Valladolid, Chichen Itza, and Ik Kil

One of the main reasons we wanted to go to the Yucatan was to see some ancient ruins. We were able to arrange through our hotel to hire a driver for the day for very little cost who took us to Chichen Itza and a beautiful cenote at Ik Kil.

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities hundreds of years ago and is now a large site of ruins. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has millions of visitors each year.

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I was amazed by the size of this site, it felt like we could keep walking and walking and there was always more to see. We could turn a corner and suddenly there would be another huge stretch of ruins. Actually standing there and walking around creates a really special feeling, like you’re somewhere you’ve only read about in textbooks in the past. It brings the whole history to life, something you can’t get from reading.

If you’re going to visit, I highly recommend doing a little research on when to go. One day of the week is free for Mexican citizens, making it way more crowded than other days. I also recommend going as early in the day as you can because by mid afternoon there were ten times as many people as when we first arrived and the temperatures were scorching. And as it was extremely hot, naturally we had to take a break for ice cream.

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After a few hours exploring everything this beautiful place has to offer, we were so ready to head to the cenote and go swimming to cool off and relax. Our driver took us to Ik Kil, which is very close to Chichen Itza. The water is about 130 feet deep (40 meters) and the denote itself goes 85 feet under ground (26 meters). This was the most beautiful cenote we visited on this trip.

 

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Swimming in that cold water was exhilarating and refreshing. Experiences like this are why I travel. The clear, bluish-green color of the water makes it hard to realize how deep the water actually is. This is a moment I’ll never forget because feeling so in touch with nature is one of the best feelings – with birds and bats flying over you, fish swimming beneath you, and butterflies all around.

 

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Overall this was one of the best days of the trip because we saw such a historically significant place and had the perfect afternoon in a stunning cenote. The next day we headed to the town of Tulum.

Discovering Dublin

Dublin is an incredible city, full of history and great energy. We’re so glad we were able to go spend some time there. Originally when we talked about traveling this summer, we weren’t sure of the best place to go. We talked about various ideas, but we decided based on our schedules and interest that Ireland was the perfect country to visit.

Dublin is located on the Eastern Coast of Ireland. People settled in Dublin as early as the 9th and 10th century, which is absolutely amazing to think about. Coming from America, things from the 18th century seem very old, so imagining people living in this country over a thousand years ago is astounding.

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I came to Dublin straight from Copenhagen, which was a quick easy two hour flight. Flying in, the beautiful views from the plane foreshadowed what was to come on the trip.

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I arrived in the evening, so by the time I made it through a lot of questions at passport control and got out of the airport, the sun was beginning to set. Dublin has great transportation available for tourists and travelers. They have an Aircoach bus that just goes to and from the airport and a few key spots in the city. It only cost me ‎€8 to get from the airport to my stop the city, which would have been more like €30 by taxi. The bus even had free wifi which is always a bonus while traveling.

I stayed at the Grand Canal Hotel, which is located close to many worthwhile sites in the city. The hotel was comfortable, had great food, and had excellent staff that helped me so much during my travels with tons of advice and suggestions.

The next morning, we were eager to get up, have some breakfast, and start seeing Dublin.

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We decided we wanted to start at Trinity College, so we began walking. On our way, we found the National Library of Ireland and thought it could be interesting to see. When we walked in, the older man at the front desk asked why we were there. I guess it’s not as common for tourists to visit this library as other sites in the city. We asked if we could look around and he responded like “uhh ok?” But it was beautiful inside. We weren’t allowed to take photos in the main room, but take my word for it. The library has existed since 1890. It was classic and elegant, the kind of library you want to sit in and do research even if you have nothing to research.

 

Then we headed to Trinity College, which was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. It has a beautiful campus. Just take a look at some of these photos:

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If you go to Dublin, I highly suggest stopping at Trinity College and seeing the Book of Kells. Just being in that room surrounded by history and these books dating back hundreds of years, is completely worth the visit. The library contains a long, beautiful room with books on two stories with ladders and stairs reaching each shelf. It’s the kind of room that you could just sit and look around for hour upon hour and not notice the time pass.

 

We then headed to St. Stephen’s Green Park, which is centrally located in the city. It was created in 1664 and opened to the public in 1880. We found it refreshing to stop for a break from the urban hustle and enjoy some nature. The green of the park and beauty of the ponds was lovely to see. And if you like hanging out with birds, this is definitely the place for you because there were plenty!

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Right across from the park’s entrance, is the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre. I don’t only recommend this place for those who want to buy something, it is a nice stop for anyone. The building has a beautiful interior full of light and windows. It’s one of the nicest shopping centers I’ve ever seen, just take a look:

 

We had a quick lunch there upstairs overlooking the busy streets full of performers and tourists below us.

We stopped at The Rolling Donut, which was definitely a good idea!

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When I travel, I love to see palaces and castles, I guess it’s just cool to see the wealth displayed with furnishings and decorations. I’m all about interior decorating and making my home look special, so seeing these places is always inspiring and exciting to me. I always love all the attention to detail.

So of course I was eager to visit the Dublin Castle. It originally opened in 1204 and since the 1930’s the Irish Presidents have been inaugurated there.

 

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We really enjoyed visiting the Castle and looking around all the rooms. Afterward, we headed to the Christ Church Cathedral, which was founded in 1030. The exterior was breathtaking and beautiful to look at.

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We continued walking and found this super cool art shop called Jam Art Factory. If you’re looking for something unique to take home as a souvenir from Ireland or a special gift that’s not all “Kiss Me I’m Irish,” then this store is perfect. It has all kinds of artwork that was fun, thought-provoking, and exciting to look at.

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After taking a break looking at the unique art, we continued our journey walking around. We stopped to look at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which opened in 1878. It has a lovely park area outside it, which was relaxing to visit.

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We decided to walk throughout this entire day so we could really see everything and take in the city in ways you can’t from a bus or tour. We walked about 40,000 steps and spent the entire day morning until dinner walking every place we could. The city is full of life and excitement, history, and beauty. Here’s just a few more photos I took while walking around taking everything in.

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Ireland – 10 Reasons It’s Perfect for New Travelers

If you’re new to traveling or looking for a first adventure to embark on abroad, I highly recommend visiting Ireland – this especially goes for my American friends! I like to think I’m pretty well travelled (even though there’s so much more to see!) and yet I have so many friends back home who have never been on an airplane, never left the country (or have only made a quick 30 minute hop over the border to Niagara Falls). I completely understand that traveling is not part of everyone’s upbringing and that financially it is not in everyone’s budget. But if you are someone who is dying to go abroad and start adventuring into new countries, then Ireland is a perfect place to begin! I was amazed and overwhelmed at how easy it was to travel around, I’ve gotten used to some more complicated places so it was wonderful to kick back and relax and just take everything in.

So here are my reasons for why Ireland is perfect for someone new to traveling:

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1. Everyone speaks English

When people ask me about my travels, one of their biggest concerns is communicating with locals. I get asked all the time things like: How do you order food? How do you find where the bathroom is? How do you ask where you’re going? Sure, this can be tricky in small villages in non-English speaking countries.  (But even then, you can always point and use hand gestures to figure things out!) But in Ireland this is hardly a problem and every major tourist area is full of English speakers as well as people from all over the world. Signs, traffic symbols, maps, etc. are all readable and recognizable, making it incredibly easy.

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2. Tourists are so Welcome

I have definitely been to some parts of the world where I’ve felt less than welcomed by locals, although most people in the world are proud of their culture and country and are happy people want to visit their home. Ireland is full of such friendly people and there are tons of tourists everywhere, making them used to travelers of all kinds and prepared to handle them. For example, in Dublin, there are reminders on every major corner of which direction to look when crossing the street so pedestrians don’t forget that drivers are coming from opposite directions than most people are used to. People are very willing to help, answer questions, and tell you about the country. They have maps everywhere. Cities and large towns have signs pointing in directions of tourist attractions and sites so even if you get lost it’s easy to get back on track.

3. Awesome Transportation Options

Ireland has all kinds of transportation options for any kind of tourist. I’m not sure I would recommend driving yourself around Ireland if you are not used to manual cars, small European roads, or driving on the left. But if you’re up for a challenge then you can rent a car and drive all over the country (you may be left with white knuckles though). I know I am not equipped to drive there, but it was no problem because we still went to many parts of the country during our short trip. If you like to walk, Dublin and many of the smaller towns are completely walkable and it’s definitely excellent exercise. If you’re more of a car person but don’t want to drive, then there are taxis all over the cities. The buses in Dublin are incredible because they are everywhere, totally accessible for tourists, and are quick and easy. They have options to hop on and off certain buses throughout a day if you want to get quickly around many parts of the city, buses going straight to and from the airport for much less cost than a taxi, buses to sightsee if walking isn’t your thing. And they have trains that are super comfortable, pretty timely, and easy to figure out how to get tickets and where to go (unlike some other European cities).

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4. Fantastic Tour Options

If you’re like us and you want to see outside of Dublin, but have no idea where to start, check out a tour! We realized we weren’t up for driving, but we wanted to see more of the country and get a better sense for other parts of this beautiful country. We did a lot of research of tours that leave right from Dublin and take you all over the country. Many of these tours take up the entire day, but are completely worth it! Every tourist I talked to who had tried a day tour absolutely loved it. They are also very affordable for how much you can do and see.

