Sunday, 17 June 2018

A surprisingly easy journey

I recently attended a meeting in Birmingham, and being me my first thought was to go by train, but when I looked at the address of the meeting venue on a map I thought it might be a bit difficult by train, a bit too far from New Street station. Should I drive instead? Another factor was timing: I'd have to go to Birmingham in the morning peak so the train fare would be expensive, and the hourly train service meant I would be rather earlier than I needed to be: perhaps I should drive. But then I thought of other factors: actually it was not all that far from the station, and I could use bus to get nearer; I found that there are Advance tickets which made the fare more affordable; if I take a computer and some papers to work it did not matter if there was some slack in the schedule because I would still get more done than I would if were driving the car for a couple of hours - and at least I would not be driving in peak traffic on the M6! So I booked the tickets: an Advance single out on the 07:05, because I knew when I had to be there, and a flexible Off Peak single back to allow some flexibility in finishing time.

For many people a journey always means driving a car, and if I lived in rural East Lindsey I would have needed to drive. My two colleagues who joined me at the meeting drove all the way (starting out at 6 o'clock!) and hearing that I had come by train commented that they had not thought of that ... One get there before me and one after me, driving times being much more difficult to predict over that sort of distance at peak times. I like to think, though, that I would have driven as far as a convenient railway station  and then parked and caught a train: the advantages of being able to work while travelling to me outweigh the advantages of flexible timing of the journey itself. Whether I am at my desk, in a waiting room or on a train does not affect whether I am working, whereas when driving a car I never am. And I am not contributing to congestion or air pollution, which is a nice feeling. Usually my expenses claims are rather lower, too, (assisted by the Senior Railcard) although the extent of that does depend on time of day.

I set off on my early train, then, and arrived at New Street on time. This early train, being suitably timed for some commuters between Leicester and Birmingham, stopped rather more than most of our services and was packed full after Nuneaton, but, of course, the crowding did not affect me as I had boarded before most others and in any case I had a reserved seat with my Advance ticket. With the spare time I had before my meeting I called at the Centenary Lounge for a croissant to supplement my earlier-than-usual breakfast then boarded a bus towards my meeting venue in Great Colmore Street: I could follow the trip on a map on my smartphone and alighted at the stop nearest the street: because I had joined the bus after the walk to Moor Street for my croissant I passed a couple of stops before mine, but had I gone straight there from the station it would have been just one stop, really not worth the bus. So when I went back at the end of the day I walked all the way, less than twenty minutes walking slower than I usually do because I walked along with someone else who was returning to Gloucester and needed a train at about the same time as mine. The meeting finished on time and as I had nothing I needed to do before returning I was soon on the train back and was glad I'd bought a flexible ticket so that I could leave immediately.

It is all too easy to think of reasons not to use public transport, but unless my destination is uncommonly badly served (like Lincoln before 10:00, but not like Birmingham at any time!) I seldom end up driving because when I put my mind to it, trains and buses are easier than we think and still work well much of the time. We are now so confident of this that we have reverted to being a one-car household and so far we have not yet had to hire a car in order to cope with our travel needs. Now that is saving a lot of money for travelling for fun, but that is another story!

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Onward, Upward and Homeward

Approaching a lock. This one has hinged gates at the
downstream end
The River Danube is navigable for such a great distance because much effort has been expended over the ages on making it so. On our cruise we passed several tugs with lighters of various freight as well as many passengers ships (all of them, like ours, leisure cruising vessels). A major part of making the river navigable is the provision of locks, like a canal, which provides sufficient depth and allows sizeable vessels to climb up the river from the Black Sea. Unlike the familiar narrow canals on England, though, these locks are huge: each one will hold four ships like the Amadeus Brilliant, two side-by-side pairs of 110-metre ships, and the locks are in
The duty captain steers skilfully into the lock. No other ship
was using it at this time.
pairs so that ships can pass in both directions at the same time. So far, our transits through locks had taken place overnight when most of us were asleep, but we were spending a day aboard the ship today, travelling upstream, and would be able to see the working of these magnificent feats of engineering. I had been at the front of the ship late one evening and seen a lock in use, and I had woken in the night and looked out of the window to find a concrete wall slipping by our cabin about 40cm from my nose, but most passengers had not seen them and I had not seen them in broad daylight.

