Sunday, November 30, 2014

Budapest: The Paris of the East

You know that scene in Eurotrip, when the group ends up in Eastern Europe and gets a five-course meal and luxury spa treatment for $1.83? I was constantly reminded of it last weekend in Budapest. My friends and I got hour-long Thai massages for $20, had a two-course meal for $8, and paid $10 each per night to rent out a two-story apartment in the heart of the city. After weeks of fast-paced and hectic European vacations, my mind (and my wallet) were ready for a low-key, relaxing three days in the capital of Hungary.

When planning my time abroad, I always imagined myself traveling to European hotspots like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid. Aside from London, none of these locations have been on my itinerary. I guess I started to see Europe differently after being here for an extended period of time. I learned that big cities like Madrid are expensive, Paris is supposedly underwhelming, and I'd rather spend a week traveling Italy in the future than try to cram Rome into one weekend. Of course I want to venture to all of the European hotspots in the future, but my time and budget just wouldn't allow it while studying abroad.  Instead of hitting these major travel spots then, I've been visiting smaller yet still popular European cities like Strasbourg and Copenhagen that I will probably never visit in my life outside of study abroad. And that's why my friends and I chose Budapest – after our program ends, when would we ever get the chance to go back?
Budapest has been a popular tourist destination for people in my study abroad program, which really took me by surprise because the city isn't the most well-known in America. Well, I'd like to officially declare this blog post a rave about Budapest. Not only was the city insanely cheap (gotta love that exchange rate!), it was also beautiful and charming enough to change my entire view of Eastern Europe. Before visiting Budapest, the picture in my head was of old buildings and dark streets, kind of like how Eastern Europe is portrayed in Eurotrip. Prague didn't fit the stereotype, but I viewed Prague as an exception to the stereotype. Well, if Prague is an exception, then so is Budapest.

The city center was actually pretty modern, with neon signs, Starbucks and Costa coffee shops, pretty old buildings, and street cars. Tourists were everywhere, but Budapest was spread out enough that the crowds were never overwhelming. A good chunk of the tourists were actually American students visiting Budapest while studying abroad like us. I felt safe the entire time, except for one night on the subway when a drunken old man wearing a top hat adorned with a British flag kept slamming a walking stick on the ground and yelling out gibberish.
Parts of Budapest outside of the city center were a whole different story. Walking down the street, I honestly felt like I'd taken a time machine back to Budapest after World War I. Buildings were crumbling and creepy. Bullet holes were etched into the bricks as a reminder of the violence of the world wars. Dogs ran loose, vacated fields lay overgrown. Now this was how I'd always imagined Eastern Europe, thanks to Hollywood portrayals. The older part of the city was still beautiful in an old-fashioned way, like modern ruins.
Now onto the details of my trip, if you're interested! I went to Budapest from Thursday to Sunday with six friends: three guys and two other girls. We rented out a well-kept, two-story apartment near the city center, and each of us only paid $10 per night! We had fun relaxing and playing games at night while exploring the city during the day.

Here are some pictures of our daytime adventures:

Fisherman's Bastion

A buda-ful (see what I did there?) view of Budapest from the Fisherman's Bastion

Overlooking the "Pest" side of Budapest

St. Stephen's Basilica — I've seen countless cathedrals in Europe, but this one is probably my favorite on the inside

The famously beautiful Hungarian Parliament Building

The Chain Bridge over the Danube River connecting the "Buda" and "Pest" sides of the city

Heroes' Square with a monument dedicated to influential Hungarians

Nights in Budapest might've been the highlight of the entire trip. On Friday, we were told we should go to a "ruin bar," or a cheap bar located in an old abandoned or neglected building. Very hipster, if you ask me.  We went to Szimpla based on a recommendation. The place was absolutely huge but so crowded that we had trouble finding a seat. I can definitely see the appeal, though. The atmosphere was comfy, and at less than $2 per half-liter glass of beer, the prices were unbeatable.

You can't visit Budapest without going to one of the world-famous thermal baths. Instead of going during the day, though, my friends and I went to a "Sparty Magic Bath" party at Lukacs Bath. The Sparty (spa party... get it?!) was basically a huge pool party with a DJ and drinks held in an outdoor thermal bath. My friends and I bought a few drinks, swam around, and met some other American kids studying abroad in Europe. I'd say a good half of the people in the bath were American. Four guys were at the bath for every one girl, which meant that my girl friends and I got a lot of unwanted attention. I was a little worried about people getting rowdy in the pool, but I actually had a lot of fun watching all of the drunk people! I don't even want to think about how gross and dirty that water must have been...  I don't know if I'd ever go back to a thermal back party, but I had a pretty memorable experience! If you're interested, check out the website here.

