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June 2017

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 The final port on our cruise itinerary was Warnemünde, just north of Rostock, Germany. While we could have chosen to tour Rostock or spend the day on the beach, the only excursion we really even considered was the tour to Berlin. We knew that it would be a long day on a bus, and that we wouldn't spend even close to enough time in Berlin to satisfy us, but this was the first opportunity we've had to experience the city, so we decided to get a little taste, even if it means we'll need to come back to explore more thoroughly.

Our drive to Berlin was all on the autobahn through farmland. We did see villages out away from the highway, and the landscape was dotted with dozens of wind turbines for most of the trip. This tour focused on the history of Germany since the Second World War, and our tour guide pointed out how we were driving through what had been East Germany for forty years, the Soviet sector of occupied Germany, and noted that during the Cold War, it would have been difficult for us to have visited this part of Germany.

When we reached Berlin, we stopped briefly at Alexanderplatz to pick up another guide who would show us around the city. Our tour began on the bus, as we drove through the historic city center, down the Unter den Linden past the Cathedral and the Humbolt University and on to the government center with the Reichstag and Chancellery, before we headed into the Tiergarten. Finally, we stopped at the Brandenburg Gate and got off the bus to see more of the city on foot.  From the Brandenburg Gate, we walked through the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and stopped briefly at the site of Hitler's bunker, before visiting a remnant of the Berlin Wall. We made a stop at Checkpoint Charlie, which is a reproduction of the original US Army checkpoint at this location, created to satisfy the tourists, which means it is exactly as tacky as you would expect.

Reichstag

Brandenburg Gate

Berlin Holocaust Memorial

We finally made our way to the Berlin Concert House, where we reboarded our bus for the long drive back to Warnemünde and the ship.  As we had expected, this was the merest appetizer of a taste of Berlin, leaving us hungry for more. Berlin struck us as a vibrant city, busily rebuilding itself.  They are recreating many of the historic buildings that didn't survive World War II, and while only traces of the Berlin Wall itself remain, the winding path of the wall through the city is clearly marked with a double row of bricks laid into the pavement and sidewalks. We saw an incredible number of museums and performing arts venues, none of which we had time to visit. Berlin is definitely a place that we will need to visit again.

 The second of our excursions that was canceled was the one we had chosen for Aarhus. When we looked to see what other options we might have, we discovered that there was only one other tour in English, so we decided just to try exploring the city on our own. We hope that there might be city maps available to help us find our way around, and we thought we might use a hop-on-hop-off tour bus service to get an overview of the city. As it happened, we were able to do both within minutes of getting off the ship.

The hop-on-hop-off loop took about 55 minutes and had nine stops. We rode the bus around to the eighth stop, listening to the audio descriptions of the city, but when we got to the eighth stop, for the Aarhus Cathedral, we got off the bus to go inside the church. The church was originally built by the Roman Catholic Church and was dedicated to St. Clement. The church has undergone many changes, but the original altarpiece with its tryptic is still in place.

St. Clement's altar

From the cathedral, we decided to walk back across the center of the city to Den Gamle By, an open air museum of historic buildings collected from around Denmark. Along the way, we walked along Møllestien, a street of colorful homes, many with spectacular rose buses. I had seen photos of this street and was looking forward to seeing it in person. I was not disappointed.

Møllestein

We spent several hours exploring Den Gamle By. The oldest buildings date to the 17th and 18th centuries, and restored to that period, with businesses and craftsmen's shops, as well as residences. These buildings show what life was like in Denmark three and four centuries ago. This section of the Den Gamle By is the largest, and we spent most of our time here.  The next section is made up of buildings from the early 20th century and show Danish life in the 1920s. Finally, we explored a series of apartments that show how people of different circumstances lived in Denmark in the 1970s.

Den Gamle By

After finishing our visit at Den Gamle By, we re-boarded the hop-on-hop-off bus to finish our circuit of the city. We stayed on the bus as it started its next loop, getting off at the stop for Marselisborg Palace, the summer and Christmas home of the Danish royal family. When they are not in residence here, the grounds are open to the public, and we wanted to explore the gardens for a bit before we had to return to the ship. Again, we were struck by the lack of physical barriers or visible security. For all appearances, we could have walked right up to the front door and knocked (not that we tried...I'm pretty sure that would have revealed just how good the security really was).

Marselisborg Palace

After satisfying our curiosity at the palace, we made our way back to the bus stop and caught the bus back to the city center. We got off the bus by the City Hall and walked back to the pier, soaking in the ambience of the city as we went. All too soon we were back aboard the ship and sailing off to our final port.
The final port in Norway was Kristiansand, on the southern coast. This was also our shortest port call, as we didn't arrive at the pier until about 1:00pm, so we were able to enjoy a leisurely morning onboard the ship before our excursion. After our originally booked excursion was cancelled, our choices were a high-speed boat tour in the harbor or the vintage Setesdal railway. Since we were concerned about being too cold out on the water in a high speed boat, we opted for the steam train (probably a good choice, since it also turned out to be a rainy day).

Our bus took us north of the city to one end of the 6km stretch of track used by this historic railway, where we had about a 15 minute wait before our train arrived. When the train finally arrived, it was full of passengers from our ship who apparently had caught it from the other end. While those passengers got off the train and we got ourselves settled, the steam locomotive was moved to the other end of the train for the return trip.


Setesdal vintage railway



Once the locomotive was repositioned, we pulled away from the station, back the way the train had come from. It continued to rain, but we had several of the windows opened so we could have a better view of the countryside. The tracks hugged the side of the valley, with rocks just feet away on one side, and a small river running beside us on the other.

When we reached the station at the other end of the tracks, we reboarded our bus for our return to the ship. Once we reached the pier, we had about an hour before we were scheduled to depart, so my wife and I went for a short walk to see some of the city. Because of the continuing rain and the short amount of time, we really didn't get to see much, but it was nice to stretch our legs a little before going back aboard the ship for the night.

Kristiansand harbor
The second port on our cruise was Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, home of composer Edvard Grieg. When we woke, we were still sailing into the harbor, just passing under a suspension bridge.  While the ship maneuvered into the pier and was secured, we ate a quick breakfast. When we disembarked, we immediately boarded a bus for our day-long excursion to ride the Flåm railway. The bus immediately headed out from the city. Our first stop was at Tvidefossen, a magnificent waterfall located just a few hundred yards from the highway. When we got off the bus, we discovered that we could walk almost up to the very base of the waterfall. Since it was raining, the mist from the waterfall really didn't make much difference as we took our photos.

Tvindefossen



A bit further along, our driver pulled off the highway onto a secondary road that climbed up the mountainside. After a short climb, he made a turn onto a narrow switchback that descended back to the valley floor. This switchback had a 19% grade (!!!) and made its descent between two tall waterfalls.  It was hard to know where to look, with awesome waterfalls on either side and an incredible view of the valley below us.


Looking down at the valley

After stopping for lunch in Gudvangen, we finished our ride to Flåm, where our train was waiting for us. We found the car reserved for us, and soon the train pulled out for the incredibly scenic ride up the valley to Myrdal. Along the way, we were treated to gorgeous views of the valley, with its farms and numerous waterfalls. We made brief stops at several stations along the way, as this train is a key form of transport for the residence of this valley.  Near the end of our ride, the train made a five minute stop at a special viewing platform for the Kjosfossen, a powerful waterfall that drops down under the tracks.

Kjosfossen

At Myrdal, we changed trains for a ride down another valley to Vossevangen, where our bus was waiting to take us back to our ship. As we reached Bergen, we took a short drive through the historic center of the city. But when we got to the pier, we were one of the last buses to return, and the ship's crew was waiting for us, so there was no time to explore.

The views on this excursion were incredible, but it was a long day, and we were disappointed that we didn't get to see much of Bergen itself. Because our original excursion for the next day was canceled, we were looking at two consecutive days of train rides. In hindsight, we find ourselves wondering if we should have considered a tour of the city itself, especially because of the change of plans for the next day. I guess we'll just have to come back someday and spend some time exploring the city.

 After our day at sea, our first destination was the Geiranger fjord, one of the longest fjords in Norway. We entered the fjord sometime during the night, and by the time we woke, we were tied to the pier in the tiny village of Hellesylt (2013 population - 253). This was as far north as I had ever been (62° North latitude), and it was a chilly morning compared to this time of year at home. The ship was only staying here for about an hour to disembark passengers who had booked tours from here and would be leaving at 9:00 am to sail the rest of the way to the only slightly larger village of Geiranger at the end of the fjord.

Hellesylt

After a short stop to take photos from the bridge in front of the waterfall, our bus started up into the mountains on a one lane road, passing farms on both sides as the mountains loomed above us.  Tiny streams of water fell from the mountaintops all along the way, and everything was lushly green. When the pavement ended, our bus stopped and we continued on foot, beginning a 10km (6 mile) hike over the mountain pass to the village of Flo, on the shores of the glacial lake Oppstrynsvatnet. The climb up to the pass was gradual and did not require any strenuous effort, so we would enjoy to gorgeous scenery around us.  We followed the shores of three smaller lakes and the streams that connected them, gawking at all of the waterfalls, both small and large, that dropped from the mountain peaks around us. The air was crisp and clean, and the sun even came out for portions of the walk, warming us as we made our way. Eventually, on the shores of the third lake, we came to a collection of summer homes, accessible from the valley below by a steep gravel track that certainly required four wheel drive to ascend. The descent down this track was probably the hardest part of our hike, as it was much steeper than our climb, and the loose gravel kept slipping beneath our feet.

Summer homes above Flo

When we reached Flo, our bus was waiting for us, having driven back to Hellesylt and taken a longer route around the mountains to get there. After boarding the bus, we drove around the end of Oppstrynsvatnet to the opposite shore, where we were scheduled to stop for lunch at the Heille Hotel. The dining room had a lovely view of the lake for us to enjoy while we ate a lunch of homemade mushroom soup, fresh salmon with potatoes and vegetables, and a dessert of ice cream and berries, all washed down with a non-alcoholic Norwegian beer. After lunch, we had just a few minutes to get some photos of the lake and mountains before continuing our journey.

The view from our lunch stop

We quickly left the valley behind, climbing high into the mountains, passing through two long tunnels. As we exited the second tunnel, it was like we had driven back into winter.  The mountains were entirely snow covered, and the lakes we drove alongside were still frozen over. There was one tall, wide slope with ski tracks on it, even though there was no lift or formal ski area.  Looking closely, we could just make out half a dozen skiers working their way down the slope after having climbed up earlier in the morning. 

Our final stop before arriving in Geiranger was the scenic viewpoint at the top of Dalsnibba, the tall mountain peak at the end of the valley that holds the Geiranger fjord. Access to this mountain top is via a private toll road built and maintained by the residents of Geiranger. This steep switchback road was lined with tall snowbanks, often taller than our bus. From the top of the mountain, we were treated to panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains and the fjord, far below, with our ship (and others) anchored, waiting for our return.

Cruise ships wait at Geiranger

From here, we began our descent, squeezing our way past the ascending traffic on the narrow road. Eventually we arrived in Geiranger, where we browsed the gift shops briefly before catching the tender boat back to our ship, arriving back aboard shortly before our scheduled dinner time.  As we ate dinner, we watched the mountains slide past on either side of the ship as we sailed back down the fjord towards the Norwegian Sea.  After dinner, we spent a little time out on deck, enjoying the scenery, at least until it got too chilly.  Eventually, we went back inside to enjoy the evening's show, and as we prepared for bed that night, we got to watch as we exited the fjord and turned south for Bergen, our destination for the next day.
 This was our Costa cruise experience, and frankly we found it a bit disappointing. While I wouldn't exactly say that we are experts at the cruise ship thing (this was my sixth cruise and my wife's eighth), we have enough prior experience to have developed certain expectations. And in a couple a significant ways, Costa fell a bit short of what we have come to expect.

Our biggest disappointment was with the food. We ate dinner in our main dining room each night, with wonderful tablemates. While the food was okay, that's really all it was.  I don't expect great food on the buffet, but I have come to expect that the dinner offerings in the sit down restaurants to be somewhat more memorable. That really wasn't the case here.  Not that it was bad, but it seemed entirely pedestrian. In addition, the breakfast service in the restaurant really wasn't significantly better than the buffet, and we heard that the lunch service left much to be desired as well (we never ate lunch in the restaurant).

Beyond the underwhelming quality of the food, we found the availability of food to be lacking as well. To the best of my recollection, every other ship I've been on has had some form of food available pretty much all day, at least until midnight. That wasn't really the case on the Favalosa, where the the buffet closed at 9:00 pm. Our dinner was during the early seating (which was fine, since we normally eat early), but after the evening show the first night, I was in the mood for a light snack before bedtime, and wa disappointed to find the buffet already closed. There were places on the ship where food was available later than 9:00 pm, but they all required payment of additional fees.

They also didn't have many options beside the buffet.  Most of the other ships I've been on have a deli/sandwich station and a pizza station where you can get made to order sandwiches or fresh pizza. The Favolosa had these as well, but they were charging an extra fee. I still can't really wrap my mind around having to pay extra for pizza on an Italian owned ship!

We weren't alone in feeling that the food quality and availability was lacking. Our tablemates at dinner also expressed similar sentiments, as did a few others we met on the cruise. Admittedly, our sample size is small and biased towards English speakers, but it reassures me that we weren't the only ones to note these issues.

Finally, we found that language was a little bit of an issue for us.  We knew that this was an Italian ship, and that we, as Americans, were likely to be a minority on the ship. That really didn't bother us. It was actually kind of fun to listen to all the languages around us, and to watch the ships staff interact in multiple languages.  However, it was disappointing to have two of our shore excursions cancelled because not enough people signed up for them in English.  Since most of our other tours were bilingual, we assume that this meant that the tour didn't have enough English requests for an English only tour, and that there wasn't a bilingual guide available for that particular itinerary. We did book a different tour for Kristiansand, but our choice was extremely limited, so when our tour for Aarhus was canceled and there was only one other choice available, we decided just to explore the city on our own. That worked out fine, but still, it was disappointing to spend the time researching and booking excursions only to have them cancelled once we were aboard the ship.

Based on this experience, I think we will be reluctant to book a Costa cruise again, unless the itinerary is one we really want to do and it isn't available from another company. I don't regret this cruise, since it took us to some spectacular places and we saw amazing things, but the ship itself left us feeling a bit disappointed, and we'll be looking for a better overall experience on our next cruise.
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