Study Abroad: Hitting the highlights

GABBI CALABRESE/THE ARKA TECH The front of the Versailles palace in France, which is currently a museum and a popular tourist attraction.

Much to my dismay, my spring break is coming to an end. I’ve got about twenty-four hours’ worth of bus riding ahead of me to get back to Graz. I can assure you, it’s going to be even worse than it sounds, but it’s a small price to pay for the vacation I’ve had.

A couple friends and I, far too lazy to deal with the logistics of traveling ourselves, booked spots on a European tour through the company Bus2Alps. This tour allowed us to travel to five cities in ten days. My friends and I spent a couple days in Florence, Italy, on our own, and the tour took us to Prague (Czech Republic), Berlin (Germany), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Brussels (Belgium) and Paris (France).

It was an extraordinary trip. And certainly eventful. I feel as if I’m emerging from my spring break with far more culture and bragging rights than I ever could have expected. Not the average spring break, that’s for sure.

Though it would be impossible for me to describe all my adventures over the past twelve days, I can definitely reminisce on some of the highlights of my trip.

In Florence, which I delved into deeper in last week’s column, I stuffed my belly with pizza and pasta and an unnatural amount of gelato. The sights were stunning and I’m quite certain I stepped into a fairy tale while I was there. The fairy tale didn’t end there, though, because Prague was magical too. The varying architecture styles and the inspiring history stole my heart. Not to mention the food! I would move to Prague if I could.

Berlin was the most enlightening city. I took a Third Reich walking tour and learned so much. I had the opportunity to see the different Holocaust memorials in the city, which was humbling and eye-opening. I also stood in the now-parking lot above the spot Adolf Hitler’s underground bunker had been—where he committed suicide, married Eva Braun and killed his dog Blondi. It didn’t feel particularly harrowing as I was standing there, but there is something awing in knowing that some of the most important facets of history took place where you’re standing. Of course, I couldn’t go to Berlin without checking out the Berlin wall. The East Side Gallery of the wall has been transformed into, well, a gallery. The expanse of the wall is painted with dozens of beautiful images that cry for peace and love and equality.

After Berlin, we headed to the Netherlands. I think Amsterdam has a reputation for being a party city, but there is so much more to it than that, from the vibrant tulip market to the leaning buildings. I had the opportunity to tour the Anne Frank House as well, which was heartbreaking. I had no interest in the less wholesome side of Amsterdam, but I didn’t want to leave without doing something at least a little reckless. So, I looked up the nearest tattoo place and let a guy permanently alter my body. My friends were a bit skeptical, as the shop was halfway underground in the Red Light District and called Hanky Panky Tattoo, but the shop was very clean and safe. I love the new tattoo and now I have the ultimate memento from Amsterdam.

We only stayed in Brussels for a few hours, but that’s really all the time you need in Brussels. It was just enough time to eat some French fries (which were created in Belgium), see a couple peeing statues (Brussels’s pride and joy) and eat some Belgian waffles.

Then we hit our final destination on the tour: Paris!

The first thing we did when we got there was, of course, visit the Eiffel Tower. As we made our way to the iconic building, my nerves started to get the best of me. It was like meeting the most famous celebrity! When I finally got to see it in person, it took my breath away. It’s certainly enormous and beautiful in an odd way. The entire time I was in Paris, I felt like I was checking off items I didn’t even realize were on my bucket list, like seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. While the famed painting is absolutely underwhelming, at least I can say I’ve seen the real thing. I also gorged myself on over-priced macarons and, yes—I tried escargot!

Admittedly, though, this vacation was not all glamour all the time. Traveling is exhausting, especially traveling in a group like I did. This trip was also staying in hostels with mostly-strangers, trusting nobody would steal any of my belongings. It was zero alone time whatsoever. It was competing for a shower in the morning. It was living out of a suitcase. It was several overnight bus rides, desperately hoping sleep would quit escaping me. It was a ton of walking. According to Fitbit, in the past twelve days, I have walked over eighty miles. There were some days I’d daydream about cutting my feet off because it sounded less painful than taking another step (okay, that was every day if I’m being completely honest).

This trip contained plenty of downs to accompany the ups, but I would do it all over again, without hesitation. I feel so lucky to have gotten to go on a trip like this and experience all these countries with very little planning or stress on my part. Now I have so many things I can brag about to my friends. I will never forget this spring break, that’s for sure. I cannot wait to see where I go next!