Hungary for Adventure

Day 1: St. Stephen’s Basilica. Invisible Exhibition. Chain Bridge. Shoes on the Danube. Parliament Building. Dinner at Budapest Bisztro.

My first day in Budapest was my busiest by far! I started my sightseeing by going to one of the most famous attractions in the city: St. Stephen’s Basilica. For a 1 Euro donation, you can head into the cathedral and take in all the beautiful architecture and stained glass windows. Basically every big European city has a must-see cathedral and I try to go and see them all. I found this cafe called “California Coffee Company” after leaving the Basilica and had to try it out. I wondered what Hungarians thought Californian coffee should taste like. My latte was delicious but my bagel left something to be desired. The barista toasted it with the cream cheese already on the bagel, and its consistency just didn’t measure up to NJ bagels.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

The Invisible Exhibition was actually one of the only things I planned in advance for my trip, and I’m so glad I reserved myself a spot. The exhibit takes place in a number of totally dark rooms, and a blind tour guide takes you through them. You get to experience what it would be like to be blind, and you have to put all your trust into your guide. My group and I felt our way through an apartment, busy intersection at rush hour, log cabin, a park (with a bridge!), and finally a bar where our guide made espresso in the dark. It was very impressive. The tour was like nothing I’ve ever done before, except for maybe the Touch Tunnel at Liberty Science Center, but even then I was too chicken to actually finish the tunnel. I was hoping we might get to see the rooms after with the lights on, out of sheer curiosity, but I realized that would be against the point. The experience really impresses upon you what it’s like to be visually impaired, and makes you appreciate your sight. Our tour guide, Julia, was so kind and ready and willing to answer any questions we had.

Before grabbing dinner, I took advantage of “Golden Hour,” right before the sun set upon the Danube River, to visit Hungary’s Parliament Building and see the Shoes on the Danube. The shoes are hard metal and attached to the cement on the edge of the river, and are meant to honor the Hungarian Jews who were marched down to the Danube and shot by fascist militiamen during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot point-blank at the edge so that they’d fall right into the river and be swept away by the current. The single pair of baby’s shoes in the sea of women’s high heels and men’s loafers will be with me forever.

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Views of the Hungarian Parliament Building
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Shoes on the Danube Bank

Day 2: The Goat Herder Espresso Bar. Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Pozsonyi Kisvendéglo for a late lunch. Budapest Jazz Club.

Why aren’t thermal baths a tradition back in the USA? Because let me tell you, they are one of mankind’s greatest achievements. This day was probably the most relaxing one I spent in Budapest: I stewed in mineral-rich waters for an hour and even treated myself to an aroma-therapy massage. I went to the baths on Wednesday at around 12 noon, and the best part of the experience was just people-watching. There was a young Russian man in my pool teaching his daughter how to swim, some overly touchy-feely couples, and a lot of retirees who chatted into the late afternoon. (Heads up: You’ll be hit with an overwhelming eggy smell the further into the bathing complex you go. Some baths contain more sulfur than others, but apparently, the healing benefits are unparalleled).

Since I decided to visit one of the city’s most famous Roman baths, the architecture followed suit. There were huge white pillars supporting the inner structure and carvings hidden in the walls. As you can see from the picture below, it’s kind of hard to believe there’s an entire spa inside. It looks like a museum from the outside! I enjoyed both the indoor and outdoor baths, and since it was a whopping 7 degrees Celsius, there was tons of eerie steam rising from the water. On my way to my massage appointment, I got totally lost in the sea of locker rooms and shower stations, but relaxed as soon as I was on the table and breathing in lavender essential oils. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the sanitarium from A Cure for Wellness as I tried navigating through the maze-like rooms. The changing cabins were like something out of the 19th century, and everything in the bathhouse was a startlingly bright white. But a visit to the thermal baths is something you must try during your time in Budapest, and Széchenyi is one of the highest-rated spas in the city.

After heading back to my AirBnB to unwind and shower, I met up with my two Prague friends, Alex and Dan, to see a live jazz show and go (unintentionally) bar-hopping. I told myself I’d head back after one beer, but three bars later, we were having the time of our lives. They were so kind and walked me home safely after the night was over.

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Outside view of the thermal baths

 

Day 3: WARMCUP Cafe. Vintage shopping on Don Utca. Blitz Koyha Cafe. Dinner at Belvárosi Disznótoros.

