Our Brief Time In Ljubljana Before Visiting Croatia

I don’t think either of us had woken up feeling as refreshed as we did on our morning in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It’s those hard days of traveling, the ones that push you past your limits, that make you appreciate the good moments that much more. We looked outside and were excited to see such beautiful weather! So we got ready and made our way downstairs to have breakfast in the hotel and it was so good!

There were so many options available:

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And the thickest hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life – basically just melted chocolate!

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Ljubljana is such a beautiful city! And yes that’s a real place – (my friends all asked me if I sat on my keyboard when I texted them where I was). Many people told me it was turning into a game of Where’s Waldo except Where’s Shiri because we moved around so often on this trip!

The city is full of mountains and truly stunning old European style buildings. The city was located at the middle of the trade route between the northern Adriatic Sea and the Danube region. This city has kind of a similar vibe to Bratislava in that it felt like Old Europe with less tourists, but it was a lot fancier in the area we explored.

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We stumbled upon some really goofy things in this city. Like this small section that had it’s “own weather” because it mysteriously rained right there and only there:

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It was so refreshing in the morning heat!

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Or this random chandelier hanging in the middle of the street for no apparent reason:

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So we looked around different shops and made our way up to the castle – which turned out to be more of a hike than we expected! We certainly got our morning workout on this walk. We had to go up the mountain on very steep roads that residents must walk daily, like this one:

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But once we made our way up, the views of the city were amazing!

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And the castle was lovely as well! The castle is estimated to have been built during the 11th century and was rebuilt in the 12th century.

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Unfortunately, our visit in Ljubljana was very short because we had to leave in a few hours for Croatia. We had planned on having more time the day before, but with the craziness of our journey to the city, we lost out on a lot of time. You have to expect the unexpected when you travel though and try your to make the best of it, which we definitely did. So we had to head back down those steep roads and walk through the city very quickly, grab some food and necessities for our next part of the trip, and just explore for only a short time. But what we saw was so worth it!

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And I loved this because it’s one of my favorite quotes!

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So we made our way back to the hotel (totally bummed we had to leave already because it was the best hotel of the trip!) and we headed to the train and bus station to figure out how exactly to get to Croatia from here.

Saying Goodbye to Budapest and Hello to Ljubljana!

I think our only real disappointment with Budapest was that we didn’t have enough time there because it was such a great experience. On our last morning there, we had a quick breakfast at the hotel and went to the subway station. We couldn’t get the machine to give us the kind of tickets we wanted, so we asked a man who checks tickets standing at the top of the escalators that lead to the platforms. Even though his English wasn’t perfect, he helped us figure out the problem and told us another place we could buy tickets. I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when they travel is not asking for help when they need it. Sometimes it’s worth possible embarrassment to save time and stress.

We headed to the Parliament and it’s one of those moment’s I’ve described before when you step out from the subway station and bam! There’s this masterpiece of architecture right there so casual.

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So we crossed the street and took a closer look and it was just overwhelming. As one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings, it is definitely a notable landmark worth checking out along the bank of the Danube River.

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It was early in the morning and already 100 degrees outside, but we were grateful for such beautiful sunshine. So we walked along the river towards a monument we both really wanted to see before we left the city. The views along the river were stunning that morning

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And on the way, we found this statue of Hungarian poet Attila József, who died on railroad tracks at the young age of 32.

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Here are a few translated lines from his poem At Last, which was written in 1926.

“I have flashing eyes and the will to win,
and I must have the willingness, the means
to do justice and so to take sides
with these severest of memories.”

If you’re interested in reading some of his work, here’s a link to many of his translated poems.

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And then we walked next to the river some more until we found the monument we had been looking for – the Shoes on the Danube Bank, which was developed by film director Can Togay, who worked with sculptor Gyula Pauer to create it. The monument was designed to honor the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.

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The victims had been ordered to remove their shoes and were then shot at the edge of the river so their bodies would fall into the water and be carried away. This monument represents all those empty shoes left behind that were never filled by their owners again. I found this to be one of the most moving monuments we saw the entire trip. Looking at the shoes, it’s one of those moments where you are faced with such a horrific tragedy that occurred right where you’re standing only a few decades ago. The shoes are so personal to the victims that you can’t help but feel something when you look at them.

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This monument gives you the ability to attempt to imagine the victims’ perspective and try to put yourself in their shoes

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We each placed some stones in a few of the shoes to go with Jewish tradition of mourning.

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Because we both were touched by the monument, we needed a moment to reflect. We sat in the shade to get out of the heat and just looked at the water and our beautiful surroundings.

And to break up the silence, we couldn’t help but laugh when we saw this bus turned into a boat making its way through the river:

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But we had a train to catch, so we headed to the station and took the subway towards our hotel and stopped for milkshakes in this nice cafe. It was so hot out and the shakes were deliciously refreshing.

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We grabbed our bags from the hotel and headed to the main train station. It was hard to carry our big backpacks through the trains and stations in that kind of heat. We envied the men who walked around shirtless with nothing to carry. We had some pizza at the station before finding our platform – I am so grateful we ate this pizza because it was the last food we would have for a while. My slice had corn on it, something I’ve never had before but it was so good!

When our train pulled up, we realized this was going to be a rough journey because it was only two train cars long and as we stepped inside, a huge gust of hot air came at us because air conditioning did not exist on the train. Again, we were glad to have our reserved seats even though they weren’t as needed as on other trains. The train ride was supposed to be 8 hours with a long train, a restaurant on board, and a direct trip to the next city. None of this was the case though.

We spent five hours on a very hot, crowded, stinky train so it became uncomfortable quickly. The bathrooms were filthy and out of toilet paper early on in the ride, which was not good. Everyone opened the windows, but it did little to cool anyone off because it blew in warm air. I tried to sleep to pass the time, but the heat made it difficult and I woke up so sweaty and yucky. After the five hour point on the train, when we should have only had 2-3 more hours left, the ticket woman went to each seat and told everyone we had to get off at the next stop and would be taking a bus instead. She could not speak much English and was very difficult to understand, and she didn’t know other languages as an alternative that we could understand either. Everyone on the small train was extremely confused and concerned because this wasn’t disclosed when we had purchased the tickets and no one knew what was going on.

But everyone got off at the station, and we were divided up between three buses that were not all going to the same place. This was stressful because the bus drivers did not speak English very well either and we were not sure we were getting on the right bus! After about an hour and a half bus ride, we finally arrived and stopped at a stop in the middle of nowhere. During the bus ride there were no bathrooms available and no one gave any kind of explanation of what was going on. Turns out this direct train ride to Ljubljana was not so direct because the train tracks were not finished being built yet! So this whole alternative route was designed with major detours.

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Once we got to the next train, it was similar to our trip to Prague where there were individual compartments made for about six people. It was almost as hot as the previous train, but as the sun set, it became gradually cooler. An older couple from San Francisco, Nancy and Carlos, sat with us and were incredibly friendly! We were thankful to have such nice people to talk to during the long ride. We discussed traveling, our lives, our homes, our dreams and plans, and different experiences. Carlos is from Argentina and they had married young and lived in Chicago for a long time before settling in California. They had very interesting stories and Nancy used to be a flight attendant so they had tons of travel experience. Watching the two of them really demonstrated what I hope to have in my future – someone I can love that much and travel with even at that old age. The way they clearly cared for each other was wonderful and a privilege to witness.

Along our journey we saw so many amazing views or the country side – one of my favorite parts of traveling by train.

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After several hours, the ticket woman came around and told everyone there were more delays. This journey felt like it dragged on forever. We were thankful when we finally made it to Ljubljana!! It was almost 11 at night – several hours after we were supposed to have arrived. We helped Carlos and Nancy with their luggage and walked with them to find their hotel because it was on the way to ours. I think it’s important to help people when you can. My grandparents travel around the world and I would want someone to treat them this way, so the least I can do is help someone else like that.

When we made it to the hotel, we were literally blown away. It was so much nicer than we expected! After arriving, the man at the front desk was very concerned and mentioned that they were out of the room we had reserved. And we both looked at each other like oh great how can this day get any worse. But then he asked if it would be okay to upgrade us to a bigger, better room with no extra charge. Would it be okay? Umm duh!!! So we found ourselves spending the night in a king suite.

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I can’t begin to explain how good it felt to get in this luxurious shower and clean up after the long, hot, sweaty, stressful day we had. We even ordered room service to treat ourselves! Traveling can really cause you to appreciate the small things and i love that. We passed out quickly because we were exhausted. We were happy to have the longest day of the trip over and done with because we had worried about the logistics of it since we originally planned the trip months ago. I’ve rarely slept so well.

Visiting Budapest

After a great first impression of Budapest, we were excited to spend the day doing some more exploring. We had a quick breakfast at our hotel and got ready to go.

We both have an interest in Jewish history because of our family’s history and relationship to the Holocaust. Our great-grandfathers were brothers and both Jewish, but Katharina’s great-grandmother was Catholic so once she married Katharina’s great-grandfather, they chose to raise their three children Catholic – which allowed them to survive World War II and the Holocaust. I have been raised Jewish and Katharina has been raised Catholic, but we are both connected to our roots and want to learn as much as we can about where we come from, which includes learning more about Judaism and the Holocaust.

So we walked and took a train to the Jewish Quarter of the city where we could visit the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue – one of the largest synagogues in the world.

 

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We chose to visit both the Synagogue and the Museum and had an optional tour of each so we could learn more about both. I’m not always into tours, but these were very small groups and very focused on what we were interested in knowing – personal tours are always great. Although it was over 90 degrees outside, we knew to cover up and dress appropriately and respectfully. We wore long pants and long sleeves because we weren’t sure how much we needed to cover, but once we got there we saw only shoulders needed to be covered. People whose shoulders were exposed were given paper napkins to place around them like a shall to be respectful, so we felt good that we had the right dress even if we were sweating.

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The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859. It suffered damage in World War II from air raids during the Nazi Occupation and also during the Siege of Budapest, which was a 50-day long encirclement of the city by Soviet forces towards the end of the war. Around 38,000 civilians died during this siege.  The Synagogue’s restoration occurred in the 1990s. It is able to seat 3,000 people.

The Synagogue is beautiful with its incredible detail and impressive size.

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We found it very worthwhile to take the tour and hear about the history and significance of the Synagogue. There is more on the complex though including Heroes’ Temple, which seats 250 people and is used for religious services on weekdays and in the winter. It was added in 1931 and designed by Lázlo Vágó and Ferenc Faragó. It serves as a memorial to Hungarian Jews who lost their lives in World War I.

 

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There is also a Jewish Cemetery for more than two thousand Jews who died in the ghetto from starvation and the cold during the winter of 1944-1945.

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The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park is behind the temple and is a memorial to the more than 400,00 Hungarian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. A beautiful sculpture designed by Imre Varga stands, representing a weeping willow and holding names of victims on the leaves. It is very moving to look at.

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You can also see this stained glass piece that represents the chaos and struggles of the Holocaust. It looks like snakes and flames mixed into the art, which is stunning.

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The grounds of the complex are so well maintained and peaceful. I highly recommend visiting and learning more about the history and culture of Hungarian Judaism.

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The museum of the complex is small, but definitely interesting to look at. We learned that everything in the museum was saved during the war by two women who carried each item individually, even these stained glass window pieces, to the national museum where they would be kept safe.

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In the majority of the museum, visitors can look at old religious pieces such as the Torah, candle holders for Shabbat, and challah covers.

 

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Even the lighting of the museum was related to Judaism.

 

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The last part of the museum is specifically dedicated to how the Holocaust affected Hungary and its Jewish population, which I found interesting because it is not something I knew much about before. There were many exhibits:

 

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Here you can see Nazi propaganda from that time:

 

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And items from the camps:

 

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This is a menorah found in one of the concentration camps that had been made from bread – meaning someone didn’t eat the already little food given to them in order to follow their religious traditions and beliefs. This was something that really got to me.

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And many moving photos from the time period of people struggling to survive or people who perished.

 

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We both learned a lot from this visit and found it interesting to see another perspective from that time and gain more information about what happened in Hungary specifically during World War II. We both said that we saw and heard about things we never would have learned in school.

 

After spending the whole morning looking at so much, we both were hot and hungry so we found an Italian place to grab lunch.

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And then we went back to the hotel to change into different clothes that felt more appropriate for the almost 100 degree weather. We decided to go check out some baths. We chose to go to the Széchenyi Baths, the largest medicinal baths in Europe. The water there is supplied by two thermal springs. It officially opened in 1913. We took the subway to get there and spent the afternoon enjoying the outdoor pools and baths in the warm sun and checked out the indoor ones as well. We each splurged on a massage in the spa, which was amazing after the craziness of our trip so far with all the walking and carrying backpacks and constant running around. This turned into a very relaxing day after an intense morning. We had a lot of fun people watching because there was a mix of Hungarians and tourists from all over the world.

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As the evening approached we took the train back to the hotel so we could shower and clean up. We walked through the city to find some dinner, and ended up in a small restaurant where I couldn’t resist having another delicious pasta dish!

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We had a good time walking around exploring the city some more because it was a little different at night time. I started to feel sick (probably because of all the sun and some dehydration), so unfortunately, we couldn’t do too much. After a decent amount of time wandering around, we decided to head back to the hotel and get a good night of sleep.

 

 

Budapest and Birthday Celebrations

This was a special day because it was my cousin Katharina’s birthday! We slept in to what was late for us (9am) and headed down to breakfast in the hotel. We made sure to celebrate with hot chocolate and champagne.

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Then we went to the grocery store to buy snacks for our trip to Budapest! We found this cigarette vending machine, which is definitely not something you’ll find in America:

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The train station was very crowded and there were a ton of people going to Budapest as well – mainly backpackers. We were grateful to have taken the time to get seat reservations again because even with those reservations we had issues getting to our seats and had to fight multiple people out of them. If you didn’t have a seat reservation on this train, you were out of luck and had to stand or sit on the floor for hours. No one could walk in the aisles because it was completely full of people and luggage. The reservations we purchased were only $3 a person and absolutely worth it. The train stunk because there were so many sweaty people so close together and it wasn’t particularly comfortable. We met two Italian guys our age who were also doing Interrail and had been traveling for a lot longer than we had. They were very friendly and nice to talk to. They sat on the floor next to us and often had to move into our seat area if people attempted to walk by to get to bathrooms.

 

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So I’ll give you a very brief summary of Budapest and its history. Budapest is an amazing city – the capital and largest city of Hungary and one of the largest cities in the EU. The first settlement of the territory was built by Celts before 1 AD. The Ottomans pillaged Buda in 1526 and occupied it in 1541, which lasted for more than 140 years. In 1718, the entire Kingdom oF Hungary was removed from Ottoman Rule. The 19th century was filled with Hungarian struggle for independence and modernization. The city was a twin capital of the Austria-Hungary monarchy, but has occupied both banks of the Danube River since the unification of Buda and Pest in 1873. The proportion of Jews in the city peaked in 1900 – it was often called “Judapest” or the “Jewish Mecca.” In 1918, Austria-Hungary lost the war and collapsed – Hungary declared itself an independent republic, the Republic of Hungary. In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon partitioned the country, causing two-thirds of its territory and nearly two-thirds of its inhabitants to be lost. In 1944, Budapest was partly destroyed by British and American air raids. And in 1945, the city was besieged during the Battle of Budapest. The city was damaged a lot during the war. The Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, managed to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest by giving them Swedish passports and taking them under his consular protection, but still, significant portion of Budapest’s Jewish population died during the German occupation of Hungary. After the liberation of Hungary from Nazi Germany by the Red Army, Soviet military occupation ensued, which only ended in 1989. During that time, Hungary was declared a communist People’s Republic. Today Budapest is the 25th most popular city in the world for tourists to visit. It has one of the largest synagogues in the world, one of the largest Parliament buildings in Europe, and tons of museums. It’s definitely a city worth visiting!

