How a River Boat Changed My Mind About Cruises

My two experiences on cruises were enough to have me docked on dry land forever: at 9, we braved the Big Red Boat’s Disney cruise, where I was too old for the kiddie activities and too obnoxious to hang with my parents near the pool; seven years later, I became the babysitter to all of my younger cousins while everyone else spent the night at the disco.

My dad had been looking into river cruises since I’d announced I was moving back to Europe, gathering information on routes and rivers, sharing tips on saving money for a cruise and mapping out a time when all four of us would have overlapping vacation time. I kicked and screamed digitally, instead convincing them to do Ireland, Northern Spain and even Morocco.

how a

An itinerary for the so-called Danube Waltz popped up in my inbox two years ago, announcing that my parents would be meeting me in Munich for eight days of river cruising past castles, vineyards and quaint villages stuck in time along Europe’s most fabled river. I lost out and continued digitally screaming and kicking as the countdown to our trip ticked from months into weeks.

I was skeptical, having become more jaded about travel and packaged tours, and cruises had seemed like a cop out for people who couldn’t be bothered planning their own vacation. But I hadn’t seen my family in a year and was eager to visit Vienna again and experience Budapest in the wintertime. 

Viking Magni Ship

A few months later, I picked my parents up at Franz Joseph Strauβ and set off for Passau, the City on Three Rivers. It was Christmas Eve and we’d missed the markets, several shops and bars were still open so we could stretch our legs before setting off.

A Luxury Experience at a 2-1 Deal

The company runs amazing deals, offering two-for-one cabin rates and airfares. Sure, it’s pricey when you add it all up, but the devil was in the details. A state-of-the-art longboat, comfortable and stylish cabins (even our double in steerage!) and a fleet of friendly staff sets the company apart.

viking state rooms

Oh, and they spend THREE TIMES the money on food per passenger than the average ocean liner! Between free local beers and wines, incredible bar snacks (and a barkeep who just handed us an entire bag of them when he saw us on approach) and regional dishes on every mealtime menu, we practically rolled down the gangway each morning at port.

Customer service was also willing to discount my airfare from Spain and still honor the two-for-one discount – a gold star in my book.

Breaking the Cruise Rules

Two of my biggest issues with cruises are the schedules and the forced sense of community that entertainment directors try to create. Choosing a river cruise meant far less people aboard and more interaction between my family and the staff.

Each afternoon before dinner, we had a briefing on the next day’s city and entertainment of some sort, but that was it. Dinner tables were not assigned and there were no required meetings – instead, a schedule, optional activities and language guide was left on our beds by housekeeping each morning. My sister and I spent plenty of time catching up in our state room over local beers and a barrage of movies available on our TV when at see, or my dad and I sat on the upper deck, bundled up, to watch the castles perched atop cliffs float by.

Cruising on the Danube

Melk Abbey

I’d long thought that these sorts of cruises, which feature older people in their publicity, were for the AARP crowd, but we had about a dozen of us between 18 and 30. No disco, casino or gift shop aboard – these spaces were filled with elegant viewing decks, a library full of books in several languages and larger rooms for passengers.

History, not just Beaches and Booze

My travel style has evolved greatly over the past few years – I went from ticking places off a never-ending list to focusing on more local and meaningful travel – and immersion is important to me. I spend my euros on visiting cities and not beaches, which is one of the reasons that cruising has never appealed to me much.

Being Christmastime in Europe, we packed long underwear and thermal shirts rather than sunscreen, so we were already on the right track.

alleyways in Vienna Austria

munich christmas market gluhwein

Vienna at nightfall

The cruise company’s curated activities included making gingerbread in Passau, visiting home stays outside Bratislava and wine tasting near Dürnstein. We’d take advantage of morning tours with guides over walkie talkies and then meander until we found a place for lunch and a beer. Afternoons once we’d lifted the anchor meant food demonstrations, lectures on composers and local lore, or even optional tours of monuments. 

Local Guides and no Required Activities

The company uses local guides – we had a university lecturer guide us past Rococco buildings in Passau, a grade school teacher and life-long resident of Bratislava recount stories of a Communist upbringing and our cruise director himself gave us tips for his favorites cafés and food markets in Budapest. Even with just a few hours in the cities we visited, we skipped over the glossy tourist spots and went straight to the heart of a city.

christmas market in Salzburg Austria

Plus, we were given 100% freedom to take the tours or not, and those we did take were done via Whisperbox. No annoying umbrellas, recited monologues or enormous groups – and in each port-of-call, we found ourselves with different families. We skipped Vienna’s bus tour to see the Spanish Horse Riding School and have lunch with my cousin and passed on a guided tour of Salzburg’s city center in favor of the merry Christmas market adjacent the cathedral.

Family in Budapest

Our trip through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary (uh, and then my jaunt in Romania) felt like a perfectly planned vacation that we didn’t have to actually plan ourselves that still left room for us to make the trip our own. The pace, comfort and customer service was unbeatable.

While in Chicago this summer, I flipped through the 2016 promotional brochure, which announced open seas trips to Scandanavia. Maybe it’s time to start considering cruising vacations.

Have you ever done a river cruise? What were your impressions, and where did you go?

Is Neuschwanstein Castle Worth It?

Sometimes, as a traveler, I struggle with taking the road less traveled and getting off the beaten path. I also struggle with not using idioms because I not-so-secretly love them.

Anyway, I am the first to admit that I love what everyone else does. Duh, that’s how they get popular in the first place.

Munich has always been a city in the back of my mind to see, just as Spain was since I first learned to say, “Me llamo Cat.” After attending Oktoberfest, I was hooked. Taking advantage of having my family’s arrival to the Munich Airport for our Viking cruise, I planned three nights in Bavaria.

I knew I could see Munich in a day, exploring its Christmas markets and beer halls with my cousin, which left me a full day for going elsewhere. Top contenders were Dachau, Nuremburg and Neuschwanstein Castle.

By the time I boarded my flight, I was still undecided and started considering whatever was cheaper. 

I arrived to my hostel after midnight, falling asleep with the internal wrestle of to do what was popular and what was probably better for the history nerd in me. The following morning, as I set off to meet Christyn, a group of Brazilians introduced themselves and revealed they’d be renting a car to drive to Neuschwanstein the following morning, in case I felt like joining. I politely turned the invitation down, imagining I’d choose to go to Dachau.

An hour later, as we sipped our first glühwein in front of the Rathaus, I announced my plight: visit a castle, pay respects at Dachau, or nerd out in Nuremburg. Christyn revealed Neuschwanstein was one of her favorite sites in all of Germany (this, from the girl with just as much adventure and curiosity as me, just types “schloss” into her GPS and follows the highway to a different castle on free weekends). Without so much as a second thought, I resolved to follow her advice.

The following morning, I boarded the first train out to Füssen, the end of the line. The train was chock-full of tourists, and I cursed the 44€ train ticket and the two-hour trip and the two girls seated opposite me who talked on their phones the entire time. I was moderately hung over from all of the wine and beer yesterday, and my stomach churned from overdoing it on the sausages, too. 

The landscape went from industrial to flat and without so much as a trace of a village for hours. By the time we got to Füssen, a small town near the foothills of the Alps, I’d gotten over myself. Like cattle, everyone emptied out of the carriages and directly onto the bus bound for Hohenschwangan. I kept my nose pressed to the glass to see the fairytale castle that inspired a hundred, um, fairytale castles, but the swarm of fellow tourists gasped as it came into sight. 

Built as a retreat for Ludwig II in the 1870s and 1880s, the castle is visited by more than 1.4 million people each year. On a crisp day just before Christmas, the whole place was alive with activity, and I felt like there were 1.4million people there with me. I chose to walk on foot to the nearby Hohenschwangau castle first.

I overheard two other tourists claim that the best, unconstructive view of Neuschwanstein could be seen from the chapel built right into the mountain. I eagerly climbed, Camarón ready, but it was hard to see the celebrated castle. 

Already feeling a bit disappointed with German Disneyland, I decided to forgo entering the castle, as I already felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists, the wait time (nearly two hours!) and the cost of the guided tour (12€ or 23€ to go into Hohenschwangau, too). The train ticket had already cleaned me out of cash, so I grabbed a grabbed a glühwein at a small cafe in town before starting the trek up the hill.

The thing about traveling alone is that you have no one to pull you one way or another and no one to take pictures of you. I grumbled as I looked for someone who spoke English or Spanish to take my picture (see above). In the two hours I’d spent at Neuschwanstein, I didn’t feel inspired or awed or even able to find a reason why it was worth making the trip.

In the end, I didn’t think visiting Neuschwanstein was worth the day or the money. The train trip was long, the cost to visit the castle itself was steep, and I worried I’d have to photoshop the hell out of my photos to remove the other baseball caps and elbows that surely snuck into my shots.

