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Travel for the Old and Slow

Rolling Down the (Danube) River

Posted: 08-22-2017
Travel for the Old and Slow

My husband Ron and I embarked on our first ever river cruise in August. We travelled with AmaWaterways on a 7 day float from Vilshofen, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. I say “float” because the sailing was so smooth I could hardly tell when we were docked or when we were in motion. This was a great comfort as I once crossed the Atlantic on the SS United States during very bad weather. I spent the entire crossing on deck with other sick-as-a-dog passengers sipping bouillon while wrapped in two layers of blankets. Staying below deck as the ship rolled and tossed was NOT an option! After 45 years of resisting all forms of water travel, I finally succumbed to a river cruise.
It was fabulous.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

Prague. We signed up for a three day pre-cruise stay in Prague. What a beautiful city! I thought Vienna would be the highlight of our trip but Prague was far more interesting. Vienna features monumental buildings and a rather confusing street pattern. Prague is a checkerboard of public squares connected by very pedestrian friendly streets.
We took a special interest tour of Terezin a Jewish ghetto created by the Nazi’s. Those Jews who refused to die from starvation were shipped to extermination camps. The visit was emotionally devastating. That night we went to a wonderful concert at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (there are concerts every night at many different locations). The program ended with Jewish folk songs that helped alleviate the sadness that enveloped us from Terezin.

The river locks. We passed through a dozen or so locks that make the Danube navigable for ships. It was amazing to watch the ship enter a lock (while sipping a coffee macchiato from The Coffee Machine) and observe the river water levels drop by as much as 30 feet. Sailing beneath low bridges was also interesting. All the structures atop the ship collapse to allow the ship to clear low bridge clearances.

The coffee machine aboard ship. The coffee served at meals aboard ship was not very good. No problem. They had a coffee machine in the lounge that was phenomenal. It featured 8 different coffee choices (including  straight-up regular,  cafe latte and espresso), heated cups and hot chocolate.  It was like a Keurig on steroids.

Illumination tour of Budapest. Budapest is coined “the Paris of the East” and it certainly deserves that title. Heavily bombed in World War 2, the city has made a remarkable recovery. At night all the amazing buildings along the Danube are illuminated. Drifting past these structures on a clear summer night was stupendous.  We drank wine instead of coffee to toast this spectacular display of lights.

Excellent tour guides. Every day featured a choice of tours, all led by local guides. There were a few so-so guides but for the most part they were excellent. Passionate about their respective towns, they could recount what it was like living in Budapest or Cesky Krumlov (yes, that is a town not a dinner course) before the Russians left in 1989. This personal view of life before and after the communist regime was always interesting.

Living in the lap of luxury. During my college years, I visited Europe on a tight budget. Staying in hostels, eating cheap and travelling by Eurail Pass helped keep costs to $5 per day. Spending 7 days on a luxury cruise ship cost a tad more than $5 per day. But I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed having everything planned out, tour guides all arranged, meals prepared and served, cabins cleaned and bed made.  I liked being greeted by clean towels fashioned into animal forms.  AmaWaterways provided a complimentary pashmina scarf which I figure, based on what we paid for the cruise, is the single most expensive article of clothing I will ever own.
The Wachau Valley. The Wachau Valley is a beautiful stretch of the Danube in Austria that features picturesque towns, the crumbling remains of castles and terraced vineyards. Ron and I stretched out in deck chairs and enjoyed the view. The Coffee Machine provided us with café lattes.

WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?

The cruise definitely surpassed my expectations. Unlike the bus tour of national parks my husband and I enjoyed several years ago, a river cruise avoids the need to pack and unpack at different locations and eliminates long bus rides. I liked having more options in terms of socializing, too. On a bus tour, there are only as many people as bus seats. I liked the larger numbers on a cruise (we sailed with 140 people) because we got to meet many different people.

Sometimes the scheduling got a little too structured for me. I bypassed a castle hike mid-cruise because I just couldn’t handle another guided tour. I am still seeking that perfect vacation that combines the luxury of overnight accommodations found on a cruise ship with the spontaneity and adventure of travelling Europe on $5 per day.

SOME ADVICE

I did not bother upgrading my cell phone so I could use it in Europe. My husband did not even take his. So when my husband missed the bus going back to the ship after a castle hike tour, he had no way to communicate with me or the ship. (This was the one tour I skipped). Fortunately the ship was docked within walking distance (3 miles) so he hoofed it back. Next time we travel to Europe, I am going to make sure we are cell phone ready.
The only other piece of advice I would offer is to study up on the history of the area before the cruise. I wish I had done a cursory review of past events in the countries we visited. My knowledge of the Habsburg Monarchy is pretty weak yet they played a major role in shaping the countries we visited. I made amends by buying several bottles of Frankovka Modra, a red wine supposedly favored by Empress Maria Theresa, the final ruler of the House of Habsburg.  Imbibing history is always  a pleasure.

 

Travels with The General

Posted: 12-06-2016
Blog Articles, Travel for the Old and Slow

Son Nick just left for two weeks in Cuba. His luggage consisted of a backpack and small tote bag. I take more stuff than that on a weekend visit to my daughter in Winston-Salem.

I like to pack in anticipation of any occasion. For two years, I included dress pants, dress shoes and a nice jacket in case my daughter unexpectedly suggested we go to a four star fancy restaurant. This never happened so I have finally stopped packing dress clothes. We always go hiking or take long walks at Molly’s.

Lyns suitcase

My orderly approach to packing

This means packing a variety of outdoor apparel, including sweatshirts (might be cold in the mountains), jackets (might be REALLY cold), sneakers, hiking boots, different weight socks, a sports bra, lots of wicking t-shirts and just in case we experience a break in global warming, gloves. You would think I was about to make an assault on Mt. Everest.
My husband on the other hand packs quickly and efficiently, unhampered by the need to fold the clothes before inserting them into the suitcase. I swear his suitcase is like one of those

Rons suitcase

Ron’s  less orderly approach to packing

clown cars at the circus. He just keeps pulling out all the right clothing from his teeny, tiny suitcase. Ron always has the right complement of clothing while I invariably find I have forgotten something.

Ron’s only failure at packing occurred because of me. We joined friends on a weekend visit to Lewes, Delaware. Unbeknownst to my husband, I used a suitcase identical to his to pack bed linens. We arrived at our rented beach house and my husband opened his suitcase only to find a stack of sheets. Off we went to Dollar General and for less than $30.00 we outfitted him for the weekend. The General (Ron’s new nickname) was quite a vision in his shiny blue warm up pants and slightly irregular bright yellow nylon shirt. My husband became quite attached to his new wardrobe but I made sure his new clothes never left Lewes.

All the travel advice columns for Old People suggest packing light to avoid physical strain. I am going to try my best to follow this guidance on future trips. I take comfort in knowing I will always have Dollar General as backup.

Cinque Terre Italy: Travel Tips for the Old But Slow

Posted: 09-26-2016
Travel for the Old and Slow

Cinque Terre, Italy, is wildly popular among Americans these days. I know because I just came back from visiting all five (Cinque) towns strewn along a rocky portion of the Italian coast (Terre). We heard more English than Italian. Everyone seemed to have a copy of Rick Steves Guide to the Cinque Terre tucked somewhere on their person. Even the hotels we stayed at had copies of Steves’ guidebook and one hotel offered a 10% discount if you showed them your copy.

vernazza from trail

View of Vernazza from the trail

The towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, dating back centuries and clinging precariously to the steep hillside, are certainly worth a visit. . But the main reason my husband and I and two other couples traveled to Cinque Terre was to hike the 12 km (7.5 miles) foot path that connects them all. For centuries this rocky trail was the only connection between the villages. The arrival of train service and adjoining roads has reduced the importance of the trail to everyone but “i turisitci” (tourists).

At my age (68) I wondered if I had the stamina to complete the trek. After scouring reviews of the trail, I concluded I could hike it as most reviewers said the trail is challenging but manageable. Even the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, caretakers of the trail, rank the difficulty of the trails as “low.” I should have checked the age of these reviewers. They clearly are not part of my “old but slow” cohort.

cinqueterre-trail-surface

The trail surface

My husband and I intended to do the trail section by section, day by day. On Day 1 we hiked the 2.1 miles section between Monterosso and Vernazza. I consider myself in fairly good shape for an old person. I walk a lot, favoring flat park trails or the treadmill at the gym. None of this activity prepared me for a trail that is very rocky, narrow and steep and features hundreds and hundreds of rock hewn steps. Going up was difficult but coming down was equally challenging. I gingerly negotiated steep, uneven rock steps carved into the mountain. There are no level parts. I often grabbed my husband’s hand not from love but from fear I was going to trip. (My husband is in much better shape than I am)

