These Are A Few of My Favorite Things (In Salzburg)

“Doe, a deer, a female deer…”

“I am sixteen, going on seventeen…”

“The hills are alive…”

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”

If you haven’t caught on by now to which movie I am referring to, you clearly did not have a proper childhood.

I have specific memories of watching The Sound of Music (multiple times) with my grandma while growing up. I would twirl around the room, pretending to be Liesl in the gazebo as I was brainwashed into thinking that a seventeen-year old boy was mature enough to “take care of you.”

When I first told my mom I was moving to Europe, I meant to tell her that I would be living only a few hours from where “The hills are alive” in Salzburg, Austria. Instead, what came out of my mouth was “I’ll be living where the hills have eyes.” Oops. Wrong movie…

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I mean, hopefully it’s just music in these hills…

For those who are unfamiliar, The Sound of Music is a musical loosely based on the events surrounding Maria von Trapp and her family. Maria lived in an Abbey in Salzburg, Austria. Upon request, she became a nanny and teacher for the Trapp family. Eventually, she married Captain von Trapp and the family gained popularity for their professional singing. In the movie, Maria must earn the trust of 7 naughty children, acknowledge her love for Captain von Trapp, and escape Nazi-controlled Salzburg in the dead of night- all the while singing catchy songs that are bound to get stuck in your head for several days.

In reality, events did not quite play out this way, but hey- that’s why I use the words “loosely based.”

However, much of the movie was actually filmed in Salzburg. Thus, Salzburg has become a tourist destination for those wanting to recreate movie scenes. Funny enough, most people in Austria have never seen The Sound of Music and the people of Salzburg only know it because they are forced to put up with foreigners skipping around singing “Do, Re, Mi.”

Instead, they are more inclined to brag that their city is the birthplace of Wolfgang Mozart:

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They even sell ‘Mozartkugel’ throughout the whole city- chocolate bonbons with a pistachio at the center- in dedication to this guy.

Either way you look at it, Salzburg is a very musical city.

To get from Prague to Salzburg, Liv (a fellow CIEE participant) and I took a 5-hour bus ride. The Airbnb we stayed at was then about a 45-minute walk from the city center.

On our walk to the center, it started to downpour like crazy and we had to retreat underneath the pavilion of a gas station. Suddenly, the “hills were alive with the sound” of reverberated thunder, which was probably the loudest I had heard since living in Thailand.

After a good 30 minutes- during which time I dangerously considered making a gas station sandwich my first food from Salzburg- the storm finally passed and we made our way to the center to meet up with other CIEE participants (by coincidence, 8 of us were all staying in Salzburg on the same night).

Since Salzburg is another city/town with a small center, we were easily able to knock out several sights before dinner. We saw…

The Salzburg Cathedral:

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Residenzplatz Square’s fountain:

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In The Sound of Music, Maria and the kids pass the fountain while singing in their carriage

St. Peter’s Cemetery:

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In the movie, the Trapp family hid from the Nazis in this cemetery. Or, that’s what I thought until our Free Walking Tour guide told us that the cemetery scene was actually filmed in studios in a replicated version of this cemetery.

The shopping lane, Getreidegasse:

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The whole street is filled with elaborate wrought iron signs that were meant to inform what the shop contained for the illiterate back in the day. The city still requires each shop on the street to display a sign- hence the fancy McDonald’s.

Streets throughout the City Center:

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And Felsenreitschule, a concert hall where the Trapp family performed at (both in the movie and in real life). Unfortunately, you cannot enter without a scheduled tour, so I didn’t get any pictures of this one.

After, my friends and I ate at a very fancy restaurant serving traditional Austrian food. Thanks to the rainstorm, I wasn’t really interested in eating anything but hot soup. My corn soup was very literal and consisted of corn kettles and actual popcorn… Regardless, it was a nice goodbye dinner as this was the last night I was going to see some of my friends.

Not going to lie though, on the way home that night, my friends and I went to a diner that was American themed. Not very cultural, but I did get a milkshake!

The next day, Liv and I went on a Free Walking Tour, which gave us more information on the things we had walked past the previous night.

We then climbed up Salzburg’s steep hill to get a view of the surroundings.

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While up there, we stumbled upon Gasthaus Stadtalm Café, which was situated just on the edge of the hill, so you have a view of the entire valley and town:

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Liv and I split one of Austria’s famous apple strudels topped with vanilla ice cream. I recommend going.

We then headed back down the hill and over to the Mirabell Gardens.

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These gardens are very popular in Salzburg. 1) They’re free to enter 2) They’re gorgeous with all the flowers, fountains, and vine tunnels 3) This is the location that the Do Re Mi Song was filmed.

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Admittedly, I did break my do-not-act-like-a-tourist rule for this place. I blame it on childhood dreams and nostalgia.

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But I swear, I reined it in after jumping/skipping through the vine tunnels.

Now, while I thoroughly enjoyed all the main attractions in Salzburg, I’ll share with you “a few of my favorite things” that I did in Salzburg that a lot of people don’t get around to doing.

1) Biking along and beyond the Salzach River

I give Liv full credit for this idea. I hadn’t biked since last August and totally had forgotten how much I loved and missed it. We rented bikes for 2 hours and biked along the Salzach River until the trail finally ended. We then turned away from the path and headed through a park and honestly… I don’t know where. It was just so nice to feel a breeze and explore with no people around.

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Eventually, we hit some open fields where we really saw those Austrian mountains.

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Once we went an hour out, we decided to turn back so we could return the bikes in time. However, we got a little lost along the way. After using our navigational skills (aka- google maps and lucky guessing), we found out where the river was and started peddling towards it.

Suddenly I slammed on my brakes and made Liv do the same. There in front of us was the gazebo from the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” song! I knew that the location of the gazebo had moved since filming and that you could go see it if you took The Sound of Music guided tour (which was out of my budget), so I figured that it was just a sight I would miss. I didn’t realize that we had biked out that far!

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Yay for getting lost!

2) Visiting the Hohensalzburg Fortress AFTER 7pm

Yes, a visit to the Hohensalzburg Fortress is a well-known must when visiting Salzburg. You literally can’t miss it; it looms over the whole town. However, not many people know that a visit after 7pm means free entry to the fortress.

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Since many people day-trip to Salzburg from Vienna, most bus back by late afternoon. This works perfectly for people staying the night in Salzburg as you get a free sunset view from the fortress without many people around.

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If you have the option, make sure you go after 7pm. We waited right in the foyer until 7pm when the mechanical gate opened for us. One family showed up to go in at 6:56pm and had to pay full price (the person at the ticket booth won’t tell you that you can go in for free if you show up a few minutes early).

3) Sitting inside Café Bazar for coffee and cake

Coffee and some form of cake are a must in Austria. Most travel blogs and advisory websites I looked at recommended Café Tomaselli to get your sweet fix. From what I saw though, this place looked far too packed for my liking. Instead, I went to Café Bazar. This place in one of the oldest cafés in the city and a great number of artists, philosophers, and writers would go here to meet for coffee back in the day. A lot of locals still go to this café to meet with friends or read the newspaper.

The outside patio offers a nice view of the river. However, it was crowded when I went. Instead I went inside and was surprised to find that the inside was gorgeous and almost completely empty!

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Their cakes and coffee were affordable and delicious too!

And that concludes the list of my favorite things in Salzburg. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu 😉

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Final Hurrahs

Since the school year in the Czech Republic runs until the very end of June, I have only officially been on summer break for a little over a week now. Similar to Thailand, the end of the school year has been bittersweet- on the one hand, I can sleep in, take strolls along the river, and go traveling on a whim. On the other hand, I already miss teaching my students and have hated saying goodbye to all the friends I have made through CIEE this past year.

Fortunately for me, I will be teaching at my school again next year (so no permanent so-longs there) and some of my CIEE friends are still traveling Europe, meaning I’ll still see them throughout July before really having to say goodbye.

CIEE also helped lessen the blow of an abrupt farewell by taking us all on an overnight trip to the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic a few weeks ago.

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First, we went to the Punkva Caves.

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These caves are known as one of the most unique underground systems in the world, thanks to the Punka River that runs directly through the complex.

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We got to take a boat ride right on this underground river. Warning though- this is no Disney ride; the people who sat on the sides of the boat had to be aware at all times- ducking low was necessary to avoid being knocked unconscious by the rock walls.

