Pisa: Convent Spectacular

I made my way from Florence to Pisa where I’d connected with friends-of-a-friend-of-a-friend (seriously), who had generously agreed to host me in their big, old house right in the city center. When I arrived, I was greeted by Lia, a tiny, beautiful Italian woman, probably a few years older than me. She showed me around the home, telling me how 15 people lived there together in a type of community. The building, she noted, used to be a convent; the vast sprawl of their floor was comprised of two large kitchens, two small bathrooms, a huge living area, and numerous bedrooms (maybe around 10?), all with high vaulted ceilings adorned with peeling gold and pastel frescos, making them look like they would better belong in a cathedral. It was gorgeous, warm, and homey.

Over the next few days, I met most of the people who shared this community, a spectacular mix of graduate students, PhD candidates, rainbow hippies, activists, journalists and artists coexisting peacefully, sharing the cooking and cleaning and doing their best to eat supper as a group every evening. They ranged in age from early twenties to at least late thirties (I’m estimating). I don’t speak Italian, so my participation mostly involved smilingly helping with food prep and sitting in entertained silence as this huge, young family laughed and conversed together in their native language every evening.

I stayed in the converted convent for a week. This was somewhat unintentional (I’d planned to make trips to Cinque Terre and Siena, which never panned out) but mostly, I found my new Pisa community a good place to chill out for a little while. I’d been traveling nonstop and desperately needed to prepare for the Asia leg of my journey, which was rapidly approaching; I had fallen far behind on work-related emails regarding my January Swaziland project; and I needed a chance to regroup and figure out if I was still on the right track with my new life of adventure and exploration. In the end, it turned out I was…

In Pisa, I made the very difficult decision to reject a job offer for a health program management position in a remote region of Uganda. Among other reasons, I decided that if I gave my backpacking trip an end, an answer, a definite deadline, I would lose some of the magic that I can feel building with every new experience I have. In short, I would stop searching.  I spent a few days brooding in cynical reflection, experiencing a raw and painful internal chaos with the weight of this choice, but eventually felt strong in my resolve to journey on. There will be other jobs. Right now, I’m exploring – not just the world, but my own goals, priorities, and desires for what I want my mid-twenties to look like. And I think I’ll best find those answers by going against every grain in my (previously?) obsessively driven self, for once, and just…being. Passively. In the world. For a little longer.

Pisa is a tiny, tiny city. I spent hours walking its winding streets, learning the area like the back of my hand in a matter of days. I sat and read on the banks of the Arno; I laughed out loud the first time I saw the silly tower leaning so absurdly; I awkwardly attended the biweekly convent party where I barely had one full English conversation but watched fifty Italian hippies dance and sing to the sounds of their own music; I taught 5 of my hosts how to play spoons. I slept a lot. I ate a lot. I caught up on work and on myself.

Here are some photos!

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Five Days in Florence

My five days in Florence centered around a few major themes: exploring magnificent old churches and art galleries, cozily hiding from the rain with countless espressos and a book in my hostel’s common area, improvised hiking in places I was probably not supposed to be, and, most importantly, feeling my Great Grandma’s presence everywhere.

Though my much-loved Great Grandma Iole (pronounced Yo-Le) immigrated to the US when she was quite young, her family was from Florence. Maybe it was simply projected, but every time I stepped down a particularly old cobblestone street, or walked into a historical church, or meandered through a more “local” part of town, I felt so connected to my Great Grandma. This made my time in Florence extremely meaningful to me – just knowing she had been there, and her family had been there, just about a century ago.

Photo-worthy highlights of my time in Florence included “hiking” to the top of Piazzale Michaelangelo and exploring a secret forest at the top, climbing Campanile di Giotto and seeing a 360-degree panorama of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan hills, visiting the famous Uffizi art museum (Botticelli everywhere!), and, of course, simply meandering through this glorious, ancient, artistic and architectural wonder of Italy.

Here are some photos from my experiences.

Off the Grid…

Since my last post on Venice, I traveled more through Italy (Florence, Lucca, Pisa, Siena, Rome) and, on Nov. 26, I flew to Nepal, where I will remain until Dec. 31. I’ve been taking a million pictures and finding plenty of overseas mischief to blog about, but unfortunately, I simply haven’t had a strong enough internet connection anywhere to upload a worthwhile post.

After Nepal, I fly to Johannesburg and then head into Swaziland for a global health consulting project I’ve been working on since June. Thus, I am sad to say that I do not know when my internet capabilities will, once again, allow me to write lengthy, photo-filled tales of my backpacking adventures. Hopefully sooner than later, but I admit I’m planning to be a bit “off the grid” in Nepal, yoga-ing my way through peaceful forests, summiting the lower Himalayas, and just generally feeling joyous and free at extremely high altitudes. Stay well, my loves 🙂

Shades of Venezia

I spent 2 full days in Venice, and I felt it was plenty of time to see the city and be done with it. The first day, I walked around without a map, just exploring and getting dizzily lost amongst the circuitous maze of tiny streets, alleyways, and bridges. I was enthralled by the city’s beauty, and stopped constantly to take photos and admire the view: blue or green canals, brightly colored houses right on the water, vivid blue or black and gold gondola boats driven by striped-shirted men with red neckties, a million gelaterias and cafes, church after church after ornate, ivory, towering church. I truly enjoyed exploring this place – unlike anywhere else I’ve ever seen – and soaked it all in until well into the night.

