Biblical Israel Tour experiences from the Greece, Turkey and Italy Tour, March-April, 2014
March 31 – April 9, 2014 (with option from April 9-12)
Day 1 & 2 – March 31/April 1
The departure day finally came! We’re excited to begin the trip together. Meeting at the Dulles, DC Airport, we boarded our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, Germany. After a brief layover, we boarded the Aegean Airlines flight to Thessalonica, Greece. Upon landing we were greeted by Costas, our guide for the Greece portion of the tour. We boarded our almost brand-new coach and drove NE to Kavala (biblical Neopolis, the ancient port where the Apostle Paul sailed in from Troas (western coast of Turkey). This city and the Aegean Sea are beautiful. We walked around main city harbor area and absorbed for the first time the Greek culture of this port city. Close by is our hotel for the night, the the Lucy Hotel. We checked in, freshened up a bit, and then enjoyed dinner together. A few enjoyed an optional walk following dinner. Tired from the flight and jet lag, we retired for the evening, hoping for a good night’s sleep. We are looking forward to our first full day in Greece tomorrow!
Day 3 – April 2
We departed from the hotel in Kavala (ancient Neopolis) after a wonderful sunrise and breakfast overlooking the Aegean Sea. After briefly stopping to see the Church of St. Nicolas and the aqueduct in this port city, we drove about 30 minutes to traditional Bapistry of Lydia (Acts 16). She was the “woman of purple” who lived in Philippi. On Paul’s second mission journey (50-53 AD), she responded to the Gospel message and was baptized in the river.
The ancient site of Philippi includes many structures one would expect to find in any Roman city – a forum, agora (marketplace), bathhouses, and a theater. Philippi is a huge site located prominently on the Via Egnatia, a 600 mile-long ancient road connecting Constantinople (Istanbul today) with Macedonia. This city named after Phillip II (Alexandria the Great’s father) and is fairly-well preserved archaeologically. One structure, although only traditional, is identified as the “prison cell” of Paul and Silas. It was here where songs of praise were heard at midnight (Acts 16). As a result, the jailor and his household become converted to Christ. While this is probably not an ancient prison, it’s amazing to read this transformational event within the city of Philippi!
From here we drove about 2 hours along the ancient highway to Thessaloniki (biblical Thessalonica). Reading again from Acts, we recalled how Paul preached here for three weeks on the Sabbath to the Jewish community here. Some Jews and God-fearing gentiles accepted the kingdom message, while others opposed it, causing Paul to seek the refuge of the house of Jason. From here, Paul would leave for Athens.
As for us, we boarded the bus and drove another 3.5 hours through a more mountainous inland area of Greece to Kalambaka. This is where the famous Meteora monasteries are located. Seeing them from a distance, we are looking forward to climbing up to one of the six monasteries tomorrow. We arrived at our hotel for dinner and overnight.
A great first full day! We already saw a lot of this beautiful country called Greece.
Day 4 – April 3
Today was another spectacular sunny day, with high about 70. Following breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and spent most of the morning in the unique mountains of Meteora. There are six restored monasteries that date back to the 14th century where the Greek Orthodox monks lived. Seeking refuge in the cliff-side caves, they eventually built wooden shelters. Later, stone dwellings were made, some large enough for dozens of monks. The one monastery we explored was the one called Varlaam. The view was unbelievable from on top.
Leaving Meteora, we took the back road that winds back down to Kalambaka. Here we entered a store that sells Greek’s famous icons. Even though e were not particularly interested in iconoclasts, it was an interesting cultural experience.
In the afternoon we spent in the bus driving to Athens. The scenery was quite varied along the way. We arrived in Athens at rush hour, yet was able to check into our hotel near the center of the city. After dinner, a few of us enjoyed an optional walk to the area of the Parliamentary building and the Acropolis.
We are looking forward to the start of our three day Mediterranean cruise tomorrow.
Friday, April 4 – Day 5
We checked out of our hotel in Athens at 9 a.m. Driving just 30 minutes, we arrived at Pireaus, Athens port that dates back 5,000 years and Europe’s third largest harbor, where we will board the ship run by the Olympian – Louis Cruise Line. After going through the usual security and baggage procedures, we boarded the ship around 10 a.m. Upon boarding, we completed the required safety procedures.
Following lunch, we had a brief group meeting, with worship and devotion. We considered the amazing perseverance and mission of Paul despite all the difficulties he faced during his 3 mission journeys. We focused upon 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The rest of the afternoon was at leisure on the boat.
Around 5:30 we arrived at our first port of the cruise, the island of Myconos. We enjoyed a few hours of exploring part of this beautiful Greek island known for its windmills. We watched the sun set on the Aegean! We boarded back on the ship for a late dinner. What a wonderful day this was!
Saturday, April 5 – Day 6
The day started early. Since we sailed through the night while we were sleeping, we arrived at Kusadasi, Turkey while we enjoyed breakfast. At 7:15, we left the ship, boarded our bus, met “John” our Turkish guide, and drove to the largest archaeological site in the country – Ephesus. Indeed, the city of Ephesus back in Paul’s day was massive. Probably up towards 250,000 lived here.
Our tour started at the upper part of the excavated part of the city. Along the way, we saw the Agora, the public bathrooms, numerous columns and arches, the Library of Celsius, and of course the theater. We read Acts 19 while sitting in the theater, one that held up to 25,000 during the time when Paul was here on his third missionary journey. Acts 20 informs us of how special this Ephesian church was to Paul, as the elders came with farewell greetings for him as he left the region for Jerusalem.
After seeing the archaeological site of Ephesus, we returned to Kusadasi. We visited a carpet school. We also walked around this port city for a while before boarding back on the ship. After lunch on the ship, we sailed 3.5 hours to the Island of Patmos. Here, we visited the Grotto of St. John, traditionally the area where the Apostle John lived while in exile on the island. John’s vision of “Revelation” took place here. The view from the highest point on the island was excellent!
We re-boarded the ship at 8 p.m. for a late dinner. After dinner we enjoyed a traditional “Greek Night” show. Tonight (while we sleep) we sailed south to the island of Crete.
Sunday, April 6 – Day 7
We arrived on the island of Crete over night at the port called Heraklion. This morning following breakfast, we left the ship for our excursion. Most of the group visited the archaeological site of Knossos, the home of King Minos and his palace. According to mythological legend, King Minos angered Poseidon, and because of this, Minos’ wife was made to fall in love with a white bull. The offspring was half-man and half-bull, called the Minotaur. King Minos thus designed and build a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur. Also displayed at the site were pithoid jars and frescos.
The group returned to the boat by 11 a.m. and set sail to one of the most beautiful and breathtaking of all the Greek islands, Santorini. Once an ancient volcano (in the 17th or 16th century BC) causing half the island to sink beneath the sea, the entire city is built on the slopes and hilltops. Walking up the switchback trail to the Oia village perched on the Caldera Rim above (some rode a donkey), the view was incredible even though it was overcast today! After enjoying some leisure time on the island, we walked back down the road and returned to the ship for dinner.
Monday, April 7 – Day 8
We sailed back towards Athens during the night and arrive around 6 a.m. Following breakfast, we disembarked at Pireaus, Athen’s harbor. When we left the ship, it was raining while we toured by bus the modern city of Athens. We saw the Olympic stadium (1896), the Parliamentary building, and Constituion Square.
By the time we arrived at the Acropolis, it stopped raining and was quite pleasant. After getting our tickets, we first climbed Mars Hill where the Apostle Paul delivered a powerful testimony. We read this narrative from Acts 17. It was special to be here in this place, knowing that Paul’s boldness in proclaiming Christ led to the conversion of two individuals by name (Dionysus and Daramis), and “a number of others.” From Mars Hill we can look up to the Acropolis.
While ascending to Acropolis, Costas (our outstanding Greek guide) shared many details about the 4 structures that can be seen – the Nike Temple (on the way up), the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, the of course the grand Parthenon (the greatest of the four structures built 2,500 years ago). We spent 45 minutes on top, admiring the massive columns. It was a huge feat of engineering for these structures to be built. Since 1983, the Parthenon continues to be reconstructed (hence all the scaffolding).
Around noon, we enjoyed a leisurely walk down to the plaka at the base of the Acropolis. Before boarding the bus, we visited Hadrian’s Arch (2nd c AD) and the Temple of Zeus, the ruins of which can also be seen from the top. From here we had an early check-in to our rooms. The afternoon was free, allowing us to either explore more of Athens on our own, or rest.
