Monday, May 23, 2011

Trip to Poland

I've recently returned to Northern Ireland from a wonderful trip to Krakow, Poland.  My friend Ben and I accompanied Ewa, a fellow study-abroad student who was returning to Poland for the summer.  Thanks to Ewa we were able to appreciate the history and culture surrounding us, as well as simply getting along much more smoothly.  Krakow is a beautiful city, a vibrant and well-preseved place that has been a center of Polish culture for a thousand years.  For several centuries it was the capital city of the Kingdom of Poland. 

We packed a lot of sight-seeing into our brief time: we toured several large churches and cathedrals, including the Basilica of Sts. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, which has a crypt containing the tombs of many Polish kings and notable citizens.  The Basilica is atop the Wawel, a hill that overlooks central Krakow and is the site of the Royal Castle.  We took an extensive tour of the castle and viewed the wealth of royal art and artifacts, from tapestries to cannons. 

At the foot of the Wawel Hill is a statue of Smok, the mythical dragon whose cave can still be explored.  The story goes like this: In ancient times, a dragon lived in a cave at the foot of Wawel, by the River Vistula.  He would only stop pillaging and destroying the surrounding towns if the people would appease him with a young maiden once a year.  King Krak of Poland sent his best knights to slay the dragon, who would light them on fire with ease.  Krak offered his daughter Wanda's hand in marriage to anyone who could kill the dragon.  Though every knight who attempted this was killed, a poor peasant named Skuba volunteered.  Skuba filled a sheep's stomach with sulfur and set the bait outside smocza jama (the dragon's den).  The dragon took the bait, but after eating it was gripped with a terrible thirst.  He drank and drank from the Vistula, but his thirst could not be quenched.  Finally he exploded!  Thus, Skuba was married to Princess Wanda, and they lived happily ever after.

We also toured Krakow's large market square, saw a duel between men clad in medieval armor, ate pierogi and visited Oskar Schindler's factory.  Our most striking experience occurred when we took a day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish).  It is a visit that was hard to understand at the time, and I'm still processing what I saw.  We took tours of both the original Auschwitz death camp and the nearby Birkenau camp.  I learned a lot more about the cost of the WWII on the Polish people - 3 million of the Jews murdered were from Poland, and the original purpose of Auschwitz was to house Polish resistors to Nazi rule - 6 million Polish civilians died in the war.  Our tours were sobering showers of facts - the harsh realities of camp life, the numbers of the dead - but it was difficult (for me, at least) to comprehend that the place was one where so much horror had occurred.  It is hard to feel the fear of the imprisoned when you walk under sunny skies around a place that, apart from the large number of visitors, is relatively peaceful.

My trip to Poland was a lot of fun.  I learned so much about a culture of which I had known very little, and even learned a few key Polish words - Nie rezumiem po polsku ("I don't speak Polish") came in handy when I had to let anyone know that I couldn't understand them! 

I'm off.  Good bye for now - Do widzenia! 

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Spring Break "Eurotrip"

Now that I'm rested up, I thought I'd post an update on my last two weeks.  I took a trip around Europe during Easter Break.  Ben, Quinn and I left on April 15 for Dublin.  We took the train, and got into the city within 2 hours.  Dublin is a fantastic city - an expensive one, but a fantastic one!  Among the places we visited are St. Stephen's Green, the National Museum, the James Joyce Centre, Trinity College, Temple Bar, Dublin Castle and the Guinness Storehouse.  The Georgian architecture of the city is charming, recalling the time when Dublin used to be the "second city" of the British Empire.

Now, this is where the trip gets interesting.  On the evening of the 18th we took a cheap Ryanair flight from Dublin to Frankfurt-Hahn airport, near Frankfurt, Germany.  Or at least, what we thought was Frankfurt.  It turns out that one of the ways Ryanair is able to keep its flights so inexpensive is that they often fly to out-of-the-way airports, one of them being Frankfurt-Hahn.  It was more than an hour away from Frankfurt.  So we had to take a bus at 11:30 pm to the city of Mainz, the nearest large town.  After spending a night at the train station, and having an encounter with a Turkish kebab stand worker named Mr. Habiby, we took the earliest train to Munich.  After a few setbacks, such as getting lost for two hours on our way to the hostel, and after a nice long nap, we were able to start exploring.

Munich is quite a beautiful city, one rich in history and culture.  It has many huge and ornamented churches, such as the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), and "Alter Peter" (Old St. Peter's Church).  Another wonderful landmark is the Neo-Gothic Rathaus (Town Hall).  Of course, some of the best tourist attractions in Munich are the various, world-famous beer gardens that dot the city, such as the Augustiner Keller, the Paulaner Brauhaus, and of course the Hofbrauhaus. 

After spending some warm, sunny days in Munich, we were ready to move on.  I split up with Quinn and Ben, and took the train from Munich to Salzburg, where I visited my friend Megan, who's been studying there since the fall.  Though I had less time to spend than in Dublin and Munich, I had a great time exploring Salzburg.  It's a very picturesque city, situated in the middle of the Alps.  Megan gave me a walking tour around Salzburg, seeing the various churches and historical buildings (Salzburg has the oldest restaurant in the world, founded in the 9th century!) - even some of the filming locations for The Sound of Music. 

After two days in Salzburg, I departed on the last leg of my journey - Florence, Italy.  I'd been there before with my parents, but only for one day, so I was glad to make another visit.  But first I had to take an 8 hour train ride through the Alps, which was incredibly beautiful!  When I got to Florence I met back up with Bena nd Quinn, as well as my friend Leah, who is studying in Florence this semester.  Florence is a city with a lot of character.  Its role in the Renaissance is very well preserved.  We walked all over the city, visiting the Piazza del Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, the Piazza della Replublica, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Piazza della Signoria (the one with the "fake David").  Needless to say, we had to sample the pasta and gelato, which did not disappoint.
Of course, every great holiday has to come to an end.  After two weeks of travel, I left Italy from the Pisa airport and flew back to the U.K.  Though I had a fantastic time, it is good to be back to Northern Ireland.  Now it's time to rest up and start work on my finals.