My second day, I had a map in-hand and a few destinations in mind (the Jewish Ghetto, Piazza San Marco, the artist district, etc). Turns out I had already visited all these places the day before, I just wasn’t aware at the time. What I learned from this is that Venice is extremely small, and though it’s easy to get lost in, it is hard to find a place that isn’t totally overrun with tourists, and silly, overpriced tourist gimmicks to buy. When I did make my way out of the touristy areas to the outskirts of the city, it was interesting and much more serene, but these places were small and quickly ended in yet another tourist hub. So, after Day 2 in Venice, I was done and ready to move on to Florence.

The highlight of my time in Venice was visiting the Peggy Guggenheim collection. This museum is in Peggy’s old house (she is actually buried in the yard), and extends to another larger building nearby. Much of the gallery is Peggy’s original collection: the art in the living room is the art she placed there; the dining room is decorated as she decorated it. The Guggenheim in NYC is one of my favorite museums of all time, so I felt exceptionally excited visiting this much more personal collection. And the art was amazing. Kandinsky, Ernst, Tanguy, Capogrossi, Warhol, you name it, it was all there. Just stunning. I spent hours in the museum and loved every minute of it.

Instead of my traditional story-telling with accompanying photos, I decided to just insert a gallery of some of my best photos of Venice. Many of them have captions, a few don’t. Most are in color, and a few are black and white. I just mixed it up for fun…hope you enjoy 🙂

Click the first one to scroll through ’em all.

Magic on Kramerspitze

The main reason I decided to go back into Germany from the Czech Republic was that I had been promised an Alps trek, which has been a dream of mine since reading Heidi when I was probably 7 years old. (Also, of course, I wanted to meet David, the allegedly wonderful twinsy of my friend Robin, and promiser of said Alps excursion.)

I hope this post is as epic as I’ve been building it up to be. I think I’ll just start with a photo – the first glimpse of up-close, snowy Alps from the train speeding towards our mountain-town destination, where the trailhead is located.

Yes, yes, a million times, yes!

David and I decided to climb Kramerspitze, which could supposedly be completed in a day if you started early enough for it to still be light out during your descent.

The hike we did starts at the lower righthand side near the town. See all the switchbacks? That’s the way up. The peak is where it says “Kramerspitz” (how Bavarians spell it). Then we followed the snowy ridge to the left, and down the mountain on the next dotted red line.

The afternoon before our hike, David and I took a train from Munich to Garmisch, a small town nestled in the snow-capped Alps on the Germany-Austria border. We’d booked a hostel for the night, with plans to begin our Kramerspitze climb around 8:00 the next morning.

We arrived to the hostel with about ½ hour of daylight remaining, but decided we wanted to do a quick, shorter hike that very day, known as Partnachklamm. David’s “spare grandma”, Dee, had recommended this hike, which took us into a deep gorge in a mountainside, through caves and rugged rock tunnels, alongside a roaring, icy stream.

We did the hike in the dark.

It was incredible.

I had two headlamps; a tiny bit of dusky light was still showing through the trees by the time we got to the trailhead; and the trail was clear and quite easy, so there was little risk involved in making this a night hike. In the beginning, I wished it was daylight, so I could see the true beauty of the gorge and river flowing down from high Alps. But as we hiked on, the experience was just amazing. It was misty and cold; we could look high up above the crevice’s opening and see the mountain stars; we were continuously splashed by waterfalls flowing down right beside the rocky trail; we worked up a sweat climbing, climbing, climbing up into the gorge.

Eventually we took a rickety cable car back down the mountain and hiked back into town.

Obviously my photos from the night hike are no good, but here are a few of them that kind of came out:

Just leaving town; closing in on the trailhead in the fading light.

Almost in the forest at dusk. That huge ski jump was used in the Winter Olympics when they were held here in 1936.

Oh, beautiful Alps. Thank you for letting me gleefully climb all over you, at all hours of the day and night!

Yeah, no photos in the actual gorge. You can Google Partnachklamm for daytime pics, if you feel so inclined.

Anyway, back to the purpose of this post: Kramerspitze!

David and I woke up early and dressed in silence, packing our Camelbaks with food, a first-aid kit, extra layers of clothes, and plenty of water. Thankfully David is no more of a morning person than I am. Few words were exchanged, and that was juuuust fine.

After a hearty breakfast and coffee at the hostel, we headed to the Kramerspitze trailhead just on the edge of town.

Hiking, commence! (Note this sign says the summit can be reached in 5 hours. WE DID IT IN 4! Win.)

The trail started out nice and easy, with just a gentle incline.

Don’t be fooled. This is the only “flat” part for the next 9 hours…

Soon we came to this lovely bridge to help us around a giant boulder. In reflection, I feel the first 25 minutes gave me a false sense of security of how well we’d be provided for on the rest of the mountain…

Beautiful view already, and we’re basically still at the bottom!

Serene blue Alps. Only the low ones are blue. The high ones are rocky and white and sparkly and magical.

Soon enough, we came to this:

See that steep crevice? Time for a lil’ scramble!

