Finally Vienna (and Budapest, Brno, and Bratislava)

A few weeks after I got back from Poland, Chris and I had planned to visit Vienna.  It was a place that we’d always wanted to visit and what better time then Christmas.  Chris got a bit overly-ambitious and also planned for us to see Budapest, Hungary – Brno, Czech Republic – and – Bratislava, Slovakia.  This meant we’d see a lot more places and Christmas markets, but that I’d also be driving a lot more.  I just prayed that it wasn’t bad weather.  Like the previous post I’ll be doing my Top Ten (because I’m a slacker).  If you want more detail then you can always check Chris’ blog posts.

Vienna (and its neighbours) Top Ten

1.  Budapest, Hungary

I have to say this was my favourite part of this visit even though it was FREEZING!  We caught the train early in the morning and spent the day in Budapest.  We got to explore LOTS of Christmas markets and it was a very picturesque city.  I could have probably spent more time there (I didn’t get to see the Synagogue – not pointing any fingers….. Chris).  We took the City Sightseeing Tour, which included all the different routes and boats and everything.  We stuck to the first line and after 45 minutes on the open top of the bus, we pealed ourselves from the frozen seats and got out to see the market.  But it was a beautiful city!

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2.  Driving Through the Countryside

We decided on one day we’d visit the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  It sounds like a lot, but they were all very close and only a few hours at the most away.  I was so glad that it was nice weather.  It was foggy, which kind of ruins sightseeing while driving (and pictures), but that cleared and led to some off track sights and beautiful countryside.  Oh by the way, check your rental car for the Vignette before you pay for a new one for only a few hours – right Chris?

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Ode to Conchita Wurst (said in a think Austrian accent – by me). 

No idea who she is?  Well, SHAME!

 

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3.  Brno, Czech Republic

After finally parking the car in what might have been the tiniest car park ever (ever mindful of the rental deposit), we took a nice walk to the town centre to see the Christmas market.  Chris and I both remarked about how strange it is that you can cross a border (Austria to the Czech Republic) and immediately see the influence of the Soviet Era.  It was a quaint little market with a live nativity lots of little stalls and yummy food.  I really like the smaller markets, they are less commercial and have a lot more atmosphere. 

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4.  Bratislava, Slovakia

This little town was suggested by a wonderful friend when we once had a conversation about the places we have loved to visit.  I knew with her suggestion we couldn’t go wrong planning in a visit.  Vienna is only 30 minutes away and so we added this gem to our visit.  I wasn’t disappointed it was a lovely little town, one that I’d never visit otherwise, but well worth it.  We found a place to park just as the sun was setting so we didn’t get to see a lot of the scenery.  We walked past a little preview of a market and followed the crowds to a huge market!  Like most, it was in the shadow of an old church.  We walked around the stalls and through the Old Town.  I would love to go back here too!  A few hours wasn’t enough.

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5.  Schonbrunn Palace

The next day we had the whole day to spend in Vienna.  Unfortunately it was raining…. a lot.  Luckily we made it to the Schonbrunn Palace before it started to pour.  Chris really wanted to visit here because he’d seen in on TV.  It was spectacular!  We didn’t know it but, we got a Christmas market to boot!  It was pretty packed with school trips and LOTS of tourists.  It was quite the setting.  It may be the one place in Vienna I’d like to go back and see.

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6.  Vienna

I cant do a top ten of Vienna without adding Vienna, can I?  To be honest it wasn’t my favourite place ever.  I don’t think that helped that it was freezing and absolutely pouring down!  Would I pay to go again, no.  Would I go if someone paid for me, yes.  I am sure it has so much more to offer than what I got to see.  But, in-between the downpours I did see some lovely architecture and it is really nice to be completely surrounded by history.  Later that evening after drying off we headed to a concert we had tickets to.  We stopped by another market and, luckily it had stopped raining.  The market was WAY to commercial for my liking but it was a nice setting.  We tried Kinderpunch (the non-alcholic version of their version of mulled wine).  It was really nice and we even got a free mug! (Okay, not free they charge you a lot for the drink). 

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Did I mention it was raining… a lot…

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Equality street signs – I loved these.  They were left from when Vienna hosted Eurovision earlier in the year.

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7.  Audio Tour by Rick Steves

I find it crazy that Chris doesn’t know who Rick Steves is.  I spent many Saturday morning with him when I was growing up (maybe that’s what ignited my wanderlust).  I guess he is just an American treasure.  Anyway, this American treasure has an app to download free walking tours around Europe.  I found one for Vienna and decided that it was a great idea.  Unfortunately the rain, cold, and Chris had other ideas.  I was chuckling to myself during the first part at all of his lame jokes (they didn’t translate for Chris).  Before we turned it off and went to seek cover, he took us to an amazing memorial for WWII.  It was out of the way of the bus tour so I’m glad Rick (yeah, we’re on a first name basis – well at least I am) helped me find it.  From Chris Blog:

It is located in the triangle of Augustinerstraße, Fürichgasse and Tegetthoffstraße.

There are 4 carved granite columns (the granite comes from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz in Austria). Behind and to the middle of 2 of the columns is a cast iron statue of a Jew that was forced to clean Anti-Nazi slogans from the streets of Vienna afterAnschluss. This statue showed just how much the Nazi’s were prepared to degrade and humiliate the Jews and those not of the Aryan race.

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8.  Strauss “Concert”

While we were waiting for the sightseeing bus, we got accosted by a man dressed like Strauss (or that style) telling us about a concert that night full of Strauss and Mozart.  Chris was sold at the word Strauss (his favourite composer) and I was sold (well I was sold before we even met the guy – I was looking at tickets the night before) by the word Opera.  We got to the Palace Auersperg and got to see a semi-professional concert.  It was really beautiful, but don’t believe the guy when he says he’s giving you a deal because he only has a few seats left.  There was a great mix of ballet, instrumental, and opera.  The venue made it even more impressive.  We couldn’t record anything or take pictures during the show, so you’ll have to just take my word for it.  Worth the money?  Not really but if you love Strauss or Mozart you wont be disappointed. 

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9. and 10.  The FOOD

Okay, lets just pretend that I had 10 things I loved from this trip.  After looking through all the pictures there is one thing that is highlighted more than any other – the food.  The markets were full of unique food and I don’t think we’ve ever tried so much of it!  So here are some of the things we got to try.

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Belated Warsaw

In December, after much convincing and procrastinating (Chris convincing and me procrastinating), Chris and I decided that it was be fun to go to Warsaw and see the Christmas markets.  Its a favourite tradition of ours to go to Christmas markets.  This year was bound to be a little different since we were officially separated, but we were looking forward to spending time together exploring Poland.   We got a flat in the town centre which had a great view.  It was in a good location that was pretty central to everything.

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Since it was nearly 6 months ago, I don’t remember a lot of the finer details (you’ll have to use Chris’ blog posts for that).  But, I didn’t want to go without writing about it so I decided I’d do a Top Ten of the trip.

Warsaw, Poland Top Ten

1.  Wandering the streets of Warsaw

I quickly learned that walking in Warsaw was  A LOT safer than driving (its crazy there!!!!).  There were so many things to see that it was hard to take it all in.  I really had the motivation to walk around a bit more during this trip.  The sites seemed to be quite close together (or relatively close depending if you as me or Chris).  It was really nice to take in the sights.  You definitely get a different perspective when you are walking in and out of alleys and parks and its a bit easier to take detours and find a way out on foot instead of by car.

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2.  The crosswalks in Warsaw Town Centre

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I guess when you’re visiting the birth country of Chopin, you get street crossings of piano keys.

3.   The Jewish Ghetto

During the war Warsaw was divided and there was a wall put up to keep the Jews in one place.  The conditions in the ghetto were horrible.  We found that there was a place in Warsaw where that wall was still standing so we went to search for it.  When we finally found it we were surprised, although we probably shouldn’t have been, that it was through a block of flats.  Very inconspicuous and if you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t know it was there.  There was a reverence here that I’ve found at every WWII memorial I’ve visited.  It was quiet, except for the occasional resident coming or going.  Chris and I wondered what the people there think about it, if they even do.  Through the whole city there were markings of the border of the Ghetto.  To me it was a constant reminder of the past.

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4. Christmas market in Warsaw

One of my favourite things is to go to another country, explore their traditions, and take in the culture.  I think one of the best places to do this is the Christmas market.  It doesn’t feel like Christmas to me anymore without visiting a market!  The atmosphere is one that you cant get anywhere else.  You get to see the locals – the local food, toys, gifts, music, clothing, and traditions.  At this market we discovered some yummy squeaky cheese and delicious chimney cakes,  A lot of the markets are in log cabin style stalls, but this one almost looked like it was straight out of the desert.

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5.  Driving in the country

While it can be VERY overwhelming to drive in a different country, there are so many advantages I cant pass up the opportunity to get out of the city and dive into authentic countryside.  Poland wasn’t a disappointment.  Once I got out of the mayhem that is Warsaw, we were treated to beautiful countryside and a taste of the country.  The houses were very worn down and you could tell that it wasn’t a very affluent country.  But, there was still a certain charm.  The traditional houses, coupled with the antiquated churches make for a very nice drive.  The only problem we had this time was the lack of sunlight in December.

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Driving in Downtown Warsaw vs. driving through the countryside

6.  The home of Chopin – Zelazowa Wola

Luckily we got some beautiful sunlight for the visit to Chopin’s home.  The gardens were lovely to walk through and a good opportunity to get some pictures.  The house on the other hand…. well, lets just say it wasn’t worth it at all.  It isn’t even the real house that he was born in (its been rebuilt a few times), they definitely don’t put that in the tourist pamphlets!  If fact, when we went there were zero tourists at all, and we felt it especially when we walked into the house feeling full of excitement to learn more about him and leaving feeling like common criminals.  The FOUR ticket takers (surely that isn’t the right name for them) accosted us upon entry and as we travelled room by room we were followed, not so stealthily by a security guard.  Very awkward.  The gardens were well worth it – the house, not so much.

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The fake/real house.

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A very photogenic garden – even in winter!

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Making being “Just Friends” look easy!

7.  Treblinka II – Nazi extermination camp

One of the biggest blessings of living in England has been the opportunity to see a different side of WWII.  Poland was no exception.  Poland was devastated during WWII and there is still evidence of the horrors of the war.  We were going to go to Auschwitz, but it was too far for the short time we had.  As I was looking through my many, many brochures from the tourist office (Chris always gives me a hard time about how many I collect) I read a little about Treblinka II.  We decided that it would be a pretty interesting place to visit.  As we were driving we were running out of daylight.  When we finally got there (no thanks to the Sat Nav for taking us up a bike path at one point) it was dusk and it really added an eerie atmosphere.  There was no one else there and it was set in the middle of a dense forest.  The Nazi’s built a railway right to the entrance, but when you walk up you only see the skeleton of the rails.  Then you walk a bit further to see stones with different countries names on them.  Then you look up to a large stone memorial – the Jewish Tombstone.  This is surrounded by 1700 stones to represent just some of the nearly 800,00 people who died in that very spot.  The crematorium is marked by a large rectangular pile of stones.  It is hard to comprehend, impossible really, what devastation occurred where I was standing.  It was a sacred place.  I wanted to stay longer but unfortunately it was getting too dark so we tried to find the visitors centre.  It was closing just as we pulled up so we missed out on that, but the feeling of standing among those stones – I will never forget.  Good thing I picked up that brochure!

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8.  Nozyk Synagogue

Its a silly thing to say, but if I wasn’t LDS I would want to be Jewish.  As cliché as it sounds, I decided this the first time I watched Fiddler on the Roof.  I admire their faithfulness and traditions.  I am very interested in their religion and so I was happy to get the opportunity to visit a Synagogue while in Warsaw.  It was the only Synagogue that was left standing out of 400 during WWII.  It isn’t overly decorated like a lot of old churches are.  When we went in Chris had to cover his head.  There were men in a back room learning and singing which only added to the atmosphere and my admiration for their dedication and faith.

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9.  Warsaw Uprising Museum

This was one of many WWII museums in Warsaw.  It was a very large museum and after 2 hours we felt like we didn’t spend the time to see everything and read everything.  The thing that impressed me the most was that in the middle of the exhibit when you walked in there was a wall that spanned the ground and first floor.  It had bullet holes in it and it had a constant heartbeat when you put your ear up to it as a reminder of the sacrifices during the war, both of the people and the solders.  The museum is set up as a walk through-time line with A LOT of memorabilia.  There are also videos which are pretty hard to watch, I had to walk away several times, about what the Jews of Warsaw suffered through.

10.  Warsaw Town Centre

The “Old Town” of Warsaw isn’t too old at all.  It was completely destroyed in the war but was rebuilt just 60 years ago – and you’d never know from looking at it.  It was full of Christmas decorations and had a unique atmosphere.  At times it felt like Italy, Germany, Russia, and several other countries.  It was quaint and really fun to explore.

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Warsaw was unexpectedly wonderful.  It is a place that I’d love to go back to and explore more – not only because it is very inexpensive.  I’m glad Chris talked me into going.

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Berlin – Part 2

On this day of our holiday we decided that we’d take the Westend Tour that the company offered.  On our way to the bus stop we happened upon a huge parade going right down one of the main streets in Berlin.  There were tanks, Soviet flags, posters in German, and very angry people shouting in megaphones.  As we drove on we noticed an increased police presence and we knew something was going on but really didn’t know what.  It was strange and a bit unnerving.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many police in one place.  We had done this part of the tour the day before and there were none.  But because we didn’t speak the language we had no idea what the parade was in aid of.   We just carried on, oblivious to why onto the next tour.  The next tour was an hour long and didn’t run as regular as the other tours so we got to the stop and had to wait for about an hour to get on the bus.  We had a quick bite to eat at the biggest McDonalds I’ve ever seen!  It was 4 floors and at one point they had a theatre room for the kids to eat with tables set in stadium seating, cartoons on a big movie screen, and a bathroom attendant.  After climbing all those stairs I wasn’t about to go back down to get money to pay to use the toilets so I shyly walked past the attendant and did the same as I walked back out.  They really should put a warning on the bottom floor “Toilets are attended and FOUR FLOORS UP!”  Anyway, it was time to queue for the bus and luckily it wasn’t packed full.  We got good seats and got ready for our tour.

Our tour guide was just so lovely.  He was friendly and very knowledgeable.  The tour was all based in the old West Germany.  I found it very strange the more time we spent on the tour.  I don’t know if it was intentional or not, maybe for dramatic effect but they made West Germany seem so idyllic with tree lined streets, beautiful houses, lakes, forests, and peace and quiet.  The made East Germany seem dark, industrial, cold, and destitute.  As I spoke to my German employers when I got back they assured me this just wasn’t the case.  That the river we could see from our hotel in old East Germany has some houses built right on the riverbank and is one of the most beautiful places in Berlin.  In fact, he told me how impressed he was with how Berlin was now “just Berlin” not East and West.  He was there when the wall came down and so he can see the progress.  He assured me that the old East Germany isn’t the way they portrayed it and – with both East and West there are stunning places of beauty. 

We started by going by the picturesque Charlottenburg Palace.

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Then we continued on through tree lined streets full of little cafes and houses.  It was nice and quaint.  Then we realized our tour guide wasn’t just a tour guide but a singer.  He stood up on the top deck and started singing old German songs.  I missed his first song, but luckily it wasn’t the last.

Then we went to the Olympic Stadium from the 1936 Summer Olympics.  It was very empty but really nicely taken care of.  They were pretty proud of that stadium and we even got to go through the Olympic village behind it as well. 

Then out of no where we entered this heavily wooded area complete with a huge lake, boats, and cute little boat houses.  I couldn’t believe we were still in Berlin as we drove through.  Then the tour guide stood up and I started recording:

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It was like I was taken back into a different world.  If I tried it almost seemed like I was watching an old movie.  It was surreal and very memorable.  And the tour guide soaked up the applause.

Next we went to the bell tower.  We had a half an hour stop there where people could go to the top of the tower.  I decided that I wanted to stay in the bus and all of the sudden I was the only person on the bus – even the driver left (locking the door behind him).  It was the most peaceful part of the whole trip.  I sat in my seat with the sun shining down on me listening to the birds and the quiet all around and took a minute to be so thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had to see new places.  I would never have thought that in the middle of Berlin I’d have such a peaceful, spiritual experience but it was something I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Everyone started gradually getting back onto the bus and we headed back to the city centre.  On the way we saw more of Berlin and also a nudist park (I was on the wrong side of the bus to see this but by Chris’ surprised face, I am certain it was there). 

Once the tour was finished and we decided to head back to Alexanderplatz we had a bit of an issue getting back on the right U-Bahn.  I wont go into details but there was a bit of arguing and pouting and we finally decided that maybe a short river cruise would help lighten the mood.  So we got tickets to a hour cruise up and down the River Spree.  It was the last cruise of the day so there weren’t many people on board at all – but in typical Chris and Jamie style on the top of the boat with probably 50 empty seats a group of middle-aged, intoxicated, American women sat right next to us.  We were already in a sour mood and this definitely didn’t help.  So I’d like a do-over of the cruise please.  Despite the annoying shipmates, we did see some beautiful scenery from a different angle than the top of a bus.  It was just at dusk and was still warmish. 

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We got back to Alexanderplatz and decided we didn’t want to go back to the hotel yet so we tried some more currywurst (which was nasty and the man wouldn’t let us have it without the tomato sauce “It comes with sauce!”) we had some nice ice cream, did some more people watching, and finally headed back to the hotel.

The next day was our day home but we didn’t have to be at the airport until late that evening.  We debated what to do in the meantime and finally decided to utilize the luggage lockers we saw at Alexanderplatz and do another tour.  We got to the tour company busses and found that the ticket couldn’t be amended for an extra day (like the guy said the first day) and we went back and forth with different companies, got refunds, complained, sat in a packed bus for ages, and finally decided we were both fed up and just headed to the airport.  It would be better to just sit at the airport that deal with the MASSIVE crowds and incompetent tour companies we were running into on the busses.  What we didn’t know was it was the anniversary for VE-Day so there were an extra amount of tourists in town to celebrate.  We got on the train to head to the airport but found that part of the route was on strike and we had to get a replacement bus at a stop.  We got off the train at the stop and there were signs everywhere but we had no idea what they said or where to go.  We exited the train station and luckily found some very nice people to direct us to the bus stop across the street to get the bus.  As we were walking to the bus stop we noticed there were tons of people wearing orange and black ribbons and lots of cars with Soviet flags waving from there.  We didn’t know what was going on, but whatever it was, was huge right at Treptower Park by the station.  I later found out there was a huge protest at the park in connection with VE-day.  THIS is a good article describing what we were seeing:

This is the scene 70 years later: Teenagers are waving Soviet flags, young girls are dressed up in uniforms of the Red Army and muscled guys are wearing pro-Putin t-shirts. At first glance it seems as if the Soviet Union never ceased to exist. Most of the visitors wear the orange and black striped ribbon of St. Georges to remember the bravery of the Red Army.

It made sense with the parade and police in Berlin and the number of Soviet flags we saw.  It was very interesting.  I guess if nothing else it made me realize that not everyone celebrated or remembers VE-Day for the same reason. 

We were on the bus and I thought for sure we were miles and miles away from Berlin and then Chris leans over and says, “Does this look familiar?”  The bus stop that we had to get off at was the same station just down the road from our hotel!!!  I wasn’t a happy lady right then, but we weren’t to know about the strikes or the protests.  As we dragged out shattered bodies up to the train there was an old German man just shouting at us.  We had no idea why and as the lift door closed we just rolled our eyes at each other – only to have the door open and see that the platform was empty.  The man was shouting at us to not get on the lift.  At that point we were just done and got on the other platform and made it safety to the airport.  We walked through a maze of hallways to get to the door where we were boarding and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to get on an airplane – ever.

The flight home was uneventful and Chris took some great pictures from the window –

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Then I saw the yellow fields again (just like when we were coming home from Iceland) and I was glad to be home.

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All in all Berlin was very interesting and there is a lot to do – way more than we got to do and I wouldn’t mind going back again – but when I do go back I am going to make sure I pack better shoes and a better attitude. 

Berlin – Part 1

I have a long bucket list of places I’d like to travel.  I don’t think I would ever be really happy if I didn’t have an adventure to look forward to.  Luckily in the 9 years I’ve lived in the UK I’ve got to check off a lot of my European destinations on that bucket list.  Berlin has always been on that list and so when I had the opportunity and the reason to visit I was happy with that.  It was really a spur of the moment thing (blessing of being childless) and when we booked it I didn’t realize how close to our Iceland trip it was.  I don’t think I could travel THAT much – all the packing and unpacking kind of takes the fun out of it.  But it was a good opportunity so we headed out – staying near the airport for our early flight.

We had a bit of a tricky flight and landing and a taxi to park the airplane that took AGES!  We got off the plane and as we were walking into the airport this very firm German man came jogging towards us shouting at us in German (that’s scary!).  I thought, “Welcome to Germany!”  We then saw another airplane parking right where the passengers were walking – so we weren’t in trouble, just in danger something that seems hard to tell with that language.  They were very friendly once we understood what was happening and we passed through immigration without any problems – oh how I love the sound of that stamp in my passport!

