My family took an incredible trip to Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague over just 11 days in Spring 2011. Much can be said about a trip to the former Eastern bloc: eye-opening, at times dark and dreary, and “significant.”
First stop: Berlin, the heart of strife between East and West in the twentieth century. Due to heavy bombing in WWII, Berlin is now modern. The Holocaust memorial has desolate rows of standing stones, capturing the feel of endless grief. Checkpoint Charlie was cool, and the museum showed ingenious ways people hid to pass from East to West Berlin, though nowadays it’s hard to get a sense of the wall because there are few remnants.
I most enjoyed everyday things in Berlin—the food and the buskers. Try currywurst–sliced bratwurst in ketchup, sprinkled with curry powder! Walking down Unter den Linden, we saw a “Beer Bike,” a car formation of bikes with a man steering and serving while the customers pedaled and sang. Hilarious. At the Brandenburg Gates, we saw a tuba player puffing fire!
Berlin to Poland was an adventure! We changed trains at a border station called Szczecin. It’s the sketchiest place— grimy, dim, very “Soviet”– the few people seemed solemn and disgruntled. An old lady followed me around, speaking unintelligibly. Now when we come across something sketchy, we say that it’s so “Szczecin.” We left on a scary Polish night train—sleeping in cramped three-high berths. Unforgettable.
In Krakow we had an excellent guide, Marta. The highlight of our time in Poland was not a highlight at all. It was beautiful in Krakow, but once at Auschwitz, the sky clouded. The whole place felt haunted. I remember a room filled with victims’ hair that the Nazis would use to make uniforms. We saw rows of wooden bunkhouses and imagined the overcrowded, dehumanizing experience, and senseless slaughter. Auschwitz-Birkenau was bone-chilling and sickening, and dominated our trip. It opened my eyes to the horror of mass genocide. It’s fitting that our night train journeys in and out of Poland felt lonely and uncomfortable.
Once in Budapest, we hired another guide, Andrea, who was awesome. I liked the Szechenyi Baths, the baroque and neoclassical Turkish bath complex supplied by geothermal springs–full of overweight people in speedo bathing suits, playing chess while soaking! I felt as though I were among giants. It has indoor and outdoor pools, including whirlpools. What a relief to rest in the steaming baths, breathing cold air, considering the blessing of being able to wash away Auschwitz, while some never could.
We took a short train to Vienna. I recommend the famous Sacher Torte at the Sacher Café. It is dry chocolate cake layered with apricot jam, topped with whipped cream—dip it in Viennese coffee! We saw great art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and Lipizzaner horses at the Habsburg’s Hofbug palace, and an opera, Madame Butterfly, at the famous opera house. The funniest part was watching my 12-year-old brother eat blood sausage—he was so awkward when the waitress asked why he didn’t eat! Ummmm…
Our final destination was Prague. The Alchymist Residence Nosticova, in the Mala Strana, was really bohemian baroque, with lots of red velvet and gold. What stuck out most in Prague were the hills. Literally. I’m a runner–I had to go for a run, but I’m not sure I’ve recovered! At the castle, look down over red-tile-roofed buildings and “the city of a thousand spires.” Prague has great historical sights, like the astronomical clock tower, and it’s a great place to relax!
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