Category Archives: International Travel

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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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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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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© 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.

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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© 2014 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 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.