One of the most enjoyable parts of my job has always been researching all of the interesting destinations students can travel on an EF educational tour, so when it came time to plan my own European tour, I had plenty of ideas. And finally, I had the time to do some exploring.
Six countries and three-and-a-half weeks later, I’ve returned home with a few new favorite places and a strong desire to pack my life’s possessions into a backpack and live a nomadic life for the next few years.
By the time we made it to the charming coastal city of Split, Croatia (above), we had a sightseeing system in place: read about our next destination while in transit and then hit the ground running. So I was a little surprised that despite looking in a couple of guidebooks, I couldn’t find any opening hours for Diocletian’s Palace. I also couldn’t quite figure out why the lady running our guesthouse gave me a funny look when I asked her what time the palace closed. When we did venture to Diocletian’s Palace (right), I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not a palace in the traditional sense at all.
Emperor Diocletian built the palace in preparation for his retirement in the 3rd century. After his death, the palace remained empty for a few centuries, but since then the residents of Split have created an entire community out of its remains. Although the basement is preserved as a museum, other sections have been converted into apartments, restaurants, businesses and even a church. The dichotomy of old and new was ever present between the Roman artifacts scattered around the palace and the clothing stores selling the latest European fashions. For the first time ever, I checked my email at an Internet café housed in an old palace room.
One of the benefits of traveling to Croatia (besides the historical sites, gorgeous beaches, delicious seafood and friendly people) is the ease of traveling to nearby countries. And as someone who aspires one day to be part of the Travelers’ Century Club, I took advantage of the opportunity to take a day-trip to Mostar, Bosnia. The main attraction of the town is the Old Bridge (Stari Most), which was built by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. The bridge (right) connected the two parts of the city, divided by the Neretva River, for more than 400 years before it was destroyed during the war in 1993. Restored by UNESCO, the Old Bridge is a symbol of the coexistence of religious, cultural and ethnic communities.
A Muslim Bosnian woman (married to a Catholic man) explained the significance of the bridge as such: Prior to the war, the Old City was a melting pot of different religious and ethnic groups. After the war, groups were divided by religious lines and depending on your religion, you were often forced to move to one side of the river or the other. The destruction of the bridge symbolized the destruction of the multicultural community. She described the sadness of being prevented from visiting family members practicing different religions and the slow process of reconciliation as the area tries to rebuild after the war. Listening to her experiences was one of the most poignant history lessons I have had in a long time, and a good reminder that one of the most educational aspects of traveling is simply interacting with and learning from the local people.
You’ll find Stonehenge on many EF tours to the United Kingdom, which convinced me that I should check it out, too. Conveniently enough, I have a friend who lives nearby so a free place to stay certainly sealed the deal. The circle of stones, which evolved between 3,000 B.C. and 1,600 B.C., is shrouded in mystery. Stonehenge could have been a place for sun worship, a burial site, a healing center or even a large calendar. Even more mysterious is how the stones, the largest of which weighs 45 tons, were transported to their current location from Wales. Archaeologists agree that it would have been very difficult to transport such large stones more than 100 miles. As a result, some theorists believe it was constructed by the Wizard Merlin or even the devil.
Like our resident expert tour director, Paul Mattesini, who wrote about students traveling to Central Europe, I too recommend a visit, especially to Hungary. Given, I may be a bit biased because my family is from Budapest. My visit to Hungary, the final stop on my trip, was all too short, but I did manage to canvas the city in the few days that I was there.
I will leave you with a few recommendations: Make sure to visit the neoclassical St. Stephen’s Basilica. Besides being quite pretty, the church holds the right hand of King Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary and patron saint of the basilica. Those who like classical music may enjoy a visit to the Béla Bartók house. The museum is the final Hungarian home of the composer and displays a variety of artifacts from his career. Ask your EF Tour Director to help you arrange a visit here during your free time. Finally, for great views of the city at night, visit the Fisherman’s Bastion. It’s free to climb to the top in the evening.
Back in Boston, as I am sifting through photos from my trip, I’m reminded of a sign I saw in Croatia. Posted near the house of Marco Polo, it read: “Old is nice” (perhaps, the European equivalent of America’s “Bigger is better”). Many of the “old” places I saw were indeed quite nice, and having been home for a few weeks, I’m ready to hit the road again. After all, if I’m going to make it to the Travelers’ Century Club, I have many more countries to explore.