Two days in the lap of nature!

Plitvice lakes and park, Croatia

Virgin forest, verdant green, lush waterfalls, milky cascades at every turn, pristine pools that change from turquoise to teal to aquamarine, miles and miles of undulating, shaded pathways, salubrious weather with mild and cool breeze to embrace – this is Plitvice Lakes. Continue reading →

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.

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

Driving through the woods

An exhilarating journey in God’s Own Country

Verdant rainforest drenched by recent rains, lush and thick greenery all around, streaks of sunlight through the dense foliage playing hide and seek, well-laid roads (yes, no potholes) washed and clean by the recent showers, misty mountains at a distance keeping you company along the way with occasional drizzles of the remaining monsoon – the scenario immediately reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” when we drove through Western Ghats to see Athirappally Falls on Chalakudy River, nicknamed as the Niagara of India.

 

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The winding, narrow road gets darker with thick foliage of tall bamboo trees forming a canopy virtually covering up the sky, as you get nearer to the Falls. Long before we rolled down the windows of our car to enjoy the fog and the refreshing breeze loaded with mist and yes, the accompanying birdcalls of all kinds.

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Just about to reach our destination, our driver Fahad stopped the car on the roadside to let us get the first sight of the mighty Athirappally waterfalls from a vantage point. Three huge plumes of roaring water surging down over massive rocks in the middle of pristine forest surrounded by mountains. It was simply awesome! Picture perfect!

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When we reached our destination, the first feeling was an amazement of the mighty force of water as it touches down the rocky bottom. As we got closer to the falls (up until the barricade), we were stunned by the sheer volume of water thundering down, creating clouds of mist -a jaw dropping sight! It was indeed an overwhelming, overpowering experience reminding us, the humans, of the serene beauty and the raw power of nature at once.

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We spent around an hour or so splashing on the placid, cool, pure mountain waters of the river (earmarked by the forest department for visitors) and returned. A number of monkeys along the way greeted us …rather staring at our belongings to check for eatables or drinks! We could see one of them literally pouncing upon a girl and snatching away the ice cream she was holding!

We continued our journey to view Vazachhal Falls …a gentle cascade down a slope of a massive rock-bed. Less visited by tourists (most return from Athirappally), Vazachhal has a well-maintained herbal/medicinal garden along with a stunningly located forest guesthouse (inspection bungalow as they call it) built by the British over decades ago.

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Here we could spot a few Giant Malabar Squirrels, aptly named, hopping around treetops. Not to miss the idyllic surroundings, we enjoyed our picnic lunch on the terrace of the bungalow overlooking the falls and finished it with Kerala black tea from the Forest Department’s small canteen.

Life’s a water

Back from a short exhilarating, rejuvenating but sweaty and sultry trip from God’s own country.

The God’s own country had just taken a break from the monsoon – the trees, roads and buildings seemed to have had a clean wash leaving everything in absolute freshness.

Took a day off from the busy schedule to take a tour of the countryside from Guruvayur.

Stopped on the way at Chettuva backwaters – a lesser-known location than the over promoted Alleppy backwaters popular among foreign tourists. No tourists traps, no crowds… just a few visitors and also very few boats to take you around. The only traditional and elaborate houseboat with all its paraphernalia has already been hired so we had to settle down with a stripped down version.

An hour of tour of the serene and calm backwaters took us through some verdant mangroves, government farms and a few islets.

While the mangroves are home to several seasonal migratory birds, some of the islets are owned by some wealthy NRIs and local business houses, who have either built resorts or lavish homes.

But the backwaters is also home to several fishermen for whom it is their livelihood. Sailing close to a couple of mangroves gave an up-and-close look of the breathing roots and last remaining birds.

Done with the boat tour we completed the first leg with a cup of Kerala chai and plantain chips.