Sorry for the long delay between posts! I know I’m sounding like a broken record at this point, but it’s been a super busy month once again with little free time to sit down and write. But I’m happy now to be back and writing about the amazing month I’ve had!
From where I left off last time it was the middle of November. It feels as though this Autumn has lasted a lifetime, and for much of the last two weeks of November I was really missing the snow back home and the escalating anticipation of Christmas on the horizon. Instead it was relatively dreary for the rest of November, with a week of rain on and off and temperatures hovering in the low single digits. Despite the depressing weather we were able to make a few outings, this time to places relatively close to Banská that we hadn’t found time to see yet. This started out with Špania Dolina!
Špania Dolina is an ancient mining village located only about 15 minutes by car from Banská. It has extreme historical significance as it is believed to be one of the first settlements in the area, and prehistoric mining tools have been found there that date all the way back to 2000-1700 BC. It was a significant mining site for much of the Bronze Age, and artifacts containing bronze from this area have been traced all the way to the Middle East and the Balkans. We spent much of the day walking around the picturesque wood-roofed buildings and the church, and then headed down to a replica of an old schoolhouse, where we were able to draw and write with a traditional feather and ink!
Next up on the list of nearby attractions- Banská Štiavnica! Only a 45 minute drive from home, the entire village of Banská Štiavnica is one of Slovakia’s 7 UNESCO world heritage sites, and was given this delegation because it is one of the best preserved medieval cities in all of Central Europe. Coincidentally, it was also an incredibly rich mining city back in the day, and for many years was the highest producer of silver and gold in the entire kingdom of Hungary. Adding to its coolness, Štiavnica and the surrounding area is built in the crater of a collapsed ancient volcano!
We spent most of our time there touring the mining museum, where we were actually able to go down into one of the mines and look around for a few hours. It was incredibly cool but at times incredibly claustrophobic- and it’s so easy to get lost in the sprawling tunnels!
All in all, the tour of the mine and museum took us around 4 hours, so by the time we got out and had lunch, we didn’t have much time to look around the actual village. However we still covered the main square area (complete with a stunning plague monument and church) and looked in a couple of the shops. The weather wasn’t entirely great, and it had already started to get dark (with the DST switch it gets dark here around 4:30) so we headed home, but vowed to come back in the spring to do a more thorough and proper tour of the town centre.
Only a few days later, I celebrated my 3 months here in Slovakia. It’s crazy to think that 1/3 of my exchange is already done, when it seems like it’s gone by so quickly! I really still cannot believe how lucky I am to have seen and been so many places. I am grateful every single day that I have this opportunity, and will never take it for granted.
To celebrate this momentous day in my exchange, I made my Ukrainian ancestors proud- by making Kielbasa! (Or Klobasa in Slovak). We headed to Zvolen city, only 15 minutes from Banská, and got to work right away cutting up the meat. Even if normally I would have been a bit (maybe a lot) grossed out, I knew an experience like this wouldn’t come around very often, so I got right in and helped. We cut meat for about 3 hours, before going arms deep in the meat barrel to mix in the spices and garlic (a LOT of garlic). As you might be able to tell from the picture, my hands and fingernails were stained red for quite a few days afterwards, haha. After we mixed in the spices with the meat, they put it all through the grinder before heading to the casing station. It’s a good thing I’m a patient person, because we were tasked with unknotting the sausage casing- an incredibly frustrating and seemingly impossible task. However, with a little help and a lot of fiddling, we were able to get it all sorted out, and by the end of the night had an entire rack of Kielbasa ready to go in the smoker. It was such an interesting experience- and after trying the finished product a few days later- incredibly rewarding, too!
After that night, we were feeling pretty proud of what we had accomplished, so me and the other exchange students decided to continue on a cooking theme and meet up the next day to cook some desserts from our home countries. After a lot of panicked phone calls and FaceTiming with my family back home, I was able to produce an Apple Crisp, one of my favourites from back home. It wasn’t nearly as good as momma makes it, and wayyyy too sweet (I went a little ham with the brown sugar topping, hehe), but it sufficed, and gave me and the other students a little taste of my home. Gabi from Brazil cooked Brigadeiro and Feijoada, which I ended up eating way too many of and getting a stomach ache. But all in all it was a really good time!
Next up- WINTER! Finally, the snow and cold came on December 2nd, when we woke up to a solid 2-3 inches on the ground. Obviously this was a special occasion (especially for Gabi, who had never seen snow before), so we took the morning off to go to the park and take pictures. The snow was nothing new for me so I was mainly the photographer, but I was able to put my Canadian skills to good use, and taught Gabi how to make a snowman, snow angel, snowball- the works. The snow really made me feel more at home in Slovakia, as I’ve been missing it a lot more than I thought I would.
Along with the snow, the start of the December heralded the arrival of the city Christmas market, which popped up in the square the next day. And to complete the festive atmosphere, the massive shopping centre redecorated with Christmas lights and a decked-out Christmas tree.
And I my first Slovak Christmas tradition as well! On December 6th, it’s St. Mikuláš day, where children are supposed to clean and polish their shoes and leave them out in hopes of receiving candy or chocolate from St. Mikuláš! Of course, I put extra effort into shining my shoes, and I was rewarded the next morning with chocolate! 😉
Only 2 days after Winter arrived in Banská, I was able to check a massive item off my bucket list, and had a week and weekend that can only be described as a dream come true.
I was fortunate enough to be able to see Vienna twice within a week, once with the other exchange students at our long awaited Christmas meeting, and first on a school trip only 2 days prior. I’ll talk about them as if they were one event though, because really it was such a blur that I can’t quite remember which buildings/events went with which specific outing. That being said, on our school trip we had one specifically unique stop- the Albertina art gallery. This is one of the most prized galleries in Europe and hosts a collection of works from famous classical era painters to modern day abstract artists. It was my first ‘serious’ art gallery I’ve ever been in, so it was really a cool experience in its own right. There were thousands to look through, but I took a couple pictures of some of my specific favourites to show here!
Ok, get ready for a LOT of pictures.
So, on Friday, we left Banská to head first to Bratislava- Slovakia’s capital city- for the first night of our Rotary weekend. We didn’t have time to stop at the place where we were staying, so we hauled our bags along with us on a tour of Bratislava Castle (with views of the Danube river and the famous UFO bridge), the old centre, and the sprawling Christmas markets contained there within. It was really cool to see the castle that I’ve been looking at in pictures for months leading up to my exchange, and getting to explore the political heart of this country I call my temporary home. We has lots of free time to look around and explore, so I went on the hunt through the Christmas markets for souvenirs, and bought myself a Trdelník, a traditional Czech/Slovak dessert that is infamous for getting its start as a major tourist trap in Prague. Luckily the one I got wasn’t so expensive- and it was delicious!
I had one really scary moment though which is too crazy not to talk about. So as I said before, we had our luggage with us for the entire evening- which included while we were going around the Christmas markets at night. I had stopped to put something in my backpack, and completely forgot about my suitcase, which I had let go of and continued walking. I looked through the booths for almost half an hour before I released I had left it behind in the crowd back at the other side of the market. I was especially scared because I had been told Bratislava was pretty bad for pickpockets and thieves, so I sprinted and pushed my way back through the crowd in the most panicked state I think I’ve ever been in. After getting all the way back to the start of the market, I counted my blessings when I found the suitcase right where I left it, unharmed. However, I think I lost about 2 years of my lifespan just from sheer panic- and you can bet I had an iron grip on that thing for the rest of the night! What a relief.
After exploring the Christmas markets, we headed to Modra, a small town about 45 minutes out of Bratislava, where we stayed for the night. We had an impromptu talent show before bed where several people performed (including myself), and afterwards we had the first of two Slovak language exams of the weekend. I’ll tell you, it was a lot more difficult than I expected, but I think I did an okay job (I have yet to find out the results).
Even though it was a really long day of travel and walking for everyone, the next morning I don’t think anyone had trouble getting out of bed, because it was the day we had all been looking forward to- getting to see Vienna! I’ll post pictures for each separate location since each one has so much history and information behind it! We started off the day tour at Belvedere palace, which was undoubtedly the biggest palace/old building I’d ever seen. (Little did I know, that record would be surpassed later that day!). But anyways, the palace was built as a Summer residence (one can dream, right?) for Prince Eugene of Savoy during Vienna’s great period of growth under the rule of the Hapsburgs. We stopped for a couple pictures and then we were off! There was still so much to see that we couldn’t really dwell in too many places at once, but it goes without saying you could spend months here taking in the history and sights!
From there, we walked closer to Vienna’s center, and stopped at the memorial for the Soviet army in the Schwarzenbergplatz. It was built as a memorial for the Soviet offensive that killed 17,000 soldiers in WWII. The Schwarzenbergplatz itself is also a really gorgeous part of the city, so what you see below is all from this area.
–as a side note, I’ve had some people ask me what camera/phone I’m using. I’m using an IPhone X that I purchased before coming on exchange, and boy was it a worthy investment!! The wider camera lens alone makes it worth it, especially in a place like Vienna with such expansive cityscapes.
Next, we headed to the modernized centre of the city, which is towered over by St. Stephens cathedral- arguably Vienna’s most famous landmark (although there are dozens that could also vie for that title as well). This is one of the most striking cathedrals in Europe, and was built in the 1300’s upon the ruins of two early churches that were destroyed. There is so much history attached to this building, but as a classical music fanatic, I almost lost my mind when our tour guide was telling us about it.
Not only was this the place where Mozart himself got married, it is also the location where Beethoven first realized that he had gone entirely deaf. He was sitting, admiring the cathedral, when he noticed that he couldn’t hear the wings of the pigeons as they flew off the roof of the building. And it was at that moment he knew his hearing was gone forever.
Really, to be standing in and outside of a building where those events took place is mind blowing. I was so appalled when hearing this from our tour guide, that the Vice President of our Rotary district actually came over and pushed my jaw closed. It didn’t stay closed for long.
We had free time to explore the Center area around the cathedral, so I payed 5€ to climb through a very narrow staircase to the top of the tower for a stunning view of Vienna. I also went and looked inside and marvelled at the beauty of the architecture, as well as the massive pipe organ at the back of the room. Then we walked around a bit, bought a classic Vienna Bratwurst (so good!!) and explored in and out of the nearby shops. There is a really cool street in Vienna that we walked down, that is infamous for being the most expensive street in all of Austria and of similar value with the most luxurious in Europe. It was packed wall to wall with shops and stores you hear about but never even think of walking into, haha. Nevertheless, it was cool to see this modern crown jewel of a shopping area nestled in amongst the ancient architecture of Vienna’s centre.
Directly before and after our Cathedral visit, we also visited more historical and modern powerhouse locations of Classical music that were equally as mind blowing as the cathedral. One of the most stunning of these was the Karlskirche, widely revered as the most beautiful Baroque style church in Vienna. Even more astounding to me than its intricate plague columns and gorgeous architecture was the fact that Antonio Vivaldi, one of the earliest revolutionaries of instrumental music, was entombed here.
We also got a passing glimpse at the Musikverein, home of the Vienna philharmonic (I hope to see them play before the end of my exchange- fingers crossed), where local Viennese composer Strauss (the Blue Danube Waltz, anyone?) and another highly recognized composers such as Schubert and Bach performed in their lifetimes. We also stopped shortly at the Viennese opera house, which is too massive to capture very well on camera but also has amazing history behind it. Along with being one of the most esteemed in the world, it’s known for its architect Edward van der Nüll, who committed suicide before it was completed when the public made fun of the building. During construction of the opera house, it sunk into the earth about a meter and thus (along with its ‘less than extravagant’ design) was coined as a ‘sunken treasure chest’ by the people of Vienna.
From there we explored the Hofburg complex, a sprawling area of the city that was the imperial seat of the Hapsburgs and now is the residence of Austria’s president. It’s a massive packed area of buildings that includes the famed Spanish riding school, Albertine square, the Augustinian Monastery, inner Castle Square and more, all of which we were able to see/photograph.
One of the most chillingly recognizable buildings in the Hofburg is the Heldenplatz, which was the site of Hitler’s speech after the annexation of Austria, at the dawn of WWII.
Following our exploration of the Hofburg we had time to look in and around Vienna’s Christmas markets, which are some of the most revered in all of Europe. Even though I had time both on my school trip and with rotary to look around these, I still felt as though I didn’t have quite enough to see everything. There is just too much! Haha. Even still, I really loved the markets, and they were located in front of some really stunning venues, including the identical twin museums of Vienna and the gothic City Hall. I especially enjoyed seeing the city hall market at night with my school trip, where all the lights were on and you could really feel the Christmas spirit in the air.
One unexpected but very welcome surprise for me while walking in the streets of Vienna was seeing the Burg Kino! From the outside it looks like a shabby little theatre, but it’s actually one of the longest running movie theatres in the world! I had to stop and take a picture, but I would’ve give anything to actually see a movie there. It hurt me a little bit on the inside to walk right past, especially with a film from a cinema legend like Martin Scorsese playing! But it was still really, really cool to see, and an interesting landmark that was a departure from the classical history of Vienna but important (especially to an aspiring movie director) nonetheless.
For our final stop in Vienna, we headed to Schönbrunn palace. Now this was the biggest palace I had ever seen. Schönbrunn was the summer residence of the legendary Hapsburgs, and was occupied most notably by Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth (‘sissi’) during the 19th century. Unfortunately pictures weren’t allowed anywhere inside of the palace, although I managed to discreetly snap one (not very good) picture of the room where Mozart played for the empress Maria Theresa at 5 years old (and promptly after finishing her performance, jumped in her lap and kissed her). I really couldn’t believe I was standing in the same room that that happened in. W o w.
After a great tour of the palace, I treated myself to a giant pretzel in the Christmas market outside, and marvelled a bit more at the palace before it was time to head home.
Even though we went to so many places and I thought I catalogued everything as best as I could, I still have some pictures of places that I’m not sure of the names. So, since they’re still beautiful buildings, I’m dropping the photos here below. I had a running joke with the other exchange students, that after every magnificent building in Vienna you could turn the corner and find one even more spectacular. And for the most part this was absolutely true, Vienna finds ways to astound with its sights at every possible moment.
After a long and dream-fulfilling day, we headed back to Modra in Slovakia. The night was still young though, and we spent some time decorating gingerbread cookies (can you tell that my sister is the artist, not me?), having a secret Santa exchange, and singing Christmas carols before heading to sleep.
The next day, we packed up and headed home, but not before having our second language test of the weekend (which also went pretty well I think).
Even though more has happened since last weekend’s Vienna trip, I’ve decided to end this post here since it’s already soooooo long.
This whole last month has been a dream come true, and incredibly fulfilling for me. Especially in Vienna, I was thinking specifically about all the amazing musical influences and musical teachers I’ve had throughout the years, and how without them my experience in Vienna just wouldn’t have been the same. I wish I could bring everyone over here to see it all with me, but I hope pictures will suffice for now. I’m extremely grateful for everyone who made this weekend so amazing- not just people back home, but also the other exchange students who I get to call my international family. Love you guys to the moon and back. 🙂
To everyone back home, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy new year! I’m thinking if you all each and every day no matter where I am, and sending all my love for you guys 24/7. ❤️
Čau for now, and see you in the New Year! Thanks,