Monday, 28 October 2013

Leaving Croatia

During our September Pilgrimage we also spent a day going out to two of the many islands that dot the coast of Croatia. We set sail from the port of Dubrovnik and headed for the Elaphiti Islands, firstly that of Sipan, about 5 miles by two in size. We landed at a tiny port (left) and took a walk to a fortress-church dedicated to the Holy Spirit. 
The weather was excellent, and we were looking forward to our fish lunch that was to be served as we sailed on to Lopud. Well, the fish was excellent, with some white wine to help it down. Only problem was we were due to celebrate Mass in the afternoon on Lopud, so not too much wine, Father, in this sunshine!
Lopud I thought was very beautiful (right). The island itself was bigger than Sipan, as was the main town, of the same name as the island. It spread around a lovely bay with our church on a promontory at the end (below). The priest had good English and was most helpful and informative. We were reluctant to sail back after a wonderful and restful day.
On the Sunday we visited a village near to the hotel called Cilipi, where there is a display of folk-dancing after Mass each week. We joined the crowd, and enjoyed it a lot. On another day, the rainy last one, as it was too wet to visit the planned arboretum, we took a trip up the river estuary immediately to the west of the city of Dubrovnik.
All in all, we had a brilliant time. Although these postings may give the impression of being on the go all the time, it was actually one of our more relaxing pilgrimages. I'd certainly recommend the area it for its combination of town and coast, bustle and calm, weather and food, body and spirit. Fr M approves seriously.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

3 Steps to sharing the Gospel

Making for Medjugorje

One of our aims in visiting Croatia was to visit Medjugorje, which is actually situated not far into neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina.  We allowed plenty of time to make the journey, but what with having to go back for someone's passport and a long delay at the border, we arrived at St James Church coach park at 9.57am for the English language daily Mass which is at 10 o'clock. Having shot across the car park and pushed open the nearest door, I found myself in the church where Mass was, of course, about to begin. Well, that was the first miracle - as I found my place among the 40 or so priests concelebrating, Mass started...
It was a very uplifting celebration, with up to 2,000 present. We felt a great wave of worship and prayer rising up. After a pause for refreshment, our group dispersed, some going to the Mount of Apparitions, some staying to explore the church area itself. I had been warned that the going was a bit rough on the Mount, and the only significant lasting effect of when I broke my ankle badly in 2000 is advice to avoid very uneven ground or pebble beaches (sorry Cold Knap!). I visited the various places of devotion around the church, including the very modern Risen Christ,which some claim is exuding a liquid akin to human tears (pic of me there left). 
So, what did I think about Medjugorje? Firstly, we weren't there for the evening Rosary/Mass/Adoration, which priests told me is the high point there. Having said that, I found it different to, for example, Lourdes, Fatima or Knock, particularly because it lacks a central grotto or chapel of apparitions. At Medjugorje it seemed to be more the whole place that has an aura. This is undoubtedly due first to the large number of pilgrims, the enormous amount of prayer and the depth of conversion and reconciliation. Regarding the alleged apparitions, I have to say I am not sure. I found myself wondering if, in fact what I was witnessing is a great concentration of what could happen anywhere. 
I didn't feel or experience anything out of the ordinary, not, that is, until two days later when I seemed to feel a greater closeness of Our Lady. Maybe, for me anyway, it is her shrine because she attracts people there and leaves it to the life of the Church - Mass, sacraments, devotions etc - to do its job and work the Lord's grace in a most effective way. On the other hand, Medjugorje is a work in progress. The Church will not pronounce on it until the apparitions end - and Our Lady probably has more work to do on me!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Making for Montenegro

Montenegro is a small country south of Croatia, with an area of about 5,000 square miles and a population of just over 600,000. As Dubrovnik is situated right at the bottom end of Croatia, it was only a short hop for us to visit Montenegro for a day.
One of its claims to fame is the Bay of Kotor. This is sometimes described as the Mediterranean's best fjord, and indeed it's characterised by steep mountain slopes dropping into inlets that go deep into the land. We wound our way around the beautiful scenery until we reached the small town of Perast, looking back at the entrance to the bay. From here you can gaze at two lovely islands in the middle of the bay. We had a trip booked on a boat out to one of them, called Our Lady of the Rocks (on the right in photo above).What a gorgeous spot! Tradition says that the island was built up over years by sailors bringing stones from their travels. There is a delightful small church and tiny museum of local life.
Back on the mainland we were soon at the furthest point into the bay, the town of Kotor itself (above). Like Dubrovnik, this has preserved its walls. I was a bit put off by a big cruise liner parked right outside the gate, but once inside the walls, we were all swallowed up in this old city. After lunch we were to celebrate Mass at a small church dedicated to Blessed Osanna, a local anchorite or hermit, rather similar to Dame Julian of Norwich. As we emerged the rains came. Some made a dash for the cathedral, others for the cafe. Having read a book about the cathedral... I dashed for the cafe!
We continued round the bay, through a tunnel and across the narrow entrance on a ferry, and we were soon back at the hotel.   My brother tells me that the former miniature capital of Cetinje is fascinating, if rather inaccessible. The modern capital is Podgorica. So we only had a taste of Montenegro - but it was a very tasty taste too.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Must-see Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik turned out to be a beautiful old city, encircled by its massive walls. These have served it proud, not least in the war of the 1990s, when it seemed that the Serbian/Montenegrin forces thought the city might be a push-over. The modern city spreads out alongside and behind the Old Town. An earthquake in the 1690s, a disaster for the people of the time, of course, meant that the rebuilding brought about a uniform feel to the old town, especially along the main street, Stradun, also known as Placa. The entrance through the Pile Gate leads you along this fine urban street towards its landmark tower, marking the Stradun's opening out into a fine square marked by St Blaise's Church. Here you can continue to the eastern gate of the city, but the feel of the town sweeps you round to the right, where another square opens out, marked by the twin centres of power - the Cathedral and the Rector's Palace
Above is the beautiful Paolo Veneziano Crucifixion under which we celebrated Mass at the Dominican Monastery at the eastern end of the town, which is balanced by the Franciscan Monastery at the western end. The Jesuits are in there too, with a big place on one of the highest spots, reached by a mini Spanish Steps. It's all a superb example of a compact old city that has evolved over the centuries from two communities, Roman and Slavic, separated by water along the course of present-day Stradun. The whole place is pedestrianised, and even in late September was thronged with visitors.
My only reservation about places like Dubrovnik is that if you look closely you will not find many locals in these historic areas. The famous bit becomes almost a living museum while the centre of the living city is elsewhere, in Dubrovnik's case further west. I've seen this in places as varied as Vilnius in Lithuania and some towns in Italy and Spain. While visitors admire beautiful old buildings and throng cafes and restaurants in one part, the real life of a town goes on elsewhere. There isn't an easy solution to this, but it is noticeable when a town or city is both a visitor attraction and a living centre. We saw several examples of this last year - Lucca being one and Florence being an outstanding example. Many of our own old towns in the UK also pull this off, like York or Salisbury.
But that's just being fussy. Don't let the tourists put you off - there's always room for one more!  Dubrovnik is beautiful. If you haven't been there, go - Fr M approves big-time.  

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Set satnavs for Cavtat

So just over two weeks ago, 47 of us jetted off from Birmingham Airport to Dubrovnik, for this year's September Pilgrimage, or, as one pilgrim put it "holiday with a spiritual dimension". Frequent visitors will know that this group - whose membership changes every year - has been visiting places now since 1990. Recent destinations include Rome, the Holy Land, Krakow, Provence and Assisi/Tuscany.
We were based for our week at the Hotel Albatros in Cavtat, between Dubrovnik and the airport. It's pronounced "tsav-tat", but quickly became "satnav" for some of the group! The hotel is the two large buildings just left and below the centre of the photo above. Cavtat turned out to be a beautiful spot in its own right, situated on the neck of a headland between two bays, on one of which was situated our hotel. We were to celebrate the last two of our daily Masses - the heart of our pilgrimage - in its parish church, St Nicholas, and a smaller church Our Lady of the Snow.
I was really impressed by the local area - blue sea, striking cliffs, scattered islands. Croatia was of course a part of the former Yugoslavia until the fall of Communism/Socialism in 1989, which led to the violence of the wars in the early and mid-1990s.  It is mainly Catholic, and Dubrovnik is at the far bottom end of Croatia's strange boomerang shape. For much of its history the city was an independent republic, rather like Venice, under which it spent another large part of its history. I'll share some of what happened during the week over the next few this space. Meanwhile here is a dramatic aerial view of the walled Old City of Dubrovnik, heavily damaged in the 1990s but now restored.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The full Vincent, and yikes, it's the Rijks

I'm back from our September Pilgrimage to Croatia and Medjugorje - but more of that later as I haven't finished Amsterdam yet! Blimey, you must be thinking, what a life!
On my last full day in A'dam I had a timed e-ticket to the Van Gogh Museum, so I decided to OD on culture and hit the Rijksmuseum in the afternoon too. So I got on one of the city's excellent trams and headed across the centre. All of Amsterdam's public transport functions only on an Oystercard type payment system, with no money changing hands at all - very impressive.
As at the Anne Frank, I was glad I had my e-ticket so I could walk past the ever-lengthening queue. To mark 150 years since his birth, the collection has been hung in one long continuous display through the floors, with excellent commentary on the audio guide including links to all the info you could possibly want on the great painter. I spent about 2 hours and found it fascinating to watch his development unfold in front of your eyes. The collection is based on the paintings owned by Theo, Vincent's brother. The last paintings I found very moving, including the famous "Wheatfield with Crows" (above) with its disappearing lane, and the disturbing "Treeroots"(below).
After a snack out on the leafy park between the two galleries, I made for the newly revamped Rijksmuseum. It's very impressive indeed. They have cleared away the galleries that had filled up two internal courtyards, glassed them over and formed a wonderful entrance area. Very thoughtfully they have put many of their "Greatest Hits" all in one place, the very grand central gallery. This is dominated by Rembrandt's "Night Watch" at the far end, like a kind of High Altar. But the "side chapels" had already caused me to sit several times, with a scattering of Frans Hals, no fewer than four wonderful Vermeers (right), and a very select group of other Rembrandts, including one of my all-time favourites, the so-called "Jewish Bride" (below). "The Night Watch" itself just sort of stuns you with its scale and skill and general brilliance, but this portrait of a couple drew me in. It was far better than even the best of reproductions. After this genius overload, I wandered around several other galleries, not even attempting to do the whole place, before staggering out into the Dutch sunlight, and a last evening dinner at the hotel.