Fairytale Germany

Germany: cobblestone streets, colorful half-timbered houses, endless chimes from cuckoo clocks, rolling vineyards, snow-capped mountains, beer and schnitzel. That’s what I envisioned when I thought about Germany before my first trip there in 2013. But I didn’t exactly find that in Berlin. Instead, I found an abandoned amusement park, many significant lessons in history, a melting pot culture, and very modern buildings. I loved it, don’t get me wrong! But it left me craving more, hoping that my fairytale Germany really existed.

Queue the McReynolds, some of my old friends (high-school sweethearts!) from the glory days. They live the expat life on base in Wiesbaden, about 30 minutes outside of Frankfurt, and in November, they offered their precious home to us for the weekend. (Let’s just say, they would earn five out of five stars on Tripadvisor–easy–as both tour guides and hosts. I still feel like I can’t say “thank you” enough!) Oh, and they have their own goldendoodle, Dixie, who is strikingly similar to my own doodle dorks I miss so much in DFW.

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Loving on Dixie, hanging out and reminiscing with Texas friends, staying on base with an American grocery store, and snacking on chips and salsa was the taste of home I so unknowingly needed.

Megan and Carson started our Rhine River tour in Bacharach, which is now a contender for the most picturesque village I’ve ever been to. Remember that Germany I described earlier? It was exactly that. And the best part was that the tourists were few and far between.

fairytale_germanyCobblestone streets–check!

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Half-timbered houses–check!

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Rolling vineyards along the Rhine River–check!

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Bacharach had it all.

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It was undeniably charming. And even a bit humorous.

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The more we walked, the more I felt like I was flipping through the pages of a storybook. I was kind of waiting for someone to pinch me and laugh while exclaiming that this wasn’t in fact real.

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The next day we ventured to Rudesheim, where we found even more fairytale scenes, sipped on sweet Riesling wine and gluhwein, and wandered through Christmas markets that were setting up to open the following day.

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And just before the sunset, we rushed to make one more stop in Mainz. 

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We didn’t spend much time here, as it was getting dark and a delicious German dinner was calling our names, but the city was definitely worthy of a quick wander.

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Our last day in Germany was spent playing with Dixie and strolling about Wiesbaden.

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Wiesbaden is fairly small, yet classy and quirky and adorable.

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It’s known for its healing hot springs, an extravagant casino, and for having the “world’s largest cuckoo clock.”

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And who knew Germany has such delectable Italian cuisine? We had a fabulous lunch at Ristorante ComeBack. Don’t be fooled by that cheesy name… we would definitely go back.

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Ah, it was such a mellow and delightful weekend. The kind where you don’t have specific places to be at specific times… the kind that even without set plans, everything works out swimmingly because you’re in good company… the kind where you just feel refreshed and recharged, happy and grateful. It was the kind of fairytale weekend in Germany that I had always dreamed of.

Thanks again, Megan & Carson! We’re awaiting your arrival in Madrid 🙂

Anne Frank & Auschwitz: A heartbreaking lesson in history

Our winter excursions were full of history, as they inevitably are in Europe. But what we found in Amsterdam and Poland were very specific, heartbreaking pieces from the past that I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to witness in person.

In Amsterdam, we took a tour of the Anne Frank house. It was so, so agonizing to see how uncomfortably the Frank and Van Pels families hid for two years without ever leaving, only to be ratted out and taken prisoners by the nazis. To have this background and this perspective of the fear and distress the Jewish people felt during this era and the lengths they went to to avoid the nazis made our next historical stop even more powerful. To see exactly where these fearful, yet brilliant, loving, and normal Jewish families were destroyed because of their religion was harrowing and heartbreaking.

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From Krakow, we took a day trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau. If you’re like me and had no idea that there are two separate sites, let me explain.

Auschwitz I was the original site of the camps. It had housing barracks, gas chambers, crematoriums, torture chambers and firing squad areas. It wasn’t destroyed much and now the barracks are museums, displaying tragic pieces from this period of history.

Auschwitz Birkenau was later added to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners. It’s hauntingly bigger than Auschwitz I, with massive gas chambers and row after row of tiny, uncomfortable barracks. This camp was nearly burned to the ground by the nazis to cover up evidence, but what remains still tells a chilling story.

It’s extremely difficult to find the appropriate words to describe a place like a concentration camp. Especially a concentration camp like Auschwitz. A place where 1.1 million people died just over 70 years agothat is our very recent history. It’s a place that leaves you speechless and somber, and for that reason, I’m going to try and let my photographs do most of the talking.

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The entrance to Auschwitz I, “arbeit macht frei” which translates to “work makes you free.”

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 Devastating facts.

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Below is a small sample of the gas cans used to exterminate prisoners in the gas chambers.

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Did you know the prisoners were forced to purchase their own train tickets to the concentration camps? Then they were told to pack their most precious belongings in their suitcases, which upon arrival, were immediately surrendered to the nazis never to be seen again.

IMG_9805One of the most haunting displays, which didn’t allow photographs, was a showcase filled with two tons of real human hair. The nazis shaved the heads of every prisoner and then sent the hair back to Germany to be used for mattresses, socks, blankets, etc., without disclosing to the consumers what the products were made of. Our guide informed us that when the camps were liberated, bags filled with eight tons (16,000 pounds!!!) of human hair were discovered.

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Below is a recreation of the execution wall where thousands of people, including children, were brutally murdered.

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Wilhelm Brasse was a Polish portrait photographer taken prisoner by the nazis. His duties at Auschwitz included taking head shots of new prisoners and photographing criminal medical experiments. He hid rolls of film in a fence of the camp and when he was eventually liberated, he recovered the film and was hailed a hero as his photos divulged a whole new level of insight as to what went on in the camps. Unfortunately and understandably, after his liberation, Brasse never had the desire to take pictures again.

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The following photos are from Auschwitz Birkenau.

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Below is what remains of one of the gas chambers, which could kill 2,000 people in 20 minutes.

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The exact place that millions of prisoners exited the overcrowded trains, separated from their terrified families, surrendered their precious belongings and began a new life of torture and terror.

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For me, this was perhaps the most emotional piece at Auschwitz. Entering these drafty barracks where the prisoners slept six to a platform. It was 19 degrees that day and the snow never relented. I was bundled up with three pairs of socks, and I still lost all of the feeling in my feet. It was the bitterest, most bone-chilling cold I’ve ever felt, but after several hours, I got to go “home” and warm up. It completely crushed me to imagine what it was like for the millions of emaciated, starving, and ill prisoners that only had this hell to call “home” every night.

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Auschwitz is a difficult place to stomach, and although it’s a piece of history I wish never existed, it offers insurmountable lessons about humanity, compassion, toleration, and the world as we know it. It’s a piece of history that I wish the whole world could witness because there is just so much to be learned from it. So much more than our history text books could ever teach us.

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As lines are always long here, I recommend arriving early, or avoiding all lines and buying your tickets online in advance here. I arrived at 9 a.m. when it opened and still waited for over an hour to enter. The cost is 9 euros per person with no student rates. The tour is self-guided and takes about 1.5 hours.

How I got to Auschwitz

I used Krakville Tours to get to Auschwitz. With about 15 people, it’s an hour and a half bus ride, which includes an informative video. We arrived at Auschwitz around noon, and back in Krakow around 5 p.m. Our guide was very well-spoken, full of additional knowledge, and handled the subject matter very professionally and matter-of-factly.

The entire tour costs 79 PLN (18 euros) for students and 99 PLN (23 euros) for adults.

2014 in Review

What a sweet, sweet year you were, 2014! In 2014, I had the clarity I lacked the previous year. I traveled, and traveled, and then traveled some more, and made the very easy decision to return to Spain for round two. After 39 flights, handfuls of trains and buses, nine new countries and dozens of new cities, I can only look back with a massive grin on my face knowing I milked 2014 of all its worth.

I brought in the New Year playing tour guide with my dear grandparents. They spent a week with us here, and somehow it managed to rain every single day. I couldn’t believe it. I recently learned that Madrid has 2,769 hours of sunshine a year… but there wasn’t one second of it the entire week they were here. Sigh. Nevertheless, in typical Connolly fashion, the sights were seen, beer was consumed, cards were played, and a wonderful time was had by all.

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In mid-January, I chased my heritage to Ireland and we enjoyed a long weekend in Dublin and Howth. It was everything and more than I ever could have hoped for. 

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At the end of the month, we took advantage of another long weekend and ventured south to Marrakech, Morocco. Talk about sensory overload! But after a day of adjusting to the chaos, I grew to appreciate the hustle and bustle (and found me some sweet souvenirs!).

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In February we decided to escape winter and headed to the Canary Islands, specifically Tenerife! We whale watched (my own personal heaven) and relaxed on the beaches with hundreds of elderly British people. It was here we learned an important lesson: Sunscreen matters.

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Later that month, we ventured to the coast with our gal-pal Christina in tow! We enjoyed Valencia from a darling Airbnb with a fabulous view. It was here some of us learned another important lesson, this time about Negrita rum. (Hint, it wasn’t me for once!)

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In early March, we headed back to Spain’s eastern coast, rented a car and toured the gorgeous Costa del Sol. We flew into Malaga, then stopped by the tourist trap that is Gibraltar, stayed two nights in Spain’s windiest and most southern town, Tarifa, and eventually made our way back to Malaga, stopping in Marbella. It was a beautiful whirlwind of a trip. And it was our first rental car success in Europe!

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Finally, it was spring break! We packed our backpacks and attempted to survive Venice on a budget.

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After Venice, we found ourselves in Budapest—one of my favorite destinations thus far!

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And we ended our trip in Barcelona. We wanted to see what all of the hype was about, but I just didn’t love the city like most people do. Maybe it was because it rained everyday, but I found it too touristy and crowded.

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In May we took a long weekend with some of my favorite Spanish friends and stayed at their family’s beach house in Huelva, Spain. There’s not much to do in Huelva, but that was just what we needed. 

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In late May, I took a trip home for several days. I ate all the Mexican food, loved on my pups and spent precious time with family and friends.

Little did I know that I would be returning two weeks later! My family was hosting a surprise party for my grandpa’s 80th birthday in San Antonio and the thought of missing a Connolly party nearly killed me. So I jumped on a flight and surprised my whole family there and returned to Spain a whopping 48 hours later. It was exhausting, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. *Shoutout to the standby gods for working with me that weekend.

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Finally, in late June, we moved out of our tiny piso and back to the good ole’ US of A for the summer. I was so ready and excited to come back for a couple of months, especially because my family had just rescued a little girl golden doodle, completing our pack of doodle dorks. Magnolia and Moe are pictured below! Not pictured, our yorkie, Harley, who rules the pack.

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In July, my extended family and I journeyed to Alaska where we whale watched, sailed the fjords, fished for salmon, river rafted, kayaked, told stories around campfires, and created the sweetest of memories while having the time of our lives. Alaska has officially secured the No. 1 spot on my list of favorite destinations.

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After Alaska, I headed to another one of my favorite places in the world, Granbury, Texas, for a week at my home away from home, Camp El Tesoro de la Vida. I loved on some grieving kids, laughed (and cried) with the other volunteers, and played some classic camp pranks. Year five at camp was certainly a continued success.

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 August brought me to Tucson to visit those grandparents I keep referencing. We drank mojitos (and of course, beer), watched countless sunsets, told stories in the hot tub, and scouted out wildlife. 

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A week or so later, it was time to move my littlest little brother to his new home in Malibu, California. Dropping him off at Pepperdine ended up being a little more emotional than I had expected, but he is exactly where he needs to be and I couldn’t feel more proud!

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At last, it was time to say goodbye to Texas and Chipotle, as Spain was calling. On my flight back to Madrid, I found myself in good hands as my dad was my pilot! This definitely made the transition a little less daunting. 

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After a very frustrating week of searching, we finally found our perfect piso—it’s about 5,679 times better than the hole we lived in last year.

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Once we got settled, that travel bug came calling again. This time, we found the most stunning beaches I could have ever imagined in Sardinia, Italy. The island was warm and welcoming and we had our best Airbnb experience yet.

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Here, I managed to find myself in three countries in three days. Italy, to Spain, to the USA! Before school started, we needed to make one last trip back to DFW (once again, thank you standby gods!) to see my best friends marry each other in what was the most elegant and joyous wedding I’ve ever witnessed. 

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Quickly after, it was back to Madrid where we finally developed a routine with school and private lessons.

In November, we were itching to travel some more, so we hopped on a plane to Frankfurt, Germany, to spend a weekend with some of my high school friends who are based in Wiesbaden. They were excellent hosts and tour guides, taking us up and down the Rhine River, showing us the most picture-esque German villages I’ve always dreamed about.

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In between all of the craziness that was this fall, dad was in and out of Madrid quite frequently. We were able to spend Thanksgiving together in Cuenca, and we finished out the evening back in Madrid, feasting on Mexican food. 

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To bring 2014 to a close, we traveled to and fell in love with Amsterdam.

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We spent Christmas in Salzburg, Austria.

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Followed by a couple of days in Vienna.

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And bookended the year eating our way through Krakow, Poland. We even checked off a bucket list item with an emotional experience at Auschwitz.

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Phew! This was easily one of the best years of my life and as I look back and reflect, my eyes fill with tears of joy and gratitude. I’ve realized that in 2014, from start to finish, I lived the life I always hoped to create. The first half of 2015 is sure to be adventurous, but to be honest, it’s the second half I’m scared of. My contract in Madrid ends in June and I have no idea as to what will come next! A lot of changes are coming my way, and if you know me, you know I’m not a fan of the “c” word. I’m completely aware that this is going to be the hardest adventure to let go of, I think about it all the time, but here’s to insisting that no matter what comes next, travel, photography, and adventure continue to play a big role. Here’s to trusting that everything will work out the way it’s supposed to, like it always has. Here’s to chasing dreams and gratitude and happiness and kindness and growth!

To end this novel of a post, here’s my wish for you in 2015, a quote by Neil Gaiman: 

“I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.”