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In the Air Again Goin’ Places Where We Never Been

In the Air Again Goin’ Places Where We Never Been

By Belinda Holland and Gretchen Kirchner

After journeying two days, over 4,500 miles, from Cedar
Rapids, Iowa, to Chicago’s O’Hare, to Frankfurt, Germany, and finally to
Athens, Greece, Keokuk High School students Daniel Crenshaw, Aaron Mardis, and
Tanner Lemon trekked and toured their way through Athens, Greece, Florence,
Italy; and Barcelona, Spain. Also making the tap were Gretchen Kirchner, David
Wendt, Belinda Holland, Carol Grisham, and Joni Crenshaw.

Our first stop was Athens, Greece with a population of 11
million. We did well walking through the city and only got lost once! Many of
the people live in “flats” (apartments) which are very expensive. The
Smart Car is one of the many “small” cars we saw on the streets as
well as Fiats, Saabs, Mercedes, Toyotas, etc. There was rarely a gas-guzzling
SUV in sight! Scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles were also very popular means
of transportation.

Well, what can be said for Greek cuisine, except that it was
very delectable. A favorite was the Greek salad, with cucumbers, tomatoes, red
onions, olives, and oregano—doused with olive oil and topped with nice-sized
rectangular chunk of feta cheese. Yummm!! But, was another favorite the spinach
pie Mr. Wendt?

We visited the ancient Olympic Stadium as well as the 2004
Olympic Stadium. Our tour director was Holda, who taught us some phrases in
Greek. Our favorite was the hand action of twisting the wrist upward and around
to show frustration or possibly anger that means, “What!!!” We had
fun with that gesture. The highlight of the day was the ruins of the Acropolis
with marble walkways throughout. The Parthenon was beautiful and parts of it
are continually being restored. The popular souvenir that day was the
“Evil Eye”, a flat, blue glass orb that looks like an eye that is
supposed to protect one from evil.

All of us enjoyed the Greek Evening where we were treated to
shepherd’s pie, stuffed grape leaves, pork kabobs, potato slices with
vegetables, bread (with no butter), and donut-like pastries with honey. The
entertainment included singers, a belly dancer, and dancers in traditional
costumes. Our students weren’t too enthused on dancing, but many students were
and did a type of conga dance led by a young man with a shepherd’s hook.
Breaking plates on heads and knife-wielding were two of the favorite dances. A
beautiful, young lady danced in an intriguing white-fringed outfit, and gave
lessons to some of the young male students attending the Greek evening.
“OPAH” We yelled this word loudly throughout the evening. (This is
like our “Hooray!”)

The sunny day Sarconic Cruise was filled with sightseeing
and shopping for “treasures.” Numerous sailboats and ships, quaint
little shops, and outdoor cafes and restaurants lined each port. A must
wherever we went was to try the ice cream!! The entertainers on the cruise played
Greek, Italian, and Latin American dancing music including the tango. We
enjoyed watching the skillful dancers glide across the dance floor and perform
some traditional dances for all to enjoy. The seagulls were not to be left out
of the entertainment scene though. Daniel began enticing a seagull by holding a
piece of bread in the air until it snatched it out of his hand. Needless to
say, the seagulls didn’t go hungry on this cruise.

The next day we toured Delphi, which in mythological times
was considered the center of the known world, the place where heaven and earth
met, the place where man was closest to God. There were also various other
ruins including the stadium, which with considerable hiking was at the top of
the trail. Daniel, Aaron, Tanner, and Mrs. Holland made it to the stadium.
Whew! What a hot hike! During ancient times, the winning participants of games
here were presented with a laurel head wreath, whereas in Athens the winners
were crowned with an olive wreath.

Small chapels were placed on the ground along the highways,
where there had been an accident. If there were flowers, the victim didn’t make
it; if there were no flowers, the victim lived. Holda, also told us there are
no bridesmaids in the Greek Orthodox weddings; it is only the priest and the
couple. Also when the engagement ring is given, the bride wears the ring on her
right hand till the wedding, then it is moved to the left hand. Traditional
Greek dances are danced at the reception.

Our last tour of Greece was to two monasteries at Meteora.
It is a complex of huge rock formations up to 985 ft. high, visible from the
rooms of our hotel, the Hotel Famissi. Originally accessible only by bridle
tracks, ladders, and hoists; they are now reachable by many flights of
steps—and we mean many!!! Fourteen nuns live in one and four monks in the
other. Beautiful paintings with religious history and meaning adorned the walls
and ceilings of the chapels, and the convent was landscaped with colorful,
bright flowerbeds.

Upon the call of nature, we encountered a new experience.
Not all in our group were hip on the idea of using a Turkish toilet, or squat
toilet, though. Make sure pockets are emptied of keys, money, or passport. Take

We had a very smooth ride on the Midoan Ferry Lines on our
way to Florence, Italy. Some of us had a port view in our cabin; others did
not; it was painted on the wall! By the way, the restrooms are labeled
“WC” for water closet here, as well as all over Europe. Upon arrival
to Ancona, Italy, we boarded a bus for Montecatini, where we stayed at El
Innocenti Hotel. The view of the Italian countryside revealed sunflower and
wheat fields with huge grape vineyards and olive groves interspersed.

An olive oil bottle incident at this hotel shows manners to
be common everywhere you go. A meal was being brought to us; all we had to do
was wait. Someone from the San Diego group went to another table to get a
bottle of olive oil to use for dipping the pieces of bread brought to our
tables. The proprietor of the hotel, a much older man with snow- white, curly
hair saw this and proceeded to take the bottle away from him. When asked why he
couldn’t have it, he said, “He did not ask for it politely like he should
have.” Manners count everywhere you go. Thank goodness it wasn’t anyone in
our group! Traveling in our group were people from San Diego, Puerto Rico, and
Idaho. We met many new friends.

Our guide told us Florence was the birthplace of the
Renaissance Period and a hotbed that attracted great artists. At the Piazza
(square) della Signoria, which is like an open-air museum, was a copy of the
statue of Michelangelo’s “David” (the original housed in the Gallery
of the Academy of Fine Arts) and many other famous statues. Art salesmen were
along the cobblestone streets displaying their lovely copies of famous
locations and scenes around Florence. Some women were also aggressively selling
handsome tablecloths.

Interesting also was the renowned and most ancient
Florentine bridge Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) of Etruscan origin over the Arno
River. Supposedly, Hitler and his troops blew up all the bridges in Florence
but loved this one so much he left it standing. For dinner we dined on bowtie
pasta with sauce as an appetizer and an entree of turkey slice with gravy,
peas, and cabbage salad. For dessert we were served panacota, a white milk
pudding like mousse with chocolate drizzled on top. On our to-do list yet was
to eat pizza and gelato and shop for more treasures.

We watched a demonstration at Leonardo Leatherworks on how a
leather box is made without any stitches, and more importantly, how to tell if
a leather product is authentic (look for evidence of suede). At this store,
they make items from bookmarks, belts, golf tee holders, to purses, jewelry,
and jackets. Their specialty is the beautiful leather box. The leather workers
can craft and have available any size boxes you like and emboss designs and
your initials in gilded gold. Next, the pizza!

One thing we all wanted to try was the pizza of Italy; it
was scrumptious using zesty tomato sauce, provolone cheese, and various
toppings on a thin, crispy crust. Next, the search was on for gelato for
dessert. The gelato cannot be topped. If one was purchasing raspberry gelato,
for example, they would receive the richest, creamiest, fruit-filled ice cream
ever. Just ask Tanner, Aaron, and Daniel!! They’d probably say,

As the day went on, it got hotter and hotter. We were told
later, that the temperature at the plaza reached at least 115 degrees. One of
the best ways to cool off and relax, was to enjoy a cool refreshment at a local
open-air cafe that also offered snacks and fancy hors d’oeuvres. During our
free time, we shopped at the market places; scarves, jackets, and t-shirts
seemed to be the hot items. Check out Joni, Carolle, Gretchen or Belinda to see
if one of their many scarves adorn their attire!

We journeyed to Barcelona, Spain, via another huge ferry
from the city of Civitavecchia, Italy. The bodies of water we had crossed on
our trip so far were the North Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the
Adriatic Sea, the Ionic Sea, and the Aegean Sea. Wow!!

