Freiburg As a Springboard to Europe

Gondolas floating on the lagoon of Venice. IES organized a trip for us to Padua and Venice.

One of the crazy things about Europe is how easy it is to travel to another country. Because of the Schengen Area and the free movement of people among European Union member-states, you often don’t even need to stop at border control to get from one place to another. Freiburg sits at the intersection of Germany, France, and Switzerland, so it’s incredibly easy to just pop over for a day or a weekend. If this didn’t make it easy enough, there’s a fairly large airport in the nearby Swiss/French city of Basel, from which you can fly to many points in Europe. It’s also a simple, no-transfer train ride to the Frankfurt airport.

The Greek island of Monemvasia. I visited here over Easter break.

IES is also pretty generous with breaks. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about spring semesters is how many holidays and breaks there are- but here in Freiburg, that’s taken to another level! We get a week off for both Easter and Pentecost, and southern Germany has extra holidays on top of that that North Germany doesn’t get. We also never have class on Fridays, so every weekend is a 3-day weekend, and many get extended to 4 days due to holidays.

Whether it’s a day trip to Colmar or Strasbourg, a weekend trip to Paris, or a week trip to Spain, Croatia, Greece, or Italy, I and the other students here are constantly on the move.

I took this photo while hiking the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) over Pentecost break! The scallop shell and red cross/sword are traditional symbols used by pilgrims. Would it be a true study abroad in Europe if I didn’t backpack at least a little?

IES itself also organized two trips for us this semester: one to Berlin and one to Venice. Not everyone in the program went on the trips: some took advantage of the break to travel alone to other places in Europe. But everyone who went definitely had a great time. These were especially nice because we didn’t have to organize the hotels and travel ourselves, which is the most complicated part- especially in Italy, where we can’t speak the language!

Our hotel in Padua, Italy, was right on the square of St. Anthony of Padua’s Basilica.

Thanks to budget airlines and youth hostels, sometimes flying to a Mediterranean country like Greece, Italy, Croatia, or Spain can actually be a cheaper trip than staying in Germany, where prices are higher. Deutsche Bahn and it’s fleet of high-speed trains makes zipping around Germany comfortable, quick, and still relatively affordable, especially if you buy their “Savings Fare” tickets.

The university in Hannover, in northern Germany.

Everywhere you go in Germany, there’s things to explore and do. I’d recommend to anyone planning on studying abroad to buy last year’s travel guide for Germany- once the latest edition comes out, the earlier ones depreciate in value but have basically the same information in them. I have a 2015 travel guide, and it’s been incredibly useful and only cost me $5!

The only real problems I’ve experienced were unexpected holiday closures and strikes. Europeans take their holidays very seriously, even if many no longer practice the faith traditions that these holidays came from. On holidays and Sundays, cities are much less active. Public transportation is reduced, museums and sights might be closed, and the only businesses that are typically open are restaurants- and on the biggest holidays, even restaurants might be hard to find. Sometimes the massive closures around Easter, Pentecost, and other public holidays can be inconvenient for tourists, but it’s part of experiencing the culture.

I was also stranded once due to the (rather frequent) transportation strikes in France. It ended up costing me considerable time, money, and patience to get home, and I’m not confident that I’ll ever receive the reimbursement that European law is supposed to entitle me to. Because of the strikes in France, the Basel airport was shut down, because it lies partially in France. This experience largely turned me off from using that airport or traveling to France at all, because it’s impossible to predict the strikes months or weeks in advance. Luckily, the rest of Europe doesn’t have such a bad striking problem, so as long as you avoid the Basel airport and France, it should be no problem! (As a disclaimer, I’m sure that many thousands of people have traveled through France and the Basel airport, but I personally won’t be doing it again).

Europe’s network of hostels and AirBnB’s are also significantly more affordable for single travelers.  It can also be surprisingly affordable if you use the budget buses, airlines, or savings fares on trains. Studying abroad is a unique chance to experience the diversity of Europe, and Freiburg has a great location for this!

I woke up at 6am and went out in Venice to get photos like this. Later today, St. Mark’s Square will be full of tourists, vendors, and pigeons. Early in the morning, I was almost alone.

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