Tag Archives: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Ancient City of Petra is a Highlight of Global Scavenger Hunt in Jordan

Coming to The Treasury in Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the start of Leg 6 of the Global Scavenger Hunt in Amman, Jordan, only four of the original 10 teams competing are still in contention to win, so several of the teams can now join together, use their cell phones for planning and booking, get help from the hotel concierge, and be generally unrestricted by the rules but still enthralled by the challenges of the scavenges.

But for those competing, some of the mandatory challenges pose a difficult puzzle to achieve in terms of logistics and timing. The one that proves problematic requires the team to travel one way to or from Petra along the ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t take that route and the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing how the two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.

We arrive at our five-star hotel, the Amman W, have our meeting and get our booklet with the scavenges, and a bunch of us (no longer competing) pack into a taxi to visit an ancient Roman amphitheater built during the time of Antenios Pius in 138-161 AD. We cross the street to a local restaurant, where we enjoy a meal of rotisserie chicken served with rice, and get a sense of this ancient city.

The artful, chic Amman W Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Whereas Abu Dhabi seemed unreal in many respects – a modern invention, manufactured even – Amman, the capital of Jordan, is very real and reflects its age as an early city. Jordan is where one of the largest Neolithic settlements (c. 6500 BC) ever discovered in the Middle East exists; Citadel Hill contains early Bronze Age tombs (3300-1200 BC). By the beginning of the Iron Age, Amman had become the capital of the Ammonites, referred to in the Bible as Rabbath-Ammon (“rabbath” means capital, or “king’s quarters”). We can look out from the high floors of the hotel to the hillsides crammed with houses and imagine what it might have looked like.

The ancient Roman amphitheater built during the time of Antenios Pius in 138-161 AD, in Amman, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have chosen various means to get there. I find myself on the 6:35 a.m. Jett Express Bus with three of the teams, including one that is in second place in the Global Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Five others (including my teammate) hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing), and Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and teenage son Luka are traveling separately. Each of us leaves at a different time by a different conveyance. But what a surprise! We all wind up at the same mid-way trading post at the same time. Hugs all around.

Struck for decades by the Frederic Church painting of Petra, and then by hearing a New York Times Travel Show talk about “Petra at Night,” I decide to arrange my own overnight stay so I don’t have to rush back. I learn that the Petra at night is only offered twice weekly and am lucky enough to be there for a Wednesday. I hastily consult hotels.com for a hotel – none available under $200/night. I check booking.com and find a hotel – more of a hostel, really – at a very affordable price, less than a mile from the entrance to Petra. “Only one room left” the site warns. And considering how so many of the hotels were booked, I take the leap and book it within seconds.

The concierge has reserved the seats on the Jett bus for the morning, with the return the next day (only one departure each way/daily), at 5 p.m.

Rose-Red Ancient City of Petra

We travel 240 km south from Amman (120 km north of the Red Sea city of Aqaba – the trip through the countryside is interesting – the vast emptiness, the sand, flocks of animals. Wind turbines!

Wind farm, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Road to Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company has put on a second bus to accommodate all the passengers – arrives at the Petra bus station next door to the entrance to the archeological site at around 11 am.

I use our Jordan Pass (which Chalmers had obtained in advance, providing pre-paid admission to most archaeological sites, including two consecutive days at Petra, along with the visa) for the day’s admission and buy the ticket for Petra at Night ($25).

Musician, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact, they don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point of coming at all?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, immersing myself in the scenes and the details, knowing I will return in the evening and the next day.

Walking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view of the Church painting (and Indiana Jones movie) that comes into focus as you walk through the cavern (known as the Siq) with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then the teaser of The Treasury through the opening. It is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra is a complete surprise – I had not realized how vast – an entire city, in fact – how much has been carved out of the rock (the Royal Tombs are not to be believed), and how much was built during the Roman era (The Great Temple where Brown University is doing archaeology and the Colonnade).

Waking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All around are fellows who hawk riding their camel, their horse, their donkey, or take the horse-drawn carriage (at fantastic speed considering the narrow walkway), to or from the entrance – it is a full mile walk from the entrance to The Treasury (an electric cart is available for those who have difficulty walking in addition to horse-carts).

Walking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is hot, but dry and the breeze is surprisingly comfortable. Besides exploring the archaeological structures, Petra turns out to be a hiking place – you can take trails that bring you up to fantastic views. One of the toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down again (and one of the challenges on the scavenger hunt – in fact, visiting early and doing the hike is worth 500 points).

The iconic view of The Treasury, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I decide to reserve that for the next day.

The city of Petra, aptly known as the Rose-Red City for the luscious color of the rock from which many of the city’s structures were carved, was the capital of the Nabataean Arabs, and is today one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.

The Siq, the main road that leads to the city, starts from the Dam and ends at the Treasury. It is a rock canal 160 meters in length, 3 to 12 meters in width and reaches up to 80 meters in height. The main part of the Siq is created by natural rock formation and the rest is carved by the Nabataeans.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

If you look carefully, you can see a channel carved from the rock to capture and even filter water – the secret to how Petra was sustained. At the start of the Siq the original Nabataean dams are visible, and these prevented flooding in the Siq and collected water for use.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then, through a narrow, curving break in the rock, you get your first teasing glimpse of The Treasury, just as Frederick Edwin Church painted it in 1874.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to the website, www.visitpetra.jo, it is not known precisely when Petra was built, but the city began to prosper as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st century BC, which grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices (stalls sell the spices).
Petra was later annexed to the Roman Empire and continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD. The earthquake, combined with changes in trade routes (and politics), eventually led to the city’s downfall.

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The city was pretty much abandoned by the middle of the 7th century and lost to all except local Bedouins,” according to the website, www.visitpetra.jo. “But in 1812, Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt set out to rediscover Petra. He dressed up as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to take him to the lost city. After this, Petra became increasingly known in the West as a fascinating and beautiful ancient city, and it began attracting visitors and continues to do so today.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs that were cut out of the mountain sides and the city also had temples, a theater, and following the Roman annexation and later the Byzantine influence, a colonnaded street and churches” the ruins of which we can explore.”

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I climb the path up to the Royal Tombs and go into cavernous rooms – I can’t tell if it is the rock’s own configuration or whether the surface has actually been painted or carved to expose swirls of different colors and textures, but they are exquisite.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“In addition to the magnificent remains of the Nabataean city, human settlement and land use for over 10,000 years can be traced in Petra, where great natural, cultural, archaeological and geological features merge,” according to the website.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Walking back out through the Siq, you have to keep moving to the side to let pass the horse-drawn carriages which go through at quite a clip.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The park closes at about 6 p.m. and reopens at 8 pm for the 8:30-10:30 night program (it is operated separately and privately from Petra). I still have to get my pack, which I have left with the fellow at the CV Currency Exchange, just before you enter ($5 tip) and get to the hotel, which I had thought was within walking distance (0.7 mile), but turns out to be totally uphill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate since I don’t have very much local currency).

Soldier reenactors guard the entrance to Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My el cheapo-supremo hotel (more of a hostel than a hotel), The Rose City Hotel, turns out to be exactly that – the nicest part is the name and the front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I think the fellow made a mistake and has brought me to a room under construction (or rather deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet, rusting shower, cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that is falling apart, only a small bed and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that are too disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall, clean and no bugs. So this will do for a night, I think, laughing to myself about my room at the five-star, ultra-hip, chic and luxurious W Hotel (which is like living in art, it is so creatively designed) I had left behind in Amman.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I head out just after 8 p.m., walking down the hill into the park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the mile-long stony path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking how dramatic and wonderful. It turns out to be the best part of the evening.

Walking into Petra at Night, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After 45 minutes of walking (it is dark in the cavern), I arrive at The Treasury where there are perhaps 1,000 people sitting on carpets. I stuff myself into a place. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had seen of the event, but The Treasury at this point is barely lighted at all. There is some traditional music, then a fellow sings, talks for a few minutes, and then garish neon-colored lights are projected against The Treasury, completely destroying the mood. And then it is over at 9:30 pm (not 10:30 p.m.). People start leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so I leave, too. I hike back up the hill to the hotel getting lost so a fellow very nicely leads me to where I need to go. I fall asleep to the meowing of feral cats just outside the window.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Early Morning Solitude at Petra

My overnight adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am able to return to the archaeological park as early as 6 a.m. The hotel proprietor has packed my breakfast in a baggie in the refrigerator. I take my pack with me and find a nice man at one of the refreshment stalls at the bus station who offers to hold it for me for the day.

When I arrive at Petra, who should I come upon at 6:14 a.m. but the Lawyers Without Borders team! What are the odds! (Literally on the run, so not to lose time, Zoe tells me of their amazing adventure in a tented camp about two hours away where they could get their scavenger points being photographed on a camel, so they were up at 4 a.m. and had to organize a taxi to get here by 6 a.m.). Rainey and Zoe have to literally race through Petra and do the strenuous hike up to the Monastery in order to earn their 500 Global Scavenger Hunt points.


The Global Scavenger Hunt “Lazy Monday” team of Kathryn & Eric of California race to complete the scavenge challenge in Petra. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I could be more leisurely because I am not trying to earn points. Walking through the caverns (some of the most exquisite scenes) is unbelievably peaceful at this hour – I am even the only one at some points. There are no horse-drawn carriages rattling through, none of the hoards of people stopping and posing for selfies. And once inside, there is perfect peace also at The Treasury – the camels perfectly positioned to re-create the 19th century paintings of the scene.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As soon as you arrive, though, you are swooped upon by a legion of guides. One guide offers to lead me on a trail that would take me to the overview of The Treasury (ranked moderate), but I am not feeling 100 percent and hope I will be able to hike the Monastery Trail if I take it slow.

Nabataean and Roman ruins at Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A word about the guides – they try to convince you that they will take you places you can’t go yourself, which is highly dubious– but though I don’t hire any, what I observe is that they are very knowledgeable, very considerate of their guests (in fact, it is difficult to become a guide – you have to take a test, be accepted, and then trained). The people who provide the camels, the horses, the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and the carriages work very hard (the animals work even harder). Later, though, I see guides leading people up the Monastery Trail that spend their time on their cell phone coordinating their next gig.

Souvenir Stand improbably set on the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And all through are the souvenir stands (they actually look pretty good) – and you realize that Petra was a trading center, a stop along the vital caravan routes, and this is very likely what the scene would have looked like even then. And I am sure the experience was the same for the early European tourists 150 years ago, guides, merchants, donkeys, camels and all.

Hiking up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
View from the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk through the park again, this time to hike the Monastery Trail at the other end of the park. I get some scouting information from people coming down and begin the steep ascent up stone steps. It is a very interesting hike not just because of the gorgeous stone contours and colors and the views back down, but because of the market stalls and refreshment stands set up along the way. (You can also take a donkey up, which means that hikers have to keep moving aside for the donkeys). I wish I had my hiking sticks with me (the hike reminds me of the Bright Angel trail up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon) – a fellow from Spain hiking with his mother, offers a hand when I trip (then we take a wrong turn and find ourselves scrambling over boulders, instead of climbing the stairs).

New friends from the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding a donkey up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding donkey up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually bigger than The Treasury – one of the largest structures carved out of a rock face (if I have that right). The hike is absolutely worth it and feels so satisfying when you make it to the top. There is a lovely rest stop at the top (as well as stalls improbably situated along the way and a refreshment stand picturesquely set about two-thirds up the trail with a stunning view).

The Monastery, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Refreshment stand on the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before the Jett Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive at the W Hotel after the 8 p.m. deadline for the Global Scavenger Hunt teams but have informed Bill that the bus likely won’t be back until after 9 p.m., and I won’t miss a flight to our next destination, will I?)

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at the entrance to the Monastery Trail, a veritable oasis, where I sit outside under trees and have refreshment. I regain some strength and wander some more. At this point, I realize what a phenomenal experience I have had in the early morning when I had Petra to myself when I see coming at me some 2,000 passengers off the MSC ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC ship, and hundreds more off a Celebrity cruise that look like an invading army. Each group is led by a guide holding high a numbered sign (I spot the number 50) for their group.

The new Petra Museum, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My next plan is to stop into the Petra Guest House, which is located right at the entrance to the park. (This is the hotel I would recommend for those who want to come overnight in order to experience Petra in the early morning – it is very comfortable, pleasant and moderate price).

Some of the artifacts on display at the new Petra Museum, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have left an hour to visit the newly opened Petra Museum, sandwiched between the Visitor Center and the Bus Station (perfect!). It offers an outstanding exhibit (curiously Japan was a major contributor) – with some 250 artifacts and displays that explain extremely well how Petra developed, the Nabateans, how they grew to power first by controlling water through ingenious engineering and the main trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three kingdoms. Artifacts including art as well as everyday materials going back to the Stone Age are on display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays that are engaging and informative.

Petra was designated a World Heritage Site on Dec. 6, 1985 and Smithsonian Magazine named Petra one of the 28 places you should visit them before you die.

(More visitor information from Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, www.visitpetra.jo)

I board the Jett Bus (it is the first-class bus geared to foreign tourists) for the three-hour trip back.

More information on visiting Jordan at the Jordan Tourist Board, http://in.visitjordan.com/.

By the time I get back to Amman, I’ve missed the meeting when Bill Chalmers tells us our next stop on our Global Scavenger Hunt and departure time. My teammate texts the answer: Athens.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
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Lipizaner Horses, UNESCO Natural Monument, Medieval City of Piran Complete the Gems of 8-day ‘Emerald’ Biketour of Slovenia

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

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

Biking past vineyards © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muggia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night in Piran © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piran, Slovenia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

See also:

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

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

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

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

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

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

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

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, info@biketours.com)

See also:

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

Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice

A Night Visit to the Doge Palace, Venice

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

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

Albania
Our first glimpse of Lake Ohrid and Albania’s beautiful farms © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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

Johnson has been working with USAID and the Albanian government to help cultivate sustainable tourism – bike tours are the best form with the least adverse impact for return – to not only boost the economy but to bring Albania out of darkness into the world community. Americans, particularly, have either no impression at all about Albania or have woefully wrong impressions and stereotypes (myself included – that’s why my visit here was so surprising, not for how exotic Albania proved to be compared to other “hot” off-the-beaten-track destinations like Myanmar and Cuba, but to see a young country emerging). What is more, tourism helps generate the funding to sustain important historical and heritage sites as well as infrastructure improvements that might otherwise be lost to time and future generations because of neglect (this is what “ecotourism” is about: sustaining heritage and environments).

Our BikeTours group in the historic city of Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our BikeTours group in the historic city of Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We could appreciate this aspect as we travel newly built and paved roads (as well as bike on the old battered or abandoned roads that make us really appreciate the quality hybrid bikes with hydraulic brakes and suspension), the hotels and inns and coffee stops along our way, and of especially, touring such extraordinary ancient sites as Butrint and environmental treasures like Lake Ohrid.

This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – essentially a broker that selects the best local cycling tour companies that give us the most “authentic” experience but also the best value and service. I had previously done a self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip with my adult sons, and a bike/boat trip of the Greek Islands and had every confidence that BikeTours.com would select the best operator.

Bike touring in Albania is a very new idea and unusual – indeed, our appearance with our helmets and state-of-the-art hybrid bikes (as well as the e-bike that I used) – draws attention since it is so unusual. After all, about 70% of the country is mountainous and our route takes us up and over mountain passes (the regular tour has as much as a mile-high climb in elevation in a day; our trip maxes out at about two-thirds of a mile elevation, but that’s why I opt to try an e-bike for the first time, and I have no problem at all with the climbs). The local operator that BikeTours.com has enlisted purchased a fleet of Taiwan-based Giant bikes manufactured in the Netherlands.

But bike touring affords the opportunity to really explore, really discover a place. We travel through small rural villages, national parks, cities and along the coast to beach communities (a post-Communist creation). We travel at a pace and with the ability to stop and really look around (take pictures or even chat with a shepherd or a group of ladies sitting on a bench with their knitting) without the artificiality of staring through a bus window.

We get to see things that would otherwise sweep past our notice: a man sitting on a donkey cart loaded up with hay, chatting on his cell phone; a woman in the field leaning on a hoe also talking on a cell phone. The meticulously maintained farms remind me of Amish country, especially with the use of donkeys and mules and manual tools and a minimum of automated equipment. What is more, you feel part of what is around you – in the moment – more of a participant than a spectator.

Each evening we are given an orientation about the next day’s ride, a map with the route outlined, showing the coffee stops, lunch place and endpoint, a diagram of the elevations– in essence, an graphic illustration of the ups and downs of the ride, as well as notes about the places we will be traveling. We are also accompanied by a van driver who keeps an eye on us even while trying to stay innocuous. And had the climb proved too difficult on any day, we could have just hopped into the van (that doesn’t happen, though).

Our itinerary is modified from the regular Albania cycling trip because this is the President’s Tour, and Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com, has requested certain special features. This trip includes a circumnavigation of Lake Ohrid, a UNESCO-protected lake that is shared between Albania and Macedonia, which enables us to visit the ancient town of Ohrid in Macedonia, plus two days of kayaking and a stay at Albania’s #1 rated beach, added on to the end, for a total of 13 days versus 9 days.

Each day is characterized by a highlight, and in my mind, a different color: blue of Lake Ohrid, green/brown patchwork of the farms; grey of the ancient city of Butrint, aquamarine of the Ionian Sea.

Day 1: Arrival in Tirana

Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive at the international airport in Tirana, named for Mother Teresa, perhaps Albania’s most famous heroine, where we are met by Bato, who will be our van driver during the trip. I am immediately surprised as we drive into the capital city to see palm trees (this area is subtropical), mountains, and a bustling, if small scale, city. Our hotel in the center of town is only a short walk from the National Museum, but I do not know that and make a terrible mistake by not rushing out in the waning hours of the afternoon to visit the museum – it would have provided an excellent foundation for appreciating Albania’s history and cultural heritage.

Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in Tirana, Albania’s bustling capital city © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our group of five meets up for an orientation with our guide, Junid Jegeni, at the hotel before walking over to a restaurant for dinner. After dinner, I walk about the city, amazed at how busy it is – it turns out that it is the custom of Albanians to come out in the evening – how pleasant and how comfortable I feel wandering around.

Day 2: Cycling to Lake Ohrid

After dinner and overnight in Tirana, we depart for a two-hour ride in the van to the northeast side of Lake Ohrid on the Albanian side. Our coffee stop is at a lovely hotel along a stream, where we chance to see a bride who we guess is there to take her wedding photos.

Our first day’s ride is designed to be an  easy warm-up, beginning with a long downhill and mostly flat ride for 41 km, with a total elevation gain of 140 meters, but an elevation loss of 360 meters, taking us around one side of Lake Ohrid.

Beachgoers at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Beachgoers at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the top of Qafe Thana Pass, Bato unloads the bikes (it takes me two minutes to learn how to operate the e-bike and three minutes to get comfortable riding it), and begin our 27.5 km ride, cycling counter-clockwise from the northwest side of the lake to the southwest side, to the city of Pogradec. We see gorgeous farms that hug the shore. It is very beautiful riding on the road alongside the lake. We have to avoid two donkeys that wander blissfully across the street as we reach a picturesque town of Tushemisht, a popular lakeside holiday village filled with bright-colored umbrellas and scantily clad beachgoers.

Lake Ohrid is one of Europe’s deepest (at 1000 ft.) and one of the largest biological reserves in Europe. One of the oldest lakes in the world (1 million years), it has primeval life forms which no longer exist anywhere else or only exist as fossils. It is an aquatic ecosystem of such global importance, that Lake Ohrid is protected by UNESCO (on the Macedonian side, so far). It has more than 200 endemic species (like Belushka, which we get to savor for dinner).

The lake lies in a basin surrounded on all sides by mountains with peaks of over 2,000 meters: to the east, Mount Petrino and Mount Galacica; to the south, hills and lower mountains of Albania. Two-thirds of the lake surface belongs to the country of Macedonia and one-third to Albania.

Church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the afternoon after a delightful lunch on the lakefront patio of our hotel, The Millennium, we cycle 4 km, taking us across the border into Macedonia (passports please!) to visit the 1000-year old monastery of St. Naum, where there is a small church that holds magnificent 500 year old frescoes.

Magnificent frescoes inside St. Naum church date back 500 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Magnificent frescoes inside St. Naum church date back 500 years © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are here at an auspicious time: it is the day before the annual festival to St. Naum, who is said to have built the monastery with his own hands, between 900-905, and is buried in the church.

Parading a goat around the church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Parading a goat around the church of St. Naum © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

People have come from all over. We witness an interesting custom: people take turns parading a lamb around the church as they are followed by two men banging on a drum. The next day, the lambs (there are 2) will be sacrificed for a feast.

