o in February, my university gave us a one-week vacation—which seemed odd to all of us, considering we had just started classes a couple of weeks prior, but I don’t think any of us were complaining. This break quickly became the all-consuming topic of discussion for weeks as we all frantically planned and compared and researched the best and cheapest destinations to visit during our precious time off. After weighing the options, I decided to squeeze in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin and Prague during my 10 days of freedom. Several of my friends came to one or more of the destinations with me, so it was fun to reunite with different people throughout the trip.
At the last class before break, all of us showed up with our carefully packed and weighed backpacks and sat through the three-hour class with toes tapping, anxious to peel out and race off to our various flights. Luckily, our professor took pity on us and let us out half an hour early (extra lucky for me, since I only had 2 hours between the end of class and gates closing for my flight!).
Stop #1: Amsterdam
So about 9 of us decided to start our vacation in Amsterdam and were all on the same Ryanair flight to Eindhoven (a cheaper airport in southern Netherlands). It was my first Ryanair experience and it was….bumpy, to say the least. But we arrived in one piece, and after a bus to a bus to a tram, we made it to our hostel near the Vondelpark in uptown Amsterdam.
On our first day, we enjoyed a cup of coffee on the canal, then rented bikes and ventured into Amsterdam’s crowded bike lanes to see the city (the Dutch do NOT mess around about biking).
Our second day was packed full of some Amsterdam highlights: Dutch pancakes, a canal cruise, the Van Gogh museum, food trucks near the Museumplein, an authentic Dutch dinner, and the Anne Frank House museum. Oh, and of course stroopwafels.
Worth mentioning: the Anne Frank House museum was a really special but haunting experience, especially since it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for over a decade from the first time I read Anne Frank’s diary. Being in her home (which is totally empty….the Nazis emptied it of all the family’s belongings and Otto Frank chose to keep it that way when he recovered the building after the war) was the most tangible and terrifying experience I’ve ever had regarding the Holocaust. It was striking to realize that such atrocious things happened, not so long ago, to a girl not so different from me.
By the end of our time in Amsterdam, we were already agreeing that it would be hard to top our first destination. Along with having wonderful travel companions, I thought our itinerary was perfectly spaced to give us time to enjoy the city and hit the major attractions, and Amsterdam’s natural charm and magical feeling quickly made it one of my favorite places I’ve ever been.
On our last morning, we fueled up with some breakfast, then split up for our various flights and buses to our next destinations.
Stop #2: Copenhagen
After our group split up in Amsterdam, three of us continued on to Copenhagen together. Upon arriving in the city, our first impression was that it was a ghost town…it was 7:30 pm on a week night and every street was empty. Very strange.
But after wandering around disconcertedly with our luggage for a little while, we eventually met up with my friend from home (hi Mari) and discovered that there are people in Copenhagen, they’re just all inside….because it’s cold.
The next day, we took a free three hour walking tour around the city, which was a great way to orient myself in this new country that I knew very little about. After the tour, I had a lot of respect for Danish culture….their system of government, their royal family, and their lifestyle are all so cool and so different from America. (And Danes consistently rank as some of the happiest people in the world!)
On Wednesday morning, Mari took me out for “Onsdags Snagl”, which is a tradition in Copenhagen centered around snagl pastries (cinnamon rolls). They’re fresh and discounted on Wednesday mornings, so naturally I bought two.
We spent the rest of the day at Tivoli Gardens, the giant amusement park in the middle of Copenhagen, which was decorated for the Winter Carnival (including fake snow!) which was comforting for a Midwest girl who somehow skipped the entire season of winter.
Overall, my friends and I agreed that Copenhagen would be a cool place to live…the culture, the coffee shops, and the size of the city were great, but I didn’t feel like it was quite as accessible for a tourist who only had 2 days there the same way Amsterdam was.
Of course, my favorite part of Copenhagen was visiting my roommate Mari and seeing a little peak into her (new) daily life!
Stop #3: Berlin
After splitting up for the second leg of the journey, tons of us from Aix reunited in Berlin and stayed near each other in the East side of the city. By this point, we were a full week into the trip and a bit exhausted, so I’m not sure I made the most of this city, but I tried. On our first day, we arrived around midday and squeezed in the Wall Museum, Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terror museum (some pretty heavy memorials about the Berlin Wall and the Holocaust), but I felt absolutely beat shuffling from exhibit to exhibit. I did find it fascinating, though, to learn about all the important history that has taken place in Berlin just within the past century. We closed the day out with schnitzel and beer (when in Germany, right?) and later on, visited a karaoke club on the east side.
Our second day, we ventured into the western side of the city, which was an interesting contrast to the smaller, dingier East Berlin. West Berlin is beautiful and grand, featuring the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Reichstag, a Starbucks, and countless streets of good shopping. (Europe has changed me, but not that much.) This was also our foodie day, from street-vendor currywurst for lunch to a dinner of sausage, potatoes, pretzels, and Kaiserschmarrn (look it up!) in a German bier hall.
Strangely, before leaving for my trip, I had heard rave reviews about Berlin—about a sense of magic in the air, that it was a city for young people, modern art, indie culture, and history—but in my own experience, I didn’t feel the “magic”. Granted, I only spent two days there, but it isn’t high on my list of places to return to. However, I’m definitely glad I went; I learned so much history, and even major events that happened almost in my lifetime that had meant nothing to me before the trip gained a lot more significance to me in the context where they took place.
Stop #4: Prague
What a way to finish the trip! Prague is easily the most picturesque place I’ve ever been in my life. Straight out of a fairytale, every building seems to be centuries old, and the winding streets ooze old-world charm.
After Berlin, three of us continued on to Prague together and met up with other friends from Aix at the hostel there. We took a bus from Berlin to Prague, and I think the bus ride was one of my favorite parts of the trip (besides a scary moment where we got lost in Dresden, Germany during our transfer), as we rolled through Czech hills and valleys complete with tiny villages and ancient churches. We arrived at our hostel in the afternoon, then sought out a sunset over the Vltava river and then ate dinner at our hostel with other European backpackers.
The second day, we started our day with free breakfast at the hostel (the best start to a day!!), then put on our étudiant caps for a quick history lesson at the Museum of Communism. As a reward for doing something educational, we treated ourselves to our first trdelnik (chimney cake) afterwards, which is a Prague specialty. Mine was drowned in apple filling and whipped cream, and I think I’m still dreaming about it.
Later on, we toured the Prague Castle, which dates back to the 9th century and makes it the oldest building I’ve ever been in! We finished the day with a traditional Czech meal of beef goulash in a rye bread bowl with hot mulled wine and warm apple strudel. (Wow.)
On our last day, it was sunny and warm, so we strolled around wishing we didn’t have to leave, and then finally headed to the airport to return to sunny Marseille.
Even though it was definitely the adventure of a lifetime (when else will I have the chance to visit 4 countries in 10 days? When I compete in the Amazing Race?), I was happy to be back home in Aix, where winter is a distant memory, and the new little life I’ve constructed here was waiting for me.
And now, I guess I’ll spend the next few weekends in beautiful southern France….if I must.