Brussels, Belgium

We had the opportunity to take a quick trip to Belgium recently, and I’m so glad we did! We’d gone to Brugge last year, but hadn’t been to Brussels yet. Living in England, Belgium is an easy drive – you just need to book a crossing on the Chunnel or a ferry. We opted for the ferry this time, and I don’t think it’s something we’ll repeat. It’s definitely worth the extra money to save time on the Chunnel. The ferry takes a full two hours, plus time to load and unload. It was nice to see the views of the White Cliffs of Dover and Dover Castle, but our time could be better spent exploring Belgium! The ferry let us off in Dunkirk. I was hoping to go see the Dunkirk Memorial but it was closed for renovations. Once you get off the ferry or chunnel in Dunkirk or Calais, you are only in France for a short time before crossing into Belgium. I must say, the roads in Belgium are amazing, especially after driving the bumpy and horrible roads in England! Since we took the 8am ferry, we arrived in Brussels a little after 1pm (2 hour ferry, plus the one hour time change, and then the drive to Brussels). We were staying at the IBIS about a ten minute walk from the Grand Platz. Since we were driving, I was looking for a hotel that had parking nearby, and there were several garages nearby for only 18 euros for 24 hours. The location of our hotel was excellent – we were close to many nearby sites and restaurants. The only downside was there was an art exhibit right outside the hotel. I’m normally a fan of art and traveling exhibits, but this one involved loud music and strobe lights right outside our hotel window, until almost midnight, and even though I have an appreciation for the arts, I had zero understanding of what the artist was trying to convey. Once we were able to fall asleep after that, the loud, drunk tourists across the hall would wake us up around 1:30 am each night. Other than that, it was a perfect hotel with a nice breakfast buffet.

Grand Platz at night

When we arrived in Brussels mid afternoon, we decided to check out Grand Platz, and do some wandering without a plan. After waiting in a long line for the worst fries and chicken balls we’ve ever had in our life, we decided to head to Delirium Village, a complex of different bars featuring Belgian beers and home to the Delirium Cafe. We both love sour beers, and Belgium is the place for that, so we enjoyed a nice happy hour, before heading off to shop and eat tons of chocolate! Delirium Cafe and it’s sister bars and definitely worth a stop; one touts over 2,000 different types of beer! It’s a great place to try something new or relish an old favorite. And if beer isn’t your thing — they have a Delirium tequila bar in the complex! Definitely check out Delirium Cafe, as Belgium is known for their beer, and this place is iconic.

Delirium Village, home to Delirium Cafe, featuring over 2,000 different beers.

Saturday afternoon and early evening was spent wandering around chocolate shops and tasting. Last year, we had made a weekend trip Bruges, Belgium. Unfortunately, it was during Lent and I had given up sweets and had longingly watched while my husband ate something from every shop. This year, I made sure our trip to Belgium was before Lent! We tried many amazing chocolates, but our favorite for the taste and value is Leonida’s. I love anything with hazelnut and coffee, and they have some great ones! We mayyyyy have stopped by one more than one occasion to “replenish” our sampler box. As I said, we loved Leonidas, but since you can’t go wrong with any of the chocolate shops in Brussels, so why not try a bunch of them???

Leonida’s Chocolate

Saturday night, we set off in search of something else Belgium is known for — moules! My husband doesn’t love mussels, but I do, and he was happy to oblige when I told him we needed to go somewhere for great mussels. There was a place that had been recommended, but it was several miles away and we didn’t feel like a long trek and we were tired. We ended up at Chez Leon , which was closer to our hotel and also amazing. There is always a long line outside during the evening, but don’t let that deter you – it is huge inside and the line moves quickly. Our meal did not disappoint – I had garlic mussels and my husband had a traditional Belgian dish, which was amazing! The service was great, and even though the restaurant was crowded, service was quick. Chez Leon is definitely a great place to go if you are looking for mussels, as they have a large variety! They are also open 7 days a week and take reservations online. A plus, it’s near the Grand Platz so you can admire it lit up at night on your walk home. After dinner, we enjoyed wandering around the streets of Brussels, trying more chocolate than one possibly should.

Moules from Chez Leon
Stoemp, with ham and sausage from Chez Leon.

On Sunday, we set out somewhat early to start our only true full day of touristy stuff in Brussels. I was thankful our hotels.com stay at IBIS included breakfast, as that one less thing to search for in the morning. With full bellies, we made the long trek to the furtherest location for the day, where we would work our way back to town. My husband and I had a conversation recently where we agreed we did not utilize public transportation as much as we should, but the trade off is we see so much more while walking. This time, we walked the whole way there, and then used the underground a bit on the way back to save time (and our feet). We headed to Parc Du Cinquantenaire, which is beautiful (and impossible to photograph due to the size). Once there, we discovered Autoworld, a large museum. My husband is a huge car enthusiast, so this was a no brainer. I can honestly say I enjoyed walking around and seeing the classic cars. It’s worth a visit if you enjoy this sort of thing, and their featured exhibition changes frequently. There is also a military museum and an art museum nearby.

On our stroll back from the Parc Du Cinquantenaire, we stopped by the Royal Palace of Belgium. We did not go inside, just admired from the outside. In hindsight, I wish we had gone in as the photos I’ve seen online are beautiful. Parked right outside the Palace, was a waffle and ice cream truck, so of course we had to share a chocolate smothered Belgian Waffle!

Our next stop was a quaint area called Petit Sablon Square. This had been recommended by several friends, and there were many shops and small markets in and around the area. We enjoyed strolling through the streets, walking in the garden, and had a delicious lunch not far from the square. As usual, we spent a lot of time walking and exploring, including more chocolate shops. Eventually we made our way back to town and stopped by the famed Mannequin-Pis statue. It’s basically a small statue of a boy peeing; I don’t quite see the attraction, but it is well marketed in Brussels — pictures, postcards, mini statues, etc. It’s worth a visit, especially since it’s on the way towards city center and there are fun gift shops and chocolate shops nearby.

Beautiful garden in Petit Sablon Square.

For dinner, we wanted to try an off the beaten path, authentic, Belgian restaurant, frequented by locals. Fin De Siecle did not disappoint! They are open daily for dinner, and accept cash only. You can find them on facebook, but their menu changes frequently. In fact, it’s listed daily on a chalkboard. You will likely wait, as the place is small, but it is worth it. I had a ham dish and it was incredible. The portions were large, and the beer selection was good as well. After a walk back to our hotel, and some annoyance from the loud “art exhibition”, we fell asleep with full bellies.

Pork knuckle from Fin De Siecle

Our last day in Brussels was short, because we had to get to an afternoon ferry crossing (did I mention the Eurotunnel is much easier, and worth the extra money??). We got up early and did some last minute souvenir shopping (I collect postcards from everywhere we go) and of course picked up more Belgian chocolate since we’d eaten ours already. Before leaving town, we had time to visit the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, a beautiful example of Gothic architecture. Royal weddings have taken place in this Catholic Church, which boasts a beautiful interior as well. While we were not able to do so, you can climb the tower on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month, but must book in advance. After visiting the Cathedral, we headed out of town. Whenever we travel by car to France or Belgium, we always stop at a Carrefour (large grocery store) to pick up Belgian beers, stroop waffles, and goodies, at a cheap price! Definitely look for one on your next roadtrip so you can enjoy the flavors of Belgium at home. We enjoyed our trip to Brussels, and I’m curious about visiting during Christmas Markets!

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula

So, have you been to Brussels?? If so, what did I miss out on and need to visit next time??

Oswiecim, Poland

Arbeit Macht Frei, or “work sets you free”. Such an enormous lie told to many innocent souls who would soon realize that only death would provide freedom.

Oswiecim. Translation: Auschwitz.

I know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone want to visit a Nazi Extermination Camp and witness the horrors and remnants of a cold, calculated plan that can only be described as pure evil? The sheer magnitude of it all, even viewed from a distance in our books, computer screens, and televisions, is enough to move one to tears. Why would anyone want to see it in person and stand in the desperate footsteps of all those who faced unfathomable suffering and ultimately perished? Why would anyone choose to walk the haunted grounds where the world turned a blind eye, and an estimated 1.1 million people were cruelly tortured and systematically murdered in one of the most notorious examples of genocide?

Why?

Because we should never forget.

We have an obligation to all those who entered through those metal gates and exited only when they took their last breaths, an obligation to all those who survived the horrors of Auschwitz and were forever traumatized by their experiences. We should never forget what hatred and evil are capable of doing to society, to mankind, and to innocent men,women, and children. We should never forget what blatant lies humans are capable of believing, and what those fabrications can lead to. We should never forget how dangerously simple it is for those in power to manipulative and brainwash an entire country through the incitement of fear and spread of propaganda. And we should never forget the victims – those innocent beings who were ripped from their homes, their families, their lives, and suffered at the hands of oppression, hatred, and ignorance. They may be gone, but their story remains very much alive and we owe it to them to be their voice.

Auschwitz remains as a witness to the horrors of the Holocaust.

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. While this date previously had no significance in the Jewish calendar, it was selected because on January 27th, 1945, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz. This year marks the 74th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. As the war began to turn and the Soviets advanced on Krakow, the SS sent the majority of the prisoners at Auschwitz on a Death March to other concentration camps farther west. (You can read about the Death March in vivid detail in Eli Weisel’s novel “Night”.) The liberators arrived to find a somewhat empty camp, with only the sickest prisoners who unable to make the journey. Their ghastly discovery, would shock the entire world. Side note: We learned an interesting fact from our tour guide. The photos you see of the liberation of Auschwitz were actually staged several weeks later. The liberators did not have cameras with them, and the immediate priority was taking care of the 7,000 gravely ill and dying prisoners. Despite the efforts of the Soviets, combined with help from the Red Cross and Polish citizens, about half of the prisoners were in such bad shape they died in the days after liberation.

When the Nazis first built Auschwitz it was used as a labor camp for “Political Prisoners”, mainly Poles who resisted the Nazi invasion of Poland and Soviet POWS.

Walking around the camp, we learned a lot from our guide about the camp’s beginnings and how it’s function and purpose evolved. When the Nazis began construction on Auschwitz, they invaded the town of Oswiecim, forcing the Poles to relocate. By taking over the town and surrounding villages, the Germans essentially secured a perimeter around the camp, to ensure no one knew what they were doing. Auschwitz and it’s subcamps (Birkenau, Monowitz, and Buna) served multiple purposes for the Nazis. What began as a concentration camp for political prisoners (anyone who spoke out against the Third Reich and Nazi occupation of Europe), evolved into a concentration camp, forced labor camp, and extermination site for Jews, political prisoners, Soviets, gypsies, and others that the Nazis deemed “undesirable”. The Soviet POWs were actually the first victims of Zyklon B, the poison gas that later became synonymous with Nazi genocide. The first attempt at killing prisoners by gas, involved around 30 Soviet prisoners in the summer of 1941. At that time, there were no gas chambers so a room in the infamous Block 11 (the building used for torture) was used. On September 3, 1941, the Nazis experimented with their first mass killing by poison gas. Around 800 Soviets and Polish prisoners were crammed into cells in Block 11. The next morning, some prisoners were still alive. Ultimately, it took 24 hours to kill all the prisoners, so no doubt they suffered the entire time. This experiment is where it all started – the eventual mass extermination of hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews. Eventually, Auschwitz grew into a multipurpose camp with over 50 acres and more than 150 buildings, where prisoners were forced to work, starved, tortured, and ultimately, killed. In all, 1.1 million people were cruelly murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

An execution wall stands between Block 10 and Block 11. Block 10 was reserved for horrific medical experiments, and Block 11 was considered the torture cells, and the sites of the first experiments with Zyklon B. Our guide took us inside Block 11, but out of respect, no pictures are allowed.

Upon arrival at Auschwitz, prisoners were issued a number which was tattooed on their arm; this was unique to Auschwitz as no other camp tattooed the prisoners. Your number became your name, the only thing you were called by the guards. The official language of the camp was German, regardless of where the prisoners were from; our tour guide explained speaking a language other than German was considered a punishable offense. As we walked along seemingly endless brick buildings, we heard stories about the camp and the inhumane conditions. Prisoners were separated by gender, ripped from their families. Many would never see their siblings or parents again. The barracks were overcrowded and unsanitary. In Birkenau there was no running water. Barracks were filled with rodents, bedbugs, and other pests. Prisoners shared their wooden bed with several others. Disease was widespread and it was common to wake up and find the person next to you was dead. The wake up call was as early as 4:30 am, and forced labor was physical and demanding, with many prisoners walking to the German chemical company I.G. Farben, to be used as free laborers. Often, prisoners worked more than 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, while surviving on daily rations as little as 400 calories a day. They were quite literally starved and worked to death. If a prisoner died at work, the other prisoners were responsible for carrying the dead body on the long walk back to the camp, because everyone needed to be accountable at roll call. Our guide explained that roll call was taken every morning and evening. Everyone needed to be accounted for and if there was a discrepancy, prisoners stood for hours in the elements. For every one that was missing or unaccounted for, multiple others were killed. Diseases like dysentery, tuberculous, and typhus were widespread in the camp and killed many. The odds were stacked against everyone who entered those gates. If you survived the selection process, you would likely die a slower, more painful death at the hands of the Nazis. If you knew a trade or had a special skill or talent, you were more likely to survive, particularly if you worked a job inside. The average survival rate at the camp was 2 months, less if you arrived during the harsh winter months; to the Nazis, there was point in keeping their laborers alive and healthy. Another train was always coming. Free human labor was replaceable, and seemingly endless.

Jews were told they were being “relocated”. In order to avoid panic, they were told to pack suitcases with their belongings, as if they would be needing them in their new homes.
Many brought kitchen essentials, believing they would be cooking for their families in their new “homes”. In reality their suitcases, jewels, family heirlooms, and belongings were all confiscated from them when they stepped off the train.
One of the most arresting displays at Auschwitz is the room full of hundreds of thousands of shoes. Even more unforgettable, is the almost 2 tons of human hair that fills another glass display case. The hair is one of two exhibits were photos are prohibited.

As the war went on, the killings accelerated. Instead of using Jews as laborers, the Nazis shifted their goal to the elimination of the Jews. With the success of Zyklon B, the Nazis created gas chambers for mass extermination of Jews and others they considered undesirable. By the spring of 1943, four large gas chambers and a crematoria were in operation at Auschwitz. When trains arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, prisoners faced a selection process. SS doctors, including the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, would look at the prisoners and “select” them for either immediate death, or work, by pointing. To the right, meant registering as a camp prisoner to be used for labor. To the left, the gas chambers. Those headed to the gas chambers (typically the young, old, sick, and mothers) were told they were being sent for a shower. The Nazis did not want to create chaos. When young children were sent to the left, their mothers were always sent with them, even if they were healthy enough to work. Twins, dwarves, and people with congenital defects were sent to the right and became subjects in Dr. Mengele’s horrific experiments. When visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, there is an exhibit of pictures that document the selection process. You can see the faces of Hungarian Jews being sent to the left, though they did not realize they were walking towards the gas chambers, and ultimately, death. The Nazis tried to destroy most of the evidence, but prisoners were able to save some of the records and pictures after the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz. It is estimated that 80% of the Jews who stepped off the train were sent straight to the gas chambers. Therefore, there are no records on these people as they were never registered as camp prisoners. Many of their families never knew what happened to them, and could only infer they were gassed, as they were never seen again.

For many, this was all they’d see of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is estimated around 80% of Jews brought to Auschwitz were sent immediately to the gas chambers. An exact number of Jews sent to the gas chambers is not known because there are no records of them. Prisoners sent straight to the chambers were not registered in the camp and did not receive a prisoner number.

The stories and facts provided by our tour guide were beyond unfathomable, and left me wondering how this could happen, especially when you think of the little children. We learned about the horrific experiments on children and women. Dr. Mengele was nicknamed the “Angel of Death”. He would send prisoners to their deaths, perform cruel and painful experiments on his subjects, but then would be kind to children and give them a ride in his car, all before killing them. Mengele was particularly interested in experiments on twins. Some of his experiments involved trying to change brown eyes to blue, performing blood transfusions on twins, surgery without anesthesia, and even removing limbs. Perhaps the most unsettling story we heard involved a set of gypsy twins. Dr. Mengele notoriously attempted to create Siamese twins by sewing them together, back to back, in an attempt to join them by their blood vessels and organs; they both died a few days later. As a result of Mengele’s crude medical experiments, many died, and their bodies were used for dissection. When one twin died, the other was killed as there was no use for them anymore. The sheer enormity of the Nazi’s disregard for human life is utterly indescribable.

Block 10, where cruel and inhumane experiments were carried out.

Torture was not limited to the medical experiments in Block 10. As if enslavement, starvation, separation from families, and the threat of the gas chambers wasn’t enough, the Nazis were always creating new ways to torture prisoners. Punishments were often handed out to the entire group, as a result of the supposed wrong doing of one. A common group punishment was to have the prisoners stand in the courtyard in the cold and rain the entire night, in only their striped pajamas. Those still alive in the morning were sent to work. Beatings, executions, and public hangings were also common punishments. The Nazis elevated their levels of cruelty with the torture cells in the basement of Block 11. Our tour guide shared horrific stories about suffocation an starvation cells, as well as a standing cell. The standing cell consisted of an extremely small space, in which one would crawl through a narrow opening on the ground to get in. Up to four prisoners would be forced in this small space with no light. There was not enough room to sit down; prisoners were forced to stand all night (after weeks or months of working 12 or more hour days with little food). If they survived, they would be sent to work for the day and back to the standing cell at night. This cycle would repeat until the prisoner died. The despair and agony still linger in air at Auschwitz. Hearing the awful of fate of so many and witnessing where these despicable acts took place will forever haunt me. To this day I am still absorbing all that we saw and heard. While clearly a departure from our typical travel excursions, this powerful experience is one I will never forget.

The courtyard where public hangings would taken place. For every prisoner that escaped (this was rare but it happened) many others would be sentenced to death as a scare tactic.
A guard tower sits behind an electric fence. In desperation, prisoners would commit suicide by throwing themselves against the fence as it was a better alternative to the slow, agonizing death they would suffer in the camp.
The remains of a crematorium with Birkenau in the background. As the Soviets advanced, the Germans tried to destroy evidence of the mass murders that took place at the camp.

Tips for Visiting Auschwitz

Visiting Auschwitz is an emotional and surreal experience. It may not seem like an ideal tourist destination, but if you find yourself in Krakow, its a must do. You can take the train to Oswiecim, but it’s easier to book a tour. We booked a half day tour from Krakow, and it was reasonably priced. There are many sites that book tours, we used Discover Cracow for all our tours and we were happy with them. Our half day tour included transportation to and from Krakow, a guided tour of the camp (both Auschwitz and Birkenau). I recommend going with a guide, ours did a wonderful job of explaining everything and keeping the tour moving. I’m sure we didn’t see everything, but we certainly saw enough. A full day tour would’ve been too intense for me. Keep in mind as you plan your visit how you feel. There are combo tours to see Auschwitz and the Salt Mines in one day, but for many the emotions felt touring Auschwitz will linger and heading to another tour immediately after may not be the best idea. Also, if you are prone to motion sickness, bring a dramamine. The roads were a little windy, and perhaps it was our driver, but several people in our van (myself included) felt sick. If you are flexible and still in the planning stages of your trip to Poland, consider going during the off season or winter. The camp (and other tourist sites in Krakow) were fairly empty in December compared to the huge crowds during summer. And bonus – Krakow has a beautiful Christmas market in December! Since you will be at the camp for several hours, bring change (Polish currency is zlotys) as all the restrooms at the camp require you to pay.

One last tip: decorum. You are touring a place where over one million people suffered and died. You are essentially visiting a mass grave site. I was disgusted by a woman who was posing for multiple photos on the train tracks at Birkenau, as if she were a model in a photo shoot on the Amalfi Coast. A death camp is not the appropriate venue for selfies. It is a place for reflection and remembering. Don’t be like that insensitive, self absorbed woman. (Actually, don’t do it in places like the Amalfi Coast either, because it’s so annoying and unnecessary).

Ickworth House and Gardens

The Ickworth House is a neoclassical building, preserved by the National Trust. It is located near Bury St. Edmunds and makes for a beautiful afternoon of walking or wandering!

The Ickworth House is a beautiful neoclassical house set in the countryside near Bury St. Edmunds. The estate was established in 1467 and the current house was built around 1800. The estate was the Hervey family’s home for 500 years. Presently, there is a hotel on the site, but you can still tour the original house and gardens, which change throughout the year. Ickworth House became a National Trust property in 1998. We may not have stumbled upon this gorgeous place if we hadn’t joined the National Trust. It was one of our first “day trips” (can you call it a day trip when it’s less than an hour away?) in England, and we loved it so much we’ve gone back. We love that with National Trust membership we get in to places like Ickworth for free! Without a membership, it is 14.50 GBP. The grounds on Ickworth boast an Italianate garden, and plenty of paths along the perfectly manicured trees and grass. Ickworth is a great place for a family picnic, but they do have a cafe on site as well. You can even bring your 4 legged friend to walk the trails at Ickworth as well! There are miles of trails to enjoy! Keep an eye out on the website, for special events. They regularly have scheduled walks, crafts, cooking demonstrations, activities for children, and other special events. We loved exploring the lush and green gardens of Ickworth that flank the house, and the walled garden in the back property as well. We even took a longer walk on the property and enjoyed seeing the sheep. Of course touring the house in all it’s splendor is a must. In addition to the lavishly decorated rooms, the house also hosts a silver collection, and fine art as well. Plus, you can see the servant quarters and learn about their life on the estate. Make Ickworth your stop for a family day out!

The perfectly groomed gardens are as impressive as the house.
Take a walk along the path and enjoy the beauty.
Beauty is everywhere at Ickworth!
We marveled at how the hedges followed along the curved wall so perfectly.
Don’t forget your camera because the grounds are a great place for family photos.
If you are lucky, you may meet a new friend!

Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg, a picturesque Bavarian city on the Pegnitz River lies about 110 miles from Munich. The medieval city with a walled Old Town, also has a recent dark history as it was the site of many Nazi rallies.

Ask people who have traveled all over Germany and they will tell you that while they love metropolitan areas like Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt — the smaller German towns and villages provide the most authentic experiences. Nuremberg is certainly no exception! A charming riverside city easily accessible by train, with a walled-in Old Town, beautiful castle, and steeped in World War II history, it makes the perfect side trip from Munich, or a destination of it’s own! While we visited in the summer, and loved every bit of it, Nuremberg is known for it’s famous Christmas Markets and would make a perfect winter city break!

German Justizpalatz

The German Justizpalatz was home to the 1945-1949 Nuremberg Trials, a historic event in which the Allied Powers (Britain, France, Soviet Union, and United States) worked together to try Nazi leaders for their crimes.

History is what attracted me to Nuremberg. While Germany is tarnished by it’s Nazi past, I believe “those who do not remember the past, are bound to repeat it”. While living in Europe, I’m making a point to see as many historical sites as possible. Nuremberg was a perfect choice, as it is home to the Nuremberg Trials held from 1945-1949, trying the Nazis for their war crimes. The German Justizpalatz, or Palace of Justice was chosen as the site of the trials because not only was it one of the few complexes with a courtroom and prison system that was not damaged from Allied bombing campaigns, but it was also a symbolic choice — the city of Nuremberg was host to many Nazi propaganda rallies, a site you can still see today though it was not preserved and is starting to fall apart.

Courtroom 600

Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice, home of the Nuremberg Trials. From November 20, 1945- October 1, 1946 an International Military Tribunal tried Nazis for their war crimes. Twelve additional trials were held from 1946-1949.

“The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory, and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgement of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.” – Justice Robert H. Jackson

As I stood in Courtroom 600, a wave of emotion washed over me. It was a surreal experience to being standing in the very spot where history was made, and justice was served, particularly since I had visited Auschwitz 8 months earlier and witnessed the horrors the place held. We were lucky to be able to visit room 600, as it is still an active court room, and visitors can only enter when a trial is not in session. The Palace of Justice also holds a large exhibition documenting the Nuremberg Trials, and the war criminals that were tried. I was there with my family, and wanted to soak up every bit of information, and we stayed almost 2 hours (I had to rush to finish), but others seemed to breeze through and have a shorter visit. The exhibition gives a thorough history of the criminals and the trials, in which 4 indictments were brought against the accused: 1) participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of a crime against peace 2) planning, initiating, and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace 3) war crimes 4) crimes against humanity. These monumental and historical trials brought some sort of justice to all those who perished. Visiting the Palace of Justice was a must-see for me, as a small way of honoring those who suffered.

Documentation Center and Rally Grounds

The Documentation Center, easily accessible by bus, houses an exhibition on the Nazi rise to power and use of propaganda.
The remains of the courtyard at Congress Hall are seen at the Documentation Center. This was designed to hold about 50,000 people.

It is hard to fathom how the Nazis could rise to power and have so many followers that carried out their hateful agenda. The Nazis were known for their use of propaganda, and brainwashing, much of which is on exhibition at the Documentation Center. The exhibit, titled Fascination and Terror, features actual propaganda and chronicles their rise to power and attempted take over of Europe. Depending on how much you want to see and read, you could spend anywhere from an hour to half a day here.

Fascination and Terror is a permanent exhibit at the Documentation Center.
The names of the innocent who were sent to the camps, are written on the white cards that line the tracks.

