Central European Tour

I just got back from a USAC field study. We traveled to Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and Bratislava, Slovakia.  Not only is the trip planned by our professors and program director, but it also counts for 1 credit if you write a research paper as well.  These four cities are chosen because they are vital in the history of central Europe. I have spent a lot of time learning about these cities in both my Modern Central European History and my Central European Politics classes so it was rewarding to visit the cities I have heard and learned so much about.

Imagine the perfect European town nestled in the verdant green hills alongside a babbling river. This was our first stop: Cesky Krumlov. Cesky is a small town that was built on the Vltava river in 1302.  It’s castle is unusually large for the town of its size and is the second largest in all of the Czech Republic . At its peak, this town was important in trade routes of Bohemia especially due to its proximity to the river. Mainly a logging town, Cesky was left vacant after the aristocratic families left the castle. It fell into a state of disrepair under the communist regime. However, after the Velvet Revolution it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is now a highly visited city in the Czech Republic. I felt like I was in Beauty of the Beast (the city was that picturesque), except for the fact that everyone spoke Czech and not French. A few of us interested souls took a night walk with one of our professors and he answered all of our questions while we strolled along the river. It was so peaceful and with the stars twinkling, it truly was a magical night.

Next on our road trip was Vienna, Austria or as the Germans say Wien.  It is particularly important for Czech history because it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who ruled over Czech lands. I fell in love with Vienna.  I remember that my grandmother always used to tell me how much she loved Vienna, and I now understand why. It is the cultural, musical, and political center of Austria. The museums are fabulous.  I went to the Belvedere which actually consists of two palaces that were built for Prince Eugene of Savoy as his summer residence. They now serve as museums and it was there that I saw Gustav Klimt’s famous painting “The Kiss.” It blew my mind, much more so than when I saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The weather, unfortunately, was rather cold and rainy but it did not stop a few of friends and I from exploring the city. We walked everywhere. On our trek around the city we found St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Stephansplatz (German for the center square), the Spanish Riding School, Parliament, Rathaus (city hall) and we even found a circus.  I know Vienna is famous for actually still having a ball season just like in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whether it is my love for nostalgia or my old soul, I  yearn to go to a ball desperately. I would go back to Vienna in a heartbeat. Sadly (this will have to wait), or perhaps if I look at it optimistically, attending a Viennese ball will be high on my Bucket List.

From Vienna we went on to Budapest, the Hungarian capital. Budapest was formerly two cities Buda and Pest separated by the Danube and was unified in 1873. Despite its fairly recent existence as one united city, the land itself has been settled since the early 9th century by Celtic tribes and the separate cities of Buda and Pest were created in the early 14th century . The view upon entering Budapest is breathtaking as Parliament sits on one side of the Danube and Buda Castle is perched upon a hill on the other side. It is perhaps one of the prettiest cities I have seen thus far in my time abroad  (besides Prague). I am a fan of wandering around the streets in cities to get a feel of it and talking to locals so that is exactly what I did. We had a traditional Hungarian dinner of beef goulash in a quaint restaurant which came highly recommended by the locals. We also went to a famous indoor marketplace which had hundreds of stands with local cuisine and artwork. I could not help myself and came out with quite a handful of gifts. Coincidentally enough, one of the program leaders in Prague was born and raised in Budapest so he was able to give us a detailed history of the city and take us to many historic places. My favorite place was on the top of Gellert Hill  overlooking the Danube and the entire city of Budapest.  Overall, I am so glad that I was able to go to Budapest. Without this field study I honestly do not think I would have gone. Now I cannot wait to go back someday.

Lastly, we visited Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava. As Slovakia was once part of Czechoslovakia, its historical importance for the Czech Republic is clear.  The difference between the Czech Republic’s flourishing and gorgeous capital of Prague and Bratislava is quite striking. It is clear who the economic successor was after the split or the Velvet Divorce as it is commonly called.  The city center is quite beautiful and although smaller has a unique charm. We had a traditional meal and wandered among the markets and streets. Folk culture is very important here and I loved seeing the dances, listening to the music and hearing all the stories. The local artists are very skilled and sell their products in little markets all along the city and unlike other higher traffic cities, the vendors do not prey on tourists and offer decent prices. We drove to Devin Castle which is on the outskirts of Bratislava. This castle was built  in the 8th century overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers. Its location provided many strategic advantages especially in controlling part of the Amber Road.   Deplorably, the structure was destroyed in 1809 by Napoleon. The ruins have a gorgeous view over the entire countryside.  It was unbelievable to be standing in the same spot where  former kings and queens ruled their empires from.

I would love to explore more of the Slovakian countryside because it is beautiful and there more castles ruins intertwined within the natural beauty. I appreciated that I was able to go off the beaten path a little on this trip and visit cities that may not otherwise have been high on my priority list to see.

I would advise students to take advantage of the trips that are organized through their study abroad programs. They are wonderful hands on learning experiences as well as cultural experiences.  I loved my trip and had another amazing travel experience.

On the school front, my midterms are next week. I am going to be a little reading machine at the Globe cafe.  Tomorrow, we have a local field trip to a Czech concentration camp. Also, we have fall break starting next Thursday and I will be spending it in Spain and Portugal.  I will update soon.

Happy Reading!

Finding Myself Around the World

As much as this year is about traveling around the world and experiencing new cultures, I find my biggest journey lies much closer to home.

For all of my life I have been the person who knew what to do. I always had the answers; I always had the plans. I was constantly  motivated and I was perpetually moving forward.  It was not until recently that I realized that I had no idea what I was moving forward towards. When I confess to those close to me that I (like everyone else) am clueless as to what I want to do with my life, they look at me dumbfounded. I had successfully fooled them. I had everyone convinced that I would be the example of the successful planner. The one whose by-the-book life plans were working for once.

More importantly or perhaps tragically, I had fooled myself into believing this beautiful lie. I wanted to fit so desperately into the plans that I had set in motion. I was scared to admit my wrongdoing, but more so I was scared to continue down this contrived path any longer.

I believe that it took more courage for me to admit that I am unsure of my future and what I want than to blindly pursue some life that  is not mine.  I was terrified to admit that my plans may not be right for me.  I am anxious even now as I write this and announce officially that I am moving ahead blindly.

Here is what I do know. I am an independent, strong, smart, friendly  and capable young woman. No, I am not stroking my ego here. These are just facts. Facts that I know about myself and love.  Even though I do not know yet what my purpose is or any big picture ideas, I will be okay knowing these few things about myself. I have to allow myself to be content with the unsettling nature of life.

This is where travel has forever changed my life. Travel has allowed me to roll with the punches, to let things be unsettled, and to let the unknown not be so terrifying anymore. Travel has allowed me to feel, learn, experience, and to be without any plans at all.

So I choose to enjoy this journey despite its uncertainty. As enriching as my physical journey is, it is the inner journey that will forever change the course of my life because it is this location which never falters. The place that I long to find is deep down inside myself.  I surely am enjoying the journey thus far and I have to say my passport is too.

Happy reading! I do hope that someday you all will find yourselves that way I am doing so around the world.

To Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam, With Love

It seems so long since I have been in Prague. I just got back from a 10 day trip to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. It was my first trip outside of the Czech Republic since I have been here. It was wonderful and full of adventures. I have to say that I cannot believe how convenient it is to travel once you are in Europe.  There are so many inexpensive ways to travel whether by bus, train, or discount airlines. I  can only urge you to save up as much as you can and  jump on a mode of transportations and see as much of Europe as you can.  Here is a little overview of some of the things that I did.

