"It's Not An Adventure Until Peril Is Involved"

When I travel I do a lot of research. Did I say "a lot"? I may have exaggerated, actually, I research and plan obsessively before a trip.  I usually go on the web to whatever forum has threads related to the trip I'm taking. In the case of this cruise, I spent quite a bit of time on the River Cruise Boards of Cruise Critic. I ask questions...I ask a LOT of questions. Did I say a lot? I meant I ask questions obsessively! 

One of the things I like to learn about is logistics; how to get from here to there, where to stay, what's the procedure for this or that. When I get a sense for the logistics, then I don't have to spend vacation and touring time on them, I can move through the "business of travel" (how to get to the hotel, changing money, where to buy tickets for the metro etc) and enjoy the fun of travel (sitting in a cafe with a glass of wine, biking through the streets, touring a museum) So my sources on Cruise Critic all assured me I could easily walk from the Marriott in Budapest to the dock where the AMAPrima usually docks. I took them at the their word, but apparently I didn't ask quite ENOUGH questions.  

We could see the AMAPrima from our room, it wasn't more than 1/2 mile away. Sure we had 4 bags, but they all rolled and we can manage them easily, and frankly, if we did a little work getting them there; we could use it after all the rich food we'd been enjoying in Budapest! 

So we rolled out of the Marirott with high hopes and our sights set on arriving at the river ship with little trouble, I'd done the research, I'd asked the questions, maybe I was even a little obsessive...I was confident!

 

 Jeff leaving the Marriott towing our large roller bags, hopeful, confident with a big wide sidewalk to walk on, just mere steps from the Marriott to the AMAPrima! 

Jeff leaving the Marriott towing our large roller bags, hopeful, confident with a big wide sidewalk to walk on, just mere steps from the Marriott to the AMAPrima! 

Maybe we were a bit over confident, we started out on a big wide perfectly paved boulevard sidewalk, but to make it to the ship we had to cross 4 lanes of highway and tram tracks. No problem really, traffic control was good in Budapest, with pedestrian walks and lights. We found a pedestrian light and crossed over to the river. There was a sidewalk there, maybe not as wide and spacious as the boulevard sidewalk across the way, but certainly passable and we continued along past several small day cruisers.  

 

Then something happened...to channel Shel Silverstein- "Where the Sidewalk Ends".  We were faced with a chasm; a few granite cobble blocks barely wider than the lane marking stripes in the road, with traffic whizzing by just inches away with the merest of guard rails on one side and a set of steep stone stairs leading to the Danube river some 20 feet below on the other side. Imagine a tightrope walk, now imagine it with 4 roller bags, one of which contains all of Jeffs camera gear (and I'll remind you, dear reader, so you also feel the peril, that without this gear, there will be no pictures! Or maybe that's what you have been rooting for all along! ) 

We came to a dead stop "Where the Sidewalk Ends" to assess our options.

1- go back a 1/4 mile, and try to find a way on the surface streets and hope for another crossing closer to the ships dock (ding, ding ding! This was the correct answer!)

Or 

2- carefully shuttle the weighty and unstable rolling bags across the perilous tightrope of cobble stones, taking care not to let go or trip, lest both we and the bags end up in the Danube below. The only way to do this practically is to take one at a time until all four are at the other side where the side walk begins again. (This was the WRONG choice and of course the one we chose!)

 

 Lest you think we exaggerate, here is "where the sidewalk ends" and our rather weighty bags wating to cross.

Lest you think we exaggerate, here is "where the sidewalk ends" and our rather weighty bags wating to cross.

Having committed to the perilous journey on uneven cobbles mere inches from either certain death by vehicular homicide or drowning, Jeff starts across with the largest and most unstable bag, (figuring heck, if it's not going to work we may as well figure it out early in the process) Amazingly, he makes it across successfully leaving the bag alone on the other side (this is a travel no no, and we worried for a moment that someone might steal it, but it was abundantly clear that absolutely no one else was foolish enough to take this route on foot, even without 4 roller bags!)

So Jeff returns, carefully picking his way back for another bag. His real worry is sitting in his carryon bag- thousands of dollars worth of camera gear that is not terribly compatible with even a slight mist, much less getting completely submerged in a foreign river and floating out to the Black Sea. (we are pretty sure this was not what AMA had in mind when they advertised the "Black Sea Voyage"!) By this time, I want to speed up the process and had decide that I could manage both carry roll aboard bags if I take one in each hand and walk across the cobble path to the other side (really, won't I just be BETTER balanced with 2 ?) 

Jeff of course is panicked, imagining me and the camera gear tumbling into the Danube (the camera gear is his biggest worry, of course; I can swim). So I start out with his camera bag in my Danube side hand and my carry on bag in the whizzing-truck-street side hand. Jeff's panic escalates, so to reassure him I do a tricky mid transverse "switch" of the bags, balancing over the Danube (thank God for yoga, this works!!) and he seems calmer with the camera gear on the street side, where it's only at risk to be smashed to bits by a passing bus.

 

 

 To up the degree of difficulty, every so often one of the cobbles is just ...missing.

To up the degree of difficulty, every so often one of the cobbles is just ...missing.

Luckily, we did make it all the way across with all four bags, none of them made an "unscheduled water landing" and we found the wider side walk, and of course the much easier crossing just a few feet from the dock, where we should have gone in the first place! So if you are going on this journey and want to try walking, the advice is correct, it can be done...just don't follow us! 

 Here our our bags, safely secured on the AMA ship awaiting a more relaxing journey! 

Here our our bags, safely secured on the AMA ship awaiting a more relaxing journey! 

 

We have a family travel motto, that's "it's not an adventure until peril is involved". So it's officially an adventure now!

Postcards From Budapest

Our Cruise on the AMAPrima begins with a narrated sail up and then back down the Danube.  Budapest is beautifully lit at night and seeing it from the river is beautiful! Jeffs strategy when traveling to a new place, is always get the "postcard view" first; then try to see the sight from a different perspective. We decided to share a few postcards from our evening sail along the Danube. 

 Correction: Parliment Building on the Pest side

Correction: Parliment Building on the Pest side

 

 Matayas Church and Fishermans Bastion

Matayas Church and Fishermans Bastion

 Chain Bridge and Buda Palace

Chain Bridge and Buda Palace

 Statue of Liberty 

Statue of Liberty 

 

Arrival in Budapest

 View from the Marriott concierge lounge towards of the Chain Bridge over the Danube and St Matthias (on Castle Hill on the Buda Side) 

View from the Marriott concierge lounge towards of the Chain Bridge over the Danube and St Matthias (on Castle Hill on the Buda Side) 

We made it to Budapest - I'll have more details on our guide and driver on my more comprehensive "after" blog, but we had arranged with our Budapest Guide Magdi Pelech to have her driver pick us up at the airport at 7:15 PM (that's 19:15 for the military types and folks in Europe!)  At 35 euros for the transfer, it's more costly than a group transfer or the local bus, but possibly less than a taxi, because you could get one that doesn't treat you right. And after a long day in the unfriendly skies, there is nothing like seeing someone waiting for you at the airport with your name on a placard! Arranging a transfer for our first night in a place is one of those splurges well worth it. 

Our trip from the airport, along the Pest side of the Danube at night was a beautiful introduction to Budapest, and we could see the river cruise ships heading out of port and doing their "drive-bys" of the monuments at night. We saw ARosa, Viking, Grand Circle River Ships, and we weren't even looking that hard! We also saw the party cruises and night site seeing cruises traveling up and down the river. One can see why the river ship lines start or end many of their cruises here, it is really lovely and scenic!

 A view to Elizabeth Bridge from our room at the Marriott

A view to Elizabeth Bridge from our room at the Marriott

Our room is on the top floor concierge level (making all those stays in anonymous Residence Inns in college towns all over the New England and NY worth the effort for the free upgrade and access to the concierge lounge with included breakfast and snacks! We stopped in tonight for a late snack and a quick look at the panoramic view from the lounge. 

Tomorrow we meet Jeff's sister and BIL, K&N for a full day of touring with Magdi Pelech and the driver we met this evening! 

Pre Trip Planning and Packing 9/19/2014

Our itinerary for this trip:
We worked with Jenny Mikkelson and Kayla Torgeson at Travel Beyond in Wayzata MN to plan this trip. How, you may ask does a couple from the Boston area (and we always have been) get hooked up with a travel agency in Minnesota? Welcome to the web my friends! It's a very good question with a very long answer! Click here to see how we found Travel Beyond.

When we decided we wanted to see this area of the world, a part of Europe that is just a little harder to get around on your own than Western Europe, we knew that river or ocean cruising is a good way to see places where tourist infra structure isn't as developed, since you've got your hotel floating with you.  The convenience of not packing and unpacking every day leaves more time for enjoying your destination. While cruising usually isn't a great way to explore a place in depth, it's a great way to "sample" places and firm up plans to return to favorite places.  

After sending us a pile of brochures for various river cruises (based on Travel Beyond's knowledge of our wants and needs) we selected AMA cruise lines because of their focus on meeting the needs of more active, independent travelers. With on board bicycles, active walker, biking and gentle walker touring groups, and on board gyms, they seemed geared to meet the needs of active travelers like ourselves. All of the river cruise companies offered similar itineraries, and prices are similar with small differences in ship's age, cabin styles, food quality levels or alcohol inclusions at meals. We are brand new to river cruising, so we won't be able to compare lines, but I hope to give a comprehensive review of how we are treated on our AMA cruise. So far, service has been top notch, and as you will see below, we've been impressed with the information we have received pre trip.

Here is the map of the itinerary we will sail.

 AMAPrima Black Sea Voyage Itinerary

AMAPrima Black Sea Voyage Itinerary

As you can see from the map, our trip will embark in Budapest, Hungary and travel down the lower Danube River through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Once in Romania, we will fly to Istanbul Turkey for 4 nights.  Although the river cruise lines offer packages to include pre and post hotel stays, we decided to make our own way to Budapest and spend 3 nights there, on our own, and join AMA when the river ship embarks on Sept 23rd. 

Since we made our plans, my husband's sister and her husband (K&N) decided to join us in Budapest from their home in Great Britain. This is wonderful since we don't get to see as much of them since they moved to Europe! After our stay in Budapest, they will travel on West via train to Vienna and Prague (countries that are often included in the river cruise itineraries as pre or post stays, but we chose to save them for another trip) while we will embark the river ship and sail East! 

After we return I will include more details such as our planning process and packing lists, details about tours and guides...but for now we will try to live blog a few interesting details, thoughts or impressions along with some of Jeff's photographs. In the interest of enjoying the trip while we are on it, the daily blog may be less robust than the review after the trip, but I promise to include all the details and ephemera that I'm well known for including in other review sites! Also when we return, I'll be happy to answer questions or give advice based on our experiences, but due to limited internet access while on the trip, I may not get a chance to respond to each comment or question during the trip! (If I'm lucky enough to have any of you respond!) 

 

Pre Departure Documents we received from AMAWaterways

 Pre Departure Documents

Pre Departure Documents

 Our docs from AMA came a couple of weeks ago, and I've had time to go through them completely this past weekend. 

I'm very impressed with the quality of info included in the docs; of course there is the usual vouchers, contracts, booklet  (Welcome Aboard) about what to expect on board (tips, services etc)  and luggage tags. There is also a day by day itinerary (Your Detailed Itinerarylike we've received for other high end expedition trips. I like AMA's piece because it also lists in the same doc all of the excursions available at each stop and the descriptions are very thorough including the amount of time on a bus and the amount of time walking on each tour as well as an "difficulty rating". This is succinct and allowed us to make our choices right now, so we won't need to spend time on our vacation with our noses in a book; we will know what we want to book when we board! 

The other piece included that I was impressed with is the Lower Danube Destination Guide. This is specific to the section of the river we are sailing. In addition to Km by Km maps and descriptions of the sights along the shore and brief history of each area, there is also a graphic and double pull out map with Km by Km sights and which side of the ship they are on, as well as info about which area, and country where it's located and what type of sight it is (business, bridge, ruins, nature area, etc) Near the back there are destination guides for the major embarkation and disembarkation cities. In our case, Budapest and Istanbul.

It's tiny so it could be tucked easily into a pocket or camera bag, and it's jam packed with good info. I spent easily more than 100 dollars on guide books and some of them were good...but this little book is specific to our trip, and so compact, and helpful. 

The only guide book I could find that came close to describing the trip Km by Km including the "off river" major sights we planned to tour was "The Danube A River Guide" by Rod Heikell. It was written in 1991 well before the changes and Balkan war and still references Yugoslavia. Heikell travelled down the Danube from North to South (Black Sea) on a small sail boat, shortly after the Danube became more navigable after the damming. It's no longer in print, but I bought a used copy, and found it the most useful in terms of describing what we would see along the way, even though it's dated in describing the names of the countries. 
 

Other guide books and my opinions of them: 

Rick Steves Budapest 
Rick Steves Istanbul

Both of these are useful for organizing independent or private touring. I like Rick's approach about knowing your destination, accepting the culture one is visiting cheerfully and with an open mind!  I generally don't take Rick's guides with me, though his downloadable guide could easily be toted along on a phone or tablet

DK Istanbul 
DK Budapest

I like of both of these for planning touring and to use the maps in the destination. They are richly illustrated city guides with a "just the facts, m'am" approach. But looking through the photos really helps us identify what sights and experiences we'd like to see and have. One reason I do like to bring DK guides- especially in areas where I don't speak or can't easily translate the signs, is because they have wonderful illustrations of the major sights, with inset photos or drawings and descriptions of each. These can serve as museum guides in places where you can't find an English guide, and the maps are sometimes easier to read in English than in the local language! 

We also looked through general travel guides for all the countries we plan to visit; Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, as well as some regional guides (Central Europe, Eastern Europe, etc) What we found was the areas we planned to visit on a river cruise were only mentioned in at most with a paragraph or two.  And we would have had to purchase several books to cover the area we were touring. This did not seem worth it to us. 

But the AMA provided Destination Guide is a wonderful (and easily packable) resource specific to our trip, and I'm delighted to have it! (The guide we got would also cover a cruise from Vienna to Budapest, as well as our Black Sea Budapest to Bucharest cruise) One warning: it's so tiny that I bought a magnifying bookmark to carry with it!

My one nitpick- I think it should be sent out at least 2-3 months (or in my case 6 or more months!!) before sailing rather than 4 weeks (minus shipping time to my TA, minus a day shipping time from my TA to me) In other words, it's one of the best resources about the region specific to the itinerary, and I would like to have had it much earlier to make my plans for pre and post tours as well as any private tours I might choose to do on our own. In our case, a guide we tried to hire in Budapest was booked 9 months in advance, so having a plan in place for touring several months before sailing is not unusual and my best resource for deciding what I might like to see and do where didn't arrive in my home until about a month before the trip. I understand that specific itinerary information or tickets cannot be issued much earlier, but I would like to see this general Destination Guide provided after booking rather than with the final documents. 

Packing

So before we can go anywhere, we need to pack! Jeff and I very different packing styles. I pack weeks (ok, months!) in advance; I stage clothing I'll need for the trip somewhere and shop if I need additional items. Usually about 2-4 weeks before the trip, I will have more or less everything I need set aside in the bag and ready to go! Jeff tends to pack a few days before we leave. His rule is pack with just enough time to order anything missing from Amazon with free 2 day shipping before he leaves. Two different styles; but we both usually have what we need packed in a very organized way!

Usually, we are both pretty light packers, having discovered during an Alaska trip the pitfalls of over packing (that's another long tale, which I can share one day when we aren't traveling and I haven't got anything more interesting to write about!) Oftentimes, we will simply use a carry on roller bag and I carry my favorite backpack (another topic for a slow day!) for a trip to a warm destination or one where we can reasonably expect to do laundry.

 My favorite travel back pack...it was a freebie from Jeff's former employer, but its loaded with pockets!

My favorite travel back pack...it was a freebie from Jeff's former employer, but its loaded with pockets!

Jeff carries a brief case style Tenba camera bag which holds almost all of his equipment and whatever he needs on board the plane to be comfortable.  He has occasionally taken 2-3 business trips with simply the brief case bag and nothing else.

 

 The Tenba bag that has worked for a 3 day business trip!!

The Tenba bag that has worked for a 3 day business trip!!

For this trip, we decided to each pack a checked bag. We are flying Istanbul Air and are allowed one checked bag each. Give the interesting markets on our itinerary in Istanbul and Budapest, we felt we did not want to be packed so tightly that we could not bring home some treasures if we find any!  Sometimes we will check just one bag for two of us, but the splurge is taking two checked bags. Since both bags roll, we are hoping we can still easily manage to walk to the ship in Budapest from our hotel. 

 Kathy's carry on bag

Kathy's carry on bag

 Kathy's suitcase...with the Eagle Creek cubes

Kathy's suitcase...with the Eagle Creek cubes

We recently discovered the Eagle Creek packing system.  I resisted this for years thinking I could pack much more cheaply in large plastic zip bags. I bought some cubes for our daughter to take on a two week trip to Europe and since we've started using them, we are sold on them! The plastic bags helped organize things, but they were slippery and things tended to get rounded in the middle, making them hard to stack.  The cubes work beautifully because you can layer, and with the clothing rolled, you can fit quite a bit in even the littlest cubes! Using the packing cubes is one of those tips I've read for years on Cruise Critic and just dismissed as a waste of money...until I tried it! 

 ...with an extra pocket left empty in case we find any treasures in the markets!

...with an extra pocket left empty in case we find any treasures in the markets!

So we are packed and ready to go! Jeff will post a little about his camera "kit" for this trip, for people interested in photography and then our next post will be from the road. We have complimentary internet at all our hotels and on the AMAPrima, so I'm hopeful we can continue adding to the blog as we travel!

Independence: no one we mention in this blog has paid or provided product or services to us to mention them (in the case of the camera gear- I wish!!) ...at this point we are completely independent, with no sponsors asking us to promote products...we buy all our own travel and stuff and our opinions are based on our own experiences.