Viking River Cruise
BERLIN TO PRAGUE 
AUGUST 9-22, 2006
By Tucker


Background 

We are in our early 60’s, our traveling companions are in their 70’s. Although, we have taken 20 plus ocean cruises. this was our first river cruise. The other couple, Gloria, had been on a 3-day FAM river cruise in France many years ago. Her husband, Jim, has been on no cruises unless you want to count the Navy which is why he refuses to cruise but Gloria prevailed on this one. 

Pre-Cruise 

We opted to go to Berlin a day early. We always go in a day early on ocean cruises to make sure we are there and that our luggage is there to embark with us. This time the cruise included a day and a half in Berlin so it wasn’t really that necessary. However, I figured the extra day would help us deal with jet lag. We arranged our own air as it was a $300 plus savings per person over what Viking was going to charge us and we could “pick our own poison.” The cruise God was with us because had we not gone in a day early or let Viking route us, we could have been caught up with the security scare August 10 at Heathrow. We beat it by about five hours. Although, we were not going through Heathrow, any overseas travel from the US was chaotic. As it was, three people on our cruise who were caught up in it arrived in Berlin early morning on the 12th with the clothes on their back and a baggie with their travel documents, passport, money, credit cards. Nothing else—no purse, no jewelry, no comb, no toothbrush, no camera, no change of undies, no medicine, no expensive perfume. I think TSA may have allowed 24 hours worth of medicine if it was in pill form and in the original bottle. One of the ladies was without her heart medicine for the entire cruise. Two got their luggage in Prague at the end of the cruise, I don’t know about the third that had to wear one pair of slacks the entire time. Some people helped her out with tops but she was a very small size and no bottoms were available. The other two did do some fast clothes shopping in Berlin in spite of assurances by BA that they would have their luggage within 24 hours and limped along with a couple of mix and match outfits. 

We had arranged for a pick-up at the airport to get us to our hotel. It was $85. We found out later a cab would have been about 16-17 euros. However, I don’t know if a cab could have handled both couples and luggage and I really didn’t want to be separated from our travel companions. It was nice to come out of the arrival hall and see the man holding a sign with our name. 

The hotel Viking uses is the Jolly Vivaldi. Viking wanted $199 PER PERSON for the extra night. Our TA (who is my sister) got it “off the street” for $140 a room. It was very conveniently located close to a subway station and across the street from a couple of nice restaurants which we availed ourselves of three times. There was a “mall” up the street that also had fast food type places in it where we had lunch one day. There were many restaurant choices within walking distance of the hotel. It took us awhile to get used to using our room key card to activate the elevator but we appreciated the extra security. The rooms were well appointed. Each room had a safe and a refrigerator. However, my sodas I put in the refrigerator were removed the next day by the maid. I guess that is a no-no. Needless to say, no ice machine down the hall or ice bucket in the room. I am sure if we had had a “container” we could have gotten some ice from the bar. There were no wash cloths either (they had tea towels instead) but I bought a couple from home as I have experienced this before in European hotels. Our travel companions were assigned a room that faced the elevated train. They were about to go down and request a change when one or two trains went by and there was no noise in the room so they were sound proofed well. We were very pleased with the hotel. 

Our rooms were not ready so we went across the street for lunch. After lunch we found a bank where we could use the ATM machine. The hotel had said there was an ATM machine right across the street but it appeared to be a “private” one which we had been warned could hit us big time for fees. No Cirrus or Plus symbol on it. However, later, we found one down the stairs towards the subway trains that did have the symbols and used that. 

Our breakfast was not included with our room the first night as we were on our own. We set out around 8:00 a.m. looking for breakfast only to find that there are many places with “coffee to go” and sweet rolls, etc., but no sit down places for a “full” breakfast at that hour. So we made do at Dunkin Donuts (lol). 

When we returned to the hotel, the Viking Cruise Director, Christian Grossmann, was setting up shop as the “official” start of the tour was that day—August 11. He greeted us warmly, checked off our names, and gave us pink ribbons to attach to our luggage. He said we would be on Bus 1 the entire tour and the pink ribbons were to indicate what bus our luggage was to go on. Needless to say, he was in for a long day because of the problems at Heathrow Airport trying to get all his “chicks in the nest.” He had an easel set up with instructions on what we were to do and where we needed to be at various times. He was available all day. 

We bought a day pass on the subway (6 euros each) at the hotel and set out to go to Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate and points in between. Subway is easy to negotiate and they are most helpful at the desk in the hotel. In the afternoon, we took the subway to the East Side Gallery where there is a segment of the Wall with murals painted on it (including the infamous “kiss” between Brezthnev and Honnecker). Jet lag was creeping up on us, so we made it an early evening. 

The next two days, a bountiful buffet breakfast was included--we were now on Viking’s ticket. As a note, our travel companions tried to order coffee only to their room in the morning and both times they delivered a full continental breakfast with a hefty price tag attached to it (26 euros) in spite of them checking off only “coffee” on the door hanger. So if you need that eye opener to get going, I suggest you bring a “coil” (and boy do those things heat fast on 220v current even with the adapater) and a cup from home along with a jar of instant coffee. 

We loaded the buses according to our “ribbon” color and set out for our included Berlin city tour. The local guide was very good and his English as good as you are going to get over there. The tour lasted four hours. It covered some of the places we had been to the day before but we got a better understanding of what we had seen. It did not stop at Checkpoint Charlie, just drove by it, so we were glad we had taken that in the day before. They have some “soldiers” posing at the checkpoint and for a euro, you could have your picture taken with them. At the East Side Gallery there is a souvenir stand that will stamp your passport for East Berlin for a euro. I wasn’t about to let them stamp my current passport but I had bought an expired one to use for identification. Did I remember to bring it that day? Noooooo. That would have been a kinda different souvenir. 

The afternoon was free for shopping or whatever. After lunch, Gloria and I opted for a nap while Richard and Jim set out to find the place where Hitler’s underground bunker was. It was not easy to locate as they have filled it in and are not real proud of it but with help from fellow tourists and a map, they located it. When they returned, Richard and I walked down to Humbolt University which was close by to have a closer look at the memorial dedicated to the burning of the books. 

I found out a lot of things I didn’t know about Germany and East vs. West on this trip. West Berlin was an “island” surrounded by “East Berlin” and East Germany for that matter. In my mind, I always thought a line was drawn down Germany dividing it. The line just happened to go through Berlin. Now, I understand there was an agreement made in Potsdam that all Berlin would not go to one country. The French and England also got a piece of the pie. At first, the Germans could travel freely between East and West Berlin for work, etc. with no problem. Then it became apparent that some were going West and not coming back East and the economy was going south in a hurry. So, Stalin closed the Autobahn and the trains between the two sectors. He didn’t close the air lanes or, felt like he couldn’t, which allowed the Berlin Airlift. Those people that fled and went West before the wall went up had their homes taken over by the Soviets. Now they are coming back and reclaiming them. If they, or their heirs, have deeds or other documentation, they are getting them. It takes a long time working its way through the courts (nine years was quoted) but, for the most part, they are winning. It could be an “empty” victory because unless the hierarchy was living there, the Soviets were not real diligent about keeping them up. 

We really enjoyed Berlin, it is a lovely city. We were glad to have the extra day there to explore on our own. However, a big downer was all the graffiti on practically every surface around. Another thing that surprised me at first was the lack of traffic. In Houston, everyone is “wedded” to their car. In Berlin, they have great public transportation, people ride their bikes or walk. A word of caution--be careful when on the sidewalks if there is a bike lane on the far left side of it that you don’t “drift” over in it while looking around. We did and nearly got mowed down (lol). 

The Cruise 

In the morning, we were asked to have our luggage outside our door by 7:30 a.m. and to assemble in the lobby at 8:45 a.m. and in 15 minute increments later depending on your ribbon color. We went out to our bus and identified our luggage which was then placed on the bus. This was more a measure to make sure that all your luggage was there rather than for security. The buses they use were all immaculate and have a bathroom which we were asked to only use in an emergency. Some of them have seat belts. We had the same guide as we had had the day before. Whereas the day before the tour had been mostly East Berlin, today we had a tour of West Berlin on our way out of town. 

Our first stop was a pause at the river that separated the West Berlin from East Germany. It is where the exchange of prisoners (spies) took place at various times. The driver stopped the bus and let those that wanted walk across the bridge to the other side where he picked us up. Our first stop of the day was in Potsdam at Sans Souci Palace, home of Frederick the Great. We were handed over to a local guide there. After the tour, lunch had been arranged at a local restaurant by Viking for those that wanted to partake. Lunch was on our nickel. Separate checks were provided and you ordered what you wanted. The restaurant was reasonably priced, good selection, and the service excellent when you consider we were not the only tour there. 

After lunch we proceeded to Cecilienhof Castle near/in Potsdam where the Big Three—Truman, Stalin, Churchill/Attley met to divide up the spoils of war. Our tour was outside only but still very worthwhile with a guide explaining the conference to us and the gardens. Stalin pretty much ran the show the way he wanted it as Truman was “new” and Attley took over when Churchill was defeated as Prime Minister midway through the conference.. Planted in front of the Castle was a flower garden in the shape of a red Soviet Star—that tells you something. 

From Potsdam we made our way to Magdenburg and our river boat, the Clara Schumann. Upon arrival, we went to the reception area where a crew member took up our paperwork and passports, gave us an identification card, a key to our room, and escorted us there. In the meantime, our luggage was being off loaded and taken to our cabins. There were sandwiches, coffee, tea, and water available in the lounge. 

The Boat 

The boat is small, there is no getting around that and that is what we expected. Plus I think this is their oldest in the fleet. There are three decks. The lowest deck had the dining room and cabins and was where we were. All the cabins were the same size so I decided for the difference in price between the two decks, I could hoof the stairs (lol). The main deck had the reception area, more cabins, and the lounge. The top deck was a sun deck with blue Astroturf carpeting. About a third of it was covered for shade. There were tables with four chairs under the shade. Beyond that was an open area with plenty of lounges. The chairs, tables, and lounges were of the plastic variety and sometimes hard to adjust but all had great pads and were in good repair. 

The lounge was over the dining room, tastefully appointed and had chair space for everyone to sit at one time. The bar was also there along with a coffee/tea station which also had an ice bucket of ice (a nice surprise) because I had sodas I bought from home and it was nice to have ice for them. There was also water, iced tea, both sweetened and unsweetened, and a selection of fruit that was available 24/7. 

When you got down to it, the ship had everything the ocean liners have—well sorta. You want a gym? An exercise machine at the end of the sun deck. Outdoor recreation? A giant chess/checker board on the sun deck. Crew lounge? A roped off section at the end of the sun deck. Elevator? Chair lifts. Library? The top of the service hatch going to the kitchen which had jigsaw puzzles, games, and books donated by passengers. 24-hour snacks? A giant candy jar on the Purser’s desk (plus the fruit at the coffee bar). Lost and Found? A corner of the Purser’s desk (where someone nicely placed a button that had fallen off my jacket). Shop? A small room that doubled as the Cruise Director’s office. “Lido” lunch Buffet? Tables set up next to the coffee bar. Restrooms? Off the reception area. Band? A guy who played piano and a keyboard. There were exercise classes in the morning. O.K., it didn’t have a pool (but it did have a sauna) casino, room safes, or room service. The ship was in great shape with constant maintenance going on. . 

The Cabin 

I was pleasantly surprised with our cabin. At 120 square feet, you can’t expect a lot. However, it was well laid out. One bed doubled as a sofa during the day. The other bed folded up into the wall during the day (but was easy to lower if both wanted to take a nap at the same time). A desk with a chair separated the two beds under a picture window. There were no drawers in the cabin but the closet had two very deep shelves which were adequate for folded clothes. I had packed in zip lock bags so I kept our underwear in those to keep them together along with other things that would be in a drawer. The bottom half of the closet for hanging clothes was only “half” size so dresses “dragged” on the floor. There were some hangers but I needed the extra ones I bought with me. Ladies, bring clothes pins if you need to hang skirts as there weren’t any skirt hangers. There was a television that had movies and may have had other things but we never turned it on. Over the television was another two shelf cabinet. We found we could stack our suitcases upright underneath the television and used our carry-on as a hamper in the closet. I think you could have Viking store suitcases if you wanted. Over the “fold-up” bed were two long open shelves. Our cabin stewardess put the “sofa” makings (back and arms) on the top one at night. We had no problem finding room to stow things. The bathroom had a shower in the corner and a curtain to pull around it rather than a stall. When not in use, you could pull the curtain back and this added considerably to the space. A shampoo/soap dispenser was in the “shower.” The shower did not flood the floor when in use if you were careful to pull the curtain securely around. Wash cloths were provided. There was medicine cabinet storage behind the mirror. There was a 220v plug in the bathroom for 220v/ The only other plug was on the wall outside the bathroom door, chest high, in a most inconvenient place. A hair dryer was in the closet but you could pull it out and a full length mirror was on the outside of the closet door for you to see what you were doing. The lighting in the bathroom was the pits for putting on make-up (and I am not that picky). There were reading lamps above each bed that were good. On the desk was a bottle of water for sale, an ice bucket you could take to the bar and get filled and a packet of 15 post cards for 5.70 euro. Also, was sheet explaining another “deal.” For 299 euro per cabin, you could have a package that included house wines and beer (certain brands), soft drinks, juices during the cruise, one daily pre-dinner cocktail, participation in a German Wine Seminar, a copy of the Elbe River Map, a box of peppermints or a baseball cap, and Mozart Liqueur with Mozart Praline in Dresden. A quarter liter of house wine was 3.50 euro. I don’t know what beer was but probably the same. The daily cocktail was 5.50 euro but I think mixed drinks were more in the 4 euro range. It didn’t take us long to do the math and pass on that opportunity (lol). 

The only “complaint” I had about the cabin were the pillows. They are wimpy. Even with two of them, they were worthless. I think it is because they “strap” them down to the bedding on the fold-up bed during the day and, if they were too “substantial,” the bed wouldn’t fold-up. So, if you want a good pillow, bring one from home . We used the sofa “makings” as a bed rest so we could read in bed. 


Let the Cruise Begin 

After dinner (and I will get into the food later), we gathered in the lounge where “we will provide you with important information about life on board and ship’s safety.” There was a briefing every night in the Lounge prior to dinner. Christian welcomed us—104 passengers, 28 crew members-- and introduced the staff. He told us to read our daily newsletter for information. Then we had our “muster.” A crew member showed us the flotation device that was in our cabin (a square with two loops). After he put it on, Christian said and now you do this—the crew member made motions like he was swimming. Christian pointed out the river at its deepest was 9 feet, the boat had a 3-foot draft and we could stand on the sun deck and be dry if it sunk. We were only given one key to the cabin and you had to manually lock it. He said if we wanted another, they were available but if we lost them it was $30 each. He told us when we leave the boat, we were to turn the key(s) in to the reception desk as that was their high tech method of keeping track that everyone was back on the ship before leaving. If a key was in a box, then they would come looking for you. If you forgot to turn it in, they would assume you had turned it in and picked it up upon return and leave. The first couple of times we left for excursions the assistant CD came on the buses and collected keys from those that had forgotten to turn them in. After that, I think we all got in the habit of doing it. However, they were constantly counting “noses” when we boarded and reboarded the buses to make sure everyone was there. 

Monday we cruised in the morning going through two locks. They organized a bingo game. A card was 2 euros (beat the heck out of the $30 or so the ocean liners want) and the first one to cover two rows (not diagonal so it took more time) won ten euros and then the game continued as a cover-all and the winner got 30 euros. Following that was a lecture on Martin Luther. 

Around 1:00 p.m. we docked in Dessau. The included shore excursion, about a 
45 minute ride, was a visit to the Woerlitz gardens. Actually, the gardens were more like a park rather than landscaped with flowers. We had a choice between a gondola ride or a visit to the house. We chose the house. On the way back to the ship, the bus stopped at Bauhaus Center. The lack of graffiti was welcome. 

That evening after dinner was music trivia quiz—the winner getting champagne. At approximately 11:00 p.m. we arrived in Wittenberg. 

Tuesday, they only had two buses hired to shuttle us into town. We drew lots the night before and we drew #4. #1 and #2 would go to town (about a 
10 minute drive) and return for #3 and #4. This turned out not to be a bad deal as it was raining pretty good when the first shift left and had let up when we left (lol). Again, great tour, great guide. 

We left Wittenberg around 1:00 p.m. In the afternoon, they had a cooking class of “Apfestrudel” in the lounge. We did not attend but samples were left for us to enjoy. 

We arrived at Torgau around 8:30 p.m. Christian gave us a walking tour of the town. 

Wednesday morning there was a lecture on Germany history followed by a wine seminar for those that were interested (7 euros). 

We arrived in Meissen around 3:00 p.m. There was a tour of the porcelain factory and then a choice between a walking tour or shopping. We opted for the walking tour—again led by a local guide and very good. 

After dinner they had a cocktail seminar but we passed on it and turned in. 

Thursday we arrived in Dresden around 9:00 a.m. There was a city tour in the morning. The afternoon was free for those that wanted to return to town 
(or stayed in town) to shop or sightsee. We thought about it, but decided to rest instead. 

At 6:00 p.m. before dinner, there was a picture presentation of the 2002 flood which devastated the town. After dinner, there was a slide presentation of The Waterways of the Czars. What amazed me was that here was that Dresden t was leveled during WWII. Yet you looked around at the newly rebuilt buildings and they looked like they had been there for centuries. The Opera House (rebuilt around 1989) is newer than my house! There is still a lot of construction going on all over East Germany, cranes everywhere. 

Friday we had German snacks on the sundeck at 10:30 a.m. which was really a full meal if you wanted. Free beer! Then at 1:00 or so we landed in Bad Schandau where there was a shore tour. The first few days cruising, we mostly passed flat farm land. Now we were into “mountains” where castles were visible clinging to the sides. It was drizzling again so a few people passed on the tour. We went and found it well worth while although they could have cut it short by about an hour. Once viewing the sights and, for those more energetic than me, walking down 100 steps and back up 100 steps for a “hike” to other viewing venues, we still had time to kill as there was nothing there other than a couple of overpriced souvenir shops and expensive refreshments. The bees were constantly dive-bombing you too. I learned real quickly to avoid perfume for a few days. 

We passed into the Czech Republic. Officials boarded and they were given the “shoe” box with our passports to peruse. No problems there and I understand why they took our passports up. We didn’t need them and it was much more efficient to bring out the box than have us all parade by an immigration official showing our passports as we have had to do on ocean cruises sometimes. 

That night they had a raffle put on by the crew. We were encouraged to buy tickets as “they all had starving children back home” (keep in mind the average age of the “visible” crew was about 25, so it was tongue in cheek). The prizes were ship logo items and we managed to win a sweatshirt! After the raffle was a show put on by the crew which was a hoot. 

Saturday we cruised through Bohemia. In the morning, we took a bridge tour—that being the room where the Captain and his co-pilot guided the ship. There was a disembarkation briefing also in the morning. We were told to leave our luggage in the room to be removed by 8:30 or so and check out at our leisure at the desk to settle our bill. Our passports would be returned to us then. We docked at Litomerice that afternoon. They had a walking tour that included a wine tasting. The walking tour was uphill so many opted out of it. By now both Richard and I had a cold settling in but we decided to give it a try. The walk wasn’t that bad. Good guide but not much to see in the town. We did hit an ATM which was nice as in the Czech Republic they use crowns. 

On Sunday, our debarkation day, you can tell they knew what they were doing as there was never a “long line” of people waiting to check out. People drifted up there when they wanted and paid up. We were supposed to move on to Melnik the evening before for our disembarkation. However, a lock had not been repaired so we woke up in Litomerice again. There was no tour planned in Melnik so I don’t know what we missed other than scenery between that and Prague vs. what we saw between Litomerice and Prague. 

Sunday, we loaded buses around 9:30 and headed out to Prague. A long day as it included a city tour of Prague. Those that did not want the tour could go directly to the hotel but were warned rooms would probably not be ready. The city tour kept us busy until about 4:30 in the afternoon with time out mid-day for a lunch break. 

Our hotel in Prague was the Hilton. Not as conveniently located at the Vivaldi was in Berlin. They had given us a list of places nearby to eat and other information about public transportation, etc. It also mentioned that something was “across the way from McDonald’s.” Richard picked up on that real quick. When I collapsed in the bed upon reaching the room for a nap, he went to Greasy Macs and came back with burgers, sodas and fries and thought he had gone to died and gone to heaven (lol). I can’t complain since he included me in the foray. The room was nicer than the Vivaldi. They had an ice machine! However, no bucket in the room, they had large go-cups stacked up to take ice to your room. The downside was that the rooms were laid out in such a way that the elevators were at one end of all the rooms. We were about as far away from them as you could get. You needed to pack a lunch to get to them (lol) The bedside lights were also a joke. Six inches from the bedside table top and did not swivel. Thank goodness I had my “itty bitty light.” It was a five-star hotel so we had a concierge to reconfirm our return airline tickets which we appreciated. Again, Christian set up his easel in the lobby and was available to help you out if needed. 

We ended up eating at a restaurant that night recommended on the sheet that was within walking distance of the hotel. I think the entire cruise was down there. Huge portions, good food, very reasonable price. No one wanted to tackle public transportation at that point, we were tired. 

Our last day was a free day in Prague. Both Richard and I were suffering from bad colds. I had faithfully taken my zinc tablets and Airborne before leaving home which I always do when going on an airplane. Then I cease taking them until three or four days before returning home. I did not think about the boat being “small” like an airplane. Hence, I caught whatever was floating around. If I wasn’t coughing, I was blowing my nose. Richard figured out the subway system and Gloria, Richard and I went into town to an open market to get things to take home to our friends. There were not many shopping opportunities except the afternoon in Dresden. You can’t go home and thank neighbors for taking care of things without something in your hands (lol). 

Going Home 

We knew the restrictions had been relaxed on overseas travel. You could take carry-ons again. However, we opted to not take any other than a tote bag with our camera and reading material in it. I made sure there was nothing in my purse that could cause any problems. I had arranged for private transport from the hotel to the airport in Prague. He arrived promptly at 4:30 a.m. as requested. The hotel supplied us with a box breakfast since we would not be there for the included breakfast. We had no problems checking in ourselves and luggage at the airport. We ate our box breakfast pitching what we didn’t want. However, the Scotch in me took the little jars of unopened jelly and put them in our tote bag. Coming into the Frankfurt airport from the US, we seemed to go up and down and back up stairs and end up in vast empty areas wondering if we were going where we needed to be. We eventually ended up where our flight to Berlin left from. This time, we thought we had it made as it appeared our flight from Frankfurt to Houston left from the same terminal we would arrive at from Prague. Silly us. We were offloaded on the tarmac and put on a bus that took us to wherever they could take us putting us at the most remote point from Terminal C where we needed to be. We managed to work our way to that Terminal (and wise that elevators were near the stairs up and down) only to round a corner and find a second security point for those flights going to the USA. The line was long. Everyone was being wanded, patted down, and carry-ons inspected. Our flight was announced. We had moved very little. Our flight was announced several times more as boarding. Our companions were getting antsy. I told them not to worry. 1) there were a lot of people not on the plane in this line that had baggage checked so their options would be to hold the flight waiting for us or 2) off load the entire luggage to remove those that were checked the owners were not on the airplane. That would take a lot of time. Much less time that waiting for us. Plan B was if it did take off without us, I roused my sister (our TA) out of bed at 3:00 a.m. and threw the ball to her. We had insurance to pay expenses and it covered terrorists. Sure enough, they must have looked around at take off time and seen a plane full of empty and decided that a bunch of people were still in the security line. They had all of us on the flight (and I’m not sure some other savvy people didn’t avail themselves of this as they weren’t checking boarding passes) go the front of the line. Once through security (where they got my jelly) we headed to our gate. Again, since people were dribbling through, we found ourselves in vast areas with no humanity wondering if we were going where we needed to go. We got to the gate eventually. Once on board they said we were delayed because a “latch” was showing up not working and it had to be checked out. Honestly, I think they were waiting for other people. Anyway, we left an hour late but we at least left and were only half an hour late arriving in Houston. 

Food 

Needless to say, the food is not as plentiful as on ocean cruises. There is an “Early Bird” breakfast of coffee, juice and pastries from 6:00 to 7:00 a.m. at the coffee bar. The buffet breakfast starts at 7:00 until 9:00 a.m. It was very good. You could order blueberry pancakes and French toast 
(and oatmeal if it was not on the buffet). The pancakes were delivered hot and quickly. I heard the French toast wasn’t that good. 

For lunch they had a buffet in the dining room from noon until approximately 
1:00 p.m. They also had a “light” lunch in the lounge starting at noon. The biggest difference between them was the salad bar in the dining room was more extensive and they may have had an additional “hot” item that was not at the light lunch. We only ate in the dining room once for lunch as the light lunch had all we wanted and was not as crowded. 

My only “complaint” about the food offerings is there was no “snack” in the afternoon other than the time they had the cooking demonstration. Once lunch was over, no food until dinner other than the fruit on the coffee bar and the candy jar. Some cookies or a pastry would have been nice. They did have bowls of peanuts during cocktail hour in the lounge. 

The dinner menu gave you a choice of one of two appetizers, two soups, fish or meat entree and two desserts—no salad except for the Caesar salad on the alternative menu and I don’t know if that would be a “substitute” for the meat/fish course or in addition to the regular choices. Neither my husband nor I care for fish so our choice was limited to the meat. Unfortunately for my husband, he isn’t into appetizers, soup, or dessert much either 
(lol). Fortunately for me, I like appetizers, soups and desserts so I was happy to hand over my meat choice to him in exchange for him ordering me the “other” soup or appetizer. I thought the soups were very good. I don’t know if we could have ordered both. The second and last night there were no choices, it was a set menu including both a fish and meat course. The first night the “always” available steak, chicken, or Caesar salad was not available when we asked. The night they had the wild boar stew, I opted for the chicken breast and he opted for the steak. He was delighted to see the steak came with a baked potato (never on the regular menu) and it was very good. My chicken breast was good, too. Those that had the wild boar stew said it was good. Another night they had “pot” roast. It was actually slices of roast beef and very well prepared. I was a little disappointed with the desserts. They were some form of ice cream with maybe a cookie. No “fork” desserts, i.e. pie or cake. The ice cream was good, though. 

There was a late night snack around 10:30 in the lounge. We never availed ourselves of that so I can’t comment. After our walking tour of Torgau, they had goulash ready and I heard it was very good. I went to bed; husband had two bowls. He said at home it would be called “Dinty Moore”. 

Dinner was “open” seating. The noise level in the dining room was very high. It was very hard to carry on a conversation with anyone that wasn’t “next” to you. That is not a fault of Viking. The ceilings are low, there are 104 people in there eating. I heard it is the same on other river cruises. There was no “clique” saving of seats that I observed. Everyone just filtered in and would ask politely “do you mind if we join you?” So you have an opportunity of meeting a lot of fellow cruisers. The service was a little lacking at dinner but when you consider they only had about four waiters (plus the Maitre d’Hotel who worked just as hard as the servers taking care of wine and filling in serving) for 104 people, I think they did a good job. It wasn’t as if we had anything else to do (lol). Gave us more time to “visit.” 