I truly enjoyed the vistas. They are the perfect excuse to stop, gasp for air, wipe the sweat from your brow and gulp lots of water. I am going to write Rick Steves to suggest a nice trail accessory for older hikers like me would be a defibrillator

Many times I heard footsteps behind me as younger, fit hikers approached. Moving to the edge of the trail to let them pass was challenging because the trail is only 18 inches wide in places. Step too close to the edge and you will find yourself ensnared in grape vines or dangling from the branch of an olive tree.

After successfully hiking the section from Monterosso to Vernazza, we tackled the second part (Vernazza to Corniglia) on Day 2. The 2.1 mile trail was somewhat easier but still steep, still rocky, still lots of steps. As I struggled to catch my breath while enjoying a dazzling vista of Corniglia, the sea and vineyards, I met a gasping older couple from Seattle. They too had heard the news from park administrators that section 3 and 4 of the rail were now closed due to rock slides. We looked each other and proclaimed at the same time, “THANK GOD!”

Even with sections of the main Cinque Terre trail closed, we racked up a lot of miles just exploring the hill towns and adjoining paths. According to my pedometer, we walked over 5 miles sight-seeing in Riomaggiore alone. In nearby Manarola, 374 steps and ten landings connect the town center to the train station. (There is a shuttle for wimps)

Even hotel accommodations have lots of stairs. My husband and I stayed in a room at the top of 60 steps (no elevator). We expected sympathy from our traveling companions who stayed nearby but got none since they had to climb 120 steps.

Despite all this exercise, let me quickly say I still gained weight. Too much pasta slathered with pesto, too many generous portions of homemade lasagna and too many glasses of vino accompanied by cheeses with names like “fragole” and “pecorino pienza.”

The best way to appreciate the history and landscape of Cinque Terre is on foot. But the terrain is difficult on and off the trail. Of the thousands of steps I took, I would guess only 1/3 were on level ground. I would advise my fellow “old but slow” peeps to get in shape before visiting Cinque Terre. If you are not physically fit, here is an important bit of advice that you won’t find in Rick Steves’ guidebook:  the medical emergency number in Italy is 811.

I’m too old to be adventurous…

Posted: 07-02-2015
Blog Articles, Travel for the Old and Slow

arch utah sunriseMy husband Ron and I just completed a 10 day, 1200 mile bus tour of the Grand Circle: five national parks and three national monuments mostly in Utah. We traveled with Road Scholar, a group that specializes in educational travel for old people, I mean senior citizens. The first rule of thumb on a guided bus tour for this age group is never, EVER be more than 2 hours from a bathroom.
Son Nick, a seasoned world-wide trekker, was appalled by our travel choice. First he deemed the cost of the trip ($3300 for two people) unduly extravagant. Nick is quite frugal (as in cheap). While in Nepal last year, he avoided airfare from Mt Everest base camp to Katmandu by hiking two days overland to the nearest bus stop. “I don’t do backpacking,’ I tell Nick,” or sleepovers in fields or bus trips where my seat-mate is a goat.”

Nick disapproves of highly structured vacations. He believes the best travel memories are unplanned discoveries. He recalls the colorful Hindu festival he happened upon in India that featured painted elephants and a landscape aglow with candles. I haughtily informed Nick that one day on our trip we were running ahead of schedule. In a moment of heady exuberance we left the main highway to view Gooseneck Canyon. “It was so remote, “I told Nick, “the bathroom was an outhouse and there was no gift shop.”

