Top Ten Favorites Abroad

image by zug55

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, the first place I set foot outside the USA, is hard to top.  South Africa is a heartbreakingly beautiful country and Cape Town is its crown jewel.  From the Atlantic Ocean, the city rises quickly and majestically toward Table Mountain. Roads weave up the slopes, lined with white and pastel houses that vary in style from Dutch Colonial to Modern. The Botanical Garden is filled with interesting plants. The waterfront mall is within walking distance of a penguin colony. At the top of Table Mountain, you'll find dassies, little rabbit-like animals whose closest living relative is the elephant.  And on an island in the harbor, a man who would later become the first non-apartheid leader of the modern country was jailed for 27 years.  It's hard to reconcile the beauty of the landscape with the story of its people, but together they make South Africa one of the most unique places on earth.

image by bass_nroll

Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa
I honestly don't have much to say about Tsitsikamma, except that it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.  If you have the chance to go, take it.  It's at the end of the world, and it feels like it.

image by Wild Dogger

Safaris in Shamwari Game Reserve and Kruger Nat' Park, South Africa
Of course, a safari would have to be on the "tops" list.  We went on two in South Africa, one to a private game park called Shamwari, and of course, the other at Kruger National Park.  I'm glad to be able to compare the experiences, as both had their advantages.  Shamwari was smaller and more personal - only about six people per vehicle meant much more one-on-one with the guide.  While the large cats were enclosed in their own separate area, going off-road to find the animals meant we saw loads more of them in a very short amount of time (a baby rhino stole the show).  Afterwards we were treated to tea and hot chocolate up at the lodge.  Meanwhile, Kruger is known around the world and is immense.  We spent our two days there in one corner of the park and still felt we'd seen a lot.  It generally took longer to find the animals and the vehicles held many more people, but the night-time safari and staying overnight were definite advantages.  Plus, lions, roaming free!  By the side of the road, or in the road, in some cases.

image by WJMcIntosh

Neuschwanstein, Bavaria, Germany
This is what we expect castles to look like as children.  We grow up and learn that real castles are made of grey stone and are stalwart and boxy and drafty.  They rarely have soaring turrets and are much smaller than we'd thought.  Neuschwanstein is the exception.  The structure may have inspired Cinderella's castle, but it was inspired itself by fairy tales and operas.  A reality-defying castle built by a "mad" king, Neuschwanstein is perfectly set - perched up on a mountain, surrounded by forests and waterfalls.  The inside is decorated like something out of a fantasy, though pictures are not permitted and your memory both fades and embellishes the interiors in your mind once you've left.

image by Patrick.Raymond

The Vatican, Vatican City
I'm not Catholic, which colors my view of the Vatican as more of a cultural experience than a religious one. I'd read The Agony and the Ecstasy in my Aesthetics class, so perhaps it was Michelangelo's work that really impressed me.  The Sistine Chapel was jam-packed and filled with annoying guards hushing people one moment, then yelling, "No pictures!" the next.  The artwork still managed to transcend the experience.  In St. Peter's Basilica, I ditched our guide and walked around on my own.  The place is enormous.  I love Rome in general (and yes, I'm purposely ignoring that the Vatican is its own state as I say this) because it's living history in a way no other city is.

image by claudio.marcio2

The Louvre, Paris, France
First of all, I love the name of this museum.  I will never be able to pronounce it quite right, but "LOU-vre" is so much fun to say.  Anyway, the pyramids were still fairly new and novel when I went there and the entire entry was quite impressive. I treated my short time at the Louvre almost like another safari.  The Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Michelangelo's Dying Slave were my "big four".  (I had hoped to see some Ingres as well - another fun one to pronounce - but that wing was closed at the time.)  Though I spent enough time looking at each to satisfy me, I still managed to knock off my itinerary in record speed.  I wandered and saw a bit more, but by this point, I was *done*.  I left the building and walked around the Tuileries Garden by myself.  Paris is a place I'd love to go back to and spend more time on everything, but art especially.  The Louvre, Musée d'Orsay, Musée de l'Orangerie... with a side trip to Giverny.

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Harry Potter and London, England
College and Harry Potter are tied together for me - I was obsessed with the series and most of my friends from that time were people I met because of the books.  When one of the group did study abroad in Brighton for a year, we decided to take  a trip to visit her.  Four of us flew to London, where one of the friends, webmistress of a major Harry Potter news site, had business to attend to.  The rest of the time was spent visiting so many of the things I'd missed in London on the first go-round - the Tower of London, the Globe Theater, the British Library, Covent Gardens.  And of course, we made the pilgrimage to Platform 9 3/4 in King's Cross Station.  (We also explored Euston, to see if Rowling had indeed mixed up the platform numbers.) After wasting a couple hours at a pub, we had the nerve to go and get a picture with Ian McKellan by a stage door, without actually having attended the play.  Then, like Lydia Bennet, it was off to Brighton.  A few months later, I would return there to read the 5th Harry Potter book.  After receiving our books at midnight, we ran down to the beach and read all night.

image by TiaBat

Venice, Italy
You know a place has gotten under your skin when you smell a faint whiff of sewage and fondly think, "Ah, Venice..."  But I should explain.  Does Venice stink in the summer, as so many would-be tourists want to know?  It does, in certain places.  In my particular case, I'm recalling a  tiny back street on the island of Giudecca, a street 99.9% of tourists will never walk down.  For me, it was part of the walk from painting class to the small shop where I'd buy lunch.  The laundry-lined streets were sunny and empty at noon, my classmates and I were on break, and the shop had a barrel of wine where locals would fill up their plastic jugs for less than 10 euros.  I spent about six weeks living in Venice thanks to my school's study abroad program.  At the time, it was the hottest summer on record and our apartment in Castello had no AC.  Looking back, I still wouldn't trade it for the world.  My advice for Venice is this - stay overnight.  Once the tourists leave for the day, Venice is a different place.  Second, if you have more than an afternoon, get lost (it's the easiest thing). Make sure you see Piazza San Marco, then step away and wander down to very edges of Dorsoduro, Cannaregio, Castello - maybe even take the boat across to Giudecca.  The perfect light is much more enjoyable when you don't have to share it with 20,000 other people.

image by *sarahdippity

Cinque Terre, Italy
This side-trip from Venice did not begin with promise.  Our train was delayed in Bologna, which meant we arrived in Parma minutes after the final connecting train had left for the night.  After spending the evening in a square near the university, we boarded our final train and watched, bleary-eyed, as the countryside slipped by.  Emilia Romagna seemed to be the one green corner in Italy that summer, which already made it feel a little unreal.  Between the lack of sleep and the heat, that sense of other-worldliness continued as we stumbled out of the train at Riomaggiore. After dropping our things at the apartment, we felt refreshed walking the easy paved section of trail to Manarola.  It was a sunny day, and the turquoise sea and steep slopes were dream-like.  The next two sections of the trail were much tougher and the day got hotter.  The sea, hundreds of feet below, looked inviting.  We stopped at Vernazza for lunch and many of us called it a day.  We went back to Riomaggiore and swam in the water by its rocky beach.

A Week in Umbria, Italy
At the end of my study abroad program, my parents and brother met me in Venice for our first, and only, trip abroad as a family.  We spent the next two weeks traveling around Italy, from Tuscany to Rome.  While the entire trip was great, the week we spent at a rented villa in Umbria was truly wonderful.  The villa itself was a small converted barn, at the top of a steep gravel road.  As hair-raising as the drive up was, it was worth it for A) the view and B) the pool.  Again, it was the hottest summer since 1540, so between daytrips to places like Cortona (a stone's throw away), Assisi, and Gubbio, we ate good food, enjoyed the breath-taking view, and stayed in the pool.

*Note: Someday, I hope to put my own pictures in this post.  (What did we do before digital cameras?)  Until then, thanks, Flickr. 


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