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

Eric finishing our 8-day self-guided biketour in Porec, Croatia, having traveled 300 miles from Venice © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Today’s ride, Stage 5 from Trieste, Italy, is relatively short – a choice of 21 or 40 miles to Portorose in Slovenia. The shorter version involves taking a ferry from Trieste across the bay to Muggia in Slovenia, the “Istria” part of our Venice-Trieste-Istra eight-day self-guided biketour.

We take the longer way, and are thrilled not to miss the seacoast. The route is predominantly on cycle paths through well-known seaside resorts like Koper (Capodistria) and Izola (Isola d’ Istria), to Piran (Pirano) or adjacent Portorož (Portorose), a spa resort on the Slovenian Riviera.

(I contemplate taking the ferry which possibly would have enabled us to spend more time exploring Trieste, or even better, possibly backtracking to the Miramare Castle which we missed by taking the “hinterland” route, but decide to press on.)

Of course, what went down into Trieste must come up. But, after a really steep city street we climb (I walk, Eric breezes up) and following some convoluted directions (the cue sheet warns the turn is easy to miss, so of course I miss it and have to find Eric on the map he has put on my phone, reaching him using HangUp), we get onto a bike trail that has a much more gentle rise more typical of a rail-trail that we don’t mind at all. Soon, we are looking down at wonderfully scenic  views, biking across a biking/pedestrian bridge.

We have these sort of rolling ups-and-downs but nothing too taxing.  (Anthony, the FunActive guide, had mentioned an even longer “hinterland” alternative route which passes along the valley “Rosandra” in the back country, but I’ve learned my lesson and am not going to miss the seacoast.)

Muggia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to Muggia, a picturesque seacoast village (which is where the ferry from Trieste would come). Muggia is in the Istria region but still part of Italy (though Slovenians are a significant minority and signs are in two languages). It is absolutely stunning to walk around its narrow streets which all lead to a main square where the town hall and church are. We have lunch outdoors in the Piazza Marconi, flanked by the cathedral and town hall.

I had been concerned that the seacoast route would have a lot of traffic, but it turns out there is a dedicated bike lane. It is fantastic. Periodically, we come to these cement piers and promenades that serve as beaches for sunbathers and swimmers.

Cement platforms serve as beach © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We soon cross the border to Slovenia (no actual border control, though, since both nations are part of the European Union), the route continues predominantly on cycle paths through well-known seaside resorts like Koper (Capodistria) and Izola (Isola d’ Istria), to Portorož (Portorose), a spa resort on the Slovenian Riviera.

Crossing the border from Italy to Slovenia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Coming into Portoroz, there is a rather long climb (but what a view of Izola!), but on a bike trail so it is gradual and comfortable to ride, even though it seems at times to be endless. We ride through three tunnels that had been built for the train (fun!), and at the end, find ourselves at the top of a hill looking down into Portoroz, a city that is like San Francisco for its hills. Our hotel, Hotel Tomi, is on one of the hills, so we make our way. (The other two ladies who have been on our same route have been routed to their hotel in Piran, which is a few miles beyond, as we learn when we meet up with them again on the ride.)

View of Isola © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding through the tunnel into Portorose © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Hotel Tomi is a resort in itself, with a stunning pool (open 24 hours!) that has views down to the sea. Our room is enormous and we have a balcony that looks over the town. We rush down to relax in the pool for awhile.

Enjoying the pool at Hotel Tomi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric has found a very special restaurant for dinner (also recommended in the FunActiv guide), RiziBizi The concierge makes a reservation (we’ve learned our lesson about restaurant reservations!).

We walk to the restaurant, and discover a beach resort with fine sand and warm, gentle sea (casinos even) that we can’t understand isn’t as popular with jetsetters as the French Riviera. In fact, there is one classic hotel, the Kempinski Palace, where Sophia Loren used to stay.

Portoroz actually is adjacent to Piran, another exquisite town on the tip of the peninsula, and we walk just up to it.

Portorose is Slovenia’s lovely resort town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we walk, the sun is setting so picturesquely behind Piran, and we realize this is the first sunset we are seeing. (The other people following the self-guided route go the extra few miles into Piran for their hotel, which I later discover on my next biketour through Slovenia, is absolutely stunning.)

Sun sets behind Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Restaurant RiziBizi, which specializes in truffles, serves one of the sensational meals that you remember forever. The restaurant has a tasting menu (from 50 to 60 E). We opt for a la carte: tuna tartar with zucchini, wasabi-reduced plum; truffle soup, the chef sends over pate, served on sticks in a plant; risotto with Adriatic scampi and truffles (the waiter brings a dish of black truffles to table and shaves them onto the dish); duck breast with wine sauce. All the selections are based on locally sourced produce.  

Adding truffles to risotto at RiziBizi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Truffles which are found here in Istria are an amazing delicacy – they can sell for $95 an ounce, $168 an ounce for white truffles or $2000 a pound). The waiter tells us that an Italian engineer discovered the truffles when building Istria’s first water distribution network (Tuscany has a longer history of truffle hunting).

Truffles at RiziBizi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I can imagine the most devoted foodies getting on planes and coming to Rizi Bizi just for the truffles. And they should. This is a world-class restaurant and the dining experience has been truly memorable, with selections that uniquely reflect the local produce, exquisitely presented.

The restaurant is exemplary in every way – we dine on a patio with a view overlooking the hillsides down to the sea; the service is impeccable.

The piece de resistance: dessert consisting of chocolate mousse with truffles.

(Restaurant RiziBizi, Villanova ulica 10, 6320 Portoroz, www.rizibizi.si).

Slovenia only has about 44 km of seacoast, so these twin towns of Portoroz and Piran are very special.

Stage 6- Portorož/Piran – Poreč (43 miles/70 km)

The Hotel Tomi has one of the nicest breakfast spreads of our trip, as well as one of the prettiest breakfast rooms that opens out to the pool and the view of the town.

It’s our last day of our eight-day Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided bike tour! The guide book warns that this will have the toughest climbs (but they didn’t include the hinterland ride, so we’re not worried).

Heading out of Portorose © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Today’s ride, 43 miles, takes us passed the salt gardens of Secovlje where sea salt is recovered through natural vaporization, and across the border into Croatia (where we do need to present passports at border control). The route, largely uphill (but not bad, after all, we have been toughened up by our hinterland ride), travels through the Croatian part of Istria, the largest peninsula on the Adriatic on the way to Porec, the most important coastal city on the west coast of Istria.

Salt gardens of Secovlje © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the prettiest views (it is even noted with a camera icon on our cue sheets) comes up soon after we set out – a beautiful small harbor set in a cove.

There is a long climb, but it is gradual, which gives us a wonderful view of salt flats.

Picturesque Novigrad © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are also sections where we go along the seacoast, through these camping resorts where it seems people stay for a month or two at a time (Europeans have longer vacations than Americans). Amazingly, as I munch on an ice cream bar and watch the people frolic in the water, I meet up with the two ladies who are following our same tour. Makes you realize what a small world it is!

Picturesque Novigrad © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come through Novigrad, a lovely village that seems to have a sense of humor. The old town center is on a small island (there is actually a barricade) and it has a medieval city wall. There are examples of Byzantine, Franconian, German, Venetian, Neopolitan, Austro-Hungarian and Italian architecture. As we walk into the main square, the small streets that lead off it have a canopy of brightly colored umbrellas. And the town hall is decorated with balloons.

The ride is scenic, mostly along seacoast (and through camping resorts), mostly on bike trails until we leave Novigrad and cross a long bridge. Then it comes to a 90-degree turn up a steep road. Without any momentum, I walk up the first section of the 3 km climb but am proud of myself for biking the rest.

It is a long, long climb but it is on a rail-trail (gravel) so isn’t so bad, and compared to our 4th day riding (in the hinterland), this was a piece of cake.

We follow our guide book to where it recommends we visit Grotta Baredine, a cave about 10 km from Porec, described as “the first speleological object and the first  geomorphological natural monument to be valorized for sightseeing” (www.baredine.com).  We are just in time for the 5 pm English-language tour, which would take hour, but we are concerned about getting into Porec too late, so we move on.

Porec © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This was a missed opportunity, I am sure. (One of the advantages of a guided tour is that the guide knows to move the group along to take advantage of such sightseeing experiences).

Eric finds the Aba Restaurant – all the tables outside are already reserved, but we are accommodated in the charming dining room inside.  We enjoy a dish with noodles with meat and truffle oil that delectable.

The Hotel Porec where we stay is very pleasant and well situated, both to wander into the old city and to get to the bus station (literally behind the hotel) in the morning where Eric will catch a bus (booked over flixbus.com) back to Venice airport and I will catch a bus to get to my next biketrip, a guided tour of Slovenia, that starts in Ljubljana.

It’s pouring rain the entire day, and I think to myself how lucky it is that this is not a bike day.

Self-Guided vs. Guided BikeTrips

The self-guided trips seem to pack in more riding in a day (though, obviously, FunActive offered alternatives that would have cut our mileage in half) and less sightseeing. A guide would have made sure we visited the Miramare Castle and got us there in time and organized our ride to have more time in Trieste, and gotten us to the caves in a more timely way to visit and still get into Porec by late afternoon. But self-guided has its own advantages: we stop where we want, linger over lunch, leave when we want, and each day offers our own adventure we share.


Eric meditates while waiting for me to catch up © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Booking through Biketours.com, which offers a fantastic catalog of bike trips (mainly in Europe), enabled me to link up two tours operated by two different companies: this self-guided Venice-Trieste-Istria trip which ended in Porec, Croatia on September 1, operated by FunActive, and an “Emerald Tour” guided bike tour of Slovenia that started in Ljubljana on September 1 operated by a Slovenian operator, Helia. The BikeTours.com agent pointed me to Road2Rio.com to figure out the transfers. Through that site, I found FlixBus.com which I could take to Ljubljana, and Eric could catch a bus that took him directly to Venice International Airport (the tour company also offered a transfer to Venice by ferry) and I could get to my next tour.

The tour company was great about sending travel documents, including a list of hotels and details and directions how to get to the first hotel in Venice (the public transportation system is excellent and inexpensive).

The rental bikes they provided were excellent and provide a mileage counter (to help with navigation), panniers, a handlebar pack with to put the cue sheets. We used the 21-speed hybrid bike; e-bikes are available.

The hotels provided were excellent, each one a delightfully charming inn – most significantly, well located in the Old City, in proximity to the trail and whatever we were supposed to see. Tour documents were excellent as well.

FunActive also provided local telephone numbers for assistance. In each town they listed a bike shop should we have needed it. The cue sheets and trail maps they provided (though a bit confusing until we got the hang of it) included locations for photos, food, sightseeing, and the alternate routes, ferry and train connections as needed, as well as pinpointing where the different hotels were we were staying.

Each morning, we put out our luggage in the lobby which magically appeared when we arrived at our next hotel.

Significantly, the tour was an excellent value, averaging about $125-150 pp per day.

Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com, [email protected].

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

_____________________________

© 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 [email protected]. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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

Exquisite 12th century frescoes in the crypt in Aquileia, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, dating from 313 AD © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Stage 3 of our eight-day Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided bike tour again offers a choice of a 28-mile ride (if we take a boat) or 55 miles without. Of course we bike.

We stop at the 38.4 km mark at Marano Lagunare, a delightful, picturesque village (which is where we could take the boat).