Don’t get me wrong – I will go to the Eiffel Tower every time I am in Paris, and I will enjoy it. I gleefully step into Plaza Mayor in Madrid and marvel at the fact that it was once a bull ring. Seeing the Taj Mahal was an intense experience between the heat, the people and the sheer beauty of the place.

But Neuschwanstein didn’t do it for me, even after I’d braced myself for the tourists, the prices and the cold.

Turning on my data to search GoEuro for busses back to the train station, I found I had enough time to walk down the hill, grab a few postcards and stand in line for the bus back to Füssen, where I would kill nearly two hours before the train back to Munich (and I ran into the Brazilians there, after an all night binge).

Füssen, as it turned out, was a lovely surprise to end the day. The Christmarket on the main shopping street was small but lively, and the morning bustled with shoppers and partygoers. I camped out on a bench with a beer and a bratwurst and listened to Tyrolean horns toot out Christmas carols.

Later that night, after wandering in the Christmas markets, I called the Novio in the hostel’s atrium before saddling up to the bar for another weisserbier. The bartender addressed me in Spanish, confessing to having overheard me on the phone. Inquiring about my time in Munich, I recounted my day and my disappointment with the castle.

My heart sunk when he told me that I could have bought a youth pass or even used my Carnet Joven to get a hefty discount on the train at 10am, something I would have known if I had actually done more research, as I intended to. I gulped down my beer and ordered another, sharing travel tales with the worldly bartender. Like many travel fiascos, a drink and a laugh do me wonders.

I’d consider going back for half the cost, and perhaps during the warmer months. I feel at home in the mountains, despite being from the Prairie State, and find Neuschwanstein more breathtaking in the summer. 

Love Germany? Been to the-Castle-with-the-Impossible-Name? Or have destinations that didn’t live up to your expectations? Check out my other posts that you’ll liebe:

A Guiri Guide to Oktoberfest // Passau, the City on Three Rivers // Karnevals of Cologne


Exploring Passau, Germany

One of the cities that really surprised me during my winter travels was Passau, Germany. Known as the Dreiflüssestadt, or the city of three rivers, this Bavarian town was walkably charming and the departure city for a cruise down the Danube with Viking River Cruises.

Passau reminded me a lot of Sighisoara, Romania with its pastel-colored rococo buildings and cobblestone alley ways. The peninsula of the town meets not only the Danube, but also the Ilz and the Inn. 

Lukas, an Austrian who is also a lecturer at the renowned university of the city, told us the city’s history, peppered in with anecdotes about city life and statues of patron saints floating down the river (really! That tricky Saint Nicholas). Having lived in cities with rivers all of my life, I found it irrisistably charming and picturesque, from the cobblestone alleyways to the dimly-lit beer gardens and antiques shops.


Before our official embarkation and welcome cocktail, my family and I stretched our legs by taking a taxi to the Oberhaus and taking in the view from above. Bavaria has famously good weather, and we were treated to a memorable sunset above St. Stephen’s Cathedral and nearby Austria to the south.

Have you been to Bavaria or Passau?

What happens at the Weis’n: Oktoberfest, a Beer-Lover’s Dream

A three a.m. wake up call two days in a row – first to drive to Málaga and catch a flight to Frankfurt, and then to pull on a dirndl, braid my hair and brush my teeth.

Ja, I was on my way to Oktoberfest, echoing my college days when I would get up at dawn to tailgate and slam a beer on Melrose Avenue as the sun came up.

The Weis’n was like a full-blown, Bavarian style Feria de Sevilla – tents that were difficult to get into, carnival rides operating around the clock, vendors selling all kinds of local fare that filled the air with scents of smoked sausages and fries.

Have I died and gone to beer-lovers heaven? Ja.

Christyn and I arrived to the enormous complex shortly before 11am. Knowing the weekend would mean an influx of tourists and reservations at beer tents, we beelined directly to where the line seemed the shortest, the Löwenbräu tent. An enormous plastic lion with a mechanical arm was drinking more beer than we were – we learned that once the reserved tables were full, we would have to wait with the other tourists, as the bouncer with a scary-looking neck tattoo who looked like he’d never eaten anything but bratwurst and sauerkraut would only let patrons in when others came out.

Even in Spain, an orderly line would form, so what’s with the Germans letting the entrance be a free-for-all wherein the scary doorman chooses how desperate or thirsty or Bavarian you are?

After 40 minutes, we were led to a long wooden table outdoors. Being late September, it was chilly, but the heat lamps and constant toasts and chants kept us moving about and a bit warm. I borrowed a friend’s dirndl, carried a cardigan and wore two pairs of tights, and thanks to the large amount of beer I drank, had few problems keeping warm.

Once inside and seated, the busty server slammed a litre beer down for each of us at a cost of 10€. The heavy glasses were empty before we could even order a snack (an enormous pretzel, exactly what was missing in my guiri life). Only five types of Munich-based beers are allowed to be served, and of the several we tried during the course of the day, Lion’s Brew was my favorite.

After two enormous beers and getting creeped on by some Italians at the table over, Christyn and I needed to go to the bathroom. I was relieved to see that the German efficiency at the door (as in, lack thereof) was back when it came to the women’s toilets, but mainly because the entire beer hall was rocking – a lederhosen-clad band was playing German folk songs and Sweet Caroline from a raised stage in the center.

I knew we wouldn’t get beer unless we were seated somewhere, but Christyn had already taken care of that problem. A few locals scooped us up and squeezed us into their table. They were already standing on the wooden benches, rocking out, and invited us to some food and topped off our steins.

The interior of the tent was like a raucous mess hall of school cafeteria. I felt right at home. Case in point:

In need of some fresh air around 2pm, we walked towards the carnival rides, past booths with the traditional tirolerheut hats and lavishly painted steins. I somehow convinced a local to ride on the rollercoaster with me when my cousin refused to lose her pretzel and the gingerbread cookies we’d snacked on. I got a glimpse of the entire Teresenweise – the place was enormous. Then, it was over the hill and plunging back towards the ground.

The rest of the day passed in a haze – the beer sold a Oktoberfest is stronger than the beer served in local bars – but we were befriended at another tent where we (thankfully) could not get another beer. After currywurst and a sudden downpour, we were tuckered out and found a little Indian restaurant for a bowl of warm soup and a litre of water – my first of the day.

I’ll be back in Munich for two days in December. Apart from the beer and Christmas markets, what else should I see? What should I eat? Where should I stay?

5 Reasons Why Tübingen is a Must See in Germany

Author’s Note: Fresh off a trip to Dubrovnik and the Bay of Kotor, I’m reeling and already excited for my next trip. My cousin Christyn, an adventurer in her own right who climbed Kilimanjaro on her 28th birthday in February, is now working and living in Bann, Germany, so we’ve been making plans for a German Road Trip. I started doing research and was floored at the wealth of options we have in a country I’ve already gotten to know, through Cologne’s Carnaval to a chilly, sans-camera trip to Berlin. I’ve long been fascinated with German history and have loved beer and sausage, growing up close to Milwaukee. I devour books on the country regularly. So when Live Like a German contacted me about collaborating and helping out with my trip, I couldn’t say nein. My requisites for a trip to Germany? Castles, countryside and currywurst, which make Tübingen their first choice for my trip.
A trip to Germany is a must for any world traveler. While in this wondrous country there are a few towns that are a must see, and Tübingen is one of them. Its stunning surroundings, coupled with its authenticity due to surviving wartime unscathed, make it a town that remains historically intact.

Although Tübingen is traditionally known for its university – about one in every ten students attends classes there –  there are many interesting things for tourists to experience.

Hohentübingen Castle 

No town is complete without a castle. Hohentübingen castle is first noted in the 11th century and is now a part of Tübingen University. Feel free to explore around the castle and afterwards gain more information about its history in the castle museum.
In German, markplatz is a word for market place. The Holzmarkt , one of the two in Tübingen, is in front of the Collegiate Church, the town’s landmark and another fine place to see in this town. Depending on the time of year you may be able to experience vendors selling seasonal specialties that you can enjoy. Markplatz is a place one can also sit in an outdoor cafe and also enjoy the view of the town hall and the ambience of the quaint town.
The Rathaus is Tübingen’s stunning town hall and is another piece of history, built in 1435 and being continually expanded. Its Astronomical Clock is something to watch. Go inside the Rathaus and take a ride on the elevator to get great views of the city, or just relax outside, take in its beauty and watch the locals and tourists walking by.
There once lived a poet that was not so famous when he was alive called Friedrich Holderlin, who lived in Tübingen. After his death his works became widely known in Germany and are in fact considered to be some of best writings produced in the country. You can tour his 13th century home, Holderlinturm, and the tower where he lived for 36 years, slowly going insane. The house is great to see which nice views of the Neckar River. There is a museum on site with more information on the writer’s life.

