Category Archives: Cultural travel

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 5: Discovering Abu Dhabi

View of the Grand Mosque from the Souk at Qaryat © 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 is yet another instance of proving what travel is all about: seeing, learning, connecting for yourself, and undoing stereotypes and caricatures.

Yes, Abu Dhabi 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 relatively recently out of a chunk of desert. The skyscrapers and structures have grown up here in a matter of decades, not centuries.

Fort Hassan, the oldest structure in Abu Dhabi, is an excellent historical museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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. It provides the history of Abu Dhabi (https://qasralhosn.ae)

Qasr al Hosn, as it is properly called, is the oldest and most significant building in Abu Dhabi, holding the city’s first permanent structure; the watchtower. Built around the 1790’s, the commanding structure overlooked the coastal trade routes and protected the growing settlement established on the island.

Fort Hassan, the oldest structure in Abu Dhabi, is an excellent historical museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It consists of two major buildings: the Inner Fort (originally constructed in 1795) and the Outer Palace (1939-45). Over the centuries, it has been home to the ruling family, the seat of government, a consultative council and a national archive; it now stands as the nation’s living memorial and the narrator of Abu Dhabi’s history.

Transformed into a museum in 2018 after more than 11 years of intensive conservation and restoration work, Qasr Al Hosn is a national monument that encapsulates the development of Abu Dhabi from a settlement reliant on fishing and pearling in the 18th century, to a modern, global metropolis, with displays of artifacts and archival materials dating back to as far as 6000 BC.

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

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) – for both their art 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 boom just seems to be going on.

And then you consider this: 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, remarks. We had just come for Bagan, Myanmar, where the temples have been standing since the 11th century despite earthquakes and world events, and Yangon, where we visited the Schwedagon Pagoda that dates back 2,500 years.

At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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. (Indoors, with very comfortable air-conditioning and facilities.)

At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From there, I walk 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.

Visit to a souk, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My walk lets me revel in the skyscape. I come upon an intriguing road sign pointing toward the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation.

Visit to a souk, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Falcon Hospital

I find myself dashing to get to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where I had pre-booked the 2 pm tour. I didn’t realize how far it is from downtown – a 35-minute drive. The taxi driver, who I learn was recruited to come work in Abu Dhabi from his home in Ghana along with many other young men, and lives in an apartment building with other migrant workers, has to stop for gas and I worry I will miss the tour altogether.

Prized falcons wait patiently for their appointment at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visit to the Falcon Hospital is truly a highlight of a visit to Abu Dhabi. It is fascinating to learn how these prized birds are handled. We are taken into the treatment area, surprised to see a couple of dozen hooded falcons, waiting patiently in what is a waiting room for their “appointment”. Their owners drop 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, as wild falcons, 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.

A doctor anesthetizes a falcon being treated at the 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 is 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). The feather has to be an exact match, 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”).


A falcon being treated at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We learn that the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) is the first public institution in the United Arab Emirates providing comprehensive veterinary health care services exclusively for falcons. It was established by the Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency and opened in October 1999. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has become the largest falcon hospital in the United Arab Emirates and in the world, caring for 11,000 falcons a year and more than 110,000 patients since its opening.

A falcon being treated at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From being established as a purely veterinary facility, the ADFH has expanded in the fields of education and awareness, training and research. Due to the huge demand the falcon hospital has became a full-fledged specialized avian hospital for all kinds of birds and poultry species in 2006. In 2007, it added services for a wide variety of VIP pets and in 2010 opened an animal shelter. In 2011, it began its own falcon breeding program and breeds Saker falcons for the H.H. The Late Shk Zayed Falcon Release Program.

In 2007, ADFH opened its doors to what has become an award-winning tourism program and has become the most important tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi – for good reason.

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has become one of the most visited attractions in Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 the falcons are very kind and gentle and bond with their owner. The feeling is clearly reciprocal – these prized falcons, which can cost up to $1 million, can fly on an airplane in the first class cabin with their owner (they have to have their own passport to prevent illegal trafficking), have their own seat and their own menu (fresh killed meat).

The Grand Mosque

Next I go to the Sheikh Zayed 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 and altogether up to 51,000 worshippers for such high holy days as Ramadan. At more than 55,000 sq. meters it is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world. And every cubic meter of it spectacularly decorated – the courtyard is one of the largest mosaics in the world.

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

I time the visit to arrive about 4:30 pm in order to be there at dusk and sunset – and go first to what is labeled “the Visitors Happiness Desk” – how could I resist? The two gentlemen who manned the desk (surprisingly who are natives of Abu Dhabi when 88 percent of the population here come from some place else) are extremely well suited to their role – extremely friendly, helpful. As I am asking my questions, who should come down the escalator but my Global Scavenger Hunt teammate (small world!), so we visit together.

Your visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi starts at the Visitors Happiness Desk© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The experience of visiting is surprisingly pleasant, comfortable, welcoming – not austere as I expected (especially after having visited Buddhist temples in Myanmar where even when the stones are hot enough to fry an egg, you have to walk completely barefoot). Women must be fully covered, including hair, but they provide a robe (free). (I look like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)

Indeed, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque “aims to cultivate interaction between Islam and world cultures… Sheikh Zayed’s vision for the Grand Mosque was to incorporate architectural styles from different Muslim civilizations and celebrate cultural diversity by creating a haven that is truly diverse and inspirational in its foundation. The mosque’s architects were British, Italian and Emirati, and drew design inspiration from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt among other Islamic countries, to create this glistening architectural marvel accommodating 40,000 worshippers and visitors at a time. 

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

“The open-door policy invites tourists and celebrants from all around the world who can witness the spectacular onion-top domes, the reflective pools that engulf the courtyard and the iconic prayer hall, which not only overflows with blissful sunlight, but also houses the world’s biggest chandelier and carpet, both meticulously handmade. Be sure to spot the calligraphy encircling the hollows of the domes, etched with verses from the Quran and painted with gold leaves in An-Naskh lettering.”

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

When you arrive at the Visitors Center, which is at some distance from the mosque, you walk underground to where there is an air-conditioned mall, with restaurants and shops, then go through a tunnel like an airport (an electric cart is available for those who can’t walk distances; it kind of reminded me of how Disney moves its visitors into its attractions).

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

The public tour (an absolute must) is also free, indeed, the admission ticket to the Grand Mosque is free. (Fortunately, Margo manages to get us on the last public tour of the day which had already left, getting the guard to let us slip under a barrier.) Our guide is a delightful young woman who cheerily walks us through and points out the amazing art and details. The mosque is massively large in scale, but looks remarkably delicate.

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

Just as we leave a touch of sunlight breaking through clouds that make the structures even more beautiful, if that were possible. By the time we get outside, the lights have come on (www.szgmc.gov.ae/en/Home ).

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at dusk © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I ask the Happiness guys where to go for the best view of the Grand Mosque after dark, and, instead of the adjacent hotel where I had first been directed, they point us to The Souk at Qaryat (Al Beri), just across the water from the mosque. Sure enough, the view is spectacular.

View of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque from the Souk at Qaryat © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Global Scavenger Hunt Challenges

We had arrived in Abu Dhabi about midnight local time the night before, after having left our hotel in Myanmar at 5:15 am, flying 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 day or time it is), so for us, midnight was 3 am. Bill Chalmers, the organizer, ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of the Global Scavenger Hunt tells us this was the most arduous travel day we would have (and the 18 hours travel from Vancouver to Vietnam was the longest airline trip).

We have had a full day in Abu Dhabi to do our scavenges. 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 title, “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 immerse us in cultures. In Abu Dhabi, one of the experiences that would earn 100 points is to be invited for dinner with a family in their 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 is 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.

View of the Presidential Palace at night, from the roof of the St. Regis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other possibilities: ride “the world’s fastest rollercoaster” (75 points – Paula and Tom, the SLO Folks and returning champions, did that and said it felt like 4G force); walk the Emirates Palace 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 Presidential Palace, only recently opened to the public, and visit Qasr Al Watan, a building within the compound dubbed “’Palace of the Nation” (complete with huge white domes, lush gardens and dramatic chandeliers, the new landmark is intended to give visitors a stronger understanding of the UAE’s governing traditions and values. There is also a spectacular nightly show.)  (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 and bring people together. One of the scavenges here is to assemble three flavors of camel milk from a grocery store and do a blind taste test (35 points).

Unfortunately, an attraction we all wanted to visit, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was closed. The museum, which opened in November 2017, is a collaboration with the famous Louvre of Paris, France, and intended to be a “universal museum in the Arab World,” focusing on “what unites us: the stories of human creativity that transcend individual cultures or civilizations, times or places.”

The pioneering cultural project combines “the UAE’s bold vision of cultural progression and openness with France’s expertise in the world of art and museums.” The museum was expected to exhibit Leonard Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, considered the most expensive painting in the world (purchased for $450 million at auction in November 2017, believed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sulman), but delayed the exhibition. (www.louvreabudhabi.ae)

A lasting impression that I will carry away from this brief visit to Abu Dhabi is that its theme this year is “Year of Tolerance” which also goes to what we have experienced here: attractions and programs intended to promote understanding of Islamic history, heritage and culture.

