Tag Archives: cycling trips

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

Biking past vineyards © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muggia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night in Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piran, Slovenia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

See also:

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

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

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

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

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

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

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

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incomparable Postjana Caves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incomparable Postjana Caves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Predjama Castle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers decorate homes © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

Family vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slovenia’s countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

See also:

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

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

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

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

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

_____________________________

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

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

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1: Arrival to Ljubljana

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ljubljana’s castle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biking through Slovenia countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biking through Slovenia countryside © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

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

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

See also:

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

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

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

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

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

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Delaware-Lehigh Trail Showcases Repurposed Canal Towpath & History of Industrial Revolution

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn bikers come upon an interpreter in period dress beside the restored lock and lockmaster’s house along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail at Freemansburg © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

I race from the historic Asa Packer Mansion to the railroad station in the center of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, where a ceremony is being held to open the new Mansion House pedestrian/biking bridge across the Lehigh River that eliminates a gap in the Delaware Lehigh bike trail. (See: Biking the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, Showcased on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Last Sojourn BikeTour)

This wonderful celebration, led by the local bike club, gets the 300 Sojourners in gear for our longest ride, 48 miles, of our five-day, 160-mile Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail through the picturesque Pennsylvania wilderness to Hugh Moore Park in Easton where we will camp for the night.

Jim Thorpe Bike Club is the first over the new Mansion House Bridge across the Lehigh River © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We follow after the Jim Thorpe Bike Club as the first across the bridge, an achievement 25 years in the making.

Around midday, we navigate a complex gap in the D&L Trail onto city streets.  Indeed, drawing attention to such gaps, and the coalition working to improve them, has been one of the objectives of these annual Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn supported biketours. To date, an impressive 92 percent of the D&L Trail has been built—most of which we ride during this Sojourn—and the goal is to connect all 165 miles by 2022.

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners are among the first to cross over the new Mansion House Bridge © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail condition has been surprisingly good considering yesterday’s drenching rain and even yesterday, the trail had enough hard-pack that our tires didn’t sink into mud.

Yesterday, as we rode downhill from the highest point, deep in Pennsylvania’s coal mining country, the beauty of the wilderness section of the trail was hard to appreciate through the rain (though nothing could mar the exquisite beauty of Buttermilk Falls).

But on this June day, the weather is sunny with a cool breeze, just perfect for biking.

Biking the Lehigh-Delaware Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We  get to see just how beautiful the trail is – much of it following a narrow canal on one side or the other. The trail is built on the original towpath, which is essentially a built-up berm. We see rock walls, lily pads. The scenery and joy of biking produce a feeling of euphoria.

We come to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a non-profit conservation organization at the foot of the Kittatinny Ridge, which is like an oasis to us. The center is dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat through conservation programs such as the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, educational programs such as the Kittatiny Raptor Corridor Project as well as research. I linger in the butterfly garden before setting out again. (8844 Paint Mill Rd, Slatington, PA 18080, 610-760-8889, http://lgnc.org/)

Beautiful scenery along the Lehigh-Delaware Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just beyond, we Sojourners are treated to a catered lunch in a park, where we can sit comfortably under a pavilion.

Riding on, we come to an island that consists of a shuttered steel mill that today stands somewhat surreally like an abstract sculpture.

A shuttered steel mill looks like abstract sculpture © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Along the way, we come upon what is left of the original canal locks – stone walls, wooden gates with metal latches and gears, remnants from the mid-1800s.

At Freemansburg, we find a lockmasters house, the remains of the locks and a mill, and I am delighted to find the site manned by interpreters in period dress. I ask if the village was settled by freemen and am told that it was named for one of the original settlers, Richard Freeman.

The restored lockmaster’s house and lock at Freemansburg © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Freemansburg is a classic example of a canal town with houses and structures built up against the waterway that was the village’s lifeblood in the 1800s. Members of the Old Freemansburg Association (OFA) reclaimed a 1.5 mile section of the Lehigh Canal the Borough owns from overgrowth and debris and restored the towpath which became the D&L Trail. The OFA spearheaded efforts to protect and restore the 1829 Locktender’s House, mule barn, Lock No. 44, gristmill, and coal yard. Volunteers also reconstructed the barn using canal era tools and equipment, a project that took 10 years to complete. The multi-functional building now hosts weddings, educational sessions and interpretative demonstrations. (http://lehighvalleyhistory.com/history-of-the-borough-of-freemansburg)

This proves a warm-up for what we will see during our overnight stay at the Hugh Moore Park and its major attractions, the National Canal Museum and the ride on a mule-drawn canal boat that has been arranged for us.

National Canal Museum, Hugh Moore Park.

Our 48-mile ride today ends at the home base in the 520-acre Hugh Moore Park, where we began and will end. With the Lehigh River, Lehigh Canal, the old Lehigh Valley Railroad, National Canal Museum, remnants of the oldest industrial park in the region, a Locktender’s House and one of only three mule-drawn canal boats still operating in America, the park offers a microcosm of the D&L story, and an absolutely delightful place for our second-night campout.

The Sojourn planners have specially arranged for us to have free cruise on the historic Josiah White II canal boat, all the more exciting because it is pulled by two mules and manned by a crew in period dress along this portion of the restored canal. You really get to appreciate what it was like for these families who operated the canal boats that carried the anthracite coal from the mountains to Philadelphia. At one time mules pulling canal boats on narrow towpaths would have been a common sight in much of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Boarding the Josiah White II canal boat © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We board the Josiah White II canal boat to cruise on the restored Section 8 of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation canal. Captain Susan is at the tiller. The boat is 50 feet long – when it turns, it has mere inches to spare.

Two mules, Hank and George, pull the boat, led by Steve and Doug. You would think it is a strain, but the boat slides easily. “Benjamin Franklin worked out the mathematics, that two mules can pull 235 tons on water. He saw the method in Europe and Britain. George Washington also was a proponent of canals. – though neither one lived to see beginning of canal era.”

Captain Susan is just finishing saying how Hank and George are the luckiest mules in the land, when they both bolt and start running toward the campsite, chased by Steve and Doug who bring them back.

The boats were designed to carry 80 to 90 tons of coal, which meant the canal had to have six feet of draft.

They needed eight feet high walls – so they dug out four feet by hand and piled on the four-feet of soil to create the eight-foot high walls.

They knew the limestone couldn’t contain the water, so they lined the canal with clay, using the same method of road building in Ireland – sheep tamp down the bottom and the clay is left to dry in the sun. (The clay enclosure is why you can’t have any sharp implements on the boats).

It took 2 ½ years to build the canal which extends 46 miles from Jim Thorpe and consists of 9 dams and 51 locks. It cost $1 million (actually under budget). These canals were the first million dollar civil projects in the United States, she says.

When they started to mine the anthracite coal, this whole region of northeast Pennsylvania was uninhabited. To make money, they had to move the coal to the population center in Philadelphia. The Lehigh River was not suitable for transportation – it was too shallow, rocky.

The Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (we saw their building in Jim Thorpe) owned the river, built the canal, and furnace and brought an iron maker from Wales who knew how to make iron with anthracite coal (the secret was high-pressure blast of air).

Pennsylvania is one of the few places where anthracite – hard coal – is known to exist. It was discovered sporadically during the 18th century, when people would literally stumble on it on the surface. “No one cared. It looked like stone. You couldn’t light it.”

What is more, there were still trees to provide fuel. But by the early 1800s, the mid-Atlantic was virtually clear cut of wood sparking an energy crisis.

They experimented with soft coal, but the supply was cut off in 1812 by blockade during the War with Britain.

Around then, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, who manufactured wire and nails from iron, needed coal.

They learned of the success of a Welshman who developed hot-blast iron making. They traveled to Wales to sign David Thomas to a five-year contract, and brought him to Pennsylvania to oversee the construction of an anthracite furnace.

In 1818, they bought the Summit Hill quarry. But the problem still was how to get the coal to market.

They founded the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and created one of America’s first industrial and transportation networks, which led to an industrial boom across Pennsylvania and the Northeastern United States.

We see a lock tender’s house that was built in 1928 to replace one that burned – the new house was the only lock tender’s house with indoor plumbing and electricity.

Two mules pull the Josiah White II canal boat © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This lock had a new gear system that even a young person could operate, so the father (who would have earned $8/month, low even for those times) could take a cash job in one of the many mills or furnaces in the area. The lock had to be manned from 3 am to 11 pm, so this was a family enterprise. The mother could sell or barter with the canal boat families – at this lock, known as a “laundry lock” the woman would do the canal boat family’s laundry. She would also keep chickens and vegetables.

“There was an economy of people who lived and worked on the canal, separate from anthracite. Boats were crewed by families.

“Sailors had poor reputation and White was Quaker and wanted ethical people, sober and honest. So he recruited married men. They didn’t want to be away from their families from March to November, so they brought them on the boat. Whether provided own or leased from Lehigh Coal & Navigation – were families.

“The father of the family (the only one who legally could sign a lease) was the captain, kept records, leased the boat, bought the mules ($20) on time; the wife helped with steering and homemaking. Kids as young as six would be responsible for caring for the mules. Younger children were tied to the boat so they couldn’t fall over.”

She demonstrates how they would blow a conch shell to alert the lockmaster, who would have been on duty 18 hours a day.

“It’s easy to romanticize life on the canals, but it was difficult, uncomfortable.”

This canal was operated until 1942; the Delaware until 1932; there were sons, grandsons and great grandsons of canal boat captains.

“It was a way of life. People stuck with it.”

Here at Hugh Moore Park was the site of an industrial furnace. By the time of the Civil War, half of iron in the United States came from Lehigh Valley.

Hugh Moore made his fortune manufacturing Dixie Cups. He bought this property and found out it came with the disused canal.

I get to tour the National Canal Museum, which has stayed open late for us.

The National Canal Museum was originally housed in a Crayola factory building; it was relocated to the Hugh Moore Park in 2006 with a National Science Foundation mission to provide a STEM curriculum to school children – the museum is loaded with interactive exhibits and experiments.

“Canals are perfect for these lessons – it’s the last transportation system using simple machines and human and animal power (mules).”

Comfy Campers sets up tents at the Hugh Moore Park, Easton, for more than half the Sojourners © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor interprets this fascinating period of American history in the park through tours of the National Canal Museum and rides on the 110-passenger Josiah White II canal boat. The National Canal Museum is open seasonally, from June until October. Hands-on exhibits highlight 19th century canal life and technology. During our visit, we saw its special exhibition, Powering America:  Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Railroads.

See more  at National Canal Museum, https://canals.org/

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)

Day 3: To New Hope

As spartan as our first night’s campsite was on a baseball field in Jim Thorpe, Hugh Moore Park in contrast feels luxurious, especially with access to the facilities in the museum (in addition to actual bathroom rooms) and one of the workers, has offered to stay inside and open it up for us during the night .

We also have a delicious catered dinner and breakfast around the museum before setting out on our third day’s ride, which will take us 38 miles but 242 years back in time to Washington Crossing State Park, where we will camp for two nights, and find ourselves immersed in the story of the American Revolution.

The Delaware-Lehigh Trail showcases America’s Industrial Revolution © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just before we cross the Delaware to Frenchtown on the New Jersey side, we see a picturesque red wooden bridge over the canal. Frenchtown, where they have arranged for a bike corral while we enjoy the restaurants and shops, is very charming. I munch on the artisanal cheese and bread I purchased beside the water before setting out for the rest of the ride.

This part of the ride is along the sensational Delaware-Raritan Canal trail (one of my favorite trails, a particularly gorgeous section is from Princeton University north). We cross back to Pennsylvania at Lambertville into New Hope, another picturesque village. We are on our own for dinner tonight and many will bike back into New Hope from our campground at Washington State Crossing Park.

A bucolic scene along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the ride, I rehash what I learned at the National Canal Museum and wonder, “What did these families do for the rest of the year when the canals were closed? It bothers me that these families made so little money ($8/month) for such long days, they had to work extra jobs, even after all the members of the family also worked, when owners became richest people in the world.

How did Benjamin Franklin calculate that mules could pull a floating barge carrying 235 tons? How did they calculate the 6 foot draft for the canal boats to carry 90 tons? By formula or by trial & error? What if a boat had different dimensions?  I wonder if the STEM curriculum at the National Canal Museum would answer these questions.

The Delaware-Lehigh Trail goes under a bridge © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here’s another important lesson from our immersion into this National Heritage Corridor: The change in ecology necessitated changes in the economy and technology (an example of how history matters.) Americans were always moving, migrating to take advantage of new industry, new technology, new economy, new opportunities, sometimes forced by changes in the environment. These canal towns, factory towns, mill towns arose because of coal and steel and many were ruined with the change in fortunes. Today, climate change, global warming is changing ecology again, forcing new changes in the economy, in technology, in society and in where and how we organize our communities.  It’s very much how the canal towpath, originally devised to transport the coal which replaced wood, is repurposed for recreation and wellness, revitalizing the local economy.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for  its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866.202.9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.

Next: The American Revolution Comes to Life at Washington Crossing

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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

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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

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

 

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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 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

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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

 

 

 

E-Bike Opens World of Possibility for Bike Touring

BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson (left) and Junid (middle) riding e-bikes on the mountain roads of Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/gongplacesfarandnear.com
BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson (left) and Junid (middle) riding e-bikes on the mountain roads of Albania © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here’s my dilemma: A chance to see Albania by bike, a country that is steeped in mystery having been secluded behind an Iron Curtain for decades, but so mountainous, it may be too difficult to make the enormous climbs. Or, I could set aside pride and principle and use an e-bike – an electric bike that uses a battery to give an extra push to your pedaling.

I’m a purist and enjoy the physical challenge of biking. I had had an amazing time on Biketours.com’s bike/boat trip in the Greek Isles the year before and know the pain (and accomplishment) of burning lungs that come with tackling the steepest, longest climbs of my life. But the BikeTours experts say that the Greek Isles was a Class 3 ride and Albania would be a Class 4 – with even steeper, longer climbs (and when I look over the day-by-day elevations, one day stands out at being the equivalent of a mile in total elevation gain). So if the Greek Isles was my physical limit, I’m not so sure I can do Albania.

BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson biking in Albania on an e-bike. © 2016 Karen Rubin/goinplacesfarandnear.com
BikeTours.com President Jim Johnson biking in Albania on an e-bike. © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But I also believe that the best way to engage, to discover a destination like Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways, or through villages and neighborhoods. 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. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace to see things, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bells attached to goats, the cicadas; you can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through a forest. You can stop at a bend in the road to take in the breathtaking views or just get your breath. You can stop – even chat – with a shepherd edging his flock across the road. People wave and call out hello as we ride through a village and we wave and say a cheery “hello” as back. Most important of all, you can stop when you want (as I did most frequently) to take photos.

And, finally, I believe ardently in the quest for knowledge and understanding and ambassadorship that is the essence of travel and particularly, the style of travel of a bike tour, so if the only way to experience Albania is to use an e-bike, I will set aside my pride and principle.

And actually, the e-bike is part of the new experience and I discover a whole new dimension of possibility.

Biking in Albania brings you into villages you would not visit otherwise © 2016 Karen Rubin/gongplacesfarandnear.com
Biking in Albania brings you into villages you would not visit otherwise © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For one thing, I discover other advantages of using an ebike: I can stop for pictures and know I can catch up with the group; I don’t suffer or need to focus exclusively on the ride; I don’t lose sleep over the worry of whether I can manage the next day’s ride. What is more, I discover I can make the ride as challenging as I want (I simply don’t go into an easier setting), so I still get the workout I want and feel the satisfaction of conquering a climb. But most importantly, the priority of this trip is to experience a culture and explore a destination, not a physical work-out or just getting from point A to B.

And finally, what I realize is that the e-bike extends horizons and lifespan for adventure and exploration for many of us who have reached an age where we appreciate biking but are unsure of doing the distance or the hills.

And so I opt for the e-bike for the first time. It takes me about two minutes to figure it out and three minutes to get comfortable.

The e-bike is not like a scooter – you still have to pedal. But to me, it takes the hill out of the climb, making it like pedaling on flat surface (unless you want to retain the challenge, as I did, and keep it at an “Econ” setting, the lowest of three “speeds”, “Norm” and “Sport” being the others). In “Econ”, I find, it makes my hybrid bike, which with the added weight of the battery (about 12-15 pounds) feels like a mountain bike, ride like a road bike.

Biking through Albania’s countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking through Albania’s countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The e-bike that I ride is so responsive – it changes gears immediately, efficiently, at the push of a button (up arrow, down arrow) and I could change speeds if necessary, from “Econ” to “Norm” on a dime, smoothly, without any hesitation or resistance.

I find that on the big hills, by keeping the setting at Econ I still have that physical effort of climbing, but I don’t wind up with burning lungs. And of course, I can just zip up the hills by going to the Norm and for an even greater push, the Sport setting (I never use the Sport setting, and only use Norm a couple of times, when the climb seems never ending).

It makes me feel as if I have superpowers.

The cycling company that BikeTours.com has selected for our tour, Cycle Albania, is relatively new and may in fact be the only company offering bike tours in the country. We attracted attention as we zipped through villages because we were such an oddity.

I am really impressed with the quality of the bikes, manufactured by the Taiwan-based Giant company, which Cycle Albania purchased from the Netherlands. Each of the bikes – the regular hybrids and the e-bikes (probably the only ones in the entire country) – are the best quality, valued at thousands of dollars (in a country where the median income is $5000 a year). They have hydraulic brakes, suspension. (You can bring your own seat and pedals if you want, as does a couple from Oregon, used to climbing hills).

My pedals have screw heads that grip the soles of my sneakers for the extra push without toe clips.

And boy are we grateful for suspension and hydraulic brakes on the Day 6 ride, when we come down a road more like a mountain trail – broken gravel, rocks, potholes, gravel, steep with winding hairpin turns.

I use the e-bike feature of my Giant bike for the first time on the second day of cycling, when we are leaving Ohrid, in Macedonia, one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, and are on the last third of a 35-mile ride. We have three progressively longer and harder hills to climb on our way back into Albania. I just whisk up the hills like nothing – and am only in the “Norm” setting – I didn’t even use the “Sport” setting which gives even more thrust to each pedal stroke.

Biking through Albania’s countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking through Albania’s countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But that’s what it is – it’s like taking the hill out of the ride. You feel like you are riding on flat. You still pedal each stroke, change the gears but each stroke is magnified. You hear a tiny whir of a motor but it isn’t like riding a scooter.

The e-bike is a superb alternative for anyone who has denied themselves the opportunity to discover a destination by bike – the best way in my opinion – because they were afraid they could not go the distance or manage hills. The e-bike is a godsend: destinations and experiences that seemed out of reach can now be conquered. If you felt you had aged out of managing 35 to 50 miles a day on anything but flat rail-trails, e-bikes open up a whole new world, and a whole new dimension.

Many of the BikeTours.com offerings now give an e-bike option.

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

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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

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

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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

 

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

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

by Karen Rubin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King of the Mountain

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

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

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

Taroko Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun Moon Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling Taiwan

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

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

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

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

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

Bike tours are also offered by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

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

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

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

Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow

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