Greetings from Barcelona! It’s now been over two weeks since I left Oxford for my epic European spring break extravaganza. That means I’m halfway home! Having seen five countries and seven cities in just 15 days, I’m glad I didn’t choose to continue traveling for the entire five/six week break. It’s incredible to see parts of the world that are new to me, but fatigue is setting in, and I’m looking forward to slowing down for a bit back in the US. First, though, a recap on the second half of the first leg of my journey–confusing, I know. From Budapest, we went to Vienna and Prague. Did you know that the Czech Republic changed its English name to Czechia? Apparently, a lot of the people who live there didn’t know either, so you’re not alone.
With Austria came the first return to a country I’ve already seen. In high school, I spent two weeks traveling around Austria with my dance company, performing in predominantly small Alpine villages. So unlike Bucharest and Budapest, I knew what to expect, on a general level, from Vienna. And on that general level, I was right: German language, well-kept buildings, picturesque streets, wienerschnitzel. Yet Vienna was also a lot different from the parts of Austria I had seen. It was bigger than most of the towns I had stayed in before, and consequently there were many more attractions. Being further from the Alps, the landscape wasn’t as stunning, but being historically powerful, it was evident that there was a lot of effort and money put into the city. Pro-tip: GoogleMaps apparently does not have the Vienna underground/metro map information, so download the Qando app to figure out how to get where you’re going fast. Public transport in Vienna is unbelievably efficient.
For Vienna, Kyoka and I booked an Airbnb. It wasn’t quite in the center of all the action, but it was very close to a metro stop, so getting around was extremely easy. After dropping off our things, we headed to Naschmarkt, a long open air market with stalls selling the usual: dried/candied fruits, produce, falafel, baklava, pastries, etc. There were also a lot of restaurants with outdoor seating filled with people who reminded me just how much Europeans lounge and smoke. We then went to Mozarthaus, a museum in the apartment occupied by Mozart during his most prosperous composing years in Vienna. Like the Mozart museum in Salzburg, which I visited during my first trip to Austria, the rooms are unfurnished; rather, the walls feature displays of multiple Mozart-related artifacts. There was an intimidating amount of information, but we managed to retain a good deal of it. Good enough to answer our Prague tour guide’s Mozart trivia questions, at least. At night, we wandered around the St. Stephen’s Cathedral area, gelato in hand, before turning in for the night.
On our only full day in Vienna, we started off with a walking tour. It covered the Hofburg Palace Complex, the Jewish Quarter, St. Stephen’s, etc. In contrast to Romania and Hungary, countries that suffered under Nazi rule, Austria was actually home to many of the most powerful Nazis. After all, Hitler himself was born there. So unlike the previous tour guides who talked extensively about WWII and its aftermath, the Vienna guide only addressed the war to inform us that Austrians are still deeply uncomfortable with discussing their country’s role in the war, and that they regret that part of their history. The war was definitely not a popular topic.
In the afternoon, Kyoka and I tried the infamous sachertorte, a Viennese cake that sparked a lengthy legal battle between Hotel Sacher and Demel. Apparently, the creator of the sachertorte made enough money off of the cake to open a luxury hotel, then one of the employees stole the recipe and took it to Demel. They argued over it for something like 10 years, and after all that, you can now find sachertorte knockoffs in many other European countries. It was a good cake, sure, but I’m not entirely convinced it was worth all that fuss. We spent the afternoon in the Sisi Museum, or the Imperial Apartments of the Hofburg Palace. During the few hours we killed in there, we saw just how loaded the Hapsburgs were and learned a lot about Elizabeth (Sisi), who was a beloved cult figure for both the Austrians and the Hungarians as their Empress/Queen. We had actually heard about her on our Budapest tour, so it was interesting to get a better grasp of who Sisi was and what she meant to the countries she ruled. The last half of our Vienna day was uneventful: laundromat, quick dinner, bed.
Early the next morning, we got on a bus to newly renamed “Czechia.” Apparently they made that change because it’s easier to write out. One of the first parts of Prague we saw was the Old Town Square, packed with tourists and activity all the time. Still, it’s absolutely stunning, and the site of Prague’s arguably most picturesque attraction: their astronomical clock dating back to 1410, which makes it the oldest operating one of its kind. I don’t need to know exactly how it works to know that it’s magical-looking and awesome.
Unsurprisingly, we took another walking tour in Prague, collecting a lot of gruesome stories from the Czech Republic’s apparently gory history. There was the clockmaker who had his eyes gouged out so he wouldn’t make a copycat astronomical clock, a student who set himself on fire to protest the ruling regime, a thief whose severed hand still hangs in a church, and more. Quite a brutal country, it seems. Later, we walked around Prague Castle, ogling at the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral and popping into the little artisan craft stores on Golden Lane. Because iconic foods are an integral part of travel, Kyoka and I went to Cafe Savoy to try their mini version of a Czech pastry called vetrnik. The best way I can think to describe them is a giant cream puff sandwich. Needless to say, they were amazing.
If you’re planning to visit Prague and throw in a day trip to Kutná Hora, contact me and save yourself the grief that Kyoka and I experienced trying to decipher bus/train schedules. We decided not to go with a tour group because a) we’d save money and b) we’d get to do everything on our own time. Planning how to get there, though, was a giant pain in the ass. Eventually we made it there, stopping at the Sedlec Ossuary (Bone Church) on the way in. It is exactly what you think it is: a church decorated with real human bones. With pyramids, chandeliers, and crests of bones/skulls, Sedlec Ossuary is actually terrifying. They try to spin it as peaceful, as an emblem of the Christian hope that our souls live and our bodies will rise again, but I just thought it was creepy. And also cold. Very cold.
The rest of Kutná Hora went by quickly. They have a few big attractions, but there isn’t much to do otherwise. We saw the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, a stark contrast to the Bone Church (though they also have a few skulls of their own) and the Church of St. Barbara, which looks a lot like St. Vitus in Prague Castle, then returned to the city for dinner at a really large and bustling restaurant called Lokal. I ate fried cheese for dinner because the Czech people consider it a legitimate entree. Score!
All in all, Prague was a pretty and interesting city, but not my favorite on the “Eastern” leg of the tour. Of course, it’s hard to judge based on the time we spent in the actual city–day trips are definitely diversions, even when they’re worthwhile ones. The way we’ve been traveling has been like a sampler platter: little tastes of a variety of different countries. Consequently, we don’t get that much of each stop. Because I wanted to see a lot of places, I wouldn’t have chosen to do spring break abroad another way, yet now I want to eat a full meal, or pick a city I really like and live there for a few weeks. Maybe even a few months! Seeing so many new countries definitely has me thinking about how I can live abroad at some point in my life. Can I make a living as a travel writer? You’re the one who just read this travel post, you tell me.
Next time, I’ll write about what I’ve been up to in Spain: Seville, Granada, Barcelona. Spoiler: I’m having an amazing time, and like Spain a whole lot more than I thought I would. Czech back soon for an update! Ah, the puns I made in Prague.