David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A River Cruise, Prague to Paris

April in Paris

Porta Nigra


View of the Rhine from Cochem Castle

Hilltop Castle along the way


The Residenz, Wurzburg

St. Vitus Cathedral at the Castle compound, Prague

At the Bar in the Hotel de Pariz, sampling Paris Cake

After a month taken up with selling our condo in Nice and all of its contents, we left Nice for three nights in Prague, a place we'd never visited. We arrived at the Hilton that the tour had booked, an ugly glass building in this city famous for its architecture, and not even located in the city center, but in an industrial park on the outskirts. The view from our window was of KPMG - I thought I was there for a Board Meeting. And breakfast at this hotel was $35 each!

Prague is often compared to Paris and it is a beautiful city. We visited the National Museum on the Old Town Square where there was an Easter Festival going on, with lots of booths selling foodstuffs, decorated eggs, and other items. The famed Astronomical Clock at the Town Hall wasn't working but it was interesting to see. There was even a wedding taking place, with the happy couple carried off in a horse-drawn carriage. We had lunch at a restaurant on the square, with fatty ribs for David and a delicious hot dog for me. Then on to Wenceslas Square where thousands gathered in 1989 to cheer the end of Communism. It's really a long shopping street, not a square. Lining the street are the Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings which Prague is famous for. The Square is named for Good King Wenceslas, who apparently wasn't all that good, wasn't a King, and wasn't called Wenceslas, but Vaclav!

Then we walked back towards our hotel, stopping at the elegant Hotel de Pariz where we sampled the Paris Cake, made from a 100-year old recipe. It has a chocolate base, filled with chocolate mousse and peach slices, and covered with a marzipan coating. One piece would have been more than enough but we struggled through two. Then we managed to take the subway back towards the hotel and finally found our way back. We met one of the people involved with Viking, and we complained about the hotel choice. Oh, well.

The next morning our Viking tour began. We went for a visit to Prague Castle which includes the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, started in 1344. Then we returned to the city and saw, again, the Old Town Square, and visited the Jewish Ghetto area. It is thought that the Jewish community arrived in Prague before the Czechs themselves.

After the tour we headed to U Flecku, a restaurant founded in 1499. It was recommended to us by Velta Lazda. We were seated in a non-smoking room (in the Czech Republic, there is still smoking in restaurants!) and were soon joined by a large lively group of Italians, three Russians at our table, and others. The Italians gave big tips to the accordionist and we all had a great time singing. They came around with aperitifs - David thought they were free but they weren't - and then we ordered. The food wasn't outstanding but we had such a great time there. It's a huge place, seating about 1200 people indoors and out.

Afterwards, we walked back to the center of town and stopped at the beautiful Obecni Dum, the Art Nouveau Concert Hall. We again had afternoon tea and cake. Prague is famous for its cafes and during our three days we tried three of them including Obecni Dum, Hotel de Pariz, and also the Slavia Cafe with its afternoon piano music - we loved the old pianist and he came up and shook our hands during his break since he could tell we really appreciated the music.

After our three days in Prague, we boarded a bus. Our first stop was Nuremburg, 1000 year old city in Bavaria, where we viewed the Imperial Castle which is at least 900 years old. Building of the walls was overseen by a Maltese - and we KNOW how good they are at building walls! We then visited the Nazi Parade Grounds and the Documentation Center, part of a Coliseum which Hitler demanded be built. Nuremburg, of course, is where the war crimes trials were held following WWII.

Then back on the bus to Wurzburg where we had a tour of The Residenz. We had visited the gardens on our earlier visit but I don't think we went inside. The Residenz was home to the prince-bishops who ruled the area. Prince Bishop Friedrich Carl von Schonborn ruled in Wurzburg from 1729 to 1746 and was the primary force behind creating this magnificent palace. Balthasar Neumann was the architect; it was completed in 1744. The Grand Staircase, with frescoes showing the four known continents painted by Tiepolo, has a stunning unsupported vault of 18 x 30 meters. The rest of the palace is equally imposing. We also revisited the gardens with the blooming cherry trees and sparkling fountains.

Finally we boarded our river boat and were shocked to see our cabin. It was tiny. There were two very narrow single beds - I almost fell out of mine one night! Luckily the beds are quite high, offering storage underneath. We had dinner on board that night and found that the wine service, which was included, was very generous. But we would discover that the food was very average and quite disappointing.

We sailed along the Main (pronounced Mine) River, stopping along the way in charming little towns with half-timbered buildings. The day that the rest of the crew went to Heidelberg, we had a picnic on the river. The boat supplied us with some picnic fixings and we purchased wine and a Linzer tart. But we forgot the glasses and ended up drinking right from the bottle!

A major stop was Mainz, which dates from 38 BC when the Romans were here. We visited the Cathedral of St. Martin and St. Stephan (11th - 13th c). Then we viewed a demonstration of printing at the Gutenberg Museum showing the moveable type printing press.

Then we entered the great Rhine River. We stopped at Rudesheim, another charming village. That evening we had dinner with Commander Darrel Smith and his wife Ginger to celebrate his birthday. Afterwards there was folk-dancing in the main lounge.

The next morning we had to be up very early, as we were entering the stretch of the Rhine that is lined with castle after castle. It was pretty chilly at 6 AM but warmed up as we sailed along. WE stopped at Cochem and visited the castle there, with our great guide, Klaus. The castle was built in the 11th century and rebuilt in 1866 and is furnished from that period. Views back to the town were spectacular. Then we walked around the town itself which lies on the Mosel River.

The next day we were on to Bernkastel. The villages get more charming as the days go on. But they do sort of run together. Buses picked us up at our final stop and took us to Trier, the oldest German city founded in 15 BC by the Romans. We visited Constantine Basilica, built by the Romans in about 326 AD - it looks new! The other important site that we visited there is the Porta Nigra, built before 200 AD as one of the four main gates to the city. The blackened color is not original but due to pollution.

Then the buses too us on to Luxembourg where we visited the American cemetery where Patton is buried. Afterwards we were on our own for lunch in the city of Luxembourg. Finally some good food - Salades Nicoises, instead of heavy German food! Then back to the buses for a final ride into Paris where we stayed 2 nights at the Crowne Plaza, a handy location within an easy walk to the city center. David and I went out for supper on the arcaded Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in the city (1600's), with Bev and Ronnie whom we had gotten friendly with on the boat.

The next day Viking Tours took us on a 3 1/2 hour bus tour of the city, hitting all the highlights, including a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral and a stop for photos with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Afterwards, David and I had a nice lunch and walked back to the hotel. The next day we tried to visit the Musee d'Orsay but there was a two-hour wait. Instead, we just walked along the river, had lunch, and returned to the hotel where we got a cab to the Hilton at the airport. We stayed there that night and flew home to Chicago the next morning. What a lucky trip it was, weather-wise, with sunny days and temperatures in the 70's every day. And we met such interesting people, not your average Kansas housewives!