Uncovering hidden gems in Croatia

A 14th century, virginal white castle-like structure resting on a carpet of manicured grass—a vision both alluring and awe-inspiring. The majestic ruins of a 13th  century castle on a hill—a living relic of the past. A cascade of angels in a clandestine alley, slowly descending to Earth—ethereal, and yet, a little un-earthly. The European nation of Croatia may be better known for its Game of Throne sets in Dubrovnik, and lure of natural wonders, like Krka and Plitvice Lakes National Park—but on my recent trip, I unearthed these hidden gems nestled in smaller, story tale towns.

For an escapist like me, there’s no better joy than getting lost in old towns with magical stories, that urge you to travel back in time and speak of both mythology and mystery. And as any good philosopher knows, myths are nothing but true accounts of a remote past. Read on for the hidden gems I stumbled upon in Croatia, to find and live out your own, very real fairy tale.

Ruins of a castle in Samobor
A 30-minute drive west from the city of Zagreb lies the small quiet town of Samobor—known for its historic architecture, natural wonders, laidback vibe and un-real kremšnita. Fairly quiet even in the tourist-heavy month of August, it’s small enough to comfortably walk around on foot—and perhaps this is the best way, to make the most of its well-maintained architecture. The town square is filled with open-air cafes and little bars—where you must try the traditional kremšnita, a decadent dessert made from puff pastry and custard cream, that Samobor is well-known for. (I recommend Slasticarnica U Prolazu).

But the crown jewel of the town, and the sight I lost my romantic heart to is the Samobor Castle, a ruined castle atop Tepec Hill. A ten-minute walk from the town center, through a pretty public park takes you to the start of a hiking point. A quick 20-minute uphill walk takes you to the ruins of the castle that was erected back in the 13th century and sit at an elevation of 220m. I had the serendipitous pleasure of reaching the top just as the sun settled into a glorious sunset sky and the old castle moat, the massive entrance and most of the still-standing walls came to life against the fiery colours of the sky. And all I could think about was clandestine meetings with a Prince Charming as we soaked in the sights, with the stone castle protecting us.
Things to see: Samobor Museum, St Anastasia Church, Grgos Cave
Stay: Plenty of quaint apartments, but also ideal for a day trip from Zagreb

The angel alley of Varazdin
An hour north from Zagreb, lies a town from a different time. The former capital of Croatia, its cobbled streets, well-preserved baroque buildings and old town charm hark back to a simpler time and as you walk through Varazdin, you can’t help but be taken in by its medieval feel. One of the major tourist attractions strangely enough is the Varazdin cemetery—and one breezy, quiet evening took me through the immense space, created in the 20th century, filled with glorious, intricate garden architecture. While it is unsettling, walking around through the eternal homes of the deceased—deceased you don’t even know, the beautifully designed graves and regal air of the space are enough to keep you captivated as you digest the oddness of it all.

But it is the prevailing presence of angels, littered through the city that reinforce the magical energy—and the Angel Museum, set up by local artist Zeljko Prsetc is worth a fly-by (geddit?). Or just wing it, and wander down to Varazdin Andelinjak, where a tiny gate opens up to a cluster of angels descending towards Earth. Creepy, or cute? Have a look and decide for yourself… and keep your eyes (and heart) open for your guardian angel. I spent three days in Varazdin, and would have been happy to be there longer, spending evenings on benches beside the old fountain in the town square, because in addition to its architecture, the food deserves a special mention—the pizza at restaurant Angelus, and Domenico was the best I’ve eaten this side of the border, best followed by desserts and ice cream at Fontana.
Things to see: Varazdin Castle/Stari Grad (home to the Museum); Baroque palaces
Stay: Park Boutique Hotel; B&B Garestin

A centuries-old cave in Istria
Dating back to 1770, is an ancient cave that still stands today—rich in myriad-coloured dripstones, and gigantic stalagmites, the moment you enter, the temperature drops by 5 degrees, and you find yourself in a space better suited to the adventures of Indiana Jones. From microscopic little creatures that inhabit the caves, to the bats that you almost always miss, and the graffiti that cave-intruders left as little souvenirs of their adventure, the Mramornica marble cave is a cool (pun intended) hidden-gem on the Istrian coast, near Brtonigla, ideal to live out your Lara Croft-esque fantasies. Just don’t get left behind!

Istria, in the far north west of Croatia is dotted with pretty seaside towns and offers a little bit of respite from the international tourist-heavy stops of Dubrovnik, Split and the like. My home base was Porec, a 3-hour drive from Zagreb and providing easy accessibility to towns like Rovinj, Motovun and Novigrad. (Stay tuned for our Istrian road trip itinerary)
Things to see: Church of Euphemia, Park Forest Zlatni, Rovinj
Stay:
 Apartment Viva Molindrio, PorecApartments Casa Garibaldi, Brtonigla 

Fact file
Location:
Croatia, Europe
Getting there:
Connecting flights to the capital city of Zagreb
Best time to visit: 
May-June, Sept-Oct

 

Winter in Iceland – Know before you go

Wondering why your friends and family look aghast each time you tell them your plans to visit Iceland in the coldest month of the year? Well, they have every right to raise concerns especially when you’re Indian, have no experience driving in snow and wear sweaters in the tropics. Therefore, in order to alleviate those concerns we’ve chalked out a winter in Iceland survivors guide so you (wherever you may come from) are well prepared for the ride of your life.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

  • It is possible to see sun, snow, rain, sleet and hail all within 1 hour of being in Iceland. Therefore, it is vital to check the weather updates before you begin your day and subsequently every two hours. This will give you 100% accurate information on whether the roads are accessible or if a detour is required. 2 weather websites we used along the way:

http://safetravel.is/

http://en.vedur.is/

http://www.road.is/

  • Drive safe, slow and obey traffic rules.
  • Rent a 4X4 (four wheel drive) only. If you happen to follow the above itinerary in winter a 4WD is necessary.
  • Do not book a northern lights tour. Due to the entire country being sparsely populated you can often see the lights from your guesthouse window. We do not recommend a tour as they are expensive with no guarantee, take away the element of surprise and excitement and the phenomenon is purely based on luck.
  • Stock up on food in case you get caught up in a storm and cannot reach your accommodation.
  • Ensure you have all the emergency helpline numbers, register your itinerary on safetravel.is for instant support, keep a shovel in your car and always help passersby in case you see anyone stuck.
  • Layer up because the only way to protect yourself from the cold is by wearing countless layers of clothing so pack smart. Always keep your head, hands and ears covered from the harsh winds.
  • Carry multiple power chargers as your battery tends to train very quickly in such extreme temperatures.
  • Iceland is EXPENSIVE (understatement) so budget your travels accordingly. Stock up on supermarket goodies, which can be used for lunch in case you plan to spend more on dinner.
  • The water at Lake Myvatn smells horrible due to the high Sulphur content but it is absolutely safe to drink (no one buys water in Iceland, do not embarrass yourself by doing so).
  • Limited daylight means you have to plan your itinerary for the day accordingly. It is not advisable to drive post sunset unless you step out a few kilometres for dinner or to chase the lights.
  • Thermal pools ruin your hair (suplhur again) so always apply conditioner before entering the pools/baths.
  • Go cashless – We have no idea what the Icelandic currencly looks like as we only used our travel cards and soon learned that purchases are very rarely made in cash.
  • Fuel up every time you see a gas station as when you’re driving cross country in winter you don’t know when your next stop could be.
  • Northern lights sightings are not as easy as they make it look as Iceland experiences a variety of changing weather therefore clear skies on a dreary winter’s day is not a guarantee.
  • Blue Lagoon tickets need to be purchased well in advance on their official website(especially in summer).
  • Everyone in Iceland speaks perfect English so you will never face any language trouble.
  • Alcohol cannot be bought in super markets (except for beer) so BYOB.
  • Have you ever wondered what takes place prior to entering the baths/pools? This time is spent running from your toasty changing rooms, stepping on to the icy ground, clutching the frosty handles of the pool until you have finally made it inside. So mentally prepare.
  • Truly the best way to see the country is by renting your own vehicle however if you are apprehensive about driving, you can find countless (expensive) tours for sightseeing.
  • Finally, brace yourselves for you may never want to leave this country.

