Sofia, Bulgaria; Budapest, Hungary; Krakow, Poland; Prague, Czech Republic; Berlin, Germany
Over the past few weeks we have traveled overland from Istanbul to Berlin (mostly by night train, which has been comfortable), learning about life behind the Iron Curtain along the way. Besides the monuments, museums and architecture, the most interesting thing was talking to people who are old enough to remember what life was like before communism collapsed in 1989. It was eye-opening to get first-hand accounts from people who lived under Soviet Dictatorship. Eastern Europe has a gritty feel to it, like a cool, hipster neighborhood before it gets gentrified by the wealthy. It's a great, affordable place and we had a blast on this leg of our journey.
Our first stop was in Sofia, Bulgaria. It's really friendly on the billfold; we stayed in a dorm at Hostel Mostel for 7 USD/person/day for a couple of nights. The city has some nice cathedrals and still has a huge monument to the Soviet Red Army near the center of town. We also took a relaxing day hike on Mt. Vitosha.
By far the highlight of our time in Sofia was visiting with our friends Phil and Erin. They put us up for a few days and gave us an idea of what it's like to live and teach in a foreign country. We were humbled by their generosity and inspired by their passion for their students. We gained new insight about the Crusades and WWII in Phil's History classes, and came to realize that the starfish is our favorite position in Erin's Yoga class. We feel lucky to have such great friends. Their air-mattress is better to sleep on than the majority of hostel beds we've come across. Staying with them was exactly what we needed to re-energize for the rest of our journey. Thanks again, guys.
We've been traveling slowly through the Eastern Bloc due to the fact that this half of Europe has yet to start using the Euro (except Germany), which means that there is less financial hardship for Americans like us who are drawing greenbacks from a constantly shrinking trip budget.
When we arrived in Budapest we thought, "OK, here is the majestic 'river-runs-through-it' European capital we've been waiting for." We weren't disappointed; this is a great place to anchor down for a week and take a look around.
After sunny and dare we say, hot, weather in Hungary, we disembarked from our train in Krakow, Poland to the coldest weather we've endured since New Zealand. We stayed at a hostel on the main square in the center of the old town. It's a beautiful, picturesque medieval town with a church on every corner and an enormous yet inviting town square. We spent a couple of days warming up with some Polish sausage and vodka and walking around the Easter Market.
On Easter Sunday in Krakow we were treated to a majestic flash snowstorm:
Krakow is about an hour away from the Concentration Camp of Auschwitz. Even though it was a terrifying experience, we felt that it was necessary to visit the camp to bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust:
We were astonished by its size; Auschwitz 2 is as large as 5,800 football fields. Being there evoked the similar nauseating feeling in our stomachs that we felt at the Killing Fields in Cambodia--with one main difference: Even though the Germans tried to destroy all of the evidence of their crimes, there is still so much infastructure that remains of this death camp. It's demented, deranged, full of deception and void of humanity. We're not sure what to say about our experience there; we're still processing it.
From Krakow we took a night train to Prague. This amazing city is similar to Budapest in that a river cuts down the middle, and the side of the city that has higher terrain sports a big, beautiful castle. The main difference that we observed is that Prague is chuck-full of tourists while Pest provides room to breathe. For example, in Pest there were students hanging out drinking beer on the grass and the sidewalks were navigable; in Prague there was one huge tour group after another. But that didn't take away from our ability to enjoy this amazing place.
Prague has a great clock tower in the town square, from which you're notified that an hour has passed every hour during the day:
Our last stop behind the Iron Curtain was Berlin, where we're posting from. This city is giving Auckland a run for its money as our favorite city on this trip. The events that unfolded here during the 20th century alone are fascinating; anyone who likes history would really sink their teeth into Berlin. We stayed at a hostel in old East Berlin that is about 2 blocks from Checkpoint Charlie. We met 2 nice girls from the UK, Becca and Dani, and explored the city by night with them. We walked for hours in the cold but enjoyed the sun and warmth during the afternoon. On the walking tour we took today, our tour guide described the vibe in Berlin like this: "Paris will always be Paris, but Berlin will never be Berlin." The fact that the city is constantly changing is a big part of its appeal. Could you imagine being here in 1989 when the wall fell? Or 1961 (Berlin Crisis), or 1945 (90% of the city destroyed by the Allies). We wonder what this place will look like a decade from now. It's exciting.
Checkpoint Charlie (the border crossing used by non-Germans traveling between East and West Berlin) looks a lot different today than it did back in 1961, when US and Soviet tanks were anxiously pointing at one another from opposite sides of the wall:
We're hopping on a train to Amsterdam tomorrow morning!
J & R
P.S. We want to share these 2 short videos from Turkey that we forgot in our last post (oops!):
This is one of our favorite videos; it's a fresco in an ancient church that was hollowed out from the mountainside in Cappadocia:
This one gives a good idea of how cavernous the Hagia Sofia feels when inside: