Europe · Photography · Travel

The Chapel of Bones in Faro, Portugal

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Author’s Note: It’s only been about six months, but I did tell you to stay tuned for a post about the Chapel of Bones in Faro, Portugal. I may not be the most prolific blogger in the blogosphere, but I do end up carrying the weight of unfulfilled promises with me. I mean, I owe a guy $20 from high school, and although I haven’t even seen him in almost a decade I still plan to make good on that…

Even as our short visit to Faro, Portugal last December was harrowing in the sense that Hannah lost her wallet and her phone and sprained her ankle bad enough that she’s still dealing with the repercussions over six months later, it still somehow sits atop my favorite places I’ve ever been. This may be because it was so different from most places I had been before (it was my first jaunt that far south in Europe, though we’ve traveled to other wonderful southern European destinations since then). Or maybe it was that Faro was a bit smaller and more self-contained than metropolises like Istanbul and Athens and Berlin.

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When I took this photo, I thought I was looking at a rooster and a duck. I’m not so sure that was accurate anymore. Can anyone identify what we’re looking at? Muscovy ducks, perhaps?

Faro had no shortage of interesting things to see or do (although we unfortunately were limited by a public holiday that coincided with our visit). But it also didn’t demand that you spend all your time seeing and doing. Instead, we felt invited to relax on our trip to Faro. To wander the streets aimlessly, to enjoy long meals with jugs of wine, to read on a balcony in the Portuguese sun.

Whatever it was, it left its mark on me. Our personal tragicomic experiences aside, I fell in love with Faro and Portugal, and when I imagine an escape now I imagine the Algarve. I can’t wait to go back.

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Igreja do Carmo, a Carmelite Chapel built in 1719.

Between relaxing, we also found time to explore some of the wonders of the city and region. One of the standout sites that I felt we absolutely had to go to was the Capello dos Osos, the Bone Chapel that was erected behind the Igreja do Carmo, a Carmelite Chapel built in 1719.

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The interior of the Igreja do Carmo.

The Igreja do Carmo itself is a fantastic, ornately decorated chapel. It was also fantastically creepy, given that we knew what lay in its cemetery…

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A closeup of some of the detailed, highly intricate decorations of the church interior.

Still, we took time to appreciate the intricate details of its interior decorations. Everything was stunning, and it amazes that the church is still an active place of worship. I think I’d be spending much of my time tracing the edges of figurines and and detail work with my eyes. Perhaps that’s exactly the point, given that mass would have looked somewhat different in 1719 to the post-Vatican II Catholic mass of today.

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And yet, the real attraction lay beyond.

So we followed the sign for the Bones Chapel past the right side of the altar, and entered a series of rooms filled with statues and paintings. The rooms were not well lit, and I felt a shiver crawl down my spine. I’m sure that it was simply because I didn’t know what to expect from the bone chapel, but everything felt a bit otherwordly as we journeyed out into the cemetery behind the church.

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Even the detail work around the sunlit cross mosaic is set with bones.

After walking first in the wrong direction and finally coming around the corner, we finally approached what we came for: The Capello dos Osos.

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Hannah standing in the entrance of the Capello dos Osos.

The chapel was built in 1816 from the skulls and bones of some 1200 Carmelite monks that had lived and worked in Faro in times past, exhumed from their rest in the overcrowded cemeteries.

The contrast between life and death is stark here. When you are standing inside facing the bone-constructed altar, behind you are the laughs of children playing. Abutting the chapel is an elementary school. That their play space shared ground with literal skeletons did not seem lost on the kids. They would periodically creep toward the building before running away screaming, making a game of it.

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Can you imagine attending mass here?

Fascinatingly – though perhaps because of the ample sunlight – the chapel itself was not nearly as creepy as the rooms we had to walk through behind the main church to get to it. Instead, it was a place of macabre fascination, a reminder of the thin barrier separating life and death, of the fragility of human existence. Though I can’t say I’d want to stick around til dusk, the skulls seemed less menacing and more, well, just there. Indeed, the screams of the children were, in their way, more fright-inducing than the old monks who watched us as we came and left their current resting place.

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Europe · food · Travel

Eating cichetti in the oldest bacaro in Venice

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Although I’ve always wanted to walk the streets and canals of Venice, it had lately fallen to the wayside as a top destination. Its reputation as a place of more tourists than residents made me wary, and as a result its culinary reputation left something to be desired.

So when we got to Venice and started considering our first Italian meal (it was, after all, also my first time in Italy!), I did thorough research in Hannah’s guidebook and online, fearful that we’d get a mouthful of something akin to Chef Boyardee. In the end, either because of my intense skepticism or despite it, we had little trouble finding culinary treasures. From Cappalletti with sea bass and fresh spaghetti with duck, to butter and wine soaked mussels and clams and truffle adorned pizza, we ate well.

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On our last day in Venice, after enjoying one last strong pull of espresso, we headed to the Rialto Market, where fishmongers and farmers sell their wares to local restauranteurs and home chefs alike. Louis was in something like heaven, drooling over the fresh seafood that surrounded us. “I just want to put all of this in my mouth,” he declared multiple times.

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And how could I blame him? So, with the sun beating down on us, I began to crave a nice chilled glass of wine. I pulled out my phone to see if there was anything well reviewed nearby and told everyone to hold tight while I walked the area real quick. The first restaurant I came upon seemed a bit expensive for an early afternoon glass of wine and a couple bites to eat, so I moved on to the next good thing I saw on my list.

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That next good thing turned out to be a really good thing. Opened in 1462, Cantina do Mori is the oldest bacaro (Venetian wine bar) in all of Venice, serving locals and visitors for centuries. According to some, this was even the place that the Casanova would take women on a first date.

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Photo by Hannah!

Even better, the wine bar is also famous for its Cichetti, small, affordable, and delicious Venetian tapas. So we sauntered up to the bar and ordered a glass of wine each, and Louis and I took turns pointing emphatically at different delicious looking things on display, eager to try them.

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With my Rosato (sparkling rosé) and Hannah’s Moscato d’asti in hand, we began to dive into the plate of local delicacies. First up: a delicious meatball; salty sardines; boiled egg with sardine meat; silverfish; and baby octopus. Talk about good eats!

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Photo by Hannah!

Truth be told, Hannah was a little fished out by the time we got to the bacaro, so she returned to the bar to grab a few less fishy bites, including some rolled meat and a delicious brie and prosciutto sandwich.

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I had been angling to devour some Cichetti since I first discovered their existence, but due to a variety of circumstances we had only had a couple bites over the preceding days. Finally, not only had I found the mother-load of these Venetian specialties, but we enjoyed them over delicious wine in the oldest bacaro in all of Venice. How cool is that?

berlin · cocktails · Europe · germany · Travel

What do absinthe, a lamb’s head, and oxygen masks have in common? Zyankali Bar in Berlin

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My oldest, best friend Louis and his hilarious SO Kristina made their way to Europe this past week to visit us in Berlin and take a mini Eurotrip to Athens and Venice. There’s certainly plenty to talk about given the sheer volume of adventures we had – ringing in Hannah’s birthday at midnight in San Marco Square; eating Cichetti in Venice’s oldest Bacaro (opened in 1462); chasing down bottles of ouzo after midnight in Athens – but absinthe hardly seems a bad place to start.

Louis and Kristina arrived on Friday early, and Hannah picked them up at the airport as I conducted an interview for my dissertation (had to squeeze in a bit more work before our vacation started). Although they were exhausted and jet lagged, they also weren’t eager to lose any time, so we took them to the Turkish Market in Kreuzberg, one of our favorite spots in all of Berlin.

After exploring the stalls and taking in the delicious and varied aromas, we stopped off for a quick espresso on the canal before heading to the first bar of their visit: Cafe Luzia.

Cafe Luzia is a special place – it has that Berlin aesthetic and reasonably affordable drinks without the thick layer of tobacco smoke that clings to your clothes in many other fine Berlin establishments. Louis and I kicked off their vacation appropriately (I think): with absinthe.

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We made the responsible mistake of ordering the smaller serving, and before we could order another headed out to take in the sunny day.

