Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Eyes Split Wide

The harbour of Split

The day was just breaking when we headed to the Central Bus Station in Dubrovnik, after checking out of our apartment in Dubrovnik. The road was deserted as the taxi smoothly manoeuvred the bends to reach the bus station. At the designated time the bus arrived and we got the seats from where we could enjoy the uninterrupted views about which we had read earlier. Our bags were safely tucked away in the boot and we settled down as the bus started, sharp at 8 AM and headed in the direction of Split. We had to cover a distance of almost 240 km that would take almost four and a half hours. 
The lovely island  of Lokurm was soon visible which was closed due to the winter season but looked astounding with the lights twinkling against the backdrop of the rising sun. It is a lovely Botanical Garden and the famous Netflix serial, The Game of Thrones were extensively shot here.
The Walls of Ston
The bus often kept kissing the pristine Adriatic coastline as we passed by some small towns like Slano and Ston. The great walls of Ston which are almost 5 km long with 40 watchtowers are truly impressive. These were built in the 5th century AD to protect the wealth of salt pans from the invaders as these were considered as precious as gold and silver in those times.  The bus often climbed the height to offer some of the most astounding views of the vast expanse of shimmering blue sea, dotted with villages, pine and olive trees and miles of orchards of oranges and lemon. Soon we could see a beautiful white building along the pebbled beach which we learnt was a hotel built to house the German soldiers during the World War II. 
Neum a pretty little town in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The bus reached the little town of Neum which has an amazing picture postcard setting. Neum is in Bosnia and Herzegovina and borders Croatia. Those possessing multiple entry visa for the Schengen States have no problem to enter the region at the border control post. In the coming days, I would cross into this region several times.  We had hot coffee and chocolate croissants while enjoying the unhindered views of The Adriatic Sea and a lovely Church spire at a distance. The currency in Bosnia( Kronas) is different from Kuna, used in Croatia, but all shops accept Euros and Kunas.
After, a brief halt, the bus headed further. It was impossible to close the eyes due to the spectacular scenic beauty all around. The camera battery ran out due to the never-ending photos I kept clicking. We passed by some more towns like Makarasa and Omis as we reached Split. When the bus halted at the bus station my eyes were opened split wide at the unbelievable beauty. Just at a stone’s throw was lovely harbour on one side, the Old Town at other and the rising Marjan hills in distance. Several ships were moored in the harbour and at distance the lovely islands of Brac, Hvar and Korcula were visible.

Diocletian Palace
As I had some time before boarding the ferry to Hvar, I decided to explore the Old City called Grad Split which was within walking distance. The city has a rich history and heritage starting from the Roman times, Ottoman conquests, Hungarian Croatian kingdoms, WW2 and the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992
Cathedral of St Dominus
I started from the Diocletian's Palace from the Southern Entrance on towards Cathedral of Saint Dominus. Diocletian Palace was built around 3rd and 4th century A.D as a retreat after the retirement of the Roman emperor Diocletian. The epic ‘Game of Thrones’ was also shot in the cellars of this palace. The Cathedral was also built in the 4th century AD and is the seat of Archdiocese of Split-Makarska.
People's Square
There are two lovely Squares one called Peristyle and other People Square with a lot of eateries, bars and pubs. These are invariably crowded with people
The Golden Gate
The beautifully preserved Jupiter Temple and the Golden Gate are not to be missed for their sheer beauty and the way they have been preserved.  
Statue of Grur Ninski
Just nearby is the massive statue of Grugr Ninski. It has an interesting tale woven around, according to which, rubbing the big toe of the statue brings good luck.
The Narrow Alleyways of the Old Town
The most striking part of the walk is the beauty of narrow stone cobbled alleyways with some designer and artesian boutiques. There are several museums and art galleries scattered around the town worth exploring besides a trek to Marjan hill. Time and energy are the two constraints that always come to rescue to cut the itinerary short no matter how strongly one desires to go around. Moreover, I had to catch a ferry to Hvar. So, in the next blog post, I will take you on a trip to Hvar.

