Travel company Insight Vacations includes various other places of interest in its European Christmas Markets tour package, so that travellers get a chance to experience more of a city or town.
On one such tour recently, we checked out numerous destinations in the cities of Krakow (Poland), Prague (Czech Republic) and, Dresden and Berlin (Germany). It was a six-day trip that began in Poland, and continued through to the Czech Republic, before ending in Germany.
Our tour director was very knowledgeable and able to explain in detail the history as well as current political and socio-economic status of the locations that we visited throughout our road trip.
This actually gave us a deep insight of the locations and revealed many things that we may not have known about them in the past. She also recommended relevant books and reading materials to those who wanted to know more.
At every location we visited, a local expert/guide would walk us through the place with clear and in-depth explanations of its origin and history.
In Krakow, we went to the infamous Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau. These are probably the world’s strongest symbols of human suffering and misery.
Walking through the many buildings where Jews were imprisoned and tortured, the first thing that hits you is how much tragedy bigotry, misplaced primordial loyalty and superiority complex can wreak.
Our guide said that the Jews who were brought to the camp were initially made to believe that they were being relocated; this was the reason why many of them had brought their pots and pans along.
Visitors to the detention camps should check out some of the artefacts on display, like kitchen utensils, shoes, crutches, bags, spectacles and watches, which once belonged to the victims.
It was indeed a sobering experience.
Another notable location we visited in Poland was the Wawel Hill Cathedral, or rather the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus.
The cathedral is almost 100 years old and stands magnificently on a hill with a golden dome and a big statue of Pope John Paul ll, who was Polish.
Apparently, he gave his first mass in the church after being ordained as priest in 1946. He served in the church until he was installed as the Pope in the late 1970s.
Also in Krakow is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This mine started operating in the 13th century and only closed down in 2007.
The mine has an underground lake, a chapel and a series of mazes and passageways which are adorned with various salt sculptures.
When we got to Prague, we stopped in the little town of Kutna Hora to visit the Sedlec Ossuary, a cemetery church with countless bones and skulls.
There is even a chandelier of bones and skulls in the church.
In Dresden, we visited the Zwinger Palace, an art museum that has a huge porcelain collection.
Later, we made our way to Berlin to visit the 18th-century Brandenburg Gate, a major symbol of unity in Germany and an iconic landmark.
The Reichstag building, where the German Parliament sits, is nearby so we checked it out too. The 19th century building was once left in disrepair but after the reunification of Germany, it was restored and refurbished.
We also had a glimpse of the German government office blocks which housed the various ministries in the country. We were surprised that the structures were small and unassuming, unlike many government buildings around the world.
Besides visiting these places of interest, we were also treated to local fare and some cultural shows in Krakow, Prague and Berlin. We chose to dine at family-run restaurants as they had a lot of charm.
While enjoying local food and drinks, we were entertained with folk music, some lovely songs and dance shows by expert entertainers.
The tour was not only unforgettable but was also a conduit to experience the diverse cultures of Poland, Czech Republic and Germany.