Archive | July, 2012

The Last Post (for Europe)

16 Jul

As some of you may know, I have returned safely to the U S of A after completing my nearly 2 months of summer travels. So this will unfortunately be my last post on my European Adventures – but with a trip to California in less than 3 weeks, this certainly will not be my last post. Until then, I hope you enjoy my final few stories and experiences.

Croatia – An extremely hot and extremely beautiful place. I spent my first day there exploring the coastal city and major port and transit hub of Split, where I was staying for two nights. The main sight is Diocletian’s Palace: Diocletian was a Roman Emperor who built his retirement complex where Split is located today. So the “Old Town” of Split is actually the grounds of this former Palace, which is neat to walk through. There is a Cathedral and a Baptistry, both of which are converted Roman temples, and I was even given a free guided tour by a university student studying art history. The next day I took a ferry out to one of Croatia’s many islands, Brac, and then took a bus across the island to a town called Bol to see a famous beach and a monastery. It was such a beautiful place with the clear water and the light breeze and the views out onto the other islands, a great place to just walk around and admire it all.

The next morning I woke up early in order to make the all-day journey from Split to Budapest via Zagreb. I departed at 8:25 and arrived in Budapest sometime between 10 and 11pm. On the way, I had a great conversation with a couple from Australia who was traveling around, and I also watched the beautiful sunset I have ever seen as I crossed the Hungarian plains.

Budapest – I only had enough time for one full day in Budapest, so I tried to make the most of it. I started at the famous castle, cathedral and Fisherman’s Bastion atop a hill on the “Buda” side of the Danube from which I admired the view out onto the city, then I made my way down and across the famous “Chain Bridge” and onto the “Pest” side of the city. I admired the impressive Parliament building and much of the neo-neo-classical architecture around the city, reminiscent of the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Next I walked down the famous Boulevard of the city and went into the “House of Terror” a museum which profiles both the Arrow Cross and Communist parties which both used the building as the headquarters for their secret police units which abducted, tortured and executed anyone thought to be a threat to first the Nazis then the Communists. Hungary certainly experienced some of the worst moments of World War II and the Cold War, and the living conditions under Communist rule, which involved forced deportations, slave labor camps, and constant fear, were especially striking. Next up were the Hungarian Baths, which turned out to be much different than the Turkish Baths in Istanbul. While the Turkish Baths are basically a giant sauna where someone actually gives you a bath, the Hungarian Baths are built on top of hot springs (as is Budapest) and you go from heated pool to heated pool at your own leisure. The pools are both indoor and outdoor, some are large while some are small, and each one has different temperatures and jets, so it’s a neat way to spend a couple hours. They also had Finnish style saunas, which were really intense! Finally, to end the day I ate dinner at this little hole-in-the-wall place which easily served one of the best meals of my whole trip – rabbit pate and lamb covered in paprika in a curry sauce. I also met a really friendly and interesting Swedish couple while eating (the place was so small we shared a table). And then I headed back to my hostel. One last thing about Budapest – their escalators to the metro were easily the steepest and longest escalators I’ve ever seen in the world.

Slovakia – The next day it was off to Slovakia. Now Slovakia is a place where people tend to be shy and very few people speak English. But it’s also dirt cheap, on my way to Poland, and I had read about a neat youth hostel in a rarely visited tiny mountain town called Zdiar in the High Tatras (or Carpathians), a mountain range as high as the Alps! So I knew it was worth a stop for some quality hiking. The hostel turned out to be easily the coolest one I stayed at the whole trip. A few Aussies and Brits ran the place and knew the area really well. I quickly met another Aussie traveling alone, two Fins and two Germans, and we formed a group to go hiking the next day. The staff helped us map out our path, and we set out the next morning for some of the bet hiking of my whole trip – we climbed to the top of a 2000 meter peak shrouded in clouds, then descended to a beautiful lake surrounded by sharp peaks and an excellent restaurant. Then all the staff and people staying in the hostel went down to the only place in town to watch the semi-finals of the Euro Cup. I had such a great time that I decided to stay an extra night and go visit a nearby castle the next day built into rock on a hill overlooking the Slovakian Low Tatras. Slovakia was such a great and under-rated place – the hiking for the price is unbeatable.

Poland – After visiting the castle it was off to Krakow in Poland. Krakow is a beautiful city, largely preserved as it was because it avoided much of the destruction that hit the rest of Poland in World War II. I was surprised how architecturally diverse the city was – Romanesque, Gothic, German, Dutch, and Italian Renissance and Historicist styles could be found all throughout the Old Town, due to its importance as a trading center. It also has some rare sections of its original city walls intact, and the big castle there is home to perhaps the most important cathedral in Poland. It’s central square was also very impressive. I also got to go to a Polish mass, and see some of the spots in the city where Pope John Paul II would frequent (he was from Krakow and everyone in Krakow and really everyone in Poland loved and still loves him). But perhaps the best part of Krakow was meeting up with my friend from Nova, Rachel Glogowski, who was visiting family in Poland for the second summer in a row and was about to start taking Polish courses at Krakow’s famous and ancient University. We caught up on both our study abroad experiences (she was in India and China, no big deal) and celebrated her 21st birthday with a shot of Bison Vodka (which was surprisingly smooth). We also got to meet two of her younger cousins and we watched the Euro Cup final together with some of her other extended family members who were so welcoming and hospitable that they even paid for my dinner! So no question, Krakow was one of my favorite cities I’ve visited.

Next up, after taking a dirty and cramped night-train, was Gdansk on the Baltic Sea in the north of the country. Gdansk has a charming Old Town that attracts a lot of tourists (although it was all rebuilt after World War II bombing) but I was interested primarily in the Gdansk Shipyards which played host to the Solidarity Movement in the 1980s which toppled the Communist Regime in Poland and helped lead ultimately to the fall of the Iron Curtain. I luckily gained access to a museum despite it being closed on Monday, which was the famous BHP building where the striking workers would meet and organize and plan and even negotiate with the authorities. I was amazed out how closely linked Catholicism was to the moment, and some of the pictures they had on display were really striking. It was really neat to walk on the same ground and through the “Gate to Freedom” where all these strikes and protests took place, and stare up at the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers which the strikers demanded be built in their honor.

Ireland – Next I jumped a plane to Dublin where I met my parents. I somehow convinced them to make their first trip out of the country and to meet me to attend the July 4th Celebration at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Dublin. I managed to secure us tickets to the event in advance, and we were not disappointed as we got to meet U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Mr. Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and also his son Art II who now runs the team. I volunteered to work at the event so I got to come early and even got to hear Ambassador Rooney give a pep talk to all the staff (including me) which I will never forget. Talk about a dream come true – getting to meet the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who I’d grown up hearing stories about. My contact at the Embassy, Patty, who I’d been in touch with and got us the tickets, said my Mom looked like she’d won the lottery. It was an unforgettable day that I was so lucky to be apart of along with my parents.

Russia – The next day I left my parents to explore the rest of the Emerald Isle while I took off for Helsinki, where I would catch a ferry to St. Petersburg, Russia which allowed me to enter the country Visa-free for up to 72 hours. St. Petersburg is a magnificent city full of impressive neo-classical, baroque architecture. Peter the Great wanted a European-style captial city, and he got it. I managed to see all the big highlights, including the three major churches, the fortress and the parks. I also went on a tour of the Hermitage (which is in the Winter Palace and houses one of the largest and most impressive collections of art in the world). It is so big that I literally got lost inside it – it took me 20 minutes to find my tour group, but that was a great experience in itself. I also made it out to the Peterhof, although this was a bit underwhelming. But I loved St. Petersburg overall, especially visiting during the “White Nights” when the sun never sets. Sitting in a park at midnight and watching people stroll by as it appears to be 7:00pm, and watching the bridges over the river Neva rise at 1:20am to allow big ships to pass through were really unique experiences that you cannot get anywhere else. And I met quite a few Russians who spoke pretty good English, so I got more insight into the culture than I was expecting. A great city and a great trip.

Finland – It was back to Helsinki on the ferry where I spent the day seeing the sights, including a few big churches, the fish market, and taking a short ferry out to Suomenlinna, the largest sea-island fortress in the world. Helsinki also never got dark, but lacked the vibrancy that St. Petersburg had – while St. Pete never really sleeps, Helsinki was dead by 10pm.

Sweden – The next day it was off to the West Coast of Sweden, with a long enough layover in Stockholm that I got to explore a bit of the Old Town. Stockholm definitely lived up to its billing as the capital of Scandinavia from the little I saw of it. Then I made it to Gothenburg where Andreas Grahn picked me up for a short stay with him and his family before I flew back home. We know the Grahns from Hagerstown, so it was great to spend some time with some family friends and learn about Swedish culture and their perceptions of America after living there for several years. We had fun exploring Gothenburg, as well as seeing a neat castle, a lake, an old church and some ancient Iron Age burial sites outside of Kungsbacka where they live. We also got to try some Swedish meatballs and played this awesome yard game called Kubb.

Then, I packed up all my bags and headed home. I still cannot believe how smoothly my entire trip went – the worst thing that happened was losing my razor, so besides not shaving for two weeks, everything went perfectly. Even when things didn’t work out they still somehow worked out. And of course, I experienced and saw some incredible things, memories for a lifetime, so many stories and even more people I met along the way. I learned so many things, but I’ll just have to tell them to you all in person. I hope you all enjoyed reading my blog and following my travels – thanks for tuning in! But like I said, there will be more to come…

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