The multi coloured dream country (part 2)

 CONTINUES FROM ITINERARY PART 1

DAY 8 – KANDY to ELLA

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. 😦

DSC_5503
Peradeniya Train Station

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!!

DSC_5768.JPG
Not a bad view for a 7 hours journey!

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!

DSC_5738

DSC_5741.JPG

DSC_5804.JPG

DSC_5872.JPG

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!

P1180549
Dinner at Chill Cafe’

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!

DSC_5923.JPG

DSC_5927

DSC_5949.JPG

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.

DSC_6084.JPG
Newburgh Green Teas selection

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.

DSC_5975.JPG
Tamil festival

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!

DSC_6150

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.

DSC_6169
Heina Resort Cottage, quite a big room for just 2 of us (2 extra bed on the right side!).
DSC_6174
Private bathroom with open air shower!

The grounds are particularly nice and you are located just a couple of minutes walk to a beautiful lake.

DSC_6434.JPG

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.

P1180757.JPG
Plenty of fresh river prawns!

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.

DSC_6452
Kiri Vehera Dagoba
DSC_6501
Offers during the evening Puja

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.

DSC_7103.JPG
Lanka Beach Bungalows swimming pool.

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!

DSC_7083.JPG
Home made dinner at Sun Shine Cafe’

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.

DSC_7344.JPG
View of the beach next to Mangrove Chalet and Cabanas

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.

DSC_7707
Blue whale diving

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.

DSC_7730.JPG
That’s the Secret Beach, Mirissa

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!

P1190118.JPG
Crab curry at Zephyr Restaurant

 

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.

DSC_7848

DSC_7805

DSC_7784.JPG

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!

 

 

 

Advertisements

Stunning Matera!

One of the most unexpected places I have ever been…..

On Food and Travel

While in Puglia and just one day before flying back to the UK, we decided to stretch over to Basilicata to visit Matera. Just off the border with Puglia, Matera, which is thought to be the third oldest city in the world, is located 400 mt. above the sea level in a superb setting. For me it was one of those places where reality far exceeded expectations.

The road to get there is not a particularly nice one; mostly one lane only, driving through construction works and shacks with prostitutes (yes), you can’t say it’s a lovely drive but it’s totally worth it. When we were there (mid April), traffic was steady with definitely far more trucks than tourist cars and you will appreciate it even more once arrived in Matera: the old city was extremely quiet and we could wander through the Sassi almost on our own. We started our tour…

View original post 774 more words

The multi-coloured dream country

When planning the itinerary for Sri Lanka, I had clear in my mind that I would have liked to soak myself in a mix of culture, wildlife and beach, opting for small guest houses or home-stays. I also wanted to avoid some of the most touristy locations (even though some of them must – inevitably – be included in the itinerary), which is not an easy job since Sri Lanka is a relatively small country. To do this, I decided to choose – for example – Anuradhapura instead of Polonnaruwa, having read on plenty of blogs that the latter was a particularly busy site (and being smaller than A’pura it feels a lot busier); I opted to sleep in the jungle for a couple of days to fully disconnect; I chose a couple of home-stays and a more secluded beach in Tangalla area (Marakolliya), to avoid lines of sunbeds and beach crowds. If I had had more time on my side, I probably would have like to go up to Jaffna and east to Arugam Bay…but life is all about choices and I am absolutely pleased with our whole trip. Sri Lanka truly exceeded our expectations. Just one stop that – insight – I would have probably avoided or arranged differently is Mirissa (which I will detail better in my next post), despite being an absolute must for whale and dolphin watching.

As far as pre-booking accommodation, though it’s not a thing that I would do normally, I think it’s quite important if you want to maximize your time in Sri Lanka. Do not expect to find the same amount of guest houses that you may find in any touristy street of South East Asia (Thailand or Cambodia for example), where you just have to knock one door after the other to get a good rate and a decent bed. In Sri Lanka it can involve more money and a lot more time to actually find accommodation on site and it’s not always cheaper. In some cases, we had to use booking.com since we needed to be as flexible as possible with the reservations; in other, we booked directly with the guest-house/home-stay and got better rates 😉

DAY 1 – COLOMBO

We landed at Bandaranaike Airport around 3:20 PM, on a Qatar flight with a couple of hours stop-over in the amazing Doha airport that makes even Heathrow T5 look old-fashioned. We had arranged an airport pick up through the owner of the place we booked (Airbnb); the drive to Colombo took almost 1,5 hr due to bad solid traffic, which seems to be quite normal in Colombo) and unfortunately once arrived the Airbnb room turned out to be a bit of a disappointment and definitely the only unwelcoming owner of all the Airbnb experiences that we had in the past (mainly in the US) and of all the Sri Lankan people that we met throughout our 2 weeks. Anyway, got over that quickly, had a refreshing shower and left our room for a bite to eat at the Green Cabin, a nice and reasonably priced restaurant with an outdoor garden just a 10 min tuk tuk ride from where we were. Loved my first Sri Lankan rice and curry! After dinner we walked all the way to the Galle Face Green, a sort of vast green area that locals use to chill out and relax; we got the first glimpse and breeze of the Indian Ocean, walked through the evening food stalls and then got a tuk tuk back to our place. We were trying to become tired so to sleep all the way through until next morning and beat the jet-lag.

If you are planning to catch a train the following morning, I suggest you sleep near Colombo Fort area to avoid a really early start; Colombo traffic is terrible and you don’t want to start your onward travel missing a train.

***Before you leave the airport: buy a Sri Lankan SIM card at the Mobitel counter at the airport arrivals (at the same place where you can pick up your train tickets, if you pre-book them with visitsrilankatours.co.uk). We chose the 500 rps SIM card (with no data – but you can get data for 1200 rps) and we used it almost daily and still had over 300 rps credit when we left. We used it to phone to the guest houses to confirm our arrival (some of them will offer free pick up), arrange pick ups with tuk tuk drivers, phone different drivers to get the best price for a private car etc. Plenty of local kids and teenagers that we met asked us our phone number just to keep in touch and I have the feeling that by the end of our trip half of the Sri Lankan population had my number 🙂 ***

DAY 2 – COLOMBO to ANURADHAPURA

We had previously booked 2 tickets on the observation car on the 6:25 AM train from Colombo Fort to Anuradhapura; as we had already picked up our tickets at the airport, we just needed to be at the train station a couple of minutes before the train departed. The train pulled in, we got onto our seats, got “comfy” (comfort is really a big word here) and enjoyed the bumpy journey – just over 4 hours (buy drinks at the station since on the train they are ridiculously expensive – for us tourists).

Amazing country side and great scenery = travel mode ON.

DSC_3117.JPG
Through the countryside, on the way to Anuradhapura.

 

We arrived in Anuradhapura New Town (which is not particularly attractive but it’s where all the services are) with a torrential rain that didn’t look like stopping any time soon. After checking into our room (Sacred City Resort, a clean new guest house just off the main road…don’t get put off by the work in progress look on the outside; the rooms are spotlessly clean and the owner is lovely and really helpful), we decided to take a bit of a gamble with the rain and visit Mihintale, almost 30 min tuk tuk drive to Anuradhapura. Worth the effort since when we got there it stopped raining and we could visit the site with a decent weather. If you have a spare afternoon in A’pura, it’s a good destination: the views are stunning (I am sure on a sunny day they would be even better!) and almost no tourists at all. It’s mainly a local pilgrimage site and it is particularly nice to wander around shoes-less with very few fellow tourists around.

DSC_3323.JPG
Mihintale

DAY 3 – ANURADHAPURA OLD CITY

We had decided to leave early – immediately after our rice and curry – to get to Anuradhapura Old Town by bike (just a 15 minutes cycle from the new town) and spend all day visiting the site – which is vast. We rented the bikes in our guest house and off we went. There is this lovely feeling of cycling in the Asian sun, taking in the smell of the blossoming frangipani trees in the morning breeze, amidst the school kids waving at you and you feel pervaded by a sense of extra freedom mixed with a massive dose of enthusiasm. You are not really cycling: you are floating in a new country, amidst new colours, new smells and new noises. And that couldn’t be more exciting! N.B.: put plenty of sun cream on to not spoil the excitement: despite having plenty on we managed to burn our hands/arms in the first Sri Lankan sun which was definitely hotter than it looked. 😦

P1170828
Cycling around…while getting burned 😦

The entrance fee to Anuradhapura for foreign visitors is steep ($25), this is a fact. Is it worth? For the experience that we had, absolutely yes. In some areas and in some temples we were almost the only Western tourists and the majority of the time we cycled on our own without meeting a soul (except monkeys and beautiful peacocks), getting lost among ancient ruins. Apparently going all the way up to Anuradhapura (in reality it’s just 4 hours train from Colombo) is a detour that most people with only 15 days in SL don’t take, but the “effort” is that, once there, you truly feel a minority; we were trying to stay aside, almost hiding to not disturb the hundreds of pilgrims that flocked the grounds. As in many other places in the world, you do realise that whereas you are there merely to visit a site, hundreds of thousands of people make the journey to Anuradhapura (or any of the other pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world) only once in a lifetime and their experience should be most important than our pictures. Often in Sri Lanka I kept my camera switched off, feeling that it would have been an intrusion to take any pictures.

Particularly moving was the evening puja (a daily religious ceremony). I haven’t seen anything like this before and I guess it will take me a while before seeing it again. I will not spoil the surprise by posting any picture, as it was a big surprise for us: try to be at Ruwanwelisaya around 5.30/6.00 PM and enjoy the amazing mix of music, dances and the procession itself. We spent from 8.30 AM until 3 PM in the park, got back for a bit of chill out and around 5 PM the owner of our GH kindly drove us back, just on time for the puja.

DSC_3447.JPG
Not sure those flowers were meant for them…!

 

DSC_3954.JPG
Pilgrims at A’pura

DAY 4 – ANURADHAPURA to SIGIRIYA (via DAMBULLA)

A bit of planning was involved in this stop. I wanted to do 2 things in Sigiriya: 1) climb Sigiriya rock early in the morning (which is again a steep $30 for foreigners) and 2) climb Pidurangala (just 500 rps), which is the rock just opposite Sigiriya rock, during the sunset. Now, this took a while to be planned since we also wanted to visit Dambulla Caves temple on the way. We decided to take an AC bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla (1,5 hr), get a tuk tuk to the caves (just 10 min), dump our backpacks somewhere, visit the caves and then get a tuk tuk to Sigiriya, where we had booked an home-stay.

The visit to Dambulla caves and the Golden Temple worked perfectly since we left our backpacks with the police on site (for free) and we could visit the temples easily (we didn’t pay anything to enter but I suspect that was a one off for some unknown reason). It’s a bit of a climb up the steps, particularly in the heat of the day (we were there around 12 PM) but nothing hard – just mind the monkeys that looked particularly hungry 🙂

DSC_4055.jpg
Having a yummy lunch on lotus flowers!

We spent a couple of hours between the Cave Temples and the Golden Temple and then got a tuk tuk to Sigiriya (700 rps). We had a bit of an argument with the tuk tuk driver: he called our home-stay for directions – despite we clearly showed him where it was on our map, he claimed it was fully booked and didn’t want to drive us there so we demanded to be dropped off at Sigiriya bus station (which is basically a cross-road). No issue with us since we were only 5 minutes walking from there and since we had previously contacted the home-stay to confirm the booking and our arrival time. Quite proud of myself too since I had printed out all the maps to reach our accommodations from the drop off point to show them to the drivers so…no cheating please! 🙂 Always contact your accommodation prior to arriving asking how much (roughly) you should pay by tuk tuk from the bus/train drop off (unless they can arrange a free pick up).

Anyway, got to our place (Camellia Home-stay) and were absolutely delighted to have booked it. They only have one room and they made their best to make us feel at home – and they absolutely succeed! The room is simple (no AC) with a private veranda looking over their lush gardens, in a lovely country side setting that made us forget almost immediately the noises of Anuradhapura New Town. We settled in, had a chat with the owner’s son (Nihl) and then arranged our onward movement. Since it was baking hot we decided to try our luck and knock on a couple of luxury hotels in the area to take a quick dip at their pool. Absolutely recommended to refresh from the journey and recharge the batteries before the Pidurangula hike. We chose the Sigiriya Hotel for a very simple reason: it was the cheapest to offer a pool entry ticket. But it also turned out to be the one with best views!

DSC_4071.jpg
Not a bad view from Sigiriya Hotel!

A dip in their pool is only 400 rps (vs the 1200 that we had been asked at the Sigiriya Village) and absolutely worth it!

We got back to our room around 3.30 PM, quick shower, got the bikes prearranged at our place and rode to Pidurangala. The bike ride itself is stunning through the countryside; I would suggest leaving Sigiriya not later than 4 PM to have enough time to cycle there (20 min), climb up (40 min) and enjoy the gorgeous sunset. The climb up is not too hard, except the last bit but perfectly doable (the locals suggested we could do it with our flip-flops, but I’d strongly advise against! 🙂

DSC_4124.jpg
I know…I need to work on my climbing skills! 🙂
DSC_4129.jpg
Sigiriya rock in the background

We stayed on the top of the rock until the very last ray of sun was gone, enjoying the stunning views and particularly the lack of tourists (no more than 20 people up there) and then cycled back like nutters to avoid coming back in the pitch black. A torch (which we had left in our home-stay!) could be useful if you are planning to head back to your accommodation in the dark.

We ate at our place (a delicious Sri Lankan rice and curry freshly prepared by the mama!) and went to bed early surrounded by the relaxing and peaceful sounds of the countryside.

DAY 5 & DAY 6 – SIGIRIYA to POLWATHTHA ECO-LODGES (1 hr from Kandy)

If you are planning to climb up Sigiriya rock, be ready for an early start – otherwise I would say don’t even bother, taking into account the crowds of people that were entering the site when I left (mainly Japanese, Chinese and American tour buses). We woke up early (6 AM – my boyfriend kept asking me at which point of the trip he would have been allowed to stay in bed later than 6 AM!), had a massive breakfast and got a tuk tuk to Sigiriya rock, getting there at 7.15 AM. I had planned to climb on my own since my boyfriend doesn’t particularly like heights (and I wouldn’t recommend it if you are afraid of heights or suffer vertigo) so I paid the entrance fee and off I went (bring water with you).

DSC_4230
Steps up.

Sigiriya rock is impressive both by size and shape; the gardens are beautiful, with the lotus flowers waking up in the morning sun. In my opinion, the views from the top are not as impressive as from Pidurangala but still very nice on a clear day. The problem is that just after 8 AM Sigiriya gets absolutely packed with tour buses which means hundreds of people climbing up – most of them shouting (not sure why, since there are clear signs reminding that loud noises can provoke hornets’ attacks). I took my time at the top, wandering around and taking a few snaps but when it started to get too crowded I decided to leave. Quite rightly as you can see from the crowds entering….

DSC_4307.jpg
Tourists entering Sigiriya at 9.30 AM.

Got back at Camellia Home stay at 10 AM, quick shower (needed after the climb) and we were ready to go. We got a tuk tuk back to Dambulla and then an AC bus to Kandy, arriving there in 2,5 hrs. Now, the great majority of people that we had met before or after Kandy, stayed downtown; not sure why but thank God we didn’t. I didn’t particularly enjoy Kandy except for the walk around the lake, the bakeries, the Temple of Tooth and a couple of things more. I didn’t enjoy at all the masses of tourists, the touts, the rip-offs and the noise/contamination. Having said this, plenty of people stay in Kandy and like it, I suppose it’s quite personal, as anything else.

We arrived in Kandy, took the 654 local bus in the square between the clock town and the market towards Digana Village (40 rps – 45 minutes ride), got down at the KM 14, where a jeep was waiting for us to drive us to our next destination: Polwaththa Eco Lodges. They are located just over 15/20 minutes drive from the main road where the bus leaves you, in an absolute idyllic setting in the middle of the jungle. If you want to switch off, that is my best recommendation and I can’t recommend it enough. They offer different types of accommodation, including some more on the expensive side; we choose the cheapest one, at $57/night half board and we found it perfect. I am not saying that it’s super cheap but 3 days/2 nights there felt like a unique experience. I have been an early bird all my life but waking up at 5 AM with the all jungle residents waking up with you is a complete different story. We spent the great majority of the time outside our mud hut, just enjoying the views, exploring the jungle around the lodges, finding animals hiding in the vegetation (screaming when it was a big one!) and playing with the local dogs.

DSC_4918
Our mud-hut
DSC_4876
Just outside our mud hut…
P1180292.JPG
Not sure I can think of a more peaceful setting…

The staff of the Eco lodges was absolute amazing (all Sri Lankan young guys, with very good English); they offer a half board package (which is a must since they are right in the middle of nowhere) and food was truly delicious (and in huge portions), possibly the best we had in Sri Lanka. One of the reasons we decided to stay in an Eco Lodge was to go on a trek; though I usually prefer to go on self organized hikes, this time was a bit different: having only 15 days in Sri Lanka, we wanted to try to get to know as much as possible and talking to local people is always the best way to do it. The staff at Polwaththa Eco Lodges organizes plenty of very informative treks at very reasonable prices; we chose a 12 km one, through the local villages, the tea plantations and with amazing views over the Knuckles Range. We finished the trek with that great feeling that comes when you feel you are learning stuff apart from enjoying yourself.

DSC_4591
Walking through the tea plantation
DSC_4548
Saturday morning class at the Temple
DSC_4537.JPG
The Knuckles Range in the background

DAY 7 – KANDY  

After spending a few hours in the morning bird-watching outside our mud hut (if someone – a few years ago – would have told me that I would have become a bird watcher fanatic I’d have laughed out loud!!), we packed our bags, got drop off at the main road and got on the 654 local bus heading to our next stop. Since we still hadn’t visit the city yet, we decided to stay 1 night a bit closer to Kandy to be able to visit what the city had to offer. We stayed at the Romance Hills Hotel (20 min by bus outside Kandy), a stunning new small hotel managed by a super friendly chap with great views over the countryside outside Kandy. And with the first amazingly comfortable bed in Sri Lanka 🙂

DSC_5299.JPG
Romance Hills Terrace

Since our room was not ready yet, we left our bags and got a tuk tuk to Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (you can get there by public transport, but we were a bit short of time). Just a few Km outside Kandy, they are a true oasis out of the town madness and definitely worth spending a few hours.

DSC_4958

Bring a sarong, some food and drinks and have a picnic in one of the shaded corners of the park (just avoid the trees where the fruit-bats hang around since it might be a quite unpleasant experience!).

DSC_5012

We got back from the gardens in the late afternoon and decided to eat in, since the following morning we would have had to wake up early (again!).

DAY 8  – KANDY to ELLA 

Kandy is the 2nd city in Sri Lanka and the main reason why it’s so famous and packed with tourists (both locals and foreigners) is because it is the home of the Temple of Tooth that houses the relic of Buddha’s tooth. Though there has been some discordance among non Buddhists over whether the tooth is actually here, I think that we are really not in a position to doubt since other religions get excited for a lot less. Sacred relic aside (which obviously is why thousands of pilgrims flock the town throughout all year and particularly during the Kandy Esala Perahera Festival in August), the compound where the temple is hosts other interesting temples and the Royal Palace itself. Once again, if you are planning to visit, go early. Our plan was to visit the Temple in the morning and then catch the 12.31 PM train from Peradeniya (a short tuk tuk ride from Kandy downtown) to Ella (the journey itself deserves a post). We arrived at the Temple of Tooth by 8 AM which in my opinion was a bit too late since at 9.00 AM the place was already packed with tour buses and hundreds of tourists pushing on the internal stairs. 3 pujas are held throughout the day and we were there at the one of 9 AM but I suppose the 6.30 AM one would have been a lot better and far less crowded (but if you have experienced the Anuradhapura one, is nothing compared to it). Particularly nice is the area just outside the Temple, dotted with dozens of stalls selling flowers for the offering (for inviting they look, you are not allowed to smell them since they are Buddha offers).

The monks saffron robes, mixed with the hundreds of pilgrims (the great majority all wearing white outfits), it’s quite a striking image if compared to how we attend religious celebrations or processions back home.

DSC_5355.JPG

If only from a chromatic point of view, I can’t help thinking that lotus and jasmine flowers, white and saffron colours are a far better combination than our chrysanthemums with black and dark outfits. (Sri Lankan people also wear white at funerals and the graves of the people who have just passed away are adorned with white ribbons).

DSC_5170.JPG

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED……. 

 

 

Escape to Sri Lanka, a paradise for the senses.

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 😉

DSC_5169.JPG

DSC_4563.JPG

DSC_5975.JPG

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:

Transport

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.

DSC_3117.JPG
Train from Colombo Fort to Anuradhapura

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.

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!

Accommodation

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.

DSC_4919.JPG
Back to the jungle at Polwaththa Eco-lodges, 1 hour outside Kandy.

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.

Food

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.

DSC_3966.JPG
Breakfast rice and curry, Sacred City Resort in Anuradhapura.

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.

DSC_4187.jpg
Good size breakfast to keep you going at Camellia home-stay in Sigiriya!

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.

DSC_7363.JPG
Watermelon juice with a view, Tangalla.

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.

Hospitality

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.

DSC_4337.jpg
Schoolgirls in Sigiriya
DSC_6037.JPG
Tamil woman during a festival in Ella
DSC_5399.JPG
Preparing the flowers offer at the Temple of Tooth, Kandy.

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.

DSC_6150.JPG

DSC_6935

DSC_4401.jpg

DSC_7556

DSC_6356.JPG

DSC_6753

And above all, her majesty….the blue whale, a few hours off Mirissa coast and undoubtedly the most shivering animal encounter I ever experienced.

DSC_7707.JPG

What else? Get a good guide, surf the travel forums and you are ready to go!

Get ready to be gobsmacked! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Off to the island without traffic lights.

I am currently in Tuscany, where I thought that by this time of the year the weather would be definitely better than in the UK but – apparently – it’s not! I’ve been here for a week and the first 5 days it rained every day, with no exception. In the last couple of days (after a lot of swearing) weather got a bit better and we have finally be able to see some blue sky and sunshine. Still, while I patiently wait for the weather to settle and get reasonably warmer, I can’t help thinking about sunshine, crystal water and powdery white beaches….!

Can’t go anywhere at the moment (just been back from Sri Lanka and still desperately trying to make my tan last a few days more before going back to greenish) but – if I could – I would probably book now a reasonable flight to one of my favourite island in Europe: Formentera (actually, since the island hasn’t got an airport, you will have to fly to Ibiza first and then take a ferry to reach it).

CIMG7999

The smallest of the Balearic Islands, Formentera is only 20 km long and it’s just 6 km from Ibiza. It is – with no doubt – the best crystal shallow sea I’ve ever seen in Europe and since my first time in 2008 I went back a couple of times (always for maximum 4-5 nights), including one of them on my own. It didn’t use to be particularly expensive (except in July and August) but for a few years prices have unjustifiable sky-rocketed and sometimes you end up paying ridiculous money for a far too overcrowded place, which is a real shame but I suppose everyone wants to enjoy it and word spread pretty quickly. Just to give you an idea of how bad it gets: in summertime Formentera population goes from 11.000 to 35.000. That is: 35.000 people, roughly 12.000 cars and not a single traffic light. But, if you have not been yet, it’s absolutely worth a trip – with a bit of advance planning.

Let’s assume that you are (wisely) planning to visit before or after the peak season. As soon as you get off the ferry from Ibiza, you get the feeling that you’ve arrived in a magical place: the sea breeze, the emerald and blue water and the powdery sand scream just peace and relax. Leave back the real world for a few days.

CIMG8191

In the 1960s Formentera was a worldwide recognized hippie destination (with real hippies back then…) and still is considered more chilled and natural than its big sister Ibiza. Now, in peak season, Formentera is basically Italian’s land and a large number of restaurants and cafes are Italian owned and operated (which basically means that beaches get over populated with men in skimpy slips and speedos that should be forbidden anywhere and women wearing all the same bikini, same hair style and same selfie-ready pose). Nothing wrong with it but I think it has undoubtedly lost a bit of its original soul (and that has been confirmed by people living there for many years). Anyway, the good thing is that Italians generally go on holiday between the second half of June until the second half of September so, if you can avoid this period, you will almost be “safe” (though you will miss a bit of the Italian…charm! :-)) and enjoy the island a lot more. I am Italian, nothing wrong with my compatriots…I just can’t stand large loud groups of Italians on holiday 🙂

I would say that 4-5 nights is an excellent beach break; Formentera is small and in a few days you can visit some amazing beaches and calas (small bays) without getting bored. Here is a list of my favorite ones but there are plenty more to discover on your own:

  • Playa Ses Illetes. I have been an early bird all my life, even on holiday and I still remember driving like a lunatic with my little red Panda 4×4 to enter Ses Illetes Park before 8:30 AM (when the park guardians charge the entrance fee). Not so much for not paying the entrance but to enjoy the beach on my own. Stunning. If you get there early enough you can walk a long way before meeting anyone. From the north end of Ses Illetes, you will see Espalmador, a tiny paradisiac island just off the mainland. You can either walk there during low tide (with precaution) or get on a ferry from La Savina port. No services here, so get plenty of water and food if you plan to spend the day.
  • Cala Saona: breathtaking. In peak season, it gets very busy and, as you will see, it’s not particularly big so get here early and then move onto a wider beach in the afternoon.
  • Playa del Arenal: possibly my favourite beach. Beautiful sandy and flat beach with crystal water.
  • Es Migjorn: perfect for long walks. Some areas are still quite natural and wild and less spoiled than other beaches.

Remember to always check the wind before settling on a beach: since Formentera is such a small island, it literally takes minutes to drive over to a more sheltered side, in case it’s too windy.

4582_92340333250_2859456_n
Formentera at its narrowest point.

Some tips if you are planning a trip here:

  • I may sound repetitive but visit out of the peak season (mainly avoid between mid-June and mid-September) to enjoy this island at its best, unless you are prepared to pay top prices for accommodation and car rental, having to fight for a space for your towel.
  • It does get very hot during the day and it can be quite cool and breezy in the evening, so be prepared.
  • Many beaches haven’t got any service (sunbeds, shower, toilets, food…) so pack sun cream, hats, water, food. It’s worth spending a few Euros on a cheap umbrella to protect you from the sun rather than getting burnt, unless of course you’re a Brit and prefer to get burned from day 1! 🙂
  • Book well in advance, particularly accommodation. The island is small and everyone wants to get a good spot at a good price.
  • Rent a small car or even a moped, if you are confident. Leave the big cars for the city; no need to show off with fancy big cars since parking can be an issue and some roads are quite narrow.
  • Ferry from Ibiza to Formentera. There are a few options: the fastest one takes 30 min (around EUR 27 one way), the slowest one (Aquabus) takes around 45 minutes but it is exactly half price plus is not such a bad thing to sail in these waters enjoying the sunshine.
  • Formentera is world renowned for being a top nudist destination. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to wander around with your bits and pieces in the air… but it does mean that there might be a few around you doing it, so… just be prepared! It’s not (always) a bad thing!! 😉
4582_92340283250_7581743_n
House with a view near Cala Baster
4582_92340278250_1875175_n
Discover the most secluded “calas”
4582_92340363250_5722589_n
Sunset

Trendy, arty and sunny….that’s St. Pete.

If you are coming to Florida, St. Petersburg (or St. Pete, as they call it) should be on your list for many reasons. Trendy, arty, young and a few steps from some amazing beaches. I visited St. Pete during the summer of 2014 and I immediately loved it. Accomodation in St. Pete is not cheap and we had to look around to find something in a decent area not too expensive. Taking advantage of a very good last minute rate around $80, we stayed at the Hollander Hotel, not far from downtown. Their TAP bar was always very busy and with a great atmosphere (live pianist on one of the evening that we were there was truly impressive) and their Sunday brunch with a proper Bloody Mary station was excellent too.

IMG_9553.JPG
Hollander Hotel room

They are not far from downtown but for those that do not wish to walk, they do offer a buggy service but we walked most of the time. B&B in general seemed particularly expensive and quite old fashioned with the exception of the Watergarden Inn at the Bay: we wandered in to ask information and it looked absolutely lovely (and beyond our budget!). If you are in the mood of splashing out, I think that The Birchwood on Beach Drive could be a good choice. St. Pete is trendy and fashion and this place has absolutely got it all.

Once the accomodation is sorted, it’s time to concentrate on the big attraction of St. Pete: Salvador Dalí Museum. I am a Dalí fan, I loved Figueres and Cadaqués and this had been on my top list for a while. This impressive museum that includes some of Dalí’s masterpieces is the result of over 25 years of collecting by Reynolds and Eleanor Morse (patrons and friends of Dalí for decades).

IMG_9566
Dali Museum in St. Pete
IMG_9568.JPG
Dali Museum interior
IMG_9581
The Hallucinogenic Toreador, 1968-70

Get the audio guide and take your time; it’s a great museum, the collection is truly impressive and absolutely worth the entrance fee. St. Pete has got plenty of other museums, galleries and open art districts worth a visit. Have a look at Chihuly Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts, take a stroll around the 600 Block. For a more hippie vibe, head to Gulfport, a stylish and low key suburb a short drive from downtown. I didn’t find it particularly exciting (it was pretty quiet when I visited) but it’s true that it has retained a kind of 70s feeling with plenty of artists, craftsmen and performers still living there.

IMG_9551
Gulfport Casino
IMG_9543.JPG
Sunday morning stroll with the baby goat in Gulfport

In St. Pete, street art is pretty interesting too and worth a drive around to spot some nice murals.

IMG_9661

IMG_9647

IMG_9652

Once you have done your good bit of sightseeing and driving around, don’t forget that St. Pete is nicknamed the Sunshine city and with an average of 361 days of sun a year, it’s easy to understand why. You are a short drive from some amazing beaches, such as St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and the paradisiac Fort de Soto Park and, once there, you completely forget you are next door to a big city. Or not?

IMG_9529.JPG
Treasure Island, early morning

The evening scene is very good too. Plenty of busy restaurants, lively bars and independent cafes for all budgets. The best scene that we found was on Beach Drive and Central Av./3rd St. N where plenty of options are lined up for everyone’s taste (and pockets). The Canopy rooftop on Beach Drive NE (that’s the bar of The Birchwood hotel) is a great choice for some nibbles and cocktails: buzzing atmosphere, live music and great views of St. Pete are the perfect match!

IMG_9632.JPG
Rooftop setting at The Canopy

Up to now it sounds like the perfect city to live. Unfortunately, safety is a big issue here and St. Pete ranks very high in violent crime in Florida. During our stay, we didn’t have any problem at all in walking around the city and driving to different neighbourhoods but you can’t help noticing that, as in many US cities, you just need to take the wrong turn to end up in a truly rough area. Some streets are very dark and poorly lit and I wouldn’t have felt safe in walking during the night outside the main spots where all the action is (Beach Drive). So, as always, the best advice is to keep your eyes open, stick in the busy areas, get a cab back to the hotel and enjoy the city safely!

The day I had a coffee in Tuol Sleng

 

I am not ashamed to say that I stepped into Cambodia knowing very little of what this beautiful country and its people had gone through in the last century (and still go through). I am not ashamed now but, back home from my 6 months travelling in SE Asia, I felt terribly guilty for not knowing enough at the time I visited.

Following my month in Cambodia, I started to read as much as I could on the country and on the Khmer Rouge. It’s still an ongoing process but my biggest regret will always be having visited without knowing what I know now.

For this reason, if you have got the amazing opportunity to visit Cambodia in the future, here are my genuine thoughts on one site that you will surely visit in Phnom Penh and that has inevitably marked me: Tuol Sleng. A former high school located in downtown Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng was converted into a maximum security prison (infamously known with the code of “S-21”) during the Khmer Rouge regime. Of the 20,000 people known to have entered, only 7 survived. It is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and you should visit it not because it is on Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or on any travel guide or blog (including mine) but because you cannot really understand Cambodia and its people without visiting it. Cambodia is a lot more, but this is an absolutely necessary stop.

If you don’t know anything about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and never heard about Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek, a good starting point is to dedicate some of your time to a couple of extremely interesting readings: “The Elimination: A survivor of the Khmer Rouge confronts his past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields by Rithy Panh and “The Lost Executioner: A story of the Khmer Rouge” by Nic Dunlop.

Starting from two completely different perspectives, in my view they are excellent accounts that helped me to understand a lot more about Cambodia, its people and the Khmer Rouge regime. Not easy readings (you wouldn’t expect so, given the topic) but definitely very informative.

The Elimination. When the Khmer Rouge took power and entered Phnom Penh on April 17th 1975, the 13 years old Rithy Panh (now the most acclaimed Cambodian filmmaker worldwide) and his family were forced to abandon the capital. During the course of the following years, he lost his parents, siblings and other relatives under the Khmer Rouge regime. He survived and was able to escape to Thailand and later on, to France. It wouldn’t do any justice to such a great book to say that it’s mainly about his interviews with Comrade Duch, the Commandant of Tuol Sleng. It’s a lot more. It gives you an astonishing and shivering account of the “life” of the author and his family in Cambodia from the time the Khmer Rouge took power onward and at the same time it leads you inside Tuol Sleng, the corridors, the interrogation rooms, the cells and the mind of Comrade Duch.

The Lost Executioner is another excellent book that starts from a completely different point of view. Nic Dunlop, an Irish photojournalist based in Bangkok, in 1999 tracked down and interviewed Comrade Duch in Samlaut (Northwestern Cambodia). On this interview/confession Dunlop was accompanied by Nate Thayer, an American freelance journalist also known for being the last Western to have interviewed Pol Pot, just before he died (the interview is still to be published in his book “Sympathy for the Devil”). After the publication of Nic Dunlop’s interview in 1999, Duch gave himself in and was later tried, thus becoming the first former Khmer Rouge to be tried and sentenced by the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh.

When you start reading about Cambodia, it can get truly addictive. I started with an old and half destroyed copy of The Killing Fields by Christopher Hudson that I found in a guest house on Koh Rong Samloen (an island off Sihanoukville). The book is adapted from the screenplay The Killing Fields by Lord David Puttnam (that, regardless of the book, should be seen) and tells the strong and suffered story of the American journalist Sydney Schanberg and the Cambodian newsman Dith Pran through the Khmer Rouge regime. I also read First they killed my father written by Luong Ung, another survivor of the Pol Pot regime that gives a shivering account of those days. I moved then to River of Time by Jon Swain (the journalist portrayed in The Killing Fields) and Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley, another great book useful to understand more about Cambodia today (though I probably do not fully agree with some parts of the book).

Here is my account of a day in Tuol Sleng (visited in February 2014).

We spent the morning in Phnom Pehn wandering around the Russian Market and, as previously planned, we head to visit Tuol Sleng.

P1050800
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon when we entered, warm and bright. I thought hiring a guide was the best option to get an in-depth accurate explanation since I didn’t know a lot about Tuol Sleng before visiting (apart some readings on our travel guide and some websites) and I was pleased we did it.

But then, as soon as our guide left us to try to quickly catch another group of tourists before closing time, I thought it was far better to be on our own in that place, taking our time. If you have a good knowledge of what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, I would encourage to visit the site without a guide – that’s my opinion, without taking anything away from the local guides that undoubtedly supply relevant and accurate information on the tragic events that occurred in Cambodia in those years.

IMG_3801
View of the former school courtyard
P1050762
Barbed wire on the 2nd floor.
IMG_3776
Mugshots of Tuol Sleng prisoners
IMG_3779
Map indicating the killing sites, the security prisons and the genocide memorial all over Cambodia (Documentation Centre of Cambodia)

We were still wandering in the former classrooms on the first floor of the school when, looking out of the window, I saw a little girl in her school uniform; she must have been not older than 5 and she was busy playing on her own with something I couldn’t see in the middle of the courtyard, right there where thousands of children, women and men not long ago had been imprisoned, tortured and killed. I looked at her for a while and I shivered thinking that she was actually able to play in such a dreadful place. She found herself a spot on the arid grass, just under the former school gym bars and, using half a trunk as a coffee table, she laid a small cup and saucer, a cafetiere and a tiny plastic purple hand bag.

IMG_3797.JPG

IMG_3798

By the time my boyfriend and I had walked down the stairs heading towards the exit, she was still there; she had brought from somewhere another cup and saucer, a tiny pink stool and she was having a cup of (imaginary) coffee. On her own.

As I walked past her, she looked at me for a while and she shyly smiled. She was absolutely beautiful, sitting like a little lady on the minuscule stool. I smiled back and I leaned over, taking the cup that she had left on the trunk, and pouring in a bit of the water I had in my bottle and started sipping. She smiled back at me and that’s how we had our cup of coffee. Coffee had never tasted that good!

P1050785

I assume she was the little daughter of the woman that worked in the Tuol Sleng bookshop because, at the end of the afternoon, when the site and the bookshop were about to close, the woman called her loudly and in seconds the little girl had packed her coffee set, her tiny stool and was running towards the woman, ready to go home. Probably the following day after school she would have been sitting there, at the same hour, on the same stool, having her afternoon coffee.

In Tuol Sleng you will see a sign that reminds you not to smile (not that you will be particularly willing to do it, anyway). But when we left, I realized that I had actually smiled in there, not as a sign of disrespect but as a sign of happiness in seeing that right there where life had ended for many, a little girl, most likely unaware of everything, was able to play. And smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jazz it up!

Just in case you are thinking about heading to New Orleans for Mardi Gras…. 🙂

On Food and Travel

NOLA was a 580 miles detour from our planned trip. It was absolutely worth the long drive from St. Augustine, FL all the way through Alabama, Mississippi to Louisiana. Some will tell you that there is only one place in the States that has got the same vibe and soul of NOLA, being Key West. Although I do not fully agree, NOLA is without any doubt a unique place and possibly one of the best cities I’ve visited in America so far.

Before you head here, keep in mind a few things about this city:

Music. You don’t need to be a Jazz expert to love this city and discretely approach jazz if you are not a fan yet. Music is everywhere, at every corner, in every bar, in every square, in every restaurant. It brings people together and it brings happiness and joy at any time. If you can…

View original post 1,551 more words

How to visit London without blowing the budget

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.

EATING OUT

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.

IMG_6874
Tower Bridge
IMG_1544
London skyline from Waterloo Bridge – looking South
IMG_1543
Waterloo Bridge
IMG_1612
St. Paul’s Cathedral from the Millennium Bridge
IMG_1046
Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
IMG_1064
Somerset House
IMG_6899
Sun going down on London

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 WalksAlternative London Tours offers off-the beaten-track tours to discover 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.

IMG_1578
Street Art, East London
IMG_1583
The Gherkin

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).

IMG_6188
Lunch time in Soho Square
IMG_7661.JPG
Morning run in Hyde Park
DSC_0581.JPG
St. James Park resident

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.

IMG_8244
Art at the Tate Gallery
IMG_8238
Art at the Tate Gallery

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:

  1. Westminster Cathedral
  2. Southwark Cathedral
  3. 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).
  4. Royal Courts of Justice
  5. Changing of the Guard Ceremony outside Buckingham Palace
  6. Ceremony of the Keys in the Tower of London: it has to be booked well in advance since it sold out very quickly.
  7. St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church: next to Trafalgar Square, it’s free to visit and to attend its lunchtime concerts.
  8. Somerset House

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.

 

 

 

Stunning Matera!

While in Puglia and just one day before flying back to the UK, we decided to stretch over to Basilicata to visit Matera. Just off the border with Puglia, Matera, which is thought to be the third oldest city in the world, is located 400 mt. above the sea level in a superb setting. For me it was one of those places where reality far exceeded expectations.

The road to get there is not a particularly nice one; mostly one lane only, driving through construction works and shacks with prostitutes (yes), you can’t say it’s a lovely drive but it’s totally worth it. When we were there (mid April), traffic was steady with definitely far more trucks than tourist cars and you will appreciate it even more once arrived in Matera: the old city was extremely quiet and we could wander through the Sassi almost on our own. We started our tour of the city with sunshine but by the end of the day we had some really heavy rain. Still, it was wonderful and before the rain hit we were able to enjoy a yummy outdoor quick lunch with all the local delicacies, including a incredible buttery fresh ricotta.

IMG_5774.JPG

Not to miss:

  • I Sassi: Matera is known as “La citta’ dei Sassi” (the City of Stones). It’s a whole city literally carved in tuff with plenty of underground labyrinths and hidden corners that create an extremely fascinating effect. “I Sassi”, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993 (together with the Park of Rupestrian Churches – see further down), show a way to live that dates back to prehistoric times and that has lived up to our days, almost intact. Get lost in the old city, wander through the narrow alleys and enjoy the spectacular views that literally open up at every corner.

IMG_5755

IMG_5740

  • Rupestrian Churches: they are churches created in caves where you can still admire wonderful frescos. They go back to the Medieval times and, apart from their religious function, throughout the centuries they have also been used as dwellings or animal shelters. There are around 155 rupestrian churches spread all over the area around Matera. To arrange a guided tour, you can contact the CEA (Environmental Educational Centre); I haven’t tried them by myself since unfortunately we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked in Matera but apparently is an excellent option for excursions and visits in the area.

IMG_5782.JPG

  • The treks. If you have got a couple of days, you could spend one day visiting Matera and the second one exploring the beautiful nearby area; there are plenty of stunning treks in the wonderful National Park of the Murgia Materana (Murge – spiky rocks – is a vast subregion encompassed between the regions of Puglia and Basilicata), dotted with plenty of Rupestrian churches. On CEA webpage they advertise different walks/treks options for all levels so it could be an excellent option to combine beautiful outdoor treks with a full explanation of the territory and the local history.
IMG_5762
Murgia Materana

We didn’t sleep in Matera but as you will see on the web there are plenty of options. Sleeping in the Sassi is extremely charming but it can be very expensive though (have a look at Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita or Corte San Pietro to get an idea)…so if you are on a small budget but still want to fully experience this magical setting, a good option could be to use Airbnb. There are plenty of rooms from less than 40 Euro/night right in the Sassi with many excellent reviews, worth to have a look at 😉

Matera has been appointed (together with Plovdiv, Bulgaria) 2019 European Capital Culture, defeating other shortlisted stunning Italian cities, such as Lecce and Siena. But it is quite striking to think that only in recent times this same city had been defined as a “national shame” by some Italians themselves and its “Sassi” were considered a disgraceful example of deterioration; in the 1950s, funds were granted to build new housing outside the old cave-city, aiming at relocating over 15.000 people from their house-caves thus emptying the original prehistoric city. It was only in the mid-80s that a new national law started the process of recovery of the old city, after over 30 years of neglect. Still, if you visit now, you will have the feeling that a lot needs to be done as plenty of buildings are still abandoned and empty. Unfortunately, Matera (and the whole region) suffers what largely affects the beautiful South of Italy: high unemployment rates and lack of infrastructure. Not many people are interested in living here and many young people are forced to emigrate looking for better job opportunities. But this is another excellent reason to put this place on top of your list, before it gets taken over by hordes of tourists. If you are a movie fan, you might already know that plenty of blockbuster movies have been filmed here (including the massive Ben-Hur production, to be released in summer 2016), taking advantage of the breath-taking views and the unique city.

If you can’t wait and want to have a preview of how stunning Matera is, I suggest you have a look at the Episode of Italy Unpacked 2015 where English art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli discover the beauty of Matera during their tour throughout Italy.

IMG_5779

IMG_5749

IMG_5753

IMG_5764

There might be plenty of other cave dwellings in the world (Spain, Turkey to name a couple) but rarely you will stumble across something as unique as this.