WINTER IN EUROPE, 2002

I finally get my tour documents less than a week before I'm to leave, or at least, some of them. Apparently the clerk at "Far and Wide" left a bunch of them out. At least the airline tickets are here. I'm switching travel agents - in fact, already booked next years' (2003) trips direct. I had to get my detailed tour info sheets from the individual tour directors (who borrowed a copy from other tour members, and photocopy for me.)

PART 1: "Alpine Christmas Markets" aka "Snowless Christmas"
Tour director: Eveline Reisinger; driver: Joseph

Day 1, Friday, December 6 USA - Munich
Overnight flight to Munich. No direct flight this time for some reason. First it's 12:35PM United Airlines (going bankrupt - will they fly or not??) flight to Chicago (gads! - but it did have better weather than the east coast), an hour and a half layover, then Latehansa (Lufthansa) lived up to their reputation on departure to Munich. Minimal In-flight Meals - very minimal on UA. The "meal" was a 1/2 oz package of 'party mix' and 4 oz of Coca Cola. UA must *really* be bankrupt! At least Latehansa gave us a good supper. Of course, with the thermostat set at 80+, they didn't have to warm the dinners in the microwave. No sleep on the plane, as usual.

No detailed flight information retained.

Day 2, Saturday, December 7 Arrive Munich - Innsbruck
Arrive, supposedly (remember, I'm on Latehansa) at 8:25 AM in the capital of Bavaria, Munich. It's straight to the bus and "enjoy a scenic drive" (watch the fog/cloud scenery) into the snow(??)-capped Austrian Alps to the charming mountain city of Innsbruck, our home for the next 3 relaxing nights. Our tour director had to have a three-part bus shuttle due to varying arrival times. Some people were *really* late due to the snow storm on the US east coast - Eveline had to leave a (paging) message with the airlines to tell them to take a taxi (from Munich to Innsbruck) and they would be reimbursed (hope so, can you imagine the taxi fare that far!!). Consequently some didn't arrive until almost midnight. (39 on this tour) Shades of Glasgow, Scotland: my luggage got misplaced in the hotel - fortunately it was quickly found - wrong floor. Hope this isn't a harbinger of things to come. Then there is time for a quick walk around the old town, and to use an ATM to get some Euros. Airlines: Minimal In-flight Breakfast - inedible. We do have a nice dinner at the hotel: Grauer Baer (Gray Bear). The hotel is just outside (3 blocks) the old town. Older hotel so the rooms are small (no stand to put the bag, so I give up my desk chair), but its nice otherwise. Unfortunately it's more of the same *overheated* situation. Sleep with the window partly open although it's 25 outside.

Day 3, Sunday, December 8 Innsbruck (Brenner Pass & Italy Excursion)
(Austria/Italy) First a spectacular (on the southern side) drive over the Brenner Pass into Italy (and clear weather south of the Brenner Pass) to the charming medieval town of Vipiteno-Sterzing. Even though it's Sunday, the town is packed with shoppers. Enjoy some excellent(?) Christmas shopping here or maybe just hot chocolate and a pastry. Back to Innsbruck mid afternoon and enjoy a city tour (in fog and light drizzle) of the Tyrolian Capital that includes views of the old town with the famous Golden Roof, the Olympic Ski Jump (invisible in the clouds/fog) and the Imperial Church. After a nice dinner this evening, enjoy an Alpine Christmas Show - Advent music - where the local residents are the musicians and stars of the performance (turns out to be the real highlight of the trip). I get a CD of some of their music. (BB,D)

Day 4, Monday, December 9 Innsbruck (Salzburg Excursion)
Up early to take a pre-dawn walk to cool off. Still heavy cloud cover. First to Salzburg (where fortunately the weather is clear) to view the place of Mozart's birth and the "Sound of Music" film locations! Plenty of free time to enjoy strolling the narrow streets full of beautiful Christmas displays. We have a very good guide, and an interesting walking tour of the town. Then back to Innsbruck and a *very* late stop at Wattens to see the famous Swarovski Crystal World. I get a couple of small crystal cats. Again, sleep with the window partly open. (BB,D)

