Tag Archives: travel

Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland

So much has already been written about the notorious concentration, extermination, and labor camps in Poland that for this particular post I will let the photographs mainly speak for themselves.

Auschwitz is the German name for the Polish town of Oświęcim, about 42 miles west of Kraków.   Auschwitz I (main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (labor camp) and several satellite camps were established in the area by the Nazi Regime between the years 1940 to 1945.  We visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

It is estimated that 1.5 million people died at these camps over the course of the five years, the majority of them Jewish, along with many of non-Jewish decent from various countries.  Most prisoners were killed in the gas chambers but several thousand also died from starvation, disease, horrible executions, deranged medical experiments, or from hard labor.

Auschwitz I

Constructed from former Polish army artillery barracks, Auschwitz I was the main camp.  The first prisoners at the camp were Polish political prisoners and German criminal offenders.  The total number of prisoners fluctuated at any time between 10,000 to 16,000 men, women, and children.

Auschwitz I Main Gate

Auschwitz I Main Gate

“Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes one free), the cynical motto placed over the main iron gate the prisoners passed under each day.

Double Electrified Fence

Double Electrified Fence surrounding Auschwitz I.

All personal possessions (including clothing, books, shoes, jewelry, etc.) were confiscated upon arrival, sorted, and stored in warehouses.  Anything of value was either taken by the SS (the Nazi special police force) or shipped to Germany.  The prisoner’s heads were also shaved and their hair was used to manufacture several different products.

Eye Glasses

Prisoner’s eye glasses confiscated upon arrival.

Prisoners Shoes

Prisoner’s shoes confiscated upon arrival.

The majority of prisoners at Auschwitz I lived in these two-storey brick buildings.

Brick Barracks

Brick Barracks

Various sleeping and living conditions at Auschwitz I.  Most barracks housed about 200 prisoners.

Straw Sleeping Quarters

Prisoners slept on straw scattered over concrete floors.

Straw Mattresses

Some prisoners slept on straw mattresses.

Three-Tier Bunks

Three-tier bunks were also used.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

About 1.75 miles (3km) from the main camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau contained over 300 buildings divided into several sectors.  The total number of prisoners reached 100,000.  Covering approximately 425 acres, the sheer size of this camp is overwhelming.   The majority of the Nazi’s mass destruction of human life took place here in their four large crematoria with gas chambers.

At Birkenau, the prisoner’s barracks are left as they were.  The barracks had no foundations and the living conditions were dire—lack of water, poor sanitary conditions, rats, and insects.  Women and children stayed in separate camps from the men.

Birkenau Women and Children's Barracks

Women and children’s barracks made of brick.

Sleeping Quarters

Six to eight women or children slept together on one level.

Drawings for Children

Drawings on walls to help comfort the children.

The men’s barracks, made of wood, once served as horse stables.

Men's Barracks

Men’s Barracks

Men's Sleeping Quarters

Men’s Sleeping Quarters

Prisoner's Washroom

Prisoner’s Washroom

Prisoner's Toilets

Prisoner’s Toilets

All areas were cleaned out by the prisoners, as proper plumbing was nonexistent.

Birkenau Main Entrance

Main Entrance at Birkenau

This is the main entrance at Birkenau for the trains carrying the deportees from various countries.  Here the new arrivals were “sorted”—segregated into “fit” and “unfit” to work.  Those selected as “unfit” were told to undress and lead into an underground chamber for a “shower”, but water never flowed, only gas.  Within 20 minutes, around 2,000 people would be dead.

Below, remnants of a crematorium destroyed by the SS in January 1945 to conceal their heinous crimes.

Ruins of a crematorium

Ruins of a crematorium

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial at Auschwitz II

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau turned out to be a powerful and moving experience for both Kevin and I.   Physically standing in these camps gives you a perspective that no history book or film can match.  These camps make you hope that humanity continues to move towards a better place.

Krakow, Poland

Over the long bank holiday weekend, we visited Kraków, Poland.  This attractive, colorful city with Old World charm buzzes with history, delicious food, and diverse sights.  Despite the tragedies of World War II that affected so many of its inhabitants, the city itself escaped mass destruction.  Today’s Kraków is a vibrant, fascinating place.  Here are some of the sights of this historic city…

The Planty

The Planty

Surrounding the Old Town is the Planty—one of Krakow’s nicest features (or at least we think so).  The Planty is a ring of public parks (or green belt) where the medieval protective walls and moat once stood.  It’s a pleasant place to take a stroll or people-watch when you have a bit of downtime on your itinerary.

St. Mary's Basilica and Cloth Hall in Main Market Square

St. Mary’s Basilica (left) and Cloth Hall (right) in Main Market Square

Main Market Square

Main Market Square (Cloth Hall-left)

The majority of Krakow’s sights are located in the Old Town historical district, except for Wawel Hill which is just south of here.  Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny) is the city’s center and main tourist hub offering many dining and shopping options.  This massive square is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe.

Cloth Hall in Main Market Square

Cloth Hall in Main Market Square

Cloth Hall Interior

Cloth Hall Interior

The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) takes center stage in Main Market Square.  This structure dates back to the mid-14th century when Kraków was an important international trading post.  The name Cloth Hall comes from the trading of textiles, but many other commodities were bought and sold here as well.

St. Mary's Basilica

St. Mary’s Basilica

The beautiful St. Mary’s Basilica (Bazylika Mariacki), in the northeastern corner of Main Market Square, is yet another amazing European church.  Its main draw is the 42-foot-wide and 36-foot-high sculptured altarpiece of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary by Veit Stoss.  It is a magnificent work of art.

One interesting tradition that takes place at St. Mary’s is the hejnal, or half-a-tune bugle call, played every hour from the Basilica’s left tower.  The most common medieval legend states that during an enemy attack the watchman only got half-way through the warning song before an arrow pierced his throat…hence the half-tune played today.

Floriańska Gate

Floriańska Gate—One of the few surviving parts of the city’s old fortifications.

Florianska Street

Floriańska Street leading to Main Market Square

Once considered the “Royal Road”, as all visiting nobility would travel this way to Wawel Castle, today’s Floriańska is a popular commercial street brimming with restaurants, cafes, retail shops, hotels and a “famous” McDonald’s…

McDonald's Gothic Cellar

McDonald’s Gothic Cellar

When this particular McDonald’s was built, a Gothic cellar was discovered and now serves as additional seating for this fine eatery.

Wawel Cathedral

Wawel Cathedral on Wawel Hill

Just south of Old Town is Wawel Hill (pronounced Vah-vehl). This historic area, including Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral, is an important symbol for all of Poland.  The Wawel Cathedral (Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus) is Poland’s national church and has served as both the coronation site and burial site for Polish monarchs as well as for those of national importance.

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II, the very first Polish Pope, said his first mass as a priest at the Cathedral in November 1946.

Inner Courtyard

Inner Courtyard of Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle, the Royal Residence of the past, offers visitors tours of the Royal Private Apartments and State Rooms along with access to other permanent exhibitions within the castle complex.

Dragon's Den

Dragon’s Den on Wawel Hill

Another one of Krakow’s legends is that of the Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski) on Wawel Hill…

Home of the Wawel Dragon

Home of the Wawel Dragon

It is said that long ago the Wawel Dragon lived inside these craggy caves and feasted on young maidens…

Wawel Dragon

Wawel Dragon

until he was killed by a poor shoe-maker who stuffed a sheep (or was it a lamb?) with sulphur and left it for the dragon to eat. The dragon then developed an insatiable thirst and drank from the Vistula River until he burst.  As a reward, he won the hand of the King’s only daughter.  Way to go shoe-maker!

Apart from all the sights and folklore Krakow has to offer, we stepped outside the city center for two side-trips—one to the Wieliczka Salt Mine (featured below) and another to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious concentration camps of WWII (featured in another post).

Chapel of the Blessed Kinga

Chapel of the Blessed Kinga at Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, about 9 miles southeast of the city center, is one of the world’s oldest salt mines.  Table salt was mined here from the 13th century to the late 20th century.  Today these massive mines offer visitors a look into the world of a salt miner as well as the opportunity to admire the many sculptures made from, you guessed it, salt.

Altar of the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga

Altar of the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga at Wieliczka Salt Mine

And that’s all from Kraków.  We had a wonderful time visiting this beautiful city.  Dziękuję!

Notable Eats:
Aperitif (ul Sienna 9, Kraków)
Miod Malina (ul Grodzka 40, Kraków)

Vienna, Austria


A weekend in sunny Vienna…

Last weekend we flew to the Austrian capital for a quick two-day trip.  The sunny, warm weather was a welcomed change from the rainy, cool April in London.   We delighted in the 75°F (24°C) temperatures so much that we found it difficult to leave.

The one word I would use to describe Vienna is clean—meticulously clean.  The architecturally rich city center mixes both past and present effortlessly.  It is a pleasant city with a laid-back vibe.

Much of Vienna’s past history (and Austria’s for that matter) surrounds the mighty Habsburg Empire, which lasted 640 years.  The Habsburg reign began in 1278 and ended in 1918 at the end of World War I.  This illustrious family lived in two palatial palaces in Vienna, one for winter and one for summer.

Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace, in the city center, was once the grand, winter residence of the Habsburgs.  The tour of this stately complex includes the Imperial Apartments (Kaiserappartements), Sisi Museum (Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi, was the wife of Emperor Franz Josef), and a look through the impressive Imperial Silver Collection.

Hofburg Palace Courtyard

Hofburg Palace Courtyard

Hofburg Palace continues to be a seat of power, as it is home to the office of the President of Austria.

Spanish Riding School

Spanish Riding School

Located behind the Hofburg is the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule) of the Lipizzaner Stallions—the famous Habsburg court horses.  The Lipizzaner breed dates back to the 16th century.  Visitors can watch these beautiful creatures strut their stuff during, often sold-out, public performances.

Schonbrunn Palace

Schönbrunn Palace

The sumptuous 1,441-room Schönbrunn Palace was the summer residence of the Habsburg family.  Due to time constraints, we did not tour the inside of this one but wandered around the vast palace gardens instead and enjoyed the pristine surroundings as well as the warm weather.  Below are some photos of this massive estate…

Schonbrunn Palace Gardens

Schönbrunn Palace Gardens

Palace Gardens

Palace Gardens

Neptune Fountain

Neptune Fountain

Gloriette Monument

Gloriette Monument

Gloriette and Gardens

View of Gloriette and Gardens

Schonbrunn Maze

The Maze at Schönbrunn

Kevin and I are happy to report that we made it through the maze…after only a couple dead-end turns.

St. Stephen's Cathedral

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), with its Gothic spire and ornately patterned roof tiles, is one of Vienna’s iconic landmarks.  Consecrated in 1147, the church has undergone several expansions over the years and survived many wars.  The cathedral’s catacombs contain some of the internal organs of the Habsburg royal family.

Vienna State Opera

Vienna State Opera

As one of the world’s finest cities for classical music, a trip to Vienna wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Vienna State Opera (Staatsoper).  I can’t say that k&mk are avid opera-goers, but it was a great experience to attend Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos—even if it was for only 45 minutes in the €4 standing area “cheap seats”…it was well worth it.

Thank you Vienna for the perfect weather!  We enjoyed our visit.

Rome, Italy

After leaving Naples, we headed to the Italian capital by train and arrived in just under two hours to continue our holiday.

Colosseum Up Close

This trip was extra special as it was my sister’s first time visiting Rome.  It was the second time for me, but this time Rome seemed even better.  It’s a very special place—a living history lesson that simply astonishes.

Here are some of the spectacular sights of this great city…


The Colosseum

A trip to Rome wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Colosseum.  Construction on this “colossal” amphitheater began in 72 AD, which says a thing or two about Roman engineering.  It could accommodate about 50,000 spectators for gladiator contests or other public performances.

Colosseum Floor

Reconstructed Colosseum Floor with Subterranean Level Below

Currently, the subterranean level and the third tier are open to private tours— it was definitely well worth the extra money to see these areas up close.

Subterranean Level

Subterranean Level

Subterranean Lift

Lift shaft that raised animals up to Colosseum floor.

The subterranean level, or “the backstage”, was a series of passageways and rooms where animals and gladiators were held before they took center stage to fight.  (I’m sure it wasn’t the most pleasant place to be at that time, but so interesting to see now.)

The Colosseum Tiers

The Colosseum Tiers

Standing on the upper tier of the Colosseum offered us spectacular views.  We really got a sense of its colossal size from this vantage point.  Amazing.

Roman Forum Main Square

Roman Forum Main Square

Next to the Colosseum is the Roman Forum, the center of Roman life during the great Roman Empire.  Set between Rome’s seven hills, the Roman Forum has so many significant ruins it’s mind-boggling.  Here’s a glance at some of the surviving structures…

Temple of Venus and Rome

Temple of Venus and Rome

Temple of Julius Ceasar

Temple of Julius Caesar - Site of Caesar’s Cremation

House of the Vestal Virgins

Site of The House of the Vestal Virgins

Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine

Near the Roman Forum and the Colosseum stands the Arch of Constantine—a triumphal arch to mark Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in 312 AD which, in turn, made Christianity mainstream.

Staying on the topic of Christianity, a visit to the tiny independent city-state of Vatican City is a must-see on any Rome itinerary.

St. Peter's Basilica and Square

St. Peter's Basilica and Square

This small country (about 100 acres), ruled by the Pope, has its own postal system, currency, armed Swiss guards and mini train station along with the largest Christian church in the world (St. Peter’s Basilica), an immense museum (Vatican Museum), and Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel.  So many treasures in such a small space.  It’s magnificent.

Other sights we visited…

Capitoline Hill

Capitoline Hill

Capitoline Hill was once the center of Roman politics.  The square,  the Piazza del Campidoglio, was designed by Michelangelo.

Piazza Navona

Artists in Piazza Navona

Victor Emmanuel

National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II

The National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II (Altare della Patria) was built to commemorate Italy’s unification and celebrate their first king, Victor Emmanuel. The statue of the king on the horse in the center is simply enormous.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain - One of the most famous fountains.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The Pantheon once served as a temple in ancient Rome and is still in use today as a church, some 2,000 years since its construction.

Spanish Steps

Spanish Steps - One of Rome's iconic sights.

Basilica of San Clemente

Basilica of San Clemente

A brilliant example of Rome’s layered history can be found within the Basilica of San Clemente.  This 12th century basilica was built upon a 4th century basilica which was built upon a 2nd century pagan temple.  A very interesting place to see.

Michelangelo's Moses

Michelangelo's Moses at St. Peter-in-Chains

Built in the 5th century, St. Peter-in-Chains Church (San Pietro in Vincoli) is home to Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses as well as the chains that held St. Peter.

With so many sights, sounds and flavors to digest, one should never find themselves bored in this magnificent city.  Even after all the pasta we consumed, we still managed to burn some serious calories walking through history.

Grazie, Rome! Grazie, Italy!