Spring Break – Düsseldorf/Easter

Düsseldorf, Germany

It was important to me that I returned to Madrid on Saturday to properly recognize and celebrate Easter on Sunday.  With this restriction, there were only two flights from Florence to Madrid in our price range, and both had long layovers in Düsseldorf, Germany.  Düsseldorf, then, became our sixth and final city!

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Views of Rheinwiesen State Park from Altstadt, across the Rhine River

After some difficulty with the cab drivers at the airport, prompting the information desk attendant to advise us not to let “those bastards toss us around,” we secured one of the sleek, black, Mercedes Benz taxis, operated by a woman who had to be older than 70.  She brought us to Altstadt, or the Old Town, honking the horn and grunting German frustrations along the way.

Altstadt is a pleasant part of Düsseldorf located on the Rhine River waterfront.  Crowded with people, from bikers and runners to families and elders, the Rhine Promenade was the perfect place to take a travel break.  The Altstadt district also boasts the “longest bar in the world,” (which should be clarified as the longest avenue of bars in the world), so we strolled down the street in search of a restaurant where we could relax.

Aiming to fill our stomachs with hearty German fare before our next flight, we chose, at random, Hausbrauerei Zum Schlüssel, for lunch.  Restaurant in the front, brewery in the back, and filled with people, it seemed like a good option.  I ordered pork schnitzel, which I had never tried before, because it sounded like German thing to do (and it is one of Julie Andrews’ favorite things— has she ever led you wrong?).  The schnitzel, as it turns out, is simply breaded meat, and mine was most certainly frozen before it was served to me.  The side of roasted potatoes, however, was delicious, definitely the best potatoes I’ve ever had.  Corresponding with our get-in/get-out sprint to make the most of our layover, our waitress was also a no-nonsense lady, embodying the stereotypical German way.  Like the taxi driver, she was one of the best women to work with on our hasty schedule.  After paying for our meal (and 6€ for a bottle of water!), we headed back to the airport and flew home to Madrid.

 

Easter

With a long week of travel preceding my Easter Sunday, I was happy to slow down and appreciate the special day.  While away, I had missed most of the traditional Spanish, Semana Santa proceedings, but there was one event left for Pascua.  Performed every Easter in Plaza Mayor, the Tamborada del Domingo de Resurección is a drumming display that symbolizes the trembling of the Earth as Jesus died on the cross.  A different representative group is chosen to play every year, but the musicians customarily don purple, the color of Lent.  I was entertained by the joyful cadences and was impressed by the group’s professionalism, especially considering the age range of performers.  Though it seemed like I was surrounded by more tourists than madrileños, the encompassing presence of God was what mattered most.

After the Easter drums, my roommate and I enjoyed brunch at a restaurant that I had had my eye on for weeks.  La Rollerie, just outside of Plaza Mayor, had attractive decor and an alluring menu.  Too cold to dine outside, we ate in the whitewashed front room adorned with fake but festive flowers and fruit.  I ordered La Rollerie salad of fried Brie and teriyaki vinaigrette, and my friend and I shared the cheese fondue.  Though pricey, the dip was worth it, as we almost ate the entire dish, bread bowl and all.

To end our Easter Sunday, we stopped in La Mallorquina.  One of Madrid’s most popular bakeries, La Mallorquina’s two-story building is always crowded, and so for me, avoided.  For this special occasion, however, we took home a mona de Pascua, or a Spanish pastry bread holding a hard boiled egg, served only on Easter.  I did not eat the egg with the pastry, and my experience has me questioning if anyone actually does…

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Though a holiday church service, preferably closed with the Hallelujah Chorus, is my typical Easter Sunday, I did my best to experience Pascua like the madrileños.

Fun Facts

  • The mother of the girl that I tutor is from a small village outside of Madrid.  When I asked her what she did to celebrate Easter, she explained that she revived a fading Spanish tradition with her family.  The night before Easter, she, her siblings, and their children filled an outfit of old clothes with straw, just like a scarecrow.  This being symbolized Judas.  On Easter, they burned the straw man, punishing him for his betrayal.  I found it an odd practice, especially to promote among children.  Perhaps this is why it is no longer as common as it once was…

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.

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Spring Break – Florence (Part II)

Pursuing a lighter morning in Florence after the night we had in Cinque Terre, my friends and I dropped our plan to visit the Galleria dell’Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David statue, and instead opted for some much needed sleep.  We spent our morning walking from our hotel, across the famous Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, to the Boboli Gardens on the other side of the Arno.

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Ponte Vecchio, reaching across Florence’s river, the Arno

 

Giardino di Boboli

The sun, confirming our pressed-for-time decision to visit the gardens instead of the museum, shone over the sprawling estate of the Giardino di Boboli.  For 10€, tickets included entrance to the gardens, a small porcelain museum, and a costume gallery.  The manicured plants with accompanying statues and fountains made for a pleasant stroll, but the highlight of the gardens was the view from the terrace at the rear of the property.  The most elevated point of the complex yielded perspectives of both the city of Florence and the Tuscan countryside.

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Though my friends and I planned for the gardens, we spent more time than expected in the Pitti Palace costume gallery.  This low-profile feature celebrated Italian women in fashion and design.  I was interested in learning about a few lesser known women in fashion history, and could not pull myself away from the outfits and accessories on display.

 

Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella

My travel research on the city of Florence led me to the discovery of a less popular tourist attraction: the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella.  Established in 1612, the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy is one of the oldest operating pharmacies in the world.  It offers an authentic, back-in-time experience with both corresponding and contrasting products.  One can purchase anything from (almost) original formula stress-relieving mints to up-to-date night creams.  With a price range from 5€ to too much, anyone can bring home a piece of 17th century Florence.

 

Gucci Museo

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Continuing on with our under-the-radar destinations, my friends and I visited the Gucci Museum for a story of true Florentine fashion.  The Friday night reduced rate of 5€ granted us access to all four floors of the museum, displaying chronologically the story of Guccio Gucci.  From luggage, to cars, to handbags, to gowns, visitors learned of the evolution of the Gucci brand and its relationship and impact on the creative world today.  One of my favorite parts of the museum was the Film Foundation feature.  Because of Gucci’s partnership with the Film Foundation, working specifically on film restoration, a room of the museum was dedicated to a generous loop of restored film clips.  A similar experience to that of the costume museum in the Boboli Gardens, it was a pleasant surprise to be interested in an aspect other than what I had anticipated.

 

Trattoria ZàZà

Students studying in Florence recommended Trattoria ZàZà for dinner, an affordable restaurant with an absurdly long menu.  As soon as we sat down, I could tell it was an establishment designed for abroad students: the menu was available via QR code in over five languages, the cheesy decor and dim lighting made it feel like an oversized bar, and there was not a diner over the age of 30.  To share, my friends and I ordered truffle fries, off of their specific Truffle Menu, which were tasty but were in need of more truffle, and baked peppers in special ZàZà sauce, which were bland.  I got a calzone that appeared huge but was really just full of air, and tasted not at all like I was in Italy.  ZàZà is great for a large, specifically international group looking to eat cheap, but the rest of us can do much better.

 

 

Destination Locations

 

 

Pace, Amore, Firenze

A.J.H.

Spring Break – Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre— you’ve either never heard of it, or it’s sitting at the top of your travel bucket list.  Cinque Terre is a cluster of five picturesque, coastal towns in northwestern Italy.  Though the towns themselves are an attraction, the hiking trails linking the villages truly draw the crowds.  The Blue Trail, specifically, connects all five (cinque) “terres” (lands) for an estimated 5-hour adventure.  Many have recently discovered the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so much so that Italian officials have issued a million-person tourist cut.  Lucky to have been able to visit before the implementation of heavy restrictions, I was awe-struck, empowered, and appreciative while hiking in Cinque Terre.  It is one of my favorite travel experiences to date.

My friends and I woke early and took connecting trains from Florence to Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost town of the five villages.  Many recommend ending the hike in this town with its accessible beach as a post-climb reward, but because of the mid-March weather, we would be skipping a dip in the Ligurian Sea.  Research also revealed this end’s leg to be the most difficult, yet had the most beautiful views, so we decided to tackle it first in case unforeseen circumstances changed our plans for the day.  Our anticipation was not wasted, for we discovered that two of the four legs of the trail— the last two, opposite the end where we started— are closed indefinitely for safety reasons.  After a traumatizing hole-in-the-ground, no-toilet-paper bathroom experience (go before you go!), and a confusing start (exit the train station below and continue left for at least ten minutes), we began our Cinque Terre hike on the Blue Trail.

 

 

Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza

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Monterosso al Mare

True to tales of travelers before us, this leg of the hike took about an hour and a half to complete, up vertical stairs, through vineyards and groves of lemon trees, and offering views of both Monterosso al Mare, and the next town, Vernazza.  Though I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery, I was enjoying my fellow hikers almost just as much.  The people on the trail were friendly, helpful, and courteous.  There was a sense of community, like we were all in this crazy endeavor together, and everyone wanted to assure that everyone else was having a good time, because each traveler deserved a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  People aside, it was nearly impossible not to enjoy yourself with the warm weather and fantastic views (that is, what you could glimpse between each strenuous step).

When we arrived in Vernazza, the town was alive with lunchtime activity.  My friends and I bought some fruit from a small, local shop and sat at the port for a snack.

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Vernazza

 

Vernazza to Corniglia

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Vernazza

Our next, and unfortunately final, leg of the hike was another hour and a half.  Though not previously reported, I felt that the second leg was equally as difficult, if not more difficult, than the first.  Also, contrary to what I had read, I felt that this section of the hike had better views than the first.  Specifically, from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, there were great views of the towns, but Vernazza to Corniglia presented sights of the sea, my personal favorite.

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It was late afternoon when we reached Corniglia, and, because of the closures, the end of our hike.  In need of a sweet treat, my friends and I stopped for some refreshing gelato and wandered around the town.  Covering all of Corniglia did not take long, but it was the perfect place to wind down post-hike.  Those who entered the town via train or bus, however, were underwhelmed.  We heard many non-trail visitors mumble, “Really? This is it!?” while walking into town.  Cinque Terre is by no standards my home, but even I was offended at the other tourists’ musings.  I found it hard to believe that anyone would scoff at spending time in a post-card, Italian town on one of the most beautiful days of spring.  For me and my friends, each town was like a utopia.  The hike was a beautiful journey, and the village was the relaxing reward, earned with my own two feet.  I suppose it is this difference that caused these polarizing perspectives.

The next time you visit Cinque Terre, consider maximizing your experience by adding even the shortest length of the Blue Trail to your itinerary, for you will appreciate your adventure even more.

 

Corniglia to Riomaggiore (by train)

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Riomaggiore

With pre-booked train tickets back to Florence from Riomaggiore, the southernmost town where we had planned to finish the full hike, my friends and I snuck onto the train from Corniglia and took it two cities to our departure location.  With a few extra hours before our train home, we explored Riomaggiore, watched the sunset from a cliffside bar, and enjoyed a decent meal after our long day.

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When the sun went down, however, so did our good fortune.  With wonderful weather, a happy hike, and too-good-to-be-true towns, our good luck was bound to run out.

The journey back to Florence required three train transfers.  We arrived at the Riomaggiore platform for our first train 15 minutes early, just to find that it was delayed 50 minutes.  We did not have enough clothes, or enough patience, to stand outside in the cold after a day of travel, hiking, and sun.  Quick thinking and convenient timing allowed us to take an earlier train to the same, first station.  Crisis averted— or so we thought.

Arrival at the second station revealed that our connecting train had the same 50-minute delay, corresponding with the first.  With no way around this hurdle, tired and weary, we accepted the wait in the train station.  It wasn’t long, however, before the station closed, and we were kicked out of the building onto the open-air platform at 9:30 p.m.  Despair set in when we overhead fellow passengers discussing itineraries to Florence; the third train would not be delayed as the other two had.  It would leave as scheduled from the station at 10:30 p.m., and the next train to Florence would not leave until 1 a.m.  If we waited for our delayed train, we would miss our final train, and would have to once again stand by on a platform until the early hours of the next morning.  After our full day, my friends and I were broken and disheartened.  Our sweat had dried, chilling our bodies in the nighttime breeze, leaving us low-spirited and lost.

As if a response to our feeling of rejection, a girl approached us with a group of friends.  She explained that they were in the same situation as we were and would we like to combine groups to maximize the seats in a taxi and split the fare back to Florence.  With this plan, each person would be paying close to 50€, so we declined.  We would be losing money on the tickets for the final train, in addition to the new taxi cost.  She then pointed out that if we left immediately, we could drive the hour to the next station to attempt to arrive in time for the 10:30 p.m. train to Florence; half of the ride would mean half of the price.  This proposal was more appealing.  It only took five seconds of my friends and I staring at each others’ fatigued faces confirmed that we were prepared to pay for the hour-long taxi ride and gamble on the possibility of making it to the station in time.  Racing against the clock, the Italian taxi driver sped through the streets, carrying three American girls and five South Koreans to their destination.  We all but threw our cash at the driver and sprinted through the station, pausing only to find our platform, and leapt up the steps two at a time with fingers crossed that our train would be there.  On our last bit of good luck for the day, the train had not left yet, and we made it home, on time, only 20€ poorer.  Though slightly miserable at the time, it is now a story that I can look back on with bewilderment and amusement (and it was perfect preparation for the Amazing Race— we got this, Mom!).  What a day in Cinque Terre.

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Riomaggiore

 

Travel Tips

  • Just go with it.  The joys of travel come with the stresses of logistics, schedules, and the unknown.  Even with a seemingly perfect plan, problems can, and usually will, arise.  Deal with them as they come, using calm intelligence to guide you towards smart decisions and peace of mind.

 

Destination Locations

  • Cinque Terre

 

Pace, Amore, Cinque Terre

A.J.H.

Spring Break – Florence (Part I)

With time already ticking, my friends and I spent the hours after our morning excursion in Pisa back in Florence to visit some of the local sights.  For 15€, the only option for entrance to any of the monuments, we got Il Grande Museo del Duomo tickets with access to the Cathedral, the Dome, the Bapistry, the Bell Tower, the Crypt, and the museum.  Even though we had the opportunity to see all of the attractions, we didn’t have the time or desire to, and it bothered me that they did not offer individual sight tickets, or a discounted rate for students, like many other locations.  Nonetheless, we made our purchases and waited in line to begin our ascent to the top of the Duomo.

 

“I’m not going to be mentally stable up there so no one talk to me.  When I point to myself, take a picture. “

From hugging the wall on tight overhangs, to squeezing along dark, narrow corridors, to climbing and descending vertical staircases, I am shocked that this experience does not come with a physical and mental health warning!  Many are prepared for the hundreds of steps required to travel to get to the top of the Duomo (463 steps, exactly), but the claustrophobic conditions that the process generates are often unforeseen.  Though I didn’t enjoy invading peoples’ personal space, I embraced the journey and marveled at the age and architecture of the structure that I’d soon be on top of.

The feeling of standing atop the Duomo looking out across Florence isn’t something I can easily articulate.  With unstable legs, both from the climb and from the impressive height at which we stood, my friends and I were quiet, taking in the view.  We then walked the entirety of the Duomo’s deck, and I left with an understanding that this experience was definitely worth paying for.

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We continued on with our ticket to climb the Bell Tower, with less impressive views, but a view of the Duomo, and to visit the Baptistry, with a beautiful ceiling, but an overall underwhelming presence compared to what we had already seen.

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Ready for a hearty meal after a long day, my friends and I went to Ristorante Perseus, a restaurant recommended to us by our hotel receptionist for the region’s specialty, steak Florentine.  As a medium-well kind of girl, I was nervous to try the rare meat,  but when in Florence…

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Steak Florentine

The meat, carved in front of us, wasn’t cooked how I would have preferred, but it was still a tasty steak and a must-try when in Florence.  In addition to the main course, we got grilled vegetables to share, but they were portioned too small for their price.  The restaurant was pleasant, but slightly strange, with a wait staff of middle-aged men and an unidentifiable customer crowd.

After our long day, I could not wait to take a warm shower and unwind.  Just a few minutes into the few moments to myself, though, the lights went out.  I thought perhaps they were on some sort of a timer, so I shouted to my friends, who responded that the power was out in our room, the hallway, and the entire floor.  Though this problem was quickly, yet ambiguously resolved, others with the hotel, Veneto Residence Florence, were not.  Connection to wifi had been weak since the moment we arrived, so I was often unable to contact my friends and family.  Similarly, after the first toilet flush, it would not stop running.  When we brought up the noisy issue to the morning receptionist, she claimed that it was a city-wide occurrence and would be fixed within hours.  We later learned from our familiar, front desk friend that these concerns were unrelated.  The only good thing about the hotel was the friendly evening receptionist, who answered all of our questions, gave us thorough advice about visiting Florence, and always asked us about our stay was.  I strongly recommend avoiding the Veneto Residence Florence, but I do suggest visiting the check-in desk around 6 pm for an amiable chat with a Florentine who knows what he’s talking about.

 

Destination Locations

 

Pace, Amore, Firenze

A.J.H.

Spring Break – Florence/Pisa

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Inter-country travel in Italy is relatively quick, convenient, and cheap.  My friends and I took a train from Venice to Florence without issue, checked into our hotel, and went to the Mercato Centrale for dinner, recommended to us by our hotel receptionist.  Similar to the Mercado de San Anton, the Mercato Centrale sells groceries on the first floor, offers numerous, free-seating food vendors on the second floor, and a sit-down restaurant on the third floor.  The market is a great option for a quick, no-fuss meal.  Surrounding the Mercato Centrale, the Mercato San Lorenzo, a large spread of stalls selling (most likely fake) leather and other souvenirs, offers an outdoor shopping experience, making the area a perfect place to spend the afternoon.

My friends and I spent as much time at the market as possible, waiting out the evening for our late-night/early-morning activity—Florence’s secret bakeries.  The idea behind these conspicuous curiosities is that Florentine bakers begin producing their goods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. in order to deliver the fresh breads and pastries to the distributor shops in time for opening.  These bakers work in unmarked kitchens around the city, but have been sniffed out by hungry party-goes making their way back home.  Those who have visited the secret bakeries share that a quiet knock on the door, a polite request, and a euro will get you a freshly baked pastry, straight from the kitchen.  Though operating without addresses, these not-so-secret locations have descriptions all over the Internet.  Even with the help of many study abroad students before us, though, we were unable to secure a pastry from the secret location we chose to peruse.  Instead of discovering an Italian treasure, we spent thirty chilly seconds outside of an abandoned building before we decided that the lack of sweet scents meant that we’d be going home without snacks.  Disappointed, tired, and cold, we went back to the hotel, vowing to be more prepared should we have the opportunity to try again.

Our first morning in Florence was spent on a train to a half-day trip to Pisa.  We took the regional train to the efficient Pisa San Rossore station, rather than the popular Pisa Centrale station, because it was a shorter walk to the Leaning Tower.  A ten-minute stroll took us to the Piazza del Duomo, with the Tower, the Cathedral, the Baptistery, and the Composanto.  There were two museums too.  I’m glad we only had plans to observe the monuments, because examining the Tower consumed all of our time and attention over the course of our 3-hour visit.  It really is leaning!  Most photos that I have seen do not accurately depict its tilt, but I attempted to capture the awe we felt standing beneath it.

