Not too long ago I hatched a wacky plan for a winter eurotrip. The goal: see as many countries as I could possibly fit into 20 days of travel. My only preferences were that the countries had to be ones I’d never been to before and without beaches (because let’s save those for spring break duh!). I jumped on skyscanner and entered: from Madrid to ANYWHERE. (Yes, I love that feature too!)
Soon a plan started to form and I already had my itinerary. I researched it all — flights, trains, buses and even speedboats (who knew that Vienna and Bratislava are connected by the Danube). I tried to get people in on my awesome and extremely economical plan, but nothing worked out. Most wanted to go to places I’d already been. Ruh roh
Nonetheless, I tried to get a group of strangers on board with 7 countries of awesomeness under 250 euros.
But their little hearts were set on Paris, so I decided to let those birdies fly….but not before taking it upon myself to plan out their entire trip, saving them piles of euros and adding new countries to their lists. Shouldn’t I be paid for this?
I’m either really nice or really psycho. You decide!
December 19th I came home from work, packed my suitcase and set off for the airport with my one way ticket to London.
Lo bueno: London was a great start to my trip. It’s definitely a tourist’s city. I don’t think 4 nights were near enough to see all the sights. I luckily had a great tour guide on my walking tour and can still quote her stories about break ins to Buckingham Palace, all of King Henry’s wives and what exactly being hung, drawn and quartered actually entails (spoiler: it’s gross!) I was in London sola, but luckily made fast friends in the hostel and wound up having a great time! I also got to see my favorite Brit and study abroad hermana, Helen! London truly is an amazing city with a lot to discover. From Big Ben to red telephone booths to Harry Potter and the Beatles, there is something for everyone.
Lo malo: I actually don’t have anything too negative to say about London the city. I was expecting to see more grit (something like New York) but was happy to find a very old and well preserved city that was relatively clean and even had its own way of being quaint.
My one travel regret of the trip was booking a flight from Stansted. (Hey even the best fall down sometimes :P) This small airport is located 48 km northeast of Central London. This wouldn’t have been a problem had my flight not been on an early Sunday morning. Low and behold there wasn’t any public transport. I grudgingly booked a room at the Holiday Inn by the airport and reasoned with myself that it’d be my one splurge of the trip and chance to sleep in a big comfy bed without other people in the room. After meeting up with Helencita and catching the last train, I got to stay in my big, lovely room for a total of 4 hours. *sigh*
Lo raro: I spent the 21st in London. You know? 12/21/12? …..DOOMSDAY? At midnight my friends and I ran to London Bridge because if we were going to die we wanted it to happen falling down with London Bridge…my fair lady? Nothing happened of course, but it was still a fun moment and a beautiful sight to see Tower Bridge in the distance. The next day we got up and made our way to Stonehenge, a centuries old winter solstice marker. And you guessed it! The 21st is Winter Solstice! In the end, Stonehenge is really only a pile of old rocks, but being there on that day and seeing the traditional dances made it all the more special.
The high: teehee teehee “the high”. Amsterdam was my next stop on the trip. Teehee teehee “the trip”. I was very lucky to have met someone at my hostel in London who was planning on heading to Amsterdam during the same dates that I was. We spent our days wandering around the city, eating pies and riding the water ferry back and forth, back and forth. The canals and tiny winding streets made Amsterdam a fun city to explore on foot. We walked through the red light district and took pictures at the Iamsterdam sign, but we also attended Christmas Mass at the St. Nicholas Church and got to go inside the building where Anne Frank and her family hid from Nazis for two years.
The low: I was lucky to have met that traveler in London beforehand and develop a friendship because if not I think I would have felt extremely lonely on Christmas. At least with him I felt that I had someone with me that I knew. As I said before, we attended the Mass and went to the hostel’s Christmas dinner, but in the end it still didn’t really feel like Christmas or holidays without my family. (Not that we do traditional! Last holidays were spent in Jamaica!)
The weird: C’mon it’s Amsterdam! Everything was weird about this experience!
The high and the low: I began this post a while ago and I think what has really kept me from finishing it has been writing about my experience in Auschwitz. Visiting this Nazi death camp where it is estimated that 1.3 million people, mostly Jews, were exterminated was the main reason I stopped in Poland. I can now say that I have been to a place where pure evil reigned.
With one entire side of my family being Polish (some fled, some survived, some perished) I’ve fostered a strong desire to visit the site. My intention with visiting Auschwitz was to gain a better understanding of what happened. I wanted to connect more with the magnitude that was the holocaust. I’d read so many books and seen so many movies that told the story beautifully of the victims and survivors, but it wasn’t enough to grasp one of the biggest atrocities in human history. Walking the same path that so many walked to the gas chambers, feeling the cold gusts of wind whip by me, the reality of what happened hit in a way that no documentary, book or statistic had ever managed to do.
