***Flight to Berlin: July 1 and 2***
Promptly at 9:15 AM, SuperShuttle arrived to take us to LAX for our KLM flight to Berlin, by way of Amsterdam, scheduled to depart at 1:45 PM, giving us plenty of time for check in and security check. As chance would have it, we were joined in the van by another couple from Fountain Valley, Paul & Cheryl Ann, who were not only on our flight but were also to be on our cruise, also taking the two day pre-cruise extension in Berlin as were we.
Our flight was slightly delayed due to the KLM crew being involved in a minor auto accident on their way to the airport, but soon we were all loaded aboard the Boeing 747 in seats 52 A&B on our way to Amsterdam, a non-stop, over night flight of about 10 hours over Western United States, Canada, Greenland and the North Sea.
Soon after departure we were offered drinks followed by a surprisingly delicious dinner. KLM’s cabin service is really excellent, in my opinion, and our flight was unexpectedly smooth, contrary to my fear of turbulence due to the severe weather in the Midwest of the country. In fact, I recall no turbulence at all.
Right on schedule, our arrival in Amsterdam was around 9 AM (local time) giving us about 3 hours until our flight on to Berlin. As it turned out, we needed that extra time to go from our arrival gate G5, first to our departure gate C4 and then on to the changed departure gate D84. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is vast and walking from one end to the other was indeed a workout!
Finally, our KLM flight on to Berlin departed at 12:30 PM aboard a Boeing 737 with us in the assigned seats 11 A&B I had requested online. Only an hour and a quarter flight, we soon landed at Berlin’s Tegel Airport, a relatively small airport whose new terminal is still under construction; the baggage claim area reminded me of the one at Orange County’s original airport. We collected our luggage and then were greeted by a Viking agent for transport to our hotel, the Steigenberger, located adjacent to the Hauptbanhof, Berlin’s main train station.
On the way from the airport to the hotel, we were given a brief city tour, passing by the Charlottenburg Palace and the Tiergarten. Hotel check in went smoothly and Viking’s Cruise Director, Matthias, who would be with us during the entirety of our trip straight through to Prague, greeted us, giving us the itinerary for our pre-cruise extension of two days in Berlin. Included with the cruise was an additional day in Berlin, which gave us a total of three days to see as much as possible of this beautiful city of around 3.5 million.
***First Days in Berlin: July 2 and 3***
Needless to say, the first afternoon in the hotel was spent relaxing and sleeping in our beautiful room, a change in room requested by Jim – as usual – from the one originally assigned, which had a terrible view. From this room we had a view of part of the Hauptbanhof, a magnificent and new glass structure whose multi levels contains a mall with restaurants, shops and other stores of all kinds. We would be utilizing the Hauptbanhof’s many facilities a lot during our time in Berlin. In the early evening we got something to eat at an Italian outdoor restaurant in the plaza in front of the Hauptbanhof and the Hotel; my menu choice was Baked Lasagna.
Viking provided an extensive city tour on the morning of our second day, July 3rd, starting at 9 AM and ending around midday. We saw the Reichstag with its new glass dome and the Brandenburg Gate along with many ultramodern government buildings of the now Germany capitol. Many sights of interest turn out to be in the formerly Eastern Sector of Berlin and much construction is still in evidence, bringing the many buildings back up to Western standards. We toured a remaining section of The Wall which had separated the East from the West, as well as driving by Checkpoint Charlie, a famous cold war crossing between the two Berlins; it is now a mere tourist attraction. We drove past the location, now a parking lot, of Hitler’s underground bunker where he committed suicide in April 1945. Also a drive through the immense and beautiful Tiergarten Park displayed lush forests, lakes, flowerbeds, bicycle paths, and stately monuments. It was a very thorough and interesting city tour indeed.
The Steigenberger Hotel is located near a bend of the River Spree which runs through Berlin and many river tour boats can be seen cruising up and down, so we decided to take one of these river boat tours during the afternoon. We only had to walk a short distance to the dock where we boarded a riverboat for our 2-hour round trip cruise, and it turned out to be a most enjoyable experience. Passing by the Reichstag on the way we saw many other important sights including the Museum Island on which spectacular museums are located. As the weather was SO WARM, many people were lining the riverbanks enjoying the day.
For dinner we decided on the Hopfingerbrau Restaurant in the Hauptbanhof where we found a nice table out on their patio. My choice was their Roast Pork Knee that was gigantic! It was like eating a small ham! Delicious with crispy skin, I succeeded in finishing most of it, along with a couple of glasses of wine. Then it was back to our beautiful hotel room at the Steigenberger.
***Third Day in Berlin: July 4th***
After another large and sumptuous breakfast at the Hotel – included, we prepared for a prearranged visit with Wendy and Jörg who live in Berlin. Wendy is the daughter of my dear friend (recently departed) Irmeli Desenberg, and we had been invited to lunch in their home. At 11 AM we were met in the lobby by them and then drove around for another short tour of the city. Jim had brought roses for Wendy that he had purchased at a flower shop in the Hauptbanhof. Their home is an apartment in a building across the street from a lovely park with a lake; they have substantially remodeled the large apartment and it was a pleasure to join them and catch up on conversation. Following a delicious lunch of grilled chicken breasts, potato and tomato salads, we walked over to the lake where we enjoyed ice cream and a drink at a local cafe. They returned us back to the Hotel around 3 PM.
At 4 PM we caught the Hop On, Hop Off tour bus that stopped directly in front of our hotel for a final city tour. Still being quite warm, our seats on the top deck were chosen beneath a cover. Although repeating many sights we had already seen, this tour was still interesting and enjoyable, and the views were great. We have now seen as much of Berlin as is possible in the limited time here.
Again we dined at the Hopfingerbrau Restaurant in the Hauptbanhof, but this time I chose grilled sausages and sour kraut, which were very good – along with a glass of wine, of course. Afterwards we took a local train to a Bohemian district with streets crowded with many sidewalk cafes; it was Saturday night - remember, and the warm weather brought out many revelers.
***Leaving Berlin: July 5th***
The rest of our river cruise group had arrived at the Steigenberger Hotel the evening before, and this morning we were requested to have our luggage in the hallway before breakfast in preparation for our departure by bus, first to Potsdam and then on to our riverboat, the Viking Beyla, at dock in Dessau on the Elbe River. Again we enjoyed our bountiful breakfast at the hotel, my usual choice being a large omelet, before boarding our bus. It had been a great visit to Berlin, albeit VERY WARM.
The day before our departure from home, Viking had notified us by email that the low water level in the Elbe River would force changes in our itinerary, preventing our riverboat from cruising upstream. Disappointing as that was, Viking did everything possible to make up for the situation. More details on this later.
***Potsdam and Dessau: July 5th***
Our first stop was at the bridge marking the former border between East and West Germany, and we all got off the bus to walk across this historic bridge. Then we came into the city that boasts many luxurious, large homes. Our scheduled stop here was at the magnificent rococo Sanssouci Palace, a spectacular and expansive edifice surrounded by lavishly landscaped gardens, built by Frederick the Great. We were conducted through many rooms, resplendent in gold leaf fixtures, paintings, statues and chandeliers. Beautiful!
Next we were brought to the location of the 1945 summit of Churchill, Stalin and Truman that was to decide the shape of post-war Europe, the Cecilienhof Palace in the outskirts of Potsdam. We were not permitted inside but only were able to tour the grounds and view the large window of the room in which the conference took place.
Then it was on to our ship, the Viking Beyla, at dock in the city of Dessau where we arrived around 5 PM. This riverboat is one of a pair of new riverboats introduced by Viking just this year, especially designed to cruise the Elbe River. Along with her sister ship, the Viking Astrild, currently docked in Dresden, these riverboats have a very shallow draft required by the relatively shallow waters of the Elbe. Unfortunately, a recent drought has left the Elbe with even more shallow water levels, preventing the full transit into the Czech Republic. We were told that the Czech Republic was withholding release of much of the water flowing down into the Elbe as protection against its own water shortage.
The Viking Beyla is absolutely beautiful! Carrying only 98 passengers, it has only two decks, in comparison with Viking’s new “Longships” which carry 200 passengers and have three decks. We cruised on one of these Longships last year from Budapest to Bucharest down the Danube River on the Viking Rinda. Our Veranda Stateroom 235 was the next to last on the starboard side of the ship. With everything brand new, our spacious stateroom boasted sliding glass doors out onto a private veranda, furnished with two chairs and a small table.
Inside was a 42” flat screen TV offering a variety of satellite channels, including CNN and BBC, as well as a very modern bathroom with a sliding door, in which a large glass-enclosed shower held stylish fixtures. The two twin beds were luxuriously comfortable, equipped with duvets, and closet and storage space was quite ample.
On the main deck are located Reception, the Lounge and Bar, and the outdoor Aquavit Terrace, in addition to Veranda Staterooms, French Balcony Staterooms, and two Veranda Suites. On the lower deck are located Standard Staterooms in addition to the Dining Room – sitting exactly 98 passengers. Crew quarters are also located on the lower deck. It is a very well designed and efficiently arranged ship.
After a greeting by the crew including the ship’s captain, chef, hotel manager and the cruise director, Matthias, we were treated to a lovely dinner complete with complimentary wine. Dinner consists of an appetizer, soup or salad, entrée, and dessert. Then we set sail, departing the dock at Dessau for our one and only night of cruising as far as Wittenburg.
***Wittenburg: July 6th***
Breakfast aboard the Viking Beyla is a real pleasure, with the buffet of fresh fruit and juices, along with cheeses, hams, salmon, breads and pastries; of course there is a variety of hot meats available: bacon, sausages, and ham, in addition to sautéed mushrooms, scrambled or eggs cooked to order. My choice was always one of their delicious custom omelets with a little of everything in it: wonderful!
There is also a lighter Continental breakfast available earlier in the Lounge where coffee, juices, fresh fruit, rolls and Danish are served. Even earlier, and always available, is coffee from a machine, including cappuccinos, along with juices and Danish pastries.
