Visite: Dublin et County Clare

Dublin.  Ireland.  One of the top places on my list of travel destinations somehow became one of my last trips.  In my defense, I wasn’t prepared for Ireland in August or September, having just arrived in Paris.  Then, the weather on the isles turns to winter much sooner than it does in Paris so Irish adventures would not have been possible in December-February.  So with four days off work, a travel buddy to meet, and a free place to stay I flew out to Ireland.

Molly Malone statue in Dublin
Molly Malone statue in Dublin

A friend I met at Dauphine was in Dublin, staying in the apartment that belongs to one of her friends from Canada.  Having a free place to stay in one of Europe’s most expensive cities was an incredible stroke of luck.  Unfortunately, because I booked my ticket so late I had to pay an obnoxious amount of money.  I actually booked with AirFrance, but the flight was serviced by City Jet.  This was the first AirFrance flight I’d taken since coming to Paris.  The total cost round trip was the single most expensive ticket I’ve purchased so far (which is ridiculous considering how close Dublin and Paris are).  My theory is that since Ryannair, one of the budget airlines, is an Irish company, they’ve managed to block EasyJet from getting landing space at the airport.  Without Easyjet, all the other airlines can keep their prices up.  It’s a conspiracy!

Anyways, when I landed in Dublin I walked off the plane onto the tarmac, surprising for an international airport in a capital city.  We landed just as the sun was setting and I could see the green fields and the hills in the distance.  There was a distinct smell of cow which seemed to make the atmosphere more pleasant.  I went through the usual crankiness at border patrol.  Ireland is not in Schengen so I actually got my passport stamped this time.  Walking through the airport, I was surprised to see many of the signs in Irish.  I learned from an Irishman that the language which most Americans call ‘Gaelic’ is referred to as Irish by the Irish.  I had originally thought it was an old language, something people only used to speak with their grandparents.  But it was everywhere, very official, and very much alive.

As I had expected, the Irish were extremely friendly and helpful.  People were very warm and full of smiles, much unlike the French.  When I got off the bus in the city center I asked the bus driver for directions to the street I was looking for.  He placed a hand on my shoulder, walked me to the corner, and then pointed down the only street that lay before us, saying it was the one I wanted.  I felt silly asking for directions when the street was right in front of me but he was extremely kind and didn’t seem at all bothered by my tourist gimmicks.  In general, the Irish were very helpful, very welcoming, and very polite.  They all seemed to have a genuine warmth.

The best, least-annoying street performer ever
The best, least-annoying street performer ever

After arriving at the apartment and seeing my friend I was shocked at how nice the living space was.  The apartment wasn’t super-centrally located but it was a short walk from St Stephen’s Green and Trinity College.  Inside there was a full kitchen – a stove, four ranges, and an oven! – as well as a full bath, a living room, and a separate bedroom.  I got to sleep on a pullout couch.  The amount of living space was shocking after being in Paris.

The next day my friend and I bought tickets for a bus tour and spent time wandering around the city.  We walked up Grafton Street, one of the major the shopping streets in Dublin.  Then we toured Trinity College.  Trinity was founded in the 1500s and remains Ireland’s oldest school and one of the oldest schools in the western world.  The setting was beautiful with gray, stone buildings, manicured lawns, and towers, and turrets.  We paid to get into the library where we saw The Book of Kells, a medieval manuscript of four gospels dating back to 800.  The pages were very intricately decorated with the tiniest details in every corner.  I’ve heard a lot about the manuscripts and seeing them for myself was quite memorable.  Additionally, we also saw the Old Library of Trinity.  It looked like everything a proper library should look like – tall, high shelves, fancy woodwork, and interesting posters and figurines.  Pictures were not allowed inside.  I really enjoyed Trinity and I felt a surprising comfort on the campus.  It looked so old, so regal, and so college-like.   There was history there, in the walls and the grounds.  It was a cool feeling to think of all the famous historical figures who have studied there: Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, etc.  I found myself thinking that I would like to come back; I could study here and be happy on this campus inside this huge city.

Christ's Church Cathedral
Christ's Church Cathedral

After Trinity we got back on the bus, saw some more sights and grabbed lunch: fish and chips.  There were no mushy peas this time but the fish was very good.  Afterwards, we toured the Guinness Storehouse, the original brewery of Guinness Stout.  I was surprised at how ingrained Guinness is in Irish culture.  They refer to ‘the black stuff’ all the time.  While in the storehouse we took a tour of the St Jame’s Gate Brewery and learned about how Arthur Guinness basically invented stout.  He bought the building and the surrounding area in 1759, signing a 9,000 year lease.  The lease is on display in the center of the building.  I also learned that the yeast used in the fermentation process comes from the same strand of yeast used by Arthur Guinness in the 1700s.  A strand of the culture is kept under lock and key in the CEOs office.  Finally, at the end of the tour we finished in the Gravity Bar, a glassed-in circular room that had awesome views of the city of Dublin.

