Sunday, November 6, 2016

Short break in Krakow, Poland

We visited Krakow in Oct 2016.

Krakow Castle Grunwald statue, Krakow

Krakow is the 2nd largest city in Poland, after capital Warsaw. It has a small airport with limited flight connectivity - so you will most likely not get a direct flight and end up going via Warsaw, Vienna, Munich or Zurich. The city itself is very international, and you can easily survive with English. The taxi drivers seemed very professional and in most cases followed the meter rates - which was a very welcome change for an East-European country. Cost wise, of course it has a low cost of living; so you would not feel the pinch - neither in food nor transportation - if you are used to Western European Euro (esp. Swiss) prices.

Main Market Square

It was a coincidence that we visited Krakow soon after Prague. The two cities are quite comparable in that both provide an excellent mix of history, architecture and a vibrant culture (/ nightlife).

Like in Prague, tourist hot spots in Krakow are concentrated around the Main Market Square (Rynek Główny in Polish). The centre of the Square is dominated by the Cloth Hall.

The square looks equally stunning at night.

Krakow main market square lights

The Cloth Hall interiors have been transformed into a marketplace with small shops selling all kinds of local wares. Of course, this is a tourist hot-spot, so beware that prices in these shops are usually much higher than prices you will find in a shop 10 minutes away from the Market Square.

Let there be light ...

Apart from the central building, there is the magnificent St. Mary's Basilica adjacent to it (below). You can climb to the top of the Basilica towers to get a magnificent view of the Cloth Hall.

Krakow main market square

Apart from the impressive monuments and shopping venues, the place is filled with restaurants of all types. The glittering lights and lovely ambience make it ideal for a special evening out. The pic below also reminded us of another similarity between Prague and Krakow - the horse carriages :)

Lovely evening at Krakow Market Square


The castle is very impressive, and is within walking distance of the Main Market Square. Keep 2-3 hours in hand to explore the Castle fully. There are many impressive monuments, a park with cafes, shops, etc.; and museums to explore.

Krakow castle entrance
Somewhere in Dreamland ...

If you have time, and the weather is good; it is a beautiful walk around the Castle on the banks of river Wisla.

It is a lovely sunny day in Krakow!

The last notable attraction that we would like to mention here before closing this blog - is the Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp. There is no better reminder of the horrors of War. It can however be very depressing, so definitely take that into consideration! It is around 1.30 hours from the main city, so keep the whole day for visiting it. You can find a very detailed description of what to expect on its website (link). 

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Romanticism on board the luxurious Orient Express

Travel with us into the world of old school charm and romanticism on board the Orient Express.

Stepping into the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

We traveled on the Orient Express in Sep 2016. It was a childhood dream for us having grown up reading Agatha Christie novels, namely 'Murder on the Orient Express'.

Long distance train travel has an aura of mystery and romanticism attached to it - gazing out of the window as the train winds through beautiful landscapes, meeting interesting people (and strangers) on the train - all add to the experience. And, doing all this in style and luxury is like the icing on the cake. The Orient Express is able to blend all this in one ride.

Watch the James Bond movie "From Russia with Love" or Chanel's "Train de Nuit" advertisement if you need further reasons to get inspired to undertake a journey on board the Orient Express :)

The Train

The original Orient Express ran from Istanbul to Paris in the 1880s. It has a rich history of connecting Europe, and used to be preferred mode of transport for royals, dignitaries, in general the privileged people in those days.

The modern Orient Express retains much of this old world charm and sophistication. The interior decorations have been carefully restored, so that you immediately feel like entering a bygone era as soon as you step on the train.


The (current) Orient Express covers multiple destinations on journeys ranging from 1 to 5 nights. You can get the full list of journeys here: (link). Note that these journeys are very expensive to say the least - a 1 night train ride can easily cost you 1500 Euros per person. So the 1-2 night journeys get booked fast, and advance booking of around 3-4 months is definitely recommended! In our opinion, a 24 hour (1 night) journey is more than enough to get a feel of the train. So 2 days are more than sufficient to fully explore and experience the train - anything above that purely depends on the time and budget you have at your disposal.

We took the Venice to Prague part, which is basically a 20 hour journey. Within this period, we had sufficient time to explore the train, even the souvenir shop :), have 3 meals on board, relax in our cabin, and even visit the bar; so we had pretty much covered everything (worth exploring) by the time the train entered Prague.


The cabins are small, meant for a couple (2 people); however the two of you will definitely have trouble moving around or getting dressed for dinner, at the same time. The price may make it seem that you will be getting half the compartment, but that is clearly not the case :) In fact, all cabins are the same; the suites are basically two cabins combined together!

The cabins are small, but of course very elegantly decorated - refer to the pic below:

Basically, the upper part of the seat gets converted into another bed at night. So space is usually not a problem while sitting or sleeping, but moving around needs a bit of adjustment. Regarding luggage, we also had some confusion initially regarding the amount of luggage that will be permitted with us in the cabin. As a thumb rule, let's say one suitcase of the usual airline limit (23 kgs / 50 lbs) will be allowed with you in the cabin. The rest will be stored in their luggage cabin, and only returned to you at your destination - so pack accordingly!

Regarding other amenities, there is a wash basin and mirror in the room. However there is NO attached bathroom in the room. There is one per compartment, and of course you can cross over to the one in the adjoining compartment if your need is urgent :) However, there are still no showers in any of the bathrooms. This is one of the main reasons why a journey of more than 2 days is difficult on the Orient Express. (This is also why the 5 night journeys on the Orient Express usually have a layover of 1-2 nights in between at a city hotel, in one of the intermediate cities en route.)

The other reason why a multi-day journey is difficult on this train - is the amount of sleep you will get at night! The train usually travels at quite a fast speed at night, and the disadvantage of maintaining the train as it used to be in the old days; is that you will feel the jerks and bends of the train as it travels at night. Most other such luxury trains now stop at a station during night to allow you a peaceful sleep.  For us, however, sleeping on a moving train is very much part of the experience; and we prefer it to stopping at a station at night. However, it would of course be difficult to sustain this 'lack of sleep' over multiple nights.

Bar and Dining

Of course, you will not be spending all the time in your cabin. There are 3 dining cars on the train, where you will be having your lunch and dinner - breakfast is usually served in your cabin. There is not much to choose among the 3 restaurant cars, all 3 are equally stunning and uniquely decorated.

All meals are freshly prepared on the train. The quality of food and presentation can easily rival that of a Michelin star restaurant. So you also need to be dress accordingly for the occasion - don't forget your suits, tuxedos and gowns! The train is pretty long, so be prepared for some walking to reach the dining cars, of course depending on the location of your compartment.

There is also a bar with a live pianist where you can relax before and after your dinner.

Overall, we had an amazing journey on the train, leaving us with memories which we will cherish for the rest of our lives. The (super) friendly and helpful staff make it even more special. If you love classics, our absolute recommendation would be to experience this train journey at least once in your lifetime. Bon voyage!!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mystical Santorini, Greece

We visited Santorini in Aug 2016. This was our second visit to Greece - we had previously visited Athens and Crete in 2012 (blog link)

The perfect place for photoshoots in Santorini


Santorini is one of the most touristic islands in Greece. By some counts, 6 million tourists visited Santorini in 2015. The main touristic months are April-Sep; it gets the most crowded in Aug, and it also gets pretty hot then with temperatures reaching 40 degrees celsius. So July is probably the best month to visit Santorini.

Santorini is actually pretty close to Crete, and there are regular ferries running between the two islands. So it is quite possible to stay in one and visit the other for a day trip. Of course, a day trip is never nearly enough to explore the true beauty of the place.

As this is Greece, there is of course plenty of Greek mythology associated with Santorini. According to one such legend, Santorini was the 'Lost city of Atlantis' before the volcanic eruption (link). So feel free to look for it while you are there :)

Santorini is a big island and there are primarily two cities where you can stay: Oia and Fira. From the airport, Fira is like a 20 minutes drive, while Oia is another 20 minutes further from Fira.


Comparing Oia (pronounced 'Ia') and Fira, Oia is the more laid-back, picturesque, and "expensive" destination; while Fira is the bigger city with a bigger market and nightlife. So choosing between the 2 really depends on your tastes and budget.

Yes, there are (ultra) luxury accommodations in both Oia and Fira, so it is a bit difficult to compare between the two as a "luxury" destination; however in general there are more luxurious hotels in Oia, and the prices of restaurants and souvenirs are also higher in Oia.

Also, if you are interested in photography, and want to capture the signature "blue domes" or stunning sunsets in Santorini; then Oia is the place that you should stay.


Most of the hotels, at least the good ones; have rooms facing the Caldera. Without going into a lot of scientific details regarding how the whole region was formed, suffice it to say that there was a huge volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago - which led to the creation of a huge crater (the Caldera). So for hotels facing the Caldera, you get amazing views of the water filled crater with volcanic mountains in the background; whichever way you look!

Once upon a time in Greece :)

We stayed at Mystique, which is a luxury hotel by the Starwood group. If you collect loyalty points, this is one of the very few hotels in Oia which is associated with any of the major hotel chains. Location wise, the hotel is perfect: (i) All the rooms offer stunning views of the Caldera. (ii) It is very close to main walking / shopping part of Oia. The hotel has all the usual luxury suspects like the infinity pool, spa, and great restaurants.

The chair awaits ...

Below is a stunning night shot of the hotel:

Mystique resort at night

The only disadvantage, and in fact the main complaint of people in e.g. Tripadvisor reviews; is the number of stairs that you have to climb to reach your room, or even the reception, from the main road. In a way, you can also think of the stairs as one of the most distinguishing features of the hotel, as many local people we talked to knew about the (in)famous "stairs" :)

From our point of view, the stairs can indeed be a bit daunting if you are not in the best shape. The best is to plan so that you only have to climb them once a day. Basically, you have to climb less if you stay at one of their entry level rooms, as they are more towards the top. However, then you would have to descend (climb) more to reach "food", as the hotel's main restaurant, spa and infinity pool are all towards the bottom. OK, in all fairness, they do have an alternate pool and restaurant towards the top as well, so you surely won't go hungry if you are feeling a bit lazy :) Other than that, the staff are super friendly, the rooms are modern and well decorated, and the views stunning - so definitely recommended !!

Exploring Oia

Oia as a city itself is quite small, so you shouldn't have any problems in locating the main (and only) shopping street in Oia. If you are staying at Mystique, exit the entrance on the main road and start walking left - you will be there in 5 minutes.

Lovely evening in Oia
Dusk @ Santorini
All around is a "blues" town
Oia panoramic view
The street itself is quite long, and it is good that there are no cars allowed on the road. So its great for long leisurely walks in the evening. There are many cafes, bakeries, restaurants, shops, etc. on the street, so it is not that you will get bored!!

While we are on the topic of Oia streets, let us also touch upon the best vantage points to get the classic 'Santorini shot with blue domes' and the perfect sunset. As mentioned earlier, between Fira and Oia; Oia is the place to be if you are a photography enthusiast. The are many churches / buildings with blue domes in Santorini.

Oia blue domes, Santorini, Greece

However, the characteristic shot is the one with at least 3 domes (below).

Classic Santorini shot with the blue domesThe dreamy town of Oia, Santorini, Greece

To get this shot, keep looking at the alleys on the left (on the sea side) as you walk along the main street. There are 2 or 3 alleys which you will find more crowded than the others - this is usually a good sign that it is one of those vantage points :) Note that the alleys are narrow, and some of them can get very crowded during sunset - so pick your time wisely!

Oia evening colors, Santorini, Greece

While the alleys provide a vantage point for sunsets as well, the best place are the cafes / restaurants almost at the end of the street (if you keep walking straight - following the main street); most such places have the name 'sunset' in them :) We were recommended the 'Golden Sunset Cafe' by our hotel and it definitely provided perfect sunset views with the windmill in the background (below). But again, book in advance as it gets very crowded during sunset. It is amazing to see the very crowded cafe suddenly becoming empty as soon as the sun sets :)

Stunning sunsets in Santorini


Somewhere far away in the sea ...

From Oia, let us move on to areas (and activities) worth exploring around Oia. Sailing in the Aegean Sea is a very popular tourist attraction here. As soon as you land in Santorini, you will see brochures advertising cruises all around. There are of course all types of cruises, varying in duration, covering different parts of the island, including lunch / dinner, available as a private, semi-private, or (public) group tour. This might seem like a lot of variable parameters - so if you need a quick one line reply - YES, a cruise (esp. a sunset cruise) is definitely worth it!!

Advantages of taking a cruise include a fast and convenient way of exploring the main beaches in Santorini, e.g. the famous Red and Black beaches, some of which cannot be reached by car.  The boats either leave from Oia or a port in the South of Santorini (Vlyhada Marina). Hotel pickup / drop-off is usually provided if you are staying at a hotel in Oia. There are usually 2 cruises in a day: 'Day' and 'Sunset'. Our recommendation would be to absolutely take the 'Sunset' one if you have time, as the sunsets here are simply awesome (below).

Another stunning Santorini sunset
Sun sets in Santorini
Stunning sunset on the Aegean Sea
Sailing into the Sun(set)

The 'Sunset' cruises usually start at afternoon, cruising leisurely to the Red and Black beaches. Whether they stop at the beaches really depends on the type of cruise you have taken, and here the difference between private and group tours becomes important. If you have taken a private tour, it is of course like you have rented the boat (with crew) for that period; so you can customize the cruise according to your preferences. The opposite is true for group cruises, which have a very fixed itinerary. As expected, private cruises are of course quite expensive. So, a compromise is to take a 'semi-private' cruise where you will be sharing the cruise with max. 5-6 others; and the cruise can be tailored to a reasonable extent to your wishes.

FYI, we took this 'semi-private' cruise offered by Santorini Sailing Center (link) - and we can absolutely recommend it! We shared the cruise with two other couples and the crew were super friendly and accommodating. We stopped (and swam) close to both beaches, and in the hot springs as well. The water at the hot springs is very rich in iron and manganese -  so be sure to wear a swimsuit which you do not mind getting stained :)

Rafting at Red Beach, Santorini

After exploring the beaches, the boat moves to a quieter and more stable (less rocking) place where dinner is served. The crew usually cooks it fresh during the cruise. After the sumptuous dinner, the boat starts cruising again, as the sun starts setting. Take a glass of champagne and enjoy the sun going down in all its glory. Soon after the sunset, the boat docks at its destination port: and you are driven back to your hotel with memories of a wonderful day.

Fira and Imerovigli 

Fira, as mentioned earlier, is the capital of Santorini and only a 20 min drive from Oia - so it definitely makes sense to visit it if you have some time. It is a big city with a much bigger (read longer) pedestrian shopping area with plenty of shops and cafes / restaurants. You can easily spend a day walking (and getting lost!) in the narrow alleys.

Imerovigli is a picturesque village very close to Fira. So if you are anyway planning to visit Fira, do not miss this hidden gem. It really is a village, so there is not much to do other than relaxing and enjoying the views. It does have a few hotels (mostly mid-range) if you are interested in staying here. In our opinion, it is not worth staying here! It is best for a day visit - having a coffee and enjoying the absolutely stunning panorama. 

Picturesque Imerovigli
Blue flavors of Greece
Imerovigli - picturesque village on the Aegean Sea

Finally, it is worth mentioning the Akrotiri ruins in Santorini - between Oia and Fira - which is also a very popular tourist attraction. The ruins belong to a bronze age settlement which was recently discovered and excavated. They are now preserved in a huge indoor structure (below).  

In our opinion, the ruins are sort of OK, and should not be your highest priority unless you are a history / archaeology student or have a lot of time in your hands :) - you are way better off  sampling the excellent Greek food, sailing, staring at the sunset, or simply lying down in the sun :)