Day 5, Tuesday, December 10 Innsbruck - Black Forest
WOW! Mountains!!!! It's clear this morning, and for the very first time we can see that Innsbruck is in a valley surrounded by mountains - and they even have a tiny bit of snow on the peaks. WOW!! Too bad we have to leave to travel west, through the Swiss Alps (is that where we are? The fog is back) and even an unscheduled detour to stop for lunch in Zurich rather than 'on the road.' That cloud cover is back, so it's sorta dreary. Then back towards Germany to see the thundering (?) Rhine Falls before arriving in one of the most beautiful (!!!) areas of southern Germany, the Black Forest, our home for the next 4 leisurely nights. Due to the detour to Zurich, we're running very late. Eveline calls ahead to the hotel to make sure that every thing is ready for us - only to find out that we're not staying *there.* So in total darkness, the driver has to find his way down dark, winding back roads to a gasthof he has never been to before. (Fortunately, they have cell phones!) We get there a pretty late, but have a wonderful dinner. Gasthof Josen is out in the 'middle of nowhere, but it's *very* nice, Superior, in fact. The room is even cool!! One 'scary' event: the desert includes a fruit/berry sauce. Unfortunately for one of the group, it contains a small amount of strawberries and there's a major allergic reaction. Fortunately the paramedics get there quickly (3 paramedics and a full doctor) and after treatment, everything is all right. (BB,D)

Day 6, Wednesday, December 11 Black Forest (Strasbourg Excursion)
Then off to Strasbourg where the joy of Christmas comes alive in France today as we travel to Strasbourg. Originally Celtic, briefly Roman and for much of its existence Germanic, Strasbourg wears its centuries gracefully. The city this time of year is well decorated, and since it is known to have one of Europe's largest Christmas markets, it is sure to delight all who visit! We also luck into fairly good weather, but quite cold. Very nice visit, otherwise.(BB,D)

Day 7, Thursday, December 12 Black Forest (Freiburg Excursion)
We make a special stop at Lake Titisee for a visit to the famous cuckoo clock making area (*very* interesting gentleman doing the intro/tour. Great sense of humor and 'one liners.'). It's located adjacent to where we were originally scheduled to stay which on quick look, appears to be much more commercial than the Gasthof. Personally, I'm *very* glad we were sent to the Gasthof. This morning we drive through the romantic (?) Hollental to the old university city of Freiburg. Walk through the medieval gates and be enchanted by Christmas displays offering Christmas handicrafts and traditional holiday specialties. I also get my first chance to mail packages (videotapes) to friends in Germany. Very nice day since it's a bit warmer today. (BB,D)

Day 8, Friday, December 13 Black Forest
Off again to Titisee which is a very small town nearby the Gasthof. There's been more fog/cloud so the streets are *very* ice / slippery. "Beauty completely surrounds us today and the smell of fresh pine is in the air as we enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the Black Forest". Oops, make that a carriage ride since there's no snow. (There is a poster on the wall at the Gasthof advertising one of the World Cup Ski Jump competitions on the 13th - 15th. Maybe they can use roller-skiis.) The ride is around the Lake Titisee - about 5 miles / one hour. Stop along the way for a cup of warm mulled wine (hot chocolate for me) and keep an open eye for the jolly man of Christmas as St. Nicholas is soon to arrive with his bag of goodies! Gifts (candy, etc.) for all the tour members. The cart drivers started out "(at least) three sheets to the wind" and by the time the second group had their rides, and the drivers more of that wine, they were more like (fill in the blanks - dismasted and sinking??) (BB,D)

Day 9 (2), Saturday, December 14 Black Forest - Zurich - Munich
Up extremely early since we have a long drive. Breakfast is at 4:45 (I feel sorry for the gasthof staff who had to get up so early for us, but we are the only ones currently in the place, and it's breakfast for 41, so I guess it's justified.). Bid a (temporary) farewell to the Alps as we head to Zurich airport arriving before dawn due to various flight times.. it's a 2.5 hours drive. Then catch a plane (Latehansa again) back to Munich. Departs Zurich 10:50 AM (snicker), arrives back in Munich at 11:45 AM (hah!!!). I wanted to go by train but the tour company wouldn't make that reservation. Bah, humbug! At least a quick meeting with the new tour director.

