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On being gone

Life changed dramatically for Leslie and I this year. On January 12th our first grand child was born to our son Patrick and his wife Mysha. Ronan Michael Baker may be the cutest kid ever, of course I may also be slightly biased.

I stepped down from my role as Group President for ASSA ABLOY EMS & HS on March 1st. I have been with Securitron since 1984, we sold to ASSA ABLOY in 1998 so it has been a great run. But time for me to dedicate to Leslie and the family.

We leased our home in Phoenix the beginning of May and moved full time into our 44′ long Newmar Dutch Star! So we are on the move and look forward with great joy to spending more time with friends we have made all over this country. Hope so see you on the road

River Cruising – Viking

We boarded our river cruise on our actual wedding anniversary, October 25th. The cruise started in Budapest, Hungry and finished in Nuremberg, Germany seven nights later. This was our first (and probably only) river cruise. We were on the cruise with a group of 28 (including us) and there are only 190 passengers on the entire ship so we had a large % of the guests.

Champagne greeted us in our room upon check in. Ideal as it was also our 33rd wedding anniversary
On our bed for our anniversary evening

We were supposed to be on the Viking Tor, but due to the river being low in parts that ship couldn’t make it to Budapest and instead we were given the Viking Var. The ships are virtually identical and the crew we had on the Var was fantastic. They gave us great service, and not only remembered our names but also made sure our every need was met to the best of their ability. There were both good and bad on the trip and I will cover both briefly.

Most of our crew of 28. Dominic has amazing selfie skill

The good: As I said the crew was great. We had a very nice suite on the aft-starboard corner of the ship. Laundry service (much needed) was included in our room charge. The food was very good, especially the soups they made each evening. Travelling along the river provided great views although not much daylight sailing took place. We went through many locks in our journey up the river and it was fascinating each time. We also enjoyed at least a few of the excursions, which I will cover later.

Going through a lock at night

The bad: The real joy of a river cruise comes more from the shore excursions as there isn’t much to do on the ship itself except eat and drink (both of which occurred in large volumes in our group). Leslie and I really enjoy the music, food and entertainment options on ocean cruises and missed that on the river. The ship only docked in easy walking distance of a city twice and even those required buses to get us places, so no advantage over ocean cruises there. Twice we actually got on a bus for an excursion and the ship moved to a different port while we were gone. We started on the Var but the ship couldn’t make it upriver due to low water conditions and we were bused onto our originally scheduled ship, the Tor after 4 nights. Although some members of the crew were great overall they were not nearly as good for us as the prior Var crew. Diner was very crowded and very loud with limited options. We moved after the first night to the bar area upstairs for dinner and that was better but still caused very long drawn out meals.

A dinner buffet upstairs

Overall we had a good time and saw many things that will stay with us. We also really enjoyed most of the people we were travelling with, and it was probably the people more than the ship that liked. Given everything though I doubt we will river cruise again, preferring both ocean cruises and train travel to the river cruise.

Budapest – October 23-26, 2019

Scenic Budapest

Our arrival in Budapest signaled the second portion of our incredible journey that started with our flight to Paris on October 8th. That’s because we were about to board our first ever River Cruise on the Viking Tor (changed to the Viking Var but more on that later) and had 26 other friends join us on the cruise!

A view of the Danube and some Viking ships from the Chain Bridge

I wrote about our troubled train journey in a prior post, and I’ll add now that our first impression of Budapest was not good. The area around the train station was very run down, and the Bolt ride over to The Prestige Hotel didn’t show much better. But the area around the hotel was very nice and the views around this city are unsurpassed (at least until we got to Prague!).

The Parliament Building from the river at night

As I noted above there were 28 of us total meeting for the river cruise and for future records they were: Scott & Leslie; our core cruise friends Dominick Yazzi, Rich Simonette, Joe Ridky and Craig Douglas; Leslie’s sister Kelly and her husband Pat who we are very close to; Leslie’s bestie from high school Sara; longtime Reno friends (and ex-neighbors mentioned in many other posts) Ruthie + Jim Garaventa and Steve + Julia Rubin; their friends Joe and Nancy from Virginia; Chuck and Sandy from Reno; Noam (the owner of the travel agency Leslie works at and a very close friend) plus his parents and a couple travelling with them; Paul + Holly Simonette; Darrell +Nancy Frisse, good friends from Albequrque who we met on a cross Atlantic cruise a few years, and Gene-Jaques + Mary who are friends of the Frisses.

Many of the above were staying at the same hotel as us and we met for a quick dinner the evening we arrived. But as everyone had just traveled it was an early evening. The next morning Leslie, Kelly, Pat and I walked across the famous chain bridge and around the Pest side of the river before going back to our hotel prior to a walking food tour scheduled for that evening.

Closer view of the Parliament Building

There were 15 of us split into two groups who did the food tour and most walked the mile and a half to get there. It started at a fabulous market that used to be a customs building on the edge of the river. Hundreds of stalls selling all kinds of foods, and we had some interesting tastings of a variety of Paprika and cured meats. From there we went all over the place seeing many interesting areas and food locations, especially a food truck area and a “bar court”. Much like small food court only with bars instead of eateries. After a very, very long and active day and we still had an evening river sightseeing trip planned! Exhausted as we were we went anyway and saw some truly great night time views of the city.

Buda Castle and area

The next day was mine and Leslie’s 33rd Wedding Anniversary and we celebrated by boarding the cruise ship in the late morning. I will post on the overall cruise experience in my next post, followed by a separate post covering the excursion highlights from the ship.

While we had a another day and a half in Budapest after boarding the ship I will cover those later. For now I will note that we very much enjoyed our time in the city as we have so far every city we have visited.

Train to Budapest

The next part of our journey was Budapest where we would meet up with all of our other travel friends, spend a couple of days in the city, then board our Viking River Cruise up the Danube. But first another train ride from Vienna to Budapest.

The ride was only supposed to be 2 1/2 hours, but we had first class tickets anyway. We got to the train station about an hour and a half before our train was scheduled to go as we did not have seat assignments listed on our tickets so we wanted to clear that up. After finally finding the proper ticket office we discovered we had to pay extra for seat assignments! While it was only $8 each seat it seemed strange for a first class ticket and had not happened to us on any of our other train trips. It was 10:20 when we finished at the ticket office and our original train was scheduled for 11:30 and while we were at the ticket office they said there was an earlier train we could take at 10:30. I said no as I didn’t want to rush in only 10 minutes to get out to the proper track. It turns out this was a mistake.

We went to a little coffee shop in the train station to wait for our train and we could see the schedule board from there. I soon noticed that they showed our train was delayed by 20 minutes, but this didn’t seem like an issue as it was a direct train. But the delay times kept changing. Every 15 minutes or so they would add another 15 or 20 minutes to the time. We eventually moved into the 1st class lounge as the delay dragged on. Eventually after 3 hours they finally listed a track for our train so we moved up to the track. While at the track I noticed it listed a different train number going to Budapest on the same track at only 6 minutes before our train. This caused a great deal of confusion with everyone trying to figure out if there were two different trains (there were) and which one they were supposed to get on. When the first train pulled in I asked the conductor which one was ours and he told us to wait, while it seemed like most people there got on the first train. But many others waited too, and sure enough our train pulled in about 10 minutes after the other train left the station.

We were finally on our train to Budapest and it was pretty empty, I assume because others got on other trains. After about an hour the train slowly came to a stop in the middle of nowhere and they made a series of announcements we couldn’t understand. Finally in English we heard them say we had to get off of this train as it was not allowed to enter Hungry for some reason I still don’t understand. We were told we had to change trains and sure enough in about 10 or 15 minutes another train showed up that we were told to get on, but this time with no reserved seats. The train was pretty full and we of course were adding passengers with none getting off. Leslie and I thought we were going to have to sit apart, until a nice young girl from Japan who was travelling with friends got up and offered their seats and they moved over to sit with some other of their other friends. Still a very stressful time for us, in large part because it was hard for me to understand what was going on.

We finally arrived in Budapest about 5 hours late! But we got there safely. We were told by others that taxis in Budapest were not always to be trusted and they don’t have Uber. But our friend Darrell Frisse had told us about a taxi app named Bolt that I was able to download while on the train, and sure enough we were able to use this to get a ride to our hotel.

A long and stressful day, but the end result was out arriving at the wonderful Prestige Hotel near the river in Budapest and meeting many friends there. On to the next chapter in our trip!

Vienna

While we loved Dresden, we were very excited to be going to Vienna. Neither of us has been there before and we heard so many wonderful things about it. Well, it didn’t disappoint and will remain one of our favorite cities forever.

The famous “Sigmund Freud” Cafe

Our train ride there was the longest we had scheduled as it included a stop and train change in Prague. We didn’t stay in Prague because we were going there for a couple of days after the river cruise. We had about an hour and a half in Prague waiting for the next train, and they don’t post the track/platform number until about 20 minutes before the train is scheduled to leave. So everyone stands in a mass under the large monitors and when the platform is posted it becomes a mad scramble! But everything went smoothly enough and we arrived in Vienna about 3:00. We took a taxi to our Hotel and it was about 3 miles and that is too far to walk with all of our luggage.

We stayed in the middle of the old city at the Hotel Bristol, right across the street from the magnificent Opera House, and in very close walking distance to the best spots in District One and the old city. On our first night we just walked around all of the streets and shops in this part of town. We stopped at a classic street cafe and ordered some drinks and light food. While there a young couple named Diego and Priscilla sat next to us and we spent the evening chatting with them. They were newlyweds from Peru. He is a commercial airline pilot and she was a flight attendant in the past but is now has a YouTube channel that focuses on style and her being cute.

The stall for the famous Lipizzaner Stallions

The start of Day 2 was Laundry Day!!!!! We finally ran out of clean clothes and sending our laundry out at the hotel would have cost over $300! So we searched and found a local laundromat named Green Clean. Took an Uber over and the Apple Pay on my phone worked to pay for the machines. It took a couple of hours but saved us $250 and we ended the day with all of our clothes clean. After that on Day 2 we got tickets for the hop on/hop off bus and rode around the city seeing the sights. We wandered around at some sights and just took our time enjoying the entire area.

The entrance to Schonbrunn Palace, the summer palace for the Hapsburgs

The first thing on Day 3 was to go over to a tour of the Hofburg Palace, which was close to our hotel. A fabulous trip in history and the tour we took focused on the living arrangements of Emperor Franz Joseph (one of the last of the Hapsburgs) and his wife the Empress Elizabeth who was known as Sisi. It was self guided audio and just great, the only problem was we did not have enough time because Leslie had scheduled a nail appointment for mid-morning. We did some more hop on/hop off bus in the afternoon on a different route seeing more of the newer parts of the city.

Our new friends from our walking food tour

We completed our last evening in Vienna with a walking food tour during which we met some new friends from LA and a young couple from Toronto who were also great. This also took us to some parts of the city we hadn’t seen yet and included traveling in the local subway and the streetcars.

We left the next morning for Budapest with regrets for leaving a city we loved but excitement for more new adventures upcoming!

Dresden, Germany

Another beautiful old town square

Certainly one of the most pleasant and interesting stops we made on this trip, and probably the major city I knew least about before coming. All I really knew about Dresden was that it was the target of major (and controversial) Allied bombing near the end of WWII that completely flattened the city and killed about 30,000 local residents. And then of course that it was one of the major cities of East Germany behind the Iron Curtain during the cold war.

Dresden is one of our best memories

We arrived from Berlin by train around 1:00 pm and walked to our hotel about 1 1/2 miles away. We had a little trouble with directions on our GPS and the roads were less than ideal for walkers with multiple large suitcases, so we probably should have taken a taxi (which we did when leaving). We stayed at a little boutique hotel near the old part of the city, checked in and started walking the old town.

Almost every major building was destroyed during the bombing, and the East German government did little to rebuild except with newer more practical buildings. But the local citizens did everything they could to replicate the old city, a process that accelerated after the fall of the communist government in 1989. For many important buildings they had the plans from the old building and rebuilt the replacements according to those plans, even using the original stones if possible. In the rest of the old town they just made sure the new buildings were built in the same architectural style as the old town which was mostly built up in the 18th and 19th centuries. Leslie commented that is was like Disneyland in that the buildings were not original and authentic but sure looked and felt that way. Stunning baroque style churches and castles were everywhere.

We took a walking tour on day 2 that provided a lot of interesting history, especially about “August the Strong”, a very important King of Saxony and Poland. We had great dinners in two street side cafes around pasta which were the best meals I have had on this trip. And there was a very interesting bar attached to our hotel named “The Gin House” that we went to every night for some conversation with locals and of course some gin for Leslie.

Dresden is a city I highly recommend that is still lightly visited by Americans. Although tourism is a major part of their economy, 75% comes from inside of Germany and most of the rest from other parts of Europe. Although English is widely spoken most of the activity and language you will hear is German. I can’t say enough how mush we enjoyed Dresden.

Berlin – October 16-18

This was the first time either of us have ever been to Berlin. A simple and pleasant train ride from Hannover got us there around mid-day on October 16th. The train station was about 2 miles from the hotel so we took a taxi rather than drag our bags. It was a very nice Hilton right in the middle of the city, and Leslie got us upgraded to a larger room with access to the Executive Lounge based on my past travels with Hilton.

A selfie in front of the old market square

The first afternoon we walked about a mile in a light but very cold rain to get the tickets for a hop on/hop off bus we wanted to take. We spent the rest of the day driving around the city on this bus, and had dinner that evening in the executive lounge. We actually did that for 2 breakfasts and 2 dinners as the wine was also free.

The rebuilt Reichstag

The next day we also toured the city on the bus, and while we stopped at a few places, my favorite was the 7 story department store “KaDeWe”. It was very high end and each floor was dedicated to a type of product from high end jewelry to ladies accessories to groceries and food specialty items. Leslie also found a great scarf store named “Fraas”. The cashmere scarfs she was interested in were $200 and up! We didn’t get one. Of course we also did the typical tourist stuff around the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, etc.

Checkpoint Charlie, the only legal way between East and West Berlin during the cold war.

I actually enjoyed Berlin and the history there, especially around WWII and the cold war aspects. Leslie did not like it as much as me (although she enjoyed it) because it was too haphazard in design and development.

Hannover Germany

We loved Amsterdam, but the plan was 2 or 3 nights in each city so it was time to move on. We took the train to Hannover (yes this is how they spell it) but ran into a problem when we got to the train station in Amsterdam. I put the train tickets in my pocket and they must have fallen out in route as they were gone when we got to the train station. We tried to get the railroad to honor them electronically, but we had to buy new tickets.

The square around our hotel

A short 2-3 hour train ride later we pulled into the central station in Hannover. It is right in the middle of a large and busy square. Our hotel was less than 1/2 mile away and a simple walk down the old streets. As we arrived just after lunch time we used the rest of the day to walk around. While the overall city is large (1.2 million in the metro area) the old town is very walk-able. We discovered while there that the city had been basically destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII. We went through a museum that had large models of the city in 4 states: year 1350; 1939 pre-war; 1945 after bombing and 2018 modern. We just loved the feeling of being there and how welcoming the people were to us.

City Hall (called Rathaus in German). Rat House seems appropriate to me. They allow visitors and have a lot of historic information here.

Our second day was a rest work day. Except for some short walks and a wonderful street side restaurant. We left the next morning for Berlin, and although we weren’t there long we left with very fond memories.

Amsterdam

The canals run throughout Amsterdam and many people live on houseboats

Our next stop is a favorite city for both Leslie and I. I had been there only on business and it has been many years. Leslie visited there with our daughter Madison for a few days when I was on a business trip to Stockholm a few years ago.

We started with a short 3 hour train ride from Paris. But I had a funny (in retrospect) adventure on the train. As we were going on this trip for 45 days I put 2 bottles worth of Excedrin in a baggie to avoid the space of the bottles. I opened this baggie on the train just as security police were walking by my seat. They stopped and asked for my passport and an explanation of the pills. I was finally able to use the internet to show pictures and get them to believe they were non-prescription.

We arrived in Amsterdam fine and as our hotel was only 1/2 mile away we decided to walk. Unfortunately there were some twists and turns in the narrow streets around the canals, combined with small bricks and cobblestone streets made pulling our two suitcases difficult. But like the train ride, the problems only made the end result sweeter.

Our hotel was the Sofitel along one of the canals. But we almost passed it as outside was only the name “The Grand”. But Grand it was! One of the nicest hotels we have stayed at and we have stayed at many of the top hotels in the world. First class in every respect including our huge suite courtesy of the American Express points we had built up over the years. We got in early enough to spend a lot of time just walking around the area and had dinner in one of the hotels very nice restaurants.

A sample of the architecture. At the corner there is the oldest apple pie restaurant in the city. And it was great!

Our second day was highlighted by a leisurely start to the day, causing us to miss the canal boat and sightseeing bus trips we had paid for in advance. But we did make the walking food tour for that afternoon, and it was just great. We met some wonderful people and had some great food plus learned so much more from our knowledgeable guide. It made up for our poor tour in Paris. We finished the food tour and just wandered around the rest of the evening doing some shopping and people watching. Leslie bought some Gouda cheese from a large cheese store and we bought a couple of other minor items. We both love Amsterdam and the entire live and let live feeling in the city, and we hope to visit again in the future.

Deep fried cheese and eldeberry wine on our food tour

Paris – Arrive October 9th

Our view from mid-point up the Tower of much of old Paris

Our flight left mid-day from Phoenix on the 8th and we connected in Dallas. We get to fly Business Class and the lie flat seats because of all the miles I built up flying for business over the years. So we both slept some making the time change adjustment much easier. We landed in Paris around noon on Wednesday the 9th, and caught a train into the city with a station only a block from our hotel, the Paris Opera Hilton. The facilities at the hotel were great, and the quality of the room was OK, but the room was very small.

