Category Archives: International Travel

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

Biking past vineyards © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muggia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night in Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piran, Slovenia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

See also:

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

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

Setting Out on 8-Day Self-Guided #BikeTour from Venice Bound for Croatia

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

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

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

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

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incomparable Postjana Caves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incomparable Postjana Caves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Predjama Castle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers decorate homes © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

Family vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slovenia’s countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

See also:

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

Setting Out on 8-Day Self-Guided #BikeTour from Venice Bound for Croatia

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

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

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

_____________________________

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

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1: Arrival to Ljubljana

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ljubljana’s castle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biking through Slovenia countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biking through Slovenia countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

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

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

See also:

Setting Out on 8-Day Self-Guided #BikeTour from Venice Bound for Croatia

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

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

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

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

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

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World between Empires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15th Annual Global Scavenger Hunt Winners Crowned

At the end of the New York City leg:

1st Lazy Monday, completed 10 scavenges earning 385 points

2nd SLO Folks with 6 scavenges, 250 pts

3rd Lawyers, with 150 pts

4th Order & Chaos

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

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

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

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

We celebrate at a final bon voyage dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Scavenger Hunt: Whirlwind Travel Through Iberia to Conclude Leg 8

Seville at sunset © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am overwhelmed by the beauty of Seville, Spain. From the moment the bus from La Línea de la Concepción (the closest bus stop to Gibraltar, which is in Spain) turns into the city, the exquisite architecture, the vast green parks, the bike lanes.  The atmosphere is just breathtaking.

I have booked Apartements Hom Seville through hotels.com, choosing a place that seemed closest to the city center (and The Cathedral, which seemed the major landmark) that also was within the budget allotted by the Global Scavenger Hunt (under $100 since my teammate went to Porto instead). It is a 15-minute walk from the bus station to the hotel.

Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is the late afternoon, the golden light spreading across The Cathedral that takes up much of Avenida de la Constitution. A tram moves smoothly, virtually noiselessly down the boulevard; cyclists stream by, pedestrians meander by. The hotel is right in the midst. Fortunately, the manager is still on duty when I arrive and walks me through how to use the espresso coffee maker (the hotel is self-service after hours), how to get around, gives me a map of the city and suggests places to go to restaurants that are less touristic, more typical.

Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I rush out to catch the remaining light, and am treated to an amazing sunset. I wander along the river, across the bridge over the river. The lights of the city come on, reflected in the cobblestone streets. Seville is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.

Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I delight in just walking around, taking in the exquisite architecture, the peace of this place. There is such a wonderful feeling, that even a fellow riding his bike is singing.

Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Unfortunately, under the Global Scavenger Hunt challenge, I am only here through early afternoon – having elected to fly out to Porto, rather than take a nine-hour bus ride through Faro and Lisbon to Porto by the deadline of Friday, 11 am, in advance of the 3:55 flight to New York, our final stop of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. (Those teams that are still in contention are not allowed to fly; instead, they have to take bus and/or train, a 9-hour proposition from Seville.)

Alcazar, Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I plan the morning carefully – getting up extra early to arrange my bags (to avoid paying baggage fees on Iberia) – and walk over to the Parc Maria Luisa – one of the prettiest parks I have ever seen, and the Plaza Espagna which is overwhelmingly beautiful.

Alcazar, Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get to the Real Alcazar, the major attraction for my time in Seville, by 9:38 am (it opens at 9:30 am) – only to find about 1000 people ahead of me. I didn’t understand the sign that said (limited access, 4-5 hours wait), since they only let in about 30 people every 15 minutes who do not have pre-purchased tickets. As it turned out, the wait was 3 ½ hours for those without pre-purchased tickets (recommended to purchase online, they give you a time to come, or come visit in the afternoon when it is less crowded). It was touch-and-go as to whether I would get in in time with enough time to see the Alcazar before having to go back to the hotel, pick up the luggage, get to the bus to go to the airport.

Alcazar, Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get in at 1 pm (my absolute deadline).

Though you take loads of photos, none can do the Alcazar justice because the beauty is in the exquisite details of architecture, pattern in the decoration, the symmetry, the delicacy and grace, the different scenes you come upon as you wander through the labyrinth of rooms and gardens. You look up at magnificent ceilings, at the gorgeous archways, the passages that lead on and on. I thought I had seen it all in about 45 minutes, only to discover two other palaces and gardens. (A separate ticket is required to visit the personal apartments used by the royal family when they visit Seville).

I am out by 2:30 pm, the time I had planned to pick up my luggage from the hotel and get to the bus to the airport (about 30 minutes away but I do not calculate for the extra stops the bus makes; still, I make it in an hour and just on time).

Porto, Portugal

I arrive in Porto at about 8 pm after changing planes in Madrid. Coincidentally, I meet up with two other teams from the Global Scavenger Hunt who are following the same itinerary.

At Porto, they go with Uber to the Sheraton Porto Hotel; I hop on the light rail (the Metro), amazed at the convenience and speed of the service and the low cost (just about $3 to get into town about 20 minutes from the airport). 

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get up early to hop on the metro again for the 12 minute ride to Center City, to be able to absorb the gorgeous ambiance and color of Porto before having to meet the deadline of 11:30 am for the Global Scavenger Hunt, and prepare for the 3:55 pm flight to New York City, our final leg of our 23-day, around-the-world mystery tour, and the crowning of the World’s Greatest Traveler.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Porto, which I have visited way more extensively years ago (the bookstore and café which J.K. Rowling frequented when she was writing the “Harry Potter” books are now overrun with tourists who queue up and pay admission), is absolutely lovely. The gorgeous “exuberant Baroque style with some Rococo touches” of the buildings, coupled with the colorful tiles facades is absolutely lovely. I wander to the port where the Port wineries are located (popular for tours and tastings), and enjoy the ambiance before getting back to meet the group.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When we meet in Porto, we hear the results for this most difficult leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt (our “final exam” as world travelers), that took us to four countries (Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal):

In third place having completed  92 scavenges, 5 bonuses and 5310 points, Order & Chaos (the doctors from San Francisco).

In second place with 102 scavenges (that’s 20 a day), 7 bonuses and 5680 points, Lazy Monday.

In first place with 105 scavenges, 7 bonuses, and 6110 points, Lawyers Without Borders, putting Zoe and Rainey Littlepage of Houston, in great position to win the competition for “World’s Best Traveler.” (See Zoe Littlepage’s blog, https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019-rock-seville-in-spain-and.html).

We’re off to the final leg, in New York City, and the crowning of the winner of the 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt.

See more at www.globalscavengerhunt.com.

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

Global Scavenger Hunt: Surmounting the Rock of Gibraltar in Par 6 Leg

Walking across the border into Gibraltar from Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is clear why Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt, inserted Gibraltar on the “final exam” in which we needed to get ourselves from Marrakech to Fes to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto in five days – it was a challenge to figure the transportation and prove ourselves as world travelers. Some of the rules are relaxed for this, the most arduous of travel legs (a par 6) – the top 4 teams in contention for “World’s Best Traveler” are allowed to team up together but only for one country; can rent a car but only once and in one country (not cross-borders); can use their cell phone for information and GPS. We are given an allowance to purchase transportation and to book the three hotel nights we will be on our own; there are extra points for booking an AirBnB and for the cheapest hotel night.

The next day we are out at 9 am to catch the 10 am train to Tangier, where we will get the ferry to Algeciras and from there go to Gibraltar. As it turns out, there are three teams (six of us), following this same itinerary (not a coincidence – since none of us are in contention, we were allowed to share information and travel together).

This day, the third in our Par 6 challenge, is all about travel. Again, the train through Morocco is comfortable, fast, and provides a wonderful view of the country. But….

It was unnecessarily difficult to get information about which port at Tangier to go to for which ferry. There were about four different ferry lines, but two different ports. The group decides to taxi 45 minutes to the Tangier MED port – a major cargo shipping port – instead of going to the Tangier Ville port just a few minutes taxi ride from the train station, where the ferry would have taken us to Tarifa (about 50 minutes away from Gibraltar, compared to 20 minutes from Algeciras). The taxi ride along the coast is gorgeous, but the port is less suited to passengers than cargo. The immigration process takes forever. What we thought was a 5 pm ferry turned out to be a 6 pm ferry. Then we had to figure how to get from Algeciras (Spain) to Gibraltar (a colony of Great Britain), so the taxis can’t cross the border.

Gibraltar as seen from ferry to Algeciras © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A bus was a 15 minute walk and would have left at 9:30 pm so we decide to take the taxi to the border, where, we are told, we can walk across and get another taxi or a bus to The Rock Hotel. Sounds good, right? The cab drops us, we exit Spain (having just entered at the ferry terminal), and enter Gibraltar (no passport stamp! You have to go to the tourist office!), but no taxi, no bus. We start walking about 1 ½ miles to the hotel. Halfway, we find a cab that takes four of us and the luggage, and two of us continue walking. It is absolutely charming – and also culture shock – having gone from Fes, Morocco in the morning, put a toe into Spain, and now plunked down into this patch of Great Britain.

Walking across the border into Gibraltar from Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gibraltar at night, from our balcony at The Rock Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com Gibraltar, a touch of England in southern Iberian © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are red telephone boxes, Bobbies, English-style pubs.

Gibraltar at night, from our balcony at The Rock Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have arrived so late, though, the small town (the whole country only has 36,000 residents) is shuttering for the night. We can’t find a cab to take us the mile to the hotel, so we begin walking; eventually we find one cab and two of us continue walking to the hotel. It is absolutely delightful to walk in the quiet of the night, through this place that evokes in my mind an image of Brigadoon, a town from long ago that emerges from the mist.

I only have until early afternoon here to explore Gibraltar before having to push on to Seville, and then on to Porto, Portugal, to finish this leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.

The Rock Hotel, Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our hotel, The Rock, is well situated, just opposite the Botanical Gardens and an easy walk to the cable car that takes you to The Top of the Rock. I purchase ticket that gives me the ride up and entrance to the Nature Reserve as well as most of the key attractions that are all located along trails from the top, hiking down to the village (the hike takes about 1 ½-2 hours, plus time to visit the key attractions;  I give myself about 3 hours).

Cable Car is six-minutes to the top of The Rock of Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The cable car ride, 6 minutes, immediately brings me to one of the highlights of Gibraltar:  its Barbery Macaques (tailless monkeys). (I realize that’s why I am told to wear my backpack in the front, watch for pickpockets and guard my passport.) They are there to greet tourists, even jump on people’s heads, and display antics (in fact, I don’t find any in the “Ape’s Den” which is supposed to be their habitat).

Gibraltar’s Barbery Macaques frolic on the taxis that carry tourists up to The Rock. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a whole chain of things to see: St. Michael’s Cave (way too touristic for my taste, it was developed in the 1950s), Great Siege Tunnels that dates from 1779-83 to defend against the Spanish), World War II tunnels (separate admission 8E for 45-minute tour), various military batteries, Gibraltar A City Under Siege Exhibition (set in one of the first buildings constructed by the British in Gibraltar, there are re-creations of scenes from 1726 as well as graffiti by bored soldiers from then) and a Moorish Castle, first built in 1160 (you climb into the tower of Homage that dates from 1333 when Abu’l Hassan recaptured Gibraltar form the Spanish).

St. Michael’s Cave has a plaque commemorating the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 , Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gibraltar A City Under Siege Exhibition © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Moorish Castle, Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There’s a lot I don’t have time to get to: The Military Heritage Centre in Princess Caroline’s Battery; UNESCO Gorham’s Cave Complex which has evidence of Neanderthal and early modern humans.

I make my way to the charming historic district. It’s May Day and I come upon a labor rally in John MacIntosh Square. Amazingly, the themes could be New York City.

May Day Rally for workers’ rights, Gibraltar’s John MacIntosh Square © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am also surprised to learn of Gibraltar’s sizeable Jewish community (on The Rock, you can take a trail to Jew’s Gate, which leads to the Jewish cemetery; there are four synagogues, including the Great Synagogue on Engineer Lane, one of the oldest on the Iberian peninsula dating back to 1724 and Flemish Synagogue.

Here in the town there is Casemates Square, Gibraltar Crystal Glass Factory, an American War Memorial, the Gibraltar Museum, Irish Town, Trafalgar Cemetery (where soldiers who died at the Battle of Trafalgar are buried), King’s Chapel and King’s Bastion can be visited (I don’t have time).

The brief time here has been really enchanting.

I get myself to the bus station across the border (disappointed there is no Gibraltar border person to stamp my passport) in La Línea de la Concepción (not realizing that you couldn’t travel directly from Gibraltar to Seville was the problem in figuring out the travel arrangements in advance of coming to the hotel) and take an exceptionally pleasant bus ride through southern Spain into Seville, enjoying the lush landscape, the magnificent farms, and the hilltops dotted with wind turbines.

Still Seville and Porto to go before finishing this leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.

See more at globalscavengerhunt.com

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

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 7: Greek Orthodox Easter in Athens

Athens celebrates Greek Orthodox Good Friday © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Athens is a relatively easy Par 2 on the Global Scavenger Hunt. We had just 30 hours here, distinguished by the celebration of the Greek Orthodox Easter. We arrive on Good Friday and one of the challenges was to experience the distinctive celebration. You can’t miss it. Every church had a similar ritual. I walked down from the Grand Hyatt to the Plaka, stopping to reflect on Hadrian’s Gate before I took the narrow street that led me to the 11th century Byzantine church, where devotees were coming. We were told that at 7 pm, the priest comes out and the faithful ring the church. The service begins at 7 pm that we can hear from outside; the crowds really thicken and about 9 pm, the priest came out, leading a procession. People light candles and follow the procession of the cross and a funerary flowers. We join the crowd as they wind their way through the narrow streets below the Acropolis, and when we turned to a different direction, we would meet the procession again. All the streets were flooded with similar processions – candles moving like ripples of water. People jammed the outdoor restaurants as well. We went into another small Byzantine church where the frescoes were absolutely stunning.

Athens celebrates Greek Orthodox Good Friday © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next day, I immersed myself in Athens (some of the scavenges led teams out to the Peloponnese and the Theater of Epidaurus, and to accomplish them in the brief timeframe, rented a car).I just wanted to soak in Athens. I had a list of four major places to visit, starting with the Acropolis, then the Roman Agora (one of the most fascinating museums, contains artifacts that were gathered just from the Agora, including the tiny medicinal ceramic cups that were found at the jail, with which prisoners could take hemlock as their means of execution; one of them was Socrates; but the Agora is also really significant as the place of the first “parliament,” and you can see in the museum elements of democracy, including the ostracism pottery, where the name of a leader they wanted removed would be scratched into pottery); next the flea market at Monasteraki (originally the Jewish quarter), and the National Archaeological Museum, which I found has a special exhibit examining the concept of “Beauty.” The museum (which closed at 4 because of Easter Saturday) has the most astonishing collection of gold from Mycenae (including the famous Mask of Agamemnon); statues, bronzes, an amazing bronze 1000 years old of a jockey on a horse that looks like it could run away. The walk was so fabulous, also, because it took me through neighborhoods. I walked back to the hotel to meet several of us who were sharing a van to the airport.

Walking back through the Plaka, I bump into Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt, Pamela and Luka – it turns out to be a team challenge to photograph them.

Onward to Marrakech.

See more about the Global Scavenger Hunt at www.globalscavengerhunt.comhttp://www.globalscavengerhunt.com

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 6: Petra, a True Wonder of the World, is Highlight of Jordan Challenge

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan in the early morning © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the start of Leg 6, in Amman Jordan, only four of the original 10 teams competing in the Global Scavenger Hunt are still in contention to win, many of the teams can now join together, use their cell phones for planning and booking, get help from the concierge.

But for those competing, some of the mandatory challenges pose a difficult puzzle to achieve in terms of logistics and timing. The one that proves problematic is requiring to go one way to or from Petra along the ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t take that route, the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing how the two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.

All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have chosen different means to get there. I find myself on the Jett Express Bus, departing 6:35 am, with three of the teams including one that is in second place in the Global Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Another 5 of us hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing), and Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and son Luka are traveling separately. Each of us left at a different time by a different conveyance. But what a surprise! we all wind up at the same mid-way trading post at the same time. Hugs all around.

Struck for decades by the Frederic Church painting of Petra, and then by hearing at a New York Times Travel Show talk about Petra at night, I have decided to arrange my own overnight stay. I learn that the Petra at night is only offered twice/weekly and am lucky enough to be there for Wednesday. I hastily consult hotels.com for a hotel – none available under $200/night. I check booking.com and find a hotel – more of a hostel, really – at a very affordable price, less than a mile from the entrance to Petra. “Only one room left” the site warns. And considering how so many of the hotels were booked, I take the leap and book it. The concierge has reserved the seats on the Jett bus for the morning, with the return the next day (only one departure each way/daily), at 5 pm.

While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact, don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, knowing I will return the next day. The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company has put on a second bus – arrives at around 11 am. I use our Jordan Pass (which gives pre-paid admission to most archaeological sites, including two consecutive days at Petra, along with the visa) for the day’s admission and buy the ticket for Petra at Night ($25).

I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view that comes into focus as you walk through caverns with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then come upon the teaser of The Treasury through the opening, is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra was a complete surprise – I had not realized how vast – an entire city, in fact – how much has been carved out of the rock (the Royal Tombs are not to be believed), and how much in the Roman era had been built (The Great Temple, the colonnade). All around are fellows who hawk riding their camel, their horse, their donkey, or take the horse-drawn carriage (at fantastic speed considering the narrow walkway), to or from the entrance (it is a full mile walk from the entrance to The Treasury). It is hot, but dry and the breeze is surprisingly comfortable. Besides exploring the archaeological structures, Petra turns out to be a hiking place – you can take trails that bring you up to amazing views. One of the toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down again.

I decide to reserve that for the next day.

The “park” closes at about 6 and reopens for the 8:30-10:30 night program at 8 pm (it is operated separately and privately from Petra) – I still have to get my pack, which I have left at the Exchange ($5 tip), and get to the hotel, which I had thought was within walking distance (.7 mile), but turns out to be totally up hill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate).

My el cheapo-supremo hotel turns out to be exactly that – the nicest part os the name and front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I thought the fellow made a mistake and brought me to a room under construction (or rather deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet, rusting shower, cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that was falling apart, only a bed and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that were too disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall, clean and no bugs. So this will do for a night (considering I had left behind in Amman the five-star, ultra-hip and luxurious W Hotel).

I head out just after 8 pm, walking down the hill into the park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the stony path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking how dramatic and wonderful.

After 45 minutes, arrive at The Treasury where there are perhaps 1000 people sitting on carpets. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had seen of the event. The Treasury at this point is barely lighted at all. There is some traditional music, then a fellow sings, talks for a few minutes, and then garish neon-colored lights are shown on The Treasury, completely destroying the mood. And then it is over. 9:30 pm (not 10:30 pm). People start leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so leave also. I hike up the hill to the hotel.

My adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am able to return to Petra as early as 6 am. The hotel proprietor has packed my breakfast in a baggie in the refrigerator. When I arrive, who should I come upon at 6:14 am but the last team (Lawyers Without Borders). What are the odds!

Walking through the caverns (some of the most exquisite scenes) is unbelievably peaceful at this hour – I am even the only one at some points. There are no horse-drawn carriages rattling through, none of the hoards of people stopping for selfies and posing. And once inside, there was perfect peace also at The Treasury – the camels posing just perfectly.

A word about the guides – I didn’t use one and they try to convince you that they will take you places you couldn’t go yourself – but what I observed was that they were very knowledgeable, very considerate of their guests (in fact, it is difficult to become a guide – you have to take a test, be accepted, and then trained). The people who provided the camels, the horses, the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and the carriages work exceptionally hard (the animals work even harder). And all through are the souvenir stands (they actually look pretty good) – and you realize, Petra was a trading center, a stop along the vital caravan routes, and this is very likely what the scene would have looked like even then.

One guide offers to lead me on a trail that would take me to the overview of The Treasury (ranked moderate), but I am not feeling 100% and hope I will be able to do the Monastery trail.

I go through the park again, this time to the Monastery trail – get some scouting information and begin the ascent. It is a very interesting hike not just because of the gorgeous stone contours and colors, and the views back down, but because of the stands set up along the way.

And the Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually bigger than The Treasury – the largest structure carved out of a rock face (if I have that right). So worth it.

But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before the Jett Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive after the 8 pm deadline but have informed Bill that the bus likely won’t be back until after 9 pm, and I won’t miss a flight, will I?)

I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at the entrance to the Monastery Trail, where I sit outside under trees and have refreshment. I regain some strength and wander some more. At this point, I realize what a phenomenal experience I had in the early morning – some 2,000 passengers off the MSC cruise ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC cruise ship, and hundreds more off a Celebrity ship look like invaders – led by a guide with a number (50) for their group.

My next plan is to stop into the Petra Guest House, which is located right at the entrance to the park. (This is the hotel I would recommend for those who want to come overnight in order to experience Petra in the early morning – it is very comfortable, pleasant and moderate prie).

I have left an hour to visit the newly opened Petra Museum, sandwiched between the Visitor Center and the Bus Station (perfect!). It offers an outstanding exhibit (curiously Japan was a major contributor) – that explains extremely well how Petra developed, the Nabateans, how they grew to power first by controlling water through ingenious engineering, then the main trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three kingdoms. Artifacts including art as wlel as everyday materials going back to the Stone Age, are on display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays that are engaging and clear.

I board the Jett Bus (it is the first-class bus geared to foreign tourists) for the 3 hour trip back. The driver is excellent, but apparently, a taxi driver has accused him of knicking his cab and the entire bus has to go to the police station. Surprisingly, this is handled within 20 minutes and we are on our way.

The bus station is not even a mile from the W Hotel (15 minute walk versus 5 minutes by cab) and I considered getting an Uber (much, much cheaper than a taxi), but started walking instead. I am trying to get my bearings when a taxi driver who solicited my business at the bus station pulls up. I reluctantly agree – we settle the price and set out – in the wrong direction. What should have b een 5 minutes, I see on my GPS is taking me 8 km away from the hotel. The driver drives frantically, going the wrong way down one-way streets, zipping here and there but essentially driving in circles that go further away from the hotel. I show him the card, show him my GPS with the hotel address. Finally, in frustration I think, he tries to dump me at another hotel, saying, “W.”  Perhaps he thought I hadn’t been there yet and would be convinced this imposter was my hotel. I tell him he is going the wrong way, the wrong hotel. Finally he sets out again, and what should have taken 5 minutes, has taken 30.

I’ve missed the meeting when Bill Chalmers tells us our next stop on our Global Scavenger Hunt. My teammate has texted the answer: Athens.

In the Throes of Competition

It is so amazing to listen to everyone’s separate adventures and experiences – even those who aren’t competing any more still pick up on Bill’s challenges because they invariably lead us to wondrous and fascinating things that we may not have considered, or some experience at a highlight that we might not have considered. And since the competition is intended to crown “World’s Best Traveler” it is designed to challenge one’s ability for logistics.

Lawyers Without Borders, the team of Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, of Houston, has now done this trip more than a dozen times, in addition to being well-traveled adventure travelers on their own. But appreciate the difference in traveling this way – first as a mystery tour, so you have no ability to research or plan in advance what you will see or do at a destination; second, the challenges force you to experience things or see things from a different point of view.

The Lawyers are currently leading the contest (no surprise). Rainey explains that a lot is luck, but I think it is more art and willingness to embrace challenge as opportunity. And an ability to plan so effectively you can accomplish more scavenges, higher-point scavenges, and simply amass points. The problem is, if you fail to achieve any of the “mandatory” challenges, you don’t get any points at all for that leg.

“It’s different than regular travel. Play t”he game. The sheet gives purpose to do things you wouldn’t do. You have to plot,” Rainey says. “It’s a brilliant way to see things. .. You decide how many to do, but you turn to look and find another.  How between trains you might have an hour, and get 3 scavenges done. It’s an experience to get it done. I feel pity for those who are just there – no points.

Innocuous things bring a sense of accomplishment (like identifying local fish at the market). “How you solve. I love the game. We have been lucky this year,” he says, pointing to how one of the mandatory challenges in Jordan was to be at the Citadel in Amman at sunset – no mean feat since they had to get there from Petra. The sunset was at 7 and they arrived at 6:15 only to discover the Citadel closes at 6 pm. It was cash, not luck, that got them in: they paid the guard $5 to let them in to get the photos they needed as proof at sunset. “We would have lost the whole competition if he didn’t let us in.”

At the Dead Sea, where the mandatory challenge was to swim, it was nighttime when they arrived, but found someone (the kindness of strangers, is a theme of the Global Scavenger Hunt), to let them take the required dip.

At Wadi Rum, where they stayed in a tented camp, another mandatory was to be on a camel wearing headdress. But it was night and camel rides were no longer available. They found somebody to provide the camel and even let him put on his headdress. They then paid a guy with a pick up truck to bring them fro the tented camp to a taxi at 3:40 am to get to Petra by 6:15 am (when I met them). They completed the challenge of making it all the way through Petra, hiking up the Monastery Trail (about 8 miles altogether) by 9:15 am when they dashed off to Jerash (by 2:30 pm), accomplishing in three hours what it takes most 4-5 hours.

They had to sit through an hour-long church service before the required element would appear, took a Turkish bath, went to a café to smoke a hooka, ate falafel at a particular place, sent a stamped postcard from Petra to Petra (Bill and Pam’s daughter who couldn’t come), and for the “beastie” challenge, pose on a camel. “Points are king,” he said.

But here’s an example of real luck: Getting back from Inle Lake in Myanmar, Zoe has her plane ticket but not Rainey (again, they had to be back in time for the 6 pm deadline). Rainey was 30 on the waitlist, when a man offered his place on the plane. “I had to run to an ATM down the street to get the cash to give him.”

(Read Zoe’s blog: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com)

Think of it as “Around the World in 80 Days,” where Phileas Fogg had to use such ingenuity to get place to place (and out of trouble) by a deadline to win the bet. Or how Indiana Jones, who had that powerful scene at Petra, in “”The Last Crusade used the clues in his father’s notebook which ended with a “leap of faith.”

We are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery tour.

Here are the points after the Amman, Jordan leg:

5th place, Transformed Goddesses with 13 scavenges, 4 bonus, 1065 points

4th Slow Folk with 15 scavenges 3 bonus, 1150 points

3rd Order & Chaos with 25 scavenges 8 bonus, 1860 points

2nd Lazy Monday with 25 scavenges, 9 bonus, 2045 points

1st Lawyers Without Borders with 22 scavenges, 12 bonus, 2190 points

So the standings in the Global Scavenger Hunt so far (where like golf, the low score wins):

1 Lawyers Without Borders 25

2 Lazy Monday 30

3 Order & Chaos 57

4 Slow Folk 66

Still 4 legs, 6 countries to go

“You all feel confident, comfortable, would do new things, trust strangers, found balance between event and joy. Maximum joy, embrace that,” Bill Chalmers, our Chief Executive Officer and ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt says.

And we’re off to Athens for a 30- hour leg.  

See more at https://globalscavengerhunt.com/

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

Riding a scooter through the countryside © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a whirlwind destination wedding in New Orleans and a relaxing mini-moon in St. Lucia, we took a few weeks to recover at home, and then embarked on a 3-week adventure to Vietnam and Cambodia. After researching some 30 different destinations, we chose this combination for a number of reasons: the landscapes (according to Google image search) are varied and breathtaking; the climate is still warm in December, but not swelteringly hot; the food is supposed to be unbelievable; we can do some sightseeing and also indulge in some down-time (Bai Tu Long Bay cruise in Vietnam and island-hopping in Cambodia); we heard the people are incredibly kind and traveling around the country independently is fairly easy even with the language barrier; and we would be able to live well and splurge when we wanted to without breaking our budget (as opposed to Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, Maldives and other honeymoon hot-spots).

Our honeymoon to Vietnam and Cambodia proved to be all of the above AND MORE. The following are from emails we wrote home to our families, with names added afterwards for reference…

Subject: Update from Vietnam!

Hi fam!

Sorry to not have written earlier! We’ve been having an incredible time in Vietnam. Seriously every place so far has been a highlight, it’s pretty unreal. We’ve taken about 2000 photos each already so we’re starting an album of some highlights. 

One of our favorite lunches (marinated fried catfish hotpot with fixings), Chả Cá Thăng Long, Hanoi © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We started with 2 days in Hanoi walking around the old streets and eating some amazing food, and egg coffee, which is surprisingly delicious. Our first night we went with Hanoi Street Food Tours to sample some of the awesome street foods we wouldn’t have otherwise known to order.

Hanoi © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The second night we took a $1 Grab, (the Vietnamese Uber that costs $1 to go almost anywhere) to Chim Sao, this non-touristy restaurant out of the city center, and had an incredible dinner of traditional specialties like water buffalo, mountain sausage, banana flower salad, baby mussels, and rice wine. Food here is out of this world—very different from American Vietnamese and we are constantly surprised by the dishes.

View from our room at Ham Rong Homestay © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We had a great experience with Hanoi La Castela, the hotel we ended up in after we decided to leave our not so clean Airbnb. The staff at the hotel was incredibly friendly and helpful and their breakfasts were huge and delicious. They set up a car & driver for us to go to Ninh Binh, the gorgeous region about 3 hours west of Hanoi in the countryside. Lots of beautiful karsts (those tall mountain things jutting up from the land that you see in all the photos of Ha Long Bay). We stayed in a beautiful secluded homestay, Ham Rong, where the only sounds we could hear were the animals and insects around. We arrived just in time to hike the 500 steps of the mountain-top above Mua Caves and catch the sunset over an incredible panorama of Tam Coc and Ninh Binh.

Mua Caves, Tam Coc, Ninh Binh © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next 2 days we rented scooters from our homestay and had an amazing time riding around the countryside. Don’t worry, Dave was sure to drive very slowly and carefully, and it was all country back roads so very safe. We took a little boat ride through the karsts and caves in nearby Trang An, wandered through the back roads of the little villages, and visited some very cool temples built into the sides of mountains, like Bich Dong Pagoda. We also visited Bai Dinh, apparently the largest temple in all of Southeast Asia with a giant gold Buddha in one of the main halls–the whole complex was pretty ostentatious and absurd, and very cool to see, especially all lit up at night.

Along the road in Pu Luong, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our homestay arranged for a private car to take us to Pu Luong, where we stayed for 2 nights and absolutely need to return. It’s a phenomenally gorgeous nature reserve with self-sustaining villages that was totally unknown to foreigners before about a year or so ago. Some people have caught on and now some of the villages have started making homestays for visitors, but it’s still very rare to see any other white people outside of the homestay. There’s no tourism infrastructure (yet) aside from these few clusters of homestays so it feels like a very special peak into authentic traditional Vietnamese village culture.

Pu Luong, Vietnam© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rice terraces of Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the time you’re just surrounded by spectacular landscapes of terraced rice fields and mountains with scattered people tilling soil, herding water buffalo, cutting bamboo, harvesting rice, etc.

A village of Pu Luong, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Throughout the national park there are amazing little villages with everyone out working together, and everyone was so sweet to us when they’d realize we were foreigners. Anytime we’d go through a village all the little kids would very cutely run out to say “Hello! Hello! Hello!” until we passed.

Our treehouse at Pu Luong Treehouse, Don Village, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We stayed at Pu Luong Treehouse, the first night in an actual treehouse with the most gorgeous view, then upgraded the second night to a bungalow at the same place (same view) with private bathroom and a bigger space which was really gorgeous and probably one of the coolest places we’ve ever stayed. The host, Zoom, is from Hanoi, went to school in Alaska, has traveled the world, and has amazing taste so the whole little retreat she’s created is designed into the landscape with beautiful details everywhere. Basically everything is made of bamboo or branches, all the linens made herself with traditional textiles and weavings from Pu Luong. The chef she hired from the village is also incredible so we’ve been eating VERY well (several course meals 3 times/day). 

Traditional weaving in Don village, Pu Luong, Vietnam© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Incredible lunch stop at Nhá Tung homestay near Les bains de Hieu, Pu Luong, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We’re currently in a car back to Hanoi with Zoom (who’s 8 months pregnant and had to return home for a few days) and two great Australian girls who were also staying at the homestay. All 7 of us staying there got pretty close over the past 3 days, which seemed to be a function of the sweet energy Zoom’s created at the homestay, and I guess the type of people this very random, very peaceful province attracts, as it takes a good amount of research to get there. We’re sad to leave, but so excited for each next part of the trip!

Dragonfish meal with morning glory at  Nhà hàng 1946 © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Spending tonight in Hanoi and leaving tomorrow morning for Bai Tu Long Bay (Ha Long Bay’s apparently less touristy, equally beautiful sister). We’ll be on Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend for 3 days, 2 nights.

Love yous! Us

Subject: Vietnam/Cambodia update 2, going off-grid!

Hi fam!

Angkor Wat, 12th century Buddhist temple, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Photo: Senghuat Boun

We’re currently on a small prop plane from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville to catch a boat to Koh Ta Kiev, a tiny island off the southern coast of Cambodia. We had an amazing (but too short) 2 days in Siem Reap exploring the Angkor Wat complex. We hired a private guide/driver (Senghuat Boun) on the recommendation of a couple we met on our cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay, and he was amazing.

Dave playing his guitarlele with the children of the Temple guard at Ta Nei © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Laini watching the kids draw in her sketchbook at Ta Nei
 © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We saw all the main temples plus a few smaller “off the beaten path” ones, including Ta Nei in the jungle, a small temple that hasn’t yet been restored and is amazing to see how it’s been reclaimed by nature. When we were there this afternoon it was just us, the temple guard, and her 2 ridiculously cute children who played guitar with Dave (he has his guitarlele with him) and drew with me. It was a really sweet way to end the temple circuit.

First Light over Angkor Wat © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
South Gate of Angkor Thom © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Afterwards we had our driver drop us off at a restaurant we found last night but was closed then, and our lunch there today was actually one of the best meals either of us have ever had (Pou Kitchen & Cafe). In NYC it would have a 6-month waitlist. Four incredibly inventive dishes plus dessert and fancy iced coffee came to $22.

Preah Kahn, 12th century temple built by King Jayavarman VII in honor of his father. Photo: Senghuat Boun

Before Siem Reap, the cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay was awesome. Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend is a 4-star ship with amazing food (and a ton of it), and makes an extremely relaxing experience on the bay.

Aboard Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Laini relaxing aboard Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We sailed to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is supposed to be less touristy and cleaner than Ha Long Bay, and we barely saw another boat on the water except for when we docked to sleep, since boats are only allowed to dock overnight in one specific spot). It was actually a luxury 45-person cruise ship, but only 14 people were on board so it was very sweet and intimate, and the perfect amount of people for the short day tours (kayaking, visiting a fishing village, learning about oyster harvesting). I loved spending the afternoons drawing and reading Adam’s book and Dave got to play a lot of guitar.

Hoi An, rainy season © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a quick overnight in Hanoi the night we returned from the cruise, we went to Hoi An, about an hour flight south of Hanoi. There was torrential downpour from the time we arrived until 2 days later (completely forgot this is rainy season in the south). But it gave us a night in to chill at our beautiful hotel (Ocean Breeze Villa) in An Bang, the sleepy beach town just out of the city where we were somehow able to order delivery from Morning Glory, one of the city’s best restaurants.

Takeout from Morning Glory during the storm in Ocean Villa Hotel, An Bang, Hoi An © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We took another $1 Grab into the city and got an incredible 2-hour massage and scrub at 5 Senses Spa during the heaviest rains of the 2nd day ($26 for a 90 min massage!). 

We try on our new clothes
at Thong Phi Tailors, Hoi An

The rest of the time we mostly spent shopping and eating, since this is the town known for their great tailors, which are all indoors. From one shop we went into the first day, Thông Phi Tailors, Dave got a nice black suit, chinos, and 3 dress shirts, and I got 2 linen jumpsuits and a pair of linen trousers, all made to order with a few rounds of alterations so everything fits perfectly. The last day Dave started talking to a shop person at a different Tailor (Bai Diep) while he was waiting for me next door and he ended up getting 4 more shirts and an awesome patterned blazer for me all tailored and altered in just 3 hours!


Bahn Mi assembly line during the lunch rush at the Parts Unknown favorite, Bahn Mi Phuong, Hoi An, Vietnam
© Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of that last day was finally sunny so we were able to see the beautiful colored walls (mostly rich yellow) and multi-colored lanterns emblematic of the city without all the rain. You can look up #hoian on instagram to get a sense. The city is wild–it’s one of the oldest looking towns because the whole ancient quarter is a registered historic site so they can’t do anything to alter its appearance, though the entirety of this old town is catered to tourists, with shops selling clothes, leather, tailored goods, and other stuff in just about every storefront. It was great for a rainy 2 1/2 days. 

Sampling street food in Hoi An, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

So now we’re off to 5 days/nights on an island to do nothing but read and veg. We’re most likely spending 2 nights in Koh Ta Kiev, the small island with no electricity, so we’ll be out of touch for at least a few days. If we love it there we’ll stay longer. If we decide we want a hot shower or fans we’ll head to Koh Rong Samloen, another beautiful small island that’s slightly more developed with Bungalows with real walls, showers, and AC. We’ll be in touch when we’re back in wifi zone! Can’t wait to catch up with you all!!

Miss and love yous! 

Us

Subject: Re: Vietnam/Cambodia update 2, going off-grid!

Crystal clear waters at Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia

Hi guys! Just wanted to let you know where we landed…  We’re at Lazy Beach in Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia until we head to the airport. We have a perfect pretty large bungalow with a beautiful view of the water and the beach is quiet and awesome.

Morning to ourselves at Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia
© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In total contrast to construction-hell Sihanoukville and even Koh Rong Samloen’s Saracen Bay that’s beginning to be pretty built up, all that’s built on this side of the island are about 15 bungalows stretching along the shore and one open-air restaurant where we’re able to order all our meals from an extensive menu of both Western and Cambodian specialities (the owners are from the UK, the kitchen crew is mostly Cambodian). Everything is wonderful. We feel very lucky to be here. No WiFi on this part of the island, but Dave’s phone seems to get sporadic service so text him if you need us. Otherwise we’ll be back in touch on the 18th when we land in JFK! 

Love yous! 

Us

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

4 Days in Morocco: Desert Adventure from Marrakesh to the Sahara

Sandboarding from the mountain-like dune in the Sahara © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

Everything about a trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara is epic. We didn’t know if we would drive ourselves or hire a tour, so from finding the right desert guide, then traveling the 8+ hours through roads filled with switchbacks and harrowing drivers, to the climactic landscape of red-hot sand dunes reaching literally as far as your eyes could follow, this was an adventure we could never have anticipated.

There are several ways to do this trip. You can book a trip online through Tripadvisor, Getyourguide, Viator, or any of the other aggregator sites with real reviews. The average price we found was around $250/person. Or, you can wait until you arrive in the country and try to haggle a better deal through your riad/guesthouse, or any of the endless storefronts advertising excursions to the desert.

With four days or more, you will be able to experience more of the desert landscape and not feel quite as rushed. Since we knew we wanted to spend a night in Aït Benhaddou, we made our own way there by bus and had our riad host arrange our desert excursion from that point.

Our main advice is to budget at least 4 days. Anything less and you won’t really experience the heart of the Moroccan Sahara. All standard 3-day desert tours offer the same basic itinerary:

Day 1: Leave Marrakech early AM, arrive in Aït Benhaddou in time for lunch, quick tour of the Kasbah then back on the bus, pass through Ourzazate for a brief visit, then overnight at a hotel or riad in Dades Valley. Day 2: Full day drive to Merzouga, stopping in the old town of Tinghir (a guided tour will probably take you to a berber carpet showroom). Arrive in Merzouga just before sunset, Berber guides will escort you on camels into the desert sand dunes, have dinner in the camp, sleep overnight in a tent or on a wool blanket on the sand. Day 3: Leave just before dawn to return to Merzouga where you’ll meet your driver for the 9 hour ride back to Marrakech. Some trips will give you a little more time in the morning to experience the dunes in the daylight for an extra fee. Absolutely do this if you have the offer.

Tzikinitza: On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here is what we did, what we learned, and tips that we wished we’d had before we went…

Day 1 – Aït Benhaddou

This fortified ancient village, currently home to only five families, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and other epic dramas. We took the CTM bus from Marrakesh to the village of Wade Melah, where the host of our riad met us to drive us to the old town of Aït Benhaddou. No one knows exactly how old the town is, but they estimate that it dates back at least 500 years, and looks much older. It was once a hub of Jewish and Berber people who lived harmoniously in the town. In fact, if you stay in the Riad Dar El Haja, you will be staying in the former home of the old village’s Rabbi and his family, which we were told is one of only two guesthouses in the Kasbah. Today this riad features several well-appointed rooms with comfortable beds, ensuite bathrooms with hot water, 2 terraces to enjoy dinner or breakfast al fresco, and an original natural cave that makes a magical setting for a tagine dinner cooked on premise (breakfast is included in the stay, 3-course dinner was about 13 Euros/person).

Ait Ben Haddou at dawn, looking just as it did over a dozen centuries ago. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ait Ben Haddou has been the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Getting There:

Luxury: In Marrakesh you can find several private taxis or tour companies that will take you directly to Aït Benhaddou. We were quoted prices between 1500-4000 MAD (1000 MAD equals $104), haggling mandatory.

Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Budget: Take the CMT bus from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate (100 MAD), then a taxi to Aït Benhaddou (~90 MAD). Or you can try to convince your bus driver to drop you off in Wade Melah as we did, to meet someone from your riad willing to pick you up.

Adventure: Rent a car in Marrakesh. You can drop the car off in Ouarzazate if you decide to join a tour to the desert, or go rogue and try it all on your own. The road from Marrakesh to ABH is insane with about 2 hours of tight switchbacks as you pass the Tizi n’Tichka, but if you’re a (very) comfortable stick driver it seemed like it would be a lot of fun to drive, IN THE DAYLIGHT. The roads between Tinghir and Merzouga are more harrowing and we were happy we opted for the tour.

Our tips:

  • Stay the night: Most tour buses arrive at the Kasbah around noon and leave around 3 or 4, so spending the night before means you have the old town virtually to yourselves in the morning, and you can see the Kasbah before the stalls open for the day.
  • Break up the drive to the desert: Make Aït Benhaddou a one-night stop on a longer desert tour to break up your first or last day of the 8+ hour drive (more on this below).      
  • Catch the sunrise: Most tourists seemed to hike to the top of the Kasbah for the sunrise. For an even wilder 360-degree view, walk out of the Kasbah toward the big hill at the base of the east part of the town (right next to the famous filming spot of Gladiator and Game of Thrones), and watch the sunrise to the east with a movie-perfect view of the Kasbah to your west.
  • Lunch away from the main bus pick-up area: Most people meeting their tour groups seemed to be directed to the main large hotel/restaurant complex, which all had long waits and apparently mediocre food. We had an excellent lunch of lamb and prune tagine and Merguez sausage at Riad Maktoub, just down the road. This is also a highly-rated riad, if you decide to stay across the river from the Kasbah.

Day 2

Rashid, our riad host, referred us to a 3-day small group tour with Nature Dream, that we were able to join in Aït Benhaddou (they had started in Marrakesh at 7am that same morning, arrived at noon for lunch and had 2 hours to tour the Kasbah before getting back on the bus). We joined 4 other young travelers in an old van and drove to Boumalne Dades, an area of dramatic mountains and breathtaking views at every turn.

Our Tips:

  • If you do go with a tour, ask ahead of time about your accommodations. Once we entered Boumalne Dades we saw many cool-looking riads with incredible views. The one arranged by our tour company was not one of these, although it ended up being all we needed for a quick night’s sleep with the typical chicken and vegetable tagine dinner.
  • If you drive here on your own, make sure you arrive before sunset because the views are really worth seeing in sunlight.

Day 3

Our private dinner cave in Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We left our riad at 8 am and drove to Tinghir, where we met a lovely guide named Rachid. He showed us around the Kasbah and informed us about its history as a Jewish and Berber community until 1948 when the Jewish people left for Israel or larger Moroccan cities. Now the Kasbah is mostly abandoned, inhabited by nomads helped by those in the village who give them jobs in the farms and share their food. There are now only about 15 families living in the Kasbah, with close to 1 million people occupying the greater city of Tinghir.

Pouring “Berber whiskey” (honey mint tea), a Moroccan ritual for welcoming guests© Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While in the Kasbah we were taken to a home of several families that specialized in Berber rugs. We were given the classic “Berber Whiskey” (mint tea), and learned about traditional rug-making, from the way the wool is cleaned and spun, to the pigments used to tint it, and the meanings beyond different typical Berber rug designs.

Rachid then took us to Todra Gorge, and then to a nice lunch spot nearby. We would recommend contacting Rachid even if you do not do a tour, as he was one of the sweeter, more gentle people we encountered in our 3 days, and his English is excellent (Spanish is even better). He lives in the greater village of Tinghir and often takes groups hiking and climbing in Todra Gorge, and if you have a few days he’ll take you to visit the nomadic families living deeper in the caves.  (Rachid Haddi: +212629460239 whatsapp).

Our tip:

  • The range for rugs in each of the small villages we visited fluctuated from 6000MAD (1000 MAD equals $104) down to 2000MAD for a 4 x 6 ft rug. The general rule of thumb seemed to be to suggest at most 1/3 of the first asking price, and walk away until they meet you close to your price.

Day 3 Continued:

After lunch we left Rachid and continued to Merzouga. We had learned from Rachid that wet season is August to October, and we definitely experienced this first hand during this part of the drive. There are 3 roads to Tinghir. We took the most direct route in the middle, which passes through many small towns on little maintained roads. Because of recent storms, many roads were completely flooded and may have been unpassable in standard cars. Even with a driver from the Sahara with 20+ years experience driving tour groups, we were still worried we wouldn’t make it several times and on one occasion our driver was harassed by a swarm of 20+ teenage boys trying to get 50 MAD for them to push his car across the road with the motor off. We saw a rental car with foreigners turn around at this point and I guess attempt a different way. We don’t have experience with the north and south routes, but by the look of the map they seemed like bigger roads if slightly less direct.

The sun was setting as we set out on our 7 km  camel trek through the Sahara to our desert camp, much of it in the dark © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally around sunset we arrived at a riad in Merzouga, where we waited for our camels with about 30 other travelers who had been dropped off from similar tours. About half hour later, all of us were escorted on camels through the dunes of Merzouga to our camp in the middle of it all. We were surprised to be on the camels for an hour and a half (7 km)! Once at the camp we were assigned beds in 4 or 5 person tents, and had the expected chicken tagine dinner. The camp itself was very bare-bones, with no sheets or pillowcases, just one wool blanket on top of a mattress and another for warmth in the night. We found the tents to be quite stuffy at night, and sleeping under the stars was in all ways the better alternative. The stars at night were spectacular. The air was crisp and cool, but not freezing, and if not for the scratchy wool blankets, it would have been a pretty magical night’s sleep.

Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Desert camps:

            Luxury: We were quoted prices for a private driver for just the 2 of us, “stopping anywhere we wanted to”, with 3 days and 2 nights (1 in the desert), with luxury accommodations for 4000MAD/person (1000 MAD equals $104). We got this driver down to 3000 MAD for more budget accommodations and private driver. Luxury accommodations seemed to have beautiful glamping-style beds with sheets in large private tents.

            Standard: Just about every 3 day/2 night tour seems to spend one night at a hotel or riad in the Dades Valley (Boumalne Dades), stop on day 2 at Todra Gorge followed by a sunset camel ride out to the desert, camp overnight, and drive 8hr 30min back to Marrakech on day 3, leaving the camp just after sunrise. These tours all include 2 night accommodations and breakfast and dinner, with lunch spots determined by the driver and paid individually by the travelers. Standard tours ranged from 1250 – 2500 MAD/person.

            Budget: Since we joined a tour in Aït Benhaddou, we paid 900 MAD/person in a 6-person van and budget accommodations. Right as we arrived at the camp, our camp hosts told us we had the option to ride the camels back to Merzouga at 4:30am (before sunrise!), or be driven in their SUV over the dunes after sunset for 10 Euro/person. Of course opt for the latter or else you’ll miss the most spectacular time in the dunes. Or better yet, opt for a tour that has the van-ride back their default and doesn’t try to charge you for it.

Our desert camp in the Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara Desert © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our tips:

  • BYO Sheets: If you do go on a standard tour, this is a MUST: bring a cocoon travel sheet or sleep-sack. We were really jealous of our tour friends who had heard this tip before-hand and enjoyed a full night’s sleep.
  • Don’t bring food unless it’s sealed in an air-tight container. We saw a mouse in our tent earlier in the evening and woke up to see the plastic bag of our trail mix nibbled into, and one of our thin linen sweaters destroyed (still can’t imagine what was appetizing about that!).
  • Head-wrap: Bring a thin scarf for the night and morning as it can get quite chilly and is nice to wrap around your head if sleeping out under the stars (you can pick this up for 30-40 MAD at every single stop along the way, or at any stall in any medina. Beware that the really cheap ones will bleed and stain your other clothes in the laundry). It also looks cool wrapped as a turban as you’re riding your camel.
  • Sandboarding: If you’re comfortable on a snowboard and want the exercise (and amazing photos), rent a snowboard from Merzouga town before heading into the desert. Our camp hosts rented one to Dave for 200 MAD and brought it out in their truck while we rode the camels. Of course there are no ski lifts so you’ll have to trek up the highest dune with it yourself in order to get the best ride down.

Day 4

Watching the sun rise over Algeria from a sand dune ridge in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After catching the sunrise over Algeria and sandboarding a bit, we took the SUVs back to the riad where we were given the classic breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and bread with jams and honey, and had a chance to wash up in their WCs before the long haul back to Marrakesh. They don’t supply towels, but if you bring your own you can even have a shower. The last day is a full driving day, stopping every 2-3 hours for our driver to have a coffee and take a quick break. As with most of the stops we had lunch at a random place on the route where other drivers brought their tours. Expect about 100 MAD/person for an app, entree, and dessert at each of the lunch spots (a la carte is not offered, but can be an option if you ask nicely).

View of our desert camp from atop a dune ridge © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrived back in Marrakesh around 8:30pm, just enough time to settle at the riad where we had a relaxing dinner, and a much needed shower.

Our lodging tips:

  • Riad Al Nour: In the Marrakesh medina, Youssef and Younes will take great care of you while staying at their riad. They know the best street food spots and will even run out to pick something up for you if you want a relaxing dinner in their courtyard after your long trip back from the desert. The riad is gorgeous, beds are big and comfortable, showers are hot, and AC works! Book directly with the riad to avoid booking fees.
  • Riad Dar El Haja: One of the few riads in Aït Benhaddou, enjoy a hot shower, big comfortable bed, great food, and epic location, on the actual set of Game of Thrones!
Our host at Riad Ait Ali in Dades Valley © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com


On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A village on the way from Ait Benhaddou to Ourzazate © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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