All posts by krubin723

Global Scavenger Hunt: Searching Abu Dhabi

The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 on.

Fort Hassan, recently opened after restoration, tells the history of Abu Dhabi, ringed by modern skyscrapers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Hall of Artisans, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Definitely take the public tour of The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 spectacular.

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 time).

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 year).

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 pm).

And then we learn where we are going next: Jordan!

Global Scavenger Hunt: Leg 3 Concludes Back in Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another 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).

Planned 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.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Getting 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 spices.

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).

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Went 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.

Margo 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 breathtaking.   

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We 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).

After 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 next:

Out 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 Arab Emirates.

I realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed, ordering our day.

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3: A Perfect Day in Inle Lake, Myanmar

The distinctive way the boatmen paddle their wooden boats with their leg. Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

Making the thread from lotus flower. . Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

A village on stilts. Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).




Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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, Myanmar:

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 go next.

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 2 Brings Somber Confrontation with Vietnam War History

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our 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 Vietnam War.

(Saigon 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.)

Much of the visit to Cu Chi Tunnels is interactive; a little girl gets to feel what it is like to hide underground (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

A visit to Handicapped Handicrafts, a government-sponsored factory that employs people with disabilities (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On 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.

The 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.

The Pulitzer-prize winning photo, “Napalm Girl,” had great impact in ending support for the Vietnam War (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.









The impact of Agent Orange in graphic display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It 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.

The 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.

This 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 four.

Outside 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.

A gallery of war correspondents and photographers who were killed covering the Vietnam War (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Global Scavenger Hunt Leg 2: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Presiding over some of the most interesting fruits and vegetables where we sample dragonfruit, rambutan, a mangosteen, a longan.(c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Monday, April 15, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

It 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.

Built 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).

Dragon fruit at the Ben Thanh Market, Saigon, Vietnam (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Scene from Water Puppet Theater, a marvelous display of traditional Vietnamese culture at Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, Saigon, Vietnam (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The 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).

View from Saigon Skydeck © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From 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.

Preparing the Majestic 1925 at the rooftop bar at the historic Hotel Majestic, Saigon © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back 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.

We 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).

Day 1 global scavenger hunt: practice run in vancouver bc

Selfie of the Margo Polos (Karen and Margo) to prove we found the Hotel Europe, in historic Gastown, Vancouver BC. The first day of the Global Scavenger Hunt was a practice round for our 23-day around-the-world adventure (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

First Look at The Shed, NYC’s Newest Iconic Cultural Center Bent on Using Art for Social Action, Public Good

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

The Shed is notable for a design based around flexibility; the new cultural arts center is adjacent to the Highline and The Nest and is the “beating heart” of the new Hudson Yards development on New York City’s West Side © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.”

The principals of The Shed, NYC’s newest iconic cultural institution housed in an architectural marvel: Hans Ulrich Obrist, David Rockwell, John Tisch, Dan Doctoroff, Liz Diller and Frank H McCourt, Jr. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 the land.

“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 partner.

“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.

“Great architecture demands great purpose,” Doctoroff said. 

Alex Poots, on stage in The McCourt: “The Shed is place for invention, curiosity where all artists and audiences can meet.”  © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.”

Alex Poots, Artistic Director and CEO of The Shed © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

First Commissions

Poots introduced the 2019 inaugural season’s first commissions (and the press were able to watch some rehearsals):

Soundtrack of America, 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.

The opening commissions at The Shed feature the world premiere of Reich Richter Pärt, an immersive live performance installation from iconic artists Steve Reich, Gerhard Richter, and Arvo Pärt, featuring new works by Richter and a new composition by Reich, performed with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, here in rehearsal, that showcase The Shed’s support for mixing cultural disciplines © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Reich Richter Pärt, 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).

Norma 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).

Chen Shi-Zheng discusses “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise,” a futuristic kung fu musical conceived © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise. a 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.

Dan Doctoroff, Alex Poots and Tamara McCaw discuss community outreach and the Open Call © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 2020.

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.”

The Tisch Skylights © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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. 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.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Architectural discussion with David Rockwell, Dan Doctoroff and Liz Diller © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The 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.

The McCourt, 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 the floor.

The Plaza: 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.”

Gerhard Richter’s work is on view in The Gallery, a massive column-free space © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Shed’s 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.

A movable 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.

Diller 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.

The 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 institutions.

“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.”

Form and function: the back wall of McCourt can be removed to open up a balcony © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.”

See also: The Shed, New York’s Newest Iconic Cultural Center, Opens April 5 with Commissioned New Works

_____________________________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Discovering Portorose, Slovenia and Porec, Croatia at End of 8-day Self-Guided BikeTour from Venice

Eric finishing our 8-day self-guided biketour in Porec, Croatia, having traveled 300 miles from Venice © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 bridge.

We 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 seacoast.)

Muggia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Cement platforms serve as beach © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Crossing the border from Italy to Slovenia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.)

View of Isola © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding through the tunnel into Portorose © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Enjoying the pool at Hotel Tomi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Portorose is Slovenia’s lovely resort town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.)

Sun sets behind Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.  

Adding truffles to risotto at RiziBizi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

Truffles at RiziBizi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

(Restaurant RiziBizi, Villanova ulica 10, 6320 Portoroz, www.rizibizi.si).

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).

Heading out of Portorose © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Salt gardens of Secovlje © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One 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.

There is a long climb, but it is gradual, which gives us a wonderful view of salt flats.

Picturesque Novigrad © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There 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!

Picturesque Novigrad © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We 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.

Porec © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.


Eric meditates while waiting for me to catch up © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Booking through 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 hotel.

Significantly, the tour was an excellent value, averaging about $125-150 pp per day.

Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com, info@biketours.com.

See also:

Setting Out on 8-Day Self-Guided #BikeTour from Venice Bound for Croatia

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

Discovering Ancient Christian Site of Aquilea, Roman City of Grado and Trieste on Self-Guided Biketour

_____________________________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Discovering Ancient Christian Site of Aquilea, Roman City of Grado and Trieste on Self-Guided Biketour

Exquisite 12th century frescoes in the crypt in Aquileia, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, dating from 313 AD © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

Stopping for lunch at Marano Lagunare © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The piazza in Marano Lagunare © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Marano Lagunare © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided biketour. Stage 3-Aquileia -Grado (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Roman columns, Aquileia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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:

Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The entire floor of the basilica at Aquileia is covered with Roman mosaics © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The entire floor of the basilica at Aquileia is covered with Roman mosaics © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The entire floor of the basilica at Aquileia is covered with Roman mosaics © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
You wonder who this woman was, immortalized in mosaic at Aquileia © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Frescoes, Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Grado

Biking over the dam into Grado © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Grado © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Grado © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 picturesque fountain along the seaside promenade, Grado © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Other attractions 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 tower.

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.

Stage 4: Aquilea/Grado – 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.

Riding over a dam from Grado en route to Trieste © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Biking Stage 4 from Grado en route to Trieste © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).

A beautiful beach outside of Monfalcone © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Finally, our climbs through the hinterland are rewarded with a scenic overlook of Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Trieste’s architecture evokes Vienna rather than Venice © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 sites.

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.

Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(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, info@biketours.com)

See also:

Setting Out on 8-Day Self-Guided #BikeTour from Venice Bound for Croatia

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

_____________________________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Setting Out on 8-Day Self-Guided BikeTour from Venice Bound for Croatia

Picturesque Caorle, Day 2 of our eight-day biketour from Venice to Croatia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.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, just go straight.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“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.

Each 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 hinterland” route.

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.

Setting out from Venice on an eight-day self-guided biketour
© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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, attractions.

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, a charming family beach town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Jesolo, a family-oriented beach town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The Marco Polo, Jesolo © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Stage 2: 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.

Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided biketour. Stage 2-Caorle-Saggitaria-Portogruaro (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided biketour. Stage 2-Caorle-Saggitaria-Portogruaro (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.


Picturesque Caorle, Day 2 of our eight-day biketour from Venice to Croatia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Madonna dell’Angelo Church, Caorle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Keep a bathing suit handy for opportunities like this: the beach at Caorle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are so delighted with Caorle, we buy refrigerator magnets with the scene of the colorful buildings.

Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided biketour. Stage 2-Caorle-Saggitaria-Portogruaro (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 light.

Portogruaro © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Portogruaro © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Concordia Sagittaria © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

The Julia, Concordia Sagittaria © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

An archeological dig with sarcophagus on the ruins of the first basilica Concordia Sagittaria © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 travels.

Concordia Sagittaria © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Next: Discovering Ancient Christian Cite of Aquilea, Roman City of Grado

(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, info@biketours.com)

_____________________________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures