Archive for July 2012

Eastern Bloc (June 23 – July 13)   Leave a comment

East Germany

Berlin

Finally away from the chaos of Africa and the Middle East we arrived in Berlin to meet up with Robert and his Nazi girl-friend, Nadine. Europe is a glorious place where people understand order and reason; principles that elude most of Africa. The first few days of our European holiday were spent relaxing and seeing the sights, such as the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Berlin Wall. Toward our final days in Germany we attended a large (70,000+ people) music festival called Fusion north of Berlin. Even though it claims to be a “communist holiday“ and was full of hippies, we had a great time. It was located on an old Russian airfield where everyone camps out and dozens of stages play an eclectic variety of music. When we weren’t taking part in the festivities the dancing hippies kept us entertained.

Berlin is a wonderful city and we had a great time hanging out with Nadine and Robert, but it was time to move on toward the full family reunion.

Czechoslovakia

Prague, Czech Republic

Continuing through the former Eastern Bloc we headed for the beautiful city of Prague. There isn’t much to do in Prague other than enjoy the city, but that is well worth the trip alone. The architecture is beautiful, especially in the main square with the easily recognizable Church of Our Lady Tyn dominates the skyline. Across one of Europe’s most exquisite bridges, on a hill overlooking the Danube and city of Prague, sits Prague Castle. More than a stunning vista, this complex contains a cathedral with some of the best stained glass we have ever seen.

Just outside the castle, near the US embassy, is a KGB museum. The eccentric owner took us through the exhibits with fervent enthusiasm showing us things such as Lenin’s death mask, Stalin’s scarf and many KGB tools and gadgets. We also learned that for a brief period Vodka was illegal in Russia, but was legalized again after the entire country got addicted to cocaine. He also showed us the “Angels of Revolution“ who would put counter-revolutionaries back in line, or in the gulag.

 

 

 

 

Czechoslovakia

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava is a small quaint town with little to offer in terms of architecture, but maintains the charm of a nice European city with street-side cafés and nice boulevards lined with shops. The castle of Bratislava gives you a great view of the city, but doesn’t offer much else since it was almost completely destroyed in a fire in 1811 and renovations didn’t start until the 1950s (still ongoing).

A few kilometers outside of town sits Devin castle, which is a proper medieval castle on a cliff faced mountain. Although it was mostly destroyed by Napoleon’s army, it is still a great place to walk around and has a nice museum explaining medieval warfare and displaying various weapons used at that time. The view you get from the top overlooking the Danube is superb.

Hungary

Budapest

Continuing south we stopped for a visit in Vienna then continued on to Budapest where we met up with Justin and later Robert and Csapo. The city doesn’t offer much in terms of grand European architecture, apart from the parliament building, but once you immerse yourself into the city you find there is more to do than just looking for a pretty building.

A few kilometers outside the city is a monument park with statues from the era of Soviet control. The park includes monuments to Lenin, Marx and Stalin among others as well as structures honoring the people of Hungary in all their revolutionary glory. During our trip out to the statue park we were also lucky enough to witness a bum fight, one of Hungary’s national pastimes – along with gypsy bashing.

Our next stop was the House of Terror which is a building in central Budapest where the secret police would interrogate, torture and execute people who were declared enemies of the party or counter revolutionaries. This building is now a museum and shows Hungarian history from WWII through the Communist takeover, the attempted 1956 revolution and the Soviet intervention and finally the fall of the Iron Curtain. The bottom floor, or basement, shows the small dark cells that the prisoners were kept in before execution. One room had a wooden post where the prisoners would stand on a box, noose around their neck, while the executioner would hold the rope and the assistant would kick the box out from under the prisoners feet.

Across the river, on the Buda side of town, sits the citadel and castle. Inside the castle grounds is a nice cathedral, but it is the view of this area at night from the Pest side of the river that gives this city its beauty. The houses, churches and castle all lit up and reflecting off the Danube is an enchanting sight. Our last night in town was spent enjoying Hungarian beer and goulash. After a long night of making party we headed back for a couple of hours of sleep before the early train ride to Croatia where we would meet the rest of the family.

From here Justin took off for Austria then to Italy to meet Isabelle, Csapo needed to take his Hungarian citizenship test (which started off right by getting drunk the night before) and Robert headed to bed only to be seen our last night in Croatia.

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The Holy Land (June 16 – 21)   Leave a comment

Jerusalem

Old Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims sits behind high stone walls and contains a diverse cross-section of the faithful. There is an obvious religious and spiritual presence felt throughout the city and the animosity between the Jews and Arabs is palpable. The city within the walls is divided into Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters. Just outside the east gate sits Mount Olives with Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic churches marking everything from the final resting place of the Virgin Marry to Jesus’ first sermon.

Entering the gate begins the Via Dolorosa that marks Christ’s journey from condemnation to crucifixion. Winding through the Muslim section into the Christian section are various ‘stations’ marking the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried. The large church is an impressive sight and home to many uppity factions of Christians that often have confrontations over who has what duty. The keys to the church are kept by a Muslim family.

The Jewish quarter is filled with men in yamakahs and curly sideburns walking along side Israeli military up and down the winding allies. The most famous sight here is the western wall, a large open air synagogue at the western retaining wall for the temple mount. Here women and men are separated and sent to their respective section of the wall.

At the wall Jews stand vehemently rocking back and forth at the waist often with a Torah or Talmud praying and lamenting while everyone else places sheets of paper with prayers on them into the cracks of the walls. High above, almost in a sense of mockery, sits the Dome of the Rock.

Reached via a wooden ramp the Dome of the Rock is a Mosque that sits on the Temple Mount. While most Jews adhere to the law and stay off the temple mount, those less devout, as well as us other infidels, are allowed into this area a couple of hours each day. The Mosque is large and beautifully decorated adorned with a large golden dome. An impressive sight especially when you look over the city and see bell towers and minarets protruding from every corner.

Bethlehem

Heading through the large concrete walls into the city of Bethlehem really shows how the Israelis have isolated the Arab Palestinians from the rest of the region. Regardless, hundreds of tourists come every day to this holy city where Jesus was born. The main draw is the Church of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born in the grotto beneath the altar.

Acre (Akko)

This coastal city in northern Israel served as the docking point for all crusaders coming across from Europe. Its old city sits in the stone walls and still maintains a medieval feel. The city also houses a large Templar fortress with tunnels running beneath the city.

Dead Sea

Taking a day-trip from Jerusalem we headed to the Dead Sea, which sits 423 meters below sea level (lowest point on Earth without being under water). The water in the lake has 33.7% salinity which creates an extra buoyant lake and a shore with rocks covered in a salt coating. Entering the water almost feels like entering a lake full of oil. The thick water held us up where we didn’t need to use of hands or feet to stay afloat. Even holding rocks you only dip a couple of inches down into the water. It is more like sitting on a fluffy cushion than swimming in water.