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Category: Travels (Page 3 of 9)

All By Myself

Courtesy of powerofthemusic.com

I flew into France within the first couple days of the New Year, and that was the first time that I truly traveled solo. Landing in Paris was pretty scary for me: I was lumbering around with a huge suitcase and no idea where to go next. Without luck, I was walking around the airport, looking for the meeting point for the shuttle that was supposed to take me and some other students over to GTL. On top of an already stressful situation, I was made fully aware that I was in a country in which English was not the primary or even secondary language spoken. This not only made me feel extremely uncomfortable and out of place, but it just made my primary objective that much harder to complete. Finally, after the supposed last call for the shuttle to leave, I found them all and made it in the van just in time. That was one of the most nerve-wracking situations I’ve ever been in. I thought that I was going to be stranded at the airport, all by myself, without being able to communicate to others that I was definitely not supposed to be both at the airport or alone. I would have really been fine with just taking one of those two options.

That was back in January, and I just recently made another solo trip, but this time it was about three days long, and in the Czech Republic (where their official language is literally not spoken anywhere else). Now, I feel a lot more comfortable with being in new and unfamiliar situations. I’m able to ask questions to locals without the thought that they are going to see me as dumb looming over my head. I can now confidently say that living in another country really matured me in aspects of my life I never even considered as problematic. Even talking to my friends and others in English, I’ve noticed that I’m a lot more confident in myself, and it’s a nice feeling to have!

In the past, I would too often get caught up in what others thought of me, and would always try to please them, even if it was at my expense. Many times, this would result in me missing out on activities or events I wanted to attend. This is what I’ve learned from living here: if you ever get a chance to do something, but no one will go with you, go by yourself! There is nothing wrong with it, and you will most likely regret not going at all more than going solo. You’ll also probably meet some interesting characters and have new material for stories to tell at dinner parties!

Although traveling solo can seem daunting, you’ll be amazed at how adaptable we, as humans, are. With time, you’ll be riding the metro and ordering your meals like a pro. Whenever I’m speaking to locals, I try to start off the conversation in French, and then if I can’t get my point across, I switch to English and hope they can understand me. Weirdly enough, even if neither of us can understand what the other is saying, I can usually decipher what they’re telling me using hand gestures and context. And while I highly recommend learning at least a little bit of French before coming to GTL, this way isn’t too bad!

Easter Break: From Witches to Waffles

This weekend I got to see my family again! The weekend kicked off in Riquewihr, a small town in France dating back to the 1500s, known for its beautiful vineyards and amazing architecture. Every house looked like a gingerbread house, the cobblestone streets were winding and sloping, and the roofs were topped with old tile or thatch. We spent the day walking through the town, hiking through the vineyards and sampling local foods. I even had frog legs!

Here is a picture of me in the town of Riquewihr.

As we walked through the town, we couldn’t help but notice that there were witches hanging in every doorway. These wooden or porcelain doll witches ranged from scary to cute, and dark to colorful. We walked through the streets puzzled, until we found a shop that sold witches exclusively. After talking to the clerk, we learned the reason. Legend has it that a young widow was banished from the town for being a witch. As she gathered her things and left, she spotted enemy soldiers approaching the town. She ran back as fast as she could to warn everyone, and the town was able to protect itself from attack. As a result, hanging a witch by the door or the window as a lookout will bring good luck and help you keep your enemies out.

The next day we hopped in our rental car and began driving north. Destination: Brussels. We stopped in Strasbourg for lunch, eating in the old city and admiring the tudor-style houses. Next, we forged on to Metz so my family could see where I am going to school and spending my weekdays. I showed them the cathedral and my dorm. Late that night, after a great deal of rain and traffic, we arrived in Brussels.

Picture of my lovely sister Kat in Strasbourg.

My mother and sisters flew back to the USA the next morning. My dad had business in London and would stay with me another day. After dropping them at the airport, we decided to take a quick train ride over to Bruges, an economic capital of Europe where luxury goods were traded and crafted. Famous for its tapestries and lace, this old city gives off an air of luxury. All of the facades of the houses were carved in amazing detail, and many roofs and windows were gilded. After a nice lunch of traditional stew, and a waffle for dessert we browsed the lace and tapestry shops. It is amazing how intricate these two thread-based art forms are; many pieces can take years to complete. We returned to Brussels that night and went to sleep.

Picture of the main square in Brussels.

The last day, we woke up early for a nice breakfast. We then decided to take a long walk through the city to see the Sablon district, famous for its antiques and old books. We then made our way over to the European Parliament and the Victory arch. After a brisk morning of walking and photo taking, we returned to the Grand Place, the big square surrounded by old fancy buildings. After a bit of sightseeing, we had to part ways.

All in all, it was a lovely weekend.

Munich: The Ultimate Food Guide

Munich is a beautiful city, and although it 90% of it was destroyed in the second world war, the rebuilding efforts for the 1972 Olympics have preserved the old world charm of the classic Bavarian city.

This is the Neues Rathaus, the city government building in the center of town.

So, my posts have been quite history heavy lately, so I decided to change things up this week and talk about my favorite food: Bavarian Food. With its amazing ham dishes, wonderful sauces and great atmosphere, the food scene in Munich cannot be beat. Here are some of my favorite Munich foods, ranked from 5th-most delicious to most delicious:

5. Bratwurst mit Sauerkraut

You can never go wrong with bratwurst in Munich. Sold on the street at small stands, in restaurants, or in beer halls, this Bavarian classic is a go-to tourist food. Bratwurst is served as a nice thick sausage, served in a small bread roll so the ends stick out, topped with tangy sauerkraut. Deliciously messy, this is really fun to eat  and an absolute must-taste in Munich! Where was the best one I tasted? In a small street stand right across from the Neues Rathaus in the city center.

 

4. Kartoffelpuffer (Potato Pancakes)

Vegetarian? No problem! Due to Lenten restrictions, I was unable to eat meat on Friday. As a result, I tried one of my new favorite dishes- Kartoffelpuffer! With the consistency of a flattened hashbrown, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, served with applesauce or sauerkraut, you will be singing the praises of this dish in no time!

 

3. Spanferkel (Suckling Pig)

This delicious cut of pork is so tender you can cut it with a fork and it melts in your mouth. Typically served with potatoes and in a dark brown beer gravy, this dish is the perfect ending to a day of sightseeing. Where did I find the best Spanferkel? The Augustiner Keller, famous beer garden restaurant of Munich. Definitely worth a taste!

 

2. Weisswurst (White Sausage)

I love weisswurst, which is a white colored sausage made from pork and veal back bacon ground with herbs. Traditionally, weisswurst was a breakfast food because before refrigeration, it was the sausage that kept the least fresh and was therefore a dish for the morning! Where is the best weisswurst in the city? Pay a visit to the Viktualienmarkt close to Marienplatz. This outdoor market has the finest meats and crafts in Bavaria. Pro tip: Peel the skin off before you eat it. Although you can eat the skin, the locals may laugh at you a bit.

 

1. Schweinshaxe (Pork Knuckle)
The number one delicacy of Munich is Schweinshaxe, which is a particular cut of pork. With its amazing, crispy skin on the outside, and a texture reminiscent of roast beef but the tenderness or pork you can’t go wrong with this dish. Served with baked potatoes, it is the most highly acclaimed Bavarian dish. Where to get the best one? Pay a visit to the historic Hofbrauhaus! In addition to hearing amazing live music from a traditional brass band, you can enjoy some of the best food that Bavaria has to offer. Happy eating!

Top 5 Best Museums I Have Visited and Why You Should Go

I love museums. They are my absolute favorite activity everywhere we go. No matter the subject, museums are a great way to immerse yourself in something and really learn what it is all about. Getting lost in these amazing buildings is a way to expand your mind, appreciate beauty, and have a really fun time. I am using this blog to honor my favorites.
 
5. Schindler’s Factory (Krakow)
This museum, located on the site of Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, is a brilliant memorial and tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, as well as an immersive experience of what daily life was like for German citizens at the time. Starting in the pre-war 1930’s, you walk room to room, reading firsthand accounts of events, seeing startling photographs, and being immersed in recreations of important rooms such as courtrooms, rooms of Jewish ghettos, and other such places. The reason this museum was so special was that it gave you a personal connection to the people of the Holocaust, and helped you walk in the shoes of the people that faced these struggles. Highly recommended.

Schindler’s Factory Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail.)

 

4. Capitoline Museum (Rome)

Many museums, such as the Vatican Museum, are so opulent and full of priceless artifacts that it can be overwhelming. The Capitoline Museum in Rome was different, in that the art and artifacts were presented in a way that wasn’t cluttered, but rather displayed in an open environment. Housing many ancient Roman and Greek artifacts, we learned many things about popular legends, the gods and goddesses, and the daily life of the ancient Romans. What really made this place stand out was the amazing view of the Roman forum. Directly overhanging the forum, this museum offers unencumbered views of all the ancient ruins in the best vantage point you can get. Go here for the views!

The view of the forum from the Capitoline Museum.

 

3. Musée D’Orsay (Paris)
This beautiful museum not only houses amazing art, but is a beautiful building with spectacular architecture. Boasting art from all periods of history, this museum is comprehensive in its display of art history. From medieval art, to the hall of impressionists on the top floor, you won’t be bored in this museum. Highlights include a full model of the Paris Opera house, the most extensive collection of impressionist art in the world, and beautiful sculptures; this is a great place to go celebrate the artistic achievements of mankind.

View from the top floor of the Musee D’Orsay.

 

2. The Deutsches Museum (Munich)
The engineer in all of us is dancing for joy in the Deutsches museum. This science museum is great for people of all ages. There was a metallurgy section and a mining section, which was really interesting for me as a Materials Science Engineer, and an early machines and machine shop section which particularly excited my Mechanical Engineering friends. This vast museum holds amazing copies of all kinds of machines, helps you learn about various manufacturing techniques, and does so in a hands-on and interesting way. In the maritime navigation section, there was a tank where you could sail different hulled model boats across to examine the different wake patterns, for example. Block out a whole day for this museum. It took us all morning to see the first floor!

The steam machine room of the Deutsches Museum.

 

1.  The Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam)

This museum was a life changer. As someone who is a bit of a worrier and gets hung up in the details, Van Gogh’s paintings prove that the picture doesn’t have to be exactly right to be beautiful. Each floor of the museum represents a part of his life, from his early dabblings in art to his final days in the mental institution. Not only do you see his life story in his work (he always paints his surroundings) but you learn his life story through his personal letters to his friends and family.

The museum takes a delicate look at mental illness, and shows that Van Gogh was not a violent madman, such as when he cut off his ear, but rather a troubled person, afraid of the rush of the cities, longing for the serene peace of the country and the solitude it brought. Although the entrance fee is a bit hefty, this is for a reason. The museum is expertly crafted to be easy to follow, easy to grasp and moving to look at. I must say I shed quite a few tears in this museum. Definitely the best I have been to.

The Van Gogh Museum, photo courtesy of Luuk Kramer of the Arch Daily

Take on Me by (Pr)A-ha!

One of the buildings at Námēstí Míru.I recently made a solo trip out to one of the most beautiful cities I have ever laid my eyes upon: Prague, or as its called in Czech, Praha! I spent about three days there, standing in awe beneath enormous churches and eating various versions of traditional Czech goulash. This city had some of the most breathtaking buildings, very much inspired by the Gothic architecture movement originating in France, from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.

Originally coined as Opus Franciginum (“French Work”), Gothic Architecture was envisioned by Abbot Suger of the Church of Saint Denis. By the time of his death, Abbot Suger had also invented what is known as a façade (the very intricately decorated and detailed front of a building, intended to set the tone for the rest of the edifice), and the rose window (a circular form of stained glass with different colorings or tracings suggestive in the form of a rose). Very characteristic of the medieval period, Gothic architecture spread all throughout Europe, but had a larger influence in Eastern European countries, including the Czech Republic.

One of the views from the clock tower in the center of Prague!

My temporary home was in Vinohrady, which is also home to Námēstí Míru, literally translating to “Peace Square.” From my BnB, I could even see the Church of Saint Ludmila, which is a Neo-Gothic Church right in the center of Námēstí Míru, built from 1888-1893 by Bohemian architect Josef Mocker. Mocker also completed the St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle, which I had the chance to visit as well! The Prague Castle, or Pražský hrad, is the largest ancient castle in the world, according to Guinness Book of World Records, and it attracts over 1.8 million visitors each year. It dates all the way back to the ninth century, and is now the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. The castle also holds the Bohemian Crown Jewels, which are the fourth oldest in Europe!

A stained glass window in the Cathedral of St. Vitus (feat. old guy and companion).

