Category Archives: Cultural travel

Lipizaner Horses, UNESCO Natural Monument, Medieval City of Piran Complete the Gems of 8-day ‘Emerald’ Biketour of Slovenia

Cyclists arrive in the colorful medieval city of Piran on the Slovenia coast © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I signed up for Biketours.com’s guided eight-day “The Emerald Tour of Slovenia’s Gems” bike tour, I was expecting sprawling landscapes and quaint villages. What I wasn’t expecting was to be surprised each day by some unique attraction. The final days of the trip bring us to the stud farm in Lipica where the famous Lipizaner horses, so identified with Vienna, were first bred, to Skocjan Caves, so special as to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the enchanting medieval city of Piran.

Day 5: Štanjel – Lipica – Divaca (30 miles/48 km)

Our fourth day of riding brings us first to the lovely village and botanical garden in Sežana, which is at the stop of a high hill (all castles are), in a very quaint village.

Exploring the medieval village of Sezana © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We stop in a nearby village to buy food for lunch and picnic in a rather scenic spot under a tree just next to a cemetery.

Biking past vineyards © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then it’s on to the stud farm of Lipica, where we visit these beautiful thoroughbred Lipizaner horses whose glistening white coats and gentle, graceful dancing have earned them a worldwide reputation. The history of the Lipica horses is closely linked to the Vienna riding school, because this part of the country used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They continue to breed and train the famed horses here.

Some Lipizaners are trained to be carriage horses © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Founded some 430 years ago, this is claimed to be the oldest stud farm in the world. The Archduke of Austria bought it in 1580 –  the Turkish Empire had invaded and Austrians needed horses for the military. They bred the local karst horse – well built, muscular, intelligent, long lived – with Spanish stallions and later Arabian and Italian stallions.

We get to visit the stables and learn that the white color is the result of selective breeding from the 1750s, but not all the horses are white.


Touring Lipica stud farm where the famous Lipizaner horses are bred © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We visit the stables, the Lipikum Museum, the museum of carriages, an art gallery, and on the way out, see the horses in pastures, tree avenues (they used to plant trees in honor of the horses that were sent to Vienna).

There are other experiences available here (including a luxury hotel and casino), but we have arrived at the end of the day.

We finish the day’s ride at the Hotel Malovec, where the owner, a butcher, also opened a restaurant (he also owns the Hotel Kras where we stayed in Postojna). I have a massive t-bone steak.

Day 6: Divaca – Muggia (23 miles/38 km)

This day offers the most varied of experiences, beginning with a hike through Skocjan Caves (a UNESCO natural monument), biking 39 km through countryside to the picturesque town of Muggia on the Bay of Trieste, where we arrive early enough in the afternoon to get to swim in the Adriatic (or we can take the ferry into Trieste).

Visiting the Skocjan Caves is one of the most dramatic hikes you will ever take © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Visiting the Skocjan Caves is no less spectacular than the Postojna Caves (minus the thrilling train ride) but the experience is quite different – this is more of a hike, but unbelievably spectacular – the highlight is walking over a bridge 45 meters above a roaring river.

Skocjan Caves, so special as to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ranking among the most important caves in the world, the caves, one of the largest known underground canyons in the world were designated a UNESCO natural world heritage site in 1986.

What distinguishes Škocjan Caves from other caves and places it among the most famous underground features in the world is the exceptional volume of the underground canyon and the Rika River that still rushes through. An underground channel is 3.5 km long, 10 to 60 m wide and over 140 m high. At some points, it expands into huge underground chambers. The largest of these is Martel’s Chamber with a volume of 2.2 million cubic m, believed to be the largest discovered underground chamber in Europe and one of the largest in the world.

The existence of the cave has been known since ancient times (and the area is rich with archeological sites), but concerted exploration of Škocjan Caves began in 1884. Explorers reached the banks of Mrtvo jezero (Dead Lake) in 1890. Silent Cave (Tiha jama) was discovered in 1904, when some local men climbed the 60-metre wall of Müller Hall (Müllerjeva dvorana). Then, in 1990, nearly 100 years after Dead Lake was discovered, Slovenian divers managed to swim through the siphon Ledeni dihnik and discovered 200 m of new cave passages.

The cave is colossal, other worldly, that takes your breath away as you walk through in the course of this 2-hour, 2 km tour, during which we will climb/descend some 500 steps.

There are two main parts to the cave that we get to visit Thajama (Silent Cave), the part that was discovered in 1904, and “Water Murmuring” Cave (more like water roaring), which has been opened to tourists since 1933.

We are marched through the cave (they have an extraordinary number of visitors each day) and periodically stop for the guide to give us narration. We are informed about the collapsed ceiling in the Silent Cave, the result of an earthquake 12,000 years ago.

The canyon’s most spectacular sight is the enormous Martel Chamber. The Great Chamber  is 120 meters long, 30 meters high. It takes 100 years for 1 cm of stalagmite to grow, and we see the biggest “dreamstone,” Giant, 15 meters tall.

We see a square pool of water which was carved by the first explorers and the original stairs that were carved with hand tools by these early explorers – mind-boggling to contemplate. They originally came into the cave following the river, to find a supply of drinkable water for Trieste.

Crossing the bridge 45 meters above the river in the colossal Skocjan Caves, so special as to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We walk over the suspension bridge, 45 meters above the river – an incomparable thrill. Prone to flooding, as recently as 1965, the river rose 106 meters higher, almost to the ceiling, so the entire cave would have been underwater.

You almost swoon with the depth below and height above and space all around – you feel so small. Looking back to the other side, the flow of people coming down the lighted trails look ants. 

At the very end, there is an odd area where tourists from a century ago used to actually carve names into the rock.

Visiting the Skocjan Caves is one of the most dramatic hikes you will ever take © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come through the enormous opening – there is an option to take a cable car back up, but I am delighted to continue to hike. You come upon a dazzling view down to the rushing water flooding through an opening in the rock. You again get a sense of scale by how small the people are nearest to the rushing water.

It’s very cool in the caves and you should wear decent footgear and a hat (water drips down).

(Skocjan Cave is open daily, but you enter with an organized tour at specified times; 16E/adults, 12E/Seniors & students, 7.5E children, travelslovenia.org/skocjan-caves/)

With a cheer of “Gremo!” (“Let’s go”), from Vlasta, our guide,  we’re off.

Vlasta is good natured and good hearted, patient and considerate. She knows how to organize and keep us in order without being tough, and has a great sense of humor.

We picnic again, this time along the country road (not as scenic as yesterday’s cemetery) amid sounds of a new highway.

Our ride today, 42 km, is mostly downhill, some of it along the seacoast, to get to Muggia, on the Bay of Trieste, where we overnight at the Hotel San Rocco, a very pleasant seaside hotel in the marina (with its own swimming pool).

“Beach”-goers in Muggia have a view of Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive about 3:30 in the afternoon and have the option to take the convenient ferry (half-hour) to Trieste (I had come through Muggia (and Trieste) the week before on the Venice-Trieste-Istria biketour.). I decide to have a leisurely afternoon, enjoying swimming in the Adriatic off the stone beach, and then walking through the picturesque town. 

Muggia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A few of us took the ferry into the city of Trieste in Italy – once an important port with its worldly flair and wonderful atmosphere –where you could visit  the castle, cathedral and Piazza Unita central square.

We have a farewell dinner at a delightful waterfront restaurant in the plaza outside the hotel Vlasta, our guide -ever patient, considerate, excellent humor, knowledgeable, she asks us to vote, “Democracy rules,” and tailors the experience to what the group wants – will be leaving us after she delivers us to our end-point in Piran the next day and presents us with certificates of completion of the tour.

Day 7: Muggia – Piran (23 miles/37 km or 30 miles/48 km with side trip)

Today’s ride, 46 km from Muggia to Piran, brings us along the coastal road on a new cycling path following a former railway line. There are beautiful vistas of Slovene coast (Slovenia has only 44 km of shoreline).

We ride through Koper, a major port city, which also has a picturesque old town and Tito Square, one of few squares still with Tito’s name. There is a beautiful Romanesque cathedral and a town hall and a market.

The view of Izola from the bike trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is an exquisite view of Izola from top of trail at first of three tunnels which were built for trains, and now is used for the rail-trail.

We stop at a restaurant in the fashionable resort of Portorož before riding into the adjacent village of Piran, on the tip of a peninsula. On my prior trip, we had come to Portoroz but not as far as Piran, and now I see how enchanting this tiny Venetian harbor village is.

Our bike tour arrives at the Art Hotel on the pizza in Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our hotel, the Art Hotel Tartini (very chic, it prides itself on looking artfully unfinished), overlooks the massive piazza, and is steps away from the rocky border that serves as a beach for people to swim in the Adriatic. The hotel has beautiful outdoor patio/bar and rooftop bar. My balcony overlooks the main square.

View from my balcony at the Art Hotel, Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I go off to explore – finding myself on this last full day in Slovenia much as the first: climbing fortress walls that oversee the city.

View of Piran from the fortress walls © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I visit the historic church and walk the Town Walls (2E to climb) that offers a spectacular view of the Peninsula (it occurs to me the symmetry of ending my Slovenia biketour the same way I started, looking down at the city from castle walls). The fort dates from the 10th century – the Venetians ruled for 500 years.

The Piran “beach”front © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I go off to swim before meeting our group for our last dinner together, at the Ivo restaurant, right on the water where we are treated to a gorgeous sunset.

Night in Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning, I have more time to enjoy Piran before I catch my bus at the Portoroz bus station for the airport in Venice.

There is a pirate festival underway, and a Slovenian Navy battleship in the harbor (very possibly in celebration of the end of World War I a century earlier).

Art is everywhere in Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Art is everywhere in this whimsical, free-spirited place (women go bare-breasted; people change their bathing suits in public).

Hanging out at “the beach” in Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A free bus takes me one-third of the distance back to Portorose and I walk the rest of the way, along the glorious waterfront, to the station where I wait for the bus (flixbus.com) that will bring me back along much of the route I first traveled, back to Marco Polo International Airport in Venice, a chance to review in my mind the marvelous sights and experiences of the bike tour.

Piran, Slovenia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(I booked this 8-day “Emerald Tour of Slovenia’s Gems” 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:

Caves, Castle Among Astonishing Sights Visited on Guided Bike Tour of Slovenia

Biketours.com 8-day Guided Ride Through Slovenia Offers Surprises

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

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

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© 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

Caves, Castle Among Astonishing Sights Visited on Guided Bike Tour of Slovenia

Predjama Castle, improbably built into a crevasse halfway up a 123-meter cliff-face, and connecting to a cave system © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I signed up for Biketours.com’s guided eight-day “The Emerald Tour of Slovenia’s Gems” bike tour, I was expecting sprawling landscapes and quaint villages. What I wasn’t expecting was to be surprised each day by some unique attraction. Postjana caves, Predjama Castle, Škocjan Caves, the most magnificent parts of the trip prove not to be above ground, but underground, as we experience what Slovenia’s karst (limestone) geology really means.

Day 3: Vrhnika – Postojna (20 miles/32 km or 27 miles/44 km with side trip)

Our second day of biking is a bit more demanding as we cycle 36 km up and down over hills, forest roads and a “typical” karst polje (field) with intermittent rain showers. We leave the main tourist routes and ride through the Slovenian countryside, cycling passed the beautiful Slivnica Mountain and the “disappearing” lake of Planina. And if there is a theme for the day, it is about Slovenia’s remarkable natural wonders.

We stop in the Rakov Škocjan nature reserve, where the Rak River has carved out a beautiful gorge, interesting landscape formations, including two natural bridges – which proves just a teaser for what we will experience later.

Indeed, the spectacular highlight comes after we check in to our hotel, Hotel Kras. We quickly drop our things and walk up to Slovenia’s justifiably most popular tourist attraction, the Postojna Caves.

Spectacular is an understatement. Colossal only begins to describe it. Stupendous is probably closer.

The jaw-dropping Postojna Cave, the most extensive cave system in Slovenia, is a series of caverns, halls and passages some 24 km long and two million years old.

The thrilling train ride that speeds you 1 mile into the Postjana Caves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visit begins with a spectacularly thrilling train ride that Disney would envy (but there is no warning to “keep your hands inside the car, your head down and hold on to your kids!” just a brief whistle and we’re off). The open railway car speeds us through the narrow, twisting opening more than a mile into the cave, some 120 meters below the surface and I swear, unless you were mindful, you might lose your head on a protruding rock face. Rather than a Disney ride, the image that comes to mind (no less surreal) is the frantic train ride Harry Potter takes to escape Gringots.

The incomparable Postjana Caves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then we get to walk 1.5 km through this fantastic cave system of massive halls, stunning rock formations, stalagmites, stalactites that have been carved by the Pivka River. It is impossible to imagine how the first people explored these caves – it was discovered 1818 and first opened to visitors in 1819. We walk over what is known as the “Russian Bridge,” built by World War I Russian POWs, for tourists. The scale of the halls is not to be believed.

They manage to move some 1,500 people through the caves each day on the 1 1/2-hour tour,  that ends with a peek at an aquarium containing the proteus they call a “human fish”, a mysterious creature that lives in dark pools inside the caves – just one of some 100 species that live in this netherworld.

The proteus, one of the strange creatures that lives in the Postjana Caves, in an aquarium © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another thrilling rail ride whisks us 2.5 km out of the caves to the surface. (Wear a jacket, the cave is about 10 degrees Celsius, and you need appropriate foot gear.)

Day 4: Postojna – Štanjel/Kodreti (26 miles/42 km or 30 miles/48 km with side trip)

It is hard to imagine anything as thrilling as the Postojna caves, but this day’s attraction is also breathtaking and extraordinary.

It is foggy when we set out on what will be a 48 km biking day, but becomes sunny and cool. We take a short detour, riding 11 km (much of it uphill), before we arrive at the incredible sight of Predjama Castle, improbably built into a crevasse halfway up a 123-meter cliff-face.

The incomparable Postjana Caves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The impenetrable fortress, first built in 1274 by the Patriarch of Aquileia (I was there! just a week before on the Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided bike tour! See bit.ly/2JnF8Su) that looks down at the valley protrudes dramatically into the surrounding basin. It is claimed to be the biggest castle in the world built in a cave.

We are enthralled by the story of the vivacious and daring knight, Erasmus, the “Slovenian Robin Hood” who lived here. Erasmus of Lueg, son of the imperial governor of Trieste, Nikolaj Lueger, was lord of the castle in the 15th century and a renowned “robber baron.”

As legend has it, Erasmus riled the Habsburg Monarchy when he killed the commander of the imperial army, Marshall Pappenheim, for offending the honor of Erasmus’s deceased friend. He took refuge in the family fortress of Predjama, and, allying himself with King Mattias Corvinus, attacked Habsburg estates and towns in Carniola. This angered Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (a Habsburg) who dispatched the governor of Trieste, Andrej Ravbar, to capture or kill Erasmus.

The enemy’s strategy was to blockade the castle and starve Erasmus out, but they didn’t realize that the castle was actually built at the mouth of a cave, linked to a network of tunnels that provided “a secret path to freedom”.

Erasmus had steady access to supplies. He would acquire freshly picked cherries which he would throw at his adversaries to taunt them.

Erasmus is revered as a hero for keeping the Austrian army at bay for a year and a day.

The self-guided audio tour you listen to as you climb through the warren of rooms, is unbelievable. and learning how Erasmus met his untimely demise (literally caught with his pants down), is worthy of Greek mythology or Hollywood.

Apparently, the weak link was the lavatory: Someone in the castle was bribed to signal when Erasmus went to the lavatory, and they launched a cannonball that killed him. (There are stone cannonballs laid out so you can get the picture)

“It was never a pleasant place to live in – cold, dark, damp but safe. There was safety but little comfort. In the Middle Ages, safety was most important.”

Exploring Predjama Castle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is fascinating to see how the castle and the cave intertwined the natural and manmade.

What you appreciate, as the audio guide notes, is “the inventiveness of Middle Ages people.”

For example, a channel chiseled into the rock provided fresh water, which was directed to lower floors.

The ruler’s bedroom had the brightest light, and was the most pleasant and the warmest part of the castle.

We see the 16th century coat of arms of the family who lived here for 250 years.

We visit the castle chapel and the vestry and see how it overlooked the torture chamber (there are sound effects to add atmosphere).

The ceiling of the medieval Knight’s Hall was painted with ox blood and there is a small secret room where the family documents were kept safe.

Predjama Castle was connected to the cave, giving Erasmus a secret passage to get supplies © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I subsequently learn that after the siege and destruction of the original castle, its ruins were acquired by the Oberburg family. In 1511, the second castle, built by the Purgstall family was destroyed in an earthquake. In 1567, Archduke Charles of Austria leased the castle to Baron Philipp von Cobenzl, The castle we see today was built in 1570 in the Renaissance style, pressed up against the cliff under the original Medieval fortification.  The castle has remained in this form, virtually unchanged, to the present day.

In the 18th century, it became one of the favorite summer residences of the Cobenzl family, among them the Austrian statesman and famous art collector Philipp von Cobenzi and the diplomat Count Ludwig von Cobenzi.

The castle was inherited by Count Michael Coronini von Cronberg in 1810 and was sold to the Windischgratz family in 1846, who remained its owners until the end of world War II, when it was nationalized by the Yugoslav Communist government and turned into a museum.

It costs 37E for a combo ticket (with the Postojna cave park and castle), definitely worth it.

Biking country roads in Slovenia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We bike in the countryside through small villages (“Slovenian flat “ – rolling terrain- as our guide Vlasta calls it). Quaint homes are decorated with flowers. Vlasta says that locals are in competition with each other for the best floral decorations.

Flowers decorate homes © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Stopping for a picture of flowers that decorate houses, we find ourselves in front of a World War II memorial. Vlasta uses it as a teaching moment to explain some of the history of Slovenia and Tito: “Slovenians were against Hitler after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia,” she tells us. “Tito broke with Stalin – allowed freer movement (things were never as bad as in Soviet Union). People could move freely, could go to Trieste to buy Western goods. There was some self-management.”

She adds, “People always wanted democracy but some say things were better under Communism. Today, there is free enterprise but there is also rising income inequality, unemployment, young people can’t get jobs or afford houses,” she says, sounding a familiar refrain. “Slovenians used to like to own their own house but mortgages were affordable; now too much. Now, you may have three generations living in the same house.”

One of the oldest houses © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We stop in front of one of the oldest houses to appreciate the architecture, and again, the use of flowers as decoration. At another stop, she points to a flag hoisted on top of a tree pole to signify a marriage.

We stop for lunch at a delightful restaurant, where we eat at tables outside, under a walnut tree – Vlasta says women used to take the black for hair dye and to make schnapps (“Of course, Slovenians make everything into schnapps”). The restaurant has page after page of items with truffles; I enjoy the fish soup immensely.

Family vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Riding through vineyards, we meet a woman biking with her two children whose family owns these 500 Riesling vines. She tells us that the family comes together to pick the grapes – it takes 4 hours – and produce 600 liters of wine.

Stopping to visit a church © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive at a charming guest house, Hisa posebne sorte, in Stanjel, at 4 pm, having biked 44 km for the day.

The guest house was built 1991, a modern representation of karst architecture using old stones. The cellar, which serves as the restaurant, is a large open arch, absolutely gorgeous, decorated with their daughter’s sculpture (Teacurksorta.com), which I learn also was part of the “dragon” exhibition at the castle museum in Ljubljana.

The guesthouse offers a set dinner menu which this evening consists of zucchini soup, fresh baked bread, a pork dish, and a delectable dessert using the juice from forest fruits.

Dinner served at Hisa posebne sorte in Stanjel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Along the way, we have seen vineyards, farms, orchards of apples, pears, plums, figs.

The attractions along the Emerald tour of Slovenia are what make this 8-day bike tour so special. The climbs – the ups and downs of Slovenian hills  make the ride a bit physical. There is not a lot of English spoken (except in the facilities that accommodate tourists) and it is hard to read the language, but that just makes Slovenia more exotic, more interesting, and you find other ways to connect.

Slovenia’s countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(I booked this 8-day “Emerald Tour of Slovenia’s Gems” 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:

Biketours.com 8-day Guided Ride Through Slovenia Offers Surprises

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

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

Biketours.com 8-day Guided Ride Through Slovenia Offers Surprises

A scenic view in Ljubljana © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I signed up for Biketours.com’s guided eight-day bike tour of Slovenia, I was expecting sprawling landscapes and quaint villages. What I wasn’t expecting was to be surprised each day by some unique attraction – the most mind-boggling caves I have ever seen (and most thrilling train ride ever!), a castle built into the face of a mountain with a cave as a secret back door, the horse farm where the original Leipzaners we associate with Vienna were bred and trained, as well as the surprises we chanced upon, like getting a tour of a centuries old water mill by the family. I wasn’t expecting to find myself at the intersection of a multiplicity of cultures (flowers hoisted high on a pole to announce a wedding), or thrown back into history. The picturesque landscapes were like icing on a fabulously rich cake.

This actually was the second week of my Biketours.com European biking experience. I had decided to fly into Marco Polo International Airport in Venice to meet up with this guided tour that started in Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, so I thought, it’s a far way to go for only eight-days, so why not stop in Venice? And then I thought, Why not see if Biketours.com offers another biking trip that I can link together?

Reaching the end of our Venice-Trieste-Istria ride, in Porec, Croatia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I found a Venice-Trieste-Istria itinerary, operated by FunActiv, that ended on the day this “Emerald Tour of Slovenia’s Gems”, operated by another local operator, Helia, would start, but it was self-guided. I thought about doing it on my own, but sent out an invitation and successfully recruited my son to join me. (Thank goodness, because I think I would have been lost and still wandering around the wilderness if I had to do it on my own.) The Venice bike trip ended in Istria, in Croatia, and, after a search on Rome2Rio.com, I found a bus (Flixbus.com) that would take me into Ljubljana right on time for the start of the second tour (and then from Piran, where that trip ended, back to Marco Polo International Airport in Venice).

It is very interesting to compare the experience of a self-guided tour, with the guided tour.

In the first place, the guided tour of Slovenia averages 26 miles a day and each day; our self-guided trip averages 50 miles a day (though we could have shortened the daily rides by taking train or ferry), so there is more time for sightseeing on the guided trip which is organized around sightseeing – that is, getting to sites in a timely way (our leader, Vlasta, our wonderful guide, also takes votes to see whether we want to detour to take in some attraction, whether we want her to make dinner reservations for us at a restaurant).

On our self-guided trip, we are able to set out from the hotel after a leisurely breakfast and stop for lunch when we want and spend as much time lingering in a village but when we come to a cave in time for a 5 pm English-language tour with still an hour to ride before reaching our destination, we don’t take the chance and so miss an opportunity. We also miss out on visiting the castle of Miramare high above the Bay of Grignano just outside of Trieste (which has a Manet exhibit) because we didn’t know better.

On this Slovenia bike tour, we ride as a group – Vlasta says we ride only as fast as the slowest, that one of us will be the “sweep” riding at the back. We don’t even have our own maps or cue sheets, but follow the leader. I am only a little frustrated because I have to ask to stop every time I want to take a photo, but it all works out.

We are informed in advance that the terrain is flat and downhill from Ljubljana to Postojna, from where it gets a bit hilly (Vlasta says it is “Slovenia flat – rolling hills. From Stanjel, the cycling is downhill on the way to the coast.

Most of the ride is on quiet roads, 25% on roads shared with traffic, 3% on dirt or gravel roads and 2% on dedicated bicycle paths. The tour is appropriate for hybrid and road bikes.

Day 1: Arrival to Ljubljana

It is pouring rain as I make my way from the Porec Hotel in Porec, Croatia, where my eight-day, self-guided Venice-Trieste-Istria bike trip has ended, to the bus station directly behind it, and I am grateful that it is not a day I would be biking. I am pretty proud of myself for having figured out the Flixbus connection – convenient and inexpensive (after having looked online at Rome2Rio.com for how to get between the two cities).

A flash mob dances on a bridge in Ljubljana © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the bus station in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, I use my GPS to figure out what public bus to take to get to my hotel in the old city, and after wasting time waiting on the wrong side of the street, hop on the bus. The driver doesn’t understand me but a fellow on the bus helps me figure out where my stop is in the Old City, and I find the hotel just a short walk from the bus.

I have the afternoon to explore Ljubljana, and miraculously, the rain clears and sun begins to shine as I begin to explore. I come upon a flash mob dance on a small bridge – one of the most scenic spots in the city – and roam the narrow, cobblestone streets of the old town center with its “fin de siècle” mansions.

Walking through Ljubljana’s Old Town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Old City is dominated by a mighty fortress on the highest hill, so of course, that’s where I head, along with others who realize it is the best place to watch the sun set.

Ljubljana’s castle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The castle has a museum inside, open until 9 pm, though you don’t need a ticket to walk around.

View from Ljubljana’s castle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
View from Ljubljana’s castle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Night in Ljubljana’s Old Town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2: Ljubljana – Vrhnika (24 miles/39 km or 36 miles/57 km with side trip)

Our group meets together for the first time after breakfast at the hotel and our guide, Vlasta, orients us to how the trip is organized. It turns out we are English-speakers from three continents: a couple from England, a couple and their friend from New Zealand, a couple from Denver and me, a New Yorker.

We are fitted to our bicycles, load our luggage into the van that accompanies us, and are off.

Vlasta has organized an easy (flat) first day of biking (notably, her rule is that we bike only as fast as the slowest person), but generally 15-20 km/h or 30 km/hr downhill.

Interestingly, we are not given any maps or cue sheets, and the alphabet is not pronounceable and signs are not readable, nor do many people speak English; we are completely dependent upon following the leader. But this is not a problem.

Biking through Slovenia’s countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride across the historic plains surrounding the capital, a flat, easy first day.  The immense 160-square kilometer marshy plain, the Ljubljansko Barje, was once a great lake until it dried up 6000 years ago, leaving behind landscape that, we are told, is now home to some of Europe’s rarest forms of bird, plant and insect life.

We stop at the picturesque Iški Vintgar Gorge Nature Reserve, carved deep into a stunning limestone dolomite plateau, and visit the remnants of the world’s highest railway viaduct in Borovnica.

The highlight of the day’s ride – as is so often the case –is one of those serendipitous happenings:

As we are riding back from visiting the Gorge, I stop to take photos of a picturesque water wheel.

A family’s historic mill © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

A young man comes out and offers to take us inside to see how this ancient mill works. He is soon followed by his father who explains that it is one of only two left in Slovenia, and has been in their family for 380 years. There used to be 9 mills on the river, now he keeps this one running to preserve the heritage. It is private, not even a designated historic landmark. I admire an old carriage, and the older man says it was his mother’s dowry 65 years ago.

A family proudly shows off its centuries-old mill © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The historic water wheel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A family’s historic mill © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We continue on, and stop at a charming restaurant alongside a pond for lunch.

Biking through Slovenia countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just before arriving in Vrhnika, where we overnight, we visit the Technical Museum of the Republic of Slovenia (actually a science and technical museum), housed in Bistra Castle (later a monastery). The castle (technology museum) is like a maze inside and it is tremendous fun to explore.

It provides a different perspective on “technology”. Hunting, for example, includes the dogs used for hunting and the birds and animals that were hunted.

Demonstrating how to make lace from a century-old pattern © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A woman demonstrates how she makes lace using a century-old pattern.

Here, we first encounter Joseph Broz Tito, who served in Yugoslavia’s government from 1943-1980 and was the dictator for much of that (apparently, he was considered a benevolent dictator).

I find my way to this wonderful collection of Tito’s cars: his Rolls Royce (against the backdrop of a giant photo), a Tatra from1898, a 1923 Chrysler, a Piccolo which was manufactured from 1904-1912.

Tito’s Rolls Royce is on view at the Technical Museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are all modes of transportation on display – cars, trucks, bicycles, bus, tractors – and agricultural tools and machines. It evokes 1960s Communist-era vibe.

Today’s ride, 57 km, all flat on roads (not dedicated bike trails), is easy cycling today, the weather cool and comfortable for biking.

Biking through Slovenia countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

This was just the warm up. The best is yet to come.

(I booked this 8-day “Emerald Tour of Slovenia’s Gems” 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

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

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

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© 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

Global Scavenger Hunt: ‘World’s Greatest Travelers’ Winners Crowned in New York

The Three Graces, a Roman marble statue from 2nd C AD copying a Greek theme from the 2nd C BC, is repeated throughout Western civilization, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Global Scavenger Hunt teams arrive in New York City for the last leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt that has taken us to 10 countries in 23 days. Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of this around-the-world mystery tour, in which the challenges and scavenges are designed to get us out of our comfort zone and immerse us in a culture, fine-tune our skills as world travelers, and most significantly, “trust in the kindness of strangers.” Back in New York, he is delighted all 10 teams circumnavigated the world “in one piece” without dramatic incident, in this, the 15th annual Global Scavenger Hunt competition.

The leading teams vying for the title of “World’s Greatest Travelers” as we enter this final leg of the contest in 4th place, SLO Folks from California with 96 points (where the low-score wins); in 3rd, Order & Chaos, doctors from San Francisco with 81 points; in 2nd place, Lazy Monday, computer networking consultant and think tank professional from California with 46 points, and Lawyers Without Borders, from Houston, with 33 points, five-time winners who are competing in the Global Scavenger Hunt for the 12th time.

There is one more challenge in New York (an easy urban Par 1), and even though, based on points and placement, the winners of the 15th annual, 2019 edition of the Global Scavenger Hunt have been determined, still the teams go out and give it their all. Those in contention must complete at least one of the scavenges in New York, and complete their time sheet and hand in by the 4 pm deadline.

Examples of the scavenges: take in a Yankees game or a Broadway show; have one of each of following: a New York bagel, a New York hot dog, a New York deli sandwich, a slice of New York pizza, New York cheesecake, a New York egg cream, or an old-fashion Manhattan; -locate five pieces from five of the nations you just visited in the Met; visit Strawberry Fields, pay John Lennon tribute; do one scavenge in each of the five boroughs of New York City.

A native New Yorker, this is really my turf (though there is the oddest sensation of feeling like I am in a foreign place, reminding myself of what is familiar like language, money, streets, drink water, eat salad), and I delight in walking up Madison Avenue to 82nd Street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue.

