Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Friday, June 24, 2011

Four Days, Four Countries: The Race Through Eastern Europe

Some people, when contemplating the final week of a two-year, round-the-world trip, might choose to go somewhere quiet, where they could take a little time to reflect on their travels and relax before rejoining the "real world."

Some people who are not Andy and Tara, of course.

We rolled across the Romania-Hungary border in the middle of the night on May 27, ready to embark on a whirlwind tour of Eastern European cities that would put us in four new countries over the next four days...not to mention empty our money belts of those pesky Euros we'd been carrying around since our early-2010 visit to Spain!

Our first destination was Budapest, capital of Hungary and a beautiful city. It was pretty much flattened in World War II, so most of the sights we saw had been heavily reconstructed, but carefully so as to preserve the historic feel.

When we heard that the main square was called Heroes' Square, we assumed that it was a tribute to resistance fighters fallen in WW2 or something. Wrong! It celebrates 1,000 years of Magyar conquest of Hungarian lands.

Behind Heroes' Square is a lake and a castle. The lake had a fun art exhibition consisting of floating cars and furniture and even a half-submerged house. We think it was installed to encourage people to rent canoes and paddle out to take a closer look.

Budapest is home to the second-largest Jewish synagogue in the world (the largest is in New York). Built in the 1850s, the Dohany Street synagogue is definitely the most ornate synagogue I've ever been to. It turns out that the architect was not Jewish, and that the building has some similarities to churches (like pulpits and an organ). It managed to avoid complete destruction during WW2, in part because the Nazis moved in and made it a local base.

The ark, organ, and Moorish-style dome of the synagogue. A non-Jew is hired to play the organ on the Sabbath.
Let's jump religions now and head over to St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest's main Roman Catholic church. It houses a relic that may or may not be the 1,000-year-old hand of St. Stephen. The best thing about this relic is that you can put about 1 euro's worth of coins in a box to light up the hand for two minutes. We waited for someone else to do this before taking this picture.
The Hungarian Parliament is one of Europe's largest and prettiest. We heard that the inside is very impressive, too, but tours are really expensive (unless you are an EU citizen, in which case they are free).
The most fun fact about Budapest, in my opinion, is that it actually consists of two cities divided by the Danube river...and the names of those cities are Buda and Pest. The train station, most hotels, and many tourist attractions are in Pest, but the biggest castle and some nice churches are over in Buda, which you can see below.
The Matthias Church in Buda.
Only three hours from Budapest is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Luckily, our friend Anna and her fiance Peter happen to be living there this year, and invited us to come stay. Our first stop with them was their local market, where we got to try all sorts of Slovakian delicacies, like these giant fried breads, that we'll write about in the next food post.
Here we are with Anna and Pete outside of Bratislava Castle. Andy was in Bratislava a few years ago, when the castle was gray and open to the public. Now it's white and closed for renovations. Like most of the castles in Budapest, the inside is used as a museum when it's open.
It seems that the rest of our Slovakia pictures are of food, which makes sense, since we spent most of our time in Bratislava eating. One day, we would like to go back and see the castle-filled countryside. Meanwhile, it was time to press on to Vienna, Austria, just an hour away by train.

Downtown Vienna is filled with impressively gorgeous old buildings, like the opera house.
Hanging out outside the opera house, and on this music-note-landscaped lawn, and pretty much everywhere else tourists go, are touts dressed like Mozart, trying to sell tickets to overpriced classical music concerts (where the musicians also perform in period dress). Much as Andy and I hate being harassed by touts, you kind of have to love a city where said touts wear wigs and tights and push high culture!
Vienna has an endless number of museums to choose from, but with limited time and budget, we chose the Albertina Palace, which combines art exhibits with 19th-century Habsburg staterooms. The exhibitions included excellent ones on the Blue Rider group (incl. Kandinsky, Klee, and the wonderfully freaky Alfred Kubin) and American pop artist Mel Ramos, and the staterooms looked like a mini-Versailles.
Vienna also has lots of churches to choose from. I forget the name of this one, but you can see we had a beautiful day for wandering.
Vienna's main cathedral, like Budapest's, is St. Stephen's. It may look like just another church from the outside...
...but the inside is psychedellic! (This is not just the effect of the stained glass windows--they're cheating with some colored lights.)
My favorite thing about Austria was all those funny German signs.
Hee hee.

On a less funny note, we grumblingly boarded the overnight train to Krakow, Poland, that night for our most expensive train ride ever. Over $100 per person for sleeping berths in an old, cramped, 6-person compartment. (For comparison, we spent less money on five weeks of train travel around India, including six overnight trips.) Welcome back to Western pricing!

The next morning, determined not to raise our spirits even a little, we headed straight to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps outside of Krakow. Though I have read and watched a fair amount of material about such camps in my lifetime, nothing quite prepares you for actually visiting one. (Possibly disturbing pictures to follow.)

You begin your tour by walking through the main gate to Auschwitz. The German over the gate translates to "work will set you free," which is total crap, since all the Nazis tried to do in this camp was work the prisoners to death, if they didn't just gas them outright upon arrival.
Many of the buildings at Auschwitz have been turned into small museums. Some of the most affecting displays are piles of personal possessions collected by the Nazis from incoming prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers. Piles of eyeglasses and shoes--adults', and heartbreakingly, hundreds of childrens'--are upsetting, but the items that affected me most were the collections of shaving brushes and shoe-polishing tins, because they really show how much many of the prisoners believed, until the last possible moment, that they were merely being resettled and heading for a new life where such everyday items would be needed.
I didn't expect Auschwitz to be so green. It's always harsh winter in all the movies, isn't it? But in springtime, 70 years later, the rows of trees and brick barracks buildings look almost peaceful and pleasant.

Until you take a step inside the gas chambers. They would actually paint these over after every round of gassing so that new prisoners being herded inside wouldn't get freaked out by scratchings and bloodstains from the previous victims.

The crematorium ovens were usually found adjacent to the gas chambers for the speediest disposal of the thousands of bodies. These machine-like aspects of the camps, and the amount of detailed planning the Nazis put into making them efficient, is unbelievably disturbing when you're standing in the middle of it.
Around three kilometers from Auschwitz--which was largely a work camp--is Birkenau, which was much larger and basically designed to kill people as quickly as possible. Special railroad tracks were built to bring cattle cars full of people directly into the camp.
If you've seen movies featuring Auschwitz-Birkenau, you may recognize the train-station layout, which you can see from above from the watchtower, though it was much greener at our visit than I'd ever imagined.
Over 1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 90% of them Jews. Gypsies, Poles, and many others were brutalized and killed there, too. It's a staggering, mind-boggling legacy. I was glad to see so many people visiting and learning about the history on the day we were there. Sadly, as our previous visits to equally horrifying memorials in Rwanda and Cambodia showed, it seems that the world has not quite learned its lesson yet about preventing genocide.

A person could be forgiven for wanting a drink back in Krakow after a day at the camps. If I ever open my own bar, I am totally naming it the Alkohole.
Krakow has a cute old city that largely escaped destruction in World War II. This cathedral towers high above the main square.
Though Krakow's Jewish population is much diminished now, it still has many old synagogues that you can visit. This one has uncovered some very old murals of prayers in Hebrew on the walls.
We treated ourselves to a nice dinner in a froufy dining room off the main square. Krakow is full of tourists, but we were the only diners that night.

The next day, it was off to Warsaw, the capital of Poland and--thanks to it having the cheapest flight route back to New York of any Eastern European city--the last destination of our very long trip. Skies were blue and the sun toasted us as we explored the heavily rebuilt old town (Warsaw was not as lucky as Krakow in WW2).
Pope John Paul II came from Poland and is still extremely popular there, as effigies and pictures in people's windows prove. I thought that this was a statue of him, but actually it's a different Polish Catholic figure, Cardinal Wyszyński, whom many want to see canonized. Bottom line: Catholicism is a big deal in Poland.
Most of the Eastern European cities we visited had cute little street trams, and Warsaw was no exception. We hopped on one once, and it took us so long to figure out what the system was for paying the fare that we reached our stop and got off before we ever paid it. Thanks for the free ride, Warsaw!
Here I am with the Vistula River, which bisects Warsaw. Guess it wasn't cool enough to be on the Danube like Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, so it had to settle for a river that rhymes with connective tissue disease.

In addition for the awards for "free-est tram ride" and "best pierogi," Warsaw wins the award for "gayest statue we've ever seen in a Catholic church."
Short story: In Europe, hotels are very expensive, so Andy and I had been staying in dorms, where we still often paid $15-$20 each for a bed. The hostel where we stayed in Warsaw was at the top end of this range, but at least our room of six beds seemed clean and orderly when we stopped by in the morning to drop our luggage off. Unfortunately, when we returned in the afternoon, we found the rest of the beds in our room taken by teenagers on a field trip who had spilled soda and chips all over the floor and, despite many signs warning of an over-$100 fee for doing so, were smoking in the room.

Feeling an overwhelming sense of we-are-too-old-to-be-dealing-with-this-s**t, Andy and I marched straight to the front desk and tattled hard on those kids. They got in trouble with their teacher and fined for the smoking, and...we got upgraded to a private room! After weeks of communal living, it was a nice way to spend our final sleep on the road. OK, so we had to check our backs for possibly-homicidal teenagers every time we went down the hall to the bathroom, but other than that, it was a peaceful night.

The next afternoon, we boarded our flight to Reykjavik. Yup, the cheapest route home was via Iceland--sadly, not on a fancy, smorgasbord-serving Scandinavian airline, but on a no-frills, no-food, no-water-even-though-you-had-to-dump-yours-out-at-security airline called Iceland Express.

We only had one hour to make our connection, and were not-so-secretly hoping to miss it and be "forced" to spend a night in Iceland. Unfortunately, about half our flight from Poland was bound for New York, and they held the connecting plane. At least I had time to refill our bottles with pure Icelandic tap water in the snyrtingar before boarding flight #2.

I'm not sure that everyone's luggage made it onto the second flight, but we carried everything on, just like we had on our very first flight ...

(Portrait of two backpacks--Caribbean Airlines flight from New York to Trinidad, June 30, 2009)

(Same two backpacks, 74 countries later--Iceland Express flight Reykjavik to New York, June 1, 2011)
(Huh, I just realized that we were in seat 19 for both of those flights. How weird is that?)

So, amazingly, our backpacks made it all the way around the world...and so did our marriage. Look, still smiling!

We're back in the USA now, but that doesn't mean that we're finished blogging. We've still got some food to bring you, and several financial updates and obsessions posts...and hopefully, at some point, we'll reflect on our travels and bring you some deep thoughts (or at least best-of lists). Plus, we plan to travel around the states some this summer, so we may bust out the camera and work up some posts about the attractions of, say, Minneapolis and Denver, if our adoring fans demand it. So feel free to adore and demand in your comments below!


  1. I am adoring AND demanding! This blog has really been one of Deron and my favorites! Welcome home, again!

  2. More posts, please!!

  3. I'm jealous! Thanks for sharing. Have you been to Russia? Moscow is beautiful.

  4. Robbin, I haven't, but Andy spent a term there in college. We'd love to go together on a future trip, when we have time to get tourist visas in the states. Turns out that it's pretty hard to arrange if you're already abroad (at least in Asia).