Day 1- Satuday
Our bus ride and flight to JFK went without problem. We had a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge but still arrived hours before our flight. Our group is quite large but we all know to just smile and nod. The over night flight to Italy was peaceful - except for one poor child (not ours) that cried for 3 hours. Some watched movies, others covered their eyes and plugged their ears and tried to sleep.

The Science Travel Group - Italy/Greece 2015

Day 2 - SundayRegardless the end of the flight was in the early morning sun as we flew over France and the snow topped Alps. We arrived in Rome on schedule despite the delay at JFK with bag loading.
Our guide Laura and an assistant met us at the terminal. We easily passed through customs. We were in ROMA! Once we collected our bags and joined with our other participants (from 9 from Maryland and 5 from Houston) we loaded our bus for a trip into the city. Rome is very pretty. In our drive we never saw building greater than 8 or 9 stories. No sky scrapers. Just colorful stucco buildings with tile roofs. Our bus parked along a side street where we wondered through the cobbled stoned streets and stopped for a gelato. Laura told us that a Gelato is fresh made and non-whipped. We spent our first Euros on a choice of 150 flavors. Basil and grapefruit were lovely. We then walked literally around the block and found the Pantheon. Largest free standing dome in the world. Already I am impressed with the Romans. The pantheon was originally a temple for the gods, but it was converted to a Catholic Church. As we gazed at the incredible marble interior and spoke in hushed voices a service was beginning. I liked seeing the sun beam on the inside and seeing how the drains worked in the floor.
Next we walked down a few blocks to the --- a plaza where the Romans used to have horse races. Now the square hosts many street artists and the fountain of the 4 rivers - Nile, Granges, Euphrates and Tiger rivers. The fountain was a work of art. Some students slipped into a near by Cathedral, bought art or postcards while others filled their bottles at the street fountains that bring water from the aqueducts to the city.
On the way home Laura informed us the Greece was having "runs" on their banks and we should withdraw any Euros we want for Greece here in Roma. Interesting history that our group is becoming a part of. We went to the hotel to freshen up and then rode back into the city to have a traditional dinner of pasta with basel and pork. We ended the meal with a chocolate cookie/pie and wine.
The evening was spent at the hotel where some of the girls got to experience Italian boys at the pool. There was a loud disco party there but most of us were too exhausted and went to sleep listening to the techno beat.
Afternoon on Rome outside the Geloto shop

Day 3 - Monday - Pompeii
Our first European breakfast - hard bread and lunch meats, croissants and juices. Also cereal and yogurt. Very tasty. We loaded the buses for a 3 hour drive to Pompeii in the Naples area. The 3 lane road was surrounded by farms with sheep, cows, sunflowers, corn, kiwi, On the way we passed Monte Casino (convent that was destroyed during WWII) , Capua (Sparticus fought there), and a palace that was as large and beautiful as Versailles. We also drove around Naples which is a very metropolitan area along the sea. So stunning (with some poor areas too).
We arrived outside of Pompeii were there were street vendors. We went into a hotel to have a meal of salad or fries, pizza or spaghetti and gelato. Then our guide Marco who took us into the dig. Nothing could have prepared me for the size or scope of Pompeii. We walked through a group of umbrella trees, up the stairs into small city! You could see the wagon wheel marks on the streets, frescos on the walls, restaurants, theaters, sports arenas, temples, bathes, brothels, city councils. Marco made the city come alive with his stories of the people and the ways of life. We spent 1 1/2 hours and barely touched the area. We spent a few moments in a cameo shoppe and the street vendors.
We then took our 3 hour ride back to the hotel. We had dinner at our hotel and then rode into the city for an evening in Rome to see fountain, Spanish steps and the fireworks. With the setting sun we could easily pick out the planets Jupiter and Venus as they seemed to align in the sky. Seemed extra special seeing them in the city that gave them their names.

Day 4 - Tuesday (THE BIG DAY)
Laura had been preparing us for today. Lots of walking and waiting were in store for us. The BIG day in Rome. We left the hotel at 8:30 for the Vatican. All dressed with covered shoulders and knees. We were allowed to take along a change of clothing for the afternoon and leave it on the bus. When we arrived at the Vatican for our 10:30 booking. However, we were lined up with what seemed like every other tourist and pilgrim in Rome. I have never seen such crowds. Turns out Monday was a holiday so the Vatican was not open. Therefore every tour group that was in town had to wait to go today. There was a line that wrapped for 3 blocks for the "walk-ins" and a line just as large for the groups that wrapped the other way. We rested in the shade for 45 minutes before we joined the group line in the sun. Thankfully the line moved but we all bought waters from the ever present street vendors. We eventually arrived at the entrance of the museum were we went through metal detectors and received our tickets. Then up and up a spiral ramp into the Vatican museum. Did I mention the crowds? There was an endless flow of people. We struggled to keep us with our day guide --- She was a lot of fun with a dry sense of humor. The Vatican museum was filled with priceless art work and sculptures from Egypt, Greece and Rome. The floors had beautiful tiles and the ceilings were covered with beautiful artwork. Some of the art work looked like 3D! Finally we were ushered into the Sistine Chapel. In front of us was the "Judgement Day"fresco and above us was "Adam and God". We stood there transfixed by the over whelming beauty and craftsmanship of Michelangelo. Our guide has told us about the history of the artworks - very interesting. Finally we left the Chapel and Museum and headed over to St. Paul's Basilica which is still on Vatican property. The church is supposedly built on the grave of Peter who was crucified in Rome due to his Christian preaching. Inside the Basilica was the Pieta - Michelangelo's sculpture of Mary and the Crucified Jesus. Stunning. The entire Basilica was awe inspiring. Very ornate with much to look at and experience. Fortunately the crowd was thinner inside and it was a little cooler. After our tour we had some time to shop and enjoy a lunch. Once we refreshed ourselves we loaded the bus and drove across town to the Colosseum. One word - WOW. I felt like I was walking into a modern sports complex. I can not believe something so grand was build over 2000 years ago. It is so old yet so impressive. We had some free time to climb around and then crossed the street to the Roman Forum. The Forum is an area filled with ruins from the Roman Empire plus Medieval and Renaissance. Pile upon pile of architecture. Cannot believe how common it is for churches or mosque to be built on top or within pagan temples. We completed our day in the Spanish steps district of Rome where we enjoyed dinner and shopping. At the end of the day most of us had recorded 11 miles of walking. Thankfully we get to sleep in tomorrow.
Waiting outside the Vatican with every other tour group in Rome

Day 5 - Wednesday - Journey to AthensOur morning was fairly relaxed as we packed up our suitcases, enjoyed breakfast and loaded our bus for a drive to the airport. En route we stopped at a roadside rest to grab a quick lunch. The Rome airport was very busy. A few weeks ago part of the terminal had had a fire. We were sitting on top of each other as we waited for our flight to load. The flight to Athens was uneventful and we arrived late in the afternoon. Athen has a completely different look than Rome. More modern with white building and tile roofs. In some places one could see that the economy was suffering due to empty businesses. However, the down town was bustling with activity and seemed unaware of the excitement that was building with the vote about the EU and the euro. After a delicious dinner, we gathered for a walk downtown. Laura took us past the University buildings that were classic Greek architecture and then past the Parliament building (where CNN had been broadcasting from nights before.) There we saw the soldiers guarding the Greek tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We then strode through the shopping district, the flea market shoppes and finally the ancient Greek/Roman ruins that were in the downtown area. We then circled back by the open air meat and fish market (closed for the day). The full moon rose of the streets of Athens as we crawled into bed. As it turned out, tomorrow was going to be another BIG day.
Day 6 - AthensWe were up early for a day of touring around Athens. Breakfast was delicious with many choices of Greek breads and pastries. We loaded the bus for a quick city tour where we stopped at the 1896 Olympic stadium. Every 2 years the Olympic fire is brought here to start the relay as the torch is moved from Greek soil. Laura then took us to the base of the Acropolis, to a store where we could have our name written on a pendent in Greek. Once everyone had ordered, we then moved to the entrance of the Acropolis where we started our hike to the to the Parthenon. The climb was not as difficult as one would think. First we walked through a grove of olive trees, then we moved over the top of a Roman theater. Finally we made our way through the temple of Nike to the top of the Acropolis. There are actually a couple of temple ruins at the top, not just the Parthenon. We were given free time to explore the amazing structures, watch the archeologists working and enjoy the view of Athens and the breeze at the top of the hill. We gathered at the bottom where we enjoyed an amazing lunch in the shape of trees in the shopping district. After lunch, we entered the Acropolis museum which held beautiful statues and other archeology finds from the Pantheon. Underneath the museum where ancient dwelling that were being excavated. Very cool. We then walked through town to a Greek Dancing lesson.IMG_5163.JPG
After the lesson, we were all sweaty but very happy. Everyone had fun learning to dance in circles with the simple rhythms and steps of the Greek music. By now it was late in the afternoon and we had the choice of loading up on a public bus to head back to the hotel or walk through town for some more shopping before our late dinner (at 8:30 pm). Little did we realize how we would get to witness the workings of democracy in action. Our free afternoon started fine while we enjoyed the flea market and shopping area. But finally it was time to head back to the hotel. As we walked towards the Parliament house there appeared to be a festival - except the red flags were from the socialist party and the man on the load speaker sounded very adamant as he spoke in Greek. We hurried through that crowd only to witness a man spray painting "OIX" on a poster. This we found out represented a "NO" vote for the European unions measures to get Greece out of debt. We then came upon a crowd dressed in black with "OIX" on their t-shirts. At first it was a bit scary walking through the mob, but we then realized that these people were peaceful and they just wanted to voice their opinion. Having said that, when we arrived at the hotel, the management had put up the hotel's riot shield for their front floor-to-ceiling windows. (The hotel had been the host of the organizing group for the "OIX" movement.) We gathered everyone into the hotel for the evening where it was very peaceful. Tomorrow we head off for our cruise. Another early day.
Day 7 - Cruise - Athens to MykonosWe arrived early at our departure where we waited in line to get our cruise passes, put down money, buy drink packs and finally to get our room keys. After finding our rooms, we had the boat evacuation drill and set sail for the Greek Islands. The cruise was very nice with all sorts of things to do including sitting on the deck in the sun, play Trivia (our Shikellamy team won 3 different times) and enjoy shopping and the spa. There were 9 other EFtour groups on the cruise, so our students had a chance to interact with students from all over the United States. Around 4 pm we arrived at Mykonos where we departed with Laura for a short walking tour before we had the opportunity to enjoy Mykonos. The Greek Islands are much more arid than I expected. I expected a tropical paradise, but instead the islands were stark with small brush. Every building was painted white and made the setting much more beautiful. Mykonos had lovely little walking streets filled with shops and eateries. The cobble stoned streets where painted white along the cement for accent. Like Greece and Rome, there were feral cats and dogs around most corners and alleys. The animals are cared for by the community and likely assist in keeping down the rodent population. At the far side of town where the wind mills that pointed to the western sky. There we watched the sunset over the Aegean Sea. Laura warned us not to be late to the ship or it would sail without us. Everyone made it back safely. Time sail into the moonlight and enjoy the entertainment on board or collapse into a much needed sleep.
Day 8 - Cruise - Ephesus (Turkey) and PatmosWe were in for such a great treat in Turkey! We left the boat early in the morning (7 am) where we met our fantastic local guide. He was from Turkey but had lived in the United States and was very funny. He told us stories and inserted comments based on names of songs, play on words and had American sarcasm and wit. For example, he referred to the Turkish prime minister as the "Prime Monster". He explained to us how Turkey has parts in Europe and Asia. How Turkey is a democracy in a very bad neighborhood. The Turkish people must have a sense of humor in order to keep the peace. We drove through beautiful farms and mountains to reach Ephesus - the ancient Greek/Roman city that is written about in the bible. Ephesus used to be a port city along a river (1000 BC - 600 AD) however, the river filled with silt and now is abandoned. Cleopatra, Mark Anthony, Mary (mother of Jesus) and Paul (disciple) had all traveled in Ephesus. As we walked through the ancient streets and ruins, we saw beautiful tiled sidewalks, statues and the library. We ended the tour in the amphitheater where we could sing and easily be heard by persons standing on the top of the stadium. This theater is described in the bible (Acts) where a riot occurred due to silver workers who didn't want Paul to preach about one God thus loosing their business of making statues to the goddess Artemus. We bought Turkish delight from the vendors and left Ephesus. On the way back we stopped at a rug making shop were we saw how the locals "double-tied" their intricate rugs. We also received a demonstration on how silk is retrieved from silkworm cocoons. That process was amazing. Back on board the ship we settled in for an afternoon of cruising (napping). We arrived at Patmos around 4 pm were some of the group went to the local beach and others visited the cave where John is said to have received the book of Revelations and the Greek Orthodox Monastery on top of the hill. Back on the boat we settled in for another night of fine dinning and entertainment (or sleeping).
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Picture of Picture - Group at Library in Ephesus. Notice our Guide Laura at the end and how we are all wearing our "Whisperers" so we can hear our guide via radio signal.

Day 9 - Cruise - Crete and SantoriniWe awoke to another beautiful day to see the big island of Crete. We left early en route to visit the Palace at Knossos. This palace is recognized at the first European civilization. The community dates back to the same time as Egypt, the Bronze Age. When first discovered, the site was assumed to be the palace of the fabled King Midas where Theseus killed the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of Crete. There where painting on the wall of men and women jumping over a bull and store rooms filled with barrels. In my opinion, the ruins where not as well presented as other sites. And there where crowds - again. Later we found out that different sites where excavated and presented by different peoples. The British did Knossos, the Vatican did the the Colosseum, and the French did Delphi and Pompeii. While Knossos was interesting, I think we are being to get "Ruined-Out". We returned to the boat for an afternoon sail to our final destination - Santorini! Entering Santorini is beautiful. We sailed in between various smaller islands to set anchor far below the cliffs of the town of Oia. The only way to get up to the town was by bus on a switch back road, gondola or donkey ride. But Oia wasn't the destination for the many of us. We were going on a volcano excursion and hot springs. The climb to the top of the active volcano site was hot and steep with loose lava rock and wind, but the view from the top was amazing. As it turns out, we were standing atop, in the middle of a giant caldron, and the various islands miles away were outside rim of the caldron. Our guide explain that a devastation eruption in 1613 BC destroyed the huge island and caused tsunamis that ravaged various cities around the Mediterranean, including the one in Crete at Knossos. They have also found a civilization that was destroyed on Santorini - perhaps the fabled Atlantis. Debris from the explosion still can be seen in the white ashes on the local cliffs and in glaciers around the whole world. When we returned