2018 : Year of travel

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

Pico Iyer

Plane views

Amongst my New Year Resolutions last year was to travel. My initial objective was to go abroad every month, but that soon became travelling to 12 new countries…

I left the UK for my first trip on 8th January and returned from my last trip on 30th December, which I think is a pretty comprehensive year of travel! I’ve travelled solo, with family, friends and loved ones. I’ve flown, caught buses, trains, boats and gone on a road trip. There’s been city breaks, beach holidays, weekend trips and long haul three week travels. There’s been sun, sea, sand, snow, drinking, diving and dressing up! Google maps sent me an email to say that I travelled 76,782, which is the equivalent of travelling around the world three times!

Sun, sea, sand in Senegal
Snow in Liechtenstein

In total, I had fifteen trips abroad, to twenty one countries, with twelve of them being new – I smashed it!! Admittedly, December was a little crazy, with 3 separate trips covering 5 countries but I like a challenge!

So in 2018, I went to:

  • JANUARY – Riga, Latvia
  • FEBRUARY – Senegal
  • MARCH – Australia; Singapore; Vietnam
  • APRIL – Scotland
  • MAY – Bulgaria
  • JUNE – Cluj Napoca, Romania; Malta
  • JULY – Netherlands; Germany; Luxembourg; France
  • AUGUST – Georgia
  • SEPTEMBER – Larnaca, Cyprus
  • OCTOBER – Ukraine; Albania
  • NOVEMBER – St Lucia
  • DECEMBER – Tallinn, Estonia; Zurich, Switzerland; Liechtenstein
Drinking my way around the world

It’s hard to pick holiday highlights when my trips were so different. But I absolutely loved travelling with my Dad and helping him tick off a bucket list item. Visiting Chernobyl was a sobering experience but one that had been on my travel list for a few years. And I LOVED Liechtenstein- not just because it represented mission complete but because of the variety of things on offer – history, culture, castles, wine tasting and alpine adventures!

Pripyat amusement park, Chernobyl

I’m not going to be quite so crazy on the travel front this year but I’ve not got any trips booked currently and it’s stressing me out..!

Sofia, Bulgaria

“United Bulgarians can lift a mountain”

Bulgarian Proverb

 

sofia ruins

So as part of my plan to visit as many countries as I can this year, whilst working full-time, I’ve been popping across to Europe whenever I have a few days off, so in April, I visited Sofia in Bulgaria.

I didn’t really know what to expect and travelling so soon after a month along trip, I hadn’t really done much research. Luckily I was pleasantly surprised! Bulgaria is cheap, the people are friendly with most speaking English well and it’s beautiful!

sofia mountain over city

The first thing I noticed on arrival in Sofia was a snow covered mountain rising above the town at the end of Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping street. These are the Vitosha Mountain massif and somewhere immediately high on my priority list to visit!

I’d booked an Urban Adventures ‘Food, Heritage and Culture’ tour for my first afternoon so headed straight off on this. It was a great introduction to the city, as I saw many of the beautiful historic buildings and churches, ancient ruins and tried some delicious food along the way. I also picked up tips on where to head over the rest of my time and restaurant recommendations. The traditional Bulgarian salad was a big favourite and I ordered this a few more times… The dishes mostly feature hearty meat and potatoes. I made sure I sampled a few Bulgarian wines too.

 

bulgarian salad

I enjoyed just strolling around, admiring the architecture, and popping into churches or museums as they took my fancy. I visited the women’s market and the main food market and crossed over a few bridges.

I stayed at a Guest House just off Vitosha Boulevard, with a kitchen so that I could make my own coffee and breakfast in the morning, and had the option of making lunch for the day too. The room was comfortable but basic – just what I needed.

With only 4 days in Bulgaria, I have to confess that I didn’t actually spend all that long in Sofia itself, as I escaped the city by heading to the mountains and booked a day trip to Plovdiv and Koprivshtiza (more anon…). I’d recommend a visit to all of these and think I’ll be back myself to visit Varna, or to easily pop to Serbia or Macedonia!

sofia fountain

 

Travelling with my Dad

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me”

Jim Valvano

 

This year, I was blessed to have the opportunity to travel with my Dad and even more so that I was able to get a month off work to do so! I have always been close to my parents and since we lost Mum suddenly last year, it is even more important that we all look out for each other. Dad has always wanted to go to Australia but Mum wasn’t such a good traveller. This year, I had a conference in Singapore and thought this would be a great opportunity to visit my best friend who has been living in Melbourne for the last four years. And of course, I invited Dad along too…

sydney harbour

As I do shift work, I was able to travel between sets of nights which helped maximise my leave and with study leave built in too, I was able to get the most leave I’ve ever had in one go, since I graduated. Obviously there were constraints on dates with regard to the conference and shifts. Overall we had just two weeks in Australia, then a few days in Singapore for the conference and a week after that.

GOR light

I’ve been to Australia three times before but still have loads of places that I’ve yet to go. My Dad is so laid back that it was really difficult to get him to tell me what he wanted to do. My original plan had been Melbourne, Sydney, Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef i.e. to see the things most people probably thing of when they think of Australia. Dad said he was really keen to see Sydney but wasn’t that fussed about Uluru and as the flights were expensive, that then got dropped. The Great Ocean Road is my personal favourite thing in Australia – I’ve now been three times! And with my friend being based in Melbourne, that was an easy decision. I did my PADI in Cairns 9 years ago but a bit of google research told me that Port Douglas or Palm Cove was a much better option to stay in to access the Great Barrier Reef, so we stayed in both! One of my cousins spent a year travelling around Australia and recommended Noosa and Brisbane so they were our final destinations, and new to me too.

As Singapore is not that big (and I’ve been before), I planned to see things in the evening after my conference and to pop out in the hour long lunch breaks too, so we flew out the day after it finished.

singapore skyline

For the final week, I figured we’d go somewhere that was at least in the vague direction of home. We debated between Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Jordan etc before finally settling on Vietnam. As we wanted to be home in time for Easter with the family, that only gave us five days in Vietnam and thus we had to decide whether we’d prefer to see the North or South. As direct flights back to the UK are only on alternate days, that made our decision for us so we were off to Hanoi and Halong Bay!

halong bay boats

Travelling with Dad was fantastic – I can now appreciate my parents for the people they are themselves. It also meant I gained a better insight into how he’s coping. It was nice to not need to be quite so budget conscious too! Dad is a perfect travelling companion – easy going, willing to try most things and always willing to stop for a beer or two! Thanks Dad x

Brisbane skyline

Dakar, Senegal

“The gracefulness of the slender fishing boats that glided into the harbour in Dakar was equalled only by the elegance of the Senegalese women who sailed through the city in flowing robes and turbaned heads”

Nelson Mandela

dak monument crop

With my lack of French, I decided that the best use of my time was to do a city tour on my first day in Dakar. It’s a large city, so to get around, you definitely need some form of transport and I felt it would be too difficult to find a taxi driver that spoke English and thus could get me to what I wanted to see and would be happy to wait for however long I needed elsewhere.

As I was the only one on my tour, I could dictate what we saw to some extent and as I didn’t want to go shopping, this was factored in. There were some things that I wouldn’t have gone to, such as the shopping mall but was impressed by the multi-coloured map of Africa and the photos of people who have been important to the people of Senegal which are situated behind it. As the tour lasts for a couple of hours, there would be time to go back and see anything that you wanted to spend more time at.

dak pointe des almadies

The must-do’s in Dakar for me where the African Renaissance Monument (pictured at the top) and Pointe des Almadies, the western most point of Africa. The African Renaissance mounument is situated outside of Dakar on one of the surrounding hills and is the tallest statue in Africa. There are good views from the top and interesting art exhibitions on the lower floors. To be honest, there is not much to see at Pointe des Almadies (pictured far left of the photo above), hence choosing a photo taken from a distance, but I have now been to the what are generally regarded as the most south and west points of Africa.

I also enjoyed just chilling out on the beach at Yoff, which is where I was staying. The Senegalese are very keen on exercise so regardless of the time of day, but more commonly in the evenings, there were loads of people jogging up and down or doing various exercises. I was also lucky enough to watch some traditional fishing.

For me, the main highlights of visiting Dakar are found well away from the city itself and are Ile de Goree and the Lake Retba (the pink lake).

Ile de Goree

idg from boat crop

Ile de Goree is a district of Dakar but on an island located 2-3km away. It is famed for its reputation for being involved in the slave trade and so my first stop was the House of Slaves, a museum and memorial to the Atlantic Slave trade. I thought it was nice that it was almost the colours of the Senegal flag, with red stone pillars and stairs, yellow walls and green doors. The ‘door of no return’ is said to be where millions of enslaved Africans passed through as they left the continent. Of course there is some controversy about this as slaves left from many other points of Africa and the building was built relatively recently, however it is a thought-provoking museum and it is said that when Nelson Mandela visited, he needed some time alone as it reminded him of his own imprisonment and all that he had fought for.

idg slave house stairs

idg statue

The rest of the island is great to stroll around, with very pretty cobbled streets, old fashioned lanterns, flowers and palm trees. It is peaceful and calm. On the top of the hill is an artists community with a variety of pictures and sculptures, as well as views across to the mainland. It was so relaxing that I decided to stay for dinner with a view of the sea and the approaching ferry. Of course, I opted for poulet yassa and a beer!

idg boats

It is well worth the 20 minute ferry ride (CAF5200 return) but check the ferry times in advance as they only run every 90-120 minutes! I was dropped off at the ferry terminal but found it very easy to buy my ticket and get around the island on my own. Finally a bit of independent travel!!

Lake Retba

Lac Rose or the pink lake is 30km away from Dakar and is named for its pink waters caused by the type of algae. It is also known for its high salt content, which is up to 40% in some areas. It was really interesting to watch all the hard work that goes into collecting the salt from the bottom of the lake.

pink lake salt

Sadly, the lake doesn’t always look pink and on the day I visited, it only really looked pink when you looked directly from above. We arrived at around 12noon and when we were sitting have lunch an hour or so later, it was already looking a bit more pink. I visited on a tour which included a boat trip – with retrospect, I probably could have managed to visit here on my own also. There is the option of hiring a dune buggy or a camel ride but having done both on travels elsewhere and being short of time, I didn’t do either.

pink lake

Overall, I only had 2.5 days in Dakar but think this is about right as I got to see everything that I really wanted to and as it was light until about 7pm, I also had time to chill out at the beach too. I stayed at La Villa D in Yoff, which was clean and quiet, close to the beach and provided dinner each night if desired, at an additional cost.

 

Senegal

“When I’m in Senegal, I can’t just sit in isolation making music. People need my help. And the Senegalese people helped create my music. It comes from the country itself”

Youssou N’Dour

 

Senegal boats

I’m just back from a cheeky little trip to Senegal – a beautiful country. Sadly I did not have very long there with just 4 days in country and 2 travel days, so I only got to see a tiny amount, only visiting Dakar and Saint-Louis.

I’ve travelled quite a lot in Africa – it’s probably my favourite continent – but had never been to west Africa. Since my return, I’ve read that the name Senegal is thought to come from the Wolof Sunuu Gaal meaning ‘our boat’ – pretty fitting as there are pirogues (canoe style boats) everywhere you look! I took so many photos of them as they are often painted beautiful colours.

pirogues

It’s not just the boats that are pretty though – the buses are often multi-coloured and the outfits are amazing too! And of course the African sunsets take some beating.

European colonisation began in the mid 15th century, with the French ruling from the 19th century, with influence easily seen in the amazing and varied architectural styles. The commonest languages spoken are Wolof and French, despite Senegal gaining its independence in 1960. In fact, I was a bit worried about how I’d get by as I am awful at languages and thus booked more tours than I normally would, as someone who normally prides myself as a fairly independent traveller. More people probably speak English than they’ll admit to, so I maybe could have muddled my way through.

baobab

The two tour companies that I used were quite different – one was Senegalese and the other American. Both had advantages and disadvantages so I guess it depends on whether you want more genuine info on Senegal from those who have always lived there or better English… As I was the sole person on all my tours, I could dictate a little when and where I wanted to stop and thus didn’t feel quite as much pressure as usual to make purchases. Be wary that prices vary widely between companies – in one instance, I found a tour that was over double the price but offered exactly the same thing! In the end, I did that trip on my own and thus saved a lot of money!

The weather was beautiful, food was great – lots of fresh fish and I really enjoyed poulet yassa (chicken with onions in lemon), not too many tourists, miles of beaches etc. Would I go back? Yes, but the world is a big place so I’d probably prefer to explore a few more countries first!

senegal beach

(All photos my own and taken on my smartphone!)

Riga

“The Christmas tree is a symbol of love, not money. There’s a kind of glory to them when they’re all lit up that exceeds anything all the money in the world could buy.” 

Andy Rooney

 

riga view

 

So first up and my travel trip for January was Riga in Latvia. I try to make the most of my days off work, so this was a short trip with just two days in the capital. Unfortunately, I was feeling pretty run down so lacked my usual get up and go and the grey January skies didn’t help.

I stayed at the Wellton Riga Hotel and Spa, which was a short walk from the old town and the spa was great for chilling out in the evening, with Jacuzzis, a sauna and steam room. The buffet breakfast was extensive and you could even help yourself to bubbly!

I started my day with a walk past the Laima clock and Freedom Monument and through Bastion Hill on my way to the Occupation Museum. Like most of the museums in Riga, entrance is free with voluntary donations. I am fascinated by the recent past and this museum was very comprehensive. Next was the Orthodox cathedral with beautiful gold décor on the dome and inside. I was intrigued by the art nouveau district so wandered around keeping my eyes up! The art nouveau museum is small but there are lots of interactive displays.

beer tasting

I made sure I was at the Skyline bar before sunset for beautiful views (from the panaromic lift, glass walled bathrooms and of course the bar). Situated on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Latvija Conference Hotel, it is definitely worth heading there for a glass of wine at dusk in order to get the views in daylight and then all lit up at night. To end my night, I went beer tasting at the Aussie Pub backpackers, where you can get 14 beers for the bargainous price of 10Euro! Well worth it.

The next day was more focused on the old town, with visits to The House of Blackheads (merchants house), St Peter’s church with great but chilly views from the top of the spire, Riga’s dome cathedral (look out for organ concerts!) and the Jewish Museum which is a little further than the massive central market, taking up 5 large buildings.

Things to seek out are:

  • The Three Brothers – adjacent buildings that legend has it were built by three brothers, despite being from different centuries, and are the oldest dwellings in Riga with the most ancient being from the 15th century
  • The statue of the Bremen town musicians – which features animals from the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, standing on top of each other, which is located outside St Peter’s church
  • The black cats – two of which are on the roof of a building opposite the guild. The story goes that when a wealthy man was refused admission to the Guild, he had two cats erected on the roof with their backs to the Guild as a snub (they have now been turned around after he was taken to the courts!)
  • Swedish Gate – a part of the original city walls. Apparently the executioner would display a red rose the night before an execution was scheduled
  • Art nouveau décor – can be spotted in various places all around the city and is one of Riga’s claims to fame. The details and facial expressions really entertained me

 

An unexpected highlight, considering I travelled after twelfth night, was the Christmas trees everywhere. Did you know that the Christmas tree as we know it originated in Latvia, where trees where first decorated in the early 1400’s? They helped keep my festive spirit going a little longer!

riga christmas tree

 

Next travel trip:  Senegal

 

Looking forward to 2018

“It’s pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves.

The book is called opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day”

Edith Lovejoy Pierce

 

IMG_6900 (2)

 

The start of a new year is often taken to be a new beginning. In fact, the first month gets its name from Janus, a two-faced God who the Romans believed looked backwards into the old year whilst simultaneously looking ahead to the future.

 

Traditionally, new years resolutions were about improving ones self. In fact, common objectives set now have been proven to be more successful than resolutions made at other times of the year.

 

Personally, I am hoping that 2018 will be my year of travel. I’m hoping to get away every single month this year and am aiming to up my country count too – I am on a rather respectable 50 plus (which is about 22% of the world) but have nearly 50% of Europe yet to visit! So first off is a city break to Riga in Latvia next week. My first holiday and first new country of the year.

 

I’m also aiming to be a better tourist in my own country. The boy and I aim to get away together once a month, often booking last minute. But I also want to explore more of London – I can’t remember the last time I went to a museum here!

 

Along with the rest of the country, I am going to join a gym and aspire to a healthier me.

 

Oh and of course, I want to blog…