Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've been wanting to visit Montreal for a long time and finally did last month when I attended the Rotary International Conference. At last I got the opportunity to practice my French without going to France! Given my passion for cruising, it's unusual that I would stay in a hotel for more than a few days at a time, but my weeklong stay at the Marriott Chateau Champlain was very nice. It was very well located downtown (Centre Ville) as I could easily walk to Vieux-Montreal, the charming old section of town and to the Rotary conference events at the Palais des Congrès and Centre Bell.

During our first day there, Steve and I walked around Vieux-Montreal and had lunch at a sidewalk cafe on the Place Jacques-Cartier. The food wasn't great but the ambience was unbeatable for people watching and enjoying the street musicians. I didn't know what to expect in Montreal as I had heard that the Québécois could be downright snooty towards Americans. But I can now honestly tell you that this is dated information as Steve and I felt warmly welcomed wherever we went in Montreal. As long as you stay in areas frequented by tourists you don't need to worry about speaking French. Go 30 miles east however and it's a different story. Although I didn't need to speak French, I practiced it at every opportunity and as long as the Québécois slowed it down a little, I could understand much of what was being said.

I was pleasantly surprised when people approached me to ask a question in French and I was thrilled when I could actually answer in French. Perhaps I fit in better in Montreal than I do in Europe; when people approach me anywhere in Europe they always speak English so I figured I must just look like a typical American tourist.

At long last I saw Cirque du Soleil -- in their birthplace no less! Cirque du Soleil got started in Montreal in 1984 with a group of 20 performers and now has over 1,000 artists who perform all over the world. The show that we saw was called Totem, which traces the fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. I was amazed at the dazzling costumes and awestruck by the sheer talent of the performers. My two favorite acts involved a man and woman who came about as close to making love on a trapeze as two people could in front of a large crowd and the five Chinese ladies on unicycles who juggled metal bowls with their feet and caught them on their head. I wondered how they managed to learn this trick.

The next day Steve and I boarded "le bateau mouche" to catch a view of Montreal from the St. Lawrence River. Although the literal translation of "bateau mouche" is fly boat, the name comes from the fact that they were originally manufactured in boatyards situated in the Mouche area of Lyon. Do you suppose this area was known for its flies? It is an open excursion boat that offers a great view of the surroundings. We sat on the top deck, had a tasty lunch and enjoyed the company of a couple who was from a town on the other side of the Pont Jacques-Cartier. Although we passed the Iberville Passenger Terminal, there were no cruise ships docked.

For the next few days, Steve explored more of Montreal while I attended the Rotary International Conference with 17,341 other Rotarians from all over the world. When he welcomed us, Gérald Tremblay, the mayor of Montreal said that the Rotary conference was the most important gathering in Montreal's history. The conference was not only inspiring but entertaining as well. It was wonderful to hear Greg Mortenson, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Central Asia Institute and author of Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace....One School at a Time, talk about his success in building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I enjoyed Dolly Parton, whose Imagination Library has distributed 25 million books to children in need. She is a very personable and funny lady who doesn't know how long it takes to do her hair in the morning because she is never there.

On our last night in Montreal, Steve and I had some of the best Chilean Sea Bass we've ever tasted at the Firegrill Restaurant & Bar on Stanley Street. Up to that point, I had been somewhat disappointed in our meals in Montreal -- they weren't bad but they weren't great either. The portion was generous and the fish was moist and delicious.

More photos of Montreal

Friday, July 2, 2010

On to Frankfurt - Our Last Port on the River Empress

I don't know what was more interesting -- Frankfurt or cruising to Frankfurt. The distance from Mainz to Frankfurt is only about 20 miles but in order to get there, we traversed at least three locks. We were told that the River Empress has an appointed time at which to enter these locks and if the boat misses its appointment, it could be waiting a long time until there is a break in the traffic. And one thing I did notice while cruising up the Rhine and Main rivers is that there is a lot of traffic -- both passenger ships and vessels carrying freight. It's not a good thing if a river cruise ship captain is late for his or her appointment at the lock because passengers wouldn't be happy if their time in port was curtailed because they were cooling their heels waiting to get through a lock.

Our included shore excursion was a bus tour of Frankfurt but quite frankly, the traffic was so heavy in the city that all we managed to do in the bus was to circle the same blocks a few times. I was relieved when we were finally released from the bus to do some walking on our own. Although it was raining most of the day, I had an umbrella (every stateroom on the River Empress comes with an umbrella that is large enough for two) and enjoyed people watching and window shopping.

It was especially fun to see the beer bike go by; forget the bus tour, the next time I'm taking a city tour on the beer bike! The beer bike has an official "driver" who doesn't drink and steers the bike. The "passengers" are free to drink but they all must pedal if they want to get anywhere. I think this is great because it would allow me to drink while working it off. Fantastic idea! I wonder if it would fly in Seattle.

Unfortunately, the next day marked the end of our river cruise and we had to fly home. I don't look forward to disembarkation because it can be an absolute mad house with people flopped over their luggage in all the ship's public areas while waiting to disembark. But disembarkation was remarkably easy on the River Empress. We didn't even have to put our luggage outside our stateroom the night before; we were given a designated time in the morning to put our luggage outside our stateroom and it was immediately picked up and delivered to our motorcoach. Now if I could just beam myself back to Seattle rather than sitting in an aluminum tube for 10+ hours.....

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mainz and Gutenberg

After our glorious tour of the castles, we arrived in Mainz, which is situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers. It is a picturesque little town best known for its most famous son, Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the movable-type printing press in 1456.

Even though it was Good Friday and everything was closed the Gutenberg Museum opened especially for us; the passengers on Uniworld Empress received an exclusive guided tour. Needless to say, we felt special. The two high points of the tour were watching our guide demonstrate how Gutenberg's printing press functioned and viewing the Gutenberg Bibles. Steve managed to take a few photos of the Bibles until the guide told him to stop.

One of the most interesting things I remember about Mainz (and Cologne, too), is that these two cities celebrate Carnival from November 11 until Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I couldn't believe that Carnival would actually go on for months. I spent my 20th birthday in Rio de Janeiro many years ago and I know the Brazilians are big party animals, but the Germans? I thought they were too concerned about efficiency to be indulging in months-long parties. So much for stereotypes! (And this was just one of the many things I learned during our river cruise). Our guide told us that it was important to belong to a Carnival Club if you live in Mainz.

Even though the shops weren't open due to the Good Friday holiday, we had a good time wandering through the charming streets of Mainz.

More pictures of Mainz