Category Archives: Ecotourism

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Cycling through a herd of cattle on their way home © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our 25 km cycling trip through the Forest Corridor sanctuary between Pench and Kanha national parks in central India – literally the locale for Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 classic “Jungle Book” –  is the most challenging ride of the aptly named new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” offered by Royal Expeditions (see story). But the most colorful, scenic and interesting ride comes during our stay at the Kanha Earth Lodge (another fantastic ecolodge), alongside the national park, when we ride through villages and alongside farms.

Farmer in a field in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

After an exciting game drive in the Kanha National Park in the morning (still no sighting of the tiger, though) and lunch at the lodge, we set out on a 14.9 km route that circles back to the lodge. It is a mix of road and single-track off-road (though the cars don’t drive on anything better), and involves some technical riding (sand, gravel, rocks).

What is so special about cycling is that it brings you into local communities, at a pace and perspective, perched on the bike saddle, to really see things, to be in the scene, not just a spectator looking through glass, and with the ability to stop, look around, and interact.


Welcomed into a home in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Not too far from the Kanha Earth Lodge we come into a village, where our guide invites us into a home to see what it looks like on the inside. A father and son are there, looking a little mystified at this sudden intrusion. There are cows and goats in pens in a front courtyard (in this community, the animals are kept in front of the house and not usually in pens, as a sign of wealth and status, Vishal Singh, the managing director of Royal Expeditions who accompanies our small group, tells us). It is dark and spartan inside – there is electricity and a small, old television set. Most homes do not have indoor plumbing. There is a beautiful garden in the back.

We ride a little further and hear drumming so we ask to go inside and come upon a band of shepherds rehearsing with dancing and singing, getting ready for a competition that is part of the Diwali harvest festival underway.

A band of shepherds rehearse for a festival © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we set out to continue on our ride, we find ourselves going against a massive herd of cattle (with horns, no less) that fills the narrow street, with no choice but to bike straight through. The cows, it turns out are used to people, and as we come mere inches in front, turn slightly to make way for us. There is a shepherd at the back of the herd, but we are told that the cows find their way to their own homes for the night.

Biking through a village in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

People cycle all over India, but not in the manner or style that we are riding, so we are curiosities. In fact, it is astonishing to see the loads that people carry with a basic bike, though scooters and motorcycles are extremely popular (and we’ve saw as many as four people on a motorbike). When you see people biking with a load of sugar cane or batches of wood or pipe on a regular bike – not the mountain bikes or hybrids with 24 gears that we have – it is awe-inspiring.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We become immersed in these scenes of everyday life and fields and farms: women are carrying massive loads on their heads, walking with the grace of a model in an etiquette school; men driving carts pulled by cows; school girls in their neat uniforms riding bicycles home (the government gives girls a bicycle when they matriculate to high school); a fisherman who has just returned with his catch.

Biking in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then toward the end of the ride, on a berm overlooking gorgeous rice fields on one side and a small lake with water buffalo on the other, trees along the border completing the picturesque setting as the sun begins to set, the Kanha Earth Lodge fellows set up a snack using the front of the jeep as a table – offer soda, coffee, tea, water, a kind of fried onion (tasty!).

We snack leisurely while watching people cutting down the rice stalks with scythes; others take huge clumps in yokes on their shoulders to great mounds growing ever higher with each new contribution, to dry before being threshed. Soon, a woman comes along who we had met in the village earlier, engages in conversation and takes photos with us.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sun is a blazing red-orange when we set out on the last leg on a sandy road. I get one shot just before it disappears into a line of clouds. As dusk sets in, the temperature becomes much cooler as we make it back to the hotel just before dark – greeted with a wash towel and refreshing lime juice.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Photo tip: For biking, I use a Canon G16, a small point-and-shoot I can keep around my neck and pull out with one hand. It is remarkably fast and responsive, has a terrific zoom lens that is wide enough for landscapes, long enough for close-ups, has an enormous ISO range plus built-in flash if necessary, sensitive sensor that gives rich color, and has image stabilization. It also takes video. I’ve taken shots in horribly low light using the Automatic setting.

Market Day in Kanha 

The Royal Expeditions trip is designed to really immerse us in the cultural experience.

On our third day, we have a morning game drive at Pench, then lunch at the Pench Tree Lodge, then drive a couple of hours to Kanha National Park, which will be our venue for the next three days for game drives and cycling. The drive gives us a superb view of local life – Vishal notes that in India, “Daily life is lived in public” as we see a fellow brushing his teeth in the street. Vishal times the trip so we arrive in time for a weekly village market underway, just at the base of the forest road to the Kanha Earth Lodge.

Women carrying a load along the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Madhya Pradesh is dominated by tribal groups, remarkably untouched by development in other parts of India.  The differences in the tribal community, spread over various parts of the state, are based on heredity, lifestyle and cultural traditions as well as social, economic structure, religious beliefs, language and speech.

This is most apparent in the market. It is a swirl of color, sound and activity.

Merchants spread out food produce and wares on cloth on the ground – have their scales to weigh. They hawk their wares. People crowd around to buy. Cash money is exchanged. It is a kaleidoscope of color: the women in vibrant saris, the fresh produce.

Weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Cows roam freely in the market- one snatches a potato from a pile and the merchant yells and reaches over to swat it with a switch to get it to move on.

We are here at around 4 pm and the warm light makes for gorgeous photos. Indeed, Royal Expeditions offers a photography tour that goes from village to village for their markets.

Weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are the photos I’ve seen in my mind –that I have wanted to take my whole life. The colors and contours of the bright saris against the brown fields, or the colors of the mud homes, newly painted in broad horizontal stripes – white and blue or pink or green – for the Diwali Festival, the Festival of Lights celebrating the last harvest before winter, against the field of bright yellow mustard (canola) flowers.

In these settings – even shooting from a moving vehicle and especially for wildlife – I use my new Nikon D500 DSLR with a 28-300 mm lens with image stabilization, which I find wide enough for landscape scenes, but close enough. The camera’s best virtue is how fast it responds, its enormous  ISO range (I even shoot village scenes at night as we drive back to the lodge). In general, its 20.9 megapixel CMOS sensor produces rich tones though I am still trying to figure out how to get the best exposure readings. It takes cinematic 4K UHD video and is WiFi capable. It is relatively light compared to other professional-grade cameras and fits ergonomically in my hand, which is a comfort when you are shooting for hours at a time.

Bangles for sale at the weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Royal Expeditions’ new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” program combines all my favorite activities: biking, immersive cultural and wildlife experiences and photography.

It’s hard to overstate how unusual this trip is – the whole idea of being able to bike where wild animals can also roam, when people are not allowed to step out of their safari vehicles, normally. The trip is result of a creative insight as well as the tour company’s connections with the preserve officials to get the permits to bike into the sanctuary.

Indeed Royal Expeditions has royal connections: the tour company, which specializes in luxury, customized and special interest trips, was founded in 1993 by the Princess of Jodhpur, who served in Parliament and as the nation’s Minister of Culture (see http://royalexpeditions.com/)

Royal Expeditions has created an innovative “Jungle Book” itinerary that combines wildlife safari with cycling adventure through central India © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Notably, our trip, which covered about 25 km of the Forest Corridor, was immediately followed by a fascinating 160 km fundraising ride, produced by Tour Operators For Tigers (TOFT) along this same forest corridor that we traveled, linking Pench with Kanha national parks, where wild animals freely roam. Singh is a founder of the group which has about 150 members now. This year, about 20 people took part in the 4-day/3-night ride which raises money to hire local people as village guardians, providing them with smart phones so they can alert authorities to illegal poaching. But I see the ride as a major lure for cyclists from around the world because of its unique setting and challenge (the “road” is more of a mountain bike trail, especially so soon after the rainy season), as well as the opportunities to stay in guesthouses in these villages, not to mention the mission. “Authentic” doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

Kanha Earth Lodge

My villa at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Like the Pench Tree Lodge which we enjoyed during our time at the Pench National Park, the Kanha Earth Lodge (www.kanhaearthlodge.com) enhances the wilderness experience. It is an ecolodge made of all natural materials that is stunning in its design that blends so perfectly without adverse impact on the environment, uses local and traditional art (there is even a fellow who paints tigers), has its own organic garden and a lovely swimming pool, a stunning lodge (WiFi available in the office), and each evening, during cocktail hour, the in-house naturalist offers fascinating presentations about the wildlife and the national park,.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.com, tours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

