When in Rome

Eat gelato! Oh wait, we’ve covered that.

How can one even begin to describe the Eternal City?

Rome is a brilliant exhibition of Western civilization–from its origin of towering ancient ruins to the glitzy modern vibrancy of couture. Rome is a magnificent tangle of beautiful chaos. The Italian capital is also the home of Catholicism and the center of the once expansive and imposing Roman Empire. You could spend a lifetime (or four insane days) peeling through the layers of this complex metropolis of 2.7 million people (and cats). Italy is an enchanting place entirely, but Rome enslaved me with its mystique. It’s haunting, mysterious, magical and avant-garde and is enough to spin your head.

Like most cities, there are two Romes: The tourists’ Rome and the local Rome. I stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood, which is a little more “Roman.” Cozied up to the gushing Tiber River, and nestled in between the Vatican and Ancient Rome, it’s a perfect starting point for sight-seeing, while offering a glimpse of what today’s hipster Rome looks like. A little grittier that the five-language menu areas near the Colosseum, you might have to actually learn a few Italian phrases to get your order right, but it’s a place you’ll find locals happily mingling with backdoor travelers over a pizza. Mmm…pizza. If you’ve never had Roman pizza, you’ve never lived. I’m sorry. That’s not hyperbolic at all, no. 🙂 But it truly is nothing like your standard American pie. Crispy-thin crust made out of unicorn smiles, topped with gooey Buffalo Mozzarella that melts on your tongue. Ingredients are simple and fresh. Order a personal pizza at a Trastavere joint and you’ll get an uncut 8-10 inch round. You can politely cut it into civilized slices, or just tear into it.

Ok, I digress.

I could probably sit here and write all day about the sights to see here, but in my time here I took a journey through western civilization: I strolled through the ancient Colosseum, Pantheon and the Roman Forum; saw the rise of Christianity through ancient temples converted to cathedrals now housing Caravaggio; walked through the magnificent holy doors of the greatest house of Catholicism in the world–St. Peter’s Basilica; saw the pope give his Sunday address to thousands of adoring worshipers below in the square; and gazed upon the greatest piece of art in the world–Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. I’ve included photos of what I can, but frankly the overwhelming feats of mankind could never be captured by an iPhone.

Rome has it’s struggles, I shall not lie. It’s hot. It’s crowded. REALLY crowded. Traffic is bananas and tourists are pushy. This is a place where planning and a solid guidebook are critical to avoiding tourism misery. Learning when to see which sights, how to skip the lines, and where to eat to avoid selling a kidney will make your life so much better here. Eating in front of the Colosseum? $10 wines. Just around the corner still with a view? $4 wine. Trying to see St. Peter’s in the morning? Three hour line. Go after four and walk right in. Booking a reservation for the Vatican costs an extra 4 Euros but saves you 2-3 hours in line. No brainer. But even with reservations, once inside be prepared to be ass-to-elbow with hordes of travelers with interesting body odors. Just the way it goes. And you’re going to make mistakes. Ordering coffee in a touristy area will get you $4 diluted cigarette water (still mad about it). Always ask for espresso and you’ll get a strong shot for $1. Don’t order “red wine,” order “house red wine.” Be specific and don’t let your waiter decide. Even a savvy tourist is prey to minor price gouges. 🙂 I’ll be sure to record all my hard-learned tricks and tips at the end of my trip for would-be travelers!

Evenings in Rome are made for magic and romantic strolls. Twitterpated young lovers are out in droves, unabashedly flaunting their affections on monument steps and cafe benches. Street performers with a three-song repertoire walk up-and-down streets serenading diners. Chic gentry peruse designer finery costing more than an average salary. The squares brim with gelato-nibbling locals and tourists alike. There is apparently never a bad time to eat gelato.

Romans aren’t prudish, but they are conservative on some matters. Be careful with short skirts and bare shoulders–I had to use my handy shawl to cover up in a few churches. A single woman alone is perfectly safe–but it’s going to garnish attention from curious males. It’s not as common in Italy as it is in other European areas for females to travel alone and they are both curious and, in a strange machismo way, protective.  Concerned strangers will outwardly ask you why you don’t have a man with you and will you be alright that evening. It can offend you if you let it, or you can just smile and embrace the cultural difference. Italians can seem rude to the demure American. They don’t wait in line well, they will absolutely push you out the way to get to the front of the coffee stand, personal space is not a thing and they really do speak with their hands–sometimes swatting bystanders in the process. Just roll with it and do as the Romans do.

Well, Italy, it’s been incredible. I’m off the the final stretch of my journey–to Dublin!

Ciao!

 

 

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Humbled by brilliant minds…and gelato 

My time in Italy comes to an end tomorrow, and that might be a good thing as I think I have actually turned into gelato. Or pasta. I might now be a pasta-gelato mutant. Keeping up the blog while in Italy has been challenging, so please forgive me. There is enough to see here to keep a visitor busy every waking moment. 

What an experience the past 12 days have been. No matter which city you find yourself in, Italy is a cultural masterpiece. From the seductive winding canals of Venice, the thought-provoking masterpieces in Florence, the tranquil beaches of the Cinque Terre or the ruins of the Eternal City of Rome, you would be be stressed not to find your muse.

My time in Italy has been vastly different from the rest of my adventure. The weather has teetered between 75-80 degrees, making for a complete contrast to the icy streets of Poland. There is a challenge in changing climates– I’ve had to lug a snow jacket from place to place! The sultry afternoons call for gelato and chilled wine as you stroll down cobblestone ogling Prada. I’ve officially stepped over into tourist high season and I am experiencing the full force of that implication. Hello selfie sticks. So. Many. Selfie. Sticks. The quest for water and bathrooms has never been so critical. There is an energy to the rambunctious busy time, but you will also find yourself begging for a moment of quiet respite.

In contrast to my usual ways, I feel diving into much history is futile. Italy is a well-known veteran of the world (at least everyone knows a thing or two about her), so I won’t bore you with old news. And although there were naturally a few moments of comedy and travel mishap, my time here went pretty smoothly. For one, the language was less of a barrier. I don’t necessarily speak Italian, but I know a enough survival phrases to navigate the city, find the bathrooms and keep my wine glass full. What else do you need, honestly? 🙂 Ironically, of all the places I’ve been, Italians have spoken the poorest English. Even in busy hotels and restaurants, the English can be choppy. It forces that brain of mine to work on over drive, that’s for sure!

Part of my struggle to update is trying to capture my specific moments during my time here became overwhelming. There is so much to absorb that putting it down into thought is paralyzing. Around every corner lies a fragment of ancient history, a bustling sidewalk cafe, a horde of comical tourists or a pictorial landscape.

I began in Venice, which I managed to capture in words before my mind became over-stimulated. 🙂

My three-days in Florence were a non-stop journey through some of the greatest minds the modern world has known–from artistic genius of Michelangelo to controversial science of Galileo to the plotting, conquering Medici family. A place like Florence is enough to humble anyone. In one day I looked David in the eye, then climbed the brilliant Duomo tower, then fell in love with The Birth of Venus.

Florence can a bit overwhelming. It’s narrow streets are crowded, it’s hot, lines are long and there is so much to see it’s hard to know where to begin. On some great advice, I picked up a Firenze card–an all-inclusive museum pass that let’s you skip the line. A pricey splurge at $70 for three days, but once you skip past the miserable hours-long line at the Uffizi Gallery, it’s all worth it. As in every day life, time is valuable when traveling and it’s important to evaluate where your money is best put to maximize your experience. I might splurge on a way to save hours in line, so I will just grab some take-away street food that night to make up for it.

From the hustle bustle of Florence, I headed to the gateway to the Italian Riviera: The Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre is five pristine individual towns along the coast, close enough to hike them all in a day but all with their own unique brand of Italy. I stayed in the quiet, more work-a-day Riomaggiore–a sleepy fishing village free of cruise ships and all-you-can-drink margarita buckets (sadly, the resort mentality has reached the once unsullied shores of the northern towns). My room was 200 steps up a winding corridor of little apartments, lined with lazy cats, chicken coops and vibrant lemon trees. Run by a little local lady, she proudly pointed out her flourishing lemon tree and said I was free to take some. From my window, I could see the vast expanse of the Ligurian Sea, the colorful hillside buildings drunkenly leaning into one another, the emerald mountains east and the unhurried town below. It’s the kind of place where you wake to the rooster and the bustle of the morning fish market as an ocean breeze rustles the lacy curtains. Where you sip limoncello by a lapping shore and both the chef and the fisherman responsible for your dinner sit down with you and light a cigarette, curious as to what brings you to their sleepy town. The kind of place where all time slips away and you might awake in a hundred years.
Part of me was ready to leave the sleepy coastal existence out of fear if I didn’t get on the train, I might simply disappear into the whimsical dreamland. In truth, while sipping time away waiting for my transfer train at the La Spezia station, it was tempting to just turn back around. But the Eternal City awaited, and that is after all one of the crown jewels of my journey.

I’m currently listening to the vibrant streets of Rome below. I’ll have more to stay on that tomorrow, but right now I must complete my transformation into gelato.

Ciao Bella!

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

Venice…Be Seduced

I write to you now humbled by the goddess of Italy. So many of you know her that it may be futile to try to explain her brilliance. But I have my own sordid love affair to confess.

Venice. By day she is a young flirtation, teasing, beckoning you to her innocent picnic. You just want to know her. You want to frolic and bask with a Prosecco because she makes you feel so alive. Venice by night; she is a full-blown temptress–you cannot breathe without her. You will need a grappa and a starry night coddling the sultry canal.

I arrived in the Canal City by way of a train from Ljubljana to Villa Opicine, then a mountain tram to Trieste, then another train to Venice. I missed my stop at Trieste (on bad local advice, once again) and ended up stranded on an Italian mountainside, having to run down the mountain in 75 degree sunshine–in my parka and pack–to catch my train. Add it to my list of transportation fun.

But once you step from the train in Venice and board the Vaporetto bus (water bus), every stress you’ve ever known dances away into the sea air. You speed along the Grand Canal, whizzing past ancient palaces as the sun sets into the remnants of a great city state, and can’t seem to remember how you could ever be upset about anything.

Venice boasts many thoughtful sights worth seeing, but the city herself is really what you need to see. It’s hard to believe it’s a real place, but she’s a living breathing entity, pulsing with energy. Once a world sea power, Venice was at one point the wealthiest most glorious city in Europe. Today she survives on tourism. And lots of it. Stepping onto sunny, languid Italian soil was a shock coming from the subdued humility of Eastern Europe. For one, it was WARM. I nearly giggled as I finally shed my fleece leggings and down coat for bare legs and a tee shirt. But secondly, the streets are bursting with the start of high season.

I spent my days visiting some beautiful art, gilded palaces and grand churches, then relaxed in a canal side cafe to sip prosecco and watch the world saunter by. Nights in Venice are made for wandering. Wandering over tiny canal bridges, through tiny alleyways, it’s easy to lose yourself in its mystery. But why wouldn’t you want to? You can stick to the the touristy San Marco Square, which dances with starry-eyed tourists entranced by this romantic city. Dueling bands liven the square with Italian classics and catchy waltzes while gelaterias sell over-priced decadence. Or, you can follow the night as the narrow corridors twist and wind into a great maze of residential dwellings. Sometimes they spring open to a vibrant square where locals spill out onto the street with wine in hand.

Two days in Venice was in some ways plenty, but it many ways an eternity would not be enough.

And now, on to the land of art, learning and great minds: Florence!

     

    
    
    
   

Shh…Don’t Tell Prague

From the moment of arrival, the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, nestled in the mountainous cradle between Italy and Germany, was an absolute delight. I arrived past 11 p.m. due to my Budapest bus debacle but, even in the dead of night, the city was welcoming. The streets were calm; a few pub-hopping pedestrians roamed with mild demeanor but there were no grafitied walls or shifty street-dwellers to darken the scene.

My hostel was a dream. Set a few blocks from the main square, the three story historic home was more like a B & B. I had let them know I would be arriving late and they had laid out my keys, directions, and even made my bed (if you’ve stayed in hostels you know that you’re always responsible for this yourself). Just a nice little touch! Each floor–housing 2-3 suites–had it’s own kitchen, complete with spices and extras you might need to whip up a meal. After weeks of pub food and street vendors, sometimes a homemade salad is all you crave. I lucked out with a four-person room to myself. It was a wonderful little break from the 6-person dorms of that last few countries. You start to get used to it but once you have your own space again it’s DIVINE. For the first time so far, I slept without earplugs and slept like the DEAD. See all those caps? It must be serious.

In the light of a brilliant day, Ljubljana was a storybook dream. A languid river divides rustic medieval alleyways and neo-baroque elegance. The famous Triple Bridge–designed by renowned architect Jože Plečnik of Prague and Vienna fame–brings strolling pedestrians from the architectural dream land of the Prešeren square to the bustling riverside market. From there, the fingers of cozy cobblestone spread to create a web of boutiques, coffee shops, artisan stalls and international eats. A steep, twisting path climbs to the hill-top castle, which although is a little lackluster up close, offers breathtaking panoramic views of the snow-capped Alps.

Like most major European capitals, a McDonald’s and H&M make an obligatory appearance, but it’s far less prominent in tiny Ljubljana. She’s maintained much of her old world sophistication, yet manages to be modern. The streets are impeccably clean, you can’t smoke most places and all the public buildings are eco-friendly. She’s a city where not much seems to happening–not much really did happen to me here–yet the droves of happy locals laughing and chatting at riverside cafes let you know that something more lies beneath her sweet demeanor. Lazy mornings find locals sipping Kava over a threadbare book, women discerningly picking produce from the daily open air market and youths balancing plates of fried sardines, wine and cigarettes in front of food trucks. (The fried sardines are to die for, I must confess). 

Modeled after the City of 100 Golden Spires, she has much of Prague at her soul. But where Prague is the gregarious older sibling strutting for your attention, Ljubljana is the demure younger, quietly going about her day, flattered that you took the time to notice her. It’s a place you could stay awhile–sit by the river with some honey wine and a good book–and all time might slip away. My time here was brief, but I leave with not the feeling of goodbye–but rather, I’ll see you again soon. Don’t tell Prague, but she may have competition for my love.
I left Ljubljana a little melancholy but also filled with eager anticipation for my next stop–VENICE!

 

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You Win Some, You Lose Some. Sometimes Mosquitoes Think You’re Lunch. The Sun Still Shines.

Sorry it’s been a couple of days since I’ve posted anything. The last few days have been jam-packed and I just haven’t had the time to sit down and get my thoughts out. I’m almost halfway through my adventure and what an experience this has been! Not gonna lie, sometimes those experiences make me want to punch something or sit on a bus bench and cry. This morning was one of those.

I woke up at the crack of the morning to catch the 8 a.m. train to Slovenia. I figured out the bus I needed to get to the station, gave myself plenty of time. When I got to the bus stop, nothing made sense according to what I’d looked up. Dang it! The #5 bus arrives and I know this one is the number I need, but my experience in Berlin taught me that it could be the wrong direction. So I ask the driver if it goes to the station. Yes, it does. Ok, phew. Yeah…it didn’t. Repeat Berlin. The bus heads out into the middle of nowhere and stops–time to get off. I ask the driver, “I thought this went to the train station?” No, he says dryly. “Well, how do I get there?” He shrugs and says “Can’t help you” and tells me to get off.  I have never wanted to punch someone in the face so hard. In a moment like that you have to remember, not everyone is nice or cares, no matter which country you’re in.  So, naturally I missed my 8 a.m. train, the only direct train for the 9 hour journey. Sigh. So now I’m sitting drinking coffee, waiting for the next train at 2. Just when I think I’ve mastered the international transit puzzle, the universe says “Just Kidding!” and puts me in my place. Top it off that some nuclear-mutated mosquito thing decided I was a buffet and went to town on me. I am COVERED with bites. And anyone who knows me knows how I beautifully I react to bug bites. Grr…

I may have bordered on frustrated breakdown again this morning, but I have regained myself and accepted the minor setback for what it is–minor. I won’t let it sour the fabulous time I’ve had in Budapest.

