The End: A Reflection on my Time Abroad 

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” -Mary Anne Radmacher 

I realize how late this blog has come in the series. That is partially intentional and partially a matter of “real life” getting in the way. It’s much easier to blog when you’re on the road without commitments – at dinner by yourself, on a beach, on a train – than it is while working and settling into a new city. But I also wanted time to reflect, gather questions that remained, and I was waiting for the travel sickness to set in. That has indeed happened, but I’ll get to that later. The following is a collection of thoughts from my journal abroad that didn’t necessarily have a place in a narrative, answers to questions I received upon my return, and some thoughts on travel. While it isn’t full of facts and pictures, the insight is interesting all the same and I promise there’s a good story or two. 
On Being Alone: 

“There is a need to find and sing our own song, to stretch our limbs and shake them in a dance so wild that nothing can roost there, that stirs the yearning for solitary voyage.” – Barbara Lazear Ascher 
I constantly had others express fear in the idea that I was alone. But really, I wasn’t. I made friends almost everywhere I went. I will say I felt more alone (and out of touch with the English language) in Switzerland, but it didn’t bother me much. Solitude is refreshing in the mountains. I reveled in a quiet snowy train ride, a hot chocolate at a cafe while blogging, or on a day hike in the fresh air. In every other place, I made great friends – friends I still keep in touch with and plan to visit. I don’t think I would have had the pleasure to meet so many interesting people had I not been alone. So I certainly don’t regret it! And, funny as it may seem, I found it really is the people that make the place. When friends would leave before me, the city I was in would lose it’s lore. It was the shared moments that really made the experience. I can’t say I’ll ever turn down a trip but I will be happy to embark on a solo journey whenever the opportunity presents itself. 
On Being Scared: 

“What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country … we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits … this is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing … Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves.” -Albert Camus

I was asked if I ever felt afraid on my trip. The truth is I was on one occasion. I was sitting by the docks of Split, Croatia, one afternoon after just booking a night train to Zagreb, the capital. From there I’d be taking a 6 hour train to Vienna. All-in-all, the journey would be nearly 24 hours. I had just informed my dad of this while using the cafe wifi and I made arrangements to check in with him when I arrived. While sitting there, I noticed an older man that was all too interested in me. At first, he just walked up to the counter near me to order a sandwich. For some reason, my instincts told me he was someone of which to be afraid. I distinctly remember telling myself that such thoughts were silly, but then I remembered reading a particularly insightful book that said when you’re instincts sense something you are nearly always right. I tucked that thought away and tried to find the reason why I thought this man was odd. He didn’t smile at me funny or say anything, but maybe did he look too long in my direction? I went about what I was doing – trying to Google what to do in Split before my train – but the man took his sandwich and sat at the table right next to my window. If not for the glass we’d be sitting side-by-side. I calmed my nerves and pretended not to notice. Then, he returned to the counter to order a soda. Again, nothing strange but maybe a look that lasted too long. He took his soda and sat at the same table as before but this time facing the wall. The window was still between us but he was catty-corner to me and I was all there was to look at. Panic set in, but I tried not to let it show. Fifteen minutes would pass before he stood up, and just as I thought I was in the clear, he was at my table. He told me his name and that he and his German buddy were riding their motorcycles around Europe. He asked, several times, whether I was alone and what he should do in Split. I stayed calm and thought quickly. I told him I was meeting friends shortly but needed wifi for a bit as I quickly hid my train ticket under my iPad. I recommended a few places I had already visited that were far out of the way, and all on the side of the city I knew I wouldn’t be going to. Even though he had just told me he was waiting for his friend to meet him there, he asked if I’d go for a walk with him. I declined, saying I really needed to be getting to my friends. At this point, my instincts were screaming – red flags, exit signs, and the giant words “GET OUT” were flashing in my head. He told me goodbye, but the problem was that he lingered and I had no friends to meet. At first he walked to another nearby cafe where I could see him watching me. Then he moved closer to the front of my cafe. Then, his friend came. They both ordered drinks and then took their map to a nearby table. Shortly after sitting down, they became engulfed in their cellphones and I hitched a plan. I packed up all of my things, made sure my movement hadn’t caught their attention, and made a break for it. I knew the way to my previous hostel – it was only about a 5 minute walk – and it was through a giant market where I could easily lose anyone that tried to follow. My heart was racing, and truly I doubt they even noticed I had left. However, it was a scary event. I kept thinking that if something had happened, it would have been 24 hours before anyone knew. I didn’t know anyone in that city. My parents had gone to bed and expected me to arrive in Vienna the next day. Sure I had my phone, but how helpful would it have been? I’m not saying it was something to stop me from wanting to be on my own, but it certainly made me more aware. But more important than one moment of being a little nervous (and to be honest this happens in the U.S., too), I was able to think on my feet and handle the situation. Plus, I was very aware of my surroundings, knew the city, and was careful what information I gave. At the hostel, I actually ran into friends I’d met in another town and we enjoyed the day together. Two of them even booked the same train, so I wasn’t alone for the journey either. 
On the Pep Talk: 

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

I know I brought this up a few times, but I wanted to go into a little more detail. Something I learned about myself that I was surprised I didn’t already know is that I frequently need pep talks. I give them to myself all the time, but I never really noticed. There were a few times these made all the difference. 

First, I have social anxiety. I always knew I hated walking into full classrooms or meeting a bunch of new people at once and I frequently worry what people think. I didn’t know I had such bad anxiety that I would be scared to make friends. I’m serious. On more than one occasion I was terrified to meet anyone. I got better, which is why I wasn’t so lonely after Switzerland, but it lingered. I remember distinctly the moment I was in Croatia when I locked myself in my room and for over an hour tried to convince myself to just go out and meet the people in the common room. I knew I would make friends and be happier, but I was frozen in fear of the thought of doing that! When I finally left, after I thought everyone else had too, I struggled to lock my door and was approached by the nicest guy in the world. He helped me with my door while I frantically explained my irrational fear to him. Then, he chatted with me for a while about travel, told me to meet his roommates later (which I did) because they were great to hang out with, and sent me on my way feeling much better. But I still cannot tell you how difficult of an hour that was telling myself to just do it. 

I felt similarly on multiple occasions. It happened on creeky, metal staircases suspended in what seemed to be midair, in clock towers with wooden floors, on spiral, stone staircases that made me claustrophobic, on days I felt alone, in frantic moments when I really needed a bathroom but couldn’t find an English speaker, in times when my pack was too heavy and it was too hot, in times I thought “what the hell am I doing here,” in hours on abandoned train platforms in Slovenian border towns, in moments of sickness on Czech bathroom floors. I constantly heard a voice telling me I couldn’t do it. And I constantly had to convince myself I could. 

Now, I realize convincing yourself to push on and travel in a gorgeous foreign country may seem like the smallest feat of accomplishment in the world but I promise it’s not. It’s a lesson I learned and use frequently – when in doubt, give yourself a pep talk. 
On Things I Would do Differently: 

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu 

There isn’t much I would change about my trip. I loved every moment of it, and while I wish it ahd lasted longer or included more places, there was no place I wish I hadn’t gone. Each step led me somewhere else and meeting someone new. I always think how grateful I am my path crossed with so many amazing people by complete coincidence. But if there is one thing I would change, it would have been my pack. I loved my backpack – it was us against the world – but it was really heavy. I gained serious shoulder muscle on the trip. I wish I would have slimmed down on the camera gear some and left my bulky chain lock behind. I also wish I’d packed those extra socks. Trying to find a place that sold boot socks in Vienna was surprisingly hard. 
On Favorite Foods: 

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.” – Mary Oliver

I had a few favorite foods this trip. The best sausage was the käsekrainer in Vienna. I could eat one with mustard every day. My favorite dish was meat stuffed pierogi in Poland. They were so buttery and delicious. My favorite dessert was gelato in Milan. Yes, I had gelato for breakfast and dinner in that city. My favorite drink was hot chocolate in Switzerland. My favorite candy was Michaszki in Poland – I’m actively looking for this on more than one online candy site. 
On the Best Thing I Did: 

“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest, and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” – Mary Oliver 

The best thing I did was spontaneously deciding to jump off a mountain. Did I mention I’m afraid of heights? 
On the Regret: 

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert

I do regret not staying for a while in Krakow. Half a day was not enough. Getting sick in Prague was a close second, but that wasn’t a choice. 
On my Favorite Thing About Traveling: 

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” -Bill Bryson

The best thing about traveling is being out of your comfort zone. It’s an adrenaline rush in every moment. And you find the minute, daily tasks of others to be enlessly interesting. Suddenly, laundry or ordering a coffee are immensely interesting and strange accomplishments. 
On Travel Sickness: 

“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.” – Judith Thurman

I mentioned this in the introduction. I haven’t ever written about it, but it would be unfair not to considering it’s equally part of the journey. This happens usually a few months after returning home. Itinially, you experience culture shock in the reverse. You then talk to your friends and family and get to relive the travel memories. You eventually settle into reality. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, you wake up one morning and you’re overcome with sadness. Sometimes it lasts a day, sometimes a week, but it comes and goes. It’s an overwhelming feeling of missing being abroad, missing the adrenaline rush, missing the moments that blew you away and changed the way you saw the world. It’s homesickness in the reverse. 

This came for me about a week ago. I was expecting it. I still have these feelings about Asia – which usually leads to pho and the film version of “Eat Pray Love.” It’s equivalent to a high school girl needing a pint of ice cream and a rom-com after a break up – the only cure for a hurting heart. This time around, I’ve been treating it with equal parts photo binging and planning my next excursion. 

Traveling is my passion and I believe it is completely possible to fall in love with a country. Why else would you need typical break up therapy when you’re apart? Furthermore, it’s a sinking feeling that what you love is out there – so close you can feel it – but so far that it’s an expensive plane ride away. It’s hard. I think back to those places and I yearn to be there. And I think of all the places I haven’t been and I yearn to be there, too. 

This isn’t just me. Plenty of travel bloggers and writers that I follow experience the same phenomena. I guess that’s part of what makes us travelers. We are constantly called back – even with the food poisoning, heat, crowded hostels, and lack of hygiene – we want to go back. When you really love something, you accept the good and the bad. This is probably why I have no problem living cheaply to be abroad (my bar soap doubles as shampoo and even toothpaste sometimes; it’s vegan and minty!). I will stay in any common hostel room, use any questionable public toilet, and happily eat anything put in front of me if it means I get to see the world. 