Stopping for lunch at Marano Lagunare © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The piazza in Marano Lagunare © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Marano Lagunare © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We find ourselves in the center piazza and a marvelous restaurant, Trattoria Barcaneta, for lunch. It is so peaceful and quiet and utterly charming and colorful.

As we ride the bike trail, we come upon a set of Roman ruins of a colonnade behind a fence, oddly alongside a road. Then, a tower comes into view, looming above a wall of tall trees. I must investigate, and check the notes the tour operator has provided.

Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided biketour. Stage 3-Aquileia -Grado (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Roman columns, Aquileia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I realize that this is Aquileia, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

This proves the highlight of the day: the massive Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta dates from 313 AD, when the Dict of Milan ended religious persecution and the Christian community could legally build a place of public worship. The first church was destroyed and over the centuries has been rebuilt four times, each time using the stones of the earlier buildings. As it stands today, the basilica is in Romanesque-Gothic style, with a 73 meter-high tower. The inside is breathtaking: the entire floor is Roman mosaic from the 4th century, only uncovered in 1909-1912. The 760 sq. meter floor is believed to be the largest Paleo-Christian mosaic of the western world. But more awaits:

Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The entire floor of the basilica at Aquileia is covered with Roman mosaics © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk down to the Crypt of Frescoes, incredibly beautiful and amazingly rich color. The structure dates back to the 9th century and the frescoes date from the 12th century. 19 scenes tell the history of Hermagora and the origins of Christianity in Aquileia.

The entire floor of the basilica at Aquileia is covered with Roman mosaics © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The entire floor of the basilica at Aquileia is covered with Roman mosaics © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
You wonder who this woman was, immortalized in mosaic at Aquileia © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Frescoes, Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a lovely complex, and we enjoy some refreshment – ice cream and drinks – at the café and sit under tall trees. It restores us for the rest of the ride. We don’t have that much further to go.

Grado

Biking over the dam into Grado © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The rest of the ride is extremely pleasant, capped with what feels like three miles over a dam, with water on both sides, to get into Grado, another gorgeous seaside beach resort, this one with yachts.

We arrive in time to make it down to the beach by 7 pm (when we discover they don’t charge the 2E fee to use the beach at that hour), and get to swim in the Adriatic before going in search of a dinner place.

Grado is interesting – our hotel is along the beach and is a string of modern hotels that have you thinking a little bit of Miami Beach. Our guidebook says that Grado, known as a golden island, is the only good beach resort on the Upper Adriatic, and has an exceptionally picturesque old town and a fascinating history.

Grado © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, just a couple of blocks away, it’s like a completely different world: we find ourselves in Grado’s Old City, standing over an excavation of Roman ruins of a military camp (fort), a town square with a Basilica della Corte that dates from the 4th century (one of the oldest in Italy), and a delightful pedestrian walkway loaded with shops and restaurants in an old historic section.

Grado © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All the restaurants are booked solid (we haven’t yet learned the trick of phoning in advance for reservations, which would be facilitated by the dining recommendations in our guidebook), but we find a small innovative place that serves tapas-style.

The picturesque fountain along the seaside promenade, Grado © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The town is extremely picturesque and at night the promenade is lighted, there is an interesting fountain with colored lights you walk under like a tunnel, and it is simply delightful to stroll.

Other attractions include the Basilica di Sant’Eufernia which dates from the 6th century and is located in Campo del Patriarchi. The bell tower was built in 1455. There is also a statue of Archangel Michael, the symbol of Grado, on the tower.

Our guidebook also makes note of a boat trip to the island of Anfora, a picturesque fishing village in the heart of the lagoon. Some parts of the lagoon are designated nature preserves, harboring some 260 species of birds.

Here again, we just fall under the spell of this place.

It has been another utterly perfect day.

Stage 4: Aquilea/Grado – Trieste (43 miles/70 km or 25 miles/40 km) + train

Day 5 of our eight-day self-guided Venice-Trieste-Istria bike tour starts off magnificently: the ride from Grado begins with another glorious miles-long ride over a dam (a different one from yesterday) giving stunning views and refreshing breezes. It continues through a landscape of rocky caverns and farmland, along the seacoast, finally coming to a delightful swimming beach (this is why you should carry swimming things). This part of the ride, the first 24 miles, has been fantastic. Then we come into Monfalcone, a busy city of shipyards and cruise ships, where we get lost. And here we make a bad choice for our route to Trieste.

Riding over a dam from Grado en route to Trieste © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The regular (recommended) route would have us riding 43 miles along the coastal road (we are told this isn’t a bike trail but there may be a bike lane) taking in Duino, Sistiana, Miramare, and Barcola. Our FunActive guide Anthony (I recall too late), has described riding along cliffs that you can climb down, passing the castle of Miramare high above the Bay of Grignano, situated in the middle of a park, which is a major attraction (not to mention the castle has a Manet exhibit, which I only learn about after we arrive at our Trieste hotel). Anthony also said how the ride can be reduced to 25 miles by taking a train into Trieste.

Biking Stage 4 from Grado en route to Trieste © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We don’t do either. Instead, we take a “variant” route from Monfalcone into the “hinterland” (the thought of “hinterland” had really excited Eric) that brings us into Slovenia (no border crossing or passport required back and forth to Italy).

A beautiful beach outside of Monfalcone © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As it turns out, this adventure adds 17 miles to the 43 of which most of it is up and up and up, on winding roads (at one point, my “can do” attitude fails and I walk the bike up the last quarter-mile to this section’s “top” feeling defeated). There are no charming villages. No beautiful sights or vistas. Even the restaurant that is marked on the map is closed. We ride through what is supposed to be a preserve with trees on both sides, but there are no real views or scenery.

Finally, we come back to the Italy border where there is a tiny rest stop (no bathroom though). I rejuvenate with an ice cream bar, sitting on an air-conditioned porch (I think I am close to heat exhaustion), and recover myself for the final trek into Trieste. Chalk this up to the “physical challenge” part of bike touring that gives you something to boast about forever more. And adventure. After all, it could have been the most fantastic off-the-beaten-track discovery anyone had ever seen.

We make the final climbs and then find ourselves, indeed, at a scenic overlook (actually somebody’s driveway) with a sensational view of Trieste. But after taking our victory-photos, we realize that now we have to bike down this narrow, busy road with its hair turns that (seemingly) goes on for miles.

Finally, our climbs through the hinterland are rewarded with a scenic overlook of Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We feel like we are coming down a corkscrew and finally are deposited into the traffic and hubbub of a bustling major city.

Trieste is like culture shock after our time in the tranquil countryside. But we see regal, if drab and aging, buildings, evidence of an important city.

Somehow, Eric finds the way to our hotel, located on the fringe of the historic Old City (I clock the day at 54 miles of which I estimate 12 miles are uphill). We quickly drop our things and go out to explore while there is still light. It’s a short walk to the main square.

Trieste’s architecture evokes Vienna rather than Venice © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

All at once, I am transported: the architecture evokes Vienna rather than Venice – majestic buildings in neoclassic style. Indeed, Trieste (as much of Slovenia just across the border), was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was once the Empire’s most important Mediterranean port, and interestingly, with the European Union, has again become a major gateway into Europe, rivaling Koper, Slovenia’s major port, for commerce.

Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The city puts out an outstanding tourist map, giving background to its history and guide to important sites like the Museum of History and Art and Lapidary Gardens, the Castle Museum and Lapidarium, the Victory Lighthouse (built 1922 honoring sailors lost in World War I), the Opicina Tramway built in 1902 linking city centre with the plateau. It offers tours to Roman Trieste and literary tours.

And as I discover (too late to take advantage): Jewish Trieste: Risiera di San Sabba, created inside an old rice husking factory, was the only extermination camp in Italy and declared a national monument in 1965; Via del Monte, a Jewish community with a cemetery used for 400 years, a Jewish Temple, and a Jewish Community Museum, the newer Jewish Cemetery, a synagogue which dates from 1912, and some other sites.

Unfortunately, we have arrived in early evening, and are only able to explore what we can by foot in the old city, to get a flavor of the city.

Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here too, Eric puts out his radar (app) and finds Osteria de Scorpon for dinner (the risotto with black ink is excellent). This area reflects its heritage as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and goulash is a regional specialty.

Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Trieste © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-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, [email protected])

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

_____________________________

© 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 [email protected]. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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

Picturesque Caorle, Day 2 of our eight-day biketour from Venice to Croatia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin and Eric Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We hadn’t biked far from the Hotel Alexander on the mainland of Venice in Mestre on the first morning of a week-long self-guided bike tour that would take us some 300 miles following the seacoast to Porec, Croatia, before I imagined: had I done this by myself as I had originally planned, I would have been found weeks later wandering in a wilderness. I was so grateful that by son could come along – his tech prowess (and insistence on getting an app of our route) made all the difference.

Each morning, he would unfurl the day’s Stage map and have his smart phone tucked into the plastic case on the handlebars. Once underway (after a delightful breakfast in the pre-arranged inns), I would be trying in vain to follow the cue sheets and do mathematical gymnastics with the kilometers, and was so consumed with these and watching for Eric ahead, and being enrapt by the scenery and taking photos, that I would miss the mark the tour operator left on sign posts for each turn.

“It’s simple,” Eric says. “If you don’t see a mark, just go straight.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“It’s simple,” Eric says. If you don’t see a mark, you go straight.” But what if you have missed the mark that told you to turn? You could find yourself kilometers ahead before you even have a clue you missed the turn and have no idea where to go back. At one point, Eric installs the hang-out app on my phone so he can find me on his map and I can see where he is, that comes in really handy when I miss a turn altogether in the middle of Trieste.

But all of it becomes part of the adventure – the excitement of doing, not just seeing, of becoming immersed in a place or not knowing what will beyond the next turn.

The day before we set out from Venice for the first stage ride, Anthony, the guide from FunActive, the local tour operator that coordinates the tour, had come to the hotel in the afternoon to deliver and fit our rental bikes, the vouchers and maps and sit with us for an orientation reviewing each day’s trip. He arrived specially, as we requested, shortly after Eric arrived by plane, and we rushed him through so we could have the afternoon and evening in Venice. Anthony sat patiently with us in the hotel’s lounge trying to review the route for each of the six days of riding (he would have to repeat the entire thing for the four other self-guided cyclists later that afternoon). He reviewed the particularities of the route – the recommended “options” for sightseeing and the route “variants”. He tried to give us a sense of the road, and the highlights. I took notes but we rushed him and I think we missed a few things.

Each day has alternatives of a shorter, easier ride (usually with some ferry or train) and the longer one. But one day stands out in Eric’s mind in particular when he is determined to take “the hinterland” route.

Stage 1: Venice mainland/Mestre – Jesolo/Caorle (22 or 50 miles/35 or 80 km)

I thought the thunder storm that hit during the night would mean fair weather for our first day’s ride, Venice to Jesolo, a distance of 51 km (30 miles, though there is an option to take a shorter ride, 22 miles). No luck. It is raining when we leave and surprisingly cold – about 20 degrees cooler from the day before. We set out anyway because the rain is part of our adventure, after all.

Setting out from Venice on an eight-day self-guided biketour
© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I had thought we would mainly be riding on roads with traffic but am surprised and relieved that most of our ride for the next few days are along bikeways – often paved but sometimes gravel or pebbles, but nonetheless a bikeway – or else some country roads with very little traffic. And for the next few days, our ride will be flat, taking us through farmland and along the coast.

