Category Archives: Cultural travel

Hangzhou: Ancient & Modern Come Together in China’s Popular Resort City

Traditional wooden boats on West Lake against the backdrop of Hangzhou's modern skyline © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Traditional wooden boats on West Lake against the backdrop of Hangzhou’s modern skyline © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(On September 3, 2016, President Obama traveled to Hangzhou, China for a ceremony in which the United States and China formally joined the Paris Agreement. This is sure to spark interest in visiting this enchanting destination that I so enjoyed experiencing a few years ago. This story was originally published in 2008.)

Through its 5,000 years of human habitation, Hangzhou, a city on China’s southeastern coast about two hours drive south of Shanghai, has been called many things – Xifu, Li’An; Marco Polo referred to the city as Kinsay.

I have spent three days touring Hangzhou and the Zhejiang Province with a guide and a driver provided by the Zhejiang Provincial tourist office. They have given me a fairly good orientation to the city (see related story, Hangzhou: China’s City of Romance). I am very grateful for having had them, because it would have been difficult to figure out in the short time I had what to see and how to see important sites travel without the ability to speak and read the language. (Americans coming to China can arrange for escorted tours through several different agencies, though I did not find an easy way to hire a car and English-speaking driver.)

But for my fourth and final day in Hangzhou, I am completely on my own and I am eager to explore the city on foot (and by bicycle, as it turns out). Frankly, what made me anxious was the prospect of crossing the street.

Braving the traffic: bikes and mopeds cram their lane on the streets of Hangzhou © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Braving the traffic: bikes and mopeds cram their lane on the streets of Hangzhou © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hangzhou is a city that seems eternal for preserving its ancient heritage, but it is manifestly modern in its economic and social development. Instead of quaint narrow streets and bicycles, it has massive boulevards just crammed with cars, people riding mopeds and bicycles, all manner of vehicles and people crisscrossing, and it seems that in this mashing of man and machine, the cars have right of way – pedestrians better get out of it.

I am in the minority, it seems, in trying to merely walk on the sidewalk. But the first time I cross the street from my hotel (they have pedestrian crossing signs and some of the intersections have traffic controllers) I am okay.

I have planned my day to just wander around the city – I have a general idea and one specific destination in mind – rather than figure out public buses or hire a taxi to get to more distant places. I have plotted my course. Most of the main streets, thankfully, have English transliteration of the names on signs (something they didn’t have when I was last in China). The problem is that the spelling is not always consistent. But this is my adventure and I imagine myself Marco Polo coming into a completely foreign place.

I have prepared in advance by taking away the Capital Star Hotel card in Chinese and English, with the directions; also, my guide has written a list of places she recommended I visit, in Chinese and English. And I know that if I run into trouble, I can just to go any hotel and hail a cab. And of course, I have my street maps and handy tourist guide.

Walking about on your own is an entirely different experience than being driven places. Driving, the world unfolds like a grand tableaux – I notice, for example, buses wrapped with boldly colored advertising (even a bit risqué) on the side and such sights as the Family Planning Publicity & Technical Guidance Station of Hangzhou City.

But walking, you can choose the pace and take time to really observe things – shopkeepers opening their shops, commuters making their way to work having conversations with each other as they ride side by side on mopeds, grandparents biking their grandkids to school. Because you don’t understand the language, it is as if you are watching television without the sound – you find yourself intently focusing on details. You watch daily life unfold in real time. You also get to interact with people.

More importantly, you can follow an inner spirit, a whim.

The city itself is crowded with cars and skyscrapers, but now that I have the time to look at them more closely, many show pleasing architecture, not the sterile, institutional, massive apartment buildings that you might have imagined would have been built hurriedly, in order to accommodate the needs of the 1.5 million who live downtown and a burgeoning economy. The buildings have big windows and actually are built with light and air around. And everywhere I look, there are plantings – Hangzhou prides itself on being a “green” city. Here, at least, the oppressive pollution that I have heard about in other major cities, has not taken hold – no doubt because of the large amount of greenspace, national and protected lands, and the vast West Lake, itself.

At a major intersection, where the roads seem to diverge a bit, I stop to study the map (okay, I am a little confused), and a young woman wearing a leather cowboy hat asks in wonderful English if I need any help – she has just come from making a film in Tibet (I don’t ask her about the riots that had just taken place).

A fashionable man struts down Wulin Road, Hangzhou's 'Fashion Avenue.' The city manifests old & new © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A fashionable man struts down Wulin Road, Hangzhou’s ‘Fashion Avenue.’ The city manifests old & new © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have walked from my hotel in virtually a straight line, down South Hushu Road, which turns into Wulin Road, called “the Fashionable women’s garment street” on the map. This reminds me that Hangzhou is considered the capital of women’s fashion. Wulin is a street of boutiques with very fashionable clothes, western music playing, and ads on the street with western faces.

A little further on young man on a moped stops, intrigued by seeing a Westerner. “Where are you from?” he asks. “USA? America is wonderful.”

I have been surprised, in fact, that my presence (I am the only Westerner around that I can see), barely catches anyone’s notice. I had been in the first wave of Westerners to penetrate the Bamboo Curtain that had kept China virtually in isolation for decades, during my last two visits, in 1978 and 1980; today, you have the feeling that the Chinese are not so insulated, despite the government control of the media. This is probably because of all the multinationals setting up factories and other commercial ventures, and because television, even though limited, does offer some American movies. Whether or not they are actually still behind some curtain of censorship, the people don’t necessarily reflect it.

I continue on my way and come to the Anji Road Experimental School, built in 1954, where children are playing in a courtyard. The name and date intrigues me, and I wonder how teaching has changed from those days.

I finally come to West Lake and see a bicycle rental stand. I figure it will be great for transportation, if not for a chance to see more of the lake. The cost is 10 yuan (about $1.50) an hour, with a 300Yuan deposit, about $45, including the use of a bike lock and helmet. (My guide had made mention of the 300 Yuan deposit, so I am prepared, and we are able to have this conversation with the rental guy without actually understanding each other).

There are many bike rental stations around the lake; you can also get around by a golf cart – either hailing one like a cab, or chartering one.

Once I have the bike, though, I feel I have wings – I am not so brave as to tackle the major streets which are much too congested for me, but stick around the Lake and the side streets. Even here, though, it gets fairly frantic. I am thankful that it is a very low bike, and I can quickly put a foot down when I need to.

It is this wonderful sense of adventure, of having no schedule, no itinerary, just following a whim that makes the day particularly exciting. I follow whatever seems interesting, and so I find myself following the willows and the purple blossoms, and come to West Lake, again.

A statue of King Qian, who established Hangzhou as a capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
A statue of King Qian, who established Hangzhou as a capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

I stop at an archway made of these graceful willow trees, and come upon the statue of Qian, the first king of Wu, and then to the memorial to him, the Temple of King Qian (15 Y, about $2 entrance). Qian Liu, who lived from 852-932, was born in Lin’an (later called Hangzhou) and in 923 established the Wu Yue Kingdom with Hangzhou as the capital.

From what I read, Qian Liu sounds like a fascinating man. He was born to a peasant family and made his living selling salt. He joined the army when he was 20, and “suppressed war chaos of military governors.”

A curious artifact on exhibit is a replica of the Iron Certificate that Qian Liu received from the Emperor, in 895, for suppressing rebel official Dong Chang. The certificate basically exempts King Qian and his descendants from the death penalty and other legal penalties.

“The iron certificate was lost in wartime but found by fisherman in deep water,” the notes read. “Descendents of Qian bartered it back with rice. It had been for sale in bazaar.”

In 923, Qian Liu became King of the Wu Yue. He is revered for “guarding the border and keeping the people at rest, including initiating no war, converting people, awarding cultivation and weaving, building irrigation works, dredging West Lake, recruiting talent and developing trade.

“He built irrigation system and sericulture [raising silk worms for the production of raw silk], treated subordinates well and enlisted competent people.” Under his rule, the notes say, “Hangzhou became the #1 city in Southeast China in prosperity.”

He died at the age of 81 and was followed by four other Qian kings from three generations (one became king at the age of 14 and another lasted only six months).

Hangzhou served as the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom for 200 years; the city reached its zenith of power in the period just before China was invaded by the Mongols, in 1276. By then, the city had nearly a million people, making it one of the most populous cities in the world.

Though it was no longer a capital, Italian explorer Marco Polo found it a beautiful city even after the Mongol conquest. During the years of the great Kublai Khan, 100 years after the Mongol conquest, Polo wrote, “[It is] beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world. The number and wealth of the merchants, and the amount of goods that passed through their hands, was so enormous that no man could form a just estimate….”

All through my visit to various historic sites, I try to absorb as much as I can, but it is very difficult – for one thing, you are dealing with thousands of years of history, with dates based on dynasties and kingdoms; for another, the spellings and names of places and people are not consistent, and for an American, it is often difficult to distinguish the Chinese names because of the different transliterations. Even maps are hard to follow because they don’t always use the same English names or transliterations. But that is part of the fun of discovery – pieces of the puzzle come closer together.

An archway of graceful willow trees leads to the statue of Qian, the first king of Wu © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
An archway of graceful willow trees leads to the statue of Qian, the first king of Wu © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As I leave the King Qian’s memorial hall, I hear “Auld Lang Syne” playing in the orchard of willows. I follow the willows and then I follow purple flowers, and come again to the water’s edge. I am pulled in two ways: Spend more time at the magnificent West Lake, perhaps to ride completely around it (about 15 miles or so), or to go in search of Hefang Street and the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine?

I make my way to Hefang Street, which turns out to be an ancient market street that seems little changed from the centuries, and in fact, epitomizes the history and culture of Hangzhou.

Hefang Street © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hefang Street © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When the Southern Song Dynasty set up Hangzhou as its capital, a ten-li (li is a measure of distance, 500 meters or 547 yards) royal street was opened. Today, there are more than 100 shops including teahouses, drug stores, silk shops, baked goods, food, curios, calligraphy and paintings, and some noted shops including the Wanlong Ham Workshop and Wangsingji fans, that line the promenade, including a massive multi-story market building where you can buy fresh flowers, fresh fish, and just about anything else. But the most famous, is the Hu Qing Yu Tang Drugstore.

Chinese Medicine Museum

The Hu Qingyutang Chinese Pharmacy founded in 1874 by Hu Xueyan and still operating in Hangzhou, China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Hu Qingyutang Chinese Pharmacy founded in 1874 by Hu Xueyan and still operating in Hangzhou, China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My key objective for the day is to find the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Hu Qing Yu Tang Chinese Medicine Museum), but I am having trouble figuring out where it is (largely because the maps don’t conform). I look down a narrow alley that seems intriguing and see giant Chinese characters on a wall and an arrow pointing down the street. I feel compelled to follow the arrow, and sure enough, almost by accident, I come upon the entrance to the museum.

