For over a month, almost as soon as I had arrived in Florence, plans for fall break had been in the works. Five other girls and I discussed every detail and booked all of our flights, trains and hostels, and the intention was to visit Dublin, Amsterdam and Prague. However, a feeling of trepidation marred our excitement. Would the strike scheduled for Friday throw off plans for our flight from Pisa to Dublin? Our flight was at six in the morning. Fortunately the strike, originally reported to last for 24 hours, did not begin until later in the day and we were able to take off as scheduled.
Thus began our whirlwind adventure. The nine days passed in a blur of new sights and experiences. We also had a very complicated and exhausting travel schedule. Thankfully, what made everything easier was that most of the people in each of the cities spoke English. I hadn’t realized what a strain it was to have to translate everything I wanted to say in my head before speaking until we arrived in Dublin, and I felt such a sense of relief to be able to fully understand the people around me. This also unfortunately worked the other way: my friends and I have grown used to talking freely and loudly about anything and everything around Italians because it’s assumed that they won’t understand.
In each city we encountered a parade of American chain restaurants and businesses that we’ve all been missing. Starbucks, T.G.I. Fridays, Subway, Ben and Jerry’s and Quiznos are only a few of the places we frequented. We also tried a few local specialties. Otherwise, the three cities we visited were very different from each other, each with its own fascinating history and sense of character; I could have spent much more time in each. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this trip has opened my eyes in a lot of ways.
I could go on and on about my experiences, but I’ll try to stick to the highlights for each city.
Our hostel was located close to the center of the city, and the first day we spent a lot of time meandering through the bustling streets and window shopping for souvenirs. Dublin was similar to London, which I visited three years ago, in that everything was very, very expensive. We toured the Guinness factory, and received a pint of the famous brew at the Gravity Bar, the top floor of the building which had wall-to-wall glass windows offering a panoramic view of the city. While I’m not a beer drinker, as I’ve mentioned before, it was remarkably smooth and palatable.
In the National Museum, we viewed Viking and medieval artifacts, giving us a sense of Irish history, and an exhibition at the National Library on William Butler Yeats was well-organized and informative. The National Gallery held room after room of art produced in Ireland, as well as famous paintings such as “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio, “Lady Writing a Letter” by Vermeer and “River Scene” by Monet. That night, we socialized with locals at a pub and then danced the night away at a techno club.
The third day, three of the girls and I took a tour of the Irish countryside, traveling from the east coast to the west coast and back. We journeyed through rolling green landscapes dotted by cows that in one instance became roadblocks for our bus. The Cliffs of Moher were stunningly beautiful, as was the Burren, an expanse of countryside covered by gray limestone.
I can only describe Amsterdam as a city of paradoxes: steeped in history, yet globalized and modern at the same time. Canals and tram lines blend with cobblestone streets. Many of the older buildings lean noticeably because their foundations have started to sink into the ground. On a tour through the city, we stopped at the Dutch East India Company headquarters, a reminder of a time when the Netherlands was a top power in the world. We also took a heartbreaking tour the Anne Frank House, which gave a sense of what it was like to live as a Jew in the city during World War II.
On the other hand, every American chain restaurant one would want to visit was present, and every type of cuisine imaginable was represented. Signs were always in English as well as Dutch. And of course, legalization of marijuana and prostitution make Amsterdam one of the world’s most controversial cities.
Walking through the red light district at night was one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. Red electric lanterns or bars of light illuminated the girls in the windows, giving them an eerie glow. Some were young. Some were old. Some actively tried to seduce male onlookers, while others sat and stared, looking careworn and sad. I couldn’t help thinking that legalizing prostitution and condoning the objectification of women is not in any way, shape or form modern or progressive. It was like the women were any other commodity displayed in a shop window. Ironically, there was a church right in the middle of the district.
As an art history major, I also wanted to make sure that I saw the art for which the Netherlands is known. My first stop was the Rijksmuseum, which displays famous Dutch artworks by painters such as Jan Steen, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. The most famous piece that I saw was “The Night Watch,” by Rembrandt. I’ve seen this painting in slides in countless art history classes, but it was so much grander and more detailed than I had imagined. It truly is a masterpiece. The same day, I perused the Van Gogh Museum, which exhibits over a hundred of the painter’s personal letters in addition to his works that give a sense of his mental state during his progression as an artist.
After a fifteen-hour overnight train to Prague, my friends and I were all a little delirious. We took it easy the first day, but managed to gather the energy to walk to the John Lennon wall, which fans have covered with graffiti inspired by him and the Beatles.
The next day, on a free three hour tour, I was able to truly appreciate the city’s beauty. Most of the facades of buildings are pastel-colored and ornately decorated, with statues adorning the roofs. The Old Town Square and the Charles Bridge in particular were stunning. Gothic cathedrals and castles abound, and while the weather was bitterly cold, the trees with their colorful fall leaves made the city even more picturesque.
Here, too, was a great sense of history. The Jewish quarter contains synagogues and a museum that exhibits drawings that children made while in concentration camps during World War II. A giant metronome on a hill was erected in 1991 to replace a monument to Stalin, and an ominous statue of Franz Kafka looms above passerby. What we saw and learned didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all Prague had to offer.