Catherine Sweeney brings you the best of Europe and North America travel destinations by seizing every travel opportunity she can. She's a boomer woman travel enthusiast with a lifelong passion for going places.
On the western side of the Rhine River where it forms the border between France and Germany is the French region of Alsace, an area that has a long and complex history particularly characterized by switches in rule from German to French and back over the centuries. In fact, it’s really only been since World War II that the region has been truly established as being part of France. This recurring change of national identity is the reason that there are such interesting blends of German and French influences seen in architecture, culture, food, wine and traditions.
A vineyard, pretty flowers, and a cat — this is Alsace!
During our Viking River Rhine Getaway cruise, we got a chance to experience some of the flavors and characteristics on both sides of the Rhine. A favorite activity for me was an Alsatian wine tasting excursion. It was our first visit to this area of France, and we were enthralled, even a little surprised, and even overcast weather did not darken the day or our enthusiasm.
Alsatian wine region scenery
The pretty villages of the Alsatian Wine Route
From our docking port at Kehl, Germany, we traveled by coach across the river to Strasbourg, France, and then into Alsace wine country. Our journey was just a short portion of the of the 106-mile Alsace Wine Route (Route des Vins d’Alsace) that runs through more than 100 traditional Alsatian villages showcasing their wineries. From Strasbourg, we drove along tree-lined two-lane roads through a countryside of picturesque villages and vineyards with a backdrop of the Vosges Mountains.
Take a stroll in Obernai
Strolling through Obernai
Before reaching our Alsatian wine tasting destination, we stopped in the lovely town of Obernai, about 18 miles from Strasbourg, for a walking tour. Like other Alsatian medieval villages, Obernai’s charm is found in its half-timbered buildings, sandstone churches with prominent steeples, and public squares surrounded by shops and cozy cafes.
Old city ramparts and tower in Obernai
From the town’s main public parking area, we walked through a serene wooded area with a babbling brook and past the remains of the Middle Ages fortress ramparts and tower to get to the town center.
Colorful half-timbered houses of Obernai
Heading uphill from the town center, we visited the neo-Gothic church of St. Pierre and St. Paul and its adjacent cemetery with its flower-adorned tombs. I like spending a little time in old cemeteries and thinking about the stories that could be told.
Church of Saints Pierre and Paul in Obernai
The church was built in the latter part of the 19th century (on the site of the old church) using the pink sandstone of the Vosges Mountains, but inside are some important features from the original church such as its Holy Sepulchre altar built in 1504 and 15th-century stained glass windows.
It seems that there are a lot of babies to be delivered in Alsace! In Obernai (and earlier in Strasbourg) we spotted several storks in their nests like those on a chimney top shown below.
Storks nesting on a chimney top in Obernai
Barr, the capital of Alsatian wine
Bidding au revoir to Obernai, we were ready to enjoy a taste of Alsace in the village of Barr, a short 5 miles away. Barr is considered to be the wine capital of Alsace.
Steep, narrow street in Barr
Tucked inside a series of medieval buildings on a narrow cobblestone street was the entrance to the Domaine Hering winery, a family owned and operated enterprise since 1858. Fabienne Hering (shown below) is the wife of the current (fourth) generation’s owner Jean-Daniel and was our guide for the winery and cellar tour. In the photo below, you can see Fabienne standing next to one of the large oak barrels in the cellar. Can you believe that Jean-Daniel has to climb through a small door in these casks to clean them from the inside? This is not a job for the claustrophobic!
Huge oak cask and tasting room at Domaine Hering
Mr. TWS and I were very impressed that Domaine Hering has been practicing sustainable viticulture since 1999 and in 2011 began organic production practices. They are members of Tyflo, an Alsatian sustainable agricultural practices organization.
Wines of Alsace
There are seven primary types of wine produced in Alsace — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner d’Alsace, and Pinot Noir (the only red wine). Consistent with the combination of French and German influences seen throughout Alsace are the typical German varietals of Riesling and Gewurztraminer, but made in French style of wine-making. crisp white wines. Of these, we tasted four Alsatian varietals at Domaine Hering.
My favorite of the wines — a crisp, dry Riesling
We thoroughly enjoyed the picturesque setting and ambiance of the winery situated below the vineyards of the Kirchberg de Barr. The Kirchberg de Barr is given the distinction of being a Grand Cru listed hill signifying that it is one of the highest quality places to produce Alsace wines. Our small group sampled four wines in the tasting room.
A taste of Pinot Noir in the Domaine Hering tasting room
I often think the tasting notes of the winemakers themselves can be like poetry — especially if read in French! I’m including a few quotes from Domaine Hering about the four wines we tried during our tasting — in French and in English (with the help of Google Translate). Alors …. (So…)
Riesling – Alsace Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr
A big surprise for me was to learn that the Rieslings of Alsace are not sweet like those of Germany where they are quite sweet. This crisp white wine was my favorite of those we tasted.
“La prestigieuse appellation Alsace Grand Cru est réservée aux vins qui répondent à des critères de qualité très stricts …. Ils doivent être le reflet du terroir dont ils sont issus. L’origine géologique est donc primordiale dans l’expression de la typicité des grands crus. Le Kirchberg de Barr est un terroir exceptionnel reconnu depuis 1975 dans la première phase de sélection des Grands Crus alsaciens. Il couvre un sol calcaire à marno-calcaire riche en blocs et galets calcaires du Jurassique moyen couronné de conglomérats tertiaires.”
“The wine is brilliant, crystalline with a yellow robe with golden highlights. The nose is fine and very expressive with very intense and rich notes …. It has a mixed minerality with flavors of roasted pineapple, citrus, orange zest and a mineral touch adding complexity. In the mouth, the wine presents a very beautiful material, without aggressiveness and all in finesse. The palate is invaded by scents of citrus and keeps a freshness and a palatability that sublimate the most refined dishes.”
Les Authentiques Muscat
Once again, we were surprised to find the fruity Alsatian Muscat wine to be dry. When I think of wines made from Muscat grapes, I usually think of the sweet Moscatel we had on our trip to Portugal.
“Caractérisé par des arômes de raisin frais et de fleur d’oranger, ce muscat vous séduira par son côté fruité et sec. Il est léger et gouleyant et accompagne parfaitement les apéritifs printaniers ou estivaux et les asperges.”
“Characterized by aromas of fresh grapes and orange blossom, this muscat will seduce you with its fruity and dry side. It is light and easy to drink and goes well with springtime or summer aperitifs and asparagus.”
Gewürztraminer – Grand Cru Kirchberg de Barr
Although I’m not typically a fan of sweet wines, this Gewürztraminer would be quite enjoyable as a dessert wine. Like the Riesling, it has the “Grand Cru” designation of the highest quality vines of the Kirchberg de Barr.
“Ce vin vous étonnera par son élégant pouvoir de séduction. D’une approche plutôt réservée, vous apprécierez ces arômes fins de roses et de pamplemousse qui se prolongent crescendo. La bouche est parfaitement ciselée et la matière du vin s’harmonise parfaitement avec la minéralité du terroir. En finale, on retrouve la marque du Kirchberg qui se reconnait par des parfums d’épices et de réglisse.”
“This wine will surprise you with its elegant power of seduction. With a rather reserved approach, you will appreciate these fine aromas of roses and grapefruit that extend crescendo. The mouth is perfectly chiselled and the wine’s material harmonises perfectly with the minerality of the terroir. Finally, we find the brand of Kirchberg which is recognized by scents of spices and licorice.”
Pinot Noir Rouge – Cuvée des Hospices de Strasbourg
Pinot Noir grapes are used to make two varieties of wine in Alsace — Pinot Noir Rouge and Pinot Noir Rosé. We tasted Domaine Hering’s Pinot Noir Rouge which I found to be pleasantly comparable to other Pinot Noirs that I enjoy (such as some California and Hungarian wines), but lighter.
“Belle robe rouge clair aux reflets orangés et brillants. Le nez exprime le petit fruits rouges (framboise, groseille) et est très flatteur. En bouche, le vin est léger, gouleyant et sec. On retrouve en bouche les mêmes parfums de fruits rouges. Parfait avec la viande froide, les salades composées et la viande blanche.”
