Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Auschwitz Concentration Camp ~ Poland

Auschwitz . . . that dark word that calls to mind the horrific deeds done to the Jews and eventually extermination that we all learned about during the years of WW2.  Auschwitz . . . the largest of all concentration camps and whose main goal was focused on extermination of the Jewish race.  Auschwitz . . . the pain, sorrow and evil that we word encompasses . . . it was a trip I was determined to make while living in Germany and one I did not look forward to.

I had been warned to be prepared . . . "it is painful" they said . . . nothing could have prepared me for what I saw before my eyes and what I heard and read about the dreadful place . . .

(Cell "blocks" in Auschwitz I camp)
Mostly Auschwitz is seen as just an extermination camp, however it consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp and prison originally constructed to hold Polish political prisoners), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration / extermination camp with a railroad running through the center and complete with four gas chambers/crematoriums), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps.  Auschwitz I contained a series of buildings to hold prisoners as well as facilitate human experimentation.  It was here that we learned of the sole purpose of one block was to experiment with making women sterile.  Mostly the subjects were tortured with inhumane experimentation with the final result of death.  In other blocks experimentation was done on children, mainly twins.  There was a hospital which meant sure death if one were to find him or herself there, a "death wall" were executions took place, dark prison cells were prisoners were left in the dark for weeks on end, starvation cells where they were left to starve to death and standing cells were there was only enough room for the prisoner to stand.  Were were told of hangings, of manual labor with little to eat and shown pictures of emaciated prisoners.

It was here in this camp (Auschwitz I) where the Holocaust Memorial and Museum are now held.  The gates to the camp reads Arbeit macht frei ("Work brings freedom").  It was in Auschwitz I, in one of the cell "blocks", that I stood before piles and piles of human hair with tears swimming in my eyes.  The hair was collected and used to make a certain type of fabric for soldiers socks as well as other useful items. It was here that I saw a room full of discarded shoes, children and adults alike . . .glasses . . toothbrush and shaving materials . . . human possessions.  Many of the victims were told that they were only being moved to a different location and therefore brought their few belongings with them only to have them stripped from them and sent back to the Germans.  It was here where the one surviving gas chamber and crematorium are located.  The chamber was dark and
quite out of respect for it's victims.  There was a single vase of flowers in the room for a memorial.  Several cut outs in the ceiling were proof of where the Zyklon B was dropped to the death of those inside.  In the adjacent room were two furnaces to burn the bodies. Unbelievable . . . it felt as if I were just kicked in the stomach . . . my heart was aching . . . how in the world could this have happened and only 70 years ago!
 (the luggage of hundreds of thousands of victims)

(electric fences surrounding Auschwitz I . . . we were told may people in both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau would choose to end their lives by jumping into the electric fences than to go on with the torture they were being put through)

We next made our way to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest of the camps and located very close to Auschwitz I.  Here is where the majority of the extermination of the Jews took place with the railroad running straight through the camp for easy access.  There were four gas chambers/crematorium held at this camp.  These were destroyed by the Nazi's on there way out of Auschwitz in an attempt to hide the crimes that were done here.  We were able to see the remains of these sites as well as some of the brick buildings set up for the women prisoners.  The men's barracks were mostly made of wood and therefore destroyed in the last 70 years but a few had been rebuilt in order for visitors to view the living conditions.  The size of the camp astounded me . . . so many buildings . . . so much barbed wire . . so much death . . .
 (train tracks through the center of Auschwitz II-Birkenau)
(memorial to the victims at Auschwitz II-Birkenau)

It is difficult to tell the exact amount of lives that Auschwitz claimed as there were not accurate ledgers near the end of the war.  Prisoners and victims no longer had their names or numbers taken down in registers, mass graves were ordered to be uncovered and the bodies burned as well as documents destroyed.  The best estimation that has been established over the years is that Auschwitz claimed approximately 1.1 million lives.  Approximately 1 in 6 Jews that died during the Holocaust took place in Auschwitz.  Other victims of this camp included non-Jewish Poles, Soviet POW's as well as 31,000 to 36,000 people from other nations.

(map of the many places throughout Europe that prisoners and victims were brought from to Auschwitz)

It was a difficult visit, yet I believe a very important one.  As George Santayana put it "The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."  Clayton and I bought two books at the camp site that recall the memories of two victims of Auschwitz who made it through the Holocaust and went on to record their stories.  I am currently reading Hope is the Last to Die by Halina Birenbaum and would definately recommend it.  Halina was an 11 year old Polish Jew who spent the occupation in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the concentration camps at Majdanek, Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and Neustad-Glewe where she was freed in 1945 at the age of 15 years old.  That anyone should have to go through what this little girl went through blows my mind.  The other book that was highly recommended by our tour guide is This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen written by Tadeusz Borowski.

If you are planning a trip to Krakow and Auschwitz I would suggest taking the tour with one of the many tourist info shops throughout Krakow.  We were originally going to drive ourselves there since we had a rental car and just pay to get into the museum.  I am glad we went with the tour company as it was only about $30 and included the transportation there and a guide for both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II.  Our guide was very knowledgeable and passionate about the subject.  There were about 30 of us to one group but we were provided with headsets allowing us to hear what was said though we were in different rooms or parts of a cell "block". 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Berlin, Germany

Berlin . . . who hasn't heard of Berlin??  Such a famous city full of history, art and uniqueness.  When we first moved to Germany Clayton and I had decided visiting Berlin was a MUST!!  After the first year went by and we hadn't fit Berlin into the traveling schedule we decided to set an official date for the tour.  Looking at our schedules we had decided to do Berlin in March . . . March 14th-16th to be exact!  I hit our Lonely Planet's Germany book as a resource as well as my buddy Ann who lived in Berlin for some 13 years.  We decided to drive as I didn't want to leave my car down at the train station for three days and I think the gas ended up being about the same price as train tickets anyway.  After a slight mishap on the hotel, that goodness I got that worked out and got my 300 euro back, we booked a couple nights at the Holiday Inn Express which was within walking distance to several underground stations and had a pretty good rate!

Our first evening in Berlin found us walking all the way from our hotel to the downtown sector and the Topography of Terror.  It actually wasn't too terrible of a walk . . . but we decided to go with the underground trains the rest of our stay.  The remnant of the wall running along the Topography of Terror museum is the longest stretch of the outer wall that was never demolished. The Topography of Terror is a small museum on the site where the buildings of the Nazi headquarters for the Gestapo and the SS were located during the Nazi regime. The buildings were largely destroyed by allied bombings in 1945 and were further demolished after the war.  Throughout our stay in Berlin we happened upon several sections of the wall where we least expected them.  I badly wanted a "chunk" to take home and actually found some for sale at a tourist shop close to Checkpoint Charlie . . . they wanted quite a bit of money for these little tiny fragments so I decided to get one cheaper.  Clayton was able to dislodge a crumbling piece about the size of a quarter . . . it was falling apart.  We later found a different tourist store on the outskirts of town where I was able to get a reasonable sized "chunk" for a fair price.  Even came with a certificate of authenticity :-)  I guess we will never know the difference if it isn't real anyway . . .
We  found out the hard way that the "thing to do" is to urinate on sections of the wall . . . I decided to squeeze myself in between two sections of the wall to get a really cool picture.  As Clayton was adjusting my camera I smelled something sour . . . I leaned into the wall in front of me to get a better smell . . . URINE!!  Nasty urine smell greeted my nostrils!!  Later we encountered two of the male species walking up to segments of the wall in broad daylight, unzipping their garments and urinating on the wall . . . is this really what is suppose to be happening??
As I am sitting at the computer writing this blog post I just realized that we never saw the East Side Gallery . . . the most famous section of the wall and covered in paintings.  Sigh . . . I guess we will just have to take another trip back . . .
For those of you who are not too familiar with the significance of the Berlin Wall (I really didn't know much about it so I did some research before I went) basically it was put in place by the Soviets after WW2.  Berlin was divided between the Russians, French, British and United States.  The west side of Berlin was under the Allied control while the east side was under the Soviet reign (the German Democratic Republic).  The Wall served to prevent the massive emigration and defection that marked Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc during the post-World War II period. It came to symbolize the "Iron Curtain" that separated Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Before the construction of the wall over 3.5 million people had fled East Berlin into West Berlin and from there throughout western Europe  . . . thus the wall was built.  Those trying to escape from East Berlin into West Berlin after the construction of the wall were shot . . . 5,000 attempted the escape, 100 were killed in the process . . .
The wall was brought down in 1990 and paved the way for the reunification of Germany.

Our next stop was Checkpoint Charlie . . . it was a tourist trap.  There was a little shack set up in the middle of the road with some dressed up officers out in front that would charge you for a picture.  That is all.  The original shack is actually in one of the museums in Berlin . . . this was not the original but it did symbolize what was there.  It was the crossing point from West Berlin into East Berlin during the Cold War.  Here we found trinkets, post cards, expensive rubble from the wall.  We also found a neat little photo booth from which we obtained our own little souvenir from Berlin :-) Our photo booth experience was the best part of Checkpoint Charlie.

We also ate the first decent Chinese meal in the last year a half . . . . it was delightful!  We happened upon Peking Ente while walking back to our hotel on the first night.  "Should we try it??" we thought.  After being disappointed time and again with the Chinese food in Germany, do we need another disappointment?? . . . but I was really, really craving Chinese food . . . and we wanted a good meal . . . in we went.  Oh! What delight was the wanton soup! The pork friend rice!!  The spicy chicken with veggies!  It did not disappoint . . . we were only sad that the only good Chinese restaurant so far in Germany is 5.5 hours away . . .

The next day we found ourselves at the Berlin Zoo (and as stated before we ended up riding the underground train system everywhere this day . . . it was only about 6 euros per person for the day pass . . not bad).  The Berlin Zoo is the oldest and best known zoo in Germany, opening it's gates back in 1844.  With over 1,500 species and just about 20,500 animals it is said that the Berlin Zoo is the most comprehensive collection of species in the world . . . and only cost about 20 euros per person for both the Zoo and Aquarium entrance fees.  The first living thing I saw upon entering the zoo through the lion gate was the Indian Rhinoceros, or Rhinoceros Unicornis.  I felt like a child . . . watching Land Before Time . . only in real life!!  This thing looked like a dinosaur!!  It had big plates of skin covering it's body . . . and a large horn!!  I had only seen my first Rhinoceros the year before in the Frankfurt Zoo and it definitely did not look like this one!  Clayton had to pry me away after many exclamations of "oh my!!" and "this is amazing!"  He reminded me we had much more to see in just a few hours of time. We ended up spending most of our day at the Berlin Zoo . . . so many fascinating creatures that I had never seen in real life before!  We watched hippos playing in the water, hands on experience in the petting zoo, polar bears pacing, an arctic wolf pack running, an Asiatic Black Bear up close and personal and lions eating their nightly meal. They had
orangutans, a massive gorilla flexing his muscles and every type of large cat you can imagine.  There is also a three story aquarium attached to the zoo complex that we enjoyed thoroughly!  I seriously could have stayed there the entire day!!  If you love animals and you are visiting Berlin then the Zoo is a must!  (it is always a little sad though knowing that these animals do not belong in captivity . . . but it is also the only way that many of us will ever see them in real life . . . and the zoo was very well maintained with large areas for the animals . . . quite different than the Frankfurt zoo)

The Brandenburg Gate . . . a must see in Berlin (and frankly it is a little hard to miss it).  The Brandenburg Gate, built in the 18th century, was once one of 18 entrance gates into the city.  It was badly damaged during WW2 and was only recently restored in 2000-2002.  During the years of the cold wall the Brandenburg Gate was isolated and inaccessible being so close to the Berlin Wall.  The gate itself is beautiful and is crowned with the winged goddess of victory riding a chariot borne by four horses.  We ended up seeing the gate at dusk, middle of the day and at dusk once again.
(Brandenburg Gate)

The Holocaust Memorial, downtown Berlin, is dedicated to the Jewish victims murdered during the Holocaust.  There are 2,711 concrete slabs of various heights arranged over 19,000 square meters to "produce and uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason."
(Holocaust Memorial)

Our last day in Berlin found us cold, wind blown and traveling through some unsavory parts of town.  We first headed down to the flea market at Mauerpark in the Prenzlauer Berg District.  According to my book about Berlin from Lonely Planet and several websites this flea market was supposedly packed with tourists and Berliners bargaining for the best antiques and furniture . . and it was only on Sunday's!  I was so excited!  The closer we got to the flea market, however, I noticed more and more people headed in the opposite direct and empty handed.  I found out why.  The "flea market" consisted of two small rows of vendors selling junk . . . and I usually find at least one little gem in the midst of junk . . . it was JUNK!  (it very well could have been the weather that kept the good ones at home . . . maybe . . )
We then headed down to Museum Island were five of the big museums of Berlin are located.  We really only wanted to see one in particular, the Pergamon museum.  One of the Docs I work with suggested this museum and according to my handy dandy Lonely Planet book the museum was described as "the one museum in Berlin that should not be missed.  A feast of classical Greek, Babylonia, Roman, Islamic and Middle Eastern art and architecture, it will amaze and enlighten you."  What we missed in the book was the part that said "note that some sections may be closed while the museum is undergoing renovation of the next five years."  Those sections happened to be the three major collections . . . we were pretty bummed.  The Pergamon Altar from 165 B.C. is located here as well as the Ishtar Gate from Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC).  I am pretty sure they were a part of the closed sections . . . and
the line was ridiculous!  We skipped the museum and instead did a little visit to the Berliner Dom.  The Berliner Dom is a neo-Renaissance Cathedral built in 1905.  It also serves as a museum and concert hall including a crypt were dozens of royals are buried in elaborate tombs.  It was indeed beautiful!

We had some time left in Berlin . . but considering the weather (miserable) and the 5.5 hour drive ahead of us we decided to hit the road.  It was a super fun trip though and I wouldn't mind going back and seeing some of the sites we couldn't make it to . . the Pergamon museum, Schloss Charlottenburg, Reichstag building and the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall to name a few. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Spain . . . Splendid and Stunning

During our cruising aboard the Costa Pacifica we made several stops along the coast of Spain.  I decided to put them all in one blog post so that my readers would get the full Spain experience at once :-)

Cadiz, Spain

Our first stop was in Cadiz, Spain.  Cadiz is a port city located in southwestern Spain and is full of life and sun!  Cadiz is also the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain and is one of eight provinces which make up the community of Andalusia. When we first found out we would be taking this cruise and stopping in Spain we had decided it was a must to lounge at a beach in Spain . . . ummm, boy were we wrong!  We first spent some time in the main square of Cadiz enjoying the live music/dancing, frozen yogurt and shops as well as meandering through the winding and narrow streets of the city.  The cathedral of Cadiz was and imposing structure which demanded our attention. We then changed into our swimming gear in the bathroom of a local eatery and headed off to find our beach!

La Playa de la Caleta ~ when I had done my research before the trip I had learned that this beach was the best loved beach in Cadiz.  It is a beach located in the Old city and is located between the castles of San Sebastian and Santa Catalina.  What could be better than being in Spain, at a beach, located Die Another Day.  It seemed to be the perfect choice for a beach at this stop as it was within walking distance from our cruise dock and the reviews were amazing!  The first thing we noticed upon arrival, however, was the density of people upon this certain beach.
It was packed!  The beach itself is not very large . . . about 1,300 feet long and 98 feet wide . . . all of it filled with tourists and Spaniards combined!  Well . . . "Let's give it a shot" we thought.  Finding a spot large enough to lay out our towels we then took in the surroundings . . . the setting was indeed beautiful!  A quaint beach situated between two extremely old castles, on the left side of the beach several boats were swaying with the tide, the sound of beach and touch of sun on our skin  . . . . we then noticed the nudity . . .
between castles??  I had also learned that it had a certain resemblance to parts of Havana, Cuba and was used as the set for several scenes in the James Bond movie
For those of you who have not been to a beach in Europe, it is quite common for bathers to bathe topless.  It is also quite common to find old and young men alike sporting the traditional "speedo".  We are not European, however, and ended up feeling quite uncomfortable in our surroundings.  Also . . the water was quite cool.
Back in town we were able to satisfy our American food cravings at a traditional, American "burger joint" (forgot the name of it at the moment) before heading back to the ship.  It was a beautiful day and the setting was superb!

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Our next stop in Spain was at the port of Vigo, Spain . . . our main attraction that day?? The city of Santiago de Compostela and it's famous cathedral.  Just a short train ride away and we were walking the streets of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Legend has it that the remains of the apostle James were located here and the cathedral was then built upon the site of the remains.  The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela has been the final destination of a pilgrimage that began over 1,000 years ago and is known as the Way of St. James.  Over 100,000 pilgrims travel to the city each year from across Europe as well as other parts of the world.  Surrounding the cathedral you can find many shops and stands selling the scallop shell, emblem of St. James.  Inside the cathedral there are backpacks and walking sticks stacked along the walls as pilgrims pay their respects (I guess we took the easy route . . no backpacks, tennis shoes or walking sticks for our group of 6).

The construction of the cathedral began in 1075 as was made in the Romanesque style with a Baroque fa├žade.  It is truly beautiful and intricate . . . inside and out!  The first thing I noticed upon entering the cathedral, besides the number of people packed in such a small space, was a very large, and beautiful chandelier in the center of the cathedral.  The smell of incense greeted us and everything seemed to be overlaid with gold.  We stayed for part of the service before venturing back into the streets.

On our train ride back to the port we learned that the very same rail/route we were taking had an accident just a few months prior killing 79 people.  Apparently the train was exceeding the speed limitations and derailed on a bend as it approached the Compostela station . . . uhhh . . gee . . .thanks for informing me. :-/
Malaga, Spain

(roman ruins with the Alcazaba in the background)

Malaga, also a part of Andalusia, was our last stop in Spain during this voyage.  None of the shore excursions listed by our cruise where too tempting so we decided to just do this one on foot.  Clayton, not feeling well, decided to stay on the ship so Ryan, Kelly and I set off on our own adventure.  Malaga is the sixth largest city in Spain, located near the straight of Gibraltar and not very far from the African continent.  The history of Malaga dates back over 2,800 years making one of the oldest cities in the world.

The Roman theater of Malaga dates back to the 1st century B.C. and was only rediscovered in 1951.

The Castle of Gibralfaro, as well as the connecting Alcazaba, were built by the Moors in the early 11th century.  The Alcazaba was the fortification on the top of the hill Gibralfaro and was used for administrative and defensive operations.  It was also the residence of the royalty of that time.  The inner structure was filled with gardens, ponds and beautiful architecture . . . not the typical style of architecture we had seen in Europe up to this point.  I later learned that we could have actually taken a ferry across to Morocco for the day . . . complete with a camel ride!  Oh well . . .

Episcopal Palace

Friday, February 28, 2014

Jolly good time in London ~ England

"There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see

I'll never forget the people I met
Braving those angry skies
I remember well as the shadows fell
The light of hope in their eyes

And though I'm far away
I still can hear them say
Bombs up...
But when the dawn comes up

there'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see

there'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
When the world is free

The shepherd will tend his sheep
The valley will bloom again
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again

there'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see

there'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see... " . . . Vera Lynn

We landed in the port city of Dover, England . . known for their famous "white cliffs."  They were beautiful indeed, but I had to look up the significance to understand them.  I knew there was a song written about them . . . I had heard "The White Cliffs of Dover" somewhere, thought I cannot remember where . . . buy why were they so important?
"The cliffs have great symbolic value in Britain because they face towards Continental Europe across the narrowest part of the English Channel, where invasions have historically threatened and against which the cliffs form a symbolic guard. Because crossing at Dover was the primary route to the continent before the advent of air travel, the white line of cliffs also formed the first or last sight of England for travelers." (Wikipedia)
Other than the famous cliffs Dover did not have much to offer us with all of the shops being closed . . we promptly made our way to Dover Priory Station and proceeded with the hour long ride into downtown London.  It was surprisingly easier to figure out the train system that I had thought and only cost us around 30 pounds for the roundtrip.  Not bad at all! 
Underground!! (Mind the Gap)

Once we arrived in London we, being the great tourists we are, had to first make a stop at Buckingham Palace (the official London residence of the British monarch).  We did not stay for the changing of the guards as we only had a limited time in the city and many things to see.  We then made our way to Kensington Palace, the once royal residence of Diana, Princess of Wales and the current residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  The front gates of the Palace still held a memorial for Princess Diana . . . she will never be forgotten. We spent some time wandering through the rooms were we enjoyed viewing some famous, and fabulous, royal gowns as well as other displays throughout the residence.

Having a custom suit designer brother on the trip mandated that we take a visit to Savile Row, known for it's tailoring of men's clothing and has had such customers as Jude Law, Winston Churchill and Lord Nelson.  We also hit up Big Ben before heading back to the train station for our return journey to Dover.  We did not have enough time in London as it is one of my favorite European cities.  Clayton and I are planning on returning . . . and soon. I had spent a week in London back in 2006 and have come to love this city.  The underground train system makes traveling throughout the city a breeze and it always helps to know the language.  The people seem nice enough and the city appears clean and easy to navigate.  It also holds many attractions for the tourist; numerous theater houses, the London Eye, Natural History Museum, Westminster, Tower of London, great food, St. Paul's Cathedral and Tower Bridge to name a few.