A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about winter


Last stop in Poland. An amazing adventure.

snow -4 °C
View Semester Break, pt. 3 on kmclean's travel map.

We made it to Kraków in the evening. We checked-in, had some supper, then got some rest to make sure we were ready to explore the city the next day. On our first day in the city we did walking tours of the old city and then the Jewish district, and ended at Schindler’s factory, which has been converted into a museum about the Nazi occupation in Kraków.

We skipped the day trip to Auschwitz this time around and just spent our time in the city. Between having seen so many memorials everywhere in Europe to concentration camps, former torture prisons, and massacred humans, and living in Germany, we just decided it would be too much for right now. We’ve visited the Dachau concentration camp memorial site and also seen the horrors of a later regime in the former Stasi prison in East Berlin. We also saw the house of terror in Budapest where the former Hungarian fascist party headquarters were, as well as the communist party headquarters during the communist times. Seeing the actual place on this earth where actual, innocent people were literally tortured to death turns out to be a lot heavier than I was expecting. Our trip to Dachau was moving, and I think it’s so important and great that these places are now being run as memorial sites, but it can just get to be too much. I can’t imagine the strength of the survivors of this kind of hell that helps them share their stories and revisit the very sites where they spent the most terrible years any human could ever imagine living.

In Freiburg, like many other German cities, they have the golden stones in the sidewalk in front of houses where Jews used to live and were evicted from. There are five of these stones in front of the house next to our building, and we walk over countless others every day on our way to school. On the main university campus there is also a memorial to the old synagogue which was destroyed during the November pogroms in 1938, and there’s a bronze jacket hanging over the bridge we walk across every day commemorating the place where the Jews were rounded up and deported to Gurs. Many of these people faced their final fate at Auschwitz. There just seems something so wrong about walking in front of the house where someone used to live every day as a regular citizen, and then the next day going to visit the actual place where they were systematically murdered.

Anyway, I think these memorial sites are extremely important and I will definitely be back someday to visit the Auschwitz memorial, but knowing we have to go back and live in Germany, this time around the timing and circumstances just aren’t right.

We did take a walking tour of the old town and then of the Jewish districts and former ghetto. Both were really great -- the tour guides in Poland are excellent. The old city is beautiful; they converted the land where the old city wall used to be into a garden that loops around the entire old part. It's really nice.

One of the largest Jewish communities in Europe before the war was in Kraków with over 60,000 members and today there are about 150 left. The community is as alive as ever, but so small compared to before the war. The Jewish district is still really cool and has a lot going on, with tons of bars, pubs, concert halls, and music festivals hosted there. After our tour we went to Schindler’s factory which has been converted into a museum on the occupation of Kraków.

Over our next couple of days in the city we spent some time at museums, cafés, and cafeterias, basically just bumming around and enjoying our little taste of winter for the year. Next up is Berlin, which I can’t wait to see. We were there with the group of Canadians in Freiburg this year in October, but it’s just such a massive city with so much going on we’ve been set on going back ever since.

Posted by kmclean 11:10 Archived in Poland Tagged winter poland krakow Comments (0)

Lublin and Hrubieszów

Some time in Eastern Poland and a visit to my great-grandmother's hometown.

snow -4 °C
View Semester Break, pt. 3 on kmclean's travel map.

We made it to Lublin without too much trouble although on a rather crowded train. Poland has a surprisingly sophisticated train network for having been totally destroyed and then neglected, even if the trains themselves are a little less luxurious than the ones in Western Europe. We had a really short time here so our first evening after we dropped off our bags at the hostel we went out to see the old city and have a bite to eat.

The reason we came out to this eastern city is really to see Hrubieszów. It still amazes me how well every village in Europe is so well connected. You can get quite literally anywhere you could ever want to go, if you’ve got the patience to work with the sometimes limited train/bus schedules. Anyway, we used this convenient bus service to take a day trip out to the town one day, although unfortunately I’m completely ignorant and thought Easter was a set date, or at least always in April, and we ended up in a rural Polish village on Easter Sunday, which this year was in March.