Iceland – the country of your dreams

If there ever was a country that had terrain that seemed like it is from another planet, it is Iceland and where better to celebrate your marriage turning one than in a freezing country surrounded by absolutely nothing! My husband and I landed in the capital city of Reykjavik and began a 10-day journey traversing volcanoes, lava fields, icy, and snow laden roads with air so pure and views so magical; we may have lost our hearts to another world.

Winter is coming – Our top 5 must visit winter wonderlands

When someone tells you that you “have to go to Amsterdam” in winter you don’t moan about how cold and windy it’s going to be, instead you pack all the warm clothes you possibly have and make the most of a winter vacation. I’ve always despised the cold, I mean who doesn’t love Margaritas on a beach but skiing on a mountain or sipping on mulled wine in a quaint little town in Switzerland is equally (or more) impressive. Each vacation, whatever the weather may be relies on what you do and how you experience it and a little tip, once you’re in the minuses example -1 and survived; all the minuses are endurable.

The Isle of Capri – How to spend your summer like a boss

The search for my heaven is over. The waters are clearer than a crystal ball and the cliffs jagged and daunting, while the marina is filled with little boats bobbing in the calm waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Welcome to the drop dead gorgeous Isle of Capri. Located just off the shoreline of Naples on the Amalfi coast where quaint island streets smell like jasmine and orange blossoms. Popular among the rich and famous, the isle can be your slice of heaven too.

Below you’ll find top of the line bait—enough to lure you in for a summer adventure at this island haven.

One day in Barcelona: Eating your way through the city

We touched-down in Barcelona on a day that wasn’t sure if it was going to be sunny or cloudy – but one look at the bi-polar sky, the Gaudi-strewn streets and the air of easy nonchalance, we were sure we’d love the city.

And with burgers for brunch, mini-sandwiches for lunch, gelato for a snack and sit-down meals (Asian to Spanish) for dinner – Barcelona is a virtual potpourri of cultures. If all you have is 24 hours in the city, we show you how to make the most of gourmet offerings. Join us on a cross-city culinary chase.

Marmalade, las Ramblas

While their Bloody Mary is simply rumoured to be the best in town, we can vouch for it. The ideal companion to a brunch that’s heavy on the calories and the cheer, head down to the cool, chic restaurant and cocktail bar for your first meal in Barcelona – choose from the succulent hamburgers or classic breakfast offerings (eggs, bagels, pancakes). If you’re looking to end your evening here, we suggest you try the sangria, pair it with the delectable fully loaded nachos (that we couldn’t stop eating) – and that incredible ramen burger. Ah, Barcelona! Marmaladebarcelona.com

Txapela, Passeig de Gracia

Passeig De Gracia, one of the most luxe streets in the city is home to an array of designer stores and restaurants – if you’re tired from all the walking through Barcelona city, Txapela is the place for you. Described as an authentic Basque tavern, we prefer the outdoor seating so you can make the most of the summer (or winter) sun and settle down to choose from their extensive range of pintxos (small snacks, of which they have 51 on the menu).  Think everything from mini baguettes filled with salmon to fried eggs and Iberian ham ensconsced between the softest bread. We tried at least 15 of the 51, and we’re definitely going back for more. For breakfast fiends, they have a menu that includes donuts, croissants and mini sandwiches, naturally. Txapelarestaurant.com

Restaurante Nuria, las Ramblas

If you’re hankering for a dose of authentic tapas in the midst of the frenetic las Ramblas of Barcelona, head down to Nuria – which dates back to 1926. Set in quirky, cheery interiors, the well-lit space is perfect for a glass of wine and range of tapas.  On Nuria’s side is its ace location and quick service – topping our list were the fried calamari and assortment of sausages. The Paella is super fishy and only meant for those who have developed a taste for the deep and lasting intense flavour. Nuria.com

Santagustina, El Born

Set in Barcelona’s beautiful El Born district, we headed down here for a few drinks – and ended up staying for tapas and dinner. The bartender’s friendly wine advice and great selection of cheese, coupled with the relaxed environment and moody music were the key factors – set in quaint, kind of rustic interiors, we loved the friendly vibe (even if the tables were a little too close together) and service. All in all, leaving us with an intimate, fun experience. And wine connoisseurs, you’re going to have plenty to choose from – making this the perfect place to while away a boozy evening at. Santagustina.es

Bananas, El Born

Specialists in “international cuisine with orientalized touch” , the offerings at Bananas restaurant in the heart of El Born are global and yet fusion. The fried duck wontons were the best we’ve ever tasted and the Nasi Goreng could give any Indonesian restaurant a run for its money – the Desperado on offer didn’t hurt either. Bananas-barcelona.com

Gelato, Italiano, In Espana

If you can’t quite make it to your Italian sojourn, worry not – you can satiate your gelato cravings at any of Italian chain Amorino’s many outlets in Barcelona. The fact that you can mix more than two flavours (we pick Belgian chocolate and dulce de leche) that are then decorated adorably into a rose flower – makes this ice-cream adventure more an experience that just a snack. Perfect mid-morning, mid-afternoon or midnight snack if you ask us. Amorino.com

 

 

 

The Bachelorette of your dreams awaits – in Spain

Should we go to the Maldives? No, Greece obviously. Have you not watched and fallen in love with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? The most exciting part about getting married is the bachelorette— at least that’s what I was basically living for, maybe even a wee bit more than the actual wedding. With my entourage all packed and ready to rumble, the girlies I’ve known since the time we were no taller than smurfs, were obviously my fellow travellers. We did and still do everything together and share a bond not even of sisters, instead we’re more like enhanced extensions of ourselves— so spending a few days away with them before bridezilla mode kicked in was just what I needed. What attracted us to Spain? Candy, naturally – the food, sweet and men kind. Spain is a visual treat, right from its distinctive architecture to the endless sandy beaches to the banging beach clubs.

Here’s a little hint (just a hint, we aim to keep this blog PG) in to all the stuff we managed to cram in to 10 days in Barcelona and Ibiza and why Spain is a perfect bachelorette location.

  1. Cheers to the weekend and every other day when on holiday:

So if you’re agenda is bachelorette, then fight the lag and get down to business. Barcelona is vibrant in all forms and within a few hours the city manages to consume you and all you can do is let go and enjoy (a lot of) Sangria and tapas at a street side café. One of the highlights of this trip was the pub crawl we signed up for at our hostel. Pub crawls are common all around Barcelona and we highly recommend this as it is a great way to meet people and exchange (more than just pg) notes. Also, they’re highly cost effective and guarantee a happy high at the end of the night. Not to mention a hangover and the chance to meet some seriously cool people.

  1. Take a guided tour across the city:

Important note: Do not do attempt the bar crawl before the city tour unless no hangovers are a superpower.

A guided city tour is a great idea one which can be easily arranged by your hotel/hostel. Our tour guide was a young enthusiastic Psych student who made us walk over 7km across the city, explaining the history behind the gorgeous buildings. Highlights include meandering through then narrow streets of the Gothic Quarters gazing at the neo-gothic architecture of the La Seu cathedral or the Santa Maria del Pi church while your guide enthusiastically communicates legends of the history behind these striking structures. Bring coffee.

  1. Oh my Gaudi:

What’s Barcelona without Gaudi? Anyone that appreciates beauty will agree that Antoni Gaudi, one of the most distinctive architects in the world has left behind masterpieces in Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia and Casa Batllo will leave you spellbound while Park Guell will take you to a mystical place leaving you captivated by the artist’s creativity and attention to detail. We recommend you find a quiet spot in the park, whip that book out and bask in the Spanish sun, with a little sangria, or churros. After all, you’ll need some rest before the next wild night out.

