Thursday, June 30, 2011

Closing Thoughts: Our Rhine Cruise & Italy Travel

In my blog posts about our Rhine River cruise, I focused primarily on our itinerary rather than the ship itself, so I want to add a few lines here about the beautiful Amalyra. Ben and I had sailed on two of her sister ships previously and were already familiar with the design. River ships aren’t very big, and all are easy to navigate with functional, if not huge, cabins offering plenty of storage space.

Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style or via a menu, and dinner featured a variety of local and regional dishes. Regional wines, as usual on AMA’s ships in Europe, were free-flowing and excellent. The pastry chef onboard was one of the best we’ve ever had. I can usually turn down pastries all day long; not this cruise. And her homemade ice cream was to die for!

We were fortunate to have Marion Juhnke again as our Cruise Manager. We marveled at her expertise during our Portugal Douro Valley cruise last year and were delighted to find her assigned to this Rhine sailing. It takes a special person to manage people, itinerary glitches, and the multitude of other issues that can occur on a cruise. Add to that the Northern European drought that left the Rhine’s water level so low as to require docking changes, and you learn quickly how important that level headed manager must be. Thank you, Marion! We hope to see you next year in Provence!

Actually, the entire staff and crew of the Amalyra, from Captain Rien Pols to our cabin stewardess, made each of us feel welcome and did everything possible to ensure our trip was enjoyable. One elderly member of our group needed a walker and/or wheelchair assistance, and both staff members AND our group of friends pitched in to help her whenever needed.

That brings me to another point. Travel in Europe can prove challenging for those with mobility issues, from those signature cobblestone streets to steep stairs. Oftentimes, rest rooms are located on lower or upper levels of buildings accessible only by stairways, not elevators. Much of Europe would hardly receive a stamp of approval by the ADA! Even in the “gentle walker” sub-groups river cruise lines form, guests must keep up—and those on walkers can have a difficult time doing so. Now, Ruth, our wonderful friend from church who joined us, did an amazing job for a woman of 86, moving as quickly as she could, bailing out of the trickier excursions, and never once complaining; but every outing required more advance planning, more “thinking through” the next several hours, and most of all, more time. The beauty of river cruising, however, is the cruising itself. The day our ship sailed through the Rhine River Gorge was perhaps the most enjoyable of all for Ruth and her cousin Margaret. Well, that and maybe riding up Mt. Pilatus in Lucerne via bus, cogwheel railway, cable car, and chairlift! These ladies kept shaking their heads in disbelief that they were actually making that exciting trip.

Finally, a few words about train travel in Europe. Admittedly, this was Ben’s and my second venture into Europe’s rail system, so we don’t pretend to be experts. Our goal was a more relaxed trip from Switzerland to Italy without flight hassles or car rentals, and that’s what we got for the most part. About 60 days before the start of our train travel, I ordered first class tickets from Zurich to Ancona via Rail Europe.  An easy purchase, and tickets arrived in just a few days. There is some beautiful scenery along that route, although tunnels interfered with part of the journey. We were dragging bags, of course, which are a lot more trouble than backpacks on a train. However, a porter was hovering outside our train in Milan just waiting to assist someone, and we gladly accepted his offer and his open hand for the tip so well earned. Upon arrival in Ancona, the only issue was needing to go downstairs, under, across, and up again to the station—and we couldn’t get the elevator working. Many thanks to the helpful man who at least got it going for me!

We bought our last set of tickets from Ancona to Chiusi in Tuscany at the Ancona train station. I learned, however, that there really wasn’t much of a price difference, and I could have more easily purchased them from home. Our departure from Ancona was complicated by one of those nasty Italian strikes that can last just minutes or a few hours, in this case delaying us by about an hour and a half. As a result, our train was more full than usual, and disembarkation in Chiusi was almost a disaster. We didn’t get to the exit door soon enough, and the stream of incoming passengers totally blocked our departure. Ben finally got off, but I was caught in the door while it was trying its best to close on me! With Ben holding one hand, me holding my remaining bag, and the conductor yelling at us for causing the delay, it’s a miracle we proved stubborn enough to finally get bodies and bags off the train! But we did. And the bruises on our bodies healed in a week or so....

We love river cruising! These lines cater primarily to those 60+ in age, but days are full with walking or touring excursions once or twice each day. What we are able to see, however, far outweighs the rich schedule. Provence in May 2012, anyone? We have two cabins remaining...

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