Thursday, November 29, 2007

A postcard called Plitvice

Painted in the quiet of Croatia’s mountains lies the Plitvice National Park (pronounced Plit-vi-tchka). The park is a string of sixteen blue-green lakes drawn across the Mala Kapela and Pljesevica mountain ranges; and between them is a trail of spectacular scenery - gushing brooks and flowering meadows; caves and wooden bridges above crystal clear waters.

The entrance to the park itself is enchanting –a cluster of chocolate brown log cabins where you can choose your route and purchase an entry ticket to the facility. A park bus then drops you off to the trailhead, and from there onwards the park is a maze of walkways and trails draped in brilliant landscapes. The park offers a number of different routes based on time. The smaller trails take you through all the must-see points within two hours; a great option if one is short on time. However, if you aren’t in a hurry, I recommend the four-six hour trek. On paper it looks back-breaking, and like me if you’d rather curl into a couch, book in hand, a little panic is bound to set in.

Once you step into the park, however, fears of collapsing mid-way simply ebb away. And awe sets in as you snake in and out of cascading waterfalls, past flitting rainbows, over jaded lakes and into rusty mountain caves. The trail is drawn out to ensure a leisurely trek. The steep climbs are woven together with long easy wooden bridges. Wooden benches sit along the path in case you need a break, or simply want to take in the scenery. Not once do you feel exhausted; not till the next morning, when your legs feel as heavy as a dozen tree trunks, do you realise it.

The brilliance of the park lies in its changing features, especially between the Upper and Lower Lake regions. The Upper Lakes lie on a dolomite valley. Surrounded by dense forests, this part makes for a particularly interesting hike. Giant trees form long spells of archways, and the walkways glide past thundering waterfalls and wild flower beds. If you are lucky, you might even cross paths with an endangered European brown bear, though chances are, it’ll be the chatter of a thousand birds that’ll guide you around all day. You never really get used to the prettiness around, which is a good thing; the sights keep your mind off the altitude, the steep fall and any other such silly distracting thought.

Silent electric boats ferry tourists across the big lake, taking you to the other side. The Lower Lakes, in comparison, paint a very different picture. These lakes lie on a limestone bed and are surrounded by small bursts of shrubs and bushes. The lakes here are shallower; you can see the lake floor, the undergrowth and the lively trout through the sparkling clear water; it’s almost criminal that you aren’t allowed a swim. There are a number of smaller cascades here; some are named after local patrons; it gives the park a personal touch, and also involves the community in preserving this natural wonder.

The park is of great significance in local politics and history. It was here that the first shots, triggering the Croatian War of Independence, were fired on Easter Sunday in March 1991. As the conflict between Croatian forces and Serb separatists escalated, the park suffered great damage. Locals had to be evacuated – most spent the war years as refugees; the hotels and other facilities within the park were reduced to barracks, and a large area was infected with landmines. When the war ended in August 1995, UNESCO immediately added Plitvice to its List of World Heritage in Danger, working with local officials to restore the park to its original magnificence.

Today, other than a memorial to a fallen officer, the first casualty of the war, you can’t see any war scars around the Lakes. Recovery has been swift mainly due to two reasons – fantastic management by park officials; and because of the local geography. The Lakes lie in a Karstic basin, and are blessed with the prevalence of a re-generating limestone called travertine. Travertine grows quickly, constantly creating and recreating the pools, barriers, and cascades; preserving the beauty of the region for an eternity. The park today features high up on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The magic of Lakes can be seen in their ever changing colours; swirling between the dozen shades of blue and green. A friend tells me that there was a time, before the wars, when the Lakes were a popular wedding destination. Every year, couples from all over the country would exchange vows in tiny boats, under the big waterfall. Today stringent environmental laws make such practices impossible. He also tells me about the many caves found here. In the 1960s, many popular German and Italian westerns were filmed here. It’s common to see bus loads of German tourists pointing excitedly at what must be movie landmarks; sort of a German Switzerland, I guess.

And last but not the least is the big feast waiting for you at the park restaurant. Situated on the edge of the big lake, here you’ll find a spread of picnic tables and local delicacies; the aroma of fresh food and coffee mingling with the mint green of leaves. And after a day of adventure, a hearty meal, and a stop at the souvenir shop, as you make your way back, you can’t help but turn around for just one more photograph; after all, the park is but one giant postcard.

A version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on 22/11/07

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A coffee break

On a recent day trip, we stopped at a stunning little village for a much needed coffee break.

The little country homes were built around a chirpy brook that ran through. Cobbled pathways curled around it, leading us onto the many patios serving out hot coffee and sandwiches.

Delicious coffee, a breath-taking view, tiny flour mills, little log cabins, and drying laundry – it was getting late, but we didn’t want to leave.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

History, soaked in colour and wood

Across the Bergen Harbour I can see the medieval district of Bryggen. It is a fascinating sight; a row of colourful, crooked wooden buildings from an era long gone, effortlessly blending in with the 21st century.

Bryggen is the only surviving settlement from the Hanseatic era; the oldest structure here dates way back to the 15th century. As we walk towards this series of 61 protected buildings, I'm half worried they will topple over and collapse; instead they stand strong, shoulder to shoulder across 13, 000 square meters of land.

As you step into these narrow alleys, you leave the 21st century far behind. Inside you find a clutter of over hanging balconies, shared passages, over beams and wobbly stairways. There is just about enough space for two people to walk together. It’s hard to imagine that these lop-sided buildings were once the head quarters of the influential Hanseatic League, a trading partnership between German and Scandinavian merchants trading along the Baltic ports.

Many of these little rooms and cellars served as offices, warehouses and lodgings for the League. This is where they led their insular lifestyle, following a strict code of conduct; they had their own education system, laws and were known never to mingle with the locals. Their lives revolved around work, fires and reconstructions. A number of monstrous fires have ravaged the district over the years. The worst fire broke out in 1702 when the entire settlement, apart from one or two stone cellars, was burnt to ash. The last major fire to sweep through the area was in 1955. Today only a quarter of the original construction survives.

The smell of dried fish and the sacks of stored grain have now made way for little souvenir shops, artists’ studios and craft workshops. Set against the aged window frames are enticing souvenirs; a row of Vikings look through the gleaming windows, straight at me. Behind them I can spot a bunch of trolls, and in the corners a few reindeer have gathered, some posing as candle holders, others as bookmarks. The stores are flooded in a warm yellow light. There are racks of Norwegian sweaters waiting to be bought. Near the counter stand lines and lines of stunning postcards. Even though I have already bought four, I can’t resist picking one more.

Outside, the shared passages are narrow and dark. I peep into closed windows and discover trendy little pubs and restaurants. These draw large crowds every evening. The food is scrumptious and the drinks flow in these rooms built hundreds of years ago.

The walkways open up to stone paved courtyards. Neat manicured gardens sit at the edges. A water sprinkler is spinning around, a modern addition to this ancient world. Here you’ll find Bryggeparken - a medieval vegetable patch, the Hanseatic Museum, and a little out door café. During the summer several guided walks are available to Bryggen; you can learn the history, sip on a cup of coffee and take a million pictures. Every tourist who walks through these wooden frames stops at the heart of the ancient construction, at the old wishing well. Red benches sit against the cracks in the old stone walls. The stone walls in turn hold on to two shiny plaques which proudly pronounce Bryggen as a World Heritage Site. Any coins dropped in the well, I learn, go towards the conservation of Bryggen. I toss a coin in, close my eyes and make a wish; who knows may be it will come true; maybe I’ll come back here soon.

A version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times – 23/08/07

Monday, August 06, 2007

Hangover Street

There are lots of places in and around Zagreb where you can unwind, but by far the most popular is Tkalciceva Ulica (pronounced Kal-chi-cheva, and Ulica meaning Street) - the party street of the capital. Here you’ll find a row of pubs, café-bars, coffee shops, restaurants, gift-stores, fast food joints and even quaint art galleries etched into the sides of the street.

