By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We get our first glimpse of Konigstein Fortress, perched on a 24-acre rock plateau high on a hilltop, 240 meters above the river, as our ship, CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princess, sails past. It is formidable. Known as the “Saxon Bastille,” it is Germany’s largest fortifications and one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe. It was never conquered and never invaded (though our guide tells the story of a local teenager who managed to “invade” the fortress by scaling the walls; he was initially taken into custody but released after they could not find a law to charge him with breaking, and he became a local hero).
The fortress is a complex of more than 50 buildings, some more than 400 years old, including a dramatic medieval castle, with ramparts that run 1,800 meters and walls up to 42 meters high, which for centuries was used as a state prison (political prison). The fortress has been an open-air, military history museum since May 29, 1955, and is now one of Saxony’s foremost tourist attractions, visited by 700,000 a year. ((I keep thinking it should have been used in a James Bond movie).
100 million years ago, this place would have been at the bottom of the ocean, our guide, Gerold Jahn, tells us. Now, because it is the highest perch, there are lightening conductors everywhere (100 years ago, three tourists were killed by a lightening strike) and there is a safety talk and posters.He takes us to his favorite views of the Elbe Valley and villages well below.
The fortress is a complex of more than 50 buildings, some more than 400 years old, including a dramatic medieval castle, with ramparts that run 1,800 meters and walls up to 42 meters high, which for centuries was used as a state prison (political prison), and is now one of Saxony’s foremost tourist attractions, visited by 700,000 a year. ((I keep thinking it should have been used in a James Bond movie).
Originally, there was a monastery here, which was closed after Luther’s Reformation. It took 40 years to build the fortress, beginning 1580 until 1620, just after the start of the Thirty Years War (half of all Saxony people died in that war). The fortress was built to be invincible, though in fact, it was not built for defense, but as a refuge for the townspeople, scientists, and government.
It was designed as a refuge (Dresden is 28 km away) to accommodate as many as 4000 people (the fewest number of full time residents is 40, the present number of permanent occupants). Peak occupation was during the Seven Years War, in 1756.
What I find most fascinating is how they solved all the problems – water, food and sanitation – to make this place totally self-sufficient (not just impenetrable). The secret to its steady supply of water is a 152.5 meter deep well, which is the deepest in Saxony and second deepest well in Europe – and the key to how this fortress was made to withstand any kind of siege. We get to see how it was built by local miners over a four-year period. The well is fed by rain that filters through the soil over a period of 6 to 7 months (they calculated) and naturally refills and could not be poisoned by an enemy. They devised a system to a 130-liter barrel into the well to collect the water.
Also, every household had a patch of land and was expected to cultivate their own food. The fort has a self-sufficient town with its own butcher, bakery, brewery, hospital and treasury. Even today, young children attend school at the fortress and older ones are picked up by bus.
The fortress was used to protect the Saxon state reserves and secret archives during times of war. In 1756 and 1813 and during World War II, Dresden’s art treasures were also stored at the Königstein.
Its main function since the 17th century was as a prison. Some of the more notable prisoners incarcerated at Königstein (likely after secret trial) include: the Crypto-Calvinists, including Caspar Peucer (1574–86) and Nikolaus Krell (1591–1601), chancellor of the Electorate of Saxony; Johann Friedrich Böttger (1706–1707), co-discoverer with Tschirnhaus of European porcelain; Count Karl Heinrich von Hoym (1734–1736), cabinet minister of the Electorate of Saxony; committed suicide in his cell; Mikhail Bakunin (1849–1850), Russian anarchist and revolutionary; Thomas Theodor Heine (1899), caricaturist and artist and Frank Wedekind (1899–1900), writer and dramatist.
The fortress was never bombed during World War II, even though nearby Dresden was famously destroyed, That is because it was known not to be a military base but rather, American, French and Polish POWs (mainly officers) were kept here. “They were kept in very humane conditions – one day a week they could leave to hike,” Gerold tells us.
The fortress was considered impregnable – “The only way prisoners left was when their dead bodies were thrown over the wall” – but there is a famous legend of the daring escape of a French general Henri Giraud, who was kept here 1940-1942.
“We never knew how it happened. One theory was that he was smuggled little pieces of rope that he joined together until he had 45 meters, repelled down, and that a special agent met him at the bottom with clothes, false passport and he escaped to Switzerland. Another theory is that he had inside help and the Germans wanted him to escape because Giraud was an enemy of DeGaulle and if was free, there would dissention. The French claim it was Resistance who helped him. But after only two years, he died in airplane crash in North Africa.” (I’m thinking, murder???? What a film!)
In May 1945, the 20 soldiers (more like police) here waved a white flag to welcome the Russians. “They came with art experts. The Soviets confiscated the art, but when Stalin died in 1953 and Khruschev wanted to have détente, they and gave back the art.”
“It is a masterpiece of engineering, of architecture,” Gerold, who has a background in civil engineering, tells us.
I am grateful that we have about 40 minutes to explore on our own, and I go into a marvelous exhibit about the history of this place and this area housed within the castle (a treat to see inside).
We walk down from castle the through the four gates (coming up, we used the modern elevator). Really wonderful.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
When I come out from Golden Lane, with its tiny houses that line the Prague Castle walls, I look across to see the Lobkowicz Palace and realize it is included on the Prague Cool Pass, so decide to check it out. This turns out to be the absolute highlight for me in Prague.
The Palace, itself, is fabulous, and the collection it houses, is breathtaking. And the family’s story is utterly fascinating.
Built in the mid-16th century, the Lobkowicz Palace is one of the most significant cultural sites in the Czech Republic (no hyperbole), and the only privately owned palace in the Prague Castle complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The family, once one of the richest and most powerful in Bohemia, have been key players in the history of the Czech Republic and the whole of Europe.
I know none of this when I walk in, but quickly am awe-struck.
The audio tour through 21 galleries is narrated by William Lobkowicz (b 1961), the current heir and manager of most of the Lobkowicz lands in the Czech Republic (Lobkowicz Palace, Nelahozeves, Roudnice and Strekov Castle), with some cameo appearances by his wife and mother. He puts faces as well as context to the portraits you see (as fabulous as they are, going back to the first Prince Lobkowicz, Zdenko Adalbert Popel).
The Lobkowicz Palace was built in the mid-16th century by Bohemian nobleman Jaroslav of Pernstein (1528–1569). It came into the Lobkowicz family through the marriage of Polyxena of Pernstein (1566-1642) to Zdenko Adalbert Popel, 1st Prince Lobkowicz (1568–1628), in 1603.
Polyxena and the palace played a key role in one of the most significant events in Prague history: the famous Defenestration of Prague in 1618, when Protestant rebels threw two Catholic Imperial Ministers and their secretary out the windows of the Royal Palace in Prague Castle. Surviving the fall (they fell on a pile of refuse in the moat), they were given refuge in the adjoining Lobkowicz Palace, where they were protected by Polyxena. (The scene is immortalized in a painting which you can view.)
The Defenestration of Prague signaled the beginning of a Bohemian revolt against the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, leading to the Thirty Years’ War.
“It is no exaggeration to call the Thirty Years’ War the worst war in European history. The combatant nations lost between 25 and 40 percent of their populations to military action, famine and disease,” states historyextra.com.
Also in this room, there is a notable painting attributed to Velazquez of the “Infanta Margarita Teresa of Spain,” the daughter of Philip IV of Spain, and granddaughter of Emperor Ferdinand III, when she was four. At 15, she was married to her uncle, Emperor Leopold I, in 1666, and bore him four children before dying in childbirth at 22. (Philip would only have Velazquez paint the family). She is featured in one of Velazquez’ most famous portraits, “Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress” and in “Las Meninas” (“The Ladies-in-Waiting”), a painting that is recognized as one of the most important in Western art history.
But this is nothing compared to the astonishment you experience when you enter the Music Room. Here you see various historical instruments on display and the important musical personalities within Lobkowicz family in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Ferdinand Philipp Lobkowicz (1724-1784) is described as “an eccentric melancholic, a passionate collector, scientist, painter and musician. He was the second born son, so expected to be able to devote himself to his passions – science and art. That plan was derailed when his older brother Wenzel died suddenly and Ferdinand was required to take over the ancestral estates. He preferred to reside alone in Eisenberg castle where he experimented with alchemy, created bizarre paintings, played violin and composed. He spent time outside the Hapsburg Empire – in England, Italy, Prussia – and became acquainted with important composers. He composed a Sinfonia with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and was closely associated with Christoph Willibald Gluck. He married when he was 45 to a woman who shared his passion for music.
But the family’s paramount musical figure was Joseph Frantisek Maximilian (1772-1816), 7th Prince Lobkowicz, who was Beethoven’s greatest private patron. The first performances at both the family’s Vienna Palace and North Bohemian castle of Jezeri resulted in Beethoven dedicating numerous works to Lobkowicz, including his 3rd (Eroica), 5th and 6th (Pastoral) symphonies. Joseph was a founding member of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna, a member of the Society for the Promotion of Musical Culture in Bohemia and a director of the Court Theatre of Vienna. He was also responsible for commissioning the reconstruction of the palace’s exterior, giving it the appearance it has today. Upon his early death, in 1816, his son Ferdinand Joseph, 8th Prince Lobkowicz (1797-1868), continued Beethoven’s annuity and maintained the family orchestra, most of instruments of which survive today in the collection, along with autographed manuscripts by Gluck, Mozart and Beethoven.
Walk on and you find yourself in an intimate gallery with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous “Haymaking,” painting – one of only five known today (one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, three in Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna and this one), notable because it is among the first landscape paintings depicting everyday life. Just beyond, in another gallery, are two masterpieces by Canaletto: “London: The River Thames on lord Mayor’s Day, and ‘The River Thames Looking Towards Westminster from Lambeth,” “an important and comprehensive visual record of how the city looked in mid-18th century, and among the greatest of the Venetian painter’s English period works.”
Another highlight of the visit to Lobkowicz Palace is an incomparable view overlooking the city from one of the balconies.
The tour continues on the first floor of this magnificent palace. In the Princess Ernestine Room you see a remarkable series of portraits painted by Princess Ernestine of Nassau-Siegen (1623-68) including her own self-portrait. Her work is notable as a 17th century woman painter, particularly because she was of noble birth. She was herself painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck in 1634, when she was 11, in one of his largest and greatest family group portraits, which possibly inspired her to paint. The portraits entered the collection through the marriage of the artist’s only daughter, Claudia Frantiska (1660-80) to the 3rd Prince Lobkowicz in 1677. (We are informed that they were cleaned and conserved through funding of Friends of Heritage Preservation.)
The Lobkowicz princes, throughout history, played important roles as high-level officials working closely with kings and emperors.
After World War I and following the end of hereditary titles in 1918, Maximilian Lobkowicz (1888–1967), son of Ferdinand Zdenko, 10th Prince Lobkowicz (1858–1938), provided crucial support to the newly formed, democratic Czechoslovakia as a lawyer and diplomat, campaigning abroad for international recognition. He demonstrated his support for the fledgling First Czechoslovak Republic by making several rooms at the Palace available to the government, headed by the new nation’s first President, Tomas G. Masaryk.
In the 1930s, Maximilian mustered diplomatic support for opposition to the German annexation of the Sudetenland, and during World War II he served as ambassador to Great Britain for the Czechoslovakian government in exile.
“Max supported the new Czechoslovakia in 1918, even though it abolished inherited titles,” William narrates about his grandfather. “He was against the Nazi regime. He had a British wife and was active in the underground.” Their property was taken by the Nazis. Most of the possessions were returned in 1945, but confiscated again in 1948 when the Communists came to power. “Max was trapped in Czechoslovakia after it was taken over by the Communists. He got a two-day pass to visit his wife. He left with nothing but his hat and coat.”
The property was returned to the family in 2002, and in 2007, they opened the palace and all its collections to the public.
The surprises of this place continue.
At the end of the visit, is a special room dedicated to the “Queens of Ukraine”: glamorous photographs of Ukrainian women who work in the Czech Republic. “They have worked hard all their lives as housekeepers in our country, sending money to their families in Ukraine as there was no work. Now their sons are at war and their daughters are running away with little children from a country that’s fighting for its freedom.”
It is related to an exhibit of “Culture Under Siege” photos documenting the devastating destruction of cultural sites in Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion. They were taken by several Ukrainian photographers in two weeks early in the invasion. Religious buildings, museums, monuments, antiquities, “the silent cultural casualties in Ukraine continue to intensify, exacerbating the country’s humanitarian suffering. These photographs remind us that culture is an essential source of identity and community. Where culture is destroyed, humanity’s past, present and future is too.”
The project was created in collaboration with Ukrainian photographers – each photo uses a backdrop taken by Ukrainian photographers in the first days of the war. “Queens of Ukraine” is aimed at highlighting Ukrainian artists and raising funds to support families suffering from war. The works were sold as NFTs (non fungible tokens), with 50 percent of the sale supporting the Queen herself and the other 50 percent supporting the Ukrainian artist, writes Bet Orten, the photographer/artist.
There are also concerts here, and I can’t imagine a more impressive venue.
Just outside the gate to the Prague Castle, flanking the enormous square, are two palaces that are now are part of the National Gallery Prague (also included in the Prague Cool Pass):
The Schwarzenberg Palace, which it turns out was built by Johann iV Popel of Lobkowicz in 1567 and from World War II to 2002 was a Military History Museum, before being acquired by the National Gallery Prague) features Old Masters of the Renaissance (Albrecht Durer, El Greco, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Holbein the Elder, Brueghel), Baroque (Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck) and Rococco.
The Sternberg Palace, built by Count Vaclav Vojtech of Sternberg, features Old Masters II, continuing a long tradition as the Picture Gallery of the Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts, the National Gallery’s predecessor. It features Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s collection of Italian paintings of the 14th and 15th centuries, the largest collection of Italian primitive school outside of Italy. My favorite section, though, is an extraordinary collection of Dutch and Flemish painting of the 15-18th centuries from Antwerp, Amsterdam, Utrecht and Layden (Brueghal, Rubens, van Dyck). There is also a delightful garden area.
Walking around Prague, I was struck by how demonstrably pro-Ukraine the Czechs are – banners unfurled at government buildings, apartment buildings – which is understandable considering the Czech people know full well what it is like to live under the Soviet yoke. I also came upon a climate protest, and after spending a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter (a square is named for the Jewish novelist Franz Kafka, in front of the Library), and even in the National Museum, I was struck by how respectful of its Jewish heritage Prague is.
Also, how culturally liberal. Prague is a place of pleasure, of indulgence – you see it and feel it in the number of chocolate and sweet shops, cannabis shops, beer and wine, casino, Thai massage parlors,and a generally permissive attitude toward sex (you can visit the Sex Machine Museum at the archway to the Old Town Square).
And a streetscape that is out of a fairytale. Prague is a place to wander, explore, discover, get lost and be surprised and delighted.
By now, it’s time for me to return to the hotel, pick up my luggage, and make my way to Elbe Princess for my CroisiEurope river cruise. I will have one more full day here in Prague – the ship offers guided walks of the Jewish Quarter and the Prague Castle – before the ship begins its eight-day cruise to Berlin.
The Prague Cool Pass is extremely easy to purchase and use – you purchase it online, download an app, and it activates the first time you use it, and is good for the amount of time you purchase, 2 to 4 consecutive days. You just flash the QR code to the ticket counter and they issue you a ticket. (Each attraction can be visited only once. The pass provides free entry to some 70 attractions (including Prague Castle, Jewish Museum, Petrin Tower), free sightseeing bus tour, free river cruises, plus discounts on other attractions, tours in and outside Prague, concerts, entertainment, dining and other activities. The app is really helpful, giving details and visitor information about the attraction, plus maps. (See praguecoolpass.com)
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
For my second full day in Prague, I head out to what is appropriately its most important attraction, Prague Castle. I walk over the Charles Bridge (Karlov Most), which was built by Charles IV in 1357, and then up, up, and up (you can take a tram) to the castle gate. I flash my Prague Cool Pass app on my phone at the ticket window and get a ticket that you present at for entry to each of the various attractions within the castle complex, which dates back to the 9th century.
I am so happy to have the time to just wander and read the various notes that are provided (I opt out of renting the audio tour), and will return the next day with a guide from the CroisiEurope Elbe Princess who will point out the details that I have missed in the famed St. Vitus Cathedral, Royal Palace and Basilica of St George (I note the relief outside of St. George slaying the dragon, symbolic of the Church defeating paganism). (Some of the Castle sites were closed, including the Rosenberg Palace).
The Castle is a vast complex and today is the seat of the Czech Republic’s government (a flag is raised when the president is in).
A few tidbits: Cathedral St. Vitus was built between 1344 and not finished until 1929. Half of the Cathedral is “new”. The two original architects are buried within the Cathedral, and in the most elaborate tomb of all is Charles IV, himself, who did so much to build the “New Town” of Prague, the cathedral, and the university. The Bohemian Crown jewels are kept within a hidden room inside, and seven keys – each one held by a different official – are needed to open it. In a small chapel, I note actual skeleton remains peeking out through a window.
There are horrific stories, too. Ludmilla, with her husband sought to convert the country to Christianity, was killed assassins hired by her daughter-in-law, Drahomira of Stodor, who was jealous of Ludmila’s influence over Wenceslaus (her son and Ludmilla’s grandson). Soon after Ludmilla was canonized. Wenceslaus (widely referred to as Good King Wenceslaus) was killed by his brother around 935 and also was made a saint.
It’s interesting who becomes a saint. An extremely popular saint, prominent in the cathedral, is St. John of Nepomuk, the court priest of King Wenceslas IV. Legend has it that he was killed by request of the king, because he refused to tell the king about the queen’s confession, and his body thrown off the Charles Bridge. When you go to the Charles Bridge, you can see the statue (one of 30 that line the bridge) depicting this story, where the tradition is to touch his image in order to return to Prague, and walk a few steps to the place where his body was thrown into the water, in 1383.
In the Royal Palace, we go into a gigantic hall, that dates from 1492, where jousts (on horseback) were held. It is an architectural achievement because it was built without supports for the ceiling.
We learn that Empress Maria Theresa, who brought compulsory education to Europe and was responsible for a major rebuilding of the castle, was the mother of 16 including Joseph II who ruled from 1780-90 and freed the serfs (as well as liberalizing restrictions on the Jews); his sister was Marie Antoinette who lost her head in the French Revolution.
There is a portrait of Joseph II in a ceremonial room where there are replicas of the crown and septre that are hidden away.
The best part is going into the room that was the scene of the “Defenestration of Prague,” a key event in European history. In 1618, the Protestant rebels threw two Catholic Imperial Ministers and their secretary out of these windows. Surviving the fall (they fell on a pile of refuse in the moat), they took refuge in the adjoining Lobkowicz Palace where they were protected by Polyxena. (The scene is immortalized in a painting which you can view in the palace.) The Defenestration of Prague signaled the beginning of a Bohemian revolt against the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II, leading to the Thirty Years’ War.
But I am grateful for having the time to really linger on the Golden Lane, my favorite part of the castle – there is simply so much to see.
This, I grin to myself, is where the “tiny house” trend was born.
Golden Lane has a marvelous history. It’s an irregular strip of land, varying in width from 4-8 meters between the older (12th C) Romanesque walls and the later (15th C) walls that form the outer north fortification of Prague Castle on the edge of a natural ravine, the Stag Moat. Three defensive towers are attached to the castle wall (up to 320 cm thick): Powder Tower on the west, Dalibor Tower on the east and between them, White Tower. And between Dalibor and White towers, 12 vaults, each 720 cm deep and 600-660cm wide, were used as makeshift dwellings.
The oldest written reports are from 1560s when the lane was called Goldsmith’s Lane – its residents were probably “lesser” goldsmiths who had fled the strictly enforced guild laws in Prague’s three towns of Old Town, New Town and Lesser Town. We get to see one of these tiny houses, Number 15, as it would have been when the Goldsmith occupied it (there is a bird cage to alert the goldsmith when there were toxic fumes).
In 1597, artillerymen at the gates asked Emperor Rudolf II for permission to build little rooms within the newly repaired walls. The Red Artillerymen (named for their uniform) had to build their dwellings at their own expense, and bought and sold them. We get to see one of the houses, Number 13, that would have been inhabited by a Red Artilleryman.
The Red Artillerymen served without fixed salary but were exempt from paying tax and lived in the castle for nothing. There were 24 Red Artillerymen guarding the gates and were subordinate to the Castle Governor. In 1597, they asked Emperor Rudolf II for permission to block the niches in the newly reconstructed castle walls and establish rooms. Their most important source of revenue came from services they performed for the nobles who were imprisoned in the White Tower and Dalibor Tower – they acted as servants, cooks, stokers, and mail carriers in addition to being prison guards. The Red Artillerymen unit was disbanded by Emperor Joseph II in 1784.
Not long after, little houses began to expand into the lane with the addition and fireplaces; new additions made. Hardly idyllic, conditions for basic hygiene remained backward. In the 18th century, there was only one privy for all the houses, a second one was only installed in the 19th century. Water pipes were laid in 1877, but it wasn’t until 1942 that the house at Number 24 had running water.
In 1953, the office of Czech president (which is within the Castle complex) expropriated the little houses from their owners. The lane was restored in 1955 by architect Pavel Janik, and the façade colors chosen by painter and animator Jiri Trnka. The last reconstruction of Golden Lane took place in 2010-11, with a new drainage system and repaving, the tiny houses were underpinned and repaired, the facades repainted, and the Defense Passage and White Tower restored.
Right up to the departure of the last tenant, in 1952, the Golden Lane community was very colorful. At first, it consisted of Castle employees – gatekeepers, guards, bellringers –and later, people who rented, many who appreciated this place as a source of inspiration.
When you see groups of tiny children coming through, you realize what a fantasy place this is – they stop in front of one that seems out of a fairytale.
Several names in the land records that have been preserved are notable:
No 22 was the home of Franz Kafka in 1916 and 1917, who rented it from his sister. It was here that he wrote “The Country Doctor.” (The house is now a bookshop with Kafka’s books prominently featured; several other tiny houses have been turned into marvelous shops.)
House No 12 was in the late 1930s the temporary home of the dramatist and writer of prose fiction Jiri Maranek. “In the romantic atmosphere of the lane and in everyday contact with the past, he found inspiration for his writing, particularly for his historical novels and short stories”
No 14 still has an old sign with playing cards, an owl and a crystal ball. For years this was the home of the renowned Prague tarot-card reader and clairvoyant Madame de Thebes. Before the Second World War, Matylda Prusova (her real name), the widow of a phamarcist, drew attention from afar with her black clothing and old-fashioned hat adorned with ostrich feathers. Since 1914, she had waited in vain for the return of her son who was killed in the first World War. Clients came daily to her cozy room, stuffed with bizarre objects, to have her look into their future. Because of her frequent predictions about an early end to the war and the fall of the Third Reich, she was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured to death.
No 24 was the House of Mrs. Magdalena. By the early 20th c, Golden Lane was already famous and she charged the growing number of tourists and history lovers to see her tiny house. Other enterprising owners rented to artists, writers looking for inspiration.
Number 27 was the Herbalist’s house. This essential skill of treating wounds, curing diseases, and easing suffering was always managed by one of the servants of the Castle, the notes say. Folk healers and herbalists often had enough experience to carry a certificate stating that someone was successfully cured by them. Herbalists used herbs and botanical extracts but also magic and incantation. The herbalist’s household resembled an apothecary – bottles, jugs, boxes containing nectars from plants, purgative and tonic opiates, powders for curing teeth, throat and roundworm, plasters, seeds and sugar coated flowers. A trunk or cupboard would contain snail shells, human craniums, pig’s teeth, bones from the sea spider (octopus) and dried frogs. Ceramic jars had lards from dog, human, tom cat, stork, rabbit, bear and snake.
It’s especially fun to wander through the house of a film critic – seeing the old movie posters, the clutter of cans of film, the movie projectors, as if he recently left.
I climb a narrow, spiral staircase to an upper floor where there is an astonishing exhibit of arms and armor (really intimidating helmets). And in the Dalibor Tower, a prison from 1496 to 1781, there is a horrifying display of implements of torture. You realize that those movies depicting Dark Ages brutality were not fiction or fantasy. You can see the rack, a skeleton hung in a cage, the “Spanish boot.”
We are told that the most famous of the prisoners was the knight Dalibor Kozojed, imprisoned because he backed rebels and confiscated property. After two years of bread and water, he was sentenced to forfeit “his chattels, his honour and his head” and was executed in the courtyard in 1498. Much later, the romantic legend of Dalibor and his fiddle emerged: Supposedly, out of boredom, he played the violin so masterfully in prison that people came from far and wide to listen, enraptured. But it turns out that “fiddle” was a nickname for an instrument of torture: a rack (which we see) on which the convicted man was stretched until he began “to fiddle” – change his tune and confess.
I find the place extremely disturbing (a skeleton is in a cage dangling from the ceiling as you walk down the stone stairs), but a group of school kids seem enthralled.