Hunting for an object from Morocco, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I elect to take up the challenge of going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to seek out objects from five of the countries we visited (Canada, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, Greece, Morocco, Gibraltar, Portugal, Spain). Greece will be easy, of course, but Morocco and Jordan (Petra), Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) are just a bit trickier. It is Chalmers’ way of making us experience things on a different level, and for me, it brings together so much of what we’ve seen, learned and experienced along the way.

An object from Thailand, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I first join a docent-led Highlights Tour, knowing from past experience that these always lead me to parts of the museum I am unfamiliar with, and enlighten about aspects of art and culture with the in-depth discussion of the pieces the docents select to discuss.

Not easy to find to complete the Global Scavenger Hunt: an object from Vietnam, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The docent, Alan, begins in the Greco-Roman exhibit with a stunning marble sculpture of the Three Graces, showing how this theme – essentially copied from the Greek bronzes (which no longer exist because the bronze was valuable and melted down for military use) – was repeated over the eons, into the Renaissance and even beyond.

The Magdala Stone, 1st Century, Migdal, Synagogue, on the Sea of Galilee. The stone, whose exact function is uncertain, dates to a time when the temple in Jerusalem still stood. One short side features a 7-branched menorah – the earliest such image known in a synagogue – flanked by amphorae and columns. The Migdal synagogue would have been in use during the lifetime of Jesus, whom the Gospels describe as preaching in synagogues throughout Galilee © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Obviously, finding an object from Greece is going to be easy, and I hope to find objects from Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand in the Asia wing where there is a massive collection of Buddhist art (it proves just a tad more difficult, but I succeed). Morocco and Jordan (Petra) proved trickier than I expected, but brought me to an astonishing exhibit, “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” with an extraordinary focus on the territories and trading networks of the Middle East that were contested between the Roman and Parthian Empires (ca. 100 BC and AD 250). “yet across the region life was not defined by these two superpowers alone. Local cultural and religious traditions flourished and sculptures, wall paintings, jewelry and other objects reveal how ancient identities were expressed through art.”

The Greek sun god Helios, from Petra, 1st C BC – 1st C AD, found at Qint al-Bint temple in Petra, visited on the Global Scavenger Hunt © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The exhibit features 190 works from museums in the Middle East, Europe and the United States in an exhibition that follows the great incense and silk routes that connected cities in southwestern Arabia, Nabataea, Judea, Syria and Mesopotamia, that made the region a center of global trade along with spreading ideas, spurring innovations (such as in water control), and spawning art and culture.

It was the most incredible feeling to come upon the objects from Petra, having visited the site (was it only 10 days ago?) and having a context for seeing these isolated objects on display.

The World between Empires

The landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, which is on view through June 23, 2019, focuses on the remarkable cultural, religious and commercial exchange that took place in cities including Petra, Baalbek, Palmyra and Hatra between 100 B.C. and A.D. 250. “During this transformative period, the Middle East was the center of global commerce and the meeting point of two powerful empires—Parthian Iran in the east and Rome in the west—that struggled for regional control.”

The exhibition focuses on the diverse and distinctive cities and people that flourished in this environment by featuring 190 outstanding examples of stone and bronze sculpture, wall paintings, jewelry, and other objects from museums in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.

Wall Painting of Christ Healing the Paralytic/Wall Painting of Christ Walking on Water, ca 232, Dura-Europos, Christian building, considered the world’s oldest surviving church. The paintings include images of Jesus Christ performing miracles, and are the earliest securely dated representations of him © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among the highlights is a Nabataean religious shrine, reconstructed from architectural elements in collections in the United States and Jordan; the unique Magdala Stone, discovered in a first-century synagogue at Migdal (ancient Magdala) and whose imagery refers to the Temple in Jerusalem; and wall paintings from a church in Dura-Europos that are the earliest securely dated images of Jesus. Sculptures from Baalbek illuminate religious traditions at one of the greatest sanctuaries in the ancient Middle East, and funerary portraits from Palmyra bring visitors face to face with ancient people. The exhibition also examines important contemporary issues—above all, the deliberate destruction and looting of sites including Palmyra, Dura-Europos, and Hatra.

Ossuaries, Israel, excavated at Azor, Chalcolithic period, early 4th millennium BC © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The compelling works of art in this exhibition offer a view into how people in the ancient Middle East sought to define themselves during a time of tremendous religious, creative, and political activity, revealing aspects of their lives and communities that resonate some two millennia later,” said Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  “Further, in focusing on an area of the world that has been deeply affected by recent conflicts and the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects, this show also engages with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage.”

Dead Sea Scroll Jar and Lid, ca 2nd Century BC, found in the Qumran caves, the documents now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls represent biblical texts and Jewish religious practices in the last centuries BC and first century AD. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The exhibition evokes a journey along ancient trade routes, beginning in the southwestern Arabian kingdoms that grew rich from the caravan trade in frankincense and myrrh harvested there and used throughout the ancient world. Camel caravans crossed the desert to the Nabataean kingdom, with its spectacular capital city of Petra, which I had just visited, walking through very much as the caravan travelers would have.

Statuette of nude goddess, 2nd C BC-2nd C AD, Ctesiphon © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From here, goods traveled west to the Mediterranean and north and east through regions including Judaea and the Phoenician coast and across the Syrian desert, where the oasis city of Palmyra controlled trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world to Mesopotamia and Iran and ultimately China. In Mesopotamia, merchants transported cargoes down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf, where they joined maritime trade routes to India. These connections transcended the borders of empires, forming networks that linked cities and individuals over vast distances.

3rd C biblical wall paintings discovered in the Dura-Europos synagogue were exceptional because they demonstrated that early Jewish art included figural scenes. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandne

Across the entire region, diverse local political and religious identities were expressed in art. Artifacts from Judaea give a powerful sense of ancient Jewish identity during a critical period of struggle with Roman rule. Architectural sculptures from the colossal sanctuary at Baalbek and statuettes of its deities reveal the intertwined nature of Roman and ancient Middle Eastern religious practices. Funerary portraits from Palmyra represent the elite of an important hub of global trade. Wall paintings and sculptures from Dura-Europos on the River Euphrates illustrate the striking religious diversity of a settlement at the imperial frontier. And in Mesopotamia, texts from the last Babylonian cuneiform libraries show how ancient temple institutions waned and finally disappeared during this transformative period.

In Athens and Petra, particularly, you appreciate this synergy between trade, migration, environmental sustainability and technology (in Petra, the ability to control water supply was key), economic prosperity and political power, and the rise of art, culture, and community.

Bearded God, ca 1st C, Dura-Europos © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is rare (if ever ) for the Metropolitan Museum to venture into the political, but a key topic within the exhibition is the impact of recent armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen on archaeological sites, monuments, and museums, including deliberate destruction and looting. Some of the most iconic sites affected—Palmyra, Hatra, and Dura-Europos—are featured in the exhibition, which discusses this damage and raises questions regarding current and future responses to the destruction of heritage. Should the sites be restored or will they now only exist “on paper”? How much money and resources should go to restoring or excavation when villages and homes for people to live in also need to be rebuilt?

There is a fascinating, if frantic, presentation of three archaeologist/historians speaking about what the destruction by ISIS and Islamic fundamentalists of Palmyra, Eura-Europos and Hatra – what it means to destroy a people’s heritage, their cultural identity. “It may seem frivolous to focus on [archaeological sites] when people are enslaved, killed…but to wipe out, destroy culture is a way of destroying people.”

Happening upon this exhibit made the travel experiences we had to these extraordinary places all the more precious.

It is a humbling experience, to be sure, to go to the origins of the great civilizations, fast forward to today. How did they become great? How did they fall? Greatness is not inevitable or forever.  Empires rise and fall. Rulers use religion, art and monuments to establish their credibility and credentials to rule; successors blot out the culture and re-write history.

(“The World Between Empires” is featured on The Met website as well as on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter using the hashtag #WorldBetweenEmpires.)

I peek out from the American Café windows to Central Park and see sun and the early spring blossoms on the trees, and dash out to walk through my other favorite New York City place. There is nothing more beautiful than New York City in the spring – brides are out in force taking photos; there are musicians and entertainers. There is a festive atmosphere as I walk through the park toward the Palace Hotel in time for our 4:30 pm meeting.

Spring in Central Park, NYC © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

15th Annual Global Scavenger Hunt Winners Crowned

At the end of the New York City leg:

1st Lazy Monday, completed 10 scavenges earning 385 points

2nd SLO Folks with 6 scavenges, 250 pts

3rd Lawyers, with 150 pts

4th Order & Chaos

And now, drumroll please, Chalmers announces the winner of the 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt: “Only one team wins. The competition was fierce.”

3rd – Order & Chaos, Sal  Iaquinta & Vivian Reyes, doctors from San Francisco

2nd – Lazy Monday, Eric & Kathryn Verwillow, computer networking and think tank professional of Palo Alto, California (“I am in awe of how hard worked beginning to end – embraced the spirit,” Chalmers says.

1st Lawyers Without Borders, Rainey Booth and Zoe Littlepage of Houston, who have competed in the Global Scavenger Hunt 12 times, and won it for the 6th time. “You embody the spirit of the event, to go out of your comfort zone.” (You can follow Zoe’s blog of her experience to get a sense of how strenuous, outrageous, and determined the team was in accumulating their points: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019)

We celebrate at a final bon voyage dinner.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is the brainchild of Bill and Pamela Chalmers, who in addition to forging understanding and bonds among travelers and the people in the destinations visited, use the program to promote voluntourism (one of the scavenges is to volunteer at an orphanage or school during our stay in Yangon, Myanmar, and in the past travelers visited & helped out at: Tibetan refugee camps in Nepal, orphanages in Laos, hospitals in Cambodia, homeless schools in India, hospices in Manila, disabled facilities in Sri Lanka, Ethiopian schools, the slums of Nairobi) and raised money for the GreatEscape Foundation.

“The foundation is one of main reasons we do the event,” Chalmers says. The foundation has raised money to build 12 schools (1 each in Niger, Haiti, Ecuador, India & Ethiopia; 2 each in Sri Lanka & Sierra Leone, and 3 in Kenya), helped build the Tamensa Medical Clinic in Niger for migrating Tuareg nomads which serves as a midwives & nurse training center too. “We know that we saved lives and bettered the lives of hundreds. We have helped over 2400 families in more than 60 countries (mostly women entrepreneurs) with our interest and fee free micro-loans (96% of which have gone to women with a 99% repayment).”

 Through the event this and last year, the foundation will build 2 more co-ed elementary schools , in Ethiopia and Haiti.

TheGlobal Scavenger Hunt travel adventure competition is aimed at returning the romance of travel while testing the travel IQ of the most travel savvy of globetrotters. The travelers (who must apply and be accepted to compete) completed a series of highly participatory, authentic and challenging cultural site-doing scavenges in ten secret countries over a 23-day circumnavigation between April 12 and May 4, 2019 designed to bring people out of their comfort zone and trust strangers in strange lands.

 “The Global Scavenger Hunt covers a lot of extraordinary travel bases,” says Chalmers, who dubs his mystery tour, “A blind date with the world.”

For more information, contact GreatEscape Adventures at 310-281-7809, or visit GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

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© 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

Global Scavenger Hunt Leg 8 Challenge Brings Us Through Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” of the Global Scavenger Hunt, launches us our biggest, most ambitious and difficult leg of the trip, a par 6,in which our challenge is to get from Marrakech through four countries – Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal with scavenges in each to win points – in five days, meeting at 11:30 am in Porto, Portugal, when we will fly out to New York, our final destination of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour, and the final and decisive leg of the competition to be crowned “World’s Best Traveler”.

We have arrived at the Savoy Le Grand (a massive resort-style hotel with multiple pools, sandwiched between a major modern mall and a casino, about half-mile from the gate to the Old City) at midnight local time, about 2 am for us having come from Athens. Bill recognizes the need for a break so essentially gives us the morning off, so we can meet at 11:30 in the lobby to launch us on the challenge he has termed “our final exam.”

Bill allows certain rule changes for this part of the competition: the four teams that are in contention can team up in one  country,  can rent a car but only once and only in one country, can use cell phones and GPS but they are still not allowed to fly between points. There are loads of “bonus” opportunities and “experiences” among the 100 or so scavenges – there are extra points for booking an AirBnB accommodation and for booking a hotel on one of the nights for $50 or less (we have a $200 allowance per team for the three nights we have to book for ourselves).

I am not competing so have the advantage of being able to get advice from the concierge, use hotels.com. It takes from noon to about 5:30 pm to work out an outline of how we will cover the distance – set up the first train ticket from Marrakech to Fes, book hotels in Fes and Gibraltar. Margo, my teammate, decides to spend an extra day in Porto, Portugal, but I set my sights on Seville, and organize a hotel there, so we will travel together from Marrakech to Fes to Gibraltar and then travel independently until Porto.

There are some 131 scavenges in this leg (a challenge is to figure which ones to do for points and logistics), including mandatories like #51 (Within the bowels of Fes el-Bali, visit the Baab Bou Jeloud gate; the gates of Karaouine Mosque, explain the door for sacrifices, learn something about University of Al-Karaouline; ; either/or enjoy a beverage in the Jardins de la Marche Verte or atop Nejarine Museum and explain Nejarine Square; obtain from within the market a stylish zellj; locate the Chouwara Tannery for a rooftop photo (what are some of the materials used in the process you see, explain); Locate six of the over 800 registered crafts in Fes el-Bali; Visit the Dar ai-Magana, explain; In the courtyard of Fondouk Kaat Smen, there are three purveyors – sample four types of Nafis Hicham’s products. This is worth 400 points.

Also mandatory, #63: Enter Gibraltar and obtain either a passport stamp or some other 100% iron-clad proof (other than photos) that you did enter the country (300 points)

It is also mandatory to complete at least one scavenge in all four primary countries: Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal.

For a bonus: stay in hotel below 50E Tuesday (apr 30)

Bonus in Morocco: either camp out in the desert one night or stay in traditional riad

In Morocco, venture to Atlas Mountains (Day Four) to visit Berber villages, Ait Souka/Kasbah Dutoubkal, or Aghmat/Oureka.

Bonus: in Morocco visit the blue city of Chefchaouen

In Morocco visit Volubilis to see something old & Roman; visit nearby sacred village Moulay Idriss

By 5:30 pm, I am frustrated and angry not actually seeing Marrakech, and still haven’t figured out how to get from Tangier to Gibraltar or Gibraltar to Seville (answer: you have to get out of Gibraltar to the town in Spain, so I leave that for when I get to the hotel in Gibraltar), so drop everything so we go into the Old City.

We walk to the famous Koutoubia grand mosque that so dominates the city.  As soon as we enter the massive square, there is a cacophony of sounds, a blur of motion. And activity – snake charmers, Berbers, musicians (who demand money for photo even if you only look at them).

Fruit stands, stalls where cooking fish, meats, kebabs, vegetables, just about everything and anything anyone would want.

Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the souks to find the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue.

We weave through – asking people who point us in a direction – a fellow leaves his stall to to lead us down narrow alleyway.

From there, we go to the Jewish cemetery which should have been closed, but the man lets us in.

Synagogue, Marrakech, founded in 1492 after Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the Inquisition. Some 80 congregants still worship here. There is an excellent exhibit and video. We meet a family whose brother still worships here. (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
The Jewish Cemetery, Marrakech (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Margo hails a taxi to head back, and I walk back through the markets to the square. I find a stall to have dinner – seated on a bench with others.

Next morning, we catch the 6 am train to Fes – 6 ½ hours – a beautiful ride.

We are in a first-class compartment that seats six people very comfortably. During the course of the trip, people come and go. A stop or two away from Fes, two fellows come in to the compartment and we have a pleasant conversation that ends with the one fellow saying he knows a guide for us to hire. Sure enough, by the time we get off the train, the guide has arrived.

We make our way to the Riad el Yacout (the guide has obtained a taxi as well).

The Riad (guesthouse) is absolutely enchanting – it was the home of a professor at the famous university (founded in 859 AD by a woman) in the Medina, and had remained in the family until 2000, when her father bought it and spent five years restoring it as a guesthouse (it is actually three houses that have been linked, with a pool; and there are plans to build a third floor and add a rooftop pool). The mosaics, decoration, furnishings are exquisite – all the rooms set around the most magnificent interior courtyard. (Riad is a home that inward facing, meant to maximize family interactions.)

The riad owner strongly advises hiring an approved guide from the tourism office, and a driver – we only have the afternoon and evening here to see Fez, and have been told that you absolutely need a guide to go through the Medina – the largest, with some 11,000 alleyways with no addresses.

The price seems fair and we only have the afternoon, and it proves a great way to see Fez in such a brief time.

Two other teams come after (they went on a balloon ride in Marrakech, one of the scavenes before catching the train to Fes), and hired the same guide we were introduced to by a guy on the train (turns out the second guy on the train was his son, who I spot while walking in the Medina – what are the chances? Actually it is a scam – the fellows get on the train a stop or two before Fes, find a seat in the first-class compartment and begin the grift). If you are keeping count, altogether three of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams all had either met the guide (us), used the guide or the son. And everybody was happy.

We set out with our guide, Hamid,  and to hear him tell it (and this is before he makes the connection between “New York,” Jews – rendered refugees by the Spanish Inquisition which expelled them in 1492 from Spain and Portugal- were invited by the King to settle in Fes in order to develop the city, and settle the nomadic Berbers. He gave them land adjacent to the palace and promised protection – to show appreciation, the Jewish community create ornate brass doors for the palace with the Star of David surrounded by the Islamic star.

He tells us that this community continued even into World War II, when he gave Jews citizenship and protected them from the Nazis. He takes us into the Medina, starting with the Jewish Quarter, and leads me to the synagogue, which dates from the 1500s. From the roof you can see the Jewish cemetery.

During the course of the afternoon, we see weavers, embroiderers, carpet makers, the tannery (all of us follow pretty much the same itinerary). Since we have a driver, we also go to a mosaic factory.

We have a fantastic dinner at the riad – chicken tagine and chicken couscous – the food and the atmosphere cannot be beat.

Still have to get from Morocco to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto by Friday on this Par 6 leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.

Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, Lawyers Without Borders, who are the leading team, published a brilliant  blog documenting how they fulfilled dozens of the scavenges:  https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019-from-minurets-in-morocco-to.html  

Also see www.globalscavengerhunt.comhttp://www.globalscavengerhunt.com

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!

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

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© 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

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© 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

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace IN Venice

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the most popular attractions in Venice and dominating the most popular square, San Marco, the Doge Palace is unbelievably crowded with tourists during the day who can stand on line for a long time and then struggle inside for views of the fantastic art. But on my recent trip, I discovered that the Doge Palace and three other museums stay open on Fridays and Saturdays until 11 pm (last entrance at 10 pm) and the ticket is valid at all four of the museums and valid for three months.  The experience of visiting the Doge Palace at night is incomparable.

I waltz in at 7:30 pm without waiting at all and find myself in these rooms – grand doesn’t begin to describe them – by myself or with at most a handful of other people. All of us are breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.

The art work – monumental pieces by titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Besides the extraordinary magnificence of the artwork throughout the Doge Palace, I realize from the notes I read afterward that the palace harbors a fascinating history of government of this early republic, which for two centuries dominated trade between Europe and Asia. Venice’s powerful influence extended from the city at the western edge of the old Byzantine Empire, to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

I go through the rooms taking in the visual sights, overwhelmed, really by the art – the majestic paintings in gilded frames that completely cover the walls and ceiling, the architectural details. The rooms are fairly dark and I don’t take the time or struggle to read the notes that are provided. Later, when I review the notes provided, I better appreciate the historical significance, where the art and the architecture were representations of the structure of government and the rulers, comparable to the Capitol Building, Supreme Court and White House, combined, though hundreds of years older.

For two centuries, the Venetian Republic dominated trade between Europe and Asia, its influence extending from the city at the western edge of the Byzantine Empire to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The palace dates back to before the 10th century but, after a fire, was rebuilt by Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172-1178), a great reformer who also changed the layout of St. Mark’s Square. The palace had to be expanded several times “to accommodate political changes and the increase in number of people who had the right to participate in the legislative assembly meetings” (an intriguing phrase). The Chamber of the Great Council (just one room in this palace) accommodated 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen. The thought is mind-boggling.

After another huge fire in 1577 destroyed many of the masterpieces, reconstruction was undertaken immediately to restore it to its original appearance, which was completed by 1579-80.

Until then, the Doge’s Palace housed not only the Doge’s apartments, the seat of the government and the city’s courtrooms, but also a jail. It was only in the second half of the 16th century that Antonio da Ponte ordered the construction of new prisons, built by Antonio Contin around 1600, which were linked to the Doge’s Palace by the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1614. Relocating the prisons left the old space on the ground floor of the palace free, which led to the creation of the courtyard.

Looking through the Bridge of Sighs, Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The famous Bridge of Sighs dates from the Romantic period, its name supposedly referring to the sighs of prisoners who, passing from the courtroom to the cell in which they would serve their sentence, took a last look at freedom as they glimpsed the lagoon and San Giorgio through the filigree openings.

Crossing over the Bridge of Sighs is one of the most thrilling aspects of the visit, especially at night, with the golden lights reflected on blue-black water. You peer through the openings, just as these prisoners would have. It is somewhat surreal to look down at the bridge from which you saw the Bridge of Sighs hours before, and imagine what prisoners must have thought as they had their last glimpse of that glorious scene. And then going into the prison itself, surreal considering it was mere steps away from the grandeur of the palace.

Inspecting the prison cells, Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But there is still so much more to see – it seems that the palace just goes on and on.

The Chamber of the Great Council, restructured in the 14th century, was decorated with a fresco by Guariento and later with works by the most famous artists of the period, including Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Alvise Vivarini, Carpaccio, Bellini, Pordenone and Titian. At 53 meters long and 25 meters wide, this is not only the largest and most majestic chamber in the Doge’s Palace, but also one of the largest rooms in Europe.

The Great Council was the most important political body in the Republic. An ancient institution, the Council was made up of all the male members over 25 years old of patrician Venetian families, irrespective of their individual status, merits or wealth. “This was why, in spite of the restrictions in its powers that the Senate introduced over the centuries, the Great Council continued to be seen as bastion of republican equality. The Council had the right to call to account all the other authorities and bodies of the State when it seemed that their powers were getting excessive and needed to be trimmed. The 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen who sat in the Council always considered themselves guardians of the laws that were the basis of all the other authorities within the State.”

