The first time I visited Marrakech was in 2013, on a 2 weeks trip to Morocco and that was my second time in Northern Africa (the first one being Egypt in 2009). I have visited the city again a few days ago and I had the same exact feelings of 3 years ago: Marrakech is a place like no other and Morocco has been – up to now – the country that has surpassed by far any of my expectations: extremely diverse from North to South (at least the part I visited), you will definitely be captivated by the colourful local markets (including of course the Marrakech souks!), the beautiful imperial cities (Fez, above all), some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen (desert, gorges, mountains etc), delicious food, impressive riads or dar to sleep in and a buzzing atmosphere in all the medinas.
Whilst in order to properly visit Morocco you will definitely need at least a couple of weeks (and that would allow you to visit some of the major sites), Marrakech makes the perfect city break for a long weekend.
If you are planning a short trip there, worth considering a few things:
Though offer is extremely vast and you will never be short of accomodation in Marrakech, if you have got something specific on your mind (and particularly in high season – October to March I would say) make sure you book well ahead since the best addresses fill up quickly. Where to sleep is totally down to you, even though a couple of nights in a restored riad (a typical Moroccan house with a courtyard or a garden in the centre) is definitely a great experience to switch off from the madness of the city and soak yourself in a oasis of relax.
There are options for all budgets but just keep in mind that:
1) Unless you book a room with a terrace or at an upper floor, riad or dar rooms are generally quite dark since none of the windows (except the top floors – if there is any) opens on the outside (they generally overlook the internal courtyard). On the positive side, riads generally have a roof top terrace to enjoy breakfasts/meals or simply chill out, if the weather allows it. That itself is magical, particularly during sunrise and sunset.
Want a room with a balcony? I struggled to find one not overpriced but in the end I was truly satisfied with the one I booked at Riad Le Berbere: they offer a stunning and sun kissed room with a private little balcony overlooking the gorgeous internal garden. This time of the year (November) the room is blessed with sunshine from the early morning hours.
They have a great roof top terrace too, where they serve breakfast and dinner – upon reservation.
2) Location in Marrakech is everything and which riad/hotel you choose depends a lot on what you plan to do during your stay. If you are on a girls weekend away and you plan to spend a long time wandering around the souks, I would definitely stay as close as possible to the Jemaa el-Fnna (the main square) and the souks to allow you to get in and out easily. Riad Le Berbere is a 10 min walk from the square but is very well located in respect with the Ben Youssef Madrasa (the Islamic college) and the Photography Museum.
I found Marrakech to be a safe city, both in 2013 when I visited with a girl friend of mine and on this last occasion with my boyfriend: no hassle (except from the sellers!) or problem at all. Despite this, keep in mind that some of the side alleys are very poorly lit, even just off the main square and the souks at night (after 10 PM, when they close) are deserted. Getting lost in the Medina is definitely part of the game but better doing it during daytime!
EATING AND DRINKING (mainly tea!)
The first time I visited Marrakech in 2013 I was truly impressed by the amount of cool and modern cafes and restaurants owned and managed by Europeans (mainly French). That has definitely increased in recent years and has resulted in a huge offer of mid to high level European-Moroccan product (both food and style), definitely interesting and delicious but sometimes overpriced, at least for Moroccan standards (sometimes even for European standards!). No wander why these cafes and restaurants are packed with Europeans only. Though they sometimes offer a good alternative to the local cuisine, eating in one of these cool and chic places (just to name a few: Cafe’ des Epices and Nomad etc), takes away a lot of the charme of Marrakech since you could be anywhere else in the world. Usually, next door there is always a Moroccan restaurant or cafe’ and generally with a great terrace offering the same stunning view of their overpriced neighbours.
That is the case of a couple of cafes/restaurant in Rue de la Kasbah, close to the Mosque Moulay El Yazid and the Saadian Tombs. Kasbah Cafe’ is definitely a cool and chill out restaurant with a great terrace but its prices can be compared to European ones. Try a few metres down on the same side of the road and you will find Casa Saada, a local restaurant with very good tagines, sandwiches, freshly squeezed juices and exactly the same views over the mosque. For a fraction of the price! 🙂
On Jemaa el-Fnna, Cafe’ de France is loved by locals and tourists alike and it’s definitely one of the best spot to catch the sunset over the main square, enjoying people watching and a mint tea! If you want to get a good spot with a good view over the square just make sure to arrive well before the sunset.
Alcohol is widely served in restaurants and bars that cater mainly for tourists (at European prices) but generally not in Moroccan ones (and definitely not if there is a mosque nearby). I have to say that it makes a good change to sit down for a late afternoon mint tea, enjoying the buzz of Marrakech from either a terrace or escaping it by choosing a secluded riad.
If you need a break, try Dar Cherifa, one of the oldest mansions in Marrakech, wonderfully restored and converted into a literary cafe’, restaurant and guest rooms. Service is excellent and friendly and the amazing architecture is worth a visit by itself (just a few minutes walk from Jemaa el-Fnna).
First rule: if you are planning on doing some serious shopping and you are flying to Marrakech with a low cost airlines, it’s definitely worth putting a foldable bag in your hand luggage and pay for hold luggage for your inbound flight only. Trying to squeeze a massive straw bag (or carpet!) in your hand luggage can be a mission impossible!
Shopping in Marrakech is easier said than done and – even for me that I do love shopping – it can be a quite exhausting experience. Not only the offer in the souks and the outdoor markets is vast (I would say ENDLESS) but let’s face it: Moroccan selling techniques can be quite overwhelming for us Europeans 😉 For men shopping in Marrakech can be a daunting and definitely nerve-wracking experience so keep that in mind and make sure your other half is prepared. In this sense a girls-only weekend can be a great option! 🙂
If you are looking to buy some specific items and carpets in particular, I would definitely recommend reading the post of Maroc Mama (an American-Moroccan family living in Marrakech), with the 7 tips for buying a rug in Marrakech. Very useful, especially for first buyers.
What to buy is totally down to you but there is definitely a bit for everyone: Argan oil, spices, rugs, fabrics, throws, pillow cases, blankets, clothing, straw bags etc.
I only bought what I really wanted to get, that being:
A couple of 250 ml bottles of Argan Oil, from Mishkat-Arom, a pharmacy next to Place des Epices: no bartering in here but if you buy a couple of bottles they give you a free small bottle of 100 ml Argan Oil. They have natural Argan Oil or mixed with natural essence (Orange Flower, Verveine, Jasmine, Grapefruit).
A plain straw bag from a sweet Moroccan old man, working in an little alley behind Place des Epices; he didn’t speak a single word of English nor French and the 60 MAD for a handmade straw bag (just less than Eur 6) felt like the best money spent on the whole trip.
Apart from a few hours in the morning (dedicated to boring house stuff), I have basically spent my Sunday eating. Better said, tasting some delicious products from Tuscany and all over Italy at the Boccaccesca, a great street food fair organized in Certaldo (Firenze province) on October 7th, 8th and 9th. Unfortunately the weather has not been great on the two first days but today we have managed to get a few hours of beautiful sunshine (just before the afternoon storm), enjoying the open air stalls in both Certaldo Alto and Basso.
If you are planning to visit Tuscany next year about this time, it’s definitely worth to keep an eye on this food fair and put it on your agenda for a few good reasons:
It’s truly Italian and, even though there was a good number of tourists visiting, it has definitely got a very Italian feel and atmosphere.
Extremely reasonable prices in the great majority of the food stands (Eur 1 for a very decent glass of red wine is not bad…isn’t it?). If the price is not displayed, to avoid any unpleasant surprise always ask for the price (particularly on cheese and ham). Some hams can get up to Eur 90 per Kg so be prepared….!!
If you plan to take home some local Italian products, it’s a great opportunity to get a bit of everything and all of excellent quality.
You could almost eat for free since there is so much to taste around and the great majority of producers are interested in getting their products known. I’ve lost the count of how many food stalls I have tried today…
I have always thought that the image of sipping red wine during an outdoor Sunday lunch in a dreamy Tuscan vineyard in Chianti filled with sun was kind of overrated.
I was wrong.
It turns out that even for an Italian like me – that has sat at plenty of outdoor tables, enjoying thousands of Sunday lunches and drinking litres of red/white wine (split over the course of those thousands of lunches, OF COURSE) – an experience on a Sunday 2 weeks ago was pretty amazing.
I attended a Wine Harvest Day at Fattoria Montefiridolfi in Chianti after reading about it through Travel Italian Style (that tailors small tours in some of the best regions throughout Italy for a true Italian Dolce Vita experience) and what I thought would have been a very intimate experience it turned out to be a truly deeply noisy Italian Sunday lunch, sitting next to absolute strangers all sharing the same passion for simple and tasty food, great wine, plenty of chat…basically…..Italy!
The event started at 10.30 AM (and since we take drinking very seriously, we were there at 10.20 AM…just in case!). While we waited for the others to join (over 60/70 people), we were invited to a small tasting area overlooking the vineyards to taste the Fattoria Montefiridolfi local wines (forget about the “tasting” measure though, since they are pretty generous here) and were given a good chat by Davide, explaining their products and giving a general overview of the area. That’s 10.30 AM and we kept drinking and chatting with the new arrivals for a good while.
Then we all remembered that we were there for the wine harvest (!) so we were all given a pair of clippers and happily walked through the paths down to the vines in the blazing sunshine. My fellow harvesters spread through the vines started to work. My British boyfriend says that in the end there was a lot of talk and little work 😉 but hey, we are in Italy after all no? Can’t really work without a good chat!
After that, since it was gone 12.30 AM and we hadn’t eaten YET, we (Italians) started to get a bit nervous. All very good this grape picking but we needed food, which came out soon afterwards and was simple, abundant and all home-made, and it went perfectly with the wine they offered.
The atmosphere was very informal, friendly and perfect for both families (I was amazed that not one single child cried during the whole day – and there were a few!!), couples and single alike.
For kids and adults alike, one of the best parts of the day was definitely the grape stomping. There is always a first time for everything in life and this was my first one. Quite a strange feeling the grapes in your toes….I would say a must-try 🙂 Plus, if you get to do that in good company and with a couple of glasses of their local white wine, that’s just a bonus! (that’s me with Patricia, fellow blogger)!
Just before leaving, Daniela, the young manager, told me that it was the first time they organized an event like that and they were a bit overwhelmed by the number of people that attended. To me, it was an absolute success and hopefully they will organize a merenda for the new oil harvest too, in November.
One of the biggest struggles I am encountering since I’ve moved to Tuscany is trying not to over eat. It’s proving to be a mission impossible since food is literally everywhere at anytime and it doesn’t matter if it’s 37 degrees and eating a plate of pappardelle with wild boar ragu’ sounds like suicide…
If you are a fan of fresh and tasty local produce, lovely al fresco restaurants with great views both in the city and in the countryside…well, Tuscany is the place to be!
If you are visiting for the first time, there is some food that – in my opinion – should be tried at least once before going back home, wherever your home is. As in any region, Tuscan food varies a lot depending on the areas you visit and on the season but in general the following recommendations can be found almost all year round.
Here is my top list:
Pappardelle con ragu’ di cinghiale (pappardelle with wild boar ragu’): if the pappardelle are home made and the wild boar ragu’ is fresh, it can truly be a star dish. I can’t count how many times I have eaten it throughout my visits to Tuscany but the rule number one – as with any local produce – is always to eat the product in season. Wild boar (normally hunted in Autumn/Winter) is currently such a big issue for Tuscany (their ever growing numbers have a major impact on the environment and agriculture) that a law has recently been approved to allow wild boar hunting all year round, in an effort to contain their numbers, so you may well be able to find it fresh throughout the year. If in doubt whether it’s fresh or frozen, ask your waiter!
Stracciatella: it’s both a cheese and an ice-cream flavor but in this case I would focus only on the cheese, a creamy and stringy artisanal full-fat delicacy. Though I know that the true stracciatella comes from Puglia region, to be fair I had some of my best here in Tuscany (more than once, just to make sure it was not an exception!) so I feel like recommending it, particularly because you will find it hard to buy this cheese outside of Italy so it’s worth indulging. The safest place to get it? Unless you can find a proper and well stocked cheese shop, go to any big chain supermarket, straight to the deli cheese counter and order a bit to take away (it’s sold by weight and they will serve it in a disposable box, ready to dip in). Then enjoy it with a couple of cherry tomatoes, a few basil leaves, some Tuscan bread and a glass of red wine….aperitivo, done! 🙂
Lardo di Colonnata: it’s the mix of two great Tuscan products: white marble and pig (make sure you don’t eat the former!) :-). Colonnata is the town in Tuscany where it comes from and where it is still produced following the old tradition: layers of lard seasoned with rosemary, sea salt, pepper and garlic are cured in local marble for at least 6 to 10 months giving it an unique flavor. Then it’s thinly sliced and ready to eat. It is a true delicacy – and terribly fattening as the word itself reminds you. Once again, if you can’t wait to be in a restaurant to order it, go to a local butcher or to the supermarket deli counter and ask for a few thin slices, slice up some Tuscan bread, get another glass of wine and again your aperitivo is done! 🙂 It’s sublime if you warm the bread beforehand since the lard will literally melt over it…While searching for some more information on Lardo di Colonnata, I stumbled across the wonderful blog of Emiko Davies, with mouthwatering recipes (and pics!) and a great post about Lardo di Colonnata, in case you want to find out more about it!
Pecorino: by saying Pecorino, you are opening in front of you an incredible variety of tasty and delicious of cheeses (made from sheep milk, “pecora”). Hopefully you are a cheese lover, in which case you are in the right region. Head to Pienza, in Val d’Orcia and just have a stroll downtown to get infused by the most amazing cheese smells. Since there are plenty of free tastings around, make sure to try some of the different flavors of Pecorino, including those cured in walnut leaves, in hay or infused with truffle. Not a cheese lover just yet..? I am pretty sure a trip to Pienza will quickly convert you!
Tartufo (truffle): the season is crucial but the good thing is that there is at least a variety of truffle for every season so, regardless when you visit, you can always taste some fresh one (if you pick the right restaurant). I still can’t decide between the white truffle or the black truffle but I definitely had one of my best truffle based meal in Radda in Chianti (La Terrazza), on a warm and sunny evening in November.Truffle was excellent (and in good quantity) in both the antipasti and primi and definitely recommended. Plus, they have got a lovely terrace, perfect to enjoy a warm autumn evening eating al fresco. If you are a fan of truffle and you are self catering and feel like using some of it while in Tuscany, read my full post on the little town of San Giovanni d’Asso, one of the best places to go in Tuscany to get some amazing fresh truffle.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-Bone Steak): I still have not developed an unconditional love for bistecca alla fiorentina simply because I can’t eat huge quantity of steak: no matter how delicious and buttery the meat is, I get “bored” easily (I suppose it’s due to the fact that generally after a steak I struggle to eat anything else :-). Having said this, if you are a meat lover, this should absolutely be on your list. The general rule is that the steak should come from a particularly cow (Chianina), bred in Valdichiana. Normally cooked on a wooden grill, it comes out rare (don’t even think of asking “well done” cause the waiter will frown at you) and, though prices for this cut varies depending on the restaurant (and its location!), generally a fair price would be around Eur 4 for 100 grams; the average portion is 1 kg so expect to pay around Eur 40. It comes without saying that it is highly recommended to share it – unless you are prepared to eat 1 Kg of almost VERY rare meat. It’s a pretty manly dish but I have seen women doing very well too (including me)! I haven’t had many fiorentina steaks but a very good one was at Trattoria Marione in Florence, just off Santa Maria Novella Square and a great one in a picture-perfect Tuscan Osteria called La Sosta di Pio VII, in Barberino Val d’Elsa (FI), definitely worth the drive in the Florentine countryside: amazing Tuscan food, lovely atmosphere, great service and an incredibly mouth watering Fiorentina (if you manage a dessert, try their mascarpone and Nutella one!). It’s open all year round and in summer time they have a gorgeous outdoor pergola….you will see, it doesn’t get any more Tuscan than this – booking is recommended!
Tagliata ai funghi porcini: less manly and definitely my favourite meat dish in Tuscany since it allows me to leave a bit of room for an antipasti and potentially dessert! Literally “tagliata” means “sliced” and that’s what it is: a sliced medium-rare beef that if cooked properly is absolutely buttery and delicious. Put it on a couple of layers of porcini mushrooms and it’s absolute heaven! You can be sure that (if not always with porcini) it’s always present on any Tuscan menu – I haven’t found one that didn’t advertise it. Worth trying 🙂 As for the Fiorentina, I would definitely recommend the Osteria La Sosta di Pio VII: tagliata is beautifully cooked and it literally melts in your mouth! If you are in Siena, try Boccon del Prete, a great restaurant not far from Duomo: great primi and a very good tagliata (booking recommended!).
As far as Tuscan food, there is plenty more to taste and experience, particularly as far as salumi (cold meats) and cheeses. If you are self catering and want to try several of them without getting ripped off, just keep in mind some easy rules:
Avoid the “deli” shops located in the most touristy towns (particularly San Gimignano); Italians generally don’t buy in them for being overpriced and catering mainly to tourists.
Check if in or near the town you are staying there is a weekly market. Apart from the fact that it’s an experience on itself, it’s worth going in the morning and wandering around the food stalls and get something to eat on the spot or take away. It’s cheap, it’s yummy and above all it’s truly Italian with plenty of grandmas chatting and local vendors shouting their best deals!
If you are tight with time and can’t visit a local market, head to one of the big supermarket chains (COOP and PAM, for example). Since markets are generally held during the week days, the great majority of people do their shopping at the supermarket. No doubt it hasn’t got the same market atmosphere but it’s definitely a great opportunity to buy some local produce. Salumi prices shown at the deli counter are always per 100 grams but if you are not sure how much you want, you can just ask for slices.
