Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Market Day

September 18 - I asked the receptionist at the hotel this morning if there was anything special going on in Bern on Saturdays.  She directed us to the Saturday Market in Parliament Square.  What a great suggestion!  The market was full of wonderful fresh produce, bread, meats, cheeses and flowers. At one stand, a vendor cut lunchmeat to individual orders.  Nothing seems to be on ice! This would not be permitted with our US health laws, I am sure. The crowded market bustled with shoppers and children.  One adorable little girl excitedly showed her daddy what mommy had bought for her - chocolat!  Seems toddlers and chocolate are a common language.  There was one stand with all sorts of small dried gourds, etc., for making flower arrangements which tempted me -- but I don't think I'd be permitted to bring these through customs.

At the market

Our Eurorail pass entitles us to eight days of transportation during our stay in Switzerland.  I think DH is determined to use all eight days!  We decided to take the train from Bern to Neuchatel, a town located on Lake Neuchatel in the French-speaking area of Switzerland.  Once in Neuchatel, we walked through town and ran across another Saturday market.  Every so often, there was a picnic table set up among the vendors and we saw many families eating market food along with a glass of wine or beer on this sunny day.

We opted for lunch at Les Brasseurs, a brewery.  We finally had "flammenkueches," a type of pizza with very, very thin crust.  Mine was loaded with mushrooms and DH had the caprese version.  Of course, we had beer.  Throughout our trip, we've noticed two things about the beer glasses:  they are etched with volume marks and they always have the brand name of the beer on them.  If you order a .5dl beer, the beer is poured up to the .5dl mark etched on the glass.  DH says that this is due to a law that protects the buyer from being short-changed on their beer purchase.  Ah, Swiss precision!

Drivers drive fast in this part of Switzerland -- the French area!  Reminds me of how fast my BIL drives.  Hmmm....  Also, as soon as we entered this area on the train route, the signs turned to French in rail stations and the announcements on the train were made in French first, followed by German.  Up until now, the announcements have been in German first, then French, and English in the larger stations.  It must be interesting to live in a country with four official languages - German, French, Italian, and Rumantsch.

Approaching the castle
We shopped in the old town then hiked to the castle for a wonderful view of the city.  There's a first time for everything department:  We both desperately needed to use a restroom and the one and only one at the castle happened to have two stalls.  We felt very liberated taking a dual potty break!

As we were walking towards the cathedral next to the castle, a wedding party with a few hundred guests arrived and the church bells chimed.  This is the third wedding that we've just happened across on our trip - a nice touch since this trip is partly to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.  I hope all three couples enjoy a marriage at least as long as ours!

I was hungry when we got back to the Bern railway station so picked up a Movenpick ice cream cup - delicious!  I've had ice cream on my mind for the whole trip but the weather hasn't been ice cream weather.  I finally decided to have it anyway and just deal with the chill!

I could live in a castle - couldn't you?
Since our lunch was a bit late and very filling, we planned on a takeout dinner from the Coop.  We relaxed in our room for a bit, then found that the Coop was closed!  On Saturday, many stores either close at noon or early in the afternoon.  We ended up at the bar across the street from the hotel for a beer and saw people eating food that looked scrumptious.  Seems the bar owner is from Sri Lanka so we ordered what we thought was the same as the people near us. Well, our food didn’t look anything like what we expected to get!  It was still good and quite spicy.

Our nice waitress hails from Bangladesh.  She told us that she has been here 8 years and hasn’t had fondue yet.  She also commented that the Swiss eat then have salad then another drink then coffee, etc., etc., etc.  In other words, very long meals!

Tomorrow, we're off to Lucerne -- our last city before the long trip home.

Monday, September 27, 2010

They're out there somewhere!

September 17 - Our room key is attached to a piece of metal that looks just like an extra large beer bottle opener.  DH did not want to lug this around, so he removed the key to carry separately. Sometime during the night, DH decided to open the window to our room to get more airflow.  In order to keep the window open,  he used the "beer bottle opener" as a wedge.  Whoops - bad move.  When we woke up in the morning, it was gone.  Considering the cost of things in Switzerland, this is probably going to set us back a hundred bucks!  DH went outside and looked all over but couldn't find it.  Hmmm ... should be another interesting hotel checkout!

Today is the day to go to Interlaken and see the Alps up close and personal.  Unfortunately, the weather is pretty gloomy.  The weather report earlier in the week indicated that this was the best day during our Bern stay to go into the mountains.  We're hoping that the clouds clear later in the day.

On the way to the train station, we walked by the Bernina store.  They had the full line of the new 300s in the window.  I'm looking forward to visiting the store later in our visit.

Too beautiful to miss
We really enjoy our rail trips.  The trains are so clean and quiet and the Swiss countryside is just beautiful.  I thought I'd be reading my book or doing my hand sewing during these train trips, but I can't stop looking at the views.  We could definitely feel the increased elevation as we made our way to Interlaken.

A bit touristy?
Interlaken has huge hotels and lots of tourist shops; it is the most "touristy" place we've visited.  We walked the length of the town, found the fondue restaurant that was highly recommended on the Internet, then decided to take the train farther up the mountains to Grindelwald.  The weather was still overcast.  The Alps were out there - somewhere! - but we couldn't see them.

This is the smallest train we've been on, one of the special cogwheel trains that go to the higher elevations of the Alps.  Shortly after we started the trip, the conductor came for our tickets and told us that our Eurorail Pass did not cover this train.  The mountain trains are privately run.  Not only did we have to pay an additional $52 to continue the trip, but we were on the wrong car!  At the next stop, we exited the train and got on the car right behind us.  They split the train at that point, and only a couple of cars continue to twist and turn their way up the mountainside.

Where oh where are you, Alps?
 We sat right behind the engineer and had a fabulous trip to Grindelwald along a beautiful river with rapids.  The Alps were covered in clouds and fog.  It is a strange feeling - you know they are there, but you can't see them.

DH thought he saw one of the military bunkers that Switzerland uses for their defense.  They apparently have a highly sophisticated and secret defense system.

Grindelwald is a bit less touristy than Interlaken.  The weather was chilly enough for us to have a hot chocolate and something sweet:  a schwarzwalmer torte (black forest cake) for me and fruchtekuchen (berry tart) for Doug.

Hot chocolate and sweets - yummy!
We took the cogwheel train back down the mountain looking forward to our fondue dinner.  Unfortunately, the restaurant did not start serving dinner until 6 p.m.

The Berner-Oberland Bahn
While wandering in and out of shops, we suddenly saw skydivers!  People pay LOTS of money to go up one of the mountains and skydive down into the town of Interlaken landing in a large open field in the center of town.  Someone would have to pay me LOTS of money to even think about doing such a thing.

