Kandy, rediscovered.

“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot

Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s heritage cities located in the Central Province. The city lies on an elevated plateau which is surrounded by hills and tea plantations. The air here is cooler than the rest of the island. Kandy was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and is home to one of the most important places of worship in the Buddhist world – The Temple of the Tooth relic. Kandy lake and the decorative wall which surround it are as famous as the temple itself.

A childhood spent in Sri Lanka means I have visited Kandy on numerous occasions. We mainly visited the Temple of the Tooth. For the most part it was a quick stop on our way elsewhere. As such, I had never really explored or experienced Kandy outside of the Temple. All I knew of this city I had learned through my grandmother and her fantastic bed time tales of legendary kings and kingdoms past.

Kandy Railway

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Podi Menike chugging up the misty hills of “up country”.

So, with high hopes and nostalgia I arrived in Kandy. The 5.55am train Podi Menike from Colombo brought me to Kandy through sleepy villages and winding hillsides. We stopped briefly in the small towns of Gampaha, Peradeniya and Kadugannawa. As we ascended to higher ground Podi Menike chugged along slower and slower up the hills. This is a wonderfully scenic journey not to be missed. Each time the train stopped I was treated to quaint colonial train stations where time had changed nothing, not even the chairs.

Kandy Railway Station was no different. It’s a hive of activity; platforms are abuzz with people going about their daily lives alongside travellers on their way out or arriving with excitement. Outside, rows of local tuk tuk drivers wait eagerly to take you to your destination. My journey from the station to my hotel Ozo, Kandy was a mere 5 minutes and cost just Rs.300 (£1.65 approximately).

Ozo, Kandy

I arrived at Ozo to a warm Kandyan welcome. My room was ready and the check in was quick even though I had arrived almost three hours earlier than scheduled. They staff at Ozo are mostly Kandyans which means you have access to great local knowledge. They were all eager to help when I explained that I had visited the Temple of the Tooth several times and did not plan on visiting again. I had several alternative places suggested before I finished my welcome drink.

Freshened up and changed I walked up to Bommu Bar and Lounge on the rooftop. When you get here, order yourself a cold lemon juice while you take in the spectacular views of the hillside which include the Knuckles mountain range. I felt the weariness of my early start fall away as I exhaled and synchronised with the nature surrounding me. Similarly, the attached pool was an oasis of tranquility. The deep blue tiles against the lush greenery of the hills offered a harmonious mix of nature and luxury – a fine balance perfectly achieved. A graffiti mural by Parisian street artist, Marko 93, sets a dramatic backdrop against the pool bringing this ancient city to a whole new generation of modern day travellers.

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Beautifully presented Hummus starters.
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Colourful chicken mains.

I finished every day of my stay back at Ozo to nap, refresh and sample it’s famed  dinner. I was spoilt for choice between traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. Miniature starters were beautifully presented. Mains were a range of vegetarian and meat dishes. Vegetables and salads were seasonal and colourful.  Deserts were either mini sweet delights or an array of bright and juicy tropical fruit. Nothing had been spared and the attention to detail was not lost on me. Needless to say all of it was simply delicious.

Bommu Bar

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Bommu Bar & Lounge by night.

After dinner each evening I headed back up to Bommu which transforms into a pulsating venue after dark. Each night I stayed up far later than I intended to enjoying the cool mountain air and smoking shisha under the stars.

The Room

My bed was cosy because Kandyan air is pretty crisp at night. I had soft down pillows and crips white sheets – essentials for a restful night. Sri Lankans are early risers in general and each morning I woke up earlier than usual, refreshed and rested to stunning views of the hillside.

The Eat2Go restaurant here turned out the most incredible breakfasts. A buffet style offering ranged from traditional Sri Lankan favourites such as hoppers and lunu miris to continental breakfasts of croissants and waffles were a feast to behold. My heart skipped a beat as I watched the chef whip up the most welcoming breakfast of all – A perfect English breakfast in the Kandyan hills. Now that’s luxury!

I spent two nights here and planned to explore the path less travelled. If you visit Kandy for first time Temple of the Tooth is a must see. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya 5km west of Kandy is another. Visit both – you have not seen Kandy if you haven’t experienced these two places.

Udawatta Kele Sanctuary

My first stop was Udawatta Kele Sanctuary which is a protected forest. At 257 Acres it covers a larger area than the gardens at Peradeniya. I gave myself 3 hours, wore hiking boots and carried water. Snacks are not a great idea as littering is not encouraged and also because the forest is home to Torque Macaque (monkeys) – notorious snatchers!

There are nocturnal mammals here including the slender loris. Flying squirrels, Vampire bats, mongoose and many species of birds and snakes inhabit the forest but don’t expect to see them all. It is said that Udawatta Kele was used as a pleasure garden by Kandyan kings and the pond at the entrance was used for bathing. There is also religious importance here – three Buddhist meditation hermitages and rock shelter dwellings for monks are also in the forest. As such this protected area is an amazing hike encompassing all that this heritage city has to offer.

The map I was given at the entrance with my ticket was vague and basic. I found it difficult to follow and used my instincts and sense of direction to find my way around. It’s also humid inside the forest so plan your time before you enter it.

Disclaimer: This is a forest and animals, though accustomed to people, are still wild. There is no emergency call system. Please exercise good judgement and common sense when visiting. Animals should not be approached and flash photography may alarm them. (There is a fee of Rs. 660 (Approximately £3.70) to enter). 

Kandy Garrison Cemetery

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Sign leading to Kandy Garrison Cemetery.

My second stop of the day was a more pensive visit to the Kandy Garrison Cemetery also known as the British Garrison Cemetery. Established when the British captured Kandy in 1817 it contains graves of 195 British nationals who lived and died in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known prior to Independence). The most notable aspect here is that almost all died young of tropical diseases such as cholera and malaria. On most of my previous trips I have stopped here to visit these graves. Although this is not a tourist attraction it still forms a part of Kandy’s heritage. This cemetery exists on the grounds of the Temple of the Tooth and is still maintained by the British but the land maintained by the “Diyawadana Nilame” (chief custodian of the Temple of the Tooth) – a historical balance of power dating back to colonial times.

Kandy Town Centre

My second day plan was to really get to the heart of this town. So I headed to the city center by tuk tuk for a day of walking, sampling street food and general rummaging around. It’s a safe but busy place to walk around but I did find the touts here irritating and dealt with them firmly. There are markets selling vegetables, clothes, lottery tickets and every local product imaginable. For the foodie in me there were bakeries and street food stalls selling a variety of sweet and savoury treats – all of which I tried. (Do exercise caution if you’re unsure of something).

Kandy Lake

The best part of my walk around town was getting close to the lake. Walking is a national pastime in Sri Lanka. Walking around lakes in the shade are even more popular. Kandy lake is a good place to get close to Kandyans. You will find families feeding ducks after visiting the Temple. Street food vendors here cater to all your culinary needs. The last Sinhalese king created the lake in 1807 beside the Temple of the Tooth and decorated the lake with the walakulu (clouds) wall. He couldn’t have known that it’s simple charm would stand as a focal and meeting point centuries later.

All in all this time round, I felt that I had rediscovered the Kandy of my childhood. It certainly has a great deal to offer the most ardent traveller. I found everything I wanted to experience in one place – history, culture, cuisine and nature. Kandy has restored itself to the bustling melting pot of it’s heritage. My grandmother would have been proud.

 

 

In collaboration with OZO Kandy Sri Lanka. www.ozohotels.com/kandy-srilanka

Prices start from GBP 64 per night for a Sleep King room, based on two sharing a room (exclusive of VAT and service charge and subject to availability). For stays until 30 June 2017, stay a minimum of 3 consecutive nights at OZO Kandy Sri Lanka and receive 15% off your booking.

Fact check: Wikipedia, Lonely Planet, Wikitravel.

Niederhorn Mountain – Switzerland

The small town of Thun located in west-central Switzerland is quite possibly my favourite place in the world. Just when you think that a place on earth with so many blessings which include accurate time keeping, cheese and chocolate couldn’t get any better, it does. A mountain range of the Alps, known as the Bernese Alps (Berner Oberland), is located here. As such, this extremely mountainous region is noted for its incredible beauty. Despite the name, “Bernese Alps”, suggesting that they are located in Bern, the range runs through the cantons of Bern, Valais, Fribourg and Vaud. The astonishing surrounding Alpine scenery has helped establish the nearby resorts of Interlaken, Thun, Meiringen, Grindelwald, Mürren  and Kandersteg.

Many of the peaks in the range rise to more than 3660m. Jungfraujoch railway station at the top of Jungfraujoch peak is the highest point of Europe. On my last visit to Thun I took the Niesenbahn funicular  to the top of Niesen, which lies at the southern shore of Lake Thun and peaks at 2,366m. The Niesenbahn is a bright yellow tram on rails connected to a cable that carries people up and down the steel slope. It really needs to be experienced to be believed! We reached the top of this perfectly pyramid shaped mountain only to find clouds surrounding the peak. Visibility was so poor that I couldn’t see past my outstretched arm. I consoled myself with hot chocolate.

This time however, I got lucky. On a cold November morning, a few of us packed into a car and drove up the winding roads to the village of Beatenberg. The route to Beatenberg from Thun by road is so scenic that if heaven was a place I’m sure this is where it would be. Steep cliffs overlook lush green valleys. Traditional wooden farmhouses dot the entire landscape. Sheep and cows graze lazily close to narrow roads snaking up the mountains. And  then, there is this lake!

This lake of Thun that glistens, shining under the sun, all shades of turquoise and blue. It’s elegance takes total command of your view; Clear as a crystal, captivating like a Goddess, a Venus emerging from the earth instead of the sea.

Beatenberg sits high above Lake Thun and offers the most magnificent views. *It is from here that you can also catch the cable car or begin your hike to the summit of  Niederhorn. If you take the cable car they will stop half way should you wish to hike the rest of the way up. If you don’t want to just remain in your car. It is a relatively easy hike and a well travelled path. However, if you plan to do that in winter make sure you are appropriately dressed and have the right equipment for the weather as it can get windier and snowy the higher up you go.

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Let the cable cars carry you to the top while you take in this Alpine scenery.

I’ve always believed that reaching the top of any mountain you have climbed undoubtedly brings you closer to God. This certainly felt true at the peak of Neiderhorn. A little snow had fallen overnight making everything look brand new. In the distance I could see clouds cascading down between two peaks like a waterfall. All around me snow capped peaks glistened against a brilliantly blue sky under the sun. The light so incredibly intense bouncing against the snow and blinding you with its glare. On this clear day it was possible to follow the ridge and see the peaks of Stockhorn, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. What a treat! Looking down, forests running wild against the mountains covering everything in their path. To the right, snow had covered all but the road which was ribbonning against the snow.

These highlands are also home to Ibex. In summer hikers regularly spot them.

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Blinding beauty surrounds you from all angles.
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A little snow had begun to cover the valley.
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Lush green Alpine forests are home to Ibex.
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View of lake Thun from Niederhorn. Stockhorn stands out in the distance.

Between April – October Restaurant Niederhorn at the top serves food with spectacular views. There is seating for around 240 inside and outside. Deck chairs are provided so you can take in the views while you sip drinks. As we were there on a cold Sunday in November much of the restaurant was closed but the kitchen was still open and a limited menu available. Stop here. Refresh yourself, take in the view, exchange stories and breathe before you make your way back down.

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Restaurant Niederhorn overlooking Berner Oberland

These mountains? They will leave you breathless. If you do at least one good thing for yourself in your lifetime, let it be to arrive here. Witness this gift of wonder that has been bestowed upon us. Swiss ingenuity means the Bernese Alps are accessible to people of all ages. It is  common to see young families hiking up with grandparents.

The various mountains in the range are closed to the public at different times of the year (mostly in the winter months before the skiing season begins). Whilst this allows maintenance and repair of facilities to be carried out what this must also do is allow wildlife and ecosystems here to flourish. This fine balance of sustainability and mass tourism allows for a unique experience – one that is echoed in the mountains.

See it for yourself.

Love,

Demi xx

*Adult return fare for Niederhorn cable car is CHF40pp. 

London in the sunshine

“Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” – Samuel Johnson (The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D.Vol 3)

It is well known amongst my friends, that wherever I am in the world, I always return to London during the summer months. When this city  begins to awaken from it’s wintery slumber, there is no place I would rather be. The feeling of walking down a leafy street with the gentle sunlight caressing my face is one of happiness in abundance. This is my favourite time of the year.

Whenever anyone mentions visiting, I always advice that they do so in summer. London is the most visited city in Europe and has a reputation for being one of the most expensive. There is, however, so much to do and see that costs nothing or very little and yet encapsulates everything that London is.

As I consistently say, walking is the best way to feel the rhythm of a new place. It offers a glimpse of every day life and often allows you to feel the pulse of a city.

One of my favourite walks in London begins at St.Paul’s Cathedral, along Fleet Street towards The Strand and rounds off along Victoria Embankment. So much history on a simple lunchtime walk, topped off with a spectacular stroll along the Thames. It doesn’t get any more “London” than this.

WHERE TO STOP

St. Paul’s Cathedral – This is a busy place at the best of times. In summer, people sit on the steps, chat with friends, eat lunch, eat ice cream and bask in the sunshine. There is a charge to enter the cathedral. It is absolutely worth getting to know it’s rich history. But it is not to say that you cannot simply enjoy this magnificent building from the outside. As with most places of worship, there is no photography allowed inside except on the observation deck. You can climb up to it’s dome for breath taking views across London.

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Lunch on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral

The Temple Bar Memorial

From St. Paul’s it’s a straight walk down Fleet Street towards The Strand. The Temple Bar Memorial marks the boundary between the City of London and Westminster. The original boundary  is mentioned as far back as 1293 (Wren’s Temple Bar). It was replaced with the current memorial (1880) with statues of Queen Victoria and The Prince of Wales who were the last monarchs to pass through the gates in 1872.

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The Temple Bar Memorial

Read more on this here:

https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/about-the-city/about-us/buildings-we-manage/Pages/temple-bar.aspx

http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/jones/5.html

The Law Courts Branch – Lloyd’s Bank

Less than two minutes walk past the Temple Bar Memorial is the spectacular Law Courts branch of Lloyds Bank. It was originally built as a restaurant in 1883. The restaurant failed and the building stood empty until 1895 when Lloyd’s Bank purchased it. It is tucked away unsuspectingly so make sure you don’t walk past it. Even before you consider the site’s great history, the interiors alone will leave you in awe.

Read more on this here:

http://www.lloydsbankinggroup.com/Our-Group/our-heritage/2015-our-milestone-year/250-years-of-lloyds-bank/branch-stories/law-courts-london/

The Edgar Wallace

What would London be if it was not full of the most astonishingly beautiful pubs? Turn off  along any of the streets off The Strand towards the river and you will find yourself spoilt for choice for places to eat and drink. The Edgar Wallace stands at the corner of Essex Street and Devereux Court. This is a particularly cosy pub, typical of traditional English pubs, complete with 8 hand pumps. It has a magnificent range of fine ales, perfect for a late afternoon in the sun.

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The Edgar Wallace Public House

Victoria Embankment

Cut through Essex Street and walk down towards the banks of River Thames, namely, Victoria Embankment. Depending on where you turn off from The Strand, you may also walk across Victoria Embankment Gardens – a series of beautiful green spaces built in 1874 on reclaimed land. Finish off your walk along Victoria Embankment, one of the most beautiful and romantic walks in London. With views of The London Eye, Big Ben, the Oxo Tower and the ultimate icons of London – bright red phone boxes, it is the perfect way to end your tour.

 

How to spend 3 hours in Basel

Having previously only ever passed through Basel, to catch an onward bus, tram or train, I had given this city little thought. Switzerland’s second largest city, with such great transport links – Basel SBB (Europe’s busiest international border train station), bus and tram stations conveniently located next to each other, it had seemed to me that people arrived in Basel only to be carried away from here.

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Basel BSS Station

Basel is RICH in history. Basel BSS train station has been here since 1854 and was rebuilt in the 1900s. Switzerland’s oldest University, founded in 1460, is also here. There is a medieval Old Town dating back to the 1500s complete with moat, alleys, houses, fountains and courtyards. This city has no less than SIX bridges connecting one side to the other.

When I found myself with three hours to spare in Basel I was determined to make even a small connection with this enormous city. Whilst sitting in a restaurant, looking for the wine list, I found, “A Journey Back in History”. This leaflet, published by Basel Culture Unlimited, detailed 5 walking tours to discover the Old Town. Each tour named after the town’s famous residents past, could be completed from 30 – 90 minutes. Excited by what I had just discovered, I downed my wine, dropped off my bags in a locker, bought a travel pass and headed out to discover the fascinating medieval Old Town.

Tram NO.8 towards Kleinhuningen takes you to Marktplatz where the walking tours begin. Marktplatz translates to Market Place. And, yes, there is a market here, selling local produce, on weekdays. The bright red Rathaus or Town Hall dominates the square. This 500 year old building is used for local government meetings in the Canton of Basel. The dramatic black arch gated entrance opens out into a magically colourful space. A tiny courtyard is surrounded by walls covered in frescoes restored from 1608-11 originals. Brightly coloured wooden doors lead to council chambers. A staircase guarded by a 1574 statue of Munatius Planks, founder of the town, carries you up to the mezzanine. All of it is simply magnificent.

Directly across the road, at the corner of Sattelgasse, a tiny street between two restaurants, is the starting point of the 5 walking tours. I began the Thomas Platter tour but the signs disappeared 5 mins into the walk and I found myself walking around in circles. However, I was happy that I had this guide, as without it I might have never discovered the Old Town at all.

So, I did what I always do – put away the guidebook and followed my senses. The Old Town is contained in such a way that it’s not possible to lose your way.

I found the Theater Fauteuil, an independent, local theatre – an absolute gem to discover. It’s miniature in size with an interesting schedule of German/Swiss German plays. In my opinion, worth visiting if you have an evening to spend in Basel.

There were medieval alleyways, houses, streets and fountains to be discovered at every little corner of this breath taking Old Town. Having attempted to re-start the walking tours three times, I had lost too much time and did not get to see many of it’s highlights. If you attempt to take the walking tours, try the Thomas Platter walk or simply see the University of Basel (founded 1460) which is the oldest university in Switzerland. The Hans Holbein walk, on the opposite side, should take you to the banks of the Rhine river which runs through Basel. You can also take a ferry across the Rhine from Grossbasel to Kleinbasel, provided you have time. As always, bear in mind that times stated on guide books are not exact but meant merely to guide you. “A Journey Back in History” is a free leaflet available at most restaurants and hotels around Basel BSS train station. It is well worth following as a rough guide (even if you can’t see everything). It highlights all the things you should definitely see; offering an incredible experience for the price of a tram ticket. Absolutely worth your time if you only have a short while to spare.

Whenever I find myself with a more than an hour to spare, whether in a little town or big city, I always try to connect with it. If travelling has taught me anything, it is that there is always more. Nothing is ever as it appears to be. Something interesting has always happened. It’s just waiting to be discovered.

Love,

Demi xx