02 March 2010

Sprezza-tour: A Whirlwind European Holiday

After years of wistful thoughts of an epic European vacation together, the stars finally aligned, and Genna was able to join me in France, where we commenced a 5 country holiday. Notice that I avoided any mention of the word "vacation." As exciting and pleasurable as travel abroad can be, relaxation is usually out of the question.  And with our itinerary, by the end we were yearning for a few days of recovery and relaxation.

As long as we've been musing about traveling abroad together, we've also entertained thoughts of opening our own joint design studio, and one of the names proposed was Sprezzaturaan Italian word describing one's ability to hide the conscious effort that goes into an accomplishment and make it appear effortless.  As a joke, we dubbed our trip Sprezza-tour, because the countries we wanted to visit posed a logistical and financial nightmare.  We were able to offset these setbacks with rail travel, staying in budget hostels, and eating pastries for most of our meals. Yes, the planning would be hard, but we intended to make it look easy, just as we would design with finesse in our imaginary studio! 

The adventure commenced in Paris, where we spent the day taking artsy photos of La Tour Eiffel, l'Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter, and the various funny lingerie advertisements.  Genna bought a fabulous dress on the Champs Elysées, and the true highlight of the evening was a splurge at Ladurée, a luxury salon de thé where we sipped rich hot chocolate, café au lait, and nibbled on remarkably delicious macarons.  The rich interior décor was a true baroque lullaby, and we felt quite ladylike as we giggled and basked in the sheer delight that is the City of Lights.

l'Arc de Triomphe

View from l'Arc de Triomphe at Place de l'Etoile

Notre Dame

Ladurée Macarons! An absolute must!

Our next stop was Belgium, where we were forced to invest in some rather hilarious furry trapper hats to combat the bitter cold.  We may have resembled Ewoks, but at least our ears were spared!  We took in the sights of the Cathedral and Grand Place, the gorgeous central square of Brussels, browsed through adorable shops filled with handmade toys, chocolates and lace, snacked on chocolate covered waffles, enjoyed the antics of street performers, and huddled around cappuccinos for warmth.

Grand Place (Grote Markt)

Guildhalls on the Grand Place

Yes, we are soaking our frostbitten toes in the hotel 
bathtub while wearing furry trapper hats. Et alors?

Cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule

Inside the cathedral 

Traditional Belgian moules et frites (mussels and fries)

Bruges is in the Flemish (dutch speaking) region of Belgium, and is a very charming medieval city often referred to as "Venice of the North."  We much preferred Bruges to Brussels! The distinguished architecture and canals lent the city a certain storybook charm, and we wandered about without a map for the entire day.  We embraced our inner child by pausing to play with Legos in the kid's section of a museum, and In honor of Valentine's day, we wandered through a chocolate market, filled with vendors offering free samples of every form of chocolate imaginable, including truffles, drinks, various dipped fruits, cookies, health supplements, body art, paintings, and sculptures. It was an absolute spectacle, and by the time we had made our rounds, we couldn't even look at chocolate without moaning in agony.  We offset the sweetness with a few pints of Brugse Zot beer brewed locally, and called it a well spent day. 
The Church of Our Lady

The Market Square 

The Belfry Tower in the distance

View over Bruges from the Belfry tower

Picturesque canals

Genna and I took an instant liking to Amsterdam. We watched the staff of the tourist office switch between fluent French, English, German, and Dutch without blinking an eye, and were struck by the friendliness of passersby, and the overall liveliness of the city.  Like most hostels in Amsterdam, we were smack dab in the infamous red light district.  Yes, everything you've heard is true.  Prostitutes pose in purple-lit windows lining the canals, some locking eyes with passing men, while others appeared disinterested, chatting on their cell phones.  Clouds of perfectly legal cannabis waft through the air, and can be ordered of special menus inside licensed "coffee shops." However, what they don't tell you is how amazingly beautiful the city is, with its endearingly crooked canal houses reflected in the water, and the charm of thousands of bikes lining canal bridges.  We adored the design shops, the quirky galleries, and the Van Gogh museum, which houses the greatest collection of his work. However, the most powerful moment of the trip was a visit to the Anne Frank house.  I had always felt such an affinity with Anne since reading her diary at her age, and was fraught with emotion when I stood in the secret annex that concealed the families for two years. 