View of Dublin's skyline
View of Dublin's skyline

The next day we took a bus tour to the west coast of Ireland to see the Cliffs of Moher.  Like the tour I took in England, there wasn’t enough time anywhere.  But it was still spectacular to see the countryside as it passed by.  We first stopped at King Jame’s Castle in Limerick.  We got out for a photo opportunity and viewed the castle from across the River Shannon.  I’ve read numerous books where the river is featured and it was really fulfilling to finally see it, in real life. We also caught glimpses of Bunratty Castle, a medieval entertainment castle, and the Curragh Plains, a vast open area of land where the battle scenes for the movie Braveheart were filmed.

King James's Castle and the River Shannon
King James's Castle and the River Shannon

After Limerick we arrived in County Clare (hehe) home of the Cliffs of Moher.  The sea cliffs were formed by glaciers thousands of years ago.  They are a protected environment for sea birds.  On a normal day, you can see the Aran Islands from the cliffs which rise to a maximum height of 700 feet.  Unfortunately, we did not arrive on a clear day.  For us it was driving horizontal rain, hail, ferocious winds, and quite a chilly temperature.  I was wearing a pair of jeans, my North Face jacket, and a plastic poncho I bought, with sneakers.  The wind was brutal on the cliffs and my poncho kept flying everywhere.  My jeans were soaked through all the way past my knees and my hair was drenched.  It was ridiculous.  I was standing on the edge of a cliff looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean as winds and rain whipped around me.  Although the weather was horrible, it definitely made the experience even more unforgettable.

The Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher

And it was breathtaking.  The cliffs were an incredible sight, very majestic and regal.  What I appreciated the most is that they looked so natural.  Some of the mountains and other natural beauties I’ve seen in Europe were almost too gorgeous to believe in.  But these cliffs looked perfectly in place, like they belonged there and simply happen to be magnificent as well.  If we had had more time we could have walked along the cliffs for hours.  Before walking back we noticed a hole in the fence that is meant to keep visitors from getting too close to the cliffs’s edges.  We climbed through and stood on the very edge, wind everywhere, drenched and soaked.  I ran along a tiny cow path, further out along the cliffs.  Seeing these cliffs is something I’ve dreamed of doing for a long time.  It was very fulfilling and meaningful to finally find myself standing there, in the middle of a rain storm, on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher.

Facing the storm on the Cliffs of Moher
Facing the storm on the Cliffs of Moher

When we got back to the tourism center my friend asked why I wasn’t as cold and cranky and miserable as she was.  It took me a second to understand why, despite the adrenaline rush, I wasn’t pouting and shaking from the cold.  Then I remembered.  Nothing but eight years of Marching Band in New England could have prepared me for that tour of the cliffs.  In fact, I’ve definitely marched in worse weather…

After the cliffs we moved on to the small village of Doolin to grab lunch.  Then we drove through the Burren, a limestone karst-landscape that has developed over thousands of years of water drainage and the natural stripping of bedrock.  The Burren looks like, as our tour guide put it, the moon.  The craggy rocks with strips of grass growing between them looked desolate and lonely but strangely beautiful, in a way.  Once again we were right on the edge of the water, standing on jagged rocks.  The stone walls in this area of the country were made by piling stones on top of stones, without mortar.  This allows the wind to blow through the stones and keeps the structure standing.

The Burren
The Burren

The next stop was Corcomroe Abbey in the Burren.  This ancient abbey fell into decline after the reformation of Ireland, when Catholicism was dissolved.  The graveyard contained dozens of Irish High Crosses, the Celtic Cross.  It’s solitary location and the ruins of the church gave it a creepy but hallowed vibe.

Corcomroe Abbey
Corcomroe Abbey

The final stop was the port city of Kinvara which would have been much more lovely in sunlight.  We didn’t have much time to wander but I enjoyed the few brightly colored houses and pubs.  It looked like it would be a cute town to spend a day in.

Back in Dublin, I spent the next morning before my flight touring to the great medieval cathedrals of Dublin – St Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ’s Church Cathedral.  Both were originally Catholic but since the reformation they have been a place of worship under the Church of Ireland.  I started at St Patrick’s, where Johnathan Swift was once a Dean.  The floor of the church was intricately decorated with painted and carved tiles.  There were ancient flags hanging along the nave, much like St George’s Chapel at Windsor.  The church also displayed two carved stones that were said to be the covering of the Well of St Patrick, where St Patrick baptized the first Catholics in Ireland.  I found the interior of the cathedral quite sparse, especially considering the high cost of entry (4.50 euro!).  I also went to see Christ’s Church but I chose not to pay the entrance fee.

Saint Patrick's Cathedral
Saint Patrick's Cathedral

I loved Ireland.  I always knew I would.  Originally when I had planned to stay in Europe for the summer I felt something pulling me towards Ireland.  I don’t have any regrets; I’m happy in Paris.  But I need more time in Ireland, there is so much more to see in that country like the Blarney Stone, the Ring of Kerry, and all the other beautiful and historic places.  My travel buddy had just returned from Scotland and her stories made me want to go there as well.  I’m thinking an extensive UK tour is in order.  The only bad thing I can say about Ireland is that the weather is absolute “feckin” crap.  The day I arrived it was a bit chillier than Paris but nothing terrible.  The second day it was overcast with a few rain showers but acceptable.  The next day at the cliffs had miserable, freezing weather with non-stop rain.  And the final day was seventy-five degrees and humid.  I had always thought that New England was famous for ever-changing weather but since coming to Europe I’ve decided that Massachusetts has extremely stable, predictable weather.  Not to mention, if I was cold and wet in Ireland in June I can’t imagine what December is like.

The Temple Bar, Dublin's oldest pub
The Temple Bar, Dublin's oldest pub

But overall the city of Dublin was beautiful.  All of the tour guides were friendly, funny, and welcoming.  I felt comfortable walking around.  It’s true what they say, Boston does look like Dublin.  I also loved all of the quirky pub signs all over the city.  Dublin definitely felt like it could be home for some time.  I could be happy there and seeing more of Ireland has become a high priority for my future adventures.

Family Crest
Family Crest
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Visite: Priennapest: Prague

The last stop of the Central European Triangle Pass brought us to Prague.  Prague is one of those cities that everyone I meet while traveling has been to or plans to go to.  I’ve been told by almost everyone, except for one couple, that it is an absolutely beautiful city.  All of the students I met at Dauphine who visited said they had a great time there.  To be honest, I hadn’t heard much about Prague before I came to Europe.  I knew it existed, but I didn’t consider it to be a high tourist destination.  Clearly I was just unaware because Prague definitely lived up to all the hype.

Prague was beautiful.  Out of all of the cities I’ve traveled to, this one surprised me the most.  I simply wasn’t expecting the old-world beauty, the large boulevards and tiny, curvy streets both lined with grand buildings, houses, and churches.  The skyline of the city was always breathtaking, no matter where we were.  The old city, in the center, felt like a postcard.  As I wandered around the central statue or beneath the huge astronomical clock I could have been in any picture-perfect painting or imaginary location.  Even outside the old district, standing on one of the bridges crossing the river, the view was spectacular.  I was seriously impressed.

The story starts late one night as my travel buddy and I arrived at the hostile.  We were dragging our bags through the front hall to reception when I turned the corner and saw a friend from Dauphine.  I had known she was traveling for the month of June but for some reason I never registered that she would be in Prague the same time as me.  We both had a good laugh – what a small world.  The next day, our group of three went into the old city by way of tram (tramlines are everywhere!) and went on a free guided walking tour.  The tour was supposed to last for three hours but the sun was so ridiculously hot, and our guide was quite quiet and boring, that we ditched the group and got lunch.  We ate in a cafeteria style Czech restaurant, which we returned to several times.  I had trouble finding food that wasn’t sausage or some strange form of meat.  I did like the vanilla sauce, which I originally thought was cheese fondue.

The astronomical clock of Prague
The astronomical clock of Prague

We wandered around the old town and the enjoyed the sights of the main central square.  There was the famous astronomical clock which keeps the time, the date, and the astronomy symbols.  Every hour it chimes and wooden figures spin around and pop out of the doors on the top of the clock.  From the outside it looks like a giant medieval tower with fancy clock-like instruments stuck on its face.  I’ve heard a lot about this clock from other travelers and it was pretty cool.  Also around the main square were several palaces, although they might look like fancy buildings to the untrained eye; they’re weren’t huge and turreted like other Western European castles.  Rising above one strip of buildings is the church, Our Lady before Tyn.  The church has two towers, one of which is thicker than the other because the gusts of wind are more damaging on that side of the building, so the tower on that side was made thicker to withstand the weather.  Our tour guide said that the church ministry used to call the thicker tower ‘Adam’ because it was “protecting” the smaller tower, ‘Eve’.  I thought that was hilarious – a great way to perpetuate patriarchy with church towers.

Church of Lady Before Tyn, Old City Center
Church of Lady Before Tyn, Old City Center

After lunch we walked over to the castle district, on the other side of the river.  Walking took a while; I was surprised at how big Prague is.  When we finally made it to the top of the hill that the castle sits on and saw the city of Prague laid out before us, I was shocked.  From the old city center it feels so small and compressed, but Prague really is a huge city, covering a lot of land and spanning quite a wide, powerful river.  We had some beautiful views of the skyline and ventured into the cathedral.  I was hoping to go into the crypt, because I’ve read that it is architecturally captivating.  But the woman at the desk told us the crypt was closed indefinitely due to reconstruction.

