War and Peace

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My parents first told me about their planned trip to eastern Europe in 2019. They talked about visiting the many splendors of Poland, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. I was intrigued and wanted to join them but the planned trip for the Spring of 2021 was not a great time to break away.

Little did we know that the COVID pandemic would close down all travel in the Spring of 2020. And as the COVID protocols and variant surges came and went, the trip got rescheduled again and again. Then a date was settled on for Spring of 2022 and I decided to join the group. I have been basically grounded from travel for the last couple of years and even though the recent Omicron surge brought some hesitation in the beginning of 2022, the declining numbers of cases made me feel more at ease to journey to this part of the world.

With all the ups and downs of navigating travel plans during the pandemic, the last thing I anticipated was the Russian invasion of the Ukraine creating a new set of considerations. Should I still go? Is it safe to go? Is it insensitive to go on this great adventure as millions of Ukrainians are forced to leave their homes just 300 miles away? These are all the questions that I wrestled with before departing.

A few factors contributed to my decision to go but the most influential was this. Personal contacts in Poland and Hungary urged me and the group to come and visit their countries that so desperately need tourism dollars again after 2 years of pandemic lockdown. In addition, the US State Department did not issue Russia/Ukraine-related warnings for US Citizens to travel to Poland. We decided to forge ahead.

The theme of this trip was always going to be called, “War and Peace”. From the original trip brochure:

Today we are living in a world rich in history and hopeful about the future. Eastern Europe features magnificent countryside sights and historical places that contain the histories that are still shaping the world today. Since both World Wars originated in Eastern Europe, there are many points of interest that will help us focus on the theme of this tour: War and Peace.

None of us predicted that war would play such an impactful backdrop for our time these past 2 weeks. Throughout our entire trip, we have interacted with many Ukrainian refugees who have left their homes and are figuring out where to go next. We have witnessed first-hand the impact of war. And nearly 2 full weeks after our arrival, Ukrainians are still being bombarded. Being in these countries—during this time—has made a profound impact on me.

When I hear or read “Ukrainian Refugees” I don’t think of a conceptual mass of people displaced from their homes. I think of the many people (mostly women and children) whom we have had conversations with. I think of their personal stories of resilience. I think of their hopes and dreams of returning home soon to the loved ones they left behind to fight. These are the faces of this senseless war. I also think of the many amazing humans we have met in Poland, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic who have graciously opened up their countries and homes. I plan to share many of these stories with each of you in person soon.


Tomorrow, I start my long journey home after being gone for 12 days. As usual, I enjoyed visiting new places, studying new cultures, eating local foods, and checking more countries and UNESCO World Heritage sites off my list.

Here is a collection of my favorite photos taken during this trip. And in some case, I did deeper photo studies of some locations. You can view them here:
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
Wawel Castle
• Országház, the Hungarian Parliament Building
St. Vitus Cathedral

All photos ©Gregory Ng, Shot with Leica CL, Elmarit-TL 18mm f/2.8 or iPhone 13 Pro Max


80,000 shoes fill a room at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp outside of Krakow, Poland
Photo: Gregory Ng

Abstract pattern on the steps of the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria
Photo: Gregory Ng

Stephansdom or the St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria
Photo: Gregory Ng

Hofburg: the former principal imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty. Vienna, Austria
Photo: Gregory Ng

Stairway to the Baroque 11th century Melk Abbey in Melk, Austria
Photo: Gregory Ng

The ceiling of the St Vitus Cathedral located within Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic
Photo: Gregory Ng

Street art in Krakow, Poland, the “UNESCO City of Literature”
Photo: Gregory Ng

Grand Central Market in Budapest, Hungary
Photo: Gregory Ng

Marking the place where the Austrian State Treaty was signed in 1955 at the Marble Hall in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria
Photo: Gregory Ng

Taking a seat outside Salzburg Cathedral. Salzburg, Austria
Photo: Gregory Ng

Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland
Photo: Gregory Ng

The Hungary Parliament Building at Sunset, Budapest, Hungary
Photo: Gregory Ng

Outside Stiftsbäckerei the oldest bakery in Salzburg, Austria
Photo: Gregory Ng

“Venite Adoremus” Melk Abbey, Melk, Austria
Photo: Gregory Ng

Margaret Bridge, Budapest, Hungary
Photo: Gregory Ng

I Czech’d all my boxes

I set out to accomplish a few things on this trip and I am happy to report that I achieved them all!

I ATE ALL THE THINGS:
From bratwursts, to schnitzel, to pierogi, to strudel, and every other type of pastry I could get my mouth around, I tried it all. Some of my favorites:

Currywurst from the Belvedere Museum Cafe in Vienna, Austria
Apple Strudel Pretzel from Salzburg, Austria
You never sau-sage a happy eater! (Sorry, that was the wurst)

I SAW ALL THE THINGS
I really wanted to visit Schindler’s Enamel Factory in Krakow, Poland. On my first afternoon, I made it to the museum and memorial. I also got to see Gustav Klimt’s painting, The Kiss at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria. I also made an unplanned stop when I realized the first McDonald’s opened behind the iron curtain was in Budapest, Hungary. I ended up ordering the Fox Felix Maestro Burger which was a quite odd burger with a breaded, gooey queso cheese inside and a whole lot of mayonnaise.

The metal manufacturing factory where Oskar Schindler saved over a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them to work.
Gustav Klimt’s painting: The Kiss at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria
Fries and a Coke taste the same, but the Fox Felix Maestro Burger is unexplainable

SOUND OF MUSIC DREAM VISIT
Another huge moment for me during this trip was to visit Felsenreitschule, the “Rock Riding School” theatre at the Salzburg Music Festival and most notably, from the performance and escape scene in the movie, The Sound of Music. This theatre tour only occurs once per day at 2:00 PM and is limited to 20 people with no possibility of advanced ticket purchasing. This was a highlight of my trip.

Visiting Felsenreitschule

Below is the scene from the movie…


LAND OF MOZART
Visiting Vienna and Salzburg was an amazing experience for me as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is my favorite classical music composer. One of the nights we attended a string quartet concert at Mozarthouse. This intimate concert holds only 35 people and takes place at Sala Terrena, the oldest concert hall in Vienna and a place where Mozart himself once performed. But the best part of this concert was that they performed my favorite Mozart piece, the Divertimento in D major K. 136 (Salzburg Symphony No.1). It is the first time I heard it performed live!

Look how close we are! There are no pictures or videos during the performance but this was grabbed as they were warming up after intermission.

BUT THE BEST PART OF THE TRIP…
was a chance to see this part of the world with my parents. My parents are seasoned travelers who have been all over the world. It was great to travel with them these past couple of weeks!

Dad, Mom, and me in front of Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland.

Stats from my Trip

Countries Visited: 5

• Poland
• Slovakia
• Hungary
• Austria
• Czech Republic


UNESCO World Heritage Sites Visited: 9
POLAND
Historic Centre of Kraków
Auschwitz Birkenau
HUNGARY
Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue
AUSTRIA
Historic Centre of the City of Salzburg
Palace and Gardens of Schönbrunn
Historic Centre of Vienna
Wachau Cultural Landscape
CZECH REPUBLIC
Holašovice Historic Village
Historic Centre of Prague


Next Adventure

In October 2019, I achieved Pilgrim status at the UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage Trail: The Kumano Kodo in Japan. This summer, I plan to achieve the coveted “Dual-Pilgrim” status as I take on part of the Primitivo route of the Camino de Santiago in July. Stay tuned for more details on my next adventure!