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

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: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.