Europe: Unplugged

It’s been two weeks since I returned from my whirlwind tour of Europe, and it’s taken about that much time to recover from my time overseas.

We had originally planned on visiting eight countries, but we soon realized our itinerary had been a bit ambitious. We never made it to Slovakia or Belgium, and along the way we added a day here or took away a day there. By the end of our adventure I was exhausted and burnt out. And now, as I try to formulate a good story to tell you about my travels, I find that the sixteen days we spent discovering all these amazing places have turned into one big blur.

Instead of breaking the trip down into a day-by-day saga like I usually do, I decided to share my most memorable experiences and new-found favourite destinations.

~ ~ ~

The Berlin Wall

We were only in Berlin for two nights, and I’ll be the first to say that Berlin requires much more time in order to get a better appreciation for the city. Because of our lack of quality time here, I don’t feel like I really “bonded” with Berlin. However, I will never forget our visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial. We did a walking tour called Red Berlin (offered through SANDEMANs NEW Europe), that took us around Berlin’s former Soviet sector. We visited various sites, including the Palace of Tears and, of course, the Berlin Wall. You feel very small and feeble standing next to this concrete strip, and it really does make you take a moment to remember those who were oppressed because of it.

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Kraków

Kraków, Poland, was added to the itinerary farther along into our trip planning, mainly to act as a departure point for our day trip to Auschwitz. Now, one of my biggest regrets is that we only had one night there.

Kraków is the epitome of what I love in an European town — cobblestone streets, a bustling and ancient market square, and a history dating back centuries upon centuries. Kraków is beautiful, rich, and enigmatic, and I’d go back in a heartbeat if I were given the chance.

We stayed just outside of its Old Town (or Stare Miasto), which was ideal. The entire medieval old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is completely walkable and easy to navigate. St. Mary’s Basilica is right in the centre of the medieval town, and you can often see some part of the church, or hear its bugle player, from many of the small streets branching off from where its located on Rynek Glowny — the largest medieval town square in all of Europe. The entire Old Town is surrounded by the remains of the city wall and a parkette, so you know you’ve gone too far if you’ve hit this moat of green grass and trees.

During our time we did a free walking tour which allowed us to see most of the city centre in just a few hours. However, we sadly never made it to Kazimierz, the historic Jewish Quarter. It was strongly suggested that we go here to dine at one of its many restaurants so we could enjoy some authentic Polish food, so if you happen to find yourself in Kraków make sure to allow some time for this part of the city.

Oh, and eat some perogies. The ones I had here were some of the best I’ve ever enjoyed.

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Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

Visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau was an experience I will never forget. If you want to learn humility and the strength of the human spirit, visit these concentration camps and imagine what their internees suffered, honour those souls lost, and praise those who were able to survive.

I could barely talk while we were walking through the camps. It’s almost as if you don’t want to speak out of respect for the dead; being sombre and introspective is the key. The guided tour takes you through many of the buildings at Auschwitz, including the gas chamber. Out of respect for the dead, photos were not allowed inside. I will say that the scratch marks left by the dying are still on the walls. This was when we broke down. The image of that wall will remain with me forever.

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The entrance to the gas chamber.

 

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Budapest

Without planning it, our trip through Europe just to happened to fall in the week leading up to Easter. Because of this, Easter markets were everywhere. My favourite was the one found in Budapest, Hungary.

Stalls were full of craft goods, jewellery, and Easter toys for children. We were also blessed with stalls specializing in traditional Hungarian food such as goulash in bread bowls, smoked sausages with sauerkraut, and cabbage rolls.

wpid-wp-1429721667416-e1429722497359 wpid-wp-1429721843644-e1429722515591 wpid-wp-1429721891484-e1429722558880We did another free walking tour (these became essential to our trip), which took us through both the Buda and Pest sides of the city, allowing us views of the Danube River. Once we were back on the Buda side, we found our way to the Central Market Hall and wandered around. This market reminded me of the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, but bigger. It was awesome to pick up some fresh strawberries here after days of meals filled with meat and potatoes. If you going to Budapest, definitely allow yourself some time here.

wpid-wp-1429726014300.jpegSalzburg

Our first taste of Austria — Vienna — didn’t live up to expectations. The weather was horrible and for whatever reason we didn’t enjoy ourselves nearly as much as we thought we would. Upon arriving in Salzburg, all was redeemed for me.

Things started perking up for me as soon as I saw the Austrian Alps from the train. I love mountains — with an unexplainable amount of excitement, I love mountains. I was bouncing around the train trying to grab a shot to prove that I had seen the Alps. This was the best I could do…

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That is, until we booked a Sound of Music bus tour and actually drove into the mountains.

This was yet another unplanned event. I was only familiar with Salzburg because I have a friend from there. I completely forgot that this epic and iconic musical movie, based on true events and starring the irreplaceable Julie Andrews, was set in Salzburg.

This was the perfect way of spending our one day in Salzburg as we got to see the city as well as film locations outside of the city. We also had one of the funniest tour guides I’ve ever met. Plus, we got to see this view. I was in awe.

wpid-wp-1429727993872.jpegThat night, upon the suggestion of my friend Richard from Salzburg, we went to the Augustiner Brewery at Mülln. This is the only place I’ve ever drank beer while an image of Jesus on the Cross hung on the wall above me — mainly because this brewery belongs to a monastery and beer has been brewed here by monks since the 1600s.

They have a bit of a “buffet-style” process set up to get your beer. First, you grab either a 0.5L tankard or a 1L tankard from a wall full of clay tankards. Then, you pay and take your mug to the kegs, where a man fills you up. Once you’re topped up, you find a seat in one of the halls, settle in, and drink. They even allow you to bring in your own food, which is convenient seeing how the corridor surrounding the halls is full of food vendors. We had soft pretzels and beer for dinner and it was delicious.

Český Krumlov

Never in my life did I see myself visiting the Czech Republic. I have no reason for this other than the fact that I already have a lifetime’s worth of other destinations on my bucket list. Now, I’m so happy that I did.

Prague was great but full of tourists. We got to walk across the Charles Bridge, but we had to weave our way through a shit ton of people just to get through. I’m going to need to have a do-over with Prague.

Český Krumlov, however, I fell in love with. We loved it so much we forfeited a day elsewhere to spend more time here.

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Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Český Krumlov is spectacular. So much so that I will have to say it’s probably in my top two favourite destinations from the entire trip. I’ve even already vowed to take my guy there one day.

Krumlov is charming and medieval, and we quickly learned that the town has a unique sense of decorative architecture — hundreds of years ago, when a lot of the buildings were being built, their facades were hand-painted with tempera frescos. With the foresight of leaving a legacy, the artists painted directly into the wet cement, creating permanent works of art.

wpid-wp-1429731530890.jpegOne tip for you all: if you so choose to also fall in love with Český Krumlov, make sure you do so while enjoying yourself at Tavern Marketa. Your food is cooked over an open fire, and although you may leave smelling like a campsite, you’ll at least feast on some of the most delicious food in town. My suggestion would be the garlic soup, followed by the grilled sausage with mustard and horseradish, and a pint of the locally-brewed Eggenberg beer. This is exactly what I got and it only cost me about $6.00 CAD.

Nuremburg

Aside from getting the best sleep of the entire trip here thanks to the Five Reasons Hostel (I was in no way sponsored by this property, but I will gladly suggest it to fellow travellers), Nuremburg was a great, spontaneous, last-minute addition to the itinerary. This was mainly a historical stop for us so we wanted to visit the site of the Nuremburg Rally and the subsequent Nuremburg Trials, and I got to experience some more of medieval old town Europe that I so love.

I don’t want to provide a history lesson here, but I will say that Nuremburg was basically the home base of the National Socialist Party (aka the Nazi Party), and as a result it saw both the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. This was where Hitler gave his speeches to the masses, and also where the National Socialist Party officials were trialed for their participation in the war crimes and crimes against humanity during WWII.

If you’re planning on visiting the Documentation Centre Nazi Party Rally Grounds, be prepared for a heavy experience as it has now been turned into an information-laden memorial/exhibit. I was determined to read every placard and watch every film clip, but I will openly admit that about three quarters of the way through I had to give up this effort because I was very close to finding a corner to sob in. I warn you now — it’s a lot to take in.

Immediately after the Rally Grounds we took the S-Bahn to the Nuremburg Palace of Justice, where the Nuremburg Trials were held from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946 in Courtroom 600. I got to sit in the room where not only twenty-three of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich were held accountable for the horrific crimes they committed, but also where the legacy of the International Criminal Court (ICC) began. My need to sob dissipated.

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wpid-wp-1429736203375.jpegTo lighten the mood and enjoy something in Nuremburg that wasn’t war-related, we ate dinner at the oldest bratwurst restaurant in the world, Zum Gulden Stern. The food was delicious and now I’m a huge fan of warm, homemade sauerkraut. So much so that I’m researching how to make my own at home.

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Amsterdam

Without a doubt, I will have to one day return to Amsterdam. Due to our itinerary changes, and the fact that Amsterdam was the last stop on our tour, this gorgeous “Venice of the North” only received a one-night stay. I would gladly spend an entire week here if I had the chance.

We did another SANDEMANs NEW Europe tour, this time around Amsterdam’s Red Light District. It was equally parts entertaining and educational. Even for the most bashful of people, like myself, it was memorable. However, I will say I had to keep my eyes forward at some points.

The one thing I wanted to do in Amsterdam was visit the Anne Frank House. However, due to its popularity as a tourist destination and our limited time within the city, we couldn’t afford to wait the two to three hours required in the waiting line. Now I know for next time to set aside some special time for Anne.

I knew as soon as I walked out of the train station that Amsterdam was awesome. So much so that I have added it to my list of favourite cities (along with Vancouver, New York, New Orleans and Paris). I will go back one day, and it’ll be with the knowledge that there’s a difference between a “café” and a “coffee shop” in this green-friendly city.

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~ ~ ~

This European adventure of ours was memorable to say the least. I saw sights that I never imagined I’d see and visited cities I never thought I’d visit. Hell, I visited places I’d never even heard of before but now I’m crazy in love with (here’s looking at you, Krumlov).

Although I came home broke and exhausted with the worst jet lag I’ve ever experienced, I also added six new countries to my passport, allowed myself the opportunity to experience some world-class cities, and participated in honouring the memory of those lost in the Holocaust. This trip was high-calibre, and it’ll take a lot to be able to match it.

For all of my photos from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic and the Netherlands, check out @meanderingmac on Instagram!

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