I pay the 10Y fee ($1.40), and follow the signs: “Upstairs, Visitor” and “Onwards, Visitor.”

The first museum dedicated to Chinese medicine in China, it is located within a fantastic house like a palace and today, one of the finest examples of architecture that remains from the late Qing Dynasty. It is exactly as the brochure says, “ingenious in layout, antique in form, most well preserved”. The structure is a significant attraction in itself.

This is the site of the Hu Qingyutang Chinese Pharmacy founded in 1874 by Hu Xueyan, who is identified as “a red-hat businessman”. A man of modest background, I learn, he made his money by raising food and supplying the government during a period of rebellion. As a reward, he was crowned by the Emperor Tongzhi of Qing Dynasty with the top rank and bestowed a yellow mandarin jacket.

He became fantastically wealthy, owned an enormous amount of real estate, and founded the pharmacy as his way of giving back to the community. But in 1883, he began to invest in silk and “failed in competition with foreign adventurers, went bankrupt and two years later, died of depression.”

I am intrigued by the Hu Xueyan motto: “Refraining from cheating.” In fact, on display is a “Deception Warning Tablet”. According to the brochure, Hu Xueyan instructed salesclerks to raise deer and, dressed in livery uniform, parade them when the Idrodeer pill was being prepared. The deer was killed in public to show that the ingredients were “true” and there was no deception.

The art, relics, architecture of the museum are simply fantastic – as you roam from room to room, exhibit to exhibit. In fact, the brochure says this is the largest ancient commercial building hall in the country.

The exhibit lays out the fundamentals of traditional Chinese medicine, and asks and answers, “How did it come about? In a primitive society, hungry people are forced to eat anything – they ate poisonous plants and suffered vomiting, diarrhea, coma, even death; sometimes they ate and found the poison alleviated.”

Archeology on the lower reaches of the Yangtze showed the use of traditional medicine from 6000-7000 years ago. Marco Polo also described traditional medicine.

In the exhibition hall, the history of Chinese traditional medicine is demonstrated through a great number of items and descriptions, including anecdotes of famous Chinese doctors in history.

A legend of one of the founders of the science of Chinese medicine is quoted: “’Shennong tasted every herb and met poisoning 10 times a day’ – through numberless intentional and accidental trials, found what worked.”

Other early practitioners, like Zhao Vuemnn (1719-1805), a native of Hangzhou, who wrote 12 books kept detailed records of scientific observations.

The Hu Qingyutang Chinese Pharmacy founded in 1874 by Hu Xueyan and still operating in Hangzhou, China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Hu Qingyutang Chinese Pharmacy founded in 1874 by Hu Xueyan and still operating in Hangzhou, China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a medicine preparation hall, where veteran masters demonstrate for visitors such operations as pill shaping and slicing of crude drugs and give visitors the chance to use the hand tools, themselves (though none are there on the day I visit). I learn how the medical pellet originated from ancient alchemy by a Taoist priest.

I go through room after room of specimens of just about every element used in traditional Chinese medicine – from plants and rocks to animals, including gecko, snake, tiger, lion – with descriptions of what they are used for: leopard relieves rheumatism and pain; oil from fur seal to moisturize skin, clear wrinkles; Mastodon fossil for calming mind and settling fright.

In 1958, the pharmacy was turned into a Chinese medicine factory; it was restored and opened as a historical site in 1988 (a year which I note there seem to be a renewed respect and appreciation for ancient heritage). Most amazing to me as I finish exploring the museum, is that it is still a traditional Chinese pharmacy. As I leave the museum, and walk next door, there is an enormous salesroom with counters and white-coated pharmacists, jars of floating roots; I see patients waiting in a pleasant seating area where there are pools of water. Upstairs, in an attached modern building, are medical offices.

You need to spend at least one hour to go through the museum; it is simply not to be missed (www.hqytgyh.com).

As I make my way around the corner back to Hefang, I look beyond this ancient street at the McDonald’s, and my trip to the past is ended.

Hangzhou, China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hangzhou, China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s my last day in Hangzhou and I realize I haven’t had much of a chance to shop (only kind of ironic, since everything in the U.S., it seems, is manufactured here). I look more closely at what is on sale here – there is fabulous stuff. After hearing so much about silk, I decide to buy some – silk pajamas for everyone.

I cycle back to the bike rental station – get back my 300 Yuan deposit, minus 50 yuan for 5 hours of bicycle rental ($7) – all of this by writing on a pad the number of hours I had the bike – we laugh.

As I walk back, parents and grandparents are waiting for children at dismissal from school. I watch a kind of parade as the students leave.

I make my way to a commercial center, just below the Radisson Hotel, where there is a Starbucks, as familiar in décor as the one our neighborhood, and enjoy a mocha Frappachino and a scone, watching the traffic and reading the newspaper.

On the way to the airport, I finally get to hear what the story of the Chinese “Romeo & Juliet” is about. My guide has made frequent mention of it, in connection with the legend of West Lake. It is a love story of a girl who pretends to be a man and falls in love. The boy realizes his friend is a girl and rushes to her home to ask for her hand in marriage, but she has been married off. I think this sounds more like “Yentl” than Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” but my guide has never heard of “Yentl.”

There is so much more to see in Hangzhou and Zhejiang Province than I could possibly do in the five days, and I look forward to returning. Several tour companies offer itineraries, such as a 10-day Zhejiang Highlights bus tour.

For more information about travel to Hangzhou, contact Hangzhou Municipal Tourism Commission, http://eng.hangzhou.gov.cn/ 

See also: Hangzhou: Ancient & Modern Come Together in China’s Popular Resort City

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Hangzhou, China: Marco Polo’s ‘City of Heaven’ As Alluring as Ever

A bridge adds to the picturesque quality of West Lake, as charming as it was in Marco Polo's day. © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A bridge adds to the picturesque quality of West Lake, as charming as it was in Marco Polo’s day. © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(On September 3, 2016, President Obama traveled to Hangzhou, China for a ceremony in which the United States and China formally joined the Paris Agreement. This is sure to spark interest in visiting this enchanting destination that I so enjoyed experiencing a few years ago. This story was originally published in 2008.)

From the first glimpse of West Lake, you are caught under the spell of Hangzhou, once China’s capital city. Both ancient and modern, you feel you are communing with Marco Polo who must have stood on this shore as I am, looking out at the silhouette of a wooden boat on the flat water against the backdrop of a pagoda and mountains, receding in haze in the distance.

Marco Polo called it “The City of Heaven.”

Wooden boats on West Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Wooden boats on West Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hangzhou is at the very end of the Grand Canal, which extends 1800 kilometers from Beijing; it is where silk has been produced for 5,000 years, where for centuries, the green tea grown on the mountain side has been used by the Emperor and still is the official tea of the government. A great river, the Qiantang, flows to the sea. Its West Lake has inspired philosophers, poets, artists, music, folklore and legend.

And for me, Hangzhou and the larger Zhejiang Province, is like a microcosm of China. It seems that all the significant elements we associate with China, from silk to tea, ceramics to calligraphy to traditional medicine, Buddhism to Cultural Revolution to capitalism, are associated with this place, but on manageable scale.

If you only have a week (and I only had five days in China), this is the place to come to capture the essence of this fantastically dynamic and complex country.

Hangzhou is the “City of Love”: a bridal couple poses for pictures beside West Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hangzhou is the “City of Love”: a bridal couple poses for pictures beside West Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A two-hour drive south of bustling Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan and commercial city, Hangzhou, with a population of 1.5 million in the downtown and 6 million more in the surrounding areas, is at a slower pace – no doubt because of the calming effect of the scenic beauty and open space. It is a resort city, especially popular as a respite for Shanghai residents, the place for weddings and honeymoons, exuding romance, where the music, legends and folklore of the Chinese “Romeo & Juliet” abound.

Hangzhou and the Zhejiang Province is also an exemplary place to see modern China – how people work and live, the schools and offices and shops.

The first thing you notice when you leave from the modern Hangzhou International Airport for the 40-minute drive into downtown by a modern highway are the farming communities – tall (four and five stories high) townhouse-looking dwellings that apparently house extended families beside small fields. They are actually charming in their way – with the classic curved roofs at the top and a cupola that provides respite in the summer heat.

Typically, there is a backdrop of high-rise apartment buildings, as well. In the city, some of these large office and apartment buildings are actually showing some architectural aesthetic, rather than the institutional blandness that followed the building boom of the 1980s.

The number of cars is shocking – the city is a ribbon of massive boulevards of six lanes or so– with people on mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles trying to compete.

Despite the number of cars, Hangzhou does its best to be a “green city” – all along the new roads and even highways, there is greenery and bike lanes (the citizens even chose the color green for their taxi cabs).

I get my first view of the Grand Canal as we enter the city. The Grand Canal is considered to be the China’s greatest engineering wonder next to the Great Wall. The earliest and longest man-made waterway in the world, it dates back 2400 years and was completed into Hangzhou in 1293 A. D. It is 21 times longer than the Panama Canal, 10 times the size of the Suez Canal and 2000 years older. It was the political belt that allowed rulers to centralize power, maintain a feudal society and dominate the nation. It would take the Emperor three months to sail from Beijing to Hangzhou. In recent years, the section around Hangzhou has been renovated and extended to meet the Qiantang river and a museum, three parks and two public squares have been opened.

We arrive at my hotel, the Capital Star, a four-star business hotel outside the resort section around West Lake. It is beside narrow waterway, which is lined on both sides with a greenway, where people come out to do tai chi. My room on the 10th floor looks out to the river and faces into an apartment building.

I stay just long enough to drop my bags so that we can spend a couple of hours touring. We drive beside the West Lake on our way to visit a famous Buddhist temple, Lingyin.

But that first look of West Lake – the willows dipping toward the water, the row boats on the lake, blossoming trees – is so captivating, I have to stop.

In its thousands of years of history, Hangzhou, once China’s capital city, has had many names. Marco Polo referred to it as Kinsay, as he related:

“Inside the city there is a Lake which has a compass of some 30 miles [he probably meant 30 li] and all round it are erected beautiful palaces and mansions, of the richest and most exquisite structure that you can imagine, belonging to the nobles of the city. There are also on its shores many abbeys and churches of the Idolaters. In the middle of the Lake are two Islands, on each of which stands a rich, beautiful and spacious edifice, furnished in such style as to seem fit for the palace of an Emperor. And when any one of the citizens desired to hold a marriage feast, or to give any other entertainment, it used to be done at one of these palaces.”

