Today our schedule was a little different as we are actually doing our traveling along this middle section of the Rhine by daylight. We haven’t found the Rhine nearly as scenic as we found the Rhône in France, but finally we are occasionally able to see a castle or two. There are something like 40,000 castles in Germany from tiny houses with turrets up to giant Schlosses. In any event, we will be pullng into our next mooring in Rüdesheim about 2:00 this afternoon.
This is a fairly small town, but really cute deep in the heart of wine-growing country in Germany. In fact, as we docked, our ship was met with a huge delivery which appears to mostly consist of cases of local Riesling wine, all marked “Drink Riesling; Not Water!”.
This was also the first town we were able to walk right off board and into town. Jim and I really like the freedom this gives us. So we walked into town, with our first activity being a visit to the music box museum, which has everything from what we think of as music boxes to huge cabinets of mechanized instruments which can replicate the sounds of an entire orchestra popular around the turn of the last century.
Right after that visit, we headed to a local hotel, with a cozy restaurant called Rüdesheim Schloss, where we had a lesson in baking the local type of Christmas cookies, Christmas Coffee, and glühwein. After the lesson, Jim headed off to explore, while I sat out in the patio to try to upload photos for the blog.
Mission accomplished, we walked back together through the many Christmas market stalls to the ship. Tomorrow is also a later sail to our final destination for this part of the trip, Cologne (Köln).
After our day at the Basel Christmas markets yesterday, Jim and I had a FABULOUS dinner last night at a traditional Swiss restaurant called Walliser Kanne. I was craving fondue, and I talked Jim into indulging with me. I have to say; it was the BEST fondue I’ve ever had!
Today had its high points and low points … as a transition day, there is always a great deal of “hurry up and wait” for which we try to mentally prepare. However, today was especially trying, as I found myself channeling my inner “Kaplan” (Virginia peeps; you know what I’m talking about). After a less than complete night’s sleep (trying to adjust to the time zone change), I got up finally about 6:30, and started getting my stuff together to transition to the river ship, M.S. Inspire. Loud gasp; where was my purse?!!!!!!!
After looking through the room several times (including getting down on my belly so I could scan under the beds), I concluded that I must have left it at the restaurant last night. We quickly planned that we would walk back over to the restaurant to retrieve it if it opened before we left at 3:00 this afternoon. Except … the restaurant was closed today all day! So, I went to the concierge and asked her if there was any possibility that someone could find the owner of the restaurant to let me in. The concierge was able to find someone at the sister restaurant to Walliser Kanne who said there was someone who would arrive at noon, who could go over and check. After a nerve-wracking 3 and half hours, she reported that they were not able to find my bag. Fortunately, before I could go into full panic mode and start canceling all our credit cards, I remembered my iPhone was in my purse, so I had Jim activate the tracker. Strangely … my purse appeared to actually be in our hotel in! I went running back to the room while Jim activated the pinger on the phone. Sure enough, I found the purse hiding behind the curtains in the room. Whew!!!!!!!
As an aside, I am having some technical difficulties uploading my photos right now, so it appears this will be a photo less post. However, I have my tech gurus working on a solution right now (thanks, JIm). Hopefully we’ll be back up and running in just a couple of days.
Disaster averted (although still feeling massively foolish), Jim and I took a walk along the river to burn off some excess adrenaline. We were even able to see our ship. After walking back to the hotel, it was finally time to board. Our room is lovely and the ship is nicely equipped, so we had a good day to a day that started our pretty shaky. Tomorrow, we dock in our first port; Breisach, Germany. From there we will be visiting two town in the French Alsatian region, Riquewihr and Colmar.
Another big day in our itinerary is finally here: we are bound for the Giant’s Causeway to see this incredible geological formation that left giant hexagonal basalt columns sticking up like broken teeth or stepping stones on the edge of the ocean! It’s also time for us to get our geek on; specifically, geeking out about Game of Thrones. All along our drive today, we’ll be seeing several of the sites featured in the series, which Jim and I really enjoy. It turns out Steve is a big fan, too.
We drove out of Belfast this morning to the east to drive along the coast, for another very picturesque drive called the Nine Glens of Antrim drive. We will spend the whole day in County Antrim, but you are very clearly still in Northern Ireland, as it seems that each successive town takes turns proclaiming their allegiance to either the Republican or Loyalist forces. You can easily tell this by the prominent use of either Irish national flags or the British tricolor. So much for getting out of the corrosive partisan atmosphere of Belfast!
Nonetheless, the drive was as lovely as advertised! Our first stop was in the town of Carrickfergus, with a fort dedicated to the English invasion of William III of Orange. Plainly, this is a Loyalist town, complete with a mock redcoat statue on the ramparts of the fort.
Next, we stopped in the quaint seaside town of Glencloy, which has been used to film scenes in Game of Thrones, both as the seaside port in Braavos where Arya Stark goes to learn from the Faceless Man, and the cliffside behind the town, which was featured when the Whitewalkers attack the Wilding encampment, a If all of that means nothing to you, just know that Glencloy is the prototypical Irish seaside town and enjoy it for that!
Beyond that, we drove through village after quaint village, with sheep and lambs grazing happily in the fields. One town in particular, Ballycastle, looked like it might be a pleasant place to stay at the seashore, but we would probably pick the westside of the Irish Republic before we would come back here.
Shortly thereafter, we pulled into a carpark on the coast on the cliffs high above the sea. From here, you can see the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which connects the mainland to a tiny island that lies just feet off the coast. From here, you can also see the much larger Raflin island, and just 11 miles away, the outline of the coast of Scotland. While I would have liked to climb across the bridge, several in our group don’t deal well with heights, and we still needed to get to the Giant’s Causeway.
Finally, we came into the town nearest the Causeway and had lunch at a very cozy pub, called, appropriately, The Nook. Somewhat uncharacteristically for Northern Ireland, all of the young women working in the pub were very friendly.
Following lunch, we hopped on the shuttle bus which takes you into the Giant’s Causeway area, and at last, we were free to explore! First I hiked out along the seashore just past the main tourist part of the sight, which was TEEMING with visitors. Then I walked up the trail behind the site to see the organ pipe-shaped rock formations, and then up to the top of the cliffs overlooking the site so I could get some perspective shots. Finally, I scampered down to the main site to see all I could before we left. Sadly, I felt like I did not get nearly enough time here, and I would like to return someday, perhaps when there are fewer tourists.
Then it was back in the bus to continue our tour of Game of Thrones sites. As we drove south from the north coast of Northern Ireland, we headed for the location of the “Dark Hedges”; more properly known as Kingsroad in the series. This location is a country road lined with twisted, gnarly beech trees, and was used a few times, including in the scene where Arya Stark dresses up like a boy to escape from King’s Landing, but is captured instead, and dragged off to the Brothers without Banners hideout (which was filmed in another part of Northern Ireland — Pollnagollum Cave, in County Fermanagh). The actual road is Bregagh Road, outside of Stranocum, in the Ballymoney district in County Antrim. Obviously, this is not a well-kept secret, as tour busses jockeyed for position, and it was a challenge to get a photo without other tourists in it. Some people went to elaborate lengths to strike poses from the GOT scenes.
Finally, it was back to Belfast. We enjoyed a super good meal at the restaurant James Street South. Tomorrow dawns with the last day of our tour, so we all hurried back to pack and go to bed.
This morning we arose to another beautiful day in Casco Viejo, and made our way over to the “Super Gourmet (or “Super G”, to the locals) for a killer breakfast. Super G was one of the first outposts of civilization returning to Casco Viejo a few years ago. It was started by a guy from Tennessee named Blake, and it’s really good.
Then we packed up and were picked up from La Isabela by Rafael (also from Easy Travel Panama) who had the task of taking us to the new Visitors’ Center at the expansion of the Panamá Canal at the Gatún Locks, before driving us over to the cruise port terminal in Colón, where we will board the Windstar Star Breeze, for our tour through Colombia and the ABC Netherlands Antilles islands (Aruba, Bonaire & Curaçao).
