Nathalie Herrera: Grand Tour 2022

Glimpses Through Time

Our modern-day Grand Tour of Italy was one of excitement, exploration, passion, and most of all, self-reflection. The excitement of visiting such a beautiful country for the first time with several of my peers. The desire to explore everything from the giant monuments to the hidden side streets. The passion to learn the history and culture of Italy through first-hand experience. The self-reflection of recognizing where I stand in this vast world and the grand scheme of things.

As a first generation Cuban American, I have spent almost my entire life in Miami, Florida and have sparsely traveled. In Miami, I feel that I am in a bubble: surrounded by comfort and belonging. Yet, something was missing in my life. Once I heard about the month-long adventure in Italy through FIU, I was hooked. It was a chance to get out of my comfort zone and expand my world view.

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We began our journey in Rome. As the first city I have ever visited in Europe, I was in awe. A lot of things felt familiar: the crazy streets and traffic, graffiti, apartment buildings, and tourists everywhere. Yet, it did not take long to realize the key differences. Rome is a grand and ancient city. Ruins lie all around in plain sight. Within only a few miles from each other, there is the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Spanish steps, and the Trevi fountain – and these are just a few of the major monuments. By seeing all this grandeur in person, it makes me wonder how life was like 2,000 years ago at the height and fall of the Roman empire. I decided to put myself in the shoes of the people who walked these cobblestone streets and dirt paths before me. As we walked into the empty Colosseum, I closed my eyes and imagined myself a fearsome gladiator. The year is 192 AD in Rome. The Colosseum was no longer empty – the stands were packed to the brim. The amphitheater was roaring with excitement as thousands chanted my name. I step forward through the sand and rock all around me and wonder who (or what) my next opponent will be. I am willing to die for Rome.

Rome was a city and empire of undying loyalty. Citizens were proud to be Roman, and people from around Europe wanted to be a part of this empire. They allowed religious freedom, as long as Roman gods were also worshipped, and provided protection from outlying states. To this day, these principles still apply. Around the city are the most lavish and ornate Catholic churches. However, the ruins of ancient Roman temples are also scattered around, most notable of which was the Pantheon that we visited. Not only that, but the Jewish Ghetto offered a look into a culture and religion that doesn’t usually come to mind first when we think of Rome. This area has been home to Jews since ancient times, and to this day serves as a religious and cultural community, as seen by the Great Synagogue of Rome and the restaurants lining the streets serving falafels and artichokes in all forms.

I find this analogous to the United States from even before it was considered a country. Pilgrims flocked to the new world because of an idea of religious refuge from the persecution they were facing across Europe. Today, people from Latin America and around the world chase the “American Dream.” As a daughter of immigrants, I understand this need to pursue a better life by moving to the states. The United States offers protections of personal freedoms and allows the opportunity to move up in the world. America has always been seen as the chance for growth and a new start: a melting pot of diversity. Rome was very similar in this aspect. Take the great Constantine for example. He was born to a low-class mother and his father was an army official. Through great work in his military career, he was able to ascend to the position of Emperor of Rome, and one of the most important ones at that

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The year is 1510 in Florence. As the morning sky awakens, I cross the Arno River through Ponte Vecchio and see the store owners setting up shop for the day. The gold and silver jewelry shimmer against the morning sun. On my commute through the city, I always take a little detour in order to pass through Piazza della Signoria before going about my day. Michelangelo’s David, in all his glory, firmly stands his ground at the square. The 17-foot tall statue gazes towards Rome, a symbol of the strength, beauty, and independence of Florence.

Florence is known as the birthplace of the Renaissance. The capital of Italy’s Tuscany region, it is a cultural hub. Brunelleschi’s Duomo rises above the surrounding buildings as a great architectural feat. Within the Uffizi gallery walls are the famous works of Botticelli such as the Birth of Venus and Primavera. Throughout the city, I was able to physically distinguish the shift that took place centuries ago from a spiritual perspective of the gothic era to a more human one of the Renaissance.

During the Middle Ages, spirituality was the main focus of everyone. The artwork and architecture were all based on the underlying theme of religion, specifically Christianity. As we hopped from church to museum, I observed Madonnas and Pietas all around me. The figures were surrounded by gold linings and had little dimensionality. The purpose of these works was to highlight Jesus and the Virgin Mary’s spirituality. They were not something to relate to, but rather what people were supposed to worship and look up to. As time progressed, the artworks gained the dimensionality they were missing and lost the elaborate gold decorations. They became more human and relatable with the rebirth of classical ideas – the Renaissance.

The Renaissance did not only affect art, but it also affected the culture of Florence. People no longer dedicated all of their time to God and worship. New trades began and spread around Florence. Thanks to the Medici family, the Ponte Vecchio bridge became a place to window shop and purchase beautifully ornate jewelry such as bracelets, rings, and more. Leather making was popularized and refined here. People were becoming more focused on worldly aspects of life.

We see the two influences (spirituality and excess) side by side throughout the city. For example, standing at the Piazza Santa Croce, the first thing to catch my eye was the Basilica di Santa Croce. The Catholic church was beautiful with its white and pink marble façade and the striking blue star in the center. However, taking a look around, you notice that the plaza was lined with leather shops selling purses, wallets, and belts. A brief walk only a block away led us to the Scuola di Cuoio (the leather school of Florence). The school sells high end leather products that are made on site by highly trained artisans. The neighborhood of Santa Croce perfectly exemplifies the dichotomy of Florence.

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         The year is 1258 in Venice. I simultaneously feel the cool breeze across my face and the scorching heat from the flames of local glass blowers perfecting their craft. I cross bridge after bridge, canal after canal to reach Piazza San Marco. As I sip on my morning coffee, I take a look around. Boats float on by and people are constantly on the go. The Basilica looms over me and the bell tower leans over me. This city is sinking, but it is also rising to new heights.

         Venice is a one-of-a-kind city. It has been given several nicknames over the years: the “city of bridges,” the “city of canals,” and the “floating city” just to name a few. Though now a major tourist spot, at its peak, Venice was a commercial city through and through. It is a city built on water, specifically on submerged tree trunks placed in the lagoon. Because of this, the city is basically sinking and always in need of repairs as the saltwater rises up the infrastructure. At St. Mark’s square, I even noticed the indentations in the plaza’s stone from water damage. Due to its location and insurmountable naval capabilities at the time, Venice took control of all major trading routes.

         Centuries ago, Venetians would travel along the Silk Roads, exchanging goods and ideas. Anything and anyone who wished to utilize these routes would have to cross Venice, in turn contributing to its economy and power. Its commercial and capitalistic tendencies are comparable to the United States today. The U.S. is known for its multimillion-dollar businesses such as Amazon and Walmart. These large-scale businesses mass produce items and cater to large populations. Venice is also similar to United States in its smaller scale craftsmanship. Today, small businesses grow from their niche products and selective audiences. With help from the internet, these creators could reach consumers from around the globe. The Venetian equivalent of this is the glass blowing industry. As I walked through Castello on the main island, the glass products were on display in every street. The small island of Murano has been famous for this craft for centuries, but for a long time, their techniques were kept secret. No one who was knowledgeable in this craft was allowed to leave the islands, and they were hunted down if they tried. This barbaric practice is obviously no longer used today, but still Venice and the United States share many capitalistic ideals.

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Cinque Terre

         The year is 1693 in Cinque Terre. I sit atop a rock by the seaside. To my left are the local fishermen taking inventory of their catch of the day: mussels, octopus, shellfish, and of course anchovies. Their colorful boats match the red, pink, and yellow buildings surrounding us. I take a look at the mountains hugging me from behind and turn back to look at the vast expanse of ocean ahead of me as the waves hit the rocks by my feet. I’m not quite sure where the ocean meets the sky. The quiet sounds of nature engulf me, and I get lost in thought for what seems like hours.

          It seems as though not much has changed in the years since Cinque Terre’s founding. The five towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore are all connected by the coast and mountain range. They are world famous for their seafood, lemons, and pesto, all of which we were able to enjoy during our stay.

Spending a few days here was quite a change of pace from the hustle and bustle that was navigating the populated cities of Rome and Florence. It was a chance to take a step back and observe the world from a different standpoint. Instead of differentiating the various architectural styles or deciphering famous artworks, I was able to appreciate nature in its rawest form and reflect on my experiences so far. The hours long hike through the mountains to all five towns was far from glamorous. It took strength, perseverance, and several water bottle refills, but as I stood atop the mountains and took in the view of Manarola, it was all worth it.

         When I say, “it was all worth it,” I don’t only mean the arduous hike. Yes, that was definitely thought of in the moment. But it was much more than that. Our whole journey thus far was worth it. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the world has been put on pause. We encountered several challenges along the way leading up to that moment. We went from being unsure if this program would even happen to preparing for a month-long adventure in a matter of weeks. Even once we reached Italy, we encountered several difficulties with COVID restrictions and navigating a new country as a large group of primarily girls. Amidst these setbacks and challenges, however, I scratched things off my bucket list (cliff jumping!); I shared laughs with new and old friends; I gained perspective of how history repeats itself and evolves; I learned about myself and the world around me.

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Ciao, Grazie!

The year is 2022 in Miami. I have just been welcomed back home after finishing an incredible study abroad experience travelling through Italy. Although I wish I could extend my stay forever, all good things must come to an end. This is not a goodbye to Italy, but more of a thank you for all the memories and see you later, ciao grazie Italia!

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