This room was also where the first steps in the election of a new Doge would take place. These voting procedures were extremely long and complex in order to frustrate any attempts of cheating. Every Sunday, when the bells of St. Mark’s rang, the Council members would gather in the hall with the Doge presiding at the center of the podium and his counselors occupying double rows of seats that ran the entire length of the room.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The walls are decorated with works by Paolo Caliari (known as Paolo Veronese), Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, and Palma il Giovane. depicting Venetian history, particularly the city’s relations with the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; the ceiling is decorated with the Virtues and examples of Venetian heroism, with an allegorical glorification of the Republic in the center. Facing each other in groups of six, the 12 wall paintings depict acts of valor or scenes of war that had occurred during the city’s history. A frieze with portraits of the first 76 doges (the portraits of the others are in the Sala dello Scrutinio) runs just under the ceiling. Though commissioned from Jacopo Tintoretto, most of these paintings are the work of his son, Domenico. Each Doge holds a scroll bearing a reference to his most important achievements, while Doge Marin Faliero, who attempted a coup d’état in 1355, is represented simply by a black cloth – a traitor to the Republic, he was not only condemned to death but also to damnatio memoriae, the total eradication of his memory and name.

Along the wall behind the Doge’s throne is one of the longest canvas paintings in the world, the Paradiso, which Jacopo Tintoretto and workshop produced between 1588 and 1592 to replace the Guariento fresco that had been damaged in the fire.

The Council Chamber was where two separate and independent organs of power, the Savi and the Signoria, would meet. The Savi was divided into three sections concerned with foreign policy, mainland Italy and maritime issues. The Signoria was made up of the three Heads of the Councils of Forty and members of the Minor Council, composed of the Doge and six councilors, one for each district of the city of Venice. The Council was organized and coordinated the work of the Senate, reading dispatches from ambassadors and city governors, receiving foreign delegations and promoting other political and legislative activity.

The Sala dei Pregadi housed the Senate, one of the oldest public institutions in Venice.  Established in the 13th century, it evolved over time until by the 16th century it was the body mainly responsible for overseeing political and financial affairs in manufacturing, trade and foreign policy. In effect, it served as a sub-committee of the Great Council and its members were generally drawn from the wealthiest Venetian families.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Chamber of the Council of Ten is named for the council that was set up after a conspiracy in 1310, when Bajamonte Tiepolo and other noblemen tried to overthrow the government. “Initially meant as a provisional body to try those conspirators, the Council of Ten is one of many examples of Venetian institutions that were intended to be temporary but which became permanent.” Its authority covered all sectors of public life, a power that gave rise to its reputation as a ruthless, all-seeing tribunal at the service of the ruling oligarchy, a court whose sentences were handed down rapidly after secret hearings. The assembly was made up of ten members chosen from the Senate and elected by the Great Council. These ten sat with the Doge and his six counselors, which accounts for the 17 semicircular outlines that you can still see in the chamber.

The Compass Room was used for the administration of justice. It was named for the large wooden compass with a statue of Justice, that stands in one corner and hides the entrance to the rooms of the three Heads of the Council of Ten and the State Inquisitors. Those summoned by these powerful magistrates waited here to be called; the magnificent decor was intended to reinforce the solemnity of the Republic’s legal machinery.

So much of the exquisite decoration we see, which dates from the 16th century, was commissioned from Veronese. Completed in 1554, the works he produced are all intended to exalt the “good government” of the Venetian Republic; the central panel, with St. Mark descending to crown the three Theological Virtues, is a copy of the original, now in the Louvre.

The Chamber of Censors was an office which was established in 1517 to address “the cultural and political upheavals that are associated with Humanism.” The State Censors “were more like moral consultants than judges, with their main task being the repression of electoral fraud and the protection of the State’s public institutions.” The walls display Domenico Tintoretto’s portraits of these magistrates.

The Chamber of the State Advocacies: This State Advocacy department dates from the 12th century, when Venice was organized as a commune. The three members, the Avogadori, safeguarded the principle of legality, making sure that laws were applied correctly. Though they never enjoyed the status and power of the Doge and the Council of Ten, the Avogadori remained one of the most prestigious authorities in Venice right up to the fall of the Republic. They were also responsible for preserving the integrity of the city’s patrician class, verifying the legitimacy of marriages and births inscribed in the Golden Book.

The “Scrigno” Room. The Venetian nobility as a caste came into existence because of the “closure” of admissions to the Great Council in 1297; but it was only in the 16th century that formal restrictions that protected the status of that aristocracy were introduced: marriages between nobles and commoners were forbidden so greater controls were set up to check the validity of aristocratic titles. Golden and Silver books registered all those families that not only had the requisites of “civilization” and “honor”, but could also show that they were of ancient Venetian origin. The Golden and Silver Books were kept in a chest inside a cupboard that also contained all the documents proving the legitimacy of claims. The 18th century cupboard we see today extends around three sides of a wall niche; lacquered in white with gilded decorations.

The Armourny, Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Armoury houses an important historical collection of weapons and armaments. The core of the collection is 14th century, dating from the time when the Armoury was under the control of the Council of Ten and stocked with weapons that would be readily available for the Palace’s guards. The collection was partially dispersed after the fall of the Republic, but still contains some 2000 exhibits, including 15th and 16th century suits of armor, swords, halberds, quivers and crossbows. Many are inscribed or painted monogram CX – for “Council of Ten” – which also appears on the door jambs, evidence of the Council’s might. The Turkish implements – weapons, standards and ships’ lanterns – that are displayed were taken from the enemy during battle. The collection also displays 16th and 17th century firearms; implements of torture; a chastity belt; and a series of small but lethal weapons that were prohibited by law.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Doge’s Palace was the heart of the political life and public administration of the Venetian Republic, so after the fall of the Republic in 1797, its role inevitably changed. Venice first fell under French rule, then Austrian, and ultimately, in 1866, became part of a united Italy.

Up until the end of the 19th century, the Palazzo Ducale was occupied by various administrative offices and housed important cultural institutions such as the Biblioteca Marciana (from 1811 to 1904). But by then, the structure was showing signs of decay. The Italian government set aside sizeable sums for an extensive restoration. Public offices were relocated with the exception of the State Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments, which is still housed in the building (now called Superintendence of the Environmental and Architectural Heritage of Venice and its Lagoon). In 1923, the Italian state which owns the building, appointed the City Council to manage it as a public museum. In 1996, the Doge’s Palace became part of the Civic Museums of Venice network.

San Marco Square, Venice, at night (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com


ST. MARK’S SQUARE MUSEUMS TICKET A single ticket valid for the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary of Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.  This ticket is valid for 3 months and grants one single admission to the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary. (20E for regular ticket; 13 E for children 6-14, students 15-25, seniors over 65 and holders of International Student Identity Card) (http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/the-museum/doges-palace/the-palace/)

MUSEUM PASS The Museum Pass the cumulative ticket for the permanent collection of the Musei Civici of Venice currently open and for those connected (Palazzo Fortuny and Clock Tower not included).  This ticket is valid for 6 months and grants one single admission to each museum. The Museum Pass grants entrance to: The St Mark’s Square museums
: – Doge’s Palace – combined itinerary of Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, plus other civic museums of Venice: Ca’ Rezzonico – Museum of 18th-Century Venice; Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo; Carlo Goldoni’s House; Ca’ Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art + Oriental Art Museum; Glass Museum – Murano; Lace Museum – Burano; Natural History Museum. (24E or 18 E), www.visitmuve.it.

Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander back through the narrow alleys of the old city, stopping to listen to a musician fill a plaza with his music, to the tram that takes me back to the Hotel Alexander in Mestre. Tomorrow, Eric and I will start our eight-day self-guided bike tour that will take us about 300 miles to Trieste, Slovenia and Croatia.

(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street , Chattanooga, TN 37405,  423-756-8907, 877-462-2423, www.biketours.com,info@biketours.com).

See also: Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

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