I can't write a blog post about another country without mentioning the food. Hungarian food involves a lot of meat in the form of stews and soups. I ordered beef stew one night and beef goulash soup the next, which are both traditional Hungarian meals. I was not disappointed! The dishes were less than $8 but tasted incredible. Hungarians also use a lot of spices and paprika in their dishes, and one restaurant gave us an amazing appetizer of different pepper sauces to spread on bread. Perhaps my favorite item, though, was a crispy piece of bread topped with melted goat cheese and garlic. The bread in Hungary is denser and more filling than any other bread I've eaten. Another interesting tidbit is that every restaurant had live music; my favorite was an old man in suit playing the xylophone. All in all, I wasn't disappointed with a  single Hungarian meal!

Some of my friends and I were determined to get a massage before we left Budapest, given the cheap prices. Budapest has massage shops on every street. We researched popular places and found a well-reviewed shop that offered hour-long Thai massages for 6000 Hungarian Forint, or about $25. You can't beat that deal! I've never gotten a professional massage before and I didn't know what to expect from the Thai massage. I have two words for tit: weird and relaxing! The four of us who got massages changed into clothes provided for us and lay next to each other on mats on the floor. The masseuses walked on our legs and backs while holding overhead ropes, and they used their whole body to give the massage. Although the massage focused on my back and neck, the lady also massaged my head, legs, hands, and arms. When we left the massage parlor, my friends and I walked sluggishly and slowly. We were all about to fall asleep on the spot!

Thank you for reading my blog post! I know this was a long one, but I love writing and tend to write for ages if nobody stops me. If you're looking for a city to visit in Eastern Europe, I would 100% recommend Budapest!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Way Up North in Scandinavia

When I came to Germany in August, I never thought I'd visit Scandinavia. Northern Europe was simply never on my radar. But sure enough, I booked a $45 flight to Copenhagen and flew to Denmark on Halloween weekend with my two best friends in my study abroad program! (And yes, this post is late. Term papers are piling up and reminding me that I actually have to do school work while abroad.)

I've heard of Copenhagen before studying abroad, but I honestly had no idea where it was. I guess Americans don't learn about Scandinavia much in history classes. A couple of people in my program visited Copenhagen and absolutely loved it, so my friends decided that we couldn't pass up a $45 plane ride to a new country. Spontaneous adventures are always the most memorable, right?

Our flight to Copenhagen was at 7 a.m., so my friends and I woke up at 3:30 a.m., got ready, and took the 4:30 subway to the airport, which is naturally located on the other side of Berlin. When our plane landed in Denmark at 8 a.m., I was pumped up on adrenaline and coffee, ready to explore! Despite getting four hours of sleep, we weren't willing to waste our precious time in Denmark.

Copenhagen isn't huge, but my friends and I planned ahead and researched some attractions we wanted to visit. Our proposed schedule was packed with pretty buildings and landmarks, but we dropped off our luggage in our three-bed hostel room and got breakfast before exploring. Right away we noticed that Copenhagen is crazy expensive! The exchange rate is intimidating enough (1 USD equals about 6 Danish Krone), and on top of that, we couldn't find a restaurant with breakfast cheaper than $15 in the city center. I was absolutely starving though, so I willingly paid $16 on a much-needed breakfast of yogurt with muesli, fruit, toast, cheese, ham, and coffee. Spoiler alert: every other meal in Copenhagen was just as expensive.

After breakfast, we basically power walked through Copenhagen to see as much on our agenda as possible. Here are some pictures:

Nyhavn, the old sailors' port

The picturesque entrance to Rosenborg Castle

We visited Copenhagen during fall, when the leaves were turning a beautiful red-orange. Of course, we took advantage of the park in front of the Rosenborg Castle for picture opportunities!

The famous little mermaid statue

Inside of the Round Tower, a 17th-century astronomical observatory with a winding ramp instead of stairs

Amalienborg, home of the Danish Royal Family 

The Church of Our Savior with its famous twisted spire

McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and 7-11. Was I in Copenhagen or Ohio?

