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Europe 2007 (Berlin, Prague, Poland)
(See map/travel plan)
(See photo album)
(See video clips of my travels)
Tue Wed Thu
| 15 May | 16 May | 17 May | 18 May | 19 May |
20 May | 21 May | 22 May | 23 May | 24 May | 25 May | 26 May |
27 May | 28 May | 29 May | 30 May | 31 May | 1 Jun | 2 Jun |
3 Jun | 4 Jun | 5 Jun | 6 Jun |
15 May Tuesday
My 4:30 pm flight didn't leave until 5:40 pm, but that's okay, because I had a window seat. The plane quickly ascended to 33,000 feet, but my view was never more than clouds. Still, there are some cool cloud formations that high. I also was fortunate enough to see a sunset and, not long afterwards, a sunrise. I tried to get some sleep, but that didn't really happen. The plane landed in Brussels at 12:52 am Milwaukee time, or 7:52 am Brussels time.
16 May Wednesday
Apparently, the Brussels airport is designed to make you walk about 30 minutes before you can reach your connecting flight - and that includes use of the moving sidewalks. Anyway, the flight for Berlin left around 9:45 am, and I had the pleasure of sitting near a group of goth, punk guys with numerous tattoos and piercings. (Maybe they were part of a band?) I dozed a bit on this flight, then soon landed in Berlin around 11 am.
I got some cash from a Geldautomat (ATM), and walked off in search of the S-bahn (subway). With the help of a local, I managed to get a ticket, then I was on my way to the youth hostel. Luckily for me, it was the first thing I saw emerging from the S-bahn.
I dropped off my main bag in the luggage room, then headed out to Alexanderplatz to find a tour bus. After a little aimless wandering, I found it. The bus drove a 2-hour route around Berlin, and headphones (with audio in several language choices) explained the highlights along the way. It was a nice, easy way to start my trip. I sat on top of the doubledecker bus, snapping many photos along the way.
Around 3pm, I looked around for a cheap lunch, and found a Subway. Ein meatball sub, bitte! After lunch, I went back to the hostel to check into my room (check-in time was 3pm). Following a short rest, I headed out to Lustgarden (just a flat, green area - don't get any ideas), where I saw the Berliner Dom, a large, impressive cathedral with a 7200 pipe organ. I even hiked the 267 steps the top to get a fine view of Mitte, the central district of Berlin. By then, it was 6pm, so it was time to had back to the hostel to rest and find a place for dinner.
17 May Thursday
Tired Feet, Tired Back
I woke up early (7:30 am), ate the youth hostel's complimentary breakfast, and planned out my day. I basically planned on following the Lonely Planet's suggestions for a first day in Berlin.
The first stop was the Reichstag, which is the seat of the German parliament, or congress. The Reichstag is a blend of old and new architecture. After waiting in line, and passing through security, you take a lift to the top, where the glass dome sits. There, you can learn about the building's history and walk the spiral ramp up to the top. The glass dome symbolizes the transparency of the German democracy. I also learned that when German citizens turn 18, they can not only vote, but they can run for office. Take that, America!
Next, I walked to the Brandenberger Tor, or gate, which is the symbol of Berlin. Then, I walked to the Holocaust Memorial, which was recently opened in 2005. 2,711 rectangular concrete blocks mark the area, and an information center explains the horrors using personal stories and letters written by victims in concentration camps.
I had lunch at a mall in Postdamer Platz, a site of recent urban renewal. Then I walked to the Topgraphy of Terror - an outdoor exhibit on the Nazis and the Nuremburg trials. Nearby is a 100 meter strech of the Berlin wall. Following this, I went to Checkpoint Charlie, which is remembered by a reconstructed US army guardhouse and sign that says, "You are now leaving the American sector." I also went to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, but found it to be overcrowded and overpriced. Since it was Thursday, I managed to get into the Altes Museuem after 6pm for free. The first floor had Greek antiquites, which okay, while the second floor had cool ancient Egyptian artifacts, including the famous bust of Nerfititi.
For dinner, I ended up finding a German restaurant where I had Kronigsburger meatballs and potatoes and a Paulaner (dark) beer for a decent price. By that time, it was 9pm, so I had had a very full day of sightseeing, and my feet and back were quite tired.
18 May Friday
Internet and the Palace
So, I woke up about 4 am, and never got back to sleep. I don't know if it was jet lag or what. I rolled around until about 8 am. Anyway, that morning I learned that the youth hostel has wifi access, and I found an outlet. So, I plugged in my crappy laptop (craptop?), which has a nonfunctioning battery, and got online. I spent quite a bit of time responding to e-mails from the week, and quite a bit more time downloading/resizing photos, and updating my website. Before I knew it, it was already 11 am. There went my morning.
I then hatched a plan for the rest of my day. I would go to Schloss Charlottenburg, an 18th century baroque palace from the days of Prussia. For 12 euros you received access the main palace (audio tours included), the new wing, and a couple of other buildings. This is quite an opulent and grand edifice, and much of it had to be restored after World War II. It reminded me of the palace at Versailles (near Paris). Behind the palace lies an extravagantly large garden, full of tourists, bikers, and joggers. Apparently, half of the garden is done in a French baroque style (flat with large, symmetrical designs made of colored gravel), while the other half is done in a natural English style (gravel paths winding through trees and grass). I spent the entire afternoon exploring the palace and the gardens. In between audio tours, I ate a pizza lunch at an Italian restaurant across the street.