Not self-catering? Then just order a tagliere di salumi e formaggi (literally a board for cold meats and cheeses) and you can’t go wrong.
If you are heading to Cambodia and Kep is not on your itinerary… you may want to reconsider it, if you have got a couple of spare days.
At first sight Kep doesn’t even look like a town as such… but it was definitely one of those stops that truly surprised us during our trip to Cambodia: a small seaside “town” became an amazing opportunity to discover this stunning part of the country, leaving behind the Sihanoukville crowds and submerging in a much more natural and less artificial environment. If you are combining Cambodia and Vietnam and you are not in a particular rush to get to the other side, there is a big chance that Kep is going to be on your itinerary before entering Vietnam from the south, since it’s just a short drive from the Ha Teang Prek Chak border (that you will reach after driving through a massive plain of salt salines).
Kep-sur-mer (as it was known during the French occupation) is located less than 150 km southwest of Phnom Penh and it was once the seaside escape of the French elite, looking for a break from the humid heat of the capital. As a reminder of the welfare of those days, if you drive around Kep you will immediately spot the remains of stunning villas, example of that Modernism that developed strong in Cambodia until the King was overthrown in 1970 and the country entered decades of violence and war, with the Khmer Rouge first and the Vietnamese later on (for more info on Cambodia’s Modernism, read this).
When the Khmer Rouge first took power, Kep was cleared out and the villas abandoned and destroyed, for they were representing exactly what the Khmer Rouge were fighting against. Some of these properties remain almost as intact as at the time they were occupied by the Khmer Rouge, but most of them were badly damaged and now only ruins remain. In recent years, some of them have been restored and converted in luxury accomodations (such as Villa Romonea), trying to bring Kep back to the splendor of the old days.
Nowadays, locals and expats alike flock here looking for a nice seaside location with a relaxed atmosphere, plenty of fresh seafood and accommodation for all budgets. During the weekend it can get very busy, so it’s advisable to book accomodation in advance, particularly if you have got some specific place in mind. The funny thing is that there wouldn’t be any decent beach at all, if it wasn’t for the powder white sand imported from elsewhere that build up a small town beach, perfect for a dip. Kep is particularly well known all over Cambodia and beyond for a local produce transformed in a culinary delicacy: the blue crab, featured in almost all the restaurants menus in town and also in a giant statue off Kep’s main beach.
The best way to discover Kep? We booked a 2 night-stay at The Boat House, a very reasonably priced guesthouse with spotlessly clean large rooms, a few minutes walk from Kep’s beach. The French owner is extremely keen in showing you the surrounding area and will explain you in detail which roads to follow to not miss out on anything the area has to offer. Then you just have to wake up early the following day, have a filling breakfast and hire a moped; follow his instructions and his hand-drawn map and explore the surrounding countryside. We set out quite early and came back in the late afternoon and we absolutely loved it.
Driving around Kep
The self-made tour starts with a ride (and walk) around the thriving Crab Market; it’s called crab market but they do sell plenty of other fresh seafood and local produce but nevertheless it’s undoubtedly famous for the blue crab. Take your time to peruse the stalls and take a close look at their catch. Just a quick note: though we were not aware when we visited Cambodia (2014), I have recently read that due to illegal and destructive crab catching practices, plenty of experts claim that crab population in the area is strongly diminishing (both in number and in size) and the coral reef is being damaged as well; as a result, a few restaurants have now decided to stop serving crab, in an effort to preserve the environment and its population. On the other hand, a stronger and tighter control (and punishment) on the illegal crabbers would definitely help….
The crab I had there was by far the best I have ever tasted, seasoned with the other star produce of the area: Kampot pepper. We tried a few restaurants in the Crab Market area and, at the time we visited, Kimly, which is the longest running Kep’s crab eateries, was definitely the best one (and the busiest one with locals): great views over the sea, good healthy portions and absolutely delicious food – not only crab, as you can see from the picture below! Go early and grab a table on the terrace with an uninterrupted sunset view for an unforgettable meal.
Back to our moped tour, from the crab market go back to the main roundabout and follow the coastal road (usually empty) heading towards the Cambodia/Vietnam border. From there, we abandoned the main road and followed the map into unpaved roads. I didn’t keep a copy of it with me but I am 100% sure that the owner is absolutely used to share his knowledge of the area with guests. Getting lost while en-route was part of the game and it happened a couple of times 🙂 but asking for directions was the fun bit. You will drive through quiet villages, not particularly used to tourists but with people extremely keen to try to communicate, once they overcome the initial shyness. Unpaved white roads going through beautiful natural scenery, cow herds crossing your path, kingfishers and stunning butterflies flying by and water buffaloes resting peacefully in the water.
All in all a perfect picture of Cambodia and definitely the best way to depart from this stunning country.
Want to read more about Cambodia? Have a look at my other posts with the highlights of Cambodia and the best beach with crystal water, white powdery sand and (most important) affordable accomodation!
Now that I am in Tuscany I am starting to miss a couple (or more) of lovely quintessentially British traditions that I truly think we should export on this side of the Channel. Afternoon tea is definitely one of those and I can’t understand why is not here – yet.
My first memory of afternoon tea is probably linked to the play “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde: it looked like they were stuffing their faces with cucumber sandwich on a daily basis. Though cucumber sandwich is definitely not my favorite sandwich, I’d happily accept it if it comes in an full afternoon tea package, possibly one of the most exquisite English rituals.
Afternoon tea was introduce in Britain in the early 1840s. More than a tea, it’s a meal composed of sandwiches (which are usually cut into ‘fingers’), scones with clotted cream and jam, sweet pastries and cakes but there are many more variations. British are extremely proud of their afternoon tea rituals and hundreds of cafes, restaurants and hotel in the UK do offer this option almost daily. You can pay as little as 10£ pp up to 60£ pp (or more!). If you are in London, have a look at afternoontea.co.uk for some suggestions (and offers) of the best afternoon teas in town. If you want to combine a tour around London with an unusual afternoon tea and have a bit more budget on your side, try the BB Bakery: they serve a full afternoon tea on a double-decker bus (and many other options)…. it doesn’t get more British than this! Make sure to book well in advance since it fills up pretty quickly.
If you just can’t get a good excuse to fly over to London to have a proper one, why not make it at home? I had a couple of home-made ones last summer and they were a success. It’s not difficult (at all) and it brings people together. I would say it’s more a feminine thing (and a great way to celebrate baby showers, birthdays, hens do etc) but I am sure lots of men would find it good too, especially if you add a few consistent drinks to it. 😉
What you need
HOW TO SERVE IT: tiered cake stand, teapot, teacups, cutlery. If you are planning to serve cocktails, make sure you have the adequate glasses too.
FOOD: in my home country, we are pretty traditional as far as sandwiches are concerned but when I moved to the UK I got into another world made of yummy fillings, delicious dressing sand unusual combinations (at least for me!). As my (British) boyfriend always says: “There is a lot more beyond ham and cheese!”. And he’s right. My favorites: tuna filling (tuna, chopped tomato, gherkins, salad cream, salt/pepper/lemon), crab filling (crab meat, watercress, salt/pepper/lemon), chicken filling (shredded chicken breast, leaves, chopped tomato, salad cream).
Apart from sandwiches, quiches are always a safe bet since they are easy to prepare in advance and just need to be warmed through on the day. For some amazing and mouthwatering recipes, have a look at Infinite Belly: you will not be short of inspiration!
You will need to have some sweet stuff as well: scones and cream should be a must in any afternoon tea but any other small pastry or tea cakes – cut down in small pieces, sort of finger food – would do the job. The key is to keep it coloured and not boring: sprinkle some seasonal fruit and make it even more indulgent by adding small pots of hand whipped double cream to dip fresh chopped fruit or anything else.
TEA SELECTION: I’m not a fan of English Breakfast tea (I have not been converted after 3 years in the UK…) so I would go for any flavored tea or infusion; homemade ginger, lemongrass and honey or Moroccan tea with fresh mint would be my first choice.
SUMMER DRINKS: Since I moved to the UK, my favorite is by far PIMM’S.
I rarely ordered any at a pub/bar back in the UK, since I quickly learned they would taste nothing like the homemade ones: almost no fruit and almost no PIMM’S :-(. So make your own is always easier and safer: it’s refreshing, fruity and it screams summer! Go for the original recipeand you can’t get it wrong. Plenty of variations are allowed of course and I found that blueberry and blackberry work great too!
If you can’t find PIMM’S, it’s worth trying to replace it with APEROL (bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona flavour) or CAMPARI (definitely more bitter and more “herbie”), 2 strongholds in the Italian aperitivo and generally easier to find. It won’t be the same as PIMM’S but you will still have that refreshing flavour that will work perfectly on any spring/summer day.
If you prefer to go easy and not having to prepare cocktails (though that’s part of the fun), a good bottle of cold Prosecco always works!