Because the transfer from the airport in Ireland took so long I decided that we’d find a hotel halfway between the airport and the centre of Berlin.  So we walked (for a long time) to get to the S-Bahn (train) from the arrivals at the airport (really it was only about a 10 minute walk but it felt long).  I always put Chris in charge of public transportation because, well, he loves it and he is just much better at it than me.  So we got on the train headed to the hotel.  We did get off one stop early, but only because the names were very similar.  We got back on the next train and got off at the next stop for our hotel.  We walked about 10 minutes to get to the hotel (why do distances look so much shorter on maps?!!?).  It was a lovely hotel in Treptow and after a bit of asking, begging, and upgrading we got to check-in early.  Here are some views from our window:

 

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Lets just clear the air here – I was grumpy on this holiday – like, really grumpy.  There were a lot of reasons for it, but I think Chris is going to go back without me to really enjoy it Winking smile  I decided that I really needed to have a nap before we went into Berlin, so Chris went and got a travel card and explored the tram system and I got some much needed sleep.  He came back and woke me up and we headed into Berlin.  What I didn’t think about when I decided where the hotel was, was the time it would take us to get into Berlin.  Which, was about 40 minutes by tram and U-Bahn (Underground).  Luckily there were stops right near the hotel and the system was pretty easy to navigate so we got to Alexanderplatz without any problem.

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When we walked up the stairs into the square it was an overload of people and buildings – but it was lovely.

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We decided to find something to eat.  We had some Chinese noodles that we’d never have here – but we were hungry enough that they tasted lovely.  Then we decided to find a place to sit in the square and just people watch.  It was a warm day and it was really nice just to sit and soak up the atmosphere.  We decided to head back to the hotel and stop at a supermarket on the way back.  I needed about 10,000 plasters for my poor feet and we also just love looking around the grocery stores at the weird and wonderful food.  Plus, the people I work for are German and they have brought back some great spread that I was on a mission to find.  With only my memory of the label and what was in it we managed to find it and stock up on loads of sweets and head back to the hotel to get some much needed sleep ready for the next day.

The next day we planned to spend all of our time doing the hop-on-hop-off bus tour.  We like to see all the places of interest first before we decide what to do.  We, unfortunately, got on the bus with windows on the top deck (boo) and the pre-recorded guides that were HORRIBLE!  They kept referring to Americans as “The Yanks” and tried to have banter back and forth but failed miserably!  We decided to get off at Check Point Charlie and look around and have some lunch.  We hoped that we’d be able to get a live tour guide to finish the tour – and we did.

When we got off at Check Point Charlie it was a very strange feeling.  There is so much history in Europe – but in Berlin it felt different.  I think it felt different because it is so recent.  I remember vaguely when the wall came down in 1989 – I was in third grade and I remember watching it on TV.  But as I’ve been in Europe I’ve seen the whole WWII conflict in a different light and to be in Berlin really brought things to life.  At the actual check point they had 2 “American” soldiers dressed up holding flags and taking pictures with tourists.  I thought, there is no way the American military are using their soldiers to pose for pictures with tourists – and they aren’t, in fact former soldiers have some pretty strong feelings about it –

Verner Pike, a retired US army colonel and a former Checkpoint Charlie commander, has written a letter to Berlin’s city government calling the fake soldiers “an unacceptable spectacle inappropriate for the location and its historical importance”.

It did seem pretty strange to have such a serious reminder of the Cold War being made into such a tourist trap. 

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We decided to get lunch and since we had an amazing Currywurst in Warenmude on our cruise we wanted to try that again.  It didn’t disappoint – it was really nice and I spent the rest of the trip craving it.DSCN1929

This is minus the tomato ketchup sauce.

We continued on with the tour with a great guide.  He had lived in Berlin when it was East and West and gave a unique perspective. 

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Government Building.  You can go up in that glass dome and look down at the law makers.  They said it was so that the politicians could look up and remember who they are working for.

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Mosaic that covered a whole building.  Also used by the GDR to spy on the people out of the hidden windows.

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Brandenburg Gate – a pinch me moment.

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The Holocaust Memorial

There are a few things that you see in Berlin that make you try to imagine what it would have been like at the end of the war.  One thing that really hit home was a church.  They are working and building a new one next to the bombed one, but they want to keep the bombed one up as a reminder.  Really, just a short while ago the whole city was completely devastated by the war.  It was strange to see the church right in front of me as a physical building that still looked the way it must have years ago.  It was really moving to me and I am so glad that someone, in their wisdom, decided to keep it up.

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The Berlin Wall was another thing that I saw that really brought history to life for me.  It was so strange to be there – right next to it – when you only hear about it in movies or books.  We went to the East Side Gallery to see the pained and decorated wall, but we also went to the visitors centre and saw it as it was.  It was strange to touch it and Chris took a great picture of one foot in East Germany and the other in West Germany.

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The sun was shining and we were really enjoying seeing the sights.  We decided to take another tour that the company offered called The Wall and Lifestyle Tour, but before I move onto that here are the pictures from the first tour of the major sights of Berlin:

 

The next tour took us further outside of the city centre to see some of the neighbourhoods and other landmarks.  The Berlin Wall was never far. In fact, they have paved a path where the wall used to go.  You can tell a bit of different architecture as you go from East to West, but it isn’t too noticeable.  The tour guide would just add what side we were in and it changed back and forth a lot.  It seemed strange that we were travelling freely where others had lost their lives trying to travel. This is where we visited the colourful parts of the wall (they are in the gallery above).  Here are some pictures from this tour:

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The wall with the lookout tower behind it.

