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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Merhaba!  I recently had an opportunity to travel to Turkey with a group of family members including my 10 and 7-year-old daughters to attend a wedding. I had heard great things about Turkey and was very excited about the trip. I was also looking forward to exposing my children to such a different culture than what they’re accustomed to. I consider traveling part of their education and I was eager to share the different sites, architecture, food, music and other cultural aspects of Turkey.  I had read and heard everywhere that Turks love children, but had also heard there was not much in Istanbul for children to do.  But I didn’t need to worry.  As I usually find out on trips, after a certain age, children are much more easily entertained than adults!  For the most part, they’re also easier to please and impress.

After a stopover in JFK, we left on our overnight non-stop flight to Istanbul. The girls loved having their own personal video screens with a large selection of age appropriate movies and games.   After our arrival at the pristine and modern Ataturk International airport, we sleepily and slowly made our way to our hotel in Sultanahmet, the historic district of Istanbul. It was not too hard to convince everyone to take a short nap but it was not easy to wake them up from it!  As I usually like to do when I arrive in a new city, we decided to take an open-top bus city tour.  It’s a great way to get a good overview of the city as well as learning about the history and sites you are seeing thanks to the audio commentary provided.  Of course the kids loved sitting on the top-level of the double-decker bus.  It was great seeing the different parts of the city, fortresses, mosques, parks, palaces along with the street vendors, fish markets, children playing and local families out and about. 

We had an early dinner at the hotel, our first round of Turkish food.  As we found out throughout the trip, it was not easy pleasing the girls palates. Although they eat a variety of foods at home, Turkish food is very different from what they are used to; from their use of different spices, yogurt and vegetables to the different grains, and ways of cooking.  But we almost always found something they could eat such as pasta, delicious pide (similar to white pizza) , french fries, calamari, rice, humus, some kebabs and watermelon (often served after dinner) and they were happy to find that Turkey has a huge variety of many types of fun shaped and delicious breads which we all enjoyed throughout the trip.  They loved buying fresh squeezed orange juice from the many juice stands and even found they loved apple tea, which is served in tiny glass cups throughout the day and after dinner.  My oldest even brought some back to make at home!  

After an early wake up due to the time difference and the 5:30am call to prayer heard throughout the city, we went for breakfast.  This was an easy meal each morning. There were lots of great choices at the buffet including more western choices such as cereals to more Turkish choices such as olives, feta and other cheeses, yogurt, etc.  The girls mostly enjoyed fresh bread with Nutella every morning, a rare treat back home!   Our first day of sightseeing by foot was spent visiting Ayasofia, where everyone was as impressed with the architecture and frescoes as the girls were taken by the cute kitties walking around the grounds (and throughout the streets of Istanbul).  We also visited the Basilica Cistern, a very interesting site and welcomed break from the mid-day heat. Unfortunately my 7-year-old did not care for the dark, underground site and couldn’t wait to leave.  Fortunately it did not take long to visit and getting ice cream and getting to feed the pigeons afterwards quickly put the scary visit behind her.  The Blue Mosque was beautiful and grand.  The girls loved finally getting to wear the scarves we brought to cover their hair and were very interested to hear about muslim customs. After walking around the Hippodrome, with the different columns, including a small obelisk, we rested our feet during a nice outdoor lunch where the girls had some pide and the waiter made napkin roses for them!  Refreshed, we headed for the Grand Bazaar.  There isn’t much you can’t find there.  The girls were fascinated by the vendors and different types of merchandise.  They had their cheeks pinched by vendors several times (a typical gesture towards children in Turkey) and one especially forceful pinching session drew my 7-year-old to tears after she had walked away.  I found that her big blue eyes were quite irresistible and while she loved the compliments she received, she did not care for the pinching!  My 10-year-old enjoyed buying her own souvenirs and asking for prices at the different stalls and making her own decisions as to whether the price was right. Dinner was enjoyed by all tonight in one of the quaint pedestrian alleys of Sultanahmet. To the delight of the girls, we got to sit at a low table surrounded by a bench covered with lots of pillows were we sat to eat our dinner. This was their chance to eat dinner on the couch!

The next three days were divided between sightseeing and wedding related events.  We walked across the Galata bridge, where we checked out the fishermen and then rode the tram to Galata tower and saw the amazing 360 degree views form the top.  We had dinner at Hamdi, a great restaurant with delicious Turkish food and beautiful views of the waterfront and New Mosque (Yeni Cami).  Some of the adults enjoyed a visit to Cagaloglu, one of the oldest, biggest and most impressive Turkish baths in Istanbul.  We visited Topkapi Palace, a large and beautiful complex of which the nicest and most interesting part was the harem, where we saw beautiful tiled mosaics and the girls were interested to learn that the sultans had many wives but there was a special place where only “the favorites” were allowed.  They were amused by the “posh” baths with gold-plated faucets, mosaic and marble walls and floors yet “toilets” that were carved out of stone and at floor level.  Their favorite palace however was probably Dolmabahce.  Whereas Topkapi has more Asian and Ottoman influences and overall appearance, Dolmabahce is much more Western.  So based on their idea of a palace, Dolmabahce was more, well, palatial!  Huge carpeted rooms in reds and blues with heavy French draperies, high ceilings, French ornate furniture, crystal chandeliers everywhere, high canopy beds, maids quarters, children’s playing rooms, libraries and every other type of room imaginable definitely impressed them. Of course they were also impressed to learn that president Obama had had a state dinner there!  We also all thoroughly enjoyed the Bosphorus cruise.  The ferry is simple, with bench seating and a snack bar on board.  But the views are amazing on both sides.  We made quick stops along the way where we beautiful waterfront homes and lots of different types of boats.  We got off the ferry at the last stop, Anadolu Kavagi, and had a seafood lunch and got to walk around the small town and visit a couple of shops before boarding the return ferry. 

The wedding we attended couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was held at Del Mare, a beautiful restaurant with excellent food on the Asian side of Istanbul.  The setting on the water is amazing, and the beautiful sunset was a perfect backdrop for the couple arriving by the restaurant’s private boat.  Later, once dark, we enjoyed the view of the Bosphorus Bridge, with its light display that changes colors every few seconds.  We had a great time dancing to both American and Turkish music and really enjoyed the food.

We left the amazing historical city and the hustle and bustle of Istanbul behind after 5 days for a very different experience.  We flew from Sabiha Gocken airport, on the Asian side of Istanbul, to Kayseri, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, known for its striking landscape, unusual rock formations, some known as “fairy chimneys”, underground cities, and entire cities built inside these rock formations, including homes and churches.  On our drive from Kayseri to Goreme, where our hotel was located in the center of Cappadocia, we saw the landscape changing from flat rural land to unusually carved mountains and soon enough we spotted the first fairy chimneys!  Many hotels in this area have taken over some of these ancient “cave homes” and have made the necessary changes to convert them to hotels.  A cave hotel is a must if you want to get the full experience here.  We stayed at Kelebek hotel, a beautiful cave hotel at the top of a hill looking down on Goreme and the valleys surrounding it as well as mountains in the background.  The views from the many levels, patios, restaurant and pool of the hotel were extraordinary.  We never tired of it.  Of course the girls thought it was very cool to stay in a room that was carved into the rock!  And the unusual scenery was unlike anything they had ever seen.  The small and refreshing pool was a welcome sight for them. I enjoyed my local Efes (beer) on one of the loungers with a great view while they splashed in the pool and made friends with an Italian girl who was also on vacation. I enjoyed watching them interact and trying to communicate in languages the others didn’t really speak, with a lot of gestures, grunts, pointing, and translating help from the parents.  But adults can learn from kids.  They managed to have a wonderful time and make a new friend despite the obstacles.  After the relaxing break, we headed for Goreme’s outdoor museum.  It was an amazing place full of previously inhabited cave homes, cave churches with frescos still on the walls, etc.  The girls really enjoyed going in the different rooms and trying to figure out what the rooms and different carved niches were used for and going through door openings, cave hallways and up and down steps carved into the rock to access the different rooms.

