Category Archives: International Travel

Zhejiang Province Presents Microcosm of China, Ancient & New

Traditional boats powered by oars pushed by feet, at East Lake, a preserved village in Zhejiang © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Traditional boats powered by oars pushed by feet, at East Lake, a preserved village in Zhejiang © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

Zhejiang Province, just south of Shanghai, is a veritable microcosm of China, I discover during my five-day visit. In a relatively compact area, it offers some of the most beautiful scenery and natural sites to be found in China – landscapes that evoke the classic Chinese paintings – as well as ancient Buddhist temples, historic and heritage places. It is where you can trace the development of silk, porcelain, and tea that proved so important to China’s history and are still so important locally, and where you can see firsthand modern life in both urban and countryside settings.

If you only have a week (and I only have five days), touring Zhejiang Province, and its provincial capital at Hangzhou, can give you an excellent sense of China, as an ancient civilization and as an emerging global power.

I can see why the phrase “paradise on earth” is used in referring to Zhejiang – it is one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, with the 7000-year old Hemudu culture and the 5000-year old Liangzhu culture. It has fabulous natural wonders – breathtakingly beautiful scenery that has inspired art, poetry, music, and unleashed extraordinary creativity and innovation.

It seems to me as I travel through the province, that throughout China’s history, Zhejiang was on the cutting edge of culture and handcraft development, as in the case of sword casting in the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period (770-221 BC), porcelain production and bronze mirror making in the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220), and silk production, tea cultivation, engraving and printing techniques, traditional medicine, pagoda and temple construction, and the art of Buddha sculpture after the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The Zhejiang region has ideal conditions for cultivating the mulberry tree, which nurtures the silk worm, so this became a region for silk production going back more than 5000 years. Here, along the bank of the stunningly scenic West Lake that so captivated Marco Polo, is the China National Silk Museum, purportedly the largest silk museum in the world.

The museum superbly shows how silk was so much more than a cloth, and how it became a major impetus to trade with Europe along the so-called Silk Road. Silk is far more than just a commercial product – it permeates Chinese society. Silk was considered “the gift of gods,” it was used to show status, was a sign of good luck, and a longing for a better life. The style of dress related to the political structure – literal “rules of dress” were dictated by the Emperor. A fabulous exhibit displays examples of silk clothes over the centuries.

There are looms, some interactive computers, a video of the life of a silk worm, and an excellent (and large) shop. They even do fashion shows; indeed, Hangzhou continues to be a major center for women’s fashion.

As I look at the displays, especially the “rules of dress,” I think about the role of fashion in terms of political authority – and understand better how a people that clearly cherished color could be regimented to gray, blue, brown and green and the bland, military styles under the Mao Tse Tung regime, and what a thrill it was to be allowed to buy colorful fabrics again, beginning in 1978 when I made my first visit to China.

I look at the tiny shoes that were used to bind girls’ feet so they could barely walk – it was a sign of submission to male authority – and think that there was one good aspect of the Cultural Revolution that seems to have remained: while people seem to have wrested themselves from such sterility of the Cultural Revolution, it seems to have eradicated from Chinese society the entrenched inequality of women. I see it in the “body English” in the way women and men talk casually to each other, and the way they interact with one another in their jobs. (Interestingly, I am told during my visit in Tokyo, that in Japan there are still gender biases that keep a glass ceiling well in place.)

Not too far from the Silk Museum is another interesting site (which I will make a point to visit next time): the Museum of Guanyao Kiln (the official kiln) of the Southern Song Dynasty, the first museum devoted to ceramics that was built on the original site. China developed the technology for porcelain, which also figured into its place in global trade.

Pagoda of Six Harmonies, Zhejiang Province, China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Pagoda of Six Harmonies, Zhejiang Province, China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Traveling down Tiger Running Road, we come to The Pagoda of Six Harmonies, considered one of the best examples of pagoda construction technology in China. It was built in 970 during the Northern Song Dynasty by Qian Hongchu, the last Yue king, who built it to (spiritually) “calm” the tide of the Qiantang River, and more practically, serve as a lighthouse. The pagoda, destroyed in the peasant uprising of 1121 and rebuilt in 1152, has 13 stories outside but seven inside. You can climb to the top (be warned: there aren’t always banisters and the stone steps can be high) and be rewarded for the effort by a beautiful view of the Qiantang River and the 1937 Bridge.

The Qiantang River is considered a world wonder for its Tidal Bore, most prominent on the 18th day of the 8th lunar month when the attraction between sun and moon is most pronounced. People have been amazed by the spectacle for 2000 years.

Continuing on, a short distance beyond West Lake, we come to Mei Jiawu Tea Culture Village – with a heritage in harvesting tea that goes back 7600 years. Here, there are optimal conditions of white sand soil, temperate climate, not too much rain, for producing a sweet-tasting tea. The tea grows in terraces up the mountain sides, making for a lovely scene. The village is ancient and most typical in style. Here you are fascinated to learn the painstaking effort that goes into producing tea – women pick the leaves; men fry the leaves in small batches three separate times, so it takes four hours to produce a half-kilo of the tiny leaves.

This is the Dragon Well tea, the most famous and important in China. The region has been supplying tea to the Emperor in Beijing for centuries, and now supplies the government with half their harvest, in place of tax. It is the most delightful, tranquil setting. There is also an excellent shop.

As I sit and am served samples of the green tea that is grown and harvested so carefully, I am told of all the healing benefits of tea – good for digestion, an anti-oxidant, good for complexion, blood pressure, helps control weight – I can’t resist but purchase my own supply.

If you are still thirsting for more, the China Tea Museum (Longjing Road) is the only national museum in China focused on tea. Various aspects of the tea culture are displayed, including tea history, famous teas, tea events, tea sets and tea customs.

Lingyin Temple

Lingyin Temple, one of the ten most celebrated Buddhist monasteries in China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lingyin Temple, one of the ten most celebrated Buddhist monasteries in China © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The massive and spectacular Lingyin Temple (Temple of the Soul’s Retreat) was originally built in 326, though it has been rebuilt many times over the centuries (it was never destroyed during the Cultural Revolution; Chou En Lai protected it). It is one of the ten most celebrated Buddhist monasteries in China. The statue of Sakyamuni carved from camphor wood and gilded with gold inside the Grand Hall of the temple is considered a masterpiece. It is the largest carving of a sitting Buddha in China.

At its peak, there were 1000 rooms and more than 3000 monks living here, and it was the most popular temple in Southeast Asia, attracting scores of worshippers. Even today, there are flocks of people who have come from all over.

We come late in the afternoon, around 5 p.m. Inside the temple, the monks have gathered and are chanting and banging drums as they go through their prayers.

The Laughing Budda, one of 340 statues in the limestone on Feilai Peak – the Peak Flying From Afar - at Lingyin Temple © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Laughing Budda, one of 340 statues in the limestone on Feilai Peak – the Peak Flying From Afar – at Lingyin Temple © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Opposite the temple stands the Feilai Peak – the Peak Flying From Afar. It is marked by a rocks and limestone caves with some 340 Buddhist sculptures in grottoes, most of them dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries. These are considered the most precious of China’s grotto art. The peak goes up 548 feet, but our time to wander about them is very limited, and we go into a few of the closest grottoes.

It is mysterious and mystical.

Wuzhen, Water Town

Wuzhen, one of the ancient river towns, has been preserved in Zhejiang Province as a living history museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
Wuzhen, one of the ancient river towns, has been preserved in Zhejiang Province as a living history museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

The hub for my stay is Hangzhou, China’s capital city for 150 years and still the provincial capital. On my second full day in the city, we drive about 1 ½ hours away to Wuzhen, in Tongxiang, one of six ancient water towns that have been preserved as living history museums. The ride is fascinating because it is not much different than driving in upstate New York – the juxtaposition of the modern cities downstate with the rural areas; here, a modern highway ribbons through the countryside now dotted with high-rise buildings, new factories and farming communities.

Wuzhen, which means “black town,” is named for the black color of the mud. With the Grand Canal passing through it, it has been an important gateway connecting Suzhou (that gorgeous city of gardens) and Hangzhou.

The town is known for its quaint stone bridges with crisscrossing rivers flowing under them, buildings with high walls and tail-shaped eaves, and long narrow lanes, lined by wood structures in the traditional architectural style of south of the Yangtze River. The wood carvings and decorations are breathtakingly beautiful.

Wuzhen’s settlement goes back 7000 years; the village, itself, has a 1300 year history, and these houses, in the Qing style, are 200 years old. There would have been 1,000 people living in the town; today, the buildings are inhabited mainly by older residents who are allowed to live there for free and make it very much a living place, versus a museum exhibit.

In 1991, Wuzhen was “authorized” as the Provincial Ancient Town of History and Culture, ranking it first among the six ancient towns south of the Yangtze River. Wuzhen is a huge tourist attraction now – it costs 100 yuan (about $15) for admission, and its popularity is indicated by how it is being expanded with shops and eateries.

A popular way to experience the magnificent scenery of Wuzhen and its bridges is by boat© 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
A popular way to experience the magnificent scenery of Wuzhen and its bridges is by boat© 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Wuzhen is famous for the picturesque scene known as “Bridge in Bridge,” created by two ancient bridges, one of which is Tongji Bridge that crosses the river from east to west and the other Renji Bridge running from south to north, which join at one end. Either of two bridges can be seen through the arch of the other, hence the name.

A popular way to experience the setting is by a traditional wooden boat.

As you walk through and in and out of houses and buildings, you come upon displays that present a fascinating picture of Chinese society and cultural heritage. There are also demonstrations of traditional handicrafts, rice wine making, printing and dyeing of the traditional blue printed fabrics.

The exhibits are fascinating in how they present the traditions and beliefs of the time. In the bed exhibit, you see an “unmarried daughter bed”. In the clothes exhibit, you learn that in feudal times, dress was regulated, but in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a break from “the emperor system” and people started choosing freely; during the time of arranged marriages, embroidery was a key to a successful match.

A boatsman at Wuzhen, one of the ancient river towns, has been preserved in Zhejiang Province as a living history museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A boatsman at Wuzhen, one of the ancient river towns, has been preserved in Zhejiang Province as a living history museum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is an exhibit about important Chinese ceremonies – like one that is held on the fifth day of the first lunar month, which is dedicated to “living fish” – they put some red substance on its eyes to prevent them drying out and ultimately free the fish after the ceremony. (You would need a guide to understand any of this, because there were no English-language brochures or signs).

You also can visit the former residence of one of the famous native sons of Wuzhen: novelist, cultural critic and journalist Shen Dehong, known as Mao Dun, who lived from 1896 to 1981 and served as the Minister of Culture from 1949 to 1965, and grew up here. Considered one of the best modern novelists in China, his most famous works are “Midnight” and “Spring Silkworms.” His masterpiece, “The Lin’s Shop,” describes the life of Wuzhen.

(Interesting bit of information that I subsequently learned from Wikipedia is that he adopted the pen name of “Mao Dun” which means “contradiction” as a reflection of the conflicting revolutionary ideology in China in the unstable 1920s; his friend, Ye Shengtao, changed the character he used for the first word to protect him from political persecution.)

Wuzhen is now like a tiny protected oasis, though it is already being expanded with shops and services. But all around it are modern high-rise buildings and the trappings of a village turned metropolis.

(Another of these preserved historic water towns in Zhejiang Province is Xitang, in Jiashan, which is known for its 27 stone bridges, 122 old lanes, and corridor canopies more than 1000 meters long. It has folk museums – a buttons museum, tiles and bridges exhibition hall, Zhangzheng Root-Carving Art Museum, exhibition hall of woodcarving of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and brown wine display hall.)

Shaoxing, Venice of the East

One of the famous “black boats,” which the oarsman powers by his feet, glides along East Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
One of the famous “black boats,” which the oarsman powers by his feet, glides along East Lake © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

The next day, we travel again about 1 ½ hours from Hangzhou to Shaoxing, a water town known as the Venice of the East. A cultured city with a 2,400-year old history, it has a long tradition in calligraphic art.

Here, we visit East Lake, a small preserved village, where you walk along an ancient tow path along a narrow lake as black-topped boats glide by, powered by oars pushed by the feet of oarsmen wearing traditional black velvet hats. It is a stunning landscape of limestone cliffs carved into shapes by the water.

The Lanting (Orchid) Pavilion, in Shaoxing © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
The Lanting (Orchid) Pavilion, in Shaoxing © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

From the village, it is a short ride to Lanting Pavilion, known as the Orchid Pavilion, at the base of Lanzhu Mountain. In ancient times, Goujian, the Yue King, planted orchids. The site is even more revered as a center for China’s most important calligraphy, displayed in a park-like setting and in a Calligraphy museum. In 353 AD, the famous calligrapher Wang Xizhi and others assembled in this serene setting, and were inspired to write the famous “Preface to Lanting Pavilion Collection of Literary Writings.” It has become a place where the sages of Chinese calligraphy resided, known as “one preface, three tablets and eight scenes.” Now Shaoxing city holds a calligraphy festival every year, drawing famous calligraphers from around the world.

Shaoxing is an important city, noted for its rivers, bridges, and lakes making for lovely scenery, and for several key figures: Lu Xun, a great modern writer and thinker grew up here and there is a memorial and museum to him. Chou En Lai, the former premier of China, also grew up in Shaoxing, and you can visit his ancestral residence.

More to See

There is so much more to see through Zhejiang Province, which offers five major historic and cultural cities; 70 historic and cultural relics; more than 140 museums including The Zhejiang Provincial Museum, originally built in 1929, housed in a villa with a garden which has a collection of more than 100,000 cultural relics; and a Hemudu Primitive Culture Museum.

I am intrigued also to return to Zhejiang Province to visit the city of Ningbo, where 7,000 years ago, the Hemudu culture in the New Stone Age was established; the port city has been important to trade and transport for the millennia and was the starting point in the Ceramics Route and the Silk Route. The Tianyige Library, dating from the Ming Dynasty in the 1560s, is the oldest library in China; it offers a museum that preserves books, gardening arts, Majian culture and Ningbo folk culture. There is also the Fenghua Xikou Scenic District, which offers a Xuedou Mountain Scenic Area, known for its natural valleys and waterfalls, and the Xikou Ancient Town, famous for its ancient temples and pagodas. There is also the former residence of Chiang Kai-shek in Xikou.

Wenzhou, another important trading port, offers a charming river town. Mount Yandang, formed 120 billion years ago from acid lava from erupting volcanoes, presents a scenery of “grotesque” rocks, cliffs, dingles, caves, waterfalls and lakes, and is known as a “Museum of Nature.”

Quzhou offers one of only two Confucian shrines in China. This one was reopened to the public in July 2000. Here, too, is the Longyou Rock Caves, completely underground, where the origins of abstract drawings on the rocks are still unknown.

Another area that prompts a return visit is Taizhou and the Tiantai Mountain, located on the eastern coast of Zhejiang. Taizhou is a newly emerging tourist city, with beaches and hills, the Shiliang Waterfalls, and the Linhai Great Wall, built before the Great Wall in Beijing.

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

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

See also: 

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

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

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

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Medicine Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

 

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

Marco Polo called it “The City of Heaven.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

____________________

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

Biking Albania: Touring Centuries Old City of Gjirokaster

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

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gjirokaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gjirokaster Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skendulate House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

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

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

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

Next: Biking Albania: Greco-Roman City of Butrint

____________________

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

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

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

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korca: ‘The Paris of Albania’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking Tour of Korca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Biking Albania to Gjirokaster, UNESCO World Heritage Center 

See also:

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

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

____________________

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

 

 

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support of the Greek Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allocate at least two hours.

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

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin,www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin  and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

How to Spend a Perfect Day in Athens, Greece

View of Acropolis Hill at night, from Acropolis Hill Hotel's roof garden © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
View of Acropolis Hill at night, from Acropolis Hill Hotel’s roof garden © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate

If you only have a single day to spend in Athens, resist the temptation to rush to the Acropolis Hill and the New Acropolis Museum first – these most popular sites in the city which birthed democracy and Western Civilization, are overrun by 9 am with tour groups (though you can visit as early as 8 am), creating a line of people like ants and a cacophony of sound like a noisy schoolyard. Instead, here is an itinerary that gives you the full span of history and culture and gives you time to really appreciate the marvels on display.

The stunning life-size bronze of an African boy jockey on a racehorse, one of only five bronzes to survive the ages, on view at the National Archeology Museum in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The stunning life-size bronze of an African boy jockey on a racehorse, one of only five bronzes to survive the ages, on view at the National Archeology Museum in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

9:15 am: Start the day at the National Archaeology Museum, a 10-15 minute walk from the Omonia Metro Station (1.2E, about $1.50 a ride, or 4E for a full day of travel).Take a guided tour (50E for up to five people – we were lucky enough to have Andromache as our guide, Andromache.vl@gmail.com) – otherwise, you will be awed by what you see, but not understand their importance or context, even with the good labels and explanations in English. This is a spectacular museum that is not to be missed – only place where you will see archaeology representative of all regions of Greece over all its eons and periods (even surpassing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, and what a marvel to see the items in context): beginning with the Neolithic period, 6500-3300 BC (and what extraordinary pieces! including gold objects and stunning clay figures that showed a devotion to Mother Earth, Gaia, and hinted at the matriarchy that preceded a patriarchal religion and society).

The famous Mask of Agamemnon is thrilling to see "in the flesh" at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The famous Mask of Agamemnon is thrilling to see “in the flesh” at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You will be able to see the Golden Mask of King Agamemnon, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae in 1876, (which we learn is actually centuries older than Agamemnon’s reign, but they keep the name for “marketing” purposes), spectacular gold ornaments and funeral objects that suggest a belief in an afterlife, There are two of only five full-scale bronzes left in the world – one, a national symbol of a standing god (Zeus or Poseidon, it isn’t clear because the tool that he would have held, a lightening bolt or a trident, perhaps, has been lost to time) was saved because as it was being taken to Rome by boat to be melted down for weapons, the boat sank and was found in 1926 by fisherman, plus a bronze statue of an African boy on a racing horse that was saved by being shipwrecked, made during the time of Alexander the Great, when the expansion of Greek’s empire brought exotic themes into the art (Alexander was also the first person to have a portrait in a statue). You also see a vase with the first sentence (or rather, the oldest known sentence) written in Greek language: “Now I belong to the man who is the best dancer.” (I think to myself, what pressure on a person to write the first sentence to go down in history! Or, for that matter, the inventor of the “space” between words, which had not existed in Greek.).

Also, there is an astonishing special exhibit,” The Antikythera Mechanism,” about an astrological clock invented in 150-100 BC – centuries before Columbus used an astrolobe to explore the globe – that could predict planetary events 19 years ahead. The Mechanism, made with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker (how did they get the parts so thin and flat?), was found in 1900-1, in the wreck of a ship sunk off Antikythera.  Seven large fragments and 75 minor pieces have survived. “Their exact position and the original structure of the Mechanism are still a matter of intense investigation,” though an extraordinary video suggests how the machine, containing at least 30 gearwheels as well as dials, scales, axles and pointers, was put together. The notes say that the Greek astronomical inscriptions on the surface of the Mechanism refer to astronomical and calendar calculations, while the inscriptions on its metal protective plates contain instructions for its use. The Mechanism was protected by a wooden case, which had a bronze plaque on the front and the back side.

“The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator. It displayed the positions of the Sun, the Moon and most probably the five planets known in antiquity, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It was used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, it kept an accurate calendar of many years, and displayed the date of Pan-Hellenic games that took place at Nemea, at Isthmia, at Delphi, at Dodona and at Olympia.

“Its construction dates to the second half of the 2nd century BC. Its technology, which recalls the successors of Archimedes and the school of Poseidonius on the island of Rhodes, was the result of the development of philosophy and of exact sciences that took place in Greece until this era, and also draws on knowledge of the Hellenistic Age (celestial parameters, mechanical design and use of epicyclic gearing). The Mechanism bears witness to the astronomical, mathematical andmechanical ingenuity of ancient Greeks in Late Hellenistic period.”

It was the computer, the cell phone and the calculator of its day, and makes you realize that in every age, it only takes one genius to transform the world.

(National Archaeology Museum, 44 Palision St., www.namuseum.gr)

View of Acropolis through Hadrian's Gate, once the entrance to Athens. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
View of Acropolis through Hadrian’s Gate, once the entrance to Athens. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

11:30 am: From the National Archaeology Museum, hop back on the metro (the stations are beautiful, and each one features an exhibit of archaeological discoveries excavated when they dug the metro, but you are repeatedly warned to watch out for pickpockets, and we personally know several people who were in fact pick-pocketed) to the Acropolis stop, and walk  through Hadrian’s Gate (the original entrance to Athens), to the Temple of Olympic Zeus, one of the largest temples in Greece.

12:15 pm Walking through the Plaka, we stop for lunch under an umbrella, beside an arbor – relaxing and checking WiFi (just about all the tavernas have free WiFi. Greece offers exceptional value now – not only is the dollar strong against the Euro, but prices in Greece have been cut with the economic downturn, to make them more affordable. Our lunch cost less than 30E for 3 people, or about $10.

1:15 pm We walk past The Library of Hadrian (a gift of the Roman Emperor supporting education and exercise in Athens) and the Roman Agora (a commercial marketplace) in order to have enough time in the Ancient Agora – an exceptionally important site, where you will stand over the first House of Parliament, literally the birthplace of democracy.

You need to allocate at least one hour at the Ancient Agora in order to have time to visit a superb museum, housed in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a 2nd C BC building that was restored in 1952-56 by the American School of Classical Studies to exhibit the artifacts collected at the site (it was renovated in 2003-4). Here you will see how citizens (a minimum of 6000 were necessary) could vote to “ostracize” a politician accused of corruption. (Pericles, who we regard today as marshalling the Golden Age of Greece, received 43 of these “votes” recorded by scratching the name into a broken piece of pottery; to avoid prosecution, which could have resulted in being exiled for 10 years, Plutarch suggests that Pericles started the Peloponnesian War).

A lottery "machine" for selecting jurors, on display at the museum at the Ancient Agora. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A lottery “machine” for selecting jurors, on display at the museum at the Ancient Agora. © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You also see the lottery system used to pick jurors (they paid 1/3 drachma to buy a strip in which to write their names, and if selected, would receive a drachma’s pay), and the devices used to record their verdict. Also, there are a collection of small cups used by prisoners to take hemlock – one of the cups could well have been used by Socrates, who was sentenced to death for teaching the heresy of denying 12 gods at a time when paganism was the official religion (he supported the idea of a single spirit, which gets me thinking that he might have been influenced by the Jewish community that was already established in Athens at the time – in fact, we visit the site where signs, etched in marble, announced the Jewish synagogue, near where the House of Parliament stood. The original artifacts are at the museum, but not on display).

Then walk down the street lined with statues of Giants (in Greek tradition, Titans were first, then the Giants, then the Olympian gods), to a headless torso of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who respected and admired Athenian culture and enhanced it with his Library and other institutions, but threw Christians to the lions (and wasn’t so great for Jews, either). The homage paid to him by Athenians was shown in the decoration on his breastplate, depicting the goddess Athena standing on a wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. But the headless statue was contemptuously thrown into the sewage ditch by early Christians (who also defiled the Parthenon and most of the statues denoting devotion to paganism), and only discovered in the sewer when they excavated.

The Hadrian Statue stands near the Bouleuterion, or Council House, where the 500 representatives of the 10 tribes met, would have been – in essence, the first House of Parliament.

Above, on a hillside, is the beautiful Temple of Hephaistos (5th C BC) but just to the side is believed to have been a synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since 3 rd C BC and possibly as early as 6th C BC. This is based on finding etched marble – in essence, a sign for the synagogue, which comes from the Greek words “synagein,” which means “to bring together” and the same root word as “agora” which means “a place of assembly.”

The Agora was the political center for Athens, and because it was a gathering place, also became a commercial center. It was there that courts were held (but capital crimes were tried outside its boundary, so the blood on a murderers’ hands not pollute the public space).

2:30 pm: Walk around the Acropolis Hill up Apostolou Pavlou, a beautiful wide cobblestone boulevard, lined with crafts people, street musicians (and virtually no cars), where you also see ruins of early neighborhoods, as well as peer into contemporary neighborhoods.

For the moment, we bypass the entrance to Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon (though you can buy your ticket, 12E, which gives free entry to the New Acropolis Museum and four other important archaeological sites, which can be used for one visit each over the course of four days), and head straight to the New Acropolis Museum. The entrance to the Museum is on another marvelous cobblestone pedestrian boulevard, Dionysiou Areopagitou.

3 pm: The New Acropolis Museum: Here at the museum, you will get the best orientation to what you will see at the Acropolis – it is a modern museum that opened in 2009, displaying in the most magnificent fashion the most incredible statues and art gathered (saved, preserved and conserved) from the Acropolis. On the top floor, from which you see the Acropolis just in front of you through a wall of windows, the statues and art are arranged exactly in the same way as they would have been on the Parthenon itself – indeed, the room is the same size and proportion as the Parthenon, with columns spaced just as they would have been in marble. The presentation is exquisite.

Here, there is a superb video (presented in Greek and in English) that explains the history of the Acropolis, the artwork, and really prepares you for what you will see with a context. I watched the film in both Greek (English subtitles) and English (Greek subtitles), to absorb it all.

The second floor has statues and figures that are breathtaking – imagine, such features and dynamism in marble 2000 years before Europe’s Renaissance. Here we also see a “portrait” in marble of Alexander the Great – significant because he is the first person to have a likeness of himself in a statue.

We stop at the Museum’s gorgeous café, sitting outside on a rooftop restaurant just beneath the Acropolis, getting a pick-me-up with freddo cappuccino, freddo espresso and a double espresso (coffee and cocktails can be as expensive as a meal). The cafe is fabulous for lunch, as well.

Spend 2 1/2-3 hours going through the museum.

Parthenon, on Acropolis Hill, at the closing hour © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Parthenon, on Acropolis Hill, at the closing hour © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

6 pm: Now walk back up Dionysiou Areopagitou to enter the Acropolis. This late in the afternoon is a magical time, when the city has cooled down and there are a fraction of the number of people who visit in droves during the morning hours. Now, it is so peaceful, you can linger, stroll around, read the markers, even get photos without hordes of people standing in front. We sit on a promontory that offers an amazing view of the city laid out in front of you, waiting for the sun to get lower and the colors to get more golden, and then go around shooting photos again, the colors of the stone columns becoming gold and orange. We even momentarily catch the Parthenon with no one else in front of it. For that instance, you feel as if the Parthenon is yours alone, as if you hold Western Civilization in your hands. I am struck by a bit of sadness, too, when I realize that the Parthenon is but a scabby skeleton of what it was (now that you have seen the video and the art in the museum), and what has been stripped away and lost forever. But the Greek Government is working to restore the Parthenon – a process that has been going on since Greece became an independent country, in 1821. After various false tries because of inadequate technology and knowledge in restoration, the government is working to replace the fabulous statuaries with replicas in just the exact places, leaving the originals in the museum where they are properly cared for.

(There is also a vigorous campaign to recover the artwork looted from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire two centuries ago, and is pointedly made the villain in the museum’s video history of the Parthenon. Since 1816, the marble statues and reliefs taken by Elgin have been prize exhibits of the British Museum.  Meanwhile, the Greeks had to make do with the leftovers, housed in a ramshackle museum built in 1874, that is still on the Hill.  The Greeks built the New Acropolis Museum expressly as an argument that the Elgin marbles should be returned to Athens from the British Museum because there is finally a proper place to house and display them.)

What gets my eye is the Erechtheion, built about 420 BC, an Ionic temple that on one side, is supported with the six Caryatids- stunning statues of women– five of the originals are at the New Acropolis Museum (the sixth was one of the many artworks taken from the Acropolis by the British Lord Elgin).

The city of Athens sprawls out in front of you from the Acropolis Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The city of Athens sprawls out in front of you from the Acropolis Hill © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

People wait here until the light is best – you only have a 10-minute window or so when the light is great and before the guards shoo you out

We leave finally when we are pushed out at around 7:30 pm by the guards – and get to watch the nightly formality as a contingent of soldiers come to secure the Acropolis). We come down to where people are on a rocky hill, with an incredible view of the sunset. We climb up, too, to take in the view.

Our perfect day is far from over, though.

Cocktails at the Hedrion Hotel's Rooftop Garden Bar, with a splendid view of the Acropolis © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Cocktails at the Hedrion Hotel’s Rooftop Garden Bar, with a splendid view of the Acropolis © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

8 pm: We walk down the Dionysiou Areopagitou (I use this wonderful boulevard as much as possible), cutting over to Rovertou Gali to the go to the Roof Garden Bar at the Hotel Herodion, with a stunning view of the Acropolis, lighted at night, a short walk after our late-afternoon visit, and a stone’s throw from the New Acropolis Museum (we can look through its windows at late-museum goers; the museum is open until 8 pm normally and until 10 pm on Friday nights). The Herodion’s bar offers a selection of imaginative cocktails. We enjoyed “Wisecrack Fizz,” with Pisco Barsol, st. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, and soda; a Hellas Fashioned, made with Metaxa 5, sugar, angostura bitters and rose water (one of the clever inventions of ‘Lefty’ the bartender), and 3 Cardinalsa, made with Midori, Frangelico, elderflower syrup, frsh lime juice and fresh orange juice, another of “Lefty’s” creations. the hotel also has a very fine restaurant (Hotel Herodion, 4 Rovertou Galli, Acropolis, Herodian.gr).

Nightlife in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Nightlife in Athens © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

9:15 pm We get a couple of suggestions for our dinner, which gives us another wonderful excuse to walk through the Plaka to the Monastiraki district.

Thanassou restaurant is packed with people – we notice they are not tourists, but local people, enjoying the souvlaki and gyros. This part of the Monastiraki district is a little outside the most popular tourist area – in fact, restaurants and bistros and clever bars and coffee houses are opening throughout the district taking over where shops – like fabric stores – have been shuttered. The chicken souvlaki, served on pita, with yogurt, onions and tomatoes and french fries, is well done (about $12).

Acropolis Hill Hotel

By now, it is nearly midnight and I walk back to the Dionysiou Areopagitou toward my hotel, the Acropolis Hill Hotel, enjoying the street musicians virtually all along the way,

The new Acropolis Hill Hotel, which opened in the fall of 2010, is an “urban chic” luxury boutique hotel (at three-star hotel prices), nestled in the serene green, upscale residential area of Filopappou, virtually under the sacred rock of the Acropolis and a 15-minute walk from the Plaka. From the roof garden, it offers a lovely view of the Acropolis. It also has an outdoor swimming pool (in season), a lovely breakfast room where an ample buffet is served daily (including freshly prepared eggs, bacon and sausage; a selection of cereals, breads, cheeses, yogurt and fresh fruits), and a lobby lounge, plus free WiFi. My room also has a balcony, refrigerator, and flat screen TV with a selection of programming (7 Mousson Street, Gr 11 742, Filoppapou, info@acropolishill.gr, www.acropolishill.gr.)

The Acropolis Hill Hotel is one of five hotels in the Tour Hotel Group group:

The Arion Athens Hotel offers a wonderful from the roof top garden, free Wifi  (18, Agio Dimitriou St., 105 54 Athens, www.arionhotel.gr, arion@tourhotel.gr).

Achilleas Hotel is a totally renovated hotel right in the heart of Athens commercial and business center, a two minute walk from Syntagma Square, a location next to the Acropolis Museums, Parliament, Emou shopping Street and the Syntagma metro station. It offers suite rooms ideal for families (Lekka 21 Str., 105 62 Athens, Greece, www.achilleashotel.gr, achilleas@tourhotel.gr).

For a different experience, the Kalamaki Beach Hotel is a resort-style property in the Peloponnese in a verdant area next to the emerald waters of the Saronic Gulf. It offers a swimming pool, tennis courts and children’s playground (www.kalomakibeach.gr).

(For more information, visit Tour Hotel Group, www.tourhotel.gr.)

If you have more time in Athens, here are some recommendations:

Take a walking tour such as Context Travel‘s “Acropolis Seminar” and Context Travel’s “Daily Life in Ancient Athens which together give a very comprehensive understanding of ancient Greece in a very intimate setting so that the guides can be very responsive to your interests and questions (info@contexttravel.com, www.contexttravel.com/city/athens (story to follow).

See Athens with a Native: “This is My Athens”  program offered through the official city of Athens visitors’ website  pairs visitors with a local Athenian volunteer who goes beyond the traditional guidebook sights to take you to local neighborhoods. You get matched with a volunteer by filling out a form at http://myathens.thisisathens.org/default.php?pname=homepage2&la=2 . For more info: http://myathens.thisisathens.org/ (story to follow)

The Jewish Museum of Greece offers fascinating exhibit where you can learn about Europe’s oldest Jewish settlement, 39 Nikis St., 105 57 Athens, Greece, info@jewishmuseum.gr, www.jewishmuseum.gr (hours are Monday-Friday, 9-2:30 pm, Sundays, 10-2 pm).

This is an exceptional time to visit Greece – the dollar is strong against the Euro and prices in Greece have been reduced. I had expected to see the kind of blight and deprivation that the US experienced as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, but apart from some graffiti (“We are artists, not vandals,” one proclaims), and some closed shops, the city is absolutely magnificent, vibrant and bustling, with many chic, new enterprises opening, and the people are welcoming and good natured.

Great planning tools are at www.thisisathens.org.

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© 2015 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures. See our newest travel site at www.tidbitts.com/karen-rubin/where-in-the-world.

 

The Athens War Museum – A Walk Through the Pantheon of Ancient Military History

The Athens War Museum is a must-see for military history aficionados featuring four floors with artifacts from 3000 years of warfare, from the ancient times of Alexander the Great through to World War II (photo by Tim Campbell)
The Athens War Museum is a must-see for military history aficionados featuring four floors with artifacts from 3000 years of warfare, from the ancient times of Alexander the Great through to World War II (photo by Tim Campbell)

By Tim Campbell

About a half mile from Syntagma Square, the heartbeat of Athens, Greece, sits the giant Athens War Museum, covering 3000 years of military history. This must-visit museum for military history aficionados and militaria fans features four floors of ancient warfare, ranging from the ancient times of Alexander the Great right through to World War II.

Torn by millennia of conflict, Greece has witnessed innumerable battles. Battles it has won and lost against nation states like Macedonia, the Ottoman Empire, Italy and Germany. Funded by grants from the Greek armed forces and generous donations from individuals and companies, the Athens War Museum is loved by all visitors with even the slightest interest in military history and warfare.

My guide during my recent visit, Brigadier General Panagiotis Kaperonis, is a 37-year veteran of the Greek Army. Now 55 years old, Brigadier General Kaperonis was educated at the world famous Gordonstoun Academy in Scotland, and also spent time training at Fort Benning near Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Gordonstoun Academy is where Prince Charles went to school.

Designed by scientists, and headed by Professor Thoukidides Valentis, the Athens war museum was built in 1975 and opened that year by the then Greek Minister of Defense, Constantine Tsatsos. This year the museum celebrates its 40th anniversary.

This bastion of all things military covers approximately 40,000 square feet, with four floors and a parking garage. An outside area, open to the public, is crammed with First and Second World War artillery and aircraft. The striking outdoor exhibition space displays Army, Navy and Air force militaria, including a helicopter, fighter jets, eighteenth century cannons, and several generations of artillery.

All the outdoor exhibits are being restored by professionals. When one is completed and returned to the museum, another departs. Each unit takes approximately two to three months for full restoration, the cost supported by grants from the Greek armed forces, depending on which military division the piece is from.

Inside, as we move from floor to floor, Brig.Gen. Kaperonis describes the various wars and battles that his Hellenic nation has been involved with over the centuries. He told me, “The lower floor is understandably the most popular with overseas visitors because it showcases the exploits of Greece’s most famous son and greatest legend, Alexander the Great”.

The lower floor contains many copies of priceless relics, the originals being stored in the National Museum next to the Acropolis. There are however, some rare original pieces, such as ancient Greek headgear, displayed in glass cases. These are at least two thousand years old, and some even older. The bronze Corinthian, Hoplite, and Spartan helmets were worn by soldiers dating from the Fifth century B.C.

Other interesting artifacts from the period of Alexander the Great include a crossbow and flamethrower. The crossbows were converted into giant-sized military hardware and fired at the enemy, no doubt bringing down several soldiers with each strike of their huge and formidable bolts.

Naval Ship from the time of Alexander the Great. (Photo by Tim Campbell)
Naval Ship from the time of Alexander the Great. (Photo by Tim Campbell)

During sea battles, the crossbow arrows were set alight with pitch and fired at oncoming vessels. Another surprising weapon was the flamethrower. Pitch was set alight in a bronze barrel and blown by bellows against the enemy by ramming an end spike into the opposing ship. Pushing the bellows that blew air into the tube and through holes in the end, allowed the flames to set fire to the enemy’s wooden vessels. One wonders how many ships delivering the flame were accidentally set on fire!

Setting advancing ships on fire with these ancient flamethrowers was a tactic that made Alexander the Great victorious at sea on many occasions. His soldiers would also convert flamethrowers into hand held units that were used to set fire to masses of infantry and buildings. Models of these crossbows and flamethrowers, and the rock hurling catapults, can be seen in glass cases on the ground floor.

Other artifacts from the Persian, Peloponnesian, and Spartan wars can be viewed under glass covers. The underground floor also houses many prehistoric relics found during archaeological excavations in the city. Dating back to the Neolithic period, the priceless pieces of flint, obsidian and bone are housed in special cases to protect them from today’s temperatures and dust.

Many other pieces date back to the Bronze Age, featuring items from the Minoan, Cycladic and Mycenaean civilizations. However, many of these are copies of the originals from the National museum at the Acropolis. Despite this, I thought this museum would be practically a religious experience for followers of Homer’s Odyssey!

The main floor with the entrance has a dual purpose. Showcases displaying World War II uniforms and glass cases are packed full of medals, ribbons and emblems detailing various Greek armed forces over the centuries. The small arms hardware galleries are set up in various parts of the rectangular main floor with models of artillery and transport used in World War II. This is also where entry tickets are purchased.

A central atrium on the first floor exhibits statues of famous Greek figures from centuries of Greek history. These sculptures of Generals and mythical characters really bring this central atrium to life. The atrium’s marvelous open air design encourages visitors to wander and take the time to view each statue. Informational plaques describe each protagonist’s place in Greece’s volatile history.

American Gatling gun used during WW1. (Photo by Tim Campbell)
American Gatling gun used during WW1. (Photo by Tim Campbell)

The first floor features hardware from World War One and the Balkan Wars. Comprised of small arms and models, these exhibits give the viewer a sense of the portability of the pieces. The lighter mortars and cannon, along with howitzers and 75mm guns, proved to be indispensible artillery in the mountain battles between the Greeks and their attackers.  These portable pieces allowed the armies to move around and above their invaders in the mountains, and fire down upon them with devastating effect.

The second (top) floor features hardware from the Second World War and scale models of various battles and naval vessels. Visitors from the U.K. will recognise the British uniforms and the numerous samples of British military hardware. As one of Greece’s staunchest allies over the centuries Britain has helped provide the Hellenic armies with funds and equipment, as well as uniforms for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Many of the pieces on display from WW2 were from captured enemy positions. They include German machine guns and Italian mortars and rifles. The WW1 items such as the rifles, artillery and Mauser machine guns were purchased from the Austrian Hungarian Empire but not with money or traded, they were bought with tons of tobacco grown in Greece.

Greece was devastated during the Second World War. As well as having the majority of Greek Jews being exterminated, the country suffered heavily losing 400,000 of its 4 million then inhabitants, almost 1 in 10 of the entire population. Many Greeks went overseas to both the USA and the UK, helping the war effort by returning funds and weapons to Greece from abroad.

While occupied by the Nazis, Greek partisans fought their battles mainly in the mountains until liberated by the Russians in October 1944. Scale models of some of these World War II battles can be seen in glass cases, the main feature being a replica of the famous Metaxas line of 19 forts across the north of Greece. The small arms display features Lee Enfield rifles, German Mauser guns, Italian mortars and other handguns and rifles.

WWII field gun used by the Greek Army. (Photo by Tim Campbell)
WWII field gun used by the Greek Army. (Photo by Tim Campbell)

On display in the exterior exhibition are both jet aircraft and helicopters from the Air Force, and Navy sonar equipment. Anti tank weaponry can be seen outside as well as 16th century cannons, 75mm howitzers, rapid fire pom-pom guns, aircraft bombs and missiles. Brig.Gen. Kaperonis gave me detailed information on the items explaining his love of the infantry and how important the artillery was to them. He told me “Without the artillery the infantry cannot be effective, and vice versa”.

The Athens war museum is a highlight for any military veteran, and entry to the museum is only three Euros. To be able to see this much historical hardware through the centuries of Greek history for the price of an ice cream is great value.

People with a military background or anyone who just enjoys looking at original military equipment, can feast their eyes on this original collection found nowhere else in the world. It is an unforgettable experience for any trip to Athens.

Athens War Museum, Rizari 2, Athens. Open 9am to 6pm, closed on Mondays. Smoking is not allowed and there are no facilities to purchase food or drinks. The website for more information is www.warmuseum.gr/english/ and the telephone number of the museum is 210-7252974. If you’d like to meet Brigadier General Kaperonis or arrange a personal tour, contact info@warmuseum.gr.

Taiwan’s Bikeways are Paths to Discovering Culture, Ancient and Modern

Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan's most spectacular bikeways, where parts bring you on bridges just above the water © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan’s most spectacular bikeways, where parts bring you on bridges just above the water © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

Before I arrived in Taiwan with an intention of biking, I hadn’t realized what a mountainous island this is – not just hilly, but craggy mountains that rise steeply. There are thousands of mountains  – 100 peaks are over 3000 meters high. Only 30% of the land area is habitable, the rest are mountains and forests. In fact, Taiwan now hosts an international cycling race that may well be among the most challenging in the world.

Nonetheless, Taiwan is very pro-cycling and has developed a fantastic network for biking – more than 3,000 kilometers of dedicated bike paths all around the island – so that even if you don’t do a point-to-point, inn-to-inn cycling itinerary, you can do a kind of hub-and-spoke or town-to-town, renting a bike in the best spots, and enjoying these marvelous bikeways.

What we experienced during our all-too-brief six day visit inspired me to return to travel more intensely. I discovered what a fantastic destination Taiwan is to really explore – it is such a distinct culture, with such rich heritage, beautiful landscapes, and extraordinarily friendly, good-natured people – and despite the fact that you are likely not able to understand the language or be able to read it, you feel incredibly comfortable and at ease.

I have been longing for a destination to explore as I did as a college student, backpacking through Europe, just discovering things serendipitously.

You can get around Taiwan so easily – by rapid transit train, by bus, rent a car (you need an international drivers’ license; excellent highways with signs in Chinese and English), hiring a car and driver, or signing on to an organized bike trip where you really do go point-to-point.

Another surprise is how remarkably affordable Taiwan is (again, reminding me of the good ol’ days) – prices by my rough estimate are as much as half what you would expect to spend traveling in the US or Europe for everything from bike rental (as little as $2/hour to $7/hour) to food (our average meal at a local restaurant was $10), to hotel arrangements to train travel (an hour’s trip on a high-speed rail was $55).

Taiwan is also surprisingly compact – you can ring the entire country on a nine-day guided biking trip (as long as you don’t stop to sightsee) and yet has such a variety of eco-systems and cultural niches. It is still possible to see an aboriginal village, and meet Taiwanese whose families go back hundreds of years to the Han Chinese including Hakka immigrants from areas Fujian and Guangdong on Mainland China.

Taiwan (named Formosa by Portuguese, “Beautiful Island,” who never actually settled here) was colonized by the Dutch beginning in 1623 (just like New Amsterdam/New York City!) The Dutch did not last long, though, driven out first by loyalist of the Ming dynasty and then by the Qing Dynasty. It was in the hands of the Japanese from 1895-1945.

These influences are still very strong, but the Taiwan we know today reflects the influx of the mainland Chinese in 1949, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who fled the Communist takeover and brought with him as much of China’s heritage as he could organize (apparently, the treasures of the Forbidden City had already been boxed up during the 1930s because of the Sino-Japanese War, so it was relatively easy to get them out).

Like the Taoist temples where Guardians protect the Gods and Goddesses, Taiwan has been the guardian of China’s millennia-old heritage, and even though Taiwan is quite modern, the traditions are very much the foundation.

Martyr's Shrine, Taipei © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Martyr’s Shrine, Taipei © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

During our first day in Taiwan, in Taipei City, after renting a bike and exploring a popular bikeway in a park along the river, we get an excellent foundation in understanding Chinese and Taiwanese heritage at the National Museum, which houses 650,000 artifacts, most of them the items taken from the Forbidden City in Beijing after the Communist takeover of China. We visit Chiang Kai-shek’s Memorial and the Martyrs Shrine (where a popular thing is to see the changing of the guard, which happens every half-hour) – which provides a foundation for what we will see when we leave Taipei City for other parts.

We could have – should have – done our sightseeing around Taipei with the U-bike, that wonderful urban bike-share program. However, unlike some other cities like New York City and Washington DC which have similar programs, there did not seem to be actual bike lanes – at least bike lanes that weren’t jam crammed with pedestrians or merged in with the hoards of mopeds (there are 10 million mopeds in Taiwan for 23 million people). Hardly anyone was biking in the city that we could see. (The city affords excellent mass transit, by the metro or bus or cab; you can purchase multi-day travel passes for U-bike and the metro and bus).

Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway

Biking through the Old Caoling Tunnel is an experience  © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking through the Old Caoling Tunnel is an experience © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our first real biking comes when we head to Fulong, on the Northeast Coast, a popular beach and recreation area. Here, you appreciate the dramatic landscape – the ocean on one side which falls off sharply to a deep depth, and mountains that rise straight up on the other side of the road. Tall rocks project out of the water.

The dramatic coastline reflects one of Taiwan’s geological quirks: Taiwan is rising up 0.8 cm every year because of the collision of two tectonic plates.

We come for two magnificent bikeways: the Yanliao-Longmen Bikeway and the Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway, together among the five most popular bike routes in eastern Taiwan.

The train tunnel was finished in 1924 during Japanese occupation, to accommodate the Yilan Line. At 2.16 km, it was the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia at the time. It was difficult to build – 11 people died and 366 injured during construction. When a new tunnel opened in 1985 for a new train, the “train cave” was abandoned for 22 years. Then in 2007, the government rebuilt the tunnel as part of the bikeway.

The tunnel is well paved, well lighted and as you go through, you hear the strains of a Yilan folk song about a train, which was popular at time the tunnel was opened. The song was banned during the Japanese occupation which banned Chinese traditions. In 1943, a popular Taiwanese singer revived it, reminding the people of their heritage (it strikes me that it is like what the song Edelweiss meant to the Austrians during the Nazi occupation).

The scenery is beautiful – there is a fishing village at the end of the Old Caoling Tunnel route, at which point you get onto the bikeway that goes alongside Highway #2, and can connect with the Yanliao-Longmen bikeway, which affords the special attraction of riding over a suspension bridge over a river, to complete the circle.

The high point of the Yaniliao-Longmen bikeway is going over a suspension bridge.

(This area is accessible by train from Taipei, and there are bike rental shops right at the start of the trail.)

Biking on the Dong Shan River Bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking on the Dong Shan River Bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We drive about an hour or so away to another area to experience the biking – Dong Shan River Water Park – and here, we catch a break. Just as we get our bike rentals, the sky clears up and we are blessed with a bit of golden light, a touch of blue sky that adds color to the landscape, and that delicious smell that comes from the bushes after a rain.

This is a bikeway that goes along the Dong Shan River, the fifth longest stream in Yilan province. The bikeway starts in a recreation area that boasts a delightful waterpark, and continues on a berm that has the river on one side, and farms and rice paddies on the other, and then passes by a marvelous heritage park. This entire area caters to tourists with a multitude of attractions, so you can easily spend a couple of days here.

The bikeway we take is only a tiny portion of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, which offers several bikeways: the Ruisui Bicycle Path (9.7 km); Depo Pond Bikeway (8 km); Yuli Bikeway (9.5 km); Liyutan Bikeway (this features the Tanbei Water Park and Taiwan fisheries Research Institute, 5.2 km); the Guanshan Town Encircling Bicycle Path (13 km); and the Longtian Bike Path (this features the Benun Tribal Leisure Farm, 5.2 km) – all of these hare connections to railway stations and rental shops.

Alas, we had all too brief time in this area.

We complete our visitor experience at the Yilan Evergreen Phoenix Hotel (www.evergreen-hotels.com/jiaosi) – a gorgeous spa hotel which has its own rooftop hot springs pools and outdoor swimming pool that is fabulous for laps, beautifully landscaped and absolutely heavenly at night (it is open until 11 pm).

King of the Mountain

Biking along Chihsingtan Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking along Chihsingtan Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our next day, we experience a pleasant bikeway along the Chihsingtan Beach in Hualien, that follows a half-moon shaped gulf and draws thousands of tourists (it also butts up against an Air Force base and there are military installations that are presented as a “hidden military treasure”). I follow the bikeway further, to a high pavilion with a view of the beach, and then continue on to where the bikeway comes out into the city but is not worth the effort.

Our purpose here, though, is to see the starting place for one of Taiwan’s most important international bike races, the KOM (King of the Mountain), which is held in November. This is the starting point, at zero-elevation, and the race, probably one of the most arduous in all cycling, proceeds for 100 km, virtually straight up, through the breathtakingly beautiful Taroko Gorge, through the valley to the 3275 meter high peak of Mt. Wuling where the race ends. During our trip, we will trace the route.

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Taroko Gorge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We originally thought we would get to sample biking at the Taroko Gorge – but that is before we actually saw it and what the road would be like. The scenery is beyond spectacular, and so is the road.

In order to bike here, you would have to do it very early in the morning (like 6 am), and if doing a point-to-point trip, you would do it from the north-to-south, which would be downhill (which is how the bike tours do it).

There are several hostels and lodges in the park which cater to hikers, climbers and bikers. We stay at Silks Place Hotel, a luxury resort hotel that is utterly fantastic, and is in close proximity to a fascinating Buddhist temple and fabulous hiking trails. They offer some rental bikes, as well as guided hikes (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw).

See: Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

Silks Place Hotel, which is at the other end of the Taroko Gorge from Chichsingtan Beach where we start, is only about one-third the distance of the KOM, and only at about one-fifth the elevation, at 600 meters, in the in the climb up to the peak, where the race would end, in Oiling, at 3,275 meters high.

Now comes the more challenging part. Even driving on these roads is treacherous – and also nauseating (Advice: take ginger candy to suck on, Tums, or Bonine or motion sickness medicine before you head out). We actually see bikers along the road, and I think about the advantage that the local riders must have in the race.

We go through a multitude of tunnels – the engineering is fascinating, along with the plethora of suspension bridges that criss-cross the Gorge. The mist is rising – so the  view is constantly changing -the scene opens and closes.

The biking through the Taroko Gorge (all part of the KOM race) is tough enough, but this part, in the valley, is much more extreme – rising steeply, narrow turns, single lane and no shoulder.

The view along Route 8, Taiwan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The view along Route 8, Taiwan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

At about 2000 meters elevation, needing a break and some fresh air, we stop at Pilou Sacred Tree (also known as Bilu Divine Tree) rest stop, where the fellow (who now lives in California but comes back for summer to work in his family’s cafe) gives us a hot, black, syrupy drink, Lon Gan Ginger sweetened with brown sugar,  that is supposed to help settle the stomach. When that doesn’t work, he offers us a straw mushroom with salt. (I take Tums).

It is a most pleasant spot – and what a view, even with the fog filling the valley. It’s the view and the crisp, cool air – such a contrast to the hot humid weather down below – that makes us feel better.

The delightful cafe sells peach honey which they make; and the menu features such items as pig’s knuckles with peanuts and a Lily flower and mushroom soup (50 NT, about $1.75)

The sacred tree that the rest stop is named for stands just beside the road – 3200 years old and still living.

Our guide tells us that this road has some of the shortest, steepest climbs probably anywhere, and reminds us just how mountainous Taiwan is (and now we can appreciate it) – with thousands of mountains and 100 mountain peaks above 3000 meters. They are known as the “Top 100” and a goal for Taiwanese is to do the Top 100 in their lifetime.

The KOM race is now striking me as an absolute phenomenon, one that should stir the same kind of awe and attention as the Tour de France and the Hawaii Ironman Competition. Though a traditional event locally, it has only recently become an international event with professional riders.

The road is unrelenting in how it rises in elevation, and the twists and turns come even more sharply. Out of the 400 racers invited to KOM in its first three years, only about 100 finish – incredibly in three hours.

The last mile is the hardest for the riders  – rising at a 17% grade. Now we are above the tree line. There are a couple of hostels in the area that serve mountain climbers and hikers and a research station. At He Wan Mountain, there is a hiking trail that takes about 40 minutes to “conquer” the summit.

The temperature has dropped significantly, as well – Taiwan is sub-tropical, but now we put on light jackets. It is also terribly foggy. In winter, there can be snow here.

We pass the 3158 Cafe (3158 meters elevation), but we are still not at the summit.

Bikers pose at the 3275-meter high peak of Mt. Wuling, the finish of the arduous KOM Race © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bikers pose at the 3275-meter high peak of Mt. Wuling, the finish of the arduous KOM Race © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It is absolute fog when we get to the peak – you can’t see far, but everyone, including a couple of bikers, is delighting in taking pictures at the sign that gives the 3275 meter high mark – a man offers to take my picture for me.

It has taken us 3 hours to drive here (with stops), from 8:30 to 11;30 am, and we started out one-third of the way from the start of the KOM – it takes the winning cyclist 3 hours to complete the race.

The race is so challenging – the road so narrow – that the road is closed and spectators are not allowed along the route. However, if you are staying in the Silks Place Hotel or Leader Village Hotel the night before the race, you can get to see the race on the road (though you are also confined to where you are for the duration). Another way to watch the race is to go from Cingjing, Nantou to Wuling and see the cyclists rush through the finish line.

Sun Moon Lake

It takes another three hours for us to drive to the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area, in the heart of Taiwan. We get a glimpse of this absolutely stunning lake, but just as we arrive at the Giant Bike Rental Shop, the sky literally opens up, sending down a deluge.

It’s late afternoon and we go to our hotel, Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel (www.yooushan-hotel.com.tw) – which is not in the Sun Moon Lake tourist area (it is the weekend and filled with people) – but in Puli, which is proud of being “the heart of Taiwan” in the center of the island. The Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel is a four-star hotel that is popular with local people – it has a marvelous outdoor pool, a fitness room, a rooftop revolving restaurant, and that evening, have dinner at Ya Zung Haka restaurant to experience Haka-style cuisine.

The stunning view of Sun Moon Lake from the bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The stunning view of Sun Moon Lake from the bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We return to Sun Moon Lake the next day, just after the Giant rental shop opens at 6 am, and enjoy a magnificent ride along one of the prettiest bikeways anywhere. At points, the bikeway doesn’t just ring the lake, but actually goes along bridges just above the lake’s surface – a magical experience. We only have time to do the 7 km-long bikeway, but it is also possible to ride around the lake on the road, a total of 33 km.

There is a lot for people to enjoy: just near the lake is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, an amusement park that has been opened since 1986, which has the tallest freefall ride in Taiwan.

Also, the Sun Moon Lake Assam Tea Farm, where visitors can learn how to pick up tealeaves and have tea-tastings.

The area is also popular for bird watching and hiking up to the peaks that seem to rise from the lake shore.

Cycling Taiwan

We’re here on a survey mission organized by the Taiwan Government Tourist Office, which has focused on promoting cycling for locals as well as visitors. And these are just a sampling of the fabulous bikeways – all of them in areas rich in cultural and natural attractions that warrant exploration – so that I am anxious to return and really spend time exploring. The bikeways are extremely well marked (in English as well as Chinese), with rest facilities and services (there is always a Western style toilet, even if it is the “disabled” toilet).

The bikeways are delightful for any level of rider and any age and we see scores of families with kids in carriers and bikeseats; road riding would be a different story.

The best bike rentals were to be had at the Giant bike store outlets – this is the major bicycle manufacturer that also has a network of bike rental shops (what better way to promote the product – I know I wanted to buy one) and have outlets in the best biking areas.

Giant also operates a whole catalog of multi-day, point-to-point guided biking tours of Taiwan – perfect for more intense cycling. The Giant tour planners know where it is safer and where it is dangerous to ride; the groups go out with two mini-vans – one in back and one in front. They put you into groups, not necessarily English speaking, and trips average $169 per person/per day More information on Giant Travel’s website: www.giantcyclingworld.com/web/travel_en.php

We also found a wonderful itinerary marketed by biketoursdirect.com, which is operated by SpiceRoads, and really covers Taiwan’s highlights, including spending two nights in Taroko Gorge, so you have a full day to hike and explore  (www.biketours.com/Taiwan/taiwan-traverse-by-road-bike#sthash.rE3jN2HZ.dpuf)

Bike tours are also offered by:

Grasshopper Adventures, www.grasshopperadventures.com, 818-921-7101, Email: journeys@grasshopperadventures.com (http://grasshopperadventures.com/tour-TSCB09.php

Bicycle Adventures, bicycleadventures.com, 800-443-6060 (bicycleadventures.com/destinations/taiwan-bike-tours/Taiwan-Bike-Tour—NEW!)

Green Island Adventures, www.greenislandadventures.com/cycletours.htm

A superb guide, “Cycling Taiwan: Great Rides in the Bicycle Kingdom”, details the routes, and access information – 26 bikeways in 12 national scenic areas including 25 family-friendly routes – several that we experienced, and many more that will have to be put off for another visit – like the Wushantou Hatta and Baihe bikeways in the Siraya National Scienc Area; the Aogu Wetlands and Beimen bikeways on the southwest Coast; the Anpo Tourist Cycle Path in Maolin and the Shimer-Changbin Bikeway, Sanxiantai Bike Route which are highlighted by indigenous culture.

You can find superb itineraries at “MyTaiwanTour”, www.mytaiwantour.com.

Expect to pay a per diem of $166 (about half of what bike trips in Europe cost).

Our visit has been too brief, but has piqued my interest to return and really explore. I found Taiwan to be a destination which you can really do that – the logistics and excellent transportation systems, the variety of landscapes, the depth of its cultural attractions, the superb accommodations and food, and the excellent value for money (a bargain destination, I would venture to say), and most importantly, how comfortable you feel everywhere you go. It may seem cliche, but the people really are friendly, hospitable and so anxious to help even if they do not speak English.

Prepare for the trip in advance:Tourism offices in the US include: Taiwan Visitors Association, 1 East 42nd St., New York, NY 10017, Tel. 212-867-1632/4, Email tbrocnyc@gmail.com

See also:

Travel to Taiwan: vibrant, modern society built on bedrock of tradition and slideshow

Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

2 Days in Taipei: Hitting the highlights and the highpoints in Taiwan’s Capital and slideshow

Dining on Xiaolongbao at DinTaiFung at Taipei 101 is savory experience  and slideshow

Two Days in Taipei: Day 2: Confucius Temple to Fine Art Museum to Night Market and slideshow

Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow

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Tour Companies, Cheering Obama’s Cuba Policy, Urge Travelers to ‘See Cuba Now’

President Obama's action to normalize relations between the US and Cuba, easing travel restrictions, is expected to spur a boom in travel to the island nation. Tour operators say "see Cuba now" before the inevitable change (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures)
President Obama’s action to normalize relations between the US and Cuba, easing travel restrictions, is expected to spur a boom in travel to the island nation. Tour operators say “see Cuba now” before the inevitable change (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures)

by Karen Rubin

Tour operators who currently offer legal travel programs for United States citizens to go to Cuba have had their phones ringing off the hook since President Obama’s announcement to normalize relations and ease restrictions. Since 2009, when Obama loosened some restrictions, especially making it easier for Cuban Americans who have relatives in Cuba to visit, travel has steadily increased – some 93,000 American travelers visited in 2013 on various people-to-people organized programs, and estimates say that the number could be as high as two million people a year in just a few years time, of which about 500,000 would come on cruise ship.

Don’t pack your bags yet. You still can’t just get on a plane on your own, or head to Cuba for the weekend on a whim. But there will be fewer hoops that tour operators have to go through to bring Americans to the island, still shrouded in mystique, including the ability of Americans to use credit cards.

Still, travel companies expect the numbers of American travelers to explode and bring with it inevitable changes to a place that has been locked in a time warp. They are urging travelers to see Cuba now.

Group IST CEO Michael Goren, in Cuba at the time of the historic announcement, commented “I’m in Havana right now and the excitement about the Obama/Castro announcement is palpable.  People are excited, but they’re also wondering what it will mean for them.  My own personal sense is that once Cuba opens up, the island will change very fast.  The Havana that I’m standing in right now feels like a time capsule.  If people want to see the country as it is right now, this is the time to come.”

“For anyone who is anxious to see the ‘real’ Cuba, do it now,” notes Peggy Goldman of Friendly Planet Travel, Jenkintown, PA “In time, the island in a time bubble will become something else. And while it will always be a fascinating and wonderful experience to visit Cuba, banking, high speed internet and all the other changes that will take place will make Cuba another country. We expect many people will want to see it before any of those changes occur, and we’re ready to help them do it.”

It is all very reminiscent of the way it was to travel to China in the first days when the Bamboo Curtain was first parted. I visited for the first time in 1978 – before the US had officially normalized relations. Like Cuba, today, you had to come on an authorized tour – Lindblad Travel organized the trip and obtained our visas through Sweden – and our visits were designed for people-to-people encounters (I stood at the elbow of a surgeon operating on a woman’s thyroid, anesthetized using acupuncture; we visited factories, schools, and homes as well as the phenomenal Xian terracotta soldiers which were just being unearthed).

I literally saw the sweep of the Four Modernizations carry out the Old Guard. When I returned two years later, China was a completely different place – gone were the Mao uniforms in blue, grey or green, and in were colored floral patterns; gone was the fear of anything that might smack of “bourgeoisie” – replaced by a violinist playing Western music in a garden. And while no one could speak English in 1978, English was surprisingly common a mere two years later. On my first trip, I was most affected by the change that occurred in one of my fellow travelers – a judge from the Midwest – whose attitude toward “Red” China was completely transformed through his face-to-face encounters with Chinese people.

This will happen in rapid order in Cuba, as well. And after all, I don’t think there is anyone who contends that our fight is with the 11.2 million Cuban people, who are the ones to pay the price for sanctions – the bad blood goes back more than 50 years, to Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul.

President Obama has appreciated more than any other before him the power of travel and tourism to recruit ordinary people as Ambassadors of understanding and good will. He has appreciated the critical role that Travel and Tourism plays, not just in fostering economic progress but in forging relationships, and the exchange of ideas that lead to progress. Yes, change as well.

In fact, the White House recently hosted its first ever Travel Blogger Summit, to engage travel writers in encouraging American students to take advantage of learning, traveling, working and volunteering abroad opportunities. The white House has gone as far as creating a US Study Abroad Offic3e within the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to manage the Department’s study abroad scholarships and capacity building programs and provide resources that can help interested U.S. students navigate a complex process to study or intern abroad by offering scholarships, recommendations, and guidelines.

“International education and exposure are increasingly essential for the competitiveness of American companies and the American workforce.”

The alternative is a Bamboo Curtain. An Iron Curtain, or now, the hatred, fear and distrust sowed in the North Korean people by virtue of enforced isolation.

“ASTA commends the Obama Administration for charting a new course in U.S. relations with Cuba,” said Zane Kerby, President and CEO of American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the trade group of the travel industry. “Today’s announcement represents a major step toward ASTA’s long-held goal that Americans ought to be allowed to travel across the globe without restriction.”

“Permitting Americans freedom to travel allows them to serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values abroad,” Kerby continued. “ASTA, along with our domestic agency owner and allied travel company members, looks forward to working with President Obama, Administration officials and the U.S. Congress in the coming year to ensure that Americans are free to travel to Cuba without constraint from their own government.”

ASTA, which has long advocated repealing the travel ban, cheered the agreement reached between the U.S. and Cuban governments to ease long-standing restrictions on trade and other interactions between the two countries, including those preventing American citizens from travelling to Cuba.

Included among the steps announced to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba are establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba; authorizing expanded commercial sales/exports from the U.S. of certain goods and services; and expanding travel under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law. (See: www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/17/fact-sheet-charting-new-course-cuba)

Specifically, general licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in existing categories, including family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; humanitarian projects, and several others. Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of those services. American travelers will also be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.

General tourism, however, remains prohibited under the Cuba embargo enshrined in U.S. law. However, President Obama today pledged today to “engag[e] Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

ASTA has long supported a full repeal of the travel ban to Cuba. In 2010, ASTA’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to support a lifting of the travel ban. Among the several rationales for the measure were the prospective economic opportunities awaiting both countries if current travel restrictions were to be lifted, and the possibility of follow-on benefits to Cuba’s neighbors and the travel industry that services them. The consensus among the Board was that – whether as part of multi-destination cruises or as a stop along the way to other countries in the region – the resulting influx of travelers to Cuba could not help but spark demand for new passenger routes, tour operations, and travel agent services.

ASTA estimates at least two million additional Americans would visit Cuba by 2017 if there were to be a full lifting of travel restrictions in 2015. Approximately 1,020,000 would be leisure travelers going by air, 521,400 would be leisure travelers arriving by cruise ship, and another 550,000 Americans would travel to Cuba to visit family members.

No one has crusaded harder or more ardently to open Cuba to American travelers than John McAuliff, Fund for Reconciliation & Development of Cuba/US People to People Partnership..

He writes: “It is clear from the White House statement that individual Americans and groups of Americans will have a general license for any of the listed activities, including what is currently characterized as people to people.  No applications; no reports; no second guessing by OFAC; no costly group tours required.

“My interpretation is that the underlined language means that as long as the traveler fits under these broad categories, he or she can use any travel agent to make arrangements, and presumably on line services, but I am seeking clarification.”

General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in these existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services.