There's a skydiver in there somewhere ....
We took the train back to Bern, had some wine in room, and dined at the Eiger, a family run restaurant near the hotel with excellent service and delicious food.  Clouds, fog, drizzle, and good memories of a special day in the mountains.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Sunny Day in Bern

Our last days of vacation got a bit packed with activities so blogging went by the wayside.  Even though we are now back home in California, I want to finish my vacation posts.  BB (before blog!), I kept a written travel diary.  My blog has now become my diary, so I need to write about the rest of our adventures.

September 16 - The breakfast at La Pergola is similar to the one offered by the Hotel Dom.  Lots of bread choices, including whole loaves where you can cut yourself a sizable chunk.  Fresh fruit salad, sliced meats, and a large selection of cheeses.  Cold cereal, milk, juice, a basket of apples/bananas/plums, and several flavors of yogurt.  The yogurt that I’ve had while on this trip is much creamier and more flavorful than what I am used to.  I’m certain that it is a lot higher in fat content, too!  Fortunately, there are no labels to peruse on the breakfast buffet, so I can just enjoy without guilt.  The best part of the breakfasts, however, is the coffee.  They brew a small pot of coffee for each guest individually and serve it with a pitcher of steamed milk.  It is wonderful!

DH and I marked off the sites we wanted to see today and mapped a circuitous route through the Old Town in order to catch as many of them as possible while the sun is shining.

During a visit to yet another church on the early part of our walk, I had one of those surprising moments.  A blind man entered the church and walked directly to the altar of Our Lady.  He prayed a moment, then took out a harmonica and played a lovely serenade.  My heart told me that he does this every day.

The Ensign Fountain
Bern is known for its 16th century fountains located throughout Old Town, and we were determined to see each of them.  I'm not sure we met our goal, but we certainly enjoyed the effort.  We spent some time at the House of Parliament building on the Square of Parliament - quite an impressive building.  While strolling along the lovely promenade behind the building, I suddenly realized that the Alps were peaking out above a few low clouds.  I was actually looking at the Swiss Alps!

Approaching the Clock Tower
The Zytglogge is a must-see in Bern.  The clock on this 13th century tower puts on quite a show from 4 minutes before the hour through chiming the hour.  Bears rotate, gilded figures strike the bells, and dozens of onlookers admire the clockfaces and astronomical clock.  We tried several times to get to the show on time but missed seeing the entire 4+ minutes.  Oh, well - a reason to go back perhaps?

DH did most of the planning for this trip, but neither one of us remembered that the house where Albert Einstein did most of his work on his theory of relativity is now a museum dedicated to the physicist.  Climbing the narrow circular stairs from floor to floor in the museum reminded me of the stairs in the Amsterdam apartment!  There isn't much to the museum (entrance fee is just $4 for seniors), but the displays detailing Einstein's life and work are quite interesting even for a non-scientist.

House of Parliament - Bern
We found a small park next to a church and had sandwiches for lunch on a park bench.  Then more walking and sightseeing through Old Town.  By the time we got back to the hotel and rested awhile, we were too tired to hike anywhere far for dinner.  The Italian restaurant across the street called to us again.

I think we've taken 2000 pictures and climbed 2000 steps - I hope my knees hold out!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Taking the Road Less Traveled

We tried to check out early at our hotel today, but the server was down.  They could not process our bill on Mastercard.  Fortunately, an ATM a few doors down spit out 6 crisp new $100 franc notes and off we were to the train station.  I don't know how the Swiss can afford to live in Switzerland!

Once our train was in the Bahnhof (station), we looke for our reserved seats in Coach 4.  We were separated for about five minutes with me standing on the platform securing the luggage and Doug on the train looking for our seats.  I was getting nervous as it got closer and closer to departure time; these trains wait for no one.  We are so reliant on cellphones to communicate!  We even call one another in department stores to find out where the other one is.  I did not like feeling alone and abandoned at all ....

Fortunately, Doug found our seats, we boarded the train, and sped our way from St. Gallen to Bern along the beautiful, green countryside of Switzerland.  This train was a double-decker, so our views were spectacular.  We should not have spent the extra fee for reservations since the train was only about 25% full.  How do you know?

Bern architecture
We arrived in Bern and made our way to the Hotel La Pergola.  Unfortunately, the street we chose did not have a sidewalk -- we ended up dragging our bags down steps and over dirt pathways through a park.  I don't think rolling luggage was designed for this type of "travel."  I need to be more forceful with DH when he comes up with these schemes.  I ended up with several big, bad, ugly blue bruises from the luggage banging into my leg.  Of course, if we had been more patient (or, heaven forbid, asked directions!), we could have avoided this route to the hotel.  This is a read-between-the-lines message to friends and family who will know exactly what happened!

A small section of Bern's shopping arcade
The hotel is back off the street a few blocks from the Old City so it is nice and quiet.  We checked in and wandered through the streets of Bern.  As the capital of Switzerland, it is the largest city we have visited since Amsterdam.  Lots of traffic, both foot, bike, scooter, bus, tram, and car.  Even the intermittent rain did not stop us from walking through the seemingly endless arcades of shopping.

The most delightful aspect of travel is the unexpected.  We heard live music coming from a square adjacent to the shopping area.  A military band was playing!  We stayed and listened for a few minutes enjoying the music.  Fun, fun, fun!

Toddler enjoying fountain spray!
The fountains of Bern are quite interesting.  We ran across several today; we will try to see all 11 of them in the Old City before we leave.

We slowly made our way back towards the hotel and came across what looked like the American Embassy.  Three soldiers stood outside, with one female soldier holding an automatic weapon.  DH tried to take a picture of the building, and a soldier shouted at us not to take pictures!  We tend to follow instructions when there are weapons involved .....

There's a first time for everything department:  we can't get ice at this hotel!  So, my favorite bartender served our bottle of red wine unchilled.  We ate dinner at a cozy Italian restaurant across the street owned by a Spaniard -- delicious spaghetti a la carbonara for DH and cannelloni for me.  Weather permitting, tomorrow we walk 'til we drop!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bernina Day!

The alarm did not go off today, but the church bells rang!  I assumed the bells were ringing at 7, but it was only 6 a.m.  The Swiss are known for being exact about time.  You can't possibly oversleep here.

On the way to the train station, we encountered a mom with 3 preschoolers all singing "Brother John" in German!  How very cute ...

Apple trees along the train route
Our train trip was on a local this time, so we made many stops along the way.  The countryside was exceptionally pretty with farms, fields, distant rolling hills, cows, a few horses, and lovely homes in each township.  And apple trees galore!  Full size trees and also rows and rows of younger trees planted similarly to vineyards.

Except for the stations that are large enough to have connecting trains, each stop is a maximum of two minutes.  Hesitate and you go to the next station.  Fortunately for us, a very nice woman must have realized we were getting off at Steckborn and pushed the button for the train to stop.  Apparently, Steckborn is not a regular stop!  Can you imagine us whipping through the Steckborn station and wondering why the train didn't stop????

A wonderful home in Steckborn.
We wandered through the quaint village of Steckborn enjoying the sunny day and the lovely homes.  Steckborn is on Lake Constance (the Bodensee), and you can see the German city of Konstanz quite clearly across the lake.  The day was so warm and sunny that we decided to buy a sandwich at Coop (a supermarket) and sit by the lake to enjoy the views.  Suddenly, we noticed a blimp.  It took me a second or two to realize what was strange about the blimp - no logo!  A totally white, unmarked blimp.  Hmmmm .... a Swiss mystery.

Me - in front the of Bernina factory!
We walked up the street towards the Bernina address, rounded a curve in the road, and there was the large red Bernina sign.  We spent the next several hours in Bernina heaven (for me), but I will not bore you with a lengthy report.  I'll do a separate post just on the tour.  I will say, however, that I now understand why the sewing machines and the accessories are so expensive; almost everything is done by hand.  I was amazed.

Back via train to St. Gallen, pick up a bottle of wine, pack for our trip to Bern tomorrow, then a hamburger & French fries at the American Bar & Grill around the corner from the hotel.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Our own walking tour of St. Gallen

DH had a tentative plan to get on a train (again) and head to Appenzellerland, an area not far from here famous for cowbells and yodelling.  The weather was threatening so we decided to stay in town and fully explore St. Gallen.  I think we've walked 10 miles today and seen every street in the old city, some several times.

We started the day with a mishap.  The shower in the hotel does not have a lip on it -- the entire bathroom is tiled on one level, with the floor tilted slightly to the shower drain.  I managed to get so much water over the bathroom floor that it started to seep into the bedroom!  DH had to give me a lesson in European showers ....

The Hotel Dom offers a nice breakfast.  Coffee was freshly made for us and served in individual pots with warmed milk in individual creamers.  What service!  The coffee was the best I have had in a long time - sorry, Starbucks.  The Hotel Dom is part of an association called "forderraum," an institution which supports handicapped people.  The hotel provides about 50 jobs under this program affording the opportunity to work according to their capabilities in a meaningful way.  Everyone in the hotel has been extremely service oriented, friendly, and professional.  Each room is named after the artwork placed in the room done by an employee, either present or past.  Our room is the "Benjamin Bonjour Menschen" room.  Here is Benjamin's drawing entitled "Menschen."

Things are expensive in Switzerland!  We hit an ATM this morning for a $100 withdrawal.  We got the $100 - in one bill!  That's a good indication that you can spend $100 pretty easily.

Our first visit after breakfast was to the Textile Museum.  St. Gallen is well known for its textile industry and especially lacemaking.  I was thrilled by the displays of exquisite antique lace from all over the world.  One of the gowns on display was worn by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.  Unfortunately, you are not permitted to take pictures in the museum - so please click on the link above to see a few.  There is a case in one room with multiple drawers that you can pull out (similar to drawers holding maps in many museums).  Each drawer revealed a beautiful display of hand embroidery, one more gorgeous than the next.  The tiny, tiny stitches on fine batiste took my breath away.  The nicest part of the museum was that DH enjoyed it, too!

Oma Bratwurst and Fries - Yum!
For lunch, we had a local specialty, an Olma bratwurst.  They serve it in a bag and also give you a large slice of bread.  The trick is to take a bite of the bratwurst, then a chunk of bread.  No mustard allowed!  People walk along the streets while eating their lunch in this fashion.

DH is having a blast using his high school German.  He's doing quite well, especially since buying an English/German dictionary a few days ago.

There are four or five stores in St. Gallen specializing in musical instruments.  We have asked about this, but the residents don't think this is odd.  I don't know how far we would have to go to find as many within walking distance of one another.  In the afternoon, we browsed in one such store with six stories!  The pianos are on the bottom floor, including a beautiful Steinway grand with a price tag of $116,000.  I resisted the urge to play chopsticks.

Six stories - two underground!
Dinner was a picnic in the room:  delicious cheeses from a small shop on the next street, bread from the bäckerie around the corner, wine from the grocery store that we stumbled upon (Coop), and a hunk of Swiss chocolate.  Is this heaven?

Bernina Day tomorrow.  Now that must be heaven ....

Monday, September 13, 2010

River Cruising vs. Ocean Cruising

This was our first river cruise, but I don't think it will be our last.  As with most adventures in life, there were some things we liked and some things we did not like.

We chose Avalon Waterways primarily because each room has a French window.  The larger size of the window gives you better views while in your room.  The room was so small that we found ourselves in the public rooms most often.  On our last two ocean cruises, we've booked a balcony room which is high on my list of "must haves" for future cruises.  It is just so nice to have a quiet breakfast or a glass of wine on the balcony.  I don't think the French windows on the river boat, however, offer as much of an advantage.  All things being equal, I would not pay extra for them.

The room was small, small, small.  It was very hard for us both to be in the room at the same time if we were moving about!  DH needs a lot of space to feel comfortable (it's hard for us to be in the kitchen at the same time, for instance), so maybe other couples wouldn't have the same problem.

I thought the boat was noisier than the ocean liners.  Going through the locks at night caused most of the noise disturbance.  On a positive note, fewer passengers (only 130 on the Felicity vs. several thousand on the Princess ships) means less noise.  Since there are virtually no activities after 9 p.m. other than a chance to dance in the lounge to the music of a single piano player, there is little if any noise from passengers in the hallways.  If you need shows, casinos, bingo, art auctions, spas, shopping, choice of restaurants and bars, river cruising is not for you.  If you like a more relaxed and casual atmosphere, give it a try!

We found the food above average, but not superb.  There were enough choices at the breakfast and lunch buffets to suit us.  We were hoping that there would be more regional specialities as we made our way up the Rhine.  Wine flowed freely at dinner, and there was a nightly happy hour in the bar where drinks were 2 for 1.  This was not true on our ocean cruises.  Avalon has a card at each dining table with their "food rainbow" listed.  Each of the colors represents a type of diet; i.e., low carb, low fat, vegetarian, etc.  The labels on the buffet are bordered by the appropriate color.  This was a nice touch for those on special diets.

We loved the coffee machine in the front lounge.  You had your choice of coffee drinks including cafe latte, cafe macchiato (whatever that is), regular coffee, hot water.  It was easy for DH to bring me a hot cup of coffee first thing in the morning.

