Spring Break: A Snapshot of Eastern Europe
Written by Katie March 20, 2015
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” —Gustave Flaubert
If there is one takeaway from the past nine days spent traveling, this is it precisely. While I have been privileged to see a portion of Europe during my stay, I had yet to venture east and experience more of what Europe has to offer. Over the course of the travel week, I realized how much bigger the world is than I could ever begin to imagine. To me, being aware of the endless destinations begging to be explored and discovered is exhilarating.
24 students and 12 hours later, our bus arrived at the first of four cities – Budapest, Hungary. I quickly realized this could be quite the culture shock as I did not know any Hungarian, and I was confused by the prices due to the change in currency.
To first give context to the city, Budapest is split by the Danube River. To the West lies Buda, which is the hilly part of the city. To the East you have Pest, which is the flat portion considered to be the city center. Budapest is culturally intriguing, inexpensive, and diverse. In addition, the architecture is stunning, with baroque buildings and ornate statues scattered throughout the city. I was surprised by the plethora of trees and parks that seemed to be around every corner.
We began our day at the House of Terror, which I originally believed to be a haunted house. Boy, was I wrong! Instead, the museum commemorates the victims of the Communist and the Nazi regimes in Hungary and it turned out to be a much more meaningful experience. We made our way to the other side of town and ventured up to Castle Hill for a view of the city.
On our first night, we decided to take a relaxing river cruise along the Danube River, complete with live music on board. We were treated to illuminated views of riverside sights, including the Chain Bridge and Hungarian Parliament Building.
The following day, we headed down Andrássy Avenue toward Heroes’ Square. It was a gorgeous day for a stroll and we ended up exploring the Budapest Zoo and the Szechenyi Baths. Hungary doesn’t mess around when it comes to hot spring pools! The outdoor bath was a huge heated pool, which felt amazing since it was about 50 degrees outside.
After a well deserved nap in the afternoon, we decided to venture to a local spot for dinner. Coincidentally, the tiny restaurant we had selected was packed with another group of CIMBA students. The homemade Hungarian goulash and the hospitality made for an incredible meal.
Our final stop of the night was at a Ruins Bar. This eclectic bar was converted from an abandoned building and transformed with its creative set up. Each corner contained unique decor and there was an interior balcony in the center overlooking the floors below.
Before I knew it, we were boarding the bus again and headed for Vienna. I had high hopes for the city and figured it must be pretty great if Billy Joel wrote a song about it. More notably, this Austrian capital is ranked as the world’s most livable city for the sixth year in a row!
Our hostel was in a prime location, directly across the street from the Naschmarkt. We used the location to our advantage, eating at the Naschmarkt for most meals. This open air eatery offered just about anything: dried fruits, kebabs, spices, vegetables and sweets. The two long rows of vendors generously distributed samples of their colorful and delicious food.
We took advantage of using public transport in nearly every city we visited. I think it’s safe to say that by the end of the trip we had become masters of the metro system. The afternoon was spent walking around the shops and visiting St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Since we were still exhausted from the previous day, we concluded our evening at a low-key local jazz bar.
The following day began with a hearty meal at The Breakfast Club. We made our way toward the Wiener Riesenrad, one of the world’s oldest operating ferris wheels. The ride on this historic landmark was enjoyable and offered exceptional views of Vienna. After taking a spin, we wandered through the amusement park before heading to the incredible Hofburg Palace and its gardens. The palace is huge and architecturally stunning! Unfortunately, the rose bushes were covered up because of the cool weather.
We ventured onto our next stop at the Schönbrunn Palace. Beyond the gate sprawled out a courtyard, surprisingly filled with runners. We headed to the top of the hill to people watch and absorb the view. What better way to spend an afternoon, right? It was the perfect break from the busyness often associated with traveling. It was taking a moment to slow down, take it in, and just be.
Later that evening, we attempted to attend a performance at the State Opera, but unfortunately the tickets were sold out upon arrival. We took it in stride and began our search for schnitzel, a Viennese specialty. Finally, we came across a place and I’d say we hit the jackpot! A real, authentic Austrian restaurant overrun with locals.
Following dinner, we met up with some friends at the international backpackers bar, Travel Shack. While we would have loved to stay longer, we called it a night since we needed to be on the bus at 6am the next morning. Before we knew it, the time had come to say Auf Wiedersehen to Vienna and ‘Czech’ out what Prague had in store!
I can confidently say that Prague is one of my favorite cities in Europe so far. Perhaps the best thing about Prague is that it is low on sights and high on ambiance. Simply meandering the streets is an experience in itself. From an architectural and historical standpoint, Prague is remarkable.
I was able to meet up with a friend from home who is studying there. Seeing the city from a local’s perspective gave me a completely different view on Prague. We walked along the Charles Bridge and climbed up to the Prague Castle. After lots of walking, we enjoyed a change in cuisine at a delicious Mexican restaurant located just outside of the Old Town.
The best thing I did during my stay in Prague was a free walking tour around the city, led by a hilarious Irish man. During the two and a half hour tour, he led us to all of the important sights and landmarks in the city, including Old Town Square, the New Town, and the Jewish District, all while providing us with anecdotes and insight into the history of each.
One fact that I found fascinating was the construction of the Charles Bridge. There is a legend that the foundation stone was laid down by Charles IV at 5:31am on 9 July 1357. This exact time was no coincidence as it formed a numerical bridge (1357 9, 7 5:31), which the superstitious King believed would imbue his bridge with strength and longevity. The tour was a wonderful way to experience Prague and I would recommend it to anyone, history buff or not.
Later that afternoon, we visited the newly-decorated John Lennon Wall. The Lennon Wall is a graffiti magnet and stands as a symbol for love, peace, and freedom of speech. We continued on and climbed the Petřín Lookout Tower, which resembles the Eiffel Tower. I was blown away by the incredible contrast of colors along the city’s skyline.
On our final night, we all went on a pub crawl. Essentially it was a tour that guides you to popular bars around the city. It was a lot of fun and dancing the night away to 80s music was a great way to end our time in Prague.
On Friday morning, we departed the beautiful city of Prague and were on our way to Munich, Germany. You know how there are some places you visit where you instantly feel at home? That was Munich for me. While part of that feeling may be linked to my German heritage, I think it has more to do with the city’s calm and relaxed atmosphere. We visited many of Munich’s main landmarks, including the BMW Museum, Olympiapark, and Marienplatz to name a few.
At some point, I expressed interest in going to Dachau, roughly a 30 minute train ride from Munich. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I decided to visit Dachau Concentration Camp. However, I was not prepared for the intensity of the memorial and pictures certainly don’t do it justice. Until you walk through the gates and read the gruesome words “Work Makes You Free,” you can’t begin to fathom a place with such horrific history. As hard as it was to see, I think we all need to be reminded of the horror to ensure this never happens again.
I truly believe it’s the people that make a place. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by good company and contagious laughter all week long. I’ve come to realize that sometimes who you are traveling with is just as important, if not more so, than where you’re headed.
While I was bummed my week of traveling had come to a close, the scenic drive through Innsbruck made the ride home fly by and there was a sense of peace in returning to Paderno. This weekend, I am heading with a group to the coastal city of Rovinj, Croatia. Until next time!