Since I was a tad hungover from the night before, my day started later than I expected. I changed out of my pajamas and into jeans, then went right back to bed for another two hours (whoops!) before finally heading out for coffee and a croissant. Vintage shopping is one of my favorite hobbies, and on Dob Utca (which means ‘street’ in Hungarian) there are TONS of cute little stores. My favorites had to be LudovikaPOSTR Store, and JUDAS. But I had a great time exploring Retrock and Szputnyik as well. I found an adorable Levi’s black denim skirt and a pair of paisley-print Vans…they’ll go nicely with the vintage jean jacket I bought back in Vienna.

I took a break from all my shopping to enjoy a latte at Blitz Koyha Cafe and then met my friends at a delicious grab-and-go Hungarian restaurant. I had seasoned pork with baked potato chips and rice. All I could think of while eating the chips was how similar they were to the ones served at Traditions, a restaurant at TCNJ of all places. It’s amazing how the smallest of things can bring you back to a certain time in your life.

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Sculpture on Dob Utca

 

Day 4: Jewish Synagogue. Margaret Island.

The weather during my last two days in Budapest was just perfect, and I used it as an excuse to get outside and visit Margaret Island. The piece of land is in the middle of the Danube Island and easy to access via the city’s buses. I can’t imagine how beautiful it must be during the summer, but I had a nice time strolling around regardless. I didn’t stay for as long as I intended, because there wasn’t much to do, but I did end up finding one of island’s famed ruins (pictured below).

I also got to see the Jewish Synagogue from the comfort of a cafe across the street, where I enjoyed an iced latte. And believe it or not, I loved the place I went to dinner the night before so much that I went back for lunch! I ordered the same meal of course. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? All in all, it was a great finale to my time in Budapest.

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The ruins at Margaret Island
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Fast Times in Slovakia

Catch me if you can! I just spent a whirlwind 24 hours in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia (which, yes, is a completely different country from the Czech Republic). The two countries split just two years before I was born, back in 1993, and contain a few similarities and some noticeable differences as well. For starters, the Czech Republic still uses the koruna as its currency, not switching over to the Euro like Slovakia did. And the Czech and Slovak languages are slightly different from each other. Luckily, they are similar enough that I could still read and understand the signs in Bratislava. The architecture in Bratislava resembles that of Prague, but the city is much smaller in comparison. I found that I only needed a day to see all the major sites.

Right before I left for Bratislava, I had finished the Holocaust-era novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It’s the true story of the camp’s tattooer Lale Eisenberg, who is taken from his home city of Bratislava, and forced to register as Jewish in Prague before being taken to Poland. I couldn’t help but feel a connection to this man, and made sure to visit Bratislava’s Holocaust Memorial.

Eastern Europe has a tradition of laying a golden brick in front of residences where Holocaust victims lived, complete with an inscription of their name, date of birth and the day they were taken. I found myself checking every brick and plaque I came across in Bratislava, wondering if I’d see Mr. Eisenberg’s name.

My First Day in Bratislava included:

St. Martin’s Cathedral, Funki Punki Cafe, Dolnozemska Krčma, Pollito Cheesecake

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St. Martin’s Cathedral, one of Bratislava’s main tourist attractions.

Thankfully, the tram system in Bratislava is laid out similarly to the one in Prague, so I had an easy time navigating the city. My first stop was to St. Martin’s Cathedral, a lovely aged church with tons of character. I really liked the murals I found along the way, which can be seen below. (I especially love the one with the cats).

But honestly, there’s nothing I love more than just wandering around a city with no real path in mind. I usually find a cute little cafe along the way and stop there to read and order a drink. And my time in Bratislava was no exception. I ended up at Funki Punki, a hipster-like cafe that proudly stated that it was “IKEA FREE” and decorated its space with only vintage furniture. Luckily, it was too trendy to be pretentious.

Slovakian food is not that different from Czech cuisine, but I tried the local grub anyway and had a dinner of roasted pork shoulder and bread dumplings. Dessert was had at Pollito Cheesecake, which as you can tell by the name, only serves cheesecake. I had their coconut and white chocolate cake, which has to be some of the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted. (Sorry, New York). Then it was time to check out my AirBnB and get a good night’s sleep before my second day in Bratislava began.

