The entire last week in Florence all we saw was rain, rain, rain… Florence was crying that I had to leave… and so was I! I have had the most wonderful experience over these past four months and the people I’ve met and memories I’ve made have far exceeded my wildest expectations for the semester.
Rachel Clemons and I have been traveling together since August 19th and since she posted below, I’ll try not to reiterate everything that she described. Since I’ve been away from home, I’ve visited seven different countries (Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and Switzerland) and seen countless cities. Europe is so unique because it is extremely easy to get to many different countries in only a matter of hours… and most accept the same currencies.. convenient.
Rachel and I spent five days each in Ireland and England. In Ireland we stayed in Dublin right at the edge of the Temple Bar district… a great place for going out at night with live music (my favorite) in literally every bar, every night. Even though the Irish musicians hated it, they all played my new favorite song.. Galway Girl (from P.S. I Love You) and the pubs would go wild. We did a lot of sightseeing while in Dublin and saw, among other things, Dublin Castle, Trinity College, the Guinness Storehouse, the famous “Tart with the Cart” statue of Molly Malone(!), and my favorite, Kilmainham Gaol. Kilmainham Gaol was a former political prison that housed leaders of the Irish rebellions in the ’20s. Anyways, after bumming around Dublin for a few days we took a bus to Galway on the west coast of the island, did sightseeing there and went to the Cliffs of Moher. Even after being abroad for almost five months, the Cliffs of Moher are still my favorite spot. I can’t even describe how awesome it was to be there and the pictures don’t do it justice, either. I guess you’ll just have to experience it for yourself!
After Ireland, we headed to London for the next leg of our trip. We were those annoying, double decker-bus-riding-earphone-wearing-tourists there.. but we most definitely weren’t the only ones. Compared to Dublin, London is HUGE! Five days wasn’t enough time to see everything, but we tried. Before leaving home I bought “Royal Day Out” tickets so we could see Buckingham Palace (a.k.a. so I could see Kate Middleton’s wedding dress in person) and some other royalty-ish places. The tour of Buckingham Palace was awesome! We got to see the state rooms (extravagant), the gardens (extravagant), the Royal Mews (the garages for the cars.. Rolls Royces and such.. and the ceremonial carriages), the wedding dress, the cake and all other things Kate. We also saw Big Ben, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and took a boat tour and saw the new Globe Theater and Tower Bridge. One day, we took the train to Windsor and toured Windsor Castle (the official residence of the Queen) and those grounds. I loved seeing the castle and especially St. George’s Chapel where many famous monarchs are buried. We also went to Covent Gardens, Camden Markets, and spent a lot of time in Trafalgar Square. Did I mention we went on a tour of places where they shot some scenes for the Harry Potter movies? It was awesome.
After London we headed to Rome where we met the rest of our program (International Studies Abroad – ISA), our roommates, and had a few orientations. ISA arranged some guided tours of Rome which included the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Vatican (Vatican museums, and Sistine Chapel). Afterwards, we threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, climbed the Spanish steps, and wandered around the city looking at ruins and various buildings. We spent only a few days in Rome before we loaded the bus to head to our apartments in FLORENCE!!
In Florence, Rachel and I lived with five others from various places in the US (NJ, NY, Chicago, Chattanooga, and STL). In Florence we attended Florence University of the Arts (FUA). My class schedule was a dream: Italian Culture through Festivals and Feasting (a cooking class), Wine Appreciation (surprisingly my hardest classâ€¦), Italian Language for Beginners, Fashion Media and Culture, and Daily Life in Pompeii. I actually looked forward to going to my classes every week! The teachers all spoke English really well and the course work was interesting and refreshing after not having a single class outside the COB for the past three years. One of the most notable things to share from my classes is the foods we made in cooking. I can now make you (from scratch): fresh pasta with wild boar sauce, naked spinach and ricotta cheese dumplings, almost any kind of fried fresh fish (fresh as in, de-head, de-gut yourself, fresh), calamari, various Italian cookies and desserts, gnocchi (my favorite dish I learned) and fried sweet rice cakes! We’ve made other dishes but that gives you a pretty good idea of some of the things they had us cook.
Besides taking classes, Florence truly became my home over the past semester. I learned to get around the city easily on foot, knew how to avoid tourists and gypsies, found favorite breakfast places, and became good friends with the waiters at my favorite restaurants. Our apartment was on the fourth floor of our building… 77 steps and no elevators… and was very close to the Duomo, Florence’s biggest and most beautiful church and piazza. We were also just steps away from the San Lorenzo markets where you can buy souvenirs, clothes, jewelry, leather goods, etc. etc., and the Central Market which is the best place for getting fresh and cheap meat, veggies, fruits, wine, olive oil, etc. My favorite morning routine consisted of getting a cappuccino (da portare via – to take away) and a chocolate chip muffin from the same vendor and sitting outside on the steps of the Central Market to people watch. Piazza Michaelangelo provided a great view of the whole city; the Ponte Vecchio is great for expensive jewelry shopping; Piazza Signoria has a permanent outdoor statue exhibit, the Gucci Museum, and Palazzo Vecchio; and Piazza Republica is the old Roman city center and today is lined with designer stores and great restaurants. After being away on a weekend trip I always loved getting back to Florence and feeling at home.
Besides staying in Florence and touring Rome with ISA, I traveled all around Italy and saw Milan, Venice, Naples, Sorrento, Monterosso, Viareggio, Siena, San Gimignano, Orvieto, Pompeii, and Herculaneum. In Milan, we visited a friend we got to know one weekend at the beach and saw the Duomo there, the Galeria, did a lot of window shopping at all the designer stores, drove around town and went to some great apperitivos (during cocktail hour in Italy bars provide all you can eat appetizer foodsâ€¦ yum!). When friends from Louisville came to visit we rode gondolas in Venice and toured the town and Saint Markâ€™s square. One weekend, my Daily Life of Pompeii class took a field trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum (ancient Roman towns destroyed and preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79). While there we took tours of the sites with our professor (an archeaologist), ate the best pizza in Italy â€“ it comes from the south of the country near Naples â€“ and stayed in Sorrento, part of the Amalfi Coast. Sorrento was beautiful and my entire class had a great time and got to be really close. This was one of my favorite weekends and it was so cool to see the sites we had been learning about in person. Italy is an awesome country full of history, beautiful art and architecture, interesting people, great shopping, and fun nightlife. I appreciated every single second I was in the country and cannot believe my semester is already overâ€¦
We also had the opportunity to leave Italy and travel to other European countries. At the end of September we took a bus to Munich, Germany for Oktoberfest! Picture Disney World with all-you-can drink beer. The beer at Oktoberfest was so, so good! There were fourteen tents to choose from and each had a unique beer that they brewed just for the festival. We drank, ate pretzels bigger than our heads, rode rides, and met a ton of cool people. While in Germany, Rachel and I also made a trip to the Dachau Concentration Camp. It was pretty eerie and hard to imagine all the atrocities that took place right where we were standing. It was a great opportunity to be able to visit a place so full of history.
Then, for a week in October we had a break from classes and I traveled with my roommates to Barcelona, Paris, and Interlaken. This was the best week ever and I experienced so many things in such a short time. In Barcelona we saw a ton of Gaudi architecture, went to the Picasso Museum, ate at tapas restaurants, saw a Flamenco dancing show, went to Park Guell where there were fabulous views of the whole city, and experienced Barcelonaâ€™s crazy nightlife. In Paris, we drank wine on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, saw the Arc de Triomphe, shopped along Champs-Ã‰lysÃ©es, visited the Rodin Museum and the Louvre (hello Mona Lisa!!), went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, went inside Notre Dame, and made a trip to Versailles. As Wesley France told me before I left, after visiting Versailles and seeing how ridiculously expensive everything seems, you can totally understand the reasons behind the French Revolution.
Our last stop for our fall break trip was Interlaken, Switzerland. We were only in Switzerland for a weekend but I wish I could have stayed longer. The scenery was so beautiful â€“ we literally felt like we were standing in a postcard. It is Europeâ€™s capital for extreme sporting so while there we went canyoning and skydiving!!!! To canyon, we dressed in wet suits then drove up into the mountains (past the north face of Mount Eiger â€“ where the North Face brand gets its name â€“ which is the hardest climb in the world) and then hiked further. After hiking up, we made our way back down the mountains to where the van was parked by jumping off rocks into the mountain streams, repelling from high walls, sliding down rocks, and wading through the FREEZING water. It was So. Much. Fun. The water was so cold it took my breath away when I went under but after getting used to it and having the wet suit, it wasnâ€™t all that bad. We also did a high-ropes course and jumped out of a plane. No big deal. Skydiving over the Swiss Alps was unbelievably amazing. The views on the way down were enough to distract me from being scared that I was freefalling! After landing I was ready to get right back in the plane and jump again. It was the most fun Iâ€™ve had. I think Iâ€™m addicted.
Overall, this semester was the best, ever. It was more fun than I could have imagined and I am so thankful for the experience and for the people I met. I made friends that I know Iâ€™ll keep in contact with for the rest of my life and after being back in the US for only less than a day, Iâ€™m already having withdrawals from them and from my home in Florence!