Monday, November 25, 2013


To continue our trend of using this trip to learn about atrocities people have committed against each other over time (Cambodia's killing field and S-21 prison, Beijing's Tiananmen square), we chose to take a day trip from Krakow to see Auschwitz. 

The camp is about 1.5 hours by bus from Krakow, in the town of Oswicim (Auschwitz is the German word for this village), and is made up of 3 separate sites (Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II - Birkenau, and Monowice), but only 2 survived WWII. Although it is free to see the sites and remember those who died there, it is required that everyone pay for a guided tour, which turned out to be a really good thing. The tour started by walking thought the famous Arbei Macht Frei ("Work Will Set You Free") gates and onto the grounds. We visited at perhaps the worst time of year, on a gorgeous fall day. With the sun shining and the leaves changing colors, it looked more like a college campus than a memorial to a horrific time in history. And it was especially challenging to imagine what it was like for the millions who were sent here in the middle of a bitter winter, with only a thin pair of pajamas to keep warm. 

We toured through the Auschwitz I camp, which now stands as a memorial to the millions of Jews and others who were killed here, and is described as the worlds largest cemetery, as the ashes of the bodies burned here were spread all over the grounds. We saw piles (which as a word doesn't begin to describe the sheer amount) of suitcases, shoes, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs, and hair. Photos of the inmates line the hallway walls, with the name, arrival dates and date of death. Inmates who arrived in spring and summer sometimes stayed a few months before death, but those who arrived in the middle of winter rarely made it more than a night or two. 

We then took a shuttle to Birkenau, the much larger camp that was built to overcome the technical limitations the Nazis had regarding the ability to kill as many people as possible. We had seen the movie Schindler's List, where you see the prisoners taken off the trains onto the platform where a doctor assesses whether they are fit to work or if they would just go straight to the gas chamber. Despite already seeing photos and film of this camp, we found the sheer size to be staggering. On either size of the train platform, there are rows of bunkhouses stretching as far as the eye can see. Even in early fall, the bunkhouses were freezing, and though there was a fireplace in the center of each, we were told those were only for show in case inspectors came through and needed to see humane conditions. 

It is overwhelming to imagine how many people perished here because of hate and fear. Our tour guide has been giving tours for almost 20 years and she said it sometimes made her sad but mostly reminded her of the need to be joyful and grateful of life while we have it. Although this wasn't an uplifting day, it was a very important trip to make to see the horrors that can transpire from fear of others and fear of the unknown, as a reminder not to fear people we just don't know enough about.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Krakow: Polish Paradise!

After a great week in Prague, it was time to move on to a country I have always wanted to go to (largely because of the food!): Poland. We boarded another great night train headed for Krakow, in the southwest of Poland. Although Warsaw is the capital, Krakow is known for being the cultural center of the country, and we certainly found that!

When the Nazis came into Poland in WWII, Krakow became the headquarters for their government in Poland. It became a showpiece, and was largely spared by war, where Warsaw was leveled. As a result, it is a city filled with beautiful architecture and a very compact and delightful old center.

Although we did not heed this advice completely ourselves, Krakow has really great budget options for activities and food that make it a great budgeteer travel destination. The city is full of "Milk Bars", low cost cafeteria style restaurants, and several of the museums have free days. With a little work, it would be easy to go super low budget and have a great time.

Here were our favorite sights and activities in Krakow:

Schindler's Holocaust Museum
- Schindler's Holocaust Museum: For those of you who saw Schindler's List and didn't realize it was a true story, it was. And it took place largely in Krakow. Oskar Schindler was a Nazi business man who ended up saving hundreds of his Jewish factory workers from near certain death during the Holocaust, and his factory has been converted to a really great museum. It is free on Mondays, but only open until 2pm (give yourself at least 2 hours, preferably 3 hours).

Chopin concert: My favorite composer is Frederik Chopin, and what a treat to find out that he's Polish and that its super easy to find a plethora of concerts to hear his music in Krakow. We chose a concert in a historic building on the Main Square and had a great evening, as the youngest listeners in the room by at least 30 years (other than the fantastic 24 year old pianist!).

Sipping mulled wine on the Square
- Main Square: A great place to people watch, admire the beautifully dressed horses (with carriages), and have a mulled wine. There is a museum in the middle of the square, upstairs from the Cloth Hall, which has some great Polish art for 20 minutes or so of looking. Visit on their free day, and then spend the money you saved on a reasonably priced (for the view) drink overlooking the square and St. Mary’s Basilica. Plus, every hour, on the hour, a trumpeter plays from the top of the tower (he's actually a firefighter, and that tower is a fire lookout). 

Contemporary Art Museum: Next to Schindler's Holocaust Museum is the Museum of Contemporary Art, located in another of Schindler's factory buildings. We're not big contemporary art fans, and much of the art here is super weird, but visit on their free day to get another dose of culture. We were hoping for more art addressing the history of the Nazis and then Soviets in Poland, but it was not to be. I recommend the museum if you're a big contemporary art lover, or if you go on Tuesdays, when its free.