In the early evening, I headed to the Jewish Museum, which was open until 8pm. You enter through an older building, then descend the stairs into a zig-zaggy, ultra-modern building without any rectangular shapes. The basement floor has three high-concept art projects that are highly symbolic. One is the Holocaust Tower, where you step into this tall, dark, and frightening concrete room. It really makes you feel small and threatened. Upstairs are exhibits highlighting the history of Jews in Germany over the last one thousand years. Unfortunately, I missed about half of it, since the museum was closing. That's what I get for starting out late.
19 May Saturday
This morning, I woke up, had breakfast, updated my webpage, and was out by 10 am. That was pretty good, I figured. My first stop on my touring agenda was the Pergamon Museum, which I should have visited Thursday night instead of the Altes Museum. The Pergamon Museum contained large works of art and architecture from ancient Greece, Rome, Babylon, and the Middle East. The principle piece (and the one that the museum is named after) is the Pergamon Altar from present day Turkey. They also have a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate made with blue-glazed bricks, as well as countless other statues and works of art.
After spending over 3 hours in the Pergamon Museum, I walked outside to eat a doner kebab for lunch. Apparently, it's a common fast food item in Germany - basically a gyro on flatbread. Sitting on the steps of the Pergamon Museum, I planned the rest of my day. To be honest, I was starting to get musuemed out from all the museums and sights I have seen. So, I looked for something cheap and interesting to do.
I decided to take an S-bahn to the East Side Gallery, which is the name given to the longest stretch (1300 meters) of the Berlin Wall still remaining. Local residents have turned the wall into a veritable art gallery, covering it with paintings. After this, I took another train to Victoria park, where I climbed to the top of a hill called Tempelhof Berg, on top of which is a monument. Then, I decided to check out a local beer garden, where I had an early dinner - pork sandwich and a dark beer (Erdinger Dunkel).
Then, I headed back to the youth hostel. Since it was still early, I wandered around to Alexanderplatz, where I saw there was a music festival. I caught the tail end of an African band performance. Then I went back to the hostel to sleep.
20 May Sunday
Today, I woke up early, had breakfast, and checked out of the youth hostel. I then rode a train to the west part of the city, where I found my new lodging - Hotel Pension Dittberner. I had to ring a bell to be allowed in. Then, a woman pointed me to this old-fashioned elevator located in the center of the building. She had to manually open and close the doors. A staircase covered in red carpet wrapped around the elevator shaft. It was very cool.
After dropping off my large backpack, I took the S-bahn out to Potsdam to see the Schloss Sanssouci, another giant 18th century palace built by Frederick the Great. Sanssouci is French for "without care," which represented Frederick's attitude, apparently. There was an audio tour for the main palace, to which only 40 people are allowed every ten minutes. You have to stand in a line to get tickets, and they assign you a time slot. Once inside, you have to wear oversized grey slippers over your shoes to protect the floors. Of course, the kids on the tour spent most of the time sliding around like they were on ice. Like the other palace in Berlin, Schloss Sanssouci has grand, opulent rooms. Twenty-five foot, gilded ceilings, huge paintings on the walls, and fine marble floors.
Outside the main palace, there is a large landscape where you can find more impressive buildings. There is a Chinese Hause, where Frederick has tea, the Orangery Palace, where guests stayed, and the New Palace, which was another amazingly ostentatious building. After all of these palaces, I'm going to return home and find my place to be quite dull.
That night, I went to the reception of the ISMRM conference, met some people, had some food, and went back to my hotel. After spending all day walking through palaces, I realized that my feet were hurting. I had blisters on both of my feet. I guess my shoes weren't that good, after all. But on Monday thru Friday, I'll be at the conference, mostly sitting through lectures. So, hopefully, that will give them time to heal.
21 May Monday
The Conference Begins
I'm not going to say much about the conference, as I expect most people reading this don't care about the latest findings in MRI research, and that's not what this site is about anyway. I did spend most of the day at the conference, which is held in a wildly confusing building. There are elevators and staircases in strange places, and hidden rooms that are hard to find. I think it must have been designed by M.C. Escher. In the evening, I went to a party thrown by Siemens. I never turn down free food and beer.
22 May Tuesday
This was a day of scenic dining. In the morning, I had breakfast in my hotel, which has this elegant dining room complete with oriental rugs, reproductions of Babylonian art, and ornate woodwork on the ceiling. I was served a plate with slices of meat and cheese, as well as a basket of bread.
For lunch, I walked east of the conference center, and kept walking until I found a place that wasn't inundated with conference attendees. It was called Patisserie, and I ordered something that looked like quiche and an apfelsaft (apple juice). Then I brought the food with me and walked down a ramp to a flat green area in front of a lake. A few other conference attendees had found the same spot, but it still a very peaceful place for lunch.
For dinner, I settled on a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet called Jules Verne. It was rather pricey, but I stayed anyway. I ordered the sate with rice. It was basically chicken satay (with peanut sauce) on skewers with rice and a spicy mix of crunchy noodles and fruit. The waiter also recommended a local beer called Alter Brandenburg. I sat outside, enjoying the warm Berlin evening, and watching the passersby - young ladies walking their dogs, groups of people looking for a place to eat, and even a guy trying to sell lighters to patrons. As I was on my second beer, the weather quickly shifted from warm to cool, as clouds moved in. I soon finished my beer and went back to my hotel.
