Sunday, May 12, 2013
We arrived in Prague just before 11:00 a.m. local time. At this point we had been traveling for over twenty hours straight, and we were tired. But the excitement in the group was palpable. Some of the students had never been out of the southeastern United States, much less all the way to Europe. Spring was in full force with flowers blooming, sun shining, and a very comfortable temperature in the 70s.
Our first task was to find the hotel, which was located across town. After a few bus rides and subway stops, we arrived. Inside was a historical collage proclaiming that the hotel was built in the 1820’s and, like all of Prague, it had a story to tell. It was recently renovated, which made it homey yet modern with amenities such as a restaurant and a bowling alley located onsite.
Our first day was spent getting settled into our rooms and adjusting to the six hour time difference. Some napped, others bowled, and a few of the brave went exploring. That night we had a dinner with our hosts from the Czech Technical University, who welcomed us and laid out the plan for the weeks to come.
Monday, May 13, 2013
The next morning we awoke around seven for breakfast and a bus ride. We were headed to the active uranium mine and yellowcake facility located near the village of Dolní Rožínka (shown at right). On arriving, after a short presentation about the plant and a quick change into lab coats and hard hats, our tour began.
The facility was built during the Soviet era and was intended to be in operation for ten years. That was sixty years ago. The plant looked run down, but they assured us it was fully operational and produced over 300 tons of uranium a year.
After an extensive tour, we found ourselves hungry and sought out a local restaurant that was recommended to us by our guide. The food was inexpensive, plentiful, and utterly delicious. This would be a common refrain throughout our entire stay in the Czech Republic.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
We woke up early to meet a student of the Czech Technical University near the metro station. He led us to the train stop that took us to the village of Řež. The train stop was grimy and old with graffiti plastered on every wall — it was wonderful. We boarded the double decker train to Řež. The train sped through the beautiful Czech countryside along the Vltava River. I was surprised to hear that this river flooded in 2002 and heavily damaged Řež and the research facility there.
After a quick train ride across the river, we arrived. We walked over a bridge that took us to the Řež research facility. Before touring the facility, we first had to obtain our security badges and dosimeters. We also had to put on protective gear (i.e. hard hats and lab coats). The tour started in the control room where we learned about the daily work of an operator. We were then shuffled into the LVR-15 reactor room and shown the different types of fuel used in the reactor as well as the spent fuel pool. To look into the spent fuel pool, we had to lean over a rail one at a time. The pool was glowing bright blue! The director told us that the US ambassador got contaminated when he leaned over the rail, and he had to give up his pants!
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
In the morning, we rode a bus to a small town called Tabor to tour the tunnels underneath the town square. The tunnels led to underground living quarters and were dug by the townspeople centuries ago to provide protection during wartimes. The townspeople also fled underground when the town caught fire. After our visit through the tunnels, we toured the local cathedral with a very enthusiastic guide. We learned that enthusiasm is typical for a Tabor woman. Our guide only spoke Czech so our professor and a student from the Czech Technical University translated for us. Her enthusiasm needed no translation, however. The guide ended the tour by singing a traditional Hussite song!
After spending the morning in Tabor, we headed to the Temelin Nuclear Power Plant. We ate lunch in the plant’s cafeteria and then split into two groups for a tour. To access the plant, one member from each group had to pass a Breathalyzer. The selection was random but we passed! The power plant had four cooling towers, but only two were in use. Because the tour started late, we were at risk of being locked in the facility. The doors lock automatically at the end of the day so we had to rush back through security once the tour concluded. One group made it through the doors with a minute to spare.
The Budweiser brewery was in close proximity to the nuclear power plant so the group spontaneously decided to take a tour of the brewery. During the tour, we learned in detail about the process of making beer. Our guide showed us the massive barrels where the beer ferments.
This brewery is the only one in the world that makes Budweiser beer. The Budweiser made at this brewery, however, is not the Budweiser that is consumed in the United States. The Budweiser in the US is a knock-off of the Budweiser that originated in the Czech Republic. Currently, there are legal disputes between the US and Czech Budweiser companies.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
We arrived in Vienna by train at 3:00 p.m., dropped off our bags at the hotel, and headed to Belvedere Palace. Belvedere Palace consists of two separate buildings and was originally built as the summer home of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Both buildings are now world class art museums. I enjoyed viewing the character sculptures of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. I also enjoyed the iced coffee in the café attached to the Lower Palace. Vienna is famous for its coffee shops, and I believe the city lives up to its reputation.
The group left the museum and proceeded to a restaurant nearby for dinner. The restaurant was a traditional beer garden, and the food was delicious. I had a 1500g pork shank/knuckle. This was my fourth shank of the trip.
Friday, May 17, 2013
We spent the first half of our day at the United Nations in Vienna. The UN instillation is home to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA is tasked with promoting safe and secure nuclear technologies. The IAEA relies on the voluntary participation of member states and has no authority to force any state to take action. An IAEA employee lectured to our class about nuclear safeguards and then showed the group examples of the equipment that inspectors use and how the equipment is implemented in a nuclear facility.
We then were given a tour of the UN buildings. From the tour, we learned how the UN supports the many languages spoken at diplomatic meetings and the flexibility required to accommodate the constant procession of these meetings. The tour guide also showed the group two chronological displays, one setup for the space race and one for the nuclear arms development.
We left the UN at noon and regrouped at the hotel at 1:00 p.m. We then took a subway to the city center and visited the catacombs of an ancient cathedral. The catacombs were expansive and contained the remains of priest, rulers, and commoners. One room had been filled from floor to ceiling with thousands of bones stacked neatly by prisoners.
After the catacomb tour, I walked with a couple of students and the professors through the Vienna museum quarter’s gardens and parks. The baroque style buildings and gardens were beautiful.
Around 6:00 p.m. we met the rest of the group at a nice restaurant where I had shank number five. Shank number five had possibly the best skin of any of the shanks I ate on the trip, indeed it was billed on the menu as the “Crispy Skin Pork Knuckle for Two.” I was disappointed by the actual meat on the bone. I feel that the chef sacrificed the meat’s tenderness for the crispy crunch of the skin.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
After a mere two days, our stay in Vienna was coming to a close. On the day of our departure, a few of us woke up early to have breakfast at a quaint café in the city center. We made sure to try the coffee and pastries — Vienna being known for both. I found my cup of espresso to be a bit bitter but the fruit tart was quite delicious. The train ride back to Prague was more sweet than bitter. While I found Vienna to be aesthetically beautiful with newly renovated streets and buildings, the city lacked the historical charm that was ever-present in Prague. Walking through the streets of Prague is like being transported back to the 12th century. It’s astounding how the city is unaffected by time.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
We returned to Prague on a Saturday and classes started that Monday. The Sunday before classes started was our free day. We had several options: spend the day studying the textbook, relax at the hotel, or explore the Czech Republic. The majority of us chose the latter. We heard about a bone church located in a small town called Kutnáhora (pictured at right) and were eager to visit.
We woke up early that Sunday morning to catch a one-hour train ride to Kutnáhora. Like Prague, the town was stuck in a time warp; however, the town was quieter and much greener. We took a bus to the town center where we enjoyed spectacular views of the entire town.
After some shopping and lunch at a local restaurant, we found the bone church. The ancient graveyard outside of the church set the tone for what was to come. Upon entrance into the church, I was struck by the quantity of corpses that adorned the walls and ceilings. The church housed over 40,000 human corpses from victims of the Plague. Luckily, they were no longer contagious. While it was unsettling to see human corpses hang from the ceiling as chandeliers, I could not deny that the use of resources was quite clever.
Monday, May 20, 2013
After a week of sightseeing, I was ready for class to begin. The course was setup so that we had a lab in the morning and a lab in the afternoon. The school day was long, but each lab was enjoyable. The hands-on experience with the training reactor allowed me to conceptually understand the material better than had I read a textbook. I was surprised how much I learned in one week.
At the end of the week, our host professors treated us to a dinner at a traditional Czech restaurant. We had a great time getting to know one another in a more relaxed setting. That dinner like most of our meals lasted for several hours. Spending 4 to 5 hours in a restaurant or pub is typical in the Czech Republic. It was nice to unwind, eat great food, and socialize without feeling rushed.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
After a two-week stay, our time in the Czech Republic came to an end. Early Sunday morning, I woke up, along with several others, to catch a taxi to the airport. Three students chose to stay one more day, and Danny spent another two weeks traveling throughout Europe. In the cab, I had time to reflect about my experience abroad and realized what a great opportunity I was given. This trip not only promoted educational growth but also allowed us to experience a completely different culture.