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European Vacation – Day 3 – Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

On Sunday afternoon Tauck provided us with the options for our tour.  They sent it up like room service.  It was delivered by the hotel bellman along with a large Lindt 70% cacao chocolate bar.  Tauck offered two options.  Cancel the tour and go home.  They have a reimbursement schedule based on whether or not you booked your airfare through Tauck and had trip insurance.  We are aware of several couples that chose to depart.  The other option is to make the best of it.  The revised schedule uses buses for three days to see the sights instead of cruising on the riverboat.  However we will be staying on a riverboat as our hotel. But all is not lost.  The last two days of the trip we will be on the ms Inspire and we will cruise the Rhine River from Rudesheim to Düsseldorf and on to Amsterdam.  It is only the depth of the river east of Rudesheim that is too shallow.  Yes, we are continuing our European vacation.
After breakfast on Monday we hopped on the coach bus and drove one hour to Lake Como. Lake Como has been a vacation destination since Roman times.  Lake Como  is an upscale resort area known for its dramatic scenery, set against the foothills of the Alps. The lake is shaped like an upside-down Y, with three branches that meet at the resort town of Bellagio. At the bottom of the southwest branch lies the city of Como, home to Renaissance architecture. 
 
We took a ferry boat ride to Bellagio for shopping and sightseeing.
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After visiting Bellagio we took the ferry to the Locanda dell’Isola Comacina restaurant.  It is located on the only island on Lake Como.  The food is good homestyle cooking with huge portions and many courses. We did not leave hungry.
The waiter served cheese chunks from the end of a long sharp knife.
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The owner explained that many years ago a priest cursed the island and said anyone who tries to open a restaurant will experience a painful death. Several people tried to open a restaurant for many years and they all died painful deaths.  Then the current owner asked a priest how he could break the curse.   The priest advised that if a fiery drink was served with every meal no harm would come to him.  At the end of every meal the owner whips up a mixture of coffee, sugar and liquor to make a coffee flambé and serves it to each guest.
Benny the restaurant owner is serving coffee flambé so he will not die a violent death.
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We spent the afternoon cruising on Lake Como and viewing the many grand villas along the shoreline.  The actor George Clooney owns a villa on Lake Como.
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Priscilla found a nice seat with a view in Bellagio.  The hedge is trimmed to look like the back and sides of the bench.
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Bonus photo – we have only seen two types of vending machines in Italy.  One vending machine dispenses cigarettes and other vending machine dispenses snack size Pringles chips.
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 Tomorrow we depart Milan and take a  train ride through the Alps to Basael, Germany.

European Vacation – Day 2 – Plan B, C or D?

Tauck Cruise Lines hosted a cocktail reception and dinner at our hotel in Milan on Saturday night.   There were 138 attendees. These are our fellow travelers for our 11 day tour.  My goodness this is a lot of really old white people.  The Tauck staff introduced themselves.  The third speaker was the rookie Brian.  He has only been with Tauck for one year.  He started by saying “I have bad news and not much good news.”  Well that leaves a lot to interpretation.  He advised the Rhine River was so low that the riverboats could not move.  They were stuck in whatever port they last disembarked.  He continued by stating it was not safe to cruise when the water level is this low due to numerous unexploded WW II bombs that still litter the river bed.  Who could argue that logic.  The current plan is “there is no plan but we are working on it.”   It is most likely that we will take buses to various yet to be determined locations. The locations are undetermined because there are no hotel rooms available in the towns we had planned to visit.  Rest assured our crack staff is working overtime to come up with an alternate travel plan.  Enjoy your dinner and we will advise you of your options tomorrow.  Grumble, grumble could be heard throughout the room. Perhaps Brian could have waited until dessert to share the news so we could have at least enjoyed our dinner.

 

On Sunday we boarded the bus at 9:00 am for the short trip to the Duomo Square.  Tauck arranged a guided tour.  Technology has improved to the point that everyone gets a headset to listen to the tour guide.  You can wander off and still hear the exciting details of every blade of grass.  Our little group was 22 people and we toured area around the Duomo cathedral.  Our tour guide pointed out the golden statue on the top of the cathedral. She advised that during WWII the statue was covered with a wool blanket so it would not gleam in the sun and draw the attention of enemy bomber planes.

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The advantage of the headsets allowed Priscilla to take a seat and still hear the tour guide.

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The shopping mall has a glass ceiling and mosaic floor.  One of the mosaics is a coat of arms of a bull.  It is said if you spin around on the bulls balls you will have good luck.  Yes, I spun around.  Not surprising there is a divot where all the shoe heals have spun over the years.

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This coat of arms is a little creepy. It is a snake with the head of a dragon eating a child.

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Bicycles are a popular form of transportation in Milan.  The bicycle sharing program features electric assist bicycles. You can take a bicycle and return it to same location or drop it off at a different location.

