Siena Palio is over. All the stress, anxiety and excitement of the Palio days (or better to say of the year, for the Senesi) was over in just a couple of minutes last Saturday evening. La Lupa contrada won, after 27 years. At the moment, for as much I try hard I can’t think of any other sport or event that lasts so short and that profoundly marks a part of a city in a matter of seconds.
The fact that la Lupa contrada won is undoubtedly important (particularly for la Lupa contrada itself, of course) but that meant a true catastrophe for the contrada of the Istrice, its forever rival. The two contrada horses were next to each other at the starting line and the animosity was clear. As I wrote in my previous post, for a contrada that races in the Palio, winning is as equally important as making sure that its rival doesn’t win. That happened on July 2nd and I suppose that was the worst nightmare for the Istrice contrada and all its contradaioli. I was watching the Palio in a bar in the Istrice contrada and the fact that la Lupa won completely changed the mood of the evening, at least for this part of the city: minutes after the result, flocks of people abandoned Siena streets, head down with tears in their eyes, walking back fast pace towards Istrice contrada headquarter. A funeral would be the best way I could describe the atmosphere, and I am absolutely serious. When I say proper tears, I mean that I have never seen so much distress in such a vast group of people of all ages: from kids up to elderly people, the distress was patent and widespread and I felt a bit intrusive in being in the Istrice contrada in such a moment since, for much you would like to show empathy with people crying, you will never be able to fully understand the desperation of the contradaioli.
But let’s get back from the beginning…
Though the race itself starts at 7.45 PM, it is absolutely worth to be in Siena in the early afternoon of July 2nd (the same applies to August 16th) to attend the multitude of events collateral to the Palio that help to build up the whole atmosphere.
For various reasons, we had previously decided to not watch Palio inside Piazza del Campo but we still wanted to enjoy half a day in Siena, wandering down the streets packed with locals and foreigners alike.
If you are planning on watching the Palio inside Piazza del Campo, bear in mind that:
If you want to get a good spot, i.e. next to the Mossa (where the horses start) or at the finishing line, people will start arriving to secure a space next to the fence in the early afternoon. We entered the square around 4 PM and the best spots on the fence where already taken, so probably around 1 or 2 PM would be recommended.
At the time we arrived, almost all the square except a tiny part on the west corner was in the full sun. If you are planning on arriving early, come prepared: water, a hat or even a small umbrella to shade yourself and plenty of sun cream are an absolute must. The are a few stalls in Piazza del Campo that sell water (or there is a potable fountain, if you don’t mind the queue in the baking sun).
All the accesses to the square start to close around 4.30/5 PM, before the historical parade enters Piazza del Campo. The last access to be closed (at 6.45 PM) is in Via Dupre’ (from the contrada Onda).
In the square there are no toilets, so be prepared.
Once the last access to the square is closed, you can’t leave Piazza del Campo until the Palio is finished and nobody can’t really predict when that will be: lining up all the horses and starting can take a while and the Mossa can be repeated several times and, above all, it takes a while to empty a packed square.
Apart from the Palio race itself, the afternoon starts at 3.00/3.30 PM with the benediction of the horse and the jockey in each contrada church, a truly solemn moment. After the benediction, each contrada parades in its full costumes and flags down the street of Siena, stopping in Piazza Salimbeni, Casino dei Nobili, Chigi Saracini Palace and in Piazza del Duomo, waving flags and drumming. Choose one of these stops, and secure a space to have a good view (we choose Piazza Salimbeni standing on the steps of the central statue and we had a very good view).
Then, at around 4.30 PM the procession leaves the Piazza del Duomo and heads for Piazza del Campo. By pure chance we went up the tiny Via del Castoro and at the end of this street, just before the arch, it’s where the parades gather before entering Piazza del Duomo so you can get a few nice shots before entering the square.
Choosing to follow the parade means that you will not be able to secure a good place in Piazza del Campo but that’s a choice, of course; we found the parade in the streets absolutely fascinating and worth watching. The streets were busy but if you feel too congested just take a side road and it will be almost empty. We followed the parade, took our time in the streets and then head down to Piazza del Campo. As expected, all the accesses (it was gone 6 PM) were already closed. We heard that the last access to be open was Via Dupre’ and we headed there. Surprisingly, there was almost no queue and we were able to easily enter the access and in a matter of seconds we found ourselves right in Piazza del Campo with definitely a great view to take a couple of pictures!
We stayed a while in the square, enjoyed the historical parade and then, right before they closed the access at 6:45 PM, we sneaked out and headed to the contrada dell’Istrice, in a bar where we had booked a table to watch the Palio. We are still learning about Palio and having someone (in our case, the bar owner) explaining you what’s exactly going on is absolutely essential, otherwise you will probably miss the most of it. In this sense, hiring a guide for the Palio is definitely a great idea and highly recommended if you want to have some proper background and detailed notions on the Palio tradition.
As I said, the fact that la Lupa won caused a massive meltdown in the people of the Istrice contrada. In a matter of seconds, Via Camollia (the hearth of Istrice contrada) got exceptionally quiet and silent, and you could distinguish from afar a steady and almost compact flow of people coming up the street heading towards Porta Camollia. By that time we were standing outside the bar finishing our drinks and as soon as the Istrice contradaioli (all clearly recognizable by their scarf with the contrada colours) were coming closer it became obvious that a lot of them were in tears. I suppose we were not expecting anything like that and the bar owner must have seen our puzzled faces and promptly explained us that for the Istrice contrada it was an absolute travesty that their rival had won, not so much that they didn’t win the Palio.
Since I have been in Tuscany I have always liked people from Siena: from the experiences we had, they are generally very chilled out, relaxed and friendly with tourists/outsiders but the Palio definitely changes people and on Saturday in Siena there was a weird atmosphere: people were obviously getting ready for the big event with families and group of friends alike gathering in and around Piazza del Campo but throughout the day we approached 5/6 different groups of people and every time answers to our questions were very quickly dismissed and cut short or answered in bad manners. At a certain point, I had the feeling that tension was becoming almost rudeness (not all of the Senesi, but I am sure it was not a case).
With the end of the Palio days, it was absolutely clear one thing to me: the Palio belongs to Siena and the Senesi. That’s it. Of course you/we can attend the event and watch it, either in the square or paying hundreds of Euros to watch it more comfortably from a palco or balcony seat but at the end of the day that doesn’t mean anything: for us (not Senesi) Palio is a mere festival, a celebration. For them, it’s a completely different story: tradition, passion and pride.
Nevertheless, it has to be experienced, at least once in a lifetime.
Heading to Siena this summer? The Palio days will take place again from August 13th to August 16th (Palio race), with the same schedule. If you are visiting, have a look at my other post to find out the most interesting facts about the Palio and the trials.
Yesterday evening was my first time at Palio di Siena. For those not familiar with it, it’s one of the most spectacular events held in Italy, a bareback horse race around the main square of Siena (Piazza del Campo) held twice a year. Attending the trial races yesterday evening and this morning was an absolute amazing experience, even though I am still battling with the mixed feelings related to the fact of attending a horses race event on such a difficult and dangerous track, where undoubtedly horses will suffer and will get injured or worse. So far I have not seen such a thing happen so I have been comfortable in experiencing it but I suppose that the race itself is going to be a total different matter so, at least for now, I have decided to not attend it. It’s a tradition that has been alive for centuries, for which its people are extremely proud and passionate about and I had goosebumps myself from the very first moment I stepped in Piazza del Campo yesterday evening.
I didn’t know a lot about Palio before moving to Tuscany and I still have to learn plenty but what I have been learning in the last few weeks from Senesi (people from Siena) keeps fascinating me.
While tourists (including me) may get excited only for the 2 Palio dates (July 2nd and August 16th), for Senesi Palio is not only limited to these 2 days a year: as they like to say, Palio is 365 days a year.
A few interesting facts about Palio, that I recently learnt:
Palio is not limited to July 2nd and August 16th: in truth, it should be referred as Palio days since equally important are the 4 days preceding each Palio, busy with rituals and processions and the twice a day race trials (one in the morning and one in the evening). One of the most important moment for each contradaiolo is when the horses are assigned to each contrada by draw ( the so called “Tratta”), a moment that attracts thousands of people in Piazza del Campo. The starting positions are by draw as well.
There are 17 contrada in Siena but only 10 of them take part in each race. Each contrada has got a traditional rival and for each of them winning the Palio is as important as making sure that their rival contrada does not win it. Each contrada is considered a sort of individual small State, run by a Priore, a Capitano with the support of 2-3 contradaioli called “mangini”. Each contrada has its own church and their own headquarter where its flags, drapes, costumes and historical memories are kept.
Forget the fair play: Palio has been and will always be a game of power, plots, threats and bribes, as the Senesi themselves openly admit. Everything is allowed (including bribes and all sort of dirty play behind the scenes) and the only rule of the race is that the jockeys (fantini) can’t interfere with other jockey’s reins but everything else is allowed and should be expected.
It’s the horse that wins the Palio and gets all the honours and celebrations, not the jockey and the horse can win even without the jockey. From the moment jockeys are drawn, they can be changed up to the day before the Palio. The jockeys are paid and they are more a sort of mercenaries not emotionally attached to the contrada and open to bribes and corruption from rival contrada – no wonder why you hardly see them smiling during the trials! An extremely important figure, not to be confused with the jokey is the so called Barbaresco, the horse assistant that during the Palio days sleeps in the stable with the horse and never leaves his side.
The race itself on July 2nd starts at 7:45 PM and lasts just over 90 seconds. All the horses – except the horse drawn last – are kept in the so called “Mossa”, an area in the north-west corner of Piazza del Campo marked by two ropes where the horses are gathered. The race officially starts when the free horse charges the group between the two ropes.
Watching the Palio in Piazza del Campo is free. If you have got plenty of money to spend (I have been quoted Eur 450 for a seat on Saturday July 2nd) you can secure a place on one of the “palco” or balconies, definitely a more privileged position to experience the Palio but that will need more investment and undoubtedly more planning.
If you want to take some nice shots during the trial races (I can’t recommend about the Palio day itself since I have not experienced it), keep in mind that the morning trials (9 AM) are generally a lot quieter than the evening ones and you get more chances to secure a place in the front line without having to arrive in Piazza del Campo too early (I was there at 7.45 AM this morning and got a spot right next to the Mossa). If you want to get a good close up of the horses and the jockeys, position yourself near the Mossa where the horses start (keep in mind that where there is a double fence you might get some policemen or the square cleaners to partially obstruct your view).
If you want to get pictures of the horses entering the square, get down to where the Town Hall is, which is also a great spot if you want to have a longer view of the horses racing. This location can get a bit noisy 🙂 but extremely colourful since there are the stands where hundreds of little contradaioli (kids of all ages) wave and sing before and during the race.
After the trials, the horse is brought back to each contrada’s stable to get washed and rested, followed by the procession of its contradaioli.
Though you can’t get right up to the stable, follow them down the streets of Siena for some great people shots. Equally beautiful is just spending a couple of hours walking through the different contrada, picking up the colours and the symbols of each of them.
It’s official: I am in love with Siena each day more!
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!
I planned my trip to Cambodia sitting in an hammock overlooking the Mekong river in the Four Thousand Islands in Laos and the planning – which by itself is an amazing part of any travel – was utterly special. Even though I had a month to spend in Cambodia, throughout the planning I got a bit overwhelmed by the feeling of not being able to see everything that I wanted to see but at the end of the day, as in any other trip, the key is to make absolutely the most of every location you choose to stop, keeping in mind that a couple of places might need a bit more pre-planning.
All I have seen in Cambodia was unforgettable but here are my absolute highlights – in no particular order – that could even fit a well organized 2 weeks trip.
TEMPLES OF ANGKOR
The site is simply superb and in my view it fully justifies the fact that it’s always on top of the list of things to visit in Cambodia. It’s the largest religious monument in the world and since it covers 162.6 hectares, it needs pretty good planning before tackling it, if you want to get the most of it without going back to your guesthouse absolutely knackered to do anything else. How long to spend visiting Angkor is down to you; we took a 3-day pass and, even though a lot more could have been seen, 3 days for us worked just perfect: start early to beat both the crowds and the heat, rest and have a quick lunch somewhere during the hottest hours and leave the site after sunset. Before starting visiting Angkor, we planned the temples we wanted to see on each day, we found a friendly tuk tuk driver with a bit of English and we agreed with him both the price and the daily route to save time each day.
As a part of any trip to Cambodia, a visit to its capital should be paid, particularly since it is there where you will mostly confront yourself with Cambodia’s past: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I have dedicated a full post to my visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located right downtown. My strongest advice is – before visiting – to document yourself as much as you can (I’ve given a few suggestions of interesting readings in my post). It is true that Phnom Penh is not only Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields (located about 17 km from Phnom Penh) but it is definitely a fundamental part of the city. Take your time and be prepared for one of the toughest visit you could possibly do. There is plenty more to visit in Phnom Penh, including the beautiful Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (go just before closing time at lunch time and you will have it almost by yourself) and the National Museum. I would say that you will need a few days to do the most interesting sites and get a feel for the city. Many people we met during our travels disliked Phnom Pehn; I liked it, busy, noisy and thriving at anytime of the day (particularly early morning, as any city/town in Asia) and found it extremely interesting to walk around and discover the different areas.
I have always appreciated how beautiful it is when a city sits on a river. If the river is the Mekong then it’s an absolute delight. Kratie is a thriving town right on the Mekong, a few hours south from the Laos-Cambodia border; plenty of guesthouses and small restaurants make it a good place to stop. The town itself is not the main reason why you should visit but it’s a great base to explore the surrounding area, knowing that once back from your day exploring you can grab a beer and sit with the locals on the Mekong banks enjoying the sunset (don’t look down though, cause that’s where Cambodians throw all their garbage, unfortunately :-(. Hire a moped, leave the town and be prepared to be gobsmacked: lush green vegetation, almost abandoned temples with freely roaming cows, friendly and enthusiast kids keen to play and talk in English and one of the most stunning activities you can possibly enjoy in the gloaming sunset light: dolphin-watching in Kampi, around 16 km from Kratie town. The Irrawaddy dolphin is an endangered species throughout Asia and seeing it swimming in the Mekong is magical. We absolutely loved it.
The town itself (exceptionally dusty, at least when we visited in February) is not particularly attractive and it is definitely quite a detour from any other part in Cambodia (we got there from Kratie) and you will need a couple of days on your side if you want to visit this part of the country but it is totally worth it. What really made the difference was our experience at the Elephant Valley Project. We spent a full day there and we learnt so much from the guys that manage and run that we came back to Europe wanting to learn a lot more about Cambodia and about some of the specific issues in the region of Mondulkiri (land expropriation, rubber plantations etc), all topics addressed in depth by the staff at the EVP. It’s not cheap and you will need to plan and book in advance but it’s one of those things totally worth it.
Personally, I would only need one reason to go to Kep: amazing crab. That to me would be enough reason to visit. On top of that, Kep area offers some of the most amazing natural scenery and wildlife, just a moped ride from town. The fact that we chose to stay at The Boat House made the difference. The French owner was extremely helpful and keen to show us the best spots around town by handing us out a hand-drawn map with the most interesting things not to miss: buffalo herds, hidden beaches, salt mines, temples etc all via countryside unpaved roads that made the moped ride far more exciting. And the best thing of all? During your exploration you will rarely cross your path with any other tourist. I can’t recommend it enough but make sure to leave a full day in Kep, enough to explore the outdoor. If you can pay a visit to the daily market, do it. If not, in the evening head to the restaurants at the Crab Market to get some of the most delicious crab fried with Kampot pepper. We tried a few and Kimly was by far our favourite (in terms of portions and taste!).
A town with a thriving market (that is worth a visit itself) set in an amazing natural setting with plenty of history to soak into. We spent 2 nights in Battambang and it was enough to explore the town and spend one full day exploring the area. In all our stops we usually rented a moped and explore the countryside but on this occasion we decided to get an English speaking tuk tuk driver to make sure we were not missing anything out since there are plenty of things to see and quite away from one another: beautiful hill-top temples with gorgeous views (Phnom Sampeau and Phnom Banan), amazing caves with thousands of bats flying out every evening creating one of the most stunning natural “show” I have ever seen (you will not be the only one enjoying the phenomenon), trees completely covered in giant fruit bats etc. A day spent in the countryside outside Battambang is the best way to get to know this corner of Cambodia.
If you still have a couple of days on your side and fancy a bit of seaside, you may want to check out Koh Rong Samloem, a small island off Sihanoukville and definitely my favourite island/beach so far! Plenty of info in my post, how to get there and where to sleep!
If there is a place in England that I particularly love, it is definitely the Cotswolds. Designated as one of the 46 AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in the United Kingdom, if you choose to visit you will soon understand why: lovely and charming villages, stunning rolling hills and beautiful countryside views, amazing local pubs with even more amazing food and, above all, that feeling of being in the true heart England, which is somewhat lost in many big towns/cities in the UK.
Where: The Cotswolds area is located in South Central England and it stretches from the south of Stratford upon Avon down to Bath, covering 5 counties (Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire) over nearly 800 square miles.
See Cotswold Area of Outstanding Beauty Official website for a detailed map of the area.
How to visit: The best and easiest way to visit the region is undoubtedly by car, allowing you to make detours and longer stops according to your tastes. Some tourist spots are also linked by public transport but, as always, if you want to explore more, having your own means of transport would be the best bet. Of course, since walking in this beautiful area is a must, you should allow yourself enough time to explore the countryside near the most visited towns to get the real feel of the Cotswolds. Trails and paths are well posted and easy to follow, even for someone with no orienteering sense like me!
When to go: English weather is quite unpredictable by definition but a great moment to visit would be Spring/Summer, when you will definitely have more chances to enjoy the Cotswolds in the sun. The downside is that you will not be on your own, since plenty of other fellow tourists will have your same idea. If you prefer to avoid the crowds, choose the late part of Summer/early Autumn when the colours are great and you will be able to enjoy the area more peacefully. Even winter has its very own charm and a cozy gastro-pub with rooms may be the perfect solution. I have visited on several occasions and in one of them the weather was absolutely miserable but while you wait until it turns, you can always indulge in a rich pub lunch in one of its lovely towns!
Which town to visit: Every town of the Cotswolds has its very own features and charm but if I have to choose a few I would definitely go for the followings:
Bourton-on-the-Water: the perfect town to start exploring the Cotswolds: don’t miss a stroll by the river and an afternoon tea in one of the cafes nearby. Once here, it’s also worth to visit Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, both a short walk in the countryside from Bourton.
Bibury: a charming English picture town! This extremely picturesque place may look familiar since it has been the setting for many UK films. It is very popular among tourists so do not expect a solitary stroll 🙂 but absolutely worth.
Castle Combe: it will feel you have gone back in time in this small and very well preserved town that has also been called “The Prettiest Town in England”. Worth having a stroll in the grounds of the exclusive Manor House, a wonderful 5 star hotel in an absolute enchanting setting. Though choosing to sleep here may come out quite expensive, a stroll comes for free!
Burford: probably one of the prettiest medieval towns in the Cotswolds with plenty of places to sleep, eat and drink. In summer it gets particularly lively and its high street extremely busy for being such a small town.
There are plenty more of course and they are all worth a visit: Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh, Windrush, Tetbury…..the list is long! 🙂 Just get in the car and get lost in this stunning corner of England.
I had already visited Tuscany before touring around the Cotswolds and in more than one occasion this wonderful corner of England reminded me of the central Italian region; they may not have the same glorious sunshine nor the ultra famous wines that Tuscany boasts but there are plenty of excellent locally source produce including delicious cheeses, meats, amazing artisan brews, delicious ice-creams…that paired with a stunning countryside scenery makes it really tough to prefer one or the other.
Why choose…? Visit both and I am sure you will love both! 🙂
If I had to choose an Highway to get stuck in traffic, I would definitely pick US Highway 1, the so called “Overseas Highway” that links the Keys to the mainland. You will easily understand why. It’s without any doubt one of the most scenic roads I have driven on. Miles of tarmac stretch from the Upper Keys to Key West, including the impressive Seven Mile Bridge. You can’t go any further at the end of your drive cause that’s where US 1 ends (actually, it starts here). You’ve reached Key West, the Southernmost point of Continental U.S.A. and you are officially in the so-called Conch Republic (that actually encompasses all the Florida Keys). Following a United States Border Patrol roadblock on the US 1 that isolated the Florida Keys residents, on April 23, 1982 Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow proclaimed that the Conch Republic was an independent state from the U.S.
Let’s face it: sipping a glass of vino rosso overlooking the Tuscan hills is possibly one of the best thing you could do on a sunny day in Italy. While plenty of people choose to visit Tuscany during the summer, the wiser (and the luckier) that can plan to visit out of peak season will be pleasantly surprised by the peacefulness of one of the richest region in Italy in terms of history and natural beauty paired with great food and wine – and friendly locals! Plenty of people from all over Europe (and the world, I would say) choose Tuscany as their second home, as well. And if you spend a few days in this corner of Italy it’s not difficult to understand why.
Up to a couple of years ago, quite sadly my knowledge of Tuscany was limited to Florence and Siena, two stunning cities that it is impossible not to fall in love with. It is only when I seriously thought of moving here that I started to explore a lot more, discovering some amazing towns, villages and hidden corners of a region that offers absolutely everything for everyone (I still haven’t tested its seaside yet….just waiting for the great weather to start!) Life goes at a much more relaxed pace than life in the north of Italy where I come from and I suppose that is another good reason that it attracts plenty of people from all around the globe, for just a few days or for a lifetime.
As for many regions in Italy, when to visit is the key. In some Italian regions most tourist related businesses completely shut down during the late autumn/winter months until early spring and then become unbearably busy and congested with skyrocketed prices during the peak summer months (mid-June to mid-September) making the whole travel experience less enjoyable and less relaxed.
Probably Tuscany will never feel too congested (with the exception of its main tourist spots) since it’s not too difficult to get out of the main towns and get lost in stunning countryside lanes where you barely meet anyone but it’s no doubt that part of Tuscany’s charm is to be able to enjoy its beauty without stress and without crowds.
Why should you choose to visit Tuscany now? Here are 3 good enough reasons why you should not wait for summer – if you can!
1. It’s very quiet. Unless you like visiting towns and cities surrounded by crowds of tourists, having almost to push to enter to any major tourist attraction, having to queue in any restaurant and having to book your accommodation months in advance to avoid disappointment…THIS (and the late summer too) is the perfect time to visit. Tuscany in general can get very busy but it is also true that – generally – people tend to concentrate in some specific areas: Florence, Siena, Pisa, San Gimignano or a bit further down in Pienza, Montalcino and Montepulciano. As soon as you leave these main cities/towns, you will be pleasantly surprised to notice how some charming and pretty villages barely get any visitors out of season. The big crowds will not arrive until mid June and if you plan smartly you may have a town or a village all by yourself (such as the tiny villages of Monteriggioni, San Quirico d’Orcia or in Bagno Vignoni). A great opportunity to enjoy the peace and the quietness that Tuscany should convey to any tourists.
The same goes for traffic. Whilst traffic in Tuscany is quite an overstatement compared to where I have previously lived (Milan, Madrid, London), during the peak months car parks tend to fill up pretty quickly, roads can get busy (particularly around the big cities, such as Florence and Siena) and make the whole experience less enjoyable, if you are planning to drive (which in Tuscany is undoubtedly the best option to reach some of the most fascinating places). Being quieter, generally also means that you will receive a better service in cafes, restaurants, hotels etc: staff are at the very beginning of their working season and they haven’t got the stress of the whole season on their shoulder – yet!
2. It’s more affordable. Visiting Tuscany in peak season (particularly July – August) can be obscenely expensive. In the main cities (namely Florence and Siena) most businesses that cater to tourists will be open all year round but in the small/mid size towns in the countryside, most businesses will generally close from November to March/April for lack of tourism. This is typical of many regions in Italy (including two other stunning regions like Puglia and Sicily) and unfortunately it is as a real limit of the Italian way of thinking: having more businesses and services open all year round would encourage more tourists to come off-peak, particularly in regions where the weather is reasonably good all year round. Anyway, it’s in this time of the year (March – May) that you should still be able to find good prices. Though it’s true that cities like Florence and Siena are generally expensive all year round, hotels and bed and breakfasts near the most touristy towns (San Gimignano, for example) have far more affordable room rates than the peak season. To save a bit of money, choose an accommodation to use as a base to explore near to the main tourist towns without having to pay the premium of sleeping in it.
3. It’s beautiful. Against this argument you could probably say that “it’s beautiful all year round” and that it’s absolutely true but its beauty is also in its peacefulness and, above all, its colours. Though autumn offers arguably a more interesting palette of colours, spring is the perfect time to visit: trees start to blossom, the air is crisp and clear and days are wonderfully bright. After a long winter (this year actually not so long and cold), sun is finally shining, swifts are out and about, days are getting longer and sunset are getting gorgeous. During day time temperature can go up to 25C, whilst in the evening you will still need a medium weight jacket. Overall: DIVINE!
For more information on accommodation, restaurants and places to visit, have a look at my other posts on Tuscany!
Not sure what sort of paradise could wait us on the other side (if any!) but, if it looks anything like this, I truly hope to get a place with a good view!
Koh Rong Samloem is a small island, 45 minutes by speed ferry (or 1,5/2 hr with the slower ones) from the coast of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. When we visited Cambodia back in February 2014, we noted that the majority of people in the area were choosing to stay on its sister island Koh Rong, just 4 km away, bigger and with definitely more services, including a more active party scene (I suppose I was already getting old at that time by choosing a much more isolated beach….no regret!). At the beginning of 2014, accommodation on Koh Rong Samloem was pretty scarce to the point that we had been told that you could not board the ferry without a valid room reservation. In the last couple of years though, plenty of new accommodation options have opened making it more reachable to more people but, at the same time, inevitably spoiling it to some degree. Also Internet – which was nonexistent when we visited – seems to have landed too.
Most tourists choose to visit the tiny island as a day trip from the mainland, on the so called party boat: for $25 round trip the boat leaves Sihanoukville harbour around 9.30 AM, arrives at Saracen Bay on Koh Rong Samloem in the late morning, stay for a few hours and then gets everyone back to mainland by 5 PM. When I was staying on Koh Rong Samloem I was just waiting for the party boat to go to be fair since the beach peacefulness was finally restored and only a handful of people remained on the beach 🙂 Bear in mind that there are some other more secluded beaches on the island so if you truly want to get away you can opt for somewhere else, where not even the party boat will reach you 🙂 Lazy Beach or Sunset Beach for example (both offer accommodation and they are both connected through a jungle path to Saracen bay); they are worth a visit but – I have to be fair in this – I still prefer the sand and the water in Saracen Bay.
I still haven’t seen a better beach than this: white powdery sand, crystal shallow warm water, affordable accommodation right on the beach and above all: PEACEFULNESS. We had initially booked only 3 nights but as soon as we got off the ferry it took us less than 5 minutes to understand that we wanted to extend our stay. I am sure there are plenty of stunning beaches all over the world but if you want to sleep right on the beach and you are on a certain budget, unfortunately plenty of them are off limits.
We stayed at the BEACH ISLAND RESORT and for the price you pay it was great value. They have several sleeping options (dormitory, small bungalow, standard bungalow, deluxe bungalow, VIP bungalow) but they do sell out pretty quickly, particularly in peak season. Accommodation started at $12 for a double bed in a dormitory up to $40 for a VIP bungalow. We spent 3 nights in a deluxe bungalow (with private bathroom) at $35/night and 3 nights in a standard bungalow with shared bathroom at $25/night. In both cases you are just a few steps from the beach; on the plus sides, the deluxe bungalow has got a great view, an outside area and private sunbeds.
As far as the beach goes, I suppose pictures speak better than words in this case but imagine a pristine bay where you could walk for a long while without meeting a single soul except a couple of harmless stray dogs, a couple of water buffalo with their herder and hundreds of tiny crabs digging the sand and creating amazing natural shapes on the shore, which I could spend hours watching. I suppose now with more accommodation options there will also be more people but I am sure it’s still pretty quiet.
The resort has a restaurant, a bar and plenty of outdoor seating and chill out areas that are perfect if you don’t fancy spending all day in the blazing sunshine, including a lovely chill out area with hammocks up in the trees with a good book and gorgeous views over the bay.
Now, the “less positive” side of the accommodation option that I suppose justify some of the poor reviews that this place gets on TA and Booking.com: management was nonexistent so when guests had any issues or questions it was a struggle, the restaurant area was always quite a mess, never properly cleaned and unfortunately tables were always covered in flies that made the whole eating experience a bit frustrating. To top it all, staff were always busy in doing something else except working. In my opinion, the beauty of the place makes up for absolutely everything so if you are prepared to enjoy the experience for what it is (an unforgettable corner of paradise on earth and I personally don’t need much else to be happy), I would definitely recommend you to stay at the Beach Island Resort. If not, taking into account the new options that have opened in recent years, have a look at Trip Advisor suggestions to find some other good alternatives – the rule is always the same: book in advance. The whole beach is lovely but my favourite spot was the central and southern part, let’s say from Beach Island Resort looking out to the sea to the right (no rocks, just flat shallow sea and amazing white powdery sand) but that would be being very picky….you can’t really find many faults on a beach like this!
Just some advice before boarding the ferry…
Book your accommodation well in advance in order to avoid disappointment.
Bring DEET with you, not so much for mosquitos but for the infamous sand-flies. We barely saw any (it depends from the season) so it wasn’t an issue but if you are bite-prone, better safe than sorry!
On the island there are no ATMs so bring an adequate amount of cash to survive for a while.
There are a couple of shops but they are of course a bit more expensive than usual since almost everything needs to come from Sihanoukville. If you are on a budget, you always have the option to bring some food and drinks from the mainland.
A small and basic medical kit (which should be in any backpack, as one of my good travel friends taught me from day 1!) is always a good thing on a place like this. I cut my foot badly (and fainted too…always like a bit of drama! 🙂 ) on the bay during a morning walk and I was pleased to have everything available in my bungalow, it saved me (and my boyfriend) time and hassle 🙂
Other than this, bikini, shorts and sarong are all you need…Looks like this chair is waiting for you 🙂
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!