These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
Sometimes the historical treasures of Athens can be found - quite literally - in people’s basements.
During a regular history class with my professor, we were taken on a tour around Athens to see artifacts from antiquity. Some were out in the open and easy to see- like Hadrian’s arch and the Acropolis. You couldn’t miss them even if you tried.
Then my professor took us into the middle of downtown Athens. It’s a bustling, modern European city. I looked out for some kind of ancient column but couldn’t see anything. Just when I had hoped he was taking us on a surprise shopping trip of some sort, he took a sharp left into a deserted sort of shopping mall. No stores were open; all looked like they had been closed for months if not years. He spoke with a guard in Greek, and led us down some cement stairs into the basement of this deserted place.
What I learned was that here, in the most unlikely of places, was one of the largest remaining pieces of the original city wall of Athens. This wall dates back to at least 400 BC. It’s this crazy, cool historical artifact, and it’s sitting underneath a deserted shopping center.
The city of Athens in antiquity was eventually built over, because it was easier to use existing building foundations than to create new ones. These buildings were then built over. Then, these buildings were built over. What happens, then, is that a city of layers is created. The ancient artifacts, the stuff of the 5th, 6th centuries BC is found at a much lower level than the modern city. According to my professor, an archaeologist, several houses here have visible ruins in their basements that one can request in writing to visit if they desire to.
But this is a city of history. You don’t have to look in people’s basements to see some; it is ubiquitous. Every day while walking to class, I can look up and see the Parthenon. And in modern history, my school here is next to the stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.
Yet, some sites we visit have little to no remains. Just this week, we visited the Pnyx for history class. For those unfamiliar, it is quite literally the seat of democracy; it is here that Athenians first gathered to vote in a direct democracy for different issues. It’s on top of a hill, with a fantastic view of Athens and the Acropolis. All that remains is a stone elevated platform where the speaker stood, as well as a stone retaining wall. Other than that, one can only imagine the scene that must’ve happened, with over 8,000 citizens sitting right here voting over 2500 years ago.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned academically so far on this trip, it’s that much of history (and archeology) is visualization. The Athenians themselves who lived in these places so many years ago are the true cool part about any historical artifact. The buildings that remain? Simply an aid in imagining how these people once lived.
I’m a self-proclaimed city person, though I’ve never actually lived in one until Rome. Since living here, I’ve realized both that I was right - I love the city feel - and that at the same time, I really miss little things, like fresh air and grass.
While I am absolutely in love with Rome, I really appreciate our weekend excursions as a group to other places (especially those in the countryside). This weekend, our study abroad group visited Assisi, about a 3 hour bus ride north of Rome.
The first thing I noticed about Assisi was the quiet. Seriously. It’s such a tranquil place compared to the hustle and bustle of Rome. It was so nice to not constantly hear car horns blaring, dogs barking, or even just crowds of people talking. And when we walked the streets- gasp- there were no crowds to weave through most of the time. It was refreshing, to say the least.
Assisi is known for being the birthplace of St. Francis and St. Clare, so the visit was for my theology class. It is a beautiful place, beautiful in a different way than that of Rome. Less ruins, more rolling hills ‑ although I was still able to visit ruins, those of a castle, while in Assisi (called Rocca Maggiore).
The highlight of the trip was visiting one of the most beautiful basilicas I have ever been to, Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi (and I’ve visited more basilicas than I can count while here, so this is a compliment). This is the place of which St. Francis is buried underneath, so pilgrims from all over the world make the trek here just to see his grave. The basilica was built in the early 1200’s, and onto the side of a hill. Beautiful medieval frescos line the walls and ceilings inside.
I would be lying if I said that Assisi didn’t have a touristy feel- it was definitely there, but only on the main street that led to the Basilica of San Francesco. When I say touristy, I mean English-language menus, little stands selling Italian flags and T-shirts on the side of the street. When you live in Rome for a while, you begin to recognize tourist traps, and know how they can be avoided.
But our experience in Assisi- being shown around by a local, eating authentic Italian carbonara on the rooftop of a restaurant only reached by weaving through uphill alleyways in the old part of the town? That didn’t feel touristy one bit.
I probably could’ve stayed in Assisi all week. But, I have Rome (and several final exams) to welcome me back to reality. I have one last week in Rome - and two months left in Europe - and I intend to soak in the rest of the time I have left in this beautiful city.
