This Great Adventure (GA) was a “sea change” from our previous 35 GAs! We did something different—instead of traveling to Europe via Space-A by military air, as we have many times before, we took a trans-Atlantic repositioning voyage by sea on the huge, new Royal Princess from Ft. Lauderdale (Florida) to Copenhagen (Denmark). This was our first ocean “cruise” together.
In 1966, when Carole was last on an ocean liner, her journey by sea from Australia to Europe took 6+ weeks. This time, the ocean crossing was a 16-day journey, with stops in the Azores, England, France and Holland. On the other hand, there was the usual Feldman-full-of-surprises aspect of this adventure! While Princess Cruises gave us the ship’s itinerary, once we disembarked in Copenhagen we expected the unexpected (i.e., we hoped to explore Eastern Europe (the Land of Strudel?), but had no idea where we would go or how/when we would return home—thus, the Great Adventure. Ship ahoy and full steam ahead!
Amazingly, and in just a few short hours, Princess Cruises processed 3,600 passengers through security and onto the ship, and (what seemed like) moments later, the porter knocked on our cabin door and handed us our luggage. Our first on-board meal was no “light lunch” but an endless, top-notch variety of every kind of food known to man! Right away, we realized that if we did not want to double our weight, we best put the brakes on over-indulgence and hit the ship’s gym EVERY DAY!
Some asked, “What does one do while at sea—isn’t that boring?” Not at all! Every day (and we had six “at sea” days before we saw land) the ship published a newspaper with a huge list of activities. In just one day, we enjoyed a Russian string quartet (two violins, a viola and a cello) playing at afternoon tea. That evening, we saw a “Movie under the Stars” while tucked under blankets and served popcorn, then followed that with a night of dancing under strobe lights to a 50’s Rock ‘n’ Roll band and British vocalist! We attended lectures on health, high tech innovations and travel—all in a single day. Of course, we could have simply sat on our stateroom’s balcony (we did that while sipping wine at sunset), watching the sea and other occasional ships and sea life in passing. Indeed, in the mornings, we captured the breathtaking sunrise reflecting on calm seas.
Life at sea continued to be as busy as we wanted it. The state-of-the-art fitness center saw our presence there daily—with the many taste temptations in several dining locations, our willpower was very challenged. Relaxing time on our balcony, conversations with fellow passengers, fantastic Las Vegas style shows, lectures, and intimate performances by a classical guitarist added to our enjoyment. For Carole, this was a totally different voyage to her 1966 one—our ship was about five times as large and vastly more upscale than her ship on which she sailed nearly 50 years ago!
The Azores—Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel
When Marvin was serving in the U.S. Air Force, he was assigned to Lajes Field on the Azorean island of Terceira (Portugal) from 1970 to 1972. On this current trip, friends in Ponta Delgada, on the island of Sao Miguel, invited us to visit the Azores Regional Archives, normally closed on a Sunday (the day of our visit). What a fascinating storehouse of Azorean history!
We spent the rest of our eight-hour port call strolling down Ponta Delgada’s cobblestone streets (inlaid with mosaic sidewalks), looking just around the corner. As we enjoyed strong European coffee and savored a traditional Portuguese lunch with Marvin downing a “1920” brand Portuguese brandy (with gusto!), we used our limited Portuguese to joke and laugh with kind locals. After warm hugs from our Azorean friends, and a dock-side band farewelling us with American music, the Royal Princess lifted her anchor and sailed into the deep Atlantic, heading towards our next port of call in England.
With long days at sea over, our multi-stop “cruise” portion began at the Port of Southampton, England. Not surprisingly, we were greeted in England by miserable cold, rainy and windy weather. This was no Florida! Expecting such weather, we were appropriately rugged up.
We opted for our own “excursion” to Portsmouth—one hour from Southampton by train. Our focus in this city (birthplace of Charles Dickens and centuries-old home of the Royal Navy) was the Historic Dockyard. Battling the cold wind and rain, we spent a fascinating day, exploring Nelson’s flagship (HMS Victory), the new multi-million pound Mary Rose Museum (with the preserved hull of Henry VIII’s flagship), the world’s first ironclad warship (HMS Warrior), the excellent National Museum of the Royal Navy, and a harbor cruise on the Solent. We wrapped up our day in Portsmouth with a taste of English cuisine—a freshly baked Cornish Pasty—before returning by train to Southampton and our ship. Despite the unfavorable weather, we reflected on a grand day as Royal Princess set sail for the overnight trip across the English Channel to France.
France—the D-Day Beaches
Of all the “official” excursions offered on our ship, we chose to take only one—to the D-Day Landing beaches of Normandy. With the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landing only three weeks away, we felt it appropriate to mark this occasion by our own visit. After docking at the port of Le Havre (Royal Princess was the largest to have done so there), we joined hundreds of others (usually not our style) on dozens of buses for the drive through the lovely Normandy countryside. Tiny villages, green fields filled with sunflowers, daisies and wheat, grazing cows, and apple orchards (for the region’s Calvados apple brandy) delighted us. The focus, however, was not this stunning scenery but our visit to the World War II beaches.
A stop at Arromanches gave us both the opportunity to tour the D‑Day Museum and the remains of the artificial Mulberry harbor on the sands and in the sea. A cold and extremely windy day made us reflect on what it must have been like for Allied troops (under German fire) who came ashore at Juno and Gold landing sites there on that June 6, 1944, day.
Lunch at a former 18th Century country farmhouse (and one-time Nazi officer residence) preceded a visit to the American Cemetery, just above Omaha Beach, where over 10,000 servicemen are buried. This was a very sobering and quite emotional experience. At Pointe du Hoc (our final stop), high on a sheer cliff overlooking the rocks and wild sea below, we were amazed at how brave U.S. Rangers captured this strategic position (with numerous German bunkers and huge guns) in just 30 minutes.
After returning to Le Havre from a meaningful and reflective day, we boarded Royal Princess to sail for Holland.
The Netherlands (Holland)—Rotterdam
As we entered the New Waterway channel for the 30 mile trip from the North Sea to the Port of Rotterdam, we saw our first Dutch windmill! Rotterdam had never seen a ship as large as Royal Princess so it took quite a bit of jostling (a challenging situation as our Captain said) to bring into and berth her in Europe’s busiest port.
Unfortunately again, the weather began “rotten in Rotterdam”—we were greeted by driving rain, cold, and extremely gusty winds; nonetheless, we soldiered on to make our eight hour port call fulfilling. We had visions of a dirty, old and rundown seaport but we were wrong! World War II German bombings mostly destroyed the city, giving the Dutch the opportunity to completely rebuild it. Now, she is a gleaming, beautiful financial center with canals, parks and sculptures, ultra-modern “edgy” architecture, an excellent transportation system, and flowers everywhere. Everyone we met was, without exception, helpful, kind, and welcoming. Now Rotterdam is high on our “must return to” list.
After a few hours, the rain subsided and the sun came out, making our visit to the City Market a joy! We nibbled our way through food stalls, sampling Dutch herring, cheeses and waffle-pastries. Indonesia (formerly the Dutch East Indies) had been a colony of The Netherlands so it was easy for us to find lunch at one of Rotterdam’s Indonesian restaurants as Carole enjoyed a nostalgic, tasty reminiscence of her three years in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Now—anchors aweigh for our last two days aboard Royal Princess as we headed to Copenhagen!
Farewell, Neptune and Hello, Copenhagen
Our departure from Rotterdam was dramatic—very strong winds (55 knots) challenged the pilot who was unable to disembark into his boat and remained on board with us to Copenhagen! Nonetheless, we safely entered the North Sea for the two night journey to our final sea destination there. On our last night, we watched a Las Vegas spectacular show before preparing for our early morning arrival in Copenhagen. As Captain Sagani said, “Our voyage on Royal Princess was not a cruise, but a trans-Atlantic adventure!”
Now on to Phase 2 of This Great Adventure!
Our disembarkation from the ship in Copenhagen went smoothly and we made our way to the lovely apartment of our hosts—Marvin’s cousins who were on assignment here. Now that we had left the “USS Gluttony” and were ashore, we had our first normal meal in weeks. Our impressions of Copenhagen were made even more wonderful through the eyes of our kind hosts who knew the secrets of the delightful Danish capital. Colorful and creative shop windows, palaces, museums, canals, lovely parks, historic statues (including her famous Little Mermaid), and delicious (but expensive) food—and there were more bikes than cars! The city, which has about the same population as Jacksonville, is compact and easily walkable. And did we walk! Marvin even had a friendly exchange with Denmark’s Prime Minister outside a restaurant—no time for a “selfie.”
After a flight by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) of just over one hour from Copenhagen, we landed at Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport. We pride ourselves on traveling like locals and soon were on a rickety old tram (we purchased unlimited transport passes) which delivered us to the doorstep of our cozy suburban apartment, just 10 minutes from Prague’s center. Before long, we visited a neighborhood supermarket to stock our fully-equipped kitchen with breakfast supplies and even mastered a couple of words in the Czech language.
Without a doubt, the most profoundly emotional part of our Prague experience was a visit to her old Jewish Quarter. There we saw a 12th Century (yes, dating back to 1150!) synagogue. On the walls of another, we saw the names of over 78,000 Czech Jewish citizens, rounded up and murdered by the Nazis, mostly in 1942. This brought both of us to tears. As we walked through the Old Jewish Cemetery, we were horrified by the jumble of thousands of tombstones. On a positive note, we gave the Czech Government high marks for preserving this story in a very respectful, dignified manner. How things have changed here since the Communist days!
The magnificent glory of this sophisticated and lovely European capital city cannot be understated. We enjoyed a world-class performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by a 10-piece string and harpsichord chamber orchestra in gorgeous, gilded Smetana Hall—a venue that was so acoustically perfect that we heard every note without electronic amplification.
Czech food was of high quality, delicious and reasonably priced but justifiably, locals take greatest pride in their Pilsner beer which is very light and refreshing. We had not realized that the original Budweiser beer was Czech and not American!
Austria-Vienna (the Land of Strudel)
Our choice of travel by bus from Prague to Vienna was a good one—reasonably priced, luxurious travel with free drinks (even cappuccino made on board!), back-of-seat entertainment (movies, music and more), a drive through the lovely Czech countryside in glorious weather (finally, after nearly two weeks of awful weather). On arrival, we made our way to our home-away-from-home in Vienna—the comfortable, sun-drenched and well-located apartment of a dear friend from years ago.
It was Marvin’s first time in this magnificent city, while Carole had spent time here almost 50 years ago! Endless theaters, palaces, parks, monuments, galleries and museums abound—it was a matter of selecting a few from the many. We did not realize Mozart continues to be alive and well in Vienna—in fact, there were thousands of vendors dressed like Mozart, selling concert tickets on street corners! As we walked and walked, we admired all the glory of Vienna and riding around the city by tram (we purchased unlimited transport passes) also gave us wonderful views of everything. The delicious Viennese cuisine was so tempting—especially the strudel. Yes, we finally were in “The Land of Strudel”!
While we did not see a performance at the Vienna Opera House (we did take a tour though), we did something very Viennese—we attended a performance of The Creation, the monumental masterpiece by Mozart’s friend and contemporary, Joseph Haydn (he lived in Vienna), with orchestra, soloists and the “teenage group” (including girls!) from the Vienna Boys Choir, at the new theater “home” of the Choir, next door to where we were staying (how convenient was that?).
Marvin was wrong. He pictured Budapest as a dingy, grimy “Eastern bloc” country whose art consisted of statues of Lenin because over the years, he met many Hungarian refugees who had fled to the West. Budapest now sparkled! Its glistening ultra-modern architecture intermingled with Renaissance churches and Art Nouveau buildings. This fine city consists of the hills of “Buda” on one side of the Danube River and the plains of “Pest” on the other (Buda+Pest = Budapest).
On a balmy Saturday night, thousands of young people filled her cafes and bars, cheering for their football team as they watched the European championship game on big-screen TVs. We were not the only ones to discover this magnificent city. And, while we did not stay in “The Grand Hotel Budapest,” we did go to the grande dame of Budapest hotels and its spa (The Gellert) which surely must have been the setting, if not the actual location for the film of that name.
