Milestones, Memories and Celebrations—Why You Should Travel to Mark Those Special Days

by Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

October is a special month for us—I was born on October 6. 1949 but more importantly, Anne & I got married on October 10, 1987.  29 years and counting—pretty cool to say the least.  It was and will continue to be the best decision of my life.  October 10 is also Columbus Day (maybe will be changed into Indigenous People’s Day—who knows?) and since it is also a Federal Holiday, I thought we would always have a 3 or 4 day holiday to celebrate.  Not so—only 23 states celebrate the holiday and with my Army military and teaching & football coaching careers, there were not too many travel celebrations in the first 20 years or so.  However, we have made up for it since 2011, after my retirement from teaching.  Next year will be our 30th Anniversary and Anne’s 65 Birthday—nothing planned yet but I’m pretty sure it will involve a great, memorable trip or two.

So, I thought I’d tell you about how we celebrated Anne’s 60th Birthday in Wales.  It is a time neither of us will forget.  I can’t remember most of the stuff I got for birthdays as gifts, but I always remember experiences from travel.  It has helped us enrich our lives, build better relationships together and creating memories that remain for a long, long time.  So, let’s go to cooking school in a foreign country.

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Our room at Llanerch Vineyards, Wales

We took a cooking class from Angela Gray in Wales to celebrate Anne’s 60th birthday in April of 2012.  You have probably never heard of Celebrity Chef, Angela Gray.  She is considered the top chef in Wales.  Angela runs a Raymond Blanc-style cooking school (Raymond Blanc is probably the best known chef in Great Britain and owns a restaurant that has earned two Michelin Stars).  Her objective is to attract foodies from across the world to Llanerch Vineyards in Wales.  Besides being a top chef, food writer, food consultant, and featured TV chef on Welsh TV; she also was former chef to the rich and famous, including Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. In 2011, she opened her cooking school.  Llanerch Vineyard’s web page describes her school with these words—“Welcome to our very special cookery school, where we invite you to leave all your cares behind, and step into the world of food.  Relax and unwind as you learn new skills, build your culinary confidence whilst having a lot of fun along the way.”  Just so British & Welsh—“whilst having a lot of fun on the way”—already I knew Anne’s research to find this unique experience was going to be one of the highlights of our life.

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Angela Gray teaching us about proper technique to chop onions

 Believe me, they deliver just that–we had the honor of attending a great cooking session to celebrate Anne’s milestone.  What an awesome experience! We learned to cook Coq au Vin Blanc (Chicken in White Wine Sauce), Bordelaise potatoes and crepes.  Anne & I consider ourselves pretty good cooks (she has a degree in hotel & restaurant management & I once won the most creative award in a cooking contest) but we learned a lot of cool stuff and had fun doing it. Who knew you could learn how to slice an onion evenly without tears?  We both got our own cooking areas and there was a little friendly competition to add more spice to the lesson—we really did have fun, while learning to be better cooks.

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Anne & Hank preparing Cog au Vin Blanc

The whole experience was fantastic but the best part for me was eating the meal.  Angela’s school is designed for the folks to take the food home after the class but, as travelers, we did not have any take home containers.  Angela and her staff handled this, so we could take the food away.  Also, Llanerch Vineyards, did not serve evenings meals at that time in the restaurant, so there was not a place to eat, but the staff at Llanerch did an awesome job fixing up a romantic place for us to dine in a small sitting area.  They even gave us a free bottle of wine—what a cool experience—a true night to remember!  It was better than dining out—we made it ourselves, learned better ways to cook and it just tasted so good—an unmatched experience!

 

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Coq au Vin Blanc ready to eat

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Crepes for dessert

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The birthday girl–sure looks great!

That is the whole point of this blog—it is the people you share experiences with that help you celebrate milestones and enhance the marking the years that have passed and well-crafted travel can help make the celebration better.  Remember to enrich your life with experiences, build relationships and create memories—special celebrations are priceless, in our opinion.

So how can we help you have these types of memories?  We learn who you are, what you like and don’t like and then use our experience to match you to a trip to celebrate in a way you will remember for a long, long time.  Our 20+ years of experience counts–you can’t really know about these little gems unless someone who’s been there shares the info–that’s how we add value to your trip!  We can help you learn how to get a great experience like this on your European travels–We are your European Travel Experts!  Please give us a call, at 713-397-0188 (Hank) or e-mail me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com to help you start planning your Europe Vacation, or cruise, or river cruise or any trip that will let you celebrate and enrich your life, so we can help you Savor life . . .make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

 

 

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Brugge–Anne’s Favorite Europe City!

by Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

Anne and I have been traveling to Europe together since 1988.  It has been an awesome adventure of one great place after another.  Europe is fascinating to see how much diversity can be packed into such a relatively small area.  Initially, her favorite city was Paris.  While still a favorite, after visiting Brugge, she changed to favor this really cool city of sights and food.  Picturesque canals that look like they came from paintings, ornate buildings gilded with gold, great art works, a famous bell tower, lace, chocolate, mussels and pomme frites (French fries) so good folks wait in lines to buy them without any complaints.  Somehow it is busy yet peaceful—walk a block or two away from the main squares and it is so charming you will stop and enjoy!  Here are a couple of pictures to introduce this unique Northern European town:

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Brugge (Flemish) and Bruges (French and English) may combine the best of all of Europe in a compact yet fascinating mix of old and new.  In the 1400’s it was a great city, made rich from the cloth trade.  It is said the population was around 35,000—about the same size as London at that time.  For about 100 years or so it flourished and grew wealthy from trade, built elaborate public buildings and was a center for the arts.  But its harbor silted up and the great economic times were over.  It once was a walled city (a couple of the gates remain today) but the relatively compact city was so poor it just could not replace the older buildings, so most of the important medieval structures were preserved.  What is left today is a tourist delight—great sites, great food and beer, and one of the best walkable cities in all Europe.