23 May Wednesday
Dancing the Night Away
This morning, I woke up and took my clothes to a Waschsalon (laundromat). The only problem was that the Waschsalon I went to had been closed. Luckily, a clerk at a nearby store pointed me in the direction of another Waschsalon. Once there, I had to figure out how to work the machines. I asked a German woman and she was able to explain to me in English.
For lunch, I went to a place called Franziskushof recommended by Lonely Planet. Apparently, it was a fundraiser for a local Franciscan monastery. Not only that, the prices were cheap. I bought a kohlrouladen, since I had no idea what it was. With my guide book and my utensils, I realized that it was cabbage leaves stuffed with tasty meatloaf.
That night, I had dinner at a Thai restaurant with my friend Peck. It turns out that he had booked a hotel directly across the street from mine! That was quite an amazing coincidence.
After dinner, I met up with a friend Sarah and her coworker, and we went to Clarehens Ballhaus, where we met up with other conference attendees who swing dance. This, apparently, was the best place to go swing dancing in Berlin. We arrived at 9:30 pm, while lessons were still going on. At 10 pm, the floor was open for dancing. It was quite a crowded and hot venue, however, without any fans or air conditioning to be found. And when I asked for water, I got this small bottle of carbonated water for like 2 euros (over two bucks!). At first, I encountered mostly beginners, but as time wore on, I found the experienced lindy hoppers and had some really great dances. Quite often, follows would ask for a second dance, which I understand is normal over here (according to my friend Adam). Around 11 pm, they had a birthday jam, and the dancing got even better. When the crowd started dying down, I looked at my watch. It was 1:15 am, and my friends had all left. No matter, but I was quite spent, as well. So, I went out to catch a train, only to find that the trains weren't running. Luckily, I was able to catch a taxi back to my hotel by about 2 am. What a wonderful night.
24 May Thursday
Dancing the Night Away Reloaded
So, the MRI conference ends Friday at noon, but the reception is always held Thursday evening. This way, all the slackers who leave early can still make the reception. When I arrived at the reception, I found the same long queues for beer and food as in previous years. With 5,000 total attendees, you have many mouths to feed. Then I heard music. Swing music. And I saw a band. A swing band. The Blue Baba Swing Big Band. They were performing on a stage. At the MRI conference reception. And there was a dance floor. Did they do this just for me?
Well, first I needed to eat dinner. So, I grabbed some brats and German potato salad and looked for someone I knew to eat with. The first person I saw was a young Dutch woman I had seen swing dancing on the previous evening. She was sitting with two other young women and she asked me to join them. Darn my bad luck. :) Two were from Holland, while the other was from Italy. After I finished my dinner, I asked the Dutch woman to dance, although the floor was empty. I felt a little weird being the only pair dancing in front of the band and a couple of thousand spectators. But so what. I also danced with a young woman from Berkeley, who described herself as a tango dancer, but she could still follow lindy. Unlike the previous evening, I only had these two experienced follows to dance with. But it was still great to dance to a live band. This goes down in my book as the best ISMRM reception ever.
25 May Friday
Drizzle in Dresden
Friday morning, I packed up and went to Hauptbahnhof (the main train station). I bought a ticket for Dresden, then waited for the next train. Hauptbahnhof is a brand new train station with a modern all-glass design. The ride only took two hours, during which I had my passport stamped twice by border guards.
Once I arrived in Dresden, I had to hike to the hostel in hot weather and still sore feet. After dropping off my bag, I decided that I would do a little sight-seeing, as long as my feet could take it. I walked north through the new town to the old town, first stopping for lunch at a doner kebab stand. This time I had a durum, which was like a burrito version of a gyro. I ended up spilling pink sauce all over my pants.
The first thing I saw was the Dreikonigskirche, an old church, where I hiked to the top to get a nice view of Dresden. Then, I headed over the Elbe River to the old town area - a very medievel-looking location. There were so many wonderful old buildings, it was hard to take a bad picture. I entered the Zwinger Palace, which has several museums. Unfortunately for me, the Mathematics and Physics Salon was closed. :( But I did make it into the Rustkammer, which was filled with 16th century body armor and weaponry, and the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery), which had three floors of classical paintings. Lastly, I went to see Kreuzkirche, the city's historic church, but it started to drizzle. And I had no jacket or umbrella. But I kept walking and had a chance to go inside. As it started raining a little harder, I hopped into a nearby modern mall. It's quite a change going from a medieval church to a modern mall. After buying some groceries (and not getting a bag!), I found a tram and took it back to the hostel.
For dinner, I asked the person at reception for a recommendation. He suggested a local place called Durum-Kebab-Haus. They made things besides doners, he assured me. I ordered the Lammfleisch mit kartoffeln, which I guessed was lamb meat with potatoes. I guessed right, and it was pretty good.
