Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sarajevo - 2015


  • Finding English speaking people in the non-touristy areas is difficult, so have a clear directions and plan to reach your place if you happen to arrive in the East Bus station.
  • When you walk out of the bus stand, turn towards right and walk about 10-15 minutes find ATM and shops to eat.  The bus stand to the old town is on the way.
  • Don’t have food near the pigeon square and it is expensive, especially for vegetarians (compared to Bosnian standards) and walk little bit further into the old town, you will have a number of choices.
  • Stay in Airbnb or home stay to interact with the locals.  The people are very friendly and have a conversation with the
    Memorial for Children killed during war
    local, you will get to know more of their history and their sufferings during the war.  If the photo exhibition, "Milk and Honey", is still going in the old town, please go for it.  
  • Central bus station and the train station are located very close.  
  • The National Theatre is in the Old Town, they have programs almost for everyday
  • Sarajevo has a huge Turkish influence so you get very good baklavas :-)

Bus Journey from Belgrade to Sarajevo

The bus left Belgrade on time and stopped every two hours for cigarette break.  Both in the Serbian and Bosnian immigration points, the immigration officials collected the passports from the bus after verifying the picture, and returned the passports shortly after.  The bus travel is slow and since it was night time it worked out perfectly.  It crosses the Serbian/Bosnian border after 3 hours, so you could get 3 hours of undisturbed sleep and after that you’ll be awake for at least 30 minutes during the passport verification. The bus stops in some small towns as well as whenever people are waiting on the road for the bus, and since Sarajevo was the last stop, I was not concerned where to get off.   Bosnia is not yet upgraded itself to be a tourist friendly place compared to Croatia where you find English signs everywhere.  Before reaching the Sarajevo East bus stand, you will get to see the eagle view of Sarajevo (if you are sitting on the right side of the bus).

Remote Bus Stand

It felt like that the bus had dropped me in a remote bus stand.  Sarajevo East bus stand was pretty small and had to talk to at least six people before finding someone who could speak English and who could direct me to where the ATM machines are. Had to walk about 15 minutes before finding the ATM machine.  Walk past the local bus stand and take a left turn at the signal, you will find the bakery shop as well as ATM machine.  There’s a direct bus from the local bus stand to the old town and once in the old town, finding my apartment was pretty easy.  If you are staying near the downtown or old town,  get the clear directions to reach the your place using one of the landmarks.  If you are driving, get the information on where to park near the old town or downtown area, it is very difficult to find parking and you won’t be sure whether it is closer to your place.

The Host

Mickie, the host, is a very friendly person and prepared Bosnian coffee when I arrived.  During the whole stay, I felt like that I was staying with a friend and we talked very much about the war.  I really don’t think that I would have got the experience if I stayed in a hotel.  

He was telling how friends and brothers who used to drink/barbeque/hang around together, turned against and started taking sides.  He shared his experiences during the war when his house got with grenades a couple of times and his narrow escapes.  

There was another lady staying with Micke who was working on developments projects in Bosnia mentioning about how these countries except Slovania struggling to figure out changing the system from Yugolslavian model to the current Republic model and level of corruption that’s preventing the growth.

Sarajevo is a pretty small place to walk around but there are a number of places around Sarajevo, you could spend time on.  It is surrounded by beautiful hills and the drive to Mostar is very picturesque.  The whole landscape is completely different from the ones in Serbia (at least around Belgrade area). 

All of the important places were marked well with a lot of details so I decided not to take the walking tour of Sarajevo.  Visited the “Milk and Honey” photo exhibit on the Bosnian war photographs and it’s very well worth it, it gave a geographical perspective on where the places are and how the siege was happening.  This is in addition to reliving through the war times.  
Got the very detailed information on the tunnels and how the Sarajevons were supporting themselves during the siege using the tunnels to bring in the essentials.  The tunnels are outside the city and the cost of that tour was about $30 and decided to skip it.  The old town has mosques, churches and synagogs located very closely each other, the city has huge Turkish influence.

My Thoughts

A number of people as well as in the movie shown at the exhibition (Milk and Honey) indicate that the Bosnian massacre is the worst after world war and they could not believe that it’s happening in the middle of Europe.  I was thinking about other two massacres happened elsewhere in the world and why there’s not so much awareness on that.  In one case, Rwanda, the world powers where not doing enough to stop it when 100K people got killed (I salute President Clinton for recognizing the mistake) and in the other case, Cambodia, the world powers were supporting the regime that massacred 25% of the country’s population (about X million people).


  • Overall the roads are narrow and windy but very well paved.  People follow the road signs/laws so if you rent a car, you will be able to drive (except the signs are not in English in most of the places).  
  • It is crazy going from Belgrade to Dubrovnik, we had cross into Croatia from Bosnia, then Croatia to Bosnia and then Bosnia to Croatia in the five hour bus ride.
  • I didn't explore anywhere outside of Sarajevo but there's natural beauty just outside Sarajevo.  So it is more than Sarajevo and Mostar, but you could go for other outdoor activities.

Belgrade - 2015


National Theatre and last Russian czar Nicholas II
  • Belgrade is a beautiful city and easily covered by walking around.
  • Language is not an issue in Belgrade and people are friendly.  They come out of their way to help you.
  • You should try borek and yogurt. It is very filling and tasty.
  • If you have time, checkout the National Theatre and go for a concert/play or whatever happening that day.  The ticket prices are about $3 for awesome plays.
  • You don’t need to buy the tickets to get in the fort unless you are going to visit particular attractions.  So don't get over excited and buy tickets to all of the places when you enter, wait to go to that particular place and you can buy tickets there too. 

Getting to Belgrade

Belgrade Train Station
The train station at the Zagreb is small and clean but there’re some sketchy characters hanging around outside the train station.  The train arrived and left on time (@1150pm).  The seats are comfortable in the train but they did not turn off the lights in the compartment, so if you are traveling in the train, please carry an eye mask to have a good sleep.  

One of my daughters, Sharada, couldn't sleep much because of the lights and constant waking up for the immigration check.  During the six hour train ride, we got woken up four times (2x for
immigration and 2x for ticket check).  Overall the train is clean and safe, arrived at Belgrade one hour late after moving through different stations very slowly.  The landscape is pretty flat and most farming areas.  

First Impression

As we approached the city, we could see dilapidated buildings and trash piled up on the sides.  We could feel the clear contrast between the stations or localities in Croatia and in Belgrade, wherein Croatian cities looked like more modern, western European cities but Belgrade looked like old East European city.  The Belgrade train station is pretty
small and looked like an old Indian train station plus a couple old rusting train compartments on the side.  Even with this, we felt pretty safe and the tourist information center at the train station was very helpful, and people could speak good English in the information center.  There’re cloak rooms in both the train and the bus stations.

Knez Mihailova Street

Old City

The weather was cloudy and showers, when we were in Belgrade but we managed to go around the city and enjoy.  The walk from the train station to the city center (old town) gave us a good idea of unmanaged old parts of the town and well-maintained old town where the touristy places are.  There’re not many places open for breakfast at 7am, so we had some coffee and strudels before walking around the city center.  Since the number of intersections that we had to pass and street names not written in English made finding our apartment was little challenging.  People are very helpful, for example, there’s a guy near the apartment, walked around with us to show us the place, when we asked for the direction (unfortunately it was the wrong place but we appreciated the effort that he made :-) ).  After calling our host who came over to get us from the street corner to take us the right place.  
So in addition to the address, get some other landmarks to meet or identify the place which makes life easier if you are staying with airbnb or
The host is a really friendly person, and talked about how she born as Yugoslavian but now identify as Serbian and the sadness comes with it because a  number of her family members are of different nationalities now (e.g. Croatians, Slovenians, etc.).

After having an awesome lunch near the Princess’s residence, spent most of the afternoon/evening in the castle/fort are in the old town.  Before going to the castle, I stuffed myself with borek and yogurt on the way to fort.   

In the Fortress and Ballet

We heard about the possibility of a lot of street dogs in Belgrade but we didn’t see many but there’s one German Shepard started following us everywhere in the castle walk.  The audio guide for the fort was good with a lot of information and after sometime I got tired of hearing the same kind of information.  After some conflict drama within our family, we decided to celebrate our peaceful conflict resolution by getting the ballet tickets, cheapest is about $2, in the national theatre.  The ballet was amazing and heard that it’s a black comedy about people stuck in a bus during Belgrade bombing.  We couldn’t understand what’s going on in the
stage but the music and the dance was really amazing.  We grabbed gyros for dinner and rushed to the apartment because I had to catch my bus to Sarajevo at 1030pm.  The apartment host provided the service to drop my daughters in the airport the next day for a reasonable fee.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Scenic Switzerland - 2015

Suggestions and Observations

  • Switzerland may be a neutral party for the wars happened, but the Swiss people don’t keep quiet if they see something that they are not happy with.  I learnt this, when I got an advise from a stranger in the train - please read my blog to learn about it.
  • Get used to the high prices of everything, from train tickets to pizza.  The reason is that the people get paid reasonably well.
  • There are a lot of options regarding the train passes and I was confused with the choices.  If money is not a primary concern or you are traveling solo (or two people and planning to cover a lot in a short period), you should get the train passes because it the best transportation system I have ever seen - the trains, buses and the boats are very well connected.  The information counters in each station will provide you the plan for the day if you ask for advise.  You can’t beat the convenience with the trains/buses/boats here.  
  • The road system is pretty awesome, so driving shouldn’t be a concern when the weather is good.  It’ll be economical to rent a car if you are traveling in a group of three or more.  It depends on the number of places you want to go and trips you want to take, so do the math before deciding to buy the train pass.  
  • The hotel prices are pretty steep during the season in the main touristy areas, one thing that you could do to cut down the hotel costs (if you want and if you have the train pass or your own vehicle) is to book the hotel in small cities closer to the place where you want to visit with good bus or train or boat transport.  As indicated earlier, the transportation is awesome and won’t take you much time to get from one place to other and more than that you may love staying the small towns more than the big cities.
  • When booking the hotels, consider whether breakfast provided or not and consider the cost.  Good breakfast costs about $15/person minimum.
  • The shops close at 6pm every day and closed on Sundays, so plan accordingly.  The shops at the train/bus stations are normally open on Sundays and late evenings.
  • Always, make sure that the immigration official stamps your passport while leaving or entering the country.  My passport was not stamped when I was exiting Rome and got into trouble
  • The dolls performance at the clock tower in Bern is good given the number of years it’s been performing, but it is not really worth making all the changes to your travel schedule just for that.  If you happen to be in Bern for this, go for it.
  • Switzerland is different from Japan, where you stand in one place in Japan for more than 2 minutes with a map, someone will approach you and ask you whether you need any assistance.  Nothing that sort of happened in Switzerland.  Another thing that we noticed was that there’re a lot of Indian tourists in Switzerland more than any other  nationality and talking to a few of them, most of them are from India (not Indians living somewhere).  Guessing that the Bollywood movies have a great impact on the tourism.
  • We didn't find many Africans or other non-white people in Lucern or in Lauterbrunnen or in Bern but Basel is more cosmopolitan. 

Stories on the way to Geneva

My trip to Switzerland started badly when my flight to Abu Dhabi got delayed by 5 hours and me missing the connecting flight.  The way Etihad airlines handled the whole rerouting was terrible but worked any way.

There’s a guy who was going for honeymoon to somewhere Europe and he was fighting with the airline agents to get another flight to get on time to go to Abu Dhabi because he didn’t want to waste a day waiting in the airport.  The whole fight or argument was fun to watch…felt sorry for the desperate guy :-(

I had long lay overs in Abu Dhabi and in Rome.  Abu Dhabi had better places to hangout than in Rome.  Met a white lady with a typical yellow color bag from Thiruvannamali (close to my native place) and started talking to her in the Abu Dhabi airport lounge.  She has been going to Thiruvannamalai for the last six years and almost every time she spends about 4-6 months.  She is into yoga and meditation but I don’t find a lot of centers for these in

Thiruvannamalai, so asked her why Thiruvannamalai, the reason she told me was eye opening.  She mentioned that she had been to a number of temples in south india but when came to Thiruvannamalai she could feel much more in peace and she feels that it’s her home.  She is not a follower of any of the hundred swamis in Thiruvannamali but she just stays in Thiruvannamali to go to the temple and to the Ramana Ashram.  She couldn’t explain why she feels that way but it works, so she keeps coming.  We talked about Ramana and other related things about the place before I left for my flight to Rome.

When I was going through the immigration, the immigration officer just looked at my passport and handed over it to me without stamping and I was thinking that it’ll be stamped when I leave but it was not.  It caused a minor problem for me in the Bern airport.  

Getting Shocked at Geneva

After joining my daughters who were waiting near the arrival gate in Geneva, we went for dinner and got shocked at the prices in McDonalds as well as in other restaurants.  Then came another shock when I paid for the 4 day train pass (even though i knew the amount, paying time it hurts) and left for Lucerne.  It was cloudy and cold when we arrived in Lucerne and no information center was open because it’s 7pm, but the people are very helpful when you approach them.


We walked along Reuss river to reach our hotel which is located on the river bank and it was really beautiful.  We left the hotel around 830pm for dinner and by that time most of the places closed - may be because it’s not the season.  We had dinner in an Indian place before started to walk around the old city in the rain, luckily we had borrowed umbrellas from the hotel.  The whole town quieted down by

10pm and we were thinking what to do the next day because it’s going to rain for the next 2 days.


The original plan was to go to Mt. Rigi in the morning but it was raining, so changed the plan to go to Bern which is about an hour train ride.  Bern is a beautiful city, we waited in the rain to see the performance of the dolls in the clock tower and it is short & sweet.  The music show didn’t last for more than 30 seconds.  A lot of shopping in Bern and Issac Newton’s museum in the main area that

you could visit.  It’s raining all the time when we were in Bern (about half a day) and it was cold, we followed the walking tour in the map before getting back to Lucerne.   It is nice to see the beautiful houses in Bern with a garden growing on their roof.  Since
the train pass provides the free admission to the Lucerne Art museum and it was raining, we wanted to spend some time there.  I am not art enthusiast, but I enjoyed the art work displayed there.  There was break in the non-stop showers, so we decided to go to Mt. Regi after getting something to eat in the close by bakery.  We took the boat near the train station to Vitzanu and then rack railway to Rigi.  Given the cloudy conditions we couldn’t really enjoy the surrounding mountains from boat but tried to use a little imagination.  Number of tourists going up to Mt. Rigi was very few at that time, so we had the train for ourselves.  It was cold and snowy at the top, all of the places were closed so nothing much to do.  

Swiss Drama and Free Advise

We took the cable car back to Kräbel station, that’s where the Swiss drama unfolded.  My daughters arrived from Las Angeles, so they had their jet lag and Shabina was hit with it more than Sharada.  She was sleeping whenever she was traveling and I was doing my best (worst!!) to keep her awake by irritating her by putting paper in her mouth or nose as well as doing all kinds of things to keep her from sleeping.  While this was going on in the cable car to Kräbel, a Swiss guy, who was sitting in the cable car, walked to me asked me how old I am.  I initially thought that he’s enjoying my playfulness(!) and appreciating my youthfulness(!), but before I answered, he advised me to behave mature and not to irritate Shabina.  I told him that I was trying to keep her awake and he went back to the seat.  Me getting advise from a stranger made my daughters really happy and that happiness kept Shabina awake the rest of the trip.   

In most parts of the world, people would have ignored when someone was irritating or bugging someone but what I heard and experienced was that the Swiss people will openly voice their concern if they are not happy with what they say.

Walking on the Wall

After walking around the town for an hour and having dinner, we got back to the room to rest, hoping that the weather would be better tomorrow.  There was no rain the next day but it was still cloudy so we walked on the Old City walls to climb on one of the towers before going to the Lion monument.  It was noon then, still no sign of the sun god, so we decided to skip the plan of going to Mt. Titlis and decided to head out to Lauterbrunnen where we were planning to spend the next two nights. The trip to Lauterbrunnen was so beautiful with lakes and many mountains, and you could appreciate the Swiss engineering at work in many marvelous bridges and tunnels.  

Nature Wonderland - Lauterbrunnen 

Lauterbrunnen is a very beautiful little town with so many beautiful waterfalls.
There’re a number of hikes that you could do in that area but the trails are still covered with snow.  We took the train to Grutschalp and started to hike towards Murren. The path was wet but free of snow for about 45 minutes and after that it was slushy.  Sharada and I had good shoes, but Shabina didn’t have good shoes but without crying much she was able to make it to Murren.  It’s was beautiful hike with nice views.  The infrastructure that Swiss put together was really amazing - there’re a few houses in the mountain that are located far away from each other where people could drive from Lauterbrunnen.  Murren is a small quiet village where everything was closed by the time we arrived there.  Took cable car and bus to get back to Lauterbrunnen for dinner.

Dinner with Strangers 

There was an american family from Minnesota sitting next to us in the restaurant where we were having dinner.  I started the conversation with them about where they have been and how the driving around Switzerland was.  Becky, the mom, indicated that the trip was for their daughter getting into residency and she talked very proudly of her (rightfully) how she never got any Bs in her pre-medical except in only one class and how spent a year after pre-med volunteering teaching elementary school children.  We exchanged our travel stories and family backgrounds, and the mom took extra interest in advising Sharada and Shabina about staying focused when in school and boy friends - may be looking at my face she must have thought that someone more responsible needs to advise them.  One of the nicest families we ever met in any of our trips and we talked for quiet while about how bad the the Swiss food is, driving around in Europe, what to concentrate in school and various other topics.  When the sun finally showed up in the evening, the view of the mountains around Lauterbrunnen and water falls was magical.


We were staying in the Valley Hostel in Lauterbrunnen which is a nice & clean place to stay and it is one of the where I saw a number of tour groups put their people in.  The Hostel manager advised me
not to go to Jungfraujoch because it may be cloudy and when you are on the very top you are going to look down so the views may not be good, and advised me to leave early to Schilthorn.  We decided to pickup breakfast in the train station because the breakfast at the host was about $8 for a glass of juice and two slices of break.  
After picking up some breakfast and snacks, we headed to Schilthorn and the view from the cable car was mind blowing.  We really got lucked out today with the beautiful sunny weather and there’s no clouds.  The place where the staging areas for the cable car is built is another show case of Swiss engineering and also we saw a bunch of wooden structures built to

prevent the avalanches that I have never seen anywhere.  Spent a lot of time in Schilthorn enjoying the views of different peaks until the clouds started to move in and then we left to spend some time in Birg.  Standing on the glass platform was pretty awesome and scary.  

Chinese Food at Interlaken

We came down to Lauterbrunnen a little after 2pm and since none of the restaurants were open because it’s Sunday, we decided to go to Interlaken for lunch and from there we wanted to take a ferry on the lake Thunersse.  Train ride to Interlaken was nice and the city is a medium size town.  The restaurants closer to the train station were closed but we walked around the town to find a
Chinese restaurant that’s willing to serve lunch to us but the food was really bad.   By the time we were ready to leave, it was too late to go on the boat because I had to attend a call related to work :-(  So we decided to get back to Lauterbrunnen after getting something to cook for dinner.  What’s an hostel experience without cooking anything there !!

Visit to Wenger

We walked around the city of Lauterbrunnen and took the train to go to the close by village, Wenger.  That village was completely empty and all of the shops were closed, so we walked around, taking a few snaps (beautiful view of the Lauterbrunnen from there) before coming back to the hostel.  Shabina cooked the pasta, Sharada washed the dishes and I did the final cleanup, and we finished our Switzerland vacation with a local wine.

Short stop @Basel

The next day, we got the breakfast near the train station before going to Interlaken to take the ferry ride in the lake Thunersse.  It was a beautiful sunny day and the ferry ride was well worth the time - we could see the beautiful villages along the lake.  We got our train to Basel from Thun around 2pm and spent about 2 hours in Basel walking around seeing  MünsterPfalz, Marktplatz and Rathaus.  The water in the Rhine river was so forceful, they have to operate like a cable boat by attaching the boat to a overhead cable to go from one bank to the other.  We liked Basel better than Bern, may be because of the weather and a number of places we explored in the short amount of time.  The lunch at a Turkish place in Basel was good and Shabina could converse with Turkish with those guys there.  Took a bus to the main bus station to catch the airport bus which was quick and easy.  Basel airport was small so dropping off the bags and going for the immigration was quick.  

Appreciation From the Turkish Lady

On the way to the immigration counter, we had to go through the security check where we watched a guy refused to put his passport through the x-ray scanner and insisted on carrying with him.  The security guard had to call her supervisor to handle him.  After the security, we saw an old lady trying to carry too much and she asked us to help her to carry a bag.  While walking with her, she indicated that she’s going to Istanbul, Shabina started having conversation with Turkish and the old lady was so happy to talk to Shabina in Turkish.  Being able to converse in many languages completely change your travel experience.  The immigration guy was asking why there’s no stamp for Rome exit but he let me know after giving me the advise to check on the immigration stamp all the time.  When we left the old lady near her gate, she asked us to wait and she offered a homemade naan kind of a bread and she insisted that we had to take it - very nice gesture.

Summary and What I would do different

  • Switzerland is one of the most beautiful places to visit for the natural lovers.  I would love to come and spend a lot of time in Lauterbrunnen.
  • If I visit next time, I will come after July when the weather is better so that I can camp and hike.  If I come alone, I will take the train, bring my camping gear and cooking supplies.
  • The Swiss fondue was good but you can’t eat it everyday.  For vegetarians, they have very less options.
  • If you ski or snowboard, this is the place you have to ski at least once in your lifetime