With the low water level in the Elbe River preventing our cruising up river towards Prague, Viking had decided to leave the Viking Beyla docked in Wittenberg and use buses to carry out the daily tours scheduled for the first three days. Then we would be bused to Dresden where the sister ship Viking Astrild is similarly docked, busing us from there on the daily tours scheduled for the final four days. Since the two ships are identical, the “boat swap” would take place with each passenger on each ship moving from/to the same stateroom. A rather ingenuous solution, I thought.
Our first daily tour departed at 9 AM to the city of Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther, and we visited his home, the “Luther House”, his University of Wittenberg offices, in addition to the St. Marien Church in which he frequently preached. Also visited was the Castle Church where Luther had posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” thus beginning the Reformation throughout Germany. Our local guide was especially good; looking more like a football star, it turned out that he was a divinity student and his commentary was excellent. We then returned to our riverboat for lunch.
As required by maritime law, we participated in a safety drill during the afternoon up on the Sun Deck, each of us sporting our life vests and receiving instruction from the crew. Later there was a shuttle bus available into the town center for additional sightseeing and shopping. On the way into town, we passed by a giant stork’s nest where a parent and two offspring were clearly visible. Big birds!
Every evening at 6:45 PM we gather in the Lounge for a talk by Matthias, the Cruise Director, about what is planned for the next day and the details for our scheduled activities. Then it was off to the Dining Room at 7 PM for another enjoyable gastronomical feast. There is always a good variety of choices available, accompanied by complimentary wine, of course!
***Wittenberg & Torgau: July 7th***
This morning after our big breakfast of omelets, etc., our tour buses (3) departed the Viking Beyla at 8:30 AM, bound for the little town of Wörlitz in the vicinity of Dessau with its palace set in Wörlitz Park. Many famous personalities, including Goethe, visited this palace and its lovely English-style gardens. It was created by Leopold III in the second half of the 18th century and was the first park built on the European continent with garden landscaping in the British fashion. It comprises an array of landscaped elements arranged around a network of canals, watercourses and various lakes and islands. These landscapes, with impressive trees, meandering footpaths and numerous bridges, invite the visitor to discover architectural treasures such as the Gothic house, the Castle, temples and grottoes. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee added this to its World Heritage List in 2000, praising it as an exceptional and wide-ranging illustration of landscape design.
After walking along the shores of the large lake, we were loaded into several big canoes that were paddled all around the lake by hand by a muscular German who, with the help of one of our group who spoke German, narrated our splendid trip, gliding along almost silently, viewing the floating water lilies and the many birds. It was a most enjoyable, relaxing experience to say the least!
Then we had the opportunity of touring the interior of the Wörlitz palace before returning to our bus for the return ride back to the Viking Beyla for lunch.
Each time we return by bus to our riverboat, there are crew members greeting us with a tray of small specialty drinks; smoothies, etc. On our first arrival to the Viking Beyla in Dessau, we were presented with cold towels to wipe our faces, which felt really good because of the high temperature that day. Very thoughtful!
In addition to lunch served in the Dining Room, there is also a “light lunch” served upstairs in the Lounge: salads, sandwiches, fruit, etc. I personally never tried this out, preferring the comfort of the Dining Room.
For our second tour of the day, in the afternoon we again boarded our buses for a trip to nearby Torgau, also famous in connection with Luther’s Reformation Movement as well as the location of Hartenfels Castle and St. Mary’s Church that holds the grave of Katharina, Martin Luther’s wife. Luther as well as Lucas Cranach and Johann Weber lived and worked in Torgau.
The richly decorated Town Hall built in the 16th century forms one side of the large Market Square, and the nearby streets are lined with beautiful Renaissance-style buildings including the Church of St. Nicholas, dedicated to the patron saint of merchants.
Torgau’s quadrangle-shaped Hartenfels Castle is the most important early Renaissance palace in Germany. Five brown bears are kept, in accordance with a centuries old tradition, in the castle moat. The chapel, located in the north wing and consecrated by Martin Luther in 1544, is considered to be the first purpose-built Protestant church.
At the end of World War II, Torgau was the place where Russian and American soldiers met on the Elbe Bridge on April 25, 1945. This is commemorated by Encounter Monument on the riverbank.
Then it was time to return by bus to our riverboat to prepare for the special “A Taste of Germany” dinner, preceded of course by Matthias’ Daily Briefing at 6:35 PM, very important since tomorrow would be the day of our “boat swap.” Our luggage would be collected outside our staterooms before breakfast for transit by truck to the Viking Astrild in Dresden. Our tour to Meissen would proceed normally except our return would be to the riverboat in Dresden.
The special dinner was very good with all kinds of German dishes available, and two local German musicians playing an accordion and violin entertained us. German beer, of course, was served along with giant pretzels and mustard. My choice was roast pork with sauerkraut. Then it was time to pack up for our move.
***Meissen: July 8th***
At 9 AM our buses departed the Viking Beyla for the last time, headed first for the city of Meissen and then on to our second riverboat home, the Viking Astrild in Dresden. As our buses pulled away from the Viking Beyla, we were waved goodbyes from the entire crew who lined the top of the Sun Deck. Very touching.
The drive to Meissen took over two hours and we made an intermediate “potty stop” along the way. Our arrival at the Meissen Porcelain Factory was just in time for our scheduled 11:45 AM lunch in a special dining room inside the factory. Unlike our previous lunches on tour, this one was included and hosted by Viking. Accompanied by wine, it was a very nice lunch of a grilled chicken breast with vegetables, proceeded with a tossed salad and followed by an ice cream dessert.
After lunch we were escorted through a series of rooms in which demonstrations were presented concerning the different phases of porcelain production: clay modeling, attaching pieces of pottery and finally the painting, all very skillfully done and presented by the Factory’s professionals. Then we were given opportunity to view the many choice finished pieces of spectacular porcelain; dishes, statues, etc. Opportunity was also given for purchasing pieces at substantial prices, as you might assume. I resisted the temptation.
We then were given a city tour of Meissen, visiting Castle Hill with a walking tour through Old Town. The 15th-century castle of Albrechtsburg sits high above Old Meissen, towering over the Elbe. It is the first truly residential fortress in Germany. The late-Gothic Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) has a spectacular 175-foot-high tower that looms over the old marketplace. In 1929, the church became the first of its kind to have a set of 37 playable porcelain bells that can be heard six times a day. The Market Square breathes a medieval atmosphere being surrounded by well-preserved Renaissance and neo-Renaissance houses, the Gothic Frauenkirche church and the late-Gothic Town Hall. A truly remarkable city.
Now it was time to re-board our buses for the continuation of our trip to Dresden and the Viking Astrild.
Arriving in Dresden and after a short city tour, we found our riverboat at dock near the city center, and disembarked our buses to board the Viking Astrild, our home for the final 4 days of our “river cruise”. The entire ship’s crew was all lined up on the Sun Deck to greet us, along with cold towels and special drinks. It was a relief to return to our same stateroom where we found our luggage and a chance to unpack – again, and rest and relax a while before dinner preceded by our daily briefing by Matthias.
***Dresden: July 9th***
After a restful night in our Veranda Stateroom 235 – identical to the one we had on the Viking Beyla, and a delicious, big breakfast of an omelet with crisp bacon, coffee and juices, we were then ready for our scheduled City Tour at 9 AM.
Since our riverboat was docked nearby the city center, very soon we were let off the bus at the vast courtyard for the Zwinger Palace, one of the most ravishing buildings in the country. Originally used as a pleasure palace for the royals, the rococo Zwinger has an enormous and lavish courtyard, filled with fountains and, looking out from the rooftops, dozens of baroque sculptures, including one of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.
There is a collection of 40 Meissen porcelain bells, which gently ring out every 15 minutes. The interiors are no less fanciful. Among its collections in the Old Masters Picture Gallery are works by Raphael, Giorgione and Titian; Rembrandt and his followers; Vermeer, Ruysdael, and the Flemish artists Rubens, Jordaens and van Dyck.
Nearby is the Dresden Residential Castle, also a sprawling complex of buildings, in which is located - most notably, the “Green Vault” containing a comprehensive collection of the Saxony monarchs’ crown jewels, the largest such collection in Europe. Founded by Augustus the Strong in 1723, it features a rich variety of exhibits from the Baroque to Classicism. It is named after the formerly malachite green painted column bases and capitals of the initial rooms. It has some claim to be the oldest museum in the world.
Back on the bus we then drove past the famous Volkswagen Glass Factory, made almost entirely of glass, where the final assembly of Volkswagen’s exclusive range of luxurious Phaeton sedans takes place. At the heart of the new production line is a “slat belt” that carries the vehicles, accompanied by all their necessary components, to be assembled. Smart little driver-less buggies then move silently around collecting components and putting them in the right place. Another very clever example of German engineering at its best. As you might expect, Phaeton customers are encouraged to come to Dresden to see their car being built and receive VIP treatment when they collect their finished product. What a great way to buy a car!
Our bus also passed by the Semper Opera House that we would tour separately in the afternoon, an optional tour for which we paid 10 Euros. Another optional tour was to the Volkswagen Glass Factory, but we chose the former. Then it was back to the riverboat for our lunch.
At 2:30 PM we embarked on our hour-long tour of the Semper Opera House, using one of the buses for transport. Built by the architect Gottfried Semper in 1841, this opera house has been the location of many operatic premieres, including major works by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Being a very popular tourist attraction, we lined up outside the entrance, waiting for our group’s assigned time.
When finally admitted, we were shown through various rooms, eventually coming to the main auditorium. Seated in a couple of rows in the rear of the theater, we struggled to hear our guide’s commentary over that of the several other tour groups, also located in the theater. As a climax to our visit, the giant screen shielding the stage was lifted, revealing the backstage and its equipment. Since there would be a performance that evening at 8:00 PM, we were quickly escorted out and our tour was over.
