Friday, December 28, 2018

A Flight From Hell

I’m sure any traveler who reads this has their own horror story about an airline flight experience gone awry. Weather delays, overbooking, cancelled flights, missed connections, poor service, all contribute to a dreadful air travel experience.

Those of us who have been traveling for decades often long for the “good old days” of air travel. Back when customer service was top notch, there was plenty of legroom accompanied by many onboard amenities (free cocktails were nice!).

While my personal travel experiences have been generally OK, I don’t have any specific horror story that comes to mind, I’m the type who doesn't mind air travel. I do dislike airports, waiting lines, security, but once I’m in my seat onboard, I’m pretty much happy.

I’ve always been interested in aviation, aircraft and all the related technologies.  If I could to do my life over again, I would definitely be a pilot. I also love aviation history, particularly the early days of air travel and military aviation history. A recent article from the Navy Times about the perilous journey of the PanAm “China Clipper” at the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 tells a story of amazing courage, ingenuity, determination and some sheer luck. I want to share this article, so follow the below link.

The article also mentions the fate of other Pan Am aircraft and crews during the outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific, including the “Philippine Clipper”. I recalled that I have a collection of old Pan Am Business Class menus from the 1980’s that had illustrations of famous Pan Am first flights. Below is a copy of the commemorative first flight illustration of the “Philippine Clipper”.

Enjoy the Navy Time article!

Navy Times Article... At this time in 1941, a Clipper plane was trying to get home the hard way — flying around the world!


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas Markets….Vienna, Bratislava & Zagreb


When we started planning this year’s Christmas Market trip back in October, we were looking to visit somewhere new. Our daughter suggested that Vienna is a must-see Christmas Market, so we decided that would be a good choice. We didn’t want to limit the trip to Vienna, so with the help of our good friend Google, we saw that Zagreb’s Christmas Market was voted Europe's best for three years running (that according to Croatia tourist website, anyway). We also viewed an number of VLOG’s from folks who visited Zagreb Christmas Market in recent years and these VLOG’s seemed to endorse Zagreb as a good choice. So we added Zagreb to the itinerary and what also helped with that choice is the fact that Zagreb is less than an hour plane trip from Vienna.

When we did our advanced planning, we booked round-trip air with Austrian Airlines and found a conveniently located hotel using Our hotel, the Palace Hotel,  was about $300 for 3 nights, which seemed quite reasonable for a mid-city hotel. More about prices below.

After spending 5 days in Vienna, we flew to Zagreb on Monday December 3rd. Flight was on time, Zagreb airport was easy to navigate and we used Uber for the ride to the hotel. Our driver Boris spoke perfect English and he gave us lots of tips about foods to eat and things to do and see. The ride from the airport to downtown is about 16km (10 mi) and it took almost 30 min because of traffic. The Uber fare was $16, pretty cheap! By the way, Croatia does not use Euro’s, the local currency is the Kuna (HRK) and the exchange is about 6.5HRK to the dollar.

IMG_20181203_144623-01Welcome to  Franjo Tuđman Airport Zagreb

Our Hotel

I can’t say enough about our hotel choice. The Palace Hotel is a classic hotel in a Art Nouveau palace dating from 1891. The location is perfect, right across the street from Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera and Park Zrinjevac, two of the Christmas Market venues and a 4-block walk to Ban Josip Jelačić square, the main Christmas Market and shopping area.

Our hotel room was ideal, large and roomy (for European standards) and my biggest measure of a hotel room is the size of the bathroom and shower, this one was spot on. Plenty of room in the shower and strong water pressure. Our room rate included breakfast and the breakfast buffet was huge. Plenty of hot and cold selections, fresh fruits, bread and pastries, it was an excellent spread.

The hotel Cafe/bar was a very comfortable space with elegant woodwork, high ceilings and cozy Christmas decorations. It was on the ground floor with large windows facing the park with stunning views of the Christmas Market lights and activities. We would have a glass of wine or cognac and the cost was less than $5.00 per glass!

The hotel had a health and wellness spa and I made an appointment for a one hour massage. That was very relaxing and the cost was equivalent to $38, quite a bit less than what we pay at home.



Palace Hotel

Getting Around Zagreb

The convenient location of our hotel made it easy to explore the city and Christmas Markets. Everything was within walking distance. Our first morning in Zagreb, we decided to take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus service. This gave us a good overview of the city, plus the audio narration provided some history and context.

We walked to the upper city, some steep roads and stairs to overcome, but we made it. We ended up taking the funicular back down to the lower city, didn’t plan that very well, would have been better going up on the funicular and walking down, let gravity be our friend!

Zagreb has an extensive street tram system, but we didn’t use the trams. There was also a Christmas tram that toured the sights and Santa was the conductor.