The Nazi Party built an extensive Rally Grounds site in the city of Nuremberg, that covers over 4 square miles. The site was used for rallies and propaganda as they rose to power. From 1933-1938, six major Nazi rallies were held there. Zeppelin Field and the grandstand encompass an area roughly the size of 14 football stadiums. The eerie remains of Zeppelin field are haunting, even on a sunny summer day. Standing amongst the crumbling stone grandstand with overgrown weeds and grass, my mind is transported to black and white film footage and I can hear the echoes of the Nazi cheers and rallies. How they could have possibly risen to power on a platform of pure evil is unfathomable, but it is still history and worth seeing in person.

What remains of the Grandstand at Zeppelin Field. The graffiti translates to “never again”.
Zeppelin Field, as it looks today.

Imperial Castle of Nuremberg

Part of the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg, taken from the tower.

If you made it through all my musings about Nuremberg’s Nazi history, and you’re STILL with me, thank you! I recognize not everyone is as big a World War II history nerd as I am. One of my favorite things to do when we visit a city is to tour the castle! It amazes me that some of the castles I’ve visited in Europe are 1,000 years (or more) older than any building in the United States. I’ll be honest – I’ve seen plenty of exhibits – swords, torture devices, armor, and blah blah blah. BUT, I never get sick of a tower climb because I am always rewarded with amazing views of the city. (Side note, getting up early and being in line when the tower or castle opens will often save you some wait time. However, often the view is hazy or foggy first thing in the morning so consider the weather that day.) Despite my previous comments about exhibits, the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg did have a museum exhibit worth seeing, and obviously the tower climb is a must do!

Nuremberg as seen from the Imperial Castle complex.
The beautiful city of Nuremberg, from the castle.

Other Sites to See

Spend some time wandering around inside the city walls, and enjoy the shops, restaurants, cathedrals, and quintessential Bavarian architecture. Much of Nuremberg was badly damaged during World War II, but buildings and churches have been restored.

St. Lorenz is an Evangelical Lutheran Church dedicated to St. Lawrence. It was built in the 1400s.
Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, is a Catholic Church in the main market. This square is definitely a must see, with all the market stalls!
Something I always try to do when traveling is visit a local market for the best fresh fruit and produce. Olives are something I can’t resist!
I enjoyed wandering the streets of Nuremberg, admiring the German architecture and beautiful homes and buildings.
Classic Bavarian buildings like this are so adorable! And there are plenty of places like this to grab a beer!
My husband and I loved Nuremberg, and can’t wait to explore more of Bavaria!

My favorite city in the world — Florence!

Firenze, or Florence, on a hazy evening. This photo was taken from Piazzale Michelangelo, the best place in Florence for panoramic views of the city (and it’s an easy hike from city center!)

Firenze, a Tuscan city of abundant beauty, art, food, and culture — a “must see” when it comes to exploring Italy. Growing up in a New York, Italian family, I was always curious about Italy and where many of my ancestors came from. Most of my great grandparents on my mother’s side of the family were born in Italy before coming to America. My mother would tell me stories about them (they all passed before I was born), how they spoke mostly Italian at home, and passed down their traditions and heritage. Italy was always on the top of my bucket list, and it ended up being my first trip to Europe. Florence is a city I will never tire of. I made my first visit there in August, 2015 with my now husband. I returned the following summer with my mom and brother, and loved soaking up the city again, through their eyes. Recently, my husband and I took a day trip to Florence (it’s easy to get there by train from Bologna, Pisa, and Rome, so if you are visiting one of those cities, it is definitely worth the detour!). Almost immediately upon exploring Florence, you are greeted with views of the Duomo, as all roads seem to lead towards that direction. The Duomo, also known as Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, was completed in 1436. The famous “dome” was designed by Brunelleschi and you can climb all 463 steps to the very top! The Cathedral is absolutely stunning with pastel pink and green hues in the marble on the outside, and I highly recommend the tour inside and climbing the steps to the top. You will be rewarded with views of the city, not to mention the tour of the impressive cathedral. It’s always a good idea to prebook excursions in Italy, and sometimes you have the option to “skip the line” (which is well worth it in my opinion).We booked our tickets for the Duomo through the website:

https://www.ilgrandemuseodelduomo.it

Up close view of Brunelleschi’s Dome. If you look closely, you can see the people on the top.

The view from the Duomo!

Another “must see” in Florence is Michelangelo’s “David”. The statue and other magnificent works of art are on display at the Galleria dell’Accademia. I recommend booking online ahead of time, so you skip the line (or queue, as the Brits say). You can book a ticket for a specific entrance time on their website. My mom and I went when it first opened and then had the rest of the day to explore Florence. Keep in mind when planning your visit, that the museum is closed on Mondays.

http://www.galleriaaccademiafirenze.beniculturali.it

Shopping

If shopping is your thing, you will be very happy in Florence! In addition to high end shops such as Gucci, Prada, Tiffany, Valentino, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo, Armani, and dozens of other stores and boutiques that I can’t afford but love to browse! If you are on a normal budget, like myself, there are still plenty of options, particularly if you are looking for a new leather purse! The Mercato di San Lorenzo is your best bet for purses, belts, leather goods, and various other gifts and trinkets from Italy. In addition to the market, there is an assortment of gift shops and souvenir shops, as well as the famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge shop!

Leather goods at the market. Bring cash – it is easy to “haggle” and get the best price. My tip is to walk away after you’ve expressed interest in a bag; they will lower the price.
The famous Ponte Vecchio bridge is lined with shops – many of them high end gold and jewelry. It’s definitely worth a stroll, especially since the other side of the river boasts some of the best restaurants, where locals like to eat.

Vino

You can’t go to Italy without drinking wine, right? Right. Finding the perfect “wine experience” for you will take a little planning and research, and depends on your interests as well as the amount of time you have in Florence. There are all day, and even multi day winery trips available, that take you out in the Tuscan region. There are shorter options, such as a half day tour or even a city wine tasting. Each time we’ve been in Florence, it’s only been for a day or two. On our first trip to Florence, we combined wine with biking — two of my passions, it was perfect! We booked a half day bike tour (ie: about ten miles on a mountain bike, no cycling gear required) that stopped at a local vineyard in Tuscany. Not only did our ride out of town spoil us with amazing views of Florence and the Tuscan countryside, but our stop at the local vineyard included a tour, and wine and food pairings. It was the perfect day for us as we wanted to visit a local Chianti vineyard, but also love to be active and didn’t want to spend an entire day drinking wine. Side note: we discovered we LOVE Chianti, particularly Chianti Classico while on this trip.

The Tuscan Villa and Vineyard we visited as part of our bike tour.
A nice mid bike ride tasting! We enjoyed the company of our guide and one other couple. We lucked out in having a small, personalized tour!
The Tuscan countryside is stunning, even on a hazy morning. The views of the gently rolling hills did not disappoint!

Let’s Eat!!

Of course you can’t visit Italy without talking about the FOOD! I come from one of those Italian families that you see in facebook memes where the table is covered in food (and someone is always telling you to eat more). I thought I’d tasted authentic Italian food before in NY, but nothing compares to the homemade pastas, sauce, and desserts in Italy. As with any tourist city, the closer you are to the action, the more touristy the restaurant. As a general rule, do not eat in a restaurant right next to a main tourist attraction or on the main Piazza. The best restaurants are found in the small alleys, and certainly do not have people standing outside trying to usher you in. In Florence, if you cross over the river, you will find many delightful trattorias and cafes where local Italians enjoy eating. On all three trips to Florence, I’ve enjoyed eating in Piazza Santo Spirito – my favorite being Osteria Santo Spirito. This place is always busy and booking is recommended, particularly if you are there during the busy summer season. If you can’t get in Osteria Santo Spirito, I’ve also had a great meal (and great charcuterie plate) at Ristorante Borgo Antico. After you’re done eating, be sure to wash it all down with gelato! There are so many places to choose from, do yourself a favor and eat gelato at least two a day. I’m a sucker for Hazelnut, but I did have a pear and marscapone gelato that was literally the best sweet thing I’ve ever eaten.

The most heavenly plate of gnocchi and cheese from Osteria Santo Spirito.
Mussels from Osteria Santo Spirito

While there is so much to see in Florence, it’s also important to pencil in a few hours for aimless wandering and soaking in all the marvels the city has to offer. The architecture, the culture, the views — all will leave you wanting a second (or third) trip back! Enjoy some scenes from Florence!

Duomo at night
Florence, on the Arno River
Another shot from Piazzelle Michelangelo
Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore — the Cathedral is so massive I struggled to get it all in the photo.
Basilica di Santa Croce

Sooooo, when are you heading to Italy?!?