“Beautiful light red dress with orange and shiny reflections. The nose expresses the small red fruits (raspberry, currant) and is very flattering. On the palate, the wine is light, easy to drink and dry. We find in the mouth the same flavors of red fruits. Perfect with cold meat, mixed salads and white meat.”
Following the tasting, we strolled the garden adjacent to the tasting room. that admiring the vistas of the hillside vineyards of Kirchberg de Barr.
The hillside vineyards of Kirchberg de Barr
Due to the wet weather that day, we weren’t able to take a walk in the vineyards, but took a leisurely walk along the lane behind the winery past the church in the photo below and the streets of Barr back to our coach.
Lovely lane in Barr
Tree-lined staircase in the village of Barr
An inviting hotel and restaurant on a square in Barr, France
Mr. TWS and I give two thumbs up to the Alsatian Wine Tasting excursion when you take a Viking Rhine Getaway cruise. It’s a wonderful introduction to Alsatian wine and there’s lovely scenery along the way.
Visit the Domaine Hering site for more information about their wines and tours. (Alas, they don’t ship to the US!)
Want to get away? As much as we love our time at home in Scottsdale, Arizona, we always enjoy getting away, too. We’re recently back from our latest European getaway and still pulling together our thoughts and photos to share in articles over the next several weeks. But I can’t wait to give you an introduction to our trip, a cruise with Viking River Cruises on the Rhine River in Switzerland, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Sit back, relax, and take a journey with us on the on the Rhine as you consider your next getaway.
Rhine River cruise photos on Instagram
Are you following us on Instagram? Please do! These are some of my favorite photos that I posted to our Instagram gallery about our Rhine Getaway cruise.
Basel, Switzerland’s beautiful town hall
Have you ever seen such a pretty town hall? I was quite taken with the bold red color and beautiful frescoes on this one in Basel, Switzerland. It is much larger than you see here, but I wanted to show you the detail. Upon arrival in Basel before embarking on our cruise, I took a walking tour (organized by Viking River Cruises) of this busy and vibrant city that I hope to visit again sometime.
Stepping back in time in Colmar, France
We’re so glad that we took an optional excursion into Colmar, France. Such a charming city center with colorful old buildings like these. There’s also much World War II history to explore here, too.
A feast for the eyes in Strasbourg
A stroll in Strasbourg, France
I’d heard wonderful things about Strasbourg, France, from friends and other travel writers. Everyone loved it and a few said that it was their favorite place in France. It is, indeed, a feast for the eyes. Just across the Rhine River from Germany, it has an interesting blend of German and French characteristics. I loved the architecture such as in the charming, half-timbered buildings in the photo.
Alsatian charm in Obernai
Charming Alsatian town of Obernai, France
How charming is the town of Obernai in the Alsace region of France? Totally. On our getaway on the Rhine, we strolled around admiring the half-timbered buildings that evoke its medieval days.
Vineyards of Domaine Hering winery in Barr, France
Alsace is a beautiful region of France. These hillside vineyards are at Domaine Hering in Barr. We toured the winery and tasted their Pinot Noir, Riesling, Muscat, and Gewürztraminer. The Rieslings of Alsace are actually not sweet, which was a pleasant surprise for me.
Heidelberg along the Neckar
Gorgeous homes along the Neckar River from Heidelberg Castle
These lovely homes along the Neckar River have views of the famous Heidelberg Castle on the opposite hillside. We visited this city several years ago and posted photos in our article, A Tramp in Heidelberg.
On top of Cologne
Panoramic views of Cologne, Germany from Koln Triangle on the Rhine River
How do you like this view of Cologne, Germany? Our Viking Cruises gave us a good tip about the panorama tower at Köln Triangle, an office building across the Rhine from the city center. There are spectacular views from the observation deck which is open to the public (currently 3 euros/person to go to the top). In this direction, you can see the spectacular Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) just beyond the long railway bridge and Cologne Central Station. You may recall a previous trip when we got our first Sniff of Cologne.
Castles along the Rhine
Castle on the Rhine River, Germany
If you think about a Rhine River cruise, I’m pretty sure that a scene like that in the photo above is one that comes quickly to mind. During a morning of cruising on the Rhine in Germany between Rüdesheim to Koblenz, we sat on the top deck for scenic views of terraced vineyards, appealing towns, and many castles.
Cable car ride in Koblenz
Cable car ride in Koblenz, Germany
Taking a cable car ride high above Koblenz, Germany was a fun activity that Mr. TWS and a few fellow passengers did while in port there. Our ship, the Viking Tialfi, is shown at the dock below on the Rhine.
Picturesque towns along the Rhine River in Germany
We saw many scenes similar to the one in the photo above as we cruised the Middle Rhine River. I can imagine spending more time in these picturesque riverside towns and surrounding vineyards.
Windmills of Kinderdijk
The windmills of Kinderdijk, the Netherlands
The captivating Kinderdijk Windmills (built in 1738) in the Netherlands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was very interesting to visit them and go inside one of the mills to get a glimpse of a miller’s life.
There is much more to share about our highlights and perspectives of the Viking Rhine Getaway cruise and shore excursions.
Thanks to Viking River Cruises for the lovely hospitality on our Rhine Getaway cruise.
In between visits to the must-see famous attractions of Rome, it’s wonderful to get away from crowds and see sides of the city that provide a more local flavor with glimpses of life in the city. During our last visit to Rome, we got a recommendation from a local about a Roman neighborhood that would show us a different side of Rome not on most visitor itineraries. In fact, if we hadn’t had the insider tip, we wouldn’t have known about it at all. We loved our afternoon walking around this small secluded neighborhood within the Trieste district, Quartiere Coppedé, and are happy to share it so that you can consider it for your next visit. But let’s keep it our secret.
Quartiere Coppedé is located within easy reach from central Rome by public transportation and within walking distance of Villa Borghese. Strolling through the district, I felt almost immediately that it had an ambiance different from other areas of Rome we visited. It is an exclusive neighborhood of expensive residential apartments and upscale business offices with intriguing architectural designs.
The diverse and fanciful architecture by Florentine architect Gino Coppedé is captivating. Coppedé was commissioned to design buildings here in 1919 and given free rein to create in any style he liked. His creativity abounds with various architectural styles (Art Nouveau, Byzantine, Classical, Medieval, etc.), whimsical and dramatic touches (such as recurring themes incorporating bees, lions, and gargoyles), and colorful murals and other unexpected details that accentuate his eccentric character.
A walk in Quartiere Coppedé
A grand arch designed by Coppedé (pictured in the top photo above) is the main entrance to the quarter on Via Dora. Some of the interesting detail of the arch is shown in the photos below, including the striking iron chandelier with seahorse decorations hanging in the center.
Detail of Quartiere Coppedé’s arch
Notice in the photo at the top that the two buildings that anchor the arch are not identical as one would expect— just one of the ways Coppedé shows his freedom of style in the district. What you see at the entrance is representative of what is yet to come as you explore the area.
Just through the arch is the main square of the district, Piazza Mincio with eye-catching sights all around.
Apartment building inside Quartiere Coppedé
We didn’t have a chance to go inside any of the Coppedé buildings, but I would love to see the interior of the building shown below. Wouldn’t you? I’m guessing that it’s just as unusual as its exterior.
Building on Piazza Mincio and Coppedé’s Frog Fountain
I can imagine the fun that Coppedé must have had conjuring up the design of the Fountain of the Frogs in the center of the piazza. Eight large whimsical frogs (like the moss-covered one seen below) and other characters spurt water in the fountain.
Close up — Fountain of the Frogs
One of the most prominent buildings across from the fountain is the five-story Palazzo del Ragno (Palace of the Spider) displaying a gold spider insignia beneath entrance arch.
Palazzo of the Spider
Gold spider insignia beneath entrance arch of Palazzo of the Spider
Florentine fresco on the Palazzo of the Spider
It is the Fairy Cottages that really take you into a different world. They certainly seem aptly named for the magical and whimsical aspects of their designs and frescoes.
Palms and frescos of the Fairy Cottages
Other homes and offices along the tree-lined streets in the area (such as those in the photo below) are also colorful and inviting. They bring to mind a quite elegant and comfortable lifestyle that made me imagine a stay (or at least a look inside) any of the beautiful places we passed and admired.
If you like finding something off the tourist radar when you visit a place, be sure to put Quartiere Coppedé on your list of places to go in Rome.
Getting to Quartiere Coppedé tip: The number 3 and 19 trams stop at Piazza Buenos Aires. We took the 19 tram from Piazza del Risorgimento, about a 20-minute ride (shown in the map below). It was a pleasant ride as we passed by the Borghese Gardens, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, and other interesting sights of Roman life. Buses also operate from the city center to Quartiere Coppedé.
Lunch tip: Arriving just in time for lunch, we found STREATART, a small and contemporary place for innovative pizza with fresh ingredients (to eat in or take out). It’s near the tram stop on Piazza Buenos Aires. The staff is friendly, the atmosphere is upbeat, and the pizza is delicious!
Mingle with the locals tip: Within the district, there are many shops, cafes, and restaurants on and near Piazza Buenos Aires. Before heading back to the city center and other wonders of Rome
Mr. TWS always looks forward to visiting historic places, especially those in which his interest had been sparked many years ago as a young boy in northern Wisconsin. Such was the case with Pompeii. So I’ve asked him to share his perspectives about our day trip from Rome to Pompeii and Sorrento on a tour with Walks of Italy.
A fascination with history
By Mr. TWS
I think the beginning of my love for travel stems from my interest in and love for history. My interest in history bloomed in the sixth grade with my excellent teacher who enthusiastically spoke of ancient history and inserted many fascinating stories and personal feelings into his absorbing narratives. Particular stories really had a lasting impact and among those was the story of the apocalyptic destruction of ancient Pompeii by the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano in AD 79. The thought of the instantaneous destruction that froze people in place was both frightening and fascinating to me.
The walls of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius towering over Pompeii and the surrounding area
Pompeii tour with Walks of Italy
Our tour began in Rome early on a clear sunny November morning. As we traveled by coach through the beautiful rural areas of the Campania region, our guide provided an interesting narrative pointing out key viewpoints and important historic locations. For example, she mentioned the Appian Way (another tidbit from my teacher that had intrigued me and now has regained my attention as a place to explore on a future trip) and pointed out vistas of the Apennines and picturesque landscapes. Nearing our destination, we saw Mount Vesuvius looming over the area.
Highlights and surprises of Pompeii
The archaeological discovery of Pompeii revealed many details of the way of life within the Roman Empire at that time so perfectly preserved by the volcanic ash that covered the city. What an amazing place to visit and see this window in time revealing a thriving city during a fascinating period in history, the Pax Romana.
Ruins of Pompeii
It occurred to me that with Vesuvius still an active volcano, we were potentially vulnerable to Pompeii’s fate. The thought quickly faded as I sighted the ruins of Pompeii and became excited with thoughts of what we were about to see there today.
Mount Vesuvius looming over Pompeii and the surrounding area
Our expert archaeologist Walks of Italy guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about all aspects of Pompeii, its history, and archaeological findings as she led us on an informative and enjoyable walking tour of Pompeii. My first impression as we began the tour and had our first glimpses of the city was that Pompeii was a much larger city that I had expected. I had always envisioned more of a village, but in the first century Pompeii was a thriving city populated by around 11,000 people (or more depending on which estimate you use — the surrounding area brought the total to at least 15,000).
Sweeney walking Pompeii streets during the Walks of Italy tour
We walked along the many streets of Pompeii stopping at key buildings along the way, especially ones that displayed particular aspects of Pompeii life, structures, art, or implements. Our tour was well-paced, enabling us to get questions answered and cover and explore most of the large area.
I was also surprised at how much of Pompeii had been excavated — about two-thirds of the area of the city. Its wide paved major streets, an expansive forum, and a large amphitheater were among the highlights that show that Pompeii was a city of significance at the time of the devastating eruption. Many important Romans owned houses there and it was also a vacation destination for other Romans.
Wide paved street of Pompeii
The amphitheater was one of my favorite aspects of our tour. It is believed to be the first Roman amphitheater to have been made of stone. It is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater (built about 70 BC, it is over 100 years older than the Coliseum), and seated somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 people.
It was exciting to walk across the amphitheater floor and imagine the gladiator fights that took place there over two millennia ago. I thought it was fun to climb the stairs to the top row of the amphitheater and imagine spectators going to their seats.
Garden courtyard of a Pompeii residence
Sweeney and I were both struck by one large wealthy family’s home which included courtyard gardens and colorful murals.
Murals and mosaic in wealthy family’s home
Another interesting aspect about Pompeii lifestyle was the row of brothels. In addition to graphic adornments on the front of each small chamber that identified the business, there were well-preserved murals depicting the services available to facilitate selection — particularly helpful because there were many different languages among clients and workers.
Graphic depictions of services rendered at the brothels
The forum was another impressive aspect of our tour. It was immense with numerous structures, aspects of life in Pompeii, and art. The aspects of the forum that remain enabled us to get a vision of what it might have looked like before the eruption. On the north side facing Vesuvius are remains (walls and columns) of the Temple of Jupiter, columns of the two-story arcades that flanked the west and east side, the Temple of Apollo, and the Basilica.
The forum of Pompeii
The baths were impressive for the level of restoration, its murals, and the impressive technology they used so long ago.
The frigidarium (cold bath room) of the Stabian Baths
The final part of the tour was emotionally moving. We were able to see displays of plaster casts that were formed by filling the cavities left by decomposition of the bodies of people (and animals) frozen in the volcanic ash.
One of the plaster casts of a Pompeii victim
It really emphasized the speed with which the disaster struck though I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t as instantaneous as I had thought. Many in the city were actually able to escape.
I kept this recollection of the Pompeii tour quite high level and left out many sites and details. But hopefully, you can get a sense of what there is to see and you will get a chance to visit sometime to take a tour.
On the lighter side …
View of the Bay of Naples from Sorrento
After our immersion into the deep and intense history in Pompeii, a drive of less than an hour south along the coast on the Bay of Naples gave us a chance to enjoy the beauty of this area. During peak season, the tour includes a stop in the town of Positano on the Amalfi Coast. During the off-season (November to March) when we visited, most businesses there are closed, so the beautiful city of Sorrento on the Bay of Naples is on the itinerary instead. Although not on the Amalfi Coast itself, Sorrento is a great base location for those wanting to enjoy the Amalfi Coast drive and towns such as Positano.
Lunchtime in Sorrento
After a lunch of pizza (of course), we strolled the town high above the Bay of Naples taking in the panoramic views and cliffside buildings.
Picturesque cliffside buildings in Sorrento
The narrow streets are lined with gift shops selling local specialties, especially all things lemon — from limoncello to ceramics painted with lemons.
Sorrento souvenirs — limoncello (including some in racy bottles shown bottom left) and ceramics
And then it was back to Rome where over the next few days we continued to be immersed in ancient history worthy of the fascination instilled by my former teacher.
Editor’s tour notes:
This is a full day tour from Rome, lasting about 13 hours. Expect to spend several hours in a comfortable coach traveling between Rome and Pompeii, from Pompeii to Sorrento (or from Pompeii to Positano), and then on the return to Rome. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the views and conversation with guides and fellow tourists.
Group size is kept to under 15 people making it easy to stay connected with your group and have the ability to ask questions as you go along. The provided microphone/head-set system system allows you to clearly hear and follow your guide.
VIP access is a wonderful thing! Pompeii is a major tourist attraction. With Walks of Italy, you won’t have to wait in line for tickets and entry.
As we’ve found with other Walks of Italy tours, the guides are expert, entertaining, enthusiastic, and always ready to answer your questions.
Visit Walks of Italy for booking and for information about this and other Pompeii tours.
Disclosure: Our Pompeii and Sorrento day trip from Rome was sponsored by Walks of Italy.
