Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Day 14 – June 1 (Friday) – Journey home

We took the ship’s transportation to the airport and with a very early flight, had to leave at 6am.  As Delta Platinum members, we were allowed to use the airport lounge as we waited for our flight to Amsterdam.  That flight was uneventful and we got there in plenty of time for the crossing back to Boston. 

In Boston, we went through customs and immigration and then said good bye to Alex and Brenda (they were scheduled to catch a bus back up to Maine).  We headed over to the domestic Delta terminal (a very, very long walk) and then waited for our final leg back to Salt Lake City.  We all arrived safely after what was a nearly 24 hour day.

Day 13 – May 31 (Thursday) – Hamburg, Germany

We arrived in Hamburg early for an overnight stay.   We had arranged a free tour with Sandeman’s New Europe.  We took the shuttle bus into the center of the city and were left off near the Rathaus (the city hall), a beautiful, imposing building.

We hooked up with the tour and they divided us into groups of about 20 people each with our own guide.  We began learning about the Hanseatic League of which Hamburg was an important port.  At that point, we wandered around the city, examining the various churches, buildings, etc.  One big point was the 1842 “Great Fire” that destroyed about a quarter of the city, including the old town hall. 

This canal was right by the Rathaus.

The architecture looks very substantial with a LOT of bricks everywhere.  Our guide pointed out a bunch of “counting” houses.  These were essentially houses of commerce where the shipping companies were housed and did their business.  Since Hamburg was such an important port (and still is), these houses still contain the companies that trade and ship to all different parts of the world.

 One of the several counting houses.
This counting house was shaped like a ship (this is the bow).

We visited the old town hall that was destroyed in the fire.  The back-story on that was someone had the brilliant idea that in order to put out the fire, maybe they could blow up a building with a huge explosion which would suck away all of the oxygen and snuff the fire out.  They ended up deciding to use the town hall, blew it up and the fire kept on raging.  Good plan…

 We are standing inside of the church, which is clearly outside.  This particular church has been left as mostly destroyed (from WWII bombing) as a monument.

Anyway, eventually we walked by the house where the great fire started and the came to a new redevelopment area where there were a ton of new apartments, and other beautiful modern buildings. 

                        The "Great Fire" started at one of these buildings on the left.

The new concert hall and its crazy architecture (which has had budget problems, such as the city thought that it was going to cost 70 million and hired an architect, who ended up spending the entire 70 million just designing the building).

At that point, we wandered back to the town hall area and sat down at a small outdoor booth and ate bratwurst and beer.  It was wonderful.

We then did some shopping, and finally took the bus back to the ship for an afternoon of packing and our last afternoon tea.  We had dinner in the dining room, watched the fourth production show “Route 66”, put out our bags and hit the sack.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day 12 – May 30 (Wednesday) – At Sea

Not much to report for today.  We went to the final lecture by General Zinni on leadership.  It was a wonderful talk about what makes great leaders and essentially how in today’s world pretty much approval ratings from all leaders from political to religious to military are below 50%, and in the US it is below 20%.  He believes that the problem is that the world has basically gotten so much more complicated these days that finding someone who can do the strategic thinking and have the right decision making skills is very difficult.  Apparently General Zinni has written a book on the subject, which we think that we will check out.  It was a very good talk.

Next was team trivia.  We got 13 out of 15, but there were two winning teams with 14, so we lost again.  Oh well.

Lunch next (the Mediterranean café lunch) and then we went to the talk by Thomas Lippman on “The Next Middle East War”.  What he really talked about was the huge problem facing the Middle East which is lack of water.  It really is a huge problem for them and something that is likely going to shape what happens in the Middle East in the not too distant future.

The Mozart tea was this afternoon, and as always, spectacular.  With the waiters all dressed up, the amazing table of various edible goodies and the beautiful stringed music. 

There was time for a bit of relaxing and before getting ready for the captain’s farewell party (formal attire) and dinner in the dining room.  After dinner, we went to the production show “Curtain Call.”
All in all, a wonderful, relaxing sea day. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Day 11 – May 29 (Tuesday) - Still in Honfleur

Since this was an overnight port, we got up, had breakfast in the Lido and then headed out for the 9am shuttle into town (it is only about 2 miles into town, with Crystal providing a shuttle that runs every 30 minutes).  We had joined a group arranged by Guin for a walking tour of the city at 10am.  We found the tourist office and wandered around for a bit until the appointed time arrived.

The guide arrived and we started our tour.  We learned that Honfleur was originally a walled city with troops garrisoned inside.  Their goal was to protect the entrance to the Seine.  This was back in the 14th century.  The wall is no longer there, but many of the houses are still the same.  What was interesting is that they even had a harbor that was inside of the walls of the city.  We wandered around and looked at the various parts of the city: highlights included the building that held the salt that was used to tax the citizens; a discussion of how their houses were constructed;

Our guide leaning against a 14th century house explaining its construction.

the way houses ended up extending their square footage of their buildings out over the street in the front because they were only taxed based on the square footage of their first floor; and finally St. Catherine’s their biggest church.  The church was constructed by shipwrights and looks quite different from most churches.  For one, the bell tower is a separate building across the street (the shipwrights didn’t know how to build one and so made them separate so if the building collapsed due to the ringing of the bell, it wouldn’t take out the whole church).  Second, instead of being a large stone building, it was made of wood (which shipwrights knew how to build).  It was quite a nice church.  That ended our tour (after about 1.5 hours).

 Inside the church.

We then wandered around, explored the city, shopped, and eventually had coffee at a small restaurant by the harbor. 

We returned to the ship for lunch and some housekeeping duties.

We made it to tea again at 3:30.  The kids love interacting with one of the waiters named Zolton.  They are constantly joking back and forth with him.  After tea, Bob worked on the previous days blogs, but couldn’t post because the internet was down.  So, everyone got ready for informal dinner, had drinks and we then went to Prego for the third time.

This time, Julie and Bob both ordered a build your own, three item sampler for entrée. Julie had three different small spaghetti servings with different sauces, while Bob had a ravioli, spaghetti with Arrabiata sauce, and Paccheri.  Wow, what a wonderful way to try several different tastes. 

After dinner we went to see Brent Webb, the mentalist.  He did what was essentially a magic show based on supposedly mentally figuring stuff out from the participants.  Some of the tricks we could figure out, but most of them were quite amazing and very well done.  We were quite impressed.  After that, we hung out a bit and then hit the sack.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Day 10 – May 28 (Monday – Memorial Day) – Honfleur

Clearly Honfleur is quite close to St. Malo as we were already docked when we got up in the morning.  We had signed up for the President’s Normandy excursion that was scheduled to leave at 10:15.  We boarded one of five buses bound for the D-Day Beaches.

We drove about 1.5 hours to “ferme de la Ranconniere”, a very fancy restaurant that serves food typical of the Normandy area.  As we were driving there, we went through Arromanches, right by one of the D-Day landing beaches.  This was cool because it is where they constructed an artificial harbor (from sunken boats and barges that they hauled across the Channel).  The streets of the city were extremely narrow and our guide (who was absolutely excellent) talked about how the tanks and other vehicles had to navigate as they were unloaded from the transports.  We didn’t have time to stop, eventually making it to the restaurant. 

The farmhouse was quite beautiful, made of stone, with flowers and just a beautiful setting.  First course was a crepe (maybe galette although it seemed more like a crepe) with vegetables and ham inside.  We thought that was quite an excellent lunch when they brought up the second course.  This was roasted chicken in an amazing sauce, plus boiled potatoes and vegetables. It was great, but a lot of food.  The third course was a mousse-like desert layered in three colors (much like Neapolitan ice cream).   Amazing, but a lot of food.  After eating, we boarded the bus for the coast.  This was another 30 or so minute drive.

We made it to Pointe du Hoc.  This was the location where the Germans had six 150mm cannon trained on Utah and Omaha beaches.  The idea was that a small group of rangers led by Lt. Col. James Rudder would scale the cliffs and attempt to take out the cannons.  After some false starts (the weather was not good and they mistook another point for Pointe du Hoc), they eventually scaled the cliffs and took control of the area.  Interestingly, there were no cannons.  About 3 months before the invasion, Field Marshall Rommel had decided to change the layout of the fortification.  The cannons were being changed for 8 cannons in a different configuration (and more fortified).  The cannons had been transported several miles inland waiting for the construction to be completed.  They were still sitting inland when the Rangers attacked.

