Author Archives: Jeremy Branham

Gulag labor camps and the Recsk Memorial, Hungary

Hungary has one of the most unique histories of all the former European Communist countries. Ancestors of the Magyars, Hungary has a distinct culture and people that is unlike any in Europe. While many people come to see the sights and explore the culture in Budapest, Recsk offers a local connection to the culture, wine tasting, and countryside views.

While the small village of Recsk offers beautiful views of the Hungarian countryside and a look at its wine country region, many people visit the memorial to its harsh communist past – Gulag Labor camps.

From 1950 – 1953, Joseph Stalin operated one of the most inhumane gulag camps in the area.  Recsk was a perfect place for one of these labor camps as it was isolated and hidden and had harsh winters.  Under Soviet rule, these Gulag forced labor camps were the Communist version of concentration camps under Germany.  However, Gulags were implemented long before the arrival of Nazi concentration camps.

These camps served as the penal system for Communist opponents and petty criminals.  Being late for work, theft, and anti-Communist rhetoric or propaganda could lead you to being enslaved in a Gulag.  Conditions of these camps were very harsh with long work days, extreme manual labor, little food, and many deaths.

While there were a number of Gulags located throughout the Soviet regime, one of the worst in the Eastern bloc was located in Recsk.  During the winter, the area was bitterly cold as people were forced to work long hours under poor conditions with barely enough food for each day.

The Recsk Memorial was dedicated to those who died in the labor camp and visitors can tour the grounds to see the barracks they stayed in, the places which people were forced to work, their harsh way of life, and a museum detailing the history and life of people at the Gulag.  On the way out of the museum, a memorial stands to honor the memory of those who died and suffered here where visitors pay their respects and ponder the tragedies and suffering of life at the camp.  This memorial in Recsk is there to remind and educate people of this tragic part of history under Stalin.

While Hungary offers unique attractions, a distinct culture, and a fascinating history, the Recsk memorial reminds people of the dark days of Communism and the lives that were lost.

Wine tasting in Recsk, Hungary

When you visit Hungary, you experience one of the most unique cultures and history in all of Europe.  Budapest is a very underrated capital with the towns of Buda and Pest separated by the Danube river (one of the many experiences worth checking out is the Szechenyi Baths).  In visiting Hungary, I gained a greater appreciation for its people and the beauty of its country.

While many people only visit Budapest, beyond the city limits is a beautiful countryside known for its wines.  One of these towns worth exploring is the town of Recsk.

Recsk is a village just beyond the town of Eger known for its mining of gold, silver, and other metals.  It’s located in the hills of the countryside and has a beautiful view.  The village isn’t very big and only has about 3,000 people.   While Eger is known for its famous Bulls Blood wine, Recsk enjoys its location in wine country as well.  While the village is small, it has a great school for kids and offers a nice view of life away from the bigger cities and towns of Hungary.

Recsk actually has a dark and somber side to its history which will be the focus of next week’s post.  However, a visit to Recsk wouldn’t be complete without an entertaining visit to a winery.

The Kohari Pince is a beautiful winery located on the hillsides of Recsk offering wine tastings and entertainment.  Upon my visit to this winery, the owners of the winery offered bread and a sample of the numerous wines from the area.  The wines in the area featured a number of different grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and others.  The amount of wine served at the Kohari Pince is very generous so keep that in mind if you are driving.

The wine tasting is just a part of the experience here at Kohari Pince as the views looking out over the Hungarian countryside are spectacular.  However, entertainment was also on the menu as we enjoyed the beautiful music of a Roma (gypsy) violinist.  As the wine flowed, people were encouraged to dance to the music and I had the pleasure of dancing with one of our hosts.

The wine tasting ended with lots of wine and dancing on our visit to Recsk.  For such a small town, it has a lot to offer into the cultural aspects of Hungary as well as great views of its countryside.  While enjoying a wine tasting in Recsk is a fun experience, there is more to explore in this area with a tragic piece of Hungarian history.

Exploring Rheinfels Castle on the River Rhine

One of the more fascinating aspects of Germany are the many castles throughout the various regions of the country.  Germany wasn’t united until the late 19th century, until then independent city states ruled various regions.  Since the Rhine was a major trading route, many castles were set up along the river to collect taxes for those passing through and helping these small city states prosper.

Rheinfels castle (Flickr: Nigel’s Europe)

One of the biggest of these castles along the Rhine is Rheinfels castle in St Goar.  Built in 1245, this castle was a menacing fortress which not only intimidated with its presence but also provided a strong defense when called upon.

In 1692, it withstood a siege of thousands of French troops as it withstood a fierce attack.  The castle employed many people and with its size and location, was tough to overtake.  In 1797, the French Revolutionary Army finally overcame the castle with barely a fight and destroyed most of it leaving what we now see today.

The castle, with its size and accommodations, is quite impressive even in its current state.  Even its location is part of the attraction as it rises high above the Rhine.  The castle sits high upon the hill of St Goar and is a 15 minute uphill hike or a few minutes ride on the tourist train to the castle entrance.

The interior remains of Rheinfels castle (Flickr: pixie_bebe)

Like many famous fairytale castles, the entrance includes a bridge and a moat which leads to the ticket office.  From there, you can call in advance to book a tour or round up enough people to request a tour from an English or German (and other languages) guide.

You can begin the tour of the castle with a stop in the museum to see a model of the castle during its glory years.  The fortification of this castle was impressive and the museum details the strength of the castle.  After its defeat by the French, it served as a quarry for many years.  The castle has stood ever since and unlike much of Germany, wasn’t subject to bombing in WWII.

Wandering deep inside the castle, you begin at the Medieval Castle Courtyard which served as a market and home for some servants.  Livestock, bread, fruits and vegetables, and more were inside this courtyard.  From there, wander through the castle garden and up to the highest lookout tower to see the view of the Rhine.

A view of the Rhine from the castle (Jeremy Branham)

Near the lookout tower were the soldier’s quarters, catapult areas, and slits in the tower for crossbows.  The soldiers were kept close to the primary areas of defense so they could get to their posts at a moment’s notice.  Other areas of the castle include a prison, slaughterhouse, a cellar, and even mine tunnels used to detonate explosives to unsuspecting invaders.

After touring the castle and its impressive views of the Rhine, enjoy a walk through St Goar with its many shops and eateries.  While the town is a fun stroll, the main attraction is one of the mightiest castles on the Rhine.  While Rheinfels is no longer a functioning castle, its place in history and its significance along the Rhine is worth making a visit if you love German castles.

If you want to explore more of the area, St Goar is just a few minutes boat ride from the town of Bacharach where you can explore more of the Romantic Rhine in a beautiful, German town.

Tips for What to Do in Germany

We’ve lots of travel tips for what to do in Germany.

Hotel Lovec at Lake Bled, Slovenia

One of the true hidden gems in Europe is the Slovenian town of Bled.  Located on a beautiful, pristine lake with an island church, it’s only an hour’s drive from Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana.  With its close proximity to ski runs and the Alps, it’s a perfect place to make it your base for a winter or summer Slovenian getaway.

Located in the southern Alps, the central attraction of Bled is the beauty of its lake.  The lake is naturally preserved as it doesn’t allow any motorized boats as special boats are used to get around on the lake.  Similar to gondolas in Venice, pletnas are steered by men from the back wearing special outfits which take you to and from the island church located in the middle of the lake.  Surrounded by the Alps, the lake is a great place to relax with a walking path going around the lake and many hiking paths in the surrounding area.

The beauty of Lake Bled is breath-taking and one affordable option to stay is the Hotel Lovec.  Run by Best Western, it offers some fabulous views of the lake and the Alps and offers a number of different amenities.  For those looking for a romantic getaway, it’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy the beauty of Lake Bled.

A number of rooms have huge tubs with windows that overlook the lake.  A total of 52 rooms are available with 8 suites.  Every room comes with a wooden floor, internet access, and a fantastic view of the lakes or the mountains.  The deluxe rooms and suites comes with a jacuzzi/massage tub which offer amazing views as your soak and relax.  Those rooms with a lake view come with a balcony and a few of those rooms have a jacuzzi on the balcony itself.

The hotel comes with a number of other amenities and activities including an indoor swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna, and massage parlour as well as a restaurant, terrace, and bar with international cuisines.  For those really wanting some romance, the hotel also hosts weddings and can arrange for a romantic carriage ride and boat ride to the island.

For those looking to get away, the Best Western Hotel Lovec offers many familiar comforts, beautiful views, and a bit of luxury for those that don’t want to break the bank.  The beauty of Lake Bled is perfect for a romantic of relaxing getaway close to the heart of Slovenia’s capital and Hotel Lovec is the perfect combination of beauty, affordability and luxury.

Any trip to Lake Bled is worth it for the activities and the beauty of the lake, its island church, and the Alps.  Consider a romantic get away or just a relaxing weekend at the Hotel Lovec.  It’s a perfect place to stay with modern amenities in a relaxed atmosphere as you enjoy one of the best hidden gems of Europe.

You can also find the best deals at all hotels in Bled using the HotelsCombined price comparison site.

More Slovenia Tips

We’ve 25 travel tips for what to do in Slovenia.

Celebrating the history of Boxing Day in the UK

In the UK, many people were out shopping and enjoying the day after Christmas.  Since the Boxing Day holiday falls on a Sunday, many banks and other businesses will be closed on Monday.  In Ireland, it’s known as St Stephen’s Day.  However it is known, Boxing Day has a long history in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and other parts of the world.

While fox hunting was banned, it's still a big part of Boxing Day

Fox hunting in Keswick, 1962 (Flickr: Phillip C)

Boxing Day goes back to the times of Victorian England.  During those days, many rich and middle class gave servants and their families boxes of gifts and tips.  As part of their appreciation, the servants were also given the day off so they could visit their families.  Other Victorians celebrated Boxing Day by donating food and money in boxes to the poor in their areas.  Many of these donations would be placed in pots – the first piggy banks.

In 1871, legislation was passed to make it an official Bank holiday in the UK.  As an official holiday in the UK, most people have the day off and it’s known as a big shopping day filled with bargains and after Christmas sales.  For sports fans, it’s a huge day every year as the Premier League and Scottish Premier League have a full day of matches.  In year’s past, it was a day of rivalries as local teams would play many of their derbys.  For sporting fans, horse racing and fox hunting have also been a big part of Boxing Day.

This year, many have celebrated Boxing Day with lots of snow as winter weather has blanketed the UK.  For those that braved the elements, a number of shopping deals were available.

During the Christmas and holiday season, England and other parts of the UK are the home of many holiday traditions.  For those enjoying Boxing Day, know your history, be a little more charitable this year, and remember that it’s a day of giving and time with family – with a little shopping and football as well.

Christmas traditions in Europe

As we celebrate the Christmas holiday, there are a number of unique celebrations and traditions around the world that originated in Europe.  Throughout Europe, countries like France, Germany, Norway, England, and others have their own unique ways of celebrating Christmas.

As we look ahead to Christmas, here are some well-known and unusual Christmas traditions throughout Europe.

1.  Mistletoe – This tradition originated from the Celtic Druids around 500 B.C. in England.  These pagan worshipers loved nature and believed that holly and mistletoe warded off evil spirits and helped ensure futility.  In the Christmas tradition, mistletoe was symbolized everlasting life through Christ and faith which would never die.

An English tradition, kissing under the mistletoe has been practiced for years though no one is certain how the tradition started.  It probably has something to do with with the fertility celebration by the Druids.

Mistletoe (Flickr: Dramatic)

2.  Christmas cards – The first Christmas card was issued in December 1843 by Sir Henry Cole.  During this time of the year, holiday messages were written on calling cards to friends and acquaintances.  Sir Henry Cole was too busy and hired London artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card with a Christmas message.  The first Christmas card greeting read “Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you.”  With post offices in England and the United States, this Christmas tradition was spread.

Christmas Card (Flickr: mjurn)

3.  Fruitcake – For people who have tasted fruit cake, it is something that is either loved or hated.  However, the tradition of the fruitcake began in Italy.  Italians have a variety of fruitcakes – panettone (big bread), pandoro (golden bread), panforte (strong bread), and pandolce (sweet bread).

Fruitcake is a blend of break and fried fruits celebrated and eaten throughout various regions in Italy.  While each region enjoys its favorite, the history of fruitcake is debated.  Many believe it may have been created in the 12th century by Sienese monks.

However, the popular, romatic story of fruitcake is that of panettone,  A baker from Milan fell in love with a woman and wanted to capture her love with a delicious cake.  His mixture included eggs, candied fruit, and too much yeast.  The result was panettone version of fruitcake which is popular all over Italy.

Panettone (Flickr: ben hanbury)

4.  Silent Night – This famous Christmas carol was first performed in Austria in 1818.  Legend has it that a local priest was out on Christmas night to bless a baby.  On his way home, the experience of that night on a starlit evening inspired him to write a poem.  Franz Gruber, the church organist, set the poem to music and on Christmas Eve 1818, the song was performed for the first time.  In Obendorf, Austria, the Silent Night Chapel stands on the place where Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr stood as it was performed for the first time.

5.  Nutcrackers – Nutcrackers were believed to originate from the Nürnberg region of Germany.  Legend has it that a man was on his deathbed but schoolchildren sang to him and he recovered.  In appreciation, he gathered what he had – wire, prunes, figs, and walnuts – and made a little man.  These became very popular and were sold in the markets.

Over the years, the Nutcracker became a wooden figurine of policeman, soldiers, and more used to crack the toughest of nuts.  These wooden versions were designed in 15th century Saxony as miners became woodworkers and developed these popular figures.

Nutcracker (Flickr: mikejmartelli)

For many celebrating Christmas, many of the popular traditions originate from Europe.  From mistletoe to Silent Night, the origins of these traditions go back many years.  While the origin of some of these Christmas traditions aren’t certain, it is these Christmas traditions which make celebrating Christmas in Europe so memorable and fun.

The tragedy of war – Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid

A few years before World War II, the horrors of war under the leadership of Hitler were quietly displayed – in Spain. In 1937, bombs fell on the Basque town of Guernica with reports of 250 (or more) dead as the town was destroyed by German and Italian forces under Operation Rügen. The bombing came during the height of the Spanish Civil War as Nationalist forces led by General Francisco Franco were seeking to march into Basque country and take control.

by aroberts

Today, people throughout the Basque country, Spain, and the world remember this tragedy through Pablo Picasso’s famous painting – Guernica.  The Spanish Republican government had commissioned Picasso at the International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life.  While Picasso was living in Paris, he received the news of the bombing and painted his view of how things looked that day in his abstract, Cubist style.  The result of his work was shocking, yet it was a realistic look at the tragedy of war.

Today, Picasso’s Guernica hangs proudly in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.  A masterpiece, the painting is one of the few works in a room meant to draw attention to this tragedy.  A bull stands over a mother holding her dead baby.  A horse is pierced, a soldier is dismembered, and a skull hangs over the body of the horse.  A woman, a light bulb, a bird, and a dark wall are just a few images of this sobering painting.  The symbolism of Picasso’s painting has been discussed and debated by many.  However, his theme rings true throughout the painting – the tragedy of war brings pain to the life of the people caught in it’s wrath.

Picasso’s Guernica has become a symbol of peace, anti-war movements, and even the United Nations.  For the Basque region, it is a symbol of regional pride and nationalism.  For Germany, it is another embarrassment from the reign of Hitler.

If you’ve ever visited the Reina Sofia and seen Picasso’s painting, it has evoked a variety of emotions from people.  Does Picasso’s Guernica have symbolism for Spain today?  Does this tragic painting from 70 years ago still have meaning in our world?

While many things have changed in Germany and Spain from 1937, war is still a part of the world today.  Regardless of your feelings on war and its place in our society, Picasso’s Guernica is a moving, realistic piece about the tragedies of war that all of us can understand.

The Reina Sofia Museum is featured on our Madrid Museums post.

More on European Museums

Find out about more museums in Europe on Europe a la Carte.

A home away from home in Ronda, Spain – the Baraka Bed and Breakfast

When visiting Ronda in Andalucia, Spain, there are a number of hotel options in the town. Many of them are quite expensive but give you fantastic views overlooking the gorge. However, the best places to stay don’t always have the best views.

When staying in Ronda, one of the best and most affordable places in town is the Baraka B&B.  Located just a couple of minutes from the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), it’s in a quiet part of town.  Even though it’s centrally located with easy access to all of the sights, it’s away from all of the noise on the streets.

The Baraka B&B has 3 rooms for rent in a home that is welcoming, inviting, and a home away from home.  Each room contains a double bed and a bathroom and great space to spread out and relax.  In high season , the rooms cost 77 euros for the two smaller ones and 92 euros for the suite.  Along with your room, a wonderful breakfast is served each morning as part of your stay.  And while Baraka is comfortable, beautiful, spacious, and quiet, it’s not even the best part of your stay.

Anahid is your host and will make your stay in Ronda one of the most memorable and enjoyable of any you could have in Spain.  Meeting Anahid feels like you are re-connecting with an old friend.  Staying at the Baraka B&B just doesn’t mean a room to stay but a tour of her home and helpful advice from a local.

Anahid was born in the Middle East but has spent years living in Europe.  Her English is outstanding as she has also spent time working in the US as well.  Even if you don’t normally eat breakfast, take the time to sit down and eat at the Baraka B&B.  Not only is the food a great way to start your day but you get to talk intimately with Anahid.  While seeing the sights in Ronda is what people come to do, we spent 2 hours chatting with her about her life, local recommendations, and travel and it was one of my best experiences in all of Spain.

Get a tour of her home.  Learn about her life in Spain and other places.  Talk politics and travel.  Getting to know Anahid is the best part of your stay at Baraka B&B.  If meeting locals and connecting with others is an important part of your travel experiences, there is no better person to meet than Anahid.

Many people have had wonderful things to say about the Baraka B&B.  Whether it’s the rooms, breakfast, peace and quiet, or the location, it’s an ideal place for couples, a family (rooms can accommodate up to four people), or friends who need a comfortable and affordable place to stay.  At the end of your visit, you will enjoy your stay and remember Anahid as one of the highlights of your visit to Ronda.

Hiking in Ronda, Andalucia, Spain

When visiting the Andalucian city of Ronda in Spain, many come to admire the views of the gorge from the bridge. The bridge is famous for its views and for separating the old town from the new town.

The old town has remnants of the historic town walls and gates with its old neighborhoods and family friendly streets.  The new town has a more modern feel with newer shops.  At night, both areas are great places to explore the town and enjoy a stroll with the locals.  During the day, Ronda can be packed with tourists visiting its sights and taking in its wonderful views.  While many pack the town during the day to walk the streets and explore, you can get away from the crowds by hiking into the gorge to get a different view of the bridge and life just outside of Ronda.

To get away from town for a hike, head towards the old town near Plaza Maria de Auxiliadora.  Near the square, there is a path that leads down into the gorge.  As you walk down the gorge, it’s an easy hike for most people with some steps and a sloped path down to the bottom (just make sure you wear shoes with traction).  The walk down is about 30 minutes to the bottom (time will vary for each person) and there are numerous stops along the way to relax, catch your breath, or have your breath taken away with the photo opportunities.  When you finally make it to the bottom, you will have a picture-perfect postcard view of Ronda’s famous bridge.

Take a backpack and a picnic with you as you have lunch at one of the numerous stops on your way to the bottom.  View the countryside of Ronda where everything around you is peaceful.  Enjoy the fields, farms, and animals which seem like another world away from the streets of Ronda.

Refresh yourself and make sure you have plenty of food and water during the hot summer months.  And remember that it is a tougher hike on the way up and will take a little longer than it took to get down.As you pause, reflect, and just look at the bridge and the countryside, you will seem miles away from the streets of Ronda and appreciate the peace of the countryside.  Hiking in Ronda isn’t difficult but it is definitely rewarding.

If you decide to stay in Ronda, you can find the best hotels deals using the HotelsCombined price comparison site.

Landmarks of Galicia – Tower of Hercules, La Coruna, Spain

While Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, and the Costa del Sol are the more popular tourist attractions of Spain, the region of Galicia in northwestern Spain offers a different look at Spanish life. While the region is most famous for its pilgrimage and cathedral in Santiago de Compestela, there is much to learn about Spanish life beyond the devout and spiritual traveling in Galicia.

La Coruña is the second largest city in Galicia and was once the capital of this northwestern province.  Situated on the northwest coast of Spain, it is a busy port town with an estuary located on a gulf in the Atlantic Ocean.  With its size and temperate marine climate, it’s a great stop for tourists to enjoy beaches, marine life, Galician culture, and surfing.  The city also has a number of historical sites with one of the main attractions being the Roman Tower of Hercules.

The Tower of Hercules is one of the city landmarks in La Coruña.  Nearly 2,000 years old, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a symbol of the the La Coruña spirit.  57 meters high, it is the second tallest lighthouse in Spain and also one of the oldest existing ones in the world.

The lighthouse stands on the northwest part of the city and is not a signal for safe harbor from the North or West.  The lighthouse is thought to be a guide for traffic coming in from the Atlantic.  Since this area is known as the “coast o death” for ships, the lighthouse protects and guides ships coming into this port city in a dangerous part of the ocean.

On land, people get a different viewpoint of the lighthouse.  Around the tower are sculptures, green space, a visitor’s center, numerous walking paths up to the lighthouse, and a large compass.  While many people pay to visit the tower and climb to the top for the view, others come just to walk around and experience the view of La Coruña and look out on the Atlantic Ocean.

Exploring this landmark of La Coruña reminds you that Spain’s history goes beyond that of the Moors and its sun-soaked beaches.  Galicia is a region of Spain rich in history and with a culture all its own.  The Tower of Hercules and La Coruña allow you to enjoy a maritime climate in a port city of Spain, far away from the more traditional, touristy parts of Spain.

You can find the best deals at hotel in La Coruna on the HotelsCombined price comparison site.

You can read more about the attractions and landmarks of Galicia these posts: