During the spring, many students begin to wonder how they might spend their summer. Do they participate in this study abroad program, that internship program, or this volunteer program? This past spring I experienced the same dilemma.
I applied for a three-week summer travel study program in Italy, hosted by the Vergilian Society. We were to travel through southern Italy, viewing sites such as Pompeii, Sulmona, Sorrento, and Paestum. However, I knew that I wanted a longer experience abroad and I was lucky that, through my position here at the Center for Hellenic Studies, I received the opportunity to travel to Greece for three weeks afterward to meet the staff of CHS Nafplion.
I would like, then, to compare my two experiences for students who are unable to decide between a program in which they would be part of a group (being led site to sites and given daily instruction) or something more open-ended (where they would be responsible for their own activities).
I enjoyed both of my experiences greatly – each in their own ways. When I was in Italy, I had the comforts of a schedule and a group setting. I was able to converse frequently with the other tour participants about Classics and the historical landmarks we were visiting. We bonded through photographs and mishaps, gelato and bright-green drinks, and a strange convertible taxi ride through Capri. In Greece I was able to enjoy independence. I wandered archaeological sites and Athens alone. I learned to take life slowly and to not let anxiety rule my day.
When I was selecting my Italian study abroad program, I was looking for a program in which I could experience locations I would not travel on my own. When looking at the itinerary for the Vergilian Society’s summer program, I noticed that it contained some locations about which I knew nothing along with more popular destinations such as Pompeii and Herculaneum.
We began our trip in Rome, even though it was not an official stop on our list. We went to the Forum, the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Ara Pacis. We also visited the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and Trajan’s forum. Of these sites, I enjoyed the Palatine Hill the most. As we wandered through this site, I found myself wanting more and more to explore the inner parts of the buildings. Most of these were not open to the public, however. It was spectacular to see ancient walls surrounding us – the same walls through which emperors would have walked.
We journeyed east from Rome to Sulmona, a quaint town with spectacular views of the mountains. From Sulmona we traveled to Sora and Arpinum. I loved most the architecture of these towns – each building has its own unique character and charm.
There are, however, drawbacks to touring sites within a group, no matter how small. Because we only had hours and not days or weeks to visit these locations, we had to bypass many features. We rushed past houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum, statues and paintings in museums, and alleyways and side streets in Rome. Sometimes, however, my curiosity would overcome me and I would have to run over quickly to see a wall painting or glance through a window.
I found myself wishing I had more freedom from the group. I wanted to spend more time in this museum or that dig site. I had a tendency to wander around, and occasionally wander off – leaving the beaten path and poking my head into any hole, cave, or doorway I could find. Because I found so many aspects of both the ancient and modern cities intriguing, I often fell behind when the group was moving forward. I always wanted just one last look at this painting or that sculpture.
I had a very different experience when I journeyed from Italy to Greece. The second leg of my trip began with navigating Fiumicino airport alone. I chatted animatedly with the other people standing in the 60-person line at the check-in counter. Once I arrived in Athens, I took a most frightening cab ride to the KTEL bus station at which no one spoke English. I bought my ticket at went to what one might call a food court and made sure I sat with my back to the wall since there were small children who were eying my bag. After an amusing conversation with the person sitting next to me on the bus – I spoke no Greek, he spoke no English – I soon arrived in Nafplio.
When I arrived at the bus station, one of the Center’s interns was waiting to meet me. I would be staying with her for a few nights, after which she would leave and I would have the apartment to myself. I was able to spend time with a few of the interns from that summer’s program and become acquainted with the town. We went to dinner and they showed me where the best coffee shops, ice cream shops, and tavernas were.
The next day, and for several days afterward, I was spending time at the Center and exploring Nafplio. I went to Palamidi with a friend from Poland whom I met at the Center, hiking all the way to the top. Once inside the fortress, we explored every inch of the place – we left no room unvisited. It was nice to be able to walk through the site without a time limit and without a group. We were able to find out anything we needed to know about the place from a guidebook and our own wanderings. We then climbed back down the mountain and had coffee at a local coffee shop. During the week, we visited tavernas at around 10:00 p.m. and had lunch at 2:00 or 3:00 – adapting the schedules of the locals. I browsed shop windows at leisure and visited the beach after work every day.
Unfortunately, I caught a stomach virus toward the end of my stay in Nafplio. The staff at the Center took very good care of me, but I eventually had to go to the hospital for rehydration and antibiotics. I was unable to do much for the rest of my trip until I hitched a ride with the Harvard Summer School group to Athens. I could barely carry my own bag, but I was still determined to be independent – quite literally dragging it through the streets to meet the bus.
We went straight to the new Acropolis Museum in which we once again had to have a guide. This was the only day, however, that I was with a group. The Harvard students returned to Nafplio the next day and I was again on my own.
I made my way through Athens the next day to meet with one of the staff of CHS for lunch and discussion about the next year’s internship program. I navigated the city streets and the metro with no problems at all. The metro was a pleasant walk from my hotel, and it has conveniently-located stops throughout the city. I felt less and less like a tourist because I was in Athens with a purpose other than sightseeing.
I decided that I would go to the Acropolis on my last day in Greece and made the trip there almost entirely by foot. I finally felt like myself again after my illness and was ready for a challenge. I stood in line for about 2 hours in 102-degree heat and bonded with my fellow Parthenon goers with whom I was literally rubbing sweaty elbows. I do not know how much time I spent on top of the Acropolis, but I enjoyed every second of the freedom I felt wandering the site entirely alone. I hiked down to the ruins below after I took my mandatory pictures of Antiquity’s greatest temple and poked my head into every hole I could find. I am sure I drew some strange looks as the girl who seemed to have no purpose. I, however, knew my purpose – to experience history for myself, without guide or guidebook.
I have often heard that travel changes people. Sometimes this change can be for the worse, but more often the change is for the better. When I journeyed to Italy and Greece this summer, I found myself changed for the better upon my return home. I had become more independent and more comfortable being with new people in new places. I found that I did not have to panic over small (or sometimes quite large!) mishaps or illnesses. Anxieties were lost on the trains and busses between locations. I cared not how or when I arrived at my locations – only that I arrived and that I loved every minute of being there.
If you have travel-study or Classical Studies travel stories that you wish to share, please e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will post them on the Sunoikisis site!