Monday, March 23, 2020

Reminiscing Curfews

Curfew Time
The self-imposed quarantine to safeguard against the spread of coronavirus brings back the memories of the days during the wars with China and Pakistan in the years 1962, 1965 and 1971. It was a decade of tumultuous politics when life was in upheaval. As a young child in 1962,  I remember at nights there would be air raid sirens when we were supposed to switch off all the lights, darken all the windows and shades with newspapers/ dark paper and huddle in the corner. It was advised to stand either next to walls or hide under the cots to avoid injuries due to falling roofs in case it ever happened.

I vividly remember that during the 1965 war with Pakistan, our RWA dug up Z- shaped trenches in the public parks and there would be demonstrations how one should vacate the home if ever there were bombs dropped and rush into the trenches in such eventuality. There were frequent trial runs but fortunately, the necessity never arose to use these in real-life scenarios. In the ensuing summer vacations, the trenches were used by us as hideouts at night while playing 'hide and seek' with friends.

There are memories of long queues at ration shops where people would wait for hours to collect kerosene, sugar, and wheat ( that mostly came under the PL 480 agreement with the USA during the war/ famine years of 1961-1969).  Most of the readers of this post may never have even seen such queues in their lifetime having been born in times when such scarcities did not occur. We would collect the things in bags and assist our father to bring these home.

If ever there were air raid sirens during the day time we would rush into our homes and spend time playing indoor games like carrom, cards, snakes and ladders or ludo. It was time to bond at home. There were no TV or mobiles, and the only source of news was the radio on which we could listen to the news from All India Radio and sometimes on the BBC on the short wave. The media wars were fought by terming Radio Pakistan as 'Radio Jhootisthan' as there were no debates like we have on the TV today.

The present environment of the siege at home due to the lockdown now provides us with the opportunity to read books that we had missed, practice yoga, try new cuisines, and not waste by remaining glued to hear the depressing details of rising death tolls around the world. One can follow the news once during the day and maybe in the evening and not entirely remain glued to the TV. As it is, besides the news and sermons there is a huge variety that awaits us on the Netflix and Amazon Prime Time. Time spent in sharing the fake news and useless videos on the WhatsApp can be channelised in other meaningful pursuits. I find the Coursera and Khan Academy as a tremendous value add to learn something new, besides reading some interesting articles in Pocket and Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. We have to choose our own poison according to our likes. The lucky ones who still earn their salaries have an opportunity to work from home a concept which is not new to the IT world.

This difficult time too shall pass and will be lost in the pages of history. The learnings of never to take nature for granted and respecting it, no matter how progressive mankind becomes, must never be forgotten. Stay Safe, Stay Healthy!

PS- Image Kind Courtesy Google

Monday, March 9, 2020

आयी होली

आयी बसंत बहार,उडे रंग अबीर की बौछार
   थिरके भँवरे पुष्पों परचले सुगन्धित मस्त बयार।।
बिखरे गुजियालड्डू,बर्फ़ी और ठंडाई की मिठास
   मनमोहक सतरंगी गुलाल पवन  में,लहराये फिर एक बार।
आओ जलाये बैर की होलीऔर मिलाये दिलो को इस रात।।
टेसू केसरिया से करे सरोबर हर मन को इस त्योहार
   संदेसा प्रेम भरा भेजो होली पर ,हर किसी को इस साल।
आयी होली  ,मिलो हमजोली,बिखेरो स्नेह प्यार का आभास।।

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Medjugorje-A Call from the Divinity

The time spent at Mostar was a memorable one. While going around the town we were struck with a thought of visiting the holiest site Medjugorje which was a mere 25 km away. I asked our driver with all innocence if we could see the place, knowing well that it was not on the itinerary. He smiled and told us so. As we were about to start from Mostar after the visit he suddenly asked the remaining passengers if they would like to visit the place. Lo and behold the opinion swung in the favour of visiting the place. Imagine, seeing a place entailing additional detour of 50 km with no added cost! It was a call from divinity indeed.

Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina is close to the Croatian border and had shot into limelight in 1981 as a popular Catholic pilgrimage site. 
The layout of St James Church
A series of Apparitions (supernatural appearance of Virgin Mary to six children frequently and is continuing to happen to date) at the popular Our Lady of Medjugorje cathedral has made it a holy pilgrimage site amongst Roman Catholics after authorization from the Vatican in 2019. Those six children are now adults and still receive messages from Mother Mary. More than a million pilgrims visit the site annually now.
St James Church
The drive to the place was full of excitement, which took about 45 minutes through the countryside with hilly terrain. Medjugorje literally means ‘between the mountains’. The place is at an altitude of 200m above sea level. There is a meagre population of 2300 in this holy town. In the east of the town is a Serbian Orthodox monastery that has stood since 1566. The town has witnessed turbulence right from the medieval times to Ottoman empire, the second world war and most recently during 1992 Bosnian Croatian conflict. Only after series of apparitions, the place turned to penance, fasting, prayers and peace. The town and its environs boomed post-war. A huge infrastructure of hotels and hostels has mushroomed since then to cater to the needs of pilgrims.
A huge amphitheatre
The St James Church with twin towers is a structure where the idols of Mother Mary are installed. We were fortunate to witness a mass in progress, and singing of hymns. There is a huge square right behind the church where the stage is erected for huge gatherings. 
Paintings from the Bible
Also, a beautiful lawn with paintings from the Bible is lined up along the path leading to gardens. 
Statue of the Risen Christ
Besides this, the Statue of Risen  Christ is adjacent to the park. It is said that this was the place where the six children had seen the appearance of the Virgin Mary for the first time. It is said that the statue weeps from the knees from time to time and this can be felt by placing the hand on the right knee of the statue.

It was one of the most rewarding days of the trip where we saw so much on a single day. The driver of our station wagon handed us a golden replica of the Mother Mary of Medjugorje as a parting gift. It was a fitting finale to the trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina

PS- All pictures are mine

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Star of Bosnia- Mostar

Mostar- Stari Most
Undoubtedly, one of the most spectacular towns in the Balkan region is Mostar, the fifth largest town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After leaving Pocitelj, about which I had described in the earlier post we continued our journey to Mostar. The 30 km long journey from Pocitelj took just less than an hour often going past quaint villages and orange groves laden with fruit. 
The Catholic Church of St Peter and Paul
The driver stopped the station wagon near the famous Catholic Church and Franciscan monastery of St Peter and Paul. It was a huge imposing structure with a towering bell tower. He then took upon the task to show us around the town. A short pleasant walk brought us to the Old Town from where we could see the landmark Stari Most( The Old Bridge) over the River Neverata.

The Old Bridge Stari Most
 The town Mostar got its name as '' the city pf bridge keepers"(Mostari) who guarded the Old Bridge of Mostar, The bridge was constructed during the 16th  century during the Ottoman rule. It is one of the most visited sites in the Balkan region. It is an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture. This Old Bridge weathered several storms for 427 years before it was struck by the invading Croatian forces on 9 Nov 1993 and suffered heavy damage. Subsequently, a project was undertaken to restore the old glory and the new bridge was thrown open on 23 July 2004. The bridge served as an important trade link between the two banks of the River Neretva which linked with Croatia n one side and the mineral-rich Bosnia on the other.
A close view of Stari Most
 The Stone Bridge was built by Mimar Hydruddin and has an arch like a rainbow facing the sky extending between the two high stone cliffs. The bridge has a span of 28.7m and is at a height of 21m. Some strong-hearted divers can be seen diving from the bridge into the river with freezing cold waters during the summer months by charging money from the spectators.
A Bird's Eye View of Mostar
There are several other very impressive buildings in different styles of architecture like the Italian Franciscan Church, the Ottoman Muslibegovica house, the Dalmatian Corovic House, and the Orthodox Church.
The Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque
Out of the 13 mosques built during the 16th and 17th century now, only six remains and the rest were lost in bombardment and wars to pursue different ideologies. A number of trading houses and tanneries built-in stones still exist. The Cejvan Cehaj Mosque, built-in 1552 is the oldest mosque in the town. The Koski Mehmed Pasha mosque built-in 1617 is open to visitors. The minaret can also be accessed by payment of a fee from where the splendid views of the town can be seen. Nearby is the Tepa market where the fresh produce of the region is sold.
The Stone cobbled Old Bazaar
 There is an Old Bazar around the Old Bridge that is called Kukundziluk named after the goldsmiths who had shops here. Now mostly the fruit sellers, painters and sweet shops that make Bakwala can be seen here. A walk on the cobbled streets of the Old Town gives a glimpse of the rich culture and history of the place. Strong Muslim influence can be seen in this little town.

