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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

train to Kiel, anyone?

Left Clermont on the 8:30 to Paris, which conveniently arrives just at lunch time. Across the street from the Gare de l'Est we spied an acual sit-down restaurant to restore ourselves before going on. Ah, a burger place. Go to France to eat burgers. D ordered the pseudo-pad-thai, which was not a better idea.

We promise ourselves not to do that again.

Then the 13:55 from Paris to Karlsruhe. Nice TGV, cruising along at 316kph, but once across the Rhine they don't have the right rails, so back down to regular train speed. In Karlsruhe at 16:25 we have time to pick up German snackage as we change quays for the 16:51 to Hamburg. D gets some sort of pizza item (didn't we just say not to do that?), and I opt for a ham & cheese sandwich on some fun bread with seeds stuck on it. And an apple pastry. Karlsruhe to Hamburg is long. We will need sustenance. The apricots and peanuts and oreos and chocolate in the backpack may not suffice.

On the French trains they roll a cart through selling food and drink, and depending on the train there may be a 'dining' car. No real dining, just a fixed area to buy the same stuff that's on the cart, with a handful of tall tables to stand and eat at. On this German train there's also a dining car, but in first class at least, the train guy comes around and takes orders, then serves you at your seat with real cutlery and glasses and everything. Neat. 

Ohhh, neater, they have rhubarb among the flavors of fruit juice. Well, I think, ew. D thinks neat! It's a thing now.

The Hamburg train is running late.
It's only 10 minutes behind, but we have only 8 to make our last connection. They make announcements in German, the a much shorter version in English, and it's not clear what's happening. The train person assures us that the train to Kiel will be delayed to wait for us. OK. But delayed how much? What if we can't find our way around the station fast enough to catch it?

We arrive at platform 12, and the train to Kiel was announced at platform 5, and we have 5 minutes.
We heave the luggage off the train and make our way to the escalator, but it isn't easy to do anything quickly with so many people doing more or less the same thing. There's not going around the woman with the stroller.

So I spy "Kiel", but it's platform 7. Kiel looks good to me, so what if it's not platform 5? Well, the extra hour to wait... So down the escalator to the right platform, and onto the train, where we are about the last passengers to jump on. And off we go.

Ooof, got it.

There's almost nobody here. There's a screen to tell you what's going on, but it only gives the time, not the route or the next station. I didn't have time at the station to look at how many stops we'd be making, but eventually we find a little schematic of the regional routes, and we try to figure out which line we're on. Could be the orange, could be the red, could be a lot of things. The sign said Kiel was the destination, so what does it matter?

We were supposed to get in at 23:00, but we started about 5 minutes late. At 23:05, the lack of announcement for Kiel isn't worrisome. At 23:15 it is.
And then the PA has lots to say, blablablaKielblablablablablabla.
Er, alright. Our station is the end of the line: just stay on until we get there.
Then we stop somewhere we don't see on the map, and I think we're so close that they just don't list everything because there's not space on the tiny map. So we have to be just a minute away.
Several minutes later, a new station is announced, and this time I just keep looking at the map.

Oh, there it is. And there's the last one. They're way over here where we weren't looking for them at all.

Dang!
We gotta get off this train.

Next stop Schleshwig. Let's take it! We can get a new train, or a taxi, or lodgings, or something.
Mmm, there is NOTHING here at the station in Schleshwig. Middle of nowhere. The five other travellers all bolted into the darkeness of the north German night. The lights are on at the station, but it's boarded up and undergoing renovation.
There are two trains going back down the line. One to the station where we paused several minutes on the way up, and where apparently they split the train, with the head cars going meekly to Kiel, and the others off into this dark hinterland. That one is coming by in just five minutes, so get over there if you're going. Only, once in Neu-whatever, we'd still have to find a train to Kiel.
The other one doesn't come by until 0:07, but it says it goes where we want to go. The map appears to corraborate this news - there is a line from here to there.

Finally here it comes.
It's a teeny little one-car job. No splitting this train, with one for Kiel and one for Bora Bora. We get on. We make every village and car-park stop imaginable from Schleshwig to Kiel, and we get there at 1:15.

Just a little bit late, but we have guaranteed late arrival at our hotel. Time for bed.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Venice again

Early in the morning we crept into Venice, wending our way through the lagoon, around the various islands. The ships really have to stick to their channel, and go super-slow so the Wake doesn't swamp other boats, the quays, whole islands...
On the way in, we followed one cruise monster, and were followed by another in a majestic parade. Come to think of it, on the way out we took this same route, following three other ships. No crossing a ship going the other way - possibly not room for that!
We lucked out so well on our B&B a week ago, I was hoping we'd have something just as nice this time. No such luck. Slightly more expensive than B&B Corner, the new place was just as well placed, being just two minutes walk from the Rialto Bridge. But location was really all you got. The room was small and boring, though clean. Bed, a single straight chair, tiny desk, tiny nightstand, nothing else. The bathroom stank of mildew. The kitchen area was off-limits, and there was nowhere to just sit around and relax.
The guy running the place seemed nice enough when he let us in, but then we never saw him again. Just a place to crash. I don't even remember the name, or I would tell you to never go there.



 


You can just wander around forever in Venice. It's never boring, even the quiet parts; or ugly, even the run-down parts. You just walk around, then sit for an espresso, then wander over a bridge, along an alley, and stop for a snack, visit a chapel or a palace, decide where to dine - indoors or al fresco?
 
All things, alas, must come to an end. Time to go home. Back to work, back to laundry, back to the cat. Poor little Sienne has been all alone for more than a week, not counting the short visits from Marc (just the time to fill her bowls and change the litter, not time to sit and pet).
 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Kotor

 
Then after Mykonos there was a whole day of boring cruising. Most of the time we were not close enough to shore to see the distant hills going by, marking the miles. Sometimes there was a ship in the distance, usually a tanker, occassionally a sailboat.
That is all.
The activities on the ship are not very interesting. There are two pools, small and very crowded. Apparently in one of them somebody has a bad bathroom accident. Really gross. Plenty of lounge chairs on the top decks, but it's windy up there. Indoors there's the dance floor (lame), a gym (eh), a theater (worse than the dance floor), and of course unlimited food and drink.
I finish my knitting, and a couple of books.
One useful thing we do is sign up, for once, for one of the organized outings for our stop in Kotor, Montenegro. It's a boat trip around the fjord, and it seems that making an early start will be the best way to be sure we actually get any boat trip around the fjord at all. Indeed that turns out to likely be true, since when we go down and board our little touring boat there doesn't seem to be any easy and nearby way to reserve anything else. By the time you got a boat, you wouldn't have time to enjoy it (All aboard at 1pm - not even time for a local lunch) Good idea! 
Making our way down the fjord, where Kotor sits way at the end. I Watch from our balcony as the sun gradually reveals the mountains all around.
Our pilot, coming to guide us in.
We loom so large above the town! For a while, the height of the slopes on either side lets you forget what a behemoth we're on, but once up to the quay, it's just like in Venice. It doesn't seem right to be so much bigger than everything normal.


Here's the island that's the main objective of the tour. There are two islands, one behind this one with just two buildings, no trees. The Woody one is a monastery, with, I think, 8 monks and a handful of chickens. Access is of course limited to monks.
The other, man-made one, has tons of visitors as one tourist boat after the next comes up to the dock to pick up or drop off. There's a whole fleet waiting some 100 meters out, waiting for the proper time to pick up their group. There must have been a dozen groups at the same time as ours.
In the high season you might really have to book ahead to visit, since dock access is very limited, and only so many people can crowd in at once. Interesting to know that the island is built of sunken ships, all piled up.
The town on the Mainland is neat. Lots of wealthy people have vacation homes on the slopes above or along the waterline farther up the fjord. Lots of handcrafts for sale. Some beautiful textiles, though we're warned that if the price is too good it's likely a machine-made knockoff imported from China. Sad! I'd like to support the local businesses - the whole chain from prime materials to labor to marketing, not just a seller of imports.
It would be really nice to have an hour once we get back to Kotor to poke around town and discover things. As it is, we get back with just time for a quick stroll and an ice cream. Good ice cream, minty.

Off we go again. Good thing I had the ice cream, because I prefer to spend our promenade back out of the fjord looking from one side to the other from the top deck, rather than down below having lunch. It would be good to have lunch, but when will I be coming back here, to tower over islands and boats, and pass by chapels perched on hillsides?
Might be a while.
Maybe next time I'll have the guts of my camera cleaned by a pro before leaving home, so I won't have all these spots to clean up. That's dust on the Inside, not a dirty lens - I can change lenses and the spots are the same.
Bye, Monténégro! One more stop and it's back home and to work...

Friday, February 16, 2018

Mykonos

Chug chug chug we are off to Mykonos.
Well, my cabin is on the 7th deck, and you can only really appreciate the chugging when you're down near the waterline. Up here it's more a discrete hum and a gentle vibration. Most of the time the guests don't notice it at all. Probably the employees housed down on decks with no Windows go chug-crazy by the end of their stint underway.
 
We are not the only cruise in town today. Our rival (or colleague) across the way is much smaller than we are. In Venice and in Katakolon we were not the biggest duck in the pond: there are some serious behemoths on the water. It's kind of fun though when you're on a big ship to be on the biggest ship around. No matter what you think of the pollution we put out, or the working conditions of the lowest crew -let alone their living conditions when they're not on duty - or the damage these ships do to the environment when passing through shallower areas; there's a sense of exhilaration to be so high up, to be so powerful.
Oh, and look at all the little shuttles coming and going like bumblebees to our twin flowers on deck 1. Today we have a whole variety of lauches, since the deal with the port of Mykonos is that we use the local launch services. In other ports where we were too embarassingly large to come all the way to the dock, we lowered our own launches.
I'm all for using the local services.
Today is our only full-day stop. Not just the morning. Not just the afternoon. Off the ship after breakfast, and on again for dinner. Finally: lunch using the local services! (oh, is this telling how much my life revolves around my stomach? I must admit...)
 
Our dining-table companions sign up for one of the organized excursions at every stop, and this time I can see the interest, but we considered too late to join in. They've gone for the 4x4 excursion where you drive your own vehicle in a rally to some private beach where lunch will be waiting, and around to some of the hinterlands. I'd like to get out of town, but no matter; with the whole day we'll have plenty to see on foot.
Besides, to go jeeping, as fun as that might be, you need to present yourself at the launch at some ungodly hour when it's probably barely light out. I am all for sleeping until the sun is properly up, and often much later than that (depending on the latitude and time of year, naturally). I'm on vacation here!
Eventually we do get going for a preliminary walk around the town. Very cute, not open just yet - I see they are not early-risers here.
The windmills mark the edge of town, and I'd like to go farther on, kind of get away from the tourist-mill town. 
We go just to the other side of this little spit of land, and there's the water all nice and blue and inviting. We pick our way through the rocks down to it. Oohhh, it's so nice and warm. Time for a swim!
But we didn't bring our towels & stuff...
No matter! The sea is calling, and my travelling companion (TC for short) is down to skivvies and out in the drink in a blink.
Ohhhh, that's good.
We stop for a coffee on the way back to the boat to get our bathing gear. The heck with going for a walk: the water is the thing here. Let's go for a swim.
While we're sitting, TC has a first experience with Bears. It's amusing to be here in Mykonos, the Mecca of Gay tourism in Greece, watching the groups of men go by. They're all so alike - white, middle aged, a bit of a paunch but not too much, new tans or perhaps some sunburn, shorts and t-shirts like a uniform, always with a smile and a wink. This evening the nightclubs will be rocking.
Lunch is okay. I liked a place on the water, and we were definitely there for the view, because the food was eh. Fresh enough, but bland and ordinary. How to pick, though? There are so many restaurants, every one of them catering to tourists that will likely not every come around again.
In the afternoon, a swim and some sun on the tiny, pebbly beach, then a look around the shops for something interesting on this last stop in Greece. The swim is interesting; there's not a sandy bottom, and the rocks are all slick with algae and seaweed so you really have to Watch how you move around in the shallows, until you can actually swim.
It may be September, but the water is deliciously warm, and the sun on the beach is not bad either. In the late afternoon, a bit of windowshopping, then it's back on the boat, y'all, time to head north again.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Katakolon

On the boat you can reserve guided tours of various complexity for the different port calls, but so far it seems that just getting off the boat and finding transport of your own is a lot less expensive and perhaps a lot more flexible than going with the pre-planned thing. Of course, it's easy with the ship-planned excursions, no shopping around to do, and usually you start off really early to maximize your visiting time. But we like the idea of just free-Wheeling* it. A tour guide droning on and on at some boring building when you really wanted to spend time strolling down the side Streets is not always fun.
It's not as if there are not options of all sorts in port. Au contraire, there's everything from hoofing it with a local map, renting bikes, or getting a taxi, to full-blown tours without the middleman. There are whole villages set up to sell you tours and souvenirs and lunch and whatever. No worries there.
Katakolon, on the Greek Mainland (I checked the map; it is attached), is our big cultural stop of the cruise. The attraction is Ancient Olympus, where the first Olympic games were held. The site is about half an hour by bus from the port, and busses go back & forth every few minutes. So we just get one We are supposed to go back on the same bus, which will get us back to the village with just time to shop before the last ferries back to the ship, but I think you could negociate to take pretty much any bus back, as long as it's with the same company.
The site is huge, and we don't have all day so we just see the outside parts. Perhaps in the museum where they have all the smaller artefacts laid out, there's plenty of explanation about what you're looking at. In the field you just walk around (though do keep to the ground, they will come yell at you for degrading the ruins if you climb on them) with your guide and listen to the commentary.
Or, if you don't have a guide, you can hang around near one. There are plenty around, and in all sorts of languages. Or you can just enjoy the sights as they are.
When we got off the bus, we were in a parking lot full of busses and most of the busses didn't even have room to stay parked there, but dropped off their passengers and went elsewhere. Hordes of people. I was worried that the whole place would be overrun with tourists. We may have been many hundreds, but the place is so large (and we didn't even see all of it, for lack of time) there's room to spread out. Plus, people tended to pass by in guided waves, leaving unpopulated lulls where you could have a corner to yourself for a while.

These might look like fun stepping-stones, but trust me, don't do it.
With some patience, you can even get some nice photos with only limited numbers of strangers in them. At this particular spot people were politely taking turns at the unobstructed view, then going on without walking through the next person's shot. Everybody smiling and nodding, and 'After you, please'. Until a big tour group came along, of course.
Nice countryside. Should stick around and visit it next time. Just taking the bus from the port to the ruins and back, you can see that you're skipping over the real Greece where regular Greeks live and work.
Finally back to the port. There's one side with tiny fishing boats, and one side with colorful pleasure boats for just tooling around in. No big yachts here. Off to the right, however, is boat enough to hold all of these in the hold. Two cruise ships are anchored a few hundred yards out, and the shuttle activity is rocking. Just one of them is enough to fill every chair at the array of waterside cafés - so much for a local beer before boarding and going on our ponderous way.

*oh those random capitals again!