View of Prague
View of Prague

The walk back down the hill to the Charles Bridge was beautiful.  The buildings were so brightly colored, but not pastel-like.  Their shades were more earth tone, and their decorations were large and attractive but not gaudy.  I didn’t feel like I was in a Disneyland park.  It still felt surreal, but it was more believable, perhaps because of the size of the city.  There was also history everywhere in Prague.  For the short time we stayed with the guided tour it seemed like every other building he showed us was the headquarters of a former SS agent or a torture chamber or a secret prison, etc.  The mark of the Nazis and communism lingers in Prague like old scars.  For every beautifully decorated building there also seemed to be one plane, gray, concrete slab of uniformity.  But overall, the city had a happy feel; it was vibrant and lively, respectful of the past but eager to move forward.

Entrance to the Charles Bridge
Entrance to the Charles Bridge

As we approached the Charles Bridge I was struck by the size of the river.  The Seine is quite wide but it is beautifully manicured on both sides by stone walls and docks, looking very clean-cut.  The Vltava River looks wild.  It’s wider with several damns creating white water.  The Charles Bridge is the oldest bridge in the city and is lined on both sides with statues of religious and political figures.  It’s black stone towers welcome pedestrians on either end and the crests of arms hanging from the archways add to the medieval feel.  The bridge was covered with tourists and vendors but I was not harassed by the people selling souvenirs as I often am in most cities.  I mostly enjoyed the sights from the bridge as the sun went down and we slowly made our way across to the other side.

Opposite end of the Charles Bridge
Opposite end of the Charles Bridge

The next day we set out to find the famed Lennon Wall.  This wall was covered in graffiti during the communist era.  It’s a place where people would go to express themselves and write words of freedom and encouragement.  Apparently, Beatles lyrics were a favorite back then, especially those of John Lennon and his solo work.  When Lennon died it became a memorial wall.  The wall changes all the time as no one is responsible for cleaning it or keeping watch over the artists.  Travelers from all over the world stop at the wall to write messages, lyrics, draw pictures, or spray-paint over old images.  We were only armed with a sharpie but we all added a few lines to the wall.  I think it’s quite remarkable to see such a memorial.  It’s ever changing, so it never gets old and any picture or postcard becomes out dated the next day, so the images that I have of the wall are unique.  It’s also funny to think that Lennon never went to Prague; he has no ties to that city.  He was just an inspirational figure for a generation of people and on this paint-splattered wall, decades later, people are still finding ways to be a dreamer.

The Lennon Wall
The Lennon Wall

Next stop was the monastery, also at the top of the hill near the castle.  We had to pay to go inside, which was odd.  There wasn’t really much to see except a pretty view of the city and some old paintings.  What was impressive were the libraries.  Although they charged a separate admission and we weren’t allowed to take pictures the libraries were gorgeous.  The main room looked almost golden in color, perhaps it was the sunlight but the room literally seemed to glow.  Even the woodwork in the outside hall was very artistic.  The second library was shorter and rounder and not quite as pretty but still something I would love to have in my future place of living.  The library also had interesting skeletons, curiosities, and other interesting objects.

The library at the monastery
The library at the monastery

So by the end of Prague we had done a lot of walking, a lot of sight-seeing, and a lot of shopping, trying to spend as much of our Czech currency as possible.  Prague was a beautiful, beautiful city.  It was probably the biggest surprise of all of my journeys, with the exception of Switzerland, of course.  It also seemed like everyone spoke at least a little bit of English, even though I noticed that there was virtually no English in the advertisements or signs.  It was also probably the most heavily tourist-infested city that I’ve seen since the Vatican.  There were so many tourists, everywhere.  Walking along the Charles Bridge was like walking down rue de Rivoli at noon.  It was overwhelming and extremely annoying.  But I really enjoyed the city for its beauty and its character.  It was a special gem of the east, overshadowed by all the western metropolitan capitals, but welcoming and amazing all the same.

Prague Castle atop the hill
Prague Castle atop the hill
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Visite: Priennapest: Vienna

A short train ride on a beautiful OBB train brought us to Vienna.  We only planned two nights in the city and we arrived very late the first night.  Our hostel upgraded us to a smaller room, which set the trip off right.

The first thing I noticed about Vienna was how big it was.  There were wide streets, boulevards with sidewalks and multiple lanes.  The buildings were large and modern but still had an old feel, still possessing that European charm.  The old town, in the center, even seemed larger with more open space than most other old cities.  The buildings looked brighter, painted in creams and whites, giving the whole city a very bright, clear feel.

This first morning I ventured out alone because my travel buddy wasn’t feeling well.  I made my way over to the old town but enjoyed a pleasant walk through one of the city’s main parks.  After entering through a giant wrought-iron gate I found myself at the Mozart Memorial.  There was good ‘ol Mo, in white marble, standing above a pedestal of music symbols before a giant treble clef of flowers planted in the ground.  It was cool to see this monument; I’ve often heard it referenced before and after learning so much about Mozart in school I enjoyed standing before his statue.  Later, I walked over to Mozart’s house but only wandered around the gift shop; I didn’t want to pay to go inside.  They had some novelty gifts, such as a rubber duck Mo and Mozart chocolates which were apparently invented by one Viennese chocolate company and copied by dozens of others.  Throughout the city there were dozen of short men dressed in period costumes with wigs pretending to be Mozart, selling opera tickets.  Quite funny.

Mozart's Memorial
Mozart's Memorial

The next stop brought me to the center of the old town and St Stephen’s Cathedral.  Even though mass was being held visitors were still allowed to tour the back interior of the church.  I’ve been in a lot of churches, most of them Catholic cathedrals, and although I appreciate each one’s architectural beauty they start to look the same after a while.  St Stephen’s clearly knew that this was bound to happen so they covered their windows in colored plastic and spread colored lights across the ceiling.  This gave the interior a spectacular tie-dyed look.  It looked as though someone had drenched the cathedral in a mixture of different paints.  It was quite lovely, but I prefer St Denis’s cathedral in Paris, where this sort of light display happens naturally with their stained-glass windows.

St Stephen's Cathedral
St Stephen's Cathedral

Later that day we went to the house and office of Sigmund Freud.  I don’t know much about Freud but he did spend a significant portion of his life in Vienna, leaving only when the Nazi occupation forced his family to flee.  In his office, several hundred pictures, journals, and letters were displayed, each with a short explanation.  There was also a home video of Freud at the end of his life.  Most interesting was the couch, this silly piece of furniture which became a cultural icon of psychotherapy and treatment.

Freud's couch
Freud's couch

Before getting dinner we wandered around the outskirts of the old city, stumbling upon grand buildings like the town hall, an old library, and the parliament building.  From every angle Vienna looked very pristine, very clean, and very white.  The buildings were grand and intricate but not gaudy or impractical.  The city felt very livable and welcoming but also very busy and alive.

Vienna, Parliament
Vienna, Parliament

To finish off the day we went to Belvedere Palace, one of the two main palaces in the city of Vienna.  This palace estate, The Belvedere, is separated into two buildings located on the north and south ends of a park.  We only toured the Upper Belvedere because we wanted to see the Gustav Klimt collection.  The palace itself was very square, rectangular and pointy.  Although much less opulent, it reminded me of a small, tiny Versailles, as far as construction.  It seemed plainer on the outside, with less stone detail and fewer statues, but I think that added to the overall look.  The interior of the palace had several beautiful rooms, one with an especially remarked marble ceiling.  I enjoyed the Klimt collection, especially his painting, The Kiss.  It reminded me of Rodin’s sculpture.  It was interesting to compare the two; obviously one is a painting and the other is a sculpture.  But the two different mediums were trying to express the same thing, the same emotion.

The Belvedere
The Belvedere

Later that day we walked around a rose garden.  This park was huge and completely filled with rose bushes of every color imaginable.  It reminded me of the rosengarten in Berne, although this one had far more flowers.  We finished our day by taking the metro up to the north of the city to Prater Amusement park to see the Wiener Risenrad, a giant Ferris wheel.  This Ferris wheel has been featured in several movies including Before Sunrise, a cute movie about two people who meet on a train going to Vienna.  The Ferris wheel has huge compartments instead of tiny seats, so several people can fit standing, inside one compartment.  We spent a while walking around the amusement park which was quite empty, although I’m sure it gets crowded in the summer months.  It’s been a very long time since I’ve been to a real amusement park.  This one was small but was filled with plenty of flashing lights and all of the traditional rides like bumper cars and swings.  It reminded me of Whalom Park. I really enjoyed being in the park and couldn’t stop smiling at all of the cheesy attractions.  Even though I’ve definitely seen plenty of similar parks in my life seeing this one, in a foreign country in a new city, made it feel brand new again, an old new adventure.

The Wiener Risenrad Ferris Wheel
The Wiener Risenrad Ferris Wheel

Our last morning was spent at Schonbrunn Palace, the largest palace in the city.  This one came with a hefty entrance fee and an audio guide.  This palace was far grander, bigger, with more for show.  The audio guide was quite helpful in explaining the Hapsburg Dynasty and the other significant monarchs.  It was interesting to learn of Austria as such a world power; it had considerable political and military pull before WWI.  The Austrian architectural styles and the habits of the monarchy are noticeably different from those of the English and French styles.  Although for a quite some time, everyone was imitating Paris . When I think back to London and Windsor Castle I see curves, dark wood, turrets, and grand halls.  The Austria palaces were all very square, coming from the baroque period, with symmetrical windows and rooms of the same size.  This palace was also a bright, sunny yellow color on the outside.  It may have looked ugly on a different building but the whole layout of the park and the palace estate came together well, creating a beautiful, bright atmosphere.

Schonbrunn Palace
Schonbrunn Palace

I can’t exactly explain why but I really liked Vienna.  It felt like somewhere I could easily live, some place I want to spend more time in.  Like Paris, Vienna has the tourist attractions, the old buildings, the history, but it is also quite obviously a modern city with practical institutions and modern construction.  The metro lines made sense and the tramlines, although their cables ruin too many pictures, act as an alternative form of transportation.  The city just felt very big, very open and airy and bright.  I really enjoyed our few days and I would like to go back.  I think it would be a lovely city to live in for some time.

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Visite: Priennapest: Budapest

My last long-term European adventure took part in Priennapest.  This is the name I have bestowed upon the three lovely cities which I visited with a friend by help of a Eurail Central European Triangle Pass.  The stops were Prague, Vienna, and Budapest (PRaguevIENNAbudaPEST).  In the end, I don’t think the pass was actually worth the money or the hassle, but I’m glad we tried it. It was cool to travel between the cities by train, I just think that time constraints of the pass in addition to the flight cost to get to our starting point, Prague, made everything a little more difficult.

But to begin this adventure we start in Paris.  A late-night flight out of Charles de Gaulle landed us in Prague where took a bus to the main train station and boarded an overnight train to Budapest.  Sleeping on the train was not as terrible as my Paris-Rome overnight experience had been.  We had the whole six-seat car to ourselves which was nice, but we still had to make do with sleeping on chairs.  It didn’t help that ticket people kept checking after every stop.  But the window offered a nice view for a while.

Arriving in Budapest we had an extremely hard time finding our hostel.  The address listed Vaci Ut as the street and I navigated us to Vaci Utca, thinking they were the same.  Of course, Vaci Utca was in the complete opposite direction and far outside the pretty, central part of the city.  We were walking past abandoned buildings and boarded up lots before we called the hostel and learned, to our relief, that we were on the wrong street.  The funny part is that our hostel was located very close to the train station in a lovely area of town on a beautiful street in the tourist district just beside the river.

After walking aimlessly for as long as we did, we were exhausted when we got back to the hostel.  We spent the rest of the day seeing sights that were close by.  The first was Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Hungary.  Both Budapest and Vienna had a thing for St Stephen.  In Budapest the cathedral was round and large, quite impressive from both the inside and the outside.  I was especially fond of the large, painted, domed ceiling.

The Dome in St Stephen's Cathedral
The Dome in St Stephen's Cathedral

After the cathedral we walked over to the Dohany Street Synagogue.  This is the second largest synagogue in the world and it was a truly unique sight to behold.  The twin towers of the buildings rose above all other surroundings.  The red brick and decorated windows and turrets added a lovely flair.  We paid to go inside and have a guided tour in English.  I had a bit of trouble understanding the guide who did not seem particularly enthused to be speaking with two Americans and two women from England.  The interior of the temple was gorgeous.  The colors were so bright and warm with deep wood work and tiny stained glass windows.  I haven’t personally been inside many temples so the difference between this place of the worship and the Catholic churches I am used to seeing may have stood out more to me.  It still felt like a church, a place where people would gather to worship, but it felt so much less institutional, less harsh and less strict.  The guide explained that the church had nearly been destroyed during WWII and that previous damage had been caused in WWI.  Its restoration relied heavily on private donations.  I loved the chandeliers which looked almost like giant snow flakes hanging above our heads.  The lack of idolatry and statues was noticeable to me and it was strange to see the Hebrew writing.  When I commented that this was one of the few places of worship I had paid to enter my friend mentioned that the Catholic churches don’t have to charge; they have more money.  The Jewish temples serve a significantly smaller population.

The Synagogue
The Synagogue

In the garden behind the temple was the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park.  This park hosts several significant structures of remembrance including the Tree, which I found most striking.  This weeping willow is constructed in metal with thousands of metal leaves hanging from its branches.  Each leaf is inscribed with a name of a Hungarian Jew who was murdered by the Nazis – over 400,000.  There is also a stained-glass sculpture and the Jewish Museum in addition to Raoul Wallenberg’s grave and the memorial to the Righteous Among the Nations, a plaque listing the names of non-Jewish people who helped to keep Jews alive during the holocaust.  Beside the courtyard is a cemetery and running along one side of the temple is Dohany Street, the boundary street for the Jewish ghetto that was constructed in Budapest during the Nazi occupation.  The cemetery serves as the final resting place for the Jews who died in the ghetto.

The Willow Tree Memorial
The Willow Tree Memorial

Seeing the temple and learning about the Hungarian Jews’ history from our guide was an emotional experience.  Since coming to Europe I’ve realized how little I know about WWII, mostly because my secondary education never made it past the Great Depression in history classes.  But I do believe my lack of knowledge is also related to my American heritage.  The scars of WWII are still very present in Europe and some of the reference and illusions that exist as jokes and jabs in the states have very real offensive qualities in Europe.  It was a good experience to learn more, to see the damage that hatred can cause.