Our accommodation in Abu Dhabi is the five-star St. Regis (just about all the accommodations arranged for the Global Scavenger Hunt are five-star), which serves the most extravagant breakfast. Purposefully, our ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, has arranged it so we will have two, lavish breakfasts here, much to our collective delight.

Grand lobby of the St. Regis Abu Dhabi hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hotel has a stunning rooftop pool and bar (what a view!) and is connected by a tunnel under the busy boulevard to the beach on the Persian Gulf.

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! (can’t believe I missed that), 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!

More information on visiting Abu Dhabi at https://visitabudhabi.ae/en/.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, 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 8-Hour Layover Challenge in Bangkok, Thailand

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bill Chalmers, the organizer for the past 15 years and inventor of the Global Scavenger Hunt, “a blind date with the world,” notes the rare backtracking to Bangkok from Myanmar. “Oddly, we had to fly slightly east to further our westward global trajectory…Myanmar is still hard to get into and out of with limited connections to mostly its regional neighbors…especially Bangkok and Singapore. Today we chose Bangkok as a more interesting layover in our exit strategy. Thus we a have fun 8-Hour Layover Challenge…but I am getting ahead of myself.”

We scurry about the Bangkok airport, finding a place to check our luggage for the precious few hours, finding an information counter with a map and information about how to get downtown (we discover a rail link into the city).

Besides figuring out the logistics of Bangkok without any prior preparation (because that is the essence of the Global Scavenger Hunt, an around-the-world mystery tour to determine “World’s Best Travelers”), our visit is complicated by preparations for the coronation of the new King.

Also, my teammate Margo has her own scavenger hunt going: she is trying to find chips from Harley Davidson Motorcycle dealers in every place we go. Her hunt brings us to one of Bangkok’s major urban shopping malls – every luxury and brand name in the world is represented. Harley is on a floor with Jaguar and other luxury cars. It is an amazing opportunity to view local life of Bangkok on a Sunday. (The movie, “Crazy Rich Asians,” immediately flashes in my mind.)

Harley Davidson shop in high-end mall in Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Food court at the shopping mall, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Margo goes off to do sightseeing by the Hop On/Off Bus; I am determined to take a water taxi. But I learn that the city has already closed off river access to the major attractions and sites that are along the river, including the Palace, and there is, in fact, a giant security cordon from the Grand Palace (later I learn that the Palace was open to visitors earlier and we just missed it).  But the water taxi along the canal is still operating.

Water taxi, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Water taxi, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I go walking (in the intense heat) toward where I can pick up the water taxi. The time is ticking away and I have to calculate the amount of time to get back to the airport in time for our flight to Abu Dhabi. I pass interesting places, like the “Anti-Money Laundering Office”.

Anti-Money Laundering Office, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

It is fun to ride the water taxi and I take it to a place close to the Grand Palace where there is an important temple, the Golden Mount (Wat Saket). A very nice fellow coming off the water taxi points me in a direction to the Democracy Monument. I learn that it was commissioned in 1939 to commemorate the 1932 Siamese coup d’etat which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in the Kingdom of Siam. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram saw the monument as the center of a new Westernized Bangkok, akin to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs d’Elysees in Paris.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I see literally thousands of police, military, and what appear to be volunteers in colored shirts, the streets decorated for a parade (the administration building is nearby)– but no people on the streets waiting for a parade. The coronation is taking place in just a couple of weeks time. I assume that they are doing a rehearsal.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Mount (Wat Saket), Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I contemplate hiring a little jitney taxi to take me close to the Grand Palace, but looking at the time and calculating how long it would take to backtrack to the airport, I just head back to the water taxi, walk through a broad shopping boulevard (big portraits of the King and Queen), to the train to the airport.

This moment in history, in fact, becomes the theme for my Bangkok visit.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of it, though I did not get to see the Top Attractions of Bangkok, I fulfilled the essence of the Global Scavenger Hunt: I immersed myself in the everyday rhythm of this place and these people, exotic no longer.

(For more travel information, visit https://na.tourismthailand.org/About-Thailand/Destination/Bangkok.)

We are off to Abu Dhabi!

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, 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 3: Back in Yangon, Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics; its dome is gilded with 60 tons of gold, and the top has an orb with 4531 diamonds. It is breathtaking © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another perfect day in Myanmar – our fourth and final day on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, in which we set out from Yangon to travel about the country, making a triangle that takes me to Bagan and Inle Lake and back to Yangon to fulfill the Par 5 challenge on this a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour.

The 45-minute taxi ride from the delightful, five-star Sanctum Inle Resort on Inle Lake is wonderful – I catch people driving oxcarts and donkey carts and people riding the backs of trucks, villages and pagodas. But I have some trepidation about Heho Airport because of the snafu in booking my ticket, resolved long-distance by text to my son in New York to phone the online booking agent, as I bounced around on the overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. But I arrive, am checked in to Golden Airlines without incident, and relax during the 45-minute flight back to Yangon.

The morning flight gives me time to explore Yangon which I didn’t have when we first arrived on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt from Vietnam, and were given our challenges, to travel around Myanmar and return to the Sule Sangri-la Hotel by the 6 pm deadline.

Leaving the airport, I attempt to take the public bus back into downtown, but after two buses pass me by, I take a taxi instead.

Riding back, I review a brochure I picked up at the airport which mentions a synagogue in Yangon – in fact, the last synagogue in Myanmar. So I resolve to find it.

It turns out it is only a 15-minute walk from our hotel, the Sule Sangri-la, bringing me through various bustling market streets and shopping districts. The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue itself is set on a busy market street where there are chickens and fish for sale – the chickens clucking, the fish squirming to get out of their container (I see one jump out of its container), the rich scent of spices, and every other manner of item you can imagine.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon, Myanmar’s last synaoguge © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By the time I arrive at Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, it is 1:40 pm – which proves extremely lucky because it closes to visits at 2 pm (open daily except Sunday). Inside, it is a lovely synagogue in the Sephardic style, built in 1896. At one point, the Jewish community in Yangon numbered 2500 before the mass migration of WWII; today, there are only 5 families (about 30 people). The Samuels, one of the last remaining Jewish families, has maintained the synagogue for generations, a plaque notes.

One of the bustling street markets in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
One of the bustling street markets in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street market in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street market in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Perhaps not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market, which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace. I am surprised to see all the sellers of jade and jewelry (which is what the market is known for), as well as traditional longyi, and just about anything else you can think of. I come upon a seller of interesting post cards, and find the post office on the third level (one of my traditions of travel is to send home postcards, which not only have stamps, but mark the date and give some visual and personal notes). Also, I have been impressed by the absolute lack of political messaging in the streets, but here in the market is one art seller who has images of Myanmar’s most famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Wondering about the name, I later learn that Bogyoke Aung San market is named for her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San.

Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon’s major marketplace since 1926, is named for Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon, Myanmar’s major marketplace since 1926 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A likeness of Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi for sale at Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon’s major marketplace since 1926, named for her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Shwedagon Pagoda

I walk back to the hotel, just a few blocks away, to refresh (it is 104 degrees), in order to prepare for a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, which I have been saving for the late afternoon (one of the mandatory scavenges of the Global Scavenger Hunt is to visit at dawn or dusk), so that I will be there at dusk (but back at the hotel by the 6 pm deadline for the scavenges), but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of seeing it.

Just as I am about to leave, my teammate, Margo, who had traveled to Mandalay when I went on to Inle Lake, walks in. She relates that after a snafu with her airline ticket, she had to hire a taxi to drive her back to Yangon (ironic because I couldn’t get the airline to cancel my ticket when I changed my plan to go to Inle Lake instead, but such mishaps turn into marvelous adventures). We go off together to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is located west of the Royal Lake, on the vast, 114 -acre Singuttara Hill.

Margo cleverly hires a guide to show us around this vast, vast complex and it is fascinating: this was the first pagoda in the world, he tells us.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics; its dome is gilded with 60 tons of gold, and the top has an orb with 4531 diamonds. It is breathtaking.  © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. It is breathtaking.

Workman restore the gold to the Shwedagon Pagoda’s dome © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

The Shwedagon Pagoda stands 326 feet high, its dome covered in 60 tons of gold (we watch  workmen on scaffolding replacing some of the gold plates). At the very top, too small to be appreciated from where we stand at the base, is an orb, 22 inches high and 11-inches wide, encrusted with 4531 diamonds, the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond. The base is surrounded by 64 small pagodas with four larger ones in the center of each side. There also are four sphinxes, one at each corner, with six leogryphs (a lion-like creature). Projecting beyond the base of the Pagoda. are Tazaungs (shrines) in which are images of the Buddha and where offerings are made.

There are also figures of elephants crouching and men kneeling and pedestals for offerings all around the base. In front of the 72 shrines surrounding the base of the Pagoda, there are images of lions, serpents, ogres, yogis, spirits, or Wathundari. Among the most dazzling art is a Jade Buddha. There are also mystical and mysterious places, like the well where Buddha’s sacred hair was washed and Buddha’s foot print.

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

Representing the highest achievements of Myanmar’s sculpture, architecture and art, there are hundreds of colorful temples, stupas and statues spanning nearly 2500 years. It is known as Shwedagon, “the Sanctuary of the Four,” because it contains relics of four Buddhas who had attained Enlightenment.

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

We move among the bustling activity of devotees and monks washing the statues, offering flowers, worshiping, and meditating. 

Most interesting is coming upon a procession of families celebrating the induction of two young boys into the monastery.

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

(The Sule Pagoda which I visited the evening we arrived in Yangon – was it just four days ago? – was also magnificent, but Shwedagon is on a different scale of magnificent.)

(See more information on visiting Schwedagon Pagoda, www.shwedagonpagoda.com).  

You could easily spend hours here, but we must dash back in a taxi to get back to the Global Scavenger Hunt group, arriving a few minutes past the 6 pm deadline (we aren’t competing to win the challenge to be the “World’s Best Travelers,” so we did not have to turn in our scorecards documenting our scavenges, though, in fact, we have been doing as many as we can.

At a hosted dinner at a Japanese restaurant, all of us trade our stories of adventure and exploration from Yangon and some combination of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. One of the scavenges invited the teams to take part in a volunteering opportunity and Lawyers Without Borders, the team from Houston, volunteered at a Youth Development monastery in Yangon.  “The monks take in, house, feed and educate orphans from far-flung and remote villages around the country,” Zoe Littlepage writes on her blog (http://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com). “My favorite part was eating lunch with the kids. They sing their prayers before they can start eating.. magical.” (Zoe Littlepage and Rainey Booth, of Houston, are on their 12th Global Scavenger Hunt, and are five-time champions, and their law firm helps support the philanthropic works of the Global Scavenger Hunt Foundation.)

We return to the hotel to get our four-hour notice and learn where our 23-day “Blind Date with the World” mystery tour continues next: an eight-hour layover challenge in Bangkok and then on to Abu Dhabi – essentially having breakfast in Myanmar, lunch in Thailand and dinner (or nightcap?) in the United Arab Emirates.

We are out the door at 5:15 am (the hotel sends us off with breakfast boxes), to get to the airport.

It is worth noting that in addition to having a unique alphabet and language, Myanmar (formerly Burma) asserts its identity by keeping its clocks half-hour different from its timezone.

I realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed ordering our day, a concept rather than an invention. We lost a full day crossing the timezone during that first flight of more than 14 hours, and have been picking up an hour or so here as we go.

Global Scavenger Hunt teams Lawyers Without Borders (from Houston) and Order & Chaos (doctors from California) do their peer review at the airport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of this Par 5, Leg 3 dash through Myanmar, SLO Folks, a team from central California who are the returning champions from last year’s Global Scavenger Hunt, earned the second most points with 37 scavenges in Yangon, Bagan and the point rich area of Inle Lake for 2,055 points; and Lawyers Without Border, a team from Houston on their 12th Hunt (they have won it five times) had the most, completing 52 scavenges in Yangon, Bagan & Inle Lake earning 2,745 points.

More Myanmar travel information is at http://myanmartravelinformation.com/top-destinations/yangon.html.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

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

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 2: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Traditions Survive in Modern City, as Does Reckoning with Past

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Saigon is the second leg of nine during a 23-day, around-the-world Global Scavenger Hunt, “A Blind Date with the World,” where we don’t know where we are going until we are given 4-hour notice. Under the Global Scavenger Hunt rules, you are not allowed to use a phone or computer for information or reservations, hire a private guide, or even use a taxi for more than 2 scavenges at a time, since the object is to force you to interact with locals. Though we were not officially competing for “World’s Best Travelers,” my teammate, Margo (who I only met on this trip) and I basically followed the rules in Vancouver and during our first day in Vietnam, but we had to deviate on the second day.

It is shortly before 4 pm in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, by the time we have received our book of scavenges from Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt ringmaster (as he likes to be called), who has ranked Vietnam a “Par 3” in difficulty (on a scale of 1-6), strategized what scavenges we will undertake, and after a swim in the hotel’s pool (so hot even the pool was like a bathtub), we head out of the Majestic Hotel, a five-star historic property, toward Ben Thank Market, one of the scavenges on the list.