That being said, I leave you with one last thought. This may be the last blog in this series, but it won’t be the last of them all. I’m planning, and will always be planning, my next big trip. And I can’t wait to share it with you. 

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” – Jack Kerouac 

Adjusting to my pack

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” – Anïas Nin

My favorite possession


Prague and a Plague 

After our stay in Poland, my dad and I headed to Vienna. I included that part of our trip in my blog about Vienna for cohesiveness when it came to history. But after Vienna, we headed to Prague! 
We arrived in Prague in the afternoon, and it was hot! We got off our train and took the subway. From the subway, we had a bit of a walk to our hostel on cobblestone. Sweat was dripping down my face and neck, and I was experiencing that awful feeling of dampness between my pack and my back. I realize being from Texas I should be used to this heat, but you can’t help but hate it in a place that’s meant to be cooler. However, Prague was in the midst of a heatwave and I was suffering through it. I won’t lie; at this point, I was cursing Prague in my head. When you’re hungry, hot, and backpacking, these moments do happen. But finally we made it. We got water, we put our packs down, and we went out for food. 

For my very late lunch that day I gorged myself. My dad ordered a sausage appetizer to share, I had a salad, nearly a whole loaf of bread to myself (gosh that butter was good), and a traditional Czech meal that   included gnocchi (potato pasta) with sheep’s milk cheese and thick bacon. It was heaven. I ate it so fast that I forgot to take a picture. But, this might have been the best meal of the trip. 

After we had refueled, we toured around town. We checked out the castle complex that abutted the hostel and walked down to see the Charles Bridge. (More on this to come.) We stopped for drinks and a rest. My dad ordered a Budweiser beer, which is actually a Czech original that was knocked off by the American brand. All I can say is, it was an awesome beer and it was nothing like the American want-to-be. Then we ventured to the John Lennon Wall. This was a wall where Prague’s anti-communist sentiments first began coming out in the form of art. Prague is in the Czech Republic, which used to be part of Czechoslovakia – a nation that was part of the Soviet Bloc post-WWII. One of the first installations on this wall was a picture of John Lennon. Many artists used Lennon or even Beatles song lyrics as a means for projecting the ideas of freedom. The government has for years tried to stop the art, but the artists keep coming back. While the orignal portrait of Lennon is gone, the sentiments of freedom of speech and expression still remain. 


View from the castle complex


Charles Bridge


The John Lennon Wall


The John Lennon Wall


The John Lennon Wall


The John Lennon Wall


After wandering for the evening, we decided to head back and call it a decently early night. We had a long day planned ahead – we’d be taking Prague by a walking tour storm! We woke up bright and early for the first tour, which was about a three hour walking tour of Prague. We had breakfast at the hostel but stopped for coffee on the way to the tour. I was in need of serious fuel. Then we met our tour guide and began our journey through Prague. 

We started at the old town square by the astronomical clock. This is the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest still-working astronomical clock. Our tour guide explained all the different pieces and how to read the clock, but I was still a little lost. There were just so many moving pieces and so many things to learn from the clock – time, sun position, moon type, etc. Every hour, the figures around the clock do a little dance as it chimes. It’s considered the most overrated attraction in all of Europe, and our tour guide and tour group agreed. Legend has it that in order to stop the clock’s creator from making another clock for another city, the higher-ups in Prague got him good and drunk and then made him blind and cut out his tongue. You could say Prague is protective of its clock. 


Astronomical clock of Prague


Astronomical clock of Prague


The clock is located on the side of the Old Town Hall. Old Town Hall was the sight where the residents of Prague actually executed 27 lords by throwing them out of the windows of the tower. This was a response to the Habsburg empire trying to take control of Prague. The residents resented being ruled by foreign lords. A tiled date now remains as a memorial to the men where they fell to their deaths. Lesson learned – don’t try to rule Prague. But this was a lesson missed by the Nazi’s and Soviets. We’ll get there. 


Old Town Hall


Old Town Hall


A tiled date to commemorate the lords who perished


These are 27 “X’s” to commemorate the lords that lost their lives


While in old town square, our guide also pointed out a commemorating statue of Jan Hus. He was a religious reformer who was a leader in the Prague community and eventually burned at the stake. This event would lead to wars fought between Prague and the ruling Bohemian Empire (at this point, also the Holy Roman Empire). What did I say about trying to rule Prague, again? There’s also the Church of Our Lady before Tyn. If you look closely, the two spires are uneven. This was actually architectural failure. The story goes that larger tower was meant to be Adam and the smaller Eve, but really it was one big mistake. 


Memorial to Jan Hus


Church of Our Lady before Tyn


Church of Our Lady before Tyn


Next up: the Opera House with a glum past. During the reign of the Nazi’s, a man by the name of Reinhard Heydrich used the Opera House as his office. He was one of the main creators behind the Holocaust and the ideas of “the final solution to the Jewish Question.” He was known locally as the “Butcher of Prague.” Legend has it that when he moved into the Opera House, he discovered a statue of Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer, was on the roof. He told his guards to have it removed immediately. The guards apparently did not know who the man was, and decided knocking off the statue with the biggest nose would do the trick. They failed to knock Mendelssohn off the roof, and he remains to this day. Heydrich was actually the only high ranking Nazi that was assassinated during the war. British special forces trained Czechs that parachuted into Prague and attempted the assassination by firing a machine gun at Heydrich’s car while it passed, but failed due to a jammed gun. Heydrich stopped the car to confront his attackers, at which point one threw a bomb at the car. Debris from the blast injured Heydrich and he died of an infection. Again, don’t try to rule Prague. This is not rocket science.


Prague Opera House


Statues on Prague’s Opera House


After the Opera House, we walked to the Jewish Quarter. The quarter was historically the slums of the city. It used to be a gated, and quickly became over crowded with no room to expand along with a growing population. Additionally, when the river flooded the city, which was frequent, it flooded the Jewish quarter first. Today, the area has been entirely rebuilt and it now raised up several feet to avoid future flooding. It is a richer part of town. However, the remnants of its past remain. Many of the old synagogues are still there as are the stacked cemeteries. In one synagogue, called the Old-New Synagogue, legend has it a monster still lives. This monster was the Golem of Prague. It was originally a monster made of clay by a Rabbi to help defend the Jews. He looked human, but eventually the nice monster turned violent and aggressive. The Rabbi had to do something, so he made the monster “dead,” or rather back into clay. The remains of the monster were placed in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, and can be awaken when needed. If you’re thinking this is a familiar story a-la Frankenstein, this was Mary Shelley’s inspiration in writing the book. Apparently, two Nazi guards went in to face the monster during WWII and never came out. The ladder to the top was then partially destroyed, and the legend left to history. 


New Jewish Quarter


New Jewish Quarter


New Jewish Quarter


New Jewish Quarter


New Jewish Quarter


Old New Synagogue


Destroyed ladder to the attic at the back of the Old-New Synagogue


After the Jewish Quarter, we stopped to admire a Franz Kafka statue. Many don’t realize that Kafka was  originally from Prague. He grew up in the Jewish Quarter, and was mostly published postmortem. The statue is from a short story about waking up on the shoulders of a headless man. The man on top is Kafka. 

Kafka statue

After the statue, we headed for a break at a little bakery. It was amazing. I got a brownie and a coffee, and swore to return. And we did – the morning before we left! Once we had refueled, we headed to the town fortifications and the Charles Bridge. 

Prague is a well fortified city, with most of the fortifications installed during the reign of King Charles IV. This included walls and a few fortresses, a few of which are still standing. These fortifications also include the Charles Bridge. The bridge was built in the 15th century, complete with two fortresses on either side. The statues that stand on the bridge are not originals, but rather replicas. Otherwise, the bridge remains unchanged since the 1600s. Incredible! There are two particularly important statues / locations on the bridge. There’s the Statue of St. John of Nepomuk, who was a priest that heard confessions from the queen and who was thrown over the bridge to his death by the king when he refused to divulge the queen’s sins. Legend has it that at his death, stars appeared over where he drowned. Thus, he is dipicted with stars over his head. If you touch the small dog on his statue, you will return to prague. If you place your hand on the gold cross on the bridge where he was tossed over, your wish will come true in a year and one day. I’ll let you know if it works by next summer. 

Prague fortification


Prague fortress


Charles Bridge


Charles Bridge – the statue of St. John of Nepomuk is on the left, you can see the stars and the small dog


Making a wish at the place St. John Nepomuk was thrown over

The After the bridge, we stopped for an authentic Czech lunch. Again, I was too hungry and ate without taking a picture. But it was yummy! We also grabbed a beer, because when in the Czech Republic! Fun fact: the Czech Republic consumes more beer per person than any other country in the world. And we needed the refuel – we had a walking tour round two! 
Our second walking tour was of the main castle complex. Unfortunately, much of the complex was under construction, but we still got to see a lot. We started out by visiting a World War II memorial that honored the many Czechs that perished in the war. 

World War II Memorial

Then, we headed up the castle hill! Our first stop was a statue of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Prague was the place for astronomers at the beginning of the 17th century, and these two were some of the most influential. If you’ve ever heard of planatery motion, or the idea that the planets revolve – that’s Kepler! And Brahe identified stars, planets, and comets prior to telescopes. 

Prague’s most famous astronomers

Next up was a monastery. Unfortunately, the Strahov Monastery was under construction. However, this monastery dates to 1142 and shortly after it’s founding, the brewery opened. Yep, that’s right, in Prague you can get holy beer! Actually, the monastery started brewing beer in the 13th century, a time when beer was a better and likely more sanitary alternative to water. You can get all of the same old brews, donned St. Norbert, to this day. And they are good! 

Entrance to the monastery


The monastery under construction


The Strahov Brewery


Inside the Strahov Brewery


St. Norbert beer


After more beer – do you see a theme in this city? – we headed to the highest point of Prague’s castle hill. From the top, you can see all of Prague. You can also see Prague’s “Eiffel Tower,” or rather Petrín Lookout Tower. It resembles the Eiffel Tower in Paris, hence the nickname, and luckily, thanks to the height of the hill, it’s also just a bit taller! The Czechs are quite proud. 