Looking astern, the gates close behind us and the lock is
filled with water.
With the lock full of water the upper gate is lowered into
the river bed and we sail on.
There was an early morning stop at Linz, Austria, for those going on the optional city walk of Linz and on to Aschach where the ship stopped again to pick them up. There was also an excursion by coach from Linz to Salzburg which took all day. The ship went on to Passau and there all the groups reconvened for the Captain's Gala Dinner evening while the ship carried on up the river to Regensburg. We did not take part in either of the excursions and so were on the ship all the way to Passau which we then explored on our own for about an hour. Passau's cathedral, St Stephens', apparently has the largest cathedral organ in the world and it started playing some short pieces just as we walked in - an amazing sound.

The port talk this evening had to be postponed and the Gala Dinner started a little late because the day excursion to Salzburg had been delayed in traffic. We had a chance to applaud the crew to thank them for all they had done to make this cruise such a great holiday.

During the afternoon there had been a short lecture about the building, design and use of the ship (and the river locks) and what each member of the crew did. I was amazed to find that the main propellors as well as the bow thruster can swivel though a complete circle, so either end of the ship can be steered in any direction: she can go astern as easily as ahead, and can even move sideways quite simply, handy when mooring alongside other ships.

The last complete day of the cruise section of the tour took us to Regensburg for the day. We explored the city on our own, seeing the places which had been pointed out to us including the cathedral (Dom St Peter), which was a gothic cathedral and I felt very much at home there after all the baroque churches we had seen so far on this trip. The stone bridge in the city centre is apparently the oldest bridge in Germany still in use, and it was having some serious restoration work done although still open with some temporary pieces here and there. After lunch we did some more exploration and visited the city's shops while an optional excursion went to Weltenburg Monastery. We bought gifts for the grandchildren and drank the local beer at a rooftop cafeteria at one of the department stores, with a fantastic view of the rooftops of the city.

Regensburg is said to be the best example of traditional Bavarian townscape in Germany: with that and the excellent modern facilities it is well worth a visit. It is also as far as the cruise ships are able go up the Danube, and indeed Amadeus Brilliant demonstrated her versatility by leaving astern, the river being too narrow to turn in the town. We travelled a few kilometres back down river before turning and heading back to Passau where our cruise would end the following morning.

Back aboard the ship before leaving Regensbourg we were entertained with a "Bavarian Evening," one of those entertainments where avoiding the front row is wise because a certain amount of embarrassing audience participation is expected ... then dinner while the ship moved off after the entertainers had left, and the ship's own music duo Katy and Dody played and sang for those who wanted to dance away their last night on board while most of us went to bed.

The following morning our packed cases were left outside our cabin and after breakfast we were taken by coach from the mooring at Passau to the railway station to begin the rail-born part of our homeward journey. we were soon aboard the first of three DB ICE trains which would get us to Brussels for the Eurostar to London. There is catering on board the ICEs but not included in the fare, so we had a light lunch, knowing that dinner was to come later. The first leg was to Frankfurt where a simple change of train took us onward to Cologne where we had dinner and spent the night at the Maritim Hotel. There was also some time for an exploration of Cologne before dinner, including a short stroll along the river front where Rhine cruise ships were moored, and after breakfast on the final morning we caught the third ICE for Brussels. We were right in the nose of the streamlined train, behind the driver, this time and could see forward as the train made its way towards Brussels and home.
One novelty on ICE trains currently is the distribution at intervals on the journey of little packets of jelly sweets shaped like ICE end cars. We consumed some ourselves and brought some home for the grandchildren. At Brussels we went through the now-familiar security and passport checks and waited for our train to London which again was one of the new E320 Eurostar trains, very comfortable and stylish, and a light meal was served as we were whisked back to the UK. This was our chance to thank our tour manager who had ensured we all made all our connections, and to exchange contact deals with the other "Pirates of the Danube" before we all went our separate ways at St Pancras, in our case taking the next fast train from Kings Cross that stopped at Peterborough and there connecting for our home in Stamford. Like us, Stamford had had a sunny week, but unlike us had suffered a very heavy shower indeed the previous evening and was still very wet as we walked home. Yesterday Passau, today Stamford, and not an airport in sight!

So we have added river cruising to our holiday experiences, and very enjoyable it was. Of course, not only do we wish to revisit some of the cities of which we had only a short glimpse this time, but we also now hanker after pushing further east along the Danube to the Black Sea ... maybe one day. But there is also a lot of Britain yet to visit, and much more, too. I think the mental "list" is going to have to take physical shape very soon now so that real plans can be made for all of this!

Friday, 8 June 2018

More to come

Just a note to say that there is still one more post to come of my Imperial Cities and Danube Cruise weblog entry, and still more photographs to add to my Flickr album but I hope to get these done soon, work permitting - I am trying to catch up after two weeks off, after all!


Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Afloat at Last

Amadeus Brilliant moored at Budapest beside sister ship
Amadeus Silver II on a separate cruise
We had never done a cruise holiday before, although it has long been on our agenda as something we might like to do. Brochure pictures of river cruise ships making their way along scenic rivers such at the Rhine and the Danube look very attractive, and brochure descriptions of the delicious meals and "free flowing wine" are pretty attractive, too ... but these are designed to sell these expensive holidays, so we cannot be sure they would live up to the advertising. By booking this holiday with Great Rail Journeys we were confident from our experience that they might well deliver what they promise and now, at the riverside at Budapest, we were about to find out. Arriving late after a train delay and then heavy traffic was not a good start, but there beside the coach was the crew of the Amadeus Brilliant to take our luggage and show us to the ship: a new part of our adventure had begun.

We were to sleep seven nights aboard the Amadeus Brilliant and so would be able at last to unpack all our clothes, most of which had remained in our suitcase since we packed them many days ago in Stamford. We unpacked quickly because we were soon due in the ship's bar for a welcome drink and to hear the ship's Tour Director give us details about our time aboard. Our cabin, the bar and everything we had seen so far were almost perfect, well up to what we had seen in the advertising. After the talk came dinner which finished in time for us to wrap up against the night air and make our way onto the sundeck (or is it moon deck at night?) for a short cruise through Budapest whose riverside public buildings are all floodlit and make a magnificent spectacle. If we had not been on a cruise holiday but staying in a hotel, we should definitely have had to take one of the many night-time short pleasure cruises offered on the waterfront, but for us it was included in our package holiday without even having to leave our floating hotel.

After the night cruise through Budapest it was already very late and we went straight to bed, although it would have been possible to stay up and see all the buildings again from the other direction. Our cabin had a really good air-conditioning system, a safe for our valuables (such as the MacBook on which I was attempting to keep up with blogging the trip!) and a huge window which we could open and sit looking out by day or night - unless we were docked next to another ship and only had a view of another cabin!

It had been an intensive few days by now, and we opted not to take part in the guided tour of Budapest but to set off at a more civilised time - an hour later - and make our own tour of discovery, which included walking up the Gellert Hill to the Soviet liberty statue, which commemorates the liberation of the city from the Nazis by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. The views over the city from there were stunning, and we were reminded of the enormous price paid in human lives by the Soviet Union for the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination. Lower down the hillside is the statue of St Gellert after whom the hill, and the adjacent spa, are named, and we passed this on the way down towards the castle. Various members of our family had suggested the Soviet Monument Park but this was some distance out of the city centre and we only had the morning to spare because our ship was due to depart after lunch and begin the long journey north to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Broadly speaking we had decided to go on all the included tours and none of the optional ones, because unlike most of those on the trip I am not retired and needed this to be a restful holiday. The tour of Budapest was included but we made an exception for this after being up so late for the floodlight cruise, and although walking to the top of a steep hill was still pretty active, at least it did not start until we were ready! We did not go into the castle but did pop into the tourist information office there and bought postcards to send home.

Lunch and dinner were served on the ship each day, along with breakfast and afternoon tea: this is not a holiday on which maintaining a waistline is easy! We opted for the light buffet lunch in the bar rather than the three-course affair in the restaurant, soon after which the ship was cast off and we began to move along the legendary Danube. It was too windy to spend very long on the sundeck but there is plenty of space under cover: the bar area can take all of the ship's passengers at the same time if necessary. I busied myself writing up the first few days' blog posts and filing my photographs, and soon tea time had passed and dinner was served. It was magical watching the sun go down as we cruised along the river during dinner, and to bed while the ship forged on all night. It was still moving when we awoke in the morning, and had docked at Bratislava by breakfast time.

Opposite the Slovakian parliament, a memorial to
Alexander Dubcek who earlier had tried to bring more
freedom to Czechoslovakia 
Our docking point was right in the city centre at Bratislava, a much smaller city than Prague or Budapest and with an interesting history. A guided tour of Bratislava was included in our holiday package, going by coach to the castle, opposite which Slovakia's new parliament building has been built, and then down into the city centre with the rest of the tour completed on foot. This is another beautiful city, well-kept and ready for tourists. After the guided tour we were free to explore for a while before returning to the ship (which we did in time for lunch). We had to dodge (simulated) gunfire from a celebration of the liberation of the city from Napoleonic forces - although in the town squares a fusillade is as noisy as artillery fire in open space. Stories of Napoleon were nearly as common as stories of the Nazis and Communists everywhere we travelled in mid-Europe, but only here did we get the shock of loud gunfire outside while we were peacefully looking at information in the Tourist Information Office.

After lunch we explored the city on foot again, looking at what had been the Jewish quarter with its small artisan houses, and walking on the short length which remains of the city wall, then strolling along the bank of the Danube and seeing briefly the new shopping centre there which contrasts with the old city centre. I found it interesting that various embassies are mixed in among other city-centre land-uses such as shops and offices because this is a very small city to be a capital, and so the nations are placing their embassies wherever they are able to obtain space, some of them in upper storeys over shops or restaurants, for example. There are still plenty of shops in the main streets, in spite of the new shopping centre on the edge of the central area and the pressure from the diplomatic services for space for embassies.

We returned to the ship for tea and to rest and write up a bit more of this blog before dinner. The "Port Talk" had to cover announcements for the next two days because the following evening would be too busy to fit in a Port Talk then! An early night sounded essential, although having decided not to undertake optional tours we would be less busy than we otherwise might have been.

St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna
The following morning was Sunday and our ship had left behind the former communist states and had arrived in Vienna, capital of Austria. It was Pentecost Sunday, a principal Christian feast day, and most shops etc were closed but the streets were still crowded with tourists and with people going to church. After breakfast our tour of the city started early and was punctuated by church bells calling people to Mass. To me as a priest it felt very odd not to be joining them, but there was not time in our programme. During the 50 minutes or so that we had free we did have a brief look in the cathedral but although Mass was about to start it was a sung Eucharist with the Cardinal Archbishop presiding so I did not imagine that it would have been over within the time we could spare! Perhaps I should have thought to bring a stole and some service books and offer to hold a service on board the ship for those who wanted to attend ... but I didn't.

Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism
Our mooring at Vienna was well outside the city centre and we were taken there by coach and given a brief tour on wheels, then a walking tour and some free time before continuing by coach and being taken back to the ship in time for lunch. A very large city, well cared-for and with a fabulous cultural history. Austria is high up among the nations that have produced world-famous classical composers and musicians, and opera is a large part of the city's leisure provision to this day, as are several other art forms. Vienna still smarts, though, as a place where Hitler managed to stir up a crowd and build his Nazi movement, and right in the centre of the city is a moving Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism. Those decent people who were persuaded to the Nationalist cause and lost their lives fighting for it are, of course, among the victims. In all of the cities we had visited so far, Hitler and the Nazis, or their policies, had a significant impact on life in the city which has continued to this day, even those that had been through a Communist era since then.

We returned to our coach for more of the tour of the city and to be taken back to our ship for lunch. There was another, optional, tour in the afternoon but we opted not to take this and had a short stroll along the riverside and spent some time relaxing on the sundeck. Dinner was earlier to allow for an optional visit to a concert of Viennese music, which again we opted not to take: I am sure it would have been wonderful, but the idea of this holiday was to rest, not to pack in as much as possible! For those who lives are leisurely a holiday full of activities and tours is great, but those of us who are busy there needs to be more empty time! Great Rail Journeys have the balance about right for me: enough included activity (which we can omit if we like, although we've paid for it) and plenty of optional activity if we wanted to do more - which we'd have to pay for.

Once the concert-goers were back aboard, the ship moved off again to travel overnight to our next destination, the village of Durnstein in the small wine-growing valley of Wachau. We woke to find that we were moored against two other ships: three further ships were at an adjacent mooring just in front of us on the edge of the village. Considering the village has a population of 85, it does well to cater for visitors from six ships at a time! We were given a short tour of this small Austrian village, where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned and held for an enormous ransom, whose main products are white wine and various apricot products, and then along with several other groups of visitors attended a wine-tasting at a family winery. This village was amazingly efficient at getting large numbers of tourists through the variety of attractions they had to offer. Anyone can buy tickets to the wine-tasting, but ours were provided for us as part of the included tour and our local guide worked his talk around the timing that had been booked. The winery operated a gift shop but we thought bottles of wine a bit too large for our luggage and brought back jars of apricot jam as gifts instead. I was amazed that American guests there were trying to buy from this small family business in US Dollars: Austria uses the Euro, which you'd think anyone touring Europe would be able to spend even they had come without Hungarian Forints or Czech Koruna. Back to the ship and we set off again on a lovely sunny afternoon with much time spent on the sundeck.

Melk Abbey, seen from Emmersdorf
At about 15:00 the ship docked at another small village, Emmersdorf, where an optional excursion left by coach for Melk Abbey. We walked into the village to explore on foot: it was set on a fairly steep valley side and single-track railway line crossed a side valley in the centre of the village on a stone viaduct reminiscent of northern England. From the upper level of the village we could look across to Melk Abbey where some of our travelling companions were enjoying a guided tour of a small part of this extensive monastic campus.
St Nikolaus's Church
It was a hot, sunny day and we continued to climb to a church overlooking the whole scene. We were mystified by notices explaining that the building was protected by the Convention of the Hague dated 14 May 1954 in the event of armed conflict: why this church of all the churches in Europe? Would ISIS respect this; would the Nazis have respected it? We went inside and it was astounding in its baroque decor and sheer size for a small community, but that applies to many a parish church all over the Christian world (and to many a Mosque, Temple or other place of worship).

Back at the ship it was tea time and then time to prepare for the evening: tonight's dinner was pirate-themed and the crew dressed in "pirate" costume and left the dining table in a state of disarray as it attacked by pirates (but enough cutlery, glasses etc for everyone!), and some of us managed to cobble together something like pirate dress - I happened to have a suitable t-shirt available and a handkerchief that could just be worn as a headscarf. Our little group of eight who had done so well in a quiz two nights earlier reconvened as pirates and never really quite got over it ... Pirates of the Danube for the rest of the trip ... The ship set sail during dinner and tomorrow was to be a busy day, but that can wait for the next instalment.

My photographs are gradually being uploaded to my Flickr album at

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Such a Pretty City!

When I was growing up it was hard to imagine that I would ever be able to visit eastern Europe, or if I did I would be constantly under suspicion and in danger. There were exotic cities like Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade, Berlin, Prague and Warsaw which I never expected to see and yet now all are easily accessible. They are in EU countries and as an EU citizen I can visit them and feel at home – until next year anyway, and even though language and currencies vary, it is easy enough to mix with fellow citizens of what Mikhail Gorbachev called “our common European home”. This year I managed to visit some of these on an escorted rail tour with Great Rail Journeys. I have already written about our very brief introduction to Berlin, probably the city that symbolises the past division of Europe, and from there we moved on to Prague which was a totally different experience. Prague was almost completely untouched by 2nd World War bombing whereas Berlin was almost destroyed; Prague was the centre of an early attempt to break free from Soviet domination; Prague has an enormously long history as a capital city of an historic principality, then kingdom and finally a republic as it is today.

We arrived there by direct train from Berlin, and when we left we took a direct train to Budapest, both operated by the Czech national railway with comfortable, modern carriages and electric locomotives. They were not high speed trains but reached 90mph at times and some very good food and drink were available from the restaurant and buffet car: this was neither the down-at-heel slow and dirty train of film-noir spy stories nor the glamour of international expresses of the inter-war detective story.

