City Scene: Prague

prag2Our visit to Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, was part of our very first tour of Europe. After a memorable few days in Vienna, we boarded a bus for two nights in Prague. I was not impressed as we approached the city, and I started to wonder why we ever left Vienna! But the closer we got to the historic center, the better I felt. The buildings became more pristine, more varied in architectural detail, and the streets began to narrow. So narrow, in fact, that as we approached our hotel, I was amazed that our bus driver had not demolished a few parked cars along the way.

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We checked into our room with instructions to meet in the lobby before dinner. Many in our group chose to rest, but remember… this was our first trip to Europe! We were not about to spend our free time in the hotel! We ventured out on our own and immediately found the Powder Tower, one of 13 original Gothic gates that separated Old Town from New Town Prague. The tower of the gate was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century. A merry mood greeted us on the other side of the city gate where trees had been adorned with decorations and colorful crepe paper. It was May 1st – a holiday in Prague, so there was an atmosphere of celebration and excitement: a band was playing, the aroma of smoking meat filled the air, and people surrounded tents where vendors displayed their wares.

We pulled ourselves away from the festivities and returned to the hotel in time to leave with the group to a typical Czech restaurant for dinner. It was a delicious meal served with plenty of beer, as beer is preferred over wine in Prague. In darkness abated only by dim streetlamps, we walked through the cobblestone alleyways from the restaurant back to our hotel. A light rain had fallen, forming distorted images and eerie shadows – the perfect setting for a cold war spy novel. I was grateful not to be alone, but rather in a group led by an experienced, knowledgeable guide!

Prague was founded more than 1,100 years ago at the crossroads of several trade routes. The Vltava River now bisects “the City of a Hundred Spires”. We began our day with a walking tour of Old Town Square in the heart of the historic core. The dominant presence among all the colorful baroque buildings is the Church of Our Lady Before Tyń. With its Gothic twin spires and pointed arches, it was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. We walked past the Old Town Hall with its medieval astronomical clock where the 12 apostles appear every hour on the hour for an animated show. We also went inside St. Francis Seraphicus Church, a striking baroque-style structure built in 1233.

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And then – the magnificent Charles Bridge! From the grand entrance gate on one end to the fortification tower on the other, this historic stone bridge is truly a remarkable sight! King Charles IV laid the first stone of the bridge on July 9, 1357. Construction was completed at the beginning of the 15th century. The bridge is lined with 30 Baroque statues which symbolize significant religious figures in Czech history.

IMG_0392 (3) The most amazing sight from the bridge (which is always crowded with tourists, vendors, and street performers) is Prague Castle perched at the top of a hill overlooking the Vltava River! While we waited for a bus to take us to the castle, we ordered drinks at a riverboat cafe so we could take in the view a little while longer.

IMG_03941(3)The Prague Castle is the largest medieval castle complex in Europe and dates back to the 9th century. Today it is the official Office of the President of the Czech Republic. The complex includes viewing towers, courtyards, art galleries, museums, a monastery, several palaces, St. George’s Basilica and St. Vitus Cathedral. It is the spires of the cathedral that poke the city skyline and can be seen for miles.

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We toured the hallowed interior of St. Vitus where in front of the main alter is a marble mausoleum and royal crypt containing tombs of Bohemian kings and their coronation jewels. There are several small chapels inside the cathedral, including the Chapel of St. Wenceslas which houses the tomb of the “Good King”.

At the courtyard wall, we checked out the amazing views before heading back down to the bridge through the winding streets of Prague. We stopped at a few shops along the way and bought trinkets to take home as souvenirs.

The evening was ours to do as we wished, so we decided to have dinner at an outdoor café – with a healthy dose of “people watching” on the side. We finished dinner just as an organ concert at St. Giles Church was about to begin. This beautiful 13th century church is Gothic on the outside, Baroque on the inside, and is home to a remarkable organ that is the largest in Prague. The organ has 3500 reed-pipes and an acoustic quality which draws some of the finest organists in Europe to perform here. The classical music and breathtaking candle-lit altar made for an extraordinary experience. It was gratifying to know the price of our tickets would contribute to the upkeep of this glorious church.

Evening had turned to dark – and unlike the previous night – we were completely comfortable in our surroundings. Oh, what a difference a day makes! We strolled through the streets of Old Town as if we were visiting a dear old friend. The next morning we would head to Salzburg, but the night belonged to Prague… a spectacular city scene!

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City Scene: London

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Researching London was almost as much fun as being there! We checked out travel books from our local library, watched related videos, read blogs and searched the web for information regarding the best way to spend four days in London on our own. After months of doing our homework, we settled on an aggressive itinerary that covered everything we thought we wanted to see in the amount of time we had. We booked our hotel, purchased our London Pass and Oyster Cards, and felt confident that we could explore the city without getting lost or wasting time. Our trip also included four days prior to London visiting a family member in Southern England, but when it came time to say goodbye, we boarded the train to London. We were about to find out how good of a job we did on our homework!

We got off the train in Ealing, a bustling neighborhood in West London with well-known shops and restaurants where we booked our hotel. As a transport hub, Ealing has a convenient tube station and bus terminal. We dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way to the tube station. It was about noon when we took the underground to Green Park – the closest stop to Buckingham Palace. We arrived about 40 minutes before our pre-booked tour of the palace, so we made a quick pub stop to toast our successful first experience with “the tube”! So far, so good!

DSC06366 (2)Our tour took us through 19 of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace regularly used by the Royal family, but since the Queen was making her yearly visit to Scotland, the lavish rooms were open to the public. It was a treat to see inside what has become the focal point for the British people and the monarchy for generations. We also toured the extensive Gardens located behind the palace.

DSC06372 (2)After the tour we began our walk down The Mall, a wide elegant avenue between Buckingham Palace and the Admiralty Arch. We stopped for photos in lovely St. James Park which borders The Mall. The Admiralty Arch, completed in 1912 to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria, is a curved stone building which links The Mall to Trafalgar Square, the official center of London. In the center of the square are fountains, Nelson’s Column and four giant stone lions which guard the column.

From Trafalgar Square, we walked to Picidilly Circus then back toward the Thames River. The National Gallery, St. Martin-in-the Field Church, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Sphinx Statue are just a few of the sights we saw on our way to the Victoria Embankment. We walked across the Hungerford Bridge and back before taking the underground back to our hotel in Ealing.

It was a rainy, dreary day in London, but our second day was packed with exciting venues so we were not deterred! We started at St. Paul’s Cathedral where we explored this architectural masterpiece by Sir Christopher Wren from the bottom of the crypt to the top of the tower. For more than 1,400 years, a church dedicated to St. Paul has stood on the highest point in the city. The original church dates back to 604 AD, but the present building was constructed after the Great Fire of London. We got some impressive views of the city from the Golden Gallery at the top of the Dome.

By this time we were fairly comfortable with the underground, so we took the tube from St. Paul’s to the Tower of London. Our research suggested we get there before 11 AM to avoid the heavy afternoon crowd. What a fascinating place! From its early history as a grand palace to its decades of use as a prison, the Tower of London is an extensive complex of buildings and towers and walls. The most popular exhibits are The Crown Jewels, the White Tower, the Medieval Palace, and the Bloody Tower. Also popular are the resident flock of ravens. Legend has it that if these birds were to desert the Tower of London, the kingdom would fall – so taking no chances, the ravens currently living here have all had their wings clipped.

Adjoining the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge which spans the River Thames as a drawbridge. It has two Victorian-style towers that support the middle section when it is raised to allow river traffic to pass beneath it. We walked across the bridge to our first stop on the south side: the HMS Belfast. This grey warship, complete with guns aimed high, is a floating museum that gives you a realistic idea of what life was like on board the ship during WWII.

Following our tour of the ship, we walked along the South Bank – an eclectic mix of old and new. We stopped for a late lunch at The George Inn, one of the oldest pubs in London. We soaked in the historic medieval atmosphere and rested our tired feet before heading on. We still had lots to see!

We explored the Golden Hinde, an English ship captained by Sir Francis Drake which circumnavigated the globe between 1577 – 1580. We passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before reaching the Tate Modern. This art gallery holds the national collection of British art from 1900 to the present day. It is one of the largest museums of contemporary and modern art in the world; and in the hour or so we spent there, we hardly scratched the surface.