Service was absolutely excellent.  We blew a fuse or tripped the circuit breaker in our room halfway through the cruise.  I heard a pop, then all the lights went out.  DH was charging his electric shaver when it happened.  Question:  Did the shaver die?  Did the converter die?  Did we do costly damage to the room?  Answer:  Shaver dead.  Avalon was nice enough to lend us the Hummer of converters just to be on the safe side.  We bought disposable razors for Doug in Heidelberg; he hasn’t used a razor since his Army days!

Unlike ocean cruising, the daily tours are included.  There are also optional tours on the days when you stay in a port long enough for two activities.  I felt as though I was in the Army with revelry at 6:30 a.m.!  Busy, busy, busy …. I've also had this experience with ocean cruising.  Sometimes, it's the old "if it's Tuesday, we must be in Belgium" routine.  I wonder if most passengers would like to slow down a bit.

DH and I loved that the tours were conducted using headphones with FM transmission.  We could wander off quite a distance and still hear the guide talking.  Great idea!

Even though Avalon caters to Americans and Canadians, the bedding is strictly European with a duvet and extra large pillows.  We can't figure out how to be comfortable with this system!  Of course, that is our problem, not Avalon's.

Dress on the river cruise was much more casual than for ocean cruising.  A typical day in port on our ocean cruises allowed enough time for passengers to change into a dressier outfit for dinner and evening activities.  On this river cruise, we barely made it back to the boat for happy hour!  Although I did not like the pace of the days, I certainly enjoyed not having to spruce up!

With only 130 passengers, we had the opportunity to meet far more people than on the larger cruises.  People were very friendly by the end of the week.  We like this.

Will we give up ocean cruising in favor of river cruising?  Not on your life.  We're already talking about cruising to Hawaii on Princess followed by another river cruise perhaps on the Danube.  They are different experiences, but equally enjoyable.

Random Observations and Thoughts - Rhine Cruise in Germany

  • We had dark, overcast weather most of our days.  This enforced my preconceptions of Germany.  My mind kept wandering back to stories that my parents told of World War II.  It will take several generations, I believe, for the strong connection between Germany and the horrors of World War II to fade.
  • Several of our tour guides mentioned that German nationalism has not been encouraged since the war.  Only recently have German citizens begun to fly their flag.
  • German law is tough!  Our tour busses had seatbelts, and the tour guides were insistent that we use them.  The fines are quite steep for breaking the law.
  • Privacy is very important to Germans. For instance, there are no public records when a house is sold nor are there public tax records. No one can find out the selling price of a home.
  • When speaking about the war years, guides used the word "Nazis" rather than "Germans."  One guide referred to the time period as the “difficult time in Europe."  My impression is that modern day Germans want to distance themselves from those who were responsible for the conflict.
  • On a happier note, we saw many people fishing along the river.  They had extraordinarily long fishing poles, maybe 15 or 20 feet!  Perhaps the fish only live in the middle of the river?
  • Wherever we go, the bread is fantastic.  I could probably eat only bread and cheese at every meal and be a happy gal.
  • I started to read Reading Lolita in Tehran on the plane. I chose this book quite by accident; it was a donation to our Oasis library and I thought I could just leave it on the boat when I finished it. It turned out to be an interesting choice.  Totalitarian regimes even decades apart have much in common.  The Nazis persecuted the Jews, and the Iranian government persecutes women.  Towards the end of the book, the author, Azar Nafisi, says, "How does the soul survive?"  Her answer is "through love and imagination."  In order to survive, one of the characters in the book paints her fingernails bright red forcing her to wear gloves when in public.  She lives in fear of being stopped by the police and having her gloves removed.  She could be punished severely, even to the point of being stoned to death.  Yet, she remains defiant.  In order to survive, Anne Frank and her family created as normal a life as they could.  They celebrated holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries with parties.  Otto Frank tracked his daughters' growth by marking their height on a wall in the secret annex.  In both cases, the human spirit refused to allow monsters to steal their souls.
  • It was good to come to Germany.  I felt safe and welcome.  I hope we can return some day.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

We could learn a lot from the Swiss . . .

. . . about train travel.  Wow!  The trains are absolutely wonderful: clean, quiet, and exactly on time.  Our trip from Basel to Zurich was on an express train which ran at 123 kph and completed the trip in 53 minutes.  There are signs in the cars that say these are "quiet areas."  In other words, no loud talking and no cellphone use.  Wouldn't that be wonderful in the US?

I had a bit of trouble in the WC.  In order to flush the toilet, you have to push a red button.  Now to me, pushing a red button means "Help, I'm in trouble!"  I took a chance and pushed the button and voila!  A flushed toilet.

We passed through several long tunnels - a bit disconcerting since we don't travel by train very often.  The landscape was beautiful:  large areas of green countryside below rolling hills, small villages appearing now and then, grazing cows on the hillsides, fields of corn.  I even saw two cows in a backyard no bigger than mine!  Fresh milk every day at that house, I am sure.

The majority of houses are beige with brown roofs and 2-3 stories tall.  In the villages, there are well-maintained community gardens alongside the rail tracks.

The helpful conductor told us that the train from Zurich to St. Gallen would be leaving from Track #10.  These two old folks managed to get off the train with our bags and hot foot it over to Track #10 to board our next train in less than 9 minutes!  We are now confident train travellors.
This second train was a "tilting train."  You really feel the tilt as you go around curves, especially the long S curves.  Our train-loving grandson, Jackson, would love these babies!

St. Gallen oriel window
Arriving exactly on time (I expect nothing less from the Swiss), we walked several blocks to our hotel, the Dom.  The hotel is quite contemporary.  The room seems HUGE compared to what we had on the boat.

Stores are closed on Sunday in Switzerland by law.  Many restaurants also close, apparently.  We walked quite a bit looking for a place to have lunch before giving up and returning to the restaurant adjacent to the hotel for their expensive Sunday brunch - 26 Swiss francs each!  Between lunch and the 50 Swiss franc taxi ride to the railway station in Basel, it has been an expensive day.

We visited the gorgeous Cathedral of St. Gallen and it's world famous library.  The Cathedral is the centerpiece of a monastery that dominates the old city.  Only portions are open to the public, but the central area with its grassy area and parklike setting is open.  Many families and couples, both young and old, were enjoying the sunny afternoon.

Cathedral of St. Gallen
The library is amazing.  Before you enter, you put on slippers that fit over your shoes so that you do not damage the wooden floor.  Visitors seem to be skiing over the floor!  The ceiling is covered in beautiful frescoes.  I stood in the room transfixed by the hundreds of texts on display some dating prior to the year 1000!  I walked from stack to stack trying to find something that I could decipher; many titles are in Latin.  I did find one that said it was the correspondence of Napoleon I.  That's impressive.  The library owns the original plan for the monastery from the 9th century, but it is too fragile to have on display.  A replica is displayed for visitors.  Apparently, Umberto Eco spent two months in the library's reading room studying the plan and used it as a basis for his bestselling novel, The Name of the Rose.