Another unusual feature of this place are peacocks that are everywhere.

There’s a hotel right next to the church; a market as you walk up the cobblestone path to the church. There is actually a beautiful beach place at the foot of the walk up to the monastery at the top of a hill overlooking the lake. People line the lakeshore for swimming, boating, lounging, which strikes me as an odd contrast to the monastery.

We get back to our hotel with time to enjoy a swim in Lake Ohrid before a lakeside dinner that includes one of Lake Ohrid’s unique fish, Belushka, while enjoying an exquisite sunset. After dinner, we gather in the hotel lobby to watch the Euro Soccer championships on TV.

Day 3: Cycling to Ohrid, UNESCO World Heritage Site

For our second day cycling, we complete the circumnavigation of Lake Ohrid, but start off with a transfer by the van back up to The Qafe Thana Pass where we had started cycling yesterday. But this day, we ride clockwise. It’s also completely designed by Johnson, who is very anxious for us to visit Ohrid, a historic city on the Macedonia side of Lake Ohrid, and not part of the regular Albania cycling tour.

Today’s ride is one of the longest, at 65 km, but mostly downhill or flat, with the three progressively higher climbs at the end of the day, for an elevation gain of 545 meter and elevation loss of 784 meters.

Taking a photo at Viagra Beach is irresistable © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Taking a photo at Viagra Beach is irresistable © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We start with a mild ascent to the Albanian-Macedonian border (passports please!), then a long, steep downhill ride to the road that follows the lake (passing Viagra Beach – a coincidence, but our guide, Junid remarks that Ferid Murad, an Albanian-American, won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1998 for discoveries that led to the development of Viagra to treat impotence (he was looking for a way of opening blood vessels to remedy cardiovascular conditions). It’s irresistible not to stop to take pictures in front of the Viagra Beach sign.

We ride the beautiful (and flat) road – which has been largely replaced by a new road so it has very few cars – into the historic town of Ohrid. Johnson leads us on a fast-paced walking tour of the city (starting with his favorite baklava shop where we sample the pastry), walking up old, typical narrow cobblestone streets.

St. Sophia, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
St. Sophia, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, with a history extending back 2000 years. The city was built mainly between the 7th and 19th centuries and still preserves the most complete collection of ancient urban architecture of the Slavic lands (St Pantelejmon is believed to be the oldest Slav monastery). You can find more than 800 Byzantine-style icons dating from the 11th to the end of the 14th century, “which, after those of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, is considered to be the most important collection of icons in the world,” according to UNESCO World Heritage notes.

At one point, Johnson tells us, Ohrid had 365 churches, one for each day of the year.

One of the most impressive medieval buildings in Ohrid and a rare work of architecture of the Byzantine era, St. Sophia is a large three-nave cathedral with a dome at the center, built on the foundation of an ancient cult during the period of King Samuil. St. Sophia boasts the largest collection of 11th C frescoes in world, Johnson tells us (no time to visit inside though). With wonderful acoustics and a gorgeous garden, St. Sophia is the main stage festivals including the annual Ohrid Summer Festival.

Church of St. John, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Church of St. John, Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other important monuments include Samuel’s Fortress and a classical theater built 2000 years ago (in the late Hellenic period or shortly after the Roman occupation).

We also pass an intriguing National Workshop For Handmade Paper, where you can see a demonstration of paper making by hand, and a Gutenberg printing press (no time to stop, though).

After a delightful lunch al fresco on the lake, we get back on the bikes.

Kids playing on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kids playing on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The end of the ride is the toughest, with a steep uphill climb, made unusually difficult because of the volume of traffic of people who have come for the festival of St. Naum. Normally there is hardly any traffic on the road, Junid tells us.

We pass an intriguing “bone museum” – a reproduction of an indigenous village which appears to float on the lake.

Completing the circumnavigation brings us back to the Hotel Millennium, the only hotel where we will stay two nights during the biking portion of our trip.

Sunset on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Sunset on Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Dinner is at the Millennium hotel’s lake-front restaurant with gorgeous views of the setting sun. The scene reminds me of Lake Tahoe.

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

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

Next: Riding through Albania’s ‘Breadbasket’ into Korca, the “Paris of Albania” 

See also:

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

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