We also saw the Macocha Abyss/Gorge, which is the deepest sinkhole and spot in Central Europe, with a depth of 187.5 meters:

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I couldn’t quite capture the scope of the steep slope in the picture, but the gorge was huge! Very majestic and tranquil. Not to mention, a nice cool-down from the day’s hot weather.

And of course, there were the cool dripstone decorations that I am always fascinated by:

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After, we hopped back on our bus and headed to the small town of Mikulov.

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While known for having the best and cheapest beer in the world, the Czech Republic also has legit bragging rights over its white wine from Moravia. And our CIEE coordinator was sweet and awesome enough to book a farewell wine tasting of 12 Moravian white wine samples. I’m more of a red wine person, but I was happy to switch sides for this event.

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Let’s just say that the sample sizes were rather large and after sample 8, I became very glad that we had decided to take some nice goodbye pictures before the festivities began.

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After (most) people started coming back to life the next day, we then drove to Lednice Castle for a guided tour. The inside of this castle was gorgeous:

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The outside and gardens were too (in spite of the torrential downpour we encountered upon arrival):

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Thank you, CIEE (particularly our coordinator, TV) for a wonderful last get-together.

So, how else have I been saying goodbye to my friends? With frequent visits to the Vltava River:

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Fun fact- this bridge? We recently carried a futon and mattress across it (moving time!). The people taking pictures of us made us feel like celebrities for 5 minutes.

This is probably one of my favorite places to go in Prague. The atmosphere is so laid-back here. There’s boats along the river that you can buy food and drinks from and just chill along the water. On warm nights, you never want to leave (perhaps a good place to try and convince my friends to stay another year…)

I also took a last-minute day trip to Bohemian Switzerland with my friend and hiking partner, Bethany, before she left. And before you try to determine if a day trip to Switzerland is physically possible (the answer is “no,” by the way), I don’t mean the actually country of Switzerland. Instead, I am referring to the National Park that is located on the border between the Czech Republic and Germany. The name “Bohemian Switzerland” simply comes from the fact that the nature in this park rivals that of what you would find in Switzerland.

As I have yet to go to Switzerland, I cannot compare the two. However, I can say that this park is definitely worth staying a day at, if not multiple.

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One of the most famous sights- and the one I was most excited to see- was the Pravčická Brána. This was the filming location for a scene from The Chronicles of Narnia.

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Susan, Peter, Lucy, and the beavers on the Pravčická Brána

Lucky for me, it was not cold when we went (I do not thrive in snow).

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Haha! Proof that I have been to Narnia:

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Another thing checked off the bucket list. Now, I’m just waiting on my acceptance letter from Hogwarts…

After seeing the Pravčická Brána, we then hiked for several hours to Edmundova Soutěska (Edmund’s Gorges). Here, we went on a boat ride through the gorge. The mini tour was only in Czech and German, but between the two languages, we got the gist of the content.

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There you have it. My final hurrahs with my CIEE family. And no matter how many times I’ve gone through it, saying goodbye still royally sucks. I hate it.

However sad, goodbyes do not mean the end though. I am thankful for all the experiences and memories I’ve made in the past year and look forward to what will come.

In the meantime, if you’re in Prague this summer, you’ll most likely find me here:

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Riegrovy Sady- epic views and perfect tanning grounds

Sunsets and Waterfalls

Within the past few years, Croatia has become an increasingly popular travel destination in Europe. And with the country’s picture-perfect Adriatic Sea coastline and national parks, it’s easy to see why. The Croatian cities of Split and Dubrovnik have gained fame in particular for being filming locations for Star Wars and Game of Thrones.

For my trip though, I went to the more laid-back town of Zadar. No worries – this seaside town still has a stamp of approval by someone in the filming industry; Alfred Hitchcock once visited Zadar and deemed the small city as having the most beautiful sunsets in the world.

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Zadar also has its own airport, thus making it a cheaper destination and the original reason why I chose this town to stay in. Still, I have to say that Zadar is very underrated and should be getting more of the love that goes to its neighboring cities down South.

I was fortunate to visit Zadar and the close-by Krka National Park from Wednesday to Saturday (my school was on a field trip that week and I was not needed), allowing me to avoid most weekend travelers. A trip during the week also meant that I had to go solo as all my CIEE friends would be working.

Admittedly, I was a little nervous for this trip as I had not solo traveled since Thailand. With so much going on recently though- the end of the school year and all my friends preparing to return to the US- a solo trip was needed to clear my head of all stress. Plus, it’s a pretty awesome feeling to travel independently and come to the realization that you have the ability to create your own schedule and happiness.

Zadar and Krka National Park ended up being the perfect place for solo traveling- it’s a family-friendly town and everything is accessible by walking or taking the simple transportation system.

In fact, I almost saw everything my first night in Zadar as its Old Town is so compact- walking from one side of the peninsula to the other can be achieved within 15 minutes.

After the sun fully sets, the two sights I most recommend seeing are…

1) The lit-up trio of the Roman Forum, bell tower, and St. Donat’s Church:

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Due to the narrowness of the Adriatic Sea, Zadar’s history includes a lot of takeovers from outsiders- specifically from the Romans and Venetians (and the Austrian empire from the other direction). Because of this, there are a lot of Roman and Venetian influences throughout Old Town. Case in point- the remains of the Roman Forum, which was the largest forum on the eastern side of the Adriatic. Much of the forum remains were used to construct St. Donat’s church (the circular building that I had to resist calling the “Donut” church).

2) The Greeting to the Sun:

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This mass of solar panels takes in sunlight throughout the day and then uses that energy at night to turn itself into a huge colorful dance floor.  The dance floor is in the shape of a circle- representing the sun- with smaller circles laying further away- each proportionally representing one of the planets in our solar system.

You’ll notice, however, that nobody is dancing in my picture. Unfortunately, two days before I showed up, someone went to the Greeting to the Sun in broad daylight and started smashing in the solar panels. Luckily, this person did not do enough damage to destroy the light show. The dance floor still had to be fenced off though as several panels had large cracks and needed replacing.

Humans often puzzle me.

The next day, I woke up early to take pictures of Old Town before the streets became crowded.

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Wandering Old Town in the morning was probably my favorite part of Zadar because the streets are just so beautiful.

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I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

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I then stumbled upon a Free Walking Tour, which I love doing in any city I go to. Technically, Free Walking Tours are illegal in Croatia, so the company charges 1 Croatian Kuna ($0.15) for a whole tour group. Since a Free Walking Tour guide is paid by tips, the guide just pays the fee with a tiny portion of their tips. Essentially, the Free Walking Tour is still free.

Our guide took me back to all the places I had been to already in Zadar, but this time filling me in on the history. To prevent a super long post, I’ll mostly just share pictures and skip most of the history lesson. We saw…

-The 5 Wells Square (Trg 5 Bunara):

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-The Foša Land Gate:

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The winged lion is a symbol of the Venetian Republic. It was placed above and made larger than Zadar’s symbol (a knight on a horse) to show who really ruled the city. The Lion’s open book meant that the city was in a time of peace.

-The Column of Shame:

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In ancient times, criminals were chained to this pillar anywhere from hours to days, depending in their crime. During this time period, the townspeople could yell insults and physically harm the person tied up. If the criminal survived the townspeople, they often fled Zadar as they were now publicly shamed.

The Column of Shame was later thought to contain angry spirits from all the people tortured/killed there. Lucky for the town (and the person who partially destroyed the Greeting to the Sun installation a few days ago), a quick etching of a cross rid the column of its evil and the column from then on served to protect the city.

-St. Mary’s Church (Crkva Svete Marije):

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-People’s Square (Narodni Trg):

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This square was/is the most popular meeting point in Old Town and I swear, all anybody does here is drink coffee. There’s rows and rows of tables in the square and throughout my stay, I never saw one person eating actual food.

On the one hand, I do love my coffee. On the other hand, it’s sad for any breakfast lovers out there (such as myself).

-And last, but not least- the Sea Organ:

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The Sea Organ is a series of steps with slots in them that lead to a series of 35 tubes. As its name indicates, the steps are literally a musical organ that plays a ‘song’ based on the strength and rhythm of the waves. On days with calm waves, the organ plays a song that can only be heard a few meters away. On a stormy day, the organ can supposedly be heard from cross the peninsula. Since the organ is made up of steps, it’s very easy to sit down and simply listen to the peaceful (yet somewhat haunting tune).

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The Sea Organ- as well as the Greeting to the Sun dance floor- were both created by Croatian architect Nikola Bašić as a way to attract people to the less popular side of Zadar’s peninsula. Bašić certainly met his goal; people visit the organ throughout the day and especially at sunset.

Remember when I mentioned that Hitchcock said that Zadar has the world’s most beautiful sunset? Well, Bašić enhanced the experience by creating a musical instrument that plays whatever nature throws at it as the sun sets. Add on the Greeting to the Sun installation, which lights up just after sunset, and you have a nice little itinerary of what to do at the edge of the peninsula before, during, and after sunset.

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After the walking tour, I then headed to Kolovare Beach, which is about 10 minutes from Old Town.

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While not the most amazing beach I’ve been on, it’s still peaceful and nice to visit if you have time after exploring Old Town. Fair warning though- there’s no sand at this beach- only rocks and a few grassy areas.

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Although I felt comfortable laying down on with a blanket, I kept forgetting about the rocks repeatedly tried to bury my toes and fingers under the “sand.”

After my skin finished turning 5 shades of red darker, I went back to Old Town to climb the bell tower. As this is such a cheap activity (15 Kuna or $2.30), I definitely recommend doing it for 360 views of the peninsula.

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Since I had covered most of sights in Zadar in one day, I decided last minute to go and visit Krka National Park the next day. While there are excursion companies that will take you to Krka (you’ll see promotional stands throughout Zadar), I found that it was much cheaper just to buy a bus ticket and go myself.

Now, Zadar is close to many islands and parks that are worthy of a day trip. I simply went to Krka because I love climbing waterfalls. If you’re reading this and planning a day trip from Zadar, I recommend doing some research and selecting a place that appeals to you.

Since the bus I took to Krka took me to the Skradin entrance of the park, I got to take a free boat ride to Skradinski Buk (the most popular waterfall and sight in the park). The boat ride and rock formations immediately made me think of Khao Sok in Thailand.

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Once off the boat, it was a very short walk to Skradinski Buk:

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From here, you can play in the water, lay out and work on your tan, or follow the educational trial that takes you on a relaxing hike around the waterfall. This takes about an hour to complete and while “educational” is in the name, it’s up to you if you want to read all the posts, or just allow nature to keep you company. Since a picture speaks 1,000 words…

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On my last morning in Zadar, I strolled through Perivoj Kralijice Jelene Madijevke. Although it has a long name, this park is actually quite tiny. However, it’s a must-see due to all its pretty plants and winding paths. I felt a bit like Alice walking through Wonderland- especially after I started following a path that kept circling up a hill; I half expected a mad tea party when I reached the top.

Another reason to visit Perivoj Kralijice Jelene Madijevke is for the Ledana cocktail bar  (if you pass by at night, you’ll definitely hear the music). I didn’t go to the bar (I don’t have the courage to sit at a bar by myself), but passed by it and wished I could have gone. It looks like the perfect place to spend an evening eating and drinking.

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I swear, it’s the Cheshire Cat’s eyes from Alice in Wonderland

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And speaking of places to eat and drink, I would recommend the following in Zadar (yes, these are places I actually went to):

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I heard about this place several times before going to Zadar. It has a lot of food options, the portions are decent, and the prices are cheaper than many other restaurants on the peninsula. Apparently, the place is known for its pizza, but I was too tempted by the tuna steak to try:

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Tinel

Definitely grab a seat in the alley or terrace if you’re going to eat here.

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It’s a good thing I went to the beach before eating this

Coffee and Cake

As I mentioned before, Zadar does not have a lot of breakfast options. The waiters looked shocked every time I asked about breakfast instead of just ordering coffee. Fortunately, the café, Coffee and Cake, serves breakfast with some pretty tasty-looking options.

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And of course, their cakes look amazing as well.

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Located just outside of Old Town, this dessert shop also had a wide selection of cakes and a beautiful eating area.

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Slasticarna Donat

From what I heard from multiple sources, this place has the best ice cream in the city. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test all the ice cream places in Zadar, but I was very happy with the dark chocolate ice cream I got from here.

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With its sunsets and day trips, Zadar was a nice little get-away town to clear my head and “re-learn” how to solo travel. While Split and Dubrovnik gets the most visitors, Zadar is a gem most certainly worth visiting.

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“My Hidden Treasure Chest”

Avid music lovers might be able to read the title of this post and guess what city I’m referring to.

For those of you less talented at memorizing random lyrics, I’ll give you a moment to type the title into google.

Got it? Glad we’re all on the same page now.

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Thank you, George Ezra and hello Budapest.

Budapest certainly is a “treasure chest” worth digging through. Whether it’s still “hidden” is up for debate- while not as crowded as other European cities I’ve been to, it is definitely known to stag parties and people looking for a good time at the ruin bars and thermal baths. If one still wants to call Budapest “hidden,” I’m afraid they have limited time to do so.

My friends- Jessica and Kelsey- and I stayed in Budapest for 3 days. It was Jessica’s birthday weekend and since I had not traveled with her since Thailand (we were co-workers then), I was super excited for Budapest. And with the city’s laid-back vibes, this was the perfect place to go for a birthday celebration!

Our first full day in Budapest was devoted to covering the more historical sights. Since everything is pretty packed together, this was doable in a day.

We first saw the parliament building, which is the largest building in Hungary and one of the most recognizable buildings in Budapest with its gothic architecture and central dome:

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We then headed a few minutes down the river to see the Shoes on the Danube Bank. One of the most sobering and eerie sights in the city, this memorial honors the Jews who were shot into the Danube River by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-1945. Before being shot, the victims were forced to take off their shoes and valuables and stand in a line at the edge of the promenade. The memorial is composed of 60 pairs of iron-cast shoes- all in different sizes and styles to show that no man, woman, or child was spared.

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The memorial is not very big, but will definitely leave you with chills. Most disturbing to me was a pair of baby shoes filled with pebbles.

Next, we continued down the promenade to walk across the Chain Bridge.

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Prior to the formation of Hungary’s capital, the region actually consisted of two different cities: Buda and Pest. Constructed in 1849, the Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge to connect Buda and Pest. Super convenient for residents when the two cities merged into Budapest 24 years later.

Although Budapest is now one city, people still use “Buda” and “Pest” to describe their location. Buda is more calm and residential while Pest is more lively and the place to be to experience the city’s nightlife.

The Parliament building and the Shoes on the Danube Bank are both located on the Pest side of the river. After crossing the Chain Bridge, we arrived on the Buda side and immediately began an upward climb to reach Buda Castle.

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Perched at the edge of the hill, the entrance to Buda Castle almost looks like the gateway into heaven.

We didn’t actually go into the castle (it was too nice out to be indoors!), but just walked in the courtyards for the view.

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The Buda Castle courtyard is the perfect place to snap a scenic picture of the Chain Bridge and the Pest side of the city.

Next, we walked a few minutes to Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. These two sights are absolutely gorgeous and probably rank in my Top 5 favorite buildings in Europe so far.

The roof of Matthias Church was stunning and stood out from the white-washed surroundings:

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And Fisherman’s Bastion made you feel like a princess/prince from a happy fairytale:

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The one thing I wished I’d have done differently was go early before the area was crowded with tourists.

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Oh well. A picture without extra people in the background was still achievable.

The last thing we did on the Buda side was climb up the Citadel/Gellért Hill.

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Although a bit more strenuous, I recommend taking the stair path either up or down the hill. This will give you another great overview of the Pest side of the city.

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Alternatively, you can save your energy and take the sloping hill that the tour buses use.

At the top of Gellért Hill sits the “Statue of Liberty” (Szabadság Szobor).

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This statue was erected to celebrate the Soviet Union’s liberation of Hungary at the end of WWII. However, ill feelings towards the Soviets a few years later led to some damage to the memorial. Still, Hungarians came to love the statue so much that that they decided to keep it after the fall of communism in 1989.

After crossing back over to the Pest side of Budapest, we went back to our Airbnb to get ready for Jessica’s birthday night!

Originally, we were going to take a night cruise on the Danube River. Unfortunately, Budapest experienced heavy rain a few days prior, resulting in the river being higher than usual with an extremely fast current. Tragically, 2 boat cruises collided the day before and 7 people were killed. Because of this, all cruises were suspended (not that we felt like going on one after the accident, anyway).

Instead, we went to Szimpla Kert, the most famous and original Ruin Bar in Budapest.

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The concept of a Ruin Bar is to take an abandoned space (in Szimpla Kert’s case, an abandoned factory) and turn it into a bar with minimal renovations and flea market furniture and lights. Szimpla Kert, and many other Ruin Bars, are located in the Old Jewish Quarter- an area that suffered heavy bombings in WWII.

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Szimpla Kert is huge with many rooms of different designs. It’s also a great place to meet new people. It gets wilder as the night goes on, so come during the day for a more relaxed vibe.

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After a few hours at Szimpla Kert, we then headed to Fogas Haz, which is another Ruin Bar known for its multi-room basement with huge dance floors. If you like dancing, this is the place to go.

Overall, it was a very fun and memorable birthday celebration.

The next day, we decided to take it a lot easier and go to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

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No trip to Budapest is complete without going to a thermal bath. It would be like going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower.

Except nobody’s cranky from sweating and being on their feet all day. The thermal baths are simply for relaxation. Not a fan of being surrounded by people in warm water? No problem. Just find yourself a reclining chair around the bath and soak in the sun.

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Széchenyi Thermal Baths is the most popular bath in Budapest due to its outdoor area (it also has indoor baths though). If we had more time in Budapest, I would have loved to check out the other ones too (particularly Gellért Baths, which is located inside a huge cathedral).

After inspecting the extent of my sunburned skin, we then went over to Elisabeth Square to relax some more and people watch. This was very easy to do as there’s a skating area where skateboarders and bikers try out their newest tricks. I’ll admit it- the wipeouts (in which nobody was hurt) made for good entertainment.

Elisabeth Square also has the “Budapest Eye” to ride on and a market to buy small souvenirs and eat/drink at.

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We liked Elisabeth Square so much that the next day we went back to chill and dip our feet in the water before heading to the airport.

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The other thing we (tried) to do on our last day was visit the New York Café. This picturesque old building is said to be one of the most beautiful cafes in the world.

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Unfortunately, I did not make reservations in advance. And so, my view and picture was limited to what I could see in the line at the entrance hall. So, learn from me and make reservations!

Where to Eat in Budapest

Both Kelsey and Jessica are vegan, so for this trip we ate at restaurants/cafes/courtyards with some or all vegan options. What I recommend (to all foodies- vegan or not) is:

Great Bistro- We went for breakfast and had “egg” omelets, avocado toast, and pancakes. Their lunch/dinner options looked amazing too!

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Hummus Bar– Their pita sandwiches were delicious and filling! There’s several Hummus Bars located throughout the city.

Naspolya Nassolda– I loved their granola and raw desserts. Their swing was fun to play on too!

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Vegan Garden– This is a courtyard that only opened up last year. They have different street food stalls set up that sells vegan burgers, Mexican food, desserts, and more.

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And last but not least…

Gelarto Bistro- This dessert shop has many different gelato flavors (both vegan and non-vegan). The best part? They serve it to you as a flower.

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What can I say? Gelato gets us excited easily.

Roaming Romania- Part 2

In my opinion, ‘city’ might not be the correct term for Brasov (in fact, I find that many European ‘cities’ resemble more of the likes of ‘towns.’). To meet halfway, we’ll just call Brasov a large weekend-getaway town. Located beside Tampa mountain, the whole town is a great place for hiking and taking day trips from. Which is exactly what Bethany and I did.

On our first full day in Brasov, we actually took a half-day trip to Bran’s Castle.

Doesn’t sound familiar to you?

Maybe you’ll know its more popular name- “Dracula’s Castle.”

Bran’s Castle (AKA “Dracula’s Castle”)

Getting from Brasov to Dracula’s place was actually very easy. Just a 50- minute ride on a bus.

And I would love to say that finding the front gate to Bran’s Castle is also super easy, but Bethany and I walked right past it (in our defense, a line of buses blocked our view of the gate) and we ended up walking down a deserted road for quite some time before figuring we should make a 180. Tip for traveling to a touristy site- if there’s no tourists around, you’re probably going the wrong way.

Anyway.

Bran’s castle was pretty cool to checkout.

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And despite what one may assume, the place itself was not really creepy. In fact, the rooms for the royals looked quite cozy.

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But don’t worry, the weather outside still made you feel like you were in Dracula’s home:

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For once, I was not bummed out by dreary weather.

And the secret passage was also horror-movie worthy:

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But aside from that, no traces of vampires were present (although sellers of Dracula souvenirs at the base of the castle would beg to differ).

Why?

Sorry to break it to you, my friends, but Vlad Tepes- real man who inspired the story of Dracula- was not a vampire (admittedly though, he was another scary force to be reckoned with). In fact, it’s unknown if Vlad Tepes/Dracula was ever at Bran’s Castle.

So what’s the connection between vampire Dracula, Vlad Tepes, and Bran’s Castle?

Irish writer Bram Stoker. The author of Dracula.

Bran’s castle was used as inspiration for the novel because it was well known as a giant fortress that was difficult to conquer. Plus, located in the Carpathian Mountains, the whole area gave off an aura of mystery.

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Meanwhile, Prince Vlad Tepes was used because of his reputation for carrying out gruesome punishments.

When Tepes was young, he was held captive by the Ottoman Empire and forced to learn the Turkish language, customs, and military techniques. Upon his father’s death, he was allowed to return to home to Wallachia (a region of Romania). Instead of turning the land over to the Turks and being their puppet, however, Tepes sought independence for his people.

When an army of 2,000 Turks came to seize Wallachia, Tepes was somehow able to capture them. He then greased a bunch of large stakes with pig lard- Turks are not supposed to digest pork- to prepare for his infamous punishment. Without getting too much into detail, Tepes had the enemies placed on top of the stakes so that- aided by lard and gravity- the point would enter through their bottoms and exit through the neck area. Since the stake did not pierce any vital organs, this method meant that the victims stayed alive for the next 48 hours.

Tepes then burned the crops and poisoned all the water leading to Wallachia and erected the dead soldiers on their stakes. And so, when the Ottoman Empire sent in reinforcements, many of the soldiers turned back due to weakness and terror.

Tepes’s common method of killing became well-known, thus earning him the nickname of “Vlad the Impaler” and making him a very feared person.

Tepes’s other nickname- “Dracula”- came about simply because of family linage. Tepes’s father had the flag symbol of the dragon. The simple townspeople who saw the flag interpreted this as the sign of the devil and nicknamed him “Dracul” (the word for ‘devil’ in Slavonian). And so, the name given to Tepes- ‘Dracula’- literally means “son of the devil.”

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Now you get to decide- who is more horrifying? Real-life Tepes or the fictional character of Dracula that Tepes inspired.

Sighisoara

The next day, we took another day trip from Brasov. This time to Sighisoara. Bethany and I simply referred to this town as “the dinosaur place” as we had no idea how to pronounce its name (and still don’t).

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For the more laid-back and lazy traveler, Sighisoara is great because there’s not too much to do and you can easily cover the whole town in 2 hours. The rest of the day can then be spent strolling around while eating ice cream and grabbing some drinks at a place with outdoor seating. Normally, I’m more of an ‘on-the-go’ person when traveling, but since we had spent the last few days on the move, I was fine with bumming it for an afternoon. Plus, the weather outside was absolutely gorgeous. Ice cream and wine it was then.

What we did in Sighisoara for the first 2 hours was…

Visit the birthplace of Vlad Tepes:

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Vlad’s house is now a restaurant

Climb the clock tower for a view of the city and check out the museum within the tower:

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According to the tower, I’m only about 7,431 Km from home…

Climb the 175 steps of the Scholar’s Stairs. Originally, it consisted of 300 steps. Poor schoolchildren who had to make that climb every day.

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At the top of the stairs was, of course the old schoolhouse, but also a church and cemetery:

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And as far as historical sights go, that was pretty much it. So what makes this UNESCO World Heritage Site so special and worth seeing?

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The colorful buildings in Old Town, of course! Literally, every building is a different, bright color.

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The fact that all the buildings are built after a medieval fashion makes it pretty to gaze at while strolling around with ice cream in hand.

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And to think, Dracula/Vlad Tepes was born here.

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Just goes to show that not all of Transylvania is dark shadows and vampire legends.

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Last but not least, let’s talk about Brasov; the home-base of our day trips and a laid-back ‘city’ itself worth exploring.

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The whole time I was there, I couldn’t get over Tampa mountain, which loomed right over the whole town.

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With the contrast of the green mountain and blue sky, it almost looked like a movie set

Like in Bucharest, we also took a Free Walking Tour of Brasov. This tour meets every day at 6:00pm in the Piata Sfatului (The Council Square). This was perfect as it gave us a little time to relax after our half day-trip to Bran’s Castle.