Frozen canals

The Anne Frank House

Bicycle built for four!

What's not legal here?

Still wearing the oh-so-chic furry hats

The prettiest train station of the entire trip!

The 14 hour sleeper train from the Netherlands to the Czech Republic was the easiest portion of the trip.  Our grand plans of sketching, watching movies, and conversing were overruled by exhaustion, and we were comatose the entire duration of the trip, which gave us plenty of energy for the Bohemian magnificence of Prague. The colorful medieval splendor of Prague's Old Town Square seduced me immediately.  Even after our walking tours led us through the amazing castle district, Wenceslas Square, and the Jewish quarter, we always gravitated back in the Old Town Square, browsing the markets, admiring the art nouveau genius of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, sipping hot mulled wine and filling up on goulash and cinnamony, tube shaped specialty pastries.  On the walk back to our hostel, we made a ritual of stopping each night at a charming little tearoom, which reminded me of a Czech grandmother's living room, complete with lace doilies and 40's era music.  Over coffee and dessert, we recounted the events of the day and the excitement awaiting us in Budapest!

The Church of Our Lady before Týn, Old Town Square

Old Town Square

Astronomical clock, Old Town Square

The John Lennon Wall

Saint Vitus Cathedral, inside Prague Castle

Prague panorama seen from the Castle

We met three girls who are also English teachers in France!

View while crossing Charles Bridge

Old Town Square

United as one city on both sides of the Danube river in 1873, Buda, Òbuda, and Pest became known as Budapest.  She is magnificent.  By far, the highlight of our journey.  Our first day was shrouded in intense fog coming off the Danube river, rendering Buda completely invisible from the Pest side of the river.  We filled the day with shopping for paprika, handmade dolls, and artwork at the enormous covered market in Pest, followed by an exquisite ballet in the Hungarian State Opera House, called La Bayadère.  The ballet was simply magical for us, and despite our disheveled appearances, we felt like such high society ladies. The costumes, the music, the storyline... all were mesmerizing.  Heureusement, the fog cleared for the rest of our trip, unveiling the breathtaking Buda side of the river Danube.  After days of wandering and marveling over the contrasts in Gothic, art nouveau, classicist, baroque, and remnants of Communist architecture, we soaked our weary bodies in the famous thermal baths of Budapest, and managed to have a lovely time despite a stolen towel and preponderance of amorous couples and old men in string bikinis.  A delightful traditional Hungarian dinner awaited us for our last night in Hungary, and we nearly fell asleep on our plates from exhaustion. Sprezza-tour had come to an end.

Fisherman's Bastion, Buda

Matthias Church, Buda

Saint Stephen's Basilica, Pest.

Saint Stephen's Basilica, Pest.

Hungarian State Opera House, Pest.

Hungarian National Ballet performance of La Bayadère, Pest.
I snuck this photo!

In the castle district, Buda

View of the Parliament building from Buda

Little Princess sculpture by Marton László on the Pest 
side of the Danube. Notice the castle in the distance. 
We're rubbing her knees for good luck.

The inside jokes, funny stories, and intimate conversations are too numerous to recount in this blog entry, which is ridiculously long as it is. But it was those little moments, not the incredible scenery and food, that I will remember the most, and this trip definitely brought the two of us closer in that respect.  Despite the fact that I found out I was homeless the third day of the trip, I was able to continue, and would like to thank Genna for enduring my bouts of tears and anxiety throughout, which could not have been easy.  Despite the moments of tension resulting from my newfound living and financial situation, I would never take back this extraordinary adventure with an extraordinary friend.


  1. I love the furry trapper hats; also thought the architecture in Brussels was gorgeous. Love Mom

  2. I never knew there was a "Buda" and a "Pest" Now I know where all the Pests came from!! I swiped the Lennon Wall Picture.



  3. I want to know if you were responsible for the "les adventures de 2 amies..." graffiti above you two on the Lennon Wall!!




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