Our next stop on the itinerary was Ella where – unfortunately – we could only spend one night due to a series of unlucky coincidences (particularly the Navam Poya festival that made impossible to book any train on our selected date). I would strongly recommend at least a couple of nights in Ella, to explore a bit more the surrounding area and get into the backpack vibe.
The train journey from Kandy to Ella is undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip in Sri Lanka. It’s a long journey (generally it takes almost 7 hours but delays are not uncommon) but you will soon forget you are on a train. Without going in too much detail of all the issues we encountered in booking 2 tickets due to the bank holiday, I will only say that at the end the only available tickets were on a 1st class train at 12.31 from Peradeniya to Ella – there were also 3rd class tickets on a morning train but since we needed a full morning in Kandy to see the Temple of Tooth it couldn’t work for us. The 1st option wasn’t my favourite simply because, as I read on plenty of travel blogs, in this carriage you couldn’t open the windows; so I was a bit restless (rather painful) thinking that I was about to do a once in a lifetime train journey with the windows fully shut. 😦
The train pulled in at Peradeniya train station (which is a few km from Kandy downtown) and we all got on. We found our seats and with extreme sadness and frustration we realized that the windows (that could not be opened) were so dirty that it would have been impossible to look outside and see anything, let alone take any pictures. On top of that, from the 1st class carriage you couldn’t reach the other carriages (where the windows could be opened!) so you felt sort of trapped. The train left the station and I was in such an “agony” inside that I went straight to have a (quiet) word with the young chap working in the carriage. I think he must have seen my distress since once I told him the problem he said “Wait a while and then once the train goes up the hills and slows down I can open the door and you can sit there”. My face brightened up, my eyes sparkled and my smile returned…and even wider when he said “Anyway, there is a surprise…we will open the windows soon but shhh.” I went back to my seat and I was the happiest person ever! Our windows DO open!!
Happiness quickly spread around the carriage (couldn’t keep quiet) and after a while the carriage staff opened all the windows, letting the hill country breeze flowing in and making the trip a whole different experience. Why I didn’t find any mention of it on any blog, I don’t know…but I promise, it was a big big relief! I spent half of the journey leaning outside the window and the other half sitting on the train steps, watching the green and lush Sri Lankan hills flying under my flip flops. What a great feeling!
Words can’t really describe the stunning scenery that the train goes through…I suppose in these cases pictures do it more justice. Make sure to keep your eyes open throughout the whole journey, too stunning to have a snooze!
We arrived at Ella train station after over 7 hours journey, a bit of delay (which apparently is quite normal and it’s the first time ever I didn’t mind it on such an amazing journey) due to a fire on the rail track – being a single rail track you just have to patiently wait.
From the train station we walked to our accommodation (Ella Okreech Cottages), a steep walk up the main road in Ella, just a few minutes walk in the pitch black and with the sound of frogs. Massive clean room with a wide balcony overlooking the road (you can’t really see the road since the cottages are quite a way up shaded by the trees). We had a quick shower and we went out for a bite to eat, our 2nd official dinner out with a proper menu in Sri Lanka since up to that moment we had always eaten where we slept – except Colombo. We ate at the Chill Cafe’ which has a great backpack atmosphere, reminiscent of those wonderful 6 months in South East Asia. The place was packed, we had to wait a while for a table (while making friends with the local stray dogs) but in the end got a good table overlooking the road, perfect for people watching. Food was absolutely delicious, we chose the 10 curries dish which as you can see was quite an enormous portion and the banana leaf curry which was spicy and tasty. You will not leave hungry!
Had a couple of mojitos too and then back to the room since the next day we had planned a relatively early start (no surprise) to climb Little Adam’s Peak first thing in the morning. We also had to arrange our onward travel to Kataragama, and that needed a bit of work.
DAY 9 – ELLA to KATARAGAMA
After a quick early breakfast in one of the few restaurants on the main road open at 7 AM, we tried to arrange a taxi ride to Kataragama, our next stop. All the drivers parked on the main road display a so called “Taxi price list” and the journey to Kataragama was listed at 8000 rps; it took a bit of persuasion, walk off and all the theatre that comes with barter but in the end we managed to arrange Rs 6000 for a private car (which was a sort of mini-van) leaving at 1.30 PM. We wanted to make sure we were able to get to Kataragama on time for visiting the temple and attend the evening puja (it took us around 2 hours). This cost can obviously be halved/saved either by sharing the car (we couldn’t find anyone interested in leaving in the early afternoon) or by taking public transport but, as I said, with only 1 night in Ella we had to factor in this extra cost if we wanted to spend more time in the area. Posting on a Trip Advisor forum can be a good option to find some fellow travelers willing to share the car. Be careful that some driver was asking us Rs 8.000 EACH. The listed price is, of course, for the whole car so the more people you find to share, the less you pay.
After arranging the taxi, we started our ascend to Little Adam’s Peak, which is easily reachable from the main junction in town, going uphill. Great sunny day and lovely walk amidst the tea plantation. Not a difficult hike that gets rewarded by great views!
On the way back, we stopped to visit Newburgh Green Tea plantation; being Sri Lanka the land of tea, I felt it was a sort of must do and I have to say that, despite my initial skepticism, for someone that didn’t have an idea of how tea was produced, stored etc it was quite informative. Just over an hour, small tour of the plant in a small group and tasting of the green tea that they produce on site. What you obviously won’t see are the conditions of the tea harvesters (or tea pickers), mostly young Tamil women (paid just a couple of dollars a day), with no land rights and living on the tea plantations in crammed shacks without the minimum sanitation requirements. To learn more about this topic, have a look at thepriceoftea, an interesting document from srilankacampaign.org, a non profit organization which is also an excellent source of information on the situation in Sri Lanka.
On the way out, our path crossed with a Tamil Festival that was the true essence (at least in my mind) of Sri Lanka: vibrant colours, music, chants, flowers. Their beautiful and colourful saris shone amidst the green of the tea plantation were the great majority of them would work.
We walked back to Ella town in 40 minutes, had a quick shower and got picked up by our driver. Next stop: Kataragama.
The choice of Kataragama over Tissimaharama was due, once again, to the desire to get a bit off of the beaten track. Tissimaharama is the base that almost everyone we met (or read on travel blogs) uses for Yala National Park and I am sure it has got its positive sides but to me Kataragama seemed more interesting particularly for a couple of important temples that make it one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka. On the way to Kataragama we had the most amazing encounter…a massive elephant trying to cross the road right in front of us!
At that point I was not sure we “needed” to go to Yala! We had booked a night at Heina Nature Resort, which I recommend, next to Goyagala Lake. Accommodation is in 2 massive cottages, with plenty of beds inside, far too big for only 2 people like us (perfect solution if you are travelling in a group). Next to your cottage you will find your private outdoor bathroom which is a great experience with tiny frogs hiding in the loo roll and a nice open air shower.
The grounds are particularly nice and you are located just a couple of minutes walk to a beautiful lake.
Definitely worth going out and explore if you have a bit of time. With just a couple of hours stroll, we saw plenty of amazing birds (bee-eaters, king fishers, green parrots, peacocks, horn-bills), a crocodile and the views on the surrounding countryside were stunning and truly peaceful.
As far as staff, they score five stars. The manager is a young guy, really helpful and smiley that speaks good English and he is really keen to show you the area in which they live. With him work a young woman and a lad, in charge of the cooking, cleaning and garden maintenance. Though they don’t speak English, we had a good laugh together with the manager as a translator 🙂 Food was great (lots of fresh river prawns), freshly prepared and eaten outdoor.
Before dinner the manager drove us to the Kataragama Temple and it was definitely one of our highlights of this stop. If you choose to visit, you will definitely be a minority there and it will be hard to not feel emotionally affected by the whole ceremony; the evening puja is quite striking and definitely worth experiencing. Take into account at least a couple of hours to explore the grounds and stay for the ceremony.
DAY 10 – YALA NATIONAL PARK to REKAWA BEACH
Kataragama is – with Tissimaharama – one of the preferred bases you can choose to visit Yala National Park, arranging a safari. Yala is worldwide renowned for having a good number of leopards that, if you are lucky enough, you could spot in the park. The problem is that plenty of drivers drive around like nutters just to try to get a glimpse of a leopard and sometimes missing out on other animals. After reading plenty of reviews and blogs and asking a few quotes to some operators, I gave up: there are so many tour operators, hotels and private jeep drivers that offer and arrange safari tours (morning, afternoon or all day) that it’s really hard to know what to choose, if not impossible! So in the end we chose to book a morning safari (5:30 AM to 11 AM) directly through our Resort in Kataragama, which offered more or less the same price of other tour operators (around $60 per person/half day) and an English speaking driver. Though it turned out that the driver’s English was as good as my boyfriend’s Italian (almost nonexistent) and although it rained for a good hour during the safari making it hard to see any animals at some point, it was a great experience: we managed to see plenty of wild water buffalos, deers, a couple of beautiful elephants just a few meters from our jeep, monkeys, wild boars and an amazing amount of birds, including horn-bill, peacock, black stork, black crested bulbul and Sri Lankan junglefowl (national bird). We didn’t see the leopard (I haven’t met anyone that has actually confirmed to have seen one!) but that’s the reason why this is a National Park and not a zoo. Overall happy with the experience but I would recommend to find a tour operator with an English speaking driver since you can surely get a lot more information during the drive. A way to save a bit of money is also to book your jeep directly in Tissimaharama the night before you want to do the safari; we were staying in Kataragama so we didn’t do it, but it could be an option. Have a look also at Yala National Park website for full information and advices on how to arrange your visit to the park.
