Budapest, Hungary

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Views of Pest and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge from the Buda Castle grounds

With cheap flights and accommodations, it was not difficult for my friends to convince me to take a trip to Budapest.  I loved Prague, so I anticipated to feel a similar affection towards this less-popular Eastern European city.

We flew Wizz Air to and from Budapest, and were unsure of the airline’s validity up until the moment we boarded the plane.  With a late-evening flight, I was hoping to nap, but it was instead one of the noisiest flights that I’ve experienced while traveling abroad so far.  Constant conversation from every row made it impossible to relax.

Wizz Air dropped us off in what seemed to me to be the airplane parking lot.  It was now past midnight, and we had to walk, in the rain, to the main terminal building.  The quick and easy airport transfer experience with miniBUD Airport Shuttle Services made up for the rainy route.  Our hostel, however, made my friends and I once again question the way that Budapest operates.

The Baroque Hostel had a liiiitle sign with a liiiitle gate and a liiiitle walkway to the door, located at the back of the building.  It all seemed slightly sketchy, especially at 1:30 a.m.  The receptionist was pushy, presumably because of the late hour, but accommodating.  Our group of six girls booked a mixed dorm of eight, with hopes that no one else would join the room, and if people did, that they would be two other girls.  As luck would have it, our stranger was a lone guy. The hostel, though, decided to move him to another room for the duration of our stay to make the situation more comfortable for everyone.  Score one point for the Baroque Hostel, and a sliver of trust restored in Budapesti logic.  The location of our room, though, raised doubts once again.  Adjacent to the living room, our room connected us to the man cave of middle-aged Hungarian men who watched TV until 3 a.m. and continued to be stationed on the couch, sleeping, when we rose in the morning and tiptoed to the bathroom in pajamas.  Though not ideal, this situation was uncomfortable at worst, and we had no problems with the Baroque Hostel, its staff, or any of our fellow travelers.  Because we would spend less than 35 hours total in Hungary, we accepted the lodging circumstances, determined to make the most of our trip.

I have become a big fan of walking tours, especially in cities where knowing the history and development of the area is crucial to appreciating the visit.  My friends and I joined a United Europe Free Tours walking tour to see Budapest’s main city sites and hear more about this unfamiliar place.  Budapest, we learned, is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube River.  We first walked Pest, visiting St. Stephen’s Basilica, Erzsébet Square, and the Danube River waterfront.  Then, we crossed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and toured Buda.

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A short climb up one of Buda’s many hills brought us to the Buda Castle, with courtyards overlooking Pest on one side and the hills of Buda on the other.  The tour also led us to the beautiful Mátyás Templom, or Matthias Church, surrounded by the Fisherman’s Bastion and its sprawling views of Pest.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica (right) and Parliament (left) are the exact same hight to represent and maintain the equality between church and state.

Not wanting to leave us without some knowledge of the native language in a city full of moody Hungarians, our tour guide taught us some important Hungarian phrases.  Saying “Hi,” or “Szia” (pronounced sia), was simple enough, but the rest of what we learned was through entertaining and effective phonetic tricks.  “Please,” or “kérek,” was remembered as “key rack.”  What would one be asking for to utilize please?  “Két sört,” or “Kait’s shirt,” meaning two beers, of course.  Finally, with a sört in hand, one can toast “Egészségére!” or “Cheers!”  The key to this phonetic pronunciation is to have had a few drinks beforehand to slur the phrase, “I can shake the tree.”  After our crash course in Hungarian, we were prepared to take on the rest of Budapest.

My friends and I returned to Pest to visit the Easter market in Vörösmarty Square.  Similar to Prague’s Easter market, but with more variety, the market held performances, prepared Hungarian food, and sold clothes, jewelry, and other creative gifts.

Making our way back to the hostel, my friends and I took the metro (which must be seen to understand its quaint comicality) to Hősök tele, or Heroes’ Square.  Though the solemnity of the Millennium Monument is somewhat lost with Budapest’s obnoxious, tourist letters, we could still admire the structure’s significance and place in Hungary’s history.

Though we quickly ran out of daylight hours in Budapest, my friends and I were looking forward to our final Hungarian activity, the city’s famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Used primarily for therapeutic and relaxation purposes, heated pools can be found in many different bath houses across the city, but only one provided travelers with an experience that they never knew they wanted.  Without time to soak up the baths’ nourishing effects during the day, my group planned to enjoy the baths a little differently: we were going to a sparty.

 

Travel Tips

  • Pack light, but pack heavy.  I have found that there is no better feeling than fitting your belongings for the weekend in a handy-dandy backpack.  Okay, so there are many better feelings, but this one is pretty great.  On weekend trips, I walk through the airport with pride, hands free from any rolling luggage, just me and my backpack.  Though this is the way to travel, I may have packed too light for some my trips.  No, I didn’t run out of things to wear.  Instead, I didn’t pack warm enough clothes.  Traveling with only a backpack is great, but there was more than one occasion over multiple trips when I was desperate for heavier clothing.  If you can pack cold-weather clothes in a warm-weather-clothes-sized bag, you have truly mastered the art of traveling light.

 

Destination Locations

 

Nyugalom, Szerelem, Budapest

A.J.H.

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Spring Break – Prague

Spending nine days in six cities was everything from incredible to crazy.  Filled with culture, adventure, laughter, fun times, good food, and great friends, I couldn’t have planned a better trip (and if you know me, you know that I tried to plan every second).  I am beyond thankful for the opportunity to explore new places, people, and experiences, and will remember this European spring break forever.  Read on to hear about my time in the first city, and stay tuned for posts about the rest of the week!

 

Prague, Czech Republic

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Before we had even left Madrid, we had Prague-lems.  Weeks ago, when the two friends that I traveled with for spring break and I booked our flights, one of them had difficulties with the online payment process.  When she returned to the webpage to choose the same flight, the one that my friend and I had successfully booked, it was full.  She had to take an earlier flight out of Madrid, but we would all arrive in Brussels for the same connecting flight to Prague.

On my first flight, I was dozing in and out of sleep, exhausted from my midterm that morning, when I heard an announcement explaining a delay.  A delay!?  We couldn’t be delayed.  My friend and I on the current flight already only had 30 minutes between this landing and the next departure, to Prague.  Clarification confirmed that because of French airway traffic regulations, our flight was rerouted, adding 20 minutes to our flight time.  As far as travel was concerned, this was a vacation for me, so I had nowhere pressing to be.  If I missed my flight to Prague, I’d lose a night at the hostel and a few hours in the city the next morning, but it would be a small hiccup that I could accept.  The real problem was with our friend, who at the moment of the announcement, was preparing to board a plane that the other two of us might not be on.  We had no way to contact her, and if the flight took off, she would be alone in Prague, without knowledge of where either of us were until she landed.  Worrying would not help, so we just had to wait.

Because there were at least eight other flights affected by our delay, we were guaranteed that the second flight, Brussels to Prague, would wait for the passengers from the flight from Madrid.  Crisis averted, we ran to our gate, boarded our flight, and the three of us were united, on our way to the Czech Republic.

 

“Ahhh, Pennsylvania, with the crocodiles”

Not quite.  The airport transfer that we arranged through our hostel was waiting for us when we landed, complete with a sign with my name on it.  The driver was friendly, despite the late hour, and we had no problem making small talk on the ride into the city.  Though very proficient in English, he was slightly confused about the “countries in America.”  I’m not too sure what he was thinking of when he associated crocodiles with Pennsylvania…

 

Charles Bridge Economic Hostel

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When my friends and I arrived at the Charles Bridge Economic Hostel (found via hostelworld.com), we couldn’t believe the location.  It was just steps away from the Charles Bridge, the structure linking the two sides of Prague’s city center over the Vltava River.  Checking in, the receptionist was extremely helpful, providing us with free beverages and information about touring Prague.  Our private 3-person bedroom shared a common room, a bathroom, and a kitchen with the other guests on our floor and was very acceptable for the price.  Bonus feature (depending on your preference)— a hostel cat!  Wifi, the black cat that patrolled the premises, resided in the lobby, away from the rooms, and was a welcomed guest, for me, since I’ve been missing my own furry friend.  During our stay, we found that most of the city buzz happened across the bridge on the Old Town side, but our location in Prague’s Malá Strana, or Lesser Town, allowed us to see more of Prague 1.  I had a very positive experience at the Charles Bridge Economic Hostel and would highly recommend it to all travelers, but if I were to visit Prague again, I would look into options on the opposite side of the river.

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Entrance to Charles Bridge from Prague’s Lesser Town; the hostel was on the left, near the red and green signs at the bottom of the photo

 

Day 1

One word— bagels.  Though there are “bagels” in Spain, I don’t even bother with these imposters after knowing the best rolls-with-a-hole come from the Northeast United States.  The hostel receptionist, however, urged us to try Bohemia Bagel Café, a more intimate and relaxed version of its parent establishment, Bohemia Bagel Bar & Grill.  From Bohemia Bagel’s pride in their founding, I learned that the bagel originated in nearby Poland and later moved west.  I wouldn’t be getting any closer than the Czech Republic to the home of the bagel anytime soon, so, unable to choose just one, I split a tomato, egg, and cheese sesame bagel sandwich, and a Prosciutto, mozzarella, and greens, with a balsamic vinaigrette sunflower seed bagel sandwich with one of my friends.  Both meals were delicious.  I recommend the restaurant with a warning— as we had been cautioned, servers in Prague are not friendly (though we found that they were accommodating), and those at Bohemian Bagel were no exception.  Not cheerful, but not unpleasant, Bohemian Bagel the perfect breakfast stop, though their bagels still don’t compare to those at home.

To start our day, we crossed the Charles Bridge on our way to the Old Town and took in our first daytime views of the beautiful city.

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Because we had no knowledge of the city of Prague, we decided to take SANDEMANs free, 3-hour walking tour.  With close calls seeming to be the theme of the trip, my friends and I got the last three, non-reservation spots available for the tour that we had planned our day around.

 

“I live by Polish hiphop.”

Our SANDEMANs tour guide was Jirka, a Prague native in his late 20s.  We took the tour to better understand Prague and its history, but with Jirka, we got so much more.  Not only was he knowledgeable about the places that were recognized on the tour and the significance of their pasts, but he also knew about current Czech events and lent his perspective on the change, development, and growth of the Czech Republic.  More than educated, Jirka was hilarious.  I couldn’t stop laughing at the combination of his jokes, delivery, and overall pleasantly awkward character.  His insight, paired with his sarcastic Eastern European banter, made the 3-hour walk in harsh weather much more enjoyable, educating, and entertaining.

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Prague’s Old Town Square

From architecture to anthropology, Jirka discussed important structures like the Astronomical Clock, Church of Our Lady before Týn, Municipal House, and Wenceslaus Square, and their importance to Prague.  He also taught about the combination of Slavic and Germanic influences on the Czech people, explaining the dominance of German Bohemian ways over those of the Moravians, resulting in the character of the people of Prague today.

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Prague’s Astronomical Clock

At the beginning of our tour, Jirka explained that though it was a “free” tour, we were to tip him based on “how much we felt the tour was worth.”  Annoyed that our hostel receptionist didn’t warn us about this expectation after recommending the tour, and even more annoyed that we didn’t seeing it coming, we each gave a small amount, because our guide truly did a great job.  Apparently, this is how all SANDEMANs tours work, so it is good to know for future experiences.

With a short break between the tour of Prague and another tour recommended to us by our hostel, we traveled to the top of the Astronomical Clock for views of the city.

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“Bones often go missing in Prague.”

The second tour of the day took place after dark.  The Ghosts & Legends of Old Town tour of McGee’s Ghost Tours of Prague was a free tour (free through our hostel) that we decided to join, eager to be exposed to as much of Prague as we could during our short stay.  I am all for sharing ghost stories and tales of the paranormal, but walking around in freezing temperatures wasn’t ideal.  Our guide was eclectic and enthusiastic, just as I’d expect a Ghosts & Legends guide to be.  My friends and I found it funny, though, that she told us myths of Prague that our earlier guide, Jirka, warned us against believing.  The ghost tour wasn’t dreadful, but tolerable only because we didn’t have to pay.

For dinner, we went to Mistral Café, a recommendation from a friend of a friend who had studied in Prague.  With advice to try the chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese, I wasn’t disappointed and thoroughly enjoyed my meal, despite the moody servers.

I’m reluctant to admit it, but we took to the tourist traps for dessert.  Jirka warned us that trdelník, the cinnamon-sugar pastry that we spotted in countless stalls around the city, was not authentic to Prague, but rather to Transylvania.  Our appetites disregarded his cautions, and my friends and I found ourselves at Good Food Coffee & Bakery, where they filled trdelník to create “chimneys.”  I had a vanilla ice cream chimney with strawberries, and thoroughly enjoyed the tourist treat.

 

 

Day 2

 

“Hey Jude”

In an attempt to beat the crowds, my friends and I woke early and walked a quick five minutes from our hostel to the John Lennon Wall.  Though Lennon never actually visited Prague, his death resonated with Czech youth during their country’s tumultuous governmental adjustments, and his face, accompanied by political statements and Beatles lyrics, was painted on this wall.  Though I cannot say that I’m a Beatles fan, visiting the wall, for me, was more than just a photoshoot, as it is for many others.  Looking at the literal layers of history (even though the art has been painted over multiple times), I saw only positive words of peace and love.  The wall made my eyes happy and my heart warm in the cool climate of Prague in spring.  Just as we were about to leave, a street performer stopped in front of the wall and sang “Hey Jude,” making everyone around reflect on the importance of this symbolic facade, completing my Lennon Wall experience.

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On the way to our next tour, my friends and I ran into a procession of people of all ages, holding branches of what appeared to be pussy willow; it was Palm Sunday.  Watching the small stream of worshipers reminded me of my own church’s Palm Sunday parade, from which I was very far away.  With the comfort of seeing a familiar tradition and a nostalgia for home, I acknowledged Palm Sunday and the true meaning of my week-long break as I approached the holiday-oriented, yet non-religious, Old Town Square Easter market.

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View of the Easter market from the Astronomical Clock

“Whip it!”

Prague’s Old Town Square is usually empty for the people of the city to roam.  At this time, however, the square was alive with the commotion of the Easter market.  Jirka explained the day before that nearly 70% of Prague’s population does not identify with a religion, and that the market in the square solely celebrated the commercial, Paegen traditions of Easter.  Of the many “Easter” associations, like painted eggs and barnyard animals, promoted in the square, one particular Prague practice was especially interesting.  Wholly unrelated to the Christian origins of Easter, the people of Prague participate in the springtime tradition of whipping.  On Easter Monday, boys carry a bundle of branches around the town, seeking out girls to whip.  In return, the females would usually bake a sweet treat for the boy who whipped them, though in today’s time, there are far fewer gifts of thanks from the females.  I could not believe that this behavior still happened in the 21st century, but Jirka confirmed its validity, noting that he participated last year!

Whipping horrors aside, the Easter market itself was delightful.  Though the air was chilly and the sun hid behind the clouds, the sights, smells, and sounds of the square made me happy to be in Prague.  Rows of stalls of painted eggs and other handmade Easter gifts surrounded a large egg tree and small petting zoo.  Around the perimeter of the square, delicious scents of smokey sausage, sweet trdelník, and other Czech dishes wafted from the tiny, pop-up shops.  My friends and I were lucky enough to encounter the magic of  music for the second time that day, as a folk band played original tunes that complimented the Czech Easter market event.  I am unable to capture with word or image the joyfulness, wholesomeness, or overall pure Prague-ness of the market; it is simply something you must experience yourself!

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Folk musicians at Prague’s Easter market

“Rub it for good luck.”

After covering most of Prague’s most important sites right of the river, we planned for our second day to be spent on the left.  This time, we paid for another SANDEMANs tour, now to the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, again, coincidentally, with Jirka.  Our first 3-hour SANDEMANs tour was long, but tolerable; the second one was not.  Jirka was, like the day before, a great guide, but the tour was lacking substance and not at all worth the money.  Though the frigid temperatures were out of anyone’s control (and something that we hadn’t accurately prepared for for SPRING break), the weather, paired with the underwhelming program, made the 120-minute experience unbearable.  The tour of the castle and cathedral consisted simply of walking around the castle’s public courtyards and viewing the cathedral from the outside.  Without any indoor aspect to the tour, we were confused as to what we had paid for.

Jirka recommended dinner at Restaurace U Dělového Kříže for the best, authentic Czech food.  I cannot judge if it is the best, because it is the only authentic Czech food I ate during my stay, but this hole-in-the-wall checked “eat authentic Czech food” off of the list.  My dish consisted of a potato pancake, folded omelette-style, over chicken and vegetables.  The best I can compare it to is stir-fry wrapped in hash browns, which ended up being a delicious combination.

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When it came time to leave Prague, I could not wait to travel to warmer weather, but I was reluctant to leave this city that surpassed all of my expectations.  Prague went from somewhere I hardly cared to see, to a place where I almost felt at home.  With its mix of Slavic and Germanic influences, I felt comfortable, and even proud of, my Lithuanian and German roots.  A large part of my enjoyment of the city also came from the Easter market.  It gave the city a liveliness despite the gloomy weather.  I do not know what the city is like at other times of the year, but it seems that the Christmas and Easter markets are fantastic attractions. Otherwise, save yourself from the frostbite and visit in the summer!

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My final view of Prague, from behind the Prague Castle

Travel Tips

  • Prague is a walkable city.  Even though on a map it may seem impossible to cover the entire town, it can be done.  The only time we used public transportation was for our SANDEMANs castle tour, when our guide brought us up to the Prague Castle via tram.  We also took the tram to the Czech restaurant immediately following the castle tour, with direction from our guide.  Otherwise, it is very feasible to travel by foot in Prague.
  • Don’t count somewhere out just because it’s not your usual idea of exciting.  To be honest, I was less than eager to go to Prague.  I didn’t understand what was there for me.  Never again will I doubt a European travel experience.  Everywhere has something to offer, even if you can’t currently imagine what it is.  Though it wasn’t a sunny, tropical beach or an elegant, fast-paced metropolis, Prague appealed to a side of myself that I didn’t know I had.

 

Destination Locations

 

 

Pokoj, Láska, Praha

A.J.H.