Sunday, May 27, 2012

Milan, Italy and Lugano, Switzerland

Milan, Italy

We spent a weekend in Milan in Mar 2012. 

Milan is one of the more cosmopolitan cities in Italy, so you will for instance find more people speaking in English here than in Rome.

Tourism in Milan is very centralized. So as soon as you have freshened up and are ready to start exploring the city, proceed to the Milan Cathedral (Italian: Duomo di Milano) via Tram, Metro, Bus, or rented car whichever you find convenient.

Milan Cathedral (Italian: Duomo di Milano)

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

For panoramic shots of Milan, climb up the Cathedral. The entrance to the elevator/staircase may be a bit difficult to locate at first but try going around the Cathedral and you will see it.

View from Milan Cathedral over Milan City, Italy
View from Milan Cathedral over Milan City

Milan being one of the fashion capitals of the world along with Paris, you are probably wondering for a place to sample the collection here. The nearest mall to Duomo that we can definitely recommend is "La Rinascente".  We have been to many big cities over the world and seen many impressive shopping malls, but "La Rinascente" has a collection of top brands like no other.  Note that the avg. price of goods here can easily be $500 with no restriction on the upper limit - but that never deterred us serious window shoppers now, did it?

Lugano, Switzerland

Milan is located close to the Swiss border. So if you have time, it is worth it to cross over and visit some places in the (Italian speaking part of) Switzerland. One such city is Lugano.  There are both buses and trains connecting Milan airport with Lugano. The journey by train takes around 50mins and by bus 1.30 hrs.

Lugano is a picturesque lake side town in the Italian side of Switzerland.

Lake Lugano
Lake Lugano

The fastest and easiest way to see the town and go up the hills (for those nice lake shots) is to take the Funicular from Lugano train station (frequency: 1 every 5-10 mins). It is definitely worth spending a night here (see the beautiful lake views at night below!)

Lake Lugano at night
Lake Lugano at night

If you wish to keep traveling further into Switzerland from here, the German side is closer (Zurich is 2 hours by train from Lugano). 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Adriatic Sea Cruise

We took the Royal Caribbean Adriatic Sea Cruise in middle of 2011. The cruise was a 6-night affair starting in Venice and docking at the following ports in the next days: Koper, Slovenia - Ravenna, Italy - Bari, Italy - Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Venice as seen from our cruise! DSC03028
Venice (as seen from our cruise)
Sunset over the Adriatic sea

1st Time Cruisers

For people who are still undecided whether to take a cruise or not, we can absolutely recommend it.
  • Sea-sickness as you have seen in old movies does not happen in cruises nowadays - they are very stable. 
  • Another very important factor for us Indians is the food on board, esp. since in general we do not eat the meats served here, and on a ship you also cannot go out to find a McDonald's. However, we can assure you that you will have no food problems at least on Royal Caribbean cruises, even if you are pure vegetarian. There are Indian dishes for both lunch and dinner as well as some options for breakfast.
  • Washroom: All rooms on board are equipped with their own bathrooms. They operate on the same principle as you find in planes.
  • If you are worried that you will get bored spending the whole day locked in a ship, you also do not absolutely need to worry in this regard. The ship itself is like a small city with 1000-2000 people on board. It has its own shopping mall (with great discounts - so husbands beware!), casino, cafe, nightclubs, swimming pool, spa, you name it. They also have shows almost every evening, e.g. broadways, musical events, ice skating shows. And, anyway you will mostly be docking in a new city every morning with new things to explore.
  • Internet, Telephone access: Internet is available but is very costly approx. $25 per hour. Same for telephone, it is very costly to call outside (most likely satellite phones) and there is a central number where people from outside can call you in case of an emergency. In a way, it is good as you can finally stay away from your office emails :-) 
  • Cost: Approx. 500-700 Euros for a 5 night cruise (this includes food and accommodation) - of course, this depends on the season and route.

Koper, Slovenia

Our 1st stop was in Koper, Slovenia. We took the Panoramic Koper tour which takes you to the cities of Izola, Piran and Padna along the Slovenian coast. A highlight of the tour was in Padna where for 10Euros (extra), we were treated to local wines and desserts of the region. 

