Copenhagen, 7/18/14

The ship docks in Copenhagen at 10:00 am. Our excursion doesn’t go out until 11:30, so we eat a late breakfast and enjoy being lazy. Judy and I are concerned because Mr. Sanchez (reference Moscow, 7/13) is on our bus. This could be interesting.


We get a bus tour around the city. It’s really charming. One of the commonalities with most of the cities we’ve visited is they’ve burned to the ground at some point in their history. Either due to war or conquest, or a careless citizen, most have had to be rebuilt. Copenhagen has burned twice, most recently in the early 1800’s. Denmark and Sweden have had a thing for ruling each other through the years.


“The Little Mermaid”. A famous sculpture honoring Hans Christian Anderson’s story.

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The first major stop is Tivoli Gardens, the first amusement park in Europe. It has a few modern rides now, along with several older “historic” rides. Its’ real “claim to fame” is that it was the inspiration for Walt Disney to create Disneyland. He visited here in the early 50’s and you can see the influence it might have had. Sections of the park are themed and decorated accordingly, but not to the extent that Disney ultimately went to. It’s still very quaint and picturesque. There are tons of nice restaurants with a wide variety of foods. We settle for ice cream and find a shaded bench to watch the world go by. I’ve enjoyed our tours and all we’ve learned and seen, but I also enjoy watching the people in each country and how they interact with each other.

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Tivoli Gardens

Next on the itinerary is Rosenborg Castle. It was the official home of the many of the Danish kings, dating back to the 1300’s. It’s much smaller than the Russian palaces, but the setting is much more intimate. We get up close and personal with tapestries, thrones, and later the crown jewels. The collection is small but impressive.


Carved out of ivory.


These are real gold & jewels


Rosenborg Castle

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Back at the ship (no problems with Mr. Sanchez today) we walk down the pier to a series of small outlet shops, but nothing appeals to us. Back on board I get a chance to organize our photos (this has been a never-ending job since the kids arrived in Beijing). I’ve managed to stay on top of the job, at least within a day or two of the activity or tour. Digital photography has its’ advantages, but I tend to shoot too many photos, knowing I can edit them later. There’s lots of downloading, deleting, and labeling to be done every time we go out. I’m looking forward to “normal” life.

Thursday – Sea Day, 6/17/14

It’s time to enjoy a relaxing day at sea, and that’s exactly what we do. After so many days of excursions, it’s a relief to have nothing to do. We enjoy some great food and sit around enjoying the warmth of the sun.

When we get back to the cabin to dress for the evening activities we hear the news about the plane shot down over the Ukraine. I’m curious how the next few days will be with such a wide mixture of nationalities onboard.   I’ve overheard several strong opinions from various Europeans about Putin. At the evening show, the theme is “Celebrate the World”, and there’s music and dance from countries around the world. I wondered as it started if there was going to be a Russian segment, and sure enough there was. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a few “boos” had been uttered, but the segment was received with the same enthusiasm as all the others. The performers weren’t Russian. No reason to take it out on them.

When we get back to Amsterdam, the mood will be much different. When we left, the Dutch team at the World Cup had just won their quarterfinal game. The city was full of optimism as they headed for the semifinal. I’m sure the tragedy will be weighing heavy on the city and it’s citizens. As for Malaysia Airlines, I don’t know how they can survive two major incidents like this.

Stockholm, and the Archipelago, 7/16/14

Today is the final day of our “5 for 5” (5 consecutive excursion days).  We’re beginning to tire of sitting on buses.  We’re definitely tired of waiting extra time on a bus for other guests who can’t seem to be where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be.  Celebrity Cruises should keep a list that lasts forever of guests who are late to a meeting time on an excursion.  Then all those late people could participate only on excursions with other “late” people, for the remainder of their cruising lives.  (sorry for the mild rant)

 We liked Helsinki yesterday, but today’s experience in Stockholm was even better.  We started at 9:30 with a short drive through the city, arriving at the Stockholm City Hall.  I didn’t realize until we were inside that this is the site where the “Nobel Prize Banquet” is held every year.  The walls and floor suddenly seemed more significant than the “plain old city hall” I thought I was going to be touring. 