The Noteworthy buildings in Mostar
The scars of the war fought can be seen even to this day in the form of damaged buildings and structures around the town. Some other noteworthy buildings that exist here are the Bishop's Ordinirate building, the remains of an early Christian basilica, the Clock Tower, the Jewish Synagogue, the Crooked bridge and a few others.

A view of the Mosque and Neretva River
A few hours spent in the little town were the golden hours of life to discover this rare beauty. What was in store was a divine gift which was not in the itinerary but a result of a query with the driver who was kind enough to take us to a very important place of Christian pilgrimage. I will take the readers on a virtual tour to the place in my next blog post

 PS- All the pictures are mine

Monday, February 24, 2020

A Bonanza Called Bosnia

The Roman Catholic Church at Neum

Never in my wildest dreams, I had imagined that one day I would land up in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had always associated the country with many wars and very fragile peace. It remained a hotspot during the early 1990s due to the ongoing war with Croatia. The tiny nation has a border with Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia. During December 2019, while I was in Dubrovnik in Croatia, I learnt that one can make a trip to this place with a multiple entry Schengen visa. Without losing time, I looked up for the travel options and booked a trip with a local travel agency.

Early in the morning, the driver showed up at the Cable Car junction pickup point with 2 or 3 passengers already in the station wagon. The driver was an elderly fellow, very friendly and pleasant to talk to. We handed over our passports to him, as the same would be required for the border control. There was very little traffic and the drive along the Adriatic Sea coast with breathtaking locales along with the tiny towns of Zaton, Orasac, Trestno, Slano and Zaton Doli till Neum was thoroughly enjoyable. Neum is the only coastal town in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a stretch of almost 20 km of coastline on the Adriatic Sea. Less than 3000 people reside in this town. One has to go through two strict border checks which could sometimes involve long delays depending on the rush. The checkpoints are at Zaton Doli and Klek in Neum. In 1918 it joined the Republic of Yugoslavia. The place has a  Mediterranean climate. The local currency is Mark but the Croatian Kuna and Euros are accepted everywhere. The coffee shop located overlooking the sea served a fantastic brew with a chocolate croissant. The Roman Catholic Church with a tall tower and red roof is a distinct feature of the town and is visible from almost every place. The town has many tourists due to cheap accommodation and food compared to Croatia.  A new bridge is under construction here that is likely to be completed by 2022 to bypass Neum and avoid border crossing when travelling from Dubrovnik to Split both in Croatia.
Pocitelj by River Neretva
After a brief halt, we continued to Pocitelj which was at a distance of one hour fifteen-minute drive. After Neum, the terrain changed abruptly and we could no longer see the Adriatic Sea and in place vast plantation of Orange Groves, jagged hills and vast valleys emerged. The place had such a pristine look that it appeared to be untouched. Small canals and waterways appeared that were used for farming in the rich fertile area. Our driver stopped the car briefly to buy some oranges from the roadside and offered us. It was one of the juiciest oranges I had ever had and so fresh that the fragrance kept lingering for a long time even after eating the fruit. 
The Stepped Stairways of Pocitelj
The stepped medieval fortress village of Pocitelj is one of the most picture-perfect architectural settings in the country. Cupped between the steep rocky amphitheatre its warren of stairways climbing between ramshackle stone roofed houses and pomegranate bushes.
The Ramschakle Houses at Pocitelj
This village was badly hit during the Croatian Bosnian War of 1993 where it was specifically targeted to inflict damage. 
The Mosque and Minarets
The Hajji Alijia Mosque, its minarets and domes built-in 1563 suffered serious damage but the same has now been fully restored. The decorative paintwork has however been lost.
Gavrakapetan Tower and fortifications
Very near to this ais a 16m tall Clock Tower built during the Ottoman rule. There are ruins of the fortress and a further climb up brings octagonal Gavrakapetan Tower. A climb on this tower is dicey as the plaster has fallen off at many places. 

The only reward is the breathtaking views of the valley all around and the quiet flowing Neretva river at a distance. 
Atop the Gavrakapetan Tower
A number of houses were built for men and women to stay separately that exist even to date.
The significance of this little town altered during the different eras namely,
A)      Period of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus during 1463-1471when its strategic importance arose.
B)      Under the Ottoman Empire during 1471-1698, when the mosque, Hamam, imarat, minarets and clock tower were built
C)       After Venetians conquered 1698-1876 when the strategic importance was once again restored.
A bird's eye view of {ocitelj
It is a UNESCO heritage town that has been preserved for the beauty and its long history of having witnessed many wars. The climb on the hill to explore this lovely town was every bit worth the effort. 

I will share more interesting tales of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the coming weeks

PS: All pictures are mine

Monday, February 17, 2020

Budva- The Pulchritudinous Town

Budva- Harbour
The best in Montenegro was yet to happen. A whirlwind trip of Kotor and its beauty was still fresh in mind as our guide in the van informed that we will now head to Budva, just 22 km away from Kotor. The little town is also referred to as 'Miami of Montenegro'. Excited as a bunch of school children headed for a picnic we peered out of the window to admire the breathtaking scenery all around this Adriatic region. Undoubtedly, the best way to explore this little country is on a road trip, with well-connected and maintained highways.  Budva is a rare gem which is not very well known except by Europeans who throng this little town during the summer months.

The Beach Promenade
Budva has some of the finest beaches, an old fortified town, promenades overlooking the sand beaches, coffee parlours, casinos and nightlife which is comparable with the best. The minuscule population of fewer than 20000 people inhabit this little town. After a drive lasting about 45 minutes the van pulled up near a huge parking area and the guide took us for a short walk along the sea-coast. She insisted that the food was not only cheap but very delicious in a nearby restaurant. We decided to skip it and headed for the Old town, instead which was just a short walk.
Fortification-The Square of Salt
Budva is the only town apart from Kotor that has fortifications all along with the Old town with narrow streets and small squares. It is one of the oldest urban centres in Adriatic, over 2500 years old. A lot of monumental and cultural heritages from Antique and Middle Ages is proof of continuing active life in this town. The charm of this little town is so compelling that a number of Hollywood movies like Force 10 from Navarone, The November Man, Pappilion, Nymph and Casino Royale were filmed here. 
A view from the Walls
Our van driver stopped by a bridge to tell us that the famous car chase scene in Casino Royale was shot at the site. Earlier Budva was a part of Yugoslavia but since Montenegro attained its independence the tag of communism has been obliterated.

The Old Town(Alstadt)-The Square of Palm
Alstadt( Old Town) with narrow streets, charming shops, coffee bars, incredible blue sky and sea is very fascinating. Located in the most prominent part of the Old Town, Citadel includes several squares, military barracks, terraced gates and remains of St Mary’s Church.
The Old Town Alleyways
The views from the City Walls are splendid especially when one looks out towards the blue sea, isolated sailboats and distant limestone mountains. Kamenovo Beach and Sveti Stefan are akin to slices from heaven on an island just a short distance away. The Mogren beach is very close to the Old Town. These places need more time to enjoy and immerse in their beauty, so I had to make do with just a glimpse.
The Church of Holy Trinity
Church of Holy Trinity very close to Citadel has a nice mosaic work on top of the entry door. It has a typical three bells tower above it. This is an orthodox church with lovely frescoes inside. Not far from here is the St Ivan Church that was renovated after the great earthquake
Interior of the Church of Holy Trinity
There are a number of squares in the Old Town like The Square of Poets, The Square of Salt, The Square of Palms with interesting stories around them.

Narrow Streets
Budva is also renowned for music concerts and theatre. The celebrities from all over the world travel here for their performances. There are many hotels around the seafront and their occupancy is very high during the summer months. There are regular flights from Moscow and Belgrade to the nearby airport.
The Citadel
Among the traditional food of the region available here are Priganice( fried doughnut balls served with jam). Burek( pastry filled with cheese or meat), Ribija Corba( FishSoup, Shopska Salad( popular all over Balkans) to name a few.

St Ivan's Church
The quick tour of this little town was an exciting one. I had never imagined that I would be rolling in luck to see so much in Montenegro in such a short time. Later in the evening, we headed for Dubrovnik, with an interesting ride of the van on the catamaran with the sun setting in the west.
The Setting sun-Shot from the Barge
PS- All pics are mine. Next week will take you on a journey through Bosnia and Herzegovina

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Small Wonder- Kotor

The Harbour of Kotor

After immersing in the beauty of Perast, it was time to move further to a yet another spectacular destination just about 12 km away. Kotor is located in the secluded part of the Bay of Kotor. The overhanging cliffs of limestone are visible all around as the journey proceeds in the direction of Kotor. With a meagre population of 13500 people, the place has emerged as a hot tourist destination for its natural beauty and the Old Town (now a UNESCO Heritage site).
Huge passenger ship berthed in Kotor
As our vehicle veered around a bend my eyes widened in disbelief to see two multistoried herculean ships berthed in the Bay of Kotor just a short distance away.  What was surprising is that ships with so many tourists are not uncommon during summertime, but at the end of December, it was certainly unusual. We had reached the city centre in less than half an hour. Our guide took us to the entry point of the Old town and handed over to a new guide who was local and was to show us around. The sights around us were straight from the fairy tales. Huge wall fortifications, the massive entry gates, gothic churches and never-ending stream of visitors greeted us.
The Main Entrance to Old Town
An eye-catching sign at the entrance of the Old town with a post-World War 2 sign read “ What belongs to others we don’t want, ours we don’t give”. Another unusual sight was the presence of many cats and soon we learnt that the town has the only Cat Museum that is unique and one of it's kind in the world.
Cathedral of St Tryphon
Kotor is one of the best-preserved UNESCO Heritage towns in the Adriatic. It is home to numerous sites like the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon built in 1166AD and fortified walls all around the Old Town almost 4.3 km long. As soon as we entered the main gate of the town we came face to face with a huge Old Main Square. 

Old Palaces decorated with Gift boxes and Santa Claus
We stopped for a while to look at the beautiful stone houses with Venetian Blinds festooned with gift boxes, buntings and small dolls dressed as Santa Claus, and Old Clock Tower on the right that greeted us. Tucked in between the stone-walled houses lies the St Nicholas Church with very impressive murals inside.
The Clock Tower
Within a short walking distance is the towering Clock Tower and adjacent to it is the Piazza of the Arms. There are some trees more than 250 years old whose huge branches provide shade to the tourists. Many empires fought for seeking control of this town throughout the centuries. Its fortunes fluctuated from Byzantine era to be ruled by Venetian, Hungarian and Austrian rulers till it became a part of Yugoslavia
The Interior of St Tryphon Cathedral
St Tryphon Cathedral was damaged extensively during the earthquake in 1979 but was restored to its old glory. It has a very rich collection of artefacts including frescoes of 14th century. The church was built to honour the city’s patron saint Tryphon.
The Church of St Nicholas  is a Serbian Orthodox Church that was rebuilt in 1902 in place of the earlier structure that was lost in a huge fire.
St Luke Church
The Church of St Luke is one of the oldest built in 1195 AD. It combines the features of Byzantine and Roman architecture. Miraculously it is one of the few structures that escaped the two earthquakes. It is unique as it has both Orthodox and Catholic altars.
Pima Palace
It is not unusual to see the steel bars embedded in the old structures to prevent any future damages due to the earthquake. 
Lombardic Palace
Some of the most beautiful palaces that need a mention are Grubonja (located next to the St Ivan Fortress), Lombardic Palace( three-storied, that belonged to a wealthy family located next to St Luke Church), Pima Palace( built-in 17th century with long Baroque Balustrade) are a must-see besides several others.

In addition to all these beautiful sightseeing treats, the Jan Karski fountain and an Olive tree dedicated to a Jew, who tried to prevent the Holocaust during the WW2 just in front of the harbour is beautiful.  The images of Santa Claus were visible all over the town in the form of huge busts and small puppets. 

Perhaps the most fitting finale was a dance by school children in traditional attire that was being performed on a lilting local tune as a part of the New Year festivities.

Kotor has a charm that is incomparable and the only regret was the paucity of time as we had to head for a yet another destination Budwa about which I will narrate in the next blog post.

PS All pics and video were taken by me