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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Princess Cruise Excursion to Normandy and a Day at Sea

Wednesday, September 9th, Day 7

I woke up at 5:00 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. At about 5:30 am I decided I was just wasting time so got up and showered. I was probably too excited about leaving early for our trip to Normandy, France.

As we left the port, the sun was rising this absolutely gorgeous shade of red and I would have taken a picture of it, but the part of the port of LaHavre we were docked in is not very pretty so the sun was rising over transport containers in the dock yard, which is definitely not the prettiest of settings for a sunrise.

We headed out through LaHavre to the beaches of Normandy as that is our excursion for today. On the way, we went over a really extraordinary bridge over the Seine River. To our right was the mouth of the Seine where it joined the sea, and to the left was the Seine River flowing toward Paris. At the mouth of the Seine we went by a town called, “Honfleur” which is where a group of explorers left from France and settled in Canada. I felt a real connection to that town because I am part French Canadian on my dad’s side and it was really exciting to see where my French ancestors came from.

I have to say I was not looking forward to this excursion but on our last transatlantic cruise, I promised Chuck that if he took me to Paris,(which he did) I would go with him to the beaches of Normandy on our next cruise in the area, so here we are. I didn’t want to go because I thought it was really going to be incredibly sad. But for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, most of the men I know are really intrigued with war, especially World War II, and Chuck is included in that group so we were on our way. It was a 2 ½ hour bus ride. The guide was quite interesting, although he was originally from Australia. I was disappointed that he was not a native of France. We passed a lot of fields with cows, sheep and horses. The terrain in France is mostly fields with some hills, but not high hills. More like slopes with lots of green grass. We saw a lot of hedgerows, although the guide, Geoffrey said that 70% of the hedgerows in France have been taken out. There are no forests in France so what people did was to make rows of earth that are about 3 to 4 feet high. They planted trees in rows on top of these mounds, and used them as living forests. Not only did they serve to delineate fields for farmers, but each year branches would be sawed off and used for firewood, and every 10 years, the trees would be chopped down to make lumber to build things, with more trees being planted to replace them. During WWII, the Allies lost a lot of men when tanks would try to go over the hedgerows and expose the bellies of the tank as it was going up the hedgerow, and the Germans would shoot into the belly of the tank which was the most vulnerable part, and blow the tank up. Within a few weeks of breaking into France, the Allies came up with a way to prevent that from happening by using metal spikes to attach to the front of the tanks that would act as teeth and dig into the hedgerows, and pulling the tanks through without exposing the bellies. Geoffrey also pointed out many apple orchards in this area of Normandy which are used to make apple cider and apple brandy. We stopped at a rest area which had a bakery and coffee shop and shared a croissant which was absolutely delicious. It was moist, light and flaky and pulled apart easily, which is exactly what you would think a pastry from France should be.

Our first stop of the tour was at Point du Hoc. When you get off the buses you follow a path down toward the cliffs. On the way is a series of plaques with pictures of some of the rangers who were the first to climb the cliffs and take fight the Germans. The plaques honor those men who died either on the beach, or within 24 hours after they made it to the top. It was quite sad to see their faces.

Past that, the path leads to the top of the cliffs. All around were grassy fields and it was odd to imagine that this is what those men saw when they climbed up the cliffs. Although on that day, they probably couldn’t see much due to smoke and exploding ammunition. There were still huge craters on the earth, now filled with grass and some wildflowers, where the Allies had been trying to fire at and explode German cannons and gun arsenals. I thought it fitting that the wildflowers are growing in such a place of destruction and death. It seemed a fitting tribute to our men who gave their lives at this place. I have seen enough movies about WWII that I could imagine the sounds of gunfire and explosions all around me. I also imagined seeing US soldiers falling down dead and hurt all around me through smoke and a gray sky and tears sprung into my eyes. I felt no sympathy for the Germans who also died that day. They were fighting for something so evil, I find it hard to find sympathy for them. Here are a few pictures of those craters.

We wandered around in that field for awhile, and were able to go down inside a German gun embankment, where rooms had been built underground to house German soldiers and a lookout area was built in the concrete structure to look out to sea. In front of that was a fenced off area but we could go to the edge of it and see the cliffs the rangers climbed up after they landed on the beaches of Normandy that day. It is really as sheer and straight up as the movies portray. Some had grappling hooks to help them climb up.