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At 7:00 pm we boarded a bus and drove to the convent of Santa Maria Della Gracie to view the painting of the Last Supper.  Leonardo da Vinci spent three years painting this mural from 1595 until 1598.  One story goes that a Bishop from the monastery complained to Leonardo about the delay, enraging him. Leonardo wrote to the head of the monastery, explaining he had been struggling to find the perfect villainous face for Judas, and that if he could not find a face corresponding with what he had in mind, he would use the features of the Bishop who complained.
During WWII a bomb was dropped close enough to the painting that the east wall next to it collapsed. If you look closely at the center of the mural you will see the top of a door.  The monks installed a door into the wall under the mural and cut off Christ’s legs under the table.
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                            This is a door cut into the mural The Last Supper
We will soon learn our fate for the remainder of the trip.

European Vacation 2018 – the beginning

 

Our trip to Europe has started out quite nicely.  As we were walking along the international flight concourse at O’Hare airport on our way to the Swiss Air business class lounge, I spotted Larry Fisher.  Larry was the restaurant manager at the Waukegan Yacht Club for several years.  Now he is the executive chef for Swiss Air first class dining.  He invited us to enjoy the Swiss Air first class lounge.  Champagne to start.

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We have been planning our riverboat cruise on the Rhine River from Milan to Amsterdam for sixteen months.  Our friends Roy and Janice Cartlsten went on a Tauck riverboat cruise two years ago and recommended it highly. The Tauck Cruise is all inclusive including gratuities, excursions and beverages.  When Priscilla was diagnosed with cancer in September, 2017 we were not certain we would be able to go on this trip.  One year later, after two major surgeries and 12 rounds of chemotherapy, we are using this trip to celebrate her complete recovery as a cancer survivor.

We were able to bypass the maddening crowds at O’Hare airport international terminal 5 by flying business class. The coach class TSA lines were endless.  We are flying to Zurich with a connection to Milan.  We will stay at the Principe di Savoi hotel in Milan for a few days and then take a train through the Swiss Alps to our riverboat in Basael, Switzerland. While in Milan we will go on a city tour and enjoy a private viewing of the Last Supper by Leonardo di Vinci. We will also take a boat cruise on Lake Como.

Here is a view of the Swiss Alps from our airplane.

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Flying to Europe results in strange time changes.  With only an 8 hour flight it is difficult to get any sleep.  The main reason that it is hard to sleep is my body clock knows it is still early in Chicago.  We departed Chicago at 3:00 pm and arrived in Milan at 9:00 am.  The time in Chicago was 2:00 am.  Now I have to stay wake for 13 hours to assimilate into the European time zone.  Fortunately we cannot check into our hotel room until after 3:00 pm. As a result we are not be able to sneak a nap unless we do so on a park bench.

A miracle happened and we were assigned a room when we arrived at the Principe di Savoi hotel.  That must have had something to do with our Tauck tour group’s influence. There were numerous other travelers waiting for rooms prior to our arrival.

Our room at the Principe di Savoi hotel

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We have a city map of Milan with key tourists spots highlighted by the concierge.  We decided to explore the area around our hotel before the hotel shuttle takes us to the main tourist area.  We immediately identify an issue with our attempts at navigating Milan.  There are no signs with street names.  Intersection after intersection have no identifier.  If you walk further and look on the building facades you can find the street name as part of the address. Not easy to figure out where you are and where you are going.  The best we could determine was that we were at the corner of “walk and don’t walk.”

We took the hotel shuttle to the Piazza del Duomo which has a huge cathedral and did some sightseeing on our own.  The piazza is very crowded with both people and pigeons.  Several people held birdseed in their hands and were instantly covered with pigeons sitting on them trying to eat the birdseed.

Piazza del Duomo, Milan

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Priscilla is attracting the local pidgeons

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For dinner, our concierge recommended Solferino. The service and cuisine were a delight. The owner was very hands on in the operation of restaurant and we had an attentive waiter as well.  Most Italians do not tip the waitstaff and it is a modest amount if they tip at all. Westerners are expected to tip the full amount 15 – 20% and our waiter left no doubt about his expectation.  The exchange rate is USD 1.25 / 1 euro.

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On Saturday morning we went to breakfast at the hotel.  While standing in line for seating the couple behind us asked if we were going on the Tauck cruise.  We introduced ourselves as John and Priscilla from Chicago and they are Peggy and Dale from Seattle.

The cruise line advised us of a slight change in plans.  Due to low water levels in the Rhine River, there is a shallow spot ( thin water ) near Rudesheim that will require us to change riverboats.  We start our cruise on the ms Grace and transfer to the ms Inspire at Rudesheim.  The cruise line advises they intend to include 100% of all activities and sightseeing despite this minor inconvenience.  We overhead a couple at the Zurich airport mention their cruise was partially cancelled and half of the travel will be by bus and not by riverboat.  There is no rain in the forecast which is both good and bad.

Saturday was spent riding the On / Off bus around Milan.

Statue of Leaonardo da Vinci – his famous painting The Last Supper is in Milan, Italy.

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Tomorrow the official Tauck tour begins.