Monday, April 6, 2009

Eastern Europe Part I

Apologies for the long durée, coming back from the Eastern Europe trip has been a bit chaotic. Lots of homework to catch up on. In fact, you are only getting this update right now because I was unexpectedly informed right now that a paper got delayed a week.

Our Eastern Europe trip - the final major field study trip for our program - took us to four cities over nine days: Kraków, Poland (, Prague, Czech Republic (, Bratislava, Slovakia (, and Budapest, Hungary ( By the way, any politicians in these countries would probably have stabbed me through the heart by now for calling these places Eastern Europe. They believe they are in Central Europe ( As far as I'm aware, Central Europe as a (tourist) concept did not exist before 1990, so I'm not buying it. As far as they would have you believe, only Belarus and Armenia really count as Eastern Europe.

Anyway, as should not surprise you at all, I'm going to have to split this up into a couple posts. We'll start with Krakow and Prague and finish with Bratislava and Budapest.

Kraków was somewhat surprisingly my favorite city of the three. It's at a different pace than the others: it's not a capital, so it doesn't have the same political emphasis as the other cities. Also, the food was amazing. Potatoes and sausages and bacon as the staples of a diet can hardly go wrong. It was also considerably smaller than the other cities (well, not Bratislava, but that was a special case, as you'll see in the next entry) and fairly compact, so it was very easy to get around solely by walking. Perhaps most importantly, I found a pierogi ( fast food restaurant.

Absurdly, Kraków is named after a guy who supposedly slew a seven headed dragon. Let's just think about that for a second. It is also very cheap, another huge plus. All together, a lovely, laid back city. It avoided World War Two bombings rather successfully, so the old town is remarkably still intact. By the same token, the Soviets didn't get to rebuild all of Kraków, so it's not bland everywhere either. Good luck for a major Polish city.

I feel like there was some more interesting stuff to talk about, but it's been quite some time and I've been quite a few other places since then, so I can't remember the specifics. The weather was chilly, but sunny for the most part with one evening of snow, which one cannot complain about at that latitude in March.

We on the way between Kraków and Prague had a short visit to Auschwitz ( Nothing I can say can adequately describe it. So honestly, I'm not even going to try. That is an experience that every person must have on their own. It will not be a pleasant one.

The Vistula (, as seen from Wawel (

Town Hall Tower (,_Krak%C3%B3w) in the Main Market Square ( during a snow storm.

Roofs of the city of Kraków taken from Wawel Castle (

Wawel Cathedral (, where Polish royals were crowned and Pope John Paul II ( wanted to be buried for a time.

Prague was another matter entirely. It's big and a little less concentrated than Krakow, with one of the most impressive castles in the world, Pražský hrad ( The views from the hills above the city are amazing as well, amply demonstrating why one of its nicknames is the town of one hundred spires. The weather was also incredibly dysfunctional - over the course of one day, and really in about a seven hour span, the weather went from rain to snow to sunny to hail to sunny to rain to freezing rain to snow. Impossible to adequately prepare for.

Prague felt much more active and harried than Krakow. Mainly, this is because Prague has fashioned itself as the Paris of the 1920s - ie, all the self-important, self-styled Bohemian expatriate Americans go to live there and feel superior about themselves. There were times, especially in main areas like Wenceslas Square ( when I would only hear English spoken. With occasional interludes of Japanese when flashmobs of tourists would go by.

Also contributing to this development was that the Czech government collapsed while we were in there. Honestly, there was no real tangible result from this: no protests, no demonstrations, no excitement, no real nervous energy throughout the capital like one might expect. I think the people who were the most excited was our group. Because we took credit for it. We were hoping to take out Hungary's government when we got to Budapest too, but they held on for a couple weeks. We had a couple days in Prague to explore the city as best we could, and then we headed still further south.

The skyline of Prague, with several of the one hundred spires visible, as taken from the Prague Metronome (

The bridges of the Vltava (

The Pražský hrad from the opposite banks.

The Charles Bridge (

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