Okay, up at 2:30a.m. and ready to roll. Well, we’re up anyway. Down to the lobby a little before 4:00 to check out and catch our coach to the Berlin airport. At this time of the morning, the hotel restaurant isn’t open, but Viking and the Hilton had a box breakfast ready for us. And it was pretty substantial: apple, banana, salami sandwich, yogurt, and topped off with cheesecake. Not exactly what you would call a traditional breakfast, but it was oh so good – and we were full.
So, on the coach we went and 20 minutes later we were deposited at the Berlin airport. Now all we needed to do was find British Airways for our flight to London Heathrow. Okay, the BA counter has to be around here somewhere. Hello? The airport is not exactly buzzing at this early hour. The airport is okay, except for the signage, which varies between confusing and nonexistent. Yeah, I’m exaggerating some (poetic license). We went in the wrong direction twice before stumbling onto the BA counter. No big deal, though after all that we had to wait 30 minutes for the security checkpoint to open (whine, whine, whine).
Boarded our plane for the flight to Heathrow (Flight time a little under two hours) and guess what –we got breakfast again – bratwurst, eggs, and (ta-da) champagne. Ah, life is good. Our flight arrived at Heathrow about 20 minutes early. And for once we weren’t thrilled about that since we were already facing a 4½ layover before our flight to DFW.
But, one of the advantages of flying business class is that we had access to American’s Admirals Club. We’re saved! Once there we found a couple of nice, comfy chairs to plop down in (We do a lot of “plopping” don’t we.). That helped out quite a bit. But after a couple of hours or so, even the Admirals Club starts to wear on you.
So we decided to venture out into the airport and find us a place to eat (Good grief…. how can we be hungry?!). And we found a place that resembled, after a fashion, an English pub. Well, after all, we are in London. We still had quite a while before our flight, so we had time to leisurely enjoy some good ol’ hearty English soup and down a couple of nice dark Guinness’s.
Ah, that hit the spot. Okay, time to settle up the tab and head toward our gate. Let’s see… here’s the bill, we had good service so let’s tack on a nice tip. Okay, there we have it; let’s just leave the euros on the table and head on out. Just a routine transaction, right?
Well, not exactly.
So, we headed out and didn’t get three steps out of the restaurant before we were chased down by a couple of waiters. They said we didn’t leave enough money to cover the tab. We said “No way man. We paid the bill including tip. So get with the program." After blurting that out, it hit us. We are in Britain. We paid our bill with the currency we had been using throughout our trip – euros. But, duh, Britain isn’t on the euro. They still use their own currency, pound sterling. When we saw our bill, out of habit, we thought it was in euros. We just didn’t think of where we were. So, given the exchange rate between pounds and euros, what we left on the table really didn’t cover the bill.
Major “oops” on our part. Luckily, it didn’t cause a major international incident. Though we can imagine those two British waiters rolling their eyes and shaking their heads as they muttered something about those people from the “Colonies.” Actually, they were quite nice about it. Appreciate that, folks.
Having successfully navigated ourselves out of that little faux pas, we headed off to our gate to board our American Airlines flight to back to Dallas. And that was also the last “event” of our trip. The flight was comfortable, uneventful, and on time. At DFW, we got our luggage, had an easy time at Customs, and our limo driver was there waiting for us. We hopped in and 45 minutes later we were home. Tired, but still basking in the glow of another wonderful trip.
Okay, so how to sum up this trip – our 5th river Cruise on Viking. Well, first of all, each of the five cruises rates in the “Great Trip” category. We really enjoyed the Elbe cruise; had a wonderful time. But we can’t say it was the best of the cruises. This is probably because it didn’t have any completely “wow” take your breath away or overpowering places or moments. Those would be like wandering around Prague in 2006 and discovering what a wonderful, wonderful city it is. Or sitting outside at a small neighborhood café in Paris and just watching people go about their lived in this fabulous city. Or Omaha Beach and the WW II American Cemetery in Normandy.
So, if you are considering a European river cruise, we would suggest starting with a cruise other than the Elbe. Our recommendation for a first-timer would be either the Danube (Budapest to Nuremburg – with the four day trip extension in Prague) or the Seine (LaHarve in Normandy to Paris with the Paris extension). Do one of these first, then we think you will really enjoy the Elbe.
We enjoyed the Elbe very much and had many memorable experiences. The first thing to remember about the Elbe cruise is that all the areas we visited were under Soviet control during the Cold War and many were hit by Allied bombing in World War II. Even as late as the 1980’s, it seemed inconceivable that we would ever be able to travel here. Right off the bat that makes it special.
Now, it’s 20 years since the end of the Cold War and 65 years since the end of WW II. Seems like a long time, but the war and Soviet occupation were devastating to what was known as the Eastern Bloc. Progress and revival have been uneven. The large cities (Prague and Berlin) have come back and are vibrant and thriving. In smaller cities and towns and in the countryside it’s been more of a struggle. A lot of restoration from the war has been done but, amazingly, some is still going on. In large part this is due to the Soviets not giving restoration much priority. The Eastern Bloc pretty much stagnated under the Soviets. Along with that, pollution became a problem. So there has been a lot of catching up to do.
It sounds like we are painting a pretty gloomy picture, but not so. Everywhere we went we could see and feel tangible signs of rebirth – in the economy, the environment, and especially the people. As always in our foreign travels, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Elbe cruise was the opportunity to meet the people who live there. It is a wonderful experience to be able to connect face-to-face with those half a world away – and yet so close.
As we said a little earlier, we had many memorable experiences on the Elbe. Maybe a way to sum it all up is to quickly re-hit some of those highlights. So let’s go back down memory lane.
• Prague, Czech Republic – It was great to get back to Prague where we spent four days in 2006 and fell in love with this city and its people. We have said that, if we were to ever relocate, it would be to Prague. Wonderful city. Go. Enjoy.
• Litomerice, Czech Republic - Nice medium sized Czech town working its way back from the Communist era. Beginning to attract tourists. The site of our great beer tasting. Make sure you hit the central square.
• Saxony and Bad Schandau – This is where we had our “open window, water in the cabin” incident. Impressive rock formations in the national park at Bad Schandau
• Dresden, Germany – Wonderful old city. Heavily bombed by the Allies in WW II. Restoration still going on 65 years later. Great restoration of buildings from the 15th – 19th centuries. Good tour of the old city and “Green Vault” museum (collection of artistic works). Beautiful on-board concert by classical musicians from the Dresden symphony.
• Meissen and Torgau, Germany – The tour of the Meissen porcelain factory is a “must do.” Beautiful work. Walking tour showed Meissen to be a town on the rise. Nice cafes and shops on and surrounding the town square. Torgau – Monument to where the American and Russian armies met in WW II.
• Wittenberg, Germany – Martin Luther’s stompin’ grounds. Tour of his house and museum.
• Dessau, Germany (Worlitz Gardens) – “Gondola” tour of English garden design; laid out in the 18th century. Recreation of European landmarks around the lake and gardens. Swans rule. Hot chocolate by a mammoth fireplace on a cool, drizzly day.
• Potsdam, Germany –
o Tours of palaces built by Frederick the Great.
Sanssouci (Summer Palace) with its gardens, vineyards, and terraces. Tradition of leaving potatoes on Fred’s grave.
Neves Palais (New Palace) – Ornate; wearing of blue booties for the tour; constant restoration.
o Cecilienhof Manor – Last of the Prussian palaces. Site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference (Truman, Churchill/Atlee, and Stalin).
• Berlin, Germany
o Preservation of the past alongside the new. Alive, exciting city.
o Brandenburg Gate – impressive and imposing
o Memorial to Murdered Jews – quiet place; very moving
o Berlin Wall – The primary symbol of the splitting of the city and the country. Murals very moving.
o Checkpoint Charlie – A little touristy now but still a powerful symbol of Cold War tensions.
So that’s our Elbe cruise. Well, not quite. There’s one more important thing to mention. And that’s our fellow travelers. On all our travels we have met many, many wonderful traveling companions. But we must say that the travelers on the Elbe cruise were the best group yet. And they were from all over North America – Maryland, Colorado, Missouri, northern and southern California, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Canada and, of course, the great state of Texas and more and more. They were wonderful to meet and be with. Being around folks like these really enhances the traveling experience. Can’t say enough about them.
And, with that, we bring our Elbe travel journal to a close.
Where are we going next? Well, we have already booked it for April 2011. And we will be going to ……. oh, let’s just save that for later.
Joye and Hank