Three days in Athens…Day 3

Day 3

This was a Sunday and we had already planned to be at the Parliament Square (Syntagma) to watch the Change of Guard ceremony. Reached the spot at 10.30 am; the ceremony began around 10.45 and ended by 11.30 am. Interesting spectacle watching the Evzones and their royal gear!!

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Went around the Parliament building and walked through the National Garden to reach Zappeion a landmark building, which is currently used for conferences and exhibitions. Spent some time looking around the building and a week-end market inside the halls.

IMG_8997aCame out and hailed a taxi to make our way to the planned lunch at Avacado restaurant at Nikis, highly recommended by TA members. We had to wait for about 20 minutes as the place is popular and the number of tables is also limited. True to its status the restaurant’s menu was very unique with several signature dishes. We ordered a mix of Asian and Mediterranean- Spicy Thai soup, Falafel, Mushroom forest burger, Om Shanthi -a delicious creamy curry and rice- and a Carrot Cake total cost Euro 23 for three pax). The food was very delicious!! Not to be missed. Unfortunately they don’t take reservations so you have to reach and wait until you are seated.

After a relaxed lunch took a taxi to reach Lycabettus hill. Took the cable car to the top and enjoyed the panoramic views of the sprawling city as we waited for the sunset. As the sun went down and the lights went up, it was spectacular to see the Acropolis lit up against the backdrop of Aegean Sea afar. There is a small but beautiful church atop.

Getting a taxi on return may be tricky. A couple of taxi guys waiting at the gate wouldn’t switch on the meter and were demanding a fixed (higher) fare. We waited a while and soon there was a taxi which we jumped in and reached our apartment early, as we had to pack up and leave for Santorini by the next morning flight.

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!

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