View of Prague


View of Prague


View of Prague


Prague’s Eiffel Tower


Then, we headed into the real castle complex. The castle dates to the 9th century and holds the world record for the largest ancient castle in the world. The castle complex includes the royal palace, St. Vitus Cathedral, several houses of the aristocracy, and defense systems. It was built upon over the years and is a beautiful compilation of architectural styles. We didn’t go into any of the houses or the palace itself, but you can. While in the complex, we saw the original well of the castle, which was protected by fencing to prevent the royal family from being poisoned. We also saw the old walls of the Church of the Virgin Mary, which was the first thing built on the complex. 


Castle complex


Aristocratic houses on the castle complex


Aristocratic houses at the castle complex


Aristocratic houses at the castle complex


Entrance to the royal palace


Entrance to the royal palace


The original well of the royal palace


The royal palace, which now houses the Bohemian crown jewels


The walls of the Church of the Virgin Mary


Then we arrived at St. Vitus Cathedral, which are the huge spires on the castle complex. The cathedral was built mostly in the Gothic style, but it was built upon through the ages just like the castle complex. It includes Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque inspiration and was completed in the 20th century. However, the original architect left room for the building to be added to, particularly in decoration so technically it’s an evolving piece. 

St. Vitus Cathedral

Gargoyles of St. Vitus Cathedral – Gothic architecture

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

Stained glasss of St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

The painted glass window of St. Vitus Cathedral

Stained glass windows of St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

The Romanesque architectural piece of the cathedral

A statue to honor St. John Nepomuk

St. Vitus Cathedral

Continuing on, we stopped to admire the different architectural styles and the medieval town. There’s a small area of the complex with well-maintained medieval homes. You can actually go inside and see what living was like back in the “Dark Ages.” The most interesting part was just how short people used to be – just look at those doorways! 


Castle complex


Castle complex


Medieval city


Medieval city


Tiny doorways of the medieval city


Medieval city


Medieval city


Once we got to the end of the complex, we had some great views! Prague is known as the city of 100 spires, and the aerial views never disappoint!

Aerial view of Prague

We decided to head back up to the highest point of the castle complex to enjoy the view of Prague over dinner. We shared local sausage and cheese plate that was amazing. It came with bread, crackers, and fruit. We opted for this lighter dinner to save room for dessert later. 

Our view of Prague as we ate

After dinner, we headed out to visit the Charles Bridge again. We wanted to admire the beautiful city all lit up. So, we found a little restaurant at the edge of the bridge by one of the fortification towers and ordered apple strudel and a couple glasses of wine. We then walked the bridge to get a glimpse of the castle complex all lit up. Actually, these lights have a phenomenal story. The Rolling Stones were a huge influence in Soviet dominated Czechoslovakia even so much as to dominate a freedom slogan, “the tanks roll out, the Stones roll in.” The Rolling Stones were visiting Prague in 1995, which was the beginning of freedom from Soviet influence. The beloved band became close friends with the president, and while enjoying a Czech beer at a pub one evening questioned the president about the lack of lights for the beautiful castle. The president told the band that he’d love to have lights, but that he had much more to worry about in the city that was once Nazi and then Soviet dominated. It simply wasn’t at the top of his list. Mick Jagger just could not handle this idea, and spent $32,000 to have a lighting system installed at the castle. The band presented the president with a remote control for the system, and to this day, tourists love to come from all around to admire the view. 

Prague Castle at night

After admiring the lighting system, we headed back to the hostel. We were exhausted from a day of walking in the heat and in desperate need of rest. After a day of history, we decided the next day we’d enjoy shopping and eating in Prague. It would be a little more laid back. 

[Note: The following story will be the plague. I was not initially going to write about it, but I started this blog to be an honest account of traveling – the good and the bad. So, here it is. I held nothing back, though I did try to write this part without being too graphic.] 

That night, I fell asleep around midnight. At about 1:00 A.M., I woke to a terrible case of acid reflux. This was an odd feeling; I had only had one glass of wine with my strudel at dessert, and this was unexpected. It was so bad that I decided to go down to the bathroom. That meant walking out of my attic room and down one flight of stairs to the bathroom I shared with the five other people in my room – my dad included – and the four people from the room across from us. I figured if I had eaten something that had given me a sour stomach it was probably best to just get it out.  So I did, and then headed back upstairs. I took a Pepcid AC and curled up in my bed. Ten minutes passed before the urge came again. I headed back down to the bathroom thinking surely this would be the last. Maybe I just hadn’t gotten it all out of my system. After several minutes of incessant dry-heaving to no avail, I finally calmed my body down enough to go back up to bed. I felt weak as I laid down, and that’s when the defining symptom showed up. I realized I was suddenly shivering in bed. This was particularly odd considering how hot it was in our room. I had sweat the whole night before and I was sweating while falling asleep. Prague was in the midst of a heatwave and we were staying in a nearly window-less, essentially ventilation-free, no-air-conditioning room in an attic! So why was I shivering so hard that I was wrapped in a comforter? I had a fever. 

It was at this moment that I realized what was happening. I grabbed my phone and started Googling the two things I knew this could be: food poisoning or a little illness known as Traveler’s Diarreaha. Both listed the same symtoms: fever, nausea, vomiting, weakness, fatigue, and diarreaha. No sooner than having read it did I hear our bathroom door close – it was occupied. And suddenly, what was coming next was no longer just on the screen but a very urgent reality. 

I only had one choice. I gained all the strength I had left and sent up fervant prayers as I walked out of our room, down the flight of stairs, through the door, down a small hallway, down three floors in the worlds slowest elevator (it wasn’t that slow but this was an intestinal emergency and I had no strength for stairs), across the lobby, down the steepest set of stairs I’ve seen, to the basement where there was an additional bathroom. I made it. But this would be just the beginning. 

All I can say about the night that followed is that I experienced a violent illness unlike any other. I took it in stride. As my body seemed to fail me, I used the hostel wifi to message my roommate back home. I knew there was nothing I could do but let it pass. So, instead of being alone in a bathroom all night, I called upon my best friend to just give me something else to think about other than the ache in my entire digestive system. I will forever be grateful for that conversation. Eventually, I recalled I had medicine that could at least fight some of these symptoms. I crawled half way up the stairs to get enough cell service to call my dad (there was no way I had time to make the journey back up to the fourth floor attic). He brought me my medicine and sat with me. This was my sickest of moments. I was laying in the fetal position on a cold stone floor of a unisex bathroom in a basement of a hostel in Prague. And I was so ill, I didn’t care. In my feverish mind I kept thinking, “Seriously?! I conquered all of Asia eating who knows what from questionable street vendors and Prague is where I get sick?!” I had friends get sick in Asia and most of my traveler friends had been sick abroad at least once, but the irony of it all did not escape me. 

As I laid there on the floor, I dozed in and out of a feverish sleep. Finally, I deemed enough time had passed that I could at least get back upstairs. I was desperate for a bed, especially to just get off the cold and who-knows-how-clean bathroom floor. My dad helped me up the flight of stairs. We walked across the lobby and to the elevator. The minute it started going up, I knew it was a mistake. I barely made it off the elevator before the sour taste of half-dissolved medicine filled my mouth. Following this moment was the lowest moment of my life. I won’t say what happened, but I will say my body was doing everything it could to expel everything within me, which was next to nothing at this point. 

We decided it would be best if I just slept on the couch in the hallway between the elevator and our room door. I was about ten feet from the door that would require my keycard, but just behind it would be a bathroom. My father would be just up the stairs beyond that door, available via phone, and he could check on me. And I wouldn’t be lying on the floor. 

I only had to visit the restroom twice more that night. The morning came and though I was very weak, I was able to shower, pack my things, and eat a banana and drink some water. My dad decided staying in the hot hostel was probably not the best for my condition, so he found us an air-conditioned hotel. A taxi came to pick us up and take us. I tried to go sight seeing that day, but the heat was overwhelming. Combine that with being weak and not quite having the stomach to eat much yet, and I couldn’t do it. We walked to the Charles Bridge and then I walked back to the hotel. So, my dad enjoyed the rest of the day exploring Prague and shopping on his own while I slept like I hadn’t slept in years back at the room. 

By the evening, I was getting hungry. I met up with my dad and we headed out to dinner. Local food like we had had the day before did not appeal to me (I wonder why…), so we had Italian instead. I got simple spaghetti and a Sprite. It still hurt to eat after such a tough night, but it felt so good to not be hungry. We walked around to at least enjoy Prague a little more on our last night. We caught Charles Bridge at dusk, the little musical show at the astronomical clock, and some amazing Thai foot massages! When in….wait, we weren’t in Thailand! But there was a place just off the old town square and after weeks of brutal walking – nearly six for me – we couldn’t help ourselves. The massages were amazing. They worked out the sore muscles in our feet, our legs, and finished with a brief hand and head massage (this is typical for Thai massages). I said thank you to my masseuse in Thai, which she really appreciated. She thought I spoke Thai from my pronounciation and etiquette (you must place your hands at prayer before your chest and bow while saying the words), which I really appreciated. It was one last moment of loving travel and the exchange of culture. 


Prague at dusk


Prague at dusk


Prague at dusk


Prauge at dusk


Prague at dusk


Prague at dusk


Prague at dusk


The next morning, we grabbed some breakfast at the cute little cafe we had visited two days before. We gorged ourselves on scrambled eggs and toast, wonderful coffees, and then grabbed some sweets for the journey. We walked from our hotel to the bus station, and waved goodbye to Prague from the bus. The bus took us to Nuremberg where we hopped on a train to Frankfurt. Frankfurt would be our last stop. We checked into our hostel, walked around a bit, and grabbed some dinner. Frankfurt was also experiencing the heat wave and it was the hottest it had been in 71 years. Our hostel was loud and lacked air-conditioning. It was a poor nights rest, but my dad had gotten us first class tickets on our flight home the next morning. We woke up early, got ready, and took the subway to the airport. We boarded our flight and lived in a lap of luxury I never knew existed. They had nice (free) champagne, white table cloths, real silverware, delicious four course meals concluding with port wine and cheese plates, ice cream sundaes, and seats that become beds. I never knew life could be so good. THANK YOU, DAD! 