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On our way back to Florence, outside of the Pisa San Rossore station, we stopped to get lunch at a pizza truck.  Though slightly suspicious, we were sold after seeing the flames of the brick oven in the truck.  With their “student menu,” we got a drink and two slices of pizza or calzone for 5€.  I got a slice of pizza with “spicy salami” and a piece of sausage and cheese calzone, and it was the best pizza that I had my entire time in Italy.  I would travel back to Pisa San Rossore just for the pizza truck!

Closer examination of my photos show that the banner above the windshield of the pizza truck reads “Original Italienische Holzofenpizza,” a German phrase.  I have thence come to the conclusion that the best pizza I ate in Italy was German pizza.  What a disappointment.

 

Destination Locations

 

Pace, Amore, Pisa

A.J.H.

Spring Break – Venice

Venice, Italy

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What a difference from Prague!  Leaving the Venice Airport, I immediately felt the sea breeze in my hair and Italian sun on my skin.  My friends and I were already pleased to be Venice, and we hadn’t even gotten into town.

Getting to town, though, was not at all enjoyable.  From the mainland of the Provence of Venice to the town center of San Marco, where my friends and I were staying, we took a 15€ one-way waterbus, a popular choice from the airport.  Maybe it was because we were tired, and hungry, and anxious to see Venice, but this boat ride was miserable.  The waterbus glided by at a little over 5 mph, so the entire trip took a very slow, very long hour.  Additionally, we sat in the bottom of the boat, so we were unable to watch the journey, obscured by opaque, ocean-sprayed windows.

When we finally arrived at the Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square, we were all reminded of Plaza Mayor back in Madrid.  The two areas are similar, large squares lined with countless cafés and shops.  Piazza San Marco, however, is also home to a cathedral tower, the Campanile di San Marco, a clock tower, the Torre dell’Orologio, and the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco, or St. Mark’s Basilica.

 

Albergo San Marco

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Not far from St. Mark’s Square we found our hotel, Albergo San Marco.  Because we were only spending one night in Venice, we wanted to stay as close to the central sights as possible to use our time efficiently and save money on transportation.  Our family-style room had two bedrooms and a spacious bathroom, the most expensive and most luxurious lodging of our trip.  The staff was only average, especially compared to the hospitable Czechs, but the included breakfast was plentiful and convenient.

With such a short time in Venice, my friends and I made sure to explore as much as we could, day and night.

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The next morning, we waited in line to enter St. Mark’s Basilica.  Of all of the religious buildings that I’ve seen in Europe thus far (and I’ve seen a lot), this was the most impressive.  We wanted to go up the cathedral tower, but did not have the time, because we had pre-booked a gondola ride (via viator.com) for that morning.


My friends and I were excited yet skeptical of the gondola cliché, but it was worth it.  The boat brought us through the narrow canals of Venice inaccessible by foot, and around the open areas of the Grand Canal that winds through the city.  If you have free time on a beautiful, sunny day, a gondola ride is the perfect way to explore and enjoy Venice.

 

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The final stop on our Venetian vacation was Antico Forno, a praised pizzeria not far from our hotel.  Though the hours claim availability until 9:30 p.m., we stopped by on our first day in the city around 6 p.m. and found it closed.  When we asked a neighboring shopkeeper if it would reopen later that night, she informed us that it was done for the day.  Our second trip, made around noon, was successful, and we got good-but-not-great slices of Italy’s signature food.  The pizza shop, or, more accurately, pizza window, had very limited seating and a demanding lunchtime crowd.  With unclear hours and mediocre meals, only stop by Antico Forno if you are already in the area.

Visiting Venice is subtle experience, with few sights to see, but much to explore.  A weekend would have been preferred to our few 24 hours!  We got a small taste of life in Venice, but you cannot truly know a city, no matter how small, in such a short amount of time.  Luckily, we would have a greater opportunity to enjoy our next destination.

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Destination Locations

 

Pace, Amore, Venezia

A.J.H.

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.