We then walked around on our own, finding a sidewalk café for a glass of wine for me while Jim roamed around taking photos. When Jim returned he told me that he had encountered some of our group at another sidewalk café, so we joined them for yet another glass. Our welcome to Dresden was complete.
Returning to the ship by foot, it seemed a longer distance than I had thought, but soon we were back aboard and it was almost time for dinner, preceded by Matthias’ briefing, of course. After dinner at 9 PM there was live entertainment in the Lounge, the Allegria Concept, performing musical compositions that once entertained royalty in the Saxonian Court, but my bed won out instead.
***Dresden and Königstein: July 10th***
Following our usual substantial breakfast of omelets, crisp bacon, coffee, and juices, we again loaded aboard our buses to travel to the day’s sight of interest, the Königstein Fortress, the “King’s Stone.”
One of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe, the “Saxon Bastille” shields itself behind walls over 130 feet high, and three consecutive drawbridges stand before the gatehouse. The 23-acre fortress, which has never been attacked, overlooks the town of Königstein and the Elbe River at an altitude of 800 feet. It is composed of more than 50 buildings and landmarks.
Today you only have to take the Fortress Express elevator to discover the history of Königstein – from the time it was declared a border fort of the Bohemian kingdom in 1241, to 1955 when the open-air military history museum began. One can walk the paths of soldiers along the rampart during war times; take in the Treasury House that stored the Saxon State reserves, and gain insights into the festivals and banquets of Saxon royalty from such artifacts as the gigantic 18th-century wine cask of Augustus the Strong, rebuilt of glass and steel.
There are less familiar periods of history to explore too, such as when it was the most feared prison of the state of Saxony, housing Johann Friedrich Böttger, the co-inventor of European china. Or during both World Wars when it served as a prisoner of war camp, first for French and Russian officers, then for British, French, Polish and other Allied officers.
Walking around among the different buildings was most interesting; there was a pavilion at the cliff’s edge from which one could look down on the Elbe River, winding along, far below. We should have cruised along that stretch of river!
Also available among the buildings was a pub that I found from which I partook a large beer. A small church was also of interest. Overall, it was a very enjoyable place to visit and spend some time.
As usual, our bus returned us to our ship for a late lunch at 1 PM.
During the afternoon, Jim and I decided to take the local Hop On, Hop Off tour bus which departed from a location not too far from our ship. In addition to viewing many things already seen, the bus also crossed the river and passed through neighborhoods and small business districts. Again we passed Volkswagen’s Glass Factory as well as the Semper Opera House, but this time the views from the bus were much better than before.
Unfortunately, the two hours spent on the Hop On, Hop Off bus got us back to the ship too late for us to join the Viking Explorer Society Cocktail Party, scheduled at 5:45 PM. Too bad. Missed some free champagne.
Matthias’ briefing was at 6:45 PM and he mentioned the evening’s Music Quiz following dinner, which caught the interest of myself as well as Joan and Lisa, two friends we had made from Florida.
Thus, after dinner at 9 PM in the Lounge, Joan, Lisa and I formed our team for the Music Quiz. By some strange freak of luck, our team came out the winner! Our prize was a bottle of the ship’s champagne, wrapped with a group photo of the entire ship’s crew. We surprised a lot of the other passengers participating. Good!
***Dresden and Bastei Rock Formation: July 11th***
Near the German and Czech border is an area referred to as “Saxon Switzerland”, now a National Park and designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and is characterized by numerous freestanding rock columns, a favorite of local rock climbers. The most spectacular of these is the Bastei Rock Formation reaching a height of 305 meters above sea level; the jagged rocks of the Bastei were formed by water erosion over one million years ago. The Bastei has been a tourist attraction for over 200 years. In 1824, a wooden bridge was constructed to link several rocks for the visitors. This bridge was replaced in 1851 by the present Bastei Bridge made of sandstone.
Our tour bus had to park in a designated area requiring a moderate walk down a road in the forest before reaching the Bastei, and entering the complex of rocks was an experience not to be forgotten. With views of the Elbe River winding along, far below, the path out to the Bastei Bridge showed its age with the sandstone banisters alongside. The path is rather extensive requiring many stairs and metal bridges in addition to the famed sandstone bridge. The views in all directions were outstanding. Rock climbers on neighboring rock columns could be seen; NOT a sport for me! It was with reluctance that we had to depart this most spectacular location and re-board our bus for return to Dresden and our ship, just in time for lunch at 1 PM.
The afternoon tour from 2:30 until 5 PM was to the Moritzburg Castle, a Baroque palace in Moritzburg, in the German state of Saxony, about 13 kilometers (8.1 mi) northwest of the Saxon capital, Dresden. The castle has four round towers and lies on a symmetrical artificial island. It is named after Duke Moritz of Saxony, who had a hunting lodge built there between 1542 and 1546. The surrounding woodlands and lakes have been a favorite hunting area of the electors and kings of Saxony.
The interior of the castle is furnished with examples of opulent baroque decor from the time of Augustus the Strong. The walls are covered in 17th century gold-gilded leather. Many rooms' furnishings are dedicated to courtly hunting.