The Danube River was lined with luxury riverboat cruise “ships”—Carole counted 12! Everywhere about town there were numerous groups of Chinese (and other nationalities) tourists, all led about by guides with little yellow flags. We noticed big signs reminding them to be back on board by 1700 for 1800 departures. Lucky us—we were here for nearly a week to enjoy every nook and cranny of this spectacular city which Carole now proclaimed her favorite in all Europe.
Looking “just around the corner,” we found Budapest’s fascinating Jewish quarter. We ate our way through Budapest’s tasty bakeries (yes, with Hungary’s version of strudel) and lunched in both elegant and back alley cafes. Marvin loved Hungarian goulash while wise Carole tucked into creative salads and cold strawberry soup. On a warm Sunday afternoon, we took a water tour on the splendid Danube while being served champagne. Sadly, we saw a unique memorial—dozens of bronzed shoes on the riverbank, all pointing to the water where Nazis machine-gunned Jews, tossing their bodies into the Danube. We wondered who was the little child who once wore those tiny shoes, or the teenage girl who wore high heels, or the laborer who toiled in those boots. By contrast, high on a steep hilltop in Buda was a statue of Liberty, celebrating Hungary’s freedom from World War II’s Nazi grip.
Hungary’s tragic and complex history (and that of Budapest) is one of “liberation” (conquest) followed by occupation – so well detailed in the Hungarian National Museum Once a large and powerful country, Hungary today is much smaller (both in land and population) because so much territory was lost in numerous wars. Throughout time, Romans, Huns (hence “Hungary”), Mongolians, Ottoman Turks, Hapsburgs, Nazis and Soviets have come—and stayed. Imagine a country where Attila (as in, “the Hun”) is a common name! All this influenced its dress, buildings, culture and food—especially Hungary’s cakes (e.g., Dobos and Esterhazy) which can rival Austria’s (e.g., Sacher) for appearance, taste and calories.
We walked and walked in Budapest but also frequently used the extensive public transport system for sightseeing (we purchased unlimited transport passes) when our feet gave out. Just a stone’s throw from our hotel was the fabulous Central Market (an architectural masterpiece in itself); now we knew on what Australia’s “continental delicatessens” are based—the stalls in that place!
After touring the ornate Hungarian State Opera House, we both agreed that it was more beautiful than its Vienna counterpart. A daytime tour of the elaborate huge Great (Dohany) Synagogue (Europe’s largest), its adjoining Jewish Museum and monument to Raoul Wallenberg (the courageous World War II Swedish diplomat, based in Budapest, who saved thousands of Jews – and disappeared after the Russian “liberators” arrived)—was certainly a very emotional experience.
On a happier note, we attended a brilliant, avant-garde performance by the high energy, Hungarian State Folk Ensemble in a beautiful heritage building. Combining traditional music, dance, song and costumes with modern dress, the experience was both a very creative visual and aural delight. And, for a fine way to conclude our Budapest stay, we dined at a nice restaurant in Budapest’s old Jewish quarter where Marvin ate roast goose leg with red cabbage (a very traditional Hungarian dish).
A short comfortable train ride brought us from Budapest to Bratislava, our next stop. Bratislava, once the second largest city in the former Czech Republic, has been the capital of the Slovak Republic (Slovakia) since the peaceful Velvet Revolution separated the two countries just over 20 years ago. A small city of just under half a million, it would, at first, appear to be the “poor cousin” of the more glamorous Prague and does not find its way on the tourist circuit. And while it initially seemed unappealing to us, we stayed here long enough to delve into the city, looking “just around the corner,” finding it surprisingly attractive.
We hit the ground running and while doing some initial sightseeing, came across the historic (1886) Slovak Philharmonic Theatre. We immediately bought tickets to that evening’s performance at this magnificent, newly restored gem with its gold and white rococo interior. Three wonderful pieces by Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Mozart (all of whom had lived in Bratislava at one time) delighted us. A marvelous experience at the cost of a Jacksonville afternoon movie matinee ticket! Everywhere, there was a lively café, bar and restaurant scene with fashionably dressed people in the streets and Carole indulged in one of Bratislava’s traditions—rich hot chocolate (like sauce!) on a gray, cold, windy day.
Taking advantage of a sunny day, we hopped on a local train to the delightful town of Piestany, Slovakia’s version of the European spa towns of Baden Baden (Germany) and Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic). We could not leave Slovakia without “taking the waters” at one of the many places on Spa Island there—Carole especially loved the mud pool experience, saying she felt thoroughly rejuvenated!
The Return Journey
With our Eastern European sojourn nearing completion, Carole put together a complex itinerary from Slovakia to Spain (Ryanair from Bratislava to Malaga, Spanish train from there to Seville, and bus to Rota), bringing us to the Rota Naval Base (in Andalucia Region). All components dovetailed well for a journey of some 18 hours! After such an exhausting trip, hot showers and clean sheets (see Rota NB link for lodging options) on base were very welcome. And even though we had more time available for our travels, we worried that the summer onslaught of traveling families might be challenging for us in finding Space-A opportunities on military flights to the United States.
Back in sunny Spain, we arose late, did “housekeeping” and had a leisurely breakfast in the tiled, flower-filled courtyard of Rota Naval Hospital, listening to flamenco, classical guitar music—it did not get better than that! On a stroll through Rota town on the very day Spain’s King Juan Carlos announced his abdication, there seemed to be little local interest in what we thought an historic day for the country.
With splendid luck, we caught a U.S. Air Force C–17 for a comfortable, eight-hour flight to Charleston, SC, where we rented a car for the easy drive home to Jacksonville, FL. After nearly six weeks of travel, we laid our heads on our own pillows.
Back home, laundry and mail “processed” and starting to climb out of the “fog of jet lag,” we reflected on this wonderful Great Adventure. Here are some the lasting memories from this trip:
While the two week ocean crossing on Royal Princess was very nice, it did not convert us to “cruise people.” For Carole, the rigors of setting an alarm to get up early, rush into the port and see “everything” in a matter of hours was no joy; however, the many days at sea, doing (or not doing) whatever we wished was a pleasure. For both of us, our random, in-depth exploration of Eastern Europe was the most enjoyable.
While watching the 70th anniversary of the D-Day commemoration on our home TV, we reflected on our own experience there (albeit too brief) just three weeks previously. The trans-Atlantic voyage gave us the opportunity for meaningful experiences. Eastern Europe is full of culture and rich with well-preserved history; some good and some bad.
Good: Vienna Boys Choir, Prague Four Seasons concert, Hungarian Folk Dancers, Slovak Philharmonic, etc.
Bad: Much terrible history (the tragic murders of millions of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators) took place but we were glad to see and experience vibrant life in the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia today.
The weather had a dramatic effect on our trip—also some good and some bad. We soldiered on through the cold wind and rain of Southampton, Rotterdam, Prague and Bratislava, rugged up for chilly (but occasionally sunny!) Copenhagen and really enjoyed the warm sunshine of Vienna and Budapest.
We are often are asked what was our “favorite.” We enjoyed every place we visited, but in the 10 countries we touched on this trip, Budapest (Hungary) was, no doubt, the most impressive with its sparkling Parliament, reflecting the sunshine off the beautiful Danube. We were also very grateful for home hospitality by generous hosts in Copenhagen and Vienna—giving us a personal, local’s eye view.
Great luck! Every place we visited was a Great Adventure with the only “near tragedies” being Marvin falling (resulting in a cut and black eye) in Vienna and an attempted pick-pocketing which Marvin fended off in Budapest. On the positive side, we were most fortunate to catch a (free) USAF flight back to the USA from Rota Naval Base in Spain to Charleston.
If anyone wants to see our Shutterfly slideshow of this trip drop us an email and we will be happy to email it to you. Be careful—it is more than 200 pictures and takes about 15 minutes to view!
Col. Marvin Feldman USAF, (Ret.)
and Carole Feldman
Reprint from Nov–Dec 2014 • Volume 44, No. 6