Next: Tiger Tiger! On Safari in Kanha National Park 

See also: Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

 

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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

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

 

Cycling in India brings us alongside farms © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I signed on to Royal Expeditions’ new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” in India, I couldn’t believe or even visualize the concept of cycling through a wildlife sanctuary populated with tigers, leopards, sloth bears, wild dogs, langur monkeys and jackals. And Royal Expeditions which devised this innovative, out-of-the-box trip, set in the same region as Rudyard Kipling’s beloved 1895 story, didn’t ask how fast I could ride (or, for that matter, whether I had any experience in single-track off-road biking). But here I am, on a rough cut, overgrown, rolling trail that serves as a forest corridor between the two national parks known for tigers – Pench and Kanha – where animals, including tigers, roam freely. This is confirmed when a naturalist who rides along with us points out tiger pugmarks (paw prints) in a sandy section of the trail we are riding.

Biking through the Forest Corridor linking Pench and Kanha National Parks in central India, populated with tigers, leopards, sloth bears, wild dogs, langur monkeys and jackals © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At one point, I find myself (inexplicably) well ahead of our group (which has as many guides, cycle experts and leaders as we tourists), including a jeep and a van loaded with supplies with snacks and our lunch that will be set up at the end of a ride in a guesthouse.

Here I am, in a stretch of high, dense grass that reaches up to my knee, with dense forest on both sides. I decide this isn’t the place to be alone – after all, the naturalist said that the tigers who live here (there are 8 who live in the corridor, and about 120 between the two national parks) are craftier, more intelligent, because they have less food (that is, not as many deer and monkeys to munch), that they take advantage of the denser forest growth to surprise their prey, and are less used to humans (which I take to mean less afraid of humans and I am not particularly reassured that tigers don’t like the smell or taste of humans – how do they know?). Putting that together, I realize I am the slowest prey around, so I ride back to meet up with the riders, recalling that old adage: you don’t have to be the fastest, just faster than someone else.

Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Tree Lodge, points out tiger pugmarks (paw prints) in a sandy section of the trail we are riding in the Forest Corridor © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

That thought plays around in my mind, adding  to the adventure and sense of bravery – courage – that I’ve known only a couple of times in my life – that makes the exhilaration you feel after the ride- and not just from the physical challenge  – all the sweeter and richer. It’s a sense of personal triumph, of overcoming fear (of course, the danger was minimized by the safari vehicles which followed us and the guides who accompanied us, outnumbering our small band, not to mention we are here in mid-day when the scariest animals are least likely to be out and about and hunting. Still.

Fording a stream on the Forest Corridor ride © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

That 25 km ride proves the most challenging cycling of Royal Expeditions’ unique and creative “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling” tour. Vishal Singh, who designed the trip, said it was more challenging than expected because it was so soon after the rainy season. But it is exhilarating and thrilling and totaling fabulous – that sense of actual adventure and physical challenge – that also includes crossing a stream (I chicken out and find a place to walk across rocks).

Most of the rides we take are challenging in their own way, but go through villages and past farms, giving us a unique perspective on local life.

The itinerary is set in the same region that provided the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” which he published in 1895, in central India, cycling through the same jungles (the word is Hindi for “forest”).

Biking on the Forest Corridor between Pench and Kanha National Parks © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This corridor, we are told, plays an important part in the conservation of the tigers – by linking the two national parks, which between them have about 120 tigers, helps promote diversity in the gene pool, and provides protected habitat for their long-term survival. Other tiger habitats in India are fast becoming islands and there is little change in genetic pool of the tiger population. The landscape also supports diverse land use, and traditional forest dwelling tribal communities.

Our visit, we are told, also has the function of raising awareness among local communities of the part they play in wildlife conservation (indeed, just days after our visit, Vishal Singh is leading a 160 km fundraising ride that goes along the entire forest corridor linking Pench and Kanha, to supply locals with smart phones so they can alert authorities to poaching).

Time for a snack! Taking a break on our ride through the Forest Corridor © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A safari vehicle and van follow behind us (in case somebody can’t finish the ride). Every time we stop, a couple of fellows guys jump out, smartly dressed in their Pench Tree Lodge uniforms, and refill our water bottles, offer drinks in glasses, and offer snacks on a silver tray.

Our ride is accompanied by Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Tree Lodge, who stops along the way (as much as to give us a rest as to impart wisdom) to point out spiders interesting trees and plants, and tell us about work been done by conservation organizations to save this critical landscape.

The giant wood spider female eats the male after mating © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For once in my life, I’m more fascinated than afraid of these gigantic insects: he points to a funnel web spider which makes an elaborate funnel and lives inside; and a giant (really gigantic) female wood spider (the male is much smaller and the female eats the male after mating unless there is some better food available). He says they make bullet-proof jackets out of its web that is four times stronger than stainless steel. He points out Wandering Gliders – dragonflies that are the longest migrating insect, traveling from India to southern Africa, taking four to five generations to cover the distance; many bird species depend on the migrating gliders for food. As for how they know where to go? The wind temperature and humidity give them the direction and some suggest that the magnetic induction of the earth plays a part, like for sea turtles.

He points out lichen on a tree, which is a sign that there is no pollution in this forest (significant considering that while we are in India, New Delhi has had to close its schools because the air pollution is so severe); indeed, the clear, crisp air is one of the reasons so many Indian people escape to these parks for relief.

When we come upon tiger pugmarks, he shows us how to identify that it is male (more rounded toes), while the female’s is more pointed.

I learn that tigers are endangered while leopards are not, and it has a lot to do with the way they have evolved. Leopards can climb trees so have access to more prey like monkeys, and hunt mainly at night. A tiger male will only mate with a few females, and if she has cubs, will kill them in order to mate.

A village within the Forest Corridor © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The last 5 K of the 25K ride takes us through villages and passed farms where we watch people working in the fields, using scythes to cut down rice, and plows pulled by bulls. Our ride ends at the Sakata Forest Rest House, built in 1903 for the officers who patrolled the area (tourists can rent rooms here), where the staff of the Pench Tree Lodge sets up a fantastic lunch which we enjoy under a thatch-covered pavilion.

Watching the flow of everyday life © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are among the first to do this cycling trip through this sanctuary – when you think about it, people are not allowed out of the safari vehicles otherwise, but here we are, on our bikes, or walking about with nothing between us and the wild animals who live here. Vishal Singh, the managing director of Royal Expeditions, who accompanies us on this trip, has used his personal connections (his company was founded by a royal family of Jodhpur and connected to a Princess who also served  in Parliament and as the Minister of Culture), to convince the officials who control the sanctuary to issue permits for our cycling adventure.

Biking through a village © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Some experiences are billed as “adventure” and wind up being as tame as a Disney themepark ride (though I have new respect for Disney’s Animal Kingdom safari ride). This really is adventure – even more than I had imagined it would be – actual mountain biking where we need to navigate rocks, sand, gravel, ruts, tall grass, descents and some climbs, and a small stream.

Lunch at a 1903 guesthouse, prepared by the Pench Tree Lodge is our reward after our 25K bike trip through the Forest Corridor between Pench and Kanha National Parks © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After lunch, Vishal offers us the option of biking back along the same forest corridor – that is, 25K back, and this time, mostly uphill through the same high grass and broken, sandy and gravel trail. Not to mention it is already about 3 pm in the afternoon and it took about 4 hours to get here. We are really quite tuckered from what we have done, so everyone opts to pile onto the safari vehicle which has followed after us, along with the van that has been carrying the bike trailer (in case someone couldn’t finish the ride). We take satisfaction in the fact that it is even a difficult, rumbling ride back in the vehicle – and really can’t believe we did this by bike.

Pench Tree Lodge 

What makes the experience all the more special are the accommodations: My room at Pench Tree Lodge (www.PenchTreeLodge) which only opened in 2016, is literally a tree house, built of all natural materials, but with stunning design, local and traditional art, and every comfort and amenity you could crave. There are just six of these tree house accommodations, spread over 16 acres (including a fantastic lap-size swimming pool (so much fun to swim and watch the green parakeets flying above). Meals, prepared by a sensational chef, Pankaj Fulera, (he was runner-up for Best India Chef and is equally adept at traditional Indian cuisine as fusion Continental, are served in a charming dining lodge where there are also lovely sitting areas. One night, they set up a dinner outside, under the boughs of a tree I call the Tree of Life, with firelight.

 

Our own treehouse at the Pench Tree Lodge © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pench Tree Lodge is located near the Karmajhiri gate into Pench National Park, which is gets a lot less tourist traffic and you really feel immersed in local life.

The forest region (“jungle” is the Hindi word for forest) is where Rudyard Kipling set his story of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, and his nemesis, Shere Khan, the tiger. During the course of our visit in Pench, which includes game drives into Pench National Park, we see many of the characters that populated his story and the landscape in which they thrived. Later, I learn that there may be some truth to the legend.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.com, tours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

Next: “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” in India continues

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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 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

____________________

© 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

 

Discovering Sapelo Island, Georgia and the Gullah-Geechees of Hog Hammock

The Reynolds Mansion is a key attraction on Sapelo Island, an island refuge that offers intrigue and extraordinary contrasts © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Reynolds Mansion is a key attraction on Sapelo Island, an island refuge that offers intrigue and extraordinary contrasts © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

From the moment I hear the story of Sapelo Island, I am intrigued. The 50 remaining permanent residents are all descendents of Gullah-Geechee slaves. Access to the island is limited, and once there, “outsiders” who come on their own will have difficulty getting around – you’re not even allowed to take your own bicycle onto the island.

The number of permanent residents, once as many as 800, has steadily dwindled since the end of the Civil War and Emancipation, and now the community faces a dilemma: how to instill a sustainable economy that will keep the young people from migrating away, that does not cause this idyllic island to be overrun. Already, real estate developers are chomping at the bit.

The Gullah-Geechee are descendents of slaves brought 200 years ago from Africa and the West Indies to work the plantations. Their modest community of just 300 acres – the only part of the 16,000 acre island that does not belong to the State of Georgia – is in marked contrast to the RJ Reynolds mansion that has hosted presidents from Coolidge to Carter and continues to be an inspired venue for everything from destination weddings to academic conferences. Georgia and NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) also have research facilities on the island, in fact, at the Reynolds estate.

Sapelo Island is isolated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island is isolated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Sapelo Island – the fourth largest of Georgia’s barrier islands at 11 miles long and a mile wide – is owned by the State of Georgia, which uses it for research center for the state university, and a NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) research facility.

Unlike other barrier islands off Georgia – notably St. Simons, Sea Island and Jekyll Island – which have been turned into tourist havens, Sapelo Island has been insulated and almost entirely undeveloped. In fact, the only “law” governing the island is the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – there are no police.

There is limited ferry service and limited transportation on the island all of which adds to its mystery and intrigue, and limited transportation around the island. You’re not even allowed to bring your own bicycle on the ferry from Meridien, but theoretically, you can rent on the island. Because of the difficulties of getting around the island, most people who visit join one of the (few) organized tours that are available.

And this is apparently the way the “locals” – the 50 actual residents of the island – like it.

We come to Sapelo Island with Andy Hill, who owns Private Islands of Georgia, a 2,000-acre territory of these back barrier islands encompassing eight private islands including Eagle Island where we stay. He owns a half-acre of property on Sapelo, giving him (and his guests) privileges to come and he keeps a truck at the dock. He takes his guests over with his pontoon, or you can rent a boat and Eagle Island guests sometimes come with their own boats.

The 20-minute ride to the island is very scenic and interesting. We get to see an alligator, roused from winter hibernation; ballast islands; Doboy Island.

We set out in Andy’s truck and quickly discover one of the island’s charms – no street signs and few paved roads and lots of live oak dripping with Spanish moss.

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are such incongruities to the island – shacks and dilapidated cars and trucks, only a couple of paved roads with the rest dirt or sand – contrasted with the splendor of the RJ Reynolds Mansion.

All of this makes the island that much more interesting: highlights of any visit include the Reynolds mansion home, the historic lighthouse (newly restored but you can’t climb it), and miles and miles of pristine beach. Nanny Goat Beach, a six-mile stretch, is among many beaches which are as private as private can get. There also are research stations operated by the state university.

