C is for Castles

Perhaps the highlight of the entire trip was castle spotting.

Whilst I absolutely love living in Australia, the laid back way of life, the climate, the land and the people, it is a sad fact that for all this we, as a relatively ‘new’ country, miss out on the history that countries in Europe have to offer.

One of the perks of said history is the castles.

Standing in front of a Katy sized doorway at Wawel Castle, Krakow

Big or small, new and old, crumbling or unspoiled, extravagant and simple. I don’t care how they come, but boy oh boy do I like a good castle.

The idea of secret passageways, miniature doorways and hidden rooms just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Of course, this all stems from my love of fantasy stories, naturally. But what amazes me most is that no matter how many castles I see I still feel as if I am being transported back in time to a moment when castles were alive with nobility, scandal and intrigue. The feeling is so overwhelming that I’m certain were I to close my eyes, I could see the nobles wandering the castle grounds and the stable boys attending to the horses.

Like I said, I do love a good castle.

The first castle that caught my eye was in Krakow, Poland. We visited Wawel Castle at night when all was a bit eerie, but it was still perfectly beautiful, made even more so by the fact that it sits on the hill that hosts the Dragon’s Den, a limestone cave said to have been inhabited by the legendary Wawel Dragon.

My Auntie and I with one of the canons my grandfather made

Whilst the cave is closed during the winter months, the appeal of a city and a castle built upon the ashes of a dragon was all quite extraordinary to this impressionable young mind.

Now to England, where we find ourselves in the ancient town of Rye, which happens to be where my father grew up, his father before him and, some many years later, where I also did some growing up of my own. But more about that in another post.

Ypres Castle was built in 1250 and is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Rye. Once used as a prison, it now hosts the Rye town museum.

It’s a small fortress, but I love it all the same, especially after hearing of my grandfather’s part in the making of the canons that now sit outside the castle, as well as my father’s accident falling off one of the castle walls. Boys will be boys.

Ypres Castle, Rye, England

When I was 16, I went on a student exchange to Italy where I stayed with a host family for three months in the small town of Ferrara, about an hour south of Venice. The following year I went back to visit my host family. About three years later I moved there to study for a year. A few years after that I returned again for a visit. And this year, just over a decade after my first visit at the ripe age of 16, I returned once more to my host family, host town and host country.

Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

Needless to say, Ferrara and Italy both hold a place close to my heart.

Did I mention Ferrara has a castle? And a moat? AND a drawbridge?

Yep, The Estense Castle is pretty impressive. Smack bang in the centre of the city, this moated medieval fortress has bared witness to every stage of the city’s colourful history since its foundations were laid in 1385. Whilst some amazing stories about the castle have been told to me in Italian over the years, I’d be well pressed to do them justice with a poor translation and my dreadful memory, but I would nonetheless recommend a visit to this beautiful castle if you’re ever on your way North to Venice.

My first view of Edinburgh Castle, from the Grassmarket

The last castle I’d like to share with you is the gem of them all.

Having never before been to Edinburgh, I was absolutely taken aback by its beauty. The streets, the buildings, the architecture – it was all nothing short of amazing. Of course Edinburgh will get its own post, but its castle, well, it made such an impression that it probably deserves its own post too. Alas…

When I first spotted this magnificent structure, I was being taken on a tour through the streets by my dear Italian friend who now studies in Edinburgh. The irony of an Italian showing around the British born Australian was not lost on us, although it was even more prevalent when I found myself cooking her my Italian host-mother’s pasta sauce recipe. But I digress.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

We were walking down the cobbled stone streets of the Grassmarket, admiring the beautiful bookshops, architecture and quaint little narrow passageways between buildings, when one of the wider side streets opened to reveal a towering rock cliff face, which literally morphed into the castle perched atop it.

I was absolutely speechless. Without getting all melodramatic on you, it was for me so overwhelmingly magnificent that I actually felt a bit choked-up.

Truly, this is the moment and the place that will stick with me as the absolute highlight of the entire trip. I was completely enamoured. I felt like I was standing before a castle from a fantasy story, in Westeros or in Middle Earth.

It made such an impression that I was compelled to write a poem about it. As I’ve said before, poetry is far from my forte and this is certainly no prize winner. But raw as it is, the meaning is clear: I love you Edinburgh Castle!

A Kingly Embrace

I walk cobbled streets
You hide behind stone
But with each passing crossroad
I catch glimpse of your throne

As cliff becomes castle
Turrets touching the skies
All turn to your fortress
With passionate sighs

You observe from above
The tenderness of others
The embrace of a friend
Brushing lips of two lovers

But when friends have long gone
And love starts to wither
The distance between us
Brings a tremble, a shiver

For in heart and in soul
I belong in your towers
Perched upon rock face
Dreaming for hours

And though distance remains
Between me and your grace
Please await my return
To your kingly embrace

Edinburgh Castle emerging from the cliff face

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B is for Berlin

Graffiti in Berlin

The first thing I noticed about Berlin was the graffiti. It’s everywhere. Not just the illegible, messy scrawling kind (although there is a lot of that too), but the interesting and often quite impressive modern styles of graffiti. It adds a certain touch of contemporary character to a place of inherent history and in some ways I guess demonstrates that the modern and the young do exist alongside the historic city walls.

East Side Gallery - Berlin Wall

Berlin is not just a city of the past.

The Berlin Wall was my first ‘official’ stop, with my brother as guide. He moved to Germany some time ago, and I’ve always found it far more interesting visiting places with someone who lives there, because they usually know a lot more than you can find in a guide book. Harry didn’t fail in this endeavour.

The Berlin Wall

It was cold, raining and miserable, though to be honest, Germany failed to offer much other than that during my brief stay. It was strangely appropriate, however, when visiting the sites in Germany; a certain misery still hovers about the monuments that remain of the chaos it has seen over the centuries, so much so that overcast days still seem fitting.

East Side Gallery - Berlin Wall

Bits of the Berlin Wall can still be spotted across the city, but the most famous is the 1.3 km stretch of the wall now playing host to the East Side Gallery, an international memorial of freedom.

Artists from across the globe have contributed to the paintings that cover this large section of the wall, each depicting their own interpretations of freedom, their perceptions of Berlin, and some serving as reminders of a time before freedom existed.

Probably my favourite part of Berlin was the Brandenburg Gate. I’m always totally enamoured by towering monuments, colossal old buildings and giant statues. The Quadriga atop the gate with its horse drawn chariot is enormous, which makes it even more impressive that Napoleon Bonaparte stole it after the 1806 Prussian defeat and took it to Paris. It was of course eventually restored, but how he got it off the gate (and how they got it back!), I have no idea.

Brandenburg Gate

Another stand out place in Berlin was the Bebelplatz. The Bebelplatz was the location of the 1933 Nazi book burning. About 20,000 books that did not correspond with Nazi ideology from writers such as Hemingway and Marx were destroyed.  Today the Bebelplatz is the site of the book burning memorial. In the middle of the square there is a glass plate set into the cobbles, beneath it a room of empty bookcases to commemorate the burning.

The Nazi book burning memorial in the Bebleplatz

The thing I will probably remember most about Berlin, however, is my public transportation misfortune one night when going out for dinner. My brother Harry, my friend Hayley, and I, hopped on the train with growling tummies. About 10 minutes into the journey the train came to an abrupt stop. After a brief announcement in German and a translation by Harry, we discovered there had been an ‘incident’ involving a person on the tracks. The announcement was shortly followed by two paramedics who just happened to be in our carriage, prying open the train doors to let themselves out; thankfully being in the first carriage we had stopped just at the start of the next station’s platform.

We sat patiently for a few minutes before deciding to get off the train, a luxury the people in the other carriages behind us could sadly not afford, only to discover the paramedics crouched in front of the train, looking under it with torches.

With the sound of sirens in the distance we began to guess at what the ‘incident’ with a person on the tracks may have been.

The night followed with us thinking we could walk the remaining distance, until 20 minutes later we realised we couldn’t. We hopped on a different train line, which our tickets did not permit us to do, and had to hop off again a stop before our station due to the train controllers getting on to check tickets.

When we finally made it to dinner, it almost didn’t seem worth it. A 20 minute journey had taken about 2 hours. But alas, we ate til our heart’s content and laughed more than is polite in civilised company.

Berlin isn’t a place I think I could ever feel at home, and I’m not just saying that because I think we ran over someone on the train! It’s a place full of history and wonderful monuments and you can still see bullet holes in many of the buildings, which I find fascinating. But it’s also full of tourists and like many big cities, I felt a persistent nagging to keep moving, walk fast and push through the crowds with unmatched determination. I didn’t feel it was a city I could just stand back, observe, and enjoy, which let’s be honest, is one of my favourite things to do.

That said, I wouldn’t say no to going back one day when the sun is out and my feet aren’t wet and cold from the rain. Perhaps I’ll even be able to find a little quiet spot to watch the city unravel from afar.

Statues in Berlin

A is for Auschwitz

The spectacles of victims still remain

If there’s one place that words cannot do justice, it’s Auschwitz.

With the horrors of a place so absolutely shocking, it is little wonder so many at the time (less than 70 years ago) and others still today, refuse to believe that such monstrosities could have taken place.

I won’t get into the history of Auschwitz; there’s plenty of information out there for those who want to know more about the camp and its larger sister camp Birkenau. Suffice to say that of the 1, 300 000 people to go to Auschwitz, 1, 100 000 of them died there, 90% of them Jews.

Auschwitz Camp 1

It took about an hour from Krakow by bus to get to the town of Oświęcim where the two camps are located, and that time was spent watching a video on the liberation of Auschwitz and the countless barbarities that took place there. Whilst the video was unsettling to watch (to say the least) it wasn’t until we arrived at Auschwitz that two things became very apparent.

The first, was how recently it all happened. The buildings at Auschwitz camp 1 are are all still in fine condition, the windows intact, the wire fences showing little sign of rust or age. The camp was liberated in 1945 and since 1947 it has been a ‘museum’, which I’m sure has benefited its preservation, but still does not excuse the fact that it all happened in the lifetime of people who still live today.

The second, was the absolute organisation and coordination that took place behind the evil. It was easy for me to believe, before visiting the camps, that whilst the Jews had been so obviously maltreated and abused, that it was by the hand of a few extremists who took pleasure in unsystematic torture and bloodshed. That perhaps the intentions for the camps had been different to what actually took place.

What I saw when looking around the camp, was that I was wholeheartedly and naively mistaken.

This was just one of the many prisoner photos found when the camp was liberated. I found this man's face so interesting. Below the picture is recorded the date he arrived at the camp and the date he died there. He lived only 6 months in Auschwitz.

Every building was built with a purpose, every hole in the ceiling designed to fit the dimensions of a gas canister. Every prisoner was photographed front on, side on, and at an angle, their date of arrival at the camp recorded, as well as the day they died. Documents recorded the names of those who committed the first and every subsequent execution, signed off and stamped as if it were a class role call. There was undeniably no shame in what they were doing, and the evidence of that remains in the documents that have endured.

People were not brought to Auschwitz to be detained or imprisoned.

People were brought to Auschwitz to die.

The lucky ones got to live a little longer when they were deemed fit to work, but even then, they were used until malnutrition, disease or exhaustion killed them or had them executed when found inept.

The belongings of all the victims of Auschwitz remain in the museum. I was utterly astounded and moved by the volume of possessions that still remain, their owners never again returning to claim them. Millions of shoes are stacked high behind glass walls, pots and pans, glasses, brushes and combs, and suitcases named and addressed in anticipation of retrieval pile high.

Those deemed unfit to work were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Crutches, aids and prosthetics of wounded Polish WWI war veterans accounted for most of this particular collection.

The most distressing of these things for me was the narrow corridor lined with glass, which served as a window display to the several tonnes of piled human hair that remains at the camp. When the camp was liberated, the Soviet Army found 7,000 kilograms of human hair packed in paper bags, intended to be used in the war industry for making cloth, ropes, and even socks for the soldiers. For me, that pile of human hair may as well have been the bodies themselves.

One story that stuck with me was from our guide, who said that his grandfather had lived 50 kilometres outside of the Auschwitz Birkenau camp. None were allowed to go near the area, and most claim to not have been at all aware as to what was happening there. But his grandfather said the townspeople had noticed a distinct smell coming from the direction of the camps. It wasn’t until the liberation that they discovered the smell had been the stench of burning bodies.

Millions of shoes taken from victims still remain.

It’s a strange sensation visiting a place such as Auschwitz. Some level of disassociation is necessary to take it all in without losing your mind at the pure evilness of people. That said, there is a peculiar longing to find out more about the victims, how they suffered, how they survived, and what it must have felt like. I think this comes with a desire to make some sort of sense out of what happened, in an attempt to try and understand how such a thing could have occurred, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure it never happens again.

It feels a little crude to say I ‘enjoyed’ my visit to Auschwitz. No one can enjoy a place like that. But I am glad I visited. It’s easy to go through life and forget that bad things happen, to ignore them when they are happening, and be like the townsfolk who smelt burning bodies and were totally unaware of what was taking place on their doorstep.

Philosopher and novelist George Santayana said, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

I hope that the world forever remembers what happened at Auschwitz.

Barbed wire fences kept the prisoners from escaping, although accounts say that many threw themselves onto the electric fences in an attempt to 'free' themselves from the horrors inside the camp.

My A-Z Euro Trip

"Peace!" - Me in Trafalgar Square

I’m baaack! It may have taken an excruciating 50 hours to get back here, but here I am.

Thank you all for your kind wishes of bon voyage whilst I was away. I had a truly amazing whirlwind trip around Europe, with many adventures had and many memories made.

Since arriving home (hello Australian summer! How I’ve missed you!), I’ve been wondering how on earth I could possibly communicate all the assorted experiences I’ve had over the past month. I recurrently find with travel that people are so often quick to say “tell me everything!”, but when it comes to it, it’s hard to know where to start and how to faithfully convey all the emotions or people or events that made a place, moment or experience so special.

Friends and family look patiently through photos and ooh and ahh at the appropriate moments, but having been the friend and family participating in such mandatory ritual, I confess that the pictures can so often look no different to the photos in travel magazines, the accompanying captions of “it was breathtaking”, not really conveying the absolute beauty of a place or the emotions felt when there.

More often than not, it’s the quirky stories, travel disaster accounts, and unusual experiences that make “tell me everything!” an easy request to answer.

I had my fair share of travel disasters, and a few quirky stories and unusual experiences, but some of my favourite places were deemed so simply due to an overwhelming sensation of being somewhere so completely magical, unfamiliar, and diverse to any other place I had been. Photos can’t always convey that. And sometimes there aren’t words to explain it either. It comes from within, and either you’ll recognise it and know what I’m talking about, or you won’t. Either way, I’ll try my best to take you there!

As for the ‘how’, my blogging friend and talented writer, Stef, over at Dodging Commas has just made the brave and adventurous move from Sydney to Singapore. She’s been detailing her amazing adventures through an ‘expat alphabet’, with an A-Z account of her experiences (including shower toilets, kids “shi shi-ing” their pants, and making a home away from home). With her permission, I’m pinching her idea and over the next few weeks will take you on my own alphabet journey across Europe.

I’ll also be including some of the photos that I took on the trip. Naturally, I await the appropriate oohs and ahhs in anticipation.

First stop, A for Auschwitz.

Enjoy!