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Honors Abroad: Canvassing Europe

One of the hallmarks of an Honors education is the opportunity for students to expand their viewpoints and experiences through study away and study abroad trips. In recent years, students have spent semesters studying in Georgetown, taken artists’ retreats, and traveled on the Honors trips abroad to places from Spain, Israel, and Greece to Ireland and Turkey.

Below, read the tales of this summer’s trips to Europe.

Northern Europe

“How is it that a country like Germany, which has produced such cultural riches, could have embroiled itself in dark historical episodes such as the Holocaust, WWII, and the Cold War?” This is the question that approximately 25 students, led by Honors academic and study abroad advisor Robert Cremins, set out to answer this May. After completing a semester-long course called Europe: Splendor and Shadow, students continued their search for answers on a two-week tour of Northern Europe, which included stops in Amsterdam, Berlin, Leipzig, Meissen, and Prague.

At the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, students walked in the footsteps of Anne and her family as they hid in the back of a townhouse owned by a former employee of her father. At related sites in Berlin, including the starkly executed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Topography of Terror, a museum focused on the perpetrators of the Holocaust, the search for answers to the question posed by Professor Cremins was both difficult and profoundly sad. Nonetheless, for students, faculty, and staff, the journey was worth the difficulty.

“The guides had carefully planned each of our stops, and were always willing to share their knowledge, including some really poignant personal experiences from a guide who had lived in Prague during the Velvet Revolution,” said Katalina Serna (’12, Biology), recent graduate and co-founder of the HOPE Collaborative, an organization offering leadership training to students from at-risk populations. “This trip was a fantastic learning experience.”

Beyond the shadows there was also splendor, and other highlights of the trip included the beautiful castles and houses of Prague, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Johannes Sebastian Bach worked as an organist and composer, and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where guides explained the narratives expressed through original friezes from the Temple of Zeus in Pergamon (Turkey) and a full-size reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.


Professors Richard Armstrong and Helen Valier led a group of 19 students on a “bikes and volcanoes” tour of Italy in June 2012. Officially, it was the “Cultures of Italy Tour,” which introduced the 26 travelers to three of the country’s most  culturally significant regions: Tuscany, Lazio, and the Campania. But they did ride bikes, and there was a volcano. There was even a Nutella pizza.

The tour began in Florence, the “Cradle of the Renaissance” famous for its domed cathedral and immortal artworks. Students visited the Uffizi Museum, Pitti Palace, the Franciscan church of Santa Croce (where Machiavelli’s tomb is located), and the Duomo (some students even climbed the 463 steps to the cathedral dome’s summit). Even their hotel, the Hotel Leonardo da Vinci, recalled the Renaissance. “The irony of this hotel,” said tour leader Richard Armstrong, “is that I used to live in a pensione right around the corner from here when I was 19. I checked out my old address, and the same name is still on the buzzer after 30 years!” 

The tour took in the beauty of the Tuscan countryside as well. On one day trip, they toured the nearby city of Lucca by bicycle. Lucca retains its 16th-century walls, and now a broad bike path runs their circuit, allowing for easy access to the city’s highlights. Armstrong explained, “I try to remember these travelers are young people, so just dragging them through museums is not enough. They need something more interactive.” They also saw Pisa’s Square of Miracles, including the gorgeous cathedral and its famously leaning tower. 

Along the way to Rome, they visited the hill town San Gimignano, famous for its many medieval towers and picturesque streets. After taking in the views of the Tuscan countryside, Camden Kirkland proclaimed, “I am not going home EVER.” They also stopped in Siena to visit the extraordinary cathedral and the lavishly decorated Piccolomini Library. During their two days in Rome, the group toured the Vatican, including St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums. They also met with FEET travelers Frances Guerrero and Catrina Kim(see FEET story, below).

Heading south, the group next went to Naples and Sorrento, where they toured the world-famous archaeological museum, stuffed with the riches of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Jonathan Sherer was especially eager to view the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great fighting the Persian King Darius. “I am a huge Alexander fan,” he explained. The group then endured the rigors of a resort hotel in lovely Sorrento, complete with swimming pool and sunny terrace. This was only to rest up for an active day of walking the streets of Pompeii and climbing the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius to view its deadly crater. “This is one thing off my bucket list,” said Caitlin Lowe as she climbed the steep trail to the summit. 

A final day back in Rome was spent touring the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Pantheon. “We saved the best for last—but then again, I may be a little biased here,” said Armstrong, a classics professor and well-known apologist for all things Roman. “The Romans would have been proud of our group. There was no mutiny and we didn’t lose a single one of our party. We didn’t conquer anything, but neither did we surrender. Let’s call that a moral victory.”


Established in 2006 by Honors alumni Hanneke Faber (’90, Journalism) and Aris Economon (’89, Economics) with the belief that “individuals cannot consider themselves well-educated without having experienced Europe firsthand,” the Faber-Economon European Travel (FEET) scholarship provides an opportunity for two Honors College students who have never been abroad to experience Europe.