5. Beautiful Nature

Ireland is famous for being full of green landscapes, but actually going there and seeing the beauty of this country is just breathtaking. The Cliffs of Moher, the Wicklow Mountains, Burren National Park, all of the vast coasts, and the green rolling hills and farmland around the country are spectacular. There are fewer and fewer places left in the world where you can see nothing but nature for miles, but in Ireland there is more than enough of that. It’s hard to describe in words how phenomenal the views are. It is perfect for hikers! If you love to get awesome photos, this is definitely the country to visit.

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6. The History

For those of you who are history buffs, Ireland is full of historical places to visit. Just driving around, you will see old stone buildings all over. Ireland was discovered thousands of years ago and you can see that for yourself just from driving around looking at different places. Walking around Dublin, there are monuments, statues, castles, and old buildings to visit on every corner. I highly recommend stopping and looking at signs to read about what happened on that corner a hundred years ago, or how old that church you’re passing by is. The stories this land holds of people who had suffered and fought for liberties for generations and of people who made their own success out of small resources around them, and how the environment has changed or remained protected over hundreds of years. There are endless amounts of things to learn and even if you know nothing about Irish history, you’ll discover so much just from being there.

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7. The Weather

Someone may laugh when I say the weather makes it worth the visit since Ireland isn’t known for the best weather. If you’re all about the beach and catching rays, then maybe this isn’t the place to go. But I found it very refreshing to get away from the heat and direct sun and just relax in regular clothes. I’ve travelled other parts of Europe in the Summer and the heat can be exhausting and even painful at times. In Ireland there’s no concern for sunburn or heat exhaustion. Its cool, breezy, and yeah sometimes there’s some rain. If you pack a raincoat, it’s no problem. And like some locals told us, the weather changes every five minutes, so even if it starts pouring, it may be sunny within minutes. If you are someone who likes a cooler temperature, then Ireland should be high on your list!

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8. Delicious Food and Excellent Shopping

Ireland has some great restaurants and shops! If you love fish and chips, you’ll be happy to find some in pretty much every restaurant or pub around. They have excellent dinner options with tons of meat dishes. The seafood around the coast is amazing and fresh. In Dublin, you can find any kind of cuisine you feel like. Walking by restaurants, everywhere smelled so good it was hard to decide where to choose to go. And they have yummy desserts, bakeries, and ice cream places all over the place. And there are so many stores around that there’s plenty to buy everywhere!

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9. The Beer and Whiskey

For anyone who loves to try new beers, explore a brewery or distillery, or just hang out in a pub for the night, then I think there are few places better than Ireland. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many pubs and bars in one city like I did in Dublin. You can check out the Guinness Storehouse, it’s definitely a popular attraction for tourists and the Jameson Distillery is definitely a common choice. There are even museums dedicated to these gems. Many tourists love to go to a pub, listen to live music, and have a good time. It’s a great way to end the evening.

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10. Endless Attractions

Whatever kind of traveller you are, I guarantee there is something in Ireland for you. There are all kinds of museums, zoos, parks, excellent hiking locations, historical sites, castles, libraries, big cities and small towns, and plenty to do or see. There are tons of stores so shopping is awesome. After heading back to the airport, I left only wishing for more time. There is enough to do or see to make a trip for two weeks filled, but you can also easily see plenty and enjoy just a few days. You can travel in style or find cheap options to get around. So any kind of traveler will find something in this wonderful country!

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History and Sites in Havana, Cuba

We started our second full day in Cuba with breakfast on the hotel balcony and enjoyed the beautiful view again.

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We left to see the Revolution Museum, which was interesting, but majority of the exhibits were in Spanish so it was harder to follow and understand. There were tons of photos, newspaper articles, clothing, and personal belongings from the revolution.

Let me give you a very brief summary of some of Cuba’s interesting history.

Cuba was inhabited by Mesoamerican cultures before Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the land in 1942.

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Cuba then became a Spanish colony. In 1762, the colony was occupied by Great Britain before being traded back to Spain for Florida. The Spanish-American War caused Spain to withdraw from Cuba in 1898 and the United States gave Cuba its independence in 1902 with the requirements of the Platt Agreement. This agreement gave the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuba and have access to Guantanamo Bay. In order to prevent fighting within Cuba and protect American economic interests, the US occupied Cuba for several years in the early 20th century after President Palma’s regime collapsed. During this period, the Cuban Communist Party was developed. American troops withdrew in 1909. Several presidents took over in Cuba over the next three decades. In World War I, Cuba declared war on Imperial Germany on April 7, 1917, just one day after the United States entered the war. Cuba could not send troops to fight in Europe, but played a major role in protecting the West Indies from German U-boat attacks. Cuba suffered an economic collapse due to a significant drop in sugar prices. In 1925, President Machado took over and did not step down after his term ended. The revolution of 1933 undermined the oligarchic state. In 1940, Fulgencio Batista, who was endorsed by Communists, won the election. Ramon Grau was elected in 1944, and with the end of World War II came economic boom. The increased prosperity brought corruption and nepotism within the country and as Cuba gained a reputation as a base for organized crime, Mafia mobsters came to Havana. Batista was re-elecred in 1953. The country did well economically and continued to grow for while, but the middle class became dissatisfied with the administration. In the 1950s, the economy started to collapse as unemployment rates soared and domestic product growth diminished.

In 1953, Fidel Castro and his supporters led an attack near Santiago de Cuba, which failed. Castro was sentenced to prison and after being released he went into exile in Mexico. This is where he met Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and began organizing how to overthrow Batista. After many failed attempts to overthrow Batista and after the United States imposed trade restrictions on the Batista administration, the military situation became untenable and Batista fled.

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Castro took over in 1959. The revolution became increasingly radical and many opponents were executed or imprisoned.

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Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island and many went to the United States. Castro opposed the United States’ influence in Cuba and even threatened a war on the US. The relations between Cuba and the US continued to deteriorate rapidly and the dispute escalated. The two countries severed all diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961. The Kennedy administration forbid American citizens from traveling to Cuba or conducting any financial or commercial transactions with the country. The Bay of Pigs Invasion occurred in hope of overthrowing the Communist regime, but the invasion failed. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred.

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Throughout the 1970s, tens of thousands of dissidents were held and tortured under inhumane prison conditions and many were executed. Between 1959 and 1993, around 1.2 million Cubans fled for the United States by small boats or rafts, it’s estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 died trying. Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006 and withdrew from public life and officially resigned in 2008. As of 2015, Cuba was one of the few official socialist states in the world. The United States and Cuba have worked on their relationship and now it is legal again for Americans to visit Cuba.

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After our visit to the museum, we took a trip to a Jewish synagogue. If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m Jewish and often visit Jewish museums or synagogues during my travels around the world. There are only 3 synagogues left in Havana and only 5 total in Cuba. We looked around the sanctuary and talked to people who work there about it. They told us how the Jewish population went from about 20,000 to 1,300 because of the revolution and events I described above. The Jews fled and emigrated to America, Europe, and Israel.

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After our visit to the synagogue, we walked to a main street and waited for a taxi to drive by to flag down and headed back to the hotel to shop a little and clean up. We packed and got ready because the next day we would leave Havana. We had seen and experienced so much during our short visit in the beautiful city, so it was hard to think about leaving already.

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For dinner, we drove to a nearby restaurant where we had to walk up a long staircase to a beautiful dining room. The service and food were exceptional and we enjoyed a wonderfully delicious meal. I had lobster and chocolate cake. We stayed for a long time relaxing and talking.

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We walked through a big square and looked around.

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We walked to another main road to find a taxi and had to argue about the price because they wanted to charge us $20 for a less than 5 minute drive, just because it was a touristy area. I would never accept that kind of price and if they say they won’t lower the price, just walk away. We walked away and kept walking until they chased after us and brought the offer down to a quarter of the original offer. Once we arrived back at the hotel, we went back upstairs to the balcony to listen to Cuban music before going to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting Budapest

After a great first impression of Budapest, we were excited to spend the day doing some more exploring. We had a quick breakfast at our hotel and got ready to go.

We both have an interest in Jewish history because of our family’s history and relationship to the Holocaust. Our great-grandfathers were brothers and both Jewish, but Katharina’s great-grandmother was Catholic so once she married Katharina’s great-grandfather, they chose to raise their three children Catholic – which allowed them to survive World War II and the Holocaust. I have been raised Jewish and Katharina has been raised Catholic, but we are both connected to our roots and want to learn as much as we can about where we come from, which includes learning more about Judaism and the Holocaust.

So we walked and took a train to the Jewish Quarter of the city where we could visit the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue – one of the largest synagogues in the world.

 

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We chose to visit both the Synagogue and the Museum and had an optional tour of each so we could learn more about both. I’m not always into tours, but these were very small groups and very focused on what we were interested in knowing – personal tours are always great. Although it was over 90 degrees outside, we knew to cover up and dress appropriately and respectfully. We wore long pants and long sleeves because we weren’t sure how much we needed to cover, but once we got there we saw only shoulders needed to be covered. People whose shoulders were exposed were given paper napkins to place around them like a shall to be respectful, so we felt good that we had the right dress even if we were sweating.

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The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859. It suffered damage in World War II from air raids during the Nazi Occupation and also during the Siege of Budapest, which was a 50-day long encirclement of the city by Soviet forces towards the end of the war. Around 38,000 civilians died during this siege.  The Synagogue’s restoration occurred in the 1990s. It is able to seat 3,000 people.

