Author of the JP Weiscarver Mystery Series
Join Leah and me on a quick review of our recent transatlantic cruise and European visit.
I treated this more like a vacation than other trips. That is, I took few notes, did less research and probably didn’t even take as many photos. Instead of the comprehensive review following our trip to Thailand last year, this will consist of a brief introduction with photos then taking over.
Enjoy and feel free to shoot questions this way; we will answer as well as we can.
Our spring 2018 expedition didn’t turn out quite like we expected when we first booked the cruise.
Life can be wonderful that way.
Leah had said some time back the top thing remaining on her travel wish list was to visit a fjord in Norway. Watching cruises, I found a good deal a year ago on a 15-day Atlantic crossing from Tampa, Fla., to Rotterdam, Netherlands, on the Holland America ship – fittingly enough – ms Rotterdam.
I booked it and started looking at places to go in Norway and how to get there from the Netherlands.
Soon, though, we heard from our German friend, Björn, through our cousin Dan, that they really wanted to show us around Hamburg, Björn’s home city. Dan told us something like, “You don’t just tell Germans ‘no’ when they invite you into their homes.” It wasn’t a threat, of course, but a statement of the genuine depth of the offer.
As mentioned in the report of our Thailand trip, we know the absolute best way to visit an area strange to us is with a local resident. Norway would have to wait.
But, wait, there’s more.
During the Amazonian cruise a couple of years ago, we got to know Deb and Steve from Iowa. I fired off a message to them: “Wanna come?” A few months later, Deb wrote back: “Steve is reserving a table for dinner on the cruise. Would you like to join us?”
As our ship was preparing to sail out of Tampa, our daughter texted that old friends Barb and Bruce might be on the Rotterdam. We first knew them in 1984-85 and last saw them in probably 2000.
We kept our eyes open and, sure enough, we ran into them one morning while having breakfast on the Lido deck. We visited several times to get caught up on what’s happened the past 30-plus years.
Mikuláš, a young man from the Czech Republic who worked with us at Mount Rushmore in 2014, said he would take a train to Hamburg and see us while we were there.
Next, Mateusz, a guy from Poland who worked with us at Mount Rushmore last year, suggested we come to Poznań so he could show us a bit of his country. Soon, our Polish hosts also included Łukasz and Filip. Mikuláš drove to Poznań to round out the group.
My wishes were answered when the German, the Czech, the three Poles and the three Americans all got along so well and enjoyed a meal and walking tour of Poznań Old Town.
Of course, there was sightseeing and plenty of great food and drink throughout the trip.
We ended on another high note.
Björn’s family invited us for dinner at their home, maybe an hour’s drive out of Hamburg. The zinger was that neither of them speak hardly any English (Björn, by the way, has astounding command of English). Björn’s sister and her boyfriend also attended, and they speak a little English. Leah worked diligently before the trip to pick up German but was limited in range. Dan’s not much better. After multiple failures at second languages, I have pretty much given up.
However, we had an amazing time and managed no small amount of communication. Björn’s dad and I — alone on the patio with our first steins of beer — actually learned a bit about each other. Or, at least, I think we did.
Now, to the photos, in more or less chronological order.
King’s Wharf, Bermuda
Ponta Delgada, Portugal
Travel tip: You probably know this, but Europe has, as far as tourists are concerned, become almost as easy to travel through as the U.S. We only crossed borders on trains, but it was uneventful. At one stop, police walked down the aisle of our car doing their surveilling thing, presumably looking for anyone acting suspiciously.
We had two sea days en route from the Azores to Brest, France. The last night, it was obvious we were sailing at a much faster pace than normal. Our captain, Bas van Dreumel, explained the next morning that we were racing a storm to reach the protected bay, a courtesy that body of water has been extending sailors for centuries.
As a key port, Brest suffered considerable devastation during World War II. Much of the city was rebuilt to comparatively modern standards. One structure that remained, as it has for some 1700 years, was the Château de Brest. It is, today, the oldest castle in the world still in use.
One well-documented element in the castle was the history of Razzle Dazzle, a camouflage paint scheme used on ships, mainly during World War I and somewhat in WWII. Unlike camouflage today, the intent was not to conceal the ship but to make it difficult for an enemy to calculate an accurate shot.
My photo might be a little silly, but I was taken by the need to have a door so high off the ground. Any ideas?
After touring the castle, we walked deeper into town and found a classy pizza place. Taking advantage of the situation, Deb and I were able to share a pizza we liked while Leah and Deb’s Steve were able to enjoy anchovies. The next morning, we were all complaining of slight tummy rumblings and decided the only thing we shared was a carafe of water at lunch. Hey, what’s travel without a wee bit of gastrointestinal discomfort?
Travel tip: Most of the 28 European Union member states use the euro, which is easy for Americans to understand since it’s decimal-based and is relatively close to the U.S. dollar in valuation. They even refer to the coins as euro cents.
But some EU members still use their own currency. Poland, for example, is on the złoty and Turkey, through which we transited by the Istanbul airport on the way home, uses the Turkish lira. In both places, however, we found some acceptance of euros in tourist areas. Do your research.
Credit cards can be used in many places but not all. We had breakfast at a Hamburg restaurant that accepted only American Express.
Therefore, we made it a point to keep enough cash on us to cover expected expenses. The availability of ATMs on this trip varied greatly, but they were generally convenient.
Travel tip: Every traveler knows the most important thing to learn about another country is how to ask for the rest room. It seemed the term “toilet” was understood everywhere. Some signage also used “WC” for water closet.
Of equal importance, be aware many public toilets in Europe are pay. Price ranged from 50 euro cents to a full euro, but those we visited were clean and maintained. You want to make sure you keep some change handy because most of them were automated. Some operated on the honor system. Some had attendants who could make change.
Free toilets were often available for customers, particularly at restaurants, though some were attended and a tip is expected.
Travel tip: Tipping at restaurants is one of those awkward things for travelers. Internet searches can often help one learn about local customs. It seems in most places outside the U.S., employees are paid a living wage, so tips are genuine expressions of gratitude for exceptional service, not something the customer feels obligated to do so the worker’s kids can eat.
If you’re using a credit card – in my experience – there is not an opportunity to add a tip when signing the receipt, so either tip in cash (if you desire) or ask the waitperson to add a 10 percent tip or whatever.
Glancing at the photos I have from Hamburg, it’s obvious they don’t do our visit justice. I guess it was more about experiencing than photographing, but here we go.
Björn took Leah and me for lunch at Schulauer Fährhaus, situated up the Elbe a short distance from Hamburg. While the lunch was fine, the real treat was being there when the Ardea, an asphalt/bitumen tanker flying the flag of Cyprus sailed by en route to the port of Hamburg.
Following a tradition dating back almost 66 years, the Cyprus flag was run up a pole alongside the river while a loudspeaker played the national anthem and issued a greeting in the native language. For the benefit of those of us on the bank, we were given a lengthy list of information about the ship.
The section of the restaurant that tends to the welcome and farewell messages is referred to as Willkomm-Höft – Welcome Point.