The day I visited Auschwitz was by far one of the most depressing, miserable and haunting days of my life. The moment I saw the victims belongings I began to tear up and didn’t stop throughout the rest of the tour. In the piles of shoes I saw a strappy wedge. I could imagine the woman that packed that shoe thinking she’d see Spring again. The room of hair is something that will maybe haunt me forever (yes, the Nazis harvested this part of the body to make things like socks). Among the mounds I could point out a tiny blonde braid, surely that of a little girl. The thousands of numbers suddenly gained identities for me. Soon after seeing the victim’s belongings and hair we were led to the gas chambers. The same chambers where the man who wrote his name so carefully on his suitcase likely took his last breath or where the mother who packed her daughter’s dolly gave her baby one last squeeze.
The whole experience was completely heartbreaking and overwhelming. How did one human being do that to another? You’re probably asking yourself why I would go to such an emotionally shaking place while on vacation. Or really why would anyone want to go there period? From a message I sent to a friend “I can only hope that remembering the horror that was Auschwitz will ensure that nothing so evil and barbaric will happen again.” I believe everyone should go — Jews. Poles. Germans. Everyone. Because in the end it is more than a Jewish or Polish concern, but a human concern.
The good: After my rattling experience in Poland I was looking forward to continuing my trip and meeting with my friend Justin who’d be doing the rest of the trip with me. Actually, Prague turned out to be a huge meet up spot. I also met a friend that I worked with in Italy who was living there, and two other Madrid auxiliars who were traveling over break. Prague was your truly classic, beautiful European city. It had windy cobble stone streets and really old churches. Bumming around the Christmas markets, having hot chocolate at Einstein’s fav spot and trying absinthe for the first time were moments made even sweeter with my friends from “home”.
The weird: The hands down weirdest experience while in Prague was (unfortunately or fortunately) our new year’s eve. We decided we didn’t want to show up at a random club and get hit with some BS cover, so we booked a pub crawl. But not any pub crawl, the ultimate pub crawl!
Since we had signed up at a place called bagel café we knew to set our expectations low. We joked that the dinner buffet was going to be bagels. Turns out it was Burger King. Our pub crawling turned out to be going upstairs to another dance floor. Our private fire work show was just the one they do on the river every year. Our free bottles of champagne were mini ones. Our party buses were just regular public transportation buses. And the 6,000 person party was a wild overestimation. Did we have fun in the end? Hell yes! It turned out to be one of those so-bad-it’s-good moments and thankfully Justin stole us some extra mini champagnes so we got to
bottle popping twisting off caps and rang 2013 in right!
The good: I got my café fix.
Oh and there was that one day when the beer factory was closed.
The weird: One night we got all spiffed up and headed to the opera to see……….
how the poor live!! That’s right! We got standing room tickets….for a FOUR hour show. Needless to say, my feet were killing me by the end of the night. Not one but TWO people fainted in our little cattle stalls. It was definitely a bizarre and slightly scary experience that I’m not repeating any time soon and definitely not while wearing wedges. I will however say that the price of the ticket was worth it just to get a look inside the opera house.
Lo bueno: Bratislava threw us the biggest curve ball. After having watched clips from Eurotrip and knowing Hostel was supposed to take place there, I feared for my life and expected to be in a total dump. I expected all of this until…
It was beautifuuuuuuuuul *sob*
In the end there wasn’t all too much to do in this city, but Slovaks should be pissed at Hollywood for how this enchanting capital is portrayed. My expectations were definitely proven wrong.
Lo malo: Hands down the biggest joke that Bratislava has to offer is its castle. Apparently it was burned down in the 18th century and rebuilt in the……1960’s!!! That means Disneyland is older. We thought it looked like a tacky hotel.
Lo rarísimo: What happened in Bratislava was by far the strangest moment of the entire trip. While casually walking down the street one night minding my own business a complete stranger walked by me and asked, “Cómo estay?” !!!!!!! My mouth flew into auto response and said, “Bien po.” Ok so you’re probably like WTF does that mean? Is that even Spanish? The answer is Sí, Señor! It’s CHILEAN SPANISH! His mouth dropped open just as mine did and since we were both walking in opposite directions we both just looked back at each other until we couldn’t any longer.
The high: The final stop to my trip and namely where I found the cheapest flight. I’d already been to Budapest before on a Spring break trip and absolutely loved it. Was it going to be as good in the Winter? Yes! Budapest remains one of my favorite European cities. There’s a cool bohemian vibe, delicious food and it’s dirt cheap. I can’t ask for much more from a city I travel to (besides a beach).
The low: This was cute for a bit……and it was on the 12th day of Christmas and all…
…but then us California kids were just cold, wet and dressed for the ice age (with very convincing happy smiles).
The weird: What was most weird about going to Budapest was reliving a trip I’d already done before. I didn’t only see the same sights, but also went on the same exact bar crawl, ate at the same (delicious) restaurants and even shacked up in the same messy but extremely homey hostel. But hey, don’t fix what’s not broken, right? Considering my long list of new places I want to see, Budapest was still one of those cities that was worth a revisit and wrapped up a glorious winter vacation.