This first day of cycling is designed by FunActive to be easy (and would be but for the rain and head wind). Our destination is Jesolo, a seaside beach town. Many of the days offer options to cut off some of the biking (or the climbing or the traffic) by taking a ferry from the lagoon in Venice to Punta Sabbioni, which would have cut the day’s ride to 22 miles). We opt to take the “hinterland” route, cycling along the river Sile, 30 miles to Jesolo, passing the ruins of Torre Caligo, a tower from the Middle Ages which is situated near the canal “Caligo.”

FunActive has given us excellent background material – a guidebook in fact (I wish I had paid more attention to it before we set out) that includes background on the landscape, history and culture of the regions we travel through, plus recommendations for attractions and restaurants in each place, along with local maps. The route map, broken up into each day’s Stage, is well marked with places to stop for food, photos, attractions.

We ride through countryside – farms and villages – we can even see the snowcapped mountain peaks of the Dolomites in the distance.

This first day is really an orientation to learn “the rules of the road” – for me, figuring out how to correlate the cue sheets and look for the trail markings. At first, I am very disoriented, but Eric manages to get us to our destination.

Jesolo, a charming family beach town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Jesolo is utterly charming seaside beach resort that attracts local families, and despite its proximity to Venice, doesn’t seem to have attracted any foreign tourists at all (another delight of a bike tour, that brings you into local places well off the beaten tourist track). I am amazed how fine the sand is. The weather has cleared but it is rather cold and there is a red flag on the lifeguard stand, so no one is in the water this late in the afternoon. We enjoy walking along the beach, sticking our feet in the water, and taking in all the color.

Jesolo, a family-oriented beach town © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The town has a ferris wheel, amusement park, water park, go karts, arcade, lovely shops and restaurants, is loaded with surreys and bikes, and in the evening, closes the street to cars altogether. What we notice is there are few (if any) bars. This is really a family place. We love our hotel, the Marco Polo which is right on the main street, a block off the beach. The scenes evoke flashbacks to my own childhood, when our family would take trips in February to Atlantic City, normally a beach resort, and enjoy the boardwalk.

There are a plethora of restaurants – many are full and one in particular, Atmosphera, has people (including many families), lining up in the street. Lucky for us, they have a table for two. This place is a revelation – and we can soon see why it is probably the most popular restaurant in Jesolo – it has a sensational menu (pages and pages of pizza offerings, meat and fish selections), wonderfully prepared with fresh, flavorful ingredients in open kitchens, large portions beautifully presented and modest prices.

Our hotel, the Marco Polo, is most charming, and right on the main drag.

The Marco Polo, Jesolo © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Stage 2: Jesolo/Caorle to Concordia Sagittaria/Portogruaro (19 or 31 miles).

Today’s ride, 31 miles from Jesolo to Concordia Sagittaria/Portogruaro, is easy, cycling along the coast and it’s sunny! which dramatically adds to my sunny mood and puts metal to my pedal. We ride through scenic farmland and countryside. We take a slight detour into Caorle, which the FunActive guide, Anthony, has heartily recommended we do, and this proves one of the pure gems of the tour.

Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided biketour. Stage 2-Caorle-Saggitaria-Portogruaro (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we enter the town, the colorful buildings around a plaza makes me think of Sausalito over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, or, then again, of Seaside, Florida, that idyllic village in the “Truman Show,” and as soon as we make the turn into the Old District, with the warm sun streaming down, I think what a fantastic movie set this would make. It seems that all the property owners by choice or decree paint their buildings before each season, according to a certain gorgeous palette of colors.

Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided biketour. Stage 2-Caorle-Saggitaria-Portogruaro (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The colors are stirring, surreal almost, especially because of the narrow alleys and the angles. A riot of color. Think Nanny McPhee. I can’t get enough of it- the scenes make my heart race, especially the narrow, angled alleys. As we walk, each new vista is like a new painting.


Picturesque Caorle, Day 2 of our eight-day biketour from Venice to Croatia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We discover Carole in layers – first wandering through the streets. Eric has zoned in on a restaurant for lunch. We eat outside but this clever place, inside, actually has a model train set that delivers your food to the table.

Caorle has been settled for about 2000 years. Wandering around, we come upon the Cathedral San Stefano Protomartire Caorle, built in 1038.

Madonna dell’Angelo Church, Caorle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then we walk back and hone in on the Madonna dell’Angelo Church, perched on a cliff overlooking the water and the beach at the end of the stone promenade, wrapping around on two sides. Across the way, there are a gazillion beach umbrellas set up, but where we are, there are like random, ad hoc DIY blankets and umbrellas. Eric swims in the Adriatic while I take photos.

Keep a bathing suit handy for opportunities like this: the beach at Caorle © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are so delighted with Caorle, we buy refrigerator magnets with the scene of the colorful buildings.

Venice-Trieste-Istria self-guided biketour. Stage 2-Caorle-Saggitaria-Portogruaro (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We leave this enchanting town and find ourselves in absolutely gorgeous countryside – with what I presume are the Dolomite Mountains as a backdrop. At one point, we ride along a berm that elevates us over the farmland on either side.

Anthony had strongly recommended that once we arrive at Concordia Sagittaria where our inn is, we ride the few extra kilometers into Portogruaro, and when I see the photo of the Town Hall on our hotel’s card, we race out to take advantage of the warm late afternoon light.

Portogruaro © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a delightful ride on a bike path along a river into Portogruaro, aglow in golden light. The town, founded in the 12th century as a port on the river Lemene, is surprisingly big and bustling, and we dash to try to capture that scene from the photo before the sun sets. We find our way to the Old City and the Plaza della Republica with its grand Gothic Town Hall, A concert is going on and we are drawn in but pull away in order not to miss the fading sunlight.

Portogruaro © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The setting is absolutely magnificent – this 12th century Town Hall with ancient watermills (one still spinning), is very Venetian in its look. I realize that the shot I want is across the river, and cross the bridge to a small park adjacent to a monastery. I get there just in time before the light fades.

We bike back to Concordia Sagittaria, a delightful village well off the tourist “beaten track,” which is why I love bike tours so much. The village sits in what was a Roman colony on the River Lemene.

Concordia Sagittaria © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By now we’re famished. It’s a Monday night and some restaurants are closed. But Eric finds a marvelous one (which turns out to be listed in the FunActiv guide): Pizzeria Al Solito Posto. All the tables have been reserved (notably, by locals), but we notice two people just finishing their meal at a table outside. There are something like four pages of pizza to choose from and I have the best pizza I’ve had in my life: cheese, olives, capers and anchovies with the freshest tomato and thinnest of crust done to perfection.

The Julia, Concordia Sagittaria © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our inn, The Julia, is right on the river and in the middle of the square, towered over by the 10th century Byzantine Cathedrale di Santo Stefano Protomartire, dedicated to the first Christian martyr. (Inside, our notes say, is a holy water stoup in Greek marble from the 1st century and 13th century paintings). Just across the square, we discover an archeological dig with sarcophagus, on the ruins of the first basilica. The excavations have also uncovered ruins of a Roman street. Next to the church is a Roman-style bell tower from 1150. There is also a Bishop’s Palace (1450) and town hall from the year 1523.

An archeological dig with sarcophagus on the ruins of the first basilica Concordia Sagittaria © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This day has been the most magnificent. And the most interesting thing of all is we would never have seen or experienced any of it except for riding our bikes.

There are four other riders following the same self-guided FunActive itinerary as we who have started on the same day, and we meet up with them periodically in the inns and even on the trail and delight in sharing stories and comparing notes of our travels.

Concordia Sagittaria © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Next: Discovering Ancient Christian Cite of Aquilea, Roman City of Grado

(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-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, [email protected])

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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 [email protected]. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace IN Venice

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the most popular attractions in Venice and dominating the most popular square, San Marco, the Doge Palace is unbelievably crowded with tourists during the day who can stand on line for a long time and then struggle inside for views of the fantastic art. But on my recent trip, I discovered that the Doge Palace and three other museums stay open on Fridays and Saturdays until 11 pm (last entrance at 10 pm) and the ticket is valid at all four of the museums and valid for three months.  The experience of visiting the Doge Palace at night is incomparable.

I waltz in at 7:30 pm without waiting at all and find myself in these rooms – grand doesn’t begin to describe them – by myself or with at most a handful of other people. All of us are breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.

The art work – monumental pieces by titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Besides the extraordinary magnificence of the artwork throughout the Doge Palace, I realize from the notes I read afterward that the palace harbors a fascinating history of government of this early republic, which for two centuries dominated trade between Europe and Asia. Venice’s powerful influence extended from the city at the western edge of the old Byzantine Empire, to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

I go through the rooms taking in the visual sights, overwhelmed, really by the art – the majestic paintings in gilded frames that completely cover the walls and ceiling, the architectural details. The rooms are fairly dark and I don’t take the time or struggle to read the notes that are provided. Later, when I review the notes provided, I better appreciate the historical significance, where the art and the architecture were representations of the structure of government and the rulers, comparable to the Capitol Building, Supreme Court and White House, combined, though hundreds of years older.

For two centuries, the Venetian Republic dominated trade between Europe and Asia, its influence extending from the city at the western edge of the Byzantine Empire to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The palace dates back to before the 10th century but, after a fire, was rebuilt by Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172-1178), a great reformer who also changed the layout of St. Mark’s Square. The palace had to be expanded several times “to accommodate political changes and the increase in number of people who had the right to participate in the legislative assembly meetings” (an intriguing phrase). The Chamber of the Great Council (just one room in this palace) accommodated 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen. The thought is mind-boggling.

After another huge fire in 1577 destroyed many of the masterpieces, reconstruction was undertaken immediately to restore it to its original appearance, which was completed by 1579-80.

Until then, the Doge’s Palace housed not only the Doge’s apartments, the seat of the government and the city’s courtrooms, but also a jail. It was only in the second half of the 16th century that Antonio da Ponte ordered the construction of new prisons, built by Antonio Contin around 1600, which were linked to the Doge’s Palace by the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1614. Relocating the prisons left the old space on the ground floor of the palace free, which led to the creation of the courtyard.

Looking through the Bridge of Sighs, Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The famous Bridge of Sighs dates from the Romantic period, its name supposedly referring to the sighs of prisoners who, passing from the courtroom to the cell in which they would serve their sentence, took a last look at freedom as they glimpsed the lagoon and San Giorgio through the filigree openings.

Crossing over the Bridge of Sighs is one of the most thrilling aspects of the visit, especially at night, with the golden lights reflected on blue-black water. You peer through the openings, just as these prisoners would have. It is somewhat surreal to look down at the bridge from which you saw the Bridge of Sighs hours before, and imagine what prisoners must have thought as they had their last glimpse of that glorious scene. And then going into the prison itself, surreal considering it was mere steps away from the grandeur of the palace.

Inspecting the prison cells, Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But there is still so much more to see – it seems that the palace just goes on and on.

The Chamber of the Great Council, restructured in the 14th century, was decorated with a fresco by Guariento and later with works by the most famous artists of the period, including Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Alvise Vivarini, Carpaccio, Bellini, Pordenone and Titian. At 53 meters long and 25 meters wide, this is not only the largest and most majestic chamber in the Doge’s Palace, but also one of the largest rooms in Europe.

The Great Council was the most important political body in the Republic. An ancient institution, the Council was made up of all the male members over 25 years old of patrician Venetian families, irrespective of their individual status, merits or wealth. “This was why, in spite of the restrictions in its powers that the Senate introduced over the centuries, the Great Council continued to be seen as bastion of republican equality. The Council had the right to call to account all the other authorities and bodies of the State when it seemed that their powers were getting excessive and needed to be trimmed. The 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen who sat in the Council always considered themselves guardians of the laws that were the basis of all the other authorities within the State.”

This room was also where the first steps in the election of a new Doge would take place. These voting procedures were extremely long and complex in order to frustrate any attempts of cheating. Every Sunday, when the bells of St. Mark’s rang, the Council members would gather in the hall with the Doge presiding at the center of the podium and his counselors occupying double rows of seats that ran the entire length of the room.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The walls are decorated with works by Paolo Caliari (known as Paolo Veronese), Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, and Palma il Giovane. depicting Venetian history, particularly the city’s relations with the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; the ceiling is decorated with the Virtues and examples of Venetian heroism, with an allegorical glorification of the Republic in the center. Facing each other in groups of six, the 12 wall paintings depict acts of valor or scenes of war that had occurred during the city’s history. A frieze with portraits of the first 76 doges (the portraits of the others are in the Sala dello Scrutinio) runs just under the ceiling. Though commissioned from Jacopo Tintoretto, most of these paintings are the work of his son, Domenico. Each Doge holds a scroll bearing a reference to his most important achievements, while Doge Marin Faliero, who attempted a coup d’état in 1355, is represented simply by a black cloth – a traitor to the Republic, he was not only condemned to death but also to damnatio memoriae, the total eradication of his memory and name.

Along the wall behind the Doge’s throne is one of the longest canvas paintings in the world, the Paradiso, which Jacopo Tintoretto and workshop produced between 1588 and 1592 to replace the Guariento fresco that had been damaged in the fire.

The Council Chamber was where two separate and independent organs of power, the Savi and the Signoria, would meet. The Savi was divided into three sections concerned with foreign policy, mainland Italy and maritime issues. The Signoria was made up of the three Heads of the Councils of Forty and members of the Minor Council, composed of the Doge and six councilors, one for each district of the city of Venice. The Council was organized and coordinated the work of the Senate, reading dispatches from ambassadors and city governors, receiving foreign delegations and promoting other political and legislative activity.

The Sala dei Pregadi housed the Senate, one of the oldest public institutions in Venice.  Established in the 13th century, it evolved over time until by the 16th century it was the body mainly responsible for overseeing political and financial affairs in manufacturing, trade and foreign policy. In effect, it served as a sub-committee of the Great Council and its members were generally drawn from the wealthiest Venetian families.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Chamber of the Council of Ten is named for the council that was set up after a conspiracy in 1310, when Bajamonte Tiepolo and other noblemen tried to overthrow the government. “Initially meant as a provisional body to try those conspirators, the Council of Ten is one of many examples of Venetian institutions that were intended to be temporary but which became permanent.” Its authority covered all sectors of public life, a power that gave rise to its reputation as a ruthless, all-seeing tribunal at the service of the ruling oligarchy, a court whose sentences were handed down rapidly after secret hearings. The assembly was made up of ten members chosen from the Senate and elected by the Great Council. These ten sat with the Doge and his six counselors, which accounts for the 17 semicircular outlines that you can still see in the chamber.

The Compass Room was used for the administration of justice. It was named for the large wooden compass with a statue of Justice, that stands in one corner and hides the entrance to the rooms of the three Heads of the Council of Ten and the State Inquisitors. Those summoned by these powerful magistrates waited here to be called; the magnificent decor was intended to reinforce the solemnity of the Republic’s legal machinery.

So much of the exquisite decoration we see, which dates from the 16th century, was commissioned from Veronese. Completed in 1554, the works he produced are all intended to exalt the “good government” of the Venetian Republic; the central panel, with St. Mark descending to crown the three Theological Virtues, is a copy of the original, now in the Louvre.

The Chamber of Censors was an office which was established in 1517 to address “the cultural and political upheavals that are associated with Humanism.” The State Censors “were more like moral consultants than judges, with their main task being the repression of electoral fraud and the protection of the State’s public institutions.” The walls display Domenico Tintoretto’s portraits of these magistrates.

The Chamber of the State Advocacies: This State Advocacy department dates from the 12th century, when Venice was organized as a commune. The three members, the Avogadori, safeguarded the principle of legality, making sure that laws were applied correctly. Though they never enjoyed the status and power of the Doge and the Council of Ten, the Avogadori remained one of the most prestigious authorities in Venice right up to the fall of the Republic. They were also responsible for preserving the integrity of the city’s patrician class, verifying the legitimacy of marriages and births inscribed in the Golden Book.

The “Scrigno” Room. The Venetian nobility as a caste came into existence because of the “closure” of admissions to the Great Council in 1297; but it was only in the 16th century that formal restrictions that protected the status of that aristocracy were introduced: marriages between nobles and commoners were forbidden so greater controls were set up to check the validity of aristocratic titles. Golden and Silver books registered all those families that not only had the requisites of “civilization” and “honor”, but could also show that they were of ancient Venetian origin. The Golden and Silver Books were kept in a chest inside a cupboard that also contained all the documents proving the legitimacy of claims. The 18th century cupboard we see today extends around three sides of a wall niche; lacquered in white with gilded decorations.

The Armourny, Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Armoury houses an important historical collection of weapons and armaments. The core of the collection is 14th century, dating from the time when the Armoury was under the control of the Council of Ten and stocked with weapons that would be readily available for the Palace’s guards. The collection was partially dispersed after the fall of the Republic, but still contains some 2000 exhibits, including 15th and 16th century suits of armor, swords, halberds, quivers and crossbows. Many are inscribed or painted monogram CX – for “Council of Ten” – which also appears on the door jambs, evidence of the Council’s might. The Turkish implements – weapons, standards and ships’ lanterns – that are displayed were taken from the enemy during battle. The collection also displays 16th and 17th century firearms; implements of torture; a chastity belt; and a series of small but lethal weapons that were prohibited by law.

Doge Palace, Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Doge’s Palace was the heart of the political life and public administration of the Venetian Republic, so after the fall of the Republic in 1797, its role inevitably changed. Venice first fell under French rule, then Austrian, and ultimately, in 1866, became part of a united Italy.

Up until the end of the 19th century, the Palazzo Ducale was occupied by various administrative offices and housed important cultural institutions such as the Biblioteca Marciana (from 1811 to 1904). But by then, the structure was showing signs of decay. The Italian government set aside sizeable sums for an extensive restoration. Public offices were relocated with the exception of the State Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments, which is still housed in the building (now called Superintendence of the Environmental and Architectural Heritage of Venice and its Lagoon). In 1923, the Italian state which owns the building, appointed the City Council to manage it as a public museum. In 1996, the Doge’s Palace became part of the Civic Museums of Venice network.

San Marco Square, Venice, at night (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com


ST. MARK’S SQUARE MUSEUMS TICKET A single ticket valid for the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary of Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.  This ticket is valid for 3 months and grants one single admission to the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary. (20E for regular ticket; 13 E for children 6-14, students 15-25, seniors over 65 and holders of International Student Identity Card) (http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/the-museum/doges-palace/the-palace/)

MUSEUM PASS The Museum Pass the cumulative ticket for the permanent collection of the Musei Civici of Venice currently open and for those connected (Palazzo Fortuny and Clock Tower not included).  This ticket is valid for 6 months and grants one single admission to each museum. The Museum Pass grants entrance to: The St Mark’s Square museums
: – Doge’s Palace – combined itinerary of Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, plus other civic museums of Venice: Ca’ Rezzonico – Museum of 18th-Century Venice; Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo; Carlo Goldoni’s House; Ca’ Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art + Oriental Art Museum; Glass Museum – Murano; Lace Museum – Burano; Natural History Museum. (24E or 18 E), www.visitmuve.it.

Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander back through the narrow alleys of the old city, stopping to listen to a musician fill a plaza with his music, to the tram that takes me back to the Hotel Alexander in Mestre. Tomorrow, Eric and I will start our eight-day self-guided bike tour that will take us about 300 miles to Trieste, Slovenia and Croatia.

(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” 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,[email protected]).

See also: Following Whim and Whimsy in 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 [email protected]. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

Wandering through Venice’s neighborhoods © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of the smartest choices I make in preparation for a week-long self-guided bike tour from Venice to Trieste to Istria (Slovenia to Croatia) is to arrive a day earlier. This gives me the unsurpassed luxury of spending a day wandering around Venice without a plan or an objective, just to follow whim and whimsy and take in the incomparable essence of this enchanting city. I am transfixed by Venice – the colors, the constant motion, the angles, the architecture, how you never know what you will see around any corner, how getting lost leads to new discovery. I have that cherished time to really focus on details.

Eric, my son who will be biking with me, will be arriving the next day, and I have made my way from Marco Polo International Airport to the Hotel Alexander, on the mainland, in Mestre by public bus (following the directions provided by FunActive, the tour company). I drop my bags and have most of the day to explore on my own.

The hotel that has been selected on the FunActiv tour (self-guided means that they have booked the inns and laid out the route, provide the rental bikes and support, a ferry the luggage each day to the next inn) which I booked through Biketours.com, is well located, just a short walk to a tram that comes frequently (they tell me where to buy the ticket, at a convenience store) and whisks me in comfort to the magnificent old city in 15 minutes.

Before I left the hotel, I had spotted a flyer about a new Leonardo Da Vinci Museum and am delighted when, serendipitously, I find myself right in front of it, next door to Chiesa di San Rocco, a church where a concert is underway. I listen for awhile and then go into the Museum.

Trying out one of Leonardo DaVinci’s inventions at the new Leonardo DaVinci Museum in Venice © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What distinguishes the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum is that it is designed as a laboratory for experimentation and curiosity – actually giving you insights into the mind of Leonardo da Vinci by bringing his manuscripts, schematics and drawings to reality. Engineers have recreated large-scale models of Da Vinci’s inventions from his own plans “created through the skillful craftsmanship typical of the Renaissance workshops” which you can touch and maneuver.  Essentially, you get to play with DaVinci’s inventions – delighting children of all ages. The museum also exhibits DaVinci’s anatomical studies. A special space is dedicated to his main pictorial works including the Mona Lisa and Annunciation, reproduced using high-resolution backlight technology.(Open daily, Scuola Grand di San Rocco, www.davincimuseum.it).

My motto, “Seize the day” (and waste no time) serves me well, because my first day is sunny, bringing out the colors of Venice – along with everyone else. Venice is unbelievably crowded with tourists– like Times Square but on a much, much bigger scale– and quite warm and humid. But I don’t mind and I find myself wandering down streets and alleys in neighborhoods (and they are really neighborhoods, where Venetians live) that are amazingly uncrowded and quiet.

Concert underway in a church provides respite for body and soul © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I periodically take refuge in churches to get out of the heat and take a bit of a rest and often am pleasantly surprised to discover art and music.

One of the delights of Venice is that it is set up like a labyrinth of warrens, alleys, bridges over canals, so you are constantly surprised by the scenes that come into view as you walk about.

Venice (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The most popular is the famous view from the Rialto Bridge at the center of the city where you literally have to wait your turn to get a photo.

The narrow alleys all of a sudden open up into the famous square of San Marco and I come upon the Basilica of San Marco with its ornate decoration. There is so much to see and do here in the piazza, which remarkably has retained the same look as depicted in Renaissance paintings.

Rush hour for gondoliers © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At San Marco, I stand on a bridge the gondoliers go under to get to the Bridge of Sighs – that famous place in the Doge Palace where prisoners would be taken to their cramped, damp cells, across this bridge with the last view of the open sky and their last breath of fresh air. It’s like rush hour of the gondolas. I admire the skill with which they deftly turn 90-degree corners and avoid hitting each other or smack into the pilings. The choreography of their floating dance is amazing – I notice the oar lock the gondoliers use, shaped in such a way that they get a different angle to control their stroke.

Bridge of Sighs, Doge Palace © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What really strikes me is that despite the crowds, how clean Venice’s streets are (though there is graffiti, more a reflection of political climate) and how fresh. This wasn’t the case when I last visited, 10 years ago.

I linger in the Piazza San Marco for a time, and am sitting on marble benches under an archway at the Doge Palace when I hear thunder. Last time I was here, the city was flooded – platforms mysteriously would appear on the streets that you had to walk over to avoid wading in six inches of water – a worrisome warning that Venice may at some point become submerged altogether with rising sea level.


Venice’s famous Piazza San Marco © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

No one seems particularly bothered by the thunder, not even the street vendors. I take the tram back to the hotel, and just before I get there, the thunderstorm starts.

The next morning is raining, but no matter. I hop the tram again, a five-minute walk from the Hotel Alexander through the neighborhood for the ride into Venice, and this time, after crossing over the bridge that provides entrance to the Old City (and apparently closes at night to those who aren’t living or staying here) go left at the fork instead of right. I walk over a bridge and see a sign pointing to the Jewish Ghetto and follow it. I come upon a group of Israeli tourists huddled under a passageway leading into the Jewish quarter as their guide gives her talk. I walk ahead and find the synagogue, where Sabbath services are just finishing, guarded by city soldiers who don’t let me in.

The last time I was in Venice, I happened upon Chabad gathering for Shabbat dinner and was invited in. The Chabad are actively repopulating European cities that emptied their Jewish communities during the Holocaust.

Gondolier, Venice © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have a few hours before Eric arrives and we have our orientation with a FunActive guide for our bike tour. I make my way to San Marco again, before walking back to the depot to get the tram back to the hotel, in time for Eric and the guide to arrive.

We spend about an hour with Anthony, the FunActive guide, actually hurrying him along because we are so anxious to get back to Venice so Eric can have some time there. Anthony persists: going over the day-by-day maps, pointing out sights we might look out for, and alternative routes we can take, and then fits us to the bikes we will be taking.

Entrance to the synagogue. Venice’s Jewish Ghetto is being repopulated © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By the time we get to Venice in the afternoon, the rain has cleared. We return together to the Jewish Ghetto and wander from there. I let Eric take the lead so he can have that same delight in discovering Venice for himself.

It is important to realize that Venice is a place where people live (signs ask visitors to respect the residents), and coming in this way, through the Jewish Ghetto, we find many streets – very quiet streets – that are simply neighborhoods off the beaten tourist track. Laundry stretched across the canal.

Dining at Al Portego © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric uses his tech prowess (and the AFAR app) to find a restaurant, which gives a purpose and focus to our wandering through the streets. We arrive at Al Portego just in time before all the tables would be reserved for dinner.

After dinner, we walk to San Marco, which is especially magical at night. I have saved visiting the Doge Palace for the evening (the Doge Palace and three other museums stay open on Fridays and Saturdays until 11 pm, last entrance at 10 pm) so that Eric could see it as well. But Eric is too exhausted after having traveled all day and heads back to the hotel.

Doge Palace at night © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I waltz in at 7:30 pm without waiting at all – such a contrast to the daytime when the lines are long and hundreds of people, including massive tour groups, funnel in at once. The ticket, I learn, is valid at all four museums and good for three months. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to take advantage, but the ticket is well worth it.

Priceless, in fact.

I find myself in these rooms – grand doesn’t begin to describe it – by myself or with at most five other people. All of us are breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.

The art work – monumental pieces by titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.

Next: A Night Visit to the Doge Palace

(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-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, [email protected] ).

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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 [email protected]. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Cities, Mountains, Boat and Beach: Letters Home from Honeymoon in Vietnam & Cambodia

Riding a scooter through the countryside © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a whirlwind destination wedding in New Orleans and a relaxing mini-moon in St. Lucia, we took a few weeks to recover at home, and then embarked on a 3-week adventure to Vietnam and Cambodia. After researching some 30 different destinations, we chose this combination for a number of reasons: the landscapes (according to Google image search) are varied and breathtaking; the climate is still warm in December, but not swelteringly hot; the food is supposed to be unbelievable; we can do some sightseeing and also indulge in some down-time (Bai Tu Long Bay cruise in Vietnam and island-hopping in Cambodia); we heard the people are incredibly kind and traveling around the country independently is fairly easy even with the language barrier; and we would be able to live well and splurge when we wanted to without breaking our budget (as opposed to Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, Maldives and other honeymoon hot-spots).

Our honeymoon to Vietnam and Cambodia proved to be all of the above AND MORE. The following are from emails we wrote home to our families, with names added afterwards for reference…

Subject: Update from Vietnam!

Hi fam!

Sorry to not have written earlier! We’ve been having an incredible time in Vietnam. Seriously every place so far has been a highlight, it’s pretty unreal. We’ve taken about 2000 photos each already so we’re starting an album of some highlights. 

One of our favorite lunches (marinated fried catfish hotpot with fixings), Chả Cá Thăng Long, Hanoi © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We started with 2 days in Hanoi walking around the old streets and eating some amazing food, and egg coffee, which is surprisingly delicious. Our first night we went with Hanoi Street Food Tours to sample some of the awesome street foods we wouldn’t have otherwise known to order.

Hanoi © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The second night we took a $1 Grab, (the Vietnamese Uber that costs $1 to go almost anywhere) to Chim Sao, this non-touristy restaurant out of the city center, and had an incredible dinner of traditional specialties like water buffalo, mountain sausage, banana flower salad, baby mussels, and rice wine. Food here is out of this world—very different from American Vietnamese and we are constantly surprised by the dishes.

View from our room at Ham Rong Homestay © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We had a great experience with Hanoi La Castela, the hotel we ended up in after we decided to leave our not so clean Airbnb. The staff at the hotel was incredibly friendly and helpful and their breakfasts were huge and delicious. They set up a car & driver for us to go to Ninh Binh, the gorgeous region about 3 hours west of Hanoi in the countryside. Lots of beautiful karsts (those tall mountain things jutting up from the land that you see in all the photos of Ha Long Bay). We stayed in a beautiful secluded homestay, Ham Rong, where the only sounds we could hear were the animals and insects around. We arrived just in time to hike the 500 steps of the mountain-top above Mua Caves and catch the sunset over an incredible panorama of Tam Coc and Ninh Binh.

Mua Caves, Tam Coc, Ninh Binh © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next 2 days we rented scooters from our homestay and had an amazing time riding around the countryside. Don’t worry, Dave was sure to drive very slowly and carefully, and it was all country back roads so very safe. We took a little boat ride through the karsts and caves in nearby Trang An, wandered through the back roads of the little villages, and visited some very cool temples built into the sides of mountains, like Bich Dong Pagoda. We also visited Bai Dinh, apparently the largest temple in all of Southeast Asia with a giant gold Buddha in one of the main halls–the whole complex was pretty ostentatious and absurd, and very cool to see, especially all lit up at night.

Along the road in Pu Luong, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our homestay arranged for a private car to take us to Pu Luong, where we stayed for 2 nights and absolutely need to return. It’s a phenomenally gorgeous nature reserve with self-sustaining villages that was totally unknown to foreigners before about a year or so ago. Some people have caught on and now some of the villages have started making homestays for visitors, but it’s still very rare to see any other white people outside of the homestay. There’s no tourism infrastructure (yet) aside from these few clusters of homestays so it feels like a very special peak into authentic traditional Vietnamese village culture.

Pu Luong, Vietnam© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rice terraces of Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the time you’re just surrounded by spectacular landscapes of terraced rice fields and mountains with scattered people tilling soil, herding water buffalo, cutting bamboo, harvesting rice, etc.

A village of Pu Luong, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Throughout the national park there are amazing little villages with everyone out working together, and everyone was so sweet to us when they’d realize we were foreigners. Anytime we’d go through a village all the little kids would very cutely run out to say “Hello! Hello! Hello!” until we passed.

Our treehouse at Pu Luong Treehouse, Don Village, Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We stayed at Pu Luong Treehouse, the first night in an actual treehouse with the most gorgeous view, then upgraded the second night to a bungalow at the same place (same view) with private bathroom and a bigger space which was really gorgeous and probably one of the coolest places we’ve ever stayed. The host, Zoom, is from Hanoi, went to school in Alaska, has traveled the world, and has amazing taste so the whole little retreat she’s created is designed into the landscape with beautiful details everywhere. Basically everything is made of bamboo or branches, all the linens made herself with traditional textiles and weavings from Pu Luong. The chef she hired from the village is also incredible so we’ve been eating VERY well (several course meals 3 times/day). 

Traditional weaving in Don village, Pu Luong, Vietnam© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Incredible lunch stop at Nhá Tung homestay near Les bains de Hieu, Pu Luong, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We’re currently in a car back to Hanoi with Zoom (who’s 8 months pregnant and had to return home for a few days) and two great Australian girls who were also staying at the homestay. All 7 of us staying there got pretty close over the past 3 days, which seemed to be a function of the sweet energy Zoom’s created at the homestay, and I guess the type of people this very random, very peaceful province attracts, as it takes a good amount of research to get there. We’re sad to leave, but so excited for each next part of the trip!

Dragonfish meal with morning glory at  Nhà hàng 1946 © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Spending tonight in Hanoi and leaving tomorrow morning for Bai Tu Long Bay (Ha Long Bay’s apparently less touristy, equally beautiful sister). We’ll be on Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend for 3 days, 2 nights.

Love yous! Us

Subject: Vietnam/Cambodia update 2, going off-grid!

Hi fam!

Angkor Wat, 12th century Buddhist temple, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Photo: Senghuat Boun

We’re currently on a small prop plane from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville to catch a boat to Koh Ta Kiev, a tiny island off the southern coast of Cambodia. We had an amazing (but too short) 2 days in Siem Reap exploring the Angkor Wat complex. We hired a private guide/driver (Senghuat Boun) on the recommendation of a couple we met on our cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay, and he was amazing.

Dave playing his guitarlele with the children of the Temple guard at Ta Nei © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Laini watching the kids draw in her sketchbook at Ta Nei
 © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We saw all the main temples plus a few smaller “off the beaten path” ones, including Ta Nei in the jungle, a small temple that hasn’t yet been restored and is amazing to see how it’s been reclaimed by nature. When we were there this afternoon it was just us, the temple guard, and her 2 ridiculously cute children who played guitar with Dave (he has his guitarlele with him) and drew with me. It was a really sweet way to end the temple circuit.

First Light over Angkor Wat © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
South Gate of Angkor Thom © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Afterwards we had our driver drop us off at a restaurant we found last night but was closed then, and our lunch there today was actually one of the best meals either of us have ever had (Pou Kitchen & Cafe). In NYC it would have a 6-month waitlist. Four incredibly inventive dishes plus dessert and fancy iced coffee came to $22.

Preah Kahn, 12th century temple built by King Jayavarman VII in honor of his father. Photo: Senghuat Boun

Before Siem Reap, the cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay was awesome. Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend is a 4-star ship with amazing food (and a ton of it), and makes an extremely relaxing experience on the bay.

Aboard Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com
Laini relaxing aboard Indochina Junk’s Dragon Legend, Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We sailed to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is supposed to be less touristy and cleaner than Ha Long Bay, and we barely saw another boat on the water except for when we docked to sleep, since boats are only allowed to dock overnight in one specific spot). It was actually a luxury 45-person cruise ship, but only 14 people were on board so it was very sweet and intimate, and the perfect amount of people for the short day tours (kayaking, visiting a fishing village, learning about oyster harvesting). I loved spending the afternoons drawing and reading Adam’s book and Dave got to play a lot of guitar.

Hoi An, rainy season © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a quick overnight in Hanoi the night we returned from the cruise, we went to Hoi An, about an hour flight south of Hanoi. There was torrential downpour from the time we arrived until 2 days later (completely forgot this is rainy season in the south). But it gave us a night in to chill at our beautiful hotel (Ocean Breeze Villa) in An Bang, the sleepy beach town just out of the city where we were somehow able to order delivery from Morning Glory, one of the city’s best restaurants.

Takeout from Morning Glory during the storm in Ocean Villa Hotel, An Bang, Hoi An © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We took another $1 Grab into the city and got an incredible 2-hour massage and scrub at 5 Senses Spa during the heaviest rains of the 2nd day ($26 for a 90 min massage!). 

We try on our new clothes
at Thong Phi Tailors, Hoi An

The rest of the time we mostly spent shopping and eating, since this is the town known for their great tailors, which are all indoors. From one shop we went into the first day, Thông Phi Tailors, Dave got a nice black suit, chinos, and 3 dress shirts, and I got 2 linen jumpsuits and a pair of linen trousers, all made to order with a few rounds of alterations so everything fits perfectly. The last day Dave started talking to a shop person at a different Tailor (Bai Diep) while he was waiting for me next door and he ended up getting 4 more shirts and an awesome patterned blazer for me all tailored and altered in just 3 hours!


Bahn Mi assembly line during the lunch rush at the Parts Unknown favorite, Bahn Mi Phuong, Hoi An, Vietnam
© Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of that last day was finally sunny so we were able to see the beautiful colored walls (mostly rich yellow) and multi-colored lanterns emblematic of the city without all the rain. You can look up #hoian on instagram to get a sense. The city is wild–it’s one of the oldest looking towns because the whole ancient quarter is a registered historic site so they can’t do anything to alter its appearance, though the entirety of this old town is catered to tourists, with shops selling clothes, leather, tailored goods, and other stuff in just about every storefront. It was great for a rainy 2 1/2 days. 

Sampling street food in Hoi An, Vietnam © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

So now we’re off to 5 days/nights on an island to do nothing but read and veg. We’re most likely spending 2 nights in Koh Ta Kiev, the small island with no electricity, so we’ll be out of touch for at least a few days. If we love it there we’ll stay longer. If we decide we want a hot shower or fans we’ll head to Koh Rong Samloen, another beautiful small island that’s slightly more developed with Bungalows with real walls, showers, and AC. We’ll be in touch when we’re back in wifi zone! Can’t wait to catch up with you all!!

Miss and love yous! 

Us

Subject: Re: Vietnam/Cambodia update 2, going off-grid!

Crystal clear waters at Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia

Hi guys! Just wanted to let you know where we landed…  We’re at Lazy Beach in Koh Rong Sanloem, Cambodia until we head to the airport. We have a perfect pretty large bungalow with a beautiful view of the water and the beach is quiet and awesome.

Morning to ourselves at Lazy Beach, Koh Rong Samloen, Cambodia
© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In total contrast to construction-hell Sihanoukville and even Koh Rong Samloen’s Saracen Bay that’s beginning to be pretty built up, all that’s built on this side of the island are about 15 bungalows stretching along the shore and one open-air restaurant where we’re able to order all our meals from an extensive menu of both Western and Cambodian specialities (the owners are from the UK, the kitchen crew is mostly Cambodian). Everything is wonderful. We feel very lucky to be here. No WiFi on this part of the island, but Dave’s phone seems to get sporadic service so text him if you need us. Otherwise we’ll be back in touch on the 18th when we land in JFK! 

Love yous! 

Us

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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 [email protected]. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Honeymoon in Paradise: Anse Chastanet in Saint Lucia

Dave takes in the view at sunset from our Passion Flower terrace at Anse Chastanat, shortly after we arrive on Saint Lucia © Laini Miranda/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

When we thought about our ideal honeymoon, all we knew is that after extensive planning for our DIY destination wedding in New Orleans, we (1) wanted to be on a tropical beach with beautiful scenery and spectacular lodging in which we wouldn’t typically indulge, where we could decompress and just be together, and (2) didn’t want to do much planning. We had heard that Saint Lucia had some of the most unusual scenery of the Caribbean Islands (mountains, jungle, volcanoes), and that if we were going there, we had to stay at Anse Chastanet. We didn’t know it when we boarded the plane in New Orleans, but we were on our way to a honeymoon that would truly redefine our notions of a romantic luxury beach vacation.

Anse Chastanet (below) and Jade Mountain (above) are designed to be at one with Saint Lucia’s nature © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

A slow, adrenaline-pumping car ride up two miles of rocky terrain brings us to Anse Chastanet and its even more exclusive sister resort, Jade Mountain, nestled at the westernmost point of the island of Saint Lucia. The first thing we notice from the top of the mountain is the breathtaking view from every angle: the grand Pitons to our left, the Caribbean straight ahead, and lush jungle to our right. We find ourselves in a World Heritage Site anchored by the twin peaks and the resort’s two bays which are part of a designated marine reserve protecting miles of coral reefs. Both of these ultra-luxury eco-resorts are the creations of a young Nick Troubetzkoy, who straight out of architecture school discovered 600 acres of virgin jungle and had a vision for a resort designed to honor the boundless nature surrounding it.

The entire resort is seamlessly built into the oceanside mountain. The architecture highlights the views, camouflages walls, and celebrates natural touches of luxury like the soaring peaked ceilings in each room, the iridescent recycled glass tiles in each private pool of Jade’s residences, and the koi ponds dotting the layout of Jade’s open courtyard. There is no all-encompassing “roof” to the resort. The refrain we heard from a few of the staff there seemed to perfectly characterize Troubetzkoy’s vision: “Above Anse Chastanet is Jade Mountain, and above Jade is the sky.”

We can hear the ocean waves and chirping birds from our king canopy bed, and see the sunset from anywhere in our suite (even from the shower!) © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We will remember the details of our honeymoon at Anse Chastanet forever — falling asleep and waking up to the lulling lap of the ocean and peaceful chirps of the birds, our only visible and audible neighbors; epic buffet breakfasts overlooking the blue ocean horizon; red snapper and coconut ceviche lunch on the adjacent Anse Mamin beach, and the most flavorful jerk chicken we’ve ever had. During daylight hours we mountain-biked through the jungle on the property, snorkeled around the reef whenever we felt like it, had delicious tropical cocktails on both beaches (we recommend the St. Lucian Banana Daiquiri), and got amazing massages at the resort’s Kai Belté Spa. In the evenings we sipped champagne on our wrap-around terrace before strolling down to dinner, which one night featured a private, five-course Lionfish dinner served to us under a candlelit canopy on the sand (more on that later)! We couldn’t have dreamed for a more ideal honeymoon.

We are greeted with welcome drinks on the Treehouse terrace while the wonderful staff brings our luggage to our rooms.
© Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The rooms at Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain are masterfully designed to avoid two things: (1) artificial air conditioning and (2) the traditionally conceived concept of a roof, or more generally of an enclosed space. Each has its own unique features: one room at Anse Chastanet has a swing and a jungle tree running through it to the sky; one suite at Jade, named best room in the world by Condé Nast in 2016, is around 2000 square feet and features a lit mini-stairway to the bath area, a jacuzzi for exactly two people, and a freshwater infinity pool made of one-of-a-kind, hand-made iridescent recycled glass tiles, that overlooks the ocean and the Pitons (there are 3 Galaxy Sanctuaries with similar features at Jade Mountain).

JE 1, one of Jade Mountain’s 3 Galaxy Sanctuaries averaging 2000 sq. ft., features panoramic views of the Pitons and the Caribbean through the absent fourth wall, a two-person Jacuzzi and massive infinity pool © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The private infinity pools in Jade’s rooms range from 450 to over 900 square feet, with a private walkway leading up to the room (your privacy begins well outside your door). Jade’s rooms all come with a personal butler service of Major Domos trained by the British Guild of Butlers. While Jade Mountain reserves exclusive access to guests with rooms on this part of the resort, we were treated to a visit one afternoon.

There is, of course, no such thing as a room with a bad view at either luxury resort. Some rooms at Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain have the fourth wall missing entirely, while others have wooden louvre walls that open to balconies or patios. There is also the The Piton Pool Suite, tucked away in a private hillside setting, and the Beach House, a stand-alone house with a 1600 square foot patio, secluded amidst its own landscaped grounds with a private gated entrance from the beach (this house is fully air conditioned). There are no TVs, radios, or telephones in the rooms, “so that the outside world cannot intrude”. All of the rooms have original art on the walls created by artists who were invited to stay in the room while they made the artwork inspired by the space itself.

Without hyperbole, “Passion Flower” at Anse Chastanet is the most spectacular “room” we have ever stayed in. Calling any suite at Anse Chastanet a “room” is misleading for so many reasons; they would be more accurately described as exquisitely crafted sanctuaries integrated into the mountain, magically extending each space for miles. Passion Flower is a particularly spectacular suite because of its prized location at the top of Anse Chastanet, offering a panorama view of the Pitons to the left and the expansive Caribbean sweeping across the center and to the right. With multiple seating areas across the wrap-around terrace, this 900ish square-foot space is one of those that lacks a fourth wall, instead letting the room open up to the views and fresh air. Sliding mahogany doors of wooden jalousie louver (slat) windows allow great cross ventilation and let you move the “walls” to enable any palatial configuration you desire, while still keeping the light out in the early morning. The ceiling fan above the bed keeps the temperature perfect while you sleep. The long, warmly-lit bathroom with Matisse-like blue figures painted on the white wall, features a double vanity and an open-floor shower the size of a New York City bedroom.

Our sumptuous room, aptly named Passion Flower, is 900 square feet of luxury with panoramic views of the Pitons, the ocean and the jungle © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are so many thoughtful touches in the room that make our stay even more special, from the homemade banana bread and glasses of St. Lucian rum left on our dresser to accompany the fresh lime juice waiting for us in our mini fridge, to the amazing scent of the incense (or mosquito repellent coil) to which we would return each night after dinner, to the turn-down service while we were out that left a card on our bed with a new fun fact about St. Lucia each night.

A ring of warm yellow lights with traditional Saint Lucian shades, combined with pleasant-smelling incense, is the natural way to keep bugs away at Anse Chastanet © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The food at Anse Chastanet is an incredible (delectable) surprise. We travel by food, letting interesting culinary experiences and unique tastes influence much of how we move through the world. The chefs at Anse are on an entirely different level, each meal a culinary sensation more impressive than the last. Part of this must be due to the Emerald Estate farm where the resort grows its own organic produce, and to the talent and creativity of an all-star culinary team.

Indulge in breakfast amid trees with views of the Caribbean from the Anse Chastanet veranda © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Breakfast is served in the gorgeous mountain-top veranda nestled within the treetops of the jungle below. In keeping with the Anse way, there are no walls in any of the dining areas, so you are always surrounded by nature–they even have cute little whale squirt guns to shoo off the birds who visit your breakfast table, though they too are more of a treat than a nuisance. You can opt for the buffet or choose from an impressive menu that will please the health-conscious and the vacationing glutton alike (we tend more towards the latter on this trip). The breakfast buffet alone could satisfy most: cereal bar with home-made granola and all the fixings, English muffins and other fresh baked goods with a selection of lox, ham, various cheeses, homemade jams, seasonal fruits, a fresh juice bar, coffee, tea, and on special occasions hot cocoa from their own estate cacao beans. You can pair the buffet with made-to-order eggs, benedicts, or any number of brunch items from the menu.

Lunch on Anse Mamin Beach is cooked right behind you on a grill made from a large clay pot relic from the 18th century Anse Mamin Plantation. © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For lunch you’d be hard-pressed to do better than a fresh burger cooked right behind you (on the large clay coal pot leftover from Anse Mamin Plantation) while you enjoy an island cocktail with your feet in the sand at Anse Mamin, the smaller beach just next to Anse Chastanet with a castaway island vibe. Take the quick complimentary boat ride or five-minute walk to Anse Mamin for jungle to one side and water on the other. The excellent Jungle Grill and Bar will keep you content all day with several variations of loaded burgers and one of the best ceviches we’ve ever had. Full disclosure: we will try ceviche whenever it’s on a menu and its preparation is often how we rate restaurants (and of course had it at our own wedding). This Signature Coconut Ceviche was out of this world: red snapper with flavors of coconut, lime, chili, and lemongrass served in a coconut bowl with fresh baked plantain chips. Laini doesn’t like to share ceviche, but this bowl had so much fish in it she didn’t even get too anxious when Dave tried to steal it for a few minutes. The Caribbean Slaw with Jerk Chicken is another favorite–the chicken has a slight tandoori flavor to it, which we love. The Green Fig and Saltfish Burger (a popular local dish-turned-burger) is huge and all it’s cracked up to be. We also heard great things about the Jungle Beef Burger, so we’ll have to come back to try that next time. You can enjoy your lunch from your ocean-side chaise, picnic benches under some shade, or bistro tables.

Our delicious lunch served at Anse Mamin Beach: ‘Green Fig and Saltfish’ burger and the signature Coconut Ceviche with Red Snapper © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each dinner we have is more spectacular than the last so it’s honestly hard to recommend one over another. Apsara is the ocean-front Indian fusion restaurant with romantic warm lighting and incredibly inventive dishes. We eat here twice during our four nights, and we have many great martinis and other cocktails here. It seems like everything they make just tastes better than anywhere else we’ve tried it before. Their fire roasted lamb chops, king prawns, and chicken tikka are unbelievable. The catch of the day marinated in ginger and chili served with pumpkin and mint crush and yogurt sauce is particularly interesting and delicious. The Sticky Toffee Pudding with cashew ice cream and caramel popcorn is so rich and flavorful it’s now become the standard off which we measure other desserts. Just thinking about Apsara’s menu makes us want to return to Anse Chastanet immediately.

The Anse Chastanet staff is already preparing the scene for our private dinner on the beach © Dave E Leiberman/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another highlight is the five-course lionfish dinner prepared for us by the Apsara chef as a private oceanside dinner with feet in the sand surrounded by lanterns and a romantic white canopy. An invasive species common in the Caribbean, Anse uses this lionfish dinner as a brilliant way to “eat them to beat them.” It would take way too many pages to properly describe each creative course, but suffice it to say each dish is something we have never seen before and we are amazed by how many tastes the chef is able to incorporate into dishes that work so well together. The final course (before a reprise of the sticky toffee pudding, of course) features a pork belly skewer topped with baked lionfish filet, with Malabar spinach purée and a side of lionfish egg sushi, just to give you a sense.

Enjoying our private dinner on the beach under a canopy at Anse Chastanet

In addition to the special dinners all guests are able to book (such as the lionfish menu, private oceanside dinner, sunset celebration, and private dinner at Anse Mamin), there are also weekly culinary events including Monday Gourmet Dinner and Wine pairing, an Emerald Estate Cacao Plantation Tour and Chocolate Tasting, Tandoori Cooking Class, Chocolate and Wine tasting, and the Sunday Saint Lucian Rum Mixology class.

The service throughout the meals and overall hospitality at Anse Chastanet are exceptional. We feel we get to know each server, who always refers to us by name, and everyone is exceedingly helpful with everything from choosing dishes to arranging activities.

Of the many activities and “extras” available, we experience their snorkeling, mountain biking in the Anse Mamin jungle, and a couples’ spa treatment at Kai Belté.

Snorkeling on the side of the main beach area is very rewarding. Sign out the complimentary equipment at Scuba Center and with such clear water you’ll immediately find tons of tropical fish even close to the shore. We even see a little octopus! A first for us. A complimentary boat takes guests to other snorkel and dive spots for those who want to go out a bit further. While we are not divers, Anse Chastanet is known for their world-class diving, as the entire region surrounding the resort’s waters is an award winning marine reserve (SMMA) which has protected St. Lucia’s spectacular coral reefs since 1995. Beginning just 10 yards from the water’s edge, the Anse Chastanet reef is home to over 150 different species of fish. Scuba St. Lucia, the resort’s PADI 5 Star Dive Operations and DAN (Divers Alert Network) partnership facility offers both beach and boat instructor-led dives, night diving, scuba courses, and dive packages. Their state of the art compressor and filtration system is the first and only of its kind on the island, so if you’re a diver, Anse Chastanet is the place you want to be.

An easy day-trip from Anse Chastanet will bring you to Diamond Falls at the Botanical Gardens in Soufriere.

As land creatures, we opt for the mountain bike jungle tour rather than the dive experience. The mountain bikes let us explore more of the beautiful jungle grounds of Anse Chastanet that would have been a shame to miss, and our friendly guide leads us around the eight miles of exclusive trails and teaches us about the many different species of plants, trees, and fruits that grow in the area. We ride top-of-the-line Cannondale F800 mountain bikes, and even though it is a little scary to bike over tree roots and rocks, between our guide and the stability of the bikes, we never feel in danger.

Mountain biking through the jungle grounds of Anse Chastanet © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our “Romance Ritual” massage begins with an incredible chocolate platter from Anse Chastanet’s very own Emerald Estate Farms, followed by an aromatherapy foot soak, dry body brush to remove dead skin, and a candle-lit 60-minute couple’s massage. The spa facility sits next to Apsara by the shore so we are able to let our relaxing treatment continue to soak in on the oceanside lounge chairs afterwards.

Anse Chastanet is the perfect place for post-wedding decompression © Dave E Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are faced with a difficult decision to make on our last full day at Anse Chastanet: whether to venture over to explore the closest town of Soufriere, known as the heart and soul of St. Lucia, or to lie on the beach at the resort and enjoy cocktails and another delicious grilled lunch. We are fortunate to have had four nights at Anse Chastanet, and having taken a tour the day before to the Soufriere Saint Vincent Volcano, and nearby Diamond Falls Botanical Garden and Mineral Baths, we just crave more beach time and opt for lavishing in leisure.

Anse Chastanet is the perfect place to treat yourself to a honeymoon paradise, even if you didn’t just get married. Our main advice once you’ve made the smart decision to visit: stay one night more than you think!

Complimentary Offerings at Anse Chastanet:

* Anse Chastanet beach with beach chairs and beach towels
* Complimentary use of non-motorized water sports including snorkel gear, windsurfers, sit on top kayaks, Sunfish sailing, Paddle boarding
* Complimentary use of tennis court and equipment
* Complimentary tennis clinic Monday and Wednesday from 9.00 – 9.30 a.m.
* Resort shuttle boat, Jungle Express to beach at Anse Mamin daily for Jungle Beach Bar & Grill, beach activities, jogging and hiking
* Select Guided Walks and Hikes on 600 acre estate with Meno – learn about history and botany
* Yoga daily 8.30 a.m. – 9.30 a.m. and 5.00 – 6.00 p.m. in the beach yoga gazebo
* Paddle board yoga demonstration in the Anse Chastanet bay every Tuesday from 12.15 p.m.
* Creole History Class in the Beach Bar Friday 11.30 a.m.
* Daily Live Entertainment in the Piton Bar except Tuesdays when entertainment takes place in the beach bar
* Library located in the Piton Bar with WiFi internet connection and complimentary guest computer
* Manager’s Cocktail Reception,Tuesdays from 6.30 – 7.30 p.m. in the beach bar
* Underwater Slideshow at the Scuba center, Tuesday 6.00 p.m.
* History, benefits and uses of Aromatherapy presented by Spa Manager, Tuesdays from 5.30 p.m.
* Chocolate Sensory Tasting at Emerald Restaurant, Tuesdays from 10.00 – 10.30 a.m.
* Saint Lucian Rum Mixology Class, Sundays 4:30 – 5:30 p.m.
* Anse Mamin Plantation Walk with Meno, Monday – Saturday from 1:45 p.m.

Anse Chastanet Resort, Soufriere, St. Lucia, 800-223-1108, www.ansechastanet.com; Jade Mountain, 758-459-4000, [email protected], www.jademountain.com.

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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 [email protected]. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

4 Days in Morocco: Desert Adventure from Marrakesh to the Sahara

Sandboarding from the mountain-like dune in the Sahara © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

Everything about a trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara is epic. We didn’t know if we would drive ourselves or hire a tour, so from finding the right desert guide, then traveling the 8+ hours through roads filled with switchbacks and harrowing drivers, to the climactic landscape of red-hot sand dunes reaching literally as far as your eyes could follow, this was an adventure we could never have anticipated.

There are several ways to do this trip. You can book a trip online through Tripadvisor, Getyourguide, Viator, or any of the other aggregator sites with real reviews. The average price we found was around $250/person. Or, you can wait until you arrive in the country and try to haggle a better deal through your riad/guesthouse, or any of the endless storefronts advertising excursions to the desert.

With four days or more, you will be able to experience more of the desert landscape and not feel quite as rushed. Since we knew we wanted to spend a night in Aït Benhaddou, we made our own way there by bus and had our riad host arrange our desert excursion from that point.

Our main advice is to budget at least 4 days. Anything less and you won’t really experience the heart of the Moroccan Sahara. All standard 3-day desert tours offer the same basic itinerary:

Day 1: Leave Marrakech early AM, arrive in Aït Benhaddou in time for lunch, quick tour of the Kasbah then back on the bus, pass through Ourzazate for a brief visit, then overnight at a hotel or riad in Dades Valley. Day 2: Full day drive to Merzouga, stopping in the old town of Tinghir (a guided tour will probably take you to a berber carpet showroom). Arrive in Merzouga just before sunset, Berber guides will escort you on camels into the desert sand dunes, have dinner in the camp, sleep overnight in a tent or on a wool blanket on the sand. Day 3: Leave just before dawn to return to Merzouga where you’ll meet your driver for the 9 hour ride back to Marrakech. Some trips will give you a little more time in the morning to experience the dunes in the daylight for an extra fee. Absolutely do this if you have the offer.

Tzikinitza: On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here is what we did, what we learned, and tips that we wished we’d had before we went…

Day 1 – Aït Benhaddou

This fortified ancient village, currently home to only five families, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and other epic dramas. We took the CTM bus from Marrakesh to the village of Wade Melah, where the host of our riad met us to drive us to the old town of Aït Benhaddou. No one knows exactly how old the town is, but they estimate that it dates back at least 500 years, and looks much older. It was once a hub of Jewish and Berber people who lived harmoniously in the town. In fact, if you stay in the Riad Dar El Haja, you will be staying in the former home of the old village’s Rabbi and his family, which we were told is one of only two guesthouses in the Kasbah. Today this riad features several well-appointed rooms with comfortable beds, ensuite bathrooms with hot water, 2 terraces to enjoy dinner or breakfast al fresco, and an original natural cave that makes a magical setting for a tagine dinner cooked on premise (breakfast is included in the stay, 3-course dinner was about 13 Euros/person).

Ait Ben Haddou at dawn, looking just as it did over a dozen centuries ago. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ait Ben Haddou has been the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Getting There:

Luxury: In Marrakesh you can find several private taxis or tour companies that will take you directly to Aït Benhaddou. We were quoted prices between 1500-4000 MAD (1000 MAD equals $104), haggling mandatory.

Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Budget: Take the CMT bus from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate (100 MAD), then a taxi to Aït Benhaddou (~90 MAD). Or you can try to convince your bus driver to drop you off in Wade Melah as we did, to meet someone from your riad willing to pick you up.

Adventure: Rent a car in Marrakesh. You can drop the car off in Ouarzazate if you decide to join a tour to the desert, or go rogue and try it all on your own. The road from Marrakesh to ABH is insane with about 2 hours of tight switchbacks as you pass the Tizi n’Tichka, but if you’re a (very) comfortable stick driver it seemed like it would be a lot of fun to drive, IN THE DAYLIGHT. The roads between Tinghir and Merzouga are more harrowing and we were happy we opted for the tour.

Our tips:

  • Stay the night: Most tour buses arrive at the Kasbah around noon and leave around 3 or 4, so spending the night before means you have the old town virtually to yourselves in the morning, and you can see the Kasbah before the stalls open for the day.
  • Break up the drive to the desert: Make Aït Benhaddou a one-night stop on a longer desert tour to break up your first or last day of the 8+ hour drive (more on this below).      
  • Catch the sunrise: Most tourists seemed to hike to the top of the Kasbah for the sunrise. For an even wilder 360-degree view, walk out of the Kasbah toward the big hill at the base of the east part of the town (right next to the famous filming spot of Gladiator and Game of Thrones), and watch the sunrise to the east with a movie-perfect view of the Kasbah to your west.
  • Lunch away from the main bus pick-up area: Most people meeting their tour groups seemed to be directed to the main large hotel/restaurant complex, which all had long waits and apparently mediocre food. We had an excellent lunch of lamb and prune tagine and Merguez sausage at Riad Maktoub, just down the road. This is also a highly-rated riad, if you decide to stay across the river from the Kasbah.

Day 2

Rashid, our riad host, referred us to a 3-day small group tour with Nature Dream, that we were able to join in Aït Benhaddou (they had started in Marrakesh at 7am that same morning, arrived at noon for lunch and had 2 hours to tour the Kasbah before getting back on the bus). We joined 4 other young travelers in an old van and drove to Boumalne Dades, an area of dramatic mountains and breathtaking views at every turn.

Our Tips:

  • If you do go with a tour, ask ahead of time about your accommodations. Once we entered Boumalne Dades we saw many cool-looking riads with incredible views. The one arranged by our tour company was not one of these, although it ended up being all we needed for a quick night’s sleep with the typical chicken and vegetable tagine dinner.
  • If you drive here on your own, make sure you arrive before sunset because the views are really worth seeing in sunlight.

Day 3

Our private dinner cave in Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We left our riad at 8 am and drove to Tinghir, where we met a lovely guide named Rachid. He showed us around the Kasbah and informed us about its history as a Jewish and Berber community until 1948 when the Jewish people left for Israel or larger Moroccan cities. Now the Kasbah is mostly abandoned, inhabited by nomads helped by those in the village who give them jobs in the farms and share their food. There are now only about 15 families living in the Kasbah, with close to 1 million people occupying the greater city of Tinghir.

Pouring “Berber whiskey” (honey mint tea), a Moroccan ritual for welcoming guests© Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While in the Kasbah we were taken to a home of several families that specialized in Berber rugs. We were given the classic “Berber Whiskey” (mint tea), and learned about traditional rug-making, from the way the wool is cleaned and spun, to the pigments used to tint it, and the meanings beyond different typical Berber rug designs.

Rachid then took us to Todra Gorge, and then to a nice lunch spot nearby. We would recommend contacting Rachid even if you do not do a tour, as he was one of the sweeter, more gentle people we encountered in our 3 days, and his English is excellent (Spanish is even better). He lives in the greater village of Tinghir and often takes groups hiking and climbing in Todra Gorge, and if you have a few days he’ll take you to visit the nomadic families living deeper in the caves.  (Rachid Haddi: +212629460239 whatsapp).

Our tip:

  • The range for rugs in each of the small villages we visited fluctuated from 6000MAD (1000 MAD equals $104) down to 2000MAD for a 4 x 6 ft rug. The general rule of thumb seemed to be to suggest at most 1/3 of the first asking price, and walk away until they meet you close to your price.

Day 3 Continued:

After lunch we left Rachid and continued to Merzouga. We had learned from Rachid that wet season is August to October, and we definitely experienced this first hand during this part of the drive. There are 3 roads to Tinghir. We took the most direct route in the middle, which passes through many small towns on little maintained roads. Because of recent storms, many roads were completely flooded and may have been unpassable in standard cars. Even with a driver from the Sahara with 20+ years experience driving tour groups, we were still worried we wouldn’t make it several times and on one occasion our driver was harassed by a swarm of 20+ teenage boys trying to get 50 MAD for them to push his car across the road with the motor off. We saw a rental car with foreigners turn around at this point and I guess attempt a different way. We don’t have experience with the north and south routes, but by the look of the map they seemed like bigger roads if slightly less direct.

The sun was setting as we set out on our 7 km  camel trek through the Sahara to our desert camp, much of it in the dark © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally around sunset we arrived at a riad in Merzouga, where we waited for our camels with about 30 other travelers who had been dropped off from similar tours. About half hour later, all of us were escorted on camels through the dunes of Merzouga to our camp in the middle of it all. We were surprised to be on the camels for an hour and a half (7 km)! Once at the camp we were assigned beds in 4 or 5 person tents, and had the expected chicken tagine dinner. The camp itself was very bare-bones, with no sheets or pillowcases, just one wool blanket on top of a mattress and another for warmth in the night. We found the tents to be quite stuffy at night, and sleeping under the stars was in all ways the better alternative. The stars at night were spectacular. The air was crisp and cool, but not freezing, and if not for the scratchy wool blankets, it would have been a pretty magical night’s sleep.

Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Desert camps:

            Luxury: We were quoted prices for a private driver for just the 2 of us, “stopping anywhere we wanted to”, with 3 days and 2 nights (1 in the desert), with luxury accommodations for 4000MAD/person (1000 MAD equals $104). We got this driver down to 3000 MAD for more budget accommodations and private driver. Luxury accommodations seemed to have beautiful glamping-style beds with sheets in large private tents.

            Standard: Just about every 3 day/2 night tour seems to spend one night at a hotel or riad in the Dades Valley (Boumalne Dades), stop on day 2 at Todra Gorge followed by a sunset camel ride out to the desert, camp overnight, and drive 8hr 30min back to Marrakech on day 3, leaving the camp just after sunrise. These tours all include 2 night accommodations and breakfast and dinner, with lunch spots determined by the driver and paid individually by the travelers. Standard tours ranged from 1250 – 2500 MAD/person.

            Budget: Since we joined a tour in Aït Benhaddou, we paid 900 MAD/person in a 6-person van and budget accommodations. Right as we arrived at the camp, our camp hosts told us we had the option to ride the camels back to Merzouga at 4:30am (before sunrise!), or be driven in their SUV over the dunes after sunset for 10 Euro/person. Of course opt for the latter or else you’ll miss the most spectacular time in the dunes. Or better yet, opt for a tour that has the van-ride back their default and doesn’t try to charge you for it.

Our desert camp in the Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara Desert © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our tips:

  • BYO Sheets: If you do go on a standard tour, this is a MUST: bring a cocoon travel sheet or sleep-sack. We were really jealous of our tour friends who had heard this tip before-hand and enjoyed a full night’s sleep.
  • Don’t bring food unless it’s sealed in an air-tight container. We saw a mouse in our tent earlier in the evening and woke up to see the plastic bag of our trail mix nibbled into, and one of our thin linen sweaters destroyed (still can’t imagine what was appetizing about that!).
  • Head-wrap: Bring a thin scarf for the night and morning as it can get quite chilly and is nice to wrap around your head if sleeping out under the stars (you can pick this up for 30-40 MAD at every single stop along the way, or at any stall in any medina. Beware that the really cheap ones will bleed and stain your other clothes in the laundry). It also looks cool wrapped as a turban as you’re riding your camel.
  • Sandboarding: If you’re comfortable on a snowboard and want the exercise (and amazing photos), rent a snowboard from Merzouga town before heading into the desert. Our camp hosts rented one to Dave for 200 MAD and brought it out in their truck while we rode the camels. Of course there are no ski lifts so you’ll have to trek up the highest dune with it yourself in order to get the best ride down.

Day 4

Watching the sun rise over Algeria from a sand dune ridge in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After catching the sunrise over Algeria and sandboarding a bit, we took the SUVs back to the riad where we were given the classic breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and bread with jams and honey, and had a chance to wash up in their WCs before the long haul back to Marrakesh. They don’t supply towels, but if you bring your own you can even have a shower. The last day is a full driving day, stopping every 2-3 hours for our driver to have a coffee and take a quick break. As with most of the stops we had lunch at a random place on the route where other drivers brought their tours. Expect about 100 MAD/person for an app, entree, and dessert at each of the lunch spots (a la carte is not offered, but can be an option if you ask nicely).

View of our desert camp from atop a dune ridge © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrived back in Marrakesh around 8:30pm, just enough time to settle at the riad where we had a relaxing dinner, and a much needed shower.

Our lodging tips:

  • Riad Al Nour: In the Marrakesh medina, Youssef and Younes will take great care of you while staying at their riad. They know the best street food spots and will even run out to pick something up for you if you want a relaxing dinner in their courtyard after your long trip back from the desert. The riad is gorgeous, beds are big and comfortable, showers are hot, and AC works! Book directly with the riad to avoid booking fees.
  • Riad Dar El Haja: One of the few riads in Aït Benhaddou, enjoy a hot shower, big comfortable bed, great food, and epic location, on the actual set of Game of Thrones!
Our host at Riad Ait Ali in Dades Valley © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com


On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A village on the way from Ait Benhaddou to Ourzazate © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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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 [email protected] Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures