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Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

Lockport is the only place where you can see the Modern Barge Canal locks side-by-side with the original Erie Canal locks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lockport is the best place of all to appreciate the engineering marvel of the Erie Canal and what the Canal meant to propelling the Industrial Revolution and the economy, ultimately establishing the United States as a global industrial power. And it is our first stop on our first day of our eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie journey, an annual hosted ride offered by Parks & Trails NY, that takes us across New York State, from Buffalo to Albany, and with it, through 400 years of American history.

Here in Lockport, you not only see the only original part of the canal that is left – the famous “Flight of Five” locks in a short sequence – but they are literally adjacent to the modern Barge Canal and its only double-locks – two locks, one immediately after the another.

The 200-year old Flight of Five consecutive locks is the engineering marvel for its time which made the entire canal possible – finishing the distance to Lake Erie. Here at Lockport, the planners had the critical challenge of navigating the 60-foot elevation in the Niagara Escarpment. In these days before steel and electric motors, the wooden gates could only hold back the volume of water of a 12-foot drop.

View of the Flight of Five © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Amazingly, they didn’t figure out the solution before they committed to building the Canal and started digging in Rome, on July 4, 1817. This was deliberate: Rome is right at the center of the state where it is the flattest, where the Oneida Indians already had a crossing through the Appalachian Mountains. What is more, since the federal government had refused to provide any funding, New York State was funding the project on its own; Governor Dewitt Clinton felt there would be more likelihood of getting more funding from the state legislature if they had already started building). New York ultimately spent $7.7 million, the equivalent of $18 billion in today’s dollars.

“There were no civil engineers at that time. They had to invent their way across the state,” we are told in one of the evening lectures. (The telling of this story reminds me of the line in “Shakespeare in Love” to describe how everything would somehow work out: “It’s a mystery.”)

By 1822, 300 miles of the Erie Canal had already been dug. But to the west, the canal builders faced their most difficult challenge: the Niagara Escarpment was a 70-foot natural solid rock obstacle, the same mountain ridge over which Niagara Falls joins Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

Nathan Roberts, who had no formal engineering training but had been working on the canal, came up with an innovative solution – still one of the most staggeringly unusual designs for its time: a series of five locks, each one raising or dropping a boat 12 feet. And because he knew it would consume a tremendous amount of time, he built two parallel steps of locks, so boats could go in both directions – an advancement in canal engineering.

“They had to build five levels of locks because each one could only go 12 feet. In the 1820s and 1840s, they didn’t have structural steel. The lock gates are wooden. ”

Even today, the “Flight of Five” locks are still admired as among the most extraordinary in the world. (We get to visit Nathan Roberts’ hometown, Canastota, much further down on the canal where there is a marvelous museum).

Indeed, like the 20th century space program, what was invented for the purpose of digging the canal became new techniques that could be applied elsewhere. The Erie Canal led to the founding of America’s first engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1824, in Troy.

A re-created wooden boat in one of the two restored 200-year old Flight of Five locks on the Erie Canal, in Lockport. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here at Lockport, we get to see how the lock system worked. New York State has restored two of the original 19th century locks, and you can see how the wooden doors (a design that Leonardo Da Vinci had used) were opened manually using a large wood oar (they demonstrate this frequently during the day); the goal is to restore all five locks. The Buffalo Maritime Club built a replica wooden boat that is now in the lock. Here, you can see just how narrow the locks were. (New York State has funded the restoration of the other three locks.)

Indeed, this is the only place along the canal where you see the original and the modern canal locks in operation. And this is also the only set of modern double-locks on the Erie Canal, where boaters consecutively go from one to another.

Erie Canal Cruises

You especially appreciate this on the canal cruise that NY Parks & Trails, has arranged for the 750 cyclists who have joined the Cycle the Erie ride (a record number) on Erie Canal Cruises (210 Market St, 716-433-6155). I race through Lockport to get to the marina just in time for the 11 am cruise. It takes about an hour, and is really fun, especially as you go through the first lock and are spilled directly into the second.

Cycle the Erie riders get a free Erie Canal cruise through the locks in Lockport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The first Erie Canal was 40 feet wide and just four feet deep, stretching 363 miles, from Albany-Buffalo, with 83 locks to take a boat the 565 feet in elevation. There were no motors involved, so a towpath was constructed along side, and mules, led by young boys known as “hoggies,” who walked 15 miles a day, pulled the canal boats along. One of these hoggies grew up to become president: James Garfield, Ben Willis of the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse tells us at one of the evening lectures.

“The effect of the Canal was both immediate and dramatic, and settlers poured west.  The explosion of trade prophesied by Governor Clinton began, spurred by freight rates from Buffalo to New York of $10 per ton by Canal, compared with $100 per ton by road.  In 1829, there were 3,640 bushels of wheat transported down the Canal from Buffalo.  By 1837 this figure had increased to 500,000 bushels; four years later it reached one million. In nine years, Canal tolls more than recouped the entire cost of construction. Within 15 years of the Canal’s opening, New York was the busiest port in America, moving tonnages greater than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined,” according to the state’s canals website (www.canals.ny.gov/history/history.html)

Going through the modern double-locks on the Erie Canal Cruise in Lockport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In order to keep pace with the growing demands of traffic, the Erie Canal was enlarged between 1836 and 1862. The “Enlarged Erie Canal” was 70 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. The number of locks was reduced to 72.

In 1898 Theodore Roosevelt, as Governor of New York, pushed to enlarge the canal again and straighten its route – in many cases relocating the canal altogether – to a width of 125 feet and minimum depth of twelve feet. The “modern” Barge Canal – the one we see today – was opened in 1918 and the motors which still open and close the lock doors are a century old, as well.

Cruising through the Modern Barge Canal locks in Lockport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The cruise gives us a wonderful side-by-side view of the “modern” canal and locks (they still use the original GE motors which are 100 years old to open the large steel gates) against the original Clinton’s Ditch lock system, a town that was one of many along the route literally birthed by the Erie Canal. Only the gates are motorized; the rest is gravity.

Lockport offers insights into more than the extraordinary engineering of the Erie Canal: it is here where you get the clearest understanding of how the canal spurred the Industrial Revolution, and made the United States a manufacturing and global power. By 1830, Lockport had grown to the size of Buffalo and Rochester but was eclipsed after Civil War.

Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride

You really appreciate this when you take the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride, which I did on my first Cycle the Erie trip (absolutely fascinating and I have to believe is fairly unique; Cycle the Erie riders get a discount with our wristband).

Up on the hill above the canal were a string of factories. Before Tesla and Edison, engines used water power which was abundant in Lockport. Birdsell Holly, who had a three-story factory, Holly Manufacturing Company, devised a water “raceway” to power the factory –which involved digging a tunnel to capture the seemingly unlimited flow of water.

Our walking tour starts on the canal, where our tour guide, relates the history. Then we walk down a slope to where the hillside means the canal, passed where there would have been three factories.

We walk passed where there would have been a three-story factory, the Holly Manufacturing Company.

“Birdsill Holly, the owner, was famous in his day. He had 150 patents, second-most to Thomas Edison” who was a friend and who asked Holly to join him at his lab in Menlo Park, but Holly wanted to stay on his own. He was a genius at mechanical engineering and specialized in hydro-mechanical systems.” He also created the system of using the rushing water through tunnel (a hydraulic “raceway”) to power turbines.

Among Holly’s inventions: the rotary water pump, the Silsby steam fire engine, the fire hydrant (he actually reminds me a lot of Ben Franklin). Holly had the idea to build a 19-story skyscraper with a view of Niagara Falls, which he expected to become a popular tourist attraction, but never raised the financing.

Holly, who was born in 1820, came to Lockport from Seneca Falls in 1851. He opened the Holly Manufacturing Company in 1859 to produce sewing machines, cistern pumps and rotary pumps.   Holly built the Lockport Fire Protection and Water System in 1863, which used pumps powered by water-turbines and steam-engines to bring water to hydrants in the city. He patented a fire hydrant in 1869, manufactured in his factory.

At its peak, the factory employed 500 people. Ironically, his factory was destroyed by fire in 1909 (there is a photo of the fire hanging in the tour office).

Next, we walk passed where the Richmond Factory, founded in 1868, would have been – portions of gatehouse can still be seen. It utilized Holly’s hydromechanical system. But in 1993, it too, was destroyed by fire.

The third was the Lockport Pulp factory, which operated from1880-1941, when it went out of business after the invention of galvanized steel. “Their lease ran out in 1941 and they lost the use of the water.”

Walking through the outflow pipe of Birdsell’s hydraulic raceway during the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to a great outflow pipe which we use as our entrance into the cave, which once would have been the “raceway” for the rushing water.

This is the system devised by the privately owned Hydraulic Raceway Company (Birdsill Holly was a major investor) to serve his factory and the others.

It is quite an interesting sight – pitch black except for the artificial light.

The tunnel was cut by Irish and Italian workers. Our guide points out what would have been involved in digging out this tunnel and creating the cave, using the technology they had – sledgehammers and black powder. “They worked long hours doing dangerous work for low wages.” At one point, they went on a labor strike.

Boys as young as five years old would be the ones to plant the dynamite because they were small and fast. Each charge would blast a hole the size of a basketball. There are no statistics as to how many boys or men died building these tunnels.

Holly built his tunnel first, in 1858. It took 1 1/2 years to dig 750 feet. Richer opened his factory in 1868. A third section was opened eight years later, taking three years, until 1880 to finish. The factories would have paid $200 year for access to water.

Now our walk takes us to a wooden boat, built inside the cavern. “Welcome aboard Titanic 2,” the guide, jokes.

A boat ride is the climax of the Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride on Day One of the 8-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is very “Phantom of the Opera”-ish, but here, you really appreciate the physical labor that was involved in cutting through rock to create these mechanisms that made the Industrial Revolution factories possible.

It is really a delightful boat-ride, full of atmosphere, that takes us through the oldest section of the tunnel. You can see some differences in how it was constructed. We can appreciate how long it takes to form a stalactite by how small these are. We see soda stalactites  (they have a hollow interior).

($13 plus tax, but $9 for Erie Canal riders. Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride on the Erie Canal, (5 Gooding St., 716-438-0174, www.lockportcave.com).

There is a lot to see in Lockport, including the Erie Canal Discovery Center, a small museum right at the base of the original five locks, which I visited on my first Cycle the Erie ride; Tiffany windows at the First Presbyterian Church, the Historic Palace Theater, and delightful eateries (www.discoverlockport.com).

Biking on the Erie Canalway from Lockport to Medina © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am anxious to get to Medina, though, which I remember from my first Cycle the Erie ride as being a really charming town (they even have a concert planned for the afternoon, and swimming at our campsite), and last time, I didn’t get there early enough to enjoy it.

We ride through a sequence of quaint canaltowns, Gasport, Middleport, – on our way to Medina.

Mural at Middleport, one of the canaltowns that sprung up all along the Erie Canal, where we have a rest stop on the Cycle the Erie bike tour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Medina is famous for its sandstone, a 19th century building material that was used for the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, the State House in Albany, St. Paul’s Episcopal in Albany and in the foundation of Buckingham Palace. The stones, discovered during the building of the canal, were prized because they were so hard, they were the best for fireproof building material.

Cycle the Erie riders come into Medina, our destination. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Much of Medina is built of the stone. You see it at one of America’s oldest Opera Houses (it is being restored) – a tribute to the wealth that the stone and the Erie Canal brought,.

I arrive in Medina, our destination for the day, at around 2:30 pm, in time to catch a delightful folk concert at the canalside park. The band, Traveling Troubadours, perform on the roof of a rented houseboat. Wearing tie-die, the aging hippies will be spending 6 days, going canaltown to canaltown to perform.

Medina has one of the oldest Opera Houses in the country, a testament to how the Erie Canal brought prosperity to these canaltowns. Building the canal exposed the special Medina sandstone that was used for Opera House, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Buckingham Palace. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I must have had a tailwind because the 54 miles of biking today didn’t feel like it at all.

The architecture is absolutely magnificent – and our ride to the campground takes us through neighborhoods with gorgeous, but fading, Victorian houses.

On the way into the campsite, I stop at Medina Railroad Museum – housed in the former New York Central Freight Depot. Built in 1905-6, and 300 feet long, it is the longest wood frame freight house ever built by NYC Systems. There are over 7,000 artifacts on display covering the history of railroads from the early steam era up to the modern age. Exhibits feature vintage toy trains from Lionel, Marx and American Flyer, as well as extensive firefighting exhibit with 460 fire helmets. The HO model train layout is one of the longest on one floor in the country, measuring 204 feet long by 14 feet wide, and featuring lifelike scenery of Western New York. The museum also offers excursions on vintage trains. (530 West Ave., Medina 585-798-6106, MedinaRailroad.com)

Concert at Medina’s canalside park by the Traveling Troubadours © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As I set up my tent at the beautiful grounds of the Clifford H. Wise Middle School, I think how we have gone from an urban to a pastoral setting. They have arranged for us to swim in the school’s pool, as well as stretching class and yoga and there is a massage therapist as well. This evening after dinner, there is a talk about canal history by Tom Grasso, president of the NYS Canal Society.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000, www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next: Cycle the Erie, Day 2: Medina to Fairport, 53 miles

See also:

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cycle the Erie: 400 Miles & 400 Years of History Flow By on Canalway Bike Tour Across New York State

Cycle the Erie riders leaving Medina on Day 2 of the 8-day, 400-mile bike tour from Buffalo to Albany. The 19th Annual Cycle the Erie had a record 750 riders © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

To see how America came to be – and what really made America great – you need only to join Parks & Trails NY’s annual eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie Bike Tour from Buffalo to Albany. Riding the multi-use Erie Canalway, which closely follows the towpath along the original Erie Canal that was built between 1817-1825, transports you 400 miles and through 400 years of history. Unfolding before you, at a pace that flows like a movie, are the pastoral scenes of farmlands, the canaltowns that sprang up to handle the trade, the factories that emerged to manufacture the myriad inventions and innovations spawned by Yankee ingenuity, you cross the Native American tribal areas, the colonial settlements, the Revolutionary War sites. You see the rise and fall of industrialization and urbanization, and now, most marvelous of all, you see before you the reinvention, revitalization and repurposing of these villages, towns, cities and communities that the Eric Canal spawned.

