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!

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”.

Madrid Musings: For a few dollars

It’s a common sight in all major touristy cities- from London to Lisbon and beyond…. You see them at all popular attractions- in front of palaces, museums, in squares and parks. We came across a number of these street performers displaying whatever skills they are good at, to entertain and … to earn their daily bread; magicians, acrobats, guitarists, craftsmen, comedians, sopranos and tenors, dancers and actors in every imaginable and unimaginable costumes.

Most of us just stop by for a couple of minutes to watch their performances and move on throwing a Dollar or a Euro. Many take photos with them, laugh at them, make fun of them, try imitating them, tease them and sometimes even intimidate them.

You see a fat guy seemingly floating in the air while another in full Sadhu attire doing his penance in the air (obviously with the help of hidden gadgets), a magician pulling a few surprises with his acts for the umpteenth time, another guy in complete Terminator make up and gadgets inviting onlookers for an act from the film and take a picture, few other guys in some greasy/oily /metallic paints pose as statues, frozen for hours…

At first sight they all seem to have one goal; earn a living by making people happy but watch them closely; their eyes sport only empty look often looking at the collections on the sly, their laughs are dry, their bodies begging for rest; there is melancholy written all over their wrinkled, weather-beaten faces. Sunshine or rain, snow or wind, they just can’t afford to take a break but continue with their act, for a few dollars….

 

Madrid Musings: The Flamenco Dancer

The place: Royal park, Madrid, Time: A cool evening in late October 2015.

During our recent family vacation at Madrid, Spain we spent an evening at the Royal Park at the end of a busy walking tour of the city. The weather was just perfect hovering around 150 Celcius with a nip in the air. The park was almost ready to wear her autumn colours! Being a later part of a week day, the usual tourist buses had come and gone leaving the sprawling park just for the locals and the late visitors like us.

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As we moved forward we saw the usual street performers here too like elsewhere in popular touristy cities, displaying whatever skills they were good at, to entertain and … to earn their daily bread; a magician, a guitarist, a craftsman, a soprano and a flamenco dancer.

We stopped by for a couple of minutes at each of them watching their performances, when we heard the foot-tapping and palm-clapping sounds of the Flamenco dancer. What we thought could be one of the usual street performances, turned out to be a lively, entertaining display of flamenco skill that one wouldn’t have expected from a street performer.

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A full fifteen minutes of highly energetic dance with her twinkle toes tapping the footboard in nimble yet graceful movements with her hands clapping at right times in tune with the music (by a guitarist by her side). The agility and grace of her movements – the lean legs displaying the footwork of a virtuoso while the slender arms swaying in the air in rhythm- were adorable. The expressions on her face were lightening; from casting a fiery stare to a romantic look, from assertive to vivacious – all in seconds!

I went on a clicking spree and tried to capture those moments as much as possible.

I am sure she must have been dancing for a good part of the day but I couldn’t see any signs of weariness either in her movements or in her countenance.

I am not a Flamenco expert or a critic but in my humble opinion, she deserved to be at a good theatre dancing to the well heeled; probably the lady luck has not (yet) smiled at her.

We really enjoyed a fabulous Flamenco performance in an autumn setting! We happily gave her a few Euros when we left. The evening was well worth it!

Madrid Musings:Mercado de San Miguel

Vibrant, colourful, exotic, noisy and a bit chaotic,…these words came to my mind when we entered Mercado de San Miguel food market, Madrid.

One of Madrid’s oldest, well-known and not-to-be-missed landmarks in Madrid, just a couple of hundred meters from Madrid Royal Palace, the San Miguel market has been a favourite rendezvous for Madrilenos (or Madridians or Madridans?) for a few centuries and until now.DSC_0507a

Once inside the large, beautifully carved iron and glass structure, rows of stalls welcome you with an indescribable concoction of strange flavours floating in the air. Benches and stools (yes) were crammed with locals and visitors while many more were hovering around trying to find a place to squeeze in and enjoy the exhilarating atmosphere.. Joining the happy-go-lucky crowd, we squeezed our way through to scan the culinary fare on show.DSC_9141a

An exotic variety of dishes were on display – from the most popular Spanish Paellas and Tapas to mouth-watering Calamari fries (neatly packed in designer cones), bizarre-looking Gulas on bread slices to spiky Sea Urchins(cooked and top open), from cooked bi-valve molluscs to steamed Octopus (in full and just the arms) …..indeed quite exotic!

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Gulas on bread

The quick-serve bars were doing brisk business serving a range of Spanish cocktails – the ubiquitous Sangria to colourful Mojitos and Bajitos and a range of Spanish and Port wines – to customers who just stood at the stall counter drinking and chatting unmindful of the world behind. A walking bar (yes!) – a tall Spanish guy was doing his rounds selling (yelling!) wine by the glass, served from his cleverly designed large tray that held a number of wines and glasses.

It was well over 2 pm and having done a half day walking tour of Madrid, we were hungry and the whole market atmosphere was so invigorating that we felt even hungrier!

I settled for plate of seafood Paella and a large glass of Sangria to wash it down. Though never tried to be adventurous with food, the sea-urchins somehow caught the fancy of my daughter and me and we decided to bet on it for 4 Euros. Mustering up my guts, I took a small scoop of the yellowish meat inside the shell and tasted….Far from getting repulsive, we actually started liking it and finished it in no time! It tasted like a dish made of mashed potato with a stash of ground fish.

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Bi Valve Mollusc

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The lunch was complete with another famous Spanish Churros dessert.

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Churros in chocolate sauce 

One thing that I observed during our stay in Madrid…. Madrilenos just love life…. 24X7.. From the cream-da-la crème to the commonalty, I could feel a jolly good bonhomie in every place- squares, restaurants, Al fresco dining places along the picture-postcard boulevards, bars you name it…. Mercado San Miguel is a typical example.