The next day, my travel buddy wasn’t feeling well so we bought tickets for a bus tour of the city.  This worked out quite well as we were able to see all of the city’s main attractions.  We drove past the parliament building, the second largest parliament building in the world.  The architecture was really neat and reminded me a lot of the Houses of Parliament in London.  We also drove around Heroes Square, a monument to the founders of Hungary in the ninth century.  This square used to include members of the Hapsburg dynasty, but they were replaced during the restoration.  During the Soviet era, the statues were covered, as expressing Hungarian national symbols was forbidden.

The Banks of the Danube
The Banks of the Danube

Later that day we crossed the river.  This side of the river is called Buda (the other is called Pest).  This is where the Buda Palace sits high atop one of the city’s hills.  The Danube river cuts the city in half; the banks of the Danube are an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We did not go inside the palace but walked around.  It was rather plain on the outside although it did have the same pristine beauty that I later saw in Vienna.  It was a brown-cream color which is something I haven’t seen on royal palaces before.

The Turul, a bird of Hungarian folklore, just outside the palace
The Turul, a bird of Hungarian folklore, just outside the palace

Also on the Buda side was the Fishermen’s Bastion.  This fort-like structure was built by the fishermen of the Buda ports although it was never actually used for fortification.  The views from the bastion were lovely and the white stone was carved into small, almost fairy-tale like turrets and towers.  The cathedral close to the bastion had one of the most decorated rooftops I’ve ever seen. It was so colorful and geometric.  The whole feel of Buda, atop the hill, was very charming.  I wish we had had more time to spend wandering around the castle district.  It was interesting to know I was in the same city even though it felt very different and looked very different from Pest which was more modern and busier.

The Fishermen's Bastion
The Fishermen's Bastion

That evening we took a boat cruise down the Danube.  Our bus tickets got us two free boat cruises so we actually took the 8pm and stayed on the boat for the 9h30pm.  The first tour took us down the river just as the sun was setting.  It was pretty to see the parliament building with the sun setting in the background.  By nightfall the palace and the bridges were lit up, giving the sky line a sparkling tint.  Unfortunately there were swarms of moths on the boat once the sun set and it was quite unpleasant.  We also met a strange man on the boat who felt the need to tell us his whole life story about traveling as a grandfather (that’s why he wasn’t dangerous, he told us, because he’s a grandfather).  He also had a lot to say about the UMass reputation and “those feminists at Smith”.

The Parliament building
The Parliament building

On our last morning we took a bus just outside the city to Memento Park, a statue park that showcases the communism statues.  The most striking site was Stalin’s boots.  A giant statue of Stalin once stood in a main square in Budapest.  During the revolution, the statue was toppled by Hungarian and all but the statue’s boots were destroyed.  Those boots were on display along with several other statues and an old car.  There was also an old spy movie which was used to train members of the SS.  We watched it with subtitles.  The park was quite odd; it was located on the side of the highway and was very scarce and empty.  The ‘museum’ was really just a shack that seemed to be haphazardly put together.

Stalin's boots
Stalin's boots

Our final stop was Market Hall before we caught our train to Vienna.  We got to the market just as it was closing but we still had enough time to enjoy langos – a Hungarian food that is based on fried dough.  I had a langos (fried dough) with creme fraiche, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and olives.  It was delicious.  Earlier in the week we had also tasted paprika chicken and goulash, both Hungarian. I enjoyed Budapest very much although it wasn’t what I thought it would be.  Budapest looked and felt very similar to the other European capitals I have visited.  Perhaps I have a subconscious bias against Eastern Europe due to the western-centric education I received.  It was a beautiful city with a lot of new and old world charm.  Seeing the Danube was also quite amazing, such a powerful body of water that spans multiple countries. It would have been cool to take a swim…

Buda Castle district
Buda Castle district
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Visite: Lisbon

Three days in Lisbon did not seem long enough. Originally, our primary motivation was to go to the beach which we later found out was nowhere near the city center, required a train ride, and would have coated us a considerable amount of time. We quickly changed our plans and enjoyed a lovely day trip to Sintra instead.

Praca Commercio, Lisbon
Praca Commercio, Lisbon

Flying into Lisbon put us in a different time zone. The public bus was very cheap and although it was a long, hot, squished ride it was nice to see the city as we passed through to the centeral, historic area. Our hostel was in a good location and although we had some trouble finding it, two local women were very helpful. As hostels go, this one will not be top of the list, mostly because of the poor security and small kitchen. However, all of our stuff remained in tact and we did not have any problems.

