Background: How I found my travel buddy
If you would have told me three years ago that the kid with Zac Efon-style hair from my Introduction to Public Relations class at UO would be my European travel buddy, I would have laughed in your face. It turns out that the two of us make a great traveling team.
After graduation, Alex followed in my footsteps and has now been teaching English in Prague for two months. When he first decided he was going to move abroad, we knew we had to meet up somewhere in Europe, but we weren’t sure where or when. Then we got this crazy idea in our heads that we would attend Oktoberfest. However, simply attending one of the world’s largest festivals wouldn’t be enough, we needed something more. So why not throw in a few Eastern European countries while we’re at it?! Somehow that seed began to grow and step by step the plan began to unfold. Now I’m happy to say those 10 days held some of the best experiences of my life.
First Stop: Prague, Czech Republic (Day 1)
I bid farewell to Istanbul where summer dresses and sandals were still appropriate attire, and set off to greet the onset of fall in Prague where oversized sweaters and boots were necessary to combat the chilly weather.
The taxi ride from the airport exposed me to my first sights of Prague. A skyline of spires from medieval castles could be seen in every direction as the cab approached one of the many bridges passing over the Vltava River. Centuries-old buildings and cobblestone streets led the way to Alex’s flat which is located in Prague 2, where he lives with a guy from New Zealand, a girl from Russia and another girl from Portugal.
My first on-foot adventure led us through narrow cobble streets to find a city center bustling with people. Small wooden structures housed street vendors who lined the walkway selling traditional brats, hot wine and small trinkets. Rounding the corner to Old Town Square, I noticed that everyone’s gazes were directed at a large clock affixed to the side of an ancient church. This astronomical clock dates back to 1410 and is the third oldest of its kind in the world, but the oldest one that’s still working. Throughout the day, crowds gather to watch the animated figures do a small routine as the hour changes. Judging by the size of the crowd, I was expecting a grandiose show, but I simply chuckled at the end of the short show and asked, “That was it?!” Regardless, the clock tower itself and other surrounding churches were beautiful to admire.
The rest of the evening was spent sipping beer and devouring traditional beef goulash. In Prague, beer is practically cheaper than water. It costs less than $2 for a half liter of beer, so needless to say, I was like a little kid in a candy shop. When the rest of the city was turning to bed, we joined forces with Alex’s roommates to do a pub crawl through the city. I had a great time bouncing around the city and ended the night at a Turkish restaurant, where I satisfied my craving for a chicken durum before crawling into bed…er…couch.
Second stop: Munich, Germany (Day 2-4)
Less than 24 hours after stepping out of the Arrival Terminal at Prague Václav Havel Airport, I stepped through the Departure Terminal doors bound for Munich. The fact that our watches read 10:00 a.m. didn’t stop us from killing a few pints of beer before boarding 65-minute flight to every beer lover’s dream destination: Oktoberfest.
We touched down in Munich around noon, but ironically our train ride from Munich’s airport to the city center took longer than our flight from Prague to Munich. We watched green fields and autumn-colored trees pass by as the train carried us closer and closer to our final destination. Due to a lack of communication between Alex and one of his friends, we were lost in Munich for a brief moment in time after stepping off the train. But soon enough, two fellow Ducks greeted us quickly before leading us to the local beer outlet. We decided it would be best to spend the evening sipping beer and walking around the city in an effort to save our energy for the long day at Oktoberfest that was to come.
One of Alex’s friends had been living in Munich for a few months, so he stepped in as our tour guide for the night. Our first site was the gothic-style New Town Hall, which is located in the heart of the city. Later we strolled down Neuhauserstrasse and Kaufingerstrasse streets, known for their variety of shopping centers. As the night crept on, we purchased lederhosen for the boys and hopped around the city before returning to our friend’s flat for a nice rest…or so I thought.
Moments after my head hit the pillow in the wee hours of the morning, Alex shook me awake and announced that it was time to head to Oktoberfest. I thought it was a sick joke, but there was no laughter in his voice…only excitement. We had been looking forward to Oktoberfest for months and it was finally time for us to head to the world’s largest beer festival. Within a few minutes, we were skipping toward the center of the city giddy with excitement. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw hundreds (if not thousands) of people also marching toward the tents at 6:30 in the morning. We knew the doors to the tent wouldn’t open until 9 a.m., but we didn’t want to miss a moment of the excitement, so we snagged a picnic table near the entrance door and waited for the time to pass while sipping early morning brews.
As the minute hand moved closer to the 9 a.m. mark, excitement began growing among the crowd. Then, one of the security guards pointed directly at our group and allowed us to be the first people to enter the tent. Now when I say “tent,” most people probably imagine a small, white-walled structure designed for rainy day weddings. On the contrary, these tents can hold up to 10,000 people and each has its own theme. Because we were some of the first people to enter the beer wonderland, we grabbed a table in the exact center of the arena.
Over the next 14 hours, we chugged massive amounts of 9 euro beers, sang traditional Bavarian songs, linked arms with fellow drinkers from all over the world and danced the day away with guys in lederhosen and gals in dirndl. Words can’t describe what a magical experience it all was. Ask me what one of my favorite days in my entire life was and I’d answer, “Oktoberfest, no doubt!” Ein prosit is still ringing in my ears.
We nearly cried when the security guards began ushering everyone out of the tent at the end of the night, but we weren’t going to argue with the idea of sleep. More than 16 hours of drinking beer has a way of knocking the snot out of you. Sleeping on a hardwood floor never felt so good. The following morning was rough to say the least, but we didn’t let the exhaustion stop us from waking early to explore the city quickly before heading to our flight back to Prague. This was my third time in four days stepping into Prague’s airport, but we went straight back to Alex’s flat for some much needed rest and relaxation in anticipation for the days to come.
Third stop: Vienna, Austria (Day 5-6)
The next afternoon, Alex and I threw clothes in a suitcase and jumped on a bus that carried us five hours east to Vienna. Although our main purpose for visiting the city was to obtain a work visa for Alex, we didn’t want our time there to be only business related. So we reserved a hostel near the center of the city, where we met a wonderful group of Australians, Canadians, and Americans (with a few other nationalities sprinkled in there) at the hostel’s onsite bar.
When the sun rose the next morning, we took off on our own walking tour of the city. Our first stop was Schönbrunn Palace, which is a 17th-century Versailles-esque chateau. This exquisite summer house is surrounded by small gardens and water features that make the entire property breathtaking. The palace set the tone for the day as we continued to float around the city from one beautiful building to the next. We stepped foot inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, window shopped through Graben Street area, kicked back on large plastic beds in the Museumsquartier and admired the architecture of the Museum of Natural History, as well as other buildings that were equally as beautiful.
After punishing our feet by walking around the city for more than six hours, we decided they had earned an early rest and so had we. We crawled into bed before the clock struck 10 and drifted into a deep, deep sleep.
Fourth stop: Budapest, Hungary (Day 7-10)
Our three-hour bus ride to Budapest allowed us to view the countryside of Austria and Hungary. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was driving south down I-5 near Medford in Southern Oregon. It was a strange feeling to be half way around the world and see such familiar scenery. Green fields, small creeks and rolling hills created the illusion that I was nearing home. Little did I know, Budapest would steal my heart and become one of my favorite cities I’ve ever visited.
I learned that 140 years ago, Budapest was two separate cities: Buda and Pest. The two cities were located on opposite sides of the Danube, but in 1873, the Chain Bridge was constructed which connected the two sides together for the first time and thus “Budapest” was born. We chose to stay on the Pest side of the city where a majority of the major historical sites and attractions can be found.
We used the second oldest subway system in the world to navigate to our temporary home, which was a hostel known for showing its residents a good time any day of the week. Our “flatmates” were eight rowdy Australian guys, who kept our stay more than entertaining. The first question we were asked was, “Are you down for a party bus tonight?” Sure it was a Wednesday, but we said “of course!” That evening, more than 100 20-somethings boarded two buses that cruised around the city for a few hours before dumping us out at a pub located in an abandoned building where we continued having a good time with fellow tourists. Welcome to Budapest, eh?
The following morning was our first time seeing the city in day light. We headed down Andrássy Avenue where we strolled past high-end fashion stores, the Hungarian State Opera House and the House of Terror before reaching the end of the tree-lined street, which is home to Heroes’ Square. Not long after, we stumbled upon the city’s zoo in the city park. I’m fairly certain we were the only people over the age of eight who entered the zoo, but we had a wonderful time observing sloths, crocodiles, giraffes, orangutans, baby kangaroos, camels, lions, tigers and even a polar bear.
After satisfying the inner child in us, we made our way back down Andrássy toward the Danube, where we discovered the world’s third largest parliament building that sits along the river. Unfortunately the grounds were undergoing some kind of renovation, so we had to view the building through the wires of a chain-link fence. Even from afar, its details captured our attention for at least 30 minutes as we walked along the gated off areas hoping to find an opening, but to no avail.
As the sun began lowering in the sky, we walked across the Chain Bridge and set foot on the Buda side of the city for the first time. Immediately after crossing the bridge, we noticed a winding trail that led up a steep hillside. Like mountain goats, we hopped up the side of the hill only to discover Buda Castle, which dates back to 1265. From this vantage point, we could see the city stretch for miles and miles into the Hungarian hills. The setting sun added to the ambiance of the scene by illuminating all the buildings and houses with yellow and pink hues. I think that was the moment I fell in love with Budapest.
As soon as the sun dipped behind the hills, a blanket of coldness covered the city and sent us running back to our hostel in search of warmth. Not long after returning to the hostel, we gathered with the rest of the hostel residents to head toward the river for a boat party. Our group of 50+ tourists flooded the sidewalks on the way to boat, only to discover that the party had been canceled at the last minute due to unsafe waters. We didn’t let this put a damper on our fun. Instead, we teamed up with our Aussie roommates and spent the rest of the evening moving from pub to pub. Eating KFC, arm wrestling and dancing kept us busy all night until we finally returned to our beds for some shuteye.
The next morning, I awoke with a foggy head and terrible cough. My body had finally decided to punish me for the previous nine days of traveling. Because Alex and I were both feeling a little under the weather, we decided it was the perfect day to spend at Széchenyi Thermal Baths, the largest medicinal baths in all of Europe. Constructed in 1913, the yellow-walled building includes 15 indoor baths and surrounds three outdoor pools, which are all heated by natural hot springs. Our afternoon was spent moving from room to room to test the waters of each pool before the grand finale: the outdoor pools. Despite the chilly weather, the heated pool were the perfect remedy for my illness. The setting makes you feel like royalty because the building surrounding the pools looks more like a royal palace than anything else.
With pruned fingers and toes, we finally exited the pools and returned to our hostel briefly before crossing over the Danube again in search of the highest point in the city. We barely survived the climb to the Citadel, which is even higher than the previous day’s climb to Buda Castle. But when we reached the summit, we were both speechless because words couldn’t describe the beauty of the 360-degree view surrounding us. We moved in silence around the site, taking in all the colors: red roofs, green trees, the blue river, white bridges, dark hills and a sunset-colored sky. Eventually we perched ourselves high atop a wall and removed a bar of chocolate and two bottles of a wine from our bag. Over the next hour, the sun fell lower and our conversation grew stronger. Thinking back to how I felt at that moment, I remember the overwhelming feeling of pure bliss that fills me with so much joy and makes me so thankful that I decided to move abroad.
When our wine and conversation finished, we retreated back to the hostel yet again to warm our freezing appendages. Even though it was our last night in Budapest, I decided to call it an early night, but Alex opted to attend the rescheduled boat party, which he really enjoyed.
Our bus left midday the following morning so we said goodbye to our new friends from Down Under and boarded a luxury bus bound for Prague. The pain of our eight-hour bus ride was offset by the fact that we had access to American movies and unlimited hot chocolate. Hallelujah!
Fifth stop: Prague, Czech Republic AGAIN – (Day 11)
Because it was my fourth time arriving to Prague over the course of my trip, you would think that I had seen most of the city. However, it had only been a homebase during our adventure, so I had yet to see much of the city. On the final day of the trip, I woke up with only a few hours to spare before I had to be at the airport. Alex emerged from his room shortly after and we devised a plan to squeeze in a few more sites before my departure.
With my suitcase in tow, Alex led us to the 15th-century Charles Bridge. Dozens of beautiful sculptures depicting saints line the bridge, which made me feel like I was being transported back in time. But then I came to my senses when I looked around to see hundreds of picture-taking tourists and rows of street vendors stretching the length of the bridge, reminding me that I was indeed in the 21st century. We ignored the crowd and spent a few minutes looking at the colorful restaurants and buildings nestled along both sides of the river. In the distance, Alex directed my attention to the small handful of castles that could be seen in opposite directions. Unfortunately this was as close as I would get to the castles, so I will have to return to the city in the future to explore the grounds in the future.
My rolling suitcase bounced up and down on the cobblestone streets leading us toward giant black babies. Yes, you read that correctly: giant black babies. Apparently, some modern artist thought it was a good idea to sculpt several larger-than-life faceless babies. I suppose I will never understand modern art.
Our last stop was the John Lennon Wall. Brightly colored graffiti spans the length of the wall, which has been used for three decades as a means for sharing inspirational quotes and pictures illustrated by local and traveling artists. Peace signs, animals, hearts, names and words overlap each other creating an ever-changing collage of inspiration. What a wonderful location to end my 10-day Eurotrip.
All in all, I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have seen some of Eastern Europe’s most wonderful cities and for the experiences that made it a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The beauty in this world never ceases to amaze me. But the beauty I speak of isn’t found only in the physical appearance of each city, but in conversations, encounters and blissful moments that make the experience more than just a vacation. That being said, it sure feels great to be “home” in Istanbul.