010501db3b6ddf1f95d2dfdfd58515f9c60796a5ff The Funicular

IMG_20181204_163722-PANO (1)

Ban Josip Jelačić Square

Zagreb Christmas Markets

The Zagreb Christmas Market is a bit different than what we saw in Vienna or from our previous trips to Germany, France and Switzerland. The vendor booths or stalls are different, all were white, in contrast to the German style which are chalet-like, dark wood. Another big difference is that the vast majority of vendor stalls were selling food and drinks. Not many crafts, clothing or other seasonal items like in Germany or Austria.

It seems that Zagreb is a party city, lots of people, many young adults, out for drinks and food. But there are also families, young and old. Everywhere you went, there was music playing, some Christmas music, as well as pop and rock. The main venues like Ban Josip Jelačić square had stages and bandstands set up where there was always some live entertainment, like local youth choirs, folk groups, traditional and contemporary musicians and artists. The Christmas Market scene in Zagreb is very lively, lots of energy.

IMG_20181203_183445-01 IMG_20181203_183925


General Impressions

Some general impressions and observations about Zagreb and Croatia.

Croatia is very affordable, the US dollar goes a long way. When dining out, even at a more upscale restaurant, we never paid more than $50 for the two of us, that incudes the drinks.

The people are very friendly, most speak good English.

Zagreb seems very safe, we did not feel uncomfortable or threatened even when walking around at night.

There are many smokers in Zagreb. It seems that smoking is very popular with younger people.

Overall, we really liked Zagreb and we look forward to visiting other parts of Croatia in 2020 when we do a Mediterranean cruise.

More mages from Zagreb

Zagreb Croatia

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Christmas Markets….Vienna, Bratislava & Zagreb

Saturday Afternoon in Bratislava

Our side trip to Bratislava was a last minute addition to our Christmas Market tour itinerary. After some online research we found that the train to Bratislava was a little over an hour from Vienna and the trains ran every hour. So off we went to Vienna's main, bustling train station, Wien Hauptbahnhof. Our round-trip fare was very reasonable about EU10.00 each and it was open seating. We arrived at the main station in Bratislava around 1:30pm and took a street Tram into the city center. Our train ticket also covered city Tram and bus service in Bratislava, so this was a great deal. Train travel and public transportation in general in Europe are very convenient and the trains are comfortable and usually on time.
Bratislava is a quaint, charming small city. It had snowed the night before, a light (maybe 1-2 inches) covering on the roof tops added to the Christmas atmosphere. We left the tram at the city center but we didn't know where to find the Christmas Market, so when in doubt, follow the crowd. The market was a couple of blocks from the city center at the city hall plaza complex. The Bratislava Christmas Market was small but very festive, mostly locals attending, although we did see a couple of walking tour groups from nearby Danube river cruise boats. It was a fun Christmas Market, we sampled some of the local food like the palacinka, a crepe like treat with a sweet hazelnut filling. The pozsonyi kifli, or crescent shaped pastries, were delicious. These tasted like shortbread but had a center filling of nuts and spices. And yes, we did try the local version of Gluhwein, called Cierny Medved, or "black bear" which is a black currant mulled wine. We stayed in Bratislava until after dark and were able to get the 7:30PM train back to Vienna. A fun day at a charming town and Christmas Market.

Enjoy a video recap of our "Saturday Afternoon in Bratislava"

Images from our visit.

Bratislava Slovakia

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Christmas Markets….Vienna, Bratislava & Zagreb

Our First Day in Vienna

It’s that time of year when we are off on another Christmas Market adventure. This was our 5th Christmas Market trip since 2013, four have been to Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia and Croatia) and one trip up to Quebec City last year.

Walking around these Christmas Markets, mingling with locals, smelling the different foods, having a hot cup of the mulled wine and just taking in the festive atmosphere is a perfect way to get into the Christmas spirt.

We left Boston on Wednesday Nov 28th and travelled to Vienna via Newark and Zurich, arriving on Thursday midday in Vienna. Our hotel, the Hotel Alpha Wien was a very nice, comfortable smaller hotel, perfectly located near the main Christmas Market at City Hall. Like many European hotels, the room was a bit small and the shower was really small. The hotel served our purposes and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Also, breakfast was included in our rate. We booked this hotel through which we use quite a bit and have been happy with this online service.


Cozy sitting area at Hotel Alpha Wien lobby.


Vienna, the Imperial City, is one of Europe’s beautiful cities. It has magnificent buildings and architecture, broad avenues and many parks and palaces. According to the Vienna tourist website there are a dozen separate Christmas Markets. In our first four days in Vienna (we came back for one day at the end of our trip) we were able to visit five of the larger markets.

On our first night, we pushed through the jetlag and walked the two blocks from the hotel to the main, biggest Christmas Market at Rathausplatz (city hall plaza). It was a very cold evening, but when we turned the corner and walked onto the plaza the view was spectacular. Every tree in the park was covered in lights, rows upon rows of vendor chalet stalls selling all kinds of Christmas items and crafts, and, of course the food. We made a bee line for the first Bratwurst stand we could find and got on obligatory Brat. Delicious! Also, to warm up, we had to imbibe in some Gluhwein.


Rathausplatz Christmas Market