Monday, June 29, 2015

Considering a Viking river cruise?

I was looking for a post like this when I was preparing for the cruise, so hopefully someone else will find this and be helped! Some of them are just general travel tips...This is the last of the cruise posts. Hope that you enjoyed them or that they at least had pretty pictures to look at!

Departure port consideration
Our vacation was from Berlin to Prague, but we didn't get on the boat in Berlin. It was a 2 hour bus ride from Berlin to Magdeburg where we got on the boat and where we (eventually) sailed from. It didn't feel like 2 hours because we drove about 40 minutes, spent at least 4 hours in Potsdam and then finished the drive to Magdeburg. However, another cruise that we were looking at another cruise that went from Paris to Prague, but the actual getting on the boat location was 4 hours away. Just something to think about!

"So where are you from?"
You'll get this question a lot, and some of those people will not be americans. Take a screenshot on your phone of the United States so you can point right to where your state is; it's easier than trying to explain it. Or else you'll have this conversation: "We're from's towards the top of the country, in the middle, parts of us touch Canada but there's a big lake on one side. Yep, lots of cows. Also that's where Harley Davidsons are made. And Jockey underwear. And Snap-on tools. Yep, lots of farms. No neither of us live on a farm we live in good sized cities." (okay you won't have that conversation unless you're from Wisconsin but you know what I mean)

On an unrelated note also this conversation a lot:
Person: So how did you guys meet?
W/Q: We're sisters actually. We're on a sister adventure.
Person: Oh how wonderful! Now that you say that you're sisters I can totally tell!
W/Q: We have the same fat cheeks (like the part under your eyes, we have the same ones. We look alike from the top of our eyebrows to the top of our cheeks.)

But then the customs girl at Vaclav Havel airport thought we were twins, which by now you've seen enough selfies of us to know that that is a) crazy talk b) insulting to Quinn.

Bring a converter
Viking is awesome because they have USB ports and American outlets in their rooms. However, at your pre and post cruise hotels, or at the airports, you probably won't be as lucky. My converter also has 2 USB ports. Handy when you're trying to charge camera batteries and phones and the like!

Also bring: thank you notes, a few plastic bags (ziploc-esque and grocery), a couple business cards, a cheap backup pair of earbuds

Don't bring fancy shoes
Viking has a reputation for being pretty casual, not like ocean cruises that have formal nights that include suits and cocktail dresses. And when I say casual I mean at the minimum, the shirt you're wearing should be clean and have sleeves. I was at dinner in jeggings and a black old navy tshirt with a statement necklace and didn't look out of place at all. The captain's dinner is a little bit nicer, I wore a maxi dress (I packed a lot of dresses, so it wasn't like I packed it especially for this occasion). So, one or two slightly nicer options with non-flip flop sandals and you will be good to go. Leave the heels at home (too many cobblestones anyway)! I brought my Tom's but barely wore them, I lived in these crocs  (shockingly cute and incredibly comfortable, even with my high arches) and these Aerosoles (comfortable, but a little less suited if you're walking on dramatic cobblestones due to the thinner sole).

Also don't bring: more than one scarf, more than 3 pairs of shoes, too much jewelry, your own toiletries (if you know the ship will have quality ones and your hair or skin won't rebel)

Make some change
I got money converted at my local bank before going overseas. Everyone says that this isn't the best rate, but I thought it was reasonable. Also, I'm paranoid so I didn't want to show up and all of the airport ATMS are broken or something. When you land and are at the airport, buy something. Something cheap, just to get some change jingling in your pocket.It's piece of mind in case you need to use a public restroom that is "pay to pee".

Currency converter cheat sheet
I made 2 indexes cards for Quinn and I. They were both little tables about how much x amount of foreign currency was in American dollars. If you're math challenged like we are, it's a good way to keep from keeping your money situation under control so you don't end up paying more money for something then you thought. This was particularly helpful in Prague!

There are many posts out there that will talk about what clothes you should pack for any situation, and I'm generally not the most streamlined packer so I will not offer too many tips about that!

If you've got questions feel free to contact me about packing or the cruise feel free to contact me!

(None of these links are affiliated/sponsored.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Viking Cruise Recap #5 - Prague: a city that is so beautiful and historic it deserves a week worth of posts on it's own

The morning after Dresden we had to say goodbye to most of our beloved crew and our lovely boat and move on to Prague.

We spent the rest of that day with our Viking comrades. We did a leisurely city tour, checked into our hotel and then got one more "hey, sorry about the water levels" concession: a "traditional czech dinner with folk songs and dancing". Is it something we would have done on our own? OH heck no. Was it super authentic? Probably not. Was it free, including beer and wine? Yes. Did we go? Yeah. It was pretty cheesy, but I got a cool gift for one of my friends and we didn't get pulled up to dance.

The next morning, most everyone left for home. Quinn and I had decided to stay a couple of extra days (thanks to Quinn's Hilton Rewards points!) in Prague so we switched to another hotel (Hilton Prague Old Town, great location, nice hotel, super art decor gorgeous lobby) and then met Tereza.

When we were planning this trip we knew that there was a lot of stuff we wanted to see and Prague and not a lot of time to see it. Quinn suggested we get a private tour guide for one of the days and I said I'd look into it. I eventually landed on Caput Regni Tours. All the guides are native Czech ladies, so I thought it was awesome to support a locally and female owned business. This was such a great choice. We booked a 6 hour tour that was crafted especially to see what we wanted to see, led by Tereza. We were a little nervous because 6 hours is a long time to be with a guide. We had no need to be nervous. Tereza was knowledgeable, personable and super smart. We walked at least 8 kilometers that day (some of it up a monster hill to get to a library in a monastery that I wanted so badly to see). We lunched together at Lokal, a restaurant filled with delicious Czech comfort food, and a delicious hazelnut dessert that I will have dreams about for the rest of my life I think. (I first heard about this place from Jamie, here! Thanks dear Jamie!) We saw great public art (some moving, some confusing, one at least pretty scary). Tereza took us down windy, cobblestone, ridiculously narrow streets and alleys that were completely void of other tourists.

The astronomical clock was Quinn's jam. It's not hard to see why, it's pretty beautamus!

In the Strahov Monastery on top of a hill in Prague there are 2 incredibly beautiful libraries. I saw them for the first time in the a beloved, but admittedly awful, favorite movie of mine "League of Extraordinary Gentleman." I thought they were set pieces. I found out later they were real. I thought "If I ever go to Prague I have to see those". And I did. On the top of the hill were also insane views looking down over Prague that also made it worth the hike. (Though I'd much rather have taken the tram!)

I'm not joking you guys, it was a big ass hill. But the views, oh, the views...

The little byways that Tereza took us down had no shortage of pretty doors for Quinn to shoot.

Do you guys recall me talking about the book "HHHH" all the time and the fact that it's based on the real life events of Operation Anthropoid? This is Sts Cyril and Methodius Cathedral where those terrible events actually took place. Tereza took us here (at my request) and recounted the whole story for Quinn, but we could only see the church from the outside because the crypt was closed. I of course still wanted to see the crypt, and Quinn was moved by the story too. So the next day we found our way back to the cathedral and entered the crypt. It's a solemn and important place. If you have any interest in WWII at all, this is a story that you need to be familiar with.

We climbed the tower that holds Quinn's clock and got great views of the downtown

Don't mind the flyaways, the bane of my hair existence!

I think Our Lady Before Tyn is just so striking

The crowd waiting for the clock show!

In short, Prague was amazing and beautiful and all kinds of other wonderful superlatives. I can't stress enough that if you have any inkling to see it that you should. Quinn and I have so many pictures that if I even put a quarter of them up here this page would never load. And all of them are great, because Prague is such a great subject.

We will have one last wrap up post and then all hands on deck for All Lady July!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Viking Cruise Recap #4 - Quinn's "European Las Vegas" - Dresden,saying Auf Wiedersen to the boat and some real talk about the cruise.

European vacation recap continues! I think that Quinn really out did herself with some of the pictures today, which is especially impressive considering she had a touch of the brown bag flu (*cough cough* hungover *cough). After reading this book about Dresden I felt like I was pretty prepared for what had happened to the city during the war, but it was a different thing to actually see it.

We did a city tour, and then had the afternoon free to do as we pleased. Quinn hung out on the boat and I dodged the (VERY TARDY) rain drops to explore the Old Master's Gallery by myself. That was some good art right there. I don't often get the opportunity to walk through a palace and look at art, and it is something I will treasure in my heart.

Zwinger palace is beautiful and large (aka "the party palace")

The rest of the pictures are all of "Fraukirche", Our Lady's Church. Actually a Lutheran church as you might be able to tell from the Marty statue out front. This place was completely demolished during the war. The rubble sat in the middle of town in a heap until it was finally rebuilt and finished in the 90s. Some of the original sandstones were used (they're the darker stones. In 50 years all the stones will match). The large cross on the top is a replica of the original (which was found in the rubble, and is now on display inside the church). The replica was made in England by a man whose grandpa was in the RAF an involved in the bombing of the city. (Dresden is full of these goosebumpy moments, at least it was for me). Quinn had trouble with the fact that so many places were built to look old but were actually quite new. Hence the European Las Vegas. I kind of loved it, to be honest. You get the old school charm without the leaks and tiny closets and all the other things that come with old buildings.

This is in the top 5 of my favorite trip pictures. #Skillstopaythebills

This night, after leaving Dresden just before dinner the boat pulled out and traveled through the night and docked in the Czech Republic, where we would leave the boat. Though we would all still be a group through the first day in Prague. We spent the evening (and most of the early morning, cough cough) hanging out with the crew, drinking, singing songs with our favorite Australians, sitting in the mist and watching the boat cruise through the night, and doing just a little bit of packing. We weren't worried about packing well because we figured we'd repack when we were going home. (Spoiler alert: we didn't really. We weighed and redistributed but basically the shoddy half hour packing job that we did the following morning was basically it.)

Real talk about the cruise:

- Food was super good. Dinner was at 7 everyday and there were only tables of 6 or 8. While it can be kind of nerve wracking it was good because it forced us to meet different people almost every night. We only had one regrettable set of dining partners, known to us thereafter as "the food spitters". They were the one pair of generally unpleasant people on the whole boat. We were a little nervous that we might get hungry because there was no room service (Quinn and I have been known to order room service at all hours when on vacation, don't judge); but it wasn't a problem.

- We were basically the youngest ones on the ship. There were two other girls almost exactly our ages but they were traveling with their mom and aunt. It could get a little bit frustrating (like on the at least 2 occasions when Quinn and I are having a conversation amongst ourselves and someone came up and with barely an introduction started showing us pictures of their grandkids on their phone. Um, okay?) but mostly it wasn't a problem. Everyone called us "the girls". Nearly every one of the 96 other passengers were friendly, interesting, well traveled and capable of being on a cruise.  When we would go on city tours they would offer a "leisure" group, so that those not interested/capable in keeping a faster pace could take that option. This was a very good move.We knew that we would be about the youngest people on the boat, so it's not like it was a surprise. This also helped us to make friends with the crew, which brings us to my next point...

-We, especially Quinn, got to know members of the crew pretty well. We would ask where they were from, if Viking was a good company to work for, how often they got to go home, who was dating who on the boat etc. etc. A lot of them came from Eastern Europe and left ocean cruise jobs to join Viking so they could be closer to home. Service was really impeccable. Always courteous and smiling and couldn't do enough for you.

-This was not a cheap way to travel but so much is included. It was nice to pay the bulk of money ahead of time and then have to worry about less money when the trip actually started. It was really low stress in multiple ways. We got our hands held on things like transportation and food, but then had free time to ourselves to do what we wanted. It was a good mixture for us. The time sailing was a good way to have forced downtime so you weren't "go go go go" trying to see everything the whole time.

-The trip obviously did not go quite as planned, but the crew, especially the captain and Radim, bent over backwards to try to help. Lunches were paid for, new excursions were arranged at the last minute, boats were squeezed through tiny locks all for us. From what we heard almost no one had a terrible attitude about it, because really, what can you do?

Tomorrow we go to what I think might be the most beautiful place on earth, PRAGUE!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Viking Cruise Recap #3- Avoiding a 6 hour round trip bus ride got us an awesome joyride, and surprise bears!

So originally on the itinerary the day was supposed to be spent in Meissen. If you are a person in the know, which I was not, Meissen is world famous for their porcelain. Since we were still doing more motor coaching then boat sailing Quinn and I decided that we were going to have a relaxing day on the ship instead of loading into the buses for the (what ended up being) 2 hour 45 minute bus ride each way there and back. Being ignorant of porcelain and not wanting to be on that bus for that long, we were looking forward to just being on the boat. However our captain had a surprise for us and the about, 20 other people who decided to skip Meissen. (For the record, everyone who went to Meissen raved about how beautiful the town was, but Quinn and I still talk about how thankful we are we stayed on the boat!)

Not far from where we were was a thing called the Magdeburg Water Bridge. Please don't ask me how it works because I really don't know. But the jist of it is, you go through a lock, it rises you up and you go over this bridge filled with water that passes over the top of the Elbe river. It's basically an engineering marvel. There was enough water in this area so the captain was able to take us through. We went through the huge locks, and over the bridge. Then the captain had another surprise; before turning around and heading back he was able to pull the boat over so we could hop out for a quick photo opportunity.

(Once again, and as always, pictures are Quinn's and mine, please contact us before using them)

Here we go!

Field trip fodder

Our backside

The gangplanks are surprisingly steep. I'm actually hanging on for dear life. I don't know how I never saw anyone fall. Also Quinn was yelling at me to hustle my bustle to get up the gangplank before people walked into the picture, so that explains the face. 

Not very much wiggle room going through the locks. Just a matter of inches!

The next day we went to Torgau, BY BOAT. (That's only partially true, we got picked up by the boat, we went to the town on the bus.) Torgau is "famous" as the place where the Russian forces and the Allied forces met at near the end of WWII. There's a memorial to that event and a castle and that's about the only things in town. But I liked Torgau because it seemed pretty untouched by hordes of tourists. Also, because Quinn and I bopped into a  little boutique and she bought a foxy black romper and I got a cute green and white polka dot purse. Our first souvenirs from the trip!

So what made the castle special is that there is this beautiful outdoor staircase that is special because there is no middle support. Also it's outside because that's how you show off the fact you were rich. 

So on the top of this very high tower there is a viewing platform that you can climb up to. Quinn and I had put that activity solidly in the "no thank you" column; but then our Program Director/Cruise Rockstar Radim was like "have you guys gone up in the tower yet? I'm going right now you should come with me!". And because we love us some Radim, and because we're idiots we both go "OK!". So these stairs are rickety and old and wood and spiraled. It was super hot and narrow and about 3 stories in we realized that this was a BAD idea. We neared the top and thought we were almost delivered from our suffering. And then we turn the corner and are confronted with a turnstile. Have to pay a Euro to finish this stupid climb. So luckily I was the keeper of the change, and I had enough for me and Quinn and the guy who walked us behind us and was Euro-less. The good news is that the views were beautiful.

Quinn's signature door shot! #Quinnshot

The Elbe river....and not our boat. We had to wait on the boat.

Our bartender was like "Oh watch for the bears in Torgau?" and we're like "Andrea is crazy. There's no damn bears in Germany." Andrea was right. There was a bear that lived in the palace's old moat. There used to be two but the other one died a few weeks before we got there. So, sorry Andrea, you were right!

Lots of beautiful roses in Torgau!

Tomorrow we get to Dresden, and I break it down with some real talk about the cruise.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Viking River Cruise Recap #2 - Beyla is boss, Martin Luther's stomping grounds and we get really excited about a bird...

Welcome to day 2! Where we finally get to the boat and get some bad news. (Again, all pictures are either mine or Quinn's - probably Quinn's - so please ask permission for use)

 So, from Potsdam we arrived in  Magdeburg, where our boat is docked. Originally this was supposed to just be a place where we hopped on the boat and then got on our merry way. This was not the case. But let's look at pretty boat pictures and then get to that hullabaloo.

Our room is the first to the left of the blank space on the lower level. It was a convenient spot to be!

Bathroom with a surprising amount of storage!

Beds had storage beneath where the suitcases fit perfectly!

That counter was never that clean again!

Window was much bigger than we'd thought it'd be!

View out the window in Magdeburg. Perfect for peeping on the activities on the gangplank!

So I will sum up the hullabaloo in the most efficient way I know. The water in the Elbe was too low and our boat could only move a little bit in each direction, nowhere near the length needed to get to even our first stop on the tour, let alone anything after that. We were only supposed to be in Magdeburg for barely an evening but we ended up being there for 4 days. What was supposed to happen is that we travel down the river everyday, get off the boat, do our thing, get on the boat continue traveling. What happened for the first 4 days was: get off the boat, load into a motorcoach, drive anywhere between an hour and 2 hours to the town we were supposed to be in, spend the day there, get back in the motor coach, drive back, sleep on the boat. I'm a girl who doesn't like long road trips, and get's carsick on windy roads so this was not the greatest of news. However, we all sucked it up, made the best of it and desperately prayed for rain. Which, who wants rain on their vacation right?

So the first stop on the tour was Wittenberg (?, yes...pretty sure).So, being Lutheran it was pretty neat to be in the place where Martin Luther did most of his work. We walked through his house, saw the first known copy of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God", his personal bedside prayer book and the table where he did the translations of the Bible in to German. We also ate a huge lunch with delicious beer in an adorable beer garden.

Table I mentioned...

Mighty Fortress I mentioned...

We regret not buying/taking/acquiring in some way this glass. Next time!

So the next day was the Worlitz Gardens. They're famous for being the first English style garden in Germany. It wasn't quite what we were expecting. We were thinking manicured flower beds like in Potsdam, but it was more like a more natural park with swans and statues and bridges. It was pretty it just wasn't what we were expecting. We also went on a gondola ride, which was one guy rowing a little boat of about 20 of us, while the scenery was pretty it was a little weird.

The swans and their little babies were a hit!

Love this one!

Water lilies!

They had to evenly distribute the weight on the boat and so we all got shuffled around. But that just meant that I was in position to model with the rhododendrons that everyone was going on about!

We might have papparazzied the swans a little bit but look how gorgeous!

Yep, gondola.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Viking River Cruise Recap #1 - "So this soccer game is a bigger deal than we thought..." and accidentally running in a half marathon.

Hi everyone! So good to see you after my extended absence! For the next couple of days I'm going to be talking about the vacation I just got back from, but then we will be back to book content. So if you're not interested in the cruise and pictures of me looking sweaty, come back next week :) These posts will be long with lots of pictures, that is your fair warning...

Let's start with the basics:

Who: Travelers were myself and my older sister, Quinn.

What: A Viking river cruise! Quinn wanted a vacation where she didn't have to pack and unpack constantly and I agreed. I wanted to see Prague. It was a little bit costlier than we were originally planned on spending so we had to cut down on some froyo trips to make it happen (or save like maniacs, you know, whichever) but we made it happen!

Where: Down the river Elbe. Our itinerary was: Berlin, Potsdam, Magdeburg, Wittenberg, Torgau, Meissen, Saxon Switzerland (actually in Germany), Dresden, Litomerice, Melnik, Prague. Quinn and I decided to stay an extra few days in Prague so we could do the city right. This was the best decision ever. Also, our itinerary did not actually turn out to be like this, keep that in mind.

When: June 5th through 17th!

Why: Sister adventure! Quinn turned 30 last year, I turn 30 this year, she's never been to Europe and I was itching to go back. And who really needs a reason for Europe?

Let's begin.

Friday the 5th we fly out of O'Hare in Chicago to Amsterdam. In the most wonderful stroke of good luck, Quinn and I have a 3 person row to ourselves. This clears up all the anxiety I had about midnight bathroom runs over sleeping neighbors! (Also had no jet lag problems, so the two things I worried about were nonissues. Typical, thank the Lord.)The flight was on KLM, my first with them and it was a super pleasant experience. Quinn slept a good chunk of the trip, I didn't sleep for more than an hour. This is the problem with me and overnight flights.

We had a couple hour layover in Amsterdam at their tidy, bright, under construction airport and then boarded our plane to Berlin. Getting on this flight we noticed that there were boxes on our seats. Open them up and they contain a Heineken branded psuedo soccer jersey and a hat, courtesy of the airline in celebration of the Championship League game (Juventus v Barcelona). That's when we realized this soccer game might be a bigger deal than we thought.

After arriving at our hotel (after a slight mishap, my fault), dropping off our bags, and meeting Radim, the Program Director for our cruise (he really was our fearless leader in the mishaps that were coming in our near future), we set out to see some stuff. We hit the town hard seeing the sites and crashed about 10; excited to see the ship the next day! (There was one point during the day where we were a little bit lost and really wanted to get back to the hotel because it was at least 90 degrees and we were exhausted. It took forever to catch a cab because everyone was going INTO the downtown area and we were trying to get out. We figured out later we were only about a 10 minute walk from the hotel. Daaaaaaarn it).

(All pictures were either taken by Quinn or I, so don't use them without running it by me first. Danke!)

Me at Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned books. I'm smiling because we found this place on our own; not because of the Nazis burning books. And because I like that dress, a "day before the trip, panic shop" purchase at H&M

There was all kinds of soccer shenanigans around the Brandenburg Gate, which kind of made it feel less majestic and special, but it made for a memorable stroll. (Lots of happy, singing drunks!)

Does anyone else read Philip Kerr's "Bernard Gunther" series? The main character was the house detective at this hotel, the Hotel Adlon, which I didn't realize was a real place until a few weeks before the trip. Then I  was all about getting this picture taken!

Selfies with the Reichstag and our "quiet vox". Which was basically an ear piece that meant we could always hear what the guide was saying even when we wandered off, or ran ahead, or lagged behind to take pictures.

I could fill a whole post with just pictures of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Unsettling and simple and poignant.
The next day we traveled towards the boat, with a good chunk of the day spent in Potsdam at San Souci Palace and the Dutch Quarter. I had seen the gardens of San Souci during my europe trip in high school, but it was spring so nothing was in bloom. Much nicer in summer! After traveling and seeing Potsdam we finally got to the ship! And that's where we will begin tomorrow....

The Potsdam half marathon was going on and so I was waiting to cross the street during a time that would not hinder the runners. Some of the old people panicked I would get lost. I was literally 5 yards away.

Hello yellow!

Quinn loves taking pictures of doors. This is her signature shot!

We traveled for small sections on these very nice motorcoaches. Quinn and I sat in the back row everytime, for many reasons. The main one so we could goof around and snore and no would see.

Quinn had a major craving for ice tea, so we found her some and emailed the parents to tell them we were alive using the free wifi. We did try really hard to eat local after this, just needed a tea pick me up!

Little bunny friend in the Dutch Quarter!