PS- All pictures are mine

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Pearl of Adriatic- Croatia

The city of Dubrovnik
Some of the best bounties of travel are to travel to a dream destination which you had not imagined would turn to reality. The Christmas and New Year time brought in the gift from Santa in the form of travel to the exotic destinations of which I had only heard and read about. I will share some of these travel stories in a series of blog posts.
The Harbour

Just two days before the Christmas of 2019, we took off from Amsterdam to Zagreb the capital of Croatia. Croatian Airlines turned out to be extremely good as the time was very convenient and even on short flights they treated us with the delicacies of Olives and Cheese of the Adriatic region. The views from the window of sun-kissed beaches, rivulets and often snow-capped mountains were like a recreation from the fairy tales. Zagreb to Dubrovnik was another short flight with equally photogenic views all around. We took a bus from the airport to the town almost 30 km away.
A Distant view with shimmering lights of Dubrovnik

The steep climb on hills and the climb down the hills brought the miles of blue Adriatic Sea into a spellbinding view. The distant glitter of neon lights dazzled the city of Dubrovnik.
Orange trees en route
. En route, the orange and lemon groves laden with fruit turned the place into a paradise. Lord Byron had termed Croatia as a Pearl of the Adriatic'. A few centuries later the famous  Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw said' Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik'.
Our Airbnb accommodation overlooked the sea and down the flight of 50 steps was the Banje beach. I could not have asked for more. The great walls around the Old City shimmered in the Christmas light and we could sense the air of revelry in the air.
Illuminated Clock Tower
The next few days were spent in exploring the city, soaking in the spirit of Christmas, taking long walks fro the Ploce to Pile gate( the two extremities of the Old Town also called as Grad Dubrovnik), The locals and the tourists were attired in the best outfits and it appeared that there was a 24-hour fashion parade in the town. The restaurants and pubs buzzed with activity and seldom could one spot an empty table.
Views from the Fort Walls

The Old City is ensconced in a remarkable City Wall. Established in the 13th century, the walls were continuously perfected over several hundred years. Their thickness varies from 13 to 20 feet and is almost 80 feet high in some places. They survived the great earthquake in 1667. The whole fortification complex consists of 2km long main wall and more than 20 forts, bastions and towers.
The Minceta
The Minceta Tower is the highest point on the walls and offers the most unforgettable views. The Old cannons can still be seen here,.In the medieval past, these walls served to protect the city from aggression and shot into the fame of a very popular TV series called the Game of Thrones. Tripadvisor has listed the walls among the 10 things to visit in a lifetime.
St Lawrence Fortress
The majestic views of the distant hill dotted with houses, huge expanse of the blue sea take the breath away. Besides these fortifications, there are more such walls and fortresses that surround Dubrovnik. Of these the Walls of Ston, Falcon and Imperial Fortresses are prominent.

The interesting fable around the Wall of Ston that I had the good fortune to see is that the 5.5 km long wall was built to protect the precious salt pans that were a source of immense wealth for Dubrovnik. It was completed in the 15th century and has 40 towers besides 5 fortresses. To date, it is the second-longest wall after the Hadrian Wall that separates England from Scotland
The Cathedral
Every stone in the Old Town is waiting to tell its tale as you go past marvelling its beauty. Among the many places, one can explore is the Rector.s Palace( The Cultural History Museum) with over 10000 relics and artefacts,
The war-scarred structures within the Old Town
The scars of the last war of 1992 when Yougoslavia split into many states, can be seen in the form of bullet marks on the walls and the blown off rooftops of some old buildings. Much of the city has been restored to its glorious past.

The best part of the trip was to mingle with the crowds at the Chrismas Market at Stradun( The Main Street), where literally hundreds of small vendors were lined up selling local food, drinks, balloons and the festive spirit was multiplied several-fold with beautifully illuminated buildings. The chimes of bells from the Cathedral could be heard in any part of the town. The music event on a huge stage in the midst of the Old Town was melodious and colourful. On the New Year day, a treat of sparkling wine, oysters and lime and bread awaited everyone. Where else could you be treated so royally except at Dubrovnik?

PS-  1. More Stories from the region will feature on this blog in ensuing weeks
        2. All pictures are mine

Monday, December 16, 2019

Christmas Moments in Europe

A Midnight Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris( Prior to the recent fire)
So much has been already written about the beauty of Europe during Christmas that it is difficult to fathom another post on the subject. The mere presence at any place in Europe leaves a lasting impression during this time. I have been fortunate to be at some of these destinations, not by design but a mere stroke of good luck!
Wishing at Trevi Fountain in Rome to see more places
Celebrations in Europe start four Sundays prior to the eve of Christmas which marks the beginning of the Advent.  Post the Advent, most of the  Catholic countries also celebrate the Feast of St Nicholas on the 6th of December. This may not be the tradition in all countries but some of the best places to spend Christmas time do celebrate it as a part of their culture. Following the feast, the main celebration is that of the Christmas Eve wherein people attend the Midnight Mass and relish heartwarming meals with their families and friends. Depending on the place the variations of Roasted Potatoes, Ham, Chicken, Turkey, stuffings and puddings are the most favourites.
Midnight Mass at St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta in Malta
I would share my experiences with some of the places where I witnessed the beauty of places at this time starting with Malta. The relatively quiet country with immense natural beauty and splendid fortresses and cobbled alleys turn into a dreamlike reality. I learnt that the Midnight Mass at the St John's co-cathedral should not be missed, but the entry to it was only by invitation.
The Archbishop at Midnight Mass at St John's Co-Cathedral at Valletta, Malta
I scrambled all over until I discovered that these invitations come from the President's office. It was all within walking distance and after going past the security managed to get the passes for self and family. It was worth every bit, as the hymns and carols by school children and meeting the president at handshake distance was something unimaginable. The delectable Pastis and Coconut macaroons of Valetta were just out of the world. The festive mood is omnipresent with neon lights, Christmas trees and eats everywhere
The huge Christmas Tree at Galeries Lafayette in Paris
The memories of Paris and Nice of the time spent during Christmas are very fond ones. The amazing display of lights and throngs of people, the markets that spring up impromptu, patisserie and boulangerie, tarts and cakes are perhaps the best ones. The spellbinding decoration at Galeries Lafayette in the heart of the city is bound to hold you from moving ahead till you stand and admire the amazing Christmas tree and the shimmer all around
Hagia Sofia in Istanbul
The city of Istanbul was covered in snow when we landed around Christmas time. Among the most memorable moments were strolling on the Galata Bridge in freezing cold, devouring baklava and
Hafiz Mustafa in Istanbul
Turkish delights at Hafiz Mustafa, and a visit to Hagia Sofia which was beautifully illuminated and the interiors so amazing that one could spend the entire day there. Once a mosque and a church it has an alluring past.
Christmas festivities at Markthal in Rotterdam
The spectacular lights of Linjbahn and Markthal, a dazzling display of fireworks on the Erasmus bridge, Peppernoten(Dutch Spice Biscuits) the special dessert sold during Christmas are the high points of Rotterdam. The canals and streets of the adjoining towns like Gouda, Utrecht and others turn the Dutch landscape into a fairyland. A number of special festival events happen including Candle Light decoration in Gouda, Charles Dickens festival at Deventer transform these little towns to little havens.
The Christmas Market in Prague

It would be unfair to complete this post without a mention of the Prague, a Mecca of Christmas festivities. Cold weather is no dampener and hot chocolate and mulled wine pep up the evenings. Medovina ( the honey wine), Sausages, Trdelink(  a sweet cake made from rolled dough wrapped over a stick and grilled over a low fire and sprinkled with sugar) will leave the taste buds unsatiated with heavenly aroma spreading all around the Christmas Markets in the city.

This post can get endlessly long but just a glimpse of the few treats that await a traveller to these destinations have a huge magnet-like attraction. I would not mind repeating any of these  experiences ever again while I continue my hunt for more places

PS All Pics are mine

Monday, November 25, 2019

Down the Memory Lane- Exploring Kochi

Bolgatty Island
I have never planned a trip at such short notice like this one! The smog in Delhi had forced the closure of schools in the NCR. andy wife and I who are now teachers got an opportunity to pack our bags for the long weekend, It was with a bit of some mental exercise and rummaging through the airlines and travel site that by afternoon we were good to go, The late afternoon flight to Kochi ended the suspense, as we happily boarded the flight leaving behind plumes of smog that had engulfed my once clean Delhi! By evening we were able to breathe the fresh whiff of the sea breeze as the flight descended on the Cochin International Airport. It was heartening to see the place as this is the only airport that is fully powered by solar light to meet it's operational requirements.

The hotel at M G Road was comfortable and by the time we settled, it was night. I was lost in the dreams of the first time as 20 odd years old I had arrived here to begin my professional career at the Naval Academy. As I woke up in the morning, it felt so good to see the ships moored around Thevara bridge from where the train had chugged into the Cochin Harbour Terminus almost 42 years ago when I had first come to the city. It was still fresh in my mind. So many times I had seen the divers from the Diving School assembled on the bridge to dive headlong into the fast-flowing waters. Their instructors awaited on the rubber Gemini boats to haul them out.

We managed to enter the Naval Base from the main gate after producing my Armed Forces Identity Card. Though there were several new constructions, the intrinsic character had not changed much. The beautiful lush green manicured gardens, the dense foliage of the swaying coconut trees provided the relief to the eyes that had been struggling in the fumes of Delhi till the day before. Every morning we used to run around the base during the training time. A nice cup of tea at the canteen had retained the flavour.
Chinese Fishing Nets

Later in the day, we headed to Fort Kochi and started to explore the place. The first halt was at the Chinese Fishing Nets where the traditional nets are used to catch the local fish. It is interesting to see the operation of lowering and after some time hauling the nets with the catch. Egrets and other birds are waiting to make their selection before any humans can lay their hands on. 
Basilica of Santa Cruz
Within short walking distance is the Basilica of Santa Cruz, Maritime Museum and Indo Dutch museum. The church has lovely interiors and was built by Portuguese in 1558. It is one of the eight sacred edifices in Kerala. I had seen some of these places on an earlier visit too.
Naval Academy Sailing Camp Nov 1977
Next day, we took a boat ride to explore the Bolgatty Island. Whilst training at the Naval Academy, we had gone for a 10-day sailing regatta on sailboats around the backwaters. We had stopped over at night at this very island and I almost drowned when I slipped on a rock and crashed into the waters. The memory still sends a chill down my spine.
The Bolgatty Island Resort
On the very spot today there is the Bolgatty Palace Island Resort a sprawling property which has all possible luxuries. I stood transfixed for a while wondering how the winds of change hade transformed the place. We then went to Cherai Beach almost 25km away on Vypen Island. It is perhaps one of the cleanest beaches I have come across recently and is not to be missed.

Our final day was spent in exploring the Mattancherry Island well known for the Dutch Palace and the Jewish Synagogue. The adjacent  Jewish town is a unique settlement of the jews. A huge spice market is also an interesting place well worth a visit. Among the modern places that one must experience in Kochi is a Metro train ride and visit Lulu-one of the largest malls in India.

It was a trip which will go down the memory as one of the best trip planned at super short notice. It gave me an opportunity to revive the old memories of time spent at Kochi.

PS: All pics are mine

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- Cinque Terre

Not often, but still some dreams do come true. One such fascinating dream was a journey by train through the Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coast of Italy. The trip was planned months in advance to explore the most amazing natural beauty of the five fishing villages on the Mediterranean coastline of Italy.  We had planned our itinerary in such a manner that we could stay at a small fishing village called Moneglia which was close to the five villages that we had planned to explore, not too crowded and a beautifully quiet environment. So after having completed our stay at Florence, we boarded a train to Moneglia. It is a distance of about 190 km and takes almost 2 hours and 40 minutes by an express train. The train was quite crowded as the holiday season was about to commence. We kept enjoying the sights once the train left the busy Florence station and en route we saw the granaries of Italy, where the crops of wheat-filled the vast tracts of the land. Also, the industrial might of the country was visible in forms of huge plants of cars and industrial machines as we passed through the cities of Prato, Pistoia, Lucca, Massa and La Spezia.
The pretty Manarola
We often saw some fascinating castles and duomos which were so alluring from distance that we were tempted to deboard and explore. Alas! one can only see finite beauty in a finite time. From La Spezia, the route became very fascinating as we were entering the Cinque Terre region. Every few minutes the train would disappear in a dark tunnel and emerge to show off the sparkling crystal  Mediterranean sea that hugged the rail tracks very close. The undulating hills with groves of tall trees, colourful fishing villages of Riamaggorie were the next halt.
The Colourful Riomaggiore
The conspicuous slant towards the sea from heavens up above with rows of multi-hued houses and tethered tiny boats were sights to die for. The stations suddenly got more crowded as the revellers who normally purchase two or three-day tickets for unlimited travel between Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso( the legendary five villages), keep boarding and alighting the stations as the train slows down for everyone to assimilate the unsurpassed natural beauty.
The pretty rocks and fishing boats
Miles of unspoilt beaches, sailboats, motorboats, swaying palm trees hugging the mountains at the other end kept me hooked for the next 45 minutes till the train reached Levanto. The next station was Moneglia where we were to deboard the train. In less than 15 minutes we arrived at the tiny station of Moneglia. We were the only passengers when the train halted. The clean air filled my lungs and the sight all around gave an impression that we were in heaven. A dwindling road through a grove of lemon trees brought us to the parking area where our charming hostess awaited us in her car to take us to our Airbnb accommodation where we planned to spend the next couple of days.
The sea kissed jagged mountains with winding trails

Next day, we reached Levanto once again, to buy two days of unlimited train passes to see every place between Levanto and La Spezia as many times as we wished. The Cinque Terre Card as it is called comes with a host of other privileges like free shuttle bus rides, wi fi, including a visit to certain national parks for less than 15 Euros.

The delectable desserts
After having acquired this passport to heaven for 2 days, we went ahead by exploring the beauty of these little villages starting from Riomaggiore and going back and forth. A detail of the best destinations and things we explored can be seen in an earlier post(  Best food, bakery stuff like Focaccia, Pizzas, Pastas, Farininatas, Corzetti, Porcini Mushrooms, Gellataria, Pesto sauce( incidentally the birthplace of pesto) will never fail to delight.
A Colour Riot- The Fresh Produce
Long stretches of sand beaches of Monterosso, picturesque villages of Vernazza and Riomaggiore and quietness of Corgnilia, long treks through the orchards of olives, strawberries in Moneglia,  will stay in memories forever. For more adventurous Guvano nude beach and other attractions exist. The fresh produce of the region is breathtaking and the riot of colour is a feat for eyes

I discovered a little haven called Bonassola beach which was the last stop before calling it a day. Ernst Hemingway once described this town as' so sweet, unforgettable, and inexhaustible'. Despite this statement being made several decades ago, still holds true to this day.

PS: All pictures are mine
2. Next week I will take you to a new destination in pursuit of some unforgettable adventurous train journeys. 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys - A Bonus Black Forest Ride

Utrecht Central
We hurriedly rushed into the Rotterdam Central station after having done a last-minute purchase of the Eurail ticket to commence our journey to Basel. As soon as we stepped on the platform our heart sank to see the train departing. It was not a long wait when another train heading to Utrecht arrived and we merrily boarded the train. At last, the trip to Switzerland started. We knew that en route now we will have to make the course corrections as instead of reaching Basel later in the afternoon we would reach sometime in the evening. After a run through the lush green fields, the train arrived at Utrecht which was buzzing with activity. It is a huge junction from where many trains leave to many destinations within Europe. We got a treat of some fine Dutch chocolates while we waited for the next train. It was not a very long wait as the next train that we were to board for Dusseldorf arrived at the platform. The appearance of the train was different and now we were travelling by DB( Deutsche Bahn) an international train, unlike the regional train by which we had arrived. It was a journey through the cities of Emmerich, Oberhausen, and Duisburg as we admired the beautiful landscape before arriving at Dusseldorf( a distance of around 200km). The next stretch was via the pretty Cologne, Koblenz, Worms and Mannheim.
The Cologne Cathedral
The locks on the bridge across the Rhine on Cologne were a memorable sight and so was the grand, spectacular Cathedral just across the Cologne Central station.

The 65 km stretch from Koblenz to the picturesque small town of Worms was interspersed with medieval castles, lush green valleys and gorges. Worms is one of the oldest cities in Germany and is famous for local  Liebfraumilch wine. The famous vineyards of the Rhineland regions produce one of the best wines. At Mannheim, we once again alighted from the train to take one last train to Basel for a three-hour-long journey. We would have missed most of these spectacular views of these slow trains had we taken the fast train at Rotterdam that we missed earlier in the morning. The last stretch was the most rewarding of all the journeys as one of the most scenic routes of the Black Forest Region of Germany from Karlsruhe, Baden Baden to Freiburg fall on the way. I had in fact planned to take this journey during the course of the vacation but little did I realize that with divine intervention I was about to see most of it. The numerous dark pine trees that grow in the region gives it the name of Black Forest. It is famous for the Cuckoo Clocks, Black Forest Pasteries, Skiing, Watch Making and of course associated with the Fairy Tales of Grimm Brothers.
The Black Forest Region
The detour through the Black Forest was a reward that can never be forgotten to experience the train journey through the wooded region, see the shimmering rivulets sight some rare birds and an occasional deer at distance. There is a wealth of gardens, cascading waterfalls, Spas, Gotic churches, walking paths and photogenic sights that await those wanting to explore.
The craving to explore the beautiful little towns and nature has intensified since this short exposure. Maybe sometime in future, I will get to see more of the place of which I just witnessed a trailer. The journey onwards to Basel was enjoyable equally and though we reached almost 12 hours later around 10 PM there was still daylight for us to get a glimpse of the place.

PS: All pics are mine
2. Next week will take you to another delightful journey to a new destination

Monday, October 14, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- A Scary Metro Ride in New York Metro

It was a cold January evening as I strolled in the Queens district of New York. It was my first trip abroad and I had spent almost four weeks at Long Island where I was undergoing training.

The crowds were thinning as the night fell. I had packages of items just purchased, tucked under my arms when I stepped out of the store. My shoes slipped in the fresh snow as I made my way towards the Queen's metro station. A recent light shower made walking difficult, due to a load of packages. A cold wind blew and swayed the trees making a rustling noise. I reached the station and purchased the ticket to the Grand  Penn station. I was to spend the evening at a friend's place in New York City.

The train arrived and I boarded it quickly. There were just two or three passengers in the compartment. At the next station, Hollis, two of them got down and two tall dark men entered the coach. They were drunk, and I could make out that these guys were not good! They looked like muggers about whom I had heard. They both wore overcoats which one of them unbuttoned. They were probably armed and one stupid move from my end could spell disaster! One of them who had curly hair and big white teeth looked at me and asked... 'where are you from? ' as they both occupied the seats facing mine. I  pretended, that I did not understand what they said. I could feel my hair raise as he spoke in the cold tone which was intimidating. He got a little impatient while his colleague hurled a few waves of abuse. My throat went dry, as I tried to speak. I made sign gestures by waving my hand and nodding my head that I did not understand them. A shroud of darkness and a few distant twinkling lights, which I could see, from the window, were not very comforting. I wished that the train had more crowd as a Mumbai local! I  prayed silently for the ordeal to end, as the train entered Jamaica station and to my good luck, a few more passengers got into the compartment. It was such a relief to find a company!

The two men realized the futility of talking further and I lowered my eyes to avoid eye contact with them. Every passing moment was like ages. In ten more minutes, the train entered the Grand Central( Penn) station. I quickly disembarked and got lost in the crowd. I had never felt more insecure during my visit and thanked God that I came out unharmed.

PS: 1. There were several times I travelled on the New York metro whilst my stay at Long Island and have some lovely memories of the hospitability of the MTA, Metro service in New York City. This includes one when the metro ferried us on a bus to the next station due to a train disruption due to a minor accident on the track one day
2. Will continue with the series of train journeys that are memorable
3. Pictures Kind courtesy Google