French Camping Trip Part I

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French Camping Trip Part I

Yes you read the title correctly “Camping”. I know its far removed from my normal travel blogs from around the world but this trip was equally enjoyable. Now I haven’t been camping since I was a small child but as I am now the ripe old age of sixty two I decided to give it another go. Our destination on the first part of the trip was Annecy on the French and Swiss borders. We took the ferry from Dover “much cheaper than the tunnel” and headed for our first overnight stop at a town called Epernay, which is about 213 miles from Calais and about a four hour drive. There is a faster route if you go on the toll roads but French tolls can work out expensive so we avoided them as much as possible on the trip. Epernay is situated in the heart of the Champagne region of France. We stayed at the Hotel Premiere Class which is a very nice and clean budget hotel. It was easier to do this than setting up the tent for just one night. The next day we were off bright and early for the next leg of our journey to Annecy, which was 333 miles and around five and a half hours drive. This time we did take the toll roads, but you pay dearly for the shorter journey time 51 euros in fact. But avoiding them the journey would have took much longer.

We did not book our campsite, we just researched a few before we left the UK, Our first choice when we arrive was fully booked. Our second we did not like, so we were beginning to think that we probably should have booked one, as everywhere seemed very busy indeed, but fortunately our third choice although a little further from town called Le Solitaire du Lac had spaces, and although very busy it was very nice and on the edge of the lake. The facilities were very clean and plenty of them “no queueing for the showers in the morning, also plenty of hot water. Not like I remember from previous camping and caravanning experience.”

Annecy is a beautiful town with lots of amazing architecture. Its situated in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alps region of France not far from the border with Switzerland. We were surprised how busy the place was, being the middle of September. The town of Annecy is situated on the edge of a lake with a circumference of 42km surrounded by mountains, so you can imagine very beautiful spot indeed. The town has plenty of really nice restaurants and as you would expect in France plenty of Boulangeries (Bakery’s) with their mouthwatering fresh baguettes, croissants etc. There is plenty to do in the town, like visiting historic churches eating, or just sitting outside the many cafe’s watching the world go by. Oh and of course as its on a lake, water sports. Also if cycling is your thing there is a cycle path around the periphery of the lake if your feeling energetic.

As we were based in Annecy for a week we took the opportunity to see some of the surrounding sights and towns in the area, our first place to venture to was the delightful town of Chambery which is about an hours drive away. It has a lovely cathedral, a château and the Fontaine des Éléphants (“Elephants Fountain”) its most famous landmark. It was built in 1838 to honour Benoît de Boigne‘s feats when he was in India. We also visited Chamonix a very beautiful town situated at the foot of Mont Blanc. Chamonix and is around one and a half hours drive from Annecy but well worth the trip. With its chocolate box chalets, shops and restaurants, with the magnificent backdrop of Mont Blanc and the surrounding snow capped mountains.

Must do’s in Chamonix

Take the Montenvers Mer de Glace or cog railway up the mountain to the glacier, its quite expensive but oh so worth it “at the time of writing the cost is 33.50 euros per person. The journey along the railway which rises steeply takes about 30 minutes with stunning views along the way. When you reach the glacier the views are breathtaking. After soaking up the views its time to visit the ice cave, which is inside the glacier itself ” all included in the ticket price”. To reach the cave you first must go part of the way down by cable car then you have to walk down 500 steps to the cave itself. One thing that amazed us on the way down was how the height of the glacier itself had receded over the years. There were markers displaying the level the glacier was at years gone by, on the steps as you go down, it was quite shocking how far it had receded, and we are talking about recent years. Another must do is take the cable car from the the town to the summit of Aiguille du Midi. “click the link for more info” There are two legs to the journey to the summit via two cable cars, unfortunately for us only the first stage was open because of maintenance work on the second leg, but it was still worth doing it to admire the view of Mont Blanc and the town below with a glass of cold beer in hand. You can walk up instead of taking the cable car, but trust me this is only for the very fit and seasoned hikers. We saw some from the cable car and believe the walk was very steep indeed. Also if you are the adventurous type you can para glide your way down. Read about the second leg of our trip in “French camping trip part II”

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The Ancient City of Anuradhapura.

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The Ancient City of Anuradhapura.

Our last stop on our tour around Sri Lanka is the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Located in Northern Central Province, it is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It is believed that from the forth century BC until the beginning of the eleventh century AD it was the capital of the Sinhalese. The ancient city covers a large area and is split into two sections. The Citadel area in which you have to pay, and the area to the south which is free apart from Isurumuniya Viharaya temple which cost 200 lkr, .87p. It costs $25 to visit the citadel, once again a disproportionate amount to locals, but it’s not to be missed. Like I said the citadel covers a large area, there are plenty of Tuk Tuk drivers willing to take you on a tour. They will come out with an array of different prices so make sure you barter if that’s the way you want to go. We decided not to take the tour but to walk around the site, to the surprise of all the Tuk Tuk drivers who thought we were mad, and who told us that the distance would be anywhere between 17km and 25km. In fact it was just over 11km. It was a really nice amble around which took around eight hours, that does include taking in the sights. It was an amazing day. There is also plenty of wildlife to see on the way, a lot of which would have been missed if we were in a Tuk Tuk or taxi. From exotic birds to plenty monkeys getting up to there antics. At one point we were approaching a small stream when we heard a loud splashing noise. Initially I could only see a duck sort of running along the water, but as we got closer we saw it was being chased by a huge Monitor Lizard. (In fact it was so big we thought it was a crocodile) Luckily for the duck it managed to escape. When the lizard crawled up the bank after its failed attempt we were both amazed at its size. I could go on and list the many stunning structures around the site, but I would be writing for days. So all I can say if you are in Sri Lanka it’s a must see place. One great structure that I will mention is the Jetavana Stupa, which is possibly the main sight in the citadel. The reason I mention Jatavana Stupa is because its currently the highest Buddhist Stupa (made up of 93,300,000 fire burnt bricks) in the world. Also in the 4th century AD it was the third highest structure in the world. Only the two Great Pyramids of Egypt were higher.

Top Tips.

It goes without saying take plenty of water if you aim to walk around the citadel as you can imagine it gets very hot. Also there are not many vendors around plying there trade.  On our second day visiting the site we did get a Tuk Tuk to take us around the sights in the free area (because we were pretty exhausted from the day before, and also the sites are quite far apart). Make sure you have some short socks and a sarong, (or wear long trousers) with you when visiting the temples, as your not allowed in with shoes or bare legs. The socks are a must as the stone floors get hot, I mean extremely hot, After visiting our first temple, the flagstones were so hot I burnt the soles of my feet, we had to run from shadow to shadow it was ridiculous “they stung for a couple of days afterwards”. We had to ask the Tuk Tuk driver to take us back into town to buy some socks. So be warned. Quite how the local people stroll around without any bother is beyond me.

Suggested sights outside the citadel.

Sri Maha Bodhi Tree

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Isurumuniya Viharaya

Dambulla Cave Temple, Lion Rock and Kaudulla National Park.

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Dambulla Cave Temple, Lion Rock and Kaudulla National Park.

After our couple of nights in Kandy we moved onto Inamaluwa, which is situated midway between Dambulla and Sigiriya. It’s a very quite place with not a lot going on, but has a few home-stays dotted here and there. “Incidentally they are also very cheap, the cost of ours was just £14 per night” but the main reason for choosing Inamaluwa was because it is roughly midway between Lion Rock and the Dambulla cave temple. We decided to stay for three nights giving us two full days as we had a lot to pack in. On our first day we visited Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1991. The rock in which the five cave temples are situated towers some 160 metres above the surrounding plains, so you can imagine there are plenty of steps to reach them. One Top Tip that I read about is don’t view the caves in the order you arrive at. Walk to the far end and view that cave first, as each cave gets more spectacular, until you reach the last which is the largest and the best. Try to get there early before the tour groups arrive.

Kaudulla National Park.

Now anyone who reads my blogs will know that I am extremely fussy when it comes to visiting National Parks where animals are involved, I have to make sure by thorough research that the park is run for the benefit of the animals and are not just in the business of making money from tourists. So after reading how busy Yala and Udawalawe National Parks were, and the amount of tourists that visit these sites we decided to give them a miss. On doing some further research we decided to visit Kaudulla National Park, which mainly houses elephants. We visited the park in the afternoon like most people suggest. When we arrived there were a few jeeps waiting to gain entry, maybe 15 to 20. It was not long after entering the park we saw a small group of elephants. Over in the distance I saw two much larger groups. Our guides then proceeded to drive over to them. When we got there he stopped and switched off the engine. At this time we were quite close, which was great from a photographic point of view. Our guides then pointed to a large female and told us “she was the grumpy one. Initially we just smiled and did not take much notice. Then the driver started his engine and quickly reversed backwards. All of a sudden we heard a roar and the elephant charged at us, at quite a speed I might add. The driver immediately accelerated hard and veered to the left. The Elephant missed us by inches “i had my GoPro attached to the jeep”. It was a quite exciting but scary experience. When we eventually stopped, our guides were laughing and chatting to other guides about our near miss. When we asked why the Elephant had charged us, he told us that five years previous their was an accident with a jeep resulting in the death of the female Elephants baby, the one that charged us. That’s why she doesn’t like jeeps. This news put a total damper on our day, and really made us wish we never went. They say a elephant never forgets, this poor female has to endure the sight of jeeps turning up every day, reminding her of her loss. In my opinion, the jeeps should not get so close to the wildlife and the companies who provide the tours should be strictly licensed and their guides act in a professional manner, like the many professionally run parks we visited in South Africa. Click here to view near miss. Watch the shadow of the jeep and elephant to see how close she was.

Sigiriya, Lion Rock.

Now before I start I will have my little rant. Every main attraction in Sri Lanka has two entrance prices, one for tourists and one for locals, which is fine if the difference in price is a reasonable amount, like India for example, but in Sri Lanka the price difference is vast. For example entrance fee for locals to visit Lion Rock is just 65 lkr which is £0.30 but for foreigners it is £21.50 per person. The same applies at Anuradhapura 50 lkr locals, £0.23p, foreigners £18. These price differences are the same all over Sri Lanka whichever attraction you visit. Now locals should pay less because there income levels are a lot lower than that of other countries, and I really don’t mind paying a reasonable difference in price but in my opinion this is way to much. Rant over. It was because of the price difference we nearly didn’t climb up Lion Rock, it wasn’t because of the cost “although we are on a budget” it was because out of principle. We were just going to climb Pidurangala rock, known to the locals as “cheap rock”, due to it’s 500 lkr entrance fee, which is situated next to Lion Rock, but after watching a couple of YouTube videos it would have been too much for me to climb. So we swallowed our principles and went to Lion Rock. Oh were we really glad we did as it was amazing. The climb up is a slog but the steps are in good shape, their also a iron walkway to traverse, which could be a problem with someone who suffers from vertigo, but it was really worth the climb. The views from the top are amazing. Click on the heading link for more information.

Top Tip. Make sure you get to the rock at opening time, 7am. Two reasons. First and most obvious it’s the coolest time of the day. Secondly if you go later you will have to endure the other crowds, and I mean crowds of tourists arriving in their coach loads. We came down around 09:30 and the sea of people arriving was amazing. When I turned around to look back up to the rock it was just like a swarm of ants scurrying along. Next stop Anuradhapura.

Cheap Rock

Kandy

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Kandy

Like I said on previous blog post we were unable to get reserved seat train tickets for our journey from Nuwara Eliya so we had to take a taxi. Now you have to shop around when it comes to taxis as there prices vary wildly, as none of them appear to be metered. So I rang around and got a good price, but we all know cheap is not always the best. So when the car arrived it looked as it had just come from a banger race and it’s tyres had come straight off a Formula 1 car, they had no tread whatsoever. Oh well, like I said it was cheap. About an hour into the journey the driver stopped and said “I have problem”, it turned out to be a flat tyre. With no spare wheel and no jack, off he trotted. He appeared some 15 minutes later with a chap with a jack, who jacked the car up, took the wheel off and disappeared again, to return with the racing slick duly repaired. Thankfully we arrived in Kandy without further any problems, dumped our bags and took a walk around the lake which is one of Kandy’s attractions. The lake is man made and was built in 1807 and it’s circumference is of 3.1km. I have to say it is a very pleasant walk with lots of wildlife to see along the way, we saw monitor lizards, plenty of lovely birds and some extremely large fish basking in the shallows. The walk will also take you past the Temple of the Tooth, (which is what most people visit Kandy for). All in all a very pleasant stroll. So, like most people the next day it was our turn. Sri Dalada Maligawa to give the temple it’s official title. It is the location which houses the Relic of the tooth of Buddha. On further research I have discovered that there are in fact Tooth relics all over the world. Two in China one in Taiwan one in Japan one in Singapore and one in California. So it appears Buddha was well traveled and lost a lot of teeth along the way. The tooth ceremony is performed three times a day. One at 05:30 one at 09:30 and one at 18:30. The ceremony involves a lot of drumming, Buddhist monks praying, then culminating in the opening of the doors to where the tooth is kept so the worshipers can file past and give there offerings and take a glimpse of the gold casket in which it is housed. My advice if you want to visit is go to the 09:30 ceremony, or if your an early bird the 05:30. Because the 18:30 one is where most of the tour companies seem to go for. We witnessed coach and mini van loads turning up on our evening stroll around the lake. As right next door to the temple there is a theatre which has a Kandyan dance show every evening at 17:00 and after the show, all the masses of tour groups then head for the temple to see the evening ceremony. So if you want to avoid the crowds take my advise. Having said all of that we wished we had not gone to see the ceremony. Firstly we didn’t see the gold casket, as the door behind which is housed is only small and if your not positioned directly in front of it you have no chance. It was like being in the middle of a rugby scrum, everyone pushing and shoving to get a glimpse, it was staggering. Personally I think that the ceremony should only open to devotees. As I witnessed some poor little lady trying to push her way through the crowds of camera and camera phone wielding tourist to give her flower offering, it was quite upsetting. All that said don’t be put of going to the temple itself as there is much more to see than the ceremony alone. Entrance fee at time of writing is 1500 rupees, around £7. Now some blogs I have read have said Kandy is very busy and crowded, as it’s Sri Lanka’s second largest next to Colombo but it wasn’t that bad at all. There are some nice shops, a good market and a good eatery called Devon food court, where it appears all the locals go. It’s very cheap and serves some excellent food. Next stop Dambulla to visit Lion rock and the Dambula Cave Temple.

Sacred Tooth Temple Sacred Tooth Temple Sacred Tooth Temple

Little England. Nuwara Eliya.

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After our great few days in Ella it was time to move on. Next stop on our trip was Nuwara Eliya. Whilst we were in Ella we managed to get first class tickets for the journey, the cost of which was a 1000 lkr per person around £4.50 each. The journey takes around three hours and takes in some spectacular scenery along the way. The guide books and people we met who have done the journey say the best side to sit on, is the right side in the direction of travel for the best views, but this changes to the left side half way into the journey. Surprisingly as our first class carriage was relatively empty, we had the best of both worlds and could sit on the right and the left.

When we arrived, we immediately tried to get reserved seats for our onward journey to Kandy but surprisingly discovered there wasn’t any, in fact, the reserved seats were all booked for a whole month and we certainly wasn’t going to travel in the unreserved carriages, as we have seen how absolutely jammed packed they get. We later discovered that tour groups block book tickets. They take coach and mini bus loads to Nuwara Eliya from Kandy for a one night stay, then drop them at the rail station for the return journey back to Kandy in the morning.

We stayed in Nuwara Eliya for just two nights, which is enough in my opinion to see the main sights. The owner of the homestay we stayed at gave us a list of things to do in the area, and suggested we take a tour by Tuk Tuk. Fortunately for us we found a really nice Tuk Tuk driver at the station the day before. He asked us how long we were in town and what are our plans were, “well to be honest they all come out with the same line” but he seemed a real genuine guy so I took his number. Next day I gave the him a call, negotiated a price for the tour which was 3000 rupees which is around £13.50 for the five & half hour tour. On the way to our first stop, the Damro Tea plantation, our driver stopped at various viewpoints, explained how they harvest the tea leaves, how often they pick the leaves “once every 7 days”, basically all things to do with the tea growing business. I can assure you it was very interesting. One fact that he told us was about the tea pickers themselves. Firstly they are all woman, they work until the age of 55. Work an eight hour day and have to harvest between 18kg and 20kg of tea leaves per day to earn just 600 rupees which is £2.74. There is no company pension scheme, no worker benefits, just hard work, quite terrible really. He then pointed out the tea pickers homes which at first glance looked just like one average size bungalow in England. He then went on to tell us that this was not just one home in fact it was five, consisting of just one room with a family living in each. When we reached the Damro tea plantation we noticed that it was adorned with Chinese New Year banners, Chinese lanterns, and had coach loads of Chinese tourists arriving, even the Sri Lankan tea factory guides spoke Chinese. The factory itself was a very sterile experience. You really could not see much of the tea production except through perspex panels. It was in my opinion just a huge tourist attraction. Our Tuk Tuk driver told us that in fact it was a Chinese owned factory as Sri Lankan tea or Ceylon tea is very popular in China. He also told us that large Chinese companies are buying up some of the more profitable tea companies in Sri Lanka. Also they are investing heavily in the country’s infrastructure, roads, rail etc. We were having an in depth conversation with an owner of a homestay we were staying in, who was also a lawyer, she told us that the people are not really happy about the situation. I really do hope that the country doesn’t loose it its identity in years to come. Next stop was the much nicer Bluefield Tea Factory which is owned by two brothers and has been producing tea since the late eighteen hundreds. Touring the tea factory was a much nicer and personal experience, also much more informative. We then visited a couple of waterfalls which were quite spectacular and this was in the dry season. After our tour had finished we got the guy to drop us off at the Grand Hotel for afternoon tea “which one has to partake”. Afternoon tea at the Grand is mentioned in most of the guide books, so we thought why not. The Grand Hotel is one of the many colonial buildings in Nuwara Eliya, hence the name “Little England” Tea is served on a lovely terrace with, as you would expect, a three tiered cake stand with all the goodies that come with afternoon tea. The price for all this is 1300 rupees per person £5.97, considering how much you would have to pay in a high end hotel in the uk for this it’s an absolute bargain. Next stop was the Hill Club another throwback from the British Empire. It was originally a gentleman’s club, quite what that means exactly, but is now a lovely hotel. It costs 100 rupees to look around £0.46 but it’s well worth it. While you’re there have a nice cold beer in the really quaint bar. There are some other attractions, like the old post office and a golf course. Also there is Victoria Park, which we didn’t visit as it costs 300 rupees for foreigners and 30 for locals. It wasn’t the money it’s just that in Sri Lanka the prices for foreigners (tourists) are so over inflated, it was the principal. Besides I can visit much grander parks in the uk for free. Next Stop Kandy.