Five days and four unforgettable countries

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By Kelsey Morfitt*

I recently completed a 5-day field study to Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and Bratislava, Slovakia. What an amazing way to learn about the different cultures. Here are some highlights form Budapest and Bratislava.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

In the town (about 14,000 population now) of Cesky Krumlov we toured the castle surrounded by a bear moat.  When the group leaders said meet at at the bear moat, I was expecting a bear statue near the castle's moat...Not exactly.  Instead of water, the moat was filled with two brown bears.  Yikes! 

Cesky Krumlov
In the city center of quaint Cesky Krumlov

Budapest, Hungary

"Prague is nice, but Budapest is beautiful," a fellow volunteer at the monthly feed-the-homeless breakfasts told my mother in May.  She passed on the advice, and I'd have to say that Prague is beautiful but Budapest is breathtaking.  Our first night here we dined on goulash and potatoes and walked around the castle district where the formal royal palace is located, Matthias Church and more.  

The city is gorgeous lit up at night. And with the exception of many moths seemingly in attack-mode and large spiders dodging our 110 or so feet across the Chain Bridge (est. 1849), Budapest is exquisite.

Yesterday we saw St. Stephen's mummified hand in the Basilica, took pictures of the Parliament, visited the Opera House and paid for overpriced souvenir items and food on the Danube promenade.  I did insist that the glazed almonds vendor give me my 1000 Forints (about $5) back when I gave him 2000 Forints and he didn't make change. 

"You've got to be nice to the tourists; we're not all stupid," I frankly told him.  He did not get a Koszonom.

We also enjoyed a couple of hours at the Szechenyi Spa yesterday.  This place is amazing.  There are tons of hot tubs and pools with varying temperatures, multiple saunas--I tried the 60-80 degrees Celcius and 80-100 degrees saunas...Boiling point was quite as bad as I thought it would be, I lasted 30 seconds.  I brought my polyester swim cap from Ireland so I was able to lap swim in a huge pool that took twice as many strokes as a regular pool (maybe Olympic size but with statues and incredible architecture forming the curvy edges of the pool).  The small, circular river was fun and watching Hungarian and USAC students face-off at chess in the water was cool.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava is situated on the Danube River and directly connected to Wien (Vienna).  Since Prague was the capital of Czechoslovakia, Bratislava has received less tourists and attention throughout the years.  Consequently, as we learned on the trip, Slovakia’s economy and development lag behind that of the Czech Republic. 

red bus
Transportation at its cutest in Bratislava

Nevertheless, Bratislava holds a charm all of its own.  The Blue Church is uniquely painted all blue and designed by Ödön Lechner in 1907.  Lechner simply chose the color blue, which turned St. Elisabeth’s Church into a notable tourist attraction while the neighboring peach-colored, Lechner-designed high school seemingly goes unnoticed.  The ripe cherries hanging just out of reach near the Blue Church garnered more attention than the Lechner high school by our group and USAC leader who wished he were a bird that day to eat some cherries.  Me, too.

blue church
Lechner's blue church

The stone Bratislava castle was built in the 10th Century and is guarded by a statue of a horse ridden by the Great Moravia King Svätopluk.  After getting my picture by the equestrian statue, a USAC leader of Austro-Hungarian descent told me I chose the worst statue for a photo.   He explained that many Europeans will continue to dislike people from other nationalities who started a war or committed injustices against their native country; albeit hundreds of years ago. 

“Why do you like Japan? They bombed you,” he prodded. 

“We bombed them back, and I wasn’t around then.  We’re economically tied together…,” I started to explain my lack of personal involvement and our current ties.  He continued that it’s not like that here and I appreciated the inside history lesson on grudges.

We also stopped at a statue depicting the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk.  Masaryk took office in 1918 and the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic continued until its 1992 split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.   The monument to the Czechoslovakia Holocaust victims was moving. After walking around town, we dined at a local restaurant that served us veal cutlets for lunch. Before leaving Bratislava, we took in one more castle just outside Bratislava’s largest city.

Devin Castle has lovely views of where the Danube and Moravia Rivers meet. You have to hike a bit on a paved path and, as usual, with each bus stop the girls made a beeline for the restrooms.  How far are the bathrooms? (Asking for the “toilet” is generally guaranteed to an intelligible response in Europe, but our USAC leaders understand American English.)  “ Just a minute this way,” our USAC leader pointed out.  We ran to what we thought was bathroom; apparently its chapel-like appearance didn’t slow us down.  “No, no—just a minute this way,” he said.


the group in Slovakia

“One minute at your pace, or…” I ventured, having heard the minute or two comment before, when it actually takes 5-10 minutes to get there.

“Your pace; you’re losing,” he told me.  The group and I laughed and a couple of us started running.  A bathroom line of 25-30 girls is not fun to wait in; especially if you drink water like a fish.  Not that I would know what that is like.

We took a group picture there to conclude the trip.  Some USAC students also showed off their vocal skills by singing America’s National Anthem into the ancient well.  The acoustics were nice, but I really thought they should be singing Slovakia’s National Anthem.  As much as we try to fit in, our loud voices, eye contact, and our shorts and tennis shoes always seem to peg us as American tourists, the U.S. National Anthem wasn’t helping that plight. 

Overall, the quick, 5-day field study was an excellent experience and I especially enjoyed learning about the history and culture of the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia.  It’s amazing how many buildings were constructed before our nation’s birth and are still standing through the test of time.

*Kelsey Morfitt, of North Liberty, Iowa, is a UI graduate student pursuing her M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning. She is currently studying abroad on the USAC program in Prague, Czech Republic.

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