Our favorite bakery


Our favorite bakery


Flying first class


And with that, my trip to Europe concluded. I’m going to save my concluding thoughts for my final blog. There are a few topics I still wanted to touch on and a few questions I wanted to answer. So be on the lookout! 


“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” – Elie Wiesel 


There are three things you should know before reading this blog. First, it was not easy to write. When visiting a country, it is important to acknowledge all parts of it’s history and so I chose to visit Auschwitz. I’ve watched films and read books and learned about the Holocaust, but nothing can prepare you to visit a place like this. Second, I am writing this because I believe this is part of history we must know about to ensure it will never happen again. It will be a blog of facts. These facts are from prior knowledge, the tour guide, the tour book I received, and the Auschwitz memorial website. Finally, I will do my best to write this blog in a readable fashion. I realize this is a difficult subject, and while I won’t dishonor the victims of this place by leaving out the details, I will do my best to write about it in an appropriate way. For these reasons, I implore you to read this blog and I encourage you to further learn about this grave part of history. 


Concentration camp network


Capacity of Auschwitz


We arrived in Auschwitz at about 10:00 A.M. The camp is located just outside of a little Silesian town by the name of Oświęcim, which the Nazis took over in 1941. The Nazis expelled the local residents. The houses they left behind became homes for the guards and soldiers. Some of the houses were torn down and the bricks were used to help build the camp. The compound itseslf is actually several camps, and the Nazis had planned to build more but were halted when they began losing the war. The first was Auschwitz I (the first camp we visited), which is said to have held about 20,000 prisoners. The second was Birkenau (the second camp we visited and the one featured above), which was also known as “Auschwitz II” and said to have held 90,000 prisoners at the end of the war. The camps cover around 40 square kilometers. Auschwitz (the network of camps in this area) was the largest of the Nazi camps. The camps were built throughout the war by forced labor of prisoners. 

Our tour of Auschwitz I began by walking through the orginal entrance gate. At the top, there is a enscription that reads, “Abeit macht frei.” In German, this means, “work will set you free.” This was the beginning of the lie at Auschwitz. In the beginning, most people arrived expecting a new home. They brought with them pots and pans, clothes, shoes, and everything they needed to start a new life in a new place. They were quickly stripped of all these things. Their possessions were placed in storage facilities, their clothes removed in place of striped work clothing, their wedding rings and jewelry collected, and their hair shaved off. The storage facilities were named, “Kanada.” The prisoners believed they were going to a new home where they would be safe, Canada. Words cannot decribe the display of these possessions in the museum exhibit. When you look at the pictures that follow, please note that they are only small snapshots of long corridors. Further, these are only portions of the total. In fact, one of the artifacts they asked us not to photograph is a blanket. It had gone through DNA testing after the war, and it was found that the blanket was made of human hair. The Nazis had been supplying the factory with hair from the victims of the camps. 


Entering the camp


Auschwitz I


Suitcases – the writing on these are the names of those who left them, they were asked to write their names on them so that they could get them back after they got to their bunks but the Nazi guards had no intentions of returning them


Mountains of shoes – please note that this only shows a very small portion of the room


Shaving supplies and brushes


Work uniforms


On their striped work uniform, prisoners had a number with which they were identified and symbols. The symbols were for many different reasons. Jews were forced to wear stars, for instance, but their were other symbols for homosexuals, political prisoners, Poles, Sinti and Roma Gypsies, and Soviet prisoners of war. Jews made up the majority. Life in the camp was poor. The Nazi’s intention was to kill their prisoners by working them to death in inhumane conditions. The camps were overcrowded and rampant with disease. Prisoners slept several to a bunk on wooden bunks built into the wall or on the floor. They were not allowed to open the windows. They braved extreme heat and blistering cold. They ate a soup made of little to nothing but water twice daily. Prisoners suffered extreme malnourishment. Since the prisoners would sometimes be marched out of the camps to work in factories during the day, the guards enforced strict laws against helping them. If a local resident was caught giving a prisoner food, they could face death. 


Bunks at Auschwitz I


Auschwitz I


Punishments were carried out at the camps. These could be for trying to get food, taking a break from work, or even trying to commit suicide. Punishments were in Block 11. Punishment could range from beatings to starvation to forced confinement, even in cells so small that prisoners could only stand. The confinement cells were in the basement where little light nor air got through. This basement location was also the first place the Nazis tested death by gas chamber. Outside of Block 11 is The Black Wall, where many shootings took place. Nearby, gallows stand where prisoners were hung and remained for days as a lesson to others. 


The gates keeping prisoners in


The Black Wall



Auschwitz was highly guarded. There were barbed wire fences everywhere and they had electric currents running through them. There were also lookout towers from which guards would watch prisoners. They would shoot prisoners who tried to escape. 


Barbed wire


Fences and lookout towers


Electric fences


Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss was in comand of Auschwitz for the majority of time the camp was in operation. He and his wife lived on the property up until liberation. His wife in particular was known for “enjoying” life in the camp. Prisoners worked as forced laborers in her home, doing whatever she requested. They raised their five children at the camp. Höss was responsible for the development of the camps and the introduction of the gas Zyklon B used for mass killings. He was hanged after the war near the crematorium of Auschwitz I (near his home). 

Höss’s home

At this point, we visited the gas chambers and crematorium. In the tour, you can walk though them. This is where victims were sent to be killed. The prisoners or new arrivals, often the women and children or those unfit to work, were sent here believing they were going to get a shower. They were told to strip down. They then entered a room with fake shower heads mounted on the wall. The doors would be closed and bolted. Zyklon B gas would be poured in from the chimney at the top of the building. Several hundreds of people would be killed in about 20 minutes. Then, prisoners would enter with gas masks with the task of removing any glasses, jewelry, gold from the teeth of the bodies, and their hair. They would then cremate the bodies. The ashes would be buried or thrown in the river. 

The gas chamber and crematoria


The gas chamber and crematoria


The ovens of the crematoria


After this, we went to Birkenau. Birkenau was the largest of the subcamps of Auschwitz, also known as “Auschwitz II.” The camp was built so that trains could arrive within the camp. Prisoners would deboard large cattle cars and be separated into two groups – those who were sent to immediate death at the gas chambers and those that would be forced laborers in the camp. Often, the victims would not even survive the journey to the camp due to the cramped conditions of the cattle cars. 


Entrance to Birkenau


The expansive camp










Cattle car at Birkenau


Cattle car that transported prisoners


The end of the rail line


The majority of prisoners that perished at Auschwitz died at this camp. This was for two reasons. One, this camp was constructed so as to be more brutal than Auschwitz. The developers created the worst possible conditions. Two, the camp had greater gas chamber and crematoria capacity. However, with the Soviet army nearing at the end of the war, the Nazi’s bombed the crematoria and gas chambers. The ruins have been left untouched.


Bombed crematoria and gas chambers at Birkenau


Bombed crematoria and gas chambers at Birkenau


The bomed crematoria and gas chambers at Birkenau


Auschwitz memorial


Auschwitz memorial


The Auschwitz Memorial was built near the bombed crematoria and gas chambers. It is meant to be individually interpreted. 

Nearby is a memorial to one of the burial grounds for the ashes. 


Memorial to the victims of Birkenau whose ashes rest there


Memorial to the victims of Birkenau whose ashes rest there


Birkenau was a feared place for many reasons. Prisoners here suffered rampant disease. Sick prisoners often slept on the bottom bunks or floor since they could not climb up. The bottom bunks were made to sit on clay such that when it rained, prisoners would be trapped by the thick mud and exhaustion. Many died from this. Additionally, prisoners had to share the bathrooms. Disease was easy to catch. They were allowed to use the bathroom once a day. There was no soap, and many were forced into the bathroom barracks at the same time. Prisoners were forced to clean the bathrooms. It was a hoped for job because it was the only one indoors, but they often fell ill. Further, prisoners were very rarely allowed to bathe and never got any clothes other than the set issued upon arrival. When it rained, prisoners would run out and try to wash themselves. Also, Birkenau was the place were Nazi “doctors” would perform horrific experiments upon prisoners, especially children. 


The bunks of Birkenau


The bunks of Birkenau


A memorial to the children of the Nazi medical experiments


Looking through the window of a bunk at Birkenau


Auschwitz-Birkenau claimed the lives of so many people in the most horrific of ways. At the end of the war, remaining prisoners were liberated by the Red Army. It is through their stories that the world now knows what happened on these grounds. Let us never forget. 

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” – Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor 

Looking for Our Roots in Poland

After all the beer and history in Germany, we boarded a bus headed to Poland. The bus was a double decker that drove a route built by Hitler for easy access into Poland during the Second World War. It was quite a bumpy ride, but I love anything with a little history. We arrived in Katowice in the evening and went to meet friends for dinner. My father had discussed our trip prior to leaving with a friend who’s a priest from Poland preaching in Texas, Father Frank. His congregation is around the old Polish settlements of Texas. Father Frank put us in touch with his brother in Poland, Gerard, and his wife, Maria. They met us for dinner and also brought a friend of theirs, Patrycja, who would show us around Auschwitz and Kraków and who worked teaching English literature at a university. She was there to help translate when necessary. Over a traditional Polish meal of meat stuffed pierogi and Silesian soup with dumplings, we made plans for the weekend. Our friends had planned the whole weekend for us, which included a day visiting the small Silesian towns and churches of our ancestors and then a day touring Auschwitz and Kraków. Each day, we had a different set of friends who acted as tour guides and translators so that we could have a real Polish experience! This blog will include our adventures finding our roots in Silesia and then visiting Kraków. 

Our first day, we were up early and out the door. Our new friends Agnes and Arek picked us up at our hotel. They both had been to Texas before to visit the Polish settlements there with Father Frank. They would be our tour guides and translators through the day as we visited the little towns my ancestors left from. 

First up, we visited Boronów, which is the place that the Kotara family came from. The church in this village was built in 1611, and the beautiful interior has not changed much from the time our ancestors left. Standing in this church, I could not help but feel overwhelmed. I cannot describe the feeling of standing in the place where my ancestors prayed for help to make a decision and then for a safe voyage when they decided to leave. This was the church they walked in, prayed in, and found the courage to leave for a new land. It was amazing. 


The wooden church of Boronów


The altar of the church in Boronów


The painted ceilings of the church in Boronów


Inside the church in Boronów


Inside the church in Boronów


Agnes, Dad and I outside the wooden church


After the church, we drove to a family’s house. The woman’s maiden name was Kotara. She told us that she didn’t know much about her ancestors since war and communist rule tended to occupy the stories of the past. But she did recall that someone in her family had immigrated to Texas. They were so inviting and so curious about us and our story. It was a lovely chat. 

Meeting a Kotara – the maiden name of the woman next to me is Kotara

In route to our next stop, we stopped to enjoy some wild blueberries we picked in the national forrest. The forrest is protected by the government, but is open for pubic use, including picking berries and mushrooms. I loved it, and my mouth was soon a lovely shade of purple. It was well worth it! 

The national forrest


A wild blueberry bush


Some blueberries


Picking blueberries


The next stop was Jemielnica, which is the place that the Adamietz family is from. We visited a monastery there, and walked around the church. We also enjoyed a snack of traditional Silesian sausage that Arek got us. It was fantastic! 


The monastery in Jemielnica


Inside the monastery at Jemielnica


Inside the monastery at Jemielnica


The ceiling of the monastery in Jemielnica


Some really yummy sausage


Then we went to Strzelce Opolskie, which is Agnes and Arek’s hometown. We had quite a welcome! First, Agnes’ brother kindly supplied us with a big wooden box of sweet, sweet strawberries. We ate them as we walked toward the church. Inside the church, there were several people working on renovations. We got a picutre with one of the famous men working on restoring some of the paintings. Next, Arek took us to the town hall. There, we met a wonderful councilwoman who had visited many Texas Polish settlements and who had been to Bandera many times since Bandera is the sister city to Strzelce Opolskie. She led us to a set of locked stairs and opened them just for us. We climbed higher and higher through old relics and new wooden stairs to the very top of the bell tower. We could see the whole town into the countryside from the top. It was such a beautiful view. And while we were up there, they even rang the bell for us! Once we got back down, we got to meet the mayor and many other government officials. They had little gifts for us from the town and they showed us the contract they had with Bandera. It was such a wonderful welcome. I felt famous! And I was so excited to get to talk to them and see what they thought about the Texas Polish settlements. 


The church in Strzecle Opolskie


Inside the church at Strzelce Opolskie


Inside the church at Strzelce Opolskie


Inside the church at Strzelce Opolskie


Meeting the man restoring the paintings in the church at Strzelce Opolskie


Town Hall of Strzelce Opolskie


View from the town hall


View of the church from the town hall


View of an old castle from the town hall


View of the flowers in the town square from the town hall – it says 25 years, to commemorate 25 years since communism


View from the town hall


At the top of the town hall


At the top of the town hall


Viewing the sister city contract with Bandera


After town hall, we had a traditional Silesian meal with Agnes and Arek, complete with Silesian beer. We walked a little around town before heading back to the car. The city was celebrating 25 years of freedom from communism imported by their Russian neighbors, but the evidence of the Soviet’s time in Poland was still prevalent. 


My authentic Silesian lunch


A memorial monument for the makers of the famous Gabor shoes that perished under Communist rule


In memories of those who suffered in the war


A Polish castle that was destroyed by the Soviets


The renovated stables of the Polish castle


Then we headed to a little musuem full of Silesian relics. There were pictures, set ups of rooms full of things that Silesian settlers would have used, and a great little corner dedicated to Texas. Then, we got back on the road. We were headed for St. Anne’s Mountain Church. Before heading up the little hill, we stopped for coffee and cake. We were in need of a little sugar and caffeine. And then we were off! Up the little hill (its not very high but high enough to see the surrounding land) and pass the statue of Pope John Paul II we went. At the top, we found the smallest basillica. It was absolutely breath-taking inside. The church is named for the statue of St. Anne that stands above the altar. She holds a young Mary and Baby Jesus. They change her clothes for different celebrations. But, the mystery is how she got here – no one really knows. Pilgrams come here regularly to pray and lay eyes upon the lovely statue. In 1983, Pope John Paul II pilgrimaged here and held a mass. You can only imagine the crowds that came to see him. They actually had to use nearby fields and a huge scaffolding stage in order to accomodate the masses! 


Entrance to St. Anne’s Basilica


St. Anne’s Basilica


Inside St. Anne’s Basilica


The altar of St. Anne’s Basilica, including the statue of St. Anne at the top


Nearby grotto used for large masses


Statue of Pope John Paul II


Throughout the nearby forrest, there are small chapels. They are actually stations of the cross. Each chapel is different in size, decoration, and story. The pilgrims come for this, too. In total, there are 35 chapels and 2 churches in this exhibit. 

There’s also a huge outdoor theater in the nearby forrest that has been carved out of a rock quarry. Hitler actually commissioned this outdoor space, which was built from 1934-1936. It was intended to be a place for him to hold large propaganda receptions and speak to the people he’d essentially conquered. After the war, a monument in remembrance of the Polish Silesian uprisings was placed at the top of the ampitheater. 


The ampitheater


The ampitheater


After that, we headed back to the car. We had a few more stops before our day ended. First, we drove down a street that doubles as a stream. Yes, that’s right! It’s a street and a stream, complete with street signs and ice warnings. Next, we stopped by Agnes’ house. We picked fresh cherries from the trees out front as a snack. Then it was off to Płużnica Wielka, which is the hometown of Father Leopold Moczygemba. He is the Polish priest who is considered the original founder of the Polish settlements in Texas. He found land in Texas and sent letters home urging Silesians to immigrate. To his surprise, many Silesians did decide to immigrate to Texas and set up homes on plots of land east of San Antonio. Some that did decide to immigrate braved a long sea passage, a long walk from Galveston, and a harsh drought when they arrived. But, they persevered and had families and developed their land. Nearly 150 years later, I’m now tracing my roots back to them! What an incredible story! 


The stream street


The stream street


Cherry trees in Agnes’ yard


The church of Father Moczygemba


The story of Father Moczygemba on the side of the church


It was at Father Moczygemba’s church that Agnes spoke to the priest about our visit. He was so overjoyed that we were their searching for our family history that he called us up at the beginning of the mass. He held us up as an example of family, and we thanked him and his congregation for opening their arms to us. 


Meeting the priest in Płużnica Wielka


Thanking the priest of Płużnica Wielka


Then, we were off to Świbie, which is the town the Kosub family is from. We saw family grave sites and then met the priest. He told us that Kosubs still attended church service there, and the family used to be the blacksmiths in town. Appartently, they were well established in Świbie. 


Welcoming us to town


The church of Świbie


Inside the church of Świbie


That was our last stop for the day. I enjoyed the views out of the car window as we headed back into town. It was such a wonderful day. Poland is such a beautiful place, and I loved seeing the culture that my ancestors brought with them. The churches in Texas are so reminiscent of those in Poland, and I love that our families are so connected to the church that we can use church records to piece their stories together. And I absolutely loved having our friends and tour guides, Agnes and Arek, with us. It would have been impossible to get around without them, and certainly impossible to learn anything about our history without them. They were so willing to translate and help us find our roots. It made Poland really feel like home. 


Agnes, Arek, and I at the ampitheather – thank you great friends!!


View of the countryside on the way back to Katowice


View of the countryside on our way back to Katowice


A nesting stork! They’re native to Silesia, and bring luck if they nest on your property.


Back in town, we grabbed some dinner and headed straight to bed! It had been quite a day, but our adventure in Poland didn’t stop there! The next day, we headed out with Patrycja and her brother Gert. First, we went to visit Auschwitz, but I will save that story for my next blog. After that, though, we headed for Kraków! 

When we first arrived in Kraków, we headed to get some lunch. The restaurant took a little longer than planned, so by the time we made it to the castle it had closed. But we were able to walk around and admire the outside. The Wawel Castle was the seat of Polish rule. Casimir III The Great began building it during his reign from 1333-1370. Preceding Polish princes would continue to build upon it, creating a massive castle complex with many different architectural styles. Today, the castle operates mostly as an art museum. You can also tour some of the royal apartments or go into the cathedral or even admire the crown jewels. Often, concerts are held in some of the outdoor spaces here. I bet that would be really cool to see! 


Walking around Kraków


The Wawel Castle complex


View from the Wawel Castle


Where they host concerts at the Wawel Castle


After the castle, we walked around the town. We walked to the square, the highlight of which is St. Mary’s Basilica. The outside is amazing, but it’s the inside that will take your breath away. The church was rebuilt in the 14th century, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s hand carved wooden altar piece actually opens and closes. Truely, you just have to stand in awe of all the colors and beauty of this church. I’ve seen a lot of magnificent places of worship, but this one is one of my favorites. Also, as if it couldn’t get any better, a real trumpeter comes out every hour in the tower to play a little tune! 


Saint Peter and Paul Church in Kraków


Walking around Kraków


Kraków’s old town square


St. Mary’s Cathedral


Me at St. Mary’s Cathedral


Inside St. Mary’s Cathedral

We then walked around the town admiring the theaters, the famous coffee shops, the lovely garden, the medieval walls, the oldest university on the European continent, the window Pope John Paul II spoke to youth from, the place Pope John Paul II studied, and the amazing architecture. Kraków is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. 


St. Florian’s Gate – built as a fortification against the Turkish attacks in the 14th century


Fortifications of Kraków


Where Pope John Paul II studied


Plaque commemorating Pope John Paul II


The oldest university in Europe


The window where Pope John Paul II famously addressed the youth of Kraków

 To end the day, we went to see the famous Kraków dragon, or the Dragon of Wawel Hill. It is said that a Polish prince defeated the dragon in order to establish the city. The statue stands near the “dragons lair,” which is the cave area below Wawel Hill, which is the hill Wawel Castle sits atop. Every few minutes, the statue actually breaths fire! I can’t tell you how hard I tried to capture a firey photo, but for some reason the flames would just not photograph properly! I tried. 
It was such a wonderful afternoon touring Kraków. I certianly want to return! There is so much to see in the city, and there is so much history! I loved the city, and I really enjoyed getting to spend the day with Patrycja and Gert. Learning about a place from locals is incredible, and they didn’t miss a beat! They new all about the little nooks and crannies of the city. There are just some things you can’t find in the history books. 

As a final note, I just want to talk about the feeling of finding your ancestors. Now, I realize I’m rather removed from the Silesian immigrants that left Poland to settle in Texas. But still, I feel rather connected. Both of my parents trace their roots to Silesian immigrants. And with all the marriages within the settlements, I’m almost full-blood Silesian. I grew up thinking that my heritage was much like anyone else’s. In a way it is, especially since I’m an American and almost all Americans trace their roots to immigrants in some way. But I didn’t realize that the Polish churches and little towns were so special. I didn’t know that not every family had a sausage recipe. I didn’t even know some of the words we use in every day banter were Polish! Being in Poland made me so proud that my heritage includes all these things. It made me feel special – not many people have a family history like that! And it made me so proud. I’m proud that my ancestors braved that journey. I’m proud that they stood up for their beliefs in America (both Catholic beliefs and moral beliefs – for instance, many new immigrants were forced to fight in the Civil War and most changed their alliance from the Confederacy, to which Texas belonged , to the Union because they did not believe in the practice of slavery). And I’m proud that the connection is strong enough today that I can visit Poland, and be instantly welcomed with open arms by those who want to show me the churches and ways of our ancestors and our heritage. 

Note: This blog waas successfully posted from my new residence in Fort Worth, Texas. There will be three more blogs in my Europe 2015 series. We traveled so fast at the end that I couldn’t keep up, and then I was overwhelmed with the move. But, I will have them out ASAP! 

Munich & Berlin: A Trip Through German History 

I missed my train to Munich. In fact, I got on my train to Munich, got settled, and went to grab my phone when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d left it on Eileen’s couch. So, I de-boarded the train and made my way back to Eileen’s via metro and a short walk. I was cursing myself the whole way, but I knew there was another direct train in two hours. By going back, I saved myself the trouble of no phone and no ability to contact my father who was meeting me in Munich; I simply lost my train ticket reservation fee and arrived in Munich later than my dad. It was a tough bullet to bite, being my own stupid mistake, but that’s alright – I eventually made it. 

Once in Munich, I met my dad at the train station and we headed for the hostel. We got a recommendation for a dinner place for some traditional German fare. We ordered two large Augustiner beers and two traditional dishes – pork knuckles and a type of pork pot roast, both served with potato dumplings in thin gravy. After stuffing ourselves full and giving a good “cheers,” or rather “prost” in German, to Father’s Day, we walked around to enjoy some of the city at sunset. Back at the hostel, we indulged in a few more beers and a little Jaegermeister. When in Germany, eh? The specialty of the hostel was a “nani bomb,” or a shot of Jaegermeister and Sprite such that it puts you to sleep instead of waking you up like a Jaegerbomb would (Jaegerbombs are made with the energy drink Red Bull). Let’s just say we slept well! 

Just lifting weights for Father’s Day

The next day, we headed out to see the sites. Munich is famous for it’s Rathaus-Glockenspiel. This is a clock dating back to 1908 that has little figurines which act out two stories. First, there is a joust between a Bavarian prince and a Frenchmen; the Bavarian prince always wins, go figure. Then, there is a royal marriage followed by a the Coopers dance to keep the plague away. We sat eating a breakfast of coffee and Nutella croissants while enjoying the show. The whole show lasts about 15 minutes, but the best part is arguably the rooster at the end. He flaps his little wings and cackles three times. The town has lovingly names him Hans, since “hahn” in German is rooster. The show really isn’t over until the rooster crows! 




At the glockenspiel


The glockenspiel and St. Mary’s column




Also in the square is a a beautiful column erected in 1638 to commemorate St. Mary after the Thirty Years’ War and the old town hall where Hitler and his government made some of history’s most deadly decisions. 


The column of St. Mary


Old town hall


After the square, we headed to St. Peter’s Cathedral, or Alter Peter. The interior was closed for a service, but we were able to climb the tower to see a view of the city all the way to the Alps. 


View of Munich from St. Peter’s


View of the Alps from St. Peter’s


Glockenspiel from St. Peter’s


After St. Peter’s, we wandered the city. We walked around Frauenkirche, or the Cathedral of Our Dear Lady. We stopped for lunch at the famous Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, which is a beerhouse built in 1589 by a Bavarian duke.  The place was frequented by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler in their times. Hitler and his National Socialists reportedly had their first meeting there on the thrid floor. We also walked through an incredible park (before allergies made it too impossible to bear), and ended our day touring the Bavarian imperial residences. 


The side of Frauenkirche


Inside Hofbräuhaus


Wandering through Munich


The theater entrance at the imperial residences


Crown jewels of the Bavarian Empire


Crown jewels of the Bavarian Empire


Inside the imperial residences


Inside the imperial residences


Inside the imperial residences


We had a great day in Munich, though it was a little chilly. But, that night we boarded a night train headed for Berlin! 

We arrived in Berlin early in the morning, and it was rainy and cold. We left our bags at the hostel and braved public transportation en route to the museum district. We decided a day at the museum was a great way to beat the weather. I chose the Deutsches Historisches Museum, or the German history museum. Berlin actually has a wealth of museums covering many topics, particularly art and ancient artifacts but for me, history is where my heart is. This museum was incredible. The permanent history exhibit is actually a seriies of connecting corridors taking you through German history. You start with the foundings of the German state, go through the Habsburg years, learn about Napolean’s conquest, get a real grasp on German unification under Otto Von Bismarck (one of my favorite historical figures – I was in heaven), and then end by walking through World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. It was a very well-thought out museum. It also had a featured exhibit about rebuilding Europe after the Second World War. As much as we learn about World War II in school, this is a topic rarely touched on. There was such a grand movement of people and such resentment after the war that it really reshaped the demographics of European nations. The exhibit was both sad and interesting because while it discussed just how much in ruin the continent was after the war, it also made yoiu question what Europe would be like today if the war hadn’t happened. I had no idea the real effects of war. 

The next day, the weather had mostly cleared. It was still cold and overcast, but there were only a few moments of drizzle. We decided to head out to see the city on bikes. I chose a beautiful red bike (all of the girl bikes were red, but we’ll pretend mine was extra special) lovingly named, Hagia Sophia. True to my nature as a traveling history nerd, I picked this bike on purpose because of it’s historical significance. The Hagia Sophia is a Christian Basillica that was turned into a Muslim mosque and is currently a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. From this place of worship, you can track history as each new conquerer transformed it into something new or retrofitted it for a new religion. Oddly enough, the Hagia Sophia is to Turkey what Berlin is to Germany. From Berlin, you can see the span of German history. Each new phase brought new buildings, new memorials, and a new design. Much of the city of Berlin has been moved or altered to fit each new “ruler’s” ideas. Fountains and statues have been moved and  buildings have been torn down and replaced or simply rebuilt after the war. The map of Berlin is constantly changing. As you’ll see on our tour, we caught it all! And, my bike was the perfect companion for such a history-filled day! 


My bike was indeed named


Riding Hagia Sophia


The tour was about a five hours overall with a break for some wiener schnitzel and some great Bavarian beer, which was much needed when you’re on a bike for so long. We met for our tour just under Berlin’s famous TV tower, the Berliner Fernsehturm. Built by the Soviets in the German Democratic Republic, it stands 1,207 ft. tall. In fact, the Soviets needed the expertise and manpower to build it (you know, in their equal society – Communist world) and had to sneak in Swedes to do so. Great work, Stalin. 

Berlin TV tower


Next up, Alexanderplatz! This is the location of the Red City Hall as well as a fountain of Neptune relocated to this location from the front of the royal palace by the Soviets. After it was moved, they proceeded to destroy the royal palace.

Red City Hall and Neptune’s fountain

We then visited Humboldt University. This prestigious university educated the likes of Otto Von Bismarck, Albert Einstein (he later became a professor here), Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and the brothers Grimm (who became the heads of the literature department). It’s the alma mater of no less than 29 Nobel Prize winners. But, it also has a grim history. It was at this location that the Nazi’s began burning books they deemed inappropriate for their empire, such as works by Jews. Over 20,000 books were burned from the school’s library by supportive students as Joseph Goebbels looked on (he was in charge of Nazi propaganda). There is a memorial at the sight. The memorial itself is a glass panel looking down upon the empty shelves. The panel has two meanings. You can look through it and see the shelves from the side but if you look straight into it you see yourself. This is meant to show you both the evidence of the lost books and force you to “reflect” upon yourself. There is another chilling part to this memorial. There is a small plaque nearby with a quote by Heinrich Heine that translates roughly to, “where they began burning books, they will end burning human beings.” The quote is from 1820, more than one hundred years before the Third Reich. At the time, Heine was refering to the Spanish Inquisition, which began burning books that did not agree with the Catholic Church (Jewish and Muslim books in particular). Eventually, the Inquisition began burning anyone accused of being against the Church or the Spanish Crown (or simply of another religion) at the stake. This is an eery reminder that history repeats itself. This is perhaps the greatest argument for learning as much as we can about history to make sure it never happens again. 


Humboldt University


Humboldt University Library


First part of the burned books memorial


Plaque commemorating the book burning


Next up, two gorgeous cathedrals! Actually, the reason there are two cathedrals that look nearly exactly alike standing just across from each other is a story of German competition. The first to be built was actually a French church built for the French-speaking Calvinists in the early 1700s. The Germans decided they didn’t like having a French church in Berlin, so they built an identical church across from it for the German-speaking Lutherans. The only difference is that it’s a bit taller. Of course, they had to out-do their rival France in some way! Fun fact about both of them: while much of the churches themselves had to be rebuilt after WWII, the statues are all original. Hitler had his men sink them to the botton of the river before the war to ensure their safety. They were found and added back to the recreated structures. In between the two churches, you can see the Concert House (Konzerthaus Berlin). 


French cathedral


German cathedral


Close up of the original statues


Berlin Concert House


Our next stop was Check Point Charlie. This is a famous border crossing between East and West Berlin. There were actually two military checkpoints prior to this, “Checkpoint A” and “Checkpoint B,” thus giving this crossing it’s name, “Checkpoint C” for “Charlie.” This would be the point where Soviet soldiers faced their American counterpoints, and tensions were high. This was the front of the Cold War. The original guard shack is actually in a museum, but a replica still stands today and actors pretend to be guards for the tourists. Along the street, you can see the cobblestones marking where the wall once stood. 


