Three days in Athens-A heady mix of ancient and modern

Day 1

We had a great 4 nights 3 days stay at Athens and our experience was mixed; on one side you have the classical Athens, once the cradle of western civilisation and birthplace of democracy with impressive architecture, most of which are in ruins leaving it all to our imagination and on the other side the modern Athens – a  sprawling mega city teaming with people everywhere and nightmare traffic in narrow roads.

Day 1. Reached Acropolis entrance around 10 am. Not many visitors and the weather was pleasant. First stop was Theater of Dionysus and then walked up via the Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre (much better preserved than Theater of Dionysus and reached the grand edifice The Parthenon grounds. The area around main Parthenon Temple is cordoned off due to renovation work so we had to just go around the temple amid ruins and renovation debris. You can also see the Lycabettus hill and the modern Athens city jungle from the Acropolis.  Spent little more than an hour and walked down to Roman Agora through winding lanes.

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Theater of Dionysus

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Passed the Athens University Museum and stopped at a cute little café Klepsydra(?) for some Baklawa and coffee. Reached Roman Agora and were put off by the aggressive hawkers (looked like Africans?) at the gate trying to sell some color threads. The Roman Agora was a disappointment as there was practically nothing except a few pillars.

TRG_7504aMoved on to Adrianou Street to reach Ancient Agora. We were hungry by now, partly due to the mixed aroma of food from the restaurants lining up the street.  Had a quick lunch at a corner restaurant with a local beer Mythos. Just realized that it was past 3 pm and the Ancient Agora was closed for the day.

Walked in to the by lanes visiting the several colourful shops selling souvenirs, knickknacks, clothes etc.  Bought ice cream at the Hans &Gretel themed confectionery shop and walked further to realize we were already into the thick of Monstiraki Flea Market! The market was teaming with people locals as wells tourists. Spent a couple of hours in the area and then took the metro from the Monastiraki Station and reached our accommodation close to Acropolis Museum station.

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Hans and Gretel!!!

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Delightful Dubrovnik! Part 3 of 3

Exploring the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, and beyond – Days 5 and 6

Day 5: Another day-out into Montenegro

Took a day-trip to Montenegro with a tour company with a small group of 12 people. After a scenic ride along the coast of Bay of Kotor for about an hour, our first stop was a small coastal town Perast, known mostly for the Roman Catholic Church Our Lady of the Rocks located in a small island in the Kotor bay. A 5-6 minutes boat ride took us to the island giving us a 3600 scenic vista from the middle of the bay. The church itself was impressive with its sky blue dome and bold and colourful paintings and sculptures inside. A small museum upstairs has on display some old weapons and antique items used/leftover by sailors. Retuned from the island and continued our journey to our next stop Kotor. Sitting in between a quiet side of the Bay Kotor and brooding mountains, Kotor took us back in time with its archway entrance to the old town with its cobblestoned narrow streets, medieval museums, churches, buildings and squares (now filled with cafes and souvenir shops). Outside, Kotor is very modern with all the trappings of tourist entertainment- buzzing with pubs, bars, cafes, nightclubs etc. Kotor is a delightful place where the past coexists with the present.

Our third stop was Budva, a seaside resort town more popular for nightlife and beach parties than its interesting old town quarter. We had a late lunch in one of the scenic waterfront restaurant

The food was not great but not bad either. The beach front literally packed with jet skis, speedboats and smaller ferries- all aimed at tourists. Surprisingly we saw number of Russians and many signboards and placards were in English and Russian languages! We were told that several Russians have invested in Budva’s tourism sector! Wandered in to the old town – very similar to Kotor with churches and historic residences and a few museums. Budva seems to be a money-churning hotspot for Montenegro’s tourism. Spent a couple of hours and then returned to Dubrovnik on a shortcut that included our bus being loaded on to a ferry to cross the Bay of Kotor.

Day 6:Exploring Lokrum Island

This was our last day in Dubrovnik and so we had a late start. Took the big passenger ferry (every 20 minutes) from the fort harbour for a 10-15 minute ride to Lokrum Island.

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Took a walk through the well-maintained botanical garden with lots of pine, cypress, olive and other leafy trees and bushes to reach the Benedictine Monastery at the other end of the island. Built during the medieval era, the monastery is still operational and recently it was one of the filming locations of the Game of Thrones.

There are several locations marked safe for swimming and we chose a convenient place and spend nearly three hours swimming (it was cold still) in total tranquillity and peace in the clear, blue water and relaxing in the shade! Took the 4 pm ferry back to the town and did some last minute souvenir and cheese shopping from the mega Konzum store near the bus station and returned to our place to pack and rest.

Day 7: Our return flight to Milan was at 12.30 pm via Zagreb so we had good time to enjoy a breakfast and reach the airport on time.

Delightful Dubrovnik! Part 2 of 3

Exploring the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, Days 3 and 4

Day 3: Walled city tour

Today was our most-important walled city tour; we joined the crowd at the historic Pile Gate bought the entrance ticket at the small booth near the Onofrio’s Fountain. The nearly two-kilometre long and winding medieval wall with several ups and downs offers panoramic view of the city and the sea- a photographer’s delight!

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You only have to stand at any vantage point, close your eyes and visualise yourself switching back in time; armed soldiers and canons guarding the city from marauders; weather-beaten sailors, hard-bargaining merchants and shrewd traders at the harbour; street pedlars and performers at the squares. Made a quick visit to the small but well-kept maritime museum within the fort with artefacts and remains from the days of yore!

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Done with the wall, we came back to Placa also known as Stradun, the main promenade of the walled city. Fully pedestrianised with shiny limestone, it is full of souvenir shops, gelato bars, cafes and restaurants with exception of the most prominent buildings such as the Church of St. Blaise, the Rector’s Palace (closed for renovation), the Sponza Palace and the Franciscan Monastery with its oldest pharmacy in Europe still operating! The best way to enjoy Stradun is to take a walk up and down the street visiting the attractions of your choice and when you get tired, sit in front of one of the cafes, get your drink and enjoy watching people of all colours and characters until the sun goes down.

Day4:Day tour to Vjetrnica Caves and Mostar

 

I have written two separate blogs on our trip to Vjetrnica Caves followed by our lunch at the historic hotel Stanica Ravno. Please click here to read….

https://footnotesbykaran.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/off-the-beaten-track/ (Vjetrnica Caves )

https://footnotesbykaran.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/off-the-beaten-track-2/ (hotel Stanica Ravno)

Day trip to Mostar

Post-lunch at Hotel Stanica Ravno , we continued on a 2 hour drive to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Developed during the 15th and 16th centuries as an Ottoman frontier town, Mostar is strikingly different from the rest of Bosnia’s landscape with its old Turkish buildings spread over the old town. We walk along the narrow, historic old streets, climbed up the famous Old Bridge- Stari Most- the high point of Mostar town. There are numerous souvenir shops flanking the narrow lane to the bridge- actually spoiling the authenticity of the old town. If you have been to Turkey, you can’t help remembering the Grand Bazaar or the Araasta Bazaar of Istanbul. We spent about two hours at Mostar and then returned to Dubrovnik in time for our dinner.

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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….