Photo Courtesy Brando Quinn: A view of the Parliament Building in Budapest, Hungary. One of the many stops Brando and Janet Quinn partook on a recent European trip.
Column By Brando Quinn/Brando’s Fun N’ Sun Travel
My wife, Janet Quinn, of Trophies N’ Tees, and I recently returned from a 14-day trip in Europe visiting Germany, Prague in the Czech Republic, Austria, Bratislava, and Budapest Hungary aboard the AmaWaterways River Cruise Ship the AmaVerde sailing the beautiful Danube River. Upon returning, I have had many people ask the question, “Is now a suitable time to travel?” I am not going to get into a debate with anyone on whether COVID-19 conditions should stop anyone from traveling, that is a personal decision. However, travel is in my blood so to speak and I have chosen to travel whether conditions are optimal or at least doable. I have assisted Janet in the travel business as an independent affiliate of Avoya Travel for 14 years traveling through 49 of the 50 United States, and 42 foreign countries and I can emphatically state that while travel might not be optimal right now travel is very doable but different in many respects from pre-2019 travel.
Our trip began in mid-August 2021 as we flew from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport to Frankfurt Germany to spend four days with our daughter, Brittany, her husband, Arnie, and our granddaughter, Celise, who were job transferred there in 2020. So, “how difficult were the pre-flight, pre-trip preparations?” you may ask.
To prepare, Janet and I decided to both get vaccinated and have not experienced any negative side effects. Again, I am not going to debate the current national and international vaccination disarray, and debate whether we need to or should be vaccinated as that too I feel is a personal choice. I will, however, say this, all cruise lines including AmaWaterways are now requiring COVID vaccinations as are a lot of airlines, entry into countries, restaurants, hotels, etc., so we did what we had to do to make this trip as enjoyable and stress-free as possible. In addition, although the country of Germany did not require us to have a negative COVID-19 test to enter Germany, we decided to get a PCR test at Walgreens three days prior to flying just to give us peace of mind that we were healthy and COVID free before showing up at the airport. We packed our bags with some room for shopping in Europe and although all European countries take credit cards, we also got European money exchanged in advance from the Safford Chase Bank branch and brought denominations for each country we visited, making it easy to eat at restaurants, take taxis and shop without having to exchange money upon arriving. I had made copies of all the documents we needed in paper form and also had them on our phones for easy access.
Normally, you can check-in for your flights online 24 hours prior to the flight departure. However, under current COVID conditions, we were unable to check-in online with American Airlines as you now are required for international flights to present your COVID vaccination card, passport, and a Passenger Information Form required for entry into Germany in person prior to receiving your boarding passes. American Airlines has an app called Verifly where we uploaded our forms, COVID vaccination cards, and required information making it easy to check-in at the airport. So, we decided to go to the airport within 24 hours of flying and had them check us in for our flights and give us our boarding passes for the following morning. The next day, we showed up at Sky Harbor airport 2.5 hours prior to our departure, checked in our luggage, and proceeded through TSA Security and to our gate effortlessly. Note: masks are currently required at the airport and onboard the aircraft. Our flight left Phoenix and then we connected in Dallas, Texas to our direct flight into Frankfurt. American Airlines pilots and crew were all very professional, helpful, and courteous, and happy to be flying again after the past 18 months of shutdowns.
Upon arriving in Frankfurt, Germany, we proceeded to Immigration who promptly asked us for our passports, COVID-19 vaccination cards, and the Germany Passenger Information form we had filled out online in advance. We gave them our documents and then proceeded to collect our luggage; the total time took about 20 minutes. My daughter was waiting for us in the baggage claim area, and we drove to her home to spend the next four days. While in Frankfurt, we toured through many of the wonderful local cathedrals, several castles in the area, and drank our share of the local delicious beers, and ate German cuisine, desserts, and more!
I had arranged train travel from Frankfurt to Prague, Czech Republic, where we would join with the AmaWaterways Tour Manager Radostina for three days pre-cruise touring. The Czech Republic also required a Passenger Information Form, which we filled out online in advance, and COVID-19 vaccination cards, however, when we arrived nobody asked us for any documents at all. The train followed the Elbe River and was wonderfully scenic and comfortable. Food and beverages are available on the train and served by the staff, the train ride took about 4.5 hours.
We arrived in Prague’s Rail Depot, which is huge and has over four levels to navigate. I looked for a taxi stand and followed the signs; however, we never did find the taxi stand! So, we talked with a few other passengers standing nearby who spoke Czech and English and decided UBER was the way to get to our hotel. I tapped on the UBER App and the local driver gave us some directions on where to meet him and soon we were on our way to the Hotel Alcron a short 15-minute drive away.
