MEng Graduation to European Adventure

Dr Tafara Estelle Makuni
5 min readJul 25, 2022

Graduation day: the day you distantly hope for when you first matriculate into the so-called Cambridge Bubble. For me that day came on the 30th June 2012 — a definite case of mixed emotions. I’d really enjoyed my undergrad here. So much so, in fact, that I had decided stay on and do a PhD — great? But after four years of working hard (and playing hard too — my tagged Facebook pictures are probably testament to this), I was feeling a little worn out. So, to ‘recharge my batteries’ before endeavouring into this whole PhD thing, I decided to go on an European adventure! Central-western Europe to be specific; Venice, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Bern, Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Brussels, Calais, and then home — in that order. The get-away was mostly scenic, but filled with engineering grandeur and quirks. In the remainder of this article — better yet, rant — I shall highlight interesting facts I learnt about each of these cities during my travels!

Venice: the world’s only pedestrian city. It is made up of 117 small islands which are connected by 409 bridges and separated by 177 canals. Transportation between the islands is normally by foot, or on water via the boats, the vaporettos (water buses) or the gondolas (fancy looking punts). This charmingly romantic city was built nearly 600 years ago and has been relatively unchanged since then. As such, the engineering is a little back-dated (in terms of sewage and drainage systems), but still functional nevertheless.

Vienna: the “City of Music”. Many notable musicians such as Beethoven or Mozart came to work in Vienna for most of their lives or were born there. However, being the engineer that I am, exploring the music side of the city was of no real interest to me. Instead, what impressed me the most about Vienna was the Technical (Technisches) Museum. There was so much in there! From life-size helicopters and gliders, to type-writers and sewing machines. A museum definitely worthy of a visit if you’re interested in how everyday things work.

Prague: the “City of Three Towns” — old town, new town and lesser town. All three are amazing and are next door to each other so it’s easy to walk between them. However, the astronomical clock in Old Town Square in particular caught my eye, and the gothic-in-style Týn Church was definitely worthy of a double take. On a side note, I have always found it rather ironic that many old-school (historic) churches and cathedrals (i.e. religious buildings) are designed in gothic architecture. This seems slightly perverse, but there’s probably a good reason for it… But anyway, installed in 1401, the medieval astronomical clock is the third-oldest in the world, and the oldest one still working! Incredibly stunning to see in real life.

Berlin: a large city scarred by its tumultuous history. Most of the city was destroyed during the Cold War but, since then, a lot of it has been reconstructed. A few significant historical landmarks/monuments still remain though, one of which being the Berlin Wall (well, at least part of it). This has since been ‘converted’ into an open air art gallery (the East Side Gallery) with many very interesting graffiti-style art exhibits — I have attached my favourite two pieces below. Most of the exhibits were rather alternative and promoted ideas of unity, peace and freedom. This seemed quite typical of Berlin’s urban art scene (i.e. graffiti) though. Admittedly, I first thought the graffiti around the city was just vandalism, but later realised it’s more of an art form.

Amsterdam: the Venice of the north, but with legalised prostitution and drugs; so perhaps a little less classy. But nevertheless the city was still also impressive. There are many monuments dotted around the city, however, nothing too well-known (at least I didn’t know it). The museums, on the other hand, are really good. The most famous being the Van Gogh Museum that houses some of Van Gogh’s original work! Other than that, compared to Venice, the canal system is definitely more modern. More systematic. More formally planned than the twisting routes forged in Venice centuries upon centuries ago.

Paris: where do I start? So much to see, so much to do! This was definitely my favourite city by far on this entire escapade. But two things in particular I struck me; (i) Napoléon Bonaparte legacy, and (ii) the fact that the French hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first constructed but now it’s the most iconic thing about Paris. With regards to Napoléon, I learnt all about him when I visited the Musée de l’Armée (architecture is amazing — definite must visit). In short, Napoleon was an incredibly influential man. His legal reform, the Napoleonic Code, still remains a major presence on many civil law jurisdictions worldwide. But looking solely at France, he is best remembered for his Napoleonic Wars. These were wars against France from a series of coalitions.

Bern: the capital of Switzerland, not Zurich — although Zurich is more well-known than Bern and has the larger city population of 390,000 compared to Bern’s 130,000… Moving on, Bern is really pretty — it sits on a peninsula formed by the twists and turns of the Aare river. Having said that, there’s not much to do here unless you’re interesting in hiking or swimming in the river (which I am — on a good day). More interestingly, Einstein lived and worked in Bern for most of his life! His house is on showcase there. Unfortunately when I tried to visit, the house was closed to visitors until further notice due to water damage — bummer.

Frankfurt: not much to say really. Harsh, I know. Although to be fair (to Frankfurt), I was saturated by so much culture at this point that a city like Frankfurt stood no chance compared to the wonders I’d seen in Paris or Venice or Prague and etc! Frankfurt is just a city. Rather business orientated city — lots of banks with towering sky-scrappers.

Luxembourg City: quite similar to Bern in terms of its scenic appeal (see snapshots below), but is more affordable than Bern. Luxembourg is heavily fortified owing to its positioning in western Europe — a country landlocked by Belgium, France and Germany. The city has a very ‘rich’ war history — it too suffered from the so-called Napoleonic Wars, and was one of the battlefields in the Battle of the Bulge (a fairly significant battle in the history books).

Brussels: the capital Belgium and of the European Union (EU). The country is bilingual, both French and Dutch (Flemish) are official languages, therefore, everything in the city generally has two names given to it; from the street signs to the food choices on a menu. However being, somewhat, the “Capital of Europe”; English has become a commonly spoken language (as it’s the operating language of some key international organisations based there, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and NATO). German too is commonly spoken, but to a lesser extent than English. But although Brussels is rather culturally mixed, in terms of its European diversity, it still manages to retain a unique sense of identity.

So anyway, that’s my rant over. The trip was plenty of fun! Now it’s time to endeavour into this whole PhD business! A different kind of fun…

Miss Tafara Estelle Makuni