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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

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.

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.