26 May Saturday
Pacing Myself in Prague
There was a train leaving for Prague at 9:09, so I left the hostel around 8:20, thinking I could catch it. A later one left at 10:46, but I wanted to leave early. Anyway, I had to first wait for a tram, and it appeared that the tram I needed came every half hour, and the last one came at 8:22. Luckily, there was a different tram I could take that came at 8:40. I made it to the train station at 9 am, and ran to find the ticket counter. The line was short, so within a couple of minutes, I had purchased my ticket. After running to track 2, I realized that I had made it with a couple of minutes to spare.
The train ride to Prague took about two hours. I didn't see any cash machines in the train station, so I exchanged some dollars for Czech Korunas at an exchage bureau, though the rate wasn't good. Czech money is kind of funny, since it's about 20 korunas to the dollar. So, a bottle of juice might cost 30 korunas, and a meal about 200 korunas. (That begs the question: How many korunas for a Corona?) Outside the train station, I found the cash machines. Oh well. Then, I couldn't find the tram to the hostel, so I just hopped on one and hoped I could transfer. I couldn't buy tickets on the tram, however, so I ended up getting a free ride. Thanks, Prague. Eventually, I figured out how to get to the hostel.
After putting my bag in the luggage room, I decided to do some sight-seeing, hoping to avoid too much walking. I first walked to Wencelas Square, which was just two blocks away. There, I tried to enter the National Museum, but for some reason, it was only open another hour, so I skipped it. Then, I took a subway to the Staremesto (old town square). This site was mobbed with tourists. One building has an astronomical clock tower, which you can ascend for a small fee. So, I went up and found some great views of the town square and the city. Back down on the ground, I ate lunch at an overpriced cafe. I didn't feel like walking far to find a better deal. There was also a little music festival going on in the town square, so I watched a few music acts and one showing men and women in different ethnic garb. I then went inside the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. Inside this church is the tomb of famous astronomer Tycho Brahe, but I couldn't find it. After that, I headed toward the Vltava River and shot a photo of the Karluv Most (Charles Bridge), the famous bridge in Prague built in 1357. By then it was about 5pm, so I decided to call it a day. My feet were happy about that.
27 May Sunday
Castle on the Hill
This morning, I woke up early, despite being awoken at 3 am by noisy kids arriving back late from a bar. After breakfast, I walked to the subway, planning to visit Prague Castle. Once at the subway station, I realized that I really needed to take a tram that stopped right in front of my hostel. This time, I bought a ticket in the subway, and walked back to the tram stop. I'm lucky I did buy a ticket because on the ride, I got stopped by a ticket inspector. At first, I thought he was begging for money, since he was just some guy in normal clothes who showed me his hand palm up. Then he spoke English, and I realized that he was showing me his badge in his hand. This was the first time I encountered a ticket inspector, including the nine days of riding trains in Berlin.
Prague Castle is a pretty impressive site, consisting of several museums and sights to see. It's origins go back 1,000 years, as its location on a hill makes it a stategic place to build a fortification. I saw St. Vitas's Cathedral, though I couldn't go inside as there was a Sunday morning service. Then I walked through the different museums on the castle grounds that explained the 1,000 year history of Prague Castle, displayed armor and weapons, and showcased many paintings and sculptures. I spent almost five hours there, leaving around 2 pm.
I then hiked down the winding, picturesque road leading from Prague Castle to the Vlatava River. Looking for a cafe that was not overpriced was difficult, but eventually I found something that was reasonble. After a lunch of smoked pork wrapped in a potato pancake and a good Czech beer, I headed over to St. Nicolas's Church, which is a very impressive baroque church. It's recently been restored at a cost of 120 million korunas (~6 million dollars), and it's probably the most ornate church I've seen thus far. Oddly, photography is allowed inside, which is very unusual. Next, I walked across Karluv Most (Charles Bridge), which is Prague's famous medieval bridge. It's basically full of tourists and local artists/starving musicians trying to make money from them. But it also has a unique statue on each parapet. I also headed to Josefov, the Jewish district, but it was too late to go through the synagogues there.
Back at the hostel, I met a young woman traveler from Vancouver. She had just arrived in Prague and was looking for company for dinner. So, I joined her and we swapped travel stories. She had saved up money and was on a six-month trip with a plan to spend a couple months working in Italy. I gave her tips on Prague and Berlin, her next destination. After dinner, I tried calling my distant relatives in Poland, but they didn't answer. I had thought about visiting them in Katowice, Poland on the next day, but made the mistake of calling at the last minute. It looks like tomorrow I'll head to Krakow instead. But Krakow is very close to Katowice, so I'll still have time to meet them.
28 May Monday
Welcome to Poland
I decided to take a train to Krakow today, skipping Cesky Krumlov (which is further from Prague than I first thought) and Katowice. I might still go to Katowice if I can get in touch with my Polish relatives. I managed to wake up around 6 am, and make it to the train station by quarter to 8, with sufficient time to make the 8:07 train. I had to change trains twice, once in a Czech town, the other time in Katowice (coincidentally). Since I had 30 minutes before my next train in Katowice, I got some zlotys from a cash machine, bought a cheap lunch, and looked for a payphone, where I could call my Polish relatives. Unfortunately, the pay phones in Poland only take phone cards, not coins.
Before crossing into Poland, the train stopped, allowing border guards to come on board and check everyone's passport. This was new to me, as every other border crossing I've done did not require the trains to stop. I also saw a set of cooling towers for a nuclear reactor both before and after crossing the Czech/Poland border. That was unusual. Another strange thing on the train ride in Poland was that the train made unnannounced stops at unmarked train stops, some of which looked like they had been deserted for 50 years. Kind of scary.
