At the start of this year, I promised myself to post three times a week until the end of my exchange, and that I did. However, since returning to the USA, I have lapsed on my intentions to continue blogging. Perhaps it is the increased time occupied by school and work, or a lack of wondrous sites to explore. Either way, I loved writing these posts, especially the way that searching for content opened my eyes to the details around me and I wish to enjoy that feeling again.
In fact—to return to the latter of these excuses—I know that there is just as much to delve into here in the U.S. as there was in Europe. I’ve merely fallen back into the complacent mind of a local. “Bah, I don’t come from anywhere special… There’s nothing to do here… etc…” I lost all wonder, all fascination with my home, and if I’m not interested how can I hope to make a good blog post?
I do intend to write again. Just how often? Of that I am not sure, though certainly not as much as before. I now must balance blogging with school and work. Yet, I want to explore the US with the same intensity that I did Europe.
Maya, my girlfriend, and I have also just recently returned from a trip to Atlanta, Georgia and the annual geek summit of DragonCon. It was a tremendous amount of fun! We even dressed up and suffered the sweltering Atlanta weather for a day.
On that note, it is worth mentioning that I am neither on Exchange or “Eastward” anymore. This blog was intended to document my time in Slovakia. It seems to me inappropriate that An Eastward Exchange be used for anything other than my experiences in Europe. Therefore, in the future I will shift my writing to new platform, a separate personal and photo blog.
That does not mean An Eastward Exchange will go away, though. I intend to occasionally post about my activities with Rotary and further historical tidbits on Slovakia. This I hope to continue until May of 2020, when my subscription to the server which this blog lives on ends and An Eastward Exchange goes offline, archived and remembered forever.
I have been back in the USA for two weeks and my American life has been quick to reassert itself. It has kept me busy catching up with friends, reapplying for classes at a local university and starting work again. Routine looms just ahead of me and, in a way, I welcome it.
I went on exchange to break free of my unchanging schedule and in that act I learned much about myself. However, I don’t believe that my routine was so confining as it may have seemed. Over my year in Slovakia, my responsibilities fluctuated constantly. Although my overall work load was less, it took more mental resources to keep up with all the disparate things which fell on to my plate as opposed to working in the structured manner of school and work to which I had accustomed. In the end, I felt more fatigued and like I had less time to pursue my individual passions—a situation certainly not aided by the fact that I was living in a foreign country.
My exchange was more worth it than I can even express, but I am certainly glad to be back in a position where I can (to some extent) retreat into and almost mindlessly follow my routine—accordingly, enabling me to more fully make use of my free time.
The Outbound Orientation and Cedar Point
Just two days after my return, my family began the long drive to Westerville, Ohio, the home of Otterbein University where my home district’s annual outbound orientation takes place. I was invited by my country contact to share my experiences with new students going to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as well as other countries with which he works.
After the orientation and while still in Ohio, my family took the opportunity to visit Lake Erie and go to the renowned amusement park Cedar Point. We spent the day enjoying the park. While we were waiting in line for one of the rides, my sister pointed out something. Cedar Point employs workers from all over the world and their countries of origin are labeled on their name tags. The man overseeing the line for that particular ride was from Slovakia. As soon as she pointed it out (and I got over my surprise) I walked over and said “Dobrý deň!”. He and I had a fairly long conversation in Slovak. I could tell that he was ecstatic to be speaking his native language again. He told me that he hadn’t met an American who could speak Slovak in the two years he had lived in the U.S.
Eventually it was my turn to board the ride and we said farewell, but that encounter made my day. I am still excited about it! I expected to meet a Slovak eventually—maybe after several months or a couple years—but to think it happened after only four days!
It is the 26th of June, 2018 as I write this post. It has been a day of many lasts for me. Last day in school, last visit to my favorite cafe, last time on the bus from my village to Poprad, last time seeing one of my dear friends, last day visiting with my class… I am torn between the sadness of these farewells and my excitement at returning to my family and friends in the US. I’ve never felt a sensation so bittersweet as this—nor been so grateful for the pain. The fact that my exchange is hard to leave only reflects how much this experience has impacted me.
As this post goes live on the 4th of July, I am flying home, five of my most beloved people waiting for me at the airport. When I step off this last airplane and descend the stairs towards them, they year of adventure will end forever. That’s what I find most difficult to accept. I’ve made a life here, of sorts, but I can never go back to being an exchange student in Slovakia. I will carry these experiences and relationships for the rest of my life, but I cannot live the life again. Departing Slovakia is entirely different sort of despair than what I felt when leaving the US. One way or another, after a successful exchange or (to be frank, not morbid) in a body bag, I would have made it back to the USA and, more than likely, began a life much like the one I had left there. The same can’t be said for Slovakia. It is entirely possible that I may never see my European home again.
Possible, but unlikely. I swear to do everything in my power to return to Slovakia, not just briefly or once, but over numerous and extended stays. As my exchange has come to an end, I’ve realized just how much I still have to see and learn about my little host nation. It may be year away, it may be more, but I look forward to exploring these now familiar mountains and the streets I have called home once more. I will not let Slovakia escape me. It is now a home to me, the equal of any other.
My quest to document my exchange on this blog has taught me much about history, foreign cultures, other peoples and myself. I am nowhere near done with An Eastward Exchange and will continue to write about all of those things here in the coming months. However, you can expect a couple weeks of no content. After I have had time to settle back into life in the US, I will resume posting at a regular interval.
The following is an array of photos from my exchange. It only scratches the surface of all that I experienced, but it is more than enough to make me reminisce.
July – Us American outbounds prior to our departures at the 2017 orientation at Otterbein University in Ohio.
August – My first day in Slovakia, standing amidst the main square of Spišská Sobota.
August – The road leading out of Spišská Sobota to the farmland beyond.
September – My first hike with a few of my Slovak classmates up to Teryho Cottage, high in the Tatra Mountains.
September – The bridge to the partially restored Castle Strečno.
September – Atop Jahňací štít after one of the most difficult hikes I had ever taken.
October – The first shift in season’s color at the Bachledka Ski resort.
October – My best freind Antoine during a trip we took around the city to photograph the changing seasons.
October – One of the photos from Antoine and I’s venture across Poprad.
November – One photo from a day trip to Kezmarok with my host father.
November – From the dance party and freshman initiation at my shcool. I was conscripted to photograph the event.
December – At Schöner Brunnen Palace in Vienna. This imposing fellow is revaled to have a soft spot for nature.
December – The Viennese Christmas market was one of the most atmospheric places I have experienced.
January – A shot from a sledding trip my host family and I took up in the Tatras.
January – The gorgeous Symbolic Cemetery among the Tatra peaks.
February – Ski Week at Jasna Ski Resort in the Low Tatras. An amazing but tiring week.
February – A volleyball tournament between my school and their main rival saw my dodging balls and taking photos for the student council.
March – My tour guides for my first evening in Prague were my host brother and cousins. Despite my initial misgivings, it turned out to be a walk through the city.
March – I had a week to myself in Prague. It was a magical time indeed, full of museums tours and exploring medieval avenues.
April – A family trip to the village of Prybilina and its locamotive museum, accompanied by my host brother and his friend, Veronika.
April – A hike in post-snow melt Slovenský raj. The rushing water made the climbs all the more exhilarating.
May – A big month, May also included EuroTour, a Rotary-hosted trip though France, Spain and Italy.
May- In front of the Palace of Versailles, among its splendid gardens.
May – My friend and an exchange student in my city, Trish, and I performing Swing dancing as part of a cultural performance at Slovakia and the Czech Republic’s annual District Conference.
May – I led a song in Slovak in front of hundreds of Rotarians. Though, I am not entirely happy with my performance, I am proud that I had the courage to do it.
June – From day trip to Nitra, the oldest city in Slovakia.
June – One last trip to Bratislava with my Slovak friend Milan. Traveling with him made the experience so much better. He took me places I never would have thought to go otherwise.
Thank you tho those who have followed me here on An Eastward Exchange. It has been my pleasure to share this year of adventures with you all and I am thrilled others have found joy in them as I have.
In the previous post, I wrote of the outing I took to Devin Castle with my Slovak friend, Milan. Those ruins were just one part of our larger trip to Bratislava. We toured much of the city and I learned a lot that I hadn’t over my two previous visits to the city.
One of our first stops was the Pyramid, among Bratislava’s most iconic structures. In 1967, a team of Slovak architects began to design the ambitious project. The Pyramid is home to the public broadcasting service of Slovakia, RTVS (Radio and Television – Slovakia) and Milan knew it well because his father works for them as a journalist. Despite having been included on a list of the world’s 30 ugliest buildings, designers from the country defend its ingenuity to this day. I, for one, happen to quite like the building. It isn’t exactly attractive, but it is extremely intriguing and rather impressive.
The Old Bridge
Contrary to its name, the Old Bridge is well maintained and fairly modern looking. It boasts lovely views of the city and is likely the best walk over the Danube in all of Slovakia.
June – One last trip to Bratislava with my Slovak friend Milan. Traveling with him made the experience so much better. He took me places I never would have thought to go otherwise.
The Saturday Market
I had some free time to wander the city when Milan met with some family who happened to be in Bratislava at the same time as us. I saw the old town—as I always do—and then wandered down a street he’d recommend for having good shopping. I eventually began to explore new avenues, though, and stumbled across a really cool event.
In an grandly restored, old, industrial building, I found bustling crowds around market stalls selling regional foods, spices, clothing, wine, honey and everything else you could imagine. The Saturday farmer’s market was in full swing, and on one of the busiest streets in the city! On the second level, a flea market peddled books and old trinkets, while opposite it a vegan restaurant catered to hipster clients and actors performed an educational program for children. All of it was so refreshingly modern. I adore living in Poprad for the nature that is there, but I truly miss such progressive places and, in Slovakia, you can only really find such things in Bratislava.
I have visited this castle numerous times, though I am embarrassed to say, I never really knew there was much to see inside. The museum of Bratislava Castle is an amazing experience. The exhibits take you through Slovak history, from the Stone Age to the fall of communism and Velvet Divorce which birthed a newly independent Slovak state. The most interesting exhibit for me portrayed Czechoslovakia in the roaring twenties and thirties. Just like the USA, this was a golden era for the nation. I was stunned when I walked into the room. The walls were covered in posters and signs from those decades, all in that iconic advertising style which I had assumed was uniquely American. Slovakia, which has for decades lagged just behind the rest of the developed world (a result of Soviet communism) was once a rival to even the economic powerhouse of the USA. Unfortunately, I failed to take any photos but I will insert some examples of the style from America and a few of the Czechoslovakia advertisements I could find online.
Just before we left the castle, we climbed up the largest tower and gazed out at the city beyond. The top level was sweltering, but the view was worth it. Bratislava is a small city, but that produces its own kind of charm. You can see the age of the streets change as they radiate outwards from the old town. Medieval buildings slide into the Renaissance, then Industrial era and Communist architecture, finally reaching modern development on the outskirts.
Bratislava is a beautiful city and my final trip there was certainly the best. I owe thanks for that to Milan for showing me around the city and convincing me to go that one last time.
From the highest of Devin’s towers, Slovakia wraps behind and around you, Austria sits across the Danube River flowing at the castle’s base, Hungary rests over and past Bratislava to the south and on a clear day the hills of the Czech Republic can be seen way in the northern distance. Its central location and position above the Danube made Devin a powerful strategic seat and one that lasted from the 9th century until it was ruined by Napoleon in 1809.
Later that century, influential members of the Slovak Nationalist Movement—a intellectual revolution which began beneath cultural suffocation by the ruling Hungarians—met at Devin Castle to remember the greatness of the first and (at that time) only true Slovak state to have existed, Great Moravia. It was there, in the ruined and overgrown castle, that their quest for a national Slovak identity began in earnest. To mark the occasion, these poets and scholars all took old Slovak names like Miloslav (Glorifier/Celebration of Love) and Velislav (Glorifier/Celebration of Greatness). My translations are quite rough, as what these names express are rather difficult to convey in English in any decent way. Most of them ended in -slav, a suffix meaning “glory”, while the roots of the names were usually concepts like love, homeland, battle and so on.
Milan, a Slovak friend and budding historian, explained the details of the castle’s history as we paced through the ruins and overlooked the surrounding countryside. With a wry smile he inquired if I too would take a Slovak name here.
“Why not?” I shrugged, “Any suggestions?”
He began to list some potential names, but none of his suggestions really seemed to resonate with me, and I wondered if I couldn’t just create my own…
I pondered and then confidently asserted, “Amerislav.”
“What…?” He appeared dumbstruck for a moment, then just smiled and shook his head, amused but exasperated.
Devin castle had been on my list of “must-see”s since I came to Slovakia and I was lucky enough to actually get to see it. Despite this fortune, I otherwise made the mistake of only pursuing these “must-see”s over my last couple months in the county. Several amazing castles and historic sites have escaped me and there is virtually no chance to experience them before I leave. I won’t let myself regret failing to see these locations, however, for two reasons. 1. I will certainly be back and have plenty more time to visit all the things I didn’t get the chance to see this time round. 2. Regretting something that can’t be helped now serves no purpose but to discourage me further. That said, I will make sure to impart the lesson I learned to new exchange students. Try your hardest from the start, leaving things for later will only leave you with little time.
