This is one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic

Retreat to Budva in Montenegro…

Your brain is still woozy from absorbing the red-gold autumn flamboyance of the Lovcen National Park and the raw wilderness of the rocky Dinara Alps, as you drive down towards Budva. Thank the rocky limestone mountain screen that paints Montenegro’s highway. Its a breather from the final spectacle that awaits. Ready or not, here it comes. Right after the final bend.

There it is sprawled at the foot of the slope…the 35 km long strip of Adriatic coast, the Budva Riviera! The view from the height makes your mouth curve into an ‘O’, eyes wider, neck taller, spine more erect as the cityscape expands and the coast stretches. The tourist capital of Montenegro, sparkling with nightlife and buzzing with jet setters is at your feet. Miles away, and you can still sense the pulsating energy…despite the haze of grey clouds.

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The luxe resort town of Sveti Stefan on its exclusive islet floats a couple of kilometers away. Gape away, it deserves all the attention. A fortified fishing village with a history going back to the 15th century, has morphed into a luxe retreat for the rich and famous, Sveti Stefan has had loyal celebrity vacationers in the league of Marilyn Monroe, Bobby Fischer, Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas and Claudia Schiffer. Protected and preserved by Aman Resorts as Montenegro’s most luxurious boutique hotel, boasting of 50 island cottages, 3 beaches, 3 pools, a spa and several restaurants. Who wouldn’t mind a free pass? But its bad manners to keep a medieval Adriatic town waiting.

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The ancient coastal town of Budva jutting out of its small peninsula, bears tell-tale resemblance to Kotor, but look again…its own character shines through effortlessly. Budva hides a rich historical past reaching back to the 4th century BC when its first royal citizens, the Greek king of Thebes – Cadmus and his queen, Harmonia, expelled from their kingdom, headed in an oxen cart to find and establish a new home here. No prizes for guessing what Budva means. (“Bous” is Greek for ox). And that makes it one of the oldest urban settlements in the Adriatic. 2,500 years and it continues to be discovered by hundreds, every single day!

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Those irresistible Adriatic genes again…defensive, sea-facing stone walls, complete with towers, city gates and a citadel, circling a tightly knit pedestrian town. Entering from the main Land Gate, was you step onto the marble and granite maze of the main thoroughfare, Njegoševa Street, let yourself be transported back in time. The Old Town or Alstadt draws you into folds with its irregular cobbled stones, tiny hidden squares, Mediterranean-style stone houses and vibrant terracotta roofs.

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Each narrow lane pulls you magnetically to its white shuttered windows, arched doorways, rustic wood signboards. The familiar, unmistakable Roman influence is everywhere. Romantic open-air terraces with palm fronds, cafes with ivy-covered walls and shady subtropical gardens whisper enticingly. Melt into the curious languor. Disappear into a secluded alley, trail your fingers over the sturdy walls, press your toes against the hardness granite floors. Close your eyes and listen to the silence. Imagine yesterday, centuries ago. Find the original 5th-century entrance that led to the ancient town and step through. You’re Harmonia for one magical moment, frozen in time.

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Emerge into a hub of activity at the main plaza. Trace out the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Venetian and Austro-Hungarian from different eras, incongruously juxtaposed, but still harmonious like a melody. Or a fusion salad of grain, vegetables and fruits…each individual element distinct, yet blending into an unusually delicious medley. Austere Austrian stone barracks. 7th-century Catholic Church of St. John with colourful frescoes. 19th-century Church of Holy Trinity with its trio of bells. 9th-century Santa Maria in Punta Church built by Benedictine monks. Leftovers of Roman archeological ruins. And Illyrians, Greek, Roman and Byzantine treasures from 5th and 6th centuries BC, including terracotta dishes, stone wine jars, urns, glass vessels, jewellery, coins, cutlery and medical instruments in the Budva Town Museum.

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Finally, head to Citadel, to drink in the panorama of the sea meeting the mountains over the bay. If only you could run a virtual time lapse video in your mind. Defensive walls, which protected the town from unwanted enemies once, have transformed into a peaceful venue for the city’s many dramatic performances productions. Bows and arrows poised in the loopholes that penetrate the stone ramparts then…cameras rest here now. The Adriatic, which once connected Budva to the outside world and served as a trade route for the town’s prosperity, today brings hundreds of cruise ships filled with curious day-trippers. Budva was a lure for merchants and conquerers then and is a magnet for tourists now. Cadmus struck gold! And it still shines.

