Friday, September 27, 2019

Cruising Basel to Amsterdam on CroisiEurope's M.S.Douce France

How lucky are we?   The sun is shining, a pianist is gently tickling the keys to classic smooth numbers as we relax in the panoramic lounge bar and gaze in wonder at the charming villages and countless prominent castles along the banks of mighty Rhine River. The friendly bar attendant is offering anything from cocktail du jour to tea or coffee as we cruise towards Amsterdam where we will disembark this picturesque nine day cruise on CroisiEurope’s M.S.Douce France.

Who/what is CroisiEurope you may ask!  Well let me tell you, this French family-owned line is not only one of the pioneers in this field (est 1976) but one of Europe’s biggest river cruise companies and yet practically unheard of in Australia. Maybe a well kept secret,  which I can ensure you is well worth discovering for a great cruise at a good price which includes all meals (delicious French cuisine) with beverages, an open bar – (that alone will get the attention of most Aussies) and free WIFI.  

Their fleet of 55 vessels cruise the canals and rivers of France and Europe, Asia, Russia, Southern Africa, North and South America as well as coastal cruises.  I hear the Christmas market cruise is fantastic! Not for us this year but who knows......2020 is a possibility!   

Meeting the crew - L - R  Head Chef, Aurelia (Entertainment officer) Captain and Purser

Here we go from Basel to Amsterdam
Only English speaking - it does not matter, announcements and tour commentaries alternate between clear English and French.  It is an enjoyable and often a comical challenge to communicate with passengers who do not speak our lingo. The purser
seats all English speakers together in the dining-room. We are seated with a couple from Connecticut US and their two adult children. Nationalities on board are mixed, we have Canadians, French of course, Norwegians and only two Australians.....John & Moi!!

This ship has 55 identical double cabins and was completely refurbished in 2017.  Having been on small cruise ships before where one could barely swing a cat in the cabin and only a dribble from the shower head it was a welcome surprise to find generous hanging and cupboard space in the cabins and the en-suite with great water pressure and ample hot water!

WIFI was free and available on the entire ship. TV in our cabin only stopped working for the short time it took the ship to cruise under a bridge.



After beginning our cruise in Basel, we had six interesting and varied ports of call along the Rhine before disembarking in Amsterdam.
The guided shore excursions visit sites of interest combining culture, architecture and history or it is possible to wander and explore freely. We had been to a few of the ports of call previously so it was wonderful to be able to just mooch around these villages at our leisure, sometimes hiring bicycles for our own sightseeing tour.

Cathedral overlooking Breisach Village


The European Parliament
La Petite France district of Strasbourg

                                      The magnificent pink sandstone Notre-Dame cathedral of Strasbourg

The crew was great, friendly and professional.  The majority spoke at least three languages fluently and seemed to multitask in all areas of the ship. Yosef, the unflappable Purser and Aurelia the  entertainment officer communicated well with the passengers and kept everything running smoothly in a ship-shaped relaxed manner.
Going through one of eleven locks. Look at how close our ship was to the lock wall

                              Just three of many many castles we cruised past towards Koblenz

                                                     Amsterdam - has to be the bicycle capitol of the world!

The greatest plus point about this and every other cruise is definitely the unpack and relax aspect!!  Selecting what to wear each day is about the only decision one needs to make apart from choosing from the extensive varied buffet breakfast.  Lunch and dinner are three, always yummy, set courses at one sit-down fixed time.



Time to sing goodbye to Yosef (Purser) Our Captain and Aurelia (Entertainent)

Would I cruise with CroisiEurope again?  You bet I would; I’ve discovered I quite enjoy just-chilling while the friendly crew hover discretely ready to bow to my every whim, and I concurrently salivate about the deliciously superb gastronomic masterpiece our top French chef is preparing for me in the galley!! 

Dream on......until next time! 

