The Iron Curtain
The Iron Curtain formed the imaginary boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991. The term symbolized efforts by the Soviet Union to block itself and its satellite states from open contact with the West and non-Soviet-controlled areas. Churchill, who had been defeated for re-election as prime minister in 1945, was invited to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri where he gave a famous speech where he said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent”.
Our travels have now taken us to what we grew up referring to as countries “behind the Iron Curtain”. We included Berlin because we spent most of our time in what would have been East Berlin. We thought it would be really fun to visit and see the many things, that when we were younger travelers, were off limits.There is a different feel from Western Europe that may relate to only 25 years of freedom from the breakup of the Soviet Union and the independence of these countries. There is a “vibe” with the people you meet on the street, the way food is presented, the way transportation operates, some with digital methods and some with old-time manual tickets, and their love for old history going back to before medieval times. Their cultures, that are hundreds of years old, were forced to stand still and accept the “nazi/soviet” ways, as western education and economies moved forward. You had to learn Russian and not use your native language in many cases, religion was monitored or disallowed. Radio free Europe was put into place by the United States to try to get western information to people in the countries behind the iron curtain. Their rich histories were taken away by wars and occupation.
This was a tremendous experience to visit these countries, meet the people and experience their young rebirth as they move forward into this chaotic world we live in.
The cities are mostly repaired, much of the Soviet occupation can only be seen in a few of the Soviet style buildings left behind. There is a beauty to the restoration of the squares, apartments, churches and palaces to their grandeur before the war and occupation. There are empty spaces where signs of what happened had been erased.
Berlin – We spent most of our time in East Berlin
We arrived in Berlin about 4:30 pm on May 19 after a quick flight from Copenhagen. What was interesting about this flight, neither of us was asked for any ID after retrieving our tickets and baggage tags from a machine at the airport, including passing security to the waiting area and after arriving in Berlin. We are so used to the close scrutiny of TSA at our airports. In some ways it is a little concerning that people can buy tickets and travel with no identification.
Rather than taking a Taxi, adventure more important than ease, we decided on public transportation. We headed for public transportation information and hey told us what bus to take to the subway and which subway to take to within 3 block of our hotel. We executed this with great skill except on the bus, our luggage kept moving around on it’d rollers causing chaos. We got it under control. We did carry our luggage up and down stairs but made it to the city. We accidentally went to the wrong Winters Hotel but thankfully the other was only 7 blocks away.
We mentioned the problem with one of the camera lenses and headed to the big Berlin Mall to find a new lens. Thank goodness they had a store like Best Buy in the USA and we were able to purchase one for a very reasonable price..YEA! We now refer to our camera as “The International” (From Norway and Germany, with old American parts!).
It was time for dinner and we found a restaurant on YELP that looked like it was local and had good food. (Our YELP criteria is normally cheap and local with high ratings. We find it typically is not a tourist location.) Off we headed for Stadtklause, about a 10 minute walk. It was small and family owned. The owner told two German Business men to move over in their both so we could sit down. The food was excellent but even more fun was we had great conversations with the two gentleman about Germany and the changes after the Berlin Wall came down. They worked together, one was raised in East Germany the other in Frankfurt West Germany. You could easily see the difference in their demeanor. Eugen, from Frankfurt was much more gregarious than the other. Their stories were precious and we drank beer and a few shots of some plum snaps, like fire water! What a great evening. We traded email addresses with Eugen. The last thing he said to us before we left was “Please make sure America takes care of us”. Interestingly, he sent an email the next day telling us that he enjoyed the evening and repeated “Please make sure America takes care of us.”
We headed back to the hotel. On the walk back we passed a replica of Checkpoint Charlie with actors dressed up as US Army personnel John had seen Checkpoint Charlie, while in Berlin on temporary assignment (TDY) while stationed in Frankfurt in 1970. It is about 1/2 block west of where Checkpoint Charlie did exist. Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous passage point through the Berlin Wall.
We woke the next morning and headed out to get on Bus 100, a city double-decker that drives right down along where the Berlin Wall use to be. We got off at the Brandenburg Gate which was originally constructed between 1789 and 1791. The gate consists of 12 Doric columns, six to each side, forming five passageways. Citizens originally were allowed to use only the outermost two on each side. Atop the gate is a Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses. The new gate was originally named the Peace Gate and the goddess is Eirene, the goddess of peace.
The gate was used as a symbol when the wall was demolished, the Prime Ministers of East and West Germany met at the Brandenburg Gate.
Post demolition of the wall and what the gate looked like during occupation of East Germany by the USSR.
With only a single day to adventure we did as much as possible in seeing the history of the city so we joined a free walking tour at the Brandenburg gate, it was an excellent decision for the next 2.5 hours we saw things we would have never found.
There is a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae”,
arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. Our guide told us the 2711 represent the number of communities the people came from, there are no names anywhere only a silent walk.
We walked from there only a short distance to a parking lot, and to our surprise this area was once where Hitler’s bunker existed mostly undisturbed until 1988–89. During reconstruction of that area of Berlin, the sections of the old bunker complex that were excavated were for the most part destroyed by the Russians after securing Berlin.. The site remained unmarked until 2006, when a small plaque with a schematic diagram was installed. Some corridors of the bunker still exist, but are sealed off from the public. There is a German law that forbids any building on the site because they do not want anyone to use it as a shrine to Hitler. A parking lot says it all!
In the streets there are many markers depicting where the wall once was, there are also small plaques that represent the homes of some of the Jewish people who were exterminated, these we were told are all around Europe. We stopped at the only building that was not destroyed in WWII. It was three buildings that created a triangle used as a point of reference for all the Allied bombings on Berlin. Painted as a mural on one of the walls are pictures the Russians had commissioned to make it look like
everyone was happy under Soviet control. The photograph monument was put in front of the Soviet paintings after the Berlin Wall came down to show what life was really like in East Berlin.
We finished our tour in Gendarmenmarkt Square.
This square was built-in 1688, and is today one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin. Gendarmenmarkt is flanked by two cathedrals, one on each side of the German theatre, and features an impressive sculpture in the centre.The cathedrals on the square are identical – one is dedicated to the Lutheran community and the other to the French Calvinist. The theatre today it is still a magnificent concert hall and the home of the Berlin Symphonic Orchestra. The guide told us an interesting story that the French cathedral was built first and the Germans were angered, so the government built the German church identical to the French, only a few centimeters higher!
Looking for another local restaurant for dinner, we found Weingalerie und Café NÖ!. It was just great with their own white wine. We were seated with a wonderful gentleman from Munich named Oliver. He grew up as a computer consultant, so we had a lot in common. We learned about his seven-year old twins and the fun they are having this summer. We had a great time talking to him about his business dealing with computer security and had a few glasses of wine and beer.
Another great evening getting ready to head out early in the morning for Prague.
Arriving in Prague, we stayed at our first AirBnB location. It was a wonderful small hotel in a residential area and easy distance walking to the old town square and market. We arrived in Prague in the early afternoon and took a cab over to our flat. OUCH we were ripped off by the driver (we figured there was no way not to pay) for a whopping 20 EU, turns out the fare was closer to 5, lesson learned.
The Old town Square is the center of everything in Prague. We started walking down to visit the square and to find dinner. As you walk down into old town you first walk through an area of stores with the history on boards along the way arriving in Old Town. The thing we noticed first was a beautiful clock the Orioj.
The oldest part of the Orloj, the mechanical clock and astronomical dial, dates back to 1410 when it was made by clockmaker Mikuláš of Kadaň and Jan Šindel, the latter a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Charles University. The first recorded mention of the clock was on 9 October 1410. Later, presumably around 1490, the calendar dial was added and clock facade was decorated with gothic sculptures. In 1552 it was repaired by Jan Taborský (ca1500–1572), master clockmaker of Klokotská Hora, who also wrote a report of the clock where he mentioned Hanuš as maker of this clock. This mistake, corrected by Zdeněk Horský, was due to an incorrect interpretation of records from the period. The mistaken assumption of Hanuš authorship is probably connected with his reconstruction of the Old Town Hall in years 1470–1473. The clock stopped working many times in the centuries after 1552, and was repaired many times. The Orloj suffered heavy damage on May 7 and especially May 8, 1945, during the Prague Uprising, when Germans set fire from several armoured vehicles to the south-west side of the Old Town Square in the unsuccessful effort to destroy one of the uprising centers. The hall and nearby buildings burned along with the wooden sculptures on the clock and the calendar dial face made by Josef Mánes. After significant effort, the machinery was repaired, the wooden Apostles restored by Vojtěch Sucharda, and the Orloj started working again in 1948. The Orloj was last renovated in autumn 2005.
We headed to find the restaurant Mlejnice, which we picked out of Yelp. Well, getting around small streets and alleys was confusing at best, we finally found Mlejnice in about 45 minutes, should have been 10. They could not seat us, however, they had recently opened another location in the area. Off we went, lost again, but we found a pedi-cab and he took us directly to the restaurant, we were close, but needed the help. The food was outstanding, two meals and an appetizer along with a few beers was only about $25.00. The was our introduction to the inexpensive cost of eating out in Eastern Europe when compared to the west.
The next morning we took off to head for the castle. We choose a path that would take us to the Charles Bridge. The bridge crosses the Vitava River and was first build in the early fifteen hundreds. Charles Bridge was the most important connection between Prague Castle and the city’s Old Town and adjacent areas. This “solid-land” connection made Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe. We started walking across the bridge there was much history and many people.
Our destination was Prague Castle we could see it in the distance
The walk up was worth it, the church was magnificent inside, we chose not to visit the inside of the castle (a little jaded we think after seeing so many already). We went into the castle and purchase tickets to tour the grounds, vast and beautiful.
St Vitus cathedral was very beautiful.
The night train to Warsaw was one crazy experience, for some reason we thought we were getting a private room with a bathroom. Well we got the private room and we thought it was a turn back to our childhood, BUNK-BED!!, Janice took the large top bunk, about 5 feet up the ladder and John took the lower bunk, that was short at best, oh what a thrill. Having been on a ship, we experienced the fun of upper decks in high seas, nothing at sea compared with the rolling of the upper bunk on a train!!
We arrived and our Airbnb hostess, Ada, met us at the train. We were taken to her lovely flat in Old Town, Warsaw. It was a five floor walk-up, those bags were heavy, but it was worth it, what a great 2 bedroom flat with all the amenities you could enjoy.
We have found the local free walking tours to be great, we found it would start at Sigismund’s Column (Polish: Kolumna Zygmunta), originally erected in 1644 it was demolished by the Germans and reconstructed after the war. We headed out for one that took us around “Old Town” Warsaw. The Germans totally leveled Warsaw in 1944 after the local Polish people revolted, recognizing the Germans were going to ship them all for extermination. After the war, Old Town was reconstructed using as much of the original bricks and stones as they could utilize. In the square is a statue of a Mermaid like creature, This is the Warsaw Mermaid. There are various legends about the Warsaw mermaid. The main one used in the City’s literature and by tour guides says that the mermaid was swimming in the river when she stopped on a riverbank near the Old Town to rest. Liking it, she decided to stay. Local fishermen noticed that something was creating waves, tangling nets, and releasing their fish. They planned to trap the offender, but fell in love with her upon hearing her singing. Later, a rich merchant trapped the mermaid and imprisoned her. Hearing her cries, the fishermen rescued her, and ever since, the mermaid, armed with a sword and a shield, has been ready to help protect the city and its residents.
The tour guide took us by a group of people holding signs, the guide says that it was Pope John Paul II that started the freedom of Poland and Solidarity led by Wałęsa which actually started in 1980 and reemerged in 1989 to become the first opposition movement to participate in free elections.
Warsaw Uprising 1943
When John was young, he read John Hersey’s 1950 novel called The Wall. It was the story of the 1943 Jewish Uprising. It always had a profound effect on him. The novel was based on the Warsaw Jewish ghetto and the final days in 1943 when the remaining people made a stand against the Nazis. They were all killed. Here is a report back to Germany about the end result:
Jürgen Stroop’s internal SS daily report for Friedrich Kruger, written on 16 May 1943, stated:
“180 Jews, bandits and sub-humans, were destroyed. The former Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no longer in existence. The large-scale action was terminated at 20:15 hours by blowing up the Warsaw synagogue. … Total number of Jews dealt with 56,065, including both Jews caught and Jews whose extermination can be proved. … Apart from 8 buildings (police barracks, hospital, and accommodations for housing working-parties) the former Ghetto is completely destroyed. Only the dividing walls are left standing where no explosions were carried out.”[
It as a very large area. We stood in the bottom right corner where this map was placed, the area was totally destroyed. It seems many cities have places called “The Ghetto” and in all cases it is where Jews were held to work for the Nazis before being sent to a concentration camps or being executed in front of a wall in the Ghetto.
Our train ride to Krakow was highlighted by a conversation with an older Polish lady, well into her seventies. She was very straight forward in her views on what is happening in Eastern Europe and her desire for patriotism toward Poland continue. She spent a lot of time telling us about life while under the Soviets and how much more wonderful it is today. A great conversation that we will long remember.
We arrived at the station and took a taxi to the Airbnb location for the night. Jamie, our host, left great instructions and the place was outstanding. We started our walk out to the river and across to the beginning of the old town and castle. We stopped in a local square that had food booths all around it and shared some kielbasa and a few beers, lunch was about $6.00 and great!
We then walked the final mile to the entrance to old town and the castle. We walked to the town center that has a massive central market dating back to the 1300’s. As you can see in the pictures, it is huge.
At one corner there is St. Mary’s Church in Old Town Krakow. When we arrived, it had been vacated do to a bomb scare. We went over to buy tickets to go into the church, they were not on sale because of the closure. We started to walk away and saw all the emergency vehicles leave, went back to the ticket counter and were some of the first to enter the church.
It was an amazing church but then most in Eastern Europe are, they mean so much to the people especially after living in communism for so many years.
We walked down the hill back to Jamie’s flat, on the way, we said, how can you leave Krakow and not have a shot of ice-cold Polish vodka! We walked into a small bar and were treated by Aina. She had some vodka in the freezer so we par tacked in several shots with fresh lemon to chew on before the shot. Ania took our picture and no we were not at the beach, great background thought.
Our wonderful barkeeper Ania took good care of us, for her it was a bit warm out! She swore it was the heat, not a hangover with the ice to her head. We had a delightful conversation with her until she had to leave for another job. Having had our fill we headed back to the flat. The next day would be spent on a tour of Auschwitz and the salt mines.
Auschwitz – Birkenau
The next morning we were picked up along with another couple at a local hotel for our drive to Auschwitz. What we saw in Auschwitz was more than one could imagine from any history book, it is overwhelming! It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration/extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps. Once we arrived you are separated into groups of about 20 or so with a professional guide. The first camp was Auschwitz I. At the first building this was the first thing we saw.
There is not much that can be said as we went from building to building most were where the people were held in small rooms no beds, hardly any facilities, little or no water. There was one building that contained the pictures of all the Polish jews killed at Auschwitz. What is glaring is the women only survived for 1-3 months and the men 3-6 months on average. The guide told a story about one tour where a person in her group asked if he could please have one of the women’s pictures’ on the wall, turns out he was separated from his mother at 5 years old and the picture on the wall was his mother. The archives reproduced a picture and gave it to him. It was the only picture he had.
Pictures say 1000 words.
The next stop was Auschwitz II–Birkenau. Only a short drive from Auschwitz I it is a 400 acre camp and is where the trains arrived with the Jews. When they exited the train all their possessions were piled at the station and later taken to a building and separated, never returned. When the war was ending the Nazi’s tried to destroy all the buildings and items that would connect them to the atrocity.
Behind the crematory was a pond where all the ashes were dumped, the pond still exists and recently ashes of one of the survivors were dumped in the pond at the persons request.
The guide said at the end of the tour, that no one understands why this was allowed to go on, that most countries knew this was happening, the information was both in London and Washington DC. One thing for sure is there is no doubt it did happen. It made us wonder how mankind can do such a thing, although we see it happening all over the world today. We must be diligent and protect those that are being exterminated due to race or religion.
The emotions you experience are extreme, All the movies, books, documentaries can not emotionally prepare you for witnessing this place.
We thought we were heading to see where the monument men found much of the art stolen by the Nazis, but no the art was hidden in other salt mines in Germany. The mines no longer operate as the cost is too great to make a profit. We arrived and were assigned a guide and began our long walk down over 500 steps.The mine has many sculptures from salt and the walls and entries are still help up by large timber. Because of the salt the wood is preserved and required very little replacement. In between chambers there are “air locks” to prevent humidity from getting into the mines and changing the salt air, it is salty air my lips tasted like salt the entire time! There are some beautiful religious salt sculptures and even places for worship. It is a popular wedding location. There is one carving of The Last Supper that was very remarkable. Many of the carving were done by the miners and not famous artists.
Also a beautiful chandelier made of salt (except for the bulbs of course) is another of the remarkable items in the mine. After completing the tour we needed to go back up about 700 stairs, fortunately there was an elevator.
The elevator went up so fast it was exhilarating, scary too!
Salt mine completed, we headed back to our van and our driver dropped us off at the train station for our overnight train to Budapest.
We were blessed by our friend from our Alaska travels, Hal Richey, who has had an apartment in Budapest for the last twelve years where he tries to spend 4 to 5 months a year. He arranged his travel to be in town for our visit. Nothing like having your own tour guide! He met us at the train station after another “Night Train” experience traveling from Krakow to Budapest. It was now time for what Hal calls, his “forced march.” What a day of sightseeing and having so much Hungarian history explained.
We started by dropping our suitcases at his flat, what a nice place plenty of light with a large rooms and a large courtyard in the middle. The front of the building has been renovated but the outsides of the rest need some paint. We left from there to start our tour. We used public transportation, buses and trams to get around the city. The city is split by the Danube River, the Buda side and the Pest side of Budapest.
The first major square we visited was Heroes’ Square. Heroes’ Square is one of the major squares in Budapest, noted for its iconic statue complex featuring the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and other important national leaders, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Next stop was the Hungarian State Opera House which opened in 1884.
The other part of the story is the Chapel of the Holy Right, holds Hungary’s most important relic, the preserved right hand of St. Stephen. The mummified hand is kept in a shrine and paraded around the streets each year on August 20, the anniversary of St. Stephen’s death. . The patron saint of the church is St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary. His mummified right hand is kept in a glass case in the chapel to the left of the main altar.
We made our way back to pick up the bus and to our surprise a beautiful statue of President Ronald Reagan. This statue is in Liberty Square home of the U.S. Embassy and was unveiled in 2011. Prime Minister Viktor Orban praised the 40th president as a man who changed Central Europe. “Today, we are erecting here a statue to the man, to the leader, who changed, who renewed, this world and created in it a new world for us in Central Europe – a man who believed in freedom, who believed in the moral strength of freed people and that walls that stand in the way of freedom can be brought down,”
By now it was time for us to meet our host at the flat where we were staying. We headed to Hal’s to get our luggage and after a few stops on the bus, we were at the flat. We met Guyla, our host in an interior courtyard and walked over to the flat, it was exactly as pictured in the AirBnB listing. The flat was beautifully appointed if there was one criticism it was there are no exterior windows but all the amenities were right there! We took a short rest before Hal picked us up to continue the adventure.
Hal decided to take us to a Ruinpub. These bars apparently started when folks set up bars in old ruined buildings. The bar is full of JUNK, that is all you can say, lots of bars, little nooks and crannies to sit around, and junk all over the walls. These are now official pubs and there are a number of them around Budapest.
We stopped at another of Hal’s favorites places for a beer, time flew so fast, we were late getting to the restaurant he had picked for dinner, last serving in neighborhoods is 8:30. We needed to go search and found a great restaurant and had a terrific dinner. We then headed back to the flat we rented.
Our plan was to meet for breakfast at 9 a.m. the next day. We decided to have breakfast at the central market. Wow what a huge place with everyone doing their morning food shopping, fresh fish downstairs with vegetables and meat everywhere on the main floor. We headed to the top floor for breakfast, John chose some meat and cheese. Hal and Janice got Langos, OMG Janice had a cinnamon and strawberry while Hal choose a sour cream and cheese. On the way out of the market there was a display mushrooms, those you can eat and those that are poison..the ones in the back were interesting looking and edible.
We left the market and started out on the days adventures. We took the bus up to castle hill, it was beautiful and the views of the city were magnificent. First the Parliament Building.
Tha Mathias Church, a catholic church is located at the top of Castle Hill. The Roman Catholic church, also known as Church of Our Lady, was founded by King Béla IV. after the Mongol invaders left Hungary in 1242. Not much remained of the original building due to numerous expansions, wars and reconstructions. There was also a spectacular view of Saint Stephens Basilica and the chain bridge.
The final picture from the afternoon at Castle Hill:
So after another long day back to the flat to clean up for dinner at the restaurant close to Hal’s flat. Dinner was great then back to Castle Hill for the lights. We leave you with these beautiful pictures from the hill.
And..of course our many thanks to our good friend Hal without him this adventure would never have been so good! Also Hal, if we messed up some of the names..sorry.