Paris- It is truly a beautiful place and words cannot describe all the splendor that it has. I knew I had to go here on my European tour so  I made it my first stop. I saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Parisright before I moved to Prague  (which I am obsessed with by the way, I just love Woody Allen films)  and I was literally counting down the days until I would be there. Plus, There is so much history and architecture not to mention the plethora of museums, pastry shops, art exhibits, tourists, shops, and more. My friends and I tried to cram as much as we could into our days. We visited the Louvre, which I can proud say we went in for free because we spoke in Czech and used our transportation passes as IDs which made us look like we were EU students.  I could have spent all day there because I adore art, but I settled for 5 hours of glorious art viewing. We went to Notre Dame, Champs-Élysées,  Arc de Triomph, Le Petit Palais, the Eiffel Tower of course, Moulin Rouge, Sacré-Cœur Basilica and meandered along the quaint streets. My favorite part of Paris is the neighborhood called Montmartre which is on the Right Bank of the River Seine. It is an area frequently inhabited by artists with the like of Salvador Dali, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Degas and  Renoir all  having called it home at one point. Now, there are street performers at every corner and local artist still flock to the hill that overlooks the entire city.  This neighborhood is not as congested with tourists so you really get to know Parisians. Plus Amelie and Moulin Rouge take place there, need I say more.

Here are a few notes  to keep in mind.  Paris is the most visited city in the world, hence it is swarming with tourists. The amount of people can be overwhelming and this is coming from a city girl herself. With the high traffic, there are places in Paris that can be kind of dirty. Also, be aware of pickpockets. Unlike in Prague where they do not approach you head on, in Paris they are aggressive and even touch you fairly forcefully.  Just be extra cautious. Overall, my time in Paris was heavenly and I would go back in a heartbeat.

Brussels- As much as I loved Paris, this medium sized city  and capital of the EU  stole my heart. It is so international which I adore and they are super friendly. It is a walkable city and the tourist crowds are in control and very manageable.  We met translators from Malta, students from Poland and Ireland and many more people from all over the world. The city is broken into three districts; we spent the most time in the old city center and we ventured into the EU district as well.  The streets are a maze of shops, chocolate shops,  cafes and resturants. The town square which is called the Grand Place  has a unique mix of gilded baroque, Gothic and Louis XIV buildings.  This city has a unique charm that I personally loved and Belgians have a very interesting sense of humor.  Of course, I could not resist the  luxurious chocolates and literally sampled some from every shop and I had to buy some. Also, french fries were actually created in Belgium not France, and they have tons of stands that fry them freshly for you.  They speak both Flemish,which is extremely close to Dutch, and French.  For me, Brussels has a unique vibe and charm about it that is hard to put your finger on.  Overall, I love Brussels and highly recommend it.

Amsterdam-This picturesque canal city of Northern Europe is certainly a gem. First of all, the canals make you feel like you are walking on a movie set, they are so beautiful. The shopping is perfect. There are thousands of small quirky shops that have unique gifts. The people are extremely friendly and are very eager to talk and give advice about their city. I went to the Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank’s Secret Annex. The Secret Annex was a great museum and as most WWII spot,s an emotional place. I remember reading her diary as a young girl and I was so glad that I was able to visit the exact spot that she had hidden in for years.  Bicycles rule the land here. They have their own traffic lights and lanes. Amsterdam is infamous for its Red Light District and its coffee shops, but there is so much more to this quirky city.  In fact, many of the locals that I talked to wanted to change the image that their city has. They are sick of it being place where foreigners go to for drugs and sex.  They want their Dutch culture to shine through. They are even trying to push through legislation that would make it illegal for foreigners to smoke weed.  Despite all the tourists, I was able to relax in this spirited city. I am very glad that I took the trek to the North and saw this wonderful city.

I was surprised at how much I missed Prague.  When I met people along the road, I felt like I bragged about Prague like it was my child or something. Traveling really made me appreciate my choice to study in Prague and I literally felt like a small anxious child waiting to return.

In other news, I got a job. I teach English to a 3-year old girl or rather I babysit her and teach her basic English words. I go every Monday to her house located on the other side of Prague and for four hours chase the little rambunctious girl around.  I also love talking to her mom and learning about the Czech Republic.

I am going to Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava this weekend I am very excited to travel more in Central Europe. I will update soon with more updates.

Happy Reading!