Monday, March 25, 2013

Brussels, Belgium

My trip to Brussels started in the Czech airport early Friday morning. Since I was meeting Scott at the Brussels Airport so headed to the airport by myself, but was excited when I saw there were at least 10 other students in my program on my flight. I knew a ton of students were coming to Brussels for Sensation also, so it was fun to already run into people I knew. Once both of our flights got in, Scott and I checked into hotel. We stayed at an airport hotel a close to Brussels (saved a ton of money and was much nicer than a hostel), and immediately left to get into Brussels. After a confusing hour of looking for ticket booths (didn't exist) and find the train (wrong platform), we finally asked for some help when a long Belgian joined us at the train station. After reaching Brussels, we headed straight to the main square and walked around the area. Since we were both hungry, we bought some Belgium waffles with whipped crème, chocolate, and strawberries. It was amazing and even better than what I expected. They used actual dough in the waffle iron instead of a batter, and I wish I would have eaten many more waffles. I was worried about eating my weight in chocolate and waffles while in Belgium, but surprisingly enough we were often to busy or forgot to eat some parts of the weekend. Now I dream of eating more waffles.

After grabbing food/dessert, Scott took over on the sight seeing and busted out the hotel map. We started off at the Manequin Pis (one of the most overrated sights I've experienced...I don't get its appeal? And it's on all the postcards, chocolate molds, etc). It was a rainy and we had a moment of being lost--we went inside a really quirky thrift store and were told we were in Brussels when asking where we were, and it was really fun walking around. I should look up some of these sights/buildings/churches/park names for future reference, but for now I’ll just show the pictures:

Scott's genius photo idea

Around dinner time, we decided to walk near the center again and see if anything looked good. One street was composed of an entire row of restaurants that were all competing against each other. I'll admit I'm an easy target for haggling, so I immediately was approached by one of the owners of the restaurant to come in for dinner. He promised his food was delicious, that all the other restaurants are the same, a beautiful meal for a beautiful couple, and finally free drinks. The free drinks got us (mainly me haha)so Scott and I went in to the restaurant to get dinner (we were also starving). We got our little glass of sparkling wine/champagne (?) and checked out the menu. They had 12 euro and 18 euro menus that included a choice of appetizer, entre, and a dessert. I went with scampis for the appetizer, salmon with lobster sauce and potatoes for the entrée while Scott got a salad and steak with potatoes. Both were really good (except I wasn’t positive what Skampis were and was a little shocked when they were shrimp with their eyes and whisker things and legs), but the dessert was the best—it was a smaller Belgium waffle with chocolate and whipped crème as was steaming hot and delicious.
 After dinner, we had plans to visit a particular bar in honor of Scott’s 21st birthday weekend—Scott’s Bar. It was right next to the Brussels University (which meant that my Charles University wifi password worked oddly enough) and was a really relaxed and cool bar. We both got beers, but Scott stepped up our classiness by ordering a glass of an 18 year old scotch. My little sip of it has reaffirmed that I will never ever drink scotch, but apparently once you got past everything about it, it was pretty good (just kidding, Scott I’m sure it was great and very Jack Donaghy of you). We ended up hanging out there for a long time just talking and it was a really good time.

 The next bar, Delirium, we headed to was highly recommended by by people in my program and Trip Advisor. Delirium had a bunch of people our age and had a huge list of Belgian beers. Scott actually saw friends from his Copenhagen program, so we grabbed two seats at their table for the rest of the night. The last train back to our hotel left at 11:22, so we left early to head back home. By sheer luck we got on the right train (by Saturday we figured the schedules all out) and made it back to the hotel.

Saturday morning was the day of Sensation—the reason we made the trip to Brussels—so we had a lazy morning before heading into the city center after noon for lunch. I had read about Houtsiplou on trip advisor (my new best friend), and the restaurant was even better than I had pictured. There was bright art on the wall and played some great music. It also had amazing beer—I had a cherry beer that I can truthfully say I loved and will get if I ever see it again—and amazing food. Even the dip for the bread was incredible (couldn’t decide if it was more hummus or egg salad but either way it was great) and our burgers and Belgium fries were delicious. Definitely the best burger and beer I have had in Europe (and best beer of my life--it was like candy). I wish this restaurant was in Prague because I would go multiple times a week.

After lunch we went back to Manequin Pis, and I began my hunt for a chocolate-based gift to bring back home. Since it was raining pretty hard we also made our way to the covered shopping center to look around there as well. I picked up two chocolates during our trip which made me very happy. Before our train, I (of course) decided the gift I wanted to give was in the very first chocolate store we visited  so we headed back that way to grab the huge box of hot chocolate mix (not powder like in the US, but straight Belgium chocolate flakes). I’m excited to try it with everyone else when I get home.

When we got back we had a very short time to get ready for Sensation. I quickly threw on (lots) of makeup and attached my precious flower crown (best decision ever). Even though it was really cold out we knew Sensation would be really hot so we braved it without coats. The train was filled to its capacity (and truthfully probably a little more) full of people dressed in white, so it was a lot of fun.
Sensation itself was amazing and unlike anything I’ve gone to before. It was so much fun, and the perfect way to celebrate a 21st birthday in a country where you're already legal :) There are so many stories from that night (from dancing on Scott's shoulders to an unfortunate taxi ride), and it was definitely unforgettable. 

Ironic first legal drinks
Since we got back to the hotel at 8 in the morning after leaving the room at 6pm the day before, we didn’t end up going back to Brussels like planned before heading to the airport. It was still nice to camp out in the hotel lobby and watch all our TV shows and snack on some delicious Danish cookies.

Sensation inspired a weekend in Brussels, and I'm so glad I got to spend the weekend there with Scott. It was so much fun, and best place to say (now a veryyyyyy late) happy birthday, Scott!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Krakow, Poland

Heads up: I wrote a novel. Over 6.5 hours on a bus with no wifi and a laptop with full battery means this is going to be a very very long blog post.

Our Krakow trip began at midnight when we left Prague on the bus that the program provided. Luckily I fell asleep quickly, so our 6:30 am wake up call at Auschwitz was as un painful as it possibly could be regarding the time and place. Auschwitz was a depressing and horrifying trip, but an experience that was definitely worth it. It feels kinda disrespectful to casually summarize it, but it was very eye opening.

After the tour, we finished the last 90 minute bus ride, and checked into our hotel which was small but nice (and comfy beds which were amazing!). A group of girls and I (who ended up spending most of the weekend together) went to the city center to get lunch. We were recommended the restaurant Chimera, and it was such a cool atmosphere. I ordered soup, pierogis, and beer. The pierogis were AMAZING, and fueled us for our walk and exploring. We looked through the cloth market, some leather stores, before seeing some march starting in the town square.

There were soldiers, banners, and signs, and chanting, so we all ran along the march to watch. It was really exciting to watch the energy and passion that was part of the parade, especially when we've been living with Czechs who are known for the passivity and (sometimes) disinterest. One of our friends spoke Polish so we found out it was a national day to honor fallen Polish soldiers. It was an amazing experience and I'm so glad that we got to witness it.

The march led us down some streets, so on the way back we took our time window shopping and stopping by a chocolate museum. I explored the chocolate figures (from chocolate shoes to some X rated chocolate figures), and tried 3 chocolate truffles--raspberry, lemon, and coffee. The rest of our night was spent at a cool bar in the Jewish quarter (where a ton of the bars, music venues, and restaurants are) before heading to one more pub near the center. We were all exhausted so we grabbed some late night gyros and headed back to the hotel.

Saturday began with our guided tour of Krakow. We stopped by the Jewish ghetto where there is now a memorial site filled with empty chairs to symbolize how the Jews were just dragged out of their homes and chairs were left empty. Then we went over to Schindler’s Factory and got out to take a few pictures. In one of the windows they had a photo of every person that Schindler saved. While the actual factory is a museum, we didn’t end up going inside. Our next stop was the Jewish quarter (and where Shindler’s list was actually filmed because it is much better cinematically than the actual Jewish ghetto). We stopped outside of a few synagogues, and learned more about the history of the area. All these stops really made me want to re watch Spielberg’s Schindler’s List—almost every area where the movie was filmed was on our tour and it would be so fun to see in each scene where I have been or recognize.

My absolutely favorite part of the tour was to the Krakow castle. The sun came out for the first time in weeks and everyone instantly was in a better mood. We had a break for a few minutes so I grabbed a few post cards, and admired the area. I hate to admit it (my loyalty to Prague has irrationally grown these past few weeks), but the Prague castle cannot compare to how pretty the Krakow one was. From the courtyard to the huge cathedral with golden domes to the marbled gift shop in the castle (still counts), it just felt like a palace. We also got to hear some interesting facts about the building while we stood in one of the castle courtyards: the mural on the wall only goes halfway around the square because half of the building burnt down and there were no renovations made. Also the dragons on the roof are very important to Krakow culture. The myth stated that a dragon lived in Krakow, and would terrorize everyone by blowing fire and eating beautiful Polish women (are Czech tour guide was quick to point out that the Czech dragon only ate beautiful virgins since Czechs have a more “refined” taste), and no one could defeat him. Ultimately a shoemaker tricked the dragon by feeding it a shoe with sulfur and when it had to quench it’s thirst and drink it blew up (Important to note: I may or may not have stopped paying very close attention at this point). Now the green dragon—often a very cartoon and cute version—symbolizes Krakow and you can find it everywhere. I even got a picture with one at the salt mines.

After we walked past a few other sites, a few other churches, and walked through the square. We ended our tour in the gothic church of St. Mary in the city center. I was very unenthused with the idea of touring the church—I’ve already seen a ton of churches in Europe and St. Mary’s Church was very unimpressive from the outside. So, I was shocked when we walked in and saw how elaborate every detail of the church was and how beautiful it was. We had to pay for pictures, so my secret ones didn’t turn out the best.

After the tour ended our group of girls headed over to grab a lunch since we were all starving. One girl was recommended a place called the Milk bar for a cheap Polish meal, so we followed our Google Maps to a small restaurant. The food was very cheap and very Polish—it was partly like a buffet where you could grab some drinks or sides, but you ordered your food by the cashier and it was handed to you. I ordered a golubski or stuffed cabbage with mushroom sauce and ruski salad with a fruit smoothie. My Russian classes came in handy (I’ve tried golubski once at a Russian lunch at USC and it has the same name) because even thought the man appeared to understand and know English, he was only helpful if you said it in Polish—a few girls ordered dumplings instead of perogis and were given the wrong thing. The lunch was really amazing, and it really felt like we were eating straight out of a Polish kitchen.

My roommate and I ended up heading back to the hotel to take a nap, with plans to meet everyone later for dinner. Once we woke up, we wanted to head back to the cloth market because I had been dreaming about a new leather wallet since the day before. My old wallet barely fit into my purse and it was a constant struggle to get out anything when I had my camera, wallet, or any extra item. We got there just in time to pick out a beautiful red leather wallet with a Krakow imprint on the front. It’s perfect sized for my purse and I keep smelling the new leather. We also spent a long time staring at all the amber rings, and while I ultimately didn’t get one, I am having jealously over the rings that almost every single girl on this trip picked out. It’s a good thing Prague is known for it’s amber too!

After, we fast walked to the Jewish quarter to grab dinner. Our original place didn’t pan out (apparently the guy didn’t want Americans in his restaurant), but we looked up a restaurant nearby that got great reviews called the Love Crove. We started off our meal with a round of drinks—Poland has a hot beer which people recommended and since I haven’t heard of the drink anywhere else I decided to order one. It came with mixed in honey, ginger, lemon, cloves and cinnamon and tasted exactly like a delicious tea. It was amazing and perfect for the cold restaurant, but once I got my burger that I ordered it wasn’t the best pairing. Speaking of the burger, the restaurant offered hamburgers but they were not similar at all to American flavors. Mine had pesto, mayo, mozzarella, arugala, and tomatoes, but that was probably the mildest combination. It was a delicious meal though.

After dinner was when our night started to get really interesting. On our way to find a few bars, we stopped outside a door to take pictures with a psychedelic like painted bar. We saw inside that there was a small group there, and we thought it might be bar. There were two guys outside having a cigarette who said we should go in but it was BYOB. We walked in and realized this place was definitely not a bar, and actually wasn’t even open to the public. This small band was playing some music and it sounded amazing, but everyone was staring at us because we were clearly the youngest and only non Polish people there. We decided to push past our comfort zone and stay (we asked if we could be there and they said it was ok), and after our friend talked to some people in Polish, we learned that it was an art gallery and it was a small performance for the little instrumental band. The gallery was really cool and alternative with weird pieces covering the room and decorations from a shelf of intricate rose candles to a glass case with a doll head inside. A few of our friends ran out and bought two bottles of red wine which we passed around and we sat and enjoyed the music. It felt unreal and was such a unique experience, until the actual artist showed up and started talking about us on the microphone. Our friend who spoke Polish quickly let us know, and we grabbed our coats and headed out. Everyone kept asking where we where going—they were nice, but I think they thought we were a little more clueless than we were. It was such an odd experience, but that hour or 45 minutes was actually really amazing. It really was full immersion into Polish alternative art culture.

We were all kind of on a high from pushing through our comfort zone and laughing about how funny it turned out, so we were having fun adventuring through the Jewish quarter to find our next stop. We ended up deciding on this seemingly normal bar—we walked in and saw there weren’t many tables open so we walked down some stairs into the basement area where there was a Polish rock concert going. We grabbed a beer and headed to the front of the crowd to watch some guys try to start a mosh pit and enjoy the music (which was actually pretty good even though we didn’t understand a word of it). When the band’s set ended, we hopped on stage for a few photos before deciding to head out.

After we left the bar, we headed back towards the city center, since we were debating going clubbing. The majority of us already felt that our night was a huge success, and after experiencing Poland’s alternative music culture, clubbing didn’t sound like the funnest option. Most of our group headed back to the hotel, but I thought I would try out some areas near Krakow’s main square. Maybe I wasn’t in the clubbing mood, but I found most places to be pretty mediocre and they didn’t compare to Prague clubs. I ended up heading back to the hotel fairly soon after, but I couldn’t have been happier with how our night turned out.

Sunday's schedule had us go to Krakow's salt mine tour for three hours and then get on the bus to head home. The salt mine tour was actually really interesting; after a 54 flights of stairs underground, we toured the tunnels, churches, and sculptures--all of which were made with salt. You could actually lick the walls or ceiling or floors, and our tour guide encouraged us too. The salt mines are apparently really healing and there is a running hospital underground. The huge salt cathedral was beautiful and crazy to think it was all salt from the chandeliers to the steps, and there were also lakes underground as well. I'm happy our program took us on this tour because it's a stop I probably wouldn't have known to make. When we finished our tour, a lot of the girls stopped at the gift shop to pick up bath salts. For my roommate and I and two other girls it brought a few minutes of panic after we realized everyone had left and followed the guide to the bus. After running around the surrounding streets and panicking that we would be left in Krakow (we could just picture our tour guide who we loved miscounting her little berushkas or little bugs and heading back to Prague), we finally were able to get a hold of someone and find directions to the bus. I ended my trip with a little adrenaline!
Mascot of Krakow!

Krakow is much smaller than Prague, and has a very homey feel to it. It was the perfect place for a weekend trip, and it was interesting because I think it’s one of the few cities I will be visiting that isn’t the country capital. The people were a lot less passive than in the Czech Republic—even if that meant they rude or not amused with us being there or if were very friendly and happy to help.