Perogi shop
- Milk Bars: so-called because milk was subsidized in soviet times in Poland, these cafeteria style restaurants make good food at excellent prices. Our favorite was just next to the tram stop closest to the Holocaust museum and MOCAK. We spent the week eating perogis, borscht, potato pancakes and rye flour soup at Milk Bars. Yum!

- Bona Cafe and Bookstore: our favorite square-side cafe in Krakow, in the shadow of two beautiful churches, in the ambiance of classical music buskers, with delicious cappuccinos at great prices. The perfect spot for a sunny afternoon!

Enjoying a cappuccino at Bona Cafe
We found Krakow to be a very welcoming, easy to navigate city. That being said, do what you can to arrive in town with small zloty bills or coins. We arrived at 7am after an overnight train, and although we were easily able to find an ATM and withdraw zlotys, we were not able to get change small enough to spend. We spent an hour with our equivalent $18 bills, unable to get them changed (or spend them) at large hotels, a money changer, a corner shop or serval cafes. So, we walked to our apartment instead of taking the recommended tram, and learned our lesson! Even when we bought a $10 hat at a completely packed H&M with an $18 bill, they asked for smaller change. 

Main Square

Final Costs for Poland: $841 for 8 days (average per day: $105)
Accommodations: $51 per night (in a beautiful apartment)
Transit: $4 per day
Food: $33 per day
Other: $18 per day

For more photos of our week in Krakow, see our Flickr set:


Tuesday, November 12, 2013


We took night night train from Copenhagen to Prague and it was LOVELY!! Splurging for a private cabin in Europe is a very nice change from our other Asian train trips (and we got a butler who was the spitting image of James Lipton, of Inside the Actors Studio fame). Plus, the European trains are really cool because different train cars go to different places, so you wake up in the middle of the night to the crashing noise of cars being uncoupled and new ones being added on.

We arrived in Prague just a couple of hours before our friends, Beth and Tom, who flew all the way from San Francisco to enjoy a bit of our world trip with us (thanks guys!). We had planned on meeting up in Munich for Oktoberfest, but when we found out how craze balls expensive that would be, we set out sights on Prague for "Praguetoberfest!" Our week was spent catching up, meandering the cobblestone streets, exploring the local beers and sightseeing.

Here were our favorites:

- Opera at the National Theater: To help celebrate my birthday, Beth and Tom treated us to a fabulous evening at the opera, in fancy box seats with champagne and everything! The opera, Jacobim, was great (despite some pretty weird set decorations of giant chairs), and the opera house is absolutely stunning.

- Muccha Museum and the Slav Epic: The Muccha Museum was nice, but unless you're really crazy about Alfons Muccha, it's probably not worth the money (although there are some nice chairs in the video room at the end of the exhibit where one can get a really nice nap in!) but the Slav Epic is FANTASTIC!! As in, don't miss it!! It is Muccha's series of HUGE paintings depicting a wide swath of Slavic history. And the little booklet they sell in the exhibit is essential to get any of the symbolism and stories out of the works. We were there for an hour at the Epic and then another couple of hours walking through the rest of the museum (part of which is super weird Contemporary art, part is great Modern and Impressionist art, with some works by Klimt, Picasso, Degas, Muccha, Monet, and others). Seriously a must see!

The final piece in the Slav Epic
- Prague Castle: A lovely hill top area, including palace grounds and St. Vitus Cathedral. The Rick Steves book on Prague (or Eastern Europe) has a great walking tour to get all the details. My favorite part was the very cool Muccha window in the cathedral.

Photobombing Tom while he tries to learn something
Birthday wine on the Charles Bridge
- Charles Bridge: At first, I didn't really get what all the fuss was about. Sure, it's got some statues, and it was included in the walk royals made on coronation day from the castle to the main square. But it's also covered in tourists and souvenir stands all the time. Not exactly charming. And then Cory took me there on the afternoon of my birthday, and we got cups of mulled wine and enjoyed the sunset from the bridge while listening to a local jazzy quartet. So, I've totally changed my mind!

- Beer and other liquid delights: The Czechs make some great beer, served up in plenty of beer halls around the city, for incredibly low prices! They also serve up traditional Absinthe in perfectly snooty bars (we had a great table at Hemingway Bar, right next to a "champagne button"). We enjoyed the week doing as much tasting as possible :)

Toasting Tom's birthday
- Walking/Running: there are tons of spots to walk or run in Prague! We enjoyed two runs: one up the hill east of the main tourist area (with a very cool statue on top) and one along the Vltava River, which has a pretty (and safe) jogging/cycling path.

Thanks for a great week, friends!!!
Final Costs for Prague: $854 for 8 days (average per day: $107)
Accommodations: $55 per night (as part of a 2 bedroom apartment)
Transit: $3.34 per day
Food: $42 per day (we could have spent less money here with some effort but had lots of enjoyable meals with our friends!)
Other: $18 per day
My silly new kitten mittens!

More photos from our trip to Prague: