How do you pick a vacation destination? Many people are planners, while others take off on a whim. Some have a bucket list of must-see places to methodically check off. And there are those who can relax and recharge with just a few days on a sunny beach.
This year, my vacation planning started in October when a friend called with an idea for an overseas trip. The destination seemed right and so did the timing. Just after Easter, I joined 39 individuals connected to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, setting off on a special trip to Greece and Turkey. I was looking for an adventure but also an educational experience and spiritual journey that would add perspective to day-to-day living. I was not disappointed.
Led by the church’s senior pastor, Dr. Bill Barnes, the sturdy travelers left April 26 for Thessaloniki, Greece, to begin retracing the footsteps of St. Paul on his missionary journey through Greece with stops in some of the Greek islands and Ephesus in Turkey. Some were seasoned travelers, but for others this was their first trip abroad.
This trip was not for the faint-of-heart. The 10-day excursion included two travel days and eight days of sightseeing with stops in Amphipolis, Philippi, Neapolis, Thessaloniki, Veria, Meteora, Kalambaka, Delphi, Athens, Corinth, Cenchraeae, Mykonos, Ephesus, Patmos, Crete and Santorini.
Each day the group rose early and ate a hearty breakfast to start a day of walking archeological sites and cobblestone streets, climbing to the top of ancient amphitheaters and visiting Biblical locations, as well as historic and scenic sites. Aliki, our tour guide, provided excellent lectures on history, archeological restorations and mythology with Biblical references to put the day’s destinations into context.
Beginning in Philippi, the tour visited archeological excavations for the foundations of two churches dating back to 4th and 5th century A.D., as well as those of a large marketplace and a speaker’s platform, or bema. This is the place St. Paul stood when he defended himself before the magistrates. There is a small crypt dating from the Roman period, where tradition holds that Paul and Silas were imprisoned. The acropolis of Philippi is above the marketplace and features a theater that seated 5,000 people.
Just outside of Philippi, Paul and Silas found a place to pray near the riverside, where Lydia was converted and baptized with her household. She was from Asia Minor, and her conversion is considered the establishment of the first Christian church in Europe. This event took place near the River Krenides (Acts 16:13-15).
At this place, the St. Luke’s group prayed and Pastor Barnes rebaptized each person with water from the river.
Some of the group agreed to share their reasons for joining the journey and described their most memorable moments. Several agreed Lydia’s baptism site was the highlight of the trip.
“My mother’s name was Lydia,” said Laura Forleo. “I heard the story of Lydia told by my grandfather: ‘Lydia, a merchant of purple, whose heart was open by the Lord to respond to what Paul was preaching.’ My mother could not make the trip to Greece because of her age, so I did it for both of us. It was a wonderful experience to be blessed by Pastor Bill at the site where Lydia was baptized by St. Paul.”
Fellow traveler Charlotte Donaldson also found this site the most meaningful because “we reconfirmed our own baptism where the first person [Christian convert on European soil], Lydia, was baptized by Paul just outside of Philippi. It was just a wonderful feeling to reflect on the meaning of baptism and the dedication of the early Christians.”
Edward Schultz III agreed: “I thought our baptism in the north of Greece was a great memory. The river was very nice, and Bill made a great time for us all.”
There, too, the group saw still-intact sections of ancient Roman highway — the Via Egnatia — that Paul traveled from Turkey to Greece and through Macedonia.
Dr. Sandra Stine described her experience: “I wanted this trip since I got so much out of the one [Pastor Barnes led] to Israel. This was like Part II for me. I had seen where Jesus was/is and since had been reading about Paul and wanted to see how the church started. Most meaningful was actually seeing how the Bible came alive. Philippi was especially moving since I saw the layout of the town. I saw the bema where Paul preached and the agora [central spot or gathering place in an ancient Greek city] so I could visualize where the owner of the slave girl with the demon would have been, how Paul expelling it would threaten his livelihood and that the magistrate was in the same area with the prison across the way. I walked where Paul walked on the Egnatia Way.”
The group then visited Neapolis (Kavala), a picturesque port, where Paul landed with his disciples, Timothy and Silas.
In Thessaloniki, a prominent city in Macedonia, Paul taught in the synagogue and converted many Jews but fled in the night to Veria, also known as Berea (Acts 17:10-12), when non-believers created an uproar. There, the group stopped at St. George’s Basilica, which is believed to be built over the site of the synagogue.
Meteora, a rock forest in western Thessaly, provided a glimpse into the rough terrain traveled by Paul. There are seven operating Byzantine monasteries built atop these rocky pinnacles, and a visit to one of these was another tour high point.
Terry McCorvie said: “Kathleen and I joined the trip because we wanted to see Greece, not just as a tourist destination, but through the eyes of the apostle Paul. The most memorable site was Meteora. The giant, jagged rock formations created by an ancient river are a spectacle to behold, but when you see the old monasteries hidden at the top of the massive rock, you can hardly believe your eyes. (Of course, a close second highlight was the amazing Greek food.)”
At Delphi, considered by early Greeks to be the center of the world and also the religious center, the group viewed ancient treasures like the 5th-century bronzed charioteer in the museum, listened to the fabled stories of the Oracle at Delphi and ascended up the hillside on the Sacra Via to the Athenian Treasury, the theater and the Temple of Apollo.
Then, the troupe went on to Athens and up to Mars Hill, where Paul gave a sermon to the men of the city (Acts 7:23).
Sandra Stine, who recalled the sight, said: “I walked his same steps up Mars Hill in Athens. I got a sense of the letters he wrote to the specific areas he visited. That was just cool! (I teach disciple classes, so seeing helps relate to it better).”
Other Athens’ stops included the Acropolis, Parthenon, Plaka (the oldest section of the city, near the Acropolis), Olympic stadium, House of Parliament and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
A cruise of the Aegean Sea took the group to:
• Mykonos, famous for its whitewashed buildings that lead to an azure-blue sky.
• Ephesus in Turkey, a Greco-Roman city with tremendous archeological treasures including the monumental Library of Celsus, which held 12,000 scrolls 1,800 years ago, and a 24,000-seat amphitheater where St. Paul gave his epistle to the Ephesians; and the home of St. John the Apostle and Christ’s mother, Mary.
• Patmos, home to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. John (a UNESCO World Heritage site) built in 1088. St. John the Apostle was exiled there for 18 months, where he also wrote the Book of Revelation in A.D. 95.
• Crete, the center of the Minoan civilization (2700-1420 B.C.) — Europe’s first advanced civilization, which is evidenced by the magnificent Palace at Knossos. Sandra Stine was impressed by the Minoan civilization and its intelligent architecture.
• Santorini, one of the most spectacular of the Greek Islands, where dark volcanic cliffs ascend to the white-walled buildings in the town of Fira. Travelers reach the summit by cable cars to take in the marvelous view.
The final day of the trip was spent exploring ruins in Corinth, where Paul had many converts (Acts 18:8-10), and visiting the temple, marketplace, museum and bema where Paul stood before Gallio defending against the charges brought by the Jews.
As we traveled the highways and stopped at the places visited by St. Paul and learned about the ancient times, customs and cultures of the area, we could start to imagine the challenges, adversities, faith and commitment it took to be a missionary in those days. When we learned that 95 percent of Greek citizens are members of the Orthodox Church, which is the official state religion, and heard the religious fervor in the voices of the guides, you could feel the impact of St. Paul and his disciples 2,000 years ago.
While many in the group knew each other, others, even church members, were strangers at the start of the trip. Within a few days everyone felt included, new friends and old were laughing, sharing stories and building new relationships. For me, this was a highlight of the experience. The esprit de corps of the travelers was fantastic. There was a pervasive sense of unity, consideration, camaraderie and helpfulness.
“It was nice getting to know more of the church members, and I loved the songs we sang on the bus,” said Sandra Stine.
Some of the group brought family along — mothers with daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and friends.
“Having this opportunity with my mom, sister and aunt was even more special,” Stine said. “Sharing wonderful times with family always is.”
Julie Evans also came on the trip with her mother, Mary Hayes, and said how special it was to travel together.
“We knew that Pastor Bill was a very engaging teacher,” Charlotte Donaldson said. “When we heard that lots of our friends were going and that we’d learn about how Paul helped the growth of the early church — it just seemed that we could not miss this opportunity.”
The group had a reunion two weeks ago to share photos, videos and more stories — unanimously agreeing the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime memory. For an encore, some are already signing up to tour the Holy Land with Pastor Barnes next April.