Built in 1870 by the French who colonized Vietnam for 100 years, it is where then and now, you can find locals and tourists alike, with row after row after row chock-a-block full of almost everything imaginable. (Be prepared to bargain aggressively; the shopkeepers are even more aggressive). I come away with a few things I can’t bear to pass up, when Margo realizes a second scavenge we can accomplish: tasting three separate fruits (there is heavy emphasis on “experience” scavenges that involve food, and Vietnam, Bill says, is one of the great food places in the world).

At bustling Ben Thank Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, we see and taste fruits we had never seen before © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We find a fruit stand and sure enough, there are fruits I have never seen before, including one, called dragon fruit, which looks like it was divined by JK Rowling for Harry Potter; the others we sample: rambutan, mangosteen, longan. We are standing around these ladies, asking them to cut open the various fruits so we can sample them to complete the scavenge, taking the photos we need to document.

Dragon fruit, at Ben Thank Market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, seems like it was invented by JK Rowling for Hogwarts, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among the other scavenges on the list here in the market: to find a cobra in jar of alcohol; the tackiest souvenir in market; and a wet market (which befuddles most of us and turns out to be the meat market which is hosed down).

We ask locals for directions to our next stop: the Water Puppet Show of Vietnam at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater. It seems walkable but we get lost along the way (technically we can’t use the GPS on the phone, but we aren’t competing – we still get lost) and are simply amazed at the rush and crush of mopeds (mainly) and cars in this city of 9 million where there are an estimated 7 million scooters, and the range of what people carry on them without a second thought. I literally stand in a traffic island to get the full view.

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
There are an estimated 7 million scooters in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Traffic, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are also amazed we are able to function having departed Vancouver, Canada, for Vietnam at 2 am for a 14-hour flight to Taipei, followed by an hour lag time before a 3-hour connection to Saigon. Time has become a very fluid, meta thing.

But we forge on (the secret to avoiding being taken down by jet lag is to stay up until bedtime). This is also on the scavenger list and as it turns out, we meet several other teams from our group.

Scene from Water Puppet Theater, a marvelous display of traditional Vietnamese culture at Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The performance proves fabulous and unexpected – the puppets actually emerge out of water; water is their platform. There is musical accompaniment on traditional instruments and the musicians also become the characters and narrators and sing. This is quite an outstanding cultural performance – the artistry and imaginativeness of the puppets (who swim, fish, plant rice which then grows, race boats, dance, catch frogs and do all sorts of things with incredible choreographed precision, is incredible.

The puppeteers of the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater take their bow, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

These seem to be folk stories, and the music is traditional. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand Vietnamese. It confounds me how they do such precise choreography from the water (the puppeteers are behind a gauze curtain; controlling with bubble wands horizontally). The artistry is magnificent and the experience an utter delight. (Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, 558 Ngyuyen Thi Minh Kahi Street, Dist.1, HCMC, www.goldendragonwaterpuppet.com).

View from Saigon Skydeck atop the Bitesco Financial Tower © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From there, we take a taxi to hit another scavenge, going to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor of the Bitesco Financial Tower, which affords beautiful scenes of Saigon. From here, all you see is a very modern city. Many of the buildings below are decorated in colored lights. This is an example of modern Saigon that is rising. (Skydeck senior rate $5; some places have senor rates, others don’t, so ask)

View from the Majestic Hotel’s rooftop bar, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back at the Hotel Majestic, we go up to the 8th floor M Club, a delightful rooftop bar, where there is a band playing. The open-air views of the Saigon River and the skyline are just magnificent. Margo orders a “Majestic 1925” which is Bourbon, infused orange, sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitter, orange zest, and smoked – the whole process done on a table brought to us, as a crowd gathers to watch the mixocologist light a torch to generate the smoke. Quite a scene.

Preparing the Majestic 1925 cocktail at the Majestic Hotel’s rooftop bar, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2 in Vietnam: Confronting the Horrors of War

Whereas my first afternoon and evening in Ho Chi Minh City was devoted to seeing the city as it is today – albeit dotted with centuries old buildings, markets and heritage – the second day is a somber, soul-searching journey back in time. Indeed, as I wander around the city, you don’t see any obvious scars of the Vietnam War.

One of the signature sights of a visit to Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi Tunnels. My teammate Margo has already been there and doesn’t want to return, but I feel duty-bound to see it for myself.  I wake up early and go down to the hotel concierge to see if I can get on the 7:30 am half-day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

The concierge calls the tour company and says there is room on the bus and that they pick up right at the hotel. I am off. (545,000 Dong, about $25, www.saigontourist.net, www.e-travelvietnam.com)

As we travel outside through the city, the guide points out sights and gives us a history of Vietnam, going back to the Chinese who came in the 1600s, the French who came later, the Vietnam War and the aftermath,  while hardly disguising resentment of the North Vietnamese who have flooded into the city since the war. Ho Chi Minh City has grown from a city of 2 million to 9 million today, with 7 million scooters (here, instead of Uber car, you summon a Grab scooter).

City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, shows French colonial influence © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s an opportunity to see more of the city and soon we are in the countryside, traveling through small villages and farms where we see cemeteries, markets, houses, a few animals, rubber plantations. We see new agricultural techniques being used on farms and pass an agricultural research center. It is about an hour’s drive. 

A demonstration of rice paper making at Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense network of connecting tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which the Viet Cong used to launch guerrilla warfare against the Americans during the Vietnam War. The site has over 120 km of underground tunnels with trapdoors, living areas, storage facilities, armory, hospitals, and command centers, and were used going back to 1948 against the French, and later against the Americans.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visit is profound, and though the script is written by the victors, is appropriate to represent the side that wanted to push out colonists (though in retrospect, I realized that there was no real mention of the fact that the South Vietnamese leadership didn’t want the Communist North Korean leadership to take over, either – nothing is simple, especially not in the world of geopolitics).

Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You have to appreciate the commitment and courage and sacrifice of the Viet Cong in living the way they did – creating a virtually self-sufficient underground community, planting booby traps for the Americans, repurposing unexploded bombs into weapons and old tires into sandals, cooking only at night and channeling the smoke to come up in a different place (where it would look like morning steam, so not to give away the location of the tunnels).

We get to climb into a tunnel, and can go 20, 40, 60, 80 up to 160 meters, seeing just how tiny they were – you have to crouch all the way through and sometimes even crawl. It is hot, uncomfortable, you feel claustrophobic and it is a bit terrifying.

Our tour guide leads us through – he is incredibly kind and considerate. He gives special attention to the children who are visiting – grabs them when they want to go down into a tunnel where he fears there could be scorpions (he shows us carcasses), snakes or rats.

There is also a shooting range where you can shoot an AK 47 or M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire gives you some sense of what the people were living through. There was a hospital, a sewing area where they would make uniforms, there is a trap door to escape. We see where they would have made sandals from old tires. We watch a woman demonstrate making rice paper; another at a sewing machine where she would be making uniforms, a rifle hung close by on the wall.

All of these things which we see above ground are recreated from what they would have looked like underground.

There were also constant bombings – B-52s could fly from the base in just two minutes time.

Scene from documentary film at Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We get a sense of that in documentary-style films that are presented at the end. The film uses grainy black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save the Fatherland from US aggression, which basically depicts much of what we have visited in the tunnels, but as these places were used during the war. I must say that as gruesome as the film is, the only “propaganda” element is that it does not discuss the civil war between North and South Vietnam, only that the war was perpetrated by the Imperialist United States.

Scene from documentary film at Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Many of the scenes show women and girls as soldiers. “They took unexploded bombs and turned them into their own weapons; they took from the Americans the new guns but never stopped using traditional weapons – the traps devised to hunt animals were used against the American enemy… Every person can be a hero. They had to live in poverty but wouldn’t retreat. A rifle in one hand, a plow in the other. Attacked in the morning, they farmed at night so they had enough food to win the war. The Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into a dead zone, but they lived underground.”

But what we see in the film looks exactly like what was put on view here. We see people climbing through tunnels to the sound of gunfire.

“Male and female enrolled to kill enemy..Cu Chi guerrillas would rather die and become hero for killing Americans… never afraid of hardship to kill Americans. In hardship, they came together.”

Believe it or not, they actually make the experience as pleasant and as comfortable as possible, which somehow masks the terror of the place. Children smile and laugh as they get to descend through the camouflaged openings in the ground.

We leave the tunnels after spending about two hours here.

On the way back, the guide asks if we would like to make a detour to visit a factory, created by the government to employ people who were handicapped because of coming upon unexploded ordinance, or who had birth defects as a result of the chemical weapons used against the Vietnamese. Originally the factory, 27-7 HCMC.Co.Ltd, produced cigarettes, but today, Handicapped Handicrafts produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered and inlaid items.

