2017 was a fantastic travel year.
During the year I managed to tick off all remaining countries in Europe and set foot in several unique destinations, including Madagascar, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Turkmenistan. The world is a vast place: I still have a lot to see, but I am incredibly grateful for all my travel experiences so far.
Take a look at my annual 2017 Newsletter for a more narrative review of the year; for now though, I invite you to join me on my annual journey through the departing year in selected photos.
Winter in Pictures: New Zealand and Kosovo
1-9 January: I welcomed 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand, and embarked on an inter-island ferry to South Island in the first few moments of the year. The ferry crossing was certainly among my New Zealand highlights, but many more followed: from the craft beer of Nelson to the mining legacy of Greymouth, from South Island’s glaciers to its stunning alpine lakes, from the wonderfully liveable lakeside city of Queenstown to the sombre waters of Doubtful Sound, New Zealand was incredible. I left feeling like I had only been scratching the surface – because I did. It was a great first introduction.
~Picton, Nelson, Greymouth, Fox Glacier & Franz Josef Glacier, Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook (Aoraki), Queenstown, Te Anau, Doubtful Sound, Auckland / NEW ZEALAND
Not many places suit overcast weather, but Cook Strait between New Zealand’s North and South Island certainly did
25-26 February: I had long wanted to visit Kosovo, the only Balkan country I had not set foot in despite very frequent visits to the region. Finally 2017 presented a perfect opportunity: I flew to Skopje and jumped on a minibus to Pristina a whole 90km away. I spent a wonderful 28 hours running around Pristina’s modest sites, meeting several engaging locals, stuffing my face with hearty meals and being served a LOT of complimentary rakija. My liver certainly thanked me for not staying longer.
~Pristina / KOSOVO
These four young Kosovars dragged me into a barber’s in Pristina. Why? To take selfies and feed me a massive lunch
Spring in Pictures: San Marino, Seychelles, Madagascar and Greece
25-26 March: One of my goals for 2017 was finishing visiting every country in Europe. Easy-peasy: one uneventful weekend in March I flew to Bologna in Italy, had a great walk around its colourful streets, stocked up on (cheaper) food supplies and continued to the micro state of San Marino. Few visitors to San Marino stay the night, but it was at night that I found San Marino at its best: peaceful and mysterious. I got my souvenir passport stamp at the Tourism Office, drank plenty of local beer and never ceased to be amazed by the sheer number of Russian tourists in San Marino. If anyone could kindly explain the phenomenon, I would be most grateful.
~Bologna / ITALY & San Marino / SAN MARINO
The most popular colour for buildings in historic Bologna is orange… and, to a lesser degree, yellow
Cesta, the second tower of San Marino, is located on the highest point of Mount Titano, the country’s highest peak
8-11 April: A little sceptical about a dedicated trip to the Seychelles, I jumped on the opportunity to stop over there en route my main Easter destination, Madagascar. I spent three blissful days on La Digue island, where I was amazed by its spectacular geography. Instead of lying on the beach all day, I hiked and cycled myself to such exhaustion that I literally cried myself to sleep every night. Logically, when I reached the capital of Victoria on my last night, I found myself unable to move and collapsed on the beach for hours. It was a perfect trip… and next was Madagascar!
~La Digue, Victoria, Beau Vallon / SEYCHELLES
Belle Vue (Eagle’s Nest) Mountain is the highest peak on La Digue and the best spot to watch the sunset over the nearby Praslin island
Greater Seychelles Gecko is among the symbols of the Seychelles and features on national postal stamps
12-23 April: I landed in Madagascar prepared for anything: this was the trip that I had spent months meticulously planning, working out every detail and making sure to squeeze as much adventure as possible into my short holiday. And it was a success! Everything went according to plan, and more: Madagascar met and exceeded my expectations, becoming one of my favourite places of all time in a heartbeat. I travelled a classic, well-tested route: from the capital I flew to Morondava to catch the most glorious sunset I have ever experienced, along the world-renowned Baobab Alley. I continued to Kirindy Forest Reserve to witness some of the island’s rare nocturnal lemurs before continuing along the best that Madagascar has to offer: the colonial gem of Antsirabe, the rainforest of Ranomafana, the spectacular massifs of Isalo and the serenity of the Ifaty beach. My time in Madagascar couldn’t have been more perfect, and I would love to reconnect with its amazing wildlife again one day.
~Antananarivo, Morondava, Kirindy, Antsirabe, Ranomafana, Isalo, Ifaty / MADAGASCAR
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Sometimes nicknamed “upside down trees” for their distinct shape, baobabs are instantly associated with Madagascar
Morondava beach is fairly mediocre for swimming – but perfect for people watching in the early hours of the morning, when many fishermen are out doing their trade
29 April – 1 May: I usually spend the first weekend of May in Greece, and 2017 was not an exception. Alan and I headed to a new island for both of us, Spetses, best known as the playground for (very) rich Athenians. We certainly observed a luxurious yacht galore! It was fantastic to be back in Greece after a long break, and we took full advantage of it, renting a quad-bike to circle the island and eating nothing but fried squid all day. Even more luckily, our boat tickets were rescheduled due to a strike (a very common occurence in Greece) and we got a chance to spend extra two days in Athens – I worked from my bank’s local office and Alan met me for lunch followed by rooftop drinkies and great souvlaki after work. Not the biggest fan of Athens, I even started seeing life there a possibility.
~Spetses, Athens / GREECE
Not a bad feeling: after a day’s work, posing on an Athens rooftop with the Acropolis as the backdrop (ouzo not pictured but within reach)
20-21 May: I travelled to Riga – my home city – multiple times during 2017. It is always hard to find time for tourist activities in the city where I feel I owe every second of my free time to my parents, who miss me a great deal. It is also somewhat strange to take photos in a place where I am used to all the touristy sights. Occasionally, though, it happens! I loved taking my camera for a walk in Riga in 2017, and am trying to commit to taking a lot more photos there in the future. And maybe not all will be taken inside the Lido in the Old Town, the favourite place of my father and I for a good pint.
~Riga / LATVIA
Summer in Pictures: Greece, Hungary, Tunisia, Qatar and Iraqi Kurdistan
27 May – 11 June: Before too long, it was time to return to Greece, where I had planned to visit three new islands! First was Kythira where I had to remember how to drive a scooter; I slipped and fell a couple of times but was overall pleased with my newly discovered ability. Kythira was bigger than an average island I visit in Greece, and I was amazed by its versatility: from the stunning monasteries to the striking natural harbour of Kapsali, from the gorgeous main village of Chora to the hill-backdropped eastern beaches, Kythira had enough to entertain for weeks. I left headed for a far more remote place: Kythira’s little-known sister of Antikythira, where I met the entire population (20 people) and spent my days wandering around the island without meeting a soul. Finally, Alan caught up with me and we flew to Ikaria in the North Aegean: this was decidedly the hilliest Greek island we had ever visited, and driving made for a dizzying experience. Overall, I was thrilled to spend entire two weeks in Greece. If I ever end up taking a sabbatical, Greece will be the first place where I will be heading!
~Kythira, Antikythira, Ikaria / GREECE
Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas) Church on top of the hill near the main village of Potamos has a stunning view of the Antikythira Bay
The so-called “Seychelles” beach on Ikaria was created by a landslide and is now the prime attraction of the island
15-16 July: Alan and I had been talking about going to Budapest for years, and finally Alan had booked a surprise trip for my impending birthday. I had visited Budapest a couple of times before, and insist that the city is among the most picturesque places in the world – for its architecture, its food and the mighty Danube slowly making its way through this dazzling city.
~Budapest / HUNGARY
Here I am on a truly calm moment in Budapest: undisturbed by the hundreds of tourists strolling by and enjoying every second of being in the fantastic backdrop of the Hungarian Parliament building
22-23 July: Some of you will remember that Tunisia is among my least favourite places to visit: I found the hassle first time around simply too much to bear. I headed to Tunisia over a July weekend to attend a colleague’s wedding party, and was pleasantly surprised by the historic quarters of Sousse – where nearly every dilapidated corner held a secret. The wedding itself was entertaining, and the absence of alcohol meant that I was perfectly functional the next day. I spent the hottest day on the beach – the sea was far below my (Greek) standards, but I got miraculously picked to be interviewed live on Nejma FM, a local radio station. A moment of fame!
~Sousse / TUNISIA
With their blue doors and whitewashed walls, parts of Sousse Old Town reminded me intensely of the Greek islands
It seemed like half of Sousse was obsessed with trying to offload leather merchandise onto unsuspecting Russian customers
12-13 August: Having studied in Helsinki about a decade ago, I make sure to revisit the city every year – and this year’s visit ranks among the best ones ever. A friend left me an empty flat bang in the centre, I shopped to my heart’s delight at Marimekko, and the annual Helsinki Marathon happened to take place exactly that weekend! I am not even mentioning the wonderful reunions I had with people I had known for years and the (unusually) beautiful weather. Helsinki truly reminded me of its brightest side.
~Helsinki / FINLAND
The Helsinki Cathedral is the central drawing point of the historic part of the city, and a timeless sight to photograph
26 August: On my way to Iraqi Kurdistan, I had a brief chance to stop over in Qatar. I also had a great chance to experience the heights of the Gulf’s summer humidity – which was one of the hardest physical trials my body had been through – but somehow survived the tell the story. There were some bright moments of my short stay in Qatar, but, overall, the visit made me understand why the country is best known as a stopover rather than a destination in its own right.
~Doha / QATAR
Are you surprised no-one is out in broad daylight at Souq Waqif in Doha? With +45C and horrific humidity, I didn’t know what I was doing there, either
27-30 August: The Kurdistan Region of Iraq had fascinated me for many years thanks to its celebrated mountainous landscape, rich history and an impressive ability to maintain relative order in tumultuous surroundings. I had spent months organising my trip: fine-tuning the itinerary and taking every precaution to stay safe. I had to laugh when I arrived to discover that Iraqi Kurdistan was just as civilised as Europe, with highly welcoming population and absolutely no reason for safety concerns. The trip was a breeze: I travelled from Sulaymaniyah to Erbil overland, visiting Halabja and Lake Dokan, and took a long day trip from Erbil to see the spectacularly set town of Amedi near the Turkish border and the Yazidi pilgrimage site of Lalish. It was a fabulous, memorable trip, and Iraqi Kurdistan quickly became one of my favourite parts of the world.
~Sulaymaniyah, Halabja, Dokan, Erbil, Amedi, Lalish / IRAQI KURDISTAN
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These two gentlemen in Kurdish attire patiently posed and waited for me to return to greet them on my last morning in Sulaymaniyah
Autumn in Pictures: Andorra, UAE, Turkmenistan and Moldova
2-3 September: I was still raving about Iraqi Kurdistan when Alan and I flew to Toulouse a few days later. I was on a mission to finish visiting every country in Europe, and next on my list was Andorra, a small mountainous nation sandwiched between Spain and France. Picking up our rental car, we drove down to the Pyrenees and Andorra relatively uneventfully, but, within meters of our destination, managed to damage our car on an awkwardly placed parking gate. Thankfully, we had full insurance and continued to explore Andorra as planned… until we got somewhat tired of the endless shops (is there anything else to do in Andorra besides shopping?) and retreated to the nearest bar.
~Andorra la Vella / ANDORRA
23 September: Having transited through Qatar just a month before, I had planned a stopover in another Gulf city – Dubai! We had exactly 24 hours in Dubai and zoomed around at the speed of light to hit the main sights: Burj Al Arab, Dubai Creek and Souq, Dubai Mall and – last but not least – Burj Khalifa. It was interesting to find myself standing atop the world’s tallest building, but, otherwise, I neither loved nor hated Dubai. In terms of history, I far prefer the neighbouring Oman, but Dubai certainly wins in the glitz category. Will I be back? I am sure I will – perhaps on another stopover!
~Dubai / UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
24 September – 8 October: We waved Dubai goodbye as we continued to a far more fascinating place, the mysterious Turkmenistan. This was a major wish list item for me, and both Alan and I were thrilled when our visas got approved earlier in 2017. We stayed for two weeks to make sure that we saw as much of Turkmenistan as possible. And what a trip that was! Words do not even begin to describe how other-worldly Turkmenistan was in comparison to anywhere else I had visited. I was amazed by the overblown grandeur of Ashgabat, the eerie emptiness of the Caspian resort of Awaza, the Silk Road riches of Merv and Kunya Urgench and – the jewel in Turkmenistan’s crown – the unyielding glow of the Darvaza Gas Crater. Above all, I was humbled by the simple hospitality of the locals, many of whom were ever more fascinated to see us than the other way around, posed happily for pictures and wrote down their addresses for us. I would revisit Turkmenistan in a heartbeat.
~Ashgabat, Nokhur, Balkanabat, Awaza, Mary, Darvaza, Dashoguz, Kunya Urgench / TURKMENISTAN
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Strike a pose! Turkmen ladies line up in front of the Yusuf Hamadany shrine in Merv in their colourful dresses
21 October: Touching the ground in Chisinau, I wasted no time and was on my way to the breakaway region of Transnistria in the early hours of the morning. I happened to sit in the front seat of a shared taxi and was quite entertained by the driver’s passport collection (he had four). Everything else about Transnistria seemed like a surreal reminder of my childhood in the Soviet Union: from statues of Lenin (yes, plural!) to tank monuments, cheerful posters and streets still named after personas venerated by the Communist regime, I felt like I was in an amusement park of sorts. Except, most seriously, this was the reality of Transnistria’s half a billion big population.
~Tiraspol, Bender / TRANSNISTRIA
21-22 October: And my (rushed) journey to visit every country in Europe finally ended in Moldova! I caught a direct Wizzair flight to Chisinau and managed to pack a lot into a weekend. Unlike many damning reviews of Chisinau I have seen, I absolutely loved exploring the city’s socialist legacy and its budding restaurant scene. It may not make the list of Europe’s prettiest cities, but it has plenty to offer. I also managed to squeeze in a side trip to the Monastery of Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei), where I froze to tears on top of an elevated ridge, had more amazing food in the nearby village of Butuceni and got a lift back to Chisinau from a local family. Moldova could easily rival Helsinki to my best weekend of the year! What a great way to tick off my last remaining country in Europe.
~Chisinau, Orheiul Vechi / MOLDOVA
And that was 2017! Which of the above destinations have you visited?