These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
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.
As embarrassed as I am to admit this, before studying abroad I was anxious about almost everything that traveling involves. On the trip to Paris I took with my mom my junior year of high school I think I spent half the time we were there worrying. I was one of those people that focused on the who, what, where, when, why, and how's of travel, and wanted everything planned out. Now, 3 years later, I am here to say to anyone who is like I was, stop. Our lives are full of routines as it is, what time you go to work, when your favorite TV shows are on, homework deadlines, the list goes on. Travel should never be looked at as another thing you need to schedule, as it turns what should be an adventure into "What's next on our list?" So get rid of those guide books with the "Perfect itinerary for blank number of days in blank European City", and learn to let cities take you where they want you to go. While this line of thinking is true when it comes to most (if not all) European cities, my trip to Paris with my brother two weeks ago is the perfect example.
When my parents told me my brother was officially coming to visit, I could not have been more excited, and choosing between him flying into Amsterdam and Paris was an easy choice. I had been to Paris six times already but was still desperate to go back, so it was a given that I would choose my favorite city to show my brother. Other than booking our train tickets and where we would stay, I hadn't really thought of what we would actually do for 4 days in Paris. It wasn't until our last day there, when it was rainy and grey that I realized how bad plans can actually be.
When it comes to Paris and weather you never know what you're going to get. Rain could come unexpectedly, or the days you expected it to rain it could be a perfectly sunny day. On our last day in Paris, as the rain came down and my brother and I crouched under my umbrella, I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and thought of all those poor people who had planned to visit it that day. I think the worst advice any guide book can ever give is "book tickets in advance to avoid lines." Once you book tickets for something your day now revolves around that, rain or shine. You can't just wander the city, because you may actually get lost and miss the time on your ticket. You can't spend extra time at the museum you thought you'd only need a few hours for, because that would just ruin the whole day. I'm not saying you should go into a trip not having a few ideas of what you want to see, but to remember that most often times it's the things that surprise you that create the best memories.
You may be asking, how does one get the best of the planned and unplanned? It's quite simple, don't plan around the "tourist attractions", and fit them in when they work. The evening my brother and I went to the Eiffel tower we went because it was a clear day and I knew we would be able to actually see the city, and so we went. Going up the Eiffel tower on a nice day without advance tickets can seem impossible, but the stairs hardly ever have a line, and as my brother said, "Even on vacations, you shouldn't skip leg day." So while everyone waited in line for the elevators at the Eiffel Tower, my brother and I were already at the top sipping delicious, granted overly priced, champagne. When it comes to the Louvre, look at the forecast before bed and if it says rain the next morning, get there before it opens. Not only will you be one of the first in lines, but then you have a perfectly good reason to relax, enjoy a macaroon and espresso at Ladurée along the Champs Élysées later in the day. Get off at a metro or bus stop and walk. European cities are full of history; the chances of you running into something you wanted to see anyway are around 99%. On the off chance you don’t, your chances of finding a delicious, not overpriced tourist restaurant have now gone up exponentially.
All the trips I've taken this past semester have slowly helped me come to this one conclusion: people need to stop having checklists of all the monuments they need to see, and all the museums they feel the need to visit. I hope that travel can eventually stop being about how many things one got to see, and start becoming about the things one actually stopped and experienced.
How Plum Flowers Embarrass a Garden
When everything has faded they alone shine forth
encroaching on the charms of smaller gardens
their scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water
their subtle scent pervades the moonlit dusk
snowbirds look again before they land
butterflies would faint if they but knew
thankfully I can flirt in whispered verse
I don't need a sounding board or wine cup
林逋 Lín Bū (967-1028)
(Poems of the Masters; translated by Red Pine/Bill Porter, Copper Canyon Press, 2003)
梅花 méihuā. Song dynasty poets were enamored with them. Prunus mume, Chinese plum, Japanese apricot, ume from the Japanese, mei from the Chinese, winter plum – the flowering tree goes by many names.
The annual International Plum Blossom Festival begins in late February. By March, the Zhongshan national park on the edge of Nanjing is bursting with five-petal blossoms.
A few months ago, when a friend asked “what is Nanjing famous for?” I answered, “the massacre.” True, but a nicer answer would have been the plum blossoms. The festival officially launched in 1996, and while it still seems to be a well-kept secret, its organizers are aiming high, an event to rival Japan’s cherry blossoms. The “international” month-and-a-half festival is one the city government’s website boasts attracts millions.
I visited on a Wednesday, when only a sprinkling of people milled about. Sometimes I walked for full minutes without seeing anyone at all, a beautiful rarity in urban China. Many of the people there were workers pruning trees, or elderly people who seem to congregate in parks.
The smaller numbers might also have been because I entered the part of the park that required a ticket, leading to Plum Blossom Hill and the gardens staged after famous scenes from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber. I realized on my way out there was a back gate standing wide open.
That was toward the tail end of the festival, a beautiful late March afternoon. There were still quite a few blossoms, even if the lady selling tickets next to the big PLUM BLOSSOM FESTIVAL sign said when I asked where to find them, “oh, plum blossoms? Those are all gone.”
I would lose money on a bet to differentiate between plum and peach and pear blossoms, or cherry, but trees all over the mountain were still in bloom. There might have been some jasmine blossoms thrown in there, too, possibly osmanthus. Without a field guide it was hard to say.
As early as the blossoms come, the trees bear fruit in June and July, coinciding with the rainy season of East Asia. The downpours are called 梅雨 méiyǔ, the plum rains. The fruit is used to make sour plum juice, 酸梅湯 suān méi tāng, and of course 梅酒 méijiǔ, plum wine.
The Asian plum trees originated in southern China around the Yangtze river, later spreading to the other parts of Asia. There are rumors of a tree in Hubei province dating from the Jin dynasty, some 1600 years ago.
Plum blossoms are important in traditional painting, invested with a wealth of cultural and symbolic meaning, named in a long series of numbered lists: one of the four season flowers, one of the four nobles, the five petals symbolizing five fortunes.
While unequivocally proclaimed the city flower of Nanjing, there’s a bit of a contest over national flower status. The plum blossom since 1964 has been the national flower of the Republic of China, which is to say, Taiwan.
The Qing Dynasty declared the national flower of China the peony. The People’s Republic has gone through several nomination phases, but no single flower has been ratified as the final choice. Several factions were pushing for a dual-flower recognition of both the plum blossom and peony.
On the way out, I went past part of the Nanjing branch of the UNESCO-recognized world heritage Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
It’s a large park. I was wandering in the palace part, apparently still a hike from the actual tombs. The layout is similar to that of other famous imperial locales, the Forbidden City among them: thick-walled gates, wide outdoor corridors leading ever inward to taller guard towers and inner buildings.
Toward the back I ended up in a landscape that looked a bit like the Secret Garden. I kept wandering, not sure where it would lead, but eventually it looped back around to the palace complex where I could stand by the parapets and look down at the walkers and steamed-bun sellers below.
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