But of course, this early in the hike, we were generously helped by some metal cables bolted into the rock.

Another amenity only present at the bottom of the hike. I wasn’t kidding about that false sense of security.

Yeah, that was the only cable we encountered. But the scramble continued for some time…

David killin’ it behind me.

We scrambled up near-vertical rocky slopes, like that in the photo above, for about 2 hours. It was physically strenuous, but extremely exhilarating – especially each time we reached a level point and stopped to look around!

Waterbreak! Oh, and not a bad place to take one.

As we climbed higher, the trail became steeper and more narrow, with sharp cliffs opening up to our left. Soon, we came to this memorial for a schoolboy who’d fallen from this point. More than anything, this reminded us to be extra cautious and safe with ourselves today. This is no Appalachia! (Though I do love my rolling blue Appalachians. It’s just that the Alps are very clearly a different beast).

The memorial.

The higher we climbed, the better the view…

Eventually we were up on the first ridge. It was incredible there; totally exposed on both sides, opening up to the vast valley far below and the magnificent Alps all around.

David on the ridge, admiring what magic surrounds him…

And soon, we caught sight of the summit. It looks deceptively close in this picture. The trail actually winds around behind it, with at least another hour of navigating steep, slippery switchbacks and icy patches before hitting the top.

The peak! It looks close, right? It’s not. If you look EXTRA hard, you can barely see the cross at the top, glinting in the sun.

And then, suddenly, the trail turned to ice.

Just a tad slippery.

It was around this time when we spotted a mountain goat! And I had my first Heidi moment, which involves me being ridiculously giddy about where I am and what it looks like all around me – “I’m basically Heidi right now!!!” That’s a Heidi moment.

We carefully hiked along the icy trail, being careful to step down hard – crunch! – along the trail’s outer edges, to ensure our boots had a solid hold in the less icy snow. Before long, we rounded a bend and saw what lie ahead:

You can just make out a faint black line in the snow, all along the right side of that mountain. That’s the trail, running through an avalanche field. (The peak we’re heading for is up and to the left of this photo).

Yep. An avalanche field.

This was my first experience with a hike of this level of risk (it was much more intense than Leggjabrjótur), so at this point, I was extra grateful to have David there. David has experience doing snowy treks, and knew that we could cross the avalanche field with minimal risk because there was just one layer of snow on the mountain. He also taught me how to stop myself if I slipped and started sliding down the side of the mountain (lie on your back, spread your arms, and pray…).  I let him lead the way through this tricky (but epic/ridiculously amazing/”sick” [David’s word of choice]) part of the hike.

A closer view of the avalanche field/trail.

What’s up, guys?! I’m just crossing an avalanche field like it’s a normal Sunday activity! (Slash, peeing my pants).

David scrambling up some snow/ice. This is when we started referring to it as the “trail” (emphasis on the quotation marks). And why yes, he IS in shorts!

This part of the hike wasn’t necessarily steep (at least not in most places), but it took us a long time because of the intense focus required to take every step. Again, we had to stomp down hard to ensure a good foothold; we had to keep our eyes peeled up ahead for icy patches; we had to maintain a safe distance between us to decrease the risk of causing an avalanche or tripping one another. And on the steep bits, the focus was that much more extreme: not only were we already in a risky situation, but now we were also climbing up slippery, icy, sharp rocks with our bare hands.

Even with the intensity of this part of the hike, the views around us made it worth taking the time to stop for photo breaks!

This is a crazy-light photo of David hiking up ahead of me. You can just make him out – a dark patch on the left. This picture gives you a sense of how monstrous these mountains are.

Finally, we made it safely across the avalanche field, and into a saddle between two peaks. We just had a final incline to wind our way up before reaching the summit.

I’m basically Heidi!!! Can you tell how freakin’ happy I am in this moment!?!?

Big snowy rocks and smaller blue mounds surrounding us on every side.

Thanks for the awesome pic, David. That’s me, on top of a mountain, in the middle of the Alps, Germany, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way…feeling so blessed to be present here!

After a short break in the saddle, we were ready to make the final haul. We rounded the back of the peak, and saw that yet another icy patch lie ahead – this time much steeper than the avalanche field, with a sharper drop to one side.

Scary/Worth it.

Up, we climbed…

So close! Just one long icy scramble to go…

Until….

Nailed it.

We reached the summit (about 2000m) after hiking for just over 4 hours. I think we could have done it faster, but I was all about the photo breaks. No point in speeding up such a beautiful mound of earth and rock, anyway!

The. Views. Were. Insane. Just across those mountains to the right? Austria.

The hills are ALIVE, you guys. THEY ARE SO ALIVE!

I really wanted to spin around and sing The Sound of Music, but decided against it since we were on a tiny peak surrounded by nothing but thin air and a long, loooong fall…

What’s up, blackbird? Just enjoying the view? Me too, man. Me too.

In the above photo, that especially tall peak on the far right is Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. David and I originally planned to climb that, but it snowed and made it impassable. That’s ok, though. Kramerspitze most certainly did not disappoint.

Little houses in a tiny town in a big valley far, far below.

Blackbirds on a wire. (The wires were holding in the giant cross that is staked into the peak, known as the Gipfelkreuz).

The cross, and some other hikers who joined us on the peak.