 

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So my first impressions of Budapest – another extremely beautiful city that is clearly so full of history. We had a bit of confusion at first in the train station with trying to convert money and figure out where we needed to go and how to get there, but once that was all settled it was easy to find our way around. We saw some refugees around the station, but nothing like what is occurring there now. We waited for over an hour to get our next train reservations to Ljubljana so we were prepared for our next part of the journey. We used GPS to find our way from the train stop to the Bastion Hotel, which was not too easy to find because the hotel was barely marked and its entrance was on a small side street.

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But the hotel was wonderful and we were really happily surprised.

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We decided to go to a relatively new museum called Hospital in the Rock. So we went down to the station, quickly realizing the city has the biggest escalators ever, but they move so fast!

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We ended up getting off at the wrong station and found ourselves in a major construction zone and unsure of which direction we needed to go. We were thankful to have GPS and definitely needed it because it was about a 20 minute walk. At one point we had to climb up a very steep set of stairs up a mountain, and in the 95 degree temperature, it was not easy. We were stressed for time and had to move fast so we both felt exhausted, hot, sweaty, and out of breath by the time we found the museum – but we found it!

 

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So within this mountain is this amazing museum all about what used to exist inside a natural cave system. During World War II, an air raid emergency hospital was opened within these caves and during the American air raids in 1944, the hospital was used extensively – the 94 beds were constantly filled. Patients were even kept in hallways. The hospital had a very high death rate because the conditions were poor and caused major risk for infection and there were not enough medical supplies. Multiple surgeries would occur in the same room, patient beds were pushed together, and bandages would even be taken off dead bodies and used on living patients. With the end of the war, the hospital was closed in 1945.

And with the Cold War and the Revolution, the hospital was transformed into a nuclear bunker – but it was luckily never needed.

 

 

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No photographs were allowed to be taken inside the museum, but very interesting exhibits were set up with wax figures of the doctors and patients so visitors can get a real idea of what it would have looked like when the hospital was in use. It is definitely a museum I recommend seeing because learning about some history of World War II and what was occurring in a specific place within one city is fascinating. We both learned a ton about Hungarian history and individual stories of survival within horrible conditions.

Here’s our tour group:

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The people running the museum are extremely friendly and helpful, so we asked them for recommendations of where to head for dinner. They told us we definitely should go towards a specific direction and that we’d find something to eat up there or the bus to go back towards our hotel. And were we glad they suggested that! Because as we walked, we stumbled upon some of the best views of our trip!

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And then ran into the Matthias Church, which was originally built in 1015, remodeled in the 14th century, and restored in the 19th century.

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It’s an amazing thing when you travel and stumble upon such beauty unexpectedly. And from there, you can see the castle and the entire city!

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It was truly breathtaking. But we were hungry, so we asked a young couple how to get back to the area where our hotel was, and they were extremely helpful in telling us which bus to take and where to get off and where to go from there. We crossed over Danube River.

 

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And then we couldn’t help but stand in awe looking at what was around us because it was so beautiful:

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Then we continued our search for dinner – (clearly kept getting distracted). We found a pretty touristy area full of restaurants, shops, and interesting statues like this giant one:

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And finally we picked this nice Japanese restaurant for dinner to celebrate Katharina’s birthday and the food was so delicious!

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After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and enjoyed seeing the city at night, which manages to be just as beautiful as it looks in the daylight.

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Our Day in Bratislava

After the previous day’s difficulty finding somewhere for breakfast, we decided to eat at the hotel and enjoy a big buffet that had tons of options.

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We headed to the train station, bought our day tickets to and from Bratislava (just an hour away from Vienna), and we got on the train early. We looked at photos from our trip so far and laughed a lot thinking about all the memories we had made already. Across the aisle sat two clearly rich and very snobby girls who spent the entire ride bragging to each other about the trips they’ve been on and their designer brand clothing and suitcases – they were trying to one up each other and show off. It was obvious without speaking the same language, but my cousin confirmed after realizing we both were eavesdropping.

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So Bratislava is a city many people have actually never heard of. It’s the capital of Slovakia and has a population of around 500,000 people. It sits on the River Danube and the River Morava and is bordered by Austria and Hungary. It still has a relatively low tourism rate, so it is a different experience than some of the major cities of Europe.

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Once we arrived, we felt a lot of confusion about how to get to the main part of the city. We got on the right bus, but missed the stop we wanted. The bus driver did not speak English very well, but one of the passengers told us where we needed to go. A French couple who also didn’t speak the greatest English got off the bus with us and we crossed the street to the other bus stop and headed the direction we had come from. It’s important to know if you make a mistake or wrong turn when you’re in another country, there is always a way back and this time it was very easy to figure out.

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When we arrived in the main part of the city, we were happily surprised. It felt like a much more authentic European city with few tourists, less English spoken, and stunning architecture. The people in the town were incredibly friendly and really helpful because I think they were glad to have people from other parts of the world visit their city and they were proud of their home. So we walked around and saw small streets and old churches.

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We entered one church and were able to sit and watch a baptism take place, which felt pretty special to witness.

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The city is full of interesting art and very cool, humorous statues:

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We had fun walking around and looking at everything the city has to offer and we had a more personal experience because of how quiet the city was compared to some of the huge cities we had just visited.

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We had lunch in a small Slovakian restaurant where I enjoyed gnocchis with chicken and Katharina had a traditional soup. The food was really great, but the service was slow because it was really busy and understaffed and the servers were clearly overwhelmed and stressed out. We had fun though because a cute family sat next to us and the little kids played with us. I like children a lot and it’s easy to play with them in any part of the world because you don’t need a language in common to communicate.

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After lunch we found a yummy gelato stand (have to try ice cream in every city of course) and sat by a fountain as we enjoyed the deliciousness.

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After ice cream, we we walked around and stumbled upon this amazing courtyard and a man playing piano. He was a wonderful pianist so we paused for a moment to really listen and take it all in.

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We found a nice vintage clothing store and popped in and I bought a cute sundress for $6. And then we walked up to the castle. It was hot outside so the uphill walk up became harder than expected, but it was completely worth it. The first written records of the castle date all the way back to 907AD!

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From the castle, you can see amazing views of the Danube River.

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We met some guys from America at the castle who offered to take some photos of us, which we appreciated. It felt good to talk to Americans again, we didn’t run into too many during our travels so I missed it.

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After looking at the castle for a while, we slowly headed back down to the bus stop, found the right bus and caught it just as it arrived. We happened to see the same French couple who we had met on the bus ride  into the center of the city earlier in the day. They were not as impressed with the city as we were. I think it’s important to have an open mind when you travel and take things for what they are, not what you hope and expect them to be. The city is beautiful and has a lot to offer and we had an amazing day there together. We made it to the train station and found our train. It felt so good to sit and relax and have that hour off our feet to just hang out. A really nice man sat down and talked to us the entire ride back. He ended up giving us all kinds of advice for the remainder of our trip and even let us try some traditional cake he had with him. He had travelled extensively throughout Europe and spoke several languages. I love meeting people along my journeys, sometimes you get the best advice and ideas that way.

Once we made it back to Vienna, we headed to our hotel and cleaned up so we could go out again. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant that was extremely crowded and took some time, but it gave us more of a chance to talk. It was a beautiful night, so we walked around the city one last time because the next day we headed to Budapest!

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I still can’t get over the lovely architecture!