The next morning, after being woken at sunrise by the call to prayer coming from the nearby minaret, I decided to go outside my room to one of the hotel’s patios to admire the sunrise.  It was probably the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.  The colors in the sky were breathtaking and the amazing landscape below made it even better.  Soon, I started seeing the hot air balloons rising up into the sky and before too long, I walked around the entire hotel counting a total of 20 balloons in the sky. This is a popular (albeit pricey) activity in this area that most say is worth the cost and I hope to be able to participate in on my next visit.  After a delicious and plentiful breakfast, we departed on our full day tour of the area.  We started with a 3 km hike in the Rose Valley. It was hot and we drank plenty of water but the views and terrain were unusual and breathtaking. The tour guide picked grapes off forgotten vines which we ate along the way and made the girls forget about the heat for a while.  The path was mostly sandy and could be a little slippery at times. So shoes with good treads are recommended!  After we were picked up by our van, we drove to Pasabag (Monks Valley), where the most unusual mushroom-shaped rock formations can be seen and explored. After some refreshing fresh squeezed orange juice from a vendor, we got back in the van and went to a local large pottery studio and factory where all pottery is made by hand, mostly using pottery wheels and painted by local artists.  The quality was incredible and appreciated even by the non-connoisseurs.  The level of skill, precision and patience required to finish some of the pieces was hard to imagine.  After our visit, we had an excellent lunch at a local restaurant before heading to Kaymakli underground city.  Not for the claustrophobic, or the very tall, this was a very interesting and entertaining tour.  We wandered through 4 floors (all below ground) around the different rooms once used for sleeping, eating, stables, storage, cooking and more, all connected by tunnels were everyone but the girls (finally grateful to be short) had to bend at the waste and crouch down to get around. 

On our way back to town we stopped at an ATV rental shop and decided to take a 1 hour tour (another great way to see the area).  We had an absolute blast going down dirt roads and off-road.  It was a first time on ATVs for all of us and not only was it a fun way to see the are from a different perspective but it was an exciting and great way to end the day.  After being “air dusted” by the guide, we went to dinner and went back to the hotel for one last quick dip in the pool.  To the disappointment of my 7-year-old, the tooth fairy did not come from one of the fairy chimneys this night, no matter how much wiggling she did during the day.  It wasn’t until the flight back to Istanbul that she finally lost her tooth and hoped the tooth fairy would know where to find her!  The following morning was a repeat of the previous one with the amazing sunrise, views and hot air balloons in the sky. After breakfast we departed for the airport for our flight back to Istanbul.  Because most flights back to the U.S. depart early in the morning, we had to spend the night in Istanbul. For convenience, we chose to stay near Ataturk airport and stayed at the recently opened Courtyard by Marriott. I was very happy we stayed there. There are not many great choices around and I would guess that this is the best one. It was certainly the nicest Courtyard I had ever stayed in with very large, modern and nicely appointed rooms, nice bathroom, good restaurant and a beautiful circular indoor pool which we enjoyed this afternoon before dinner and our last night in Turkey.

I highly recommend Turkey as a travel destination. It is such a wonderful mix of Eastern and Western cultures!  It’s a perfect alternative for those who do not want to travel further than Europe, are comfortable in Europe, yet want to explore something quite different.  And for those who have been to Turkey on a cruise and explored the coastal towns should return and explore Istanbul in-depth as well as some of the beautiful inland areas such as Cappadocia.

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Our voyage began with an extended stay in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  Amsterdam is a beautiful, bustling city which offers a variety of walking tours that I highly recommend.  I chose to be adventurous and stroll through the old city on my own following a printed walking tour from Frommer’s which took about 3 hours.  This tour highlighted all of the “must see’s” of Amsterdam:  the Royal Palace, New Church, the National Monument, the flower markets, Zeedijk and the Red Light District, and other sites.  If you have time, I recommend ordering tickets for Anne Frank’s house online before you get to Amsterdam (the lines are quite long, but can be avoided if you purchase tickets early).   Canal cruises are available on most streets, but note, if you venture a bit into town you will find some better deals.     

Leaving Amsterdam, we set sail for Cologne, Germany aboard our river barge, the River Ambassador.  Cologne is a wonderful German town.  Our guide took us through the Dom (Cathedral), where you can see the Shrine to the Three Magi, and to many historic points of Cologne.   A great stop is to go to Früh, the largest brew house in Germany (it is actually larger than Munich’s).   The local beer is known as Kolsh.  Make sure to put a coaster on top of your beer when you are finished though, or they will keep bringing them to you! 

The next stop was Koblenz, Germany where the Moselle and Rhine rivers meet.   The narrow streets of Koblenz are quaint and picturesque.  A morning tour takes you to the historic churches and through the Old town.  The cruise line offers an extended afternoon tour to Marksburg Castle for a fee.  We chose to walk around town and to climb the William I monument for a beautiful view of where the two rivers join.  There is also a cable car that takes you to the Electoral Palace and over the rivers for 8 euros. We were docked there late into the evening, so we ventured back into town to try the local wines at a typical Weinstube (wine tavern).    

The next morning we were up early to sail the romantic Rhine Valley.  More than 40 castles are located along this stretch of the river.  Our cruise director narrated the history of the area and stories of the castles as we enjoyed the view from the deck.  Local beer, sausage, and pretzels were served. 

That afternoon we sailed into Rüdesheim.  Our cruise director took those interested in a quick tour of the small village.  Time on your own could be spent exploring the self-playing music instrument museum, shopping, taking the tram up to the Neiderwald monument, or enjoying local wines at a winestube.  A local favorite is Rüdesheim coffee:  a coffee made with brandy and set on fire.  An afternoon wine tasting tour to Schloss Vollrads vineyard was wonderful.  Even if you do not drink wine, I recommend taking this tour to see the beautiful Riesling wine roads.  A paid excursion into town for a typical German dinner with entertainment was offered.   (As a note, there are many biergartens with entertainment, so you could choose to do this on your own without paying for an excursion.) Having experienced something similar before, we chose to have a German meal on deck and watch the sunset on the Rhine.  This had to be one of the highlights of the trip.  I certainly recommend taking advantage and signing up for this whatever night it might be offered (they can only do it on a night when you are not sailing). 

The next morning we docked in Speyer, Germany.  A tour was offered of the town in the morning, but you could certainly walk this on your own.  Speyer is small, but quaint.  The largest Romanesque cathedral in Europe is situated in the center of town and is a “must see.”  An extended tour to Heidelberg is planned for this day.  I recommend taking the tour to see this very large, beautiful castle and to have some time on your own in town for shopping and sightseeing in Heidelberg. 

 Leaving Germany we set sail for Strasbourg, France.  A beautiful city situated in the Alsace region of France.  A morning canal tour of the city and the L’Ill River was wonderful!  The rest of your day was spent sightseeing on your own.  We chose to stroll through the cathedral and then have lunch in the area known as Petit France. 

 Our last day was a full-day tour along the Alsatian Wine Roads.  We started in the small French village of Keysersberg.  Here we saw the famous storks which migrate from South Africa to this region.  Our next stop was in Riquewihr, another picturesque French wine village.  You must try the local tarte flambee!  C’est fantastique!  There are many wine tasting rooms from the local vineyards located here, but you must have a planned tasting time if you want to enjoy these.  Your local guide can schedule one if asked.

 Our last stop of the day was in Colmar.  We chose to walk to the area known as Little Venice and sightsee there.  Located in Colmar is the home of Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.  We were here on a Saturday and also enjoyed a beautiful orchestra concert in the park!

Many locks are located along the Rhine.  You will certainly want to be on deck to watch sailing through one.  As we sailed from the Alsace region, we entered several.  The oldest lock is located just before Basel and was built in 1932. 

Our cruise ended in Basel, Switzerland.  Here we disembarked and added on a few more days to see Switzerland.  Walking tours of Basel are quite easy.  You can see the Münster Cathedral and the Marketplatz Square all located in the Old Town.  On Sundays most shops are closed in Switzerland, so keep this in mind. 

We took a tour to Lucerne, Switzerland.  This has to be one of the most beautiful cities, perfectly located along the Alps.  A crystal clear lake runs through the city.  The old bridges where history unfolds in pictures as you walk through are amazing.  Small restaurants and historic churches align the waterfront.  It is no wonder this town is such a tourist attraction.   

Our last day, we took the train to Zürich.  There are trains that run every half hour from Basel directly to Zürich.  The train station in Zürich is located in the heart of the Old town.  A walking tour here is quite easy as well.  Make sure to visit St. Peter’s (the largest clock face in the world), Grossmünster, and Fraümunster.   Also Bahnhofstrasse is a famous street for very expensive shopping (similar to Rodeo Drive).  I recommend taking time for lunch somewhere along the lake; we chose to have Swiss fondue.  The portions are large so make sure to share!

The entire trip was wonderful!  Traveling in late August- early September the weather overall was very pleasant.  Temperatures varied from mid 50’s to low 70’s.  Make sure to plan to dress in layers (cooler mornings and evenings, but warmer afternoons).  Although we had some rain showers, this really did not interfere with our tours or sightseeing.  The food on the ship was good. They incorporated many local cuisine dishes which were enjoyable; having local wines and beers included with dinner was also nice.  The ship had been recently renovated and all accommodations were comfortable and clean.  The staff on board was extremely friendly and accommodating.  I would definitely recommend taking this cruise to see a beautiful part of the world! By H. McKenzie.

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Here’s what clients who recently returned from an anniversary Mediterrenean cruise aboard the Crown Princess with an extended stay in Rome & Vencie had to say about their trip.

  

Where do I start…..our trip was AMAZING!!!!  All went well with our flight to Rome and our transfer to our hotel. The driving in Rome was a little scary, but we made it to our hotel just fine! Our hotel was teeny tiny but nice…I would dare to say that our room was smaller than our room on the ship, but we didn’t mind since we didn’t spend much time there!!! Upon arrival we dropped our bags, took a quick nap and then headed to the Colosseum. Before we left we downloaded a bunch of Rick Steve’s podcasts which ended up being great! We just walked in to the Colosseum, put on our headphones, hit play & got a step by step tour guide from Rick Steves….we would highly recommend this for future travelers!! After the Colosseum we headed over to Vatican City, as you recommended it was best to go there late in the day..that was great advice, we were able to walk right in, put on our headphones & do our own tour. We heard from a lot of our friends on the ship that they waited in lines that wrapped around the square!!! That evening we enjoyed a great meal and then walked in the rain around Rome, had gelato and saw the Pantheon & Trevi Fountain. The next morning we got up early to go to the Roman Forum where we once again did the Rick Steve’s tour & then grabbed our bags and headed to the train station. The train to Civitavecchia was confusing but we managed to make it to the port eventually. The walk to the port was also confusing, but we followed the crowds…the craziest part was the steep staircases we had to lug our luggage up & down!!  (Note from agent: we strongly recommend all our travelers pre-book car or shuttle transportation to and from the port to avoid such hassles).
 
Princess Cruises was all that I hoped for and more. H. and I were both curious about what we would think about cruising & both of us ended up absolutely loving it! The service, atmosphere, prices, entertainment & food were all excellent!! We ended up becoming friends with a few other couples and really enjoyed sitting on their balcony each evening before dinner while drinking wines that we had bought at port!  The first three days of the cruise were exciting as well as exhausting since we signed up for full day excursions in Cannes, Florence & Naples. After the back to back excursions we made some changes to our plans so we had more free time on our own for the future ports…we were glad we did this, but wish we had downloaded Rick Steve’s podcasts for those locations.
 
I would have to say that we loved the island of Santorini the most. Corfu, Capri & Sorrento were all close to the top as well, but riding a donkey up the cliff in Santorini, eating delicious Greek food & riding four-wheelers all over the island led to Santorini winning out!  We were fortunate to not see any strife in or around Greece considering we were there right around the time of the riots.  Athens was quiet since we were there on a Sunday!  
 
Ending the trip in Venice was wonderful….what a beautiful, unique city!! We had a very smooth transfer to our hotel by utilizing the vaporettas. Our hotel (the Casa Verardo) was nice & the location was ideal. We spent the day & night getting lost as well as hanging around St. Mark’s Square…seeing it flood at night was wild!
 
The next morning we had breakfast & headed out to the airport. The flight back was great & as much as we loved our vacation, it was nice to finally be home!
 
