From Brasov to Bratislava:
On the Road through Eastern Europe
Photo : Johanna Engebjerg Englev
For two weeks, I have travelled through Budapest, Vienna and Prague, with my journey ending in the Slovak village of Cifer, about 15 minutes by car from Trnava. I have encountered happy Hungarian women, eager to share their stories about communism, a traveling duo in Vienna, getting by with making their own jewelry, dancing and singing all along the way, a reunion with an old friend in Prague, and déjà vu in Cifer. Yes, it has indeed been a trip full of interesting stories.
My trip started out like any other. Me with my bags, patiently waiting on Bra%u015Fov train station, for the night train to Budapest. Here my three friends where already waiting for me, them having spent the weekend in the city already. This Sunday I would join them for a couple of days in Budapest before moving on to Vienna. The train arrived on schedule and I found my designated seat with no trouble. Here I meet my first story.
Two Hungarian woman on their way back from a pharmaceutical conference in Bucharest where waiting for me in the cabin. They both spoke English and where eager to hear of my stay in Romania and of my own country. After a train ride filled with discussions, debates about Hungary and Denmark, the east and the west as opposites, we parted as equal friends. One even stayed with until I found my friends.
Columbian Song and Jewelry in Vienna
After a few days in Budapest, we boarded a train due to Vienna. Two days of climbing the hill to the Citadel and the Royal palace, celebrating a birthday under the stars on the Danube and meeting new friends, we were finally ready to say goodbye to Hungary.
While moving further away from the east and moving a bit more towards the west we all realized how long it had been since we had sat foot in a western country. Not that it helped us much.
When we left the train in Vienna, standing on Meidling Station, in rain and windy weather, we all looked around and determined right away: We are definitely lost and need help! Turns out Vienna is in the process of building out their main stations and as such it was a bit confusing for the four newly arrived tourists. However, with the help of our hostel we quickly found our way.
After a good night’s rest and the most amazing dinner consisting of nothing but dark bread (after 3 months without, dark bread has never tasted so good) we were ready to go explore the city.
First stop was Petersplatz in the center of Vienna and of course Skt. Peters Cathedral. The sight that met us when emerging from the underground was everything I remember from my previous trips to Vienna. Happy Austrians debating last night’s classical concert (one of which we of course attended later) and the sausage stands on every corner.
Everywhere around the square, you would find millions of small stands all with their own selection of Austrian art. And here we meet our next story.
A young lady and her Columbian friend where sitting in their booth, working on their handmade jewelry. These bracelets, earrings and necklaces where all woven be the two women and interest from our side quickly turned into conversation. Apparently, they had both been on the road now for 15 years. Selling their wares in different cities and countries, they had been absolutely everywhere! They told us of how they normally camp in a tent or in their wagon to avoid expensive hostels, but in Vienna is the real trick because you must pay for your booth. This woman was maybe 24, 25 years old and was studying while on the road. She studied the workings of organic farming so that maybe someday she could settle down with her own independent homestead.
Her friend was the perfect picture of a happy traveler. At least 50 years old, but looking much younger, he seemed like a real Mexican traveler, with his poncho and hat. When I asked him in my poor Spanish where he was from the answer was simply: “Right now I am from Vienna. Tomorrow I will be from Prague, and years from now? Who knows?”
Later we found out however that his first homeland was in fact Columbia.
Every traveling duo is not complete without a guitar and music, which we also got a taste of. They played us a piece they wrote together, her on her guitar and him on his flute. If this music had not been for our liking, (it was though), at least you could not help but notice the enthusiasm and the thirst for life found in their song. This was definitely a duo with the most amazing life energy I have ever seen and the best part was how contagious it was. Everyone simply could not help but wear a big smile for the rest of the day.
This trip has indeed been full of wonderful people and thankfully, it is far from over.
After just a few days in Vienna, as a young poor traveler, one suddenly realizes a very important lesson. Vienna is NOT cheap. I fact, Vienna is one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It is worth it however, considering how amazing this place is. However after 3 days of enjoying the Red Ribbon Festival (which includes a vast number of different celebrities, the flashes of the paparazzi’s and a very fancy looking City Hall, all dressed up with a big red carpet and limousine parking’s) we were ready to move on.
Next stop was Prague. Now some might be surprised by this, but Prague was actually the easiest city to get around in. Strait up from the train platform, we went to the tourist information, where the nicest little lady quickly explained to us how to take the subway two stops to our Hostel. Here we were met your classic run-in-the-mill hostel employee, with long hair and an “I’m gonna mess with you, during your entire stay” attitude. Which he did.
At first look, Prague did not make the best impression on me. Here was gray, cold and very wet! For some reason I felt I was now even more east than I felt back in Brasov, Romania. Thankfully, after a few days the city warmed up to me. When going to the center, you cannot help being taken back with the city’s vast beauty. When moving away from all the tourists occupying Charles Bridge (which, with its religious statues on either side all the way down the entire thing, is quite the sight) you will find small eastern looking side streets, snaking up and down the mountainside. Furthermore, after a few rainy days, there is nothing like a bit of live music in the center square to make your day. Which is what I ran into on my first walk around the city. Five elder gentlemen all dressed up in their finest suits, standing in the middle of the square, playing happy traditional Czech songs. That was quite the sight!
What also helped my impressions of the city was the arrival of an old friend from Australia. When traveling, there is just nothing better that confirming the fact that the world is a small place, and with a bit of coordination, meeting up even though you live on different continents, does not have to be that difficult.
Sadly, not all good things are allowed to continue and after a small reunion and one spectacular night, pub-crawling in Prague center, the time had come for goodbyes.
Some left to continue their travels, some went home and after a few days of saying goodbye, we all went our separate ways. Suddenly I found myself, now by myself, on a train bound for Bratislava.
In Bratislava I started and maybe ended my perhaps most important story. Here I went to visit an old friend I met 4 years ago on an international school trip, called Euroweek. During that brief week, I had lived with a family in Cifer, Slovakia. Cifer is a small village close to Trnava, which is about half an hour east of Bratislava. Here, along with representatives from all of Europe we had spent a week with workshops, shows and small festivals. All in the spirit of sharing our, both similar and very different, cultures.
Now, after 4 years, I was finally returning to the family I stayed with back then, and to the country where I made so many great memories. The most amazing thing about this trip was how my old host family had not changed one bit. Lives change in 4 years, surely, but underneath the people were all still the same. They were the same kind and curious people that I remembered. They are always happy to show you the life they have in Slovakia. They will gladly take you to their favorite restaurant, show you their business in the city, introduce you to their friends, listen to your stories, and ask you questions about your home and culture. There is no better way to learn about a country than from the local people who live in it.
My old host family is a classical Slovakian family, who owns their own business in Trnava. They all live in a big house in Cifer where their son is now building his own house, which of course I also got to see. The house in general looks much like any other European home I have seen, until you look out the window and remember that you are in Slovakia. And with the vast mountains surrounding you and the poorer looks around the village you are quickly reminded that even Europe is different from village to village.
My time in Slovakia (and my travels to Europe’s most popular cities) has now ended, but I am most definitely not finished visiting my favorite country in Eastern Europe. Like Romania, and the rest of Europe, the place and the people have so much more to give than what you first see and I look forward to returning one day and discover more about this immense country.
After two weeks of travel, I finally understand better what it means to be European. It is not just a convenient, sometimes inconvenient, partnership between countries. It is not just shared culture. It is the link between us all that makes sure we know one simple truth: even though we speak in different tongues, live different lives, dance different dances and listen to different music, in the end we share parts of the same culture and in a world so big and so full of different people, we will always be European together.