Needless to say, the town was dead, although I’m not really sure if it ever “comes to life”. The reason we went here is because it is my great-grandmother’s hometown. I never knew her, but it was really humbling to be walking where she walked and seeing what she saw, even though the town has completely changed since WWII. She left for Canada with another Polish Jew in the early 20th century, and eventually I ended up in eastern Canada. Nearly half of the residents of the town before the war were Jewish, and now they’re virtually all gone. For me that’s the most revolting part of the whole Holocaust – that it accomplished one of its sick goals. There are virtually no Jews left in Europe. Don’t get me wrong, the extremely small communities that are left are extremely vibrant and active, but in terms of numbers they don’t compare to the pre-war situation. It’s unbelievably depressing to think of the potential that was lost and the lives that were wasted, and even more so to think that some of my relatives would have perished under such awful circumstances, but seeing the Jewish communities thriving today in Europe, Israel, and everywhere else in the world, is probably one of the most inspiring things I can think of. What else could they have possibly lost? A people reduced to living in sub-human conditions under constant starvation and torture, not only forgives their oppressors, but moves on and creates some of the most lively and successful communities we have today.

We saw the Jewish cemetery there, which was decimated by the Nazis upon the deportation of the Jews in 1942. What’s there now is a memorial to the Jews made of the smashed grave stones found after the war. The town, and the whole country, really, has been changed in irreversible, unimaginable ways, but I think the memorials in Eastern Europe really are amazing. They're always thought provoking and have so many levels of meaning.

It was really great to be able to make it out to Hrubieszów, and I’m glad everything worked out despite the fact that we probably chose the worst possible day of the year to go. We went back to Lublin after a few hours in the town and managed to find I think the only restaurant that was open to get some supper. Nothing like a proper easter feast we’d get at home, but close enough.

Next we’re going to Kraków, which is our last stop in Poland. It’ll be most of the day tomorrow getting there, but I’ve got lots of reading to keep me busy!

Posted by kmclean 03:53 Archived in Poland Tagged winter poland lublin jews Comments (3)


One of the few cities that has always been Polish.

semi-overcast -5 °C
View Semester Break, pt. 3 on kmclean's travel map.

We made it here with no troubles and even managed to get some rest on the train. The Polish couchette wagon was a little less luxurious than the German one and a little louder, but nothing terrible. Sheets and pillows aren’t included and the couchettes are a little slanted so you tend to roll into the wall no matter how you lay, but luckily we’ve become masters at sleeping with eyemasks and earplugs in a sack with a makeshift pillow.
As a side note, those are the best things you can travel with. Eyemask, earplugs, and a spare pillowcase you can stuff with clothes to make a pillow. I’ve had many extra hours of sleep thanks to those.

Luckily the hostel in Warsaw let us check in early, so we hopped right into bed and took a nap before rolling out to catch the morning walking tour. One nice thing about travelling east, or seemingly anywhere other than Switzerland and Germany, is that things are a lot less official. If the beds are empty there’s never a problem checking in early or late. You would never be refused an empty bed in Poland just because “it’s not check-in time yet”. Anyway, there are good things that can come of all that order, too.

The walking tour in Warsaw was great. It’s a really interesting city, with such a devastating history, but I feel like that’s just the general feeling in Poland. It’s been through so much over the years but still refuses to quit. If you ever start to lose faith in humanity, travel to Poland or Bosnia and see for yourself how resilient and strong people can be. It’s always sad hearing about the sick ways of war and oppression, but it can be quite inspiring to meet people who have accomplished amazing things even in the face of others who have quite literally made it their life’s goal to see that that never happens.

On our second day in the city we went to the Warsaw Uprising museum. It’s relatively new in the city, and extremely well done. It’s massive so it’s kind of one of those all-day museums, but definitely worth it. Another great museum was the Marie Curie house. I actually didn’t know she was Polish, but it turns out she only made her life in France because of the brutal treatment of women in Poland and everywhere else in Europe at the time. The house where she was born has been converted into a small museum about her life, and they even have a few pieces of her actual equipment.

Any trip to Poland wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Warsaw; people say it’s not the best city in the country, but it definitely shouldn’t be missed. The history is rich and the city has been beautifully rebuilt; it really does look like a proper European capital. We had a great time in and around the old city seeing the memorials and monuments, and there are at least a couple of museums here worth checking out. It seems like it would be a great city to just hang around in, but a couple of days seemed to be enough to take in the main sites. Next up on our tour of Poland is Lublin. It’s a couple of hours away by train, so we’ll be heading out tomorrow.

