A Semester in Prague: Week 2

My first week in Prague was mostly dedicated to the touristic side of Prague: the unique architecture, the beer culture, and the fascinating history of the city. My second week took us behind the scenes of Prague a bit more and showed us the alternative culture of Prague. We started the week with an “alternative tour” around Prague, showing us more of the up and coming culture, and the life of the younger generations. Since Prague has had a fairly rocky history, it is just now starting to boom with hipsters and a more art centered population. Having a tour guide that was heavily involved with the youth of Prague gave us such a good understanding of the ideas and movements that are emerging from Prague.

We started the tour by seeing the Invader installation on a side street in Prague. This kind of guerrilla art was all over the city. We then made our way to one of the many legal graffiti walls in Prague. The graffiti here was quite beautiful and the juxtaposition between the old historic buildings and the street art below was quite interesting. It was also cool to learn the street rules of graffiti, one of them being that you can’t paint over someone’s work that is better than your own. This way more respected and skilled artist’s work can have a longer lifespan.

We then walked to three very interesting “hipster” spots near our dorm. The first was was an old slaughterhouse that had been converted into a cafe and theater. They kept a lot of the authenticity of the slaughterhouse when the renovated it, and a good deal of the art inside was created from recycled materials. The second spot was a classic American hipster joint. There was coffee, clothing, artwork, and lots of exposed brick. The third spot was a bar, Cross Club, that was created by a bunch of steam punk artists. It was very cool, all recycled materials.

On Tuesday, we went to the theater and watched the movie Anthropoid. The movie highlighted the Operation Anthropoid, the code name for the mission to assassinate the third highest Nazi official (behind Hitler and Himmler), Reinhard Heydrich that took place here in Prague. It was carried out by Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, two Czechoslovakian soldiers in exile in Great Britain who parachuted into the city. When the time came to complete the mission, Josef’s machine gun jammed, and Jan’s modified grenade didn’t get a direct hit, although did injure Heydrick. They fled to a nearby church, Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius, where they (and 5 other parachuters) hid in the crypt and took turns on lookout in the balcony. The Nazi troops stormed the church after a long manhunt (I’m really shortening the story) and had a fierce gun battle with the parachuters, who eventually committed suicide to avoid being captured.

After watching the movie, we were able to visit the church where the shootout happened, and stand in the crypt where the parachuters were hiding. It was a very surreal experience to be in a place where so much history had taken place, and amazing that it had been preserved so well. I was silenced at the sight of the bullet holes that are still present around the small window into the crypt. It was a piece of WWII history that I had never learned and to be able to experience it in such a unique and very real way was quite a memory. Its a very interesting story and although rather gruesome, I highly recommend WWII history buffs to give it a watch.

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When we exited the church we saw the famous Dancing House building just down the road, so we walked down to see it. Our tour guide from the Alternative Tour was telling us that the Czech people are very proud of any modern architecture that makes its way into the city. Everyone comes to Prague to see the historic architecture, but many people in Prague, especially the younger generation, take pride in their modern architecture because its new and exciting to them.

On Wednesday, we did a spray paint/graffiti/street art workshop with our tour guide from the Alternative Tour. We each got to cut out a stencil, and create our own spray paint masterpiece. It was a lot of fun, but so cold outside where we did it! On Thursday, we all gathered as a group and presented some photos that we took during that week and shared our graffiti with everyone.

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On Friday, we made our way to Salzburg, Austria where they filmed the Sound of Music. After quite an adventure of finding the bus station, we loaded up and set off on a 6 hour drive from Prague to Salzburg. I slept for most of the journey, but my waking moments were spent smiling about the completely white landscape (thanks snow!) and the gorgeous Alps. When we arrived we headed out on the town. We stayed in an AirBnB that was only about 15 minutes from the center of the town so we were able to walk to everything. We ended up walking on the main shopping street, popping into cute stores (my favorite being one that sold exclusively hand-decorated egg ornaments) and taking lots of pictures.

The next morning, we woke up fairly early and started planning out our day. We had watched The Sound of Music a few nights before and I was very excited to live out some of my childhood dreams. We made it into the center and just started wandering around. It was snowing off and on throughout the day which only made Salzburg more magical.

Early in our walk around Salzburg, we stumbled upon the Salzburg Cathedral. We weren’t really looking for it, but when we found it, it was absolutely beautiful. The inside was absolutely stunning and beautifully ornate. I lit a candle for my Opa, a tradition that I learned from my Oma and try to keep going whenever I visit a Catholic church. I don’t personally have Catholic beliefs, but the sentimentality of lighting a candle always makes me a bit emotional.

On our way out of the Cathedral, we spotted a tram making its way up to the castle. Since we had given up on the idea of taking a gondola to the top of a nearby mountain, we splurged and took the tram to the castle. The view from the top was absolutely stunning. We were able to see the entire city and on the other side was the Alps. My heart was jumping up for joy at the sight of those mountains and I still think its the best view I’ve ever seen, sorry Roan Mountain.

We stared at the gorgeous view for quite some time before making our way into the castle walls. The castle was preserved as a museum and had a bunch of artifacts from the castle’s history. There were replicas of the grounds, gowns and garments from several time periods, and a whole room dedicated to WWII.

The last part of the day was spent ticking of Sound of Music bucket list items. We walked across the Mozart Bridge, sang the songs along the Salzach river, and jumped on the stairs at Mirabell Gardens. We headed back into the shopping street at the end of the day, and split up to save time. I stopped into a few souvenir shops and found a good collection of postcards for the family and playing cards for the collection.

We headed back to Prague on Sunday in the snowy, cold weather. We left with plenty of time to spare just incase there was a problem with the public transportation. We ended up getting to the bus station an hour early and had to wait out in the snow for the bus to arrive, which I think was a major contributor to my deep cough and stuffy nose. Oh well, it was well worth the sickness.

I’m still planning weekend trips and now that classes have started, I’ll be a bit busier during the week, but so far I’m loving this experience.

P.S. I’ll be updating this blog weekly, but you can follow my day-to-day adventures on Instagram: @aninavdv

 

Pompeii, Italy

When Italy was mentioned as a potential country to visit, it was my brother who suggested we visit Pompeii. It hadn’t really crossed my mind as a option, but once he brought it to my attention, I was obsessed with the idea. I’ve always been fascinated history and I think it stems back to my love for Magic Tree House books as I was growing up. Visiting Pompeii definitely made me feel like I was going on an adventure with Jack and Annie and their magic tree house.

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We got to the city of Pompeii, found our AirBnB for the night, and then started walking around the town a bit. We were almost immediately approached by a tour company, and as the bunch of polite southerners we all are, we stopped and let them give us their spiel. We usually aren’t the type of travelers that explore with a tour group, but it became apparent that the cheapest and easiest way to get to the top of Mount Vesuvius would be to go with them. So we got in their van and they drove us to the top of the volcano. This is where I discovered that I could in fact get car sick and after the 20 painful minutes of being whipped around the tight curves of the Italian roads I was so grateful to be on solid ground for a minute.

Unfortunately, when we got to the top of the mountain, a big cloud rolled in and we completely lost all visibility. I felt a bit disappointed that we had gone through all the trouble to get to the top of Mount Vesuvius and couldn’t actually see anything. But the cloud did lend itself to an other-worldly experience of the top of the volcano and it felt a bit like we were on Mars! And anyway, I don’t know many people who can say that they’ve been to the top of Mount Vesuvius! … an active volcano just waiting to erupt! (after discovering that Mount Vesuvius is in fact an active volcano, I immediately felt more bad ass and just want everyone to know that I live life on the edge. haha)

After another tummy-turning ride back to the bottom of Vesuvius, we headed to a recommended restaurant I Matti and had our first real Italian pizza. And let me tell you, you have not had pizza until you have had an authentic Italian pizza. I have never tasted something so delicious and fresh.

The next day, after a relaxing morning, we headed to the entrance of the Pompeii ruins. It was so surreal to see the city and walk the streets that I had read about in history books. It didn’t feel real! When we walked in and just started exploring. There was nothing that was off limits, and we soon found ourselves lost in the ruins of a house on a small road. It was kind of fun that within this very touristic site, you can create your own experience of the place without a large crowd constantly around every turn. We only had a small map of the site with very little detail but we managed to find our way to all the major sites within the ruins.

After walking around for several hours, we finally found the casts of the preserved bodies that make Pompeii so famous. It was crazy to think that those people lived in the houses we had been exploring all day and walked on the very same cobblestone streets that we had walked. We finished our self guided tour around Pompeii, and finished by visiting the amphitheater that looked almost perfectly preserved. It is also the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater, older than the Colosseum in Rome by over a century!

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After a long day of walking, we were all exhausted and headed back to the AirBnB. We walked to the grocery store and picked up a few snacks, then called it an early night and watched Shrek until we fell asleep. Pompeii was such an experience, and I couldn’t wait for the next few days in Italy and all the pizza and pasta that we were sure to consume.

I made a short video documenting our tour through Italy that you can watch here.

Barcelona, Spain

The second city on our Europe tour was Barcelona, one of my new favorite cities. We had a little bit more time in Barcelona, and I feel like both the addition of half a day and a bit more planning lead to a much better experience in Barcelona.

We were staying with a family friend, and they gave us a few suggestions on places to go, and things to see. The first day we got there we wandered down to Las Ramblas in attempt to go down to the beach. Las Ramblas were fairly crowded, so we walked quickly down to the bottom and grabbed an ice cream before walking for a bit on the boardwalk. About halfway on our walk to the beach it started to rain, so we turned back to head home.

The next day, we booked our tickets to go see La Sagrada Familia. We had the morning to explore more of Barcelona, so we headed out to the streets with a basic idea of what to see per suggestion of our family friends. We explored the Gothic Quarter and finished at the Barcelona Cathedral. The architecture was absolutely stunning in the Gothic Quarter, and there were decorative details at every turn.

When we were getting closer to our ticket time for La Sagrada Familia, we hopped in a taxi and drove across town. We made sure we got there with some time to spare so that we could view the outside and take some time to admire the architecture before we went inside. We walked all the way around the building, which is still under construction after 131 years. The exterior of the basilica is stunning, but I was not at all prepared for the design and scale of the interior. It was absolutely breath taking, and I was completely mesmerized by the stained glass windows.

After visiting La Sagrada Familia, we hoped in a taxi again and headed to another of Gaudi’s most famous works: Park Güell. We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the park, and admiring the architecture and the views. The park was a nice escape from city life, and was beautifully landscaped.

While we didn’t spend the money to venture onto the terrace, we didn’t find it necessary with the amount of land to cover. We hiked all the way to the top of the steep hillside and back down again making a full circle around the park. The sunshine and warm weather definitely made the experience that much better.

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On our last night, we took the kids out for dinner. We also met up with one of Marguerite’s friends from college who had been living in Barcelona. We had a lovely night and spent a lot of good time catching up.

I fell in love with Barcelona and I honestly can’t wait to go visit again. There was just something about the bright positivity of the city that I can’t resist. I highly recommend visiting if you ever have the chance.

Madrid, Spain

Beginning last November, my sister (Marguerite) and I started planning our yearly trip to Europe with two new additions to our group. My brother (Olson) and his girlfriend (Sam) decided to join us this summer, only to add more fun to our adventures. For the past few summers, my sister and I have traveled to the Netherlands in the short time period between school and summer camp to visit our family. As we’ve gotten older and more adventurous we have added countries to our trips, always experiencing new things and visiting friends abroad. This summer, we all decided to check Spain and Italy off our travel bucket lists. We had about a week and a half of travel, so we found four cities that piqued our interest the most, and started planning.

Our first city was Madrid, Spain. One of my best friends from boarding school lives there, so I used our trip as an excuse to go see her. Unfortunately, we didn’t plan our trip very well and we came right in the middle of her final exams, but we did get to see her for a bit. We didn’t do a whole lot of planning for Madrid, and weren’t really sure what we should be going to see. So a lot of our time was spent just wandering the streets.

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On our first night, after a bit of miscommunication and confusion with our AirBnB hosts, we finally arrived at our AirBnB and were ready for dinner. We were not fully acquainted with the cultural differences in Spain, and when we arrived at this restaurant at nearly 8 p.m. we were shocked to find out that they were not serving dinner yet. Luckily they opened just a few minutes later and we were able to have our first true Spanish meal. This place was recommended by our AirBnB hosts, and it was absolutely delicious, plus who couldn’t turn down a restaurant with such an appealing look! We ended the night with a stroll around and a first taste of Madrid, as well as a cone of gelato before making our way back to the apartment.

 

The next morning, after a bit of research, we decided to visit the train station, the The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and Plaza Mayor. These things were all relatively close to our apartment, and we were able to knock out all of these sights before noon.

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We were starting to get a bit hungry and were looking for a place to rest for a minute. Knowing that Spain is known for its churros, we found the Chocolatería San Ginés which just happens to be one of the most famous spots for churros in Madrid! I definitely recommend stopping by and getting yourself some churros here. Also, the hot chocolate is a necessity for the churros, and no, it isn’t like American hot chocolate. Haha.

 

After a quick churros break, we headed back onto the streets, looking for Puerta De Sol. I think we were all a bit overwhelmed by the crowds (we are used to the quiet Appalachian mountains) to fully enjoy Puerta de Sol, and we decided to do a little shopping on the back streets of Madrid after that.

After some shopping and walking around all day, we were tired so we headed back to our AirBnB to take a quick rest before having dinner with my friend Sandra.

 

At around 8, we met up with Sandra, and had tapas at a restaurant I can no longer remember the name of. It was so nice getting to see her again after two years, and having someone who actually spoke Spanish to be our translator. Our limited Spanish was getting us by, but it was nice to have that person to actually know what was going on.

We realized after expressing our disappointment with Madrid with her, that we had not gotten a true experience of Madrid. I am definitely eager to go back and visit the city with a bit more knowledge and preparation. I would say that one day is definitely not enough time to truly experience a city, and I will definitely be making another trip.

The next morning though we were hopping on a train to Barcelona and our time in Madrid had come to an end. If you are planning on taking a trip to Madrid, definitely plan to have a few days to explore the city. We only saw a small section of the city, and unfortunately that section of the city wasn’t quite what we were expecting.