The Grand European River Cruise Part 1- Planning and First Few Days

It has been a very long time since I published a blog post. There are myriad reasons for this that I will not bore you with.

Connie and I just returned from an eighteen-day trip to Europe. We participated in a Viking River cruise that took us from Amsterdam to Budapest via rivers and canals. Over the next several days I intend to share our experiences. I am breaking our trip into several blogs to keep each short enough to be easily read and hopefully enjoyed.

Part 1 will discuss in general terms the planning that went into this adventure, our flights to Amsterdam, and the pre-excursion spent in The Haque. Future posts will provide day-by-day activities on the river(s) and shore excursions. So, let’s get started.

Prior to the pandemic breaking out all over the globe Connie and I had decided we needed to get back to traveling since we were no longer in the campground hosting business and had sold our motorhome. The Viking River Cruises had long attracted our attention, so we decided to take the plunge. Not knowing how many of these cruises we would eventually be able to go on, we decided our first should be one of the longer ones just in case we failed to find another opportunity and to take full advantage of the very long flights required to get to and from the starting/ending cities.

In 2019 we made the commitment to get a reservation on The Grand European River Cruise. We established an account with Viking Cruises and plunked down a downpayment for a cruise scheduled to sail in March of 2021. OOPS! The Covid 19 Pandemic broke out in the US in mid-January 2020 and by late in the year it became obvious that travel to Europe was not a good idea. In fact, Viking Cruises eventually canceled all cruising including ours. That was bad news, but there would be a golden lining.

Since it was a world pandemic that shut down the trip, Viking offered us a 125% refund for use on a future cruise. Of course, we jumped on that deal. We eventually were able to make a reservation for March of 2022 with dates that would coincide with our 40th wedding anniversary. Keep in mind this planning and scheduling process was going on as the pandemic continued and there were a lot of other things going on in our lives as well.

In the Autumn of 2021, we decided we may want to relocate out of Texas as the climate there never fit my running desires, and it made our springs and summers pretty unbearable for enjoying any outdoor activities. There were other more complicating issues as well. So, having learned that friends were making a move from Nevada to North Carolina got us thinking about North Carolina as an eventual new address.

Late in November, we took an exploratory trip to Charlotte. Our intent was to see if the Carolinas had what we were seeking climate-wise as well as the sorts of activities we most enjoy, Think restaurants, if you dare. As the plan went, if there was a fit for us we would then think about finding an apartment we might want to rent for several months in the mid-distant future. Well, we fell in love with the city almost immediately upon arrival. The day after we arrived a connection we had made via one of our longtime friends in the birdwatching community took us all around the “crown” as they seem to call the area well inside the I-485 beltway. We had a wonderful introduction to the city and fell helplessly in love.

On our second full day in town we ventured out on our own and the very first property we visited had absolutely everything we desired except for the three long flights of stairs. Further, it was new construction, so no bidding wars and it wouldn’t be ready until March. OOPS again!

On our third day in the area, we were escorted around by our realtor which we had arranged while still at home in Kyle. She knew the rule. We were not going to make any commitment during this visit. She took us to see several condos and townhomes relatively close to Uptown (Charlotte calls their business center Uptown instead of Downtown). We were not impressed with any other than the fact of their location relative to Uptown. Our last stop was the same townhouse development we had visited the day before. It was at the point of realization that this deal was not going to last until we thought we would be ready to move and that the market back home was a sellers’ market, that we broke our commitment to ourselves and dropped a downpayment.

We had intended to be in Charlotte for two full weeks, so we spent the balance of our time exploring and to a great extent living in a panic because we now had a move to make just days ahead of the cruise. OOPS!

We also had done virtually nothing to start the process of selling our home in Texas. In a panic, I called our realtor in Kyle and expressed my concerns about having two mortgages. She assured me she would sell our home and that the asking price had increased in our absence. WHEW!

Meanwhile, Connie was getting really nervous about the move and the cruise. Plus, she got Covid and was in quarantine for 10 days over Christmas! She got in touch with our travel agent and started exploring rescheduling the cruise and all that would entail. She didn’t rest well for several nights.

Somehow we were able to move the cruise to September, make the house ready to sell and sell it in essentially one day after putting it on the market, schedule the move, pack for same, execute the move, and finally close on the house in Charlotte on March 24, 2022.