Brugge is one of 49 cities that we have written destination guides about.  Our Brugge guide is 2 typewritten pages anyone can easily slip in a pocket or a purse. These are a great way to not miss the important sights and provide practical tips to enhance your trip.  It covers many of the sights I have written about in this blog.  If you would like a guide to Brugge or any other European major city destination, please send me an e-mail hschrader@dreamdestinations.com .

Let’s explore together!  The best place to start is the two squares—Market Square and Burg Square.  Markt (Flemish) or Market Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the well preserved medieval buildings and famous belfry.  You can climb the 366 or so stairs for awesome views of the city but we prefer to listen to the bells from the ground of the square.  Here are some photos:

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Markt Square Brugge

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Bell Tower Markt Square

Burg Square houses the city hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood (built by a Crusader to store drops of the blood of Jesus he brought back from Jerusalem).  You can easily see the wealth of this city at one time by studying the opulent, gilded buildings.  The city hall is a Gothic structure that was built in the late 1300s, making it the oldest town hall in Belgium.  Don’t miss the upstairs Gotische Zaal (Gothic Room) with its ornate decor and wall murals depicting highlights from Bruges’s history.  Most spectacular of all is the vaulted oak ceiling, dating from 1402, which features scenes from the New Testament.  Here is a photo of Burg Square:

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Basilica of the Holy Blood

Art is important here, with painters such as Jan van Eyck and a small Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child (it is said this is the only statue of his to leave Italy and made even more famous recently by the movie Monument Men) as two prime example of the great art on display in Brugge.  The Groeninge Museum has one of the best collection of early Flemish art including works by van Eyck, Gerard David, Rogier van der Weyden, and others.  Most of the paintings displayed here are by artists who lived in Brugge during its glory days.  In the Church of our Lady, the Michelangelo Madonna Carrara marble statue is displayed as part of an ornate Baroque niche that at first made it hard for me to find.  It is an exceptional piece of work and well worth the minimal admission price.  The church is impressive also–it took 2 centuries (13th-15th) to build this church, whose soaring 122m (400-ft.) spire can be seen for miles around Bruges.

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Niche with Madonna (center)

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Michelangelos Madonna & Child

To learn a little more about life in medieval and see Hans Memling’s paintings, a visit to the Memling museum is another look at life and art in the late 1400’s.  The building served as a hospital and along with the various medical instruments, Memling’s paintings were designed to provide comfort to the sick and dying.  Another good museum is the Gruuthuse Museum.  The Flemish nobleman and herb merchant Lodewijk Van Gruuthuse, who was a counselor to the dukes of Burgundy in the 1400s, lived in this ornate Gothic mansion.  Among the 2,500 numbered antiquities in the house are paintings, sculptures, tapestries, lace, weapons, glassware, and richly carved furniture.

Around where the old city walls used to stand, you can find a park dotted with windmills and some of the surviving city gates.  Here are a few pictures:

 

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An Old Gate that remains from the time Brugge was a walled city

Food is really good here.  Our favorites: lobster, shrimp, mussels (moules), frites, and carbonnade (my favorite—it is a rich beef stew flavored with onions and beer).  It stands to reason that seafood would be a specialty—Brugge is so near to the sea.  The old fish market is still in use, so you can be assured your seafood will be fresh.  There are other good restaurants, to include a good Italian restaurant, and almost every other type of cuisine you could desire.  Here are some photos:

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Shopping is even fun, even for a guy like me who is not a shopper.  Lace, chocolate shops and beer are local special items.  But, guys, beware—we found a great diamond store—Anne proudly wears two rings from here—all I can say is I was proud to give her 2 gifts that mean so much to her!  Here is a picture of a cute little lace shop:

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Our favorite place to stay is the Martin’s Relais (there are 2 Martins in Brugge, both are good but we prefer the one a short walk from Markt Square).  Our favorite placeis near van Eyck square, the old customs house and on one of the canals.  Great place to stay, an awesome brunch.  We even have a favorite room and the friendly staff always helps us find new places to explore.  We actually wave to the many canal boat tours once and a while—pretty cool to say the least.  Here are some photos:

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van Eyck Square taken from our room

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A canal boat outside our room

Sights near our room–the bear is the symbol of Brugge

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Our Favorite Room

Brugge is exceptional.  You should visit—it is a true gem of great places in Europe.  We often go for a few days after a river cruise and will visit this year after our Christmas River Cruise—the Enchanting Rhine from 14-21 December.  We can’t wait—it just feels like home to us!  We also hope this will inspire you to visit Brugge–we will be glad to help.  Please give Hank a call at 713-397-0188 or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com so we can help you Savor life . . .make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

 

 

Europe’s Guild Signs

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, European Destination Specialist  & River Cruise Expert

We love visiting the old towns of Europe.  Many have preserved the old parts of their cities to include the guild signs hanging over the narrow streets.  These signs are usually made of wrought-iron and harken back to a time when many could not read but could recognize the symbols of a business.  While the exact origin of these signs is unknown, many think they originated in the Alps region of Germany.  There is actually a German word of these emblems zunftzeichen which implies these wonderful signs represent the pride and tradition of skilled craftsmen who provided quality goods to their town or village.  These wrought-iron signs were made by specialized blacksmiths, who along with helping advertise the business represented by the sign, also benefited by their artful signs and became sought after by local merchants. 

The wrought-iron signs were commissioned by local tradesmen who were members of a particular guild, such as bakers, shoemakers or tailors.  Guilds are associations of artisans or merchants who control the practice of their craft.  In medieval cities, craftsmen tended to form associations based on their individual trade or skill.  In the Middle Ages, all craftsmen were members of guilds.  The guild’s senior craftsmen controlled the working hours and conditions of work of their members.  They also made sure work was of proper quality by setting standards and using apprenticeships to teach younger workers the skills and techniques they would need to succeed in their chosen trade.  So, let’s see some of these wonderful signs through our photos.

For reasons unknown to me, there is a higher density of these signs in German-speaking countries but the signs were spread to other countries, especially near the German borders and by the Hellenistic League.  The Hellenistic League was a trade organization of guild merchants founded in Germany and they brought their influence to towns like Tallinn, Estonia, where there are excellent examples of these signs.  Typically, these signs extend four of five feet out from the building to which they are attached.  Here are some of our favorites in Tallinn

Here are some of our favorites from Germany :

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Rudesheim, Germany

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Heidelberg, Germany

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Mittenberg, Germany

These signs evolved and continue until today.  We found this sign in Basel, Switzerland.

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Here is one from Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

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The craftsmanship of these signs is special—a true art form!  This is just one more example why we like Europe so much—the old ways and traditions remain through their efforts for historical preservation.  For me, it is refreshing to see advertising that is artful, beautiful and meaningful.  We hope this will inspire you to consider a Europe Vacation for your next vacation and let our expertise help you find the right one for you.  Please give Hank a call at 713-397-0188 or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com so we can help you:

Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

River Cruise Safety in Europe

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

We have been on 11 river cruises in Europe and will go back again in December to take our 12th cruise.  There are many reasons why we like to river cruise so much, but one key reason is that it is a safe trip and it makes it a great vacation for most folks.  We would never consider cancelling our trip due to the current world situation in Europe, because we have so much confidence we will be safe.  As a retired Army Officer, I can assure you I never would put myself in danger anyway just to have a vacation.  I do, however, understand concerns in today’s world.  We have traveled during many periods of unrest or tension in Europe and always felt safe, as long as we take simple steps to avoid potential dangerous situations.  Please consider these items before you decide that travel to Europe or taking a river cruise in Europe is dangerous:

Risk

No one can promise you will be safe anywhere in the world, including where you live today in the US.  Despite the headlines, you are actually safer traveling to Europe than the risks you face in daily life.  From 2001-2013, according to the US State Department, 350 US citizens have been killed overseas.  In that same time period in the US (2001-2013), according to the Center for Disease Control, 406,496 people were killed by firearms and again from 2001-2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, roughly 520,000 people died in auto accidents.  Perception of danger overseas is not the reality.

Terrorism Aims

Terrorists want to spread their political agenda by fear and intimidation.  They want the 24-hour coverage of the news channels to show how horrible they are and that they disregard human life.  Terrorism is random and this increases fear.  The terrorists win if we stop traveling.  Do not worry constantly, just use good common sense to limit chances you will be harmed.

Tips to Protect Yourself in Europe

  • Buy Travel Insurance

There are many ways travel insurance can add a level of protection to safeguard your trip.  Travel insurance can cover trip cancellation for qualified reasons (you never go on the trip) and trip interruption for qualified reasons (you go but do not complete the entire trip); medical problems, evacuation home or to a hospital, lost or delayed baggage and flight insurance.  Not all policies cover all the above situations, especially trip cancellation coverage and the costly cancel for any reason policies.  Most policies we recommend are primary coverage—that means they pay first regardless of other coverage.  One of the best features is an emergency contact center, manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist in an emergency situation.  Just so you know, we never travel without travel insurance.  We always offer travel insurance, but you are not required to buy (disclaimer, we are paid a commission on these products, but the real reason we recommend travel insurance is that we want you to consider your personal risk and situation.  We have a professional responsibility to ensure you are properly informed).  We can help guide you through the process but we will never promise coverage for a specific situation —this is something you should discuss with the insurance company directly.  Travel insurance just adds peace of mind, in my opinion.  There are also policies that provide emergency evacuation that are not a medical necessity. 

  • Watch the News on TV

Just keeping up with world events can help you recognize potential danger areas to avoid.  CNN International and BBC Worldwide are usually available in most places we have stayed and are available on most river cruise ships.  Don’t become glued to the TV–just monitor so you are protected and informed

  • Realize that some venues make be directed to be closed or a ship might make a change in port stops or tours.

For your protection, you will often see more police at public transportation areas and there may be more security screening to enter some areas, museums or other attractions.  We have experienced all of these and in most cases, it was totally reassuring, and the delays were minimal.  Just be flexible and all will be all right.

  • Enjoy your trip but be aware of your surroundings

This is the common sense rule.  We always expect to have fun, but are aware—if something just does not seem right, use caution.

  • If traveling alone, make sure someone knows where you are and when you are expected back

While we recommend traveling with someone or in a group, if you are travelling alone, let the hotel front desk or the river cruise ship reception know if you are going out on your own.  It just adds another level of security.

  • Register with the State Department

The US State Department has a Safe Traveler Enrollment Program.  The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.  It allows US citizens to sign up to receive alerts from the US State Department, allows the US Embassy a way to contact you if needed and provides a way family or friends can contact you in an emergency.  Here is the link to their website to register https://step.state.gov/step/

  • Carry some items with you to help you be prepared if an emergency situations arises.

We always carry with us contact info for the hotel we are staying at or the emergency contact info for the river cruise ship, a copy of our passports, some local cash and a credit card.  We also have our cell phones.

How River Cruise Companies Help Insure Your Safety

River cruise lines train their crew members to insure your safety.  The sailing crew members (usually the Captain, First Officer, Engineer and deck hands) are well experienced—most have been sailing for years and the know and avoid dangers that could occur on your river cruise.  There is always a safety briefing on each river cruise prior to sailing. 

The captain (left), hotel manager (top right) & Cruise manager always stress safety to the guests.

The cruise director and local guides also add a level of security—they know about potential problems and can insure guests do not venture into dangerous areas.  The cruise lines also monitor weather conditions and river levels to insure safety.  The ships all have great safety features, such as radar to help avoid other traffic on the rivers.  There is a 24 hour guard on each ship and outside entrances are locked during night-time hours and no one is granted access without proper ID.  When each guest leaves the river boat, they are required to take a card with emergency phone numbers.  This also allows the crew to know if you did not re-board prior to the departure of the ship.

These are just a few of the reasons we like river cruising so much—they are a safe way to travel.  We hope this will inspire you to give me a call at 713-397-0188 or send me an email (hschrader@dreamdestinations.com) so I can help you visit Europe on a river cruise and help you:

Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Don’t Pack Stress in Your Vacation

by Anne Schrader, Certified Travel Counselor (CTC)

Summer may not be “officially” here, but even if you’re not already experiencing the 90 + degree weather associated with the season, we’re pretty sure you’re eagerly waiting for the date you’ve circled on the calendar for the beginning of your summer vacation.

We’re hoping you’ve already booked your trip (especially if you’ve used a travel professional, like either Hank or myself) so your trip is well-planned! But even if you braved the myriad of choices available on the internet, (or just booked a place based on the conversation you overheard standing in line at the grocery store or from the booth next to yours in the restaurant), we’re pretty sure you’ll still be faced with the arduous chore of packing for the trip.

Being in the travel business for 20 + years hasn’t lessened the time I spend trying to make sure I pack what I need for a trip, no more – no less. The luggage restrictions added by the airlines hasn’t helped, but it’s really more than that. There’s the actual physical exertion required to transport an overweight suitcase (or multiple lighter ones) onto the shuttle between the parking lot and the airport. And, then after claiming them, getting to next form of transportation: taxi, coach or train.

These days, most of our travels seem to be to Europe. This requires long flights, which, for me, means I’m going to want some of my “perceived” necessities on the plane. And, it also means that I’m probably not going to want to carry-on everything I’ve decided I’ll need for the trip.

When we are in Europe, we travel between locations by train. It is the most relaxing and time efficient way to experience multiple locations.  However, because trains stop at stations for only 3 to 5 minutes to board or exit, heavy luggage can be an issue. Then, once again, it’s getting to our destination, either a hotel or a ship. Just a tip: taxis in Europe often charge extra for more than one large case and one small personal item per person. And their cars are often small, so getting more than 2 people and luggage in one automobile can be tricky.

Several years ago, Hank decided we could both travel with a 21” suitcase and one carry on. It’s true, he can! For me, that’s not so easy. Luggage is my addiction. I’ve tried all types and shapes and sizes. I think (and Hank’s hoping) that I may have finally hit on the right combination (at least for now).

And, after 4-5 big trips a year, I think I’ve pretty much established my carry-on needs and clothing needs to ease some of the packing stress. I’m still pretty bad about being packed and ready to go more than a few minutes before we walk out the door. But at least it isn’t quite as bad as the time when Hank finally figured I’d never be ready, so he packed for me. One word of advice, ladies: NEVER let your husband pack your carry‑on or purse, especially if it is important to find your lipstick and hairbrush!

Based on our last trip in May, here’s the luggage and items I carried for our 2 week trip. And, I think it will work for our upcoming trips later this year.

My Carry-On Luggage

My new carry-on is the TravelSmith Spinner360 Carry-On with Free Tote. This is available online or through HSN.com. I haven’t spent enough time to really know everything it can hold, however, on my trip, I was able to carry:

  • Camera, lens and charger
  • electronic cords & chargers (in a small case)
  • iPad
  • noise canceling head phones
  • my makeup (in a small case)
  • my jewelry roll (NEVER CHECK in your luggage) and I don’t take jewelry that is irreplaceable
  • my medications (NEVER CHECK in your luggage)
  • clothing for a day
  • sleepwear
  • cozy socks
  • disposable slippers for the plane
  • a pair of shoes (very lightweight rain skimmers from TravelSmith.com)

The last item to go in was my zippered, clear quart-size bag which is TSA approved for 3.5 oz. liquids Flight 001Clear Carry-On Quart Bag (S) from eBags.com. The zippered bag is very handy.

Inside I carry a travel-size:

  • toothpaste
  • toothbrush
  • mouthwash
  • hand lotion
  • contact lens case
  • contact solution
  • lip balm
  • mascara
  • lipstick
  • small perfume

In the accompanying (and matching) tote, I added:

  • small clutch purse (for my night time purse)
  • mobile phone
  • passports
  • paperwork for our trip
  • money belt, (which I put on upon landing at the destination)
  • the linen/flax cape/shaw (I bought it in Helsinki – maybe the best souvenir purchase ever)
  • travel pillow (inflatable with soft cover)
  • foam eye mask (It has curved indentions so it doesn’t squish my eyes and is bright red, so if I pull off in the middle of the night, I’ll see it before we the disembark plane!)
  • emergency medication bag (inhaler, nitroglycerin)
  • a small bag with nail file, pens and extra eye glasses
  • iPod and small earbuds
  • a Ditty Bag from Vera Bradley (which I fill on the plane with everything I want out during the flight, so I’m not constantly digging in my carry-on. After boarding, I’ll pull out my makeup, liquid bag and iPad out of carry-on. The Ditty Bag allows me to gather everything up, like headphone, iPods, etc. before we disembark, rather than trying to reload my carry-on. I’ll put everything back in the carry-on while waiting for our luggage to arrive at the carousel.)

My Suitcase

For my 50 lbs. of clothing (I really try to be lighter so I can shop at my destination), I have found that a 25” lightweight hard-sided case with 4 spinner wheels is best for me. The only drawback is there is no outside pocket for my rain jacket and umbrella. So I’ll put them on top inside the case so I only have to slightly unzip the luggage,  if required.

In Europe, I stick to a basic color wardrobe, black, cream, tan, gray. For clothing, here’s what I’ve found works best:

Day time:

  • 2 pairs of slacks (navy/black or black/brown)
  • 4-5 shirts to go with each

Evening:

  • Black knit wrap dress
  • one pair nice black slacks
  • a few dressy tops
  • a dressy jacket or sweater
  • and, of course, my personables
  • also, any additional sundries not in the carry on.

Here’s always my biggest challenge – shoes! I believe in being comfortable, so in winter, it’s boots with flat heels and suede shooties to wear with my evening slacks and dress. In warm weather, I will carry black pumps for night time. I’m pretty set, although I have discovered on Caribbean cruises, I’ll take sandals, espadrilles, (because I’ll substitute the slacks with crop pants). And in tropical areas I usually wear khaki, white or a bright color.

A couple of things I’ve learned to always travel with:

  • washcloth (in Europe many places don’t have them)
  • swimsuit (although I rarely use it, I’ve missed some great spas because I didn’t have it with me)
  • shaw/pashmina for the plane, restaurants and to enter religious sites

I may carry my travel hairdryer, although there is usually one in most hotels and ships. Amenities in hotels vary – some have hairdryers, magnifying mirrors, shampoo/conditioner/lotion; house slippers and robes. If your trip would be less than wonderful should any of those weren’t available, I’d recommend taking your own. Just remember, to avoid ruining your electronic gadgets, make sure they are dual-voltage (110-240 volts) and carry an adaptor for the country you will be visiting. (I  burned out a TV in England by plugging in my 110 volt power, even though I was using the correct convertor/adaptor. Needless to say, we no longer rely on the convertors.

Other items to consider:

  • Day pack (for sunscreen, water bottle, maps, etc.)
  • Plastic (foldable) tote bag with handles (or at a minimum grocery bags) for local purchases
  • TravelonMuV Digital Scale ( purchased at eBags.com). We’ve tried other luggage scales and this seems to be the most accurate.
  • Rain poncho (handy to cover your backpack or camera if caught in a quick shower)
  • Travel Valet (for dresser top with snaps at corners to corral you room key, pocket change, rings, receipts, etc. that you’ll use again the next day.)
  • piggy-back bungee cord system to securely hold a carry-on to the larger suitcase. It is made by Travelon, available from bagbungee@travelsmith.com

A quick word about prescription your medication. Never pack your medicine in your checked luggage. During your flight, if you have multiple medications that you’ll need to take at bedtime and/or early morning, put the correct dosage in a separate bottle or small zippy bag for quick retrieval.

 Remember, there are stores just about everywhere; you can always make any new purchase a great souvenir. It could end up being your most favorite purchase!

Now is the time to call Hank at 713-397-0188 to plan and book a spectacular trip! Grab your passport and go have fun! It’s not quite summer – you still have time to make those travel plans! Bon voyage!

 Savor life . . . make memories . . visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!

Tips to Make Train Travel in Europe Easier

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination and River Cruise Expert

Europe train travel is a great way to get around Europe.  It is usually very efficient and fast, especially the high speed trains.  It does require learning some skills to help make this form of travel easier.  Here are our tips from 44+ years of using Europe trains.

  1. Before you arrive at the station put your train info on a small notecard or piece of paper. Listing the train number, car (coach) number, seat numbers, departure time and arrival time at the destination along with the correct station will make your train travel much easier.  It is amazing how many times we look at this piece of paper.  It also safeguards our train tickets—we are not fumbling around trying to get the right info.
  2. Make sure you are at the right Station. Many European cities have more than one station and if you are making connections, a wrong station can be a real hassle or cause a missed connection.
  3. Train Stations in Europe have a lot of things you might need for your trip. Many have information booths, food, drinks, restaurants, shopping, room-finding services, money changing stores, lockers to store your luggage, waiting rooms, and convenient bus, local light rail and subway connections.  We almost always get a picnic type lunch or least a couple of beers or a bottle of wine.  It often is better tasting and less expensive than the on board food.  On high speed trains, sometimes meals are included.  Here was one of our meals
    Train Food
    High Speed Included Meal

    With all the conveniences, also comes the occasional thief or beggar scam.  Watch your valuables and luggage and keep your money in a money belt or zippered pocket.

  4. At the Station, find the departure board to get on the right track. Most station have a big flip board or electronic board that has 10 or so departure and arrivals.  The boards are organized by departure and arrival times.  Find your train number and time on the departure board then wait until they post the track number.  Remember Europeans use the 24 hour clock—1300 is 1:00 PM. Also the city name will often not match your English names—Prague is Praha, for instance.  It can be easy to get confused—there may be identical times and similar trains—make sure you have the right one.  Long distance trains are easier—often there will be this big rush to the correct platform once the track number is posted.

    Flip Board
    Departure Train Flip Board
  5. Know the configuration of your train prior to getting aboard if possibleMany stations have the exact composition of your train on a display board.  These are on the platform where the train will arrive.  Locating this diagram can make boarding much easier. 
    Train Diagram
    Train Coach Platform Diagram
    High Speed Train Diagram
    High Speed Train Diagram

    Each platform often has letters overhead to indicate where you should stand when the train arrives.  If your coach is at the diagram for letter A for example, your coach should stop somewhere near that letter. 

    Track Locator Sign
    Track Locator Sign

    In addition, each track will usually have a sign showing the train arrival with a train number and other information so you can be pretty sure you are on the correct train platform.  Trust the diagram and local conductor–they ride these trains every day.  It is not uncommon for cars to be out of numbered sequence and just last year I ran after a train car while Anne waited at the right spot–she was right, of course!

  6. Tracks and Platforms can change. I missed a train to Berlin in 2008 once by sitting on the wrong platform—it had changed and I was too busy talking to my friend.
    Platform Arrival & Departure Board
    Platform Departure & Arrival Board

    Luckily, there was another train one hour later.  Even if you have scoped things out beforehand, if everyone suddenly starts running to another platform or track, just start asking—someone will tell you about the new track.  With the recent refugee situation in Europe, some trains change platforms or have unannounced train changes.  When we questioned a conductor just last year about a train change, he would only say you will make your connection, nothing more.  When we arrived at the unscheduled change point, it was clear why—all had to go through a passport control check to board our new train.  In the past at every border, the crew often changed and there was a passport check.  There are more checks nowadays with the recent problems but overall the hassles are minimal.

  7. Trains only stop for 2 to 5 minutes at most stops. If you have not been able to locate your reserved coach just get on the train.  Do not waste time getting on; clear the platform as quickly as possible.  Even if you are totally confused, just get on the right train and then get to the proper car and seat.
  8. Try to limit the amount of luggage you carry if you are using a lot of trains in Europe.
    luggage and back-packs
    Packing Light–our luggage for 21 Day Europe Trip

    We have seen people carry an amazing lot of stuff and have been guilty of this way too often ourselves.  There are 2 problems here—many platforms require you to walk down steps, go under train tracks and back up lugging all your stuff.  Often there is not a lift or escalator.  Heavy bags can be a real problem.  The second problem is putting your stuff away while on the train.  Most trains have overhead racks that will hold 21 inch luggage but larger bags can be a problem.  Sometimes there are luggage storage areas—sometimes not.  Also there are folks in larger stations who will try to help you for a tip—you often think they are just helpful fellow travelers.  We constantly count luggage and check even if it is in the luggage area of our car.  When in doubt, we carry a small chain & lock to make sure our items are secure.

  9. Train seats are not for your luggage. We watched an American on a very crowded train take up several seats guarding their luggage and being very confrontational to others.  Store you luggage properly—do not take someone’s seat on a crowded train.  If you are obstructing a seat, be prepared to move your luggage if a new passenger arrives.
  10. Screaming at railroad employees is rude and wrong. We watched an American scream at a reservation person because the person did not speak English well.  Finally a kind man who spoke English and French stepped in and helped resolve the problem.  Screaming and rudeness just makes the situation worse.  Our experience is that most railroad folks really try to help and resolve problems or get you a better train or seat or car.  Be patient, use short, clear words, no slang, and trust the reservation representatives.  When you enter the reservation and ticketing area, usually there is a number system, so get a ticket and wait your turn (now serving #).  If there is a representative at the entrance area, ask what the system is and if you have a short time to make a connection, let them know.  Always ask before standing in line.  Sometimes at ticketing offices in the stations you may have to wait up to a half an hour to get your problem resolved—so many travel by train, even in large stations the back log can be significant.  If you have a rail pass or first class ticket, sometimes you can skip the waiting lines and get served faster.
  11. Do not assume just because you got on the right train all the cars are going where you want to go. Sometimes a train will split apart at some stations and part of the train will head to a different place than you want to go.  Always ask the conductor if you are in the right car, right seat and right section of the train—especially if you do not have a reserved seat.
  12. Even if you have a reserved seat, someone may be using it. Just politely show your ticket and try & work it out.  Most often it is a family with young kids or some other good reason.  Sometimes it is a second class ticketed person try to score a free upgrade or just an honest mistake—right seat, wrong car.  Keep your cool and if it is a real problem, let the conductor work it out.
  13. Most announcements on the train are in English following another European language first, especially on long distance trains. We have learned to know about how long the trip is and get up early (about 10-15 minutes or so) so we can get off quickly, especially if we have 25 inch suitcases.  If the trip announcements seem to get a gasp or two from other riders, you can probably guess the train has been delayed.  Just ask—most folks who ride the trains speak a little English or are willing to help.  Also you often will not which side to exit the train, or in some smaller stations, especially in England, you may have to walk forward to others cars to disembark if the train is longer than the platform.
  14. Train Strikes do happen. We were in Brugge once ready to leave on a Monday and we found out while enjoying a small breakfast that all local trains in Belgium were on scheduled strikes on Mondays thru the month of December in protest of wages.  All the locals knew, but we sure did not.  We wound up splitting a cab to Brussels with another couple—an extra 80 Euros in cash we had not planned for.  Our lesson learned—ask the hotel at check in if there are any problems for departure transportation.
  15. Overnight trains. We have had some really good results and some horrible experiences.  First rule for us—get a private compartment.  In 1990, during the world cup, we wound up in a sleeper for 4 with 2 guys from Argentina.  We were all worried, but since I spoke Spanish, we worked it out.  It was so hot and if you opened the windows, a passing train would shatter any possibility of sleep.  We wound up the next day with heat rashes and were so exhausted, we just slept most of the next day.  On a recent trip in 2014 from Grenada to Barcelona in a 2 person compartment, it was very good—we got some sleep and a good meal.  And another good trip was from Amsterdam to Munich last year that saved us a cost of a hotel room—we arrived rested and ready to explore Munich after dropping our luggage of at our hotel.  Our advice –spend a little more and arrive rested, so you can save a hotel room cost yet not be so tired the benefit of the overnight ride is not wasted.

We love train travel.  Even though it is limited, it allows you to see something and not just fly over a country.  Europe is so small, you can realistically cover many areas in less than a 6 hour ride.  We always use a train on some portion of our trip.  We hope you will use these tips to make your train travel a better experience so you can

Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations! . . . Your journey begins here!

A Wine Lover’s Route–Provence River Cruise

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, European Destination and River Cruise Expert  www.dreamdestinations.com
Imagine sailing on the Rhône River through the legendary wine growing regions of Provence, getting the chance to sample Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône! So let’s sail together on the Rhône from Arles to Lyon on the AMADagio—a cruise we have done twice and will sail again this April (2016)—it is that good!

While this description is from Arles to Lyon, you should realize that one week starts in Arles and the next week starts in Lyon and the sights and experiences remain almost identical regards of whether you sail north to Lyon or south to Arles.

Your First Day of the Cruise

Your wonderful cruise starts in Arles. First up is a visit by motor coach to the hilltop village of Les Baux de Provence. The town was founded by King Balthazar, one of the 3 wise men of the Bible. The village’s castle has a fascinating exhibit of medieval siege weaponry replicas. These big war machines are cool—it is said to be one of the best collections in the world—you will be surprised how large these weapons are! Les Baux has had a stormy past and because of an unsuccessful Protestant revolt, the castles and its wall were destroyed in 1632, but the ruins and views are magnificent! Great, old village—well worth the trip. Want to see more—we have 32 pictures on our Pinterest site board Les Baux de France.

Later, visit an olive farm, which is family run by a brother and sister, to learn about this age-old Provençal farming tradition. The tour includes tastings of olive oils made at the farm. Anne bought some olive oil here and really like the tour and olive farm. As an alternative, take the “Impressionist Experience” tour to the Saint Paul de Mausole Asylum, where Vincent Van Gogh painted such well-known works as The Irises and Starry Night. You will also visit the Carrieres de Lumieres, a stone quarry that projects European artwork on its walls, including many of Van Gogh’s famous paintings.


In the afternoon, there is a walking city tour of Arles. You will see the Romanesque cathedral and the Roman Amphitheater. The Roman Amphitheater is well preserved (it could hold about 25,000) and there are other Roman ruins in the town.

Avignon

Early in the evening, we cruised to Avignon, arriving late at night. We docked near a famous bridge that spans only half of the Rhone—it is the illuminated Avignon Bridge made famous by the French children’s song “Sur le pont d’Avignon” (“On the Bridge of Avignon”).


After docking overnight in Avignon, you have 2 great tour options. First, you can tour the Papal Palace, which is part of a city walking tour. The tour starts off by entering the town through the well-preserved medieval walls surrounding the historic center of town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seven popes once resided in the magnificent Gothic Papal Palace. My favorite room was the huge banquet hall, where at one end is the fireplace used to communicate to the people outside a new Pope had been elected. Again, to see more about this interesting palace, we have 30 photos on the Pinterest site.

Palace of the Popes

 

 

Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct

 

Another cool alternative, is a motor coach ride to the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct that is a masterpiece of engineering and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking on the aqueduct was an experience I will never forget–it is huge and up close, you will really understand how talented the Romans were at building things—how did they get the water to flow with gravity alone by such minute changes in slope?. Your tour will also visit Uzes, a lovely Provencal town known for its castle (still occupied by the Duke of Uzes and his family), medieval streets and picturesque town square. There is free time for shopping in Uzes before returning to the ship.—I was there on market day and this is always a fun way to see how and what Europeans shop for, especially the food stalls.. I have done both tours and really enjoyed them—this is one of the many highlights of this cruise.
Although there are really good tours, Avignon also has some great shopping and Anne took advantage of this to buys some gifts for family back home. One of the great things about a river cruise is the chance to do what you want, since you dock right in the heart of the cities and can go off on your own easily since AMAWaterways provides port maps of each docking location with key sights clearly marked.

Day3

After sailing overnight to Viviers, you next adventure is a visit to Grignan, a magnificent hilltop village surrounded by lavender fields. The village’s Renaissance castle provides a commanding view of the area’s beautiful countryside. We enjoyed the free time to explore local shops for confections, home-made lavender soaps and other crafts—Anne bought a snappy beret. You also get to see a truffle dog in action—really cool! That dog really got after those truffles and he was a true favorite of our group.

The truffle dog in action!

Tournon

The ship sails to Tournon and there is a really good chocolate and red wine pairing in Tournon’s castle—we had 3 different chocolate candies paired with 3 different reds. I thought they were all good and went well together. Next morning, there is a visit to Cornas, Tournon’s “twin” town located across the Rhône River and linked by a 19th-century suspension bridge. The fertile soil and ideal climate of the region has made Cornas the premier producer of Côtes du Rhône wines. We stopped at a vineyard, and then the best part was sampling some good local wines. After lunch, the ship sails to Vienne, situated between the wine regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais, arriving early evening. The ship moors overnight in Vienne.

Our Wine Tasting in Tournon

Vienne

Next morning, I took a guided walking tour of Vienne (it starts with an open-air tourist train ride up a big hill for a good view of the Rhône) and then our group see the 1st-century Roman Temple of Augustus and Livia, the ruins of a Roman theater, and the medieval churches of St. Andre-Le-Bas and Abbey St. Pierre. For me, the best part was the Roman museum—there is a good collection of items used in this former Roman colony. As an alternative, you could choose to visit the Chateau Roussillion and Pottery but I have never been on this tour.

Roman Temple in Vienne

Lyon

It is then off to Lyon. Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France. There is a visit by bus to the historic section of town known as Vieux Lyon (“Old Lyon”). Lyon is fun, we really enjoyed the old town area and its narrow streets and colorful bouchons (small bistros) with their trademark red and white checkered table cloths. Sometimes this cruise offers a choice of tours. You can visit Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse market place and sample gourmet food & wine in around 70 stalls (highly recommended by us—another great tour we enjoyed very much). On a wine cruise, we also got the chance to have a champagne tasting—it was awesome!

Lyon Hill Top Church

Another option is a sailing on the Saône. The ship departs after noon and cruises to Collonges for an excursion through the Beaujolais wine region, the Pays d’Or (“land of the golden stones,” named for the ochre limestone used to build local homes and castles). It stops at the medieval hilltop village of Oingt and the home of a local vintner, where, of course, you will get to enjoy a wine tasting and vineyard tour, and learn about the history of wine production in the region. Rejoin the ship in Belleville and return to Lyon, arriving late tonight. You will stay overnight in Lyon.