Cistercian Monastery

Another place that should make your itinerary while in this town is the Cistercian Monastery (Zisterzienzerkloster), a well-preserved medieval monastery that can be accessed by a short nature walk. There is an admission to go inside, but just the walk outside with its spectacular surroundings of the structures may suffice.
This Germany related travel article has been written by Bettina Kraft, who likes to write Germany related travel articles on Live Like a German,  a site for exploring Germany, learning more about its culture and language, and finding a great Germany vacation rental or holiday apartment. Bettina likes to help visitors from all over the world to experience Germany in a different, more personal way, and to make it easy for them to do so by providing detailed travel tips and advise.

Kölle Alaaf

Since I was 12, I’ve hated clowns. Circuses are out of the question, and even watching my childhood favorite, Bozo the Clown, makes me shiver. It’s probably due to a dream Beth and I both had when we were in middle school. But suddenly, I found myself in a city where everyone was dressed as one – red noses, painted faces and a deranged look (in all fairness, that was due to the cold weather and all-day imbibing!)

Vesna, Kirsten, Maria, me, Juan, Briana and Cat

Juan el Vaquero and I at the ball
Carnaval Groups performing

bathroom break

Sightseeing at the Dom Cathedral, the largest in Germany

This is the Crazy Days, a five-day Lenten celebration and tradition of Cologne, Germany. I did Carnaval in Cadiz – the overnight macro-botellon where people drink themselves crazy, piss all over the streets and break bottles on anything blunt. I wasn’t really interested. But Kirsten invited us to spend the holiday with her family, and seeing as many of my Erasmus friends were going, I thought it a good excuse to see friends.
Beginning the Thursday before Ash Wednesday at 11:11 a.m., a week of drinking in the streets, costumes and, sadly, clowns fill the streets. Red and white, the colors of the city, are displayed around Cologne and parades troop down the main avenues. The festival dates back nearly 200 years to when the occupant troops asked for merrymakers who celebrated the rotation of the sun and the gods to clean up and organize the debauchery. Carne-vale was born, a farewell to meat before Lent.
Bri and I arrived to the Weeze airport late, met Cat and her friend Maria (already half of a bottle of Jack in) and took a bus to Cologne. Two hours later, Kirsten’s father, Erich, met us at the transportation depot and took us to nearby Elsdorf, a town of 6,000 covered in snow. A bottle of local beer was waiting for us.
The following afternoon, after a hearty breakfast of breads, meat and cheeses, we alternated taking showers, adjusting the glueless lace wigs we bought online and adding layers to our costumes. Doris, Kirsten’s mother, made us an assortment of soups, meant to warm our bodies and coats our stomach for the night ahead. Then me, Patti Mayonnaise, a cowboy, a flamenco dancer, a flapper, a devil, a cat and Madonna were ready for action.
The trip to Cologne, despite being 30km away, was a 20 minute car trip to Horrem and a 20-minute train ride to the steps of the Dom. The station was full of pirates, toreros and Venicians, while people chanted carnival songs and bands played. The extra layers were nice to have on as we trakked across the city, beer in hand, to a bierhaus. Too many people, so we opted for a cutre little place where all the drunk people (including the Jolly Green Giant) were arm-in-arm, singing and drinking beer.
Kirsten got us tickets to a big party in what seemed to be a civic center. All three floors were full of people in costume (thankfully no clowns!), live music, discos, carnival music groups and kiosks selling beer. The entrance hall was draped in red and white banners and drapes with life-sized nutcrackers posted throughout the long room. Up the grand staircase, there was a large auditorium more packed than a high school dance with more characters – Flava Flav, a Chicago Bears player and even the Blues Brothers. Every hour, a Carnival band trooped through the masses to perform cheerleading-like routines on stage. We spent time drinking beer (I think I counted 18? THEY WERE SMALL!!!!), dancing in the disco and eating pretzels.
Sunday counts with street drinking (we did some sightseeing) and Monday’s parade, the Rossentag, winds six miles through downtown Cologne, tossing out candy much like the Cabalgata here in Spain. I nearly bought a plane ticket home for Tuesday, but opted to stick with my plan to head home Sunday after a day of sightseeing and drink Gluewein, hot wine, to keep warm.
Two years ago, I went to Carnaval in Cadiz, a beach town a few hours away from Sevilla. Again, people in costume drinking cubatas outdoors in a big macro botellón, but to the point of breaking bottles over one another’s heads and pissing in the streets. I haven’t had the ganas to go back since. But Germany’s carnivals, which seem to return to the original purpose, were exciting, entertaining and not so beer-tainted. Just with more clowns.
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