Why is Split the most enticing Mediterranean destination?

You can live in a Roman Emperor’s palace…

Work-life balance is not a new concept. Even rulers yearned for ‘me-time’. For proof, look no further than Croatia. 1700 years ago Roman emperor Diocletian pre-planned his retirement and invested 10 years in creating a humungous 7-acre villa in Split (the Latin word spalatum means palace). Prime real estate by all standards…warm glow of the Mediterranean sun, Adriatic waves lapping at the backdoor, open terraces and ornate balconies to take in the fresh sea air. It is said that there used to be a three-week quarantine for anyone who entered Split…there was no place for disease or infection in this idyllic abode. Respect!

Diocletian’s ancient walled city, is now a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, and an enticing Mediterranean destination. Go live inside the Palace complex and bask in the false pretence of being a royal guest. Just 220 buildings and 3,000 residents now, where 9000 lived in Diocletian’s time…elbow room aplenty. Be privy to the harmony of the limestone buildings, cozy squares, quiet cafes, delightful shops and understated boutique hotels scattered around. Beaming at the prospect of walking those shiny-smooth stone streets, aren’t you?

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But first, peel your eyes away from Riva, Europe’s most stunning promenade. That white stone-paved, horseshoe-shaped bay lined with neatly arranged palm trees, dotted with seafront cafes under rows of pristine white sunshades, speckled with docked sail boats and framed by the glamorous backdrop of the centuries-old Roman palace walls. Linger in the lovely People’s Square (Narodni Trg), home to the former City Hall. Admire the countless elegant Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic-styled family palaces built by Venetian artisans for aristocratic families. Interpret the symbols of social status (animals, birds and mythological creatures) displayed on the family coat of arms outside the mansions. Squeeze into the world’s smallest church, 6th-century St. Martin’s, built inside a minuscule 5-meters wide guard passage above the Golden Gate. And make a wish by rubbing the shiny bug toe of Ivan Mestrovic’s imposing statue of 10th-century Croatian bishop Gregory Nin.

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Then head to the epicentre, Peristil, a large imperial square, constantly humming and buzzing with people. Hogging the limelight is the grand St.Dominicus cathedral with a bell tower. To its left, touching it like a massive annexe, is an octagonal structure, Diocletian’s mausoleum…its eight sides symbolising eternity. The structure has been almost completely preserved, except for the domed ceiling, which has lost its glittering mosaics. So, the Emperor does live on! Wait, a wedding has just taken place and outside the cathedral, guests are singing celebratory songs in abandon, showering flowers on the blushing bride and the groom and lighting signal flares. Cheer along!

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The 27-meter long and 13.5-meter wide Peristil is framed by two colonnades, lined with six huge red granite Corinthian columns. Diocletian’s loot from Egypt. Three on either side are reddish-purple, while the rest are white…these colours once marked the boundaries between commoners and royalty. Purple was the rarest of colors, prepared by boiling thousands of marine snails in giant lead vats for days. Anyone besides the imperial family caught in purple attire could be beheaded in those days. So, if you cannot lie without violets and lavenders in your wardrobe, be thankful that you weren’t born in Diocletian’s era.

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Diocletian brought back 13 black Egyptian sphinxes from the Pharaoh Thutmose III’s tomb to Split, but only three remain. One old black Egyptian sphinx stands guard at the gateway of the cathedral. The second headless one is outside the Temple of Jupiter opposite his mausoleum, down the narrowest lane in the world. Both are there’re 3500-years old!

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At the head of Peristil, to the south, tread a flight of wide steps, leading to a large circular stone-tiled space, the Vestibule. Inspired by the Pentagon in Rome, maybe? Pan from massive pool of sunlight on the irregular mosaic patterned floor to the ceiling to the perfectly circular gaping hole, providing clear views to the brilliant blue sky above. There would have been a huge cupola here, covered in mosaic and marble. The Roman emperor, a self-proclaimed Sun God would enter the Vestibule from his imperial quarters daily around 12 noon, and greet the cheering crowds eagerly waiting at the Peristil. This ritual is enacted even today, during summer months by actors. A young boy testing out Vestibule’s acoustic design by calling his ‘mommy’, is hustled away just in time for the live vocal performance by a group of five singers in black suits, white shirts and red cummerbunds. For the next 10 minutes, lose yourself in the chorus of the traditional Dalmatian songs echoing in the circular auditorium.

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Opposite the cathedral, at the classy Luxor café, earlier part of the Cipci Palace, gaze at the glorious remnants of the imperial palace on its walls and floor. A marble circle on the floor indicates the spot where the base of the Temple of Venus had been. Exposed walls and the ceiling murals reveal unadulterated history. Outside the cafe, squat on the red cushions scattered on the steps of the Peristil, order coffee and cake and roll back into the 4th century. If you were guests of the Roman emperors during one of his royal feasts, and this was his dining room, you would probably be sampling 25 or more exotic dishes reclining languorously on your right side, using your left hands to gobble down the food. Close enough!