We crossed the Millennium Bridge, the first new pedestrian bridge over the River Thames in more than a century. Built in the year 2000, it is an important link between the south bank and the historic center of London, easily connecting the Tate Modern to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Back on the other side of the river, we took Paul’s Walk to the nearest tube station and returned to our hotel. We spent the evening exploring Ealing.

Our itinerary for day three in London included so many stops we weren’t sure we’d get to all of them – but we did! Just like we did on our first day, we took the tube from Ealing to Green Park then on to Buckingham Palace. At the west front of the Palace is the Queen’s Gallery. Works of art from the Royal Collection are exhibited here on a rotating basis. About 450 works are on display at any given time… and they are exquisite!

Just down the street from the gallery is the Royal Mews, home to a spectacular collection of ceremonial coaches and carriages, and one of the finest working stables in the world. The horse-drawn carriages and motorized vehicles used for coronations, state visits, royal weddings and other official engagements are on display. Horses are here only when they are not on duty or undergoing training away from London.

We took the underground to Westminster Station, climbed the stairs to street level and were immediately in awe of Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey! Some of the most impressive tourist sights in London are here in Parliament Square.

Westminster Abbey seemed more of a historical site than a religious site to me. Nearly every coronation since 1066 has taken place here, as well as several Royal weddings. It is the burial ground for famous politicians, sovereigns and artists including Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton. There was a respectful hushed silence during our tour, but I didn’t notice many worshipers – perhaps it was just the timing.

The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, is the seat of the two parliamentary houses of the United Kingdom: the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The most famous feature of the Houses of Parliament is the clock tower, where the deep booming bell of Big Ben rings on every hour.

Located beneath the streets of Westminster are the Churchill War Rooms. It is here that Winston Churchill and his inner circle secretly directed troops and made crucial decisions during World War II. The bombproof complex has been preserved almost exactly as it was at the end of the war. You could easily spend an entire day here, although we managed to do it in a couple hours.

On our way to the Horse Guards Parade, we walked by 10 Downing Street, then toured the Household Calvary Museum and the Banqueting House. After so many museums, we were feeling quiet “English” so stopping at a pub for an early dinner seemed like the proper thing to do. The Sherlock Holmes is a traditional English pub serving pints and pub food, but the interesting thing about it is the complete re-creation of Holmes and Watson’s study and sitting room. Also, scattered throughout the pub is a large collection of items related to characters from the Sherlock Holmes books. The atmosphere was marvelous!

One of our favorite memories is the leisurely boat ride we took down the River Thames. It was fun to see the city from a different perspective and hear commentary about the attractions that could be seen from the river. We sailed from a dock near the London Eye (which we did not ride) to just under the Tower Bridge. While onboard, we had a light rain shower followed by a lovely rainbow! Off the boat, we skipped the first underground we came to and strolled on to the next one in order to experience the atmosphere of the city after dark, then we headed back to Ealing.

The agenda for the fourth and final day took us outside of London and required we travel by bus. About 12 miles southwest of central London is Hampton Court Palace. This spectacular baroque palace with beautiful gardens was once the residence of Henry VIII and some of his wives! We learned about their life in Tudor England; their public drama and their private pain. It was one of my favorite tours!

The Borough of Greenwich is 5 miles on the opposite side of London from Hampton Court; but we enjoyed the bus ride and didn’t mind the distance. We arrived in Greenwich in time for lunch at a pretty little restaurant on the banks of the Thames, then we proceeded passed the Cutty Sark (ship), the Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum to the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill. The Observatory’s astronomical work allowed for the accurate measurement of the earth’s movement and established the Greenwich Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time. There is a gorgeous view from the Observatory downhill to Greenwich Park and across the River Thames toward London.

We spent all afternoon in Greenwich, then hopped on the tube around 5:00 for our final underground trip to the hotel. Big mistake! That meant we went from one side of London to the other in rush hour traffic! It was a bit crowded – just us and a million other people – but we made it back to Ealing with plenty of time to pack for our morning flight home. It had been a wonderful four days and we were feeling very proud of ourselves for accomplishing so much on our own. Other than the rush hour fiasco, we did just fine and chalked up another “city scene”!

See my “Travel” section for more City Scene posts!

City Scene: Edinburgh

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It’s easy to imagine yourself back in time in Edinburgh, Scotland. A walk down the Royal Mile conjures up images of a busy marketplace where trader’s haggle over the price of goods, and horses trot back and forth down the ancient thoroughfare from the castle at one end to the royal palace at the other. In the middle of Old Town, a rowdy crowd of tartan and kilt-wearing clansmen stumble from pub to pub in search of another shot of whiskey or pint of ale. With lantern in hand, they belt out Scottish folk-songs as they make their way home through a maze of dark alleys and steep cobblestone streets in the wee hours of morning.

Our experience in Edinburgh was nothing like that, but it’s easy enough to imagine! As the last stop on our CIE tour of Scotland, I felt like we had saved the best for last. Don’t get me wrong, ALL of Scotland is beautiful! It is a diverse country with castles, rocks, highlands and lowlands, but Edinburgh has it all. Thanks to its spectacular setting high on Castle Rock (which is literally a plug in an extinct volcano), the view is of green hills, blue seas and some of the grandest medieval architecture you’ll ever see.

We arrived late in the afternoon with just enough time to explore the vicinity of the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel before dinner. From the look of things, Edinburgh was going to be incredible! Our Scottish evening included a meal, drinks and a show complete with delectable items such as bangers and mash, fish and chips, cheese and oatcakes, and of course haggis and black pudding. Cranachan (cream, honey, whiskey-soaked oats and raspberries) with strong black coffee was served during a lively song and dance show featuring bagpipes, fiddles and tin whistles.

The next morning was brisk and blustery; none the less, we started our tour at the highest, most windy spot in Edinburgh—the Castle. It totally dominates the city skyline. Archaeological evidence suggests the location of the castle has been a fortified stronghold since the 6th century and a royal castle has existed there since the reign of Malcolm III around 1060. Due to damage, decline and reconstruction over the years, little remains of the original structures. A small chapel on the highest point of the rock dates back to 1124 and is the oldest surviving building. The iconic castle, where centuries of royalty have lived and died, has stunning views of all that surround it.

After the castle tour, we strolled along the Royal Mile, a street which connects the castle to the Royal Palace. Because space was physically confined in the Old Town area, buildings were compelled to expand upward which explains the 6, 10, and even 12-story tenements. Most of the medieval structures have retained their original form over the years, so the area is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most popular section of the Royal Mile is near High Street. Beautiful St. Giles Cathedral is here, as well as popular shops, pubs and restaurants.

At the lower end of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse as well as the ruins of a 12th century abbey, Holyrood Park (aka the Queen’s Park) and the Scottish Parliament. The Palace is the official residence of British royalty when they visit Scotland. Queen Elizabeth spends one week each summer at Holyrood, at which time they fly the Royal flag of the United Kingdom; at all other times the Royal Banner of Scotland is displayed.

The palace as it stands today was built between 1671 and 1678.  Next to the palace are the remains of what once was the finest medieval abbey in Scotland. The Abbey was enlarged over the centuries, its grandeur evident by the size of the roofless nave, the walls of Gothic windows and a vaulted ceiling. I found it hauntingly beautiful! The gardens were magnificent as well, offering a peaceful atmosphere and a kaleidoscope of color.

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We spent a few hours of our free time at the National Museum of Scotland. It contains a wonderful assortment of displays featuring science, natural history, world cultures and Scottish artifacts. Not far from the museum is the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a little dog who famously guarded the grave of his owner for 14 years until the dog passed away in 1872. We headed back along the Royal Mile where we checked out a few shops and had dinner at the well-known “World’s End” pub. It was a pleasant evening, so we walked to Princess Street after dinner. The street has no buildings on the south side to allow for unobstructed views of Old Town and the Castle. The Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic structure dedicated to the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, stands in the Princess Street gardens.

Our tour group was headed for Belfast, Northern Ireland the next day, so it was time to say goodbye to Edinburgh. During our brief stay here, we barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do, but it was long enough to appreciate the historic city scene of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Find my other City Scene posts here:

City Scene: St. Peterburg

City Scene: Auckland

City Scene: Copenhagen

City Scene: Vienna

City Scene: St. Petersburg

DSC_0353 (3)St. Petersburg, Russia was a two-day stop on the Baltic Cruise we took for our 35th anniversary. It was a mixed bag of experiences, both enjoyable and not so much! We started off with a nonexistent welcome from immigration. The official didn’t smile or utter a word – he just looked at our passport, looked at us, then back at our passport. A nod of his head was our only indication to proceed through the gate. An air of unfriendliness continued throughout our visit, but the sights of the city were magnificent none the less!

The agenda for the day included a tour of Catherine’s Palace, lunch in the Czar’s Village, a visit to the world-famous Hermitage Museum, then a drive by the Palace Square, the Arch of the General and other highlights; but we weren’t the only tourists in town! Traffic was terrible, security procedures were strict, and it was crowded everywhere we went. It must be a daunting task to herd large numbers of people through historic structures while protecting them from potential harm. All that aside, Catherine’s Palace was spectacular! Even Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna was not this impressive! Although Peter the Great presented this estate to his wife Catherine in 1710, the Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered it completely redone. The result is why the Palace is now ranked as one of the masterpieces of world architecture.

Inside (where you had to pay to take pictures) the WOW factor continued! From the main staircase where the ceilings were decorated with 17th & 18th century paintings, to the Grand Hall with its gilded mirrored walls, to the State Study of Alexander the 1st, each room was stunning! None more so than the Amber Room! This famous room was originally constructed with over 100,000 perfectly fitted pieces of amber, but the Nazis dismantled the amber panels and shipped them to Germany during WW II and they have never been found. Russian artists began recreating the room in the early 1980s and it was re-opened to the public in 2003. Outside on the Palace grounds, we listened to an A cappella singing group perform for the crowd at one of the two garden pavilions near the lake.

Back on the bus, we searched over 30 minutes for the location of our restaurant for lunch only to discover it was back on the Palace grounds. Disappointment with our inexperienced tour guide and bus driver was setting in! After lunch we toured the Hermitage Museum—home to one of the greatest collections of art in the world! The building itself is a work of art, but the masterpieces inside it were barely visible because of the swarms of people surrounding them. There were Raphael’s, Da Vinci’s, and Michelangelo’s, to name a few, all right there under one roof, but we could only get a glimpse of them through the crowd. I’m sure it would have been an extraordinary experience under better conditions. If we ever do this again, we won’t go in June and we’ll spend the extra money for an “after-hours” tour! We were running late due to the lunch debacle, the snarly traffic, and the packed museum so we didn’t get to drive by all the planned highlights. We did, however, find time to stop at a souvenir shop where they were offering free samples of Russian Vodka. I think everyone needed a drink at that point, so why not! We bought a few sets of Babushka dolls as gifts, plus a charming Russian Egg Christmas ornament for ourselves. We ended the day aboard ship, and after a lovely dinner and show, we went to bed hoping for a better day two in St. Petersburg.

At 8:30 the next morning we got on the bus and were immediately relieved that our tour guide was not the same one as the day before. This one was pleasant, confident and informative – she even knew how to smile! Traffic was terrible once again, but we made it to our first stop at Peterhof, the summer palace complex of Peter the Great. We waited in line for an hour before entering the Grand Palace through its formal gardens. Although the front exterior was not as elaborate as Catherine’s Palace, the interior was equally lavish starting with the ornate ceremonial staircase followed by room after room of rich colors, intricate parquet floors, painted ceilings, fine silk wall coverings, gilded statues and massive portraits of the royal families of Russia.

The gardens behind the complex were amazing, with upper and lower fountains adorning the landscape between the palace and the Baltic Sea. It is the largest network of gravity-fed water fountains in the world. We ended our tour of Peterhof with a walk from the prominent center fountain, called the Grand Cascade, along a canal that flowed through the gardens to a pier where a hydrofoil took us back to St. Petersburg.

We enjoyed our jaunt across the Gulf of Finland to the mouth of the Neva River. Approaching St. Petersburg by water gave us a new appreciation for the beauty of the buildings on the waterfront. The Hermitage, for instance, was dazzling from a distance!  After a nice lunch at the City Café, we hopped back on the bus for a drive by St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, the battleship Aurora, and the Rostral Columns before stopping at the most gorgeous sight in St. Petersburg—The Church on the Spilled Blood!

