Europe 2018

Playing in the Elbe
Leah playing on the banks of the Elbe with Björn’s dogs, Suzie and Samantha.

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?”

Then …

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.

Also …

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

Bermuda was our first port call after leaving the U.S. We walked around the dock area — tourist stuff, for the most part — shared appetizers with local beers at The Frog and Onion Pub, and lounged on a beach. I also had an interesting conversation with a customs official while she was taking a break on the pier.

Ponta Delgada, Portugal

Ponta Delgada street
In Ponta Delgada, which is in Portugal’s Azores, Leah and I spent hours walking the streets — often incredibly narrow streets. We wandered through a farmers’ market, bought a couple of items in a little store and admired springtime in a local park.
Ponta Delgada model
But this is my favorite photo from Ponta Delgada. Nope, I have no idea who they are, so your imagination is free to write its own story.

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.

Brest, France

Brest France
Château de Brest

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?

Cherbourg, France

Cherbourg - Jardin Public
The next day, Leah and I were roaming the streets of Cherbourg, trying to take in local flavor. No surprise, I suspect, was finding a statue of Napoléon Bonaparte. We also traipsed though a mall, just to further confirm they’re all the same everywhere, and used our French map-reading skills to track down Jardin Public, this beautiful public garden.

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.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges square
Fortunately, it was still raining when we got to Bruges, Belgium. By the way, in French, sarcasm is sarcasme. In this photo, you see my three traveling partners to the left, examining yet another menu at a series of dining places. Steve was searching, as directed by his son, for stoofvlees, which he compared to Canadian poutine. Alas, it seemed none of these finer restaurants carried them. But …
Leah deduced such a dish might more likely be served from one of the food trucks around the square and, voila, there it was. So this is stoofvlees, basically fries covered with beef stew. Tasty but not alone worth a trip to Belgium. However …


Brewery Bourgogne des Flandres - Bruges
Going to Belgium for the beer might easily be a defensible proposition. During our stroll around the wet streets of Bruges, we visited two drinking establishments. The first was the brewery pictured here, Bourgogne des Flandres, where Steve and I each had a beer and nobly assisted the ladies in disposing of their flight of six. We ventured to another popular brewery and found no room available. Therefore, we just walked the streets until we stumbled (figuratively, not literally) upon a hole-in-the-wall bar that was an absolute treat. There, we joined forces to take care of a flight of 12. True to European form, their flight drinks are a bit larger than ours. We also had outstanding conversation with a young couple from England who were celebrating their first year together. The four of us offered our encouragement … we can vouch the first 40 years have been great!

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.

Rotterdam, Netherlands

Dutch windmill
In Rotterdam, we were forced to leave our 5-star dining and turn-down service for the real world. On the plus side, we still had rain, but now we also had windmills.
Rotterdam canal
What is Rotterdam without its canals? I shudder to think what rush hour must be like. Actually, a very popular form of transportation is bicycle and the city boasts a fine network of bike lanes. Be aware when you’re walking to not stray into the bike lane because they come flying by.
Markthal - Rotterdam
I’m a tad bit embarrassed to admit one of our favorite spots was Markthal, a huge indoor food market that sold food ready to eat and items to take home and cook. It’s design is a huge half-pipe and the windows on the wall to to apartments, I am told.
Baltic quartet
Rotterdam is where we met up with Björn, left, and Dan. This photo was taken along the shore of the Baltic Sea after the sun came out.
We spent one night in Rotterdam and took the train to Hamburg, arriving at Björn’s apartment rather late. We were up fairly early the next day to board the train to Berlin for two days and then Poznań, Poland. This image was taken in the Hamburg central train station, an incredibly busy place. Björn works for the rail system and deftly scooted us around three countries.

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.

Berlin, Germany

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
A long block from the Brandenburg Gate is this Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a 4.7-acre project that I cannot attempt to explain. Maybe Wikipedia can help.
Biergarten with emphasis on garden
We visited our first German biergarten while in Berlin. It’s a small, outdoor site that had just opened for the season. Kids and dogs ran all around the place. Dogs, by the way, get a lot of respect in Germany. People took them onto trains and even into restaurants.

Poznań, Poland

Mount Rushmore reunion
Wandering the brick streets of Poznań with former co-workers at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. From the left with us are Mateusz, Filip, Mikuláš and Łukasz.
Life imitating art
Hmmm, life imitating art?
Life enhancing art
Life enhancing art!
Future ordering info - Poznan
There are many ways to get around a language barrier. After arriving in Poznań, I went with Dan and Björn in search of perogies and local beer. I selected this beer from a photo on the menu. (I prefer stouts and they’re not as easily found.) I liked it just fine, noticed the beer’s name was on the glass (which was fairly common, by the way), and decided I would like it again at dinner with the gang. Our waitress that evening was taking orders and five of the eight did not speak Polish. I showed her this photo on my phone, she nodded and I felt like a genius.

Lübeck, Germany

Baltic shore
Lübeck lies on the western shores of the Baltic Sea northeast of Hamburg. A train ride to the end of the line took us there. It’s quite the happening place on this Sunday afternoon, but there were plenty of … uh, I’m not sure what to call these … available. Inside each, uh, box was folding chairs. They stretched quite a ways down the beach and many of them were being used. This little neck of the Baltic is somewhat out of the way for most heavy seagoing traffic. In fact, we saw only one cargo ship. But sailboats kept the waters occupied.
Lübeck trail
We walked quite a ways down the beach, climbing over or under the occasional fallen tree, and finally scampered up the cliff to get to the trail for our return. It was difficult to get this photo because there was normally so many people on the trail. Walkers, bikers and an occasional runner of all ages were taking part in a spring outing.

Hamburg, Germany

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.

Even though Hamburg is more than 65 miles up the river Elbe from the North Sea, it is the second-busiest port in Europe and nicknamed Germany’s “Gateway to the World.” In addition to shipping, the waters are busy with ferries, tourist boats and leisure craft. Canals can be found around the city, sprouting from major thoroughfares.

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.

The Ardea of Limassol Cyprus
The Ardea sails upriver while a greeting is played over the Willkomm-Höft loudspeakers.
Our Extended German Family
This just might be my favorite photo from the trip. As mentioned at the beginning, Björn’s parents asked us over our final night in Germany. This is why we travel, to find amazing people everywhere on the globe. Auf Wiedersehen.