#2014AHEuropeTrip- Across the Alps

Follow along as we travel across Europe on another great ACIS tour.

Note:  Click on a photo to see a larger version.  Click again to zoom or hit the back button to continue with the blog.

Day 1

Thursday, June 26, 2014, Overnight Flight
Day 1 is always the hardest!  We got to the airport at 9:00 a.m. on a Thursday.  Depart about noon to Atlanta.  We have a 3 hour layover and depart about 6:30 p.m. local time.  We arrive in London at 7:15 a.m. in the morning.  If you did not sleep on the plane then you have done an all-nighter!
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Day 2

Friday, June 27, 2014, London

Day 2 really feels like day 1 since most of us have been awake the entire time.  To top things off, Maci’s flight in SAT was delayed because of weather so she missed her connection in Houston.  Cara at ACIS is there for us and gives us the help that we need.  Maci catches a later flight but arrives 2 hours after us.  Nancy stayed at the airport while the rest of us got to do a walking tour of London including Westminster and Westminster Abbey.  We meet them about noon and have lunch.  Afterwards, we ride the tube and spend a couple of hours in the British Museum.   We then head over to the London Eye for some great views.  Finally, we get checked into our rooms at the Park Plaza  and then go out to eat at The Rose which is a pub downstairs and has a dining room upstairs.  Back to the hotel and we have completed or mission which is to keep everyone awake so that we can get our bodies back on schedule.  Not an easy task!

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Day 3

Saturday, June 28, 2014, London

Day 3 is in the books. We awoke feeling much better as everyone slept well and got back on track. ACIS has put us up in the Park Plaza Albert Embankment. We begin with a great breakfast. As per usual, the baked beans are standard fare in the UK. Afterwards, we meet our bus tour guide, Christine, who has been leading tours for years! She is so funny. But more importantly, she loves London and loves to tell its story. We learned so much. Being that it is a Sunday morning, we have London to ourselves, relatively speaking. There are so many things to see. We stopped at the Albert Memorial for a few pics. We see Buckingham Palace. Icons everywhere. My favorite stop is to Saint Pauls Cathedral. We walk up and up and up. The first level is the whisper wall. The cathedral is a geometric marvel. A whisper against the wall can be heard easily on the other side even though it is half a football pitch away. The highest level allows us to go outside and see the best view of London. Now we are dizzy and out of breath as the stairs are a spiral and very long. Our tour concludes with the changing of the guard in front of Buckingham Palace. Since it is raining the guard band is not playing but the site is awesome.

After the tour, we make our way to the Picadilly circus area for lunch and happen upon what may be the world’s largest gay-pride parade. This was quite a site!

We eat dinner at LaStrada before attending an awesome play, The 39 Steps. Dozens of characters are played by a cast of 4. Incredible!

Off to bed!

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Day 4
Sunday, June 29, 2014, Paris

We begin with another great breakfasts before we leave our London hotel en route to Paris. On our way to the train which travels the Chunnel we stop at the Tower of London. By now, everyone’s feet are hurting as we have walked a lot but we have seen so many things!  And it is so worth it.   We take a self tour and see the Crown Jewels! Stunning! They should be on everyone’s bucket list. Afterwards we spend our lunchtime in Covent Gardens, which was a favorite amongst the students. Lots of shops and street performers to see. Afterwards, we are off to catch the Eurostar. We arrive in Paris in the evening and meet our new friends from the New York area. They are exhausted like we had been and quickly go to bed. We feel great so we take a quick walking tour around the area and see the Opera house. ACIS always puts us in hotels that are central to everything. This one is called the Londres New York which is close to everything!

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Day 5
Monday, June 30, 2014, Paris
We wake to a cool morning. We have breakfast and are on our way to a bus tour of Paris with our tour guide, Carlos. Our group has grown from 25 to 34 so the bus is a little more full. The trip takes us to the iconic Eifel Tower. We have lunch in the area of Notre Dame. We get to take a self-tour and are astounded by the enormity and beauty. In the afternoon we hit the Louvre. Most of us see the Mona Lisa.
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Day 6
Tuesday, July 1, 2014, Engelberg
We get up early to get to the train but not just any train, the TGV!  The TGV is the fastest train in Europe.  It travels well over 200 mph.  By the way, it leaves exactly when it is scheduled as trains cannot share tracks.  During our trip, we parallel a highway and pass cars traveling at highway speeds and make them look like they are standing still.  Trains going in the opposite direction take less than 3 seconds to go by.  After the train gets us pretty close to our final destination, we jump into a coach with our driver Paulo.  On our way to Engelberg we stop in the capital of Switzerland, Bern.  Bern is beautiful.  It has great history.  I love the fact that I get to see the same clock tower that Einstein looked at when he came up with the theory of relativity.
As we move up into the mountains, we really start seeing views that are incredible.  Interlaken is awe inspiring.  We arrive in Engelberg to a beautiful rainbow framing the mountains which surround the town.  We end the day with our meal at the famed Edelweis hotel.
NOTE:  Don’t forget to double click on the pics.  One of the Bern (Bear) pics below you can see the bears if you zoom in!

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Day 7
Wednesday, July 2, 2014, Engelberg
We love the hotel, The Angels Lodge.  We were booked here as Eidleweis was full.  Leave it to ACIS to find us something awesome and so close to the lift for Mount Titlis.  We walk over to the lift as it is raining a bit.  Engelberg is just under the cloud level.  The summit is probably going to have no good views.  But we decide to go up anyway.  As we go up, we see some clearing.  But as we near the top we are treated with something that we were not expecting… July snow!!!!!  In fact, it is blizzard conditions.  The students decide to go to the ice park and sled!  They agree that this is the best day so far.  We also visit the ice cave and the suspension bridge.  We don’t want to go back down!  “Can we stay?” is heard a lot.
We go down the mountain and see some incredible views.  After everyone dries off, we head further down the mountain to Lucerne.  Here we have lunch and shop.  I check off another bucket list item when I buy a Swiss army knife if Switzerland.  Lucerne is beautiful and so clean.  I swear the Swiss never get dirty!  Everything is so neat.  Some of us do some shopping on the oldest bridge in Europe, Kapellbrucke.  Loved it.  Afterwards, we head back up the mountain to Engelberg and get ready for dinner even higher up the mountain in an Alpine hut.  We take vans up the mountain as the coach can’t navigate the narrow passes.  The hut is called Untertrubsee.  The guys liked the meal better than any other!  Macaroni and cheese, potatoes, salad, and ice cream.  We stuffed ourselves.  All you can eat!  While we were waiting for our meal we got a lesson on how to play the Alpenhorn.  We then have a contest to see who could play a note the longest.  The winner for the students was Sybil.  And Drew was the winner of the spin the coin in a bowl contest.  In fact, he set a new Alpine hut record.  By the end of our meal, the weather has broken and has turned out to be gorgeous.  We decide to hike down to Engelberg.  We see some of the best views and encounter some pretty cool cows.  Cows- milk – Swiss cheese and Swiss chocolate… Mmmmm!
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Day 8
Thursday, July 3, 2014, Florence
As we leave Engelberg, there is a bit of sadness, as we know that we are leaving the comfort of the weather for the warmer climate of Italy. But as we leave, we enjoy a clear day with spectacular views. We talk about how when we visited we got snow and as we leave we got the views. Perfect! Today is about traveling. We leave the mountains and lakes and tunnels and hairpins for the flat lands of Italy as we travel its spine. We are close to Pisa and the Matterhorn but we push on as our destination tonight is Florence. As we come into the city, we encounter our third fire! Yes… fire! This one is a car fire from a wreck in the heart of the city. The first one was an Indian restaurant in London. And the second one was construction work material in Paris. This caused gridlock in the downtown area. So we jumped out of our coach and walked a short way to the Hotel Corona. It is fabulous and it is only a few blocks from the Duomo. We, again, are close to everything! Thanks ACIS. We get checked in and head off for our dinner reservation at Gianniano in San Lorenzo. This turns out to be just about the best restaurant in the world! They take us upstairs to a private room. It is everything that you think of when you think Italian. Great space. Four course meal. Wow! We then walk to the Duomo and beyond. We now get the feeling that Florence may be one special place. The architecture is so amazing. The sculptures leave us speechless. But the best thing, according to Nancy, is the shopping. We spent the night taking pictures of the Ponte Vecchio and scoping out the shops for tomorrow as we will have a lot of free time in the afternoon and evening.
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Day 9
Friday, July 4, 2014, Florence

As per usual, we begin with a great breakfast and head out for a walking tour of downtown Florence. Our tour guide is Flavia and she has a microphone, which is connected to receivers that we are all wearing. Whatever she says, we hear. She is an amazing, colorful and witty person. Flavia knows so much about Florence and its history, including the great masters and the Medici. The tour is so important as it lets you know details that you would have never known if you just walked down the streets of Florence. We all now have a much greater appreciation for so many things in Florence. Once the tour is concluded we are introduced to a fine leather and jewelry shop where we are given lessons on how to spot real leather and are given the finer points about Italian gold. Nickoli, Sybil, and Nancy were asked to be models for the leather coats. It is a good ploy as many of us buy their wares but are thankful as some of the street merchants sell imitation leather.    I blame ACIS for sending us to such awesome places as my wife tried to buy half of the items in the store!  :0)  Afterwards, we are given free time in the afternoon and the evening. The meal vouchers allow us to choose where we want to eat instead of eating in a big group. We shop and eat and eat and shop. Some of us actually look at some of the art and history of the city. Most of the students agree with me that Florence is the best city that we have visited. Put Florence on your bucket list especially if you like a romantic setting.

