and Vltava River, Cesky Krumlov


Hotel Dvorak on Vltava River, Cesky Krumlov


View from our room at Hotel Dvorak


View from Castle Complex, Cesky Krumlov


Street scene, Cesky Krumlov

Last edited by barefootbeach; Jan 8th, 2019 at 12:33 PM. Reason: add photo
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Jan 8th, 2019, 01:31 PM
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Day 7 Cruising the Danube aboard AmaWaterways AmaLea, Vilshoven, Germany

We had chosen not to use the cruise line’s pre-cruise package so needed a way to get to the embarkation port of Vilshoven, Germany. I used Sebastian Tours again but wasn’t impressed with this driver. He was unable to use his GPS and didn’t know how to get there, so DH went with him into hotel to download maps to use. He also drove very fast along curvy, country roads and didn’t help us with our luggage to get to the ship check in.

So, why did I choose AmaWaterways? First, I’m not an avid cruiser and usually prefer to drive ourselves and stay at cute inns to explore a country. However, I wanted to try a river cruise and visit Prague and Budapest so this seemed like a good solution although we’d already visited the Austrian ports on an independent trip. Plus, we had friends who also wanted to try one. I liked that AmaWaterways had about 150 vs. 200 passengers on Viking, that it had bikes onboard to use and hosted Backroads mini groups (figured passengers would be more active), that it got great marks for cuisine and shore excursions, and that the AmaLea was a brand new ship in 2018. Also had heard from several friends who had cruised favorably with them.

The reason I picked going south to north was that we got to view Budapest’s bridges and buildings beautifully illuminated at night as we cruised along the waterfront, which wouldn’t happen on a north bound itinerary.

We boarded the ship about 2p, before most of the guests arrived and was able to grab a quick , self service lunch. Our room included a small balcony with 2 chairs and table, and a french balcony, and was attractive and efficiently laid out, although the bathroom was a tighter fit compared to ocean cruises, it had a decent sized shower. It included a “window” that you could push a button to see into the bedroom and outside or frost it for privacy. I recommend you have collapsable suitcases which we did (Lipault brand) so they could be slid under the bed. Otherwise you’ll be tripping over them in the room.

We quickly walked out on the balcony and enjoyed the long river view UNTIL another ship rudely pulled up next to us and the room went dark. Welcome to the ugly truth of “rafting”…or as I called it, being shafted. We were unlucky in that this basically happened every day. I caution you to figure out which side of the ship you’ll be docked on and try to get a room on the other side. This can change day to day and even if you’re on the outside river side, you still can have another ship pull up next to you. It became a joke because our friends were on the opposite side and mostly had clear views.

The top deck of the ship had a lovely pool (which we never used although it was HOT for most days) and attractive seating areas.

We walked around Vilshoven a bit but everything was closed since it was Sunday. There was an Oktoberfest celebration offered onshore for us with beer, pretzels, accordion music and children dancing. Very enjoyable. From 5:30-6:30 we were subjected to a way too long, stupid safety talk by the captain. Someone needs to edit that guy. Dinner was at a set time, 7pm, but seating was open so we could dine privately or with others. A special cocktail was always offered and wines were served with dinner, which was generally very good.

Day 8: Passau, Germany

After a morning spent walking around the now open Vilshoven, we cruise down to Passau, where we went through the Locks for some natural room darkening….like being in a cave. Our selected shore excursion is to climb to Ober Vesterhaus for a view of the confluence of 3 rivers, the Danube, Inn and Els. We have a wonderful tour guide filled with entertaining tidbits who doesn’t stop talking the whole time we climb 38 floors and 12,000 steps (according to my Fitbit) up to the 1499 Castle atop the hill opposite the town. First we cross a suspension bridge and then start climbing. The Prince Bishop used to live here and control the whole region. It’s very hot and sunny…I didn’t pack the right clothes (shorts!) as I expected more fall like temperatures. Afterwards, we had free time to explore the town and we visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral with the world’s largest organ. Would’ve loved to hear it.

Tonight was our friend’s birthday and we had made a reservation to eat in their Chef’s Table specialty restaurant for an excellent Tasting menu. Claudio (a double for James Franco) and the Maitre d’ joked around with us all night…very funny. They brought out an amazing chocolate cake for him and upgraded our wine. Wonderful celebration.
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