Checkpoint Charlie


Sign at Checkpoint Charlie


Picture from when the wall was up


Map of divided Berlin showing the location of Checkpoint Charlie

After that, we headed for a place where part of the Berlin Wall stands. It is just opposite from the building the Nazi’s built as the airforce headquarters. It is a huge complex, and the theory is that it was not bombed during the war since it was a landscape marker for pilots. This structure still stands today, and houses government tax offices. Later in the evening, we came back to this place because just behind the wall are the ruins of the Nazi Gestapo headquarters. 


The Berlin Wall


Us at the Berlin Wall


The Nazi airforce headquarters


Just a short ride away, we stopped at one of the lookout stations that used to dot the wall. In fact, two guards would be in the station in order to watch each other. The Soviets went so far as to make sure one of the guards was married, thus he wouldn’t want to leave his wife and would patrol the second guard to make sure he didn’t jeapordize his job. 

Guard tower of the Berlin Wall

Next up on our trip, we were headed to the site of Hitler’s bunker. This large complex was actually destroyed and eventually made into a parking lot for luxury Soviet apartments (the ones that still surround it today). But, that does not make the site any less significant. With the Red Army nearly claiming Berlin, Hitler committed suicide and convinced his wife (of one day) to do so also with cyanide pills. Just to be sure he was dead and because he was extremely paranoid, he also shot himself. He ordered their bodies to be carried up to the outside and burned beyond recognition. However, they were able to identify him based on jaw fragments and dental records. 


Where Hitler’s bunker once was


Luxury Soviet apartments


After this stop, we headed to the Jewish memorial in Berlin. The place is actually called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is not like most other memorials, and it is meant to be interpreted as you need it to be. Different people have different ideas – the blocks seem disorienting and there are uphills and downhills. As the designer intended, I will let you decide how to interpret it. 

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


After this stop, we rode the the Brandenburg Gate. This beautiful gate was where President Ronald Reagan once gave a moving speech ending with:

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The gate was originally built as a symbol of peace in the Prussian Empire. It used to lead into the city to the Prussian palace. When Napoleon conquered the area, he stole the statue on top as a memento and took it back to Paris. Later, it was replaced, though the statue was redesigned to be an image of victory rather than peace. It became a party symbol of the Nazis when they were in power, and actually the gate itself survived the war. The statue on top, however, did not last and was replaced with a replica. 


At the Brandenburg Gate


The Brandenburg Gate


Next up, we headed to the Tiergarten, which used to be the royal family’s hunting grounds but is now a public park full of lovely statues. We biked through the park and headed to grab some lunch. After lunch, we went ot the Victory Column, which stands in the middle. Each line of canons on the column represent another Prussian victory in war. The column was actually moved to this location by the Nazis during their redesign of Berlin. 


Victory Column


Victory Column


Next up on our bike tour: the Reichstag. The Riechstag building held the the govermmnet diet, or parliament. In 1933, the building caught on fire. The crime was said by Hitler’s government to have been by a drunk man that was caught, but many belive he was simply a scapegoat. Since the fire led to the Nazis suspending the Weimar Constitution and basically claiming martial law while getting rid of opposing politicians, it is believed the SS was actually the cause of the fire. The SS was essentially Hitler’s police. The building was not used by the Nazis and was left empty during the Cold War. It was finally used again by the German parliament after the reunification of Germany and after renovations in 1999. The giant glass dome in the middle was addded during renovations by the architect Norman Foster. You can actually go into the giant dome, and it is meant to be a symbol of transparency in government so that history may not repeat itself. 

The Reichstag

After a ride through the museum district, our tour ended. But our day did not! Actually, we headed back to the standing part of the Berlin Wall to the Topography of Terror exhibit, which rests upon the ruins of the Gestapo headquarters. This is where the SS and Gestapo worked during the reign of the Nazis. These were the organizations that were in charge of what we now refer to as the Holocaust. The exhibit was about both Berlin under the Nazis and the interworkings of the SS and Gestapo. 


Museum in Berlin


Museum in Berlin


Photograph of the Brandenburg Gate from the Topography of Terror exhibit


Photo of the Brandenburg Gate at the Topography of Terror exhibit


We also took a trip to the East Side Gallery in the evening. This is part of the Berlin Wall that remains standing and has become an art exbhibition and a standing symbol for freedom and free speech. 


East Side Gallery


East Side Gallery


East Side Gallery


East Side Gallery


East Side Gallery


East Side Gallery


East Side Gallery


East Side Gallery


East Side Gallery


At the East Side Gallery


I absolutely loved Berlin (it was like the History Channel, just live), but the next day we had a bus to catch. We were headed to Poland! 

Note: I have made it home safe, but I still have four more blogs to write in this Europe 2015 series. I kept lots of notes, but we were traveling so quickly that composing blogs was difficult. But, I still can’t wait to share the rest of my trip with you! 

Wien: Once and Then Again

I arrived in Vienna completely disheveled. I had an overnight train from Split to Zagreb that left at 10:00 P.M. and arrived at 6:00 A.M. Let’s just say it’s hard to get much rest on a Soviet-era train. I don’t know if it was the fact that I used a backpack as a pillow (by the looks of the one they provided, I think someone might have died on it), the lack of air conditioning or a working window, or the unbelievable noise from the squeaking train in that six-bunk cabin, but it was impossible to get any rest. (Shout out to the two Irish girls in my cabin – I would not have made it through the night without you.) From Zagreb, I had a 7:15 A.M. train to Vienna. It was a seven hour train but fortunately I had some English friends making the same journey. That made the trip much easier.

The train cabin – sorry for my reflection

Fortunately, in Vienna I was able to stay with a friend! I stayed with my friend Eileen the first two nights I was there but I was in Vienna a total of four nights. From Vienna, I went to Germany to meet my dad and we then traveled around Poland before looping back to Vienna. So, I spent Thursday evening to Sunday morning at Eileen’s, spent a week traveling, and then spent Sunday afternoon to Tuesday morning in Vienna with my dad. For the sake of keeping this blog all about Vienna and in order to not repeat places, I’m going to write this blog for all four nights. Thus, it will not be in perfect chronological order but it will be cohesive when it comes to Viennese history.

My first real day in Vienna I napped. I was exhausted from the train and could not muster the effort to go out on a cool, rainy day. Eileen provided me with a lovely evening in, though. There was a trip to the grocery store (one of my favorite things to do abroad because while the situation is familiar, the language / products / conduct is not), a home-cooked meal, wonderful conversation, and then a room to myself to rest. This was the first time I was actually alone in a room in over three weeks.

The next morning, I headed out to see the town! I took the tram down to the city center, which is the first district of Vienna or the “old town.” I managed to get instantly lost, but fortunately there are so many beautiful things to see in Vienna that getting lost really isn’t a bother. I passed by a few immaculate buildings (several of which I will describe later after I learned of their importance) and finally made it to my intended destination – Cafe Central. This little cafe opened in 1876 and has a laundry list of famous customers. In the spring of 1913 alone, Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler, Vladmir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky were all patrons. Trotsky and Lenin where regulars. I sat and enjoyed my Viennese melange, or espresso with frothed milk, and apple strudel just basking in the history.


Cafe Central


At Cafe Central


My strudel and melange


Inside Cafe Central


The National Library – I stumbled upon this while lost


Town hall – I also stumbled upon this while lost

From the cafe, I walked down to the Hofburg. It is the former imperial palace of Vienna built in the 13th century. Part of it is currently in use by the Austrian president as a meeting place and residence. The rest of it houses museums or imperial rooms you can visit. Also, just out front are Roman ruins from the city when it was under Roman control.


The Hofburg


At the Hofburg


Rotunda of the Hofburg


Square inside the Hofburg


Roman ruins

The Hofburg is also the location of the Imperial Treasury, or the display of the Habsburg crown jewels. The Habsburgs ruled the Austrian-Hungarian Empire or the Holy Roman Empire. This was a dominating empire in Europe, at it’s height including much of Austria, Germany, and even as far South as Croatia. The treasury is full of gorgeous jewelry, clothing, and religious relics. The dynasty was Catholic and propagated Catholicism throughout the empire. There are two key items in the treasury I really wanted to see – the crown of Constantine and the Holy Lance. Emperor Constantine was the first Holy Roman Emperor and his crown was used by all of those that followed. It is one of the most immaculate crowns ever forged and is easily recognizable in artistic portals of the Habsburgs over the years. It’s on statues, in paintings, and even adorns the coat of arms. The Holy Lance is said to be the lance that pierced the side of Jesus on the cross. It is historical legend that whoever owns the lance has divine power over the land of the Holy Roman Empire and that if you lose the lance you are destined to die. When Hitler first came to power, he apparently was overcome with greed for the lance. He invaded Austria first in order to claim it as his own and had an SS officer waiting in disguise at the treasury (where it was located at the time). Once he received word that Hitler had taken Germany, he donned his uniform and took the lance. Shortly before the war was over, Hitler lost the lance. He died in Berlin (suicide). The lance was then briefly in the possession of General Patton but upon it’s return to Austria, Patton mysteriously perished in his sleep. However, before it was taken by Hitler, it was used during the crowning of the Holy Roman Empire along with the Holy Cross (said to be a piece of the cross of Jesus) and the crown of Constantine. Whether there is greater power around the lance is hard to say, but it’s a curious story nonetheless.


A few crown jewels


The Habsburg coat of arms


Royal attire




The Holy Cross


The crown of Constantine


Depiction of the crown of Constantine


Holy Lance

After the treasury, I headed to this great little hotdog stand Eileen recommended. It was in the middle of the first district but packed with locals. I ordered a käsekrainer, or a traditional Vienna cheese sausage, in a bun with mustard. It was amazing. I might be forever ruined when it comes to hotdogs. (Quick fun fact: Vienna in German is Wien, as in Wiener Schnitzel and Wiener hotdogs). For the record, I had three of these delicious sausages from the same place over the course of my stay(s) in Vienna. The other two I washed down with a Steigl, a beer from Salzburg. The place is also right near a park dedicated to Mozart. It’s just begging you to enjoy a picnic.




Mozart memorial in the park

Next, I headed to St. Stephen’s, a beautiful cathedral from the 12th century. It was only minorly damaged in World War II due to a fire, but the arcitectural structure remained well intact. I took a journey to the top (on two occasions) and had an amazing view of the city.


St. Stephen’s


St. Stephen’s

The inside of St. Stephen’s


The inside of St. Stephen’s


Ceillings of St. Stephen’s


Looking down from the top of St. Stephen’s


At the top of St. Stephen’s


View from the top of St. Stephen’s


View from the top of St. Stephen’s – the ferris wheel is the Wiener Riesenrad located in the Prater, a public park that used to be the Habsburg hunting grounds


View from the top of St. Stephen’s


View from the top of St. Stephen’s – you can seee Belvedere to the right before the rooftop of the church


At the top of St. Stephen’s

After St. Stephen’s, I wandered a bit and stumbled upon St. Peter’s. It was gorgeous inside. 


St. Peter’s


Inside St. Peter’s


Inside St. Peter’s


I continued wandering around through the first district and stopped for traditional Sachertorte at Cafe Demel. I heard it was the best place in the city to try it. I sat outside and enjoyed my cappuccino and bittersweet chocolate cake with lots of whipped cream, of course, admiring the Hofburg.

Sachertorte at Cafe Demel

After the caffeine and sugar, I journeyed to Schönbrunn, which is the Habsburg summer palace. This was predominately the palace of Maria Teresa and Franz Joseph as they ruled over Austria. It was built prior to their reign but it was remodeled as a wedding present to Maria Teresa and is thus considered their palace by decoration. I walked through many of the rooms on display but pictures were not allowed. They were absolutey immaculate and rooted in history. The room and bed where Franz Joseph passed were there, still as he left them. There’s also a room where a five-year-old Mozart played his first concert for the royal family. And, there’s also a room were President John F. Kennedy first met with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. My history-buff heart nearly exploded.


Gates to Schönbrunn




At Schönbrunn



From the palace, I went out to roam the gardens. I got lost in a maze and enjoyed some long paths through the forest. I even walked up to the lovely little place Franz Joseph built to for the purpose of eating his breakfast. But it wasn’t so much a walk as a hike and it wasn’t so much little as it was a second palace. It’s called the Gloriette. Well done, Franz. Well done.


Gardens of the Schönbrunn


Gardens and the Gloriette


At the gardens


The Gloriette


The maze or Irrgarten of the Schönbrunn


At the maze


The Gloriette


Top of the Gloriette


View of Vienna from the Gloriette


The Gloriette


I also visited the Belvedere while in Vienna, which is a palace built by Prince Eugene in the early 1700’s. It eventually came to belong to the Habsburgs (what didn’t?) but was not often used. I guess when you have that many palaces, what’s one more? Today, it houses a wonderful collection of art including baroque, impressionism, realism, modern art, and medieval art. It is home to a few paintings by Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh. It is most famous for it’s collection of pieces by Gustav Klimt. His most famous piece is arguably “The Kiss,” which is the centerpiece of the collection. More recently, you may know of this artist and museum due to the court case in the 1990’s over a Klimt painting and the movie about it, The Woman in Gold, featuring Helen Mirren. (Thank you, Eileen, for showing me this.)


At Belvedere




Gardens of Belvedere


I also got quite a treat while in Vienna the first time. The city was in the midst of Vienna Pride and the Rainbow Parade was being held for LBGTQ support. Eileen and her friends were planning to attend and she invited me to join. Everyone was going to dress as a certain color, but they did not have anyone planning to wear pink. I volunteered! I packed only neutrals for my trip in order to mix-and-match easily and the only thing colorful I had was a pink scarf. Fortunately, we all met for brunch before the parade where face painting and glitter hairspray-ing commenced. At the parade, I marched with a flag I got for free and bought a rainbow pride bracelet. We started at city hall and walked all around the first district enjoying the music from different buses and having a blast. It couldn’t rain on our parade, though yes, it literally did rain some…or rather poured. But we had so much fun!! It was the best parade I ever attended. Thank you to everyone in our rainbow group for such a fun time!


Eileen and I before the parade


The rainbow group


That just about covers everything I saw in Vienna. I did a few things twice, once on my own and once with my dad. I really enjoyed the city, though, and I ate up the history. I kept having moments when I couldn’t believe I was standing where historical greats once stood. Vladmir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Adolf Hitler, Sigmund Freud, Franz Joseph I, Marie Antoinette (the daughter of Franz Joseph and eventually the wife of the French King Louis XVI; she was beheaded in the French Revolution), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…what more could a history nerd want?

On a last note, I would like to give a very special thank you to Eileen. Thank you for introducing me to your friends, letting me crash with you, planning out my days with me, chatting about life, and giving me a true Austrian experience. I would not have seen so much of Vienna without your advice and just I loved the city so much!

Note: This blog was successfully posted from a beerhouse in the Czech Republic.

Croatia: A Week in a Balkan Paradise 

From Ljubljana, I caught a six and a half hour bus into Croatia. To be honest, I did no prior research on where I was going. I knew backpackers who raved about Croatia, but I failed to ask where to go or what to see. I knew I needed to get to the coast, though. I chose Zadar as my first destination for two reasons – it was on the coast so I could easily head South to the islands (rumor had it “they” were pretty good) and it was a long but not overwhelming bus ride. 

When I arrived in Zadar, I instantly knew I made the right choice. I took a bus from the station to the Old Town with a girl from England and a guy from Slovenia I met on the bus to Zadar. We grabbed beers and the Slovenian told us how to get around. Then we parted ways. I headed to my hostel, which was awesome. It overlooked Roman ruins, a grand cathedral, and the sea. 


The bunks in my room


Roman ruins and the cathedral to the right


Roman ruins



The cathedral tower at night (this was taken with my iPhone just to give you an idea of how amazing this site really was)

My first evening, I climbed up into the cathedral tower. The sight was astonishing, but I definitely had a moment of claustrophobia on the steps.  After, I went for dinner in the Old Town and then went to the sea organ. Basically, there are these steps near the water at the concrete wall and beneath them are all these pipes. As the water level rises or as nearby boats create wakes, the pipes fill with water and make a beautiful tune. 


Stairs part 1


Stairs part 2


The coast of Zadar from the cathedral tower


New Town from the cathedral tower


Roman forum


Sunset at the sea organ


I decided to stay in Zadar so that I could go to the Plitvice Lakes. This is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site near the Bosnian border. These lakes are beautiful. They have a turquoise coloring and the water is unbelievably clear and clean. They also have a dark past – this is the location of the start of the Croatian War of Independence. Interestingly, this fact is not mentioned on the tour. 


Plitvice Lakes


Plitvice Lakes


Plitvice Lakes


Plitvice Lakes


Me at Plitvice Lakes


Plitvice Lakes


Plitvice Lakes


You can see just how clear the water is


Caves in the park


Walking up through a cave in the park


Me and my fabulous Brazilian friends at the top


Beautiful waterfalls


The highest waterfall


Plitvice Lakes


After the lakes, I went out walking in old town. There are Venetian city walls and relics of an older Zadar, and there are also the scars of war. 


Venetian city gate


City walls near a marina


Lovely old church


City walls


War-torn facade

After such a long day of hiking, I needed some gelato. So I headed out fot the best gelato in town. I may or may not have walked aroung Old Town stalking locals to see where they went to get ice cream. I found a great place packed with Croatians basically screaming their orders. It took a little nerve to get up to the plate – I speak no Croatian beyond “thank you.” Plus, with all the people, I couldn’t exactly point to what I wanted. I basically had to just listen and repeat. And it worked! 


Best gelato I’ve ever had

The next day, I headed down the coast on a four hour bus to Split. Split is a city of deep history. Archeological sites point to Greek inhabitants first, then Roman rule, then it was part of the Byzantine Empire, then part of the Venetian Empire, ruled over by the Habsburgs, part of Napoleon’s Italian and French empire, granted to the Austrian empire, became part of Yugoslavia (during which it was breifly occupied by Germany) , and then as part of the Republic of Croatia after the war of independence (wow). I mostly walked the city, enjoyed the market of fresh produce with some English friends (it made for the perfect breakfast), and toured the Roman palace of the emperor Diocletian. 


What Diocletian’s palace once looked like


Diocletian’s palace


Wine press in Diocletian’s palace


Cathedral in Diocletian’s palace


First part of the steps up the cathedral


Steps up the cathedral tower – this caused a mini moment of panic for me cured only by a self-pep-talk and the thought of writing this blog


View of Split from the cathedral in Diocletian’s palace


View of Split from the cathedral in Diocletian’s Palace


At the top of the cathedral in Diocletian’s palace


Cathedral in Split


Really cool wall art in Split


Walking around the old town






Port of Split






After a day in Split, I headed to Hvar Island. This is a small island about an hour ferry ride away. In Hvar, I explored a 16th century fortress from the time of Venetian rule, roamed the city, and enjoyed beach days and party nights out with friends. Rather than give a day-by-day (I was there for five and they were all fairly similar: beach, town, bars), I’ve decided to just include some great pictures. 


Hvar port and the fortress


Hvar from the fortress


Hvar from the fortress


After our hike to the fortress


Canon at the fortress


Flag at the fortress


At the fortress


St. Stephan’s Cathedral


Beautiful Hvar beaches


A beach on an island near Hvar


Hvar from a water taxi


Hvar at sunset


Our last night together


Shots at the famous Kiva Bar


Out on the town


I absolutely loved Croatia. I certainly didn’t make it to all the places I wanted to see, but I made amazing friends and had the time of my life. The country is so full of history, culture, kind faces, and adventure. And Hvar was the perfect place for a little rest and relaxation while on the road. All I can say is I will be back. 

After Hvar, I took a ferry back to Split. I caught what I can only imagine was a Soviet-made overnight train to Zagreb, the Croatian capital. All I can say is I would not do that again. Thank you to the two Irish girls who stayed with me and laughed about the situation. From Zagreb, I caught a train to Vienna! 

Note: This blog was successfully posted frrom my friend’s apartment in Vienna.