This is one of Zagreb’s oldest streets. It is also one of the prettiest. Before the unification of Zagreb, Tkalciceva sat between the rivalling quarters of the Upper Town and Kaptol (both of which are part of the old city of Zagreb, today). Where once the street played peacemaker between the two rivals, today it shrewdly steals their tourists and enchants them with party spirits, willing them to stay in its arms well into the night.

The street makes quite a picture. Tiny bits of squared tar mat the street, swerving deftly into the corners and disappearing somewhere behind brown tables with beer bottle-stains. On either side stand proud Baroque homes; almost every home here today serves out a heady café or a scrumptious gift shop out of their living rooms.

Little tables and chairs spill out onto the side walk, colourful street umbrellas stand on their toes, hoping to catch some free space overhead. On Fridays the whole city can be found here, and you’ve got to be really lucky to find either a parking spot or an empty space. On the menu is a mix match of parties - from bohemian spots like Melin, to the chic overtones of Oliver Twist. The mantra being - choose your mood; choose your party.

There's no way you can go wrong with coffee in Zagreb; every place serves a killer cup. But the beer isn't bad either. More importantly it isn’t expensive. You could go for one of the popular international brands or try a mug of the local beer – the list is endless, but a few of the more popular beers here include Karlovasco, Tomislav and Oujsko. What took me a little getting used to is that none of the cafes or the pubs serve food - no sandwiches, not even peanuts. Some of them are nice enough to let you buy your munchies from near by stalls and polish them off at the cafe tables, with the drinks they serve.

Tkalca, as it is better known, is really where all East European clichés unwind, with a cool pint; gorgeous women with never ending legs; not so gorgeous men with enormous beer bellies; giant backpacks with their bent tourists somewhere below; narrow winding streets dotted with multi-coloured cafes; and the obligatory church tower beaming overhead. All just hanging around to have a good time.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bits of Bergen

Bryggen – the face of Bergen

The Bergen Waterfront

Don’t miss the Indian restaurant on the left

A stone celler in Bryggen - one of the oldest buildings in Bergen

Spooky, isn’t he?

The Bergen Castle

The waterfront in a splash of colours

I’ve never seen penguins before. They are so beyond cool.

I love the crazy cobbled patterns leading up to the blue and white castle

Sunday, July 29, 2007

On the Viking trail

It’s an explosion of blue and green. The two colours swirl, smudge and melt into one another in the quiet of the Norwegian fjords; like dolphins, dancing and diving around the boats that pass them across these waters.

This is the Sognefjord, Norway’s largest and most famous fjord. Framed by ageing mountains on the sides and an icy wind all across, these waters run endlessly, constantly teasing and flirting with the sky.

The sky is not one to be out done. It answers the teasing water with magic of its own, pulling on different clouds and sketching new patterns; some heavy like a dark cloak, some breezy like a summer shirt; the sky is thundering and dark one minute, it is bright and blue the next; a different sky every 2 kilometres.

Breaking the monotony of this blue-green symphony are the little villages precariously perched on the edges of the fjord. A cluster of orange, red, white, yellow and pink splashes dot the corners.

Bright hotels and tiny stores nudge each other, holiday homes and farms wink at the boats, full of tourists gaping at them. The old churches stand even taller and the grazing sheep ignore the crowds, as a car pants up the winding road. Life in the mountains goes on.

All along the waters you can see chunks of history floating past. Listen to the mountains carefully and you’ll hear tales of valiant Vikings, the men behind the heavy steel armours and fur coats; of their wives and their homes in the mountains; of their incredible ships that wondered the worlds.

The view throughout the ride swings prodigiously between spectacular to stunning and breathtaking. Adjective abuse is common here. And the songs of the birds and the wind are punctured by the continuously clicking shutters. As this five hour ride draws to an end, the mountains are replaced by more urban sights. But like everywhere in Norway, nature prevails and everything else dances to its tunes. The scenery changes, the brilliance remains.