This is the same scene that I come upon West Lake, a designated National Scenic Area. In an instant, was swept under this city’s spell just as Marco Polo had been.

There are literally dozens of “West Lakes” in China (the name is like “Main Street”) but this one is the most famous. It is something like 20 kilometers around, and shaped in such a way that you cannot see all of the lake at any one time.

My guide tells me, “Hangzhou people live longer (79 on average), experience less depression, feel happy. They are not the richest in China, but the happiest.” I believe it.

For one thing, the air is cleaner (a relative term). China has become notorious for air pollution, a by-product of population and economic development – but despite the fact Hangzhou is a major city, there is tremendous amount of open space, and even in the asphalt areas, there are bushes, shrubs, trees that grow; the canal that goes through the city with parks alongside. And there is a tremendous amount of protected land immediately around the city for national parks and temples. Hangzhou prides itself as a “green city”.

A couple strolls the Su-Bai Causeway at West Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
A couple strolls along the Su-Bai Causeway at West Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

From the first moment you start walking along the West Lake, take in the plum blossom scented air, the refreshing breeze, see the wooden boats silhouetted against rolling hills which fade out in the faraway haze like a classic Chinese painting, the wisps of willow trees, the couples strolling arm and arm, the families delighting in their children and hear the laughter, the talented kite flyers, the bridal couple posing for pictures, you understand why Hangzhou is the city of love, the city of happy people who live longer and with less depression and stress than the national average.

West Lake, which is largely man-made, is not just scenic, tucked into nooks and crannies are some of the most important cultural sites, which pop up everywhere. Tucked all around the lake are gardens and former villas that have been turned into museums, memorials, tea houses.

In fact, West Lake is connected with many of China’s most noted historical figures, like the famous poet-governor Bai Juyi of the Tang Dynasty who was the first to organize a large-scale dredging; then, another famous poet-governor Su Dongpo dredged the lake and used the silt to form the graceful Su Causeway (the home of this famous man of letters and a poet “of bold and unconstrained style” has been turned into a memorial hall).

In the 10th century, during the Kingdom of Wuyue, King Qian Liu formed a 1,000-strong dredging team to look after the lake (I later visit the memorial temple for this fascinating leader, who rose from being a peasant to king, and who built irrigation system and “treated subordinates well and enlisted competent people”). The Qing Dynasty emperors Kangxi and Qianlong expanded the lake to its present proportions, visiting frequently and inscribing tablets of most of popular scenes.

Others who are remembered as national heroes and revolutionary martyrs buried around the lake, such as General Yue Fei, who resisted Jin invaders, and Qiu Jin, “an outstanding heroine, who fought against the decadent Qing court.”

The scene on West Lake is like a classic Chinese painting © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The scene on West Lake is like a classic Chinese painting © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Northern Song hermit-poet Lin Hejin secluded himself until his death at the foot of Solitary Hill. Today, you can visit Solitary Hill, the only natural island at West Lake, where there are several important historical sites. One of these is the Xiling Seal Engravers’ Society, a hall of arts housing calligraphy of China’s famous artists. It also is where Emperor Lizhong of Southern Song Dynasty and Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong of Qing Dynasty built their palaces. We come upon a bridal couple posing for their photographs.

Legends of love abound: the Scholar Xu Xian and the Lady Snakewhite, Liangshanbo and Zhu Yintai (the eastern Romeo and Juliet), and Su Xiaoxiao at Mucai Pavilion (a romance of a beautiful and gifted girl – and have lent the name of “City of Love” to Hangzhou.

The Bai Causeway is the most revered, named for Bai Juyi (772-846), a governor of Hangzhou who built several of the causeways at the lake. The Broken Bridge, located at the east end of the Bai Causeway, is the place where folk legend has it that Lady Snakewhite and Scholar Xu Xian met.

As we walk across the Bai Causeway, I see a man flying a kite – a very sophisticated contraption and he is amazingly skilled. And I am reminded that the Chinese invented kite-flying. In fact, the Chinese invented rockets, gunpowder, fireworks, paper currency, ink, printing blocks, rice cultivation, cast iron, helicopter rotor and the propeller, and, as I recall, the seismograph (about two months after my visit, central China was rocked by the worst earthquake in 30 years, killing tens of thousands).

Capitalism, free enterprise and entrepreneurship thrive – the boaters who give rides on the lake, the pearl shop where you can buy a string of fresh-water pearls harvested from the lake.

Nothing is what I expect based on my prior experience in China – but then again, I had been completely dazzled by the speed of change between my first visit, in 1978, when a chink had opened in the Bamboo Curtain of China’s isolationism from the West, and my return just two years later, in 1980, when you could see the Four Modernizations literally sweep across the country. (Between my first visit and the second, I was amazed at how many people spoke English.)

Park-goers enjoy the spring day at West Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Park-goers enjoy the spring day at West Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Things like colorful fabrics (I remember going to a fabric store in 1978 when the first bales were being sold when everyone was still wearing drab Mao jackets), Levi jeans and western dress, even walking hand in hand, playing Western music in the park, and studying books at the University were all just being revived after decades of being forbidden and all scholarship obliterated.

Today, the cars that clog the streets, the computer, cell phone and electronics stores, the leather and punk outfits, decorated jeans and odd hairdos on some young people, girls in short pants, some with exposed midriff, even couples embracing, let alone holding hands are dizzying changes from my last visit.

In those years, politics pervaded every aspect of society, in many ways antithetical to the cultural traditions stretching back thousands of years. In those days, all art and music was political – homes only displayed political posters with the message of the day. There was a forceful extraction from everyday society of everything else.

From what I can see today, even in these first few hours and through the rest of my visit, politics is no longer the overarching value or bulwark to everyday life. People, it seems, are not much different than we are. In fact, as I come to realize, they are (somewhat ironically) concerned about many of the same issues as we are: the cost of health care, the quality of public schools, the pressure to get into college, the rising cost of housing, what will happen to social security and retirement savings, the downturn in the stock market (the U.S. credit crisis and fear of U.S. recession on Chinese exports was a great concern).

You have to look hard for any reference of the Cultural Revolution – and if you did not know about Chinese history, you would not even think about it – but that whole chapter comes out in one of the small museums and memorials that ring the West Lake – housed in what used to be grand villas.

A historic villa at West Lake serves as a tea house © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A historic villa at West Lake serves as a tea house © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of these is Mr. Jiang’s Villa, built 1901 & 1923 in Chinese and Western style. It is where a famous scholar, Ma Yifu, took up residence. I study the English cards that tell his story – how he came to St. Louis in 1903 “to find a way to strengthen China.” He studied Western philosophy and literature – Hegal and Shakespeare – and later went to Germany. When he returned to China in 1911, he brought with him a German edition of Marx’s “Capitalism”. He supported the Revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, writing articles to popularize Western progressive ideology. After that, he devoted himself to the study of textual criticism, argumentation, ancient philosophy, Buddhism and literature. He was hailed for his work during the “Anti-Japanese War” as World War II is known. He briefly served in the Ministry of Education but resigned because he couldn’t stand the bureaucracy. He served as the Director of Zhejiang Research Institute of Culture and History from 1953 to 1964 and was known as a great master of the Confucian School and philosophy of the times.

But then the Cultural Revolution came, and he did not fare well. I take note of one card, “In the beginning of the 10-year long Cultural Revolution, Ma Yifu was falsely framed as ‘The Old Fogy of the feudalistic society’ and was expelled from Jiang’s Garden.” He sold his works of calligraphy “for money shortage and made his due contribution.”

Ma Yifu never recovered and died in 1967. In the reversal that took place during the Four Modernizations, his legacy was resurrected and a memorial service was held in his honor in 1989.

I see this museum as part of a policy to resurrect academics and re-ignite a reverence for history and learning.

I think of this when I am back at my hotel, and watching television (yes, there is a remote control TV). There is no CNN (perhaps there would be at the Grand Hyatt across from West Lake); there is an English-language Chinese news program and I switch to it because there is very little else to watch (most of the American movies they show are violent and most of the Chinese programs are dubbed in Japanese or else are in Japanese and dubbed in Chinese, though I do get to see a few good American movies).

But I happen to listen to an interview with a high-level official who is talking about China’s need to break from its dependency on manufacturing and export. He notes that this is deleterious for China’s resources, for its pollution, and because downturns in foreign markets (such as the U.S.) cause upheaval. Instead, the government will launch an initiative to become the producers – the creators and inventors – and will spend on Research and Development and on tightening its laws governing intellectual property.

And then I am reminded about the man flying the kite and all the rest of the inventions that China gave to the world, including paper money.

One of the best ways to enjoy West Lake is to take a boat ride – and there are many different variations, including a wood boat powered by an oarsman – which brings you close to the three small, manmade islands in the West Lake. It occurs to me that taking the boat, you become part of someone else’s idyllic scene.

Traditional boats on West Lake pull up to the famous pagodas, just off Yingzhou Islet © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Traditional boats on West Lake pull up to the famous pagodas, just off Yingzhou Islet © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The boat brings us up close to Yingzhou Islet, a small island in the lake built in 1607, famous for the three stone pagodas that were set into the water in 1621. Each pagoda has five round holes and when there is a full moon, and a candle placed in each of the pagoda, the light mingles with the moonlight, from which comes the name, “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon.” I’m especially impressed when I see the same three pagodas on the Chinese currency.

Mid-Lake Pavilion, built in 1552, has an ornamental stone arch with Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong’s inscription, “Cong Er” which means “endless romance here.”

The scene on West Lake is like a classic Chinese painting © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The scene on West Lake is like a classic Chinese painting © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the most picturesque elements on the lake is the Leifeng Pagoda, originally erected in 977 by Qian Hongchu, the last King of the WuYue Kingdom. It is so stunning during sunset that the site named “Leifeng Pagoda in Evening Glow.” The original pagoda collapsed in 1924 and the new one, 72 meters high, was reconstructed on the original site in 2002 with a museum at the base where unearthed relics are exhibited.

I love the poetry of the place with such names as “Lotus in the Breeze at the Crooked Courtyard,” “Yellow Dragon Spitting Green,” and “Precious Stone Hill in the Twilight of the Setting Sun.” Another site, “Autumn Moon over the Calm Lake” is so-called because it is the best place for enjoying the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

For more information about travel to Hangzhou, contact Hangzhou Municipal Tourism Commission, http://eng.hangzhou.gov.cn/ 

See also:

Hangzhou, China: Marco Polo’s ‘City of Heaven’ As Alluring as Ever

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking Albania: Touring Centuries Old City of Gjirokaster

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

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip.  (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 5th in the series.)

Our ride today, the 6th of cycling (7th of the tour), will bring us into the historic city of Gjirokaster – an Ottoman-era city carved into the hillside overlooking a spectacular river valley.

Today’s 46 km ride is one of the easiest – almost steadily downhill or flat – for a total elevation gain of just 200 meters and a loss of 360 meters. We follow the Vjoca River to Kelcyra Gorge.

Bridal shop in a village in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bridal shop in a village in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We stop on the road in a small village (I note the bridal shop) and Junid, our guide on this biking journey across the southern part of Albania, picks up ice cream for 50 Leke (that’s about 50 cents for an ice cream that would be $2.50 in the US) and we fill our water bottles by a natural spring – fresh and cool.

Our lunch is in a delightful restaurant which literally has a stream running over it, like a waterfall. We sit upstairs on a terrace, and the water runs down as we eat, making it look like a sunshower.

After a most delightful lunch, we drive in the van 24 km along a highway and then up a steep, twisting road into the old city of Gjirokaster (also spelled Gjirokastra or Girocastro) built on a hill 300 meters high, overlooking a lush valley beside the mountains Mali Gjerë and the Drinos river.

This means we only biked 46 km instead of 70 km, but that saves our legs and lungs (which would have been brutal to go up the hill to the village). The biking trip is not designed to be a brutal test of endurance; it is designed so that we can really enjoy the scenery and get a sense of place. So driving us into Gjirokaster also gives us more time (and energy) to explore “the city of 1000 steps”, with its narrow cobblestone streets, that is dominated by a formidable castle.

Gjirokaster

Gjirokaster is known as the “city of stone roofs” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gjirokaster is known as the “city of stone roofs” © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I quickly drop my things at the Hotel Cajupi, right below the Castle which looms from above, and go off to explore on my own before we are scheduled to meet for Junid to take us on a walking tour.

Gjirokaster is one of the oldest cities of Albania, its name means Silver Fortress and the city clearly shows the confluence of Greek, Roman, Turkish and Albanian cultures. The historic district is a protected  UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The bazaar in Gjirokaster’s old city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 347 –
The bazaar in Gjirokaster’s old city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Gjirokaster is a very popular tourist attraction (they are cultivating cultural tourism) and it is understandable why we see (wonderful) souvenir shops, English signs, historic markers with English translation, a fantastic tourist map. In fact, these are the best (actually only) tourist shops we encounter on our trip. That’s not because of American tourists, who are scant in number (though I do come upon a few), but because of Scandinavians, Swiss, Germans and Poles who come for whom English is the most common language.

I explore a bit on my own and enjoy discovering the 18-19th century houses with their distinct architectural features.

The “city of a thousand steps” which is also known as the “city of stone” is distinguished by hundreds of Ottoman-style tower houses with distinctive shapes, stone roofs, wooden balconies and whitewashed stone walls.

Historic Gjirokaster’s distinctive architecture © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Historic Gjirokaster’s distinctive architecture © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Gjirokaster has gone “from feudal stronghold to Ottoman jewel to Italian colony, the city has known many rulers and has inspired poets, authors and artists,” Europa Travel & Tours, an Albanian travel company, notes.

The network of cobblestone streets climb steeply out of a bazaar at the center of the old town. You walk ever higher to the 13th century castle.

The village is perched on the steep side of the Drino Valley overlooking a stunning landscape framed by snow-capped mountains.

In 1336, the city was known by its Greek name, Argyrokastro and was part of the Byzantine Empire. It later became the center of the local principality under the Albanian lord, Gjon Zenebishi before falling under Ottoman Empire rule for the next five centuries. It was occupied by the Greek Army during the Balkan Wars because of its large Greek population (street signs are in both Albanian and Greek and the Greek minority still speaks Greek instead of Albanian). It was eventually incorporated into Albania in 1913, when Albania won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, and the Council of Ambassadors (Western powers) put the area within its borders.

Historic Gjirokaster’s distinctive architecture © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Historic Gjirokaster’s distinctive architecture © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Gjirokaster owes its preservation to the fact it is the birthplace of the former Albanian Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ordered that the city remain untouched (except for destroying the mosques; the city, Junid says, once had 15 mosques but today has only one). It has been under UNESCO protection since 2005.

This is a city that honors three important writers including Ismail Kadare, most famous for “Chronicle in Stone” which is set in Gjirokaster, tells the history of the city during the Italian and Greek occupation in World War I and II. Kadare, who lives between Paris and Albania, was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in Literature and was awarded a gold medal from French President Hollande.  You can visit his house in Gjirokaster.

Gjirokaster Castle

Gjrokaster has an abundance of fascinating attractions but the two standouts are the oldest, grandest house, and the Castle that lords over the town and the valley below.

Gjirokaster Castle was used as a fortress and a prison and now is a military museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gjirokaster Castle was used as a fortress and a prison and now is a military museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to some notes I am able to find, the castle dates back to the 12th century, the earliest parts built by the Despots of Epirus, an off-shoot of the Byzantine government. It was reconstructed and adapted to modern war techniques during the reign of Ali Pasha of Tepelene, 1812-1821. The magnificent clock tower and an aqueduct were added in the 1800s. But it was Zog, the self-proclaimed King of the Albanians, who, in the 1920s, converted the fortress into a garrison and political prison. Zog also forged an alliance with Mussolini, who provided funds to Albania to modernize its army, but, in 1930, sent 30,000 Italian soldiers to occupy Albania.

As Junid relates, Mussolini modernized Albania’s army believing that Albania would provide a barrier for Italy’s own defense. “But then the King made a new connection with Mussolini’s enemy – so Mussolini invaded and occupied and used castle for defense,” Junid tells us. He says that there would have been as many as 5000 soldiers living in the castle (hard to imagine).

It was operated as a prison until 1968 when the castle was turned into a military museum paying tribute to Albanian independence.

US plane on display at Gjirokaster  Castle military museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
US plane on display at Gjirokaster Castle military museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Inside the stone walls, we find World War I and World War II Italian tanks and cannon (including a tiny Panzer with a Fiat engine) on display. Outside, there is a US fighter plane that they claim was a spy plane that was shot down (actually the plane had crashed landed near Tirana) and is shown off as a kind of trophy.

From this perch, we gaze out to a spectacular view of the valley. Greece is very close by; indeed, until 1914, this area was part of Greece, but was assigned to Albania by the Council of Ambassadors (the Western European powers). There is still a large Greek minority near here – signs are in both Greek and Albanian, the TV is Greek, and there are Albanians in the area who only speak Greek.

The castle is also the venue for the Balkan Festival, held every five years, a music and cultural festival involving some 30 countries.

(Admission to the castle is 200 Leke, or about $2).

Skendulate House

The 9th generation owner relates the history of Skendulate House, one of the grandest and oldest in historic Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The 9th generation owner relates the history of Skendulate House, one of the grandest and oldest in historic Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A second attraction we visit, the Skendulate House, is spectacular in its own way because it provides a human connection to quite literally centuries of history.

Skendulate House, one of the grandest and oldest in historic Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Skendulate House, one of the grandest and oldest in historic Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As luck would have it, we are escorted around the house by the 9th generation owner, the last to occupy the house before it was taken over by the Communists and turned into an “enthnographic” museum (and after Communism fell, tried to block the owner from filing his claim of title, offering a pittance, the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, to maintain it as a national museum.)

Before Communism, a feudal system prevailed and a handful of rich families owned the land. Then the Communist regime nationalized all the property and took over the house.

Since the fall of Communism, in 1992, property ownership was restored, but there are still unresolved issues about who actually owns the land: The original feudal families? The workers who labored on the land. Until ownership is resolved, investment and development has simply ceased – as we travel around the country, we see numerous buildings left unfinished – the owners purposely started building in order to establish their  claim.

This grand house of Skendulate dates from 1833 (according to one document I see; he says it dates from the 17th century, which could mean that his family owned the property from then). He is the 9th generation and the last to live in the house before it was nationalized by the Communist regime and turned into an ethnographic museum.

You get an idea of what the conditions were like when this great house – which would have been one of the richest and most splendid in the region (though he says it wasn’t the richest or most splendid) – was built. Junid translates as he points out 10 openings to protect the house; there would have been 10 guards to control the courtyard; two entrances (one for people and the other for animals). It has 64 windows, 44 doors, a cellar to preserve food for winter, a cistern to store water captured from the rain. He points out how the house was built with layers of natural chestnut wood, because it would be flexible.

The house had a bunker “in case of war or barbarity” and was constructed with two cupolas – so that cannon fire would hang from the first cupola and not penetrate deeper.

The house was built with a cellar for natural refrigeration (milk could be kept fresh for 3-4 days), they captured rainwater and had a water cistern that held 130 cubic meters of water so they could be pretty much self-sufficient for a period of time.

The house was built for cooler rooms in summer and warmer rooms for winter with a wood fireplace. It had six indoor bathrooms (the waste was pumped out) and 9 fireplaces (the more fireplaces, the greater the wealth). There would have been 20 people – 3-5 families – living in the house at one time.

The house was constructed so that men and women were kept separate.

In one room where men would gather, women could look down and count the men in order to know how much coffee and Rakia (a liquor) to prepare and serve, giving it to a male who would serve the rest.

We visit the kitchens where children and women would eat first, then the men; and poke into the various bedrooms one by one (the grandmother’s room was the smallest).

The family lived in the house until 1981, when the Communist regime turned it into an Ethnographic Museum.

The  grand room of Skendulate House where weddings were held © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The grand room of Skendulate House where weddings were held © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The family got the house back in 1993 (as well as their landholdings), after a year of filing claims and the state trying to keep it as a museum. But it was unlivable (in fact, it would not be allowed to be opened to the public in the US in its condition), so he has continued showing it as a private, cultural museum.

It is odd to sit in the grandest room, lined with banquettes. He says it is the room where weddings would be held – in fact, it was the very room where he was married.

The decoration of the woodwork, the ceiling, the painted fireplace, is magnificent. The fireplace is painted with pomegranates – a symbol of his family.

He says that the only time a bride would be in the same room as men is at her wedding. It would be an arranged marriage, performed by the family.

There would be two days of receptions – one day for the bride’s family (Saturday), Sunday for the groom’s family. Women would look down through a screen from a mezzanine. “They might see their future husband” among the gathering.

He seems to get wistful as he relates that his was the last generation to live in the house; he had lived here for 33 years, was married in this very room, but, his son was 3 years old, they all were kicked out when the Communists took it over. (200 Leke entry fee, about $2).

Night time in Gjirokaster’s bazaar © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Night time in Gjirokaster’s bazaar © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are many other attractions of Gjirokaster, most that can be appreciated just by walking around. You can also visit Ismail Kadare’s house, historic houses such as Zekate House (1812), Angone, Babameto and Kabilate. the Ethnographic Museum. Besides the buildings in Ottoman style, there are several stunning buildings in the historic district in 19th century Italian style, like the hotel “Royal”, the former “Banco di Napoli”, the former shopping center Ziga, the High School (labeled the “gymnasium”), Villa “Kokalari” and Villa “Papavangjeli”.

There’s also an intriguingly named The Cold War Tunnel, which Junid dismisses and I don’t have time to discover on my own.

Enjoying dinner in Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Enjoying dinner in Gjirokaster, Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We get a little time to shop (this is the only place we find where there are actually shops to buy crafts and such, and meet up at a delightful restaurant for dinner, where I watch as entire lambs are roasted on a spit.

We then go off to a tavern in the square just outside our hotel, where big-screen TVs are outside, and people have gathered to watch the European football (soccer) matches.

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

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

See also:

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

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

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

Biking Albania: Farm, Thermal Springs on Route through Countryside into the Mountains

Next: Biking Albania: Greco-Roman City of Butrint

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking Albania: Farm, Thermal Springs on Route through Countryside into the Mountains

Biking in Albania’s mountains © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking in Albania’s mountains © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip.  (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 4th in series.)

 Day 4 of our cycling (day 5 of “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” tour) proves to be one of the most demanding rides of the trip, and a culture shock as well, as we leave the relative sophistication of the city of Korca, “the Paris of Albania” (and our luxury boutique modern hotel!) and head into the mountains.

Biking through a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking through a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We start with an hour-long transfer in the van out of Korca (mainly because the roads out of the city are being completely rebuilt and would be unbikeable). We travel 14 km south of the city to Gramoz Mountain, where Bato, our trusty van driver, deposits us on top of a mountain pass. We have a long downhill ride through the countryside to our coffee stop in a delightful wooden cabin/guesthouse, Sofra Kolon Jare, that looks like a Swiss chalet, with a playground for chickens, bird houses, and stuffed bears. Then we have a long uphill, followed by a roller coaster of ups and downs and tight turns. The roads here are rough, potholed and rocky, which makes me grateful for the hydraulic brakes and suspension on our hybrid bikes, and also makes me think, “Now I know how a pinball feels” after riding down the corkscrew road.

After lunch in a small town of Erseka, we have two more climbs in a national forest, where we feel the cool, moist breeze as we ride, and fill our bottles from fountains funneling mountain streams, before we reach Farma Sotira in a tranquil valley at about 3 pm in the afternoon, after a 50 km (30 mile) ride that involved four major climbs for a total of 800 meters in elevation, and 970 meters drop.

Farma Sotira 

Farma Sotira guesthouse is an actual farm © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Farma Sotira guesthouse is an actual farm © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Coming upon Farma Sotira is like an oasis in the wilderness. Farma Sotira is absolutely charming – a guesthouse consisting of small two-bedroom cabins, on a working farm raising their own vegetables and produce and (apparently) animals that are slaughtered for meat, and they have a trout farm (which supplies the trout we have for dinner).

Junid, our guide (pronounced Yunid), explains that the owners, when they were 28 years old, wanted to live in the area. They camped out for a year, raising cows and sheep while living in a tent. They kept reinvesting to buy more. After the first year, a wolf almost ate their tent. So they built a new structure and later built cabins for guests. Today, they have 150 cows (each cow worth $2000, he says) and 20 hens, and fields, as well as a trout farm.

Guests are invited to help with the farm and make Raki, a local liquor.

Our cabins are beside a babbling brook which is the dominant sound. It is utterly peaceful here, especially with the pure, moist air.

Fresh grilled trout from Farma Sotira’s own trout farm © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fresh grilled trout from Farma Sotira’s own trout farm © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dinner is served al fresco on a covered pavilion – the fresh, grilled trout (which we saw swimming only minutes before). Dessert is a honey-soaked cake (revani).

The Farma Sotira guesthouse has really been pleasant – and despite being on a farm, ironically, we aren’t awakened by roosters crowing (as just about every other place so far). It has been really pleasant and peaceful.

For breakfast, our sunny side up comes from duck eggs.

Thermal Springs

Langarica Canyon © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Langarica Canyon © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our ride today begins with a steep uphill -100 meters elevation in first 2 km. The ride today will take us up 687 meters, but dropping 1352 meters for the last 14 km.

We cycle along the border between Albania and Greece before descending continuously down from 1100 meters to 300 meters to Carshove, and then on to Peetran.

Mountain scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mountain scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are gorgeous views of mountains, the frenetic sound of cicadas, smell of evergreen trees, cool moist air as we ride through the forest, the wind rushing by. We fill our water bottles from spring water that flows from fountains.

Even though it is hot (this is one of the last tours before there is a month-long summer break), it is not humid, so not uncomfortable, especially with the wind we make as we ride.

It’s 18 miles to the coffee stop, where we meet a young fellow who speaks English quite well, and says he goes to school in Greece only 8 km away, whereas the nearest Albanian school would be further away.

We have another 20 miles before we get to our destination, the Coli Guest House.

Apostol Tose (Coli is his nickname) opened his guesthouse in 1993 – shortly after the fall of Communism which was accompanied by an opening for Albanians to enjoy such travel experiences. It was renovated in 2000.

Coli is a master of meat dishes – lamb, goat and Kukurec are his specialties. It’s only around 1 pm when we arrive – time for lunch – and we are served a delectable soup with lamb, lemon, rice, wild spinach, “rice soup” and Byrek (spinach pie) among other delicious selections and salads, sitting around a table on the pleasant stone porch.

 

The Benje thermal springs is a popular attraction © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Benje thermal springs is a popular attraction © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After lunch, Junid drives us in the van to the thermal springs of Benje (instead of us biking the 4 km there), then we walk upriver along the Langarica Canyon – one of the most impressive in Albania – to another thermal spring. Criss-crossing the river over the slippery rocks proves difficult.

Turli Perimesh, a traditional Albanian dish, on the menu for dinner at Coli Guest House © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Turli Perimesh, a traditional Albanian dish, on the menu for dinner at Coli Guest House © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back at the guesthouse, dinner, served again on a beautiful stone porch with a flowing fountain, features a traditional Albanian vegetable dish, Turli Perimesh – diced onions, zucchini, squash, potato, tomatoes, and fresh parsley, prepared in a huge skillet with oil – which Junid says is commonly served once or twice a week in Albanian homes.

Each evening, Junid gives us an orientation about what to expect the next day.

Tomorrow’s ride will bring us to Gjirokaster,a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city has preserved the style and traditions from the days of the Ottoman empire – cobblestone streets, stone roofs. The Old City is virtually unchanged, he tells us, because it was the birthplace of the former dictator, Enver Halil Hoxha, the Communist leader from 1944 until his death in 1985.

“He turned it into a heritage town,” he says. “It is the only city where nothing changes.”  Well, perhaps with the exception of the fact that the city once had more than a dozen mosques and Hoxha banned religion, even burning down mosques and churches; today there is only one mosque.

Gjirokaster also was home town of Albania’s most internationally renowned writer, Ismail Kadare, nominated five times for Nobel Prize in literature, and most famous for his novel, “Chronicle in Stone(1971), which is set in Gjirokaster.

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

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

See also:

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

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

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

Next: Biking Albania: Gjirokaster

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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

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

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korca: ‘The Paris of Albania’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking Tour of Korca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Biking Albania to Gjirokaster, UNESCO World Heritage Center 

See also:

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

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

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

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

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

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1: Arrival in Tirana

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

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

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

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

Day 2: Cycling to Lake Ohrid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3: Cycling to Ohrid, UNESCO World Heritage Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island Finishes Off With Really Hot Jazz

Charleston lesson at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Charleston lesson at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Talk about Hot Jazz! The heat and humidity could not dampen the celebratory spirit for the final weekend of the 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island, where the weather was hot but the jazz was hotter. People still turned out in their vintage 1920s outfits, re-creating the Gatsby-era.

Yodoyiohdo. Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Yodoyiohdo. Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra sets the mood with music Arenella has transcribed from original recordings of the era. Arenella re-creates the role of a Big Band leader, taking on the inflection and look, and telling anecdotes about the music and the musicians as if it were now, when this music was all the rage and radio was a new (and dangerous) cultural phenomenon. Within moments, you are transported back to the romance and joie de vive of that time, leaving behind for these precious hours the hubbub of modern times (except for the constancy of cameras, smart phones and selfies).

Gregory Moore and The Dreamland Follies at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Gregory Moore and The Dreamland Follies at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The entertainment throughout the day is topnotch: Gregory Moore and The Dreamland Follies, evoking the Ziegfield Follies, puts on stunning and sophisticated dance routines; Roddy Caravella & The Canarsie Wobblers  consistently wow with fanciful costumes and choreography;

Minsky Sisters © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Minsky Sisters © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Minsky Sisters, a 1920s-inspired sisters tap act in the tradition of classic vaudevillian family acts; Queen Esther, an award-winning vocalist with a four-octave range who is also a songwriter, actor, and recording artist performing regularly in NYC, who sets her own standard of Jazz Great while paying tribute to jazz royalty of yore with her jazz quintet The Hot Five; Peter Mintun, “world’s greatest piano man” and Molly Ryan, known for her silvery voice and lush, elegant vocal style; plus musical interludes on vintage 78 records from the 1920s played on a 1905 antique phonograph.

Roddy Caravella & The Canarsie Wobblers at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Roddy Caravella & The Canarsie Wobblers at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are special attractions, as well, starting with lessons in Charleston or the Peabody by Roddy Caravella and his wife; dance competition (in Charleston or Peabody); a “High Court of Pie” contest;

Enjoying the private Sheik of Araby Tent VIP Tent in true Gatsby-era style at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Enjoying the private Sheik of Araby Tent VIP Tent in true Gatsby-era style at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Bathing Beauties and Beaus Promenade; Kidland carnival games and prizes for junior gents and Flapperettes; 1920s Motorcar Exhibition (get up close and personal with flivvers, Tin Lizzies and “Buttercup,” Gatsby’s very own 1925 Rolls-Royce “Twenty”); Vintage Portraits  (immortalize yourself while perched upon a Paper Moon); and boutonnieres and mini floral arrangements bestowed upon guests from BloomThat, a flower start-up.

Queen Esther performing with her jazz quintet The Hot Five at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Queen Esther performing with her jazz quintet The Hot Five at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Scores of vintage vendors add to the atmosphere – if you didn’t have your own vintage outfit, you can rent or buy, and if you didn’t have your own picnic blanket, you could purchase from the General Store. Merchants include: Dora Marra, Toucan Hats, Prohibition Clothing, Noble Vintage Clothier , Wildfell Hall Vintage, David Owens Vintage, Howard’s Entertainment, Penumbra Foundation, Zelda Magazine and Art Deco Society of NY.

BloomThat bestowes boutonnieres and mini floral arrangements at the Jazz Age Lawn Party © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
BloomThat bestowes boutonnieres and mini floral arrangements at the Jazz Age Lawn Party © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The bi-annual daytime affair also features an array of Golden-Age inspired cocktails created by mixtress Julie Reiner (Clover Club, Leyenda, Flatiron Lounge) featuring the festival’s signature spirit, St-Germain, including: The St-Germain Cocktail: an invigorating aperitif of St-Germain, sparkling wine, and sparking mineral water with a lemon twist; Strike Up The Band: a refreshing Collins-style recipe blending summer strawberries with gin, St-Germain and fresh citrus; and the Flappers Delight: St-Germain elderflower meets Juniper and mint in this tall summer fizz, and exclusively in “ The Gatsby’s Garden” VIP section: Americano de Robert: St-Germain, Campari, Dry Vermouth, lime, soda & orange peel, served up.

Ferry is Magic Carpet to Bygone Era 

The enchantment begins as you board the ferry from South Street or from Brooklyn for the short ride to Governors Island. You think you have stepped back to the 1920s – crowds of giddy people are dressed in flapper dresses and linen suits, caps and suspenders cram the ferry. And dancing shoes. And you realize this isn’t just any ride in the park.

The Sokol Sisters –Evita, Stephanie, Katie and Ashley, from New York City get into the spirit of the Jazz Age Lawn Party © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Sokol Sisters –Evita, Stephanie, Katie and Ashley, from New York City get into the spirit of the Jazz Age Lawn Party © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We are back in the Jazz Age, and the setting is perfect, a vast lawn set off by an arbor of trees, surrounded by buildings and forts that date back to the Civil War and World War II when Governors Island was used as a base and military prison (I even happened on Civil War re-enactors), now repurposed for arts and cultural programs.

People come and set out sprawling picnics – some with elaborate fixings like candelabras and crystal wine glasses.

The atmosphere is infectious. Fellows seem more civilized. Gals seem more sassy. And the good feeling just percolates to the beat from Michael Arenella’s Dreamland Orchestra, as this fantastical community defying time forms.

Michael Arenella © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Michael Arenella © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The unquestioned star of the day long festival is Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra, one of the world’s great Jazz Age dance bands, specializing in the Hot-Jazz of the 1920s. “Conductor, composer, musician and singer Michael Arenella presents a personally transcribed songbook for your listening and dancing pleasure.” (Michael Arenalla also can be heard Wednesday nights at the Clover Club, Smith Street in Brooklyn and at the Red Room, the last Thursday of the month, 85 E 4th St, NYC, and at the Clover Club, see www.dreamlandorchestra.com).

Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra at 11th Annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It isn’t hard to believe you have returned to the Jazz Age because of the authenticity and attention to detail. Arenella “transcribes by hand their entire repertoire from period recordings. Their delivery, as well as their instruments, attire, and equipment — are faithfully accurate. Arenella’s strong yet vulnerable baritone lacks pretense or sarcasm. He treasures each lyric, and has faith in the songs he sings. Even the most optimistic Tin Pan Alley tune has a disarming quality in his hands.”

Even the 1928 Graflex, used to take period photos, is an original.

Gregory Moore pays tribute to New York Times Styles photographer Bill Cunningham during Jazz Age Lawn Party © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gregory Moore pays tribute to New York Times Styles photographer Bill Cunningham during Jazz Age Lawn Party © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Now in its 11th year, the Jazz Age Lawn Party has built a history of its own. It started in 2005 as a small gathering of about 50 friends and fans of Michael Arenella and his Dreamland Orchestra and their version of prohibition-era music and fun. Not too many years after, it was drawing thousands of fans who revel in the music and zeitgeist of the 1920s and 1930s and has become what is arguably the world’s largest outdoor musical celebration of the Jazz Age, but is undoubtedly one of the highlights in a crammed calendar of summer happenings in New York City.

For more information, visit: JazzAgeLawnParty.com.

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com   and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, Goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surprises Abound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BikeTours,com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Jewish Museum in Athens Honors Thousands of Years of History in Greece

This way to the synagogue – 3rd C BC. A replica of an ancient marker taken from the Agora, walking distance from the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
This way to the synagogue – 3rd C BC. A replica of an ancient marker taken from the Agora, walking distance from the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

I first became introduced to the concept of Jews in Athens when I meet Vassilas, my Context Travel walking tour guide. He meets me in the district which is known today as Monasteraki, but as we walk through the flea market area, he mentions that it was originally called Yusurum  named for a Jewish family of tradesmen who built a store in the area.

Athens did not have a “Jewish Quarter” per se, he tells me, sensing my interest, but just a few blocks away, there once were a few Jewish synagogues, only one that is still in use today. (There is also a Holocaust Memorial in a small pocket park there, at the bottom of a street that leads up to the Acropolis.)

There is limited information, he tells me, about Jews in Athens during antiquity; most of the Jews who lived in Greece up until modern times came after the Spanish Inquisition,  in1492.

Athens, Greece
Ruins of humanity’s first Parliament overseen by a temple, in the Agora, Athens, Greece © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

He is taking me on Context Travel’s “Everyday Greeks in Ancient Times” walking tour (www.contexttravel.com, info@contexttravel.com, 800.691.6036), and as and we stand before humanity’s first House of Parliament in the ancient Agora, ancient Athens’ political center, he points out that just off to the side a marble marker was found, indicating where one of the earliest synagogues very likely stood, dating from at least the 3rd C BC.

That’s when he mentioned that Athens has a Jewish Museum (not on any tourist map), but he put a dot on my map so I could walk there on my own.

When he takes me into the astonishingly fine museum at the Agora and points out a small decorated ceramic vessel that Socrates, himself, might have used to drink the poison hemlock, he gets me thinking: one of reasons why Socrates was executed by Athens was because he questioned its religious system of 12 gods. Plato, Socrates’ student, later wrote that Socrates said, ‘I hear the voice of a ‘god’ – a ‘demon’ (spirit) in me.” I wondered in that moment whether Socrates had been influenced at all by the Jews of Athens who would have believed in monotheism.

After my “Everyday Life in Ancient Greece Tour” with  Vassilas , I set out to find the Jewish Museum, indicated by the dot on a map

I don’t have a street address, and when I get to what I believe is the corner where it should be, I ask a private security guard who has no idea where it is. But an older gentleman overhears me and walks me around the corner to the Jewish Museum.

The Jewish Museum is only recently moved to this downtown location, but it offers a permanent collection and special exhibitions that tell the history of Greek Jews , which I am surprised to learn is the oldest Jewish community in Europe.

The Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens moved into this building in downtown © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens moved into this building in downtown © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Indeed, there is a replica of the marble sign from the Agora (the original is in the Agora Museum but not exhibited publicly), that dates from possibly the 5th C BC, which had set me on my quest.

Jews came to Greece before the destruction of the First Temple. They were merchants –

In Athens, Jews did not live in a Jewish Quarter, like in Corfu, Rhodes or Thessalonki, but lived around Athens, though they tended to live near the synagogue.

It is not known how many Jews lived in Greece at its peak – during the Holocaust, archives were burned. But prior to the war, Thessaloniki had 70,000 Jews; there were 29 communities.

Today, there are 5,000 Jews living in Greece – 3000 of them in Athens (a tiny number compared to the population). There are nine communities that are most active, with Jewish schools.

“It’s a challenge to keep the heritage,” a museum docent tells me. “Many come here and don’t expect fo find a Jewish community.”

It is 1:30 pm when I arrive at the Museum, which I discover is only open from 9 am-2:30 pm.  So I dash through to see as much as I can before it closes.

The Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens exhibits centuries-old everyday objects and clothes of the Jewish community © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens exhibits centuries-old everyday objects and clothes of the Jewish community © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The exhibits, which offer some fascinating artifacts, trace the history of Jewish settlement in Greece beginning 3 rd C BC. The collection contains more than 10,000 objects (some that can only be found here) pertaining to domestic and religious life. The oldest itemss are rare textiles and ante nuptial contracts from the 16th century C.E. Clothes and household items offer a vivid, personal picture of everyday life in the Greek Jewish communities from the mid-18th until the 20th century.

The exhibits are organized by themes, relating to history, the cycle of time and human life.

As I go about the museum (I only have an hour before it closes), I learn that in 48CE, there is evidence of the Apostle Paul preaching in synagogues of Corinth, Salonika  and Verola.

Later, when the Ottoman Empire took over, the Ottomans gave Jews equal rights with Christians (that is non-Muslims).

When Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15 th C, they settled in the Ottoman Empire, including Greece – with most going to Salonika.

Greece became a state in 1832, and the Greek Constitution of 1844 gave equal rights in 1844. In 1882-1920, the Jewish community was recognized as a legal body During this period, Zionism took hold and many Jews emigrated to Palestine under Ottoman Rule.

The Greek government of Eleftherios Kyriakou Venizelos supported the formation of Jewish state, even before the Balfour Declaration. The Greek Foreign Secretary Niolaos Politis said in 1917, “The foundation of a Jewish State in Palestine would end the injustice that weights on the whole of humanity for over 20 centuries.”

A display honoring the Jewish Resistance in Greece, at the Jewish Museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A display honoring the Jewish Resistance in Greece, at the Jewish Museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Prior to World War I, the number of Greek Jews grew to 100,000 (65,000 in Solinika), and  enjoyed  “peace, speech, assembly freedom and were admitted into mandatory army service .”

Then the Holocaust came. Many Greek Jews joined the Resistance. There are video stories of survivors of Shoah and lsits of family names like Nissm, Aruch, Yussuroum , Matathias, Bakolas, Yeshua, Kostis, Braki, Felou.

Support of the Greek Government

The Greek government has been supportive of sustaining its Jewish heritage (this despite the neo-Nazi group that has been voted into Parliament).

The Jewish Museum of Greece was founded in 1977 to collect, preserve, research and exhibit the material evidence of 2,300 years of Jewish life in Greece. As a historical and ethnographical museum its main interest is to provide a vivid picture of Jewish life and culture as it was during those centuries.

The new building is organized in permanent exhibition areas with thematic modular exhibits, an art gallery, a periodic exhibition space, a research library, a space for educational programs, a photo archive and laboratory and a conservation laboratory.

“The idea of building a Jewish Museum of Greece was first conceived in the 1970’s by members of the Jewish Community of Athens,” the literature states.  The Museum that was first established in 1977 consisted of a small room next to the city’s synagogue and housed objects salvaged from WW II, including artifacts, documents and manuscripts of the 19th and 20th centuries, jewelry of the Jews of Thrace that had been seized by the Bulgarians in 1943 (returned to the Greek government after the abdication of the Bulgarian king and the establishment of a communist regime in the country).

Over the years under Nikos Stavroulakis, director of the Museum until 1993, the collection expanded with rare books and publications, textiles, jewelry, domestic and religious artifacts.

The Museum soon began to attract the attention of many visitors, researchers and donors. In 1981, the Association of American Friends was founded, followed, a little later, by the Association of Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece, with members of the Jewish Communities of Athens and Thessaloniki.

With substantial financial support from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Associations of its Friends, the old building was renovated and, in late 1997, 20 years after it first opened its doors to the public, the Museum moved to 39 Nikis street, in the center of Athens.

The Museum’s collections include more than eight thousand original artifacts, testifying to more than 23 centuries of Jewish presence in Greece.

Centuries old temple artifacts of the Greek Jewish community on display at the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Centuries old temple artifacts of the Greek Jewish community on display at the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Besides a few objects which Asher Moissis, president of the Jewish Community of Athens, had collected after the war, the core of the initial collection was made up of items that had been returned to Greece by the Bulgarian government, after the establishment of a Communist regime in that country. These included personal effects, jewelry, domestic items, temple objects and documents, which belonged to the Jews of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace and were confiscated after 1941, when the area fell in the Bulgarian zone of occupation. The confiscated items had been meticulously recorded and became the first significant body of artifacts of the collection.

An ancient book depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments on display at the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
An ancient book depicting Moses holding the Ten Commandments on display at the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This core collection kept growing, mainly through the donations of individuals and communities, initially from the area of Thessaly, the island of Rhodes and the city of Ioannina. Besides rare 17th – 19th century books and publications, a significant number of ritual textiles was assembled, most dating from the Ottoman times (14th-19th centuries), and soon became one of the Museum’s main attractions for both visitors and researchers. In 1984 the Jewish Community of Patras was dissolved for lack of members and the interior of its synagogue, along with its textiles and ritual objects was bequeathed to the Museum. These religious artifacts are extremely significant, invaluable and irreplaceable, since they come, for the most part, from synagogues and communities, which no longer exist, according to the museum’s notes.

More donations from individuals and communities from both Greece and abroad continued to pour in, further enriching the collection. The Museum’s relocation to its new premises (1998) brought a renewal of public interest and more donations followed.

In general, the Museum has been receiving an average of 250-300 new artifacts every year, since the year 2000. Its unique collections, which are continuously being expanded, document more than four centuries of Jewish life in Greece, considering that the oldest textiles and antenuptial contracts date from the 16th century C.E.

Recent special exhibitions (on through September 2016) include “Hidden Children in Occupied Greece.”

Allocate at least two hours.

Jewish Museum of Greece, Nikis 39, Athens 105 57. Phone: 210 32 25 582, e-mail: info@jewishmuseum.gr, visit www.jewishmuseum.gr.

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/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

Heritage Museum & Gardens is World-Class Destination Attraction on Cape Cod

Antique Cars, Adventure Park, Gardens, Hollywood Costumes and Hidden Hollow

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

 

Sandwich, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
The gorgeous lily pond at Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod’s first settled village, is a world-class destination attraction that on its own qualifies to bring people to Sandwich, even if the village did not offer as many unique attractions as it does or Cape Cod did not have its magnificent beaches and bike trails (see story).

Heritage Museum hits on a spectrum of cylinders -the vast, stunning and notable gardens, the historic collections of rare automobiles, the art inside and out, the way the entire place engages people of all ages – such as at the Hidden Hollow, a giant tree house in a hollow where you are invited to participate in planting and other activities (you feel like an elf or those tiny creatures in the EPIC animated movie). There is also – imagine this – an adventure center where you can see the forest “from a squirrel’s point of view.”

The gorgeous lily pond at Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The gorgeous lily pond at Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Set on 100 acres of magnificent grounds and trails on the banks of Shawme Pond in Historic Sandwich. Heritage Museums & Gardens is the largest public garden in Southern New England..Heritage is especially famous for its Dexter Rhododendrons as well as an encyclopedic collections of daylilies, hostas and hydrangeas. Heritage also holds a nationally-significant collection of specialty gardens, water features and sculpture.

It is a place where kids have space to really explore, where parents and children can engage in activities together, where parents can feel like kids again riding a carousel, and where children of all ages can feel that sense of wonder and delight, where the best of Mother Nature and man’s inventiveness achieve a harmony.

CUT! Costume and the Cinema  

There are always special exhibits and this year’s is a blockbuster: “CUT! Costume and the Cinema,” which also provides a theme for many of the performances and special events throughout the season.

“CUT! Costume and the Cinema” on view at Heritage Museum & Gardens, Sandwich, features  43 costumes from the movies © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
“CUT! Costume and the Cinema” on view at Heritage Museum & Gardens, Sandwich, features 43 costumes from the movies © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Forty-three costumes represent five centuries of fashion and style as interpreted by award-winning costume designers and worn by favorite stars are on display along with props, movie clips and photos and movie memorabilia. You actually get to see the scene where the actor is wearing the costume. But unlike seeing the costumes on film (where you might only get a view from the front), you get to see them in 360-degrees around, in very close proximity, and can appreciate the texture, the sumptuous fabrics, the lavish lace and embroidery and unparalleled craftsmanship and creativity the detail,

Costume is the essential ingredient in the authenticity of a period film..They set the scene and help create the ambience. They also reveal clues about a character’s status, age, class and wealth as well as his or her role in the story. And in this exhibit, you also get to appreciate changing cultural mores over time and place. More than 30 characters from some 25 films are displayed.

You can see Keira Knightley’s and Johnny Depp’s costumes from “Pirates of the Caribbean”;  Kate Winslet’s from “Sense and Sensibiility”, Robert Downey Jr. from “Sherlock Holmes”, Minnie Driver and Emmy Rossum’s from “Phantom of the Opera”, Renee Zellweger from “Miss Potter.” Also, there are costumes that have been worn by Scarlett Johansson, Julie Christie, Maggie Smith, Heath Ledger, Ralph Fiennes Randy Quaid, Jude Law, Robert Downey, Jr.,

Anjelica Huston’s dress from “Ever After” provides an example of the technique of “slashing” – which was started by peasants who salvaged worn garments, and then was expropriated by the rich who embellished their sleeves with decoration.

Many of these costumes and their designers have won major awards including Oscars from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and BAFTAs from the British Association of Film and Television Arts (my only complaint is that the displays don’t credit the designers names or whether they won an Academy award for it).. The exhibition tour is organized by Exhibits Development Group, USA in cooperation with Cosprop, Ltd., London, England.

There are docents at the exhibit who field questions and respond to visitor requests – so, in response to visitors, they created a “cue sheet” of the movies, and a docent has swatches of comparable textiles so you can feel what they are like (do not touch the actual costumes). (I would have liked if they also would have provided the names of the costume designers and whether it won an award).

Many of these themes also animate weekly performances in an outdoor space where families like to bring picnics- especially the “Finding Neverland” and Beatrix Potter (“Miss Potter” who wrote the Peter Rabbit stories).,

Driven to Collect Antique Autos

One of the eternal delights at Heritage Museum is Driven to Collect, showcasing Heritage’s permanent collection of antique and classic automobiles, housed in a fantastic two-story building that is a reproduction of the Round Stone Barn at Hancock Shaker Village.

1915 Milburn Light Electric, one of the first cars specifically designed for women is displayed at Heritage Museum & Gardens, Sandwich © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
1915 Milburn Light Electric, one of the first cars specifically designed for women is displayed at Heritage Museum & Gardens, Sandwich © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The JK Lilly III collection includes antique cars going back to the earliest models, most notably that are not just rare but also are in superb condition. You can see the model of the car that Amelia Earhart owned, the 1932 Auburn boattail speedster like Errol Flynn owned. Most interesting to me is a 1915 Milkin Light Electric Car, one of the first specifically designed for women: it did not require a crank, was elegant looking, with big windows.

New this year are a 1934 Derby Bentley reminiscent of the cars, time periods, and luxury represented in the 2016 special exhibition CUT! Costume and the Cinema, and a special display of maps made from recycled license plates, created by artist Stephen Blyth.

1932 Auburn Boattail Speedster is part of the JK Lilly III collection on view at Heritage Museum & Gardens, Sandwich © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
1932 Auburn Boattail Speedster is part of the JK Lilly III collection on view at Heritage Museum & Gardens, Sandwich © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This collection includes some extraordinarily rare cars, like the Dusenberg that was specially built for Gary Cooper in 1931 (at a cost of $14,000-imagine that, in 1931). There is a 1919 Pierce Arrow, (original price, $7,750), built by the company, founded in 1901, by George N. Pierce of Buffalo, who built bicycles and bird cages, and turned his latent genius to automobiles. Also notable in the collection is the 1909 White Steam Car Model M, the first “Presidential” automobile, complete with Presidential seal, used by President Taft.

The descriptions are wonderfully “user friendly” that will delight true automobile collectors and aficionados, as well as neophytes. The commentary discusses the innovations made in the car, such as how the 1932 Auburn “boattail speedster” has a hidden convertible top (an awesomely exquisite car purchased, originally, for $975). Children are invited to hunt for clues and there are interesting kid-friendly descriptions. And there is a Model T that you can pack into and pose for pictures.

Each month from May to October, there is an opportunity to go behind the scenes with curator Jennifer Madden for a tour of the antique auto collection storage. Jennifer shares little-known facts and stories about the 20 cars in this area, while participants have the opportunity to closely examine the vehicles. Participants will also learn how the collection was formed, the original purchase price of each vehicle, the work that goes into maintaining this world-class collection, and the ins and outs of moving the cars and preparing them for exhibit. Advance registration is recommended as space is limited.

Lilly, of the Indianapolis pharmaceutical company (he came to sail in Cape Cod and stayed), was a phenomenal collector. Indeed, you see local and folk art and a range of items on display (the exhibit changes) that rivals the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

J.K. Lilly, III founded Heritage Museums & Gardens in honor of his father, J.K. Lilly, Jr., who spent a lifetime amassing great collections of rare books, coins and stamps, as well as American firearms and military miniatures. A private man, his father built a museum behind his home and shared his collections with few others.

But JK Lilly III took a different approach when establishing Heritage Museums & Gardens. He hoped that his museum would provide a range of educational and enjoyable experiences for many visitors “beyond Sandwich and beyond Cape Cod.” In order to augment the collection he acquired from his father’s estate, Lilly collected thousands of items in a short amount of time. This allowed him to present a broad overview of his ideas about the “excellence and ingenuity of American craftsmen.”

Heritage Collection Showcases Americana

Children of all ages delight riding the 1908 carousel at Heritage Museum & Gardens, Sandwich © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Children of all ages delight riding the 1908 carousel at Heritage Museum & Gardens, Sandwich © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Heritage Collection, in a separate building (where there is also the historic carousel you can ride) highlights art and artifacts from Heritage’s collection of more than 12,000 items. Beautiful paintings, rare objects, and the famed military miniatures offer examples of American ingenuity and excellence, and collectively, provide a revealing portrait of American culture over time.

The Heritage Collection presents Heritage’s permanent collection in four themes that permeate American history – sense of place, home, work and conflict of ideas. Each object seen here, pivotal or humble, tells a story about our history, about ourselves, and like all good history, about our future. Exhibit highlights include: beautiful paintings, rare objects, carved birds by A. Elmer Crowell, and the famed military miniatures offer examples of American ingenuity and excellence. . Indeed, it is very much like the experience you have when you visit the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

Children of all ages will enjoy taking a whirl on the carousel in the building housing the Art collection (you can pretty ride as many times as you like).

Made by Charles Looff in 1908, the antique hand-carved carousel has been thrilling riders for a hundred years.

Gardens of Delights

The Fringe Tree at Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Fringe Tree at Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Cape Cod © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The grounds are simply breathtaking – magical even. I watch as a new garden is being created: it is a test garden for North American Hydrangeas – varieties not seen before on the market –to see how the varieties grow. We come upon a Fringe Tree – massive and delicate, like nothing I’ve seen before.

Most fun is how you come upon visual delights, from the Old East Wndmill, to the Labyrinth, to the Garden Maze, to Hidden Hollow, to a series of outdoor art-installations which connect to the natural world.

There is the most magnificent lily pond with a flume that creates a sculpted waterfall, outdoor art installations (that are like a scavenger hunt).

As you walk about the grounds, you come upon the Old East Windmill, built in 1800 in Orleans, Massachusetts, served that community for 93 years grinding wheat, rye, barley and salt from the local salt works. During the Civil War, the windmill also ground corn meal to be used as field rations for Union soldiers. In 1968, the windmill was sold to Heritage’s founder and moved to its present location.

Opened in 2004, the Hart Family Maze Garden was designed to capture the mystery and intrigue of exploration that characterizes a classical maze while providing a format for display of Heritage’s vine collection. Inspired by the site’s views of the surrounding landscape, the New England climate and the vines themselves, the maze uses a range of materials. A combination of evergreen and deciduous vines and hedges alternately create opaque walls and transparent windows the outside depending on the season. Throughout the season, the maze will feature such flowering vines as wisteria, clematis, honeysuckle, silvervine fleeceflower, Japanese hydrangea vine and five-leaf akebia.

Throughout the grounds, you will come upon these marvelous art installations – 10 in all – that have connection to the natural world and the environment – like a scavenger hunt for kids to find them all. Each year there is a similar, juried outdoor art show. This year’s is titled, “Natural Threads”.

Hidden Hollow

Hidden Hollow at Heritage Museum & Gardens is more than a tree house, but an outdoor education center © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hidden Hollow at Heritage Museum & Gardens is more than a tree house, but an outdoor education center © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Relatively new is Hidden Hollow – a giant tree house in a hollow in the woods where kids and adults engage in outdoor discovery activities like planting and STEM activities.

Hidden Hollow is a place for families to play in and explore the natural world. Hidden Hollow features a wide range of activity areas in which families can enjoy the outdoors together. Nestled in a two-acre dry kettle hole, its unique topography offers a stimulating and beautiful outdoor setting for discovery and learning.

Children can climb stepping stumps, navigate log balance beams, construct forts, create nature-inspired art, build with blocks, dig in sand, experiment with water, make music, engage in sensory investigation with plants, and more.

Children and parents engage in activities in the Hidden Hollow at Heritage Museum & Gardens  © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Children and parents engage in activities in the Hidden Hollow at Heritage Museum & Gardens
© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Hidden Hollow is one of New England’s first certified Nature Explore Classrooms, a joint program of National Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.

This national initiative was developed to advance the understanding and appreciation of the natural world and to provide children with meaningful and positive experiences with nature.

Indeed, you may well come upon the children from Heritage Museum’s new Relatively new: 100 Acres School, a private pre-school focused on STEM education, where the 100 acres of the museum and gardens are the outdoor classroom where kids get to experiment, learn about plants, etc. The curriculum is being tested for use in other cities and the plan is to develop an online curriculum that can be adopted more broadly.

Adventure Park: See Forest from ‘Squirrel’s Perspective’

There is also a new adventure park where you can see the forest from “a squirrel’s perspective”.

Located on four wooded acres on Heritage-owned land that has not been previously open to visitors, The focus of the Adventure Park is to provide a forest experience – in the air and on the ground -, with many opportunities for learning about forest formation, history, workings of a forest ecosystem, interdependence and interactions within forest ecosystems, forest succession and human impact on ecosystems

There are five aerial trails through the treetops.  Over 60 tree to tree bridges and 7 zip lines challenge your strength, strategy and balance.   Like a ski mountain, each trail is color coded for difficulty, allowing beginners to experts to select their own challenges.  Climbers as well as non-climbing observers will also enjoy the interpretive pathways on the ground, filled with educational information about the forest ecosystem.

The aerial trails afford views of some of the nicest Rhododendrons on the property. You get to see a typical New England forest ecosystem that includes several tree species, high bush and low bush blueberries, mountain laurel and other shrubs and may well see squirrels and chipmunks and a variety of local birds, including chickadees and finches, and if you are lucky, Heritage’s resident red-tailed hawk.

The Adventure Park is so popular, you need to buy a timed ticket (which you can do in advance).

Heritage’s history Goes Back to Early Settlement

The tract of land now known as Heritage Museums & Gardens played an important role in the history of the town of Sandwich. In 1677, Lydia Wing Hamilton Abbott was the first resident to live on the land. As the widow Hamilton, she resided with her two sons on a spot near what is now the Special Exhibitions Gallery just south of Upper Shawme Pond. She lived there in great poverty despite a second marriage and assistance from her family and the Quakers of the town. After her death, Lydia’s brother Daniel Wing, Jr., and his two sons, Samuel and Zeccheus, bought Lydia’s little house, now known as Orchard House. Samuel, his wife and six children lived in the house until the children married and moved away. Much of the Wing family farm remains part of the grounds of Heritage. Although members of the Wing family have not lived on the property for years, their heritage remains a vital part of our history.

The internationally-known Charles Owen Dexter, a successful textile manufacturer in New Bedford, was the next owner of the land. He bought the property, then known as Shawme Farm, in 1921. A true renaissance man, he was active in civic affairs as well as a photographer, violinist and yachtsman. At the age of 59, Dexter was told that he wouldn’t have long to live which led him to purchase Shawme Farm. However, despite the warning, he lived for another 22 years. Beginning in 1921, Mr. Dexter and his wife spent summers at the farm and for the next 15 years he worked in his garden hybridizing plants. He started with vegetables and expanded his interests to rhododendrons.

The Lilly family, originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, spent their summer vacations in Falmouth, so when Josiah Kirby Lilly wanted to found a museum dedicated to his father, he chose Cape Cod.

Lilly first thought that he would create an automobile museum, but after researching other institutions, he decided that it would not have a broad enough appeal. It was after his father’s death in 1966 that the idea of creating a public place to house several of the Lilly family collections began to take shape.

Driven to Collect is housed in a recreation of the Round Stone Barn from Hancock Shaker Village, at Heritage Museum & Gardens © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Driven to Collect is housed in a recreation of the Round Stone Barn from Hancock Shaker Village, at Heritage Museum & Gardens © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

After J. K. Lilly, Jr. died, his son bought the antique firearms and military miniature collections from his father’s estate. With architect Merton Stuart Barrows and landscape architect Philip Ansell, he planned the buildings and grounds to be a suitable background to showcase the collections. They decided on a replica of the Round Barn from the Shakers of Hancock Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for the cars. A replica of the Temple of Virtue from New Windsor, New York, where George Washington awarded the first Purple Heart to a soldier, was selected to hold the antique firearms and the military miniatures. Plans were made to add the gatehouse (ticket office and museum store) and the Old East Mill, from Orleans. In 1971, to entice more women to the museum, Mr. Lilly bought the Charles I. D. Looff carousel. Housed in a building built especially for its display, the carousel would be joined by three galleries holding American art.

Today the Museum serves more than 100,000 visitors annually who come from around the world to visit.

An an outdoor stage, family friendly concerts are presented Fridays 9-5, offering an entire day of activity. The theme this year is movies, such as “Cinderella,” “Neverland,” and “Beatrix Potter Day.”  (And check out the schedule for special evening activities and lectures).

Bring a picnic or purchase food from the bistro-style Magnolia Café.

It is easy to spend a full day (or more) at Heritage Museums & Gardens, enjoying both The Adventure Park and the main museum grounds including the Auto Gallery, the Carousel, the Windmill, and the various gardens and indoor exhibits. You’ll need at least 2.5 hours for The Adventure Park and at least 2 hours for the museum (and you need a timed ticket to visit the Adventure Park). Save time and pre-purchase tickets.

And if you are planning to visit more than one time during the season, it is really worthwhile to purchase a family membership. (Open daily, mid-April to mid-October, 9 am-5pm).

Heritage Museums & Gardens, 67 Grove Street, Sandwich, MA 02563, 508-888-3300, info@heritagemuseums.org, www.heritagemuseumsandgardens.org.

See:

Time Traveling in Sandwich, Cape Cod’s First VillageDan’l Webster Inn & Spa is Perfect Time Capsule to Cocoon Visit

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/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