A Travellerspoint blog

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

by Kevin

From Dubrovnik, we took a four hour bus ride into the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, staying in the town of Mostar. Mostar has a large Muslim population, which gives it a completely different feel than Croatia. And the setting is stunning: the town straddles the banks of the emerald-green Neretva River, steep mountains surround the area, and the Turkish-style town center is a cobbled, 16th century with the mesmerizing Old Bridge seen below. Very cool.

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The war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was especially difficult for Mostar, and the scars definitely still remain. The town was a center of an ugly (and bloody) three-way war between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, with neighbors, friends, and even relatives sometimes taking up arms against each other. Much of the town was left in ruins, which---roughly fifteen years later---is still quite evident.

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We planned on spending one night in Mostar, but ended up staying two. We spent our time lazily wandering through the Old Town, which can easily eat up a day without doing much of anything (other than eating, drinking, shopping, and aimless walking). As a bonus, the town is quite cheap---everything seemed about half the price of Croatia.

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You can check out all of our photos from Mostar by clicking here. From Mostar, we took a bus to Sarajevo and boarded a plane to Istanbul, Turkey. The rough plan is to spend three or four days in Istanbul, followed by ten days split between Cappadoccia and Turkey's Mediterranean coast. More good times ahead....

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Posted by amyandkev 07:42 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Comments (1)

Dubrovnik!

by Amy

We had a wonderful week in Croatia with my parents and were definitely sad to see them go. If you ever get the chance to visit Croatia, don't hesitate to go. Our favorite stops were easily Plitvice National Park and Dubrovnik. Zagreb could easily be missed. Oh - and definitely hit it in the spring or fall, i.e. before or after the summer rush. Our timing was pretty much perfect... the weather (for the most part) was amazing, and the crowds (for the most part) were light. But during weekends and peak times during the day it could get somewhat congested. And we were told this was NOTHING compared to the summers in Croatia. Because we were in the 'shoulder season', not all tours and ferries were available yet. In my opinion, however, this was a worthwhile trade to get to experience the tranquility of the Old Town streets without having to fight the crowds shoulder-to-shoulder as you made your way through the narrow-cobblestoned streets.

The town of Dubrovnik is usually the top destination of anyone visiting Croatia, and, after spending several days there, it was easy to see why. Dubrovnik's center is the impossibly charming Old Town surrounded by a stone castle wall and made up of entirely pedestrian-only cobblestone streets and very narrow alleys. We took the bus to Dubrovnik and all along the way were entranced by the beautiful coastline views. When Dubrovnik finally came into view, we knew we were in for a treat: Dubrovnik looked like a sparkling amber jewel, with its red clay rooftops set amongst the deep blues and greens of the coast.

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Dubrovnik was so much fun to explore -- certainly helped by the wonderful sunshine that made for such pleasing days of meandering the narrow streets and stopping frequently for chatter over coffee and tea. However, Dubrovnik wasn't always the sleek and perfectly cute place that it is today. In fact as recently as 1991 it fell under attack by the Yugoslav army and was badly damaged and destroyed. The Croatians repaired most of the damage to the city in the original style so that today, very little evidence of the massive destruction is visible.

Highlights of our visit in Dubrovnik would be the boat cruise we took to nearby islands and the wall walk around the city. The wall walk is easily a must-do in Dubrovnik anytime of year. It has probably the most impressive city wall of any European city. And walking the walls involves climbing a long set of staircases to get to the top of the wall (there is a fee to do this) and then there is a small track that literally takes you around the entire city on the top of the walls! If you walk the whole thing (which we did) it is over 2 kilometers and takes several hours. The views are magnificent -- this is easily where we took a large portion of our photos.

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While the island destination themselves on the boat cruise could have been missed (they were more targeted for summer tourists who might sunbathe on the beach at each island stop -- there wasn't much else on the islands), the boat ride itself was very enjoyable and a great vantage point for seeing the city and the surrounding landscape. In fact, when my mom and I got a little cold, the captain invited us into the helm and even asked my mom to take over steering when he went to run another task!

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Dubrovnik ended up being the perfect place to end our Croatia leg. It has such a relaxed and carefree pace that encouraged lots of ice cream eating, tea and coffee stops, and plenty of time to converse and catch up with my parents after being gone for so long. A day after my parents left Croatia, we learned about my grandfather's passing. It's hard to be away from home during this time, and I know it must have been difficult for my dad to know that he was away as well. But I'm so thankful that they came out and were able to spend the time with us seeing part of the world. Thank-you, Mom and Dad. We had such a great time and hope you did, too!

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You can find all of our Croatia pictures by clicking here. Next up: Bosnia-Herzogovina

Posted by amyandkev 02:57 Archived in Croatia Comments (1)

It's Time to Split!

by Amy

Hello, Mom and Dad!!! After four months away from family and friends, Kevin and I met up with my parents in Zagreb, Croatia---and to say that I was excited to see them is an understatement. (I was VERY pleased to see they were at least as excited to see us, as we found my mom waiting for us on the porch of our Zagreb hotel with camera in hand as we arrived). We would be spending a full week with them traveling throughout Croatia. The rough plan was to spend one nıght ın Zagreb, one nıght ın Plıtvıce Natıonal Park, two nıghts ın Splıt, and three nıghts ın Dubrovnık.

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From the beginning, my parents told us that they wanted to travel our way... I think my dad even said it something like "essentially doing whatever it is that you would be doing had you been traveling by yourselves, with minor adjustments when necessary to meet our standards" (in other words that meant no hostels). Well, those are the words we essentially lived by -- accommodations and activities were made as we went, which didn't always go as smoothly as would be desired. But then again, that just makes for the experiences you remember and laugh about years down the road, right? :-)

One such experience occurred when we arrived in Split, a coastal city on the Adriatic Sea. Previously, from Zagreb, we went to the Plitvice National Park for a few days--which was great fun, but lacked internet connections (it also lacked sunshine for that matter, not to mention fog and rain, which doesn't make for the best combination when trying to see the scenery, but alas I digress). Due to not having internet connection in Plitvice, we were unable to book our hotel accommodations for Split (our next stop) in advance. We weren't too concerned about this since we were taking a 3-hour bus to Split that should have had us arriving late afternoon in plenty of time to look for accommodations. Also, our trusty Rick Steves guidebook told us that Croatia is famous for "sobes," which are similar to bed & breakfasts in the US. The owners of these accommodations are usually found in hordes at all the train and bus stops waving signs with advertisements and photos of their places, trying to get the tourists to stay at their particular sobe. At the very least, in the bus and train stations you can find sobe booking agencies where, for a small fee, they can show you pictures of all available Sobes and book one for you immediately upon arrival.

This, however, didn't work out to be the smooth operation we had hoped. First of all, our intended 3-hour or so bus ride ended up taking over 7 hours! When we asked the hotel receptionist in Plitvice the length of the ride, maybe she assumed we meant "if we traveled via Concordé jet." When we FINALLY arrived in Split, it was after 9pm, raining, and we were starving, tired, and had no place to stay. And to our bad luck, the expected masses of sobe owners were not to be found (probably due to the late hour and the weather) and the booking agency had closed for the night. Luckily (or so we thought), one little old lady who couldn't speak English approached us with her sobe advertisement sign. After several minutes of my mom and I trying to communicate with her via sign language, charades, and even the use of a random bystander for translation, we finally confirmed that she had two rooms available in her sobe located in the middle of the Old Town (downtown area), each with its own bathroom. Our luggage getting a unwanted free wash from the rain, we decided to follow her.

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After a painfully slow walk through the rain, we finally reached her sobe. We walked into the lobby of a large apartment building and all stared towards the winding staircase that went directly up. Kevin and my dad decided to wait with our luggage on the bottom floor, while my mom and I followed her to check out the rooms. After a couple flights of very steep stairs, the lady stopped on the landing. Whew! Well, two flights is manageable wıth luggage we thought (though barely!). "Which room is ours?" I asked. She giggled quickly with her hands on her knees taking in several large breaths. "Up, up" she said between breaths and pointed further up the staircase. "Rest," she said next as she moved to the handrail to support herself as she tried to steady her breathing. My mom and I just looked at each other. More stairs? Finally we climbed the remaining flights of stairs and reached her sobe apartment. When she opened the door it was chaos. A scraggly dog came running over. An older man was watching TV in the next room over. Junk was everywhere. My mom and I later reported that it felt like we walked into someone's cramped, very busy home without warning -- nothing was picked up and this didn't appear to be a business that they regularly entertained. "Where are the rooms?" I asked. So she led us to two bedrooms, moving furniture and items out of our way as we followed her. We saw the rooms and immediately knew we couldn't stay here. It smelled thickly of tobacco smoke, among other (and more glarıng) problems. We didn't find the promised attached bathrooms and asked where they were (I whispered to my mother that this was our excuse to flee...since she had promised attached baths). The older man who spoke great English said that the bathroom was just down the hall; we'd share the bathroom and they would use a different one. The gentleman took us across to the other end of the apartment to a bathroom, moved some furniture out of the way and said it was all ours. We peered inside. Then we looked at each other. We knew there was no way we could stay here. No chance. We felt terrible (it obviously wasn't easy for the older lady to walk so far and up so many flights all for a wasted effort), but we politely declined and walked away. (Once we were outside, my mom and I couldn't help but crack up laughing. The place was so awful and just plain strange, the only thıng we could do was laugh about ıt.)

So now the four of us were outside with our luggage in the rain, still starving and getting wetter and colder. We needed a game plan. We saw an overhang from a convenience store and quickly huddled under it for protection while we looked at our map and discussed our next steps. To our good fortune, the woman who runs the convenience store overheard our conversation and asked if she could help us. We quickly explained our predicament and she promised to have someone over soon that could show us some good rooms (and with attached bathrooms she confirmed). We thanked her profusely when Jane arrived and followed her several blocks to another sobe.

There were two bedrooms to choose from: one was on the second floor and was nice enough, though extremely homely. The other is what Bepo (Jane's son) liked to call "The Love Abode." It was decked out in hearts and mirrors and clearly decorated to "get you in the mood". Though the room was extremely large and clean, I couldn't help but laugh out loud when we saw it. The advantage of these rooms, however, is that they did have their own attached bathrooms and felt like separate apartments or hotel rooms.

We decided to check out a nearby hotel before agreeing to book the sobe -- while the rooms were nice enough, there was a funny vibe that we got from Jane and Bepo. So we left Kevin and my dad back at the sobe while my mom and I checked out some nearby hotels. Of course, these didn't work out as they were unbelievably expensive compared to what you get. (Hotels in downtown are ridiculously priced -- there are very few in the Old Town, so they charge a premium.) So, fighting the rain and cold, we headed back to find Kevin and Dad to let them know we'd agree to stay in Jane's Sobe. Unfortunately, that wasn't as easy as it sounds. The streets of Old Town are the tiniest, most narrow and winding cobblestone streets you've ever seen. It's literally like wandering through a maze. After several turns and efforts at trying to retrace our steps, we realized we were lost and couldn't find our way back.

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Eventually I started calling out Kevin's name hoping he'd hear me. Nothing. I soon remembered that Jane had given me her business card so I pulled it out and showed it to some Croatian guys I found smoking in the corner of one of the streets. They tried to show us, taking us down several streets until finally arriving at a hostel we had never seen before. With big smiles on their faces they pointed and said "there!". Mom and I sadly shook our heads and said that wasn't it. They kept insisting "yes, yes". Clearly our language barrier wouldn't enable us to explain that we had already been to our sobe on the card and knew that the hostel wasn't what we were looking for. So we just walked away apologizing. Finally, a block down, I see Kevin turning the corner! He came looking for us with Bepo, and was able to track us down.

So, in the end we stayed a few nights at Jane's Sobe. Was it okay? Yes, it turned out to be fine, except for the smoke that reeked in our Love Abode. (It is usually Bepo's room, who is a heavy smoker). And Jane and Bepo WERE very interesting people, to say the least. We'll have to tell you more about our conversations with them (and other people regarding them) another time.

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All in all we ended up REALLY loving Split. And the sun returned the next day making the rest of our stay very enjoyable. The city is gorgeous and we had so much fun just walking around the Old Town pedestrian-only streets and the bustling promenade. The accommodations were something else, but we learned our lesson and made certain we had advance reservations for our next stop --- Dubrovnik. (In fact, we spent several hours at a local internet cafe picking and booking the room). And while we (my parents included) are laughing about this experience now, it definitely was an adventure we hope not to repeat!

Next stop: Dubrovnik. The adventure continues....

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Posted by amyandkev 07:16 Archived in Croatia Comments (3)

In Memory of Grandpa

Kevin and I would like to dedicate this blog space in remembrance of my grandpa, a very special man who passed away a few days ago. He lived a very full and long life -- and even celebrated his 90th birthday this February with his family.

Grandpa is survived by his 4 children, 10 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. He was a very loving and hard-working man who cared deeply for his family and would do anything for them. Due to our travels, Kevin and I missed his 90th birthday celebration, which I regret, especially now that I know I will not be able to make it up to him. I pray that grandpa can hear my prayers and knows how much I love him. I love you grandpa and I will always miss your laugh after each of our hugs (the best hugs got the loudest squeak, right?)

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February 8, 1919 - April 25, 2009

A ship sails and I stand watching till she fades on the horizon
and someone at my side says
She is gone.

Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all.
She is just as large now as when I last saw her.
Her diminished size and total loss from my sight is in me, not in her.

And just at that moment, when someone at my side says she is gone,
there are others who are watching her coming over their horizon
and other voices take up a glad shout -
There she comes!

That is what dying is.
A horizon and just the limit of our sight.

Lift us up o' Lord, so that we may see further.

Posted by amyandkev 23:10 Comments (1)

Slovenia!

by Amy

What We Did. Kevin and I met our good friend Crystal in Slovenia for a week seeing the sites and all that Slovenia has to offer. Crystal has been living abroad in Scotland for almost two years and it had been over a year since we last saw her. So suffice it to say that I was REALLY looking forward to catching up with her--and in what better place than the lush green paradise and castles of Slovenia? We had a great time, and I was sad to see her go after such a short (7 days) visit. But we will see each other again when she comes back home to Seattle for a summer vacation visit. Hvala, Crystal!

During our week tour through Slovenia we visited the capital city of Ljubljana for 2 nights, then rented a car to head to the little coastal town of Piran for 2 nights. On the way to and from Piran, we stopped to see the Skocjan Caves & Pedjama Castle. Finally, we ended with 3 nights in the mountainous town of Lake Bled. Whew!

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Ljubljana. Ljubljana (say it by pronouncing the j’s as y’s) was our first stop in Slovenia. We arrived on Monday to Crystal already waiting (she arrived the day before we did). However, it worked out well (for Kevin and myself, I guess) since she had not yet seen much of the sites – apparently Croatia shuts down on Sundays to observe as a holy day – so most shops and all museums were closed that day.

We spent our only full day checking out the city. Ljubljana is a large, picturesque city, but, like many other European cities, feels much smaller than its actual population. The life of Ljubljana is its lazy Old Town which is built around the Ljubljana Castle that resides atop a small mountain (or hill to those of us from the Northwest). This castle floats over the city like a watchful guardian.

We enjoyed the pathetically-small daily market (but getting Crystal’s and my favorite bottle of wine from the trip – at a bargain-basement rate of 2.5 Euros-- made it one of our favorite markets!), several stops for tea and beer, and marveled at the architecture of the late Joze Plecnik – apparently he alone is responsible for the design of 90% of Ljubljana's city center. We even toured his last residence….apparently he was quite the introvert and wasn’t that popular with the ladies – but whatever he lacked in social graces, he made up for in his talent and eye for design!

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Skocjan Caves. On our way to Piran we tried to stop at both the Predjama Castle and the Skocjan Caves – highly recommended sites from Crystal’s Rough Guide book. The Pedjama Castle ended up bweeing closed that day (which we discovered quite humorously by driving several miles to the castle even though we passed numerous “CLOSE” signs trying unsuccessfully to warn us – I guess we took our English too literally and just assumed we didn’t have much further to go!).

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Luckily, we did make it to the Skocjan caves, as these were easily a highlight of our trip! Slovenia is known for their caves -- they have over 7000 of them! The Skocjan cave system is one of the largest in Europe and it houses the largest underground canyon in the world (that we know of), which includes 5 kilometers of passages and many waterfalls. They are now part of the UNESCO world heritage sites and when you venture down 200 meters underground to explore them, you can really appreciate why this amazing and unique natural beauty must be preserved.

Entering through a narrow tunnel you are immediately thrown into a crazy and extraordinary landscape where stalactites and stalagmites drip down from the ceiling and grow up from beneath your feet. Or so it looks, as they actually grow at the impossibly slow rate of 1 cm every 100 years, giving some idea of the many thousands of years it has taken for the caves to assume their present form. The best is yet to come however as the roaring of the underground Reka River reveals itself at the bottom of an awe inspiring gorge that drops 100m below the bridge we carefully cross, and stretches the same distance over our heads. Words cannot describe the awe-inspiring beauty of these magnificent caves.

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After exploring the giant canyon-within-a-cave, we take one last look at the gushing waters below and return to the surface, with a mind full of dramatic images stored in our heads, but none on our cameras. Photography is not permitted in the caves, and although this annoyed me at the start, I quickly understood the reason for it – the light from the flashes can damage the natural coloration of the rocks. In fact, the guides even turn off the lights in the cave behind us as our group left to minimize this impact. So instead, Kevin and I retrieved these images from our good friend Google Images. (You’ve met him before, though you may not have realized it at the time). :)

Hvala, Crystal! Without you, its unlikely Kevin and I would have seen this gem. And what a miss it would have been!

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Piran. We rented a car and headed to the South end of Slovenia to a tiny town called Piran. After questionable weather in Lubljana, we were looking forward to some sunshine. And we were not disappointed! Piran was impossibly bright and sunny and the most charming little coastal village – right on the Adriatic Sea. It resembles a large open-air museum with medieval architecture, narrow streets, and compact houses. No cars are allowed in this old town -- the streets are way too small (in fact, some were so small no more than 2 or 3 people could fit side-by-side). In Piran we enjoyed exploring the castle, and lazy days eating and drinking al fresco – at outdoor cafes. But probably our favorite thing about Piran was watching the sunset sitting outside and drinking our favorite 2.5 Euro bottle of wine from Lubjana.

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Pedjama Castle. Since we missed Pedjama Castle on the way to Piran, we made it a priority to visit on the way back from Piran. This time, to our delight, the “CLOSE” signs were removed and we were able to take a look. The castle is one of my favorites for photographs -- it is built literally into a rock wall. We decided not to tour this castle -- were a bit castled out. But the pictures were great. All in all, it was a bit off the beaten track to get to for just a few photos. But if you are passing by anyway, it is definitely worth a look.

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Lake Bled. After visiting Piran and the Pedjama Castle, we made our way to the town of Lake Bled, where we spent 3 nights. Lake Bled is a mountain resort town, built around its Lake Bled, which is a medium size lake with a small church propped on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. And it wouldn't be Slovenia if it didn't have a castle perched high on a hill overlooking the lake as if in a fairy tale. While the town of Lake Bled left a little to be desired, it was the amazing natural wonders and hiking around Lake Bled that makes this area so worth visiting.

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From Lake Bled, we took a quick side-trip to nearby Lake Bohinj. Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate and cut our visit a bit short, but what we saw in the rain and clouds still made for some unbelievable sites.

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The rest of the time in Lake Bled we spent hiking nearby gorges (which was so much fun with its network of footbridges built over the rushing rivers making it easy to get very close to the scene), taking a boat gondola ride out to the island and, of course, hiking up to see the castle.

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Too quickly our 7 days together came to an end and we had to part ways with Crystal. I am so glad that we got to share this time with Crystal and were able to meet up. You can check out all of our Slovenia pictures by clicking here.

Now we are off to Croatia to meet up with my parents...can't wait!

Posted by amyandkev 05:52 Archived in Slovenia Comments (2)

Baths and Bikes in Budapest

By Kevin

OK, take a look at the photo below. If you had to guess, what would you think is housed in that building? A museum, maybe? A library? A theater or a government building? Those would be solid guesses... but wrong. This is a photo of the Szechenyi Baths, one of the largest spas in all of Europe. (Apparently, Hungarians don’t mess around when it comes to spas... Gotta love it.)

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We didn’t waste any time in getting to a spa, which are found all over the city. (There are over two-dozen, government-owned thermal baths there.) Upon arriving in Budapest, we immediately joined three guys we had met on the train and set out for the Szechenyi Baths, which are naturally heated by two thermal springs. The baths are basically like a gigantic swimming pool (or three) at home---except the water is about 100 degrees (or more), there are plenty of jets and whirlpools, the surrounding structure is ancient, and speedo-clad Hungarians are everywhere. More specifically, the Szecheny Baths has three huge outdoor pools (all of different temperature) and a slew of indoor hot tubs and saunas (again, all of different temperature). Very, very cool.

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The next day, we met up again with our three friends from the train (Chris, Rob, and Dan) and joined a bike tour of the city. Highly recommended, especially for a sprawling city like Budapest. (We’ve rented a bike in every European city so far except Prague… Always a good time.) You can check out all of our Budapest photos by clicking here. After four nights in Budapest, we head to the city of Ljubljana, Slovenia, where we meet up with our friend, Crystal. (Crystal is from Seattle, but she has been teaching in Aberdeen, Scotland for the past two years.)

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We are planning to spend six days in Slovenia with Crystal before moving on to Croatia. More soon…

Posted by amyandkev 15:42 Archived in Hungary Comments (1)

The Horrors of Auschwitz

By Kevin

Roughly an hour outside of Krakow is the gruesome, incredibly powerful site of one of humanity’s most horrifying tragedies: the Holocaust. From 1941 until 1945, Auschwitz was the biggest and most notorious concentration camp in the Nazi system. Until the camp’s liberation in 1945, at least 1.1 million people were systematically murdered here—approximately 960,000 of them Jewish.

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The emotional power of walking through Auschwitz (and the adjacent camp, Birkenau) is jarring. The sheer scale, organization, and effort that the Nazis undertook to exterminate innocent men, women, and children is unspeakably shocking to see in person. Words cannot express the feelings of profound sadness—and anger—that overwhelmed us while seeing the remains of the camps (such as the crematoriums and gas chambers), the belongings and pictures of many of those who perished (including mini-mountains of their hair, shoes, and luggage) and hearing the gruesome, tearful descriptions of the function and purpose of each structure and area of the camp.

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So, you may be wondering: Why visit a horrible concentration camp on your vacation? Well, as put by the travel writer Rick Steves, Auschwitz is “one of the most moving sights in Europe.” He further explains why this site is a must-see for all travellers:

"Auschwitz survivors and victims’ families want tourists to come here and experience the scale and monstrosity of the place. In their minds, a steady flow of visitors will ensure that the Holocaust is always remembered---so it never happens again. Auschwitz isn’t for everyone. But I’ve never met anyone who toured Auschwitz and regretted it. For many, it’s a profoundly life-altering experience—and at the very least, it will forever affect the way you think about the Holocaust."

Posted by amyandkev 15:30 Archived in Poland Comments (2)

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