Once I arrived in Krakow, I quickly found my hostel, which is located right in the Old Town. Cars are mostly forbidden on the steets, making it very safe, inviting, and charming. It remdinded of the old town streets in Disneyworld, except this is real and has hundreds of years of history. It also looks like Poland does a good job of maintaining the area, as I spotted several restoration projects in the works. My hostel, called Tutti Frutti, is very new, clean, and surprisingly empty, given its convenient location. Once there, I bought a phone card, and tried calling my Polish relatives. A woman answered, but she didn't speak any English. I asked the woman at reception to translate for me, but by that time, the woman on the phone had hung up. I called again but no one answered. Maybe I'll try again tomorrow.
For dinner, I went to a recommended restaurant, where I had pierogis and a bread-based drink called Chlebowy litewski. Both were very tasty. Then I walked around the Old Town Square, and encountered four accordian players performing in front of a large crowd of passersby. I stood and listened for several songs. They were quite good.
29 May Tuesday
The Castle and the Club-Hopping
It was a sunny morning when I walked down to see Wawel Castle, situated on a high prominence by a bend in the Vistula River (very similar to layout of Prague Castle). I bought tickets to see all the museums in the complex and went exploring. The first thing you see upon entering is Wawel Cathedral with its towering spires. I went straight for the museums, as I had time slots on my ticket for when I could enter. The Wawel Castle musueums are filled with amazingly large tapestries, antique furniture, and painted friezes wrapping around the tops of the walls. There's also an armory displaying many sabers, spears, guns, armor, and cannons. The Wawel Castle also has an Oriental Museum, displaying Turkish, Chinese, and Japanese artifacts collected by Polish kings in the past.
Back outside, I saw clouds rolling in, and it soon turned to rain. I bought a ticket for the Wawel Cathedral, but realized that there were several hundred school children already in line. So, I went to the castle restaurant, thinking I could have an early lunch, but there weren't any tables free. After wasting a little time, I saw that the rain had stopped, so I decided to stand in line at the cathedral. Once I entered, I found it was impossible to move due to the hundred of kids crammed inside. Still, I had a chance to marvel at the intricately carved dark wood and ornate artwork.
After stopping for lunch at the castle restaurant, I headed north up to the old town square. Krakow has a wonderfully preserved old town neighborhood that is celebrating its 750th anniversary this year, first being laid down in 1257. The main square (called Rynek Glowny) is the largest medieval town square of any European city. It's also a very lively, crowded venue, full of locals, tourists, music performers, and horse-drawn carriages. That's the great thing about a central town square - people happen, events happen, things happen. American cities miss out on this opportunity.
Back at the hostel, I tried calling my Polish relatives, but they didn't answer the phone. That's too bad. I guess I'll try again tomorrow. Later that night, I had dinner with John, a Canadian traveler I met at the youth hostel. He was taking a five-week trek through eastern Europe, since, as he put it, he had already seen so many pictures of western Europe. His next stop was Prague, so I gave him some tips. We then tried to find other members of our hostel going on a pub crawl. We first stopped in the town square, where we saw some locals performing on African drums, while a couple of others were swinging fire sticks around. It was a very cool, totally unpredictable event. Next, we headed down a street to one of the bars on the pub crawl. As chance would have it, we recognized the travelers from our hostel right on the street, and joined them at the next bar. The pub crawlers included four from Australia, two from Canada, one from Hawaii, and me. We even went to one bar that was in a medieval-looking basement, with irregular brick walls and archways. It was very cool.
30 May Wednesday
Today, I took a bus to Oswiecim, which is the Southern Poland town where the Germans created their largest concentration camp. "Auschwitz" is the German name for the town. It was drizzling all day long. There are actually three facilities here - Auschwitz I, the first camp, Auschwitz II also called Birkenau (an extermination center), and Auschwitz III (a work camp). Auschwitz I was originally a prison camp for Polish people and Soviet prisoners of war. It's believed to be the site of 70,000 deaths. I first watched a 20-minute documentary describing the horrors that took place at this prison camp. The black and white film showed footage of the emaciated survivors and described the experiments done on men, women, and children. This was very chilling and disturbing. Next, I took a guided tour (in English), where we walked through the houses where inmates were kept. Inside are displays showing massively large piles of brushes, shoes, suitcases, eyeglasses, and hair taken from the victims.
A short bus ride took me to Auschwitz II, a much larger facility (400 acres) designed to increase the ability to house and murder people. Most Jewish people taken from across Europe were sent to Auschwitz II. The train leads directly into Auschwitz II. After arriving, guards would decide who lives and who dies. Prisoners were only told to walk one way or another. A quarter of the prisoners were forced to work as slave labor. Because the living conditions were so appallingly bad, most of these people died as a result of executions, beatings, starvation, and disease. About seventy-five percent were then told to walk another way and remove their clothes for a disinfecting shower. That's when they were led down into a gas chamber and killed with Zyklon-B, a cyanide-based insectide. Nazi soldiers then burned the bodies crematoriums, dumping the ashes in nearby ponds. Those ponds remain today. It's believed that 1.1-1.6 million people perished here. A memorial, written in many different languages, marks the site at the end of the railway line.
That night, I joined a group from our hostel for dinner. It was mostly the same group from the pub crawl last night. We went to a traditional Polish restaurant that serves pierogis and goulash. I also tried calling my Polish relatives again, and this time I finally got through! So, my third cousin Adam, who speaks English, will be picking me up tomorrow to visit his parents in Katowice. That should be very interesting.
31 May Thursday
Meeting the Polish Relatives
This morning, I had some time to kill as I waited for my third cousin Adam to pick me up at the hostel. I downloaded photos from my camera, uploaded them to my website, and tried to download some video to my laptop. Unfortunately, downloading and editing video takes so long, I wasn't able to get much done. BackpackingDave fans will have to wait until I return to Milwaukee before I can create and upload exciting video clips of my travels.
In the early afternoon, Adam arrived with his sister Evalina. Adam drove us to his home in Katowice, a Polish city about 70 km west of Krakow. Adam's English was good, though he apologized for being out of practice. I learned that Adam is 23 and studying computer programing in college, while his sister is 28 and a proud mother of a young girl. After we arrived in Katowice, I met their parents, Chris and Teresa. Unfortunately, only Adam spoke English, so he had to act as the translator. For a long while, there was a discussion in Polish about what to do with me. I just sat there, hoping that the plan would be good. They had decided to take me to dinner that night. We went out to a Polish restaurant, where the father Chris recommended some food - zustek (a soup) and a meat/potato dish. They were both very good. Back at their house, slices of chocolate cake were served. Adam's mother was the only one to ask me personal question: Any siblings? Are you married? Do you have children? Of course, I answered that I was not married yet, but my younger sister was married with a 1-year-old daughter. Teresa then joked that I was doing things late.
I tried to get some geneology information from them, but this apparently has been lost. I'm still not exactly sure how we're related. All I know is that my grandfather was a cousin of John or his wife Alla, the parents of Chris and grandparents of Adam. And my grandfather's sister, Evelyn, kept in contact with John until he died last year. She has remained in contact with his son Chris. I did learn that Chris's mother came from Tuchow, the same Polish town as my great-grandmother, so that's probably the connection. In other words, my father's father's mother's sister's daughter's son's son is my third cousin Adam. We may need DNA evidence to back this up. Later that night, Adam took me back to Krakow, and we made plans for him to pick me up the next day and visit a salt mine.
1 June Friday
The Salt Mine of Wielizcka
Today, my third cousin Adam picked me up from the hostel and drove me to Wieliczka, where we went on a tour through a salt mine. This is one of the bigger attractions in the Krakow region. I was also invited to spend the next two nights at his parents' house. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the oldest salt mines in continous operation since the 13th century. The lowest level is 327 meters deep, and there are nearly 300 kilometers of tunnels. The biggest draw for tourists are the many statues carved out of the rock salt. Apparently miners, with no training in sculpture, spent their extra time carving figures. The most impressive site is a chapel entirely carved in rock salt. Giant chandeliers are made from salt and exquisitely detailed pieces of artwork were carved right into the rock salt walls. A tour guide also explains the history of the mine, and how salt was transported to the surface. There are even undergound lakes in the mine. The tour took us as deep as 135 meters (about 400 feet) below the surface. That was pretty cool. Although we descended the entire depth by stairs, we ascended by taking a small elevator that whisked us back to the surface. There were many school children present in the mine on field trips. On our elevator ride back up, the teenage girls onboard screamed.
Back at Adam's parents' house, I was invited to sit and drink a beer on the back patio with Adam and his father. When Adam went to go and clean his room (so I could sleep there later), his father Chris tried speaking to me, revealing that he spoke a little English. But when I would answer, he would tell me to slow down. Speaking to someone who only knows a little of your language can be difficult and challenging but also fun.
We had a light dinner of bread, ham, and cheese. I was asked if I wanted coffee or tea, but I said neither. This of course, drew shock from the Adam's mother Teresa. "Why don't you drink coffee or tea," she asked. "I just don't like it." "Is that normal where you live," she continued. "No," I answered. "I'm just unusual." After dinner, Adam went to visit his girlfriend, leaving me an English-to-Polish dictionary in case I needed anything from his parents. Luckily, no such emergencies arose.
2 June Saturday
The Black Madonna of Czestochowa
Clouds covered the skies as Adam's father Chris drove the three of us to Czestochowa to visit Jasna Gora Monastery, which is a popular spot for visitors as it houses a very old painting known as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. When we arrived, it was raining, so we had to walk in the rain to the monastery. Once there, we paid for audio guides and went inside. According to legend, the portrait of the Black Madonna inside this monastery was painted by St. Luke the Evangelist. Modern scholars, however, date the style of painting to the Byzantine era (9th to 12th centuries). The oldest document states that the painting arrived in Czestochowa in 1382. An invasion by the Hussites caused the painting to be damaged, as a Hussite soldier slashed it with his sword. The painting was later repaired, though the scars remained. The Black Madonna is also credited with saving Jasna Gora from a Swedish invasion in the 17th century. (I never have trusted those Swedes. :) ) The Polish king then declared the Black Madonna to be the queen of Poland. Because of the legendary power associated with this painting, many faithful followers flock to the Jasna Gora Monastery to pray for miracles. It's not clear why the figures of Madonna and the Christ child are painted black. It could be a result of candle soot accumulating over time or perhaps it merely reflects the style of painting during the era of its creation.