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow…

Baltic Cruise–Warnemunde/Rostock, Germany

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A street in Warnemunde, Germany

1.  First it has to be said, that Germany might be one of my favourite places to visit…. ever.  I might be a bit bias because the people that I nanny for are German, but some of the nicest people I have ever met here in Europe are German.  I have been told that I might have a bit of an idealist view of the people, but so far I haven’t been wrong.  Warnemude and Rostock were no different.  The tour guide was the best one that we had through the entire cruise.  He was smart, funny, and kind.  While we were walking down the street (shown above) a random German woman started talking to me (in German) about the bird that was chirping away.  Germany is definitely on our list of places to visit before we move back to the states.  I left this port fully prepared to move and live in Germany.

2.  Now, when we visited Aachen, Germany last Christmas at the market Chris and I experienced our first German Bratwurst sausage.  It was anaemic in colour and bad in taste.  We got home and told the twins we had tried it and “J” said, “Currywurst are WAY better!!”  So, when we saw a stall that was selling currywurst we decided, what the heck, and gave it a try.  “J” was absolutely right – these were very, very yummy!  We even went back for seconds!!  There was also a stall that was the shape of a strawberry.  They were selling fresh strawberries (duh) and they were some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and I live in England where they are super yummy!

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3.  Our tour guide was just a young university student.  A lot of our tour guides had that job to work on their English.  The funniest thing he said was, as we were driving down the street, ”And if you look over there you’ll see the American Embassy.”  I looked all around.  I didn’t know there was an Embassy in Rostock! He continued, “Yes, its that building there with the golden arches!”  He was pointing out a McDonalds.  It was pretty funny, I guess he’s lucky I didn’t get offended (I think he thought we were all British on board).  But to be fair to him, we saw a McDonalds in every single town we visited.  He was also impressive because every time I got on or off the bus he took my hand and helped me – what a gentleman!

4.  Rostock was a quaint little town with colourful facades on the front of the buildings on its high street.  Its a town that was hit quite heavily in places during WWII and had to be rebuilt.  It makes me wonder how different places in Europe looked pre-WWII.  We call them historic buildings, but a lot of them aren’t that “historic” having been recently rebuilt.

5.  While in Rostock we went to the Stasi Prison.  It was just another piece to the WWII puzzle that Chris and I love to learn about.  It was pretty interesting to see how people lived as prisoners even AFTER the war in East Germany.  The had authentic “smell jars” and the records of those who were imprisoned.  The Stasi were always about, watching, and waiting for people to speak out against the government.  It was also very interesting to see the East German influence on the buildings as we travelled from the port.  It all seemed very industrial and grey even though the wall has been down for years.

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6.  While in Rostock we also visited an old church called St. Mary’s Church.  It REALLY started raining at this point so we were happy to take shelter in the church.  In the church is an astronomical clock that was build in 1417.  It has a calendar that goes until 2017 (there is a new one already being built).  It is pretty impressive that it has been preserved for so long.  It also has the daily time, zodiac, moon phases, and month. 

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7.  One thing Chris and I like to do whenever we are abroad is to go to the supermarket and have a look around.  We love looking at the different foods and trying strange things (strange, I know!).  At the time we went to Germany we had a missionary serving in the ward who was German.  We asked him what he’d like us to bring back and he said Haribo.  There are VERY popular sweets in Germany and so we figured that it wouldn’t take any time at all to find some.  We were wrong.  In Warnemunde we wandered the streets looking for a supermarket.  Chris cursing the Sat Nav, me cursing Chris.  Finally we found one and loaded up on Haribo.  To the missionary’s delight we had a whole carrier bag for him.  I still don’t know if it was worth it though….. Smile

8.  In the town centre there is a clock and across the green is Rostock University – one of the oldest universities in the world.  It was at this point that our tour guide mentioned that education in Germany is free.  What, what?!?!  Free??!  Chris and I looked at each other and I think we had the same idea.  We both want to live in Germany and this would give us good reason (we have since been talked out of it).  The university and grounds were beautiful and even the rain didn’t ruin our day.

9.  Warnemude was a lovely little town.  It was right by the water and a “short” walk from where our ship was docked.  When we got to the promenade we waked down several side street and enjoyed the style of the houses.  You could tell it had the potential to be a very busy tourist spot, but luckily we were there before the tourist season and got to see a quieter place. 

10.  The best video of our trip, by far, is Chris filming the storm once we were back on the ship.  I was down in the room and he came in, a little shaken and pale, and said, “I almost had a heart attack!”  I asked him what had happened and he said he was videoing the storm and the rain on the water when there was a bolt of lightning and a body rattling clap of thunder.  Chris managed to catch it all on video and at the very end you can see the camera shake when the thunder sounds and after you can hear Chris muster a whisper of, “That scared me!”  Needless to say, if I am having a bad day I look at this video and it cheers me up!

Warnemünde Storm from Chris Wilcox on Vimeo.

