Vienna was, as I said earlier, absolutely incredible. On our first day there, Sunday, we took a tour of Schonbrunn, a Hapsburg summer cottage that was breathtaking. Afterwards, we checked into our hostel- very industrial, and not the nicest I've been in, but it was clean and comfortable, and that's all I really want anyway! After just a few minutes there, our group walked through Vienna to an area that was once a hospital- many, many years ago- but now is a park and part of a university there. There are also a few restaurants there. We had delicious soup and schnitzel as a late lunch, and then continued out our tour. We saw City Hall, the old Imperial Palace, Parliament, and St. Stephen's Cathedral, among other places. After that, we were free for the afternoon and evening. After taking a peek inside the cathedral, a group of us decided that we wanted to warm up and find a cafe somewhere to grab coffee/tea/hot chocolate. It was exactly what we needed! Vienna was chillier than we expected. Afterwards, we went back to the hostel. But en route, we stopped to buy postcards- and to visit the Spanish Riding School! I couldn't go to Vienna and miss that. I didn't get to see them training, because we weren't there at the right time, but just seeing the stables was phenomenal. I miss riding quite a lot, and to visit a place that has been such a part of my childhood love for the sport was priceless. We continued on back to the hostel, resting for about an our before gathering ourselves to head back out. At about eight fifteen, I went to dinner with a few other girls from the trip. We ate in a back corner of this delicious cafe. I had spinach and ricotta ravioli, and it was incredible. It was so fresh! Afterwards, we split a tropical ice cream sundae- a good decision, because it was enormous! There were four flavors of gelato and all sorts of tropical fruits in it... it was wonderful. We returned to the hostel by 10:45, and then hung out there for the evening. The next morning was slower, which was nice! We loaded up the bus, and then traveled to Belvedere Palace in the rain. After walking through the gardens, we headed to the monument that the Soviets erected after conquering the Nazis, and from there, we went to a theater and that Opera- both incredible buildings. Once there, we had some free time before meeting again for lunch. I went to the Jewish museum with one of the girls. Not what we expected, but I thought it was fascinating to learn about Jewish history outside the context of the Holocaust. After exploring a little more, we stopped at a cafe for a snack. I had a ricotta strudel- sounds a little odd, but it was delicious. Lunch was, once again, excellent. We ate at The Centimeter, and had vegetable soup, fried chicken, and these sliced potatoes in a honey mustard/vinegar sauce that were incredible, followed by an apple strudel that makes my mouth water just thinking about it! Once that was done, we were back on the bus and off to Budapest. Literally every one of us slept through that bus trip. We were exhausted already! After several hours of (very pleasant) sleeping, we were awoken because we were almost there, and we needed to learn some Hungarian before arriving.
Let me tell you about Magyar. It is more closely related to Finnish, and it is crazy. I have a fairly good ear for languages if I do say so myself. But this one? Could not get the swing of it. After two days, I was capable simply of nula (zero... if only because it's the same word in Czech), jo napoc (hello!) and köszönöm (thank you). Not much, but it was enough to help, because they really do appreciate it when you attempt to speak the language (they'll laugh at you first, but then they'll smile and be significantly friendlier... this is true most places, but even more so than in western Europe). After depositing out bags at the hotel, we regrouped and headed out for a late dinner. The sun was setting over the Danube as we set out, and it was positively spectacular. Budapest is a stunning city. I really didn't know what to expect, but it was incredible. Dinner was delicious- as per usual- and I had a fantastic time getting to know some of the new kids. Afterwards, we took a tour of the Buda Castle (Budapest was actually two cities back in the day- Buda and Pest, on opposing sides of the Danube). The castle itself was incredible, but even better were the views of the city! All the bridges are lit up at night, with round white bulbs dripping along their cables... the city is beautiful when the sun is shining, and even more so once it sets. We arrived back at the hotel late, and crashed- I certainly was thankful for the opportunity to sleep! The next morning, after an absolutely fantastic breakfast (a dramatic improvement over the bread and cheese from Vienna), we set out towards the baths. Let me remind you: the weather at this point was still terrible. In the fifties... and raining. Hard. We walked through the central street and several main squares until we reached the Heroes' Square, built in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the arrival of the Hungarians in the area. There are countless buildings and structures that were created in honor of this important year. One of the most notable? The Metro. One of the first in Europe, Budapest's system of underground transportation is surprisingly accessible and simple (purchasing tickets was not, but that's a different story). Of course, all the the cars they use have been replaced since 1896, but the system is nonetheless impressive. When we exited the Metro, we walked through a park, saw a few churches, and then lo and behold! We arrived at the baths! No, we did not cancel this expedition because of the weather, and though we felt a bit ridiculous gallivanting around in our bathing suits in such unfortunate conditions, the baths were surprisingly fun. The water was warm, and the rain had eased off. After spending a few hours exploring the hoards of pools spread throughout the complex, a group of us decided that we wanted to enjoy another aspect of Budapest (andddd put on some warm, dry clothes too). So we changed back into clothing appropriate for the environment, and set out across the city. We decided that we wanted to go to a museum called the House of Terror, which is literally one of the most incredible museums I have ever been to. Located inside the building that was home to the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis- the Arrow Cross Party- and their followers, the communist State Security Police, the museum documents the horrors that took place within those walls. It is both a living memorial to the victims, and a reminder of just how rapidly tyrannical governments can emerge. The combination of music and visual contrasts was incredibly moving. If you ever find yourself in Budapest, go to this museum. Afterwards, we wandered to this cute little cafe for lunch. I ordered something I had never heard of off the sandwich menu, and I got brie cheese with apples encrusted in walnuts with blueberry sauce. Unexpected? Yes. It was fantastic, too. We decided to head back to the hotel for a few minutes to drop off our wet towels and bathing suits and such, but were slightly turned around. When we paused at a street corner to sort ourselves out, a sweet Hungarian woman approached us, asking us- in delightfully comprehensible English- if we needed help. She pointed us in the right direction and we were soon back at the hotel (after struggling to purchase Metro tickets from a man who spoke no English whatsover, and who didn't have very much change either- something quite problematic when using a currency where 200 forints are equal to just one dollar). After lightening our bags, we set off towards the market, which was absolutely fantastic. SUCH a great place. Three stories of fresh food and all sorts of exciting souvenirs. The place was jam-packed with stall after stall of incredible things just waiting to be discovered. I purchased a thin leather bracelet with blue stones set into it. I was just delighted to find a bracelet that actually fit my wrist! My wrists are ridiculously tiny, and I hate bracelets that dangle and slide around- they just drive me crazy. I also purchased a thin black headband with all sorts of colorful beading. After spending an extremely long time happily wandering around, we decided we wanted gelato. It was delicious! Well, who am I kidding? Everything is delicious. Then, we went to tour St. Stephen's Basilica, and visit Parliament. Both absolutely stunning buildings. After walking back down the waterfront, we chowed down on some gyros for dinner. Some more exploring of the city as the sun went down, and then we decided we wanted desert. This, of course, entailed some wandering. Then we stumbled across this adorable little bakery chock full of tasty-looking treats! A cup of tea and a slice of Budapest cake- some sort of decadent chocolate and cream concoction- served me well, and then we went back to the hotel to settle in for the night.
The next morning, we set off for Bratislava, Slovakia. Driving into the city, my jaw literally fell to the ground, not at the overpowering beauty of the city, but because of the apartment complexes. Imagine the stereotypical Soviet-era apartment blocks. Plain, grey, concrete, rectangular buildings probably come to mind, right? One after the other? Yeah, that's exactly what was in front of me. I was surprised, I suppose because I've never seen such a uniform series of buildings present in front of me before. But before long, a familiar sight emerged on the horizon: yes, another castle! We toured the grounds of the beautiful Bratislava Castle, and from there realized that there was more to the city than grey blocks (phew!). The heart of the city is quite beautiful, much like Cesky Krumlov, in fact. The square, though small, is extremely beautiful, and is home to a lovely little market. Sadly, it was in this square- I believe- that I lost my beloved camera. Honestly, I'm not sure what happened to it, if I just set it down and forgot about it, I just don't know. I was crushed to discover that it was missing. I searched everywhere for it, and asked a slew of very helpful people all across the city, but nobody had seen it, and I knew chances were slim that I would ever be reunited with my camera. Because it wasn't actually stolen from my person, there wasn't anything the police could do. I did leave my number with a girl at the Information center in case someone turned it in, but alas, no luck. I was devastated, obviously, but I also refused to let the loss of a material possession ruin my trip or my impression of Slovakia. Quite frankly, it was my own fault that it went missing, and everyone who I talked to was indescribably kind and helpful. So I ate my pirogies for lunch (glorious. I do adore pirogies) and settled myself into the reality of my newfound life without the camera I was so accustomed to. I do, fortunately, have my smaller camera with me, and that will be more than sufficient for my journey. After lunch, we drove to the ruins of the castle Devin, which were spectacular. I love visiting ruins, and they seem to be everywhere in Europe, much to my excitement. We frolicked a bit, my friends convinced me to pose on a pillar as a gargoyle (which ended with very little bloodshed), we sang into the very deep well, and then we crashed on the bus back home- well, home-ish. But as one last surprise, Jan, our program director, suddenly emerged from the front of the bus with a string of paprika around his neck, toting these enormous loaves of bread. He sliced them for us, and we ate this delicious bread with Hungarian sausage. It was fantastic. It was at this point that I first started feeling run-down, but I really didn't think anything of it. Just a sore throat, no big deal.
Nearly as soon as we arrived in Prague, I headed back out with some girls to watch the game in Old Town Square, which was quite fun. When we came back, I scraped together a late dinner for us, making the most of the pasta that was hanging around our kitchen. The next morning, I took several people on an adventure to Tesco. I needed groceries anyway, and it was easy enough to bring people along with me to show them the ropes. After a few hours, I made it back to my apartment and enjoyed my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich in over two months. It was glorious. Plus, I had purchased the bread I used to make it for just eight crowns (that's less than fifty cents) and this was a loaf the size of a small child. It was a fantastic experience, made even better by the fact that just minutes later I received a call from my fabulous roommate from school, Maddie. She was about to head to Tesco- so of course I ran back there as fast as I could! I took her and her friends around the store, offering my infinite wisdom (haha... yeah right) free of charge. It was so great to see her! I went back to her dorm- sweet digs she's got there- and we made plans to meet as soon as possible, aka the next day. I had dinner with the new crew at a terrific cafe that was quite literally a hole in the wall. A popular student hangout, there was not so much as a sign out front. But the food was delicious, and the atmosphere pleasant.
On Friday, I had to wake up earlier than originally planned so that way I could pick up the paperwork necessary to renew my Metro pass. Unfortunately, renewing the pass was not as simple as our program directors professed it to be, because my old pass was issued as a Junior (under 19) pass rather than a Student one. Since I turned 19 last week, I needed a Student pass, but that meant I needed proof that I was actually a student. And my ISIC card wasn't good enough- I needed proof that I was a student here in the Czech Republic. Well, I certainly wasn't convincing anyone that I was a native with my broken Czech. Fortunately, I was able to get everything straightened out in time to meet up with the group for lunch (you know I love free food), and pick Maddie up first so she could come along with us! We tried the cauliflower pancakes- yes, it does sound a little strange, but they were fantastic. Sort of like latkas, just with cauliflower instead of potatoes. Afterwards, we spotted a sign for an international music festival of some sort, so we went to my apartment to check it out online. We figured out where it was, and then decided we wanted crepes first. Maddie opted for banana and nutella, and I picked apricot- both fantastic choices. The music festival was a ton of fun- a really enjoyable atmosphere. It rained for a little bit, but eventually the rain eased off, and we explored the islands a little bit. On another island, we found this spectacular children's park that was absolutely too much fun. Eventually, we wound up eating dinner at a sidewalk cafe near Wenceslas Square. The food was fabulous, and people-watching provided entertainment for an extensive period of time. After we finished eating, we stopped at a nearby store called Pylones. I had been inside this store in Berlin, and thoroughly regretted not purchasing a bicycle bell there. Well, guess who now owns a bell?! Next purchase: the bicycle. The store is fantastic: filled top to bottom with bright, unique goodies that just scream for you to purchase them. From there, we went to Old Town Square to watch the game.
Maddie and I obviously wanted to hang out again Saturday, and we did! I was feeling sicker at this point, but I still didn't think it was a huge deal. Besides, we had grand plans to go picnicking and cherry picking, and I was not about to let some little germs get in the way of that! Our directions to the tram we needed to catch failed us, but in our wanderings off the beaten path (I took us in a serpentine pattern across the area), we did discover a spectacular produce market. Since it was getting later, we decided to picnic right there: peanut butter and jelly, chips, and cookies in the grass- sheer perfection. It was wonderful! From there, we reoriented ourselves, and were soon on the tram we needed. The monastery we went to was stunning. Founded in 993, the architecture there is mostly Baroque. The ponds and orchards are beautiful, and it was just so peaceful! The cherries weren't ripe, as we were disappointed to discover, but nevertheless, we had a wonderful time exploring the area. For dinner, we went to Bohemia Bagel, which is sort of like Panera, except slightly nicer (and missing Missy and Morgan!). It's a major expat hangout, mostly because it's one of the few places in the region that you can find bagels.
Though I thought I would maybe be feeling better Sunday, when I woke up, I very rapidly discovered that this was not the case. A deep cough had joined my plethora of other symptoms, and I didn't go anywhere all day. Maddie- my hero- brought dinner to me, and we cooked pasta and ate delicious chocolate cake together. Monday, I had to rouse myself for class, and it did indeed take significant effort. Nevertheless, I think I will quite enjoy the class. I was exhausted after walking around town to purchase books, and promptly fell asleep for five hours. I roused myself to cook dinner, and then collapsed again. Tuesday wasn't much better- I just added one more class (and woke up early to purchase train tickets to Slovenia for this weekend!). Today was a little better- I think I'm finally making a turn for the better. Just in time!
A gargoyle at Devin
Not picking cherries.
At the United Island Music Festival
Being excited about Viennese apple strudel!
The Hungarian Metro
Budapest by night!
Some of the girls at the baths