After approximately a three hour drive, we arrived in the beautiful small town of Melnik. Letter F on Map. We had booked two nights here, so it would give us a full day to explore this quaint little town. Apart from its beauty, another reason we visited is that it is situated near the amazing Rila Monastery. More on that later.
The town is an architectural reserve and 96 of its buildings are cultural monuments, which is quite amazing for such a small place, and with only 385 inhabitants. It is also the smallest town in Bulgaria. The town is situated having the backdrop of the Pirin mountain range. Also closer to the town are the Melnik Earth Pyramids, which surround the town. These limestone rock formations known as Hoodoos are a spectacular sight, I suggest you walk up to the highest point of the town to get the best view of them.
After checking into our hotel, Hotel Despot Slav, a really lovely hotel built in keeping with the traditional Bulgarian architecture around it. We decided to explore the town. We found a really nice Meyhane (Bar/Restaurant) and settled down for a drink. Not only that, but we were greeted by the lovely owners, an elderly Bulgarian couple called Sophia and Tom. And had a lovely afternoon and early evening chatting with them, over plenty of glasses of lovely Bulgarian wine. We enjoyed their company so much we went back the next day. Tom and his wife Sophia showed us around their lovely restaurant and wine cellar, when we left they even gave us a bottle of wine to take with us. A lovely gesture. On our trip around the country, we had many encounters with some really lovely Bulgarian people, they are such friendly and helpful people.
There are a couple of sights to see in the town, these are:-
Even though there are not many sights in the town, it is a must-see on any Bulgarian road trip. The quaintness and the architecture are enough on its own, and the people are so welcoming.
We left Melnik early the next morning for our drive to the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, better known as the Rila Monastery, which was about a two-hour drive from Melnik towards our final destination, Sophia. Letter H on the map. Founded in the 10th century, and also regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments, and attracts some 1 million visitors a year. It’s also depicted on the back of the 1 lev note. Words cannot describe this amazing place, its architecture, the people and the overall ambiance of the town, all I will say that it is a must-visit.
Arrive early before the coaches. We got there around 10am, as you can imagine the place gets very busy indeed. Entrance at the time of our visit was free, car parking was 5 lev around £2.00. Visit the Monastery bakery, and have breakfast at the little restaurant and admire the views. Next stop Sophia
After a relatively short journey, about an hour from Nesebar, we arrived in Sozopol. (Letter D on map). We found our apartment , but do you think we could find a parking space, we could not find a parking space anywhere. We did eventually find a car park at the end of our street. Well I say car park, it was a bit of wasteland with a ram shackled hut with a large sofa outside which had seen better days. And a rather dubious looking Bulgarian collecting the money. In fact, he turned out to be very nice and was very friendly, and all was legitimate. Also parking was very cheap 61 lev per day, around £2.80.
One thing we did not envisage was how busy the place was, as on doing our research beforehand Sozopol was labelled as a quieter family resort, so we thought it would be nice to relax by the sea for a couple of days, and also visit the old town and its attractions.
So after dragging our cases down a very long street we eventually arrived at our apartment, and we were not disappointed, it was very nice indeed, and had a balcony with a nice sea view. The elderly owners of the apartment and who live on the ground floor were lovely and very helpful. So our expectations of the town were upbeat.
After settling in we decided to have a walk around to get a feel of the area. It was not long before we both decided that Sozopol was perhaps not what we expected. Crowds of people, endless tacky souvenir shops, fast food stalls, and restaurants with the largest menus you have ever seen, which for us puts us off straight away. We were both feeling a little downcast. Luckily on our dejected walk back to our apartment we stumbled across a lovely Hotel and restaurant called Hotel Briz. Where we had a really nice meal, and a few glasses of wine. We both decided that we were perhaps both tired, and it will be a better day tomorrow.
With a new day ahead we ventured back into the old town. Sozopol is the oldest city on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast. The first settlement here dates back to the end of the 4th millennium BC. So as you can imagine the architecture is amazing.