Our first afternoon was spent in Belem, a district of Lisbon on the outer edge of the city. Belem hosts a huge monastery, dating back several centuries. The Gothic architecture was quite remarkable. We chose not to go inside because the museum was about to close, but we did get to see the chapel. Inside, the high multi-vaulted ceiling reminded me of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, just one country away. I also got to see the tomb of Vasco da Gama, one of those explorers that I probably did multiple projects on in middle school. While in Belem we waited in line to taste the pastilla di Belem, an egg (or possibly cheese) flan tart. It came with cinnamon and sugar to sprinkle on.

The Monastery from across the park
The Monastery from across the park

The Tower of Belem was almost comical, in my opinion. It was a short, squat tower. Nothing like the imposing, high towers that I’m used to seeing around France. Still, it did put us right on the beach, able to touch and wade in sea water. Hearing the sounds of the waves after so long was wonderful. The entire weekend we had great weather, with lots of sun. However, it got quite chilly in the evenings. It’s a bizarre phenomenon in Europe; the days can be very hot but once the sun goes down the temperature drops significantly, much more so than in the states.

The Tower of Belem
The Tower of Belem

From the tower we could also see the Monument of Discoveries, a giant stone sculpture depicting explorers carrying a ship into a wave. The religious symbolism – including a giant cross on the back side of the wave – surprised me. I did not expect Portugal to be so openly religious. From this vantage point we could also see the April 25th Bridge. This bridge was modeled after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It looks exactly the same to me, although I’ve never seen the Californian version in real life. Across the street in a park there was a festival being held. On stage were singers and a group of dancers performing a traditional Portuguese dance in costume. It was funny to see older members of the crowd join in. Everyone looked very happy.

Traditional music festival in a park, look how happy the crowd is!
Traditional music festival in a park, look how happy the crowd is!

Back in Lisbon we spent some considerable time searching for dinner. The food prices were not as cheap as I had been told by other people who visited the city. A lot of restaurants seemed to have poor quality food and the waiters were irritating and aggressive. I did get to try a plate of grilled squid, which was quite good, although I think I was tasting more of the garlic sauce than the actual fish.

View of Sintra from the palace
View of Sintra from the palace

The next day we took a twenty minute train ride to Sintra, a district north of the city center. Sintra is famous for its castles; this is where the Portuguese monarchy had their vacation homes, their palaces, and their huge gardens. The little town center was adorable, with brightly colored buildings and cobblestones. We first stopped into the National Palace where the rooms were all decorated and the colors and the tiles were magnificent. A common trend in Portuguese decorating is the use of tiles. In Lisbon and Sintra I saw entire buildings that were completely covered in decorative tiles. It’s like they use ceramic tiles instead of wood. There was a room in the palace that was almost circular and the entire interior was covered in tiles. On the walls were blue and white tiles that formed scenes and the ceiling was gilded with royal crests. The windows and the long wooden table created a beautiful atmosphere.

The meeting room in the national palace
The meeting room in the national palace

After grabbing lunch at a lovely cafe right on the main square we walked up the hill a bit to another palace. This one, the Regaleira Palace, was recommended to us by someone we met in the hostel. Aside from its very interesting main house with Gothic columns and ‘art nouveau’ designs this palace had incredible gardens. Old castle ruins, turrets, towers, fountains, and ancient wells dotted the park. It was incredible to wander around and stumble upon underground passageways, steep stairs, high towers, peculiar trees, and ponds. There was even a pond that had strategically placed stepping stones so people could hop across. Some of the underground caves were not lit and people explored them with their cell phones. It was hard to imagine a place like this existing in the states. I think there are too many regulations and people would be too afraid of lawsuits to allow anyone to have so much free reign in a park.

Palace Regaleira
Palace Regaleira

After spending a long time in the Regaleira gardens we took a bus (a very expensive bus, it cost more than our train ticket!) to Pena Palace at the top of the highest hill. We arrived not long before closing and the entry into the palace gardens and exterior was far more expensive than it should have been – especially considering the bus cost. But we decided it was worth trying. So we paid to get into the park and then began climbing the hill up to the palace. This palace was much older and the exterior was clearly worn and aging. It did look quite imposing, sitting proudly atop the hill with many wings if different sizes and colors. Unfortunately my camera ran out of memory just as we were leaving.

Pena Palace
Pena Palace

We ate dinner in Sintra in an Indian-Italian restaurant that was playing the movie Gigli with Hindi subtitles. It was a bizarre mix of cultures. We walked back to the train station quite late and basically got on the only train that was running, luckily it was the right one.

The last day in Lisbon we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hostel and walked to the upper part of the city to see the old castle. The castle charged for entrance so we didn’t we go inside but we enjoyed walking around the grounds and wandering through the sidestreets in our way back down to the center.

The one thing that was clearly missing in Lisbon was the beach. Europeans do not do beaches the way Americans do. Even though Lisbon was right on the water there was no beach for swimming. The nearest recrational beach was a 40 minute train ride away. I do miss the beach – I’ve seen so Many gorgeous beaches in Europe but I haven’t actually been swimming once here!

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