"" Writer's Wanderings

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Filling The Days Between Cruising

What do you do with three days between cruises? Laundry and a zoo visit with grandkids! But not all on the same day.

It's been a while since I've done laundry in a coin-op laundromat but we managed to find our way through one in Homestead where we were staying. The hotel had a laundry but with only one machine and on a different floor it would have made the whole operation a lot harder.

One of our three off days, we met with grandkids at the Miami Zoo. Our son joined us for a fun day which worked out well. Extra peddle power for the bicycle cart the kids delight in.

Our first stop was the tiger exhibit where a playful tiger was crouched just like a playful kitty cat, his tail end in the air, expectantly waiting for a toss of fresh meat his direction. The staffer that was there to toss the meat and answer questions from zoo guests gave us a little background on the tiger and then proceeded to explain that the meat was horse meat. I missed where it came from but my grandson didn't miss the fact that it was horse meat and his little sister loves ponys.

After several attempts to upset her with the news, he finally gave up. Apparently ponys didn't equate with horse meat in her mind--thank goodness!!

It's always a joy to be with these kids. They are quite inventive and funny. I hoped the entertainment on the cruises ahead of us would be as good.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Cruising The Danube - Oh, The Food!

Our morning on the last day of the cruise was spent visiting the Schonbrunn Palace Zoo (or the Vienna Zoo--whichever you want to call it). While the sun kept peeking out from between the clouds, it was still chilly, enough to want a bowl of soup. On our earlier trip to the Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market I had seen soup in a bread bowl. It was a good reason to return.

For a carbohydrate "addict" a bowl of bread sounded perfect. Add to it a potato soup that was delicious and all was heavenly. To my surprise the bowl did not leak. Instead the soup kind of soaked into it a bit but not so much to make it real soggy. The stand where we purchased them offered real tablespoons to eat it with and we walked a little bit away to a table to stand and eat it.

Just a note: There were no tables with chairs at the markets. The tables were all chest high except for a few just a bit shorter for kids. So if you are person who needs to sit a spell after a long walk around the market, you need to be prepared to go into a cafe.

We pretty much cleaned up our bread bowl of soup and felt more than satisfied. We returned the spoons and I wondered how well that kind of trust would work back home. Would people return them or throw them out with their trash?

It was still early afternoon but we had packing to do and one more excursion in the evening so we headed back on the subway. Later, all bags packed and stored with just enough clothes left out to get us through our dinner excursion and the morning trip to the airport, we relaxed with some coffee and tried to refrain from eating anything with it. Coming up was a Michelin dinner (no it's not at a tire store) that we didn't want to spoil.

That evening, four buses awaited our departure for four different Michelin star restaurants in the city.
We had our choice and had picked the one we thought from the menu we would enjoy the most. We had no idea what to expect. We'd never eaten at a Michelin restaurant--at least not that we knew of.
So what's the deal with Michelin stars?

To my surprise, the Michelin stars awarded restaurants do have something to do with tires. The Michelin tire company (yes, the one with the Michelin man) is based in France. Not only known for its tires, it also publishes travel guides and road maps. It all began in 1900, just 11 years after brothers, Andre and Eduord, started their tire business. They were clever fellows. They figured if they encouraged people to drive more, they would need to buy more tires as they wore the old ones out.

Their guides expanded to include most of Europe and their one star rating rose to three stars. One star is superb, a second star is greater and the third means it's a destination place to go to dine. The inspectors, chefs themselves, who travel to the restaurants to rate them are trained and remain anonymous (for obvious reasons). They may return several times to be sure the quality of the chef's product is award winning. And it is mostly about the chef and how he/she chooses ingredients, creates his dishes and presents them.

While the chef is important, it is the restaurant that gains the star/s. You can lose your stars if the quality drops. And your restaurant does not need to be fancy. There is a three star establishment that serves from a wooden counter at a car park.

Our restaurant, Le Ceil, was no car park. It was on the top floor of the Grand Hotel Wein which in itself was quite a place to visit and see. Beautiful chandeliers. Exquisite decorations. Charm and beauty. The restaurant was the finishing touch.

White table cloths, candles, polished silverware, elegant centerpieces, glassware and dinnerware gave the evening a special atmosphere. White gloved waiters poured water and drinks and brought us each course on the menu all while a pianist played on a grand piano near us. Each dish was presented artfully on the plate and was absolutely delicious. Ours was a set menu and I thought that was just because of our large group but according to their menu online, you can also order a dinner that way.

It was quite an experience to end our cruise on. The next morning would find us on a plane heading for warmer weather and a few days of laundry, grandkids, and warming up for our Caribbean adventure.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Cruising The Danube - Back To Vienna

Through the night our the Crystal Mozart returned to Vienna. We would have one more day and night to enjoy our adventure before leaving with our memories and pictures. The excursions for the day did not appeal to us--partly because they involved museums and a lot of history and partly because we were ready to be off on our own for a change.

The weather had warmed a bit and there was even the promise of a bit of sunshine so we decided to return to the Schonbrunn Palace and the zoo that is there. Besides that, I wanted to go back and try the soup in a bread bowl we had seen there.

Bob and I set off for the subway and found our way back to the palace. We purchased our tickets and set off in the direction we thought the zoo was. We were sort of right but hadn't realized it would be such a walk.

The zoo sits way back almost at the end of the garden area. While it was quite a walk, it also gave us a chance to take a look at the garden that we hadn't seen on our first visit.

Except for a few small groups of school kids and some other tourists, the zoo was pretty empty. What we didn't know though was how large it was. It was called the Imperial Zoo and since I knew it was originally begun by Emperor Franz I Stephen, I just thought it would be a small kind of private zoo. At least that's how it started.

In 1752, there were enclosures built around what would be a central pavilion and they held thirteen animals. Since then the zoo has expanded and expanded. The central pavilion and the circle of enclosures (now with bars instead of walls) are still there but the zoo radiates out from there.

The menagerie became a zoological garden in the late 1800s. In 1914, it held 3,470 animals, the most it would ever have. Of the 500 or so animals they have now, there were several that we definitely wanted to see before we left.

Our polar bear back home had died a couple of years ago of old age. I was eager to see a polar bear again. There were two in a wonderful exhibit that was several levels which allowed you to see them from above, at eye level and below the water level. The bears were very playful and we enjoyed them at all the levels.

The hippopotamus at our zoo was also gone so we enjoyed seeing several of them even though they were indoors and not in the water.

Then we happened upon the rain forest exhibit. It was quite different from ours but we enjoyed the warmth, shedding our coats for a bit. We found one spot that had a sign of someone with a finger up to their lips indicating that we had to be quiet when we entered. What it didn't say was that it was completely dark--or at least dark enough that it took a long time for eyes to adjust. We went through all the flaps that were hanging and hoped for a little light to see where we were going. There was just enough to see that there were things flying through the air just above our heads--bats! We hustled!!

It took us a while to find the other animal we were looking for but we finally did and spent some time watching one panda sleep and the other sit and eat his bamboo shoots. We hadn't seen pandas since our trip to China in 2003. Obviously it didn't matter too much which part of the world they were in, they didn't do a lot of moving but did do a lot of eating.

All in all it was a great adventure and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Cruising The Danube - On To Bratislava, Slovakia

For the second day in a row we had a morning of cruising the Danube. It was leisurely but not quite as sunny as the day before. The interesting scenery was interrupted only by the presentation of apple strudel making. The chef came into the lounge where most of us were gathered and demonstrated how he makes apple strudel (his mother's recipe). The tasting was the best part.

Shortly after lunch we arrived in Bratislava and gathered our things to go on an excursion. The temperatures had warmed a bit and it was a much more pleasant day for touring. The focal point of Bratislava is hard to miss. It sits high above the city and the river. It is the Bratislava Castle, a square building with four towers. This would be our first stop.

Unfortunately we could not get inside the castle itself but the grounds were interesting and the interior courtyard was decorated for Christmas. There were some live animals to delight the kids as well as a huge nativity scene and a neat sleigh.

The view from the castle was lovely as would be expected but of course still a little chilly and windy.

We boarded the bus and rode down to the old town area and began a walk through the main area of the town. The town was not bustling. For some reason I seem to recall that many shops were closed. Perhaps it was a holiday we weren't aware of.

We passed one window that caught my eye with an unusual product--at least one I'd never seen. Honey wine. I looked it up. It can be served hot or cold and in the old days, the very old days, it was called mead. A while later we got to sample a warm honey wine. Tasted a bit like I remember a hot toddy tasting when my parents would make one to chase away cold symptoms.

There are apparently a lot of unusual statues in Bratislava but the one our guide was most happy to point out to us was one in the street, a service worker crawling out of a manhole. He has a name, Cumil and has been there since 1997. You can understand why his head and nose are shiny. You rub one and you get good luck. You rub the other if you want children--of course after looking at our group she said grandchildren would work too. I hope I rubbed the right one for luck, kids.

Our tour ended at the Christmas Market where we were on our own to explore as the sun disappeared into an early evening twilight. The market was a bit different than the ones we'd seen in Austria and Germany. Of course they would exhibit more of the Slovakian culture and the local flavor of Bratislava.

I liked Bratislava. Something about it felt homey. Maybe because it was closer to my Czech roots.

Our walk back to the riverboat was pleasant. If only the weather had been this cooperative earlier in the week there would have been much more pleasant outings along the way. But what do you expect when you choose to explore during the Christmas season?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Cruising The Danube - Krems, Austria

City Gate
After a morning of cruising along the Danube, we arrived at Krems, Austria. It was already mid-afternoon and with the winter days, the sun was already getting lower in the sky. Our guide for our tour of Krems and the Christmas Market was very energetic. She was a little difficult to keep up with at times.

Being Sunday, a lot of the places in town were closed and while it was a quaint area, it didn't offer a lot to do that day. She did manage to get us into a gift shop that was open. Other than giving the merchant a chance to make some money, I have no idea why we were there. Perhaps the building had some history but it wasn't evident.

We visited another church. Maybe I'm a bit worn out on churches but after a while they begin to look alike. As we entered, the guide began fumbling in her purse and then apologized for not having remembered her two Euro coins for the box that would turn the lights on.

Bob reached in his pocket and pulled out two one Euro coins and she gave him a big smile. "Your sins will surely be forgiven," she said with a chuckle. He got a lot of slaps on the back from fellow passengers who congratulated him on being set free from sin.

The church was beautiful and ornate. Lots of gold accents and a lovely organ in the loft overhead. My interest was waning however and I was getting cold and tired. When we were told we were going to see another church that was set up on a hill I shrugged and started up a long set of stairs that was to take us to the door.

"We don't have to do this you know," said Bob as he put a hand on my arm to stop me.

"You're right," I said. "Thank you."

We turned around and went down the few steps we'd taken and found our way back to where the bus had dropped us off. The small Christmas Market was right there but most of the booths were closed. A couple had some warm drinks and we indulged. The best part was a booth that held a group of instrumentalists who were paying Christmas music. As I looked around, it seemed we had become a part of the neighborhood. Everyone smiling with Christmas cheer and friendliness.  It didn't even bother me when a few snow flakes fell.

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