The Synagogue is beautiful with its incredible detail and impressive size.

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We found it very worthwhile to take the tour and hear about the history and significance of the Synagogue. There is more on the complex though including Heroes’ Temple, which seats 250 people and is used for religious services on weekdays and in the winter. It was added in 1931 and designed by Lázlo Vágó and Ferenc Faragó. It serves as a memorial to Hungarian Jews who lost their lives in World War I.

 

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There is also a Jewish Cemetery for more than two thousand Jews who died in the ghetto from starvation and the cold during the winter of 1944-1945.

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The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park is behind the temple and is a memorial to the more than 400,00 Hungarian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. A beautiful sculpture designed by Imre Varga stands, representing a weeping willow and holding names of victims on the leaves. It is very moving to look at.

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You can also see this stained glass piece that represents the chaos and struggles of the Holocaust. It looks like snakes and flames mixed into the art, which is stunning.

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The grounds of the complex are so well maintained and peaceful. I highly recommend visiting and learning more about the history and culture of Hungarian Judaism.

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The museum of the complex is small, but definitely interesting to look at. We learned that everything in the museum was saved during the war by two women who carried each item individually, even these stained glass window pieces, to the national museum where they would be kept safe.

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In the majority of the museum, visitors can look at old religious pieces such as the Torah, candle holders for Shabbat, and challah covers.

 

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Even the lighting of the museum was related to Judaism.

 

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The last part of the museum is specifically dedicated to how the Holocaust affected Hungary and its Jewish population, which I found interesting because it is not something I knew much about before. There were many exhibits:

 

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Here you can see Nazi propaganda from that time:

 

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And items from the camps:

 

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This is a menorah found in one of the concentration camps that had been made from bread – meaning someone didn’t eat the already little food given to them in order to follow their religious traditions and beliefs. This was something that really got to me.

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And many moving photos from the time period of people struggling to survive or people who perished.

 

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We both learned a lot from this visit and found it interesting to see another perspective from that time and gain more information about what happened in Hungary specifically during World War II. We both said that we saw and heard about things we never would have learned in school.

 

After spending the whole morning looking at so much, we both were hot and hungry so we found an Italian place to grab lunch.

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And then we went back to the hotel to change into different clothes that felt more appropriate for the almost 100 degree weather. We decided to go check out some baths. We chose to go to the Széchenyi Baths, the largest medicinal baths in Europe. The water there is supplied by two thermal springs. It officially opened in 1913. We took the subway to get there and spent the afternoon enjoying the outdoor pools and baths in the warm sun and checked out the indoor ones as well. We each splurged on a massage in the spa, which was amazing after the craziness of our trip so far with all the walking and carrying backpacks and constant running around. This turned into a very relaxing day after an intense morning. We had a lot of fun people watching because there was a mix of Hungarians and tourists from all over the world.

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As the evening approached we took the train back to the hotel so we could shower and clean up. We walked through the city to find some dinner, and ended up in a small restaurant where I couldn’t resist having another delicious pasta dish!

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We had a good time walking around exploring the city some more because it was a little different at night time. I started to feel sick (probably because of all the sun and some dehydration), so unfortunately, we couldn’t do too much. After a decent amount of time wandering around, we decided to head back to the hotel and get a good night of sleep.

 

 

Next Stop – Vienna!

Prague was incredible – we saw so much, had a lot of fun, and also had truly touching experiences. We were both really looking forward to heading to Vienna to see another new city.

I couldn’t sleep our last night in Prague and woke up early before the alarm went off. I was happy to be able to catch up with some friends (benefits of having friends around the world in different time zones). We packed up and got ready before having breakfast at the hotel. We checked out early and were relieved the main station was only about a 10 minute walk because our backpacks felt extra heavy that morning. When we got to the station, unfortunately, they didn’t post the platforms trains would be on until 15 minutes before their scheduled departures. We were close to an hour early so we walked around the station with all our things and found a grocery store and bought some snacks and water for the four hour train ride.

When we found the train we were excited to see it was a little more modern and actually had air conditioning! We found our seats easily and were relieved to have reservations again because it was another crowded train! We had an Israeli family of seven around us who were really nice and so excited about their trip to Vienna. I slept on and off throughout the ride and enjoyed all the beautiful scenery as we passed many small towns. This train ride went by quicker than most others on our trip.

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So my first impressions of Vienna – stunning architecture, so easy to figure out the train system (everywhere felt easier than Berlin), and our hotel was really nice. We were happy to find our room super clean and comfortable. Of course our beds were made before we got there, but we couldn’t help move in quickly!

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We took a train into the main part of the city and walked around checking everything out. We went to a nice Italian restaurant that’s all over big cities in Europe called Vapiano. We ordered delicious pasta and enjoyed it outside! It was wonderful to sit by the street, talk about everything, and people watch. There were street performers nearby playing beautiful classical music on their violins so it felt like a perfect European dining experience.

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While we walked around the city, we saw so much and had a blast! What blew me away over Vienna was just how much existed – that around every corner was another incredible building or statue.

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The detail of the statues was overwhelming:

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The Hofburg Imperial Palace has been an important part of the Austrian government since it was built in the 13th century. Some members of the Hapsburgs family and even rulers of the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires have lived here. It is now the home to the President of Austria and is a museum.

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The Maria- Theresien-Platz and Memorial is a monument for Empress Maria Theresa that was commissioned by Franz Joseph I and unveiled in 1887.

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And we passed by a few art museums:

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We found a delicious frozen yogurt stand and enjoyed a treat while watching everything going on around us:

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And the walk back managed to be even more beautiful as the sun started to set:P1010696 P1010695

As we headed back and walked through the busy city streets, a man approached us asking for the time. We quickly said we didn’t know and kept walking. This is one of those moments where you’re not sure if it’s a sincere question or a guy trying to pickpocket. You never know who could be a thief. Once when I was traveling in Italy with my dad, he suddenly pulled someone’s hand out of his pocket on a crowded tram – the hand belonged to a young mother with two babies (not who you typically expect to be stealing).

We also had men whistling at us and calling out as we walked back to the hotel, which is always an uncomfortable experience, but even more so in a different country when you’re two women alone. We were so happy to make it back to our room and I think we both were able to sleep so well after the long day!

Our Visit to Berlin – Day 2

Okay so day 1 was a success in Berlin and we had big plans for our second day.

We woke up early and started the day off right with a great breakfast at our hotel. Yum!

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We had to take the tram over to the main train station because we wanted to reserve two seats for our train ride to Prague the next day. Throughout our backpacking trip, we went by Interrail so we could use one ticket and go anywhere Interrail goes (lots of options here from Norway to Spain to Switzerland to Turkey) within the time period we chose, but these tickets don’t necessarily give you seats on the specific trains you want. Standing with a heavy backpack and all your things is not ideal for four or more hours, so I always recommend reserving seats in advance on trains in Europe – and I am still extremely grateful we did!

The train station in Berlin is huge!

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And outside they have an exhibit for Jewish athletes, which I thought was really interesting to look at:

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After leaving the station we walked over to a very busy tourist area of the city where we could see many important buildings including the Parliament and the Brandenburg Gate:

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And even the famous hotel where Michael Jackson held out his baby from the window:

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We also got to take a look at a new memorial meant for the Sinti and Roma people who were murdered. I found the memorial to be incredibly peaceful and beautiful:

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After a busy morning of seeing so much within large crowds of people, it started to rain quite a bit. We decided it was the perfect time to make a stop somewhere to wait for the rain to end and enjoy a delicious treat:

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We all know that I’m totally crazy about ice cream and make an effort to try some every new place I go!

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The rain finally stopped right after we bought an umbrella (of course!) so we decided to make our way to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – a museum and giant memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. When you arrive there, you have to go downstairs to get to the museum after being checked by security. The museum has several rooms, each with different kinds of themes about the events of the Holocaust.

First is general information about the events of the war and a timeline:

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Other sections include personal quotes and stories taken from victims’ diaries and letters. This was extremely moving and almost brought me to tears. You hear stories about the war and the Holocaust all the time, but when you read what people actually wrote – how desperate and pained they felt, what they were thinking, how scared they were for the future – that’s something that doesn’t leave you. They’re not just stories anymore, they’re real people’s lives and what actually happened to them.

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They also have a room dedicated to specific large families and what happened to each family member if it is known – most members were taken to concentration camps where they were murdered. In the different families it was rare to see members who had actually survived the war. This really affected me because I think about my own family and how many people were murdered and how different my lineage and family history would be if not for the Holocaust. The exhibit really lets people understand how deeply families were destroyed.

Then you enter a dark room with many benches to sit down on. This is a special place to reflect and think about everything just seen. Here, names of victims of the Holocaust are read all day with brief stories of what happened to them, if it is known. It would take 6 years, 7 months, and 27 days to go through each name, a fact that really captures the immensity of the horrors of the Holocaust.

They have computers with a database where people can search for any victims of the Holocaust. Here we were able to actually see our relatives’ names and all of their information and what happened to them. This made it so much more personal to me and helped me connect on an even deeper level to everything I had just seen.

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Something I really like about the museum is that it has free entrance for anyone. This means people don’t have to pay to learn about what took place, and therefore, more people will be able to attend, be educated, and can experience the touching exhibits.

Outside the museum is the famous memorial exhibit, designed by Peter Eisenman, which consists of huge stones of various sizes that act as a metaphor for the confusion and chaos of the Holocaust, creating what is similar to a maze.

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All around Berlin are signs and memorials related to the Holocaust, like in this small block of old architecture full of shops and restaurants where they mention the Jewish community that once existed there before the war:

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We then headed to a big tourist section of the city where the World Clock sits:

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There were all sorts of interesting street performers that captured the unique energy of the city:

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And there was this bubble thing. Now Berlin was the first big city we went to on our trip so we thought this bubble craziness was so cool, but as we continued on our journey we ended up seeing these bubble things in every single city – so it got less cool over time:

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We didn’t feel like we had seen enough yet that day (jokes) so we decided to make our way to the Berlin Wall Memorial Park. This was something I found very interesting because its simple design is well thought out and makes visitors really understand what it was like for people trapped in East Berlin and how desperate they were to escape.

Along the buildings are giant photos taken from different years over the decades when the city was divided:

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And posts are lined up where the wall once stood so people can imagine the height of the wall and the way it looked, yet now be able to actually see what was on the other side, something people couldn’t do for decades. I thought this idea of a memorial was healing in a way – that what once existed is not fully destroyed or forgotten, but there is change.

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There are also stone paths marking the old underground tunnels built through which people attempted to escape into West Berlin:

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It is complicated to know for sure how many people were killed trying to escape from East Berlin, but estimations are well into the hundreds.

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Portions of the original wall still remain and have interesting graffiti:P1010411

After seeing so much all around the city and skipping lunch in order to have ice cream (probably not the best idea in hind sight), we realized we should probably grab some dinner! We went to this great Singapore restaurant called Mirchi and had a huge delicious meal:

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Then we headed to a bar called Monkey Bar that is on the tenth floor of a building. We sat outside and couldn’t get over the amazing view:

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And learned that it is called Monkey Bar because it overlooks the Berlin Zoo and the monkey exhibit is right below:

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It was the perfect spot for some selfies!

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After such a crazy day of running around, learning so much, and seeing the city, we were all exhausted and headed back to the hotel. The tram/train ride back was long because we needed to take 4 different ones. But I think it was perfect after the long day because we all had a chance to talk and reflect on the incredible day we had just experienced. I think that’s one of the most important parts of traveling, to take a moment and realize what you’ve seen, what it all means, and how it affects you.

Berlin: The Wall, History, and Loss

Our first stop after Bredenborn was Berlin, the capital and largest city of Germany. This is a city that was first documented as existing in the 13th century and has had many changing political identities and been part of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich. It is a city mostly known for what occurred there in the 20th century.

After World War I in 1918, the republic was formed by Philipp Scheidemann and in 1920 the Greater Berlin Act caused the city to expand immensely. It is a city that has for centuries been known for art, cinema, architecture, technology, and industry.

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But Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, which quickly changed this city forever. People in Germany began blaming the Jews and other minorities for many of the country’s problems that followed the loss of World War I.

Here you can see propaganda from a textbook of that time:

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Berlin’s Jewish community, which had been around 160,000 people, was destroyed by the Nazis – this was about one-third of all Jews in Germany at the time. According to Reignhard Heydrich in 1938, anyone who was considered to have shown “asocial elements” or “hostile attitudes to society,” whether they were criminal or not, were qualified to be sent to concentration camps. This being extremely subjective, anyone who the Nazis did not want in their city or country could be sent to the camps or murdered without much explanation – this included Jews, homosexuals, and the Sinti and Roma population.

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Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, occurred in 1938, in which Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had windows smashed by the Nazis and many of these places were also burned to the ground.

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Over 1,000 Jewish shops and businesses were demolished in Berlin, 10 of the city’s 30 synagogues were destroyed and 13 damaged, dozens of people were murdered, and 13,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps. My grandfather and his family were very affected by this night in history.  Jews were then expected to pay for the damage themselves and were forced to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothes at all times to identify themselves as Jewish. This was a time when people became desperate for survival and resorted to hiding, sacrifice, and betrayal.

This map illustrates more than 500 of thousands of sites where Nazi persecution and extermination took place – camps, ghettos, mass shooting sites, and starting points of deportation:

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It is estimated that more than 6 million jews were murdered during the Holocaust – 1 million of them being children. My great and great-great grandparents were some of the victims of the Holocaust when they were murdered in concentration camps.

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In 1943-1945, air raids and the Battle of Berlin caused major parts of the city to be destroyed and thousands of civilians were killed. The war ended in 1945 and large numbers of refugees from Eastern provinces began arriving. Germany was divided into four sectors by the victorious powers. The Western Allies, which included the United States, United Kingdom, and France, took over Western Berlin and the Soviet sector formed East Berlin.

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These divisions within the country and the city increased tensions during the Cold War. East German territory surrounded West Berlin and East Germany decided the Eastern part would be its capital, a section that included the most historic portion of the city. The Berlin Wall was built between East and West Berlin in 1961 practically overnight, leading to a tank standoff at famous Checkpoint Charlie.

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John F. Kennedy gave a speech in 1963 in which he proclaimed US support with the Western section of the city. During this time, Easterners were prohibited to travel into West Berlin or West Germany. People were desperate to escape East Berlin and many lost their lives in the process.

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It was not until 1971, that a Four-Power agreement guaranteed access to and from West Berlin by car or train through East Germany.

The wall was not taken down until November 9, 1989 as the Cold War ended. In 1990, 118 artists from 21 countries painted a portion of the remaining wall, becoming a gallery expressing the joy widely felt over the falling of the Berlin Wall.

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Berlin is one of those cities in which it feels every corner you turn has this immense heavy history, a lot of which still remains visible. The events of the twentieth century will always affect the city.

Phnom Penh and Cambodian History

We woke up early and went on a final ride around Kep with our driver. Our bus came late so we talked with him for a while about other travels and our plans for the rest of the trip. We had gotten to know each other a bit over the last few days, so when we asked how much we owed him for all the driving, he charged us probably less than half of what we actually owed him. This was very kind and we appreciated it, but as we said goodbye before getting on the bus, I handed him extra money (what we really owed him)  and told him to keep it and thanked him for being so good to us. His eyes actually filled with tears and he gave me a huge hug. It’s amazing how $10 meant so much to him, the cost of a sandwich in America.

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We had a 3-4 hour bus ride back to Phnom Penh. When we arrived, this old French woman who had been on the bus with us was overwhelmed by the chaos of the city, she asked to share our tuktuk. On the way to our hotel she explained that she had come in from Vietnam and had only been along the coast in smaller towns. It’s always impressive to see older people doing such adventurous trips, because they’re certainly not easy. She looked nervous after we left her at our hotel, I’m sure she found her way though. We grabbed lunch at this great cafe called Joma and there I met one of Emily’s Peace Corps friends, Alice. She’s super sweet and it was cool to learn a little about her and hear her experiences in the country.

After lunch, Emily and I spent the afternoon at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. This was a truly meaningful and important experience. I always feel it’s imperative to learn about the history of a place you visit. What we saw at both of these places was definitely shocking and upsetting. In 1977-1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge executed a genocide in Cambodia involving torture, starvation, forced labor, and millions of deaths.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum used to be a high school before being turned into the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21).

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At the museum, visitors can see photographs of all the victims of the prison – most looked terrified, others angry, some proud. Actually seeing the faces of those men and women, and even children, was so powerful and moving.

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Many of the tiny cells remained built into the classrooms. Standing in the actual rooms where such horrific events took place was intense.

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Not only Cambodian citizens were taken to this prison, a few hundred foreigners who remained in the country after the Khmer Rouge took over also are known to have been imprisoned and killed. Only 12 people out of an estimated 17,000 prisoners actually survived.

The balconies were covered in barbed wire so prisoners weren’t able to jump off and kill themselves. In this photo you can see the gallows where people were hung from upside down from their feet and dunked into the big vases below until they lost consciousness, another form of torture.

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The Killing Fields are sites where over a million people were killed and buried during the genocide period in Cambodia. The place we visited is famous for having the skulls and bones of victims displayed incased in glass from floor to ceiling in a multiple story room. Information about gender, age, and likely cause of death is also available, making it much more real and intense.

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This is the building where the bones are stored.

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At the site, visitors are given headsets and can walk around the land learning about the history and what actually occurred in this peaceful looking place. What effected me most was probably this tree which was discovered to have pieces of brain and bone lodged and smeared onto it.

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Babies were smashed against this tree, often in front of their mothers, and once dead just tossed away. As you walk around, there are signs to watch out for bone.

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Bones and clothing of victims still appear even decades later especially when it rains. A reminder that makes it even more impossible to forget such a tragedy.

It was good to have a long tuktuk ride back into the main part of the city so we could mentally digest everything we had witnessed and learned. We got dropped off at the Independence Monument – a place where many people like to walk around and exercise because it has a lot of grass and sidewalk in such a crowded city.

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We walked from there to the Peace Corps office, a very high security place. We had to walk past guards to enter this street where ambassadors and even the Cambodian Prince are known to live. I wasn’t allowed to go into the office because only volunteers are allowed. We then walked to dinner at this restaurant called Free Bird – a very western hip place. Walking in Phnom Penh is crazy because traffic is so busy, you just have to jump into the road if you need to cross and just hope you make it alive. We had dinner with Alice and it was a great night. When we got back to the room, I had to rinse off because I was covered in dust and dirt.