Easter in Eastern Europe
Ok confession time, I had every intention of posting a separate blog post about every city we visited over spring break but alas, the real world happened and I just didn’t have the time (or the internet connection) to be able to post as frequently as I wanted. But fret not! I am back in beautiful Cardiff with a steady Internet connection and a laptop that I know will not let me down on the posting front. Instead of a post for every city I’m going to do a little bit of condensing, but I think I’ve got it all organized! Without further adieu I give you Easter in Eastern Europe.
After a whirlwind adventure in Rome we were off to Eastern Europe, a place where I had very little knowledge of the cities or the culture. This was going to be our first real time in a completely foreign place and I was slightly apprehensive, but excited. Our first stop was Budapest, Hungary, where we were quickly overwhelmed by cultural differences. The currency in Hungary is called the Forint and it has a very different exchange rate; one United States Dollar is about 280 forint, so needless to say I was a little bit taken aback when I made an ATM withdrawal and I was given one note marked ‘20,000.’ Basically it felt like we were using play money for the weekend, which was fun for us, but unfortunate for my bank account. Alongside the most confusing currency was the most convenient airport transport. The Budapest Airport has a shuttle that you can take for about $10 that drops you off at your exact address. Much easier than trying to figure out public transport in a foreign country. We were quickly taken to our place, which was quaint, but unfortunately had no wifi, so we had to spend the majority of the weekend offline, which was pretty difficult (luckily Budapest has no shortage of Starbucks or McDonald’s to utilize).
Our first day in Budapest was spent walking around Buda Castle and the craft market on the hill. The castle has some incredible views of the city, and more importantly the Parliament Building, which I was in awe with from the moment I first saw it. Any building that can pull off a purple roof is a winner in my book. This was also the first time I got to see one of the beautiful mosaic roofs of Eastern Europe. There was a gorgeous church roof here in Budapest, but even more beauty to be seen in our later stops.
First of many fantastic roofs.
The view from the castle.
We pretty much did a lap around the entirety of the city and the Danube River, walking down to Parliament, seeing Olympia Park, crossing the Chain Bridge, and eventually making our way to a buffet for dinner. I believe what they were serving was Hungarian food but I’m still not entirely sure. All I know is that it was all you can eat so I had many delicious servings while we planned out our adventures for the next day. Initially we were planning on having a quiet Easter eating some chocolate and relaxing, but since our room didn’t have wifi we felt a lot more pressure to get out and explore.
In the end, we decided to spend our Easter exploring the underground Labyrinths of Buda Castle. The labyrinths were not really my cup of tea, but on our way to find them we stumbled across the Buda Castle Easter Festival, which ended up being absolutely wonderful. But before I could really explore the festival, we were set on finding the Labyrinths. As I had never even heard of them before, this whole excursion was all on Shelbie. She did the research and figured out what and where they were and I was just happy to be there. According to her research, and the placards inside them, the labyrinths were used as a prison and torture chamber for the Hungarian Royalty to house prisoners, most notably Dracula. The stories say that Dracula, or Vlad III Prince of Wallachia, or Vlad the Impaler (the man had some names wow) was imprisoned in these tunnels. The reasons and the length of time are still up for debate, but the Buda Castle staff has made sure to deck the place out in Dracula memorabilia, making sure the creepy factor is high enough. The whole history of the place is still fuzzy to me so if you’re more curious I found this article that might answer some questions I was thoroughly creeped out the entire time so they’ve definitely accomplished their goal. Other than the Dracula stuff, they filled the space with creepy wax figures dressed up in Opera clothes and various rocks from around the area. Can I say it was worth the 2000 forint we paid? Probably not, but I’m a wimp and don’t really like that kind of thing. It was a unique experience though, that’s for sure.
The highlight of the day for me was definitely the festival. I had a delicious choco-roll (basically a cinnamon roll with chocolate instead of cinnamon), and some freshly made potato chips that were incredible. Not exactly traditional Easter fare, but hey they tasted good. Everything was all decorated up with adorable Easter decor that made me really happy. Most of the stuff was hand made as well, which made the celebration all the more genuine.
Some of the wonderful Easter decorations.
We closed out our Easter festivities with frozen pizzas and chocolate on the floor of our place in Easter. Was it the family time I would have liked for Easter? Not exactly. But it was definitely a unique adventure that I definitely won’t ever forget. When we left Budapest under the impression that Easter was over, but our next two stops in Zagreb and Prague came with their own Easter flare as well, which extended the festivities for at least another week.
This is how you do Easter right?
Our few days in Zagreb ended up being a very relaxing recovery from the past week of endless walking and exploration. Croatia is probably the most foreign place we visited, and was probably the most difficult to experience. Where the other places were littered with English and recognizable locations, Zagreb was very much the least Westernized. It was a modern city with a buzzing centre, but it was very difficult to navigate without a basic understanding of the language and area. I’m sure if we had done some more research we would have had an easier time, but we were pretty content with taking it easy and relaxing. We stocked up on groceries and snacks (and angered a clerk at the same time, apparently in Croatia they weight their produce and attach a price sticker before check out, but we were completely clueless so she had to run back and forth for the stickers. Oops.) and spent the majority of our time in our extremely cozy room catching up on sleep and work.