“Also important: no more restrictions on Americans attending conferences in Cuba, organized by Cubans or organized by themselves, or on going independently to study Spanish or courses at Cuban universities.

“Group travel organized by current people to people licensees will still happen because many first time travelers prefer it, but no more license renewal requirements or detailed control by OFAC of programs or exclusion of free time.”

But he adds, “The devil is in the details: ‘The changes announced today will soon be implemented via amendments to regulations of the Departments of the Treasury and Commerce,’ but I believe the spirit of the new policy will be carried out in a timely fashion even if people in Congress and OFAC staff try to undermine it.

“OFAC quickly put out a notice that nothing has changed until it issues new regs which according to an official source, is ‘a matter of weeks or months’.

“In any case, travel through third countries will continue to be easily available for those using the new general license.”

Tour Companies Expand Offerings

Tour Operators who have been offering people-to-people tours to Cuba for the last four years (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).
Tour Operators who have been offering people-to-people tours to Cuba for the last four years (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).

Several operators have cultivated programs designed for these people-to-people encounters since 2009, when Obama eased the way for journalists, professionals, and others to visit, and now are looking forward to the possibility of even more generic tourism. (Canadian travel companies have already been operating without restrictions, and the influx of travelers from the United States is likely to put pressure on lodging capacity, while pushing up rates – which is why cruise ships are so anxious to get in.

Friendly Planet Travel already plans to expand its group tours to Cuba. At present, the company offers three programs with set departures. In addition, it operates various group programs during the year covering a wide spectrum of interests including tours organized for photographers, architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers and jurists, family groups.

“We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events. For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.”

What will likely change, and what will not: American travelers prepay all their Cuba services in the USA and have to take enough cash with them to cover any purchases in Cuba they want to make, which is uncomfortable for many people. However, it is expected that travelers will soon be able to use credit cards. Also – though it is not yet clear – it may be possible for Americans to finally bring back Cuban cigars and rum, which today’s travelers can only enjoy while on the island.

“If the changes are as sweeping as President Obama suggested in his speech, we at Friendly Planet will be very busy adding hotel rooms and plenty of new travel programs to our menu of offerings.

“Cuba has remained elusive to most Americans. But thanks to the U.S. Government’s People-to-People program, American travelers have been visiting Cuba for the past three years as part of these educational exchanges.

“Friendly Planet Travel was one of the first U.S. tour operators to obtain a permit to operate these tours, and has already sent thousands of Americans to Cuba. “And they tell us that these are some of the most rewarding travel experiences they’ve ever had.

“We guarantee you’ll have a travel experience unlike any other! Throughout Cuba, you’ll meet artists in their studios, visit schools, tour organic farms and explore an ingenious, creative society with much to share and an eagerness to learn.

Friendly Planet Travel’s fully escorted tours includes round-trip airfare from Miami, all ground transportation and transfers in Cuba, 4½ & 5 star hotels, many meals, a comprehensive touring and cultural exchange program, and professional English-speaking escort and guides.

Among the offerings: Discover Havana, 6 days from $2399 pp/dbl; Highlights of Havana & Varadero, 7 days from $2759 pp/dbl, and Colors of Cuba, 9 days from $3499 pp, dbl.

Visit friendlyplanet.com or call 800-555-5765.

Group IST’s ‘Havana to Cienfuegos’ an eight-day people-to-people program will continue to operate as scheduled, with sail dates through March 2015.  It is currently the only way Americans can see the country by boat, on board the mega-yacht S/C Panorama, with comfortable accommodations and great food. The Panorama has access to locations and ports that no other programs currently offer, making it a one-of-a-kind way to see Cuba.

From the S/C Panorama, travelers explore the western part of the island nation famous for its culture, music, warm people, art and cigars.  Onboard Cuba specialists and an interpreter facilitate people-to-people connections and meaningful exchanges between the American travelers and Cuban citizens. The program includes excursions to venues such as museums, private art galleries, community centers, concerts, religious centers, schools and ecological centers. Program participants will have a chance to meet and get to know Cuban historians, artists, preservationists, religious leaders, educators, musicians and many typical Cuban citizens throughout eight days. A partial description of some of the activities arranged in Cuba follows.

On the first full day excursion to the province of Artemisa, travelers visit the UNESCO -designated Biosphere Reserve region and the eco-community of “Las Terrazas” in the mountainous area, “Sierra del Rosario”. Here, they meet with locals and learn more about life establishments in the village, including the local family doctor, nurse, clinic, an elementary school, community museum, local artists homes and studios, as well as the site of an old/colonial 18th century coffee plantation. Travelers return to Old Havana to for a walking tour of its plazas. They later visit the Quisicuaba Community to learn about Afro-Cuban culture.

The following day, travelers visit Guanahacabibes National Park, one of the country’s largest nature reserves, where they meet with the naturalists, environmentalists and locals. The visit continues to Cayo Largo, an island comprised of limestone, formed over millions of years from the remains of marine organisms. Here, they stop by a Sea Turtle Breeding Center and Endangered Species Protection program and enjoy some snorkeling with coral reef & conservation experts In Trinidad, a meticulously well-preserved Spanish colonial city, travelers view rich architecture, cobblestone streets, palaces and plazas. The group will walk through the town, sometimes referred to as the “museum city of Cuba,” with a representative of the Office of the City Historian and visit local artists in their home studios, the Museum Romantico or the Architecture Museum.

The People to People program rounds out in Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded by French settlers and known as the Pearl of the South. Here, visitors enjoy a walking tour of the city center with a specialist and then visit the Maroya Gallery for Folk Art, where there will be discussions and interchanges with local artists. In the last afternoon of the tour, travelers will enjoy an exchange with some Cuban artists and musicians and take some salsa classes.

On alternate weeks, the Havana to Cienfuegos itinerary is reversed .

Havana to Cienfuegos is available from $4490-$5799, depending on sail date and cabin category. Price includes seven nights on the S/C Panorama, all meals from arrival in Cuba to breakfast on day of departure, Cuban visa, mandatory Cuban medical insurance and transportation as per itinerary. For more information, visit www.groupist.com/cuba .

International Expeditions wrote, “For the past four years, guests on our people-to-people journeys to Cuba have discovered how valuable meaningful interactions between Americans and ordinary Cubans can be in connecting our two countries and learning from one another.

“Explore a wide variety of locations, not just Havana…and not only day trips from Havana, but journeys that take you from town to town and from natural habitat to natural habitat.”

International Expeditions offers two journeys that offer free-ranging discussions with musicians, artists, naturalists, farmers and architects, designed to touch on all aspects of Cuban life and culture so that you return home with a genuine understanding of this enigmatic country.

“Our experience within the delicate infrastructure of Cuba is unrivaled, our itineraries superior and our guides incomparable. You’ll not find a better value overall than with International Expeditions. See Cuba now in this historic time of transformation! Speak now to one of our experienced Travel Planners, who have visited the island and know it well.”

International Expeditions still has several departures of our popular people-to-people programs available, and space is filling quickly, the company notes.

Itineraries include “Complete Cuba” and “Cuba Art & Culture”. Call 844-429-5373 or visit ietravel.com.

"This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here," says Natural Habitat Adventures (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).
“This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here,” says Natural Habitat Adventures (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).

cuba-naturalhabitat1 e2Natural Habitat Adventures, a premier ecotourism company, has unveiled a new “Undiscovered Cuba” 12-day itinerary that explores Cuba’s intriguing culture and stunning tropical ecosystems on an educational exchange designed to provide a human perspective on the natural side of this captivating Caribbean island nation that has long been inaccessible to American travelers.

Travelers will experience the vibrant cultural centers of Havana and Trinidad as well as virtually unknown national parks, rare botanical gardens, lush tropical ecosystems and fabulous birdlife, and have opportunities to interact with Cuban scientists, naturalists, park managers, academics, organic farmers, community activists, artists, business owners and others eager to share their stories.

“This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here. Cuba has been off-limits to American tourists for decades. We are among a select few companies to secure a special U.S. government permit through the newly established People-to-People program, allowing us to offer this exclusive travel opportunity to our privileged guests,” said Ben Bressler, Natural Habitat’s founder and president.

2015 departures, each for a maximum of 15 guests, are: Feb. 10, Feb. 27, and Apr. 18. The per-person double occupancy rate is $7,695, based on a group size of 10 or more. Both international and internal flight costs are in addition to the trip fee. Internal air is $550 (subject to change). Nat Hab books the international flight from Miami to Cienfuegos, Cuba, and the return from Havana to Miami. These flights are organized through a licensed charter company authorized to provide direct flights to Cuba. (See www.nathab.com/central-america/undiscovered-cuba)

In addition to Cuban culture and history, the trip also showcases Cuba’s natural resources and diversity. Highlights include World Heritage Sites and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and hosted visits to organic farms and community-run ecotourism projects, such as:

Zapata National Park, Viñales National Park & the Viñales Valley and Las Terrazas. Accommodations are always the best available and extend an understanding of culture and history through their locations. The Grand Hotel Trinidad transports guests to the elegance of 16th-century Cuba under Spanish influence, with gracious archways and wrought-iron balconies. The colonial-style Hotel La Ermita offers magnificent views of the Viñales Valley, and in the heart of Havana the luxurious Parque Central is a mix of colonial and modern elements. Sunswept Playa Larga Beach on the southern coast along the Bay of Pigs is home to the Hotel Playa Larga, which offers basic accommodations with easy access to Zapata National Park.
For the complete itinerary see: www.nathab.com/central-america/undiscovered-cuba/itinerary

For trip information, descriptive itineraries, date availability and reservations call 800-543-8917 or visit www.nathab.com.

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