And then there is Hog Hammock, which is the village established by the former slaves, where there is the beginning of a historic center.

In some ways, Sapelo Island calls to mind Cuba, the way cars and trucks are kept for an eternity and constantly repaired and the people and culture exist in isolation, and a book by Pat Conroy, “The Water is Wide,” about his experience as a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island in South Carolina teaching black kids.

Reynolds Mansion

The Reynolds Mansion through the Live Oak, Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Reynolds Mansion through the Live Oak, Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Start at the Reynolds Mansion, which gives context to Sapelo Island’s history, and only open for tours during specific hours.

The original Mansion was designed and built from tabby, a mixture of lime, shells and water, by Thomas Spalding, an architect, statesman and plantation owner who purchased the south end of the island in 1802. The Mansion served as the Spalding Plantation Manor from 1810 until the Civil War.

Spalding was a fairly remarkable man: he employed scientific farming techniques including crop rotation and diversification and was responsible not only for devising the formula for building tabby – a cement like construction material made from shells – but for cultivating Sea Island cotton and introducing the manufacture of sugar to Georgia. He also was elected to Congress and was an important local leader.

Spalding owned more than 350 slaves imported from Africa and the West Indies, but reportedly had misgivings about the institution of slavery, and had a reputation as “a liberal and humane master.” He utilized the task system of labor, which allowed his workers to have free time for personal pursuits. Slaves were supervised not by the typical white overseers but by black managers, the most prominent of whom was Bu Allah (or Bilali), a Muslim and Spalding’s second-in-command on Sapelo.

According to various biographies, Spalding was pro-Union (but anti abolition), and worked to win Georgia’s support of the 1850 Compromise.

Despite setbacks, Spalding’s prowess in agriculture and as a businessman (he was a founder of the Bank of Darien, advocated railroad and canal development in the region, and was active in state political affairs), enabled him to grow his plantation from 5,000-acres to eventually owning all of Sapelo Island’s 16,000-acres.

The mansion home was vandalized before and after the Civil War. After the Civil War, the former slaves, who began to earn cash for their labor, were able to buy land (that part of the story continues later when we meet Hog Hammock’s historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey).

The entire island except for those communities held by the former slave families, was purchased in 1912 for $150,000 by Howard Coffin (founder of the Hudson Motor Company as well as the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island). Coffin restored the mansion, which then hosted visits of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in 1928, President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover in 1932, and Charles Lindberg in 1929, who landed his plane on its small airstrip.

Tobacco heir Richard Reynolds, Jr. purchased the property during the Great Depression, in 1934.

Reynolds was an early environmentalist and founded the Sapelo Island Research Foundation in 1949. He later funded the research of Eugene Odum, whose 1958 paper The Ecology of a Salt Marsh showed the fragility of the cycle of nature in the wetlands; the research Odum did at Sapelo helped launch the modern ecology movement.

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Reynolds’ widow, Annemarie Reynolds, sold Sapelo to the state of Georgia for $1 million, a fraction of its worth. The sale established the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, a state-federal partnership between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The mansion is used today for groups – like destination weddings and conferences. The Reynolds Mansion can accommodate up to 29 guests in 13 bedrooms with 11 bathrooms. There is a minimum group size of 16 guests as well as a minimum 2-night stay.

The Mansion has marvelous architecture. The library has the original nameplates in many volumes from Reynolds’ private collection. Guests can use the Game Room’s billiards and table tennis. The ornately decorated Circus Room sports the wild animal murals of famed Atlanta artist, Athos Menaboni, whose work appears throughout the house.

The expansive grounds are particularly atmospheric with sculptures bathed in the sunlight filtering through massive live oaks.

Pathways link the Mansion’s grounds to the Atlantic Ocean where guests have use of a beachfront pavilion.

Mansion guests can explore the island on foot, bicycle, van or rented ocean kayaks. The lush forest envelopes you in a sea of green almost year round, and you are likely to sight whitetail deer, raccoon, opossum, wild turkey armadillo and other animals. The rare Guatemalan Chacalaca, imported to the island as a gamebird, runs wild in the forest, as do wild hogs and cattle, descendants of livestock that escaped from the farms of Sapelo’s early settlers. Sapelo is also a birders paradise. And of course, there are miles of unspoiled beach.

(Reynolds Mansion groups and conference participants are met at the ferry landing by air-conditioned vans; the vans are also available for the group’s use during their stay. Because of the unique ecological and archeological aspects of Sapelo, visitors have to obey very stringent and specific rules. For information and reservations, visit http://gastateparks.org/SapeloIslandReynoldsMansion or call 912-485-2299.)

Sapelo Lighthouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Lighthouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Another interesting attraction is the 80-foot tall Sapelo Lighthouse which watches over Doboy Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The five-acre lighthouse tract was sold to the federal government for $1 in 1808 by Thomas Spalding; the original lighthouse, 65 foot tall and topped by a 15-foot whale-oil lantern, was erected in 1820 for $14,500. Damaged several times by hurricanes over the years, it was eventually replaced and then deactivated in 1933. It was renovated in 1998 including a new spiral staircase, new lantern glass and light, and the spiral-striped exterior identical to the structure’s original paint scheme.

Today, its role is symbolic, since a steel tower outfitted with modern navigation aids was erected nearby as a replacement.

One of the enormous appeals of Sapelo Island for visitors are miles and miles of beaches. The main beach, Nanny Goat, has relatively easy access and bathroom facilities. We make our way with significant difficulty over some dirt roads, to one of the more secluded beaches at Cabretta Island where there are also campsites.

Hog Hammock

The highlight of our visit to Sapelo Island comes when we stop at Hog Hammock.

In its heyday, Hog Hammock would have had 800 residents; now the community of permanent residents has dwindled to just about 50, and only six children. Once there was a schoolhouse on the island; now the children go by ferry to the mainland.

All the descendents on the island trace back to 44 slave families – Bailey, Hogg, Walker, Spalding, and so forth. Many of the families were named for the owner (like Spalding); and many of the last names of enslaved populations on plantations originated from their job assignments. For example, the Bailey’s baled tobacco; Gardner’s tended the gardens; Grovner’s tended the groves; Hogg’s tended to hogs; Walker’s walked livestock.

Hog Hammock's historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hog Hammock’s historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We get to meet the village historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey, who has been accumulating artifacts in a small building which will serve as a museum but which does not seem open to the general public.

Cornelia Bailey’s ancestors first arrived on Sapelo in the 1790s, she tells us, and were here when the French came over. Beginning in 1802, a lot more came over, and after Thomas Spalding purchased the island, the number of Gullah-Geechee people grew to 800.

Just 50 of the community remain today.

“Everybody is still kin,” she says. She wants to revitalize the community so that it supports 150-200 people, but that will require jobs be created on the island.

The state of Georgia owns almost all of the island; Hog Hammock consists of just 300 of the 16,000 acres.

When the Civil War came, several slaves from Sapelo Island left and walked to Millersville, some walked to Thomasville (that’s a four-hour drive today).

The famous 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment – came through here and were responsible for burning Darien. “The blacks didn’t want to burn Darien,” Cornelia says. “the officers ordered them to give a lesson. The whites in the area still hold it against us.”

Did they know when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued? “We knew immediately because we had people here who served in Union forces.”

What happened here after slavery ended? I ask. “People in the north end were more independent. They didn’t want anyone telling them what to do. After being slaves for so many years. Rebellious people, took up arms against whites.

After the Civil War, she says, “for 35 years they didn’t work for any white man. They were jailed for refusing to be sharecroppers.”

“They planted for themselves They formed alliance and got their produce to market without a middleman, because until federal regulations, middlemen took all the profit.”

Many of the plantation owners lost their money because they supported the Confederacy. “Some buried it. Families were destitute Wives sold land. Some of my people who worked for federal government could pay 50 cents an acre.”

After 1870 and Reconstruction, she tells us, many of the former slaves ended up owning land; a lot worked for the federal government, earning cash money. They purchased land from their former owners – apparently being given handwritten slips of paper to show their ownership.

At one time, there were five different communities in five different parts of the island.

When Reynolds bought the island, he had the idea to develop it much as Jekyll Island and Sea Island had been developed, and wanted to consolidate all the Gullah-Geechee residents in one community from the five different communities.

“He said it was for wildlife preservation. But he wanted to develop north end,” she says.

“Everyone got a deed for land here but were cheated out of land in the north [of the island],” she tells us.They claimed that because the former slaves did not have the King’s grant, they could not prove their ownership.

Cornelia manifests the proud, independent streak of her ancestors, and is suspicious of outside developers who might come in and take over.

“Come and enjoy what we eat – seafood dishes. We’re cordial but don’t want outsiders to stay.”

Bailey wants to make the community economically viable but is not keen on promoting the obvious cash-cow, tourism, because that would mean opening the floodgates to outsiders.

Beaches are a major lure to Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Beaches are a major lure to Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Sapelo Island, Georgia (SIG) Community Improvement District (CID) is working to create a more walkable, bikeable and livable rural environment, and there is a Small Business Incubator which is hoping to spur the successful development of entrepreneurial companies.

I get the impression they don’t really want the outside world. Instead, her approach to economic revitalization is to revitalize agriculture.

Meanwhile, the community has been fighting back real estate development, and discourage locals from selling their property to outsiders.

Instead of opening floodgates to outsiders, Sapelo Island hosts a once-a-year festival, Sapelo Days Festival, on the third Saturday in October, when the island invites back all those who used to live here, whose families trace their roots here, and anyone else who is curious or who wants to be immersed in Gullah-Geechee culture.

Family of residents and those who have moved off the island start arriving Thursday; on Saturday, boat loads come, by 7:30-8 pm, they are gone.

“It’s a cultural day. People have their best manners, best foods,” she says, sounding like the grandmother who loves to have their grandchildren for a day and then send them back to the parents.

The festival is a fundraiser that helps support the Sapelo community.

Before we leave, we stop into Cornelia’s general store, where you can purchase a cookbook she wrote (there isn’t much else in the store). But you can see a display about Sapelo Island’s most famous resident, Cornelia’s nephew, Allen Bailey, who played for the Miami Hurricanes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Gullah-Geechee community extends from southern North Carolina down to northern Florida. The Gullahs achieved a victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act that provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The Heritage Corridor project is being administered by the US National Park Service with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.

Special Programs

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The State of Georgia offers guided bus tours of Sapelo Island on Wednesdays (8:30 – 12:30) and Saturdays (9 – 1) throughout the year, Fridays (8:30 – 12:30) June 1 through Labor Day; and an extended tour on the Last Tuesday (8:30 – 3) of each month March through October. Public tour reservations can be made by calling 912-437-3224 (adults/$15; Children (6-12)/ $10; ages 5 and under/free).

The Visitors Center is open Tuesday – Friday 7:30-5:30, Saturday 8-5:30, closed on Sunday and Monday. Group tours for 10-40 people are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays (8:30-3) throughout the year, and Fridays (8:30-12:30) from Labor Day to the end of May. Those tours can be arranged by calling the Education Office at 912-485-2300. Tickets for public and group tours of Sapelo Island can be purchased at the Visitor Center. T-shirts, books, and videos are also available for purchase.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (www.sapelonerr.org) work closely together managing the island’s resources. Guided interpretive tours of the mansion, slide shows of the island, interpretive beach walks and other ecological or scientific presentations can be arranged through the Reynolds Mansion conference coordinator with advance notice. Special outings, cookouts, picnics and other group activities are also possible with advance notice when booking your reservations. (The Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island, P.O. BOX 15, Sapelo Island, Georgia 31327, 912-485-2299).

Getting to Sapelo Island

One of the principal ways of accessing Sapelo Island is aboard the Georgia Department of Natural Resources ferry which serves visitors and residents alike. The $10 per person round-trip fee for the half-hour ride is paid at the Meridian ferry dock. (You are not allowed to bring bicycles, beach chairs or a host of other things.)

The mainland ferry dock, visitor center and parking areas are located in Meridian, Georgia, 8 miles east of Darien. From I-95, take exit 58 on GA HWY 57 to HWY 99.

Sapelo Island Visitors Center, 1766 Landing Rd SE, Darien, GA 31305, 912-437-3224, sapelovc@darientel.net, www.sapelonerr.org/visitor-center.

See also:

Eagle Island, One of ‘Private Islands of Georgia’ Offers Rarest Luxury: Time Together

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.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, 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.