When I come out from Golden Lane, I look across to see the Lobkowicz Palace and realize it is included on the Prague Cool Pass (praguecoolpass.com). This turns out to be the absolute highlight for me in Prague. The Palace, itself, is fabulous, owned by a noble family that was once one of the richest in the land. The collection inside is breathtaking. And the family’s story is utterly fascinating.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I was so glad I had the cleverness to arrange three full days to explore Prague on my own before embarking on CroisiEurope’s Prague-Berlin river cruise aboard the Elbe Princesse. I could wander, linger, get lost amid the narrow cobblestone streets, be surprised and delighted upon coming upon stunning views of the Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge across the Vltava, the Old Town Square, the Astronomical Clock at night (the most underwhelming scene you can’t miss), contemplate the Lennon Wall, discover the personalities who occupied the tiny houses on Golden Lane in the wall of Prague Castle, follow whimsy and pop into the Lobkowicz Palace to be dazzled, and have the time to really muse over the exhibits, displays and notes in the Jewish Quarter and Prague Castle, and for good measure, visit the National Museum.
And the Prague Cool Pass, which provides free access to over 70 attractions, tours, river cruises, plus discounts to concerts, entertainment and activities, helped maximize my enjoyment and how much I could see and experience in this all too brief time in such a phenomenal destination (praguecoolpass.com).
I lose the better part of a full day when my Delta flight from JFK to Amsterdam was delayed, causing me to miss my connection to Prague (I knew the 50 minute-connection was too good to work out). But if you have to wait eight hours in an airport, Schiphol is one of the most pleasant. Still, instead of arriving at 8 am, I arrive at 5:30 pm, but still in a good mood – largely because I had made a fantastic choice of hotel, the EA ApartHotel Melantrich, which I found on hotels.com, and pre-arranged an airport pick-up through the hotel.
I actually have an entire apartment on a street that strikes me as comparable to New York’s Fifth Avenue – actually Welcelas Square – with the National Museum at one end, and Old Town at the other, walking distance to everything I want to see in my all-too-short time. (Further benefits: the hotel has a gorgeous dining room where an enormous smorgasbord breakfast is served, an outdoor landscaped sitting area, an indoor pool, elevator, bar/lounge.) (EA ApartHotel Melantrich, Praha 1-Vaclavska Namesti 36 Stare Mes Prague, phone +420734596570).
I had used my time in the airport wisely, looking over “Top Attractions in Prague” and “Three Days in Prague” and there was consistency in the must-see list. I only needed to plot out the logistics (only a little tricky because the map (I LOVE a paper map) is in Czech (it takes me a day to figure it out – but I soon figure out that there are also helpful signposts pointing the direction and distance to what most people are looking for). Still, each time I set out, I get a little lost, or rather find a different way, and each time I am surprised and delighted at what I stumble upon.
I drop my bags at the hotel and the concierge points me in the right direction to walk to the Charles Bridge, which has to be the absolute best place to be at sunset. I get there just as the final patches of orange and pink break through clouds. (It turns out was the best of all three nights, proving my maxim to seize every moment) and I get caught up in that whole vibe. There is music, hawkers, a constant flow of people.
I walk back to Old Town Square and come upon the Astronomical Clock (on the hour, there is a 45-second display – the most underwhelming must-see attraction anywhere, but nonetheless, hundreds wait each hour for the show). The square is absolutely stunning. I find my way back to hotel.
The next day, I set out for the Jewish Quarter, stopping again at the Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock (you can’t resist). I present my Prague Cool Pass at the Jewish Museum – actually seven separate sites that each tell a different part of the story of the Jewish experience in Prague, going back to the 13th century. I kind of do the sites in reverse order, which I actually appreciate more.
I start at the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest landmark of “Jewish Town” in Prague and one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe. It has served for more than 700 years as the main synagogue of the Prague’s Jewish community. Why “old new”? Because it wasn’t the oldest or first synagogue – that one was a shul on the site where the Spanish Synagogue, built in 1867, now sits. You go in and see the traditional way the synagogue was laid out – with a bima in center and seats all around the walls (women on other side of the wall). Each of the chairs still has the name plate of the family that has inherited it; one of the chairs has the name of former US Ambassador Norman Eisen, whose family came from here, and the Israeli Ambassador. A banner that hangs high is adorned with a Star of David with a golden hat in the center – the hat was original required for Jewish men to wear, but instead of a humiliation, the Jews made it a badge of identity, so incorporated it into the symbol of the Jewish Quarter.
I go next to the Ceremonial Hall, adjacent to the Jewish Cemetery, which discusses and describes Jewish burial rituals as well as medical care. Next to the Klausen Synagogue, where the exhibits describe Jewish life – you get the sense that the Prague Jews were actually well off, especially compared to the images you typically see of impoverished Jews in the Russian shetls – and you learn that under Joseph II, who reigned from 1780-90, laws governing Jews were liberalized.
Then on to the Pinkus Synagogue, which dates from 1530, where I was surprised to find it has become a memorial to the Shoah. Some 80,000 names of Jews killed just from this region of Bohemia and Moravia are inscribed all over the walls (you can do a search for names on a computer). A gallery in one room displays paintings by Jewish children who had been deported to Terezin, organized by different themes: longing for home, a dream of Palestine, being taken away, memories of family, with the names of the child and the dates of their birth and too soon death.
Their teacher was Friedle Dicker-Brandeis (born in 1898 in Vienna, died 1944 in Auschwitz), who, from the beginning of her internment in Terezin, devoted herself to drawing lessons for the children in the ghetto. Children signed their drawings and wrote their room number, the group to which they belonged, and lesson hour. Then she classified them. She scoured the camp for paper and paint. When she was deported from Terezin to Auschwitz in a “liquidation” transport, she left behind two suitcases with more than 4000 children’s drawings. This display is heart wrenching.
Outside the synagogue, there is a photo exhibit, “Journeys With No Return,” documenting the Nazi removal.
Then you go through a courtyard to enter the Jewish cemetery. There are some 12,000 tombstones in a tumult – crowded together, pushed over in all directions over time and flooding – but actually some 100,000 are buried here. But after going through the Holocaust Memorial, I felt these people at least had a grave, they had people who buried them, said prayers over them, placed stones to show they had come to pay respects.
Having had this tour, I now go to the Maisel Synagogue (marked as the #1 site) which is a museum that describes the history of Jews in the Bohemian lands from the 10th to 18th centuries, and for me, provides a context for what I had been seeing.
Notably, during the reign of Joseph II (1780-90), Jews could attend university and higher education, but their schools were taught in German instead of Hebrew; under special conditions they were allowed to rent land, learn trades and set up factories, and no longer had to wear “identifying marks.” On the other hand, Jews were compelled to adopt fixed first names and surnames (1787), and only the eldest son was allowed to marry; also the Jewish judiciary was abolished (1784) and Jews now had compulsory military service (1788). It is interesting that the Jewish Quarter is named for Joseph II.
In one of the displays, having to do with the effort to assimilate, integrate and convert Jews, I see an etching of the statue of Jesus that is on the Charles Bridge, which I had noted because of the Hebrew lettering, and in Latin, the word for blasphemy. The notes state that “in 1696, the Hebrew inscription ‘Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh’ (holy, holy holy) on the statue was paid for by a fine imposed on the Jews Elias Backoffen and Berl Tabor for alleged blasphemy against the cross in a coded letter. The letter in question, however, was never deciphered by the authorities.”
(I wondered how these structures, these monuments and artifacts survived the Holocaust. I read somewhere that Hitler loved Prague and had thought to “retire” here. He allowed the Jewish Quarter to survive as a “museum to an extinct [extinguished?} people.” The docent at the Old New Synagogue, though, could not or would not confirm.)
On my way to the Spanish Synagogue, I wander into a gallery devoted to Robert Guttmann, “the Oldest Zionist in Prague”, who was famous in his day – a celebrity – for his long-range hikes and travels that might take 14 ½ weeks at a time (people were in disbelief, so beginning in 1903, he kept diaries). He sketched himself with famous people – very possibly the first great self-promoter, like Dali or Andy Warhol. “He belonged to Prague like the Charles Bridge, the Golem, Kampa Island or the Apostles on the Astronomical Clock. It was impossible to imagine Prague without ‘Professor’ Guttmann, the ‘renowned painter’.”
Then on to the Spanish Synagogue (more accurately known as the Temple on Dusoni Street), built 1867-8 on the site of the demolished oldest shul. It deserves its boast to be “the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.” It’s magnificent, but not so large and overwhelming that you feel enveloped by its beauty. Its design reflects a movement of “Jewish Enlightenment,” under the auspices of the Society for the Improvement of Israelite Religious Worship in Prague that followed a relative emancipation of 1848, aimed at promoting assimilation and integration into the “mainstream.”
The change in synagogue design – which moved the bima to the front from the center to increase the seating in pews – came in conjunction with changes to the liturgy and introduction of music.
Indeed, Frantisek Skroup (1801-1862), the organist here from 1836-45, composed the Czech national anthem, and the reformed worship music introduced by Skroup later spread to most other synagogues in Bohemia.
There is a 7 pm concert at the synagogue consisting of favorite compositions of favorite composers – Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, Bizet, Smetana, Dvorak, Bernstein and Gershwin. I purchase a ticket. (Actually, it is amazing how many of the important churches and sites hold concerts almost nightly, including the St. Francis of Assisi Church, right at the entrance to the Charles Bridge, which claims the second oldest organ in Prague, 1702, which Mozart played, www.organconcerts.cz).
Just outside the Spanish Synagogue is a terrific sculpture of Franz Kafka (a square at the entrance to the Jewish Quarter is named for him, where the National Library is located.
Next, I go in search of the Lennon Wall, on Kampa Island, just under the Charles Bridge. In my search, I come upon a fascinating historical display documenting the 1967 uprising against the Communist Regime, led by university students. One of the panels notes that the American beat poet Alan Ginsburg who describes being detained by police, deported, and writing “this poem on a jet seat in mid Heaven.”
I ask a woman I see walking through the park where the Lennon Wall is and she says she works at the French Embassy, directly across from the Wall, so we walk there together. (To get to the Wall, walk down stairs from Charles Bridge, turn right on Hroznova.)
Notably, John Lennon never visited Prague, but the wall began as street art, capturing his spirit of peace. The wall keeps changing – people add to it, and all of it is whitewashed so the process begins again. At this time, poems printed on paper in support of Ukraine, are hung on string in front.
“The John Lennon Wall was chosen to host the event because of its apparent symbolism. For decades the wall has served as a place to share messages of peace, love and hope. Lennon, former lead singer of the Beatles, was an avid anti-war activist, who, until the day he died, encouraged the world to ‘Give Peace a Chance’.“
I still have some time before I need to go back to the Spanish Synagogue for the concert, so I walk over to the National Museum, and flash my Prague Cool Pass. There is a very condensed history (actually there is a second building), so I find it quite interesting that there is a note that after Joseph II’s liberalization of laws suppressing Jews, repression was reestablished with the rise of a nationalist movement. Emancipation did not come until 1848. And there is one panel that refers to ‘The culmination of anti-Semitism was the so-called Hilsner Affair, 1899-1900), in which T.G. Masaryk, a founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, stood up for Hilsner, a Jew convicted in a show trial of ritual murder. It draws a parallel to the Dreyfus Affair in France, when an accused Jewish officer was defended by the writer Emile Zola.
In addition to history, the museum also contains exhibits of Czechia’s natural history. I take note of the country’s gold rush, when I visit the Golden Lane in Prague Castle.
After stopping off at my hotel to regroup, I walk back to the Spanish Synagogue. The concert is one of the best I’ve ever heard – the five musicians of the Czech Collegium, plus soprano Michaela Srumova and trumpeter Miroslav Kejmar sound like an orchestra of 60 and perform one of the most thoroughly magnificent programs.
After the concert, I wander back to the Charles Bridge and catch the end of the setting sun’s afterglow, linger in Old Town Square, before making my way back to the hotel.
The next day, I will continue to work down my Prague Cool Pass list of attractions, starting with the Prague Castle.
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bike tour operators, many still with marvelous fall 2021 itineraries available, are gearing up for 2022, many offering next year’s tours at this year’s prices for those who book early (most have liberal cancellation or change policies).
Responding to a boom in demand for biking, they are back to offering itineraries to international destinations that are classic favorites as well as newly emerging, off-the-beaten track places, as well as coming up with new domestic trips.
Biking has been extremely popular – ideal for enabling people to explore uncrowded destinations while being outside and sufficiently distant, while the wide availability of e-bikes have expanded the boundaries of where cyclists can venture.
Bike tours have been my favorite form of travel – you get to see things at just the right pace to really experience and enjoy, but still cover enough ground to be constantly delighted.
The best bike tours are designed to bring you to the most scenic and interesting places and attractions, provide accommodations in quaint local inns or even incorporate boat or barge.
There is a lot that the tour companies do, beginning with designing itineraries that maximize gorgeous scenery, immersion in local culture, and give you a great ride. They also shuttle bikes to the start and end of a daily ride if you aren’t riding point to point; shuttle luggage inn-to-inn (unless you are on a boat or barge tour, the added beauty of a boat or barge tour is that you don’t have to pack and unpack); booking charming accommodations and dining; and often arrange sightseeing as well as dining experiences. They also can change the itinerary on the spot should circumstances warrant and provide assistance if there is any difficulty along the way.
Self-guided trips also provide a lot of support beginning with an intensive orientation by a guide who provides detailed maps of the route (if not online GPS navigation) and vouchers to the pre-booked accommodations, shuttle luggage from one inn to the next, makes sure the bike properly fits and provide links to service if necessary.
Jim Johnson, Biketours.com founder and company president, preaches the benefits of bike tourism as one of the best ways to explore and become immersed in a destination, heritage and local cultures, a low-carbon, ecologically-friendly way to travel, and especially now, with more interest in being away from crowds.
“By creating a world almost devoid of tourism, the pandemic has provided us with a unique opportunity–a blank slate, in effect–to define what tourism will look like in the future. Bicycle travel provides a superb model for more responsible tourism, for better, more authentic experiences, and for more comfortable traveling,” Johnson writes on his Tailwind blog.
BikeTours.com has a fabulous catalog of European destinations, from Albania to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Estonia and Montengro, Romania and Slovenia.
Johnson offers this list of eight lesser-traveled European bike tour destinations deserving a visit: Bulgaria; Transylvania; Slovenia; Connemara Ireland; Apulia, Italy; Umbria, Italy; the Balkans.
I’ve traveled with BikeTours through Albania (by e-bike), on an incredible bike and boat tour through the Greek Islands, and guided tour of Slovenia, and self-guided trips on Danube Bike Trail and Venice to Croatia. The company is a broker for superb in-destination bike tour operators that provide excellent service, bikes, delightful accommodations, and offers excellent value.
I’m next eyeing one of Biketours.com’s Amsterdam-Bruges by bike and boat.
You can join Johnson on his Founder’s Tour, November 6-13, 2021, for Bike the South’s final Athens to Savannah tour of the 2021 season.
“I founded Bike the South during the pandemic, and I hope some of my BikeTours.com friends who have delayed overseas travel will join me for this last-minute domestic opportunity.”
The cost per person, double occupancy, $2,879, includes a donation to the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail, a 250-mile paved path under development from Athens to Savannah. This tour also helps create awareness about the project and demonstrate the potential economic impact of the trail and sustainable tourism on rural Georgia. (Contact email@example.com, www.bike-the-south.com/tours/athens-to-savannah).
You can lock in your Discovery Bicycle 2022 biking adventure and your preferred dates for international tours, including the Moselle River Bike & Barge, by booking by November 1.
The 8-day Moselle River Bike & Barge tour, August 13-20, 2022, is maxed out at 24 passengers on the Iris. Just as on other Discovery Bike barge tours, there are two guides and a support van that accompany the riders; breakfasts and most dinners are on board. Cabins have two beds and a shower ($3695).
International travel will likely be extra popular in 2022 so it is recommended to book early.
Here are other international offerings from Discovery Bicycle:
Discovery Bicycle Tours offers what may be the first to design an itinerary on New York State’s new Empire State Trail, from the tip of Manhattan to Albany (the trail continues north to the Canadian border, and connects with the 353-mile east-west Erie Canalway).
In addition, Discovery has domestic bike tours to Coastal Maine (which we enjoyed this summer); Cape Cod; Idaho; Mickelson Trail & Black Hills, South Dakota; Tucson & Saguaro National Park; Lake Champlain Islands; Crater Lake & Scenic Bikeways; Texas Hill Country; Florida Keys, Florida Gulf Beaches; California’s Death Valley; Taste of Southern California; and Vineyards , Canyons and Charming Inns of California.
Bicycle Adventures is giving a $300 discount on 2022 bookings made by October 31. (No code is needed when booking online, your discount will be applied automatically to your balance payment.)
Bicycle Adventures has itineraries on some of the most wonderful rail trails, like the Mickelson in South Dakota (6 days, $2948) and Trail of the Coeur D’Alenes in Northern Idaho (5 days, $2898), which are ideal for beginners, and Washington’s Olympic National Park & Discovery Trail (6-days, $3398).
Its selection of road cycling itineraries include California Redwoods (6 days, $3698) and Montana’s Lewis & Clark Country (6 days, $3098), a new tour through the Valley of Fire & Death Valley in Nevada (6 days, $3148).
There are also international offerings including a new Ireland ‘s Wild Atlantic Way (7 days, $4373) and a new France Bike and Barge from Strasbourg to Lagarde in Alsace (7 days, $5123); other itineraries are available to Spain’s Medio Camino, Scotland’s Isle of Arran, Chile’s Lakes and Volcanoes, Mexico’s Yucatan, and for advanced riders, a bike, hike, paddle and sail through the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest, deepest fjord (8 days, $5180).
Wilderness Voyageurs has a marvelous selection of bike tours oriented around rail trails including the New York’s Erie Canalway, Florida’s Sun Coast, Idaho’s Hiawatha Trail, Pennsylvania’s Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath; Wisconsin’s Elroy-Sparta Trail, Missouri’s Katy Trail, South Dakota’s Mickelson Trail & Badlands (which I enjoyed). Explore Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon cycling the Pine Creek rail trail, starting and ending in Black Lick that also features Bald Eagle State Park and Ghost Town trail (3 days, $975).
Wilderness Voyageurs offers a broad selection of road bike trips. Among the intriguing offerings is a “Kentucky Bike & Bourbon” tour that explores the state’s horse farms and whiskey-making (four days, $2100), plus trips through Pennsylvania including Amish Country, Gettysburg and the Civil War; in Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg Shenandoah and Skyline Drive; Washington’s San Juan Islands, and Texas Big Bend. The operator also has expanded its super-popular New York Finger Lakes bike tour to six-days ($2150).
Another featured bike tour is Cuba Clasico through central Cuba that takes you off the beaten path and Cuba’s tourist track. Biking from Havana, Santa Clara, Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, it’s a tour through Cuba’s heritage and homeland from the best seat in the house—a bicycle seat (8 days, $3990).
For 2022, Butterfield & Robinson is launching the collection of new trips that were supposed to be launched in 2020, but kept back because of the coronavirus pandemic. New scheduled trips for 2022 have been refined further to accommodate local regulations and are limited to 16 people – you can join other travelers on a scheduled departure or take over a trip and turn it private with your family and friends.
Kyushu Biking: In true Japanese style, each intricate detail of this trip was crafted with intention. Pedal into lush subtropical landscapes with green tea fields and smoking volcanoes on the horizon. Connect with the fascinating local culture from samurai practice to mythological stories and “power spots.” Talented chefs, brewers and artisans bring you closer to deep cultural roots, while each stay shows you a new way to relax and rejuvenate.
Alsace E-biking: Wind passed stretches of tidy vineyards, take the time to explore colorful towns and sample regional wines along the way. Alsace is a mix of France and Germany, blending cultures, flavors which make for a unique and hyper-local experience.
Butterfield & Robinson (which offers hiking and walking tours as well), has bike tours in Africa (for example, eight-days Morocco e-biking and Namibia Bespoke), Asia, Europe (like a 7-day Bulgaria biking and 6-day Cotswold-Bath biking), Latin America (like 7-day Chile Wine country and a Costa Rica Bespoke), and North America (for example, Quebec Bespoke). There is a selection of self-guided trips, as well as guided.
In 2022, Duvine Cycling & Adventure Co. is traveling to England for the first time, hitting the rolling hills for a new Cotswolds Bike Tour (5 days, $4895).
The company has an extensive catalog of “classic” bike tours all over the world including the United States, like a new four-day Hudson Valley Bike Tour ($3695); a new six-day Maine tour to Camden and Penobscot Bay (3995); a new Santa Fe and Taos bike tour (5 days, $3595), a four-day Shenandoah Valley ($3595) and a four-day Blackberry Farm Bike tour in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains ($6495)
Also new is a Sardinia Yacht & Bike Tour in Italy (7 days, $7695) and new private tours including an 8-day Maui Villa bike tour (8 days, $6995); a 7-day Tuscany Villa Bike Tour (7 days, $5995) and a 7-day Mallorca Villa Bike tour.
Trek Travel is celebrating 20 years of cycling vacations in 2022 by inviting people to cycle through a bucket-list destination and the company sure offers many of them spanning the globe – in Europe like a new self-guided Ireland trip (6 days, $2599); a new self-guided Scotland tour (6 days, $2299); a new self-guided Portugal tour through Alentejo region (5 days, $2199). For avid riders, a new “Classic Climbs-Slovenian Alps Tour” (6 days 3899), and a 6-day tour through the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini ($5499); South America (Chile, 7 days, $5699); Asia (Japan Bike Tour, 7 days, $8799) and North America (South Dakota Glamping, 5 days, $3299).
What could be more “bucket list” than “Classic Climbs: The Tour Bike Vacation” which has you ride the most famous climbs of the Tour de France on a nine-day cycling tour of the Alps and Pyrenees. You ride the legendary cols of Aubisque, Galibier and the mythic Ventoux, along with the test of all tests: the grueling ascent up Alpe d’Huez, following in the tracks of pro riders.
BSpoke Tours curates cycling itineraries with an eye toward eco-friendly cycling holidays to European destinations: For history and wine lovers, Bordeaux; for cyclists looking for an adventure in an authentic corner of Spain, Asturias where one third of the region is environmentally protected with nature reserves and protected landscapes.
Among its new trips is a curated tour by e-bike in Sussex and the Cotswolds, starting in the north at Moreton-in-Marsh and an opportunity to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, continuing down the picture-perfect countryside to the south, stopping in beautiful towns and villages, including Bourton-on-the-Water, Upper & Lower Slaughter, Tetbury, Cirencester and Bibury and ending in the Roman spa town of Bath.
Another new UK program explores Scotland’s most iconic castles and coastlines by road bike.
BSpoke Tours also offers itineraries throughout Europe –including e-bike and boat-and-bike programs, food-and-wine, eco-friendly, luxury, self-guided, group. New offerings include the island of Sardinia, and in Puglia in Italy; and Andalusia and Camino di Santiago in Spain.
BspokeTours is touting its flexible booking policy because of uncertainty about travel plans. Deposits have been removed and change fees eliminated so you can change your date and destination for no cost up to 12 weeks before departure (monies paid are secured through ABTA and ATOL).
Discover France is featuring biking trips through the Loire Valley, where there is a 800 km cycle route. A large stretch of the Loire is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; in parts it’s also known as France’s Valley of the Kings and as The Garden of France. All along The Loire Valley, you stick closely to France’s last great wild river, with its sandy banks and islands, its vine-covered slopes, its typical towns and villages, its fine food and its unique atmosphere. The route ends at the Loire’s Atlantic estuary.
A five-day/six-night “Loire Valley Secret Castles” bike tour starts in Joué-les-Tours and takes you to Azay-le-Rideau, Langeais, the Chateau de Villandry and Ussé, and the famous Fontevraud Abbey. You cycle through some important wine regions such as Chinon and Saumur for some wine tasting. This is a self-guided trip (start any day), priced from 760E.
Among the new itineraries: self-guided French Riviera-South of France by the Coast, from Nice to St. Tropez (6 days, 1280E); and self-guided Veloscenie From Nogent le Rotrou to Mont Saint Michel (7 days, 1570E).
Also: an 8-day Bordeaux Vineyards by Bike tour travels Saint-Emilion to Entre-Deux-Mers (1550E); a 7-dayAlsace by the Wine Route (1350E). There are also itineraries through Champagne and Burgundy.
Discover France, 427 Rue Hélène Boucher, Mauguio 34130, France, 800-929-0152, discoverfrance.com.
Global Scavenger Hunt teams arrive in New York City for the last leg of the
Global Scavenger Hunt, a mystery tour that has taken us to 10 countries in 23
Chalmers, the ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of this around-the-world
mystery tour, has designed the rules, challenges and scavenges 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.”
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.
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. The four teams still 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 (actually difficult because of the deadline of 4 pm); 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 to 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 and not having to think twice about
things like language, currency, drinking water from the tap, eating raw
vegetable, the street grid).
fact, that is the genius of the way the Global Scavenger Hunt is designed – we
are supposed to feel off-balance, disoriented because that’s when you focus
most, the experiences are more intense, you are out of your comfort zone and
need to rely on the kindness of strangers, as opposed to the style of travel
where you stay long enough to become familiar, comfortable in a place so it (and
you) no longer feels foreign.
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 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. I have a context in which to appreciate the artifacts, dare I say a personal connection. Indeed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art enables you to travel around the world, be transported over millennia, within the confines of its walls.
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 me about aspects of art and culture
with the in-depth discussion of the pieces the docents select to discuss.
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. Greece. One
finding an object from Greece would 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
and Jordan (Petra) prove trickier than I expected, but bring me to an
astonishing, landmark 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.”
This is a goldmine for my hunt.
Featuring 190 works from museums in the Middle East, Europe and the United
States, the exhibition 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 is a
treasure trove for my scavenger hunt.
It is 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. I recall seeing their counterparts in the newly opened Archaeological Museum at Petra.
The World Between Empires
landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in
the Ancient Middle East (unfortunately it is only 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
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) with imagery that 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.
“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,” stated Max Hollein, Director, The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a video that accompanies the exhibit. “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.”
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 have
just visited, walking through very much as the caravan travelers would have.
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
“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.”
From my visits in Athens and Petra,
particularly, I appreciate this synergy between trade, migration, environmental
sustainability and technology (in Petra’s Archaeology Museum, you learn how the
ability to control water supply was key to the city’s development) and the
links to economic prosperity and political power, and the rise of art, culture,
and community. (I recall the notes from the National Archaeology Museum in
Athens that made this very point.)
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
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.
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.
And now, drumroll please, Chalmers
announces the winner of the 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt: “Only one team wins.
The competition was fierce.”
third place is Order & Chaos, Sal Iaquinta & Vivian Reyes,
doctors from San Francisco.
second place, Lazy Monday, Eric & Kathryn Verwillow, computer networking
and think tank professional of Palo Alto, California “I am in awe of how hard
working, beginning to end – embracing the spirit,” Chalmers says.
the World’s Greatest Travelers of 2019: Lawyers Without Borders, Rainey
Booth and Zoe Littlepage of Houston, who have competed in the Global Scavenger
Hunt 12 times, and win it for their 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
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 raise money for the GreatEscape Foundation and
promote voluntourism – one of the scavenges in Yangon, Myanmar is to volunteer
at an orphanage or school; past GSH travelers visited and 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.
“The foundation is one of main
reasons we do the event,” Chalmers says at our final meeting before going out
for a celebration dinner. 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
Global Scavenger Hunt Set for April 17-May 9
Chalmers has just set the dates for the 23-day
2020 Global Scavenger Hunt: April 17-May 9, 2020. Entry applications are now
Eager Indiana Jones-types of adventurers and curious travelers wanting to test their travel IQ against other travelers in an extraordinary around-the-world travel adventure competition that crowns The World’s Greatest Travelers, can apply at GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
The 2020 event will pit savvy international travelers against each other by taking them on A Blind Date with the World, visiting ten secret destinations without any prior preparation, and then have them unravel a constant blitz of highly authentic, participatory and challenging culturally-oriented scavenges along the way, like: meditating with monks, training elephants, taking flamenco lessons, cooking local dishes with local chefs, searching out Lost Cities, cracking sacred temple mysteries, joining in local celebrations, and learning local languages enough to decipher their scavenger hunt clues. Trusting strangers in strange lands will be their focus as they circle the globe for three weeks. Over the past 15 years, the event has touched foot in 85 countries.
The title of The World’s Greatest Travelers and free trip around the world to defend their titles in the 2021 event await the travelers worthy enough to win the 16th edition of the world travel championship.
Event participation is open but limited; the $25,000 per team entry fee includes all international airfare, First Class hotels, 40% of meals, and special event travel gear. All travelers are interviewed for suitability and single travelers are welcome to apply. For additional information visitGlobalScavengerHunt.com, or contact GreatEscape Adventures Inc. at 310-281-7809.
I am overwhelmed by the beauty of Seville, Spain. The bus ride from Le Leigne de la Conception in southernmost point of Spain (the closest bus stop to Gibraltar) as I continue on this leg on the Global Scavenger Hunt that began in Marrakesh, Morocco, has been absolutely beautiful, providing glimpses of farms and villages and graceful wind turbines. As the bus turns into the city, the exquisite architecture, the vast green parks, the bike lanes, the atmosphere is just breathtaking. Even the bus station is magnificently decorated.
I have booked Apartements Hom Sevilla through hotels.com, choosing a place that seemed closest to the city center (0.2 miles) and The Cathedral which seemed the major landmark (0.2 miles) that also was within the budget allotted by the Global Scavenger Hunt (under $100 since my teammate, Margo, went directly to Porto from Gibraltar instead). It is a delightful 15 minute walk from the bus station that literally transports me.
It is the late afternoon and the Cathedral
that takes up much of Avenida de la Constitution is bathed in golden light. A
tram moves smoothly, virtually noiselessly down the boulevard; cyclists stream
by, pedestrians meander by. The hotel is right in the midst of this historic
district. The manager, who has been texting me while I was on the bus asking
when I expected to arrive and giving me walking directions, is (thankfully)
still on duty when I arrive. He shows me how to use the espresso coffee maker
in their lounge/lobby (the hotel is self-service after hours) and offers suggestions
on how to get around, gives me a map of the city and suggests places to go to
restaurants that are less touristic, more typical, and where to get the bus to
the airport the next day.
The hotel is absolutely lovely – a modern,
chic boutique apartment hotel. I am beyond delighted and think how clever I am to have chosen this
ideal place. (Apartamentos Hom Sevilla, Calle Fernández y González 13B, Sevilla,
rush out to catch the remaining light and am treated to an amazing, flaming
sunset. I find myself drawn to the historic Torre Del Oro (Tower of Gold), built
in the 13th century (1220-1221) during the reign of the Taifa Kings, a time
when Spain was invaded by the Moors, to prevent attacks from Christians.
Restored in 2005, it apparently got its name because it was covered in lime and
straw mortar which would have given it a golden reflection. Over the centuries,
the tower has been used as a fortress, a chapel, a warehouse, a prison and even
as the Guadalquivir River Company main office. Today it is the Naval Museum and
an iconic symbol of Seville.
wander along the river and across the San Telmo Bridge over the Gualdelquivir, which
I learn is the only navigatable river in Spain and “has played a leading role
in many of the city’s historic moments: sieges, defenses and conquests have
been fought on its waters, and exploits and crossings have been forged from its
I had not realized thatthe first trip to circumnavigate the world originated from Seville: that in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan began his voyage here; crossing the San Telmo bridge, you can see the armillary sphere that commemorates mile zero of that voyage.
in the 16th century was the mercantile center of the western world, and its
river was the main maritime route for Atlantic traffic for more than 200
years…Seville was known as ‘the city where the world’s heart beats’. Its
maritime activity permeated commerce, population, culture, and its own urban
development, making it unique,” the visitor bureau notes (www.visitasevilla.es/en/history/guadalquivir-river).
lights of the city come on, reflected in the cobblestone streets; there are
couples along the river bank enjoying the scene. Seville is one of the most
beautiful cities I have ever seen. It is a dream.
delight in just walking around, taking in the exquisite architecture, the
colors and textures and shapes, the peace of this place. There is such a
wonderful feeling that even a fellow riding his bike is singing.
Unfortunately, under the Global
Scavenger Hunt challenge, I am only here through early afternoon the next day –
having elected to fly out to Porto, rather than take a nine-hour bus ride
through Faro and Lisbon to Porto, in order to arrive by the deadline on Friday,
11:30 am. The deadline is pretty firm because we are taking the 3:55 pm flight
to New York City, our final stop of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. (Those
teams that are still in contention are not allowed to fly to Porto; instead,
they have to take bus and/or train, a 9-hour proposition from Seville, with
stops along the way to do scavenges.)
I plan the morning carefully –
getting up extra early to arrange my bags (to avoid paying baggage fees on
Iberia Airlines) – and stroll over to the Parque de
María Luisa – one of the prettiest parks I have ever seen. It is
comparable to Central Park in New York City, the Golden Gate Park in San
Francisco and the Ueno Park in Tokyo, in that in addition to being an urban
oasis, also contains important cultural sites.
Among them is Plaza de España, the most extravagant of the building projects completed
for the 1929 Exposición Iberoamericana (this is reminiscent of Palace of Fine
Arts, built for San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific exhibition).
This is a vast brick-and-tile structure features fountains, mini-canals, and a
series of tile pictures depicting historical scenes from each Spanish province
(one of our Global Scavenger Hunt travelers found her family’s province). Archeological
Museum and the Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions. There are row boats and
bikes to rent.
At some point, I find myself
in front of a gate with a sign on the wall that says “Juderia,” which, I later
learn, turns out to have been the old Jewish Quarter (before Spain evicted
Jews, in 1492, known as the Inquisition). It has been converted into a hotel, Las Casas de la Juderia, comprised of a vast
complex of interwoven dwellings, a city within a city, a sprawling maze of 27
houses and two palaces, restored to their 15th century glory,
literally in the shadow of the Cathedral and the Alcázar (https://www.lascasasdelajuderiasevilla.com/en/).
Spanish, the family-run hotel is an alluring retreat hidden right in the heart
of the city,” writes Trafalgar, a tour company which features this “accommodation
with a story” in its Seville program.
“At Las Casas de la Juderia, you‘ll tread in the footsteps of
nobility and even royalty. Over the centuries, Christopher Columbus, The Duke
of Bejar and The Count of Villamanrique have all stayed here. In fact, after
returning from America, Columbus’s men all resided in these houses. Perhaps
most compelling of all is the network of subterranean tunnels connecting houses
commissioned by former owner, the Duke of Segorbe. You can wander through these
today; in fact, breakfast is taken in the captivating underground Hall of Mirrors.”
get lost walking to the Real Alcázar,
the major attraction in Seville and for my limited time here, which costs me
dearly. By the time I arrive at 9:38 am (it opens at 9:30 am) there are what
seems 1000 people ahead of me on the line for people (like me) without
pre-purchased tickets, and a guard who only lets in a handful of people every
20 minutes. At first, I don’t understand the sign that says (“Limited access,
4-5 hours wait”) for those without pre-purchased tickets (recommended to
purchase online, they give you a time to come, or visit in the afternoon, https://realAlcázarsevilla.sacatuentrada.es/en)
who go in on a separate line. As it turns out, my wait is 3 ½ hours, but It is
touch-and-go as to whether I would get in with enough time to see the Alcázar
before having to get back to the hotel, pick up my luggage, and get to the bus
to go to the airport.
at 1 pm, just at my absolute deadline, the guard lets me in to the Alcázar and
I take advantage of the senior rate (3E versus 11E, so even the limited time is
well worth it; Mondays offer free admission). I have to be out by 2:30 pm.
you take loads of photos, none can do the Alcázar justice because the beauty is
in the exquisite details of architecture, pattern in the decoration, the
symmetry, the delicacy and grace, the ambiance, how you are constantly
surprised by beautiful images and scale. You look up at magnificent ceilings,
at the gorgeous archways, the passages that lead on and on. I think I have 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 still used by the
royal family when they visit Seville).
The Alcázar royal palace complex that was originally developed
as a fort in 913 was built for the Christian king Peter of Castile
by Castilian Christians on the site of an Abbadid Muslim fortress, destroyed
after the Christian conquest of Seville and reflects the mix of the different
architectural cultures. The palace is a preeminent example of Mudéjar architecture in the Iberian Peninsula and renowned as
one of the most beautiful.
It has been built and rebuilt and modified many times in the
last 1000 years, most spectacularly in the 14th century when King Pedro added
the Palacio de Don Pedro. I wonder how many people waiting with me on the long,
long line have been intrigued to visit because the Alcázar was featured as a
location for the Game of Thrones TV series. The Alcázar has
been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987.
enter through the Puerta del León (Lion Gate) on
Plaza del Triunfo, to the Patio del León (Lion Patio), which was the garrison
yard of the original Al-Muwarak palace. The Sala de la Justicia (Hall
of Justice), with beautiful Mudéjar plasterwork and an artesonado (ceiling
of interlaced beams with decorative insertions) was built in the 1340s by the
Christian King Alfonso XI. It leads to the Patio del Yeso,
part of the 12th-century Almohad palace reconstructed in the 19th century.
wind through what seems a maze of rooms and courtyards and porticos:
Courtyard was where hunters would meet before hunts with King Pedro. The Casa
de la Contratación (Contracting House) dates from 1503 to control
trade with Spain’s American colonies. The Salón del Almirante (Admiral’s
Hall) houses 19th- and 20th-century paintings showing historical events and people.
The Sala de Audiencias (Chapter House) is notable
for its tapestries.
de Don Pedro, also known as the
Palacio Mudéjar, “is considered Seville’s single most stunning architectural feature.
King Pedro, had an alliance with the Muslim emir of Granada, Mohammed V, who
was responsible for much of the decoration at the Alhambra. When Pedro decided
to build a new palace in the Alcázar in 1364, Mohammed sent many of his top
artisans, who were joined by others from Seville and Toledo. Drawing on the
Islamic traditions of the Almohads and caliphal Córdoba, the result is a
synthesis of Iberian Islamic art.”
de las Doncellas (Patio of the Maidens) is surrounded by
beautiful arches, plasterwork and tiling. A sunken garden was discovered by
archaeologists in 2004 from under a 16th-century marble covering.
most spectacular room in the Palacio is the Salón de Embajadores (Hall
of Ambassadors) which originally was Pedro I’s throne room.
upon the breathtaking formal gardens with pools and fountains. From one,
the Jardín de la Danza (Garden of the Dance), a
passage runs beneath the Salones de Carlos V to the Baños de Doña María
de Padilla (María de Padilla Baths). I find myself in the vaults
beneath the Patio del Crucero with a grotto that replaced the patio’s original
the gardens is the Galeria de Grutesco, a raised gallery
with porticoes fashioned in the 16th century out of an old Islamic-era wall.
There is also a hedge maze that adds to the romance and mystery of the Alcázar.
Alcázar is still a royal palace. In 1995 it hosted the wedding feast of Infanta
Elena, daughter of King Juan Carlos I, after her marriage in Seville’s
cathedral (another magnificent structure to visit which was too crowded for me
to fit into my too brief visit). The Cuarto Real Alto (Upper
Royal Quarters), the rooms used by the Spanish royal family on their visits to
Seville, are open for guided tours (€4.50; half hourly 10am to 1.30pm). Highlights
of the tours include the 14th-century Salón de Audiencias,
still the monarch’s reception room, and Pedro I’s bedroom, with Mudéjar tiles
and plasterwork. Unfortunately, I don’t have
the time to visit myself.
of the time, I walk back to the hotel along the beautiful promenades, get a
coffee gelato as my lunch, and get myself to the bus station for the airport.
arrive in Porto at about 8 pm after changing planes in Madrid (by now I am
second-guessing whether I should have instead taken the nine-hour bus from
Seville to Porto). Coincidentally, I meet up with two other teams from the
Global Scavenger Hunt at the airport who are following the same route.
take an Uber from the Porto airport to the Sheraton Porto Hotel; I hop on the
Metro, amazed at the convenience and speed of the service and low cost (just
about $3 to get into town about 20 minutes from the airport). The hardest
part is figuring which way to walk from the station which happens to be quite
dark, but a kindly person points me in the right direction. It’s about a 15
minute walk to the hotel.
I get up early to hop on the Metro
again for the 12 minute ride to Center City. I just want to absorb the gorgeous
ambiance and color of Porto before having to meet the deadline of 11:30 am for
the Global Scavenger Hunt. We will be taking 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, which I visited much more
extensively years ago (the Lello
Bookshop and Majestic 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. I
just want to immerse myself in the ambiance, wandering around the boulevards to
take in the gorgeous “exuberant Baroque style with some Rococo
touches” of the buildings, the colorful tiles facades.
I wander to the port where the
Port wineries are located (popular for tours and tastings) and a cable car,
walk across the bridge, before getting back to meet the group.
Visitor information is available from Porto & Northern Portugal
Tourism Association, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.portocvb.com, www.visitportoandnorth.travel.
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 just five days:
In third place having completed 92
scavenges, 5 bonuses and amassing 5310 points, Order & Chaos (the doctors
from San Francisco).
In second place with 102
scavenges (that’s 20 a day), 7 bonuses and accumulating 5680 points, Lazy
We’re off to New York City, the last leg of the Global Scavenger
Hunt, when we will learn who will be crowned the 2019 “World’s Greatest
The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has
been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape
Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
Dates have just been set for the 16th annual
edition of The Global Scavenger Hunt, April 17-May 9, 2020, Applications
for the around-the-world travel adventure competition that crowns The
World’s Greatest Travelers are now being accepted at GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
It is clear why Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of the Global
Scavenger Hunt, inserted Gibraltar on the “final exam” in which we need to get
ourselves from Marrakesh to Fez to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto in five days –
it is a challenge to figure the logistics and prove ourselves as world
travelers, let alone chalk up points by fulfilling the scavenges.
Some of the rules are relaxed for this, the most arduous of travel
legs (a par 6) of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour – 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 scavenger points for booking an AirBnB and
for the cheapest hotel night).
We are out of the Riad
el Yacout in Fez, Morocco, at 9 am to catch the 10 am train to Tangier, where
we will get a ferry to Algeciras, Spain, and from there get to Gibraltar,
though we haven’t quite figured out that part yet. 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 any longer, we are allowed to share
information and travel together).
This day, the third in the 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 seems unnecessarily difficult to figure out which of
Tangier’s ports to go to for which ferry. There are four different ferry lines,
but two different ports. The group overrules me and 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 – reggae music is playing as we speed
along coastal road to new port (this is a popular beach destination, after
all). But the port is less suited to passengers than cargo. The
immigration process takes forever. What we believe to be the 5 pm ferry leaves
at 6 pm ferry (the way they handle or rather don’t handle the baggage is a
riot). The hour-long sail is a pleasant enough followed by a literal riot to
recover our luggage from the POD everyone has stuffed it in. Because of the
hour time difference, we arrive at 8 pm.
Then we have to figure how to get from Algeciras (Spain) to Gibraltar (an overseas territory of Great Britain), which, we discover, means the taxis can’t cross the border.
A bus to Gibraltar border is a 15 minute walk and would leave at
9:30 pm so we decide to take the taxi, where, the driver tells us, 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 (darn, 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 –
across an actual airport runway as it turns out.
We have arrived so late, though, the small town (the whole country
only has 36,000 residents) is shuttered for the night. Eventually, when we get
to the heart of the village, we find one cab and two of us continue walking to
The walk is absolutely charming – and also culture shock – having
come from Fez, Morocco in the morning, put a toe into Spain, and now plunked
down into this patch of Great Britain. There are red telephone boxes, Bobbies,
English pubs. It almost looks like a movie set, and in fact, is not much bigger
– or Busch Gardens Colonial Williamsburg.
But walking in the quiet of the night through this place evokes in
my mind an image of Brigadoon, a town from long ago that emerges from the mist.
Our hotel, The Rock (which another team found and
I booked through hotels.com),
is majestically set on the foothill of Gibraltar’s
famous rock with panoramic vistas of the Bay, the Straits of Gibraltar and the
Spanish mainland. It’s quite elegant – formal even, which I suspect is
casual by British standards – and well situated, just opposite the Botanical
Gardens, a very short walk to the main street. In fact, The Rock Hotel is a
Gibraltar landmark, the oldest luxury hotel here, built in 1932. Its most
recent refurbishment enhanced its colonial
heritage and art deco style with contemporary comforts of a first-class hotel –
it even has a pool. I can attest to the hotel’s elegant and sophisticated
ambiance and warm, personalized service. Ours, along with each of the other 94
guestrooms and suites, has a gorgeous view.
The hotel is filled with history. A Wall of Fame displays the
royalty, world leaders, artists and TV, and film stars who have stayed here,
most notably, Sir Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn, Alec Guinness, and Sean
Connery as well as John Lennon and Yoko Ono when they married in Gibraltar.
The Hotel has a fine
dining restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine – which was really handy since
we all arrived very late when every other restaurant in Gibraltar, it seems,
had closed. I find the rest of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams in the lounge,
enjoying the hotel’s signature cocktail (what else?) Gin on the Rock. There is
nothing more quintessentially British than Afternoon Tea and The Rock Hotel
offers this tradition daily.
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.
Early in the morning, I set out on an easy walk, through the
Botanical Gardens, to the cable car that takes me to The Top of the Rock. I
purchase a combination ticket (34E; senior rate is 25E) 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 the road and 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).
The cable car ride takes 6 minutes and immediately brings me to one of the highlights of Gibraltar: its Barbary Macaques (tailless monkeys). (I soon realize why the hotel concierge told me to wear my backpack in the front, watch for pickpockets and guard my passport.) They are there greeting 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).
The Barbary Macaques were said to have come to Gibraltar through a subterranean passage under the Straits of Gibraltar that supposedly linked the Rock of Gibraltar to Africa.
The Top of the Rock, it turns out, is an entire preserve with a
series of Gibraltar’s major attractions, and its entire, dramatic history
spread on along its roads and walking paths.
There is evidence of humans on Gibraltar going back 2000 years,
and Gibraltar has been visited by mariners since the 9th century
BC. The Muslim invasion of Europe started in the Bay of Gibraltar in 711;
Gibraltar was under Moorish rule for over 700 years until Christians briefly
took it over for 24 years in the early 14th century. Christians
recaptured Gibraltar in 1462, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella secured The
Rock for Spain in 1501. Gibraltar was ceded to Britain as a consequence of the
War of Spanish Secession (1701-14); the Treaty of Utrecht formalized Gibraltar
as Britain’s territory. But that did not end the bloody conflicts by Spain to
retake The Rock.
According to Visit Gibraltar (www.visitgibraltar.gi), “In 1779 Spain and France began the longest and bloodiest
siege in Gibraltar’s history, ‘The Great Siege, 1779-1783’. In 1782 work began
on the famous ‘Great Siege Tunnels’. The Battle of Trafalgar was fought close
to the Rock in 1805.
“The 19th century was
Gibraltar’s heyday, as a staging port on the vital route to India. Another
series of tunnels were completed during the Second World War. Gibraltar became
home to the Royal Navy’s ‘Force H’ and the focal point from where Eisenhower
controlled the North Africa landings in 1942. During the Franco era, Spain
attempted to revive her claim for the reversion of the Rock to Spanish
sovereignty, which culminated in the closure of the border for 13 years in
All of this history
unfolds as you walk from the Top of the Rock, along its roads and paths
spiraling down to Casement Square, once a site of public executions and today
the hub of activity.
There is a whole chain of things to see and in the course of two hours I explore: St. Michael’s Cave (way too touristic for my taste, it was developed in the 1950s – there is a plaque noting the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the caves in 1954- and used as a great theater since the 1960s, but the Lower St. Michael’s Cave offers a much more intense experience, I later learn), Great Siege Tunnels that dates from 1779-83 to defend against the Spanish), World War II tunnels (I peek inside but I don’t have time for the 45 minute tour of what amounted to an underground city that could accommodate 16,000 with enough food to last 16 months; there was also an underground telephone exchange, a power generating station, water distillation plant, hospital, baker, ammunition magazines and vehicle maintenance workshop; separate admission is 8E; it is recommended to pre-book tours at email@example.com).
There are also 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).
I don’t have time to really explore the Lower St.
Michael’s Cave. I learn that while the upper section of St Michael’s Cave has been known
for over 2000 years and used for various purposes such as
a hospital during World War II, it was only in 1942 that Lower St
Michael’s Cave was accidently discovered. The cavern is notable for the size of
the main chambers, the profusion and variety of calcite formations and a lake
of crystal clear water, nearly forty yards long, estimated to hold 45,000
gallons. There are organized tours into Lower St Michael’s Cave that normally
last around three hours, but because there is some scrambling and minor
climbing with ropes involved, duration times may vary. The cave is totally in
its original natural state (although it is fully lit).
You can also climb the Skywalk, 340 meters directly above sea level,
where you are treated to 360-degree views spanning three countries and two
continents. Skywalk links to other sites within the Gibraltar Nature Reserve,
Upper Rock including the thrilling Windsor Suspension Bridge and the famous
Apes’ Den via a series of walking trails. Built on the foundations of an
existing WWII base structure, the Skywalk is designed to withstand wind speeds
of over 150km/hour and can carry the weight of 5 Asian elephants, or 340
people, standing on it at the same time (visitor numbers will be limited to 50
at any one time). The floor and balustrade panels are made up of 4 layers of
laminated glass (with a total thickness of around 4.2cm). Laid out
side-by-side, the 42 glass panels would cover more than 750m², roughly the equivalent
of 4 tennis courts. The walkway is 2.5m wide and projects a maximum of 6.7m
from the main structural support point. 70m of rock anchors and 30,000kg of
steel secure the Skywalk to the Rock.
There’s a lot I don’t have time to get to which is interesting
because before I arrived, I had thought I could just breeze through: The
Military Heritage Centre in Princess Caroline’s Battery. I am really upset that
I do not have time to explore UNESCO Gorham’s Cave Complex which
contains evidence of Neanderthal and early modern humans. There is also a Gibraltar
Macaque Experience, the only opportunity in Europe to spend time with
a habituated troop of free-living monkeys, in a natural setting, away from
other tourists. (Blands Travel, travel@blandstravel, www.blandstravel.com)
I take the road down but there are also many nature trails that
meander through the extent of the Reserve. These combine the Nature
Reserve’s natural beauty and stunning views with some sites of historic
interest that are much less visited. There are themed routes: History Buff,
Monkey Trail, Nature Lover, Thrill Seeker. Notable trails include Mediterranean
Steps, Inglis Way, Royal Anglian Way and Douglas Path.
I make my way to the
charming historic district. It’s May Day and I come upon a labor rally in John
MacIntosh Square. I can easily imagine the same speeches (Privatization.
Nonconsultation. Unfair Distribution.) being made in New York City.
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 tucked away behind trees that was in use up
until 1848; it offers “a fascinating piece of history that reflects the
important role the Jewish people have played in molding Gibraltar’s history”).
I find 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).
I linger over lunch
outside a pub, watching the world go by despite really chilly winds.
My brief time here
has been really enchanting.
I’ve never walked an
entire country (okay, territory) in a single day, before. Or for that matter,
literally strolled through centuries of history in such a compact space.
I make my way back to
The Rock Hotel to pick up my things, hastily write out postcards I purchased in
town, which the kindly hotel staff mail for me.
The hotel, which has
provided me with the information for the bus as well as a time schedule, calls
a taxi which takes me to the Gibraltar border (still no one to stamp my
passport and the tourist office is closed for May Day!). You have to allocate
extra time for the taxi in case an airplane is landing on the air strip.
I walk the few blocks from the Gibraltar border to the bus station
across the border in Spain in La Línea de la Concepción. (My difficulty in arranging
travel from Gibraltar to Seville was not realizing that you couldn’t travel
directly from Gibraltar to Seville and I didn’t know the name of the city to
get the bus. It is 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.
The Global Scavenger
Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years
by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
Dates have just been set
for the 16th annual edition of The Global Scavenger Hunt,
April 17-May 9, 2020, Applications for the around-the-world travel adventure
competition that crowns The World’s Greatest Travelers are now being
accepted at GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
sun has yet to rise as we settle ourselves in the first-class compartment of
the train from Marrakesh to Fez on our mad-dash on the Global Scavenger Hunt
that will bring us through Morocco to Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal for the
most difficult leg of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. The train pulls
out of the modern train station exactly on time. The 6 ½-hour journey flies by
as we roll through Morocco’s countryside and villages – farms and rolling hills
on both sides.
compartment seats six people very comfortably. During the course of the trip,
people come and go and we engage in very pleasant conversations. A stop or two
away from Fez, two fellows come in to the compartment the conversation that
ends with the one fellow saying he knows a guide for us to hire to take us
through the Medina – the massive gated city of thousands of alleyways which we
have been strongly advised to explore with a guide. Sure enough, by the time we
get off the train, the guide has arrived. And there is a taxi as well.
We make our way to the Riad el Yacout, a guesthouse, where we are greeted by Hadisha, a young woman who is the daughter of the owner, recently returned after spending eight years studying in Madrid, China and the United States. I can easily imagine her running a huge hotel chain at some point.
The riad (which is a traditional two-story house where the rooms are built around a courtyard) is absolutely enchanting. The riad was once the home of Professor Laharchi who taught philosophy at the famous Al Qaraouvine university. Built in 1347, the house passed generation to generation until 2000 when her father bought it.
spent five years restoring it as a 33-room guesthouse (it is actually three
houses that have been linked, with a pool; and there are plans to build a third
floor and add a rooftop pool). The mosaics, decoration, furnishings are
exquisite – all the rooms set around the most magnificent interior courtyard.
The design, facing inward, is meant to maximize family interactions. The riad
has already attracted important people – two years after opening, in 2007, Bono
stayed for six weeks; Queen Noor of Jordan also stayed here (Riad El Yacout, 9
Derb Guebbas, Batha, Medina, Fez).
strongly advises us against using the guy from the train and instead hiring an
approved guide and driver from the tourism office. We only have the afternoon
and evening here to see Fez, and even Bill Chalmers, our Global Scavenger Hunt
leader, has told us to hire a guide to go through the Medina – the largest,
with some 11,000 alleyways with no addresses.
price seems fair and we only have the afternoon, and it proves a great way to
see Fez in such a brief time.
It is interesting that two other GSH teams who are also staying at the Riad and come after us (they went on a balloon ride in Marrakesh, one of the scavenges before catching the train to Fez), happened to meet and hire the same guide we were introduced to by the guy on the train (turns out the second guy on the train was his son, who I spot while walking in the Medina – what are the chances? Actually it is less coincide and more a scam – the fellows get on the train a stop or two before Fez, find a seat in the first-class compartment and begin the grift. If you are keeping count, altogether four of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams all had either met the guide (us), or used the guide or the son. And everybody was satisfied.
though we realize that only four teams out of the original 10 have a chance of
winning the Global Scavenger Hunt and the title, “Worlds Best Travelers,” we
still pursue the challenges, albeit at a more relaxed, less frenzied pace,
because they basically bring us to the places we would or should visit, places
or experiences we never would have thought of, and give us a much more
immersive, interesting and connected experience.
Fez el-Jdid, the Jewish Quarter
teammate, Margo, and I set out with our guide, Hamid, the fellow sent from the
tourist office (having told the fellow from the train we made other plans). At
our first stop, at the golden doors to the palace (and this is before he makes
the connection between “New York,” and likely Jewish person)– he relates how Jews made refugees when expelled from Spain and
Portugal in 1492 were invited by the sultan to settle in Fez in order to
develop the city, and settle the nomadic Berbers. The sultan gave them land
adjacent to the palace and promised protection. To show appreciation, the
Jewish community created ornate brass doors for the palace with the Star of
David surrounded by the Islamic star.
Our guide takes us first to Fez el-Jdid (the
“new part of the city”, which is still a few hundred years old) to visit
the Jewish Quarter, the Mellah..
Mellah of Fez dates back to 1438, the oldest Jewish Quarter in Morocco, though
very few Jewish people live here today, most having moved to Casablanca, France
or Israel; there are some 80 Jews left in Fez, but live in the new city, Ville
tells us that this community continued even into World War II, when the Sultan
gave Jews citizenship and protected them from the Nazis. Indeed, Morocco’s
Jewish population peaked in the 1940s but since the 1950s and 1960s, following
the establishment of Israel, shrank to fewer than 5,000 today.
leads us through winding narrow alleyways to the Ibn Danan synagogue. The synagogue was restored in 1998-99 with the
help of UNESCO, American Jews and American Express). From the top floor, you
can see the Jewish cemetery.
is al Fassiyine Synagogue, which a
plaque notes, “belongs to the Jews (Beldiyine)
Toshabirg, native Jews who lived in Fez before the arrival of the Megorashimns,
the expelled Jews from Spain in 1492. The building, covering 170 sq meters was
built in the 17th century. It includes a small entrance hall which
leads to a prayer hall housing some furnished rooms on the mezzanine level. It
has been used successively as a workshop for carpets and then a gym. Despite
these different uses and the degradation of its state, it still keeps its
The synagogue was restored in 2010-2011 through
the efforts of Simon Levy, former general secretary of the Judeo-Moroccan
Heritage Foundation, the Jewish community of Fez, Jacques Toledano Foundation
and the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Germany.
The reopening on February 13, 2013, was presided over by
Morocco’s Islamist Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane inaugurated the reopening
of the historic synagogue in which he conveyed the wish of Morocco’s King
Muhammad VI that all the country’s synagogues be refurbished and serve as
centers for cultural dialogue.
tells me that an adviser to the King and the ex-minister of Tourism were both
The tourism minister had a lot to do with putting Morocco on the map as an international tourist destination. The king, who studied at Harvard, in 2000 set a goal of 10 million tourists. “Morocco has no oil or gold. It had no highway or airport and didn’t exist except for hashish,” Hamid says. “The king opened Morocco to foreign companies, giving them five years duty-free. They were drawn by a peaceful country, a gateway to Africa. Foreign investors rebuilt the road to Marrakesh, turning it into an international city for the wealthy, like Europe.” Fez also seems to be benefiting – there is lots of restoration and new construction, at Riad el Yacout where we are staying.
we weave through the alleyways, he shows us the indentation on the doorposts of
houses where a mezuzah would have been placed, now the home of Muslims (what
Jews remain in Fez live in the new city, Ville Nouvelle).
Zellige, Traditional Tile Making
we have a driver, we also visit a traditional tile factory, set on a hilltop
overlooking the Medina.
Fez was the Moroccan birthplace of the beautiful tile work known as zellige. Introduced to the area by Moors fleeing Andalusia, tiles were initially chiseled into small pieces to create mosaic-like geometric patterns. The decorative and highly skilled tile work had become especially popular by the 14th century.
go through various workshops and watch the various artisans as they chisel the
pieces and set them into their patterns that we see in the stunning buildings
of the Medina and the riad where we are staying. The colors come from natural
material – mint for green, indigo for blue, saffron for yellow.
tiles are different, Hamid explains. “Every other city uses terracotta; Fez has
volcanic clay). They use olive pits as well as old furniture to fire up the
kilns that heat the tiles.
Fez is Morocco’s third largest city, with a population of
1,275,000 – half of them in the Medina. It was under the French from 1912-1956.
It was Morocco’s capital for 300 years
before the French moved the capital to Rabat, on the ocean. The most remarkable part of the scene from
the hilltop is how every roof of this ancient place has a satellite dish –
Hamid says they were given for free by Al Jazeera. “Even a Bedouin tent in the
desert will have a satellite dish.”
Fez el-Bali, the Medina
The driver drops us at one of the many gates into Fez el-Bali, the Medina (which means walled city) and we follow a route that takes us through the Medina. It is described as the world’s largest car-free urban space – 11,000 alleyways and no addresses – and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1983). The Medina is the oldest walled city, dating from 900 AD, and the largest in the Arab world. We find ourselves walking through 1,200 years and losing all sense of time or place – except when jarred back to the 21st century by the motorcycles coming through. It is one of the holiest places for Islam (Jerusalem and Mecca being the other two). There are some 272 mosques.
He points out how the homes are simple on the outside, with
heavy doors (to keep out pirates); they are two-stories high, but very, very
tall. The buildings are designed so if pirates came, they could pour hot water
down. Hamid warns that an outsider can only go into the Medina during the day.
“It’s not safe in the evening, not even for us.” Hamid says he was born in the
Medina and lived here for 35 years, but moved to the New City to send his
children to school. “Here, they first teach crafts; if they have more than 10
or 11 kids, they may send them to school.”
He tries to explain that women – the mother of the house – is
the family’s bank; that the artifacts like carpets and ceramics are its
financial security, “like diamonds and gold. If the family needs something, they
sell something.”; a mule was like a Mercedes.”A carpet to sell is like an ATM;
a wife who is an artist is like insurance.” He explains that the people of the
Medina have no health care, no insurance and pay no taxes. “It’s like the 8th
century.. If a wife doesn’t save money, the family is in trouble. Once a year,
they will show off it they have a real wife at the Ramadan holiday. The mother
chooses a wife for her son; a daughter goes off to live with the husband’s
family. “A mother who has 8 sons is like a Queen, insurance guaranteed. If a
family has no sons, they will adopt a nephew as a son. That system from the 9th
century is still in practice in the Medina.”
Garbage is still collected by donkey; the sewage system is
Roman. The French introduced a water system and electricity – up until then,
they used candles and oil lamps. Homes still don’t have refrigerator.
An important stop is al Qaraquiyine (Karaouine) mosque, university and library, founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman who had fled her homeland of Tunesia. The madrasa became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world. It was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963. It is considered the oldest existing, continually operating institution of higher education in the world. Hamid tells us that the university spans 5 hectares.
I later learn that in addition to being Muslim, prospective students of the Qarawiyyin are required to have memorized the Qur’an, medieval Islamic texts and Maliki law, and have a very good command of Classical Arabic. And while most assume the university is open only to men, women have been admitted into the university since the 1940s.
libraries contain important documents dating from c. 780 A.D. including the
Al-Muwatta of Malik written on gazelle parchment. The libraries may soon be
open to the public.
Fez was founded in 789 A.D. by Moulay Idriss II, the son of the
founder of modern Morocco, according to Journey Beyond Travel. It wasn’t until
817-18 A.D., when around 800 refugee families from Cordoba in Spain settled in
Fez, followed a few years later by over 2,000 families from Tunisia, that Fez
really began to grow. Apparently, settlements fought each other for over 300
years, until the arrival of the Almoravid empire in 1070 A.D. installed
The city took form under Almoravid rule when the walls which still form the outline of today’s Fez El-Bali were erected. By 1170 A.D., Fez was the largest city in the world with a population of 200,000. Fez was an important trading hub, serving Africa and Europe, the gold route from Timbuktu, and because of its tanneries with a reputation for making leather shields.
When the Merenids took control of Morocco in 1250 A.D., they
made Fez their capital. This is when Fez el-Jdid, the “new” city where the
Jewish Quarter is, was built with wider streets, gardens, and administrative
centers. This is also when Fez became established as a cultural and
intellectual hub and the “Fassi” style, a mix of Andalusian and Almohad
traditions, began. One of the best examples of this architecture is the Medersa Bou Inania with its green-tiled
We see the beautiful tile work of the mausoleum of Zaouia Moulay Idris, built in the Alawi architectural style, beginning in 1717 while Moulay Ismail was alive and finished in 1824. It is an important pilgrimage site, and one of the many sites that are closed to non-Muslims.
the course of the afternoon, we visit various craftsmen and artisans including
embroiderers, carpet makers and weavers.
One of these is the Widows Coop, where women weave carpets and scarves. Hamid explains that women who are divorced or widowed have little opportunity to remarry, and in the past, had few opportunities to earn a living besides prostitution. The Widows Coop gives these women a means for self-sufficiency. “Ladies with golden fingers.”
The final stop is the Chouwara tannery which has absolutely exquisite leather items for sale, and a fantastic view from its roof down to the vats of dyes. We learn that they use lime, salt and pigeon droppings to make the ammonia to tan the leather; the skins soak for a week, then are put into a wheel and turned every day for two weeks, then bleached for a week, then washed for three hours, then put into a vat to dye.
The shop is exquisite (even after getting this glimpse of how the sausage is made) – I have never felt such soft leather. Margo, who protested shopping, falls under the spell of a jacket, but it needs some tailoring. They take measurements and promise to deliver the jacket that evening. Sure enough, a completely custom jacket is delivered to the riad. It is stunning.
Leaving, we drive alongside the walls of the Medina and pass by the famous Bab Boujeloud known as the “Blue Gate”.
I reflect on this guided tour, I am disappointed because as can be expected, we
spent most of our concentrated time at the tile factory, the weavers, the
carpet makers and the tannery – all designed to have us spend money, but did
not get to properly see the Blue Gate, which I “grab” as we are driving or
Medersa Bou Inania, two of the Medina’s most important sites. I have trouble
reconstructing what we saw.)
at Riad el Yacout, we meet up with the other two teams and discover that all of
us have followed pretty much the same itinerary.
We have a fantastic dinner at the riad – chicken tagine and chicken couscous – the food and the atmosphere sheer perfection. (Rian el Yacout, 9 Derb Goebbas Batha, Fes Medina 30200, Morocco, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.riadelyacoutFes.com).
still have to get from Morocco to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto by Friday on
this most challenging, Par 6 leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, our “final exam.”
have been unable to figure it out online. It turns out we need to take a ferry
to the Spanish city of Algeciras, and then get a
cab to the border of Gibraltar (my mistake was trying to input Tangier to
Gibraltar). But there are two ferries and two different ports. Which one?
The other two Global Scavenger Hunt teams who are staying in the riad (they were the ones who found it) seem very sure of knowing which train to take and say they will figure out which ferry when we get to Tangier, so, after a fantastic breakfast set out early for us, at 8 am, served in the gorgeous courtyard, we pile into cabs for the $1.50 ride to the train station.
purchase ticket for the 10 am (first class) train to Tangier Ville. The 4 ½
hour trip is very pleasant, rolling passed lovely
landscape, farms, towns and villages, stopping perhaps six times to pick up
passengers. A cart of refreshments comes by (tea costs something like 6 cents).
Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” and
CEO (Chief Experience Officer) of the Global Scavenger Hunt, launches us our
biggest, most ambitious and difficult leg of the 23-day, around-the-world
mystery tour: a Par 6, in which our challenge is to get from Marrakesh through
four countries – Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal with scavenges in each
to win points – in five days, meeting at 11:30 am in Porto, Portugal, when we
will fly out to New York, our final destination and the final and decisive leg
of the competition to be crowned “World’s Best Traveler”.
for your final exam, when all the skills you have learned come together while
your situational awareness is peaking and the Travel IQ ready for action,”
Chalmers tells us as we gather together in the lobby of the Savoy Le Grand in
Marrakesh, Morocco. “The Big multi-country adventure of the Par 6 North
Africa/Iberian Peninsula leg.
are over 150 scavenges with 19 Bonuses, 3 Team Challenges and a whole lotta
good eating; six exciting days of buses, trains, ferries, camels, trams, bikes
and funiculars; four diverse country stops over 1,400 km (870 miles) lay
between here in Marrakesh and there in Porto. Oh yea, did I mention May Day!?”
are handled $300 to cover their best-guess transportation costs and told we are
required to secure our own lodgings for three nights (we are given an allowance
of $200 per team per night) “all depending on your risk/reward course of
action. We will see you Friday at 11:30AM in the lobby of our Porto, Portugal
hotel. Good luck to everyone, be safe, be smart.”
Chalmers allows these rule changes for this climatic leg:
1) Teaming up allowed, but only in Morocco!
2) Car rentals allowed, but only once, and only within one single country where
the rental must be both picked-up & returned.
3) Use of smartphones allowed.
4) Airbnb & Uber allowed.
are some 150 scavenges in this leg (a challenge is to figure which ones to do
for points and logistics), including mandatory ones like #51 (“Within the
bowels of Fes el-Bali, visit the Baab Bou Jeloud gate”). It is also mandatory
to complete at least one scavenge in all four primary countries: Morocco,
Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal. Other mandatory challenges have to do with
eating, since food is such a window to culture and tradition, and also brings
are scavenges that earn bonuses. In Morocco: either camp out in the desert one
night or stay in traditional riad; venture to the Atlas mountains to visit
Berber villages, Ait Souka/Kasbah Dutoubkal, or Aghmat/Oureka; visit the blue
city of Chefchaouen; visit Volubilis to see something old & Roman; visit
nearby sacred village Moulay Idriss.
We have arrived at Savoy Le Grand – a massive modern resort-style hotel with multiple pools, sandwiched between a major modern mall and a casino, about a half-mile from the gate to Marrakesh’s Old City – at midnight local time, about 2 am for us having come from Athens. Bill recognizes the need for a break so essentially gives us the morning off, so we can meet at 11:30 am in the lobby to launch us on the challenge he has termed “our final exam.”
The hotel is a bit garish (it makes me think of the Concord in the Catskills) but actually quite nice. Still, Bill actually apologizes that he couldn’t get us into something more “authentic”. Because of the wedding between British actor Idris Elba and model Sabrina Dhowre (former Miss Vancouver), they had to research over 50 properties before they could get us into Savoy Le Grand Hotel for two nights.
My teammate, Margo, and I are not
competing so have the advantage of being able to get advice from the concierge and
use hotels.com to book hotels in the places we want to overnight. Even so, it
takes from noon to about 5:30 pm to work out an outline for how we will cover
the distance – set up the first train ticket from Marrakesh to Fez (we give the
concierge the money to buy the ticket) and book hotels in Fez and Gibraltar
(another team has gotten names for a traditional riad in Fez and a hotel in
Gibraltar which three teams decide to book).
Margo decides to spend an extra day
in Porto, Portugal, but I set my sights on Seville, and organize a hotel there
and a flight from Seville to Porto (which wouldn’t be allowed if I were
competing), so we will travel together from Marrakesh to Fez to Gibraltar and
then travel independently until Porto (if we were competing, we would have to
do everything as a team).
By 5:30 pm, I still haven’t figured
out how to get from Fez to Gibraltar and Gibraltar to Seville, but I am
frustrated and angry not actually seeing Marrakesh, and drop everything so we
go into the Old City. The other two teams which are following much the same
itinerary are content to just wing it once we get to Fez.
Right at the gate to the old city is the famous, five-star La Mamounia Palace hotel – a hotel since 1923, but with a history that extends back to the 12th century. Its magnificent gardens were a wedding gift to Prince Al Mamoun in the 18th century.
Margo and I walk to the famous Koutoubia Grand Mosque that so dominates the city (It turns out that everything we do could earn scavenge points). The largest mosque in Marrakesh, the Koutoubia is not only its spiritual center but an architectural trend-setter. that was adopted in buildings in Spain (Giralda of Seville) and Rabat (Hassan Tower), which were built in the same period.
The mosque is ornamented with curved windows, a band of ceramic inlay, pointed merlons, and decorative arches; it has a large plaza with gardens, and is floodlit at night. The minaret tower, standing 253 feet high, has a spire and orbs. The mosque was completed under the reign of the Berber Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184 to 1199).
Founded in 1062, Marrakesh was once the capital of a vast trading empire that stretched from Toledo to Senegal. You get a sense of this at Marrakesh’s main square, Jemaa el Fna, which I learn, was once a medieval trading square where public executions took place (why it is called the Assembly of the Dead).
As soon as we enter the massive square, there is a cacophony of sounds, a blur of motion and color. And activity – snake charmers, acrobats, henna artists, musicians, Berbers (who demand money for photo even if you only look at them), merchants hawking every kind of item – snake-oil salesman selling men’s fertility.
are scores of “restaurants” – stalls, really, with long tables under canvas
like picnics, with their representatives with numbered signs identifying their
location, recruiting new customers – when one sits down, they serenade in
souks radiate off the square with tiny alleyways.
Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the souks to find the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue (which happens also to be one of the scavenges).
We weave through the maze – asking people who point us in a direction (just as we are supposed to do under the Global Scavenger Hunt) – a kindly fellow leaves his stall to lead us down narrow alleyway to Laazama Synagogue, which is still a functioning synagogue but also serves as the city’s Jewish Museum.
After Jews were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492, Rabbi Yitzhag Daloya came to Marrakesh. He became president of the court and head of the “deportee” community in Marrakesh and founded the “Tzlat Laazama,” Synagogue of Deportees”, shortly after his arrival.
But the Moroccan Jewish community is much older than the Spanish Inquisition– dating back to King Solomon and the Roman period. Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Joseph Ibn Tasifin, ruler of the Halmorabidim, who allowed Jewish settlement in the city. The Jewish community was “renewed” in 1269, headed by Rabbi Yahuda Jian, originally from southern Spain. The Atlas Jews remained the majority of the community even after the Jews from Spain and Portugal settled in Marrakesh.
situation changed in the 16th century when Marrakesh became a major
center for Marranos (secret Jews) who wished to practice Judaism openly.
Spanish and Portuguese Marrakesh Jews lived in their own neighborhoods until
all local Jews, some 35,000, were collected by order of the King, in 1557, and
resettled in the Mellah (a walled community). In the 19th century,
the population increased in the Mellah after refugees from the Atlas Mountains
arrived, becoming the largest Jewish community in Morocco. At one time, there
were 40 synagogues here.
synagogue is beautifully decorated with tile, a courtyard ringed with study
rooms, a music room, living quarters. There is a video about history of Jewish
community in Marrakesh. The photos on the walls are interesting – the faces of
the Moroccan Jews are indistinguishable from the Arab Moroccans.
Jews have also left the country – the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora counts more than
1 million members in four corners of the world, “a diaspora that continues to
cultivate ties to their homeland, Morocco.” Indeed, we come upon a woman with
her sister-in-law and mother who left Marrakesh first for Casablanca and now
lives in Paris; her brother is still a member of the synagogue’s leadership –
she shows us his chair. Her grandfather is buried in the nearby Jewish
From the synagogue, we walk to the Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, which should have been closed, but the guard lets us in.
in 1537, the cemetery spans 52 hectares and is the largest Jewish burial site
in Morocco, with some 20,000 tombs including tombs of 60 “saints” and devotees
who taught Torah to the communities of Marrakesh and throughout Morocco.
arrangement of the graves is “unique” to the city of Marrakesh. There is a
children’s section, where 7000 children who died of Typhus are buried; a
separate men’s section and a woman’s section while around the perimeter are
graves of the pious, the judges and scholars of the city who are believed to
provide protection for all those buried.
hails a taxi to head back to the hotel, and I walk back to the main square
through the markets (the tricky part is less about getting lost than avoiding
the scooters that speed through the narrow alleyways), and get the real flavor
of this exotic place and dusk turns to darkness and the neon-colored lights
Here you can see a huge variety of Moroccan craftsmen and
tradesmen, organized by profession, under a roof of reeds, hawking leather
goods, fabrics, kettles, pottery. The Dyers’ Souk, has colorful skeins of wool
hanging out to dry on its walls, while the Blacksmiths’ Souk (souk Haddadine)
displays a wide variety of metalwork.
Back in the bustling Jemaa el Fnasquare, I see a crowd of men gathered around one fellow with a lizard, selling a miracle cure. When I ask a fellow what it is about, he grins and I get the idea. No different than the snake-oil salesmen of old.
dinner time, neon lights have come on, and I go to the section of the
square where there are dozens of outdoor
restaurants. Guys wave a placard with their stall number which are their ID and
do a sales pitch (“Remember #1, Remember 35”, “Air-Conditioned!” they say with
a grin). Then when you stop, fellows come by and sing to draw in customers. It
is all very good natured. I find a stall to have dinner – seated on a bench
with others who have come here from around the world and local neighborhoods.
should be noted that Marrakesh has bike share, bike lanes, pedestrian
crossings, is clean, with lots of police and auxiliary, striking new buildings,
and the people are very helpful and hospitable.
Marrakesh, a thousand-year old city,has just been designated African Capital of Culture 2020, a a showcase of today’s urban Africa, highlighting the diversity of African culture.
next day we are up at 4:30 am, breakfast is delivered at 5 am, and we take a
five-minute cab ride to a gorgeous train station, to catch the 6 am train, riding in a first-class
compartment for a wonderful 6 ½ hour trip to Fez.
The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.