After that somber experience, we went to Omaha beach, which is an open area where the ships came in. There is a monument there with flags flying in front of it from each of the Allied countries. I went down to the water and walked around the beach and touched the ground. I needed to walk where these brave men walked, and to touch the ground they walked on to defend freedom. I could only get 1/2 of the flags in the picture.Here's also a picture of Chuck in front of the monument on the beach which symbolizes wings and freedom.

After this we were supposed to go to the American cemetery. I am sure you have seen pictures of all the white marble crosses that overlook the sea. Unfortunately, pictures are all we will have of this site as well because the cemetery was closed due to a loss of electrical power there. No one could quite figure out what electrical power has to do with a cemetery, but we were denied access. Everyone on the bus was quite disappointed.

I want to mention here that at this point I was quite sad. This trip is very moving but not easy to someone who is sensitive to the suffering of others. I would have much preferred to get out and take pictures of all the beautiful old stone farmhouses we were passing in the French countryside. By noon I had had enough about death and destruction. Here is a picture I took from the bus of the narrow streets we were driving through on the way to various beaches. They were very quaint.

Since we were not able to go to the cemetery, we went to lunch earlier than planned. Lunch was held at a very pretty country club surrounded by a golf course. We sat down to beautiful table settings on white tablecloths. We had a choice of French Rose wine, or a Merlot. Each setting had 2 wine glasses. The first course was a wonderful salad with a piece of French bread. On the side of the salad plate were 4 round slices of cheese which were delicious and very rich tasting. The main course was chicken, a solid potato patty, and a baked tomato. Dessert was a custard type of patty that tasted as though it had pineapple in it. All in all, it was delicious taste of French cuisine.

Back on the bus, we headed to Gold Beach, and then another area above Gold Beach where there were still German guns present in the embankments. Our guide said he didn’t know why they had been left there because after the war, metal was hard to come by and almost anything the French could get their hands on was melted down. It was so peaceful up above the ocean, it was hard to imagine Germans being there and looking out to the sea, within walking distance to French houses. It must have been so hard for the people of that village to have the Germans occupying their land. Chuck is the man in the blue striped shirt in front of the cannon.

The last stop of the day was in the village of Arromanches. This was where the D-Day museum is located. On the way into the village, many of the stone walls and sides of homes had large pictures of the Americans coming into the village as heroes and the townspeople greeting them with enthusiasm. I truly don’t understand why the French seem to dislike Americans so much today when we helped set them free from the Germans 70 years ago. I should have asked the guide about that.

The town itself centers around the D-Day museum. There are lots of gift shops and the museum itself, all set along the beachfront area. The museum is small and old, and with a few bus tours in there all at once, very crowded. There are lots of models of the beaches and surround areas. There are examples of uniforms and helmets worn, and guns, canons, etc. that were used in the war. One whole wall is full of portraits of the generals and important Allied political people such as Winston Churchill, Franking D. Roosevelt, and generals I have never heard of but were important. The museum also offered a diorama of the floating harbor built in England and transported to this beach because the Allies were unable to capture any of the harbors the Germans held, so they designed their own and brought it over. That was actually really interesting and quite ingenious of them to do. You can still see some of this floating harbor in the water. The museum offered a 20 minute movie which everyone raved about on the ship since many of them had already been to Normandy. I was disappointed because it was a black and white movie, probably done in the 1940s and it wasn’t about the storming of the Normandy beaches, but all about the floating harbor only. After the movie we had 30 minutes of free time. I wandered around and took some pictures, mostly of the village, since I didn’t get many pictures of France today, only war related items. Chuck and I then met up and went in one store and bought a book about the Normandy Beach landings.

Then it was back on the bus for another 2 ½ hour bus ride back to the ship. We were tired after this day so just ate in the Horizon buffet and enjoyed our meal. We went back to the room, read a little and headed to bed.

Thursday, September 10th, Day 8

Today is the first day I woke up at a normal time. We went to bed at 11:15 pm and I woke up at 8:00 am. I hope I am adjusted to the change in times now because I am tired of feeling tired. We had another wonderful breakfast at the Horizon Court buffet area and came back to the room. At 11:15 Chuck went to a port lecture about the port of Lisbon, Portugal while I went to a Ladies’ Pamper Party put on by the spa staff here on board. I would have gone with Chuck but we had already booked our excursion for Lisbon and I thought it would be fun to do something different. Basically the Pamper Party consisted of the spa staff demonstrating the spa products such as make up remover, toner and moisturizer, and then letting us use them as a group by ourselves. We also tried a teeth whitener, and a “California Sun glow” product that they put on us and is really a bronzer. We did our regular routine after that, which included lunch, a movie and a nap in the room. I watched the movie, “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon. After a workout, we got ready for the first formal night of the cruise. I was excited that as I was waiting for Chuck to get ready for breakfast I went out on the balcony of our room and saw dolphins off the side of the ship. For those of you who have read my cruise blogs before, you may remember how happy these sightings make me. And since I have seen dolphins in the wild in their natural habitats, I have no interest in ever going to an aquarium again. There were about 12 of them, leaping over the water next to the ship. It’s is truly an amazing sight to see.

We headed downstairs to the atrium area in time for the champagne fountain to start. The waiters came around and offered everyone champagne or mimosas and the champagne began flowing into a pyramid of champagne glasses. At 7:45 the captain came out and introduced himself and his main staff. The staff passed out chocolate lollipops to celebrate Princess Cruise Lines 50th anniversary!Here is Chuck all dressed up for formal night with his lollipop!

We then went to dinner in the Symphony dining room. Chuck had salmon and I had beef which of course was delicious. After dinner, we went to a show by the Princess Theater singers and dancers titled, “Colours of the World.” The troupe sang a series of songs from different countries and it lasted about 45 minutes. It was quite colorful and there were 4 main singers, 2 guys and 2 girls, and a troupe of about 12 dancers.

After a relaxing yet eventful day at sea, we headed to bed to rest up for our day tomorrow in Vigo, Spain.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The First 3 Cruise Days: Amsterdam & Rotterdam

Sunday, September 6th

Today is the day we are getting on our beautiful ship. And even though we have been on this ship, The Royal Princess, 18 months ago on our last cruise, we are still excited to be getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. One of the things that we love about cruising is the chance to get away from work phone calls and emails and just gives us a chance to relax.

This morning we had another delicious breakfast at the Novatel hotel and then got ready to head to the ship. A 10 minute taxi ride and we were there. We were extremely surprised and thrilled that the check in process went so quickly and easily. We were dropped off at the pier at noon, done with security at 12:15 and walking onto the ship at 12:20 pm. It really pays to be a repeat customer with Princess cruises as we had priority check in. Fortunately we got there when we did because I heard other passengers talking about getting to the pier at 1:30 pm and having had to stand in a very long line due to a fire alarm. We were able to go straight to our rooms and after dropping off our carry-on luggage we headed to the Horizon Court for lunch.

There weren’t too many people on board yet so there were lots of tables with window views. I was trying to be good so had a huge salad and Chuck had a sandwich. The goal is to not gain too much weight during this 15 day cruise, BUT with all the delicious choices in front of us, it is always hard to not gain at least a little bit of weight on a cruise.

Above is a picture of our mini-suite on the Royal Princess cruise ship. Our steward in charge of our room came and introduced himself to us. His name is Gabriel and he is from Romania. He brought us each a complimentary glass of champagne which is customary for mini-suite customers and above. We are still trying to get used to the time change so we took a nap, and wok up in time to go to the mandatory safety drill where everyone is instructed on how to use the life jackets. After the safety drill we headed up to the top deck for the sail-away party. Usually Princess Cruise lines does this up and a lot of the entertainment crew get people up and dancing and there are prize drawings. We were surprised that none of this was going on. There was a band, and there were waiters taking orders for drinks, only a few couples were dancing and there were no prizes or staff anywhere to be found. There are a lot of older people on the ship and we thought that may be why they didn’t really push a dance party. In fact, I have only seen one child so far, and she was eating with a woman and a male crew member so she is probably related to him. Here’s a cruise tip for you: If you don’t want a bunch of kids on your cruise, make sure to go when the kids are in school! We found a couple of lounge chairs and toasted our cruise with a glass of wine and enjoyed relaxing in the sunshine as it had been in the high fifties since we got to Southampton and today was the first day we actually saw sunshine, although it was still in the low sixties.

After the sail-away party, Chuck went to the work out center to do a work out and I went to the outside deck at the top of the ship to walk on the walking track. I loved walking here during our last cruise because it is really high up and I always brought my camera and got some beautiful pictures from up there. I walked a mile and then used a few of the arm and leg exercise equipment that they have around the walking/jogging track and went down to meet Chuck to get ready for dinner.

We were still tired from the time change so rather than get all dressed up for dinner, we stayed in our jeans and went back to the Horizon Court buffet and had our choice of delicious foods to eat. Chuck had prime rib that he loved and I had some delicious bow tie pasta. And we both enjoyed the mashed potatoes with gravy. My favorite dessert on this shop last time was the peanut butter cookies and they did not disappoint!

