Saturday, September 10, 2011

Travelling in Europe

We travelled in Europe with Australia Pacific Touring (APT). The APT tour along the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers from Budapest to Amsterdam with the extension to Paris via Belgium provided a great introduction to part of Europe.

A full program of activities was provided each day allowing guests to explore, if they wished, the region through which the ship was passing. Usually the ship was able to berth close to a town or city and passengers could then go on guided walks as well as having free time to explore until the ship was ready to continue its journey. On some occasions a bus trip was arranged to a destination sometimes returning to the ship at its next port of call. Cycling tours were also an option at some places.

The excursions highlighted the scenery, architecture, history and culture of each city, town or village explored and were led by local guides who sometimes provided additional information as to what living in that area of Europe was like.

History was everywhere. Many of the places that we visited, especially in Austria and Germany, had buildings dating back to medieval times or earlier. In a number of cases where buildings had been destroyed during the Second World War sections of towns and villages were rebuilt in the original medieval style. Rebuilding after the devastation of wartime bombing became a theme as we progressed through these countries. Another theme was the influence of the Habsburgs, a family ruling many parts of Europe for centuries. Particularly in Hungary and Austria we were shown buildings associated with this family and their period of power.

We visited many incredible buildings, especially chuches and cathedrals and palaces and forts. The size and decoration of some of these buildings was breath-taking. One wonders of the toll of workers creating these splindin buildings when OH&S was not the consideration it is today. The power of the rulers or bishops who commissioned the buildings is also apparent.

Living on a river provides challenges as well as an appreciation of beauty and we were often shown the extent of past floods and barriers constructed to prevent or minimise future flooding, especially in the towns. As well as tourism the river system is still used for carrying goods and a variety of large barges were regularly seen going up or down the river. During the trip to Amsterdam we passed through more than 60 locks. The river also has a variety of bridges, some very old and some modern. Some of the bridges are low requiring features on the top deck of the ship to be lowered enabling the ship to pass under the bridge. Occasionally the ship had to travel down a side canal to bypass a bridge that was too low to pass under.

The ship, the AmaDante, was a floating hotel. Boarding the ship at Budapest we unpacked and did not have to repack our backs until reaching Amsterdam two weeks later. The food was great and served with style in the dining room. A light lunch was available in the lounge along with constant tea or coffee. Snacks between meals plus supper were available for those who wanted further food. Entertainment was provided after dinner most evenings when local groups would come aboard to perform. A pianist provided background music in the lounge at other times. One of the lounges provided a quiet area where guests could read or talk or work on the community puzzle. Next door to this lounge was the the exercise room with a treadmill and exercise bikes allowing guests to exercise as they watched the river scenes pass by. An area of the upper deck was painted as a walking track - another way to exercise and not miss the scenery.

Most of our fellow travellers were Australians or New Zealanders with a few from England so there were no real problems starting conversations. Each day the staff produced a newsletter with a selection of news stories from each country so we could keep up to date with what was happening at home. Wi-Fi access was available on the ship, depending on where we were on the river, so it was relatively easy to check the Internet and keep in touch with family at home.

Travelling in a group with guides who spoke English language was not a problem. As we travelled through tourist areas staff in most of the shops we visited spoke English. Miming is always an option if there is a language problem. School French and German helped me to work out some of the written language but speaking more than terms of greeting and please and thank you could cause confusion if the person to whom you were speaking thought you could speak the language when you only knew a few words.

One thing that was very noticeable was that traffic and traffic rules are very different in Europe compared to Australia, particularly in regard to bikes. Bikes are everywhere and seem to have right of way including on pedestrian crossings. In some cities and towns when crossing the road at a regulated crossing pedestrians need to be wary of the possibilities of cyclists and even motor bikes driving through the crossing. Bicycle paths on the side of roads are common throughout Europe and getting from a bus to the footpath can be quite a challenge. In Vienna one of our drivers ended up in hospital with concussion and broken ribs after being hit by a cyclist. Drivers and guides get off first and tell their passengers when to get off and quickly move to the footpath. We thought it was bad in Germany until we reached Amsterdam and were warned of 'killer cyclists'. Cyclists in these countries must have special powers of protection as they dart amongst the traffic. Mothers with children on their bikes weaving between evening traffic - no helmets, of course - left us gasping.

Another difference between Australia and Europe is that in Europe you may have to pay to go to the toilet. Not all toilets charge but many do and 50 cents is the going rate. It is therefore wise to keep a small collection of 50 cent coins handy - just in case. Attendants prefer a 50 cent coin. I was not popular when I handed an attendant two 20 cent coins and a ten cent coin.

Travelling in Europe provided so many wonderful sights and experiences so different from home. Arriving in Budapest we loved the grandeur of the architecture of the inner city - new sites around every corner. As we travelled along the rivers we visited many other wonderful cities and towns and villages each with its own character and story to tell. In Vienna we went to a concert and listened to the music of Mozart and Strauss. At Amsterdam we visited the Van Gogh Museum and enjoyed viewing the artworks on display. In Paris we visited Montmatre where Van Gogh once lived for a time. We also visited the Musee de l'Orangerie and admired the paintings of Monet and other impressionist artists. Also in Paris a visit to the Moulin Rouge was  great night's entertainment.

Before we left Australia we met many people who had been on and enjoyed this river cruise with APT. We agree that it is a great holiday experience.