second day in Saigon, Vietnam. I am lucky enough to get on a Saigon Tours half-day
trip to Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense
network of connecting tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which
the Viet Cong used to launch guerrilla warfare against the Americans during the
is the second leg of nine during a 23-day, around-the-world Global Scavenger
Hunt, “A Blind Date with the World,” where we don’t know where we are going
until we are given 4-hour notice. Under the Global Scavenger Hunt rules, you
are not allowed to take a commercial tour, or hire a private guide, or even use
a taxi for more than 2 scavenges at a time, since the object is to force you to
interact with locals. I knew that even though the visit was one of the “Bonus”
scavenges, I wouldn’t get points, also my teammate Margo, was doing her own
thing in Saigon, visiting the Botanical Gardens.)
The visit is profound, and though the script is written by the victors, is appropriate to represent the side that wanted to push out colonists (though in retrospect, I realized that there was no real mention of the fact that the South Vietnamese leadership didn’t want the Communist North Korean leadership to take over, either – nothing is simple, especially not in the world of geopolitics). You have to appreciate the commitment and courage and sacrifice of the Viet Cong in living the way they did – creating a virtually self-sufficient community under ground, planting boobie traps for the Americans, repurposing unexploded bombs into weapons and old tires into sandals, cooking only at night and channeling the smoke to come up in a different place (where it would look like morning steam, so not to give away the location of the tunnels). We get to climb into a tunnel, and go 20, 40, 60, 80 up to 160 meters, seeing just how tiny they were – you have to crouch all the way through and sometimes even crawl. There is also a shooting range where you can shoot an AK 47, M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire gives you some sense of what they were living through. There was a hospital, a wardrobe sewing area, we watch a woman demonstrate making rice paper. At the end is a film that uses grainy black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save the Fatherland from US aggression.
the way back, the guide offered to make a detour to take us to a factory,
created by the government to employ people who were handicapped because of
coming upon unexploded ordinance, or who had birth defects as a result of the
chemical weapons used against the Vietnamese. Originally the factory produced
cigarettes, but today, they produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered
and inlaid items.
trip provides an excellent opportunity to see other Vietnamese communities
outside of the urban center.
After returning to Saigon, I go off to continue my theme – visiting the buildings that the French built, starting with the magnificent Post Office (where I wind up spending close to an hour choosing from a stunning array of post cards, buying stamps and writing the cards), then onto the Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at 4), then on to the War Remnants Museum, where I visited until it closed at 6 pm, because there was so much to see and take in.
You should begin on the third level, which provides the “historic truths” (actually the background) for the Vietnam War, which more or less accurately presents the facts. On this level is a most fascinating exhibit that presents the work of the multinational brigade of war correspondents and photographers, along with a display of the dozens who were killed in the war. The photos are presented in an extraordinary way: showing the photo, then providing notes about the background, the context, and the photographer. Here too, the language (which was probably produced by the news organizations that put on the exhibit), was accurate. Among them is the famous, Pulitzer-prize winning photo of “Napalm Girl” where, for the first time, I notice the American soldiers walking along and one who looks like he is casually lighting a cigarette as this young girl is coming down the road in terror. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame.
only gets worse on the second level, where the atrocities committed during war
are provided in the sense of artifacts, and details that could have, should
have properly been used at war crimes trials. But none took place. Another
exhibit documents the effects of Agent Orange.
first floor, which should be visited last, addresses the Hanoi Hilton, the
place where American prisoners of war, including Senator John McCain, were
kept. Here,though, is where it can be said the propaganda offensive takes place
– there are photos showing a female nurse bandaging an American’s head wounds,
with the caption that noted she had put down her gun in order to care for him.
This exhibit brings things up to date, with the visits of President Clinton in
1994 (in another section in noted that Clinton’s visit brought the end of
economic sanctions, and with the country’s shift to market economy, produced
revitalization, as measured by the boom in mopeds.
But on the bottom floor, they show photos of
Obama’s visit and most recently of Trump in Vietnam.
floor also has an exhibit devoted to the peace movement in the US and around
the world, with some famous incidents, such as the shooting of the Kent State
are displays of captured American plane, tanks, and other items.
I looked around for an American who might have served in Vietnam to get an impression, but did not find anyone, and saw a few Vietnamese (most of the visitors were Americans or Europeans), but only one or two who might have been alive during that time and wondered what they thought. Clearly the conclusion of the displays was in favor of reconciliation when just as easily, and using a heavier-handed propagandist language, could have stoked hatred. The exhibit is careful not to paint all Americans and not even all American soldiers as monsters but one photo caption was particularly telling: it showed an American hauling off an ethnic minority and noted that “American troops sent to the battlefield by conscription knew nothing about Vietnam, thought the Cambodia people of ethnic minorities were living near Cambodia were collaborators for the enemy.” I left feeling that the experience was close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and remorse that is deserved.
April 15, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
is shortly before 4 pm in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, by the time we
have received our book of scavenges from the Global Scavenger Hunt ringmaster
(as he likes to be called), Bill Chalmers, who has ranked Vietnam a “Par 3” in
difficulty (on a scale of 1-6), strategized what scavenges we will undertake,
and head out of the Manchester Hotel, a five-star historic property, toward Ben
Thank Market, one of the scavenges on the list.
in 1870 by the French who colonized Vietnam for 100 years, it is where then and
now, you can find locals and tourists alike, with row after row after row
chock-a-block full of almost everything imaginable. (be prepared to bargain
aggressively; the shopkeepers are even more aggressive). I come away with a few
things I can’t bear to pass up, when Margo realizes a second scavenge we can accomplish:
tasting three separate fruits (there is heavy emphasis on “experience”
scavenges that involve food, and Vietnam, Bill says, is one of the great food
places in the world).
We find a fruit stand and sure enough, there are fruits I have never seen before, including one, called dragon fruit, which looks like it was devined by JK Rowling for Harry Potter; the others we sample: rambutan, a mangosteen, a longan. We are standing around these ladies, asking them to cut open the various fruits so we can sample them to complete the scavenge (photos!).
We ask locals for directions to our next stop: the Water Puppet Show of Vietnam at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater, getting lost along the way and simply amazed at the rush and crush of mopeds (mainly) and cars, and the range of what people carry on them without a second thought. Also amazed we are able to function having departed Vancouver for Vietnam at 2 am for a 14-hour flight to Taipei, followed by an hour lag time before a 3-hour connection to Saigon. But we forge on (the secret to avoiding being taken down by jet lag is to stay up until bedtime). This is also on the scavenger list.
performance proves fairly amazing – the puppets actually emerge out of water;
water is their platform. There is musical accompaniment on traditional
instruments and the musicians also become the characters and narrators and sing.
This is quite an outstanding cultural performance – the artistry and
imaginativeness of the puppets (who swim, fish, race boats, dance, catch frogs
anddo al sorts of things,is amazing. These seem to be folk characters, and the
music is traditional. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand Vietnamese. (www.goldendragonwaterpuppet.com).
there, we hit another scavenge, going to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th
floor of the Bitesco Financial Tower, which affords beautiful scenes of Saigon,
which you appreciate as a very modern city. Many of the buildings below are
decorated in colored lights.
at the Hotel Majestic, we go up to the 8th floor M Club, a rooftop
bar, where there is a band playing. The open-air views of the Saigon River and
the skyline are just magnificent. Margo orders a “Majestic 1925” which is Bourbon,
infused orange, sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitte, orange zest, and smoked –
the whole process done on a table brought to us, as a crowd gathers to watch
the mixocologist light a torch to generate the smoke. Quite a scene.
will continue doing scavenges tomorrow in Ho Chi Minh City, before heading out
to who-knows-where-in-the-world to continue our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt.
The grand prize is bragging rights as World’s Best Traveler (and a free trip
next year to defend the title).
by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We gather at 9 am on the first day of our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt, a “Blind Date with the World,” where 10 teams of two people each don’t know where we are going until Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt Ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, tells us. We have come to the meeting prepared for anything – a 4 hour notice to pack up to our next destination, perhaps? – and learn that we will spend the day doing a practice scavenger hunt, to level the playing field between newbies (me) and troopers/vets (one of the teams has done it 12 times). He has prepared the same kind of booklet and score sheet as we will get on arrival at every mystery destination.
We can choose the scavengers out of the selections – they each have different points . Among them are a choice of “mandatory” including at least one “experience”. During the course of this day, we will have to complete 10 scavengers by 8 pm when we get together again. We are told this is a Par 1 in terms of difficulty, which can go as high as Par 6.
We start in search of “Affluent Alley” – after all, we are staying in Vancouver’s famous Hotel Vancouver in a toney boulevard off Robson Street where we were told you had to drive a Rolls or BMW in order to park on the street. We look at a couple of streets which are called Vancouver’s Fifth Avenue and Los Angeles’ Rodeo Drive. We are only allowed to ask locals – not the hotel concierge or any actual guide – but no one has heard of Affluent Alley – possibly because everyone we ask is either too young or a transplant. One woman at a bus stop is extremely helpful when we ask where a certain shoe store is located, and about how the bus system works. As for Affluent Alley, I suspect that it actually refers to the opposite (maybe East Hastings), or is the red-herring (and doesn’t exist at all).
But we are in search of the high-end shoe store, John
Fluevog – go into several stores, finally Coach, and the salesperson directs us…
We walk the several blocks to the store – unbelievably wacky, creative,
magnificent (better art than the modern art I had seen at the Vancouver Art
Gallery). We learn we are the 6th team to ask
Walk to Olympic cauldron, take our selfies, record the time.
Pouring rain now when we walk to the bike rental shop on the list to rent bikes
to ride around Stanley Park’s seawall, find the Totem Poles, stop at the
Teahouse (fantastic carrot soup to restore our energy). Go to Gastown to find
more scavenges (Hotel Europe, Angelo Calori built 1908-9, no longer a hotel, is
“social housing,” ad haunted, looks remarkably like a smaller version of the
Flat Iron Building in NYC), see the statue of Gassy Jack, the garrulous bartender
that gave Gastown its name, and, of
course, the steam clock.
Scavengers give purpose to your wandering – more than that, they become a platform for a completely different perspective on a place and people. The Global Scavenger Hunt is designed to have us interact as much as possible with local people, to trust strangers, which we have been doing all day long, and finding how incredibly friendly and kind the Canadians are (even the many who have come here from all points of the globe and made Vancouver their home.
One of the scavengers is to write a haiku, and with time
running out to our 8 pm deadline, I write:
What a way to see
Vancouver’s many treasures.
By bike, bus, on foot.
We gather at 8 pm, and Bill,the Ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt (he also refers to as a traveling circus) tells us we are off tonight on a 2 am flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, hands us our airline info and visas, and we are off.
Imagine a structure 120 feet high that can fit 2000 people for a concert, but that can move, expand, shrink or be completely removed to expose an open-air plaza. An “anti-institution” cultural institution to provide a home and nurture the full spectrum of the arts, where emerging artists, local artists, and established artists have parity, and audiences represent the diversity and inclusivity of New York with low-priced ticket holders dispersed throughout the house.
This is The Shed, the
newest cultural center to open in a city which prides culture above all, sure
to be gain a place among the pantheon of iconic art institutions, along with
its leading-edge approach to harnessing the arts as a force for social action
and public good, its astonishing architecture, flexible, versatile and
adaptable enough to enable artists of today and tomorrow and fulfill their
vision to be a platform across multi-disciplines.
It’s “the Swiss army knife” of culture,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, chair of the board, during a press preview prior to the April 5 grand opening, when the principals involved with the genesis of the project spoke of what The Shed, and its mission, meant to the city and society.
Indeed, they noted, in a city of 1200 cultural attractions, The Shed had to be different, beginning with its commitment to commissioning new works, creating a platform – the space and place – for artists across disciplines, engaging audiences across a spectrum of backgrounds and interests, but most significantly, creating a building, that like a “living organism” would keep morphing to accommodate artists’ visions today and decades from now, accommodating the unimaginable ways art and culture might change over time.
Six and a half years ago, after seeing a 60-second animation of what The Shed could be, purpose-built to house various forms of culture and building would move, John Tisch, vice chair of the new institution, told his wife, “The Shed is about future of NYC and we need to be involved.”
“6 ½ years later, here
we are discovering the future of NYC and how we as citizens and creators of
this institution will discuss culture and humanity, how we all need to be
together in the 21st century in NYC.
“There are many cultural institutions – many are about the past. The Shed is about the future.”
“The dictionary defines ‘shed’ as an opened-ended structure with tools,” said Doctoroff. “We designed The Shed as a platform, uniquely adaptable, to liberate artists to fulfill their dreams.”
More than a dozen years
ago, Doctoroff said, The Shed “started as small square on map, a placeholder
for To Be Determined cultural institution.
“Mayor Bloomberg said ‘Make
it different from anything else in New York City.’ That’s not easy in a town of
1200 cultural institutions. It had to play a role in a new edge of New York
City, keeping New York City as leading edge of the cultural world.”
Liz Diller of Diller
Scofidio + Renfro, lead architect, and David Rockwell of Rockwell Group, collaborating
architect, responded to the mandate for flexibility, a one-of-a-kind structure.
“Just as it was to be designed
to be flexible, we wanted it to be of and for our time and inclusive of artists
across all disciplines,” Doctoroff said. “We proposed commissions of emerging
artists across all art forms – the mission drives our work.
“It is a remarkable
public/private investment of $500 million to design and construct building and
create original works of art.
“New York City continues
to be perfect partner under Mayor DiBlasio. The city provided $75 million and
“We are standing in The McCourt,
a spectacular space that can do anything an artist can imagine. It was named
for the Board member who gave $45 million.
“Griffin Theater was named
for one of most generous philanthropists, Ken Griffin, who gave $25 million.
“Altice USA is the
founding fiber network partner – so that The Shed is an accessible arts
organization with global reach, the first cultural institution with connectivity
“Above all, Mayor
Bloomberg, who had vision to transform West Side and create cultural
institution as beating heart. The Shed is housed the Bloomberg Building, named
for Mayor Bloomberg.
“It’s been a 14-year
journey – kind of crazy, new kind of cultural institution in a completely new
building in new part of town, new board, new team, performing miracles every
day, producing our own work.
demands great purpose,” Doctoroff said.
Alex Poots, the Artistic Director and CEO, said, “I started to imagine the possibilities: a flexible building, built on city land. That was the draw to lure me from England –a public purpose. It was a no brainer, building on what I had been doing for 15 years. [Poots is also involved with the Manchester Festival and with the Park Avenue Armory.]
“Parity among art forms;
the ability to commission art – visual and performing arts. And it would not
matter if the artist were emerging, established, or a community artist – we don’t
need a false hierarchy.
“The Shed is place for
invention, curiosity where all artists and audiences can meet.
Alongside all the
venerable institutions of city, we hope The Shed can add something.
“It’s rare for a place to be open in the day as a
museum, and in the evening a performance center.”
Poots introduced the 2019 inaugural season’s first commissions (and the press were able to watch some rehearsals):
a new live production celebrating the unrivaled impact of African American
music on art and popular culture over the past 100 years, conceived by
acclaimed filmmaker and artist Steve McQueenand developed with music visionaries and academic experts
including Quincy Jones, Maureen Mahon, Dion ‘No I.D.’ Wilson, Tunji Balogun and
Greg Philliganes, is a five-night concert series (April 5-14) celebrating the
unrivaled impact of African American music on contemporary culture, with performances
by emerging musicians.
a live performance/exhibition pairing works by master painter Gerhard
Richter with a new composition by Steve Reich and an extant
composition by Arvo Pärt, performed by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
(April 6-June 2).
Jeane Baker of Troy, a reinvention of Euripides’ Helen by
poet Anne Carson, starring Ben Whishaw and the opera singer, Renée
Fleming (April 6-May 19).
Björk’s Cornucopia, the
multidisciplinary artist’s most elaborate staged concert to date, directed by
Lucrecia Martel (May 6-June 1).
Dragon Spring Phoenix
futuristic kung fu musical conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng and Kung Fu
Panda screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, with
songs by Sia, choreography by Akram Khan, and production design
and costumes by Tim Yip (June 22–July 27);
There are also, expansive exhibitions devoted to
extant and newly commissioned work by trailblazing artists Trisha Donnelly and
Agnes Denes; and an unprecedented opportunity for New York City-based
emerging artists of all disciplines to develop and showcase their work
throughout The Shed’s spaces via an Open Call commissioning program.
Beneath the stands and
stage in The McCourt is the only permanent art installation, “In Front of
Itself,” a large-scale, site-specific work by artist Lawrence Weiner embedded
into the plaza. It serves as a walkable outdoor area when the movable shell is
nested over the fixed building, or as the base of The McCourt when the shell is
extended to the east. The 20,000-sq. ft. work features the phrase, “In front of
itself” in 12-foot high letters fabricated with custom paving stones.
These first commissions,
Poots said, “shows the range of The Shed.” The flexibility of the building
makes it possible to transform from one show to the next in just two days.
Art as Social Action
Tamara McCaw, Chief Program Civic Officer, is responsible for fulfilling the mission of The Shed to use art as social action.
“It is my responsibility
to serve the community, particularly those under stress or have barriers [to
artistic expression]. ]
McCaw oversees the Open
Call program, an unprecedented opportunity for 52 New York City-based emerging
artists and collectives to develop and showcase their work throughout The
Shed’s primary spaces, free to the public (May 30-August 25) and continuing in
The 52 artists were
selected from 930 applications in its first open call. Alex Poots said that The
Shed will embark on its next round of emerging talent in 5-6 months.
The Shed has year round
social justice residencies, serving 700 students a year
“We are providing a platform for local and
emerging artists – selected by diverse panel and Shed staff (2 are on the panel
– to present in principal spaces, plaza, theater.” These performances and
exhibits will be free to public.
“It is our civic
responsibility to reflect, respond to the diverse communities of NYC – with
affordable tickets ($10; free for 18 year olds and under and CUNY students),
and reserve 10% of low-income seats that will be distributed throughout house
(not the back or nosebleed section)
Addressing how The Shed
intends to be responsive to diverse audiences, Doctoroff noted that the
building is open – the restaurant, café and lobby. Anyone can come through
without a ticket, and every gallery and theater can be separately ticketed. The
goal is to make access to exhibits and performers and accessible as possible.
McCaw added, “People
from public housing are already are coming because they are of process. We did
outreach for open call. There are artists who live in public housing here. When
you come with respect, people want to be involved.
“We are creating inventive
new work, supporting creative expression, cultural equity and belief in power
of art to effect social change.”
Ticket prices are
intentionally low. Every gallery show – except Richter – is $10 ticket and free
for those under 18. Open call programs are free (18 weeks of programming)
At the end of the first
year, he expects that half the entire
audience will be admitted for $10 or free.
The Shed, a
not-for-profit arts institution, expects to operate at a loss.
“That means we have to
raise money,” Doctoroff said. “But we regard it as investing in society, not as
a loss. The less box office, the more generous we are. There are high ticket
prices for those who can afford it and low for those who can’t – low cost
tickets are equally dispersed through theater, to promote equity.”
A good source of real
money, though, could be in renting out space in The Lizzie and
Jonathan Tisch Skylights and The Tisch Lab on the top floor, Level 8, where there is a
1,700-square-foot creative lab for local artists, a 3,300-square-foot rehearsal
space, and a 9,500-square-foot flexible, multipurpose space for events.
“The Top floor is engine
for that flexible space – dinners, small performances – will be rented year
round while operating as not-for-profit art center.”
Frank H. McCourt Jr., Shed board member and entrepreneur, reflected, “There is something else here – civic imagination, ideas put into action to serve people – address societal issues, change lives, make a better nation, a better humankind.
“It is artistic creation
but also social innovation. Human creativity for the greater good. My hope for The
Shed is that it is home for both art and other intellectual activities. This
place, including the institution created to animate it, is a bold, living
example of civic action. An idea put into action for greater good.
“It’s not finished, just
getting started. This week a milestone. In a world replete with cynicism, The
Shed is the opposite.”
An Architectural Marvel
“We started the project 11 years ago – when it was a dotted line on a satellite photo and a question mark. It was the 2008 recession,” reflected Liz Diller, lead architect, who described what it was like to design a building around a mission.
“Arts in New York are
siloed – dance, theater, music, visual. That’s not how artists think today, but
how will artists think in one or two decades? We can’t know. We started a project
without a client, an anti-institution institution, to serve artists of all
kinds in a future we could not predict.
“How could architecture
not get in the way of that? Art is in flux, so the building had to be able to change
on demand, be flexible without defaulting.”
What she and collaborating
architect David Rockwell devised is a fixed building with column-free exhibit
and performance space, the Bloomberg Building.
Shed’s Bloomberg Building—an innovative 200,000-square-foot structure designed
by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Lead Architect, and Rockwell Group, Collaborating
Architect—can physically transform to support artists’ most ambitious ideas.
Its eight-level base building includes two levels of gallery space; the
versatile Griffin Theater; and The Tisch Skylights, which comprise a
rehearsal space, a creative lab for local artists, and a skylit event space.
an iconic space for large-scale performances, installations, and events, is
formed when The Shed’s telescoping outer shell is deployed from over the base
building and glides along rails onto the adjoining plaza. The McCourt can have theater seating for 1400,
or open the glass wall to expose the balcony for 300 seated and have 2000 on
When the movable shell is nested over the base building, the 20,000-square-foot
Plaza will be open public space that also can be used for outdoor programming;
the eastern façade can serve as a backdrop for projection with lighting and
sound support. The Plaza is equipped with a distributed power supply for
outdoor functions. Oversize deliveries can be brought by truck up Hudson Yards
Boulevard and loaded directly onto The Plaza and into the base building or the
shell when deployed. Those doors can be opened while the audience is under
cover, for an open-air effect.
“It is the architecture
of infrastructure: all muscle, no fat,”
Diller said. “Alex, an inspirational alchemical force, challenged the building
to be smarter, more flexible, agile. This is a perpetual work in progress –
always getting smarter more agile.
It will respond to the challenge
of artists and challenge the artists back.”
“New York is so defined by art and its artists. Art creates community, at its best, and empathy with audiences,” said Architect David Rockwell.
“What we created
is a Swiss Army knife of culture,” said Doctoroff. “A beautiful design with
practicality to respond to the notion that we don’t know where art will go, or
where artists will be in 200 years.”
eight-level base building includes two expansive, column-free galleries
totaling 25,000 square feet of museum-quality space; a 500-seat theater that
can be subdivided into even more intimate spaces; event and rehearsal space;
and a creative lab.
outer shell can double the building’s footprint when deployed over the
adjoining plaza to create a 17,000-square-foot light-, sound-, and
temperature-controlled space, named The McCourt, for large-scale performances,
installations, and events for audiences ranging from 1,250 seated to 3,000
standing (when combined with space in the two adjoining galleries of the base
building). When space is not needed, the movable shell can nest over the base
building, opening up the plaza for outdoor use and programming.
explained how the movable shell travels on a double-wheel track based on gantry
crane technology commonly found in shipping ports and railway systems. A
rack-and-pinion drive moves the shell forward and back on four single-axle and
two double axle bogie wheels that measure six feet in diameter; the deployment
of the shell takes approximately five minutes.
exposed steel diagrid frame of the movable shell is clad in translucent pillows
of durable and lightweight Teflon-based polymer, called ethylene
tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). With the thermal properties of insulating glass
at 1/100th of the weight, the
translucent ETFE allows light to pass through and can withstand hurricane-force
winds. Measuring almost 70 feet in length in some areas, The Shed’s ETFE panels
are some of the largest ever produced.
“Systems were adapted from
other things but it is novel in the way we put together,” Diller said, adding
that the architecture is “based on industrial crane technology, brought to 21st century”
with an emphasis on functionality. But there were no real models among arts
“It was a constant process
of invention, reinvention,” said Doctoroff. “We have 14 blackout shades. We had
to rethink the system of shades – particularly when Alex came and knew he wanted
concerts. They needed to also provide sound protection. We went to the sailmakers
who designed sails for America’s Cup boats to design shade system. Extra
performance capability of holding back 108 decibels (loud). The thickness,
density had to be able to roll up.”
Asked why New York needed another cultural institution, Doctoroff retorted, “Why have we been so successful raising money? Because people sense New York does need this. The criteria was that this had to be different from anything else in New York. We went to talk to artists and leaders of cultural institutions around the world to ask what do they not have and need. There were similar themes –the internet era gives artists the capacity of collaborating across distances and disciplines, but also producing work that didn’t fit in traditional institutions. Out of that came idea of flexibility.
“This is different: our
mission of inclusivity embedded in value system,” said Doctoroff, said in a
small discussion group with journalists.
“We prove it every day.
This is personal for me: 36 years ago I imagined a new West Side – saving the
Highline [now one of the most popular attractions in NYC, with 8 million visits
a year], the subway. I always believed having a cultural heart to the new West
Side was critical and would need to change over time to keep New York leading
edge in culture. I believe cultural institutions are critical to New York,”
said Doctoroff, who is also chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet
company that looks at sustainable solutions to designing urban communities.
“The Shed will never be
finished,” said Doctoroff. “The word ‘unfinished’ ends with ‘shed’. It will
always be evolving because what we’ve done is created a platform for artists to
use as their own. The building enables their vision – they will push, stretch
us in ways we can’t imagine, they can’t imagine today. The Shed is an organism
that keeps morphing.”
And that’s how Liz
Diller expects not to go through post partum blues. “We will respond to the
challenge of artists and challenge artists back.”
Today’s ride, Stage 5
from Trieste, Italy, is relatively short – a choice of 21 or 40 miles to
Portorose in Slovenia. The shorter version involves taking a ferry from Trieste
across the bay to Muggia in Slovenia, the “Istria” part of our
Venice-Trieste-Istra eight-day self-guided biketour.
We take the longer way, and are
thrilled not to miss the seacoast. The route is predominantly on cycle paths
through well-known seaside resorts like Koper (Capodistria)
and Izola (Isola d’ Istria), to Piran (Pirano)
or adjacent Portorož (Portorose), a
spa resort on the Slovenian Riviera.
(I contemplate taking
the ferry which possibly would have enabled us to spend more time exploring
Trieste, or even better, possibly backtracking to the Miramare Castle which we
missed by taking the “hinterland” route, but decide to press on.)
Of course, what went
down into Trieste must come up. But, after a really steep city street we climb
(I walk, Eric breezes up) and following some convoluted directions (the cue
sheet warns the turn is easy to miss, so of course I miss it and have to find
Eric on the map he has put on my phone, reaching him using HangUp), we get onto
a bike trail that has a much more gentle rise more typical of a rail-trail that
we don’t mind at all. Soon, we are looking down at wonderfully scenic views, biking across a biking/pedestrian
have these sort of rolling ups-and-downs but nothing too taxing. (Anthony, the
FunActive guide, had mentioned an even longer “hinterland” alternative route which passes
along the valley “Rosandra” in the back country, but I’ve learned my lesson and am not going to miss the
We come to Muggia, a picturesque seacoast village (which is
where the ferry from Trieste would come). Muggia is in the Istria region but still part
of Italy (though Slovenians are a significant minority and signs are in two
languages). It is absolutely stunning to walk
around its narrow streets which all lead to a main square where the town hall
and church are. We have lunch outdoors in the Piazza Marconi, flanked by the
cathedral and town hall.
I had been concerned that the seacoast route would have a lot of
traffic, but it turns out there is a dedicated bike lane. It is fantastic.
Periodically, we come to these cement piers and promenades that serve as
beaches for sunbathers and swimmers.
We soon cross the border to Slovenia (no actual border control,
though, since both nations are part of the European Union), the route continues
predominantly on cycle paths through well-known seaside resorts like Koper (Capodistria) and Izola (Isola d’ Istria), to Portorož (Portorose),
a spa resort on the Slovenian Riviera.
Coming into Portoroz, there is a rather long climb (but what a
view of Izola!), but on a bike trail so it is gradual and comfortable to ride,
even though it seems at times to be endless. We ride through three tunnels that
had been built for the train (fun!), and at the end, find ourselves at the top
of a hill looking down into Portoroz, a city that is like San Francisco for its
hills. Our hotel, Hotel Tomi, is on one of the hills, so we make our way. (The
other two ladies who have been on our same route have been routed to their hotel
in Piran, which is a few miles beyond, as we learn when we meet up with them
again on the ride.)
The Hotel Tomi is a resort in itself, with a stunning pool (open 24 hours!) that has views down
to the sea. Our room is enormous and we have a balcony that looks over the
town. We rush down to relax in the pool for awhile.
Eric has found a very special restaurant for dinner
(also recommended in the FunActiv guide), RiziBizi The concierge makes a
reservation (we’ve learned our lesson about restaurant reservations!).
We walk to the restaurant, and discover a beach resort
with fine sand and warm, gentle sea (casinos even) that we can’t understand
isn’t as popular with jetsetters as the French Riviera. In fact, there is one
classic hotel, the Kempinski Palace, where Sophia Loren used to stay.
Portoroz actually is adjacent to Piran, another
exquisite town on the tip of the peninsula, and we walk just up to it.
As we walk, the sun is setting so picturesquely
behind Piran, and we realize this is the first
sunset we are seeing. (The other people following the self-guided route go the
extra few miles into Piran for their hotel, which I later discover on my next
biketour through Slovenia, is absolutely stunning.)
Restaurant RiziBizi, which specializes in truffles, serves one of the sensational meals that you remember forever. The restaurant has a tasting menu (from 50 to 60 E). We opt for a la carte: tuna tartar with zucchini, wasabi-reduced plum; truffle soup, the chef sends over pate, served on sticks in a plant; risotto with Adriatic scampi and truffles (the waiter brings a dish of black truffles to table and shaves them onto the dish); duck breast with wine sauce. All the selections are based on locally sourced produce.
Truffles which are found
here in Istria are an amazing delicacy – they can sell for $95 an ounce, $168
an ounce for white truffles or $2000 a pound). The waiter tells us that an
Italian engineer discovered the truffles when building Istria’s first water
distribution network (Tuscany has a longer history of truffle hunting).
I can imagine the most
devoted foodies getting on planes and coming to Rizi Bizi just for the
truffles. And they should. This is a world-class restaurant and the dining
experience has been truly memorable, with selections that uniquely reflect the
local produce, exquisitely presented.
The restaurant is
exemplary in every way – we dine on a patio with a view overlooking the
hillsides down to the sea; the service is impeccable.
The piece de resistance:
dessert consisting of chocolate mousse with truffles.
Slovenia only has about
44 km of seacoast, so these twin towns of Portoroz and Piran are very special.
Stage 6- Portorož/Piran – Poreč (43 miles/70 km)
The Hotel Tomi has one of the nicest breakfast spreads of our trip, as well as one of the prettiest breakfast rooms that opens out to the pool and the view of the town.
It’s our last day of our
eight-day Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided bike tour! The guide book warns
that this will have the toughest climbs (but they didn’t include the hinterland
ride, so we’re not worried).
Today’s ride, 43 miles,
takes us passed the salt gardens of Secovlje where
sea salt is recovered through natural vaporization, and across the border into
Croatia (where we do need to present passports at border control). The route,
largely uphill (but not bad, after all, we have been toughened up by our
hinterland ride), travels through the Croatian part of Istria, the largest
peninsula on the Adriatic on the way to Porec,
the most important coastal city on the west coast of Istria.
of the prettiest views (it is even noted with a camera icon on our cue sheets)
comes up soon after we set out – a beautiful small harbor set in a cove.
is a long climb, but it is gradual, which gives us a wonderful view of salt
are also sections where we go along the seacoast, through these camping resorts
where it seems people stay for a month or two at a time (Europeans have longer
vacations than Americans). Amazingly, as I munch on an ice cream bar and watch
the people frolic in the water, I meet up with the two ladies who are following
our same tour. Makes you realize what a small world it is!
come through Novigrad, a lovely village that seems to have a sense of humor.
The old town center is on a small island (there is actually a barricade) and it
has a medieval city wall. There are examples of Byzantine, Franconian, German,
Venetian, Neopolitan, Austro-Hungarian and Italian architecture. As we walk
into the main square, the small streets that lead off it have a canopy of
brightly colored umbrellas. And the town hall is decorated with balloons.
The ride is scenic,
mostly along seacoast (and through camping resorts), mostly on bike trails
until we leave Novigrad and cross a long bridge. Then it comes to a 90-degree
turn up a steep road. Without any momentum, I walk up the first section of the
3 km climb but am proud of myself for biking the rest.
It is a long, long climb but it is on a rail-trail
(gravel) so isn’t so bad, and compared to our 4th day riding (in the
hinterland), this was a piece of cake.
We follow our guide book to where it recommends we visit Grotta Baredine, a cave about 10 km from Porec, described as “the first speleological object and the first geomorphological natural monument to be valorized for sightseeing” (www.baredine.com). We are just in time for the 5 pm English-language tour, which would take hour, but we are concerned about getting into Porec too late, so we move on.
This was a missed opportunity, I am sure. (One of the advantages of a guided tour is that the guide knows to move the group along to take advantage of such sightseeing experiences).
Eric finds the Aba Restaurant – all the tables outside are already reserved, but we are accommodated in the charming dining room inside. We enjoy a dish with noodles with meat and truffle oil that delectable.
The Hotel Porec where we
stay is very pleasant and well situated, both to wander into the old city and
to get to the bus station (literally behind the hotel) in the morning where
Eric will catch a bus (booked over flixbus.com) back to Venice airport and I
will catch a bus to get to my next biketrip, a guided tour of Slovenia, that
starts in Ljubljana.
It’s pouring rain the entire day,
and I think to myself how lucky it is that this is not a bike day.
Self-Guided vs. Guided BikeTrips
The self-guided trips
seem to pack in more riding in a day (though, obviously, FunActive offered
alternatives that would have cut our mileage in half) and less sightseeing. A
guide would have made sure we visited the Miramare Castle and got us there in
time and organized our ride to have more time in Trieste, and gotten us to the
caves in a more timely way to visit and still get into Porec by late afternoon.
But self-guided has its own advantages: we stop where we want, linger over
lunch, leave when we want, and each day offers our own adventure we share.
Biketours.com, which offers a fantastic catalog of bike trips (mainly in
Europe), enabled me to link up two tours operated by two different companies:
this self-guided Venice-Trieste-Istria trip which ended in Porec, Croatia on
September 1, operated by FunActive, and an “Emerald Tour” guided bike tour of
Slovenia that started in Ljubljana on September 1 operated by a Slovenian
operator, Helia. The BikeTours.com agent pointed me to Road2Rio.com to figure
out the transfers. Through that site, I found FlixBus.com which I could take to
Ljubljana, and Eric could catch a bus that took him directly to Venice
International Airport (the tour company also offered a transfer to Venice by
ferry) and I could get to my next tour.
The tour company was
great about sending travel documents, including a list of hotels and details
and directions how to get to the first hotel in Venice (the public
transportation system is excellent and inexpensive).
The rental bikes they
provided were excellent and provide a mileage counter (to help with
navigation), panniers, a handlebar pack with to put the cue sheets. We used the
21-speed hybrid bike; e-bikes are available.
The hotels provided were excellent, each one a delightfully charming inn – most significantly, well located in the Old City, in proximity to the trail and whatever we were supposed to see. Tour documents were excellent as well.
FunActive also provided
local telephone numbers for assistance. In each town they listed a bike shop
should we have needed it. The cue sheets and trail maps they provided (though a
bit confusing until we got the hang of it) included locations for photos, food,
sightseeing, and the alternate routes, ferry and train connections as needed,
as well as pinpointing where the different hotels were we were staying.
Each morning, we put out
our luggage in the lobby which magically appeared when we arrived at our next
Significantly, the tour
was an excellent value, averaging about $125-150 pp per day.
Stage 3 of our eight-day
Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided bike tour again offers a choice of a 28-mile
ride (if we take a boat) or 55 miles without. Of course we bike.
We stop at the 38.4 km
mark at Marano Lagunare, a delightful, picturesque village (which is where we
could take the boat).
We find ourselves in the
center piazza and a marvelous restaurant, Trattoria Barcaneta, for lunch. It is
so peaceful and quiet and utterly charming and colorful.
As we ride the bike
trail, we come upon a set of Roman ruins of a colonnade behind a fence, oddly
alongside a road. Then, a tower comes into view, looming above a wall of tall
trees. I must investigate, and check the notes the tour operator has provided.
I realize that this is
Aquileia, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
This proves the
highlight of the day: the massive Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta dates from
313 AD, when the Dict of Milan ended religious persecution and the Christian
community could legally build a place of public worship. The first church was
destroyed and over the centuries has been rebuilt four times, each time using
the stones of the earlier buildings. As it stands today, the basilica is in
Romanesque-Gothic style, with a 73 meter-high tower. The inside is
breathtaking: the entire floor is Roman mosaic from the 4th century,
only uncovered in 1909-1912. The 760 sq. meter floor is believed to be the
largest Paleo-Christian mosaic of the western world. But more awaits:
I walk down to the Crypt
of Frescoes, incredibly beautiful and amazingly rich color. The structure dates
back to the 9th century and the frescoes date from the 12th
century. 19 scenes tell the history of Hermagora and the origins of
Christianity in Aquileia.
It is a lovely complex,
and we enjoy some refreshment – ice cream and drinks – at the café and sit
under tall trees. It restores us for the rest of the ride. We don’t have that
much further to go.
The rest of the ride is
extremely pleasant, capped with what feels like three miles over a dam, with
water on both sides, to get into Grado, another gorgeous seaside beach resort,
this one with yachts.
We arrive in time to
make it down to the beach by 7 pm (when we discover they don’t charge the 2E
fee to use the beach at that hour), and get to swim in the Adriatic before
going in search of a dinner place.
Grado is interesting –
our hotel is along the beach and is a string of modern hotels that have you
thinking a little bit of Miami Beach. Our
guidebook says that Grado, known as a golden island, is the only good beach
resort on the Upper Adriatic, and has an exceptionally picturesque old town and
a fascinating history.
Indeed, just a couple of
blocks away, it’s like a completely different world: we find ourselves in Grado’s
Old City, standing over an excavation of Roman ruins of a military camp (fort),
a town square with a Basilica della Corte that dates from the 4th
century (one of the oldest in Italy), and a delightful pedestrian walkway
loaded with shops and restaurants in an old historic section.
All the restaurants are
booked solid (we haven’t yet learned the trick of phoning in advance for
reservations, which would be facilitated by the dining recommendations in our
guidebook), but we find a small innovative place that serves tapas-style.
The town is extremely
picturesque and at night the promenade is lighted, there is an interesting
fountain with colored lights you walk under like a tunnel, and it is simply
delightful to stroll.
include the Basilica di Sant’Eufernia which dates from the 6th
century and is located in Campo del Patriarchi. The bell tower was built in
1455. There is also a statue of Archangel Michael, the symbol of Grado, on the
Our guidebook also makes
note of a boat trip to the island of Anfora, a picturesque fishing village in
the heart of the lagoon. Some parts of the lagoon are designated nature
preserves, harboring some 260 species of birds.
Here again, we just fall
under the spell of this place.
It has been another
utterly perfect day.
– Trieste (43 miles/70 km or 25 miles/40 km) + train
Day 5 of our eight-day
self-guided Venice-Trieste-Istria bike tour starts off magnificently: the ride
from Grado begins with another glorious miles-long ride over a dam (a different
one from yesterday) giving stunning views and refreshing breezes. It continues through
a landscape of rocky caverns and farmland, along the seacoast, finally coming
to a delightful swimming beach (this is why you should carry swimming things).
This part of the ride, the first 24 miles, has been fantastic. Then we come
into Monfalcone, a busy city of shipyards and cruise ships, where we get lost.
And here we make a bad choice for our route to Trieste.
The regular (recommended) route
would have us riding 43 miles along the coastal road (we are told this isn’t a
bike trail but there may be a bike lane) taking in Duino, Sistiana,
Miramare, and Barcola. Our FunActive guide Anthony
(I recall too late), has described riding along cliffs that you can climb down,
passing the castle of Miramare high above the Bay of Grignano,
situated in the middle of a park, which is a major attraction (not to mention
the castle has a Manet exhibit, which I only learn about after we arrive at our
Trieste hotel). Anthony also said how the ride can be reduced to 25 miles by
taking a train into Trieste.
We don’t do either. Instead, we
take a “variant” route from Monfalcone into the “hinterland” (the thought of “hinterland”
had really excited Eric) that brings us into Slovenia (no border crossing or
passport required back and forth to Italy).
As it turns out, this adventure
adds 17 miles to the 43 of which most of it is up and up and up, on winding roads
(at one point, my “can do” attitude fails and I walk the bike up the last
quarter-mile to this section’s “top” feeling defeated). There are no charming
villages. No beautiful sights or vistas. Even the restaurant that is marked on
the map is closed. We ride through what is supposed to be a preserve with trees
on both sides, but there are no real views or scenery.
Finally, we come back to the
Italy border where there is a tiny rest stop (no bathroom though). I rejuvenate
with an ice cream bar, sitting on an air-conditioned porch (I think I am close
to heat exhaustion), and recover myself for the final trek into Trieste. Chalk
this up to the “physical challenge” part of bike touring that gives you
something to boast about forever more. And adventure. After all, it could have
been the most fantastic off-the-beaten-track discovery anyone had ever seen.
We make the final climbs and then
find ourselves, indeed, at a scenic overlook (actually somebody’s driveway)
with a sensational view of Trieste. But after taking our victory-photos, we
realize that now we have to bike down this narrow, busy road with its hair
turns that (seemingly) goes on for miles.
We feel like we are
coming down a corkscrew and finally are deposited into the traffic and hubbub of
a bustling major city.
Trieste is like culture
shock after our time in the tranquil countryside. But we see regal, if drab and
aging, buildings, evidence of an important city.
Somehow, Eric finds the
way to our hotel, located on the fringe of the historic Old City (I clock the
day at 54 miles of which I estimate 12 miles are uphill). We quickly drop our
things and go out to explore while there is still light. It’s a short walk to
the main square.
All at once, I am transported: the architecture evokes Vienna rather than Venice – majestic buildings in neoclassic style. Indeed, Trieste (as much of Slovenia just across the border), was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was once the Empire’s most important Mediterranean port, and interestingly, with the European Union, has again become a major gateway into Europe, rivaling Koper, Slovenia’s major port, for commerce.
The city puts out an
outstanding tourist map, giving background to its history and guide to
important sites like the Museum of History and Art and Lapidary Gardens, the
Castle Museum and Lapidarium, the Victory Lighthouse (built 1922 honoring
sailors lost in World War I), the Opicina Tramway built in 1902 linking city
centre with the plateau. It offers tours to Roman Trieste and literary tours.
And as I discover (too
late to take advantage): Jewish Trieste: Risiera di San Sabba, created inside
an old rice husking factory, was the only extermination camp in Italy and
declared a national monument in 1965; Via del Monte, a Jewish community with a
cemetery used for 400 years, a Jewish Temple, and a Jewish Community Museum,
the newer Jewish Cemetery, a synagogue which dates from 1912, and some other
Unfortunately, we have
arrived in early evening, and are only able to explore what we can by foot in
the old city, to get a flavor of the city.
Here too, Eric puts out
his radar (app) and finds Osteria de Scorpon for dinner (the risotto with black
ink is excellent). This area reflects its heritage as part of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire and goulash is a regional specialty.
booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour
through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced
guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very
attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN
37405, 423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com, email@example.com)
We hadn’t biked far from
the Hotel Alexander on the mainland of Venice in Mestre on the first morning of
a week-long self-guided bike tour that would take us some 300 miles following
the seacoast to Porec, Croatia, before I imagined: had I done this by myself as
I had originally planned, I would have been found weeks later wandering in a
wilderness. I was so grateful that by son could come along – his tech prowess
(and insistence on getting an app of our route) made all the difference.
Each morning, he would
unfurl the day’s Stage map and have his smart phone tucked into the plastic
case on the handlebars. Once underway (after a delightful breakfast in the
pre-arranged inns), I would be trying in vain to follow the cue sheets and do
mathematical gymnastics with the kilometers, and was so consumed with these and
watching for Eric ahead, and being enrapt by the scenery and taking photos,
that I would miss the mark the tour operator left on sign posts for each turn.
“It’s simple,” Eric says.
If you don’t see a mark, you go straight.” But what if you have missed the mark
that told you to turn? You could find yourself kilometers ahead before you even
have a clue you missed the turn and have no idea where to go back. At one
point, Eric installs the hang-out app on my phone so he can find me on his map
and I can see where he is, that comes in really handy when I miss a turn
altogether in the middle of Trieste.
But all of it becomes
part of the adventure – the excitement of doing, not just seeing, of becoming
immersed in a place or not knowing what will beyond the next turn.
The day before we set
out from Venice for the first stage ride, Anthony, the guide from FunActive,
the local tour operator that coordinates the tour, had come to the hotel in the
afternoon to deliver and fit our rental bikes, the vouchers and maps and sit
with us for an orientation reviewing each day’s trip. He arrived specially, as
we requested, shortly after Eric arrived by plane, and we rushed him through so
we could have the afternoon and evening in Venice. Anthony sat patiently with
us in the hotel’s lounge trying to review the route for each of the six days of
riding (he would have to repeat the entire thing for the four other self-guided
cyclists later that afternoon). He reviewed the particularities of the route –
the recommended “options” for sightseeing and the route “variants”. He tried to
give us a sense of the road, and the highlights. I took notes but we rushed him
and I think we missed a few things.
day has alternatives of a shorter, easier ride (usually with some ferry or
train) and the longer one. But
one day stands out in Eric’s mind in particular when he is determined to take “the
Stage 1: Venice mainland/Mestre – Jesolo/Caorle (22 or 50 miles/35 or 80 km)
I thought the thunder storm that hit
during the night would mean fair weather for our first day’s ride, Venice to
Jesolo, a distance of 51 km (30 miles, though there is an option to take a
shorter ride, 22 miles). No luck. It is raining when we leave and surprisingly
cold – about 20 degrees cooler from the day before. We set out anyway because
the rain is part of our adventure, after all.
I had thought we would mainly be riding
on roads with traffic but am surprised and relieved that most of our ride for
the next few days are along bikeways – often paved but sometimes gravel or
pebbles, but nonetheless a bikeway – or else some country roads with very
little traffic. And for the next few days, our ride will be flat, taking us
through farmland and along the coast.
This first day of cycling is designed by FunActive to be easy (and would be but for the rain and head wind). Our destination is Jesolo, a seaside beach town. Many of the days offer options to cut off some of the biking (or the climbing or the traffic) by taking a ferry from the lagoon in Venice to Punta Sabbioni, which would have cut the day’s ride to 22 miles). We opt to take the “hinterland” route, cycling along the river Sile, 30 miles to Jesolo, passing the ruins of Torre Caligo, a tower from the Middle Ages which is situated near the canal “Caligo.”
FunActive has given us excellent
background material – a guidebook in fact (I wish I had paid more attention to
it before we set out) that includes background on the landscape, history and
culture of the regions we travel through, plus recommendations for attractions
and restaurants in each place, along with local maps. The route map, broken up
into each day’s Stage, is well marked with places to stop for food, photos,
We ride through countryside – farms
and villages – we can even see the snowcapped mountain peaks of the Dolomites
in the distance.
This first day is really an
orientation to learn “the rules of the road” – for me, figuring out how to
correlate the cue sheets and look for the trail markings. At first, I am very
disoriented, but Eric manages to get us to our destination.
Jesolo is utterly charming seaside
beach resort that attracts local families, and despite its proximity to Venice,
doesn’t seem to have attracted any foreign tourists at all (another delight of
a bike tour, that brings you into local places well off the beaten tourist
track). I am amazed how fine the sand is. The weather has cleared but it is
rather cold and there is a red flag on the lifeguard stand, so no one is in the
water this late in the afternoon. We enjoy walking along the beach, sticking
our feet in the water, and taking in all the color.
The town has a ferris wheel,
amusement park, water park, go karts, arcade, lovely shops and restaurants, is
loaded with surreys and bikes, and in the evening, closes the street to cars altogether.
What we notice is there are few (if any) bars. This is really a family place.
We love our hotel, the Marco Polo which is right on the main street, a block
off the beach. The scenes evoke flashbacks to my own childhood, when our family
would take trips in February to Atlantic City, normally a beach resort, and
enjoy the boardwalk.
There are a plethora of restaurants
– many are full and one in particular, Atmosphera, has
people (including many families), lining up in the street. Lucky for us, they
have a table for two. This place is a revelation – and we can soon see why it
is probably the most popular restaurant in Jesolo – it has a sensational menu
(pages and pages of pizza offerings, meat and fish selections), wonderfully
prepared with fresh, flavorful ingredients in open kitchens, large portions
beautifully presented and modest prices.
Our hotel, the Marco Polo, is most
charming, and right on the main drag.
Jesolo/Caorle to Concordia Sagittaria/Portogruaro (19 or 31 miles).
Today’s ride, 31 miles from Jesolo
to Concordia Sagittaria/Portogruaro, is easy, cycling along the coast and it’s sunny!
which dramatically adds to my sunny mood and puts metal to my pedal. We ride
through scenic farmland and countryside. We take a slight detour into Caorle,
which the FunActive guide, Anthony, has heartily recommended we do, and this
proves one of the pure gems of the tour.
As we enter the town, the colorful
buildings around a plaza makes me think of Sausalito over the Golden Gate
Bridge from San Francisco, or, then again, of Seaside, Florida, that idyllic
village in the “Truman Show,” and as soon as we make the turn into the Old
District, with the warm sun streaming down, I think what a fantastic movie set
this would make. It seems that all the property owners by choice or decree
paint their buildings before each season, according to a certain gorgeous
palette of colors.
The colors are stirring, surreal
almost, especially because of the narrow alleys and the angles. A riot of
color. Think Nanny McPhee. I can’t get enough of it- the scenes make my heart
race, especially the narrow, angled alleys. As we walk, each new vista is like
a new painting.
We discover Carole in layers – first
wandering through the streets. Eric has zoned in on a restaurant for lunch. We
eat outside but this clever place, inside, actually has a model train set that
delivers your food to the table.
Caorle has been settled for about
2000 years. Wandering around, we come upon the Cathedral San Stefano
Protomartire Caorle, built in 1038.
Then we walk back and hone in on the
Madonna dell’Angelo Church, perched on a cliff overlooking the water and the
beach at the end of the stone promenade, wrapping around on two sides. Across
the way, there are a gazillion beach umbrellas set up, but where we are, there
are like random, ad hoc DIY blankets and umbrellas. Eric swims in the Adriatic while
I take photos.
We are so delighted with Caorle, we
buy refrigerator magnets with the scene of the colorful buildings.
We leave this enchanting town and find ourselves in
absolutely gorgeous countryside – with what I presume are the Dolomite
Mountains as a backdrop. At one point, we ride along a berm that elevates us
over the farmland on either side.
Anthony had strongly recommended
that once we arrive at Concordia Sagittaria where our inn is, we ride the few
extra kilometers into Portogruaro, and when I see the photo of the Town Hall on
our hotel’s card, we race out to take advantage of the warm late afternoon
It is a delightful ride on a bike
path along a river into Portogruaro, aglow in golden light. The town, founded
in the 12th century as a port on the river Lemene, is surprisingly
big and bustling, and we dash to try to capture that scene from the photo before
the sun sets. We find our way to the Old City and the Plaza della Republica
with its grand Gothic Town Hall, A concert is going on and we are drawn in but
pull away in order not to miss the fading sunlight.
The setting is absolutely
magnificent – this 12th century Town Hall with ancient watermills
(one still spinning), is very Venetian in its look. I realize that the shot I
want is across the river, and cross the bridge to a small park adjacent to a
monastery. I get there just in time before the light fades.
We bike back to Concordia
Sagittaria, a delightful village well off the tourist “beaten track,” which is
why I love bike tours so much. The village sits in what was a Roman colony on
the River Lemene.
By now we’re famished. It’s a Monday
night and some restaurants are closed. But Eric finds a marvelous one (which
turns out to be listed in the FunActiv guide): Pizzeria Al Solito Posto. All
the tables have been reserved (notably, by locals), but we notice two people
just finishing their meal at a table outside. There are something like four
pages of pizza to choose from and I have the best pizza I’ve had in my life:
cheese, olives, capers and anchovies with the freshest tomato and thinnest of
crust done to perfection.
Our inn, The Julia, is right on the river and in the middle of the square, towered over by the 10th century Byzantine Cathedrale di Santo Stefano Protomartire, dedicated to the first Christian martyr. (Inside, our notes say, is a holy water stoup in Greek marble from the 1st century and 13th century paintings). Just across the square, we discover an archeological dig with sarcophagus, on the ruins of the first basilica. The excavations have also uncovered ruins of a Roman street. Next to the church is a Roman-style bell tower from 1150. There is also a Bishop’s Palace (1450) and town hall from the year 1523.
This day has been the
most magnificent. And the most interesting thing of all is we would never have
seen or experienced any of it except for riding our bikes.
There are four other
riders following the same self-guided FunActive itinerary as we who have
started on the same day, and we meet up with them periodically in the inns and
even on the trail and delight in sharing stories and comparing notes of our
Discovering Ancient Christian Cite of Aquilea, Roman City of Grado
booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour
through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced
guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very
attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN
37405, 423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com, firstname.lastname@example.org)
One of the most popular attractions
in Venice and dominating the most popular square, San Marco, the Doge Palace is
unbelievably crowded with tourists during the day who can stand on line for a
long time and then struggle inside for views of the fantastic art. But on my
recent trip, I discovered that the Doge Palace and three other museums stay
open on Fridays and Saturdays until 11 pm (last entrance at 10 pm) and the
ticket is valid at all four of the museums and valid for three months. The experience of visiting the Doge Palace at
night is incomparable.
I waltz in at 7:30 pm without
waiting at all and find myself in these rooms – grand doesn’t begin to describe
them – by myself or with at most a handful of other people. All of us are
breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.
The art work – monumental pieces by
titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One
room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at
this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.
Besides the extraordinary
magnificence of the artwork throughout the Doge Palace, I realize from the
notes I read afterward that the palace harbors a fascinating history of
government of this early republic, which for two centuries
dominated trade between Europe and Asia. Venice’s powerful influence
extended from the city at the western edge of the old Byzantine Empire, to the
eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
I go through the rooms taking in the visual
sights, overwhelmed, really by the art – the majestic paintings in gilded
frames that completely cover the walls and ceiling, the architectural details.
The rooms are fairly dark and I don’t take the time or struggle to read the
notes that are provided. Later, when I review the notes provided, I better
appreciate the historical significance, where the art and the architecture were
representations of the structure of government and the rulers, comparable to
the Capitol Building, Supreme Court and White House, combined, though hundreds
of years older.
For two centuries, the Venetian Republic dominated trade
between Europe and Asia, its influence extending from the
city at the western edge of the Byzantine Empire to the eastern Mediterranean
and the Black Sea.
The palace dates back to before the
10th century but, after a fire, was rebuilt by Doge Sebastiano Ziani
(1172-1178), a great reformer who also changed the layout of St. Mark’s Square.
The palace had to be expanded several times “to
accommodate political changes and the increase in number of people who had the
right to participate in the legislative assembly meetings” (an intriguing
phrase). The Chamber of the Great Council (just one room in this palace)
accommodated 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen. The thought is mind-boggling.
After another huge fire in 1577 destroyed many of the
masterpieces, reconstruction was undertaken
immediately to restore it to its original appearance, which was completed by
Until then, the Doge’s Palace housed not only the
Doge’s apartments, the seat of the government and the city’s courtrooms, but
also a jail. It was only in the second half of the 16th century that Antonio da
Ponte ordered the construction of new prisons, built by Antonio Contin around
1600, which were linked to the Doge’s Palace by the Bridge of Sighs, built in
1614. Relocating the prisons left the old space on the ground floor of the
palace free, which led to the creation of the courtyard.
The famous Bridge
of Sighs dates from the Romantic period, its name supposedly referring to
the sighs of prisoners who, passing from the courtroom to the cell in which
they would serve their sentence, took a last look at freedom as they glimpsed
the lagoon and San Giorgio through the filigree openings.
Crossing over the Bridge of Sighs is one of the
most thrilling aspects of the visit, especially at night, with the golden
lights reflected on blue-black water. You peer through the openings, just as
these prisoners would have. It is
somewhat surreal to look down at the bridge from which you saw the Bridge of
Sighs hours before, and imagine what prisoners must have thought as they had
their last glimpse of that glorious scene. And then going into the prison
itself, surreal considering it was mere steps away from the grandeur of the
But there is still so much more to
see – it seems that the palace just goes on and on.
The Chamber of the Great Council, restructured in the 14th century, was decorated with a
fresco by Guariento and later with works by the most famous artists of the
period, including Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Alvise Vivarini,
Carpaccio, Bellini, Pordenone and Titian. At
53 meters long and 25 meters wide, this is not only the largest and most
majestic chamber in the Doge’s Palace, but also one of the largest rooms in
The Great Council was the
most important political body in the Republic. An ancient institution, the Council
was made up of all the male members over 25 years old of patrician Venetian
families, irrespective of their individual status, merits or wealth. “This was
why, in spite of the restrictions in its powers that the Senate introduced over
the centuries, the Great Council continued to be seen as bastion of republican
equality. The Council had the right to call to account all the other
authorities and bodies of the State when it seemed that their powers were
getting excessive and needed to be trimmed. The 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen who sat
in the Council always considered themselves guardians of the laws that were the
basis of all the other authorities within the State.”
This room was also where the first steps in the
election of a new Doge would take place. These voting procedures were extremely
long and complex in order to frustrate any attempts of cheating. Every Sunday,
when the bells of St. Mark’s rang, the Council members would gather in the hall
with the Doge presiding at the center of the podium and his counselors
occupying double rows of seats that ran the entire length of the room.
The walls are decorated with works by Paolo
Caliari (known as Paolo Veronese), Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, and Palma il Giovane. depicting Venetian history, particularly the city’s relations with the
papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; the ceiling is decorated with the Virtues and
examples of Venetian heroism, with an allegorical glorification of the Republic
in the center. Facing each other in groups of six, the 12 wall paintings depict
acts of valor or scenes of war that had occurred during the city’s history. A
frieze with portraits of the first 76 doges (the portraits of the others are in
the Sala dello Scrutinio) runs just under the ceiling. Though commissioned from
Jacopo Tintoretto, most of these paintings are the work of his son, Domenico.
Each Doge holds a scroll bearing a reference to his most important
achievements, while Doge Marin Faliero, who attempted a coup d’état in 1355, is
represented simply by a black cloth – a traitor to the Republic, he was not
only condemned to death but also to damnatio
memoriae, the total eradication of his memory and name.
Along the wall behind the Doge’s throne is one of
the longest canvas paintings in the world, the Paradiso, which Jacopo
Tintoretto and workshop produced between 1588 and 1592 to replace the Guariento
fresco that had been damaged in the fire.
The Council Chamber was where two
separate and independent organs of power, the Savi and the Signoria, would meet.
The Savi was divided into three sections concerned with
foreign policy, mainland Italy and maritime issues. The
Signoria was made up of the three Heads of the Councils of Forty and members of
the Minor Council, composed of the Doge and six councilors, one for each
district of the city of Venice. The Council was organized and coordinated the
work of the Senate, reading dispatches from ambassadors and city governors,
receiving foreign delegations and promoting other political and legislative
dei Pregadi housed the Senate, one of the oldest public institutions in
Venice. Established in the 13th century,
it evolved over time until by the 16th century it was the body mainly
responsible for overseeing political and financial affairs in manufacturing,
trade and foreign policy. In effect, it served as a sub-committee of the Great
Council and its members were generally drawn from the wealthiest Venetian
The Chamber of the Council of Ten is named for the council that was set up after a conspiracy
in 1310, when Bajamonte Tiepolo and other noblemen tried to overthrow the
government. “Initially meant as a provisional body to try those conspirators,
the Council of Ten is one of many examples of Venetian institutions that were
intended to be temporary but which became permanent.” Its authority covered all
sectors of public life, a power that gave rise to its reputation as a ruthless,
all-seeing tribunal at the service of the ruling oligarchy, a court whose
sentences were handed down rapidly after secret hearings. The assembly was made
up of ten members chosen from the Senate and elected by the Great Council. These
ten sat with the Doge and his six counselors, which accounts for the 17
semicircular outlines that you can still see in the chamber.
The Compass Room was used
for the administration of justice. It was named for the large wooden compass with
a statue of Justice, that stands in one corner and hides the entrance to the
rooms of the three Heads of the Council of Ten and the State Inquisitors. Those
summoned by these powerful magistrates waited here to be called; the
magnificent decor was intended to reinforce the solemnity of the Republic’s
So much of the exquisite decoration we see, which
dates from the 16th century, was commissioned from Veronese. Completed in 1554, the works he produced are all
intended to exalt the “good government” of the Venetian Republic; the central
panel, with St. Mark descending to crown the three Theological Virtues, is a
copy of the original, now in the Louvre.
The Chamber of Censors was an
office which was established in 1517 to address “the cultural and political
upheavals that are associated with Humanism.” The State Censors “were more like
moral consultants than judges, with their main task being the repression of
electoral fraud and the protection of the State’s public institutions.” The
walls display Domenico Tintoretto’s portraits of these magistrates.
The Chamber of the State Advocacies: This State Advocacy department dates from the 12th
century, when Venice was organized as a commune. The three members, the
Avogadori, safeguarded the principle of legality, making sure that laws were
applied correctly. Though they never enjoyed the status and power of the Doge
and the Council of Ten, the Avogadori remained one of the most prestigious
authorities in Venice right up to the fall of the Republic. They were also
responsible for preserving the integrity of the city’s patrician class,
verifying the legitimacy of marriages and births inscribed in the Golden Book.
The “Scrigno” Room. The
Venetian nobility as a caste came into existence because of the “closure” of
admissions to the Great Council in 1297; but it was only in the 16th century
that formal restrictions that protected the status of that aristocracy were
introduced: marriages between nobles and commoners were forbidden so greater
controls were set up to check the validity of aristocratic titles. Golden and
Silver books registered all those families that not only had the requisites of
“civilization” and “honor”, but could also show that they were of ancient
Venetian origin. The Golden and Silver Books were kept in a chest inside a
cupboard that also contained all the documents proving the legitimacy of
claims. The 18th century cupboard we see today extends around three
sides of a wall niche; lacquered in white with gilded decorations.
The Armoury houses an
important historical collection of weapons and armaments. The core of the
collection is 14th century, dating from the time when the Armoury was under the
control of the Council of Ten and stocked with weapons that would be readily
available for the Palace’s guards. The collection was partially dispersed after
the fall of the Republic, but still contains some 2000 exhibits, including 15th
and 16th century suits of armor, swords, halberds, quivers and crossbows. Many
are inscribed or painted monogram CX – for “Council of Ten” – which also
appears on the door jambs, evidence of the Council’s might. The Turkish
implements – weapons, standards and ships’ lanterns – that are displayed were
taken from the enemy during battle. The collection also displays 16th and 17th
century firearms; implements of torture; a chastity belt; and a series of small
but lethal weapons that were prohibited by law.
The Doge’s Palace was the heart of the political life and
public administration of the Venetian Republic, so after the fall of the
Republic in 1797, its role inevitably changed. Venice first fell under French
rule, then Austrian, and ultimately, in 1866, became part of a united Italy.
Up until the end of the 19th century, the
Palazzo Ducale was occupied by various administrative offices and housed
important cultural institutions such as the Biblioteca Marciana (from 1811
to 1904). But by then, the structure was showing signs of decay. The Italian
government set aside sizeable sums for an extensive restoration. Public offices
were relocated with the exception of the State Office for the Protection of Historical
Monuments, which is still housed in the building (now called Superintendence of
the Environmental and Architectural Heritage of Venice and its Lagoon). In
1923, the Italian state which owns the building, appointed the City Council to
manage it as a public museum. In 1996, the Doge’s Palace became part of the Civic
Museums of Venice network.
ST. MARK’S SQUARE MUSEUMS TICKET A single ticket
valid for the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary of Museo Correr,
Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale
Marciana. This ticket is valid for 3 months and grants one single
admission to the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary. (20E for regular
ticket; 13 E for children 6-14, students 15-25, seniors over 65 and holders of
International Student Identity Card) (http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/the-museum/doges-palace/the-palace/)
MUSEUM PASS The Museum Pass the cumulative
ticket for the permanent collection of the Musei Civici of Venice currently
open and for those connected (Palazzo Fortuny and Clock Tower not
included). This ticket is valid for 6 months and grants one single
admission to each museum. The Museum Pass grants entrance to: The St Mark’s
Square museums : – Doge’s Palace – combined itinerary of Museo Correr, Museo
Archeologico Nazionale, Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana,
plus other civic museums of Venice: Ca’ Rezzonico – Museum of
18th-Century Venice; Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo; Carlo Goldoni’s
House; Ca’ Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art + Oriental Art
Museum; Glass Museum – Murano; Lace Museum – Burano; Natural
History Museum. (24E or 18 E), www.visitmuve.it.
I wander back through the narrow alleys of the old city,
stopping to listen to a musician fill a plaza with his music, to the tram that
takes me back to the Hotel Alexander in Mestre. Tomorrow, Eric and I will start
our eight-day self-guided bike tour that will take us about 300 miles to
Trieste, Slovenia and Croatia.
(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street , Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423-756-8907, 877-462-2423, www.biketours.com,email@example.com).
One of the smartest
choices I make in preparation for a week-long self-guided bike tour from Venice
to Trieste to Istria (Slovenia to Croatia) is to arrive a day earlier. This
gives me the unsurpassed luxury of spending a day wandering around Venice
without a plan or an objective, just to follow whim and whimsy and take in the
incomparable essence of this enchanting city. I am transfixed by Venice – the
colors, the constant motion, the angles, the architecture, how you never know
what you will see around any corner, how getting lost leads to new discovery. I
have that cherished time to really focus on details.
Eric, my son who will be
biking with me, will be arriving the next day, and I have made my way from
Marco Polo International Airport to the Hotel Alexander, on the mainland, in
Mestre by public bus (following the directions provided by FunActive, the tour
company). I drop my bags and have most of the day to explore on my own.
The hotel that has been
selected on the FunActiv tour (self-guided means that they have booked the inns
and laid out the route, provide the rental bikes and support, a ferry the
luggage each day to the next inn) which I booked through Biketours.com, is well
located, just a short walk to a tram that comes frequently (they tell me where
to buy the ticket, at a convenience store) and whisks me in comfort to the
magnificent old city in 15 minutes.
Before I left the hotel,
I had spotted a flyer about a new Leonardo Da Vinci Museum and am delighted
when, serendipitously, I find myself right in front of it, next door to Chiesa
di San Rocco, a church where a concert is underway. I listen for awhile and
then go into the Museum.
What distinguishes the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum is that it is designed as a laboratory for experimentation and curiosity – actually giving you insights into the mind of Leonardo da Vinci by bringing his manuscripts, schematics and drawings to reality. Engineers have recreated large-scale models of Da Vinci’s inventions from his own plans “created through the skillful craftsmanship typical of the Renaissance workshops” which you can touch and maneuver. Essentially, you get to play with DaVinci’s inventions – delighting children of all ages. The museum also exhibits DaVinci’s anatomical studies. A special space is dedicated to his main pictorial works including the Mona Lisa and Annunciation, reproduced using high-resolution backlight technology.(Open daily, Scuola Grand di San Rocco, www.davincimuseum.it).
My motto, “Seize the day” (and waste
no time) serves me well, because my first day is sunny, bringing out the colors
of Venice – along with everyone else. Venice is unbelievably crowded with
tourists– like Times Square but on a much, much bigger scale– and quite warm
and humid. But I don’t mind and I find myself wandering down streets and alleys
in neighborhoods (and they are really neighborhoods, where Venetians live) that
are amazingly uncrowded and quiet.
I periodically take refuge in churches
to get out of the heat and take a bit of a rest and often am pleasantly
surprised to discover art and music.
One of the delights of
Venice is that it is set up like a labyrinth of warrens, alleys, bridges over
canals, so you are constantly surprised by the scenes that come into view as
you walk about.
The most popular is the
famous view from the Rialto Bridge at the center of the city where you
literally have to wait your turn to get a photo.
The narrow alleys all of a sudden
open up into the famous square of San Marco and I come upon the Basilica of San
Marco with its ornate decoration. There is so much to see and do here in the
piazza, which remarkably has retained the same look as depicted in Renaissance
At San Marco, I stand on a bridge
the gondoliers go under to get to the Bridge of Sighs – that famous place in
the Doge Palace where prisoners would be taken to their cramped, damp cells,
across this bridge with the last view of the open sky and their last breath of
fresh air. It’s like rush hour of the gondolas. I admire the skill with which
they deftly turn 90-degree corners and avoid hitting each other or smack into
the pilings. The choreography of their floating dance is amazing – I notice the
oar lock the gondoliers use, shaped in such a way that they get a different
angle to control their stroke.
What really strikes me is that
despite the crowds, how clean Venice’s streets are (though there is graffiti,
more a reflection of political climate) and how fresh. This wasn’t the case
when I last visited, 10 years ago.
I linger in the Piazza San Marco for
a time, and am sitting on marble benches under an archway
at the Doge Palace when I hear thunder. Last time I was here, the city was
flooded – platforms mysteriously would appear on the streets that you had to
walk over to avoid wading in six inches of water – a worrisome warning that
Venice may at some point become submerged altogether with rising sea level.
No one seems particularly bothered
by the thunder, not even the street vendors. I take the tram back to the hotel,
and just before I get there, the thunderstorm starts.
The next morning is raining, but no
matter. I hop the tram again, a five-minute walk from the Hotel Alexander
through the neighborhood for the ride into Venice, and this time, after
crossing over the bridge that provides entrance to the Old City (and apparently
closes at night to those who aren’t living or staying here) go left at the fork
instead of right. I walk over a bridge and see a sign pointing to the Jewish
Ghetto and follow it. I come upon a group of Israeli tourists huddled under a
passageway leading into the Jewish quarter as their guide gives her talk. I
walk ahead and find the synagogue, where Sabbath services are just finishing,
guarded by city soldiers who don’t let me in.
The last time I was in Venice, I
happened upon Chabad gathering for Shabbat dinner and was invited in. The
Chabad are actively repopulating European cities that emptied their Jewish
communities during the Holocaust.
I have a few hours before Eric
arrives and we have our orientation with a FunActive guide for our bike tour. I
make my way to San Marco again, before walking back to the depot to get the
tram back to the hotel, in time for Eric and the guide to arrive.
We spend about an hour with Anthony,
the FunActive guide, actually hurrying him along because we are so anxious to
get back to Venice so Eric can have some time there. Anthony persists: going
over the day-by-day maps, pointing out sights we might look out for, and
alternative routes we can take, and then fits us to the bikes we will be
By the time we get to Venice in the
afternoon, the rain has cleared. We return together to the Jewish Ghetto and
wander from there. I let Eric take the lead so he can have that same delight in
discovering Venice for himself.
It is important to realize that
Venice is a place where people live (signs ask visitors to respect the
residents), and coming in this way, through the Jewish Ghetto, we find many
streets – very quiet streets – that are simply neighborhoods off the beaten
tourist track. Laundry stretched across the canal.
Eric uses his tech prowess (and the
AFAR app) to find a restaurant, which gives a purpose and focus to our
wandering through the streets. We arrive at Al
Portego just in time before all the tables would be reserved for dinner.
After dinner, we walk to San Marco,
which is especially magical at night. I have saved visiting the Doge Palace for
the evening (the Doge Palace and three other museums stay open on Fridays and
Saturdays until 11 pm, last entrance at 10 pm) so that Eric could see it as
well. But Eric is too exhausted after having traveled all day and heads back to
I waltz in at 7:30 pm without
waiting at all – such a contrast to the daytime when the lines are long and
hundreds of people, including massive tour groups, funnel in at once. The
ticket, I learn, is valid at all four museums and good for three months.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to take advantage, but the ticket is well worth
Priceless, in fact.
I find myself in these rooms – grand
doesn’t begin to describe it – by myself or with at most five other people. All
of us are breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.
The art work – monumental pieces by
titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One
room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at
this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.
Next: A Night Visit to the Doge Palace
(We booked our 8-day self-guided
“Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker
which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and
bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors.
Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street , Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com,
If you really want to be freaked out by the KGB Spy Museum that opened just a few months ago in Manhattan, do what I did: come directly from Spyscape, where you learn about the whole business of being a spy, and be in the middle of reading a book like “The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West,” by Malcolm Vance.
The KGB Museum would be scarier if it were not laid out somewhat like an antique shop (but aren’t all spy centers sequestered behind something innocuous like a tailor shop?). Row by row, there are some 3500 artifacts, all of them real, many on view publicly for the first time. They date from 1910 until 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union when the KGB was replaced by the FSB. But these mundane objects – a lipstick, an umbrella, a pen – were lethal weapons; a tie pin and belt buckle were cameras; a heart reader could seek out a live person hiding even in a refrigerator. Another important tool? A thermometer to determine if a person were truly dead. And if a master key couldn’t unlock an apartment to install a bug? No matter, a transmitter could be aimed at the window from a huge distance to decipher the sound vibrations and eavesdrop anyway. There is even a letter remover which could take out a letter from its envelope, read its contents and replace it back in the envelope, without leaving a mark.
And then there is the “patient chair,”
used in a psychiatric hospital, with scary restraints, that were used for
interrogations under truth serum or other means.
It turns out that those fantastical
gadgets from the James Bond movies, and even the Get Smart spy spoof, were
actually based on the real thing. It seems that there is nothing too absurd in
the spy world.
The KGB story is really scary
though. KGB (КГБ in Cyrillic) stands for “Komitet
Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti,” which can be translated as the Committee for
State Security. The KGB was the main security agency for the Soviet Union, and
during the Cold War the KGB was in direct competition with the CIA and other
state security agencies around the world for cultural, economic, and military
The KGB was born in the Russian Revolution – one of the artifacts is the carpet
memorializing Lenin (not his real last name, it turns out) and the beginning of
the Revolution in 1917 – and was initially designed to ferret out
counter-revolutionaries, or enemies of the Communist state.
One of the
world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served
a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of Soviet Union and a force of
secret police within it.
You realize how pervasive and
ruthless the KGB was (is), and sense the constant terror that the people must
have lived under, as that term “enemies of the state” was broadened to mean any
one who criticized or opposed the ruling party, the leadership or policies.
There are real doors from jail cells,
and you look through at real video of real prisoners. Those who were placed in solitary
were allowed nothing to wear but their underwear; they could sleep only four
hours, when the bed would be closed up, and fed only bread and water for 5 to
One of the
world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served
a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of Soviet Union and a force of
secret police within it.
Some of the best engineering and
scientific minds were employed to devise gadgets and gizmos – miniaturizing cameras,
maximizing surveillance and detection, inventing new ways of transmitting.
undetectable, the agency used its state-of-the-art tools and ruthless methods
to seamlessly monitor the citizens’ lives and keep them in constant fear of
repercussions for any subversive behavior. The investment in the spy technology
had a devastating toll on the country’s economy yet it was deemed the most
effective and necessary way to keep the state isolated from the rest of the
world and keep the Western world out.”
operating in countries all over the world, the KGB had a vast influence on world
affairs, which reached its peak during the Cold War. KGB Spy Museum presents a
never-before-seen collection of items used in the missions of prominent KGB
agents, illuminating the strategies and methods that underlay many of history’s
top-secret espionage operations.
to perusing artifacts and learning about the history of the notorious agency, you
can read and listen to real stories from spies, witnesses and journalists as
well as explore and interact with authentic objects, such as telephone
switchboards (most of the operators who connected the calls and then listened
in on conversations were KGB), encryption machines, an interrogation chair,
designed to extract information from suspects and enemies.
One of the most interesting stories surrounds a wooden Great Seal in one of the cabinets, that was also one of the KGB’s greatest triumphs, that arose out of the famous summit in the Crimea of Stalin, Churchill and FDR. The head of the KGB, Lavrenty Beria, had a replica of the Great Seal made as a gift for Ambassador Averell Harriman, presented most charmingly by cherubic Young Pioneers (like boy scouts) as a “gesture of friendship.” But inside was an ingenious bug that used electromagnetic energy instead of an external power supply. It hung above the Ambassador’s desk in Moscow for seven years before it was exposed in 1952. “The Americans couldn’t figure out how it worked for a year and a half,” my guide, Sergey, says. (The original is in the NSA’s Cryptology Museum in Washington.)
The inventor of the Zlatoust/Receiver
LOSS, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, was a physicist
and a musician, who began his career by developing previously unseen electronic
musical instruments. In 1947 he won the Stalin Prize for Inventions of Listening
One of the objects that is literally
one-of-a-kind, is a record player made expressly for
Stalin; there is also a safe, made by the Bernstein company in Berlin, that
came from KGB HQ, still containing the currency that would have been enough to buy
30 cars. Both indications of the privilege along with the power amassed by the
Communist leadership despite their calls for a equal society.
Among the rarest objects, which are
a point of pride, also seem mundane but were “mechanical masterpieces”:
Tool set КАРОЕД/KAROED (Bark beetle): This is a manual
set of special drills and instruments for drilling very narrow holes less than
0.04 inches without any sound in the tree or plastic. Holes were needed to
listen to secret conversations with a help of secret microphones. These sharp
and pointed drills are specially machined from the very hard metal. The set
includes drill extensions, which can be used to drill holes in 3.3 ft and even
thicker walls or wooden floors. A special hand-held drill holder had a stopper to
drill holes of a certain depth to protect the drill from coming out across the
wall by making only a small, hardly visible hole. A special container collects
shavings in order not to leave any suspicious marks.
very rare: KGB secret drill ИГЛА/IGLA (needle): “It is a unique mechanical
masterpiece – the drill IGLA. This very complicated drill reflects the name
‘needle’, because it drills a very thin hole through the concrete. It drills
with the help of air compressor with abrasive dust to avoid the sound and
vibration. Even the drilling sound was designed by the constructors to simulate
that era washing machine Малютка/Maliutka. The person at home thought that a
neighbor was probably doing the laundry. The Igla drill had a hole through
which the air pressure was inflated according to the manometer readings, and
when the drill approached the outside of concrete wall, the air pressure
dropped in the drill as the air went out and the drill automatically shut off.
The hole was 0.04 inches in size. If the walls were painted or lined with
ceramic tiles, the eye did not even see the hole or dust outside. With this
drill, the abrasive powder and concrete dust were absorbed by air. Agents who
were very patient, slow and responsible were chosen to drill such a hole. In
order to drill a 4 inches concrete wall took about 4 hours, and with the
preparation – the whole day. Agents, through drilled miniature holes, installed
listening or photo devices. After the operation, they applied a hole with the
cement mixture and no suspicious marks were left.”
There’s an old fashioned
phone where you can “dial” a selection of officials. My guide, Sergey, dials
Putin and hands me the phone so I can hear Putin talking (it’s like listening
to the LBJ telephone tapes at the LBJ Presidential Museum in Austin). There are
also actual phones on display from KGB offices that would have features to
disguise the voice at the push of a button.
The two spy experiences – Spyscape and
the KGB Museum – have completely different approaches and perspectives, but they
complement each other so well, especially when visited one after the other.
Spyscape is modern, state of the art, interactive, pulse-pounding, engaging, immersive experience. KGB is old-school but so relevant today, with the Russian actively hacking elections and using social media to impact US and other elections, policy, and political discourse.
“The KGB Spy
Museum aims to present espionage and intelligence operations in an educational
and interesting way, emphasizing the importance of human intelligence and
setting out a frame of reference for the public to appreciate the great extent
to which spies have always influenced world events. The Museum has a policy of
presenting the history of espionage without political bias, thus offering
visitors a factual and balanced view of the subject. “
The Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 8
available online or in the museum. You need about 1 ½ hours to visit. Tickets
are adults (18-64)/$25; Children 7-17, seniors, students, $20; a guided visit,
minimum 3 people is $43.99.