Oh Hey, Pompeii!

2013-09-21 09.59.27Our tour bus arrives outside the ancient city of Pompeii around mid-afternoon.

This is one of the things I’m looking forward to seeing. Ancient-ruin-anything pleases my inner geek.

Once inside the front gates, we meet our next local guide Vincenzo (or Enzo, as he likes to be called). He takes our group down a tree-lined path and into the sun-baked ruins of part of the old city.

We’re told it’s impossible to see the entire old city in one day; for our part of the trip, we’ll see roughly a third of the ruins (which lasts about two hours).

Enzo’s actually third-generation resident of the modern-day town of Pompeii, so he’s as chock-a-block full of information as he is entertaining when he describes what life in ancient times would have been like.

2013-09-21 10.08.28He takes us to see an ancient ampthitheatre, and explains practical purposes for things, such as the way the roads were paved, and how merchants set up shops.

He shows us an ancient “fast-food” restaurant, as well as how to determine whether the ruins of a home belonged to someone of a certain class.

We take respite from the sun in an old structure, and take a look of a couple of figures in plaster – said to be real people, frozen in the positions in which they died. I’m not sure what’s more surreal – that, or seeing them under glass, themselves relics from an ancient event.

2013-09-21 10.48.39From there, Enzo takes us to a section of town that housed a brothel, explaining how prostitutes would bring in business.

Up on the walls near the brothel’s entrance are faded erotic pictures, depicting the kind of services customers could ask for.

(In the street not too far away from the brothel, there’s a drawing on of of the stones that one could describe as an ancient form of “GPS”, so to speak.)

2013-09-21 10.13.27Near the end of our tour, we pass through a very large courtyard.

At one end is a building housing all sorts of recovered artifacts – urns, vessels, pieces of moulding, and again, figures frozen in plaster and time.

One particular person is crouching – likely under something to protect himself, but sadly, his gesture was in vain.

It’s been an interesting look around Pompeii. But after a post-tour gelato, it’s time to pile back onto the bus to get to the next leg of our destination.

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Dubrovnik, Day One

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current one.)

Sunday, September 2nd.

Our day starts with a fantastic breakfast – cereal, dates, fresh fruit, cheese, ham, eggs, bread … It’s all there, and much more than I’m expecting.

Europe, Croatia 005The sun has already started to blaze by the time we reach Dubrovnik’s Old Town (on foot), to walk along the town wall.

Our trip leader, Livia, gives us an overview of the Old Town, its architecture, and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. It’s actually somewhat hard to fathom that it’s been about 20 years since this very town was shelled in that conflict – and that isn’t all that long ago.

Walking along the wall, we’re treated to a spectacular view of the water and the town skyline. But I’m already sweating profusely – I’m convinced I will absolutely melt into a puddle of skin, and concerned my sunscreen won’t do its job.

After the walk, we take a  much-needed shade-and-drinks break. Sitting with Jennifer, Sanj and Livia, we get to chatting and learn a bit more about Livia – her travels, aspirations and projects in the works (including hopes of one day running her own specialized tours in Budapest).

Our group splits off into smaller groups, heading in separate directions for the afternoon. Jennifer, Karen (the lone Kiwi on the trip, and a hell of a traveller), Sanj, Rob and Richard (the Torontonians) and I opt to take the cable car up Srd Hill – location of probably the best views of Dubrovnik’s Old City.

Despite the stuffy, cramped car ride on the way up, the perspective is nice as advertised.

Europe, Croatia 028At the top of Srd Hill, the views are even more breathtaking – the city wall, the red clay rooftops, the nearby islands, and the glistening water – all of it alluring.

We wander around the gigantic cross and flagpole at the top of the hill. The scenery behind the visitors’ centre is rugged, rocky, and dry. It reminds me very much of some of the landscape I saw in Morocco three years prior.

Karen opts to walk down the hill, while the rest of us take the cable car (this time, much less crowded) to the bottom. Rob and Richard take off soon afterwards; Sanj, Jennifer and I opt to wander around a bit, then grab lunch.

Later, we head to the war photo gallery. It’s a visual eyeopener into the conflicts which gripped the Balkans during the 1990s. The images of people with looks of despair on their faces, of men readying themselves for armed skirmish, even the photos of Dubrovnik’s deserted main streets, and night shots of the town aflame amidst the shelling, are simply arresting. Just looking at them feels surreal. As I’ve said before, it’s almost impossible for me – as a stranger from another country – to fully understand what took place in this region –  even with visual proof as vivid as this.

Europe, Croatia 050Afternoon morphs into evening, and on this one, part of the group re-assembles for dinner down by the water, near part of the city wall.

Determined to embrace the seafood culture of the Dalmatian coast (and not to eat meat too early on), I order  scampi – another dish I’ve never had! – along with some mussels. The scampi, while decent, is too much work for my novice fingers; the “salad” (which includes pâté that simply melts on my tongue!) and the mussels are much better.

On our post-dinner stroll, the group again breaks up and go separate ways. Karen, Sanj, Jackie and Julia – an Australian couple – and I walk around in search of somewhere to grab a drink or two. Jackie and Julia aren’t with us very long – they go back to the apartments after our first bar stop.

The rest of us stay where we are, trapped in a square on a patio between one venue playing live music and another blasting Euro-beats. We eventually leave, grabbing gelato on the way back.

Tomorrow is another day – one with a change of scenery.

Day-tripping Daydreams

So based on my last post, I’ve decided to dub my quest for a personal life “Operation: Fun”.

(Yes, oh SO creative.)

In any case … After a couple of fits and stops, I’ve finally started planning my next big trip!

It’s not until September. Which isn’t that far away. But amid booking a tour and flights, that restless feeling is creeping in.

To keep the wanderlust at bay, I’d like to aim to do a couple of day trips somewhere, with friends.

It doesn’t have to be that far out of town. It could be something that lasts an afternoon. Or the better part of a day. Or – depending on the location – perhaps a jaunt with an overnight stay.

Whether it’s a hike, a play, or just exploring a town, here are some places here in Ontario that I’ve never gone (or haven’t been to in ages):

Elora and Fergus. These two little towns are number one on my list of day-trips, with a bullet.

I first heard about Elora years ago from a friend, who’d gone camping there with a boyfriend at the time (sadly, with disastrous results). But hearing the words “Elora Gorge” have always evoked an image of immense, natural beauty – even before seeing an actual picture.

Whether it’s taking up an activity in the Gorge (they’ve got ziplining!), walking around the town, or doing something nerdy like a walking tour, this might not be a bad place to visit.

(Throw in a visit to the antique market in Aberfoyle, and it could be the perfect Sunday trip!)

Kleinberg. I vaguely remember going here on a school trip as a kid – going to the Kortright Conservation Centre (now the Kortright Centre for Conservation), and visiting the McMichael Art Gallery (now – or always? – the McMichael Canadian Art Collection), and having someone point out the late Pierre Berton‘s house across from the gallery.

(I couldn’t actually see it, because of the sheer volume of trees – perhaps how Mr. Berton liked it.)

But I think I might have a different appreciation for the place, now that I’m some 25 years older. Natural landscapes! Iconic Group of Seven artwork! Cute village! And not that far of a drive away.

St. Jacob’s. I’ve ALWAYS heard about St. Jacob’s, but have never gone. In fact, the closest I think I’ve been is Elmira – but that was for a work assignment, so that doesn’t even count!

Now THIS is what I think of, when I think of “the country”. Beautiful small-town/country scenery. Yummy, fresh, homemade, home-grown food.

Also: MENNONITES.

In a world where we’re surrounded by electric cars, smartphones and tablets, seeing people driving horse-drawn buggies and wearing long dresses with bonnets, living and working alongside farmers and small-town folk, would be a refreshing change. (Not to mention, a reminder to big-city folks like myself that life is lived in all sorts of ways.)

Stratford. Forget Bieber fever. The main draw for me would be the Stratford Festival. I’ve never been to see a play. Ever. This needs to come off my bucket list. (Or would that be my “life list”?)

And although the festival is probably the biggest draw (the naming of this town surely wasn’t an accident), I’m sure there must be other things to check out while in the town.

It would be great to tool around town, take in a show, then have a nice meal somewhere. That’s not too much to ask, I don’t think.

Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was here – or nearby – several years back, on a winery tour with a small group of friends. But it would be lovely to come back and do another one (preferably, NOT the morning after a party and operating on a lack of sleep).

Actually, I’d love to find one of those tours that allow you to bike from winery to winery. Which could either be highly entertaining … or potentially hazardous, depending on who I go with, and how much they drink.

Also here: the Shaw Festival – ANOTHER festival I’ve never attended. This would be an awesome weekend getaway, in summer – OR in the fall, actually. Hmmmmm …

So many places, so many possibilities … I don’t expect to knock all of these off in one go. But it would be nice to break up the monotony of city life with the occasional city break.

We’ll see, won’t we?

Reflections on Auschwitz

I’m not entirely sure how to write this next post.

I feel as if I’m about to trivialize what I’ve seen.

But I think somehow, if I don’t write this, then I cannot make the case for why I think it is such a valuable experience, and a worthwhile day trip for anyone to make, if they can. 

So here it is:

The bus drives through Oświęcim, Poland about mid-morning, taking us not into the town itself, but to the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. On a day like today, one might expect the weather to be gloomy and cloudy, to match the occasion of our visit. It is, instead, sunny and quite warm.

We start in the main building of the museum on the grounds of the former Auschwitz camp, where we meet our guide and get our headsets so we can hear her talk throughout the tour.

As she takes us from room to room and exhibit to exhibit – housed in several different buildings – the guide explains how these poor people were taken from their homes and rounded up for the often-cramped trips to these camps … and how so many believed that they would be going to these places to work.

The enlarged pictures of the various camps up on the walls and the scenes of people arriving, as well as the glass cases with some of the administrative documents recovered, certainly help to paint a visual picture.

But it is the displays showing the mountains of belongings – pots and pans, eyeglasses, hairbrushes, suitcases with names clearly marked on them – that resonate with me.

Perhaps the one display that is still partially etched in my mind is the one with all the hair.

I mean, it was literally an enormous glass display taking up an entire wall, with nothing but a big hill of hair behind it, discoloured by time.

Among the mounds, I can still see braids of women and girls, whose heads were shaved by SS officers in preparation for their final, horrific destination.

Kitty-corner to this, by the entrance into the room in a smaller display, is the end product of some of that hair: a huge bolt of cloth. A couple of hairnets.

If one group of people hates another group of people so much that they make it their mission to completely wipe them off the face of the earth – and succeed in doing so with a segment of that despised population – why on EARTH would they want to keep around their remains?

And, from what the guide says, chances are many of the Germans who use this industrial cloth probably had no idea what it was made of.

This completely strikes me dumb.

Another thing that boggles my mind – and annoys me – is another tour group we encounter when we move upstairs to another floor within the building. They’re a group of Jewish people, possibly from Israel – the head of the group is speaking to them in Hebrew.

Some of them are snapping photos of the exhibits, despite the request from the museum that no photography is allowed, as a matter of respect.

The guide actually warns our group before we head upstairs that we would run into them. Even then, I can’t believe the amount of disrespect they show. The guide says they likely know about the rule, but choose not to pay attention to it.

Why? If any one of the million visitors making the trip to this site are expected to respect the rules, why don’t they? Do they feel they are exempt because of their religion? Do they maybe not feel affected by what they see, because perhaps they are not relatives or descendants of the poor people who suffered?

This irks me, because these are not extinct animals we’re talking about here – they’re human beings who we come to remember. But we move onward.

We see the pictures of various concentration camp prisoners which hang on the walls. To say the men and women look gaunt from their treatment is a huge understatement. The guide tells us to look at the pictures and women and see how they don’t even look like women in some of the photos – and it’s true.

We go into another room where there are enlarged photos of young women and children who suffered at the hands of Dr. Josef Mengele in disgusting “experiments”.

We move into other buildings where we see old prison cells and remains of standing cells where some people were kept – as many as four people in a tiny space.

We step outside and move towards the reconstruction of a wall where prisoners were executed. It is now a memorial, where flowers and votive candles are laid.

The guide recalls a story in which a family – husband, wife, two small children and an infant – stood stoicly as they were shot to death one by one.

As we leave the area, a number of us pick up stones for later on.

Just before we leave this site, we visit the only gas chamber and crematorium at the Auschwitz site. It’s also one of the smaller ones. It’s an almost-silent two-minute walk through.

Next, we’re taken to Birkenau, site of the prisoner barracks – and those infamous train tracks. We’re shown the sleeping barracks, and crude latrines, and told about the conditions. We see remnants of some of the brick barracks that were taken apart after Liberation. And we see the remains of the huge gas chambers and crematoriums, now a collapsed mass of brick and cement.

How anyone can deny the events that took place here, is truly beyond my comprehension. The proof is here, at this place. To fabricate something this horrific could not even be possible. To suggest that this could be, is completely pathetic on the part of the thinker.

Our tour ends in the blazing hot sun, by the monument to the prisoners who died. A number of us place our stones there, along with other already laid by earlier visitors.

As we walk back along the gravel towards the entrance, some of us wonder aloud. About why the Nazis, if they wanted to eliminate the Jews so badly, didn’t just do it right away, instead of prolonging the suffering. About how genocides are sadly still going on in parts of the world today, over and over again. About why we continue to let it happen. About how powerless some of us feel, knowing these things are still happening.

I am sure that millions of questions similar to ours float in the minds of visitors as they arrive and depart each day.

But perhaps one thing is certain: nothing really prepares you for the visit. And once you leave, you don’t forget.

Somewhere in my luggage, I hope, is a second small stone I collected from Auschwitz that day. It’s to remind me, when I feel like complaining that things in my life are not going the way they should, how fortunate I am to be where I am today. And also to never forget those who suffered.