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!