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