We remedied this responsible move on Sunday, however. Tired after walking the Mauerpark Flea Market and Art Market across from the Berlin Cathedral, we started to think about where we could head to give our feet a rest. Hannah – recovering from her second ankle sprain of our year abroad, poor thing – decided to hop on the subway home to ice her ankle, and we journeyed to Zyankali Bar.

I had no expectations for Zyankali, as I had never been there, but the word absinthe featured in its description so we decided to check it out. Oh boy, did we decide to check it out.

Zyankali is pretty unique, both in its aesthetic and drink offerings. For one, many of its seats are hospital gurneys; the bar is comprised of vials and IVs; the toilet seats are embedded with barbed wire and razor blades; a few tables even have a glass top that looks down onto human skeletons (real or not, a bit creepy).

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But if the interior doesn’t win you over, the drinks might.

Tom, our venerable host, approached our table and asked, “Who’s ready to get fucked?” Well, with an introduction like that, we ordered the Hapsburg absinthe, a concoction with 89.9% alcohol by volume (for those counting, that’s nearly 180 proof).

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Tom returned to our table with three glasses of absinthe, an absinthe spoon with a cube of sugar adorning the top of each, and an absinthe fountain. Before adding water, we took a first sip and – wow. Although we could feel the 89.9% of the first sip, the absinthe itself was interesting enough to be dangerously smooth. That is, after all, one of the purposes of an absinthe fountain (although a good absinthe doesn’t really need the additional water, it does make a little bit go a lot further).

So we dripped water over the sugar cube until we achieved the perfect cloudy louche, and let our smiles stretch wider as we enjoyed every last drop of this classic cocktail.

Happy with our visit with the green fairy, we pondered the menu for a second cocktail. This time, we decided to try the Reykjarak, Tom’s Icelandic twist on a classic Sazerac.

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Tom explained that he likes to take inspiration from the world around him when he creates new cocktails. When he visited Iceland for a cocktail competition, there wasn’t much in the way of characteristic liquors in that beautiful country, so instead he took inspiration from the food. One cocktail features the fermented shark that Iceland is famous for.

The Reykjarac, on the other hand, is a mix of rye whiskey and simple syrup aged in a former absinthe barrel with a birch smoked lamb’s head. You read that right – a whole head.

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If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t order this one again. I had anticipated a bit more smoke and wood, but got a lot more…head. The cocktail smelled somewhat of brain (hello, high school anatomy class!), and the whiskey more or less disappeared, a bit unusual given its aging in a barrel. But if I knew what I know now, would I have ordered it the first time again? Hell yeah! Because life is too short not to experiment, and Tom’s cocktails stretch the gambit from veritable classics to, well, lamb’s head Sazeracs.

A bit lightheaded from our journey down High-Alcohol-Content Lane, we took one more detour at Zyankali and ordered the oxygen.

True to the mad scientist hospital lab theme, Tom had an oxygen machine available for 15 minute increments, so we gave our lungs and brains a little boost before setting out for some classic German cuisine.

Camping · Europe · Photography · Travel

A villa in the Swiss Alps: The Swiss Family Robinson Vacation

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The Rigibahn was the world’s first mountain cog train when it opened to the public in 1871.

One of the things we miss most about our life in the Pacific Northwest is easy access to the state and national parks, mountains, and campgrounds. Usually around this time, we’d be going on our first camping trip of the year – a pleasant reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city and our workdays. After all, three days in nature is thought to be an important and refreshing reset.

Fortunately, we did get to spend some time with family in the Swiss Alps.

Hannah’s folks, and her brother and his lovely girlfriend, met us in Zürich at the beginning of April. We spent that first morning – for them, that first, very jet-lagged morning – sauntering through the streets of the city, before finally we piled into a rented VW minivan and hit the road for Vitznau. From Vitznau, we took the Rigibahn (pictured above) up the mountain to Mittlerschwanden, a mountainside village on the Rigi mountain overlooking Lake Lucerne.

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There were several different variations of the train cars we took up the mountains. On our first ride, we were in a mostly wooden model with separate seating compartments.

The Rigibahn itself is quite impressive, as it was the first “Bergbahn” – mountain cog train – when it opened to the public in 1871. Riding in the Rigibahn feels roughly the same as the upward climb of a rollercoaster. Fortunately, the gut dropping descent of rollercoasters is left to amusement parks, as it’s just as slow on its way down as up.

Although there are hiking trails up and down the mountain – and we made the mistake (?) of taking them down one morning – the inconsistent schedule of the Rigibahn is your best chance to get to Mittlerschwanden. So although we were not far from the small town of Vitznau, we were essentially cut off from even the grocery stores when we were at our villa.

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If you look closely, that’s Hannah standing on the back deck of the house, which overlooks Lake Lucerne.

The villa was actually a mountainside home with a pool (sadly out of order) and a guest house. There, we were able to relax with the family, watch movies, drink wine, and eat chocolate. Our host fortunately offered us the (wood stove heated) hot tub next door, as there were no guests staying the few days we were in town, and we took full advantage of this, watching the stars light the night sky as we enjoyed the bubbling heat.

This wasn’t camping, of course. It was far too comfortable for that, with beds, a kitchen, electricity (!). But it was nonetheless a comforting and fun retreat. More than that, the beautiful nature that surrounded us was hard to beat, and even now I look at some of the photographs we took and wonder if it was even real.

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On our trek down the mountain one morning, we were easily passed by an older gentleman who seemed to think the slippery, steep path was just a simple morning jaunt. But it’s certainly difficult to trade these views!

From Vitznau, we managed a trip to the mountain Schilthorn and city of Lucerne, both worthy of their own posts here. But Vitznau itself was a charming place to be, small as it was.

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Vitznau sits between the Rigi mountain and Lake Lucerne. From there, you can take a ferry throughout the canton of Lucerne, including to the city of Lucerne itself.

Still, as much fun as we had on our adventures outside the villa, it is difficult to overstate how nice our time inside of it was, if for no other reason than the majesty of our surroundings.

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I didn’t take the swing for a ride, but I did take a photo of it.

I was as excited about waking up for the sun’s journey above the mountains in the morning as I was for the beautiful light it cast upon the valley and river as it set each night. And although we weren’t cut off from the modern conveniences that so often absorb our time, the sights themselves often tore us away from the overbearing always to the fleeting now.

When the sun finally set on the Swiss leg of our vacation, we were sad to say goodbye to our villa in the Swiss Alps.

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The sunsets and sunrises were absolutely gorgeous, and easily a highlight of our stay in Mittlerschwanden.
Europe · Photography · Travel

The Jewish Museum in Prague

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From the gate of the Pinkas Museum and Old Jewish Cemetery.

When we planned a trip to Prague to meet our friends Hayley and Ryan, Hannah did what she loves to do: picked up a handy pocket guide at the bookstore. She scoured the book for ideas and inspiration. One section of the book stood out: Prague’s Jewish Quarter, and the Jewish Museum in Prague.

So on the Friday of our visit, we headed out first thing in the morning to beat the crowds (friends: the crowds in Prague are an agoraphobe and claustrophobe’s nightmare…). We arrived before opening, so we sat next to the Spanish Synagogue to have some breakfast and coffee. When 9 a.m. rolled around, and people started showing up, we noticed that the ticket counter didn’t appear to be open. Folks looked around, sat down and waited, and little by little would disappear.

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The Ceremonial Hall is barely over a hundred years old, and was a site for the ritual cleansing of deceased loved ones. Directly to its left is the Klausen Synagogue, built in 1694 and the center of Prague’s Jewish intellectual community.

Hannah suddenly realized why: the museum was closed for the seventh day of Passover, and wouldn’t reopen until Sunday morning, just a few hours before our train back to Berlin. Sullen and disappointed, we walked toward the Old Jewish Cemetery to see what we could from the outside, and then headed to the National Museum instead. But we resolved that we’d do our best to be there at opening Sunday and see as much as we could before our trains back.

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Hannah with her handy dandy guidebook as we wait for entrance to the Pinkas Synagogue.

On Sunday, Hannah and I wandered back to the beautiful collection of synagogues, artifacts, and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague’s former Jewish ghetto (Jews were walled in at night through much of Prague’s history). The museum was originally founded in 1906 as a way to collect artifacts as much of the Jewish quarter was destroyed at the turn of the century, including many synagogues. During Nazi occupation, the museum became the “Central Bureau for Jewish Emigration,” a site responsible for arranging the murder of Jewish folks in the Czech lands.

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The interior of the Pinkas Synagogue, originally built in 1535, has the names of some 80,000 victims of the Holocaust.

One of the most fascinating parts of the museum was almost certainly the Old Jewish Cemetery, an early 15th century mainstay of the Jewish sector of Prague. Partly because of changing laws over centuries, and also because of deliberate extermination campaigns, many ancient Jewish cemeteries are lost to history. The Old Jewish Cemetery is one of Europe’s oldest (the oldest, in Worms, Germany, has legible stones dating to 1058 – and we were lucky to visit that one back in 2013/14). Because there were limitations to the amount of space the Jews could take up in Prague, many were interred over existing graves, and over time the stones came to resemble overlapping and crooked teeth.

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The Old Jewish Cemetery was founded in the early 15th century, with tombstones dating back to 1439.
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The oldest stones in the cemetery are preserved in walls like this one.

Although the museum includes four synagogues (five if you include the New Old Synagogue), the most stunning was the Spanish Synagogue. Built in 1868 for the Reform community, it includes intricate and gorgeous designs throughout. It reminded us of the Mosques of Istanbul in its splendor.

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Perverted though it may be, many priceless pieces in the museum’s collection were saved and stored on site by the Nazi government to someday be displayed in a museum of an extinct race. When I read that, I was physically shaken – it made real the depth and darkness of their goals. We are fortunate their plans were foiled, and the museum today stands as a place of remembrance of Jewish suffering, and a celebration of Jewish survival and contributions to humanity. Still, we should not forget that the worldwide Jewish population today is still lower than it was before the Holocaust, and in the face of increasing violence against Jewish communities in the US and abroad, I hope (though am sadly skeptical) we are better prepared to stand in solidarity against antisemitism specifically, and injustice and racism more generally.

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“I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
But I believe in G-d
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial
there is always a way.

May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace…”

-Unknown author, said to have been discovered on the wall of a German concentration camp, or used as a prayer in the Warsaw Ghetto

berlin · Europe · germany · Travel

The Long Easter Weekends of Germany: into the sun we go

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Volkspark am Weinberg.

When I first lived in Germany as a study abroad student in 2012, the country’s continued observance of “blue laws” necessitated a considerable adjustment: no shopping on Sundays and holidays, limited hours for public services, and so on. When our professor dropped us off at our apartments in Eichstätt on a Sunday, we quickly realized that we had very few options to feed ourselves (we ended up buying stuff for spaghetti at the gas station).

German public holidays are also far more extensive than our own stateside, and usually based on the observance of Christian holidays. Easter, for example, includes as public holidays Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday. Even as I write this – today is Easter Monday – I’m sitting in a coffee shop, since my office at the university is locked up for the holiday.

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For the most part, living in a bit city like Berlin, the public holidays aren’t too much of a challenge. If we forget to buy something at the grocery before the holidays (or Sunday), we can go to the big train stations to pick stuff up. The trains and buses run on a less frequent schedule, but even then they’re more reliable than most urban transit systems in the U.S. And, for the love of beer, bars and restaurants are still allowed to open.

Still, since my office was off limits and our Internet speeds at home leave something to be desired, we took the opportunity to get out into the Spring sun. Inspired by the return of foliage and color after the long, gray winter, I also decided to put the circular UV filter my dad gave me to the test. So we grabbed the Nikon and headed out.

On Friday, I suggested we head to Tiergarten, the former royal hunting grounds and Berlin’s corollary to NYC’s Central Park. Tiergarten today stands as a veritable forest in the center of the city, but much of it was destroyed during World War II. Residents of Berlin went so far as to bury statues in the grounds of nearby Bellevue palace, and after the war most of the trees were felled and the land was turned into farmland.

On our way to the park, we passed through the Soviet Memorial, dedicated to lives lost in the 1945 Battle of Berlin. The memorial is fascinating for a number of reasons: it’s the burial site of some 2,000 fallen Soviet soldiers; it stands in the former-British sector and its construction was supported by the Allied powers; and, even after reunification, it remains an active memorial site.

I’m so amazed at how quickly the city has come into bloom. Not a month ago the trees were still bare, though buds finally began to appear.

For Easter Sunday, Hannah bought me tickets to see the 1927 silent film Metropolis at the Babylon Berlin, accompanied by the Babylon’s (new!) in-house orchestra. Since that wasn’t until the evening, we decided to start the day at one of our favorite places in Berlin: the Flea Market at Mauerpark.

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Mauerpark is not far from the famous Bernauer Straße crossing between East and West (where there’s a very good outdoor museum), and every Sunday many many vendors come together for the flea market. Although there are true flea market finds, Hannah put it a bit better: it’s like a giant, outdoor Etsy fair.

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One of the (many) great things about the flea market, though, is that the lawn adjacent to the market becomes a massive gathering place for locals and visitors alike. We grabbed food from one of the market’s many food vendors (there are also plenty of beer stands) and found a nice place to sit in the shade. We were there early, but invariably the park also becomes the site of street musicians and performers.

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As the crowds began to thicken, we journeyed deeper into the heart of Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood, soaking up as much sun as we could. As nice a way to spend the long Easter as I can think of.

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Europe · germany · Photography · Travel

“Are we going to visit a castle?”: Eisenhardt Castle in the tiny town of Bad Belzig

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When my mom’s passport arrived in the mail and her flight confirmation arrived in her inbox, the reality that she and Zach would be visiting finally set in – for her as well. We started chatting about what different things we would do; the places I’d like her to see in Berlin; day trips we could try and take.

“Are we going to visit a castle?” she asked eagerly. For all its natural beauty (and fair share of historically significant monuments), North America doesn’t have a surfeit of old architecture. On my own first trip to Europe in 2012, I spent the first week exploring cities and castles across Germany (Marienberg in Würzburg was the first; Wartburg in Eisenach was the most exciting).

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Neues Palais (New Palace) in Potsdam

It was easy to confirm that we’d see some castles. The question was: which ones? Potsdam is so near, and has far too many palaces (seriously – I can’t even find a count (official or unofficial) online). But those palaces are more expressions of German royalty’s power and wealth from the 18th century forward. They’re not exactly the type of medieval fortresses that usually come to mind, and which litter the Rhine in western Germany; or the fairytale castles in Bavaria (like Neuschwanstein) or Baden-Württemberg (like Hohenzollern).

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Eventually I spotted the little spa town of Bad Belzig on a map, and realized that it’d be a quick train ride from Berlin. Bad Belzig first appears in documents in 997 CE (although there’s some confusion as to whether it’s actually Beelitz, Germany’s famous white asparagus (Spargel) producing town).

Burg Eisenhardt, the town’s castle, is thought to have begun construction around the same time. Like many of the fortresses of its time, it was built over centuries and according to contemporary needs, so it’s truly a hodgepodge of styles and materials.

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Because we were heading to Bad Belzig on a Monday, the town was particularly quiet. There isn’t a whole lot going on outside the spas, which are open Thursdays through the weekend. At first, we were a bit concerned that because of that, we’d just walk the perimeter of the castle and be out of things to do. Fortunately, Burg Eisenhardt is a veritable outdoor museum, free and open to the public.

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We could even climb into some of the fortified towers to explore, as there is a very modern metal staircase spiraling downward.

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The castle was even at one point occupied (and expanded) by Frederick the Wise, protector of Martin Luther at the beginning of the Reformation (with strong connections to Wittenberg). Martin Luther himself preached at the Marienkirche in the town’s center (itself dating back a millenium).

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After we departed the old Burg, we headed into town, where we were greeted by… well, a lot of beautiful buildings and not a whole lot of people. Most restaurants wouldn’t even open until dinner, so we grabbed some cake to stay out of the rain before catching our train back to Berlin.

Still, there’s something magical about exploring castles with such rich histories (for better and worse).

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