The collection of red deer antlers is one of the most important of its kind. The castle's largest collection of antlers is shown in the Speisesaal ("dining room"). Most of its 71 trophies are between 270 and 400 years old; they were purchased or acquired as presents. Among them is the heaviest red deer antler in the world, weighing 19.8 kilograms (44 lb) and spanning almost 2 meters (6.6 ft).
However, both Jim and I had become weary of yet another castle and decided to pass on the above tour, choosing instead to remain on the ship (me) and start my packing for the next day’s departure, and Jim returning to the city center for yet more photographs.
At 5:30 PM Matthias gave his usual daily briefing including details for disembarkation tomorrow morning. Luggage would need to be placed in the hallway by 7 AM with our names on attached colored tags. Since there would be a choice of tours, one to Litomerice with the brewery tour (red tag), and one to the Terezin concentration camp (green tag), our luggage would be loaded on the appropriate bus for transit and delivery to our Prague hotel. Our choice was the later, to Terezin in the Czech Republic.
Preceding our Farewell Dinner at 7 PM was the Captain’s Cocktail Party at 6:15 PM with free drinks, toasting a farewell to the Captain and his crew of the Viking Astrild. This was our only “dress up” occasion and my blazer and tie finally saw use.
Dinner was extra special, as I remember, with a sense of sadness for the conclusion of our “cruise” experience. During the previous week our small group of 83 had become quite friendly and bonded. Although many of us would be taking advantage of the 2-day Prague extension, many others would be returning home the next morning after arriving in Prague.
***Terezin and Prague: July 12th***
Enjoying one last huge breakfast of an omelet, crisp bacon, sautéed mushrooms, coffee and juices (grapefruit and orange), and having first placed our luggage in the hallway, it was now time to depart the Viking Astrild one last time. Envelopes with tips for the crew had been prepared (12 Euro per day is suggested); our tip for Matthias would be given in Prague.
Promptly at 8 AM the buses were all loaded and ready for departure, first to either Litomerice or Terezin, and then on to Prague. We were each supplied with a box lunch to enjoy along the way. As our buses pulled away from the dock, the entire crew of the Viking Astrild stood on the Sun Deck, waving goodbye to all of us. They had done a wonderful job caring for us during these past 4 days, as had the crew of the Viking Beyla during the first 3 days.
Our trip from Dresden toward Prague began on a modern motorway that very soon crossed the Czech border. After a while we departed the motorway onto a lesser highway, headed to the town of Terezin.
Theresienstadt concentration camp, also referred to as Theresienstadt Ghetto, was established by the SS during World War II in the fortress and garrison city of Terezín (German name Theresienstadt), located in what is now the Czech Republic. During World War II it served as a Nazi concentration camp staffed by German Nazi guards.
Tens of thousands of people died there, some killed outright and others dying from malnutrition and disease. More than 150,000 other persons (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before being sent by rail transports to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in occupied Poland, as well as to smaller camps elsewhere.
We first drove around the town of Terezin passing many buildings once used as apartment buildings for the sequestered “enemies of the state” before eventually arriving at the camp itself. Approaching the gate we passed by a large cemetery with many, many flowered gravestones, and a large Star of David sign prominently displayed at the end.
Inside the outer gate, we continued passing through gate after gate, until we came upon a large courtyard of sorts. From there we were guided through several rooms in which prisoners had been interred, observing the wooden multi-layer “beds”. Heating was critical and was almost nonexistent for the prisoners, and food was meager and scarce. Many died of malnutrition and exposure.
At the end of our tour we were shown an edited movie produced by the Nazis attempting to white wash their activities in this camp, showing the prisoners smiling and happy, playing and enjoying other sporting activities. The ultimate propaganda piece. Edited into this movie were excerpts showing the reality of the situation. Very humbling experience to watch.
We then departed this horrible place and proceeded on towards Prague, the “City of a Hundred Spires”, arriving there around midday.
Our first stop was at our hotel, the Hilton Prague, where our luggage was all taken off the buses to be sorted and sent to our assigned rooms. After a bathroom break, we loaded back on the buses to begin our city tour.
Situated on both sides of the River Vltava, we stopped at a bridge where our bus let us off, and we began our walking tour into the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter. We passed the old synagogue as well as the Jewish Cemetery where graves are layered 12 deep due to space constraints. Then we came upon the huge square with the Astronomical Clock Tower, and were given free time for lunch. We chose a sidewalk restaurant recommended by our guide, where I sat at a table with my glass of wine while Jim roamed around taking photos. When he returned we got something to eat before it was time to meet our group and return to our bus.
Those choosing to do so remained on the bus for a further tour of Castle Hill, but many of us departed the bus at the Hotel, our rooms now ready for occupancy. Of course, our assigned room on the first floor did not suit Jim who immediately requested a change of room to a higher floor, which was done. Our view is now into the open atrium of this square-shaped, multi-storied hotel, from room 4086.
Being exhausted from the day’s many activities, I crashed on my bed and fell into a deep sleep, hardly awakening when Jim returned with a sandwich for me. Prague would have to wait until tomorrow for me.
***First Full Day in Prague: July 13th***
As usual, a buffet breakfast is provided by the Hotel, so again I was able to feast on yet another custom omelet served along with bacon and fresh fruit, and with coffee of course. We encountered several from our group also enjoying breakfast at the Café in the Hilton’s atrium. Participation for breakfast is closely monitored by the maître d' who checks your name and room number against a list. Several other groups, in addition to the Viking groups, were also at the Hotel. Our main tour of the day is to the Lobkowicz Palace, a part of the Prague Castle complex, our departure time being at 12:15 PM.
This 16th-century palace houses a private museum that includes priceless paintings, furniture and musical memorabilia. You tour with an audio guide dictated by owner William Lobkowicz and his family – this personal connection really brings the displays to life, and makes the palace one of the castle’s most interesting attractions.
Built in the 16th century, the palace has been home to the aristocratic Lobkowicz family for around 400 years. Confiscated by the Nazis in WWII, and again by the communists in 1948, the palace was finally returned in 2002 to William Lobkowicz, an American property developer and grandson of Maximilian, the 10th Prince Lobkowicz, who fled to the USA in 1939.
Highlights of the museum include paintings by Cranach, Breughel the Elder, Canaletto and Piranesi, original musical scores annotated by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn (the 7th prince was a great patron of music – Beethoven dedicated three symphonies to him), and an impressive collection of musical instruments. But it’s the personal touches that make an impression, like the 16th-century portrait of a Lobkowicz ancestor wearing a ring that William’s mother still wears today, and an old photo album with a picture of a favorite family dog smoking a pipe.
The palace has an excellent cafe, and stages concerts of classical music at 1 PM each day.
As it turned out, Jim and I were the only ones from our group signed up for this tour and we were delivered by bus to the Prague Castle entrance where we joined another Viking group from another hotel, coincidentally with the same guide that we had had the previous day on our trip from Dresden and Terezin to Prague.
Walking into the Prague Castle complex, our first stop was at the St. Vitus Cathedral, an absolutely magnificent Neo-Gothic edifice, dating back to 1344 with renovations completed in 1929. The inside is massive with soaring Gothic vaulted ceilings. A most impressive place!
Then it was on to the Lobkowicz Palace entrance where we were immediately guided into a private dining room, already set up for our luncheon. Including wine, the lunch was really quite good, with a mixed green salad preceding a delicious Czech goulash, followed by a tasty cheesecake with wild berry sauce for dessert.
No day at Prague Castle is complete without attending a classical music concert performed in the beautifully decorated 17th-century baroque concert hall of The Lobkowicz Palace. Our concert was presented with performances on piano, violin, and cello.
The program presents works by the great baroque composers, Bach and Vivaldi, the champions of the classical style, Mozart and Beethoven, and the great 19th-century Czech composers, Dvořák and Smetana. It was truly an experience to remember.
Equipped with the supplied audio guide, we then toured through the different galleries of collections, all exquisitely displayed. I was most impressed with the hand-edited copies of Beethoven’s 4th and 5th symphonies as well as Mozart’s re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah – all originals!
A visit was made to a balcony, from which the view out over Prague was breath taking. Then it was time to depart, and our group was ushered out and down a long walkway a considerable distance to a street below in the “Little Quarter”, where our bus was waiting to return us to our respective hotels, the Hilton and the Marriott.
Later than evening, there were 6 of us – myself and Jim, along with Joan and Lisa in addition to Yvonne and her daughter Lisa – who hired taxis to take us to one of the Viking-recommended restaurants where we enjoyed authentic Czech cuisine in the downstairs dining room. I again chose the Roast Pig Knee that I had enjoyed in Berlin, but this one either wasn’t cooked as well, or my knife was too dull, and I had great difficulty managing it. It was a lot of fun in any case, a farewell get-together since Joan & Lisa would be leaving for home the following morning. Our return to the hotel by taxi turned out to be MUCH cheaper than had our trip TO the restaurant; Hilton’s taxis were greatly overpriced.
***Second Day in Prague: July 14th***
We all met for our final breakfast together, me again enjoying an omelet with juices and pastries. The wait staff here was almost overbearing, lurking to the side to remove dirty dishes as soon as possible. One had to wonder if their service was all that well intended. Afterwards we said our goodbyes to Joan and Lisa who would be leaving at 9 AM for the airport.
Jim had purchased roses the previous day and delivered one each to Yvonne and daughter Lisa. Then we went down to the Lower Lobby to bid adieu to Joan and Lisa, and Jim presented them each with a rose just before their boarding the van. A nice touch.
Having investigated the availability of the local Hop On, Hop Off buses (vans), we decided to take the Red Line that came near the Hilton as far as the Old Town Square, and then switch to the Green Line. The ticket also included a riverboat tour as well.
Reaching the Square around lunchtime, we decided to go back to the sidewalk restaurant we had chosen the previous day for lunch. Again, I relaxed with a glass of wine while Jim roamed around for photos; he sought out the Charles Bridge, which was rather nearby. While waiting I fell into conversation with a Canadian couple at the next table that were traveling independently. She was Czech by birth and owned a house in the outskirts of Prague. She would be staying for a month or so, and he only for a week. They were from Toronto.
Ready to return to our City Tour Van, the Green Line, we found a stop but had to wait out several vans for space. We finally got on one and proceeded towards the River to catch our riverboat cruise, which also turned out to be quite fully loaded. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable and scenic tour on the River, passing beneath the Charles Bridge before changing directions back upstream towards where we had boarded.
Off the riverboat, it was then another challenge to find a Green Line van with space; we again had to wait for the second one to come by, but when it finally came, it was going out of service, so we just took a taxi back to the Hilton. So, not the best experience with our Hop On, Hop Off vans in Prague.
Later that evening we walked a short distance from the Hotel, through a shopping mall, to a side street where we found another of the Viking-recommended restaurants, this one quite small, call DVur. It looked interesting and we decided to give it a try, which turned out to be a good choice.
Inside we chose the rear-most table for two, as far away as possible from a large table, set up for 12; our choice was wise. It seemed that the one waiter was working all by himself, in addition to his mother who was cooking. The service didn’t suffer, however, and our meal was quite good; my choice of Goulash was excellent, along with a couple of glasses of wine.
***Final Day in Prague: July 15th***
Our departure from the Hotel to the airport for our 6:20 AM flight was at 3:30 AM, with our luggage to be placed outside in the hallway by 3 AM, so it was a short night – a VERY short night! Fortunately our packing the night before hadn’t taken that much time or effort and I even got a few hours of sleep before our wake-up call came at 2:30 AM. Then it was downstairs to the Lower Lobby to catch our van to the airport, along with another couple from our ship. We were given “breakfast boxes” in lieu of our usual breakfast buffet, a poor substitute to say the least!
Arrival at Prague’s airport presented a large, very modern terminal, reminiscent of a big aircraft hanger. The Viking agent with us helped use a kiosk to print our boarding passes. Check in went routinely, as did the required security check, and soon we were on our way to the gate area for our short flight back to Amsterdam on one of KLM’s Embraer 190 aircraft with 2-2 seating. At the suggestion of the KLM agent, we also checked our carry-on luggage through to LAX – for no additional charge!
I thought there was a surprisingly large crowd of people for such an early hour, but it may have been because of so many early morning flights. Finding our gate C4, we had only a short time until boarding began at 5:50 AM, and soon we were seated in seats 14 A&C, seats I had previously selected online.
The hour and a half flight went smoothly; midway we were given a hot breakfast of an omelet, delicious but not quite that with which I had become accustomed. Our arrival at 7:50 AM in Amsterdam gave us 2 hours in which to find our departure gate E17 for the Los Angeles flight; this time there were no surprise last minute gate changes!
Contrary to their usual boarding practice of loading by row numbers, KLM chose to load ALL passengers at once, and there was the expected crowding and shoving to board. Fortunately, we soon found our assigned seats, 41 A&B, the ones I had selected online, and – without any carry-on luggage to worry about, we were soon on our way aboard KLM’s Boeing 747 at 9:05 AM, next stop Los Angeles.
Our early morning rising soon took its toll and sleep came easily; I even slept through the first drink offer! Soon a full meal was served and again I thought the food was quite good, especially with yet another glass of wine. Dozing on and off through the flight, the 10 hours seem to pass relatively quickly. At midway in the flight we were given a snack of a small pizza that was very good!
Of course, the entertainment center on the seat backs was of great help, as well as my Smarter Image earphones that block out most of the background noise and replace it with soothing classical music. The aircraft statistics – world position, speed, altitude, etc. – occupied the majority of my time, although I did watch a very good movie, “The Golden Lady.”
At one point during the flight we were also served ice cream, a first for me. It tasted really good! Then about an hour before landing we were served a delicious, hot breakfast; no more wine for Ron! 4 little bottles were quite enough!
Throughout the flight we had nothing but smooth air, again a surprise from past trans Atlantic flight experiences, and our arrival at LAX was near on schedule at 11:45 AM. The landing was rather hard, I thought, but soon we were at Bradley Terminal, waiting to disembark.
The new Bradley Terminal is quite beautiful but is also quite LARGE! The LONG walk from our arrival gate to customs check takes a lot of time and energy. New for me was the self-service customs check kiosks into which you enter your passport information, have your photo taken, and then take away the printed report. Luggage collection was as soon as might be expected and once all 4 pieces of our luggage had been retrieved, we then proceeded towards the exit, giving our customs sheet to the official.
Outside the terminal, we already knew where to go to catch our SuperShuttle van for our trip home, and it wasn’t that long until we were on our way back to Orange County and home, arriving here around 3 PM.
So there it is, another exciting and interesting trip completed. One lingering thought I have is of all of the special things we saw and did in what was formerly Eastern Germany, and in what excellent condition we found places that were so heavily damaged in World War II. To now be able to view and experience these sights was a great privilege. Sure, it has been 70 years since the War’s end but the renovations have been substantial. It was great to view all that we did and to do the many things we did. A good trip, despite the low water in the Elbe!