By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Day 6 of our BoatBikeTours bike trip from Bruges to Amsterdam proves to be the absolute highlight (out of many) and not just for the iconic attractions (spoiler alert: windmills!), but the serendipitous experiences that are the essence of travel.
We set out for this day’s ride, 35 miles from Dordrecht to Vianen, riding along a berm that looks down on the river where we can see our ship, the Princesse Royal, sailing along on the left while on the right, just behind a row of houses, we see windmills.
We soon come to Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site where you can see one of the best collections of these centuries old windmills (the name literally means children’s dike).
I always thought of windmills as industrial engines to grind grain or saw wood, and windmills had that function in Holland as well, but in the mid-1700s, Holland used windmills as pumps to drain water to create farm land that otherwise would have been below sealevel. They began by reclaiming two huge patches of land with a system of canals, dykes and windmills to pump water out. Methods changed over time, with the addition of steam engines, electric pumps, that are in a race to take the water out of reclaimed land. But it is expected that this place will eventually succumb to the sea and be below sea level. (Like Venice, see the windmills now!).
The Dutch have been building hydraulic works for the drainage of land for agriculture and settlement since the Middle Ages and have continued to the present day. And these windmills’ most critical task was the ongoing water drainage because 26 percent of The Netherlands is below sea level. Each year, 5 trillion gallons of water must be pumped out to avoid flooding the low-lying parts of the Netherlands. (https://netherlandsinsiders.com/why-is-the-netherlands-known-for-windmills/)
At its peak, there were more than 10.000 windmills operating in The Netherlands. Today, there still are more than 1,000 (and we encounter many of them along our ride – along with the modern day version, wind turbines).
Two of the mills at Kinderdijk, Nederwaard Museum Mill (built in 1738), and Blokweer Museum Mill (which shows what life was like in the 1950s) are opened daily to the public, in addition to boat tours, which can be visited with an entrance ticket .
Kinderdijk is an enchanting place – like a Dutch painting come to life – and after giving us a good amount of time to explore on our own, we get back on the bikes and follow the trail through this entire expanse to continue on our way to Schoonhoven.
We bike to where we are having lunch – a delightful market and a marvelous shop, which usually has tables outside. But they are doing construction so we sit at tables in the barn, with cows, goats, rabbit, lambs. (Unexpected!).
Rain is expected and sure enough, it comes in like clockwork (1 pm) as a furious downpour with thunder and wind. We are cozy inside with the cows and goats. (I’m just so grateful the rain waited until after we visited Kinderdijk.)
Right on time, the thunderstorm passes, but more is expected, so our leaders decide not to offer the option of the longer ride (we were looking forward to riding through peoples’ backyards, as our leader, Arnold Thurko, described), and so set out.
The atmosphere is utterly magical – a milky/creamy quality washing over the green/grey landscape with touches of yellow and orange, dotted with windmills.
The ship meets us at Schoonhoven and takes us on to Vianen.
Dinner this evening is a delicious broccoli soup with cucumber; cod with white herb sauce; vegetables, potatoes; and for dessert, a white chocolate mousse with pistachio.
Vianen: Free City
After dinner, we walk off the ship and our leader, Corrie Stein, guides us on a tour of of Vianen, delighting us with her storytelling. Vianen, she says, calls itself a “free town,” by which I take to mean they are libertarians, resistant to national authority, like paying taxes, and not too welcoming to outsiders. “The city is proud of being a free town.” “Libre” is proclaimed on a sign as we walk in.
She points out other aspects of culture: “Dutch symmetry”. “People will have two of the same planters for symmetry/balance” and the tradition of keeping curtains open (so others can see how nice it is inside).
The local hero here is Hendrik von Brederode, a nobleman who lived from 1531-1568. He became important during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish king for religious freedom, the Eighty Years War.
“In the Netherlands, when we want something badly, we can petition parliament. Nobles sent Hendrik to the representative of the Spanish king in Brussels to petition for freedom of religion. But in translation, the word ‘beggar” or ‘begging’ was attached to him. “From then on, they called themselves ‘beggars’.” Hendrik was nicknamed the “Grote Geus” or the “big beggar”.
“Eventually we got freedom of religion, after the 80-year revolt.”
Most villages have a main square. Vianen – being so independent, I guess – has a boulevard instead.
Napoleon made a road from Paris to Amsterdam and armies and Napoleon came here (& Dordrecht) and drank red wine.
At the Town Hall, Corrie explains that the ground does not support tall towers, and there is not a lot of stone to build with, so it is very prestigious to build with natural stone instead of brick.
On the chimney on top of the Town Hall we see a stork nest – Corrie says the story that associates storks with delivering babies comes from Dutch tradition.
On the outside of the apothecary, there is a bust of a taste tester “to show the medicine was safe.”
Where the historic castle used to stand today there is a water tower – the first in Netherlands to be made of concrete – which turns out to be an icon of Vianen.
She also points to a tree – the Queen Wilhelmia tree. “The House of Orange was depending upon one small girl to keep the house going – would she stay alive? Communities planted trees of hope. The House of Orange had one child – Queen Juliana – who had four daughters.”
In the morning of Day 7, our last day of cycling, our ship, the Princesse Royal, sails from Vianen to Breukelein, which I learn (most delightedly) that this is where the first settlers of Brooklyn came from. (Corrie jokes that it has its own Breukelen bridge; we stop at for photos). We will bike from here to Amsterdam (New York, you will remember, was originally New Amsterdam) – our last stop on our boat/bike tour.
The path from Breukelein along the River Feckt that goes up to Amsterdam is gorgeous, dotted with literal mansions built by textile magnates. “400 years ago this was an important place- the wealthy from Utrecht and Amsterdam would flee the city in summer –heat, diseases – and built impressive summer houses,” Corrie tells us.
They were built over a 400 year period and French destroyed many and many were replaced, so they have different styles. Many have impressive gardens and tea houses. It is reminiscent of Newport’s “cottages.”
“It was scary for people to be outside city, so they even “controlled” their gardens and would buy the view across the river (that remains true today).
We cycle on to a dairy farm and cheese factory, Willigen, in Vreeland and are given a truly fascinating tour by owner Corey, (her brother, Henry Villa, is famous for his cheese shops but his sister, who uses the same recipes, prefers to stay small scale). I’m fascinated by the sophisticated, computerized operation. (They also have a bnb, www.dewilligenlogies.nl/nl/)
They have 80 milking cows on 180 acres of land. The cows come in for milking at 5:30 am and 5:30 pm – 10 cows on each side. One person can milk the 80 cows in an hour. The cows all have computer IDs – when their head is inserted, the computer knows the cow, how many kilos and type of food pellets every cow needs. Each cow is milked 300 days of the year and produces 30 liters of milk a day.
The milk, just five minutes old, goes to the cheese-making factory. “The difference between farmer cheese and factory is the farmer is not allowed to pasteurize milk. Milk that is three days old is used as starter milk for the cows.It takes 10 liters of milk to make 1 kilo of cheese.
We bike along the River Vecht where there are number of houseboats – we are getting closer to Amsterdam.
At Muiden, we take a bit of a detour to see Amsterdam Castle Muiderslot, one of the oldest and best preserved castles in the Netherlands. The castle was built around 1285 and has a long and turbulent history. It forms part of the Defense Line of Amsterdam and the New Dutch Waterline, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It has been a museum since 1878.The castle is surrounded by gardens (muiderslot.nl).
We set out again for Amsterdam, our end point, but the option to take the longer route is taken away because of concern for a severe rainstorm.
We ride fast to get to the ship before the rain, meet the ship and sail into Amsterdam, where it is already raining.
We are docked on the opposite shore from Amsterdam’s city center, but Amsterdam is so bike/pedestrian friendly, the city offers free ferries that run constantly.
We literally step out of where the Princesse Royal is docked and walk a few steps to the ferry to Amsterdam’s Central Station and the historic city center. So I hop on one to go into the historic center for a walk-about in the rain before our gala, farewell dinner.
Corrie and Arnold also help those who need to get a COVID test before traveling back to the US make the appointment (an extremely efficient system from Spoedtest.nl in Amsterdam, and helping us organize for our departure.
This is an ideal trip especially if you are traveling on your own, if you are new to biketouring, or with a family or just want a relaxing, incredibly scenic and interesting ride. The scheduling, route, itinerary, tours and excursions are excellent – and I especially love how our ship in most cases docks right at the town so we can walk off and visit.
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
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.
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.
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
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!
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
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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?)
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.
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).
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
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
Day 5: Štanjel – Lipica – Divaca (30
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.
We stop in a nearby village to
buy food for lunch and picnic in a rather scenic spot under a tree just next to
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
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.
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
Day 6: Divaca – Muggia (23
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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
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.
I go off to explore – finding myself on this last full
day in Slovenia much as the first: climbing fortress walls that oversee the
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.
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.
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
this whimsical, free-spirited place (women go bare-breasted; people change
their bathing suits in public).
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.
(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, [email protected])
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
– 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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])
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”