The seas were rough on this trip (It was hard to walk a
straight line!), and the cabins were smaller; but, we had a porthole view.
“Water, water, everywhere!” The deep blue seas with whitecaps were
mesmerizing to watch. Since it was so difficult to walk anywhere we went, most
people slept, read books, and made sure they had taken their Dramamine for

Upon arrival to Barcelona, one can see a red cable car going
across the water to the city and a tall statue of Christopher Columbus pointing
to the sea. Our Hotel Catalonia sat on the longest street in Barcelona, and had
an excellent restaurant and coffee bar and the friendliest hosts so far. The
rooms and bathrooms were very modern and elegant. Plus, its location placed us
close to see the Flamenco Evening, Giiell Park, the Sagrada (sacred) Familia
Cathedral, and downtown Barcelona’s famous market area called La Rambla.

Dinner that night was at 9:00 P.M. with the Flamenco Evening,
next to La Rambla, planned at 1 1 :30. In Spain on the weekends, people begin
going out late in the evening about 12:00 midnight. The flamenco dancers were
skilled in this amazing cultural dance and dressed in colorful, ruffled
dresses, the men in smart black suits. They danced without castanets, but could
snap their fingers just as loudly. Flamenco is the traditional song and dance
of the Gypsies of Andalucia. What a way to top off the evening!

The next day, a superb breakfast was served at the coffee bar
in our hotel. We had the famous tortilla Espanola, a potato, onion, flat egg
omelet. Onward we go to tour the metropolitan city of Barcelona and to learn
some interesting facts.

Barcelona is home to 1.5 million people and is the most
important commercial port of Spain. The cost of living is high in Barcelona,
for example, a one-bedroom flat is sold for $100,000.   Fee for parking a car is $3.75 per hour, so public
transportation is used extensively. Public buses and the metro are the usual
choices, although there are motorized scooters and motorcycles everywhere!

Barcelona was also the site of the 1992 Olympics. We bussed
past the stadium, which is now used for concerts and saw the torch tower. The
city is strong on culture and night life, and has many organized events and
festivals planned throughout the year. Bullfighting is still a part of Spanish
culture, but it is not quite as important considering there is more respect for
animal rights; for example, a bull ring in the city is going to be home to a future
shopping mall! While going through the city, stores lining the street displayed
big names like Versace, Armani, Burberry, Cartier, Calvin Klein, and Rolex
since Barcelona is the fashion capital of the world.

Our bus stopped for picture taking at the gothic-style
Church la Familia Sagrada, under construction since 1882 and designed by Antoni
Gaudi and scheduled to be completed in 2026, the JOO* anniversary of Gaudi’s
death. The exterior is magnificent and tells the whole story of the life of
Jesus hi detail.

Our next stop was Guell Park, a garden complex with twisting
paths designed by Catalan architect Gaudi and built in 1900 to 1914. It
attracts photographers galore with its mosaic designs and stunning tiling. The
main terrace square is lined with a beautifully-tiled serpentine bench with a
panoramic view of the city. Small vendors also lay out their wares of Spanish
fans, trinkets, and souvenirs. The lower court forms a cool, shady central
terrace topped with a roof adorned with circular tiled designs supported by the
86 Doric columns. What a park! Next on our agenda was lunch! What better place
to eat lunch than The Hard Rock Cafe. “Ole!!!”

After buying Hard Rock souvenirs and gazing at the amazing
artifacts lining the walls of the cafe, we settled to a scrumptious lunch and
continued shopping in La Rambla and some older streets of Barcelona. La Rambla
is occupied by street vendors, tourists, casual walkers, street artists, and
mimes and street performers who entertain with a clink of a coin.

The flight back home was relaxing and uneventful, and the
flight attendants made sure passengers were well-hydrated and fed. In contrast,
there was chaos at O’Hare involving luggage, and we were not surprised our
baggage didn’t arrive when we did in Cedar Rapids. All in all, it was a
fantastic trip! Piece of advice- leave your diet at home. You may never have
the opportunity to indulge in authentic Italian gelato again!