When I first posed that question in a blog post to TWS readers several years ago, I’d never been on a cruise — other than short scenic cruises (such as those on San Francisco Bay) on small tour boats. I had reservations about cruise travel, but was open-minded as were many of those who commented on the article. There were also others who had very strong feelings, both positive and negative.
Viking Gullveig at port in Passau, Germany
There were a few common themes in the responses, most of them referring specifically to ocean cruises, but several that apply to river cruises (to which my comments here apply) as well — land excursions, logistics, social aspects, itineraries, cost, and other opinions and observations I covered in To Cruise or Not to Cruise which you may want to read. Consistent with some of my sentiments in the article, many who left comments expressed skepticism regarding ocean cruises but were very interested in river cruises.
My romance with Viking River Cruises
At the time of my original post, I was intrigued by the idea of a river cruise, especially in Europe. I’ve still taken no ocean cruises, but I’ve taken two wonderful river cruises with Viking River Cruises. The reservations I had about ocean cruises continue to hold today, but I still keep an open mind. However, with river cruises and especially after the two Viking cruises under my belt, I’m very positive. Although I’m writing this post with the Romantic Danube cruise in mind, many of the features I mention are consistent with those we found on our cruise on the Douro River in Portugal.
What we enjoyed on our Romantic Danube cruise
The Romantic Danube itinerary has a nice combination of historic and cultural sites to visit on this scenic cruise through the Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. This cruise took us to cities we had never visited — Nuremberg, Regensberg, Krems (Göttweig Abbey), and Passau while allowing us to revisit two of our favorite romantic European cities — Vienna and Budapest.
A peek at new places
Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest
Cruises can be great for allowing you to feel the excitement of a new destination while you get an introduction to what the destination has to offer. They enable you to enjoy seeing many new places and also to get an idea about which places you’d like to revisit another time in more detail, perhaps to have a more “travel like a local” experience, if you choose.
Mr. TWS discovering Regensburg, Germany
Mr. TWS and I have enjoyed varied experiences when it comes to travel logistics and accommodations. From a 10-day trip that had us in 8 different hotels to three months in a midtown Manhattan apartment and many other options in between. Though we like to be on the move and adapt to situations with changing accommodations, there’s something wonderful about unpacking only once for an entire trip. And on a cruise, you get to see many locations and sights over a wide area with the luxurious convenience of no repacks.
Organized tours and guides
Consistent with our Portugal cruise, we found the local Viking guides in each port to be fun, knowledgeable, and proud of their cities and/or regions. We were happy we decided to take the included city tours at each of the Danube ports. Primarily, the guides took us on foot (and sometimes by coach) to main sites while they added their commentary, information, and anecdotes. The guided tours in each destination provided a good overview of key highlights in each city while still providing free time for our own sightseeing.
Our guide, Chris, introduces us to Passau
In Passau, we particularly found Christopher (shown above) to be a great guide. Although most of the passengers took advantage of these tours, they aren’t mandatory and you can stay on board or explore on your own, if you like.
Cruise with a view
A cruise is perfect for getting spectacular views of the scenes as you glide along from the comfort of your stateroom, at breakfast or dinner, or from the sun deck. One of the most beautiful parts of our Danube journey was an 18 miles stretch through Austria’s Wachau Valley with views of hillside vineyards, charming villages, and imposing monasteries. We made a point to be up top on the sun deck to fully experience the scenes on a bright sunny December morning.
Cruising the Wachau Valley
Attentive and lively crew
The Viking Gullveig crew was always ready to help and working to make the cruise as comfortable, safe, and fun as possible. Program Director Anthony Papandrea and Hotel Manager Jürgen Purgstaller fully engaged everyone during the daily briefings providing useful information and leading entertaining demonstrations — even dressing up in their lederhosen (seen top center in photo below) for German night.
Lively and entertaining Viking Gullveig staff
Maître d’ Panayot Tsvetkov attentively made certain that our dining experiences were enjoyable, for example by ensuring that Mr. TWS’s pescetarian diet requirements were met and by providing great wine recommendations. The service staff was always cheerful and housekeeping kept our stateroom tidy and well-supplied – it was always pleasant to come home to the room at night.
In each port, there were optional (additional cost) shore excursions to choose from beyond the included tours. In Vienna, Mr. TWS and I really liked a traditional Viennese winery experience on the cruise’s “Heurigen Evening” optional excursion. We wrote about it in our post Good Cheer and High Spirits in Vienna.
High spirits in Vienna
Other optional excursions on the cruise included day trips to see the highlights of Salzburg, Austria and Munich, Germany Other in-port optional activities such as a Bavarian beer festival, a Mozart and Stauss concert, and a dip in the Budapest thermal baths provided for special cultural experiences.
Church towers and rooftops of Aldstadt Salzburg
If you enjoy great food and wine, there’s no shortage of either on board. Dining aboard the Viking Gullveig was a real pleasure. Each meal was beautifully prepared by Executive Chef Ronald Waasdorp and his staff, often incorporating regional styles and flavors. We chose the chef’s recommended dishes, but there were also several other selections of lighter fare available at any meal.
Each day started with a great breakfast buffet. Although there were many options of meats, cheeses, bread, pastry, fruit, etc., I mostly stayed with the same thing every morning — made-to-order cheese omelet, bacon, cheese Danish, and some fruit. Service was always cheerful and the food choices were abundant, hot, delicious, and promptly served – making for a pleasant way to start the day.
Jetlagged and disheveled — enjoying wine tasting; tasty dishes on Viking Gullveig
On this trip, we opted to purchase the Silver Spirits premium beverage package. Since we were kicking off the holidays and would also be celebrating Mr. TWS’s birthday onboard, it seemed to make a lot of economic sense and offered a wonderful selection of wines beyond the house wine. During a cheese and wine tasting on our first evening, we sampled some of the vintages that would be available and compared them to the house wines which are complimentary with lunch and dinner.
Viking Gullveig staircase, stateroom, and view of modern Vienna from stateroom
The Gullveig is one of Viking’s Longships with 95 staterooms. Although larger than the Viking Hemming which we cruised on the Douro, it is still small enough to provide an intimate and uncrowded experience. Our stateroom had a veranda which really added to our enjoyment even though the winter weather kept us mostly indoors while in the room.
Ease of planning and logistics
It was a pleasure working with the Viking travel representatives who do the searching for flights and times, and following up with all pertinent information and confirmations. It’s nice to have someone else taking care of the transportation details. Viking staff met us at the airport in Nuremberg and escorted to the Budapest airport on our final morning.
No matter how often I travel or how experienced with the realities of travel transportation I become, I always feel a little anxious about making sure that everything will go smoothly and on time. While traveling with Viking, their managing of the planning and operational details was a real luxury and a nice change of pace.
Taking this cruise would be fun at any time of year, but during the Christmas holidays it was particularly festive on board and we were in a very festive spirit ourselves. Unlike our Portugal trip on which we often went to our stateroom after a full day of excursions and a leisurely dinner, on the Romantic Danube cruise we usually ended our evening with a nightcap (or two) in the lounge enjoying the entertainment, dancing, and making new friends.
There is open seating in the dining room with most tables accommodating eight people (there are a few that are smaller and larger). There is no assigned seating, giving passengers the opportunity to either find a quiet spot, find like-minded people to sit with each day, or branch out and meet new people – changing dining mates at each meal.
The Viking Gullveig at port in Passau, Germany
So is there anything I haven’t liked about my river cruises?
Like most of my travel experiences, the only downside was that it had to come to an end. As the saying goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” And we had lots of fun on these two Viking cruises.
Is a cruise for you?
We all have different travel styles and many of us enjoy various styles. There is no wrong way to travel. So when it comes to cruises, evaluate your travel mood and goals as you would for any trip. There are so many options today even beyond choosing between ocean or river cruising. Consider the ship size and configuration, cost, specific itinerary, and length of cruise.
Just select the right cruise for you!
Relax and enjoy. If you’re used to planning your own itineraries, making hotel reservations, and dealing with logistics, consider this a vacation.
Pre- and post-trips arranged by Viking can give you time on either or both ends of the cruise to extend your time and more deeply experience a place.
Are you a loner? Can you find solitude on a cruise? Although there are plenty of opportunities to find a little solitude on a cruise, I think they are most enjoyed if you’re open to being social. Meals in the dining room lend themselves to making conversation with others and sharing the experience.
Be open-minded about your fellow passengers. The majority of passengers on our cruise appeared to be of the baby boomer generation (like us) or older, but there were younger couples, too. In fact, two of the people we shared several meals and a lot of laughs with were a newlywed couple in their twenties. I can’t give you a complete breakdown of the passenger demographics, but most with whom we spoke on the cruise were American, British, and Australian. I know a few younger, single women who took Vikingriver cruises solo and they enjoyed interacting with the primarily older passengers. I also hear that younger people are becoming more interested in river cruises.
Would we like to cruise again?
Yes! I loved all of the features I’ve mentioned. But I also enjoy my travel experiences that I’ve personally planned, that were location-intensive, culturally oriented, physically active, etc. For Mr. TWS and me, river cruises are a wonderful alternative form of travel to have in our portfolio as we like a variety of experiences. About ocean cruises — we’re still on the fence, but are quite open-minded.
What are your thoughts about cruising whether it’s ocean or river cruising?
A cruise along the Danube River offers many opportunities to see beautiful scenery and sights, reflect on dramatic history, admire centuries of art and architecture treasures, and enjoy cultural festivities. During our Viking River “Romantic Danube” cruise, we took in these highlights in several cities along our route that began in Nuremberg, Germany.
View of Nuremberg from the Imperial Castle
Because this was our first visit to Nuremberg, the morning guided tour (Viking’s included shore excursion) was a perfect introduction to the the city’s historic sites before we set off on our own to visit the famous Nuremberg Christmas Market. Our local guide Claudia was knowledgeable and fun (characteristics we consistently found in the Viking guides on our cruises). These are a few of the scenes from our short visit.
Nuremberg, the second largest city in the Bavarian region of Germany (Munich is the largest), is known by most people for both its dark Nazi history as well as the war-crimes trials that followed World War II and brought leaders of the Third Reich to justice. The Third Reich chose Nuremberg for its rallies in the 1930s because Hitler agreed with the mayor of the city who said that Nuremberg was the “most German of German cities.”
Congress Hall, built on the scale of Rome’s Colosseum
Our guided tour took us by coach to several important sites of World War II and Hitler’s rise to power, including Zeppelin Field (former Nazi Party Rally Grounds), Congress Hall (built on scale of Roman Colosseum), Documentation Center (a Nazi propaganda center), and the Palace of Justice (where the Nuremberg trials were held in courtroom 600). It is chilling to see the place where throngs of Nazi fanatics cheered Hitler and his henchmen in the huge rallies held on the grounds in the 1930s.
The Imperial Castle above Nuremberg was one of the most important fortified palaces of the Holy Roman Empire. As we walked the cobblestone path on the bridge over the castle’s moat, our guide provided an interesting fact about its design. It was curved to deter enemies from easily attacking the gate with ramming devices and curved counterclockwise so that approaching soldiers who were predominantly right-handed had their sword side toward the wall (i.e. the defender’s vantage) and their shield side away from the wall.
Inside the fortress of the Imperial Castle
The castle, as well as other key buildings and churches, were largely destroyed by Allied bombings during the war, but were mostly rebuilt using original stone.
Another view of Nuremberg from the Imperial Castle
The view from the castle courtyard over the steeples and snow-covered rooftops of Nuremberg is spectacular (shown in photos above and at the top of the post).
Medieval architecture in a square bordered by the stone wall of the Imperial Castle
From the castle, we descended the hill around the fortress walls toward the city center, passing through streets lined with excellent examples of medieval half-timbered houses (easily identified by uneven lines and imprecise construction as you can see above), shops, inns, and charming squares.
Street heading toward the main market square from the castle
As the buzz of crowds grew louder, we arrived at the Hauptmarkt, the main city square where Germany’s largest Christmas Market was in full swing (and where other key festivals plus a weekly market are held during the year). The Nuremberg Christmas Market, one of the most famous in Germany, is considered one of the best in Europe. Having been to many Christmas markets in Europe over the past several years, I agree. We were there at noon so saw the glockenspiel (just below the clock in the photo below) on the Church of Our Lady come to life. Along with the revelers at the market and other passersby, we stopped to watch the show of seven figurines circling Emperor Charles IV who sits on the throne. (Mr. TWS has a video that he’ll share later.)
Nuremberg Christmas Market at Hauptmarkt with the Church of Our Lady
We were very impressed with the quality of crafts on display at the market and the stalls selling many varieties of lebkuchen, a type of gingerbread for which Nuremberg is known. First baked by monks in the 13th century, lebkuchen is spicy, nutty, and often decorated with icing to be eaten or hung as ornaments. I quickly devoured one with a touch of glühwein. Looking forward to what the Viking Gullveig chef was going to serve for a late on-board lunch, I resisted the local favorite, Nürnberger bratwurst, knowing I had a week of Christmas Market fare ahead of me.
Nuremberg Christmas Market crafts and lebkuchen
The Schöner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain) in the Hauptmarkt was built in the 14th century with figures representing significant people and cultural aspects of the Holy Roman Empire. A very popular attraction of the fountain is a golden ring in the fence. Legend has it that it was the handiwork of a blacksmith’s assistant who, trying to impress the blacksmith’s daughter with his skills, installed the ring into the latticework without creating a visible seam. It is said that good luck comes from spinning the ring three full turns. I’m not sure if my rather awkward attempt has brought me luck, but I have to admit that I feel quite fortunate.
Spinning the ring on the gate of the Schöner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain) at Nuremberg Haupmarkt
As we’ve seen in other German Christmas markets, the spirits were high as everyone was soaking up the holiday ambiance and imbibing in the local fare. We were delighted that it suddenly began to snow as we strolled around the market. It really added to the Christmas spirit and provided a good excuse to take an espresso break in one of the cozy cafes near the square.
Bridge across the River Pegnitz
Now that we’ve had a great introduction to Nuremberg, we’ve got many reasons to put it on our list of places to return sometime.
Viking optional excursion tip:
An alternative optional tour to the included excursion is the “Nuremberg and World War II” tour which provides a more in-depth look at Nuremberg history with entry to the main World War II sites and the Palace of Justice (or the Memorium Nuremberg Trials exhibit if court is in session).
Thanks to Viking River for the wonderful cruise hospitality and hosting our Nuremberg visit.
A day in Parco Naturale Regionale Dune Costiere (Regional Nature Park of Coastal Dunes)
Many places throughout the Puglia region of Italy have vistas of vast landscapes of ancient olive trees on the plain with the blue Adriatic Sea beyond. It is an area of pastoral beauty that holds rich agricultural, recreational, cultural, and historical attractions. On a day trip organized for us by Parco Naturale Regionale Dune Costiere (Regional Nature Park of Coastal Dunes), Mr. TWS and I got to enjoy a tour of some of the highlights of this large park and learn about its mission and activities. I previously included the activities during our day at the park in my post about visiting Puglia in the off season, but I’d like to share more photos and information as the park is such an important part of the region’s character, natural beauty, and ecosystems.
We had a full day of seeing sights within the park visiting the coastal dunes, organic fish farms, working mills, and farmhouses that respect the location’s environmental and cultural resources.
Examining the flora with Elena Benassi and Gianfranco Ciola at Antica Brancati — Photo by Federica Donadi
“Live your park”
Visitors to Parco Naturale Regionale Dune Costiere are encouraged to “Live Your Park”, to fully experience the area taking advantage of tours, workshops, and environmental education activities that are available through the park and its local partners. The park and its associated farms and business entities aspire to help tourists and visitors to the area gain a deeper understanding of the area’s attractions and its natural bounty.
Led by Dune Costiere Director Gianfranco Ciola, the park has striven to educate the public and promote good practices of environmental sustainability, particularly those regarding tourism. Parco Naturale Regionale Dune Costiere’s mission is to protect the natural resources, agricultural bounty, and archaeological sites from the coastal dunes to the wetlands to the inland plains farms and olive groves while promoting and enabling their use by the public. Their aim is to encourage enjoyment of their beautiful and rich natural areas while respecting the rich resources and traditions and being in harmony with nature. The park offers many opportunities to enjoy the bounty of Puglia and plays an important role in the area’s environmental protection and sustainable economic development.
A walk in the park with Elena Benassi, Valerio Palasciano, and Gianfranco Ciola — Photo by Federica Donadi
With a network of cycle paths connecting the environmental and cultural resources of the park, slow tourism is a focus year-round with hiking, nature walks, bicycles, electric cars, horseback riding, and canoes. The park’s tourism partners provide tours that take bicyclists on paths and quiet side roads alongside or through olive groves and fruit orchards (of fig, almond, and pomegranate trees). The tours also feature stops at farmhouses to sample delicacies or purchase products of the region, such as extra virgin olive oils. We visited on a rainy November day, so we didn’t take a bike tour around the park, but that is something I would love to do next time.
Albergabici at Dune Costiere Park
The park offers bicyclists many services, day tours, rentals, and accommodations for bicyclists. The Albergabici is a hostel with 18 beds. It offers bike rental and repair services for bike tourists on the area’s extensive trail system or those passing through the park on longer journeys. There are 14 long distance cycle routes in Italy, with 15,000 km of the roads in Puglia. The old Roman road, Via Traiana, that runs through Parco Naturale Regionale Dune Costiere is part of Cycle Route No. 6 of BicItalia (also called the Adriatic Way).
Ancient olive trees in the groves of Dune Costiere
Parco Naturale Regionale Dune Costiere develops and maintains cooperation with the farmers at masserie (plural of masseria, a self-sustaining, fortified farm estate established between the 16th and 18th centuries) within the park’s boundaries. The park and the masserie cooperate in their efforts of sustainable production and promoting tourism and share the mission of protecting the area’s biodiversity and culture.
Antica Masseria Brancati
With our park guides, we strolled the olive groves of Antica Masseria Brancati, where ancient trees (some over 3,000 years old like the one shown below) still produce olives alongside the younger trees on the property’s 30 hectares (about 74 acres). We also got to pick some olives right off the trees. (I could have done that all day once I got a rhythm going.) The old gnarly trees grow twisting their trunks (where we were told they keep their energy) are a real sight to see up close.
Over 3,000-year-old olive tree still producing olives at Antica Masseria Brancati — Photo by Federica Donadi
As you can see from the photo below in which I’m standing inside of an olive tree trunk, some of the trees are enormous.
Hugged by an ancient olive tree at Antica Brancati
At the masseria, we also sampled their delicious extra virgin olive oils. It’s interesting how similar to wine tasting this process can be, with each oil having its own aromas and flavor — some subtle, others quite pronounced.
Corrado Rodio of Antica Masseria Brancati; olives and olive oil tasting — photos on the right by Federica Donadi
A must see at masseria is the ancient underground mill where the remnants of olive oil production methods from Roman times through present day are on display (as well as other artifacts of old times), such as shown below. The stables and workers’ sleeping quarters of centuries ago were also located here. There were many of these underground mills in this area because of its proximity to the Via Traiana for transportation of the oil to commercial ports.
Left — Old masseria artifacts; Right — Inside the underground olive mill
A gastronomic part of tour was a typical southern Italy Mediterranean lunch at Azienda Agricola di Vita Pugliese, a family-run agricultural company, at Masseria Difesa di Malta. Vita, the family matriarch founded the company in 1994 with her husband and has since been using natural foods and recipes handed down through several generations. Two generations of the family own and operate the business preparing and selling traditional Pugliese dishes and food products grown on their 25 hectares of land. The special methods for preparation take place in the masseria’s “laboratory” and produce delicious products distributed among local restaurants, including durum wheat pasta and a wide variety of fruit and vegetable items, particularly tomatoes, olives, and fruit marmalades, all organically produced focusing on water-saving cultivation practices.
Olive, tomato and pasta products of Azienda Agricola Pugliese
Our lovely lunch consisted of orecchiette (traditional Pugliese ear-shaped pasta), handmade by Vita, and other olive, vegetable, and fruit specialties.
Lunch at Azienda Agricola di Vita Pugliese — Photo by Federica Donadi
A big surprise for us was the Bronze Age Dolmen (“stone table”) of Montalbano on the Via Traiana in the park which dates back to the 3rd – 2nd century BC. It’s said it was used to the worship the dead and for other ceremonies of those times.
Bronze Age Dolmen of Montalbano
The wetlands of the Morelli River include ponds and reservoirs that have been used for fishing since the 1800s. The river, fresh water springs, and fossil dunes (formed thousands of years ago) of the park’s coastal wetlands are also home to rare and endangered species of migratory birds who stop here to reproduce.
The wetlands of Dune Costiere
The old fish farming plant in the park has been restored by area families who operate traditional farming of eels and grey mullet through organic methods of fish farming. The fishing is done only in December using gill nets and fish traps. During fishing season, the park offers guided tours of the plant and wetlands.
Fishing farm and plant building n the Morelli River — Photo by Federica Donadi
Looking dramatic on this mid-November day (shown below), the sandy beaches of the Adriatic coast are filled with vacationers enjoying sun and surf in summer. Gianfranco and his staff work diligently to educate about sustainable tourism and implement programs to protect the ecosystems of the wetlands and keep the beaches free of debris and damage.
Dramatic off-season Adriatic Sea
I highly recommend visiting the park and their partners when you visit Puglia. Enjoy tastes and activities of the region, meet some wonderful people, and “live your park” with respect for nature.
With Elena Benassi at the Dune Costiere fish farms — Photo by Federica Donadi
Mr. TWS and I found gemütlichkeit (a word that relates to the feeling of well-being and comfort that comes with good company and good food) many times on our Viking “Romantic Danube” cruise, especially during our time in Vienna, Austria.
Heurigen Evening excursion in Vienna with fellow passengers
For numerous reasons, including Vienna’s cozy cafes, elegant architecture, captivating Hapsburg history, cultural venues, and romance, Mr. TWS and I particularly looked forward to returning to Vienna, a city that captured our hearts on a trip a few years ago. We expected romance again on this trip, but we also thoroughly enjoyed gemütlichkeit in the conviviality and high spirits at Christmas Markets, restaurants, wineries, and on board our ship, the Viking Gullveig.
A lively “Heurigen Evening”
An optional Viking excursion in Vienna, the “Heurigen Evening” provided a high-spirited authentic Viennese gemütlichkeit experience. A shuttle from the ship took our small group of five couples and our guides to the city’s 19th district where numerous vineyards are located with their wine taverns called Heurigen. The Heuriger became part of Austrian culture in the 18th century when Emperor Joseph II proclaimed that anyone who made their own wine could sell it to the public in their establishments.
Getting cozy with Mr. TWS at Heurige Wolff
These family-owned wine taverns open their doors to guests to sample their newest wines and celebrate the new vintages. At a Heuriger, the wines are accompanied with Viennese dishes such as brettljause (a selection of cheese, sausages, smoked meat, pickled vegetables, horseradish, and other local specialties) commonly served on a wooden board. Live music with traditional tunes played on an accordion and a violin add to the Heurigen experience.
Viennese specialties and local wine at Heurige Wolff, an old-style Viennese Heuriger
Our group, including the Gullveig’s hotel manager Jürgen Purgstaller, talked and laughed as though old friends while enjoying the good wine, delicious food, and the lively musical entertainment at Heurige Wolff. Our glasses were never empty as our hosts presented several carafes and bottles of their own white and red wines. My favorite was the Weissburgunder, a light dry white wine, while Mr. TWS enjoyed each of the reds.
Festive spirit of Vienna
Holiday shopping and festive Christmas markets were in full swing during our mid-December visit.
Holiday shoppers in Vienna
Vienna has some of my favorite markets, especially the one at Rathausplatz (below). The market at Schönbrunn Palace (a little further afield) is also beautiful. I also enjoyed smaller markets like that at Stephansplatz around St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the very small ones you come across by chance in the city.
Toasting with Glühwein and posing as an angel,at the festive Rathausplatz Christmas Market
At the Rathausplatz Christmas Market, the largest in Vienna, I enjoyed a cup of warm and aromatic Glühwein, the mulled wine holiday treat that is a must at any European Christmas market. By the way, I’m not really an angel, but I liked pretending at the market (top right above).
Coffee and cake — a must in Vienna
Vienna is known for its coffee culture, an important aspect of the city begun centuries ago. Meeting with friends at a place with good coffee and pastries while sharing amusement and music, discussion of literature, politics, family — anything and everything — is a cherished social activity. I was looking forward to spending some time again at cafes as we did on our previous trip sipping coffee and indulging in decadent pastries like those chocolate cakes shown below. Vienna is also well-known for the Sachertorte, a rich chocolate cake coated with apricot jam, topped with chocolate icing and whipped cream.
Coffee and pastries in Vienna cafes
After strolling the Christmas Markets and sightseeing on a cold, windy day, the cafes offer a warm and cozy break. My coffee drink of choice is usually Schwarzer (strong black coffee, espresso) while Mr. TWS always chooses the frothy Mélange (coffee with an equal measure of steamed milk). There was also that wonderful sense of gemütlichkeit as we chatted with other guests and were warmly welcomed by cafe servers.
A step back into old Vienna
On a cold and very windy December day, we searched the web for a restaurant near St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where we ended our morning city tour and serendipitously found Griechenbeisl, one of Vienna’s oldest restaurants. The first mention of the inn found in old documents was in 1477 when the place was known as Zum Gelben Ader (The Yellow Eagle). It has several rooms reflecting its long history in decor and artifacts.
Stepping into Old Vienna at Griechenbeisl
Our favorite historical aspect of the inn was on the ceiling and walls (shown in photos on the right above) of the Mark Twain room with autographs of famous writers, composers, musician, politicians, and other notable guests such as Beethoven (shown with the pointer top right above), Mozart, Strauss, Brahms, and of course, Mark Twain. Since it is Vienna, composers were in the majority. But there were other cultural and popular signatures, including more current ones, such as Luciano Pavarotti, Johnny Cash, and Phil Collins.
Mr. TWS in the Zither Room enjoying pumpkin soup (top right); Griechenbeisl goulash (bottom right)
I was tempted by Wiener Schnitzel on the menu, but I can rarely resist beef goulash. The Griechenbeisl goulash was delicious and came with a tasty side of potatoes. Mr. TWS had a real craving for pumpkin soup and he was delighted to find it on the menu. We dined in the Zither Room where zither and accordion music is played in the evening. At lunch, it was quiet, warm and cozy, and romantic.
Viking Gullveig gemütlichkeit
And back on board the Gullveig, we enjoyed gemütlichkeit in the lounge with the wonderful staff, fellow passengers, and new friends. When we took our first Viking cruise on the Douro River in Portugal, we seldom spent time in the lounge at night. On this cruise, after a day of fun tours and Christmas Market merriment, we often stepped into the lounge for a nightcap. We ended up making new friends over drinks and having a great time talking and dancing. No, I am not posting pictures of my dancing.
In the lounge for a daily activity briefing with the Viking Gullveig crew (from left: Captain Jaroslav Krizan, Hotel Manager Jürgen Purgstaller, Program Director Anthony Papandrea
Vienna is one of our favorite European cities. The architecture and historical buildings are so numerous and there are so many things to do and see that even a one-week stay would not be enough. We’re glad we took the city tour included in the cruise that enabled us to see new sights while revisiting favorite places we’d seen previously. As with all of the tours we’ve taken so far with Viking, our guide was knowledgeable, friendly, and full of interesting and entertaining anecdotes. It was a joy to see this city again and I hope we’ll be back for more romance, culture, and gemütlichkeit.
Vienna optional excursion note: There were four optional (not included in cruise price) shore excursions available while at port in Vienna. We chose the Heurigen Evening as we had previously enjoyed the other experiences — a concert of Mozart and Strauss in a Viennese palace; a tour (by both horse-drawn carriage and on foot) with a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts; and a tour of Schönbrunn Palace.
Barbara Nelson Photography presents …
A PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP IN NORTHERN PORTUGAL
Editor’s note: I am pleased to share with our readers this information about an upcoming photography workshop on location in northern Portugal. It is produced by Barbara Nelson, an accomplished photographer and journalist who has traveled the world to capture the essence of the places she visits with inspiring photographs of natural beauty, urban landscapes, street scenes, iconic landmarks, unexpected events, and ordinary people going about their daily lives. I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara a few years ago when our paths crossed in Italy as she led a workshop through Emilia-Romagna.
Lisbon street scene — Photo by Barbara Nelson
Here are some highlights you can expect to experience if you join Barbara and international photography educator, Terry Abrams, in their Portugal Photography Workshop.
Capturing the essence of northern Portugal
By Barbara Nelson
Workshop dates: June 17 – 28, 2018
Iconic Lisbon tram — Photo by Barbara Nelson
Join us to be inspired by the sights and scenes of northern Portugal and be challenged to capture your perspectives in photographs during the workshop. We will often have unique access to people and places as we travel from Lisbon to Porto, ending our workshop in Santiago de Compostela (in the Galicia region of Spain)
Lisbon street performers — Photo by Barbara Nelson
We will meet in the capital city of Lisbon, staying for 3 nights in the historical section of the city (the only part that was left standing after the 1755 earthquake). This district still retains its Kasbah-like layout with winding and steep lanes and stairways. Here you will also see captivating street life scenes and wonderful views of the Tagus River.
Boats on the Douro in Porto — Photo by Barbara Nelson
From there, we move north to Porto, whose picturesque historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There will be many photo opportunities here, but the city is also a wonderful base for our side trips that include:
Terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley — Photo by Barbara Nelson
the intricately terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley (the birthplace of port wine), visiting vineyard owners, old villages and the people who live there, and a 9th-century monastery
the Alto Minho area to visit at least one of the old transhumance villages
an traditional village of indigenous people with a large weekly market featuring local handicrafts and products
Barcelos Market, visiting fishing villages on the Atlantic coast along the way.
Portuguese woman at the market — Photo by Barbara Nelson
On our way to Santiago de Compostela, we will spend time photographing around Viana do Castelo.
The workshop ends in the historic, medieval town Santiago De Compostela, famous for the destination of all who are walking the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James). Workshop participants are free to spend personal days here or return home.
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral — Photo by Barbara Nelson
In this photography workshop we learn new skills and practice known techniques for capturing the essence of places and people in this beautiful and historical region. This workshop is for students who can operate their cameras on manual exposure and who want to go further with their photography. The class will learn how to work with minimal equipment and maximum adaptability. We will work on analyzing the quality/direction of light, frame/compose the image, and anticipate the unfolding activity. We will practice in-camera techniques such as multiple-exposure in camera, black & white, HDR, and more.
The class is built on a schedule of photographing and critiquing with some downtime planned for organizing your images for review. We will be together photographing on some mornings from sunrise till late morning as well as afternoons, through the sunset, occasionally past twilight and into the early evening. The class will meet daily for discussions, to review work, and critique each student’s photographs — individually and as a group. The schedule will be flexible for special events, weather changes, and such.
A list of suggested equipment and other travel needs will be emailed to all in the class.
Restaurant in Lisbon’s old district — Photo by Barbara Nelson
Matera: From the “shame of Italy” to European Capital of Culture 2019
Once called “the shame of Italy”, Matera continues its rebirth attracting worldwide attention for its history, culture, and extraordinary architecture and terrain. We spent several hours there on a recent trip to Southern Italy. Take a walk with us through Matera, European Capital of Culture 2019.
Imagine the cities of biblical times and you’ll probably come close to a vision resembling much of Matera in the Basilicata region of Italy. It’s not surprising that the city has been chosen as a location for a number of biblical movies, including The Gospel According to St. Matthew, King David, The Nativity Story, and the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur. In fact, I first heard of Matera because it was the location for key scenes in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ.
View of Matera Cathedral above the ancient dwellings of Sasso Caveoso built into the limestone caves
More recently, I’d seen articles about this fascinating city including Lonely Planet’s list of top cities to visit in 2018. Matera, first inhabited in the Paleolithic Age, seemed a city like no other that we’ve visited in Italy. So when we planned our second visit to the Puglia region, Italy’s “heel of the boot”, we decided to make this a day trip from our holiday rental in Ostuni. We expected to be impressed with Matera, but we were actually enthralled — by both ancient and contemporary aspects of the city.
Something old, something newer, something unexpected
A walking tour arranged by local tourism agency, Agenzia Viaggi Lionetti, with expert and engaging guide Nicola Taddonio, an archaeologist born and raised in Matera, was a perfect introduction to the city. These are just a few of the highlights of the tour.
Our first view (photos top and below) of the Sassi (Italian for the “stones”) di Matera, two districts of the ancient city Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, was from the panoramic viewpoint (Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli) next to the Palazzo Lanfranchi. The view from here of the over 1,500 stone facade cave dwellings (including over 130 cave churches) cut out of the limestone hillsides was striking. As we gazed across the panorama, I was taken by the size of the old city and the uneven layers of dwellings built into the rocks in what appeared a helter-skelter fashion conforming to the natural hillside.
Visitors exploring Sasso Caveoso
“Anyone who sees Matera cannot help but be awestruck, so expressive and touching is its sorrowful beauty.” — Carlo Levi, Italian artist, author, and anti-fascist activist (1902 – 1975), said of Matera in the mid-twentieth century
The dramatic scenes of crude dwellings built one on top of the other, particularly in the less-developed Sasso Caveoso (below), are reminders of the past when a century ago the city was known as “the shame of Italy”. In those days, the residents of the Sassi, often with large families as well as their animals, were living in conditions of extreme poverty and disease in their damp limestone cave houses. In the 1950s the Italian government displaced about 16,000 people of the Sassi into more modern housing in another part of the town where many had difficulties adapting to the social changes. The abandoned cave buildings in these sections of the city became the secret playgrounds for local children including Nicola who related his own stories.
Crude cave dwellings make up the landscape of the less-developed district of Sasso Caveoso
It wasn’t until 1986 that people came to live in the Sassi again. Then in the 1990s, modernization of the Sassi was actively encouraged by the Italian government to promote tourism. This was aided by the designation in 1993 of the Sassi di Matera as a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on its being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.” Entrepreneurs and developers continue to transform the cave dwellings into homes, shops, accommodations, and restaurants bringing progress while aiming to maintain the essence of the city’s unique appearance and history.
A restaurant offers dining al fresco amid the ancient cave dwellings
Designation as a European Capital of Culture brings with the title many opportunities for a city’s development, cultural enrichment, and international exposure. Matera, Italy, awarded the title for 2019, joins more than 50 European cities that have been awarded this title since 1985. Mr. TWS and I have visited other cities, such as Marseille, France and Guimarães, Portugal where this important recognition spurred pride in the people of both the city itself and the entire country and enabled many cultural programs and building initiatives.
Matera is now in position to have similar cultural developments and expected benefits. However, Nicola spoke about the concern some of the local residents feel about Matera’s new status as they are now seeing a significant increase in visitors as a result of the media attention and international recognition from being awarded the European Capital of Culture 2019 title. While most of the Matera residents are excited about the proposed developments, they also want to ensure that their city does not lose its soul as a result.
A walk through the Sassi of Matera with Nicola Taddonio
As we explored Matera on foot we were amazed as we wound our way in a sinuous maze of streets that seemed to be transported out of old Jerusalem. I also found fascinating the swatches of color against the raw stone backgrounds — shutters, doorways, pots, and flora.
One of many ancient stone stairways leading to homes in the Sassi
From several vantage points at the panoramic viewpoint and throughout the Sassi we were able to view the stunning sight of the Rupestrian (“built into rock”) Church of Santa Maria de Idris (shown below).
Church of Santa Maria de Idris
Stunning on the outside, the church has beautiful frescoes on the walls of its cavernous interior. With archaeological work that was performed, the layered frescoes display the styles of the various periods in which they were created. The layers resulted from the frescoes of previous ages being covered during renovations with fresh plaster and new frescoes of that age. (Photos were not allowed inside.)
Gravina River below the Sassi di Matera
Along our walk, there were many sweeping vistas of cave dwellings and churches on either side beneath the plateau above the deep ravine carved by the Gravina River, which today is a mere trickle.
Ancient cave dwellings dot the hillside of the Murgia Timone across the ravine
Nicola suggested that the next time we visit Matera, we must drive to the Murgia plain across the ravine from the Sassi where it is possible to hike down to the river, explore the caves, and get additional spectacular views of the Sassi.
With Nicola Taddonio in the cistern of Matera
At the end of our tour with Nicola, he had yet another surprise for us hidden beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto — an ancient cistern (called Palombaro Lungo), the second largest in the world. Istanbul has the largest. We took many steps deep down into the cistern which was carved by hand in the 1700s to provide water collection for the city. The cistern is part of a wider complex water collection system beneath the city including a number of smaller cisterns. It had been forgotten for several decades in the twentieth century until rediscovered in 1991. Mr. TWS (always the movie buff) said he felt like he was viewing one of the water cisterns within the “sietch”, the cave communities where the Fremen lived in the Dune.
Vibrant and modern Matera
From the depths of the cistern, we once again emerged onto Piazza Vittorio Veneto and modern Matera’s shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Piazza Vittorio Veneto
Piazza Sedile (shown below) was quiet on this cool November afternoon. Nicola said that it is often a lively square and his favorite in Matera for enjoying sunshine, coffee, and music. It is anchored by the 16th century Palazzo del Sedile, previously municipal offices and now the Egidio Romualdo Duni National Conservatoire, a national conservatory of music named for a composer from Matera.
Piazza Sedile, quiet on a November afternoon
Tourists and shoppers in Matera
Via Domenico Ridola with the Church of the Purgatorio on the left
Cool and unpredictable Matera
Tucked away adjacent to Palazzo Lanfranchi on Via Casalnuovo, is Area 8, a truly unusual and extraordinary venue for cocktails, food, entertainment, relaxation, and unexpected experiences. Warm and welcoming with its eclectic décor, it feels more like visiting someone’s home. It is a popular place for locals and visitors from all over the world to relax and feel at home.
Feeling at home at Area 8 — Photo by Federica Donadi
In the photo above, our Ostuni host Elena, Mr. TWS, and I look quite at home, don’t we? During the day, the space is a tourism agency and media production house operated by Area 8 owners, Gaetano Lionetti and Mikaela Bandini. At night, the lights dim and it is a cafe, theater, gathering place, and creative events venue. Gaetano and Mikaela were very enthusiastic hosts and we were able to share a fascinating conversation with Mikaela over dinner and wine. Gaetano and she are very passionate about Matera, and important forces in its evolution to a world travel destination.
The unexpected at Area 8: Van in wall, opening my fortune cookies — Photos by Federica Donadi
Mikaela chose the Area 8 name after learning about Korbinian Brodmann, a German neurologist who became famous for his definition of the cerebral cortex into 52 distinct regions. Area 8 is a region of the human brain responsible for the management of uncertainty according to his studies. There was much I didn’t expect such as the eclectic decor, the van protruding through a wall, the many interesting activities and events they schedule, the somewhat addictive Tschips (one of Area 8’s signature dishes made with toasted Matera bread slices, olive oil, gazpacho, sun-dried tomato paste, and stracciatella cheese), or the 4 cookies presented by Mikaela that held fortunes for Mr. TWS and me (see below).
Te la stai cavando bene (You are doing well)
Fa’ qualcosa di nuovo (Do something new)
Apriti al piacere (Be open to pleasure)
I’ll keep you guessing about those.
Campari bottles add a cool red effect in Area 8 kitchen
Before heading back to Ostuni for the night, we took another look over the rooftops of the Sassi from the panoramic viewpoint. At night, Matera takes on an even more mysterious look particularly on this night as a light fog hovered over the Sassi.
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