But first, where did I leave off? Oh yes, Vienna. After leaving the city of music, I spent a day in Bratislava, Slovakia. Little Slovakia was part of the greater Czechoslovakia until the velvet divorce of 1993. Today it’s a quaint country still trying to heal from the Soviet oppression. It’s a bit behind in the times–poor, still a little backwoods, no Starbucks on every corner. But Bratislava, the capital, has quaint old world charm. The city is best known as the setting of the horror flick, Hostel, in which unsuspecting American backpackers are kidnapped and sold to people wanting to pay exorbitant amounts to torture people to death (lovely concept). Although the film may have some anecdotal basis in the far east, there is no factual evidence to support ANYTHING has ever happened like that here. The Bratislava tourism board was actually quite upset with the film as it damaged the already fragile reputation for the communist torn country.

But, thankfully, the little city is recovering nicely and the winding cobblestoned streets are alive with musicians, artisans, and posh eateries. I sat in a lovely tuxedo-waitered old-timey place on the square and listened to a pianist recite classic tunes, then made my way to a rooftop lounge with panoramic views of the countryside. At both high-end places, you’ll only have to part with $3 for a wine! Not bad for a 5-star touristy place. 

My rendezvous with Slovakia was brief, then I headed off to the exotic Hungarian capital of Budapest. Ever since I started planning this adventure, I had developed quite the travel crush on Budapest and I was overwhelmingly excited to meet her. My first impression was not what I’d dreamed about. Mid-evening Saturday night, the train spit me out onto the bustling streets of the Hungarian hot-spot, absolutely buzzing with revelry. One thing I didn’t realize was that Easter is a national holiday for many European countries so it’s an extended holiday weekend. Students and party-seekers were out in droves! When I finally arrived at my hostel, after a two-mile walk, I nearly stopped dead to realize that it was actually IN a bar. I don’t mean that there was a bar in the hostel, the hostel was IN the bar, on the second floor. Not only was it a bar, but a big open air bar and my bedroom window looked down into the debauchery.  As my new Irish friend says, Lord Above! Absolutely no way this was going to fly. I went to bed with my earplugs welded into my ears and irritation stewing.

After a good night’s sleep, I woke up refreshed and collected with a more positive outlook. In doing some research I realized this is quite common. I’m in what’s called the “Ruin” bar district–a once forgotten neighborhood next the Jewish Quarter demoralized by communists that has recently been revitalized by artists and hipster youth. Old warehouses and abandoned houses now house trendy, artistic, smoky, open air bars. Muraled walls, eclectic art and cheap yummy eats give life to this seemingly gritty quarter. Although I wouldn’t want to live there indefinitely, I appreciated the experience for what it was.

Budapest is a sprawling city with something for everyone. Swinging, inexpensive nightlife beckons European weekenders, picturesque topography and museums call to the peaceful traveler, the hot spring baths call to EVERYONE. Hungarian wine is delicious and CHEAP. (An average place won’t charge you more than 200 HUF (about $.75) for an 8 oz pour) and the food is hearty and diverse. 

The capital city was built to represent the capital of a march larger nation, so it feels slightly grandiose and overwhelming for a small country. It’s split into two main parts: Buda, a scenic touristy-by-day hillside, and Pest (Pescht), the thriving pulse of the city filled with everything from gritty ruin pubs to upscale pre-opera dining. Again (starting to sound like a broken history record here), the country was occupied and both socially and structurally beaten down by first the Nazis and then the Soviets. They’ve struggled for the independence and are finally figuring out what makes Hungary tick. It’s a diverse and internationally influenced culture, but Hungarians are proud that it’s THEIR culture. 

I spent the sleepy Easter Sunday strolling along the Danube River, enjoying the locals in the their Easter best, and attending the Opera! What a great experience that was.

For the first time on my journey I REALLY connected with my roommates–An Irish gal and two Canadians currently living in Ireland. We spent Monday lounging at the hot springs baths–a decadent all day spa retreat with poolside drinks and a private cabin for $18 for all day access. (HELL-O flabby, hairy European men in speedos!) Despite it still being a brisk 50 outside, the enclosed outdoor area of the baths are naturally warm due to the thermal activity underneath. After lounging in the sun, we went to an outdoor festival on castle grounds where we warmed up with hot wine, hearty Hungarian nosh and local music. That night we explored some of the famed ruin bars (described above).

Tuesday, despite rainy conditions, I trekked up to Castle Hill in Buda–a hilltop outlook with breathtaking panoramic views.

