McKinney Gypsy Caravan

One part travel blog. One part nerdy history lesson.

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Day 4: Wroclaw, Poland and back to Czechia

Standard Euro breakfast this morning at the Radisson. They had Ratatouille, which seemed odd for breakfast- but I ate it. I also had some smoked dried fish and pickled herring because I absolutely love that weird stuff for breakfast.

We had to get some Polish cash out as well to pay for parking for the day. In case you ever wondered what Polish Złoty looks like.

Our first stop of the day was the Panorama of The Battle of Racławice, a 360 degree panoramic painting depicting a battle in a war against Russia called The Kościuszko Uprising. Poland eventually lost the war to Russia and eventually lost their independence, but they won this particular battle in 1794- so its remembered as a point of national pride. I had never heard of Thaddeus Kościuszko… but I totally recommend a read through his Wikipedia! Turns out, he had quite the life and was quite an asset to the United States. When the American Revolution began, he set sail for the US and enrolled to fight for the American side. He was a huge engineer asset for the Americans- fortifying structures and setting up roadblocks for the British, serving under multiple generals and even Benjamin Franklin. He sailed back to Poland after not being paid for his 7 years of soldiering (he got an IOU basically that he would collect 20 years later) and was made a commander of the Polish Military where he led this famous uprising and war of peasant Polish fighting with scythes against their Russian overlords. He was captured, but political Tsar change in Russia led to him being pardoned for his crimes of rebellion. He returned to the US-became friends with Thomas Jefferson.. returning to Europe again when he found out his sister sent his nephews to fight with Napoleon in his name.  Seriously- there are memorials and namesakes to this guy all over Poland. He was a Revolutionary war hero in the US, was smuggled into France under fake papers as a spy for Thomas Jefferson, worked with Ben Franklin and left his entire US estate to the education of black slaves and for buying freedom for all of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves (which- was never executed, by the way… apparently friends up to the “take my slaves away” part.) Basically- a truly interesting guy. I cant wait to read more about him! I feel like you should, too. We all know names like Benedict Arnold or Paul Revere who are famous for things they should never be infamous for.. (Paul Revere didn’t actually even make the ride… don’t get me started. ha) but I’ve never even heard this guy mentioned. Have I just been living under a rock? I do find that I missed human class sometimes.

Anyway…. panoramas seem to be a cultural thing in this area of Europe. I see a lot of towns with some sort of panorama exhibition. This particular painting is the oldest panorama in Poland and considered one of the best. You ascend up the circular ramp into the viewing platform. They held us hostage for a 20 minute Polish-only description of the battle and painting. Norah made friends with a group of Polish schoolgirls of course. Poor thing just wants some friends. Can’t wait for her to go back to school in August.

The painting was completed on canvas custom made in Brussels for the project and painted over 9 months by multiple artists. The painting was originally in another city- Lviv- since 1984 but since Poland was “owned” by the Soviets after WWII, the painting was considered “politically sensitive” – meaning portraying Russia in a bad light… so therefore they wouldn’t restore it. It wasn’t restored until the 1980s, reopening at its present location in 1985.

It really does have a semi-realistic feel to it because of the real trees, bushes and dirt that stand between you and the painting, making it feel like you’re looking out into the distance instead of staring into a painting in a frame like usual. It was neat… but for like 5 minutes- not 30. ha I was ready to go when they finally released us.

  

After finally exiting the panorama, we encountered our first Wroclaw dwarf just hanging out eating an ice cream cone.

The Wroclaw Dwarves actually have quite the history as a form of anti-communist rebellion. A movement called The Orange Alternative in the 1980s. Sort of a peaceful protest against the soviets who had declared martial law in the city. People would spray paint anti-communist slogans on walls and the government would come through and paint over them with white paint. So, some students started spray painting dwarfs over the white paint. Soon, dwarves were popping up everywhere around the city…the students and artists started organizing marches for “dwarves rights” and other ridiculous things… basically requiring the police to arrest them for protesting dwarves or some other extremely ridiculous or awkward thing. One march everyone dressed up as Santa Claus, so in turn over 76 Santa Clauses were arrested. For what?… no one really knew. ha It was a satirical way to stick it to a government that was oppressing people. The police tried to crack down on these pro-dwarf gatherings… but hearing the news report about the police shutting down a demonstration about dwarfs sounded ridiculous. ha A non-violent jab with a stick if you will. The movement’s biggest event would later be known as The Revolution of the Dwarves in 1988 with over 10,000 protesters marching wearing orange cone hats chanting “Freedom for the Dwarves!”

In 2001, the city wanted to honor its history of anti-communist rebellion with a bronze dwarf statue at the location where the group originally used to meet… but it has since become somewhat of a tourist attraction. There’s even an iPhone app for tracking the dwarves you find. Anyone who is anyone in Wroclaw seems to get a dwarf in their likeness.  In fact, I may have a new life goal before I die- attain status where I am deemed worthy of bronze dwarf-dom. ha I’m gonna need my dwarf to have a passport, a laptop and some sort of gardening tool…  “travelling wifi garden gnome”, if you will. 🙂

We walked along the waterfront of the Oder River checking out some of the historic buildings along the way.

These birds have 4 wings. i have no idea why. lol Art is weird.

We crossed over the Tumski Bridge. oh my gosh…so. many. locks. Turns out it’s nicknamed “Lover’s Bridge” and couples come here, declare their love, lock their lock on to the bridge and throw the key into the river. I remember a similar bridge in Paris just had a piece collapse a couple of years ago because the locks in total weighed something like 40 tons. I’m not sure if Poland is checking the health of their 120 year old footbridge… but they might want to.. ha

 

The Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the seat of the archdiocese of Wroclaw.  The twin spires can be seen towering about the skyline. It also houses the largest pipe organ in Poland and what used to be the largest in the world. We were going to go inside, but there was an admission fee that amounted to like $20 for us to tour it… and I have a problem in principle with someone charging for me to look at a church… so, I decided I didn’t care that much. ha

 

We really should have went across town to see the Old town square and look for more dwarves, but Norah had decided she didn’t want to walk anymore and Kegan had been carrying her… so we returned to the car and headed back towards the Czech Republic. There were a couple sites we ran out of time to see the day before, but with extra time today, we decided to swing a little out of the way to fit them in.

The first was the Muzeum Molke- a “museum” of sorts.. it was more like a guy living in an airstream who owned the land and was hoping to make money off showing off some old Nazi factories and mine. His dog was on guard outside his trailer to “welcome” us. haha

The reason I was interested in this site was for this thing right here: the “Muchołapka” or “Flycatcher”. In the beginning stages of WWII, this area of now Poland was Germany. Alfred Nobel (same Nobel- prize…dynamite…etc) had a munitions factory here… and prior to the war, there was already a huge coal mine active here… so the Germans just decided that the mine would be a perfect way to power their war machine.

 

There is so much conspiracy and so many unknowns surrounding this site. Most people believe this was just the base of a cooling tower for a power plant like another one that exists a couple hours away:

Which is of course the most logical… but the conspiracy theories are WAY better. LOTS of people seem to believe that this site was the location for a top secret Nazi secret weapon program. An author, Igor Witkowski, even has a book in Polish about it, based on interrogation and testimony of soldiers after the war.

Some people believe that Nazi scientists were working on an anti-gravity machine- called The Nazi Bell or Die Glocke and that this concrete structure was a test rig for the device. Some say time travel was the goal. Some account of a local kid says that a mirror on top of the bell could show images from the past…

There ARE some things that don’t add up with this being a standard cooling tower. Inside the mine we went through and out from the concrete structure are giant trunk power cables…. according to people with much more experience than myself…would not have been needed for a standard cooling tower. Also, the area was tested for radiation and they found increased levels of Cobalt-60… so… maybe the Nazis were working on figuring out time travel! 🙂 I guess we will never know.

We did get to go inside of the Nazi bunker which was pretty cool. I think what was best about it is that we were literally the only people around, there was no signage… and it felt almost like we were trespassing into some secret place we shouldn’t have been. Especially since this wasn’t a well-toured facility… like, we went down one tunnel inside and it was pitch black and water was running on the concrete slope.. finally after turning our phone lights on… we were like…ok- lets head back.. this obviously isnt the way. ha  Giant swastikas on the doors didnt really help that feeling of being inside an enemy stronghold.

Norah was scared. ha

On into the Czech Republic, I found a house along the way that needs a little McKinney love. ha  Gorgeous AND run down- our specialty 🙂 (We will NOT be moving to the Czech Republic I can assure you. haha)

Some beautiful views along the drive.

We stopped in the little town of Kudowa-Zdrój to see the Kaplica Czaszek or “Chapel of Skulls”.

The chapel was built in 1776 by the local parish priest. He was inspired by his pilgrimage to Rome by the Capuchin Cemetary ( an ossuary cemetery we tried to visit when in Rome-but it was closed that day). He returned here and exhumed and cleaned the bones of over 3000 bodies- mostly who died of famine or disease or during the Thirty Years War one hundred years prior (one of the deadliest wars in history- over 8 million casualties…I’ll write more about that from Prague, when we see the window that started it all when the Protestants threw a couple Catholics out of a 3rd story window. ha)

Under the floor of the chapel are 21,000 more bodies. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside- the above is from Wikipedia. A very stern nun in her habit told me no photos and no phone in Polish- but it was quite clear what I was being instructed. ha. We got there for the last tour of the day-rushed into the back of a group by said stern nun after it already started. Another 20 minute hostage situation while we listened to a Polish presentation on the history and the bones. ha But overall, a pretty neat place.

Everything in town seemed to be closed except a little food cart across the street that had Tosty’s. An open face sandwich with mushrooms, cheese and other toppings. I got ham on this one for Norah. It was decent for the $3… but nothing crazy. Norah was happy.

As we sat in traffic for a bit I was able to snap a couple pictures of the cherry blossom trees here right now. They are gorgeous and they seem to be everywhere. Also, apple trees- they are literally in everyone’s yard, alongside the roads, fields full of them. Apparently, this is an apple growing region…

We got to our hotel and restaurant fairly early… around 5:30pm. Pivovar means brewery in Czech. They had their own beers on tap, a wonderful menu, playgrounds inside and outside for the kids, rock climbing wall, tennis courts, outdoor bowling lane, concert venue… this was your one stop shop in this area- for sure.

Norah played on the playground before we ate dinner, played inside in the little ballpit while we ate dinner, then was back outside again. She was in need of some free play time.

I forgot to photograph our appetizers from the restaurant. I had beef carpaccio and Kegan had a beef broth gnocchi soup. Kegan’s main was Beef Cheeks.

I had Lamb shank, which really was mutton shank…and I was totally ok with that.

and we had a lighter fluffy cheesecake to finish.

Also, with the exchange rate.. our 2 appetizers, 2 meals, Norah’s pizza, 2 apple juices, 4 large beers and 2 cheesecakes cost us around $65. and this was gooood food. So far, food is really cheap here comparatively to the rest of Europe.

We’ll head to Prague in the morning for a couple days, but that will be the end of our trip this time. We changed our flights to return home earlier to be with family due to Kegan’s grandmother’s condition.  Updates overnight have not been positive and we felt like this was the right decision. We would have been able to head home today on a flight, but we are 7 hours from Berlin at this point and we couldn’t make the flight in time. Friday and Saturday were sold out on our airline, but Sunday we were able to adjust to. Perhaps another trip to explore Poland will be in the cards down the road.

Day 3: Saxon Switzerland and the Czech countryside

We started our day out in Germany, just north of Dresden in Coswig at the Historische Spitzgrudmühle hotel. We were actually quite happy with it! Dinner was great, the rooms were clean and large…I would absolutely recommend it.

Fantastic Euro style breakfast with a couple oddities! If I don’t know what it is or I’ve never had it- I am 100% in every time. ha They had these cold meatballs, some sort of pickled fish mayonnaise salad and the fanciest deviled eggs I’ve ever seen on this cute little plate. Like, caviar and anchovies on a deviled egg. I thought it was fantastic. Kegan thought the salt and fish was too strong…but it was so pretty.

We headed out to make the 3-4 hour drive to Wroclaw, Poland across the Czech countryside knowing it would probably be a light day.

Our first stop was an hour or so in at the Bastei bridge and the Ferdinandstein Vista Point. Mountains cut out by the Elbe River over  million years ago.

Beautiful views…

We continued on into the Czech Republic. When we crossed the border, there was a dilapidated border checkpoint… but it didn’t look like it had been in use for quite a few years. That is one thing I love about the EU- the free movement of people and goods.

I snapped a few photos as we drove through some small towns and villages along the way.

 

Since we were mostly in the countryside, lunch was some snacks from a gas station. Fast food just isn’t a thing in most of Europe outside of the major cities. You can’t just swing through a drive thru and get something quick. A lot of times it’s hard to tell if any place is open during the day or in our case here, whether or not we would even be able to communicate to ask if they were serving food. So… some chips and pretzels got us through. haha

Norah found a familiar favorite, so she was good.

Our next stop was Panska Rock, a basalt formation with hexagonal jointing. Similar to The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland… when the geologist hears hexagonal jointing, he gets excited. ha

The girlie enjoyed some climbing time out of the car.

When we went to park in the lot at the rock, we had to to take a ticket… no problem. Typical. Then we realize that the Czech Republic doesn’t use Euro. And we just got here. And we have no Czech money. And the parking machine only takes Czech coinage. GGGRRRRRR. I saw a little ice cream shop open across the highway so we walked over there and luckily, right on her window she had the Czech conversion rate of 1 EUR=23 KČ. Phewwww… saved. ha Paid in Euro, change in Koruna. We got iced coffee, a capri sun and Kegan got a pastry of some sort and we were off with some fresh Czech cash to get us out of the parking hostage situation.

We continued on a couple hours to the Teplice Rocks or Adršpach Rocks. Unique super tall weathered rocks alongside a lake. It’s a big destination for rock climbers and rock jumpers- some popular adrenaline junkie sport where you try to jump rock to rock.

We admittedly didn’t explore the area much. We were slightly behind schedule and the ticket booth seemed closed to the park and lake… so we just explored around the parking lot and continued on. Looking online, I see that there are tons of hiking trails and rocks jutting out of the Earth so you could easily spend a day in this area alone.

Kegan snapped this photo of this wooden road guard that has been scraped down both sides by passing vehicles- it was so narrow in our little car…I can’t imagine driving anything bigger through there! The picture didn’t really do it justice.

We eventually crossed the border into Poland headed to Wroclaw.

The roads in Poland and the Czech Republic leave a little to be desired. Patches and potholes everywhere. A lot of roads look about like this because apparently it’s construction season in Poland, too.

We did spot a familiar site. Ikea is everywhere. ha

We arrived to downtown Wroclaw in the rain and slightly after dark and Norah wasn’t in any shape to go sit for any super fancy restaurant, so my tentative plans of dinner on a boat in the inlet went out the window. ha

We were staying at a Radisson Blu hotel (because of the location and the price- 5 star hotel downtown for like $120 equivalent.) We ate at their restaurant, Aquarelle, which was pretty fancy itself for having a Norah in tow, but it was late enough and we sat in the bar area, I just gave her my phone and she was happy.

My starter was a smoked ham, blue cheese, pea and radish salad with quail eggs.

Kegan had freshmade Russian dumplings/Pierogi.

My meal was a pistachio crusted pork loin with veggies

Kegan had a sous vide guinea fowl. He said it looked prettier than it tasted. (He’s a tough one to please in a restaurant haha)

Tomorrow we will explore Wroclaw a bit and head back into the Czech republic stopping at some sites we missed on Day 2 and ending at a brewery hotel in the middle of nowhere.

Days 1 and 2: Berlin and Dresden

Since we landed at 1pm local time after flying all night, we planned a pretty short first day in case we were wrecked. Norah slept about 4 hours, Kegan probably 3-4…and I got maybe 2. lol So, none of us were super peppy. What better way to start exploring a country than by hopping in a manual transmission rental car and driving right downtown!

We had planned to hit a preserved span of the Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery, but being a beautiful sunny 80 degree day in Berlin, everyone in the city was out and about… and we couldn’t find parking…so we continued on to Treptower Park. A large green space on the edge of downtown with a large Soviet memorial to the fallen Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin. As Americans, we think of D-Day and how American troops “won the war”… but I think we have lost sight of how much the Soviet front assisted with that. The Russians lost 80,000 soldiers in the Battle of Berlin alone…and without their push dividing the German armies, I’m not sure D-Day would have been as successful.

Here’s Norah trying to pretend to not be a zombie. 🙂

We checked into our hotel and took a quick 30 minute nap to recharge and headed out around Berlin on a walking tour.

Our first stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 2,711 concrete slabs on over 5 acres. Underground, the names of over 3 million murdered Jews.

This memorial has a lot of artistic symbolism and a quick description won’t do it much justice, but basically, the blocks are all different heights and sizes representing the varying characteristics of the Jewish people. The stones start off very shallow and get deeper and taller as you walk down into the memorial- representing the despair of the Jewish people as we got further into the Nazi “final solution” or the Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich. You feel trapped as you descend into the memorial, like the Jews felt. You can actually feel like you are being lost from your group or family or unable to find an escape- also representing the Jewish experience.

For concrete slabs, it did a great job of conveying a very hollow feeling and it was worth the visit.

Next, the symbol of Berlin- the Brandenburg Gate. In the 1600s, Berlin was just a star fort… but in 1730 it was expanded out to include some “suburbs” of the gated city. This area became a gate in that way. Brandenburg being the town that the road out of Berlin leads to. In 1788 a new gate was built, complete with the statue of Victoria, goddess of Victory riding in a chariot of 4 horses.

Fun fact, when Napoleon conquered Berlin in 1806, he took the chariot and goddess Victoria statue from the top of the gate back to Paris as a symbol of the victory… but after the Prussians defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1814, the Prussian general Ernst von Pfuel had it sent back to Berlin. Because of this, until 1919, only members of the Royal Family AND members of the Pfuel family (as a thank you) were allowed to pass through the central archway.

The Nazis used the gate as a party symbol, and it was heavily damaged in WWII. Only one horse’s head of the chariot survives in a museum somewhere. Tons of bullet holes and damage from explosions.

Just beside the gate is the Reichstag Building. Built in the 1800s, used by the Nazi’s as a seat of power…it was destroyed in 1945 during the Battle of Berlin

One of my favorite images of WWII was taken in the rubble outside the Reichstag after the war. A bust of Adolf Hitler and a crushed globe lie in the debris of the Reichstag. Such a symbol of the defeat.

The Reichstag the morning after the surrender of the Germans to the Soviets.

Not published in LIFE. Oberwallstrasse, in central Berlin, saw some of the most vicious fighting between German and Soviet troops in the spring of 1945

I just wanted to show the above for context of just what Germany looked like in 1945. Every place we go to visit, the captions read something like “built in 1300. Demolished in 1945, reconstructed in 1980.”  It’s just insane who much damage there really was to everything.

Next we hopped an Uber down to Checkpoint Charlie. Norah was NOT having the walk and I wasn’t super thrilled to walk a mile just to see a parking lot that used to be Hitler’s Bunker. Germany has worked hard to not memorialize Hitler in any way even when they have such a tourism industry surrounding WWII. Until the last few years (I’m guessing due to the number of wandering American tourists asking where the Bunker is) there wasn’t even a sign marking the location. Now, supposedly there is a little plaque noting the location and nothing else. Quite fitting for a man with grand dreams of world domination. In the underground bunker is where Hitler and Ava Braun took cyanide and killed themselves as the Soviets closed in. There are lots of images and some film from the bunker as it was captured, but the Soviets demolished the entire structure.

But… on to Checkpoint Charlie. After WWII, Berlin was divided in half. An American section and a Russian section. Technically the Soviets had taken the entire city…but the Americans knew the importance of limiting the communist government and in conceding that much land to the Soviets, so the decision was made to divide Berlin into zones. From 1945-1961, the border was just theoretical… people could cross freely, but the policies and circumstances were causing a mass exodus from the East into the West (over 3.5 million people fled from the East to the West in this timeframe) and basically overnight, the Soviets rolled out rolls of barbed wire, threatening to shoot anyone who crossed the border and they began constructing the Berlin Wall. After the construction of the wall, there were only 3 border crossings- Checkpoints Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Charlie was where all US diplomats and government officials had to cross, the most iconic and famous of the crossings.

In 1961, shortly after the wall was erected, there was an infamous standoff between Russian and American tanks that started over whether East Germans could inspect documents of an American diplomat that wanted to cross into East Germany to see an opera. It lasted a week and eventually was worked out peacefully, with Robert Kennedy leading negotiations.  You can see the original checkpoint and sign below. What stands now is just tourism reproductions.

I saw the strangest thing and I couldn’t get a good quick picture because it was gone- but you get 2 blurry ones. haha It was like a group bicycle. Everyone was peddling and talking and moving it on down the road. Hilarious! The lady in the headscarf smiled broadly and waved at us. Not sure if it’s something you can rent or if this is just something they own and ride around as a family! So many questions haha

We next walked by the Trabant museum. A collection of “Trabi’s” or Trabant brand automobiles-a vintage East German car. I now have a new old mini car I’d like to have. haha I didnt know these existed, but they are adorable! Turns out there is a little mini industry around Berlin renting Trabis to tour around Berlin for about $125 a day. Not bad considering…

We kept seeing the Berlin Hi FLyer balloon high above the city on our walk, but ended up by the entrance. Norah wanted to go up and I would have taken her but they were just closing it down for the evening when we got there. (darn the luck. ha)

In Currywurst we trust!

Everywhere around Berlin, you’ll find kiosks and small vendors selling Currywurst, a local specialty with blue collar roots. A cheap lunch for the local workers that has now become a famous staple of the city. and you know us, if there is local food that needs trying- we are there. ha

The best way I can describe it is like a slightly softer skinned cut up hot dog covered in ketchup – like you had at about 5 years old- dusted with a very mild but still fragrant curry powder. I felt like a kindergartener again. ha Norah was a big fan. (because: hot dogs) At the time I was very “meh” about it, but I caught myself craving another the next day…so I can see how you get hooked 🙂 Kegan was impressed that you could get a bottle of beer, a coke or a water with your currywurst combo for the same price. That’s a world he likes living in!

We continued on to the Topography of Terror as the sun set. A large section of the Berlin wall remains along with an open air museum regarding the Nazi party’s rise to power. It was interesting. It was all 1932-1933 Nazi progression and how things happened to enabled the party to take complete power from the government. Lots of vintage photographs from around Berlin in 1933. The famous Nazi book burning where the young people of Germany basically organized a burning of thousands and thousands of books they deemed non-German. Anything Jewish, anything communist- but even American authors like Hemingway, or Irish author James Joyce. Anything that showed an upper or upper-middle class view of the world or didn’t fit into the Nazi party doctrine.

Just past the standing section of the wall, this metal memorial runs the length of the street where the wall used to stand.

We walked back to our hotel for the evening looking for dinner-eventually ordering Thai delivery to the hotel.  It was good. or maybe I was just terribly hungry.

We did stumble upon one last thing that I had read about. There is a project in Berlin, the Stolpersteine Initiative. (Tripping Stone Initiative) – Little plaques inset into the stone streets outside of what used to be a house’s main entrance, where Jews were forcefully removed. Before the concentration camps, Jews were deported from around German including major cities and “relocated” to overcrowded ghettos in various places. So, a letter from the government would be received (best case- sometimes the police just showed up and told you that you have an hour to pack your things, that you were being relocated.) Basically they were informed they could no longer own property and that they were being relocated to Warsaw…or Krakow.. They were to pack up no more than they could carry and leave. Can you imagine? The houses would then be gifted to Nazi men of importance or used for housing for other Germans. and since most of the Jews and entire family lines would eventually be hauled out of the ghettos and murdered, no one ever could return to claim the property. I think this project is necessary and I am really glad they have done this as a reminder in their daily lives of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people.

After a needed sleep, we started our Day 2 morning with a great European breakfast. I love the “cold plate” breakfasts available here. They dont hold a candle to Swedish/Norwegian breakfasts- but I do love meat/cheese/croissants and fruit for breakfast. I had a pretzel this morning- just because I could! Norah thought pretzels for breakfast was pretty amazing, too. ha

We drove over to Alexanderplatz and parked to walk another part of Berlin. We saw the Urania Weltzeituhr (World Clock). You can tell the current time in 148 major cities. Built in 1969 during reconstruction of the square.

Behind the world clock you can see the Berlin Fernsehturm (Berlin Needle) – a symbol of the city. At 368 meters tall, its the tallest structure in Germany. It was a TV tower built in the 60s with a rotating restaurant and an observation deck.

We continued walking and came to the Neptunbrunnen (Neptune’s Fountain)- a city fountain built in the 1890s with the Roman god Neptune and 4 women representing each of the 4 rivers of Prussia: Elbe, Rhine, the Vistula and the Oder.

After the fountain we walked to the Berliner Dom- Berlin Cathedral.

Norah showing her love for french fries.

This led us to Museum Island, a small island in the middle of downtown Berlin with multiple cultural museums. We started outside the Altes Museum, but didnt tour it since it’s mainly art from the Prussian Royal Family and we have a 5 year old who’s schedule is all messed up right now ha.

We did buy tickets to the Neues Museum and the Pergamonmuseum- the two main attractions on the island. The Neues museum’s claim to fame is the Egyptian wing and the Bust of Nefertiti – a sculpture of the royal wife of King Akhenaten from 1345 BC. (almost 3500 years old!) The bust was discovered in 1912 by a German excavation. During the bombings of WWII it was moved to a salt mine outside the city, discovered by the US Army and turned over to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Branch (have you seen the movie Monuments Men? A group of soldiers whose only job was to preserve the art of Europe during the war.)

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside of the room (this still really irks me when large attractions do this… but in this case, I will assume it’s because people can’t turn off their flash and the flashing lights over an over can erode the paint on the statue.) So, here is a close up from the museum website

A couple other Roman and Egyptian items were neat to view as well.

A bust of Socrates

A leader of the Egyptian army

Norah liked the hieroglyphics on this one. “Like really old Emojis” i think she said. ha

The Neues was badly damaged during WWII and some parts of the damage are still visible in the walls.

We came back out of the Neues to find that the Pergamonmuseum had a 2 hour wait just to enter the sites. Yowza. So, we made the decision that the glossy high res photos online of the 3-4 sites I wanted to see would just have to do this trip. Disappointing, but I would find it hard to wait in line for 2 hours for free gold nevermind jet lagged with a 5 year old. haha

So, we trekked it back to the car and headed out towards Dresden. Just in time, too. Just started sprinkling rain on us as we got to the car and it rained almost the entire time we drove to Dresden, but stopped about the time we arrived. Then poured rain the second we got into our hotel room- great luck with the rain showers today!

We ate the local delicacy of McDonalds along the way. ha

Norah was happy. Then she fell asleep eating french fries- poor thing. ha

I caught a little nap myself while Kegan drove and we hit downtown Dresden for a quick tour. My photos are really washed out because it was so grey and overcast.

The Frauenkirche is a famous domed Lutheran church (was Catholic, then Lutheran during the Reformation) built in the 1700s. It’s huge sandstone dome is a real feat of engineering. It is said to have withstood over 100 cannonballs during the Prussian war… and it even lasted 2 full days and nights through the bombing of Dresden in 1945.

Eventually though, the dome fell during WWII. Over 650,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Dresden by Allied forces- mostly the UK. The church temperature reached over 1800 degrees F and the church collapsed.

The bombing of Dresden is one of the questionable things the Allieds did in WWII. My personal opinion is that it was Churchill’s payback for the bombings of London and the “strategic nature” of Dresden is questionable… it seems to me that we just bombed everything in sight in a city of mostly civilians… but then again- war is war and it’s not pretty and a heck of a lot of civilians died throughout the entire conflict.

The church sat in ruins like you see above until the 1990s. It has just recently been reconstructed to the Baroque design.

We walked along Brühl’s Terrace, or the “balcony of Europe” overlooking the Augustus bridge (under construction) and the River Elbe.

We saw the Procession of Princes- the largest ceramic art piece in the world (if Wikipedia can be trusted). This was designed to commemorate 800 years of Saxon kings and depicts every king throughout the Wettin Dynasty.

Next we walked towards the Georgenbau, an old city gate to the Elbe river.. built with a palace on top.. very ornate neo-classic architecture.

Kegan really liked the guys guarding the main central entrance.

Norah’s highlight of the day: the ice cream. She got strawberry and I got Mango basil which I then swapped with Kegan because he loved it and I thought i was OK. He has ordered a Quince Kefir.. so that’s what I had. ha

We ended our day outside of Dresden in Coswig at a small hotel/restaurant/beergarden with traditional Czech food. We were one of 3 guests in the hotel and the dinner was very good. Menus only in German/Czech… so it was a bit of a guessing game! But we were happy in the end. A great intro to Czech food.

Tomorrow we will be off through the Czech countryside and ending in Wroclaw, Poland.

We did get some bad news from home late into Day 2 that Kegan’s grandmother has had a severe stroke and was undergoing brain surgery to remove a clot. We are getting updates and checking in with the family, ready to come home at a moment’s notice. For now, we feel helpless but know we can’t do anything more there than we are doing here as its just a waiting game now to get more information. Please keep Dave and Sharon Ison in your positive thoughts or prayers and their entire family for comfort and guidance. We saw Sharon as we left for the airport on Saturday- they came to watch Norah’s soccer game and we just laughed at those little monsters running around like crazy. You could tell she had a great time and she looked good, felt good. She seemed better than she had been in months. She gave us bigs hugs and kisses and said how much she loved us and wanted us to have a fantastic time on our trip. I’m thankful for that send off and that long hug now, but hoping that is not to be our final goodbye.

Off We Go Again!

This evening we’re heading out to Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland for a two week trip. I’d call it a “vacation”, but that makes it sound like a great escape that we excitedly planned haha This was just leftover Ireland plane tickets that I was going to lose the value of if we didn’t use them before May and we were limited to Ireland, Berlin or Madrid. Since we just went to Spain and well, Ireland didn’t really want us…I chose Berlin since we’ve never been there.

Really, outside of World War II knowledge, I didn’t know much about Poland or the Czech Republic….I vaguely remember the Berlin wall coming down as a very young kid.. so I went into this trip sort of blind about what we would find to do. I fully admit to a lot of history reading and research for this trip! I was worried this was just going to be a 2 week super-depressing concentration camp/Hitler tour haha but I think we were able to incorporate WWII sites and history with plenty of other cultural things as well. But prepare…WWII touched everything here. More like demolished everything here. So its hard to discuss most things without at least including that context.

Itinerary highlights for this trip: We are flying overnight into Berlin via Iceland, followed by Dresden, then into the mountains known as Saxon Switzerland in the Czech Republic. Cutting into Poland to visit Wroclaw (pronounced something like RO-clawv – Polish and Czech are HARD to pronounce it turns out! ha) then to Prague in the Czech Republic, next- a tour all around Poland: visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp, Krakow, Warsaw, Gdansk and back to Germany for a couple towns like Potsdam and Leipzig. All the yellow marks on the map are places we’ll be visiting.

We usually stay in AirBnb houses or apartments but the last couple trips I have had some issues with people cancelling our reservations same day, not being around, the property not really being clean or really even being a rental… I guess just since AirBnb has gotten so big and easily accessible, there are more people using it that just shouldn’t. This trip we stuck to mostly hotels…only one apartment- in Prague that seems like it will be awesome, right downtown overlooking a big historic bridge. Here’s hoping anyway.

We should have a good mix of city, country, history, modern, beach and mountains in this trip and hopefully some great Polish food. This is the first time we will have visited a country with Russian history, so seeing Soviet influences and residual culture will be neat.

There is a little area on the edge on Northeast Poland that is actually still owned by Russia. There is a city there called Kaliningrad that I thought might be neat to visit… so I looked into what it would take to visit. Basically, long story short… as Americans, we cant. They offer a 3 day visa for Canadians and Europeans…but not for Americans….and after the events of the last few weeks with Russia, I think it best to stay firmly in the EU for now 🙂 I’ve never met a Russian person I didn’t like… but I fear their government. But never judge a people by it’s government. haha

While we’re both exhausted from work and house projects-(Kegan built a fence around our house this week and I’ve spent all week in Alabama on a red-alert client issue) I hope the trip is worth the time away. We just got some drywall finished up that will allow us to finally finish our master bedroom and dining room and it’s prime gardening time, so really about the least ideal time for us to pick up and spend two weeks away…but thankful for family to watch the dog and water my plants!

We are currently boarded and leaving Chicago.

Kegan is already disappointed because he thought they said there was an “orgy” on board 🙄 Boys. Haha

They just brought Norah a cute little travel bag with a bottle of water, a padded eye mask for sleeping, headphones and a turkey sandwich. Pretty cool.

I’ll post after Berlin. See ya soon!

Days 9 and 10- Belmonte Castle, Sierra Nevadas, Almagruz Cuevas and Alicante

Before we left the hotel (which had memory foam beds! hallelujah! haha) we let Norah go for a quick swim. Swimming has been-by far- the highlight of her trip.

Kegan tried to get rid of his Irish farmer’s tan.

You can see the Belmonte castle from the hotel pool

This castle is in such good shape because it was never finished and therefore never attacked or used as a stronghold. Construction began in the late 1400s. That’s the exterior walls and the enhanced curtain wall you can see on the exterior.

The interior, however, wasn’t finished until the 1800’s, by Napoleon’s nephew-Napoleon III and his wife. Hence the brick and arches on the interior.

While we were there, a knight was showing a group of kids how to fight with swords like a knight. Can you imagine giving a kid on a US field trip a real sword and letting him swing it at somebody? People would lose their minds. haha

The ceilings of the rooms and hallways were so intricate… they were amazing.

  

Norah learned about medieval toilets. haha

As we headed out of town, I saw these guys riding out on their conquest.  If you aren’t familiar with Don Quixote, or you’ve forgotten the excerpts we were forced to read in school, a perfectly normal Spanish gentleman, in a fit of madness decides he is a knight and names himself Don Quixote and decides to ride off to right various wrongs in the world. Sancho Panza, his squire, accompanies Don Quixote and spends most of the book saving the crazy knight, taking punishment and beatings for Don Quixote’s antics or playing the straight character to Don Quixote’s funny man. They fight windmills he thinks are giants, gets himself in heaps of trouble and eventually dies but not before recovering his sanity and denouncing all of his former acts of chivalry.   Honestly, I have NO IDEA why this is considered a great book… haha but some of the themes are amusing.

We saw someone who was having a much worse day than we were. lol

We climbed another mountain near a giant river canyon to get to El Santuario Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza, a church carved in the rock face of a mountain, built where a natural cave had formed. The story is that there was a picture in the rock of the Virgin… but when they tried to cut it out and move it into town, it became super heavy for its size, telling the people that it wanted to stay here in it’s grotto to be worshipped. So, they built her a church.  It was such a beautiful area, but HOT…I think it was 100 degrees and sunny. No complaints. haha I haven’t seen REAL sun in over a year until this week- so I’m soaking it up.

Norah has this new thing for posing with statues, mimicking them. This is “sad face donation box boy”. lol

Hey look, I went on vacation, too! 🙂

We ate at the restaurant on the property and it was soooo surprisingly good.

Andalusian Gazpacho has been something we’ve ordered everywhere we can. SO AMAZING. who knew cold tomato soup could be so addicting. I can’t wait for all of my tomatoes to be going nuts so we can start making this daily at home.

Kegan ordered the grilled rabbit… because… well, he could. It literally came out as a whole rabbit. Liver, kidneys, legs, tenderloin… it was crazy. But it was fantastic. Needless to say, after all of this food, we didn’t eat dinner tonight.

We headed southwest again, reaching the middle of nowhere, where we were scheduled for a night of “rustic tourism”. haha We booked a cave for the evening.

 

These caves have been around over 1000 years… Caves dug by hand in the rocks for homes. Around 400 years ago, people started making multi-room homes, some of which go 6 or 7 stories up into the mountain side…. and in the last 100 years, people have started building common amenities into the homes such as electricity, plumbing and big windowed fronts. This is the type we rented, a full house set in the base of the hillside.

All 6 or 7 of the cave houses are set around a common pool and patio area. Such a beautiful and peaceful view. It would be the best family or friends retreat to rent them all and hang out in the common areas. So… if anyone’s up for that, just let me know. 🙂

  

Day 10

Started the morning out with a swim before heading out.

The guy who runs the cave houses also has a museum and other more primitive cave houses you can visit. He’s got a great thing going there and you can tell he has invested a lot into the property. I asked him how long he had owned it and if I understood him correctly, his wife’s aunt won the lottery years ago and bought thousands of acres in the area. She gave the land with the caves there to her niece (his wife) 20 years or so ago and he has paid for and done all of the restoration works on the houses and added the museum components. Very neat place.

Norah got to use a pick axe on the cave wall to carve some more. She thought that was super impressive.

We didn’t have breakfast and it was 1pm…so we were hungry. I started using google maps to try and locate a decent restaurant along the way for a decent sit-down lunch. We hit the jackpot.

Olives to start, gazpacho we ordered, because we have decided gazpacho is life this week. haha

But the star of the hour… the T-bone. This wasn’t just dumb luck. I had seen Google images of this T-bone before we got here, so I asked the waiter to be sure that the “T-bone” was what I was seeing online. He confirmed, so we ordered. He says “that is for two people..” so we said OK… but highly doubted him and figured he was thinking a light lunch…. but no, he was definitely right.

As soon as we ordered, we heard the bandsaw fire up in the back… which is ALWAYS a good sign in a restaurant. Out came this 2.5 inch t-bone cut of meat, lightly seared on the outside, totally rare all the way through, coated in a coarse pyramid salt and sliced into thin strips still attached to the bone.

Then they brought out a second sizzling hot cast iron plate that they rubbed a hunk of beef fat on to grease it. You take your strips of rare amazing beef and fry them yourself to your liking. AMAZING!

We found out the reason the beef was so good is because Spain has different laws about their beef. In the UK, US and most other EU countries- the steer are killed and butchered at no more than 4 years old. In Spain, they can butcher beef as old as 17 years old… in fact, Spain buys 3-4 year old milk cows from other EU countries and then lets them retire to pasture for 5-6 more years before butchering.  Turns out cows get old and fat just like we get old and fat… and the aged beef has much better marbling and a beefier flavor.

As one website we looked at put it “We’ve been eating Channing Tatum but we need to start appreciating Gérard DePardieu.” haha   I now appreciate it. If Kegan ever gets his restaurant, this will be a specialty item available to order in advance.

We then headed towards Alicante since our flight out in the morning is from this airport. We wanted to hit a few local wineries today…but everything we passed was closed! So the wine tour was a bust.

We then decided it was time to head to our hotel… only to discover I never booked one! haha We promised Norah some pool time so I was in a frantic search to find one with a pool. Which you would think wouldn’t be hard, but being 10 minutes from the beach, finding a hotel with parking AND a pool was almost impossible. Finally located one and arrived. Turns out they had a “spa pool”…which turns out is a hot tub. that already had 4 other people in it when we arrived. So that was a bust. Overall, the hotel is terrible. haha we got Norah a hamburger tonight that was literally raw inside. Not a great way to end the Spain trip, but just trying to keep all of the other fantastic parts of the trip fresh in my mind to ignore how bad this evening has been 🙂  We head out in the morning so I’ll post one more time as a wrap-up/hindsight post for my thoughts so far on Spain.

 

 

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