And so it goes – another year is waving us goodbye!
Tradition dictates that I update you all on the happenings in my life in 2017, as always through an annual newsletter on ANJCI ALL OVER. So sit back and enjoy my recap of the year (almost) gone by!
2017 was a very special year for me travel-wise. I managed to visit three incredible new destinations: Madagascar, Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkmenistan, each of which took weeks of focused planning and plenty of work post-trip to share my experiences with you all. I was particularly impressed by Iraqi Kurdistan, which touched me on a very deep level with its welcoming population and soberingly tragic past. I was so captivated by Iraqi Kurdistan that I immediately started planning to revisit in 2018: however, with the current political situation, this trip is probably no longer going to happen.
All of you would have noticed the big changes in this blog in 2017. I partnered with Paul Kidd of KidDotCo to revamp my old Blogger site and could not have been more pleased with the result. I love the bright colours and minimalistic features of this site – and hope that you do too!
Speaking numbers, by the end of 2017 I will have spent 110 days outside London, visiting 18 countries – of which 10 will be first timers (I am leaving for Nicaragua shortly!). In 2017 I made a committed effort to set foot in every country remaining for me in Europe, and am finishing the year able to say that I have now visited every single European country! That is, of course, if you do not count the Caucasus (where I have only been to Georgia) or countries I visited as a child and no longer remember much about (hello, Belarus!). Still, I am quite proud of this achievement.
2017 also brought me plenty of opportunities for personal development. Many of you know about my passion for foreign languages, and, in 2017, I started learning an entirely new language for me – Japanese! Having visited Japan several times, I always wondered how great it would be to be able to converse with locals in their own language. I have mastered the basics of Japanese during 2017, and plan to continue to brighter horizons in 2018.
On another language matter, I gathered up enough courage to sit the Greek C2 exam – the highest level according to the Council of Europe’s classification – and passed! Greek remains my favourite foreign language, and learning it has been one exciting adventure. I am beyond pleased to have something to show for all those hours (months?) spent conjugating Greek verbs and binge-watching Greek soap operas (ok, ok – the latter was actually enjoyable!).
And about my work life? Many of you noticed the somewhat sombre tone of a couple of my previous newsletters. The few challenges of the past few years of my life have thankfully been limited to work. My travels went on joyfully as I continued to discover more and more remote corners of this planet while enjoying the perks of a full-time employment in London, one of the most exciting cities in the world. In my personal life, too, things have gone rosy: indeed the contrast with my, at times, grim existence at work could not have been more striking.
I am happy to announce that, after several disappointing years, 2017 finally brought a change to my well-being at work. For obvious reasons, I cannot say more, but I no longer see coming to work as an insurmountable ordeal and am no longer desperately looking for ways to work remotely to avoid my unbearable office environment (“desperately” being the key word here). I will stop here by saying that it is important to seek to change your own life and not let anyone undermine your whole existence.
But I digress: this blog is primarily about travel, so let’s embark on my (much) more exciting globetrotting journey through 2017!
2017 NEWSLETTER: WINTER – NEW ZEALAND AND KOSOVO
The year started with an early rising and a bit of a panic. Alan and I had booked a morning sailing on an inter-island ferry to travel from Wellington to Picton in New Zealand, but found out at check-in that the travel agency had inadvertently cancelled our tickets. Thankfully, stormy weather combined with New Year’s celebrations the night before meant that there were some cancellations and we could jump on-board at the last minute. Our entire itinerary in New Zealand was tied to this departure, meaning potentially dramatic consequences!
But all was well in the end: Alan and I successfully crossed Cook Strait and went on to explore New Zealand’s stunning South Island (by then I had already spent a week galloping across North Island on my own). We were originally going to embark on the Coastal Pacific rail journey from Picton to Christchurch, and jump straight on the transfer to Greymouth across some amazing mountain scenery. Unfortunately, a large earthquake a mere month before our trip devastated the railway lines in the area; all trains were cancelled until mid-2018 and we had to forget about visiting Christchurch.
We routed through the pretty city of Nelson instead to make our car pick-up time in Greymouth, from where we continued along the most classic of South Island routes imaginable. We drove down to Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier (which, after Chile and Argentina, left me decidedly underwhelmed), Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook / Aoraki (my absolute highlight in the entire country), Te Anau (from where we explored the Te Anau Glowworm Caves and Doubtful Sound) and back to the bustling lakeside city of Queenstown, where we embarked on a (long) series of flights back to London. Overall, I was slightly underwhelmed by New Zealand – perhaps it was for the very high expectations I had set for the country I spent such a long time dreaming about, or the sheer numbers of tourists (it felt like the entire world had descended onto New Zealand), but it did not become one of those countries where I immediately started planning a return.
Back in London, the life went its usual course. I had signed up for three language classes simultaneously – Arabic, Greek and Japanese – and soon realised that I had very little free time left to dedicate to travel. With the Greek C2 exam to prepare for, I literally found myself doing homework at every spare moment! It wouldn’t be until the summer that I would decide to drop Arabic to get my schedule back to manageable levels. So much for the first world problems!
Before winter finally ended, I made a whirlwind visit to a wonderful new country for me – Kosovo. It was a very quick visit indeed – I landed in Skopje in the early minutes of a Saturday, was on the bus to Pristina within hours and left again on Sunday afternoon – but something about this young nation captivated me endlessly. I had a fantastic time chatting to locals in (oddly enough) a combination of Serbian and English, tasting some hearty local meals and getting countless treats of rakija shots. It was Balkans at its best all over for me.
2017 NEWSLETTER: SPRING – SAN MARINO, SEYCHELLES AND MADAGASCAR
Spring eventually arrived, and brought with it some of the best travels of the year. In March, I jumped on a plane to Bologna and swiftly caught a transfer to another new country in the span of a month – San Marino! I spent an exciting 24 hours exploring the capital of this proud nation: the weather was perfect and indeed my first glimpse of spring in 2017. I indulged myself in typical tourist activities like tasting Titanbräu (the local beer brand), getting a souvenir passport stamp at the Tourism Office and clambering up and down the city’s steep streets. San Marino certainly didn’t feel like just another passport stamp!
Meanwhile my first big adventure of the year was fast approaching. I had spent absolutely ages designing a perfect trip to Madagascar, and had added a stopover in the Seychelles as an extra treat. Seychelles were absolutely superb: I was amazed by the extent of culture and biodiversity I discovered in a place best known as a paradise holiday destination. On the island of La Digue, I never expected to stretch my fitness to the limit, but found the hiking trails so many and turquoise currents so strong that, every night, I crawled back to my hotel absolutely exhausted (if happy) – only to start again the next day. Reaching the capital of Victoria on my last day, I finally could manage no longer and collapsed on the beach for hours – finally succumbing to what Seychelles are best known for.
And then it was on to Madagascar! I had planned a killer itinerary along the island’s best known attractions. Starting in Antananarivo (better known as simply Tana), I stopped by a couple of sacred hills around the capital and had a wonderful time meeting locals in the nearby villages. I then flew to Morondava to see Madagascar’s star attraction, the stunning baobab sunset – truly one of my most memorable sights of the year – and continued to the Kirindy Forest Reserve for a glimpse of rare nocturnal lemurs and the island’s largest predator, the fossa.
READ MORE: PLANNING SOLO TRAVEL IN MADAGASCAR
READ MORE: WHAT YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT MADAGASCAR
The following few days saw me loop back into the centre of the country, hitting the historic city of Antsirabe and several national parks. In Ranomafana, I explored a stunning rainforest and was lucky to have a Milne-Edwards’ sifaka descend to the ground bang in front of me. In Isalo, I hiked across some incredible scenery and met impossibly cute red-fronted lemurs. Finally back on the coast, I only found enough hours in the day to run up and down the Ifaty beach before it was time to return to Tana – and then the Seychelles, Abu Dhabi and London. It was a fantastic trip.
I had certainly missed Alan during this 2-week adventure, and was looking forward to meeting him on the last weekend of April – nowhere else but Greece, the country we both love. We spent three days on the island of Spetses, and were greatly entertained by the ridiculous display of wealth we encountered there. Crisis? What crisis?
Our plans were then unexpectedly interrupted by a marine strike, which delayed our entire itinerary: thankfully, we could reschedule our flights. I spent two days working from my bank’s Athens office and, despite my love-hate relationship with the city where I once lived, made the most of the situation. There is a certain quirky side to Athens I cannot help but appreciate.
Fast forward to Eurovision (my least favourite song of the contest won) and my C2 exam in Greek (as you know, I passed!), and it was time to go to Greece again. I know, I know – it was one long spring of travel! In the final days of May I flew to the Greek island of Kythira and was initially shocked by how cold it was. It was a rainy finale to spring: in-between weeping about not being dressed appropriately, I managed to lose control of my rented scooter a couple of times (the roads were fairly wet), but got away with a few scratches (and a bargain EUR 50 charge from the rental company).
Still depressed, I caught a boat to one of the more remote Greek islands – Antikythira – where I finally caught up with the sun. The island has a registered population of barely 40 people (though I didn’t encounter more than 20), and I had a blast meeting everyone in Antikythira’s only taverna (which also served as a coffee shop, mini-market and post office) every day. I also walked everywhere on the island and was amazed by its rich ancient history, as well as its vast population of goats – most certainly exceeding that of humans.
2017 NEWSLETTER: SUMMER – GREECE, TUNISIA AND IRAQI KURDISTAN
And the summer finally came! I travelled back to Kythira for a few days of sunshine, and spent my time traversing the island back and forth from my base in the pretty main village of Chora. I loved descending to the picturesque harbour of Kapsali every night for dinner, speaking to absolutely everyone at the Sunday market in Potamos and hiking to the northern lighthouse of Spathi. I also bonded with several fantastic people on the island (and the Antikythira ferry!) with whom I still keep in touch. I am happy to provide recommendations for Kythira – remember, Greek islands are not all about Santorini and Mykonos!
After Kythira, I flew back to Athens, swiftly reunited with Alan and continued to yet another Greek island, Ikaria. The North Aegean island is best known for its population’s longevity records, and is indeed listed among only a handful of the world’s islands where people have typically lived until a very respectable age. Ikaria is also the most mountainous Greek island I have ever visited, and driving there made for a dizzying experience – and tired us both out! I didn’t exactly discover Ikaria’s longevity secrets during our short time there – or added the island to my top 10 – but had a lovely time nevertheless.
I arrived in London in mid-June, during the biggest heat wave on my memory. In-between taking cold showers to combat the soaring temperatures, I finally had the chance to fulfil a year-long dream of mine – see the Stone Roses perform live at Wembley! The audience sang along to every song: we may have come home having lost our voices, but it was one wonderful recollection of the great summer of love of 1990.
The heat was soon gone, I broke a toe while dancing to a Greek soundtrack (the first bone I broke ever!) and the summer went on relatively peacefully. In mid-July Alan flew me to Budapest on a surprise birthday weekend: we had been talking about visiting the Hungarian capital for many months already. We didn’t do anything besides the typical tourist stuff in Budapest – it was a lazy weekend with lots of strolling around and sampling local beer. I loved Szimpla Kert, a pub set in a dilapidated building (so-called “ruin pub” concept), and Urban Betyar, a fantastic restaurant serving Hungarian cuisine with a modern twist. Overall, this trip was all about resting, eating and testing our new Nikon D500 – a fantastic piece of equipment.
Towards the end of July, I had an entertaining experience at the wedding of a Tunisian colleague in Sousse. Did you know that Tunisian weddings start in the evening, that guests arrive at least an hour late and that only light snacks are served? I certainly hadn’t had proper cultural training and was bang on time and on an empty stomach. An introvert at heart, I also found it a huge challenge to approach strangers (I only knew the groom) and had to be comforted by the bride’s mother. Oh well! It all worked out fine in the end and made for a funny story to tell for years to come. I also enjoyed walking around the Old Town of Sousse pretending to be Greek to avoid touts attempting broken Russian – of all the languages in the world.
My favourite weekend of the year has to be my trip to Helsinki in August. Everything came together beautifully: I got a discounted business class ticket and stayed in a friend’s fabulous central flat while treating myself to my absolute highlight of Finland: shopping at Marimekko. The Helsinki Marathon happened to take place that very weekend, and made for a wonderfully positive atmosphere. I also managed to catch up with my favourite people in and around the city – Finland is the best!
