Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Krakow, Poland

Krakow is a city that was on our original list of places to see while living in Europe, and even though Jon had been there before, he was more than happy to explore this vibrant city once again. I didn't really know what to expect when planning our trip to Krakow, and one of the main reasons we wanted to visit it was because of its close proximity to Auschwitz, which I also wanted to see. We didn't include our visit to Auschwitz in this blog post - it deserves a post of its own and the nature of the visit is obviously vastly different than the time we had in Krakow.

We planned this trip with our friends Charlie and Ayessa (they used to live in Naples, but now live in Lisbon). We met up in Munich airport during our layovers and made our way to snowy Krakow. We were welcomed right away with coffee and tea at our lovely B&B in the heart of the city. With snow gathering on our clothing we walked to Rynek Glowny, the main market square in the center of the city. A large Renaissance building named Cloth Hall dominates part of the square where merchants sell a variety of Polish arts and products.

Cloth Hall

Daytime shot of Cloth Hall

Jon and I in the square.

Just outside of the building stands the Adam Mickiewicz statue, erected for Poland's national poet.

It was snowing!

St. Mary's Church commands the square with its presence and was built by the citizens of Krakow starting in 1355. We attempted to go inside, but when regular services are being held one cannot go in during these times unless you are going to pray.

Throughout the weekend we continued to walk the streets of Krakow, eventually coming to Wawel Castle, which stands about 150 feet above Krakow and was built in the 10th century.

View from the castle

We also made our way to the old Jewish quarter known as Kazimierz. Before the start of World War II there were about 65,000 Jews living in Krakow (about 30% of the population) and most of them lived in this area. The Jewish population of this thriving district was destroyed by the Holocaust, but traces of this community can still be seen. Small synagogues dot the streets, serving as a silent evidence of what this area used to be and the importance of the Jews here. Holocaust memorials and plaques are abundant here with family and friends hoping to keep alive the memories of those who perished during that time. We appreciated the history of the Jewish Quarter and reflected on the unimaginable events that took place here during the war.

This used to be a house for Torah study. 

Holocaust Memorial

Remu Synagogue

Old Jewish Cemetery 

Aside from walking around the city we spent a lot of time eating! We ate so much that the four of us joked that we were having two dinners every night. Polish food is extremely tasty and we jumped right in and ordered some specialties like beetroot soup, pierogis, anything with mushrooms in it, cabbage, and a lot of meat dishes.

Pierogis filled with mushrooms and cabbage

Jon's flaming meat dish

We also went to a vodka bar that has over 100 different flavors of vodka. We tried flavors such as hazelnut, caramel, mojito, apple, black currant, raspberry, and honey. You should have seen our faces when we received the bill... 12 shots of vodka set us back only 10 euros! We debated staying for another round, but we had second dinner reservations that we had to get to.

Our vodka shots
Team Roth and Team Toler!

All in all we were very impressed with the city of Krakow. We didn't realize how vibrant the city is, and how its effortless beauty would be around every corner. Combining these features with good friends led to a fantastic weekend!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Skiing at Chamonix and a stop in Geneva, Switzerland

Our second big ski trip of our time in Europe had to be at Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (our first one was last year at Zermatt when we stayed in the igloo). We had been wanting to come to this ski resort for a while now, even talking about it while we were still in the U.S. Like Zermatt, it is consistently in the top 10 lists for ski resorts, not only in Europe but around the world. The town of Chamonix is a true mountain town, surrounded by the towering French Alps, and catering to winter sports enthusiasts. Lying in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the highest of the Alpine peaks, Chamonix is in the Rhone-Alpes region and is in a "corner" of Europe consisting of France, Italy, and Switzerland.

The mountains around the town

View of the mountains while skiing
Some of the town
We flew into Geneva, which is about an hour away from Chamonix. We drove into the center and decided to explore this international city for a few hours. Almost half of Geneva is made up of people from 147 different countries linking together businesses from around the world. Walking down the streets felt like walking on Rodeo Drive or 5th Avenue; Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and the like, dominated the streets, as well as the prevalence of very high-priced watch brands such as Rolex and Cartier.

A pretty church

Looking out onto the park

A small street away from the action

We strolled along Lake Geneva, taking in the sight of the Jet d'Eau Fountain, Geneva's most famous landmark. It is one of the biggest fountains in the world and the largest in Europe. The spray of the fountain reaches about 460 feet and pumps out 132 gallons of water per second!

After Geneva, we drove the hour to Chamonix and checked into our hotel/lodge. We spent three glorious days of skiing in great conditions; it had just snowed the night before we arrived, and the sun was shining clearly in the sky for us to see. Miles of groomed trails and un-groomed fresh powder laid before us and we were presented with a variety of descents for us to choose from.

Jon on the t-bar 

Action shot

Jon on his way down
Through the trees
Each day we made our way to our favorite lunch spot in the middle of the mountain where we could laze in the outdoor loungers, sip our vin chaud and beer, and chow down on some local grub. On one of the days a local band played music while we ate and it could be heard up and down the mountain. Our two main activities of the trip combined into one- skiing and eating!

The mountain top band

Looking out to the mountains
Speaking of eating, we ate at some fantastic restaurants while there. If I could eat foie gras at every meal I would, and every time we're in France I order it like it's going out of style. Combine that with an undying love for cheese fondue and we were all set as far as food went. Each dinner was better than the next and we left each meal satisfied, but wanting more - it was so good!

Cheese fondue
Flaming creme brûlée 
This was our last trip to France while we are living in Europe so it was a little sad when we had to leave. We've returned to France four times in a year and a half and we wish we had time for just one more visit before we leave. The people are very friendly, the scenery is beautiful, and the food is sensational! Chamonix is a ski destination we will be returning to in the future... definitely! We could see ourselves renting a cabin with friends (any takers?), skiing some fantastic runs during the day, drinking delicious French wine, and dipping bread into a never ending pot of cheese fondue. Sounds perfect!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Archaeological Park at Cuma

With just over five months left of our stay here in Italy (where is the time going?) we have realized that we've done most of the main attractions in the Naples area, several times;  however, we haven't explored many of the nooks and crannies in Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields), the area in which we live. And there are A LOT! I've made a list of things to see in our area, all within fifteen minutes of our house, and all of which we should be able to visit before our time is up in July. The book "The Espresso Break" by Barbara Zaragoza has been really useful in giving us some background information on these hidden gems. It's an excellent local travel book written by a wife who was stationed here with her husband for three years. So if you live in the Naples area, are traveling in this area, or are just up for an interesting read, then I highly suggest picking this up or reading her blog here.

Taken from here
We started the list with an attraction very close to our house (maybe seven minutes away) - the Archaeological Park at Cuma. Cuma plays an important role in a lot of Greek mythology tales that we've heard over the years. Ulysses and Aeneas both landed here, the Cyclopes roamed here, and the entrance to Hades is through Lake Avernus (Lago D'Averno) which is the lake that we have a view of from our house. Cuma, though, is perhaps best known as the home of the Sibyl, the priestess of Apollo. There were many sibyls in different locations in the ancient world, but the Sibyl at Cuma was of most importance to the Romans since she was closest to Rome. Virgil's account of the Sibyl's cave in Book Six of Aeneid also illustrates the importance of the Cumaean Sibyl. Legend has it that the Sibyl didn't mention eternal youth when she bargained with Apollo for eternal life, and thus winded up an old hag-delivering prophecy, withering into something so small she eventually fit into a bottle that was hung on the wall, still proclaiming prophecies from within her numerous chambered grotto.

We walked down a tree lined path to a trapezoidal passage known as the Antro della Sibilla. This is where the Cumaean Sibyl may have written down her oracles on oak leaves that blew away. However, if the wind blew the leaves away she would not help to reassemble them to form the original prophecy.

The temples at Cuma were next, which we found after we climbed a flight of stairs and after we came to a breathtaking view of the Bay of Naples with the island of Ischia in the background.

A train passing by. 
From the lookout point

Jon at one of the lookout points

A little further up the hill we came to the Temple of Apollo, which is nothing more than a series of flattened stones. We then came to a second terrace where the Temple of Jupiter stands.

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Jupiter

Walking back towards the parking lot, there is an expansive complex that spreads out below. It includes the Tomb of the Sibyl, a Greek agora later becoming a Samnite forum, thermal baths, a necropolis, and a lot of original marble pieces scattered everywhere. It's amazing that this used to be a thriving city that sat along the water.

Thermal baths
We learned so much by going to this archaeological site and we can't believe that after being so close to it for a year and a half that we hadn't been here yet. One down, many more to go!