Once again, we scored as we approached the locks because we were able to watch one of the newport-Panamax cargo ships going through the locks. This was a feat that would not have been possible before the opening of the new, wider third lane of the Panamá Canal last year. 2 years ago, we were able to go to this same spot on the Pacific side of the Canal to see construction nearing an end. Notably, at that time, the contractors had just installed the cool new hydraulic locks and were testing them.
This time, we were able to see the locks operating, and the ship being very carefully guided into the entrance of the locks by four separate 60,000 horsepower tugboats. There was a stiff cross breeze blowing, so the tugs really had their work cut out for them! I know this is two posts in a row about the amazing engineering marvels of this Canal, and its locks, so maybe JIm is rubbing off too much on me and I’m geeking out a bit too much. But, … it really is cool!
Finally, it was time to drive over to the Cristobal port and board our home for the next 8 nights. As you can see, Shawn made even the muster cluster safety drill fun! Stay tuned, because after about an arduous 1 hour sail tonight, tomorrow we explore Portobelo.
Sept. 26, 2015: This morning went got aboard our bus, and headed off to the south of Dubrovnik into the country of Montenegro. I’ve already told you a little about the siege of Dubrovnik, but we need to do a little history lesson before we go much further.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but the early 1990s are somewhat of a blur to me, possibly because we were totally consumed with child-rearing in those years. As a result, I can remember almost nothing about the Geo-politics affecting the former republic of Yugoslavia, whose breakup resulted in the countries of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia being formed following the death of Josip Broz “Tito” in 1980. For a while, the republic carried on with a rotating presidency among its 6 constituent republics.
However, we’ve had to do a deep dive on the history of this region in order to have any clue about what we’re seeing and what its historical significance might be, so we thought it might also be of assistance to you. In any event, here’s your minimal refresher so you can somewhat keep the next few posts straight.
Marshall Tito, former president of Yugoslavia, died in 1980. He was probably best-known (and most charitably remembered) for his ability to keep several distinctly different cultural and religious groups united into a cohesive republic for over 40 years. However, upon his death, there was a power vacuum, and the constituent groups started to break apart. The war criminal former leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, planting the seeds of suspicion that a plot was afoot in Kosovo to oust or suppress the Serbian citizens of Kosovo. Using that as a pretext, Serbia annexed Kosovo. With some concern for the fate of their own republics, Slovenia and Croatia decided to secede. The first to go was Slovenia, which declared its independence in 1991. It was followed shortly thereafter by Croatia. Slovenia and Croatia are predominantly Roman Catholic. Montenegro and Serbia are predominantly Eastern Orthodox. However, Bosnia-Herzogovina is a melting pot, which while predominantly Muslim, also has Bosnian Serbs (E. Orthodox) and Croats. While Slovenia wasn’t strategically important, Croatia had both its lengthy sea coast, agricultural and manufacturing strongholds and strategic military posts. As a result, the remaining people of the Yugoslav Republic (largely egged on by the Serbians under Slobodan Milošević), labelled the Croatians traitors, and Montenegro led the attacks against them, supplied by forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army as directed by the government in Belgrade, Serbia.
Fast forward to today: As we drove though the southern part of Croatia, specifically the valley of Cilippi, which had been the Croatian manufacturing center, you can still see mile after mile of cratered manufacturing sites. Unlike the aid Dubrovnik enjoyed, the rest of southern Croatia still has numerous unrepaired areas. In fact, the whole area is now only good for agricultural use. Moreover, the entire valley still has active land mines which claim a life on a fairly regular basis. Needless to say, this is a pretty brutal wake up call for us.
Montenegro is just about 40 kilometers to the south of Dubrovnik. Our agenda today was to the visit the World Heritage-recognized Bay of Kotor. Here is a link so you can see the immensity of this bay:
The Bay of Kotor is basically the southern-most fjord in Europe and enjoys the deepest shipping bay in Europe.
We stopped in the town of Perast, along the Bay of Kotor, to board a boat which would take us first to the Church/shrine at Our Lady of the Rocks about five minutes’ cruise off the shore of Perast. Local legend has it that the island was formed by local fishermen dropping rocks on a reef to form the island after two of them saw an icon to the Virgin Mary cast up upon the reef. To this day, every summer, the villagers of Perast take to their boats to make a pilgrimage out to the island to drop more stones. This church has become a shrine to fishermen who believe that the Lady of the Rocks protects them and the church contains numerous offerings from fisherman who believe She has saved them.
Our journey continues along the Bay to the actual town of Kotor, past numerous small villages that all sort of look like they are sitting on a lake in the Alps. For such an heavily fished a trafficked bay, the water is amazingly clear, and we really enjoy our cruise on the calm waters.
Upon arriving in the town of Kotor, which is a well-preserved medieval town that managed to escape conquest by the Ottoman Empire, we are dumbfounded to see an absolutely immense cruise ship docked at the pier which utterly dwarfs the adjacent town. I guess they weren’t kidding when they told us how deep the bay is!
After enjoying a tour of the town and an alfresco lunch, we boarded the bus for the ride back to Dubrovnik.
Rather than driving back around the bay, the bus took a ferry that was smaller than the one we had used to get to Hvar to get us back on the road to Dubrovnik. It was quite the logistical achievement!
We returned to Dubrovnik in time for one more spectacular sunset, and enjoyed dinner at a great restaurant called Komine.
Today (May 3rd), we departed early for our drive to the town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Although it’s only about 100 miles from La Paz to Copacabana, it takes about four hours to get there, including a short ferry crossing.
But first, we had to navigate through the the rapidly expanding twin city to La Paz, Los Altos. Sitting atop the flatlands (altiplano) above La Paz, Los Altos was recently recognized as the most rapidly expanding city in the world. It certainly seems to be true, as everywhere you look, building is going on. Unfortunately, the traffic problems have been commensurate with the building boom, and we had to inch along through Los Altos even at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning of a holiday weekend.
Once out of Los Altos, we drove through the very high plains watching the local farmers harvesting their crops (mostly quinoa, fava beans, oats and potatoes), while others herded their sheep, cows and the occasional llama.
About two hours out of town, we drove through a local community holding a parade to celebrate the religious holiday. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, and dancing /marching as they progressed to the community church. It was quite the sight!
Our next stop was on the shores of Lake Titicaca for us to meet the master reed boat maker, who became Thor Heyerdahl ‘s friend, and oversaw the building of several of his expeditionary reed boats. He and his daughters showed us how the boats are made, and shared amazing photographs from all the expeditions he has been part of, and the honors bestowed on him by his own and other governments.
As we drove onward towards the ferry, we crossed over a pass at 14,100 feet, and we about 5 miles from the Peruvian border. Perú also shares the shore of Lake Titicaca, which, at over 3800 square miles, is easy to understand. We boarded a tiny ferry in the little town of Taquina, while our bus went by separate ferry. Thankfully, we weren’t headed in the opposite direction, because the line of holiday traffic heading back to La Paz stretched nearly a mile!
Shortly thereafter, we arrived in the town of Copacabana. This was apparently the first town in Latin America to bear this name, with even the iconic beach in Rio having copied the name. Our hotel, the Rosario del Lago is absolutely charming, and all the rooms look out on the bay on the lake. This holiday weekend, the shoreline is packed with holiday revelers, with many of them doing various sports out on the lake, despite the fact that it is a glacial lake at about 13,500 feet elevation!
After lunch, we walked into town. Everywhere we went, we could hear the sounds of various bands, many aided by copious amounts of cerveza. Our destination was the Basilica of Our Lady Copacabana. I have to confess, dear readers, that after four months in heavily Catholic countries, my capacity to fully appreciate another church was probably at an all-time low. Nonetheless, as we approached the Basilica, there was something new. Outside the church was a whole line of stands set up to bless cars. This consisted of decorating the vehicles with flowers and other decorations, and anointing the cars and trucks with beer and champagne while they were blessed by the resident priest. Even I had to admit it was pretty cool!
As we went Inside the church, though, I was pleased to see a somewhat austere sanctuary (relative to most of the other South American churches we have seen).
However, the coolest part of the Basilica was its separate chapel for the Madonna of Candelaria completely devoted to various famous Madonnas (patronas) and generally, to the power and importance of women. Churches from all over the world have sent representative replicas of their iconic Madonnas, and there is a general acceptance that the chapel honors not only the Catholic worship of the Madonna, but also the indigenous worship of the Earth Mother (Pachamama).
Because it was a saint’s day today, everyone in town was dressed in their Sunday best, and their were dancing bands all over town. We also saw the entrance to the 14 stages of the cross which go up the local hill behind town. Then we walked along the shore of the lake and enjoyed the setting sun.
Our story resumes at sea some six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador , in the Galápagos Islands, moored off Isla de Genovesa on this, the first day of April, in the year 2015. Yesterday, we flew from Guayaquil to San Cristobál Island, where we boarded our small expeditionary yacht, the Isabela II. Our cabins are very comfortable, if small, and there are only 22 cabins. We spent the afternoon and evening being briefed on safety and ecological protocols, which are very strict here. Here is the map of where we will go.
Generally, we landed on San Cristobal island, and in this order, will visit Geneovesa, Santiago, Isabella and Fernandina and back to Isabella, Rabida, and end on Santa Cruz Island.
The day began with a panga (which is what the locals call the small Zodiaks we use) tour along the cliffs of Genovesa Island, to our landing spot at Prince Phillip steps. We climbed up some challenging stone steps about 150 yards to get to the lava fields on the top of the island which are nesting grounds for the frigate birds and the Nazca boobies and red-footed boobies, among tons of other bird life.
Right away, we saw the frigate birds who were at the height of their mating season. How do we know this, dear readers?! Because the males have a huge red air sac under their necks which they inflate into giant bulbous balloons as they are hunting for female frigates with whom to mate. Some of them stay in this condition for very long periods of time, which led to many funny Viagra jokes amongst our fellow travelers. We also saw a bunch of fur seals right on the rocks next to the stairs, resting after a big morning swim.
As soon as we got to the top of the stairs, we were virtually surrounded by horny frigate birds, in the sky, on the ground, and in the bushes. In many cases, even when you couldn’t see the frigates, you could see these giant red balloons sticking out of the bushes.
We also saw the Nazca and red-footed boobies nesting in the bushes and on the ground. While some were building nests or sitting on their nests, we also got to see baby boobies being fed. It was pretty cool. However, the height of the morning for me was that as we hiked across the lava fields, we found an owl hiding in the lava crevices hunting for its prey. We stalked it long enough, we even got to see it leave its hiding place to attempt an attack.
Then we returned to the ship to do some some snorkeling off the pangas. The snorkeling was pretty awesome, and the water was about 78 degrees. Jim got to see a manta ray, but I was elsewhere. I had fun helping one of our tour members overcome her apprehension, so we could expose her to the wonders of the undersea world. Some of the seal lions came very close to us and played around where we were snorkeling. How cool!
We returned to the ship for lunch, and the Captain moved the ship to another part of the island, where we went to see more boobies and frigates, and to see if we could spot some fur seals. Score on all three counts! We had a wet landing this time on a small secluded beach where we were the only people. right away, we saw some nesting red-footed boobies. This part of the island has completely different terrain than our landing site this morning, with lots of tide pools, low mangrove trees, sandy beaches, and lots of cactus. In some of the larger tide pools, we could see small sting rays flitting around, and as we looked over, there was a baby fur seal playing in a rock crevice!
We walked along the beach and saw hundreds of frigate birds, all puffed up and looking for their mates. There were also jillions of Sally Lightfoot crabs, which are so attractive with their bright orange and blue coloring. Finally, we took advantage of the lovely secluded beach, and took a plunge while we were waiting for the pangas to come to take us back our floating home. tomorrow promises to be another great day!