“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries” – Aldous Huxley

There are lots of travel reviews on how to travel the Sri Lankan tea country, what’s the best route, where to stay. I struggled a little as I really wanted the authentic experience and not end up in a tourist trap. We managed quite a good balance so here are my tips on how to travel the tea country authentically without missing out on the good stuff:

The Whiter Waters of Ramboda

1. Travel to and stay in Nuwara Eliya

We avoided the tourist traps of Haputal, Dambulla and Nanouya and travelled a little off track from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The 3 hours drive is absolutely stunning through luscious green tea fields up winding streets. We did a quick stint to a tea factory and visited a couple of waterfalls on the way. Nuwara Eliya itself sits fairly high above sealevel in the mountains and you can really feel the change in air and temperature. Bring some jumpers with you as the temperature difference to Colombo and Kandy is quite noticeable. Jumper and jeans are definitely recommendable, especially in the evening.

View from the top of the hills at Ramboda

Don’t expect a beautiful little mountain village – Nuwara Eliya is robust and convenient. It isn’t packed with colourful restaurants, bars or little tea shops. It’s very local, not necessarily the richest of villages but its people have big hearts and a lot of curiosity. It’s a good location if you want to travel to Adam’s Peak for the sunrise hike – unfortunately we weren’t able to go as I fell ill the night before but I would certainly recommend it over Sigiriya where you have to pay entry and it’s all over in an hour. It is also meant to be very over-run whereas Adam’s peak due to its off the track location still has kept some authenticity and beautiful calmness

2. Book a home-stay

We stayed with a local family at a home stay, definitely an experience I can recommend if you want to experience the real Sri Lanka and its real people. It’s the reason we fell in love with the country  – the most welcome, warm and hospital people I’ve met on my travels and they just want to make your experience unforgettable. Our home-stay was called Redwood Inn, run by a young couple just outside on the outskirts of town. They will cook you a delicious Sri Lankan dinner (just avoid the fruit salad, that was my down-fall) and the breakfast is beautiful home-made cake.

Picturesque drive up the valley to Nuwara Eliya

Restaurant recommendation: The Grand Thai

3. Take the train to Ella

Yes, you will read this in every guide book and yes everyone will say it’s the most beautiful train journey. And – they are right. I was violently ill when we attempted the train journey which definitely dampered the experience for me, but I am very grateful we did it. You will need nerves of steel. The train is delayed – always. At least 2 hours. And tickets – forget about it. Unless you book them 1 year in advance or find someone who sells them under the table, you are in the cattle class. But that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s how the locals travel so that’s how we travelled. With a 39 degree fever. But hey. 7 hours to cover 75 miles in snail pace through the winding hills of the tea country and the 100 shades of green of the tea farms. You will experience all the elements throughout this journey, one of the highest points of the trip will literally take you through the clouds. We arrived in Ella with a beautiful sunset, exhausted but very happy.

 

4. Stay 2 nights in Ella

Ella is the complete opposite to Nuwara Eliya. The main road from the train station to our hotel where all the restaurants and bars are reminds me a little bit of Thailand. Loud and colourful, some shacks, some elaborate terraces. But welcoming. What struck me was that you don’t see a single local. It’s very much westernised and all white people sitting in the restaurants. The locals have their houses higher up in the hills and further into the jungle and you tend to see them much on the main road. It does feel like tourism has taken over this little village but when you are exhausted  – and I don’t say this lightly – and you have an upset stomach, a slice of pizza really did the job. I was strong enough again to climb Ella’s Rock the next morning.

Our morning view of Ella’s Rock from our guesthouse’s rooftop terrace

5. Climb Ella’s Rock

Most people go very early to catch the sunrise, similar to Adam’s Peak. We frankly couldn’t get out of bed as we bagged a pretty good room at the Hilltop Guest House with a beautiful rooftop terrace AND an Italian café (don’t judge, Sri Lankan coffee is tought on the oh so sensitive stomach) at the bottom of the hill – bliss for breakfast with views of the entire valley. We set off at 11am and had crowds of people coming towards us on the first quarter of the way and to be honest, I can only imagine how packed it must have been at the peak at 7am so we were very happy to have left “late”. Just take plenty of water and you should be fine in the heat – the hike should take 2 hours each way. 

 


The track isn’t very well sign-posted – basically not at all. We followed descriptions from a guide book and asked some locals. Our hotel was located right at the beginning by the rail tracks, which you have to walk along for the first 30 minutes. Then take a sharp left at a little hut selling drinks, cross the bridge of a natural swimming pool and you are at the foot of the peak. The climb is quite steep and challenging, but the panorama is breathtaking. At the top, we were almost by ourselves apart from a few guards and of course some stray dogs with puppies.

 

Ella Restaurant recommendations: We really wanted to try AK Ristoro and Café Guru but unfortunately they were shut the night we stayed. But we heard very good things about these restaurants so if you go to Ella, please try them on our behalf!

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“One’s destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things” – Henry Miller

It’s not called the Teardrop Island for nothing, beautiful Ceylon / Sri Lanka really has the magical aura of a paradise in another dimension. Ancient train tracks with even older trains and schedules, sloping hills in the lush green of tea fields, colour bursting villages with VERY happy smiley people. Sounds like a cliché doesn’t it? Yes, exactly my thoughts when writing this but it is spot on. Sri Lanka has managed to maintain some of this old school magic you still read in books about (minus the resorts of course), the extremes between old and new and that’s what I love it for. Sadly it is destined to be another Cuba and Costa Rica – go now or you will miss the magic and it will turn into another resort driven holiday spot by the Indian Ocean.

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Colombo

A long flight, several fights with Qatar Airways about over-booked planes and a broken Macbook Air later, Colombo was quite the shock to the system. Loud, noisy, very polluted and suicidal Tuk Tuk drivers. I wouldn’t recommend it, I read a lot of raving reviews about Colonial houses and colourful food markets but we didn’t see any of that. Bear in mind we were there for 1 day only, but that was more than enough for us.

Train Ride to Kandy

What an experience. Ever watched those YouTube videos of the Japanese Metro where the saying “Sardine Can” doesn’t do it justice? Well come to Colombo Central station and try to board the morning train to Kandy. With a backpack. And a completely swollen shut eye, after being bitten by something indefinable the night before. This is why they recommend Travel Insurance when going to Sri Lanka, there can be no other reason – it is mental. The trains are literally stormed, conquered by brute force and people will use your backpack as a ladder to enter the train. Survival of the fittest and fastest at its best.

Once on the train with a few bruises, we didn’t book a seat or manage to win the fight with the locals, but it’s definitely an experience, swaying with the rhythm of the train for the next 3 hours towards Kandy, through lush rice fields and thick rain forest.

Kandy

We stayed in the beautiful Kandy View hotel slightly outside of the city but still within walking distance, with our room facing the rain forest. Absolutely beautiful spot with a great in-house restaurant. In the morning you breakfast with the monkeys who wait in line for their morning bananas from the Chef and it was there that we discovered our love for banana pancakes.

Kandy itself it a busy little city with a lot of temples, religious sites to visit and hills to climb for one of the biggest Buddha statue. It has a beautiful market hall but a very busy town centre. I’d recommend a stay of 2 days max as it can become quite tiring, especially if you just arrived from Colombo.

“In many ways we are all sons and daughters of ancient Greece.” (Nia Vardalos)

It wouldn’t be a normal summer without an escape to beautiful Greece. Having spend a fair amount of time in the Cyclades and Aegean Sea, this year’s destination is Kefalonia, an island in the Ionian Sea, west of mainland Greece, marked by sandy coves and dry rugged landscapes.

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Kefalonia is one of the larger islands I’ve been to, and when you hire a car you will quickly come to recognise the endless amount of rugged, desert-like countryside in between the little villages and towns. There are many faces to the Island and the vegetation changes quickly from bone dry to luscious pine, cypress and olive tree groves. Well known for its wine production, at the foot of Mt. Anos vineyards produce the popular Kefalonian Robola wine variety.

We chose to stay far far away from the touristy resorts, which nowadays destroy the authenticity of any Greek island. If you are in the same boat as me, avoid the southern coast of the island. That doesn’t mean that you can’t find a nice beach down there, but you will also find half of the UK and mainland Europe slurping a cocktail next to you.

