By Dr. Madigan Fichter
Our trip did not get off to an auspicious start. Our original flight was set to leave in what turned out to be the middle of the early March blizzard, and I ended up spending the first night of spring break at the Bensalem Holiday Inn, rather than flying to Europe. But, once we arrived in Budapest, exhausted and a day later than intended, things went smoothly from then on. For this, a big thanks to Jurgen, our amazing tour director! From here on out, Budapest, Krakow, and Prague were absolutely lovely.
Some of the major highlights of the trip:
- The “hat dance” that our student traveler, Kyle, got volunteered for on our first night in Budapest. Despite the jetlag he managed to pull it off quite skillfully.
- The baths. Paddling around Budapest’s magnificent thermal baths is one of my favorite ways to relax in Eastern Europe, and I think everyone on the trip now agrees with me.
- The evening cruise along the Danube River. Gliding past the illuminated parliament building and the monuments of Castle Hill was an unforgettable experience.
- Lard. On our first evening in Krakow, our restaurant served us smalec, a spread made of rendered pork fat and pork cracklings, to be topped with salt and eaten on brown bread. It definitely clogged our arteries, and it was definitely worth it. A few of us may have even ordered it again the next day, with a side of pierogis!
- Drinks in Krakow’s Jewish quarter. After a long day of seeing the beautiful city of Krakow, our always resourceful tour director, Jurgen, took us for a drink in a cozy bar in the city’s prewar Jewish neighborhood. Fire place + a good drink was the perfect way to end a long day on our feet.
- Auschwitz/Birkenau. It’s hard to call this a favorite, but seeing the concentration camp/extermination camp complex is incredibly important for anyone who wants to understand the history of the 20th century. For me, the most moving part was the exhibition of the victims’ shoes. Although the shoes are displayed in a massive jumble, behind a wall of glass, I saw pair of stylish sandals that a woman must have bought at some point in the 1940s, surely thinking of how nice they looked, and how well they went with an outfit. That human detail of a single woman’s taste in shoes somehow makes it all the more horrifying to think that she took off those nice, stylish sandals a few moments before she was murdered in the gas chambers.
- The Spanish Synagogue in Prague. A beautiful reminder of the strength and vibrancy of Eastern Europe’s prewar Jewish life and a rejoinder to the horrors of the Holocaust.
- The Alphonse Mucha museum in Prague. As my students know, I’m a big fan of the looping, nature-inspired art nouveau style that became fashionable in fin de siècle art and architecture. I was excited to take our group to an exhibition of work by one of the most famous art nouveau artists.
I definitely found this trip to be one of the highlights of my time at Holy Family. As someone who specializes in the history of Eastern Europe it was exciting to see how the region can surprise others who maybe didn’t know what to expect. It was particularly nice to be a group of experienced travelers and some almost first-time travelers. I think the newer travelers got an interesting introduction to a fairly unexplored part of Europe, and I’m pretty sure that they got the travel bug (a medical condition characterized by the urge to spend all your money travelling). Even the more experienced travelers found these cities unforgettable. The really cool thing about Eastern Europe is the fact that the richness of its history makes it a place that can be explored indefinitely. I’m already planning my next trip!