A Bavarian fairy tale

The villages in Bavaria, Germany are small and sleepy, tucked away off the frantic autobahn where new BMWs roar past at 120 miles per hour. Driving through the soft, rolling hills past corn and wheat fields reminds me of home. That is, until the tour van I’m riding in approaches the village of Hohenschwangau (Upper Swan County) and atop the abrupt start of the Alpine foothills rests Schloss Neuschwanstein.

The palace could be from a fairytale, and in fact, inspired Walt Disney’s design of the castle at Disneyworld. King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a peculiar and reclusive man, designed the castle after the operas of Richard Wagner inspired him. While the castle was completed rather recently (in 1886) its design was medieval because Ludwig found the style to be romantic. He did not spare a single cent and created one of the most famous and beautiful castles in the world.

After my visit to Neuschwanstein, I was enchanted with this perfect, fairytale land. However, like every fairytale, there has to be a villain and the story of Bavaria is no different.

A mere hour from Neuschwanstein lay the villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which hosted the 1936 Winter Olympics. The event was presided over by none other than Adolf Hitler, who, at that time, was considered a legitimate and respectable politician. While the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, were tense and several countries threatened to boycott them, photos from the Winter Olympics show alarming images of acceptance of the Nazi regime.

The Canadian team can be seen giving the Nazi salute, the Nazi flag flew above the French one (even as German troops moved into the Rhineland), and “Jews Not Wanted” signs were removed from shops for the games.

While traveling throughout the Bavarian countryside it was hard for me to reconcile the two conflicting images I had of the area. One, an image of beautiful castles and soft, green hills. The other of a monster with a tight smile, waving to a crowd of people unaware that a human being could be so vile. The story of Bavaria has all the makings of a true fairytale and like the best fairy tales, the villain is defeated by the powers of good.

When travel breaks your heart

I spend a majority of my time writing about the benefits of travel and the beauty I have been fortunate enough to experience while on my adventures, but it is also important to note that travel is not always comfortable or fun and easy. As Anthony Bourdain said, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you—it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you and hopefully you leave something good behind.” The first time I remember my heart breaking while traveling was in Chumphon, Thailand as I was walking to catch a boat to the island of Koh Tao.

I had my trusty backpack with all of my possessions and I was approaching the dock and loading area. As I was crossing the bridge, I heard a horrible noise that raised goosebumps on my arms despite the heat. I followed the noise and looked over the side of the bridge and below, rather than a clear stream, was a garbage filled ditch. In the ditch, I could see that the sound was coming from a dog whose fure was once tan but was now smeared black and brown. He was half way out of the ditch, trying to climb out but his back leg was clearly broken and he couldn’t get any farther. My heart broke, I felt numb and confused, and I had no idea what to do, or who to call.

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Wild dogs run rampant in Thailand. The one pictured was having a wonderful time playing in the water, but many dogs end up dying of disease and starvation as they live on the streets.

This was far from the first loose dog I had seen in the country, as there are many wild dogs in Thailand. Just a few days before I had had to walk over a dead dog outside of the front door of a Starbucks, which had been depressing enough. Now here was a dog in pain, dying, and I could do nothing.

While the dog in Thailand was my first experience with the emotional hardships of travel, the most heartbreaking experiences I have had while traveling occurred during a train ride from Rome to Pordenone, Italy.

The trip would take approximately six hours with one transfer. We had been traveling for an hour and fifteen minutes, making ourselves comfortable for the next few hours before we had to change trains. Simultaneously, I heard and felt a clanging and crunching sound beneath our train. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that my first thought was, “We’ve lost a part of the train, that’s just like the Italians to let their trains run down like that.”

Our train came to a stop and everyone was silent as the conductor came over the intercom. Since he was speaking Italian, Steve and I had no idea what he was saying. After several minutes of silence and our 7 cabin mates speaking amongst themselves, a middle-aged man turned to us and asked, “Did you understand?”

We told him we had not and he proceeded to inform us that a man had jumped in front of our train to end his life. It put the sounds I had heard and felt into horrifying perspective and I thought I might be sick. It was the single worst event I had experienced while traveling.

I have seen countless homeless people, such as the man in Seoul, Korea who had his legs blown off in a Cambodian mine and wheeled himself around on a cart. I have spoken to people who have expressed their blatant hate for Jews, Muslims, Roma (Gypsies), Syrians, Africans, and black Americans.

These things can not be unseen or unheard. And I wouldn’t have it any other way because this reminds me why it is important to see more of the world and hear more from its people to understand my place in it. I only hope that, even though I have had my heart broken by these experiences, I have been changed and I have, hopefully, left “something good behind.”

Soaking in the Széchenyi baths in Budapest

Budapest, like many other Central/Eastern European cities has a variegated history—from its establishment as a Celt village, to a Roman settlement, to a Magyar (Hungarians) tribe’s kingdom, on to Turkish rule, followed by Hapsburg, Nazi, and Communist. While I witnessed and learned much about the city during a guided tour, my favorite part of the trip to Budapest was a visit to the Széchenyi (say-chen-yee) thermal baths.

The Széchenyi baths were established as a permanent bathhouse in 1913 and use the water from two thermal springs. The building itself is beautiful, built in a Neo-Baroque style with series of columns superficially supporting the copper domed roofs. They have over fifteen thermal pools in the building’s large complex, but my favorite was the large outdoor pool.

I visited the baths at night and the soft, golden glow of the streetlamp style lights reflected off the canary yellow building. The steam encouraged an air of mystery and seduction that people in tiny bathing suits did not need, but certainly appreciated. The turquoise-by-day water was now muted cerulean blue under the quiet night sky.

Day and night the bath is filled with a menagerie of locals and tourists of all ages and offers some of the best people watching I have ever seen in Europe.

Children (and adult tourists) play in a “whirlpool” whose artificially strong current constantly knocks you off your feet. There are elderly men testing their mental endurance in games of chess while sitting in the warm waters. Teenagers and adults alike smooch and have no problem with public displays of affection. There are women wearing swim caps doing small laps in the less crowded areas and of course, there are the land dwellers reading books and newspapers along the water’s edge.

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The Szechenyi Baths provide warm water year round. The whirlpool is pictured here with adults and kids alike enjoying its strong current.

Things at Széchenyi have not always been so relaxing. During WWI the complex came upon hard economic times and made no profit. WWII was worse and during one of the worst sieges of the war, one-fifth of the baths were damaged and after the war the buildings fell in to ruin under Soviet rule, having no funds to maintain it.

These days, the most frightening thing the baths see are the hairy, overweight Magyars sporting itsy, bitsy, teeny-tiny Speedos.

An Unforgettable Eruption of Etna

On December 2, 2015 Steve and I were lucky enough to travel to Sicily and take a tour bus to the largest volcano in Europe, Mount Etna. As Mt. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world we were also lucky enough to miss the eruption that happened less than 24 hours after we visited.

Steve and I had traveled to Sicily as a stop on a cruise and after doing some research decided to take a tour bus from the port in Catania to the nearby volcano.

After an hour on the bus we reached the Sapienza Refuge, which lies south of the two main craters, Bocca Nuova and Voragine. From there we walked to the craters on crunchy, reddish black volcanic rock. With so little vegetation and unfamiliar stones, it was like an alien planet. While the temperature when we left our ship had been in the upper 70’s, on Mt. Etna it had dropped to the upper 50s with a wind that was so strong it nearly knocked me over. I left Etna satisfied and thrilled by the idea that I had just climbed (alright and driven to) my first volcano. Steve and I returned to our ship and sailed away from Sicily and Etna.

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Here I am standing near the Bocca Nuova and Voragine craters.

Two days later, we left the cruise ship, had access to the Internet again, and found that Mt. Etna had erupted less than a day after we were there. We looked at images of the volcano and could hardly believe that the docile mountain we stood on could explode so fiercely. Video footage of the event showed volcanic ash falling on the city of Catania. It was like a hailstorm of dark, black rock, but the most interesting part of the video was seeing people outside going about their lives and simply carrying umbrellas to keep stones from hitting them.

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Mt. Etna erupts on December 3, 2015. Time-lapse photo by Marco Restivo|Demotix|Corbis

I fell in love with the complete foreignness of Mt. Etna, and as it turns out, the locals love the volcano just as much as foreigners. Even though the volcano constantly threatens their homes and way of life, the locals refer to it as “Mongibello,” the beautiful mountain. After seeing it, I can understand why.

A city under siege

The sun was setting in the Sarajevo valley in Bosnia-Hervegovina and it was then that I heard the low crescendo of the muezzin floating on the soft summer breeze. A moment later the bells of Sacred Heart Cathedral began to ring and I understood why Sarajevo has been called the European Jerusalem. It is a city that hosts mosques, a synagogue, and Serbian Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals all within a few hundred meters of each other and for hundreds of years was the picture of peace and tolerance.

This all changed in 1992 during the Bosnian War when Serbian forces surrounded Sarajevo and started the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. The siege lasted from 1992 to 1996 and I was fortunate enough to hear about the history of the city during that time from a local who had experienced and survived the war.

We went on a walking tour of the city and our 27 year-old guide, Lelja, was not shy about pointing out Communist-era apartment blocks riddled with bullet holes and the remnants of bomb blasts making them look like moldy, Swiss cheese. She told us that when the city was first under siege she was seven and needed to go to school. “I went to school in an old ale house because it was the closest large building to my house. We had to go to school very early because we had to be home by 10 a.m. when the shooting and bombing started. We don’t know why, but they didn’t start shooting until 10 a.m. Maybe they wanted to sleep in,” she joked.

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Bomb blast and bullet holes from the siege of Sarajevo.

She also pointed to a large, red paint splatter on the pavement. It was a “Sarajevo rose” and the city has more than 100 of them. Each rose marks where mortar shells fell and killed between 3 to 20 people. 11,500 people were killed during the siege, many of them children out to collect water or food for their families.

After the tour, I could not help but notice the groups of people sitting outside on park benches and along the small river that runs through the city. There were women with headscarves having a picnic with women wearing shorts and tank tops. There were teenagers flirting outside of a mosque, while old men sipped Turkish coffees and played chess. The war cost many people their lives and left its mark on buildings and locals, but the people of Sarajevo have proved their resilience by steering the city’s history back to one of tolerance and peace.

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The Mediterranean’s medieval gem

Dubrovnik is one of Croatia’s most famous cities. Many people know of its incredible Old Town (Stari Grad), which is surrounded entirely by a series of defensive, stone walls, which run over 6,000 feet, have a maximum height of 82 feet, and are approximately 15 feet thick. They have been defending the city against sieges throughout its history from 866 to 1991 when the Serbian army sat atop Mount Zarkovica above the city and launched artillery. The ancient walls turned out to be more effective at resisting modern warfare than contemporary structures outside of the Old Town.

Having read about Dubrovnik’s history and layout before I traveled there, I had an idea of what to expect, but as I drove into the city, down from Mount Zarkovica, the view took my breath away.

The walls’ stones looked pearly white in the afternoon sun as the city jutted out into the clear, blue Adriatic. When you look down on it, there are few trees clinging to the mountain face and you have a clear view of the famous red rooftops that cover the buildings. From above, it is a sleepy little city, but once you enter the old town through a fortified stone gate, the story completely changes.

During the day, there is the dizzying activity of tourists crowding the streets and gaping at the incredible architecture while scrambling to get the best gelato (ice cream). At first, the crowds felt oppressive and disappointing; it seemed to make my trip less special since, apparently, everyone was visiting Dubrovnik. However, as twilight fell and tourists set sail on their cruise ships, the city became mine.

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Dubrovnik’s harbor in Stari Grad at twilight.

I did not think Dubrovnik could look anymore stunning, but as the sun set on the harbor and struck the ancient walls for the final time that day, the city took on an ethereal glow.

If the history and sheer beauty are not enough to convince someone to visit Dubrovnik, it might also tempt Game of Thrones fans, as Dubrovnik is the main filming location for King’s Landing. Stock up on all of your Game of Thrones memorabilia at nearly any souvenir shop, but make sure to learn a little about the real city’s history and not just the fictional one, as it might shock you even more.

The mysteries of Newgrange

One thing many people will tell you if you are traveling is to have in mind sights you want to see and things you want to do, but leave space in your schedule for spur of the moment opportunities. I had one such opportunity when I traveled to Dublin, Ireland.

I was planning on staying in the city for my four-day visit, but after receiving an email from my former college advisor, who knew I was traveling to Dublin, at her recommendation I booked a day tour to the Newgrange tomb just outside of the city.

Newgrange is a prehistoric monument built around 3000 B.C. to 2500 B.C., which makes it 500 years older than Stonehenge and 1,000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids. While it might not be as grand as the pyramids or as mesmerizing as Stonehenge it does include some special features that boggle the human mind.

The tomb is made of a large, circular stone mound with a stone passageway and interior chambers. The passage stretches for 60 feet or about a third of the way into the center. At the end of the passage are three small chambers off a larger central chamber. The small chambers may have held the bones of the dead, but its still not clear if the site was actually a burial place.

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The entrance to the Newgrange tomb.

Another interesting aspect of the tomb is that once a year, at the winter solstice, the rising sun shines directly into the passage and illuminates the main inner chamber, which reveals wall carvings. The illumination lasts for about 17 minutes. Today the light on winter solstice enters about four minutes after sunrise, but astronomical calculations of Earth show that 5,000 years ago first light would have entered the passage at exactly sunrise.

I cannot fathom how a group of people could not only build a structure—that had massive stones carried uphill from over 15 miles away—but could also design it to allow the passage to be lit up on the winter solstice at exactly sunrise. This is where you could perhaps begin to believe in aliens.

Jokes aside, I try to remember to keep my traveling schedule a bit loose, because had I not allowed myself a less rigid schedule I never would have had the experience of seeing an incredible structure built thousands of years ago by a very determined (or alien-aided) civilization.