Category Archives: Europe

Getting Acquainted

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, so I thought I’d take the time to quickly update what’s been going on.

On our first weekend here, we ventured out into Florence to acquaint ourselves with the city. From the Villa (and from my apartment), it’s pretty easy to get into the city center via bus.

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Alan, our director, gives the story behind Ospedale degli Innocenti, which was originally a children’s orphanage.

We also found the public library in Florence, where many Italian students go to study and hang out with friends. (It looks quite different from the libraries that I know!)

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First up-close view of the Duomo!

First up-close view of the Duomo!

And, of course, this isn’t Florence without stumbling upon a statue or two.

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Sorry for the nudity, Grandma! It’s in the name of art!

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I also got my first gelato of the semester at a place near Piazza della Signoria.

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Over the weekend, I also moved into my host family’s apartment. More photos of that later, but it’s been a wonderful experience so far!

The outside of the apartment building

The outside of the apartment building

During orientation, Alan took us on a “walking tour” of Fiesole. Turns out, it was more of a hike than a walking tour, but that’s just semantics. We hiked up to Piazzale Leonardo, where Leonardo Da Vinci famously tested out his flying machines.

On Sunday, we had some time to get lost in the city, armed with a map in hand. One of the highlights was crossing the Arno right at sunset, when the sun casts a beautiful golden glow over the buildings.

Last week, we began our first week of classes, a fairly condensed schedule since we only have class four days a week. After my Italian class every morning, I have some combination of the other three courses that I’m taking this semester: a government course on EU Identity and Globalization, a history course on the Late Renaissance, and another government course on Italian Politics since 1796. In between, I get some reading done in the library or music room at the Villa.

On Wednesday, I tagged along with the Art History class to visit the Bargello and Uffizi––two of the great art museums located here in Florence. Last Friday, we took a group field trip to meet local artists and paint our own scarves for our City of Florence class, a 1-credit course that encourages us to get out and explore an aspect of the city.

Over the weekend, Julia and I decided to jump right into sightseeing, pulling off an exhausting 12-hour day at Museo dell Piedre Dure, Museo di San Marco and the church, and several more hours at the Uffizi. I also bought a student annual pass, which will hopefully allow for many more museum visits over the next several months. We put it to use on Sunday, by going to visit Michelangelo’s iconic David at the Accademia.

A doppo!

Benvenuti a Firenze

I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I signed up for this. And I mean that in the best way possible––I never imagined that on this Tuesday morning* I would be sitting in an high backed leather chair in a 100-year-old library, sipping my tea with a view of Florence and the Villa gardens. I savor these moments because they are accompanied with the scary realization that I don’t know when else I will be treated this well again. After you spend days wandering around the winding streets of Florence, is it only downhill from there?

Philosophical waxing aside, it’s been a whirlwind couple of days as I’ve settled in, adjusted to the effects of jet lag, and began classes for the semester. I’ll write more on that later, but first it’s time to recap how I got here.

I left San Francisco on an early 6 o’clock flight to Chicago on Wednesday morning, before connecting to my transatlantic flight to Frankfurt. Luckily, despite the weather woes that plagued most of the United States, I managed to make both of my connections. My flight in Chicago was delayed two hours––a nerve-wracking experience when your connection is only two hours to begin with––but we managed to make up enough time in the air so that I was able to reach my gate in Frankfurt with time to spare.

I finally arrived in Florence early on Thursday morning, after watching the sunrise over the peaks of the Alps. When the plane broke through the cloud cover to land in Florence, I was captivated by the rolling green hills and farmland of the Tuscany countryside. So this is it, I thought to myself.

I collected my luggage and got a taxi to Fiesole by myself, as the two others who were supposed to have been on my flight had been delayed elsewhere. The taxi driver raced up the winding road to Fiesole, which lies on a hill above the city of Florence. He’d repeatedly accelerate madly to try to make a green light, then laugh and look in the rearview mirror to see my reaction. “Vroom, vroom,” he laughed at me, as we sped through a narrow one-way alley. I nervously laughed and gripped the side of the car.

Finally, we arrived at Villa le Balze itself, whose name literally means “Villa of the Cliffs” after the cliffs it is situated on.

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Street view of Villa le Balze

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After arriving, I met the Villa staff, processed some paperwork for my permit to stay in Italy, and got a tour around the grounds themselves. Exhausted, I then promptly fell asleep as I waited for the others to arrive.

Around lunch time, I met Taylor, who will also be doing a home stay this semester. (There are only three of us out of the group of 14.) After having some lunch, we decided to explore the gardens. Of course, my camera was in tow:

Afterwards, we decided to walk further up the hill towards Fiesole, where we heard there was a fantastic lookout. And indeed, there was:

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At dinner, we had our first group meal in the dining hall as everyone struggled to stay awake after days of travel.

For me, it’s strange to be embarking on this whole experience of study abroad once again––thrown into a whole new group of people after I had been so accustomed to other eight with whom I lived, studied, and traveled in Turkey. Once more, I’m living amidst unfamiliarity, with a group, a country, and a language that I don’t quite know. But at the same time, it’s exciting to embrace this change one more time.

Ciao!

* At the time I’m posting this, it’s currently Thursday evening. Unfortunately (and fortunately), it can be hard to find time to figure out how to upload all the photos to WordPress when one’s days are filled with class and afternoons are filled with exploring Florence by foot.

On the Road (Airway?) Again: Countdown to Firenze

It’s strange to be leaving again.

My huge purple suitcase is once again stuffed with a semester’s worth of stuff. I’ve got my system down at this point. In fact, I hardly unpacked at all during the two weeks that I’ve been home. It only took several hours this afternoon to throw everything back in, replacing the shorts and dresses that were my staples in Alanya with clothing more suited for the rain and cold of a Firenze spring.

With my bags all packed, I’m now utilizing every outlet in my room as I charge up all the electronics for the travel marathon that commences tomorrow at 3:30 a.m., which is when I need to leave my house in order to make my early morning flight out of San Francisco. From there, I’ll stop in Chicago and Frankfurt before finally touching down in Florence on Thursday morning. (That is, if everything goes to plan!)

Over these past couple weeks, I’ve been so busy savoring my time with family and friends that I haven’t really had much time to reflect on all the wonderful experiences I had in Turkey last semester. And so, as I’m preparing to leave for Italy, it’s not California that I’m starting to feel homesick about, but Alanya.

I unpacked my duffel bag this afternoon to find the picture frame that my Turkish host family gave to me at our last dinner in December. Next to it, I found the beautiful blue, loopy scarf that my host mother had knitted for me. I am incredibly thankful for the charming people and culture that welcomed me to Turkey––encouraging my attempts to make conversation with my broken Turkish, cooking endless amounts of food and sweets, and inviting me into their homes and businesses. I hope that my experience this semester amounts to even just half of that.

I’ll be actually living with a host family this semester––something that both excites and terrifies me at the same time. While last semester I went to my host family’s flat for dinners and hung out with my host sister in town, now I will be living, sleeping, and eating with my new Italian host family. I’m excited to explore and have time away from the Villa in this sense, since that physical separation between home and school was absent in Turkey, where we did everything in the same building. I cannot wait to have my own Italian family, but I’m nervous about the logistics of living in a stranger’s home.

That being said, I cannot wait to explore the city of Florence itself and to touch and feel its centuries of influence as one of the great cultural capitals of the world. I cannot wait to rome its streets, capture its words on paper and its beauty in photographs. I splurged on a couple of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides for Florence and Italy, and I’ve been pouring over the photographs and drawings. Though they take up several precious pounds in my suitcase, I hope to try out some of the self-guided walking tours for myself. And then, there’s some places that I’ve already bookmarked. I can’t wait to picture the Medicis at home in Fiesole, explore the bizarre taxidermied collection of the Museo Zoologico La Specola, or marvel at Renaissance art.

I’m truly thankful for the incredible opportunity that I have to continue my adventures abroad in Italy. I hope to build off my one semester of Italian to become somewhat conversational in this beautiful language. I hope to learn not only about what Italy meant in the past, but what it means today in global politics. But above all, I hope to have time to wander and savor the country and its people.

Into Occupied Territory

The Turkish and the TRNC flag

After our day in Adana/Mersin, we got on a flight the next morning to fly to Cyprus, or more specifically, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a self-declared state that comprises the northeastern half of the island. Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey, while rest of the international community considers it an occupied territory of the Republic of Cyprus.

After centuries of Ottoman than British rule, united Cyprus gained in independence in 1960, with a constitution that designated specific administrative roles to Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Unfortunately, this unity didn’t last long. By 1963, most Turkish Cypriots had vacated their government positions in opposition to a series of amendments proposed by President Makarios. Violence erupted between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, often between former neighbors, with significant casualties on both sides.

In 1974, the military junta back in Greece supported a coup d’etat of the Greek Cypriots, which removed Makarios from office and replaced him with Nikos Sampson. Under the 1960 treaty that created Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, and Great Britain had signed on as guarantors. Using this as legitimization, Turkey invaded the island in July 1974 under the pretense of protecting the Turkish Cypriot population. The army preceded to take over roughly 37% of the island, which remains divided even today by the “Green Line,” a border that UN forces continue to patrol. In 1975, the Turkish Cypriots declared a separate state, which was rejected by the Republic of Cyprus and the United Nations.

And so, almost 40 years later, the island remains paralyzed by this separation. In the meantime, a whole generation of Cypriots has grown up in this division. While there have been decades of relative peace, Turkey still maintains a large military force in the territory. The Turkish invasion and occupation of the TRNC continue to be condemned by the UN Security Council each year.

In 2004, when Cyprus was admitted into the European Union, it did so without resolving the conflict that continues to divide the island. In the same year, Cypriots voted on the UN-proposed Annan Plan to reunite the island, which was put to the people as a referendum. Interestingly, the proposal was supported by 65% of Turkish Cypriots, while 76% of Greek Cypriots opposed the plan. As it remains, there seems to be little impetus to finally reach a solution in Cyprus, even as the division approaches its 40th anniversary.

Nevertheless, if Turkey ever wants to join the EU itself, its accession hinges on its ability to reach a solution in Cyprus. At the moment, several chapters of the accession talks are closed until a resolution is met. (This is one of the issues that we’ve been discussing in my class on Turkey and the EU.)

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We arrived in Cyprus on a beautifully clear day, and immediately drove to Famagusta,  a city on the east coast of Cyprus. After lunch (and some amazing dessert), we had some time to walk around the old part of the city.

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In the heart of Famagusta, I was surprised to find an old, gothic-style cathedral. While today it is known as the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, it was built as Saint Nicholas’s Cathedral between 1298 and 1400 A.D. by the French Lusignan dynasty, who ruled Cyprus during the Middle Ages. It was consecrated as a Catholic cathedral in 1328, then converted into a mosque after the Ottomans captured Famagusta in 1571. It remains a mosque even today––check out the inside!

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The city itself was beautiful, as well.

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However, a part of Famagusta remains abandoned to this day. Prior to 1974, the Varosha quarter of Famagusta was once the number one tourist destination in Cyprus. However, during the invasion, its primarily Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled, leaving behind their houses and extensive tourist developments. Today, no one is allowed to enter the area besides military personnel, leaving the huge hotels and apartment complexes empty.

You can only drive by the outskirts of the quarter by bus, so I wasn’t able to get too many good photos. Here are some I found online:

So eerie!

Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel, where we had the opportunity to talk to a Turkish Cypriot family whose son was a student of one of our professors. It was fascinating to hear their stories, but also heartbreaking to hear about how former neighbors could suddenly turn into such enemies.

After dinner, Alex and I went exploring around our hotel in Girne, going a walk that ended up being a 2-hour fast-walking (because we don’t walk any other way) odyssey where we managed to get lost, twice. We ended up at our hotel later absolutely exhausted.

The next morning, we decided to try at it again, and went exploring down by the harbor in Girne.

Afterwards, the group met with a representative from the EU Coordination Organization in Nicosia, the group who is working on aligning the laws of the TRNC with EU acquis––an interesting arrangement, considering that the EU officially doesn’t recognize the TRNC.

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The man who talked to us actually was trained and educated as an attorney in England, before he moved to Northern Cyprus to work as a law professor. Now, his specialty is intellectual property law, where his task is to comb through old laws (many dating back to the British colonial period) and make recommendations about how to bring them up to match EU acquis.

After our discussion, we then had the opportunity to cross the Green Line itself. Since the border opened up in 2004, movement between the two sides of the island is relatively easy––although I had to show my passport and get a stamp before crossing through.

(I edited out my personal information.)

(I edited out my personal information.)

Once we passed through to the Republic of Cyprus, suddenly we were inundated with all the symbols of Western consumerism: Starbucks, McDonald’s, Coldstone, Topshop. Instead of Turkish, many signs were in Greek in addition to English. The streets were packed with all kinds of shoppers––since the borders opened in 2004, many Turkish and Greek Cypriots regularly cross the borders to go shopping on the other side.

At this point, I have a confession to make. After months of Turkish food, there was nothing that sounded better than some McDonald’s fries. And so, Alex, Amanda, and I caved and went to McDonald’s for lunch.

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Since we had already made the jump, we figured that we might as well finish off our meal allowance with Starbucks. (In Turkey, most of the coffee we drink is the powdered Nescafé stuff, so it’s hard to find some normal brewed coffee.)

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There’s something comforting about the fact that every Starbucks you go to looks exactly the same, down to the comfy arm chairs and music soundtrack.

And then to top it off, we headed back to the McDonald’s to get some McFlurries for dessert.

Feeling somewhat sick, we spent the rest of our time in the RoC walking around the streets and looking into all the shops. But after 4 months on the Turkish Lira, I’m fairly stingy on my purchases when it comes to how expensive things are on the euro––next semester in Italy is going to be a rude awakening having to pay for everything in euros.

We headed back over to the other side of the border to meet up with the group, then took a bus ride over to Bellapais, a small village in Northern Cyprus. The village is home to the site of the Bellapais Abbey, built by the French, that has a long view down to the Mediterranean Sea.

After that, we headed to the airport for our flight back to Antalya. We happened to be in the airport at the same time the Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş soccer game was going on, so everyone in the airport was glued to the two televisions that were showing the game. So much so, in fact, that the airport employees were so involved in the game that someone neglected to display our flight on the screens until 10 minutes before our flight was scheduled to leave.

With a short flight over the Mediterranean, we were soon on the bus ride home to Alanya, getting ready for our final stretch here in Turkey.

Sunset on the Danube

In Vienna, every time we tried to navigate our way through the U-Bahn, we commenced a kind of game of verbal gymnastics, struggling to pronounce all the German words. This was further complicated by indecipherable name of the metro nearest to our apartment: Taborstaße, with a funky ß character that we had no idea how to pronounce. (Turns out, it’s just a kind of s-sound. You can become a better German speaker than me here.) As we would try to chart our route, we would inevitably stumble over stops like Kettenbrückengasse, Donaustradtbrücke, and Perfektastraße. Of course, this was only made more embarrassing by the fact that most Austrians speak English perfectly, with almost no accent.

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We got up extra early to meet Matt at his metro station at 8 a.m., then jumped back on the metro to head to Schönbrunn Palace, which served as the summer estate for the Hapsburgs. Once on the grounds, we quickly purchased our tickets then took off to explore its grounds.

The Schonbrunn Palace, whose name means “beautiful spring,” has over 1,400 rooms inside this Rococo summer residence from the 17th century. The gardens of the palace stretched on far into the distance. Manicured gardens extended across the back lawn and up this gigantic hill, where we climbed up to have a spectacular view of the estate below. As part of the palace estate, there was also a labyrinth, zoo, and never-ending trails.

After a jaunt through the garden, we headed back into the palace to get a tour of the inside rooms, only to realize that the crowds had significantly grown since we purchased our tickets at opening time that morning. Squeezing our way through the tour groups, we picked up our audio guides and began to walk through the imperial apartments. (Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed!)

We headed back over to Stephanplatz to show Matt around the area and finally find St. Peter’s Church, which we had tried to search for in the afternoon rain the day before but failed. At last, we used the handy GPS from the Trip Advisor app to locate the church, and peeked inside for a quick look. Church #7—check!

When we were walking through the area, we also came across the performance of an Austrian dance group in the street.

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Belvedere Palace was the next stop on our list. Along the way, we found the Turkish embassy!

IMG_2475 We also stumbled upon a Soviet monument. Matt was able to translate it for us: “Monument to the soldiers of the Soviet Army, which for the liberation of Austria from fascism have fallen…” Upon further research, the monument was built in 1945 to honor the 17,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Vienna during WWII.

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Belvedere served as the residence of the Prince of Savoy, today housing two Baroque palaces, the Orangery, and the Palace Stables. We didn’t go inside, but we took the time to walk around the gardens and appreciate the buildings themselves.

Afterwards, we headed back to our apartment for the afternoon to catch up on readings for class. In the evening, Alex and I decided to take the U-Bahn down to see the Danube River, since we hadn’t had a chance to visit it in Vienna yet.

The view from the U-Bahn station––much better than the dark, damp tunnels of DC's metro!

The view from the U-Bahn station––much better than the dark, damp tunnels of DC’s metro!

Like Prague and Budapest, Vienna stretches over both banks of a major river. By the time we arrived, it was just in time to watch the sunset.

Once the sun had set, we quickly took the metro over to meet Matt for dinner. We decided on Pancho, a Mexican restaurant that our host had recommended. Coming from California, I could eat Mexican food every meal of my life and never tire of it—so I was extremely happy to find a substitute for my Mexican fix in Vienna. (And it was surprisingly good!)

Afterwards, we headed over to Café Central, one of the famous coffeehouses in Vienna, for some dessert and coffee.

Because when in Vienna, sometimes you have to do as the Viennese do—with sachertorte and cappuccinos.

The Sound of Music

The hills are ALIVEEEE with the SOUND of MUUUUSIC!

I couldn’t help but replay the Sound of Music soundtrack in my head all day as we spent the day touring Vienna. Granted, Vienna may have been far from the idyllic estate of the Von Trapp family, but I think the breathtaking beauty of this Austrian city deserves only the best Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack to accompany its endless gardens, stately palaces, and towering churches.

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This morning, Alex and I arrived to the train station at the crack of dawn in Budapest—lugging our suitcases through the metro as many people were still coming back home from the night before. We had bought our tickets online several weeks prior through a very confusing Hungarian website—I ended up on the 7:10 train, while Alex ended up on the train the hour before at 6:05.

So, after Alex got on his train, I waited around an hour for my own—buying a chocolate croissant and a “cappuccino” that was really powder and hot water in a cup from the stand at the station.

Once on my train, I almost immediately fell asleep, only waking up periodically to hand my ticket to the conductor to be stamped. Soon enough, I arrived at the train station in Vienna, reunited with Alex, and headed on the metro to meet up with our Airbnb host for the weekend.

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We quickly set our bags down, and then headed out into the city. To make the most of our time here, we had planned our itinerary the night before—today, we planned to conquer most of the major sights in Stephanplatz and visit the Hofburg Palace, which served for many centuries as the palace of the Hapsburgs.

The clouds and rain of the afternoon did little to obstruct the beauty of the city. We couldn’t stop exclaiming at every corner our shock at how the palace grounds just kept stretching on and on—palace next to palace, garden next to garden. More than once, we wandered around a corner to find a new church, then peeking inside for a jawdropping glance at the soaring ceilings and lavishly decorated interiors.

Vienna, or Wien as it’s called in German, is the capital and largest city of Austria, with a population of over 1.75 million. (In fact, it’s the largest German-speaking city in the world after Berlin.) For centuries, it has served as a major political, economic, and cultural center for Europe, as it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s a beautiful and vibrant city, often topping the charts of various quality of living indices. (For example, Vienna has one of the best public transportation systems that I’ve ever been on, with strikingly clean and modern stations all available for a simple 48-hour pass.)

At the Hofburg Palace, we purchased our tickets and began with a tour of the imperial silverware collection. We toured an exhibition on the life of Empress Elizabeth in the Sisi Museum, and finished with a tour through the apartments of the imperial family.

The Hofburg Palace has served as a documented seat of government since 1279, and was used the principal winter residence by the Hapsburgs. Over the years, more wings and buildings were added to form the mini city it is today. Today, in addition to the museum, the complex also houses the official residence of the president of Austria, as well as most of the offices of government ministries.

(Unfortunately, no photos were allowed past the Silverware Collection.)

Afterwards, we continued our stroll around Vienna.

We couldn’t get enough.

At one point, we wandered into the Votive Church, where there had live baroque organ music playing.

For dinner, we met up with Matt, who also arrived into Vienna in the evening by bus. Taking our host’s recommendation, we had dinner at a traditional Austrian restaurant, where the servers even dressed up in lederhosen and they served all types of wiener schnitzel.

Tomorrow, we’re getting up early for another round of palaces—the Schonbrunn Palace and Belevere Palace—then seeing how many other places we can fit in. Time to get some sleep!

One Day in Budapest

Since I was already leaving for Vienna the next morning, I was determined to cram as much as I could of Budapest in my one full day in the city. The best way to accomplish this? Free walking tours!

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Budapest is the capital and largest city of Hungary, with a population of over 1.74 million along the banks of the Danube River. While it once was composed of three different cities––Buda and Óduba on the west bank and Pest on the east––it was unified in 1873 into one: Budapest.

Alex and I got out early to meet up for the start of the morning walking tour. You can find tours like it all across Europe, which are most popular with the young and hostel crowd since they’re only funded by a policy of “pay however much you can” at the end of the tour. We were paired with Anita as our tour guide, and started out for a 3-hour tour of some of the major sights on both sides of the river.

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Anita began our tour with an overview of Budapest’s history, from the seven original tribes of the Hungarian people to their horrendous luck in also being on the losing side of wars over the past centuries. In the 16th century, the Ottomans pillaged Buda and occupied it for 140 years, during which they constructed many of the traditional Turkish baths that you can still find in the city. With the fall of the Austria-Hungary Empire in 1918, Hungary declared itself an independent republic. Hungary once again was on the wrong side of World War II, where it suffered serious damage and remained under Soviet occupation until the fall of the USSR.

Our tour began in the Pest side of the Duma River, slowly making our way over the Chain Bridge to the Buda side, where the old castle and palaces are located.

In our tour group, we quickly became friends with Cindy, a girl from Chile who was about two months into her 3-month solo trip across Europe. She had previously spent two years as an au pair in Massachusetts, and she now was traveling across Europe by couchsurfing and meeting up with old friends.

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After the tour, Cindy joined Alex and me to grab some sandwiches at a local grocery store and eat them near the Fisherman’s Bastion. We walked around a bit, crossing over the bridge and taking lots of photos.

Cindy had to go meet up with her friend, so we said goodbyes and exchanged contact information to stay in touch and exchange photos. Alex and I went on the prowl for some free Wi-Fi and  ended up in the lobby of an extremely posh hotel.

Since we enjoyed our morning walking tour so much, we decided to also meet up for the afternoon Communist walking tour. This time, our guide Anna took us by some of the remaining buildings and monuments from the Communist era, but also told us a lot of anecdotes about life under Hungary’s version of “Happy Communism.”

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In 1949, the Communist Party gained control of Hungary, subsequently enacting an era of state socialism under the influence of Moscow. However, unlike many other countries east of the Iron Curtain,  demonstrations in Budapest in 1956 led to the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution in defiance of the Soviet occupation. In response, the state began to enact several reforms to appease the people––for example, Hungarians were allowed to purchase their own kind of blue jeans and could buy real Coca-Cola at the store. As a result, from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hungary was often satirically referred to as the “happiest barrack” within the Eastern bloc.

Anna shared with us all kinds of stories about life in communist Hungary, such as how the state supplemented two-week vacations for all Hungarians, dubbed James Bond movies in a way that left out all references to Communists as the enemy, and created all kinds of bureaucratic nightmares, such as the arduous seven to 10 year process to buy a car. While Hungarians lacked many types of freedoms, Anna explained the kind of nostalgia for the by-gone era that still persists for many older Hungarians. More than once, Anna commented on the need for a generational change––that it would take several generations to truly instill a “democratic” way of thinking in the country.

After the tour, we scoped out a traditional Hungarian restaurant that we found on Trip Advisor, and ended up having one of the best meals we’ve had on the trip so far—they even had a man playing the harpsichord in the restaurant!

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Afterwards, we walked over to the Buda side of the city once again to get some night shots of the city, especially the Parliament Building.

What a beautiful city!

Ticket to Ride

There’s something magical about trains. You don’t have to worry about ridiculous long security lines; you always have plenty of legroom; and they even have an entire car dedicated to feeding you. On a train, travel doesn’t happen in a vacuum-sealed chamber of screaming babies and persnickety passengers. Travel passes before your eyes—the patchwork of farms and pastures, the small town centers, the trees with their changing colors—so that your journey becomes more than a passage from point A to point B but instead a way to experience the country as you travel through it.

I said goodbye to my parents in Prague this morning to board EuroCity 171 to Budapest, where I was meeting my friends for the rest of the fall break. After a relaxing breakfast at the hotel, I arrived at the train station with my printed out ticket in hand.

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It turns out, my train was running a full 30 minutes late—a condition that wasn’t too much of an inconvenience but made me internally freak out as I convinced myself that I was reading the departure information wrong and the train most definitely left without me. But around 20 minutes after the scheduled departure time, they finally posted the platform number for my train and I practically ran to platform 3S in my antsy anticipation.

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Shortly, my train arrived—an old hunk of steel called the Hungaria, with its faded red utilitarian exterior straight out of the 1960s. I was able to find a window seat in a row by itself, stretching out my feet on the chair directly across from me, with its unique combination of brown carpet and yellow pleather upholstering.

I quickly settled in for the 7-hour journey ahead, catching up on blog posts and tearing through chapters of my book. The train slowly made its way through the Czech Republic and into Brno, then entering Slovakia and passing through Bratislava. By the time we entered into Hungary, it was dark.

At this point, hardly anyone was left on the train, which made it eerily silent as the lights flickered overhead. Maybe it was because I was 6 hours into my ride—or maybe it was because it was suddenly dark outside—but the creepiness factor of the train increased suddenly. Repeatedly, the train kept stopping on the tracks for no apparent reason.

I was incredibly relieved when the train finally pulled into the Budapest-Keleti station, where I found a taxi and gave them the address to the apartment. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my friends since I was almost an hour late for our meeting time, but luckily Alex and Matt were still waiting outside.

I dropped off my stuff at the apartment, an entire two-bedroom flat that looks straight out of an Ikea catalog. I had found the place for super cheap through Airbnb, which connects owners to short-term tenants.

We went out to dinner at a Hungarian restaurant nearby (which honestly isn’t too different from Czech cuisine), before heading back to the flat to get ready to see all of Budapest in a day. Bring it!

What’s all the Praha-ha

We met up with Pavel again in the morning, for our second half of the walking tour around Prague. To begin, we took the metro and tram across the river to Lesser Town to visit the magnificent complex of the Prague Castle.

The Prague Castle sits on a hill overlooking the river, where it has served as the seat of the Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and the presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. It holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 70,000 square meters.

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The castle dates back to the 9th century, where the first walled building was the Church of the Virgin Mary. At the beginning of the 10th century, the rulers began work on the Basilica of St. Vitus, a gigantic gothic church that remained under construction for centuries until it was finally finished some 600 years later. Look at those stained glass windows!

We also toured some rooms inside the castle itself––from the grand coronation room to the offices for the government scribes.

My mom’s favorite part was this row of little houses built into the castle walls––complete with a collection of torture devices (yikes!).

Afterwards, we walked around Lesser Town and visited the Lennon Wall.

Beginning in the 1980s, people began to cover the wall with all kinds of Beatles-inspired graffiti and song lyrics. Under the communist regime, the wall served as a source of irritation. Young Czechs began writing grievances on the wall. Multiple times the wall was painted over, only to be covered again with flowers and lyrics by the next night.

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After the tour with Pavel, we had lunch as we decided what to do for the rest of the afternoon. First stop: the Communist museum!

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The Communist Museum of Prague had a somewhat creepy collection of old artifacts and mannequins, depicting life in Prague during the Communist era. When we had asked Pavel what life was like before the fall of the Communists, he always told us the same thing: “Gray. Everything was gray.” It was fascinating to contrast the photos of drab, ramshackle streets with the beautiful facades of Prague today.

My favorite part of the video was an old documentary that depicted the protests that erupted in Wencelas Square in 1989. Crowds numbering thousands, strong-willed protesters, police brutality… yet all of this underscored by the remarkable success of the subsequent regime change, all with no violence or lives lost.

We also visited the Spanish Synagogue, with its arched ceilings covered with tiny, intricate geometric designs. The synagogue also had a remarkable collection of Jewish artifacts from all over Central Europe. When the Nazis gained control of the synagogue, they had kept a staff working at the museum charged with the task to create three private exhibitions to document many of the Jewish artifacts seized from the territories under Nazi control. All of the museum staff was eventually sent to Auschwitz.

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We had dinner at an Italian restaurant near Old Square, and we then went to the top of the clock tower after dinner to have a view of the city at night.

What a sight!

Czech It Out

After two packed days in Istanbul, my parents and I woke up early this morning to catch a flight to Prague, the largest city and capital of the Czech Republic. Our flight went smoothly, and we arrived in Prague just before noon with a new stamp in our passports.

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Immediately, you could feel the change from the chaos and bustle of Istanbul. While Prague is a large city in its own right, its population of 1.3 million people pale in comparison to Istanbul’s 13 million plus. Its narrow cobblestoned maze of one-way streets keeps most of the cars out of the city center.

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We had lunch at an Italian restaurant just off the Old Town Square—where I scarfed down an entire pizza more as a testament to my gratitude to eat something besides Turkish food than to the quality of the pizza—before meeting up with our guide, Pavel, for an afternoon walking tour of Old Town, New Town, and Josefov.

The four hours that followed took us through a leisurely stroll through the streets of Prague. Repeatedly, I was amazed at the beauty of the architecture of the buildings—a testament to the many centuries of immense wealth and power invested in Prague throughout the centuries. While today it serves as the capital of the Czech state, it has also been the seat of two Holy Roman Empires, the historical capital of Bohemia proper, the capital of Czechoslovakia, and an important city to the Habsburg Monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We began our tour in Old Town Square, slowly wandering over to Wenceslas Square. Wenceslas Square played a significant role as the site of many protests leading up to the Velvet Revolution and subsequent fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.

We then traveled over to one of the most recognizable panoramas in Prague—the view from Charles Bridge, which spans over the Vltava River. The construction of the bridge started in 1357, and served as the only means of crossing the river until 1841. As a result, this crossing helped make Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.

We finished our tour in Josefov, which historically served as the Jewish district of Prague. There still stands a remarkable vaulted gothic synagogue known as the Straronová Synagoga (literally “Old New Synagogue”) that dates back to 1270.

And sometimes, there’s truly no better way to explore a city than on your two feet.

Back in Old Square!

Back in Old Square!