Sunday, July 26, 2015

Trip to Berlin, Germany (July 2015)

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's iconic landmark
After we left Poznan and Poland, we entered into Germany and later Berlin.

Berlin is not new to us. We came here three years ago. This cosmopolitan city may not be so appealing to some tourists, but its historical significance cannot be discounted. Berlin had a wall that remains a symbol for the cold war between the west and the communists.

In August 1961, the East Germany began to install a barbed wire between the east Berlin and west Berlin and all of sudden a wall started rising. The formal reason was to prevent the western fascists from contaminating the socialist nation, but the real reason was to prevent the residents of East Germany from crossing to the west freely. Not too many people foresaw what the wall meant. The wall not only divided the city but also the hearts of many people.

This Berlin Wall stood for 27 years until November 1989 when the East Germany made an announcement that the citizens of East Germany may freely travel to the west. Many people start demolishing the wall and part of the wall still remains as the evidence of the pains and sorrow many people had to endure for the 27 years.

That is why the city was bustling with people despite the rain.

Berlin has a river that flows through the city. In sunny days, people come out for sunbathing without exception. You can do the river cruise to see the city, hop on and hop off.

Berlin's iconic landmark is Brandenburg Gate that is the 18th century triumphal arch. It signifies the ups and downs of the Germany's relationship with Europe, but also symbolizes the European unity and peace.

Unfortunately, it was raining when we went out to see the city. We chose to take a hop-on and hop-off bus tour. We stopped over at Checkpoint Charlie where the citizens of East Germany had to pass through to enter the west. We ate Berlin's famous food Curry Wurst. We also saw the old-fashioned Travi cars.

We also stopped over at Berlin Cathedral, one of the largest building in Berlin. We climbed all the way to the top to see the city. The scenery was panoramic and the interior was gigantically beautiful.

We could skip everything else, but not the East Side Gallery. This gallery represents a portion of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved and more than 180 artists from 21 countries left their paintings related to the Berlin Wall. This was our second time visit, but almost all paintings were damaged by graffitis. Sad. Nonetheless, we took a look at the historic site again with a pondering mind about the evilness of human being.

We took the train again and got off at the Alexanderplatz, a prominent shopping center, but not for shopping but to take a lift to go all the way up to the observatory at the Berlin TV Tower or Fernsehturm in German, the tallest building in Berlin and Germany. It is taller than the Eiffel Tower and far taller than the Statue of Liberty with a height of 368 meters. The ultra fast lift took us up there in 41 seconds. the scenery was not as impressive as expected, but we had a delicious dinner first and we were content.

At the observatory of the tower

If allowed, we wanted to walk up to the top of the Parliament Glass Dome, but it required a prior reservation. Anyway, given the rainy weather, we spent pretty good amount of time exploring the city.

The following day, we departed this cosmopolitan city of Berlin to head back to Amsterdam. On the way, we stopped over at a city called Hannover for lunch. This is where Volkwagen Tower is located. We enjoyed our lunch, but we saw many homeless people on the street. This reminded me that Germany has its own issues to address internally.
Volkwagen Tower
Snapshots of Hannover
Once we arrived at Amsterdam, we went out for dinner. With the Yoons and Chois, this tour marked the third time of traveling together. As always, we thoroughly enjoyed the travel. We only missed Mrs. Choi who could not join us because of her work schedule.

I am ever grateful for the opportunity that I had in exploring the northern European countries in Baltic and Scandinavian region. - Jeffrey 

Trip to Warsaw, Poland (July 2015)

Palace of Culture and Science

We loaded our luggage at 6:45am, ate breakfast at 7am and departed the beautiful city Vilnius for Warsaw, Poland.

Like many Eastern European countries, Poland also has a complex and somewhat sad history. Among them was the genocide of Polish Jews, particularly at Auschwitz where millions of Jews were massacred.

Poland had a peaceful and prosperous time for 2-3 centuries while it maintained an alliance with Lithuania until the end of 19th century. Poland came under the occupation of the Russian Empire and had been under the Russian influence with on-going struggle with the Nazis. During the World War II, six million Polish people died. In 1944, a Soviet-backed provisional government was established and later it became a satellite state under the Soviet Union ruling. The community party was overthrown in 1989 and Poland became a democratic nation.

When you hear Poland, one of the first image that comes to your mind is Auschwitz concentration camp. Along with its satellite camps, it was not only concentration camp where prisoners were put in jail, but also a labor camp where the prisoners had to do hard labor and an extermination camp where people were executed. The most notorious extermination was the killing of 3 million Jews were murdered, primarily in gas chamber. We did not get to visit this historically tragic place. Next time. Among all Jews, Polish Jews went through more severe suffering because 90% of Polish Jews in Warsaw were killed by the Nazis.

Despite this sad history, Poland now is one of the fastest growing nations in the world. Its economic growth continued while its neighboring countries were going through contraction. Also, Poland is now considered one of the safest nations to live in. What a change! There still are some Jews in Poland, approximately 50,000, and they hope to revive the thriving life in Poland like in the past when they thrived under no discrimination.

On the day we arrived in Warsaw, we took a tour combining the bus and walking. Among many sights and sounds we saw, the Lazienski Park where the royal residence is located stood out. The royal residence was not fancy but modestly solid. Several peacocks were freely walking around and the park was covered with a lot of trees and ponds.

We also walked around the old town plaza where many old buildings were located, including the Royal Palace, Cathedral and many restaurants and cafes. The streets were packed with people and street musicians were playing Chopin music. We briefly passed by the Polish Rising Museum.

We indulged ourselves with ice cream

Poland is also known for its famous musician Fryderyk Chopin. Chopin was a composer and a pianist. His short life of 39 years produced many music pieces that people still enjoy. We were able to visit his museum and also attended a piano concert that took place right at the Chopin statue. For one musician, the museum was well built and resourceful. It evidenced how much the Polish people love Chopin. At the open air concert, more than 1,000 people gathered and listened to the Chopin music played by the admirers of his music.

Chopin Museum
Chopin's last piano
Chopin's statue and open air concert
People listening to Chopin music at the concert
A statue outside the Polish Rising Museum

We also visited the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews that had been newly opened. The museum carried a lot of historic information and resources that vividly showed how Polish Jews came to Poland, how they prospered without discriminatory treatments in early years and how they had to suffer under the Nazis. On the way to Warsaw, we watched a movie "Pianist" that showed part of the sorrowful life of Polish Jews under the Nazi rule. It was heart-breaking. All in all, we walked probably 23,000 footsteps.
New POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews
An ancient form of Synagogue
Polish Jews memorial monument

The following day, we stopped over at a brewery, called Lech, which was part of the same business group that produced the famous Polish beer Tsyskie.

Before we crossed the border to Germany, we stopped over at a Polish town called Poznan. It was a small town but with a cute plaza. We had lunch over there and took a group photo.

Overall, our experiences of Poland were somewhat limited, but I could sense that Poland had a strong resolve to become a strong nation again. Their customer services may be a little behind, blaming the Soviet or Russian influence, but their strong resolve may transform themselves to become a nation of hope and prosperity. We did not have time to visit Auschwitz and Krakow, two famous places in Poland. - Jeffrey

Trip to Vilnius, Lithuania (July 2015)

Vilnius Cathedral
Lithuania is the largest of the Baltic nations. Its capital city, Vilnius, was a pleasant surprise to me. It was so beautiful, livable and pleasant to walk around. Its infrastructure was well developed and convenient. The supermarkets were well stocked with a lot of choices and their prices were reasonably inexpensive.

After we left Riga and before we arrived in Vilnius, we stopped over a place called "Hill of Crosses." It is a site of pilgrimage, 12 km north of Vilnius. This small hill was covered with a lot of crosses, estimated to be 100,000 in 2006, and obviously far more now. The crosses were in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Some were large and others were tiny. Nonetheless, they represented the cross where Jesus was crucified without any sin or blame, only to be the way, the life and the truth for those who believe in who He was and His redemptive death.

The precise origin of the site is unclear, but it is believed that people started placing crosses at the current hill where a fort was located. Let me review the history a bit.

It was completely new to me, but Lithuania used to be a strong nation and once it was asked to rule over the current Poland. This Lithuania-Polish empire controlled their current territory plus part of Russia to Moscow, all of Ukraine and Belarus. This empire ruled for a couple of centuries from the 16th century until the end of 18th century when Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire in 1795. The Lithuanian and Polish rebels held two uprisings in 1831 and 1863, but unsuccessfully. The families of the rebels started placing the crosses on the current hill because they could not locate the bodies of their perished family members.

Lithuanians also used the practice of placing crosses on the hill as a way of delivering peaceful protest against the Soviet Union during its occupation after the World War II. Now, the intent and purpose has been expanded to many people who wish for the country's peace and also who wish for the peaceful rest for those who perished during the patriotic wars, and even for other reasons. It was an unforgettable experience.

Lithuania declared independence again in 1990 one year before the Soviet Union demised. Thus, Lithuania became the first country to gain independence from the Soviet Union. Lithuania is a member of EU and adopted the currency Euro from January 2015. The World Bank's ease of doing business index ranked Lithuania at 24th. Wow!

Lithuania's population is approximately 3 million and its capital Vilnius has 530,000 inhabitants.

Vilnius is known for its Baroque-style architecture, mingled with neoclassical buildings. The city was very clean and has a lot of interesting places.

We had a free time after a short orientation tour. We visited the Vilnius Cathedral, Gediminas Castle, Vilnius Town Hall, and also saw the National Museum of Lithuania and Vilnius TV Towner remotely. I climbed up to the top of the bell tower and saw the city green and beautiful.
St. Anne Church
Interior of St. Anne Church
Town Hall
Town Square

Vilnius Cathedral

Bell Tower

One thing quite interesting was that within Vilnius there is another republic. Yes, another state that declared independent but no other nation has acknowledged its independence. It is called Uzupis (or Uzpio in their own language) Republic. It is within Vilnius and people freely go in and come out of the republic. They declared the independence in 1997 on the April Fool's Day. The founding fathers were pretty much Bohemian artists who wanted to convert a run-down district to be more attractive. They have elected their own president, parliament, and even an army (only 11 though). Its constitution, which has 41 provisions, is quite interesting. Here are some examples:

  • Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
  • A dog has the right to be a dog.
  • A cat is not obligated to love its owner, but must help in time of needs.
  • Everyone has the right to be happy.
  • Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
  • Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
  • Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
  • Everyone shall remember their name.
  • No one can share what they do not possess.
  • Everyone has the right to cry.
  • Everyone has the right to have no rights.

We had a little crack out of the visit to a republic that no other nation cares about. Uzupis Republic.

Overall, I like the city and the country so much that I felt like coming back to live there for a while. The city was quite impressive. - Jeffrey