We ate dinner at 7 p.m. and retired for the evening. It was another great day here in Greece.
Tuesday, April 8 – Day 9
Following breakfast, we left our hotel here in Athens at 8 a.m. Our destination today: the southern part of Greece called the Peleponnesia. The entire morning (and early afternoon) was sunny and warm. Driving south out of Athens, we crossed the famous Corinthian Canal. Our first stop was Corinth. Paul spent 18 months here, and were helped in ministry by Aquilla and Priscilla (Acts 19). The pagan culture of this city of up to 250,000 would have presented a huge challenge to Paul in his ministry here. 14 temples once stood here, including the Temple of Apollo below and the Temple of Aphrodite on the mountaintop acropolis. We also saw the “bema” where Paul probably did some of his teaching as well as evidence of a synagogue (a 2nd c. AD capital with a menorah on it was found). We also snuck a peak at the un-restored theater (found in 1952) where there is an inscription of the man who built it – Erastus. Paul ministered to both Jew and Gentiles here.
From Corinth, we added the extra site of Mycenae, a huge site dating back to the 16th – 12th centuries, BC. This is where Costa, our guide, grew up. He told us stories of how he and his grandfather excavated in the area, finding some of the famous “shaft tombs.” Costa is the leading expert on Mycanae, once guiding Jackie Kennedy and George Bush, among other famous people. Costa has excavated here almost 40 years now.
At this impressive site located strategically only 8 miles from the Aegean Sea, we saw the Tomb of Agamemnon (12th century BC), the shaft tombs, the Lion’s Gate, and the citadel. We also briefly visited the museum. One theory is that the Mycenaeans were the “Sea Peoples” as mentioned by the ancient Egyptians and the “Philistines” as recorded in the Old Testament (the other theory is that the Minoans from Crete were the “Philistines.”).
Following a great lunch at Costa’s family restaurant in Mycenae, we drove back to the Athens airport. We arrived at around 5 p.m. and are now awaiting our flight to Rome at 7 p.m. We leave Greece with fond memories and with a myriad of new insights into the mission trips of Paul and the growth of the early church.
Wednesday, April 9 – Day 10
We woke up early today on another sunny day. Today’s destination was Florence, 269 kilometers away. We bussed to the train station where we boarded a high-speed train that traveled 250 k/hr. Traveling through the beautiful Italian countryside, we arrived in Florence 1 hour 20 minutes later. We were greeted by our guide for the morning.
Our walking tour of Florence started with a visit to the Accademia (Academy of Fine Arts). The Accademia is home to many of the Renaissances’ famous painters and sculptors, including of course “The David,” sculpted by Michelangelo (1475-1564). He was the only sculptor in his day who never used drawings/models of any sculpting. The David was made when Michelangelo was only 27. It took him 2.5. years. It is 16 feet high.
Next, we visited the Duomo (“House of Mary’s Church”). It was built in 1296 in Gothic style, and it took 175 years to complete it (finished in Renaissance style). It was built as the largest cathedral in its day in the world (today, it is the 3rd largest behind St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London). The outside of the church is decorated in all marble. The Baptistery building associated with this cathedral took 27 years to build. It also has a marble façade as well as a gold door.
Next, we visited Santa Crose, or the “Holy Cross” church. This was built contemporary with the Duomo and is much simplier in design. Lot of fmous people are buried inside, include Micheloangelo himself, Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Rossini.
We enjoyed lunch on our own, as well as leisurely afternoon to explore this beautiful city. Many shopped, ate gelato (Italian ice cream), and shopped. The weather was ideal, with the bluest of blue skies.
We returned back on the high-speed rail to Rome for dinner and a relaxing evening. What a great first full day here in Italy!
Thursday, April 10 – Day 11
It was a perfect weather-day in Rome today. Meeting our guide, Nora, we left our hotel at 9 a.m. While much of what we saw is based on long-standing traditions of the church, we stood amazed at the enormous churches and structures we encountered. First as St. Peter’s Church in Chains. It is to believed to be the area where Peter was kept in prison while here in Rome (keep in mind that Scripture says nothing about Peter being here in Rome). Regardless, this church originally built in the 5th century AD, and later restored in the 14th century, in this church is Michelangelo’s famous “Moses” sculpting. It took him 40 years because of being in Florence and working on the Sistine chapel simultaneously. Nearby we also got our first peak at the Coliseum, although we will actually visit it tomorrow.
Next was St. John’s Lateran (Latriano) Church. This was the first church built in Europe (324 AD). Built by Constantine, it is believed by tradition that Helena, Constantine’s mother, too the steps from the Judgment Hall (Pretorium) of Pontius Pilate on which Christ was sentenced to death and she brought them back to Rome. Today, people only ascend up these steps on their knees. As a monk, Martin Luther climbed these steps on his knees, trying to merit forgiveness. The church itself is a blend of re-construction from the 13th – 17th centuries AD. Some of the past Popes are buried here. The oldest of 14 Egyptian obelisks brought from Egypt to Rome stand here near the church. It dates to the 16th century BC (to Thutmose III). It was the last one brought from Egypt in the 4th century.
The famous Domitilla Catacombs were next (named after the daughter of Roman Emperor Domitian). There are a total of 66 catacombs (60 Christian and 6 Jewish), most of which date no earlier than the 2nd century AD. This one is the biggest, with 150,000 tombs over an area 11 miles of underground tunnels covering 4 levels. It as a unique experience to see these early “cemeteries.”
Last, we visited St. Paul’s Church Outside the Walls.” It is most impressive. While it was destroyed by a fire in 1883, it as soon rebuilt, taking 25 years. It preserves the original early church structure. Again by tradition, Paul is buried here.
We came back to the hotel round 2:30. A few enjoyed a restful afternoon while others explored on their own places like the Piazzia Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. We also walked along the famous “high fashion” street, with name-brand stores (e.g. Gucci, Armani, etc…) selling items for ridiculous amounts. Needless to say, we only “window-shopped.”
We once again ate dinner together at the nearby restaurant. Following another great dinner, some of us walked to Vatican Square to see St. Peter’s Church.
It was another good day! We only have one full day left in Rome.
Friday, April 11 – Day 12
It was another sunny day for this last full day of the tour. This would be the “highlight” day here in Rome as we visited the Vatican and the famous Sistine Chapel first. Although we had to wait in line over an hour (they didn’t open at 8:30 as they were supposed to), we still had a great visit. We first visited a part of the Vatican Museum. It was filled with Greek and Roman statues, tapestries and maps of Italy (from 15th – 16th centuries AD).
We then entered the Sistene chapel, decorated with paintings by Raphael on the walls, with the ceiling and front wall (“Last Judgment” painting) by Michelangelo. The Sistine Chapel is named after Pope Sixtus IV, who in the 1470s & 80s had this building restored. Michelangelo spent 4 years here doing the ceiling (from 1508-1512). He was in his 30s when he did the ceiling. At the age of 55, he started the painting of the Last Judgment. To get even with the Cardinal who didn’t care for him, he cleverly depicted the Cardinal with a serpent around his waist. He can be seen at the bottom right portion of the painting. It took him 7 years to complete this painting.
Leaving the Chapel, we entered St. Peter’s Cathedral, the largest church in the world. Originally built in 327 AD, the present-day church dates to 1506 and can hold 35,000 people. The floor is made from 120 different types of marble. Many of the Popes are buried here, including the most recent Pope John Paul II. We exited the church to St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro), where 100,000 gather for special services. The Swiss Guards were here symbolically guarding the entrance to the church.
Next, we boarded our bus and drove to the famous Trevi Fountain (“Fontana di Trevi”). We spent some free time here, eating lunch and shopping. From here we walked past the Trajan and Roman Forums to the Coliseum, an amphitheater that once could hold 50,000 people. It was built from 72-80 AD. We walked inside and hiked up to the second level. It is an impressive structure! Close by we saw the famous arches of Titus (complete still with the Menorah etched on the inside of the arch, celebrating the defeat of Jerusalem in 70 AD), and Constantine (4th century AD).
We bussed back to our hotel around 5 p.m., making it a full day. We enjoyed our last dinner together at the restaurant. We packed our bags before retiring tonight in anticipation of the trip home tomorrow.
Saturday, April 12 – Day 13
We woke up early, ate breakfast, and then drove to the Rome airport for our flight first to Frankfurt, Germany, and then back to Dulles, DC. While a few missed their connection flights back here in the States, we all made it home safely. The end of a great trip together!