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Events at the Council/Main Square have ranged over the years from being a place for happy weddings to public executions for entertainment purposes.

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Next, we saw the Black Church:

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Which isn’t actually black. The church earned this nickname after a fire started here that spread and killed 1/3 of Brasov’s population in 1689.

The aftermath of this catastrophe led to the construction of Strada Sforii (Rope Street), which is one of the narrowest streets in Europe:

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It was constructed right through a series of buildings so that, in case there was another great fire in the City Center, firefighters could get there faster. Supposedly, the street is just wide enough for one person to go through at a time with 2 buckets of water.

We also saw Catherine’s Gate, the only remaining city gate from medieval times:

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I was a bit surprised at the state of the entrance gate- it looks like Disney’s newest castle rather than an ancient Romanian outer wall.

Fun fact- A tower with a center point that is surrounded by 4 smaller points held symbolic meaning and served as a warning to visitors- any wrong-doing would be punishable by death.

After I learned this fact, I began to see this type tower everywhere. No worries though. Romania got rid of its death penalty (the last execution was Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife in 1989- see my last Romanian post for more information).

Also worth mentioning and visiting is the St. Nicholas Church:

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It’s more toward the edge of the City Center and lacks the dark history of the Black Church. Beside St. Nicholas Church is also Romania’s first schoolhouse, in which the smartest boys from all over the country was sent to.

On our last morning in Brasov, Bethany and I took a hike up the town’s mountain to get a bird’s eye view of Brasov and the surrounding areas. In case you haven’t noticed in my previous pictures, Brasov also has its own version of the Hollywood sign:

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We hiked to just over the top of the sign

It took roughly an hour to get to the top. While the climb itself isn’t too difficult (there’s A LOT of zigzags to prevent too steep of a climb), you still need to exercise a lot of caution as the paths are narrow at points and- since it rains a lot here- are slick with mud. Please do not try this hike in flip flops.

Note- if you do not want to climb, but still want to get to the top, there is a cable car you can take up and down. We did not because we wanted the exercise (plus, it was apparently not in operation when we went).

All I can say about the view at the top is, “wow…”

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Talk about a view.

You could see everything. And just to the left of you is an amazing view of the mountain range:

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Let’s just say that if there’s one thing you must do in Brasov, it’s to get to the top of this mountain.

What to Eat

Before I end this post, let’s talk food. Romania has a lot of amazing traditional dishes that are definitely worth trying such as…

The bean and ham soup served in bread bowls.

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Courtesy of Ursul Carpatin in Brasov

No, scratch that- bread towers filled with a bean and ham soup. The dough acts like a sponge and absorbs most of the soup. Essentially, you’re eating the world’s best soggy bread. Normally I pride myself on my ability to lick my plate clean. I did not have the stomach capacity to do that in this case.

There’s also papanasi:

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Courtesy of Ursul Carpatin in Brasov

This famous Romanian cheese doughnut is practically a must if in Romania. During our Bucharest walking tour, we were told to order this dessert when placing our main meal orders at the very start of dinner. Apparently this dessert takes about an hour to bake and prepare. Unfortunately for us, our papanasi was not served until the 2-hour mark… It was an awesome dessert, but I don’t think I’d get it again due to the wait time.

Also worth getting is Romania’s polenta dish, which is made with cream, goat cheese, and usually some type of meat:

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Courtesy of La Piazzetta in Sighisoara

Of course, I got this comfort dish on a hot afternoon. Not the best decision, but still very delicious.

And finally, you must try covrigi, which is essentially a pretzel. This is served everywhere is Romania and is super cheap; only 1 lei, which is the equivalent to $0.24.

Instead of salt, the pretzel is topped with toasted sesame seeds. Good way to cut down on your sodium intake.

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And with that, I conclude my trip to Romania! A special thanks to Bethany for allowing me to come along with her and discover this beautiful and underrated country. Romania has my stamp of approval.

Roaming Romania- Part 1

In many countries throughout Europe, May 8th- generally known as V-E day- is celebrated as the official ending of WWII and surrender of Nazi Germany. In the Czech Republic, all schools and many shops close for the day. My school was generous and also gave the following 2 days off. Hello 6-day weekend!

So, where to go for such a long break? I actually wasn’t sure at first. I wanted some place new and interesting, but not too expensive and touristy. Luckily, my friend Bethany allowed me to tag along on her plans to travel through Romania. As I had not been to Eastern Europe yet, this certainly fit my desire for a new atmosphere (plus, Eastern Europe is less touristy and a lot cheaper than Western Europe!)

To be honest though, Romania was never on my bucket list of places to visit in Europe. Like many people, my perception of Romania was limited to Transylvania (and the Romanian song, Panama, which was a big hit when I lived in Thailand…).

Such a shame, really, as the country offers a lot more than the origins of a vampire legend.

For this trip, Bethany and I stayed in Bucharest (Romania’s capital) and Brasov. We also took day trips to Bran’s Castle (AKA- Dracula’s Castle) and Sighisoara. To prevent any readers from information overload, I’ve divided my Romanian trip into 2 separate posts. This one will cover Bucharest and the next will talk about Brasov and the daytrips from Brasov.

Bucharest

To get to Bucharest from Prague, Bethany and I had to take a flight from Prague to Vienna (the shortest flight of my life) and then another from Vienna to Bucharest. And so, our first day was dedicated mostly to airports and finding our way to our Airbnb. By the time we checked into our place (there was a little delay in the check-in process due to incomplete/unclear instructions), most restaurants in our area were closed for the night. Instead, we ‘dined’ on apples and protein bars from a 24/7 convenient store while watching My 600lb Life on TLC (who knew they aired this channel all the way from the US?!).

The next day, we were up early for a proper meal and headed to Grand Café Van Gogh for breakfast.

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This café did not fail in delivering. As we were some of the first in the café, we got to pick prime seats that gave us a view of upside down umbrellas, pretty archways, a moss wall, and replicas of Van Gogh’s greatest works (I finally found the Starry Night that was missing in Amsterdam!).

As we gobbled through our goat cheese omelets and cappuccinos, I kept anxiously looking up the weather on my phone to predict how happy I would be during our Free Walking Tour that day. Let’s just say that the weather channel had been predicting some very dismal “Transylvanian” weather for our whole trip. Luckily as we sat there, the weather during our tour kept updating to no rain until further and further in the day! No rain = happy Deanna.

The Free Walking Tour started at Piata Unirii Park, where we heard the history of the Bilevardul Unirill and the Palace of Parliament. The story about these places was quite interesting, so I’ll provide a brief recap:

In 1977, an earthquake partially destroyed the avenue. The communist president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu, used this natural disaster as a way to integrate his building style preference during reconstruction (he was inspired by the architecture he had seen during his visit to China and North Korea). In addition to taking on a more “block-like” appearance, Ceausescu was determined that his boulevard be longer than Paris’s Champs-Élysées.

At the end of the street would be his Palace of Parliament, which he wanted as the largest administrative building in the world (it’s currently the second largest office building, the first being the Pentagon). His Parliament building would include a nice balcony where he could address his gathered people from.

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The Palace of Parliament

Apparently though, the earthquake did not cause enough destruction and Ceausescu had many more buildings, churches, and neighborhoods completely demolished to make way for his dream. One Orthodox church was kept, only after church officials were made to swear that they would not speak out again Ceausescu’s regime.

As fate would have it though, Ceausescu never lived long enough to see his vision complete. At the short- yet terribly bloody- Romanian Revolution in December 1989, Ceausescu and his wife were captured and put on trial for the deaths of 60,000 people. They were found guilty and immediately executed moments later by gunfire on national television. This all occurred on December 25th. Merry Christmas to all…

To this day, the Palace of Parliament is still not complete and the Orthodox Church is having the last laugh- currently, a new church is being constructed right next to the palace that will be just taller than it. And that balcony in which Ceausescu would carry out his speeches? It was finally used in 1992 by Michael Jackson during his world tour. Jackson started his speech with “Hello Budapest…” (The people of Bucharest were not impressed, but that’s another story).

Next on the Walking Tour, we stopped by Manuc’s Inn- the oldest hotel in Bucharest (built in 1808). Throughout the years, the Inn has partially served as a restaurant, theater, office space, bar, and shopping center, as well as meeting place for peace talks during war.

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The food at the restaurant is a bit pricey, but it’s still worth poking your head inside to see the pretty courtyard.