While taking a break from the beautiful sights, I made my way through the labyrinth of tiny, cobbled streets, on a search for the perfect goulash! I knew that this was a traditional Czech dish, so I had to try some while I was there. The first restaurant I went to seemed relatively new, and even though it had a traditional menu, the decor and atmosphere was very modern. A little strange, but I actually liked it a lot! I ordered some goulash, and what was served to me was not at all what I was expecting.

I thought goulash was some kind of soup with beans and chunks of meat or something, maybe I would get a bread roll on the side, but instead of finding that mess, I saw a beautifully plated hunk of beef, covered in this red, slightly spicy, but incredibly delicious sauce. To top that, it was served with four potato rolls, which I can only explain as really dense bread rolls with the flavor of a potato. That was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, and I didn’t think it could get any better, so actually my quest for the best goulash ended at this little hole in the wall, of which I could not remember and definitely couldn’t pronounce the name, but it was about two blocks from my BnB! I just went there every night for a good dinner, sometimes I also for lunch, to fill my stomach to its physical capacity.

My favorite metro sign: Náméstí Míru!

Because of my shortened food quest, and still not having visited all the places I wanted to see, I would definitely visit Prague again – no doubt. Next time though, maybe with a little more diversity in my meals? I’d like to see something other than goulash with different kinds of meat on my plate! And so, until next week’s adventure, I bid thee farewell!

Daerstetten to Interlaken: Peaceful and Intense

This weekend I decided to break the mold and go somewhere not in a city. I love the outdoors, and heard that Interlaken is nice this time of year. Before I get to the activities we did, allow me just a little time to gush about the awesome AirBnB that I found.

Our small cabin was in the village of Daerstetten, about an hour from Interlaken. In the hills, and boasting a meager population of 2000 people, this tiny town is made up mostly of cow pastures around the mountain river in the valley. Our AirBnB was in a cluster of traditional log cabins dating back to the 1600s. With an amazing view of the mountains and a sheep pen right outside our window, I felt about as far away from the city as you can get. According to our host Jorg, most people live their whole lives in that town. He himself grew up in the neighboring house.
 

View from our AirBnB. Hello, sheep!

 
On the first day, we decided to go hiking through the hills around our AirBnB. We walked past many traditional cabins, tiny clusters of houses, and lots and lots of cows. Hopping a train to a neighboring town, we followed a mountain river, then climbed through a cow pasture and down through another town. The views were absolutely pristine.
 

Reppin’ GT in the countryside. #buzzinabroad

 
The next day, after taking the train to Interlaken, we decided to rent bicycles in the town. The lady at the rental place suggested a route around Lake Brienz, and we were off. The lake was so clear that you could see straight to the bottom even at great depths. It was glittering and blue in the sun. We rode our bikes up and down hills, around sharp corners, and over the dirt paths. It was a total of 45 km, or about 28 miles. About halfway through, I took a nasty tumble on my bike, but I had to keep going. I am very proud that I did! It’s much better to say, “I biked all the way around Lake Brienz!” rather than “I biked about three quarters of the way around the lake and then had to take a train back because of a few bruises.”
 

Bike trip! Before the fall.

 

The next day we all woke up exceedingly sore. Just one member of my group and I decided to go to the Trummelbach Falls, an UNESCO World Heritage Site and awesome tourist attraction. After a breakfast of eggs and tomatoes, we headed out on the scenic mountain train.  Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the mountain runoff from the glaciers began carving a path through the mountain. Trummelbach Falls is the only place in Europe with accessible tunnels to see these rock-encased waterfalls. The water can flow up to 20,000 gallons per minute, and inside the tunnels you can hear nothing but the roar of the water carving its way through the rock. The walls are perfectly smooth from the erosion, and it is all quite terrifying to look straight down.

Need a place to relax by biking nearly 50 km, or hear the soothing sounds of thousands of gallons of water crashing violently through a mountain? Interlaken is the place for you!
 

What the inside of Trummelbach falls looks like.

How To: Find Your Body’s Physical & Mental Limit

The adorable village of Därstetten!

Finally having arrived in Interlaken, Switzerland on a very cloudless and sunny Thursday morning, my three travel companions and I checked into our small AirBnb, then went out to do some exploring. Our home for the next few days was comfortably nestled in the rolling hills of a village called Därstetten. This village was so small that the cows easily outnumbered the humans, and trains only went through every hour. Our house was this sweet, little country home, with the architecture and design staying true to traditional Swiss style homes. It had dark wood paneling on the outside, and carved wooden shutters painted green. There were vibrant red and yellow tulips surrounding the front, as well as a couple of free-range chickens wandering the campus, and we all fell in love with the area almost instantly.

Now I could go on an on about the home and our immediate surroundings, but I’ve actually got a very interesting story to tell you, so I’d better get started:

Waterfalls at the halfway mark!

Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early to do some more exploring. We ended up deciding to rent a couple of mountain bikes in Interlaken to ride around Lake Brienz. This is where the story really takes shape. I have not touched a bike since probably my freshman year of high school, but some part of me chose to ignore that fact and take on a 40+ kilometer trip in jeans and a sweater. It was nearly 65 degrees Celsius, and I had one bottle of water. Well, I figured I could use the exercise, plus I would be able to see the lake from all sorts of angles! During the first half hour of the trip, I was doing great. We were riding on flat, paved road, and I was really enjoying myself. Then the hills started.

*Pensive thoughts*

I don’t know what we were expecting, seeing as we were in one of the world’s most hilly/mountainous regions. We all turned a corner and saw the road go up. And up. And up. At first, I tried toughing it out, so I switched my gears and went into the first ascent at full speed. Soon enough, I lost my momentum, and found myself pedaling just to keep my bike from falling backwards. At this point, my thighs and calves were feeling a healthy sting, so I kept going until I reached the next turn which seemed to plateau off.

But what was waiting for us when we turned that corner? You guessed it- another hill! I took a breath, gathered myself, and started to tackle this one. We all got about halfway up before we hopped off our bikes and walked them to the next corner. This is how we took on every other hill. After seeing some beautiful waterfalls, falling a couple times, and a lunch break, we finally got to the opposite end of the lake. This next half of the trip was supposed to closely follow the water line, and we all joked that we would get there and see nothing but upwards roads. We would literally be going uphill both ways. That joke quickly turned into a sad reality.

Lake Brienz

There was a stint about a kilometer long that went all the way down to the lake and then it flattened out along the turn. Coming out of that turn, we, I kid you not, saw Another. Freaking. Hill. By this point, I’m already sweating bullets (the hot sun did not make any of this easier), and my legs were on fire. However, against my better judgment, I trekked up the hill. We were just over halfway home, and I was not about to be a quitter. There was one more relatively flat part, when we were going through a small town, but then the uphill battle quickly continued. We did actually go all around the lake- uphill both ways. What a story.

Towards the end, all of our bodies were feeling the toll of 40+ kilometers in our legs, backs, and souls. By the time we returned the bikes, one of us had a faulty ankle, one of us had a crazy-intense sunburn, and the other two of us had enough muscle cramps to last an army a lifetime. Plus, due to the questionable lack of padding on the bike seats, none of us could walk normally. We all hobbled and waddled into our beds that night. We were physically and mentally drained, so after cooking dinner at six that night, we fell asleep quicker than you could say “spaghetti bolognese and frozen vegetable mix” (our dinner).

The moral of this unfortunate story, even though I really did have fun and I’m thankful that I had the experience, is to NOT ride a bike for four and a half hours if you haven’t exercised those muscles in over six years, do NOT overestimate your physical or mental preparedness, and ALWAYS bring two to three bottles of water! Until my next misadventure, this is Sam signing off! 

Top 5 List of Favorite Encounters of the Food Kind

Thinking introspectively I’ve come to the conclusion that my love for travel might actually be not so subtly linked to my love for good food. Seeing famous landmarks and learning about the history of places is great and all, but my favorite part is undeniably the food. Be it street vendors, marketplaces, little cafés, or fancy restaurants, good food can be found everywhere, and in Europe you have nearly unlimited access to foods from many different cultures, and cuisine that might not be so easily accessible in the United States, so in the spirit of Buzzfeed, I decided to make a top 5 list of my favorite encounters of the food kind.

5. Schnitzel with Noodles, Heidelberg
Don’t get me wrong, this simple meal from Germany was delicious, but it secures a spot on my list for the experience of finally getting to eat the iconic food combination sung about in the Sound of Music. Growing up hearing that song, I never even knew what schnitzel was before coming to Europe, so it was fun for me to not just figure out what is actually was, but also to eat it.

4. Hot waffle with Ice Cream, Amsterdam
Right outside the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, by the famous sign, there’s a little food stand that sells an amazing combination that I had never seen anywhere else. Waffles, ice cream and coffee was a perfect way to break fast before enjoying the incredible art of Van Gogh and touring the beautiful canals of Amsterdam.  

Picture Courtesy of TripAdvisor.

3. Roasted Duck, Paris
This was one of the very first meals I ate in Europe, occurring in my very first weekend of travel. I’ll always have a soft spot for that first destination and the trip was highlighted by finding this tiny little café in the middle of Paris with great hospitality and even better food. This was also my first time actually trying duck and it has quickly taken it’s place high among my favorite meats.

2. Pork Belly with Creamed Potatoes, Munich
This whole meal at a lively restaurant/pub in Munich was amazing but I can say with some certainty that their potatoes were the best I had ever had. People who know me know that I love potatoes, so this was truly a wonderful experience. There’s just something great about the simple cuisine of Germany, and when it’s prepared as well as it was in Munich, there’s not much that can beat it.

1. Gyros, Athens

Right across from our hotel in Athens.

My number one spot comes from a little hole in the wall in the middle of Athinas street called the Pita Bar. My girlfriend and I discovered this place near the end of our trip and proceeded to go there for at least 4 meals in 3 days. It wasn’t particularly fancy or anything, but they knew how to make gyros like you wouldn’t believe. If you ever find yourself in Athens, I cannot recommend the Pita Bar highly enough. Just watch out, because other gyros will never taste as good again.

It might sound a little weird that food would be such a big part of traveling, but really, food is a huge part of culture. Europe is known for its diverse and impressive cuisine and it hasn’t disappointed. I look forward to a few more weeks of amazing food and amazing places.

5 Tips for Train Travel

From using the Eurail pass, I have learned a lot about traveling on trains. Especially when one doesn’t speak the language, going on trains can be a bit daunting. Trust me, I have taken my fair share of wrong trains, slept in a few very cold train stations, and been to many an information desk. This post is a ‘learn from my mistakes’ type deal so I hope everyone is ready!

1. Make sure you are in the right car.
I know, I know, this sounds like a no-brainer. However, a lot of the newer trains have the capability for cars to split off from one another and go to different places. Make sure that the car you get into is going to your destination, because there is no way to switch once you are en route.

2. Secure your valuables with your companions so you can all sleep.
It’s always a good idea to keep your personal items close to you. I keep my passport, Eurail pass, and money in a money belt, and put it under my clothes. However, sometimes I worry about my backpack. I want to sleep, but I don’t want to have to worry about my bag being stolen if everyone in my group falls asleep. So, I came up with a plan. Whenever we are planning on napping, my crew and I all buckle and tie our backpacks together. That way no one can grab our backpacks and quickly make off with one, but will have to struggle through the tangle of backpacks and thus become discovered. It makes me feel a lot safer.

3. Bring a scarf or neck pillow for sleeping.
One thing I learned about taking trains is that you will never know when or where you will be stranded. It is always a good idea to bring extra warm clothes in case you are stranded in a train station, because most of them are not heated. Also, most train stations don’t have places to lie down for sleeping, so having a pillow to rest your head on can come in really handy.

4. Leave enough time for transfers
Even though trains are usually on time, small delays or train strikes can lead to some close calls and missed trains. When planning your route, make sure that you can always get to the next platform for your transfer. I think 20 minutes is a safe bet. Every train station is different, and you need time to figure out where the train is and how to get there. Leave stress out of the equation and plan for decent transfer time.

5. Bring snacks!
Although many trains have dining cars, bringing snacks along for the ride is always an awesome idea. Train travel makes you sleepy, and a quick granola bar, apple, or other snack can be a great pick-me-up. Trust me, you will love yourself later.

Happy travels everyone!

Krakow: The Old City of Eastern Europe

As a Lithuanian, I was very excited to go to Krakow, Poland. As any Lithuanian will remind you when you respond, “I haven’t heard of that country,” the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe during the 14th century, and Krakow was one of the main capital cities of the country.

This is a monument dedicated to the 1409 cooperation of Lithuanian and Polish forces in Grunwald.

The Polish are a proud people. They have seen some of the most brutal wars, famines, and atrocities of any European country. Since the 11th century, they have only seen about 100 years of peace total, in the 16th century. In the span of WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union, they lost about 35% of their population to death camps, shootings, war, and gulags. They have a fierce hatred for oppression, extreme national pride, and they oppose all things Nazi and Soviet. According to our tour guide, ask a little girl about 4 years old what the colors of the Polish flag stand for, and she will respond with intense expression, “White is for the innocence of our country in the many wars waged on its soil, and red is for the blood that our people have sacrificed in those wars.”

This is the beautiful square in the heart of the city. The old city was so prosperous because of trade with Middle Eastern countries for horses!

After the lighthearted tour of the old city, famous for its walled defenses, beautiful castles and wonderful cathedrals, my group and I were ready to face one of the most difficult topics in human history: the Holocaust. About 1.5 hours outside of Krakow is the site where the most people were killed in the shortest span of time in history. Auschwitz and its sub-camp Birkenau, Nazi death camps, are today Krakow’s main tourist attraction. No one is excited to go to Auschwitz. Remembering all of the atrocities committed there is not a fun day trip. But it is something that every human should do, and it is a burial site that everyone needs to make a pilgrimage to.

The victims were mostly Jews, but also included Soviet prisoners, Romani people, and Polish people. Here are some statistics from the US Holocaust Museum website: “Jews (1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, of whom 960,000 died); Poles (147,000 deported, of whom 74,000 died); Roma (23,000 deported, of whom 21,000 died); Soviet prisoners of war (15,000 deported and died); and other nationalities (25,000 deported, of whom 12,000 died).” When you enter Auschwitz, you see the sign above the entrance “Arbeit macht Frei,” meaning, work sets you free. However, this was not true at all for the prisoners sent there.

After arriving off the cattle cars after days of journey without a break, food or water, you would be filtered through the entrance. If you were sent to the left, you would be sent directly to the gas chambers. If you were sent to the right, you would be put in the forced labor camp or sent to the human experimentation area. The only people sent to the work camp were strong young men. Women, children, the elderly and those with any sort of disability were sent to the gas chambers.
When you entered the gas chamber, you were told that you would be taking a shower. Prop shower heads would be on the walls. However, the room was filled with Zyklon B, which would kill you painfully in about 10-20 minutes depending on your proximity to the vent. We walked inside the gas chamber, and could see the nail marks on the walls where people had tried to claw their way out of the gas chambers.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the camp as a sign of respect. Here is a view of the barracks from the outside. 700 people were kept in each building.

After the people were murdered, a forced Jewish labor force would have to shave all of their hair to be used for coat lining or mattress filling, and all gold teeth and rings would be taken (along with any possessions they had taken on the cattle cars) to houses in the camp known as ‘Canada.’ These storehouses for valuables were called Canada because Canada was a symbol of wealth for the Polish. Then, the corpses would be placed in ovens and incinerated. Walking the paths of these people was incredibly moving and powerful.

If you were sent to the work camp, you would be given insect-riddled and soiled uniforms and tattooed with a number. You would sleep 8 in a bed in barracks with mud floors, full of rats and insects. Only one latrine was provided and almost everyone had dysentery. You were given about 200 calories per day. You had to work 14 hours or more of backbreaking labor, and if you fell, injured yourself, or passed out from starvation, you would be sent to the gas chamber. If you did not fulfill work quotas, you would be subject to capital punishment, including having your arms broken, lashings, beatings, spending a night in a suffocation cell (no ventilation, many people to a room, only a few survive) or a standing cell, (four people placed in a 1 meter by 1 meter cell with no room to move at all. After all of this, you would be expected to work the next day.

At Birkenau, the site of the largest mass killings, our tour guide informed us that there was a 1 inch layer of human ash just below the grass. The camp was liberated by the Soviets. Many of the prisoners that survived, however, were sent to gulags – Soviet-enforced labor camps – immediately following their liberation.

I know this post has been really heavy, so I want to leave you with an inspiring story. On our tour, our tour guide mentioned a professor that was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in the beginning of Nazi occupation. He survived four years of hard labor in the camp. After the war, his political ideals landed him in a Siberian gulag, because he opposed the Soviets, where he survived another four years of starvation, hard labor, and cold. He lived to be 104 years old. When asked by a student how he lived so long, he responded “I wanted to live long enough to see Poland peaceful. Now, after 80 years of nonstop war, I can tell them at the moment of my death that everything is alright.”

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