Rotary ended our 2-week journey through Europe with a grand adventure. Our bus pulled up to a seaside hotel on the Italian coast outside of Venice. We unpacked, only one last full night of EuroTour ahead of us, and then went down for dinner. As we ate, the Rotarians made the announcement that we would have two hours free to enjoy the sea before curfew!
The last light of the sun had just disappeared behind the horizon, leaving the ocean dark and invitingly calm. I couldn’t bring myself to join the mass of students that flocked to the beach straight behind the hotel for a dance party. Instead, I walked barefoot in the soft sand just beyond the surf, looking for quieter spaces up the coast. After a while, I found a pier that extended far into the sea. Rhythmic waves broke around its barnacle-encrusted wooden supports, the scene cast in the soft back-light from the hotels lining the sea and the stars above. I reclined back onto the wooden planks, the sounds of the ocean beneath me so near it seemed I lay on the ocean surface itself.
On my back, gazing up at the sky, my field of vision seemed to grow infinitely wide. At the very bottom and sides of my peripheral I could see the bubbly white flashes of small breaking surf, as well as my prone arms, legs and softly rising chest. In the center, a field of twinkling stars grew more and more populous as my eyes adjusted to the deep darkness of the night sky. I connected the dots of little and big dipper and found the North Star—the limits of my astronomic knowledge. At the very top of my vision, a wall of storm clouds inched closer, flashing and thundering, adding drama to the night sky and gentle dark sea.
I think, in the calm thoughts inspired by such surroundings, I first began to really dwell on my return to the USA. EuroTour would end the next day and I’d say goodbye to many good friends. An all too similar reality to the one which I would face in a couple months. Nothing but bittersweet can describe these thoughts. I only let them linger for a few minutes, though, the biggest day of EuroTour still lied ahead after all.
The ferry which carried us on the hour voyage to Venice was run-down and a bit dirty, but in that charmingly sturdy way that only a boat can be. Staring over the railing as we cruised along, I realized how many other cities and villages line the coast leading up to Venice. All of them were gorgeous and I wondered how many were tourist destinations themselves.
Coming within sight of the city was a moment I shall remember forever. The Venetian buildings are packed closely and haphazardly together, lining canals which open right into the sea. Gondolas, motor boats and other ferries crowded the coastline (or cityline for a location built on the water, I guess?), as stereotypically dressed sailors and gondoliers hurried about their duties… or just lounged around to chat and smoke.
We toured briefly the main square before huddling up, rushing to get to the day’s main event: The Venetian Scavenger Hunt. Envelopes were passed out, one to every group of five students. Inside, we found instructions and a list. Using as little technology as we could, we were to locate the places within Venice and answer questions about them.
The challenges ranged from;
“How do you say ‘hugs and kisses’ in Italian?”
“A famous individual frequented Henry’s Pub. Who was it? Take a selfie at their special table.”
“Where is the Ponte delle Tette and what does its name mean? What is its history?”
That last one caused quite a stir in our group. At first it was impossible to get an answer! No matter who we asked, they would always just give us a weird look and shrug or tell us to ask someone else. Even when one of my friends brought the paper to a group of City police officers who proceeded to commandeer the assignment and answer most of the other questions in their broken English, they too merely laughed at that question and gesticulated vaguely in one direction.
It took one of my female friends facing embarrassment to get our first real lead.
(Caution: some mild vulgarity ahead.)
As the rest of us squabbled over which route through the city would be most effective (in retrospect, no amount of planning can make the labyrinth of Venice remotely navigable), that friend stepped away and approached a gondolier.
(My best imagining of the encounter based on her telling of it.)
She asked, “Pardon, where is the Ponte delle Tette?”
The Gondolier cocked his head and raised his hands to his chest, making a suggestive motion, “Tits?”
Confused and embarrassed, my friend said meekly, “Pardon…?”
“Bridge of Tits?” he elaborated, straight faced.
Relieved she wasn’t being harassed, she affirmed and listened as he gave instruction on its… vague… whereabouts. At least, we knew which section of the city to find it in.
We followed his words exactly and… promptly got lost in the tangled mess of avenues. As soon as we realized we had no idea where we were at or where we were going, we stepped into the nearest store, a whimsical sort of jeweler’s shop. There, we proffered the our question to the men behind the counter and got much the same response—including the same gestures.
Despite the absurdity of the query, despite a bunch of teenagers entering their establishment with not intention to buy, these Venetians still helped us with a smile. That was the magic of this game. The promised mystery prizes were nothing beside the experience of laughing with a couple of Italian men, communicating in broken English and gestures to find your way around an fantastical city or to looking on Venice with more inquisitive eyes than you could have before.
The jewelers drew us a map directly to the bridge and we started off again. Before we got much farther, however, I checked the time. We only had one more hour before we would have to meet up with Rotary again. I turned and presented our options to the group; find the Ponte delle Tette now or eat lunch. Inevitably, it was decided that lunch in Venice simply could not be passed up and we all decided our wild goose chase would have to be cancelled.
We found a lovely cafe and pizzeria and chatted over the meal. We all agreed that perhaps it was better that the bridge remain the mystery. It would make the whole story seem more legendary. But, if we weren’t going to see it, then there wasn’t any harm in looking up the history of it online. It isn’t cheating just to satisfy our curiosity.
In the 1400s, the city of Venice recorded—what they felt was—a disconcerting rise in the numbers of homosexual men. To combat this uptick, the city invested in putting a bunch of brothels along some commonly trafficked areas of the city. The woman of these establishments would advertise their services by standing in the windows topless or in compromising positions. The idea was that an over-exposure of female beauty would result in the reversal of these gay men’s sexuality. The bridge through the heart of this area therefore earned the name the “Bridge of Tits”.
As silly as this story already is, it was all that much funnier to us given that the majority of our group members happened to identify as LGBT+ in some way. This revitalized our resolve to see the bridge and we vowed to get there if we had enough time later in the day.
A bit of fun on the main square. Some random tourist handed my friend some bread and before she knew it she was being assaulted by pigeons. Fortunately, she managed to compose herself for one shot.
We would get enough time after the day’s next event. All the exchange students gathered to turn in the results of their scavenger hunt and head off to take a gondola ride. The experience was truly as beautiful as it sounds… though perhaps less romantic. We drifted through the old canals of the city, gazing up at wonderful buildings… yet, our boat was just one in an endless line of gondolas on the same route. Our gondolier, while a very capable pilot, spent the first half of the ride texting. I’m thrilled to have had the experience, but next time I visit Venice—if I even bother to ride the gondolas—I think I will cough up the extra dime for the highest quality ride.
Our group met to once more pursue the Ponte delle Tette. With military efficiency, we marched down the tight Venetian streets towards our goal, until we reached a fork in the road. One of my companions insisted that the right road would take us there based on what Google Maps was telling her, while I was certain the directions the jewelers had given us said farther to the left.
Instead of wasting time arguing, we figured we would all find our way there in the end and split up. Most of the group put their faith in Google Maps, except for one friend who trusted my sense of direction.
The Venetian maze became increasingly difficult to navigate as he and I approached the Ponte delle Tette. At one point, we found ourselves in a school yard full of playing Italian children and their parents. It was one of the only glimpses I got of actual Venetian life. Not far from this scene, we found it. Ponte delle Tette was a rather unassuming bridge on an equally simple canal. The sign painted on the face of an adjoining building clearly marked our destination and the sweet taste of victory filled me. Not only had we finally made it to our elusive destination, but the bridge was empty. We’d beaten the others there. At some point after the fork, our shared goal had become a race.
Satisfied that our quest was a success, my companion and I sat down to wait for the other’s arrival so we could all share in the victory. They didn’t show up, however, and after several minutes of growing concern, we called them.
“Hey, we are on the bridge,” we said, “where are you guys at?”
“No… you aren’t.”
“Yeah… We are standing right under the sign which says so.”
“You can’t possibly be! We are on the bridge right now!”
Yes, as it turns out there are two “Ponte delle Tette”s in Venice. This twist in the story still hasn’t been reconciled. There was no time for us to see each other’s bridges, so it is still up for debate who visited the true, historic Ponte delle Tette. (It was me.) Though I don’t particularly care, if I am being honest. Regardless of where I actually ended up, exploring Venice in search of the “Bridge of Tits” was one of the best adventures of my life.
I’m a little ashamed to say… Well, I didn’t exactly forget… You see, the fact that the Duomo was in Florence wasn’t exactly on my mind when I first turned down one of the streets leading towards the cathedral.
It was our first evening in the city and I’d just escaped from some fellow exchange students blaring music on their portable speaker. I wanted to enjoy the atmosphere of Florence, unpolluted by their noise. When I was confident I was alone, I stopped to stand and absorb the Renaissance square around me. Beautiful statues sat at its heart while imperial colonnades wrapped about its frame. The sun had just said and warm lights bounced off every facade.
Florence was glorious, living up to its reputation of Elegance and culture. I wanted to keep walking, yet the only orientation point I had was the hostel I had just set out from. I could not even point to the main square. That was, until I looked down the road to my right. Above a street packed tightly with restaurants and cafes, lit Indigo by the scattered fluorescent signs and terrace lighting, the imposing dome of the Duomo peered down the street. It’s unique colors and patterns in the soft artificial light, seeming somehow alien and mysteriously out of place. I was stunned. For a moment, I had completely forgotten all the photos I had seen of Florence and was blown away by the structure. My feet quickly carried me down the street, navigating twisting roads until they spit me out beneath the church’s monolithic dome. I paced the cathedral’s perimeter, gazing up in wonder the entire time. I’d seen Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, but this somehow seemed even larger, grander.
As I rounded back to where I started, I found my music playing friends again. I apologized for what I’ve done and what I was about to do again. Then sped walked away, back to exploring Florence’s lazy, evening streets.
The next day my itinerary was packed. A trip to one of the most famous art museums in the world, plus a tour of the city, a little bit of free time and a late afternoon departure for Venice.
Two world-renowned art museums sit in the heart of Florence. Each holds one of two iconic Florentine masterpieces. Michelangelo’s David stands in the Galleria dell’Accademia, while Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hangs in the Uffizi Gallery.
Most tourists (including myself) do not recognize that they are kept separate. It is a common fate for many travelers to end up in the opposite museum of the piece they wished most to see, but, in that, I was rather fortunate. A small group of us exchange students entered into the Galleria dell’Accademia during some free time in Florence. The statue of David was the biggest must-see for me in all the city, and while I wanted (and expected) to see The Birth of Venus, I was not terribly disappointed when I found it wasn’t there.
In the free time we were granted later that day, I paid a visit to a little hole-in-the-wall that our tour guide recommended as having the best gelato in Florence. It was indeed heavenly, but I hurried to the finish, anxious to see what is for me the most splendid site in the city.
Ponte Vecchio is a bridge like most in Europe used to be. Merchants built shops and cottages along the edge of the bridge to cater to the floods of people who had limited options for getting to the other side of the river—the same principle as putting billboards and limited numbers of gas stations along a major highway. Today Ponte Vecchio is primarily occupied by jewelers (capitalizing on tourists), but has otherwise maintained its original romantic form.
I couldn’t help the pick up a few souvenirs on the way back to the hostel. As you’d expect, some truly splendid artists live and work in Florence, pedaling their works two tourists with good taste. They seemed to me the true embodiment of Florence. Unlike souvenir peddlers, they did not obnoxiously try to garner attention. Instead, they sat with a quiet confidence in the skill of their works.
Nitra is the oldest city in Slovakia and boasts some of the nation’s most important events. Once seat of the Great Moravian Empire, it was in Nitra that the brother Saints Cyril and Methodius established their bishopric and brought Christianity to the Western Slavs. It was their belief that everyone had the right to read and learn from the Bible, so they began to consolidate the many Slavic dialects of the region into a written language. This was the birth of the Cyrillic alphabet, an adapted version of which is still used in some Slavic languages like Russian. Old Slavonic became the foundation of Slavic Christianity, but also a catalyst of strife.
Long before the Protestant Reformation, the Church criticized Cyril and Methodius for giving liturgy in a language other than Latin. The debate lasted a long time, but eventually the Pope authorized Slavic liturgy—for the time being. Cyril died not long after and Methodius returned to the Slavic lands to continue his work.
The main church in Nitra sits on a fortified hill, within the castle walls. The St. Emmeram’s Cathedral is visible throughout the city and the countryside beyond. It is one of Slovakia’s most iconic sights and an absolutely gorgeous castle. I journeyed through Nitra’s Old Town, to the base of the hill, then walked its perimeter. I knew I was headed away from the main gate, but I wanted see the area surrounding the fortress’s base. I strolled through extensive parks, past a hockey stadium and to a small steel gate leading into the dense forest on the opposite side of the castle. I pushed through and began trekking up crumbling and muddied stone stairs. More and more of the battlements came into view as the trees between me and the castle lessened and I enjoyed a feeling that (despite living in Europe for a year now) still makes me giddy.
I was walking beneath a castle.
Fortresses have stood here for over a thousand years and I was just about to casually enter. How often had I dreamed of such a thing? Reading books, watching documentaries and TV shows. I lived for the historic romance of Europe and Nitra did not disappoint.
A small iron gate creaked open and I steeped into the courtyard outside the castle’s main gate. From the overgrowth behind me, I had emerged into a place of orderly elegance. I crossed the bridge and entered the gate beneath flags flying atop the ramparts, before the pristine tower of St. Emmeram’s Cathedral. The spaces inside the castle walls were rather tightly packed by the church, offices and a couple different museums. I visited all that I could, learning about the history of Nitra and even getting to see some artifacts from the time of Cyril and Methodius, including letters, coins and a few precious religious heirlooms.
The inside of the cathedral was truly grand. All was dark when I entered but even the back-light from the stained glass windows was enough to reveal the space’s beauty. I was disappointed, however, since the illumination was bad for photos and the only way to get the lights on was a machine that took 50 cent coins, of which I had none. I lingered in the church for a while though, reading educational boards and enjoying the atmospheric sound of Gregorian chants playing in the background.
A woman came in and began to tour the area on her own. To my great fortune, she promptly inserted a coin into the machine and brought the lights on! The alter piece came to life. Vibrant colors erupted from had only previously been shadows. It is silly, but I felt a little ashamed of so clearly taking advantage of her coin as I began snapping away. I made sure to say a polite goodbye to her as I exited the cathedral.
Nitra was one of the first cities in Slovakia that I learned about. I would love to one day see all the rest that it has to offer; I had little time there that day and spent all of it inside the city’s gorgeous castle. When I return to Slovakia, I will make a point to visit this historic city once more.
(Above: “Pompeii & Mt. Vesuvius: Full-Day Trip from Rome”, Getyourguide.com)
(A preface: As I was cleaning my computer, I accidentally lost all of my remaining photos from EuroTour. Therefore, this post and every following one on EuroTour will use photos from other photographers.)
How surreal it is to stand on the threshold of one of the Earth’s most iconic stories. In 79 CE, Vesuvius erupted with immense force, sending a column of soot into the sky that buried the area alive beneath 82 feet of ash as it fell back to the Earth. Witness to the cataclysm, Pliny the Younger described;
“Meanwhile, on Mount Vesuvius, broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night…You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”
The tragedy of Pompeii has inspired numerous pieces of fiction and been studied in countless books and documentaries. The latter of these, often featured on PBS or among the shelves of my local library, captivated me as a child. I could not get enough of the discoveries of those heroic archaeologists and seismologists who uncover the history of Pompeii and the activity of Vesuvius, discovering much of their past and acquiring a better understanding of Roman lifestyles and history.
I stood at the head of our tour group, just across the small bridge separating us from Pompeii’s amphitheater. I was awestruck. Stepping across those wooden planks was as close to stepping into history as one could get. I don’t know what I had expected the entrance to an ancient, ruined city to be like. Perhaps, coming from America where a place of 300 years old is a wonder, the ruins of Pompeii were simply beyond my imagining.
As we entered the ruined structure, drops of rain forewarned a possible downpour, yet the storm clouds seemed content to merely make threats and never more than slowly drizzled. Grass and little flowers grew on soil patches across much of the arena’s old seating. I could easily see how this amphitheater had been buried beneath a hill of ash, forgotten over the centuries as its seats were repopulated by blades of green.
We moved into the city proper and Pompeii exceeded all of my expectations. If you have not visited, then picture the ruined city in your mind. Now double its size… double it again. If you assumed, like me, that Pompeii was reduced to just a few crumbling streets, then as surprising as this description of size is, it should be rather accurate. The complex is huge! I maybe only walked half the roads and entered into fewer buildings than that in the few hours we were there. Where I figured I would find a sunny field with some foundations and ruin walls, I instead discovered a city with an ancient but still distinctly Mediterranean feel. The buildings were taller and more complete than I ever expected. Many of the structures still rise a couple stories into the air, their roofs and interiors decayed away, but still clearly in the form they were when buried. Crooked streets between tightly packed buildings could easily have been packed with Roman citizens instead of the waves of tourists. Food vendors in the storefronts (some of whose stone booths still stand) once beckoned Pompeians strolling to the bathhouses and spas or perhaps to the forum for daily worship and trade.
Yet, cataclysm did strike here. While careful preservation and cleaning has reduced the evidence of the apocalyptic eruption which decimated the city, one exhibit will not let it be forgotten. The plaster casts of Vesuvius’s victims lie in scattered cases across the city. Children, pets and dozens of adults lie in contorted positions, their last conscious movements preserved in forms writhing against the burning heat of the pyroclastic flow. The tragedy of Pompeii doesn’t sink in until you stand before these images.
These plaster casts were created by Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1863 when he deduced that the voids which commonly seem to occur wherever they found bones where in fact spaces once occupied by victim’s bodies. He devised a method to preserve these images, pouring plaster into the holes and digging around the hardened representations of dying Pompeians. The same method is still used today, though the plaster has been replaced by resin which is more durable and allows for easier study of the bones within.
Vesuvius still rises above Pompeii, active though quiet for the moment. Even as more of the ancient Roman city is uncovered from its grave of soot, it isn’t free from the threat of being buried again. Many of the ancient Pompeians made the mistake of thinking they could survive the fury of the mountain, hopefully people in the shadow of Vesuvius today will learn a lesson from the destruction caused a millennia ago—should they have to make that decision in the future.
The paddy cap rested haphazardly atop my face, failing to completely shield my eyes from the sun. I shifted into new positions in the uncomfortable passenger’s seat, then moved the cap, then my body again. This restless effort to sleep was my failing attempt to make up for the rest I’d lost the previous night, when I agreed to rise early and join my host father on a business trip to Slovakia’s oldest city.
Most of the three and a half hour drive was spent this way. Tossing and turning, while listening to music for meditation on Spotify. I felt the car exit the highway and begin making frequent turns through city streets. “We must be in Nitra,” I assumed. After savoring a few more moments of my absolutely sleepless rest, I removed the cap from my face and promptly did a double take out the window.
We passed a sign, bolted to the steel latices of a bridge, which read “Exiting Štúrovo”. It took a moment for my brain to do the math.
“I know of the City of Štúrovo… And the only bridge that should leave it… goes over the Danube River to Hungary.”
A moment later, just as I was realizing it, I passed onto the opposite bank and into Hungary, marking it as my twelfth visited country.
Little explanation accompanied this surprise on my host father’s part. He merely dropped me off on a curb with instructions on where to meet him in two hours time and then drove off to handle some sudden problem which had cropped up in his firm.
I looked around.
How quickly atmosphere can change in Europe. I’d only crossed a river, yet the air of the city was entirely different. Štúrovo, like many Slovak cities, is a sunny town with little flora, yet Esztergom’s plentiful trees provided almost constant shade and the sense of being enclosed. Slovak buildings are kept clean and painted in faded pastel tones; advertising clutters facades which reflect a melting pot of Central European architectural heritage. Yet, in Hungary, I walked amidst consistently medieval-looking buildings which were covered in vines, not signs, their faces charmingly mottled with ages of built-up soot.
Immediately, Esztergom gave a very personal impression to me. I passed by pairs of nuns quietly strolling along boulevards, down which the sounds of children playing on recess echoed. A piper blew notes from his flute on the steps of a church, while elderly couples sat and listened in an adjoining park. The lack of cars in the old city permitted the warbles of songbirds to echo through the narrow roads that branched away from the central canal, criss-crossing in labyrinthine loops that might have been difficult to navigate were it not for the central orienting point which towered over the entire city.
The Esztergom Basilica was constructed between 1822 to 1869 to once again make the city the heart of Christianity in Hungary. Numerous churches had stood in the spot previously, but all had either been burned down or been sacked by invaders or usurpers. The Basilica is the largest church in Hungary and, at 100 meters tall, it is the tallest building in the country as well.
I climbed the hill, reaching the park in which the Esztergom Basilica was cradled. I couldn’t believe the peace that pervaded the place. Besides a couple joggers, I was alone. Bird song filled the shadow of the structure which fell upon the grove I stood in. I again reflected on how different such nearby places could be. Just across the river from the Basilica’s hilltop perch Štúrovo and Slovakia extended out to the hills on the horizon.
To have a different world exist from your own, with little more barrier than a river crossing… It is truly a foreign concept to Americans—and most of the rest of the world for that matter. Crossing between countries and cultures in the EU is as easy as moving between states in the USA and much more exciting. In a day of driving across the America, I might end up in a place almost indistinguishable from where I started. Yet, in Europe, I could experience the entirely unrelated landscapes and languages of Italy, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary and more in less than a day, hardly even stopping for a toll both along the way.