A Danish hot dog with pickles, fried onions, ketchup, and Danish mustard. And yes, the hot dog is red!

We made a point to get danishes from a Danish bakery, which I swear was were best pastries I've ever had. I got a croissant-like pastry with jam and icing on top!

I had a typical Danish dish for dinner: pickled herring and salmon. I never had herring before, so I assumed the fish would be cooked and taste like plain white fish. I put the herring in my mouth and spit it right back out onto the napkin. The raw texture and extreme saltiness surprised me, and I was completely taken aback and disgusted! The next few bites were pretty tasty, though, because I knew what to expect.

Another amusing aspect about Copenhagen was the bike culture. More people rode bikes than cars in the city, and every building had a bike rack out front. Syracuse doesn't really have a bike culture due to the crummy weather, but my friend from California said she felt nostalgic for home with all of the bikes.

Being American, my friends and I were pretty nostalgic for Halloween, since we arrived in Copenhagen on October 31. Europeans haven't really jumped on the Halloween bandwagon yet. Fortunately, one of my friends decided to look up Halloween events in Copenhagen, just in case. We were surprised to learn that Tivoli Gardens, a big amusement park in the middle of the city, was hosting a fall festival! Of course we decided to go, despite the pricey admission. The park was decked out with pumpkins, orange lights, and festive decorations. Some people even dressed as zombies and walked around the park scaring people, although we aren't sure whether these people were park workers or random Danish men. Although the festival celebrated autumn more than Halloween, I'm glad I got a little taste of the holiday while abroad!

The next day, my friends and I finished everything on our Copenhagen "to-do" list, a day ahead of schedule. The city is amazing, but there isn't a ton to do while on a budget. We'd been joking all weekend about taking a $20 train ride to Sweden just because, and on Saturday we decided to go for it. Everything on our "to-do" list was checked off, and Malmö, Sweden was only a 20-minute train ride away. Malmö is, of course, not the same as Stockholm, but we were ready to explore a new country, no matter how small the city was. 

The first thing we noticed about Malmö was that tourism isn't huge there. The city had one tourism office that closed at 2 p.m., and our train didn't arrive until almost 2:30 p.m. To make matters worse, the fog and clouds were so thick that we literally couldn't see 50 feet ahead of us. Here is a picture of the Turning Torso, the tallest skyscraper in Sweden. The building is apparently really pretty and unique, but we couldn't even see a third of the way up!

We all agreed that gazing out on the Baltic Sea would be an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience, so we trekked about a mile to the nearest coastline. One glance at the clear blue water made all of the our annoyances about the weather disappear. I didn't realize how much I missed the open water until I was gazing out at the vast expanse of sea. The scene was extremely picturesque; the Baltic Sea didn't have a beach per se, but we found a dock surrounded by large boulders and spent a good chunk of the afternoon taking pictures and relaxing.

By the time we left the Baltic Sea at 4 p.m., the sun had already set. I can't believe how little sunlight Northern Europe gets during the winter months! My friends and I tried to explore the city center, but we couldn't see much in the dim light and scoped out a Swedish restaurant instead. I wanted Swedish meatballs, but the restaurant didn't offer them so I settled for a delicious stuffed chicken. We ate outside, covered with comfortable blankets that the restaurant provided, before heading back to Copenhagen for some late-night souvenir shopping. 

Northern Europe was exactly how I imagined. The sun didn't shine one time in the three days we were there, and the air was frigidly chilly. The cold weather seemed welcoming, though. Both Copenhagen and Malmö  seemed to have a nautical/ocean theme, which makes sense because Scandinavia is located on the ocean.

My trip to Scandinavia was short and sweet, but I wouldn't change a thing about the weekend. Spontaneous European weekend trips with good friends can certainly create memories that last a lifetime.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

This past Sunday, November 9, marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since I'm studying abroad in Berlin, I was lucky enough to attend the anniversary festivities!

The fall of the wall signified the end of the Cold War and the decline of communism in Europe. Germany was reunified into one democratic country for the first time since the end of World War II. November 9, the day of the actual "Mauerfall" (fall of the wall) in 1989, is kind of like  Berlin's version of Independence Day, since national pride is in full force. 

By the way, sorry about the blurry pictures. My camera doesn't work well in the dark!

Even that a 25-year anniversary is a huge milestone, Berlin hosted a ton of celebratory events in one giant festival during the weekend. Around 8,000 large white balloons were placed along the path of the Berlin wall, stretching for 15 km (more than 9 miles) through the city. This "border of lights" was the exact height of the former Berlin Wall, and each light glowed when the sun fell each night. Of course, Berlin's most popular monument wasn't left out of the festivities! The Brandenburg Gate transformed into a concert venue with a stage, flashing lights, and German pop artists. Information booths and TV screens relaying images of the Mauerfall popped up in select locations around Berlin as well.

My friends and I stopped by the festival on Saturday night for a couple of hours to see the balloons. We bought bratwurst and hot chocolate at the Winterfest in Potsdamer Platz before listening to some music at the Brandenburg Gate. The singer, who was apparently famous around the time the wall fell, was actually lifted above the crowds in a cage! 

Sunday was the actual anniversary of the Mauerfall, so at 7:20 p.m. the white balloons were scheduled to be released one-by-one into the sky, symbolizing the demolition of the wall. The festival on Sunday was literally the most busy, crowded, and overwhelming place I've ever been. I read that two million people were expected to visit Berlin for the event! I'd say a solid half of that number were gathered in the 750 meter (0.5 mile) stretch from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate. The crowds were so bad that we could barely move through them; we were stuck motionless in the middle of a hoard way more times than I'd like to think about. 

Halfway through our journey to the Brandenburg Gate, the crowd was stopped by the police. Apparently so many people were in front of the Gate that the police considered it a safety hazard and refused to let anyone else through. We were a little disappointed, since Angela Merkel (the German chancellor) and Mikhail Gorbachev (the Soviet Union's president during the Mauerfall) gave speeches at the Gate, and Peter Gabriel performed. Nonetheless, we were able to score a spot next to the balloons and got a front-row seat of their release. I found the event extremely powerful, and I felt so lucky to be a part of such a historic celebration. Perhaps more powerful than the balloon release was the older people crying, probably reliving memories of East Germany, and parents teaching their kids about their childhood connection to the wall. 

I can't believe Germany was divided only 25 years ago, and I can't even imagine living in a separated city. I'm glad that Germany is embracing its past and celebrating a defining moment in its history. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

High Tea and Biscuits: My Trip to London (Part Two)

This is the second post about my trip to London. To read the first post, click here!

I can definitely see why London is one of the most visited cities in the world – I could spent a month there and never run out of attractions to see and museums to visit. My dad and I were only in town for two full days, so I did some major research on London's attractions beforehand so we could pick and choose what we wanted to do. Our first day was spent exploring the area around Westminster, and we ventured down the River Thames toward the Tower of London on our second day. I'm impressed at how much we crammed into one day! And I mean crammed. We must've walked ten miles, which I'd say justified all of the greasy British food we devoured.   

My dad and I started the day at the Tower of London to see the infamous palace and fortress. The Tower used to house the royal family, but it was also home to many violent acts of torture and crime. Anne Boleyn was even beheaded on the Tower grounds. We also braced the crowds to see the beautiful Crown Jewels... now I want Queen Elizabeth's crown for my birthday!

During our visit, almost a million red poppies were placed in the moat of the Tower, each symbolizing a British victim of the World War I. The red roses, which reminded me of blood, looked eerily fitting set against the 1,000-year-old fortress. 

I couldn't come to London without having afternoon tea! After looking through pages of crazy-expensive tea houses on Google, I finally came across the Swan, a cute tea house conventionally located next to some attractions my dad and I planned to visit. Although the tea was somewhat pricy, everything tasted incredible! We devoured English breakfast tea (which we drank with milk, like a true Brit), finger sandwiches, biscuits and jam, and a variety of small desserts. I practically overdosed on sugar!

Since I take way too many pictures, here are some other highlights from our day:

Looking out on the River Thames

A view of the Tower Bridge from the HMS Belfast

The Shard, which is the tallest building in Europe

A replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre 

Since I love food, I thought I'd mention my dinner: cottage pie. I assumed cottage pie would come inside a pie crust, but it was more like a beef stew with mashed potatoes melted on top. I never expected English food to taste so good!

My flight home to Berlin, and my dad's flight back to America, was the next day. We spared enough time in the morning to visit the British Museum, which had some really cool exhibits involving human culture and history. The Rosetta Stone and Egyptian statues were my favorite!

Now for my final verdict on London. England's capital seemed like a mix between New York City and Germany. Crowds of people scuffled down busy streets and tourists were everywhere, like in New York. But London also has its own charm in it's amazing history, cobblestone squares, and sense of British pride. The city also felt somehow less chaotic than New York, and people didn't walk 100-miles-per-hour everywhere they went. The history of London is what amazes me most, though; nowhere in America can you find a one-thousand-year-old castle or 500-year-old pub smack in the middle of a city. Culturally, London has a bit of everything; I'm sure I heard at least 20 different languages while walking down the streets, and I saw a gallery or museum on practically every corner.

I'm also extremely happy that red telephone booths, double decker buses, uniformed men on horses, and British flags are in abundance through the city. I actually felt like I was in England during my stay, which never ceased to take me by surprise. I absolutely loved my trip to London. My only regret was not being able to stay longer. I think I'll definitely be back in the future, but I'll be sure to save up lots of money ahead of time!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Look Left! My Trip to London (Part One)

Three days of my life recently were a blur of high tea, fish n’ chips, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, cottage pie, the River Thames, and the crown jewels. Can you guess where I was? London, England!

I've wanted to visit England since I saw my first Harry Potter movie in second grade, mostly because I was fascinated by British accents and dreamed of meeting Daniel Radcliffe on the street. More than ten years later, England is still on my radar, even though I'm now more fascinated by England's vast history and the royal family (although I still wouldn't object to meeting Daniel Radcliffe on the street). My dad happened to be in Europe for business during my study abroad program's mid-semester break, and he gave me an offer I couldn't refuse: a trip to London or Paris. Both cities are on my bucket list, but I figured London was a better place to visit with my dad. So off to London we went!

As soon as I stepped foot out of Paddington Station, every stereotype of London slapped me in the face. Red double-decker buses. Red phone booths. Cars on the wrong side of the road, which actually freaked me out when we rode in a taxi. Signs pointing toward the "lift" (elevator) and warning of a "diversion" (detour). I was glad to note the stereotypical view of London that I've been conjuring in my head for years isn't too far from the truth.

Since my dad and I arrived in London pretty late, we didn't go anywhere that night except an English Pub. One sip of English Ale made me miss my beloved German Pilsner, but the food at the pub was surprisingly good. We split chicken with black pudding (basically blood sausage) and lamb with gravy. I've always heard that England has the worst food, but everything I ate on my entire trip was delicious. If you haven't already noticed, I'm the opposite of a picky eater. One more random memorable thing about the English pub was the tiny doors, so short that I had to duck my head to climb through! Imagine my six-foot-two dad trying to duck under a five-foot door frame, and you'll understand my fascination with the pub's architecture!

The following day involved an equal mixture of adventure, history lesson, and sore legs. If you ever visit London, be prepared to walk! The underground, like everything else in London, is crazy expensive. All of the main attractions are within walking distance as well, so public transportation isn't always worth the money. My dad and I each bought a London Pass, which is basically a card that gives you access to many of the attractions and museums in London for a flat rate. The pass honestly saved so much money, considering many attractions can be $25-$40 each.

Here's what we saw during my first full day in London:

I can't think of anything more British than this picture.

Westminster Abbey

The Palace of Westminster (Parliament building)

Big Ben

Traflager Square

Fish n' chips with mushy peas

My dad helped a clumsy street performer walk across a tight rope. Absolutely hilarious.

Buckingham Palace

The London Eye

A view of the River Thames

Cars drive on the "wrong" side of the road, so London constantly reminds tourists to "look left" for traffic while crossing the street

For dinner, my dad and I wanted Indian food. Indian food in London is like Mexican food in America: cheap, delicious, and easy to find. I actually researched Indian food online and came across Brick Lane, a street full of authentic and popular Indian restaurants. The area reminded me of Little Italy in New York City, but it also had the feel of Chinatown because people outside each restaurant were trying to convince us to eat there. When we finally chose a restaurant, we ordered lamb masala and chicken tandoori. We also had some naan and fancy Indian sauces. I haven't eaten Indian food much in my life, so I can safely say that my Brick Lane meal was the best Indian I've ever had.

Expect the second half of my London post soon! I decided to break the post into two smaller installments that are easier to digest. Thanks for reading!