The month of June featured one of the most anticipated aspects of being an exchange student in Europe – Euro Tour! For students in Finland, this tour is quite different to those of students in other countries. Rather than visiting countries in Western Europe such as Italy, France and the Netherlands, most of our tour is through smaller, less popular countries in Eastern Europe (that’s not to say that they aren’t great countries). Myself and eighty other exchange students spent two-and-a-half weeks travelling through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany. This post will give you an insight into what I got up to in each of the countries. For a more detailed account, you can check out our group blog: https://eurotourfinland2018.blogspot.com/?m=1
Day 1: Helsinki – Tallinn – Pärnu – Riga
Three countries in one day! We started our tour in Helsinki, Finland, where we boarded a ship to Tallinn, Estonia. Following a great few hours filling our stomachs and checking out everything on the boat, we arrived in Tallinn for a brief stop before driving to Riga, Latvia. In Tallinn, we had a quick look around the Old Town, where there were beautiful old buildings and cobblestone streets. Most of us headed to Toompea Hill, to find that the famous “The times we had” wall had been painted over, but there was still a spectacular view to be enjoyed. Tallinn was a lovely city and I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel back there again after Euro Tour for a more detailed look around the city with my host family.
We spent the first night in Riga looking around the city a little during our free time. The streets were quiet, but the city seemed quite nice.
Day 2: Riga, Latvia
Today we had a bus and walking tour through the city. We saw heaps of monuments, visited a local market and spent more time exploring the city in smaller groups during our free time. My group walked around the Old Town more; visited a hotel for a great view of the city; and enjoyed delicious hot chocolates at a local café. The weather was interesting and we experienced rain, hail and sunshine in the space of a few hours. Overall, Riga seemed like a pretty city and I found it quite similar to Russia, no doubt due to the historical ties with Russia.
Day 3: Kaunas, Lithuania
A good part of the day was spent enjoying the scenery on our drive from Riga to Kaunas. We had a brief stop at The Hill of Crosses, a silent protest to Soviet Russia for the times the Lithuanian people were not able to practise their religion. It has been destroyed or burnt down by the Soviets, but people continue to rebuild it. The Hill of Crosses was both a moving and impressive sight.
Once we arrived in Kaunas, we had a guided tour which informed us of the history of different churches and various buildings. We then had a little free time to explore the city further. Kaunas was quite a beautiful city and the people were very friendly. A group of us even got to meet a group of locals who showed us some of their favourite spots and told us about their lives in Lithuania. Whilst I was only in Lithuania for a short time, the country left a great impression and I would like to spend more time there in the future.
Days 4 and 5: Warsaw, Poland
The drive from Kaunas to Poland was quite long, but took us through rolling hills and beautiful pastures. We arrived in Warsaw in the evening and were given some free time to explore the city. Warsaw was one of my favourite cities and certainly gave a great first impression. During my free time, I managed to check out some areas along the river; an amazing water fountain park with a spectacular light show; and the Old Town. There was a great vibe in the city and I enjoyed watching some street performers, exploring laneways and seeing the old buildings lit up.
The following day, we had a walking and bus tour of Warsaw where we saw so many historical places and learnt so much about Poland. Warsaw was much more modern compared to the cities we had previously visited. This is due to the devastation caused by WWII, when most of the buildings were destroyed. The tour then took us through Old Town, a beautiful area with cobblestone streets and beautiful buildings. Some of the places we visited include: parts of the city wall; the Mermaid of Warsaw statue; St, John’s Cathedral; and the Royal Castle. Outside the Royal Palace, flags were being flown; the area was fenced off; and there was a heavy police presence, with about fifty different police cars. The heavy police presence remained for much of the day and it is believed to be due to the visit of the German President. Other sights we visited include: the Warsaw Uprising Monument; the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; Chopin Park; the Ghetto Heroes Monument and the Palace of Culture and Science. We had a traditional and rather interesting lunch in the Old Town. Upon arrival, plates of raw meat and egg yolks as well as bread were on the table. Other food included some really nice ribs, salad, potatoes with a sour cream topping and a meat stew with sauerkraut and shredded cabbage. Following lunch, we were given free time to experience the city further. I spent a good part of the time in the Old Town with other exchange students. Overall, Warsaw was an amazing city and one that I would love to spend more time in in the future.
Days 6: Krakow, Poland
After falling in love with Warsaw, I was keen to check out Krakow, another city in Poland. Whilst I preferred Warsaw, Krakow was another great city with a lively Old Town. Krakow seemed to be the place for horse carriages and amazing street performers. I was fortunate enough to witness an incredible dancer who is by far the best street performer I have ever seen! There was also a concert happening in a square, so I spent some time enjoying the music. I enjoyed spending the remainder of my Polish Zloty sampling food at a local market and buying some more souvenirs. Much to my surprise (not that I really knew much about the country before Euro Tour), Poland was one of my favourite countries and I fell in love with the food, buildings and lively atmosphere. If you haven’t been to Poland, definitely add it to your list.
Days 7 and 8: Budapest, Hungary
Our drive from Krakow to Budapest was absolutely beautiful and we even got to drive through and stop for lunch in Slovakia. Slovakia was a picturesque country with castles, forests, mountains and waterways; definitely a country that I would like to return to and really explore. We arrived in Budapest later in the afternoon and I was immediately impressed by the old buildings, gardens and active city lifestyle. Out of all the places we would visit on Euro Tour, I was most excited about Budapest. One of my best exchange friends is from Budapest; my host family lived there for a while when my host dad was in the army; and I had fallen in love with the Hungarian foods that I had eaten. Everything I had seen, heard and tasted was appealing and I couldn’t wait to check it out myself.
We spent the afternoon getting dolled up with friends ready for a night on the Danube River. With a boat to ourselves, we spent the evening enjoying a wide selection of Hungarian foods (salami platters, cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat and goulash, just to name a few); making memories with our international family; and enjoying the scenery. There was a spectacular sunset following an afternoon of storms and the buildings were stunning, particularly later in the evening when the city was lit up. Budapest is known for its architecture and you’ve probably seen photos of the Hungarian Parliament building; it is a breathtaking sight, night and day! Although the whole night was magical, nothing compares to the moment we drifted past the Hungarian Parliament building. Our first night in Budapest is one that will stick with us exchange students for the years to come and I can imagine that this will be a story passed down to our children and grandchildren in the future.
The following day, we had a chance to explore Budapest further, beginning with a bus trip. The weather was extremely hot and most of us were a lather of sweat after being outside. Our first stop on the tour was Citadella, a fortification located on top of Gellért Hill. The view was absolutely spectacular! We then continued to Castle Hill, located on the Buda side of the river. There, we saw the city’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, Matthias Church, and the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is a wall of terraces and turrets, offering spectacular views over the Danube.
Following the tour, I went back to Castle Hill with a group of friends as we wanted to spend more time in the area. It was quite a walk, but there was something to see everywhere we looked, whether it was the multitude of ships cruising the river, the splendid architecture or the views over the city. We stopped to check out a market that my host family had recommended and I made sure to stock up on their favourite Hungarian sauce. Once we got back to Castle Hill, we decided to buy the ticket which included a tour of the church tower and full access to the Fisherman’s Bastion. It was definitely worth it! A million photos later, we decided to cross the river and explore the other side of the river, where our hotel was. We walked over a different bridge this time – Chain Bridge – which offered views of the Hungarian Parliament and part of the area that we cruised by the previous evening. Our journey to the other side of the river was a success and one which will be remembered long into the future.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with a different group of friends and we visited some of the sights that our Hungarian exchange friend had recommended. We also enjoyed an aerial view of the city from a ferris wheel. Our group was divided over dinner options, but I was lucky enough to find a cheap, but classy Hungarian restaurant to have dinner with a fellow exchange student. Both dishes were delicious and I’m keen to go back to Hungary and sample more foods.
Hungary has so much to offer! I loved every bit – the people, food, architecture and the landscapes that we saw as we drove to Budapest. Along with Poland, Hungary was my favourite country on Euro Tour and it’s definitely one on the list to visit again, hopefully with a lot more time.
Days 9 and 10: Vienna, Austria
Knowing that I may not ever see these places again, I knew I had to make the most of every moment, but that had taken its toll. I was exhausted, with three cities and eight days still to go! Once we arrived in Vienna, we took a sightseeing tour, with most of our time spent in the bus. Unfortunately, I missed part of the tour as I kept dozing off. I still managed to see beautiful architecture, statues and learn a bit about Vienna and Austria. Some of the main attractions we visited on our first day in Vienna were Hundertwasser House and the area of Belvedere Museum. Following the tour, all of us exchange students had a traditional Austrian dinner at a restaurant. The first meal was Griessnockerl, a semolina dumpling, in a clear soup. Of course, the next course was Wiener Schnitzel, followed by some sort of berry dessert. We had free time in the evening but I was feeling sick and extremely exhausted, so I decided to have an early night.
The morning of our second day in Vienna was largely occupied a trip to Schönbrunn Palace, a former imperial summer residence. We took an audio tour through the first floor of the palace. It was extremely beautiful, but photos were not allowed, so I only have a few photos of the exterior and some of the garden.
Following the tour, we were given free time for the rest of the day. Many of us headed to a market for lunch. What an experience! Walking through the market, every vendor tried to stop us and sell their products or convince us to eat at their restaurant. For lunch, we finally took the deal of “free drinks” at a place with a character of an owner.
A German friend’s friends were visiting on a school trip, so we spent a good time meeting them and checking out some of Vienna together. We enjoyed a very expensive, but nice café to escape the rainy weather and had a great time discussing our various cultures.
Overall, Vienna certainly lived up to its name of being a “green” city, but filled with lots of history and beautiful architecture.
Days 11 and 12: Prague, Czech Republic
After quite a long drive, we arrived in Prague around noon and had lunch at the hotel before our tour commenced. This time, the tour was on smaller, local buses. We drove around the city a little on our way to Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral, where we walked around with our tour guide. As Prague is such a popular destination, we found ourselves in a crowd of thousands of other tourists, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the area. The cathedral told a story inside and out, with intricately decorated windows and sculptures on the stone exterior and bright stained-glass windows allowing light to beam inside.
As usual, following the tour, we had free time for the rest of the evening. I went with a small group in search of cheap food, which we did find. Prague was quite a cheap place, particularly in comparison to Finland. We decided to just wander through the streets and take whichever turns seemed interesting. This took us through some suburban areas, giving an insight into life there, and along the river. Slightly lost, without a map or a working phone, but still with plenty of time before curfew, we were in search of a way back to our hotel. We managed to find a hill and believing we might be able to spot our hotel from there, we decided to check it out. What a great idea! We may have had no idea where we were, but there were plenty of people there, given the dying light. It was clearly some point of interest and upon further walking, we found out why. We enjoyed spectacular view of the river and city and had a mandatory photoshoot. Walking a bit further, we managed to find a map – although we couldn’t spot our hotel on it – and managed to pick the right direction! It just so happened that we were on the very street of our hotel!
The following day, we were free to discover Prague. I spent the day with a group of friends, with one of them having a friend from Prague. She took us around the city and we explored Charles Bridge, the John Lennon Wall, local library, various other sights and spent most of our time in the Old Town. Prague was a beautiful city with a great vibe and it wasn’t hard to see why it’s such a popular tourist destination. Of course, I had to try some traditional foods (which I had tasted in Australia), so I ended up buying two different treats known as Trdelník. They are a hollow, spiral-shaped cake that is grilled over an open flame and then dusted with vanilla sugar and served with ice cream, fruits, Nutella or various other toppings. They were quite nice, but not something I would rave over. I spent the rest of the evening with several groups of people shopping, enjoying the sunset and city lights and making memories in our second last destination on Euro Tour.
Days 13, 14 and 15: Munich, Germany
Our final bus trip between countries was one filled with memories. We listened to music, spoke with each other, traded pins and passed our notebooks and flags around for people to write messages. Our lunch stop was the Weltenberg Monastery in Bavaria, where many of us took a look inside the monastery and enjoyed skipping rocks on the beautiful river. Most of us were pretty exhausted once we got to Munich, so we just chilled and took a look around the area close to the hotel. A group of us bought some street food from a festival van and enjoyed listening to live music.
The following day, we visited a concentration camp called Dachau. We had a few hours to walk around the area, learn far more about the Nazi regime than is possible in history classes at school and see the exact places that people were put through such traumatic experiences. Witnessing the camp in person was such a moving experience and something that will not be forgotten.
We had free time for the rest of the day in which I enjoyed experiencing German culture. There were performances happening throughout the city and I enjoyed watching some traditional dancing. At the time, it was also the World Cup and Germany had a game, so many of us found a beer garden to watch the game. Although Germany lost, the atmosphere was great (so too were the pretzels) and particularly enjoyable for a football fanatic.
Our third day in Munich, and our last full day of Euro Tour was brilliant. We started the morning off visiting Nymphenburg Palace, the main summer residence of the former rulers of Bavaria. It was quite a nice place, surrounded by classical gardens. Once again – after our tour – I spent a good amount of time checking out some sights in the city, eating pastries and enjoying a relaxing paddleboat ride with friends.
For our final night, all of us exchange students, Rotex and Rotarians to a pretty cool, modern function centre. The evening was full of emotions as not only was Euro Tour coming to an end, but also because most of the exchange students were returning home shortly after Euro Tour. Singing, dancing, signing books and flags, enjoying refreshments and some very emotional performances, the night was wonderful and one that will be remembered long into the future.
Day 16: Helsinki, Finland
It was a day of goodbyes. As we waited in the Munich Airport, we enjoyed the last of our time together. There was lots of hugging and crying and I’m sure people were wondering why, but it’s difficult to explain the bond that us exchange students have. As we got off the plane and collected our luggage in Helsinki, we may have blocked the whole exit area as we said goodbye to each other. Most of us had trains and buses to catch, so eventually we started to leave. I was extremely exhausted with a long and late bus ride before I made it home.
Euro Tour was a wonderful adventure and it is so great to share memories with so many other people from all over the world. I have now been to so many places and done so many things I never imagined doing and I am forever grateful to everyone who made the trip possible: Rotary for organising it, the Rotarians and Rotex who coordinated the tour, our wonderful bus drivers, my amazing exchange family and of course, my family back in Australia.
I hope you’ve made it to the end of this novel and enjoyed hearing about my adventures on Euro Tour. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I can update you all on everything that’s been happening back in Finland.