Disembarkation

Sadly, the cruise is over the next morning but what a wonderful experience that will make memories of a lifetime. As with all river cruises, the option for pre-cruise or post cruise stays either offered by AMAWaterways or arranged by us is a great way to extend your vacation a few more days. We always extend on our trips—Lyon is a particular favorite and you could visit Nice or other French towns—we are happy to help with suggestions and to make arrangements as necessary.

My Final Thoughts

This is a trip that should be on everyone’s bucket list, in my opinion. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to help you to start this or any other river cruise trip.

We have a wealth of free information about all Europe river cruises and really useful river cruise tips on our website www.dreamdestinations.com, so check us out—you will be glad you did.
Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations . . . Your journey begins here!

My Top 10 Lessons Learned in 44 Years of Europe Travel

As many of you know, we specialize in cruises, European River Cruises and European Vacations. Here are my favorite lessons learned, many the hard way in our travels to Europe:
My Top 10 Lessons Learned from 44 Years of Travel in Europe
1. Know exactly what you want to see and how to get there. This may sound silly but many key places you may want to visit are often very hard to visit without several transfers. Let me give you an example. Several years ago, we had a Eurorail pass with limited days. Prior to start of using our 15 days, we had one extra day. We were in France & I wanted to see Mt. St. Michel in Normandy. Without doing my homework, I got us to Le Havre, about 100 miles north of my desired attraction. We never made it to Mt. St. Michel. Turns out it is very difficult to go by train alone to Mt. St. Michel. The point is simple—you must plan your connections & have a clear idea of how to get there.
2. Protect your money—carry a money belt and always zip it shut. Even though we always carry money belts, I forgot to zip mine one night & dropped all my credit cards & IDs along with $230 US dollars in Paris one trip. We realized the mistake after only 30 minutes & after a brief search determined the cards were gone. We called & cancelled the cards within one hour of our loss. We also learned that because Anne had different cards, our trip was not ruined. Report the loss to the police—unbelievably; when we went to the local Paris police station, someone had turned in all my lost items, to include the cash.
3. Change your money before you go. There is always a fee to exchange money. Banks usually offer the best exchange rates. You will not get the prime published exchange rate—that is only for banks or large currency exchanges. Foreign coins cannot be changed in banks or at currency exchanges—they only accept folding money. Try to use them before you leave the country or prepare to keep them as mementos. We carry a minimum of $200.00 US dollars in foreign currency—usually 200-300 Euros or so. Depending upon the trip, we have carried as much as $1000.00. The two best places to get foreign currency—your bank or American Express. Bank is usually cheaper. We usually only carry Euros or Pounds prior to a European trip. We carry $ 200-1000 USD depending on the length of the trip. Of course, if our trip is only to Russia, we get rubles. We always split our cash money—half each and carry it in our money belts. I also use zipper pockets for my wallet, if I’m not carrying a momoney)—ney belt. If you need more money, use an ATM and get a large amount (enough to keep going back for more saves on transaction fees.
4. Pack light—one rolling suitcase and 1 backpack. Anne & I try to take one suitcase and one carry-on each. The size of the suitcase depends on the length of the trip. We think a spinner suitcase is best (4 wheels) so that it will not fall over (I accidently let Anne’s 2 wheel case fall over on one trip & it cracked our net book screen). Most airlines will charge you steep fees for a bag that weights more than 50 pounds. Try to take clothes that match together so you can wear an item at least twice or three times. Wash and wear clothing helps limit the amount clothes you need. Rolling our clothes helps us get more in less space. Laundry services are available in Europe, but we often just do a small in-room wash. We sometimes use packing cubes to help organize our items. Even when I unpack, I just throw the packing cube in the drawer—less to pack later. You may want to take a picture of any high dollar item you are taking or make a detailed packing list with specific description (an example, Blue Microfiber Travel Smith Blazer). We have done both.
5. Never take a night train just to save money. We once took a night train from Paris to Amsterdam with what we thought was a night couchette private compartment. Turns out it was a compartment for 4, and it was so hot in August it took us 2 days to recover. Sometimes spending a little more is worth it, especially as you age. Several years later on an overnight train from Granada to Barcelona, in a proper air conditioned private compartment, it was a great trip.
6. Learn how to use public transportation especially, the subway. Figure out how to get to the attraction that fits your style of travel. Ask at the hotel you are staying for help to get to where you want to go. Taxis are sometime essential & your hotel can often keep you from being ripped off. Our preferred method is to walk, then subway, maybe bus, finally cab or private limo (from Rome to cruise port of Cittivichia for example).
7. Don’t spend $3000 to go on a trip and then balk at an entrance fee of $10-$20 for something you want to see. Know what you want to see and budget for entrance fees. I once missed a beautiful church wood carved altar because I wouldn’t spend $5.00 (OK 5 Euros)—it’s not very cost effective after spending $3000 to get there.
8. Organize your sightseeing in a city by grouping sites that are close together. Grouping will save you hours of time. Plan time to see things in the area, then move to the next area of town—it is just smart travel.
9. Know when key sites are closed. Know what days certain sites are closed—the Louvre is closed on Tuesday and in Florence most key art galleries are closed on Mondays.
10. Carry the right electronics and adapters. Traveling with electronics in Europe is a given in today’s world. Europe uses 240 volts instead of the 110 volts in the US. Bring only electronic devices that are 100-240 volts complaint. You will also need adapter plugs to fit into the outlets. England & Ireland use a different plug than is used on the continent of Europe. Also expect few places in your room to plug in your appliance to recharge during your trip. My experience with converter devices is poor—they often just do not work or destroy your costly electronic device.

We hope you liked this post–it was fun writing it.  If you want more info and travel tips, our website has a lot of useful info under the About Tab on www.dreamdestinations.com.

Remember…Savor Life…Make Memories…Visit Dream Destinations…Your journey begins here!