The church was built between 1883 and 1907 on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (hence the gruesome name). Both the exterior, designed in the traditional Russian onion-dome style, and the interior are decorated with bright shades of marble and detailed mosaic tiles. According to restorers, it contains several thousand square yards of mosaics – more than any other church in the world. The church was closed in the 1930s when the atheist Soviets, who were offended by religion, began destroying churches all over the country for being “inappropriate symbols of Christianity”. The church remained closed and under restoration for years and was finally re-opened in 1997, not as a place of worship, but as a Museum of Mosaics. The pictures we took of this church are some of my favorite travel photos!

It’s hard to comprehend the damage the city has endured from various disasters including fires, floods and wars, especially the cruel Nazi occupation of WW II, but all the sites we toured have been restored to their original glory. Architecturally, the city ranks as one of the most splendid in Europe. The historic district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. While I didn’t find St. Petersburg to be a particularly congenial city, clearly there is a fondness for art, opulence and beauty here. With construction and/or re-construction continuing everywhere you look, it will one day be even more magnificent than the current city scene!

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Other City Scene posts:

City Scene: Vienna

City Scene: Copenhagen

City Scene: Auckland

City Scene: Auckland

There are many reasons why I think Auckland, New Zealand is a delightful city. It is picturesque, vibrant and friendly; and it’s geologically fascinating as well, since it has two large harbors and was built on a large volcanic field. It is also where we met up with our brother-in-law and his new wife to begin a cruise around Australia and New Zealand together. They proved to be the perfect travel partners – pleasant and laid back – just like Auckland!

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We arrived at The Rendezvous Grand, a beautiful hotel superbly located in the cosmopolitan center of Auckland and within easy walking distance to numerous city landmarks. Our companions had arrived a day before us, but on the afternoon of January 3rd they were waiting in the hotel lounge where they welcomed us with a drink and a toast… cheers to a wonderful trip ahead!

The four of us spent the late afternoon and evening walking up Hobson Street, passed St. Matthew-in-the-City, around the Sky Tower Complex, and back down Queens Street jammed with shopping, art and nightlife. Along the way we found Federal Street, one of Auckland’s newer foodie precincts for dinner at an open-air restaurant, complete with friendly birds who were loitering at the table next to ours, no doubt hoping for food. It was a perfect evening to be outside, quite unlike the winter weather we left back home.

The next day we were rested and anxious to see the city. The first order of business was to book our Auckland City Express Tour. Lucky for us, a bus was scheduled to depart just as we walked to the counter for tickets. Better yet, we were the only ones there. Timing is everything! It turned out to be a private 3-hour tour showcasing the highlights of what makes Auckland so special. From the many volcanoes, working farms and gorgeous gardens, plus learning about the Maori culture and history along the way, it was the best possible Kiwi experience.

On the tour, we visited Bastion point where the harbor views were stunning, drove past the glamorous houses on Paratai Drive, and stopped at Mt. Eden, the highest volcano in Auckland. This, and the 48 other individual volcanoes that surround the city, are all considered extinct although the volcanic field itself is merely dormant. We drove through Parnell Village to visit the historic Holy Trinity Church, and over the Harbor Bridge for a view of the Waitemata Harbor and to learn a bit of maritime history at the Viaduct.

We stopped at One Tree Hill to see a working farm on our way to the Auckland Domain. The Auckland Domain is the city’s oldest park where the explosion crater and most of the surrounding tuff-rings of the Pukekawa volcano can still be seen. I found it wondrously beautiful considering how destructive it once was!

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After the tour, we stopped briefly at the hotel for our city maps, then headed off on foot to the Sky Tower. The iconic Sky Tower is the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand and offers breathtaking views for up to 80 kilometers in every direction. As we walked around the observation deck, we spotted our hotel and our ship among the many amazing sights below and beyond.

Back down on solid ground, it was a short walk to Albert Park, home to some of the most majestic and distinctive trees I’ve ever seen.  On one corner of the park is the Auckland City Art Gallery and Gardens, and on the other is the original park-keeper’s cottage, now a museum. The park has earned a special place in the hearts of Aucklanders and visitors alike.

By mid-afternoon, we met back up with our travel partners who had opted to tour outside the city that day. We headed to Princes Wharf where cruise ships dock at the Viaduct Harbor. Checking in at the ship was quick and easy, so we returned to the pier to explore the area before embarkation. The harbor was full of handsome yachts, including those used in the America’s Cup race. We saw the KZ 1, a sailing yacht used to challenge for the 1988 America’s Cup, now on display near the National Maritime Museum. We toyed with the idea of having a nice, cold beer at The Ice House we passed, but we didn’t have enough time to warrant the cost, so we stopped at a cozy little bar next door and toasted once again to the cruise ahead.

We sailed away from Auckland at sunset just as a golden glow spread over the city. The sky was soon glazed in shades of orange; and with the Sky Tower and Mt. Eden in the background… it was the perfect final image of this City Scene.

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City Scene: Copenhagen

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For the second installment of City Scene, I have decided to re-visit Copenhagen, Denmark. It was from Copenhagen that we departed for our 35th wedding anniversary cruise. We had a wonderful time cruising the Northern European ports on the Baltic Sea, but it all began with an overnight stay in Copenhagen.

After a lengthy flight delay in Kansas City, we frantically ran from gate to gate for our connection in Newark. Once we caught our breath and settled in, the flight across the Atlantic was uneventful – thank goodness! We transferred from the airport to the heart of the city where we, along with good friends who were also celebrating their 35th anniversary, checked in at the historic Palace Hotel.

The hotel, a city landmark in Town Square, is right next to Tivoli and within walking distance of art, culture and museums. We had purchased tickets from home for the Hop On-Hop Off bus tour, so after 30 minutes to rest and freshen up, we made it to Stop One at the designated time – quite an accomplishment, I must say! Unfortunately, it was so crowded and confusing that we thought it best to compose ourselves over lunch. We found a quiet pub across the street from Tivoli Gardens, had a nice beer & burger, then tried the Hop On-Hop Off again. Success!

From Tivoli Square we traveled to Rosenborg Castle, the National Gallery & Botanical Garden, and the Langelinie Pier for a photo stop at the Little Mermaid statue. The Edvard Eriksen sculpture was inspired by the short story by Denmark’s favorite son: Hans Christian Andersen. It is supposedly the most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen, so we took a picture of her like all good tourists do!

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We “hopped” back on the bus and passed Fortress Kastellet, the Resistance Museum, and St. Albans Church on our way to the next photo stop at Gefion Fountain. From there it was on to Amalienborg Royal Palace, a place we would have explored further if we’d had more time; then to Nyhavn, or the “New Harbor” area, where picturesque houses along the river bank are over 300 years old.

One of the things we noticed about Copenhagen was the large number of bicycles in the city. It is known as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Nearly 70% of Copenhagen’s residents cycle throughout the year, so the city’s bicycle paths are extensive and well used. Cycle lanes are not shared with cars or pedestrians, and often have their own traffic light which gives cyclists a couple of seconds lead, allowing them time to accelerate.

Back on the Hop On-Hop Off, traffic was heavy and slow near Tivoli Park, but eventually we returned to the Palace Hotel for a brief rest. We met up with our friends again for dinner as a light rain began to fall.  Lucky for us the Stroget, a cute cobblestone, pedestrian-only thoroughfare with numerous restaurants and shops was just around the corner from the hotel. We ducked into the first little pub we came to, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. I had the Danish Sailors Stew, or Labskovs, a traditional dish originating on ships back in the 1700’s. It hit the spot on a cool, damp evening! The rain had stopped after dinner, so we continued our walk down the Stroget. A little souvenir shopping, some sightseeing, a stop at the pastry shop; then we found our way back to the hotel and wearily put ourselves to bed!  It had been a long day!

We awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and after a great breakfast at the hotel, were excited to start the day! We had the rest of the morning to further explore Copenhagen before cruise embarkation, so we walked a short distance to the canal area where Christiansborg Palace and Ruins are located. Once there, the buildings were impressive enough to coax us into taking the tour and I’m so glad we did.

The palace was the fifth building to be located on the site. The first one was Bishop Absalon Castle built there in 1167. In 1369, the Copenhagen Castle was located there and was the seat of the royal family of Denmark for more than 350 years. The first Palace was built on the site in the 1700’s, but it – and the second Palace (built in 1828) – both burnt to the ground. We saw the remains of these former buildings when we toured the ruins beneath the Palace. Rebuilt in 1928, the current Christiansborg Palace is home to the Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the Supreme Court and is used by the Queen for formal receptions.

We had just enough time for a few more pictures at New Harbor and to buy one more scrumptious Danish pastry… then we transferred to the docks to board the ship! As we sailed away, we said goodbye to the colorful, captivating “City Scene” in Copenhagen!

City Scene: Vienna

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I am embarking on a new endeavor! I’ve added a section to my blog devoted entirely to travel, specifically to individual cities. I plan to call this new feature “City Scene”. My goal is to highlight a different city each month. They will be in no particular order, but I’m starting with Vienna. It was the arrival city on my very first European tour, so it made quite an impression. Here is my summation of Vienna:

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With great anticipation, my husband and I departed Kansas City on a Monday morning and arrived in Vienna, Austria the following morning their time. We were the last of our tour group to check-in and, darn the luck, had to accept the “Brahms Suite” at the Radisson Blu Palais since all the regular rooms had been assigned. Gorgeous rooms! Before we could get settled in, our tour guide lead most of the group on an unofficial pre-tour and left us behind, so we just ventured out by ourselves – a blessing in disguise really, as we felt a certain thrill in discovering the sights of the city on our own, a bit like Christopher Columbus except there were thousands of other explorers right there with us.

Across the street from the hotel was Stadtpark, the first public park in Vienna. Because Johann Strauss II gave his first concert there in 1868, a gilded bronze statue of him was erected, as well as numerous other monuments of composers who had entertained there. From the park we found our way to the center of the city where we were fascinated by the sheer number, size and architecture of the ancient buildings, sprinkled with colorful modern shops along the way. We snapped pictures endlessly even though we didn’t know exactly what we were seeing until the next day when our guide, Hannes, officially started the tour with a walk through downtown Vienna.

Most impressive on the tour was St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a massive Gothic structure in the heart of the city dating back to the year 1147. With its intricately tiled roof and tall south tower, the magnificent cathedral is one of the most important and beloved landmarks in all of Austria.

Equally imposing was the Hofburg complex which includes the Imperial Palace (home to the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire since the 13th century), the Imperial Chapel (home of the Vienna Boys’ Choir), the Spanish Riding School (with the famous Lipizzaner stallions), and the Imperial Treasury. Our first thought upon seeing both the cathedral and the Hofburg complex was how do we capture the size of these things in a photo?

That evening we had dinner at Heurige Mayer am Pfarrplatz, one-time home of Ludwig Van Beethoven where he began working on his Ninth Symphony in 1817. Beethoven moved 65 times in Vienna seeking privacy, and died in an apartment during a violent snowstorm that battered the city in 1827.

The next day in Vienna, our tour group crossed the Danube River to visit the former summer residence of the Habsburg imperial family: the Palace of Schonbrunn. After walking through the extensive gardens and fountains, we hoofed it up the hill to the Gloriette, which seemed to be an 18th century version of a gazebo, but elaborate, VERY elaborate! From the top of this hill was an extraordinary view of Vienna.

Back down the hill, we toured the inside of the Palace, a 1,441-room baroque style monstrosity built between 1696 and 1712 by Emperor Leopold I for his son, Joseph I. It was stunning and filled with Bohemian crystal chandeliers, porcelain tile fireplaces, lavish gold leaf ornamentation and hundreds of original oil paintings. We saw the Hall of Mirrors where in 1772, 6-year-old Mozart played the harpsichord for Empress Maria Theresa. It is said that after he played for her, he crawled onto her lap for a hug! We also saw the bedrooms of some of Maria Theresa’s 16 children, one of whom was Marie Antoinette, the future Queen of France who was beheaded by her own people during the French Revolution.

After a late lunch at Restaurant Ofenloch, we had a free evening. A group of us purchased tickets to a concert by the Vienna Symphony at the famous Vienna Concert Hall (Wien Konzerthaus). Beautiful!

We topped off the evening with friends and a little wine & cheese in our suite, where we discussed our favorite moments in this memorable “City Scene”!

(Note: all photos are by me or my husband)