Saturday, August 2, 2014

Blazin through Berlin, Poland and the Baltics

Our travel continues to pick up speed now that we're in the final throws of our trip.  Since the second week of July, we've visited Berlin, Poland (Warsaw and Krakow), followed by a hop (Vilnius, Lithuania), skip (Riga, Latvia) and jump (Tallinn, Estonia) through the Baltics.  

Berlin was amazing- perhaps mostly due to the fact that our dear friend Olivia lives there.  It was so nice to stay with a good friend, sleep in a room without strangers and have a kitchen for making tasty meals or just catching up over morning tea.  Olivia had just wrapped up her year of teaching, so she was free to join us (lead us, rather) through her beautiful city.  

Unbelievable really, but we were there for the final World Cup match!  Being in Germany to celebrate their huge victory was more than we could have ever hoped for.  It was an evening game and was being shown on large screens all over Berlin.  Unfortunately, it was pouring rain.  We stood out on Olivia's porch for quite a while hoping for a break long enough for us to make it to the rail line, just a few blocks away.  First, we went to an outdoor beer garden where as you can see below, it was difficult to see the game over all the umbrellas so just minutes before the game started, we changed our minds and took off.  A friend of Olivia's was having a house party for the game- so we invited ourselves over and enjoyed the game from the comfort of being inside while watching the match on a massive screen.  Win-win.  On our way back from the house party, we got to experience the excitement and celebration in the streets.  It was a real trip highlight to be there.  

Another very special moment for us was being invited by Olivia's parents' summer garden house for tea and treats.  We toured Sabine and Joachimhe's garden, sampling like deer as we went.  After enjoying the garden's bounty, conversation, tea and sensational cakes- we mentioned that we had been traveling a year and a half on that very day and how nice it was to enjoy the occasion in their garden.  With that news, Sabine returned from the house with a lovely bottle of sweet wine to celebrate.  A wonderful visit.

As we were leaving Berlin, I decided that I didn't want to carry around my boots anymore.  We have no more treks ahead of us and after carrying my pack for this long- any reduction in weight is worthy of considering.  They're still in fairly good condition so I gave them my thanks as I dropped them off in the good will collection bin.  They've been with me for so many miles, countries and memories! 

From Berlin, we took an overnight bus to Warsaw, Poland, arriving around 6 am.  The hostel was about a 20-minute walk from the old city, which was charming.  It is hard to believe that the city has been almost completely rebuilt since the bombing that occurred during WWII.  Warsaw was heavily bombed by the German and Russian military, causing 85% destruction; the Jewish Ghetto was almost 100% destroyed.  On our second day, we took the free (donation-based) Jewish Ghetto walking tour which walked us through where the heaviest damage had occurred.  I am reading the Zoo Keeper's a wife now about this area.  I also found the Jewish Uprising Museum to be incredibly informative.  

These photos were taken in Warsaw after the 1939 bombardment. 

This is what the city looks like today.  It would be quite easy to be ignorant of the terrible atrocities and suffering while walking the beautiful streets.

Next we went to Krakow, Poland's cultural and artistic center.  During WWII, Krakow became the center of Nazi operations- forcibly removing the residents to create housing for the German soldiers.  Those removed were sent to the Ghetto and then onto concentration camps.  The movie Schindler's List was based on Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who owned an enamel pot/pan factory just outside of Krakow.  He saved many Jewish lives by hiring those living in the Ghetto, allowing them to avoid Auschwitz or other concentration camps.  The factory now houses museum about the city's history during this time and Schindler's original office.

Photos from Krakow-

From Krakow, we took a bus 60 km to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.  I was amazed by the huge number of people visiting.  It seems that thousands of people must visit daily.  After a two hour wait to get in, we were able to take a self-guided tour.  It was exhausting and frustrating to be trapped in such huge numbers of people, unable to move or have any control of getting in/out of the rooms.  It was then, that I realized that I was feeling only a small dose of the helplessness that millions of prisoners felt throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.  The size of the camp was astonishing- long row building after long row building and then an equal number in the opposite direction.   

The concentration camp got it's start in 1940 as a holding cell for political prisoners.  By 1942, the camp began to grow in size and in inhabitants- a way for the Nazi's to clear the cities of Jewish inhabitants while also obtaining cheap labor.  While the Nazi's generally kept very accurate accounts of those in the camps- the elderly and young children were often not recorded and killed immediately upon entering the facility.  Before the camp was liberated, the gas chambers were dismanted and the records were burned, further obscuring how many were killed during the genocide.  The number killed at Auschwitz is thought to be at least 1.1 million (90% of whom were Jewish)- dying either in gas chambers, starvation or by sickness.  Those who remained alive were rescued by the Soviet's Red Army on January 27, 1945 (now International Holocaust Remembrance Day).

From Poland, we traveled into the Baltics with our first stop in Vilnius, Lithuania.  Lithuania was not only occupied by the Nazi's but was first occupied by the Soviet Red Army in 1940.  During the Soviet occupation, a large number of prisoners were sent into Siberian work camps. Then in 1941, Lithuania was taken by the Nazi's- who immediately set out to wipe out the Jewish population, murdering 95% of the Jewish population.  In 1944, the Soviets once again took control where it remained until 1991, when Lithuania finally became an independent country.

I didn't seem to take many pictures in Vilnius- other than of the canals which were my favorite part of the city.  

Our next stop was Riga, Latvia.  The country follows the same pattern of alternating occupation- and today close to 50% of the country speaks Russian.  I found the city and architecture to be beautiful.  We had quite a lot of rain while we were there but still managed to get out as much as we could.  We took a Soviet walking tour offered by our hostel which didn't offer anything too insightful other than that there is a very good Museum of Soviet Occupation. It is unassuming in it's typical dark block-like appearance, but the museum was the best on the topic that we've visited thus far.  The streets were also full of lovely cafés and remarkable buildings (thankfully not all Communist-era) which made it easy to enjoy several days there.

From Riga, we went to Tallinn, Estonia which will always hold a special place in my heart and memories.  A friend from college was recently living in Tallinn and shared a good deal of his knowledge on his favorite cafés, parks, neighborhoods and museums.  I honestly think we did 90% of his recommendations- even visiting some places multiple times.

The city is lovely and easy to get around once you master the public transport (free for locals!!!).  It's set right on the Baltic Sea with lots of green space.  The old city feels like you're still walking within the old medieval gates- with more restaurant options, beer gardens and cafe's than you know what to do with (thankfully we had Aaron's "What to do guide").

Yesterday was our last full day there and we considered taking the ferry across the Baltic Sea to Helsinki, Finland but the time on the ferry (5+ hour, RT) and the high prices there- we decided that enjoying another day in Tallinn was the way to go.  

Right now, we're waiting on our final plane into Amsterdam.  We'll spend a few days there and then head homeward!  The journey isn't over yet but I can't believe how soon it will be before we're back in the US.  But first, Amsterdam!

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