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Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Jaro and his bike are now in Chile (mid April/16))....

Some mornings it is only 1 or 2°C. but it warms up quickly once the fog lifts, with about a nice 22°C.

I bought my return ticket in early March.  It was US $1229 but I also bought seat upgrades - exit row seats - for the two long flights, Santiago-Atlanta and Atlanta-Montreal - total $158.

The charge for the bike box is paid at the airport - I am guessing another $100.  I never buy any airline insurance.

As for a damage deposit on my suite, they do not have that in Chile.  Unfortunately for me, no souvenirs. - I went to look at a few bike and sports stores, but they do not have any nice cycling jerseys.  One would probably have to go to Santiago or Puerto Montt to find something nice.

We hope that you have enjoyed this Chilean blog.  Follow us in mid-November/16 for next winter's voyage. 

Photos belong to Jaro Franta

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Cruise and Land Tour in Portugal - July 21st/15....

Review of Trafalgar Land Tour - overall, I thought the Trafalgar Tour was excellent except in one respect, as discussed below.  The tour guide liked his job very much, ran a very good tour, and being Portuguese, he was very knowledgeable.   We saw many interesting historical places during the trip - there were more interesting places to see in Portugal than I thought - it seems to me that Portugal is under-rated and under-appreciated.   Except for a few breakfast buffets which were mediocre, the dinners were very good to excellent, and Trafalgar did not hold back on the wine.  

My only criticism is the Turim Hotel in Lisbon.  To get from one lobby to the next, one had to use a long flight of steps.  The individual floors had automatic lighting devices activated by motion - the devices farther into the corridor did not alight until someone got close to them.  Without the automatic lights, the corridors were black as pitch and spooky.  Another person traveling with Trafalgar said to me that she thought the Turim Hotel was a strange place - and it was.

This is the only time in all my trips when I could not get the TV system to work.  The buffet breakfast was mediocre at best; and the hot items were unappealing to me. 

When the tour returned to Lisbon on July 10th, I received a room at the Turim which was a few square feet larger than a closet - I could not find a place to put my bag.  More importantly, the air conditioning did not work -  I complained to the tour director and got another room, which was not as nice as the one I had July 1-2nd.

One night, before dinner, one of the hotel staff knocked at my door and said she wanted to check my bar.  After looking in the bar, she said to me that some things had disappeared.    I immediately went to the front desk and asked to speak with the manager.  I described to her what had happened and that I had not used the bar.  She honestly admitted that the staff had not checked for the prior guest use of the bar.  She said that I would not be charged, and would not have a problem on checking out the next day. 

However, at check-out, firstly they said that I owed for the bar - I explained my conversation with the manager the prior day,  We argued for awhile, but they eventually dropped it.  Then they said that I owed money for the hotel bar  but I insisted that I had not charged - when I used the hotel restaurant, I paid in cash.  They showed me receipts with a strange signature which had no resemblance to my signature.  The hotel staff was becoming embarrassed in front of the other guests and dropped their demand that I pay.  Trafalgar could have done much better for us than at this hotel,  and there did not seem to be a lot of guests staying here. 

Otherwise, Trafalgar ran an excellent tour and I am glad that I went on it.

Review of AMA Waterways Cruise:  The cruise was very good -  I am glad that I went  and  would recommend this to others.

The service and food were very good, as was the itinerary with offerings of limited tours and special tastings.  The tour director did an excellent job.  The scenery of rolling hills of vineyards is among the most beautiful in the world.  Two of the entertainments, the fado and flamenco, were enjoyable. Having the AMA cruise immediately after the Trafalgar land tour turned out well. 

I had to depart the ship at 7 in the morning going to the Oporto airport. .Everything had gone well until I arrived in NY/Newark - then I started to notice that, one by one, flights were being cancelled and finally, mine was cancelled.  I learned later that there were serious storms in Florida - I had to switch to another terminal for my flight tomorrow so was stuck all night at the airport - I arrived home on July 22 just minutes before midnight. 

That is it for the blog this year - Follow us and pick up the voyage in November/16 with a Provence land/cruise trip Dec/15, a trip to New York in April/16 and a Boston/New England cruise in October/16.  Happy travels......

Photos belong to Phil Bianco

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Cruise and Land Tour in Portugal - July 20th/15....

For breakfast, I had cereal, bacon and eggs, fresh fruit, orange juice, and coffee.

 All the activities today occurred in Oporto.  The first site was the Sao Bento Train Station - the reason why we visited was to see its large, magnificent tile panels in the vestibule.  They are the work of Jorge Colaco, who was the most important azulejo painter of the time.

The Oporto Cathedral was built as a fortress church in the 12th to 13th centuries.  A noteworthy survival from the 13th century is the beautiful rose window in the west front.

We also walked across the Ponte Dom Luis I Bridge which offered excellent views of Oporto.   

 After the bridge crossing, we boarded a cable car and descended to the bottom of the Vila Nova de Gaia.  Then we had a tour and wine tasting at Graham Winery.

In the afternoon, I got the last space for a Limited Edition Tour for a tasting at a local restaurant on the Atlantic side of Oporto.  AMA does not charge for what it calls Limited Edition Tours, but space is limited, and they use an open-air bus to drive us from the ship to a local restaurant.  As we leave the river side of Oporto and enter the Atlantic side of Oporto, there is an obvious weather change.  It becomes cooler, cloudier and windier on the Atlantic side.  The restaurant  was called Xarrcoc - it was a typical, small local restaurant. There were  bread, olives, smoked ham, cheeses, small fried peppers, meat fritters, fish fritters, and we had a choice of red or white wine.  It was a nice excursion, and there was no additional charge for it.

This was the last night and the last dinner on the AMAVIDA.  I received an invitation to sit at the Captain’s table.  The amuse bouche was an oriental type spring roll, and for the appetizer, I had the Portobello mushroom with bread stuffing which I did not care for, and vegetable soup.  For the main course, I had the sea bass. For dessert, baked Alaska and a white wine.  Overall, a very nice meal.

Photos belong to Phil Bianco  

Friday, 8 April 2016

Cruise and Land Tour in Portugal - July 19th/15....

For breakfast, I had a egg, potatoes and bacon along with orange juice, fresh fruit and coffee.

Then we drove to the Mateus Palace - what was different about this AMA tour versus the Trafalgar one on July 7th was that AMA included a tour inside the manor house and chapel.  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the manor house, but photos were allowed inside the chapel.

All the rooms had wooden ceilings and almost all of them were divided like an octagon (eight sections) which sloped downward to the center of the ceiling.  This is the first time that I have seen ceilings like this.  The Manor House was not as grand as others that I have seen but it had an intimacy and warmth which rendered it comfortable and livable. 

After the tour of the Mateus Palace, we returned back to the ship and cruised to Biteos, where we would stay overnight.

For lunch, I had the cream of carrot soup and then cod cakes, wedge potatoes and steamed vegetables.  For dessert, there was cherry mousse, and I had iced tea.

For dinner, we went to the Alpendurada Monastery, which overlooks the Douro River. This monastery was in the possession of Benedictine monks until 1834, and it has been a hotel and restaurant for several years now.  We received a brief tour before going into dinner.

This was the poorest meal that we had on the entire trip (including the Trafalgar one) - it was not outright bad, but it could have been better.  There were bread rolls and olives on the table, and we started with a large bowl of soup.  The main course was roasted pork loin cooked in a traditional oven, roasted potatoes and a mixed green salad.  The dessert was a custard cream, and the wine was unlimited.

Photos belong to Phil Bianco  

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Cruise and Land Tour in Portugal - July 18th/15....

For breakfast, I had a few mini-pastries, orange juice and coffee.

We left about 9 on a forty minute drive to Castelo Rodrigo.  Interestingly, in the olden days, the castle stood on the route taken by pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela.   Legend has it that none other than St. Francis of Assisi spent the night here on his pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James.  This quiet, quaint town and castle still attract quite a few tourists.

AMA treated us to a tasting or snack -  a small café/shop offered us a choice of wines and liqueurs -  sparkling rose, white, red, and almond and cherry liqueurs.  There was also bread, spicy sliced sausage and cheese.  They also set out plates of almonds fixed in about eight different ways:  spicy, smoked, caramel, sesame, peppered, etc.  They sold packages of almond in their shop.  The tasting was held on a veranda at the back of the café/shop with a nice view of the surrounding area. 

Upon return to the AMAVIDA, we sailed to Pinhao.

For lunch, the soup was cream of vegetable with tomato bits and orzo macaroni.  I had linguini with Bolognese sauce, the dessert was cheesecake with strawberry sauce, and I had a coke.

We went to a winery for a tour and dinner,  Enoteca Quinta da Avessada.  It was about a 30 minute drive along winding roads with more spectacular scenery.  We received a glass of sparkling wine, which we enjoyed in the garden with a nice view of the surrounding area.  There were musicians greeting us when we arrived at the winery, and also during dinner.  The owner, who gave us a short tour, had an entertaining personality like a professional comedian acting out a routine.  We then entered a large room with many tables accommodating eight persons each.

The winery produced an excellent muscatel white wine and that is what I selected.  On the table, they had the usual bread and olives and the appetizers of sliced sausages, meat fritters, pieces of fried cod were passed around on platters.  We had a green salad and vegetable soup.  They placed large plates with baked chicken, veal cakes, roasted potatoes, and sautéed cabbage on the tables; everyone could take as much as they wanted.  There was a dessert bar which offered impressive choices -  pears simmered in red wine for five hours, flans, mousses, chocolate cake.  I had the chocolate cake and the pear simmered in wine, which was excellent.  They also served an after-dinner drink—their own grappa and espresso.   It was a nice meal which everyone seemed to enjoy very much, and the music made it lively.

Photos belong to Phil Bianco   

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Cruise and Land Tour in Portugal - July 17th/15....

For breakfast, I had blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, fresh fruit, orange juice and coffee.

AMA scheduled an included excursion today to Salamanca, Spain.  We departed the ship - docked at Barca D’Alva - by bus at 8 in the morning - the drive was about an hour and a half. 

When we arrived in Salamanca, we stopped at the Hotel Alameda Palace which we used as a meeting place and where we had an included lunch later in the day.  The tour guide gave us a brief orientation and then let us explore on our own for a few hours

It was a dark, rainy day but the rain let up before long and we walked to the Plaza Mayor, which is an 18th century square and one of Spain’s largest and grandest.  Designed in 1729 and completed in 1755, it was once used for bullfights, but nowadays is a delightful place to stroll or shop.  The Plaza Mayor is built of warm golden sandstone.

I converted at a currency exchange some US cash dollars into Euros.  Unlike Portugal, there was no problem doing this in Spain.

I fortunately walked into the New Cathedral, which is definitely one of the major sites in Salamanca.  I am glad that I did not miss seeing the church - it is worth seeing even if there was a €3 charge.  The art and architecture impressed me very much.

The Hotel Alameda Palace had a very nice buffet lunch.  There were olives and hard rolls on the table and wine was included.  There was a salad bar, slices of smoked ham and cheese.  The main course was paella with shrimp, mussels, and chicken.  They also had grilled shrimp, roasted chicken and roasted potatoes and mixed vegetables.  For dessert, cake and ice cream and espresso coffee. 

After lunch. our tour guides walked us back to the center of the city.  The first stop was outside the Church of the Clerics and across the street, we went into the House of the Shells whose name derives from the golden stone scallop shells that cover most of its walls - it is now a library.  The outside walls with the shells could not be photographed because they are under renovation and were covered.

After the tour of Salamanca, we drove back to Barca D’Alva where the AMAVIDA was docked.

For dinner, we had a barbecue on the top deck.  I started with soup and then had barbecued pork ribs, barbecued chicken, a grilled sardine (which were 8-9 inches long), roasted potatoes, coleslaw, green beans, red beets, and meat and fish fritters.  They also offered barbecued hamburgers and huge pork leg which they sliced.  They offered many desserts - I had a flan, tiramisu, and chocolate cake.  Of course, wine and an after-dinner port were also offered.  There was music during the meal and dancing afterwards.

Photos belong to Phil Bianco  

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Cruise and Land Tour in Portugal - July 16th/15....

I had some of the usual items for breakfast - cereal, orange juice, bacon and eggs, fresh fruit and coffee.

We departed by bus from Regua to Lamego where we spent the entire morning - the bus ride was about 30 minutes.  Lamego is an attractive town which produces wines, especially Raposeira, Portugal’s premier sparkling wine.  Today the main focus of Lamego is as a pilgrimage town - this fertile region is also known for its fruit and choice hams. 

The first site that we visited in Lamego was the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies - the church is reached via an awe-inspiring double stairway.

In Lamego, AMA arranged for an included tasting or snack at a restaurant.  This was sparkling wine, cheese slices, smoked ham slices, small bread slices, small ham and cheese sandwiches, and olives. 

It was held in the restaurant’s shaded garden.

While walking around the town center, I stopped into the Cathedral of Our lady of Assumption,  which was built in 1129, although only the Romanesque tower remains from the original building.

The Museum of Lamego is one of the country’s best local museums and is housed in the former bishop’s palace.  Ordinarily, there is an entrance fee to the Museum, but since we were with AMA, we did not have to pay the fee.

After we were finished in Lamego, we returned to the ship for lunch.  The rest of the day was spent cruising to Vega de Terron.

For lunch,  I had cream of vegetable soup with orzo noodles.  The main dish was broiled butterfish on a bed of broken-up potato pieces and tomatoes and olives.  I also had two spicy chicken wings.  For dessert, there were Portuguese chocolate almond cake squares, and I had a coke.

For dinner, I had amuse bouche smoked ham, and the codfish carpaccio for the appetizer.  The seafood bisque soup was very good.  For the main course, I had the perch fillet with hollandaise sauce.  For dessert, apple crumble (with vanilla ice cream), and I had white wine.  It was another excellent meal - as usual.

We are very close to the Spanish border at this location, and tomorrow we drive to Salamanca for an included excursion.  So AMA brought Spanish folk and flamenco dancers aboard for the evening entertainment - I enjoy the flamenco and have seen about four performances over the years.

Photos belong to Phil Bianco  

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Cruise and Land Tour in Portugal - July 15th/15....

AMA offered a complete buffet breakfast every morning.  There was also a bar where one could order omelets, eggs and waffles.  They also offered a special daily, for example, mini-pancakes or French toast.  This morning I had cold cereal, orange juice, coffee, one egg on toast, and a cup of yogurt.  

This morning, we sailed to Regua.  There was a lot of nice scenery with rolling hills of terraced vineyards.  These terraces and vineyards have been developed over centuries.  We would get a close-up view of these terraced vineyards when we got to Regua and drove up into the hills. 

For lunch, I had pea soup and, for the main course, white fish fillet with sautéed spinach and mashed sweet potatoes.  It was a small portion for lunch, and very tasty.  For dessert, a small piece of raspberry cheese cake, and I had a coke.

We arrived at Regua in the mid-afternoon.  The two primary purposes of the stop were to drive into the hills for a tour and wine tasting, and to visit the wine museum in Regua.  The drive up into the hills afforded some dramatic scenery of never-ending terraced vineyards - it is one of the most beautiful wine producing areas in the world.  We received a wine tour and tasting at the Sandeman Winery, located on a hilltop, which gave us a wonderful view of the surrounding area. 

After the wine tasting, we stopped at the Port Wine Museum (or Casa do Douro).  The Museum depicts and displays the history and production of port wine in the Douro Valley.  Outside the Museum there is an impressive rabelos, which was used to transport barrels of port along the Douro River.  From the Museum, we walked back to the ship.

For dinner, I had the amuse bouche of aubergine (eggplant) with honey, sesame and hot peppers.  For the appetizer, salmon caper tart and the soup was cauliflower cream.  My main course was lamb chops with rosemary roast potatoes and broccoli - the red wine was excellent as usual.  The dessert was small portions of strawberry cheesecake and chocolate cake, and a scoop of strawberry ice cream.

AMA brought some local entertainers on board for folk and fado entertainment. 

Photos belong to Phil Bianco 

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Cruise and Land Tour in Portugal - July 14th/15....

The breakfast buffet at the IH was the best one on this trip.  In addition to the buffet, one could order whatever one wanted.  I ordered Eggs Benedict with potatoes and bacon and also had two small waffle wedges, one with blueberry compote and the other with strawberry.  I had the usual orange juice, coffee and mini-pastries.  

The entire AMA group left at 8:30 in two buses for Oporto, where we would embark on the river ship AMAVIDA.

We stopped at Fatima for sightseeing and lunch.  When I stopped here on the Trafalgar tour on July 9th, I missed taking photos of the Chapel of Apparitions, which is where the claimed apparitions of the Virgin Mary actually occurred in 1917. 

For lunch, Gelato ice cream.

The cruise was on the Douro River, along which many of the vineyards are located, and this was a wine cruise.  One of the highest locks in Europe is on the Douro, but the other five locks are all much smaller than on larger rivers.

Cruise ships on the Douro are therefore smaller and are not allowed to operate at night.  The smaller the ship is, the fewer the conveniences for passengers relative to ships on larger rivers.  The cabins, dining room and lounge are smaller and the ships on the Douro carry smaller supplies of food.

But AMA conducted a very nice tour on the Douro - the AMAVIDA was only a few years old and was a nice and comfortable ship.   Importantly, there was a very good coffee machine for espressos and cappuccinos.

There was a nice welcome dinner.   There was hearty bread and olives and for the amuse bouche, I had the octopus salad.  For the appetizer, I had the prawns and mushrooms.  The pumpkin cream soup with almonds was nice.  For the main course, I selected the baked sea bream with roasted potatoes - it was excellent.   The wine was excellent and unlimited.   I had the “sericaia” with black plum sauce. - the sericaia is a southern Portuguese dessert and was like a slice of custard pie.

After the lunches and dinners, they put out near the coffee machine, a tray of wonderful chocolate balls.  They were the richest and best pieces of chocolate that I have ever had.  But one was like a second meal - I tried not to look at the tray, but failed three times during the cruise.

Photos belong to Phil Bianco