Starbucks St. Gallen - really!
A beer at a corner pub, then pizza at the restaurant across from our hotel.  Uh, oh.  There is no laundromat in St. Gallen.  Time to wash out a few essentials in the hotel sink.

A Relaxing Day in Breisach, Germany

No alarm at 6:30 a.m. - how sweet it is!  We are both so glad we elected to pass on the trips scheduled for today and just relax, play catchup, pack, and even read a bit.  Today is sunny and warm enough to sit on the top deck of the boat.  Several passengers even braved the whirlpool.

Once again, the swans are everywhere.  It's fun to watch them move from the boat, to the opposite shoreline, to a small sightseeing vessel as people feed them in different areas of the river.

A Breisach square
View from the Cathedral
We took a leisurely walk into the small village of Breisach for lunch and stumbled on a Turkish restaurant.  Although we both had salads, the homemade yogurt dressing was a Turkish recipe and it was superb.  I had a beer from Turkey (Efes).

We kept seeing a wedding party during our stay in Breisach.  First, we saw them in a 12-car motorcade (all BMWs or Mercedes) blowing horns on their way to City Hall.  As DH and I were having our lunch, the motorcade made its way through the village to the Cathedral.  We climbed up the stone walkway to the Cathedral and the wedding party was assembled to take pictures.  Then back down the hill with the horns blaring!

Memorial to German soldiers
Over 85% of Breisach was destroyed in the Allied bombing during 1945 because of its proximity to the river and the number of bridges nearby.  It is hard to imagine this charming village in ruins.

Tomorrow, we start the great train adventure.  Let's hope that two 65-year-olds can manage suitcases and backpacks while getting on and off trains!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Our Day in Alsace

We were already docked when the alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, September 10.  Dozens of swans swam near the ship including a youngster who has not yet turned white.  We hurried through breakfast and took off for a canal cruise and walking tour of Strasbourg, France.

The beauty of Strasbourg
I did not realize that the old city of Strasbourg is an island surrounded by a lovely canal.  The architecture is quite different from what we have seen in the last few days.  I’m not a student of architecture, so I can’t really describe it.  Our guide described them as “half-timbered houses” with roofs made of terra cotta tiles shaped a little like beaver tails.

There are flowers everywhere, mostly geraniums -- adorning bridges, filling window boxes, encircling lampposts.  We went through two small locks on the River Ill (pronounced “eel”) during the canal cruise.  I am certain that the sounds I hear in the middle of the night are the sounds of making our way through a lock.

Looking skyward at the Cathedral
The Strasbourg Cathedral is, of course, the centerpiece of the old city.  It’s spiral rises hundreds of feet in the air.  The next time you are frustrated when a home remodeling project takes longer than expected, remember this:  it took 250 years to build this cathedral!  As in other cities we have visited, the cathedral is under constant repair and renovation.

During our free time, we shopped a bit and took pictures as we walked from street to street.  Strasbourg is charming and definitely a place to return to. These visits are all too short!

In the afternoon, we took an optional bus tour along the Alsace wine road which is 190 km long and passes through over 100 villages and countless wineries.  Before getting on the wine road, we saw fields adorning both sides of the motorway, primarily corn grown for oil and white cabbages to be turned into sauerkraut or "choucroute." You can actually smell the cabbage!

Each time we wove our way through the narrow streets of a village, I wanted to stop the bus and see the sights.  This is one of the problems with being on a tour; you trade off your freedom to explore in exchange for the security of a bus and guide.

At some of the villages, we had to pass through stone portals dating from the 13th and 14th centuries.  Our 21st century bus was only inches away from the sides of the portals.  DH and I could see scrapings on the portal walls from drivers who were not quite as adept as Willi, our driver for the day.  We encountered a detour and Willi had to back up the bus!

Wine Tasting - Yum!
In the town of Barr, we visited Domaine Klipfel and tasted four different wines from the Alsace wine region: a Reisling, a Pinot Gris, a Pinot Noir, and a Gewürztraminer .  Wonder of wonders -- DH and I were actually able to taste the difference between these wines and the ones that we normally buy from Trader Joe’s!  David explained each of the wines and gave us hints about what foods would best accompany them. Surprisingly, I liked the Gewürztraminer the best.  It is a wine that I usually do not like.  But this one was exceptionally spicy and not overly sweet.  “Gewurzt” means spicy in German.  David said it was normally served with strong cheese or foie gras at holiday time.  It is best if stored for 5-6 years.  I think I’ll look for a nice bottle when we get home.  I’d like to serve this wine to my French brother-in-law who thinks that only red wine should be served with cheese!

On the way home, we made a short visit to the lovely town of Obernai, also called Little Strasbourg, where I bought a "bretzel."  How can you visit Germany without having a pretzel?

Captain’s farewell dinner is tonight.  We’ll be staying onboard tomorrow and not going on the trip to the Black Forest so we can relax, pack, and get these blog posts posted.  After so many days of vacation, I do not need a piece of Black Forest cake!

From Castles to Sauerkraut - A Day in Heidelberg

Heidelberg Castle
A luxurious bus took us on a 30-minute trip from the dock to the university city of Heidelberg this morning via the autobahn! The “suggested speed” on the autobahn is about 90 mph and those who go slower apparently are not well thought of. We did not see lane changes as frequently as we see in LA, but I cannot imagine either of us driving at 90 mph. DH has a hard time with 70 mph.  Glad we decided not to rent a car on this trip.

A view across the Neckar River
The earliest recorded reference to the town of Heidelberg is in the year 1126, but the buildings and churches of the old city date to medieval times. Heidelberg is a delightful town with narrow, winding streets as we have seen elsewhere on our trip. One of the distinct features of this town, however, is that the houses in the old city all have red roofs. Lovely!

The bus climbed up to the castle which overlooks the city, and we spent about an hour on a guided tour. The castle is not intact; large sections have been destroyed over the centuries through warfare. However, you can still get the feeling for what it must have been like in its prime. Our guide delighted us with the stories of those who had lived in the castle.

Beer Tap at Jacobs
We opted to stay in town for the day instead of returning to the boat. We found a small restaurant, Jacobs, for lunch and ate bratwurst and sauerkraut with a Furstenberg beer. The sauerkraut was unlike any I have ever had. It was almost creamy and very mild. The beer was great!