The Erie Canal turned a modest port called New York City into a global trade and financial center, New York into the Empire State, and the United States into a global industrial power, with New York City as its center. It turned a subsistence farmer in the Midwest into a purveyor to the world, and not only transformed geography, but society. The Erie Canal “was the Mother of Cities” – overnight, canal towns catering to the boat traffic sprung up from nowhere and cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse blossomed. The canal was an incubator for innovation and a transmitter for new ideas. It unified the nation, tying together East and West, and was the artery by which pioneers and immigrants made their way to the settle the frontier. You come away from this journey with renewed understanding of what it means to be an American.

Cycle the Erie riders in Lockport explore the Flight of Five– the original canal locks that were an engineering marvel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Besides being a marvelous car-free trail (mostly flat), with gorgeous landscapes (you can’t believe this is New York State!), what distinguishes this bike  trip is that it is so interesting – the sites, and sights along the way. Every day is enlightening, inspiring, serendipitous. We go from urban to rural, pastoral lands and back to urban, from main streets into forest and into neighborhoods “tourists” would never see. There is so much to see, in fact, all along the way you have to make choices, which is why so many people come back multiple times. Indeed, this is my second Cycle the Erie tour.

This is no typical bike tour.

In the first place, it is one of the best managed, organized and supported bike tours you will ever experience – the 2017 ride (the 19th annual Cycle the Erie) which coincided with the bicentennial of  beginning the building of the Erie Canal, July 4, 1817 – had a record 750 cyclists. The bicentennial of the opening of the Erie Canal will be held in 2025 (I’m already making plans.)

Our ride is supported by 90 volunteers and you appreciate each and every one: people who go out and mark the trail for us to follow; truck drivers and baggage handlers; SAG drivers and bikers who are there to help if someone has difficulty on the trail; rest stop crew; food service people; bike repair mechanics; medical nurse; site-set up crew; even a massage therapist and yoga instructor.

Massage therapy after a day of cycling the Erie Canalway © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is most impressive is how everything seems to be taken into account – texting is with a severe weather alert or some emergency, orientations that let us know what to expect from the trail and what to watch out for and what weather conditions to expect, what attractions to look for along the way, the best places to stop off for lunch and the best ice cream stops and trailside breweries, even cycling safety talks (done with great creativity and humor). Shuttle buses are organized to take us from the campsite into town for the evening; they arrange for indoor camping (typically the school gym) as well as Comfy Campers (a service that sets up tent for you, the closest thing to glamping). There are shower trucks to supplement the indoor facilities; access to swimming pools; charging stations.

Fairport community puts out the welcome mat for Cycle the Erie riders © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The routes are well marked and signed, and there are as rest stops morning and afternoon with water and snacks and restrooms. Very often the towns and villages set up welcome centers for us on the trail with special snacks and bottles of water that supplement the rest stops. Museums and attractions stay open, early in the morning or into the evening to accommodate us; we get discounts on admissions, shopping and free shipping just by waving our Cycle the Erie wristband.

Our tent city at the base of Fort Stanwyx, Rome. For those who don’t want to pitch their own tent, Comfy Campers provides a service that feels like glamping © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail makes for superb cycling – most of the 400 miles are on the dedicated multi-use trail, about 75 miles on roads (that is, until the trail is completed which is in the works by New York State). Much of the trail is crushed limestone; some of it is more rugged or overgrown (making it challenging when it rains); some is paved. The trail is mostly flat except for where we come off and ride the highway overpasses to get to our campsites, most typically on gorgeous grounds of private schools (which amazingly always seem to be at the top of a hill), and then we get to see neighborhoods that we would otherwise be unlikely to visit.

Riding the Erie Canalway. The 19th Annual Cycle the Erie 400-mile ride had a record 750 riders © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And the people! A trip like this brings like-minded people who enjoy camping, biking and discovery from across the country and around the world, and who very soon form a whole nomadic tribe. Sitting around tables at breakfast and dinner, or catching up with people on the trail, and finding people who step up to help with setting up a tent or fixing a broken pole, there is this marvelous sense of community and camaraderie. This year’s ride – with the most riders ever – drew people from 36 states including DC, 15 from Canada, as well as from as far away as Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom; the oldest rider was 84 (doing the ride for her 12th time); the youngest was 3, but the youngest self-powered cyclist was just 8 years old. Three-fourths of us are doing the ride for the first time. There were families, groups like Troop 497 from Baltimore, and lots of solos. One couple rode to the start in Buffalo from Canada and was linking this 400-mile trip to biking down to New York City.

The Demeritt Family with their boys aged 4, 8, 11, from Malta NY. Sam Demeritt, age 8, was the youngest rider pedaling the 400 miles on his own © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The unexpected treat is how fascinating the historic sites are along the way – it is so intellectually and culturally satisfying. In addition to organizing our visits so that attractions stay open for us either early in the morning or into the evening, each day there are lectures or special programs, like music.

Every day’s ride – averaging 50 miles a day but as much as 63 – is special in its own way – the sights, the experiences, the ride and its physical challenge. First timers tend to focus on the ride – making sure they can complete the distance (we travel at our own pace). But those who have done the ride before know they will be able to go the distance, so take more time to take in the sights; third timers or more explore even further afield – take that yellow brick road up to the Oz Museum, go for that farm-to-table restaurant for lunch, stop in at the brewery or ice cream shop.

Cycle the Erie riders get a tour of the Peppermint Museum, the H.G Hotchkiss Essential Oil building, in Lyons © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This was my second time doing the ride – I did it two years before. There is so much to do – so many attractions and sites and experiences – that I tried as much as possible to do things I hadn’t done on the first ride. And then there is pure serendipity, like weather, which makes a terrific difference in the experience. Knowing what to expect (and that you have done the distance before) gives you the extra confidence to take more time to explore.

Registrations have just opened for the 2018 ride, it’s 20th Annual Cycle the Erie bike tour, which will take place July 8-15. (If you don’t want to do all eight-days, 400-miles, they offer two and four-day segments but then you would have to organize getting back to your starting place.)

And We’re Off! 

The tour begins in Buffalo and a good portion of us drive to Albany where we pull up to the Visitors Center, drop off our gear, then park in the adjacent municipal lot before boarding buses for the five-hour drive to Buffalo, where we camp at the Nichols School, a magnificent private academy. (If you don’t want to set up your own tent, you can sign up for Comfy Campers, a service which sets up a truly comfortable tent, with air mattress and fresh towel daily; there is also “indoor camping,” typically in the gymnasium at the schools where we stay. There also are recommended bed-and-breakfast inns along the way.)

The bus ride from Albany to the Buffalo start of the 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour gives peeks at the New York State countryside that will be seen from the Canalway © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our journey begins on Saturday night before the start of the ride on Sunday, on the campus of the Nichols School, a magnificent private academy in Buffalo, where we have a welcoming reception and gala dinner, and an orientation about the Erie Canal and our route  (Those of us who are here early enough can join an optional pre-tour ride to Niagara Falls and around historic Buffalo, but those of us who have come by bus from Albany arrive just in time to register and enjoy a festive kick-off reception and dinner and orientation meeting.)

The Erie Canal was the most successful public works project in America. Despite its cost ($7.7 million, the equivalent of $18 billion today), the opposition to the folly of Governor DeWitt Clinton’s “ditch” (nothing really changes) and the fact that the new nation did not even have the engineers nor the technology to build such a canal when the first shovel was put into the ground in Rome, on July 4, 1817, the canal actually quickly recouped its investment. In fact, the original canal only lasted until 1836, when it was essentially rebuilt and expanded, and then again, by President Theodore Roosevelt who redirected and replaced the Modern Barge canal altogether in 1903. No longer a “mom and pop” operation where barges and packet ships were pulled by mules, the new canal involved motorized boats.

Day One: Sunday, Buffalo to Medina, 54 Miles

Unlike my first time doing the Erie ride, when we all left at once with great fanfare, this time, we leave the campsite as every other morning, at our own pace (except that we have to get our gear on the trucks between 6 and 8 am and have breakfast (5:30-8:30 am).

Every morning during breakfast there is an orientation to that day’s ride (given twice, once for the early birds, 6:30 am and once for the rest of us, 7 am). They prepare us for road conditions, the weather forecast, alert us to any safety issues in the route, tell us about upcoming attractions we will come upon. We ride at our own pace.

We form a line of cyclists on the five-miles we ride through Buffalo’s streets before we get to the entrance to the Canalway The streets are well marked and there are police to help us through thoroughfares. It is exhilarating to be setting out.

At the start of the Erie Canalway in Buffalo, where the bike trial has brought new housing and revitalized communities © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride a new section of the Canalway into Lockport – indeed, the goal of this annual 8-day, 400-mile ride is to raise money and awareness to close the gaps. And it’s worked! New York State now has an ambitious program to not only complete the entire Buffalo-Albany trail, but to create a new north-south trail, the Empire State Trail, that will link New York City to the Canadian border – 750 miles of off-road trails all together. This would be the longest state ‘shared use’ trail in nation.

Blue paint along our route points the way to a historical/attraction (for example, the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village); orange paint on road shows us the way to bike to our destination. There are markers before and after each turn.

We reach a rest stop at 17 miles before coming into Lockport.

Biking into Lockport on our first day of the eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This day brings us into Lockport, where they have arranged for anyone who wants, a free 1 ½-hour-long cruise on the canal through two locks.

Here in Lockport, you get to see in the most compressed amount of space, the entire history of the Canal, with the original Flight of Five locks just next to modern locks (the only place where there is a double lock, one after another), combined with the story how the Erie Canal spurred America’s industrialization.

The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000,www.eriecanalway.org.

More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.

Next: 

Cycle the Erie, Day 1: In Lockport, See Erie Canal Engineering Marvel, ‘Flight of Five’, Cruise Thru Double Locks, and Go Underground to Fathom Rise of Industrial Revolution

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Riding over the Eastern Continental Divide on the Great Allegheny Passage railtrail on the first day of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn biketour © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

The ages of the 200 of us on this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn, biking 150-miles along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and Montour Trail across western Pennsylvania, ranges from 9 to 83 years old. Indeed, there are 15 young people and three octogenarians among us.

A bike tour such as this, along relatively flat trails free of cars and other hazards, is a great equalizer: youngsters feel competent, accomplished, adventurous; and oldsters, well, feel competent, accomplished, adventurous and youthful.

Our group comes from more than 30 states plus Canada and as far as Alaska, including families, three generations (a grandfather who is a retired physics professor, his three sons and two grandsons); grandfathers with grandsons, a mother with her son; husbands without wives; wives without husbands; and single women relishing the simultaneous independence with community.

Three generations of the Parsegian family who have come from Massachusetts, Texas, Michigan and New York to bike the Great Allegheny Passage on the RTC Sojourn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I reconnect with a couple from DC whom I first met on the 400-mile Erie Canal bikeride two years ago, again last year on this RTC Sojourn on the GAP, and this year, we find ourselves sitting next to each other on the bus from the drop-off to the start of the ride – he is the 83-year old. I meet people like Ed Holowinko of Connecticut, who was one of the activists who helped save the Walk over the Hudson, when otherwise, the bridge would have been taken down and instead has become one of the most popular attractions in the state. I meet people who defy the stereotype of an environmentalist cyclist: a woman who is as comfortable riding her motorcycle as her bike and a man who proudly defends the NRA (though political discussions are assiduously avoided, just as at any family gathering).

Comfy Campers set up 81 tents for the RTC Sojourners – the closest thing to “glamping” – creating a tent city at Meyersdale © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The supported ride is ideal for singles and families as well as those on their first biketour or experiencing their first long-distance ride: a luggage truck brings your stuff from one campsite to the next; there is breakfast and dinner provided daily; shower trucks and portasans supplement the campsite’s facilities; charging stations. If you don’t want to set up a tent, you can luxuriate in hiring Comfy Campers which provides a terrifically comfortable, watertight tent with air mattress, chair, fresh towel daily, cooling area with water and lemonade and chargers – the closest thing to “glamping” you can find. (Those who don’t want to camp can take advantage of bed-and-breakfast accommodations along the route.) In addition, there is a bike mechanic and massage therapists, and a volunteer nurse who travel with us.

There is such a sense of community that immediately forms in our tent city – sitting around long tables at breakfast and dinner; waiting for a turn at the shower truck, brushing teeth at the sinks – it’s like a giant pajama party. The kids come together in games and activities; we gather around for an evening talk (one night Pennsylvania Jack, a storyteller, regaled us), a campfire, and, for the final night, a talent show (contestants competed for the grand prize, a Fuji bike!). Another nice feature this year: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company joined as a sponsor, and we have free beer (terrific Pale Ale!) on a few of our dinners.

Oldest and youngest among us on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s 140-mile Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage and Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are endless conversations with people who have never heard your stories before that typically begin, “Where are you from?” I meet a woman from Michigan who, now retired, takes one of these long-distance biketours on rail-trails practically monthly – Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; the Katy Trail, in Missouri; the Louisiana Bayou.

Many of us (one-third, in fact), had been on this Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage before, including me, but the destination and the experience is so fantastic, it is delightful to return over and over. Each day provides a different highlight, and each person will have a different experience. And each day brings its own serendipity, its own uniqueness – the season, weather, lighting, chance encounters, different things to explore. Indeed, even the sections of the Great Allegheny Passage that I had traveled last year in spring were very different this summer.

The Great Allegheny Passage crosses over the Mason-Dixon Line © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What is more, there are significant differences in the itinerary – this year’s trip was longer in distance and days, starting out closer to the Mason-Dixon Line and the Eastern Continental Divide (and the beginning of the 150-mile long GAP, which starts in Cumberland, Maryland, 21 miles further east from the Mason-Dixon line, but would involve a steep uphill climb; the way we do it, there is only a slight incline and most of us ride the mere 4 miles out and back, adding a mere 8 miles to the first day’s tally); featured a “fun day” in Pennsylvania’s magnificent Ohiopyle State Park when we get to choose among four different activities (I choose a Class III whitewater river rafting experience which is sensational; others choose a milder Class I river rafting trip, or visits to one of two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes, Fallingwaters or Kentuck Nob, and still others just do their own thing), which also meant we had two days at one campsite.

Also, the ending of the trip takes us back toward Pittsburgh (actually Coraopolis, PA) on the Montour Trail, which, like the Great Allegheny Passage – both award-winning trails – and a superb example of how obsolete rail lines (or canalways, or right-of-ways alongside active rail lines) can be turned into multi-use recreational trails. These linear parks, if you will, not only provide wellness and outdoor activities for families to do together, but also revitalize towns and villages whose economies have been upended by shuttered factories and mines, towns and villages that for so long had been defined by the railroads, the steel mills, the coal mines. Along the way, I will capture images of the cyclists on the rail trail cutting into hillsides topped with wind turbines above the Pennsylvania towns founded on oil, coal and gas. The rail-trails provide a new lease on life, as it were, and we realize it as the chambers of commerce, tourist bureaus, volunteer firefighters, Rotary and Lions Clubs go out of their way to greet us.

RTC bikers on the Great Allegheny Trail pass by wind turbines on the Pennsylvania hilltops © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And so we are welcomed at Meyersdale, our first night’s destination, where the railroad station along the Great Allegheny Passage has been turned into a delightful historical society display, refreshment stand and shop, by representatives of local chamber; a special Sunday evening service at the church features a prayer for all the Sojourners to have a safe ride, dinner at the fire department and breakfast at what used to be the town’s high school. This is a town that once supported six hotels, a bank, a high school and elementary school – today, all but the bank (built in 1904) are shuttered. And while the GAP goes over one railroad line that has been turned into the railtrail, there is still an active railroad line that goes right through the middle of town.

Walking about after our dinner, there is this eerie quiet and stillness – a sense of being in a movie set, rather than a town, or a scene in Twilight Zone (granted, it is Sunday and Fathers’ Day at that). I pass a barber shop and peer in: there is a crumbled newspaper, brown and deteriorating with age; the leather barber chairs are cracked; the shop seems to have been left alone for decades- I take note of a Sheriff’s notice on the door handle. I pass a porch with a Confederate flag and “Don’t tread on me” banner.

Meyersdale shows its pride © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Meyersdale is a very proud community – it showcases its history on markers, on magnificent painted murals that fill entire sides of buildings, even on the placemats that picture the town’s history and attractions which are laid out for our breakfast that features Meyersdale’s famous maple syrup (who knew this was the capital of maple syrup making?).

The towns we get to visit are absolutely wonderful – quite literally, Smalltown America -and the contrast with seeing nothing but trees, rocks and river along the trail is stimulating and intriguing.

You are deep in the forest – for much of the way, riding alongside a river or creek on one side, and outcroppings of rocks on the other, riding through a literal “tree tunnel” that envelopes you. Occasionally we ride by a farm, but most of the time, the solitude is just stunning – the kind of serenity you feel when you are hiking. The only sound is the wind you create by riding, the crunching sound of the bike wheels on the hard-packed gravel, and birds. Many, many birds. Occasionally we pass by a small waterfall. It is surprising with so much land all around we don’t see that many animals, though on one day, we come upon several deer on the trail; chipmunks who scurry across the path (amazing how they time their dash), making a huge leap into the bushes just as I am about to reach them. The quiet is occasionally broken by a train whistle and the chugging as they haul something like 8000 tons of coal on tracks on the opposite riverbank.

The serenity of biking on the Great Allegheny Passage © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

If you are a writer or poet, this is better to get creative juices flowing than holing up in isolated cabin – your imagination and your thoughts dance in your head as you ride, nurtured by the rhythms and the endorphins. If you are an artist, you will be inspired by the scenes that stream by.

At one point, I think to myself, “We are like nomads, like pioneers, steadily picking up stakes and moving on, each time setting up a new community.”

The trail also has some wonderfully thrilling  and dramatic features – it is tremendous fun (exciting too) going through these old rail tunnels, over viaducts and steel bridges – that have been built for the trains, but now rebuilt and repurposed, largely because of the efforts of local communities and volunteers, for bikes.

Riding through the Pinkerton Tunnel on the Great Allegheny Passage © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride at our own pace – and can go off the trail to explore if we like – and depending upon the length of ride (from about 30 miles to the longest ride, 62 miles with some optional add-ons, averaging 35-40 miles a day), we would have one or two rest stops with snacks and cold water. They offer suggestions for lunch or ice cream or attractions we might want to explore, like Rockwood’s Opera House (our cue sheets offer great detail). And in many cases, people from the town set up to welcome us.

This is clear from the first day, when we have the option of either riding a mere 8 miles to the first night’s campsite, just 8 miles to Meyersdale, or add four miles out and back to explore several iconic sites, including the Eastern Continental Divide, the Big Savage Tunnel, the Big Savage Overlook and the Mason-Dixon Line monument.

At that night’s dinner, held in the Meyersdale Fire House, the trip leader, Tom Sexton, Director of the Northeast Regional Office of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Who is leading the Sojourn, talks about the mission of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and our role as Sojourners.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has played a key advocacy role to promote the creation and use of these repurposed trails. RTC has been a partner, providing technical assistance – such as negotiating with railroads, advising localities on visioning and feasibility studies as well as construction, and coordination with nonprofits and volunteer efforts, such as the Montour Trail Council that has been so active in building and improving the trail we will take.

A current project underway will link trails in four states, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, creating an Industrial Heartland Trail Network. (New York State, which has the Erie Canalway that extends from Buffalo to Albany, is creating the Empire State Trail, finishing 350-miles of new trails that would complete the Eric Canalway and the Hudson River Valley Greenway, and connecting them to form a 750-mile pathway, the longest in the nation, from New York Harbor, through the Adirondack Mountains, to the Canadian border, and from Lake Erie to Albany.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy promotes the use of rail-trails – there are some 23,000 miles of rail-trails- and its TrailLink.com website helps you locate them.

RTC is also an advocacy group lobbying Congress and the administration, which will be important coming up, because Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the earmarks for rail-trails.

RTC’s Tom Sexton: federal funding for rail-to-trail projects like the Great Allegheny Passage and Montour Trail are in jeopardy © 2017 Karen Rubin /goingplacesfarandnear.com

As Sexton explains, since 1991, the major funding for these rail-to-trail projects has come from the federal government, with matching funds from states and localities. The Highway Bill had typically included mass transit and railroad funding but beginning in 1991, also earmarked funding for 10 categories, including rail-trails, given as grants to states to use for acquisition, planning and construction.

But that is under threat by the new administration:

“The president’s budget proposal eliminates all funding for the wildly popular TIGER program, which is bad news for trails and active transportation,” RTC states. “Without TIGER, trails could miss out on hundreds of millions in funding. Since the program began in 2009, TIGER has provided nearly $340 million in funding for active transportation projects and trail networks like the Circuit Trails in PhiladelphiaCleveland Metroparks and the Atlanta BeltLine. What’s more, using the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ methodology to calculate jobs per mile of trail built, we project that TIGER investments in active transportation have generated thousands of jobs.

“TIGER is much more than a program that supports trails; it funds all transportation modes and is unique in that it encourages cross-jurisdictional and multimodal cooperation, breaking down traditional bureaucratic silos and looking at balanced transportation systems as a whole. This makes the program intentional, focused and efficient in the projects it selects—and effective in achieving outcomes after construction.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation has thus far awarded TIGER funding to diverse projects including roads and bridges, ports, railways, transit, freight operations and, of course, trails and other walking and biking infrastructure. However, the new president and transportation secretary will set their own funding priorities….

“The budget also calls for an end to general fund infusions to the Highway Trust Fund, eliminating $95 billion in expected transportation spending over the same 10 years, raising further doubts about the extent to which infrastructure investment would increase if the president’s budget proposal were to pass.”

Map of our 2017 Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn ride on the Great Allegheny Passage and Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, we Sojourners are ambassadors and advocates and increasingly now, also activists.

“Everyone here is an ambassador,” says Brandi Horton, RTC’s VP of Communications. “We show the towns, the communities, city and town and state governments just how important rail trails are to building community, generating economic development, building tourism and getting people out together.”

Tips for advocating include bringing a friend out with you on the trail, use social media, lobby state and federal legislators to make sure trails are included in infrastructure funding; let your Congressmember know you use the trails, send a photo.

RTC has also its “take action” section of the website, where you can plug in your zipcode, find your official and send a note.

“Be a spokesperson, do community outreach. If you want to get a trail in your community, you need your voice heard not just at the federal, state and regional level, but at the local level.”

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Washington, DC 20037, 202-974-5150, Railstotrails.orgTrailLink.com.

See next:

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

Pascal Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

 

Pennsylvania’s Industrial Past Highlights Day 3 on Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Great Allegheny Passage

 

 

 

The third and final day of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s spring sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage offers the starkest contrasts between a trail reclaimed for nature and the industrial heritage that both built and destroyed this region’s environment © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The third and final day of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s spring sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage offers the starkest contrasts between a trail reclaimed for nature and the industrial heritage that both built and destroyed this region’s environment © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(After meeting up at Homestead, PA and bussing to the start of our Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s first springtime Sojourn, a three-day biketour on the Great Allegheny Passage, we rode 33.5 miles from Harnedsville to Adelaide on Day 2, a ride highlighted by a sidetrip into Dunbar to see Donald Trump’s donation of Pascal’s ‘Seated Torso’ glass sculpture to the historical society. Our adventure continues.)

The last day of Rails-to Trails Conservancy’s first spring sojourn, a three-day supported bike tour on the Great Allegheny Passage, is our longest ride, 49 miles from Adelaide to West Homestead, and, unlike our first two days which have been essentially downhill, has a good number of ascents, to boot – mostly as we come into the urban area and have to ride up and over bridges and overpasses.

This ride offers the starkest contrasts between the wholesomeness of a trail reclaimed for nature, and the industrial heritage that both built and destroyed this region’s environment.

West Newton has a replica of the 1910 P&LE train station, now a historical society and visitors center and retail shop, with a historic train car outside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
West Newton has a replica of the 1910 P&LE train station, now a historical society and visitors center and retail shop, with a historic train car outside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have three support stops. The second, at 21.9 miles, is in West Newton at a replica of the 1910 P&LE train station, now a historical society center and retail shop, with a train car outside. Literally across the “street” are three bed-and-breakfasts, right off the trail.

If you took the time to explore the downtown, you would find some quaint storefronts (some needing new owners), and some tucked away gems like the Victorian home on Vine Street, the historic Plumer House (circa 1814) on South Water Street. I take time to explore the historic West Newton Cemetery, accessible from the trail.

The trail follows the Youghiogheny River with beautiful scenic views.

In the 1890s, this area that we ride through that seems so natural and so pristine today, was the Industrial Heartland of America – steel mills, coke ovens filled the air with suffocating black smoke, blighting the area and making it unhealthy to live.

Pittsburgh’s industrial past comes into view © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Pittsburgh’s industrial past comes into view © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“They didn’t have the number of trees we see now,” Tom Sexton, the Northeast Regional Director for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy tells us during our nightly presentation. “The skies were so dark, they needed to use lights during the day.”

But these steel mills also were enabled the expansion of the United States– forging the bridges,  railroads, skyscrapers – and the booming industrial economy that made the United States a world power. The wealth generated – and the economic policies – produced the Gilded Age, a time of great income inequality, when money and power was concentrated in a handful of Industrial Barons like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, among the richest people in the world, whose steel plants accounted for 30% of all the steel produced in the US.

We associate Carnegie and Frick today as great philanthropists, but they were ruthless industrialists who exploited labor and the environment for their personal benefit.

Sexton cites a book, “Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America, by Les Standiford, who drew his title from Frick’s response to Carnegie’s deathbed invitation to meet: “I’ll meet you in hell,” Frick responds, perhaps a reflection of the penance they would have to pay for the hellfire they forced their workers to endure.

Carnegie and Frick were enthralled by efficiency, developed new processes, new tools to maximize productivity and manpower, Sexton tells us. That helped them add to their fortune, but “wasn’t a good lifestyle for people living and working in the steel and coal plants.

“They cut costs in all ways.” For example, workers lived in company towns and had to shop in company stores where prices were high. People were working 12 hours a day and wanted  a shorter day.

“Being efficiency experts, they did study and found that after 8 hours, worker wasn’t so productive, less efficient, so they reduced the work day to 8 hours.”

Still, conditions were abominable and on July 4, 1892, the steel workers went on strike. After a bloody battle, followed by the state militia ultimately quashing the labor action months later, in November, Carnegie Steel reinstated the 12-hour day as retribution.

Sexton relates this story because our ride will take us passed the historic Pump House in West Homestead where the bloody labor battle took place.

Sexton’s story is in my mind as we ride, as I reflect on the glorious landscape. To think this whole area was so blighted – didn’t have the trees, the clear clean air, the clean rushing water that is so intoxicating now.

Indeed, the ride is gorgeous up until Boston where there is a beautiful park and we have our third support stop. Then, just as we ride through some trees, it is like culture shock because the trail becomes very urban – broken and winding, and then plops you out to a street beside the railroad tracks.

We go through a series of streets before getting back on the trail, going up and over several railroad crossings, past shuttered factories.

This is the part of the ride when we get to peer back into the landscape of the Industrial Revolution and get a greater appreciation of the clean pure air and the trees and clean water that we had been seeing along the GAP.

The historic Pump House, from 1892, marks the place of a bloody battle of Homestead, where striking workers first battled Pinkertons and later state militia© 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The historic Pump House, from 1892, marks the place of a bloody battle of Homestead, where striking workers first battled Pinkertons and later state militia© 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The most interesting part of the ride is when we come to the Pump House at West Homestead, the site of a bloody strike which Sexton has described to us, the site in 1892 of one American Labor’s bloodiest battles. I frankly might not have stopped (though there is also a restroom there for the benefit of the GAP trail riders) and spent as much time inspecting the site were it not for Sexton’s orientation.

Notes from the site tell the story: “In the early morning hours of July 6, 1892, at the Pump House of the Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead Works, thousands of workers, their families and supporters, armed with sticks, rocks, and guns rushed to meet two barges coming up the Monongahela River.  The barges carried 300 Pinkerton guards who had been sent to protect the works during the Homestead Strike and Lockout.

“After bitter fighting throughout the day resulted in the deaths of seven strikers and three Pinkerton men and dozens of others wounded, the guards surrendered.  They were then forced to “run a bloody gauntlet” while being lead to a temporary jail at the Homestead Opera House until they were sent out of town by rail the next morning.

“Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie’s partner, convinced Pennsylvania Governor Pattison that Homestead was under “mob rule”. On July 12, 1892  the governor ordered 8,000 state militiamen into Homestead. The strike and lock out continued until November when unskilled laborers asked to be released from their strike pledge. Two days later, the strike ended – the union had been broken. The Battle of Homestead signaled the end of union activity in the steel industry until the 1930s” (riversofsteel.com).

After learning the history of the strike, a sign that salutes steelworkers seems more ironic than respectful: “In honor of the employees, USS. Homestead.” It also happens to be across the street from the offices of the US Steel Corporation.

Pittsburgh’s industrial past comes into view © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Pittsburgh’s industrial past comes into view © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we continue along the riverfront trail, across the way, we see get a sense of how it was – massive factories, small houses built into the hillside, giant churches commanding the highest ground.

The ending of the ride proves the most strenuous – besides the ups and downs as we negotiate the overpasses and bridges, we are fighting against a strong head wind.

Riding over one of the rail bridges converted for biking use on the Great Allegheny Passage © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding over one of the rail bridges converted for biking use on the Great Allegheny Passage © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We continue on for several more miles until we come to the trickiest part of the ride – the shopping mall that has replaced Carnegie’s steel mill – and back to where we have parked, under the smokestacks.

This ride showcases a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy success story – the gorgeously maintained Great Allegheny Passage trail. It exemplifies the renaissance from industrial blight back to clean air and water and a better quality of life.  Besides bringing in visitors who form the underpinning of a new, sustainable economy, the trail directly benefits locals, too – healthy living (the best preventive medicine) while offering families fun activities they can share together.

Complete from Pittsburgh in the west to Cumberland, MD in the east, the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage connects with the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Towpath to create a 335-mile non-motorized route between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. AMTRAK offers a walk on bicycle service. (https://gaptrail.org/, 888-282-BIKE).

For more information about the sojourn supported bike tours, visit railstotrails.org/sojourn.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington DC with more than 160,000 members and supporters, is the nation’s largest trails organization dedicated to connecting people and communities by creating a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines. Founded in 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s national office is located in Washington, D.C., with regional offices in California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. For more information, visit www.railstotrails.org or call 866-202-9788.

These rides are organized by Wilderness Voyageurs which offers many different biking and rafting trips including inn to inn biking trips, across the US and international: 800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.

See also:

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Takes Cyclists on Sojourn on Great Allegheny Passage

Rails-to-Trails’ Great Allegheny Passage Bike Tour Side Trip into Dunbar Brings Surprise Encounter with TrumpWorld

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage 

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

Rails-to-Trails’ Great Allegheny Passage Bike Tour Side Trip into Dunbar Brings Surprise Encounter with TrumpWorld

Biking the Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail, Confluence to Adelaide, PA on Rails-to-Trails’ spring sojourn © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
Biking the Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail, Confluence to Adelaide, PA on Rails-to-Trails’ spring sojourn © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(After meeting up at Homestead, PA and bussing to the start of our Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s first springtime Sojourn, a three-day biketour on the Great Allegheny Passage, we start off Day 2 in Harnedsville and ride 33.5 miles to Adelaide. Our adventure continues.)

Yesterday, our first day on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn bike tour on the Great Allegheny Passage was mostly under overcast skies and rainy (fortunately after we finished the ride) but today is crystal clear, glorious spring day. This is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s first spring sojourn supported bike tour  – these sojourns are designed to showcase rail-trails, transform trail users into advocates and show the value for economic development for trail networks nationwide – and we soon realize the advantages of a spring ride: The leaves are not yet full on the trees so we can see through to the vistas, and have a soft delicacy that makes you think of Chinese painting. The blossoms are out making for gorgeous pastel colors. Butterflies seem to be everywhere, but the pesky insects haven’t yet appeared. There are scores of waterfalls from the spring melt. The weather is cool, sparkling, the air so and pure it is like a narcotic.

Our group is only 85 riders (owing in part to the fact the ride started on a workday/school day and finishes on Mothers Day). Nonetheless, we come from dozens of states. A woman from Colorado observes that the hardwood trees which line the path, some impossibly tall and straight like tent-poles, create a canopy effect which she doesn’t have. Today, the trees seem to glow in yellow sunlight.

Our ride today from Harnedsville, where we camped on the grounds of the Turkey Foot Valley School, is 33.5 miles to Adelaide, almost entirely downhill. We will drop 500 feet in elevation, overall, and we continue to marvel how well maintained the trail is – wide, flat, crushed gravel.

We ride over a bridge over the Casselman River, then another bridge over the Youghiogheny River, then pass under the highway bridge at Confluence where there is a fisherman casting for trout.

A scene along the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail on day 2 of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Spring Sojourn, just outside Confluence © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A scene along the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail on day 2 of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Spring Sojourn, just outside Confluence © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail is absolutely stunning. On one side, you see wonderful rock formations – signposts that explain the geology and point to a seam of coal (I find pieces of coal along the path).

Much of the ride today is through the utterly gorgeous Ohiopyle State Park, and a highlight comes at the town of Ohiopyle, a hub for visiting the park. A short ride off the trail are the 20’ waterfalls across the width of the Youghiogheny River (no luck spotting the Youghiogheny Monster). This is a rafting and kayaking center and for excellent reason– a class 5 river at the top, a class 3 below the falls.

Kayakers at the bottom of the Youghiogheny River falls in Ohiopyle State Park. A new visitors center offers fabulous views and excellent exhibits © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kayakers at the bottom of the Youghiogheny River falls in Ohiopyle State Park. A new visitors center offers fabulous views and excellent exhibits © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The people are duly proud of their new Visitors Center – an architectural gem wonderfully positioned to let you look out over the falls, while in the lower level, offering excellent exhibits about the area – how water power was central to its development – with interactive exhibits that will engage children.

Wagons and settlers came through on the National Road in 1818. Ohiopyle, itself, was settled in 1891, when it was known as Falls City, and its economy revolved around these rushing waters. The area has always drawn tourists because of the natural beauty. Among the early visitors: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone came in a camper in 1918. Visiting wasn’t cheap – an exhibit notes that a family spent $20 on accommodations and $11 on tolls, at a time when the average worker took home just $11 a month.

But by 1900, the area was already polluted by coal production and lumbering.

Today, though, the natural beauty has been reclaimed. Ohiopyle is at the hub of the 20,000 acre Ohiopyle State Park which features utterly stunning sites including the Youghiogheny River Gorge, Ohiopyle Falls, Cucumber Falls and Ferncliff Peninsula (724-329-8591, ohiopylesp@pa.gov.)

The town now has wonderful shops that cater to visitors, outdoor recreation.

Nearby is Fallingwater, a home designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1937 for the wealthy Pittsburgh department store magnate, Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. (www.fallingwater.org/2/visit), and Kentuck Knob, another Wright work. (www.friendsofohiopyle.info, 224-329-8591).

The trail from Confluence to Ohiopyle was the first completed section of the GAP – in 1986 – and it is gorgeous.

Riding out of Ohiopyle, I see the Great Gorge hiking trail which goes to Cucumber Falls. I am tempted but I am not sure how far the hike is and how long it will take (next time, I will).

Trees line the Great Allegheny Passage on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s spring sojourn © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Trees line the Great Allegheny Passage on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s spring sojourn © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Continuing on, there are wonderful hiking trails, and we take a short one just across from where we have our rest stop which is supposed to take us to a view over the Youghiogheny falls. The view isn’t so great, but surrounded by wilderness, it is easy to imagine this landscape when the Indians were the main inhabitants.

We come to a new connector to the Sheepskin Trail, a 34-mile “missing link” between the Great Allegheny Passage, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and the West Virginia Mon River Trail System.

We ride the new trail from the GAP for 2 miles into the town Dunbar (we had to ride over a rocky half-mile section that is still being finished by the railroad).

Bike-Trail, Trump Sculpture Breathe New Life into Dunbar

Historic buildings such as the George H. Swearingen Store (1901) are testament to the Dunbar’s former prosperity as an industrial center © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Historic buildings such as the George H. Swearingen Store (1901) are testament to the Dunbar’s former prosperity as an industrial center © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dunbar is the poster child for a town blighted by the loss of industry and epochal changes in technology, but here you also witness the beginning of a revitalization largely because of the rail-trail. But its history has always been that way: new technology and new industry that brings new people, and funds new structures and institutions. The entirety of the Industrial Revolution, supplanting the agrarian economy, was that way.

Settled in the 1790s, Dunbar was originally called Frogtown. It was renamed for Col. Thomas Dunbar who fought in the French & Indian War along with General Braddock, and helped retake Fort DuQuesne (now Fort Pitt) in Pittsburgh, taking from the French and important hub from which it wanted to control its colonial empire (as I have learned from my visit to the Fort Pitt Museum there, www.heinzhistorycenter.org/fort-pitt/).

Historic coke oven in Dunbar’s town park © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Historic coke oven in Dunbar’s town park © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 1793, Isaac Meason set into motion an industrial revolution in Dunbar when he opened his Union Furnace #1 (I later see a street named for Meason). This became Dunbar’s lifeblood over the next century. One of the coke ovens now has a place in the town park, alongside a creek, adjacent to the railroad tracks. All around the town are the brick buildings that are testament to the prosperity – at one time, there were five banks. From the time of Meason’s first iron furnace through the 1950s, Dunbar was home to Dunbar Furnace, Pennsylvania Wire Glass Company (it was a leading glass making center), Bluestone quarry, among others, plus several mines and coke oven sites. Today, we see some wonderful historic buildings from the turn of the last century, such as the George H. Swearingen Store (1901) just across from the railroad tracks.

Except for the little league baseball game going on and the activity at the Historical Society, the town is eerily vacant – almost like a movie set.

The rail-trail is breathing new life into towns like Dunbar. Last year, RTC centered its Sojourn ride around Dunbar, a sleepy town of 1900 people, camping overnight in the Coke Oven town park, and all 300 riders, who hailed from 36 states, were personally greeted by the mayor. He appreciated what this event could mean to its economic development (the ride alone injected $245,000 into the local economy.

Donald J. Trump commemorates his largesse in donating Pascal's "Seated Torso" glass sculpture to the town of Dunbar, where it is housed at a new Historical Society annex © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Donald J. Trump commemorates his largesse in donating Pascal’s “Seated Torso” glass sculpture to the town of Dunbar, where it is housed at a new Historical Society annex © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This year, there is a major new attraction in Dunbar which really will draw people: an 8 x 5 foot, 2,800-pound glass sculpture, “Seated Torso,” by French artist Pascal, who visited Dunbar in 1961 when it was still a major glass-making center, as the Pennsylvania Wire Glass Co. was going bankrupt and closing down, donated to the tiny town by none other than Donald J. Trump.

The Dunbar glass was unusual because it was so tempered, it resisted splintering when struck with a hammer, and Pascal could attempt what no one else had accomplished, sculpt glass. She purchased a 4,000-pound hunk of the glass, according to an account published in Triblive.com.

“Pascal spent 15 to 20 years carving ‘Seated Torso,’ [her daughter Jill] Petty said. It was purchased in 1994 for $3 million by billionaire John Kluge, who at the time was considered one of the richest men in America.

“Kluge, who died in 2010, displayed the sculpture in a domed rotunda at his Charlottesville, Va., estate. When tycoon Donald Trump acquired the estate for a winery, he needed the space for other purposes, and a search was on for a home for the piece, said Kerry Woolard, general manager of Trump Winery.”

So, the Trump people decided to return the sculpture to where the glass had originated. Then it was up to the town to raise the tens of thousands of dollars to build a place to display the piece and get it to Dunbar, including $16,000 to remove the roof from the domed structure in Virginia in order to extricate it, Trib Live’s Liz Zemba reported.

(I have no doubt Donald Trump took a $3.5 million tax deduction for his largesse.)

Artist Pascal’s “Seated Torso” glass sculpture now housed in a new Dunbar Historical Society annex should be a major draw to the town © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Artist Pascal’s “Seated Torso” glass sculpture now housed in a new Dunbar Historical Society annex should be a major draw to the town © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We visit on the day that the Dunbar Historical Society is unveiling the new space, the Pascal Annex, that houses the Seated Torso and offers quite a fine exhibit of the artist, as well as a framed photo and letter from Donald J. Trump. We are also treated to a bottle of 2008 vintage Trump “red wine.” (Dunbar Historical Society Center, www.dunbarhistoricalsociety.com, 724-277-8800).

It is fascinating to see the contrast between Dunbar and Connellsville, just a few miles away on the trail.

Connellsville is located on the banks of the Youghiogheny River – new, beautiful homes have been built between the bike trail (once the railroad) and the river.

Connellsville was once known as the “coke center of the world” – for the coke ovens that heated the coal to produce steel. In the early 1900s, beehive ovens “lit up the hillsides” (you can see ovens between miles 93 and 94) and there would have been rail lines and streetcars crisscrossing the city.

We pass the Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Factory, with painted silos (part of the public art program along the rail trail that we have been enjoying).

The trail takes us through the West Side (formerly the town of New Haven). In the renovated Yough River Park, where we have our support stop. We pass by a re-creation of Col. William Crawford’s 1766 Cabin and Spring House, and one of 16 Heritage Trail signs that you can follow on a two-mile walk or ride to explore the city – another indicator of pride people have in their heritage.

The end of our 33-mile ride on Day 2 of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Spring Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage takes us to the ROA camping resort in Adelaide, where Comfy Campers has already set up tents © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The end of our 33-mile ride on Day 2 of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Spring Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage takes us to the ROA camping resort in Adelaide, where Comfy Campers has already set up tents © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to the KOA at River’s Edge- a camping resort that borders both the rail-trail and the river, which seems luxurious to us (there are inner tubes available and other water sports equipment, including a pool which is not yet open for the season. We enjoy a BBQ dinner under a pavilion and the other amenities of a camping resort. It is Saturday night and the resort offers a DJ that plays until 10 pm.

For more information about Rails-to-Trails Conservancy rides and to register, visit railstotrails.org/sojourn.

Next: Great Allegheny Passage bike tour takes us back to Homestead’s turbulent industrial history

See also:

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Takes Cyclists on Sojourn on Great Allegheny Passage

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

 

____________________

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

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Takes Cyclists on Sojourn on Great Allegheny Passage

 

 

A highlight of this section of the Great Allegheny Passage ride is going through the Pinkerton Tunnel, only recently rebuilt and reopened © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A highlight of this section of the Great Allegheny Passage ride is going through the Pinkerton Tunnel, only recently rebuilt and reopened © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m the first to arrive at the appointed spot beside the tall brick smokestacks that border the parking field of a shopping mill, where once one of Pittsburgh’s mighty steel mills had been. It’s 6:30 am, but one of the leaders of the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Great Allegheny Passage Spring Sojourn is already here. Gradually over the next half hour, our group of 85 riders comes together. We bring our bikes, now with our “license plate” to a truck, load our luggage and camping gear, board the two buses, and drive about 1 ½ hours to where the start of our three-day, 120 mile ride begins, in Meyersdale.

Meyersdale is just nine miles down from the Eastern Divide – the equivalent of the Continental Divide, a highpoint in the Allegheny Mountains. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a relatively new, dedicated rail-trail completed in 2013, actually starts in Cumberland, 32 miles from where we begin our sojourn. The GAP links to the 184.5-mile C&O Canal trail that comes out of Washington DC, and extends 150 miles westward to Pittsburgh, creating a 335-mile non-motorized route between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. (AMTRAK offers a walk on bicycle service; https://gaptrail.org/, 888-282-BIKE).

We are starting our ride below the Divide, so our trip today, 27 miles, will be a gentle decline totaling 600 feet. Had I been cleverer, I would have done what a few others did, and go back the nine miles up to the Divide, which would have added about 1 ½ hours to the ride. (

We are greeted at the Meyersdale train station, now converted into a delightful café and shop, by representatives of the Meyersdale Merchants Association. We are part of the repurposed, renewed, sustainable economy, now that the rail line, steel and coal extraction have shut down. The rail-trail has brought new visitors, and new vitality, to these small villages and towns all along the Great Allegheny Passage.

This is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s first spring sojourn, and it takes place over Mothers Day, no less, which accounts for our group being smaller than a typical sojourn – just 85 riders instead of over 200 which is more typical of the annual sojourn. But this year, RTC is for the first time offering a series of four sojourn rides. The first, in Florida, had already taken place. The third one will be in West Virginia (June19-22); and the last is four-days/three nights from Cleveland to Columbus on the Ohio-to-Erie Trail, Ohio in (Sept. 23-26, 4 days/three nights)..

Riding over the historic Salisbury Viaduct on the Great Allegheny Passage trail, wind turbines on the hillside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding over the historic Salisbury Viaduct on the Great Allegheny Passage trail, wind turbines on the hillside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

These rides showcase the progress of rail lines that are no longer used converted to biking and multi-use trails, and where there are gaps in the trails that need the support of advocates, communities and government to complete. The Great Allegheny Passage rail trail is on what was the Western Pennsylvania line, which closed in 1975, because it couldn’t compete with the C&O line (that still operates on the other side of the river, and, as it happens, right beside our campsites).

This ride, as it turns out, showcases a success story – the Great Allegheny Passage trail we ride over these three days is exquisite, a testament to the enthusiastic participation and pride of the communities it crosses – wide, with crushed limestone, lovely sitting areas along the way with views to the river, wonderful bridges and tunnels, some bathroom facilities, excellent signage, even “stations” where there are bike repair tools and an air pump. Since its opening, GAP (as it is known) has become one of the most popular trails and was the first inductee in RTC’s Rail-Trail “Hall of Fame.”

Our ride features gorgeous mountain vistas and relaxing river scenes, historic bridges and tunnels that showcase the GAP’s railway heritage. Highlights include Salisbury Viaduct, Casselman River Valley, the Historic Pump House (Homestead) and Great Allegheny Passage Trail towns: Meyersdale, West Newton, Confluence and Ohiopyle.

Offering these supported bike rides is not RTC’s main mission, but the rides are invaluable to raising consciousness and commitment, not just of the riders, but of the communities which are essential. We become ambassadors for the concept of rail-trails,

The Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage is a supported ride © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage is a supported ride © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I love these supported rides. RTC’s sojourns are professionally organized by an Ohiopyle-based tour company, Wilderness Voyageurs, which lays out the route, arranges for our camping sites, the trucks, the meals (breakfast and dinner), the support stops.

This ride takes place over Mothers Day, as well as over a work/school day. Nonetheless, there are a number of us who have come on our own, leaving spouse and/or children at home (one mother left her five kids, age 8 to 16 at home with her husband as her Mothers Day gift). These rides are ideal for couples, for families (the ages on this ride range from 8 years old to 82 and a 10-year old can manage the ride), and particularly for single travelers because we become not just a community, but a tribe – a nomadic tribe in fact that picks up stakes and moves on each day. It’s a supported ride which means that our luggage is ferried by truck to the next  designated campground where they have arranged dinner and breakfast, a place to charge our phones, bathrooms and showers, provide support stops (with snacks) along the way, leader/volunteers who ride with us and behind, and support vehicle if anyone can’t complete the day’s ride.

Day 1: Meyersdale to Harnedsville, 27.3 Miles

The first day’s ride starts in Meyersdale in the Casselman River Valley, near Pennsylvania’s highest point, Mount Davis (mile 32 from the start of the Great Allegheny Passage trail).

The area was first occupied by the Monongahela Indians, who harvested the sap from maple trees to make maple syrup – and representatives of the Meyersdale Merchants Association greet us with maple candy samples. Known as “Maple City,” Meyersdale has hosted the Pennsylvania Maple Festival every March for more than 60 years.

The town itself is experiencing a renaissance with rail-trail and the completion of a streetscape project. At the trail access, the Western Maryland Railway Station has been turned into a visitor center, with local history exhibits and a retail store. A mural on Main Street (one of several along the Great Allegheny Passage) pays homage to Meyersdale’s roots as a bustling transportation hub for local agriculture, coal and timber. (www.visitmeyersdale.com).

There is a bit of fan-fare as we set out, going through a blow-up arch.

Countryside just passed the Salisbury Viaduct on the Great Allegheny Passage outside Meyersdale © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Countryside just passed the Salisbury Viaduct on the Great Allegheny Passage outside Meyersdale © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is clear, sunny day as we set out, but the weather forecast is for clouds and rain. But we soon come to one of the highlights of the GAP: going over the Salisbury Viaduct,: 1,912’ long, built in 1908, it is our first crossing of the Casselman River (this turns out to be one of the top 10 photo views). At the other end, we see a line of wind turbines on stretched out over the hilltops – a fitting testament to what is old is new again. I also come upon an old cemetery – a stone there memorializes Peter G. Meyers who died in 1891, and I wonder if he is the founder of Meyersdale.

Our cue sheets (very well done) also point us to the Wymps Gap Fossil Quarry, at 9.0 miles into the ride. During the Mississippian Period (330 million years ago), Western Pennsylvania was the hsore of a shallow sea. The exposed limestone layers are a fairly thin band of fossil bearing rock sandwiched between layers of shale. It’s marked with a wooden post, labeled GR5 (unfortunately, I miss it)..

At 11.9 miles, we pass Rockwood, where we are recommended for lunch options.

Rockwood is described as a tightly knit rural community, with roots in industry and railroading. The town was laid out in 1857 but boomed after the end of the Civil War, with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. By 1884, the town had several mils and shops, four general stores, two grocery stores and four hotels.

Playful public art pays homage to Rockwood’s heritage and its new commitment to the bike trail © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Playful public art pays homage to Rockwood’s heritage and its new commitment to the bike trail © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A locomotive sculpture at the Rockwood trailhead is a link between the town’s rail history and its present-day “investment” in biking and recreation. You cross the Casselman River to get into the town. There is public art, including a mural that honors trail ambassador Maynard Sembower, who died in 2009 at the age of 100 – a reminder that these improvements are the result of sweat and activism of committed individuals.

The most interesting structure is the Rockwood Mill Shops & Opera House, with a performance space. Lumber and feed were processed in the building for nearly a century, while the opera house hosted visiting and local performers above the mill. The building was restored in 2000 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (www.somersetcountychamber.com).

The highlight of today’s ride for me comes at 19.9 miles: riding through the 849‘ long Pinkerton Tunnel. The tunnel was originally built in 1911, collapsed and was rebuilt in a kind of a kwansit hut at a cost of $1.8 million and only reopened in 2015. It is very surreal going through it: Inside, a dizzying array of concentric metallic circles – long, dark, with proverbial light at the end of it.

Shortly after, we cross High Bridge over the Casselman River (our third crossing on the GAP today).

The Great Allegheny Passage reclaims a former rail line into a stunning 150-mile non-motorized trail returned to nature © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Great Allegheny Passage reclaims a former rail line into a stunning 150-mile non-motorized trail returned to nature © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At 27.1 miles, we leave the GAP and follow the signs they have placed for us, for a couple of turns that bring us just a 2/10 of a mile beyond to the grounds of the Turkey Foot High School (which has been on the USA Today’s list of top high schools) where we will camp.

It’s Friday and school is in session, so we aren’t able to enter the school until after 3:30 pm – a little disconcerting because rain is threatening.

I opt to continue down the trail another two miles to the town of Confluence, so named because it is set where three rivers converge. It’s the shape of the three peninsulas that looks just like a turkey’s foot.

A highlight of this section of the Great Allegheny Passage ride is going through the Pinkerton Tunnel, only recently rebuilt and reopened © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A highlight of this section of the Great Allegheny Passage ride is going through the Pinkerton Tunnel, only recently rebuilt and reopened © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, in George Washington’s day, this area was called Turkeyfoot by natives and settlers. George Washington, himself, came to the confluence of the rivers in 1754 during the French & Indian War, as he and his soldiers were on their way to the forks of the Ohio River. As we travel the trail in the woods, revitalized and full now that the steel mills and coal mining have shut down, I can easily imagine the wilderness that he saw and the how the Indians would have used the rivers.

The skies have been threatening rain and I return to the campsite.

If we don’t want to set up our own tents, we can use the Comfy Camper service or stay in nearby bed-and-breakfast accommodations. This trip I treat myself to the Comfy Camper service ($118 for the two nights, comfycampers.info, 315-283-0220) and it adds a measure of luxury to the trip: When I arrive, the tent – roomy, comfortable, wonderfully waterproof, with an air mattress, chair and towel – are all ready for me. Shawn Stewart, owner/director, has just finished blowing up the air mattress and I am cozy inside, just as the rain comes down in earnest.

Our dinner is provided by the Turkey Foot Fire Department – another way the Sojourn supports local communities.

Ambassadors for Rail-Trails

Indeed, this is the theme for the Sojourn rides.

During the evening’s presentation, Tom Sexton, Northeast Regional Director of Rails to Trails Conservancy, tells us about the plans to finish the gaps on the trails, and ultimately connect a network of trails stretching through most of the Mid Atlantic.

RTC, in its 30th year, helps finds money and means to build rail-trails. Since 1991, $1 billion spent. Certain amount of transportation money (from fed) has to be spent on things other than highways, airports, bridges, but “other transit.” RTC helps communities, nonprofits, governments come together on how to build rail trail – negotiate with railroad, what surface to use, how to maintain. RTC also offers its members TrailLink – an online tool that helps you find trails and map your ride.

These Sojourns are a means of engaging interest in the rail trials – spotlighting gaps in trails, showcasing successes, and inspiring communities to get involved. The riders become ambassadors – especially with our “license” plates and shirts that announce who we are.

The sojourn also helps show a community (and funding agencies) the economic benefits of trails, as well as its social benefits, building camaraderie, community, and quality of life benefits.

“Towns (like Dunbar) which have fallen on hard times since the railroad left, find the trails revitalize, become the main street. In 15 years since RTC started sojourn rides, we’ve hosted 3400 riders, brought $2.1 billion in spin off to the corridors we ride through.

“We show that an economy built around the rail-trail is sustainable. The money spent stays here, it has low impact. The trail benefits environment and the local people who benefit from trails.”

Indeed, as we ride over the weekend, you see families out and about – the trails provide a healthy, active outdoor activity that families can share together.

RTC has big plans to create a regional network of interconnected trails.

For example, connecting Parkersburg West Virginia, the access for the North Bend Trail (the start of the third Sojourn of this year’s series) to Pittsburgh and the GAP rail trail, which already connects to the 34-mile long Sheepskin Trail out of Dunbar.

Then the idea is to continue on to Clarksburg-Parkersburg trail, which will be 260 miles when finished. At that point, you could start in DC, go to Pittsburgh (on C&O, 183 miles and GAP 150 miles), altogether about 600 miles.

