The invitation to a wedding in Stockholm kick-started our recent European adventure. We've been fortunate to have visited many Western European cities, but for this trip, my husband and twenty-something son and daughter decided to broaden our scope to Eastern Europe.

After starting in Sweden, we flew to Prague in the Czech Republic (now technically Czechia) and then drove to Budapest, Hungary, with a brief pit stop en route in Bratislava, Slovakia. But our journey of learning about those cultures, understanding histories, and enjoying stunning architecture and delicious food had already begun with the wedding.

Prague Castle.
prague.eu
Prague Castle.

The bride, Wendi, my daughter's college roommate, was born in China, though she spent most of her life living in the United States. Her husband, Henrik, is Swedish. They met in Hong Kong while studying abroad. So it was no surprise that we heard conversations in Mandarin, Cantonese, Swedish, and English during the 10-hour celebration.

(I admit that I felt a bit sheepish at my inability to converse in anything other than English; most of these folks spoke multiple languages, easily moving from one to the next.)

Wendi wore red for her rehearsal dinner, a nod to her Chinese heritage. The ceremony, in Stockholm's Hedvig Eleonora Church (dating to 1737), melded Swedish and American customs. After traditional vows, Henrik's mom sang a personally meaningful song for the couple, accompanied by a guitarist. The guests then joined together for traditional Swedish and American hymns. Weddings are emotional in any language, but the symphony of diverse backgrounds made this one especially moving.

For dinner and dancing, we all boarded a boat for a one-hour ride — which stretched to almost two, apparently because of a locked lock — on the Soderstrom River, one of the many waterways in Stockholm. We were headed to perhaps the most unique venue for a reception I've ever been in — Winterviken, Alfred Nobel's refurbished dynamite factory from 1891.

The waterfront in Stockholm.
The waterfront in Stockholm.

Beyond the wedding, our family spent a couple of days in Stockholm, walking along the bustling waterfront, alive with restaurants and shops. We ventured into surrounding neighborhoods where park benches and children's playgrounds sat among century-old buildings.  We chowed down on uber-fresh fish and traditional Swedish meatballs and listened to music at the Night Market, a festival celebrating the almost round-the-clock daylight during summer. The sun never fully set — only dipping to dusk for a few hours in the wee hours of the morning. One night I awoke around 4 a.m. to bright sunshine peeking through the drawn curtains.

Afterward, we traveled to Prague for a three-night stay in a city with colorful architecture seeming to jump from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen storybook. Our personal guide was an old friend from high school who several years ago had been posted in Prague for the State Department; after retirement, he and his wife moved back to the city they loved.

We ate pork knuckle and drank local beer and wine at a pub converted from a monastery, visited the Prague Castle in its illuminated nighttime glory and were awed by the quiet and powerful sculptures of the  Memorial to the Victims of Communism. Nooks and crannies off the beaten tourist path hid interesting shops and restaurants.

The Akman family — from front: Terri, Rachel, Brady, and Scott — at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Prague.
The Akman family — from front: Terri, Rachel, Brady, and Scott — at the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Prague.

Prague is an easy city to navigate and very affordable. Many locals speak English, which meant that any discussion about current politics – theirs and ours – was easy (and fascinating).

••••

We rented a car for the six-hour drive to Budapest, which stretched to a stressful eight through road construction and impossibly narrow roads filled with a never-ending stream of trucks. It never occurred to us to request a car without a manual shift — I didn't even know they made SUVs (in this case a Skoda, a Czech-made car) with a stick.

For lunch we stopped in Bratislava, a small Slovakian town, where we ducked into an alley to discover a quaint courtyard serving lunch. I delighted in the tastiest fresh tuna I have ever eaten, seared rare to perfection in a teriyaki sauce that was deliciously understated. My husband and son loved their sardines, crispy and flavorful. (My husband couldn't bring himself to eat the heads with their glaring eyes, but our son had no such reservations.)  Our daughter, generally a very picky eater, chose pork belly, which was tender and juicy.

The only hiccup of our trip took place in Bratislava. In the underground parking lot we couldn't get the exit gate to open. The payment kiosk gave written and spoken directions, but only in Slovak. Cars piled up behind us as we frantically used Google to try to figure out what the disembodied voice said. Luckily, a kind soul came to help, pointing out that we needed to prepay. As my husband literally sweated the situation, the stranger directed the other cars to back up and then led us to the payment kiosk. I'm pretty sure I heard several versions of "stupid American!" in Slovak.

••••

Safely back on the highway, we set off for Budapest, actually two cities — Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht), divided by the Danube River. Centuries old, gorgeous, and incredibly inexpensive, this was my favorite stop. Even the driving rain during our three-hour walking tour couldn't deter us.

Gellert thermal baths, Budapest.
Christo
Gellert thermal baths, Budapest.

We stayed three nights in a huge, gorgeous four-bedroom Airbnb, each room having its own en suite, for less than $300 per night. We visited the Gellert thermal baths, where restorative mineral waters are said to have healing qualities in indoor and outdoor pools, welcome at the tail end of a vacation where we walked six to 10 miles each day. We ate dinner in a pub, cheering alongside locals during the Spain vs. Portugal World Cup soccer game.

The highlight of the entire trip was a visit to the Dohany Street Synagogue in Pest, the second largest synagogue in the world, with seating for 3,000.  (The largest is Congregation Emanu-El in Manhattan). Beyond the abundance of gorgeous stained-glass windows and intricate design on every surface, a giant organ glittered behind the ornate bimah. A guide showed us the memorials to the nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust, explaining the divide that still exists over the country's position during World War II. The synagogue, with its Moorish architecture, is stunning, and was crowded with tourists of seemingly many faiths and nationalities.

Traveling to Eastern European is something that I could imagine only recently. And experiencing all that with people I most love in this world is something to cherish.