In two days’ time, I will be on a plane home to California after what’s been an incredible three and a half month adventure. During this semester, I’ve been on eight different trips to eleven European cities and nine countries, requiring 21 flights, as well as visiting four different cities in Scotland. It’s going to be quite strange to go back to the US and not travel every weekend. I ended it on a high note—traveling for a week to London and Rome—so I’m now completely satisfied that I was able to see everything I wanted to this year.
The first week of December was revision week, in which University of Edinburgh students are supposed to study for final exams, but my finals consisted of two essays, the topics of which I did not find out until the day after I returned from Rome, and an easy exam two days ago on the 17th. Thus, I took the week off to return to London to see all of the tourist sights I’d missed the first time, and to travel to Rome, one of the world’s greatest cities, period.
The last time I was in London, at the beginning of September, I didn’t like it very much at all because I had just stepped off a plane from the US and, to me, it was just another American city. After spending three months in Europe, though, I appreciated its familiarity. However, I also spent much more time at tourist attractions learning about London and its history, so I got a much more comprehensive picture of it that made me realize that it actually is a wonderful and uniquely English city. Of course, since I was staying with a friend who is studying there this year, I also got more of a local’s perspective. In short, my experience in London was entirely different this time, which is indicative of just how large and diverse it is.
I arrived in London on Sunday afternoon, December 1, via the train from Edinburgh. After all of the flying I’ve done this semester, I decided sitting on a train for six hours and looking at the English countryside sounded like a much better idea. That night, my host, Elizabeth, and I visited “Winter Wonderland,” London’s Christmas fair. German Christmas markets are actually a big deal in Europe, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find out, and they’re really a great way to put the whole city in the holiday spirit. I really think we should invest in them in the US, although we’d probably have to change the name to “holiday market.” Edinburgh’s is a street full of market stalls along the beautiful Prince’s Street Gardens that sell crafts and various fair foods and mulled wine, while London’s is a much bigger affair that fills the whole of Hyde Park with rides, food and drink tents, and a circus, in addition to the actual market part. Although I do like the quaintness of Edinburgh’s better, the Magical Ice Kingdom, a tent full of exquisite ice sculptures, and the crazy and slightly frightening circus we went to were quite fun. I’ll choose to ignore the part about the girl who burnt my coat with her cigarette and proceeded to yell at me for putting it out and instead post pictures.
For my first full day in the city, Elizabeth was slated to have class until 11 pm, so I decided to take a day trip to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Oxford. This was the first of my experiences in sightseeing alone, and, although there were a few times when I wanted to have someone take my photo or wanted to make a comment about something and couldn’t, I mostly appreciated the opportunity to see what I wanted to see and at my own pace. The fact that I got to see all three of these major English heritage sites in one day, and without having to do anything but get driven around on a bus, was also quite nice.
Windsor Castle, the queen’s residence in England, was gorgeous. I’ve now visited all of the royal residences—Holyroodhouse Palace, the royal vacation home in Edinburgh, and the now decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia included. They’re all equally lavish, although still different from one another, and it’s always incredible to see how much wealth is spent over the centuries on making one building so stunningly gorgeous. There’s really nothing like it in the US.
The next stop, of course, was possibly the most famous English attraction there is, and I’m happy to say it lived up to its fame. Although Stonehenge technically is only a couple of rocks standing on top of each other, it’s absolutely stunning to think that humans built this structure thousands of years ago. I probably suffer from a case of being Californian, in which anything older than the 1800s impresses me, but there’s more to it than that. Imagining what these people would have been thinking when they built it, and how they must have found it incredibly important since they constructed it over a period of several decades, is mind-boggling. Set against the English countryside and the gray skies, it’s also just beautiful.
The city of Oxford was not quite as impressive as Stonehenge, but it was still nice to see the home of the oldest university in the English-speaking world. The town is small but architecturally beautiful, and it’s actually bigger than St. Andrew’s—they have a street full of department stores! We didn’t get to see the dining halls that inspired the great hall in Harry Potter, but we did see the building used as the infirmary in the movie, and a lightning bolt on the pavement that supposedly inspired his scar.
The second day I was also on my own to see London, which was a bit lonelier than the first because I didn’t have a tour bus and guide to take me around. I decided to take a hop-on, hop-off bus instead, which has served me well in the past, but I think that was probably the only bad decision I made while there. I only used it three times but spent about 20 pounds, so it would definitely have been cheaper to use public transportation. Nonetheless, I managed to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, and the British Museum all in one day. Although, admittedly, I have seen my fair share of churches this year, St. Paul’s is breathtaking. I didn’t make it all the way to the top, but I climbed up enough stairs to be able to see out to the city below. Considering it’s one of the largest domes in the world, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
The Tower, like many castles, is massive on the inside despite looking relatively small from the outside. Walking through all of the buildings that at one time either housed soldiers or royalty was interesting, but I think the most fascinating part was the graffiti on the walls of what used to be prison cells. Standing in the same place where the poor souls who made those etchings would have been probably surpassed the Crown Jewels in my book, but the latter were also absolutely beautiful. The British Museum was also massive and somewhat overwhelming, so I didn’t see all of it, but the Rosetta Stone, mummies, and Ancient Greek pottery were certainly the highlights. As with many places I’ve been to this semester, it’s amazing to see things I’ve learned about in history and art history classes firsthand.
The third day in the city was by far my favorite day, partially because I was no longer on my own and partially because I got to appeal to my inner child and visit the Harry Potter studios. Before that, though, we toured Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames. Although the 17th century one was destroyed, and the new one only opened in the 1990s, it still delighted my English major self. As the reconstruction is as close to the original as possible, I could really imagine what it would have been like to go to the theatre in Elizabethan times. I’m not sure I would have wanted to, unless I was extremely wealthy, as the poor had to stand to watch the three-hour plays and the rest of the audience had to suffer through their stench, but the stage was gorgeous.
After a quick stop in the Tate Modern next door, which allowed me to see a few Picasso and Dalí pieces but wasn’t nearly enough time to really see it, we finally made our way to the crown jewel of my day: the Warner Brother studios. I won’t go into too much detail, as I realize not everyone shares my passion for The Boy Who Lived, but, essentially, almost all of the sets, props, and costumes are on display. We went on the Knight’s Bus, sat in Hagrid’s motorbike, tried butterbeer (super sweet, sort of like popcorn, but actually quite good!), and even saw the model of Hogwarts that is used in the movies each time there is a view of the castle. In a word, it was magical.
Our first full day in Rome was packed full of visiting tourist attractions. After having a cappuccino and a pastry at the same coffee shop where the guesthouse employee had been hiding, which came free with our room, we set off for the Spanish Steps. They were beautiful, but it was the nearby Trevi Fountain that really got me excited. I’ve seen it in movies, most notably “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” (my favorite movie ten years ago but not nearly as enjoyable when I watched it last week), but even that didn’t prepare me for how beautiful it is. The fountain is huge, the sculptures that comprise it are stunning, and the water is a beautiful shade of blue. Tossing a coin into the fountain and making a wish, and taking multiple photos of this, was necessary before heading off to the Pantheon.
I’ve always known Rome is meant to be a beautiful city, but I didn’t expect it to be as amazing as it was. After turning down every narrow, cobbled street and avoiding getting run over by a Vespa, we seemed to run into yet another gorgeous building. Sometimes they were actually famous, like the Pantheon, but more often than not they were just office buildings or hotels that just happened to have stunning and ancient architecture. I’ve never been to a city like that, except maybe Edinburgh, but that’s such a different kind of architecture that it’s hard to compare them.
In keeping with this, we turned down a small alleyway and there stood the Pantheon, the ancient building I’ve only ever learned about in history classes. It was lovely, especially the domed ceiling and the opening in the center, but I was honestly more impressed by the fact that such an architectural feat was accomplished so long ago than by its beauty.
By that time, it was 11 am, which meant it was no longer too early for gelato. We went in search of a place Sasha had been when she was there a few years ago and, with some help from Google maps, managed to find Giolotti, the oldest gelato shop in Rome. The Oreo gelato I had there might have been the best of the weekend. Along the way to our next stop, the Colosseum, we passed by the Castel Sant’Angelo, which we didn’t really know anything about but decided to enter. It was much different from any British castle I’ve been to, mostly because it was originally intended as a mausoleum and subsequently used to protect the popes that lived there and was decorated in an Italian style. It was neat to see, but the thing that really made it worth it was the amazing view of the city from the top. After that, we had worked up an appetite and decided to eat more pasta at a nearby restaurant.
Both of these detours, combined with the Italian bus system in which buses sometimes never show up at all and half an hour is wasted before deciding to find a new route, meant we didn’t get to see the Colosseum that day. We saw it from the outside, but we got there at 4 pm, half an hour after the ticket office closed. Before we got too upset, though, we called the Museum Borghese, which we were planning to see the next day, to see if they had any tickets left for that day. Luckily, since tickets are notorious for being difficult to secure, we were able to get two for the final entrance at 5 pm. Google maps found us a route that would get us there 12 minutes before that, and we decided we would see the Colosseum the next day. Although I’d never heard of it before, I loved the Museum Borghese. It’s basically a stunning mansion of an old wealthy Italian family that’s filled with sculptures and a few paintings. Some of them were beautiful, some were amusing, and they were all extremely impressive. And, in fact, it worked out better to see it that day, as it saved us time the next day.
Our dinner that night was the most amazing meal I think I’ve ever eaten. We found a great restaurant on TripAdvisor but, when we got there, we were told it was booked for the next two days. Sasha had the foresight to ask if there were any other good restaurants nearby, though, which is how we found this wonderful place. A little old Italian man who worked at the restaurant brought us outside to the main street, where he gave us directions to a nearby restaurant—he instructed me to remember the name of it (and congratulating me with “Brava!” after I remembered it) and Sasha to remember the name of the street. When he was convinced we would remember where it was, he left us and we made our way there. At this restaurant, too, the waiters looked uncertain of if they should let us in without a reservation, but they finally decided to sit us at an extremely tiny table by the door. It didn’t matter, though, because the Roman artichoke, gnocchi and rigatoni we had there were heaven on earth. We also picked out a wine from a book that must have been six inches thick, which complemented our meal perfectly. That, without a doubt, was the best meal I’ve had all semester, if not ever in my life, and a perfect way to end the night.
Our next day was much shorter, as we only had two things on the agenda. We stopped at the Colosseum first, to make sure we were able to see it, and I was yet again absolutely stunned by being in the presence of such a colossal (sorry) building built so long ago. It looks exactly like a modern stadium, or would if it weren’t in ruins, and I’m equally impressed by the Romans’ technological advancement as by how well it has withstood time. I could imagine the gladiators and animals that would have been on that stage just a hundred or so feet from me, and how it would have felt to be a Roman watching it play out under the very same bright sun I was standing under. It was wonderful, really—hence the fifty photos we took there.
The second part wasn’t spent in Italy at all, but in the Vatican City. After grabbing a panino (apparently that’s the singular form, not panini) to go, we entered the country and the Vatican Museums. I had never known there was more than one museum, but apparently the Pope’s collection is extremely vast—everything from Egyptian artifacts to maps of Italy to great paintings. The highlight, of course, was the Sistine Chapel. There are so many other tourists that you don’t really want to spend too much time looking at it, but it’s still absolutely breathtaking. Seeing the famous God-Adam painting that I’ve seen so many times but never in person was also quite special.
My favorite part of the Vatican was really St. Peter’s Basilica. It took us a while to figure out how to find it, and once we did where the end of the line was, but the inside was spectacular. I think it may have been the biggest church I’ve ever been in, and every single inch of it is so exquisite that I was in awe for the entire twenty minutes or so we were inside. It would be wonderful any time of year, but I really think we picked the best time, as it’s both Christmas season, meaning there was a (half-lit) tree in the center of the courtyard and the queues really weren’t very long at all.
After so much touring that morning, we decided to take it easy that afternoon and didn’t see anything else that day. The bus ride back to our guesthouse, though, was the least touristy thing we did all weekend and thus made up for it—I stood crammed into a corner by dozens of Italians and had to hold onto the railing and my purse for dear life. We couldn’t be kept away from our pasta and gelato for too long, though, and went out to get some to go later. Not quite as good as the day before, but it is Rome so it was delicious.
On my last day in Rome, Sasha had to leave by 9 am, but my flight wasn’t until 5 pm. Although I wasn’t too excited at first about exploring Rome alone, especially since I’d been worried all weekend about getting pickpocketed because of stories I’ve heard about Rome, it was immensely enjoyable. I started my day by returning to the cafe where we’d had breakfast to get a cappuccino, since the machine hadn’t been turned on the first time we were there, after which I made my way to the Roman Forum. I had seen it the day before from the street level, and I only really went inside because my ticket from the Colosseum also worked for the Forum, because it didn’t seem like going inside would be much different. I could not have been more wrong.
I spent two hours walking around the Forum, as well as Palatine Hill, which is in the same park, and was awestruck the entire time. Essentially, it’s a massive open space full of the ruins of the center of ancient Roman public life, as well as where the rich would have lived. Some of it is miraculously still standing, although generally it’s just the pillars that are, and some of it is completely in ruins. When I got there at 9 am, though, there was hardly anyone else there, the morning sunshine still had that beautiful post-sunrise quality to it, and all I could really hear were birds chirping. In this already magical atmosphere, walking amongst the ruins of civilizations long past was even more thrilling. By the time I was finished, the almost-noon sunny skies were beautifully bright blue,
When I left, I still had an hour and a half left before the time I said I would pick up my bags from the guesthouse, so I asked Google what else I should see in Rome. I ended up walking to the Campo de Fiori district, which is a large square that was filled with an open-air market, at least while I was there. On the way, I decided to walk past Turtle Fountain, which was featured prominently on my map but wasn’t any more special than any other beautiful part of Rome, and ended up walking stumbling upon a street in the Jewish Ghetto that was full of kosher restaurants. I didn’t get to explore it really, but it was interesting to see that part of the Imperial City. The market itself was mostly vegetables and souvenirs, nothing that I wanted, but I stopped in a restaurant nearby and ended up having the most delicious tomato-mozzarella-focaccia sandwich.
I ended my day with—what else?—gelato. I remembered that one of the gelato places near the Pantheon had rave reviews, so I decided to walk towards it to go back to the guesthouse. Gelateria Della Palma, as it was called, had an impressive display of what looked like a hundred flavors, and the chocolate-hazelnut-caramel one I had was heavenly.
Although the train ride to the airport was depressing, as I was officially ending my last trip of my study abroad semester and was just faced with finals, I am completely satisfied with my week, and I don’t think I could have picked a better way to end my travels. London and Rome are both amazing cities, and, between them, I feel like I’ve seen some of the greatest things the world has to offer. The combination of modern cities with centuries of fascinating history that they both have to an impressive extent is really what Europe is all about. They’re both so different, but both are beautiful, fun, and fascinating, and I’m so privileged to have seen the world in this way.