We arrived at the hotel around 1:30 pm and our room wasn’t available yet. So we dropped off our bags and walked the area for a few hours, and it was great fun just seeing the area and the people on the streets. After getting our room we went for a drink at the hotel bar (at least Leslie did) then across the street to a curbside cafe with outdoor seating named the “Hippopotamus”. The food was OK, but the environment was great.

Day two we started slow then got on one of those “Hop-on, Hop-off” buses that drive around the city with narration in English. We had a walking food tour scheduled for late afternoon, so we never got off the bus for any other activities until we had to get going for the food tour. We had to walk about 2 miles to get to the tour, but that was fun as walking is a great way to feel a city, especially one like Paris. Once we got to the food tour we found out it was just me and Leslie. The guide was a young woman and she also had a trainee with her who was very friendly and knowledgeable. But this turned out to be the worst food tour we have ever had, and we’ve done them 10 or 12 times in other cities in the past. The good part was we walked up the hills to the Montemarte area of Paris and the area is very interesting and artsy. It also provides great views of the city. The problem was this was a “food” tour that only had one food stop and that was just for bread and cheese! We were done after 2 1/2 hours even though we talked all the time because there was no more food to stop and check out. After this we walked the 1 mile back to our hotel and grabbed a light meal in the bar there. Later that evening we got antsy and went back out around 10:30 pm to a sidewalk cafe across the street. There we ordered a small pizza and met two mid-twenties ladies there having a drink themselves and just chatted for another hour or two having a great time.

Scott and Leslie still in love after 34 years and on our greatest adventure yet!

Day 3 we also started slow after out late night the night before. We had tickets for the Eiffel Tower that afternoon and the Moulin Rouge (we thought) late that evening. So when we finally got started we made the two mile walk to the Eiffel Tower area and hung out there before our scheduled tour. There we met a nice couple from Canada who had just gotten engaged a few days before, and talked with them for about an hour. The actual tour of the tower was helped a lot by Leslie getting “skip the line” tickets so we just got on right away. While this is a terrible tourist trap, and there are way too many people and vendors hawking their merchandise, it is still iconic Paris and the views and history make it a must do and frankly well worth the time and effort to do it.

The Eiffel Tower as we were standing underneath

Our show at the Moulin Rouge was scheduled for 11:30 that evening but we got there around 10:30. We splurged on high end tickets with great seating and special service. As we got a special greeting from a staff member, he looked at our tickets and said “excuse me but these tickets were for last night”. Needless to say we were shocked and momentarily devastated. But he went to the manager and they agreed to let us in and while we didn’t get the special seats we originally paid for, our seats were still great. We had a fantastic time, the show was great. Leslie liked it even more than me. The actual dancing was only OK, but the pageantry, costumes, staging, ambiance and beautiful people made it a wonderful and memorable experience.

We finally prepared to leave the next morning, and it was great. We both agreed we loved Paris and should have spent more time there. But on to more cities in Europe!

Europe Trip – Overview and Background

Background: The whole idea for the basic trip started with Leslie and her friend Ruthie considering a river cruise in Europe back over 2 years ago. It morphed from there to Leslie inviting friends from all over the country, many of whom have never met each other. Then she wanted to expand it to include a pre-river cruise tour of Europe for just the two of us, plus a return across the Atlantic on another ocean cruise instead of flying back, and for this she would also invite friends. To take it even further she originally planned (and fully booked) a start to the trip of an Atlantic crossing cruise from New York to England on the Queen Mary II! This would have made the entire trip about 74 days and although I agreed at first I starting thinking this was too long and we decided to cut it back to 45 days. Still pretty long.

Overview of the actual trip plans: So for the details of the actual trip we flew from Phoenix to Paris (through Dallas) on October 8th, arriving in Paris on Wednesday the 9th. From there: 3 nights in Paris; train to Amsterdam for 2 nights; train to Hanover, Germany for 2 nights; train to Berlin for 2 nights; train to Dresden for 2 nights; train to Vienna for 3 nights; train to Budapest for 2 nights. It is in Budapest that we met about 30 of our friends and board the Viking Tor for a seven night river cruise from Budapest up the Danube finishing in Nuremberg. Some of our group then head back home while about 18 transfer to Prague for 2 nights. Then we and 6 others fly to Barcelona in order to board the Princess Emerald for 15 nights sailing back to the US. In addition to the people who stay with us from the river cruise we are meeting several other people who are just sailing with us on this trip as kind of a reunion cruise from a trip we took several years ago. I will post more details on each aspect of the trip as we go, but this should be a great adventure for us!