The Hotel Alcron in Prague is architecturally considered Art Deco and at one time was the RITZ Hotel of its time. The front desk clerk introduced himself, spoke wonderful English, and made us feel at home right away. Also, our AmaWaterways Tour Manager had a desk in the lobby, and we quickly made acquaintance with Radostina who is originally from Bulgaria and spoke wonderful English, Czech, Bulgarian, and other languages. We felt safe and welcomed right away a great plus with AmaWaterways 5 Star Service. Our hotel was conveniently located near the central squares of Prague, restaurants, shops, and local attractions. AmaWaterways then provided us with three days of pre-cruise tours with local guides.
Prague the capital city of the Czech Republic, is bisected by the Vltava River. Nicknamed “The City of a Hundred Spires,” it is known for its Old Town Square, the heart of its historic core, with colorful baroque buildings, Gothic churches, and the medieval Astronomical Clock, which gives an animated hourly show. Completed in 1402, pedestrian Charles Bridge is lined with statues of Catholic saints. After three days of tours and free time to explore this wonderful city, we boarded a comfortable bus/coach for the drive to Regensburg, a Bavarian city on the Danube River in southeast Germany known for its well-preserved medieval core. The 12th-century Stone Bridge, a 310-meter-long icon with 16 arches, crosses the river to the old town where you can view the 13th-century Regensburg Cathedral, a twin-spired Gothic landmark, home to the Regensburger Domspatzen choir. After a short two-hour tour of that historical city, we then continued to Vilshofen Germany where we boarded the AmaVerde River Cruise Ship!
One of AmaWaterways’ remarkable twin-balcony river ships, the inviting AmaVerde is full of light and love, is 443 feet long and 38 feet wide, hosting a crew of 51, and has 80 staterooms that comfortably accommodate 160 pampered guests. Comfortable elegant staterooms in subdued tones set the mind at ease for a restful slumber, while warmth attracts visitors to the alluring fireside library and AmaVerde’s earthy massage and a hair salon. Distinctive plum and burgundy patterns in the main restaurant are the perfect complement to exquisite meals and local wine pairings worthy of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs — the internationally renowned gastronomic society. A clean canvas of white-backed chairs in The Chef’s Table specialty restaurant, with its glass-enclosed kitchen and unique rolled lighting fixture, gives way to a vibrant multi-course parade of dishes with bold regional flavors. Additional amenities on AmaVerde include unlimited Wi-Fi, movies, music, and English-language TV stations in the staterooms, a specialty coffee station, gift shop, sundeck walking track, heated swimming pool, putting green, fitness room, and a fleet of bikes.
Our ship cabin was comfortable on deck three mid-ship and had twin balconies, a Queen size bed, and all of the amenities needed to make our trip exceptional. The ship’s crew which had not sailed for 18 months was eager to please and happy to be back on the river! Two handsome crew members wearing white gloves met us on entry to the ship, grabbed our bags, and led us to our cabin, setting the tone for the rest of the voyage which was exceptional. The award-winning chefs’ food onboard was delicious, well displayed, and plentiful with choices for everyone. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner from local cuisines, vegetarian menus, or a burger with French fries and a shake were available. Local coffee, tea, and wine flowed, as well as mixed drinks, where the bartenders were happy to make their specialty drinks or whatever concoction you could dream up.
Our cruise took us along the beautiful Blue Danube River (which coincidently is not blue) from Vilshofen and Passau Germany to Linz, Weissenkirchen and Vienna Austria, Bratislava Slovakia, and Budapest Hungary. There were several included shore excursions in each town to choose from or you could explore on your own. AmaWaterways hires excellent local guides who speak excellent English and native languages who have grown up in the region and have a real passion when sharing their experiences of living like a local. They also provide great Quiet Vox’s with headsets that allow you to hear your guides clearly while walking alongside them and taking in the many wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes of the cities.
Janet and I started with the City of Three Rivers Tour in Passau walking on cobblestone streets and viewing notable Baroque buildings and fortifications as well as the Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, home to one of the largest church pipe organs in the world near the banks of the river where the Black Ilz, the Blue Danube and the Green Inn rivers all meet up on their way to the Black Sea. The following day’s tour took us to the movie locations of the “Sound of Music” where we first stopped at the scenic lakeside town of Mondsee the famous site of the von Trapp wedding church and the tree-lined street where Captain von Trapp viewed Maria and his children hanging from the trees. Once in Salzburg, we walked through the historic center of the city where Mozart’s statue stands, we saw the Abbey where “How do you solve a problem like Maria” was sung and where the von Trapp family escaped from the Nazis. Then onto the Mirabel Gardens, where the children sang the song “Do, Re, Mi.” After eating at a local restaurant and doing souvenir shopping, we headed back to the ship to watch delightful local musicians and performers in costume play and sing all the songs from the Sound of Music.
The following day the ship’s able Captain navigated the ship through Austria’s narrow yet scenic Studengau and Wachau Valleys, which are flanked by lush rolling hills, grapevine vineyard’s growing grapes for the local Rieslings and Gruner Veltliner wines and is beautiful beyond description. The ship docked at a lovely town called Durnstein, which revealed 16th-century townhouses and wine taverns. We sampled wine from the local wineries and listened to musicians strumming local music near the luminous blue façade of the Baroque Stiftskirche, Durnstein’s famed church cloister tower. We were then driven to the town of Melk which sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube and got to tour through the Melk Abbey; one of Europe’s largest and most revered Baroque monasteries founded in the 11th century. This magnificent Benedictine Abbey now houses a museum chronicling its history and a famous library with countless medieval manuscripts.
Next, we were off to Vienna Austria for the City of Waltzes tour which included the majestic Opera House, the former Imperial Palace of the Habsburgs, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, and the city’s historic center rich in architectural marvels, Baroque castles, and lush gardens. With lots of free time to explore this city, we strolled along the prestigious Kartnerstrasse where shopping, cafes, restaurants, and coffee houses are plentiful. We were able to secure tickets to Mozart’s original concert hall and watched a quartet of three violinists and a cellist play magnificent music from Mozart, Beethoven, and other masters.
Onto Bratislava Slovakia the following morning to take the walking tour where the stunning Rococo-style Merbach Palace and Saint Martin’s Cathedral adorn the city center. Lots of whimsical sculptures line the streets in Old Town and the Main Square and the preserved Michael’s Gate survives as a reminder of one of the original four entrances to the city. Slovakian craft beer tasting and snacks including cheeses and sausages were a tasty end to a magnificent day tour.
Our final city of Budapest, Hungary was once cited as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. We were led on a tour to both the Buda and Pest sides of the river as it was not until 1873 that the independent cities of Buda and Pest were officially merged to become the city now known as Budapest. UNESCO World Heritage Sites offered splendid views from the historic Buda Castle, the fairytale-like Fisherman’s Bastion, and a panoramic tour of the Royal Palace, Saint Stephen’s Basilica, and Heroes Square.
AmaWaterways’ River Cruises then prepared us for our individual journeys back home. They contracted with a local Pharmacy company to come on board and administer a COVID-19 test, which is now required for entry back into the United States. All our ship’s guests’ tests came back negative, and we all cheered and lifted glasses of champagne to revel in our good fortune. The following morning, everyone on the ship had their COVID-19 certificates in hand and we were then driven to the Budapest International Airport for our flights home. Our plane took us through London Heathrow Airport, so we had also filled out online in advance the now required foreign passenger information form to enter the United Kingdom. Transiting through Budapest Airport was a breeze, the flight to London uneventful, and the connection was at the same terminal we landed in so proceeding to our next gate was easy. After our 10-hour flight back to Phoenix, we were exhausted but thrilled we had just sailed through one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
“To travel or not to travel is the question?” You must decide what is right for you as it is a personal choice. Traveling is the only thing that truly makes us rich. So, I plan to travel as far and as often as life will allow and that includes now in covid conditions when travel is not optimal but doable! In fact, while onboard AmaWaterways, Janet and I signed up for Europe’s 7 River Cruise for sailing in August 2023. This 46-day grand river experience will take 144 guests through 14 European countries and sail along the Seine River in France, the Saone and Rhone rivers, the Rhine, Moselle, and Main rivers from Basel and the Danube River from Vilshofen to Romania. Guests will receive a choice of more than 130 complimentary excursions plus new tours and exclusive experiences. If you are interested in joining Janet and I or interested in doing your own European river cruise, please don’t hesitate to contact Brando Quinn at Brando’s Fun N’ Sun Travel, 513 W Main Street, Safford, (928) 322-3271 or firstname.lastname@example.org, www.AvoyaTravel.com/IA/BrandoQuinn.
Note: Covid conditions and regulations are constantly changing. For up-to-date information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) go to https://www.cdc.gov/.
Brando Quinn is the Master Cruise Counselor for Brando’s Fun-N-Sun Travel/Avoya Travel affiliate based at 513 W. Main St., Safford, Arizona, (928) 322-3271.