Month: June 2010

Touring Chernobyl and Pripyat (inside buildings)

Touring Chernobyl and Pripyat (inside buildings)

On the 24th, I finally made my trip to tour Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone, the highlight of my trip to Ukraine. Background: The Chernobyl disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 and was the worst nuclear disaster at its time, responsible for approximately 4,000 cancer related […]

Vienna

Vienna

My overnight train to Vienna went pretty well, and I did manage to get some sleep. We arrived in Vienna about an hour late at 7:30 am, and then I caught the metro to my hostel. I dropped my stuff off and then went into […]

Day 44: Krakow

Day 44: Krakow

On Saturday, the 26th, I had to wake up around 5:00am to catch a taxi to the airport and check in before my plane left at 8:00am. The plane landed in Vienna around 9:00am (there is a one hour time zone difference, it was actually a two hour flight). My connecting flight back to Krakow didn’t leave until 1:30pm, so I had plenty of time to relax in the airport. I grabbed some Starbucks and wrote my Chernobyl blog update. Luckily, the Vienna airport has free wi-fi and it’s the fastest I’ve seen in Europe. I was able to upload all my Chernobyl pictures and some remaining ones from Kiev (about 6 GB total) while I was waiting. My connecting flight to Krakow left on time and was only a 45min flight.

Once I got back to Krakow, I grabbed the free shuttle to the train station and then took the train back to the city center (about 20 minutes). I then checked into my hostel and then went off to do some laundry. While I was waiting, I went to a photo store and bought a new lens: a 50mm f1.8. It has a fixed focal length (meaning you can’t zoom at all) but it has a wide aperture so I can take pictures in low light. It only cost around $100, but it is supposed to be one of the best budget lenses you can buy. For dinner, I went to a nice restaurant near the train station and watched the US lose to Ghana. It would have been nice to win, but even if the US would have won the whole thing, no one (including me) would care much two weeks later.

Yesterday I went back to Auschwitz and took some (I think) better pictures. I started off in Birkenau around noon and then went to Auschwitz I around 3pm. Of the 300 I took, I think a few of them turned out well that I might print out. I got back to Krakow around 7:00pm, walked through the city center, grabbed a kebab, and then went back to my hostel.

Today, I woke up and didn’t have any plans. I spent most of the day planning for the rest of my trip. I am starting to get into the heavy tourist season, so it’s harder to find places to stay on short notice. I tried booking a hostel for Innsbruck on the 5th of July, but had to get a hotel because all the decent hostels were full.

I went and did one more load of laundry (that I forgot to do last time) and while I waited, I called my parents and sister back home to see how things are going. My parents just got back from a cruise to Alaska and I think they had a good time. For the rest of the time, I planned out the rest of my trip. My schedule is below:

Switzerland and Italy are going to be expensive, but I’ve cut out Rome so maybe that will help. I also decided to cut out Nice and spend some more time in Switzerland. Lucerne was my favorite place in Europe on my last trip and I should be able to take some good photographs of Lucerne and Interlaken at night with the reflections over the lake. I’ll plan where I’m staying in Florence, Naples, Cinque Terre, and Paris once I get to Vienna.

I grabbed dinner at an authentic Polish restaurant with perogies, mainly to spend the last of my Polish money. I’ll probably add pictures of what I ate once I get to Vienna. Tonight, I’m taking an overnight train to Vienna which leaves around 10:00pm. Hopefully I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

Day 39: Kiev

Day 39: Kiev

On the 22nd, I took a tour of the city with Sergei and Tim. I took a crowded, hot bus into town with Sergei in the morning and then took the metro into the city center. Kiev is divided by a river, with the suburbs […]

Day 37: Krakow/Kiev

Day 37: Krakow/Kiev

Because the weather was constantly raining in Krakow, I didn’t bother to take any pictures. Hopefully the weather will be a bit better in Kiev. The past couple days I’ve been wandering around Krakow hanging out with people in the hostel. I took a bike […]

Day 33: Arriving in Krakow

Day 33: Arriving in Krakow

I woke up on the train around 5:45am and slept surprisingly well. If we would have had the full six people in the cabin, it would have been much worse. Our train was about 30 minutes late so we didn’t arrive in Krakow until 7:15am but I didn’t have any plans for the day so it didn’t matter.

My company on the overnight train
My company on the overnight train
I left the train station after pulling out 400 Zloty from the ATM, and started walking south. I could have grabbed a tram to the hostel but I didn’t think it was that far of a walk.

Turns out I was wrong – it was about a 45 minute walk, which doesn’t sound that bad, but when you’re carrying 50 lbs on your back, it can get pretty tiring. Not only was the walk itself far, but I also got lost along the way. What I did was email myself a screen shot a map of Krakow, showing the train station and the location of the hostel. The problem is that on an iPhone, you can only zoom into images so far, and because the picture was so big, I couldn’t make out the names of streets.

I finally found my hostel and it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting. It is rated pretty highly but it just looked like someone changed their flat into a hostel by adding some beds. It wasn’t necessarily bad (they do have free wi-fi in the rooms) – just not what I was expecting.

I was able to check in around 8:30am and grabbed some breakfast in the small lobby/bar. I talked with the guy who checked me in for awhile and then went upstairs to shower and figure out what I was going to do.

I checked the weather and today (the 17th) was supposed to be the only day with good weather while I was here. So instead of taking a walking tour like I had planned, I decided to go to Auschwitz.

Now there are two main ways to get to Auschwitz: either by train or bus. The bus is about half the cost, but takes two hours instead of one to get there. I knew that a train was leaving at 10:30am so I just left for the train station without bothering to send myself a map.

Auschwitz and Birkenau, Poland

Auschwitz and Birkenau, Poland

I got to the train station and bought a round-trip ticket for around 30 Zlotsy and hopped on the first car I saw. The train goes from Krakow to the small town of Oświęcim. (Auschwitz gets its name because it is the German translation for […]

Day 32: Prague/Krakow

Day 32: Prague/Krakow

Early this morning, I woke up around 4:30am to some of my roommates coming back from a pub crawl. After about 10 minutes, I leaned over and was about to ask them to turn off the light when I realized it was actually the sun […]

Day 31: Prague

Day 31: Prague

EDIT: Uploading pictures from 6/16 and 6/17 tonight. Will update the blog tomorrow morning with two new posts and pictures (including Auschwitz).

Today I woke up around 8:00am and went to the lobby downstairs to plan for Krakow and Kiev. My hostel in Krakow costs 9 USD per night and I’ll be staying there four nights before I got to Kiev on the 21st.

Around 9:45am, I took the metro into town and grabbed some breakfast before meeting the tour group at 11:00am. The tour goes to Kutna Hora, a small silver mining town about an hour away by train, with the highlight being the Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel made from human skeletons.

We had a little bit of time to spare before our train left from Prague (about 10 minutes) so I quickly went to the international ticket office and booked my train from Prague to Krakow. For an overnight train (leaving at 9:30pm and arriving at 6:30am) it cost about 40 Euros or about 50 USD – not too terrible. The ticket agent took a little bit longer than I expected but we made it to our train on time with about two minutes to spare.

We got to Kutna Hora around 1:00pm and explored the town for the next couple hours. The bone chapel was amazing – it was filled with skeletons from 40,000 bodies and there was a chandelier made from every bone in the human body.


After going through the rest of the tow, we grabbed lunch at a small restaurant and then took the hour long train back to Prague. Overall, the tour was very good and it would have been a lot harder to see everything by myself.

For dinner, I went to a local Czech restaurant and ordered steak tartare, turkey stuffed with mozzarella, a baked potato, ice cream with hot raspberries, and hot chocolate – all for about 20 USD. The food in Prague is pretty cheap and I expect Krakow to be pretty similar. Tomorrow, I am spending most of the day in Prague before taking the night train to Krakow. I don’t have much planned, so I might just walk around the Jewish Quarter and figure out what I’m going to do in Krakow.

Day 30: Prague

Day 30: Prague

Sorry for the lack of updates to the blog. It gets tough trying to plan where you’re going to go next, what you’re going to do (and actually doing it), and trying to keep a blog all at the same time. If I don’t add […]

Train from Berlin to Prague

Train from Berlin to Prague

After going to bed at 2:00 am, I briefly woke up at 4:45 am to notice that is was completely bright outside. With the latitude of Madrid relatively equal to that of New York, Berlin is a bit further north and gets a lot of […]

Museums and World War II History

Museums and World War II History

Yesterday, I went to the top of the TV tower and the Pergamon museum. The TV tower was built by East Berlin to showcase their superiority to the West, but due to people leaving to West Berlin by the thousands per day, there wasn’t enough engineers left behind to properly design it. Instead, the DDR leaders had to import Swedish engineering to finish it. The tower was meant to show the atheistic attitude, at a time when the DDR leaders were having crosses removed from the church domes and spires. Instead, when the sun shined on their tower – a huge cross is reflected in the mirror ball.

I then went to the Pergamon museum, which was much smaller than I anticipated – you can do a guided audio tour and hit all the highlights in 30 minutes. The museum specializes in Classical Antiques, and its main attraction is the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate. The Pergamon Altar was taken from a 2nd century BC Greek temple showing the gods fighting giants on the sculpted frieze and the Ishtar Gate was a massive gate created by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC to fortify their city. Both were impressive, but there wasn’t much more to see.

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After the museum, I went to an indoor shopping mall near Alexanderplatz. While I didn’t buy anything, I did find a Starbucks that had fast and free Wi-Fi. The login page says there is a two-hour time limit, but you can just log back in and get another two hours. After realizing this, I went back to my hostel, grabbed my computer, and headed back. I spent most of the afternoon catching up on email and uploading pictures to http://picasaweb.google.com/mszelis. I’m still not caught up on pictures, but I got a majority of them uploaded at original size.

That evening, I rode around on my bike and took some more pictures at night. Despite being a pain to carry around, the tripod has been well worth the money and lets me take pictures that would otherwise be impossible.

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Today (the 11th) I woke up around 8:00am and took the S-Bahn to Wannsee to see the House of the Wannsee Conference – the lakeside villa where the Nazis determined the final solution for the Jews.
Entrance to the lakeside villa
Entrance to the lakeside villa
After seeing the movie Conspiracy which details the meeting, I found it to be a bit smaller than I imagined – especially the front driveway. I went through the movie and then through my pictures, trying to match them up with different scenes.. All the fireplaces, columns, windows, etc. were the same – pretty neat.
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It looks like an ordinary house, but in this room they determined the Final Solution for the Jews.
It looks like an ordinary house, but in this room they determined the Final Solution for the Jews.
The outside was under construction but the inside had a nice museum describing the history of anti-Semitism and meeting itself. The meeting was held in the dining room, which now contains copies of the minutes that were taken at the meeting and descriptions of the attendees.
I grabbed the S-Bahn back to Berlin and after sleeping for a couple hours, went to the East Side Gallery. The gallery isn’t very centrally located and it took a good amount of time to bike there. It was pretty impressive though, stretching along the canal for almost a mile.
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I biked back to the city center and got some good pictures as the sun was setting. It’s funny – when I’m traveling by myself I have to ask other people to take pictures of me and 90% of the time, it doesn’t turn out the way I want. Whenever I give my camera to someone using a point and shoot camera, they don’t know how to use it or look through the view finder. But whenever possible, I try to find someone who also has a DSLR camera, since they typically know what they are doing.

Near the TV tower, I found a married couple with the wife carrying a higher-end Canon DSLR around her neck. She was a semi-professional photographer and got some good pictures of me next to the tower. I then left and took pictures near the Berliner Dom (cathedral). I asked two different people to take my picture (neither of which turned out how I wanted) before I just pulled out my tripod and set it on a self timer. After a couple tries, I got a few that looked good.

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I then went to the Reichstag and instead of getting in line right away, I got dinner and came back around 9:00 pm (last entry at 10:00pm, close at midnight). Turns out to be a mistake since a school group came right before me, making the line too long to get in before 10:00pm. I thought about going back tomorrow morning when they open at 8:00 am, but it would cost me nearly 4 hours of travel time – looks like I’ll be doing that on my next trip to Berlin.

Last thing I did was go to the German Resistance Memorial. While the museum was closed when I got there around 10:00pm, the courtyard was still open. It was in this courtyard that Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were shot (as popularized by the 2009 Tom Cruise film Valkyrie).

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I finally went back to the hostel and briefly started planning for Prague tomorrow. I ended up changing my hostel booking from Prague Square Hostel to Czech Inn after reading some negative reviews. I lost the ~$10 booking fee but I think the new one will be much better. I’ll be spending four nights in Prague, (6/12 to 6/15) and then going to Krakow, Poland.

Overall, I really enjoyed Berlin. It is very different from the other European cities I’ve been to – most of its most famous history has occurred in the 20th century. Due to the devastation of World War II, most of the buildings are less than 80 years old and the city is still recovering from being divided just over 20 years ago. The city also has a large debt and is constantly doing construction but hopefully in another 20 years Berlin will be prosperous again.

Checkpoint Charlie, Nazi buildings, and the Holocaust Memorial

Checkpoint Charlie, Nazi buildings, and the Holocaust Memorial

I woke up around this morning around 11:30am – I have no idea why I was so tired. I went back to Checkpoint Charlie and got some better pictures, then went to the Topography of Terror museum which is located on the former site of […]

Day 24: Berlin

Day 24: Berlin

Well waking up this morning was fun. I found some things I had unknowingly misplaced the night before and went out to do some laundry around 8:00am. Not sure why but if I drink, I never sleep in very late the next day. Around 11:00am […]

Day 23: Cologne and Berlin

Day 23: Cologne and Berlin

I woke up early around 6:00am, got some breakfast at the train station, and then got on a 7:48am train from Cologne to Berlin. The train trip was pretty uneventful and long – about 4.5 hours. Even though it says nonstop, it probably stopped eight different times on the way to Berlin (nonstop just meaning that you don’t have any transfers). I did get some work done though – I went through Rick Steve’s book, “Best of Europe 2010” and planned what I was going to do, on which days, once I got to Berlin.

I plan on seeing most of the main sites but even with 4.5 days, it’s a lot to fit in. I think I’m going to the Wannsee Conference center in southern Berlin on Thursday which should be pretty interesting. For those who don’t know, the Wannsee Conference was a meeting held at a lakeside villa with the high-ranking Nazi officials. The purpose of the meeting was to determine the ‘solution’ to the Jewish problem. They talked about who is considered a Jew, e.g. if a Jew marries a German, are the children Jewish or German, as well as the methods for ethnic cleansing. There’s a movie, Conspiracy, about the conference that is really well done if anyone is interested.

In addition to seeing most of the main sites (by myself and on a four hour bike tour) I plan on seeing the German Resistance Memorial (the execution location of Colonel von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators, popularized in the movie Valkyrie with Tom Cruise) and see Hotel Adlon, the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby over the railing.

Once I got to Berlin, I took the S-Bahn (above ground) and U-Bahn (underground) trains to my hostel and checked in around 2pm. This hostel is by far the best one yet; if you’re going to Berlin and going to a hostel, you should stay here. They have free wi-fi (a big plus for me), organized tours, and any kind of rental you can imagine (iPod, laptop, segway, bike, SmartCar, roller blades, etc.). They have a pretty neat interactive TV with their own ‘wiki’ page of Berlin with description and maps. The reception is also open 24 hrs with no lockout or curfew.

After I checked in, I took my camera, rented a bike, and then went into the city. The hostel is located on the north end of the city, a little bit far to walk but well within biking distance. I spent the next 3-4 hours just wandering around. About 45 minutes into it, I ran into the Jewish Holocaust memorial. It’s a pretty strange memorial because it’s made from about 2000 rectangular, hollow, concrete slabs which don’t symbolize anything. They’re lined into rows and columns, ranging in size from a few feet high to over 20 feet. I suppose it is up to the individual person to decide the significance or meaning of the slabs of concrete. I pulled out my guidebook, read a little bit more about the memorial, and found out that the sight of Hitler’s bunker was pretty close so I went off to find that.

The site of the bunker is located about 200 yards south of the Jewish Memorial and other than a small sign, there is nothing else marking it. It’s currently a parking lot for an apartment complex (which must get pretty annoying for the people who live there). But no tour buses come by it and unless you were looking for it, you wouldn’t know it was there. The Germans were reluctant to even put a sign up because they were worried it would attract neo-Nazis.

After exploring the city for a couple hours, I went back to the hostel and watched some live updates of Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC 2010). They’re rolling out a new iPhone 4 in a couple weeks which looks pretty good. Probably won’t get one – at least not anytime soon.

At 8:00pm, the bar below the hostel offers a free keg of beer, which goes pretty fast. I met some Brits, Sam and Tom I believe. We stayed there for about an hour and I got a 3 minute explanation of Cricket (still not sure I get all of it, I’ll have to look it up later). There was a pub crawl that left at 8:00pm, so we went and caught up with them. The Brits could absolutely drink me under the table, not to mention they probably had 40 more pounds to work with. They kept handing me drinks so I eventually called it an early night and caught a taxi back to the hostel. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the night; I had a good time but probably not drinking again for awhile (at least not like that).

Cologne

Cologne

I slept in this morning, waking up around 10:30am and grabbed a chocolate croissant and cheese covered pretzel at the train station. I got to the NS-Documentation Centre of the City of Cologne around 11:15am, fifteen minutes after it opened. Most of the museum was […]

Day 21: Cologne

Day 21: Cologne

First thing I did this morning was go to the Dom Cathedral. It was mostly empty when I got there at 8:30am so I walked around for about 45 minutes and took some pictures. I noticed they had a guided tour at 10:30am so I […]

Day 20: Belgium and Cologne

Day 20: Belgium and Cologne

Yesterday, I went to the military base which is where my G. Uncle Tom and Aunt Stella go shopping. I bought two books, “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Best of Europe: 2010” by Rick Steves. I actually have the book by Rick Steves at home, but didn’t bring it because I didn’t think I would need it since I already had two other guide books. The guidebooks I bought “Let’s Go Europe 2010” and “Rough Guide Europe 2010” were both good, but they just provide a list of things to do, with a few recommendations. His book is more in depth, providing detailed city maps with self-guided tours and more explanation into the history and culture. After the military base, I took a train back to Brussels. It was overcast when I went earlier in the week and the sun made everything look better. I couldn’t get tickets to the soccer match but the fan were out in full force. There were a bunch of Mexicans in the Grand Plaza who were singing Mexican songs and chants for about 2 hours. Ha, Michael Scott: “Is there a word besides Mexican that you like to be called, maybe something less offensive?” They were all wearing jerseys and had Mexican flags that they would wave every once in awhile. I spent time just wondering around, taking pictures, and eating waffles and beer. I caught the 6:45pm train back to Jurbise, had my last dinner with G. Uncle Tom and Aunt Stella, and then went to sleep.

I woke up around 8:30am this morning, packed my things, and left to take the 10:17am train from Jurbise to Brussels, and then a 12:25pm train from Brussels to Cologne, Germany. I had a great time in Belgium; I got to see some important World War I sites (that I wouldn’t be able to see without a car) and saw the main cities. It was really nice to have some family company for a couple of days.

My train from Jurbise to Brussels left on time, but was slow on the tracks and would completely stop in some cases. They made an announcement but it was in French so I had no idea what they said. No one seemed to be upset so I don’t think it was that important. I asked a woman next to me if she spoke English, which she didn’t, so she tried to explain what the problem was using hand gestures. Funny as it was, I had no idea what she was trying to explain. I got to the Brussels-Midi train station around 11:20, (15 minutes late) and then ate a packed lunch that Aunt Stella and G. Uncle Tom fixed me. Thanks!

I thought my train platform was closer than it really was and I almost missed my connecting train to Cologne; the doors closed about two minutes after I got on. I grabbed a seat on the first car I found and then started planning what I was going to do in Cologne. About ten minutes into the train ride, I noticed there was a German family spread out in the seats around me. The mother was sitting diagonally from me, two kids (a boy, age 6, and girl, age 10), and the oldest daughter was sitting by herself to the right of me (around age 14). She kept catching glances at me while I wrote in my journal or took pictures outside so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and practice my German.

I moved over to the empty seat next to her and asked if she spoke English. I couldn’t tell what she said in reply, but I found out it meant, ‘very little’. It’s funny – when I ask anyone if they speak English, they’ll always say ‘a little’ but I can guarantee their English is 100x better than my French or German.

I got out my guide book and started going through the phrases in German (Yes, No, Numbers 1-10, ‘I would like a beer’, etc.). Some of them I was pronouncing right, but I butchered a lot of them. I would say one, she would correct me, and then I would try it again. She had her iPod sitting next to her, so I asked what she was listening to and I noticed she had Michael Jackson, Casada, and even the audio book ‘Twilight’ in German. Good to know the vampire obsession has crossed the Atlantic.

I then got out some paper, and drew a # to see if she knew how to play tic-tac-toe. She did, but didn’t have the best strategy so I won most of the time. After a couple games, I took my hand out and did the hand gesture for Rock, Paper, Scissors, but she didn’t know how to play. Instead, I made a Dots board. For those who don’t know, Dots is a game where you draw a bunch of dots in an array on a piece of paper, like 5×5 or 6×6, and then take turns connecting the dots, either horizontally or vertically. Once someone makes a square, they put their first initial inside and get to go again. The person with the most boxes at the end is the winner.

But she didn’t know how to play, and didn’t speak English well enough for me to explain it to her. So I had to teach her how to play Dots without talking. After a couple minutes, she figured it out and we played a couple games. She asked me where I was from in broken English, so I drew a picture of the United States and put a star where Tampa would be in Florida. She didn’t know what Florida was, so I drew the Mickey Mouse head, and then put an arrow to Orlando which she recognized. I found out that her name was Sina (pronounced Zena, like the warrior princess) and she was from Cologne. She asked where I was going, so I underlined some places on a map of Germany in my guidebook and drew lines from one to the other.

As we were pulling up to the train station, the ~4 year old boy got out of his chair and started to talk excitedly in German. I noticed that it was because he saw the top of the Dom Cathedral, the icon of the city, meaning that he was almost home. The train finally stopped, I said goodbye to the Sina and the German family, put my stuff in my backpack, and then left the train station.

I found my hostel about 15 minutes later, due to becoming a little lost. It turns out that my hostel is right next to the train station; so close, in fact, that I can hear the announcements right now as I type this. If I wanted to, I couple probably throw a rock and hit it, its so close. I dropped my stuff off in my room (the nicest one I’ve had yet) and then started exploring Cologne. The cathedral is absolutely huge. It’s so big that I wouldn’t be able to fit it all in one picture unless I was a couple blocks away.

I also went into a chocolate museum, Schokoladen Museum. It was sponsored by Lindt Chocolate, and was MUCH better than the chocolate museum I went to in Brussels. At the tickets counter, they had a mini chocolate bar waiting for you to sample. The museum covered the history of chocolate to the manufacturing process, to the cultural significance. Inside, they had a mini-chocolate factory where they would melt the cocoa beans, stir them, place them in molds, cool them, and then package them. It turns out the little chocolate bar I had when I bought my ticket was made on site. It was a really well done museum and was well worth the 5 Euros.

After the museum, I grabbed some food. I grabbed a HUGE pretzel for 1 Euro and then two jelly filled doughnuts for another Euro. For the street stands, Germany is the cheapest I’ve come across so far. I walked through the commercial district and then on a bridge over the Rhine river. Remember when I said the French would place a lock on a bridge and then throw the key in the water to show their love for each other? Well the French have nothing on the Germans. I walked across this bridge and there were probably thousands of locks with couples’s names on it. About half way through the bridge, a couple approached me, and asked me to take some pictures of them while they attached the lock to the fence and as they threw their key in the water. I took about 20 pictures of them and they seemed happy with the results.

I walked through the city as the sun was setting and tried to take some pictures but it was too dark and I needed a tripod. I’ll probably buy one tomorrow along with a polarizing lens to make my pictures have more color.

Belgium

Belgium

On Monday we left around 9:15am and took the 100 km drive to Yeper. Yeper is a city in western Belgium that was completely destroyed during World War I and was rebuilt. G. Uncle Tom and I went inside of a WWI museum which had […]