Delightful Dubrovnik! Part 1 of 3

Exploring the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, Days 1 and 2

Day 1. Arrived Dubrovnik by Croatia Airlines from Zagreb by 4 pm. Checkout and baggage collection took around 30 minutes. Our pre-arranged mini-van with a driver was waiting for us. The airport itself is perched on a mountain top and our excitement started as exit the airport and drove to the city on the winding road along the cliff … the views are stunning!

Sitting majestically at the strategic edge of the Adriatic overlooking the calm blue waters on one side and protected by lofty mountains on the other side, Dubrovnik is justifiably one of the world’s most magnificent walled cities and you will only understand when you have been there yourself. Now a Unesco world heritage site, the city is also Croatia’s upmarket tourist destination as it offers best of the both worlds- a historic old, walled town with this well preserved massive long and winding walls as well as a modern city with all the paraphernalia of entertainment and refined luxury.

Checked into our apartment in the city’s leafy neighbourhood Lapad, rested a while and got out for a stroll along the harbour waterfront – a great place to people-watch as well as the many tiny boats and fancy yachts of all sizes pass by.DSC_6195a

Spotted Croatia’s popular supermarket Konzum- (its everywhere!), bought some food stuff and a Dubrovnik day pass that allows you limitless travel on buses and trams and returned to retire for the day.

Day 2: We began the day with a sumptuous breakfast at Peppers Eatery – one of the waterfront cafes we noticed the previous evening.DSC_6201a

Took a leisurely walk to the old town along the leafy streets, marvelling at old stone buildings and classic Croatian villas. (You can also take bus no 4).DSC_6192a

Our first stop was the Museum of Modern Art housed in an amazingly beautiful villa converted in to nice museum. Spread over three floors, this excellent gallery showcases Croatian artists’ works of art, paintings and sculptures. Its lunch time and you are literally spoiled for choice with eateries in the old town area serving Croatian, Mediterranean, Italian and many more. And …don’t forget to grab a chilled Croatian Karlovačko beer.IMG-5389

Our next stop was Srd Hill. Took the Swiss-built cable car to reach the top and… the views were stunning! This IS the place from where you can get the best views of the walled city, the vast and mighty Adriatic dotted with islands such as Lokrum and Elaphiti.

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There is an upmarket restaurant Panorama at the top. Menu is pricy but its worth the quality and the views you get! It was a bit cloudy, windy and cold. As we spent the time taking in the scenery around with snacks and coffee at the restaurant, the sun was slowly going down and we were treated to a dramatic sunset!

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(If you are an early diner, Panorama restaurant is also a good choice as you have a double whammy of watching Dubrovnik glowing at night against the backdrop of moonlit ocean! Or choose a restaurant by the cliff (yes there are a few like the Buza Bar or Restaurant Levanant) or one of the several eateries along the beach for an al fresco dining.)

Off the beaten track – Hotel Stanica Ravno

A day-trip to the outback in Bosnia to Hotel Stanica Ravno

After a wonderful but exhausting tour inside the cold and wet Vjetrnica Caves, We were already feeling hungry and Bojo had already planned our lunch at Hotel Stanica Ravno — a 15 minute drive from the cave and…. we never knew that we were in for another great experience!

Sitting in the middle of the vast Bosnia-Herzegovina wilderness, Stanica Ravno (Ravno Station) has a unique history behind it. The century-old stone building used to be a busy train station during WWW II with a railway that carried passengers, soldiers and prisoners all the way between Vienna and Dubrovnik! The route has fallen into disuse long back but we were told it still offers a scenic cycling route for the adventurous.

The building has been beautifully converted into a boutique hotel with a nice bar and a restaurant. The restoration has been carefully and tastefully done; the main hall of the erstwhile station has been turned into reception and a bar, the station master’s, his  deputies’ and a few work rooms are now rooms to stay, its basement has become a wine cellar. The station even had two small prison cells – now converted into storerooms!!DSC_6601aIMG_4026a

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We chose to have an al fresco lunch as the weather was salubrious and spacious vine-shaded terrace was inviting. The food was amazing! Some fantastic, perfectly grilled vegetables and meat from the local farm (they call it Peka meat). The local wine under their own label was simply delicious! After a hearty meal,we were shown the wine cellar and the hams that were curing in the dry cupboards. We bought a couple of 15 years old wine and bid good bye to the place reluctantly as we had to drive along to our next destination….Mostar!

Off the Beaten Track – Vjetrinica Caves

A day trip to Vjetrinica Caves in the outback of Bosnia and Herzegovina

During the planning of our Croatian vacation, we were looking at some day trips and something off the beaten track from Dubrovnik. In the middle of plenty of daytrips to Montenegro, Mostar, Budva, Korcula, etc we spotted Vjetrinica Caves.

Mr Bojo, the driver/owner of MiR tour company, was on dot to pick us up with his new Mercedes minivan which we had to ourselves as there were no other visitors! We drove along the Dalmation coast on the cliff-side enjoying the stunning views of the Adriatic.

 

Crossed the border post of Bosnia and Herzegovina and after a few minutes’ drive, we stopped at Ravno village (just a few houses, a church and a café alongside the road) for a cup of tea. Since Bojo was originally from Ravno area where the cave is located, he spoke the language and knew lots of people. After about 30 minutes further drive, we reached the Vjetrinica caves … in the middle of the vast outback of Popovo Polje karst plains, where the eye can see for miles.

DSC_6562aDSC_6563With very few visitors like us, the place looked almost deserted except a small museum, 300 metres away from the caves. The museum had a display of photos and artefacts of the cave and its history including pictures of the elusive, endangered Proteus, a white Salamander with arms and legs that can live in the darkness for hundreds of years and go without food for 10 years.

The guide – a young Bosnian guy, who spoke fairly good English, handed out hard hats and torches. Since we were warned earlier that it will be colder inside, we put on our jackets and as we entered, a chilling and strong wind welcomed us- and that is where the name comes from- Vjetrinica means cold wind. The narrow cave entrance does not give you a perception of something fantastic waiting in front of you. After bend-walking a few meters, the cave loomed large in front of us with monstrous stalactite deposits hanging from above like icicles and stalagmite outcrops from the ground! Water was dripping from the roof at several spots and there were crystal clear pools along the passage sides, adding to the eerie feeling.

IMG_2352aIMG_2349aThe scenery and experience was out of this world! The cave branched into several directions but the winding narrow passage ways are cleverly lit with partial lights to see the cave surroundings as we moved along. The guide told that though the cave is about seven kilometres long visitors are allowed only half or a maximum of one kilometre inside subject weather conditions, which is more than enough to understand the cave! Unfortunately we couldn’t see Proteus, the elusive creature.

Out we came, thanked the guide and now we were hungry. Bojo took us to Hotel Stanica Ravno – a 15 minute drive from the cave and…. what a delightful experience it was!

 

The sunrise at Angkor Wat – mystical, magical or just man-made hype?

Every tourist brochure shouts loudly not to miss the sunrise at the world’s largest temple complex of Angkor Wat. There are thousands of pages on the internet describing how people watched the sun rising behind the triple towers of Angkor Wat. Not to regret later, we decided to make it to the sun-rise experience – whether it’s mystical, magical or just man-made hype.

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We got up at 4.30 am, well before the roosters start their wake up calls and while the dawn moon was still above. Brushed, dressed and jumped on to the Tuk-Tuk (we had arranged the previous day) and off we went thinking we will be one of the early ones to see the magic. Mistake: there was literally a Tuk-Tuk race on the road ferrying tourists to watch the sunrise! The 30 minute ride on a cool… rather chilly morning was enough to rev up our senses from the morning blues. Reached the place only to find there were already hordes of tourists having occupied prime spots.

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The place is picture postcard…. The temple towers standing majestically with their faint reflection on the still waters of the pond in front with a splatter of Lotuses and water Lilies. The misty, foggy atmosphere and the gibberish whispers of the waiting spectators added a surrealistic aura around the place. 

I nudged myself into the crowd and positioned in a corner of the banks of the pond…. and waited patiently for THAT moment.

As the dawn was cracking up slowly, cameras and smart phones of all sizes and shapes started snapping endlessly, capturing each slight change in the skyline. Then the magic started unfolding; streaks of light in a stunning mix of glowing orange and rustic gold peeked out from behind the towers, beautifully and artistically disrupted by the intricate grooves of the temple sculptures. A stunning reflection of Angkor Wat was slowly spreading out on the still waters of the pond.  With the water lilies and lotuses spouting between the reflections, it looked like a classic painting. As the sun slowly peaked above the Wat, the veins of light grew bigger bathing the colossal monument in golden glory and the beauty and power of the Khmers’ masterpiece erupted in full splendor. I stood speechless watching the magical spectacle! Moments later the climax was over and the crowds dispersed… some heading back and some heading to the Wat to start their day’s itinerary.

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Is the experience worth all the trouble…. ditching your early morning deep sleep, braving the chill wind, jostling with an over-enthusiastic crowd etc…?

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I think it is an experience worth its every moment.  An hour of mystic, magic and dramatic light and shadow play over one of the most elaborate and stunning tributes to the Gods. Probably the Sun is thanking the Khmer kings and blessing the Angkorians with this cosmic show every day.  Do not miss it.dsc_9635a

Driving through the woods

An exhilarating journey in God’s Own Country

Verdant rainforest drenched by recent rains, lush and thick greenery all around, streaks of sunlight through the dense foliage playing hide and seek, well-laid roads (yes, no potholes) washed and clean by the recent showers, misty mountains at a distance keeping you company along the way with occasional drizzles of the remaining monsoon – the scenario immediately reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” when we drove through Western Ghats to see Athirappally Falls on Chalakudy River, nicknamed as the Niagara of India.

 

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The winding, narrow road gets darker with thick foliage of tall bamboo trees forming a canopy virtually covering up the sky, as you get nearer to the Falls. Long before we rolled down the windows of our car to enjoy the fog and the refreshing breeze loaded with mist and yes, the accompanying birdcalls of all kinds.

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Just about to reach our destination, our driver Fahad stopped the car on the roadside to let us get the first sight of the mighty Athirappally waterfalls from a vantage point. Three huge plumes of roaring water surging down over massive rocks in the middle of pristine forest surrounded by mountains. It was simply awesome! Picture perfect!

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When we reached our destination, the first feeling was an amazement of the mighty force of water as it touches down the rocky bottom. As we got closer to the falls (up until the barricade), we were stunned by the sheer volume of water thundering down, creating clouds of mist -a jaw dropping sight! It was indeed an overwhelming, overpowering experience reminding us, the humans, of the serene beauty and the raw power of nature at once.

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We spent around an hour or so splashing on the placid, cool, pure mountain waters of the river (earmarked by the forest department for visitors) and returned. A number of monkeys along the way greeted us …rather staring at our belongings to check for eatables or drinks! We could see one of them literally pouncing upon a girl and snatching away the ice cream she was holding!

We continued our journey to view Vazachhal Falls …a gentle cascade down a slope of a massive rock-bed. Less visited by tourists (most return from Athirappally), Vazachhal has a well-maintained herbal/medicinal garden along with a stunningly located forest guesthouse (inspection bungalow as they call it) built by the British over decades ago.

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Here we could spot a few Giant Malabar Squirrels, aptly named, hopping around treetops. Not to miss the idyllic surroundings, we enjoyed our picnic lunch on the terrace of the bungalow overlooking the falls and finished it with Kerala black tea from the Forest Department’s small canteen.

Life’s a water

Back from a short exhilarating, rejuvenating but sweaty and sultry trip from God’s own country.

The God’s own country had just taken a break from the monsoon – the trees, roads and buildings seemed to have had a clean wash leaving everything in absolute freshness.

Took a day off from the busy schedule to take a tour of the countryside from Guruvayur.

Stopped on the way at Chettuva backwaters – a lesser-known location than the over promoted Alleppy backwaters popular among foreign tourists. No tourists traps, no crowds… just a few visitors and also very few boats to take you around. The only traditional and elaborate houseboat with all its paraphernalia has already been hired so we had to settle down with a stripped down version.

An hour of tour of the serene and calm backwaters took us through some verdant mangroves, government farms and a few islets.

While the mangroves are home to several seasonal migratory birds, some of the islets are owned by some wealthy NRIs and local business houses, who have either built resorts or lavish homes.

But the backwaters is also home to several fishermen for whom it is their livelihood. Sailing close to a couple of mangroves gave an up-and-close look of the breathing roots and last remaining birds.

Done with the boat tour we completed the first leg with a cup of Kerala chai and plantain chips.

It’s the living, who scare me

Most of us would have seen churches and been inside at least a few them. There are churches plain and simple in far-flung towns and villages, there are churches known for their splendid architecture and ornate decors, and there are churches known for their world’s most precious artefacts. But ever heard or seen a church decorated with… a mind-boggling 40000 odd bones and skulls?

DSC_1045aWhile looking for off-the-track places for a day trip from Prague during our recent visit, we came across the strangely titled “Bone Church” in a town called Kutna Hora. Our Lonely Planet’s Prague guide had a page on it and a simple Google search also threw in several links. So off we went to explore.

An hour’s train journey from Prague central train station, Kutna Hora is small, sleepy, laid back, typical East European town, with its own history and landmarks behind. And most important of them is the “Bone Church” or the Sedlec Ossuary as it is known locally.

The church is barely 300 meters from the unmanned Kutna Hora – Sedlec station, past St John’s church- a signpost directs visitors. The streets are practically empty with an occasional car passing by or a human being in sight. The “Bone Church” is in the middle of a cemetery and is fairly small. As we entered the gates of the cemetery, we could see a few people (like us) wanting to explore the unique church.

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At the entrance is a reception desk with a lady issuing tickets with a customary smile. Our curiosity began right at the reception area where the walls and the roof were adorned with … skulls and bones ….in all sorts of creative designs. A flight of steps led us to the basement were two chambers on the left and right with heaps of skulls compiled into pyramid shape welcomed us! We walked further down to the main hall or chamber and you are surrounded by even more bones and skulls arranged creatively in to lamp poles, bells, chandeliers and even a royal insignia. The chamber is lit by few dull lamps and faint rays of sunlight coming from two small side-windows adding to our eerie feelings and spooky atmosphere. The main altar is actually small: a dark alcove with a Cross in the middle surrounded by …. again skulls and bones.DSC_1031a

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We came out and went upstairs where, much to our relief, there were less bones and skulls and it was brightly lit with an array of photos of the church’s various stages over the years.

A handy flier given out along with the entrance ticket describes the history of the church. The Ossuary contains the bones of about 40,000 people, who died in the 1318 plague in and during the Hussite wars in the 15th century and were originally buried at the church cemetery. When the cemetery was closed at the end of the 15th century, the exhumed bones were transferred to the chapel and compiled into pyramids. In 1870, a wood carver/ carpenter named František Rint was commissioned by the local royalty to arrange the bones and skulls into creative decorations.

On our way back we stopped for a coffee (actually to get out of that grim experience). We were wondering why would anyone want to preserve the remains of the dead and the old lady at the coffee shop answered, “we believe that these people are not dead but live among us and the church reminds us every day of this belief.”

DSC_1049aCall it unique, macabre, eerie, creepy or spooky but a visit to the church is an experience you will never forget.

Just then I remembered a website I browsed, where a visitor said he asked the lady at the desk if she ever felt bothered to be working there. She flipped her hand in a dismissive way and said “Pfft! They’re only bones, they won’t hurt you; it’s the living who scare me”.

SNOW STORIES… Part 4 (last)

Sunny side and a heritage ride.

This was our last day of our trip in the mountains. Checked out and kept our luggage at the reception area. The weather was sunny and bright. Took the Postbus 2 and got off at Punt Muragl station af15-20 mins. Took the funicular railway to reach Muottos Muragil view point (No discount for Swiss Pass here too) .

A board at the funicular station said that it has seen a century and six year transporting people to the top and back. Once at the top we walked up to the sprawling terrace giving access to the Romantic Hotel, a restaurant and of course the snow. A row of tiny, colourful huts placed strategically facing the sun welcomed us and others to soak themselves in bright sunshine and enjoy the surrounding peaks and the valleys.

We walked further up about 100-150 meteres to get to the monument named “The drop” – a unique work of art, made of natural stone and mortar and coated in white  created by artist/sculptor Timo Lindner to mark the centenary of  the Muottas Muragl funicular railway . A tiny formation board at the spot said the The Drop, symbolises water in all its various forms, from rain to ice to snow. We watched a para-glider (probably a beginner) attempting to paraglide and failing at least three times as his legs got sunk into the deep snow when he attempted to fly.

Enjoyed some freshly backed croissants and hot coffee at the terrace tables and came back to Silvaplana , collected our luggage and boarded the 2.57 pm train to Zurich, changing train this time at Landquart. Arrived Zurich around 6 pm and check in to Aparthotel Scroll Rigiblick sitting on a small hill giving a birds eye view of Zurich. (Posted my review separately)

SNOW STORIES ….Part 3

The Journey to magical Narnia land!

Day 4

Another clear and sunny day. And this was one of the highlights of our short vacation in the snow country!

Took the Postbus 2 to Pontresina town, got off at the train station and walked 100 metres to the left to the parking lot where few horse-drawn carriages were waiting for passengers to take them to the…….Narnia land!

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It may not be exactly as the horse-drawn sleigh rides we read in fairy-tale books yet it is close to them. The horses are huge, strong and furry – best fit for the harsh winter. The coachman was also equally rugged having seen several winters. The owner has generously thrown in a number of furs and blankets to wrap around protecting us from the wind and the cold as we started driving deep into the Alpine woods for about 8 kilometres to the lonely jungle lodge Roseg Gletscher. A well trained dog ran ahead egging and provoking the horses. I was lucky to get the seat right next to the coachman! The next one hour was an exhilarating, awe-inspiring journey through deep snow, gazing over the horses’ backs while the the snow-clad Alpine tree branches almost rubbing our shoulders. We passed by ice-blue frozen little rivulets, classic tiny bridges, the nearby glaciers and snow-capped peaks of the impressive Bernina massif glistening in divine blue and white, and drifting snow flakes from occasional wind – the journey was an incredible experience straight out of Narnia!

When we reached the Hotel Restaurant Roseg Gletscher sitting in the heart of the picturesque Roseg Valley, we were overwhelmed by the impressive panorama of the imposing peaks all around. We just relaxed soaking up the beauty of nature and peace around and the frozen Roseg creek by the hotel. The quietness and remoteness of the place makes you forget the hustle and bustle of your daily life immediately and actually you can feel your soul!

Off we went into the restaurant to warm up ourselves from the hour-long cold journey. The restaurant was quite busy and there was a nice buffet spread. We settled for Asparagus soup and pasta. The dessert buffet was totally irresistible with a variety of cakes and tarts. There was also a good choice of wines but on a general survey I could see the prices were almost double of what you get in town but who cares when you have such dramatic setting to enjoy the drink!

Another hour of ride back to town and we stopped by the wine store Valentin Vinothek next to the horse station – well stacked with a wide variety and bought one recommended by the salesman who seemed to a wine expert.

SNOW STORIES … Part 2

The beautiful Alpine devil and a quaint little Italian lady.

Day 3

Started at 9 am. Took Post bus 2 across our apartment and after around 35 minutes, got down at Bernina Diavolezza station. Took the gondola (Cable car) to Diavolezza Mountain from the base station. (No discount here for Swisspass!) Seems to be one of the longest in the Engadine region’s cable rides with some really stunning views as the gondola went up and up over valleys and deep gorges! The temperature was also getting colder as we went up and when we reached the summit at 3000 metres, it read -14C!

We were lucky today as the weather was clear and when we got down the Gondola and went to the panorama terrace…what a spectacular view of the dazzling glaciers and the peaks! No doubt the place is named rightly so- beautiful Devil (Diavolzza)!

This spot seems to be a popular choice among skiers and there were quite a number of skiers along with us, who quickly got into their gears and started skiing. Enjoyed views walking down the foot-deep snow and watched the skiers (looked like tiny colourful ants) skiing down almost 90-degree vertical slopes! Had some hot soup and snacks at the terrace restaurant (justifiably expensive!) and came back to Diavolezza station to continue our onward journey to Tirano.

A very scenic train ride descending from 1800 mtrs to 440 mtrs as the train drops down from high mountain terrain travelling over curved viaducts, winding tunnels, wild gorges, icy glaciers, beautiful valleys and Alpine meadows. During the 1.5 hours journey, the train stopped at several tiny picture-postcard stations; two spots come to my mind- Alp Grum, where you can watch the train taking a 1800 turn. Another place is after Poschiavo town where it takes almost 2700 bend over a bridge!

There is a visible difference as you move from the Swiss side to the Italian side. You can notice how the homes look different, how the streets and the shops all look different.

 

We knew in advance that the Palazzo Salis is closed during winter and so we walked through the historic part of Tirano towards Santuario Madonna. Located at the crossroads of busy streets, this church has lots of beautiful carvings in the ceilings and walls and a very big intricately carved wooden pipe organ. In fact trains to and from St.Moritz actually cross near the Church! Spent some time in the church and walked back to the station through the tree-lined avenue and took the 5 pm train back to St. Moritz. Half way through our return journey, it started snowing quite heavily and continued through the night.