On September 7 we boarded a plane bound for Newark, NJ, for a connecting flight to Amsterdam. We somehow made it work and trust me, there were some major issues along the way to get from moving in to on that pair of airplanes.

We arrived in Amsterdam on the morning of September 8 and were greeted as we left customs by a team of representatives from Viking Cruises. Let the fun begin!

The Viking representative introduced us to our driver, Harrald, who would take us from Amsterdam to The Hague. The ride to The Hague was uneventful. Harrald was of the talkative sort and he provided us with a historical overview as well as the current status of political issues concerning the beef and dairy industry. Connie would have preferred less talking and more sleeping, but I enjoyed the stories.

When we arrived at the Hilton Hotel in The Hague we were introduced to our tour guide for that pre-sail excursion, Anthony. Anthony had us complete the hotel check-in process and return to the lobby later for a short briefing on how our time in The Hague would be filled. At this meeting, we also met our first couple who would be on the ship with us. A wonderful Irish-American couple originally from New York, Mike and Eileen, who are RVers, NPS campground hosts and live in Wilmington, NC.

Following the brief, we took a short walk up the street to find lunch. We soon came upon a very nice but small establishment that served breakfast and small lunches. There were some things that stood out in this small place First, we were in awe of the variety of pastries and cakes that were prepared and sold there. Then, with a menu consisting of maybe ten items, there was a great variety. I ordered coffee because, well how can you judge a breakfast place without sampling the coffee? I also ordered a yogurt dish that consisted of the most amazing yogurt I have ever eaten, a sampling of all the fresh fruits available, and a sprinkling of granola. It was amazingly tasty and just the right size serving to satisfy. Connie had an Avocado Toast dish that was to die for.

As we were paying I took the opportunity to be direct with the lady who had prepared and served our food a coffee and ask her about the tipping custom in The Netherlands. She was as direct in saying that if one appreciates the food and the service it is customary to tip. I started with about 15% and she told me that was more than generous and that 10% would please anyone in the service industry. I thanked her and left the additional 5% as a thank you for the education. This was knowledge I would need for the next two weeks.

We walked up the street admiring all there was to see along the way. It didn’t take too long and we both realized we needed some sleep. So, we made our way back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.

Later, we ventured out again, this time looking for dinner. As any who has followed our travels through the years knows, finding the right place to eat has and always will be a challenge for us. I won’t go into the reasons; just suffice it to say we struggle.

This particular evening we found a place with very little discussion or dispute. We found a Tapas Bar by the name of Triana very close to our hotel. When we entered we were met with the most amazing aromas and a very warm environment. The young woman who greeted us enquired as to a reservation. We were a bit surprised and I was more than a bit worried we wouldn’t get in. As it turned out there were plenty of tables, she was just checking.

We were escorted up a flight of stairs to a cozy area with about five or six tables; two were two tops and three or four were four tops. As we started reading through the menu, we quickly realized we were not hungry enough to get the full experience of this wonderful find.

We did our best.

Following a very satisfying dinner, we walked around town a little and found a park and birded for a bit while dinner settled before returning to the hotel and the bar for a second glass of wine before heading to our room for a very good night’s sleep.

The plan for the full day in The Hague was to have an early breakfast at the hotel and then meet our guide, Anthony. At breakfast we met Eileen’s brother Ken and his wife Pat. These four would play a major role in our enjoyment of the cruise to follow. It has been a while since we were on an organized group tour and the use of systems such as VoiceVox had not been a thing in those days. When we met up with Anthony we were introduced to and provided with our VoiceVox audio devices and earpieces The system has a transmitter and small headset with a microphone that is worn by the guide, receivers and earpieces for the group, and a card that tunes the devices to a unique channel for the group. This allows the guide to speak at a conversational level and still be heard by the very last person in the group. The range is pretty impressive as well. These devices made all the difference in the world for the many guided tours that were to follow.

Once we were all geared up and tuned in we started a walking tour of the historic section of the Hague. The photos along with their captions capture the highlights.

Meet Anthony, our guide for our first two days in
The Netherlands
Noordeinde Palace

Noordeinde Palace in The Hague is the King’s place of work. The palace is the property of the State and was placed at the disposal of the head of state by an Act of Parliament. The complex also includes the Royal Stables, and the palace gardens contain the Royal Archives, which are the property of the House of Orange-Nassau Historic Collections Trust. On the day of our visit, the King was in the palace as noted by the flag flying overhead. We did not see him.

This is William of Orange. He is called William of Orange because he was from Orange in the Dutch Republic. He married his cousin Mary, which later gave him a claim to the English crown where he became King William III of England.

His statue faces the Noordeinde Palace. It is a very large statue standing atop a platform that is easily ten feet tall.

Statue of William of Orange
Current Government building in The Hague

This massive building is one of several buildings in The Hague that house various government offices as well as the Parliament. This is The Binnenhof or Inner Court. It is a complex of buildings in the city center, next to Hofvijver Lake. It houses the meeting place of both houses of the States General of the Netherlands, as well as the Ministry of General Affairs and the office of the Prime Minister. It was built primarily in the 13th century. It is currently undergoing a full renovation. Think of the challenges involved in bringing the technology of today to such an old building.

The Old City Hall of The Hague. is located on the Groenmarkt near the old city center. It was built in 1565 and restored and enlarged in 1882. the building was considered very large and imposing in its day. Just after it was built in 1566, Lodovico Guicciardini referred to The Hague as the most beautiful, richest, and biggest village in Europe. Not being a walled village, The Hague was vulnerable to attack. One has to wonder how it survived. The Old City Hall is still used today for weddings and other ceremonial events.

Old City Hall
Current City Hall

the current City Hall of The Hague. This photo does not do justice to this modern building. The congestion of buildings in the area makes it virtually impossible to show the grandeur of the building. The interior is impressive for its relative convenience. There are digital kiosks where citizens check in to the various offices they need to visit. Essentially all city-related business can be conducted in this building. It also has free public restrooms which are rare finds in Europe. There is also a convenience store on the ground floor which Connie took advantage of. She wanted to buy a bottle of water, but she had no cash with her. I was holding all the cash for no apparent reason. Eventually, a nice young woman who either works in the building or was a visitor paid for the water with a smile and a welcome to The Netherlands attitude.

This is the Coat of Arms for the city, The Hague. It can be found all over the city and the street signs frequently have the Stork image. It consists of a golden escutcheon with a stork in natural colors holding a black eel, a count’s crown as a coronet, and two golden lions rampant regarded as supporters standing on a green decorative compartment. The motto Vrede en Recht (Peace and Justice) were added on March 27.

Coat of Arms - The Hague
The Passage covered shopping street

What would a walking tour of a city center be like without stopping at a shopping mall? Before I go further with this discussion there are literally hundreds of shops along the myriad streets in The Hague. This place, The Passage, is special because it is the last reaming covered shopping street in the Netherlands. This is a story of The Old Passage and The New Passage. The Passage came to be at the end of the 19th century and it was expected that retailers would stock luxury goods that had previously been ordered privately in Paris. Until that time, department stores in cities such as Paris sent many of their goods to the Netherlands by mail. The passage became the place for items such as tea, coffee, cookware, designer gifts, and special pens. The New Passage boasts a high, glass ceiling, but with a modern twist. Architect Bernard Tschumi has given the Passage a very light and open design. The new section creates an attractive connection between Grote Markstraat and Spuistraat with countless unique stores.

A look up to the glass ceiling in The Passage.

The glass ceiling of The Passage

There was a shop in The Passage, Ladies Paradise, that sold women’s hats. In 2020, twenty-two years after the shop closed, 3000 hats were found in the vacant space above the former store. The shopkeepers association asked the Hague designer Pink Steenvoorden of Einstein Design to do something with the hats. This giant mobile is titled Chapeau! Two thousand of the hats are displayed here. The other 1000 are on smaller mobiles suspended above the walkway of The Passage.

Our walking tour was a wonderful overview of the history of The Hague and its importance in the modern Netherlands. This having been the first stop of our great adventure set the bar pretty high for all following tours to attempt to match. But we were not quite done with The Hague.

The walking tour ended in front of the hotel just after noon. We returned to that small cafe we had found the day before in direct violation of our rule to never eat in the same place twice when only there a short time. I guess that tells you how much we liked it.

Anthony had referenced Museum Panorama Mesdog during his presentation which caught our attention.
The museum is located right next door to the Hilton Hotel, so we decided we should pay a visit. The museum has a large collection of paintings by Hendrik Willem Mesdag and his wife, Sientje Mesdag-van Houten. While the museum features many individual works of each, the painting I was most interested in seeing was a 360° painting of the waterfront town of Scheveningen with buildings, distant landscape features, the ocean, and boats in the foreground. It is really hard to describe this painting and how it was created.

First, the stats. Height 14 meters (nearly 46 feet)
Total Length 120 meters (nearly 394 feet)

To view the painting one has to climb a spiral staircase to the second floor of the museum. Upon reaching the top one is inside a gazebo. The sloped roof of the gazebo hides the top of the painting and the framework holding it up. Looking out of the gazebo is a sandy beach that was built as an extension to the floor of the gazebo and blocks the view to the bottom edge of the painting and framework. The lighting is diffused natural lighting making the painting change with the sky conditions outside the museum.

My description really does not do the painting justice.  We stood up there for a very long time looking at the many landmarks included in the painting and quite honestly believing at times we were on a sand dune overlooking the scene around us.  Making the experience more life-like was the addition of three-dimensional items on the faux sand dune such as beach grass growing from the sand and discarded shoes (wooden of course), fishing nets, and rope fragments.

While there was no vantage point to see the upper framework that we could get to, we was able to see the lower framework through a port hole cut into the wall back on the ground floor of the museum.

Panoramic Mesdog complete with another tour group. The video is best viewed in full-screen mode and without sound.

Aid to making the panoramic painting

There was a lot to learn about how such a large painting could ever be produced. In order to maintain perspective throughout the project, the artist created a sketch on the glass cylinder shown here. The sketch positions all the major features providing a map of sorts for the painter to have the end match the beginning and everything in between be proportionally sized. A light source in the middle of the cylinder projected the sketch onto the massive canvas and the artist did the rest.

This image was taken through a small porthole on the ground floor of the museum. It shows how the canvas is attached at the bottom of the framework. The top is likewise attached. These attachment points are hidden from view from the viewing platform by the design of the artificial dune and the gazebo.

View of the bottom of the panoramic painting

Let me finish this segment by saying we would see many classic art pieces and priceless paintings during our two-week cruise. None affected me as did this magnificent panoramic work.

I will end Part 1 here, but I first need to add some personal thoughts. While I was rather quick by my poor standards at selecting and editing the photos for this blog post, I had difficulties remembering how to get the images into the blog because it has been such a long time since I last published. Normally when I have this sort of a challenge I reach out to my trusty web developer at iWebCrafter, Howard Sander who has for many years now kept my website looking good and functional. while also trying to keep me educated (a true challenge for sure). This time I was unable to call for help, because Howard lives in Punta Gorda, Florida. Punta Gorda was one of those areas hit hard by Hurricane Ian. The good news is I have made contact with him and he is safe but was too overwhelmed to share any details of his ordeal. Knowing where his house is I worry about his immediate future. I also worry about all the people of Florida, the Carolinas, and Cuba who have sustained so much loss from yet another storm of the century. I would be remiss to leave out the repeat devastation that took place in Puerto Rico recently. I especially am concerned about the safety of our great-step-niece and her family (including a newborn) who escaped from Florida’s west coast only to have the storm follow them to Orlando. May all who have weathered these horrible storms be safe and find ways to recover from the physical and mental destruction left in their paths



4 thoughts on “The Grand European River Cruise Part 1- Planning and First Few Days”

  1. Katherine Wolfthal

    Beautiful photography – as always. I’ve missed seeing your photos…. and wonderful, descriptive explanations! I’m glad you’re back to blogging and hope you’ll continue.
    It really does look like the trip of a lifetime. Your report makes me feel as though I were there with you.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Thanks Frank, looking forward to reading about and seeing what we missed on the trip. Great start.

  3. Frank:

    Very nice! I never made it to The Hague. I traveled the western edge of The Netherlands in search of windmills and tulips. Ate pretty well on each journey. This blog brings back very fond memories. I can’t wait for the rest!
    About Tapas, I am hosting at private event during the Holidays at the shop. I am making six different Tapas for all to enjoy. I will share the list and ingredients if you are interested.

  4. Beautiful photos, Frank. And the trip sounds amazing right from the start. Look forward to reading your future posts!

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