Alex in a bomb crater.  We took this because we took a similar one when we visited the same area 18 years ago when Alex was 6.

We had just about 30 minutes to quickly see the area and where the Rangers scaled the wall and then had to hop right in back on the bus.  (This is a theme for the day, we ended up trying to do a ton of things and rushing through them all).  We then drove about 15 minutes to a small shop/restaurant/hotel where we were scheduled to sample some of the locally made cider.  What Crystal had done was arrange to have the D-Day Academy organization provide a number of actual World War II vehicles that we could ride in.  There were jeeps, troop carriers, and even a duck.  There were enough vehicles to hold 2 buses worth of people, so while one group would go for a ride, while the rest of us would do the tasting, and check out the WWII weapons, uniforms and other paraphernalia.  It was really, really cool to get to actually hold the various weapons.  Alex and Brenda clearly loved it (Bonnie and Clyde style).

The only downside of this stop was that there was only ONE bathroom (that is one) for all 200 or so guests.  So, the line never seemed to go down.  Eventually it was our turn for the ride.  We were in the first vehicle of the convoy, a troop carrier made by White Corporation.  It was 7 tons and had bullet proof glass.  We piled in and drove down and along Omaha beach while the driver told us what happened in that area on June 6, 1944.  We didn’t get to stop on the beach (however, there is nothing really to see other than the topography of the area, as it is now merely a beach with houses and kids playing in the sand and water). It was totally amazing and a once in a life time experience. 

 Brenda and Alex squeezed into the carrier.
 Our convoy.
 Omaha beach today.
 Here we are in front of the troop carrier.
The plate in the troop car that we rode in.

After we finished that, we went to the American Cemetery (which was fairly close).  We got to hang out for a few minutes waiting for the final group to finish up their convoy ride and show up.  

Once we were all present, there was a ceremony at the monument.  The ceremony began with the national anthem and then a trumpeter played taps.  That was followed by Crystal President Greg Michael and General Zinni who carried a wreath and laid it at the base of the monument.  A few moments of silence followed.  Then the assistant to the Superintendent said some a small speech about remembering our fallen and the ceremony ended.  The whole ceremony was amazingly moving.

We then had a few more minutes to hang out, until the flag ceremony.  They lowered and folded the French flag (normally they fly two American flags, but since today was also a French holiday, they flew both). 

After that, we moved to the American flag and that was lowered (to the playing of taps) and then folded.  All of the veterans in the group (including three or four that were WWII vets) helped to fold the flag and pose for pictures.

Finally, Brenda had brought a medal from the Maine organization of Greeters who meet the soldiers returning to Maine after their service.  She presented the assistant Superintendent with the medal.  He accepted it and said that it would be displayed in their offices area (which was being remodeled).  

This is the wall of the MIA soldiers.

After that, we had to head back to the buses for the long trip back to the ship.  Again, we did not have any time to wander around the cemetery and reflect on the significance of what we were experiencing.
As we boarded the bus, we found out that one of the buses did not have a working air conditioner.  So, after some false starts, eventually we were able to get the guests on the broken bus spread onto the other buses for the trip back.  That trip took us about an hour and three quarters.  We finally arrived on the ship at about 8:15pm.  We felt that it was a very long, very rushed day.  However the experience was absolutely priceless.

That evening they had open seating dining, so we went in, had another great meal and then hit the sack early (the only entertainment of the evening was a show by the string quartet at 8pm).

Day 9 – May 27 (Sunday) – Saint Malo

In this port, we had arranged a tour from Westcapades.  We had an eight passenger tour bus with the four of us and two other couples (Cookie and Larry and Bill and Patty).  Originally we were scheduled to arrive in port at 7am and our tour was to start at 7am as well, but due to the tides, we didn’t actually arrive until 9am.  We met down in the lobby at 8:45 and hung out until about 9:15 when they finally got things set up so we could board the first tender.  The President and his wife were on the tender with us.  It was funny, we were sailing in toward the pier when the tender driver, turned around and started to go into another entrance (they have two).  Then he decided that he was headed in the correct pier and eventually we made it (although we ended up being in the second tender at that point – ha ha).  

The folks from Westcapades met us inside of the terminal and we went out and got into their 8 passenger van.  Lucie was our guide (and she spoke beautiful English).  Interestingly, the seats in the van were extremely nice and comfortable.

St. Malo was very crowded first because it was a Sunday and second because Monday was declared to be a bank holiday, so everyone had a 3-day weekend.  Thus they were flocking to the beaches.

We drove the approximate 45 minutes to Mont St. Michel.  Our guide had a magic access code and we got so we could park right at the place where the shuttle takes you across the causeway.  Note – we remember when we saw it almost 20 years ago that there was no road and you had to walk across.  Our guide told us that there is a big renovation project going on to bring the sea back around the island.  It has been so eroded away by silt that Mont St. Michel is no longer much of an island.

Our guide left us at the shuttle buses (apparently you can’t have private guides there) and gave us instructions.  Note – the shuttle buses are kind of cool, as they have a way to drive it at both ends of the bus, so they don’t need to turn around, they just drive down to one end, get out and change to the driver and drive back.  The first big item was she got us group tickets for fast track entry to the abbey (8 euros each).  This is important as the usual line to get in by buying tickets is extremely long. 

She then said, as you get to the island, everyone is queueing up to go into the main entrance.  She said, go to the left (looks like an archway) and go up that way.  You bypass the long street where all of the shops are, you take less steps (180 vs over 300) and you get to the abbey quicker.  

This is the entrance that you go into.

Wow, was she right.  It was like we were at the abbey in no time.  (We learned later that the streets were so crowded going down that we hardly could move.). 

The group tickets let us bypass a huge “buy tickets” queue to get up where you entered the abbey.   We were not able to get the audio sets for listening to stuff (we think that they were in the other queue), but we did get in quickly.  They were holding some kind of service in the abbey when we got there, so we had to be really quiet.  Then we started the trek down through the various rooms, crypts, etc. of the three levels of the building.  They were all quite fascinating. 

 This is St. Michel.

Eventually we emerged and made our way back down, but this time going through the streets.  It was SO crowded that often you got trapped and had to push your way through.  It was nuts.  Fortunately we were going down (we saw a Crystal excursion making its way up through the streets while we were going down), so they had a long day in front of them. 

The crowded streets.

We made it out of the hoards, back to the shuttle, and back to the van, a bit after our scheduled time (12:30).  All eight of us headed toward the town of Dinan.  Dinan is an old city with numerous medieval buildings.  Lucie dropped us off near one of the churches and we agreed to be back at about 3pm.  Again, she didn’t guide us, we were on our own.  The goal was to wander around (she gave us a nicely marked map) and also stop and get lunch.  She recommended galette (a heavier crepe made out of buckwheat flour filled with eggs, veggies, or whatever filling.  you eat with your hands like a burrito) and then a Crepe with local Caramel inside.  Also, we were supposed to taste the local cider (they can’t grow grapes around here, just apples and make their drinks with apples). 

 The restaurant that we went to is the one on the right.

 The crepe.

We stopped at a local restaurant and ate outside having their prix fixe meal of a Galette, Caramel Crepe and cider.  It was excellent.  It was also entertaining as sitting one table away from us (in a different restaurant) were about four guys who were obviously celebrating some soccer team or something, yelling, singing, and getting really drunk (yes, this was at about 2pm).  We then wandered a bit and headed back to the van. 

After that, she drove us to the walled city of St. Malo where our tender was located.  She dropped us off at the gates of the city and our tour ended there.  We had time to explore the city (mostly walking on the ramparts which takes about 40 minutes to walk around the entire city).  Then walk over and catch the tender back.  The city was really beautiful in wonderful shape.  Amazingly great shape.  However, we remembered that Lucie told us that much of the city had been destroyed by bombing and after the war was over it was completely restored to its exact original shape – which is why it looked so good).
One cool thing that we saw near the city was a swimming pool in the ocean.  Essentially they built 3 sides of a swimming pool out into the ocean.  The top side was just the beach.  Clearly, the pool is filled with water when the high tide comes in, otherwise it gets caught there during low tide.  They even had a huge diving board with multiple heights for diving.

 The swimming pool.

Eventually we made it back to the ship for another evening of dining and relaxing.  Sail away at about 8:30 was quite spectacular with St. Malo off in the distance and the sounds of “It’s a Wonderful World” playing in the background.  BTW – we ended up skipping the entertainment (a variety show of the Kent Dancers, the Scottish brothers, and the comedy piano person).