The week before we left Tirana for our Christmas travels our son, David, arrived for a visit. Here we are visiting Tirana’s city center which is full of lights, carnival rides, coffee shops and a Christmas tree to celebrate the season.
My friend, Dana and I go to a local park called Artificial Lake to run every Saturday morning. So glad David could join us!
Just like last year, David visited my grade one class to show the children a real heart (from a sheep) and to explain how it works. He also brought his loupes (glasses used in surgery) so the children could try them on and understand how they are used.
On the first day of my holiday school vacation David, Randy and I flew to Budapest, Hungary for a four night stay. Our younger son, Josh, flew from the States and met us in Budapest. I LOVED being with our two sons for a few days. Elizabeth, Ben and their children are celebrating Christmas in South Africa so unfortunately we were not with them for the holidays this year. 😦
After settling into our AirBnB apartment we went for a tour of the Christmas markets of Budapest which were voted the best in Europe this year. The Christmas market pictured above was our favorite. It was located in Buda, about a 15 minute tram ride from the city center. You may or may not know that Budapest is actually two different cities Buda and Pest. The cities are divided by the Danube River. Buda is a more residential area and Pest has more businesses and more tourists. As you can see by the pictures, Buda was so charming!! Josh is sampling a traditional food called lango that consists of something similar to fried dough with cheese and sour cream, not sweet like in the States. Yum! Also all the Christmas markets we visited had hot mulled wine, really delicious especially on a cold day.
This is one of the Christmas markets in Pest with the centerpiece being St. Stephen’s Basilica, a gorgeous Catholic Church.
Listen to the church bells! 🙂
I had never seen advent wreaths used as Christmas decorations. It seemed so appropriate! In fact, for our whole two week trip we only saw nativity scenes, Christmas trees, angels and wreaths. We never saw Santa with his reindeer, stockings, snowmen or other similar Christmas decorations that we are accustomed to in the States.
Crossing the Danube River over the Chain Bridge.
Thanks to Peter for getting our family started on this tradition of taking a photo by a local manhole cover when we travel.
The view from the other side of the Danube.
David could not pass up this opportunity to interact with this amazing bird.
Arriving at the Széchenyi Baths for an afternoon enjoying the 3 outdoor and 15 indoor thermal pools. Szechenyi Baths are the largest medicinal baths in Europe. Its water comes from two thermal springs, their temperature is 74 °C and 77 °C. The water has to be cooled to allow people to get in. What a fun, different experience!!!
This is the gorgeous Parliament building. The nativity scene and Christmas tree were prominently displayed in front of the building. We were not able to tour it because I did not reserve tickets far enough in advance. If you go to Budapest, reserve Parliament tour tickets at least a month early.
We were walking along the Danube one evening when we came across several bronzed shoes like the ones above. This memorial is called Shoes on the Danube and is in remembrance of the thousands of Jews who were shot along the banks of the Danube River during WWII. The victims were forced to remove their shoes at gunpoint (shoes were valuable during World War II) before they were shot in the back, falling over the edge to be washed away by the freezing waters. This was a powerful reminder of the horrors of WWII.
Street art was everywhere in Budapest. A bit of trivia, the Rubik’s Cube originated in Budapest.
We had brunch at this ruin bar. A ruin bar is a bar built in the ruins of abandoned buildings. They are located in the old Jewish quarter. We loved our meal in this really unusual setting.
These are the same brass plates we have seen on the sidewalks throughout Europe. They are about five inches square and are placed outside of homes or businesses where Jews were taken and sent to work or extermination camps. The first date in the birthdate of the victim and the second date is the date the Jewish victim was unjustly arrested. It is so startling and powerful to randomly come across these stark reminders of the horrors the Jewish population experienced during WWII. We found out while visiting Budapest that Hungary was never Nazi occupied, only 125 German Nazis came to Budapest. The other terror mongers who did most of the damage were Hungarian citizens who were part of a group called Arrow Cross, a far right Nazi-like organization.
On our last evening in Budapest we took a tram over to the the less touristy Buda. We went to a jazz concert at a charming small club that had great music. It was a wonderful way to close our visit to this beautiful, history-filled city.
We are now headed to Bratislava, Slovakia on a three hour train ride. We LOVED traveling by train. There was lots of room to relax, free wi-fi and the enjoyment of watching the countryside pass by.
Bratislavia is a fairly small city and the capital of Slovakia. Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia until 1993 when Slovakia and the Czech Republic agreed to a peaceful separation of the two countries. We spent one night here and only had an afternoon to explore the city. It rained most of the time we were there. Here we are on a walk from our hotel to the Old Town part of the city.
Unfortunately, the Christmas markets closed for the season the day before we arrived but we still enjoyed the Old Town charm.
Every city we have visited in Europe has at least one gorgeous church, either Catholic or Protestant.
Good bye to charming Bratislava! The next morning (Christmas Eve Day) at 8:00 we were taking an eight hour train ride to Krakow, Poland. One of the reasons I am excited to visit Krakow is that my great-grandmother, Jeanette Kratchowill McCann immigrated to the US sometime during the late 1800’s. Unfortunately I know no more information about her life in Krakow.
On our first evening (Christmas Eve) in Krakow we walked to the city center where we saw these Christmas decorations. It is hard to tell in these pictures but the city square in Krakow is the largest square in Europe.
Christmas Eve is celebrated in a bigger way than Christmas Day in the countries we visited including Poland. We went to this gorgeous church for a midnight Christmas Eve service. We did not stay for the whole service because it was all in Polish but that being said, we enjoyed the spiritual feel to the service.
Outside of the church was a live nativity scene and a wonderful performance by some local priests.
The next morning (Christmas Day) we went on a free walking tour of Krakow. Krakow is an absolutely beautiful city. During WWII the Germans moved many of their offices to Krakow which meant there was not nearly as much bombing of this city as happened in other European cities.
On the walk up to the Krakow Wawel Castle you can see the brick wall on the right. On the brick wall are individual cement plaques with names of people fromnaround the world who contributed to the rebuilding of the castle between WWI and WWII. Loved seeing the names of two people from Buffalo who made contributions.
More views of the Wawel Castle…
A popular symbol of Krakow sits between the Vistula River and the castle and is know as the Wawel Dragon.
As you probably know Pope John Paul II came from Poland so it was common to see tributes to him throughout Krakow. 86% of Poles are Catholic which is an impressive number since the country was under Communist rule for more than 40 years until 1989.
Even the trams in Krakow were decorated for Christmas.
One of my favorite parts of our trip was seeing these nativity scenes (szopka) in Krakow. There is a 200 year old tradition of a yearly competion held the first weekend in December to build szopkas similar to the ones pictured. A characteristic part of the scenes is the use of historical buildings as a backdrop for the nativity of Jesus. So gorgeous, colorful and unusual!
These are the only 4 pictures I took at Auschwitz. For much of my adult life I thought I never wanted to visit a concentration camp. The thought of visiting a place with so much horror involved was just too overwhelming to think about. However, with time I came to think that as a citizen of the world I needed to experience going to one of these camps. Auschwitz is an hour drive from Krakow so we decided to go. It was just as horrible as I was afraid it would be and brought me to tears even as I write this. How could a group of people treat another group of people like this?
This was the only picture I took at Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz 2. Auschwitz 1 was a concentration or work camp where some people survived. Birkenau was an extermination camp. No one survived Birkenau. There were no records of who died here. Thousands of Jews were unloaded and taken immediately to the gas chambers. When the gas chambers were too full or busy people were put into buildings waiting for their turn to be gassed.
We visited this factory which you may be familiar with from the movie “Schindler’s List”.
These are just some of the people Oskar Schindler saved with his factory.
This is the park we walked through on the way to our Airbnb along with the name of the street where the Airbnb was located. We found out that our Airbnb was located next door to an apartment where Oskar Schindler lived.
We are checking out the train schedule as we get ready to board a train to Prague in the Czech Republic.
Here are some views of the countryside as we travel between Krakow and Prague on the train. Randy figured out all the logistics involved with train travel for this trip. He is officially an expert on Eurorail!!
We arrived in Prague at nightfall to these beautiful scenes. We all thought Prague was the most beautiful of all the cities we visited. However, it was also by far the most crowded with tourists which meant we did not enjoy it as much as we had hoped.
My friend, Kelly, who teaches with me at Albanian College was traveling in Europe for the holiday break and met us in Prague. We all shared an Airbnb and the Prague sights together. Kelly was a welcome addition to our group!
This is the oldest operating astronomical clock in the world, dating back to the 1400’s. The Walk of the Apostles happens on the hour in the windows at the top of the clock.
Here is some of the beautiful, unusual and varied art of Prague.
We saw these delicious desserts called chimneys in several cities throughout our trip. I liked them plain which means just a type of bread with cinnamon or you could have them filled with ice cream, nutella or many other fillings. Josh choose one with the works!
Loved seeing this yoga studio as we walked around Prague.
We took a four hour food tour to a few secluded (less touristy) areas of Prague to taste some traditional Czech food. The other people on the tour were from Australia, New Zealand and Dublin. As usual, we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know some new people.
Kelly and I climbed up to the castle to see the beautiful views of Prague.
Prague had the same brass plates we have seen throughout Europe, indicating where Jewish individuals and, as seen on the right, whole families were taken from their homes to concentration or extermination camps during WWII.
Prague is full of gorgeous churches as pictured above. 80% of people from the Czech Republic have no religion so the churches cannot sustain themselves financially without a congregation. In an effort to maintain these beautiful buildings it is common for one or more concerts to be held in these churches on an almost daily basis. The money received from the concerts goes to supporting the maintenance of the churches.
This is a snippet of the concert we attended one night.
We enjoyed the concert so much that the following night we attended a second concert.
We felt so very fortunate to enjoy this beautiful music in an equally gorgeous setting.
On our last afternoon in Prague we went to see the new Star Wars movie. It was New Year’s Eve afternoon so the theater was fairly quiet. The movie was a relaxing change of pace plus Randy and Josh were especially happy to see the movie.
We are now at the train station waiting for an overnight train to our final destination, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Our sleeper car was three berths stacked on top of each other. It was close quarters but a fun and reasonably comfortable way to travel from one city to another.
We were traveling on the sleeper car overnight on New Year’s Eve so there were lots of fireworks going off through the night as we whizzed along. Josh took this video.
This is what we saw on our first evening in Ljubljana as we walked around the city, so beautiful!
On my run the following morning I came across this almost life size nativity scene made from straw.
Look at this unusual tree near our Airbnb.
More brass plates on the sidewalk outside of a Ljubljana residence. 😦
The dragon symbolizes Ljubljana’s courage, grandeur and power and is seen as the city’s protector.
Slovenia is very proud of the fact that their country recycles almost 70% of their trash which is more than any other EU capital city. Impressive!!
We took a day trip about an hour outside of Ljubljana to see Predjama Castle which was built in the 1200’s in the mouth of a cave. We took an excellent audio tour of this castle full of secret passageways and history.
More pictures from the castle…
Our next stop on our tour outside of Ljubljana was Lake Bled. We boarded a pletna boat and headed to a small island with a church on it. The oarsmen, who stand as they row, are part of a traditional profession that has been passed down for generations.
These pictures were taken at the church on the island. In the picture on the lower right I am ringing the church bells using a rope hanging at the front of the church. What a treat to get to do this!
Do you see the red roofed castle situated up on the cliff? That is where we are headed next.
Views of and from the castle …
This picture was taken at the castle. The Lake Bled island with the church can be seen in the background which is where we just came from. We are so, so fortunate to experience all this beauty.
Good bye to the beautiful country of Slovenia. We are now flying back to Tirana after a wonderful, sometimes exhausting, 15 day trip. We have used four different currencies, heard five different languages and had so many varied experiences. It is truly a gift that we were able to take this trip. It will be good to settle back into life in our apartment in Albania. We arrived back on January 4th and school started on the 6th.
Josh came back to Albania with us for a few days before going back to the States. Here we are going to coffee with our good friends, Edlira and Aldo, and a friend Josh met when he came to Albania last year.
My students just finished a unit about how cities evolve over time so Josh came to school to teach the children how to use Google Earth on the tablets provided by the school. Thanks, Josh! The children still choose to use this app on a regular basis.
Thanks, as always, for reading through this very long blog post. I am never sure what to add or leave out which usually ends up with a long post. It is early February and I am just now posting from our holiday trip. As you can imagine, it takes awhile to sift through our pictures and to figure out how to present them and to add some verbiage. I really do enjoy documenting our experiences and I thank you again for reading.
We have spent the rest of January in Tirana and will spend most of February here in town. We have a three day weekend coming up soon. I searched where the least expensive flights were for that weekend and found a three hour direct flight to London for next to nothing so we are headed to London on Thursday for three days.
School is going well. I feel like I need to post a school update plus something about living here in Tirana. Stay tuned… I hope all is well with our friends and family. Thanks so much for staying in touch.