Time to go home.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Interlude in South America 2017

23 September 2017 - Off to South America on my final gig as Tour Director for Interlude Tours.  Our small tour group of 8 pax flew from Sydney to overnight in Santiago then onto Peru to begin our exciting 26 day South American adventure visiting Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
We started in Lima, Peru’s capital, known as The City of The Kings with a very informative local guide. Plaza Mayor, the main square, located in the historic colonial centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Around its edge are stunning architectural buildings including the Government Palace, Cathedral, the Archbishop's Palace, and the Municipal Palace. The square was the headquarters of the Spanish Colonial Government and was apparently heavily damaged during the earthquake in 1746.  It was in this square that important happenings took place including the proclamation of Independence of Peru in 1821.

The Municipal Palace Lima

Lima Cathedral and Town Square

Lima has many beautiful plazas, museums, churches and gardens.  
There was a large heavily armed police presence in the city.  According to our guide, the police are there to control and suppress protests mainly by Uni students on the streets and in the squares. We did not see any evidence of any trouble and felt very safe.  

It didn't take long for the girls to hit the shops looking for genuine Alpaca garments

Not far from the Main Square is the historic Santo Domingo Convent with its distinctive tower, over 46 meters high, rowned by a dome and a statue of the Angel of Fame.

The first black and first Peruvian Saint, Saint Martin de Porres, spent most of his life here.  Initially he was left at the convent for being an illegitimate child, he lived there as a monk, and was buried there. In the crypt of the same convent lies Saint Rose of Lima, the first American saint, patron saint of Lima, of Peru, of the New World and of the Philippines.

 Inside the convent are five cloisters, with varying decorations including carved wood, Seville tiles and painting, oak roofs, baroque processional altarpieces and impressive carved oak ceilings.

 A treasure of the monastery is the Library with unique and extremely valuable books. Among them are some of the oldest books used by the Dominicans.

There was an alluring peace and silence here which tempted one to linger a little longer but we had other places to visit.

Among them, the famous Mirafores district and the Parque del Amor – a sort of lover’s lane with imitations of Antoni Gaudi's work in Parc Güell Barcelona, and a great view of the Pacific Ocean.

Very much like Gaudi's work

The Kiss

A night tour and dinner in the privately owned Largo Museum was special. Housed in an 18th-century vice-royal mansion, surrounded by stunning gardens, it showcases an excellent overview of development of Peruvian pre-Columbian history and finest gold and silver collection from ancient Peru. 

The famous erotic archaeological pottery collection was a little in-your-face but totally fascinating and had some of our group giggling like school kids.

Our next stay was in Cusco, another UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. At 3399 m about sea level, our group took all the advised precautions against altitude sickness. We drank plenty of water, coco tea (surprisingly pleasant), rested and moved around at a slow pace. Something worked; no real effects, although we all found we tired quickly in the heat.


Palacio del Inka Hotel Cusco
We based in the historic centre of Cusco in a striking Luxury Collection Hotel, Palacio del Inka, a mansion dating back nearly five centuries and situated directly across from the Koricancha.

Palacio del Inka Hotel Cusco

Locals selling their wares in the courtyard of the hotel
The Koricancha is an old Incan palace and main centre of worship to the Sun God.  When the Spanish conquered Peru, the Dominican order built a lovely church over the foundations of this temple, which is still there.  There is still clearly no love lost by the Peruvians for the Spanish. 
In the courtyard of the Koricancha

Wonderful stonework in the old temple 
                 Our tour of Cusco started in the main square, Plaza de Armas, on a rather hot day

Then a tour of archaeological sites which are important religious and administrative centres for the Inkas.  Located on a hilltop overlooking the city of Cusco was the incredible Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman Fortress built of enormous stone blocks somehow brought to the area and expertly shaped by the Inkas. 

Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman Fortress

Overlooking Cusco
 Of course one cannot go to Peru without a visit to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We enjoyed our time in the colourful Pisac Markets which is full of traditional arts and crafts made by the local people (be warned, some are from China).

Pisac Markets

Girls looking at alpaca knitwear
Then onto tour the Ollantaytambo Fortress built by those busy little Inkas in the XVIth century and the fascinating agricultural terraces of Moray, built in natural holes in circular form.  The Incas were beyond their time in scientific thinking. Studies done on the soil prove that the soil comes from different regions and must have been brought to the Sacred Valley. Another fascinating point about the Moray ruins is that they never flood, even in Peru’s merciless rainy season. It is believed that there must be underground channels built to allow the water to drain.

Beautiful countryside
The Ollantaytambo Fortress


That was a big day with a lot to take in and wonder at. One cannot help but be overawed by the forward thinking and intelligence of those clever little Incas

Machu Picchu

A highlight in Peru of course is Machu Picchu, now listed as a new seven wonder of the world plus a UNESCO World Culture Heritage site; it certainly did not disappoint. The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu was lost to the Amazon Jungle for hundreds of years, until it was re-discovered by Hiram Bingham, an American explorer 1911.

We ventured into the Amazon Jungle by river boat and stayed a couple of nights in an eco-lodge where open-sided rooms looked directly onto the surrounding tranquil rainforest.  The jungle excursions were more suited to a younger traveller, so the majority of our time was spent relaxing, socialising and enjoying down-time without venturing too far. The Amazon rainforest region of Peru is colossal, covering 60% of the country and is second only to the Brazilian rainforest in size but only parts of this jungle are accessible to tourists.

Two more terrific highlights of Peru still to come;  One, the Belmond Andean Explorer, an overnight  train across the Andes from Cusco to Puno and Lake Titicaca, the birthplace of the Incas.

A welcome drink before boarding the Belmond train
We boarded the train around 11am and disembarked the next day at 8am. This train is pure luxury and listed as one of the top 10 rail trips in the world.  The train or rolling stock was designed and manufactured in Queensland Australia and after it was purchased and splendidly refurbished by Belmond, began this extremely picturesque run in 2016.

Our compartment on the Belmond train



A highlight was to get up early to see the sunrise over Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. 60% of the Lake is in Peru and 40% in Bolivia.

Sunrise over Lake Titicaca

The next destination was to the floating Uros islands in Lake Titicaca, settled by the Uru decendents, indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia, who believe they own the lake. The islands are about 3810 metres above sea level.

They are man-made out of bundles of dried totora reeds. Dense totora roots interweave and form a natural layer about one to two meters thick.  These support the islands and are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. New reeds need to be added frequently.  An island lasts about 30 years if maintained well.  There are over 80 islands, larger ones house about 10 families.

A demonstration of how the islands are made

The ladies had fun dressing us in their clothes

There is a small hospital and traditional school.  The islands were originally settled as defensive strategy. Tourism is the main industry selling handicrafts and tours of the islands. Their diet is mainly fish, part of the totora reed, birds, ducks and few cattle raised on the island. They barter totora reeds in Puno for other supplies such as quinoa.   We saw some evidence of modern technology; boats with motors and some solar panels on a few houses. 

Altogether we had 12 fantastic and wondrous days in Peru, the third largest country in South America. We visited the amazing top sites but feel we only scratched the historic surface.  

Some things we learned about Peru –

·       Peruvians are very friendly and usually short in stature.  

·       Peruvians LOVE food. Eating is their favourite pastime.

·       Guinea pig is a delicacy in Peru, cooked whole and eaten with the hands.  Tried it under protest, but could not get a picture of the sweet little creatures out of my mind,

·       There are many excellent restaurants in Peru and the cuisine (forgetting the guinea pig) is really tasty.

·       Both Chile and Peru claim the classic Pisco Sour as their own. Our vote says Pisco Sour cocktail in Peru is definitely better than the Pisco Sour in Chile. 

·       The potato is originally from Peru, and there are over 3,000 different varieties


·       Peru has 3 official languages: Spanish, Quechua and Aymara, but east of the Andes in Amazon Jungle regions, it is said that natives speak a further 13 different languages.

Goodbye Peru and Hello Brazil & Iguassu Falls.  Our hotel was on the Brazilian side of the Iguassu Falls. The waterfalls originate from the Iguazu River on the border of Argentine and Brazil.  They are the largest waterfall system in the world and jointly owned by the Iguazú National Park in Argentina and the Iguaçu National Park in Brazil both UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The point where Brazil meets Argentina on the bridge.
Lucky again with Eder, a very informative local guide who took us to the Argentina side first where the falls are surrounded by trails & a train running through the jungle.