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Retreat to the historic town of Budva in Montenegro

 

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High energy folklore spirit at Wenceslas festival

Witness pure Bohemian spirit at Cesky Krumlov…

No better place to kick start your Czech Republic trip than with the most delicious slice of the Bohemian region, Cesky Krumlov. And no better timing than autumn, when this fairyland is wrapped in cozy folds of russets, auburn, ambers and cornelians. But fall brings colours to more than just the foliage. You have barely taken the first few steps onto the cobbled roads, and you can sense the festivities in the air. St.Wenceslas Festival is painting the town red!

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28th September, the day that St. Wenceslas, patron saint of Czech lands, brewers and winemakers was murdered by his brother, marks Feast Day on the country’s calendar. Expect traditional food, drink, merriment, entertainment and cultural performances. So dump that luggage, blend into the colourful trail and join the euphoria. Doing a little jig already, aren’t you?

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Music wafting from the Seminární Zahrada (Seminar Garden) pulls you irresistibly. A bunch of girls dressed in vibrant layered skirts, glittering belly chains and gypsy head scarves hold the audience transfixed with their enthusiastic dance presentation. The star of the show is the little boy in a lemon shirt, candy pink necktie and a set of waist chains. They’re dancing like nobody’s watching. Treasured intangible heritage passed down generations and inculcated with much pride. Sway along with their uninhibited whirls, and if you can tear your hypnotised eyes away momentarily, just look at that view! 

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Back on the narrow street, the swarm of revellers thickens gradually until the space opens up dramatically into the lively town square, Namesti Svornosti. Here the tempo reaches its crescendo. Invisible wisps of the carnival spirit are everywhere…floating over the pastel gabled houses, wafting from the aromatic food grills, brightening the smiles of the artisans showcasing local crafts, sweets, wines and coating the cheerful faces of the red-and-white gingerbread hearts. 

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The stage is set. Steal a peek backstage and spot the performers queued up in elaborate, traditional Czech costumes. Bright colors, lavish embroideries, heavy accessories. Delicate flowers and satiny ribbons adorning elaborate hairdos. Pretty tasselled capes and fine lace-edged aprons. Lovely string corsets and extravagant buckle belts. Rich, heavy coats embellished with gold buttons, fancy braid and silk scarfs. Voluminous skirts, red stockinged feet, woollen pants and heavy boots. Styles distinctive to each region or even village, travelling down from generation to generation. Life-sized dolls in national costumes.  

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You’re hooked for hours, along with the rest of the jamboree. Perfectly synchronised group dance performances continue into the night, accompanied by cheerful, foot-tapping music by the live band. Girls shout ‘Eeyaahhh’ in abandon and boys whistle merrily. The expressions are joyful, the atmosphere is overflowing with high spirits and the mood is celebratory. Its high energy fun and frolic all the way…jumping, springing, bouncing, hopping, stomping, skipping, all the verbs you can possibly muster. Ladies are being skilfully whirled into the air. Men are bouncing like rubber balls. And a lot of lively chain dancing is pumping up the crowds. Are you reminded of fast-paced, jumpy polka dance (from Czech word ‘půlka’, meaning ‘half’)? Not surprising. It originated in Bohemia before spreading to ballrooms of the world in the 19th century.

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Standing there in the shadowy gala silhouette, contemplate on the deeply rooted music of the South-west Bohemian region. The steady rhythm of the violin and double bass and the effervescent beats of the bagpipes and trumpet are now filling your very core. That’s the power folk music has always had…as a universal medium for the community to express emotions and vent feelings during mournful occasions, celebratory events, feasts, onset of spring, successful harvest, or even addressing public issues. A unique oral tradition living on through the common people…helping recount ordinary stories and preserve history through the ages. Pure, unadulterated doses of culture. So give in to the infectious spirit. Drop your guard. Toss that head. Shake a leg. Hum along. You’re in Bohemia.

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Witness pure Bohemian spirits at St.Wenceslas Festival, Cesky Krumlov

 

An 1100-year old ancient temple that lies in ruins

Discover Kashmir’s Avantiswami temple…

You’re driving southeast of Srinagar on the road to  Jammu, silently applauding the unmatched spectacle of nature. Towering mountains, frothy streams, leafy canopies, juicy apple orchards and golden haystack fields…paradise has a permanent home in this blessed valley. An hour and 30 kilometers later, you arrive at your destination on the right bank of Jhelum river. Here stands a huge pit, at least 20 feet deep. The skirting of a modest row of tin-roof houses against a wallpaper of the lofty Himalayas is incongruously striking. But its not a pit…its a 1913-dig of crumbling ruins. Fragments of a broken puzzle from the recesses of the past, which only an imaginative eye can piece together.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Renowned 12th-century Sanskrit scholar and Kashmiri poet, Kalhan would have vouched for the original grandeur of the site of the majestic Avantiswamin Temple. Apart from Avantivarman (855 – 883 AD) himself, the first king of the Utpala dynasty, who founded the city of Avantipura as a capital of Kashmir and built this massive temple in honour of Lord Vishnu. But the ancient, monumental architectural wonder was ill-fated. Battles against massive earthquakes, destruction by 14th-century Afghan crusader Sultan Sikandar Butshikan and repeated floods…one unanticipated disaster after another was on the cards.

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Sweet incense once perfumed this air. Soul-stirring Vedic chants echoed in the holy atmosphere. A glorious deity graced the precious sanctum sanctorum. A venerable priest commanded over the proceedings. And throngs of ardent worshippers walked barefoot in search of solace on these solid stones. But what was once a holy, revered house of God is now a lonely, desolate archeological monument. Centuries later, artistic finesse still clings to the chipped sculpture and engineering marvel still clutches at the shaved-off masonry. Defying the cruel ravages of time.

Standing on the gravelly path that leads inside, instinct is enough to confirm how brilliant an example of Indian temple architecture this was, once upon a time. The imposing Praveshdwara (gateway) well justifies the impressive scale of the main shrine, which stands on a massive, raised platform…over 50 square feet wide and 10 feet high. Two sets of staircases, front and back and four small shrines at four corners complete the grace of the design. You try to imagine the central sanctum…it has almost disappeared over the centuries. All that left is an empty space, resounding with silence.

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Get microscopic and discover how Gandhara meets Greek in Avantiswami. Gandhara School of Art, which flourished in the Indian subcontinent during 1st to 5th century BC, was a result of the culmination of Greco-Roman, Chinese, Iranian and Indian art forms. Its main theme was Lord Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Apparently, Gandhara art influenced Kashmiri temple architecture too and the evidence is clearly laid out in Avantiswami. Observe the large stone-paved rectangular courtyard enclosing the main shrine…it has a colonnade of 69 cells. Each cell (resembling Buddhist Viharas) stand on a raised base and looks like a small temple in itself. There must have been small deities in each of these. A layout very typical of Gandharan-Buddhist monasteries. The columns in front of the cells are almost Doric in shape. The Greek touch is distinctive in the intricate geometrical, floral and bird motifs. What a fascinating interplay of cultures…their world was more probably more global than ours! They flew much higher, even without the wings of communication and technology.

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From your elevated position on top of the oversized flight of steps, visually recreate those broken pillars, using an imaginary dotted line to the skies. Mammoth slabs of stone lie scattered all over the courtyard, as if the construction team had fled in sudden haste. A fleeting glimpse of the ancient Delphi temple in Greece? A one-legged demi-god vainly flaunts his stature despite the odds. Mythical creatures peek from cracked reliefs. An elephant fights a giant horned bird with ferocity. A divine eagle proudly adorns an emblem. Pretty rosette motifs add elegance to the roughness of the stone slabs.

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And as you pan around for one last look, you notice the refined sculpture of six-armed Kamadeva (God of love) with two bejewelled consorts on the northern wall of the Adhisthana. Fine Kashmiri artistry reflects in his long garland, bow and floral-arrows. Your head inclines and you purse your lips in admiration. Avantiswami Temple may be broken in structure, but not in spirit. 1100 years later, its splendour has survived.

 

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Discover Kashmir's 1100 year old Avantiswami temple

This is where you will find the best fish in Nazare

A traditional Portuguese meal to remember… 

From the rocky edge of Sítio, 300 meters above the endless, crescent-shaped sandy sea-front of the fishing village of Nazare, 120 kilometres from lively Lisbon, I held my breath at the scene. Scalloped waves curled against silky aquamarine waters and a riot of rust-roofed white houses pushed along a snaking Calcada promenade. An ordinary home in an extraordinary setting right here. Now that’s a life to aspire for!

Minutes later, we were down there with our guide, Sonia, weaving through narrow one-way streets, while I tried to disentangle my over-imaginative brain from a futile, albeit engaging web of mental pictures. She had no idea that I was predicting the floor plans of the cramped, but cute, whitewashed houses with blue and yellow borders, while she located a parking spot. As we headed to a small restaurant for an authentic meal experience, I was completely clueless that in addition to my appetite, my curiosity was about to be satiated too!

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Down one of stone-paved lanes that offered a distant, but enticing peek of the seafront, Sonia led us to Rosa do Ventos. A cobalt blue awning and a removable porch with a couple of tables were the only two features distinguishing the tiny restaurant from the row of neighbouring houses. I felt my eyebrows rise a micro-millimeter and my lips curve with undisguised delight. Layout, layout! Oh, and food.