I understand traveling 1200 miles in 10 days with 30 other people on a bus isn’t for everyone. I found it a trip of a lifetime largely because of our guide Darrell McMahon. This man is a genius at conveying the geologic history of the area in an informative, humorous manner. When we visited Bryce Canyon National Park, he announced we would be joined by a renowned geologist. Darrell appeared wearing a fake beard and ratty hat. He introduced himself as Clarence Dutton, a geologist who mapped 12,000 square miles of the high plateaus of southern Utah between 1875-1877. Later in the week, Darrell dressed as a condor to describe the bird’s appearance and behavior. Darrell concluded by saying a condor is a lot like a Road Scholar participant—it can eat 20% of its weight in one sitting.
Even though our trip featured walks and hikes, we spent lots of time on the bus. There is no other way to visit so many parks in so little time. Darryl’s commentary and corny jokes helped pass the time (what do geologists use to season their supper? Basalt and pepper.)
Road Scholar caters to senior citizens like me who account for an ever-increasing share of domestic travel. According to survey data, seniors gravitate toward guided tours, expect to experience cultures firsthand, demand expert tour guides and prefer no worries. While world trekkers like my son seek adventure and spontaneity, my peeps want to know motel rooms are booked and Wi-Fi is available.
The tour of Utah’s Grand Circle was very special because of the spectacular scenery and a top notch guide. Our affable and highly intelligent group obviously made a deep impression on Darrell. At our last dinner together he told us, “Of all the tour groups I have led, I can definitely say you are one of them.”

 

Mothman: West Virginia’s Creature of the Night

Posted: 06-11-2014
Blog Articles, Travel for the Old and Slow

When I was a youngster, my parents trusted my older brother to babysit me. Hank decided I would enjoy watching a horror movie with him. I sat mesmerized as grasshoppers munched grasses fertilized by radioactive waste. They immediately grew as high as Godzilla’s eye. Roaming freely in cities and town, they ate anything that moved, developing a particular fondness for human flesh. The menacing sound of their legs and antennae rubbing together signaled their arrival.

Ron transformed into mothman

I spent the next two weeks panicked by any sound resembling the call of the Grasshopper Leader to “get the humans.”   My brother spent the next two weeks grounded in his bedroom.

I overcame my lingering fear of unnatural creatures to attend the 2013 Mothman Festival in Pt. Pleasant, West Virginia. This took a great deal of courage on my part because unlike those giant grasshoppers of my youth, MOTHMAN ACTUALLY EXISTS!!!!!!

Mothman made his debut in November, 1966 at a defunct munitions factory in Pt. Pleasant. The giant creature‘s signature features are blazing, ruby red eyes and wings that measure 10’ across when open. He can achieve speeds of 100 mph. The two couples who saw him signed lengthy depositions swearing they barely escaped his wrath. Soon after this incident, dogs started disappearing and mutilated cattle started appearing.  Over 100 sightings were reported and some folks swore they heard Mothman land on their roofs.

The biggest catastrophe attributed to Mothman is the collapse of the Silver Bridge in December 1967. Engineering reports attribute the disaster to a single rusted eyebar. When it cracked, the suspension bridge cables snapped, sending the bridge and dozens of cars into the Ohio River. More than 40 people died.

A witness camped near the bridge who enjoyed drinking his dinner from a brown paper bag, swore he saw Mothman right before the collapse. Certified UFOlogist John Keel said he received a call warning him to stay away from the bridge and thinks it may have been Mothman. Good thing Mr. Keel did not mistake Mothman for a telemarketing operator.

The Mothman Festival features speakers on Mothman and other spooky phenomena. Apparently, West Virginia is a hotbed of weird, cosmic events. According to one speaker, the former lunatic asylum in Weston is the largest haunted area in North America. Seneca Rocks and the former penitentiary in Moundsville also host spirits.

While imbibing Mothman margaritas (a god-awful concoction of green liquor with cherries embedded in lemon slices for eyes), my husband and I realized we had visited most of our state’s cosmic hotspots. We even spent an evening in the Moundsville penitentiary with lots of ghost hunters who were holding machines to record interdimensional shifts. Ron and I only had flashlights, as we were more worried about tripping over something in the pitch black building and ending up in the afterlife ourselves. We were accompanied by my friend Carol who considers herself something of a ghost hunter as she has seen all the episodes of “Ghost Whisperer.”

There have not been any sightings of Mothman recently but no matter. He has become a reason to visit Pt. Pleasant. The town is enduring rough times; about 1/3 of the downtown buildings are vacant. The Mothman festival attracts people from all over the United States. We met folks from Michigan, Connecticut and Ohio. Hundreds of people attended the lectures.

Mothman may be in hiding but he might come out if the local chamber of commerce honors him as businessman of the year.