Hvar – A Walk up to the Spanish Fortress

Looking up from the seaside promenade, the Spanish Fortress appeared to be perched high up on top of the hill, as if it were a sentry guarding the Hvar town. The shortest and direct path from the town to the fortress is very steep with long flights of steps.

This 16th  century fortress, built by Spanish military engineers, was  constructed on the site of a medieval castle built to withstand attacks by the Turks. The fortress  and the 13th century city walls were constructed  soon after the islanders requested Venetian protection in 1278.  It was enlarged in 1557 by the Venetians and after more remodeling by the French in 1811, it was again restored in the 19th Century by the Austrians. In 1579 , a thunderbolt struck gunpowder store, causing devastating explosion and major damage to the fortress . In the following centuries the fortress underwent repairs and adaptations.   In 1971  the fortress was restored to the present form.

While my father-in-law (age 80+) travelling with us was able to complete the walks up to the top of the Plitvice lakes, on seeing the steep steps from Hvar town up the Spanish Fortress (Fortress Spanjol Citadel), he was determined not to give it a try. No amount of enticement would change his mind. Leaving him in a cafe,  we climbed up hundreds of polished stone steps through  the old town, then through an iron gateway, and up a zig-zag path lined  with shrubs and agaves.

The view just got better and better as we gradually ascended higher and higher. The hike was not an easy climb, the consolation was that we were rewarded with a breathtaking view.

When we reached the base  of the fortress, we were stunned by the beauty of the  poppies, agaves and shrubs at the base of the walls.

Up on the fort, we were offered a perfect panoramic view of the whole Hvar town, the port, Riva and the wooded islands of Paklinski Archipelago. From the turrets and main walls the views reach past the Pakleni islands, where you get a perfect view of the arrangement of the islands and their proximity to Hvar Town. The view of the marina and surrounded hillsides are amazing.

Inside the fortress, we noted the massive walls and the old cannons which still guard the fortress. The day was so hot that we decided to have an ice cream up in the fortress cafe.

Many structures including armory, crew quarters, prison and hallways were built on the irregular terrain. We explored the interior walls and made our way   down the stairway to the basement and had a good look at the prison cell.

Hvar Town is encircled on its land-side by protective walls. On our way down the fortress, we came across this wall which separated houses from the fort.

We made our way down the steep steps. Passing through more stones houses on either side of the narrow steps, we came across these flowers which looked so beautiful.

The descent was relatively easy. We walked down more steps, reached the seafront and found our way back to the town square.

We have seen the “must-see” fortress and  strolled happily back to the hotel.

Hvar – A Stroll by the Sea

We said goodbye to the lovely Split; cruised on a catamaran for two hours and found ourselves on the island of Hvar, fondly referred to as the “Croatian Madeira”.  The island of Hvar is extraordinarily green and lush, filled with lavender, heather and pines and the coastline is  indented with an abundance of rocky coves. The town is a gorgeous cosy place that is quaint and breathtaking.

We have always found that the places we enjoyed most are not necessarily places with a lot of interesting features but places where we have time to feel the true character of the place, watch how people enjoy their lives and the nature. This may only happen if we don’t jam pack our trips with tight itineraries: Hvar is teaching us to take things more slowly and, because the high tourist season hasn’t started yet, it feels that we have this cosy town largely to ourselves. As usual, my mood is driven by the sea which I was eager to see on arrival.

This island paradise is a unique fusion of luxury, history, culture, scenery, lavender, fun, food and atmosphere. Facing south onto the sea just gives it that touch of perfection.

For our several days there the sun was always shining. Coming from a place with over 1800 hours sunshine per year, we thought it is already one of the sunniest places. However, the island of Hvar, with the oft-quoted statistics of 2724 hours of sunshine every year makes it the sunniest place in Europe. Basking in the sun is one of the gifts we had on the island. By the side of the St Franciscan Monastery, we found these bathers enjoying their time.

