A Travellerspoint blog

Behind the Iron Curtain

Sofia, Bulgaria; Budapest, Hungary; Krakow, Poland; Prague, Czech Republic; Berlin, Germany

Comrades,

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.

Sometimes you just have to try to smile, even when you can't find the hostel, and even when you can't manage a smile.

Sometimes you just have to try to smile, even when you can't find the hostel, and even when you can't manage a smile.


Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria.


Robert with statues depicting a wildly enthusiastic Bulgarian proletariat greeting Red Army Soldiers.  We're skeptical concerning the historical accuracy of this scene.

Robert with statues depicting a wildly enthusiastic Bulgarian proletariat greeting Red Army Soldiers. We're skeptical concerning the historical accuracy of this scene.


Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria.  It has a capacity of 10,000 people.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria. It has a capacity of 10,000 people.


View of Sofia from Mt. Vitosha

View of Sofia from 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.

Erin, Jennifer, Robert and Phil on the American College of Sofia Campus

Erin, Jennifer, Robert and Phil on the American College of Sofia Campus

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.

Night train from Sofia to Budapest

Night train from Sofia to Budapest

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.

Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube River

Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube River


Matthias Church in Buda's Castle District

Matthias Church in Buda's Castle District


The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest.  The first permanent bridge connecting Buda to Pest, it was finished in 1849.

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest. The first permanent bridge connecting Buda to Pest, it was finished in 1849.


Lion on the Chain Bridge with Parliament across the Danube

Lion on the Chain Bridge with Parliament across the Danube


Robert practicing an age-old ritual performed by students in Budapest for good luck before exams

Robert practicing an age-old ritual performed by students in Budapest for good luck before exams


18th Century Synagogue, Budapest

18th Century Synagogue, Budapest


The Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial in honor of the Jews who were forced to remove their shoes before being executed by the fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest in 1945.  After they were shot their bodies fell into the Danube.

The Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial in honor of the Jews who were forced to remove their shoes before being executed by the fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest in 1945. After they were shot their bodies fell into the Danube.


Jennifer proving to Robert that we really don't have that much stuff

Jennifer proving to Robert that we really don't have that much stuff


Our room in central Budapest. We always refer to the top bunk in a dorm as "dog bed". As in "I am not sleeping in dog bed again, you are" Apparently Animation City Hostel in Budapest uses the same terminology.

Our room in central Budapest. We always refer to the top bunk in a dorm as "dog bed". As in "I am not sleeping in dog bed again, you are" Apparently Animation City Hostel in Budapest uses the same terminology.


Robert sipping a Dreher beer in a bathtub at Szimpla Bar in Budapest. It's one of the "Ruined Pubs" in town; located in a building that was partially destroyed by bombs during WWII and hasn't been renovated. Really neat place to grab a pint.

Robert sipping a Dreher beer in a bathtub at Szimpla Bar in Budapest. It's one of the "Ruined Pubs" in town; located in a building that was partially destroyed by bombs during WWII and hasn't been renovated. Really neat place to grab a pint.


Robert shaking hands with a "life-sized" statue of President Reagan in Budapest's Freedom Square.  Who knew he was over 8 feet tall?

Robert shaking hands with a "life-sized" statue of President Reagan in Budapest's Freedom Square. Who knew he was over 8 feet tall?


Statue of Imre Nagy, Hungarian leader who was hanged in secret by the Soviets after he refused to stop the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.  The statue is situated such that he is turning his back to a monument of the unknown Soviet Soldier (which is still in place), and his face toward Parliament.

Statue of Imre Nagy, Hungarian leader who was hanged in secret by the Soviets after he refused to stop the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The statue is situated such that he is turning his back to a monument of the unknown Soviet Soldier (which is still in place), and his face toward Parliament.


Tasty Goulash Soup!

Tasty Goulash Soup!


Can you guess which U.S. President we bumped into at City Park in Budapest?

Can you guess which U.S. President we bumped into at City Park in Budapest?


Jennifer eating chimney bread next to a giant Hungarian Easter Egg in Vörösmarty Square

Jennifer eating chimney bread next to a giant Hungarian Easter Egg in Vörösmarty Square

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.

Spinach, Mushroom and Potato Pierogis in Krakow.  Yum.

Spinach, Mushroom and Potato Pierogis in Krakow. Yum.


Polish Sausage!

Polish Sausage!

On Easter Sunday in Krakow we were treated to a majestic flash snowstorm:

Jennifer escaping the cold in a doorway near Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland

Jennifer escaping the cold in a doorway near Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland


Horses clip-clopping along in Main Market Square in Krakow

Horses clip-clopping along in Main Market Square in Krakow

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:

The horrific and untrue sign above the front gate at Auschwitz 1: "Work will set you free"

The horrific and untrue sign above the front gate at Auschwitz 1: "Work will set you free"


DSC09364.jpg

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.

According to Wikipedia, Prague Castle is the biggest in the world.

According to Wikipedia, Prague Castle is the biggest in the world.


Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic


The two of us in Prague

The two of us in Prague


Czech artist David Cerny installed his view of how the Czech Republic was treated by Stalin and Hitler with this fountain.  It depicts Hitler coming in from the West and peeing on the country, and Stalin doing the same from the East.  It's pretty funny; you can text a message from your phone and the statues will spell it out into the water.

Czech artist David Cerny installed his view of how the Czech Republic was treated by Stalin and Hitler with this fountain. It depicts Hitler coming in from the West and peeing on the country, and Stalin doing the same from the East. It's pretty funny; you can text a message from your phone and the statues will spell it out into the water.


Cold War Era Motivational sign posted on work punch-clock at the Museum of Communism in Prague.

Cold War Era Motivational sign posted on work punch-clock at the Museum of Communism in Prague.

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:

Jennifer in the clock tower in Old Town Square, Prague

Jennifer in the clock tower in Old Town Square, Prague


The Prague Astronomical Clock.  First installed in the year 1410.  Seems to be working just fine; they don't make 'em like they used to.

The Prague Astronomical Clock. First installed in the year 1410. Seems to be working just fine; they don't make 'em like they used to.


View of Tyn Church at sunset from clock tower, Prague

View of Tyn Church at sunset from clock tower, Prague


Czech folk dance at Easter Festival, Old Town Square, Prague

Czech folk dance at Easter Festival, Old Town Square, Prague


All you need is love at the John Lennon Wall in Prague

All you need is love at the John Lennon Wall in Prague

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.

Olympic Stadium (renovated) where American Jesse Owens defied the Furher in 1936

Olympic Stadium (renovated) where American Jesse Owens defied the Furher in 1936


Our first experience at a German Beer Garden (we were with Becca and Dani, hence the whole tray isn't for just us.  Geez.)

Our first experience at a German Beer Garden (we were with Becca and Dani, hence the whole tray isn't for just us. Geez.)


Robert preparing to catch Michael Jackson's baby at Adlon Hotel, just in case.

Robert preparing to catch Michael Jackson's baby at Adlon Hotel, just in case.


After reunification, East Berliners refused to give up their unique pedestrian symbol, the Ampelmännchen

After reunification, East Berliners refused to give up their unique pedestrian symbol, the Ampelmännchen


The ultimate non-comformist.  This guy is awesome.  Topography of Terror Museum, Berlin.

The ultimate non-comformist. This guy is awesome. Topography of Terror Museum, Berlin.


Jennifer at the East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall

Jennifer at the East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall


Art depicting each year that the wall stood.

Art depicting each year that the wall stood.


Robert assisting an East Berliner defecting to the West, East Side Gallery

Robert assisting an East Berliner defecting to the West, East Side Gallery


Turkish Doners (Kebaps), our main staple in Berlin.  10 million Turks live in Germany

Turkish Doners (Kebaps), our main staple in Berlin. 10 million Turks live in Germany

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:

Brandenburg Gate at sunset

Brandenburg Gate at sunset

We're hopping on a train to Amsterdam tomorrow morning!

Auf wiedersehen!

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:

Posted by JennyandRobert 16:50

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Comments

Love these entries. The food, the castles, the history, the civilization! I presume the US Prez Jen is standing beside the statute of is...Ronnie "Tear DOwn this Wall" Reagan as it resembles him a bit. Communism was..and is ... a bitch. No doubt about it. ANything that takes away an individual's freedom is from Communism to dictatorships...to .. well that is another discussion when we meet! LOL...I am so impressed with both of you and to think your energies only began to flag in Europe - perhaps a bit in India, right. You guys went on a helluva long trip and my hat's off to you (BTW Jen I am starting to wear "hats" now and have amassed an impressive collection of straws and train engineer's hats for the summer! Reminding me of how I envied your taking The Night Trains thru parts of Europe. Trains are one of my favorite ways to travel and you guys enjoyed them too. KEep up the good work of reporting your highly interesting, educational, exciting travels to us folks back in the USA! And keep getting rested and taking it easy. WHEN ARE YOU COMING HOME AND WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES ARE YOU HITTING? Love JP

by Janet M Pratt

So glad to hear from you two! Our Easter was a whole lot warmer! The pictures a commentary are wonderful. If you come home by June 16, Kate and Steve are having a wedding reception then in Port Washington. Have fun, you may never pass this way again. Love you, Carolyn and Mike

by Carolyn MacLaurin

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