After some relaxing back in the room, and reading our, “Princess Patter” the daily schedule the Princess puts out each night with the following day’s activities, we called it a night. We are excited to head into Amsterdam tomorrow. But before we go to sleep we have to set our clocks ahead one hour because we are losing another hour between Southampton, England, Amsterdam, Holland.

Monday, Sept. 7th Day 5

We had a good night’s rest last night, except I guess I am not adjusted to the time change and woke up at 6:00 am. and went to breakfast. I had a little bit of a variety of foods for breakfast including oatmeal, yogurt with a raspberry swirl, watermelon, a pear, banana bread, pumpernickel bread spread with raspberry jam, and grilled hash browns. There are so many different choices of foods here on the ship it is hard to just choose 1 or 2 things for breakfast. We spent the morning sailing up a channel to get into the port of Rotterdam. It took a few hours to get there and we saw a lot of industrialization along the way. There were a lot of wind turbines along the canal for power. We also saw many tall apartment complexes with a walking/biking path all along the canal. Many people waved and took pictures of the ship as we passed. I was surprised by all the groups of swans we saw along the way. They were beautiful and I am sure I saw at least 60 in small groups of 4 to 12 as we sat at breakfast.

We checked out the ship’s stores for fun, and headed back to the room. Chuck watched a bit of TV while I went and found the ship’s laundry room. One of the nice things about Princess Cruise lines is they let you do your own washing and ironing with a laundry room on every floor. A lot of my shirts had gotten wrinkled along the way so I got them all ironed this morning while talking to a very nice older couple from…wait for it: Atlanta, Georgia! Funny to have crossed the ocean to England only to meet some people who live an hour away from us on this ship.

We docked next to the Erasmus Bridge (above with the sea walk on the ship showing to the above right) which is pretty impressive from an engineering point of view! At 1:00 pm we met with a bunch of other people in one of the ship’s dining rooms to get ready to board buses for the drive in to Amsterdam. The drive in took 90 minutes. We tend to enjoy the types of cruise excursions where we are bused somewhere because we can just sit back and relax and enjoy the scenery while the tour guide tells us what we are seeing out the windows. We find it much easier than renting a car on our own and trying to figure out where we are going on our own. We passed many fields of cows, horses and sheep on the way in. We also passed a lot of windmills and large wind turbines and I did my best to get a picture of them as we passed.

Once in Amsterdam, we got dropped off near the central train station. This is a part of Amsterdam we have never been to before, even though Chuck has been three times and I have been twice. I had made a list of things I thought would be interesting to see depending on where we got dropped off. The guide was very good about helping everyone figure out how to get where they wanted to go, and within 20 minutes we had arrived on foot at the Amsterdam Museum. I thought it was fitting that as we followed the guide to the Dam Square where he was going to give us directions to a museum, some young guys got in between us and the guide as we walked along the sidewalk, and they reeked of pot. What’s a trip to Amsterdam without a whiff of pot to remind visitors of the laid back attitude of the people of Amsterdam?

The Amsterdam Museum has an interactive exhibit which seemed to take a long time because you had to wait your turn and pass a special code on front of a machine in order to hear the automated description at each station about the history of Amsterdam. I was much more interested in the permanent exhibit of paintings and art so was happier when we got to that. There are many paintings by Dutch artists of 16th through 18th centuries, but my favorite one by anyone recognizable was part of a painting by Rembrandt called, ”The Anatomy Lesson.” In Rembrandt’s time, once a year doctors would have this special day when they would actually use a cadaver to teach their patients about the human body and Rembrandt painted a scene from this day. The human body they used belonged to a deceased criminal. The original Rembrandt painting was actually destroyed by a fire, and so all that remains is a much smaller portion, but it is of a physician’s assistant’s hands holding the scalp of the cadaver, with the brain exposed. Holy cow, I couldn’t believe Rembrandt had painted that so I had to take a picture.

After the museum, we were pretty hungry since we hadn’t eaten lunch so headed out to find a restaurant with traditional Dutch food. I also wanted a Heineken because although I don’t drink much beer, I had really enjoyed Heineken on draft when we were in Amsterdam a few years ago. We stopped at a place that looked good and traditional but after we ordered our Heinekens we realized it was just a bar with no food. It was really a quaint place though with real blue and white painted tiles on the walls and wooden booths. The date outside the building said 1869. We asked the bar tender where we could get some authentic Dutch food and he sent us to a place down the street that was absolutely perfect. The name of the restaurant is, “Restaurant Haesje Claes.” This is pronounced “Haajee KlaJee.” The building dates from the mid-1600s and was wonderful inside with lots of beams and dark wood. Chuck had been wanting some traditional Dutch pea soup that we had had on a previous trip. They served it with a side of rye bread and a slab of meat, and it was just as good as he remembered it. He also had a very thin beef, cheese and greens plate that he said was wonderful. I had beef stew which was a slab of extremely tender beef served over mashed potatoes with a beef gravy, sweet cabbage and applesauce were also served on the side.

I love Amsterdam so took as many pictures as I could on the walk back to the bus. There’s just something about the beautiful old houses all crammed together along the canals that just speaks to me.

After our bus ride back, we headed up to the food court as we had not had time for dessert at the Dutch restaurant. They have tea and coffee and iced tea that guests can help themselves to so I had two cups of orange spice herbal tea, 2 peanut butter cookies, and a few bites of angel food cake with vanilla sauce and whipped cream. It was all delicious. Chuck was able to get some vanilla soft serve ice cream that was a favorite treat of his on this ship. He said it was as good as he remembered it to be. Something tells me we are going to gain a few pounds on this cruise!Tomorrow we are going into the city of Rotterdam.

Tuesday, September 8th, Day 6

Today we didn’t have to get up early because we were just going to take a free shuttle into the city of Rotterdam. We ate breakfast (my favorite items are now Rye bread and banana bread spread with raspberry jam) and headed off the ship at about 9:30 am. We had to wait in a very long line to catch the shuttle bus, but spent the time talking with 2 women who are very experienced cruisers and have traveled all over the world. I think they were retired but I honestly don’t know how they have the money to cruise as often as they have. Once we caught the city bus shuttle, which was provided to the Princess cruise passengers as a courtesy of the city of Rotterdam, we were dropped off at the city market. This is an amazing place, divided into 2 parts: the first part of the market is housed in a HUGE dome shaped building with a glass window on the front and back that is almost as large as the building itself. Inside of this dome is almost any kind of food being sold that you can imagine. There are stalls for meat, candy, spices, a bakery with amazing looking cookies, doughnuts and pastries, coffee, fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, etc. Downstairs is a wine shop, a grocery store and rest rooms which cost 70 euros to use (about 85 cents American money). Outside of this building is the outdoor market which consists of rows and rows of goods being sold. Some of the items are food like fish and produce but there were also stalls with clothing, shoes, electronics, sheets, coats, and hot foods for lunch. All of this is right in the middle of the city with lots of modern buildings all around. Most of the town of Rotterdam was leveled with bombing during the second world war and they had to rebuild it all over again so chose modern architecture. There is an old harbor area that got the least amount of damage and I would have loved to have gone there but we didn’t have time. We only spent a little more than an hour at the market then had to get back on the ship. We ate lunch and watched the shop leave the dock and head back down the channel we had just come up the day before.

After lunch I did laundry which is a whole crazy experience. Each floor on Princess Cruise ships have a laundromat, with at least 2 washers and 2 dryers, but lots of people want to use them so you sometimes have to wait awhile. I wandered around the ship with our small bag of laundry and finally found an empty washer one floor up and on the other side. We used to have to use quarters for the machines but now you buy tokens and they charge it to your stateroom. It’s $3.00 to wash and $3.00 to dry a load of clothes. Good thing we brought Tide packets and dryer sheets from home or it would have cost even more. If you go on a Princess cruise, definitely bring laundry soap and dryer sheets from home.

We are still tired from the time change and our busy day in Amsterdam so we took a nap and Chuck worked out while I used the walking track. We went to dinner around 7:45 and we had to wait for a table because we chose anytime dining, but the wait was only 20 minutes. I had a crab and artichoke dip served with toast points, a Caesar salad, a pasta dish with oxtail gravy, and chocolate mousse cake with ice cream. The ice cream was butter pecan and was delicious. Chuck had shrimp cocktail, a tossed salad, smoked pork roast with a potato patty and carrots and the butter ocean ice cream for dessert. It was good and our waiter in the main Symphony dining room was excellent.

Although there was a show, I felt like I could fall asleep at dinner so I was ready for bed at 10:15 pm and fell right to sleep. I hope we adjust to this time change soon. Between the time change, my body waking up early, and exploring ports every day, I am still very tired.