 

Warnemunde/Rostock overall:  Well I’ve said it already but I love Germany and this stop didn’t disappoint at all.  We were given several tour options for this port (one of which was Berlin) but we are glad we choose the one we did.  Rostock was a half day tour and then we had enough time to come back and walk to Warnemunde.  I think in the height of the tourist season, Warnemunde might not be so lovely because of the numbers.  The promenade was only about a 10 minute walk from the ship, which would make it quite crowded if there were several ships docked.  One disappointment was the Stasi Museum.  It wasn’t as done up as I thought it would be, but that is minor and we still enjoyed it.  But, it was Germany – lovely!  We really enjoyed it.

 

 

 

Holiday to Normandie, France: Part Cinq–Headed Home

Part five??? Really???  I have to say, I think the reason why I have spent so much time on posting about this holiday is because it really impacted the way I think about WWII and history in general.  I know there are people who I love, who will never get to have the opportunity to visit these places in person so I want to show and tell as much as I can so they can understand and appreciate the things I’ve learned and seen.

I realize how incredibly lucky I am to have the opportunity to live in this part of the world and get to experience these things.  There are moments when I am looking at things as I travel that I never thought I’d be able to experience and the moment seems surreal.  I always make sure to count my blessings in those moments.

So before I get on to the last of holiday I just have to put up another album of the scenery in Bayeux, France.  There is a great D-Day museum there and it didn’t quite fit in anywhere.

Also these pictures:

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This parking always makes me giggle.  I wonder how the French are driving around without flat tyres!!  I drive up on the kerb and worry that I’ll hear a loud POP.  They do it here in England, but don’t have the signs to accompany it – and the kerbs are a lot lower.  Can you imagine parking like this in the states?!?! 

Also you cant go to France without the obligatory French Fries picture.  Problem is, I’ve been in England for so long that I kept calling them “chips” totally ruining the whole joke!

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I also wanted to make sure to post these panoramic pictures that Chris took from our various stops (aren’t smart phones great!):

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German Cemetery

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Arromanches

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Omaha Beach

We asked for a late check out on the day we were leaving and managed to nip to Juno Beach in the morning.  The hotel turned out to be really good having our own kitchen area.  Sugar honestly was such a trooper.  Rabbits aren’t good travellers and I was worried about him the whole time.  It did affect our holiday and I don’t think we’ll take him again – mostly for his sake.  But he made it through with flying colours.  He didn’t ruin too much in the room (hey, the base board was questionable before he got to it!) and adapted really well.  He was fine being left alone while we were gone and did a lot better than most rabbits probably would! 

We packed everything up and began the drive home.  We were doing it in one go this time so there would be stops but no overnight stays.  It was 3 hours to Calais, France and the Eurrotunnel.  35 minutes in the train and then, 2 1/2 home. We just prayed that there weren’t delays this time.  Luckily this time it was a lot cooler and everyone seemed a lot more comfortable.  As a rule rabbits don’t usually eat (or anything else except sit) while travelling but Sugar got so used to it he would just nibble away.  I kept asking Chris how Sugar was doing.  At one point I asked and Chris responded, “He isnt breathing a…..”  I immediately freaked out that I had killed the rabbit by taking him with us.  Then Chris finished his sentence, “as fast as usual.”  He was told in no uncertain terms to NEVER start a sentence with the words “he isn’t breathing” unless he wasn’t, and maybe not even then!  Let me just show you his set up for the ride:

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That is the whole back seat.  Complete with cold pad, USB fan, all you can eat veggies, and anything else his little heart desires!  He could either hide in his carrier (which was covered for shade) or sprawl out on the seat without worrying about falling.  All while on the comfort of his rug from his cage.

As we made our way home, we noticed some pretty dark clouds rolling in.  Out of nowhere we were caught in one of the worse rainstorms I have ever driven in.  As we were making our way up the motorway at a crawl a lorry and a car passed at the same time.  The water completely engulfed the car and I could see nothing but water.  It was REALLY scary and we were very lucky (blessed) to be looked over while I just took my foot off the gas and hoped for the best.  I was glad to get out of that rain, and after that, the bridges didn’t seem so scary.  Luckily we drove away from the rain and had pretty good weather the rest of the way to train. 

There was no delay on the train and we even got on an earlier train.  A completely different experience than leaving.  While we were waiting for the train, the screen said that the motorway we HAD to go home on was closed for a junction with a diversion in place.  There was nothing we could do but hope that it would be sorted out by the time we got there. 

When we got to England we were met with rain and stand-still traffic.  We waiting in traffic for about 30 minutes and then it started moving and it was smooth sailing until we got home.

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The many moods of France

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The sunset that helped us home in England.

I love that I get to travel and I love that I am married to someone who loves it as much as I do.  I think road trips are a great way to grow a marriage.  Don’t get me wrong I turn into a monster when I am tired, as Chris (and my mom) can attest, and this holiday was no different.  But, crazy moods aside we never laugh so much as when we are on road trips.  I am glad I have such a willing and understanding (and forgiving) travel buddy!  I really believe learning and exploring together cant help but strengthen a marriage.

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  I cant really put into words (though I sure have tried!) how much I learned on this holiday.  But, we were glad to be home, to have Sugar be more settled, and to have our own beds and pillows!

Holiday in Normandie, France: Part Quatre–WWII Normandie Cemeteries

I wanted to do a separate post for the war cemeteries we visited on our holiday.  It seemed wrong to just put them in the mix of pictures.  After reading and watching about WWII and then visiting the Caen War Museum I felt like I understood a bit more about what happened on D-Day and the sacrifice that was made.  But, that cant prepare you to see rows and rows of graves.

The first cemetery we went to was the German Cemetery at Le Cambe.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Germans.  The ones I work for and the ones I have met have been lovely, hardworking, generous people.  While they are made to be the “enemy” of WWII I realize now it wasn’t all Germans and in fact, probably not even most Germans.  We once were speaking to my boss, who is German born and raised, about what he was taught at school regarding WWII.  He said he was taught to be ashamed and embarrassed about his history.  That surprised me and made me a bit sad to realize that even now, people are still affected in negative ways regarding Hitler and his role.  A few months ago I came across a movie on the BBC called: Generation War: Our Mothers our Fathers.  The movie is reminiscent of Band of Brothers but German made and had mixed reviews in the countries it has been shown.  Watching this movie completely changed my views and beliefs about the war.  It showed me how much the German people suffered – how much Hitler made his own people suffer.  A lot of German soldiers didn’t want to fight – just like the American soldiers.  They HAD to – they didn’t have a choice.  Since watching the movie I have an empathy for those soldiers as well.  When the allies stormed the beaches on D-Day there were German brothers, fathers, sons, husbands, and friends killed too.  They mourned for their dead, just like we do. 

I found an interesting article here

“The entrance to the cemetery at La Cambe is a narrow stone arch opening on to a lawn with almost endless rows of graves. There are more than 21,000 soldiers buried at La Cambe, making it the biggest of the six military cemeteries in Normandy. But there are only a few crosses on the green, most of the graves are simple plaques in the ground with names and dates on them.  Around 80 percent of those buried here were less than 20 years old when they died”, says groundskeeper Lucien Tisserand. 

Another resident of La Cambe is Charlotte Dubost. As a young girl she had to work for the Germans. She was 21 at the time of France’s liberation. When US troops arrived at the village, she and other families were still hiding from the fighting in a hole in the ground. Now she regularly visits the cemetery.  “After the war there was a German couple who came here. They had lost both of their sons here in Normandy. Each year they visited the graves of their children,” Dubost told Deutsche Welle.  “One day they asked us whether my husband and I could maybe look after the two graves. And for many years now, that’s what we’ve been doing. It was not easy at the beginning, but after all, we have children of our own and we know that those young Germans had never asked to come here and die.”

“The fighting was very very heavy. We were in Saint-Lo with 120 men and a month later only 9 were left. Then more troops were sent from Germany — but those were kids, they were 16 years old,” Boerner said.  “They were incredibly scared, some of them cried when they had to go into battle. Some wanted to desert and run away. But there was the order: if anyone crosses the lines, shoot them!”

The cemetery felt incredibly subdued to me.  There was no show, no fanfare, no white marble.  It was understated, rough, and sombre.  Not a cemetery of heroism, but one of sadness.

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The next cemetery we visited was the American Cemetery near Omaha Beach.  This wasn’t the first American Cemetery I had visited in Europe but it was still just as touching as if it were the first.  The fact that you could see the beach from the graves was just a reminder of why it was there.  This cemetery felt proud, clean, and orderly.  It was, by far, the busiest.  There was a sense of sacrifice and remembrance as you walked through the crosses and Stars of David.  It is overwhelming and when you look out over the graves you get a true sense of the numbers.

Here are some facts about the American Cemetery:

Situated above Omaha Beach, a place where the American military suffered staggering casualties on D-Day, the American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer contains the remains of nearly 10,000 servicemen who died during the Normandy campaign. With marble crosses and Stars of David stretching as far as the eye can see, the cemetery is a solemn, breathtaking experience that all Americans should share.  The cemetery is at the north end of a one half mile access road and covers one hundred and seventy-two acres. It contains the graves of 9,387 American military dead, most of whom gave their lives during the landings and ensuing operations of World War II. On the walls of the semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial are inscribed the names of 1,557 American missing who gave their lives in the service of their country during the D-Day invasion, but whose remains were not located or identified. The memorial consists of a semicircular colonnade with a loggia at each end containing maps and narratives of the military operations. At the center is a bronze statue titled, “Spirit of American Youth.” The average age of the dead at Normandy was twenty two. 

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The last cemetery we kind of stumbled upon.  We weren’t planning on visiting a British Commonwealth  cemetery but when we stopped at the museum in Bayeux, France we found out that it was only a couple minutes walk away.  Once again it looked totally different to the other cemeteries.  It really reminded me of an English garden.  It was filled with beautiful blooming flowers.  It really felt like Britain.   There was a feeling of humility and peacefulness as we walked around.  I think these were my favourite graves (if that is even possible) because it had meaningful quotes at the bottom of each headstone. 

Here is some information about the cemetery and the numbers buried there:

Bayeux was a major supply and hospital base for the Normandy Campaign, many of the burials here were brought in from nearby temporary places of burial or from the hospitals located in and around Bayeux. Some 85 regiments and corps from the British Army are represented in this cemetery. 482 men were killed on D-Day, Tuesday 6th June 1944.  Casualties range from 17 to 58 years of age. Among those buried in this cemetery is 1 who also had a brother who was killed during the First World War and 24 who lost a brother elsewhere in the Second World War. 2 lost a father in the First World War and 3 lost fathers elsewhere in the Second World War.

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When we visited these cemeteries, every single one, it didn’t matter who’s side we came from.  Of course I appreciate what my countrymen did for me and for my freedom and I definitely don’t condone what Hitler and his men did – but, when you are walking by rows and rows of graves the lines become blurred and you realize they were all people – mostly really young men who died too soon and who shouldn’t ever be forgotten.