Visit the archaeological museum. Open Monday to Friday and is situated near the port it houses a fascinating collection of local finds from Apollonian days. Apparently the museum occasionally exhibits the skeleton of a local vampire, found with a stake driven through its chest, although it was not on display when we visited, which was a shame.
Another interesting place to visit is the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa. This 15th-century church was built below street level, as required at the time by the Ottoman rulers. Set in a courtyard with a giant fig tree in the middle, it is one of the most picturesque and photographed places in town, with an exquisite wooden iconostasis and a magnificent carved pulpit. So after a good look around we were slightly warming to the place. The beauty of the old architecture and the quaint little streets you can wander around. Another place worth visiting is a traditional Bulgarian house Ethnographic house which is now a museum, which is very interesting indeed, where we learnt a great deal about life in a typical Bulgarian town and household. After we left the museum and on walking around the quaint streets, we came across locals who had set up stalls outside their homes selling local produce and crafts. Where we bought some very nice local honey. Don’t be put off visiting Sozopol as the old town is amazing, but when you venture into the new town it’s typical of any busy seaside town. We had originally booked three nights in Sozopol but cut our stay short as in my opinion you only need one full day to see everything. Tomorrow we move onto Plovdiv.
It was time to move on from our lazy hazy days on the coast and move inland to Ella our first stop in the hills. Ella is situated in the Badulla district of Sri Lanka, and is some 1041 feet above sea level. We decided to take a car from Talalla, as getting there by bus involved two buses and took most of the day. When we arrived in Ella it was raining, shrouded in mist and very grey, not a great start. We had not booked any accommodation but had a homestay in mind that we liked the look of, but when we arrived it was nothing like the photos and it was situated too far out of town, so we got the driver to drop us at the nearest cafe, dragged our luggage in and sat down to search for our home for the next few days. Luckily it wasn’t long before we found Eeshani Guest Inn, run by a lovely couple who have lived here for 50 years. It was just like visiting my grandparents house, they were both so lovely. (Cont)
Ella is quite a small town with just one main Street, which consists of mainly restaurants and the odd shop here and there, but the place is buzzing and has a great vibe and chilled atmosphere about it. We only stayed for four nights but I felt I could have stayed for weeks. The only downside I feel is that in the not too distant future it will become a much larger and much busier town. This is because the amount of building work going on in the area is, in my opinion, too much. I can see this lovely little town being over saturated by tourists, so get here quick. There is plenty to keep you occupied in the town and surrounding area, like Little Adams Peak, Ella Rock, Ravana Falls, the Nine Arch Bridge and a couple of tea plantations. I will try to give you a little insight in each attraction.
Little Adams Peak.
The way to reach little Adams peak, is walk or take a Tuk Tuk up the Passara Road from town about 1km until you reach Ella Flower Resort on you right. Take the path just to the left of the restaurant (there is no sign indicating the way) and just follow the path for some distance. This path takes you through some really nice tea plantations. “If you set out early you will see the tea pickers at work”. You will then come to a set of steps to your right. This is where the fun starts, and where after a while your thighs and calf’s will start to protest. Well mine did anyway, but trust me it’s worth it as the views from the top are amazing. We did meet one couple who had climbed it twice in a day, once for sunrise and once for sunset, rather them than me. (Cont)
I can’t really tell you a lot about Ella Rock as we did not climb it, but the guide books do suggest you take a guide as it’s easy to get lost as the path is not very well marked. The climb to the top takes around three hours. We got this information from a group of guys we met on the train to Badulla.
Situated around 6km from town are the Ravana Falls. You can take the bus which costs 20 rupees, 9 pence or take a Tuk Tuk. The buses normally run quite frequently but on the day we visited it was election day so the buses were every hour “quite why an election should affect buses is beyond me”. So we decided to get a Tuk Tuk. 200 rupees, £1.40. (Cont)
Nine Arch Bridge.
If you do a google image search on Ella you will almost definitely see many photos of Nine Arch Bridge, it seems synonymous to Ella. There are a a few ways to get to the bridge. One is by walking along the train tracks from Ella which is around 4km. The way we got there was by walking once again up the Passara road until you reach a small homestay called Rose Garden Ella and take the path on your left a few metres beyond, be careful as it’s not marked, then just keep going until you reach the bridge. If there is a local around perhaps just ask to make sure you are going the right way. Top Tip check out the train timetables, as watching the train go over the bridge is quite a sight. (Cont)
Scenic Train Journey
Another great thing to do is take the train from Ella to Badulla. The journey takes around an hour and takes you through some beautiful scenery, you cannot reserve seats for the journey but the train isn’t busy, “we had nearly the whole carriage to ourselves” Once you get to Badulla there isn’t a lot to do, but perhaps get a drink and some food, although there is a nice Buddhist temple which is worth looking at. The return train leaves around an hour and forty minutes later. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon and all for 160 rupees for two people return £0.75p (Cont)
After our disappointing experience in Mirissa, we had one more beach destination to visit before moving inland to do some serious sightseeing. Our final stop along the coast is Talalla beach. Situated at the southern most tip of Sri Lanka (well almost, in fact Dondra is the southern most tip). We were still a bit apprehensive after our experience in Mirissa, but according to the guide books and google images it did sound and look lovely. We sourced an accommodation on booking.com, who was advertising a deluxe room, close to the beach. The pictures looked good, “but from previous experiences on our trip the camera does in fact lie” searched on google maps for the phone number and gave them a call, and negotiated a price of 5000 lkr around £22.50 per night. Subhasha Cottage (+94 71 965 8388) is located in a quiet lane leading down to the beach. The owner Isuri showed us to our room, and we were both gobsmacked. Our deluxe double room was in fact a two bedroom cottage complete with a separate kitchen with dining table, a separate dining room, a private seating area and an outside seating area and a really lovely shower room. Just amazing, we could not believe our luck. We dropped our bags and headed down to have a look at the beach, before we made our decision on how long we were going to stay. After our short walk of around 150 metres we were confronted by a glorious curved white sand beach, stretching for around two to three km, with just a handful of beach front restaurants and hardly any people, Paradise. So we decided to stay for five nights.
Our first couple of days in Talalla were spent just relaxing on the glorious beach and soaking up the sun. In the evenings we just sat outside and watched “something that I have never seen before”, fireflies darting in and out of the trees and bushes I watched in amazement for ages. I had to Google why and how they light up, I won’t go into detail but it was fascinating reading.
We decided to hire a scooter for our last two days and go and explore the sights further afield. Our first day we visited the Wewrukannala Buduraja Temple. (entrance fee 200 lkr) The temple is located some 14km from Talalla just outside the town of Dikwella. The temple is home to the largest Buddha statue on the island. The Buddha which is in the seated posture stands “or sits I should say” some 50 metres high. Behind Buddha almost like a back rest is a large staircase which you can climb, to reach Buddha’s head, once there you can peer through a viewing window and see a miniature Buddha shrine. As you are climbing to reach the top, you will see some marvellous Jataka paintings on the walls. The temple complex also houses some magnificent reclining Buddha’s in various poses.
Our next stop was Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara Temple, which is located some 22km inland from Dikwala. Mulkirigala is a series of 5 cave temples built on a 205m natural rock. (entrance fee 500 lkr) Each temple is accessible by some steps, “some of which are steep, so be warned”. In each cave there is a reclining Buddha, one of which depicts his passing surrounded by mourners. The walls and the ceilings inside each cave are lavishly painted and are well preserved. Once we reached the top we were greeted buy a really nice Buddhist monk who gave us a blessing. He chanted a prayer and anointed our heads, the ceremony was quite touching really. After we went outside and rang a ceremonial bell situated at the top of a bell tower, by pulling a rope. There is a donation tray for this experience “isn’t there always”. Unfortunate for us we did not have any small change, the smallest was 1000 lkr (about £4.50) but it was worth it as it was a lovely experience. Also he prayed for me to have a long life, so it’s a small price to pay if it works, don’t you think. Once you have been blessed, or not as the case may be, walk behind the temple down a very precarious slope onto the top of the large rock. “Beware of the sheer drop at the edge”. This is definitely worth it as the view’s stunning.
On the way back to Talalla we stopped for something to eat in Tangalle. Tangalle beach is in my opinion somewhere in between Mirissa and Talalla for tourist numbers, but it has a much nicer vibe than Mirissa.
On our second day we visited Dondra and it’s Lighthouse, which is located at the southern most point of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately you cannot go into the Lighthouse and climb to the top,”contrary to what our guide book says” but it’s worth a visit as it is architecturally very nice and it’s stands in some nice grounds. Another fact that I learnt was that if you sailed in a straight line from this point, the next land mass you will encounter is Antarctica, some 15000 miles away “although I could not see any Polar bears on the horizon”. Next stop was the Devinuwara Raja Maha Viharaya temple. It’s a Buddhist and Hindu temple in the same complex. We have visited a couple of Buddhist temples so far in Sri Lanka. Now I have said for some time if I was to adopt a religion it would be Buddhism “although Buddhism’s not a religion it’s a way of life” but for Buddhists to preach that we should care for all living things, it’s a little contradictory to have elephants chained up in the larger temples to be used just for ceremonial purposes. The Elephant in chains at this temple was what appeared to me quite mentally distressed, as it was just swaying from side to side and unable to move from its spot because of its shackles, for us it was quite disturbing. I recently read an article about the taming of wild elephants and it was quite a barbaric process. Such as starvation and beating, quite shocking reading. So it begs the question, why! After Dondra we drove to Matara quite a nice town. Most people use Matara as a hub as the bus station here serves most areas in southern and eastern Sri Lanka. We came to visit the Star Fort, but unfortunately it is closed on Tuesdays “note to self, study guide book more carefully”. Another sight worth seeing is the small Paravi Duwa temple which is sited in a small island, connected to the town by a small suspension bridge. We had such a great time in Talalla it was sad to leave, but it was time to stop lounging around and head inland for some serious sightseeing. Next stop Ella.
After our short stay in Galle it was time to move further south to the beach resort of Mirissa. We could have taken the train, but instead negotiated a good price with a Tuk Tuk driver for the 32km journey to Mirissa. Our driver was a very nice man, spoke good English, he carefully stowed our two wheeled holdalls in the back, and we were off. Surprisingly “being in a Tuk Tuk, probably because it was brand new”. the journey down was easy, nice and scenic too, as the route down hugs the coastline. We arrived at our lodging Celestial Inn, a nice place, very quiet located down a small lane away from the busy main road. After we dropped our bags it was time to go off and explore the much publicised beach. Once there we both agreed it wasn’t for us, the beach was lined with beach bars, and was very crowded. I have to add the beach itself is nice, it just had too many people on it. So we settled down in the quietest place we could find, grabbed an expensive cold beer and formulated our next move. As the sun went down all the beach bars brought in there sun beds and replaced them with tables ready for evening dinner crowd. We did eat on the beach that night and we did enjoy our meal, but a nice serene evening with just a few people around you it was not as the beach was crowded. Before we cancelled all our hotels we were going to stay four nights here. We were really glad we had changed our plans. After our first evening we were quite prepared to leave the next day, but decided to stay another night and go into Weligama to get some well needed supplies. Decided to take the bus into Weligama. Now let me tell you the local bus drivers in India and Sri Lanka are completely off there head, they drive so fast, “in fact like lunatics”, spend most of there time on the wrong side of the road, overtake on blind bends and don’t even wait as you try to get on, but thankfully we arrived in one piece. Weligama town itself is pretty nondescript, and busy, also the beach is very scruffy indeed and strewn with litter. Needless to say we did not stay long. So we got our supplies and headed back on the bus for another hair raising journey. Had an evening meal away from the crowds on the beach and went back to our lodging. All in all Mirissa was a let down.Let’s hope Talalla beach bodes better.