Dress 

During the first briefing by Christian, he basically said “It’s your vacation, wear what you want, when you want, there is no dress code.” Here are my observations. During the day the ladies wore slacks and knit tops, the men khakis and golf shirts for the most part. A few (both sexes) wore shorts and t-shirts on the boat. In the evening most of the men wore what they had worn during the day if they had a collar shirt on, some changed into a sports shirt, a few, wore a jacket. The ladies tended to change out of the daytime garb into a pants suit, dress, or skirt and blouse. On the second and last nights (Captain’s Welcome and Farewell Dinners) the ladies dressed up a little more--everything from dressier pants suits and church dresses to glittery tops. Not cocktail dresses, though. A lot of the men wore a sports coat and dress pants, 50/50 on ties. Everyone pretty much wore what they wanted. No matter what you wore, dressed up or down, there were plenty of people dressed the same. As for footwear, good walking shoes are a must because you do a lot of walking over uneven ground—on tours I wore my ReBoks. On the ship, I mostly went with sandals. I had a pair of low heels to “dress” up in. Husband wore Docksiders 90 percent of the time, changing into loafers for dinner a couple of times. While there is no limit on the luggage you can bring, keep in mind that the airlines do have limits and, if the ship can’t store your luggage, then it is going to crowd the cabin. I always use the motto when traveling “Never take more than I can personally tote.” I also pack half my clothes by outfits and half my husband’s clothes by outfits in each suitcase as a precaution if one suitcase goes missing, I at least will have something to put on my body until it turns up. 

The Passengers 

Most of the passengers were sixty plus. There were half dozen or so young adults traveling with their parents or grandparents, and maybe 20 or so in their 40’s and 50’s. Everyone was very nice—no crab apples. Everyone was prompt getting to the buses, we never had to wait around for anyone. The majority were Americans and I’d guess 90 percent of them were from English speaking countries. English was the only language used in announcements or lectures and all the service people I came in contact with spoke and understood English although I would hear them talk in their native tongues to each other. 

Money Matters 

We left home with about 50 euros left over from other trips. It took us a couple of days to get off the dollar mindset and into euro mindset. Our first trip to the ATM, we asked for 500 euros. We got our card back and a till full of empty. Inside the bank, we found out we had exceeded our daily limit so we got no money. Our daily limit is $500. Doh, euros are worth more than dollars. We went back to the machine and got 200 euros. Our bank account was not charged for the 500 euros we requested initially (a worry). We found that credit cards are not readily accepted at cafes and moderately priced restaurants—so always be prepared to pay in euros. Now I know how men hate to carry “change” in their pockets. Richard will count 82 cents out of his pocket rather than pay with a dollar bill stateside. One and two euros are coins. You need those coins. Tips for the guides and drivers need to be paid with those coins unless you want to tip five euro which is the lowest bill and rather high for a two-four hour tour. I can’t tell you how many people were scrambling for euros for tips. I can’t tell you how many postcards I purchased to change out five dollar bill euros because my husband would spend the coin euros rather than break a bill (lol). So, if you men don’t want to carry the coin euros, give them to your wife to carry in her purse. The ship changed out some of the bills but they were running short of coin euros, too. 

In the Czech Republic they use “crowns.” or Krona as it is called in this language. Twenty crowns are worth about a buck American money. A crown is worthless anywhere but there. They will be switching to euros in 2010. Some places will take euros and dollars but the “exchange” is at the whim of whoever is accepting them. While they are more accepting of credit cards than in Germany, we found out that even though the sign in the door says they take credit cards, they may not for some reason—the excuse they gave us was “the computer was down” so be prepared to pay in cash. Our “cab money” we kept aside to get to the airport was exhausted a couple of times. We tipped out our guides/drivers/waiters/bell hops in euros because we had plenty. The good news is that in Prague the ATM’s are more user friendly than in Germany. We visited them three times. Husband was expecting a readout saying “Welcome, back” (lol). Husband, the bean counter, also clued me in that you subtract the last zero from a price and divide by two to find out the dollar price of what you were buying. 

Our pre-cruise documents quoted things in dollars. They mean euros. For instance, tips for the cruise are not $10 a day but 10 euros. Same for our tour guides/drivers. You do not tip out crew members separately, you put it all in an envelope and drop it in a box. If you feel like you need to tip extra, then you give it to the crew member you want to tip. For instance, they don’t add the 15% bar tip to your bills like on ocean cruises. The “envelope” tip is divided among all. So if you feel a certain crew member has gone “above and beyond” like your room stewardess or the bartender, then you need to tip them separately extra. For instance, when we requested peanuts during cocktail hour even though we weren’t buying drinks, we tipped the waiter out periodically. 

We spent around $800 total including $85 in transportations costs to/from airports, $140 for the extra night in Berlin hotel room, tips, non-included meals, souvenirs, and postcards, etc.(which were less than $100, we are not big shoppers) and included our shipboard account of 140 euros in tips and 30 euros in other things. 

Security 

They warned us about how adept pickpockets were. I had a neck bag which I carried on one shoulder with it twisted around my bra strap. In it I had our credit cards, serious money, and a copy of the “business” pages of our passports. Richard had a “hidden” pocket.” It looped around his belt and went inside his pants with his wallet in it. We carried a fanny pack. In mine, I had toilet paper, Kleenex, lip balm, minor money for the bathroom, tips, small purchases in a “throw down” wallet. I had meant to get a cheapo wallet for Richard that he would have in his front pants pocket with a little bit of money in it so he wouldn’t have to go “diving” for the secret pocket but I forgot. His fanny pack had the camera, maps, and other worthless stuff we may have needed. Even though the ship gave us an “ID” card, we never showed it to get on board. We very seldom locked our cabin since we only had the one key. I figured there was nothing in there worth stealing other than our camera which would be on us if we went ashore and the “passengers” would not be interested. My jewellery all came from Steinmart. Crew members certainly weren’t going to risk their jobs stealing anything in that cabin. 

Smoking 

Smoking is only allowed on the Sun Deck. I think that applies to the crew areas also as I saw them going to the “crew lounge” cigarettes in hand. Gloria is very sensitive to smoking and this was a concern of hers. I never heard a “peep” out of her other than she detected what may have been a cigarette burn in her cabin. I never heard complaints from the non-smokers either. No “fanning, coughing, smart remarks, etc.” directed to those who chose to smoke so I think the smokers were very considerate. This should not be a concern. 

In Conclusion 

I was very impressed at how well Viking handled things. Prior to the cruise, we received a very nice “box” that contained two copies of departure information and itinerary, our vouchers, two passport wallet neck bags, two copies of a booklet about the Elbe which included a kilometer by kilometer description of what we were passing, our cruise baggage tags and two luggage tags. I had occasion to call the 800 number twice with questions prior to leaving home and my calls were answered promptly by a most courteous person. 

There were no “screw ups” at all that I was aware of. The excursions went without a hitch with our bus assignments. All the guides spoke English well. They sometimes mispronounced a word or stumbled trying to find the right English word but at no time were we dissatisfied with the tours. They were very knowledgeable and sociable. Christian worked very hard trying to get the lost luggage and take care of other problems which I am sure occurred but we did not know about. The crew was always friendly. Even if they were “off duty” they responded to you with graciousness. The Captain and his co-captain were always around the ship and happy to converse with you. I think what really impressed me was that I did not hear from other passengers who have taken multiple river cruises (and I “mined” them at every opportunity for the future) that “xxx line was better, had better facilities, had better organization, etc.” I heard no complaints at all about the cruise other than maybe they enjoyed another itinerary better than this one. Our ports did not give us the opportunity to shop much or were close to towns that we could get off during the stop and stroll around. I would have enjoyed that but at no time did they claim we would have that opportunity. Our stops were all out of “town” with the exception of Dresden 
(still a hike or a 3 euro cab ride) except Litomerice, which we pretty much covered on our walking tour. Torgau and maybe Meissen—Richard and I have different recollections of that. On any ocean cruise I have been on, complaints have been multiple and continuous. 

To give you an example of how service oriented they are, when we (us and another couple) booked this cruise in August of 2005 with my sister, the TA, Virtuoso, the franchise she is affiliated with, had an incentive of a bottle of wine. On embarkation, there was a bottle of wine in our cabin but not theirs. I went up to the desk that night and it happened that the Maitre d’hotel (who also is the wine steward) was there. I told him that while we had wine in our cabin from our TA, our travel companions who were booked by the same TA at the same time did not receive any. I knew even if Virtuoso had “forgotten” their deal, my sister would have never sent us a bottle and not them. I only got as far as saying “I am pretty sure my TA would never give us wine and not the other party she booked. . .” when he interrupted me and asked what cabin they were in and what wine did they like. He never checked anything. He personally delivered the wine 15 minutes later. 

Would I do Viking again—in a New York minute. If it is going where I want to go, then sign me on. It exceeded my expectations. The minus factors were so miniscule that I am only giving you a “heads up” rather than complaining. The only thing I would do differently is take a pillow and a bag of Oreos (lol). 

Do I like Viking and river cruising? A resounding “YES.” I appreciated the fact I didn’t have to unpack and pack every night. I liked not having to scramble to find places to eat every day in a country where I don’t understand their language, they don’t understand mine, I can’t decipher the menu and don’t even know if it is good food at a reasonable price and having to have money on me to pay for it. I had three great meals a day provided for the most part. I liked all the excursions were included. My cruise (or tour bus) fare was not a “down payment” to spend a lot more money on the actual trip in order to maximize the experience or even get minimal enjoyment out of the places we went.. Yes, they did have opportunities to spend extra on the boat but it was not “in your face” every time you turned around and if you didn’t, you weren’t missing anything essential to the experience. I think our “extra” expenses on the boat were $30 not counting the tips. I really liked not tripping over psuedo art every time I turned around. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me at whitlock(at)alumni.utexas.net.

Tucker