Working in Handicapped Handicrafts, a government-sponsored factory that employs people with disabilities Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A visit to Handicapped Handicrafts, a government-sponsored factory that employs people with disabilities © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After returning to Saigon, I go off to continue my theme – visiting the buildings that the French built, starting with the magnificent Post Office (where I wind up spending close to an hour choosing from a stunning array of post cards, buying stamps and writing the cards, the sweat streaming down my face and stinging my eyes so that a nice lady hands me a tissue). Then onto the Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at 4), so I go on to the War Remnants Museum.

Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Opera House, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Picking up kids from school, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street artist, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have trouble following the map, so when I ask directions of a young man, he leads me through back alleys to the entrance of the museum, which I visit until it closes at 6 pm, because there is so much to see and take in.

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You should begin on the third level, which provides the “historic truths” (actually the background) for the Vietnam War, which more or less accurately presents the facts. On this level is a most fascinating exhibit that presents the work of the multinational brigade of war correspondents and photographers, along with a display of the dozens who were killed in the war.

Display of war correspondents killed covering Vietnam War, at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The photos are presented in an extraordinary way: showing the photo, then providing notes about the background, the context of the image, and the photographer. Here too, the language (which was probably produced by the news organizations that put on the exhibit), was accurate. Among them is the famous, Pulitzer-prize winning photo of “Napalm Girl” where, for the first time, I notice the soldiers walking along as this young girl is coming down the road in terror, their demeanor in such jarring contrast to these fleeing Vietnamese. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame and wonder why there has never been accountability for war crimes.

The impact of Agent Orange in graphic detail at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It only gets worse on the second level, where the atrocities committed during war are provided in the sense of artifacts, and details that could have, should have properly been used at war crimes trials. But none took place. Another exhibit documents the effects of Agent Orange.

The first floor, which should be visited last, addresses the Hanoi Hilton, the place where American prisoners of war, including Senator John McCain, were kept. Here, though, is where it can be said the propaganda offensive takes place – there are photos showing a female nurse bandaging an American’s head wounds, the caption noting how she had put down her gun in order to care for him. This exhibit brings things up to date, with the visits of President Clinton in 1994; in another section, it notes that Clinton’s visit brought the end of economic sanctions, and with the country’s shift to market economy, produced revitalization, as measured by the boom in mopeds.

But on the bottom floor, they show photos of Obama’s visit and most recently of Trump in Vietnam.

This floor also has an exhibit devoted to the peace movement in the US and around the world, with some famous incidents, such as the shooting of the Kent State four. There is a photo of John Kerry, who went on to be a Senator, Secretary of State and candidate for president,  testifying to Congress in his military uniform,  on the necessity of immediate and unilateral. “how do you ask a man to be the last man to dies in Vietnam? How do ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

The photo that had such impact on focusing American public opinion against the Vietnam War, on display at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A special exhibition, “Finding Memories” attempts to recreate the struggle of the people of Hanoi and Haiphong to overcome the pain and loss of war. “It helps those who haven’t experienced wars to learn more through remarkable and humane wartime stories, especially the stories about American pilots in the ‘Hilton-HaNoi’. Finding Memories is an opportunity for Vietnamese people to develop greater pride for their victory – a 20th century miracle; for American pilots to recall a serene period of their lives; as well as for each and every visitor to understand the severe destruction and painfully grim nature of war, in order to call for all people to work together and dedicate our efforts to build a world of peace and love.”

A poster in the Peace Movement exhibit at War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Outside are displays of captured American plane, tanks, and other items.

I look around for an American who might have served in Vietnam to get an impression, but did not find anyone, and saw a few Vietnamese (most of the visitors were Americans or Europeans), but only one or two who might have been alive during that time and wondered what they thought. Clearly the conclusion of the displays was in favor of reconciliation when just as easily, and using a heavier-handed propagandist language, could have stoked hatred. The exhibit is careful not to paint all Americans and not even all American soldiers as monsters but one photo caption is particularly telling: it shows an American hauling off an ethnic minority, noting “American troops sent to the battlefield by conscription knew nothing about Vietnam, thought the Cambodia people of ethnic minorities were living near Cambodia were collaborators for the enemy.”

I leave feeling that the experience is close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and remorse that is deserved.

City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We meet at 8:30 pm to hand in our score sheets and share stories – one team got up at 5 am in order to get to the floating market; a team was able to get on the street market food tour, where they take you around by scooter (they only take 8 and it was closed out); another took a cooking class.

We get our notice of where we are going next:  be up at 6 am for 7 am bus to airport for 9:35 flight…. to Myanmar!

More information on travel to Vietnam at www.vietnam.travel.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

See also:

Cities, Mountains, Boat and Beach: Letters Home from Honeymoon in Vietnam & Cambodia

______________________

© 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

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

_____________________________

© 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!