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Our place of choice – Agia Efimia, a little fishing village with a small harbour, tucked away on the east coast of the island. The village is small but has everything you would want – breathtaking sea views, authentic tavernas, 3 local supermarkets, 1 meat market and a number of very well equipped bakeries. The village is a bit off the beaten path but also the favourite holiday spot for Greeks who come to visit the island. Localisation – tick!

We managed to bag a studio right by the edge of the water – Ballas Apartments is an absolute insider tip. The photos on Booking.com don’t make the location justice and the views of the apartments is breathtaking. Stravos is a great host, welcoming you with bottles of local Kefalonian wine and home-made baklava from the village bakery. Your balcony opens up to the Ionian sea and every morning at 7am an amazing sunrise greets you to start the day. The property has a large outside space with Bougainvillea bushes, olive trees and lots of space to lounge if you want to descend from your own private balcony. Some steep steps allow you to access the water straight from the property – absolute bliss in the mid-day heat.

So far we have spend our days watching the harbour activity, sailing boats arriving or heading off for a day of exploring. Wandering into the village to buy some local produce for lunch, cooking some local recipes. Enjoy an aperitif on the balcony watching the sunset. Walking into the village for dinner in one of the tavernas. What more could you want?

 

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” (John Steinbeck)

Barcelona was high on my list of places to visit, especially after having had quite a bit of time travelling Spain and exploring the diversity between cities vs country life

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People always say you are either Madrid or Barcelona and I guess I am more in the Barcelona team. As Carlos Ruiz Zafon put it perfectly, “Barcelona is a very old city in which you can feel the weight of history; it is haunted by history. You cannot walk around it without perceiving it”. In Barcelona I had the feeling of coming home – there were parts of what I loved about London, what I loved about Berlin and everything that I loved about Spain – the perfect combination. The area we stayed in – the Gràcia quarter – very much reminded me of our times at Prenzlauer Berg, and the vast amount of markets fulfilled all my food dreams I have when travelling to Spain.

Here are my top 4 things to do when in Barcelona:

Have Breakfast at one of the many Plazas in Gràcia

One of my favourites – La plaça de la Vila de Gràcia. A charming, lively little square framed with restaurants and cafes with its clock tower as centre piece. It has the feel of a traditional village within in the city and it surprisingly not over-run by tourists.

Have lunch in Mercado de la Boqueria

Don’t take the Metro when in Barcelona – walk the streets. When heading to la Boqueria from Gràcia, you pass many of the tourist attractions on the side line and also pass through the famous Gothic Quarter with its little winding side streets.

La Boqueria is the dream of every foodie – it’s big, it’s busy and it’s full of fresh produce, tapas, Pinchos, Jamón and local wines. I always have a problem when I go to these places that I cannot make my mind up and come out a lot fuller and heavier than anticipated.

Take a walk for a view

Put your comfy shoes on and make your way up the winding streets to Park Güell, located on Carmel Hill and home of the famous Antonio Gaudí. This is slightly more over-run and if you want to get away from the crowds and watch the sun set over the city, walk a little further to the hill of Turó de la Rovira for the Bunker del Carmel. This spot is slowly in the coming but still a little secret amongst travellers – perfect spot to enjoy a few drinks in the twilight hours.

Park Life with a Picnic

Barcelona is a very green city, so stock up with some fresh goodies, grab a blanket and settle down in one of the many parks

Some of my favourites

Park de la Ciutadella

Park de l’Espanya industrial

“You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.” (Paul Prudhomme)

Simple food is always the best food. And the best simple food I’ve always found in Spain. Food has become too trendy, too much of a commodity, restaurants have become places to be seen at rather than places to enjoy the simple pleasure of food. That’s why my love for food is at its height in Spain – and this time, in Granada.

I’ve always liked the way the Spanish eat – why have a main course if you can have lots of little courses, a bit of everything? Share it with friends, your loved one, your better half, fight over the last piece or feel generous to share….. Tapas are one of the better foods culinary in this world. Whilst in Granada, we tried the two opposites: we squeezed into one of the overloaded Tabernas, where people where spilling onto the pavement and you got a very familiar feeling of the London Underground. And we did the Spanish sit-down meal with dressed waiters under outdoor heaters and a long line of beautiful dishes.

When in Granada, and you feel brave enough to dine like a local, try

Taberna La Tana

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This place is old-school, it’s authentic and it has history. The floor is littered with paper napkins; the noise level is so loud that the barista shoves a notepad in your direction to take your order, only to then loudly exclaim about your school boy scribbles. But it is these kind of places where you get the authentic food, squeezed in at the bar between many hungry Spaniards, no matter what hour of the night or evening. Here, you don’t get proper China, here you eat from paper plates. The menu ranges from croquetas de jamon, baccalà, bocadillo to huevos. It’s the simple pleasure, prepared in the same way it’s done at home and it is delicious. You spend no longer than 15-20 minutes in a Taberna, so this is a great way to eat your way through a Spanish City.

Other recommendations:

Los Diamantes – super busy, you need some msucle and determination in this place

Bodegas Castañeda – old school and has been getting great reviews for a decade

Bodeguilla de al Lado – don’t get put off by the exterior, they play the intimidation game!

If you don’t feel like defending your dinner space for the majority of the night, try

Restaurante Carmela

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We came across this place via zooming in on Google Maps. I know, the lazy way, but we were tired after a day out in town and wanted something away from the crowds, away from the tourists and a chair under our derrière. TripAdvisor is usually a no-go when you want to avoid tourists so we zoomed around in the neighbourhood. And there it was, next to one of the University halls. We managed to get a seat outside, wrapped around a heater as the indoor restaurant was already heaving at 8pm – very unusual for Spain. The menu was a mix of Tapas and mains, and I have to admit, this was the first time I felt a bit sad not getting a main course – they ox and goat stew – you can catch me with any kind of meat that isn’t the mainstream chicken or lamb!

We went for the Huevos rotos con papas y virutas de jamón (Scrambled eggs with potatoes and ham shavings), Carpaccio de presa ibérica (Black Iberian pork carpaccio), Croquetas de jamón and Croquetas de morcilla con cebolla caramelizada (Black pudding and caramelised onions croquettes). The pork carpaccio was something different and I can only recommend – you don’t get this everywhere and it is very worth a try!

“Give him an offering, my lady, for there is no greater tragedy than that of the blind man in Granada.”

So goes the famous quote about this even more famous city, supposedly said to a woman passing a beggar in streets of Granada. And it is true, still today. The beauty of this majestic city is breathtaking, wandering its cobbled backstreets takes you centuries back in time, alongside with its whitewashed cave houses nestled in the hills around La Alhambra. There is so much beauty to be missed, Granada is a place you should discover with your eyes wide open.

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When we arrived in Granada via car from direction Malaga, we weren’t convinced. You approach through the Sierra Nevada and all of the sudden the valley opens up and Granada lies in front of you. It looks huge. And it looks a little bit industrial. Not what we were looking for after a few tranquil days in the mountains. But this just goes to show that Granada is a city with many faces, it is a mix of new and old, history and reality, poverty and rich, culture and tourism. And this makes it special. Granada’s history is a little different to most Spanish cities, history played out differently here and the influences of different religions and cultures have marked the city much more than any other place I’ve visited in Spain.

After finding a parking space (1 hour of driving around the city’s tiniest streets) we climbed up the hill to our little apartment in the neighbourhood of Albayzín. This is one of the most culturally mixed neighbourhoods at the foot of La Alhambra, with a view of the Monasterio de la Concepcion. It’s quiet and it’s historical, away from the big Plazas, crowds of tourists and tourist menus. Definitely a neighbourhood I’d recommend if you want to be close to the centre but prefer quiet surroundings and a good selection of local restaurants.

On our 2nd day, we spend a good few hours exploring the ground of La Alhambra. La Alhambra – what was once the final bastion of Islam in Spain, is now a true wonder of the world, a piece of UNESCO world heritage and an utterly magical place.Unfortunately we hadn’t bought entry tickets for the gardens and the actual indoors, but you don’t necessarily have to. The grounds itself are a mix of poetry and calligraphy, with the imposing granite Palace of Charles V and it’s very Roman courtyard, the beautiful bath of Comares with its star-scattered ceiling….. The list goes on. And all of this with a breathtaking back-drop of the Sierra Nevada and its snow-powdered mountain tops.

Once you exit La Alhambra, I’d recommend a wander up the hills towards the Mirador San Nicolas, which gives you a beautiful view of Alhambra in front of the mountains. San Nicolas is a bit different; its little square is a hustle and bustle of gypsies, market traders and musicians. It has a very medieval feel to it with groups of locals sitting on the walls overlooking the city with a guitar, singing old folklores.

From Mirador San Nicolas, you climb the hills further to Sacromonte, a neighbourhood famous for its gypsy caves. Sitting on the hill of Valparaiso outside the old city, it was build over catacombs, with the original purpose of mining works. Now it’s the home to the majority of Granda’s flamenco schools and our entire walk we were followed by the sounds of cante and toque. It is one of the poorer areas of the city but also one of the most authentic and untouched places, with houses and caves slowly fizzling out, opening up into green valleys and mountains.

“Berlin is more a part of the world than a city. ” (Jean Paul)

When writing about my travels, I don’t tend to mention museums very much as for me this is quite a personal choice, and something everyone can read up on TripAdvisor. For me, it is not necessarily a travel trip but a given – if you go to a city with a famous museum, it should be seen. Full stop. No need for someone to blog about it, it’s in every travel guide. BUT my exception is the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind. In the creator’s own words, “it thematises and integrates for the first time in post-war Germany the history of the Jews in Germany, the repercussions of the Holocaust and spiritual displacement. It is also just a museum with exhibits on the walls”.

This museum has left such a deep impression that I do want to write about and highly suggest it to people who go and visit the city. It’s a big place, set a good 3-4 hours aside if you want to do it properly – it is very much mind-blowing experience, with a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces, covering Jewish history right from the very start through the atrocities of WW2. A place I will always remember, will always be very grateful I went and will recommend to anyone who goes to Berlin and wants to experience a piece of world history that goes under your skin. Yes there is the entire Museums Insel with all its famous glory, but if you want to do something that actually leaves an imprint behind – go and visit!

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Garden of Exile – rows of 49 concrete columns rose out of the square with Russian olive trees growing on top of the pillars as symbol of hope.

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Walking alongside the Landwehrkanal towards the muesum

 

“ After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” (Oscar Wilde)

Cómpeta is tiny, so it’s vital you know where to go for food. It’s too easy to end up in a tourist or expat trap, we’ve made this mistake way too often. And sometime simple tapas just won’t do, sometimes you want to indulge in their great national dishes with local produce.

If in Cómpeta, make your way to:

Taberna Casa Paco

Don’t be fooled but it’s location on the Plaza where most tourists and expats sit like monkeys on the tree. We started here for just a drink with the plan to move on as it was getting fairly cold outside and we weren’t prepared to have dinner in a freezer. But the food looked GOOD. The dishes carried past us smelled and looked eye-watering so we decided to check out the inside and it was worth it. Casa Paco has a very twee little dining room upstairs, a mix of old school living room you’d expect your Nan to have and the comfiness or a Taberna with robust furniture and dining tables. With a table by the window overlooking the plaza and small village church, we ordered a handful of starters as there wasn’t any clear indication what was tapas and what was a la Carte. I can only recommend this way of ordering, we ended up with 5 dishes which was perfect quantity and quality: Toastie “Bracamonte”. Iberian pork and onion, “Timbal” of broken eggs with iberian ham, Home-made chicken croquettes, Octopus galician style and Champiñones al ajillo. Absolute favourite was the Octopus, perfectly cookes, soft and juicy and not a hint of chewiness.

El Pilon

Unfortunately voted by TripAdvisor as best restaurant of Cómpeta, this place is for BBQ lovers. Whether it’s meat or fish you are into, at El Pilon they create slightly different dishes on their outdoor BBQ – Langostinos with almonds or Iberico pork stuffed with Spanish black pudding in a mustard sauce. This is a bit of a treat and different to the typical tapas dishes but what makes me love this place is that you can really try the local produce, which sometimes gets lost in tapas dishes. When out of season, the restaurant it not over-run and you can get a nice table either by the window overlooking Cómpeta or a snug corner right in front of the fire place.