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Old Destination, New Frontier

My first trip as a group leader for student travel

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This will be a whole new type of travel for me. About a year and a half ago, EF Tours contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in leading student educational tours abroad. I had been kicking the idea around in my head since I became a school teacher five years ago. The logistical planning always deterred me, though. How would I know which hotels, buses, guides, etc., to trust? And what about liability? Yikes! So, when EF Tours gave me a chance to do what I wanted -- the chance to open my students' eyes to the world -- without having to worry about the logistics, I jumped at the chance.

So, here I am, more than a year later, getting ready to take a group of 10 students, along with 10 parents or grandparents, to Italy for just over a week. Another experienced traveller teacher is going along, too, in our group. Since we have only 22 total, EF Tours is combining us with two smaller groups. Both are of high schoolers, one from the Chicago area, the other from Houston. My kids will all be going into the 7th, 8th, or 9th grades. We will be the "younguns" of the combined group. Hopefully, I've prepared them well on what to expect and what we will see. Am I nervous? Strangely, no. Maybe it is the more than 1:1 ratio in our group of adults to students. Maybe it is that the adults going along, and to some degree the students, are experienced travellers themselves. And of course, this will be my fourth trip to Italy.

So, follow along with me on my blog over the course of the next week. See what happens when Worldwidemike takes middle schoolers abroad. Hopefully, it will be an amazing, positive, and even life-changing trip for my kids. For now, it is time to say "Arrivederci!" As I finish up those last-minute errands before a trip...


Posted by world_wide_mike 07:30 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Bell'Italia: Leading Students on an Educational Tour

Our First Three Days

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Rome's most famous site, the Colosseum

Despite this being my fourth visit to Italy, it was a first in a number of ways. I was taking a group of middle school students and their parents as part of an educational tour. One additional teacher, 10 students, and 10 parents and grandparents made up our group. We had booked the trip through EF Tours, the leader in educational travel. They handled all the money, logistics, and guides. We had a local, Italian tour director who accompanied us from start to finish. EF Tours also arranged local, onsite guides for just about every day of sightseeing. My job would be to help coordinate things for our group, make sure all of my travelers were where they were supposed to be, and fill in the holes on our free time.

Sound simple? Well, everything went smoothly, but it was a lot of work. Since our group filled up only half a bus, we combined with two smaller groups to make roughly 45 travelers. Both groups were high schoolers, one of mostly boys from Houston and another of mostly girls from Des Plains, Illinois. Instances of drama between the groups were rare. My group got along with the Houston boys really well, and did okay with the Illinois girls, for the most part.

The travel group ready to board our flight: 2 teachers, 10 students, 10 parents/grandparents

Day 1: Flight to Rome

Our group gathered at Port Columbus about two hours before our initial flight to Detroit. Two of my adults had designed tour T-shirts, so we all showed up matching. An experienced group leader had recommended this as a way to make it easier to keep together in the airport, through security, and so on. Everyone seemed in high spirits for a week of sightseeing in Italy. Of course, can you blame them? I had picked this tour because it visited some of the highlights of Roman, Medieval,,and Renaissance history that I taught them in 7th grade. All five of my 8th graders were my former students, as was one of my 7th graders. Throughout the trip, I would quiz them and review what I'd taught them. It was gratifying to see how much they remembered of my class.

Our layover in Detroit flew by fairly fast, and before we knew it, we were lining up to board our flight to Rome. Delta treated us great, allowing us to board as a group right after their first class and priority flyers. Our Boeing 767 had a great selection of movies with screens in the setbacks, so most of the kids and adults occupied themselves watching movies. Most of us tried to sleep. Most of us were about as unsuccessful as I was. Despite having my earplugs and eye mask, I couldn't sleep one minute. I watched a movie, tried to sleep, gave up, watched another movie, read some, and generally passed the time as uncomfortably as I usually do on planes. Despite the lack of sleep, most of my travelers were excited and seemed fully awake as we deplaned in Rome.

Ostia Antica, Rome's ancient port on the Mediterranean Sea

Day 2: Arrival in Rome

We went through passport control and reclaimed our luggage without a hitch. We were met by an EF Tours Rep immediately, We had known for a couple weeks that we would be the first of the three groups arriving. The second group was scheduled in two hours later, and the third three hours after us. We also had known for months that our first day in Rome was a "free day," with no scheduled sightseeing. In our monthly meetings leading up to our departure, we had cobbled together a list of sights we wanted to see that were not part of our tour. I had finally heard back from our local tour guide, Elvira, a week prior to departure. I let her know in no uncertain terms we did not want to start our week in Italy sitting around in an airport for three hours after having just spent the previous day sitting around on planes and in airports! The EF Rep said that we would have to wait for the other groups, though. I insisted she contact Elvira and that this plan was not acceptable to us. She called Elvira and we went back and forth on the phone for a bit. She finally agreed to pick us up and take us somewhere at 11:00, which meant everyone had about 45 minutes to change clothes, grab some food, or change money.

The Roman bath complex at Ostia -- check out the great mosaic floor of the tepidarius (warm room)

Elvira and I picked out Ostia Antica -- the Mediterranean port for Ancient Rome -- as our sight to see while we were waiting for the others to arrive. The Rome airport is only about 10 minutes from the site, and it would be a nice introduction to Roman antiquities. As it turned out, the second group was running late, so we would have an hour of wandering around the sprawling site before we had to be back on the bus. Elvira said she was not permitted to guide us through Ostia, so we made do with reading the signs, and wandering amidst the ruins. I felt I could personally have done so much more to allow my students to get more out of it if I'd been given a chance to prepare for the visit. As it was, most were impressed with their first, up-close look at 2,000 year old ruins. The theater and Roman baths impressed them the most, I think. It was hot and sunny. You could see the vitality draining out of them by the end of our hour. Although I could have wandered there for hours, more than a few were happy to get back into the bus' air conditioning. Everyone said they enjoyed the visit, though, and were impressed with Ostia.

After swinging by the airport to pick up the Houston group (the girls from Illinois had missed their connection and were still in Madrid), we headed into Rome. As we drove through the city, Elvira pointed out the sights. We saw the city's ancient walls, the dome of the Vatican, and a number of churches. We stopped outside of the sprawling, brick shell of Diocletian's Baths. The frigidarium, or cold bath, was converted into a Christian church in the 1500's by order of Pope Pius IV. Some of the combined group went inside the church to check out its frescoes, while those whose stomachs were growling sought out one of the restaurants or cafes for dinner. From there, we headed to the hotel to check in. After dinner, I organized a search for a local gelato place based on the recommendation of the hotel desk. The placed ended up being closed, and a couple dozen students trekked back to the hotel disappointed. I assured them it had not been an elaborate trick to tire them out so they would sleep!

The Vatican and St. Peter's -- simultaneously the smallest country in the world, yet the largest church in the world

Day 3: Rome

The next morning, after breakfast, we began our exploration of Rome. First, it was off to the Vatican. We met our local guide and were introduced to the Whisper technology EF Tours would employ. Each student was given a cellphone-sized receiver to be worn on a lanyard around their neck. Ear buds would allow them to hear the guide, who would speak into a microphone he or she wore. In theory. Unfortunately, the device was not perfect. Sometimes, we could hear the guide well enough. Other times, it was distorted. I'm not sure if some guides were better at knowing where to wear the microphone than others, or what. Our Vatican guide often sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher, "Whant, wah wah wah..." We urged the students who had the most difficulty to stick close to the guide so they could hear her voice without the earbuds.

As an aside, I want to take a moment to praise the 10 students I brought on this trip. They were excited, engaged, and eager to learn from our guides. Sure, from time to time, some would get tired, worn out or cranky. Heck, most adults would struggle to stay focused on the long days under the hot, Italian sun. Our kids persevered like champs, though. All of the adults who went along on the trip praised my 12-14 year olds over and over. I was so proud of them. They did a great job representing their school and parents.

An interesting insight for me was comparing the kids' experiences with my own. Often, their novice traveler eyes were open with wonder, while my own veteran ones looked at a situation differently. Our Vatican tour was the prime example. Many kids considered it a highlight of the week, while I mentally picked out ways it could have been better. After assembling outside the gates and bypassing the several hour line (score one for EF Tours), our guide led us onto a rooftop terrace where she explained what we would see. She then led us into the Vatican Museum, which was a crush of people. We would spend the next 20-30 minutes elbow to elbow, weaving our way through the museum's corridors towards the Sistine Chapel. Our group of 40+ was slowly stretched and intermingled with the mass of humanity all seeking to glean something from the works of art we were walking past. I stayed near the back to make sure no one got left behind, which stretched the range of the Whisper Device. The audio cut out as she rounded corners. Eventually, we were ushered into the Sistine Chapel. All the guides stopped talking and visitors were shushed as everyone gazed upward in awe at Michaelangelo's masterpiece. It was inspiring to see, even though it was my second time.

The fountains in St. Peter's Square, designed by Bernini and Moderno in the 1600s

Next, our guide led us into St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world. Here, the crowd was much less oppressive, and we gathered around her as she pointed out the sights. I was surprised and pleased to see Michaelangelo's La Pieta, which I teach the kids about in my Renaissance Art lesson. I posted it out to students, reminding them of the lesson, and letting them drink in the glory of his work. His ability to render emotion in Mary's face and feeling in his depiction of Jesus' drained, lifeless body as he is cradled in her arms, is stunning. After the church, we entered the vast and impressive square of St. Peter's. Unfortunately, the guide hurried us through this architectural masterpiece, giving little time for pictures. Everyone scrambled after her, but you could see in their eyes and body language that they wanted to linger and take photos. I was furious when we reached the destination of her frantic march: a gift shop. I laced into Elvira who was awaiting us there. I told her it was unacceptable for us to be rushed past one of the world's wondrous sights to get to shopping. We were then given an hour and a half to shop, eat lunch, or (like I urged students to do) return to the square for photographs.

Designed to hold 50,000 spectators, the Colosseum is one of Rome's most amazing sights

We reboarded the bus and headed next to the Colosseum. There, we would have a different local guide for our visit to Rome's most famous sight and the Forum. Our guide led us inside the amphitheater and found a secluded corridor to give the kids a 25 minute review of Ancient Rome. I wasn't convinced of the need for this and would have rathered she jumped right in to talk about the Colosseum. This guide was better, though. She varied her pacing, spiced it up with questions to the kids, and made it more engaging than the last. She then led us up stairs and pointed out how the Colosseum was used as a quarry for building material through the centuries after the fall of Rome, during the Middle Ages. Finally, we ascended a final set of steps and Rome's greatest amphitheater -- and the inspiration for modern stadiums today -- was laid out before us. The kids were suitably impressed, and snapped and posed for pictures at a rapid pace. I unrolled the vinyl banner with the words "Orange Middle School" I'd had made and the students lined up holding it for a shot with the Colosseum in the background. You could tell the kids enjoyed the Colosseum through their smiles and wide eyes.

The travelers pose in front of the panorama that is the Colosseum

Next, we were led into the Roman Forum for an abbreviated, introductory tour, with 45 minutes of free time afterwards. I offered to take the OOMS group on a continuation of the tour, and they all accepted. I pulled out my DK Eyewitness guidebook for reference, and then launched into a half hour exploration of Rome's downtown district. I ended with a visit to the House of the Vestal Virgins, one of my favorite places in the Forum. The peristyle garden lined with statues of various priestesses of Vesta is a quiet, atmospheric place that allows visitors to picture what life may have been like.

The travelers listen to our guide talk about the Roman forum

After a delicious pizza dinner (a description I consider to border on redundant), we drove towards the Piazza Navona. We disembarked and walked towards the Piazza di Spagna, and the nearby Trevi Fountain. Unfortunately, it is under reconstruction. There is a small fount for visitors to toss their coins over their shoulder in hopes of a return to Rome. It was getting late, which meant by the time we arrived at my favorite Roman building, The Pantheon, it was closed. I talk to my students extensively about what I consider Rome's greatest engineering marvel, so this was a true disappointment. We took pictures outside, but nothing can compare with a visit to the inside and staring up at the largest concrete dome the world had seen for 2,000 years. I felt bad for those who had been my students as they clustered looking up at, wanting to be inside. If there had been a guard instead of merely locked doors, I would have offered him hundreds of dollars to open it up to them. Finally, we walked to the Piazza Navona where Elvira pointed out the best gelato shop. Our group took advantage of it, assuaging any disappointment with excellent, Italian ice cream.

The Pantheon -- believed by many to be Rome's greatest architectural achievement

Our sightseeing was capped off with our first "add on." All three groups had agreed to a night tour of Rome at the cost of 10 Euros each. We boarded our bus and whipped around various parts of Rome, taking in the sight of the ancient and medieval sites illuminated by floodlights. I pointed out Trajan's Column to the kids as we passed it -- another monument I talk about extensively in class. We disembarked only once, to get a picture of the St. Peter's lit up at night. Finally, our long day of drinking in Rome's ancient glory was over. We headed back to the hotel to rest up for our next day.

we embarked on our first "add on" to our tour

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:46 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Pompeii and the Pearl that is Assisi

Day 4 & 5: Tour Highlights on Back-to-back Days

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The kids enjoy the view from atop a tower in Assisi's castle, Rocca Maggiore

Day 4: Pompeii

We were on the bus early the next morning for our day trip to Pompeii. When I set up this itinerary with EF Tours, I made the Pompeii excursion mandatory for my travelers. More than a decade ago, I went to both Pompeii and nearby Herculanaeum, two Roman cities preserved by the ash or lava of Mt. Vesuvius' eruption. I remember wandering its Roman streets and wanted my students to have the same experience. On the ride down, I pointed out hilltop towns to my students, explaining how the chaos, warfare, and piracy of the Middle Ages had caused towns and villages to move up the slopes for protection. Elvira pointed out the mountaintop abbey of Monte Cassino. As she told the students about its tragic story during WW II, and the tremendous loss of life that happened there, I knew then she was a fellow history buff. Upon arrival, we had lunch before exploring Pompeii. More pizza! At least in Italy, pizza is local cuisine, so I can't be accused of dining American when I eat it!

Walking the streets of Pompeii, a Roman city buried by Mt. Vesuvius' eruption

Our local guide for Pompeii was my favorite of the trip. He was a funny gentleman who looked to be in his 60s. He was a veteran guide whose son was now a guide in Pompeii, too. He spoke with the right pacing to keep the kids interested and engaged with what we were seeing. He had humorous stories, interjected jokes and plays on words, and asked them questions. We began our our near one of the barracks for troops, and proceeded to the small Roman theater. From there, we wound our way along Pompeii's streets, as he pointed out the stepping stones for crossing the street, the ruts left by wagon wheels, and the row upon row of thermopalia -- Roman fast food joints. We explored the Roman baths, and our guide explained the various hot, warm and cold pools. He took us by the villas of weather citizens, pointing out the tiled mosaics still surviving at their entrances. We stopped by a drinking fountain, which archeologists hooked up again to provide water from aqueducts running from the hillsides. It was cool to watch the kids fill up their water bottles and think they were drinking from the same source the ancient Romans did.

Refilling a water bottle with water from the same source that Romans drank

The highlight was when we entered the Roman forum, with its temple to Jupiter. The row of columns stretching away on either side, along with the steps leading up to the temple, gave the students an idea of the panorama of a Roman town center. We unfurled the Orange Middle School banner and took pictures with the forum and Mt. Vesuvius in the backdrop. Unlike other guides, he sensed the group wanted to indulge in photography here and let us take about 10 minutes to get our fill of group and family shots, selfies, or pictures of the ruins themselves. Despite the heat of the day, the students' faces were bright with excitement. You cold tell they knew they were experiencing an important slice of history that day. Our guide walked us over to some gated off buildings that housed some of the famous plaster casts of the people who died and were buried by Vesuvius' ash that fell three feet deep. He explained that, over the centuries, the ash hardened to rock forming cavities in the shape of the person who lay there. He pointed out a cast of a person who had drawn his tunic up over his mouth in attempt to not be suffocated by the ash and poison gases. We saw the guard dog strangled by his own collar as the ash level rose past the length of his chain, his four legs frozen for centuries in mid-flailing. We saw the stack upon stack of plastic boxes that contained the bones collected from the more than 2,000 people who died at Pompeii. We finished our tour with the temple of Apollo, and then the stop at the obligatory gift shops. Many of the kids wanted souvenirs from this amazing site, so I kept my curmudgeonly instinct in check and indulged them.

Gathering for a group picture in Pompeii's Forum

Back in Rome, I was able to meet up with my friend Andrea, who lives about an hour outside the city. We had dinner and talked for a couple hours. It had been about five years since I'd seen him, so it was good to catch up.

Rocca Maggiore, Assisi's 12th century castle, looks above the scenic hillside town

Day 5: Assisi

As amazing as Pompeii was, many of the travelers would feel this one outdid it as the highlight of the trip. I had never been to Assisi before. I knew we were to visit the Basilica of St. Francis, but I had no idea what was here besides the church. Assisi is a picturesque medieval town town perched on a hillside, with a gorgeous view of the Tuscan countryside. It's winding streets are cobble stoned and snake up,and down hill past churches, towers, and buildings from ancient times, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. From the moment we passed through its arched gates, my group was taking pictures of the beautiful views and quaint town. Elvira brought us to the town square, gave us our bearings, and then cut us free for almost two hours to wander the town. She pointed out the highlights we might want to see, along with the location of good lunch stops.

The picturesque streets of medieval Assisi

I took a group of kids uphill to explore the medieval castle that overlooked the town. The view from up top was spectacular, and would only get better as we clambered around inside the fort's stone walls and ascended its towers. The kids had a blast exploring the castle, as I knew they would. What child doesn't dream about poking around castle dungeons, running up circular stairs to mighty guard towers, and finding secret passages to other sections of the castle? They were so excited they would break out and run from one place to another, and I had to hurry along to keep up with them. Their faces were flushed with joy and the pictures I have of them show that they were living out their dreams at that moment.

A steep climb led to every kid's fantasy: a medieval castle to explore!

Once we'd explored every foot of the 12th century castle, we headed back downhill through the medieval streets. We peeked inside the Roman Temple of Minerva, which was converted in the Middle Ages to a church. We decided to skip a full lunch and tided ourselves over with heaping servings of gelato. Some students bought souvenirs as we slowly wound our way along the beautiful streets to the Basilica of St. Francis. There we met the rest of the group and our local guide for a tour of the 13th century church built in honor of the saint who started the Franciscan order of monks. It is built on three levels, with the lowest containing the crop holding the friar's tomb and relics of his life. Frescoes on the walls illustrated the life of the saint, some from the Middle Ages, some from the Renaissance or later. We ended in the upper church where the soaring Gothic ceilings were bright with frescoes and the windows gleamed colorfully with stained glass. Our local guide did a good job of recounting St. Francis' life and pointing out the church's decoration and their meaning and significance. It was a happy group of travelers who filed back onto the bus. Assisi was a pearl of a surprise in the middle of our itinerary. As the week continued, more and more of the kids would say it was one of their favorite places we would visit.

The 13th century Basilica of St. Francis

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:26 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Sunny, Seaside Cinque Terre

A Small Group Heads for the Coast While the Others Visit Pisa

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The pretty harbor of La Spezia, from where we set out on our day trip to Cinque Terre

Day 6: Cinque Terre (or Pisa)

When I set up the tour itinerary, I had made Pompeii a mandatory excursion. Pisa I kept as optional, though. About 2/3's of the travelers signed up for it. The other teacher would lead that group, while I took responsibility of the rest. The Pisa group said they had a great time and enjoyed it a lot. For the rest of us, we had discussed what we would do on this free day. One proposal I made early on was to take a day trip to Cinque Terre -- a scenic collection of coastal villages. Hiking paths run along the hills above the villages, and boats cruise the coast. A couple of the adults were leery of the hiking, so we settled on a boat ride which stopped in all the villages. It was a hop on, hop off, ferry schedule. So, we could get off for awhile, check out the village, and then board the next one going up the coast. When we reached Monterosso, we could take the local train back to, where we began in La Spezia. I bought the train tickets the night before, and looked up the ferry schedule online to get an idea of what we were in for.

Cruising along the Italian seacoast
Everything worked like a charm. We caught our first train, and after an hour changed trains in Viareggio. The next one was shorter, and we were soon in La Spezia, the pretty port town where the ferry route began. The tourist information office gave us an updated schedule and map to find the docks. We bought our tickets, and after a short wait, boarded the ferry, the kids selecting the upper deck for the open views on all sides. The day was a beautiful, sunny one. The sea breeze cooled the warm day -- perfect weather for a boat ride!

Churchs and Castles -- or buildings that were a little of both, commanded the coastal hillsides
The cruise along the Italian coast was gorgeous, with steep, green cliffs diving abruptly down to translucent blue waters. Castles and towers staked out commanding views, as did churches. The villages were often hidden in the folds of the hills. As we rounded a corner, they would unfold colorfully in slow motion. Bright yellows, pastel reds and tans, and gleaming white buildings gave each village or town a unique, but related face. It was as if each were a cousin to the other, showing a clear family bloodline in its features, but recognizably different.

Portovenere, named after the Roman goddess of beauty and love, Venus
Our first stop was at Portovenere, a lovely village named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love. We disembarked and walked along the waterfront, looking for a quaint cafe with a breezy view to have lunch. We watched the locals and tourists amble along the walkway, the kids being scandalized by the skimpiness of fashionable Italian swimwear. The yachts of the wealthy caught our eyes, and we settled into our seats enjoying the relaxed pace of Cinque Terre.

Beautiful, Cinque Terre scenery on a sunny day
At the next stop, Riomaggiore, we decided to let the kids wade in the Mediterranean Sea. We followed the rocky path to the rocky beach, and the kids gingerly took off their shoes or sandals to wade in up to their calves. We took some pictures, wondered at how the sunbathers could lay out on rocks and boulders, and then packed up to catch the next ferry. The next village in line, Corniglia, has too steep and rocky of an inlet for the ferry, so we just took pictures as we sailed by. We also did not get off at Manarola, but decided to make a gelato stop at Vernazza.

Wading in the historic Mediterranean Sea
Vernazza was one of my favorites, but honestly, all Cinque Terre are quaint gems of towns. There is a tiny arc of muddy beach, protected by a rocky spit of land. Kids dive from cliffs into the deeper pools, while buildings cling precariously to every level space available. Towers sprout up here and there in town, and the buildings are bedecked in beautiful colors that vibrantly throw back the sunlight. All of the kids loved Italian ice cream, or gelato, and some set out to try every flavor, which necessitated multiple indulgences over the course of one day.

A stop for gelato in beautiful Vernazza
Our time in Vernazza ended too soon, and we sailed off to our final stop, the largest of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso. Since we'd been pushed along by the ferry schedule (always wanting to catch the next ferry after disembarking) we promised ourselves to take our time and linger in our final stop. We walked through the town, poking into black and white striped Genovese churches, checking out souvenirs, and buying refreshments. We saw frequent trains whizzed by on the hillside overhead, so we were in no hurry. It was a fitting end to a relaxing, beautiful day on Italy's sea coast. The sun shined brightly throughout, the breezes kept it from getting too hot, and the kids were wonderfully behaved. Their excitement at the sights amplified the pleasure the adults were feeling, too. After a steady diet of history on the tour, Cinque Terre was a tasty dessert for the eyes -- a whole new flavor of Italy for my travelers to sample.
Beautiful Monterosso is a lovely place to stroll around

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:25 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Me in Cinque Terre

I really was there!

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I am adding this intermediate photo to my blog because I accidentally un-clicked the Notify Subscribers button on my Cinque Terre post

Click here to read the Cinque Terre entry

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:45 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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