And speaking of pretty courtyards, one should definitely visit the Manastirea Stavropoleos Church to stroll around its courtyard garden and check out the church’s unique design. Just keep your voice down as the church still serves as a nunnery…

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Next, we took a walk through the French-inspired Vilacrosse and Macca Passages.

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You’ll know you’re at the Vilacrosse and Macca Passages as the tinted sky windows bathe everything in ‘sunlight.’

The people of Bucharest were a bit obsessed with the French way of life. So much so that the city is sometimes referred to as Little Paris.

In fact, Bucharest’s famous Victory Avenue (Calea Victoriei) was even likened to Champs Elysees and people would dress in their best in the avenue to mimic the people of Paris (this is before Ceausescu came along and wanted to outperform the Champs Elysees with his own boulevard).

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C.E.C Palace on Victory Avenue

Another place worth checking out is the National Bank of Romania for its bizarre history (you can just view the building from the outside).

In 1959, the Ioanid Gang- consisting of 5 Jewish Romanians (and former members of the Romanian Communist Party) -robbed the National Bank of 1.6 million lei (about $1 million) in broad daylight.

Why?

Not for the riches (the Lei was useless outside of Romania), but to prove that the Communist government (which they had once felt so protected by) was flawed and not working for the good of its people.

The country was in a state of shock. Bank robberies were not supposed to happen in a utopia were everyone is equal. Especially by some of the Communist party’s most early members.

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Romania’s National Bank

Two months after the robbery, the Ioanid gang was captured and sentenced to death (the 1 female in the group was spared as she had a child). As a twisted form of punishment though, the robbers were forced to reenact their own role in the robbery on film before their deaths.

The government released the movie under the title, Reconstituirea to promote the idea that Jews were the enemy. It was pure propaganda. In the movie, the robbers/actors were forced to act as if they had luxuriously spent the money they had stolen (in reality, this had not been the case).

Several documentaries were released in 2002 and 2004 that examines the original robbery and forced re-enactment, as well as the political climate and discontent before, during, and after 1959. Not into documentaries? The 2014 movie, Closer to the Moon, tells the whole story of the heist and the aftermath. You can view a trailer here. It’s definitely on my “to-watch” list this summer.

Ok, enough history lessons about Bucharest. However, I totally recommend taking the Bucharest Free Walking Tour if you visit (or any Free Walking Tour in any city- you learn so much!)

To lighten the mood after such an intense history lesson, Bethany and I headed to… a bookstore and pizza place.

I know, I know- “Wow, Deanna. Thanks for sharing this essential information.”

BUT, the Carturesti Carusel is no ordinary bookstore.

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With spiraling staircases to take you to different levels and a café at the top, you could easily spend a whole afternoon in this bookworm’s dream.

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And we did not stop at Pizza Colosseum merely for their pizza (which, by the way was delicious). Nope. We went most importantly for the beautiful alleyway of suspended umbrellas. Prefect photo opportunity.

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And with that, we were finished with Bucharest! Many people will tell you that Bucharest is worth skipping, but I thought that the city was worth at least a full day in. The rich history and some umbrellas and books definitely made my time in Bucharest fun. Add in some of the other sights that we didn’t have time for- the thermal pools and abandoned buildings tour, for example- and I think you can make at least a weekend out of Bucharest.

Next blog post- Brasov and beyond!

Brno- the Alternative Czech City

The capital of Moravia and the second largest city in the Czech Republic, Brno is Prague’s “hipster little brother.” And, thanks to the universities in Brno, the city is well-stocked with college kids, an abundance of eateries, and alternative ways to have fun. The one thing that’s missing? An overwhelming number of tourists.

Recently, my blog posts have been about day/overnight trips you can take from Prague- a visit to Dresden, Bohemian Paradise, and Bratislava to name a few. You can now add Brno to that list.

So, how to spend a day in Brno? Read on, my friends.

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Using public transportation, Brno takes about 2½ hours to get to by bus or train from Prague. Fortunately, both routes can drop you off right in the City Center. And, since Brno’s center is pretty small (despite being the 2nd largest city in the Czech Republic) there’s little reason to take any form of transportation after arriving. Instead, Bethany and I were easily able to walk everywhere.

As usual, the first thing I look for after arriving in a new place is somewhere to grab some coffee and food. I can recommend Café Placzek as a cute breakfast place to go to. Bonus points for being close to the train and bus station.

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Grab a table upstairs to spy on your downstairs neighbors and see what’s good to order

Next, we went to the Zelný Trh (the Vegetable Market). This market runs every day and caters mostly to the locals.

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It’s still nice to check out though for its authenticity and possible pick-me-up snack. There’s also an underground labyrinth beneath this market that you can scout through (we didn’t because of time constraints).

We then went around the corner to Old Town Hall to climb the city tower. The view up top was a nice way to orient yourself, but in my opinion, there are better viewpoints (that are free) throughout Brno. More on that later.

Close by was also the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul. This is Brno’s most iconic image and while pretty up close, is best photographed at a distance:

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A view of St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral from the Špilberk Castle complex

Next, we decided to do something a bit more quirky- explore an old WWII/Cold War underground bunker.

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Originally, this bunker served as an air-raid shelter against US and Soviet bombs during WWII. After the war, the bunker housed a winery for a brief period of time until the whole complex was seized by Communists in 1948. From here, the bunker was given the code name ‘Kryt 10-Z’ and made into a top secret nuclear shelter.

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Upon its completion, the shelter was meant to protect up to 500 people (important city officials) for 3 days.

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They even put in an execution room!

Fortunately, Kryt 10-Z never served its original purpose. In 2016, the shelter became open to the public as a historical exhibition.

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Fun fact- Part of the shelter was also turned into a hostel. If you’re staying in Brno for the night, consider sleeping in an underground bunker!

Since Bethany and I were not staying overnight, we just took a self-guided tour down the eerie hallways and played with some gas masks and old machinery.

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After emerging from the gloomy tunnels, we decided to get some fresh air and hike up to high ground. This was pretty easy to do as the hill to the Špilberk Castle literally sits on top of Kryt 10-Z.

Now, if you want some nice free views of Brno from above, the Špilberk Castle is the place to go.

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Once you’ve had your fill of the views, you can then turn around to do some castle sightseeing.

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Constructed during the 13th century, Špilberk Castle has quite the history. Throughout the centuries, the building has gone from being a royal residential castle –> military fortress –> prison/dungeon –> interrogation and holding facility during the Nazi occupation –> barracks –> a museum and national heritage monument.

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To learn more about Špilberk’s history, click here.

Next, we headed to the main squares to see more popular sights in Brno. This included the knight on the horse with abnormally long legs at Moravské Náměstí:

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And the statue of the man in front of the Justice building:

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Instead of “justice being blind,” justice is depicted as heavy and a thing people must struggle to uphold.

And, of course, Brno’s astronomical clock at Náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square).

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Perhaps less visually pleasing than Prague’s astronomical clock, this clock is unique in several ways.

1) The design- it’s intended to resemble a black bullet, but well… other things may come to mind…

2) The “prize”- At 11am daily, the clock releases a glass marble from one of its 4 holes. People actually gather around the clock every day to stick their hands in the holes and try to win a free souvenir from Brno.

3) The way to tell time- The upper stone pieces are constantly in rotation to relay the time. While there is a manual next to the clock to help gazers read the time, I still couldn’t figure out it out.

4) The history- In 1645, Brno was placed under siege by the invading Swedish army. On the 112th day, Swedish General Torstenson vowed that his army would give up if they did not conquer the city by noon. The leaders of Brno came up with a trick to get the Swedish army out sooner- they rang the city church bells to signify noon at 11am. The trick worked and the Swedish army gave up and left Brno. The clock therefore serves as a monument and drops the glass marble at 11am to signify the “Brno Noon.”

Another popular sight to check out in Brno is the Villa Tugendhat.

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Villa Tugendhat was one of the first buildings of modern architecture in Europe (construction of the house began in 1929). The house was commissioned by the Tugendhats, a German Jewish couple. The Tugendhats only lived in the villa for 8 years before fleeing to Switzerland escape Hitler’s regime. Through the next few decades, the villa passed from Nazi to Soviet hands before then becoming a building used for various purposes.

Ms. Tugendhat returned to the villa in 1967 to restore the house to its original form. In August 1992, the political leaders of Czechoslovakia met at the villa to sign the document that peacefully dissolved the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The villa became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. The house is now open to the public. You can also take a tour inside the villa, but you need to book in advance.

At this point of the day, Bethany and I were running short on time and instead of going to the property, we just viewed it from the back yard of another building.

The last sight of the day was back toward the center of Brno- the Capuchin Crypt. This crypt consists of 153 Capuchin friars and 52 benefactors that were buried from 1656-1784. All bodies were unintentionally mummified naturally.

Upon entering the first room, you are greeted by this chilling Latin phrase:

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Tu fui, Ego eris

Translation- “I was you, you will be me.”

Great parting thoughts and sights for the day…

Fortunately, Bethany and I had time for dinner at a place called 4Pokoje. This place gave off warmer vibes:

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Láska

Translation- “Love”

And I felt that ‘love’ in every bite of my hummus-eggplant-egg stack.

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And with that, we concluded our trip to Brno.

The only site that we did not get to was an ossuary underneath the Church of St. James (apparently, all the cool things in Brno are underground). But hey- seeing mummies and an eerie bunker was enough alternative fun for one day.

Dresden for the Day

This year, I received a surprise for Easter – a spontaneous visit from my mom! It was exciting to see my mom after 8 months and great to play ‘tour guide’ by showing her around Prague. She even came with me to school one day to watch me teach! The whole trip was a pretty surreal experience.

Since this visit was planned last second, touring Prague and then flying off to a second country was clearly not in the budget.

But hey- why fly somewhere and have to go through airport security when you can bus to a whole new country in under 2 hours for a fraction of the cost? The perks of living in a small country…

So where did we go?

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Hallo, Germany.

Dresden, Germany to be exact.

Located at the Eastern boarder of Germany, Dresden is the capital city of Saxony. A perfect day trip from Prague. Unfortunately, Dresden does have a sad history.

On February 13 1945, Dresden was bombed by the Allied Forces. Americans then continued air raids for the next two days, completely destroying the Old Town city center and killing tens of thousands of people. With the end of WW2 in sight, the Dresden bombing is still a topic of controversy and sheds light on the tragedy of civilian causalities.

After the war, Dresden was left in a poor state for many years. However, the city recently underwent construction to build itself back up to its formal glory. Interestingly, this means that “Old Town” (Altstadt) is actually newer than “New Town” (Neustadt).

I had heard and read mixed reviews about Dresden- some people are fascinated by the city’s history and ability to bounce back after such a terrible past. Its Christmas market has also gained fame throughout Europe. However, others have said that the city feels “fake” and its new buildings are too showy. Either way, I wanted to go to see what the city had to offer.

My mom and I left Prague early Saturday morning (the day before Easter). As I said, the bus drive was relatively short and we arrived in Dresden in under 2 hours. The bus station is located at the edge of the city and we were required to walk straight through a bunch of shopping outlets, cafés, and outdoor seating to get where we needed to go.

Seriously, a whole day could be spent just going through all the shops. Everything was built very futuristically and I immediately understood what people meant about Dresden’s attempts to “go big” to attract tourists.

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However, please don’t read my words as criticism. I actually loved this twist to the city as it set a significant contrast to Old Town. Plus, the atmosphere here was so relaxed and friendly- as opposed to the tense and pushy atmosphere that often results from tourists wanting to take the “perfect photo” in Old Town.

It was quite apparent when we reached Old Town; all of a sudden, we were surrounded by magnificent structures constructed after the baroque fashion.

First, we went to the Zwinger Palace.

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This was my favorite place in Old Town. It is enclosed by the Semper Gallery and has a huge courtyard to walk around in and admire the architecture, statues and fountains.

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You can climb the stairs to walk along the perimeter wall and pass under the Kronentor.

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The Golden Crown (Kronentor) is easy to spot and served to remind the people of Dresden of who was in charge

Also in Old Town, we saw…

The Semperoper Opera House:

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The Grünes Gewölbe (the Green Vault) and Dresden Castle:

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The Albertinum Museum:

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Fürstenzug (The Procession of Princes):

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This large porcelain tile mural shows past rulers of Saxony. Fortunately, it withstood the WWII air raids with only minimal damage.

And, of course, the Frauenkirche church:

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Dome-shaped and towering above all the surrounding buildings, the Frauenkirche church is the most iconic landmark and image in Dresden. The inside is free to go in (no photos allowed though) and you can take a seat right in a pew to gaze at the pink pastel dome above you. You can also climb to the top of the dome, but this costs money to do, so we skipped it.

As much as I appreciate and admire Dresden’s efforts to restore its city center, I do have to say that I felt a little overwhelmed with the amount of grandeur in such a small space. Quite honestly, all the buildings began to appear the same and, thanks to the tour groups, I found myself wanting to get out of the area.

Fortunately, the last place we went to in Old Town- Brühl’s Terrace- offered a break from all the formality. Why?

One word-

Bubbles.

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Two street performers were playing music and had buckets of liquid soap laid out before the Academy of Fine Arts building. They would wave huge rope wands to make a display of bubbles. It was fun to watch all the kids (and some adults) run after and try to pop the super-sized bubbles.

Maybe it’s the little kid in me coming out or maybe it’s just a symptom of being a teacher, but this was probably one of my favorite parts of the day.

Turning away from the bubble fun, you also get a nice view of the Elbe river.

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The bridge you see is for foot traffic and connects Old Town (Altstadt) and New Town (Neustadt).

Crossing the bridge, we then entered into New Town. New Town has a very different feel to it then Old Town- they might as well be 2 different cities. The people are even different in New Town; since most tour groups focus on Old Town, many don’t even cross the bridge into New Town. And so, the people you’re more likely to come upon are Dresden locals.

Everything in this side of town felt more “real” and less for show. Instead of appeasing you, the art is more likely to make you do a double-take and unsettle you:

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I apologize to the Superman fans out there

Our first order of business in New Town was to find some food to eat. Fortunately, this part of the city contains a large number of restaurants and hipster cafés. We tried to find a more traditional German meal and settled for some sausages in broth, pretzels, and something that somewhat resembled chicken pot-pie.

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After, we did some walking to reach the artsy Kunsthofpassage. Kunsthofpassage is made up of a series of interlocking courtyards with small shops and cafés throughout. Each courtyard has a specific design and theme to it.

The first one we came across was “The Courtyard of the Mythical Creature”:

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Followed by “The Courtyard of the Light”:

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Depending on the time of day, the metal mirrors can cast an array of reflections all over the courtyard.

Opposite “The Courtyard of Light” is the most popular wall to photograph- “The Courtyard of Elements”:

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When it rains, water is collected in the funnels and creates a musical noise as it moves down the pipes. Essential, this wall transforms into a musical instrument during a rainstorm.

My favorite courtyard, however, was “The Courtyard of the Animals”:

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Partly because green is my favorite color and partly because the café in this courtyard has amazing peanut butter milkshakes.

There was one more courtyard in the complex- “The Courtyard of Metamorphosis.” Unfortunately, the design of this courtyard was so subtle that I mistook it for a regular space.

After our mini art show, we decided to head back toward the bus station. This required us to leave the old “New Town,” cross through the new “Old Town” and enter the futuristic shopping center again (hope that’s not too confusing to understand). With the remaining time, we then shopped at Primark, which has quickly become my favorite clothes store in Europe.

As I mentioned before, people either seem to love Dresden or think nothing of it. Fortunately, the city is divided into 2 sections- historically and literally. Add in the futuristic section of town and I bet everyone can find something fun to do in Dresden for a day.

Personally, I preferred the New Town over Old Town. You’ll have to visit yourself to decide what you like better 😉

A Hike in Bohemian Paradise

The first time I heard Bohemian and Czech Republic paired together, I was slightly confused. Was I going to live in a country filled with hippy clothes and unconventional lifestyles? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

Alas, no.

Bohemia is actually the name of the historical Western region of the Czech Republic:

 

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No connection to Boho clothing here

It encompasses Prague, as well as all the surrounding cities and villages.

Located Northwest of Prague, Bohemian Paradise (Český ráj) is also within Bohemia (obviously) and happens to be the oldest protected nature reserve in the Czech Republic. Stretching out about 70 square miles, the landscape is composed of limestone rock formations, picturesque fields, shady forests, and medieval castles.

Fortunately, CIEE recently organized a hike and guided tour through Bohemian Paradise for their Study Abroad students. As there were still spots open for the trip, CIEE extended the invitation to the Teach Abroad participants! My friend, Bethany, and I decided to join in. The hike would begin at the outskirts of the city of Turnov. From there, we would hike about 13 kilometers to the small town of Hrubá Skála.

We left Prague in a minivan on Saturday morning. The ride itself only took about 1.5 hours. After distributing water, snacks, and sandwiches (CIEE does not skimp out on the amount of food they provide), we departed from Turnov and began an immediate upward climb. At the top of hill was the Valdštejn Castle.

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Complete with a mini “Charles Bridge,” Valdštejn is considered the oldest castle in the Bohemian Paradise (construction began around 1260).

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Entrance to Valdštejn

As the castle is perched on a hillside, you can see far into the surrounding fields and forests. You could also just make out the two towers of the Trosky Castle (the end goal of our hike). Yup, we had a long way to go.

After pretending to be the queens of the castle, we cut through a forest to reach our next viewpoint. Along the way, we went on a “scavenger hunt” to find old rock carvings:

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Back in the day, apparently a lot of people were bored with living in the wilderness. To pass time, these “Children of the Forest” would go to make carvings in the limestone rocks.

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And to think that I can’t even make a basic person out of soft clay…

We then continued to the next viewpoint. This was probably my favorite part of the hike- the limestone rock formations.

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After seeing so many formations in Thailand, I have developed a soft spot for viewing these huge jutting rocks.

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Where’s the Avatars at?

At this point, it was lunch time and we stopped for some soup at a rest stop (perfect, because it was a slightly chilly day).

We then switched up the landscape and began hiking through fields and a forest with a lot of naked trunks.

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This part of the hike was very easy-going as it was mostly flat. Plus, the chilly weather worked in our favor and we essentially had the trail to ourselves.

Eventually though, the trail sloped uphill again and I was huffing and puffing by the time we reached Kopic farm. Here, we walked through a small village and enjoyed the company of a bunch sheep and goats that followed us (looking for food).

And finally, we were in Hrubá Skála and at Trosky Castle!

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This castle consisted of two towers: The lower tower is known as “Baba” (the old woman) and the taller is referred to as “Panna” (the young virgin).

Story has it, the castle was once ruled by the Lord of Berg. This Lord had to leave on a mission and left his mother (Baba) and his daughter (Panna) in charge. However, the two were constantly arguing about how to rule and scheming against each other.

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Panna Tower, viewed from the Baba tower. To help with perspective, those red and yellow dots are people…

Each eventually took a castle tower to reside in. Meanwhile, the castle itself fell into ruins and its people deserted. The castle towers are named after the bickering women.

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Bethany and I with Baba in the background

The view from both towers was quite spectacular and deserving of the long climb.

After, we went back to the base of the hill (on putty legs, mind you) and went to the nearest restaurant for drinks. From there, our van picked us up to go back to Prague.

While I did not spot any people sporting the Boho lifestyle on our trip, Bohemian Paradise proved to be tranquil region to explore. With its nature and history, it’s worth at least a day trip from Prague.

Springtime Travels- Bratislava

Springtime in the Czech Republic gives a whole new meaning to the associative terms “new life” and “great awakening.”

After months of overcast skies, the sun is finally poking through the clouds to bathe Prague in light and warmth. It’s like the whole city has come out of a deep hibernation and people can once again be seen at weekend events, strolling along the river, and sipping coffee outside of cafés.

Inspired, I have gone back to wandering about Prague and planning some trips within the Czech Republic and surrounding countries (as opposed to flying to Western Europe to find some sun). I spent one of the first springtime weekends in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Slovakia has been on my agenda to visit for a while. Unfortunately, its close proximity to Prague had me push off going because “I can go any weekend” and “It’s just too cold now.” However, thanks to the sudden increase in sun (and plane ticket costs), Bratislava became the perfect overnight trip.

A little background information… Czechoslovakia was formed at the end of WWI in October 1918 after declaring its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The country remained as one throughout all of WWII and the rise and fall of communism. In 1993, Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Obviously, the two countries have a lot of shared history, as well as culture and language. Even with the limited Czech I know, I was able to recognize some words in Slovak (my Slovak ancestors would be proud).

To get to and from Bratislava, Cristina (a coworker from Spain) and I took a 3-hour train ride. Since we have off from school on Mondays, we actually left for Slovakia on Sunday and came home the following day. This meant that I would see the city be “touristy” on Sunday and more “low-key” on Monday. But surprisingly, there wasn’t too much of a difference between the weekend and weekday foot traffic; compared to Prague and most European cities, Bratislava simply doesn’t get as many outside visitors.

This may partially be due to the city’s small size; the city center is only a 15-20-minute walk from the train station. Really, I consider Bratislava more of a town than city. And since the city/town is relatively small, most attractions can be seen within 2 days of walking around.

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The “busy” city center

For those considering a visit to Central Europe, please do not let this deter you from traveling to Bratislava. In fact, I encourage you to take advantage of this less touristy destination to stroll the streets and soak in the beautiful sights. With everything in close proximity, a trip to Bratislava can easily be a relaxing one!

Since it was right next to the train station, the first place Cristina and I went to was Hotel Galeria. And no, this hotel was not our accommodation for the night. We walked around the place simply because it was a cool mess to look at:

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We then headed to our real hostel (the Patio Hostel) to drop off our stuff. Along the way, we stumbled upon a pub, park, street, and bus stop all containing my surname. While I had known that my grandfather’s family was Slovak, I didn’t realize that ‘Kollar’ was such a popular name in Slovakia.

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I even found it in graffiti!

Next, we went for a late lunch at “Slovak Pub.” This place was recommended on an episode of the Honest Guide as having good, traditional Slovak food. And it did not disappoint. I had halušky (potato dumplings in goat cheese, topped with bacon) and I swear, it was the most delicious thing I’ve tasted since moving to Europe (sorry, pizza from Italy).

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The ultimate comfort food- might need to make another trip to Slovakia just for this.

After eating an indecent amount of cheese (we had also gotten a cheese board on the side), I felt/needed to walk around for a while.

As I mentioned, many of the main sights in Bratislava are located within the small city center. This meant that we knocked almost everything out within a few hours.

We stopped at the Presidential Palace:

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And then passed under Michael’s Gate:

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Michael’s Gate is the last remaining city gate and was constructed during medieval times. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Bratislava.

Next, we saw Primate’s Palace- a pretty pale pink and golden building:

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And of course, we stopped to take a picture of this guy:

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Čumil

While Bratislava has interesting sculptures scattered throughout, Čumil is the most iconic. The statue could be a potential cause of excessive tripping, if not for the people around taking photos. Whether this is a man taking a well-deserved break from the sewers, or a Peeping Tom looking for cheap thrills is up for debate.

Cristina and I then climbed up a steep incline to get to the Bratislava Castle. The view going up the hill was nice (making it a good excuse to stop and catch your breath); you got to see all of Old Town and across the Danube River.

The Bratislava Castle did not fit my mental image of what castles were supposed to look like (perhaps I have passed Prague Castle and Vyšehrad one to many times). Instead of a medieval feel, the castle had more of a new aged palace look to it (nothing wrong with that):

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Next, we went to Bratislava’s UFO. This tower is located right on the bridge that connects the two sides of Bratislava.

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You can take an elevator ride up the tower to get a high 360 view of the city and grab drinks at the restaurant.

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Locks of Love from Bratislava

At this point, Cristina and I were pretty tired from waking up early for our train and spending the day walking around. Later that night though, we went to Regal Rooftop, a burger place with a rooftop view. Again, this place was recommended by the Honest Guide and I was happy that we went; we had the whole roof to ourselves (it was a Sunday night) and got to spread out in a bed of cushions and blankets. The perfect end to a busy day.

The next morning, we only had two destinations in mind: breakfast and St. Elizabeth’s Church. Since the weather was supposed to get bad later, we first walked over to St. Elizabeth’s. This church is also known as “The Blue Church” for obvious reasons:

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I loved the soft color and edges to this church. It reminded me of a decorated gingerbread house.

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And the inside was just as pretty

We then went to Pán Cakes (a play on words- ‘Pán’ translates to ‘Mister’) for breakfast and got the typical European take on pancakes (aka crepes).

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Another Honest Guide recommendation

Since our train was scheduled to leave at noon, we had an awkward amount of time left in Bratislava. There were still a couple sights I wanted to see, but since they were outside the city center, we wouldn’t be able to get to them in time. Instead, we went to a café and spent the remainder of our time sipping down another set of cappuccinos.

As I’ve said, Bratislava makes for the ultimate a lazy-weekend, halušky-indulging, sight-seeing get-away. It was the perfect way to welcome the start of Spring.