Padna, Slovenia

Ravenna, Italy

Our 2nd port of call was in Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna is a city famous for its mosaic works, particularly the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Basilica of Saint Vitale are worth visiting. For car enthusiasts, it is possible to visit both the Ferrari and Lamborghini museums from this port of call.

Ravenna, Italy

Bari, Italy

The 3rd day was in Bari, Italy. Polignano & Volare's White Cliffs (below) are the highlights of this place.

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White Cliffs, Bari, Italy

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Our 4th port of call was in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Dubrovnik is an important touristic place in its own right. The old fort and (all) its houses with orange rooftops are a sight to behold.

Visa issues: Note that technically Croatia is not part of Schengen - so you might need an additional Visa here. Luckily, during our time of visit, they were giving a 7-day free pass to Cruise passengers who had a Schengen Visa (or a residence permit of any of the Schengen countries). However, don't forget to verify this while planning your trip.

DSC03320(2) Dubrovnik castle DSC03374 DSC03356(1)
Dubrovnik, Croatia

Venice, Italy

There is probably not much point in wasting space here writing about Venice. Venice is Venice. With hype and easy accessibility, it seems somewhat overcrowded with tourists. However, that is no reason to miss its watery alleys and is probably the only place on earth where you will see DHL delivery "boats". And, as a final tip, don't feel ashamed to bargain with the gondoliers - it is standard practice here. As a final final tip, for those of us who have grown up watching "Do Lafzon ki hai ...", gondoliers do sing; at least ours was singing :)


DSC03669(1) St. Mark's Square, Venice, Italy View from the top of St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy Rialto bridge, Venice, Italy Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

We visited Niagara Falls during Fall 2011.

Niagara Falls is probably the most well known falls in the world, though for trivia lovers it is not the tallest (this distinction goes to Angel Falls in Venezuela). Part of the popularity of Niagara Falls clearly stems from its accessibility, with its proximity to Toronto on the Canadian side and New York on the US side.

Niagara Falls can basically be considered as two falls with the larger "horseshoe" shaped falls on the Canadian side and the smaller (but equally impressive) "bridal veil" falls on the US side.

Niagara Falls (US side)


The easiest, fastest and "cheapest" way to Niagara Falls is to take a taxi from Toronto Pearson Airport. While the cheapest part is debatable, the benefits in terms of the other parameters (easiest and fastest) in our opinion far outweigh the hassles you would endure in trying to save $20-30. Technically the cheapest option would be to take a taxi from Toronto Airport to Union station (yes, there are no direct bus connections between the two) + then take a train from there (be sure to check the timetable as it varies depending on the season - and in the worst case you might have to again transfer to a bus from the train).

There are also numerous day tours departing from Toronto to Niagara Falls that bring you back to Toronto the same day. This might also be an option for travelers who wish to make Toronto as their base during the trip. However, we recommend spending at least one night in Niagara Falls city (for reasons specified below).

Niagara Falls City

The area surrounding Niagara Falls has developed into a nice (small) city. The city itself is very "green". Apart from the falls, there are numerous attractions such as Casinos, Wax Museums, Ripley's Museum to keep those of you engrossed who do not enjoy 'natural beauty' as much. There are many hotels right in front of the falls offering "Falls view" rooms. The main incentive however to spend the night in Niagara is to see the falls illuminated by colorful lights at night (pic below) - a sight not to be missed.

Niagara Falls (Canadian side) at night

There are also many tours one can take in Niagara Falls. Couple of recommended ones include:

  • Maid of the Mist: You are taken in a small ferry very close to the falls so that you can almost "feel" it. Raincoats in the form of plastic sheets are provided, but  you are still likely to get wet. So be prepared for that. We took this tour on the last day of our trip and got completely wet - luckily we had not yet checked out of our hotel.You can take this tour from both the Canadian and American sides.
  • Cave of the Winds: This tour is only available from the American side. You can basically travel to the very base of the falls and then climb a few stairs to the Crows Nest - from here you can really feel the force of the water falling down.

US-Canada Crossover Bridge

Before ending this post, a few words about the bridge connecting US-Canada in Niagara Falls and crossing over.Technically, there is only a bridge (10 mins walk) connecting the US and Canadian sides of the Falls. The bad thing is that there are checkposts on both sides and for mere mortals like us (read Indians who need a Visa to go anywhere and are subjected to lengthy interviews) you will have to endure it twice both while entering US and returning to Canada, or vice versa. The only good thing is that your Canadian single entry Visa remains valid if you are going out of Canada to US and then returning to Canada. Both sides are worth visiting but as warned be sure to check your documents before crossing over.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Athens and Crete, Greece



We recently visited Greece (May 2012). Among all the economic turmoil, Greece still remains a very tourist friendly country with most Greeks very friendly and hospitable. In touristic places, most people speak English and many of the streets are also labeled in English.


Athens city as viewed from the Acropolis

Athens is the capital of Greece, and as such is well connected by flights with rest of the world. In some ways, Athens reminded us of India with motorists in general not following traffic rules - some traffic posts were actually manned by traffic police (something very uncommon in Europe). The public transportation (as in most of Europe) is very good and affordable. We found the cost of food etc. here also to be very reasonable - much less as compared to other major European cities e.g. Paris, Amsterdam.

In other ways, Athens is also similar to Rome with lots of history and architectural monuments. One such must-see place is the Acropolis. The Acropolis is located at a height, and as such offers marvelous views of Athens from there. The long winding road to the Acropolis from the Metro station (Acropolis) is also worth walking with its numerous souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants. The Parthenon (temple in Acropolis) is particularly impressive. Unfortunately, most of it has been destroyed however it is still a sight to behold. You will feel like you are in some sci-fi movie where the world has ended with few survivors - check out the pics below.

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Acropolis, Athens


Crete is the largest island in Greece and the cheapest and fastest way to reach Crete from Athens is to take the flight (50 minutes) and land at the Heraklion International Airport. The airport is close to the city and a taxi ride takes around 10 Euros.


Heraklion port

Heraklion is the capital of Crete. It is the ideal city to spend some quiet time on the Mediterranean seaside - 
  • spend an evening walking along the coast
  • visiting the old fortress
  • relaxing at the many cafes (there are even a couple of Starbucks) around Morosini Fountain
  • there is also a flea market here for the bargain hunters (and I know how much we love this as Indians)

There are many beaches in and around Heraklion, in fact too many to name here. A useful site to choose based on distance and preferred type of activity:


The public transportation esp. the bus network is very comprehensive with AC buses connecting most of Crete. The buses are very punctual and cheap as well (approx. 7 Euros for 65 Kms). The transportation website is unfortunately not very user friendly but you can try this link for some basic timetables:

Note that there are 2 bus terminals in Heraklion, so make sure you are headed to the right one depending on your destination.

Neighboring Villages

Agios Nikolaos, Crete, Greece Agios Nikolaos Marina, Crete, Greece
Aigos Nikolaos, Crete

In addition to the many beaches, there are also many small fishing villages on the outskirts of Heraklion worth visiting (depending on the amount of time you have in hand). Most of them are reachable via public transport but they are not so frequent and taxis may also be difficult to get, so be sure to check beforehand the timetables.

We visited one such - Aigos Nikolaos. It is a very picturesque village (pics above) with the main square located around a small lake - definitely worth spending an evening there.

Montenegro: Exploring Montenegro's wild beauty


Montenegro Trip

also published @Rediff:

We went to Montenegro during the Easter holidays in April 2011. For the uninitiated, Montenegro is probably best known as the Casino location in the Bond movie Casino Royale (2006). This is not surprising considering Montenegro was formed in 2006. Prior to that it was a part of the now erstwhile Yugoslavia.

Montenegro is a beautiful country in Southeastern Europe. The Montenegrian tourism board promotes it as the 'Land of Wild Beauty'. This is an apt title considering the long winding Adriatic Sea coast on one side and the rugged mountainous terrains of the Balkan Peninsula on the other. Being a small and moderately developed country, it still retains the old world charms of friendly people, home cooked food included in most excursions, among others.


The most well-connected airport is the capital Podgorica. It takes approx. couple of hours by flight from most European cities, e.g. Frankfurt.

For tourists of course, the preferred destination is the small maritime city of Budva with its lush beaches and vibrant nightlife. The easiest way to reach Budva from Podgorica is to take a taxi: costs around 50Euros and takes slightly more than an hour. There are buses as well which are much cheaper (around 6Euros), however they are not so frequent and it is difficult to get information about their schedules from the website. The road from Podgorica to Budva is actually very scenic with the sightseeing destinations such as Sveti Stefan and Skadar Lake falling on the way. Hotels are a plenty in Budva but it also gets a bit crowded during peak season (May-September), so an early booking is recommended. Hotel prices range from 50-200 Euros per night. We stayed at Avala Resorts which ones of the more upscale ones at a price of 150Euros per night including breakfast and dinner.

During morning, it is a modern city with its many shops and hotels. At night, however it gets transformed into a beautiful beach-side resort town with people relaxing in the many outdoor restaurants, cafes and bars, or simply walking along the beach holding hands.

Sveti Stefan

If you ever wanted to stay in a villa on an island, Sveti Stefan is the place to be. Close to Budva, it is a fortress transformed into 20 or so fully furnished and modern villas on the island. While the prices ($1000+ for a night) may deter the average tourist from staying there, it is still a sight to behold from the outskirts.

Tara River Canyon: Rafting, Bungee Jumping, Skiing

While Budva is in the southern part of Montenegro, we set out to explore the northern part on the 2ndday. The northern part is not as developed as the southern, which becomes evident from the state of the roads and decrease in the number of people understanding English as you go northwards. We booked a car for the day long tour (cost around 250Euros with tourist guide).

The Tara river canyon is the longest in Montenegro and deepest in Europe. The road from Budva to Tara river canyon takes you up via beautiful mountainous terrains with small chapels and waterfalls on the way.

Popular activities here include a 3 hour rafting tour over an 18km route from Brstnovica to Sćepan Polje. For the more adventurous, there is also a bungee jumping spot 150m above the river into the Tara gorge. It is the 7thhighest point in the world, but the most scenic according to our tourist guide. On the way, we had lunch in the Ski resort town of Kolasin at a very lovely Russian restaurant recommended by our tour guide. As evident, skiing is only possible during the winter months as is rafting only during the summer months.


Skadar Lake

The 3rdday started with a cruise on Skadar Lake. Skadar Lake is the largest lake in Balkan Peninsula, two-thirds of which is in Montenegro (and the rest in Albania). Due to its bio-diversity, a large part of the lake has been converted into a National Park. The park is also famous as a bird reserve, with the mot famous bird citizen here being Pelicans. A boat cruise on the lake costs around 40Euros, takes around an hour and includes some delicious home cooked snacks provided by the boatmen.

Bay of Kotor

The final stop in our itinerary was the the coastal city of Kotor. Kotor is an hour drive from Budva. A bus ride costs 3Euros and by taxi around 20Euros.

The Bay of Kotor is a UNESCO protected site and is known as Europe's southernmost fjord. The main attraction of the city is however its old fortress with its narrow roads, with cafes, chapels and small shops selling all kinds of souvenirs, local handicrafts.


Ideal trip duration: Montenegro is a small country and 3-4 days is enough to explore most of it. There are longer and more adventurous tours available as well. For train lovers, there is also a train that travels over mountainous terrains to Albania, but the view is well worth the lack of speed.

Food: People looking for Indian veg. food may have some problems. We say mostly European restaurants, French, German, Italian, you name it; and some Chinese and Thai as well but no Indian restaurants as such.

Tourist friendliness: The tourism here is still developing, though on a priority basis. However it is still difficult to find touristic information including booking tours, excursions on the Internet. The tourist agency we relied on during our trip and one we can definitely recommend is Jamb Travels

Final Trivia: Casino Royale was actually never shot in Montenegro but the on sets in Czech Republic :)