“This is the epicenter of trails in the US,” Sexton says.

But this is only a piece of what is an even bigger grand plan. 

Eric Oberg, Director of Trail Development, Midwest Regional Office, speaks of a “Trails Manifest Destiny”:in describing a sprawling network of 1,450 miles of interconnected multiuse trails that will be called “The Industrial Heartland Trail” which together, would be the largest in the country – from DC to Pittsburgh, to Cleveland –Cleveland-Cincinnati-Dayton, Parkersburg, Indianapolis, up to Erie and Buffalo (where you can then connect to the 400-mile long Erie Canalway). Some 48% of these multi-use trails are done, and the hope is to have it completed by 2035.

“It won’t take 80 years, but it will be more than five years” before the manifest destiny is realized, Eric says.

Comfy Campers sets up comfortable tents with air mattress, chair and towel for those who don’t want that extra luxury © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Comfy Campers sets up comfortable tents with air mattress, chair and towel for those who don’t want that extra luxury © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Sojourn Bike Tours

For the first time in the 14 years of hosting a Sojourn bike tour showcasing a rail-trail, the Rail-Trails Conservancy expanded the series to four rides: the first, in Florida, was held in February; the second on the popular Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, was May 6-8. The third was a four-day/three-night North Bend Rail Trail out of Parkersburg, West Virginia (June 19-22; and the last was four-days/three nights from Cleveland to Columbus on the Ohio-to-Erie Trail, Ohio in September.

“The Sojourn Series is much more than just a bike ride. It’s a trail building tool for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and allows us to pull advocacy into participants’ trail use experience.”

The Sojourn rides are crafted to weave experiences that go beyond simply riding from point A to point B. Each sojourn aims to transform trail users into advocates and create the economic case for trail networks nationwide.

The West Virginia Sojourn showcases the North Bend Rail Trail out of Parkersburg, West Virginia. “It is an incredible trail but does not yet connect to the two communities on either end, Parkersburg and Clarksburg.” This ride serves to bring attention to those gaps and advocate for their completion. The corridor is also part of a much larger trail development effort being undertaken by the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition.

“The West Virginia ride will allow you to get on a new trail and take part in some of the advocacy that our organization is known for.”

Since 2001, more than 3,000 riders have joined RTC’s sojourns. These rides not only highlight incredible trails, but they also help empower communities to complete trail networks that will benefit the entire region.

Equally importantly, they highlight the economic benefit to communities, particularly those who have seen older industries shut down, along with the rail lines.

RTC’s 2015 Pennsylvania Rail-Trail Sojourn brought visitors from 35 states and had an economic impact of more than $245,000 – something significant for a town like Dunbar, Pennsylvania, which once depended upon coal and railroads.

The rail-trail could be an engine for a new economy fueled by lodging, restaurants and gear shops. RTC estimates that the GAP would generate more than $40 million in direct spending from trail users annually.

“The Sojourn Series is a real-world example that show how trails can provide an economic boon to local economies,” says Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development for RTC. “By providing these rides, we’re creating more opportunities for people to experience and advocate for these trail networks.”

For more information about the rides and to register, visit railstotrails.org/sojourn.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization with more than 160,000 members and supporters, is the nation’s largest trails organization dedicated to connecting people and communities by creating a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines. Founded in 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s national office is located in Washington, D.C., with regional offices in California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. For more information, visit www.railstotrails.org. 

These rides are organized by Wilderness Voyageurs which offers many different biking and rafting trips including inn to inn biking trips, across the US and international: 800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.

Next: Great Allegheny Passage Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn Continues

See also:

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

____________________

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

 

 

 

Biking Albania: Saranda & the Albanian Riviera

Saranda, a cosmopolitan resort town on Albania’s Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Saranda, a cosmopolitan resort town on Albania’s Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip.  (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 7th in the series.)

After our tour of the National Park of Butrint, the extraordinary archaeological site that lets us travel through five époques of civilization, from the Hellenic to Roman, to Ottoman to Venetian, we continue riding our bikes into Saranda, one of the most popular beach towns along Albania’s Riviera, the end of a 70 km ride.

Draped along a curving bay with a narrow strip of beach, Saranda immediately reminds me of some of the smaller, non-posh beach towns of the French Riviera. Riding in, there are any number of new-built apartment houses, many not yet finished (housing bubble, anybody?). We ride down to the beach level where lovely hotels abound, and there is a gorgeous promenade.

Our bike tour turns into a beach holiday, and we get to see a different side of Albania – Albanians at play.

Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Saranda immediately reminds me of some of the smaller, non-posh beach towns of the French Riviera. Riding in, there are any number of new-built apartment houses, many not yet finished (housing bubble, anybody?). We ride down to the beach level where lovely hotels abound, and there is a gorgeous promenade.

Saranda, formerly known as Porto Edda, named after Mussolini’s daughter, has emerged as a major beach resort on the Ionian Sea, just opposite the Greek island of to Corfu (we watch major cruise ships sailing in the distance toward Corfu). Indeed, it has that cosmopolitan flare we found in Korca, owing to the fact many foreign day-trippers come by ferry from Corfu. There is a very festive atmosphere – and didn’t exist during the Communist reign. Indeed, most of its buildings are post-1990.

Still, Albanian most southern coastal city, only recently accessible, remains unpretentious.

Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get the idea that this would be a great place for some Americans looking for an inexpensive place to retire where there is a very pleasant, relaxed, welcoming atmosphere (like in “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”). It is cheap to live here, where I calculate living costs at about one-fourth to one-fifth of what we expect to pay in the US, and where the median annual income is $5000 (though Albania’s medical infrastructure gets mixed reviews).

Our bike tour turns into a beach holiday, and we get to see a different side of Albania – Albanians at play.

I drop my stuff at our hotel, a very pleasant place which is directly above this marvelous promenade with gorgeous views from my balcony to the beachfront and marina, and go for a swim.

Instead of soft white sand, though, the beach is made of pebbles (bring water shoes, not just flip flops).

Strolling the promenade at night in the resort town of Saranda on Albania's Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Strolling the promenade at night in the resort town of Saranda on Albania’s Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Strolling along the promenade after dinner, I mix in with the crowds of people – couples holding hands, groups of friends, families with young children excitedly leaning up to an ice cream stand. There is a gay, carefree spirit.

This could be Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Long Beach, Jones Beach.

Across the water there is a loud dance place, with bright lights flashing; they shoot off fireworks.

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

(I subsequently learn that just before we arrived here, the city unveiled a bust to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but I did not know to look for it.)

(More info at www.visitsaranda.com)

Day 8 Cycling: Himare

Today’s ride, the last of the cycling portion of our specially arranged President’s tour of Albania, is the most arduous and challenging, with a total elevation gain of 1064 meters (and an equal drop), over a distance of 54 km.

Cycling along Albania’s Ionian Seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Cycling along Albania’s Ionian Seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We cycle up out of Saranda, along the Albanian Riviera heading north toward Himare, a small Communist-era fishing village. We have mountains to the right and coastal views to the left before descending to the long beach and bay of Potam where we get to swim in the brilliant aquamarine waters of the Ionian Sea, just across the street from our hotel.

Himare, a Communist-era fishing village is an emerging beach town on Albania’s Ionian seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Himare, a Communist-era fishing village is an emerging beach town on Albania’s Ionian seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This ends the biking portion of our trip and I am frankly sad to see our bikes (especially my e-bike, which I have become very attached to) being hauled off in the van by Bato, our wonderful driver. The next two days, we will be traveling by kayak – another special feature of this specially tailored Presidents’ tour.

Seeing the coastline from the kayak is stunning – the blue-to-aquamarine-to-emerald colored water, so clear when you look down; the rocky cliffs that drop straight into the water.

Kayaking to a secluded beach along Albania’s Ionian seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kayaking to a secluded beach along Albania’s Ionian seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We paddle about 6 km, pulling into secluded beaches and coves, and get to peak into a couple of small caves. There are any number of these beaches where there are but a handful of people, some of whom are camping out.

Kayaking to a secluded beach along Albania’s Ionian seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kayaking to a secluded beach along Albania’s Ionian seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the beaches near Himare (also spelled Dhimare), in particular, has a canyon for a backdrop of exquisite beauty.

It is tremendous fun to arrive into the place where you will be staying by kayak.

A canyon behind a secluded beach along Albania’s Ionian seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A canyon behind a secluded beach along Albania’s Ionian seacoast © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our last two days are spent in Dhermi – a small village that is considered Albania’s #1 beach town – providing us with an unexpected time to just relax and stay put.

Dhermi is considered Albania’s #1 beach town © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Dhermi is considered Albania’s #1 beach town © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is like the Riviera without any of the pretension. Lounge chairs and umbrellas are neatly laid out; a waiter comes to take drink orders; the roadway (sometimes asphalt, sometimes cobblestone and sometimes dirt and rock) lined with hotels and restaurants.

Here we get more opportunity to hang out with ordinary Albanian families. I am struck to see how parents dote over their kids, how tender, attentive and adoring fathers are with their toddlers, how women are every bit on equal footing with the men, without any kind of self-consciousness. It just is. And how scant the bathing suits. So much for a Majority Muslim country.

Sunset from Dhermi © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sunset from Dhermi © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On our last evening, Junid, our guide, drives us up to the actual town, Dhermi,built into the hillside, where there is a delightful tavern that has an exquisite view of the sunset.

The next day, on our way back to Tirana, the capital city, where the Mother Theresa International Airport is located, he takes us up to an even higher promontory on the mountain pass, where we get to watch a paragliding club take off and soar down to the seacoast.

Paragliding in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Paragliding in Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is hard to imagine these scenes 35 years ago or even 20 years ago.

This is the new Albania, the young Albania. It is a very different place from even 10 years ago and one only can imagine what it will be like in 10 years time.

“It’s Europe’s best-kept—and maybe last—secret,” says Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com. Few foreigners have visited this mysterious country due to decades of Communist rule, dictatorship and isolationism. But since the country opened its borders in 1991, visitors have been awestruck by its untouched nature and rich culture and the overall uniqueness of this truly special place.

“Albania still remains undiscovered by mass tourism, setting it apart from other European destinations. In Rome, you’ll throng elbow to elbow with tourists vying for views of ancient ruins. In Albania, you’ll often have them all to yourself. In Butrint National Park, for example, our small group roamed nearly alone among acres of ruins dating from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval times. Even just to the north in Croatia, tourists clog the beaches. In Albania, we could dip our toes into turquoise waters along the pristine coastline with not another person in sight.

“Albania is the best place no one has been to yet,” he says. “See it now” before it comes on to travelers’ radar.

Bike Touring: Best Way to Travel

I’ve been touring Albania for just two weeks – before it was a complete unknown to me, and I expect most Americans. But I believe that I have really come to know the country, its culture and its people and that’s mainly because of the way we travel: by bike.

Bike touring is the best way to engage, to really discover a destination even in a short period of time. Cars and tour buses would never come to these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways; they would never come through these villages and neighborhoods as we have. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, and looking through glass windows puts a layer of unreality.

Biking through Albania with BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking through Albania with BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have found, over a lifetime of travel, that bike touring is my favorite style of traveling. The pace is perfect to really see things – I really like the physical aspect (as opposed to sitting in a car or bus to get point-to-point), with the ability to stop and really look around, have a conversation with a local person, take a photo. The word “authentic” has been bandied about, but bike touring affords one of the more “authentic” travel experiences. Typically, the routes go into villages, through neighborhoods, and along country roads that would not typically be traveled by a tour bus.

And now, with the availability of e-bikes (which are not scooters, but basically provide an electronic boost to your pedaling), especially in hilly destinations, you really don’t have to worry about being able to manage the distance or climbing the hills.

Exercising your body (biking versus sitting in a car or bus) also gets your brain working, and you find yourselves really thinking about what you are seeing, really absorbing.

And what you feel at the end of the trip is a combination of exhilaration, satisfaction and personal growth.

BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson, who is leading this special “President’s Tour” of Albania (and who is providing some counsel to USAID on how to develop sustainable tourism, like bike trips), says that too many people have a misconception of what bike tours are about.

“They think they will be biking 100 miles in a day.” In fact, the distances each day were more in the range of 25-50 miles, depending upon the difficulty, and are broken up with coffee stops and lunch.

Biking from Saranda to Himare © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking from Saranda to Himare © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

More significantly, the bike tour itinerary is constructed so that the distances are manageable (there are classes of guided bike-tours which indicate the difficulty), and the emphasis is on enjoying and appreciating the destination, as opposed to racing or training for the Olympics. The day’s rides are designed to feature the best scenery and sites. And each day, we finish biking early in the afternoon and have time for sightseeing, or visit sites along the way, still arriving early in the afternoon at our destination. (Admissions are typically included and the visits are guided.)

Also people assume that on a guided tour, they will have to ride in a pack. In fact, we ride at our own pace.

Our biking tour through Albania brings us through countryside we would likely never get to otherwise © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our biking tour through Albania brings us through countryside we would likely never get to otherwise © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Also, even though this is a guided group trip, we ride at our own pace – the guide or the group typically will take a water break to allow the slower rider (me) catch up, and there will always be someone to wait for the following rider if there is a turn. When there are larger groups, there is typically a guide at the front and at the back. (Once I inexplicably wound up as the lead rider and came to a fork in the road, and was just consulting my map when I hear shouts to tell me I was on the wrong side of the fork.).

In the Greek Isles on Biketours.com’s bike/boat trip, when we had a dozen in our group, there was a guide leading and another following; here in Albania, with only five riders, we had a guide and are followed by a van (Bato keeps a distance so we barely notice him) – and if any of us would have felt we couldn’t finish a climb, could have just hopped in.

The rides are supported – the van carries our luggage (that is a key difference with traveling on your own) as well as a supply of water.

There are variations on bike tours.

Our Biketours.com group says goodbye to Bato, the van driver, and our bikes at the end of the cycling portion of our Albania trip © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our Biketours.com group says goodbye to Bato, the van driver, and our bikes at the end of the cycling portion of our Albania trip © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Guided bike tours are a terrific advantage, especially if you are traveling on your own – you get to join a group. But you also have the benefit of a guide to lead, who knows the territory, speaks the language, has mapped the best route both for riding as well as sights), and can explain things. Equally important, there is the benefit of the support van that carries luggage and is available in case someone feels they can’t climb the hill. You have the benefit of arranged coffee stops, lunch places, quaint accommodations, admissions to sites and attractions. On your own, you would need massive amounts of time to research the route, find lodging, not know the quality of the road or how long it would take to get to the destination.

Self-guided trips: Apart from guided tours (as the Albania trip and the boat/bike tour of the Greek Isles), there are self-guided trips, where you travel on your own, say with a friend or family or your own small group (which I did on the Danube Bike Trail with my two adult sons). But you still have the benefit of a mapped-out route (you can do at your own pace and pleasure), the maps with the route, itinerary, the bike rentals, and vouchers for the pre-arranged accommodations. You can choose your style of accommodation, from modest inns to luxury hotels (if available). The ride is supported – they pick up your luggage and deliver it to the next inn, which is a tremendous advantage. And there would be help available if you needed it along the way.

In both cases, you benefit from the expertise of the local tour operators, as well as their buying power to book accommodations at favorable rates.

BikeTours.com is basically a broker that has cataloged the best tours operated by local companies. I have typically found the programs to provide excellent value for dollar. Their pre-trip preparation materials are excellent, and their logistical coordination (pick up at airport, transfers, for example) are really well done.

Beginning with next season’s brochure, the company is returning to its roots and concentrating its offerings on Europe, rather than the entire world.

The biketours.com website is really user-friendly, but if you have trouble deciding where you want to go, you can check out the Gold Star Tours, which is a compendium of the most popular (for different reasons), and the Founders Tour (which I took this year to Albania), which is specially done.

You can search the site based on destination, style of bike touring, or special interest: Categories include: Self-guided, Guided, Bike + boat, Budget-friendly, Flat + leisurely, E-bikes, Family-friendly, Challenging, Wine + cuisine.

The key advantage of working with BikeTours.com advisors is that they know the destinations and the biking programs and can give the kind of advice to make the best choices (based on interest, goals, ability) and prepare for the trip (everything from a superb packing list to organizing transfer, pre- and post-trip hotels).As BikeTours motto says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Go for it.

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

____________________

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

 

Biking Albania: National Park of Butrint is Pathway to 5 Archaeological Epoques

Unearthed ruins from the Hellenic period of the ancient city of Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Unearthed ruins from the Hellenic period of the ancient city of Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(I travel to Albania with BikeTours.com’s President Jim Johnson on a specially constructed “President’s Tour” itinerary that modifies the regular “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges” trip.  (See: Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country-Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour. This is 6th in the series.)

On this, the seventh day of our cycling through Albania (8th day of our trip), we have our longest distance ride, at 70 km, but it is mostly downhill: just 725 meter gain in elevation and a total of 1285 meters drop, and mostly along the coast, giving us our first spectacular views of the Ionian Sea, with the Greek island of Corfu in the distance.

But today’s attraction is an absolute highlight among the many fascinating places we have already visited in Albania: the National Park of Butrint is a 2000-year old Hellenic-Roman-Byzantine city, reclaimed from forest overgrowth and an earthen tomb by Italian archaeologists beginning in 1924, nearly 100 years ago. Indeed, Butrint is the most visited cultural tourist destination in Albania, and for good reason.

The setting is exquisite, the ruins most impressive, and for me, the connection to Asclepius (the Greek God of Healing or more accurately the father of Medicine), and to Anthony and Cleopatra (defeated in the battle Actium nearby by Augustus who is immortalized with busts created during his lifetime which can be seen in the museum), makes this place all the more profound.

But to get there, we have a fantastic ride.

After the past few days riding in the mountains (affording magnificent views), we reach the seacoast. Albania’s coastline extends over two seas: from the Adriatic Sea in the north to the Ionian Sea in the south, where we are.

We start with a 45 minute transfer in the van to Muzina Pass in the mountains that brings us to the seacoast. We start descending just before the turnoff to Saranda which is our ultimate destination today (we will double back to Saranda, a beach resort city, by the end of the day) and continue south toward the southernmost tip of Albania, near the Greek border.

Riding by fortress en route to Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding by fortress en route to Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We pass a fascinating triangle-shaped fort on our way to a small “improvised” ferry – a wooden raft pulled by cables that calls to mind Huckleberry Finn – to Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of Albania’s most important archeological treasures.

Before visiting the site, though, we enjoy a terrific lunch just next door at the Livia Restaurant (named for Emperor Augustus’ wife, as I learn later in the museum at Butrint) – mussels, calamari, sea bass, dining outside under a canopy, across the road from the water.

After lunch, we stroll into the National Park.

Taking the raft over to Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Taking the raft over to Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Butrint’s history dates back to Greek times (in fact, this whole area was part of Greece), and was an important coastal city.

Roman writer Virgil said the legendary founder of the city was the seer Helenus, a son of the King Priam of Troy who moved West after the fall of Troy. Greek Historian Dionysius of Halicarnasseus, as well as Virgil, in his epic poem “Aeneid”, wrote that Aeneas visited Bouthroton after he escaped the destruction of Troy.

What is so fascinating is that there were five civilizations that occupied this town, and you can peel away the centuries and eras, one by one. The city was hidden underground until 1924 when Italian archaeologists began to excavate. Most of what we see is thanks to the Italian Archaeological Mission, headed by Luigi Maria Ugolini, who worked for a decade in Butrint (1928-1939). What has been uncovered shows the stamp of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman cultures and civilization, and the artifacts are presented in an astonishing museum.

According to notes, Butrint (also called Buthrotum or Bouthroton) was originally within the region of Epirus, and one of the main centers of the Greek tribe of Chaonians who had close contacts to the Corinthian colony of Corcyra (Corfu).

The earliest archaeological evidence of settled occupation dates between 10th and 8th centuries BC. The occupied original settlement likely sold food to Corfu and had a fort and sanctuary. It occupied a strategic position due to its access to the Straits of Corfu. The geographer Hecataeus of Miletus described Buthrotum as an important port and trading center on the main Adriatic waterway.

Around 380 BC the ancient settlement was surrounded with defensive walls, fortified with a new 870 meters long wall, with five gates, enclosing an area of four hectares.

By the 4th century BC it had grown in importance as a cult center, and included a sanctuary to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, on the southern slope of the Acropolis hill, an agora and a theater – there is even an inscription from the 4th century BC on one of the seas of the theater that credits donations of religionists that supported construction.

 

Unearthed ruins of the ancient city of Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Unearthed ruins of the ancient city of Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 228 BC, Buthrotum (Bouthroton) became a Roman protectorate and later, in the 1st century BC, a part of the Roman province of Macedonia. In 44 BC, Caesar designated Buthrotum as a colony to reward soldiers who had fought with him against Pompey, naming in Colonia Julia Buthrotum. In what sounds like it could be ripped from the headlines of today, the local landholder Titus Pomponius Atticus objected to his correspondent Cicero who lobbied against the plan in the Roman Senate. As a result, Buthrotum received only a small number of colonists.

In 31 B C, Emperor Augustus, fresh from his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium mere meters away from here, renewed the plan to turn Buthrotum into a veterans’ colony.

Under Emperor Augustus, the city, now known as Colonia Augusta Buthrotum, experienced its greatest development, doubling the size of the town – temples, fountains, baths (thermae), villas (private residences), a forum complex, and nyphaeum ( a monument consecrated to the nymphs, especially those of springs, typically natural grottoes, which were believed to be where local nymphs lived), a new water supply and a bridge linking the two banks of the Vivari canal. (We see these ruins clearly, and even the nyphaeum the mere thought of which had piqued our curiosity.)

A rare look at the mosaics on the Baptistry floor at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A rare look at the mosaics on the Baptistry floor at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the 3rd century AD, an earthquake destroyed a large part of the town. By the 6th century, it became the seat of a bishop and new construction included a large baptistery, one of the largest Paleochristian buildings of its type, and a basilica. We see some of the gorgeous mosaic floor of the baptistery, laid out in 8 rings with columns, which, we are told, is a rare treat and a bit of luck because the mosaic usually cannot be seen, kept under protective sand. But because they were in the process of changing out the sand, we get to see half of the floor exposed. So far, eight other churches have been uncovered, the most important of which is in Vrina plain on the other side of the Vivari canal.

Butrint followed the historical pattern seen in other Balkan cities, with the 6th to 7th centuries being a period of transformation of the Roman world into the Early Middle Ages.

By the beginning of the 9th century, Butrint had become a small fishing settlement. Around 1807, in the outfall of the Vivari canal, Ali Pasha built a fortress to guard against French attacks coming from Corfu. After his death, Butrint fell under Ottoman Rule, until the Declaration of Independence in 1912.

What is so impressive about Butrint is that it is at once a place of these extraordinary historical monuments that clearly depict these époques of civilization, but also the natural setting and landscape and the scale.

Pathway Through Time

Our visit begins at a Venetian tower built in the 15th and 16th century and a chapel of the 4th century BC dedicated to the god of Asclepius.

Junid, our Biketours.com guide on this two-week cycling trip through Albania, leads us on a path through the woods to the 300-seat theater where plays were performed and there was  public discussion (they still hold festivals here).

Buthrotum was as much a healing place (or in modern terms, a spa retreat) as a religious center, dedicated to Asclepius, god of heating because in those days, the earliest form of medicine involved spiritual healing.

Unearthed ruins from the Hellenic period of the ancient city of Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
View of the theater devoted to Aslepius, god of healing, from the Hellenic period of the ancient city of Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am particularly fascinated with Asclepius, who I first encountered on the island of Epidaurus in Greece on a previous Biketours.com tour. Asclepius is regarded as the God of Healing, by virtue of being the son of Apollo and the human princess Coronis, but who incited the wrath of Zeus (who would have been Asclepius’ grandfather). Zeus struck Asclepius dead with a thunderbolt because Asclepius had the audacity of cheating death – Asclepius used his powers of healing to restore people to life, usurping Zeus’ power. To me, though, Asclepius is the first doctor, the first to use the scientific method – testing what worked and what did not; he kept notes and refined his technique. (The medical symbol still used today is the staff of Asclepius.)

In this period of time, though, “medicine” or “healing” was all wrapped up with spiritualism (faith). So, just like at the temple at Epidaurus, Butrint has a great amphitheater because Greeks believed in the connection between spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health (theater as well as athletics were part of religious experience).

The sick usually had to spend one or more nights in Asclepius’ sanctuary so that remedy for their ailment could be revealed in their dreams.  Priests and physicians would perform rituals to interpret their dreams so an appropriate cure or treatment could be devised (or surmised).

We come to the remains of a really magnificent Roman Forum – it is astonishing to learn that it was only unearthed as recently as 2005.

We go by a structure that is thought to be a gymnasium (a high school, still the word that is used in Albania today for high school).

Baptistry at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Baptistry at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to the Baptistry and Junid, points out the mosaic floor (partially exposed). The use of mosaics, he says, meant that it was a place of importance. It was designed in a series of eight circles (we see the columns). Junid notes that the mosaic is usually covered with sand and the only reason we are fortunate enough to see even part of the art is because workers are changing the sand.

We walk further through the forest path and come to the Basilica, constructed in 6th century, which Junid notes has an altar facing east.

The historic markers (in English), are really well done.

Junid points out Lion’s Gate and the unusual stone relief at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Junid points out Lion’s Gate and the unusual stone relief at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to the Lake Gate, a beautiful setting on the water, then walk through the woods again, along the outer fortress wall, until we come to Lion’s Gate – where there is a big stone with a relief of a lion devouring a bull’s head. Junid notes the odd position and how the boulder stands out from the rest – an indication that the stone may have been taken from a temple (but that doesn’t answer why it was positioned too low for a door frame).

Remarkably, only half of Butrint has been excavated so far. “They want to leave something for next generation of archeologists,” Junid tells us.

View from the Museum at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
View from the Museum at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally we come to the Butrint Museum, situated in the Acropolis castle (and what a setting this affords, with a view out to the water).

The Museum at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Museum at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The museum was established in the 1950s to house the finds from Italian archeologists who first excavated 1928-40. In 1988, the museum was enlarged, and in 2005, it was completely renovated, updated and reopened under the aegis of the Albania Institute of Archeology, Butrint Foundation, AG Coventis Foundation, Packard Humanities Institute and Butrint National Park.

The museum is absolutely astonishing – it presents a chronological overview of the history of Butrint starting from the Bronze Age to the Late Middle Ages, and displays artifacts that have been uncovered from the archaeological digs.

Busts of Augustus and Livia in the museum at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Busts of Augustus and Livia in the museum at Butrint © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 1992, the ancient city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Butrint is also a national park comprising 9400 hectares and since 2003 has also been designated a wetland area of international importance (RAMSAR area). There are some 800 kinds of plants among them 16 which are considered endangered and 12 as rare; 246 species of birds; 105 species of fish and 39 species of mammals.

Admission is 700 Lek for foreigners (about $7). (National Park of Butrint, Saranda, Albania, pkbutrint@yahoo.,com, www.butrint.al)

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

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

See also:

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

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

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

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

Biking Albania: Touring Centuries Old City of Gjirokaster

Next: Biking Albania: Saranda & the Albanian Riviera

____________________

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

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

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

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korca: ‘The Paris of Albania’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking Tour of Korca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Biking Albania to Gjirokaster, UNESCO World Heritage Center 

See also:

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

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

____________________

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

 

 

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, Goingplacesfarandnear.com

You wouldn’t necessarily come to Albania to see monuments and fabulous architecture, for museums that hold the treasures of civilization or the artifacts that trace your heritage (though one of the surprises are the important cultural and historic sites including a Greco-Roman city reclaimed from the forest overgrowth).

You wouldn’t necessarily come for fabulous beaches, though Albania possesses hundreds of miles of coastline along the Ionian and Adriatic Sea, and its own “Albanian Riviera” that reminds you of the French Riviera without the pretension.

You wouldn’t necessarily come for stunning and dramatic landscapes –though scenes abound of picturesque farmland that reminds you of Amish Country, dramatic mountains that reach into white clouds, sheer cliffs that drop to the sea, sunsets that take your breath away, villages carved into hillsides that look out to expansive galleys, giving a different hue to each of our days.

Beachgoers at Dhermi, on Albania’s French Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Beachgoers at Dhermi, on Albania’s French Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The scenery, the landscapes are strikingly beautiful to be sure – mountains that rise dramatically to white cumulus clouds, a coastline that follows the exquisitely aquamarine Ionian and Adriatic seas, valleys lush with immaculate farms with geometric patterns of color and texture. But most interesting of all are the contrasts without contradiction – farmers burnished by the sun to a leathery brown, working fields with hoes and spades or riding mule-drawn hay-carts up winding hillside roads while chatting on cell phones. In a country where a cinema or shopping mall or even retail stores are rarities, cell phones and cars (and car washes and petrol stations) are ubiquitous.

Certainly there are the beautiful landscapes, the picturesque countryside and stunning coastlines, ample historic and cultural attractions, and traditional tourist delights of beaches and sensational food.

Children playing at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Children playing at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But the best reason to come to Albania is for The Now, to see a young country shaking off a tortured past – “an unlucky history/country,” is the odd phrase our guide, Junid, uses.

Come to experience a place, a people and a culture that is shrouded in mystery after decades of being imprisoned behind an Iron Curtain, closed off to the world,  under the thumb of a paranoid dictator, a place, a people and a culture that is either completely unknown or branded with misconceptions and false images.

To see that process unfolding is absolutely thrilling. Albania is not what it was 10 years ago, and is not what it will be in the next 10 years.

Surprises Abound

I was only in Albania a few minutes before I hear a story that proves foundational to my understanding: Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, was also the only European country to end World War II with more Jews than it had at the start of the war, because Albanians harbored Jews  from the Nazis at great risk to their own lives and that of their children.

“Every one of the 200 Jews living in Albania before the war was hidden and taken care of by their mostly Muslim countrymen and countrywomen,” Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com who has designed this special “President’s Tour of Albania” that I am on, tells me, as we are taken from the airport to our hotel in the capital city of Tirana. “In fact, nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler were welcomed not as refugees but as guests and were ‘hidden in plain sight’ –  made part of Albanian families and daily life. This endured even during the German occupation amid extreme threats by the Nazis.”

“The Jews were sheltered with their own children – which meant that if they were caught with Jews in their house, their own children would be killed,” our guide, Junid later relates when our group of five cyclists gathers for our first dinner together. “A lot stayed in the north – with Catholics. A lot went to Israel after the war. I’ve had groups where people went to back to the town where a family had sheltered their relatives.”

Why the Albanians would do this stems from an ancient code of honor, besa, that emphasizes “compassion and religious tolerance, that links personal honor to respect for and equality with others,” Junid explains.  According to The Code, guests must be protected, even if it means losing one’s own life. “Talk to an Albanian today, and you’ll find they still consider their compassionate role during the Holocaust to be part of their national honor.”

Biking through Albania presents dramatic scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking through Albania presents dramatic scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

That begins a series of wondrous surprises about a country that up until now has been largely completely unknown to Americans, who either have no impression or wrong impressions of Albania.

The first surprise is that Albania is a mere 75 minutes flight past Vienna in central Europe, where I switch planes from JFK. Geographically, Albania is part of the Balkans, bordered by Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy’s boot.

The second is discovering this country which for so long had been kept in isolation, shrouded in mystery. American travelers have come under the spell of Cuba and Myanmar – two other nations which have emerged from enforced isolation – but Albania deserves our attention to revel in how this young country is emerging.

The third surprise is that though Albania is majority Muslim (the only European country with a majority Muslim population), it is secular and tolerant of other prominent religions (Orthodox, Catholic), with a large strain of atheists stemming from when its Communist dictator, Envar Hoxha, (dictator from 1945-1985), banned religion altogether, burned down churches and mosques, murdered and imprisoned hundreds of clerics, and made Albania the first officially atheist country in the world. Even after the churches and mosques were reopened in the early 1990s, many remain atheists or keep their religion private. Indeed, I saw more women in headscarves in four days at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, than in two weeks traveling through Albania.

The rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The fourth surprise is that Albania (the correct name is Shqiperia, or more officially, Republika e Shqipërisë) is not an extension of Greece, Turkey or anywhere else. The Albanian language, Shqip, is Indo-European in origin and bears little resemblance to any other language today. And even though the alphabet is based on Latin (with a few additions), the sounds the letters make are very different, so you can’t pronounce, let alone read the signs. (See www.omniglot.com/writing/albanian.htm).

Each day, though, Junid, attempts to teach us an Albanian word. I wind up with “gezur” (which approximates to ”cheers” when you drink).

But with only 3.5 million Albanians left in the country after millions fled when the borders were finally opened with the fall of Communism and with the way Albania was divided up shortly after independence in 1912, there are more Albanian speakers outside the country than inside (90% of Montenegro, half of Macedonia’s Parliament and 5% of Greeks speak Albanian).

Albania uses its own currency, Lek (at this writing, 1 Albanian Lek equaled 0.0082 US Dollar, or less than one penny). The median income, I am told, is $5,000 a year. I found the value of items roughly 1/5 of the cost here – so a glass of wine (actually extremely good) in a restaurant was about $2; a mug of beer (also extremely good), about $1; admission to a historic site for foreigners about $5 (about $1.50 for Albanians). You could have an entire meal in a fine restaurant for less than $8. In other words, a pleasant surprise is how inexpensive it is to travel here.

Ladies walking down the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Ladies walking down the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Biking through the country, I am struck with how pleasant people are, how easy-going, how unstressed. We think of Albania being poor – its reputation is being the poorest country in Europe – but we have more severe and graver poverty in the US. You don’t see the extremes of rich and poor here. You don’t see squalor, hovels, hunger or homelessness (though we do encounter a few panhandlers in the popular tourist towns.)

In one of the most popular holiday cities, Saranda,  when people come out at night (a custom in Albania), strolling the promenades along the Ionian Sea, it looks like Long Beach, Coney Island or Jones Beach – families, couples, gaggles of girls or boys. They stop at vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, toys, or sit in open-air restaurants and cafes. People are surprisingly scantily clad on the beaches and just strolling about – girls in tight, short revealing dresses, bare midriffs; couples showing affection, fellows wearing t-shirts that make statements of one sort or another; young people with tattoos. Most surprising to me is seeing fathers holding their infants and toddlers, and mothers who clearly have an equal status in their family, and how parents dote (even spoil) their kids.

Strolling the promenade in Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Strolling the promenade in Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I am struck by how relaxed people are. Perhaps this is because of the comparative stability and freedom  – especially considering that the country underwent economic collapse and a civil war in the mid-1990s and is still considered one of the poorest, least developed in Europe. The situation seems stable even from 10 years ago, Junid confirms (I can relate to this, compared to the stress, hysteria and insecurity after the 2008 financial and housing collapse in the US, compared to the way people feel more secure in their homes and jobs now).

You don’t see ostentatious wealth or abject poverty. In some ways, Albania is described as a “subsistence economy” – people seem to have at least enough to get by, if not live comfortably. The Albanian people are polite, pleasant to one another (and to us), affectionate, fun-loving, like to laugh, seem easy-going, and dare I say, unstressed. It is as if a whole weight was removed when the oppression of Communism was lifted and people could be more free to show their emotions (I had experienced something similar when I first visited China in 1978, during the transition from the Gang of Four to the Four Modernizations, and then returned two years later to find the whole country transformed, as if a blizzard of fresh air had flowed through.)

Cell phones are ubiquitous in Albania, even on a donkey cart© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Cell phones are ubiquitous in Albania, even on a donkey cart© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Possibly the relative contentment I observe is related to the fact that there is very little consumerism – we see only one cinema (in Korca, considered the “Paris” of Albania, the most cosmopolitan city we experienced) and one place that could be construed as a “shopping mall” (also in Korca) – but what has become a ubiquitous item is cell phones. We see a man driving a donkey cart hauling hay talking on his cell phone; a woman in a field  leaning against her hoe talking on her cell phone.

Also cars, petrol stations and car washes which crop up in the oddest places. During the Communism regime, no one was allowed to own a car (except for the Communist rulers who also availed themselves of magnificent waterfront villas). That leads to incongruous sights like a man riding a donkey passing a Kastrati gas station.

Cell phones, cars are the ubiquitous consumer items. And apart from restaurants, tavernas, cafes, beach holidays and bridal gowns, there seems to be little else. Simple pleasures prevail (though in Dhimare, we see jetskis, paragliding from the mountaintop, and Mercedes cars)

Fresh trout from the farm is served at the guesthouse at Sotire © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Fresh trout from the farm is served at the guesthouse at Sotire © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

More surprises: how fantastic the food – literally fresh from farm or sea to table.  With 300 miles of seacoast (the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea where we bike), we are treated to an abundance of fresh fish—sea bass, mussels, shrimp, squid freshly caught from the sea, farmed trout that finds its way to our plate minutes after being netted, and a fish that is uniquely found in Lake Ohrid. The abundant farms – which use organic practices – make farm-to-table meats—especially lamb and pork— as well as fruit and vegetables plentiful. Albanian cooking blends Mediterranean cuisine with Greek, Italian and Turkish influences; seasoning is mostly subtle – garlic and chili peppers – flavorful but not too spicy.

And water! Albania is rich in water which flows from the mountain tops – we fill our bottles from eternally flowing fountains. Some 70% of the country’s electricity is generated from hydroelectric power. Every structure uses solar panels to generate hot water.

Another surprise: while few older people speak English, most of the younger generation takes English in school, and seem very plugged into the rest of the world. And they seem to be very welcoming to Americans – indeed, they named a street in Tirana, the capital, for George W Bush after he became the first sitting American president to visit Albania, and only the day before we arrived in the country, a bust of Hillary Clinton was unveiled in Saranda. People are very welcoming to us, as well, when they learn we are Americans, and many Albanians have relatives in the US.

Everything about Albania is surprising. I knew nothing about this country before I arrived (as I expect is typical of most Americans) – I didn’t even know what city to fly into (Tirana, the capital, where almost 1 million of the 3.5 million Albanians live.)

Albania is so unexpected: how fun-loving and friendly people are, how immaculate the farms and how delicious the fresh produce (organic!) we eat at each meal, how picturesque the mountains (70% of the country), how the fresh water springs just flow, we just fill our water bottles from the rushing fountains; how lush the country is, how easy-going the people are, how scantily clad beachgoers are, how women wear tight, short, revealing dresses and men wear (sometimes) t-shirts with in-your-face slogans,  and tattoos, how loving fathers are, how doting parents are of their children, how women seem to enjoy an equal relationship with their men. It is a majority-Muslim country that is secular, and tolerant; there are enormous Christian crosses dotting the countryside. How fascinating archeological sites like Butrint National Park, a UNESCO-protected city that extends back to Hellenic and Roman times (one of the most fascinating archeological sites I have ever experienced), and the UNESCO-protected Lake Ohrid area.

Other surprises we discover on our ride: Mother Teresa was Albanian (the international airport in Tirana is named for her), as was the scientist who found the drug that became Viagra (he was looking for a remedy for cardiovascular disease).

Sharing the road with a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sharing the road with a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

And the best way to engage, to discover Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these places – these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, without the distorted unreality looking through glass windows. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bleating of sheep; the bells attached to goats; have to sidestep goats or cows or donkeys walking on the road. You can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through the forest. We wave and say a cheery “hello” as we pass, and people wave back. You can stop – even chat- with a shepherd, or take the time to gaze and a scene and capture serendipity in a photo. Such was the experience of stopping to watch a funeral procession, a ritual of walking a goat around St. Naum monastery in advance of the annual feast day to honor the saint, kids frolicking on the Lake, a bride and groom posing for their wedding photos.

Each day is marked by very different landscapes, different tableaux – geographical and social – and distinctive experiences. You never know what you will see beyond the next turn in the road.

Here is another surprise: we are oddities as we ride through. Not because we are foreigners (it isn’t obvious that we are Americans), but because we are on bikes at all.

BikeTours,com

This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – which is not the bike tour operator but a broker that has assembled a catalog of local travel companies. They’ve done the search and checked out and selected top-notch companies to feature.

These are operators that supply the best bikes, itineraries, accommodations, meals, attractions at an excellent value (ie. about $150 a day, depending on choice of accommodations, and destination – or roughly half of what other tour operators charge).

BikeTours.com also provides superb pre-trip materials, coordinates the airport transfer, and if necessary, will steer you to a travel agent to book the air.

The self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip which I did with my two adult sons – charming bed and breakfast inn, accommodations, detailed directions, the guide spent 2 hours with us making sure the bikes fit and going over the route, suggesting places to visit.

The bike/boat trip through the Greek Isles was superb – great bikes fabulous guides, wonderful boat (wood hull, reminded me of a pirate ship), a fantastic itinerary.

Biketours.com’s president Jim Johnson riding his e-bike past a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biketours.com’s president Jim Johnson riding his e-bike past a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This trip to Albania, a specially tailored “President’s Tour” (tacking on a couple of days kayaking in the Ionian Sea and a loop around Lake Ohrid into Macedonia) is a guided trip, and included three meals daily (so much food we had to tell our guide to order less); admissions to attractions, superb bikes (hydraulic brakes, suspension, 30-gears on the hybrids, or, in my case, e-bike that gave me super powers for climbing hills), supported with a van that followed behind us, and charming, comfortable accommodations (WiFi!) – like a guesthouse on a farm and a luxury boutique city hotel.

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

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

(More to come: Day by Day Biking in Albania)

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