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Venture into the Cathedral, to gape at its intricately domed interior and check out the 57-meter belfry towering high above the palace for gorgeous views. A sea of roofs…all red-tiled, some newer and brighter red, others older, brown and discoloured, some curved and bent with the weight of time. Crumbly houses cluttered so close together, randomly hung electricity cables, TV aerials, dish antennas and solar heaters fighting for space. Poor Diocletian would be turning in his grave…or what’s left of it!

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For a fee of 10 kunas, explore the underground cellars which mirror the layout above…since most of the palace was in ruins, how can you let that go? Diocletian had built the basements to raise the level of the entire palace complex, so that he could enjoy the sea view better. Heights of extravaganza! The huge labyrinthine halls were once used to store foodstuffs, make wine and press olives. It is a strange feeling to know that once the sea used to reach the very walls of the palace, and boats berthed in front of the gate to drop off supplies or receive noble guests.

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When night falls, rain drops go pitter-patter over wooden benches and red canopies of the case in alley ways. Waiters hang around, waiting for diners, chatting. Cheerful sounds of laughter echo from a far end of a quiet alley. What is it like having a home in a neighbourhood strewn with ancient Roman leftovers? Knowing that the doorway to your house has a marble pedestal which is the top slice of a marble column from the 4th century? Is it possible to ever have an uneventful day living within a palace? Where laundry dries on makeshift clothes lines across the narrow lanes, grannies watch the action in the squares from the shuttered windows of their cream stone houses. Where motifs in Greek and Roman art decorate the doors, bistros show-off ancient exposed brickwork on their walls, ordinary homes are adorned with ornate balconies, carved doorways and graceful venetian windows. Where centuries old graffiti is inscribed on nondescript walls, laced borders carved into limestone provide unexpected relief, and water trickles out of a lion head fountain where they pick their daily bread.

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So when you tread the streets late that night, chances are you may hallucinate. Is that a bunch of solemn-faced toga-clad Romans stationed at the columns beneath the balcony where Diocletian and his queen sometimes surveyed the inky-dark Adriatic waters? After all, the Emperor is resting.


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Diocletian’s ancient walled city, is now a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, and an enticing Mediterranean destination




One fine day in the city of three cultures

Go to Spain’s original capital, Toledo…

Best day trip from Madrid? Definitely Toledo. You’re still counting the toro (bull) signs along the lush landscapes framed by grand mountains, when you realise that the 70 km have whizzed past. So freeze frame as you approach the Tagus river, because the first view of Spain’s former capital will be etched in your memory forever. 2,500 years of history are crammed into this magical town made up of sand-colored stone buildings and walls, perched on a rocky outpost protected on three sides by a natural moat. ‘Holy Toledo!’ these words WILL tumble out. Guaranteed.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Wide pan as you troop over the historic bridge from the main bus parking. Smooth slide 100 meters up in zigzag escalators, from ground level to the gate of the city walls, where Toledo’s coat of arms is proudly displayed. Modern technology merging seamlessly into the medieval heritage. This is where you enter the narrow cobblestone streets of one of Spain’s largest historic centres and a UNESCO World Heritage site boasting of over 100 monuments including churches, synagogues, mosques and fortresses…twisting streets, irregular terrain. Thankfully, colorful signs help you navigate.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

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Overhead, suspended canvas canopies with elaborate emblems and crests offer respite from the hot summer sun. Let your curiosity get the better of you. Pop in and out of shops. Disappear into tight pebbly alleyways. Trace your fingers over the ancient surfaces of the gold-brown brick buildings. Follow the shadows of the hanging potted plants. Make invisible outlines of the elegantly Juliet-balconies and the ceramic-tiled roofs. Think about why streets are too narrow for even the sun to break in…a natural cooling architectural feature, perhaps.

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Indulge in some old-fashioned flashback to the times when Toledo was known as the ‘City of the Three Cultures’ and Christianity-Jewish-Muslim religions co-existed unrestricted. From the Romans in 192 BC to the Visigoths during the mid-6th century and the Arabs (Moors) in the 8th century, invaders were careful not to destroy hallowed ground, as Toledo was considered the holiest city in Spain in the Catholic faith. Thanks to that, the three distinct architectural styles of Moorish, Jewish and Christian Gothic, are still scattered all over these ancient streets. Lap it all up, every glorious corner you can sneak into. Interestingly, Spain’s largest Jewish population once flourished in this ‘Second Jerusalem’. Their remaining homes, museums and shopping lanes are big draws. Don’t miss the two former synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, dating from pre-Inquisition days. Lovely arches and intricate stone tracery to keep you busy for a couple of hours.

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Take a low-down on the famous Greek-born artist, El Greco (‘The Greek’) or Domenikos Theotocopoulos, who had found employment in Toledo. Familiar with his unique painting style? Icon-like faces from his Greek homeland, bold colour and twisting, elongated bodily poses inspired by Italy, and mystical spirituality from Catholic Spain. Witness the purity of his art in his most famous work, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’ at the moorish Chapel of Santo Tome. Salute his brilliance.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Make time to halt at Plaza del Ayuntamiento, a small square in the old center where a fountain gurgles to your right, the City Hall is behind you, and right ahead is the highlight of the town, rising high above the cramped medieval clutter. Toledo Cathedral is possibly the most Gothic and most Spanish of all cathedrals in the country. Inside, it is laden with elaborate wrought-iron work, lavish wood carvings, colourful 500-year-old stained glass windows, carved silver and wooden sculptures, gleaming gold, marble, and alabaster, and numerous chapels filled with religious art and the tombs of cardinals. You can’t help whispering ‘wow’ as you drift among the pillars, imagining a time when the light bulbs were candles, the tourists were pilgrims, and the windows provided spiritual and physical light, not photo opportunities. The spectacular altar of real gold on wood is a magnificent Gothic artwork. The sacristy is full of masterpieces by the likes of Goya, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Bellini, not to mention 18 El Grecos, including his masterpiece ‘The Disrobing of Christ’. Swoon.

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Souvenir time? Stop for a tasty Moorish treat, made of sugar, honey and almond mazapán. Choose from different designs, shapes and fruity flavors, including small watermelons and banana shapes. Heavy and filling…but who counts calories on vacation. Aiming for something heavier? Toledo used to be world-renowned for high-quality steel, weapons and swords and various armies, including the Roman legion, used the Toledo swords. There are still some shops, like Mariano Zamorano Swords and Toledo Sword Shop, where craftsmen make swords. Too heavy for you?

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

On your way back, from the bus, watch the sunset cast its orange glow on the Alcázar Fortress towering above the tiers of colorful Spanish buildings. Royal residence of Carlos V’s, Europe’s most powerful king, turned into state prison, turned into Army Museum. The still waters of the Tagus River wrapped around the picturesque hill are flowing under the medieval bridges. The sky has darkened and yellow lights are starting to twinkle among the hundreds of buildings creating a brilliant, silent setting. There’s an old Spanish saying…“Until you’ve seen Toledo, you have not seen Spain.” Don’t you agree?

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Courtesy: Wikipedia


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Toledo, the ancient city of the three cultures, is the best day trip from Madrid, Spain

Intoxicated by the most beautiful villages in Provence

Find life in the French countryside…

Beyond the artistic allure of Paris and the ritzy glamour of the Riviera, lies an offbeat France. Where old-world romance lives in the maze of cobbled medieval streets of centuries-old hilltop stone villages. Where the pace of life is slow and simple pleasures still count. Where the aroma of fresh baguettes wafts from age-old bakeries, locals linger at tiny home-run cafes on warm afternoons, fountains tinkle away in sleepy corners, and crumbling manors silent spell aristocracy of their owners.

Its the quintessential French rural landscape, overflowing with the best of produce including veggies, fruits, herbs, wines, olives and truffle. With scenic roads winding through rocky outcrops under eternal blue skies. And endless lavender fields to make you go weak at the knees. So, surrender to the rustic charms of the Luberon valley. Pick three of the 160 villages rated as ‘the most beautiful’ by the Plus Beaux Villages de France Association.

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Menerbes: Life is beautiful 

The dreamy view gets clearly as you roll closer along that enchanting Provencal path to paradise. A sun-bathed cluster of stone dwellings perched high up on a grassy hill, surrounded by magnificent unbroken views of the Luberon mountain and miles of vineyards and open countryside. Park in the square below and walk up the streets leading to the village of Menerbes. The large brass alphabets embossed on a stone wall of a little shop, “La Vie Est Belle” (life is beautiful) say it all. Could it be a more gorgeous day? Wander through the empty narrow streets with small cafés and hand-painted shop-signs, carefully restored medieval houses and quiet corners.

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Explore the clock tower in the small open square, the miniature 16th century Citadelle, cemetery and the Chateau du Castellet. Practice time telling with the ancient sundial. Ogle at the impossibly perfect views and drown with envy. Or float on clouds…because you’re part of the scenery now. Poke your nose into the prettiest of stone houses. But be careful, trespasser…as you sneak into the enclosed garden of a large, exclusive looking private villa. Whoa! Instead of shooing you away, the owner graciously invites you inside, right to the exotic back garden complete with its sky-view swimming pool! That’s Lady Luck with one of her broadest smiles.

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Roussillon: Red is the colour of love

The winding hill roads of the National Park du Luberon are drenched in an ochre-infused landscape. Any wonder its called the French Colorado? Destination next: the red village of Roussillon, situated in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world. All around is a blaze of red cliffs and quarries, perfectly set against the blue Provencal sky and the lush green pine trees. A picturesque maze of streets and squares, with houses showing off their technicolor glory…yellow, peachy pinks, bright orange to darkest red. Flamboyant, cheerful facades highlighted even more with brightly painted shutters and doors. A photo opportunity at every step, every doorway.

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With the fragrance and flavour of lavender flavoured gelato to transport you into heaven, debate upon this old legend of the region. A young girl was married to the lord of Roussillon fell in love with a local musician, who was killed by the husband in a fit of jealousy. The ill-fated romance turned immortal as she jumped into the valley. They say that the earth went red with her blood, and that’s how it is till today. Believe it or not, it does add to the drama of the scene.   

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Gordes: Save the best for last

The most photographed and the most visited of all the villages in the region is built out of a high rock. Gordes with its narrow, steep cobbled streets flanked by tall, ancient purple ivy-covered houses, shuttered windows, church and 12th century castle will win your heart. Despite the sprinkle of luxury shops and restaurants around the village square, it appears medieval and untouched. You half expect a horse carriage to emerge out of some corner, and a lady in a flowing gown stepping out, clutching her billowing skirts, high coiffure and even higher hat announcing her lineage. But its just wide-eyed you for now. In the time-weathered stone streets, quiet squares, peeping inside the traditional workshops of the artisans.

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As you exit the town, consider the unending rows of stone boundary walls hiding luxurious villas…unthinkably high price-tagged real estate where celebrities, artists and wealthy jet setters keep exclusive residences. A few minutes down the craggy hills of Luberon is the 12th-century L’Abbey of Senanque, founded by Cistercian monks, their home and place of worship till today. Imagine the fragrance everywhere, when lavender is in season! That most famous lavender shot of Provence is shot here, so take back one of your own. Besides lavender oils, essences, perfumes, soaps, lotions which the monks make and sell on the abbey grounds. Tough competition, L’Occitaine! A lifetime of monkhood, a lifetime of lavender, maybe not such a bad bargain after all…

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As your head hits the pillow that night, you’re thinking…they have glorious weather. Plus unmatched natural beauty. Plus unspoilt villages. Why don’t more people come to Provence? Maybe its for the best 🙂


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Intrigued by the most beautiful buildings in Prague?

Interpret the language of Art Nouveau…

Some of us love cities with a past. For their narrow, wobbly cobbled roads and oil-lamp pedestals. For their charming places of worship, old wooden bridges, royal retreats and dark dungeons. For their imperfect half-timbered houses, impeccable tasteful mansions, vibrant tiled courtyards and rough red-brick tiled roofs. Because there’s more to brick, mortar and stone than mere eye candy. If you let them, buildings will whisper sweet-nothings in your ear. The wavelength needs a little more adjusting in a buzzing city like Prague, but you can still tune in to the fascinating narratives. As you trace the evolution of the ‘Mother of Cities’ from 9th-century Romanesque to 14th-century Gothic to 19th-century Art Nouveau and Cubist eras, you may find one of these styles particularly intriguing, as I did.

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The most famous castles of Germany hide dark secrets

Inside Ludwig’s mind and his residences… 

Shy, imaginative, moody teen madly obsessed with classical music composer. Grows to be an eccentric recluse, elusive bachelor and a deeply indulgent patron of the same classical music composer. Harmless. Until you know the full story. That he’s a unwilling regent, hailing from the Wittelbach dynasty, Europe’s longest ruling dynasty. So indifferent to politics, that he ultimately eats into his empire’s financial foundations to fund his larger-than-life castle building projects. Dedicated to his opera god. Richard Wagner. No surprise then, that Ludwig II, (Mad King Ludwig, as he’s nicknamed), takes the crown for being Bavaria’s most controversial historical figure. Ironical, considering his head was perennially uneasy wearing a crown!

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How to have the best gastronomical experience in Prague

Let your inner foodie loose…

Pick Praha for all incredible prettiness. Pick Praha for its immaculately preserved past. And pick Praha for your palate. Surprise yourself with the diversity of food culture in the Czech capital. Sip a cappuccino in the Old Town Square under the shadow of the Astronomical Clock or experiment with an artisanal kava somewhere in the warren of its cobbled medieval streets. Squeeze into a tiny bistro or perch on the window-sill of a specialty taverna. 

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Do you know why Antwerp is timeless like its diamonds?

Sparkling like a diamond, forever…

Two hours by bus from Brussels will land you in Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port. Fascinating records of legacy. 12th-century centre for tapestry wool import-export. Napoleon’s favoured base for easy access to attack England. Commercial capital of the world with a humungous population of 100,000. And home to the world’s first stock market. Beat those!

Continue reading “Do you know why Antwerp is timeless like its diamonds?”