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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

Thanksgiving – Home again!

I said “home again” when of course our home is actually now on wheels and we are in a different place every few weeks or more often. In this case we got off the cruise ship on November 18th, my 64th birthday as I noted in an earlier post. We flew back to Phoenix late that evening, took an Uber from the airport to pick up our car from Mike Kosse’s house (who was kind enough to store it while we were gone), and checked in at the Crown Plaza Hotel near the airport. It was nice enough and we were able to grab a bite there for a late dinner.

The next day we went to “The Motorcoach Resort” were we were going to stay for a few nights getting ready to go to the LA area for the rest of the year. I had dented the coach on the side tube that holds the awning cover for the full length slide before we left, but it doesn’t effect any aspect of coach use. But when we stored it in the garage at Motorcoach Resort we plugged it in, but the circuit popped while we were gone and the house batteries drained to nothing. So while the engine started fine (different battery pack) nothing in the house that required batteries worked. We were able to park it and plug it in, but had to get a full charge the next day before it fully worked again. In the meantime we lost everything we had stored in the refrigerator and freezer. It is important to never let your batteries deep discharge on these coaches, so this is another error on my part.

Leslie was invited by her friend Darren to see Cher in concert and really enjoyed her evening. I was less enthusiastic and didn’t go, but after hearing them rave perhaps I made a mistake.

Leslie and Darren at the Cher concert
The only and only and still great according to Leslie

After a few days in Phoenix, and a quick chance to see some friends, we left for Long Beach (actually Lakewood) and parked on the street near the Kelly house for Thanksgiving. Leslie and I stayed in the coach for 4 nights there in what is called “dry camping” (people also use the term boon-docking or stealth camping) which means we had no hook-ups for water, power or sewer and relied solely on our on-board self contained systems. The only real problem was we were near the curb edge of the street so we were at an angle and had to reverse which side of the bed we had our heads on to keep our heads higher than our feet. We also couldn’t put out our slides so the space was tight, but fine for a few days.

Joey, Madison and Leslie

Thanksgiving was hosted by Pat and Kelly. Leslie arranged a deal with our kids and their partners that they would all spend Thanksgiving with us every other year and alternate with their partners families. We do the reverse year alternating for Christmas as well, so we get to spend one holiday each year with all of the kids and their families. This year was ours for Thanksgiving, but not Christmas. We ended up with 7 from the Baker side (Scott, Leslie, James, Alma, Madison, Joey and virtual family member Nick Altieri) as Patrick, Mysha and Ronan couldn’t come due to work conflicts. Add in 5 from the Kelly side (Pat, Kelly, Jayden, Josephine and Devon) and we had a nice crowd. None us are dedicated to turkey for Thanksgiving so we went non-traditional and I made a Beef Tenderloin with my special corn/onion/garlic/jalapeno dish, salad, home made pies form Madison plus some snack odds and ends. While we missed Patrick, Mysha and Ronan, we had a wonderful day.

Pat and Nick

The Chefs Table – Ocean Cruise

There is a specialty program offered by some cruise lines called the “Chefs Table”. It has an extra cost of typically about $100 per person and is limited to 12 people. Most cruises don’t offer it all, and the ones who do usually only do it one night for a typical 7 night cruise. Leslie and I had done it twice before, first on an NCL Cruise from Boston to New Orleans, and second on a Princess Cruise around the South American horn from Santiago to Buenos Aires. The first time was particularity memorable. It was with our buddies Dominic and Rich and during the dinner I proposed to Leslie even though we had been married for 28 years at the time. I had never formally proposed before and this turned into a very special time for us. We also met new friends at the table who we hung out with for the rest of the cruise.

They provide us with Chefs coats before we can enter the kitchen

Basically this is a special multi course meal prepared by the Executive Chef, and presided over by him and the Head Maitre’D. In the case of Princess they also include a private kitchen tour and special appetizers in the actual kitchen. Then you are marched up to a reserved area in one of the dining rooms for 5 or 6 more courses, plus wine paired with each course. We tried to sign up right when we got on the cruise ship but were told it was all full. Leslie used her persuasive magic to get a table for us and some of our friends anyway. So filled with only our friends we had the Chefs Table during one of the sea days while crossing the Atlantic.

The Executive Chef on the left and the Maitre ‘D on the right
A nice presentation for one of the appetizers
Rob and Joe anxiously awaiting the first appetizer in the kitchen
All of the appetizers lined up
The name tags are out for the power couple!
Joe and Craig
Bill Cittadino
Phil & Phyllis Fox
Rich Simonette. Dominick was going to come as well but sadly took ill that day.
Rob and Joseph
And of course Scott & Leslie were on hand. Ain’t she cute!
Dessert! Amazing what they can do with sugar

Most of our group really enjoyed the entire evening, and the kitchen tour plus those appetizers were particularly good. But the main course was lamb which neither me or Leslie liked. The Maitre ‘D, who was Portuguese, was funny and did a great job. The Executive Chef was Australian (hence the lamb he said), and while he certainly tried hard his humor was forced and the food was not as good as we have had previously. Of course most of our other friends who were there just loved the whole thing so maybe I am out of line. In any case I certainly recommend doing it at least once if you never have before.

Atlantic Crossing Cruise – Port Excursions

Obviously a large part of an Atlantic Crossing is sea days, and we had plenty of them. Including six in a row at the end of the cruise until we reached Ft. Lauderdale. But we did have some great port stops through the first eight days of the cruise, and really only one port Leslie and I didn’t like.

A list of greeting type events for suite guest also serves as a written reminder of our itinerary. We actually only went to one of the events as we preferred to meet our friends at a bar for evening cocktails.

Cartagena – Our first stop is a beautiful town on the southern coast of Spain. The bus tour Leslie and I took had us visiting some really nice old areas of teh city and included some much needed long walks and hills climbs. While the guide was fine, the group was too large and there were other groups where ever we went. One of the last bus stops was for shopping a relatively short distance form the ship so we just walked back a little early.

A view of the valley from high of a hill in Cartagena
The tower in the forefront is meant to give a closer view of the old bull fighting ring.

Malaga – Our second stop was another port town on the southern coast of Spain. Similar to Cartagena really if you stay in the port area. Our friends Darrell and Nancy arranged for a private tour of the inland towns up in the hills named the “White Towns”. Our main stop was in Mejas which was so charming Leslie expressed a desire to move there. All of the buildings in the town are white, and if there is any accents it is in green or red flower boxes planted with green or red flowers. Also many of the private homes have attached gardens as big or bigger than the house itself. Residential and commercial areas are not separated and many buildings house both. And while the town was certainly beautiful and beyond charming, the people were also very happy to have us there and gracious in their hospitality.

One of the “White towns” outside of Malaga
Leslie and Scott at one of the home gardens we were invited in to see.
Down one of the Mejas side streets with lots of flower boxes on the outside walls
Leslie likes to take pictures of the man hole covers in Europe as they all have the name of the town on them. In this case the Mijas is upside down in the photo and Iwas too lazy to flip it.
Our private tour group of six flanked on each side by our tour guides. A fantastic day all the way around.

Casablanca– Perhaps the most famous city we visited on the cruise, mostly due to the classic Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman suspense romantic film of 1942. But in reality this is a large city in Morocco on the northwestern tip of Africa on the Atlantic Ocean side. Like most of northern Africa it is dominated by Muslim people but a non-secular government is in place. All 15 people from our group rented a private bus tour. We drove around some interesting spots and toured one of the largest mosques I have ever seen. But the tour was hurt by our tour guide who took us to a “shopping: stop were at first we were trapped by a very aggressive carpet/rug sales team and pushed very hard to get us to buy rugs. The we were move over to a similar spot to buy spices after another hard sales pitch. Leslie actually tried to buy some herbs but they only wanted cash. When she said she had to use a credit card they tried to usher her privately to another building saying that was the only place they could use credit cards. I felt we were being railroaded so insisted we just leave then. we got back on the bus unhappy with the visit and our feelings towards Casablanca were hurt by the constant sales pitches.

The Mosque and surrounding property. It actually has modern featured like a removable roof because it was built in 1986.
Inside the public areas of the mosque
A view of the building around the mosque which seemed very typical of the area.

Santa Cruz de Tenerife– This was actually our second visit to this beautiful island off of the Atlantic coast of Africa. Owned by Spain it is also a common vacation spot for norther Europeans, especially the British. On our first visit we took a tour to around the island all the way to the opposite coast. So this time a group of us just walked all around the main port town.

Leslie and Bill as we walk around the local streets
The town has fountains and statues all over
Leslie insisted this was my brother on a political poster i

Ponta Delgado – Our final part was another island, this time a little further west in the Atlantic. This is owned by Portugal so we like to say we have visited Portugal now even though we never reached the mainland of this country. To say this island was stunning doesn’t do it justice. We took a bus ride through the inner parts of the island and we awestruck by the natural beauty. Also our friend Richie Silva was born here before moving to the USA as a child.

The “Green Lake on the interior of the island. It is connected by a small stream to the “Blue Lake”. While the two lakes are connected they appear to be different colors due to the different depths and types of undergrowth.
The “Blue Lake”
Charming streets in the inner part of the main port city
A small Catholic Chapel in the interior of the island
Leslie thought it was a statue of me. It is actually the missionary Priest who drove the Catholic development o the island.

Atlantic Crossing Ocean Cruise – Overview

The final part of our long European vacation was an ocean cruise leaving from Barcelona and ending in Ft. Lauderdale 14 days later. This was our second Ocean Cruise and we loved both of them. We had a total of 15 people in our group including us. Our usual cruise group of Joe, Craig, Rich and Dominick. Plus a reunion group of friends we met on our first ocean cruise: Darrell and Nancy Frisee, Joe and Rob, plus Phil and Phyllis Fox. The newbies Jean Jaques & Mary (holdovers from the River Cruise and friends of Darrell and Nancy) plus Bill a longtime friend on Joe (and through him Rob) who is now one of our new great friends especially since he lives in Phoenix.

The ship was the Emerald Princess, the same ship we had sailed on around the South American horn almost 2 years prior. It is about 110,000 tons and we had a nice suite on the back of the ship. Not as big as the one we had prior, but still very nice and especially great on such a long cruise.

A former member of ELO who preformed twice and was great

Princess had some great entertainment. Several dancing and production shows, some comics who were less funny than we normally get, and some outside singers and acts. That was just in the main showroom. They also had music throughout the ship, a piano room and so many other events I couldn’t possible list them. There was always something fun to do if you wanted it, including movies under the stars and in the main showroom.

“let me be Frank” entertainer featuring Rat Pack Music.
A married couple of violinists who played everyday around the ship. They were really fantastic.
The real Rock! Gibraltar at night as we pass form the ship.
Part of our group at dinner
Ain’t she cute!

We did the Chef’s table again (separate post on that). I will also do a post on the ports and excursions, at least in a very short way. We got off the ship on my birthday November 18th, spent the day at Miami Airport waiting for our late flight, and arrived in Phoenix that night very tired and glad to be back in the USA. But we had a truly memorable and fabulous 42+ days!

Barcelona – short visit on the way to the Ocean Cruise

We left Prague in the morning of November 3rd for a flight to Barcelona. We flew on Czech Airline for almost certainly the only time in my life. It’s hard to believe but it seemed like the plane space was even tighter than US domestic airlines! Of course the most important thing was getting there safely and that we did. We flew on the same plane as Dominic, Rich, Joe and Craig. Jean Jacques and Mary flew separately as they were staying in an Airbnb with Darrel and Nancy who had gone to Barcelona earlier as they had already been to Prague.

Drinks outdoors at Las Rambles area in Barcelona with Dominic, Rich, Craig, me and Leslie. Joe was tired and stayed back at the hotel

We arrived early afternoon and and the 5 of us noted above walked about 1 1/2 miles up to the Las Rambles area just to check it out and have a couple of drinks. We had all been to Barcelona before but this was the shortest visit.

Various people in costumes wandered around getting their pictures taken with tourists. Of course they expected tips.

We walked back to the hotel, briefly going the wrong way, to join Joe for dinner inside the hotel at what amounted to their bar. The actual restaurant didn’t open until 7:30 (this is Spain after all) but we were able to be served in the bar area around 7:00pm. Then to bed we went.

The next morning we arranged for a shuttle to the ship for the six of us. The hotel was very close so it was all very easy.

Prague

When Leslie was planning our trip through Europe the only visit I asked for was Prague. I had never been there and heard from many friends that it was mostly untouched from the World Wars, so it was a great example of old Europe. All true. The city was crowded but manageable, modern yet old, rich and poor, and classical in it’s beauty. Not all of our group enjoyed the city, but most of us loved it.

Old Prague at the start of our walking tour

Joe Ridky is a 2nd generation American and the Czech Republic is his ancestral home. Through some other friends he met Joe arranged for a local person to be our private tour guide. Our group of 17 split up and did the tour on different days. The eight of us who were going on to the Ocean Cruise went the first day. Apart from me and Leslie that included Dominic & Rich, Joe & Craig, plus Jean Jacques and Mary. The nine who were going home stayed in Prague and extra day. This was Jim & Ruthie, Steve & Julia, Chuck & Candy, Pat & Kelly and Sara.

Our terrific tour guide Joe found, in case you want to contact her

We started in part of the old town seeing the buildings and local living conditions. Highlighted by the Astronomical Clock. The technology and details are fascinating, but the actual clock area is too crowded and too short as an event.

The famous astronomical clock. Not only keeps time, but day, month and year, all mechanical and includes a little automated figure march every hour. When the inventor finished the King had him blinded so he couldn’t reproduce it for anyone else.
An old cemetery in the middle of the city. Due to space issues graves are placed on top of other graves

More walking then across the St. Charles river for a cool lunch right on the other side.

A view up to the Prague Castle
The river Vltava runs through the middle of the city
The famous St. Charles Bridge has evolved into a pure walking tourist area.
Our stop for much in a classic very old Czech restaurant

From lunch we walked up to the Prague Castle. Most of what we toured was the cathedral that is part of the castle complex.

Palace Guard
I’ve seen lots of churches and cathedrals in my travels, but this may be the most spectacular
The stunning main cathedral at the castle
Part of the incredible stained glass there
What I would a large organ too
A vista of the city from the Prague Castle

We finished our tour exhausted and made our way back to the hotel for a late dinner and prepare for our flight to Barcelona the next day. Well worth the detour.

Pilsen – On the road to Prague

The River Cruise ended in Nuremberg on November 1st. Leslie set it up for us to go to Prague. As there were 17 people of our group going Leslie rented a private bus for the trip. It was a long drive so she set up a stop half way in the town of Pilsen. Famous as the home of Pilsner type beers that were invented here (as opposed to the traditional lager). The old brewery was a worthwhile stop.

The Pilsen Brewery complex is like a little town

We walked the area in the complex briefly, then went underground to a huge restaurant with about 500 seats

At the restaurant in the Brewery

After lunch we moved on to the actual tour. Great details and fascinating information on it’s long ans storied beer brewing history.

Making Pilsen Beer
Underground tunnels for storage. Cool and wet.
Beer Barrels for aging
Some of our crew at the Brewery

A great stop then back on the bus for Prague. We finally arrive that evening.

River Cruise – Shore Excursions

The most appealing aspect of river cruising is being in a different city every day theoretically in the middle of the city as the cities all started based on proximity to the river. While the cites were great we still had too many bus rides and the ship didn’t always stay in the city all day.

Leslie prearranged a full schedule of ships excursions and a nice schedule was provided

After a day in Budapest (discussed in a previous post), we went back to Vienna for a very long day. The 1st half of the day was a walking tour through many of the areas we had visited on our own stay in the city. The second half of the day was a tour of Schonbrunn Palace. The tour was fine, but too crowded. The gardens around the palace were also very nice. In the evening we went to a Mozart/Strauss concert. The musicians were stunningly good and the music was truly special. A very entertaining evening. I had forgotten how great classical music was, especially live.

Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. The summer Palace for the Hapsburgs, but only 6 miles from the main palace downtown

The next day was a bicycle ride tour through the Wachau Valley area. The leader of the tour was a small woman but she alienated many of our group by being too harsh and critical of the slower riders. It was also very cold and wet that day. But we did have a nice stop in a small town in the valley that was fun to walk around.

The Passau stop was another very cool little town with a cathedral that featured a large organ and an organ concert. Not really my thing but many in our group really enjoyed it.

Cathedral in Passau with largest organ in a cathedral and daily organ concerts
The organ
Look who was there!
The place was crowded for the organ concert

Regensburg would have been a great place to spend a lot of time. Unfortunately the ship only stopped there for a few hours in the morning. After that our choices were to stay on the ship as it moved to another location, or take a bus ride to the Weltenburg Abbey, which we chose. We chose the Abbey which was a good visit and great choice until we found out our ship was delayed by poor river conditions and over-crowded locks. So after the Abbey we got on another small ship for a scenic river cruise. After that our ship still wasn’t in position so we bused to another small town to wait for our ship. After more that 2 hours in a basement restaurant we boarded another bus and finally got on our ship late that night.

Walking tour around cool old city of Regensburg
Weltenburg Abbey
Hours of wait for our ship to move up river in the basement of an old restaurant. Cool place, bad wait.

Nuremberg provided the best excursion I have ever had. It was based on visits to the famous old Nazi rallying grounds plus a museum next to it, followed by a tour of the courthouse for the Nuremberg trials. Seeing these things in person that I had only seen on film was great, but the biggest reason the tour was great was the ability of out tour guide to give extra details and put things into perspective.

Nuremberg: the area were top invitees sat while Hitler spoke at podium (large area in the distance)
The actual courtroom of the Nuremberg trails. This is our tour guide, who was probably the best I have ever had.
Halloween on the ship. Noam and Candy were the only in our group to wear any version of a costume.

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 in our room when we arrived
On our bed from Viking for our Anniversary

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.

Much of our group of 28. Dominic is 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.