My First River Cruise Experience…Pre-Cruise Extension

After an amazing breakfast in Paris (why can’t I find kiwi yogurt here?), we boarded our tour bus for the roughly one our drive to our next stop.  Along the way we passed many crazy cute/incredible houses…pardon me…châteaux that some old, rich lord had built for his mistress.  That was kind of the thing back then I guess.  Here are just a few:

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Our first stop on our tour was Orléans.  Our tour guide gave us about an hour guided tour around the City, a city still faithful to their “Maiden of Orléans,’ Joan of Arc.  We started at Place du Martoi, with the massive statue of Joan in the center.

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We then wandered around the city, with stops in the Latin Quartier

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Before finishing with a walk down Rue Jeanne d’Arc and the Saint-Croix Cathedral.

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We were able to go inside and see the interior of the Cathedral as well, but hey, you’ve seen one organ, you’ve seen them all!

By now it was lunch time so we popped into the same cafe that our guide went into…pro tip – follow where your local tour guide goes to eat!

We ate at Le Lutetia, facing the Cathedral.  I was very pleased to see my new favorite beverage, Lillet, offered as a choice…I mean, there is never a bad time for wine drinks, right?  I ordered a Croque Monsieur, because who doesn’t love a grilled cheese, and my mother ordered a Croque Madame which I thought was kind of strange because she does not like eggs…at all.  Needless to say, when our meals came, I took the one with the egg and gave her the one without…like a good daughter!! 🙂

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After lunch, it was back on the bus for the next leg, Château de Chambord.  In the US, most people think of a black raspberry liquor when they hear Chambord (gratuitous link to their website because it is really cool!!).  And there is nothing wrong with that, it is made near here.

But the Château de Chambord is one of the most recognizable in all the world, mainly for its size and distinctive French Renaissance architecture.  IMG_7140

Basically, it looks exactly like you think a French castle should look…but it is NOT a castle.  It was built as a hunting lodge for King Francis I.  I’m not exactly sure what he was hunting, but it does have a cool double-spiral staircase where the two spirals twist around but never meet.  Handy if you are sneaking in a mistress or playing both sides of a treaty!

Sadly Francis died before he got much use out of it and because it was basically in the middle of nowhere, it sat unused for the next century or so.  But you know who’s gonna come along and use this bad boy…that’s right, the Sun King, Louis XIV.  If its over the top and expensive, Louis le Grand is all in.

He furnished the royal apartments:

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and built a 1,200 horse stable so that the Chateau could be used for its original hunting lodge purpose…at least for a few weeks every year.

Our next stop for the day was our last.  Our hotel in Tours, the Clarion Château Belmont.  Check in was a breeze, our bags were delivered promptly and the room was really nice.

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One of the super nice things that Viking does is a special dinner for the folks on the tour.  The dining room at the Clarion has some cool decor.

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And the menu was amazing!

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The food was really good and I was ready for a good nights sleep!  We were going to have one more night here in Tours (with a much less gourmet dinner!), and our guide will  take us to Château Chenonceau and then we have a formal walking tour of Tours.  Stay Tuned!

 

 

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My First River Cruise Experience – Getting There and Paris

Châteaux, Rivers & Wine.  This is the theme of my first ever river cruise.  This came about because my mother really wanted to do this cruise and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along.

First the details:  This was on Viking River cruises, starting in Bordeaux cruising to Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg & Blaye, Pauillac, then back to Bordeaux.  In addition, we took the Pre-Cruise extension that included Paris, Orléans, the Loire Valley, and Tours before heading to Bordeaux to meet the Viking Longship Forseti.  We paid Viking to handle our flight arrangements, and all I can say about that is “lesson learned.”

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Having never sailed a river cruise before, I was unused to the lack of planning required.  As you know, if you have read any of my previous reviews, I am a crazy planner so not having to do any of that for this cruise left me feeling a bit disconcerted and not in control.

So, without handling any of the travel planning, we began our journey in April.  Our flight was Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Paris.  I had never been through JFK before but since we had been checked through, I assumed we would be fine.  I was wrong.  We had a bit of a delay leaving Charlotte, we sat on the runway for almost an hour waiting for clearance, but after that the flight was uneventful.  I knew it would be tight to make our next flight but we should have been able to make it.  What I did not know about JFK is that we would be required to check in again at the Air France counter even though we already had boarding passes.  Then, we had to make it through security again.  Unfortunately, these couple of issued added up to us missing our flight to Paris.  We then had to wait to see if we would make it on to the next (and last) flight to Paris.

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We did in fact make the last flight out, so I called Viking to let them know not to meet us at our original arrival time, but that we would be there a couple of hours late.  A long, but uneventful flight later, we landed in Paris, collected our bags and headed out to meet our Viking rep.  We were loaded into a comfortable minivan and off we went to our hotel, Le Méridien Etoile.

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Check in was easy and quick and our rooms were ready immediately.  We headed upstairs to unload our luggage and rest a bit.  Which ended up being a good idea as the heavens opened.  It rained for a bit, but then right as we were ready to head to dinner, it stopped.  We had no real plan for dinner, but I did have a place in mind, I just wasn’t sure how far away it was.  And as luck would have it, it was right down the block!

If you read my post on Nice, you may know how much I love mussels.  Well Léon de Bruxelles is famous for their mussels so I knew when I saw them, I would have to try it.  I mean, can you really be better than sitting by the Med drinking Rosé?  Well, actually no.  But the mussels were still REALLY REALLY good!

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And there were so many I could not finish all of them.  We all enjoyed our dinner tremendously and left fully satisfied.  I know it is technically a chain, but I would certainly go back anytime I am in Paris.  Service was great (and friendly!), prices were reasonable and the food (and wine) was outstanding!

Because of our delayed arrival in Paris, we did not have our day of sightseeing as planned, but we had one thing we didn’t want to miss, Bateaux-Mouches.

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A river cruise down the Seine.  The cruise departs every 30 minutes so there really isn’t a need to pre-book tickets, unless its a holiday or event, or you want a dinner cruise.  We just wanted a lovely sunset-ish ride through Paris.  In all of my trips to this city, this was one thing I had never done and even though I’ve been there multiple times, this was certainly a new way to see the city I love!

The cruise was lovely and afterwards we caught a taxi back to our hotel.  We had a early morning pickup to begin our tour through the Loire Valley so after a quick Lillet Rouge & Tonic in the hotel lounge we all hit the sack (well, except I had to work still, but it’s a small price to pay to be able to work from anywhere!).

Up bright and early, we showered (yay!!) and headed down for breakfast.  I will tell you, I have had plenty of crappy hotel breakfasts and Le Méridien Etoile is not that.  Not that at all.  Breakfast was awesome and if anyone knows where to get that little jar of kiwi yogurt please let me know!

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After breakfast and hotel check out, we handed over our luggage and were loaded onto a motorcoach to begin our tour.

 

Freedom in the Med…Back in Barcelona

So after that AMAZING Chef’s Table dinner, it was time to leave the Freedom and begin our trip home.  The trick here is to get your bags packed and out in the hall while remembering not to pack whatever clothes you want to wear the next morning.  I will tell you this doesn’t always happen and if you see random children at the airport in their pajamas, they are probably mine.

But, we did our best, packed up, cleaned up, distributed additional tips to our favorite crew members, said teary goodbyes, blew our last dollars in the casino and headed to bed.  We decided to stay one extra night in Barcelona instead of rushing to the airport immediately off the ship…this turned out to be one of my better decisions!

Since we were in no rush, we headed up to the Windjammer for some much needed coffee (me) and breakfast (everyone else).  Eventually we headed down towards the gangway, presented our cards to be scanned and heard the last mournful bong as we were checked off the ship.  In the terminal, we located our bags and headed out the door to hail an XL taxi to take us to the hotel.  This is where that “no rush” thing proved genius…the line for taxi’s, of any size, was several hundred people long.

There were people standing everywhere directing traffic…both human and vehicular so it was very easy to figure out where we needed to be, behind ALL those people in line!  The line moved fairly quickly, but it was still probably an hour or so from the time we got in line to the time we got a taxi.  There were quite a few people that did not expect or plan for this and they were frantic trying to explain that they needed to cut to the front of the line.  The Port Authority employees that were handling the line were having none of that, and would promptly pull any line jumpers out and send them to the back.

We eventually made our way to the front and were sorted into the line waiting for larger cabs.  As you might expect this took a bit longer, but soon enough we were on our way to the Hilton Barcelona.  Much like last years trip, I was able to get one night on points and since we stay at AirBNB’s on the front end of the trip, one free night after the cruise is a great way to not have to rush to the airport.

The Hilton Barcelona is a beautiful hotel in the more business-y district in Barcelona which was fine for the one night we needed it.  Plus it was close to one very important tourist attraction, one we could not miss…Camp Nou!

The Hilton has a beautiful lobby and bar area

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The rooms are comfortable enough, typical European (read small) with the amenities one would expect for a Hilton.  We checked in, then headed to the Metro to find some lunch…standing in line is hard work!

Now, you know how much we love food, and we all really prefer to eat local whenever possible.  But this was the last day of an eleven day trip.  What I wanted was a beer and a burger.  What we found was Hard Rock Barcelona.

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We walked up to the hostess stand and were told that the wait would be about two hours!!!!  Clearly that was not going to happen, but as I was standing there trying not to cry, another waitress mentioned that if we were willing to sit on the patio there was no wait…Um, okay.

So we sat on the patio along Plaça Catalunya and ate hamburgers and drank beer.  We were typical Americans again…although I still drank the local beer! It was exactly what I needed after an amazing week of touring and eating our way through Spain, France and Italy.  Our server was amazing and the lunch, while typical Hard Rock and kind of touristy, still solidly good burgers.

After lunch, we headed back to the hotel, then some of us headed to the last destination on our list…a visit to Camp Nou…can’t call myself a Soccer Mom and not go see this monument of soccer!

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We were relying on my directions…which was my first mistake!  I was trying to use Google Maps, works great if you are online, not so much in airplane mode.  We did eventually find it. I had pre-purchased tickets because I had read about long lines and wait times, this was not the case for us.  Even if we had had to purchase tickets, there were only about 5 people there waiting.  We wandered around in the museum

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and the visitors locker rooms

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and slowly made our way out to the field

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It is amazing to stand here, so close to the pitch and think of all of the great soccer that has happened here.

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This is from the upper level seats…and let me tell you, stairmaster’s got nothing on this stadium!  It felt like we were climbing forever and I totally understand why they have a snack bar open at the top, even on non game days!  I would have paid $20 for a bottle of water after that!  But it was worth it just to be there and now there is one more stadium crossed off my list, only a billion more to go!

We had dinner that night at a tapas place right out the front door of our hotel, Piscolabis.  It was fantastic.  We each ordered a few different tapas and all of them were very good to great!  The price was very reasonable and the wine was excellent.

The next morning, we asked the front desk to call us an XL cab to take us to the airport.  Our time in Europe was over.  It was amazing and there are several places that I would love to come and visit for longer: Barcelona, Nice, Positano & Sorrento.  But first there are a million places I want to see for the first time!  Until next time!  Adéu…

 

 

 

 

Freedom in the Med…The Chef’s Table

Our last full day on the boat. Never a day I look forward to.  This is the day you have to pack and put debark luggage tags on your bags, set them out in the hall, and hope you remembered to save at least one outfit to wear in the morning (don’t laugh…I’ve worn jammies on the ride home for just this reason!!).

However, there is one thing on our schedule tonight to look forward to, Chef’s Table.  This is a seven course (don’t worry, they’re small) tasting menu paired with 6 wines and a dessert cocktail.  If you know me at all you know this is right up my alley!  In fact, I reserve this dinner every cruise even though the menu hasn’t changes since my first one back in 2012.  But for this one, not just the menu had changed.

My first Chef’s Table experience was also on the Freedom way back in 2012.  Mom and I decided to try it.  It was held at a long table up in the WindJammer, the buffet restaurant.  They have since moved it to the Main Dining Room…in a pretty cool spot!

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Yep, that round table right in the middle, with the spiral staircases on either side.  (Pro Tip: Those staircases are tricky after 6 wines and a dessert cocktail…be safe!)  The setting is gorgeous and you feel like a superstar eating up there.

Another change is the menu.  It had long been rumored that the menu was going to change and when I sailed last summer on the Rhapsody, the Maître D’ confirmed that there would be a change, but not when so I did not know going in if we would be having the old menu (which I love) or the new menu (which at this point, I hadn’t even seen).  As it turned out, we had the new menu:

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And some fancy new place settings:

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That’s two napkins folded to look like a tuxedo!  Snazzy, right??

The first thing I noticed about the menu was the choice of entrée.   On the old menu, there was only one choice…short rib.  If you did not eat meat, the chef would make something for you on the fly (I am sure it was good but just to be clear, I eat meat, and I love short rib) but this was the first time I had seen an actual choice between beef, fish and vegetarian.   After the soup course (I think, maybe salad) the waiter came around and asked for your choice.

But first up?  Scallop Carpaccio:

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Basically just thinly sliced scallops with the dressing, a yuzu vinaigrette.

After that, the soup course.  This is first served with the bowl empty so that you can see the ingredients and then the server pours the soup into each bowl at the table.

Part of the fun of the Chef’s Table is the unique and interactive presentation.  At the start of each course the chef says a few words about what goes into making each dish and why it is served the way it is.  Then the Sommelier talks about what goes into the wine pairings for each course.  The wine is the one thing that always changes, while the chef must stick to the approved menu, the Sommelier has some freedom to choose the wines based on what he has on hand at the time.  The wines for this Chef’s Table overall  I would describe as adequate.  No show stoppers, but nothing too terrible either.

Moving on to the salad course:

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Now everyone loves lobster, and I am no different, but this was probably my least favorite course.  While the lobster itself was fine, the pineapple/vanilla dressing was a bit sweet for me.  YMMV

Now onto the entrèes.   Twelve people can sit at that table for dinner, and at our meal there were eleven Filets and one Tagliatelle.  No one ordered the fish…ergo I have no pictures of the fish (you better believe I would have taken a picture of someone else’s food if there had been that option!).  But I do have pictures of the filet:

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and the Truffle Tagliatelle:

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As both dishes were ordered by people in my party, I was able to try both…and both were amazing!

If you have not yet had enough food, never fear!  The absolute richest dish is yet to come.  That’s right!  Dessert!

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Valrhona Chocolate mousse with dulce de leche gelato and salted caramel cookie crumbles.  Believe me when I tell you that it actually pained me to leave this, but since I still had to fit in an airplane seat I had to content myself with just tasting each component.

In addition, coffee is offered, the Executive Chef, Maître D’, Sommelier and servers all come out to thank you and say goodbye and then we all precariously walked down the spiral staircase and out of the dining room.

I really enjoyed the new menu.  And I REALLY love the new location.  I will continue to reserve Chef’s Table on my Royal Caribbean cruises…even if they don’t change the menu for another six years!

 

Freedom in the Med…Amazing Amalfi

Wow…Our last port.  Tomorrow we have a sea day and then back to Barcelona to fly home.  This was the port I had done the least amount of research on.  I mean, Pompeii was obviously on the list but really what else is there?  Turns out…Plenty!

Now, ask anyone about the Amalfi Coast and instantly they will gush over the beauty, the seascapes, the amazing views.  Almost all the same things people say about Santorini.  And if you remember last year when I visited Santorini, I likened it to a Supermodel…Beautiful, but not a lot of substance.

I had once again booked with Italy Tour Sharing and since we had had two previous good tours, I anticipated nothing less for this one.  And after a TINY bit of confusion at the start, it was just as good.

The website advertises starting at Pompeii then hitting Sorrento and Positano.  Our driver asked if we minded doing it in reverse, Positano, Sorrento then Pompeii last.  That would mean that the long part of the drive was in the beginning to Positano and we would work our way back to Pompeii which is closest to the port.  We agreed which had its ups and downs…I’ll get to them.

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Driving along the Amalfi coast is nothing short of incredible.  Although if you ask my mom, she might say it was more terrifying than amazing!  She doesn’t like roads on the edge of a cliff for some reason…weird, right?

And while we all agreed that we would happily live here, none of us actually wanted to drive around.

We stopped a couple of times for pictures but eventually made it to Positano.  And if the roads were bad along the way, they were nothing compared to what was actually in Positano.  Fortunately, after a bit they no longer allow cars in town so all the roads are pedestrian.  And beautiful!

The town is, for fairly obvious reasons, dedicated to the sea.  I mean, its clearly easier to get here by boat than by car so everything revolves around the ocean.

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The artwork on the streets pay tribute to the sea as well.

 

And I’m sure you are aware of how much I love the ocean!  Its as if this town was made for me!! Oh! Wait!

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They are already holding a spot for me!!!

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So after making it down to the docks, we now had to get back up to the van to move on to Sorrento.  No easy task, that.

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The car park is up by that orange building…the one WAY UP THERE!!  I mean, its paved and more a series of cutback ramps rather than stairs, but still!  At any rate, we made it, piled back into the van and headed to Sorrento.

We really did not do much in Sorrento, a little shopping and lunch.  Now if you know us at all, you know how we feel about food.  And our driver had mentioned that Sorrento was famous for two things: gnocchi and limoncello.   Well, it was a bit hot for me to indulge in the famously rich pasta puffs, but hey!  Limoncello is served icy cold, right?  Well, I still don’t know for sure because I didn’t order any, but I didn’t order any gnocchi either so I was a miss on all Sorrentean specialties.

I did buy a beautiful bottle of limoncello to bring back with me, and I can confirm that it is fantastic chilled.  It is also fantastic made into a limoncello granita and served after a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes…but that might have to be another post!

We also realized that Sorrento has a soccer team!  With jersey’s and everything!!!  And since it was our goal to purchase a jersey in every port, we were thrilled!  We still got a Napoli jersey too, but the small teams are so cool to represent, we had to buy one of those too.

That church is called Chiesa di San Francesco.  And check out the streets…see any resemblance??

Overall, we enjoyed Sorrento very much.  Up next, Pompeii.  I have probably 200 pictures of Pompeii alone, you know I have a thing for ruins.  I will try to pick a just a few to give you the impression.  Here is where doing Pompeii late in the day, on the way back to port becomes an issue.  You see, while we did avoid the traffic coming back from Positano, we could not avoid the afternoon sun.

And it was HOT!  So hot I kept checking the volcano just to make sure we were not about to meet our own ashy end.   And while those trees are beautiful and green and shady, they are behind the fences and inaccessible to us poor, blistering tourists.

But there is no doubt the sheer awesomeness of this town, and to think it was gone in a day.  The treasures that remain, from artwork to fast food stands to complete corpses, are genius and beautiful and a tragedy.

 

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And soon enough it was time to meet mom (who decided a/c and a cool beverage beat wandering around active volcano sites in July) and the driver back at the entrance.  Yep, time for me to read a map!  Can anyone guess what happened next?  Yep.  We got lost. And while I usually love getting lost in a new town, Pompeii isn’t really new.  We did finally find our way out, by way of a water vendor, and we were all relived to finally see the spot we were to meet the van and mom.

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Ah Bliss!  Or air conditioning and refrigeration if you’re being technical but they’re basically the same thing, right?  We made it back to the ship in plenty of time, even after stopping to get our Napoli jerseys and headed on board.

Up next, our final sea day.  And Chef’s Table!!!  You know how much I love Chef’s Table!!  And this one has a new menu and wines and presentation, and location.  Stay Tuned!