One more thing… While on the Ponte Vecchio (bridge), we met a woman who had a gold shop. We spent a lot of time talking to her. We really hit it off so she invited Nancy and me to check out her terrace on the bridge. What a treat! On the way down, we heard a commotion in the store. It turns out that one of her previous workers, a woman named Michelle Buscemi, came in the store with her boyfriend and her parents and everyone was overjoyed to see her.  Michelle had once worked for the shopkeeper while she studied opera in Florence. Her boyfriend was also an opera singer. Long story short… we got to hear both of them sing two arias on the bridge. Locals were coming out onto their balconies all up and down the river Arno to hear the two sing. I had tears in my eyes. It was breathtaking! If anyone in San Antonio has connections to opera, we must find a way to bring her to the US to perform. We later wonder how we came to meet like this as she is from Australia and we live in San Antonio, TX and we meet in Florence!

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Day 10
Saturday, July 5, 2014, Rome

We begin with an early start to Rome. We drive for about 3.5 hours and go straight to the Vatican as it is a Saturday, which means we could not visit easily on day 2 which is a Sunday.  ACIS has booked a reservation so we do not have to wait in the ½ mile long line to get in… Seriously a 1/2 mile!!!!  We are given a 3 hour tour to see some of the greatest works of art and spaces created by man. This was easily the most crowded place that we have been. I suspect that there are both tourists and pilgrims alike. We see St. Peters Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The Basilica is more than two football fields long. It is hard to believe that these sculptures were carved from stone. The masters were truly amazing.

The Vatican tour was hard as we were tired but oh so worth it. Before we leave the Vatican, our ACIS tour manager, Ian, knew about a place to get some religious articles blessed by the Pope. Many bought rosaries which were held by the store owner, sent into the Vatican, blessed by the Pope, and delivered the next day free of charge to the hotel.

We then head to the hotel to check in and get some rest before we set out for dinner. Dinner was fabulous as per usual after which we caught the Metro and visited the Spanish steps and Trevi fountain. We are tired after another very full day and are thankful that the Metro can take us back home.


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Day 11
Sunday, July 6, 2014, Rome

This morning we head out in the coach to be early to the Colosseum. It is massive! It is hard to imagine that it was built so long ago without the modern tools that we have today. It is also hard to imagine that everything that we see was once clad in marble. We spend about an hour walking the Colosseum before we spend a couple of hours checking out the Palantine Hill and the Roman Forum. Not sure why I did not know that the area was so huge. These ruins go on forever. At each stop the students are given directions and told where to meet. They then set out to explore on their own.

Afterwards, we make our way to the Pantheon. No other dome rivals this one. The structure is all dome and is enormous. There is hole in top as this must have been designed to reduce the weight similar to Texas stadium and Dallas Cowboy stadium. In fact, many of the structures, used designs that we still use today thousands of years later. Lunch is on your own as there are plenty of shops and restaurants around. We meet back in front of the Pantheon and then travel back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

Dinner tonight is at a local Pizzeria. Here we are given a pizza making lesson and each of us makes our own pizza. It is cooked in a brick oven in just a few minutes. As always, we have a great dessert. After dinner we travel by coach to a local hangout in front of a great fountain and have one last hour to “Rome” around before catching the coach back to the hotel. Here we say goodbye to our New York friends as they are staying another day and will be sleeping in. We also say thanks to Ian who has been a wonderful host and a terrific guide.  We also make Ian an honorary San Antonio Spurs Fan complete with a championship Spurs keyring, shirt, and cap.  He will look quite dapper in his native England.

Tomorrow is the longest day as we travel happily back home to talk to our families about our amazing #2014AHEropeTrip.

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Day 12
Monday, July 7, 2014, Departure
We are tired but so thankful for such a great experience.  We are excited to see our friends and family back in San Antonio.  We will miss each other in this setting as it will not happen again.  We travel from Rome to Detroit (9 hours +).  We have a layover before traveling to San Antonio.  We arrive in San Antonio at 10:30 p.m. We walk into baggage claim and are greeted like Rock Stars as families are so excited to see us.  The trip is over but the friendships will last forever.