Friday, July 19, 2013

Last Day in Prague

My last day in Prague was a little surreal. Although I left on Friday, the morning before my flight was spent cleaning my apartment before turning in my keys. So, Thursday was my last full day in Prague, and I planned to spend the last few hours saying goodbye to my new home.

After volunteering at the kindergarten for the last time (and being given two bottles of becherovka as a thank you), I met up with my friend Diana to hang out for the day. Her apartment was having a goodbye lunch at Radost--the vegetarian restaurant-by-day and club-by-night spot we had spent many Thursday nights. I had a half of two different types of veggie burgers that were delicious and ordered my last Czech beer. Although not traditional Czech food, I had enjoyed pork knee with dumplings the night before at one of my favorite restaurants U Kroku with my friend Lauren and her family. Some of the best restaurants in Prague aren't traditional Czech food, so I felt like I was covering my bases before leaving.

After lunch, Diana and I headed to the nearest potraviny to pick up some souveniers and Czech goodies to take home. I bought four 50 ml bottles of beer (you're welcome dad), carmel wafers, and bagel chips to share back at home. After we sufficiently stocked up our suitcases, Diana and I headed from our apartments back downtown to do some last Prague adventures. Our first stop was the Waldenstien Gardens by Prague Castle. While we went to Prague Castle again a week ago, we had missed these gardens on our visit. The area was beautiful, but what we really came for was to find the albino peacock. After searching through the gardens, we got extremely lucky. Not only did we find him, but also managed to catch him with his feathers up long enough for us each to get the picture.

We had also hunted down some acrylic paint and paintbrushes, and set out to do one of the last things on our Prague To Do List's: painting the John Lennon Wall. Although I don't think either of us are the most artistic people, painting on the wall was really cathartic. It was fun and relaxing, and not to mention funny when a huge group of tourists spent about 15 minutes taking pictures of us. We took our time, and were both proud of our end products. I couldn't think of any better way of spending our last day in Prague. It was the perfect last "interaction" with the city that I've fallen in love with, and leaving my mark on the wall gave some closure to the end of my time living in Europe.

We stopped by Kampa park to take a photo with the Chrny babies by a man who recognized us as the painting girls before some of our last souvenir shopping. I grabbed some last gifts for my family, and picked up a key chain that has not left my car keys since I've been home. One last kolbasa for dinner in Old Town, and it was time to say goodbye.

After a whirlwind of packing, cleaning, and scrubbing that stupid spot on the floor in our bedroom, I suddenly found myself on the taxi to the airport. Even though I was really excited to see everyone at home, I found myself tearing up in the ride over. There's very few places in the world where you can drive by architecture ranging from Romanesque to Gothic to Rococo with a cab driver who has lived most of his life under communism, and I was going to miss it. Moving into my first apartment in a foreign country was hectic, but I wasn't sure I was ready to leave my cute little apartment with wood floors and big windows despite the loud family of pigeons living outside my room or the impossibly small and lacking kitchen. As I said one last dekuji to my driver, I was sad that it would be my last time practicing a foreign language in an immersive environment for a long time. Leaving felt surreal and I definitely felt like I wasn't done with Prague quite yet.

Although I inevitably have a few regrets--mainly not traveling around more in the Czech Republic--but I know that it is impossible to do everything. I met some great new friends that made the experience so much fun and having Scott in Europe made Prague feel like home since day one (seriously, a life saver--it was like having your best friend going through the exact same thing you were and an instant travel buddy). Studying abroad has been one of the best experiences of my life and has definitely awakened a need to travel more.

So I'll save myself from more corniness (embarrassing post but necessary in a "journal" aspect), and just say that Prague was the best place for me to be this past semester and I can not wait to make it back to the Czech Republic.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Split, Croatia

Our trip to Croatia began with a 6 am flight and 4:30 alarm clock. It was the weekend after 4 finals, 4 papers, and an oral Czech test. The night before we had stayed up past midnight saying good bye to roommates and friends knowing at the very least it would be a long time until we saw them again. After a 5 hour flight (connection in Dusseldorf, Germany), my two friends Diana and Katie and I were all ready to relax and not do too much of anything else.

We checked into our Airbnb apartment which had an excellent location but was mediocre in all other regards. We spent the day leisurely grocery shopping, looking at the open market, exploring Split, and deciding where to eat for dinner.

Tripadvisor lead us to Konoba Marjan.

Our only requirement for our dinner was that it had to be seafood since it's famous in Croatia, and this meal went above and beyond. The three of us shared the seafood platter and an order of mussels with garlic and wine sauce. We were the only people eating in the restaurant (it was only 5:00, but we had been up for a very long time), so the waiter explained that Croatian food is prepared very simply. All the fish is just rubbed with olive oil and salt and cooked fresh. The fish platter included a tuna steak, shrimp, mussels, and two types of fish. This meal alone was one of the highlights of our trip, and since seafood is my absolute favorite, I was in heaven.

Our apartment was directly next to Diocletian's Palace--a UNESCO world heritage site and ancient palace that a Roman emperor intended to retire in. It is filled with little shops so we spent some time walking around it and grabbing gelato when it was hot out.

To be honest, most of these first two days are a little bit of a blur. We took the relaxing and reflecting that study abroad was ending to heart, and besides exploring Split we just hung out. There also happened to be small tourism fair where we ended up getting free and delicious wine from a friendly Slovenian women. With the help of delicious Sommersby apple and pear ciders we drank whenever we got the chance, we walked around the island and indulged in our favorite souvenir shopping. We also made a little hike up to a look out point on Sunday, and later Diana and I went on a short run along the coast which felt pretty unreal. Staying in an apartment also made making a few homemade meals possible to try to save the last of our money (it was all of our last trip) and made tortellini, scrambled eggs, and other snacks through the four days.

On Monday, we planned to go to one of the islands off of Split. We headed down in the morning to get on a ferry to Hvar, but realized we had missed the only ride. We quickly decided to buy a ticket to Brac, and got a seat in the sun for the hour ride over. The first thing we did when we got off was walk straight to the beach area. On the way, we decided we wanted a quick lunch and grabbed some fast food along the path. One of my favorite things about Croatia was that "fast food" in this case meant a huge box full of fresh fried calamari and French fries. It was delicious and paired with two Somersby ciders and beach chairs from the beach, it was a very relaxing time.

There was no way we were leaving without swimming, so we braved the cold water and talked about how unbelievable it was that two weeks ago we were swimming off the Amalfi Coast and now we were swimming in the Adriatic Sea. The views were so spectacular and the water was unbelievably clear. We ended up having to grab phones and take a few pictures. Note: none of these pictures are mine--sadly my camera was out of battery this trip. While it was nice not having to worry about documenting anything, I definitely would make sure this never happened again. After achieving the beach day we all had wanted for so long, we slowly made our way back to the ferry while grabbing gelato and earrings (me) in the process. My new, pink Croatia towel quickly became one of my favorite and most useful souvenirs that day.

We kept the good day going by visiting our new favorite restaurant again that night. This time to get seafood pasta with pesto, shrimp, and mussels. We again were very satisfied and had another early night. That Monday and the next day would definitely be my favorite days of the trip.

We wanted to do something a little more adventurous on our last full day in Croatia, and a quick talk with the travel guide from a local travel agency(one of the friendliest and helpful people I met, and free!) led us to book a river rafting trip on the Cetina River the next morning. This was by far one of the best decisions we made and is one of my favorite memories abroad. At 9 am we were picked up by one of the guides and driven about an hour into the mountains and to a river bank. The drive in was absolutely beautiful--the ocean view, the trees, the mountain, the river and everything was breathtaking. It's one of the reasons why I would love to go back. Once we met our instructor we changed into spring wetsuits (we were warned that the water was really cold) and immediately got started. We were joined by two girls from Sweden, and like most big group of girls we immediately started all talking our mouths off. Meeting other people are age from different parts of the world is just one of the many reasons I'm glad that English is such a universal language. On that note, I had a really proud moment during the trip. Our guide explained that 6 months out of the year he traveled around the world and the other six months was spent guiding raft tours in Split. He talked about all the languages he knew, and asked us what languages we had studied. His face looked beyond shocked when I mentioned I had studied Spanish, Russian, and Czech. I made sure to clarify exactly how long these study periods had been and how little I could actually speak, but it was gratifying to hear him say he wouldn't have guessed that from an American. Just a little egotistical pat on the back for the blog, but, hey, it's my journal, so my stories. The rafting itself was really relaxing. Although it was supposed to be rated a 3, it was very mild, but fun.

The really exciting part came in the middle of the trip. Since it was off season (we couldn't even find a single bar), our instructor asked if we would be interested in doing something a little different than the usual routine. We all immediately said yes, and he explained that usually all passengers have to get off the boat and walk past the short but dangerous rapids in the river. He still couldn't take us through the rapids, but instead of walking around it we could swim and climb through a cave--which was behind a waterfall no less. His quick warning before he left to take the raft farther was to not fall of the mossy rock so we wouldn't get stuck in the rapids and swim towards his voice once he gives us the go-to.

I ended up being the first one to jump in and the water was freezing! I forgot what the actual temperature was, but I remember our guide kept joking that it was the perfect temperature for a pivo (beer) to be. Once out of the cave we climbed over the boulders to get back to our raft and continue down the river. That experience alone had us filled with adrenaline and loving life, but it got even better when we stopped to jump off some of the rocks and go swimming. By this time the water actually felt great, and we all had so much fun swimming around, trying to fight even this small current, and making ridiculous poses when we jumped off the rock. The guide had a camera and took a bunch of pictures throughout the 3.5 hour trip, and we had no problem splitting the cost for the CD between the two of us. Especially since there were some hilarious photos on there. Apparently, I was constantly getting caught by surprise...

After getting back to Split, the three of us kept recapping the day and did some aimless wandering around. We grabbed some more fried calamari and forced ourselves to eat the not chopped tentacles before deciding to sit out on the coastline and get a real meal. For dinner, I had a salad with tuna and we all stocked up on our last Somersby ciders of the trip (they are delicious and have the same alcohol content as beer, but are only available in select countries).

The next morning we made breakfast, I desperately drank my last cider at 9 in the morning (it would be a crime to have one go to waste), and got on the bus to the Split airport. That airport was the smallest one I've ever been in. It only had 5 gates and three airport stores, but that's all I needed to spend the last of my Croatian cash on some German chocolate. After a long layover in Vienna, we were finally back for our last days in Prague and Europe.

I absolutely loved Croatia. The first few days I was there, I was elated to be in Split, but I thought it was going to be one of those countries I just wouldn't ever end up coming back to. But exploring the Cetina River and the islands has made me wish I did more. I want to go hiking in all the national parks and see more of some of the most beautiful scenery of my life. The people were so nice (and it's a Slavic language!) and there's so much more I want to do. I would love to have another trip to Croatia and also visit neighbor countries like Montenegro and Slovenia. Although the first two days were spent sleeping off finals exhaustion and farewell emotional exhaustion, ideally Saturday and Sunday would have been more filled with activities. One thing I wish I did? Rent Vespas for the day at just 20 euros and explore! But this trip was beautiful, relaxing, and exciting all in one, and one my favorite trips. Croatia (and Slovenia), I'm coming back for you!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Surprise Trip to the Grand Canyon

After coming back from Prague (and promptly spending a week lounging in bed), I started to get a little antsy. It's hard to give up my new found habit of traveling and exploring every weekend, and I missed seeing and discovering new places. I've been meaning to write a blog post that talks about my overall experience abroad, but one of my biggest realizations is that I want to explore my home more. I've only been outside of California a few times--a weekend to Texas for wedding in middle school and Hawaii two summers ago. In my free time I've been writing blog posts about where I've been, looking up travel blogs, and talking about my past semester to anyone who will listen.

But even before, I wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. It was on my bucket list, and I always told Scott how we should spontaneously drive there just to see it. So when Scott picked me up on Friday and said we were going to the Grand Canyon and leaving now, it was the sweetest and most perfect anniversary present I could have asked for.

After opening the surprise envelope that said where we were going, I quickly grabbed all the things I was told to pack yesterday, and we started our drive to Barstow. Since we were leaving around 6:30 and the drive was around 8 hours, we were staying in Barstow for a night and leaving early the next morning. We had a quick dinner at Panda Express (it was free orange chicken night, how could we not?) right before they closed. It was located in the strangest rest stop area so we people watched all the cowboys to EDC ravers passing through before heading to bed.

We grabbed a quick hotel breakfast and gas and our road trip was officially back on by 8 am. I did a little happy dance when we drove into Arizona and made Scott take a picture of the Welcome Sign. Our plan was to drive through Route 66 and get the full road trip/bucket list experience and then make it to the Grand Canyon. Our first stop was at Kingsman, AZ where Scott introduced me to Sonic slushies (blackberry flavored and delicious, if you were wondering) and we officially got on Route 66.

The first hour was completely empty, and we became concerned that there actually wouldn't be anything to see or eat since our number one goal was to have lunch at a Route 66 diner. After passing lots of cows, horses, and one haunted school house (not joking, we looked it up), we decided we'd drive until Seligman, AZ for a hamburger place we read about online. Once we got there the restaurant was closed for their daughter's wedding, but we went to a nearby restaurant called Roadside CafĂ©. It was a very kitschy place, and I got a burger and Scott got a Reuben sandwich. Part of the drive up we were talking about lemon cake, and we were so shocked to see it for sale at the restaurant that we had to order a slice for dessert. After grabbing a few pictures of all the crazy decorations, we were on a non stop path for the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon definitely met my expectations and was beautiful. We spent about a few hours walking around the top, taking a billion pictures, attempting to picnic before getting attacked by an extremely aggressive squirrel, climbing on rocks, petting donkeys, and repeating that this was the present ever, over and over (that part was just me). I'm pretty sure the amount of pictures I took captures how much I loved it (since I know whatever I write won't), and I already can't wait to go back and hike it.


After a last stop at the Grand Canyon where I spent 10 minutes debating whether I should continue the postcard tradition in the US (I decided yes) and whether I should could a cute illustrated postcard or a photo (I got both), I left with my souvenirs and a new appreciation of Scott for putting up with me ;). Our hotel was in Flagstaff, AZ about a hour or less away from the national park. While the drive to the Grand Canyon was exactly what I pictured Arizona to be like (desert and hot), I was surprised that Flagstaff felt more like Mammoth or June Lake. We checked into our hotel, and went to go find some food.

see? putting up with me :)

After hunting for a place to get BBQ, we ended up at Satchmo's. It was a really small restaurant, and the cashier was really friendly and helpful about things to do (although I didn't have the heart to tell him I wasn't 21 yet). I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and sweet potato fries, and left very happy. The rest of the night was spent with Scott introducing me to the show Archer which I quickly became obsessed with, and packing up our stuff.

Scott's because shockingly I didn't take a pic and he did

The next morning we planned to go to a Brandy's Restaurant and Bakery for breakfast before heading out for the long drive home. Even at 8am the place was packed, and the restaurant had actually been featured on the food network show Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives. I knew I wanted to at least try the pancakes because everyone in the restaurant seemed to be getting them and they looked delicious. The omelets came with a side of pancakes, so I ordered a mushroom, cheddar, and sausage omelet (it also had hollandaise sauce on the side). It was an amazing breakfast, and some of the best pancakes I've ever eaten in a restaurant.

Scott and I grabbed some ridiculously cheap gas at a run down gas station, and started our long trip back. To get in the spirit we found a country station to listen to, but ended up getting pretty into it (which is hilarious if you've ever met Scott). We passed the time talking, listening to music, counting road kill, and filling out some of the Europe photo album I made for Scott. I think one of the best parts about this trip was that even after being in the car for 8 hours, we not only felt no need to kill each other, but also never ran out of things to talk about. I think we both felt a renewed sense of awesomeness and confidence in our road trip skills (our relationship is already pretty rock solid--get it Grand Canyon pun?).

One of our last stops was at Mr. D's diner at Kingsman on Route 66. It was 50's themed, so we grabbed some burgers/patty melts and a shake. Everything was good, but the fries were delicious. It was also interesting because our waitress moved to the small town from New York because of Hurricane Sandy. Ends up she loved it there, but it seemed like such a random move.

Our last stop of the road trip (besides one more gas fill up) was to dip our feet into the Colorado River at the California border. We got out in the hundred degree weather, got our feet wet, and switched drivers. We made liberal use of the cruise control, ate some candy, and fought bumper to bumper traffic in the middle of the dessert, and made it home around 8pm.

So happy 7 year anniversary to the best boyfriend in the entire world. Thank you for planning a weekend that was incredible, and the best surprise and present I could have ever wanted. You are my best friend, and I love how it's weekends like these that really show how perfect we are together. We can laugh and joke around for 8 hours with countless inside jokes or take cute kissing pictures on the Grand Canyon or fight off seriously scary squirrels with water bottles. Not every person would be able to plan such a sentimental and fun trip and manage to still keep it a surprise, and I appreciate every little thing you do for me or eat our heart out on delicious food.  I love you so much, and I can't wait for our many, many adventures in the future.