Stockholm City Hall, site of the Nobel Prize Award Banquet.

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The 2nd part of the City Hall tour was the Golden Hall.  Basically, the room was supposed to be decorated with a fresco by a world-renowned Swedish artist in 1919.  Unfortunately he died before he had a chance to start.  There was no “Plan B.”  The room ended up being finished with mosaic tiles sold to Sweden really cheaply after WWI (Germany was broke and needed the money).  The only person in Sweden who knew anything at all about how to work with the tiles was a 25-year old laborer.  His only artistic exposure working with mosaic tiles was 2 weeks he spent after graduating from high school, working in an Italian tile factory.  The room was ugly, the art was ugly, and everyone knows it, thus the appeal?


Next was the Vasa Museum.  It’s a huge museum containing a ship that sank 20 minutes into it’s inaugural sailing.  Built in the 1600s, it was meant to be the largest warship in Scandinavia and would help the Swedish king conquer the world.  There were a few design issues, and down it went.  It wasn’t raised until 1961, and is 98% complete.  It’s huge and an impressive display.  The Swedes sure have a way of taking a mistake and capitalizing on it.


The Vasa

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We toured the city a little more, finally getting a chance to eat lunch on our own in the old town city center.  It was a picturesque area, and we enjoyed a great meal of Swedish meatballs.  Afterwards, we could either rejoin the tour or take time to walk the area and check out the local shops.  We’ve seen lots of cathedrals, so we opted for time on our own.  It was nice to walk at a relaxed pace and not feel pressured to race back to the bus.


Brick streets, and cobblestone streets. The cobblestone streets are not easy to walk on, and these were better than others we’ve experienced.


Back on the ship, it’s an early sailing (4:00 pm).  We get a serious look at the Swedish Archipelago, some of the more the 30,000 islands belonging to Sweden, as we sail away.  The captain of the ship referred to our exit as “slaloming out”.  It was fun to watch a line of several ships turning back and forth as they worked their way through the islands.  It took 5 hours to finally get to the open sea, and the views were so relaxing.

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Chillin’ in Helsinki, 7/15/14

Our ship is docked in Helsinki today. Our excursion starts much later than our last 2 days in St. Petersburg, and it’s also much shorter. It starts off on a small boat cruising the Helsinki Harbor. We get a brief history lesson, and some wonderful sights. There’s a lot of discussion about the harbor freezing, and everyone walking across the ice to all the destinations we’re cruising past today. The winter nights are very long, with only 4 hours of daylight.


One of the four ships in the Finnish Icebreaker Fleet.

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After the boat ride, we’re dropped in a market area in the center of town for some souvenir shopping. After boarding the bus, we get a few more photo stops, including a monument to the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.


Sibelius monument

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We’re back at the ship by 1:00 pm with an afternoon to kill. The ship seems empty and so relaxing. There are no crowds, anywhere. We really enjoyed Helsinki. Today gave us enough of a “taste” of the city to entice us to come back. The evening act in the theater is an illusionist (magician). It’s a really good act with nice variety and humor.

St. Petersburg & Palaces, 7/14/14

It seems we barely went to sleep before we had to get up for our day in St. Petersburg. 7:15am meeting for the group, and straight to the bus. We start driving through town, headed to Pushkin, a small town about 45 minutes away, and home of several palaces. I don’t know that much about the Russian Czars. I learned enough in school to pass the necessary tests, and promptly forgot it. Yesterday’s trip to Moscow was a primer for today.

We arrive at Catherine’s Palace. It’s huge and there is already a large crowd when we arrive at 8:30. The site is closed to the public, but all the cruise ships have access. We’re not sure what we’re going to see, but as the tour unfolds, it’s mind-blowing. Each new room is full of treasures. The Russian royalty had so much money and so many grand ideas.


Shoe covers for walking through the palace on the inlaid wooden floors


This is what some of the floors looked like

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After the tour of the palace, we walk through the gardens, eventually making our way back to the bus for the trip back to St. Petersburg. We have an enjoyable lunch, seated with fellow passengers from England and Belgium. I enjoy listening to their opinions on Ukraine and the EU.

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After lunch, we drive around St. Petersburg, visiting several impressive sites, each more impressive than the last. The last stop on the tour is the Peter and Paul’s Fortress, containing a beautiful cathedral that’s the burial site for all Czars (and families) of the Romanov Dynasty. One couple gets lost at the last stop on the walking tour, and we lose ½ hour waiting on them. The ship is scheduled to pull out at 6:00 pm (all-aboard at 5:45). We arrive at 5:50, and still have to walk in from the parking lot, then clear Russian customs. The ship pulls away about 10 minutes late.


This was an organ grinder, and he had some monkeys nearby.

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Some of the Romanov remains



We’ve had a great two days in Russia. I’ve enjoyed listening to the guides over the last two days discuss the failed Soviet Experiment that ended in 1991. One can sense the frustration in their voices as they talk about the restoration of all the cathedrals we’ve been seeing. In 1919, when religion was outlawed, many of the churches were converted to warehouses, skating rinks, and so many other uses. They were given back to the people after 1991. There is no discussion of what’s happening in the Ukraine, but they’ve mentioned they know Russia is getting negative press, and they’re pleased that westerners are still willing to visit. So many of the non-historic buildings in both cities are very rough and seemingly in need of repair.

We’ve been lucky with the weather. We had good sun both days. People were laying out in their swimsuits everywhere in St. Petersburg. One of our guides said to us, discussing the weather, that it was “9 months of expectation (waiting for the warmth of summer), and 3 months of disappointment.” This particular time of the year is called the White Nights, because it doesn’t really get dark. As we traveled to Helsinki from Russia tonight, the sun set at 11:20 pm. Sunrise tomorrow is scheduled for 3:40 am.


11:15 pm. The sun is still peeping around another ship on the horizon.

Moscow, Red Square & The Kremlin

Today starts really early. We’ve sailed into a time zone two hours ahead of Amsterdam, so the 5:30 am wake-up feels like 3:30 am. The Moscow group meets at 6:40 and we’re quickly moved to the gangway to wait for the ship to clear customs. They want to make sure we’re the first group off the ship because of our flight. It’s not long before we’re cleared, and out to Russian Immigration. There are 27 in our group, including the Celebrity Cruise escort, Anita, and a Russian tour guide, Irena, as we load the bus and head out to the St. Petersburg airport.

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At the airport, there are security checks at the entrance. It’s nice to check-in without any luggage. The next step is another, more thorough security gate. When we’re all cleared, we walk to the gate with 50 minutes to kill before boarding our 9:50am flight. We’re flying Aeroflot, a Russian airline. During the hour flight, we get water and a small snack box with a half sandwich. The attendants have to hustle to serve the drinks and food and get the trash picked up before landing. Ludmilla, our guide for Moscow meets us we exit and takes us out to the bus. We have a light lunch in a sack while we drive to Moscow, arriving at 11:45.


McDonalds in Moscow?

We get commentary of city sites as we drive to Red Square (KGB building, American Embassy, etc). The city itself is rather unimpressive with lots of brown and gray square buildings. Then we round a corner and WHOW! It’s Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral. The sight is breathtaking with all the colors and size of the area. We see the National Museum, and Lenin’s tomb, and get time to explore the area. We meet at our assigned time and place (except for Mr. Sanchez, 15 minutes late, remember the name), and walk to the nearby Metro station. I had heard the Moscow subway stations were unbelievable, but that’s an understatement. They are really deep (bomb shelters during WWII), and decorated with chandeliers, sculptures, and murals.


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We come out of the subway and are taken to a 5-star hotel (not many in Moscow, apparently), for coffee, tea, and snacks. We need the wake-up. After snacks, we get back on the bus and drive to the Kremlin. We walk the Kremlin area. Since 1991 (the fall of the USSR), the only office of government that works out the Kremlin is the president (currently Putin). There’s a lot of history, restored cathedrals, and museum called “The Armory.” It’s full of relics from the era of the Czars, and contains huge jewel encrusted silver pieces, crowns, armor, coronation coaches, and so much else. We’re tired as we walk thru the area, but around every corner, there’s an unbelievable display we’re glad we had a chance to see. Our guide wants to make sure we’ve seen it all. We walk thru some gardens on the way to the bus, and when we arrive, we’ve lost Mr. Sanchez, again. Our guide looks for ½ hour and can’t find him, so she gives our driver and escort directions to our dinner restaurant, then gets off the bus to continue the search.

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When I first started confirming the Moscow trip details at the excursion office on the ship, all the staff could talk about was this great restaurant we were going to visit for dinner. They kept saying it was one of the top restaurants in the city, and we were so lucky. We heard about it when we got on the bus early in St. Petersburg, and again when we got off the plane in Moscow. When our bus pulled up and we unloaded into an unbelievable location, we weren’t surprised. The room was gorgeous, and we all felt very special. The waiters seemed confused, the tables were not really ready for patrons and no one is scrambling to get food to the tables? Maybe this is the Russian way? We sat for 20 minutes, until Ludmilla arrived (with Mr. Sanchez, he supposedly stopped to take pictures in the garden area and lost the group.) There was huddled conversation between our group organizers, and the wait staff, and then we get the announcement: “Please get up and go next door. This is the wrong restaurant.” Our driver didn’t know exactly where we were supposed to be and dropped us close to where he thought it was, and Irena and Anita led us right in where we dropped.

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We walked up the street to another restaurant, and enjoyed a truly delicious meal. They even served caviar. It’s not going to the top of my favorites list. After an enjoyable meal, with a lot of laughs, we bus back to the airport. We already have our boarding passes, so we go straight to the really long security line. Everyone eventually gets through and down to the gate. The There are three gates jammed into a small area and it looks like six flights are going out in the space of 2 hours. There are too many people for the small area. The flight leaves on time, and we are on the ground in St. Petersburg at 11:20 pm. We arrive back at the ship at 12:30 pm. It has been a remarkable day, and we are beat!!!

Sea day, and Tallinn, Estonia, 7/11-12/14

FRIDAY, 7/11/14

Yesterday really wore us out. The long trip to and from Berlin, and the long touring day was tough. We’re worried now about the 5 consecutive excursion days we have scheduled, starting Saturday, especially the two long St. Petersburg days.

We get started relaxing and resting up. Our daily activities alternate between eating and finding a place to sit and check out the view. The weather is really cool and windy. Sitting out on deck doesn’t appeal to us, but there are many who are out “tanning.” I never thought of Scandinavia as a warm “fun in the sun” vacation. We’re getting the weather we were expecting. The show for the evening is a pop musician, but we opt for a later show featuring a comedian. He’s great, and we head to bed, fully entertained.

SATURDAY, 7/12/14

Our day in Tallinn, Estonia starts late. The groups meet at 11:00 am, and we load our bus for the town highlights tour. The first part of the tour is a coach trip around the new parts of town. Later, we get off the bus and walk through the old town (1300’s) putting sites together with the history.


Estonia, as it turns out, has spent very little time under it’s own rule. The current population is 1.3 million, and one-third of them live in Tallinn. It has been ruled by the Finns, the Swedes, the Danes, the Russians, the Germans, and then the Russians again. Much of the early commentary today refers to the poorly built buildings from the Soviet era, and how much the country has improved since the Soviet system collapsed in 1991. Estonia is enjoying its’ independence. They are proud of their contribution to internet technology. Skype was developed in Tallinn.


The walk through the “old town” is interesting. We wander up and down cobblestone streets, checking out the parliament building, several ancient churches, and some gorgeous views of the lower town and harbor.


Inside an old Lutheran Church. Important family “coat of arms” hanging on the walls.

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Back at the ship we eat a really late lunch (or an early supper). Afterwards, it’s time to organize our stuff for the Moscow flight and tours early tomorrow. Scheduled departure is 6:45 am. Scheduled return is 1:00 am. LONG DAY AHEAD!

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Berlin via Warnemunde, 7/10/14

We arrive at the port of Warnemunde, Germany, at 9:30 am. Our excursion for the day is Berlin. Everyone traveling to Berlin meets in the Theater to be organized into travel/bus groups. There are over 1000 people headed in that direction today, and 5 different tour options for the city.

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The bus ride is long. It’s a 3-hour commute. The scenery is mostly agricultural. There’s lots of wheat and corn in the area, broken up with forested areas. Halfway, we pull in to a “truck stop.” We noticed this in Amsterdam, but we’re told by our bus escort to expect to pay .50 to .70 Euros ($.75 – $1 usd) for the toilet. This will be the case at all the public toilets we have access to. I start checking to see what kind of change I’m going to need for rest of the day. Back on the bus, we’re given a snack with juice and water.

When we arrive in Berlin, our city guide joins the bus. We drive through town towards our lunch stop, passing highlights we’ll visit later. We enjoy a nice Bavarian meal in a large hall. There’s way too much food. We sit with a couple from Hong Kong. They have lots of questions about “Peking”. The husband seemed determined to not refer to it as Beijing.

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After lunch we begin to visit more of the town. The Brandenburg Gate area is blocked off for “pedestrian only.” A huge screen is setup ready for the World Cup Final in 4 days. They expect 500,000 people to watch the game in this area. The US Embassy is next to the Brandenburg Gate. I notice a little “news activity” in the area, and some cars arriving and leaving. This probably has something to do with the CIA operative being sent back to the US from the Embassy today (we found out about it a few days later).

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So much of the Berlin commentary is a discussion of when the major buildings we’re seeing were restored after the war. If it was an important building, it was bombed and destroyed. There is also a lot of reference to “The Wall”, and how the city was divided after WWII.  Our guide is East German, and has memories of dealing with “The Wall”, and later when it was knocked down.


Checkpoint Charlie


One of the last wall segments still standing.

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We finally leave the city around 8:00 pm, arriving back at the ship at 11:00 pm. We get a small sandwich on the way back. At the ship, we’re told about the German Buffet waiting for us. We’re still full from lunch and bus snacks, so it’s off to bed for us. The boat pulls out at 11:59 pm, right on time.

Anne Frank and the Constellation, 7/8-9/14

TUESDAY, 7/8/14

Before we move to the ship for our cruise, we decide to visit the Anne Frank House. The museum opens at 9:00, but the lines are usually really long, so we leave the hotel at 7:50 am. It’s not a long walk and we arrive about 8:05. There are already 30 people in line in front of us. It’s raining, and we’re excited to spend the next “almost hour” under an umbrella. It’s actually not too bad. We enjoy watching the crowd, and listening to the stories of the people around us.


The line behind us for the Anne Frank House, 15 minutes to opening.

The museum opens at 9:00 am. It’s worth the wait! There are displays and video shorts as we move from room to room, gradually moving to the top floors where Anne Frank and her family hid. There’s not so much stuff that a visitor is overwhelmed. Knowing the story, and actually walking through the rooms where it took place heightens the experience. We have a “brush with celebrity” when Judy notices Rick Steves, of National Public Television and National Public Radio travel show fame (“Rick Steves Europe”) in the coffee shop. As he leaves the building with a camera crew, more and more people recognize him, and he moves away pretty quickly.

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After we finish, we walk back to the hotel. We finish packing and roll our 5 suitcases to the lobby. They get us a taxi and off we go to the cruise terminal. Checking in is quick and easy. We’re on the Celebrity Constellation. The cabins aren’t ready yet, so we explore a little, then grab some lunch. The cabin is really nice. As expected, it’s larger than our Tokyo hotel room.

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Coming out of the river, heading out into the North Sea.

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The rest of the day is spent unpacking for our 12 days aboard ship. We’re looking forward to storing the suitcases for almost two weeks. Dinner is wonderful. We consider taking in the evening show, but it doesn’t start until 10:15 (4:15pm EST). I guess if someone is coming from the US, no problem. For someone coming from China, the clock is working against us (4am Beijing). Bedtime, no show!


We slept well last night, in spite of what we are told were rough seas (50 knot winds, and 5 meter seas). The captain assures us that as we exit the North Sea later this morning, it’s going to calm down considerably.

We have a day at sea to figure out the ship and where things are located. It’s a big ship, with over 2300 guests. There are some really nice places to hang out. We begin to spot some places to “camp out” and enjoy the views while we cruise. By the end of the day, we’re getting around the boat pretty well. It’s been 14 years since we last took an ocean cruise (Yangtze River Cruise doesn’t count). There are lots of nice amenities, and the food is terrific. I’m going to have to work to spread out my food fantasies over 12 days, and not take care of all of them today.

We make it to the theater for the evening show. It’s a “movie extravaganza” of music and dance. The show is put together well, and the performers do a nice job. After the show, it’s a quick trip to bed to prepare for our long day tomorrow in Berlin.


Canals and Windmills, 7/6-7/14

SUNDAY, 7/6/14

Last night, the Dutch team won their World Cup Quarterfinal game. I badly wanted to stay up and walk around the neighborhood bars, checking out the crowds during the game and absorbing the atmosphere. The game kicked off at 10pm here. I just couldn’t stay awake. I’m blaming it on jet lag, but I’m sure age may also be playing a roll. I did wake up in the middle of the night, in time to see the last 15 minutes of extra time, and then the shoot-out. I could see the fans celebrating the win from our hotel window when it finished. That was as close to “venturing out” as I got.

We’re ready to venture out “full steam” today. The hotel concierge recommended the Hop-on Hop-off canal boats, over the Hop-on Hop-off buses. We enjoy ourselves, cruising the canals, and disembarking a few times to check out an area. It’s fun to eat in the small local restaurants, and wander the streets, admiring the homes, and buildings. We try two of the three available routes and feel like we’ve thoroughly seen the town.

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After a refreshing nap, we go back out for a walk, heading in some new directions from our hotel. It’s still a curiosity to me to see all the “coffeeshops” full of pot smokers, in a building located next to a McDonalds, then a bakery, then a sex shop, then a Burger King. The more we walk, the more noticeable the “street people” become. Sit anywhere very long, and someone will come by scrounging through the trash.

MONDAY, 7/7/14

Today we’re booked for a tour of North Holland. We walk to the meeting site, and board a double decker bus. After a 45-minute ride out of town, we pull into a small town built around a several traditional windmills. Inside one of them, we get to observe the process of turning nuts and seeds into oils (in this case, peanuts). Another nearby windmill is running a saw and making lumber.

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Next stop down the road is Volendam, where we get a short visit to a cheese factory, and eat lunch in a café near a lake. The lake used to be the Zuider Zee, a large saltwater bay. After devastating floods in 1916, a long dike (30 kilometers, or so) was built across the entrance. Eventually the saltwater was pumped out (windmills) and replaced with freshwater from rivers flowing into the former bay. Now it’s the largest freshwater lake in Northern Europe.

After lunch we take a boat across to an island. The guide walks us around a picturesque village before taking us to a wooden shoe factory. It’s a really interesting place, and we get to see a pair of shoes made. There are some really fabulous shoes in the shop. We can’t quite justify a purchase, especially when we’re going to be near our baggage limits on several upcoming flights.

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We’re back in Amsterdam around 3:00 pm. After naps, we go out for a walk, looking for some of the famous french fries. So much of my life seems to revolve around a search for food. That’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact. Back in the room later, we begin making plans for our transition to the cruise ship tomorrow. Repacking this much stuff is always a challenge.