This year’s winners, Frances Guererro and Catrina Kim, share an excerpt from their Diary of FEET, below. The two, who didn’t know each other well before winning the scholarship, met weekly over the spring semester to discuss their ‘homework’—reading all the Rick Steves guidebooks and planning their trip. Catrina, a music major who plans to pursue her doctorate in music theory, is particularly excited about being in Europe—the birthplace of classical music and where she feels “music is most alive.” Frances has been getting a lot of travel advice from her grandmother, a travel agent, and is excited to “get to know herself a little more.” Although she’s normally “a planner,” she knows that she’ll have to let her guard down a little on the trip.

Diary of FEET

Catrina: The Hague

After spending yesterday adjusting to the seven-hour time difference between Houston/Chicago and The Netherlands, today we did a walking tour of The Hague. Dr. and Mrs. Faber are graciously hosting us until Wednesday, when we leave for Paris. They directed us toward some great sights including the enormous painting Panorama Mesdag.

Frances: Amsterdam

We dressed for cold weather when we left Den Haag because the temperature had been around mid 50s/60s. Amsterdam surprised us with its warm weather! On the train ride to Amsterdam we met a young lady named Meer who ended up staying with us the whole day and gave us a personal tour of the city. We were fortunate to have experienced the city as the locals do—by bike! We visited the Anne Frank House, walked through the Red Light District, and relaxed at the Rembrandt Plaza. Catrina and I were surprised at the design of the houses: small, narrow, and slightly tilting forward, all from the 1500s. Overall, Amsterdam was a great first stop on our own, especially since the Dutch speak English!

Catrina: Paris

We have already seen much of the city: the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Versailles, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the Eiffel Tower! Needless to say, our walking shoes have proven very handy. I have found the Orsay a definite highlight of our trip so far; though the collection was too large to see in a single day, we caught many of the standouts. The Symbolist painters, especially Redon, resonated with me most strongly. We look forward to seeing the Arc de Triomphe and a cruise on the Seine tomorrow!

Frances: Geneva

What a beautiful lake! Our hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, was situated right along Lake Geneva. This was a brief stop but still very worthwhile. Our hotel was luxurious and pristine. We strategically stayed in Geneva so that I could see how hotel operations work in Europe compared to the US. In the morning we took boat tours on the lake and left for the next city.

Catrina: Milan

This morning, we enjoyed a guided tour of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and the art and architecture of Santa Maria delle Grazie and of the Church of Saint Maurizio. We followed this tour with a visit to the Duomo, Europe’s fourth-largest cathedral full of vivid stained glass and sculptures. The real standout of our stay, however, was seeing Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at the famous opera house La Scala. The beautiful interior combined with world-class music and musicianship made for an incredible experience.

Frances: Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

“Can we stay and live here, please?” The sea views were breathtaking. We stayed in Riomaggiore, one of five villages in the Cinque Terre. Nature trails and a train connect  the villages, and all face the Mediterranean Sea. Standing on the cliffs overlooking the blue waves, the breeze was palpable and we really enjoyed the chance to relax and soak in the views. 

Catrina: Venice

In scenic Venice, even the vaporetto rides from Murano, Burano, Cimitero, and the mainland were memorable experiences. We saw a neat demonstration of glassblowing in Murano—a long and hot process! We were grateful to end our day of island-hopping with a delicious scoop of peach gelato by the Rialto bridge.

Catrina: Naples

After getting thoroughly lost within the first half-hour of our arrival, we finally found our hostel and settled in. We enjoyed a pleasant evening walking along the coast—with incredible views of the neighboring islands—and eating genuine Neapolitan pizza!

Frances: Pompeii

Pompeii was truly a learning moment for us. I knew the history and the significance of the ruins, but seeing the more intimate details of the site was exquisite. We walked a large portion of the ruins and cobblestone roads, but knew we would not see everything. I was most impressed with the Roman baths—they had steam rooms! Inside, the ceilings were grooved so that condensation would not drip on people as they were using the facilities. Even in 7th century BCE people experienced the same problems as today.

Frances: Ischia

We took a ferry to Ischia from Naples, and sadly, got seasick! Ischia is a beautiful island. I have family there so we met up with my aunt Mary and she showed us the sights. According to my aunt, celebrities like Jennifer Lopez vacation in Ischia. We made our way to the beach and relaxed. It was very calming just to close your eyes  and hear the waves. We did not want to leave!

Frances: Rome

Rome is such a great city. The people are nice and it is safe to walk around at all times of the day. We have really enjoyed the sightseeing here, especially the Trevi fountain! I also was impressed by the Borghese Gallery. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculptures particularly caught my attention. I think my favorite sculpture is Daphne and Apollo. Daphne changes into a tree as a madly in love Apollo chases her. Overall, an enchanting experience.

Catrina: Rome

By now, we have spent a full five days in Rome. What stood out for me were the grand Colosseum and the stunning art at the Vatican. We visited the Colosseum on our very first morning in Rome. Stepping inside, its sheer size blew me away...and while it has sustained significant damage, it is truly amazing that this centuries-old structure still stands. The following day, we visited both the National Museum of Rome (in the morning) and the Vatican (in the afternoon). At the National Museum, I enjoyed an ugly bust of Socrates along with shockingly effeminate representations of the god Dionysus. But our visit to the Vatican was incredible: the art on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and walls was vivid and emotional, St. Peter's Basilica sweeping and grandiose.