Down to dinner!
Getting off the train at Prague's main station we were amazed at the highly decorated circulation space at the main entrance with its vaulted ceiling and classical style. There was clearly still some restoration work to do at this station, but what had been completed was stunning. A coach took us through the city's congested streets (we arrived at the evening rush hour when an accident had closed a main road tunnel) and eventually got us to our hotel on the other side of the city centre. The hotel had two buildings at the top and bottom of a steep hill and we were delivered to the upper building where our rooms were. To get to the restaurant for dinner we had to go down by a cable-hauled funicular railway to the lower building. The view from our room over the city was brilliant, although the same could not be said for the weather for most of our stay, although it had some good patches.

We had a spacious, comfortable room and after a good night's sleep were ready for the tour of Prague following morning. It was the same sort of early start which had one of our Australian fellow-travellers on last year's holiday ask the tour manager, “Do we get a holiday some time?” but, really, if you've come all this way to an exotic place you do really need to get out and see something of it! At least this time we did not have to have packed before the day started, as we were staying a second night at this hotel.

St Wenceslas' shrine in the cathedral
The tour began with a coach transfer to Prague Castle, and then we were on foot for the rest of the morning, for Prague is very much a "walking city". Unfortunately the morning was punctuated with showers, some of them moderately heavy, but we were prepared for the weather from the accurate forecast and everyone had umbrellas or hooded coats. Prague Castle is the biggest castle in Europe (Windsor is the second biggest) and includes a cathedral and three other churches as well as the presidential palace. The palace has been the official seat of the rulers of the Czech people ever since it was founded, surviving changes from principality through kingdom to republic. Wenceslas, the nation's patron saint, was probably the most famous resident, but he was a prince, not the king of the well-known Christmas carol.

The castle is on a hill overlooking the rest of the city and after a thorough exploration of all the public areas, and a coffee break, we walked down through a vineyard area to the city centre via the famous Charles Bridge with its statues of the saints (which have remarkably survived both Nazism and Communism). Many of the tour party then made their way by tram back to the hotel, but we decided to walk back through the city and see some more of Prague's sights.

It was by now lunchtime, and one thing we needed to do was to try the trdlo, a sweet confection made from bread in the shape of a cylinder, similar in taste to a Danish pastry, for example, but much less sticky. We had no Czech currency with only being here a short time but in the tourist streets where these things were on sale we could pay with Euros (like the UK, the Czech Republic is an EU member state which still has its own currency). We found a place where we could sit outside with a coffee and a trdlo (mine filled with strawberries and whipped cream, Alison's plain). As we were about to leave the heaviest shower of the day began, so we waited until it subsided before we walked on - fortunately there was no queue for our table. The principal place we wanted to see was Wenceslas Square, scene of the demonstrations and meetings which ended the communist era just a few years ago. Wenceslas Square is not actually square, but a long rectangle (like Eaton Square in London) and is a major shopping street, now with a large branch of Marks and Spencer in it: the capitalists have moved swiftly into eastern Europe!

And so back to our hotel through the streets of Prague with their varied, often Parisian-looking, buildings and over the River Vitava. The hotel grounds, full of trees and climbing steeply up the hillside, looked great, but the new highway in front of it, with bits still under construction, rather spoilt the effect its architect had intended. Still, reunited with the rest of our party it was soon time for dinner, a shower and sleep ready for our next move. The following morning we were to depart at a similar time again, but this time packed and ready to catch our train. We were driven slowly through the morning peak traffic back to Prague main station and waited for the platform indicator to show where we needed to wait for our EuroCity train direct to our next stop at Budapest, capital of Hungary, another city I once never imagined I would be able to visit.

This was a long journey of around seven hours, all on one train, which this time did have the scheduled buffet/restaurant car which served superb hot and cold snacks and full meals. We had a hot snack lunch with Prosecco which we took back to our seats, but there was also seating the bar area and a small restaurant where we could have opted to have a waited meal. We also had our morning coffee and afternoon tea on board the train. I wrote much of the previous blog post during this journey, too!

We were about half and hour late getting to Budapest, so our coach ride along the Pest side of the Danube towards our home for the next seven nights, the MS Amadeus Brilliant, took place in the thick of the evening peak and added several more minutes to the delay to our arrival, so we missed tea on the ship but at least we were in time for the briefing for life aboard the vessel, followed by the welcome drink (more sparkling wine) and dinner. After dinner our visit to Budapest began, and of this I shall say much more in the next post.