Visa Adventure

Good news: I finally got my Austrian visa. The process of gaining a visa from Austria as an American, for some reason, is very complex if you do not live in or near California or New York. If an American cannot get it from one of those two locations in the states, then it must be granted at the Austrian Embassy in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

I’m certainly not complaining about the complexity, because it gave me the opportunity to travel to two new countries; Slovenia and Italy.

Myself, as well as a large group of students who needed to get their Visas, as well as other students who signed up for the sight-seeing portion of the trip, boarded the bus by the Opera house in Graz at about 6am on Thursday morning. In a little less than two hours, we were in Ljubljana, waiting in line at the embassy to turn in all the required documents. The process of approving and printing visas takes about one business day, so once we finished the visa business, we all piled back onto the bus and headed for the beautiful border town of Trieste, Italy.

Thankfully, Trieste is only about an hour away from Ljubljana. When we arrived at our hostel, which sat right across the road from the Adriatic sea, the sun was shining so bright I felt like it was trying to blind me. The water was perfectly blue. Our large group dropped off our overnight bags in the lobby of the hostel (we couldn’t quite check in yet because not all of the rooms were ready), and headed back out for a short trek to the nearby Miramare castle and gardens.

We spent about two hours at the castle, and took far too many pictures of the scenery. Afterward, all ~50 of us hopped on a public bus to go toward the heart of the city. Let me tell you, that bus ride was uncomfortable! We were squeezed in and I was standing right by the door, so anyone new who got on the bus had to squeeze in next to me. Even though I couldn’t understand a word of their Italian, the locals who surrounded me on the bus were pleasant and kind. I shared some chuckles with some elderly Italians, and that was the extent of the conversation that we needed.

Finally, after what seemed like a hundred bus stops, we arrived at our destination, and were quickly ushered onto a short walking tour of the city center. Unfortunately, there was only one guide and fifty of us, so I didn’t hear much of what was said, but I did admire the sights.

That evening, our large ESN group ate pizza at a local shop. The pizza was great, but my favorite part of the meal was the pint of beer that I ordered. I’m usually not a fan of the taste of beer, but it was just right. Unfortunately, I have no idea what kind of beer it was. I hope to taste it again someday, because I am still thinking about it.

After dinner, a small group of us crossed the street to get some fantastic gelato, and then we traveled with the large group to a small bar where we sang karaoke and partied well into the night. I won’t bore you with the details, but just know that we brought the house down with our epic renditions of several classic songs.

By the time we got done at the karaoke bar, the buses had stopped running, so myself and a group of about five others went off into the wee hours of the morning, searching for a taxi that could take us to our hostel. We made a pit stop at a Kebap shop that I will never forget, because I had a wonderful conversation with one of the men who worked there. He was from Bangladesh, and we spoke about the importance of accepting and loving people no matter where they come from.

Finally, we made it back to our hostel at what must have been about 3am, and after a short while on the rooftop terrace conversing with some other students, I passed out onto my hostel bed without even properly putting the sheets on.

The next morning, we returned to Ljubljana to get our visas, and luckily had no trouble. We then spent about 5 hours aimlessly wandering the beautiful city, but we were very tired from the previous night, so we didn’t do anything more exciting than walk around and try to soak in some sunshine.

We got onto our bus to head back to Graz that evening, and made one delicious pit stop at a famous Krapfen shop. Krapfen is a donut-like pastry usually filled with apricot marmalade, and they. Are. To die for.

All said and done, the trip was very short, and even though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I feel like I only got a tiny taste of the two cities (and countries) to which we traveled. I know that I’ll be back, and soon.

Kraków, a Gem of a City

Wie geht’s (what’s up)? I have recently arrived back to my flat in Graz after a short, but eye-opening and unforgettable journey to Kraków, Poland.

The pre-semester German intensive courses ended this past Tuesday, so Lauren, Abbey and I decided not to let our long weekend go to waste. We left for Krakow on Thursday evening, and had our first experience with the night train. Although the train was relatively comfortable, I didn’t sleep that well. I think I was too excited.

We arrived in Kraków at around 7am Friday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Our first objective was to find our lodging, the Let’s Rock hostel. During the 15-minute walk to our hostel, we got our first taste of the lovely city of Kraków. It’s similar to other European cities that I’ve been to in that there are various beautiful churches and other fine works of architecture-art, but Krakow also has a personality and a uniqueness all its own. I loved it.

We couldn’t check into our rooms at Let’s Rock yet, but we were able to drop off our stuff in the luggage room. From there, we went back out into the city to enjoy our day. First, we exchanged some Euros for złoty, the Polish currency, and walked around the main square, as well as a park nearby.

It was in the main square of Kraków that I gazed upon one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: St. Mary’s Basilica. Specifically, the inside of the Basilica. The ceiling and walls are decorated with the most intricate and delicate of patterns colored a beautiful teal-blue and gold. I could admire that ceiling for hours on end. It was magnificent.

That afternoon, we took a three-hour tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the oldest salt mines in the world. It was a dizzying 378 steps down to the main chamber, but luckily, we got to ride the lift back up when we were done with our tour. The coolest part of the mine is the enormous underground Chapel—the Chapel of St. Kinga. It is exactly 101 meters underground, and services are performed there regularly!

That evening, we also walked around the Wawel Castle, which was situated very near our hostel, and ate a delicious dinner of traditional Polish food: pierogis. My mouth is watering just thinking of them!

We returned to our hostel that night anxious for the next day, in which we experienced something that I’m sure we will never forget: a guided tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps.

The drive from Kraków to Auschwitz takes about 45 minutes. We had hired a driver to take us there, and we shared the van with five other students our age who are studying to be veterinarians in Slovakia. Three of them were from Scotland, and two were from London.

The full-guided tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau takes about five and a half harrowing hours. Learning about the terrible events that unfolded there in history class and seeing the grounds in real life are two very different things. To walk in the footsteps of so many people who suffered and died tragically and needlessly is an experience that is profoundly devastating, yet absolutely necessary.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was nothing short of sobering experience.

It was hard for me to breathe, the air seemed so thick with desperation and depression. In order to display the enormity of the transgressions that occurred there, they have several rooms filled with belongings of the victims. An entire glassed-in room filled with human hair that was shaved from dead bodies to be used in production. Displays filled with eye glasses, razors, hair brushes, pots and pans hair grease and tiny children’s shoes. It makes your heart drop in your chest, and stay there.

The sight of train tracks and the main guard tower in the background at Birkenau will always haunt me. Over one million human lives were lost there after arriving in cattle cars. It sickens me to no end. Even so, we must remember.

We must never grow complacent. Be it with brash acts of violence, or quiet acts of discrimination and racism, we must resist at every corner and at all costs. What happened to the world all those years ago must always be remembered, and never repeated.

I don’t want to write that Auschwitz -Birkenau was the highlight of my journey to Poland, because it was much more than that, much heavier. It was powerful, and I will carry it with me all my life.

 

Kraków, Poland, is truly a gem to behold. It has a beauty and personality all its own, and I hope to return someday.