 

My second day included:

FIVE Points Cafe, Pamätaj Holocaust Memorial, City Center, Michael’s Gate

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THE SELFIE-CCINO! (featuring me and Jesse)

The Selfie-ccino: the main reason why I chose to go to the FIVE Points Cafe for brunch. Just look at that masterpiece…how could you go to Bratislava and not order one? For just 3 euros, you can purchase a delicious cappuccino with your favorite picture on it, with a warm bacon, egg and cheese bagel on the side. Anyone who knows me is well aware that my cat and bagels are my two favorite things in the world. It’s safe to say I was a happy camper on Saturday morning.

After filling up on a hearty breakfast, I headed to Pamätaj and Michael’s Gate. The Holocaust Memorial appears to be situated randomly but its location was chosen for a very good reason. It’s the spot of the former Rybné Synagogue, which is still cherished by many Bratislavians. The memorial is multi-faceted and includes a sihouette of the former place of worship, a star of David at the top, and zachor (“remember” in Hebrew) and pamätaj (“remember” in Slovak) inscribed onto its base).

I honestly didn’t even realize I was passing under Michael’s Gate until I looked it up on Google Maps to be sure. The tall white structure in between the two yellow buildings is the former entrance to the city of Bratislava, and tourists can climb to the top for a full view of the city.

Hump Day. Slump Season.

I never wanted to be someone who counted down work days until the weekend arrived, but here I am. It’s Wednesday night and I’m patting myself on the back for making it halfway through the week. (And I only worked today and half of Tuesday so far, due to a disgusting stomach bug). The weather doesn’t help…at all. It’s been blustery and cold here in Prague for the past few weeks, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in the near future. On 20 degree days, I can barely find the motivation to pull on a pair of jeans and carry my ass to the metro for work. And it’s depressing the hell out of me. I really thought I’d be used to this weather by now, due to growing up in New Jersey. All we had to be thankful for were snow days and artsy Instagram photos when the weather turned bad.

I keep telling myself that maybe if I moved to a warmer place next, like Spain or Italy, I’ll be happier. My motivation will magically return to me. But again, that’s just the escapist in me trying to run from the problem than face it head on. The truth is that I feel lost. I have no clue what I want to do with my life, and the one thing I used to be so sure of: my writing, I don’t do much of anymore.

It feels like I have nothing to say. I thought moving here would change that. I would stumble upon all of these fascinating people who’d inspire characters for a short story, or discover that perfect setting for my book. But what’s a spark without some imagination? Sure, it’s wonderful to feel inspired by something or someone, and see where it leads you, but you really have to want to pull on that thread. Everything that comes out of me lately seems tangled. I’m not sure if it’s the weather, the gloomy day I’ve had, or just the fact that I’m allowing myself to explore the scarier sides of my truth…but this is where I’m at today.

Hoping it’s all uphill from here.

Poland: Auschwitz & Krakow

For the first time ever, I wasn’t able to be home with my family for Christmas. I’m currently dealing with some restrictions here in Europe that don’t allow me to leave the continent. And though I thought it would all be cleared up in time for the holidays, it didn’t work out in my favor. So instead of wallow in self-pity and spend my time off holed up in my apartment, I decided to do some last-minute traveling. That’s the one of the best things about living in Prague: a handful of countries are only a train ride away! I booked a round-trip ticket to Krakow and a cheap AirBnB, and decided to make the most of a bad situation.

The main reason I decided to go was to visit Auschwitz, a place I’ve always wanted to see. As a World War II buff, I’ve read countless books on the Holocaust and knew I needed to see the concentration camp for myself. You might be thinking, “What a strange way to spend the holidays…” but the experience was enriching in ways I can’t even explain. I strongly believe it’s something everyone needs to see at least once in their life. It was one of the most emotionally and physically exhausting days (the experience was 7 hours in total), but I’m glad I took the plunge and went. I spent the first day of my trip at Auschwitz and the second day exploring the city of Krakow.

Auschwitz I

Most people don’t realize that there are actually two camps at Auschwitz. The first, Auschwitz I, was where it all started but is much smaller than the second. When my tour group and I arrived at the site, sheets of freezing rain were falling on our heads as we stood outside waiting to go through security. The outside of the facility looks like just another tourist site, until you pass through the gates and into the actual camp. You walk through a little building, get checked by security, and are given your headset for the tour. And then there you are, right in the middle of all the photos you’ve seen and stories you’ve heard. Despite the chilly weather, I knew that my goosebumps were due to something far greater than the cold.

What struck me most about the site was how much it resembled a college campus. Strange, I know, but our tour guide pointed out that it was probably not what we were expecting to see. There were trees lining long pathways, with beautiful brick buildings on each side. The site of Auschwitz I was built way before World War II began and served other army-specific purposes before it was used as a prison camp.

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The grounds of Auschwitz I, enclosed with barbed wire fencing.

We were taken inside certain blocks of the camp, where our tour guide explained the “extermination” selection process and how the Nazis tried to convince everyone that the prisoners knew they were heading to death camps. But after seeing what these people brought with them, how could you believe that? They brought face cream and table brushes and carrot peelers. Why would you bring all that with you if you knew it would just be taken away?

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Piles of cups, plates, bowls and the other household items people brought with them. Preservation staff recently discovered a mug with a fake bottom, where a prisoner had hidden a cross necklace and golden ring. 

My group and I were shown two tons of hair taken from prisoners that was sold to companies who would use it to make rugs. The companies pretended they didn’t know where it came from, but the bags they received had “KLA” (Konzentrations-Lager-Auschwitz) written on them. The rows of inmate head shots, piles of eyeglasses and shoes, and the preserved urn of ashes help put into perspective just how many people lost their lives.

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Memorial for those who died at Auschwitz. The urn is full of ashes from prisoners who were cremated. 

In one of Auschwitz I’s blocks, we were shown standing cells, which were only about 10 feet in length. 4 to 5 prisoners were forced to stand in them all night, and then go to work the next day. This punishment lasted upwards of three days, usually even longer. And we also visited the aptly-name “suffocation cell,” which could up to 40 prisoners and had one airhole the size of three bricks. The Nazis were not only trying to eradicate an entire race of people, they had come up with horrible ways to do so. Worst of all was the gas chamber, which we toured last. The Nazis told the prisoners to hang up their clothes on numbered racks and to memorize their number, because they’d be coming back for them after showering.

As we now know, this never happened. Cyclone B (cyanide-based poison) was released from holes in the ceiling and in 20 minutes, every prisoner in the chamber was dead and taken to the crematorium. This chamber is the only one of its kind left at Auschwitz, and walking through was the most sobering experience of my life.

Auschwitz II: Birkenau

The second part of Auschwitz is 30 times the size of the first, which was hard for me to wrap my brain around. This is where 90% of the murders occurred, and in both camps, over 1.3 million people were unlawfully killed. Birkenau could hold about 90,000 people in its barracks. As the fog began to clear in the fields, rows and rows of buildings came into views. Sometimes, all that was left were brick chimneys and foundations, because the Nazis torched almost all of the wooden huts before they abandoned the site. But the proof is there. We were able to tour one of the barracks in a sea of hundreds, but almost all of them are closed to the public. Unlike Auschwitz I, Birkenau wasn’t built to last and many of the buildings are caving in due to their two-ton rooftops and flimsy walls.

Our tour guide took us into one specific barracks of the two that are open: because this one had preserved walls with paintings on them. It was the children’s barracks. Fellow prisoners were commissioned to paint murals of kids going to school and parading around with drums and flutes. Most likely not to comfort them, but as part of Nazi propaganda…to show the kids what life could be like if they had been the “chosen ones.” How sick is that? As I walked around, I took in the rows of three-tiered bunk beds that the kids were forced to sleep on. What did they dream about at night? Did they comfort one another? The bottom tier was simply the dirt floor, and most people who slept there died from the cold because heat rises. There was simply no peace for these children, and the thought is almost too much to bear.

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Three-tiered beds in the children’s barracks.

Our tour guide took us all around the camp, and we walked the same path that prisoners would take from the train platform to the gas chambers on the left and right. These two, and the others in the woods, were demolished before Allied forces came to free the camp. There is a large monument constructed for the victims, with dark blocks in the shape of overlapping tombstones–to represent the ones the prisoners never received when they died. The monument has 23 plaques that all show the same quote, but it is written in the different languages the victims spoke.

“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.”

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Cattle car, in which prisoners were taken to Birkenau. It was donated by a Jewish survivor, who now lives in Australia. 
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End of the tracks at Auschwitz: Birkenau. This was often the last site prisoners saw before being taken to the gas chambers on either side of the platform.

 

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Remains of one of Birkenau’s gas chambers.

 

Krakow

The second day of my trip was spent exploring Krakow, a city full of history and beautiful architecture. I always like to give myself a day to just wander around a new place and see what I find along the way. My first stop was Krakow’s Old Town Square, which reminded me a lot of Prague’s due to the Christmas markets. The buildings also follow the same Victorian style, except for one right in the middle of the square.

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Stare Miasto or “Old Town” 

At first, I thought it was an enormous church or synagogue, but as you get closer to the entrance, you realize it’s a huge bazaar. Funny enough, it reminded me of the indoor one in Charleston, South Carolina of all places. The bazaar was fittingly decorated for Christmas, and sold everything from painted porcelain mugs to wool-lined slippers.

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Bazaar in Old Town Square.

Krakow is full of gorgeous nooks and crannies. It’s not hard to stumble across lovely little sites like these below.

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24 Hours in Pilsen

After four months in the Czech Republic, I’ve learned that you can’t live here and not at least try their “pivo” (beer). I actually had Pilsner Urquell for the first time at my going-away party back in New Jersey, and have loved it ever since. So when my friends mentioned wanting to visit Pilsen and tour their famous brewery, I couldn’t say no. My friend Helen and I caught the bus after work on Friday night and by the time we arrived, it had started to snow. In Prague, there’s been a sprinkling of snow here and there but nothing that really stuck. Winter in the Czech Republic really is as magical as they say. Here’s what my friends and I saw during our stay in this cozy Western city:

The Great Synagogue of Pilsen, which when dusted with snow looks just like a gingerbread house. And it’s actually the second largest synagogue in all of Europe! The next day, we got to ride the second largest elevator in the Czech Republic at the brewery. But hey, both are #1 in my heart.

Helen and I went up to meet with our two other friends, Helen and Alex, at this cute little restaurant called Delish. And it was. After saying I wasn’t hungry, I had six chicken wings, a beer (you have to in Pilsen), and pistachio cheesecake. We walked through the snow to our AirBnB, which had great dubbed-over versions of “Married with Children” and “Sex and the City” on its TV.

the great synagogue

The next morning, we had just enough time to check out the Pilsen Christmas markets in city center, which bookend the grand St. Bartholomew Cathedral. I love how festive this country is during Christmastime, and the care each city takes in setting up their markets. They’re just about everywhere in Prague, but I have to say that I was most impressed by the one in Pilsen. It had a carousel and a large bell for children to ring, and plenty of hot mulled wine and coffee.

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And now for the main event: the Pilsner Urquell Brewery and Historical Underground Tours. I’d never been on a brewery tour before yesterday, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Except for the fact that we’d be getting a pretty sweet prize at the end. After exploring the underground tunnels of Pilsner (where the water for the beer was extracted for more than 100 years), we got to see where the real magic happens. The Pilsner Urquell brewery is enormous, and the company itself manufactures about six different types of beer.

At the beginning of the tour, we learned a bit about the company’s history and its intriguing origin story. Originally, the beer in Pilsen was actually kind of terrible, thanks to inconsistent recipes and poor quality ingredients. Many townspeople had “rights” to brew, so they could make their own beer at home. This led to the wide range of beers brewed in Pilsen, until Josef Brol decided to band all the brewers together and create one master recipe. “One pivo to rule them all, one pivo to find them…” They brewed the first Pilsner of its kind on October 5th, 1842. Now, more than 70% of beers produced in the world follow Brol’s distillation techniques and recipe.

It was great to get to try the malt and regional Czech hops that go into Pilsner pivo, but even better to try the beer itself. I’ve had Pilsner Urquell plenty of times, but never the unfiltered and unpasteurized version. And let me tell you, it was even better than I imagined. You can only try it at the brewery, and so they keep a certain number of barrels stored in the old cellars for visitors to try. We sipped our exclusive beer while standing in front of oak barrels the size of SmartCars and talked to a man from Indiana. He is a “basement brewer” as he described himself, and was so excited to be in an actual brewery that he was shaking. I thought about how he and my dad would’ve gotten along really well.

After our tour, we grabbed dinner at Na Spilce, a restaurant built in part of the brewery’s former cellar. Then it was time to hop on the bus back to Prague, and spend the rest of the weekend reading and relaxing at home.

