Abu Dhabi is one of those places where the
impression you have is either completely wrong or nonexistent. At least for me.
Coming here on the Global Scavenger Hunt was yet another instance of proving
what travel is all about: seeing, learning, connecting for yourself.
Yes, it is about conspicuous ostentation. That part
of the pre-conception seems validated.
But what I appreciate now is how an entire nation
state was built out of a chunk of desert. The skyscrapers and structures that
have grown up here in a matter of decades, not centuries.
My first awareness comes visiting Fort Hassan, the
original defensive fort and government building, and later the sheik’s
residence built around (it reminds me of the White House, which is both the
home of the head of government and government office). Fort Hassan has been
restored (not rebuilt) and only opened to the public in December 2018.
You see photos of how the fort/palace looked in
1904, with nothing but desert and a couple of palm trees around it. Today, it
is ringed (yet not overwhelmed) by a plethora of skyscrapers, each seeming to
rival the next for most creative, most gravity-defying, most odd and artful
shape. It is like a gallery of skyscrapers (New York City Museum of Skyscrapers
take note: there should be an exhibit) – both artful and engineering. I note
though that as modern as these structures are, they basically pick up and mimic
some of the pattern in the old fort. And the building just seems to be going
And then you consider: it’s all built on sand (and
oil). “In 500 years from now, will these be here?” Bill Chalmers, the organizer
of the Global Scavenger Hunt for the past 15 years. We had just come for Bagan,
Myanmar, where the temples have been standing since the 11th
century, despite earthquakes and world events.
There is also a Hall of Artisans which begins with
an excellent video showing how the crafts reflected the materials that were at
hand (eventually also obtained through trade) and then you see women
demonstrating the various crafts, like weaving.
From there, I went to a souk at the World Trade
Center that had stalls of some traditional items – wonderful spices for example
– but in a modern (air-conditioned comfort!) setting, and directly across the
street from a major modern mall promising some 270 different brand shops. Souks
are aplenty here.
I found myself dashing to get to the 2 pm tour I had
to pre-arrange at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital which was at a surprising distance,
a 35-minute drive.
This proves most fascinating to learn how these
prized birds are handled. We are taken into a waiting room, surprised to see a
couple of dozen hooded falcons, waiting patiently in what is a waiting room.
Their owners have dropped them off for the day for whatever checkup or
healthcare they require; others stay in the falcon hospital (the biggest in Abu
Dhabi and one of the biggest in the world), for months during their moulting
season, when they would otherwise live in the mountains for six months. They
are provided the perfect cool temperatures they would have in that habitat,
before coming to the desert in spring to hunt, and later to breed.
We get to watch a falcon being anesthesized – they
quickly pull off his hood, at which point he digs his claws into the gloved
hand holding him, and his face quickly stuffed into the mask and put to sleep.
His claws, which normally would be shaved down in the wild, become dangerously
overgrown in captivity; the falcon doctor also shows how they can replace a
feather that has become damaged, possibly impeding the bird’s ability to fly or
hunt (they can carry prey four times their weight), which have to be the exact
same feather, which they match from the collection of feathers from previous
moultings. Then we get to hold a falcon. Not surprisingly this is one of the
scavenges on the Global Scavenger Hunt (worth 35 points in the contest to be
named “World’s Greatest Traveler”).
It is a thrilling and unique experience. I meet a
woman from Switzerland who is engaged in a four-week internship at the falcon
hospital, learning how to handle and care for the falcons – information she
will bring back as a high school teacher. She tells me they are very kind and
gentle, and bond with their owner. The feeling is clearly reciprocal – the
falcons can fly with their owner in first class, have their own seat and their
own menu (fresh killed meat).
Next I go to the Grand Mosque – an experience that
is not to be believed. If you thought the Taj Mahal was magnificent, a wonder
of the world, the Grand Mosque which was built in 1999 and uses some of the
same architectural and decorative design concepts vastly surpasses it, in
architectural scale and in artistic detail, not to mention the Taj Mahal is
basically a mausoleum, while the Grand Mosque is a religious center that can
accommodate 7800 worshippers in its main sanctuary, 31,000 in the courtyard
(one of the largest mosaics in the world), 51,000 worshippers altogether for such
high holy events as Ramadan over 55,000 sq. meters – the largest mosque in the
United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world.
The experience of visiting is also surprisingly
pleasant, comfortable, welcoming – not austere as I expected (after having
visited Buddhist temples in Myanmar). Women must be fully covered, including
hair, but they provide a robe (free); the public tour (an absolute must) is
also free, indeed, the admission ticket to the Grand Mosque is free. When you
arrive at the Visitors Center, which is at some distance from the mosque, you
go underground to where there is an air-conditioned mall, with restaurants and
shops, then go through a tunnel like an airport (it kind of reminded me of how
Disney moves its visitors into its attractions).
I timed the visit to arrive about 4:30 pm – and go
first to what is labeled as the Visitors Happiness Desk – how could I resist?
The two gentlemen who manned the desk (surprisingly who were natives of Abu
Dhabi when 88 percent of the population here come from some place else) were
extremely well suited to their role – extremely friendly, helpful. As I am
asking my questions, who should arrive but my Global Scavenger Hunt teammate
(small world!), so we visit together, and fortunately, she managed to get us on
the public tour which had already left.
We left just at dusk, with the lights beginning to
come on, and a touch of sunlight breaking through clouds that made the
structures even more beautiful if that were possible.
I asked the Happiness guys where to go for the best
view of the mosque after dark, and they directed us to The Souk at Qaryat (Al
Beri), just across the water from the mosque. Sure enough, the view was
We arrived in Abu Dhabi about midnight local time
after having left our hotel in Myanmar at 5:15 am, flew an hour to Bangkok
where we had an eight-hour layover challenge (I only managed to do a water taxi
on the canal and explore the Golden Mountain and some buildings and watched
preparations for the King’s coronation (I later heard it was for a parade that
day). Then flew six hours to Abu Dhabi where we gained 3 hours (that is how we
make up the day we lost crossing the International Dateline and why it is so
hard to keep track of what a day is), so for us, it felt like 3 am. Bill
Chalmers, the organizer, ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of the Global
Scavenger Hunt said that this was the most arduous travel day we would have
(and the 18 hours travel from Vancouver to Vietnam was the longest airline
Tonight’s scavenger hunt deadline is 10 pm, when we
will learn where our next destination will be on the 23-day day mystery tour.
Only five of the original nine teams are still in contention to win the
designation “World’s Best Traveler” (and free trip to defend the title next
The scavenges are designed to give us travel
experiences that take us out of our comfort zone, bring us closer to people and
cultures. In Abu Dhabi, one of the experiences that would earn 100 points is to
be invited for dinner with a family in the home. “It is always a good thing to
be invited for dinner with a family in their home. If you are, and you do –
please do bring something nice for them, be patient and be gracious. Of course,
we want proof.
Another was to “hold an informal majlis with actual
locals (people actually from UAE and not at any hotel) over an Arabica coffee;
talk about a few things like the future of Abu Dhabi, oil, tourism, arranged
marriages, Western values, etc.” That would earn 35 points.
Other possibilities: ride “the world’s fastest
rollercoaster” (75 points – Paula and Tom did that, she said it was like 4G
force); visit the Emirates Palace, walk it from end to end and have a “golden
cappuccino” (they literally put gold flakes in the cappuccino, this is Abu
Dhabi after all) for 35 points; take in the grandeur of the Prsidential Palace,
only recently opened to the public, and visit Qasr Al Watan (50 points).
Many of the scavenges (including mandatory ones),
have to do with local food, because foods and food preparations are so
connected to heritage, culture, and environment. One of the scavenges here was
to assemble three flavors of camel milk from a grocery store and do a blind
taste test (35 points).
A lasting impression that I will carry away from
this brief visit to Abu Dhabi: the theme this year is “Year of Tolerance.“
We gather together at 10 pm in the lavish lobby of
the St. Regis, excitedly trade stories about our travel adventures during the
day. Inevitably, I am jealous of the things I didn’t do, couldn’t fit in to do
– like visiting the Fish Market, the Iranian Souk, the Presidential Palace,
built for the tidy sum of $5 billion (open til 7 pm, then a lightshow at 7:30
And then we learn where we are going next: Jordan!
perfect day in Myanmar – our fourth and final on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger
Hunt. Returned from Inle Lake to Yangon. Got back to the Shangri-la Sule Hotel
(tried to take the public bus but after two buses went by, hopped a taxi).
a day that included a visit to Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, the last synagogue in
all of Myanmar. By the time I got there, it was 1:40 pm (it was just about 15
minute walk from the hotel) – so lucky because it closes to visits at 2 pm
(open daily except Sunday). A lovely synagogue in the Sephardic style, built in
1896. At one point, the Jewish community in Yangon numbered 2500 before the
mass migration of WWII; today, there are only 5 families (about 30 people). The
Samuels, one of the last remaining Jewish families, has maintained the synagogue
for generations, a plaque notes.
there was interesting, going through all these street markets with sounds of
chickens (for sale), live fish for sale (one almost got away), and the scent of
Perhaps not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market, which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace. I was surprised at all the sellers of jade and jewelry (which is what the market is known for), as well as traditional longyi, and just about anything else you can think of. I came upon a seller of interesting post cards, and found the post office on the third level (one of my traditions of travel).
back to the hotel, which was just a few blocks away, to refresh (it was 104
degrees), in order to prepare for a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda (one of the
mandatory scavenges of the Global Scavenger Hunt was to visit at dawn or dusk),
to be there at dusk (but back at the hotel by the 6 pm deadline for the scavenges),
but nothing, could have prepared me for the experience of seeing it.
Fortunately, my teammate, Margo, who had traveled to Mandalay when I went on to
Inle Lake, had to take a taxi back to Yangon (snafu with air ticket and all
flights booked, ironic because I had a ticket that I wasn’t able to cancel when
I changed my plan to go to Inle Lake instead, but such mishaps turn into
marvelous adventures), but luckily, walked into the room at 4 pm, so we could
go off together.
cleverly hired a guide to show us around and it was fascinating: this was the
first pagoda in the world, and is one of the most magnificent, and also
considered one of the most sacred. It was built between the 6th and
10th centuries. We watch as workers on scaffolding work to restore
the 60 tons of gold that decorates the tower. Most interesting was coming upon
a procession of family celebrating the indunction of two young boys into the
monastery. (The Sule Pagoda which I visited the evening we arrived – was it
four days ago? – was also magnificent, but Shwedagon is on a different scale of
dash back in a taxi to get back to the Global Scavenger Hunt group a few
minutes past 6 pm (we aren’t competing to win the challenge so we did not have
to turn in scorecards).
a hosted dinner (Japanese), where all of us traded our stories of exploration
from Yangon and some combination of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, we return to
the hotel to learn where our 23-day “Blind Date with the World” mystery tour continues
the door at 5:15 am (we will be provided breakfast boxes), on to Bangkok, for
an eight-hour layover challenge, and then on to Abu Dhabi – essentially having
breakfast in Myanmar, lunch in Thailand and dinner (or nightcap?) in the United
realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed, ordering our
My perfect day in Inle Lake, Myanmar, on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, began the night before, on the JJ Express bus that left Bagan at 10 pm and arrived at the bus stop (literally in the middle of the street in a small village) at 4:30 am, where those of us bound for Inle Lake were picked up in a jitney. The jitney dropped me at the Sanctum Hotel Resort at 5:30 am, where the kindly hotel clerk called in housekeeping early so we could get into rooms by 6 am.
I am on my own – my partner on this 23-day “Blind Date With the World” mystery tour – went on to Mandalay with another team who decided not to compete for points. One of the nine competing teams is also here in Inle Lake (I got the idea to come from them and learned of the JJ Express Bus, but this also involves unraveling my previous plan to go to Mandalay and get back my flight from Inle Lake to Yangon while bouncing in the bus and texting my son to call the airline), but has to be scrupulous about following rules (no using computer or cell phone to make bookings or get information; the trip is designed to “trust strangers” and engage with local people) so have arrived in Inle with no hotel, not even a decent map to start planning how they will attack the scavenges (challenges) and accrue the most points.
But the kindness of the hotel manager is immensely
appreciated. For me, it means I am able to take advantage of an 8 am boat tour
(that means a traditional wooden boat with the modern convenience of a power
motor) because most of Inle Lake’s special attractions are literally on the
lake – whole villages, in fact, are built on stilts on the lake; there are floating
gardens, floating markets, and the fishermen fish I a distinctive fashion,
paddling the oar with their leg and casting nets.
The Sanctum Hotel is on the list that was provided by the GSH “ringmaster” and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, and because I am not competing, have booked on hotels.com. I am delighted to find it is a five-star luxury resort, and just being here fills me with a contented peace (Maing Thauk Villge, Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe Township Shan State, Myanmar, info@sanctum-Inle-Resort.com, www.sanctum-inle-resort.com). But that is only the beginning.
The resort is situated on the bank of the lake, and to begin
the tour I have booked (because I’m not competing, I can book a hotel tour,
while the competing team cannot), I am walked down to the hotel’s own dock
where the boat and the boatman is waiting. It turns out I am the only one, so
this is essentially a private tour. The boatman speaks only limited English –
enough to tell me where I am going – but it is sufficient (I just don’t expect
to get any commentary).
It is an amazing experience – gliding across the lake.
During the course of it, we encounter a young fellow fishing, go through an entire
village built on stilts, where there are also numerous craftsmen and workshops
we visit (I see how, unique to Inle, and one weaver whose techniques were
devised by a woman now more than a century old, producing thread from the lotus
flower, and get to see looms that are common across cultures for centuries;
silversmith; the maker of the traditional wooden boats); important pagodas and
temples on the lake. It is incomparable.
I skip stopping for lunch so am able to condense the tour
somewhat, which brings me back to the hotel at 2:30 pm.
I indulge in Sanctum’s utterly stunning pool – I would rank one of the best resort pools
in the world – an infinity pool that is
magnificently set with a view down to the lake, richly landscaped, a great size
for actually swimming as well as playing around. It is made of stunning black
and silver tiles that shimmer as you swim. It is also one of the most
magnificent places just to lounge.
I am back up by 5 pm, to walk about a mile up the road from
the hotel into the nearby village of Maing Thauk, where I come upon a high
school holding a sports competition that has drawn tremendous audience. Even
though hardly anyone speaks English, we manage to chat (icebreaker: What is
going on? Where is the bridge). It’s a good thing I asked the fellow if I was
going the right way to get to the Friendship Bridge I am looking for, where I
have been told is ideal for watching the sunset (and so much more), because he
directs me to turn left (I would have gone straight).
The Bridge turns out to be more of a pier over the water,
from which people can get onto the scores of wooden boats that gather here, as
well as link some restaurants. The views and the evening activity are just
magnificent. It’s like watching the entire community walk by.
What I’ve noticed during this incredibly brief visit is
exactly what Bill Chalmers had hoped when he dealt with a question of whether
we should be in a place that has earned worldwide condemnation for human rights
abuses. Travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding
of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly,
not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways. In very real ways (and
especially now), travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. That’s not
how change happens – that only hardens points of view, and makes people
susceptible to fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened
throughout human history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.
What I see in the
people I’ve encountered is a kindness, a
sweetness among the people here. I see it in how parents hold their children,
how the boatman, Wei Moi, shows such etiquette among the other boatmen, how
helpful people are.
Here are just a few highlights from my visit in Inle Lake,
This leg has been a Par 5 in difficulty (Par 6 being the
most difficult during this, the 15th Global Scavenger Hunt) – which has
entailed us going out of Yangon to Bagan (an ancient city with 3000 temples),
Mandalay and/or Inle Lake (many more rules on top of that, including no more
than 2 flights), taking overnight bus or hiring a taxi or train, and so forth.
But Chalmers devious design has worked – in just these four days, we really do
immerse ourselves in Myanmar.
The final challenge of this leg is to get back to Yangon by
6 pm, and for those competing to hand in their scorecards and proof of
completing the scavenges. That’s when we will learn where in the world we will
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, firstname.lastname@example.org)
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, email@example.com)