The monastery grounds were swamped with people, mostly Polish tourists or faithful followers. There was also Saturday morning mass taking place, which made the chapel quite crowded. Priest, nuns, monks, and young boys and girls dressed for communion were included in the crowd. We were able to squeeze our way to the middle of the chapel to see the Black Madonna in the distance, behind protective bars. There was also a one-hour wait to see the Treasury, displaying gifts that people have given over the years. This turned out to be a less-than-spectucular collection of jewelry, porcelain figures, and monstrances. Another section, with no line at all, showed artifacts collected over the ages including weapons, religious outfits, and, most intersting of all, the Nobel Peace Prize given to Lech Welesa in 1983.
After our visit, we ate a meal in a nearby restaurant. Most restaurants in Poland, I've learned, are self-service, in which you must order your food at the counter, then wait for it to be ready. I ate a zapiekanka, pierogis, and fritkya (fries). The zapiekanka was bascially the bottom half of a hot dog bun topped with meat and cheese. Quite tasty.
Later that night, we gather around the family dinner table for another dinner of bread, sliced meat, and cheese. Curious, I asked if this was their normal dinner. I learned that meals in Poland are different than meals in the States. Most Polish people work from 6 or 7 am until 3 pm, after which they eat their large meal of the day. In the evening, around 7 or 8 pm, they eat a light meal. Living with a Polish family for a couple of days can teach you much more about the culture than staying in a youth hostel. Even though the dinner was supposed to be light, my hostess Teresa engaged her motherly instincts and asked me why I wasn't eating more.
3 June Sunday
Welcome to Warsaw
Today, my Polish host family took me to the train station after a hearty Polish breakfast of bread, slices of meat and cheese, and kielbasa. I thanked them all for everything, as they were very gracious hosts. Chris, the father, not only shook my hand, but also gave me the European kiss on both cheeks. That was a bit of a shock (especially as I'm not used to a kiss from someone with whiskers), but I'm here to experience new things.
My train left at 12 o'clock noon. It was an express intercity train to Warsaw, making only a couple of stops before arriving in Warsaw at 2:40 pm. The scenery along to trip was not very interesting - mostly flat, green fields. I spent the time writing in my journal. That's a good way to spend a train ride, although the jostling of the train coach made my penmanship even worse than usual.
When I arrived in Warsaw, I quickly found my hostel, then went out for a late afternoon lunch. Or maybe it was my Polish-style dinner. Either way, I found the restaurant prices in Warsaw a little higher than in Krakow. I also found the city to be very gray and dreary, with the streets full of cracked concrete and the buildings covered in graffiti. The overcast weather did not help to brighten my impression of the city. After lunch, I spent a few hours downloading and editing my video from Berlin. Although it was time-consuming, I managed to create one video clip, which is now available for viewing on this website. (Follow the link at the top of this page). Tomorrow, I'll begin my sightseeing of Warsaw.
4 June Monday
Disappointing Old Town
This morning, I took a tram north to Stare Miasto (Old Town). I planned on seeing the Royal Castle, but that didn't open until 11 am. I spent a little time wandering around the Old Town, including the main square, but found the area surprisingly dead. When 11 am came, I went to the Royal Castle and walked through the tour route. The historic castle was completely destroyed by the Nazis in 1939, but was rebuilt between 1971 and 1984, using donations from Polish Nationals from around the world. The interior is filled with portraits, paintings, sculptures, artifacts, tapestries, and furniture that was hidden during the war or taken from other places. The rooms range from ordinary to amazingly ornate. I ended up spending about 2 and 1/2 hours walking through the castle.
Next, there were a few museums I wanted to see, but they turned out to be closed. Apparently, most museums are closed on Mondays in Warsaw. I guess I should have read ahead in my Lonely Planet book.
After a leisurely lunch at a sidewalk cafe in Old Town, I rode a tram back south where I went to the Palace of Culture and Science. This is a mammoth, 30-story edifice buily by the Soviets in the 1950's. It's considered a local eyesore, though I think it has a bit of Communist charm. A quick elevator ride takes you up to the 30th floor, where you can get a bird's eye view of the city. However, the day was quite gray and overcast, leading to less than spectacular views. Also of interest in the building was a temporary exhibit called World Press Photo 2007, which showcased award-winning press photographs of the past few years.
The more I walk around Warsaw, the more it seems to be filled with tired, old people. The few young people I see look stressed or worn out. The Old Town area was quite devoid of the expected tourist crowd. Overall, the city lacks the modern, sophisticated bustle of Berlin, and the Old Town lacks the energy and vitality I found in Prague and Krakow. Although I shouldn't a judge a city too quickly, I have to say that I'm finding Warsaw a little disappointing.
5 June Tuesday
Dashing through Museums
Today, the sun was shining over Warsaw. And there seemed to be larger crowds of people in the streets. This helped to improve my impression of the city. The first thing I did was to head to an area just south of Stare Miasto (Old Town), where I saw the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus and went to the Ethnographic Museum. The museum had detailed exhibits on cultures of Africa, Australia/Oceania, and Latin America. It wasn't until the third floor when I finally saw the exhibits on Polish culture, which I had been expecting. On display were traditional Polish wardrobes, as well as traditional tools and equipment for carpentry, weaving, and cooking. Although I couldn't read the Polish explanations, I could decipher the use from the photographs.
I then headed north to St. Anne's Church, where I climbed the spiral staircase to the top of the belfry. Here, I found a nice view overlooking the Royal Castle and Old Town. After a quick bite to eat on the ground, I did some more museum hopping with my next stop at the Historical Museum of Warsaw. This was a very intersting walk through a labyrinth of rooms, showcasing the history of Warsaw from its early development as a trading town to its gaining the title of capital of Poland (formerly held by Krakow). Photographs showed the effects of World War II on Warsaw, in which 85% of the buildings were destroyed and 800,000 people (over half the population) died.
Next on the list was the Jewish Historical Institute. Photographs and text explained how the Nazis forced the Jewish population of Warsaw into the Ghetto region, where they subsequently suffered from disease and starvation. There was a Ghetto Uprising in which 750 Jewish men faced off against 2090 Nazi soldiers with superior weaponry. The uprising failed, leading to thousands of deaths. The remaining population was sent to the concentration camps of Treblinka.
Museums in Warsaw tend to open late (10 or 11 am) and close early (4 pm), leaving for a small window of opportunity. Seeing that it was already 3:30 pm, I walked quickly to make it to the Maria Sklodowska Museum. You might know her better as Marie Curie, her married named. Marie Sklodowska Curie discovered radium and won two Nobel Prizes. Not bad for a woman who had to leave her native Poland in 1891 in order to study physics in Paris. In 1903, she not only received her doctorate degree, but she also shared a Nobel prize with her husband Pierre and a fellow researcher Henri Becquerel. Hmm, in 2003, I received my doctorate degree, but didn't win diddly.
Since it was 4 pm, the museums in Warsaw were closing. So, I decided to check out a few monuments in the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto. I saw the Ghetto Heros Monument dedicated to the thousands who lost their lives in the Ghetto Uprising of 1943. I also saw a small, humble monument to Mordechaj Anielewicz, the leader of the Ghetto Uprising. It was built on a bunker containing the remains of many of those in the uprising. And lastly, I saw the Umschlagplatz Monument, which marks the spot of the former railway terminus where 300,000 Jews were taken from the Ghetto to the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps.
In the evening, I tried looking for a nice Polish restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. However, it was no longer there. But I did end up finding a lively street, Nowy Swiat, full of cafes, energy, and young people. I settled on a kebab joint where I ordered a doner kebab on a plate and a beer. I sat outside, watching the passersby in the cool Warsaw evening. After my last sip of beer, I headed back to the hostel to work on my webpage and await my flight early the next morning.
6 June Wednesday
My plan to avoid jet lag after returning to the United States was simple. I would avoid sleeping Tuesday night, take a taxi ride to the Warsaw airport at 4:30 am, and arrive early enough to avoid any problems for my 7:30 am flight. Staying up Tuesday night was night the hard part. Failure to fall asleep on the plane made things more difficult. Plus, the vagaries of international travel made things a little confusing for me.
When I arrived at the airport, I tried to look for the check-in counter, but there were no check-in counters for specific airlines. Each check-in counter had a plasma screen above it, showing an airlines, but none of them were mine. A large board showed my flight to London via British Airways, but no indication of a check-in counter. So, I sat and waited. About 45 minutes later, I overheard people asking others about a flight to London. My keen ears then led me in the direction of the correct check-in counter. When the plane was boarding, we were led downstairs to the tarmac and onto a bus. I don't see any wings, I thought to myself. When the bus was full, it drove us to our plane.
The flight from Warsaw to London took about 3 hours, during which I closed my eyes and tried to nap. Luckily, I had a window seat and was able to close the window shade. But I don't think I caught any real sleep. Once at Heathrow Airport, there was no gate information for my connecting flight. Eventually, I found a sign that said I needed to go to Terminal 3 for American Airlines. Arrows directed me to a bus stop, where I waited for a bus to take me there. Once at Terminal 3, I had to check in at the American Airlines desk, where I received a new boarding pass. But my flight had no gate, so I found a bagel shop and had breakfast. Eventually, my flight received a gate, and we departed about 12:15 pm London time.
The flight from London to Chicago was 8 hours long. I had another window seat, so I shut the window shade, put the little pillow behind my head, reclined my seat, and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, I could not fall asleep, despite being awake for about 27 hours. Eventually, I capitulated, and tried watching the mini-television in front of me. When I arrived at O'hare, I walked along another longer corridor, after which I went through passport check and customs check. Then, I walked outside the airport, realizing I didn't know where to pick up my bus back to Milwaukee. Back inside the airport, I found an information desk, where I found a flyer for Coach USA. It told me that the bus made a stop right at Terminal 5, where I was. At 3:20 pm, the Coach USA bus to Milwaukee pulled up. After a drowsy ride, I arrived back in Milwaukee around 4:40 pm. I found my car, which luckily had no ticket (despite exceeding the two week parking limit), and drove home. I calculated that I had been awake about 42 hours before I finally went to sleep that night. But hopefully, I won't have any jet lag.
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Page last updated 7 February 2009
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