I remember seeing a picture of Italy for the first time on a calendar in third grade. It portrayed a beautiful river flowing between buildings, carrying a long canoe with two lovebirds and a standing striped man with a stick. Growing up in a rural farm town, tractors were the closest thing I knew to a slow, romantic ride anywhere; surely this magical place must be made-up! I was in disbelief when I learned that such romantic streets of water actually exist, but I never thought I would be so lucky as to fulfill my dream of experiencing them firsthand.
This past May, I did. As I clambered into a an old gondola and plopped myself down on a tattered velvet stool, I couldn’t help but laugh at my own striped gondolier, who didn’t sound Italian at all, while he belted passionate songs of spaghetti and tortellini. He kicked off the wall and steered a small group of my friends and me through Venice, Italy, playing bumper-boats along the way. Apparently, the pictures I had seen in my childhood had been an overly romanticized version of such an experience, although I’m sure it was once a delightfully peaceful part of everyday life in Venice. I don’t mean to imply that my own experience wasn’t absolutely beautiful, but what the pictures don’t portray is waiting in line, paying 20 Euros, and being caught in nautical traffic jams in tight canals flooded with tourists.
Venice was the first place Ashland University’s Honors Program traveled on our Italy: The Grand Tour study away trip from May 29-June 11, 2015. Our group of about 20 then ventured to Florence, where we were able to see the Duomo, one of the largest cathedrals in the world, and Michelangelo’s sculpture of David from the Bible. Taking an art class prior to our trip (where I sadly realized I could barely even draw a believable human) really made me appreciate true artwork when I was finally able to stand next them in person.
During one of our days in Florence, our tour bus hauled our Ashland group to Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower and the surrounding Baptistery and Cathedral. One cannot simply visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa without posing like a tourist, so of course I had to.
I was so glad to have packed comfortable walking shoes, especially because my feet were unfamiliar with unending cobblestone roads (sidewalks, for the most part, were nonexistent). We walked around the city of Assisi and through the Cathedrals of St. Francis and St. Clare. It seemed like everything was scaled at least twice as large as any building I was used to seeing in Ohio. Different parts of each city we visited held beautiful historical significance that was so interesting to learn about.
After getting used to being in crowded cities with restaurants, bistros, and shops every few steps, we visited the ancient city of Pompeii (cue song by Bastille). We walked past the ruins of drive-up bakeries, amphitheaters, and even brothels with stone beds (ouch!). On top of that, these ancient peoples had built gyms, locker rooms, public baths, and working saunas. I couldn’t believe how advanced this civilization had been way back in 79 AD. The uncovered remains of the city just opened up a whole world of seemingly promising history that ended in unimaginable tragedy caused by Mount Vesuvius.
One of my favorite places we got to explore was the island of Capri. This would be a perfect place for a relaxing (expensive) vacation on the water. The views from our boat tour and from the top of the Island were absolutely breathtaking. I’ll let my pictures do the talking…
While in Rome, our group also saw the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and underground catacombs. We spent an entire day in the Vatican City, which included St. Peter’s Basilica and more of Michelangelo’s famous paintings in the Sistine Chapel.
Bustling through the crowded streets of Italy as a foreigner was such a far leap from walking the sidewalks of Ashland. Sure, not everything turned out to be exactly as I had imagined, but my 12-day journey through Italy was both educationally fascinating and deeply humbling. Studying pictures from a calendar or textbook just doesn’t quite have the same eye-opening effect as touching the walls of the Colosseum, and for that experience, I will forever be grateful.