Back to today–so I sit drinking coffee, trying to salvage what seem like a few wasted hours in my day. I need to get some writing done anyway, so I’ll just chalk today up to work. And the bugs bites will go away–at least it’s long sleeve weather. 🙂 You win some, you lose some. But, hey, it’s 60 degrees today and the sun is beaming. And there are always chocolate croissants. Everything is going to be just fine.

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Vienna, the city of Opera, Mozart and…smoky jazz bars?

In a deep-set basement, smoke curls around tumblers of inexpensive Viennese wine. An eager young woman deftly strokes each ivory key, making the piano sing a sultry jazz melody. Discerning old men in dated fedoras nod approvingly while rowdy college boys cheer her on. A pink-faced bartender in suspenders, bow tie and a nose ring happily doles out generous portions of tasty 2 euro wines to the rustic crowd. It’s something reminiscent of a swank gin joint but with a hipster flair. This is Vienna, music capital of the world. But this isn’t Mozart. This is not quite the Vienna I pictured. I came to this little underground joint by means of my in-the-know German roommates. Perfectly safe, but it’s in a local neighborhood no guide book will ever take you to–not even my trusty Rick Steves. But it’s a perfect showcase on how Vienna bleeds music. Whether fine-tuned classicists, operatic baritones or a young pianist with a passion for making the house dance, music is at the heart of this city.

Austria’s capital was one of those cities I wasn’t DYING to see. My thoughts were that it was stuffy and snooty and you’d only get the most of it if you had the money for box seats at the Opera House. And yes, it’s pricier as a whole than say Prague, but it’s a very livable city with plenty of sights to see and things to do that won’t crack your budget. Viennese wine is tasty and cheap, street food is plentiful and classy pubs catering to local youth and young professionals are in abundance. Maybe you’re meal won’t be $2, but you can easily have a sizable meal with wine for under $8.

On my quick two day visit, I started by walking the city’s old town. Like all of Europe, of course it suffered at the hands of Nazi occupation. But did you know that Hitler was Austrian born? He was actually a failed artist in his youth–perhaps his shortcomings in such a glorious mecca of achievements gave him a complex. During the war, instead of occupying and annihilating Austria, Hitler just absorbed it as part of Germany. Like Berlin, the country was divided up into U.S. and Soviet territories following the war. They earned their sovereignty in 1955. Today, Viennese are very sensitive about it if you refer to them as Germans as they have been a powerful European force for 1,000–long before Germany was even on the map.

Although most Viennese would probably like to forget Hitler once called it home, the city boasts a legion of other great minds: Mozart, Beethoven and Freud to name a few.

I visited the palaces of the remarkable Hapsburg dynasty–a family that ruled for roughly 400 years, shaping much of Europe. The ill-fated Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter of ruling Hapsburgs, for example. I peeked at some thought provoking art and toured the world-famous opera house. Sadly, because of the Easter holiday, there were no shows. Although, aside from first-come standing room tickets (for an incredible $4) tickets are pretty much sold out a year in advance. My tour guide told me there are some Viennese who attend the opera nearly every night. Yikes–that’s a city that loves music!

A side note on Easter in Europe: Whatever your divine beliefs, there is something quite powerful about being in a strongly Catholic place like Vienna on Good Friday. The extravagant cathedrals are brimming with teary-eyed pilgrims overwhelmed with humility and joy by this significant time of year. It’s something to see.

Today, Vienna is a thriving, bustling city with high-end shopping, pristine streets, sumptuous architecture and a sophisticated youth culture. Young people attend classical concerts and frequent museums not because of a school assignment, but because…well, doesn’t everyone?

Locals are polite, excited about life and curious about the world. They want to know where you’re from, why you’re there, what you do. Street peddlers are aggressive here and avoiding them is an art form. Men dressed in half-assed 18th century coats aggressively recruit you to their “classical” concerts (over priced tourist shows where inexperienced musicians in Mozart costumes put on a show).  Shop keeps selling touristy trinkets will all but chase you if you say you’re not interested.

If you’re ever here, don’t miss the Naschmarkt. Dating back to the 16th century, this one-mile bazaar features 120 stalls of produce, spices, food vendors, wine bars, shopping, fish markets and more. It’s packed with gawking tourists and serious local chefs out to pick up their supplies. Eager vendors thrust samples in your face as you walk by and compete with the guy across the aisle for your business. It’s a great place to buy delicious local snacks, or just sit and sip a wine and people watch.

Although I saw the sights I came to see, I slightly wish I’d given Vienna another day or so just to take in the pleasant, relaxed lifestyle. It’s refreshing to sit down and be able to write a happy post after the gravity of my previous experience.

Tomorrow I’m headed to Slovakia!

The Imperial Palace.

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Inside the Opera House.

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Couldn’t resist. This is the FANCIEST McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. This actually doesn’t even do it justice.

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Paradigm Shattered

Grey clouds wept over the Polish countryside as I left on a bus from Krakow to visit one of the most infamous sites of mass murder: Auschwitz- Birkenau Concentration Camp. Between 1941-1945, 1.1 million innocent people were systematically murdered here: Jews, Roma, Poles, and prisoners of war. Trying to explain the impact of Auschwitz in way that will truly penetrate with the impact it deserves is futile–there is nothing that can prepare you for it. But I’ll try.

To say that Auschwitz was sobering is an injustice to the horror. The camp emerges from the rolling hills a tangle of barbed wire and cold brick. Muddy paths where millions of prisoners marched to their torment and eventual death lead to the ominous front gates. Arbeit Macht Frei, reads the twisted lettering. “Work sets you free.” A mocking overture to those with no way out but the gas chamber. Death still dances across the vast expanse of this former Polish military compound. Foreshadowing crows cah at passerbyers from skeleton trees above. The ghosts are very present here and the Polish people want it that way. They want the graphic knowledge of the atrocities committed here burned into your memory so that the world never repeats what happened on this soil.

Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp in the Nazi system and remains the most important and moving sight of the Holocaust. There are actually two main camps: Auschwitz I and Birkenau. The first camp, first meant to house Polish opposition during the early years of Nazi occupation, quickly filled to capacity once Hitler began collecting prisoners from around Europe. Birkenau–just down the road–was built to hold 200,000 prisoners at one time.

You will see bone-chilling sights here that will scrape the core of your existence. Photographs of emaciated children will haunt you. Images of 50-pound naked women undergoing mad science experiments will curdle your blood. Tiny baby shoes say everything without words. A room surrounded by floor-to ceiling glass cases showcasing 8 tons human hair shorn from female victims before they stepped into the gas chamber will turn your stomach to bile.

Women and children were typically killed instantly upon arrival at Auschwitz. Some were kept alive for medical experiments. Nazi doctors were particularly interested in practicing sterilization and fertility techniques on the women and genetic experiments on the children. Occasionally a young child, if blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, might be sent to live with a childless German family. Men physically fit to work were sent to the labor side of the camp, where they faced 12-14 days of hard manual labor on a few hundred calories per day. They slept 3-6 to a single twin-size bed and had no running water. The average life expectancy was two months. Prisoners who defied orders or refused to work were subjected to any number of punishments and death sentences– forced to stand in the snow naked and doused with water, sealed in a brick compartment with no air, put in a cell and left to starve. If you were lucky, you were shot, hanged or gassed. Right, lucky.

What I’m telling you is pretty horrific, I know. But it doesn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage you to learn more. Hell, visit this place if you ever have the chance. It will change your paradigm forever. It was raining, cold, and muddy and I became famished half way through the visit. But I stood in my down jacket and heavy boots, tickled by a spring rain, a few hours departed from a hearty breakfast and felt guilty for my mild discomfort. At the sight of the crematorium, capable of incinerating 4,500 bodies a day, I knelt and wept a little.

When the end of the war was inevitable, the Nazis destroyed much of the evidence to the horrors committed here. They bombed the crematorium and gas chamber (one still remains), and tried to dispose of many of the torture devices, but much of the evidence was recovered. Auschwitz was liberated in 1945, but by then more than a million people had been murdered here.

I left Auschwitz with a heavy heart but an enlightened mind. I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same. I came back to Krakow and spent some time enjoying the simple pleasures of the evening market–a warm cup of wine and hot soup, a faint violin, the moon’s reflection over St. Mary’s, buying some warm wool socks.
Polish children are required to visit Auschwitz on field trip. I can only imagine what kind of emotional toll that takes on a young person. But as George Santayana said, those who cannot understand the past are condemned to repeat it.