Monday, May 4, 2015

April: Another Month of Traveling Across Europe

   Well April has completely flown by. Faster than all the other months even. I actually just counted on my calendar and for the entire month of April I was only in Prague for twelve days…Extremely depressing but it means I was traveling a lot so it’s a win/lose situation. It’s funny because before Spring Break, I realized that once I got back, the countdown to the end of the semester would have officially begun. Now it’s almost over and I’m sitting here trying to figure out where this semester has gone.
   The first weekend after Spring Break was really fun. We had nice weather here in Prague so that Friday Haley and I planned a fun day. We started by going to Café Savoy for breakfast. This café is famous and has even put on the list for the top twenty cafes around the world to visit in your lifetime. We’ve been before but the French toast is just so amazing that it’s necessary to visit multiple times. Seriously this French toast is the best I’ve had in my entire life. It’s absolutely delicious! After that we finally went to the Prague Zoo! I’ve been eager to go to the zoo here all semester because it’s ranked in the top five in the world, but we wanted to wait for warmer weather. Well that was the perfect day to go! We had beautiful weather and the animals were all really active. Prague zoo itself was really nice. It was crazy because a lot of the exhibits don’t really have fences, they just have a mote or something around the animals. It was a really natural zoo and it felt like you were actually in the exhibits. Haley, Leah, and I had a blast. Some of my favorite animals were the polar bears, otters, honey badger, anaconda, seals, lemurs, and elephants. They also had a lot of animals I hadn’t seen before like weird birds, hyenas, and kangaroos, so it was pretty cool. We also loved the zoo because they had delicious slushies! They tasted like America and we had quite a few of them. Afterwards we did something random and I went and got a few piercings in my ear. It was quite a good day in Prague. 

The baby elephant was so cute. The older elephants knew how to reach back and kick the ball tied around the tree. The baby one watched and then tried over and over until it finally kicked it the same way. It was adorable.

At the zoo, there is a funicular, which is kind of like a chair lift, that takes you from the top part of the zoo to the bottom. It actually felt super dangerous because you were just in a chair by yourself with nothing to hold you in really. 

   The next day we left and went on a field trip for the rest of the weekend. We started by visiting the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic. This was the first original pilsner beer in the world. I actually really like Pilsner Urquell so it was really neat to go to the brewery and learn more about the brewing process, how the beer is made, and see the factory lines and etc. We also got our very own unfiltered and unpasteurized beer in the factory. It was delicious. 


   After that we went to Konstantinovy Lazne, a small town in CZ. There we went for a short hike and then went to the town’s healing spas for a nice relaxing dip. The next morning we did a six hour hike through the woods. I love the hikes and this one was really nice. The forest was pretty and we hiked alongside a stream and just through the country side. It was funny because quite a few times we had to cross the river over “bridges” that were logs just laid across the river. They were so sketchy. You could feel them bending under you as you carefully walked across. It was entertaining though. The hike ended at some really cool castle ruins. Of course. All of our hikes involve castle ruins. It’s funny because before I came to Europe I had never actually been to a real castle before. We don’t exactly have them laying around in the states. Now I’ve seen and been to so many they aren’t even a big deal anymore. Just another giant castle or pile of neat ruins on top of a hill. Still though I love seeing them. This castle had a really pretty view from the top, overlooking the forest and river. Getting there was hilarious though. I was in the front of the group and we were hiking a lot faster than most of the others so we just randomly made our way towards the ruins. We may have taken a wrong turn or two but we made. Once we got there we literally crawled around the far side of the ruins to get to the main part. It was really nice to just sit at the top of the ruins and enjoy the scenery with my fellow USACers. 

One of the many scary tree bridges.

There were a bunch of old abandoned bunkers spaced out along the hike. Apparently these were built when people were getting nervous about the impending war, WWII. They built these around the country to be able to defend themselves. Each one was just far enough from the other that they would be able to communicate. It was really creepy because you could walk down inside them in the small, dark rooms. 

Sidenote: Prague has been beautiful lately. I took this picture walking home one day. Everything here has been in bloom the past month so there are pretty trees and flowers everywhere and everything is so green! Also, the farmer's markets have been going on and they're really fun. The markets will just be anywhere anytime of the week. Some are more regular than others but it's always a nice surprise when stumble up on one. The picture below is of a burger stand at one of them. They made a huge delicious burger for you right in front of you for the equivalent of around four bucks. We lounged in the adjacent park along with many other people enjoying the day and snacking. I also had a piece of carrot cake that was probably the best I've ever had, and some fresh juice. I love markets and parks and Europe in the spring. It's great.