Thank you for all of the time that you spent helping us plan this once in a lifetime vacation. Your planning and advice fit just right with what we were looking for in a 2-week European getaway! Thank you for helping to make our dreams become reality! By K.C.L.

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Azamara Club Cruise from Athens (Piraeus), Greece to Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy aboard the Azamara Journey:    A fantastic cruise filled with seeing wonders of the ancient world. 

A wonderful cruise in the Mediterranean aboard the Azamara Journey began in Athens (Piraeus), Greece.   Arriving a day early to Athens gave us time to relax and enjoy the sites of this large, historical city before boarding the ship for our seven-day cruise.  There are many places to enjoy in Athens from the Plaka area to the Parthenon (all are accessible without a guide; just make sure to have a map and information on the sites).  Getting around by foot or the metro are both quite easy.  A highlight is watching the illumination of the Parthenon at dusk.

Leaving Piraeus, we set sail aboard for Kusadasi, Turkey.  I chose to take one of the shore excursions offered by the ship, which included the House of the Virgin Mary and Ephesus.  Both of these sites are quite crowded tourist attractions so I definitely recommend going with a guide.  If you have never been to the area before, these are definitely worth visiting (Note:  remember to bring water and wear sunscreen and bug spray).  The ruins at Ephesus are in amazing condition.   There are many different tours offered by the ship.  I chose a half-day excursion so that we could have a leisurely afternoon on our own in Kusadasi.  There are many shops; Turkish rugs and lamps, silver, and leather seemed to be the most common purchases (Note:  U.S dollars were accepted in most shops).  The shop owners will try to entice you into their shops by offering apple tea or Turkish wine.  I recommend trying both while in Turkey, but make sure you are ready to negotiate (shop owners will try to get you to purchase something). 

Our next port of call was Bodrum, Turkey.  A relaxing change from the hustle and bustle of the big city of Kusadasi!  This seaside port was just what we needed after a previously busy day.  The sailboats and the clear waters of the Mediterranean are absolutely beautiful here.   We chose to take the shore excursion offered by the ship to St. Peter’s castle; however, you certainly could do this on your own (pay in Turkish currency only, no Euros or U.S. dollars accepted).  The castle is worth touring to see remnants of the medieval crusade period and the influence it had on this city.  The afternoon in Bodrum was quite relaxing.  We enjoyed walking the small streets, stopping at tavernas (cafes) along the beach for drinks and lunch, and shopping (no pressure from shop owners here).   A beautiful, friendly city that I will definitely visit again!

Docking the next day in the town of Rhodes, Greece, we chose to walk and see the medieval castle and town on our own.  Meandering through the castle and down the streets within the walls was wonderful.  Shops were scattered throughout and everyone was very pleasant.  After shopping and sightseeing all morning, we walked to the beach in town to enjoy lunch on the water.  An appetizer of tzatziki and a Greek salad was just perfect! 

Along the harbor are the deer that guard the city where it is thought that the Colossus of Rhodes (one of the ancient wonders of the world) may have once stood.  There is much to see on the island of Rhodes, so pick and choose a sampling of sights to see and know that you will want to come back to Rhodes again. 

Cruising the Greek isles is something that should not be missed.  The clear, smooth waters are beautiful.  Make sure to be on deck each evening for sail away and sunset if possible.  Both are amazing!

Our next port of call was the small island of Mykonos.  Arranging a taxi on your own to take you to any of the many beautiful beaches is quite easy (the taxi stand is in the center of the harbor).  Another option is to spend the day strolling through town.  Mykonos has over 400 small churches, each unique.  The small streets can be a bit confusing; however, if you always keep the sea in sight or navigate back to it, you really will not get lost.  Early mornings are very quiet as you walk the town and see the shop owners washing the streets in front of their shops.  Of course, a walk to the windmills is a must.  I suggest heading there first and then wandering your way back through town towards the ship.  You will find so many wonderful restaurants and clubs with great food and drinks.  A great appetizer to try is saganaki.  If you are lucky, you will see the Mykonos mascot, an albino pelican; he is known for “hanging out” near restaurants for fishy treats.  This port of call is such a relaxing day that you will understand why it is often a destination for three to four-day vacations. 

Our last port in Greece was the town of Katakaloon where I chose a shore excursion to Olympia.  The ruins for the ancient Olympics are so vast and impressive!  It is a must see!  The amount that has been excavated and the condition of the pieces inside the museum are quite amazing.  Sprinting from the starting blocks at the Olympic stadium is a photo moment!  The town of Katakaloon is quite small, so do not worry about most of your day being spent in Olympia. 

Sailing from Katakaloon you leave the last of the Greek isles to head towards Rome.   The last day is a relaxing day at sea.  You will definitely want to get up to see the sailing around the boot of Italy, a beautiful view of the coast of Italy and Sicily.   There are many things to do on the ship on the last day:  relaxing at the pool or spa, playing in the casino, enjoying a wine tasting or onboard entertainment to name just a few.  I recommend the wonderful therapeutic spa; it is a great for the muscles and tired legs. 

We disembarked in Civitavecchia.  We decided to extend our trip and stay an extra night in Rome.  It was wonderful to sightsee in this Italian city.  A bit more of history brought to life from the Colosseum to the Roman Forum or the Spanish steps.  More than a day’s worth to see, after all Rome was not built (or toured) in a day!

The entire trip upon the Azamara Journey was wonderful.  The size of the ship was quite nice, as you were able to easily get around on board and able to get into smaller ports of call.  The crew was extremely friendly and willing to assist in any way possible to make your cruise more enjoyable.  On board entertainment was mediocre; however, the days in port were quite extensive and we did not need nightly entertainment.  Instead we chose to enjoy a longer, relaxed dinner with other passengers we had met, followed by music and dancing in the Looking Glass Lounge.  The food was quite good in the dining rooms; we also enjoyed dining in both of the specialty restaurants on board. 

If you are interested in a relaxing way to see many of the sights of ancient history, I would certainly recommend this cruise!  By H. McKenzie.

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What a winter adventure!  Our trip was during the beginning of the Christmas markets (Note: due to the dates of our trip, they were setting up the markets in the Czech Republic and Germany; we did not visit any markets until we reached Austria and Hungary).  Prague, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Vienna, Salzburg, Budapest and the amazing Danube River!  A trip I would definitely recommend! 

We began by adding a two-day excursion to Prague, Czech Republic to our trip.  We were a bit more adventurous and chose to do this on our own instead of the package offered by the cruise line.  Prague is an amazing city.  The people are very friendly and many speak English.  I would recommend staying near the Old Town Square.  By doing this you are in walking distance to almost everything.  The public transportation is also easy to use to get across the Vltava River to Prague Castle, a must see!  I recommend riding to the top and then walking down through the castle and back into town.  Another “must-do” is to take the funicular up to the top of Petrin Hill near sunset and stay to watch the city light up for a breathtaking view. 

The bus ride from Prague to Nuremberg takes about half a day, where you will travel through some beautiful countryside.   When you arrive in Nuremberg, the ship docks on the Main Danube Canal, as a note this is a bit far from town.  We chose to wait to go into Nuremberg the next day.

The cruise line does a wonderful job of including tours each day that you may choose to take if you are so inclined.  For Nuremberg, our tour took us around the city seeing everything from the Nazi rally grounds to Nuremberg castle.  If you can plan it, it is worth being in the city square at noon to see the performance of Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).  Another “must-do” is to eat some of their world-famous gingerbread (Lebkuchen)!

Leaving Nuremberg, we sailed down the Main Danube Canal towards Regensburg.   Going through the locks and under the VERY low bridges was really interesting.  You will definitely want to go up on deck at least once to watch the Captain’s bridge “shrink” and the Captain tell you to sit down.  You can reach up and touch the bridge! 

Regensburg is a wonderful German town.  A place I am already planning to go back to some day!  We chose not to take the tour offered this day since you are docked in town and can walk everywhere.  The town is so quaint.  Although everyone will tell you, you must visit the Dom Cathedral (and I agree), a unique spot that I found to visit was St. Emmermam’s Abbey (part of Thurn and Taxis).  The painted wooden ceilings are amazing!   There are many cafes and biergartens to visit throughout the town.  You’ll definitely want to eat a sausage from “Two Sisters” which can be found along the river. 

The next stop was Passau, Germany.  Here you can choose to tour Passau and then cruise down the Danube to Linz, Austria or you can choose an excursion to Salzburg, Austria.  Based on conversations by other passengers, the little town of Passau and the afternoon cruise was beautiful (if you had already been to Salzburg). 

I chose to take the bus ride to Salzburg.  What a great city!  “The hills are alive with the sound of music”!   Once in the city you will take a walking tour that really includes everything!  I chose to go up to one of the overlooks of the city during my free time (a must do if you have a clear day…looking back towards the Alps!)  The Christmas markets were open in Salzburg.  What hustle and bustle!  Everything Christmas you can imagine.  Food, ornaments, and crafts galore!

We returned that afternoon to Linz to meet up with the ship.  We were there in time to experience their Christmas market.  The locals all gather at the markets in the evening.  It is quite the “place to be”.  A tradition is to drink some local gluvine, a warm mulberry wine, while walking around the markets. 

The next day included a stop in Melk for a tour of Melk Abbey and then an afternoon of sailing the Wachau Valley.  What an amazing afternoon!  The sun was shining and the countryside was beautiful.  We were able to enjoy a glass of wine, from one of the local vineyards, as we set on the deck.  The castles, vineyards, mountains, and river were so beautiful.   This is not the day to take an afternoon nap!  This was the most beautiful scenery of the river journey!

Vienna is another wonderful city! There is so much to do in Vienna that you will have to make some choices about what you want to see and do (there is more than one day’s worth of things to see).  We arrived late afternoon on the day before, and we chose to go into the city that night to the Christmas markets.  There are many Christmas markets in Vienna so this worked well for us, so that we could spend a bit more time the next day sightseeing.  The next day we took the tour in the morning which gives you an overview of the city.  That afternoon we did not do the excursion to Schönbrun, instead we enjoyed lunch at Mozart’s café and took a local tour of the Opera house.  What a unique experience where they take you back stage!

Sailing into Budapest is worth waking up early!  It is reminiscent of sailing in Venice.  The bridges, the House of Parliament, Buda Castle and so much more!  I would recommend adding an extra day on to your trip.  We were rushed trying to see the city in just one day.  I fell in love with this Hungarian city.  The Christmas markets were a bit different than the ones in Austria; these included more local crafts (jewelry, ornaments, laces & fabrics).  The city at night is absolutely beautiful! 

The trip was a wonderful experience!  I would definitely recommend sailing the Danube River.  The crew aboard the MS Amalyra was wonderful and very helpful.  The ship was very nice!  The local entertainment brought on board each night was very good.  The cruise director really made the trip successful.   The Christmas markets were enjoyable as well, but they do take up quite a bit of your sightseeing time, so this should be taken into account when planning your trip.  If you would like to see the Christmas Markets, then plan to go starting in December so that all of the markets are open.  If you are not interested in Christmas markets, then I would recommend choosing a different time of year, but DO NOT miss out on cruising the Danube!  By H. McKenzie.

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Brenta RiverCurrently in Padova.  It is unusually hot and humid today.  Thank goodness the hotel is very good, with excellent AC. Many stores, restaurants and buses don’t have it. Yesterday we went on an outing on buses and on a boat (burchiello) down the Brenta River, which connects Padova and Venice.  There are 2000 villas built starting in the 1500’s which belonged to wealthy Venice merchants, who had their villas/palaces here in the country.  Some are now museums, some are closed and some are inhabited by wealthy people. I was quite surprised at how well I manage with my Italian! (more…)

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A traveler talks about her transatlantic sailing aboard the Queen Mary 2.
QM2 in HamburgYou know, for us the idea taking the Queen Mary 2 to Europe was in the beginning a means for transportation, an alternative to a flight.  However, it was a lot more and we enjoyed every moment of it.  The boarding and disembarkation was fast and well organized.  We loved our stateroom 12057.  Life on board was very comfortable, eventful and interesting.  The service and food were fabulous, we chose to have only breakfast and dinner and therefore did not gain any weight! Furthermore, I took daily fitness classes ($ 50 for all of them), K. liked the computer classes.  The weather was very nice and the sea was calm.  (more…)

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