At 4 p.m., a bus took us back to the boat which had passed the afternoon cruising from our morning dock to Speyer. Cocktail hour was approaching, so we chose to bypass Speyer and relax on the Felicity. Oh, no -- the bar has run out of Bombay Sapphire! We had a fun dinner with a couple from the Miami area and Joan and Ken from Nova Scotia. Quite a riot to compare stories of how the couples met.

This has been my favorite day so far.  I just love this town!

The castle above the streets of Heidelberg
There are lots of noises during the night which Doug manages to sleep through. Are we perhaps going through more locks at night?

Happy Birthday to Me!

One of the many statues in Koblenz

I awoke on September 8, my 65th birthday, moored on the Moselle River at the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle adjacent to the beautiful city of Koblenz.

Our mornings are quite rushed, since the tours begin promptly at 8:30 a.m. Our cruise director talks about a “German minute" which means prompt, precise, and exact!  So we rush our mornings a bit more than usual so that we are not late.

As we left the boat and walked to meet our tour guide, the church bells were ringing. I hear the lovely sounds of church bells every day. In Koblenz, the bells of the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of our Lady) ring for almost a half hour beginning at 9 a.m. I don’t think you could sleep in if you lived in Koblenz.

We enjoyed a wonderful walking tour of the old city then wandered off by ourselves for about an hour window shopping and taking pictures of the beautiful flowers and buildings. I even found a quilt shop.  I see some of the same manufacturers that we find in the States. This shop also had beautiful wool fabric which is not something that I need in Menifee.

It sprinkled off and on, so DH and I hopped into a café for a coffee and sweet roll. The sweet rolls and desserts seem to have less sugar than the ones in the US. They look, however, so much prettier with the carefully sliced fruit and crumbled toppings. Yum!

Believe it or not, there are two other passengers celebrating a birthday today, Carol and Darryl.

We spent the afternoon cruising through the Rhine Gorge which our cruise director, Andrzej, describes as the loveliest section of the Rhine. There are over 30 castles between Konigswinter and Heidesheim. It was foggy and rainy during part of our trip, but we had wonderful views of many of the castles. They were built on hills overlooking the towns to afford protection. We even passed the hill on which Loreley supposedly sang. Castles on the Rhine -- could there be a more romantic way to spend a birthday afternoon?
Castle on the Rhine (in the fog)

In between the towns, there are large vineyards planted on the hillsides. This area is home to many well known wine varieties: Rieslings, Grauburgunders (Pinot Gris), Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir).

After about two hours, we were through the Gorge and approaching Rudesheim, one of Germany’s best known wine towns. We were treated to a train ride into the city where our group gathered at a local restaurant famous for its special drink. The drink is served in unique china cups shaped somewhat like a womans body. First, you pour a generous amount of brandy into the cup, then you add strong coffee, stir just a bit, and top it off with yummy whipped cream and a dusting of chocolate. It was wonderful! Of course, you can buy a gift pack to take home with two of the cups, the long-handled spoons, and a bottle of the brandy for about 50 euros.

We next walked a block to Siegfried's Museum of Mechanical Instruments. What a surprise! I was prepared for something a bit boring, but I was fascinated with the collection. Siegfried collected a houseful of mechanical instruments from all over the world and renovated them so that they can actually play. There are grammophones, player pianos, glockenspiels, and more.  Just a treasure trove.  In each of the 8 rooms that we visited, our guide played one of the instruments for us.

DH and I walked back along the water to the boat. We sat by ourselves for a quiet birthday dinner. Suddenly, the wait staff came out of the kitchen with a little chocolate cake and a sparkling candle. Happy Birthday to me! We shared the cake with the couples at the next table and then -- another cake and another round of Happy Birthday for a passenger from Canada! And, we later learned, a third passenger with a September 8 birthday was at the optional German dinner in town. No cake for her -- she had to down a bottle of a special wine in one gulp!

We partied for awhile in the lounge with Darryl, the birthday boy, and a group of Canadians traveling together. Boy, they know how to party! Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash and saw that a town on the other side of the river was shooting off fireworks! What a nice touch on a very special birthday.

On returning to our room, we found a chilled bottle of champagne waiting for us. What a wonderful birthday!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A rainy day in Cologne

Rain.  What can you do?  Fortunately, I was able to grab an umbrella from the few that Avalon put out for our use and off we went.

Our walking tour was quite interesting winding us through the cobblestone streets of the Altstadt (Old City) before ending in front of the Cologne Cathedral.  The Cathedral is immense; in order to actually stand and look from bottom to top, I had to put my head back so far that I was afraid I was going to topple over!  There is scaffolding covering some segments since repair, restoration, and cleaning is a constant task with an ediface so huge.

Door Knocker at Cathedral at Night
DH and I spent quite a bit of time in the Cathedral trying to take pictures that would illustrate the size of this building.  Very difficult to do.

There are more flowers than we've seen in Amsterdam.  Quite pretty as you walk through the city.

I apologize for the order of the pictures.  We're trying to get them all organized by day, but not always successful!
Flowers by the fountain telling the story of the elves.

Starbucks iin Cologne!
After a brief stroll along the river and short visit to the Chocolate Museu,m we returned to the boat in the late afternoon for cocktails and a lovely dinner with Del and Tom from Texas.  Del is originally from the Phillipines, and she has quite a vibrant personality.

Along the riverbank
I convinced Doug to go back into Cologne to see the city at night.  The Cathedral is even more magnificent at with the city lights as a background.

Church bells chime at all hours of the day, not always on the 1/4 hour, and for various lengths of time.  I love hearing them!

Tomorrow, my 65th birthday, we'll be in Koblenz then sailing through the Rhine Gorge where many castles are located, then stopping in Rudesheim.  What a wonderful way to spend a birthday!

Approaching Cologne, Germany

Our dinner last night was quite enjoyable.  We shared a table with Joan and Ken from Nova Scotia.  There is one sitting for dinner (7 p.m.), and seating is open.  DH likes this setup because we can sit with different people every night.  That part I enjoy, but I miss getting to know individual servers who learn what you like and don't like.  My sister and brother-in-law would be so proud of us -- we are "dining" rather than "eating" and often spending two hours at the table!

Cruising overnight was uneventful, and we awoke late to a very overcast sky.  Rain is inevitable today, but we will survive!  When we visited Gdansk several years ago, it was pouring rain and it turned out to be one of the best days of our trip.  Maybe Cologne in the rain will be the same.

The Felicity offers two choices for breakfast:  buffet in the dining room with made-to-order omelets and a variety of other hot and cold dishes, breads, fruit, etc., or a light breakfast in the lounge with rolls, juice, coffee, tea.  Although the food choices are limited compared to ocean liners, we find no fault so far.  Wine flows freely during dinner.  There is a one-hour cocktail hour before dinner where drinks are 2 for 1.  No complaints there!

The river is wider than the man-made canal leading from Amsterdam to the Rhine, but not as wide as I had expected.  Riverbanks on both sides are lush and green.  There are intermittent industrial areas.  Occasionally, you can see a small village with lovely homes.  Once per hour or so, you can see trailer parks/campgrounds with older, small campers.  Apparently, Germans rent a camping space by the year along this part of the Rhine and leave a camper parked for weekend visits.  Interesting!

The main attraction in Cologne is Kölner Dom.  The Cologne Cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe.  Building commenced in 1248.  Although the cathedral was hit by 14 aerial bombs during World War II, it remained standing.  The incredibly tall building was perfect for allied aircraft to use as a landmark from which to calculate bearings to other bomb targets in Germany and Southern Europe so the cathedral was left intact for future missions.  Think of the stone masons and other workers who toiled over the centuries to construct this magnificent edifice.  Never would they have imagined that their efforts would aid a future generation defeat a horrific enemy.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dag Amsterdam

I got teary eyed on leaving our apartment and walking for the last time through the streets of Amsterdam. This is a great city and one in which I think I could live.  I'd have to buy a couple of dozen scarves, however.  Women wear stylish scarves around their necks so they can keep warm and cover their heads at a moment's notice as the weather changes.

Thank you, Amsterdam, for a wonderful visit.  I wish I could say that I'd be back --- but there are other cities to visit and time is running short.  But who knows?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Farewell to Amsterdam and off to the Rhine River

There is a lot of harbor activity even early in the morning as we awakened and started the day. The busses left early for our canal cruise, so we had to have breakfast and be ready to go by 8:15. Glad we did not take a canal cruise earlier in the week. It was pretty neat to see Amsterdam from the canals. The parking garages for bikes near the railway station, where the canal cruise started, were overflowing with bikes. Quite a scene. The garages are free, but there is no guarantee of safety. Our guide said that the safest way to store a bike is with 3 different locks!  There are 16 million people in Holland and 20 million bikes.  Obviously, the Dutch love their bikes!

The “hooks” on the top level of the houses along Amsterdam's canals are actually called hoisting beams. Since the steps are so steep and narrow, the only way to get furniture and other belongings to the upper levels is by a pulley system using the hoisting beams. The facades which lean forward are deliberately built that way to avoid damaging the building and your belongings during a move. Imagine what it must cost to move in Amsterdam?

We returned to the Felicity ready to set sail at noon. The upper deck is open - cold and windy! The lounge was the perfect place for us to relax, have a glass of wine and a light lunch and watch as we slowly made our way through to the river.  Farmlands along the river are lush with trees and greenery and fields. Cows, horses, and many sheep graze in the fields on one side of the river while some light industrial buildings and the train tracks can be seen on the other.  Occasionally, you can see church steeples in the distance.

We’ll be sailing all afternoon and into the night. Tomorrow we arrive in Cologne, Germany.  Hopefully, we'll have some time in the morning to upload a few pictures that I can post.

Onboard the Avalon Felicity

We spent the morning making an effort to finish the washing and drying a few “essential” clothes; i.e., DH’s stuff! Mine remains in the dirty clothes bag. Hmmm...

I finished up the leftovers in the frig and made a sandwich for lunch, finished packing, and left our little apartment for a short walk to the NH Amsterdam Centre to check in for our cruise. Vondelpark, the city’s largest park (comparable to New York’s Central Park), is a short distance from the hotel. We try to have at least one picnic lunch during our trips, and the weather today was perfect for such an outing.

Amsterdammers must love this park especially on a sunny day. It was crowded with families, young lovers, groups of men playing soccer, sunbathers, a few musicians, dogs, and even some just dozing in the afternoon sun. We enjoyed our picnic lunch by a small waterfall while listening to a guitarist play and sing Neil Diamond songs in Dutch!

Avalon took us by bus from the hotel to the dock where we boarded the Avalon Felicity. The river boats dock side by side so that you have to walk through another boat in order to board. We were greeted with the friendly smiles of the crew and shown to our cabin. No security at all unlike the ocean cruise lines. More trust? Less threat? Who knows?

The room is quite small, but well designed. We managed to find a place for everything, then struggled with the room safe until I finally figured out that the “B” looked strikingly like an “8!” I finally got my cocktail - a small bottle of Gilbey’s from the room mini-bar over ice. Oh, well - it will make me appreciate my martini nights at home all the more.

We shared a table at the welcome dinner with Frank and Joyce, an interesting couple from Ontario, Canada. His wife has been in a care facility for over ten years, so Frank and Joyce consider themselves “traveling companions.” They were actually introduced to one another by one of their children. I hope our children would do the same for us if one of us goes into that long dark hole called dementia.

The room was dark, the boat was quiet -- blessed sleep!

Random Observations from Amsterdam

  • The Dutch are a very tolerant people.  Not only is prostitution legal (and regulated to protect both seller and buyer), but one may buy marijuana in licensed coffee houses.  We occasionally caught a whiff of a familiar substance while taking our daily walks.
  • I love the bicycles with carts in front for the kidlets.  Some moms (and dads) are able to maneuver the bike with 3 toddlers in the front cart.  And they also have baskets draped over the back wheel for groceries!  Now that's really "going green."
  • There are potted orchids growing in apartment windows everywhere.  They all seem healthy and hardy.  I'm jealous!
  • European women, at least in Amsterdam, are a step ahead of us in style.  Style is not my thing -- whatever fits and is on sale on senior day at Ross becomes my style!  However, I do appreciate a woman stylishly dressed and they are abundant in this city.
  • Some of the ladies' footwear is just amazing.  Six-inch high stilleto heels (at least) with gladiator type straps across the instep.  How the hell do you walk in these things?  A lot of younger women wear these spectacular shoes with tights. Tall, thin bodies and magnificent gams -- quite a sight.
  • Smokers are everywhere.
  • Catching an unexpected scene down an alley or side street is one of the joys of walking through this city. It might look like just another alley, but at the very end is a magnificent steeple rising into the blue sky.  Takes your breath away.
  • People congregating on the front steps leading to their apartments - having a coffee in the morning, reading the daily newspaper, enjoying a cocktail with friends and neighbors after work.  Did I see champagne glasses?
  • If I were 21 and single, I could live in this city.
  • Tolerance, acceptance, basic human decency -- what made the Dutch so important in the Resistance Movement of World War II.  Thank you!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Look at me - I'm in a windmill!

We slept in this morning.  After breakfast, we walked to the train station to catch a bus to Zaanse Schans to see windmills.  DH plans our daily routes so we walk on different streets.  All of a sudden, we were in the Red Light District once again!  I managed to get a picture of the red lights along a side street.  Apparently, the photo rule is that you cannot take pictures of the gals, but otherwise photos are okay.  The photo needs a little editing, so I won't post it until after we get home.

We had a lovely bus ride with a family from Argentina to this picturesque village on the Zaan River northwest of the city.  Their little boy was an energetic as Jackson!  The busses are very clean and quiet.  Many of them are doubles with the flexible middle allowing them to easily turn corners.  There's probably a name for them, but I don't know it!

I'm so glad we did this sidetrip since it allowed us to see the immediate suburbs of the city.  The neighborhoods are filled with apartment buildings three or four stories tall. Some of them have small patios and lovely well-maintained gardens.

I loved Zaanse Schans!  Even though this is obviously meant for tourists, it was not "touristy."  Throughout our visit, we saw residents riding bicycles or visiting with one another.  People in the half dozen shops as well as the mill operators were extremely friendly and informative.  We visited a cheese shop and learned how goat milk is magically transformed into delicious Edam cheese then wandered along the grassy fields and watched the goats.

We walked along the river stopping to visit four or five windmills.  There was little wind at first.  There's a small fee to tour a windmill (3 euro per person), so we chose one to visit.  The De Bonte Hen (The Brightly Colored Hen) was built in 1693.  At the present time, it is run by volunteers and produces vegetable oils.  It is dark and musty smelling on the inside.  The mill operator apologized that there was no wind, but suddenly we heard creaking and the gears started to slowly turn.  As the wind picked up, you could hear the mill come to life with the sounds slowly accelerating.

I decided to climb up to the second level and go on the outside of the mill.  The stairs are incredibly steep.  They reminded me of the stairs going into the depths of the tall ships, but these were steeper and narrower.  Fortunately, there was an iron handrail -- but only on one side!  I managed to climb the stairs and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the countryside and the village of Zaandijk across the river.  I will never forget the sound of the windmill turning "up close and personal."

We crossed the river by ferry (actually a small boat) and wandered around for an hour or two stopping by a little sandwich shop for a "broodje."  We even splurged on a nut tart for dessert.  Our meal times are totally off; breakfast at 10, lunch at 3, and dinner at 9.  My SIL and BIL would be so proud of us for eating dinner so late!

As we were heading back across the river, we heard sirens everywhere.  Once per year, there is a truck parade when handicapped children get to ride along with the drivers and tout the horns and sirens.  There must have been 200 vehicles!  The children were having such fun, but the noise was deafening.

The #91 bus brought us back to the railroad station and the start of our long walk home.  Time to try out the washing machine, which is both a washing machine and a dryer in one unit -- not the piggyback style that we've seen before, but actually one unit that serves both purposes.  Susan, the owner of the apartment, left handwritten instructions that left us baffled.  We figured out the washer, but after several attempts with the dryer, we had to call Susan for a walkthrough.  Even after two hours of drying, the clothes were still wet.  Hopefully, they'll be dry by morning!

DH and I tried Restaurant 't Zwaantje for dinner.  It has a delightful atmosphere and wonderful food, typically Dutch so we've heard.  Doug had a delicious fish dish.  The French fries served with it came with mayonnaise as a dipping sauce!  He loves mayonnaise, so he was in heaven.  I ordered Oma's beef stew (how could I not?), a melt-in-your-mouth beef in a marvelous sauce served with a variety of fresh steamed vegetables (carrots, leeks, green beans, red cabbage) and mashed potatoes.

It was 11 p.m. when we finished our wonderful dinner and walked back for our last night at Herengracht 311.

Walk 'til you drop!

After our tour of the Anne Frank House, we spent a few minutes at Westerkerk, a gorgeous church with a rich history.  There is a free organ concert on Fridays, and we were lucky enough to be in the church during rehearsal.  The pipe organ is the centerpiece of this majestic church.

Walking, again, we headed to De Kaaskamer cheese shop where the proprietor made us two wonderful sandwiches to take back to the apartment for lunch and some much needed down time.
How could you choose?
After a nap for DH and a bit of reading for me, we decided to walk the canals in search of the two quilt shops that I located on the Internet.  We found them!  I could not resist a charm pack of Dutch fabrics -- colors that we do not see in the US.  Who knows what I will do with them?  Probably just enjoy looking at them and remembering our time in Amsterdam.

Along the way, we found a nice neighborhood playground loaded with children and parents enjoying the mild weather.  And the park had benches!  There aren't a lot of benches in this city; DH thinks it is because they have to allocate so much space for parking for both cars and bicycles.  Anyway, it was a delight to be able to sit awhile and watch the kids play and the moms talk. 

We found a great bar on the way home and had a couple of brews you can't get in the good ole USA:  Westmalle and Affligem.  DH wanted to try one of the many Indonesian restaurants; we found one a few blocks from the apartment.  Although it was a lovely meal, the tempo wasn't quite right for Southern Californians - well over two hours from the time we arrived to the time we paid our bill.  Americans just aren't used to the relaxed way Europeans dine.

Friday night brought party central to our neighborhood.  Doug finally got up and read until 2 a.m. or so to avoid the street noise. 

Random observations in Amsterdam

  • Amsterdammers may not arise early, but they sure like to party late!  Bars do not have to close until 4 or 5 a.m., so there is street noise until the wee hours of the morning.
  • The Flower Market was disappointing due to my expectations.  I envisioned row after row of stalls with blooming flowers.  Instead, the stalls are filled with bulbs, both packaged and non packaged, for sale.  The vendors will ship worldwide, but with my inability to grow anything in the garden, I will pass.  I did see bulbs that I have never seen in the U.S.  There are flower carts placed sporadically throughout the city with flower bouquets that are gorgeous.  I imagine there are more in the spring.
  • When I open up my blog, Blogger opens in Dutch!  I was floored the first time I tried to blog until I realized that everything switched to English once I logged on.  The Internet truly is an amazing thing.
  • One of the first things I saw this morning (Saturday) was a man dressed in a tuxedo with tails and a boutonniere riding a bike!  On his way to a wedding perhaps?  Shortly thereafter, I caught a glimpse of a car decorated with a fresh flower arrangement on the hood.
  • You can take a guided bike tour of the city.  We've seen several groups.  I'm sure it would be lots of fun to pedal around, but I can't imagine trying to navigate the intersections!
  • As in Copenhagen, the preferred lunch seems to be a small sandwich eaten while walking or biking.  "Lunchtime" is about 2 or 3 with dinner no earlier than 7 p.m.
  • During the light rain the other day, many bicyclists were adeptly handling the bike and an umbrella!
  • The street cleaner comes by often.  Garbage is left in plastic bags at a designated spot near the side of the road for pickup.
  • The arches under the canal bridges are rimmed with small white lights at night.  Simple, but very pretty.