One minute I’m relaxing on the island of Rhodes, the next I am watching an opera in Vienna, then taking final exams, and finally eating Christmas dinner…in America! Wow, a lot have happened in the past 2 monthes, and I haven’t had the chance to share it with you! Let me begin by saying this will most likely be a long entry to capture all that actually happened. On Christmas morning, I came down the stairs to find a huge wrapped present under the tree for me. It was a framed map of the world, with the engraving of “The World Travels of Harry Crimi” on it. I loved it, it was the best present I could have asked for. The map came with red pins so that I can pin down every place I have traveled to. As I was pinning the places down in Europe, I realized how lucky I was to go to the places that now have my red pins stuck in them. Although I am no where near the status of this blog title “World Traveler”, I am much more than what I ever thought I would be. Since no one in my immediate family has ever left the country, I grew up thinking it was an impossible feat, and that the land on the other end of the Atlantic was so foreign it was alien. Now looking back on the places I was able to go to, and the fond memories I have of them, I can’t help but feel so lucky…and excited for any future trips. So here is why I feel this way:
A Very European Thanksgiving
My school gave me a week long fall break, and it just so happened to fall over Thanksgiving. Since I was in Greece, I wanted to venture to places in central and eastern Europe. Around late September, three of my friends and I planned a trip to hit three major cities during this week long break. The breakdown was: Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. I was extremely surprised to see how easy it was to travel in between these cities. We used Euro Line, a bus company that has inexpensive and convenient bus routes throughout major European cities. Unfortunately, the European bus system does not go to Greece (hooray for Greece being inconvenient!), so we had to get flights to and from Athens. We started out trip with a flight to Vienna.
Vienna was by far my favorite of the three cities. If I had to describe it in one word, it was magical. First off, everything was so efficient, so clean. The buildings were all neo-classical, and the weather was just cold enough to make it truly feel like the holiday season. Since Europe has no Thanksgiving to wait for, the Christmas spirit came on early…and strong. Everywhere I went there were Christmas decorations, but the thing that stood out the most in Vienna was the infamous Christmas Market. A German Christmas Market is a very popular festivity in the holiday season. It is a huge outdoor market with small wooden houses that sell trinkets, homemade souvenirs, and even local food and drink. Since it is so cold up there, all the markets sell hot spiced wine; it is their winter drink instead of hot chocolate. In Vienna alone, there are around 14 markets, but we went to the most popular one in front of the gorgeous lit up city hall. We spent each night in there, where I ate sausage, bread bowls of Goulash Soup, and drank hot wine. My favorite of the wines was what they called the “Mozart Punch” (everything in Vienna is Mozart themed), it contained hot wine spiced with cinnamon and clove, with a shot of whiskey in it, finished with whipped cream…to die for. The best thing about these wines, is that once you purchase it, you can keep the mug! So I ended up coming home with four different mugs from different Christmas markets! After experiencing all this, I have to admit that the Germans and Austrians really do Christmas right.
When we weren’t shopping, eating, and drinking in the Christmas Markets, we were experiencing all the rest that Vienna had to offer. It prides itself as the classical music hub of the world, since it is the origin of famous classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. We went to the Museum of Music, the Grand Library, and then Mozart’s House, where he wrote “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”. I culminated the weekend with a trip to the Vienna State Opera House to see Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. It was my first opera, and certainly one I will never forget. The music so spectacular that I went home that night and downloaded half the album. My experience in Vienna really got me interested in classical music again, and all I wanted to do was Viennese Waltz along the Danube River…one reason why I really miss my Ballroom Dance Team back at home. After having the classy experience of listening to a Viennese Opera, and the Christmas filled spirits at the markets, I would say my break had a very good start.
Prague was a long bus ride away. It was really interesting seeing the countryside of central Europe, and how it oddly looked similar to some of the countryside I am used to seeing in Pennsylvania. My first impression of Prague was that it was a very colorful city, with connected buildings with all different pastel colors. We walked to the old town square, and that’s when it set in: the cold. I have never been that cold in my life. It was a such a bone chilling cold that my face turned purple in a matter of minutes. It also didn’t help that I was extremely unprepared. Foolish Harry fell into the trap of believing that just because Greece is always advertised as a sunny paradise means that no jacket is needed for Europe…at all. I had no jacket, nor gloves, nor a hat, just lots of layers and a sweater. Oh well, lesson definitely learned! After eating the most delicious but also most expensive ham I have ever had, I quickly bought a pair of gloves and we went into a café to warm up. The cold pretty much was a common thread in these two days, but it certainly didn’t stop us from walking about. We walked across the famous Charles Bridge to Prague Castle, a huge castle on the other side of the river with a breathtaking cathedral. Something interesting to me was all the catholic symbolism over the city, for this area used to be part of the Holy Roman Empire. Now, after Soviet occupation, these religious icons seem to be simply lying in the shadows ever since the country became less and less religious. We then went back to the city square to see the big astronomical clock chime in the new hour, and finally ate some Prague food. I had duck with tons of dumplings; the heavy food seems to be a trend in this part of the world.
The last three days of the break was spent in Budapest! Did you know that Budapest is actually two cities, separated by the Danube River? On one side is “Buda” and the other is “Pest”. Considering how the trip was going so far, naturally the first thing we looked for after checking into the hostel was a Christmas Market! We went to the main market and were amazed by the amount of food, Hungarian a-cappella groups, and even the occasional flame thrower! I have never seen food like this before: whole pigs being roasted for pork sandwiches (sorry Vegetarians…), huge potato pancakes, bread bowls stuffed with pork and cabbage, and of course hot spiced wine! Apparently, Budapest is known for their thermal springs. They have several Turkish Baths that use the thermal water for pools and spas. So, we went to one! We spent the whole morning there, and it was so relaxing that I easily could have spent the whole day there. These same thermal springs caused a 27 km cave network under the city as well. That night, we went with a guide and navigated through these caves under the city. It was actually pretty challenging and not recommended for anyone claustrophobic since the majority of movement was crawling or sliding!
The next day we toured the main attractions: the monumental Buda castle, the charming Fisherman’s Warf, and the stunning Parliament Building. It was almost half way through the afternoon when we remembered what day it was: Thanksgiving! Since we couldn’t cook our own turkey with our families back at home, we all decided to share a small meal in our hostel. With no turkey to be found, we made a meal of goose legs and potatoes while sharing a bottle of hot wine. We all went around the tables saying things we were grateful for, it was truly a humbling Thanksgiving. I will never stop feeling grateful for the people that made this year happen: Holy Cross for setting it up, CYA for taking me in so warmly, my friends back at home for granting me so many fond memories to reminisce, and most importantly my family for both giving me the confidence and foundation to live abroad and for letting me go. I felt a lot of love and thanks that day that I hope I will always hold on to.
We spent the last hours of the break in the airport! We slept in the Budapest airport over night, and then flew to Milan, Italy, for a layover to Athens. This was my first step on Italian soil! It was so great. Every one spoke Italian and all the trashcans said “Grazie”! I liked it so much I could’ve studied abroad in the airport! Good thing I am going to Rome soon. But after all the traveling, it was so nice going home to Athens: somewhere that we knew where to go and what to do…and most importantly somewhere where we could sleep!
A Tale of Two Continents
As if we didn’t travel enough, the very next weekend we went to Istanbul, Turkey! Ever since I arrived in Athens, Istanbul was the trip that every one, professors and students alike, was raving about. I can see why. The city is massive: around 13 million people, and spans both Europe and Asia! I immediately felt at home with all the skyscrapers and glass buildings; it felt much more like an American city than Athens does simply because of the building designs. Our hostel was in prime location: right in the neighborhood of the prime tourists sites: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern. Although I learned a lot about classical history, my knowledge of Byzantine history and all things to do with this part of the world was pretty much inexistent. My friends and professors gave a crash course throughout the semester, and now it is something I find fascinating. The story of how Roman Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople, it’s rise to power as a major center for the Eastern Orthodox Church, the tragedy of the Crusaders sacking the city in the 4th crusade and destroying huge remnants of classical history, and finally the struggle of power with the Ottoman Turks that eventually led to city’s change of name to Istanbul by the victorious Turks: all history, all still very prevalent, all here in Istanbul.
We also went to the huge markets that they call Bazaars. The Grand Bazaar is an indoor market that is equivalent to the size of a huge mall. Inside you find quality items local to the area, such as pashmina scarves and handmade lamps at every wall in the market. The Spice Bazaar was my favorite however, because it had the best aroma of thousands of different spices, teas, and sweets piled high in every store. Overall, I found the food to be very sweet, but not overpowering. Turkish coffee is the way to go, which is unfiltered and usually in silver cups. The tradition is that after you are done drinking the coffee, you turn the cup over to let the remaining filter make a fortune. We ate traditional Ottoman food, and sat at one restaurant where the floor was of glass to see the ancient archaeological excavations underneath; history everywhere! Finally, we decided to leave Europe and head over to the Asian side!…which really isn’t much different. We walked up and down the main street, which was lined with clubs, bars (where I discovered how nice Turkish vodka is), restaurants and sweet shops. It was a late night, around 4AM, and everyone was still out and about! Apparently Istanbul doesn’t sleep either. We tried the baklava to compare it to the ones in Greece, and I dare say that the ones in Istanbul take the cake. Unlike in Greece, these baklava had pistachios in them, and were not overpowered with honey. A perfect combination! After a late night like that, I slept through the flight back, and all of a sudden I was back in Athens. This time, to stay til the end: Dec.21.
After looking back on my map, I am just stunned at how many red pins there are. However, although all those places were stunning, new, and exciting, nothing can replace my real home sweet home: Havertown, PA. My trip back home concluded my Fall Semester, and it was indeed a very sweet home coming.