The next weekend we took another field trip, this time to Kutna Hora, a small city about an hour and a half away from Prague. We started off at a really pretty gothic church. After that we went to the bone chapel! I’ve seriously been wanting to go there for a long time but put it off because I knew we were taking a field trip there anyways. The bone chapel, also known as Sedlec Ossuary, is a small church filled and decorated with the bones of over 40,000 plague victims. Everywhere you look are skulls, femurs, ulnas, and spinal cords. It was weird. Apparently a couple hundred years ago, a really bad plague swept through that part of Europe and they ran out of places to bury people. As a solution, they dug up the skeletons of people long-buried and displayed them in the chapel. Honestly, I didn’t like it that much. It was definitely a cool place, but I just felt like it was really disrespectful. I wouldn’t exactly want my skeleton displayed or thrown in with thousands of others. A long time ago people could pay their respects and what not, but now it’s just a place where people visit to gawk at the bones and take pictures. I just feel like most people didn’t respect the place or really appreciate it. It was still a really cool experience and thing to see though. After that we went to another church to check out the architecture. We were able to walk around in the top of the church along the rafters. Later we visited the silver mines! Kutna Hora was once a very powerful and important city because it mined so much silver and was therefore very rich. I didn’t even really realize we were going to the silver mines or what they were but they turned out to be my favorite part of the field trip. First we learned about the history and the miners, and then got to actually go down in the mine. Back then, the miners wore a white robe that looked sort of like a lab coat. It was white because it was cheaper than colored fabric and because white was easier to see in the darkness. We started by going down seriously at least ten flights of stairs to get to part of the mine. It was a never ending spiral with tens of footsteps echoing throughout the stairwell as we made our way down. We had to stay in a single file line as we went through the mine, which was about a half hour underground tour. The mine shafts were so tiny. I’m not that big and half the time I was completely hunching over or squeezing through tight spaces. They had warned everyone extensively that they were very, very tight spaces and they meant it. I’ve never really been claustrophobic before but this was the first time I kind of had the same feeling. It was creepy and made my spine tingle knowing that we were in such a small shaft, with people in front of and behind me, hundreds of feet underground. I could almost feel the pressure crushing down on me. It was pretty weird. At one point they had us all stop in a bit of a wider area and turn our headlamps off. It was dark to say the least. Really, really dark. I literally couldn’t see my hand two inches from my face. It was probably the most pitch-black darkness I’ve ever been in. After five minutes of that I felt like I was going crazy. My eyes were open but I just couldn’t see ANYTHING. It was so weird and definitely gave me the impression of what it would be like to be blind. After the mines, we were free to grab lunch and wander around the town for a bit. Haley, Shania, and I went to a small Czech restaurant for some schnitzel that turned out to be really good!

The town of Kutna Hora.

Shania, Haley, and I dressed like miners.

 The next day we were in Prague again and went to one of our favorite bakeries, Bake Shop. It’s closer to old town and not exactly close to school or trams or anything so it’s not every day we get to have it. They have delicious almond and apple croissants. Seriously the almond ones almost taste like bread pudding. They’re heavenly. They we walked around old town and Wenseclas Square and just enjoyed the city. Sunday we actually went to the zoo again. Haha. We had really talked about going again because we liked it so much (and wanted more slushies), and USAC was getting a group together so the entrance was free. This time we made a point to go to the lemur feeding and seal show. It was cool because you can walk into the lemur exhibit and the guy fed them right in front of you, literally inches away. They were so cute as they took the carrots from his hand and ate them. The seal show was neat too. They waved, jumped through hoops, and went down a slide. There was also a baby seal doing the tricks and it was adorable.

Selfie with King Julien. 

   On Monday, I took a quick trip to Vienna for a few days. My class was cancelled on Wednesday and they didn’t need me that day at my internship so I actually only ended up missing one class. It worked out really nicely. John and I went to an Australian pub for dinner where we had delicious kangaroo steaks. Definitely some of the best meat I’ve had in Europe. The next day I did some exploring by myself. I walked around the Stephansplatz area and visited the Hundertwasserhaus, which is a weirdly designed apartment building by a famous artist. That night we had pork schnitzel, which Vienna and Austria is well known for, and went to a wine bar. The next day we visited Schoenbrunn Palace which was beautiful. It was a sprawling, gorgeous palace with beautiful and expansive grounds. There was a huge fountains, garden area, and even its own zoo. We walked up to the top of the hill and had a snack. Afterwards we just did a little more exploring in Vienna before I had to get back to Prague. I got back late that night with just enough time to do some laundry and pack my bags to leave again the next morning. 

The Hundertwasserhaus.

Schoenbrunn Palace

   We started our trip with a quick flight to Brussels. I actually ended up liking Brussels a lot more than I thought I would. It’s not that I didn’t think I would like it I guess, I just didn’t really know what there was to do and just kind of wanted to check it out since we were already going to be in Amsterdam, which is only a few hours away. I’m definitely glad we went. Brussels was really pretty. The buildings were mainly brown brick, which is a lot different from Prague. We got there the first night and quickly found some French fries, or ‘frites’ as they call them. Most people think that French fries were invented in France, but they were actually invented in Belgium. They speak French there though so I’m betting that had something to do with the misconception. We also found some beer, chocolate, and waffles and made it a great evening. We wandered around the main streets and just checked out the city. The next morning we woke up and went to this cool little café for breakfast called Peck 47. Their eggs benedict was amazing! We would’ve gone back the next morning if we could have. We spent the rest of the day just wandering around Brussels. We visited the main square, called the Grand Place, which is full of really pretty buildings. Then we wandered through the chocolate shops, mainly for Haley’s benefit. I don’t like chocolate and just the small inside the stores was enough the make me want to die. It was still cool to look at all the exquisite chocolates though. Haley made me try a truffle and it wasn’t bad. We also visited Laduree, a French macaroon place that was delicious. We explored different parts of Brussels and got away from the touristy areas. There was a beautiful park there close to the university that we laid around in for awhile. The abundance of parks is one of my favorite parts of Europe. That night we went back to Fritland for some more Frites, then went to Little Delirium and did a beer flight to try some more kinds of Belgian ale. Delirium is actually the world record holder for the most beers, currently with a little over 4,000. We really enjoyed the beer tasting. Belgium definitely deserves its reputation for good beers. 

Eggs Benedict from Peck 47. I feel like half the pictures on my phone are of food.

Frites from Fritland and samurai sauce, AKA dinner. 

Waffle with chocolate and oreos.

The next morning we decided to take a day trip to Brugge. I’ve heard so many people say that if you’re anywhere close, you absolutely must visit Brugge, so we decided to make the quick trip for half the day. Brugge is actually called the “Venice of the North” and is filled with tiny picturesque streets and canals. We enjoyed just walking around the town and admiring the pretty buildings and streets. It kind of reminded me of Cesky Krumlov, but just Belgian instead of Czech. 

It was kind of rainy in Brugge but we still enjoyed the views. It was also funny because normally I will download a map of some sort to my phone or at least have some type of idea where we are going once we get to a city. This time I didn't so we had to wing it and find our way without a map, but it wasn't too big of a city and was no problem.

   Late that afternoon, we went back to Brussels and took a bus to Amsterdam. We booked our flights to and from Brussels a couple of months ago without realizing at the time that we would be in Amsterdam the same exact weekend of King’s Day, which is the King of Holland’s birthday. It actually used to be called Queen’s Day and was on the queen’s birthday in September, but they changed it a few years ago to King’s Day. King’s Day in Amsterdam is a huge celebration! Over 800,000 people come to the city to celebrate. It was really just a stroke of luck that this was the only weekend we could go to Amsterdam anyways. We ended up staying in a really cool AirBnb a little outside of the main city, in a more local and Dutch area. We really loved the location and the apartment, minus the stairs because they were crazy and hilariously steep! But it made it fun. The first morning we woke up super early to try to get in line early at the Ann Frank House. Presale tickets were sold out way in advance since it was such a busy weekend for the city. We got there an hour early and it’s a really good thing we did. We were second in line. By the time they opened, the line was wrapped all the way around the building and down the street. It was insane! The Ann Frank house was really interesting. I’ve learned so much and got to see so many things first hand concerning World War II. This was another knowledgeable experience and it was really neat to see it for myself. Afterwards, we went to Greenwood’s for brunch and had some more eggcellent eggs benedict. It was sprinkling a little so we just kind of walked around and explored the city. We visited the infamous IAMsterdam sign among other things. Eventually the weather cleared up and we were able to rent bikes and ride around the city! As a pedestrian, I thought the cyclist were insane! They were everywhere speeding around and almost killing anyone in their way. It took “looking both ways before crossing” to a new level. I was more terrified of the bicyclist in this city than I have been of cars anywhere else. But then I was able to get behind the handle bars myself and I finally understood. It was super fun! We were able to just speed around through the streets with reckless abandon. Well, not always. It was still crazy and insane and you had to pay a lot of attention to what you were doing. Especially because I had never ridden bikes in a city before, particularly a foreign one where I had no idea of what the bike laws were or how to read the signs. But we winged it, made it work, and had a blast. We rode all over the city and just wandered through the streets and around the canals. It was a great way to really experience and appreciate the city.

   The next day was officially King’s Day!!! There were so many people everywhere! The city is also a giant market too, and people sell anything from vintage clothes to alcohol and delicious foods. Everyone is covered head-to-toe in orange, the national color of the Netherlands, and is out celebrating in the streets. Music is blaring from every direction as people take to the streets. The canals were also one giant see of orange as people partied on boats. It was a really really cool experience and I felt so lucky to have had the opportunity to partake in such a cool celebration in Europe. We spent the first half of the day roaming around and reveling with everyone else. In the afternoon we actually went to the King’s Day Music Festival at the Olympic Stadium. There were so many people! All dressed in orange of course. It was really confusing at first because there were all these signs at the festival about lockers and coins (that you used to buy things instead of actual money) and we couldn’t understand any of them. It was hilarious but we figured it out. There were a couple of big stages set up around that we hung out at first. Then we went into the actual stadium. We walked through the tunnel and it was seriously astounding when we saw how big the festival was, how many people were there, and how huge the stage and grounds were. It was crazy! The music festival was really really fun though. It was mainly EDM and house music, which I really love so I really enjoyed it. There were some really good artists. The crowd was one huge dance party. Around the outskirts people were also just lying around and hanging out. The music festival was honestly one of my favorite things I’ve done in Europe. We had so much fun and were there for over six hours. It was just so authentically European. I know that sounds weird but it was just really cool.

If you look closely to the left of the canal you can kind of get an idea of the number of people wandering through the city. It was just a solid mass of orange people everywhere.

This was the main stage when we first got there. Somehow it got even more packed as the day went on.

   The next morning we were thoroughly exhausted and had a long day of traveling to get back to Prague. We took an early tram to the main bus station, where we took a three hour bus to Brussels, where we took a one hour bus to the airport, where we took an hour flight, then a half hour bus ride to Prague, to a fifteen minute metro ride. It seriously took us like twelve hours to get home. It was a long day.
   When I got back I was immediately in Finals mode. Literally an hour after I got back to Prague I had to meet up with my group to go over our presentation for the next morning. The next day I had to write a six page paper over Baroque architecture and study for my Central European History final. This was after I had literally been gone from Prague for ten days. I was a little bit of an unorganized mess. But I got it all done and was able to enjoy my weekend.
   The past few nights have been super fun. Almost everyone has been in Prague which never happens since it was everyone’s last full weekend. We spent a lot of hours into the early mornings at the beer garden, Café Popo, Bukowski’s, Palac Acropolis, and Karlovy Lazne which is the largest club in central Europe consisting of five stories. I’ve seriously gotten around six hours of sleep the past three nights in a row.

This picture can't do the view justice, but this was taken at Petrin Hill. Brooke, Haley, and I went there and laid in the grass picking flowers. The skyline of Prague is like nothing else with all of the spires and red roofs. I might be slightly biased, but it's honestly the prettiest skyline of any city I've seen in Europe.

    It’s all been totally worth it though. I’m dreading the fact that soon I won’t be able to walk out the door and go to a cool bar or listen to some good music at the clubs. In fact, I’m dreading pretty much every aspect of going back home. I really wish I had at least another month or two left in Europe. I mean I’ve done tons of traveling and I’ve been to lots of other cities and countries, but I’m not ready to leave Prague, my friends, my apartment, my favorite cafes and places and this city that I’ve come to love. I’ve really adapted to living in the city and I hate that I have to leave here. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing my family and friends from back home, but I just honestly love it here so so much. I still have yet to be homesick for even a minute. Prague is wonderful. Europe is wonderful. I feel like I was just born on the wrong continent. I love the lifestyle here and everything about Europe. I know it’s all coming to an end and I’m just going to have to deal with it, but inside I’m still in denial that it’s about to all be over. This has been the most amazing four months of my life and I honestly just want it to never end.
   One exciting thing though that comes along with the semester ending though is that my brother will be here soon! In a week actually. I’m so excited. I’m not only looking forward to seeing him, but showing him around Prague and for our trip to Athens and Santorini, Greece. I feel so lucky that my brother is coming all the way to Europe to see me and that we are going to get to go on an amazing adventure together.
   I still have two finals left on Tuesday and lots and lots of packing to do. I really can’t comprehend how I’m supposed to pack up my entire life here into suitcases. I’ve never dreaded packing and moving as much as I am for this, but that’s probably because when I’ve been moving to somewhere new before I was looking forward to it and was happy about it. This is just going to be painful.
   See you soon Texas!

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