  1. Eat, shop, eat, drink, eat, drink:

Holidaying makes you hungry. It’s (probably) a proven fact.  However, when you’re not gorging on tapas and Paella, you will find that Barcelona has some thrifty shopping that can make you buy a new suitcase just because you’ve over shopped and can’t fit anything anymore (true story). The popular stores include Zara, Bershka, H&M, Mango, Pull & Bear, Caramelo, Desigual, Massimo Dutti and numerous other brands we couldn’t pronounce and afford. What do you do once you’ve shopped a fair bit? Eat! Barcelona has cafes lined along the streets and they’re all amazing! A few worthy places we might have inhaled the food at are Cerveseria Catalana, Bananas and Marmalade.  Once you’ve made it through the day, head to the tree-lined streets of El Borne district to nibble on tapas or sip on some champagne at any of the quaint bars. This fashionable yet authentic district is safe, affordable and welcomes you with smiling faces and countless matchbox sized bars enough for you to enjoy an entertaining night out with your friends. (including those who break into 80s Bollywood songs, at 12am in Barcelona – traumatising / entertaining other humans)

  1. We’re going to Ibiza:

We played good children in Barcelona (wink wink) and soon it was time to head to Ibiza. Ibiza is the perfect island to let loose and celebrate yourself. While partying may be a way of life here, we found a way to strike a perfect balance between letting loose and exploring the natural beauty of this wild-child island. A great way to do this is to pick a good accommodation, close to the party strip yet not too far from the rest of the island. Although we stayed on the busiest strip of the island (Playa d’en Bossa), our apartment was quiet, spacious and just what we needed (Ebano Select Apartments). Mornings in Ibiza are best spent walking over to “Passion” to grab a smoothie and gorging on some healthy breakfast treats before spending the day sun bathing and exploring. While many might call Playa d’en Bossa commercialised, noisy and filled with drunken party goers, we found it to be perfect in terms of the safety of women travellers as the streets were always swarming with people and cars. The beach despite being crowded emits a fantastic vibe with happy faces always ready to help out.

  1. We’re back to eating and partying:

Well you’ve made it to Ibiza, it would be a criminal waste if you didn’t party until dawn. It’s very simple— begin your day by nursing your hangover from the previous night, then head over to a Yacht party after which you attend a pre-gaming party at Sankey’s or wherever the hell they’re offering cheap booze. Once you’re fairly intoxicated but can still stand on your matchstick-like legs, head over to the main event of the night usually being held at Ushuaia, Space, Amnesia or Pacha and party like there’s no tomorrow. Party, pass out, wake, repeat.

  1. Call it magic:

We found our highlight of this holiday and it’s called Sunset Ashram at Cala Conta. This picturesque spot is quietly tucked away from the hustle of Ibiza and surrounded by endless ocean views and cliff drops. As the name suggest it’s a hipsters paradise so feel free to laze on a cushion whilst sipping on some Sangria all while taking in the breathtaking view this gem has to offer. Alternatively you can head down to the tiny beach area to roast in the sun which makes it a perfect spot for reading a book, plugging in those headphones or simply meditating. The staff is kind and food is beyond delicious with ample variety to suit every pallet. P.S – Don’t miss the sunsets they rank No. 2 on our modest list.

Location – Barcelona and Ibiza

Famous for/as: Shopping, sunsets, architecture, Sangria and Paella

Route: Flight from Mumbai to Barcelona and domestic flight from Barcelona to Ibiza

Best Season: July – August – September

 

 

 

 

 

We love Casa Gracia – and here’s why you will too

Churros for breakfast, croissants for a sultry mid-afternoon snack, cigarette stores down the road to satiate persistent cravings and a complete shopping extravaganza just a walk away – not to mention chocolate and cherry gelatos in lieu of boring coffee breaks. When you’re based out of Casa Gracia, Barcelona, there are many ways to indulge – or just kick back and enjoy the free-spirited, harmonious vibe of the Spanish city.

10 ways to explore Istanbul

Imagine being on a stand-by flight for your next holiday? We have numerous adjectives to describe the feeling and that’s precisely what happened. No air tickets confirmed, unpacked bags but of course we got ourselves a visa (we believe in the rather be safe than sorry motto). Stand by or not, Mumbai Airport was going to witness some cranky yet persuasive girls geared up to make it on that flight.