Why is it important to write?
This blog post is about Eastern Europe. But before I discuss my travels, let me ask a question:
Have you ever thought about how odd it is for a human to write?
Communication is rooted within our evolution to be a biological advantage. Verbal warnings to others of approaching threats or the subliminal cues of body language both equally influence those around us, but they always occur in the moment a sound is shouted or a tone is struck. It makes sense that nearly all communication happens in the present. Animals, and specifically humans, are social creatures that rely on the support of others to survive. Without a tool to interact, there would be no community or society for a social being to live in.
While birds chirp and lions roar, no living being has developed one specific variation of communication like humans have with language. Within language is a collection of interchangeable puzzle pieces that effectively allow the communicator to always be able to express themselves, so long as they know the appropriate words to do so.
There’s no point in relaying a message to someone when it doesn’t pertain to the moment they are in when survival is a focus. Even if words are more distinguishable from a monkeys chatter, they still exist in the form of sound.
So, why do we write?
The response to this question considers much of what I hope to write about today. Writing contains a unique air of novelty to its action. True writing (like what I hope I’m doing now) focuses on the transfer of an organic idea into words that others can understand. With this transfer, a written work tries to convey a set of emotions that push beyond what one would feel during an ordinary day. Since this idea is written instead of exclaimed, it can last for as long as the parchment or website the idea is written on exists. In a way, written words are like the time capsules of human thought.
As I take off my philosophy hat and get back into the travel blog saddle, let me tell you why I bring all of this up.
Traveling has sucked this past year and a half. Period.
COVID has hit the breaks on every travel plan that anyone in the world had. For some, that’s not too much of a bad thing. Hey, what does it hurt taking another staycation? Not much, I guess.
But, as someone writing for a travel blog for fun in between college course work, it sure makes the job tough. How can you write about travel when you haven’t traveled recently?
To an extent, you can’t. Traveling is the name of the game, and for good reason. People want to read about the places you go, and you need to go to places in order to write about them. Seems logical, right?
A unique thought occurred to me when I was running through ideas for what this post would be, and the idea that developed challenged this previous logic. What if I wrote about somewhere I had traveled to a while back, but viewed it through the lens of the words I wrote when I was there? In a way, reliving the trip I took through the time capsule I created for myself?
That’s where the story of my travel journal comes in. Back in 2018, I went on a school trip through Eastern Europe with some of my closest friends. We went through Germany, Poland, Hungary, and so many other places. While abroad, I took the time to take a few notes on what we did each day in a small weekly planner. Instead of telling you about every place I went to on this trip in a normal fashion, I wanted to share with you the memories I wrote down in my journal. From this, I hope to illustrate all of the jargon I talked about above. Writing has the ability to have a lasting effect on someone, even if the reader is the person who wrote the notes three years prior.
Without further ado, let me crack open my journal and relive my journey with you.
Berlin, Germany: May 31-June 4, 2018
May 31st– Landed in Germany at 8:00am German time. You didn’t sleep well on the plane.
The images we often have in our minds when we think of Europe tend to deal with the cities and destinations that are so well known in the western side of the continent– places such as London, Paris, and Rome. This idea makes sense, since many of these cities and their accompanying monarchies shaped much of what we know of the modern world. Despite this, you shouldn’t underestimate the culture and history contained in the eastern states of Europe.
Berlin was our first destination, and was the city on our itinerary that had the most history attached to it (both good and very, very bad). Going into our trip, I had expected Berlin to produce our magnum opus of stories that we would tell to our friends back home. This thought came from a veil of ignorance I had built up before the trip about what I expected going into the “lesser known” areas of Europe. Berlin was an amazing city, and a truly awesome launching point for our trip, mostly because it’s history allowed us to get a view of a scaled-down model of Eastern Europe (something I will elaborate on further below).
One of the small things I still remember vividly about the journey was the 10-hour plane ride across the Atlantic to Berlin. Saying I didn’t sleep well is something that I still remember as being a tragic understatement, as I ended up staying awake for about nine and a half hours of our red eye flight into the city.
June 1st– Went to heart of Berlin. Took boat tour, walked up river. Went to beer garden.
After a day of wandering off the jet lag of the previous travel and getting a good night of sleep, our school group decided to go through the heart of Berlin to see the things that the city is known for.
Besides seeing brand new Mercedes-Benz cars used as ordinary taxis, the biggest moment of culture shock that I experienced in Berlin was getting on my first German subway. Subways in themselves are mildly unusual in America, and aren’t common unless you live in a big metropolitan area. Combining this unused method of travel with maps posted above the metal doors that were written entirely in German was the way that the universe reinforced to me that I was, in fact, not in Florida anymore. If you ever wanted to learn a language fast, I’d recommend navigating your way back to your hotel at two in the morning without using the maps on your phone (because, hypothetically, you forgot to charge it the night before). You start to pick up on the vocabulary pretty quick.
Our first subway ride in Berlin led us to the center of the city, which occupies a decent area of space. Berlin itself is a large city, and because of this, it has a different collage of things held within the city limits. Serving as the capital city of Germany, many of the modern-day bureaucratic buildings line the streets opposite of relics from the old German monarchy.
The best way of navigating the city and seeing all of the sites within Berlin is by taking a tour boat down the Spree River, the main water access and river that snakes directly through the center of Berlin. Much of the city is designed around the auxiliary branches of the river, so it’s not uncommon to exit a building and see the river water splashing on the pavement ten feet from the doors you just exited.
The heart of Berlin contains so many historical and tourist destinations that it’s a little unreasonable to expect to see them all in one day, unless you are willing to sacrifice going to a few spots. Our group was faced with this decision, as one small party chose to go to Museum Island, a literal island in Berlin (surrounded by the Spree River) that hosts five of the biggest museums in Europe. If you are a museum buff and want to see things like sculptures crafted by Donatello and other leading Renaissance artists, full-sized architectural pieces extracted from sites of the former Babylonian Empire, or first-class paintings by Monet, then the five museums hosted on Museum Island are the places you should go to. Going through all five museums can easily take up the entire day.
As someone who had just finished my senior year of high school and battled through the college application process, I decided to stay away from the museums and enjoy the outdoors with the other group who had planned on walking through the city and stopping by important landmarks.
Once we had reached the heart of the city, we decided to get an overview of the area by taking one of the aforementioned boat tours. It’s been three years since I took the tour, but I can still tell you now that it was one of the best times on the trip. If you decide to go to Berlin and tour the city streets, I’d recommend you follow the strategy that my group set out– first getting a glimpse of everything in the city by taking the hour-long boat tour, and then proceed to walk along the river and stop by the landmarks that sparked your curiosity on the boat tour.
One of the first landmarks that we passed on the tour was the Berliner Fernsehturm, a 1200-foot tall TV tower that resembles closely to Seattle’s Space Needle. The television tower is home to some local radio and TV networks, along with hosting tourist attractions like a viewing deck and a rotating restaurant, both located at the top of the tower.
Along the way we passed many other notable landmarks, some of which I’ll offer a brief overview of now. My goal for this blog is to offer a look into some of the more intimate moments of my time in Europe, and Berlin has enough history and architecture within it’s city that it could command the entire contents of this post. For that reason, I’ll save the deep dives through a landmark’s history for things that were truly notable for my trip and the multitude of locations we went to.
The Reichstag, the home to the German Empire Imperial Diet until 1933, is one of the landmarks that you have to see. The Reichstag has undergone renovations over the years, and now serves as the home to the lower level of the German Parliament. The massive building is also accompanied by a multiple acre lawn that offers the perfect picnic spot during a cool Berlin summer night.
Nestled next to the collection of museums on Museum Island is the Berliner Dom, or the Berlin Cathedral. Built in 1750, the Cathedral has also gone through some painstaking renovations over the last 70 years, with much of the damage being caused by the bombings of Berlin during World War 2. Fully rebuilt, the Cathedral is now marked by the unique green hue of it’s copper roof, once a stunning dark brown that turned pale green due to years of oxidation.
Once we departed from our boat tour and walked by some of the landmarks we had seen while on the Spree, our teachers decided to mirror the setting sun and lead us to one of the best and incredibly relaxed cultural gems of Europe to end our day: a beer garden.
Almost like an outdoor restaurant, beer gardens are simple rows of picnic benches and metal tables that are lined under the soft protection of trees and ambient lighting. Multiple vendors make up the beer garden, each offering a unique take on German beer, pretzels, or sausage. With cheap prices, easy music, and a lot of laughter, beer gardens are some of the best places to turn off the main tourist path in Europe and experience some of what local culture has to offer. If there was one thing I could take from my time in Europe and bring back to America, it would definitely be the network of beer gardens spread throughout the continent. You can learn a lot from seeing the sites of Berlin, but not many places offer a chance to connect with the city quite like a beer garden.
June 2nd– Met our official tour guide, moved hotel to East part of city.
June 3rd– Last day in Berlin. Took a bus tour along the Berlin Wall.
Our school trip to Europe was facilitated through a program called Education First Tours, or EF. The program allows high school teachers the ability to have a pre-planned itinerary established for a trip they would lead through whatever part of the world they were going to. The EF tour we went on was originally a nine day retreat, but my teacher who led our trip opted to add four extra days to our travel– two at the beginning and two at the end.
As a result, our official tour didn’t start until our third day in Berlin. Because our trip transitioned into being under the umbrella of a EF tour, we had to relocate to the hotel that EF had already booked for us.
This changing of hotels allowed us to see an entirely different side of Berlin, and one (like I mentioned above) that gave us an overview of much of Eastern Europe.
Our original hotel was located in the western portion of Berlin near the main Berlin airport, or the main part of the country that was formerly known as West Germany. Moving to our new hotel resulted in us traveling through the main center of the city and reaching the former portions of Soviet Union-occupied East Germany.
The differences between the two sides of the city were startling, to say the least. After you crossed the spot of the former Berlin Wall, you entered into a world of unsettling uniformity.
Every building you saw felt like a life-sized Lego piece. There was no deviation in shape or design for many of the Communist-crafted buildings located in the main part of Eastern Berlin. Color was also something that was lacking from the area, as it seemed each building was painted with a slightly more depressing shade of gray than the one before it.
The city of Berlin and country of Germany were both split in two after the end of the second World War. With the Allied forces reaching Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet forces reaching it from the east, a natural divide developed over the partitioning of the country after the conclusion of the war. West Germany and East Germany were the byproducts of the resulting Cold War, the 50-year standoff between the ideologies of democracy and communism.
To combat the mass exodus that was occurring in response to the inhumane policies and autocratic rule of the Soviet-controlled East Germany, a massive wall was constructed in the middle of the night on August 13, 1961. This wall closed off all access points to West Germany, and officially split Berlin in half. The wall stood for 28 years, until it fell in 1989 as a prelude to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As a result of four decades under the thumb of a failed governing philosophy and overall ruthless regime, much of the eastern portion of Berlin today still deals with poverty and socioeconomic issues that aren’t as prevalent in the west. All cities have poorer and richer areas. Normally, the more impoverished areas are the ones closer to the heart of the city. For Berlin, this mark between rich and poor is generally decided by what side of the Berlin Wall you stand on.
To extend this idea further, many of the current socioeconomic conditions in Eastern Europe have been influenced by the former Soviet Union. Nearly all of the countries we went to on this trip were a part of the Eastern Bloc (the countries beyond Russia that the Soviets controlled), and many of the similar things that we saw in the east side of Berlin carried over to them as well. Most countries we toured struggled with poverty, a devalued currency (especially when compared to the Euro), and were still in the process of escaping forty-plus years of communist control.
That’s not to say all is lost in these countries. They’ve come a long way since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. But when we compare them to the United Kingdom, France, or Italy, it’s easy to see why one might develop an image of these cities and countries that aren’t entirely representative of who they really are.
In a fitting end to our time in Berlin, my school group and I took a bus tour down the remains of the Berlin Wall. With some parts still standing as a memorial to the decades of forced division imposed on Germany, the wall offers an odd experience. For the most part, it isn’t too striking. As a matter of fact, it’s just a wall. Now covered with graffiti (which, as an aside, Berlin has some amazing street art), the wall really carries its weight when you understand everything that I detailed above. One nation was split in half as a battleground between ideologies, and a whole generation of Germans were separated from there family by one continuous, eleven-foot wall built in the dead of night.
The people of Berlin and much of their history comes from the unchecked powers that have used the city to their advantage. Whether it be as the capital of the former Prussian Empire, the scarred starting grounds of two World Wars, or the stage for the ultimate stand-off between the United States and Soviet Union, Berlin has written a complicated story.
But the people who live their today live free, and were as hospitable to some young, traveling Americans as any we would end up meeting on our trip.
Prague, Czech Republic: June 4th-June 6th, 2018
June 4th– Left Berlin, arrived late in Prague.
Transitioning between countries was another culture shock moment for me. Back stateside, not much changes when traveling between the 48 contingent states, outside of the literal geographical change. The language, currency, and overall culture remains the same.
After having four days to take my best attempt at struggling with the German language, we departed for Prague, one of the oldest cities in the Czech Republic (formerly known as Czechoslovakia). Prague felt entirely different from Berlin, even though they were only four hours from each other.
We arrived late in Prague, which was unfortunate because we only had two days to explore the city.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling (and a great way to make up for lost time) is to walk a portion of the city streets like a native would. Even though we couldn’t fit everything into the time we ended up spending in Prague, wandering the streets that surrounded our hotel led my friend group to feel like we weren’t that far from home after all. We walked for a half hour or so until we stumbled upon a small park that was marked with a modest fountain in the middle. Seeing this as a great slice of Prague, my friends and I grabbed a few drinks and enjoyed the night sitting in the Czech grass and enjoying the calm buzz of our new destination.
June 5th– Went on tour of St. Vitus Cathedral. Took fun detour and “scavenger hunt” through the beer gardens in Prague.
Another striking thing about Europe is the architecture that still remains from people and movements from centuries ago. We toured a main cathedral or landmark in every city we went to, but no cathedral stood out more than the St. Vitus Cathedral.
Located in the heart of the Prague, the cathedral is a beautiful destination to travel to for multiple reasons, regardless if you are interested in the architecture or the religious dogma. The first church that was constructed on the site where St. Vitus Cathedral stands now was commissioned in 930, even though construction on the building that is now known as the cathedral wasn’t completed until 1929. Regardless if the grounds are 100 or 1000 years old, St. Vitus Cathedral looks like something from a history lesson. Uneven brick roads lead to the spot where tourists, who have just passed a few security checkpoints, wait in line before entering the massive church.
The church itself contains much of what you would expect of such an building: glowing collages of colors from the stained-glass windows cover many of the artifacts and communion areas hosted within the church. I appreciated all of it to the fullest extent that I could, but without being too familiar with Czech history, some of the details of the church probably went over my head.
The coolest part of St. Vitus Cathedral, and the reason why it really stood out to me compared to the other landmarks we visited, was what is accessible through the natural path of the church tour. The entire property in which the church sits on is known as the Prague Castle, the largest castle area in the world. Other parts of the massive property include the residence of the Czech Republic’s President.
Walking through the Prague Castle beyond St. Vitus Cathedral leads you to a small network of narrow cobblestone streets. With small businesses and tourist stores fitted into the buildings lining the narrow path, the collection of roads funnels you out to an unabridged view of the city of Prague. With a expansive stone staircase that returns tours of walkers back into the city, this opportunity is easily the best to get a good view of the city. The vantage point looks down on the city for miles, and the unique orange-tinted roofs of the buildings below seem to create a wave of modest European architecture. Taking the path by day allows you to see the city in full daylight, with the bright blue sky as a sharp contrast from the edged roofs below. Taking the path by night allows you to see a softer side of the city, one mixed with the soft glow of the city lights down below and the suspended lanterns that follow one down the long, winding path.
We finished our only real day in Prague by wandering through the city and using various beer gardens as checkpoints for our travel. The teacher who was leading our tour set up a small scavenger hunt through a few of the beer gardens we visited, and as with the case in Berlin, the beer gardens gave us the chance to sit back and appreciate the local setting.
Instead of rushing from one tourist spot to the next, stopping and drinking allowed us to notice some of the more minute details that we normally wouldn’t have. Sitting under the shade of a tree in Prague feels similar to what it does back home, but having the opportunity to experience this shade with people you enjoy being around while being halfway around the world is something that can only be appreciated in the moment.
Krakow, Poland: June 6th-June 8th, 2018
June 6th– Left Prague for Krakow, got stuck in traffic for 9 hours. Toured the town square.
If you compare my passages for Berlin and Prague, you should be able to tell which city I spent a little more time in. With the way that the tour was structured, we only had two days to spend in Prague. The same held true with Krakow, one of the largest cities in Poland. Unlike Prague, we got stuck in a terrible patch of European traffic while on our way to the city. As a result, the two days that we should’ve had in the city turned to about one and change after we finally arrived.
Even though I only had the chance to get a short glimpse at Krakow, it was by and far my favorite city. I loved every destination that we toured while in Europe, but Krakow struck me right away for the beauty that the city casts on anyone who walks through its streets.
The nine hour bus ride was something that I think I slept through or just completely forgot, because I didn’t remember it happening until I found the note in my journal. Regardless, the time that we spent as a group on the bus were some of the best memories I have from the trip. As the graduate seniors on the trip, my buddies and I claimed stake to the back row on the bus, where the nicest and most connected seats were. Coincidentally, the back of the bus happened to be the rowdiest portion of the bus, which came much to the chagrin of the other 25 people on the tour who sat in front of us.
The first thing we did when we finally arrived in Krakow was tour the cathedral that was almost as old as the city itself. Although rather historic and worthy of being featured in a college travel blog writer’s post, I’m going to skip over our time going through it because of how relatively similar it was to St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Instead, I want to focus on my fondest memory of Krakow.
The streets of the city felt like arteries leading to the heart of what Krakow really was. In the literal case of the city’s geography, all of the streets eventually connected to the town square, known to the locals as Rynek Główny. The main square of Krakow was the most authentic location we traveled to during our time in Europe. It fostered many of the local activities happening on the Wednesday evening that we visited it, whether it be offering goods in the open-air market, hosting an array of cuisine that filled out the perimeter of the square, or just being a place for kids to play.
We ended up visiting the square three times in the day or so we had in Krakow. The location feels like a magnet, and our second trip to the square allowed us to watch the Krakow youth bicycle circuit that was passing through the middle of the marketplace.
The picture off to the side is also my favorite that I took while abroad. Even though its relatively simple, the photo captures more about the Krakow square than any literary article that I could ever weave. The picture contains a lot of action, and there may not be a better representation of the lighthearted attitude of Krakow than one of a market performer making bubbles for the children to play with. As a fun fact about this photo, I actually didn’t know how cool of a scene I had captured until I looked at my phone’s camera roll later that night. When I took the photo, I was wearing sunglasses while viewing my phone on the dimmest background setting it had. So, I pretty much randomly pointed my camera and took a picture without knowing what I was aimed at. I think the results are pretty cool.
June 7th– We visited Auschwitz.
Our trip took a somber turn when we toured the grounds of the death camp during the early morning hours of our second day in Poland.
Located about a half hour outside of Krakow, Auschwitz was the largest and deadliest concentration camp organized by the Nazis during the course of World War 2.
As a site of one of the worst human tragedies to ever occur, touring the grounds didn’t feel real. I still remember much of the scenery surrounding the camp and the confusion it brought me. Rolling hills and blossoming flowers made up the corner of Poland where Auschwitz was located, painting the starkest contrast imaginable with the monstrous atrocities that were committed on the grounds we walked. Our tour guide led us through every part of the camp, from standing in the gas chambers to walking through the museums that had been created within the old living quarters.
It was harrowing to hear the full extent of what happened in Auschwitz, and even though numbers can never fully encompass what happened at the camp during the early 1940’s, I think these help add some sort of context:
1.3 million prisoners were sent to Auschwitz during the course of the Holocaust.
1.1 million prisoners were killed at Auschwitz during the course of the Holocaust.
The moment where the true weight of where I was at hit me when I turned the corner in one of the makeshift museums. The door that you turn through leads you to a dark room, with one small collection of lights coming from a spot to your left. When you turn to look, you realize that behind the massive glass barrier in front of you is a collection of hundreds of thousands of shoes, all worn by prisoners of Auschwitz who were killed during the Holocaust. The shoes range from toddler slippers to the working boots of older men. I had never seen so many shoes in my life.
This day was the only day on my trip in which I didn’t take a single picture. There was no reason to, because being present in the moment as we walked through the grounds of the death camp was enough for me to always remember how I felt on that morning three years ago.
Budapest, Hungary: June 8th-June 12th, 2018
June 8th– Left Krakow, got to Budapest late.
June 9th– Last day of EF tour, walked through city and crossed multiple bridges.
Even though we had only been in Krakow for some 36 hours, it was hard for me to leave the city. If I could have the chance to go back to any one city that we toured on my trip, it would almost certainly be Krakow. The city was vibrant and young, even though the history of Poland has been mired by tragedy. The people that we met in Poland didn’t let this dark cloud define them, and instead chose to continue moving forward to a better tomorrow.
Similar to our bus ride from Prague to Krakow, the journey to Budapest also took a good deal of time. Highways in much of Eastern Europe are more like two-lane roads, and as a result, any traffic jam can be felt for miles back.
Once we finally put boots on the ground and had the chance to explore the city, my tour was completely amazed at the awesome location we found.
Whether it be because of the dedication to aquatic transportation, a rich night life, or just the dueling nature of the city, Budapest was the city that contained the most flair during our time in Europe.
Budapest is the capital city of Hungary, and was actually formed in the late 19th century when the two cities of Buda and Pest were united into one grand city. Separated by the amazing Danube River, the areas that are considered Buda and Pest are both relatively different from each other. Buda is the portion of the city located on the west bank of the Danube, and the terrain is full of rolling hills and beautiful views of the entire city. Pest, on the other hand, is the eastern portion of the city, and almost has the complete opposite geography of Buda. Pest is incredibly flat, and when viewed from some of the hills on the Buda portion of town, the sites of the entire east side of the city can be seen for miles (similar to the view of Prague seen after the tour of St. Vitus Cathedral). The Pest side of Budapest is home to the Hungarian Parliament, a stunning building that features 365 towers of some sort in its structure– one to represent each day of the year.
In a way, Budapest’s literal divided history represents much of my previous discussion on the divide between Eastern Europe and their neighbors to the west. As a former Eastern Bloc Nation of the Soviet Union, Hungary also deals with the common issue of higher poverty rates than other established democratic nations in Europe.
Since the city of Budapest is cut in half by a river, the bridges that unite the two sides of the city are some of the coolest landmarks to walk across. Carrying the aforementioned symbolism a step further, the bridges in Budapest serve as the tokens of unification for two cities that joined together for the greater good. From a literal perspective, the bridges are a great touch of architectural and cultural design.
The Chain Bridge is one of the most notable bridges in the city, even though there are plenty of them to go around. When viewing the city from the hills on the Buda side (specifically when near the Hungarian Liberty Statue, discussed below), the Chain Bridge is the first bridge you see. While operating as a conventional bridge to get cars from Buda to Pest, the bridge also has a wide sidewalk that is perfect for bikers and walkers alike, and the relative short distance of the bridge makes it a great way to stretch your legs after a long flight or bus ride.
The end of our second day in Budapest was the conclusion of our EF tour. With sad farewells to our tour guides, we once again crossed sides of a city and moved from our hotel in the Pest side to a new one in the Buda side. Moving hotels was something that always felt like a hassle during the trip, but looking back on it now, it was a great way to see different parts of whatever city we were in for more than the brief passing moments of a tour.
June 10th– Went to Budapest Baths.
June 11th– Last day in Europe. Climbed to the Statue of Liberty with friends.
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Budapest is the collection of spas and hot springs spread amongst the city. Fueled by the underground reservoir of thermal water, the Budapest baths are the hotbeds (no pun intended) of relaxation in the city. More than just pools of hot water, each bath house has developed into a miniature resort, great for a quick dip in the afternoon or an all night party (referred to in Budapest as “sparties”, a witty combination of the words “spa” and “party”).
While our tour group missed out on the chance to go to a sparty, we did stop by a bath house during the day. Even though the thermal water underground fuels the baths, these resorts aren’t limited to heated water alone. This is an important fact if you were like my tour group and decide to visit the spas during a hot June afternoon in Budapest.
Even though all of the bath houses in the area have developed from being small huts around rising spring water, many feature similar characteristics inside their well developed properties. Conventional swimming pools are offered next to areas that are essentially massive hot tubs. Food, alcohol, and air conditioning were offered at the restaurant that was inside the bath house that we went to, and spots to sit and sun bathe were also prominently featured.
As we ventured deeper into the bath house, we found pools with a range of different options. Some had a higher concentration of minerals than others, while some were ice cold. Choosing a pool to swim in was almost like picking food at a buffet– each pool or tub was labeled with what it was, and if you weren’t really interested in it, you could walk to the next option. The sauna in the bath house we went to was actually right next to the ice baths, which provided my friends and I a fun exercise of sitting in the sauna for five minutes and then seeing who could get into the ice bath the fastest after we got out. I’m no doctor, but the quick switch from hot to cold sure did take some aches out of my legs and feet.
For our last night in Budapest, a small group that consisted of me and some friends decided to walk up the most prominent hill in the Buda side of town to visit the Hungarian Liberty Statue. Originally built in 1947, the statue commemorated the freeing of Hungary from Nazi control by the Soviet soldiers who liberated the country. Ironically enough, the statue has also grown to represent the liberation of Hungary from communist control after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Regardless of what specific liberation it refers to, the Hungarian Liberty Statue is placed proudly for all to see.
A short walk up the hill (conveniently named the Buda Liberty Hill) leads you to a theater-like structure around the Liberty Statue. While you can take a bus ride up the hill during the day, I would highly recommend walking up the hill at night. The cool breeze that flows off the Danube River makes the hike bearable, and the view only gets better the higher you get. My small group started walking towards the hill shortly after sunset. By the time we got to the top, night had fallen in the city. Even though I raved about the view of Prague earlier, there was no moment like reaching the top of Liberty Hill in Budapest.
The glowing lights of the city below danced in harmony with the stars in the night sky above, with the reflection of some stars off the Danube River seeming like a joining of two worlds in one shared moment. The Hungarian Parliament stood proudly in the night, and the quaint puffs of air that were huffed out of the taxi boats rose until they blended with the clouds that felt like the soft ceiling above our heads. Budapest was presented in front of us in all of its glory.
For a brief moment after you reach the top and see the view of the city from the hill’s edge, it feels like all is well in the world. Whatever feelings, problems, or trepidations you have are whisked away with the wind, and everything is right.
Moments like these are the one’s that I could spend years mixing and mashing words to try and convey the feelings I felt to you as we stood on top of Liberty Hill. I know it’s not possible, but I really want you to understand the novelty of what happened when we reached the top and had our breaths taken away by the view. After taking a few photos, each one of my teenage friends (including myself) put away our phones and reflected. Even if you have nothing to think about, the sight and feeling of being in such a beautiful city and sharing the experience with good friends who have become family breaks you away from any distraction you could have. In a way, the hill liberates you from your worry and lets you live in the moment. It frees you from whatever divide you are facing and unifies you into one whole being, much like the story of the city and continent below.
June 12th– Left for home.
As I conclude this post, I want to offer a slight apology to you, the reader.
Even though I shared much of what I wrote in my travel journal, there are some things that I didn’t share. For the sake of this post and its length (kudos to you if you made it this far), I opted not to go into every detail I could’ve about the cities and countries we visited while abroad. This is mildly routine in the art of travel writing, as some things just don’t make the cut. But these omissions aren’t at the heart of my apology.
The three biggest things that I left out of this post were three notes that I wrote to myself over the course of my trip, with one being right at the start of our journey and two others after I returned home. As my first real experience as an adult venturing outside of my hometown and into the real world, I came home realizing that the scope of what I viewed as life would never be the same. I didn’t realize this would be the case when I penned my first note, which was written well past midnight in our first Western Berlin hotel. At that moment, I just decided to give a brief overview of where I was in life, in case my older self forgot.
The second note was written on the turbulent plane ride back from Budapest. Once again awake on a 10 hour flight, I decided to jot down a few of the things that I was feeling as the view of Europe grew smaller and smaller outside of the plane’s window.
The third note was written at the end of the summer, just a few days before I went off to college. Besides going to Europe, I also traveled to Baltimore to compete in a national business competition, went to my first concert, and completed a multiple night stay at my current college for our freshman orientation.
In short, I did a lot and had the chance to really grow as a person.
Without realizing it, my journal and the personal notes I wrote have become a time capsule for my 18-year-old mindset. Looking back at these notes now, it’s hard not to chuckle when reading them. I can tell that I’ve grown up a lot in the three years since I wrote the notes, and that’s something really cool to discover.
I debated about sharing a small portion of these notes in this post, but I settled on keeping them as a token for only for me and my future self to read. Even though the journal doesn’t yell, shout, tweet, or blog, the words written in it carry ideas of my former self during a time of such wide-eyed exploration.
I encourage you to write in a journal the next time you travel. Even if you don’t go across the Atlantic and spend weeks trekking through Eastern Europe, jotting down some notes can keep the memories of your journey living strong, long after your trip has ended. Digging up the journal from a crowded desk drawer could serve as the rediscovery of a time capsule that you buried long ago.
Thanks for reading.