Immediately upon landing in the Athens airport, the group of 54 JFRC students and staff were escorted onto a travel bus by Dr. Ioanna Kopsiafti, DPhil, Art History, Oxford University, Professor and leader of this Spring Break trip. Ioanna created and organized this trip with the assistant of her very dear friend Dr. Susanna Cavallo of the Rome Center. Professor Alexander Evers of the JFRC also helped lead both the fall and spring break 10-day long trips, this time with the assistance of Student Life Assistant Gina Crovetti and special guest Jim Centner, a very loyal alumni who is on the Alumni Board and leads the WWII Italian Invasion 2-day excursion. This group, which included 49 students, traveled through Greece and Turkey for the entirety of Spring Break , March 1-10, 2013.
The first day, Friday March 1, was spent discovering the city of Athens with a walking tour done by Ioanna Kopsiafti. Students enjoyed their first gyros and truly felt the hustle and bustle of this fervent metropolis. As night fell, the group walked their way to the Acropolis museum where they wandered inside learning the history, maintenance, and wonders that are in the Acropolis that they would visit the next day. After, the group walked to dinner, passing historic Athens sites by night and viewing the jewel-like Parthenon lit up and silhouetted against the night sky. Dinner was at a local restaurant where they first sampled traditional Greek cuisine. This dinner remains to be the favorite of the entire trip, full of excitement and adrenaline from beginning this trip.
The second day the group hiked up the Acropolis, visiting the Parthenon and soaking in the panoramic views atop Athens. Here Ioanna gave historical lectures for the group and lead a walking tour of the site. The group saw the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena and the Erechthion with its famous Karyatids – alleged to be modeled on the most beautiful women in all of Greece. Down the sacred way they followed in the footsteps of Plato and Socrates with lectures to the ancient agora. After lunch the group departed for Thermopolis, watching the film 300 to get into the mindset of the Spartans themselves. The group made a pit stop at the actual monument to King Leonidas where the brave 300 Spartans took their last stand against Xerxes thousands – a pivotal moment in history for western civilization. After this the group checked in to their hotel and enjoyed dinner at a cozy tavern where there was live Greek music. The entire group danced the night away, even trying their hand at traditional cup balancing.
Day three began with an excursion to the Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron, which is the oldest and largest of the monasteries of Meteora built in the 14th century. It is one of six monasteries located high up on huge sandstone rock pillars, which rise dramatically over the Thessalian plain. The monastery offers a glimpse into 800 years of monastic life, architecture, rare icons, relics and manuscripts. After lunch the group departed for Vergina where they saw the most important Macedonian artifacts in the world. The site contains the impressive tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. The day concluded with a visit to Mount Olympus (Greece’s highest peak at 2918m) and a stay at the grandest hotel they had ever visited, sitting right on the edge of the sea and at the base of Mt. Olympus. Dinner was enjoyed in Ano Poli, a UNESCO World Heritage site, containing exquisite Greek and Ottoman architecture from the 19th century.
Day four included the journey to Thessalonica – Greece’s “second city”, which is the capital of the region of Macedonia, not only regarded as the entertainment capital of northern Greece but also the cultural capital of the country, containing 15 UNESCO world heritage sites. The city’s strategic location on the mainland route from Europe to Asia made it a powerful city whose history has been celebrated for centuries. The group trekked up to the Byzantine walls above the city, which included sweeping panoramic views out to the sea. Then they visited a Byzantine museum along with several important churches in the city, including the largest church in Greece named after Thessalonica’s patron saint – Agios Dimitrios, a Roman soldier martyred around 303 on the site and the crypt with his relics below. The evening began with a meeting at the White Tower on the café-lined waterfront promenade. Then they took a stroll through the heart of the city’s Aristoleous Square and concluded with dinner in the lively Ladadika, a restored warehouse district.
The group’s last day in Greece included a visit to the ancient site of Philippi, which was established by the king of Macedon, Philip II at the foot of Mount Orbelos. IT is also the historically noteworthy site where the Apostle Paul preached on European soil and baptized Lydia. After exploring this ancient site, the group traveled to the seaside town of Kavala to see the Roman aqueducts called kamares, the Castle of Kavala built by the Byzantines, and the elegant Imaret which was an Islamic seminary school. They group rested and enjoyed free time as the sun set over beautiful views from the port area. After, they traveled to spend the night in Xanthi, a town located amphitheatrically at the foot of Rodopi mountain range.
The sixth day of the Spring Break trip was devoted to crossing the border into Turkey. By this point the group had driven from Athens by bus, through Northern Greece, and they were ready to make the final stretch into Istanbul. They drove from Xanthi to Alexandroupoli before reaching their first visa control stop at the border. Once all visas were purchased, they entered the second stop to clear all persons and items aboard the bus. After several hours, the group was able to continue the 4.5hr journey to the city. Istanbul is sometimes referred to as “the city” – name coming from the Greek – because fore centuries there was no other to which it could be compared. After checking into the hotel located in the heart of Taksim square, the group enjoyed a walking tour of the Beyoglu and Galatasaray area and into Istiklal Street for dinner where they danced the night away with a live traditional Turkish band.
Straddling two continents – Europe and Asia, Istanbul (or Constantinople) can be defined by neither. It is a city of endless historic and cultural layers ranging from Roman to Byzantine to Ottoman eras. The seventh day was dedicated to visiting the Hippodrome built by Constantine the Great for horse races, the magnificent Byzantine church of Agia Sophia, and the so called Blue Mosque built across the way by Sultan Ahmet I to rival the Agia Sophia, and the Palace of Topkapi which was the primary residence of Ottoman Sultans and their harems for over 400 years. In the evening the group dined at a Turkish restaurant with views of the Bosphorus, sampling some of the world famous ‘politiki’ cuisine of the city.
Friday March 8 the group took a day trip to the picturesque Princes’ islands 20k from Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. No cars are allowed on this island, allowing for an escape from the bustle of Istanbul’s population of 13 million. The island boasts lovely gardens, wonderful mansions, and the Greek Monastery of St. George set between two giant hills. Students had the opportunity to take a horse-drawn carriage, rent bicycles, or simply hike to some of the island’s peaks. They returned late afternoon for an early dinner in the Orient Express train station, which was the end of the route in this bygone era.
The last day of the trip was spent first at the 17th cent. Spice Bazaar, one of Istanbul’s most colorful and bustling attractions. Then they went to the amazing Grand Bazaar with its 4000 shops to peruse anything one might desire. Students had the afternoon free to do last minute shopping or to enjoy a traditional hamam Turkish bath. The farewell dinner included live belly dancing and music once again. Istanbul was so enchanting that the idea of departing was met with great sorrow on the tenth and final day of travel, March 10, 2013.
The JFRC would like to especially thank Dr. Ioanna Kopsiafti for her willingness to coordinate such an adventure and a truly perfect execution.