Now that’s not to say we never left the confines of our room, we did get out to see the city for at least a few hours a day. We climbed up to the old town to see St. Mark’s Church, with another one of those amazing mosaic roofs that I mentioned earlier, saw the cathedral, which is currently under construction to repair some pretty severe wear and tear, and checked out the adorable Dolac Market. My favorite part was seeing the gorgeous Easter eggs placed around the city. They were all painted with Zagreb landmarks and they were fantastic. Easter is beautiful over here.
To continue our trend of being terrible tourists, our big meal out in Croatia was to a place called ‘American Steak and Grill’ to fill our intense craving for a burger. I never really thought about what it was going to be like away from the familiarity of the UK for this amount of time, but sometimes you just need something familiar to feel a little closer to your own culture. Did I feel guilty? Perhaps. Was the burger a perfect pick me up? Absolutely. Not quite to the standard of the American burgers I miss so dearly, but it worked for the time being.
We passed more time wandering through the botanical gardens, taking weird pictures in the middle of the city, and admiring the awesome street art throughout the city. We even made friends with a cat we found. This European adventure has largely been a game of ‘Where is the cat in this country?’ and there were only two cities where we failed to find one. Rome and Zagreb both had two.
Me and my new cat friend.
Zagreb was also the location of our one and only overnight transport. The cheapest way we found to get to Prague was via two overnight buses, which I was less than thrilled about, but we made it in the end so everything turned out fine. I only got a few hours sleep (thanks to a wailing child throughout most of the ride) but Prague was definitely worth it, even if we were only there for two days.
As soon as we stepped foot into the old town of Prague, I knew that two days was not going to be enough. Prague is gorgeous, and has an absolutely fascinating history. Newly renovated and updated to accommodate the thousands of tourists, the city is full of gorgeous buildings and exciting attractions to satisfy any kind of visitor. Our time was occupied mostly by tours through the company Discover Prague, which has an excellent assortment of affordable tours. The first walking tour we did was free even, and ended up being the perfect way to get to know the city.
For a grand total of zero dollars we went on a three-hour walking tour of most of the city and got to catch a glimpse of the biggest landmarks in the city. Did we get to go up to the castle? No, but we got to see where it was and figure how to get there, which is an extremely helpful way to be introduced to a new place. I spent most of the tour drooling over the market we saw at the very start, and couldn’t wait to get my hands on some food. Even though it had almost been a full week since Easter, the festivities were still in full swing, with more adorable decor and delicious food. Europe has this knack for having the coolest little street markets I have ever seen. I don’t know why these aren’t more widespread in America, but they need to be. I had a sausage and fried potato twist for dinner and they were a perfect way to prep for our own walking adventure of the city.
We spent the night crossing the Charles Bridge (which I found to be an over-busy tourist trap that I still don’t really understand the appeal of) and wandering a number of winding streets in search of the John Lennon Wall. I had read somewhere that the John Lennon Wall was not what it was hyped up to be, but I ended up thinking it was really cool. I much preferred the wall to the bridge. I had seen a few weeks back a few fellow Drake students had visited the wall with ‘Drake’ spray-painted in the background of their pictures. That very same graffiti was still there when we were which is a pretty cool way to see my fellow bulldogs leaving their mark around the world. Obviously we took a bunch of touristy pictures in front of the wall, as one does in Prague.
After watching the sunset and the lights turn on at the castle (which we had learned had been put there and paid for by the Rolling Stones) we resorted to our beds to rest our aching feet and prep for a big day of exploring the castle tomorrow.
As we enjoyed our tour the previous day so much, we decided to return to the same company to purchase a ticket for their tour of the Prague Castle (very reasonably priced). Considering Prague Castle holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for the largest castle complex, I thought it was a reasonable decision to have someone who knows the area show us around. It ended up being a lovely tour as well so I’m very happy we did it. I know anyone reading this will likely be traveling on a budget, but I do highly encourage spending the extra money on a tour in situations like this, you get to see and learn so much, especially when you’re only spending a few days in a city. The castle was wonderful, and our guide gave us a great dinner recommendation so the day was definitely a success. I had a pork schnitzel and potato dumplings and it was delicious, and highly affordable. The currency around here but be very foreign, but it is very favorable.
St. Vitus Cathedral within Prague Castle.
As much as I wished we were staying to explore Prague for another week, our trip was coming to a close and we still had one more stop before making our way back to London. It was time to visit Paris, and I was ecstatic. Eastern Europe was definitely an adventure, and while I may not be the best example of trying to learn the culture and try to adapt to each new country, I did try to take in as much new information and as many new experiences as I could in these amazing places. It was a lot harder to adapt in these places where the languages were completely foreign to anything I’ve ever seen, but it was one of the coolest learning experiences I have ever had. Being thrown into a completely foreign place is an amazing way to test yourself on how flexible and adaptive you can be. I’d like to think I did a good job and I was definitely surprised how well I did considering how much I like to plan things out before I do them. I still appreciate a good schedule, but I think I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable taking a day at a time and seeing what a place can offer.