I knew that I would love studying in Prague. It is widely recognized as a vibrant and beautiful city, with culture and history to spare. What I did not expect was how much I would enjoy exploring Central Europe, with Prague as a home base. Weekend trips, as part of the AIFS curriculum and on my own, have provided some amazing travel experiences that are a little bit off the beaten path. Everyone visits London or Paris when they come to Europe — but how many people put Krakow, Poland on their list? I wouldn’t have, but it turned out to be my favorite trip so far. Let me share some highlights from some of the central European cities that are easily accessible from Prague.
Moravia is the southern region of the Czech Republic, and has a lot to offer: underground caves, a legendary battlefield, medieval nunneries and beautiful gothic and baroque churches. A highlight of the trip was a visit to the Pearl of Moravia, a stunning baroque church that played a large part in the Catholic history of that region. The trip also included a visit to a salt mine, where we learned the importance of salt, a precious resource that was once the foundation of great empires.
It would be a big mistake to come to Prague and not visit Budapest, the capital of Hungary. It is easy to get to by bus and it is a surprisingly affordable city. I stayed 3 nights in an elegant and safe hostel (the Maverick) for less than 50 dollars. Many of the buildings here were destroyed during World War II, but they have been rebuilt to reflect the 19th-century tastes of Queen Elizabeth, who preferred Budapest to the rest of Europe. Did you know that Budapest is famous for Roman baths? Tourists and locals alike gather to socialize in beautiful, warm baths which are the largest in Europe. The water has special medicinal properties, that, fun fact, even the hippos at the Budapest Zoo get to enjoy since it also feeds their pools. The street food here is respectable, with plenty of late night options. I recommend the kabob because I believe it gets better the closer you get to Istanbul.
The weekend trip to Krakow, Poland was perhaps my favorite trip so far. Krakow is a city dripping with charm and history. You enter the city center by passing through 3-meter thick walls that were built at the end of the 15th century to defend the city from foreign invasion. Anchoring the old town is Wawel Castle, a beautiful palace built on top of a dragon’s lair with textbook renaissance architecture. The city is home to Jagiellonian University, which is where Copernicus began working on his heliocentric model of the universe. Our visit included a guided walking tour of the old town where we learned a little bit of Polish history and saw landmarks such as the monument commemorating the Katyn massacre, where over 20,000 Polish officers were executed by Soviet soldiers in 1940. The food here was my favorite in all of Europe. Definitely try the pierogis and pancakes. Krakow has one of the best night life scenes in all of Europe with a great selection of bars and clubs in close proximity to the city center. It is a smaller city than Prague or Budapest and is easily navigated by foot.
On the return, the AIFS Krakow trip also included a visit to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place where over 1.1 million people, 90% of them Jews, were systematically exterminated. It’s a difficult, but important place to visit and will leave an indelible mark on your heart.
Another trip offered by AIFS was a weekend outing to Berlin. There is something for everyone in Berlin and so much to do that one weekend was only enough to see a small part of all the city has to offer. Research the nightlife because clubs are more exclusive, sometimes themed, and are less friendly to large groups. I enjoyed a place called Dr. Pong — a casual spot where you can interact with locals over a drink or ping pong table. In Berlin, you are immersed in history. One of our first stops was to see the Brandenburg Gate, which marks the intersection of East and West Berlin. Right next to the gate is the American Embassy, a beautiful modern building, the hotel where Michael Jackson greeted Europe by waving his baby out the window, and a plaque marking the spot where Ronald Reagan told Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” A short distance from there is a memorial built by the Russians, commemorating the Russian officers who lost their lives capturing Berlin in 1945. Bullet holes and cranes still remain decades after the battle was fought.
A haunting monument commemorates the victims of the holocaust. The memorial consists of a city block of rectangular columns of varying size. In contrast to the impressive size and scope of the holocaust memorial, the spot where Hitler died in his bunker is an empty parking lot. Visiting Berlin was the bookend of a visit to Auschwitz and Krakow. We toured a suburb of Berlin where in January 1942 Reinhard Heydrich put forth the “final solution.” How something so ugly took place in such a beautiful setting is hard to fathom. But that is the fascination of Central Europe. You come face to face with the best and worst humanity has to offer.