The summer coming to an end, I was off on another big adventure, to Iraqi Kurdistan via Qatar. The latter nearly killed me with its heat and humidity – I was fully aware of walking around with scarlet cheeks and couldn’t wait for the day to break. Continuing to Iraqi Kurdistan – where, thankfully, humidity was manageable – I quickly became a major fan of the region. After a decade of active travel, I can put my hand on my heart and say that Iraqi Kurdistan is one of my favourite places ever. I loved the region’s breath-taking mountain vistas and its well-wishing people. I was amazed by how safe I felt despite the proximity of Daesh’s (shrinking) horrific regime.
READ MORE: IRAQI KURDISTAN: WHY IT WAS SO SPECIAL
READ MORE: JOURNEY THROUGH IRAQI KURDISTAN IN 40 PHOTOS
I was also very grateful to visit Iraqi Kurdistan before the independence referendum that followed in September. The consequences of the vote weren’t good for the autonomous region: all international flights have since been cancelled and some territories taken by Iraqi government forces. Getting to Iraqi Kurdistan is a lot more cumbersome now, and the local mood is reportedly sombre at best.
2017 NEWSLETTER: AUTUMN – TURKMENISTAN AND MOLDOVA
Alan and I kicked off autumn with a weekend in the Pyrenees. Flying into Toulouse, we hired a car and drove to Andorra la Vella 180km away. To be honest, I expected Andorra to be a bit like Liechtenstein – another mountainous micro state which I loved visiting last year – but it was very different. Andorra’s economy seemed to be based heavily on tax-free shopping and skiing, and I found the place somewhat uninspiring. While the mountains were striking, a lot of the buildings were built in faux rustic style and did not look that interesting. Alan and I ended up retreating to a bar early, not to emerge well into the morning – a fairly random experience of Andorra!
At the end of September Alan and I were off on our biggest joint adventure of the year. Stopping over in Dubai for 24 hours to zoom around its main attractions, we continued to Turkmenistan. I had wanted to visit Turkmenistan for a very long time, and was thrilled to have our visas approved earlier this year. We were amused by the marble-clad grandeur of Ashgabat, which the authorities had polished up to the extreme in preparation for the Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games 2017. Past the remote Nokhur village and the forgettable city of Balkanabat, we visited Yangykala canyon, one of the most incredible natural sights I have ever seen. The Caspian resort of Awaza was an absolutely surreal experience (and made for a great story!), while Merv amazed us with its priceless Silk Road heritage. We finished our jaunt in Turkmenistan with a trip north: past the otherworldly Darvaza Gas Crater towards the many historic sites in the Dashoguz province. I don’t know if I will ever make it to Turkmenistan again, but I recommend it to all of you wholeheartedly.
READ MORE: PLANNING TRAVEL IN TURKMENISTAN
READ MORE: ODD FACTS ABOUT TURKMENISTAN
And time finally came for me to reach my last remaining country in Europe! Singing praises to the abundance of direct flights out of London, I set off to Moldova for a weekend and managed to squeeze in a quick exploration of the capital, Chisinau, and Old Orhei Monastery 60km away. I also briefly visited the controversial piece of land called Transnistria sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova along the Dniestr river. It was like a blast from my childhood: I certainly hadn’t seen Lenin statues or tanks posing as monuments for a very long time. Moldova had a great buzz to it and was overall one of my favourite weekends in 2017.
The last two months of 2017 were relatively uneventful as I battled an ever-increasing pile of work and continued mastering Greek and Japanese. Alan and I also enjoyed discovering our neighbourhood in South East London, starting two wonderful traditions: Monday pub nights with pizza and beer and Sunday brunch at a Catalan joint run by friendly Albanians at Borough Market – how very London!
Several blurry Christmas parties later, I am now getting ready to leave for the sunnier shores of Nicaragua! Follow my adventures on my Facebook page, Flickr and Instagram. I hope to see many of you, my dear friends and readers, in the New Year! Here’s to another year packed with wonderful discoveries.
Stay tuned for 2018, when I have already planned some spectacular trips! I will be heading to Sudan, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Tajikistan, among others – as well as a couple of remote Greek islands, as always. I have started learning basic Farsi and hope that 2018 will be one of the best travel years in my life. So stay along for the ride!