Frequent travelers like to seek out places that are more off the beaten path and less expensive than their well-known counterparts, places they can claim as their own well before their fellow globetrotters have even heard of them.  Twenty years ago or so, these travelers discovered Prague, in the Czech Republic, and they fell in love with it for its grand architecture, its interesting history and its manageable prices.  Unfortunately (for them), word of their discovery got out.  Prague is now full of souvenir stands and tour groups, and those travelers have been left to try to discover the “next Prague.”  Well, intrepid travelers, look no further.  We’ve seen some amazing places during the last month, and I’m certain that one of these European destinations deserves the honor of being the next in line to inherit Prague’s tourism throne:
Wawel Castle and Cathedral
1.     Krakow, Poland – Considering it was the royal capital of Poland until 1596 and was left largely unscathed during World War II, Krakow’s old town has to be one of the greatest in Europe.  Hundreds of ancient buildings once occupied by noblemen and dignitaries are now home to a dizzying array of restaurants, cafes, bars and art galleries.  The gem, though, of this immaculate town is its main square, a square that’s the size of some small towns.  Two hundred meters (that’s two football fields!) wide and two hundred meters long, the square seems to have a life of its own.  And if you’re into history, Krakow gives you the enormous Wawel Castle, the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, a nearby Jewish ghetto made famous in the movie Schindler’s List and, less than an hour away, the gruesome death camp at Auschwitz.
2.     Ljubljana, Slovenia – The fact that Ljubljana (and, for that matter, all of Slovenia) is not world-famous is an outrage.  Pronounced “Lyoo-bli-yana”, the city name means “beloved” in Slovene…and for good reason.  Crammed between a massive hill (which is, of course, crowned by a huge castle) and the Ljubljanica River, the Romans, the Austrian Habsburgs and Napolean all took advantage of this city’s strategic setting.  This brought great wealth to the city, which produced some remarkable architecture, much of which was destroyed in a 1895 earthquake.  Fortunately, Ljubljana called upon the services of Joze Plecnik, a young architect who had learned his trade while working on Prague’s marvelous Hradcany Castle, to return the city to its former glory.  His training paid off, leading him to build some of the grandest and most interesting buildings, bridges and sculptures (many of which are of dragons, since legend has it that the city was build on the spot where Jason, of Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, slew a dragon) found anywhere. Our mostly tourist-free time spent walking along the river, admiring the colorful buildings and shopping at the daily market is one of our greatest memories of Europe.
Scenes from streets of Bratislava
3.     Bratislava, Slovakia – During forty-five years of Communist rule, the largest Communist-era housing complex was built in Bratislava – scores of identical and soulless buildings marring the landscape.  Luckily, the Communists didn’t go near the old town of Bratislava, leaving unscathed a town that is the very definition of quaint.  With cobblestone, traffic-free streets, maze-like alleys and tiny, cafe-filled plazas, all you’ll want to do is walk around the tiny town and sit unhurried in a cafe soaking up the romantic atmosphere.  Luckily, you can!  Even though Bratislava is over 1,100 years old, it is blissfully free of any must-see destinations, enabling you to relax guilt-free without worrying about missing that umpteenth castle or cathedral.  My suggestion for the Bratislava Tourism Board’s new slogan is “Come to Bratislava…and Do Nothing.”
statue in main square of Lviv
4.     Lviv, Ukraine – Even though its Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Lviv sees precious few Western tourists.  As I explored the city’s charming streets and public squares, though, I got a feeling that that’s about to change.  The hotels are nice, the restaurants are diverse and the churches and medieval buildings are as grand as any we’ve seen. This, combined with a culture and people that is drastically different from much of Eastern and Central Europe, is just too irresistible for tourists to ignore for much longer.

Amazing Castle of Kamyanets-Podilsky
5.     Kamyanets-Podilsky, Ukraine – The greatest military strategists couldn’t design a more secure location for this town.  Situated on a large rock island, surrounded by a river that acts as a natural moat, Kamyanets-Podislky has been inhabited for thousands of years by people seeking protection.  To bolster their security, a wooden castle was built here in the 10th century and reconstructed with stone 500 years later.  Our initial view of the castle as we walked across the bridge into the Old Town was, to us, one of the greatest visual spectacles this world has to offer.  And since the city is well off the tourist track (even its residents were puzzling over why we took the time to visit…), you’ll probably have the unforgettable view to yourself.

So there you have it.  If you’re bound for Europe any time soon, make sure you see some of these amazing places now.  Before everyone else does.


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Lviv and Kamyanets-Podilsky:

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Scenes from Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Auschwitz.  Even the name of the infamous Nazi death camp sends a chill down my spine.  Although the camp and its neighbor, Auschwitz II (also called Birkenau), are both in Poland, they were the setting for a living nightmare experienced not only by Poles, but by people throughout Europe.  From places as far away as Greece, Jews and other people designated for extermination by the Nazis ((Among this group were the oft-oppressed Roma, a people without a homeland who are discriminated against throughout what seems to be most of the world.  Half of Europe’s Roma population was decimated by the Nazis during World War II.  Given such tragic numbers, it’s hard to believe that few people know about these invisible victims of the Holocaust.)) were forced to board trains bound for Auschwitz.  Many of them were made to pay for their own passage on the vehicles that would carry most of them to their deaths.

The prisoners were told that they were being sent to a labor camp and that they could carry with them only one suitcase full of all of the goods they would need to live for the unforeseen future.  And so they did as they were forced to do.  Unable to cram everything they owned into just one suitcase, many of them wore nearly all of their clothing at once, which only made the heat on the crowded trains more unbearable.  But that was nothing compared to what they would face once they arrived at their final destination.
Selection Process at Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
At Auschwitz, the prisoners filing off of the trains were separated into two groups–those the Nazis thought fit for hard labor (this group consisted mostly of young and middle-aged men) and everyone else (this group was made up of nearly all of the women, the children and the elderly).  People in this second group were told that they needed to be sprayed with a sort of delousing agent before they got settled into their barracks.  They headed into the showers, unsuspecting. There was no precedent in their minds for this kind of evil, and thus they had no way of predicting what was going to happen.  But you know the rest.  The “showers” were gas chambers.  All of those layers of clothes, all of those suitcases packed with the goods needed to begin a new life–worthless.  The Nazis kept meticulous records of all of the prisoners who lived at Auschwitz.  But the names of those killed immediately upon their arrival never even made it into their records.
Work Brings Freedom sign at entrance to Auschwitz I
The “lucky” people in the group selected for labor were housed either at Auschwitz I in old army barracks (although surely the soldiers who once lived there were not made to sleep three or even more to a twin-sized bed) or in what were formerly horse stables at Birkenau (buildings that once housed 52 horses now held 400 people).  Their prisoner numbers were tattooed onto their forearms and they were put to work.  (Once in awhile, you see a Holocaust survivor with such a tattoo. It’s a sure sign that he or she was imprisoned at Auschwitz; it was the only camp that tattooed its captives.)  Forced to endure inhospitable temperatures, psychotically inhumane medical experiments and near starvation, most of these prisoners died after only a few weeks.
Auschwitz I
The Soviets liberated Auschwitz I and Birkenau on January 27, 1945–nearly 5 years after Auschwitz I was established and more than three years after Birkenau opened its creepy doors.  Tragically, the Germans had been forewarned about the Soviets’ arrival.  Just days before the Soviets arrived, some 60,000 prisoners were forced to undertake a death march to a concentration camp in Germany.  The 20,000 of them who made it to the camp weren’t liberated until months later. When the Soviets finally did get to Auschwitz, only 7,500 prisoners remained.  Most of them were weak and near death, but they were alive.  All in all, about 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, about 90 percent of whom were Jews from nearly every country in Europe.
Scenes from Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
The day we spent touring Auschwitz was, of course, terribly upsetting and emotionally exhausting.  Thanks to a great guide, however, it was also informative.  Evidence of the Nazis’ atrocities was everywhere.  40,000 pairs of the victims’ shoes filled one room.  Their toothbrushes and shaving kits were piled in another.  Human hair took up a massive space along one wall.  (The Germans shaved their victims’ heads and, unbelievably enough, used their hair to make fabric.  When they liberated the camps, the Soviets found bags of the stuff waiting to be shipped.)  Still another room–the saddest of all–was filled with the suitcases the prisoners brought with them on the trains from their homelands.  Each was marked with its owner’s name and birthday.  With tears in my eyes, I noticed that one of the suitcases belonged to a child who, at the time, was less than a year old.

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