PART 2: "Munich, Prague, Vienna"

Tour director: Peter de Vries; driver: Erich "the horse killer" (only 13 people on this trip)

Upon arrival in Munich, which will be our home for the next 3 nights, meet the new Tour Director and have the rest of the day to relax (wasted afternoon, since it's not convenient to walk to town) before meeting up with our traveling companions for a Welcome (to the second tour) (fair) Dinner. (This is day 9 of the first trip; day 2 of the second.) (BB,D) Hilton Munich Park which although it has the nicest room of the trip, it's a long way out of 'downtown.' At least the thermostat works.

Day 10 (3), Sunday, December 15 Munich (Salzburg Excursion)
No need for a 'wake up call.' The (Canada) Goose Alarm goes off daily about 5 AM. There must be hundreds of them in the park area surrounding the hotel / business complex. The schedule gets totally scrambled. Our group is too small to make the optional drive to Salzburg, but there is another tour group (just ending their tour) with an optional trip scheduled. So they pool their counts. Those who want to go to Salzburg do; the rest of us get to 'cool our heels' in town. Since I was just in Salzburg a few days ago, I don't make that trip again, but it means that I/we get taken down to the market square about 10AM and get dumped there (no guide nor city information) for a few hours before the bus comes back to rescue us from the rain in late afternoon. The day starts off cold and gets worse; rain even. Bah, humbug! At least I have time to do the shopping I had promised friends.

Considering the size (number of travelers) in each of the groups, they did (almost) the best they could do, but still ... I wish that we had had at least a bit of an orientation to what to look far or nearby places of major interest to see before being 'dumped' in the downtown area. Tonight dinner at the Hofbrauhaus! Interesting old building where Hitler did so much ranting and raving. Good food, but for the most part, the entertainment (lots of OM-PAH-PAH music) is a bit too much - too loud, too much all the same. I'm glad I went (optional trip) but wouldn't do it again. (BB,OD)

Day 11 (4), Monday December 16 Munich (Nuremberg Christmas Market)
This morning, the sights of Bavaria's capital are introduced to us by our local guide. We will visit the Ameliaburg at the Nymphenburg Palace, drive by the Olympic stadium and be in time to see the glockenspiel on Marienplatz. See the ornate Christmas tree in the main square and (no time to) shop for trinkets with which to decorate our tree at home! It's a very short visit to the market today, not the full time, for those who went to Salzburg yesterday. Just enough time for them to see the Glockenspiel. These dancing mechanical figures perform every day at the chiming of the town hall clock! Then we're off again. But, it's almost noon (11:50), so things are very rushed now.

Off to the most famous Christmas Market in Germany, Nuremberg. We stop at a McEuroBurger for lunch (the only burgers on the trip) Then when we *finally* get to Nuremberg, we tour (struggle through the traffic) the city to see the Mars Field, site of Hitler's rallies (short stop there) and St. Sebald's Church. By now it's almost dark, so enjoy (?) the fairy-tale experience of the Market! Buy Christmas merchandise and gifts, especially traditional items such as crib figurines, toys, wood carvings, marionettes, candles and lambskin shoes enhanced by the aromas of hot chestnuts, grilled sausages and other tasty snacks. Hard to resist are the gingerbread biscuits known as Lebkuchen and marzipan figures. Junk food dinner in the market. (BB)

Day 12 (5), Tuesday, December 17 Munich - Plizen - Prague
Depart Munich early, headed towards the Czech Republic. There has been a light snow the last few days here, and it's beautiful. As expected, a long stop at the border (Czech Republic isn't in the EU) First stop in this fascinating country is the town of Pilzen to sample some Czech beer (cola for me). There is a really nice place to eat at the brewery. Very good lunch. Continue along back roads to the city of Golden Spires, Prague, where dinner awaits. We get to visit here for 2 nights. (BB,D) Movenpick A nice dinner here, but the breakfasts turn out not to be up to the standards of the other places. Also, back to the hot-room routine. Unfortunately, it's a long way to town from the hotel so we are 'prisoners' here unless we splurge for a taxi ride.

Day 13 (6), Wednesday, December 18 Prague
(Czech Rep) A full day to enjoy the baroque charm of Bohemian Prague. Our tour takes in Hradcany Castle, which dates back over 1000 years, including St. Vitus Cathedral. We view St. Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square. Free time to explore the Jewish quarter, visit museums or shop for crystal! The Christmas Market is charming and the twinkling lights in the late afternoon add a magical quality to this festive (?) setting.

"Don't miss the chance to see some typical Czech folklore singing and dancing" it says. #$)(*#_$&#%)(#*()!!!! The tour catalog, the online web site, and the trip info pages (once I have a copy) all show the Czech Dinner and Folklore to be on the schedule - one of the main reasons I came on these tours. It's ILLEGAL. It's FALSE AND MISLEADING ADVERTISING! It isn't available - last dates are in October! (1000+ words censored!)

At least, the city is as absolutely great as expected. After my visit here in the summer 2001, I really wanted to get back. (BB)

Day 14 (7), Thursday, December 19 Prague - Cesky Krumlov - Vienna
(Czech Rep/Austria) We leave Prague and head for Cesky Krumlov. Step back in time in this (super neat!) unspoiled Czech town with its medieval streets and stone palaces. It's also our dinner stop since we had a major delay getting here: a Pilsner beer truck tipped and dumped its load of beer (bottles) right in the intersection of the back roads in a small village. Almost one hour delay while the authorities cleared part of one lane so vehicles could *slowly* squeeze by. Then, after a long delay at the Czech border, continue along the Blue Danube River to Vienna for 2 nights. There's a Strauss Concert tonight - slightly better than the other trips, but with all the delays today, forget dinner. (BB) Hotel de France

Day 15 (8), Friday, December 20 Vienna
Rock-a-bye baby
In his lumpy bed
When the steam flows
It's snap, rattle, and shake.

And when the cock crows
Then he will rise
sleepy, hungry, grouchy, and all.

A day to explore elegant Vienna. The schedule says a visit to Schoenbrunn Palace will introduce us to the Hapsburg Dynasty, rulers of Austria for over 600 years. The magnificent apartments decorated by Maria Theresa are a wonder to behold and we tour the most splendid of the total 1400 rooms! Following a drive around the Ring Strasse to see the Parliament and Opera house, time to enjoy Sacher Torte chocolate cake or a Viennese coffee house. Vienna's main Christmas market in front of the Town Hall. But since I've been here twice before, I skip that. I do have a while to walk around in the early part of the day, however - this hotel is conveniently located finally. Then it's a chance to meet friends and spend the rest of the day with them. We also stop in the Natural History Museum here in Vienna. Very interesting meteorite displays.

Tonight, a farewell dinner awaits with hearty Austrian Cuisine complete with wine from the Vienna Woods. It's at the Heuriger Reinprecht in Grinzing. Wienerschnitzel, as expected, but very good. (BB,D)

Day 16 (9), Saturday, December 21 Vienna - USA
Up at 3:30 (8:30 PM Friday Houston time) Board the (early, 7:10AM = no breakfast at the hotel) flight from Vienna to Frankfurt (8:35AM). At least that's what the ticket says. Latehansa strikes again. Actually we don't even board the plane in Vienna until after the scheduled departure time. Breakfast included (*that* was breakfast????) Then with more delays (holding patterns at Frankfurt since we missed our slot/gate time??) it becomes a question of whether I'll make the next flight at all. It was supposed to be an hour and a half layover (turns out to be a 15 minute dash) before a (long 11:30) flight back to the U.S. supposedly arriving back in Houston at 2:40 . (no BB; 2 good Meals)


Nights 2, 3, 4 3 Innsbruck, Grauer Baer (good location, fairly small, hot)
Nights 5, 6, 7, 8 4 Black Forest, Gasthof Josen (nice scenery, wonderful)
Nights 9, 10, 11 3 Munich, Hilton Munich Park (great room, cool, bad location)
Nights 12, 13 2 Prague, Movenpick (bad location, hot, so-so breakfasts)
Nights 14, 15 2 Vienna, Hotel de France. (hot, but great location)
Countries: Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Switzerland, Czech Republic

But doesn't it ever snow in the winter in the European Alps???