After the safari, we went back at Heina Nature Resort, got our backpacks and the manager very kindly dropped us at Kataragama bus station where we boarded the local bus 32 that goes all the way up to Colombo on the beautiful coastal road.
After less than 2 hours of crazy local bus drive, we arrived at Ranna village on the A2 that was where we had to stop to get a tuk tuk (Rs 300) to our next place, Lanka Beach Bungalows: a bit over our budget but absolutely worth it, even though for just one night. The choice to stay here was due to the fact that we were hoping to be able to see the turtle hatching on the beach and the area is supposed to be one of the best spots to do it. Though it didn’t really go as planned, it was a lovely stay.
As far as accommodation goes, at the time of our visit Lanka Beach Bungalows had just opened, owned and run by a German couple (they still haven’t got a website but you can easily book through Booking.com). The rooms are very nice, with a massive half open bathroom with walk in shower and a big balcony with outdoor seating area. All their rooms overlook the ocean (ask for a top floor, to get the better view); our room was one of the furthest one and still we enjoyed a great view. I suspect that once its position is more consolidated in the market and they get more reviews (once we booked there weren’t any) their prices will rise, in line with the other hotels on this stretch of beach (some well over $100/night). Unfortunately when we arrived the weather was all but good: rainy and windy but, as it often happens anywhere near the Tropics, it completely turned in less than an hour and we went straight to the beach for a long walk enjoying a stunning sunset. We didn’t want to eat at our hotel ( I admit I like the comfort of good beds – who doesn’t!? – but I much more prefer the local atmosphere) and my boyfriend had found somewhere on a back road near the beach that sounded interesting and worth looking at. Leaving the hotel behind you, walk on the beach towards the right and you will see a board advertising “SUN SHINE CAFE'”. Don’t expect a restaurant as such: no website, just a reggae-loving dude and his wife cooking homely and freshly prepared Sri Lankan food. Can’t beat it! If you plan on eating here, go a few hours before in the afternoon, choose what you would like for dinner and agree an hour so they have got enough time to prepare everything from scratch. We had a delicious tuna fish curry with plenty of vegetable curries (massive portions) and as always tons of poppadoms. Their pineapple daiquiris are worth a try 😉 and you might end up the evening sharing a whiskey with the owner!
Just a side note: if you choose to reach this place and want to do the internal road path, make sure you have a good torch with you since it’s absolutely pitch black and there are no lights to be seen for a while. The beach – especially during full moon – is probably a better choice.
After dinner around 9.30 PM, we ventured out on the beach: we were truly hoping to see turtles hatching so we kept walking up and down keeping an eye open on the shore. Since just a couple of nights before it had been full moon the beach was basically naturally lit up so we almost didn’t need our torches. Despite not seeing any turtle, the walk itself was unforgettable: this stretch of beach is – luckily – very little developed (after 2004 Tsunami plenty of business closed and didn’t reopen) so you can walk a long time before seen any light or actually meeting anyone. I am sure the place is absolutely safe but I would probably not have walked so far during the night without my boyfriend.
DAY 11/12 – REKAWA BEACH to MARAKOLLIYA BEACH (TANGALLE)
After an early morning walk down the beach, being nosy with the local fishermen and a good breakfast in the sunshine, we decided to spend a few hours by the beach before heading off to our next place. If you are a swimmer, do take into account that swimming in this part of the Indian Ocean can be very dangerous due to unexpected rip currents and whatever guesthouse or hotel you will choose, they will advise you whether it is safe or not to swim in your area. For this reason, a swimming pool can be a good option if you want to have a relaxing swim. 🙂 Do not expect to find the calm and crystal water of some parts of South East Asia since this is the Indian Ocean and its beauty is also in the wilderness of its beaches and rough waters.
We hired a tuk tuk from Rekawa Beach to Marakolliya Beach (Rs 800), a quiet and beautiful stretch of beach at the east of Tangalle. We had chosen Mangrove Chalet and Cabanas and were not disappointed. The accommodation is very good (they offer both chalet/bungalows and cabanas but they sell out pretty quickly) and sits between a lagoon and the sea; big square concrete bungalows built a prudent few metres far away from the water, with outdoor comfy day beds and a very good restaurant offering plenty of food options. It reminded me a lot of Ko Lanta (Thailand): very chilled out atmosphere, good and simple food and beautiful views of the ocean.
We spend 2 nights here but you can easily spend a few days just by laying on the beach reading a book, walking up and down or venturing and exploring the lagoon with the free kayak provided by Mangrove Chalet and Cabanas. It depends what your own idea of relax is, mine is moving. 🙂
One thing that could have been the highlight of our stay here was to see a turtle and in my naive way of thinking I though I could see one – on my own – on Rekawa Beach. It’s not impossible but it is not an easy task. Since we didn’t see one on Rekawa Beach, I decided to give it a try with the Rekawa Turtle Conservation Project – Turtle Watch, a Rs 1300 tuk tuk ride from our accommodation and a Rs 1000 donation fee. No matter how eager you are to see a turtle, before thinking about going read my Trip Advisor review for a full account of the experience. It’s true, I saw a green turtle but I wish I hadn’t seen one! 😦 Not sure how it can be recommended by Lonely Planet, too.
DAY 13 – MARAKOLLIYA BEACH to MIRISSA BEACH
Up to now, my itinerary for Sri Lanka had been a success (let’s forget about the Turtle Conservation Project) and both my boyfriend and I were absolutely delighted with all we had experienced so far. After spending a few hours on Marakolliya Beach and a quick lunch, we got a tuk tuk to our next destination: Mirissa. We may have been a bit lazy by taking the tuk tuk but the truth is that we wanted to enjoy the beach and the seaside as much as we could, before going back to cold and rainy England! Can’t really blame me….but be aware that you can reach all coastal destination by local bus (a lot cheaper, of course but it takes its time).
We got dropped off at the Secret Guesthouse, a family run business a short walk from Mirissa beach. We had booked a fan room ($40/night including breakfast) with a good size bathroom and a nice outdoor veranda overlooking the well looked after garden. It was a peaceful and quite setting and I chose it because it was one the most affordable available in the area. Next to the guesthouse, there is a lovely outdoor spa too with plenty of treatments, in case you want to relax your muscles. Once settled in, we decided to have a look at Mirissa beach. Unfortunately I can only describe it as a Sri Lankan version of the bad part of Costa del Sol, one of the most touristy and spoiled coastline in Spain, packed with thousands of people getting burned, plenty of them getting drunk with cheap booze and almost no space to put your towel down. Not judging but it’s just not my cup of tea. Mirissa beach is small and absolutely packed with sunbeds, loud music and cheap drinks, miles away from the peacefulness of our 2 previous beaches. None of us could hide the disappointment but we decided to get over it, have a walk on the beach, confirm the whale watch tour for the following day (I had already pre-booked our tour via email for the following day, so I just went to check with the tour company if everything was OK) and go back to our place to get ready for an early dinner. Since we wanted to avoid the main beach, we headed to Papa Mango, on the stretch of beach east of the main one. We shared a nice red snapper and then head back for a good rest, ready for the 5 AM start!
DAY 14 – MIRISSA
As for the safari, the choice of the whale watching tour is quite crucial (possibly even more). I chose Raja and the Whales and I can’t recommend them enough: great communication before booking, excellent staff and amazing tour with them, always providing us information and updates on what we were doing. They are a bit more expensive than some other tours (Rs 6500 per person) but worth every single penny. Differently from all the other boats we have seen, they do go a lot further out into the Ocean (we were the last one to get back to the harbour, a lot later than any other boat) and when you get to see the whales you will probably be the only boat around (and they keep a very safe distance in order to not disturb the mammal). I haven’t tried any other tour company of course but we spoke with some western business owners (hotels, restaurants) living in Sri Lanka that had the opportunity to try different companies and they all agreed that Raja were the best. Be mindful and book well in advance since they fill up pretty quickly. Their tours start at 6 AM and go on for at least 5/6 hours but in our case we stayed out for over 7 hours; they do provide full breakfast and lunch and sea sickness tablets which are a MUST taking into account the constant movement of the Indian Ocean (and confirmed by the fact that 95% of our boat was sick and I was struggling to not be in that %!). You just have to bring plenty of sun cream and a good camera if you fancy some nice snaps.
As I said, Mirissa is a must do if you want to experience a whale watching tour; if you want to avoid staying near the main beach chaos, you can choose an accommodation a bit further out or even stay in another town, but in that case factor in an even earlier start to be at the harbour at 6 AM.
Once back from the whale watch tour, we decided to follow the advice of one of the Raja crew members and head to the Secret Beach. This beach proves that you just need to go a bit off the beaten track to be able to find a lovely beach almost unspoiled a few minutes off the chaotic Mirissa town. Almost empty beach, clear water, reggae music, hammock and watermelon shake: HAPPINESS! To reach it, ask for directions from the harbour where you get dropped off by the boat. It’s a steep walk or ride up and then down again but it’s worth it. In case you plan to have a snack here, be aware that the only bar/restaurant on this beach is quite expensive. If you don’t fancy the walk back, they arrange a tuk tuk for you.
We spent a few hours on the beach and then got a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse. We packed our bags, relaxed a bit on the outdoor veranda and then head out for dinner at Zephyr Restaurant, on the main beach. This was going to be our last dinner in Sri Lanka so nothing better then eating some crab and prawn curry with our feet in the sand!
It looks like the restaurant is one of the busiest of all the beach and dinner was a particularly long (but extremely pleasant) one. Booking in advance is recommended.
We ended our day in Mirissa with a pleasant stroll on the beach before going to bed.
DAY 15 – MIRISSA – GALLE – COLOMBO AIRPORT
We got up with the feeling that we had missed doing something….and we soon realized that we had completely forgot to book our transport to Colombo Airport for that very same day!! Not a small thing since we had planned to: 1) have a full body massage in our guesthouse spa (me) before leaving Mirissa and 2) spend a few hours visiting Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the west coast, have lunch there and then head to the airport. Our flight was scheduled at 21:25 so we would have had all the day to head back up. There are plenty of options and combinations to find your way up from the South Coast to the airport: train, local bus, fast bus, private car, shared van etc and if you are planning to hire a private car, the earlier the better since you may find other people interesting in doing your same route. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we left it until the very last minute, we were not able to arrange any shared transport and we ended up paying Rs 10.000 for a brand new minivan to drive to the airport with a 4 hours stop in Galle; not too bad but we might have been able to save a bit by booking in advance.
After an amazing full body massage in the open air spa The Secret Root spa (you get discounts if you are a guest of the Secret Guest House), the driver picked us up around 11.30 and we drove north, following the beautiful coastline and seaside villages (some more developed than others) until reaching Galle (1,5 hour). Depending on what time you are flying out, I personally think that a quick stop in Galle Fort is worth, to get a glimpse of what Sri Lanka is on this side (though extremely touristy). The town, which was seriously damaged during the 2004 Tsunami, is very well kept and pretty compact so you could visit the main sites in a few hours, including a nice stroll on the walls with stunning views of the seaside. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of Luang Prabang (Laos) and in places like this I always struggle a bit thinking that it is all built to cater mainly for tourists: charming cafes and western restaurants dot every corner, upmarket boutique colonial hotels (together with some more affordable guesthouses), expensive shops and foreigners are everywhere (both living and visiting). If you plan to spend a few days here, be prepared to have to pay more money for everything, particularly accommodation.
Our driver dropped us at a guesthouse where we left our luggage and before heading back to Colombo Airport we were able to have a shower, which is always a nice thing before boarding on a long haul flight 🙂
And there we were, driving north to where we first started with a lot of amazing memories to bring back home with us!
Do you need a couple of good reasons to visit Sri Lanka? Have a look at my other post!
I had got to the end of January thinking that I had been missing Asia for far too long and I decided to book a trip to Sri Lanka with my travel buddy Roger. Mad decision taking into account the moment we were in (just about to relocate) but definitely one of the best decision EVER. Now that I have been back in Europe for a couple of weeks I can say it was one of the best short trips (only 15 days) that I have ever organized in such a short time (less than 2 weeks). We came back at the beginning of March, after 15 days of rice and curry, with memories full of bright colours, the head inebriated of freshly cut flowers and incense fragrances and with a bit of suntan too 😉
I have not been to India yet (on my to do list!) but my travel buddy, that went there not too long ago partaking in a rickshaw challenge, said that Sri Lanka is not too different in smells, flavours and colours, with the big advantage that being such a small country makes it quite easy to move around – a lot easier than the vastness of India. Unfortunately, in 15 days I haven’t been able to reach some of the areas that have been recently developing tourism, recovering from the destruction of the civil war and that would have surely deserved a visit. Still, what I saw was beautiful and the 15 days in Sri Lanka were an absolute delight for all our senses (smell in particular).
A few things to take into account when it comes to planning your journey:
Sri Lanka is a pretty small country and some of the destinations that you will probably visit are reachable using their railway system. The best source of information for train journeys, how to book tickets, which seat to choose etc is, as always, The Man in Seat 61. Booking Sri Lankan trains can be a bit tricky and on some trains (Kandy-Badulla, for example) it needs to be done in advance if you want to get a good seat (that to me meant only a window seat with the option to open the window itself for the fabulous views). I have used Visit Sri Lanka Tours (English/Sri Lankan agency) on 2 train journeys and I was absolutely happy with them. I booked my tickets while in the UK (paying with Paypal) and I collected them as soon as I arrived at Colombo airport. Easy! You pay a small commission (of course) but it saves you the hassle of not knowing whether you will get a good seat and it allows you to plan your onward travels.
For all the other locations not covered by railway, you have a few options: 1) local buses without AC 2) local buses with AC 3) private or shared car 4) tuk tuk.
Tuk tuk in the hill country
Keeping my feet warm in 36C degrees on a private car from Ella to Kataragama
Do take into account that local bus drivers are nuts; though they don’t drive as bad as Laotian bus drivers (just as an example), they do drive extremely fast and it seems that the bigger the bus, the faster it goes, whizzing through villages packed with school kids, markets, traders etc making the whole experience a bit nerve-racking. Whatever transport you choose will depend on 2 main factors: price and distance. In our travels, we have always preferred local transport (less comfortable but much more fun!) but this time having only 15 days we realized that on some occasions it was vital to be able to cut short our travel time, having more time to visit whatever our next destination offered. For this reason, we opted for a private car on 2 occasions (Ella/Kataragama and Mirissa/Colombo Airport) and it was the best choice; more expensive than the local transport (and without that local feeling) but definitely worth it to save time. Also, take into account that having your own private transport allows you to stop and visit something else whilst en route, and that’s a big plus when it comes to discovering a country. Whatever means of transport you will choose…barter, barter, barter is the general rule for every transport (except local buses and trains). It’s not impossible to obtain a fair price that makes everyone happy.
Plenty of tourists choose to hire a car with driver for their whole time in Sri Lanka and that is not as expensive as some may think but you will need to shop around before choosing your driver (or use one agency that will dramatically inflate the price); though it can be a good option (particularly if you have got kids and if you are travelling in a group) and offer you more flexibility, although you will surely miss out on some fun experiences!
Sri Lanka has accommodation for all budgets. It’s not as cheap as South East Asia but in the end with a bit of research we were able to find decent accommodation at a decent price (pre-booked, to save time). We found that home-stays offered the best value accommodation with a true Sri Lankan experience (around $15-20/night with breakfast).
Most guest houses and home-stays offer meals, eating in is a good option for at least 2 reasons: 1) food is always fresh and made from scratch and 2) you get to know your hosts better.
Taking into account Sri Lanka’s lush nature and wildlife, it’s worth trying to go off-the-beaten track for a couple of days, sleeping in the jungle or remote settings being surrounded only by nature and its noises… and its residents :-). These experiences will need a bit more investment (both in time and money), nothing astronomical but absolutely worth every single penny.
We visited Sri Lanka in the second half of February and we had AC only in a couple of rooms. If you are on a budget it’s not a must but if you struggle with heat and humidity (especially coming from cold winter), maybe it’s something to factor in. All the rooms we stayed in except 2 (that my boyfriend chose) were generally pretty basic (standard bed, small table and chair), very clean and all came with mosquito net.
I was a bit unsure whether I would enjoy the local cuisine as much as I did in SE Asia, but I turned out that I loved their curries so much that I had it for breakfast (including deep fried fish curry at 7 AM), lunch and dinner. They can be very spicy but (hopefully!) they will tell you if the dish you have ordered is mind-blowing and you’d better opt for a milder one.
In the most touristy locations (Kandy, Ella) you can easily find Western food but personally I stuck to Sri Lankan food during our entire trip and only had one cappuccino over 15 days and the effects where…let’s say…catastrophic, so I quickly went back to my Ceylon tea and fresh fruit juices. My body was no longer used to milk and diaries (apparently I had no problems at all in eating tons of curd…!!) at the point that, once back in the UK, it took me over a week to get back to normality, eating and drinking the usual huge quantities of cheese and milk. Panic over.
Sri Lankan food is reasonably priced and with $10/12 a day you will eat well (sometimes a lot less). It’s worth having breakfast in your home-stay for a couple of dollars since – in most cases – you will eat so much that you will skip lunch. Also take into account that sometimes a rice and curry portion could be enough for a couple of people if not more (portions are huge) so unless you are particularly ravenous you could easily share one.
Fresh fruit is plentiful and absolutely delicious; the most common you will find will be papaya, mango, pineapple, guava and watermelon, usually squeezed in refreshing juices.
Throughout our 2 weeks in Sri Lanka we didn’t have any problem with food and we tried as much as we could; one thing that we avoided was the buffet food (you don’t know how long food has been sitting there) and the so called short-eats, a sort of Sri Lankan snacks.Restaurants and bakeries arrange trays of these baked and deep fried goods and when you order they leave the tray on the table; you choose what you want and then the tray goes back half empty to be restocked. I am sure they are delicious but they go through several hands before going straight to your mouth so, unless your body is ready, if you want to try what short-eats are, just go to a proper bakery and choose a bit of everything. Safer and equally yummy.
To get to know more about Sri Lankan cuisine, have a look www.seriouseats.com, plenty of information on what to expect from Sri Lankan food and mouthwatering pictures.
Sri Lankan people are absolutely lovely. Particularly in the destinations off-the-beaten track, they will need your smile first to feel comfortable to approach you and talk – which it seems they can’t wait to do. Once they overcome their initial shyness, that’s done: their English might be broken but they love to practice, kids and elderly with no difference and they will try their best to communicate. Thinking what their country has gone through in the last decades, it is still quite striking that smile is what you see more often on their faces (both Sinhalese and Tamil). Smile, in the end, keeps the world moving.
Nature and wildlife
Apart from the amazing pagodas, cave temples, pilgrimage and spiritual sites, religious celebrations etc, Sri Lanka is possibly one of the most striking destinations I have been so far with such a stunning nature (including some amazing unspoilt beaches) and wildlife.
As soon as you leave the big cities (e.g. Colombo and Kandy) and just take a stroll or a bike ride on any side road, you will find yourself surrounded by amazingly colourful birds, beautiful bright butterflies, lushly green vegetation and any time is the right occasion for an unexpected encounter. We have been to Yala Natural Park but some of the most amazing animal encounters happened outside the park: an elephant crossing right in the middle of the road while en route from Ella to Kataragama, shining bee-eaters whizzing through our path, a crocodile chilling out in the lake just outside our nature resort, dozens of bright peacocks just a few meter from us, giant fruit bats in a city park, hungry monkeys on our way to the cave temples….everywhere you turn, there is something amazing to watch.
And above all, her majesty….the blue whale, a few hours off Mirissa coast and undoubtedly the most shivering animal encounter I ever experienced.
What else? Get a good guide, surf the travel forums and you are ready to go!
When I moved to England in the summer of 2013, I hadn’t realized how expensive it would have been to live here (at least compared to Italy and Spain, where I had lived before). I had already been to the UK several times, both for pleasure and for business but it’s only when you live here that you realise how ridiculous expensive day-to-day life can be if you do not act carefully, even more if you are only visiting. I now live an hour from London and a return train ticket to London Waterloo costs me at least 19£, off-peak. Sometimes, I can get an Easyjet flight ticket to Milan (one way) for that money. But, on the positive side, I like to know that I can always tour London spending almost nothing and still having a great day. Samuel Johnson said: “Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” I couldn’t agree more.
If you are planning to visit London, here are some tips to arrange your trip without blowing your budget.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Unless you are a fan of Courchsurfing, sleeping for free in London gets hard. If you are a hostel type, have a look at the 10 coolest hostels in London suggested on Visit London Blog. Personally, I found some of the best low budget options on Airbnb: if you book in advance, you can get a double room in London Central Area for less than £50/60. If you are visiting with a group of friends, you can also rent a whole flat through Airbnb, which usually turns out cheaper than renting individual rooms; plus, you will have a full kitchen available to prepare some meals, if you want to, and that would be a big saving too. If you are new to Airbnb, don’t be scared: before renting you can check pictures, reviews from fellow travelers (if there are any) and ask any questions to the owners to get a feel for the place and the hosts. I’ve used Airbnb extensively when travelling to the States and I only had great (and fun) experiences so I would definitely recommend it. On top of that, if you get to meet the owner, generally you can get good inside tips on where to go out and eat, what to visit in the neighbourhood etc.
If you prefer more traditional accommodation, Premier Inn and Travelodge chains offer good value rooms; there are plenty dotted around London and if you book well ahead you can get a Travelodge double room for as little as £49 in Central London. I have tried Premier Inn Blackfriars Fleet Street and have been very pleased with it (I paid £70 for a double room on Boxing Day, a Saturday last year). The earlier you book, the better price you get. £70/night may not sound super cheap but do take into account that in such a central location you will not need to get a 1 Day Travel Card (see further down) since you will be able to walk almost everywhere and that’s a big saving per person. Its location near the river was perfect to enjoy all the amenities on both sides of the Thames and at the same time it was a pleasant walk to the action of Covent Garden, Soho, the West End and Piccadilly.
It’s not true that you can’t eat cheaply in London. Plenty of excellent food chains offer affordable and yummy food perfect for a quick lunch: EAT and PRET have fresh and daily made delicious filled sandwiches to choose from (including hot options and soups). The main supermarket chains (Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco etc…) have a vast selection of sandwiches and meal deals as well. For dinner, have a look at Opentable.co.uk to see which restaurants/pubs/cafes offer promotions and deals; plenty of restaurants offer discount if you choose to eat outside the busiest hours and pre theatre menu (usually served between 5 PM and 6.30 PM) are excellent value and in some cases you can enjoy a two courses meal in a good restaurant for as little as £12 pp (sometimes even less); just take a stroll in the West End area and you will see plenty of boards advertising dining deals. Chinatown is a safe bet for a very reasonable and interesting meal; there are plenty of options in the area to taste authentic Chinese food. We personally chose Jen Café, a very informal eatery (shared table, no table cloth) where we had a quick lunch with some delicious dumplings but the option are endless. When I am not particularly inspired and I don’t want to spend too much money on food, I choose a couple of safe food chains and I have to say I have always been quite satisfied. Try Busaba Eathai for a very reasonable and quite authentic Asian food experience in a cool and youngish atmosphere (we ate in their Soho branch and it was really buzzing and lively) or Wagamama: Asian food, quick service, reasonable priced, plenty of locations around London. For a more British experience, Browns Brasserie and Bar is generally a good bet: they have got a few restaurants in London (including one in Covent Garden and one near the Tower Bridge) and they offer a two courses menu from Monday to Friday from 12 to 7 PM for £11.95….not bad at all!
HOW TO GET AROUND
Transport in London is expensive but it’s amazingly efficient (at least from an Italian point of view!). First thing: understanding London transport and getting your mind around zones, tickets, travel cards, caps etc can take a while but it’s not impossible and if you do it properly you will save money. London public transport network is divided in 9 zones but probably everything a first time visitor would want to see/visit is located within zone 1 and 2. Since an adult cash fare for a single journey in Zone 1 (Central London) on the Tube is £4.90, it can get pretty expensive to move around town 😦
The cheapest way to do it is to get a pre-paid Oyster Card, that you can top up (just to understand the saving: using an Oyster Card, an adult single journey is £2.40 vs £4.90). The most important benefit of having an Oyster Card is that you will only pay for a maximum number of journeys per day and after that all the other journeys that you will do on that same day will be free. That’s the so-called “capping”; see Transport for London chart to check the caps per each zone. You have got 2 options: 1) Before travelling to London, you can order online a Visitor Oyster Card that will costs you £3 (plus postage) and will be mailed to your home address and it will offer plenty of discounts and promotions for attractions around London. 2) If you are already in London, you can buy an Oyster Card (refundable £5 deposit but doesn’t include any discounts nor promotions) from any Airport, Tube station, some newsagents and some National Rail Stations (for a full and accurate list of where to buy it, check the Transport for London website). If you do not wish to buy an Oyster card, 1 Day Travel card (unlimited journeys) starts at £12.10 (price varies according to zones and depending if you want to use your card before 9.30 AM on weekdays – which is considered peak hour). A 7-day travel card starts from £32.40 (in this case, price depends only on zones). Check what areas you want to visit, what time you will be using it and plan accordingly since it can save you a bit of money. Transport for London website is very accurate and it’s the best source to find out which is the best solution for your journey. If you are staying somewhere out of London and need the train to get into town, bear in mind that even though trains are generally pretty expensive, there are some big discounts for many London attractions (have a look at the full list on Days out Guide), such as 2 for 1.
Feel brave enough to cycle around London? Riding London Cycles (also know as Boris bikes, named after the London mayor) is a cheap and fun way to view the city (provided you can cycle!). You can hire one from as little as at £2 and there are more than 10.000 bikes over 700 docking stations throughout the city!
BEST FREE THINGS TO DO IN LONDON
Once the initial arrangements have been done, here are some of the best free things to enjoy London:
Walking: the only free transport and probably the best way to really get to know London if you have got only a few days. Get one of the free maps available (at the Information points or Railway stations) and start your journey. London is huge so if you are planning to move around walking, you should plan your walking wisely to avoid ending your day with destroyed feet. As you will see, all around London there are plenty of signs, monoliths, totems and all sorts of signage you could possibly need to find your way around the city that sometimes you wouldn’t even need to open your map. Despite being a huge city, it’s pretty hard to get totally lost!
My favourite walk is undoubtedly the river walk from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge and back. Both river banks are buzzing with plenty of things to see and do and you could easily spend hours strolling up and down the river: starting from the London Eye, walk through the Southbank Centre, have a stroll in Gabriel’s Wharf and Oxo Tower Wharf (in both there are plenty of individual and quirky shops, restaurants and cafes), admire St. Paul’s Cathedral from the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge; pass the Shakespeare’s Globe and continue up to the Tower Bridge, keeping your head up for The Shard and making a detour for Borough Market if it’s open (check their opening hours on their website), one of the best food markets in town. Cross to the other side, reach the Tower of London and walk all the way down to the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben, passing through the beautiful Somerset House and admiring some of the most impressive architecture of the British capital.
In my opinion, any trip to London should start from its river.
If you want some suggestions for other walks around London, have a look at City of London Walks (self-guided walks around the City with maps and explanation) and Time Out Walks. Alternative London Toursoffersoff-the beaten-track tours todiscover East London, its street art and the historical and cultural events that marked the area. It’s not totally free since it works on a pay-what-you-like basis but if you are interested to know the area it could be a very good option.
Visit a park: London parks are possibly some of the best I’ve ever seen in a big city. Green (all this rain must be good for something!), well kept and busy, they are definitely a safe escape from the buzz and frenetic London life. Even though England is not renowned for its mild climate, if you are lucky enough to visit when the sun is shining a long stroll in one of the city park is a must (even in winter, if you wrap up properly). In summer time (weather permitting), grab a meal deal from any food establishment and spend a few hours in the park or in any of the lovely garden squares around the city, enjoying the outdoor and the park residents (swans, geese, squirrels and many more).
Visit a museum: plenty of museums and exhibitions are free and you should take advantage of that for a free culture boost. National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Gallery and Tate Modern, British Museum, National History Museum, V&A, Museum of London and Science Museum are just some of the free museums around London. Have also a look at Time Out London to see what free temporary exhibitions are on. Everyone has got his own taste but personally I really like the National Gallery (beautiful Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet and Seurat paintings) and the National Portrait Gallery.
I visited the Tate Modern quite recently and, to be fair, I struggled a bit to understand some of the art pieces on exhibit….but that must be me and I am sure plenty of people will love it.
Do you prefer to spend all day doing outdoor sightseeing and leaving the museums for the evening? Check out the late openings of museums and galleries throughout London; plenty of them organise events, talks, tours, DJ sets…and most of them are free!
Other free interesting buildings/attractions to see: visiting some of the most iconic buildings in London is expensive. Just to give you an idea: St. Paul’s entrance ticket is £18, Tower of London £24.50, Westminster Abbey £18 and so on. You can save a couple of pounds with online booking but the cost is still quite high. If you are interested in visiting different attractions and iconic buildings that require a ticket, London Pass is probably the best choice: it’s not cheap (they offer 1, 2, 3 and 6 day pass that you can combine with an Oyster Card; 1 day adult pass is £55) but if you plan to visit several attractions it’s definitely worth the money. Personally, I think that the major London attractions should all be done at least once in a lifetime but, if you are not prepared/haven’t got the budget to do them all now, here are my choices for best free buildings/attractions in London:
Sky Garden: I know, it’s not the London Eye but it can give you a good view of the London skyline for free (you have to book in advance).
Royal Courts of Justice
Changing of the Guard Ceremony outside Buckingham Palace
Ceremony of the Keys in the Tower of London: it has to be booked well in advance since it sold out very quickly.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church: next to Trafalgar Square, it’s free to visit and to attend its lunchtime concerts.
Plenty more to do in London (and plenty more to write), but for now this should be a good start to keep you going for a few days at least!
Though it’s not impossible to do London on a budget, it does take a good planning and a bit of research to choose where to eat, sleep and go out but, once the planning is done, you will have plenty of time to enjoy this amazing city.
Every Italian region has its own characteristic food and every Italian region is extremely proud of its local cuisine. Puglia is no exception, having some of the most delicious and mouthwatering food that I have ever tasted (I mean devoured). In a land blessed with sun and sea, you can be sure that everything you eat will be local and fresh: delicious fish and seafood, scrumptious fruits and vegetables, luscious barbecue meat and tasty cheeses, yummy home made desserts… there is a bit for everyone’s taste.
Here is a list of some of the delicacies that I still dream of…
Invented in Lecce in 1745, Pasticciotto is an Italian pastry filled with custard (depending on the region, it may be filled with ricotta instead). The description can’t render enough the soft pastry and the warm custard heart. Eat as many as you can because it’s going to be hard to find one of them back home – wherever you are from.
Taralli, Olive e Burrata
Taralli are a typical snack of Southern Italy, sort of crackers. You will find them in different flavor but the most common ones are with onion, garlic or fennel. Olives don’t need any introduction. You will find them everywhere. Burrata (pictured on the back of the plate) is a fresh cheese made from cows milk similar to a mozzarella but with a texture ten times softer and stringer than its cousin. It’s original from Andria and it looks like a small sachet (but burrata can get up to 1 Kg) with an heart of “strings” (stracciatella) and cream. To die for.
Possibly one of the yummiest quick lunch you can have. All over Puglia you wil find different types of puccia that actually look all very different (some similar to an open sandwich, other bread with olives). The one above was in a deli store in Ostuni and it was fabulous.
Also, a quick mention should be made for the rustico: unfortunately, I devoured mine too quickly before even taking a picture! 😦 it’s a rounded puff pastry of 10-15 min diameter, filled with béchamel, mozzarella and tomato, to be eaten hot. It’s original from Lecce area and locals tend to eat it as a quick snack before dinner (!). You will find it in most delis and it’s worth a try.
Ricci di mare
I first tested ricci (sea urchin) a few years ago in Malta and, since then, I am officially in love. Best with pasta, in Puglia you will see people sharing dozens of these raw delicacies and extracting the juice as if it’s the last thing they will do. Quite aphrodisiac too, so go for it! Sea urchins hunting is strictly regulated in Italy and in Puglia it’s forbidden to hunt them between April 30th and June 30th (fishermen can hunt limited quantities throughout the year) so keep that in mind if you want fresh ones.
Possibly one of the fattiest thing you can eat in Puglia, pettole are balls of deep fried dough. People from Puglia eat them like an appetizer. Basically, we nibble on crisps, they nibble on pettole. Every town in Puglia (and not only Puglia) has its own tradition as far as when to prepare them and how to eat them. The picture above was taken when I attended the Liberation Day Lunch on April 25th with my friend’s family. I am from Milan and in Puglia I am considered as foreign as you (probably more). I can’t understand their dialect so I couldn’t interact as much as I’d like but once food is on the table, everyone speaks the same language!
Riso patate e cozze
It translates: rice, potato and mussels. More typical of Bari area, to be fair I haven’t found this dish very often in any menu and I actually only ate it twice, the first one being at my friend’s house but it was delicious so if you read it on a menu, you should try it.
Home made orecchiette and cavatelli
Fresh pasta is an Italian prerogative but orecchiette (“small ear”) is the most common variety of home-made pasta in Puglia. You can bet you will find them on every menu in Puglia, the most common being with cime di rapa (broccoli) or al sugo di cavallo (horse ragu with tomato based sauce) sprinkled with a variety of strong ricotta cheese. Delicious! Cavatelli (pictured on the left side in the pictures above) is another very typical home made pasta. I took the pictures above at 5 AM in the morning at my friend’s home: we had just come back from a night out and her mum had been awake preparing fresh pasta for all the family! I felt very bad for having been out all night (and morning!!) but we felt soooo good knowing that lunch would have been heavenly!
I have been in a few Michelin restaurants in my life but none in Italy. But, to be fair, who needs a star when you have got this? If you decide to visit Puglia, stick to the simple recipes, the local products and the healthy portions and you will be in heaven.
A separate mention should be made for 2 other star products of Puglia: oil and wine.
Oil is Puglia’s gold and you will see it by yourself: acres and acres of olives dot the whole region. When the land is so dry and the water so scarce, almost nothing else grows as good as olive trees. Don’t be shy and ask a small plate to dip your bread in: from a sparkling green to a beautiful dark golden color, olive oil will always be on your table.
Some of the best Italian red and full-bodied wines come from this region: Primitivo di Manduria, Salice Salentino, Negroamaro to name a few. We had an unforgettable wine experience in a beautiful place called Cantine Menhir in Minervino di Lecce. To be fair, I didn’t have any bad wine while in Puglia so it will be very difficult for you to go wrong.
For more information on the best wines of the region, you can have a look at www.vinidipuglia.com or www.lestradedelvinopuglia.it, both very well done websites with lots of information on the local wines and an event page to see what’s on in the region.