I write this final post somberly knowing that my life abroad in the Emerald Isle is rapidly approaching its end. My academic semester ends in the next few days. I will be on a plane home December 12th after I do final travels with my family, which shall arrive shortly. It feels appropriate to sum up what I have accomplished on this trip (Warning long list approaching!): I have hiked three mountains and reached the highest point in Ireland and hiked in the Alps, I have traveled to five different countries, learned 2000 years of Irish history, literature and theology, deep sea fished, recorded a music video with Irelands leading musicians, tracked down family heritage, experienced the hostel life, lived out of a backpack for ten days, met Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), experienced several Irish pubs, traveled away from family for the first time, remained out of the States for over three months, gained new friends, had five different currencies in my wallet at one time, travelled via train, bus, plan, car, and foot in one day, ate a full Irish breakfast, learned how to cook without the microwave or frozen pizza, wrote this blog, tested myself on a ropes course, learned the words fortnight and penultimate, learned great card games, lessened dependence on electronics, wrote letters with a pen (mind blowing I know), mastered the Tube in London, became more sustainable, read several good books,went to nearly every corner of Ireland, tried several news foods, discussed the ramifications of a post-colonial society and neo colonialism, watched the sun set over Spiddal, and most of all I have had a most wonderful experience on this adventure in my life.
I look back on all that I have done and it is remarkable. Three months ago I arrived on the island not knowing what to expect. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I could not be happier about that. Some advice to any who are thinking about studying abroad is, do it. It is an amazing experience and I know if I had not gone on this abroad experience I would be kicking myself.
I have done things and changed in ways I may not fully understand. What I do know is I have done many things over the past few months and I look forward to the future, and what can be accomplished with it. While this chapter may soon be coming to a close, another is opening. The question remains, where will it lead? I am ready to find out.
Northern Ireland, a place of former turmoil is where my most recent excursion has taken me. !Warning! History lesson about to begin. Many people are familiar with the term “The Troubles.” This correlates to a time where Protestant and Catholics hatred grew into great violence. Now using the terms Protestant and Catholic is a very loose and not fully representative term for the true nature of the violence, but it is a simplistic way of describing the sides. During these times it was not uncommon for there to be deaths and shootings daily. There was a wide variety of strikes and protests. Cities became greatly segregated, and remain so. Walls were put up to divide the two distinct sides of the conflict.
In the current time Northern Ireland has enjoyed a state of grace for the past few years, however it is still rich with tension. This tension can be felt in the air as you walk down the street and seen in the elaborate murals painted on walls and buildings. The murals range from aggressive opinions to future prosperity. It is an unique experience to stand on the wall of Derry and see Irish flags on one side and British flags on the other. Additionally there is a mural saying “Free Derry” and on the other it reads “still under siege, no surrender.” These aspects alone create a tense atmosphere. This same tension can be felt in Belfast.
Now despite these tensions it did not hinder thee great experience. Fellow students and I were fortunate enough to be in Derry for Halloween. This is a big event in Derry as it draws crowds well over 50,000. It contains a parade which presents spectacular floats and displays. After the parade there is a fireworks show which was an impressive spectacle. I sported a purple morph suit this year for Halloween.
The end of this excursion signifies the near end of my study abroad experience. My academic semester officially ends November 26th. That is 19 days. I have one more excursion which will take me to Cork and Kilkenny. It is with this final experience that I will say farewell to the Emerald Isle and be bound for home.
While it may be hard to believe it, I am actually in Ireland for school. This entitles me to a fall break right? That is correct, ten days of traveling Europe. My travels brought me to London, Prague, Interlaken, and Geneva. London ways spectacular, Prague was full of surprises and Switzerland (Geneva and Interlaken) were absolutely splendid.
I arrived in London at night allowing me to see instantly the night life and lit up building such as the iconic Big Ben and impressive Westminster Abbey. The first day I went to the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. People were crammed into tight spaces in hopes of getting the best picture possible. After attending the Changing of The Guards I continued to Westminster Abbey. This was one of the top experiences for me in London. Westminster is full of such a rich history. In addition the architecture present was absolutely staggering. After ending my visit at Westminster a walk around the city was needed. It unfortunately rained most of the day, but I managed to stay relatively dry.
The next day consisted of mastering the Tube (subway). After an initial blur of lines and which color to take mastery of the tube was found. I went to the British museum, Kensington Palace, the famous Abbey Road, and many other sites around London. To end the day myself and those traveling with me went out to dinner to celebrate a birthday.
The next morning it rained again, but it was the departure day. After an early visit to the Tower of London I hoped on a train to the airport. The plane was bound to Prague of the Czech Republic. This was one place I did not know what to expect. London I knew Big Ben, Westminster, etc. It was to my great delight that Prague was one of the most beautiful sites. The easiest way to describe it is a giant palace. To further add to the delight is the low cost of living. To put it in perspective I was able to buy two large meals for about three dollars. That is because the currency exchange rate. Prague itself consisted of a tour of the city, visiting the largest castle in Europe, and night life in the Old Prague Square.
Soon my time in Prague expired and I began the trek to Switzerland. I arrived in Interlaken, Switzerland in the evening as I did in London. The difference was the Alps were not light up. It was not until the next morning that I saw the splendor of the Alps. It is quite strongly a saw dropping experience. The first day in Interlaken a few traveling companions and myself walked the city of Interlaken. We walked to the lakeshore which presented an incredible view with mountains as a back drop. We even managed to stumble upon a 13th century castle. It was a day which can best be described by the motto “We should do that!”
The adventure continued the next day as the same group of us hiked the Alps. We ascended roughly 1500 meters summating one of the lesser mountains in the Alps. It rendered one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. It was most rewarding after a near 4 hour ascent. The hike back down was filled with amazement at what had been accomplished, but was bitter sweet as our departure was the next day. Before my departure I went to a ropes course. The easiest way to describe this is a playground 20 meters up in the trees for adults. It consisted of over 20 sip-lines and countless obstacles pushing a person to the limits of balance and strength. It was further enhanced with the Alps in the back ground.
Once the ropes course had been completed it was time to travel to Geneva. The 3 hour train ride was stunning as the whole ride consisted of the beautiful landscape of Switzerland. I did not get the opportunity to do much in Geneva as it was simply a stop point before our trip back to my home away from home, Spiddal Ireland. The trip consisted of a train, plane, bus, and a cab. It was a welcoming experience to once again step foot in the cottages that I have come to know and love. Now back to that thing known as school…
The prior weekend was the first long excursion weekend of my study abroad. It took me to Glenstal Abby, Dingle, and Killarney. It was without a doubt one of the most impressive experiences I have had.
Glenstal Abby is a Benedictine order of monks. One of my professors is a member of this community. The trip to Glenstal consisted of an impressive tour of the castle like structure. Inscribed on the main gate was the word PAX, meaning peace in Latin. After our tour of this impressive castle some of us had the chance to celebrate mass with the monks. It was an unique experience has they still use Gregorian chant music. I must say it was incredibly beautiful.
Once we had said our good byes to the monks of Glenstal my group and I departed for Dingle. It is a small town that is located on the scenic Dingle peninsula. On our arrival the group got lost trying to find our hostel, despite the small size of the town. Our living situation was a little cramped as we had four people in a room that was about 6x8 feet.
Our next day consisted of an unusual opportunity; we had a free day to explore Dingle. This consisted of our group herding around the town looking around shops, going to aquariums, walking to the shore, and an amusing hurricane simulator. The evening finished strong as our group received the news of the Jonnies beating the Tommies. For those who do not know St. Johns and St. Thomas are rivals. On hearing the news our group began chanting down the streets of dingle drawing stares of clueless locals.
Once our stay at Dingle was completed we boarded the bus once again and began our drive to Killarney. Killarney is one of my favorite cities to date. It presents an unique feel. Additionally the tallest peak in Ireland is not far. This of course enticed many of our group to go climb this. We had already climbed one mountain (Crough Patrick) a week before. Crough Patrick was about 2,500 tall. The mountain we climbed was named Carrauntoohil. It is a little over 3,400 feet tall. This mountain creates and impressive shadow on the landscape. I distinctly remember our initial descent still in disbelief at what we were about to climb.
We were lucky on the day we decided to climb as it was the clearest day of the week. Once our group was together we began our walk to the base of the mountain. After a decent walk one of my fellow students asked own of our guides about how far we were and the guide replied, “Oh we have not even started.” Not long after that comment he pointed at a jagged wall and said “alright we are going to climb up right here, this is the first level of three.” At this point many of us became giddy with excitement, and anxious about what was in store for us. It took about three hours to complete the hike up to the top, six hours round trip. Our descent down took us to a path known as the devils ladder. It was aptly named as it consisted of sheer drops with jagged rocks jutting out. In addition a small stream poured into the path making it wet and slippery. Luckily for our group there were no major issues on our way down and we all made it back safely.
At this point the group and I were exhausted and ready for the long bus ride back, hoping to grab some shut eye. The bus ride back must have been the quietest bus as a good 80 percent of us were fast asleep. It was a fitting end note to an excursion of new heights.
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