The town is centered around the harbor. We took a long stroll from one side of the harbor to the other; strolling as far as we could. Here is a  marina for the smaller boats and along the seaside promenade sways a row of  larger boats.

Hvar is a gorgeous little place that is quaint and breathtaking. The coast is mostly rocky but there are also many small coves with shingle/sandy beaches.

It is similar to Split, but no matter where you turn in Hvar you can always see a view of the Adriatic sea.  The water is the bluest in the world. Quoting George Bradley’s poem :

In the southern Adriatic, in the wind-blown spray.
In the bluest water, just where it begins,
We came to play awhile, came to rest
On rocky shores of barren coves,
As the swells arrived and water splashed
And reflected sunlight jumped and shimmered

The vegetation is subtropical and very luxuriant. As we strolled we noted that the coastline was dotted by pine trees, palm trees, and agaves. We also saw myrtle, laurel and rosemary.

Our long stroll took us to this place where we can gaze out to the sea with the church as a backdrop. The sun was setting and we found these benches inviting. We knew we can sit there forever, just watching the blue Adriatic sea and dreamily thinking of the poem. . . . . . . . . . .

Split – A Place for the Emperor’s Retirement

In AD 305, Roman emperor Diocletian  chose to give up the job persecuting Christians and become the first Roman emperor to take his pension and retire near his birth place which is now Split.  His lavish palace is now the most important monument of the Roman architecture on the Eastern coast of the Adriatic. It is a remarkably  well-preserved Roman ruin with shops, cafes, and private accommodations behind  its walls.

The most captivating aspect of this place must be the town with its old buildings, narrow alleys and stautes which embody Split’s history and character, making it an unforgettable site in the Mediterranean; Split still has that crumbling, ancient feeling- the many old buildings we saw can attest to this.

The Diocletian Palace is the very heart of the town and it bears a great importance for the history of the place and its people.  Common folks have been living inside the palace since the Slavs invaded. Today, the citizens of Split consider this to be a living city, not a museum.  The  palace  is punctuated with beautiful balconies and small gardens as  well as extremely artistic and talented people.

Here we saw a remnant of the Corinthian colonnade that lined the two intersecting thoroughfares along with the six-story Gothic bell tower added much later.

Looking north from the vestibule, we saw the elegant colonnade with a baroque building filling in its arches.

Just outside the palace is this People’s Square, Narodni Trg . In front is a Romanesque house with a tower containing a 15th-century clock. The People’s Square, which is a meeting place for the locals, has great ambiance. Here we found the “Iron Gate” into the city. While walking here our eyes were dazzled by the white hard limestone paving blocks in the square.

Walking outside of the palace, two strong vertical elements caught our eyes. The taller one was the tower of a now long-gone Benedictine Monastery. At the left what we saw was Ivan Mestrovic’s  imposing statue of 10th-century Croatian bishop Grgur Ninski. Rubbing the statue’s toe is said to bring good luck.

Now back to Marmont Street where we found this 1903 Croatian Art Nouveau building by a local architect named Kamilo TonÄić. The building has impressive decorations sticking out of the buildings. The expression on the decoration of this building alone will make us remember the architect TonÄić’ and, of course, Split.

We walked down Marmont Street and turned right at the interesting fish market, this got us into Republic Square where we have a good look at the cafes and the elegant building on the other side.

We would be leaving for Hvar the next morning. What we will always remember of Split are its inhabitants who are always bright and smiling and also the sea food dinner which was the best we ever had in Croatia.

Split – Gazing Out to the Sea

8 June is the World Oceans Day recognized by the United Nations. This post is dedicated to the Oceans.

I always have a craze for the sea. Croatia with a long coastline and a romantic view of the blue Adriatic is one of the reasons for picking this country as a destination for travelling.

As a small boy, I have always wandered down to the sea, to see the ocean-going ships which hopefully carry my dreams to far away places. Growing up, I have always like going to beaches and gazing out to the sea. A substantial part of my previous life was to deal with ports and the sea. This has made me all the more attracted to the harbour and anything to do with the sea. We are all in a way tied to the ocean. . . . .

Quoting from John F. Kennedy, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.
Once arrived at Split, my eyes were caught by the harbor with the many boats there. Naturally, I wandered down to the harbor to watch the ships. As one who has a fever for the sea, I remember well the poem of John Masefield for his poem, Sea-Fever, which begins:
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

At Split, I wandered down the harbor many times, gazing at vessels of all shapes and sizes.  The harbor is calm and protected from waves. The Adriatic sea has a special peaceful blue color that is hard to describe by words (turquoise?emerald??). Boats in the calm harbor always give me a feeling of peace and freedom. I particularly like the silvery smooth surface of the sea with the reflections of the clouds and vessels on the water.

The setting is beautiful, a bay backed with buildings, old and new, palm trees and the sea is dotted with all kind of boats ranging from fishing boats, yachts, pleasure boats  to work boats and ocean-going liners.

. . . . . .A ship is safe in the harbor, But that’s not what ships are built for.
Because in the sum of our human gleams, We have created the vessel for our dreams.

With the smell of the sea in my nostrils, the sound of the sea in my ears; the touch of the sea spray on my burning face,  I was almost carried away while watching the sea. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Croatia – Split or No Split ?

Split or no Split; that’s the question.

We were pondering whether we should go straight from Plitvice lakes to Hvar Island or whether we should half the car journey and spend one night in Split. As my Father-In-Law was travelling with us, we finally decided we would stop one night at Split so as to make the trip less strenuous.

Split with a population of 200,000 is Croatia’s second largest city. Home to Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO  World Heritage Site, Split offers a wealth of museums and Roman ruins with a  dramatic mountain backdrop, and a large promenade facing a vast expanse of the blue sea.

We arrived Split on 7 May, which happened to be the high point of the Saint Domiuus Festival (Sudamja) of Split. It seemed that the whole town has come out to greet us. They were all out on the Riva (the seaside promenade), celebrating their festival.

This festival, which is also the Day of the City commemorating the martyrdom of saint Domnius, has been celebrated for hundreds of years. Thousands of residents are on the Riva taking part a big  celebration with street festivals, music, and religious observances. The streets were filled with festive Croatians.

The promenade was turned into a big playground for the open-air bazaar.  There are all kinds of stalls selling traditional household products,  hand-crafted artwork, embroidery, musical instruments, toys and snacks. People  enjoyed their day with the simple pleasures of eating, drinking, singing, dancing  and laughing. Nowhere in Croatia have we detected any traces of the civil wars from 1991 to 1995. The Croatians we met and talked to seemed very happy with their lives. In a way, we find them sweet too. On this day, they were jovial.

We returned to the Riva after having the best seafood dinner we ever have in our whole trip.  The whole town was ablaze. The outdoor concert has already started and thousands of people jammed the promenade.

Split, is well-known for their  musical tradition and passion. On that night, it seemed that the whole town was singing and enjoying the musical performances and concerts.  We could feel every bit of it.   The festival was drawn to a spectacular close with  a colorful display of fireworks above the waterfront.

While heading back to the hotel, we were happy that we have made the decision to stop at Split.

Plitvice Lakes National Park – The Watery Eden

No words can fully describe the natural wonders at the Plitvice National Park and no photos will do justice to the breathtaking views of the lakes and waterfalls in the park.

One main reason for visiting Croatia is to fulfill our dream of visiting the Plitvice National Park which in our part of the world is known as the JiuZhaiGou of Croatia ( please see my previous posting: A Wonderworld of Water – JiuZhaiGou). Both Plitvice lakes and JiuZhaiGou are known for their many multi-level waterfalls, the pristine and the inviting blue – green waters, the karstic formation and the travertine dams.

Once we checked in to our hotel within the park, we wasted no time and immediately set out to explore the lower section of the lakes. We were awed by what we saw even when crossing the lake in the boat towards the park. The atmosphere was so serene and the water so pristine with schools of fishes swimming. For much of our walk, we strolled on timber board walks which brought us in close proximity with the many waterfalls.

While both Plitivice Lakes and JiuZhaiGou are UNESCO World Heritage sites, however, they do have different settings and appeals. In Plitvice, the highest lake is Prošćansko jezero with 636  m of altitude, and the  lowest is Novakovića Brod with 503 m of altitude. Whereas, Jiuzhaigou which stretches over 72,000 hectares has elevation ranges from 2,000 m to 4,500 m. In terms of size, it is 2 to 3 times the size of the Plitivice Lakes and has an Alpine feel.

Both places seem to have their own legends. The Plitivice legend says that the good and merciful Black Queen came down from her beautiful castle on mountain Velebit , and created the Plitivice Lakes to save the poor and hardworking peasants from prolonged droughts. For JiuZhaiGou, legend has it that long long ago, a beautiful Goddess received a mirror gift from her lover. The goddess was so excited that she dropped the mirror, smashing it into 108 small pieces which now form the clear and reflective lakes. To me, both  places seem to be legendary and come out of this world.

The 16 blue-green  lakes are separated by natural dams of travertine,  waterfalls connect the lakes, cascading from the upper ones to the ones below. The tallest waterfall is Veliki Slap at 70 meters (230 feet) tall. On our second day in the park, we also covered the upper section. We were fortunate to see colored foliage in front of the waterfalls at this time of the year.

We love the lush and extraordinary flora and fauna of Plitivice but also love the Alpine and snow capped mountain backdrop in JiuZhaiGou. One good thing with Plitvice is that the boardwalk bring you so close to the water and the waterfalls;  so close that you feel you  are part of the whole watery garden of Eden.

With every walk of several metres, the park transforms itself, throwing up a new picture which you couldn’t stop admiring and taking more pictures; the sheer drama of the sight is enough to last you a lifetime.

The cliffs and the glorious  waterfalls in Plitvice and JiuZhai Valley are the results of tectonic movements  and karst landform. Water running through the karst formation dissolves the rock and deposits calcium carbonate that build dams creating the lakes and  waterfalls . With such beautiful views in front of us, who really cares about the geological and natural process behind their formation!

We walked several kilometers on board walks  which encircle the lakes, and have a close look at some of the more spectacular waterfalls and interesting land formations.  High up on the hills we took this classic photo of the Plitvice lakes showing a curvy board walk. For two days, we were surrounded by a world of water. . . . . .we were thankful for this Giver of Life.

Szentendre – The Montmartre of the Danube

Claudio Magris described Szentendre as the Montmartre of the Danube; we were eager to find out more about it.

After travelling for about 40 minutes from Budapest, we finally arrived Szentendre (Saint Andrew). Stepping out of the car, the colors of this quaint little town immediately caught our eyes. The buildings of sharp yellow seemed to be the predominant color, followed by crimson and green painted on houses and shops.

The colors looked vibrant and the sunny day has accentuated these colors which are symbolic of the town. The modern town of Szentendre was founded by Serbian immigrants in the seventeenth century, which is why it bears more resemblance to southern European towns than Hungarian ones. The most pleasant way to spend the afternoon is perhaps to get lost wandering the quieter and narrow streets while admiring the various architectural styles – Baroque and Rococo – along with the beautiful Orthodox churches. Is it a strange phenomenon for tourists to avoid tourists ? I guess not at all, every tourist has a comfort zone, wanting to enjoy a place without being disturbed by others.

We slipped through the gates of this church which seemed very quiet from the outside. Like many other churches, it  has a simple but yet beautiful door  possibly of Serbian architecture. 

Entering into the chapel, I was astounded by the altar and quickly took a photo, only to be warned that photography was forbidden.

We wandered through narrow alleys and little lanes between buildings. Every turn of a corner revealed new sights.

Known as the Artists’ Village, many artists have flocked to Szentendre. It has been the home of many generations of Hungarian artists since early 20th century.  This colorful artist’s settlement has preserved its medieval history with  ancient buildings, cobblestone streets, numerous street vendors and musicians  which help to give a unique character to this small town.

We wandered around, went to the Marcipan Museum, saw a full size statute of Michael Jackson in marcipan. Then there was more window shopping; many of the shop windows were artistic and attractive.

The streets and squares were full of people. Szentendre is touristy (this is the only drawback of the place); nevertheless we were delighted by the charms it possesses. 

After a half day tour, we were scheduled to cruise back to Budapest along the Danube on a ferry. Szentendre turned out to be something which is quite different from Budapest. Afterall, Hungary is not just about Budapest, surely there are a lot more places which we haven’t seen. We were to leave Budapest the next morning. We couldn’t help thinking . . . . .  . . . another trip to Budapest?

Budapest – Bits and Pieces

Woke up early in the morning, I was wondering what really were my impressions of Budapest. We have seen the beautiful scenery of Buda and Pest, the blue Danube, the Castles, churches and many monuments. We have also seen the other side of the city with street side sleepers and people scavenging garbage bins for food. Budapest have a glorious past, will it ever rise again? We have been to the Heroes’ Square and were impressed by the statues. Would there be modern heroes to bring the country further forward ?

While thinking about these, I opened the windows and drew the curtains of our hotel room and noted that it opened into a backyard with windows and doors. They looked pretty interesting and regular. I then realized that my impressions of Budapest are in fact composed of various interesting bits and pieces, just as the view in front of me was interestingly composed of windows, doors and ladders.

Budapest have many facets; the bits and pieces are an integral part of the city without which the city would have a lot less appeal and character.

On our last day in Budapest, we first stopped by a Catholic church and were impressed with the stained glass windows and the reflections they made off the relic on display.

Then we wandered into a shopping area and were happy to discover the many arts and crafts which were made locally. In particular, we liked this shop which displayed very well designed objects of desire: pigs and elephants. We like the pig.

Back onto the street, we came across this metallic statue with a gentleman standing at the top of an arch footbridge. Why is he so lonely?

It was almost time for lunch. We made our way to the market. The market was full of life and colors. There were so many things that attracted our eyes. There were also so many things that we were tempted to buy: sausages, foie gras etc. Getting hungry in Hungary, we climbed to the first floor of the market and have a lunch of local specialities.

I was puzzled as to why we have masks in both the Oriental and the Western cultures. Apart for fun, are we trying to hide our facial expression so that people would not know what are our deeper feelings? I was intrigued to see these Venetian masks hanging up in the shop.

Then we wandered by the river promenade of the Danube and strolled as far as the Parliament house. We saw these shoes along the bank . Clearly, these shoes are not made for walking but are created so that we would not forget the terrors of war and the killing of the innocent people.

According to Wikipedia “The composition entitled ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ gives remembrance to the people shot into the Danube during the time of the Arrow Cross terror. The sculptor created sixty pairs of period-appropriate shoes out of iron. The shoes are attached to the stone embankment, and behind them lies a 40 meter long, 70 cm high stone bench. At three points are cast iron signs, with the following text in Hungarian, English, and Hebrew: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45. Erected 16 April 2005.” (Source: MTI, Saturday, April 16, 2005.)

When evening set in, we knew it was time for dinner. After a day of tiring walks, we were prepared to replenish ourselves; we found ourselves collapsed in the comfortable sofas of this almost empty restaurant.

Back to the hotel room, I was pondering whether Budapest is just like our travels through life. There is a main theme, but it is the  bits and pieces that make our lives more interesting. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .