Category Archives: Biking Tours

Biking through Albania’s ‘Breadbasket’ into Korca, the ‘Paris of Albania’

Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral, the centerpiece of Korca and the largest in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral, the centerpiece of Korca and the largest in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip.)

Day 3 of our cycling adventure (the fourth day of “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” tour) offers some of the starkest contrasts, from Albania’s rural “breadbasket” – farmland where you think you have gone back 100 years in time – to one of its most cosmopolitan and sophisticated cities, Korca, the “Paris of Albania.”

Biking down rural roads in Albania’s “breadbasket” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking down rural roads in Albania’s “breadbasket” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This day is marked for me with some of my favorite landscapes- stunning farms laid out like a neat patchwork quilt – that show Albania’s use of traditional agricultural techniques with little mechanization. If anything, the countryside reminds me of our Amish country, with the continued reliance on donkeys and mules, hoes and spades, and how the use of chemicals and pesticides is shunned (which is why the salads and produce we eat are so fresh and pure – talk about farm to table!).

Biking down rural roads in Albania’s “breadbasket” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking down rural roads in Albania’s “breadbasket” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our ride is a 51 km distance, mostly uphill with a steep climb at the beginning, and then a series of smaller climbs and drops for a total elevation gain of 412 meters and elevation loss of 252 meters.

Coming upon a funeral procession in the Albanian countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coming upon a funeral procession in the Albanian countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We start out of the hotel alongside Lake Ohrid, and cycle back to Pogradec, then head south and leave the plain, climbing to a higher one. We cycle the first half of the route along rural roads, looking at the vast plain of Korca from above, presenting these gorgeous painterly scenes of the farms.

As we come into one village, we see a funeral procession underway – a long line of people walking up a winding path to the hillside cemetery.

Women leaving fields © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Women leaving fields © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our coffee break stop is a delightful restaurant right in the middle of the farms; Junid, our guide, brings us a watermelon to share. Lunch is in another charming restaurant, on the outskirts of Korca, where we enjoy stuffed grape leaves, beets, fries and lamb chops.

Korca: ‘The Paris of Albania’

“National Hero” Monument with Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral in the heart of Korca 247 © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
“National Hero” Monument with Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral in the heart of Korca 247 © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We bike into Korca and am immediately struck by sculptures that line the boulevard and some of the prettiest modern architecture we have seen, abutting turn-of-the-century French-influenced architecture (hence, the title, “The Paris of Albania”), from when the French controlled the region. We also pass a curious cemetery with crosses.

You immediately feel Korca’s more cosmopolitan cultural vibes, but the essence of Albania’s 19th century history also is on display here, all compressed in a compact walkable distance.

Life Gallery Hotel, Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Life Gallery Hotel, Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our hotel, the Life Gallery Hotel, is, hands-down the best of the trip. It is a microcosm of Korca in that it is actually two buildings: a grand French-style building dating from 1924 and a modern, chic boutique hotel with every modern amenity imaginable (an enormous marble and granite bathroom and free WiFi), connected via an enclosed walkway and courtyard. There is a stunning beer garden, a cellar restaurant, a tavern, and even a swimming pool (and they are opening a spa).

One of the European-styled buildings in Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
One of the European-styled buildings in Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are here early enough for me to explore on my own for an hour and a half before our group meets together for a walking tour led by our guide, Junid: the rebuilt Cathedral (largest in Albania), the First School of Albania (dating from 1887), cinema and casinos (which may actually be nightclubs) and a bazaar (closed when we come) and what passes for a small indoor shopping mall. There are also a surprising number of banks.

Indeed, Korca is one of the largest and most important cultural and economical centers of Albania and the largest city in the region. In addition to being dubbed “The Paris of Albania,” it is also known as the “cradle of Albanian culture.” Korca is named in documents dating from the early medieval period – the first half of the 15th century – when the entire province was the property of Muzakajt, one of the feudal families of that time. The city has been an important trading market: for centuries Albanian caravans began their travels from here to Turkey, Greece, and Russia. By the second half of the 19th century, the city rose to be a very important economic, trade and cultural center.

But its prime location that has made the city so important as a trading center has also brought tragedy. Albania was neutral during the Balkan Wars and World War I, yet so many battles were fought here that the country lost 10% of its population, Junid tells us.

The city also played a key role in its fight for independence from the 500-year rule of the Ottoman Empire. Korca patriots were well organized from 1906 – 1912, and took part actively in the movement to liberate the country from Ottoman occupation.

Korca enjoyed a heightened period of prosperity in the interwar period when many of its characteristic cultural institutions, mansions and boulevards were built by French and Italians.

The First School of Albania, dating from 1887, now The Education Museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The First School of Albania, dating from 1887, now The Education Museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The city also offers several museums including The Education Museum (housed in the building where the first Albanian school opened in 1887), The National Museum of Medieval Art, The Prehistoric Museum, the house-museum of the famous landscape painter, Vangjush Mio, and Bratko, the museum of the Oriental Art.

Walking Tour of Korca

The city of Korca takes great pride in being a welcoming and accessible city. You can best experience this by walking through its many parks, clean streets (we see people employed as street sweepers) and characteristic cobblestone walkways and roads. Which is what we do

Junid gives us a narration of Korca’s history as we walk passed monuments and structures:  he points out the graveyard of martyrs, located at the top of a hill above the city.

By happenstance of location, Korca has been the site of a lot of fighting.

After Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, after 500 years under its rule, it did not take part in the Balkan Wars of 1912-4, or in World War II – it was neutral, like Switzerland, Junid says. Nonetheless, armies marched through; Albania had an army for defense; 10% of the Albanian population died in battles fought on its soil. The numbers also include 700 French soldiers who are buried in the cemetery, marked with crosses, that we saw when we biked into the city earlier.

In 1913, Albania’s borders were “redefined” by a Council of Ambassadors (Western Europeans). Albania had started out as 58,000 sq km; but in their collective wisdom, Albania’s territory was cut down to 39,000 sq. km, with sizeable chunks given to Greece, Macedonia and Montenegro. Today, there is concern that Albania may want to recover its lost territory, but Junid says, “Nobody wants to reestablish Albania.”

From 1916-20, Korca was occupied by the French who built many of the beautiful buildings we see. The French also installed Albania’s president.

By 1930, half of Albania was occupied by Italy and the rest by Greece.

“The Dictator” (as Junid refers to him) sought help from Hitler to push out the Greeks and allied with the Italians. Mussolini saw Albania as a 300 km-wide buffer zone for its own defense. Mussolini armed and modernized Albania’s army.

We come to the Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral, the centerpiece of the city and the largest in Albania and second largest in the Balkans.  It was opened in 1995.

Junid explains that in 1967, under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha (dictator from 1944 until 1983), Albania became the first atheist country – religion was banned; priests and imans who refused to close their churches and mosques were shot and their churches and mosques burned down.

After becoming the first officially atheist country, even after the fall of Communism in 1991, it took a couple of years before Albania started to reopen its churches and mosques © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
After becoming the first officially atheist country, even after the fall of Communism in 1991, it took a couple of years before Albania started to reopen its churches and mosques © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Even after Communism fell in 1991, it took a couple of more years before the people got over their fear and reopened churches and mosques. The Cathedral was built upon ruins with donations of rich families from area (they are honored inside the Cathedral). Despite the restoration of formal religion, and the fact that Muslims represent 70 percent of the country, other religions are tolerated (indeed, we see crosses topping many hilltops), the country is clearly secular, atheism is still prevalent and people consider religion a private affair.

“The religion of Albanians,” Junid tells us as we walk, “is Albanianism. First and foremost we are a nation. We all are human beings, respect each other.”

Junid gives us more of Albania’s history: he tells us that when one of the prime ministers died of heart disease (or at least that’s what they said). “Coincidentally, one of the doctors who treated him succeeded him (This reminds me of a plot of “Madam Secretary”). (I can’t reconstruct this timeline based on the list of Prime Ministers and Presidents but the only cardiologist I can find is (Sali Berisha) who became President in 1992 and later became Prime Minister, 2005-2013. Berisha was also the Prime Minister who, on 10 June 2007, met with U.S. President George W. Bush in Tirana, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Albania. But what appears to be the case is that there are a handful of politicians who move in and out of power, which accounts for a high measure of cynicism when it comes to politics.)

In 1991, a former economic adviser to Prime Minister Fatos Nano began a series of Ponzi schemes that embroiled much of the country, and when they collapsed in 1997, caused the bankruptcy of 25 firms with a face value totaled $1.2 billion and sank more than 200,000 investors who had sold off property in order to raise the capital to invest. That set off a civil war. “Almost all of Albania was burned to the ground,” Junid tells us. (What I can’t understand is why the money can’t be traced to bank accounts and recovered.)

Nanos served as Prime Minister 1997-8 (after the Ponzi schemes collapsed), was accused of corruption and remarkably, was returned to office 2002-2005, promising reforms, when new questions about corruption in government contracts emerged.

(I find it really difficult to get Albania’s history into perspective. If you look at a timeline of Albania’s prime ministers, some only served a matter of months and even days, and there was nobody in the office 1916-1918, but it also is clear that a small group of leaders dominated government for decades, switching in and out of office.)

The bottom line is that Albania’s history since 1912 independence has been one of kings, dictators, prime ministers and presidents promising reforms but rife with corruption and intrigues which led to unrest, coups and uprisings. (The current prime minister, Edi Rama, came to office in September 2013, and judging from the massive infrastructure projects underway and what I gauge is a calm in the country, seems to be putting the country’s economy back on track.

Across from the Cathedral is the promenade and a prominent “National Hero” Monument, immortalizing the freedom movement that won independence from the Ottoman Empire after a 500-year occupation. The figure wears the traditional Albanian costume with the pleated skirt (the Greeks adopted the same outfit; the more folds, the richer the man). It was sculpted in 1937 by Odhise Paskali, considered Albania’s greatest sculptor, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Albania’s independence.

Korca’s historic cinema © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Korca’s historic cinema © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Along the promenade are important buildings – the literal ruins of a Russian Embassy (in 1957, the dictator broke off relations with Russia and allied with China) on one side, and the First Albanian School, built in 1887, which is today the National Museum of Education. Back when the school was built, under Muslim law only boys could attend, but a few years later, a girls school was built.

The promenade, Junid says, is an architectural feature common to all Albanian towns, a legacy of the Italian occupation. The promenade was designed by Mussolini’s architects in the 1930s.

Junid explains the Albanian custom of “xhiro” (sounds like “gyro”) – evening walks. Each evening after 6:30 pm, people come out and promenade down the avenues, come to cafes, sit in parks, and chat.

Ladies, Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Ladies, Korca, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our walking tour takes us through many neighborhoods. I note a small plaque dedicated by the Albanian American veterans of America in a park-like setting in the middle of a boulevard that is being reconstructed. We come upon a group of older women who are knitting and with Junid as translator, chat a bit.

Finally, we come to a street lined with beer gardens. We are headed for the beer garden right beside the Korca brewery (less than 70 cents for a mug of really terrific Pilsner-style beer).

Korca is Albania’s oldest brewery in Albania (since 1928), as well as the biggest (Tirana is the other major beer), supplying taverns and restaurants throughout the country (but not beyond). It is a traditional Pilsner-style wheat beer, full-flavored and quite good.

Korca Brewery © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Korca Brewery © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A little research uncovers that Korca has the best conditions for making beer: cereals are widely cultivated and the water is low in calcium. Under the Hoxha Communist regime, the brewery became the property of the state. The brewery was purchased in 2004 by a local investor, Irfan Hysenbelliu, who built new buildings in the traditional style and launched a new system of beer processing set-up by Czech engineers.

The beer garden is especially fun, just below a massive copper cover to what I imagine is the still.

Nighttime in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just as Yunid promised, in the evening, the streets and promenades and cafes are crammed with people, taking part in the custom of xhiro. The feeling that emanates from the streets is absolutely marvelous.

There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour). 

BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com. 

Next: Biking Albania to Gjirokaster, UNESCO World Heritage Center 

See also:

Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country – Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour 

Biking Albania: Exploring Heritage Sites of Lake Ohrid, St Naum, Ancient City of Ohrid

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com 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

 

 

Biking Albania: Exploring Heritage Sites of Lake Ohrid, St Naum, Ancient City of Ohrid

Albania
Our first glimpse of Lake Ohrid and Albania’s beautiful farms © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip.  (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour)

Johnson has been working with USAID and the Albanian government to help cultivate sustainable tourism – bike tours are the best form with the least adverse impact for return – to not only boost the economy but to bring Albania out of darkness into the world community. Americans, particularly, have either no impression at all about Albania or have woefully wrong impressions and stereotypes (myself included – that’s why my visit here was so surprising, not for how exotic Albania proved to be compared to other “hot” off-the-beaten-track destinations like Myanmar and Cuba, but to see a young country emerging). What is more, tourism helps generate the funding to sustain important historical and heritage sites as well as infrastructure improvements that might otherwise be lost to time and future generations because of neglect (this is what “ecotourism” is about: sustaining heritage and environments).

Our BikeTours group in the historic city of Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our BikeTours group in the historic city of Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We could appreciate this aspect as we travel newly built and paved roads (as well as bike on the old battered or abandoned roads that make us really appreciate the quality hybrid bikes with hydraulic brakes and suspension), the hotels and inns and coffee stops along our way, and of especially, touring such extraordinary ancient sites as Butrint and environmental treasures like Lake Ohrid.

This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – essentially a broker that selects the best local cycling tour companies that give us the most “authentic” experience but also the best value and service. I had previously done a self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip with my adult sons, and a bike/boat trip of the Greek Islands and had every confidence that BikeTours.com would select the best operator.

Bike touring in Albania is a very new idea and unusual – indeed, our appearance with our helmets and state-of-the-art hybrid bikes (as well as the e-bike that I used) – draws attention since it is so unusual. After all, about 70% of the country is mountainous and our route takes us up and over mountain passes (the regular tour has as much as a mile-high climb in elevation in a day; our trip maxes out at about two-thirds of a mile elevation, but that’s why I opt to try an e-bike for the first time, and I have no problem at all with the climbs). The local operator that BikeTours.com has enlisted purchased a fleet of Taiwan-based Giant bikes manufactured in the Netherlands.

But bike touring affords the opportunity to really explore, really discover a place. We travel through small rural villages, national parks, cities and along the coast to beach communities (a post-Communist creation). We travel at a pace and with the ability to stop and really look around (take pictures or even chat with a shepherd or a group of ladies sitting on a bench with their knitting) without the artificiality of staring through a bus window.

We get to see things that would otherwise sweep past our notice: a man sitting on a donkey cart loaded up with hay, chatting on his cell phone; a woman in the field leaning on a hoe also talking on a cell phone. The meticulously maintained farms remind me of Amish country, especially with the use of donkeys and mules and manual tools and a minimum of automated equipment. What is more, you feel part of what is around you – in the moment – more of a participant than a spectator.

Each evening we are given an orientation about the next day’s ride, a map with the route outlined, showing the coffee stops, lunch place and endpoint, a diagram of the elevations– in essence, an graphic illustration of the ups and downs of the ride, as well as notes about the places we will be traveling. We are also accompanied by a van driver who keeps an eye on us even while trying to stay innocuous. And had the climb proved too difficult on any day, we could have just hopped into the van (that doesn’t happen, though).

Our itinerary is modified from the regular Albania cycling trip because this is the President’s Tour, and Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com, has requested certain special features. This trip includes a circumnavigation of Lake Ohrid, a UNESCO-protected lake that is shared between Albania and Macedonia, which enables us to visit the ancient town of Ohrid in Macedonia, plus two days of kayaking and a stay at Albania’s #1 rated beach, added on to the end, for a total of 13 days versus 9 days.

Each day is characterized by a highlight, and in my mind, a different color: blue of Lake Ohrid, green/brown patchwork of the farms; grey of the ancient city of Butrint, aquamarine of the Ionian Sea.

Day 1: Arrival in Tirana

Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive at the international airport in Tirana, named for Mother Teresa, perhaps Albania’s most famous heroine, where we are met by Bato, who will be our van driver during the trip. I am immediately surprised as we drive into the capital city to see palm trees (this area is subtropical), mountains, and a bustling, if small scale, city. Our hotel in the center of town is only a short walk from the National Museum, but I do not know that and make a terrible mistake by not rushing out in the waning hours of the afternoon to visit the museum – it would have provided an excellent foundation for appreciating Albania’s history and cultural heritage.

Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our group of five meets up for an orientation with our guide, Junid Jegeni, at the hotel before walking over to a restaurant for dinner. After dinner, I walk about the city, amazed at how busy it is – it turns out that it is the custom of Albanians to come out in the evening – how pleasant and how comfortable I feel wandering around.

Day 2: Cycling to Lake Ohrid

After dinner and overnight in Tirana, we depart for a two-hour ride in the van to the northeast side of Lake Ohrid on the Albanian side. Our coffee stop is at a lovely hotel along a stream, where we chance to see a bride who we guess is there to take her wedding photos.

Our first day’s ride is designed to be an  easy warm-up, beginning with a long downhill and mostly flat ride for 41 km, with a total elevation gain of 140 meters, but an elevation loss of 360 meters, taking us around one side of Lake Ohrid.

Beachgoers at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Beachgoers at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the top of Qafe Thana Pass, Bato unloads the bikes (it takes me two minutes to learn how to operate the e-bike and three minutes to get comfortable riding it), and begin our 27.5 km ride, cycling counter-clockwise from the northwest side of the lake to the southwest side, to the city of Pogradec. We see gorgeous farms that hug the shore. It is very beautiful riding on the road alongside the lake. We have to avoid two donkeys that wander blissfully across the street as we reach a picturesque town of Tushemisht, a popular lakeside holiday village filled with bright-colored umbrellas and scantily clad beachgoers.

Lake Ohrid is one of Europe’s deepest (at 1000 ft.) and one of the largest biological reserves in Europe. One of the oldest lakes in the world (1 million years), it has primeval life forms which no longer exist anywhere else or only exist as fossils. It is an aquatic ecosystem of such global importance, that Lake Ohrid is protected by UNESCO (on the Macedonian side, so far). It has more than 200 endemic species (like Belushka, which we get to savor for dinner).

The lake lies in a basin surrounded on all sides by mountains with peaks of over 2,000 meters: to the east, Mount Petrino and Mount Galacica; to the south, hills and lower mountains of Albania. Two-thirds of the lake surface belongs to the country of Macedonia and one-third to Albania.

Church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the afternoon after a delightful lunch on the lakefront patio of our hotel, The Millennium, we cycle 4 km, taking us across the border into Macedonia (passports please!) to visit the 1000-year old monastery of St. Naum, where there is a small church that holds magnificent 500 year old frescoes.

Magnificent frescoes inside St. Naum church date back 500 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Magnificent frescoes inside St. Naum church date back 500 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are here at an auspicious time: it is the day before the annual festival to St. Naum, who is said to have built the monastery with his own hands, between 900-905, and is buried in the church.

Parading a goat around the church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Parading a goat around the church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

People have come from all over. We witness an interesting custom: people take turns parading a lamb around the church as they are followed by two men banging on a drum. The next day, the lambs (there are 2) will be sacrificed for a feast.

Another unusual feature of this place are peacocks that are everywhere.

There’s a hotel right next to the church; a market as you walk up the cobblestone path to the church. There is actually a beautiful beach place at the foot of the walk up to the monastery at the top of a hill overlooking the lake. People line the lakeshore for swimming, boating, lounging, which strikes me as an odd contrast to the monastery.

We get back to our hotel with time to enjoy a swim in Lake Ohrid before a lakeside dinner that includes one of Lake Ohrid’s unique fish, Belushka, while enjoying an exquisite sunset. After dinner, we gather in the hotel lobby to watch the Euro Soccer championships on TV.

Day 3: Cycling to Ohrid, UNESCO World Heritage Site

For our second day cycling, we complete the circumnavigation of Lake Ohrid, but start off with a transfer by the van back up to The Qafe Thana Pass where we had started cycling yesterday. But this day, we ride clockwise. It’s also completely designed by Johnson, who is very anxious for us to visit Ohrid, a historic city on the Macedonia side of Lake Ohrid, and not part of the regular Albania cycling tour.

Today’s ride is one of the longest, at 65 km, but mostly downhill or flat, with the three progressively higher climbs at the end of the day, for an elevation gain of 545 meter and elevation loss of 784 meters.

Taking a photo at Viagra Beach is irresistable © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Taking a photo at Viagra Beach is irresistable © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We start with a mild ascent to the Albanian-Macedonian border (passports please!), then a long, steep downhill ride to the road that follows the lake (passing Viagra Beach – a coincidence, but our guide, Junid remarks that Ferid Murad, an Albanian-American, won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1998 for discoveries that led to the development of Viagra to treat impotence (he was looking for a way of opening blood vessels to remedy cardiovascular conditions). It’s irresistible not to stop to take pictures in front of the Viagra Beach sign.

We ride the beautiful (and flat) road – which has been largely replaced by a new road so it has very few cars – into the historic town of Ohrid. Johnson leads us on a fast-paced walking tour of the city (starting with his favorite baklava shop where we sample the pastry), walking up old, typical narrow cobblestone streets.

St. Sophia, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
St. Sophia, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, with a history extending back 2000 years. The city was built mainly between the 7th and 19th centuries and still preserves the most complete collection of ancient urban architecture of the Slavic lands (St Pantelejmon is believed to be the oldest Slav monastery). You can find more than 800 Byzantine-style icons dating from the 11th to the end of the 14th century, “which, after those of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, is considered to be the most important collection of icons in the world,” according to UNESCO World Heritage notes.

At one point, Johnson tells us, Ohrid had 365 churches, one for each day of the year.

One of the most impressive medieval buildings in Ohrid and a rare work of architecture of the Byzantine era, St. Sophia is a large three-nave cathedral with a dome at the center, built on the foundation of an ancient cult during the period of King Samuil. St. Sophia boasts the largest collection of 11th C frescoes in world, Johnson tells us (no time to visit inside though). With wonderful acoustics and a gorgeous garden, St. Sophia is the main stage festivals including the annual Ohrid Summer Festival.

Church of St. John, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Church of St. John, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other important monuments include Samuel’s Fortress and a classical theater built 2000 years ago (in the late Hellenic period or shortly after the Roman occupation).

We also pass an intriguing National Workshop For Handmade Paper, where you can see a demonstration of paper making by hand, and a Gutenberg printing press (no time to stop, though).

After a delightful lunch al fresco on the lake, we get back on the bikes.

Kids playing on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kids playing on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The end of the ride is the toughest, with a steep uphill climb, made unusually difficult because of the volume of traffic of people who have come for the festival of St. Naum. Normally there is hardly any traffic on the road, Junid tells us.

We pass an intriguing “bone museum” – a reproduction of an indigenous village which appears to float on the lake.

Completing the circumnavigation brings us back to the Hotel Millennium, the only hotel where we will stay two nights during the biking portion of our trip.

Sunset on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sunset on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dinner is at the Millennium hotel’s lake-front restaurant with gorgeous views of the setting sun. The scene reminds me of Lake Tahoe.

There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour). 

BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com. 

Next: Riding through Albania’s ‘Breadbasket’ into Korca, the “Paris of Albania” 

See also:

Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country – Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com 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

Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country – Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour

The view from the castle of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO-protected living history city in Albania, overlooks a lush valley © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The view from the castle of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO-protected living history city in Albania, overlooks a lush valley © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, Goingplacesfarandnear.com

You wouldn’t necessarily come to Albania to see monuments and fabulous architecture, for museums that hold the treasures of civilization or the artifacts that trace your heritage (though one of the surprises are the important cultural and historic sites including a Greco-Roman city reclaimed from the forest overgrowth).

You wouldn’t necessarily come for fabulous beaches, though Albania possesses hundreds of miles of coastline along the Ionian and Adriatic Sea, and its own “Albanian Riviera” that reminds you of the French Riviera without the pretension.

You wouldn’t necessarily come for stunning and dramatic landscapes –though scenes abound of picturesque farmland that reminds you of Amish Country, dramatic mountains that reach into white clouds, sheer cliffs that drop to the sea, sunsets that take your breath away, villages carved into hillsides that look out to expansive galleys, giving a different hue to each of our days.

Beachgoers at Dhermi, on Albania’s French Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Beachgoers at Dhermi, on Albania’s French Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The scenery, the landscapes are strikingly beautiful to be sure – mountains that rise dramatically to white cumulus clouds, a coastline that follows the exquisitely aquamarine Ionian and Adriatic seas, valleys lush with immaculate farms with geometric patterns of color and texture. But most interesting of all are the contrasts without contradiction – farmers burnished by the sun to a leathery brown, working fields with hoes and spades or riding mule-drawn hay-carts up winding hillside roads while chatting on cell phones. In a country where a cinema or shopping mall or even retail stores are rarities, cell phones and cars (and car washes and petrol stations) are ubiquitous.

Certainly there are the beautiful landscapes, the picturesque countryside and stunning coastlines, ample historic and cultural attractions, and traditional tourist delights of beaches and sensational food.

Children playing at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Children playing at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But the best reason to come to Albania is for The Now, to see a young country shaking off a tortured past – “an unlucky history/country,” is the odd phrase our guide, Junid, uses.

Come to experience a place, a people and a culture that is shrouded in mystery after decades of being imprisoned behind an Iron Curtain, closed off to the world,  under the thumb of a paranoid dictator, a place, a people and a culture that is either completely unknown or branded with misconceptions and false images.

To see that process unfolding is absolutely thrilling. Albania is not what it was 10 years ago, and is not what it will be in the next 10 years.

Surprises Abound

I was only in Albania a few minutes before I hear a story that proves foundational to my understanding: Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, was also the only European country to end World War II with more Jews than it had at the start of the war, because Albanians harbored Jews  from the Nazis at great risk to their own lives and that of their children.

“Every one of the 200 Jews living in Albania before the war was hidden and taken care of by their mostly Muslim countrymen and countrywomen,” Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com who has designed this special “President’s Tour of Albania” that I am on, tells me, as we are taken from the airport to our hotel in the capital city of Tirana. “In fact, nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler were welcomed not as refugees but as guests and were ‘hidden in plain sight’ –  made part of Albanian families and daily life. This endured even during the German occupation amid extreme threats by the Nazis.”

“The Jews were sheltered with their own children – which meant that if they were caught with Jews in their house, their own children would be killed,” our guide, Junid later relates when our group of five cyclists gathers for our first dinner together. “A lot stayed in the north – with Catholics. A lot went to Israel after the war. I’ve had groups where people went to back to the town where a family had sheltered their relatives.”

Why the Albanians would do this stems from an ancient code of honor, besa, that emphasizes “compassion and religious tolerance, that links personal honor to respect for and equality with others,” Junid explains.  According to The Code, guests must be protected, even if it means losing one’s own life. “Talk to an Albanian today, and you’ll find they still consider their compassionate role during the Holocaust to be part of their national honor.”

Biking through Albania presents dramatic scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking through Albania presents dramatic scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

That begins a series of wondrous surprises about a country that up until now has been largely completely unknown to Americans, who either have no impression or wrong impressions of Albania.

The first surprise is that Albania is a mere 75 minutes flight past Vienna in central Europe, where I switch planes from JFK. Geographically, Albania is part of the Balkans, bordered by Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy’s boot.

The second is discovering this country which for so long had been kept in isolation, shrouded in mystery. American travelers have come under the spell of Cuba and Myanmar – two other nations which have emerged from enforced isolation – but Albania deserves our attention to revel in how this young country is emerging.

The third surprise is that though Albania is majority Muslim (the only European country with a majority Muslim population), it is secular and tolerant of other prominent religions (Orthodox, Catholic), with a large strain of atheists stemming from when its Communist dictator, Envar Hoxha, (dictator from 1945-1985), banned religion altogether, burned down churches and mosques, murdered and imprisoned hundreds of clerics, and made Albania the first officially atheist country in the world. Even after the churches and mosques were reopened in the early 1990s, many remain atheists or keep their religion private. Indeed, I saw more women in headscarves in four days at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, than in two weeks traveling through Albania.

The rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The fourth surprise is that Albania (the correct name is Shqiperia, or more officially, Republika e Shqipërisë) is not an extension of Greece, Turkey or anywhere else. The Albanian language, Shqip, is Indo-European in origin and bears little resemblance to any other language today. And even though the alphabet is based on Latin (with a few additions), the sounds the letters make are very different, so you can’t pronounce, let alone read the signs. (See www.omniglot.com/writing/albanian.htm).

Each day, though, Junid, attempts to teach us an Albanian word. I wind up with “gezur” (which approximates to ”cheers” when you drink).

But with only 3.5 million Albanians left in the country after millions fled when the borders were finally opened with the fall of Communism and with the way Albania was divided up shortly after independence in 1912, there are more Albanian speakers outside the country than inside (90% of Montenegro, half of Macedonia’s Parliament and 5% of Greeks speak Albanian).

Albania uses its own currency, Lek (at this writing, 1 Albanian Lek equaled 0.0082 US Dollar, or less than one penny). The median income, I am told, is $5,000 a year. I found the value of items roughly 1/5 of the cost here – so a glass of wine (actually extremely good) in a restaurant was about $2; a mug of beer (also extremely good), about $1; admission to a historic site for foreigners about $5 (about $1.50 for Albanians). You could have an entire meal in a fine restaurant for less than $8. In other words, a pleasant surprise is how inexpensive it is to travel here.

Ladies walking down the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Ladies walking down the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Biking through the country, I am struck with how pleasant people are, how easy-going, how unstressed. We think of Albania being poor – its reputation is being the poorest country in Europe – but we have more severe and graver poverty in the US. You don’t see the extremes of rich and poor here. You don’t see squalor, hovels, hunger or homelessness (though we do encounter a few panhandlers in the popular tourist towns.)

In one of the most popular holiday cities, Saranda,  when people come out at night (a custom in Albania), strolling the promenades along the Ionian Sea, it looks like Long Beach, Coney Island or Jones Beach – families, couples, gaggles of girls or boys. They stop at vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, toys, or sit in open-air restaurants and cafes. People are surprisingly scantily clad on the beaches and just strolling about – girls in tight, short revealing dresses, bare midriffs; couples showing affection, fellows wearing t-shirts that make statements of one sort or another; young people with tattoos. Most surprising to me is seeing fathers holding their infants and toddlers, and mothers who clearly have an equal status in their family, and how parents dote (even spoil) their kids.

Strolling the promenade in Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Strolling the promenade in Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I am struck by how relaxed people are. Perhaps this is because of the comparative stability and freedom  – especially considering that the country underwent economic collapse and a civil war in the mid-1990s and is still considered one of the poorest, least developed in Europe. The situation seems stable even from 10 years ago, Junid confirms (I can relate to this, compared to the stress, hysteria and insecurity after the 2008 financial and housing collapse in the US, compared to the way people feel more secure in their homes and jobs now).

You don’t see ostentatious wealth or abject poverty. In some ways, Albania is described as a “subsistence economy” – people seem to have at least enough to get by, if not live comfortably. The Albanian people are polite, pleasant to one another (and to us), affectionate, fun-loving, like to laugh, seem easy-going, and dare I say, unstressed. It is as if a whole weight was removed when the oppression of Communism was lifted and people could be more free to show their emotions (I had experienced something similar when I first visited China in 1978, during the transition from the Gang of Four to the Four Modernizations, and then returned two years later to find the whole country transformed, as if a blizzard of fresh air had flowed through.)

Cell phones are ubiquitous in Albania, even on a donkey cart© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Cell phones are ubiquitous in Albania, even on a donkey cart© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Possibly the relative contentment I observe is related to the fact that there is very little consumerism – we see only one cinema (in Korca, considered the “Paris” of Albania, the most cosmopolitan city we experienced) and one place that could be construed as a “shopping mall” (also in Korca) – but what has become a ubiquitous item is cell phones. We see a man driving a donkey cart hauling hay talking on his cell phone; a woman in a field  leaning against her hoe talking on her cell phone.

Also cars, petrol stations and car washes which crop up in the oddest places. During the Communism regime, no one was allowed to own a car (except for the Communist rulers who also availed themselves of magnificent waterfront villas). That leads to incongruous sights like a man riding a donkey passing a Kastrati gas station.

Cell phones, cars are the ubiquitous consumer items. And apart from restaurants, tavernas, cafes, beach holidays and bridal gowns, there seems to be little else. Simple pleasures prevail (though in Dhimare, we see jetskis, paragliding from the mountaintop, and Mercedes cars)

Fresh trout from the farm is served at the guesthouse at Sotire © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Fresh trout from the farm is served at the guesthouse at Sotire © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

More surprises: how fantastic the food – literally fresh from farm or sea to table.  With 300 miles of seacoast (the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea where we bike), we are treated to an abundance of fresh fish—sea bass, mussels, shrimp, squid freshly caught from the sea, farmed trout that finds its way to our plate minutes after being netted, and a fish that is uniquely found in Lake Ohrid. The abundant farms – which use organic practices – make farm-to-table meats—especially lamb and pork— as well as fruit and vegetables plentiful. Albanian cooking blends Mediterranean cuisine with Greek, Italian and Turkish influences; seasoning is mostly subtle – garlic and chili peppers – flavorful but not too spicy.

And water! Albania is rich in water which flows from the mountain tops – we fill our bottles from eternally flowing fountains. Some 70% of the country’s electricity is generated from hydroelectric power. Every structure uses solar panels to generate hot water.

Another surprise: while few older people speak English, most of the younger generation takes English in school, and seem very plugged into the rest of the world. And they seem to be very welcoming to Americans – indeed, they named a street in Tirana, the capital, for George W Bush after he became the first sitting American president to visit Albania, and only the day before we arrived in the country, a bust of Hillary Clinton was unveiled in Saranda. People are very welcoming to us, as well, when they learn we are Americans, and many Albanians have relatives in the US.

Everything about Albania is surprising. I knew nothing about this country before I arrived (as I expect is typical of most Americans) – I didn’t even know what city to fly into (Tirana, the capital, where almost 1 million of the 3.5 million Albanians live.)

Albania is so unexpected: how fun-loving and friendly people are, how immaculate the farms and how delicious the fresh produce (organic!) we eat at each meal, how picturesque the mountains (70% of the country), how the fresh water springs just flow, we just fill our water bottles from the rushing fountains; how lush the country is, how easy-going the people are, how scantily clad beachgoers are, how women wear tight, short, revealing dresses and men wear (sometimes) t-shirts with in-your-face slogans,  and tattoos, how loving fathers are, how doting parents are of their children, how women seem to enjoy an equal relationship with their men. It is a majority-Muslim country that is secular, and tolerant; there are enormous Christian crosses dotting the countryside. How fascinating archeological sites like Butrint National Park, a UNESCO-protected city that extends back to Hellenic and Roman times (one of the most fascinating archeological sites I have ever experienced), and the UNESCO-protected Lake Ohrid area.

Other surprises we discover on our ride: Mother Teresa was Albanian (the international airport in Tirana is named for her), as was the scientist who found the drug that became Viagra (he was looking for a remedy for cardiovascular disease).

Sharing the road with a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sharing the road with a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

And the best way to engage, to discover Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these places – these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, without the distorted unreality looking through glass windows. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bleating of sheep; the bells attached to goats; have to sidestep goats or cows or donkeys walking on the road. You can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through the forest. We wave and say a cheery “hello” as we pass, and people wave back. You can stop – even chat- with a shepherd, or take the time to gaze and a scene and capture serendipity in a photo. Such was the experience of stopping to watch a funeral procession, a ritual of walking a goat around St. Naum monastery in advance of the annual feast day to honor the saint, kids frolicking on the Lake, a bride and groom posing for their wedding photos.

Each day is marked by very different landscapes, different tableaux – geographical and social – and distinctive experiences. You never know what you will see beyond the next turn in the road.

Here is another surprise: we are oddities as we ride through. Not because we are foreigners (it isn’t obvious that we are Americans), but because we are on bikes at all.

BikeTours,com

This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – which is not the bike tour operator but a broker that has assembled a catalog of local travel companies. They’ve done the search and checked out and selected top-notch companies to feature.

These are operators that supply the best bikes, itineraries, accommodations, meals, attractions at an excellent value (ie. about $150 a day, depending on choice of accommodations, and destination – or roughly half of what other tour operators charge).

BikeTours.com also provides superb pre-trip materials, coordinates the airport transfer, and if necessary, will steer you to a travel agent to book the air.

The self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip which I did with my two adult sons – charming bed and breakfast inn, accommodations, detailed directions, the guide spent 2 hours with us making sure the bikes fit and going over the route, suggesting places to visit.

The bike/boat trip through the Greek Isles was superb – great bikes fabulous guides, wonderful boat (wood hull, reminded me of a pirate ship), a fantastic itinerary.

Biketours.com’s president Jim Johnson riding his e-bike past a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biketours.com’s president Jim Johnson riding his e-bike past a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This trip to Albania, a specially tailored “President’s Tour” (tacking on a couple of days kayaking in the Ionian Sea and a loop around Lake Ohrid into Macedonia) is a guided trip, and included three meals daily (so much food we had to tell our guide to order less); admissions to attractions, superb bikes (hydraulic brakes, suspension, 30-gears on the hybrids, or, in my case, e-bike that gave me super powers for climbing hills), supported with a van that followed behind us, and charming, comfortable accommodations (WiFi!) – like a guesthouse on a farm and a luxury boutique city hotel.

There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges ,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).

BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com.

(More to come: Day by Day Biking in Albania)

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com 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

 

Taiwan’s Bikeways are Paths to Discovering Culture, Ancient and Modern

Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan's most spectacular bikeways, where parts bring you on bridges just above the water © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan’s most spectacular bikeways, where parts bring you on bridges just above the water © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

Before I arrived in Taiwan with an intention of biking, I hadn’t realized what a mountainous island this is – not just hilly, but craggy mountains that rise steeply. There are thousands of mountains  – 100 peaks are over 3000 meters high. Only 30% of the land area is habitable, the rest are mountains and forests. In fact, Taiwan now hosts an international cycling race that may well be among the most challenging in the world.

Nonetheless, Taiwan is very pro-cycling and has developed a fantastic network for biking – more than 3,000 kilometers of dedicated bike paths all around the island – so that even if you don’t do a point-to-point, inn-to-inn cycling itinerary, you can do a kind of hub-and-spoke or town-to-town, renting a bike in the best spots, and enjoying these marvelous bikeways.

What we experienced during our all-too-brief six day visit inspired me to return to travel more intensely. I discovered what a fantastic destination Taiwan is to really explore – it is such a distinct culture, with such rich heritage, beautiful landscapes, and extraordinarily friendly, good-natured people – and despite the fact that you are likely not able to understand the language or be able to read it, you feel incredibly comfortable and at ease.

I have been longing for a destination to explore as I did as a college student, backpacking through Europe, just discovering things serendipitously.

You can get around Taiwan so easily – by rapid transit train, by bus, rent a car (you need an international drivers’ license; excellent highways with signs in Chinese and English), hiring a car and driver, or signing on to an organized bike trip where you really do go point-to-point.

Another surprise is how remarkably affordable Taiwan is (again, reminding me of the good ol’ days) – prices by my rough estimate are as much as half what you would expect to spend traveling in the US or Europe for everything from bike rental (as little as $2/hour to $7/hour) to food (our average meal at a local restaurant was $10), to hotel arrangements to train travel (an hour’s trip on a high-speed rail was $55).

Taiwan is also surprisingly compact – you can ring the entire country on a nine-day guided biking trip (as long as you don’t stop to sightsee) and yet has such a variety of eco-systems and cultural niches. It is still possible to see an aboriginal village, and meet Taiwanese whose families go back hundreds of years to the Han Chinese including Hakka immigrants from areas Fujian and Guangdong on Mainland China.

Taiwan (named Formosa by Portuguese, “Beautiful Island,” who never actually settled here) was colonized by the Dutch beginning in 1623 (just like New Amsterdam/New York City!) The Dutch did not last long, though, driven out first by loyalist of the Ming dynasty and then by the Qing Dynasty. It was in the hands of the Japanese from 1895-1945.

These influences are still very strong, but the Taiwan we know today reflects the influx of the mainland Chinese in 1949, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who fled the Communist takeover and brought with him as much of China’s heritage as he could organize (apparently, the treasures of the Forbidden City had already been boxed up during the 1930s because of the Sino-Japanese War, so it was relatively easy to get them out).

Like the Taoist temples where Guardians protect the Gods and Goddesses, Taiwan has been the guardian of China’s millennia-old heritage, and even though Taiwan is quite modern, the traditions are very much the foundation.

Martyr's Shrine, Taipei © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Martyr’s Shrine, Taipei © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

During our first day in Taiwan, in Taipei City, after renting a bike and exploring a popular bikeway in a park along the river, we get an excellent foundation in understanding Chinese and Taiwanese heritage at the National Museum, which houses 650,000 artifacts, most of them the items taken from the Forbidden City in Beijing after the Communist takeover of China. We visit Chiang Kai-shek’s Memorial and the Martyrs Shrine (where a popular thing is to see the changing of the guard, which happens every half-hour) – which provides a foundation for what we will see when we leave Taipei City for other parts.

We could have – should have – done our sightseeing around Taipei with the U-bike, that wonderful urban bike-share program. However, unlike some other cities like New York City and Washington DC which have similar programs, there did not seem to be actual bike lanes – at least bike lanes that weren’t jam crammed with pedestrians or merged in with the hoards of mopeds (there are 10 million mopeds in Taiwan for 23 million people). Hardly anyone was biking in the city that we could see. (The city affords excellent mass transit, by the metro or bus or cab; you can purchase multi-day travel passes for U-bike and the metro and bus).

Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway

Biking through the Old Caoling Tunnel is an experience  © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking through the Old Caoling Tunnel is an experience © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our first real biking comes when we head to Fulong, on the Northeast Coast, a popular beach and recreation area. Here, you appreciate the dramatic landscape – the ocean on one side which falls off sharply to a deep depth, and mountains that rise straight up on the other side of the road. Tall rocks project out of the water.

The dramatic coastline reflects one of Taiwan’s geological quirks: Taiwan is rising up 0.8 cm every year because of the collision of two tectonic plates.

We come for two magnificent bikeways: the Yanliao-Longmen Bikeway and the Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway, together among the five most popular bike routes in eastern Taiwan.

The train tunnel was finished in 1924 during Japanese occupation, to accommodate the Yilan Line. At 2.16 km, it was the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia at the time. It was difficult to build – 11 people died and 366 injured during construction. When a new tunnel opened in 1985 for a new train, the “train cave” was abandoned for 22 years. Then in 2007, the government rebuilt the tunnel as part of the bikeway.

The tunnel is well paved, well lighted and as you go through, you hear the strains of a Yilan folk song about a train, which was popular at time the tunnel was opened. The song was banned during the Japanese occupation which banned Chinese traditions. In 1943, a popular Taiwanese singer revived it, reminding the people of their heritage (it strikes me that it is like what the song Edelweiss meant to the Austrians during the Nazi occupation).

The scenery is beautiful – there is a fishing village at the end of the Old Caoling Tunnel route, at which point you get onto the bikeway that goes alongside Highway #2, and can connect with the Yanliao-Longmen bikeway, which affords the special attraction of riding over a suspension bridge over a river, to complete the circle.

The high point of the Yaniliao-Longmen bikeway is going over a suspension bridge.

(This area is accessible by train from Taipei, and there are bike rental shops right at the start of the trail.)

Biking on the Dong Shan River Bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking on the Dong Shan River Bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We drive about an hour or so away to another area to experience the biking – Dong Shan River Water Park – and here, we catch a break. Just as we get our bike rentals, the sky clears up and we are blessed with a bit of golden light, a touch of blue sky that adds color to the landscape, and that delicious smell that comes from the bushes after a rain.

This is a bikeway that goes along the Dong Shan River, the fifth longest stream in Yilan province. The bikeway starts in a recreation area that boasts a delightful waterpark, and continues on a berm that has the river on one side, and farms and rice paddies on the other, and then passes by a marvelous heritage park. This entire area caters to tourists with a multitude of attractions, so you can easily spend a couple of days here.

The bikeway we take is only a tiny portion of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, which offers several bikeways: the Ruisui Bicycle Path (9.7 km); Depo Pond Bikeway (8 km); Yuli Bikeway (9.5 km); Liyutan Bikeway (this features the Tanbei Water Park and Taiwan fisheries Research Institute, 5.2 km); the Guanshan Town Encircling Bicycle Path (13 km); and the Longtian Bike Path (this features the Benun Tribal Leisure Farm, 5.2 km) – all of these hare connections to railway stations and rental shops.

Alas, we had all too brief time in this area.

We complete our visitor experience at the Yilan Evergreen Phoenix Hotel (www.evergreen-hotels.com/jiaosi) – a gorgeous spa hotel which has its own rooftop hot springs pools and outdoor swimming pool that is fabulous for laps, beautifully landscaped and absolutely heavenly at night (it is open until 11 pm).

King of the Mountain

Biking along Chihsingtan Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking along Chihsingtan Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our next day, we experience a pleasant bikeway along the Chihsingtan Beach in Hualien, that follows a half-moon shaped gulf and draws thousands of tourists (it also butts up against an Air Force base and there are military installations that are presented as a “hidden military treasure”). I follow the bikeway further, to a high pavilion with a view of the beach, and then continue on to where the bikeway comes out into the city but is not worth the effort.

Our purpose here, though, is to see the starting place for one of Taiwan’s most important international bike races, the KOM (King of the Mountain), which is held in November. This is the starting point, at zero-elevation, and the race, probably one of the most arduous in all cycling, proceeds for 100 km, virtually straight up, through the breathtakingly beautiful Taroko Gorge, through the valley to the 3275 meter high peak of Mt. Wuling where the race ends. During our trip, we will trace the route.

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Taroko Gorge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We originally thought we would get to sample biking at the Taroko Gorge – but that is before we actually saw it and what the road would be like. The scenery is beyond spectacular, and so is the road.

In order to bike here, you would have to do it very early in the morning (like 6 am), and if doing a point-to-point trip, you would do it from the north-to-south, which would be downhill (which is how the bike tours do it).

There are several hostels and lodges in the park which cater to hikers, climbers and bikers. We stay at Silks Place Hotel, a luxury resort hotel that is utterly fantastic, and is in close proximity to a fascinating Buddhist temple and fabulous hiking trails. They offer some rental bikes, as well as guided hikes (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw).

See: Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

Silks Place Hotel, which is at the other end of the Taroko Gorge from Chichsingtan Beach where we start, is only about one-third the distance of the KOM, and only at about one-fifth the elevation, at 600 meters, in the in the climb up to the peak, where the race would end, in Oiling, at 3,275 meters high.

Now comes the more challenging part. Even driving on these roads is treacherous – and also nauseating (Advice: take ginger candy to suck on, Tums, or Bonine or motion sickness medicine before you head out). We actually see bikers along the road, and I think about the advantage that the local riders must have in the race.

We go through a multitude of tunnels – the engineering is fascinating, along with the plethora of suspension bridges that criss-cross the Gorge. The mist is rising – so the  view is constantly changing -the scene opens and closes.

The biking through the Taroko Gorge (all part of the KOM race) is tough enough, but this part, in the valley, is much more extreme – rising steeply, narrow turns, single lane and no shoulder.

The view along Route 8, Taiwan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The view along Route 8, Taiwan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

At about 2000 meters elevation, needing a break and some fresh air, we stop at Pilou Sacred Tree (also known as Bilu Divine Tree) rest stop, where the fellow (who now lives in California but comes back for summer to work in his family’s cafe) gives us a hot, black, syrupy drink, Lon Gan Ginger sweetened with brown sugar,  that is supposed to help settle the stomach. When that doesn’t work, he offers us a straw mushroom with salt. (I take Tums).

It is a most pleasant spot – and what a view, even with the fog filling the valley. It’s the view and the crisp, cool air – such a contrast to the hot humid weather down below – that makes us feel better.

The delightful cafe sells peach honey which they make; and the menu features such items as pig’s knuckles with peanuts and a Lily flower and mushroom soup (50 NT, about $1.75)

The sacred tree that the rest stop is named for stands just beside the road – 3200 years old and still living.

Our guide tells us that this road has some of the shortest, steepest climbs probably anywhere, and reminds us just how mountainous Taiwan is (and now we can appreciate it) – with thousands of mountains and 100 mountain peaks above 3000 meters. They are known as the “Top 100” and a goal for Taiwanese is to do the Top 100 in their lifetime.

The KOM race is now striking me as an absolute phenomenon, one that should stir the same kind of awe and attention as the Tour de France and the Hawaii Ironman Competition. Though a traditional event locally, it has only recently become an international event with professional riders.

The road is unrelenting in how it rises in elevation, and the twists and turns come even more sharply. Out of the 400 racers invited to KOM in its first three years, only about 100 finish – incredibly in three hours.

The last mile is the hardest for the riders  – rising at a 17% grade. Now we are above the tree line. There are a couple of hostels in the area that serve mountain climbers and hikers and a research station. At He Wan Mountain, there is a hiking trail that takes about 40 minutes to “conquer” the summit.

The temperature has dropped significantly, as well – Taiwan is sub-tropical, but now we put on light jackets. It is also terribly foggy. In winter, there can be snow here.

We pass the 3158 Cafe (3158 meters elevation), but we are still not at the summit.

Bikers pose at the 3275-meter high peak of Mt. Wuling, the finish of the arduous KOM Race © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bikers pose at the 3275-meter high peak of Mt. Wuling, the finish of the arduous KOM Race © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It is absolute fog when we get to the peak – you can’t see far, but everyone, including a couple of bikers, is delighting in taking pictures at the sign that gives the 3275 meter high mark – a man offers to take my picture for me.

It has taken us 3 hours to drive here (with stops), from 8:30 to 11;30 am, and we started out one-third of the way from the start of the KOM – it takes the winning cyclist 3 hours to complete the race.

The race is so challenging – the road so narrow – that the road is closed and spectators are not allowed along the route. However, if you are staying in the Silks Place Hotel or Leader Village Hotel the night before the race, you can get to see the race on the road (though you are also confined to where you are for the duration). Another way to watch the race is to go from Cingjing, Nantou to Wuling and see the cyclists rush through the finish line.

Sun Moon Lake

It takes another three hours for us to drive to the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area, in the heart of Taiwan. We get a glimpse of this absolutely stunning lake, but just as we arrive at the Giant Bike Rental Shop, the sky literally opens up, sending down a deluge.

It’s late afternoon and we go to our hotel, Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel (www.yooushan-hotel.com.tw) – which is not in the Sun Moon Lake tourist area (it is the weekend and filled with people) – but in Puli, which is proud of being “the heart of Taiwan” in the center of the island. The Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel is a four-star hotel that is popular with local people – it has a marvelous outdoor pool, a fitness room, a rooftop revolving restaurant, and that evening, have dinner at Ya Zung Haka restaurant to experience Haka-style cuisine.

The stunning view of Sun Moon Lake from the bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The stunning view of Sun Moon Lake from the bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We return to Sun Moon Lake the next day, just after the Giant rental shop opens at 6 am, and enjoy a magnificent ride along one of the prettiest bikeways anywhere. At points, the bikeway doesn’t just ring the lake, but actually goes along bridges just above the lake’s surface – a magical experience. We only have time to do the 7 km-long bikeway, but it is also possible to ride around the lake on the road, a total of 33 km.

There is a lot for people to enjoy: just near the lake is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, an amusement park that has been opened since 1986, which has the tallest freefall ride in Taiwan.

Also, the Sun Moon Lake Assam Tea Farm, where visitors can learn how to pick up tealeaves and have tea-tastings.

The area is also popular for bird watching and hiking up to the peaks that seem to rise from the lake shore.

Cycling Taiwan

We’re here on a survey mission organized by the Taiwan Government Tourist Office, which has focused on promoting cycling for locals as well as visitors. And these are just a sampling of the fabulous bikeways – all of them in areas rich in cultural and natural attractions that warrant exploration – so that I am anxious to return and really spend time exploring. The bikeways are extremely well marked (in English as well as Chinese), with rest facilities and services (there is always a Western style toilet, even if it is the “disabled” toilet).

The bikeways are delightful for any level of rider and any age and we see scores of families with kids in carriers and bikeseats; road riding would be a different story.

The best bike rentals were to be had at the Giant bike store outlets – this is the major bicycle manufacturer that also has a network of bike rental shops (what better way to promote the product – I know I wanted to buy one) and have outlets in the best biking areas.

Giant also operates a whole catalog of multi-day, point-to-point guided biking tours of Taiwan – perfect for more intense cycling. The Giant tour planners know where it is safer and where it is dangerous to ride; the groups go out with two mini-vans – one in back and one in front. They put you into groups, not necessarily English speaking, and trips average $169 per person/per day More information on Giant Travel’s website: www.giantcyclingworld.com/web/travel_en.php

We also found a wonderful itinerary marketed by biketoursdirect.com, which is operated by SpiceRoads, and really covers Taiwan’s highlights, including spending two nights in Taroko Gorge, so you have a full day to hike and explore  (www.biketours.com/Taiwan/taiwan-traverse-by-road-bike#sthash.rE3jN2HZ.dpuf)

Bike tours are also offered by:

Grasshopper Adventures, www.grasshopperadventures.com, 818-921-7101, Email: journeys@grasshopperadventures.com (http://grasshopperadventures.com/tour-TSCB09.php

Bicycle Adventures, bicycleadventures.com, 800-443-6060 (bicycleadventures.com/destinations/taiwan-bike-tours/Taiwan-Bike-Tour—NEW!)

Green Island Adventures, www.greenislandadventures.com/cycletours.htm

A superb guide, “Cycling Taiwan: Great Rides in the Bicycle Kingdom”, details the routes, and access information – 26 bikeways in 12 national scenic areas including 25 family-friendly routes – several that we experienced, and many more that will have to be put off for another visit – like the Wushantou Hatta and Baihe bikeways in the Siraya National Scienc Area; the Aogu Wetlands and Beimen bikeways on the southwest Coast; the Anpo Tourist Cycle Path in Maolin and the Shimer-Changbin Bikeway, Sanxiantai Bike Route which are highlighted by indigenous culture.

You can find superb itineraries at “MyTaiwanTour”, www.mytaiwantour.com.

Expect to pay a per diem of $166 (about half of what bike trips in Europe cost).

Our visit has been too brief, but has piqued my interest to return and really explore. I found Taiwan to be a destination which you can really do that – the logistics and excellent transportation systems, the variety of landscapes, the depth of its cultural attractions, the superb accommodations and food, and the excellent value for money (a bargain destination, I would venture to say), and most importantly, how comfortable you feel everywhere you go. It may seem cliche, but the people really are friendly, hospitable and so anxious to help even if they do not speak English.

Prepare for the trip in advance:Tourism offices in the US include: Taiwan Visitors Association, 1 East 42nd St., New York, NY 10017, Tel. 212-867-1632/4, Email tbrocnyc@gmail.com

See also:

Travel to Taiwan: vibrant, modern society built on bedrock of tradition and slideshow

Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

2 Days in Taipei: Hitting the highlights and the highpoints in Taiwan’s Capital and slideshow

Dining on Xiaolongbao at DinTaiFung at Taipei 101 is savory experience  and slideshow

Two Days in Taipei: Day 2: Confucius Temple to Fine Art Museum to Night Market and slideshow

Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow

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