Posted by kmclean 03:45 Archived in Poland Tagged winter warsaw poland Comments (0)


A really great small city with a long and diverse history.

semi-overcast -4 °C
View Semester Break, pt. 3 on kmclean's travel map.

We took right off the night mom and Dad left on an overnight train for Poland. This is the third and unfortunately last leg of our semester break adventure. The train was definitely better than the overnight busses we’ve had to take, but you don’t exactly get a restful sleep either. Our first stop after a short layover in Berlin was Wrocław, formerly known as Breslau. It was a really interesting city, and with such a long and really fascinating history. It’s been part, at one time or another, of almost every major European dynasty – from the Czechs and the Luxembourg dynasty way back when to the Third Reich. In between it passed through the hands of Habsburgs, the Prussians, Napoleon, the Russians, and even the Poles once or twice, on top of being part of both the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.

Poland is located in a terribly unfortunate location, right between Germany and Russia, and at the time the Prussians and Russians had massive and developed armies, they also had the militant Swedish army to the North and the Habsburgs to the South with the Ottomans beneath them. A lot of powerful empires have tried to claim the land that we now call Poland over the years, but luckily their language and culture has survived it all and today there is one amazing country to visit with an unbelievable history.

As for the city itself, I really liked Wrocław. It’s a relatively small city by European standards, although one of the bigger ones in Poland. I like the cities you can get around on foot, though. We spent some time just seeing the sites – the old town, market square, cathedral and bridge(s). At the risk of sounding jaded, these are always the main things to see. Almost any village and every city in Europe has them, but it never gets old. Wrocław also has a really great museum about the city’s history, which we had the time to check out. We were happy to spend the day inside a warm museum anyway.

The weather is a lot colder than we were expecting. I figured at the end of March it would be spring, and naively associated “spring” with warm temperatures. It’s been about -5 degrees or so for our stay, but they have the same icy wind here as back home which makes feel a lot colder. It’s nothing we’re not used to, but after having spent the last six weeks travelling through places like Turkey and Spain, it just takes a little readjusting.

We’re heading to Warsaw next on another overnight train. It’s definitely not an ideal way to travel – a few too many restless nights can really take their toll, defeating the whole purpose of travelling overnight which is to save time. This trip we don’t have a ton of time though, and we’re really trying to cram in as many cities as we can to get a feel for Poland, so onto another “City Night Line” it is. I can’t wait to see Warsaw.

Posted by kmclean 03:43 Archived in Poland Tagged winter poland wroclaw Comments (0)

Canary Islands

The best way to end off a chilly winter vacation

sunny 24 °C
View Christmas 2012 on kmclean's travel map.

This was the most amazing place we’ve been to for sure. It was extra impressive though because it was my first beach vacation, and I think I loved it so much because it reminds of home in a lot of ways. We were lucky and got great weather the whole week and two of the most amazing hosts anyone could ask for. I’m starting to understand why people “snowbird”— this was a much needed escape from the grey, rainy winter in Europe this year. After spending the week lounging around beaches and getting to know some of the locals, I can safely say we chose the wrong major. I’m half kidding, but I’d really love to be able to speak Spanish! We had the most amazing hosts here who showed us around the island and took us to places we never could have reached on our own. We spent a lot of time on beaches, of course, but also took in a few sites like a salt museum by the salt flats, the island of Lobos, although that also just ended up being a beach day, and a trip to Timanfaya park on Lanzarote. The culture is great here and the island is beautiful. I don’t think we could have chosen a better place to end our trip.

The day we arrived our hosts, Julio and Isabel, picked us up from the airport and took us around the island to some places not accessible by bus. We saw a black sand beach in Ajuy and some caves there. I had fresh fish for the first time since we left home for lunch. Afterwards we went to Isabelle’s parents’ house and got to see the most typical lifestyle on Fuerteventura. They have a huge goat farm with about 300 goats, also lots of sheep and chickens and even a few peacocks! After tourism, goat farming is the main industry on the island. They took us to see the sunset at the Faro de la Entallada, near Gran Tarajal, which was unbelievable. We went back and got some rest, looking forward to the rest of the week.

The next few days we spent visiting all the beautiful beaches on the island. For a small island with relatively few inhabitants, there’s a great bus service for tourists. It runs the entire length of the island and you can get to all the main places with it for only a few euros. We spent some time in Peurto del Rosario, which is where we stayed, and visited the salt flats in La Salina on our first day. We walked up to Caleta and caught a beautiful sunset there. Over the next couple of days we visited Morro Jable and Jandia beach, Costa Calma and La Barca beach, Corralejo, El Cotillo, and the beaches around these popular resort towns. El Cotillo was my favourite one, and it’s slightly on the western side of the island, so we got to see the sun set into the ocean.

We also managed to get in a couple of day trips. We spent one day on the Island of Lobos, a tiny island only a 15 minute ferry ride off the coast near Corralejo. The entire island is a national park. There are couple of houses where people live on a temporary basis, I think fishermen, and one small restaurant which sells nothing bus fresh fish. There a couple of really amazing beaches on the island which we spent some time at, then we got some fish at the restaurant before catching the last ferry back to Fuerteventura. On Saturday we went to Lanzarote to see the volcano there. It erupted in the 1700’s, so a huge part of the island is still covered in volcanic debris. The earth is still extremely hot there – there’s a restaurant at the top of the volcano mountain where they cook the food over a giant hole in the ground where the heat comes up. There’s a very narrow, windy road which goes through the volcano park which you can travel through on a bus to see some amazing views. It was great to see a little highlight of Lanzarote; it definitely looks like it would be worth spending some time there to see the rest of the island.

On our last day we took an amazing road trip with our hosts. They took us along with their friends and family to Cofete, a remote part of the island on the northern edge of the very southern tip. The beaches there are unbelievable. They stretch for kilometres with the Atlantic ocean on one side and huge mountains on the other. It’s a gorgeous part of the island. It’s both a good bad thing that it’s only accessible by a dirt road – there are never very many people there, which would be really nice, but it’s also hard to get to, not the kind of place you just go to for the beach, I guess. While we were in the area we also saw the “Winter House” a former Nazi lair owned by general Winter during WWII. The history of that war spreads so far! You literally can’t escape it, not even on a remote island off the coast of Africa. The house is really, really interesting, and we were extremely lucky and got to see inside. There are all kinds of legends you can read about, some of them are likely true! We were so lucky to get to go with Julio and Isabel to this part of the island.

This whole island is absolutely beautiful, and definitely my favourite place we’ve visited. It’s hard to compare it to city vacations in metropolitan Europe, but the whole experience was just unbelievable. I really love it here, too, because it reminds of home in a lot of ways. Life in Germany is very different. It’s a lot more stressed and rushed. I would also say people are generally more uptight there, understandably, but sometimes it seems excessive. People get antsy if the tram that comes every 6 minutes is 1 minute late, they’ll stand for 5 minutes at a cross walk with no cars if the light is red, it’s almost impossible to find someone who will take 15 seconds to give you quick directions, and waitresses get mad at you if you call them over to order something else after you get your meal. Here, it’s a lot more like home, and I love it. The people are unbelievably friendly and generous, they always smile and say hi, even if you don’t know them. There’s tons of fresh fish, but if that’s not what you like there are other options. The beaches are surrounded by cliffs, the cities aren’t crowded at all, the stores are open at least until 10, there are cafés everywhere and people drink coffee, which is delicious here, the beers are a manageable size, the busses are always late, if they come at all. There are also a lot of little, ridiculous things I really miss and have had a hard time finding in Germany, or Europe, like bedsheets, bathtubs, uncarbonated water, free bathrooms, garbage cans on the streets, and local music.

I think this would be an amazing place to live, if you can handle heat, but I can definitely say it’s a great place to visit. It would be well worth it to rent a car, though, because there are just so many places to see which you can only get to on roads through the mountains. Right now it’s the low season, so it wasn’t really crowded anywhere, even though the temperatures were up around 25° some days – definitely warm enough for the beach – but Julio and Isabel said the resort towns and beaches can get pretty busy in the summer. The smaller, more remote beaches are always relatively empty. You could easily spend a month here and probably never see the same beach twice, but I felt like we were rushed to see the main places with a week; it’s a place you would want to spend a lot of time in for sure. This was the perfect end to a wonderful trip, and a great “last hurrah” before we head back to Germany to buckle down for the rest of the semester. I couldn’t think of a better way to have spent the last week of our Christmas break, and the Canary Islands are definitely at the top of my “must return” list.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 19:28 Archived in Spain Tagged islands winter beach house villa christmas fuerteventura canary 2012 cofete Comments (0)

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