 

 

#Twinning

Flashback to 2009: The last time my sister and I took Europe by storm (well, kinda). We were 14 years old and all kinds of awkward. So much has changed since then—shoutout to puberty—and almost ten years later, we got to spend time together across the pond once again. Back when we were in high school, our entire marching band spent a week in London and Paris while performing in two different parades. It was an amazing experience, and one I’ll always remember. I wish I could forget the neck wallet and sweatpants I sported throughout those seven days though…

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Traveling with your best friend is always fun, but being over the legal drinking age and having your own apartment and a steady income makes it that much better. Katia is a true woman of the working world (and arguably my sugar daddy), and treated me to delicious dinners, a trip to the zoo and drinks at the Mosaic House on Friday night. We were finally able to swap birthday presents, and I made sure to get her things you’ll only find here in Europe. Since Kinder Surprise Eggs were just a fleeting childhood memory after being banned in the US, I made sure to buy her one. And Czech honey wine, and Austrian chocolate, and a “You Are Here” mug from Salzburg.

She brought over the PINK “Urban Bouquet” body spray that I’m not-so-secretly obsessed with, and she would’ve brought over a Wawa sizzli and a hot hazelnut coffee if they had fit in her carry-on bag. 😦 I can dream, right? Recently, my friend Kira and I were reminiscing about all the random things we missed about being home and about 80% of them revolved around Wawa and Chipotle. Girls gotta eat!

I had the best time showing Katia around “my city” every day, and seeing her face when she finally saw my fancy grownup apartment. We toured city center on a Tuesday afternoon, with barely anyone at the square or on the Charles Bridge. With the start of Prague’s Christmas markets, it won’t be that quiet again anytime soon. One of the best parts of her visit was going to the Prague Zoo, which I’d visited back in the summer. Both of our missions have always been to see a red panda, but at zoos back in the US, they were always either hiding or away sleeping. But this time, the very first thing we saw was the red panda! And even bigger surprise: there were two. The zoo here is one of the best I’ve been to. The two enormous polar bears there loved the colder weather and one even put on a show for the little kids watching him. He would kick off a rock with his feet and glide on his back to the children and touch his nose to the glass. Little did the kids know we were as excited as they were.

On Katia’s last day, we went out drinking and dancing with a group of my friends here. I’m glad I got to show her Prague’s night life: there are so many great places to go out to on the weekends. Her flight was leaving early the next morning and I had a cold, so we were more than ready to leave the club by midnight. It was so nice getting to host my sister, who was my second official guest in my apartment. (Hi, Michael!).

Calling this city my home is still surreal in the best way, and I’m so glad I finally had the chance to show it off to one of the people I love most.

twins in prague

If It’s Good Enough for Mozart…

Vienna

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Schönbrunn Palace & Gardens. Landtmann’s Jausen Station. St. Stephen’s Cathedral. JUNN Bar & Kitchen.

After a long afternoon of traveling the previous day, I was finally rested and ready to take on the city of Vienna. I absolutely love traveling alone because it gives me the freedom and flexibility to do what I want with my day. To be honest, I usually don’t know what I’ll be doing until the night before.

During my first full day, I visited Schönbrunn Palace, and instead of waiting on line to go inside, I decided to pay the 3 Euros to enter the gardens instead. I’m usually much more excited to walk around the gardens than read plaques on antique furniture anyway. Bookended by black baroque entryways, the royal gardens are absolutely stunning. There are paths covered overhead by vines and a massive fountain in the middle of the grounds. Anytime I wander around palace grounds (which–lucky me–seems to be quite frequently), I can’t help but imagine what it had been like when actual royalty meandered along the perfectly manicured walkways–with their lace umbrellas and ivory-handled walking sticks a lá Marie Antoinette. To see people walking around now with their Nikon cameras and selfie sticks is such a stark (and hilarious) contrast.

All the while, I had been trying to track down this cute little brunch place I saw online. Turns out, it is located in the actual garden, hidden away behind a few rows of bushes. It was truly one of the most whimsical places I have ever seen, and was surely worth the wait. Vienna has quite the cafe culture and I found myself starting each day at a new one. And ending my days by taking myself out for a nice dinner.

After visiting St. Stephen’s Cathedral and paying my respects inside, I did something I secretly love to do: I went back to my AirBnB to watch Netflix and take a nap before dinner. Who says you have to keep dragging yourself around when all you really want to do is watch a few episodes of “The Haunting of Hill House” before dozing off? I say it’s all part of the experience.

Vintage Shopping. Mozartdenkmal. Thai Isaan Kitchen.

Recently, it’s been my mission to give myself a day in a new city to just wander around and do some shopping, (to anyone who knows me, this shouldn’t come as a surprise), seeking out that perfect vintage jacket and exploring small pop-up shops. I simply love seeing what I can find along the way. You’ll stumble across things you might not have seen otherwise, which was the case after my dinner at Thai Isaan Kitchen. I was on my way back to my AirBnB, when I hopped off my connecting bus and and realized I was mere feet from the Mozartdenkmal.

When you first walk in through the massive ornamental gates, you find yourself in front of a garden of red flowers and Mozart, illuminated in lights. It was so dark that I almost missed the most fascinating part of the display: the rows of flowers coming together to create a treble clef. Austria loves Mozart, and both Vienna and Salzburg rightfully claim him as their own.

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Hotel Daniel Bakery. Belvedere Palace & Gardens.

I found myself at another popular cafe in the morning: Daniel Bakery, which I chose because of its proximity to Belvedere Palace. I just didn’t realize how close it would be, until I looked up from Google Maps and was standing in front of the wrought iron gates. Being the silly American that I am, I forgot how much antique beauty is present in European cities. Most newer buildings here are constructed around grand castles and cathedrals left behind by royal predecessors. The USA just doesn’t have this kind of history and it really does take one’s breath away.

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Salzburg

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Mozart’s Birthplace. St. Blasius Cathedral. Mirabell Palace & Gardens. Gasthaus Zwettler’s. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect before hopping on the train and heading to Salzburg. My Vienna AirBnB host told me that the city was super romantic, and as my single self picked up my single suitcase and headed out the door, I thought: “Awesome…” After I arrived, I started to understand what she meant. Similarly to Paris, Salzburg has its own “Love Lock Bridge” where couples can pay to have their names engraved on a lock and then attach it to the bridge. Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling alone and the freedom it provides me…but sometimes, it can be really tough to reserve a table for one, or stroll through a museum alone while you’re flanked by couples on either side. I hope to one day travel the world with someone special, but for right now, I get to be that for myself. And I realized that this city can be romantic for me too, because I’ve fallen in love with it. Sometimes, it’s just enough to be in love with life.

I have to admit that I became a bit choked up when I finally made it to Mozart’s birthplace. It’s the kind of landmark that sneaks up on you, because of its location in the city. The bright yellow building looks just like any other shop on Salzburg’s bustling street, until you realize why everyone is crowded around it taking selfies. I toured the room where Mozart was born and first learned to play the harpsichord. The first composition he ever wrote is on display…as well as some locks of his hair.

Did Mozart ever realize that people would travel from all over the world just to stand on the very same floor where he took his first steps and learned to read music? It’s like that Dr. Who episode, where Van Gogh travels to present day and watches as people crowd around his paintings just to catch a glimpse. For artists, a lot of fame is found posthumously…so for all the present day Mozarts and Van Goghs who wonder if their work matters: it does and it always will.

I ended the day with a traditional Austrian dinner at Gasthaus Zwettler’s, where I enjoyed pork schnitzel with parsley potatoes and cranberry sauce, along with lots of Kaiser Karl bier.

 

Hohensalzburg Fortress.

Picture this: I’ve just scarfed down a Big Mac and fries for lunch (don’t judge…it was a national holiday and most restaurants were closed), and am looking up at the Hohensalzburg Fortress at the top of the city wondering how the f**k am I gonna get up there?

For those who haven’t been, you can easily spend an entire day at the fortress. With an all-inclusive ticket, you’ll have access to three museums and the king’s private quarters, as well as a tour of the actual fortress (from the salt room to its torture chamber). Did you know that’s how the city got its name? “Salz” is German for salt and “Burg” means hill. That’s how Salzburg made most of its riches, through salt mining…and the reason why our wages are now called a “salary.” At one time, salt was more precious than money because of its preservative properties. The more you know!

The fortress is situated atop the city for obvious reasons: better vantage point and to keep out the peasants when they rebelled in the Peasants War. Certain leaders of today should remember to treat their citizens kindly before they also rebel. 🙂 Salzburg royalty embraced the gothic style, with golden ornamental walls, star-vaulted cathedrals and porcelain tile ovens for heating. And wow! The king’s private chambers has a toilet that is accessible from all floors…that’s true luxury.

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