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Inside the small space (originally a living room, maybe), lay 5-6 small tables dressed with pink-and-white checkered tablecloths. Modest crockery and cutlery were placed upside down. Protection from flies? Fishing nets hung casually from the ceiling. On the walls, several ropes were knotted in different nautical styles. Black & white framed photographs of village and fishing scenes, and a family in traditional Portuguese costumes, added a touch of vintage character. Definitely ancestral, no flea market finds here. Blue and white tiles decorated the bottom half of the walls and a faded sky-blue fan added to the seaside effect. We settled down onto the simple blue-painted wooden benches and gazed around. Rustic and adorable!

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It was just us…apart from a Japanese couple engaged in animated conversation with their guide. When the restaurant owner (we assumed) emerged from behind the open kitchen counter and Sonia hugged him with a warmth for an old friend, we knew this was a regular stopover for all her tour clients. She introduced us to him, recommended the fish soup and rushed off for a quick errand. Fish soup…hmmm. Or go with our gut feeling and order grilled fish instead? Gut feel, then.

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Raimundo brought us three varieties of raw fish to choose from and we picked the sole. Relishing the fresh bread slices dipped in flavoursome olive oil, we talked about the pretty villages we had seen along Portugal’s countryside all the way from Lisbon. But we weren’t alone for long. With the fish on the grill, he was back soon and the chit-chat began. We asked him about the proud portrayals of his family legacy on the walls (even his own childhood picture was up there). He flash-backed unabashed and we shadowed him down memory lane.   

In 10-15 minutes, the fish arrived on a steel plate, with raw juliennes of onions, sliced cucumber, chunks of tomatoes, shredded carrot and beetroot on a bed of lettuce and wedges of boiled potato with skin. Eyeballs locked hypnotically, as Raimundo expertly cleaned the fish, sliced off the head and tail, removed the bones and served neat portions onto our plates. The crunch of the crisp meat was sheer music and the fresh aroma was pure fragrance. Instinct boldly spelt it out…this would be a meal to remember. Instinct never lies. One bite and we were floored…it was divinely, crisply cooked to perfection! Two heads nodded enthusiastic in sync…and he smiled in glee. Great quality fish, lots of rock salt and grilling, he revealed. “And love”, we added. The simplest recipes are the best. We couldn’t agree more. Who needs Michelin stars, when you can savour this?

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Raimundo continued to season the meal with tales about Nazare’s famous winter waves. For evidence and effect, he replayed a video of the 100 feet tsunami-like wave surfing record. We listened intently as he opened his heart to us…his love affair with the sea, his passion for fishing in winters, his spiritual connect with Nazare and his lifelong commitment to his food business. We smiled in amusement at his innocent imitation of stressed-out Lisbon visitors from the ‘big village’. And we knew then, that this little corner of the world was his entire life, and he craved nothing else, not even an expansion of his precious family business. Raimundo was living his dream and he was content. We were taking back unforgettable memories of an afternoon spent with a friendly, simple, unaffected family man, who had served us one of the best meals of our lives! 

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

For dessert, we strolled the generous beachfront, watched laundry dangle from windows, counted colors of houses, took sneak pictures of local women selling chestnuts and wondered how many of their generations had lived here. Were they wearing seven skirts too? (Read my post on the seven skirts tradition of Portugal here.) No hustle-bustle of a touristy beach retreat, just the languorous calm of incessant waves, the gentle warmth of the coastal sun and the infectious pace of people-watching. Raimundo was right. Stay long enough and you’ll never want to leave!

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A traditional Portuguese meal to remember

Why you need to stop at these seven sweetest spots in Dubrovnik

Insta-worthy Dubrovnik beyond the wall walk

Entering the walled city of Dubrovnik through the impressive 13th century Pile Gate, four doors, two walkway bridges and a wooden drawbridge, remind yourself that Napoleon’s French army once stomped through this path with destructive, harmful intent. Shivers up your spine?

Continue reading “Why you need to stop at these seven sweetest spots in Dubrovnik”

Have you ever stepped in the fiery heart of Andalusia? Part 2

Melt into scintillating Seville…

Seville is home to two of the most magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites, two outstanding pieces of other-worldly architecture. Both will leave you reeling in disbelief with their grandeur and intricacy. Both are monumental tributes…one to the Lord, the other to royalty. If you were forced to explore just one, which would it be?

Continue reading “Have you ever stepped in the fiery heart of Andalusia? Part 2”

Have you ever stepped in the fiery heart of Andalusia? Part 1

Melt into scintillating Seville…

A 2.5 hours journey by high speed train from Madrid Atocha station will transport you to Seville, Spain’s fourth largest city located along the coast of the Guadalquivir River in the South. The dull sandy colour of the scorched countryside, though not refreshingly green, has an allure of its own. The sunbaked red earth is dotted by miles of olive trees, sunflowers, maize and corn.

Continue reading “Have you ever stepped in the fiery heart of Andalusia? Part 1”