We found lunch to be extremely necessary when we made it to the top…

David eating while I continue to photograph everything in sight (which is a lot).

Finally, after recuperating, eating, and consulting our map, we decided to start the hike down. We opted for a longer, but more gradual route, which ended up taking us about 5 hours. We reached the bottom just as the sun was setting.

The first part of the hike down was still a bit intense, as the rocks were steep and the trail icy.

David making his way down from the peak.

Soon the trail opened up to another incredible, exposed ridge on top of the world. Follow the ridge and you’ll follow the trail…

David on the ridge.

Mountains. Man. Cliff.

Soon we caught an awesome view of a lake in the middle of a ring of mountains. This is Eibsee (“-see” means “lake” in German), and it was quite beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight.

Eibsee.

You can see the fading sunlight reflecting on the lake, down below me on the left.

We thought we’d left the snow and ice behind, but rounded a bend and came upon a lengthy slope absolutely covered in slush and ice chunks. It wouldn’t have been too bad if we were going uphill, but coming down was a different story. We both slipped and slid chaotically most of the way down.

Ice is trickier on the downhill.

Not my favorite part of the hike down.

The ice soon ended, and we were met by a gradual decline into a broad meadow of small alpines and lots of mountain goat hoof prints.

What a lovely spot for a bench. Somebody was a thinker!

David and I frolicked in the meadow before re-entering the forest, which came next on the hike down.

Mountain handstands! My version of frolicking. Oh, Alps. Everything about you is just perfect and wonderful.

This can’t be real, right?

Once we left the meadow behind, we hiked downhill, through the woods, for about 2.5 hours. This was still incredible – tall alpines, cool air, lots of shade and sunbeams sliding through the trees, the smell of pine and fresh dirt – but I have to admit, my knees were pretty much ready to quit after the first hour and a half of this steep, wooded descent.

I don’t have many photos from within the forest, as it was quite dark – and the photos would have just been trees, anyhow.

We gradually made our way down series after series of quick switchbacks and steep dirt trail…

Them’s some switchbacks…At this point all I wanted was a mountainbike to take me the rest of the way down!

Finally, as the sun was sliding down behind Zugspitze, we reached the bottom.

The Zugspitze and a darkening sky.

As we walked several kilometers on harsh pavement back to the hostel, I turned around and took a final look at the incredible Kramerspitze.

We climbed that.

Feeling exhausted but satisfied, David and I picked up our things and hopped on the train back to Munich, where we cooked a huge dinner and promptly fell asleep.

What an incredible adventure! Thank you, Kramerspitze, for finally allowing me to realize my Alps-climbing dream. And thanks, David, for sharing such an amazing hike with me! I will most definitely be back for more…

A Glimpse of München

I traveled from Prague to Munich to meet my friend Robin’s twin brother David, who had promised to take me hiking into the Alps in addition to hosting me for as long as I wanted (!). I ended up staying with him for 5 days because he was so awesome.

Emily hearts David 4-Ever!

My time with David will comprise 2 posts: the first one on Munich in general, and the second on our incredible, breathtaking, challenging, EPIC hike/climb up Kramerspitze, which lies just on the Germany/Austria border in Bavaria.

To begin. Post #1: A mere glimpse of Munich, in photos.

Here is a photo from my train ride from Prague-Munich.

Even though it’s dreary, I loved the colors. Roofs all over Europe are so pretty – always red or yellow. It makes things look cheerier, no matter how much it (always) rains.

David and I spent a few days exploring the city together. He was full of random facts about many different things (after all, he was born in Munich). This kept me interested, despite the fact that I had begun to grow a bit weary of city after European city filled with beautiful buildings, magnificent churches, famous art, and rich, long histories.

I’m kidding about the weary part, of course. Though I can get tired of city life, I have not been bored once on this entire adventure. I think boredom would mean I’m trying too hard…

Anyway, here are some pictures of Munich! The city’s just full of fancy buildings and interesting stories…thanks to David for the ongoing narration 🙂

“DRAGON!!!”, I squealed in excitement. “Actually”, replied David, “That’s Wurmeck. Part worm, part dragon. Rumored to have brought the plague to mankind, out of the depths of a well.” Fun fact #283.

A busy area in central Munich known as Marienplatz. Lots of nice buildings, expensive shops, and stroller-pushing, T-shirt buying tourists!

I have been searching high and low for gargoyles since I landed in Europe, and I finally found some in Munich! They were all over this building. It was awesome.

This is a famous clock known as the Rathaus-Glockenspiel (I love the name). Every day at 11AM, tourists flock to its base to watch the life-sized figures re-enact two stories from the 16th century – one involving a joust (the Bavarian knight wins every time). It chimes and plays music, and the figures dance around, for something like 7 minutes. We kept expecting it to end…and it just kept going…

We climbed that! This is “Alter Peter” (Old Peter), the oldest recorded parish church in Munich and presumably the originating point for the whole city. I ordered our tickets in German, by the way. I’m pretty sure David was proud (or just amused at my horrific pronunciation). (Photo: Wikicommons)

A view from Alter Peter of the Glockenspiel and Frauenkirche cathedral, a landmark and symbol of the Bavarian capital city. Did I mention Bavaria is super religious? They even have a church tax – and you have to opt out. (All information from David Jakob, Munich Historian).

Another view from Alter Peter.

Ok, yes, I took a lot of photos from the top of Alter Peter.

LOOK! THE ALPS!!!! Note that I took this photo before actually climbing any Alps. I could not have been more excited to see these snow-capped beauties in the distance, just knowing they were waiting for me…

Doesn’t this just make you want to shout “Bavariaaaa!” from the top of a bell tower?

One day in Munich, I visited the famous Deutsches Museum. It’s huge, but I found it a bit anticlimactic. It’s full of machines and technology and engineering things. Not really my cup o’ tea.

Really only two things excited me about the Deutsches Museum. First, this huge astrological clock (and there were a bunch more inside).

And second, this gigantic, working replica of actin and myosin, ATP and everything! (Nerd alert – if you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry. I think this is probably the most boring part of the museum to most people.)

Once when David was at work, I made my way to Nymphenburg Palace, a baroque palace previously used as a summer residence by the rulers of Bavaria. It was built in the early 1700s.

A closer view of the palace. Fancy, but with a mole problem.

Why the crankypants, Neptune? So much attitude…

Just one of many “smaller” houses in the forested parks behind Nymphenburg palace.

A little pavilion and babbling brook on the Nymphenburg properties.

A beautiful yellow cathedral, just beside Siegestor (Victory Gate). Man, they love their churches here.

Siegestor! David and I ran into the middle of the road to take a better photo – such tourists – but it came out blurry. That’s karma for stopping traffic, I guess.

Cloudy Munich.

This is a traditional Bavarian cake. I forget the name…as soon as David reminds me I’ll stick it in. It was chocolate on the outside and spiced inside. Good with coffee!

We took a long walk through Englischer Garten, bigger than Central Park. It’s really pretty in autumn. And there’s a Beer Garden in the middle of it. And a lake. Double win!

Munich skyline at sunset, seen from the pavilion in the photo above.

David found this tiny swan in the park. You’re welcome for this amazing photo, David.

Next post…ice-climbing in the Alps!

Terezín (Theresienstadt)

My second full day in the Czech Republic, Sierra and I caught an empty bus to Terezín (Theresienstadt in German). Terezín includes a walled garrison town and military fortress about 45 minutes outside of Prague.

During WWII, the Gestapo used Terezín as a Jewish ghetto, and the fortress as a “punishment prison” and concentration camp for Jews primarily from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. My family recently discovered that a relative of ours was imprisoned in Terezín (he survived the camp). This, more than anything, compelled me to visit Terezín, especially after learning how close it was to Prague.

Terezín was used as a source of slave labor; as a holding point for Jews before they were sent elsewhere; and, for a time, as a place to concentrate elderly Jews. Though its primary purpose was not an extermination camp, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered there and over 150,000 others (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before being sent to Treblinka or Auschwitz extermination camps in Poland. About a quarter of those held in the camp died there, mostly due to the dire living conditions, hunger, and disease.

This is a difficult post for me to write. Everything about the experience completely wrecked me emotionally, and I don’t believe we have the language to truly express what it was like to be present there. Sierra and I spent six hours in Terezín – visiting the fortress, a small museum, several cemeteries (mass graves), the crematorium, barracks, a brick tunnel system, etc. – and it wasn’t enough. It would have taken at least a full day to see everything there was to see, if you wished to spend a meaningful amount of time in each place. Further, I didn’t take many photos because I felt it wasn’t appropriate, but I will post the few that I took here.

One thing I will say about Terezín, before I just post some pictures and let you feel whatever you may feel, is that I was shocked at how “real” it all seemed. This may seem obvious, but when I imagine visiting other, more well-known camps like Auschwitz – which I haven’t done – I assume they have been cleaned up to some extent, given the huge number of tourists that visit every day. I imagine things have been maintained, that there are signs and guides to help you navigate the camp and feel more in control and more distant from the reality of what happened there. I may be wrong, but these are my assumptions.

Nothing about Terezín was clean or touristic.

It was all raw, as if the war ended and it was all just left as-is. It was nothing, nothing, nothing like a museum. Everything was grimy and crumbling. The ghetto museum and crematorium were the only structures I found to be maintained in any way. Everything else was open, exposed to the elements, and disintegrating. The walls were stained, the windows were open and full of cobwebs, there was bird shit everywhere. There was no staff. There were very few placards, and almost none in English. There were hardly any other people there all day.

At times, I was the only person in a small damp cell, in a dark brick tunnel, in a barrack crowded with old wooden bunks, in a cold crematorium chamber. I found this particularly stirring, to be alone in these rooms. The entire area was silent, dark, still, and empty. It had the feeling of a place that had been rapidly abandoned.

Never have I felt so palpable the presence of so much suffering, of so much human violence. Such a dark energy, everywhere. It didn’t help that it was drizzling and gray outside. Sierra commented that the entire town was just covered by a black cloud – both literally and metaphorically speaking. Everything just felt heavy. Sierra and I were both glad we did not visit this place alone. It was a very intense experience for me, and I’m sure for her, too.

This is the basic layout of Theresienstadt, shaped like a star. It was built as a garrison town/military fortress before the First World War, but hasn’t been active in any way since it was used as a concentration camp in the Second.

A building in the town of Theresienstadt, formerly used as a ghetto.

Another building in the former ghetto.

Rusty barbed wire encircles the entire area.

These train tracks stop abruptly, their end now immersed in the earth. The tracks were used by the trains transporting tens of thousands of Jews to and from Theresienstadt.

There are endless brick tunnels going into the hills, presumably used for defense purposes in the First World War. Everything is dark and empty now.

The crematorium, which is located in the center of a large field of mass graves. Most of those who died at Terezín were cremated in this building, their ashes stored in urns throughout the tunnels in the garrison town.

These are symbolic gravestones, placed throughout a field that covers a mass grave. Here, thousands of Jews who perished at Terezín were buried en masse. The gravestones appear to be placed haphazardly, but they are merely symbolic; some are single, and some are grouped together in small clumps, perhaps to represent families or relatives.

This is the River Ohře. Toward the end of the war, the nazis attempted to conceal the genocide that’d occurred at Terezín. They removed the urns containing the ashes of thousands of Jews from the fortress’ tunnels, and dumped them into this river – likely from just where this photo was taken. I can’t even begin to express in words how it felt to be here.

This is the entrance to the “Small Fortress”, used as the camp and prison and just over the river from where the ghetto was established.

This is part of another huge mass burial site. This one is just in front of the Small Fortress (the concentration camp).

This is the view of just one side of the fortress, taken as I was walking through the front gate. You can see mountains in the distance. The fortress itself is huge – we were inside for over an hour, and still didn’t see it all.

The doors you see here are entrances to the offices of Nazi guards and officers. The gate ahead, at the end, opens into one courtyard of the concentration camp.

The slogan on this gate, now peeling away, translates to “Work Brings Freedom”. This gate is the entrance to the camp area.

This is a view of one of the courtyards within the camp/prison. The doors in this particular building open into rooms with crowded, bunked wooden bed frames; some type of mechanical implements probably used for manufacturing something; lines of dusty, bare porcelain sinks and cracked mirrors; open-piped showers; or prison cells with no windows, and deadbolts on the outside of the doors.

Another photo of some of the buildings in the prison camp.

For some reason I found this room more upsetting than anything else about Terezín. I think because it is just bare humanity. And I could practically envision prisoners standing in front of these sinks, washing. I don’t necessarily feel any connection to my family member who was imprisoned here, but in this room, I felt particularly strangled, knowing I was related to someone who may have endured suffering in this place. In this room, everything just felt so humanized.

This is another area of the camp. These doors open to small, windowless prison cells. There is a watchtower over the courtyard just behind where I was standing.

And last, a photo of Sierra walking up ahead of me through one of the fortress’s many tunnels.

That’s it. I felt weird taking all of these photos, but there is so, so much more to see. I am glad I visited Terezín, and thankful Sierra was there with me, if only to sit with on the bus ride back to Prague. It was a very raw experience, and one I will never, ever forget.

Self-made European Halloween? Czech!

I stayed in Prague for three nights, but hardly spent any time in the city itself. I lodged in a fantastic hostel located right downtown (and still ridiculously cheap at 8 euros a night!), and it was there I met Sierra, another American. Sierra teaches English in France, but was on holiday in Prague for a few days. We ended up spending all our time together while I was in Czech Republic, which was great, particularly on the October 31. I’d been searching for a suitable European city in which to spend Halloween, but kept coming up dry. Luckily, Sierra truly understood the awesomeness of this holiday, so we decided to make a day of it.

We woke up early on Halloween, which began perfectly with clear blue skies and a chilly autumn wind. We dressed warmly, grabbed coffee, and headed to the train station, where we caught the commuter rail to Kutná Hora, a tiny town in the Czech countryside.

Kutná Hora was once the second largest town in Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), with a booming economy from its many silver mines. You’d never know it now. The town is extremely small, and totally dead. We were there in the middle of the day on a weekday and hardly saw any people. Most shops and restaurants were closed. All was quiet and still.

We came upon this lovely blue door in a fence in Kutná Hora.

Kutná Hora also has a random magical kingdom up on a hill in the distance. (???) I’m sure it’s actually something important, but we didn’t have time to investigate.

Our draw to Kutná Hora was its one tourist attraction: Sedlec Ossuary. Located on the outskirts of town, this tiny gray church appears unremarkable, apart from its three skull-and-crossbones weathervanes swiveling gently in the cool breeze.

Matt Woods, if you’re reading this, I wished and wished you had been there with me the entire time…

Sedlec Ossuary under a blue Halloween sky.

A well-maintained, beautiful cemetery surrounds the ossuary.

But inside, the church was anything but unremarkable. Everything – everything­ – within the church was absolutely covered in human bones.

Thus began the best non-American Halloween ever.

The ossuary is thought to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people.

Fun Wikipedia Facts:

“In the mid 14th century, during the Black Death, many thousands were buried in the abbey cemetery, so it had to be greatly enlarged…Around 1400, a Gothic church was built in the center of the cemetery with a vaulted upper level and a lower chapel to be used as an ossuary for the mass graves unearthed during construction…After 1511, the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel was given to a half-blind monk of the order.”

Just another Series of Totally Normal Things Humans Do…

Somewhat of a macabre candleholder…

This chandelier contains at least one of every bone in the human body.

Despite the human remains filling this tiny church, I did not feel that the atmosphere was solemn or grave; it did not feel like a memorial to the dead or a place to appreciate those whose bones were now decorating the church’s chambers. This may have been because the place was buzzing with loud, photo-snapping tourists and obnoxious student groups, but it still felt a bit odd to be present in that church and somehow not be completely overcome with human feeling… The church was certainly fascinating, and actually quite beautiful, but I felt a bit uneasy with the fact that we were gasping in awe and taking a million photos while surrounded by real human bones, of real people, who had lived real lives and were now likely only remembered by these morbid works of art in Sedlec Ossuary.

After exploring the church and Kutná Hora, Sierra and I made our way back to Prague where we wandered around until we came upon the city’s “Pumpkin and Ghost Festival”, Prague’s very serious attempt at a Halloween fair. It was…cute?

Well, at least they tried.

Why hasn’t Martha thought of this?

And I got some fresh pumpkin soup and delicious homemade bread for, like, a dollar, so I can’t complain.

Yes please.

The most magnificent autumn tree in all of Czech Republic. I’m sure of it.

This is a building in downtown Prague. We walked past it every day on the way to the train station. It doesn’t necessarily fit in this post but it’s an awesome building so I wanted to include it somewhere!

After the festival, we walked to Prague’s historic Olšany Cemetery. Though we’d intended to visit Olšany at some point during our stay, we certainly hadn’t planned to visit it in the dark – but this is what ended up happening, and I’m so glad it did. I think Sierra was a bit freaked out, but I found it serene, peaceful, and deeply meaningful.

I (perhaps weirdly?) feel so at peace in cemeteries. I have visited at least one in every country I’ve been to. I just like to be in them, to think and feel in their silence, to be present. I think these places have such interesting energy, and to be amongst so many graves, to feel so much life and history, and so much loss, is extremely powerful and thought-provoking for me. Olšany Cemetery was no exception.

Olšany is ancient and huge. Originally established for victims of the plague, over one million people are now buried there. It is also stunningly beautiful, even in the dark. The landscaping includes dense but carefully pruned shrubbery, immense, looming trees, and countless haphazard clusters of ornate gravestones and regal mausoleums. The ground was covered in soft dirt and colorful fall leaves, damp from a light evening rain. On most of the graves we passed, candles had been lit by people who’d passed through earlier, illuminating the intricate carvings into each unique stone, and the fresh flowers and wreaths decorating many of the tombs.

Candles placed carefully.

A nighttime shot. I loved how nothing was uniform about this cemetery.

Wow, Czech Republic. Your Halloween was wonderful, despite the fact that you don’t celebrate it at all.  I haven’t been this sober on Halloween in a while… but I also haven’t felt so peaceful and connected.

Berlin by Bike

Each day in Berlin, I rented a bike from a small bodega near my host Hannah’s building. Biking allowed me to cover some serious ground in Berlin, which worked in my favor as the city’s quite large and I was only there for a few days.

Since traveling, I have missed nothing more than my beautiful, beat-up, bright blue road bike (now slowly losing air in my grandma’s basement) so, blessed with sunshine and brisk autumn weather, I gleefully took on the whole of Berlin on a crappy, 10-euro, 3-speed rental.

That’s me and my bike, in case you couldn’t tell.

Early on in my stay, I biked around to many of the key touristic areas: the East Side Gallery (see previous post), the Jewish Memorial, Museumsinsel, Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, Reichstag, etc. After I’d had my fill of tourist attractions (which tends to happen extremely fast, for some reason), I biked nearly all the way across the city, stopping and photographing street art, interesting buildings, and good city views. I self-toured through several of Berlin’s many boroughs, visited the huge Mauerpark flea market, rode through a lengthy, forested park (Tiergarten), and ate some amazing and relatively cheap food (none of it was German. They don’t understand vegetarianism in this country).

A key difference in my self-guided exploration of Berlin, compared to other cities: I had a full city map in-hand! Yeah!

Some touristy things…

Reichstagsgebäude. I didn’t go inside (there was a very long queue), but apparently the view from the dome is nice. Next time!

The Brandenburg Gate, a couple horses, a hundred tourists, and some sunshine sneakin’ in my photo.

Another view of the magnificent Brandenburg Gate. This historical gate was totally isolated during the post-war partition of Germany.

Oberpfarr- und Domkirche von Berlin, or the Berlin Cathedral Church. Quite beautiful.

Another view of the Berlin Cathedral Church. Again, I didn’t go inside anything this time around, but the views from outside were lovely with such a sunny blue sky…

This is a major street in Berlin. It used to be called Stalinallee…

“Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”

Hannah and I biked to the Jewish Memorial on my first day in Berlin. It’s one of the more powerful holocaust memorials I’ve been to. From the periphery, it looks like a field of solid gray columns of varying heights, all relatively short – reminiscent of gravestones. But when you walk into the memorial, you find that the ground is uneven, and the gray pillars are placed in a grid format, some towering over your head, some shorter than you. Some of the columns lean a bit to the left or the right. There are no markings on them at all. Like all genocide memorials, it is somber and hallowed.

Jewish Memorial, on the periphery.

Walking through the Jewish Memorial. It covers 4.7 acres and comprises 2,711 cement slabs. Truly a maze to get lost in, to reflect in, to feel in.

Wikipedia has a good description of the memorial’s feel:

…the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.

Walking through the memorial, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the shrieks of children, or see them jumping and playing between the columns in this vast maze. Hannah told me this is quite controversial; some feel it is disrespectful to run or play amongst the columns, while others feel it is a hopeful and positive thing that children can express happiness and enjoy their youth here.

“Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Naziism”

This is another memorial Hannah and I visited. It was in a lovely park close to the Jewish memorial, but set back a bit from the main path. I found it quite unique.

Hannah and our bikes by the memorial to homosexuals.

Inside the cement block was a television, steaming a video on loop. The film depicted various homosexual couples expressing their love for one another, with undertones of secrecy, but so much love. I think it is a beautiful memorial.

Other things I loved about Berlin

Passed this beautiful synagogue on a street I biked down.

The view from a bridge I biked over. You can see some huge graffiti on those buildings to the right.

Exploring the Mauerpark flea market – which is HUGE – I came upon so many booths selling these. What’s the deal? Is this a new hipster trend? Mounted antlers? People are so weird…

ITALIANFOODSOGOOD.

Best falafel I’ve ever had. No joke. They cooked it right in front of me, too.

Berlin at dusk, taken over my handlebars. (Talent? Maybe. Bad idea? Probably).

And last, my favorite picture from Berlin. I should mention that I have now seen 11 rainbows since beginning my journey. That’s 11 rainbows in about one month. I don’t count the rainbows that show in this photo, but I was so amazed to look at this picture and see them there after I took it.

I feel so lucky.

Art of Berlin

I’m behind again. I blog a lot less when it’s not raining…

I took the train from Copenhagen to Berlin where I met my new friend Hannah, who graciously hosted me for three nights on her huge air mattress. How nice to have a whole mattress to myself…and two pillows! Sleeping like a queen.

Berlin is an incredibly interesting city, so I’m going to give it two posts. This one is going to be about Berlin’s artistic side, which I encountered at every turn: graffiti, sculpture, open-air art galleries, live music, and more.

Because I’m bouncing around so quickly between cities, I have been actively seeking out local art everywhere I go. I find this to be a good way to get a sense of a city’s character, its challenges, and its uniqueness, in a short period of time. It was easy to find artwork all over Berlin, and I do feel that I felt the city through these impressions.

Graffiti

In Berlin, everything – everything – is graffiti-ed. A lot of it is really bad graffiti, just black or red drippy letters that don’t mean anything to me or, probably, most people. Storefronts, fences, apartment buildings – even in the nice parts of town – are covered. But some of the graffiti is beautiful, detailed, telling of a deeper artistic culture; often, images are striking, or speak to the city’s tumultuous history or its more recent shift towards unity and peace. And some of it is just cool.

Berlin Wall’s 1.3 km long East Side Gallery

Part of the Berlin Wall that still stands, covered in artwork and known as the East Side Gallery

I like this very much – particularly the addition…

Each section of the wall was painted by a different artist, and many works had been painted over – some to their detriment, some to their benefit – by other graffiti artists.

The text at the bottom reads, “My God, help me to survive this deadly love.” This image, first painted by Dimitri Vrubel in 1990, depicts communist leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing.

East Side Gallery. I really liked this portion of the wall. It was colorful and so intricate.

The lovely Hannah, and a great painting. Get human!

Imagine living in a city divided in two by a cold concrete wall…it’s hard not to feel solemn here, but also so much hope. The art helps.

Graffiti around the city

Big art.

This is strange.

I love this style of graffiti. I wish this was a better photo but there was a big fence around the yard and I was too short!

Art that covers buildings…

Bathroom at the King Kong Klub

So many colors. I have no idea what this shop is, but it’s heavily decorated by both man and leaf…

Another angle of the same storefront

A building just a short bike ride from Hannah’s flat

This reminded me that it was almost Halloween. So dark!

I came upon this building on a random side street I biked down at dusk. This is the #1 reason why I get lost on purpose…you find gems you’d never see otherwise.

Random encounters with expression

One day in Berlin, Hannah and I biked to a huge, open-air flea market. Just behind the market, we noticed a crowd gathering, and heard music and laughter and cheering. We investigated, and found that hundreds of people had come out to watch, or perform, karaoke on this sunny day in the park. Apparently, this American guy pulls out his amps and boombox every weekend and opens it to public use for several hours. It’s an extremely popular event.

Most of the people singing karaoke were German men over the age of 60. And they were really, really into it.

Germans love their Karaoke…apparently?

The much-loved karaoke host and a karaoke singer.

Another day, Hannah and I went to the King Kong Klub with some of her friends to see Voila! Group perform. This 3-person band is from Prague, and the singer is trained to sound just like Edith Piaf. She sang many Edith Piaf songs, and several original songs she’d written. She was backed by a cello and an accordian. It sounded like Edith Piaf, only with a bit of gypsy flair. It was amazing.

Voila! Group

I shot these last few photos on my last day in Berlin while biking around the city.

Massive rose

More massive roses. There were around 30 of these in a park but there was construction so I couldn’t get a good photo of them.

A bridge I biked under.

Berlin, you’re an interesting place.