On the train to the falls on the Argentina side
What a magnificent spectacle; we thought could not get any better until we returned to the Brazilian side where we all agreed the falls there pipped the Argentina side for spectacular beauty and size.

Stunning Crested Jay can make 16 different sounds.

The Brazilian side of the Falls

A long pathway along the canyon (on the Brazilian side of the falls allows one to get close (and a little wet) and wonder of their natural beauty and power.  The falls can experience four seasons in one day.
The spectacle of these 275 individual drops is overawing. Three of our group took a helicopter flight offered over the falls which they said was well worth the money.
According to our guide, these Falls have the greatest average annual flow of any waterfall in the world, twice that of Niagara Falls. Having seen both, I do not doubt it. 

Meat, meat of every kind and every cut - so tender and tasty
It was here we had our first taste of the renowned Brazillian BBQ in Brazil!  Oh just thinking about it now makes my mouth water. Every type and cut of meat and poultry, superbly carved and served on request, supplemented by a choice of an incredible variety of salads.  Yummie! Pasta if you preferred. Not us!  Great floor show too.

Rio next. The flight from Iguazi to Rio de Janiero took just under two hours. . I liked the feel of Rio immediately. Our local guide for this city was Giordanna (Dana for short); A gorgeous outgoing girl who loves her job and does it superbly.  She made Rio come alive for us.

Our gorgeous guide,  Dana

Our hotel in Rio was just a hop across the road from Copacabana beach. Fantastically close for walks on the beach or just people watching.  Water was cold but that did not stop our intrepid swimmer from taking early morning dips.

Sunrise over Copacabana beach

John enjoyed early morning swim

So many top sights to visit in Rio – Firstly an early morning visit to the tallest religious statue in the world, the gigantic statue of Redeemer made of concrete and soapstone.
Luckily we did start out early and beat the other dozens of tourists for seats on the  train for the 20 minute steep journey through the sizable Tijuca Forest National Park up to the top of Corcovado mountain to see this amazing statue up close.  Within a city it is quite amazing and unexpected to see such a huge forest; this one with a claim to be the largest urban forest in the world. The thousands of trees were all hand planted. 

Train to top of Corcovado mountain
Tijuca Forest National Park

Tijuca Forest National Park
Construction of Christ the Redeemer statue took 9 years (1922-1931), was funded by the RC Church with the purpose of showing that Christ loves all, to spread peace and to display the devotion of the city towards the almighty. The statue joined the New Seven wonders of the World list in 2007.  It is 30m tall and the arm spread is said to be 28m. These figures vary on research.  Whatever, one gets the impression everything is pretty big in this city, including our next excursion by cable car to Urca Hill.

A cable car took us to Urca Hill then another cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf (395m).  What magnificent views from Urca Hill of Guanabara Bay, The Rio-Niteroi Bridge and Corcovado Mountain.  From Sugar Loaf more splendid views over Rio including   Copacabana  beach and the Santa Cruz fortress.

Urca Hill and Sugar Loaf
Great views


Our scheduled tour of the Favela was cancelled due to serious trouble there between the army, drug lords and gangs. The favelas in Brazil came into being when squatters occupied vacant land on the outskirts of the city and built shanties of second-hand and often stolen materials. Firstly it was impoverished former slaves and then the wave of migration from the country to the city responsible for the explosion of the favelas which in Rio are settled on the side of steep hills. It has become quite a tourist attraction to tour a Favela. It is said about 6 percent of Brazil’s total population live in favelas.

A Favela - the one we did not see!!

We enjoyed a delightful 4 X 4 jeep tour through the Tijuca Forest then visiting the old neighbourhood of Rio, the hilltop hippy district of Santa Teresa, with winding streets lined with elegant  original old mansions, 19th century architecture and today home to many artists and sculptors.

In the Santa Teresa region
Touring in the jeep
I loved the impressive vibrant, staircase covered in more than 2000 pieces of colourful tiles, mirror and ceramic called the ‘Selaron Steps' links the bohemian neighbourhood of Lapa and Santa Teresa. They are the art project of Chilean-born painter Jorge Selarón who said it was "my tribute to the Brazilian people".  He began by using only blue, green and yellow tiles in honour of the Brazilian flag, but soon people brought tiles from all over the world.
Sitting on the Selaron Steps
We found a tile from Australia
The artist Jorge Selaron
The artist sadly died in 2013 but what a legacy he left. 

Some things we learned about Brazil
·       It is the largest country in Sth America and 5th largest country in the world.
·       The official language is Portuguese.  Portugal ruled Brazil for 300 years.
·       The name ‘Brazil’ come from the name of a tree called ‘Brazilwood’.
·       Gold was discovered in Brazil in 1695 adding to the world’s gold reserve in 18
·      ‘Rubber’ made Brazil a wealthy nation during the late 18th century.
·       During the 16th century, the Portuguese established sugar plantations in Brazil.
·       Brazil has the largest population of Roman Catholics in the world
·       Brazil is the leading producer of oranges and the second largest producer of
         ethanol fuel in the world
·       The carnival in Rio de Janeiro is said to be the world’s largest party.
·       Brazilians love to travel
·       I-phones are the most expensive in the world in Brazil....and most stolen item.
·       Around 60% of the Amazon Rainforest is located in Brazil.
·       Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in Brazil. The national team is one
     of the world's most successful.
·       The Brazilian public health system provides free sex-change operations. It is
      considered a constitutional right.        

It’s goodbye to our lovely guide Dana and Rio and a flight to Argentina to meet our local guide, Diego, in Bueno Aires.

My first thoughts of Argentina’s capital city Bueno Aires, often called the Paris of South America, was how different it is to Rio.... quite flat, no hills. The city has some rather glamorous and trendy neighbourhoods with unique architectural, historical and cultural value.
A few of the fabulous mansions of Bueno Aires

Dog walkers with dozens of dogs and more dogs!

Our visit to the famous cemetery of Recoleta with many glorious ornate mausoleums was fascinating.  One of the main attractions for visitors is the tomb of actress turned first lady, Eva Peron (Evita). 

The exciting La Boca neighbourhood famed for its colourful houses, its tango and its soccer team; world-renowned club, Boca Juniors was another fascinating area . The centrepiece is the picture perfect cobblestone strip, El Caminito, or little walkway.  This pedestrian lane is lined with artists selling their works and tango dances prancing on the sidewalk offering tourist photo ops.



Another day; another venture. Off we went out into the countryside to the Santa Susana Ranch. Surrounded by beautiful country landscapes, this traditional ranch offers an up close experience to be entertained by Gauchos with folksongs, dances, equestrian activities and shows of traditional gaucho horse races and horse games.  A Gaucho in Argentina is simply a country person, experienced in traditional livestock farming, a skilled horseman, and according to our guide, usually brave, generous, also crafty and tricky!  It was a good fun day. 
Entrance to the ranch
Unusual chairs

Meat of all types on the BBQ
 Meat lovers will know Argentina has a well deserved reputation for growing excellent lip-smacking meat, particularly steaks. All the meat we had in Argentina was tender and very tasty, however the meat in Brazil was every bit as scrumptious

Entertainment during lunch

The head Gaucho likes the girls (even the old ones)
Fantastic horsemen showing their skills

We dined on typical national asado (BBQ) empanadas and excellent Argentinian wines
Impossible to be in Bueno Aires, famous for its nightlife and not go to a tango show or try to tango!  Diego says Tango is a vertical expression of horizontal desire!  What fun to be introduced to the art of tango by a professional Tango dancer for a 1 hour lesson. Of course it is a tourist thing to do but we all had such a good time and lots of laughs plus the following Tango show and dinner was fantastic; in fact quite unforgettable. Unfortunately photography was not allowed in the tango show.

The locals call the Tango the 'Vertical expression of horizontal desire'
We left the city behind and entered a world that has not changed greatly since 1920’s when we boarded a Tigre Delta boat cruise to see part of the biggest river deltas in the world. It was relaxing and fascinating  cruising through the narrow channels and streams around the islands, passing many beautiful riverside villas, yacht clubs, English gardens and Victorian docks, most with dogs lolling around watching the passing river traffic or perhaps just waiting for their owners to come home from work.

All aboard the boat to cruise the Tigre Delta
Some things we learned about Argentina
·       Argentina is the second largest country in South America
·       Official language is Spanish. 
·       Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in Argentina
·       Argentine beef is famous around the world. Argentina has the highest consumption of
      red meat in the world.
·       The Latin dance and music called the Tango began in Buenos Aires.
A flight to Chile’s capital Santiago is next. Santiago is also Chili’s largest city and nestles in a valley surrounded by the snow-capped Andes. 
The view of the snow-capped Andes from our hotel window
 Santiago’s main square or Plaza de Armas in the heart of the old colonial historic centre of the city is full of life.  Surrounding this square are several attractions, in particular two striking neoclassical landmarks, the National History Museum and the Metropolitan Cathedral.  It is a busy square full of local people just relaxing, some playing chess and groups of tourists plus artists displaying and selling their wares.
National History Museum
Metropolitan Cathedral

Parliament House

We wandered the nearby cobblestone streets and visited original colonial areas where old mansions reflect the elegance and richness of the early twentieth century when mining and the discovery of Silver brought  an influx of great wealth to the neighbourhood.

The one street we did not wander but drove through, is the amazing oh so elegant street, Alonso de Córdova in the Vitacura neighbourhood which goes for 6 blocks and is lined with fine luxury boutiques selling prestigious international brands and unique accessories.  No stopping or shopping or photos for us in this street! 
Four of us enjoyed wandering and dining in the fish markets. Excellent fare.

Nearby is San Cristóbal Hill, reached by cable car with a massive statue of the Virgin Mary and a stunning panoramic view over Santiago.

Virgin Mary on San Cristobal Hill
Fabulous view over Santiago
                                   Beautiful birds and swans in the Santiago park

We departed Santiago for our final destination; the Bohemian seaport town of Valparaiso on Chile’s coast about 120km from Santiago. En route we enjoyed an excellent 5 glass tasting session of premium quality Chilean wines and a delicious lunch in the beautiful Casa del Bosque vineyard.   Feeling no pain, we continued onto Valparaiso.


I was really eager to visit this Valparaiso which has a reputation of being quite odd and unsafe. Indeed it is a most bizarre city with loads of amazing vibrant street art/ graffiti, very steep winding streets, funiculars and alleyways lined with colourful mostly ram-shacked mansions. It’s sort of chaotic and exciting; I loved it! 
Amazing street art
I can’t describe the feel of Valparaiso any better than the Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda who  said:  'Valparaíso, how absurd you are…you haven't combed your hair, you've never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.
Girls find the shops wherever we go
Valparaiso’s unsafe reputation I assume comes from the dock and port areas where there is a transient population of dockers , sailors, and according to our guide, ladies of the night!  That was a bleak and unsavoury area I would not venture into.

What we learnt about Chile

·       The official name of Chile is the Republic of Chile.

·       Chile is the longest north-south trending country in the world and has one of the longest coastlines in the world. On average it is just 150 km wide from west to east.

·       Chile is one of the most stable and prosperous nations in South America.

·       The currency in Chile is the Chilean peso.

·       Chile is a World class wine destination

·       Chile’s Andes Mountains have many large and still active volcanoes.

·       Chilean husbands and wives have different surnames because women keep their maiden names.

·       The Atacama Desert is Chile is the driest desert in the world, in fact parts of this desert have not had any rain since the beginning of recordkeeping

·       Chile has the world’s largest reserves of copper, and is the number one exporter of copper in the world.

·       After Norway Chile is the world’s second largest exporter of salmon

·       Football (soccer) is Chile’s most popular sport
Boohoo; all good things must come to an end; and so it did for our fabulous tour of South America when we boarded our flight in Santiago; destination Sydney.
Arriving in Sydney safe, sound and happy
The tour may be over but the marvellous memories of our experiences and the fascinating people we met along the way will be with us forever.